November 2013 Archives

Austerity: Economic Musical Chairs

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Discredited Economic Theory Holds Europe in Deflationary Thrall

By William Pfaff

This week the notorious "troika" representing the three major lenders to severely indebted European Union nations--officials from the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank--once again descended upon Athens to consider new Greek proposals for dealing with its debt. (The IMF has recently expressed some doubts about all this but is still in the game.) The three were asked to approve a new Greek government plan to complete its 2014 budget in a way that would justify the next scheduled payment of troika loans needed for Greece's national "bailout."

austerity2.jpgIn return for a new troika loan payment, the Greeks undoubtedly will be expected to offer still more austerity measures. After already accepting drastic orthodox fiscal punishment since 2010--and a six-year recession that has produced unemployment of nearly 28 percent and a 40 percent fall in household disposable income--the Greeks would like some breathing space. Whether they get it should be known by the time this article is published.

The troika routine is as familiar as an old-fashioned music-hall turn. The troika knows only one song to sing: the neo-liberal dirge of sacrifice and suffering to impose upon the mass of citizens in the loan-besieged states of the European Union's southern and Mediterranean basin. The music is German, Wagnerian even, unchanging. Its auditors must produce and export, earning money that will allow them to emulate Germany's record of virtue.

Bankers are not the only ones who have asked Germany how everybody can export at the same time, least of all the poor states with weak economies and a lack of investment. The American Nobel laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been hammering on this point since Wall Street put the world into this mess. But no one will listen. Keynesianism was murdered in the U.S.A. by a conspiracy called the Washington Consensus.

Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC, was reported last weekend in the Financial Times to have discovered that nearly every one of his bank's country forecasts firmly stated that its subject country planned to export its way to growth. He said that with current banking opinion such an intellectual monolith, the world's exporters have only Mars or Jupiter as available customers.

Even the U.S. Treasury put in a bad word about Germany, land of rigor, which knows naught but account surpluses. "Germany's anemic pace of domestic demand growth and dependence on exports have hampered rebalancing at a time when many other euro-area countries have been under severe pressure. ... The net result has been a deflationary bias for the euro area, as well as for the world economy." The Treasury acerbically noted that Germany's current account balance is bigger than China's. Berlin was not pleased, but Chancellor Merkel was at the time preoccupied by fighting off American spies and shopping for a non-dodgy telephone.

The unanswered question is why there is such iron fidelity to neoliberal austerity in the contemporary community of official, semi-official and even academic economists. It can't be that it works. It doesn't work. Even in theory it doesn't work, as Stephen King remarks with his Mars/Jupiter comparison. The key assertion in the academic argument that deficit at a certain level magically turns into surplus has been found to be a vulgar error in arithmetic. American experience has consistently disproved the theory, as Krugman has told all who will listen.

A new Policy Network paper by Vivien Schmidt of Boston University and Mark Thatcher of the London School of Economics asks why "neoliberal ideas continue to be the only ideas (apparently) available." Why have "the euro-zone countries embraced 'market discipline' through austerity and, in so doing condemned themselves to slow or no growth?" Why have such ideas since the 1980s "not just survived but continued to be dominant"?

The authors propose five lines of argument in answer. First, the theory is adaptive, assuming new guises, such as the "sound money" argument of the 1920s reappearing as monetarism. Second, as already noted, it often works in rhetoric but not in reality (cutting back the state is a hollow idea in practice since bridges fall down, airplanes crash into one another, and robbers break into your house).

Third, it often wins debates on common-sense but false grounds. ("Consider how you balance your household budget.") Fourth, it serves the purposes of powerful industries, banks, international interest and political groups--not to speak of the 1 percent.

Last, although these ideas may (will?) eventually collapse because they are false (like Communism!), they are tied to so many interests that their failure is likely to make things worse before anything better appears.

In short, they validate an adage this writer often has cited: The conventional wisdom is nearly always wrong.

