Archive | December 2014

Killer Cops and Cop Killers

“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” – frequently attributed to Jay Gould.

According to New Yorkers Who Like Cops Don’t Like De Blasio, an article on FiveThirtyEight, Mayor Bill DeBlasio finds himself in the middle of an almost even split between New Yorkers who approve of the police and those who disapprove.

… in a recent Quinnipiac University poll in which support for both the police and de Blasio were split nearly down the middle. Fifty-one percent of voters approved of the job the police were doing, while 41 percent disapproved. A similar 47 approved of the job the mayor was doing, while 38 percent disapproved. Among the 17 subgroups (age, borough, political identification, race, sex, etc.) released by Quinnipiac, support for one is the inverse of support for the other.

That conservatives like former Mayor Giuliani are playing to that division is no surprise. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, flag-waving conservatives in power exploited the tragedy to attack an oil-rich country and ram through the homeland security act, brooking no middle ground or discussion. Anyone that opposed them was shouted down as, “not supporting the troops.”

As police have come under increasing scrutiny across the nation for videotaped shootings of unarmed citizens, and as grand juries and courts have been criticized for a lack of indictments and convictions, police union spokesmen are responding by insisting that all such killings are entirely justified to preserve order and that anyone who opposes them, “supports attacks on police.”

There will be some fringe, anti-government support – as there was for Eric Freyn – but most people realize that the killing of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu was a pointless tragedy. However the media can always select, or manufacture, stories to highlight the divisiveness. The Baltimore Fox affiliate actually altered the sound of a group protesting the choking of Eric Garner with a chant about putting, “killer cops in cell blocks” to make it sound like, “kill the cops.” The Garner protestors disavowed any calls for violence, but sadly other protestors in NYC *were* chanting about dead cops. And on the other side, a retired investigator sang, “Dead, dead Michael Brown, deadest man in the whole damn town,” to a roomful of retired LA policemen.

Those stories will get big play while those with a nuanced view who want to stop both unsupportable killings by police and killings of police will be lost in the media shuffle. Which is exactly what authorities want. In a declining economy, they have no intention of reigning in the police.

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SciReligious American

Does anyone else remember the 1977 National Lampoon parody, Scienterrific American?

I ran across two of Scientific American’s bloggers after I wrote a post comparing Richard Feynman’s roguish pickup stories to the Neg technique recommended by self-described Pickup Artists.

One was Ashutosh Jogalekar, who wrote what I thought was a very balanced argument that Feynman should be appreciated more for his genius than his antics. His post, however, was controversial enough that SA removed then reinstated it. Another SA blogger, Janet Stemwedel, didn’t see Feynman as any sort of hero. Other, independent, bloggers were even harsher, but many commenters claimed Feynman was just a normal, red-blooded guy and decried criticisms as misplaced political correctness.

Others have noted that the scientific bureaucracy sometimes behaves like another religion. Attacking a minor deity like Feynman is not without risks. Neither Stemwedel nor Jogalekar are part of, A New Vision for Scientific American’s Blog Network, as the venerable magazine carefully announces:

 … there needs to be a higher degree of coordination and organization within the network. So over the coming months we will be implementing a number of changes. First, we are publishing a new set of Blog Network Guidelines so that everyone, bloggers and readers alike, is fully aware of our basic operational ground rules and protocols.

On ScienceBlog’s Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel, an independent voice himself, defends the decision of Scientific American to rein in some bloggers and eliminate others.

I’m very much an outsider to this, but my quick take would be that this was pretty much inevitable given the high-profile PR catastrophes they’ve suffered in recent years– the D.N. Lee episode where a post was hastily deleted and then slowly restored, and then the Feynman kerfuffle earlier this year that led to the ejection of Ashutosh Jogalekar.

