Thursday, December 20, 2007

Piece of Me

If you were a drug addict doing a commercial for a new chewing gum, it might look like this. Even though she says it's extra-licious, the director apparently gave up hope of having any actual choreography in the video. Yeah, I know, leave Britney alone.

There's a reason why Dan Neil won the Pulitzer Prize

LA Times automotive columnist, Dan Neil, won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2004. Which seems weird, until you actually read one of his columns -- like this review today of the 2008 Volvo XC70 which begins:
A couple of weeks ago, when the temperatures dipped into the 40s -- or as we call it here in Southern California, the extremes of human endurance -- I went shopping in West L.A. It was like base camp at Annapurna. High-heeled hotties had turned in their sex spurs for pairs of Merrell hiking boots. Guys were walking around in zero-degree quilted Marmot jackets. I'm sorry -- I just don't think crampons and bottled oxygen are necessary to make the traverse to the valet stand.

God knows, high-end technical gear is fun. Suunto watches, Adidas glacier glasses. I love it when people use Black Diamond trekking poles and Platypus hydration packs to assault the untamed reaches of Griffith Park. You sure don't want Jon Krakauer writing a book about you....
I pronounce it the RFK Action Front quote of the week!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hot Power Couples

Win Butler and Regine Chassagne: married and play together in Arcade Fire. How hot must it be to go out and rock a crowd of 20,000 people together? (Facebook users will have to click through to see images.)

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis: She's a journalist and author. He's a documentary filmmaker. And sometimes they collaborate on each other's projects. Totally freakin hot.

Utopias, Dystopias, and Human Nature

For a while now I've been interested in the question of why utopias become dystopias. I now have a few thoughts that I'd like to share on the matter.

The "Founding Fathers" of the U.S. seemed to take a dim view of human nature. Dealing with a monarchy showed them that power corrupts and they saw government as an oppressive force. So they set up a whole series of checks and balances to try to restrain the devilish side of our human nature. Even with these checks and balances the American system is rife with corruption and the corrosive influence of money but it's still a better system than most.

By contrast, both corporatist and marxist movements take a favorable view of human nature. Republicans basically believe that people who run corporations are decent people and that there is no need to regulate them because these good guys will naturally want to do the right thing. And it turns out disastrous -- the Savings and Loan Crisis, Enron, Bopal, the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, toxins in our water and air, the planet on the verge of ecological collapse. Left unregulated otherwise decent people organized together in corporations become corrupt and rob, steal, poison, and kill. It's the craziest thing.

By the same token, Marxist movements take a basically favorable view of human nature. They believe (and of course this is an oversimplification) that if we abolish private property and all come together and identify our collective needs that the economy and society will sort itself out, from each according to his ability, to each according to his/her need. But a quick glance at the legacies of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot shows how a small handful of people can become corrupted by this process and exploit those who have a favorable view of human nature. (The Lives of Others is also a great look at the dystopia of communist East Germany.)

The same disaster also happens over and over with spiritual movements. Jim Jones, Adi Da, and Jim Bakker -- may have all started out with the best of intentions (or not). But when someone says they have a unique relationship with God and lots of other people start to believe them -- I imagine it becomes corrupting pretty quickly. And the leaders who may have earnestly sought a deeper connection to God, quickly become mired in very human failings of excess wealth, sexual abuse, and/or drugs and alcohol abuse.

So why don't marxist and spiritual movement adopt the dim view of human nature and impose the checks and balances and regulations that rein in our dark side? I think perhaps it's because checks and balances are slow and inherently conservative forces. If you think the world needs a great transformation (and it probably does) and you think it needs to happen quickly (also probably true) then you're not likely to want to impose any limits on that process. But the corruption of power is so absolute, I'm not sure how any movement can NOT take steps to regulate the dark side of its leadership (and membership).

But then there's Google. Google seems to take a fairly positive view of human nature (although they also seem to be aware of its dark side through their motto, Don't be evil.) The fact that they give their employees 20 percent time shows that they understand that each of us has an extraordinary potential to create things of wondrous beauty and utility. Through 20 percent time projects, Google anticipates and fulfills human needs in an almost symbiotic relationship with their users. But the truth is Google is only 10 years old so it could still go evil on us -- it'll remain to be seen whether power and a market capitalization of $215 billion will ultimately corrupt or whether they have systems in place to limit and manage the dark side.

The example of the Founding Fathers seems to show the need to impose checks and balances to limit the evil side of human nature. But the Google example shows that there is also a tremendous potential for figuring out how to nurture and support the angels of our better nature as well.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


A little early Cat Stevens, a little Sheryl Crow, but also a force of nature all her own...

Lizzie West myspace page (I think "Dusty Turnaround" will make you smile).

Lizzie West website. (Be sure to check out the Dharma Dog -- "God is winking".)

Monday, December 10, 2007

What if Google ran the whole country?

I want to explore an idea for a minute. I may not get it exactly correct but it's all jazz anyway right?

We live is a very strange era. On the one hand we live in an era of relentless technological innovation. About every 18 months, Intel, following Moore's Law, comes out with a new chip that makes all of their previous products obsolete. People have come to accept a world where we are all in a continuous cycle of learning new tools, new techniques, and new processes. So let's call this hand, insanely modern. But it's pretty cool too, because Google and others are anticipating our needs and quickly filling them.

On the other hand, our religious, economic, political, and energy systems are based on the notion that we reached the peak of history a long long time ago. Our moral and ethical compass is frozen in time 2500 to 1500 years ago (depending on your preferred religious system). Our political system is stuck 200 years ago (and the Bushies are trying to take our political systems back to a time before that -- building a bridge to the 16th century or so). Our economic system is positively Neanderthal (based on trade between unequal partners often carried out at the point of a gun/spear). And the world gets most of its energy these days from burning decayed prehistoric plants. WTF!?

We already know what the world would look like if we abandoned modernity is favor of a complete return to the old ways. It'd look like the Taliban -- complete with male dominance through violence in every sphere and public stonings for minor transgressions.

But what would the world look like if we completely abandoned all of the old ways in favor of the new? I'm not sure it would be all that bad. As I showed in a previous post, modern secular society tends to make better moral and ethical decisions than ancient wisdom traditions (because secular democracies are better set up to aggregate and sort the wisdom of the crowd than religious institutions). In terms of our political systems, what if Google ran the country? what would it look like? Every government employee would get 20 percent time to innovate and find ways to save money and improve services. They could also spend their 20 percent time finding ways to alleviate suffering in the world. (In many ways, Google has figured out how to harness the wisdom of the crowd and politics hasn't.) What checks and balances would need to be in place to make sure it didn't go evil?

