Thursday, July 31, 2014

What if they declared a default and nobody defaulted? You have a #Griefault!

Argentina's deadline for making a deal with the vulture funds backed by a ridiculous ruling from Nixon-appointed zombie federal judge Thomas Griesa has come and gone.

Shane Ferro reports in Argentina’s default: Here’s what’s happening 07/30/2014, "the ratings agency S&P cut the country’s credit rating to selective default."

Given the horrendous record of S&P and the other rating agencies before the 2008 crisis, what S&P has to say about doesn't much worry me. I'm surprised anyone listens to them at all.

Argentine President Cristina Fernández has been saying that since Argentina is paying its legitimate debts, i.e., everything but the debt defaulted in 2002 still being held by the vulture funds, you can't call what's happening a default. And that is the government's official position. She says they will have to invent a new word for what's happening.

There is a Twitter hastag, though, #GrieFault, which may suffice, incorporating the Nixon zombie judge's name.

Anna Gelpern gives a run-down on various alternative scenarios from this point: It Depends, Argentina Edition Credit Slips 07/30/2014.

One of the mysteries in this has to do with credit default swaps (CDS). The vulture funds may have bought CDS's in the hope that Argentina would default. And in our international financial system which allows high-finance gambling, anyone with enough money could buy a CDS against an Argentine default. Depending on the terms of the CDS, what is considered "default" matters a lot. Ownership of CDS's isn't public information, so this is one of the uncertainties going on behind the scenes.

Right now, Argentina is paying on the debt renegotiated from the 2002 default, paying to money to the financial institutions acting as paying agents under the agreements. The Nixon zombie judge is blocking the banks from paying those funds to the creditors. So Argentina is paying their debt service, but the creditors aren't receiving the money.

A new session with the Nixon zombie judge on the case is scheduled for Friday.

Eyder Peralta has a roundup of several major stories on the #GrieFault, Argentina's Default: 5 Headlines That Tell The Story NPR 07/31/2014. One of the links is to this New York Times story by Peter Eavis and Alexandra Stevenson, Argentina Finds Relentless Foe in Paul Singer’s Hedge Fund 07/30/2014:

... some debt market experts say that the battle may already have shifted the balance of power toward creditors in the enormous debt markets that countries regularly tap to fund their deficits. Countries in crisis may now find it harder to gain relief from creditors after defaulting on their debt, they assert.

"We've had a lot of bombs being thrown around the world, and this is America throwing a bomb into the global economic system," said Joseph E. Stiglitz, the economist and professor at Columbia University. "We don’t know how big the explosion will be — and it’s not just about Argentina." [my emphasis]
The head of Cristina's Cabinet, Jorge Capitanich, said this was a failure of the entire judicial system of the United States - the Nixon zombie judge's bizarre ruling was allowed to stand by the Roberts Supreme Court refusing to take the case - which showed in this instance that "es independiente de la racionalidad, no es independiente de los fondos buitre" ("it is independent of rationality, but not independent of the vulture funds"). ("Ha habido una mala praxis del Poder Judicial de EEUU" Página/12 31.07.2014)

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Austerians vs. reality

Paul Krugman for years has been approaching from various angles the problem of the Very Serious People disregarding solid, even conventional macroeconomics for the dubious lure of austerity economics, aka, Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning policies.

We're in a position in the US and Europe at the moment where sound economic analysis has almost a Cassandra quality to it, doomed to be correct but having no one believe it, at least no one actually making economic policy.

Cassandra, patron prophetess of present-day US and European macroeconomics

From Encyclopædia Britannica, Cassandra:

According to Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon, Cassandra was loved by the god Apollo, who promised her the power of prophecy if she would comply with his desires. Cassandra accepted the proposal, received the gift, and then refused the god her favours. Apollo revenged himself by ordaining that her prophecies should never be believed.
In Useless Expertise 07/30/2014, Krugman writes:

You might want to say that the professional consensus was rejected because it didn’t work. But actually it did. Mainstream macroeconomics made some predictions — deficits wouldn’t drive up interest rates in a depressed economy, "fiat money" wouldn't be inflationary, austerity would lead to economic contraction — that drew widespread scorn; Stephen Moore at the WSJ (which was predicting soaring rates and inflation) dismissed "fancy theories" that "defy common sense." The fancy theorists were, of course, right — but nobody who rejected the consensus has changed his mind. Oh, and Moore became the chief economist at Heritage.

So, two thoughts. One is a point I think I’ve made before. You fairly often hear people describe the very poor track record of policy since 2008 as an indictment of economists, who clearly didn’t have the right answers. But actually mainstream macro has a pretty decent track record since 2008 — the problem was that what it said about policy was disregarded by the policymakers, who went with what they wanted to believe.

The other is that you have to wonder what good we’re all doing. If policymakers ignore professional consensus, and if views about how the world works are completely insensitive to evidence and results, does knowledge matter. If a tree falls in the academic forest, but nobody in Brussels or Washington hears it, did it make a sound?
Stephen Moore is author of prescient economic classics like Bullish on Bush: How George Bush's Owenership Society Will Make America Stronger (2004) and How Barack Obama is Bankrupting the U.S. Economy (2009).


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Argentina prepares for the Nixon zombie judge deadline

Hopefully the markets - meaning the actual individuals and institutions who buy and sell securities - have fully incorporated the information about real state of Argentine finances into their calculations when tomorrow's deadline passes with no new deal between Argentina and the vulture funds backed by Nixon-appointed zombie federal judge Thomas Griesa.

They still have today and Wednesday for something to change. But there's no public sign that a deal is imminent.

Wow! This is a surprise. He didn't say it directly yet. But Pope Francis is taking Argentina's side against the vulture funds and the Nixon-appointed zombie judge Thomas Griesa that is trying to push the country into bankruptcy at the end of the day tomorrow. The Pope met with Gabriel Mariotto, the vice-governor of Buenos Aires province who's from President Cristina Fernández's Peronist party. According to Mariotto, "Francisco dijo que Griesa está a la derecha de la derecha en Estados Unidos" ("Francis said Griesa is to the right of the rightwing in the United States.") The Spanish has a nice double meaning that could also mean "to the right of the law."

Mariotto also relates:

“El Papa lo ve como una reacción de un sector reaccionario, de una minoría del sistema financiero carroñero que atenta contra todo ese sistema financiero e incluso contra el Partido Demócrata de los Estados Unidos”,

["The Pope sees it as a reaction by a reactionary sector, of a scavenger minority of the financial system that is making an attack against all of the financial system and including against the Democratic Party of the United States."]
Shorter English report: Mariotto: ‘Francis said Griesa is further right than right-wing Republicans' Buenos Aires Herald 07/28/2014.

Yo! I figured that Cristina had made a tacit deal with the Argentine Pope when he took office along the lines of: "You don't be a jerk to Argentina, and I won't remind people of your shady record under the last military dictatorship." Or maybe Pope Francis thinks it's insane and sinful for a Nixon zombie judge to try to wreck the economy of his home country so that some vulture funds can collect big bucks on wild financial gambles.

So, Cristina has the Pope on her side. The vulture funds and the Nixon zombie judge are backed by the Wall Street Journal, who is running this slam article on Cristina today: Santiago Pérez y Taos Turner, El vínculo entre el dinero y la política, una sombra que persigue a los Kirchner 07/29/2014.

The Nixon zombie judge did correct one problem of his goofy order by releasing bank funds that had been paid by Argentina to the Spanish oil company Repsol that didn't even related to the Argentine bonds! Visión 7 - Griesa autorizó a pagar intereses a Repsol TV Pública argentina:

I mean, trying to bankrupt the nation of Argentina is one thing. But inconveniencing a respectable oil company? That was something the Nixon zombie judge didn't want to do!

