January 3, 2013
Alaskan Socialism is in trouble

So here’s the thing: Alaska is a socialist state. And it’s in trouble.

No—seriously. Alaska’s socialist. I realize this fact runs afoul of the classic sense of Alaska as the home of rugged individualism, but bear with me.

Why is Alaska socialist?

Well, for one thing most of the oil under its tundra is on state-owned land. So when oil companies come and drill and pump that oil, they have to pay the State of Alaska huge royalty fees. For what amounts to state-owned oil.

Hmm. State ownership of a natural resource. That sounds a whole lot more like socialism than capitalism to me.

But there’s more. For two, Alaska sends each of its citizens a check every year just for being Alaskan. The Alaska Permanent Fund sent every Alaskan a check for $1,174 in 2011, for example. The money came from the royalty fees paid to the State by the oil companies. It varies annually, but it comes just for being alive.

Hmm. State payments to people just for living. Sounds like a conservative caricature of Obamacare.

For three, Alaska receives vastly more in federal dollars every year than its citizens pay in taxes. Indeed, only the District of Columbia—home to the federal government, after all, and a place with a limited tax base—sees a greater ratio of federal dollars come in compared to federal taxes paid out. In Alaska’s case this high federal spending derives from its many military bases, but the point is clear: Alaskans get a lot more money from the federal government than their citizens pay to the federal government in taxes. Alaska is, in a sense, a dependency of the federal government.

(By the way, this pattern is fairly common in the US: states that see more federal dollars come in than their citizens pay in taxes are more often than not Republican-leaning in their politics, while net contributor states — like my Illinois — lean Democratic.)

For four, all these sources of “free” money make it possible for Alaskans to pay very low taxes. There is no state sales or income tax in Alaska. Instead, Alaskans pay for their public goods and services not with their own money, but with other peoples’. One would think tea partiers would demand Alaska be tossed from the Union with this level of welfare benefit, but they haven’t so far, at least not that I am aware.

But here’s the thing: the oil is drying up. Production has declined year over year for a decade now. 2011 saw Alaska’s production fall to its lowest levels in more than 35 years. There’s talk that the Alaskan pipeline may no longer be worth its cost of operation.

So what happens to Alaska when oil production runs so low its financial model falls? Especially when the fantasy of Alaska-as-home-of-rugged-individualism runs afoul of the financial fact that Alaska is organized along socialist financial principles and is even then financially-dependent on the federal government for its survival?

That’s right, dear readers: I’m telling you that the great symbol of American self-reliance, Sarah Palin, was the half term Governor of a declining socialist paradise.

Have fun with that thought for the rest of the day! I imagine you will …

April 18, 2012
Paul Revere’s Ride

Sometime slightly before midnight today, April 18, Paul Revere began his 1775 ride to warn the Americans that the British were coming the next day to try to seize the Americans’ arsenals at Lexington and Concord. The events set in motion the combat phase of the American Revolution.

Although, if you recall, Sarah Palin described it as the day Paul Revere rode to tell the British that the British could not take Americans’ guns…. a claim immediately backed up by edits to the Wikipedia page about Paul Revere’s ride made by Sarah Palin’s supporters on the grounds that an important source — Sarah Palin herself — said the purpose of Paul Revere’s ride was to warn the British, not the Americans. That the British were coming. Which the British, one supposes, already knew.

Which is pretty much everything wrong with American politics summarized in one example.

October 6, 2011
On Sarah Palin’s Facebook Wall

Sample posts from the Palin faithful. I will be curious to see if the fervor surrounding her continues as she disappoints her followers. Note that these posts are unedited other than that I have not used to the posters’ names …..

—Disappointed is not strong enough to describe the feelings. Crushed might be better. I felt like my best friend had died and I went through the entire grieving process (including crying) in a space of 4 hours. I cried not from my own disappointment, but rather that…if you have passed up what should have been your “Esther” moment then I shudder to thik what will ahppen to my children and grandchildren. Without your uniting foce I am not sure we can be rallied after this and I keep feeling like America has now lost its soul and may well be irrecoverable. That all being said I trust you indeed made this a matter of prayer and that you have peace with the Heavely Father concerning your decision. I pray for you and your family and that God’s blessings may rest upon you until He calls his children home.

