Someone should remake ‘Four Lions’

lionsWe learned this week that two Americans were killed fighting for ISIS in Syria. There are likely to be many more as the Arab world’s long, awkward transition away from authoritarian government breeds more violence. It might be helpful for Americans to develop a better understanding of what’s driving violent fundamentalism, but we have little to work with.

The best film ever made about the lure of armed jihad among Western-raised Muslims is Four Lions from 2010. It’s tragic, dark, and in a way only the British can master, guiltily, gut-bustingly hilarious. The film was a minor success in Britain and on the international film festival circuit.

Four Lions earned a brief burst of attention in 2013 for its eerily prescient portrayal of a scenario nearly identical to the Boston Marathon bombing. From the details of the attack itself to the bumbling, awkward cast of characters, the film may be the first example of Westerners beginning to grasp the forces behind Islamic terrorism.

Unfortunately, even with the additional attention Four Lions did not get a lot of play. Audiences unfamiliar with Britain found the film utterly impenetrable.

Some form of translation might have helped around the margins. The characters spoke in what could perhaps be better described as a dialect rather than an accent. A working-class Birmingham accent is pretty far removed from global English. Add to it the nuances, idioms, and additional layers of accent common to the South Asian community there and you get an intricacy that can only be interpreted through commentary. Imagine trying to translate Pulp Fiction into Middle English and you get a sense for the challenge.

That said, Americans are starved for authentic, credible portrayals that might help them wrap their heads around the phenomenon of modern terrorism. In the absence of something that makes sense, we have portrayed foreign terrorism in comic book terms, conjuring images of bizarre, savage super-villains beyond the range of human feeling.

A distorted and frankly paranoid misunderstanding of foreign terrorism is breeding poor policy and blinding us to the growing dangers of domestic extremism. This film could help, but only if it was remade. Four Lions, as originally produced, is simply too authentically local to translate to a more global audience.

Despite the challenges, if you’re reasonably comfortable with British entertainment Four Lions is a must-see. Hopefully someone in Hollywood will pick it up and find a way to translate it without destroying its impact.

Four aspiring Jihadis on their way into London for a mass suicide bombing:

Posted in Art, Foreign Policy

Muslims are coming from Mexico to murder you

Kent Brockman: Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it’s time for our viewers to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?
Professor: Mmm, yes I would, Kent.
The Simpsons, Season 5, Episode 11

In advance of his next big campaign, Perry is learning from his 2012 mistakes and working to perfect his mastery of the paranoid style in American politics. Look closely at Perry’s remarks at the Heritage Institute this week and you’ll see a perfectly formed appeal to the modern Republican primary base. Sure, the delivery was wobbly and he had trouble pronouncing some of the words, but whoever built that speech understood exactly what a Republican politician needs to say to win.

Perry attempted to tie the immigration debate to terrorism with the bizarre suggestion that Iraqi terrorists may be infiltrating the US along the fortified shores of the Rio Grande. Here’s the relevant portion of his remarks from the video of the event (starts at 1:25:20):

“Certainly there is great concern that the border between the United States and Mexico is unsecure and we don’t know who’s using that. What I will share with you that we’ve seen historic high levels of individuals from countries with terrorist ties.

“Over the course of the last months. I’ll give you one anecdotal picture of what’s happening. Three Ukrainian individuals were apprehended at a ranch in far West Texas within the last 60 days. So, I think there is the obvious great concern that because of the condition of the border from the standpoint of it not being secure and us not knowing who is penetrating across that individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be, and I think there is a very real possibility that they may have already used that.

“We have no clear evidence of that, but your common sense tells you when we’ve seen the number of criminal activities that have occurred, and I’m talking about the assaults, the rapes, the murders, by individuals who have come into this country illegally over the last five years, the idea that they would not be looking at and managing any of those types of attacks from that region is not a good place to be.”

Most people forced to listen to those comments would hear nothing more than a word salad with spicy bigot dressing. Look closer though, and you’ll see in Perry’s comments all of the crucial elements of an appeal to the most motivated Republican primary voters.

Let’s take this apart piece by piece and observe what’s going on.

“Certainly there is great concern that the border between the United States and Mexico is unsecure and we don’t know who’s using that. What I will share with you that we’ve seen historic high levels of individuals from countries with terrorist ties.

“Over the course of the last months. I’ll give you one anecdotal picture of what’s happening. Three Ukrainian individuals were apprehended at a ranch in far West Texas within the last 60 days.”

Any appeal to the primary base must be founded on fear. “Concern”, “unsecure” (which might actually be a word), and “terrorist” are words that should appear in every paragraph of every speech throughout the nominating campaign. What should we be afraid of? There are so many things, but few are as scary as foreigners. Moving on:

“So, I think there is the obvious great concern that because of the condition of the border from the standpoint of it not being secure and us not knowing who is penetrating across that individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be, and I think there is a very real possibility that they may have already used that.”

Now it gets good. Those pansies who think we should be nice to little Hispanic kids are inviting head-lopping terrorists to come stalk your local Sonic. The battle to stop Latin American immigration isn’t just about keeping Texas politics white and English-speaking, it’s the front line in a campaign to preserve civilization from barbarians.