Where the Teabaggers Belong

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Or how fire freed up our day.

Sometimes the stupidity of Americans reaches the level of awe.


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Pudding Proof

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California, Here We Come?

By Paul Krugman

It goes without saying that the rollout of Obamacare was an epic disaster. But what kind of disaster was it? Was it a failure of management, messing up the initial implementation of a fundamentally sound policy? Or was it a demonstration that the Affordable Care Act is inherently unworkable?

We know what each side of the partisan divide wants you to believe. The Obama administration is telling the public that everything will eventually be fixed, and urging Congressional Democrats to keep their nerve. Republicans, on the other hand, are declaring the program an irredeemable failure, which must be scrapped and replaced with ... well, they don't really want to replace it with anything.

At a time like this, you really want a controlled experiment. What would happen if we unveiled a program that looked like Obamacare, in a place that looked like America, but with competent project management that produced a working website?

Well, your wish is granted. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you California.

Now, California isn't the only place where Obamacare is looking pretty good. A number of states that are running their own online health exchanges instead of relying on are doing well. Kentucky's Kynect is a huge success; so is Access Health CT in Connecticut. New York is doing O.K. And we shouldn't forget that Massachusetts has had an Obamacare-like program since 2006, put into effect by a guy named Mitt Romney.

California is, however, an especially useful test case. First of all, it's huge: if a system can work for 38 million people, it can work for America as a whole. Also, it's hard to argue that California has had any special advantages other than that of having a government that actually wants to help the uninsured. When Massachusetts put Romneycare into effect, it already had a relatively low number of uninsured residents. California, however, came into health reform with 22 percent of its nonelderly population uninsured, compared with a national average of 18 percent.

Finally, the California authorities have been especially forthcoming with data tracking the progress of enrollment. And the numbers are increasingly encouraging.

For one thing, enrollment is surging. At this point, more than 10,000 applications are being completed per day, putting the state well on track to meet its overall targets for 2014 coverage. Just imagine, by the way, how different press coverage would be right now if Obama officials had produced a comparable success, and around 100,000 people a day were signing up nationwide.

Equally important is the information on who is enrolling. To work as planned, health reform has to produce a balanced risk pool -- that is, it must sign up young, healthy Americans as well as their older, less healthy compatriots. And so far, so good: in October, 22.5 percent of California enrollees were between the ages of 18 and 34, slightly above that group's share of the population.

What we have in California, then, is a proof of concept. Yes, Obamacare is workable -- in fact, done right, it works just fine.

The bad news, of course, is that most Americans aren't lucky enough to live in states in which Obamacare has, in fact, been done right. They're stuck either with or with one of the state exchanges, like Oregon's, that have similar or worse problems. Will they ever get to experience successful health reform?

The answer is, probably yes. There won't be a moment when the clouds suddenly lift, but the exchanges are gradually getting better -- a point inadvertently illustrated a few days ago by John Boehner, the speaker of the House. Mr. Boehner staged a publicity stunt in which he tried to sign up on the D.C. health exchange, then triumphantly posted an entry on his blog declaring that he had been unsuccessful. At the bottom of his post, however, is a postscript admitting that the health exchange had called back "a few hours later," and that he is now enrolled.

And maybe the transaction would have proceeded faster if Mr. Boehner's office hadn't, according to the D.C. exchange, put its agent -- who was calling to help finish the enrollment -- on hold for 35 minutes, listening to "lots of patriotic hold music."

There will also probably be growing use of workarounds -- for example, encouraging people to go directly to insurers. This will temporarily defeat one of the purposes of the exchanges, which was to make price comparisons easy, but it will be good enough as a short-term patch. And one shouldn't forget that the insurance industry has a big financial stake in the success of Obamacare, and will soon be pitching in with big efforts to sign people up.

Again, Obamacare's rollout was a disaster. But in California we can see what health reform will look like, beyond the glitches. And it's going to work.