Miguel Jorquera in "No existe posibilidad de default" Página/12 29.07.2014 interviews Juliana Di Tullio, head of Argentine President Cristina Fernández' legislative bloc, the Frente para la Victoria (FpV). Di Tullio points out one of the foreign policy implications of the Nixon zombie judge's attempt to force Argentina into bankruptcy, which is that increases the need for Argentina to build stronger alliances with the BRICS, notably China and Russia. She notes that Cristina recently concluded a deal with China for $19 billion in investments in Argentina.

Di Tullio also articulates the government's position that a failure to comply with the Nixon zombie judge's decision cannot be regarded as a "technical default." Argentina is paying the debts recognized as valid under Argentine law, i.e., the 92%-plus of the 2001 defaulted debt that has been renegotiated. The Nixon zombie judge is blocking the banks to which Argentina payed last month's payment from transmitted the funds to the actual creditors. "No existe posibilidad de default, que sería si no está el dinero para pagar. Tampoco default técnico, porque eso sería tener el dinero para pagar y no depositarlo," she says. ("The possibility of default doesn't exist; that would be not having the money to pay. Nor technical default, because that would be having the money to pay and no depositing it.")

If this seems like a bit of legal comma-dancing, there is a lot riding on it. It's a safe bet that some of the vulture funds and other big-time gamblers have bought credit default swaps (CDS) that pay off in the event of an Argentina default. The vulture funds may actually be hoping for Argentina non-compliance for just that reason. So whether what happens when and if Argentina doesn't comply with the Nixon zombie judge's order by end of day tomorrow is considered a default in a legal sense matter a lot.

Di Tullio also harshes on Mauricio Macri of the Propuesta Republicana (PRO), Governor of the City of Buenos Aires and the main opposition figure right now, and Julio Cobos, an opposition parliamentary leader of the Frente Amplio UNEN and former Governor of the Province of Mendoza. Both have criticized Cristina's handling of the confrontation with the vulture funds. Macri essentially demanded that Cristina capitulate to the Nixon zombie judge, consistent with his general commitment to the neoliberal worldview. He has been doing so with some political mealy-mouthing in the form of demanding that Cristina comply with the ruling but skirting the ruinous cost to Argentina for doing so. (Fernando Cibeira, Idas y vueltas alrededor de los buitres Página/12 29.07.2014)

As Di Tullio puts it:

Macri por lo menos es sincero y dice que “si yo fuera presidente, ya lo hubiera pagado”, por lo cual la deuda de los argentinos quedaría abierta y nos endeudaríamos en 500 mil millones de dólares más. Es una cosa de locos, pero es lo que cree Macri.

[Macri at least is sincere and say that "if I were President, I would have paid," by which the debt of the Argentines would remain outstanding and we would take on $500 billion more. It's a crazy thing, but that's what Macri believes.]
She's referring there to the estimated additional debt that Argentina would have to take on if the RUFO clause is triggered, which through the end of 2014 gives all creditors the right to claim the same terms the vulture funds would get under the Nixon zombie judge's bizarre ruling.

Julio Cobos, along with other opposition figures like Socialist Party leader Hermes Binner, have criticized Cristina in general terms over her handling of the issue without being as explicit as Macri in saying she should just capitulate.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Argentina vs. Germany on macroeconomics

Robert Kuttner points out the contrast between austerian Germany and post-neoliberal Argentina in The World Financial Cup Huffington Post 07/13/2014. He describes to how Argentina's handling of its bankruptcy in 2001 highlights the dilemma of the eurozone crisis countries:

Which brings us to Argentina. In effect, Argentina is the Greece of South America. In the western hemisphere, the enforcer of punishment is not Germany but the United States -- specifically the U.S. Supreme Court.

Argentina experienced a debt crisis early in the last decade, and negotiated an agreement with most of its foreign bondholders to accept payment at about 70 cents on the dollar. This sort of discount is standard practice in a bankruptcy.

However, while corporations can use bankruptcy law to renegotiate their debts, there is no bankruptcy law for countries. That's why Germany was able to keep Greece in a kind of debtors' prison.

When Argentina negotiated debt relief with most of its creditors, a few hedge funds (known in the trade as "vulture funds") bought up deeply discounted Argentine debt and then sued in the U.S. courts to collect at 100 cents on the dollar. Not only that, but the funds asked the courts to find any other creditor who took less than full payment in contempt of court.

The case worked its way through the appeals process, and last month the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from a lower court case that found for the vulture funds. Specifically two hedge funds, Elliott Management and Aurelius Capital Management, which hold only about 1.35 billion out of Argentina's more than $80 billion in debt, are now able to force a default on the nation's entire debt, possibly by the end of this month.
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The Brownback miracle (?!?) in Kansas

Paul Krugman in Left Coast Rising New York Times 07/24/2014 and How's California Doing? 07/23/2014 describes the success of Jerry Brown's Keynesian economics on the state level in California with some reference to the contrasting failure of Tea Party economics in Kansas under Republican ideologue Gov. Sam Brownback.

The Young Turks also recently took a look at Kansas Gov Sam Brownback Fulfills Promise To Destroy Kansas 07/08/2014:

Dave Helling and Brad Cooper did an analysis of Brownback's record A look at Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's economic claims Kansas City Star 07/04/2014. One example of their findings:

Claim: The Kansas poverty level has been "flat" during the current administration. — March 2014

This claim depends on the definition of "flat" and the definition of poverty.

Census Bureau figures show poverty in Kansas grew during the first two years of the Brownback administration.

In 2010, the year before Brownback took office, 13.6 percent of Kansans were living below the poverty level. In 2012, 14 percent of Kansans lived below the poverty level, the highest percentage since at least 2008.

Figures for 2013 are not yet available. In an email, Brownback’s office said the poverty claim is related to poverty for children, not the overall rate.

Brownback’s office points to data showing the percentage of children living in poverty was essentially flat in 2011 and 2012, although the actual number of those children grew by about 1,000.

In a March speech when he was asked about the state’s poverty level, Brownback conceded that he had not made a lot of progress on the problem of child poverty.

"We really haven't had enough time to get at that issue," he said. "We've really got to do a lot more work in that area."
Josh Barro also notes a lesson from the Brownback experience, Yes, if You Cut Taxes, You Get Less Tax Revenue New York Times 06/27/2014. Here he raises and important caution about a common assumption that politicians make, at least in their public statements (bold in original):

It’s not clear that there’s anything special about small businesses for the purpose of job creation.

A 2013 study by economists from the Census Bureau and the University of Maryland found that while young firms add jobs more quickly than older ones, the size of a firm does not appear to drive job growth.

And indeed, while Governor Brownback wrote last month that the tax cuts were allowing businesses to "hire more people and invest in needed equipment," job growth in Kansas has been modest since he signed the bill, trailing the national average and the rate in three of its four neighboring states.
Krugman does remind us "that the recession and recovery have had differential effects across states" (Moore of the Same 07/26/2014), so we always need to exercise some realistic caution in comparing state economic performance. In California's case, the state economy is large enough that state-level stimulus probably has a disproportionate effect there compared to other states.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Serious EU financial sanctions against Russia coming?

Wolfgang Münchau has said he wanted stiffer EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. Now that the EU is considering major economic sanctions, he seems to be hearing a Bruce Springsteen song in the background, the one with the line "With every wish there comes a curse."

