John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear Pictures

November 11th, 2010

Here are a few of my favorite pictures from the Rally to Restore Sanity.

Unfortunately, my camera’s battery didn’t last very long at the event, and I didn’t get a whole lot of shots to choose from. At least I got a few good, memorable moments.

All in all, the turnout seems to have been much higher than anyone had expected or planned for. The screens were set up so everyone could see if about 80,000 people showed up, but most of the estimates that I’ve seen put the actual attendance closer to 250,000.

Needless to say, the view on TV was a lot better than the view on the ground. At the very least, the sound system was good and the crowd was lively, so as hard as it was to see you still knew you were a part of something fun and exciting.

Heading to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

October 27th, 2010

Now that I’ve got the camera, I’m going to really put it to use.  This weekend will be a nice trial run because on Friday morning we’re heading up to Virginia and on Saturday we’ll be walking along to see the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

What is it about?  Well.. kind of… sort of…

The first I heard of it was as a crazy idea posted to Reddit.  Someone had a dream of a Colbert rally mocking Glen Beck, and we all thought it was hilarious.

Well, someone else thought it would be something worth running with, and convinced a whole bunch of us to donate to Colbert’s favorite causes through – in hopes of getting their attention for the idea.  By the time Reddit had completed the self-planned donation marathon, people at the Comedy Central studios were starting to notice $$$ signs.

So what is it about?  It really is just a series of jokes being made about jokes (like Beck).

Oddly enough though, some people are taking this very seriously and some on the left have created a bit of their own controversy on Reddit about whether or not controversial causes should be represented or welcomed at the rally.  Specifically, it seems like a lot of people don’t want NORML to be there, even though the very idea behind NORML was that marijuana law reform is completely compatible with what we call normal day to day life.

In the meantime, I’m watching Colbert right now and he’s urging the audience to come dressed up in their Halloween costumes. So I really don’t know where anyone is getting the idea that this needs to be incredibly stuffy and held back.  I’m headed to D.C. for a fun weekend of political parody!

Anyway, I’ll be there in about a day and I’ll try to get as many pictures and videos as my memory card and battery can take.

Ron Paul wins CPAC Poll – Gets Mixed Reception

February 22nd, 2010

The Conservative Political Action Conference is an annual event that usually hosts some of the most nationalist and socially conservative Republicans the nation can come up with, but this year the choice of the voters in the straw poll was none other than my favorite libertarian rebel, Ron Paul.

In the speech, he does a good job of explaining why he feels his preference for a non-interventionist foreign policy is actually more consistent with conservative values than any policy or war Bush introduced to the Republican party. He even dares to go so far as to call for a greater tolerance of individual lifestyle choices that Republicans might not personally agree with. Shocking stuff, but don’t take my word for it! If you’ve got half an hour, its worth hearing what the Republican party should be saying if they want to have a chance with the younger generations:

But those younger generations aren’t the only ones voting or showing up at the CPAC this year, so not everyone in the crowd was happy to hear that Ron Paul had won the straw poll. Among older Republicans, Ron Paul is seen as little better than a Democrat – or as bad as a downright traitor.

Why the venom? Well, Ron Paul is more concerned about actual freedom than any kind of partisan power. A strong Republican party could start whatever wars it likes and enforce its own vision of ideal social regulations, but a Ron Paul Republican party would be more concerned with the liberty of the individual citizen and the financial position of the nation as a whole.

2010 Predictions

January 2nd, 2010

Just for fun, I’m going to speculate on some things that might happen in 2010

Another housing-led financial crash

Big losses on big loans will peak in early 2010, leading to a new round of asset devaluation and cash panics.  In many ways, government spending programs are already in place to deal with it when it happens, but some dramatic events on the trading floor may be necessary before the new government money starts being shipped off to the banks (again).

More Public and Tax Protests

Not only will the teabaggers refine their mix of nativism and new-found fiscal conservatism, and increasing number will actually refuse to pay taxes.  Fox-led teabag protests won’t be the only ones though, as you’ll probably also see the original tea partiers re-organize under a more explicitly libertarian banner.  Meanwhile, the progressive left has plenty of wars and corporate bailouts to complain about.  Added all up, there are a lot of angry groups out there despite the relative popularity of our president (compare him to Congress and he looks like he could be picked for homecoming king)

Travel and Trade will Suffer

One part paranoia and one part jealousy will continue to reduce the flow of people and goods across national borders.  Frustrated by onerous security measures, Americans and those who may have traveled to America may just stay home or find a new destination.  In the hope of protecting jobs, politicians will also blame labor in other nations for structural problems at home, so new taxes tarrifs & duties will be used to restrict foreign competition from domestic markets.