—Read this PATRIOTS!! Governor Palin.. We will always stay here for YOU, GOVERNOR PALIN!! WE WILL be HERE, WE WILL be HERE LISTENING to YOU, and WE WILL be HERE READY at ANYTIME for YOUR GUIDANCE, GOVERNOR PALIN!! BECAUSE OF YOU GOVERNOR, WE ARE THE GRIZZLY BEARS OF AMERICA, WHO WILL SUCCEED!! I LOVE YOU GRIZZLY PALIN!! :) =P :D

—Sarah Palin has decided not to run for President, as she places God first, then family, and then politics. The satanic media tried to destroy her, just because she stood up for biblical principles. Many Americans believe that she is not electable, because she is too biblically conservative. Why did the Republican men not stand up for her and defend her? Have the American men grown so morally weak, that we have to have a woman stand up for what is biblically right? Sarah Palin, you are awesome!

—I am praying that GOD will send you a dream of what America and the world will be like because of this decision. That just like Ebenezer Scrooge you see the world through His eyes and reverse your decision.

—SARAH, I DON’T KNOW IF YOU WILL SEE THIS OR NOT, BUT I AM DISAPPOINTED THAT YOU ARE NOT GOING TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT. I FELT AS THOUGH YOU HAVE GOD IN YOUR HEART AND WOULD HAVE TURNED THIS COUNTRY BACK TO ONE NATION UNDER GOD. THERE ARE MANY GODLESS PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY AND THEY LIVE FOR THE FLESH, THEMSELVES AND GREED. I WISH YOU WOULD CHANGE YOUR MIND SARAH, WE NEED YOU SO DESPERATELY.GOD BLESS YOU.

—Am I allowed to keep sending you money anyway?

June 23, 2011
Random Observation #43

As Michele Bachmann’s star has risen, Sarah Palin has seemingly dropped off the political radar.

I wonder whether this is a sign of Bachmann’s strength, is evidence of systemic bias such that only one woman at a time can be assigned the role of “serious” contender for President, or is a symptom of the degree to which the punditocracy (media, political figures and bloggers) have come to treat to Sarah Palin as a “(wo)man bites dog” story: good filler on a slow day, but otherwise not worth paying much attention to.

In any case, it doesn’t bode well for the length or depth of Sarah Palin’s political career.

April 22, 2011
A useful summary graph from Nate Silver at 538.com (now behind the NY Times’ paywall). It tracks the decline in news attention to Sarah Palin, and the parallel rise in attention paid to Donald Trump. Note the brief, pre-Trump, Gingrich blip last month.
It looks like Bette Davis’ advice was right, in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!” And only a little over 17 months to go before the 2012 presidential election!

A useful summary graph from Nate Silver at 538.com (now behind the NY Times’ paywall). It tracks the decline in news attention to Sarah Palin, and the parallel rise in attention paid to Donald Trump. Note the brief, pre-Trump, Gingrich blip last month.

It looks like Bette Davis’ advice was right, in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!” And only a little over 17 months to go before the 2012 presidential election!

January 9, 2011
The infamous Palin “target” map from the campaign. Her staff is now claiming the symbols are surveyors marks, not gunsights. Make up your own mind.

The infamous Palin “target” map from the campaign. Her staff is now claiming the symbols are surveyors marks, not gunsights. Make up your own mind.

November 24, 2010
Sarah Palin: Everybody’s (or, at least, lots of people’s) All American

So it turns out that Sarah Palin misspoke on the Glenn Beck radio show, and noted that the United States must maintain its support for our North Korean allies in the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Now as it happens, I am inherently inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one. Indeed, when Glenn Beck corrected her, she subsequently said “South” Korean allies. While at some level embarrassing, her mistake made sense to me: I get interviewed a lot, and I have surely offered my share of factual errors, misstatements, and mangled words during these interviews. Interviews are spontaneous events, and one of the risks of going live is the potential for verbal error. For this reason alone, I am basically inclined to dismiss her error as one “in the moment” rather than fundamental.

Except … well, a lot of things. It seems to me that Sarah Palin has reveled in her ignorance. She has made a profound virtue of not being complex, nuanced, or insightful of the complexities of the world and of leadership. This view is confirmed by behind-the-scenes reporting of her preparations for her 2008 debate with Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden: the Republican operatives charged with helping her prep for the debate found her stunningly lacking in knowledge of the basics of recent political history—including the fact that there was a difference between North and South Korea. Indeed, they report that she refused much help prepping for the debate and spent much of her time sending emails and asking supporters to pray with her. There is, of course, nothing wrong with praying. It’s just not a substitute for practice.