What if every 2 years we not only had a new Congress but a new constitution and a new form of government that was faster and more responsive to the needs of the people? What if we expected that just like we expect to double our computing power and cut our computer costs in half every two years? What if we had a political system with evolution built into it (and no, the right to amend the Constitution is not a system with evolution built into it) rather than one that requires periodic (violent) revolution? What if we just called, "You've got to be kidding me" on burning dead plants to create energy? And what if our economic systems were not based on exploitative trade at the point of a gun and 14 year old girls in Cambodia sewing our shirts? What if trade agreements included a global minimum wage and a global standard for health, education, and the environment? It's not even really that complicated when you think about it -- it's just a question of dragging our politics and our economics out of the dark ages.

I just feel like all the technological innovation on the internet and in the high tech world shows us that change is possible-- it's fairly easy really. It's just a question of getting our religious, economic, political, and energy systems to catch up to where folks are already at.

Quote of the Week

"Norman O. Brown observed that the great world needs more Eros and less strife, and the intellectual world needs it just as much." -- Ernest Becker

The Story of Stuff

Gosh this is good. The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. I especially like her point at the end -- none of this is inevitable -- we can change the human-made systems that are making us miserable. (h/t to Rich for Digging it.)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Is "free market" economics even based on economics?

The NY Times is out with a stunning article today on how the government of Malawi defied the experts and came up with an anti-poverty program that works. It's stunning because the solution was so simple -- the government of Malawi simply subsidized fertilizer so that farmers would have higher yields for their crops. In 2005, almost 5 million of Malawi's 13 million people needed emergency food aid. This year, Malawi is a net food EXPORTER selling corn to the World Food Program and the United Nations.

The truth is that every major industrialized nation subsidizes their farmers (and those farmers in turn go out and buy seed and fertilizer with the money). But for decades U.S. and British development "experts" advising African nations AGAINST subsidizing agriculture.
"In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the World Bank pushed Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely."
The U.S. (University-of-Chicago-Milton-Friedman-inspired) "logic" was that government intervention would interfere with free market solutions to the problem. The reality was that this theory caused millions of actual human beings to starve to death.

Malawi's paid $74 million to subsidize fertilizer this year but it returned an estimated $120 million to $140 million in crops produced -- that's a pretty good return on investment. Simple freakin economics -- but a strategy the World Bank and IMF opposed for years.

So here's my question: was University of Chicago free market economics ever actually based on economics? Yeah, I know there were probably equations involved showing how it'll all work out and calculus was probably used and fancy graphs were produced. But WHEN IT NEVER ACTUALLY WORKS OUT THAT WAY IN THE REAL WORLD what are we to make of it? Are we just supposed to shrug our shoulders and say, "stuff happens" or is something more sinister going on here? Because when you look at it, white male 1st world insistence on pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps and hatred of dependency -- looks a lot more like personal preference (or religious doctrine or eugenics or racism) and a lot less like economics. The 1st world has been telling poor brown people in the 3rd world that they are lazy for centuries. Slave owners tried to justify slavery as being good for the slave because it would instill a Protestant work ethic in ("otherwise lazy") people. Same thing with colonialism. Now with neocolonialism we are seeing the same goddamn argument -- isn't it about time we all called BS on this tool for exploitation?

Let me put it a different way: When Nazis put signs over the gates of concentration camps that read, "Work Shall Set You Free" nobody actually saw the concentration camps as job training programs to instill discipline. Non-insane people recognized it as a sickening symptom of a pathological culture. So when the World Bank tells (actually, forces) starving nations NOT to subsidize agriculture -- even when it's been shown to work -- do we see that as simply economists who know best, or do we see it as pathological, cruel, and even criminal? If the World Bank recommends policies that cause millions of people to starve isn't that in fact, a crime against humanity? One day will we have war crimes trials where we put World Bank, IMF, and WTO officials on trial for the crime of genocide?

So for ignoring the experts and feeding his people, we name Malawi's President, Bingu wa Mutharika, the RFK Action Front Person of the Week!


In the comments, Beth wisely notes that this is really a riff on themes brought up by Naomi Klein in her book Shock Doctrine which I wrote about (here) and (here). If you have a chance, do check out the book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dude from Midnight Oil gets a cabinet post in new Aussie government!!!

Peter Garrett, former lead singer with Midnight Oil, becomes environment, heritage and arts minister! Hell ya!!!!!

I'm still laughing about this...

Ya gotta love the fact that the Republican National Convention is happening in Minneapolis--site of the infamous wide-stance Larry Craig airport restroom fiasco. Image gratefully borrowed from the good folks at Firedoglake...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

True Trade -- The Revolution Starts Now

Read for your mind to explode?

Let's go.

This past Sunday I spent 2 hours participating in an online book salon on Firedoglake discussing Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism with author Naomi Klein. Extremely cool format, extremely cool conversation.

Several of the people asked, 'so what do we do' (about the fact that conservatives use natural disasters or create economic disasters or launch coups in order to implement their draconian economic program). Naomi Klein's answer was, 'look south.'

Latin America is furthest ahead when it comes to developing alternatives to this vicious economic model, so it would seem to make sense to look south for ideas. A few years ago I helped make a documentary called The Take. It is about groups of laid-off workers in Argentina who decide to occupy their shuttered workplaces and turn them into democratic cooperatives. More broadly, I think the lesson of what is happening in Latin America is that the first stage is building strong and militant social movements, that have the power to keep politicians honest once they take office.

So I checked out The Take and it's this extraordinary documentary about a group of factory workers who decide to expropriate a factory on their own. Let's call it micro-expropriation.

Which is fascinating and a thrilling development on its own but then it gets more interesting. On The Take website is a bit of text that says:

Brendan Martin, a young New Yorker, saw The Take in September 2004 and two months later started this nonprofit organization that makes democratic loans to the recovered companies in Argentina.

And it links to a website called The Working World which is basically a socialist venture capital company--it funds worker owned cooperatives.

And then, on their website, I read a life-changing idea:

Introducing true trade: fair trade with complete transparency.

With most products you buy, at least 80% of the price goes to marketing and branding - convincing you that you need the product, and telling slick stories about the company's 'identity' and 'values'.

The whole process of production - the raw materials, the factory, and the workers who make the product - can account for less than 10% of the price you pay.

This expensive project of corporate branding has re-shaped the global economy, replacing relationships between producers and consumers with relationships between consumers and brands. The producers, and the reality of their working conditions, have been disappeared.

It's time to change that.
At the Working World, we treat the middle man (us) as nothing more than a tool to connect human producers and human consumers. And everything on this site is made by people who run their own democratic businesses. This is a story we are writing together, in real time: the story of the solidarity economy.

With the expensive middlemen and their overpriced hype gone, we can cut the price in half. And for everything you buy, you'll see exactly where the money goes: the vast majority of it straight into the pockets of the people who make the products.

Meet the people behind what you buy. Share the alter-globalization of true trade with a friend. Change the equation.

So let me just try to break it down. Imagine you go to buy a t-shirt at your local Macy's. And on the label, it says where it was made and how to wash it and how much cotton and polyester is in the shirt (just as it does now). And then imagine a tag that shows you how much of the purchase prices goes to the laborer who made the shirt, and how much of the purchase price goes to the store, how much of the purchase price went to transportation, and how much of the purchase price went into advertising (and telling you that you're a lame piece of shit unless you buy this shirt).