Let Anything Destroy Healthcare Reform

November 12th, 2009

A response to E.J. Dionne

Extend coverage to 35 million Americans?  Don’t you mean forcing me and millions like me to buy an insurance product we can’t afford and/or don’t believe in?

I’ve got a fairly common and easily treated immune condition, but for 97% of us who share the disease, American doctors can’t seem to find it!  Instead, it manifests into diabetes, cancer, whatever… (source U Chicago: ) When I was a kid and teen under my parent’s expensive insurance plan and “no cost is too great” mentality, I was always sick and the doctors always had an expensive plan to make it better.  Well, it didn’t make anything better but they would inevitably dream up a new expensive plan that seemed to rely on a completely new set of assumptions…  Eventually, each symptom was so bad that it warranted its own specialist and prescription.  I don’t think my liver could have taken that for too long, and my mind rejected it with a nervous breakdown.

When I turned 18 I could have stayed on that “gold standard” federal employee Blue Cross Blue Shield plan that had billed ten$ of thou$and$ “on my behalf,” but I had no faith or energy left for a medical system that treats sick people like ATMs.  Luckily, my skepticism led to a pursuit of truth, and it wasn’t too hard to find a scientifically verified method of treating my symptoms and improving my long-term survivability without spending a penny. Anyway, now I’m proudly uninsured and healthier than I’ve ever been…

Not too surprisingly, publicly run medical systems in Europe are generations ahead of us in treating Celiac Disease.  There’s a big difference between a system designed to minimize costs and a system designed to maximize profits & transaction volume.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for both as in France or many continental European states, but this bill has the proportions completely backward.

We hear so much about people who die because they don’t have care, but how many people does our medical system kill with the “care” or “services” they do sell (and “up-sell”)?  How many of your neighbors and coworkers are shuffling around under the influence of psychoactive prescriptions?  How many doctors are glad to prescribe medication to cover up symptoms that are consequences of our horrendous diets?  Whats the true economic costs of ignoring what our bodies and minds are trying to tell us about modern society?

Whats rotten in our health system isn’t something that can be fixed with a universal application under the threat of tax fines or jail time.  The reality is too warped, the answers too disturbing and complex.  I certainly don’t have all those answers, but the stunningly obvious part is that we won’t get meaningful reform by caving in to the same insurance, pharma, and lawyer lobbies that have run things for the last 80 years…Then again, maybe the cancer has spread so deep that there’s nothing else left inside.

I say, scrap the whole thing and invite a panel of doctors to study international systems.  The current proposal is probably the only thing that could have possibly be designed to be worse than the miserable status quo.

Religion as Rebellion

October 3rd, 2009

I’m not a big fan of organized religion, and that’s probably in large part because it is so organized.  I can understand the need for a sense of community or even the need to share spiritual insight & experience, but it just doesn’t work for me.

But here’s a political take on religion, a mural depicting religion as rebellion:


In the foreground, people have gathered for some sort of religious event.  I can guess by the guy’s robes and the neighborhood this mural was found in that we’re witnessing a recreation of a covert Catholic mass.  As the priest consecrates the eucharist, scouts warn of approaching English soldiers in reddish/orange coats.

Just as it was illegal for the Irish to study and learn, so was it illegal for anyone to practice Catholic religious rituals.  Loyalty and obedience to the English state meant spiritual loyalty and obedience to the Anglican, or English, Church.

What’s interesting for me, is the way the sense of community fostered by a shared religious identity can become an act of outright rebellion.  Usually I think of religion as the social order, not a tool of subversion against political authority.  I guess that’s from living in the south, and particularly in a city whose political power base is much the same as the First Baptist Church’s membership.

Left free to choose, people will continue family traditions, or shift around to denominations that fit their personalities.  But when forced to adhere, a group with contrary religious convictions can become even more attached to their forbidden beliefs.  In many ways, all of Christianity began as a forbidden cult, a heresy against the official beliefs of the Roman state.  Preaching peace and love, these dissidents were considered a fundamental threat to the social order of war and slavery that had brought Rome to wealth and power.

Even small populations can rally around their cultural and religious heritage in order to resist the power of an imperial army.  The Roman Empire is now notes in a history book and ruins in the modern state of Italy, but Christianity has become the world’s most powerful religion.  Instead of hiding in fear of prosecution, Christian nations often find themselves at war with Muslim states.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for our foreign policy experts…

Has Debate Become Impossible in American politics?