In The west risks collateral damage by punishing Russia Financial Times 07/27/2014 Münchau writes:

The sanctions to be decided this week are known in EU jargon as 'tier three'; the red-alert stage. As reported by Peter Spiegel, the Financial Times Brussels bureau chief, the European Commission wants a ban on purchases by EU citizens and companies of equity and debt issued by state-controlled Russian banks that has a maturity of more than 90 days. The ban would also include investment services. No EU bank would be allowed to help Russians banks raise funds on a regulated market. The rule would extend to development finance institutions. Last week, the EU and the US used their majority vote on the board of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to stop the bank’s investments in Russia, which accounts for almost 20 per cent of its invested assets.

The kind of financial sanctions he describes would be particularly noticeable in Austria, whose banks do a lot of business in Russia. But also: "The IMF raised the German growth forecast for 2014 from 1.7 per cent to 1.9 per cent. I am not saying this is wrong. But can we be sure Germany will brush off sanctions against Russia so easily – especially, as is now likely, if the EU this week widens them to the financial sector?" And since strong German growth is the only thing with an immediate prospect of pulling the eurozone out of depression and borderline deflation, well, this could get ugly.
Maybe they would be better off sticking to something more modest (Ishaan Tharoor, The growing calls to strip Putin and Russia of the 2018 World Cup Washington Post 07/23/2014):

European leaders are discussing new tough measures on Russia, which will likely come in the form of new sanctions.

But does that really punish Putin? Europe’s ultimate dependence on Russia as a market and key source of energy means its bark is often worse than its bite. And by all accounts, Putin appears to be hardening his own position, fueled by record approval ratings at home.

So now, some are venturing a new line of attack: depriving Russia of the privilege of hosting the 2018 soccer World Cup.
It wouldn't surprise me if Angela Merkel isn't working on some way of avoiding imposing serious sanctions while still pretending to be tough on Russia.

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Argentina vs. Nixon zombie judge deadline on July 30

Since Nixon-appointed zombie judge Thomas Griesa has made a securities decision arguably unprecedented in 6-8 centuries of securities law, I wouldn't try to predict what happens after the July 30 deadline on Argentine debt coming this week.

Nixon-appointed federal Judge Thomas Griega

Floyd Norris discusses the state of affairs in The Muddled Case of Argentine Bonds New York Times 07/24/2014.

But Cristina Fernández' government hasn't panicked and seems to have played their side smartly so far. Had Argentina simply capitulated to the Nixon zombie judge's ruling, they would have blown out their foreign exchange reserves and pushed themselves in actual default. That could have had very damaging effects in international bond markets and even exacerbated the euro crisis. But if the bond markets panic this week, it won't be because Argentina has flaked out, unless something radically changes in their approach the next few days.

We should remember that the Roberts Supreme Court at the end of June let the Nixon zombie judge's goofy decision stand by not reviewing it. It was once of the sloppiest, most reckless decisions the Court has taken in at least the last couple of decades. Fortunately, Cristina isn't the sort to take something like this without a serious fight.

The Nixon zombie judge's decision is so screwy that even an Argentine President eager to surrender would have had a hard time doing so. Cristina says she ain't declaring "default" next week, because Argentina is paying interest on schedule on its current debt. But the Nixon zombie judge is blocking the banks from giving the money Argentina paid to the bondholders - and he clearly doesn't even understand what his order on that means. She says a new word will have to be invented for it. I vote for "Nixonzombiejudging"?

Meanwhile, the hedge funds ("vulture funds" as Argentina accurately calls them in this case) that the Nixon zombie judge is siding with may actually be hoping for a default because they are hoping to be paid on credit default swaps made on the risk of Argentine default. (And you thought Dodd-Frank put an end to financial gambling that could wreck the international financial system? Ha!) As Norris puts it, "As Wednesday approaches, the judge has a lot to think about. It would be better if he had done some of that thinking before he issued his order, or if the appeals court or the Supreme Court had forced him to do so."

Raúl Dellatorre in El fantasma del 30-J y el precipicio anunciado Página/12 27.07.2014 interviews international law specialist Stella Maris Biocca and economist Jorge Marchini on the case. Both want to de-dramatize the matter, because they think Argentina is in a relatively strong position. If the Nixon zombie judge keeps blocking the banks acting as paying agents from paying the renegotiated bondholders from giving them the money Argentina is paying according to their agreements, the legitimate creditors can renegotiate the payment arrangements to pay them in other currencies and in jurisdictions over which New York Federal courts and Nixon zombie judges have no jurisdiction.

Fermín Koop interviews sovereign attorney Eugenio Bruno in 'There has been no progress and the situation is stalled' Buenos Aires Herald 07/27/2014. One of the issues he addresses is the RUFO (Rights Upon Future Offers) clause, which is a big part of what makes the Nixon zombie judge's decision upheld by the Roberts Supreme Court so problematic. Under the RUFO clause, if any creditors like the vulture funds receive terms more favorable than the 92-93% of debtors who have renegotiated terms, the latter have the right to claims exactly the same terms. Since the Nixon zombie judge's decision required full payment of the holdouts, all the other creditors could have claimed the same repayment terms. The RUFO CLAUSE is in effect only until the end of 2014:

What are your hopes regarding the case?

[Bruno:] It depends on the parties, not the judge. The Argentine position is that it may not pay or negotiate during the effectiveness of the RUFO clause which is until December 31, 2014. For such reason there are no concrete actions towards reaching an agreement or an agreement to discuss on the part of Argentina. The plaintiffs have expressed their willingness to negotiate, including the possibility of getting paid through a combination of cash and bonds with haircuts and give additional time by way of a new stay but subject on Argentina taking certain actions to show that it is willing to negotiate. Because of this lack of sinergy there has been no progress and the situation is stalled.
Bruno's comments are a little ambiguous on whether the Wednesday deadline would be an actual default. "The situation of course is legally complicated," he says with tremendous understatement.

Bruno also thinks that the vulture funds and the Nixon zombie judge won't be able to easily go after assets of majority state-owned gas company YPF:

Can the holdouts seize Argentine assets abroad soon? There have been rumors lately that they have been asking about YPF.

[Bruno:] It's very difficult because the laws of the US protect sovereign assets. YPF assets would not be attachable because the company is separate from the executive power and is not an alter ego of the Republic (it has a professional management, its own business plan, etc.) which is the basis for attaching its assets.
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Friday, July 25, 2014

Cory Booker and Republican segregationists

Joan Walsh discusses the latest segregationist dance steps in The right’s pathetically low curve: How it got a pass on race and poverty Salon 07/25/2014. I was especially struck by the section on Rand "Baby Doc" Paul, who sports a rawer segregationist ideology than most Republican politicians, though that's not saying much given today's Republican Party:

Then there’s Rand Paul, continuing his "outreach" to African Americans with his visit to the Urban League annual convention. Paul actually deserves credit for trying to tackle issues of criminal justice reform with Sen. Cory Booker. But in his Friday speech he also seemed to decry voter suppression laws, insisting his goal is to "help more people vote," in the words of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

"We have to be together to defend the rights of all minorities," Paul said.

But Paul flip-flops on this issue every chance he gets. "I don’t think there is objective evidence that we're precluding African-Americans from voting any longer," he said last year, after the Supreme Court curtailed the Voting Rights Act. But a few months later, he seemed to have second thoughts.

"Everybody's gone completely crazy on this voter-ID thing," Paul the New York Times. "I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it's offending people."