Imagining Life Beyond Capitalism

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Conservative Paucity

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The Problem with 'Compassionate Conservatism'

by Joe Conason

Nobody in Washington talks much about the poor in America these days, even though they are more and more with us in the economic aftermath of the Great Recession. Perhaps that is why The Washington Post welcomed Paul Ryan's recent declaration that he wants to fight poverty "with kinder, gentler policies to encourage work and upward mobility."

The Wisconsin Republican confided to a Post reporter that he has been "quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods" -- too quietly to gain any favorable publicity, until now -- and consulting with all the usual suspects in the capital's right-wing think tanks. He wants everyone to understand that he is seeking to figure out the problems faced by poor folks and how he can help.

db200.gifAs a 2016 presidential hopeful, Ryan evidently intends to rebrand himself as a "compassionate conservative" -- the same propaganda meme deployed by former President George W. Bush and Karl Rove during the prelude to the 2000 campaign for president -- at a moment when the Republican Party badly needs appealing new images and ideas. The Bush gang dropped that gimmick well before they entered the White House, and it was never glimpsed again. But whenever a Republican spouts kinder, gentler, compassionate-conservative babble, the vaunted cynicism of the capital press corps gets washed away in a warm bath of credulity.

But just to be clear, there is nothing new in Ryan's perspective on poverty, which is impoverished indeed when set next to the outlook of his late mentor Jack Kemp, who became a conservative icon in Congress before he joined the cabinet as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although Kemp belatedly recognized the role of government in alleviating poverty, Ryan and the current crop of Republicans in Washington talk about volunteerism, charity and spirituality as the only legitimate ways to address social problems -- while all government support for the poor must be slashed or eliminated, as prescribed by their budget.

When Ryan suggests that volunteerism and charity will salve the injuries of the poor, he is merely reviving the "thousand points of light" hoax perpetrated by George H. W. Bush back in 1988, when as Ronald Reagan's vice president, he had to distinguish himself from the cold-hearted attitudes and actions of that administration to run for presidential office. It was nonsense then and it remains that way, because the volume of private charity in America is utterly dwarfed by the government programs that preserve the poor from starvation.

And when Ryan proclaims that religion will save those shiftless sinners, one soul at a time, he is echoing the same pharisaical pieties underlying George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," which was invented, after all, by an ex-Communist turned fundamentalist. This political abuse of faith, for a professing Catholic like Ryan, is rebutted by none other than Pope Francis, who has upheld the Church's traditional social teaching, blasted the kind of "savage capitalism" Ryan admires and, in particular, criticized "ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation." Like the ideology of Ryan's idol Ayn Rand -- "and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good," as he noted last May.

With the tin-eared rhetoric of the Mitt Romney-Ryan campaign still resonating in memory, it will be hard for the former vice-presidential wannabe to persuade any sane person of his profound concern for the underprivileged. There is far more reason to believe that he shares his patrician running mate's haughty disdain for the "47 percent."

But if he truly does care, Ryan could lift up America's poorest simply by stifling his persistent urges to kill the minimum wage, reduce the earned-income tax credit, cut food stamps, wreck Medicaid or carry out any of the dozens of destructive schemes that are, in his perverse outlook, meant to help. And he could rid himself and his party of the rancid notion that there is something morally wrong with families surviving below the poverty line beyond the persistent dearth of decent jobs.

Hallelujah for the Nukes

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It's about time!!!

And Why?


Senate goes 'nuclear,' Democrats approve changes to filibuster rules

By Kasie Hunt and Carrie Dann

The Senate has voted to change one of the chamber's most fundamental rules, invoking the so-called 'nuclear option' for executive branch and non-Supreme Court judicial nominations.

Fifty-two Democrats voted for the measure, an unprecedented change previously threatened but not invoked until Thursday. Three Democrats -- Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- voted with Republicans against the change.