At his own blog, Jogalekar dissents:

So I hear that SciAmBlogs is undergoing a radical overhaul and shedding no less than half of its bloggers, many of whom have been with the network since its inception. This includes many whose thought-provoking writings I respect – even though I don’t always agree with them – like Janet Stemwedel and Eric Michael Johnson.
It’s a shame really, because I think the network had really distinguished itself as one of the few blogging networks in the world whose bloggers had vibrant, independent voices and who were not afraid to write provocative posts. That being said, I don’t have a problem seeing the logic of this move at all: after what happened during the last one year, it is clear that the network wants to repair what it sees as a broken image, wants to avoid dealing with even ten clamorous voices on Twitter, wants to stay away even from interesting controversy and – the importance of this aspect of any issue can never be underestimated – wants to please the lawyers.

It seems part of a pattern that the sort of free expression touted as a hallmark of the internet is no longer welcome on established sites.

Don’t Break The Law

King Joffrey decrees: “Breathe Easy, Don’t Break the Law. Don’t resist and we won’t behead you, pierce you with darts or drown you in wine. … Unless we’re in a bad mood.”

Why Cut Production?

In Low Gasoline Prices – Good or Bad?, I briefly discussed various conspiracy theories way back when US gasoline was $3.05/gallon. Now US auto fuels are closer to $2.00/gallon – in some areas – and international oil prices are trending lower than $60/barrel. Recently, the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, His Excellency Ali al-Naimi answered a question about Saudi Arabia controlling prices with the question, “Why should we cut production?” Many outlets are still claiming that the Saudis are trying to punish Iran, Russia, the US, or all of them.

Over the weekend I was applying Ockham’s Razor and wondered if the Saudis simply can’t afford to cut production. The Kingdom is wealthy but to stave off unrest it supports an enormous stipend system for a very extended royal family, a large bureaucracy, and generous social welfare programs for ordinary citizens. It has also forgiven enormous debts to poor neighbors like Pakistan that can’t actually pay for the oil they need to keep their economies stumbling along.

Bill McBride at Calculated Risk quotes an October post by James Hamilton of Econbrowser in support of the idea that oil prices are falling due to supply and demand:

[In October] I discussed the three main factors in the recent fall in oil prices: (1) signs of a return of Libyan production to historical levels, (2) surging production from the U.S., and (3) growing indications of weakness in the world economy.

As far as Libya is concerned, the politics on the ground remain quite unsettled. It makes sense to wait and see if anticipated production gains are really going to hold before anybody makes major adjustments.

In terms of surging U.S. production, the key question is how low the price can get before significant numbers of U.S. producers decide to pull out. If world economic growth indeed slows, and if most of the frackers are willing to keep going strong … trying to maintain the price … could be a losing bet for the Saudis. They’d be giving up their own revenue just in order to keep the money flowing into ever-growing operations in Texas and North Dakota.

And as for worries of another global economic downturn, so far they are only that– worries. If and when we see a downturn materialize, then I would expect to see the Saudis cut back production.

But until then it’s primarily a question of responding to surging output of U.S. tight oil. My guess is that Saudi Arabia would lower prices rather than cut production as long as that’s the name of the game.

But I think behind the scenes, the Saudis are also doing their part in an orchestrated transition away from the petrodollar and towards a more international basket of currencies as reserve currency.

Backlash

The prerogatives of the powerful are under attack, but there are backlashes in their defense.

Gawker has posted Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014. The Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions not to prosecute police officers that killed two of those unarmed people generated a great deal of media criticism and street protests, particularly the Garner case. There is doubt about exactly what happened between policeman Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, but Eric Garner was clearly videotaped in a chokehold by policeman Daniel Pantaleo.

But the protests have also generated criticism from police organizations and conservative pundits who feel that both men deserved what they got for being thugs, petty criminals, for not cooperating fully with police officers and even, in the case of Garner, for being obese. The answer they say, is to be more sensitive to the feelings of the police.

