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Debtors’ Prison & Ye Austerity Plan

Outside a Debtors' Prison in England
Outside a Debtors' Prison in England

You’ve probably heard of debtors’ prison, a prison where people who hadn’t paid their debts could be kept under lock and key until they paid their debt or got somebody else to pay for them. It was a dreadful system. Charles Dickens, whose father was housed in a debtors’ prison for a while, wrote eloquently about it.

We had similar prisons in this country until around 1831 when the United States government abolished imprisonment for debts owed to the federal government, and most states soon dropped the practice too. To imprison somebody for failing to pay a debt is fundamentally crazy – OK, let’s say it’s just fundamentally counterproductive – because it deprives the debtor of the ability to earn the money to pay off his or her debts.

What brings debtors’ prisons to mind in these paragraphs is the way debtor nations are treated these days. It’s called austerity. It’s equally counterproductive – or, in a simpler word, crazy.

A good example of the craziness is what’s happening to Greece. Greece has got some big, bad debts and hasn’t got the money to pay them. Now the grand institutions that can loan Greece money aren’t throwing the nation into debtor’s prison. But they are demanding ball-and-chain austerity. They won’t loan Greece anymore money unless that nation continues to fire thousands of state workers, cut the wages of thousands and thousands of others, drastically reduce workers’ benefits and slash their pensions.  Of course, when you do that to a nation, the entire economy declines, more and more people loose their jobs or have to take dramatic pay cuts. That’s what’s happening in Greece today.

As every taxpayer knows, the way a nation gets money to pay its debts is by taxing its citizens, the ones who are actually making money. But when the economy sinks and people earn much less or nothing at all, the tax revenue plunges. In other words, as the institutions that loan money to Greece insist on these austerity programs, the Greeks are less and less able to pay off their debts.

Republicans, who haven’t shown a deep grasp of economics over the past 100 years, are eager to have the United States immediately “put its fiscal house in order” and “cut the deficit.” This means slashing government payrolls and cutting or eliminating government programs – except those for sacred national defense, of course. But because we have a Democrat in the White House and because Democrats control Senate, Republican suitors haven’t been able to completely have their way with the economy.

Interestingly, the conservatives did win big in England and they immediately imposed an austerity budget on their fellow subjects. They believe it’s imperative that England immediately “put its fiscal house in order” and “cut the deficit.” As a result, the country has slid down and backward economically. But England, despite its grim stagnation, isn’t in the desperate situation that Greece is in. Greece is in the new version of debtors’ prison.



The Super Bowl and Socialism

Here’s a dazzling video which makes a true point about the Super Bowl, economics and US politics — and does it in almost no time flat. The text comes from the mind of Bill Maher and is typical of his social and economic insights, his unfettered speech, and his humor. Maher’s short essay was animated from the audio recording of  The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass. It was originally performed on “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

Bill Maher – Irritable Bowl Syndrome from Fraser Davidson on Vimeo.

Forget 1984, Think 2015

Security cameraYou’re probably aware that as you drive through the city certain cameras, often mounted overhead at cross streets, record your car’s plate number and, in many instances, they record your face as well. And as you or park in a parking garage or enter a shop, security cameras continue to photograph you. And maybe you’re aware that if you walk with your cell phone on, your location is being pinpointed to within fifteen feet.

Maybe, like most people, you do feel a little uncomfortable about being kept under watch, but you shrug it off because you’re just one individual in a city of thousands or millions and they can’t keep track of every single one of us all the time. I mean, sure, they have the technology to listen to our phone conversations and the technology to photograph us as we move around, but how can they store that ocean of information? Besides, the cost of storing so much data would break the bank.

And you’re right. At least for three more years. But you do remember George Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother. Back in 1984, it cost about $85,000 to store a gigabyte of data. Today it costs about five cents. That means it costs about 17 cents to store all the phone calls made by an individual over the course of a year. But the cost of storage is falling and by 2015 it will cost under 2 cents.