Previously it would have been impossible to get this information. But the internet changes all of that. By connecting consumers and worker-owned companies (committed to true trade), the internet makes this sort of transparent economic transaction possible--benefiting consumers and those who make the goods and screwing those who previously added enormous cost but didn't add any value to the product anyway (Madison Avenue advertisers).

Check out how they do it at The Working World:

One of their cooperatives sells glassware made from recycled glass. They offer 6 hand blown champagne glasses (made from 70% post-consumer recycled glass) for $11.74 and fill out their tag like this:

Price: US$11.74

Cooperative receivesUS$7.00
Real middle man cost 1.75
Fund contribution1.40
Import Duties 1.59

If such a True Trade system were implemented it would completely destroy the concept of the luxury brand -- to the enormous benefit of consumers and laborers (you and me). Luxury brands today are based almost entirely on the illusion that by paying more, you are getting higher quality. In fact, when you are buying a luxury brand these days, what you are paying for is the marketing of that brand--marketing that tells you that you are ugly and no good and that you will be sexy and everyone will love you if you buy this brand. But the product itself is probably produced at a sweat shop where the workers are paid poverty wages and ill treated and forced to rush and cut corners in making your supposed luxury product.

True Trade changes everything. It creates a workers' paradise without a a violent revolution (because people will naturally want to buy products produced by the highest skilled craftspeople--and the highest skilled craftspeople will naturally want to work for the companies or cooperatives that return the most money to the craftspeople). True trade takes domination out of the economic system and replaces it with skill. True trade takes violence out of the system and replaces it with fairness. True trade makes the world a better place.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Back in junior high I played on a soccer team with a great guy named Jesse Johnson. We lived in different school districts and eventually lost touch. But a few years ago I was watching basketball on TV and a commercial came on and Jesse was in it. Since then he's done some really funny national commercials. Every time I see an ad with Jesse in it, no matter where I am, I always scream out, Jesse!!!

Today the Center for American Progress is out with a brilliant ad campaign that shows what it means to be a progressive. And wouldn't you know it, Jesse is in 2 of the ads!!! The ads are brilliant and as always, Jesse is funny and winning in them (he's the young smart progressive). Check 'em out:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A few links

Digby writes what a lot of us have been thinking -- Chris Matthews, Tucker Carlson, Joe Klein, etc. have issues when it comes to women.

Big time college football programs generate millions of dollars in profits. "In 2005 — Notre Dame, Ohio State and the University of Texas — each generated more than $60 million for their institutions." [It's all tax free by the way.] Big time college football coaches get paid millions (the University of Alabama recently gave Nick Saban an eight-year contract worth roughly $32 million). The college football players themselves -- you know, the performers who actually do the labor that generates the profits -- get paid $0. I think there's a fairly compelling case that the NCAA is violating everything from racketeering laws to Article XIII of the Constitution.

I know I'm about two years late to this party... but I saw Arcade Fire on Austin City Limits last night and they were extraordinary. It was like watching a post apocalyptic riot mixed with a really good dance beat. Rebellion, Neighborhood #2 and Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) or (live version) are works of such uncompromising beauty, they make me happy to be alive.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bleeding Heart Liberal (3 stories)

I've been meaning to post this for a while, so here goes...


Everybody knows the phrase
Said seethingly
The quick sharp bite of venom that paralyzes
political discourse


Except it doesn’t make any sense.

The phrase itself.

Bleeding heart liberal.

Hearts don’t bleed.
The heart itself is almost entirely hard,
fiberous muscle.
Your leg bleeds, your arm bleeds, a vein bleeds.
Hearts, technically don’t really bleed.

What’s more, other than the phrase itself, there are no
examples of hearts that bleed in popular consciousness.
No common experience of skinning your heart on the playground
and covering it with a Band-Aid.
No fairy tales about bleeding hearts.
No nursery rhymes.
No Greek myths.
No Cabbage Patch Dolls featuring
spontaneous eruptions of
blood from the heart.
Because it wouldn’t make sense.
Hearts don’t bleed.

And yet, everyone knows the phrase.
Everybody understands the feeling that is being conveyed.
Which is what exactly?

For that we need to turn back to 5th grade and my classmate who explained,
giddly, on the playground one day
that in ancient Rome, the heart shape
that we draw on Valentines to symbolize love,
was intended as a representative of
the vulva.
An arrow through the heart represented sexual intercourse.

Indeed, any study of the symbol that we now identify as a “heart”
will tell you
its original signified
is actually the female genitalia.

And suddenly, it all makes sense.

When they say bleeding heart liberal
They’re speaking of the symbol not the
What they mean is “bleeding cunt liberal.”
Because cunts bleed, vaginas bleed, women bleed.
Everybody knows that.
It’s the thing that disgusts, that puts
the intended inflection into the phrase.
When they say bleeding heart liberal
what they’re saying is that you’re too feminized,
we’re too feminized,
as a nation
we’ve become too female.

For fundamentalist white male America, the only thing worse than the brown man is the feminine.

Bleeding cunt liberals. Bleeding heart liberals. We know what they mean.

It’s important to point out, that the phrase
starts being used after Vietnam.

After carpet bombing a third world country for ten years
killing 3 million people
raping, burning, and murdering.
Their narrative to explain it all is that
we weren’t cruel enough,
lethal enough,
masculine enough.
Their narrative is that we’ve become too soft,
too caring,
too goddamn menstrual.

Bleeding heart liberal
Everybody knows the phrase
code words -- the Trojan Horse that
smuggles hate speech into everyday discourse
an underlying message that would be laughable
if it wasn’t so psychotic.

Pinko Commie

So too with “Pinko Commie.”

Everybody knows what it means.

The two words,
put together,
don’t make any sense.

It is certainly true that Communists
have a distinctive fashion sense.

Communists had the star
before Nike had the swoosh.
Chairman Mao sold a billion suits to the Chinese,
long before the creation of Men’s Wearhouse.
And Che seems to be on half the world’s t-shirts.

From everything we can observe,
communists seem to love the color red
and the color black.
Sometimes a little yellow.
But they never choose pink.

Pink is a capitalist color,
a bourgeois color,
it’s too happy for communists.

So how did pink get paired with communism?

Because the mullet wearing,
guys who actually use the phrase Pinko Commie
think of pink as a feminine color.

Once again when the say Pinko Commie
what they mean is that
these people are awful
because they are too feminine.
Indeed fundamentalist America
distrusts the communist focus on
the collective,
the shared, and
the greater good
precisely because they see those values as feminine
(and in opposition to the American masculine values of
agency, and

It also seems more than coincidence
that commie
rhymes with mommie.
Because if there’s one thing that conservatives like,
it’s calling someone a sissie or a momma’s boy.
Very sophisticated them.