Islamic terrorists infiltrating the Republic of Baptiststan is a pretty frightening prospect. Is there any proof that this is happening? Watch this nifty move:

“We have no clear evidence of that, but your common sense tells you when we’ve seen the number of criminal activities that have occurred, and I’m talking about the assaults, the rapes, the murders, by individuals who have come into this country illegally over the last five years, the idea that they would not be looking at and managing any of those types of attacks from that region is not a good place to be.”

There is “no clear evidence” to support this claim, because it’s a patently stupid idea. On the rare occasion when terrorists enter our country, they do it through an airport like everyone else, or they drive across our relatively relaxed border with Canada. Crossing the Rio Grande is an incredibly low-percentage method for illegally entering the US. Migrants attempt it (usually repeatedly), because they are desperately poor and have no alternatives. They can afford to fail. Terrorists, like almost everyone on the planet, have alternatives and can’t afford the risks of breaching the most militarized border in the western world.

Perry’s claim may be idiotic, but it is also scary and that’s all that matters. Since it is not based on evidence, no one can prove that it’s impossible. As a consequence his claim is as true as anything needs to be in modern Republican politics.

“Evidence” is what limp-wristed, liberal poindexters use to block good people from doing what they know in their guts is right. Your fear is all the evidence you need to establish solid policy. What happens when we wait for “clear evidence” rather than acting decisively on our paranoia? Perry lays it out in lurid detail – “the assaults, the rapes, the murders” – that’s what happens.

Do you want to see assaults and rapes and murders committed by savage foreigners happening right on the front steps of your local church or school? Liberals do, but strong leaders like Rick Perry will protect our tender white women and children from this onslaught, which, by the way, may already be happening.

So what are the elements of a perfect pitch to a Republican primary audience? Perry hit every one:

1) A loosely defined, but extreme fear;

2) Of something which is either a) foreign, b) non-white, and/or c) involves a woman making independent decisions about her body;

3) Premised on the absence of proof that it couldn’t exist.

No issue anywhere on the Republican agenda can get a hearing unless it can be framed on this model. From fiscal policy to abortion to food stamps, a policy position only gains traction when its relationship to white cultural fears can be defined.

We have come a long, long way from “morning again in America.” The Republican Party has lost the ability to deliver a message that resonates on any level above Id. That is what should really be scaring us.

 

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Posted in Election 2016, Foreign Policy, Uncategorized

Contraception and abortion

Long busy week, but noticed this article related to a previous post and thought it was interesting.

From the Washington Post:

Between 2007 and 2012, Colorado saw the highest percentage drop in birth rates among teens 15 to 19 in the country, according to a report released today by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. During that time, its teen birth rates dropped 39 percent compared to 29 percent nationwide. Abortion rates in the state among teens fell 35 percent between 2009 and 2012 and are falling nationally, as well.

 

The CDC’s report comes on the heels of Colorado’s own study, which reported a 40 percent decline in births among teens 15 to 19 from 2009 to 2013. The stunning decline in teen birth rates is significant not just for its size, but for its explanation. State public health officials are crediting a sustained, focused effort to offer low-income women free or low-cost long-acting reversible contraception, that is, intrauterine devices or implants. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative, supported by a $23 million anonymous donation, provided more than 30,000 IUDs or implants to women served by the state’s 68 family-planning clinics. The state’s analysis suggests the initiative was responsible for three-quarters of the decline in the state’s teen birth rates.

Increased education, power, and access to contraceptives for women have been driving down both birth and abortion rates for a generation. Why isn’t the so-called “pro-life” movement embracing these effective approaches to reducing abortion rates? It’s almost as if there were something else they cared about more…

Posted in Reproductive Rights

The foolish gamble behind the Perry indictments

Considering the blatant, almost entirely legal corruption that has been the hallmark of the Perry years in Texas, it’s ironic that the allegations which finally led to his indictment are complete horseshit. Perry is being accused of using threats and a Legislative veto to depose a DA who had been a thorn in his side.

The Travis County DA, Rosemary Lehmberg, had been arrested for drunk driving in an incredibly embarrassing incident. Lehmberg refused to step down prior to the upcoming election because doing so would have allowed Perry to select her successor. Had Perry been able to select her successor, he would have been able to single-handedly kill the increasingly dangerous investigation into the political slush fund Perry operates for “technology investments.”

Perry used Lehmberg’s DUI as cover for a campaign to get her removed and finally gut the public integrity unit she oversees. He succeeded, and by shutting off funding to the DA’s investigation unit, he effectively cut off the DA’s ability to build the case against him over the slush fund.

Dirty politics? Of course. Illegal? Probably, but not in a way that could ever be effectively prosecuted.

By trying to take Perry down on the tenuous grounds of “abuse of power,” the Travis County DA is unintentionally obscuring a far more important investigation.  Her reasoning, probably, was that this was the only way to rescue the Public Integrity Unit’s inquiry into the Governor’s other activities. Unfortunately, Lehmberg is up against two miserable problems.

