Chronicling the follies of religion and superstition, the virtues of skepticism, and the wonders of the real (natural) universe as revealed by science. Plus other interesting and educational stuff.

"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

-George Carlin

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

-Albert Einstein

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

-Carl Sagan

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

-Christopher Hitchens

 

…every other advanced country has much lower health costs than we do, and even within the US, the VHA and even Medicaid are much better at controlling costs than Medicare, and even more so relative to private insurance. The key is having a health insurance system that can say no — no, we won’t pay premium prices for drugs that are little if any better, we won’t pay for medical procedures that yield little or no benefit But even as Republicans demand “entitlement reform”, they are dead set against anything like that. Bargaining over drug prices? Horrors! The Independent Payment Advisory Board? Death panels! They refuse to contemplate using approaches that have worked around the world; the only solution they will countenance is the solution that has never worked anywhere, namely, converting Medicare into an underfunded voucher system.

While the fiscal cliff is a bad thing from an economic point of view, it has had at least one salutary political effect. For it has finally laid bare the con that has always been at the core of the G.O.P.’s political strategy.

abaldwin360:

By Paul Krugman | The New York Times

In the ongoing battle of the budget, President Obama has done something very cruel. Declaring that this time he won’t negotiate with himself, he has refused to lay out a proposal reflecting what he thinks Republicans want. Instead, he has demanded that Republicans themselves say, explicitly, what they want. And guess what: They can’t or won’t do it.

No, really. While there has been a lot of bluster from the G.O.P. about how we should reduce the deficit with spending cuts, not tax increases, no leading figures on the Republican side have been able or willing to specify what, exactly, they want to cut.

And there’s a reason for this reticence. The fact is that Republican posturing on the deficit has always been a con game, a play on the innumeracy of voters and reporters. Now Mr. Obama has demanded that the G.O.P. put up or shut up — and the response is an aggrieved mumble.

Here’s where we are right now: As his opening bid in negotiations, Mr. Obama has proposed raising about $1.6 trillion in additional revenue over the next decade, with the majority coming from letting the high-end Bush tax cuts expire and the rest from measures to limit tax deductions. He would also cut spending by about $400 billion, through such measures as giving Medicare the ability to bargain for lower drug prices.

Republicans have howled in outrage. Senator Orrin Hatch, delivering the G.O.P. reply to the president’s weekly address, denounced the offer as a case of “bait and switch,” bearing no relationship to what Mr. Obama ran on in the election. In fact, however, the offer is more or less the same as Mr. Obama’s original 2013 budget proposal and also closely tracks his campaign literature.

So what are Republicans offering as an alternative? They say they want to rely mainly on spending cuts instead. Which spending cuts? Ah, that’s a mystery. In fact, until late last week, as far as I can tell, no leading Republican had been willing to say anything specific at all about how spending should be cut.

The veil lifted a bit when Senator Mitch McConnell, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, finally mentioned a few things — raising the Medicare eligibility age, increasing Medicare premiums for high-income beneficiaries and changing the inflation adjustment for Social Security. But it’s not clear whether these represent an official negotiating position — and in any case, the arithmetic just doesn’t work.

read more

The first thing you need to know is that America wasn’t always like this. When John F. Kennedy was elected president, the top 0.01 percent was only about a quarter as rich compared with the typical family as it is now — and members of that class paid much higher taxes than they do today. Yet somehow we managed to have a dynamic, innovative economy that was the envy of the world. The superrich may imagine that their wealth makes the world go round, but history says otherwise.

To this historical observation we should add another note: quite a few of today’s superrich, Mr. Romney included, make or made their money in the financial sector, buying and selling assets rather than building businesses in the old-fashioned sense. Indeed, the soaring share of the wealthy in national income went hand in hand with the explosive growth of Wall Street.

Not long ago, we were told that all this wheeling and dealing was good for everyone, that it was making the economy both more efficient and more stable. Instead, it turned out that modern finance was laying the foundation for a severe economic crisis whose fallout continues to afflict millions of Americans, and that taxpayers had to bail out many of those supposedly brilliant bankers to prevent an even worse crisis. So at least some members of the top 0.01 percent are best viewed as job destroyers rather than job creators.

Paul Krugman, “Who’s Very Important?” (via ryking)

I am amazed that this isn’t common knowledge. Well, maybe not amazed… after all, it has been the mission of the superrich and their bought and paid-for political party (the GOP) for over 40 years to bury this fact.

