Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Monday, August 30, 2004

This complaint is directed at a number of commentators that I really like (one in particular), which gives me the right, I believe, to be unusually vitriolic in my condemnation. It is my first draft of a letter I will be sending to Eric Alterman today via email, and also putting in the mail. So here goes:

Every "liberal" commentator who has drawn this idiotic parallel between the huge protests of the Republican National Convention in New York and the huge protests of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 is bringing shame down upon the good name of all pragmatic liberalism and really making it extraordinarily difficult for left-liberal Democrats like myself to explain to our Green-expat friends why they should give two shits what "mainstream" liberal voices have to say about their activities, choices, and behaviors.

I'm talking to you, Eric Alterman, you bearded poser. Let's get a few things straight:

The 1968 protests were protests by LIBERALS of the platform of the DEMOCRATIC PARTY. At the DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION. The protests and the associated violence pointed up, and brought to a head, the deep divisions within the Democratic Party over the shameless, craven and altogether cowardly support that Huberty Humphrey had previously lent to the then-popular Vietnam war. At the time of the Democratic convenation, Humphrey was still contending that escalataing the war in Vietnam was the right decision, and that he planned to continue the bombardment of South Vietnam and escalate the war still further. The antiwar left saw this as a deep betrayal and a serious contradiction of the core principles of their party, and in Chicago, those feelings boiled over into riots.

The equivalent, just. to. be. absolutely. clear, would be if this year, the Democratic Party had nominated a candidate who had, at a critical moment, given his support to a brainless and short-sighted war of choice out of a mistaken belief that opposition to a war that would be all but won by the next presidential election would hurt his chances as a candidate in that election. And then when that candidate refused to admit that his decision had been wrong, hundreds of thousands of protestors had descended upon Boston and been swept up in a police riot.

Some part of that scenario, and we will not, in the interest of unity, go into just which part, did not happen. It did not happen because the antiwar left, as anyone who has worked in any real capacity within that movement knows but virtually everyone else denies as an article of faith, DOES take history, pragmatism, and likely outcomes into account when we make decisions about where to expend our energy, which after all is limited, and must be used only where it can be most effective.

Though there is considerable and unusual agreement within the antiwar left right now that the first priority of all progressive people should be the ouster of the Bush regime, there is significant dissention about just what will be the most effective course of action once John Kerry assumes the Presidency and, hopefully, the Democrats retake the Senate. There are those like myself, considered unacceptably spineless by what I regret to admit is a large majority of the movement, who argue that depite the obvious advantages of the antidemocratic forces that have pushed our world to the brink of widespread war in the nuclear age, we would be foolish not to realize that the progressive activist movement also has significant advantages that we have enjoyed at no other moment in our history.

One of those advantages, and there are many, is that there are legitimate progressive voices at many mainstream media outlets - people like Eric Alterman at MSNBC. Yet Alterman's relationship to the progressive/activist movement seems to be that whenever he's in a bad mood, he takes out his frustrations by deriding the activist progressive movement for its sanctimoniousness and ignorance of history.

To that, I hope I speak for the rest of the activist movement when I say - we remember. Do you?

Thursday, August 26, 2004

A while back, I wrote a little blog entry about Iraq, pointing out (back when it was considered crazy to say this) that Iraq really wasn't any better off under American occupation than it was under Saddam Hussein. Now, of course, this is pretty much undisputed, although if there is a such thing as "grudgingly undisputed," then this idea is that.

But the second part of that blog entry was my analysis that the only real option available to the U.S. strategically was to craft a Turkish-style democracy, where the country has a parliament that can basically be overruled, or at least massively influenced by, the country's military, which we would almost completely bankroll. That's basically Turkey's government.

The reason we needed to pursue that option is that Turkey is the only U.S.-friendly country in the region (other than Israel) that has anything you could vaguely refer to as a representative democracy. The other countries in the region are a handful of U.S.-backed monarchies, a few hostile monarchies, and Iran, a hostile hybrid of theocracy and representative democracy.

