Politics as Entertainment

Matt Yglesias passes along an email from a reader:

One interesting thing about how much Fox news and friends are covering these tea parties is that it’s illustrative how much conservatism has been transformed from a political movement into an entertainment demographic. Political movements, I would think, are defined by a common set of semi-coherent policies and proposals that movement sympathizers hope to see implemented by government. Entertainment demographics are defined by shared tastes or predilections that media companies can target for ratings.

Actually, doesn't this apply to all politics these days?  Bob Somerby has been on a tear recently against the snark-based lefty shows on MSNBC hosted by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, for example, and although I don't buy his entire argument, he does have a point.  Unfortunately, this is just the way things are.  An old saying says that politics is  show business for ugly people, but in the past this mainly meant that politicians themselves were showmen at heart.  Today, though, with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Crossfire and CSPAN and Fox News and Drudge and Politico and Jon Stewart and now MSNBC, the entire enterprise is thoroughly infused with the ethos of Hollywood.  Like it or not, liberals had to get with the program or die.

Given the fact that virtually everything in the world has been entertainment-ized these days, it's hard to see how politics could have avoided this fate.  Finance is entertainment.  Cooking is entertainment.  Science is entertainment.  Real estate is entertainment.  Sports has always been entertainment.  Hell, entertainment itself is having a hard time competing these days.  What are the odds that politics, of all thing, could have bucked this trend?

I guess about zero.  After all, it's a better way of making money.  Paddy Chayefsky was right all along.

Kevin Drum Smackdown Watch

A couple of days ago I asked why Goldman Sachs was paying back its TARP money even though it also had an outstanding $5 billion investment from Warren Buffett on far more onerous terms.  Why not pay Buffett back instead?  What's more, why do a risky capital raising first?  If they're really well capitalized already, why not just pay back the money immediately?

A reader appears to have the all-too-obvious answer: they can't.  The terms of the TARP agreement say this about repurchasing shares other than the Senior Preferred shares issued by the Treasury:

The [Treasury's] consent shall be required for any share repurchases [...] until the third anniversary of the date of this investment unless prior to such third anniversary the Senior Preferred is redeemed in whole or the [Treasury] has transferred all of the Senior Preferred to third parties.

So until they pay back the TARP money, they can't repurchase Buffett's shares.  As for the capital raising, there's this:

Senior Preferred may not be redeemed for a period of three years from the date of this investment, except with the proceeds from a Qualified Equity Offering (as defined below) which results in aggregate gross proceeds [...] of not less than 25% of the issue price of the Senior Preferred.

Goldman got $10 billion in TARP money, and they weren't allowed to pay it back unless they raised at least $2.5 billion first.  So that's what they did.

Unless I'm missing something, this appears to answer all my questions.  Goldman paid back the TARP money first because they were required to, and they raised money before doing it because they had to do that too.  Mystery solved.

Financial Innovation

Ben Bernanke gave a speech on Friday praising financial innovation and warning that we shouldn't be too hasty in dismantling the progress of the past few decades.  Ryan Avent comments:

According to Bernanke, no one, "wants to go back to the 1970s," but neither could Bernanke point to a truly helpful piece of financial innovation developed after that decade. His examples of successful financial products? Credit cards, for one, which date from the 1950s. Policies facilitating the flow of credit to lower income borrowers was another, for which he credited the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. And, of course, securitization and the secondary mortgage markets developed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in...the 1970s.

In fact, the only post-70s innovation Bernanke pointed to was the rise of subprime mortgage financing, which, Ryan points out, might not be quite the compelling example he thinks it is.  So what has financial innovation gotten us, aside from massive profits for clever bankers?

Beats me.  I remember that Dani Rodrik asked this question a few months ago, and I also remember that he didn't really get an awful lot of persuasive replies.  The broad answer usually boils down to "easier access to credit," but in hindsight, that wasn't necessarily such a terrific innovation after all, was it?  The innovation crowd probably ought to take another crack at this.

Coachella 2009 Wrapup - Friday

Greetings from our lovely La Quinta rental house where we have just returned from Day 1 of the 2009 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Our exciting coverage of the first day includes: extra-long lines! Exclusive interviews! Tolerable heat! Old guys! Very old guys! Really quite astoundingly old guys! And, okay, a couple young whippersnappers and their kooky haircuts and bleepy music machines. Click "more" for all the details.

Watch David Corn Talk Torture on Hardball

How did the previous White House occupants justify torture? Watch David Corn discuss the latest buggy findings below on Hardball Friday night.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Plus: Think you know the basics of the all-American torture plan? Read these 5 MoJo exclusives to be sure.

Get Up Stand Up: Gay-Rights Groups Dump Jamaican Booze

There'll be no pina coladas tonight, mon. The Jamaica observer reports gay-rights advocates poured the libations down sewage drains at Stonewall Inn in New York this week protesting Jamacia, "the most homophobic place on earth." Human right groups and the US State Department cite beatings and arbitrary detainment, along with gay-attacking mobs and complicit police among the Jamacian government's crimes against homosexuals.

The "rum dump" kicked off a national boycott organized by the website Boycott Jamaica, which is asking consumers to avoid Jamacian booze, beer, coffee, and vacations. So how's a gay-rights supporter supposed to get her party on this weekend? Well, there's always Templeton Rye, whiskey made in gay-marriage-friendly Iowa.

Conservatives have gone ballistic over the April 7 report from the Department of Homeland Security, which purports to document the recent growth of the radical far-right. As summarized by Reuters:

Right-wing extremists in the United States are gaining new recruits by exploiting fears about the economy and the election of the first black U.S. president, the Department of Homeland Security warned in a report to law enforcement officials. The April 7 report…said such fears were driving a resurgence in “recruitment and radicalization activity” by white supremacist groups, antigovernment extremists and militia movements. It did not identify any by name.