(via drinkthe-koolaid)

(Source: diadoumenos)

When future historians write about the fall of the American Republic, they will of course lay primary blame on the extremists of the right, who set out deliberately to destroy it. But they will also lay heavy blame on all the “centrists” and Serious People who not only refused to admit what was happening, but ostracized and silenced anyone who tried to point it out.

underthemountainbunker:

Dimon On Whether JP Morgan’s $2 Billion Loss Proves Banks Are Still Too Risky: ‘I Don’t Think So’ – [JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie] Dimon has been one of the biggest critics of the Volcker Rule, which is meant to prevent banks from making massive bets with federally insured dollars. […] Of course, the point isn’t whether JP Morgan, the biggest bank in the U.S., can survive a trade like this. It’s whether the financial system can sustain this sort of trading by all of the big banks, many of which are not in the same financial shape as JP Morgan. As the New York Times detailed yesterday, JP Morgan and the rest of the nation’s biggest banks have been fighting to widen exemptions to the Volcker Rule that would allow banks to continue making risky trades of this sort. ”I hope that the final [Volcker] rule will prevent this,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), whose name graces the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, on ABC today. “The Volcker Rule is still being formulated.” — Think Progress
One Month Ago, Dimon Called Critics Of Big Bank Trading ‘Infantile’ And ‘Nonfactual’
RNC Chief: Leave Wall Street alone – Host David Gregory asked a straightforward question: “In light of the losses on Wall Street this week, you think we need less financial regulation rather than more?” In Preibus’ mind, it’s not even a close call: “I think we need less.” The RNC chief added that Democrats have “made things worse” by approving new safeguards and adding new layers of accountability to the financial system. It reminded me of an Upton Sinclair line: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — Steve Benen
Democratic Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren called for JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to resign his position as a director at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In a statement posted on her website, Warren said Dimon stepping down would “send a signal to the American people that Wall Street bankers get it and to show that they understand the need for responsibility and accountability.” – The Hill
JPMorgan Chase has been lobbying to make exactly the kind of trades that just lost the company billions of dollars. – Edward Wyatt in The New York Times
JPMorgan Chase’s loss proves the need for bank regulation. – Paul Krugman in The New York Times
More from Ezra Klein…
How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform – The fate of Dodd-Frank over the past two years is an object lesson in the government’s inability to institute even the simplest and most obvious reforms, especially if those reforms happen to clash with powerful financial interests. From the moment it was signed into law, lobbyists and lawyers have fought regulators over every line in the rulemaking process. Congressmen and presidents may be able to get a law passed once in a while – but they can no longer make sure it stays passed. You win the modern financial-regulation game by filing the most motions, attending the most hearings, giving the most money to the most politicians and, above all, by keeping at it, day after day, year after fiscal year, until stealing is legal again. “It’s like a scorched-earth policy,” says Michael Greenberger, a former regulator who was heavily involved with the drafting of Dodd-Frank. “It requires constant combat. And it never, ever ends.” That the banks have just about succeeded in strangling Dodd-Frank is probably not news to most Americans – it’s how they succeeded that’s the scary part. –  Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone

underthemountainbunker:

Dimon On Whether JP Morgan’s $2 Billion Loss Proves Banks Are Still Too Risky: ‘I Don’t Think So’ – [JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie] Dimon has been one of the biggest critics of the Volcker Rule, which is meant to prevent banks from making massive bets with federally insured dollars. […] Of course, the point isn’t whether JP Morgan, the biggest bank in the U.S., can survive a trade like this. It’s whether the financial system can sustain this sort of trading by all of the big banks, many of which are not in the same financial shape as JP Morgan. As the New York Times detailed yesterday, JP Morgan and the rest of the nation’s biggest banks have been fighting to widen exemptions to the Volcker Rule that would allow banks to continue making risky trades of this sort. ”I hope that the final [Volcker] rule will prevent this,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), whose name graces the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, on ABC today. “The Volcker Rule is still being formulated.” — Think Progress