After the Rolling Stone published A Rape on Campus, Sabrina Erdely’s numbing account of the violent frat-gang rape of Jackie – a first-year woman attending the University of Virginia – the Washington Post cast doubt on many events that were reported as fact. As the Rolling Stone backed away from the story, many liberal voices lamented that this story would set back anti-rape efforts, and conservative voices predictably hinted that the article may be another Duke Lacrosse false accusation case. Jackie’s UVA suitemate Emily submitted a letter to the Cavalier Daily – the school paper – defending Jackie, but Emily really only knows that Jackie’s behavior changed markedly after the time she claims to have been raped.

Emily Joffe – Dear Prudence of Slate – published The College Rape Overcorrection, decrying the erosion of the rights of accused male students. Joffe presents an example of a fellow that claims to have been falsely accused months and months after hooking up with a woman friend that slid into his bed one night. While Joffe admits that, “Any woman who is raped, on campus or off, deserves a fair and thorough investigation of her claim, and those found guilty should be punished,” it is disconcerting that she seems to have more concern for the falsely accused male than the sexually assaulted female. Fortunately most of us don’t have to choose between being falsely accused or raped.

What is most clear, even from Joffe’s article, is that universities, like most bureaucracies, prefer to resolve problems quietly and are poorly equipped to adjudicate decisions that affect their own reputations.

Update 20141210: Excellent article from POLICYSHOP, Two Narratives About the Racist Carceral State.

Candor in Advertising

I was reading a Businessweek article about advertising, Arby’s Best Commercial Yet Is Actually for Pepsi :

Advertisers know what we think about their work—it’s manipulative, it’s dishonest and most of the time, we don’t want to see it. We fast forward through commercials on TV, we flip past ads in the newspaper, we install pop-up blockers online and hide sponsored posts on our Facebook feeds. In response, the advertising industry has invented all sorts of ways to trick us into thinking about—and hopefully buying—their clients’ products. They place them in movies and TV shows. They hire so-called “storytellers” to create “narratives” about their brands. They tweet at us. Sometimes they even write press releases that look like news articles in the hopes that readers won’t be able to tell the difference. But they know we don’t want that. We just want to be told what’s for sale, what it does, and then we’ll decide for ourselves if we want to buy it.

It reminded me of a quote: “The important thing is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

I’ve expected for some time that the internet was inevitably going to become more and more like television. When you open a webpage, or click on link, many websites immediately throw something else in your face. It may be a request for donations, or to subscribe, or leave feedback, but it is essentially advertising and it is incredibly annoying. So I’m tending away from mainstream media websites and towards alternative sites with more content and less flash.

I have several problems with Youtube lately. The first is that Chromium – the linux version of Chrome – fails halfway through a video with an Aw Snap message. The second is that I open a video, wait through the advert, and then nothing happens. I reload and the advert plays again and nothing happens. A third is that hackers are exploiting Adobe Flash player to deliver viruses and malware. So I find myself less and less interested in dealing with Youtube.

I have a problem watching television itself, too. Many of the shows we watch feature heroic and likeable policemen. Think the casts of Foyle or Lewis on the UK shows and the casts of Castle or Psych here in the US. Shows like NCIS feature witty, likeable government agents. It has been disturbing enough to watch the tacit acceptance of torturing suspects in these shows, but lately it is simply harder and harder to reconcile the news of police shooting unarmed suspects, bullying people on camera, seizing and keeping cash for no proven reason, with the uncostumed heroes on television. I am coming to understand police dramas as another form of unwanted advertising.

Even Green Growth Has Limits

Many media outlets have reported the 11% decline in the 2014 Thanksgiving/Black Friday/CyberMonday retail sales. Analysts had looked at the low fuel prices and supposedly recovering economy and, according to Business Insider, had predicted, “the biggest holiday shopping season of all time.”

We did venture out on Saturday to buy toilet paper, soap and a few groceries. There wasn’t much traffic. We also dropped into Best Buy to find a replacement battery for our UPS – they don’t carry those anymore – and saw more saleskids than customers. We dropped by Lowes to buy some window shades and it seemed similarly empty.