Of course, in country with a majority religious Shi'ite population, the natural tendency is going to be for the country to fall into the Iran model. So you would need a very well-defined and exquisitely executed strategy to prevent that from happening while you craft the apparatus you are planning to use to exert control over the government once it's created. You'd need to make sure, for example, that a robust distribution system, administered by the military, were created to make sure the population had things like food, water, and electricity, and that the population depended on the military for these things. A big job, no doubt, but all in all pretty simple stuff, especially if you have many thousands of highly-trained, well-equipped troops in-country and Congress has basically written you a blank check for reconstruction efforts.

So, there is a power struggle now among Alawi, our second choice to run the country, Sistani, the first choice of most of the moderate Shi'ite population, and Sadr, the first choice of the more radical elements of that same population. This reminds me of that old football adage about the forward pass - only three things can happen here, and two of them are bad.

Long story short, it would appear that we have invaded a country on a false pretext, overthrown their hostile but basically isolated and powerless government, and are well on our way to replacing that government with a hybrid democracy/Shi'ite theocracy that will immeasurably increase the political power of the region's most powerful hostile government, Iran.

If this actually does happen, and I have heard no one advance a plan for preventing it (today's collaboration between Sistani and Sadr's followers in their effort to semi-peacefully retake Najaf may be a sign that the ship has already sailed), it will leave the U.S. with two legitimately powerful allies in the region - Turkey, whose relationship with the U.S. has been badly strained by, you guessed it, our unprovoked invasion of its downstairs neighbor, and Saudi Arabia, a country with a sizeable Shi'ite population of its own.

Which calls to mind an interesting question - far from being able to name any significant positive achievement of the Bush regime, can anyone even name an initiative this gang undertook whose consequences did not turn out to be even more heinous and ruinous than the most dire predictions ever guessed?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

There. See how easy that was? Now we're cooking. I'm not going to set a deadline for my next installment, but I'll get to it at some point. In the meantime, I'm off to finish installing the new print server. Whee!

A little advice for on-again, off-again Dead fans like myself - the end of August is a perfect time to turn on again. In fact, even those of you who think you hate the Dead should take a listen at the end of August. Forget Truckin' or Friend of the Devil or any of the ones you've heard a hundred times - ask a Dead fan to let you listen to some Dire Wolf, or St. Stephen. Maybe it won't mean a thing to you, but it's worth the 1 in 100 shot that it'll move you.

I'm not sure what it is about the Dead; I never went to a Dead show and really wasn't into the Dead at any time while Jerry Garcia was alive. But looking back, listening to, say, a show they played in San Francisco in 1969, you can hear this irrepressible hope coming through, but filtered through the knowledge of everything that was about to happen - Altamont, Nixon, Cambodia, Reagan/Bush, and on and on... there's a sadness to it that's almost crushing, but in a beautiful, delicious way.

It's almost as if, listening to Jerry's voice, you can tell that even while everyone hanging on to his improbable star for dear life believed they were starting something, Jerry knew, on some level, that what Dead were really chronicling was the end of something, the death of a very real and vital part of what we once called the American Dream.

Of course this has been said a hundred times, much better than I can write it here in this blog, by people who were there, who experienced it and felt it and know what they are talking about. But it's a bit amazing that something that vague and amorphous can really come down through the generations, just because somebody showed up with a tape recorder.

----------
In the backwash of Fenario, the black and bloody mire
The Dire Wolf collects his due while the boys sing round the fire
Don't murder me, I beg of you, don't murder me
Please don't murder me...
----------

We're trying, Jerry. But maybe it's time to try a little harder, for a while.

Monday, August 23, 2004

I'm a Dick

Also, it would probably be polite of me to point you to the blog of the person who gave me this excellent suggestion. Her blog is much, much better than mine, so I'm a little reluctant to send you there, but after all, if you had standards, you probably wouldn't be here.

off on the wrong foot

A friend of mine from high school today suggested I should add commenting to my site. Well, here you go. Comment away. My intuition is that probably there won't be much commenting going on, except perhaps right after a DU article goes up, if that indeed ever happens again. But if there IS a lot of commenting, I will probably impose some fairly strict rules regarding what comments will be retained and what comments will be deleted.