September 2nd, 2009

While its always been difficult to get political debate past the point of pre-defined partisan bickering, things seem to have taken a more extreme turn toward crazy in the last few months.  And although a lot of this crazy seems to be coming out in relation to healthcare, I don’t think the issue originates or stops there.

Team Loyalty

The root of the problem is the type of loyalty people have for their political parties:   the us vs. them  mentality is hardly different than any sport rivalry.  No election can settle the battle for good, because we know that there will be a rematch next year or even four years later.

People may even choose a party against their own individual interests – because of other conflicting interests.  It is not uncommon for pressure from family, friends, and even employers to influence how someone speaks about and gets involved in politics.  Depending on where one lives, and what sector or industry he/she works for, political loyalty to a particular party maybe in their professional self-interest.  For example, politics and business run closely together in the south, so even if someone opposes Republican policies on a national level, their personal career will be furthered by participation in local Republican events and organizations.  An inverse situation could easily exist for people who identify with Republican policies yet dwell in Democrat strongholds.

And of course, if you proceed to recommend something outside the scope of Democrats and Republicans, you’re likely to get a negative response regardless of the business or regional political climate.

From Within a Narrow Field:

The media’s coverage of the health-care debate can be summed up in a single question:  “Should the bill include a public option?”  This one question has pre-occupied political journalists for months, despite a 1,000+ page quagmire of proposed funding, and cuts, and regulations.  Yet while the public option is a fairly specific issue to focus on, it makes an attempt to address the issue at hand.  How are we going to keep private health insurers competitive relative to their potential and relative to competing forms of healthcare delivery around the world?

But instead of a competing vision, we get talk of deathpanels to people shouting “Obama wants to kill your grandma!” No one on the right seems to want to even entertain the question of whether or not we should have a public option. Indeed, the debate has been fairly well stifled for all the free speech people claim to be exercising.  You’re either in favor of this leviathan of murky reform or you’re siding with the crazies!  Either or… us vs. them…

Who Trusts Congress?

According to Rasmussen reports, a minority of likely voters.

So even if we can agree that healthcare in this country is out of control, who really trusts Congress to fairly address the issue? If Congress were a good way to implement an efficient regulatory regime in the first place, we wouldn’t have inherited the current mess.  In some places, there are protections from competition among the health insurance providers, and in other places there are generous tax-related subsidies designed to encourage large corporate purchases of these private insurance products.

The Republicans have completely abandoned their role as a rational counter-balance to the ruling power, so we can’t trust them to give a fair analysis of the proposal.  In effect, there’s no group in a position to really critique the strengths and weaknesses of the current legislative draft.  Can we then trust the Democrats to get everything right, without anyone really checking over their work?

So the status quo didn’t spontaneously spring up from a free market – it has been patiently guided into its current place by indirect government interventions.  The policies encouraged a proliferation of regional insurance cartels, and now that they’ve strangled out the competition they’re leveraging their political power in order to capture the customers who aren’t yet signed up.  With or without a public option, the legislation currently being floated around in Congressional committees will increase total sales for insurance, pharma, ambulance-chasers, and medical coding admins.  As a percent of GDP, the amount we spend on the entire circus will probably go up while more patients show up for the same number of doctors and hospital beds.

Treating Symptoms vs. Curing Disease.

50 million uninsured isn’t the disease – the disease is the state of American medicine that has caused so many people to feel like its simply not worth the cost to purchase insurance.  While the television runs nonstop with ads for soma-like mood enhancers and beauty treatments that require a prescription and close medical oversight, America falls behind in the detection of common and chronic illnesses while reporting some of the world’s highest rates of depression and obesity.

Sure, the doctor can’t make everyone eat right and exercise, but if you do you’ll be subsidizing those who don’t anyway.  And you can fight that greedy self-interest with mandates, but those who are currently opting out of medical coverage also realize that a American medical insurance is a risky “investment.”  Many providers are looking for any excuse they can to drop expensive customers while raising rates on the healthy.  Of the Americans who have gone bankrupt from medical bills every year, a majority of them dutifully paid health insurance.  Forcing everyone in may lower the per capita cost, but only by as much as it decreases services rendered. The output of product remains constant, but government intervention increases demand.