One would think that lower spending was clearly a sign of a poorer economy, but a facebook post by Occupy Democrats claimed the drop as a victory for the anti-WalMart protestors. Business Insider, however, noted that WalMart actually reported record sales over the holidays and blamed the drop on those pre-Thanksgiving sales taking away from traditional Black Friday sales by other retailers. Other mainstream articles theorized that since buyers had more money they had more options, and were therefore less interested in taking the first sales that came along, which was of course belied by WalMart’s figures. And round and round.

The Automatic Earth – who I follow on facebook – and Zero Hedge made merry of the MSM’s attempts at reassuring explanations … but a later Zero Hedge article quoted the Wall Street Journal at length to the effect that many consumers are spending on necessities rather than discretionary stuff. So it may be that those people that do still have a few dollars are using them for all the big purchases they have been putting off instead of buying cheap electronics and other gewgaws.

In support of the necessities explanation, one retail sector that did improve was auto sales – especially trucks. Lower gas prices may have convinced Billy Bob to trade in that twelve-year-old rustbed for a shiny new truck. Over Thanksgiving leftovers I asked our favorite contractor whether the new Ford F-150’s aluminum body was a plus or a minus. He didn’t mention the increased fuel efficiency of a lighter weight vehicle. Instead he thought the idea of a non-rusting body was great, but was concerned that it might cost too much. I gather he’d buy one if he could swing it.

Wouldn’t that be a good thing, or at least a better thing? Would getting Billy Bob to buy an electric truck be even better? Or a hydrogen truck?

A lot of liberals think getting people to buy greener products is the solution to energy depletion and climate change, but the more severe environmental pundits charge that liberals are only fooling themselves by thinking we can continue the current paradigms if we only buy that electric or hydrogen car and put solar panels on that McMansion.

In a Counterpunch article from last summer, Why Green Capitalism Will Fail, Pete Dolack observes:

Green capitalism is destined to fail: You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We can’t shop our way out of global warming nor are there technological magic wands that will save us. There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns. …

The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.

Another Counterpunch article, How Green Is the Green New Deal? ran about a month later. Don Fitz attacked the four horsemen of Green Revolution, Green Capitalism, Green Economy and Green New Deal (GND) as nothing more than greenwashed versions of the growth paradigm:

A central fallacy of advocating “truly green” products is the belief that purchasing them would mean that non-green objects are not purchased. This tends not to happen. Take transportation. Moving in an environmental direction requires less reliance on cars. Thus, an increased devotion to bikes. But this does not mean that fewer cars are being manufactured. As people travel more, bicycles are not replacing cars, but are being used in addition to cars.

This happens throughout Green Capitalism. At best, “green” commodities replace non-green commodities while perpetuating the belief that happiness comes from purchasing objects. But often, they merely create new, additional green markets to aid the overall growth of capitalism. Solar/wind devotees often mock eco-hustlers selling “green” cars to park in “green” McMansions. But their faith in solar/wind power reflects the same belief that purchasing the correct object can substitute for massive social change. “Green consumerism” is the flip side of “green capitalism.” The purchaser still advocates that individual consumer choices can solve environmental problems. …

The Green Revolution, Green Capitalism, and the Green Economy each claimed that economic growth was necessary when it was not. Based on expanding the market economy, each one failed to solve the problem it defined, and, in fact, made the problem worse. For each there was an alternative solution which was not based on economic growth that could have coped with the problem without exacerbating environmental crises. …

Like the New Deal of the 1930s, a GND might temporarily slow unemployment, which would then increase. It would lead directly into Wars for the Conquest of Green Territories, not because of bad decisions by individual leaders but because war would be inherent in the growth dynamics of corporate environmentalism.

That’s the really scary thing that’s been bugging me since last year’s Age of Limits. I think often about a quote from Dune Messiah:

“When a creature has developed into one thing, he will choose death rather than change into his opposite.” – Scytale