For a general rule, try this - write in paragraphs, and don't use cliches. One-liners will probably get the ax, and cliche-hurling masquerading as commentary will provoke an indescribably savage reaction. I'll probably give a little more leeway to right-leaning posters than to those who lean left, because, well, let's be honest, they are going to need it.

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

One of the major missed opportunities of our generation was our failure (which failure was greatly assisted by our parents and other authority figures) to develop a coherent understanding of the concept of addiction. Almost all of us were subjected to substantial social engineering to attempt to protect us from ever becoming addicted to drugs, but the effort - in addition to being a complete failure - involved almost no investigation of the true nature of addiction, and indeed probably contributed, through shameless and often neccesarily willful disinformation, to the very self-deceptive behaviors and thought-patterns that actually lead to addiction.

One of the most harmful myths about addiction, which for all I know is still being taught, is that addiction is something that happens quickly, like an acute illness that grabs hold of you and pulls you down into a quagmire of pain and depravity. Indeed, in the movie Traffic, it was exactly this demon version of drug abuse that we were treated to, replete with the racist coup de grace that's always been integral to hysterical anti-drug crusading. The female lead was a normal high-school kid (except that her dad was the drug czar) just smoking a little pot, but one day somebody brough over some freebase heroin and within weeks our heroine (ha ha) was living in the projects with a well-muscled black man, boinking him for smack.

There was plenty of appropriately derisive commentary about this at the time, and my intention isn't to rehash the flaws of Traffic. But in a rich society, addiction is one of the key social maladies, and it would be hard to overstate the damage that the lack of a meaningful dialogue about the problem is doing to us as a society.

In the case of this particular point - the speed with which addiction grabs hold of a person - it is not difficult for someone who has struggled with addiction to see the problem. (By the way, the phrase "someone who has struggled with addiction" should be understood to mean "virtually the entire human population.") In fact, addiction is the name we give to a particularly harmful class of habits, and habits do not spring up overnight. On the contrary, habits are insidious precisely because they take hold slowly, and by the time a habit is truly entrenched in a person's life, it has become so much a part of who he is that it is difficult for him to imagine his life without it.

The reason I'm bringing all of this up, by the way, is that I'm addicted to wasting time. I get the problem under control periodically, and then I fall back into the problem again. The reasons for the ebbs and flows are complicated, but the underlying condition isn't - it's "relaxing" for me, in a shallow sense, to switch off my brain and surf the web, or play a computer game, or look at chess puzzles... Basically to do anything that has nothing to do with the everyday business of living. To those who don't struggle with this particular addiction, you are probably thinking "well, everybody does that." Which is true. But addiction is more a matter of magnitude than a qualitative condition. When I'm in the depths of a procrastination bender, I can spend 40+ hours a week just sitting on my ass wasting time.

There are a lot of negative consequences to this behavior, but I'll tell you the worst one. When you spend all day wasting time, the days go slow, but the months fly by, and before you know it...

----

I was in a tent one time in Georgia in 105-degree heat, with 98% humidity, and I was trying to sleep, and this little snippet of a song kept running through my head:

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The Sun is the same in a relative way, but you're older
Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death

Which pretty much sums it up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

There are several interesting points in Vampire Elf’s opening critique of the Federal Minimum Wage. Unfortunately, the main point – that the Minimum Wage causes unemployment – is not particularly interesting. It’s the same old game plan that the opponents of the Minimum Wage have been using for decades, with a 1990’s-era twist thrown in.

Here’s how the game plan works. Step One is to call the minimum wage an artificially created price floor. Notice the insidious-looking italics. The implication is that anything artificially created is a heinous constraint on the glorious free market. Since no logical reason for believing this is presented, we don’t need to deal with Step One except to point it out so that we can inoculate ourselves against it.