The first problem is that she is utterly compromised. The only lasting images likely to emerge from this complex mess are the pictures of her making an ass of herself during her arrest. The larger problem is that prosecuting public corruption in Texas is nearly impossible because of the shape of the legal and political landscape. By playing this desperate gambit, Lehmberg is not only likely to lose. Her actions may finish off Travis County’s public integrity unit, effectively snuffing out what little light of scrutiny still shines on the art of Texas political corruption.

Trying to take down Rick Perry on a such a trivial, clearly political matter is an embarrassment. This is a guy who let a major campaign donor, Bob Perry, write his own regulatory scheme to regulate his own industry. The Governor then appointed Bob Perry to head the “watchdog” agency that the legislation created.

Perry appointed the head of one of Texas’ most powerful payday lenders to head the agency that regulates payday lending. He presides over a half-billion dollar “investment fund” fueled by state money which he hands out to well connected friends with no oversight. And the best that the Travis County DA’s Office can do is indict him for hounding a prosecutor with a criminal record?

Ultimately, why is Perry being charged with something so seemingly trivial? Just as in the DeLay case, it is very difficult to find a form of public corruption in Texas that actually breaks a law. The core of the problem is that virtually nothing that passes for public corruption elsewhere in the western world is illegal in Texas.

Under Perry’s influence and with little legislation or oversight to stand in the way, Texas has become America’s champion of blatant, unapologetic, and remarkably uncreative public corruption. No one ever goes to prison for it, not even Tom DeLay. Perry is unlikely to be an exception. 

Texas has an unpaid Legislature. Think that over for a minute. Just as every new prisoner supposedly must fight for his life or become someone’s bitch, each new Legislator has to immediately decide which collection of donors and lobbyists is going to pay his rent in Austin. How do you prosecute public corruption in a system built on those rules?

The Travis County courts can do whatever they will. It doesn’t matter. Just as in the DeLay case, Perry would appeal any conviction into a system of Appellate Judges he constructed. Many of them he hand-picked across his record 15 years in office. The rest of them owe their livelihood to the Texas Republican machine.

The charges against Perry might be a minor factor in his Presidential ambitions, but no one was going to take him seriously at that level anyway. It will cost Perry some of the money which has been donated by the people he takes care of. It is unlikely to force him to dip into the millions in wealth God has granted him over the course of his public service career. You can bet that appearances at a few prayer breakfasts will shake loose whatever cash he needs to earn vindication.

This indictment is little more than a frustrated prosecutor spitting defiantly in the wind. She should have passed on this. By doubling down on a compromised investigation she is gambling the future of Texas’ only major institution for public integrity on a very bad hand.

 

This will all probably peter out within a year or so after his Presidential campaign fizzles. It will be fun to watch, but probably not much more.

*******

From 2011, an old post on corruption in Texas. This stuff never gets old:

Why Texas Governors Don’t Go to Prison

Rick Perry’s aide gave a beautifully roundabout answer to a recent question about the blatant quid pro quo that marked his reign as Governor.  The spokesman explained, “There’s never been any wrongdoing substantiated.”

Nor will there be.  Remarkably, Perry’s probably done nothing illegal in his tenure.  One of the benefits of living in a state with hardly any rules is…well, it’s hard to break the rules.

The unique system of payola that makes Austin run is not only legal, it is startlingly public.  A politician in Texas can, and for all practical purposes really must, franchise himself to a set of well-financed individuals or interests and become their representative in Austin.  It is how the system is designed to work.

There’s never been any wrongdoing substantiated.

Home-building tycoon Bob Perry (no relation to the Guv) is the poster-child for this system.  He is arguably the most successful legislator of the past fifteen years and he has never held public office.  Bob Perry’s tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions have somehow coincided with remarkable success at getting complex, controversial, and significant legislation passed that benefits no one other than himself and his allies.  The one Perry sheds light on the other.

One of Bob Perry’s boldest achievements was to have an entire regulatory scheme created and implemented to serve his needs.  In the late ’90′s many Texas municipalities started trying to tighten construction regulations.  They were responding to waves of complaints regarding the poor quality of the sprawling new construction being hastily stamped onto the Texas landscape.

Governor Rick Perry, the enemy of “job-killing regulation,” decided entirely on his own, not inspired at all by the millions in contributions to himself and nearly everyone in the Lege from Bob Perry and the builders, to take the remarkable step of implementing an entire new state agency to regulate housing construction.

The law creating the agency was drafted by Bob Perry’s attorney, who Governor Perry then appointed as the first head of the commission.  The new agency’s rules would pre-empt any new local regulations and block new local professional competence requirements.  Along the way it would severely limit the ability of a home-buyer to sue their construction company.  The “regulations” it implemented were an obscene joke that shielded builders from common-law liabilities.  The law allowed the industry to literally appoint its own “regulators” and arbitrators.

This was one of the most unapologetically corrupt political arrangements I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime and I’ve spent seven grueling years in Chicago.  It happened entirely out in the open for everyone to see.

Again, the millions of dollars handed to Gov. Perry had absolutely nothing to do with his decision to let home-builders write their own legislation.  Likewise the money used by Bob Perry and the industry PAC’s to grease the legislature (almost every legislator in both parties – let’s be clear) had no influence at all.

There’s never been any wrongdoing substantiated.

