Posted by Brad @ 6:26 pm on July 31st 2009

Cash for Clunkers: A Stimulus That Worked?

Hard to say. But, the U.S. government offered $1b in $3500 vouchers to anybody trading in an older car and trading up for a newer, more efficient one.

In 5 days, 300,000 people did so and the program already ran through the billion.

I’m not quite sure how that compares to a regular week of auto trade-ins. Clearly, you can’t say the government caused 300,000 people to buy new cars. But, it certainly appears to have had a dual effect of stimulating auto sales (and boy did that industry need the boost), as well as at least theoretically a marginal environmental impact (in that that’s 300,000 people on the road in vehicles with improved fuel efficiency). And, if the government feels the need to pump in money to get people to make better environmental choices, and to pump in money to get people buying again, certainly this program appears to have done both pretty directly. It was, one would have to say, a pretty decent success.

Brad Plumer notes the success, and also notes that if the program is this popular, Congress maybe ought to not only re-up it, but to strengthen the fuel efficiency requirements with it (which makes sense to me):

On the other hand, the program certainly offered a much-needed jolt to the economy, and can provide a huge boon to the ailing auto industry—$1 billion to spur the purchase of 300,000 new vehicles in five days has to rank as one of the more successful stimulus programs to date. (I imagine the program is mostly just moving up purchases that would’ve happened anyway, but in a recession, that’s a good thing!) Still, if the program’s so popular, and everyone’s lining up to trade in their old clunkers, then if Congress decides to re-up, it may as well ratchet up the fuel-economy requirements for new cars and get an even bigger benefit out of this thing.

I have to say, if we are going to drop government money into stimulating the economy, the direct route such as this seems to me to be the least obnoxious way to do it. I certainly prefer it to TARP.

In related news, the Economic Policy Institute released their appraisal of the economy on Day 500 of the recession, and specifically if the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has had any effect. Their assessment, which concurs with what most people seem to be saying, is that yes, it has, but not much. Adding: “not much”, on a macroeconomic level, does not mean “insignificant”. Their bottom line:

Despite the overall contraction, the fingerprints of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act could be seen in some aspect of today’s report. Federal government spending grew at an 11% rate in the quarter, adding roughly 0.8% to overall GDP. State and local government spending grew at a 2.4% annual rate, the fastest growth since the middle of 2007. It is clear that the large amount of state aid contained in the ARRA made this growth possible.

Furthermore, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable personal income rose by 3.2% in the quarter, after rising by only 1% in the previous quarter. A large contribution to this increase was made by the Making Work Pay tax credit passed in conjunction with the ARRA, as this was the first full quarter that the credit was in effect. Inflation-adjusted transfer payments (including a one-time payment to Social Security recipients) rose at an annual rate of over 6% in the quarter as well.

This increase in disposable personal incomes did not translate into a sharp boost in consumption spending because the personal savings rate jumped again — rising to 5.2% in the second quarter, up from 4% in the previous quarter. This slippage between personal incomes and consumption spending caused by a rising savings rate makes plain that, instead of focusing on even more tax cuts, it was wise to make sure that much of the ARRA was devoted to direct public investment spending. The public investment spending in the ARRA, while not having a significant impact in the second quarter, will provide an even stronger boost to the economy in quarters to come.

The consensus of macroeconomic forecasters is that ARRA contributed roughly 3% to annualized growth rates in the second quarter. This means that absent its effects, economic performance would have resembled that of the previous three quarters, when the economy contracted at an average annual rate of 4.9%. In short, the recovery act turned this quarter’s economic performance from disastrous to merely bad.

Posted by Brad @ 1:28 pm on July 31st 2009

Depressing Poll Number of the Day

From Dailykos/Research 2000, which yes is more or less explicitly fishing for results which will embarrass Republicans, but whose methodology is sound such that even critics (RCP) had to finally include them as reliable, that they sure aren’t manufacturing them.

In this case, the good news: 77% of Americans believe Barack Obama was born in the United States.

The bad news: only 42% of Republicans do.

The majority believe he was not, or aren’t sure.

Posted by James @ 11:41 pm on July 30th 2009

A Mouthy Bastard

Posted by Rojas @ 9:04 pm on July 30th 2009

Tears for beers

In yet another example of the entitlement mentality gone awry, US beer manufacturers are crying like babies over the fact that Obama’s imbecilic “beer summit” with Gates and Crowley will not feature American lagers.

We will set aside, for the moment, Obama’s pitiful swipe at red-state cred by seeking this photo-op “resolution” of the situation. We will leave alone the question of why it takes an Ivy League professor as victim to provoke Obama’s interest in police treatment of minorities, or the rather more relevant question of whether resolution of this particular incident is a wise investment of the time of the President of the United States. No; the real villains here are the lackwit brewers who seem to feel that obesiance should be paid to them at any beer-related government event.