Step Two is to set up the Card-Krueger study as the key turning point in the history of thinking about the minimum wage, and then set about annihilating the study. This works well for two reasons – one, the Card-Kreuger study was an important turning point in economic thought about the minimum wage (though the ideas it supported actually began gaining traction in the 1980’s), and two, primary employment data is pretty hard to collect, and it is therefore pretty easy for an organization that has an interest in discrediting a given set of employment data to do just that.

Of course, a reputable-sounding establishment like the “Employment Policies Institute in Washington,” is presumably a pretty objective, nonpartisan source on the subject, no? We have here a very important lesson about propaganda. Indeed, I am certain (ahem) that Vampire Elf was slyly looking to teach you just this lesson, and not to hamhandedly mislead you.

You see, when you read about the “Washington-based Employment Policies Institute” you are supposed to assume that this is some sort of government agency, or at least a fair-minded private organization. Maybe you might even confuse the group with the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-worker group with offices down the street from EmPI. Actually, you could be forgiven for that, since EmPI has always actively sought out such confusion, even going so far as to use a virtually identical logo to EPI. But chances are you won’t assume (though if you did, you’d be right) that the Employment Policies Institute is an advocacy organization funded by the restaurant industry whose main goal is the abolition of the minimum wage.

Which brings up an issue that is actually an interesting philosophical question about the minimum wage, and which we’ll hopefully come back to after we dispose of Vampire Elf’s weird attempt to deny the fact that, all together now, no serious economist now believes that modest increases in the minimum wage result in increases in unemployment.

But to return for a moment to the EmPI criticisms of Card-Krueger, it is humorous to note that upon closer analysis the data that EmPI provided David Neumark, which was supposed to totally refute Card-Krueger, actually wound up supporting it to a large degree. (Another, perhaps unintentional, misleading aspect of Vampire Elf’s critique is that he presents the Neumark study and the EmPI study as being separate entities – Neumark was actually relying on EmPI’s data.)

The EmPI campaign to muddy the waters with regard to the minimum wage eventually failed, and serious economists moved on. I’ll spare Vampire Elf the indignity of having it pointed out that his description of the Card-Krueger study is completely ridiculous, and that anyone who thinks that a study that poor could gain widespread traction, even among “liberal-minded economists,” is substantially deluded. Suffice it to say that while the primary research in Card-Krueger had its soft spots (as does ALL primary data) it is widely recognized as sound, and has been substantially confirmed by subsequent studies.

One question that’s also worth dealing with, which Vampire Elf does not mention, is the question of why it was assumed for years that increases in the minimum wage led to unemployment, or to be more precise why the 10:2 ratio was considered a “well-established law of modern economic theory.” Card-Krueger actually asked this question, and answered it – for years studies that called into question the relationship between minimum-wage increases and increases in unemployment were impossible to get published.

Two factors led to a shift in this condition, neither of them having anything to do with the emergence of Vampire Elf’s humorously imaginary liberal economics establishment. The most significant was the fact that analysis of the available body of data on the subject revealed that the data did not show the expected statistical shift in certainty from study to study (larger sample sizes yielding more precise results), indicating that the available body of data was significantly different from the actual body of data. The second factor was deliciously ironic – organizations like the Employment Policies Institute were so prolific in their pro-GOP boobery while trying to prevent the demise of the first Bush administration that they called attention to the fact that there existed a substantial right-wing nexus of policy analysis and media that was shouting down substantial amounts of perfectly valid primary research unfavorable to their supporters' positions. This paved the way for the commissioning of studies like Card-Krueger which, predictably enough, EmPI then attempted to shout down.

Of course, even after he’s digested all of this information, Vampire Elf is still going to oppose the minimum wage. Why? Because he’s philosophically opposed to it, for reasons that have nothing to do with unemployment. Which is fine, and that philosophy is what we ought to be debating. So let’s set aside this smokescreen where Vampire Elf attempts to use blarings from the Mighty Wurlitzer to pretend that economists still think that the minimum wage contributes substantially to unemployment. They don’t, and there never was any evidence supporting that idea, even though it appeared that there was.