That was big news. But then, confronted by his friends at Fox, he lurched into reverse. Paul assured Sean Hannity he was fully on board with the Republican voter ID strategy. "No I agree, there's nothing wrong with it. To see Eric Holder you've got to show your driver's license to get in the building. So I don't really object to having some rules for how we vote. I show my driver’s license every time I vote in Kentucky ... and I don’t feel like it is a great burden. So it's funny that it got reported that way."

"It's funny it got reported that way," when that's what Paul said. [my emphasis]
I've written before about Booker's dubious politics, What kind of Democrat is Cory Booker? Not a reliably progressive one 08/14/2013. He's been a Wall Street loyalist, even criticizing Obama for making an issue out of the harmful acts of Bain Capital under Mitt Romney's direction. Booker's personal business dealings are entirely admirable.

In that earlier post, I included this video of Sam Seder talking about Booker's politics Cory Booker's Role Models: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul 08/13/2013:

And I also cited an article about Booker's ties to Pentecostal Christian Dominionists, Susie Madrak's Anybody But Cory Booker C&L 08/12/2013:

Cory Booker is very, very tight with the religious right wing -- but he's also very careful about what he says, since he hopes to run for president one day and cultivates strong LGBT support. The problem is, he hangs with the Dominionists. Is this a case of "I'll work with anybody who wants to help my city", or is there something more?

He's very religious himself. So where are the lines he won't cross? Is it okay for Democrats to validate and support any parts of the right-wing agenda that's politically convenient? [my emphasis]
And he's not just co-sponsoring a prison reform bill with Baby Doc. He's going out of his way to generate publicity about his friendly alliance with the hardline Kentucky segregationist.

Sarah Smith reports for Politico (aka, Tiger Beat on the Potomac per Charlie Pierce) that Cory Booker, Rand Paul join on 'common sense' 07/09/2014. It features an embedded video titled there, "Rand Paul, Cory Booker talk bromance." And it's pretty clear that Booker isn't just tactically cooperating with Baby Doc on a politics-makes-strange-bedfellows issue of prison reform. Booker is branding himself as a partner of segregationists and Ayn Rand disciple Baby Doc:

The two also talked about their friendship, to applause throughout the room.

"I'm just wondering if we could get a reality show and if Ethics would allow us to get any compensation," Paul joked.

They used their friendship and collaboration as an example for a government that’s been widely dubbed as too partisan to get anything done. Paul criticized each party for overreaching on deals instead of compromising; Booker, for his part, got agitated over too much talk on parties and too little talk on issues.

"Why don't we stop talking about party and start talking about the real issues?" Booker demanded.

At the Playbook event, Paul and Booker covered a variety of issues — and steadfastly declined to answer political questions like their opinions on the immigration crisis and the fate of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. They discussed minority outreach, technology and innovation for low-income communities — during which Booker mentioned the benefit of the free market.
Paul leaned forward.

"Maybe you could become a Republican," he said. "You said 'free market.'" [my emphasis]
It's worth people keeping a close eye on what they mean by "prison reform," what it could become in the legislative sausage-making and what will actually past the House dominated by Baby Doc's segregationist colleagues. Prison reform is very much a civil rights issue because of the disproportionate and unfair effects the justice system has on African-Americans and other minorities. So is this House going to let a bill that seriously ameliorates that problem pass?

Bloomberg Business Week reported the same story in much the same tone in a piece by Josh Eidelson, Rand Paul and Cory Booker's Washington Love Affair 07/17/2014:

As one lobbyist in the hall announced, they were “just here for the show”: the first joint appearance by Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, Washington's newest odd couple.

The two politicians appear to have little in common except, perhaps, the ambition to be president someday. One is a Texas-reared libertarian and longtime antitax activist who built a thriving ophthalmology practice before becoming a standard-bearer of the Tea Party movement. The other is an Ivy League-educated Rhodes Scholar, beloved by progressives, who built his political career in the postindustrial wasteland of Newark, where he was a councilman and then mayor. "I'm worried who’s Felix and who’s Oscar," Booker joked at the Newseum event, organized by Politico and hosted by Mike Allen, the capital’s chief gossip.

In recent weeks the freshman legislators have established a close working relationship that harks back to a long-ago era of political cooperation on Capitol Hill. [my emphasis]
Our Pod Pundits just loo-oove this stuff: Bipartisanship! Cooperation! Reaching across the aisle!

But notice what it takes to stage this fantasy: defining Booker as "beloved by progressives." A shamelessly-Wall Street-friendly corporate Dem, who made millions from ethically dubious business dealings, closely tied to Christianist theocrats ... "beloved by progressives."

"Why don't we stop talking about party and start talking about the real issues?" Yeah, a New Kind of Democrat, yee-haw!

He sounds more like "Joe Lieberman" for the second half of the 2010's to me!

Also, credit to Eidelson for identifying Politico's Mike Allen as "the capital's chief gossip."

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Argentina still in a standoff with the vulture funds and the Nixon zombie judge

One of the Roberts Court's worst decisions, upholding by declining to hear the appeal of a ruling by Nixon-appointed zombie federal judge Thomas Griesa on Argentine debt obligations to vulture funds, is ticking toward a July 31 deadline imposed by the Nixon zombie judge's action that theoretically will force Argentina in default.

Argentine President Cristina Fernández is saying that Argentina won't declare a default if the issue with the vulture funds aren't settled by July 31. They are paying what is due on the renegotiated debt to the banks acting as the payment agents. The payments that aren't getting made are those being embargoed by the Nixon zombie judge's orders. (Nicolás Lantos, "Van a tener que inventar un nombre nuevo" Página/12 24.07.2014)

This discussion from The Real News is good on describing the situation and the radicalism of the Nixon zombie judge's ruling, US Courts Defend Rights of Vulture Funds Over Argentina 07/22/2014:

This video from the office of the Argentine President shows her explaining her stand against the vulture funds and the Nixon zombie judge, 23 de JUL. Cristina Fernández dialogó con la prensa a cerca de los fondos buitre Casa Rosada 23.07.2014:

This Buenos Aires Herald editorial also gives a brief description of the vulture fund standoff (Default by default 07/21/2014):

Yet that market confidence began to waver in midweek — no doubt in the face of the firmness of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s defiant speech to the BRICS summit. There her tone was not so much that Argentina would not pay as that Argentina had already paid (remitting the corresponding deposit to New York at the end of last month, which was immediately frozen by Manhattan judge Thomas Griesa) — she further argued that the existing 2005 and 2010 bond swaps favoured holdout creditors because even a starting 70 percent haircut would later permit them profits trebling the outlay on debt bought at junk bond levels of 10 percent. CFK also seemed to assume that there could be no default without one being declared by the government in question and she herself had no intention of taking such a step herself, ergo no chance of default. The substance of this speech hardly differed from her Flag Day declaration of a willingness to “pay 100 percent of bondholders,” a pledge prompting the market optimism until recently, but the change of tone has prompted uncertainty.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What makes a "smoking gun" in international affairs?

Fred Kaplan in Putin's Fingerprints Slate 07/21/2014 accepts the theory that Russian separatists are responsible for the shootdown of Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine. Kaplan has a solid record as a policy analyst, so I take what he says seriously, although his apparent conclusion does seem to be ahead of the evidence in the public record.

But I'm struck by the reasoning he uses to attach responsibility to Putin's regime:

Since the conflict with separatists in eastern Ukraine started just this past spring, this raises the question: Are the people who shot down the Malaysian airliner pro-Russian separatists — or are they Russian air-defense officers who trekked across the border to assist their ethnic brethren? Either way, it’s not the case that Putin simply encouraged the rebels to fight and supplied them with missiles, making him indirectly responsible for the shoot-down; it's that his officers are directly responsible, either by training the separatist shooters or by being the shooters themselves.

