Saturday, March 28, 2009

E-N laysoff the last liberals

Just noted today that one of the victims of the mass layoffs at the Express-News was the weekly column by Mansour El-Kikhia, which was the closest thing they had to a politically liberal opinion from a local source. I wasn't a big fan of El-Kikhia, but he did on occasion provide a badly needed counterpoint to the GeorgeWillCalThomasRichLowryAustinBayJonathanGurwitzKathleenParkerRubenNavaretteMonaCharen neocon worldview so amply on display at the E-N.
But at least El-Kikhia still has his day job at the university. Not so for John Branch, the local editorial cartoonist who got a pink slip as well.
Now that this idological purge of liberal contributors to the op-ed page is complete, I wonder what they will do next?

And now I see that the next thing they will do is make the newspaper even narrower, shrinking it from 12.5 inches across to just under 11 inches. Essentially, it's going to get to the point where the newspaper will look like a really long magazine.
To accomplish this next level of shrinkage, they are going to dump several advice columns and puzzles out of the lifestyles section. It remains to be seen whether they will drop any more comics.
And last week they made yet another cut of the editorial pages, shrinking the Sunday Op-ed pages, which used to have its own section, from 3 pages to 2. That means that Jonathan Gurwitz' weekly wrap-up of interesting quotes is no more. Even though his choices irritated me on many occasions, it was still a section of the paper that I would read each week without fail. Also, it seems like Robert Selzer's column slot is now eliminated so what do they still need him for?
It's really sad that the paper has been forced into this position. Thanks for the sucky economy President Bush. Heckuva job!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

China skews death penalty report

An interesting report in the New York Times today says that executions around the world doubled in 2008.
That is pretty surprising considering that we have really scaled back on executions here in the U.S., but it turns out the main culprit behind the jump in executions was China which had 72 percent of the total for 2008.

The number of executions worldwide nearly doubled last year compared with 2007, according to Amnesty International, and China put to death far more people than the rest of the world put together.
In its annual report on the death penalty, Amnesty International on Tuesday chronicled beheadings in Saudi Arabia; hangings in Japan, Iraq, Singapore and Sudan; lethal injections in China; an electrocution in the United States; firing squads in Afghanistan, Belarus and Vietnam; and stonings in Iran.
In all, 59 countries still have the death penalty on their books, but only 25 carried out executions last year. Two nations, Uzbekistan and Argentina, banned the death penalty last year.
Amnesty International said at least 2,390 people were executed worldwide in 2008, compared with its 2007 figure of at least 1,252.
With at least 1,718, China was responsible for 72 percent of all executions in 2008, the report stated. After China were Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), the United States (37) and Pakistan (36), according to the group.

The U.S. only had 37 executions last year, but that was still enough to rank No. 4 in the world behind China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Frankly, I’m not happy being in the same company with those countries. There is really no reason why the U.S. can’t join with most of the Western civilized nations and ban this outdated, barbaric practice which serves no public purpose.
The good news is that Amnesty International says the worldwide trend is still going away from the death penalty even though the Butchers of Beijing are currently skewing the data.

Amnesty International, which has long opposed the death penalty, said Europe and Central Asia have become “virtually a death-penalty-free zone” with only Belarus, a former Soviet republic, continuing to execute prisoners.
“In the Americas, only one state — the United States — consistently executes,” the group said, noting that the number of its executions last year, 37, was the lowest since 1994.

NPR sets ratings record

Good news for National Public Radio:

The audience for NPR’s daily news programs, including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” reached a record last year, driven by widespread interest in the presidential election, and the general decline of radio news elsewhere. Washington-based NPR will release new figures to its stations today showing that the cumulative audience for its daily news programs hit 20.9 million a week, a 9 percent increase over the previous year.

20 million listeners!!! Hmmmmm. Where have I heard that figure before? Oh yes! That is the figure that Rush Limbaugh always throws around claiming it as his listener base. But it turns out that the figure Rush uses may just be pulled out of thin air.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Obama Is No Socialist

It’s kind of sad that this article even had to be written, but such is the state of our political discourse these days.
Former Federal Reserve Board member Alan Binder penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal to make the point that Obama Is No Socialist:

Ever since President Barack Obama released the budget last month, we have been hearing a fusillade of criticism claiming that the president, contrary to previous advertising, is not a centrist, but a “leftie” intent on leading the country down the path of socialism.
Let’s see. Socialism means public ownership and control of businesses, right? So which industries does the president propose to nationalize?
Banking? Well, no. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner has made it clear that he opposes nationalizing banks, despite much outcry from the political left -- and even some from the right -- to do just that. Yes, it’s a valid criticism that we are still waiting for Mr. Geithner’s banking plan. But the budget commits an outrageous act of accounting honesty by including a $750 billion allowance as “a reserve for further efforts to stabilize the financial system.” Given the popularity of bank bailouts, that was a courageous thing to do.
What about health care? Doesn’t Mr. Obama want “socialized medicine”? No. He wants to reform the current system so that it costs less and covers more people. Disgracefully, the United States is the only advanced nation in the world that fails to cover every citizen -- even though we spend vastly more on health care than other nations.
Some reformers want the U.S. to adopt a single-payer system like other countries, such as “socialist” Canada and England -- which run firmly capitalist economies, by the way. But regardless of whether single-payer is a good idea, it’s not Mr. Obama’s. His health-insurance reform plan emphasizes choice (keeping what you have if you like it), greater efficiency (partly by utilizing information technology), and portability (your health coverage will follow you from job to job). Which part of that is socialist?
And, once again, the Obama budget recognizes, rather than hides, the need to pay the bills. Half the cost of health reform would be covered by a tax provision that has really raised a ruckus: Capping itemized deductions at the 28% bracket rate. Let’s consider how socialist that idea is.
As the law now stands, when a family that does not itemize deductions on its tax return donates $100 to its favorite charity, the donation costs the family $100. But when an itemizing family in the 25% bracket donates $100, it costs them only $75 after tax. And when an itemizer in the 35% bracket donates $100, the after-tax cost is only $65. Thus the richer you are, the less it costs. Is it socialistic to say that seems a little backwards?
If that tax treatment strikes you as fair, try another example. Suppose those same three families each pay $10,000 a year in interest on their home mortgages. The cost to the non-itemizer is the full $10,000. For the family in the 25% bracket that itemizes, the net cost after taxes is only $7,500. And for the upper-income family in the 35% bracket that itemizes, the net cost is a mere $6,500. Just imagine a member of Congress proposing a homeownership subsidy like that directly, rather than through the tax code: 35% to the rich, 25% to the middle class, and nothing to the poor. Would anyone support it?
Enter Mr. Obama, the alleged leftist. Does he propose to end this “class warfare” on the middle and lower classes? No. He only wants to mitigate it slightly. He would reduce the 35% subsidy rate to 28% -- which would still leave the costs of charitable giving, mortgage interest, and much else far lower for the rich than for the poor. That’s hardly a radical proposal. Indeed, it has been under discussion since the 1980s.
It’s true: The president would like to do a bit more. Elsewhere in the budget, he proposes letting the Bush upper-bracket tax cuts expire in 2011, meaning the top rate would revert to where it was during the Clinton years: 39.6%. And Mr. Obama would still cap deductibility at 28%.
Unsurprisingly, the president’s proposal to let the top rate return to 39.6% has unleashed a firestorm of criticism from people who claim that such radical redistribution would prolong the recession, destroy entrepreneurship, and pretty much end capitalism as we know it -- just as it did during the Great Prosperity of the 1990s, I suppose. Some claims parody themselves.
So where does all this leave us on the road to socialism? If Mr. Obama is able to get all of these proposals through Congress, the U.S. will have a fully private banking system, propped up with temporary government support; a uniquely American health-care system that covers virtually everyone; and a somewhat more progressive income tax.
If this is socialism, then let’s make the most of it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Why rightwing radio is so popular

Why does the far-right dominate all the talk radio stations in most markets? Conservatives would have you believe that it is because their ideas are more popular with the general public and they treat it as an affirmation of their political views. That explanation seemed plausible enough earlier in this decade when Republicans controlled the White House and both branches of Congress as well as most governships and state legislatures. But now that the pendulum has swung back the other way and Democrats are acscendent once again that explanation doesn’t work anymore. Now, even though the country voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and the Democrats in the last election, we still have the same hard-right mix of opinions on talk radio. This is clearly not a business model that is trying to expand its market share by providing consumers what they want. I believe this is because the means of distribution are controlled by corporations like Clear Channel Communications and News Corp. which are run by hardline conservatives.
My friend Mack Harrison also makes an excellent point in the comments about the regulatory hurdles to setting up new radio stations which makes it hard for the industry to react to changes in the political landscape. As Mack points out, on the Internet where those barriers don’t exist, liberals are competing quite well and in some cases are outperforming their conservative counterparts.
But it can still be argued that these radio stations are making money and draw a large base of listeners. Why is that?
As I mentioned in the comments to the previous post, I think one reason why rightwing radio is popular is because it is designed to appeal to our baser instincts. Rightwing radio tells its listeners what they want to hear, not what they should hear or need to hear. It says that YOU are always right and that THEY are always to blame for all of the worlds’ problems. It tells them that they are justified in their prejudices and bigotry and intolerance. It tells them that they don’t have to feel guilty or responsible for any of the nation’s problems. And they are constantly spoonfed a steady diet of propaganda propping up these beliefs and offering up a litany of boogeymen and scapegoats on whom they can vent their outrage and hatred.
Conservative talk radio is fun and entertaining and it reinforces the listener’s own high opinion of themselves, provided that they don’t identify with those awful, hated Liberals. Furthermore, rightwing radio never challenges its listeners with inconvenient facts and regularly dismisses complex problems that liberals tend to fret over or ignores them completely.
On rightwing radio, you don’t have to worry about Global Warming because they have declared it to be a hoax perpetrated by liberal academicians and scientists just looking for government handouts. There is no moral conundrum over torture because the “terrorists” all deserve whatever they get anyway. Huge deficits can be easily solved by eliminating “earmarks” and cutting more taxes. The energy crisis would be over if Liberals would just let them “Drill, baby, Drill!” And so on.
Listening to talk radio is like eating a steady diet of candy. Over at NPR they try to make you eat your vegetables!