The vote overturned an existing rule that required a 60-vote majority for the approval of presidential nominees. Now, just a simple majority will be required for executive branch and judicial nominees except for Supreme Court picks.

Speaking after the vote, President Barack Obama said he supports the Senate's action.

"The vote today, I think, is an indication that a majority of senators believe as I believe that enough is enough," Obama said. "The American people's business is far too important to keep falling prey day after day to Washington politics."

Democratic leaders said the 'nuclear' option was the only way to break a logjam on Obama's nominees. Republicans had infuriated Democrats by blocking a series of Obama's judicial nominees, saying the president was unfairly attempting to stack the nation's courts with judges who will uphold his agenda.

"It's time to change," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor as almost all members sat at their desks in the chamber. "It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete."

"The age-old rules of the Senate are being used to paralyze us," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "The public is asking - is begging - us to act."

Republicans vocally criticized the move as 'dangerous' and 'desperate.'

"It's a sad day in the history of the Senate," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, calling the move a Democratic "power grab."

The GOP also derided the vote as an attempt to distract the American public from the early failures of the Obama-backed health care law's rollout.

The higher threshold had increasingly become the norm for even the most mundane nomination fights in recent years, as the minority had been allowed to insist that nominees clear the higher hurdle. The tactic made filibusters of presidential nominees - once rare - merely business as usual.

"The Senate is a living thing, and to survive it must change, as it has over the history of this great country," Reid said.

Republicans warned before the vote that the GOP will retaliate when it wins back a majority in the Senate.

"Some of us have been around here long enough to know that sometimes the shoe is on the other foot," McConnell said before the vote, telling Democrats "you may regret this a lot sooner than you think."

The "nuclear option" threat may sound familiar to most Americans; similar crises have shaken the Senate four times in the last three years. But each time, the procedural bomb had been defused by eleventh-hour bipartisan negotiations.

Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Senate for over 30 years, told reporters Thursday before the vote that he supported the change. But Biden was notably not on Capitol Hill; he made the comments during a visit to a D.C. eatery.

Go Warren

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The why


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Or how the patchwork is bringing down the whole structure.

Forget Big Versus Small -- Our Government's Needless Complexity Is a Big Problem

by Joshua Holland

Our ideological debates over the size of government and its role in the economy are often fierce, but what if we're all missing a larger issue?

Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, argues that the needless complexity with which our government operates costs us dearly - in dollars, transparency and trust in our institutions. And that's true for both liberals and conservatives.

Teles borrowed the word "kludge" from the world of computer programming to describe the problem. "A kludge," he writes, "is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system." Things go wrong in a variety of ways "when you add up enough kludges" leading to "a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes." Teles adds: "any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept."

Moyers & Company caught up with Teles to discuss how our "kludgeocracy" hurts our government's ability to function as it should. Below is a transcript of our talk, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Holland: Tell us a little bit about some of the costs that we end up paying for all these kludges - you use the costs of navigating a ridiculously complex tax system as one example.

Teles: Well, with the tax system, part of the costs are simply what people pay to get people to do their taxes. That's actually a fairly significant one. But also all the time people spend on their taxes adds up to well over $100 billion a year. There's no human good that's being produced by that. These are simply costs that are associated with us having a much more complex mechanism than we would have needed.

Holland: And of course, lobbyists advocate for this loophole and that loophole, and then in the end you have something that's almost impossible for ordinary people to navigate

Now, our kludgeocracy is a big problem for those of us who think an activist government can solve certain problems. Let me quote, just briefly, from your piece in National Affairs, and then ask you to flesh this out. You write, "Politicians may posture against corporate welfare, but kludgeocracy makes it hard for voters to see how much business profits from government, which makes it difficult to effectively target their anger. As a consequence, that anger diffuses into our system of government as a whole, leading to a loss of trust, and to skepticism of the possibility that the public sector could ever be an effective instrument of the public good." Can you unpack that for us, Steven?.