That doesn't mean, as some are wailing, that Putin or the shooter is a "mass murderer" or a "war criminal." Nobody believes that the crew manning the SA-11 in eastern Ukraine meant to shoot down the Boeing 777. Whether because of human error, mechanical error, or the "fog of war" in its manifold layers, these things happen when civilians wander into (or over) a battlefield, usually through no fault of their own.

However, precisely because of this risk, Putin bears the blame for the disaster, in that he created the setting that made it possible. He contrived the separatist rebellion, and he converted eastern Ukraine into the sort of battlefield where these things happen. That would be the case, even if his men didn't then directly cause the shoot-down to happen.

In other words, from a policy angle, the significance of the downed aircraft is that it reveals Russia as not merely a supplier but a combatant on the side of the separatists — and thus in violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. [my emphasis]
Putin is responsible, in Kaplan's telling, because "his officers are directly responsible, either by training the separatist shooters or by being the shooters themselves."

I realize that much of international relations is based on the principle of doing unto other what you would not want them to do to you (but they are also doing or trying to do). And hypocrisy is a more integral part of international politics than domestic.

But this should be something policymakers, Members of Congress and the voters keep in mind when considering those clover covert interventions. Arming rebel groups involves real risk. It isn't like balancing weights on a scale or a see-saw. The rebels can and often do take actions their sponsors would have preferred they avoid.

And if training rebels makes the state providing the training fully responsible for their bad acts like Kaplan is arguing here for Russia, well, Americans should really give up the whiny question, "Why do they hate us?" The US military and intelligence agencies provide various kinds of training for military forces around the world. For that matter, so do US weapons manufacturers and mercenary companies. Even a thick coating of hypocrisy and cynicism should make us cautious about pinning direct blame on the Russian government for acts of rebel forces they sponsor.

Politics is politics, as a famous Georgian political leader once said (Joe Stalin not long before he signed the "Hitler-Stalin Pact," aka, the German-Soviet Nonagression Pact).

But some definition caution is called for here, especially since Russian has a strong perceived national security interest in the area and the US and NATO have none to speak of even irritating Russia.

And according the the AP report by Ken Dilanian, U.S. Officials: No Evidence Of Direct Russian Link To Malaysia Plane Crash Huffington Post 07/22/2014, the Obama Administration does seem to be using some caution in pinning blame, at the same time they are trying to blame the Russians.

Jim White has a real point in Kerry Castigates Putin For Using US Strategy of Training, Arming Rebels Emptywheel 07/21/2014:

... there is reason for optimism among those of us who favor diplomacy over violence in the successful removal and ongoing destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than the missile strikes the US had been planning and in the remaining strong possibility of a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear technology issue instead of a war to destroy the technology. I illustrated that point by mentioning the tragic downing of MH17 and how that demonstrated the folly of training and arming rebel groups that often veer into extremist actions that result in atrocities. That point ties to the mad push to arm Syria’s rebels with the shorter range MANPAD antiaircraft missiles even though they are less powerful than the Buk missile that took down MH17. As I noted, will Syrian “moderates” promise us never to take the MANPADS to a site where civilian aircraft are within range, and would there be any reason to believe such a promise?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The new BRICS development bank: new challenge to the IMF/Washington Consensus

The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) last week announced they were setting up a new development bank that would provide an alternative source to the IMF for development loans.

Joe Stiglitz discusses it in this Democracy Now! report, Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz Hails New BRICS Bank Challenging U.S.-Dominated World Bank & IMF 07/17/2014. Stiglitz says this "reflects a fundamental change in global economic and political power."

The YouTube summary of this reports says:

A group of five countries have launched their own development bank to challenge the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Leaders from the so-called BRICS countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- unveiled the New Development Bank at a summit in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza. The bank will be headquartered in Shanghai. Together, BRICS countries account for 25 percent of global GDP and 40 percent of the world's population. To discuss this development, we are joined by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University and the World Bank's former chief economist. "It's very important in many ways," Stiglitz says of the New Development Bank's founding. "This is adding to the flow of money that will go to finance infrastructure, adaptation to climate change -- all the needs that are so evident in the poorest countries. It [also] reflects a fundamental change in global economic and political power. The BRICS countries today are richer than the advanced countries were when the World Bank and the IMF were founded. We're in a different world -- but the old institutions haven't kept up."
Here are a couple of reports from The Real News.

Is the New BRICS Bank a Challenge to US Global Financial Power? 07/18/2014 features a debate between a heterodox economist and a more-or-less dogmatic left thinker:

Leo Panitch in that interview argues that the new BRICS efforts are just another variation on neoliberal economics. He cites the example of the Bank of the South, which in his description was made ineffective by Brazil's insistence on it being "a very conventional development bank."

Michael Hudson of the University of Missouri-Kansas City considers it far more significant. I didn't find Panitch's criticism convincing just because it isn't so clear to me. Hudson stresses the significance of the aspect of independence from US financial hegemony in the new BRICS effort. Panitch seems to be saying that because the BRICS isn't an anti-capitalist bloc of nations, it's not that significant. Hudson's stress on the independence aspect seems to me to be the better measure of the significance of this development.

Panitch even says demands at around 14:40 that Hudson not "try to turn Putin and his cronies into the vanguard of a new socialist society," which is not something Hudson or anyone else I know of is arguing about the BRICS and the new development bank. (See Stiglitz' discussion above.) I'm fond of utopian criticism when it's done right. But Panitch really seems to be arguing that if this is not some explicit and pure vision of whatever brand of socialism he favors, it has no real importance.

Actually, a break from the neoliberal international system on things like capital controls can be vital in enabling a country to pursue Keynesian, pro-labor policies, as we see in Argentina. And that is extremely important. That would presumably be especially so for anyone who wants to see a society that fits into the classical socialist vision, as Panitch seems to. But the truth is that some leftwing intellectuals have carved out niches for themselves as more-or-less permanent cranks to the point they can be entertaining but often falls into a lazy and sterile this-isn't-perfect-so-why-should-I-care type of analysis.

At just after 12:30, Hudson brings the conflict between Argentina and the Nixon-appointed zombie judge Thomas Griega into the conversation.

Here's another Real News video emphasizing the neoliberal practices that can be found among the BRICS, BRICS: Progressive Rhetoric, Neoliberal Practice 07/19/2014:

Mario Osava reports for Inter Press Service on the disappointment of some activists over the new bank in International Reform Activists Dissatisfied by BRICS Bank 07/22/2014:

The creation of BRICS' (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) own financial institutions was "a disappointment" for activists from the five countries, meeting in this northeastern Brazilian city after the group’s leaders concluded their sixth annual summit here.

The New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), launched Tuesday Jul. 15 at the summit in the northeastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza, represent progress "from United States unilateralism to multilateralism," said Graciela Rodriguez, of the Brazilian Network for the Integration of Peoples (REBRIP).
I'm more inclined initially to see this as a hopeful, progressive development in the world.

Time will tell. Time and the actual performance of the NDB and CRA.

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Richard Eskow on Netroots Nation 2014

Richard Eskow of the Campaign for America's Future has an account of Snakes and Ladders at Netroots Nation 07/21/2014, his report on the Netroots Nation 2014 convention. (Full disclosure: I was a part of one of those table conversations he mentions.)


Monday, July 21, 2014

Argentina and the BRICS

Argentina was invited to the recent BRICS meeting that announced a new development bank, which is actually called the New Development Bank (NDB). As Fabiana Frayssinet notes in Argentina Once More on the Map, Invited by BRICS Inter Press Service 06/18/2014, this could mean that the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) might have to be changed to "BRICSA, ABRICS or BRICAS, if Argentina is admitted."