Governor Perry and the Legislature just happened to recognize, entirely on their own, that the people of Texas needed a new fake regulatory body completely controlled by the construction industry to “protect” said citizens from poor quality home-building.

Texas, you’re welcome.

The Sunset Commission eventually recommended that the agency be dismantled explaining, “No other regulatory agency has a program with such a potentially devastating effect on consumers’ ability to seek their own remedies.” But it took two more Legislative sessions to get that accomplished.

The same serendipitous political process explains why in the hell payday lending is legal and why Texas always needs more tort reform.  It helps you understand who gets grants from the state’s Emerging Technology Fund (The Prominent Donor’s Kickback Fund).  And it’s the same purely coincidental process by which Rick Perry became a multi-millionaire during a career as a state employee.

Texas is not the only place where political officials are sometimes…influenced…by money from donors.  It’s the crass blatancy of Texas’ system that might cause complications for Rick Perry as he tries to take his very local show to a larger audience.  No one will accuse Perry of being the sharpest knife in the drawer and he’s used to hiding his pay-for-play in plain sight.  He probably has no clue what his deals are going to look like when exposed to national scrutiny.

I live in a state where the exit to the Governor’s mansion leads straight to federal prison.  It saves some much-needed money on pensions.  But even here the free hand a guy like Perry enjoys is at a minimum going to inspire some envy.

As the campaign winds on Perry will need to schedule a lot more prayer meetings if he wants to distract people from what really happened on his watch back in God’s Country.

Posted in Election 2016, Republican Party, Taxes

A state-by-state look at migration patterns

The New York Times published some fascinating visualizations of US migration patterns. They are worth a look.

A few highlights:

Hardly anybody moves to Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama except for people trying to escape one of the other two states in that list. Georgia and South Carolina, by contrast, are seeing interesting demographic changes.

Texas growth has come almost entirely from immigration and the emptying of the industrial Midwest. The number of people coming there from the coasts is tiny. The graphs help explain why migration is changing politics in Georgia and changing nothing in Texas.

California is starting to develop more of a local population. Traditionally it has been full of migrants. It is also starting to produce some significant out-migration.

All of the country’s highest wealth areas are seeing stable population and significant out-migration, much of it toward poorer sections of the country. Utah, Vermont, and Virginia are seeing surprising increases in dynamism. The DC area may be the most dynamic population in the country.

Posted in Texas

US Power, Good or Bad?

“Someday this war’s gonna end.” Lt. Col. Kilgore, Apocalypse Now

Americans have a confused relationship with the wider world. We launched our existence as the first great anti-Imperial movement of the modern era. Now we are the world’s only global military power. Our first President was so insistent that we remain walled up in our own hemisphere that he made that the theme of his farewell address. Five years after that speech we launched our first invasion of an Arab country.

Emerging crises in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Iraq are stirring mixed emotions. We stand alone as the world’s only global military power, but our engagements in the last decade were some of the most humiliatingly absurd in our history. Not only do we lack a public will to take on a new effort abroad, we have lost any conviction that our efforts can have much value.

Those who deny the power of American diplomatic and military engagement to bring positive outcomes in the world are fighting against the tide of history. Those who convince themselves that American military power is always a positive force are making the same mistake. We need to develop a better sense of what kind of involvement can be successful, what success means, and how to place necessary moral and legal bounds on foreign actions. We’ve only been working on this question for about two hundred years, so maybe we’re almost there.

It might be helpful to a walk through a brief inventory of our foreign military efforts to look for characteristics of the more successful engagements. Here’s brief walk through a few of the highlights:

- American expats in Hawaii organized a successful coup against the country’s monarchy in 1893. Hawaii became a US territory in 1898 and a state in 1959.

- In 1898, the US victory over Spain brought three new territories into the United States: Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Cuba was turned loose as an independent nation very quickly, but remained a political basket case. American troops returned to the island every few years to tamp down upheavals. That finally ended when the Communists seized control in 1960. Puerto Rico remained a US territory. It has been consistently poor and underdeveloped, but relatively stable and free from organized violence.

- In the Philippines the US established local government very quickly, but maintained oversight from Washington until World War II. There was some initial, minor resistance to US rule, but almost no violence after 1909. The country gained full independence in 1946. It has been a multiparty democracy since 1986.

- The US occupied and controlled Haiti for much of the first half of the 20th century and invaded again in 1994. Both occupations were successful in temporarily dampening violence in the country, but the long term impact was limited.

- The CIA in 1954 overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala. The new military dictatorship launched a genocidal civil war under the auspices of fighting Communism. That war ended in 1996, but the country remains largely ungoverned.

- After World War II, the US military occupied South Korea and the Soviets occupied the North. Both halves of the country declared their independence in 1948. The North invaded the South in 1950. The US led a UN force to a stalemate in a fight against North Korean and Chinese armies. Fighting ended in 1954, but no peace treaty has ever been signed.

- In 1945 the US and Allies replaced the government of West Germany and imposed direct rule until 1955. Berlin remained under allied authority until 1990. The occupation was almost entirely peaceful, without a single allied death attributable to resistance.

- Also in 1945, the US took direct military control over Japan under the leadership of Gen. MacArthur and with the cooperation of the British. The Japanese resumed domestic political control in 1952. Japan became a stable democracy and the region’s economic powerhouse.