The Myth of the Spat Upon Veteran

Data point #3

Everybody knows the story
of the spat upon Vietnam Veteran.

The conquered hero,
returning home,
only to be spat upon,
by some dirty fucking hippie,
at the San Francisco airport.


Except it never happened.

Sociologist Jerry Lembcke
examined news accounts
and archival footage from that era.
He studied accounts of anti-war rallies,
and marches.
And found zero evidence
that any Vietnam Veterans
had been spat upon by anti-war protesters.

The clue that gives it away
that shows us this is myth
rather than fact
is that it’s always women and girls
who supposedly did the spitting
and it’s that famously gay city
San Francisco
that is often depicted
as the setting
where the alleged incidents
took place.

In fact the myth of the spat upon veteran
doesn’t really appear in culture
until George Bush Senior
launched a propaganda campaign
to whip the nation into a lather
in preparation for the first Gulf War.

When they say Vietnam Vets were spat upon.
What they mean is that
female wetness
female fluids
femaleness itself
was what cost us the war.

The myth of the spat upon veteran is
an alibi
a stalking horse
a scapegoat to blame the feminine
for a war that was
planned, executed and bungled
by arrogant white men.

Taken together
these three hateful memes
Bleeding heart liberal
pinko commie
and the myth of the spat upon veteran
constitute nothing less than
linguistic domestic violence
inflicted upon society
by a culture of pathological masculinity
that refuses to accept responsibility
for its own sins.

To which I say this:
Liberals have heart
and compassion
and courage.
Yes females bleed
isn’t it about time you got over that?
and by the way
the feminine is sacred.

We welcome all the colors under the rainbow
and the full expression of god’s good creation.
The communal and collective
are just as important
as the individual and agentic.

We thank soliders for their service
but call upon them to lay down their arms
when called upon to kill
without provocation or justification.

And next time you want to introduce your tired old
hateful trojan horse memes into conversation
I say no
and close the gates.
Your misogyny is not welcome here.

Social Security "Privatization" Explained

The popular debate over Social Security is a total mess. Republicans throw out various coded talking points about the "Social Security crisis" or the "need to reform" Social Security. But these memes have always felt like linguistic Trojan Horses to me -- the polite words that mask more sinister aims to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. The stenographers in the traditional media dutifully report these memes without explanation. Which leaves Democrats in the position of either denying "the crisis," opposing "reform" (and heck what kind of crazy person opposes reform) or bizarrely repeating Republican talking points. (Note to Senator Obama -- you are seriously pissing off the entire progressive wing of the Democratic Party.)

So today I started doing homework on Austan Goolsbee, who is Senator Obama's chief economic adviser. I expected to hate the dude (because after all, Obama's talking points on Social Security right now are awful). But I stumbled across this paper by Goolsbee, which, fairly succinctly explains what's behind Republican efforts to privatize Social Security.

Creating individual accounts in the social security system would lead to a massive increase in payments of financial fees to private financial management companies. Under Plan II of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security (CSSS), the net present value of such payments would be $940 billion.

These expenses amount to more than 25% of the existing deficit in social security over the same period. Rather than using the money to close the social security gap, the plan would transfer this money to private financial managers and mutual fund companies. If the government were to offset the cost of these fees by raising the retirement age, the age would need to rise by about 6 months – just to cover the administrative costs of the individual accounts, not even the accounts themselves.

The fees would be the largest windfall gain in American financial history. The $940 billion payment to financial companies would be an increase more than 8 times larger than the decrease in revenue from the 2000-2002 collapse of the bubble. The net present value (NPV) of the fees amounts to about one-quarter of the NPV of the revenue of the entire financial sector for the next 75 years.

For a worker at the average income level, the fees in privately managed accounts are likely to reduce the ultimate retirement value of their individual accounts by 20 percent for the intermediate case.

So let me just rephrase what he's saying:

Republicans want to privatize social security because financial services companies will make $940 billion (that billion with a "b") dollars off of it.

Said differently, Social Security privatization is a white collar, inside job bank robbery where financial services firms want to steal $940 billion dollars (or 20% of the value of all retirement funds) from the elderly in our country.

Social Security is not in crisis.

Rather, the only crisis Social Security faces is the threat of a bank robbery by financial services firms aided and abetted by Republicans (and idiot Democrats who didn't get the memo that this is a bank robbery) who want to rob from the elderly and give to the rich.

So then here's my question. Austan Goolsbee makes a fairly powerful case for what's really going on in the social security debate (at least from my initial read). So why are Senator Obama's recent talking points on social security so misguided?

Friday, November 09, 2007

3 narratives in traditional media

It seems to me when it comes to political reporting, traditional media cut and paste the facts of the story to fit within 1 of 3 narratives:

1.) Horse race. Who's winning, who's losing.

2.) Strong verses weak. Who got rolled on the bill verses who showed "strength and resolve."

3.) Unity verses disunity. Are the Democrats "sticking together" or has party unity "started to fray." See today's NY Times for example.

That's it. The NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and CNN are bakers with only three cookie cutters and they force any political story to fit into one of these three narrative templates.

It explains why readers who are looking for thoughtful analysis (i.e. something other than these 3 narratives) increasingly have to turn to the blogosphere for their news and information.

What is more, it explains why we have a moron for a President and are stuck in a quagmire in Iraq -- because even though the Iraq war is a military, political, moral, and economic disaster -- none of those aspects of the story fit inside their 3 narratives. Rather, the way it is reported by the traditional media is that Bush and Cheney won the horse race, they showed strength in pursuing for the war in spite of the facts, and the Republican party has shown unity is sticking together and continuing the quagmire. In every case, forcing the story to fit within these 3 narratives does a disservice to the readers and cheapens our democratic discourse.

No wonder newspaper circulation is down.

(Meanwhile, Faux News functions more like Pravda forcing all of their stories to fit within only 2 narratives: 1.) Democrats Bad or 2.) Republicans Good -- you decide.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Quote of the week

Atrios aka Duncan Black has perhaps the ugliest looking blog in the world. The colors are bad, the fonts are bad, the layout is bad--no pictures, no graphics, nothing to please the eye. Seriously, would it kill the dude to bring in a high school intern for an afternoon to spruce the place up a bit?

Oh but the content! There's a reason why he has millions of readers and is one of the most influential political bloggers in the world. Good content, thoughtful content, breaking stories several times a day paired with brilliant analysis. The guy is like a Jedi meme surfer who is always ahead of the next break.

So with that, I bring you the quote of the week, courtesy of Atrios, (hat tip to Kos).

One thing you learn very quickly when you blog is that no matter how smart and knowledgeable you are (or imagine yourself to be), some of your readers are going to be smarter than you and literally every one of your readers knows more than you do about something. It's humbling at first, but then quite liberating. The "shut the hell up I know best" stuff is what grates me the most about politicians and other elites in our system because the truth is that quite often... they don't.