Just for starters: the participants were asked, in the invitation to the event, which beer they’d like to consume. Is it the responsibility of the President to overrule their preferences and limit the menu?

Good freaking God. I am more than tired of the “buy America” corporate shills informing me that it’s my obligation to consume American products regardless of price or quality. Over the past couple of years we’ve gotten a good look at the mechanics of the corporate system that’s propped up by such self-abdegnation by consumers.

My most frequently-purchased staple beer is Anchor Steam, brewed in San Francisco by a presumed consortium of hippies, homosexuals, and attendees at Santa Cruz City Council meetings. I could care less; it’s magnificently flavorful and bears a delightful color that suggests you could trap insects in it and clone dinosaurs from them millions of years later. I drink Boulevard not because it’s brewed in my hometown but because it’s a good beer. Others choose Red Stripe (mild thumbs up), Blue Moon (sideways thumb), or Bud Light (two thumbs down and a swift kick in the Presidential jewels). More power to them. If the American brewing industry doesn’t like it, then they ought to bitch less and innovate more.

Posted by Rojas @ 6:13 pm on July 30th 2009

The power of love

No power on earth, and certainly not the South Carolina criminal code, can keep a man from his soulmate. News to me: the state in question apparently has a specifically-named statute against “buggery.”

Posted by Brad @ 3:43 pm on July 30th 2009

Democracy in Action

Hat tip to Doug for this gem.

I had, I kid you not, a debate partner who was at this level (he was a guy though).

Posted by Brad @ 2:08 pm on July 30th 2009

Music Video of the Week

One of my new finds.

Sort of what you’d get if you crossed John Lee Hooker with Ray LaMontagne, and threw in a little Tom Waits for good measure.

William Elliott Whitmore – Song of the Blackbird

William Elliott Whitmore – Dry

(more…)

Posted by Brad @ 3:51 pm on July 28th 2009

Your Naked Political Opportunism Bar Graph of the Day

Posted by Brad @ 3:47 pm on July 28th 2009

The Jim Bunning Saga Comes to an End

Sadly, Jim Bunning announces he will, in fact, not run for reelection.

Ironically, he spent the bulk of his statement blaming Republicans for this, who said he wasn’t going to run for reelection so much (and goddamn liars they were, says Bunning) that it dried up his fund-raising, which makes it impossible to run for a third term.

Dailykos is hoping he goes nuclear and fulfills an early anti-campaign promise.

The Kentucky Republican suggested that possible scenario at a campaign fundraiser for him on Capitol Hill earlier this week, according to three sources who asked not to be identified because of the politically sensitive nature of Bunning’s remarks.

The implication, they said, was that Bunning would allow Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, to appoint his replacement — a move that could give Democrats the 60 votes they need to block Republican filibusters in the Senate.

“I would get the last laugh. Don’t forget Kentucky has a Democrat governor,” one of the sources quoted Bunning as saying.

Too bad, in any case. I was enjoying this saga greatly

Posted by Brad @ 2:32 pm on July 28th 2009

Quote of the Day

“It’s despotism when we lose, freedom when we win. We should have more confidence in Tcs2 the people and the country than this. We should also have more charity to our political opponents – who after all are contending with hideous problems bequeathed to them by … by … well suddenly we Republicans cannot seem to remember who preceded Barack Obama in office. To listen to us, you’d think that the bailouts and takeovers started on January 20, 2009, not the previous March. You’d never know that TARP was supported by almost every Republican commentator, including the editors of National Review. Or that Vice President Cheney argued urgently in favor of the rescue of the Detroit automakers. Or that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoyed the backing of Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers.

One bad election converts us from ardent admirers of the American people to glum declinists who can see only a miserable moldering of a once great nation. I should have thought that conservative patriotism was made of stronger stuff.”

David Frum

I don’t think saying “it was Bush’s fault” is a very effective way in dealing with the inadequacies or oversights of the current President. But that does not stop it from being, in many cases, true. Nor is it pedantic and irrelevant, particularly when many leaders of the conservative movement are actively throwing around phrases like tyranny and socialism and what have you and acting as if the sky has fallen on free America because voters got sick of a purportedly conservative president creating conservative problems and trying to append half-ass liberal solutions to them, and instead elected a purportedly liberal president in the hopes that he can append at least three-quarters-ass liberal solutions to the explicit conservative problems created by his predecessor.