The Buenos Aires Herald reports that Argentine President Cristina Fernández used the opportunity of the BRICS meetings to state her position in defiance of Nixon-appointed zombie judge Thomas Griesa that is trying to push Argentina into bankruptcy at the end of this month (Default by default 07/21/2014):

There her tone was not so much that Argentina would not pay as that Argentina had already paid (remitting the corresponding deposit to New York at the end of last month, which was immediately frozen by Manhattan judge Thomas Griesa) — she further argued that the existing 2005 and 2010 bond swaps favoured holdout creditors because even a starting 70 percent haircut would later permit them profits trebling the outlay on debt bought at junk bond levels of 10 percent. CFK also seemed to assume that there could be no default without one being declared by the government in question and she herself had no intention of taking such a step herself, ergo no chance of default. The substance of this speech hardly differed from her Flag Day declaration of a willingness to "pay 100 percent of bondholders," a pledge prompting the market optimism until recently, but the change of tone has prompted uncertainty.
There is another hearing before the Nixon zombie judge on July 22.

A Mexican economist uses the Argentine conflict with the Nixon zombie judge to illustrate the need for institutions like the NDB (reported by Mario Osava, International Reform Activists Dissatisfied by BRICS Bank Inter Press Service 07/22/2014):

“We want an international system that serves the majority, not just the seven most powerful countries (the Group of Seven),” that does not depend on the dollar and that has an international arbitration tribunal for financial controversies, said Oscar Ugarteche, an economics researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

"It is unacceptable that a district court judge in New York should put a country at risk," he told IPS, referring to the June ruling of the U.S. justice system in favour of holdouts ("vulture funds") in their dispute with Argentina, which could force another suspension of payments.

"We need international financial law," similar to existing trade law, and an end to the dominance of the dollar in exchange transactions, which enables serious injustice against nations and persons, like embargoes on payments and income in the United States, he said.

"Existing international institutions do not work," and the proof of this is that they have still not overcome the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, said the Mexican researcher.

Major powers like the United States and Japan have unsustainable debt and fiscal deficits, yet are not harassed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in contrast to the treatment meted out to less powerful nations, particularly in the developing South.
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Ukraine: asking the right questions - or not

I don't have any particular insight on the Ukrainian situation.

As Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund put it in a panel at Netroots Nations this past Saturday, we - the US, NATO - do not have any vital security interest in Ukraine.

Therefore, going to war over Ukraine is highly unlikely. Of course, the bold Maverick McCain is warmongering over it. (Also, the sun rose in the east this morning.)

Still, Western miscalculations could cause big problems. And since the neocons are particularly interested in provoking a more belligerent US stance toward Russia, we all need to be concerned about bad actors on Our Side doing stupid and unnecessary things.

For pretty obvious reasons, no one seems to be taking credit for the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.

But there also doesn't seem to be any clear evidence of who was behind the shootdown or why. And as horrible as the incident is, it doesn't change the basic stakes for the US and Russia. And Russia clearly perceives itself has having a much greater security stake in Ukraine than the US has.

Investigative reporter Robert Perry and other writers at his Consortium News site have been asking questions that the mainstream press probably needs to be asking more urgently. And almost certainly won't. In What Did US Spy Satellites See in Ukraine? 07/20/2014, Perry observes:

The dog-not-barking question on the catastrophe over Ukraine is: what did the U.S. surveillance satellite imagery show? It’s hard to believe that – with the attention that U.S. intelligence has concentrated on eastern Ukraine for the past half year that the alleged trucking of several large Buk anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia to Ukraine and then back to Russia didn't show up somewhere.

Yes, there are limitations to what U.S. spy satellites can see. But the Buk missiles are about 16 feet long and they are usually mounted on trucks or tanks. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 also went down during the afternoon, not at night, meaning the missile battery was not concealed by darkness.
With the Pentagon busily collecting bizillobytes of our personal communications data via the NSA, maybe they were too busy to be looking at missiles in Ukraine.

And our intelligence agencies have been known to miss important facts in the past. Hard to believe, I know. But they have surely corrected that problem by now!

More seriously, it's a legitimate question. If the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon claim super-competence, why should we not demand this kind of answers and consistent accountability on such things?

After the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and the almost-war with Syria - not to mention many other cautionary examples just from American history - skepticism about claims that may lead to war or to aggressive policies that heighten the risk of war unnecessarily is certainly in order. Although I doubt the bookers for the Sunday morning news shows see it that way.

I'm particularly interested in the European response to this latest escalation in the Ukraine crisis. It's hard to see how, with the eurozone economy badly crippled by Angela Merkel's austerity economics, the EU could mount a major set of sanctions, particularly with German so dependent on Russian natural gas.

Wolfgang Münchau addresses that dependence issue in MH17 und der Konflikt mit Russland: Die fatale Ostorientierung der deutschen Wirtschaftselite Spiegel Online 21.07.2014. He criticizes former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for remaining on the board of Nord Stream Pipeline, 51% controlled by the Russian state-owned energy firm Gazprom. I've expressed my own cautions about taking Schröder's comments on the Ukraine crisis in the context of his business commitments.

But in today's world, Schröder's role as a post-office corporate ho' for a Russian-controlled firm doesn't make him an accomplice to every bad act of Russian foreign policy, if that's even what we're dealing with here. Münchau seems to think it does. Or at least, that what we know about the MH14 shootdown at this point somehow morally requires Schröder's resignation from Nord Stream Pipeline.

Münchau also seems to think that the EU will press forward with sanctions. But there are sanctions and there are sanctions. The eurozone economy on the edge of deflation can't afford to take much of an actual economic hit from sanctions against Russia. He thinks the Russian economy is particular vulnerable to economic sanctions from the US and the EU due to the predominance of the dollar, the British pound and the euro in global financial transactions. But he does note that traditional trade sanctions are unlikely to be particularly effective against Russia.

Münchau, somewhat paradoxically, would also welcome European sanctions against Russia in the form of reducing gas imports, because dependency on Russia for natural gas is the EU's "Achilles heel."

But that also means that Europe, and Germany in particular, would be subject to counter-sanctions by Russia to interrupt gas supplies or play all sorts of games to remain the EU how dependent they are.

Münchau calls more broadly for a change of "the fatal Eastern orientation of the German economic elite." But that really is a long-term project. And part of the value of deeper integration of the European and Russian economies is that it creates pressure on both sides to avoid war with each other. It would be easy to overstate that potential. After all, the various European participants in the First World War had a high degree of economic interdependence. But still, building a more peaceful world through greater integration of the international economy has been a key concept of the post-Cold War Western policies.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Netroots Nation 2014

I just got back from Netroots Nation 2014. It got a lot out of the conference and had fun, too.

I can't necessarily say I had as much fund as Marcy Wheeler and the rest of the Emptywheel crowd did. (Leaving Motown 07/20/2014) But I enjoyed it.

Getting to see old friends and make new ones is the best part of the conference. And it's good to see political leaders like Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Howard Dean speaking live and experiencing the audience reaction first hand.

I wrote briefly about Biden's speech in the previous post.

