Contrast and compare: Tax Day Tea Party in San Francisco (!) vs. “US Uncut”

Zombie has a great photo-reportage up comparing and contrasting two demos in San Francisco (of all places): A sizable, enthusiastic Tea Party rally (in just about the least likely/friendly place for it) and an event by US Uncut that drew a whopping… 45 people and was clearly astroturfed.(Still a succcess compared with the joint event with the “Coffee Party” elsewhere, which drew 20 people.)

Get thee over there. I cannot do the essay justice by selective quoting.

The Tea Party rally was attended by one offensive troll which was clearly identified by “Infiltrator” signs. Guess who was interviewed by the OTMSM media scribbler in attendance?

Using the Oscars to rewrite the history of the subprime crisis

Zombie writes at length on this year’s Oscar winner for best documentary:

Whenever I visit Berkeley — in particular certain upscale areas populated by academics and wealthy intellectuals — practically everyone I see has this creepy look on his or her face. […] In an instant, the Berkeley expression communicates to everyone in the vicinity, “Isn’t it great that you and I and all of us here are morally superior to the rest of the world?” […]

Charles Ferguson’s[…]  winning documentary was called Inside Job, which traces the history of the financial meltdown of 2008, and places the blame entirely on greedy Wall Street insiders who scammed the world out of trillions of dollars. Every year, the Academy voters feel compelled to make some kind of political statement with an Oscar, and this year they chose Inside Job as their statement. Predictable.

I had pretty much already forgotten about the Oscars when I opened my morning paper yesterday to discover an explanation for Charles Ferguson’s instantly identifiable facial expression — he really is from Berkeley!

At first I simply found it amusing that one can pinpoint someone’s hometown simply by their smug expression — just as Sherlock Holmes could identify the village you came from by the color of the mud splatters on your trouser cuffs — but as I continued to read the article, my mood took a decidedly political turn when I encountered this passage:

Robert Gnaizda, former president of Berkeley’s Greenlining Institute, says some of the responsibility lies with the current White House.

“There’s an unwillingness by the Obama administration to effectively criticize ‘too big to fail’ institutions,” said Gnaizda, who is featured in the documentary vainly warning successive Federal Reserve Board chairmen about the kind of doomed-to-fail loans Countrywide Financial and others were making.

Whoa whoa whoa — stop right there. Am I reading this correctly? The head of the Greenlining Institute is in the film warning against subprime loans???

As it happens, Zombie had written an essay in September 2008 on the role that the Greenlining Institute (which really ought to be called the “redlining institute”) had in creating the subprime crisis:

This short post not only posits the exact opposite theory than does Inside Job, but it actually points the finger of blame at Robert Gnaizda’s Greenlining Institute as the ultimate cause of the problem, rather than as the heroes who tried to prevent the crisis.I know I’m tilting at windmills here: the budget of my original post was exactly $0, and I’m up against an Academy-Award-winning film with a production budget of $2 million and which took over two years to complete. Furthermore, the narrative pushed by the film is the narrative favored and relentlessly affirmed by almost the entire media and all of academia, and it is therefore the narrative that the general public has come to accept.

But upon re-reading my own post (which even I had half-forgotten about), I was amazed at how still current it remains, and how the points I made two and half years ago seem to have had been written to specifically rebut the thesis of Inside Job, a film which hadn’t even been made yet.

Rather than paraphrase my earlier essay, I’ll just quote part of it here and let you judge for yourself:

…The Greenlining Institute existed solely to bully banks and financial institutions into giving loans to otherwise unqualified minority borrowers.

There’s been a lot of finger-pointing on all sides about this financial crisis, but much of it misses the point. The off-topic details about CEO salaries and bond markets and mergers and bailouts and who voted for what all chase the horse after it’s already left the barn. The key question is this:

Once upon a time, banks only loaned money to individuals who could qualify for a home mortgage; and then sometime recently, they changed their practices and started loaning money to a lot of people who didn’t qualify and could not afford to pay back the loans. And when they started defaulting, and when real estate values starting dropping, the entire industry collapsed, because there was no equity to pay back the loans. The banks lost money, the customers lost money, and it all went down the toilet. Which, of course, many people had predicted. So the question is: Why? Why did banks start making countless risky untenable loans to unqualified customers?