But it does strike me, often, when otherwise intelligent conservative commentators (and then the rest, who are at the very least reportedly sentient) disregard this point. One would think that Barack Obama just appeared in a poof of smoke and brimstone to take over the country in the name of INSERT SCAREMONGERING ABSTRACTION HERE. And not, in fact, because those riding under the banner of conservatism screwed the nation in almost every conceivable way, to the point where the people they spent 80% of their governing time defining in opposition to them might start looking pretty good.

To put that another way, even if one were to think that voters chose Obama, offering socialism and tyranny, if the Bush years were conservatism and freedom, who can blame them?

Posted by Brad @ 2:56 pm on July 25th 2009

High Frequency Trading

And in Wall Street Story #2, here’s a practice so stupid it would only make sense in Wall Street. The various stock exchanges have quietly created a service where subscribers can have their computers access trading information and trade on it three milliseconds before that information is publicly released.

Now to you or I that seems almost silly, but for giant firms with the world’s best algorithms and mainframes, that flash trading may be a large reason why trading volume has increased 164% since the practice began in 2005, and why the subscriber firms made a total of $21 billion in profits on the floor.

Donklephant has more.

Of course, if you sell stock because you find out a firm is going to go under, you get thrown in jail. But if you pay to look at information before the rest of us plebes can, that’s healthy trading.

Posted by Brad @ 2:51 pm on July 25th 2009

Profiting From TARP?

Well, it looks like Joe Taxpayer will indeed get a return on investment for at least some of the TARP money. In Wall Street Story #1, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America are both in the process of repaying their bailout money, with interest. In the case of the former, the American taxpayer stands to make a tidy profit of 23%.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s repayments to the government of last year’s bailout money, including an agreement today to repay warrants, generated a 23 percent annualized return for U.S. taxpayers.

Goldman Sachs agreed to the Treasury’s request for $1.1 billion to repay warrants the government received when it invested $10 billion in the New York-based firm last October. The payment is in addition to $318 million in preferred dividends.

That 23 percent return compares with the 42 percent surge in Goldman Sachs’s share price since October, and the 5.1 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. Goldman’s decision follows criticism of the bank by lawmakers who questioned its decision to set aside a record $11.4 billion to pay employees in the first half of the year.

A pleasant surprise. Here’s hoping that the stampede that follows doesn’t go towards waiving these monies at the behest of connected congressmen, though at this point the trend in the banking industry seems to be to go above and beyond in repaying for the sake of the PR.

Posted by Brad @ 1:34 pm on July 25th 2009

The Crowley-Gates Incident

The bad thing about having really limited internet access lately is I can only come to stories as a Johnny-come-lately. But so be it, I’ll just give crib note posts.

Henry Louis Gates is a Harvard professor and one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on the subject of race, African American studies specifically. He is also a fairly risable figure, which is probably just as well, and the jokes at Cambridge tend towards Gates being one of the stereotypical “How come the 8 ball got to be black?” sort of racial thinkers. Which is, as I said, probably just as well.

Last week he returned from a trip to China and found his front door jammed (likely from the recent humidity—happens to me all the time). He had to essentially bust in his own door. Neighbors saw this black man busting in a door and entering a home and called the police. A Cambridge police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, showed up, and upon doing so, Gates got belligerent at the suggested racism of having to prove that the home was his.

Regardless, he did prove so, but because he was getting so sassy, Crowley arrested him anyway.

Clearly, this story has a lot of barely-under-the-surface tension to it, which is why all the usual suspects have taken it up, including Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and so on and so forth. Barack Obama made the uncharacteristic mistake of making an unsolicited comment on the matter, siding with Gates (whom he knows socially), which rendered the whole thing a Major Media Event.

It’s an interesting story that I’m not particularly interested in, at least on the race angle. Ta-Nehsi Coates, as usual, is the guy to read, though the Andrew Sullivanitese are doing a decent job too (though not necessarily according to Coates. But I say all that just to say this:

Police officers are friggin’ babies.

Don’t get me wrong, Gates was a mewling baby on this matter too, and anyone with any common sense knows better than to make a maelstrom out of dealing with a cop. But Gates was of course not the one with a gun and a blank check to arrest anybody that bothers him.

I have a lot of respect for police officers that do their job well, because it is a very tough job, and one of the toughest parts is dealing with the constant abuse and guys like Gates.

But still, I agree with this HuffPo writer that the salient issue here isn’t race, but is actually citizen rights full stop. The officer, upon Gates proving that he was the homeowner to the officer’s satisfaction, should have turned right then and there and left.

Crowley and the Cambridge Police are indignant not because of race but because they are arrogant cops, typical of the arrogance that undermines the police profession.