Cameras produce photos and photos have lots of pixels and that means a security camera generates a mountain of data. On the other hand, your phone, GPS and Wi-Fi connection give away your location but that information requires comparatively few ones and zeros. The data identifying the location of each of a million people every five minutes, 24 hours a day for a year, can be stored in 1,000 gigabytes. That would cost around $50 today.

It costs more to store all those pixels from all those cameras, but governments can afford it. In China,  a government “safety” project will use around 500,000 video cameras to keep watch in the city of Chongqing which has a population of 12 million — that’s one video camera for every 24 people.  Right now, it’s expensive to store that much high-quality video and they’ll have to use lower quality images. But in a few years, say by 2020, they’ll be able to store a year’s worth of high-quality video movies of every one of those 12 million people for about 25 cents per person.

These numbers come from a very interesting report produced by John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies and in the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. He is also professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. You may want to read the full report ; you’ll find it well documented. Professor Villasenor’s report is phrased in terms of how much it would cost a repressive regime, such as that in Iran, to keep a close watch on each of its citizens. Fortunately, we live in an open society where such issues as government surveillance and individual privacy are vigorously debated. Or, maybe we should say, ought to be vigorously debated.

How To Tell The Difference Between Football And Political Primary Campaigns

Tom Brady, QB New England Patriots
Tom Brady, a football player

If you like to keep score, the weekend of January 21 and 22 was exciting. The New England Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23 to 20, the New York Giants defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 20 to 17, and Newt Gingrich defeated Mitt Romey, 40.4 to 27.8.

Eli Manning, QB New York Giants
Eli Manning, another football player

The big difference between those hard-fought football games and our crappy political primary contests is that in a football game you’re not allowed to  bamboozle and lie your way to victory or use wild money from in-your-pocket millionaire contributors to ambush your opponents. On the football field, when you’re seen breaking the rules, you’re penalized by referees who are as objective as God permits humans to be. In politics, anything less than a felony

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney, another politician

is considered OK, so long as it hauls in voters.

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich, yet another politician

One of the nice things about football is that the actual running, blocking, grunting players are the winners and losers,  depending on how well they do on the field. The spectators — that’s most of us — are on the sidelines, cheering. We get to go home in good health when it’s over.  In politics, the politicians play the game but we’re the ones who get banged up, mangled, disabled and sometimes ruined by what they do.

We’ve damn well exhausted this sports/politics metaphor. We apologize  and will leave it alone now.

What Goes Around…

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney has complained, rightly, about being quoted out of context, of having what he said twisted around so it comes out wholly different from what his words actually meant.  Romney has forgotten that just a few weeks ago he quite carefully took Obama’s words out of context and twisted them around in order to misquote the President.

In this most recent incident, Romney’s Republican opponents jumped on him for having said, “I like being able to fire people.” What he said was in answer to a question on health care, and he replied that he liked the option of choosing among competing health insurance companies. “I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them,” Romney said. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.

Of course, when Romeny distorted Obama’s words it was for the high-minded purpose of making a political point — at least that was the excuse offered by his campaign office. Romney’s ad uses an audio of Obama campaigning in New Hampshire  in 2008, Obama’s  voice saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” In actual fact, in that 2008 speech it’s clear that Obama is quoting an aide to his opponent, Senator McCain. But in the 2011 ad, Romney makes the listener believe that it’s Obama who doesn’t want to discuss the economy.  [Critical Pages has a post on that event.]

In a curiously base and twisted way, Romney struck back at his Republican opponents’ out-of-context attack by blaming President Obama.  Complaining to reporters that his words had been taken out of context, Romney said, “Things can always be taken out of context, and I understand that’s what the Obama people will do.”


Was It Worth It?