That is exactly what old-school folks don't get about the progressive blogosphere (and apparently it's what Senator Obama doesn't understand about the internet as well). There is always someone smarter out there. And a properly structured group can focus the wisdom of the crowd in ways that make it smarter than even the most informed expert (as Daily Kos, Americablog, and FDL all demonstrate).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

'Milton Friedman wants you to be his bitch'

When the Hubble Space Telescope was first launched there was a flaw in the big mirror in the telescope and so for a few years all the photos came back blurry. So NASA sent a repair mission and they corrected the mirror and suddenly the pictures came back crystal clear.

That's how I felt reading Naomi Klein's new book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. For decades the mainstream media (and academia too) have presented us with a blurry picture about what is happening in the world. I'll give you an example: in 1973 Augusto Pinochet, with backing from the CIA, launched a military coup in Chile. Next thing you know Milton Friedman flew down to meet with Pinochet and Chile implemented a massive privatization plan. The New York Times, Washington Post and other traditional media reported on these two events (bloody coup and new economic program) as if they were unrelated events--as if we were all just supposed to scratch our heads and say, 'oh what a coinkydink.'

Naomi Klein's book fixes the flawed mirror presented by corporatist media and presents a picture that is crystal clear. Her argument goes something like this:

In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, United States economic policy was guided by the theories of John Maynard Keynes (as implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Keynes believed in a mixed economy--namely that some form of regulation and public services were required to mitigate the adverse effects of capitalism. Keynesianism led to the creation of the American middle class, the end of the Great Depression, victory in World War II, the GI bill, the Marshall Plan (that rebuilt Europe after the war), and the largest sustained economic expansion in history.

But in the 1950s, Milton Friedman, building on the theories of Adam Smith, became influential in the economics department at the University of Chicago. Friedman and his followers distrusted Keynesianism and advocated a new form of laissez-faire capitalism with no government regulation, no environmental regulation, privatization of all government services (including social security), and unfettered free trade (no protection for domestic industries).

The Ford Foundation and the CIA were so enamored of Friedman's theories that they started a program to bring leading economists from Latin America to study with Friedman at the University of Chicago. At one point 1/3 of all the students in the University of Chicago economics department were there as a result of this program.

The problem was, Friedman's economic theories were (and are) incredibly unpopular. Any time democratic societies got a say in whether or not they wanted to implement Friedman style privatization programs, they invariably voted them down (because, in general, people don't like losing their jobs and starving to death in the name of some macroeconomic theory).

That would ordinarily be the end of the story--bad theory, unpopular, consistently voted down in democratic societies, the end.

But unfortunately, that's not the way the world (or the U.S. government) works. Instead, the CIA figured out that Friedman's economic program could be implemented, under the cover of darkness, if a shock to the system could be introduce first. So in 1973 the CIA backed a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. As everyone from union leaders to folk singers were being tortured and executed in the former soccer stadium, Pinochet and his University of Chicago-trained economic advisers, implemented Friedman's economic theories in Chile. Similar shocks followed in Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and Uruguay.

Then the CIA figured out that it wasn't just military coups that could apply the literal and figurative shocks to a country--hyperinflation, natural disasters (hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes), and foreign debt would also do. Furthermore, the Internal Monetary Fund and the World Bank were used to implement these shocks--by tying any loans to the requirement that governments privatize their industries and completely open their borders to multinational corporations. So over the next several decades Milton Friedman-designed economic programs were implemented (without democratic consent) in Poland, South Africa, Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Iraq, and New Orleans. The architects of the Iraq War (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bremer) were all followers of Milton Friedman. (I imagine Bush would have been too if he had ever opened a book or gone to class.)

For some time now, I've been curious to figure out what the relationship is between violence and wealth. Apparently, Naomi Klein was curious about that too. She writes,

"Is neoliberalism [aka Milton Friedman University of Chicago style economics] an inherently violent ideology, and is there something about its goals that demands this cycle of brutal political cleansing, followed by human rights cleanup operations?" (p. 126)

Klein's 466-page, meticulously-researched answer is, YES IT IS.

A couple other things become clear to me as a result of reading Shock Doctrine:

1.) There is no such thing as "U.S. foreign policy" or the "U.S. military." Rather, U.S. foreign policy is designed and written by multinational corporations and the U.S. military is just a private army working at the behest of multinational corporations. Furthermore, the CIA is simply a private paramilitary army/death squad working at the behest of multinational corporations.

2.) In many ways, progressives of the world have been focused on the wrong enemy for 50 years. We've focused on racism and war and the environment. But these are all products of bad economics. It all starts and ends with the economics. Fix the economic system, and lots of the other problems start to dissolve too. For Klein, a simple return to Keynesian economics would probably bring stability, democracy, and the revitalization of the middle class.

I'll leave you with another couple quotes from the book:

"Despite the mystique that surrounds it, and the understandable impulse to treat it as aberrant behavior beyond politics, torture is not particularly complicated or mysterious. A tool of the crudest kind of coercion, it crops up with great predictability whenever a local despot or a foreign occupier lacks the consent needed to rule: Marcos in the Philippines, the shah in Iran, Saddam in Iraq, the French in Algeria, the Israelis in the occupied territories, the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. The list could stretch on and on. The widespread abuse of prisoners is a virtually foolproof indication that politicians are trying to impose a system--whether political, religious or economic--that is rejected by large numbers of the people they are ruling. Just as ecologists define ecosystems by the presence of certain 'indicator species' of plants and birds, torture is an indicator species of a regime that is engaged in a deeply anti-democratic project, even if that regime happens to have come to power through elections." (p. 125)

"Everywhere the Chicago School crusade has triumphed, it has created a permanent underclass of between 25 and 60 percent of the population. It is always a form of war." (p. 405)

Shock Doctrine is a revelation.

You can see a short film by Alfonso Cuaron about Shock Doctrine (here).

Concern for the environment IS concern for people

The Clean Air Act mandated that lead based gasoline be phased out. 20 years later, rates of violent crime suddenly plunged. Did phasing out leaded gasoline contribute to the decline in violent crime? Amherst College economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes makes a compelling case.

Also check out Lead Action News.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Quote of the Day

For the last several months I've been reading academic works of sociology to try to get my feet wet before diving into graduate school. To my dismay, I've found that for the most part, the authors I've read violate almost every rule of good writing (such as--use short sentences, don't use a 50 cent word when a 5 cent word will do, show don't tell...) In fact, in many cases, the Wikipedia entry for a particular author does a better job of communicating the ideas than the author's own work.

Apparently, Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, shares my concern. In an otherwise snarky op-ed republished by the New York Times in honor of her award, she makes the following observation:
"It is one of the paradoxes of our time that ideas capable of transforming our societies, full of insights about how the human animal actually behaves and thinks, are often presented in unreadable language."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Chemistry of Kissing

Okay so you probably already read this on Huffington Post (which is where I saw it). It's an article from Science Daily on kissing. Usually these kinds of articles are boring as paste. But this one is definitely worth reading if you are dating, thinking of dating, in a relationship, thinking of being in a relationship--oh heck it's a good read for anyone.