- The US Central Intelligence Agency, through covert action, engineered the removal of democratically elected governments in the Congo (1960), South Vietnam (1963 & 1964), Iran (1953), Chile (1973), and the Dominican Republic (1963) to name a few. Chile was relatively stable under a moderately competent dictator and restored democratic leadership in 1989. The others were not so “fortunate.”

- The power vacuum created by the action in Vietnam drew America into a decade long war that devastated both North and South Vietnam. After the US withdrawal, South Vietnam and was invaded and annexed by the North.

- In 1948 the US supported Jose Figueres Ferrer in his armed rebellion to seize control of Costa Rica. He established a liberal government which developed into Latin America’s first stable multiparty democracy. The US decision to offer military support to Costa Rica in 1955 ended an invasion threat from Nicaragua that would have ended the newly demilitarized nation’s independence.

- One of the conditions of the 1978 treaty between Egypt and Israel was that US forces would lead a “peacekeeping” occupation of the Sinai Peninsula after Israel returned it to Egypt. That contingent was organized as an international force and deployed in 1982. US troops remain in the Sinai today, more than double the size of our current contingent in Iraq. There have been no fatalities and only a handful of violent incidents in 30 years.

- Reagan ordered US troops into Beirut in 1983 along with a multi-national stabilization force connected to the evacuation of the defeated PLO from Lebanon. The situation in Lebanon was chaotic and relentlessly violent. The central government could not maintain control of the country. When the US Marine barracks was destroyed by a suicide bomber Reagan made the decision to withdraw US forces rather than escalate the engagement.

- Beginning in 1993, the US began a steadily escalating series of air attacks in Bosnia aimed at halting the genocide there. In 1995 the US led an international occupation of Bosnia under NATO authority. Bosnia is quiet and nominally self-governing under an indefinite international military occupation.

- US forces led a broad alliance in an invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The occupation lasted a few months. Kuwait is stable and the intervention has contributed greatly to the booming economies of the Gulf Emirates.

- US forces entered Somalia late in 1992 to protect a UN aid mission. The government had collapsed, civil war had begun, and famine was killing thousands of Somalis. Our troops were withdrawn in 1993 after surprisingly heavy casualties and a complete failure to restore order.

- A US and NATO bombing campaign over Serbia in 1999 ended Serbian genocide in Kosovo, precipitated the final disintegration of Yugoslavia, and led to the fall of the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. Kosovo has an independent democratic government, but remains under military occupation.

- US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to rid the nation of ”weapons of mass destruction” and terminate its weapons programs. The programs and weapons did not exist. The occupation was an unmitigated disaster. The official occupation lasted only a year, but US forces remained. US troops withdrew in 2011 under an agreement signed in 2008, but no functioning central government has emerged. The country has effectively been partitioned into three warring ethnic regions, two of which are dominated fundamentalist militias with ties to international terrorism.

- As conditions in Liberia reached their worst in 2003, American troops landed in Monrovia to secure the embassy. US and British military intervention helped coordinate the collapse of the brutal Taylor regime and smoothed the transition to an elected government.

The outcomes from our military interventions abroad have been entirely mixed. It is hard to deny the worthiness or success of the mission in Bosnia or the miserable failure of Vietnam or Iraq.

Successful US deployments overseas like in the Sinai or Bosnia disappear from the public mind. They are among the most important things we do in the world and hardly anyone knows they’ve happened. Our involvements in the world are not simple. They are not all good or bad.

Posted in Foreign Policy

Small groups, big influence

The Houston Realty Business Coalition hosts monthly breakfast meetings featuring some of the most influential figures in state and local politics. Founded in 1967, the HRBC, formerly called the Houston Realty Breakfast Club, is an institutional hub for Houston’s business conservatives.

Breakfast with the HRBC offers an opportunity to meet, hear or button-hole ambitious political figures at every stage of their career. If you are considering a run for office in the Houston area, particularly on the Republican ballot, the HRBC is a room you will probably have to work successfully to win. If you have a political issue you want to bring to the attention of someone in charge, or someone who might one day be in charge, a table at the HRBC is an excellent place to get yourself heard.

Speakers invited to address a meeting get a valuable free forum to promote their campaign or explain a policy agenda. The real action, though, is around the tables. Breakfast at the HRBC is a chance to meet tomorrow’s Congressional candidates as they campaign for the courts, school board, county executive offices or other local positions. It is an opportunity to learn what these people are like in person before placing them in a position to impact your life.

What makes the HRBC and groups like it particularly powerful is their multifunctional nature. The HRBC is not a political party. It is closely tied to the GOP, but it often features Democratic speakers and guests. Activism is its primary function. It is officially registered as a PAC and makes open political endorsements. The real power of the group, though, is its deep roots that extend beyond politics.

HRBC is also a business club. The members and leadership may share a core of political ideas, but they must also work together in the real estate community on a day to day basis. Wielding influence inside the HRBC requires more than showing up, paying a fee and spouting an opinion. Relationships formed outside the meeting and beyond the scope of politics can increase or decrease one’s political sway at the breakfast table. And pig-headed political incivility at breakfast can impact one’s bottom line in business.