  • RNC Chief: Leave Wall Street alone – Host David Gregory asked a straightforward question: “In light of the losses on Wall Street this week, you think we need less financial regulation rather than more?” In Preibus’ mind, it’s not even a close call: “I think we need less.” The RNC chief added that Democrats have “made things worse” by approving new safeguards and adding new layers of accountability to the financial system. It reminded me of an Upton Sinclair line: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — Steve Benen
  • Democratic Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren called for JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to resign his position as a director at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In a statement posted on her website, Warren said Dimon stepping down would “send a signal to the American people that Wall Street bankers get it and to show that they understand the need for responsibility and accountability.” – The Hill
  • JPMorgan Chase has been lobbying to make exactly the kind of trades that just lost the company billions of dollars. – Edward Wyatt in The New York Times
  • JPMorgan Chase’s loss proves the need for bank regulation.Paul Krugman in The New York Times
  • More from Ezra Klein
  • How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform – The fate of Dodd-Frank over the past two years is an object lesson in the government’s inability to institute even the simplest and most obvious reforms, especially if those reforms happen to clash with powerful financial interests. From the moment it was signed into law, lobbyists and lawyers have fought regulators over every line in the rulemaking process. Congressmen and presidents may be able to get a law passed once in a while – but they can no longer make sure it stays passed. You win the modern financial-regulation game by filing the most motions, attending the most hearings, giving the most money to the most politicians and, above all, by keeping at it, day after day, year after fiscal year, until stealing is legal again. “It’s like a scorched-earth policy,” says Michael Greenberger, a former regulator who was heavily involved with the drafting of Dodd-Frank. “It requires constant combat. And it never, ever ends.” That the banks have just about succeeded in strangling Dodd-Frank is probably not news to most Americans – it’s how they succeeded that’s the scary part. –  Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone

The Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have been making waves with a new book acknowledging a truth that, until now, was unmentionable in polite circles. They say our political dysfunction is largely because of the transformation of the Republican Party into an extremist force that is “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” You can’t get cooperation to serve the national interest when one side of the divide sees no distinction between the national interest and its own partisan triumph.

So how did that happen? For the past century, political polarization has closely tracked income inequality, and there’s every reason to believe that the relationship is causal. Specifically, money buys power, and the increasing wealth of a tiny minority has effectively bought the allegiance of one of our two major political parties, in the process destroying any prospect for cooperation.

And the takeover of half our political spectrum by the 0.01 percent is, I’d argue, also responsible for the degradation of our economic discourse, which has made any sensible discussion of what we should be doing impossible.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the war on women, which is real enough. But there’s also a war on the young, which is just as real even if it’s better disguised. And it’s doing immense harm, not just to the young, but to the nation’s future.

Let’s start with some advice Mitt Romney gave to college students during an appearance last week. After denouncing President Obama’s “divisiveness,” the candidate told his audience, “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”

The first thing you notice here is, of course, the Romney touch — the distinctive lack of empathy for those who weren’t born into affluent families, who can’t rely on the Bank of Mom and Dad to finance their ambitions. But the rest of the remark is just as bad in its own way.

I mean, “get the education”? And pay for it how? Tuition at public colleges and universities has soared, in part thanks to sharp reductions in state aid. Mr. Romney isn’t proposing anything that would fix that; he is, however, a strong supporter of the Ryan budget plan, which would drastically cut federal student aid, causing roughly a million students to lose their Pell grants.

So how, exactly, are young people from cash-strapped families supposed to “get the education”? Back in March Mr. Romney had the answer: Find the college “that has a little lower price where you can get a good education.” Good luck with that. But I guess it’s divisive to point out that Mr. Romney’s prescriptions are useless for Americans who weren’t born with his advantages.

… What should we do to help America’s young? Basically, the opposite of what Mr. Romney and his friends want. We should be expanding student aid, not slashing it. And we should reverse the de facto austerity policies that are holding back the U.S. economy — the unprecedented cutbacks at the state and local level, which have been hitting education especially hard.

Yes, such a policy reversal would cost money. But refusing to spend that money is foolish and shortsighted even in purely fiscal terms. Remember, the young aren’t just America’s future; they’re the future of the tax base, too.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste; wasting the minds of a whole generation is even more terrible. Let’s stop doing it.

Paul Krugman: Lies, Damned Lies, And Elections

Back in 2000, George W. Bush made a discovery of enormous consequence: you could base a whole political campaign on claims that were flatly untrue, like the claim that your big tax cuts for the wealthy went to the middle class, or the claim that diverting Social Security funds into private accounts would strengthen the system’s finances, and reporting would never point this out. That’s when I formulated my doctrine that if Bush said the earth was flat, headlines would read Views Differ on Shape of Planet.