Police believe that citizens do not have a right to challenge them, even once they have established the facts of their innocence. Individuals, police believe, have no right to yell at them, express anger at them and even call them names.

I disagree with that completely. Gates was on his property. In his home. Regardless of whether the police officer could not confirm it right away, once he did, the police officer was on a man’s property in a country where a man’s home is his castle and what you do in your home is almost completely your business.

Obama is correct when he says the Cambridge Police “acted stupidly.” They did. Crowley should apologize to Gates, even though Gates should have used common sense and curbed his own emotions and accusations that race rather than individual rights was the point of contention.

Crowley should apologize because as a police officer who carries a weapon and is shouldered with the limits of individual authority, he must live to the higher standard of justice and he must adhere to responsibilities that everyday Americans must be assured are rights that are protected.

Whether you came as a police officer knocking on my door with the best of intentions, once it was clear that you were wrong, then you should have apologized and left immediately. And if the confrontation provoked anger from the citizens, the police should be professional enough to recognize that the circumstances sometimes justice a citizens outrage and anger as an expression of their free speech.

Or, to quote Coates again:

I feel pretty stupid for going hard on this, and stupider for defending what Obama won’t really defend himself. I should have left it at one post. Evidently Obama, Crowley and Gates are talking about getting a beer together. I hope they have a grand old time.

The rest of us are left with a country where, by all appearances, officers are well within their rights to arrest you for sassing them. Which is where we started. I can’t explain why, but this is the sort of thing that makes you reflect on your own precarious citizenship. I mean, the end of all of this scares the hell out of me.

Posted by Cameron @ 8:35 am on July 25th 2009

And then there were three

70 million individuals were mobilized during World War I. 15 million died. 7 million were disabled permanently. 15 million were seriously injured. 8 million were captured and held as POWs.

3 are a live today.

Harry Patch, the last British veteran of World War I to fight in the trenches died at 111 years old. His death leaves only three confirmed veterans of the first world war, one Canadian, one British and one American. They are 109, 108 and 108 years old respectively.

Posted by Cameron @ 7:41 am on July 25th 2009

Posse Comitatus Anyone?

Stunning news today of a proposal championed by Cheney and other aids to use U.S. military forces in upstate New York to apprehend terrorist suspects in 2002. Apparently the subject was brought up at least once during a high level meeting before being shot down by Bush who used the FBI instead. Notably, Condoleezza Rice (then National Security Adviser) and Michael Chertoff (then head of the Justice Department’s criminal division) both opposed the recommendation. It’s moderately intriguing to note that both of these individuals gained additional power in the President’s second term as Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security.

A money quote:

Former officials said the 2002 debate arose partly from Justice Department concerns that there might not be enough evidence to arrest and successfully prosecute the suspects in Lackawanna. Mr. Cheney, the officials said, had argued that the administration would need a lower threshold of evidence to declare them enemy combatants and keep them in military custody.

Posted by Jack @ 9:10 pm on July 24th 2009

The ACLU and the Mojave Desert Cross case.

Apparently, since I recently came out to my friends as a “card carrying” ACLU member, I am the defacto designated defender for them in controversial cases. Take today, when one a close friend since the Academy emailed me with a sort of tongue-in-cheek “oh yeah, well let’s see you defend this” challenge, in which he forwarded a histrionic email containing a youtube video discussing the terrible legal tragedy playing out in our court sytem surrounding the Mojave Desert Cross:

Now, my friend was pretty skeptical about the video, recognizing the one-sideded and emotion-based appeal, but the challenge, at least half serious, stood. My response, mildly cleaned up, which also references the incomprehensible email diatribe that prefaced the youtube link:

Sure, I’ll take this one on. Mojave Desert Cross case. So:

A really large Christian symbol is erected on federal land without permission. That’s pretty much the first and most important fact. Yeah, its been there, in one form or another (torn down, rebuilt, changed, etc) a long while, yeah it supposedly exists in honor of WWI vets who sought healing in the desert or something. But really: is that monument a statue of a doughboy, or is it freaking Christian cross? Cause from my angle, its a cross. Maybe WWI vets were extremely skinny albinos with pipe-like arms, but I’m going with “What is a Cross, Alex”. Which means we can pretend it is there to honor WWI vets, but in reality it is to honor a particular religious sect’s messiah figure, and whatever secondary honor it grants to vets, we don’t mean the Joo vets, the Mussulman vets, and definetaly not the godless vets. Yeah, I admit it, that last line is a bit over the top, and I’m sure the Christian cross erectors would say that they meant for the cross to represent ALL our vets, but it is still a cross, and I’m not sure how pleased I would be if I were a non-Christain vet being told that this Cross is for me. Oh wait, I am a non Christian vet, and I don’t think that cross is for me.