In short, this overlap between politics and extra-political interests helps to keep a lid on the most extreme impulses of the group’s individual members. There is only so much irrational, uncivil behavior one can afford to indulge before it begins to create pressure on one’s day job. The members maintain a complex accountability to one another that inspires at least some modicum of moderation.

Organizations like the HRBC have a clear financial dimension to them. It costs money to attend, roughly $50 a head on a per-meeting basis or an annual fee of $350. That means that access to the breakfast table is relatively open and within the reach of most people. That’s true of most similar organizations across the spectrum. Money is not the most important qualifier for membership and influence.

Groups like the HRBC are built on personal networks. Nothing stops the random yahoo off the street from laying down $50 and showing up, but that doesn’t happen a lot. Very few people outside of real estate or Houston politics even know about it. They do not advertise or actively promote themselves. Most members first learned about the organization through an invitation from a friend or colleague.

For Houston residents who can spare a few early morning hours once a month and can absorb the modest cost, the HRBC offers a chance to participate in their government in a uniquely powerful way. Similar opportunities exist all over the spectrum, from partisan political organizations to PTA’s, service clubs and business groups.

Our political system is not built on elections. It is not built on money. It is built on the hundreds of thousands of institutions that tie us together in bonds of common interest and accountability. These institutions are where the real work of politics gets done. Political influence rises from the careful, strategic investment of time and effort in these organizations.

The health of those institutions determines how much influence can be purchased at what price. It also determines how much is really at stake on Election Day.

If money is a problem in our political system, and it is, that’s because the amount and quality of our direct involvement has declined below a critical level. Righting that imbalance requires us to put our shoulders behind our convictions and play a greater personal role in our communities. The good news is that there is a fix. The bad news is that it costs us something we are loath to part with – our time.

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Posted in Political Theory, Social Capital

Peaches, chips and immigration

Two stories caught my eye this week for their potential impact on labor markets, immigration policy and wider issues. The first involves a new computer chip being introduced by IBM based on the neural architecture of the human brain. From the MIT Technology Review:

The new chip is not yet a product, but it is powerful enough to work on real-world problems. In a demonstration at IBM’s Almaden research center, MIT Technology Review saw one recognize cars, people, and bicycles in video of a road intersection. A nearby laptop that had been programed to do the same task processed the footage 100 times slower than real time, and it consumed 100,000 times as much power as the IBM chip. IBM researchers are now experimenting with connecting multiple SyNapse chips together, and they hope to build a supercomputer using thousands.

Spatial recognition is one of the great frustrating limitations of robotic technology. It is extremely difficult to teach automated systems how to recognize context from what they see around them. IBM may have found an opening, by mimicking mammalian brain architecture, which could in time radically increase the range of robotic capabilities.

The other story relates to agriculture. UC Davis researchers are closing in on the development of new peach and nectarine trees that can produce at lower heights, perhaps as low as 7-8 feet.

Conventional peach and nectarine trees grow about 13 feet tall. Setting up, climbing and moving ladders to prune the trees and harvest fruit consumes about half the workday. Ladders are dangerous, too, which is why peach and nectarine growers pay about 40 percent more for workers’ compensation insurance than growers who work with more low-lying commodities, like grapes.

Developed by breeders at UC Davis, the new rootstocks will produce trees that grow about 7 or 8 feet tall and can be pruned and harvested from the ground. With the right orchard management — which Day and DeJong will test at their plots at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, near Fresno — the shorter trees could produce just as much high-quality fruit as their lofty kin.

Both stories are interesting for their immigration and labor implications. On the one hand, native born populations in the US and everywhere else in the developed world have been in decline for years. Globally, humans may experience our peak in the number of births this year. Absent immigration (which is also declining in the US, contrary to popular belief), there would be virtually no population growth in the developed world.

Conventional wisdom assumes that this is a problem because young workers are necessary to maintain support for an aging population, but these two stories illustrate why that might be wrong. They also illustrate what a decline in immigration might mean for our economy.

Labor may not be as important for maintaining an aging population as capital. It’s capital that fuels the development of technical and scientific advancement that steadily undercut the need for labor. Advances like these deliver and economy that requires fewer and fewer laborers to support production.

Declining immigration with its accompanying impact on population would create some significant local disruptions, but with capital investment and time innovation would fill most of those gaps. Shorter peach trees offer labor savings and food for thought.

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Posted in Economics, Immigration, science, The Second Machine Age

Evangelicals and the Amish Option

amishA close friend and fellow Texas ex-pat is looking to escape the godless Gomorrah of their affluent East Coast city. They want to move to the countryside, but the effort isn’t going so well. Their dilemma is emblematic of wider challenges faced by religious conservatives in a nation they are no longer able to dominate.

America has largely shed the authoritarian religious values that once imposed a kind of artificial uniformity on our national culture. Not everyone is thrilled with this development. Particularly in the South, where this dynamic was slowed in the 20th century by poverty and lingering battles over race, evangelicals and fundamentalists are accustomed to a degree of cultural sway that long ago disappeared elsewhere.