The gist of the article is this:

Males tended to kiss as a means to an end -- to gain sexual favors or to reconcile. In contrast, females kiss to establish and monitor the status of their relationship, and to assess and periodically update the level of commitment on the part of a partner.

Ain't that sumpthin! It's kind of a reminder to always be present and to pay attention to the message we're sending with even the little gestures of daily life.

Here's the full URL:

(So you ask, where's the hard hitting political news we've come to expect from RFK Action Front? Well, when the revolution comes, and even before, there's gonna be a whole lot of kissing!)

Monday, September 03, 2007

Kitty Not Happy: Best Cary Tennis Column Ever?

Unwittingly, this actually makes a fitting Labor Day post. Enjoy:

I'm usually not a Cary Tennis fan. (He writes the Since You Asked advice column on I don't know what it is that usually doesn't work for me--sometimes it feels too snarky, other times it feels like his advice doesn't exactly fit the question perhaps?

But a friend forwarded this link to me, and it builds kinda slowly, but by the time I got to the end of the column, I was so profoundly moved that I had to just cheer.

Basically, a young woman wore a t-shirt to work that said, "Kitty Not Happy." (I found a similar item on e-bay--pictured on the right). And an old-school guy was writing in to ask if such attire was acceptable in the modern workplace.

Here's an excerpt from Cary's brilliant reply:

I was a very naive young man when I left school in my early 20s. The first thing I noticed when I began working was that the workplace was profoundly undemocratic. If I hadn't been so naive perhaps it would not have shocked me, but it did shock me, for I realized that people outside of the academic world spend nearly all their productive time working, and if they are not working in a democratic setting then they are not practicing democracy in the most important arena of their lives, and so, for all practical purposes, they are not living in a democracy. They are living under authoritarian rule. They vote about large issues outside of the workplace, true, but in their daily lives they have no vote. They have no vote over who will lead them in the office or what the rules will be under which they labor.

...if in our daily lives we deny the humanity of our fellow workers, we are not living in the country we say we are living in. We are lying to ourselves.

And we have lied enough as a nation already. We have gone already too far in the direction of authoritarianism. We have strayed already too far from democracy. It is time we began acknowledging the tiny individual voices of simple human dissent among us.

Shortly after I read this post, another friend sent me a link to the wikipedia entry for Pierre Bourdieu--the French sociologist who coined the phrase "cultural capital." What struck me about the entry on Bourdieu was his idea of symbolic violence--that is "forms of coercion which are effected without physical force." It seems to me that symbolic violence is also what Cary Tennis is talking about in his column. Like Cary Tennis, too often that's been my experience of the modern workplace--it seems to me that way too many places where I've worked have been profoundly undemocratic and filled with symbolic violence which flowed as 'just the way things are.' But it wasn't until I read Cary Tennis' piece that I realized that the reason I am so profoundly unsettled by many modern workplaces is that, at its core, this symbolic violence is unacceptable and a violation of our stated values as a culture. (Thankfully, some other places I've worked have been fantastic--so it's not a monolithic situation--which also means that there are some solutions out there too.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pesticide use linked to autism--how long before corporate bioterrorism is stopped?

On July 31, the Los Angeles Times published the following info:

Women who live near California farm fields sprayed with organochlorine pesticides may be more likely to give birth to children with autism, according to a study by state health officials to be published today.

How much more likely? 6 TIMES MORE LIKELY.

So let me ask a question.

Let's say evil foreign terrorists invade
an American school and
take a classroom full of kids hostage.
And let's say that the manical terrorists
are so hell bent on destroying all that is
good and true about America that they
inject 8 of the 28 kids
with a neurotoxin so potent
that it causes permanent brain damage

How long before the SWAT team gets there?

15 minutes?
20 minutes?
Anyone bet 30 minutes?
Is your highest estimate under 1 hour?

Let's go a step further:
Imagine the terrorists start injecting additional kids
with the heinous poison
every ten minutes.
The authorities, through the use of video surveillance,
know this is happening.

How long before the SWAT team storms the building and
kills every single terrorist even at the risk of
losing some of their own members?

1 minute?
5 minutes?
Is your highest estimate under 10 minutes?

Okay, now, new question:
A study by the California Department of Public Health
finds a link between the use of 2 pesticides and autism.
(The 2 pesticides are endosulfan and dicofol which are already banned
in several countries.)

How long before the state of California bans the pesticides?


How long before the federal government bans these pesticides?

10 years?
20 years?

Is your lowest realistic estimate under 5 years?

Here we have 2 different scenarios
(terrorists take over a school and
corporate farmers spraying their fields with
endosulfan and dicofol)
with roughly the same outcome for kids
(permanent brain damage)
but 2 radically different responses from government authorities.

When the harm is caused by a brown man with a gun
the reaction is swift, violent, and total.
When the harm is caused by a poison
sold by a nice white guy in a suit who
goes home to his nice suburban house every evening,
too often the responds is years of study
(or no study at all)
blaming of the victims,
and then halting half measure that
'attempt to balance the interests of both sides.'

If you think I'm kidding check out this quote from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation about the link between these pesticides and autism:
Glenn Brank, spokesman for the pesticide agency, said officials there are "very interested" in the new autism data but say that "more work" on the potential link is needed before it can carry much weight in assessments of the chemicals' risks.
Makes you wonder if the terrorists
(the brown ones with the guns)
just need better lobbyists.
Then they could make some vague claims
about creating jobs and the importance of free enterprise.
If terrorists (the brown ones with the guns)
had better lobbyists
it might take the SWAT team years
to arrive at the school
and then they would study the problem of the school children
looking at every possible alternative explanation
before politely asking the terrorists to cut back on
the number of children they are poisoning.

By the way, endosulfan is manufactured by:
Bayer CropScience,
Makhteshim-Agan, and
Drexel Chemical Company.
Dicofol is manufactured by:
Rohm & Haas,
Hindustan Insecticides Ltd,
Lainco, and
Just thought I'd give ya'll a shout out so that the SWAT team
will know where to find you.

Post Script: Dicofol is used on cotton, oranges, beans and walnuts. Endosulfan is used primarily in tomato processing and on lettuce, alfalfa and cotton crops. Even people who are not a farm workers can be exposed to these poisons through food, water, air, and non-organic household cotton products.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Proud to be a Partisan

As you know, Firedoglake did some of the best reporting on the Scooter Libby trial of any news source in the nation (superior even to the NY Times and CNN accounts of the trial).

But just this week I've become a regular reader and find that they consistently produce really original, thought-provoking content.

This week, Jane Hamsher the founder of Firedoglake, did a brilliant piece called, I'm Proud to Be a Partisan. It describes her recent trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. with her friend Linda, who is the child of holocaust survivors. Jane describes learning about Jewish Partisans, who went underground and fought a guerrilla war against the Nazis in World War II, and what we can learn from their courage.