At heart, this case is pure constitutional law on a well travelled issue: The Establishment Clause of the First Ammendment. You can distract with emotional appeals about our fallen soldiers and tearful soliloquies to the brave vets who gave their all, and even state profoundly ludicrous lines such as that taking down this monument would be like spitting in the eye of all current service members, but that has almost nothing to do with the legal issue involved. It is pure constitional law, revolving around the not at all clear line as to what constitutes government establishment or endorsement of religion.

In this case, we have an explicitly Christian symbol on public, i.e., federal government land. Now, it is quite possible, that under existing legal precedent, specifically the “Lemon Test”, that the 9th circuit will get overturned on grounds that this Christian cross has a legitimate secular purpose (i.e., honoring war dead). And should SCOTUS overturn this case, despite my atheism and support for the ACLU, I am completely OK with it, because I recognize that reasonable people can disagree as to the proper interpretation of the clause in question. And this reasonable disagreement over complex constitutional issues exists across a wide section of generally mainstream legal groups. These groups are at odds as to how “hard core” we should interpret the clause, about how high the wall of seperation between Church and State should be. The ACLU falls squarely within this mainstream legal community, while those that espouse there is no constitutional basis for seperation of Church and State are outside of it. The ACLU has a harder, or stricter interpretation of the Church – State line than most folks: freely admitted. But it is wrong and foolish to demonize the ACLU for taking a legal position on the EC, and backing it up via court cases. It is also wrong and distortive to characterize the ACLU as seeking to destroy all expressions of religion: They also have a long history of defending religious speech in unpopular circumstances, whether it be street preachers or the rights of public school students to have religious sayings on their t-shirts. They are frequently involved in defending religious, and especially Christians’, rights.

Apart from the video, I would like to say a few things about the email itself:

TO THINK ONE INDIVIDUAL, JUST ONE, CAN TAKE A CASE LIKE THIS TO THE CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT AND GET A HEARING.

Oh dear me the evil ACLU is trying to destroy our country, and isn’t it terrible how “one individual, just one” can take a case to the Supreme court? No, its not terrible, its feaking wonderful. It is absolutely fantastic that a private citizen, supported by a non-government agency, can turn to the Constitution, note the First Ammendment Establishment Clause, and seek recourse from the law, even for an unpopular cause. Thank whatever Gods you worship for this. I recognize the email is polemic, but seriously, due process anyone? Recourse to the Law? Right to petition the government for a redress of grievences? Anyone? Bueller?

WE, THE PEOPLE ARE LOSING OUR RIGHTS A LITTLE AT A TIME AND WE ARE LETTING THESE SO CALLED CONGRESSMAN STICK IT TO US. THEY DON’T GIVE A DAMN, THEY ONLY CARE ABOUT THEIR OWN WELFARE AND POWER. IT’S TIME WE ALL WAKE UP BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE. WE’LL LOOK OUT OUR WINDOW SOME DAY AND SEE A DIFFERENT FLAG WAVING OVER OUR SOIL.

This is just incomprehensible. We are talking about a court challenge surrounding the Mojave Desert Cross here, right? What in hell is all this talk about “these so-called congressman”? And why are they “so-called”? Is the author alleging some sort of grand conspiracy in which all these fake congressman have some sort of birth certificate-citizenship problem? And what the hell is this about a different flag flying out our window? I thought we were talking about a cross. Or does this person see the cross as the real American flag? When did we become a theocracy? See, I can play ridiculous argument too! But lets take the argument, such as it is, at face value, and play a little thought game. The writer and his/her supporting readers: they point to this case with fear and anger in their hearts, and they buy into the above statements about losing our country a little at a time due to the ongoing encroachement of the guvmint and “so called Congressman”: What percentage of them, do ya think, got themselves worked up over the MUCH more extensive, already enacted, and still present government expansion of power during the post 9-11 era? How many of them view the extraordinary overreach of our government in our drug war, using the commerce clause and other dubious justification for an enormous number of civil liberties (i.e., “our rights”) violations? Which of them questions the extraordinary powers granted law enforcement to ignore your Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted search under various anti-drug, anti-immigration, and anti-terrorism laws? I’m guessing not a lot of them get too excited about any of those issues. So what this really seems to come down to is wanting religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to have special priveleges and immunities under the law.

WE SHOULD DO EVERYTHING WE CAN TO PREVENT THIS MEMORIAL FROM BEING TORN DOWN.