Teles: Yes. I think part of the issue is that some of these policies that have really complicated mechanisms were created precisely because Republicans, to be blunt, didn't want fairly clean, simple policies that would make it easy for voters to recognize they were getting a government service and then reward the people who produced it for them.

Look at Social Security. For a very long time, it produced excellent results for Democrats because the recipients knew they were getting Social Security, they knew who produced it, and they rewarded them politically.

Increasingly, when more and more public policy is being done in what Chris Howard called, "the shadow welfare state," people are not always aware that they're getting a government service. So when you look at a lot of these areas - like the ways we help people go to college -- a lot of them are done through the tax code in ways that people don't really think of as government. When you ask them, 'Are you a recipient of government services?' people who are getting thousands and thousands of dollars a year don't think of themselves in that way.

The consequence is that a huge amount of our middle class think of themselves exclusively as givers rather than takers in the welfare state, so they imagine there's this whole other population who are the ones taking everything and they're the ones giving, even though, in fact, they depend very substantially for their well-being on all these awkward, indirect ways of [delivering benefits]. Play that game out over and over again, and you have a welfare state that doesn't make it clear to them how important government is for their own well-being.

Holland: That's clearly a problem for liberals. In the piece, you say that a kludgy system is problematic for both liberals and conservatives. I'm not sure why it's a problem for conservatives.

Teles: When government doesn't work very well, it's hard for people to punish it. So, in the case of these health care exchanges -- is that the fault of the health care companies? Is it the fault of the government? Is it the fault of the contractors? It's very hard to know exactly who to punish, and that's actually one of our more direct programs where it's a little easier to target. But when you think about the huge system of contractors doing huge amounts of government services, all of the arrows that would allow you to figure out who to hold responsible are hard to see.

The other part is that I would argue it's better for conservatives for government either to be all in or all out. When government is sort of a little bit everywhere, it's really hard for conservatives to say, "No, we don't want our government here at all." Now there are very low hurdles for government involvement so it would be better to have a world in which it was clear. As it stands, government can inch into areas in very small, often awkward ways, but once it's done that, it's hard to have the fundamental conversation about whether we want government intervention at all.

Holland: You say in the piece that Americans are "ideologically conservative but operationally liberal." I put it a little bit differently. I often say that Americans tend to be suspicious of the idea of government in the abstract, but they actually like the things that government does in the specific.

And it seems to me that for conservatives, obscuring what government does is a benefit, in that they don't necessarily have to come out and say exactly what services they would deprive people of in order to cut high-end taxes, which is -- I guess I don't really ascribe to conservatism a good-faith belief in smaller government. I think they're mostly interested in lowering high-end tax rates and deregulating business, neither of which is obviously inconsistent with a kludgy system.

Teles: Right, there are conservatives and there are conservatives. I mean, certainly a lot of my Libertarian friends genuinely think that the intervention of government into all kinds of areas is pernicious. But there are obviously also substantial numbers of Republicans who mainly thought about who was on their team, and thought the government wasn't rewarding the people on their team and hurting the guys on the other side. That certainly explains the structure of Medicare Part D, where eventually conservatives cut a deal where they would allow the government to get into this area, but only if it cut all their friends in on the deal.

I also think there are a lot of Libertarians who got sold on the idea of privatization. They thought that it was better to have some government service -- if it had to be done at all - contracted out to private firms.

And I think they had really underestimated how much those private firms -- once they were in this contractual relationship with government -- would be a durable lobby for more government, and often more expensive government. It would be very hard to pull them out. In some ways it's much harder to pull out a kludgy, complicated government that has all these links to the private sector, than it is to pull out a much cleaner public program. So I guess maybe I also attribute slightly more good faith, at least to some set of conservatives, than you do.

Holland: Suzanne Mettler wrote about what she called, "the submerged state." She pointed out that virtually all Americans are, at various times in their lives, both "makers" and "takers," but most people don't realize that they receive federal benefits, even when they do. Can you just give us a little bit more of a detailed understanding of how this relates to a kludgy system?