Flag of the United StatesOn December 15, 2011, the United States formally ended military operations in Iraq. After almost nine years this nation was able to extricate itself from a war in which over 1.5 million American served, 30,000 were wounded, and 4,500 died. Of the Iraqi population, military and civilian, it’s estimated that over 100,000 died, and no one knows how many hundreds of thousands were wounded. As for the ultimate financial cost to the US, it’s been commonly estimated as around $1 trillion, and that’s the figure used by the New York Times.  Others believe that it’s complete cost is actually around $3 trillion. (Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, has calculated the cost — check it out, if you wish.)

The fantasy of a quick and easy war was confected by President George W. Bush and his Vice President Richard Cheney along with a group of civilian neo-conservatives who had never experienced combat, but who wanted to throw their ideological weight around. Inebriated by this country’s overwhelming military power, they had dreams of establishing a “beacon of freedom” which would magically lead other Middle Eastern countries to democracy and a commitment to free market economics.

The Iraqi military machine had been reduced to near impotence by our previous invasion and was no threat to us. Indeed, we controlled Iraq’s air space, flew missions over Iraq daily and destroyed any anti-aircraft facility that touched our aircraft with targeting radar. This was not a justifiable pre-emptive war — that’s when you strike before an immediately threatening enemy can strike at you. No, this was an optional war,  a phrase as horrible as it is bizarre.

Despite what our vice president told us, there was no dancing in Iraq’s streets when we overthrew that nation’s despotic regime, and Iraqis didn’t greet us as liberators. Nor did Iraq’s oil revenue pay for our war, as the vice president had promised. On the contrary, we kept on paying and paying and paying to rebuild the Iraq we had destroyed. Very soon we were regarded as occupiers. When we handed their country back to them on December 15 they didn’t say thank you. That was the same December 15 when we learned from our census bureau that half the people in the United States now live in poverty or are barely getting by on earnings that are classified as “low income.” All that blood and all that treasure — No, it wasn’t worth it.

The Left Bashing The Left

Dem logo face RDem logo face LJack Slack (Disclosure: that’s his name, not a pseudonym) is a writer living in Florida. When he’s not diving for sunken treasure or fashioning gold jewelry he gives some thought to politics. Right now he’s mighty annoyed at liberal Democrats and other left voices criticizing President Obama.  As  Jack says it…

I refuse to jump on the progressive bandwagon bashing Obama because he didn’t deliver 100% of his campaign promises.

As far as I’m concerned, he carried out some of the big promises of his campaign such as getting us out of Iraq, providing health care reform, and promoting alternative energy programs. In fact, he exceeded his promise to leave only 50,000 troops in Iraq; currently we have only 12,000 troops in there. On top of that, he banned permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.

Today, most Americans probably want us out of Afghanistan too, but Obama’s campaign promise was to send more troops to the conflict in Afghanistan, which he and the rest of us, at that time, thought was our only legitimate war. We may no longer like the escalation in Afghanistan, but he did what he said he would do; furthermore, he provided the US an exit strategy, one that is still on schedule.

What really infuriated me were the progressives who bashed his health care reform. This was the only president in modern history to get such a bill passed. True, it didn’t have the public option most of us wanted because he didn’t want to endanger the entire bill for it. Of course, it’s not universal health care either, but Obama never promised it would be; he said he supported universal health care, but didn’t think he could get it past Congress at this time.

What we did get was a vast and incredible improvement in US health care. For the first time in our history, insurance companies have to insure you even if you have a pre-existing condition, and they can’t  charge you a higher premium because of that condition. Millions of American women who are survivors of breast cancer are beneficiaries of this. (Disclosure: my wife is one) People who had a dermatologist remove minor sun skin-damage, such as basal cell carcinomas, can now be insured with the rest of Americans against the deadly melanoma skin cancer. (Disclosure: my ex-wife is a melanoma survivor) (more…)

Romney, Lies and Audio Tape

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney

Romney has already launched his first television ad against the President and — good grief! As has been pointed out by Democrats and Independents and anyone who cares,  the ad distorts what Obama actually said. What’s even more astonishing, Romney’s Republican confederates agree it’s a lie. They say they want it that way.