Little has changed since 2008 to suggest Palin’s attitudes towards knowledge and information has changed. She recently opposed the new START treaty (nuclear arms reduction with Russia) on grounds that Ronald Reagan wanted Americans to have a strong nuclear defense. Except, of course, Reagan actually proposed the COMPLETE elimination of nuclear weapons to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986.  And the Soviet Union fell in 1991. She seems to have no meaningful grasp of the details of economic policy or the dynamics of geopolitics. She at least comes across not just as ignorant, but willfully proud of being ignorant.

Which, as it turns out, is apparently why lots of people like her. The number of Americans who have no grasp of these concepts are mind-boggling. After 9 years of war, most Americans can’t find Afghanistan on a map. Or Iraq. Or Iran. (They’re all lined up in a nice row.) Or North and South Korea. Credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and high speed trading may well have been at the heart of the current economic crisis, but I doubt many of us can explain what they are and why they mattered. It’s all hard and all complex.

Sarah Palin’s reaction to this complexity stands in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s. Obama explores the nuances and tries, like a law professor, to find a middle way. He deals in what are for most people esoterica that they not only can’t understand, but aren’t really asked to weigh in on. His “experts” will take care of it.

Palin, by contrast, offers homespun homilies and the active rejection of expertise. The nerds are in charge, she sees to imply, but they have rigged the game so that only they can play—and so that only they can win. Meanwhile, all of us know the “real” story from our own lives: when you have troubles, work harder and spend less (including paying less taxes). The American Dream can be yours by the dint of the sweat on your brow. Just give Americans freedom—including freedom from government interference—and everything will just get better.

Sarah Palin, in other words, is what Christine O’Donnell famously claimed to be; “you.” Or at least like lots of you: not very informed about world and economic affairs, but willing to work hard and try to succeed so long as “they” don’t take the chance of success away with taxes and regulations and “expertise.”

The identification of Sarah Palin with “us,” at least for some people, helps explains the fact that each time she is attacked, each time one of her misstatements is demonstrated and her ignorance is revealed, support for her seems to intensify. In essence, Palin’s supporters see her as themselves, and think that she is being attacked unfairly by the same smarty-pants elites who have rigged the game and screwed up their lives. Thus the fact that she appears not to know even simple things that anyone running for President or Vice President ought to know, like the difference between North and South Korea or the status of the Federal Reserve Bank under US law (it’s not subject to presidential control), doesn’t matter to many of her supporters: they don’t know these things either. And there’s no reason to know. The experts knew all of these things, and things still got horribly messed up.

At least one other aspect of Sarah Palin’s popularity must be explored: her brilliance as a media star. She is perfectly attuned to the twitterized sensibilities of our modern media age. She offers some essentially ridiculous point of Twitter knowing that others will respond. The subsequent controversy carries the story along for the next few media cycles until she restarts it in an entirely new direction with an entirely new inane comment. This, it should be noted, is not her fault—it’s the media’s. She, like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, is exceptionally skilled at manipulating the modern insta-media to her benefit.

So love her or hate her, it seems to me Sarah Palin is not going away any time soon. I don’t think she’ll be President. I’m having a hard time believing she really wants to be President.

But who knows?

November 19, 2010
The Dumbest Things Ever Said on Television?

I had occasion to watch the first few minutes of the first episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” the other day, and was struck by lots of things. The fact that it is an hour long political advertisement for her career, an ad which she is actually being paid to appear in. The way she appears to live a frenetic life, manifesting more energy to go out and do things than four ordinary people. (Albeit, with a coterie of staff and advisers and facilitators that coordinate all these activities on her behalf.) The fact that her children barely see their mother—but then again, this is true for most high performers in the world. The fact that I actually think her decision to put up a 14 foot wall between her house and the house a journalist rented right next to hers was an entirely appropriate thing to do. That’s right: I found myself at least briefly sympathetic with Sarah Palin. Which takes some effort.