Like what? Send distorted histrionic emails? Here’s a thought: read the Constitution and some at least semi-neutral interpretations of the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause, and by neutral, there are a whole lot or organizations out there that take as an a priori assumption the idea that this country must be ruled by Christian morality and laws: such theocrats do not really count as neutral.

The ACLU needs to go!!!!!! …… And take ACORN with them!!!

Right, ’cause if you are gonna ignore the Establishment Clause of the First Ammendment, we should probably get rid of those pesky Free Speech, Assembly, and Petition of Government clauses as well.

Look, I’m one of those evil people who see prayer to invisible sky faeries as irrational behavior. So perhaps that makes my opinion obviously skewed, and thus suitably ignored by Right-thinking God-worshippers. But you still have a Constitutional issue here, and I wonder how the supporters of this email would feel if I wandered out to some prominant national park and erected a big crescent with Allah Akbar in big letters on it? How about the Atheist “A” symbol?

You down with that? Maybe I can put my Atheist A statue at the entrance to your courthouse, or on the county park that overlooks your house? Good to go? OK, so you are open minded and can deal, but it turns out that the Scientolgists, and the Bahiasts, and FLDS, and an endless line of others, both monotheistic sects and pagan groups, also want their symbols on display, on government land, and protected by the State. Or we can draw a clear and fair line, consistent with Constitutional principles, and not do any of that.

Finally, some irony: Liberty Legal Institute, unlike some of the religiously oriented right wing legal groups, has legitimate Free Speech bonafides, and I can respect them for it. LLI and the ACLU both filed amicus briefs in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” SCOTUS case. Both briefs were in favor of the student. Pretty cool.

FOLLOW UP: My friend questioned where it all ends, this removal of government religious endorsement symbology, with the following:

So if the statue were actually of a doughboy then it would be secular, correct? But what if the doughboy, being properly in uniform, was wearing dog tags? What if the dog tags said “Presbyterian”? Is it now a religious statement? At what point is any religious reference more a reflection of the American culture than a statement of religion?

A fair question. My response, again mildly cleaned up:

Indeed, the appropriate display of religious symbology on government property could devolve into angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin pedantry. I would not support, nor do I suspect that the ACLU would support, the tearing down of a statue of a doughboy with dog tags that had “Presbyterian” engraved on them. I can see the ACLU weighing in during the construction of said statue as to the need to have the religious identification of the soldier specifically on display. And I can see all sorts of Christian religious groups expressing shock, shock! that anyone would object to their specific religion receiving special prominence on State grounds. But…a reasonable retort to this rhetoric might be: I wonder how close this hypothetical dog tag engraving is, in terms of religous display, to the actual Big Honking White Cross at issue in this case?

Perhaps of greater relevence, and likely to see further legal challenges, would be a discussion of the appropriateness of insisting that all school children have to swear that their country is protected by a God (The Pledge, at least since 1954) or that every time I handle any piece of Federal currency, I am to be reminded that the Fed specifically endorses an Abrahamic religious identity. Or if when I go to certain courts, I am greeted by an ediface with terrifying implications; that this particular court district subscribes to a legal theory citing as a matter of Higher Law that I have to Honor a God, a specific God, including setting aside a special day just for Him. I wonder, exactly which version of the three major Decalogues will be engraved on said courthouse monument? I’m guessing it won’t be the Jewish one. (And I’m hardly the first to question what sort of ignorant legal theorist thinks that our Constitution is based on such nonsense, anyway? Half of the Commandments are blatently unconstituional, and one of them, if obeyed, would destroy the entire basis for a capitalist economy.)

As to the ACLU: Yes their very actions produce backlash. The ACLU historically takes cases that are unpopular, sometimes radically so. And I have been disappointed with a vague trend in case selection which emphasises too much the Establishment Clause, at the expense of other case options associated with free Speech, particularly when free speech is from the Right. And of course, the ACLU has no record at all on gun rights, as the old joke goes: “How does the ACLU count? 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10.” But all in all, I think the ACLU does a bang up job, and are far more “in the right” than the religious right, what with the latter’s Christian Nation revisionism and expectation that they should be able to define morality for all of us based upon a Very Old Book.

And you are right, of course, as to the Mojave desert significance: it is much more about precedent.

Posted by Cameron @ 12:25 pm on July 24th 2009

Congratulations

Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox just joined a club only marginally less exclusive than the twelve men who walked on the surface of the Moon. In the history of major league baseball there have been only eighteen pitchers who have pitched a perfect game. Mark Buehrle’s achievement occurs only once every 11,000 games and involves a game in which every single batter is retired without reaching first base. That means no hits, no home runs or ground rule doubles, no walks, and no hit batters. All 27 batters that the pitcher faced over the course of nine innings were retired hitless. This is obviously an achievement for not just the pitcher but the rest of the team who caught every pop fly and line drive and threw the batter out with every ground ball sent their way.

