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This is not a blogger's blog, this is a commenter's blog.
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Location: Germany

A proud member of the reality based commentosphere since 2000. You can find my two Eurocent mainly at liberal and centrist discussion threads, but also at some other surprising places. Also tweeting now, as user "graygoods".

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is America like Glenn Beck?

That's the question Bob Herbert raised today in a New York Times column. He wrote about the recent shenanigans of demagogue Glenn Beck and right wing demaguery in general, under the impression of Beck's recent distortions of MLK and the civil rights issue. Herbert is optimistic the reasonable majority will prevail, but is it really true that "America Is Better Than This"?
On the one hand, yes. On the other, no, it isn't. As I see it, from outside of the US, there's a discrepancy between the ideals of the declaration of independence and the constitution, and the daily reality in the 21st century. And, of course, real life has the upper hand.

Imho the reason behind the horrible image America (or more exactly, the USA) is presenting today is, sorry to say that, the US interpretation of freedom of speech. It simply goes too far, has degenerated into pure fundamentalism. Everything is allowed in the public discourse nowadays, no lie is too outrageous, no insult too hurtful. The idea that the freedom of one citizen ends where the rights of another person begins has been totally forgotten. And one of those rights is the dignity of a human being. Who can honestly say this dignity isn't violated, even denied, if everyody is allowed to smear another citizen in the most vile terms, even with made up accusations, without any obligation to stay with the facts at all?

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, the most prominent of the smear merchants, simply exploit this extreme interpretation of the freedom of speech to their advantage. And while they represent the most despicable variant of mud slingers, those who do it for the money, they aren't responsible for this sad development. It's been talk radio, and to a lesser degree FCC regulated TV, that pushed the limit of socially "acceptable" speech to the limits. And nowadays the internet speeds up the horrible erosion of standards of decency. But that's not an inevitable side effect of modern technology, as the different situation in other countries shows! In most of the rest of the world, libel and slander laws still are enforced, and offenders face much harsher consequences. With positive consequences for the public discouse, which is much more civil than the verbal extremism of the US!

And such personal responsiblity for statements a citizen makes in public should actually be something that reasonable people see as only natural, and not something negative. If you make outrageous remarks about another person, harming their image and creating emotional pain, of course you should face consequences if you can't support these with at least some evidence! But instead, right wing hypocrites like Dr. Laura don't see any obligation to be bound by the truth, while at the same time they complain about the thousands of other citizen, excersizing their freedom of speech in a much more respectable manner, when send notes of protest to the advertisers. It's really a crazy show of egomanical extremes to see no limits to the own speech, while dismissing the right of much more reasonable others to make their voices heard at the same time! Only in the US, as a far as I can see. In most other countries, Beck, Limbaugh and their ilk would already be bankrupt, and the companies allowing them to spread their insults, prejudices and outright lies, too.

So, sorry Mr. Herbert, but imho your column falls short in identifying the reason behind the extremism of Beck & Co. It's the freedom of speech fundamentalism that knows no bounds and has no compassion for the victims at all, that is eroding all standards of decency and creating the base for the hate mongerers! And once again the USA are No. 1, at least in this regard, because too many reasonable people there support the right of Beck and other demagogues to smear, insult, and distort the truth. Nobody cares about the collateral damage in form of those who fall victim to this right wing smear machine, often good citizen who become target of a hate campaign simply because they supported important issues like the health care reform. Their pain seems to be much less important than the demagogues' unlimited rright of freedom of speech. America should be better than this, but, no, it isn't!

(based on a comment to Bob Herbert's NYT column)

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Krugman hit by boomerang

In a blog post today, Krugman tries to refute commenters who pointed to Germany's positive economical performance as alleged evidence for the advantages of reducing the deficit. Sadly, the good Prof seeked refuge to onesidedly using a GDP growth chart as a way to fight back, deliberately omitting the unemployment numbers which show a totally different picture. Just more of his usual badmouthing of Germany. He should have pointed to all the differences between Germany and the US instead, and argued that America can't simply copy single policies, but would have to copy the whole system to get into the same situation. That would have been more fair towards us, and the better argument, too. However, I already wrote about this, and I want to focus on another point now.

And that is that it actually was Krugman who played a most prominent role in providing this ammunition for the austerity advocates! Since the start of the year, he has been picking on Germany, complaining about us not doing enough for stimulus, and painting a picture of doom and gloom about the consequences of our (mostly cosmetic) austerity measures. During all those months, his readers waited for the bad news from Germany to show up in the headlines. But all they found were reports about a positive development month after month after month. Can he honestly blame them now for believing that apparently the rebound can be accomplished without much stimulus, and despite austerity policies? He distorted the situation in Germany for months, and now this turned out to be a boomerang that came back to hit him. Serves him well!

