hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Monday, December 06, 2010
Arthur Silber - Once Upon a Time. . .

It seems obscene to me that Bradley Manning might be facing more jail time, or even comparable amounts of jail time, to Charles Graner. That would imply that in the opinion of the government prosecuting authorities, actually committing abuses is not as bad as leaking information. I think, partly because of our desire to have Wall Street insider traders cower in fear, we've allowed the vital distinction between violent and non-violent crime to be eroded.

The other thing I want to say about Manning is that he was a 23-year old soldier clearly placed in an intolerable position, forced to watch 15 innocent men taken to jail by the people in power, then when he informed his supervisor about it, told to ignore it and help the people in power do their job a bit more efficiently. Maybe his response was not as fine-grained and nuanced as it should have been, but a common criminal he is not, still less a "traitor".

Leaks can't, and won't, bring anyone to their knees. At most, they force people to think about what's being done. Wikileaks may do some damage to American interests in the short-term, but it's hard to know what could damage American interests more in the long-term than our continuing indifference to reality, the fact that we Eloi citizenry prefer not to know and our Morlock leaders prefer not to tell us.

Neal Stephenson - In the Beginning was the Command Line

. . .Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by. . .Morlocks. . .

. . .so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that's no problem. . .

. . .Now I realize that most of this probably sounds snide and bitter to the point of absurdity: your basic snotty intellectual throwing a tantrum about those unlettered philistines. . .But that is not where I'm going with this. . .

Gene Lyons - Invisible Wars (1982)

. . .Without exception, every believer in the necessity of binary weapons whom I met was at pains to assure me that the Soviets intend to conquer the world by force, have nothing but cold-blooded contempt for our sniveling pieties, and are exactly on schedule. If you are a patriot and a man, you must leave off asking and begin believing. . .

I guess my view on balancing the budget is more revenue via

1) a carbon/natural resources tax;
2) a "Corleone" tax, a progressive wealth tax with the rate directly linked to the unemployment rate; ("if the unemployment rate be low. . .then I will not grudge your wealth. . .then I will not seek taxes. . .But if . .the unemployment rate were to be high. . .for whatever reason. . .a real estate crash. . .an inept banker named Dick or Vikram or Helmut or Lars or Paddy. . .a bolt of lightning. . .then I will not forgive. . .then I will seek taxes. . .But, that aside, I swear. . .on the souls of Social Security & Medicare. . .that I will not be the one to redistribute the wealth.");
3) a financial transactions tax, including a Tobin tax;

in exchange for a flatter/more regressive payroll/income/VAT tax.

not sure what I'd do about capital gains & corporate income taxes, but my preference is interest/investment income adjusted for inflation, and then taxed at the same rate as wage income, and eliminating loopholes and lowering rates for corporate income taxes.

Once the two principles of 1) a Corleone tax linking wealth and unemployment, and, 2) interest income taxed at the same rate as wage income, are established, I would be fine with abolishing the estate tax, and possibly even corporate income taxes, except perhaps for the very largest Standard Oil-type estates, on antitrust/political economy grounds.

But my thoughts turn in this direction only under extreme protest, like Scott protesting Dr. Evil's latest obsession ("If you'll just listen. . .", "You're like a child!. . .", "Zip it!", "Zippah Zippah!", "Oh look, I'm Zippi Longstocking!"). Cannot emphasize enough how dopey I think it is to solve the budget gap of 2020 instead of the jobs gap of 2010. Not to mention ending wars sooner, rather than later.

water-cooler wisdom:

Me: "So what do you think of Obama's federal pay-freeze? Do you feel more valued as a private sector employee now that Obama is freezing the pay of federal workers?"
Water-Cooler Wise: "It seems more like a gimmick than anything. How much money does it actually save?. . .Like me saying I'm going to save money by eliminating sugar from my coffee. Of course, for California it's easy to save money. Get rid of the 3 strikes law, and free all the 3-strikes prisoners. Let the punishment fit the crime, but not more."

Paul Krugman - speech to Economic Club of Washington (1996)

. . .[some] think that the way to do economics is the way that a lawyer prepares a brief on behalf of a client. First you decide on the opinion, then you marshall as many plausible arguments as you can in support. . .[people] are willing to talk and to read about economics ad nauseum but are not willing to do anything that feels like going back to school. They would rather read five books by David Halberstam than one chapter in an undergraduate textbook. . .If you do want to be truly well informed about economics or actually anything else, you must have the attitude that you are going back to school. You must be prepared to understand the little models before you have the right to use the big words. In fact, it is usually a good idea to try to avoid the big words altogether. . .

Paul Krugman - Of Economists and Liberals (1996)

. . .Contrary to myth, economists are not all dull and doctrinaire; if you have an idea about, say, international trade, it is likely--not certain, but likely--that some economist has been there and done that, and that your idea has already been either greatly clarified or decisively refuted. I have repeatedly encountered would-be economic experts who begin a conversation by saying "The trouble with economists is that they never consider the possibility that . . ." and refuse to believe me when I tell them that that very possibility is treated at length in most sophomore-level textbooks--and that their radical insight is either a well-known fallacy or, worse yet, a familiar and standard part of the canon. . .

Paul Krugman - Peddling Prosperity (1993)

. . .[Economics] is a primitive science, of course. If you want a parallel, think of medicine at the turn of the century. Medical researchers had, by that time, accumulated a great deal of information about the human body and its workings, and were capable of giving some critically useful advice about how to avoid disease. They could not, however, cure very much. Indeed, the doctor/essayist Lewis Thomas tells us that the most important lesson from medical research up to that time had been to leave diseases alone - to stop the traditional "cures", like bleeding, that actually hurt the patients.