Christianity as portrayed in the Bible was a distinctly counter-cultural phenomenon, but Southern religious conservatives do not see themselves in that light. For those who imagine they live in a Christian nation, a wealthy, secular, globally-connected America is producing some hard choices.

Constantly pressured by a community that neither shares nor respects their religious values, life in the Northeast is a challenge for a Southern-fried Biblical literalist. Christmas is a materialistic show and Easter is a holiday about bunnies. Schools start teaching evolution very early. Kids as young as junior high have practically unfiltered, handheld access to the Internet, a cesspool of filth and religious doubts that reaches their children through their peers.

They feel that their community celebrates same-sex families, vilifies gun owners, undermines religious faith, and encourages government dependency. They want to be free from the clutches of this dangerous culture, but there’s a problem. This dangerous culture produces the wealth that keeps them affluent.

Their solution is to retreat to the countryside, but in the Northeast that doesn’t work quite the same way it would in East Texas. Property in a rural setting within an hour from work is actually more expensive than living in town. Commuting is difficult. Those rural spaces in the Northeast aren’t under-developed parcels of farmland. They are mostly weekend retreats for the affluent. Even if they could find a suitable property, the other practical and financial realities around living so far from the rest of their life are sinking in.

So why not just go back to Texas? It isn’t that simple. First, the same dynamic comes increasingly into play in Texas, Georgia or anyplace else you might go. To have a quality career you need to be close to a city. Houston may be more conservative than Philadelphia or Baltimore, but by a steadily decreasing margin.

Look hard enough and it is possible to get a well-paid STEM or financial services job in some patch of flyover country where you’ll be surrounded by people who think the universe is 6000 years old. However, your boss and all of the organization’s decision-makers will be somewhere else. To join them in a senior position you will probably have to leave. Choosing a “family friendly” setting means choosing financial instability over affluence and achievement. Religious conservatives increasingly find themselves forced to choose between their careers and their values.

Social conservatives have begun to paint this is an issue of tolerance, but that is a misconception. Lots of unique cultures survive and thrive in a globalized, urban America. Mainstream culture is perfectly willing to tolerate religious conservatives. Tolerance is not what they are looking for.

There are two unique characteristics of Christian religious fundamentalism in the US that create special problems. First, fundamentalists expect the wider culture to embrace, not merely tolerate their beliefs. The second problem is related to the first. This brand of Christianity is not merely a faith, but also a rigid matrix of factual beliefs in tension with reality. Being surrounded by a community of coreligionists is not merely a comfort. The uniformity that comes from a believing community is a practical necessity.

Tolerance isn’t enough. The fact that the wider culture is unwilling to transform itself in conformity with their demands is an affront. They imagine themselves as the last remnant of an authentic American identity. They are the “pro- American” bloc of Sarah Palin’s America. To be surrounded by a successful, prosperous culture that does not embrace their values is to pass every waking hour in a smothering swamp of cognitive dissonance.

The pain of cognitive dissonance is complicated by the need to shelter a brittle collection of factual beliefs. Free flow of information is the blood supply of global capitalism. For believers in Biblical literalism, information itself is dangerous. Controlling access to information is critical to maintaining the worldview at the center of their culture. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control information in an urban capitalist setting.

Participating in that economic system means swimming in a sea of data and converting it into reliable insights. That critical/analytic process on which so much of the wider economy is built is inherently corrosive to religious fundamentalism. Conflict is inevitable.

Fewer Americans under thirty are embracing fundamentalism than in the past but, those who remain will likely be far more militantly committed. They will have to be.

As that commitment to a denialist religious agenda increases, their attachment to the rest of the culture will have to decline. A more explicitly counter-cultural wave of religious fundamentalism will likely pull back from the kinds of direct political engagement that marked the last twenty years. This is not the positive development that some people might expect. Less Moral Majority will likely mean more Bundy Ranch.

In time, religious fundamentalists in the 20th century mold may embrace the Amish Option. They might be found mostly in quiet redoubts away from centers of national power and wealth. Folks there may not be riding horse carts and building furniture, but they would develop a culture, economy, and identity decidedly separate from mainstream American life. Oklahoma and Alabama may develop into Utah’s poorer cousins.

In the meantime, my friends will probably stay in the Northeast, abandon their country dreams, and do their best to adapt. Like most traditional evangelicals, they aren’t so doggedly committed to their worldview that they’ll turn their backs on career, education, and ambition to escape from pluralism. They’ll chafe at city values while their kids grow up at peace with the wider culture.

A new, more hardened generation of religious extremists may take a more strident stand. Expect to see many adopt a version of the Amish Option, bypassing the advantages of wealth, education and influence available in mainstream culture in order to opt-out and protect their fragile beliefs. It is unlikely that this will unfold quietly. We could be in for a bumpy ride.

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Posted in Religious Right

Where the inflation may be hiding

When reality persistently challenges a deeply held belief, believers can get a little weird. Conservative economist Amity Shlaes, never the steadiest of heads in the best of times, recently joined the frustrated ranks of the inflation cranks with a bizarre rant in the National Review.

Shlaes is now convinced that the inflation which her models predict is being hidden somehow. Her evidence? Movie tickets, among other items, now cost more than they used to. Since data has abandoned her and rest of the true believers in right-wing economics, she has fled to the hills of anecdote where she can be safe from cognitive dissonance. Inflation is invisible to all but the pure at heart.