Really, with a lot of respect (and I'm still a fan), but Krugman's picking on Germany was unfair, misguided and strategically wrong. During the time he wasted trying to talk our folks into more of a stimulus, when the development showed them this wasn't necessary, the situation in the US deteriorated. I know, hindsight is 20/20, but didn't he ever have second thoughts that he may be flogging the wrong a**, uh, donkey? D'oh.

(based on a comment at Krugman's blog)

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hack turns voting machine into PacMan Arcade

Voting machine critics are still coming up with new ideas about how to inform the public about the very real dangers with this technology. And while the media has shamefully neglected the hot topic so far, I hope this stunt will finally make the headlines:

This is your Sequoia touch-screen voting machine....

This is your Sequoia touch-screen voting machine with Pac-Man hacked onto it without disturbing any of the "tamper-evident" seals supposedly meant to protect it from hackers...

Any questions?...

This should reach the broad public, making everybody aware that touch screen voting can't be trusted! However, for leaving a stronger impression, another video would be great, using humor for a more widespread "viral" distribution. How about this possible script:

Typical polling station scenery. Background music - the Boss, "Born in the USA". Title says "This could happen at YOUR polling station!". A very American looking guy with a US flag on his T-shirt, named Avery Joe Sixpack, announces he wants to vote. When he moves towards the booth, he suddenly freezes and shouts: "What the BEEP"! Camera moves and shows PacMan running on the voting machine. Music blending into PacMan sounds.

Fading into a picture with the voting machine showing the usual voting screen. Big title: "Earlier this morning". Music from "Pink Panther". Conspicious looking guy, obviously disguised with big sunglasses, a weird wig and a ridiculous false moustache sneaks into the booth and closes the curtain. Muffled swearing "damn" when a compact flash card and a screwdriver fall to the ground. A hand picks the items up. New big title says: "REAL hack of a REAL voting machine happening now!" Stop clock shows up, counting seconds, movie goes into fast forward. Camera shows his feet moving, indicating he's doing something mysterious with the machine. X minutes and y seconds later on the clock, the man leaves the booth, with PacMan running on the screen in the background.

While showing a close up of PacMan running on demo mode, big title: "What if that guy had been up to no good?". Fading back into the first scene, showing Avery Joe entering the booth with the usual voting screen on the machine. Camera close up, showing Joe is trying to vote for the next president, selections are Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and Adolf Stalin. Music "Hail to the Chief".Joe taps on, say, Reagan, but for a splitsecond, the machine highlights the Adolf Stalin selection, showing then the message "Vote recorded". Big title: "REAL hack of a REAL voting machine tampering the vote!".

Fading into a picture of a newspapers stand. The melody turns into a dark mood, with marching steps as the bass line. Papers show variations of the headline "Adolf Stalin elected!" Big title: "Don't let it come to this! Don't vote on touch screen machines. Call your representative and demand secure voting!" Fading into a close up of a paper ballot, Avery Joe's hand is shown making a big cross at "secure voting, paper ballots".


(based on a comment at the BradBlog)

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Should the US follow the German "austerity" course?

That question came up in a comment to another Krugman column ridiculing the allegedly "invisible bond vigilantes" (which weren't so invisible here in Europe at all). Brian Bolton from Boston was a bit confused about why austerity would be damaging for the US when others seem to get along with it so great: "I am with you on this but can you explain Germany? They're leading the austerity charge but are experiencing really strong economic growth."

Well, maybe I can put some perspective into this. See, the German calls for austerity in the EU (not for the US!) are based on purely political considerations. The major one is that almost nobody here really likes to use German taxeuros to bail out the PIGS (sry for that discriminating acronym, only using it because it's convenient). Those nations have to go through austerity, nobody wants to subsidize their wasteful spending, and the not-so-invisible "bond vigilantes" have already driven their bond rates up. But since it's not politically practicable to call for the austerity of others while at the same time living the high life on credit card, it was unavoidable that Germany had to lead by good example and implement cost cutting measures of its own, even though it could have afforded and used more stimulus to further reduce unemployment.