The way to understand [the Right’s reaction to Occupy Wall Street] is to realize that it’s part of a broader syndrome, in which wealthy Americans who benefit hugely from a system rigged in their favor react with hysteria to anyone who points out just how rigged the system is…

Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They’re not John Galt; they’re not even Steve Jobs. They’re people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.

Yet they have paid no price. Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers, with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees — basically, they’re still in a game of heads they win, tails taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower rates than middle-class families.

This special treatment can’t bear close scrutiny — and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny. Anyone who points out the obvious, no matter how calmly and moderately, must be demonized and driven from the stage. In fact, the more reasonable and moderate a critic sounds, the more urgently he or she must be demonized, hence the frantic sliming of Elizabeth Warren.

So who’s really being un-American here? Not the protesters, who are simply trying to get their voices heard. No, the real extremists here are America’s oligarchs, who want to suppress any criticism of the sources of their wealth.

Paul Krugman, “Panic of the Plutocrats.” (via ryking)

Paul Krugman crystalizes the point perfectly.

Paul Krugman: The President Surrenders

cognitivedissonance:

Posting nearly in full:

For the deal itself, given the available information, is a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status…

Pay no attention to those who invoke the confidence fairy, claiming that tough action on the budget will reassure businesses and consumers, leading them to spend more. It doesn’t work that way, a fact confirmed by many studies of the historical record.

Indeed, slashing spending while the economy is depressed won’t even help the budget situation much, and might well make it worse. On one side, interest rates on federal borrowing are currently very low, so spending cuts now will do little to reduce future interest costs. On the other side, making the economy weaker now will also hurt its long-run prospects, which will in turn reduce future revenue. So those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker.

And then there are the reported terms of the deal, which amount to an abject surrender on the part of the president. Republicans will supposedly have an incentive to make concessions the next time around, because defense spending will be among the areas cut. But the G.O.P. has just demonstrated its willingness to risk financial collapse unless it gets everything its most extreme members want. Why expect it to be more reasonable in the next round?

In fact, Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling. Maybe it’s just me, but I see a pattern here.

Did the president have any alternative this time around? Yes.

First of all, he could and should have demanded an increase in the debt ceiling back in December. When asked why he didn’t, he replied that he was sure that Republicans would act responsibly. Great call.

And even now, the Obama administration could have resorted to legal maneuvering to sidestep the debt ceiling, using any of several options. In ordinary circumstances, this might have been an extreme step. But faced with the reality of what is happening, namely raw extortion on the part of a party that, after all, only controls one house of Congress, it would have been totally justifiable.

Make no mistake about it, what we’re witnessing here is a catastrophe on multiple levels.

And the damage isn’t over: there will be more choke points where Republicans can threaten to create a crisis unless the president surrenders, and they can now act with the confident expectation that he will.

In the long run, however, Democrats won’t be the only losers. What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can’t.

…we’re in a strange state now where people who actually take textbook economics and simple arithmetic seriously are seen as dangerously radical and irresponsible, while people who believe in invisible bond vigilantes and confidence fairies, who claim to know what the market will want even though there’s no sign of that desire in current asset prices, are viewed as Very Serious.

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Paul Krugman (via onehundreddollars)

(Source: herr-amn)

Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, sounds upset. And you can see why: President Obama, to the great relief of progressives, has called his bluff.

Last week, Mr. Ryan unveiled his budget proposal, and the initial reaction of much of the punditocracy was best summed up (sarcastically) by the blogger John Cole: “The plan is bold! It is serious! It took courage! It re-frames the debate! The ball is in Obama’s court! Very wonky! It is a game-changer! Did I mention it is serious?”

Then people who actually understand budget numbers went to work, and it became clear that the proposal wasn’t serious at all. In fact, it was a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy.

On Wednesday, as I said, the president called Mr. Ryan’s bluff: after offering a spirited (and reassuring) defense of social insurance, he declared, “There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.” Actually, the Ryan plan calls for $2.9 trillion in tax cuts, but who’s counting?

And then Mr. Obama laid out a budget plan that really is serious.

More broadly, Mr. Obama is conspicuously failing to mount any kind of challenge to the philosophy now dominating Washington discussion — a philosophy that says the poor must accept big cuts in Medicaid and food stamps; the middle class must accept big cuts in Medicare (actually a dismantling of the whole program); and corporations and the rich must accept big cuts in the taxes they have to pay. Shared sacrifice!