This development highlights the wider dilemma facing Economics as a discipline. Though it claims to be a science and sometimes pretends to be engineering, Economics at this stage of development is no more than a philosophy dressed up in equations. It may be possible to explain the mystery of the “missing inflation,” but only by stepping outside the quasi-religious boundaries of economists’ favorite models.

Since the Nineties, western governments have embraced monetary policies designed to stimulate their economies without the political complication and inflation risks of direct economic stimulus. By toggling the costs and availability of financial institutions’ access to wholesale lending, governments could influence the economy by adjusting access to capital rather than directly placing more currency in citizens’ pockets.

Funny enough it was conservative economists, particularly Milton Friedman, who pioneered this model. Since the financial crash we’ve seen the most aggressive use of monetary policy ever deployed in an effort to halt our terrifying deflationary cycle. In fairness to conservatives like Shlaes, it is perfectly reasonable to worry about how such an unprecedented and massive new intervention might impact the economy. No one really knows the implications of having the Federal Reserve purchase trillions of dollars of mortgage backed securities and Treasury Bonds. In theory, the Fed can simply hold them permanently with no economic impact, but that sounds a lot like simply printing money. Why wouldn’t that create inflationary pressure?

One explanation for the absence of inflation in response to the Fed’s loose money strategy is that the deflationary damage of the financial collapse was so severe that we haven’t fully “re-inflated” the economy yet. That is more or less the consensus view. However, there may be another explanation.

Perhaps the method chosen by Western governments to reinflate their economies has had a perverse effect. By pouring stimulus directly into financial institutions rather than into the hands of consumers those resources are fueling a different kind of inflation, inflated asset or capital values. Perhaps changes in the way our financial markets function over the past generation mean that this form of stimulus is becoming less and less effective as an economic tool. In other words, facts on the ground have broken the theoretical model. Again.

In theory, “capital inflation” should be impossible. Money made available to capital markets should flow directly into productive investment, creating new value in the economy. What if the funds being disbursed by the Federal Reserve are not going into productive investment in the way that we might expect? Once upon a time, banks made money lending to people who invested that money in capital improvements. If that model no longer exists, or is no longer the dominant explanation of how banks make money, then perhaps money poured into the banking system will not flow into productive investment. Maybe all we’ve done is put more chips on a casino table.

After juicing the system with trillions of dollars of Fed leverage, we are seeing no evidence of looming inflation or any accompanying boom in economic growth. We are however seeing a boom in asset prices. The economy has limped along for seven years, with sluggish employment growth and consistently weak GDP numbers. Weak economic indicators have been accompanied by a historic bull market in stocks, accompanied by booming values in a wide variety of asset classes. Even investment in Treasury bonds, which should sag in an equity boom, is high.

Just as in the last decade, an economist who opens a window and sees what’s happening anecdotally on “Main Street” might find some helpful clues. In my suburban Chicago neighborhood the housing market looks eerily like the nosebleed highs of 2006. Houses flip in days with offers exceeding asking prices. Rentals are tough to find.

Meanwhile just a few miles away lower income neighborhoods continue to slog through the long tail of the foreclosure crisis. Markets in DC, Northern California, Chicago, and the NYC suburbs have returned to boom conditions while elsewhere they remain largely stagnant.

Nearly anyone with good credit and/or significant exposure to capital markets is experiencing an economy completely removed from the experience of Americans who used to live in what we once called a Middle Class. Whoever had enough money to weather the financial collapse is now seeing boom conditions float them away to a better future. Those whose boats were wrecked are drowning on this rising tide.

Money flowing into capital markets does not seem to be fueling productive investment. It looks very much like we responded to the damage of the last market bubble by simply creating another one. The inflation that far right economists like Shlaes insist on finding does exist in a sense. They will not recognize it because it defies their models and leads to implications that they do not wish to acknowledge.

Fed stimulus has limited deflation only by propping up speculative markets in assets like oil, real estate and food which might otherwise have dropped even further and remained even lower. This intervention seems to have benefited the owners and speculators in those assets while accomplishing very little for people who have to earn a living from wages.

If this approach isn’t creating inflation, then what is the harm? Frankly, no one seems to know. Unprecedented acquisition of assets by the Fed and massive new money loaned into the banking system is an experiment and we haven’t yet seen the results.

We can predict that prolonged asset inflation will lead to asset crashes. We have been seeing these with increasing frequency over the past generation. Sometimes these crashes can have broad destabilizing effects, as in 2007. Other times, as with smaller collapses recently in gold, or cocoa, copper the impacts are more localized. The overall effect though, so long as this kind of economic juicing remains in effect, is a steady exacerbation of structural inequality and the occasional evaporation of accumulated wealth. Not exactly the kind of thing Amity Shlaes wants to talk about.

With repeated use, monetary policy may be losing some of its effectiveness. It seems to be generating unintended consequences which the economic models currently in vogue may be missing. That happens. Hopefully we won’t need another economic catastrophe to jolt economists into rethinking their models, but there is little sign of a major rethink on the horizon.

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Posted in Economics
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