Teles: The most obvious example, again, is the way we now pay for college education. If you think about the Pell Grant program, that's a pretty good example of a non-kludgy program, right? People basically get income-related support for going to college. They know they're getting it. They know it's coming from government.

But we also have this other way, which is very much part of the shadow welfare state. That's the tens of billions of dollars every year that goes through various kinds of tax-advantage savings -- 529 plans, Coverdell IRAs -- and they are generally not perceived of as part of our welfare state.

We made a quite conscious decision that we were going to build a lot of our welfare state around higher education into the tax system, but people generally view that as a service that's coming from the private sector, especially given that it's coming in the form of tax subsidies.

It means that for high-end tax payers, they're only paying $2 out of every $3 of the money that they're putting in, because the government is basically picking up the other dollar out of their taxes.

I think that's a good example of a program liberals often supported, because they wanted more financial support for people who are going to college. But they did not want it to seem big-government-y, and this seems small-government-y. So in that sense, I think liberals were implicated in this needless complexity as well. This wasn't just something that conservatives insisted on. In many ways, New Democrats liked this arrangement because it had the effect, they thought, of big government programs without looking like government.

Holland: The health care reforms are a perfect example of what you're describing. Everything we're seeing with the website right now is based on the inherent kludginess of the whole scheme, right? It has to transmit information securely between several state and federal agencies, verify your eligibility for subsidies, verify your citizenship status, and then it has to transmit a whole bundle of information to hundreds of private insurance companies.

And we can contrast that with a far simpler system, like opening up the existing Medicare program for all comers, and just using tax revenues to cover the health care expenses of the poor.

But let me ask you this: the Dutch system is ranked one of the best health care systems in the world and it follows the same basic structure. It has a mandate, there are subsidies, and then it relies on private insurers.

But the Dutch have a different view of the role of government and about the value of regulation. They have cost controls in place, and when they set up their system, they were going in a different direction - they were privatizing a single-payer system. Kevin Drum focused on this point. There was a big difference in terms of the paths taken to get there, and the Dutch had already accepted the idea of universal health care. They were arguing over how best to implement it. To what degree is our kludginess, then, a result of our political culture?

Teles: Well, again, I do think that Americans are operational liberals and ideological conservatives, in the sense that, at least right now, big, direct government seems somehow inappropriate. So that creates at least a finger on the scale toward things that help people while hiding the hand of the state.

But to go back to the complexity of the health care system, in some ways I think we can overstate this as a technological problem or a computer design problem. It is -- and you were fairly clear about this -- the underlying design of the program that's really responsible. That is, it's not just that, A) we're contracting out the technology, and B) we have a bunch of private insurance companies involved. It's also substantially means-tested, which is important. That means testing interacts with other kinds of means testing, it interacts with other parts in the system, and this is really the exact definition of a kludge. You've got one set of complexities that you're already inheriting, but you can't get rid of them, so you're adding another complex fix on top of it, and every time you do that, you end up with all these complex interaction effects. Think about this now from the point of view of somebody who's designing the website. It's not just the website, it's all the stuff behind the website -- you've got an incredibly complicated task of simultaneously determining eligibility, merging all these different systems, and then having it all work in a single computer system that doesn't have enough internal capacity for that process. So in a way, Obamacare is a perfect storm of all of these phenomenon and I do think it presents a really difficult issue for liberals.

I was, in the end, in favor of the Affordable Care Act. I was aware that this was an incredibly complicated, kludgy thing, but we were so desperate to get to something like universal care -- or at least expanded care -- that we all just swallowed it.

You know, I think people who were in favor of single-payer didn't have much of a political answer about how they were going to pass it, but the nature of a kludgeocratic system is that it constantly throws up these problems and people have to keep accepting half-measures. I keep having to accept these complicated mechanisms in lieu of what I know would be a better operating system, and so in that way people who are liberals also get implicated in this degree of complexity and in a way contribute to it.