Universal, multi-payer …

Yet Congress may be on the right track.  A public option combined with coverage mandates would achieve universal coverage with a non-profit competitor.  It might actually be destructive to the established providers in the long run (they can’t be efficient at a 30% overhead rate).

If we address the supply of new doctors with some sort of tuition assistance or an equivalent “public option” in medical licensing, we would be investing in something that makes the total outcome better for all patients.  If we address doctor insurance costs by reigning in rampant lawsuits, the cost of a procedure will immediately fall.  Yes, yes – the poor lawyers will have to find new work, cry me a river.

In addition, its rather important that any taxes or mandates be funded by a progressive tax as opposed to the regressive payroll tax.  This stuff is just “Common Sense,” even Adam Smith saw the logic in a progressively scaling tax scheme.  People who work for a living in the modest pay ranges should be the net beneficiaries of tax policies – we don’t want to nickle and dime them until they come looking for food stamps.

Its possible that honest debate is so hard to come by that we’ll be better off accepting a less than ideal step in the right direction.  Its possible that step may be in the wrong direction, because we failed to exercise due diligence.  Either way, I have a hard time being optimistic about the near-term prospects for political progress.

Who is in Charge of the U.S. Dollar? This guy, unfortunately

August 28th, 2009

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve appointed by Bush and now re-nominated by President Obama:

Well, unfortunately again, Bernanke will be back for at least a few more years unless the Senate steps in and shuts down his recent re-nomination. A few Congress-critters have put up a fuss about it, but chances are good that Obama’s nod will be upheld. It turns out that a lot of people give the Federal Reserve credit with “fixing” the financial crisis after the fact – things didn’t turn out to be nearly as bad as they warned us it would be.

Then remember September last year? What a quick turn around, he was suddenly in front of Congress insisting that we open up the floodgates of new cash to the banks, or we’d face an apocalyptic financial nightmare.

What exactly happened to all of that money is still up in the air. You see, the Federal Reserve doesn’t want anyone to audit their monetary policy.

Since monetary policy is the Federal Reserve’s essential function, pretty much any action can be labeled as sensitive and kept secret. Even why they let certain firms and how they’re spending of trillions of dollars:

Do you know who received a cut of the Federal Reserve’s trillion-plus balance sheet transfers? Of course not. No one does – outside of the Fed.

Of course, Bloomberg is trying to find out – and the judge even sided with them in ordering the Federal Reserve to turn over records of exactly who is benefiting from their policies. Anyway, Bernanke and our other “public servants” at the Federal Reserve can’t imagine any scenario so dire as simply fessing up about what they’re doing with their control over our money supply – and they’re trying to fight the federal court order.

So the story isn’t over, and one day we may have control over our own money back from the unaccountable and apparently ineffective Federal Reserve. If they’re supposed to be preventing panics, they’ve done a pretty bad job so far. Real employment continues to decline and housing prices recently posted double-digit year over year losses, despite government subsidies designed to encourage sales.

In November, these subsidies will expire and this effect is likely to compound the seasonal weakness of the winter months. And when Spring 2010 comes, instead of the regular seasonal growth, we’re likely to be swamped by the coming wave of Alt-A mortgage resets:

You say you’ve got good economic news? You see green shoots? I’d love to hear about it, but excuse me if I’m skeptical…

North Korea – Back and Forth at the Brink

August 17th, 2009

North Korea has been grabbing headlines as usual, and the nation’s recent actions have been described as erratic or irrational. Some speculators have suggested that the leader’s advancing age and failing health has inspired him to the ultimate confrontation, but he is probably instead trying to secure his legacy and the ascendancy of his chosen heir.

Defensive Paranoia

Understanding North Korea’s fear of invasion requires a look back on the last few thousand years of the region’s history. Before the Korean war split the peninsula in two, the Korean kingdoms had been invaded by Japan, China, Mongolia – just about any neighboring state has made some attempt at capturing the Korean provinces.

This 19th century cartoon depicts Korea as a fish being hunted simultaneously by China, Japan, and Russia.

China_Japan_Russia_CoreeFor the Southern Republic, U.S. intervention in the cold war was an assurance of territorial integrity.  North Korea similarly enjoyed Soviet protection, but the collapse of the U.S.S.R. left North Korea on its own and in need of a defensive deturrant.  While many think of China as North Korea’s natural ally, the relationship between the two is actually rather strained as there are some debates over the historical boundaries that seperate the two cultures and their derivative states.