But of course that’s not really what the show is about. It’s about giving Sarah Palin the opportunity to pronounce various homespun, apparently commonsensical verities about goings on in Alaska and project them into solutions for the broader United States. She links insights supposedly derived from her Alaska adventures and life and casually comments that if the rest of us just did it the Alaska way, the United States as a whole would be a lot better off. It’s classic Sarah Palin. It’s also usually quite stupid.

Take, for example, the aforementioned fence. When a journalist rented the house next to the Palin’s Wasila home as part of the research he was doing prior to writing a book about her, I thought it was a fairly sleazy move. The Palins responded quite appropriately and built up their privacy fence to a height of 14 feet, sufficient to block the view of their yard and windows from the neighboring house. So far so good. During the show, however, Sarah Palin drops one of her “isn’t this obvious?” asides about their privacy fence and offers that she thinks this 14 foot privacy fence is pretty much what the United States ought to secure its own national borders. After all, it worked for her. Why not for America?

Well, sure. Except, of course, that the Palin security fence is maybe 40 feet long. And the journalist isn’t trying to get across it. And the ratio of security guards at the Palin home to the number of people trying to spy into her property is, well, A LOT to ONE. And the privacy fence is made of slats of standard American back yard privacy fencing that costs $20.97 per 6x8 panel at my local Lowe’s. (I just looked it up.) Hence her entire privacy fence extension ran maybe $150. So it’s not all that apt an analogy. In fact, it’s actually stupid. But it was delivered with the Palin wink and inevitable “duh” expression that endears her to so many Americans who so desperately want to believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems.

A few minutes later, the Palins were salmon fishing in bear country with one of their daughters and a niece. This scene has caused much hue and cry on the left, usually on grounds that she violated the law by getting too close to the bears. (I was more struck by how close she got to the bears with two children in her boat, but apparently her status as a “mama grizzly” exempts her from the kinds of critique normal parents face when putting their children in dangerous situations.) In the course of proceedings a mama brown bear was fishing with her cubs, and Palin offered another profound comment: that the mama was just showing her kids how to do things, and that there was going to be no one else to take care of them. They had to learn how to do for themselves. The obvious conclusion was left unsaid, but hung in the air as plain as the sun: this is how it is in nature. You have to take care of your own. We shouldn’t expect anyone’s help in life. Especially, of course, government’s.

Here, I have to give it to Sarah Palin. She is absolutely right. At least, she’s absolutely right about bears. Bears, after all, don’t have roads. Or schools. Or militaries. Or foreign policy. No bear has an insurance card. Or a credit card. Or a library card. No bear uses a cell phone or surfs the internet. Bears lack language, and religion, and a sense of social justice. For that matter, bears don’t have opposable thumbs and brains capable of higher level reasoning. Put another way, whatever the antics of Yogi and Booboo and the group at Jellystone Park imply, bears don’t have culture.

All human societies, whether simple, clan and tribal communities or complex, postmodern, globalized contemporary nation-states, rest on relationships of trust and cooperation. None of us “do for ourselves.” I can’t make electricity, build a car or refine petroleum into heating fuel. I can’t do heart surgery or manufacture a book. And I certainly can’t know enough to assess whether the people who in fact do make cars and books and electricity and gas and heart surgeries have the skills and competencies to do it safely and effectively. Thus I rely on accreditation from universities, and certification boards, and government inspectors and regulators to stand as proxy for the information I can’t know for myself. I assume the heart surgeon is effective because he or she was trained well, certified by the state, allowed to operate by a hospital and insured by a private company. I assume I can toast my bagel safely because the electric grid is regulated, the wiring in my house is up to code, and the toaster I am using has met safety standards. While we never think about it these terms, the simple act of making a bagel is in fact an act of extraordinary faith in people we never knew and will never meet.

So yes, Sarah, bears “do for themselves.” Humans don’t. Failing to recognize the seemingly obvious fact that bears are not the same as people may well elevate your comment about bears to the status of the stupidest thing ever said on television.

July 21, 2010
The Great Afghanistan Tease

If Afghanistan is the place empires go to die, it is because the place seems to spawn an endless array of fantasies through which imperialists can imagine fulfilling their dreams of power, wealth and avarice. The most recent such fantasy is the notion that the Afghanistan war is “worth it” because Afghanistan has an untapped wealth of natural resources just waiting to be mined once political stability is achieved. Stay the course, goes the implication, and Americans will grow richer than they could have ever imagined.