The parallel with economists isn't perfect, but it's not too far off. Economists know a lot about how the economy works, and can offer some useful advice on things like how to avoid hyperinflations (for sure) and depressions (usually). They can demonstrate to you, if you are willing to hear it, that folk remedies for economic distress like import quotas and price controls are about as useful as medical bleeding. But there's a lot they can't cure. Above all, they don't know how to make a poor country rich, or bring back the magic of economic growth when it seems to have gone away. . .


. . .In spite of Gillian Anderson, I'm not much of a fan of the X-files, or of conspiracy theories in general. I've seen some of the world's movers and shakers up close, and they seem a lot like the rest of us - that is, most of the time they haven't got a clue, and fly by the seat of their (well-tailored) pants. . .

Swami Dayananda - "If death comes, it comes, but not without a fight, a fight to live".

Harry Shearer - "American Oncologist"

Prize Stories: Best of 1998

The O. Henry Awards

People Like That Are The Only People Here
First Prize
Lorrie Moore
The New Yorker, January 27, 1997

. . ."I've never heard of a baby having chemo," the Mother says. Baby and Chemo, she thinks: they should never appear in the same sentence together, let alone the same life. . .

. . ."Take notes," says the Husband, after coming straight home for work, mid afternoon, hearing the news, and saying all the words out loud - surgery, metastasis, dialysis, transplant - then collapsing in a chair in tears. "Take notes. We are going to need the money.". . .

. . .bald-headed little boys. Pediatric Oncology. Peed-Onk. . . "Almost all of the children are boys," one of the nurses says. "No one knows why.". . .

. . .In Peed-Onk there are the bald little boys to play with. Joey, Eric, Tim, Mort and Tod (Mort! Tod!) There is the four-year-old, Ned, holding his little deflated rubber ball, the one with the intriguing curling hose. The Baby wants to play with it. "It's mine, leave it alone," says Ned. "Tell the baby to leave it alone.". . .

. . ."Don't touch that!" she barks at the Baby, who is only a baby and bursts into tears because he has never been yelled at like this before. . ."This is drawing fluid from Neddy's liver!" She pats at the rubber thing and starts to cry a little.

"Oh my God," says the Mother. She comforts the Baby, who is also crying. She and Ned, the only dry-eyed people, look at each other. "I'm so sorry," she says to Ned and then to his mother. "I'm so stupid. I though they were squabbling over a toy."

"It does look like a toy," agrees Ned. He smiles. He is an angel. All the little boys are angels. Total, sweet, bald little angels, and now God is trying to get them back for himself. Who are they, mere mortal women, in the face of this, this powerful and overwhelming and inscrutable thing, God's will? They are the mothers, that's who. You can't have him! they shout every day. You dirty old man! Get out of here! Hands off!

"I'm so sorry," says the Mother again. "I didn't know."

Ned's mother smiles vaguely. "Of course you didn't know," she says, and walks back to the Tiny Tim Lounge.

The Tiny Tim Lounge is a little sitting area at the end of the Peed-Onk corridor. There are two small sofas, a table, a rocking chair, a television, and a VCR. . .

. . .The Surgeon comes to visit on Saturday morning. He steps in and nods at the Baby, who is awake but glazed from the morphine, his eyes two dark, unseeing grapes. "The boy looks fine," he announces. . .

Sunday evening she goes and sinks down on the sofa in the Tiny Tim Lounge next to Frank, Joey's father. He is a short, stocky man with the currentless, flat-lined look behind the eyes that all the parents eventually get here. He has shaved his head bald in solidarity with his son. His little boy has been battling cancer for five years. It is now in the liver, and the rumor around the corridor is that Joey has three weeks to live. She knows that Joey's mother, Roseanne, left Frank years ago, two years into the cancer, and has remarried and had another child, a girl named Brittany. The Mother sees Roseanne here sometimes with her new life - the cute little girl and the new full-haired husband, who will never be so maniacally and debilitatingly obsessed with Joey's illness the way Frank, her first husband, is. Roseanne comes to visit Joey, to say hello and now goodbye, but she is not Joey's main man. Frank is.

Frank is full of stories - about the doctors, about the food, about the nurses, about Joey. Joey, affectless from his meds, sometimes leaves his room and comes out to watch TV in his bathrobe. He is jaundiced and bald, and though he is nine he looks no older than six. Frank has devoted the last four and a half years to saving Joey's life. When the cancer was first diagnosed, the doctors gave Joey a 25 percent chance of living six more months. Now here it is almost five years later, and Joey's still here. It is all due to Frank, who, early on, quit his job as vice-president of a consulting firm in order to commit himself totally to his son. He is proud of everything he's given up and done, but he is tired. . .

. . ."I've taken Joey everywhere. . ."

". . .Joey's a fucking genius. A biological genius. They'd given him six months, remember."

The Mother nods.

"Six months is not very long", says Frank. "Six months is nothing. He was four and a half years old."

All the words are like blows. She feels flooded with affection and mourning for this man. She looks away, out the window, out past the hospital parking lot, up toward the black marbled sky and the electric eyelash of the moon. "And now he's nine," she says. "You're his hero."

"And he's mine," says Frank, though the fatigue in his voice seems to overwhelm him. "He'll be that forever. Excuse me." he says. "I've got to go check. His breathing hasn't been good. Excuse me.". . .

. . ."Aren't these people nice? Don't you feel better hearing about their lives?" he asks.

Why does he do this, form clubs all the time; why does even this society of suffering soothe him? When it comes to death and dying, perhaps someone in this family ought to be more of a snob. . .

. . .The Baby's heart - she can hear it - drums with life. . .

. . .There are the notes.

Now where is the money?

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