Please read Jane's piece (here), it's extraordinary.

Also, after Sam Waterson's ridiculous statements on Hardball with Chris Matthews this week, I'm officially calling B.S. on Unity 08.

Wacky video!

Hat tip to Donita Sparks at Firedoglake for finding this video on YouTube.

The video consists of hundreds of prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre in the Philippines recreating the dance number from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.

These guys are incredible. Makes you wonder if crime will INCREASE in the Philippines as people try to get in to join this dance troop.

But do check out Donita's post (here) for valid concerns that she raises (and links to more CPDRC videos!).

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds, Part 3, A Case for Impeachment

This is the final installment of my three part series on The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

In the first part of the series, I explained that, according to Surowiecki, in order for a group to be "smart," that is, in order for groups to make accurate predictions and decisions, the group needs to be diverse, independent, and decentralized.

Diversity brings in new ideas, independence insures that those new ideas get expressed, and decentralization prevents the sort of small minded group think that can lead a herd over a cliff.

Now here's where it gets interesting: In the months leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--the U.S. intelligence agencies were organized in exactly this manner--diverse, decentralized, and independent. As Surowiecki writes, the U.S. intelligence community was, "a collection of virtually autonomous, decentralized groups, all working toward the same broad goal--keeping the United States safe from attack--but in very different ways." (p. 67)

In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies had all of the necessary pieces of information to know that an attack was coming. The CIA monitored and took pictures of a 9/11 planning meeting of Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia in January 2000. The CIA knew that two Al Qaeda operatives moved to San Diego in January 2000. In fact, the Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing for August 6, 2001 was titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S" and Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft.

So if we had all of the relevant pieces of data to prevent the attacks on 9/11 then how did they happen anyway.


In order for diverse, independent, and decentralized groups to make smart decisions there has to be someone to aggregate the information. Think about the example of a crowd at the state fair guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar--the aggregator is the person who adds up all of the guesses and finds the average. In a stock market, the aggregator is the New York Stock Exchange which collects all of the buying and selling information and shows the price of the stock (which reflects the collective wisdom of the group). For sports betting, the aggregator is the bookmaker in the casino who sets the point spread for the game.

In every Presidency before George W. Bush, the aggregator was the President of the United States. Think about how John F. Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. He gathered all of the different viewpoints from all of the different defense and intelligence agencies in one room, had them all make their best case (which reflected the collective wisdom of their group), and then came up with a plan that reflected the collective wisdom of the entire group.

With President Bush, there simply is NO ONE at the top who is sifting through all the information to figure out the collective wisdom of all of the intelligence agencies. As former Bush administration counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke indicated, the Bush administration simply wasn't interested in counter-terrorism. Despite the warning the the Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing, the President continued his vacation in Crawford, Texas.

After 9/11, again there was no aggregator of the information to figure out who did it and how to prosecute them. Cheney had already made up his mind to invade Iraq. Bush had already made up his mind to invade Iraq. Never mind that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. If you've already made up your mind, the evidence never gets examined, the collective wisdom of the group is never identified, and poor decisions are the result.

In this case, the failure to aggregate the collective wisdom of the U.S. intelligence agencies has led to 2,974 American deaths on 9/11 and 3,646 (and counting) soldiers' deaths in Iraq. For all his talk of being The Decider, Bush has never fulfilled his responsibility as The Aggregator.

Speaking of collective wisdom, a poll by the American Research Group shows that 45% percent of Americans support impeachment proceedings against President Bush and 54% support impeachment of Cheney.

Among independents, 50% favor starting impeachment proceedings against President Bush, to only 30% opposed. And 51% of independents are also for starting impeachment proceedings against Dick Cheney, to 29% opposed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds, Part 2, The Republican "Circular Mill" of Death

In a previous post, I mentioned that I just finished reading The Wisdom of Crowds by New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki.

Today I want to focus on what the Wisdom of Crowds teaches us about the sorry state of the Republican Party.


It seems to me that the Republicans' greatest strength is that they are hierarchical and extremely good at following orders. It's also their greatest weakness. When Republicans have good leadership at the top, they are incredibly unified, agile, and focused. But when they have bad leadership at the top (or incompetent people as they do in this adminstration), their follow-the-leader mentality is an absolute disaster.

The Wisdom of Crowds illustrates the dangers of being a blind follower with a brilliant example:

In the early part of the twentieth century, the American naturalist William Beebe came upon a strange sight in the Guyana jungle. A group of army ants was moving in a huge circle. The circle was 1,200 feet in circumference, and it took each ant two and a half hours to complete the loop. The ants went around and around the circle for two days until most of them dropped dead.
    What Beebe saw was what biologists call a "circular mill." The mill is created when army ants find themselves separated from their colony. Once they're lost, they obey a simple rule: follow the ant in front of you. The result is the mill, which usually only breaks up when a few ants straggle off by chance and the others follow them away.
    ...[T]he simple tools that make ants so successful are also responsible for the demise of the ants who get trapped in the circular mill. Every move an ant makes depends on what its fellow ants do, and an ant cannot act independently, which would help break the march to death." (The Wisdom of Crowds, p. 40 & 41)

Surowiecki is illustrating the dangers of "information cascades" where decisions are made sequentially (and each additional decision is dependent on the prior decision). I think its also a perfect description of the current state of the Republican Party. A circular mill of death where they all march in a circle, thinking they are following the leader, but actually just going around and around until they all (and many more of our soldiers) die.

To paraphrase, 'Every move a Republican makes depends on what his fellow Republicans do, and a Republican cannot act independently, which would help break the march to death.' When it comes to the Iraq war, Republicans in the House and Senate just march around and around in a circle (filibustering, delaying, denying), thinking they are following their leader when in fact, they never had one.

I'll finish my 3 part series on The Wisdom of Crowds in a subsequent post.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Why Secular Society Makes Better Moral Decisions than Organized Religion (The Wisdom of Crowds, Part 1)

A few weeks ago I was talking with friends, and announced that I wanted to write a book that asks (and answers!) the questions: why is it that secular society seems to find the best answers to big moral and ethical questions so much sooner than the world's great religions? Why is it that secular society is, more often than not, ahead of religion in figuring out pressing moral issues?

It seems to me that over the last several centuries, secular society, not religion, led the way in toppling monarchies and starting participatory democracies, abolishing slavery, and granting women the right to vote. Today it is once again secular society (and even corporations!), not religion, that is leading the way to granting equal rights to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

In each case there were religious supporters of these positions (democracy, abolitionism, universal suffrage). But for the most part, my understanding is that these were secular movements that influenced religion, not the other way around.

The only counterpoint to these examples is the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s where the religious community (as led by Dr. King) was out front on the issue of ending Jim Crow laws and insuring that African Americans had the right to vote and go to school and participate fully in society.

I imagined that it would take years of research to answer these questions satisfactorily. But just this week I picked up The Wisdom of Crowds by New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki and it is absolutely brilliant.