The ad uses an audio of Obama campaigning in New Hampshire  in 2008, his voice saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” In actual fact, in that 2008 speech it’s clear that Obama is quoting an aide to his opponent, Senator McCain. But in the 2011 ad, Romney makes the listener believe that it’s Obama who doesn’t want to discuss the economy.

Liar, liar! Pants on fire!Romney’s people distributed a press release admitting that the words are not Obama’s and Romney himself, in Des Moines, proudly told reporters, “There was no hidden effort on the part of our campaign. It was instead to point out that what’s sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander,” By no hidden effort Romney apparently means that since his press release  admits the distortion, there’s no hidden effort to deceive.

Having attempted to fool the public once, with the deceptive ad, his campaign now tries to fool the public a second time by saying they’re not trying to deceive.

“It was instead to point out that what’s sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander.”  That old expression is another way of saying that what’s fair for one person is fair for the other. How in the world does that apply here? Obama wasn’t putting words into McCain’s mouth. Romney is. His run for the presidency should be quite a spectacle

Pirates and the Web

Screen-shot of site protesting censorsip legislationEver hear of STOPA or PROTECTIP?  Here’s what the initials in those strange acronyms stand for:  STOPA is the U. S. House of Representatives Stop Online Piracy Act,  and PROTECTIP is the U. S. Senate’s Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. (With elephantine cleverness, the acronym says Protect IP,  meaning Protect Intellectual Property. )

Both blunderbluss bills aim to protect intellectual property — copyrights and the like — and both are directed against what the sponsors call “rogue” websites and “foreign pirates” who use the web to steal US intellectual property. That certainly a fine goal and supporters say the bills are necessary pieces of legislation, and actually, in the words of one legislator, “patriotic.”

At Critical Pages we’re strongly for protection of intellectual property rights. But we’re against these badly written pieces of misguided legislation.  The Motion Picture Association of America is for the bills, as is the Chamber of Commerce. On the other side, eBay and Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo, and Zynga are against it. Such bills would make business, domestic as well as foreign,  virtually impossible for sites that depend on user-generated material, sites such as YouTube or Tumblr. The Electric Frontier Foundation, an old and distinguished private watchdog group, is also against the bills.

As for you, while you’re surfing the web, it would put you in the position of a typical Internet user in China or Iran. Certain sites would be blocked because the government determined that they’re “rogue” sites belonging to “foreign pirates.” (more…)

Shelley and Late Autumn Weather

Now that a hard November wind is whirling the leaves about, it’s time for Shelley and his Ode to the West Wind. Percy Bysshe Shelley had a brief life, but it was so vivid with poetry, so politically radical, so sexually unrestrained, so romantic and Romantic, that he still arouses controversy among readers who know even a little about him.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley

He was born in England on August 4, 1892 and drowned in a stormy sea  off the coast of Italy on July 8, 1822, not having quite reached age 30. Shelley ran afoul of law and convention a number of times. He  wrote some great poems, many political and social pamphlets, and a number of papers which advocated atheism.  He also indulged in  sexual shenanigans, inspired loyal friendships,  and left a few ruined lives in his wake.

Technically, Ode to the West Wind is composed of five cantos in iambic pentameter and the overall rhyme scheme is terza rima – a beautiful method of linking three-line stanzas with aba, bcb, cdc, and so forth. Terza rima had been rarely used in English. It was most famously used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, that poem of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, where the number three recurs in a multitude of ways. Terza rima isn’t easy to work, and nobody has succeeded in doing a good job of translating Dante into English using his rhyme scheme. As for the meaning of Shelley’s Ode, that’s impossible to cram into a brief paragraph — yes, it’s about the weather, but much, much more as well.  Don’t sweat it. You can read a bit now and come back to it later.  OK, here’s the poem:

                      Ode to the West Wind

O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou             5
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill      10
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!     (more…)

More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.