And actually, there's even an obligation for members of the Eurozone to keep the deficit under 3% of the GDP, a rule that was established because of German pressure to keep the Eurozone fiscally responsible! So, Germany had to live up both to this major principal and to the consequences of demanding others to spend less. And Merkel reacted on this by coming up with some cost cutting measures, most of which are only cosmetical, and which are dragged out over ten years to make the total amount look bigger. I guess this was seen as the best compromise that would show that we lead by example, without seriously hurting the rebound of our economy. I don't think the pundits and the political leaders can be fooled by that, but as a PR measure it seems to work. But behind the scenes, our social net is still working, stabilizing domestic demand (actually, an ongoing Keynesian stimulus), tax incentives boost investments in important sectors, and the weaker Euro fueled the comeback of our Export industries. Thus, the "economic miracle" here in Germany. Read the excellent roundup in Der Spiegel about this "Keynesian Success Story" for details.

However, the conditions in the US are different. You don't have a similarly strong social net (quite to the contrary, your jobless are threatened to be left pennyless by the Senate every few months), your industries aren't as export oriented (many managers don't care enough about that complicated foreign business) and that the dollar became stronger in relation to the Euro didn't help, too. So, obviously, you can't simply copy German policies, the situation in the States is too different. What is right for some European nations isn't right for you. The US need more stimulus to cope with the unsustainable high unemployment, or else you soon will have riots like in Greece. And as a rich country, with lots of resources guaranteeing credits, too big to fall victim to the bond raiders, you can afford another job program. Hopefully one which will really focus on improving infrastructure and create more employment this time!

(Based on a comment to that Krugman column)

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Anti-Krugmanism" in Germany?

"Anti-Krugmanism is working right now in Germany."
That's what commenter "Samuel" from Orlando wrote at Krugman's blog today, and it's utter nonsense. Yes, we Germans disagree with Mr. Krugman about the need for more stimulus for our economy right now. And we have good reason for this, since everybody can see that our industries are already working near full capacity, and our domestic demand has increased recently, too. The influential German weekly Der Spiegel even speaks of a "Keynesian Success Story"! So, as we see it, Krugman simply didn't pay enough attention to the different conditions here, where our still strong social net automagically stabilizes demand, and dampens recessions. Also, while our government had to come up with some austerity plans, to reduce our budget deficit to the EU standard of below 3%, and because of foreign relation reasons, too (we can't lecture the Greek when we ourselves live beyond our means), in reality the effect of these measures is miniscule. It's more PR than a serious reduction of governmental services.

So, no Anti-Krugmanism here, but actually policies in place that are much more in line with Keynes, and Krugman's advices, than everything in the US! That the good Prof himself somehow still tried to talk us into even more stimulus, despite the data showing this is unnecessary, and despite the political problems attached to this, is only evidence of a temporary disagreement, not of a general rift.

The situation in the US, on the other hand, is totally different. You don't have the same kind of social net working as a safeguard against economic downturn. So, America does need an additional stimulus to boost domestic demand. The horrible employment numbers show the necessity. And to say that the US should act like Germany, even though the conditions are totally different, is really a fundamental misunderstanding. If the US would firstly copy the German social net, then this would be debatable. But I guess if the WH would really try to implement our kind of social market economy in the states, "Samuel" would be among the first to cry "COMMUNISM"!

(Based on a comment at Krugman's blog)

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Some points about the US trade imbalance

Paul Krugman today agreed with yesterday's NYT editorial which blamed China and Germany for the trade imbalance of the US. He correctly points out that lecturing the Chinese isn't likely to bring any positive results. Actually, I'm sure this can only backfire, since the Asians have been subject to such selfish interference by the West, including military intervention, for too long of their modern history, and with their newfound power and self-assurance won't react positively on more of the same old. You have to take their national pride and sore points of the past into account when dealing with them. So, I totally agree with Krugman on this.

However, I also think that this important issue merits a deeper look into the issues, especially when a world renowned expert on the field of international trade weighs in. Firstly, I would really like Krugman, of all people, to stop talking about the trade balance, and instead use the current account numbers. He should really know better than to use numbers that provide only part of the picture, excluding import and export of services and other income payments! OK, I have to admit, I have good reason for emphasizing this, since Germany had a negative current account during all of the 90s, which should be mentioned when talking about the positive numbers of the last years. But, regardless, the current account is really more important than the trade balance, that's economics 101!

Then, what about the fact that the US had a positive current account (and trade balance) from 1946 to 1976? That's 30 years where the US made huge profits by trading with the rest of the world. That was a period of national wealth. Isn't it a bit hypocritical for Americans now to blame China, a developing country, for having the same era of success? Where there concerns in the US during that time about the imbalance? Did the WH react positively when trade partners where disturbed about the outflow of money from their countries? Can the US reasonably expect China to be more sensitive than this precedent?