Warren's speech Friday morning was better attended than Biden's, no doubt because there were so many schedule conflicts with Biden's speech. He scheduled relatively late and then was about an hour late, he said because he was dealing with the Ukraine crisis. This is the video of Biden's speech, Sen. Elizabeth Warren at @Netroots_Nation|#NN14

But Warren is a longtime netroots favorite. And I would guess there were far more people at that convention who would prefer her as the Democratic candidate over Biden. And she was well-received, giving a solidly progressive speech that focused on inequality. Lesley Clark reports on her speech for McClatchy in Sen. Elizabeth Warren to liberals: I’m fighting back 07/18/2014. Here's the video, Sen. Elizabeth Warren at @Netroots_Nation|#NN14

She had some enthusiastic supporters at the convention:

But Biden actually got more enthusiastic moments of applause than Warren did. He knew he would be compared to Warren at this convention, and he clearly wanted to appeal to the crowd there. So he threw in a number of applause lines that would appeal to a progressive audience. Also, the expectations for Biden were presumably lower. Clark reports on Biden's speech in Biden gets credit for pushing Obama on gay marriage 07/17/2014. And his appearance seems to confirm Clark's earlier suggestion in Biden making pitch to liberals 07/15/2014, "Biden's debut at the annual Netroots Nation comes as the vice president has made a number of moves that could better position himself with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, if he decides to make a third run for the presidency."

Here's the video of Biden's speech, Vice President Joe Biden at @Netroots_Nation 2014|#NN14:

I also attended panels featuring Russian reporters on practicing journalism in Russia; debunking fake science, i.e., Republican anti-science ideology; the successful campaign for Obama to pick Janet Yellin over Larry Summers to be Fed Chair; immigration reform; the school-to-prison pipeline; and, progressive national security priorities. It was a very informative set of sessions.

The Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina Moral Mondays was Friday's evening speaker. Here's the video:

He produced probably the most memorable line of the convention, using an analogy about how snakes don't go higher than a certain point on a mountain, the point known as the "snakeline." He said what we need to do in American politics is to "go above the snakeline." By Saturday, some people had buttons that said, Rise Above The Snakeline. That part starts around 1:03:00 in the video.

Some public controversy has surfaced about the 2015 Netroots Nation plans. Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos is objecting to the Phoenix location for next year because of Arizona's anti-immigrant laws. He explains in Netroots Nation is going to Arizona, Daily Kos is not 07/19/2014, "I made very clear in the wake of Arizona's passage of SB 1070 that I would not be setting foot in the state, nor spending a dime in it until the law was revoked. The law, however gutted by the courts, remains on the books, as does systemic harassment of Latinos, so my pledge still stands."

Since we're talking about Democrats and a left-leaning group, it would be surprising if there weren't some kind of schism. That's probably too strong a word for this. But it's hard not to speculate that there might be other disagreements there over priorities. But for now, we have what Markos himself is saying. His objection is particularly notable. Not only because of the prominence of Daily Kos. But also because it was Markos who started the Netroots Nation conference, which was originally called YearlyKos in 2006 and 2007.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Biden @ Netroots Nation #NN14

Joe Biden on Thursday became the first sitting Vice President to address a Netroots Nation convention. Dick Cheney never showed up.

Given Biden's current position as a part of the Obama Administration and as a potential 2016 Presidential candidate, it's hard to judge the content of one of his speeches without referring to those two roles.

His speech Thursday was not one to say, Obama's program is great, so get out there and help the Party in the midterm elections ! This was a speech to say: If you want somebody to fight for progressive values, I'm your guy!

In fact, some of the Democratic candidates in Michigan will probably be dismayed that he didn't have more to say about the 2014 elections.

But Biden can give a real Democratic campaign speech when he puts his mind to it.

And he didn't promise Bipartisanship or talk about how important it is to "reach across the aisle".

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Post-World Cup politics and propaganda

Business Insider seems to have the hots for the vulture funds that are trying to crash the world bond market over defaulted Argentine debt in cahoots with Nixon-appointed federal zombie judge Thomas Griesa.

But this is just dumb as dirt: Linette Lopez, Argentina's President Welcomed Her Country's Losing World Cup Team Home In The Coldest Way Imaginable 07/16/2014. Linette, if you lose your gig writing trash for Business Insider, you can probably go on wingnut welfare at the National Endowment for Democracy or some other neocon outfit that looks for foreign governments to destabilize for the convenience and profit of outfits like the ones the Nixon zombie judge is in bed with over the Argentine debt.

Luis Bruschtein reports the actual news from Argentine President Cristina Fernández in “Se gana cuando se juega en equipo” Página/12 15.07.2014. Thanks to that fool Nixon zombie judge Griesa, Argentina is looking at the real possibility of another default on its national debt in two weeks. To a frivolous twit like Linette Lopez, that's cause for FOX News-level dishonest snark.

But to the actual President of Argentina, it was an occasion to be sober in congratulating her country's second-place team and staging a welcoming event at the Ezeiza airport. She acknowledged, jokingly it seems to me, her own well-known lack of interest in soccer as a sport, while using the occasional to praise the exemplary teamwork of the players, holding it up as an example for national solidarity among Argentinians facing difficult national challenges and expressing her "immense pride" in the team and its performance. This is a Spanish-language news report on the reception, Visión 7 - Orgullo nacional por la Selección TV Pública argentina 15.07.2014:

Meanwhile, in Germany the World Cup winning team managed to show bad sportsmanship by being dickheads, singing a popular soccer song "So gehen die Gauchos" that may not be obnoxious in itself but presumably any sentient adult could understand in the context would look like they were denigrating the second-place Argentinian team. Here's a YouTube video of it, So gehen die Gauchos, die Gauchos, die gehen so. So gehen die Deutschen, die Deutschen, die gehen so 07/15/2014 (embedding not available on this one). The lines mean, "This is how the gauchos walk, this is how the Germans walk." This version has embedding available as of this writing, So gehen die Deutschen (Gauchos) 07/15/2014:

TV Pública argentina reports on the homecoming celebration in Germany, Visión 7 - Violencia y burlas en el festejo alemán 16.07.2014:

Maybe Linette Lopez would have been more impressed with Cristina's presentation if she had asked the team to stage a dance and sing, "This is how dumb the Germans are, the Germans are this dumb." But Lopez is just a hack.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Evolution and social sexuality

Articles about what makes people attractive to potential sexual and/or life partners are good click-bait.

(Update 07/16/2014: post edited for grammar and clarity.)

Salon features one by Jesse Bering called The secret to successful flirting 07/12/2014. It appeared in his Scientific American blog as Voices Carry (Signals of Your Sexual Intent and Reproductive Value) 07/10/2014, which is a more descriptive title for the article's content.

The Scientific American logo always adds weight, and he writes for them. Although this following piece by the same author is clearly tagged as an opinion piece that is the writer's own: Jesse Bering, A Good Man is Hard to Find, So Here’s an (Evolutionary) Tip 07/15/2014. And seeing that he's written a book called Perv (?!) adds another cautionary note.

While I certainly think that questions of sex and sexual attraction play an huge role in society, Bering's approach strikes me as confusing biological, evolutionary and social factors. For instance, in the "Voices Carry" piece he's discussing research on how men's and women's voices modulate when talking to each other:

So how do Leongómez and his co-authors interpret this puzzling effect? Why, from an evolutionary perspective, of course. "Producing a low pitch at some point during an interaction [with an attractive female] might provide sufficient indication of physical masculinity while freeing men to 'play' with their pitch ... because low-pitched masculine voices might be associated with aggression, such modulation could potentially enable men to signal both their masculinity and lack of threat simultaneously." In other words, "Hey, sexy lady, hear this? Hear how I’m sounding right now? That's right: I'm a virile, testosterone-fuelled male specimen of our species but, cross my heart, I'll be sweet to you ... and our future offspring." And indeed, a group of naïve female listeners asked to judge the verbal recordings of male wooers found those with the most significant pitch variability the most attractive.
This has the virtue of sounding empirical and based on hard-nosed science.