DHS had no specific information about pending violence and said threats had so far been “largely rhetorical.” But it warned that home foreclosures, unemployment and other consequences of the economic recession “could create a fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists.” “To the extent that these factors persist, right-wing extremism is likely to grow in strength,” DHS said.

After the story of the report broke earler this week, it dominated the Drudge Report Feed, which featured a picture of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano above the line, “SHE IS WATCHING YOU.” The Liberty Papers offered a  blog post headed, “If you are reading this, you may well be a terrorist.” Michelle Malkin quickly entered the fray, declaring what she called “the piece of crap report” to be “a sweeping indictment of conservatives.” And since she believes that “in Obama land there are no coincidences,” Malkin concluded that the report’s release was timed to coincide with Wednesday’s “Tax Day Tea Party” protests. Even though the report was apparently conceived under the Bush Administration, Malkin’s interpretation was repeated by Rush Limbaugh and others, and the fix was in.

So do conservatives really want to put themselves in the same boat with the racist, militant, often violent groups the report actually has in mind when it talks about “right-wing extremists?” Because that’s exactly what’s happened: Conservatives haven’t been branded dangerous extremist by DHS or the Obama administration; they’ve branded themselves.

Round 1: First a report from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute that low-oxygen dead zones in the ocean could expand significantly over the next century. We already know the number of dead zones is doubling every decade. We already know that climate change is exacerbating dead zones in two ways.

First, more rainfall in some areas leads to more agricultural fertilizers and manures running off into the sea and growing more dead zones—as in the Gulf of Mexico. Second, warming in other areas reduces prevailing winds that produce oceanic upwelling—as in the Oregon dead zone.

Now the MBARI research, published in the journal Science, suggests a third mechanism at work. As more CO2 dissolves from the atmosphere into the ocean, marine animals will need more oxygen to survive. In other words, a dead zone will get deader faster. This is in addition to the excess CO2 causing changes to the pH of seawater. You know, the ocean acidification threatening the very foundations of life.

Pour me another and let's talk about the next round which might help solve the problems of this one.

Round 2:
Australia's Kevin Rudd, professed greenie, has launched a carbon capture institute. This is a government-funded initiative to coordinate and accelerate carbon capture and storage projects worldwide. "Our vision is to build an institute that will galvanize global efforts to demonstrate and deploy CCS technology," Rudd told the initial meeting of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) in Canberra, reports NatureNews. "This recognizes the cold hard reality that coal will be the major source of power generation for many years to come."

This is where the "professed greenie" part comes into play. Matthew McDermott of Treehugger calls it a deal with the devil.  Australia is the world's leading exporter of coal and a big user of the stuff. So Rudd promises to pony up US$72 million a year for the GCCSI to figure out a way to enable them to keep doing that. The public-private partnership has received pledges of support from some twenty governments so far, including the US and China, plus more than 40 industrial companies.

Well, let's hope they really can figure out a way to mitigate the highly unmitigatable. Because, let's face it, otherwise they're running the world's biggest Ponzi scheme.

Round 3: A new paper in Environmental Science and Technology finds that the warming Arctic is not only changing the landscapes and seascapes but poisoning the landscapes and seascapes too. Mercury levels in seals and beluga whales eaten by Inuit in northern Canada have reached levels considered unsafe in fish. The problem is worse in low-ice years, meaning the problem is gonna get worse. Arctic residents are being exposed to other pollutants melting out too: DDT and PCBs that leached from the atmosphere decades ago and became entombed in ice and permafrost, now flowing into streams, rivers, and the Arctic Ocean.

Round 4: The Overdose, please.
 

Recession Hits Home for Tom Friedman

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is one of free market capitalism's loudest cheerleaders. The premise goes like this: Developing countries make consumer goods so inexpensively that people in rich countries can afford to buy them and have money left over. Because of all the extra dough, demand for consumer products shoots up and makes third world countries rich. What's good for China is good for America and everyone wins, right? Not quite.

Yesterday morning, another crack appeared in Friedman's the-consumer-always-wins model when one of America's largest shopping mall companies, Chicago-based General Growth Properties, filed for bankruptcy.  Friedman's pretty close to GGP's malls; the Bucksbaum family owns them, and Ann Bucksbaum is Tom Friedman's wife.

 

The Banality of Evil

Andrew Sullivan cites conservative pundit/intellectual Charles Krauthammer's evolving opinion of our treatment of detainees:

"I don't see it as a dark chapter in our history at all," - Charles Krauthammer, yesterday.

"The pictures are shocking and the practices appalling," - Charles Krauthammer, on Abu Ghraib, May 14, 2004.

In the first quote, Krauthammer is referring to the torture practices laid out in the memos released yesterday but Eric Holder's DOJ. In the second, he is referring to Abu Ghraib. I agree with Andrew that if you are shocked and appalled by one, you should be shocked and appalled by both -- as Andrew says, the unauthorized actions at Abu Graib were just "garbled copies" of the authorized actions taking place in black sites around the world. Andrew tries to dissect why Krauthammer's feelings have evolved -- he does some good, hard thinking on the subject. I'll add another possible explanation: time. We've grown familiar with the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the Bush Administration. We didn't know CIA officers were trapping detainees in coffin-like boxes with scary insects, but we did know they were using nudity, prolonged standing, dousing in water, stress positions, waterboarding, etc. I would argue that every person that wants to support and even return to Bush-era war on terror practices has found some way to rationalize all this horrible stuff to themselves, so that if they were shocked by it in 2004, they are not so shocked now.

And, frankly, I don't think anyone will be shocked in 20 years. We are awfully good at forgetting.