Posted by Brad @ 3:22 pm on July 22nd 2009

PA-Sen

I mentioned somewhere else that it would be the apex of hilarious irony if Specter switches parties to avoid losing a race against Pat Toomey, only to lose a primary to some other guy (in this case, Joe Sestak).

I have now changed my mind.

It would be the TRUE apex of hilarity if Specter wins his Democratic primary, and then loses to Pat Toomey anyway. And the Democrats will have managed to completely screw themselves in the process, losing a seat that would have been an easy win against Specter, or against Toomey with any Democrat besides Specter.

Quinnipac:

General election

Specter (D) 45 (46)
Toomey (R) 44 (37)

Sestak (D) 35 (37)
Toomey (R) 39 (35)

Posted by Cameron @ 3:05 am on July 21st 2009

Do those craters spell something?

Posted by Rojas @ 10:34 pm on July 20th 2009

Ownership change for great People’s victory!

Every time I’m ready to give up on The Onion, they go and do something like this.

Posted by Brad @ 1:07 pm on July 20th 2009

Quote of the Day II – Dueling Joe the Plumber Endorsements

One is a “serious” voice of conservatism. The other purportedly an air-headed floozie. You be the judge.

The blurb on the book jacket of Joe the Plumber’s new book:

“Joe’s story is the iconic American tale. He’s a patriot who became instantly famous for simply asking a question that millions of us wanted asked. As my friend Sean Hannity would say, Joe is a great American!” — Mike Gallagher, Syndicated Talk Radio

Shortly before [Meghan] McCain sat for this interview, Samuel Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, gave an interview to Christianity Today in which he complained about “queers” and declared, “I wouldn’t have them anywhere near my children.” Unprompted, McCain rails against the man her father’s presidential campaign touted as an American everyman and made a showpiece in the weeks before the election.

“Joe the Plumber — you can quote me — is a dumbass. He should stick to plumbing.”

Posted by Brad @ 12:12 pm on July 20th 2009

Quote of the Day

I think we’ll look back at President Barack Obama as being hugely influential on the question of race in America, indeed a critical turning point on part with the 60s, but not just or even primarily because he’s a black guy who became President. He is also one of the strongest voices in the African American community (but existing kind of outside or even above it) for personal responsibility and an end to the victim mentality that permeated (and understandably and even necessarily so) African American leadership from the civil rights era until this decade. The pushback against that has been a long time coming from within those communities—and has always existed, I should add, in pockets. But since say the mid-90s, the role of the people regularly labeled “hucksters” (your Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons) trading on injury have declined precipitously, and the idea of a self-directed destiny and a sharp denunciation of excuse-making has been ascendant (at the time, I criticized people for lauding Bill Cosby’s rants on this subject not because they were wrong, but because so many of them were ignoring that his critiques were enormously well-received by the black community, and indeed at that time had almost become mainstream. People were acting like he had gone rouge and defied the black community, ignoring that for his comments, he got a standing ovation, and many black leaders and community members had been saying the same thing for years).

Point being, I think we’ve reached critical mass in the black community for this kind of thinking. Listening to President Obama give the speech to the NAACP he does below for some reason makes me think of the last step of the Ghandian ladder (the part after they laugh at you and after they fight you, the part where you win). The social evolution of minority groups from de-humanized pariahs to average joe mainstream fascinates me, and with the black community, I think we’re on the full cusp of something profound, an end, if you like, of the “us vs. them” mentality that has been at times prevalent (and I say again, understandably and probably necessarily).

The quote from President Obama is this (at around the 24 minute mark).

“We’ve got to say to our children, yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. That’s not a reason to get bad grades. That’s not a reason to cut class. That’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands. You can not forget that. That’s what we need to teach all our children: no excuses.”

Note too that it’s the biggest applause line in the entire speech.

This is not the future of the conversation in the black community. It is the present.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Posted by Cameron @ 1:08 pm on July 19th 2009

Uncanny mouth motion

I hate movies that include talking animals. Most egregious are the attempts to force animal mouths to mirror human speech motions. The CGI used in movies like Beverly Hills Chihuahua annoys me even in the short lengths featured in movie trailers. I think the problem stems from an uncanny valley issue. By imbuing animals with the uniquely human trait of mouth motion it screws up the perception of the animal as purely animal. Something just doesn’t sit well with me with this style of animation. I don’t have a problem with purely 2D animals speaking, probably because the mouth motion doesn’t look remotely human in classic animation. I also don’t have as much of an issue with creatures that aren’t animal like speaking. The Geico gecko doesn’t really get on my nerves because it stretches the limits of animalness. But a talking golden retriever or cat rubs me the wrong way nearly every time.