So let’s frame the debate a different way – IF the minimum wage could be set at such a level that a person making the minimum wage were living above the poverty line, without creating substantial unemployment, should we do that? Indeed, there is a historical precedent for just such a condition, in the late 1960’s, depending on how one sets the poverty level. So if that condition can be brought about – the question is, should we seek to bring it about? I await Vampire Elf’s examination of this question, now that we have dispensed with all the poppy… er, balderdash.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Geek Humor

Well, of course I'm slacking mightily on my debate post, but you see, the town water tower exploded and flooded my entire city, so I'm currently clinging to a floating box and... No, wait, that isn't funny with a bunch of people still missing after Hurricane Charley. Suffice it to say my entry is mostly written, but I have yet to finish it and post it.

One of the reasons is that I'm in the middle of a big project at work to basically clean up and reorganize the areas of the office that are used by the support department so that we can be more efficient. This is generally pretty boring work, but anyone who's ever done this knows that there's a lot of geek humor to be found in the hilariously useless stuff that is lying around most server rooms. I decided today that I was going to have a little competition among all the stuff I found and elect a Most Useless Server Room Item.

I thought I had found a winner around 4 p.m. when I uncovered the Bag of Little Bits of Plastic and Keys that Don't Open Anything. Every server room has a Bag of Keys That Don't Open Anything but I felt the addition of the little bits of plastic (whose original intended use, if any, is lost to history) gave the Bag something of a poetic touch.

However, around 5:15 today I found the item that is, in my view, the undisputed Most Useless Server Room Item - a copy of Windows NT Workstation 3.5. For those of you who have been in the business long enough to remember Workstation 3.5, which came out in 1994, you may recall that the key feature of Workstation 3.5 was that it didn't work. Thus Microsoft quickly released Workstation 3.51, which kind of worked, and eventually Workstation 4.0, which worked very well and was the base client operating system that spawned most of the client-server networks in operation today.

Exempted from the competition are things that, while somewhat useful in normal quantities, are useless in the enormous quantities in which we possess them. For example, every office should keep a few dozen floppy disks around. But our office keeps a few thousand floppy disks around. We literally have a stash of thousands of high density 3 1/2' floppy disks.

I also have about three hundred stickers with the various days of the week written on them in both English and French. Another item which has some limited use, but which we for some reason have a limitless quantity of.

Perhaps no one but me finds this funny. Oh, well. Hope to see you tomorrow with that rebuttal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

So, Vampire Elf has finally gotten his opening salvo up, post-deadline but not ridiculously so. All in all, an interesting defense, and one that takes the debate in the direction in which I had originally planned, before I was seized by a sudden fit of unwarranted charitableness.

[On edit - the REAL location of Vampire Elf's remarks is at www.smelltheglory.com/blog ]


I had intentionally left out the Card-Krueger episode out of respect for the fact that Vampire Elf is not a totally predictable right-wing hack boy, but of course in this case VE decided to go ahead and align himself with, among other folks, "Ph.D economist David R. Henderson." The Elf thought he should throw the Ph.D part in there, just in case you've never heard of Mr. Henderson, an ignorance for which you could be forgiven, since to call Henderson "fringe" would be an insult to Western apparel.

I'll deal with this in more depth in my rebuttal, but for anyone following this, I'd suggest in the meantime you think about one of the key implications in Vampire Elf's opening remarks - that the entire mainstream economic consensus on the impact of the federal minimum wage was completely altered by a single study, ten years ago, and has continued in that direction ever since, solely on the basis of this one study, which has been substantially discredited.

Many readers are thinking, "Hmm. Maybe there's more to this story..."

Fear not, Dear Reader. The rest of the story will be up by Friday.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Well, I've been away for a while, largely because my company has foisted a new browser off on us and it doesn't work with blogspot, so I haven't been able to log in. It was a good time for a break, though, because I think I'm going to go in a different direction with the blog for a while. Rather than focusing on current events and general snarking (which I cover pretty well in my about-monthly DU column) this blog is going to tend more to the philosophical end of things, with an emphasis on political philosophy.