This is, however, nonsense. Some of the reasons are fairly obvious: achieving political stability in a space that hasn’t seen much political stability in over 3000 years is no easy task, for example. But some of the reasons as somewhat less obvious, and one of those is the subject of this post: who, really, would get rich if Afghanistan stabilized and the minerals allegedly there actually began to be produced?

The answer, to jump to the punchline, is global corporations and their investors, not ordinary Americans. The reason is simple: for most extractive activity in the world, whether of minerals or oil or gas, fields are leased to corporations for production. The corporation earns its profits based on the gap between what it can sell its product on the global market for minus the costs associated with paying leases and taxes on its holdings (assuming it doesn’t just pay off local leaders to avoid such fees) and the costs of getting the product out of the ground and to market—labor (which is usually very cheap), environmental compliance (which is also usually very cheap), infrastructure, purchasing and maintaining machinery, transportation, etc.

Some “ordinary” people do become well off because of the part they play in extracting resources from the ground. Corrupt leaders get rich from taking bribes; people who actually run machines and those who make and maintain whatever machine the corporation uses do see some financial benefit from this arrangement. But the big money goes to the corporation and its investors—who can come from anywhere and invest their money in anything around the globe.  For the most part, your “wealth” (or mine) comes only if we or some retirement system we’re in invest in the companies that undertake such operations. That’s not nothing, but it’s a long way from “winning in Afghanistan will make you rich so keep let’s spending your today’s tax dollars on the war there.”

The Alaskan oil industry offers an empirical way to think about this. During the 2008 presidential campaign Sarah Palin yelled “drill baby drill” from seemingly every podium she stood on, demanding the US open oil drilling in more places to guarantee domestic sources of oil for domestic consumption. But this was always twaddle. Oil is a global market, and if a corporate producer could sell “American” oil in the US for $53 a barrel but could sell it in Japan for $75 a barrel, the corporation would sell it to Japan regardless or where the oil was produced. Indeed, much of the oil produced in Alaska is in fact shipped to Japan because it is cheaper to tanker it there for refinement than it is to ship it to Seattle or Portland or LA. Short of the federal government taking over the “American” oil companies—tea party, anyone?—the oil isn’t “American” even if it is pumped out of ground within the United States’ boundaries. It’s BP’s. Or Exxon/Mobil’s. Or Chevron’s. Or Shell’s.

Winning in Afghanistan won’t make Americans rich(er). All it is really doing is making ordinary Americans poorer by expending our taxes to create stability there so that, should peace actually break out, global corporations can produce the potential resources there. That really means that you and I are subsidizing  global corporations—using public, tax dollars to assist private enterprise. And going broke doing it.

The thing about teases is that there is never a payoff. As Chris Rock once sang, “There is no sex in the Champagne Room.” Well, there are no riches in Afghanistan. Just endless, perpetual frustration.

April 1, 2010
Missing the point

So the big buzz of the day is, LL Cool J doesn’t want an interview he did a few years ago to shown on Sarah Palin’s debut special on FOX, “Real American Stories.” 

The promo materials for “Real American Stories” have trumpeted the fact that Sarah Palin would be talking to various people about their struggles to succeed against long odds and personal struggles.  This is exactly the kind of schlocky human interest story stuff one imagines Palin excelling at: the Horatio Alger story updated to modern times. It’s a slow pitch right through the middle of her strike zone.

Much of the coverage of this matter has focused on the political: that LL Cool J is a rapper/actor and presumptive liberal and does not want to be associated with Palin on FOX.  Which may all be well and true, but really misses the point: that Sarah Palin isn’t actually interviewing 2 “guests” on her show at all.  Instead, material LL Cool J and the country music singer Toby Keith taped years ago for other interviews is being “repurposed”—FOX’s phrase—to fit Palin’s show.

This is sampling gone wild.  We have now reached a point in our digital age where one can claim to be doing a newsworthy interview without ever talking to the person you are interviewing.  The next obvious step is to not bother to wait for the interviewees’ answers.  One can simply insert the desired answer in the appropriate place.

Of course, we’ve sort of been doing THAT for years.  But we’ve been doing it on the “fake” news, not the “real” stuff.

Pandora opened a box, and evil came to the world.  We can only hope that now that the threshold between real and fake news appears to have eroded entirely, we are smart enough to recognize the difference.