As iron and uranium are the primary natural resources available in North Korea, it should not be a surprise that these have been utilized as defense.  Iron-clad ships originated in Korea, so it should not be a surprise that they have retained the desire to stay cutting edge in their military options.  Failure to do so has historically meant a loss of sovereignty and paying tribute to foreign powers.

Nuclear Sabre Rattling

With a domestic supply of uranium and a history that promotes defensive paranoia, it was probably inevitable that North Korea would develop nuclear weapons.  Recently announced tests may have proven a partially-functional bomb, but the actual potency of Pyong’yang’s arsenal is unknown.  Kim Jong Il, of course, would like everyone to think they have full nuclear capabilities.  Chances are, the intent is to create a defensive deterrent.  While North Korea controls a large army and long rang bombing capacity, they have no hope in a direct war against either neighbor.  A fight with China or a U.S. backed South Korea would be extremely bloody and destructive on both sides, but even scenario would end with the defeat of North Korea through attrition.

Legacy and Inheritance

A few months ago, the missile launches, bomb tests, and threatening announcements were gaining momentum.  Some people thought he was trying to challenge Obama as a new president, and others suggested he was simply out of his mind.

What didn’t get a lot of coverage before North Korea faded to the back of the news again, was that Kim Jong Il had named one of his sons as a successor.  And suddenly after naming an heir, the rocket launches and nuclear bragging seemed to quiet down.  So what I see is a public display of power for the purpose of securing a legacy – not the behavior of someone who wants to commit national suicide.

Indeed, the latest announcement was that Kim Jong Il would be re-opening the contested border with South Korea.  After decades of seperation, the reclusive state will be allowing travel along the Korean peninsula.  Tourism and family reunions are expected to be on the top of the agenda as Koreans seek to reconnect with their own kin and cultural history.

Cultural Momentum Favors Unification

To paraphrase Lao Tzu, a storm or movement that appears suddenly cannot last for long.  Conversely, a thousand years of shared language and history is unlikely to remain divided because of fifty years of seperation.  Indeed, Korea has spent periods longer than this under outside control.

Kim Jong Il’s heir is his youngest son, a twenty-something with a decent education and a reputation for partying.  He may not have the ability or even the interest in keeping the North isolated, and he may realize that the corporate world even more favorable to building family fotures than the current dictatorship.  With the borders opening, trade is almost certain to follow.  So while I don’t believe the new leader will give up his clan’s prominent position, I do think he will be more open to tolerating a more open and competitive system.  Of course, all I can do is speculate baselessly, as the heir’s own words and actions will define the ultimate course of Korean politics.  But I will say, that despite all of the saber rattling and threats being exchanged, the actual chance of a military confrontation are falling quickly.

FDIC Bailout on the Way?

August 16th, 2009

How do you know its the weekend?  Well recently, the best sign is that news is popping up about bank failures.  See, there’s this trend in politics and all types of public relations that really bad news should come out on a Friday afternoon or Saturday.  As someone who runs websites and has access to all kind of traffic stats, I can attest that these are times that people aren’t sitting around reading the news. In fact, the busiest times for news consumption are the hours you’d think people are supposed to be working…

Anyway, the FDIC and Federal Reserve know how to play the public relations game, too.   In the modern economy, appearances are just as important as realities – so what better time to announce failure than when no one is listening?

And this year alone, there’s been 77 banks achieving failure status.  Ouch.  The good news is, the FDIC is insuring all those deposits up to $250,000.  The bad news is, the FDIC now needs to come up with some more money in order to do so.

Reuters analyzes the assets and recent expenses of the FDIC here and figures they’ve got a few billion left to cover the growing losses.  Other writers are less optimistic in their FDIC analysis.  The real question to ask is, how bad off were these failed banks?  In a world where regulations and accounting rules shift on a whim, it might be impossible to answer that question even if you had full access to all the books.

Of course, the FDIC funds its insurance operations with a small fee from the banks with insured deposits.  And this means they can’t just increase the fee directly, because it would contribute to even more banks going out of business.  Really, the last thing the banks need is for their fees to go up.  So what is the FDIC ultimately backed by?  That would be the “full faith and credit of the U.S. government” and that means Congress will be sure to raise someone’s taxes or beg the capital markets to buy more of our debt. The “sound” banks will acquire competition and increase their market share, even if they’d be bankrupt too had it not been for TARP & discount window action.

If we get through this crisis without seriously reforming the high profits and public risks of the finance and banking sectors, we’re going to be in for a “recovery” that’s as bad or worse as the crisis itself.