Also, as some other commenters to Krugman's posting have pointed out, shouldn't we also look at the other side of the imbalance? The US not only import too much, they also don't export enough. The export numbers of the current account have been stagnating for many years, for instance 2002 was almost the same as 1999, and 2009 was shockingly worse than 2008. So, shouldn't there also be stronger incentives for producing goods that are competive on the global market, and for encouraging exports? A good friend of mine worked for a US corporation for decades, and told me about a disturbing disregard for exports in the management. Almost all of the attention went into the domestic market, where the most profits came from, and nobody invested much work into exporting goods. The managers obviously thought the more complicated foreign business wasn't that rewarding. That mindset has to change for the US to get back to more balanced numbers again!

All in all, imho the problems has more facets that the shallow reporting in the media doesn't mention at all. I hope that at least Krugman will soon find the time to provide a more wholesome analysis here. This is a delicate issue, and false decisions can lead to a trade war and increased tensions, so much more care should be taken to discuss all aspects of the problem. Simply pointing at this year's trade balance is misleading and hypocritical!

(Blog post based on a comment to Krugman's story at his blog)

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Close, but no cigar, Ms. Dowd!

In one of her better columns (which are seldom exceptions among her usual college girl style brouhaha), Maureen Dowd examines the ridge between the Obama/Dino/Big money wing of the Dems, and the progressives. While making some good points, her conclusion "He [Obama] needs to communicate more clearly" falls short, imho.

No, his communication is good enough, when he stoops to communicate at all, which he doesn't do often enough. Since he ran on a promise of more transparency, among many others, most of them unkept, he should do much ore in this regard. But he should stop to paint overly optimistic pictures, as he did during the campaign, when he is unwilling to really make a stand on those issues. Too much of his speeches seem to be based on what his writers think is popular, but not on Obama's actual convictions. With less grandstanding, and more honesty, his communication should be ok.

Unlike during the Bush reign, the the rhetorical abilities of the president aren't a problem this time. The problem is the huge discrepancy between the revolutionary call for change, the pledge to break up Washington's shady and undemocratic power structure, most importantly the role of the lobbys, and the total failure to deliver anything in this regard. There have not even been attempts to get the power back to the people! Instead, even in cases where polls showed a strong public support for liberal ideas like the public option, the administration caved in to the interests of big business, without even trying to fight that influence. Rahm Emanuel's shamelessly selling out of the healthcare reform to the insurers, in exchange for the corporations' conceding not to fight the reform with advertising and PR, is simply undefensible. No amount and quality of communication could put lipstick on that pig. The evidence that this "pragmatic" White House never intended to change the power structures, and instead prefers to simply play along the same old same old lines is much too strong.

So, the huge dissatisfaction of the left wingers with this administration was unavoidable. Team Obama went much too far with their campaign promises, which now turned out to be hollow words. And it's not that the progressives didn't do enough to support change, the attacks on center/right lawmakers who stood in the way of real reform show otherwise. But the left wingers made a futile stand, because "their" president not only didn't support them, but actually supported the reactionaries fighting for the status quo.

Still, Obama could have improved his standing with the "democratic wing of the Democratic party" if he pragmatically admitted that he at least had to deliver their pound of flesh to them for their support during his campaign. Even without going into the swamp of Congress, he could have given the progressives something to feel good about, by making executive decisions in their favor. Appointing liberals to administrative jobs, overhauling regulation agencies, prosecution of torturers, getting rid of "don't ask don't tell" by prohibiting the Pentagon to investigate such cases, there's so much he could have done. Alas, what he did instead was needlessly surrendering to right wing pressure on nominations (most shockingly in the Van Jones and Sherrod cases), dawdling in the reform of the agencies, covering up the Bush crimes, and dragging out the repeal of DADT. Even Bush knew he had to deliver something to the extremists of the GOP, but there's no sympathy for the left wing of his own party from this Dem president!

And that will inevitably backfire for Obama. After all, the progressives muster the highest share of activists. Without them, the going will become very hard in the November elections, and even more so in 2012. The outright antipathy of guys like Emanuel and Gibbs, and probably Obama himself, to large parts of their own party is not pragmatic, but delusional. The Dems need every vote, and the 2000 Nader debacle shows they actually can't take progressives for granted. There will be hell to pay if they ignore that lesson!

(Blog post based on a comment to Dowd's Column at the NYT)