But there are actually a lot of assumptions at work. For instance, in the "evolutionary perspective," did low pitches signal "physical masculinity" for, oh, the last 300,000 years in the ancestry of homo sapiens? Did homo sapiens and our ancestors for the last million years live in conditions where the females were in a position to meaningfully choose their preferred mate? If not, just how did these preferences evolve? And are we talking about biological evolution here or social evolution?

Part of me wonders if I should be griping about this. Because in these days of the Republican Party's anti-science poliical-religious jihad, I wonder if I shouldn't just be glad to see someone talking in a context that accepts evolution as a real process in history and biology.

But this kind of approach raises red flags for me in several ways. One is that whenever I see someone explaining romantic interactions between men and women in this way, I wonder if I'm not looking at some version of "evolutionary psychology", aka, "sociobiology", aka, Social Darwinism.

Also, one of the practical problems with understanding evolution, a key concept in science, is that there's a great temptation in describing evolution, especially in popular presentations, to resort to language suggesting teleology or the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Or to talk about evolution as a conscious agent. As in: this fish developed this characteristic to be able to evade predators. Which raises the obvious question, how did the fish's ancestors evade predators before that? It's important to recognize that successful evolution means that a given species or sub-species grouping was able to survive and reproduce. It doesn't mean that every aspect of the species is the best conceivable adaptation. It's that it was advantageous enough, without features that were so disadvantageous that it prevents survival and reproduction. It certainly doesn't mean that adaptations were in some way designed to maximize an individual's advantage in 2014 forms of family and sexual practices.

So when Bering describes the voice modulation patterns he's discussing as a way for the male of the species to say, "Hey, sexy lady, hear this? Hear how I'm sounding right now? That's right: I'm a virile, testosterone-fuelled male specimen of our species but, cross my heart, I'll be sweet to you ... and our future offspring," I have to wonder if there aren't a few too many corners being cut in the description! Among other things, he seems to be trying awfully hard to give the piece a how-to-pick-up-chicks sound. Which Salon's headline writer also seems to have picked up on.

He also be seems to be balancing a lot of speculation on top of a fairly limited finding. Like presumably most readers of the article, I haven't checked the research he's citing. But he seems to be taking an interesting data point, a finding that men's voice patters show certain modulations in the presence of a woman they find attractive, and speculating fairly freely about what it might imply about sexual evolution. And while the flirtation angle is click-bait fun, the explanation doesn't work without a lot of other findings beyond even confirmation by other similar studies.

For instance, without validating a similar pattern in various languages and numerous cultures and different courtship patterns, it couldn't be held to be a general features of homo sapien evolution. The study he referenced was in English and Czech, which are at least from two separate language groups. And can such a pattern be confirmed over time, through literature or decades of "talkie" movies? Or could it be some effect of dramatic patterns in movies or voice modulations in widely-shared popular music? The fact that a similar voice modulation pattern was found in some (apparently heterosexual) women when speaking to certain other women would seem to raise a bigger question about the mate-selection interpretation in male-female interactions than Bering's article acknowledges.

The "Good Man" post is also about mate selection, in this case reporting on a study on how women's preferences in men are shaped by other women's ideas of which men are desirable. This one is less interesting than the voice-modulation one. Gee, people are influenced by how their peers react to the opposite sex? Who could have guessed?

But I also have to wonder on this one if Bering isn't too quick to read social assumptions back into millennia of biological evolution:

A final caveat is that female mate copying didn't seem to play a role for women with high "self-perceived mate value" (or "SPMV"). Women who are convinced—wrongly or rightly—that they're especially hot aren't so easily swayed by other women's views of a man when rating that man’s desirability. "Women with high mate value may be less likely to copy the choices of other women," speculate the authors, "if those women have lower mate values than themselves, and thus lower standards."

Meow. That sounds a bit harsh, but natural selection can be that way, I suppose.
The value of this speculation is, of course, heavily dependent on how an "SPMV" woman is defined. Does this mean that a narcissistic woman will put more effort into developing a personal appearance and other attributes to develop a high SPMV and her narcissism makes her pay less attention to the opinions of her peers? Does it mean a woman who's too smug (the "self-perceived" part) is more prone to making sloppier choices in mates because she's not gathering the right social intelligence from other women? Or does it mean that a self-confident woman with a rich array of social experiences will come to perceive herself as high-SPMV and also make her more (justifiably) confident of her own perceptions of potential mates so that she doesn't need to rely so much on her friends' superficial assumptions?

So many evolutionary questions, so little time!

And as long as we're looking at sex-and-science click bait, Scientific American also provides, Is Spring Fever Real? – Instant Egghead #68 07/28/2014:


Monday, July 14, 2014

Religion, the Christian Right and Republican Party/Tea Party politics

Digby flags a Daily Beast article by Jack Schwartz The Tea Party Isn’t a Political Movement, It's a Religious One 07/13/2014, in which he writes:

But when religion is thrown into the mix, all that is lost. Religion here doesn't mean theology but a distinct belief system which, in totality, provides basic answers regarding how to live one's life, how society should function, how to deal with social and political issues, what is right and wrong, who should lead us, and who should not. It does so in ways that fulfill deep-seated emotional needs that, at their profoundest level, are devotional. Given the confusions of a secular world being rapidly transformed by technology, demography, and globalization, this movement has assumed a spiritual aspect whose adepts have undergone a religious experience which, if not in name, then in virtually every other aspect, can be considered a faith. [my emphasis]
Digby notes - maybe with a touch of sarcasm? - "I do think the fact that so many of them are also members of the Christian Right may have something to do with this."

Actually, the phenomenon he's describing has mostly to do with the Christian Right. The Republican Party has effectively adopted a theocratic ideology and merged religion with politics. I do think religion can and should inform politics and vice versa.

But merging religion and partisan politics means that if you make a deal on say, taxes or gun proliferation, that you're not just making the best deal you could get and working a set of tradeoffs. It means you're betraying God Almighty!

I actually don't like the way he frames the article. For one thing, you don't need to argue that a social phenomenon is like religion when what you're analyzing is religion.

I would rather look at this as a question of fanaticism, which doesn't require you do define religion so very broadly as he does here. I'm not sure that religion necessary requires a belief in God(s) or even the supernatural. But defining religion as "a distinct belief system which, in totality, provides basic answers regarding how to live one's life" is definitely too broad a definition. A system of ethics, a club, a political doctrine, a secular philosophy can all serve that purpose without a kind of belief in God or a world beyond the material one or the kinds of rituals we typically associate with religion.

With the Christian Right and the five conservative Catholic guys on the Supreme Court who gave us the Hobby Lobby decision, I would prefer to keep definitions of religion more narrow than the one he gives. After all, segregationist thinking provides "a distinct belief system which, in totality, provides basic answers regarding how to live one's life." If we define that as religion, white folks wouldn't even have to claim a church affiliation or even claim a faith in God to say serving African-American customers was against their "religion."

Also, this is a comment that would be hard to defend: "To question the validity of Moses parting the Red Sea or the Virgin Birth or Mohammed ascending to heaven on a flying horse is to confront the basis of a believer's deepest values."

It's true that the Virgin Birth is mentioned in the Nicene Creed, which the Catholic Church and almost all Protestant churches theoretically claim as a basic statement of the faith. But I doubt most non-fundamentalist Christians would thing that was an essential part of "the basis of a believer's deepest values."

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