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Sunday, July 29, 2012

"I like being able to fire people..."

In the interest of fairness, here's some information about that famous Mitt Romney line. The context is not always reported, but PolitiFact has it:

Romney was specifically talking about the ability to get rid of your health insurance provider when you aren’t satisfied with its services.

"I want individuals to have their own insurance," Romney said. "That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me."

So Romney wasn't referring to his work at Bain Capital -- or to the more general question of serving as a boss who has decided to fire employees of his company -- but rather the notion of switching service providers. He might as well have been talking about switching cellphone carriers or cable TV companies.
That's from January 11, 2012, so the main line has been percolating for some time. In fact, it was really more of an item during the Republican primary season.

Of course, this contextual information does not excuse the Romney campaign from its distortions of Obama's "You didn't built that" line.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

China: It's Just a Question of Time

I watched the Todd Solondz film "Life During Wartime" tonight and I think this was my favorite scene by far:

The movie includes lots of references to terrorism and war. At one point two characters trade Bush-era clich├ęs -- should a person "stay the course" or "cut and run" in a dismal situation?

The final line of the film is also about the "war on terror" and is spoken by a 13 year old boy:  “I don’t care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father.”

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Bear cam

Have you wasted any time viewing Bear cam? This Wired story explains:
Media company Explore has teamed up with Alaska's Katmai National Park to install webcams that will deliver live video feeds of brown bears catching salmon in a popular feeding ground.
Each year, around a hundred bears travel to a stretch of Brooks River to fill their bellies with salmon. Now anyone with an internet connection can witness this gathering thanks to four high-definition cameras that have been set up in this remote part of Alaska. 
One camera is positioned at Brook Falls, where the larger male bears fight it out for salmon that are desperately trying to leap their way upstream.
This is the link to that camera: Brown Bear & Salmon Cam - Brooks Falls - Bears - explore

Warning: this is highly addictive.

Compare that to this 1980 Reagan campaign commercial to see how far we've progressed in our tolerance for bears (right?):

Yesterday, I watched as two bears postured somewhat violently towards one another. Meanwhile, a nearby bear was dining on salmon. This demonstrated that the two in the foreground learned nothing from the 2012 Republican primaries.

Note: Cross-posted at Duck of Minerva.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Property Rights

The Nation recently published a book review by Princeton historian Hendrik Hartog that addresses a new work on property rights: American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own by Stuart Banner.

These are the key paragraphs in the review:
Central to the secret knowledge of property law is the recognition that property rests on the state. Most of the land that white America first lived on had to be expropriated—whether purchased or taken more or less violently—from Native America. Expropriation required an active and militarized state. To know what one owned, to be recognized as a legitimate possessor of property, relied on a series of steps usually including the payment of taxes and the recording of title in the county records office. Ownership usually involved the protection of the local police, and sometimes the state militia or the army. Even when a property owner exercised what property law calls “self-help”—for example, by evicting a tenant, pulling a gun on a trespasser or hiring Pinkertons—he or she knew (or should have known) that it was necessary to follow the rules of self-help set out by the state; otherwise, legitimate self-help would be redefined as criminal violence. Over the course of the past two centuries, the realm of legitimate self-help has dramatically narrowed. Meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century, the value and use of what one held increasingly depended on engagement with zoning boards and a variety of regulatory agencies.

The presence of the state is pervasive throughout Banner’s narrative. There is no period in American history that lies “before” regulation or public vexations. Private property has always found its origins, its recognition and its security in the largesse of the state, even as much of the sentimental claptrap that passes for historical understanding continues to deny that truth.

Obviously, the section at least indirectly speaks to some of the key issues in the current trumped up controversy being stirred by the Romney presidential campaign. As I discussed a few days ago, President Obama's "you didn't build that" remark, in context, was clearly referencing the underlying social contract.

As Banner and Hartog emphasize, every bit of private property in the U.S., even a private business, is deeply embedded in the power of the state.

Incidentally, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama largely agree about the government's role in promoting business, as Jon Stewart's The Daily Show has been illustrating the last couple of nights. This quote used by Stewart tonight is taken here from Think Progress:
ROMNEY: I know that you recognize a lot of people help you in a business. Perhaps the bank, the investors. There is no question your mom and dad, your school teachers. The people who provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help.
Compare the highlighted text (from Think Progress) to the Obama speech I quoted the other day.

Update: Here's The Daily Show bit on this from Wednesday, July 25: 

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Democalypse 2012 - Do We Look Stupid? Don't Answer That Edition
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Underlying Social Contract

By now, these lines from Barack Obama have been burned into the 24/7 news cycle by the American right: "If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen." Mitt Romney on the campaign trail and Fox News in its programming (presuming you see a difference) have apparently been using it relentlessly.