The thesis of the book, is both stunning and exhilarating:

If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest, that group's decisions will, over time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual, no matter how smart or well-informed he is.

The classic example is to ask a crowd of people (say, at a state fair) to judge how many marbles are in a jar, or how much an ox weighs. The average of all of the guesses from the crowd will tend to be more accurate than the guesses of even the best experts.

But it's not just true in connection with guessing the number of marbles in a jar. It's also true of stock market mutual funds.

"Between 1984 and 1999, for instance, almost 90 percent of mutual-fund managers underperformed the Wilshire 5000 Index [which basically represents the entire U.S. stock market]. The numbers for bond-fund managers are similar: in the most recent five-year period, more than 95 percent of all managed bond funds underperformed the market." (p. 33)

Groups don't always reach the best answer. Depending on how they are set up, groups can lead to a dumbing down or a lowest common denominator solution rather than excellence. According to Surowiecki, in order for a group to be smarter than the experts it needs 3 things--diversity, independence, and decentralization.

Diversity brings in new ideas, independence insures that those new ideas get expressed, and decentralization prevents the sort of small minded group think that can lead a herd over a cliff.

The section on diversity is amazing:

...[G]roups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table. Homogeneous groups are great at doing what they do well, but they become progressively less able to investigate alternatives. Or, as March has famously argued, they spend too much time exploiting and not enough time exploring. Bringing new members into the organization, even if they're less experienced and less capable, actually makes the group smarter simply because what little the new members do know is not redundant with what everyone else knows." (p. 31)

Diverse teams come up with better answers than homogeneous teams, diverse nations are stronger than homogeneous nations, and Google is smarter than the world's smartest man.

Which brings us back to our original question. Why is it that secular society seems better than religion at addressing the biggest moral and ethical issues of the day? Because secular society, if set up properly, has all of the features of smart groups--diversity, independence, and decentralization. If a society is set up properly, it also has avenues for aggregating these opinions (e.g. elections).

Religions, it should be noted, tend to be characterized by all the factors that makes groups less able to come up with good answers--they tend to be homogeneous, hierarchical, and centralized, and lack both the mechanisms and the will to aggregate the opinions of a broad swath of people.

The Wisdom of Crowds also explains why the Iraq war is such a disaster, which I'll explain in a subsequent post.

The difficulty in turning around

At some point,
they had to realize
they had a problem in Woburn.
The mounting birth defects
the weird illnesses
the cancers and leukemia.
But school teachers teach
and realtors sell houses
and merchants sell goods
and mayors eat chicken dinners
and tell everyone everything is okay.
There is no mechanism in our society
to say stop
not enough union members
to call a general strike
no mothers of the disappeared
who can afford to bang on pots
all day in the streets.
And so the chemicals seep into the ground
and into the water
and into our blood streams
and into our babies.
And all of our same hopes and
dreams and striving are still there.
But it doesn't work anymore,
because the chemicals have done their damage
and there was no mechanism
by which
everyone could say stop, what's
going on here?
it ain't right and
I don't know what is
but we aren't going on
until we figure it out.

Sometime a couple years ago,
it became apparent
that Iraq wasn't going well.
It had become a horror movie
house of sadism into which
we send our healthy young men
and women
in one door
and they come out the other
maimed and terrorized
and not alive anymore.
And yet, recruiters recruit
and soldiers fight wars, and
contractors build things
for a price.
And so people continue
to slowly walk
into the meat grinder
long after it was obvious
that someone
should throw the switch
to stop the assembly line.

But there is no switch.
There is no pause.
People just do what they do
even when all of the inputs
and the variables
and the outcomes
and the early scenarios
have changed.

Great quotes

I stumbled across a couple great quotes this week and thought I'd pass them along:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” --Ghandi

"Conservative principles" are marketing props used by the Conservative Movement to achieve political power, not actual beliefs. --Glenn Greenwald

I'm also loving Chris Pureka's cover of the Gillian Welch song, "Everything's Free." You can listen to Chris Pureka and buy the song (here).

Chris Pureka, photo by Sebastian Renfield

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

5+ Political Burglaries, Are the Plumbers Still at Work?

Over the past several years, I've read several stories about politically motivated burglaries. But I've never seen anyone put them all together in one place. The strange thing about burglaries at political offices is that they are often reported as local news, even when they potentially impact national political races.

So over the last few weeks, I've tracked down as many of the stories as I could remember:

December 31st, 2000, burglars broke into the Embassy of Niger in Italy. They stole letterhead and the official stamp bearing the seal of the Republic of Niger. These stolen materials were later used to forge documents claiming that Iraq acquired uranium from Niger--which became the cornerstone for the Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq. Remember this is one month after the U.S. Supreme Court appointed Bush President and nine months before the attacks on the World Trade Center.

October 11, 2004, The Lucas County, Ohio Democratic Headquarters was burglarized and three computers, including the party’s main system, were stolen. The burglary occurred 3 weeks before the Presidential election in the swing state that decided the outcome of the national election.

February 25, 2007, break in at the New Hampshire Democratic Headquarters. The New Hampshire Primary is the first in the nation (coming right after the Iowa Caucuses) and is often pivotal in determining who wins the nomination for President.

March 17, 2007, break-in at Minnesota Democratic Farm Labor Party headquarters. The intruder smashed an exterior window and stole the computer belonging to Communications Director, Nick Kimball, but passed up other valuable electronics, including a video camera and a high-end digital camera. No other computers were taken and it appears Kimball's laptop was the sole target of the robbery.

March 27, 2007, Minnesota Democratic Farm Labor Party headquarters broken into again
. This time, the burglars "broke into the office of Andrew O'Leary, the DFL's executive director, stealing a computer that was not visible from outside of the building and going through materials in his desk."

That's an awful lot of burglaries don't you think?

Now maybe political headquarters (and embassies) are just easy targets for petty criminals.

But I wonder if perhaps this is evidence that The Plumbers are still at work? (For those who don't know, The Plumbers is the name given to the White House Special Investigations Unit in the Nixon Administration. The Plumbers included E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy who were later involved in the Watergate break-in.)

What if The Plumbers was actually a much larger operation than we were led to believe? And what if The Plumbers just went underground after Watergate but then re-emerged years later? It'd make sense in a way, both Cheney and Rumsfeld are former Nixon administration officials--what if that's just how they do business?

UPDATE: A reader who goes by the screenname hubbird on noted that Barack Obama's campaign headquarters in Davenport, Iowa was burglarized last Friday. The burglars took two laptops and some campaign literature.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: Readers at DailyKos also pointed out:

The Democratic Party headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire was also burglarized on the weekend of January 20-21, 2007.

The burglary on February 23, in Concord, New Hampshire list above does not appear to be politically motivated.

The Republican Party offices in Spokane, Washington were burglarized in 2004 (although I think it's interesting to note that, in this case, cash was stolen not computers.)