Now, if that sounds boring as shit, well, tough. It's my blog, it makes me no money, and I can do with it what I want. But to liven things up a bit, I'm going to try to engage some other bloggers in cross-blog debates.

Our first contestant is a friend of mine from back home who now lives in Georgia and operates a site called www.smelltheglory.com. Yes, that's right, "Smell the Glory." If you need an explanation, you would never understand.

When I told him of my idea for a Blog Debate Challenge, he immediately thought it sounded very exciting, which is a good example of why he is my friend - we are both losers. But never mind all that.

Our topic for the week is The Minimum Wage.

I'll post a link to Ethridge's response once he gets it up. The response, that is.
-------------------------------
The Federal Minimum Wage

Economically speaking, the minimum wage is a price floor on the cost of labor per hour. To most opponents of the minimum wage, this is the beginning and the end of the argument against it. There people have a point – a price floor that’s set above the going rate for a good or service (in this case, hourly wage labor) has the effect of creating an artificial surplus of that good or service. Since industrial capitalist economies suffer from a chronic labor surplus generally, it seems that setting a minimum wage in such an economy would be counterproductive.

The key word here, though, is seems. In fact, since the minimum wage was first introduced in the 1930’s, increases in the minimum wage have turned out not to correlate with rises in the unemployment rate. There is a huge amount of propaganda out there to the contrary (mostly appealing to “common sense” and “Economics 101”), but serious economists now accept that the federal minimum wage has little to no effect on the unemployment rate. Why is this?

Most obviously, the reason a price floor would not have the effect of creating a surplus is that the floor was set below the market price. For example, right now, if the U.S. government set a price floor of $10 on a barrel of oil, the floor would have no effect at all, because oil is never going to approach $10 a barrel.

But the reality is that a lot of people do make the minimum wage, and these people do obviously get a raise (or get fired) when the minimum wage is increased. So why doesn’t this price floor create a labor surplus?

The answer is pretty simple. The reason a minimum wage increase does not result in the mass firing of minimum wage workers is that the minimum wage is actually much less than the natural market price for labor. However, the inequality between the negotiating position of individual unskilled workers and that of the companies that employ them creates a situation in which the laborers are unable to negotiate a fair price for their services.

If there is a single principle of capitalism that is more effectively obscured than the principle of inequality of negotiating positions, it is so effectively obscured that I have never heard of it. Yet it is difficult to imagine a simpler principle to understand.

When one party in a negotiation cannot walk away from the negotiating table, he cannot hope to negotiate a fair deal. This is clearly the situation that prevails when a worker is negotiating for a wage when he has bills piling up and children to feed. Furthermore, even if a worker is not in such a dire situation, he can rest assured that the company with which he is negotiating knows that there is someone out there who is in such great need of a job that he will accept work for far less than the natural market price.

The core principles of market economics apply to parties in roughly equal negotiating positions. A company with a drinking water monopoly, for example, could charge an essentially infinite price for its goods, and people would be forced to pay it. The negotiating positions are not equal. While not quite as unequal as the previous example, the negotiating positions of a minimum wage worker and a large corporation (or even a small business) are so obviously disparate that it hardly bears discussing.

But the question will certainly be asked – shouldn’t the person who needs the job the worst get the job? Or, to put it in the converse, is it fair to keep the person who needs a job the worst out of work while someone else who needs the job less gets to work?

In the abstract, this question might be interesting. But it is only relevant if it actually corresponds to something that is happening in the real world. We must ask the question – “Is there a surplus of minimum-wage labor?”

Given the inequality of negotiating positions between an unskilled worker and his employer, it should come as absolutely no surprise that in fact there is no such surplus, and never has been. When companies can pay less than they would be willing to pay to hire a certain type of worker, they will continue to hire such workers until they cannot find any more of them.

We can now see why the net effect of the minimum wage on the labor surplus is none. Obviously, at some level, the minimum wage would have an effect on the market price of labor. If the minimum wage were set at the natural market price for unskilled labor, this would minimize poverty while maximizing employment. Thus the government should aggressively increase the minimum wage until the natural market price of labor is met.