Here's the video for those who have missed the uproar:

Here is the wider context from the White House website:
     I’m not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy to give tax breaks to me or Mr. Romney or folks who don’t need them.  So I’m going to reduce the deficit in a balanced way.  We’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts.  We can make another trillion or trillion-two, and what we then do is ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more.  (Applause.)  And, by the way, we’ve tried that before -- a guy named Bill Clinton did it.  We created 23 million new jobs, turned a deficit into a surplus, and rich people did just fine.  We created a lot of millionaires.

     There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.  (Applause.)

     If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

     The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.  That’s how we funded the GI Bill.  That’s how we created the middle class.  That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.  That’s how we invented the Internet.  That’s how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people
Typical socialist, eh? He's talking about how government can promote free enterprise to grow the economy for everyone. Not exactly how Marx and Lenin mapped the future.

As others have noted, these words from Obama echo those of Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (starting about 0:50):

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Applying Skinner's Behavior Modification

As I've sometimes mentioned, I've been serving on the University's Sustainability Council for some years. Throughout that time, the group has often discussed the prospects for influencing behavioral change in the students, staff, faculty and administrators.

The June 2012 Atlantic Monthly had a piece by David H. Freedman about "Skinnerian" behavior modification. Freedman demonstrates that psychologist B.F. Skinner's ideas have earned a bad reputation over the years, but they potentially offer a good deal for the modern world. Many people fail to understand that "Skinner sought to shape only consciously chosen, directly observable behavior, and only with rewards."

Readers of this blog might want to check out the lengthy article as it is filled with interesting anecdotes and explanation.

I found the following paragraphs to be especially useful as they suggest practical application of Skinnerian thinking to address contemporary problems related to sustainability and health:
At Palo Alto’s storied University Coffee Cafe, I recently found myself sitting next to a young fellow named Yoav Lurie, who turned out to be running a Boulder-based company called Simple Energy, which uses Facebook as a social-reinforcement tool for conserving energy by tracking, sharing, and reinforcing certain behaviors. The product, like many of its competitors in the booming field of energy-related apps, is sponsored by large utility companies incentivized to reduce their reliance on conventional power sources.
Government agencies are in a similar position to benefit. I was speaking with a manager at the U.S. Department of Transportation about public transit when he mentioned that the agency is testing an app that provides local travelers with various transportation options for specific trips and that could gently reinforce decisions to use public transit by pointing out the extra calories commuters would burn by walking to the station and the carbon they’d avoid emitting by leaving their cars at home.
Once we reconvene, I'll bring this to the attention of some others on the Council.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Lobbying Power

I do not really study American politics and lobbying, but this tidbit from a year- old Time magazine (June 20, 2011) recently caught my attention:
...the fossil-fuel industries are lobbying Congress hard to block any legislation that would impose federal standards for renewable energy or diminish their special status. This includes $5.5 billion each year in tax breaks and discounted royalty payments as a result of $200 million in lobbying and political contributions. By contrast, the clean-energy lobby, which includes wind and solar, spent $30.7 million in 2010.
Wind energy, which currently makes up just 2.4% of the U.S. energy grid, has received some fairly significant subsidies in recent years.  Indeed, earlier in the article, the journalist pointed out that Spanish energy company "Iberdrola received over $1 billion in cash grants from the U.S. Treasury" as part of the Obama stimulus plan. 
According to the National Journal, the renewable energy industry received in total about $7 billion in "tax credits and grants for energy from solar, wind, geothermal, and ethanol." Those have now mostly expired, I think.

Unfortunately, green energy subsidies have not been popular in the new "tea party" Congress, partly as a result of the half billion lost in the Solyndra deal.  As the NY Times  reported in late January:
As of early this year, the cash-grant program, known as the 1603 program, had awarded $1.76 billion for more than 22,000 solar projects, according to the Treasury Department.
The Obama administration supported an extension of a tax credit plan that would have provided another  $6.8 billion from 2011-2015. Of course, these policies are being framed around jobs more than the environmental or geopolitical implications:
“Because of federal investments, renewable energy use — sources like wind and solar — has nearly doubled,” Mr. Obama said at a stop at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., where he promoted the increasing use of renewable power by the military and repeated a call for Congress to approve the tax credits. “Thousands of Americans have jobs because of those efforts.”
One-third of the growth in renewable energy in recent years has been in wind power. Solar has also grown quickly, but it is still relatively expensive in the face of cheap coal. In any case, it would appear that even modest lobbying can be effective if the audience is receptive to the requests. Perhaps the fossil fuel industry spends so much because most politicians realize that the subsidies are bad policy. 

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