Doris Lessing Passes


To me Doris Lessing was the excellent author of The Canopus in Argos: Archives series

Shikasta (1979)
The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980)
The Sirian Experiments (1980)
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982)
The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983)

When I was into voracious reading, I truly loved her writing.

Nobel prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing dies at 94

Danica Kirka

doris_lessing.jpgDoris Lessing, the Nobel prize-winning, free-thinking, world-traveling and often-polarizing author of "The Golden Notebook" and dozens of other novels that reflected her own improbable journey across the former British empire, died Sunday. She was 94.

Her publisher, HarperCollins, said the author of more than 55 works of fiction, opera, nonfiction and poetry, died peacefully early Sunday. Her family requested privacy, and the exact cause of death was not immediately clear.

Lessing explored topics ranging from colonial Africa to dystopian Britain, from the mystery of being female to the unknown worlds of science fiction.

She won the Nobel Literature prize in 2007. The Swedish Academy praised Lessing for her "skepticism, fire and visionary power." When informed about winning the prize outside her London home she responded: "Oh Christ! ... I couldn't care less."

That was typical of the irascible, independent Lessing, who never saved her fire for the page. The targets of her vocal ire in recent years included former President George W. Bush -- "a world calamity" -- and modern women -- "smug, self-righteous." She also raised hackles by deeming the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States "not that terrible."

She remains best known for "The Golden Notebook," in which heroine Anna Wulf uses four notebooks to bring together the separate parts of her disintegrating life. The novel covers a range of previously unmentionable female conditions -- menstruation, orgasms and frigidity -- and made Lessing an icon for women's liberation. But it became so widely talked about and dissected that she later referred to it as a "failure" and "an albatross."

Published in Britain in 1962, the book did not make it to France or Germany for 14 years because it was considered too inflammatory. When it was republished in China in 1993, 80,000 copies sold out in two days.

"It took realism apart from the inside," said Lorna Sage, an academic who knew Lessing since the 1970s. "Lessing threw over the conventions she grew up in to stage a kind of breakdown -- to celebrate disintegration as the representative experience of a generation -- when what you should have been doing is getting the act together."

For some readers and critics, however, the book was an unwelcome exposure of female failings.

The criticism of Lessing's work continued throughout her life. Although she continued to publish at least every other year, she received little attention for her later works and was often criticized as didactic and impenetrable.

"This is pure political correctness," American literary critic Harold Bloom said in 2007 after Lessing won the Nobel Prize. "Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction."

While Lessing defended her turn to science fiction as a way to explore "social fiction," she, too, was dismissive of the Nobel honor. After emerging from a London black cab, groceries in hand, she was asked repeatedly whether she was excited about the award.

"I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise," Lessing said. "I'm 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd probably better give it to me now before I've popped off."

As the international media surrounded her in her garden, she brightened when a reporter asked whether the Nobel would generate interest in her work.

"I'm very pleased if I get some new readers," she said. "Yes, that's very nice, I hadn't thought of that."

Physical Control

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The truck drivers are amazing.

Land of the Free

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23 Petty Crimes That Have Landed People in Prison for Life

by Josh Harkinson

As of last year, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 3,200 people were serving life in prison without parole for nonviolent crimes. A close examination of these cases by the ACLU reveals just how petty some of these offenses are. People got life for, among other things...