Aside from being a brilliant film, Up deftly avoided this issue. As I was walking out of the theater it occurred to me how cleverly the dog collar gag worked. It allowed the dog to be a fully realized speaking character but didn’t disturb the realism of the dog by attempting to make it partially human.

Squirrel!

Posted by Jerrod @ 9:45 pm on July 18th 2009

Aweseome news remix of the week #1 and #2

These pretty much speak for themselves, ie News, Remix, and awesome.

Brian Oxman looks like Uncle Teddy from Rescue Me.

Posted by Cameron @ 2:32 pm on July 18th 2009

Footprints

Apollo 11:

Apollo 14:

Apollo 15:

Apollo 16:

Apollo 17:

The recently launched Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter sent back its first images of a bunch of the moon landing sites and the results are phenomenal. The remains of the moon missions are visible most easily if you look for the shadows cast by the decent stages that were left on the moon. There are versions with arrows over at NASA’s mission page. These photos are only the start; as the orbiter reaches its final altitude of just 30 miles above the surface the detail of the images are going to be increased two to three fold.

Posted by Cameron @ 5:37 am on July 18th 2009

The logic of a casino’s $5 ATM fee

The Economist’s Free Exchange blog led me to this fascinating take on ATM fees in casinos. This was the quoted original post from Marginal Revolution:

Should the service fee by high or low? It could cut either way. A low service fee encourages withdrawals and thus gambling, which is profitable for the casino. A high service fee takes in money from the desperate and those with high time preference. It was $4.99. On the other hand, they let you take out up to $1000, well above the average.

The option between high and low seems straightforward enough until you factor in the public’s hankering for a deal. As Julian Sanchez notes:

Obviously, nearly $5 is an unusually high service fee, and I think it makes perfect sense, because there’s an important missing angle here: The effect of the fee on the size of withdrawals. I don’t know about you, but when I’m out in a place where the only convenient cash machine has a high fee, I tend to take out significantly more cash—usually more than I think I’ll need—because the last thing I want is to get shaken down twice.

So by raising the fee to acquire cash you induce the public into withdrawing more they normally would right before they walk into an environment where cash in the pocket evaporates easily. How clever is that? Especially with that max rate of $1000 it’s easy to turn an original plan to withdraw $100 and incur a 5% fee into a withdrawal of $500 and only incur a 1% fee. Of course, the casino will probably walk away with a good portion of those extra four hundred dollars. It’s a fantastic implementation of human nature against reasoned better judgment.

Posted by Brad @ 12:12 pm on July 17th 2009

Music Video of the Week

This will further lose me indie music snob cred I’m sure, but I really like this song.

Robin Thicke is an unapologeticly pop R&B singer, the kind where about half his songs feature him singing a falsetto ballad while sitting on a bed containing a chick in panties and a tank top hugging him from behind. Fair enough—not really my thing, but whatever. However, he also has a pretty mean George Michael streak in him, which I can dig. This is his first hit (he got a shorter hair cut later for his ballad-on-the-bed phase), and the song, which just kept popping up in my Pandora, has really grown on me. Besides being funky and well sung, I think there’s a certain shamelessness to it that tickles me.

Robin Thicke – When I Get You Alone

And yes, he is Alan Thicke’s son.

Posted by Rojas @ 3:59 pm on July 16th 2009

Chirping about cricket, or crickets chirping?

A US pro league is in the works. Twenty20 rules to make it bearable for the American fan. Notify the folks at Versus…

Posted by Rojas @ 3:37 pm on July 16th 2009

Does the House Health Care bill ban private insurance?

Investor’s Business Daily claims that it does. Specifically, they point to an early paragraph in the bill that, to most appearances, prevents the creation of new private health care plans. The long and the short of it is that this would allow people to keep their existing insurance, but would not permit new options to be offered by the private sector; nor would it permit new employees to be enrolled in existing private sector programs. It would also amount to a permanent prohibition on health savings accounts.

I think some further analysis of this section is required, and I’ll be interested in hearing different interpretations from the bill’s proponents. Because of my disgust with the current health care system and the cost of care, I am trying to keep an open mind about reforms. But I am understandably less than eager to spend a trillion dollars over ten years on a boondoggle, and new government programs ought to be considered boondoggles until proven otherwise.

The full text of the bill may be found here. IBD is up in arms about the contents of page 16.

Posted by James @ 5:43 pm on July 15th 2009

Pond Scum

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