  • Possessing a crack pipe
  • Possessing a bottle cap containing a trace amount of heroin (too minute to be weighed)
  • Having traces of cocaine in clothes pockets that were invisible to the naked eye but detected in lab tests
  • Having a single crack rock at home
  • Possessing 32 grams of marijuana (worth about $380 in California) with intent to distribute
  • Passing out several grams of LSD at a Grateful Dead show
  • Acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop
  • Selling a single crack rock
  • Verbally negotiating another man's sale of two small pieces of fake crack to an undercover cop
  • Having a stash of over-the-counter decongestant pills that could be used to make methamphetamine
  • Attempting to cash a stolen check
  • Possessing stolen scrap metal (the offender was a junk dealer)--10 valves and one elbow pipe
  • Possessing stolen wrenches
  • Siphoning gasoline from a truck
  • Stealing tools from a shed and a welding machine from a front yard
  • Shoplifting three belts from a department store
  • Shoplifting several digital cameras
  • Shoplifting two jerseys from an athletic store
  • Taking a television, circular saw, and power converter from a vacant house
  • Breaking into a closed liquor store in the middle of the night
  • Making a drunken threat to a police officer while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car
  • Being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm
  • Taking an abusive stepfather's gun from their shared home

These are not typically first offenses, but nor are they isolated cases. The vast majority (83 percent) of life sentences examined by the ACLU were mandatory, meaning that the presiding judge had no choice but to sentence the defendant to a life behind bars. Mandatory sentences often result from repeat offender laws and draconian sentencing rules such as these federal standards for drug convictions:


The data examined by the ACLU comes from the federal prison system and nine state penal systems that responded to open-records requests. This means the true number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole is higher.

What's clear, based on the ACLU's data, is that many nonviolent criminals have been caught up in a dramatic spike in life-without-parole sentences.


Among the cases reviewed, the vast majority were drug-related:


And most of the nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without parole were racial minorities.


Obviously, housing all of these nonviolent offenders isn't cheap. On average, for example a single Louisiana inmate serving life without parole costs the state about $500,000. The ACLU estimates reducing existing lifetime sentences of nonviolent offenders to terms commensurate with their crimes would save taxpayers at least $1.8 billion.

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a reform package aimed at scaling back the use of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. As Dana Liebelson noted:

[U]nder Holder's new policy, mandatory minimums as they apply to specific quantities of drugs will no longer be used against offenders whose cases do not involve violence, a weapon, and selling to a minor, and they will also not be used against offenders that do not have a "significant criminal history" and ties to a "large-scale" criminal organization.

Prison reform advocates say Holder's actions don't go far enough. They want the Obama administration to commute the sentences of the thousands of nonviolent offenders now locked away forever. And they support legislation such as the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bill introduced in March by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would enable judges to hand out sentences lower than the mandatory ones.

"Holder's remarks carry more of a symbolic significance," says ACLU deputy legal director Vanita Gupta, "but the problem needs to be addressed by Congress."

Love Lewis Black or Die

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Calendar Coincidence

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How Big Bucks Are Killing Journalism

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Comet ISON

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Observers perplexed by Comet ISON's erratic performance

Joe Rao

With just one month to go before its dramatic solar rendezvous, skirting to within a hairbreadth of the surface of the sun, Comet ISON continues to befuddle observers with its performance en route to the sun.

Based on a compilation of Comet ISON observations from observers worldwide as of Oct. 24, the comet, once proclaimed as possibly the "Comet of the Century" was running about 1.3 magnitudes, or 3.3 times fainter, than the "official" brightness forecast issued by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass. As the comet comes down the home stretch of its long journey before finally grazing to within 730,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) of the sun, great uncertainty continues regarding whether or not it will remain disappointingly dim or whether it will end up evolving into a spectacularly bright object.

Carl Hergenrother of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Ariz., noted that part of the uncertainty is due to what wavelengths the comet is observed in: "Visual and CCD-V observations do show a comet that is brightening at a normal rate (perhaps even faster than normal for a dynamically new comet) while CCD-R observations show a comet that is barely brightening at all. CCD-R sees predominately dust in contrast with visual and CCD-V, which have large gas components. It seems that over the past month or so ISON's gas production rate has increased as expected while its dust production rate has not," Hergenrother said. "I don't really know what this means but something has to give, either the dust production picks up or the gas production slows down."



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