And the answer is: Because they were afraid of being called racists by the legal bullies at the Greenlining Institute and other similar “community organizers.”

It all started with The Community Reinvestment Act, a federal law originally passed during the Carter administration and then ramped up during the Clinton years, that was originally designed to prevent racist lending practices by banks who wouldn’t loan money to minorities, even if they were qualified. Which was a fine idea. But over time the law was twisted to force banks to make loans to minorities even if they weren’t qualified — which all may sound very peachy keen in Fantasy Utopia Land but which inevitably spells long-term financial suicide for a bank.

The Greenlining Institute’s self-appointed role is to identify those banks which by Greenlining’s reckoning haven’t doled out enough money to underqualified minority borrowers, and then threaten them with lawsuits, protests, and accusations of institutional racism if the banks don’t start opening their wallets ASAP. And the banks caved. Greenlining brags that they have unparalleled access to banking boardrooms, and they successfully squeezed $2.4 trillion (yes, trillion) in “CRA commitments” (i.e. loans to unqualified borrowers) out of terrified banks. Nearly every bank and financial institution you’ve ever heard of seems to kowtow to Greenlining.

[…G]roups like the Greenlining Institute saw the banks as potential agents of economic restructuring: If banks could be forced to grant homeownership to poor people, then that would be the first step for the lower classes to climb out of poverty, since everyone knows that owning one’s own home instills a sense of pride, self-worth, and self-reliance.And so, using the bullying tactics described above (and in the original article which first inspired my post), the Greenlining Institute (and similar groups) twisted the banks’ arms to make risky loans, for the purpose of “social justice,” to use the activists’ own terminology.

A then-young community organizer named Barack Hussein 0bama also features in the narrative.

Forced into this situation, the banks then went to great lengths to disguise the risk they had foolishly assumed; to fob the bad loans off on unsuspecting other investors, they devised convoluted financial instruments that obscured the danger of the investments; and so on.

At this point, the sorry mess developed a momentum of its own, as subprime mortgages became available to everybody (not just the targeted group) and house-flipping became a national hobby. Read the whole thing. And weep.  In related news,

The unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid already exceed $106 trillion. That’s well over $300,000 for every man, woman and child in America (and exceeds the combined value of every U.S. bank account, stock certificate, building and piece of personal or public property).

A funeral dirge for eyes gone blind“.

Incidentally, one of the contenders “Inside Job” beat out was “Waiting for Superman” about the dysfunctional public education system. It was made by the director of “An Inconvenient Truth” but, unlike the crockumentary of that name, actually tells exactly that.  The moviemaker set out to document everything every liberal likes to believe about public schools, found the reality rather… different, and, surprisingly, had the guts to kick against some left-wing houses of the holy. (Education, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, is one cause in which some New Class liberals believe sufficiently strongly that they sometimes find themselves on the same side as conservatives.) Of course, the bien-pensant Anointed “cannot have that”…

Zombie: “Death Channels”

My honorable blog ancestor has been unseen for the past month, which normally is the harbinger of some big cyber-expose. This time around, it was personal business — namely, an experience as “Advance Health Care Directive” executor for a close relative. (S)he writes about the experience in great detail here, in a post entitled “Death Channels”.

Whichever side of the end-of-life-care debate you are on, this article is mind-blowing (and reads like a novella). Read it all, and pass the link to everybody you know.

Gerrymandering 101

Zombie has the first post up on a new series on “gerrymandering”, the drawing of artificial electoral district borders to maximize advantage for one political party.

The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette newspaper on March 26, 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under the then governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. … The term was a portmanteau of the governor’s last name and the word salamander.


The two aims of gerrymandering are to maximize the effect of supporters’ votes and to minimize the effect of opponents’ votes. One strategy, packing, is to concentrate as many voters of one type into a single electoral district to reduce their influence in other districts. … A second strategy, cracking, involves spreading out voters of a particular type among many districts in order to deny them a sufficiently large voting block in any particular district. The strategies are typically combined, creating a few “forfeit” seats for packed voters of one type in order to secure even greater representation for voters of another type.

Of course, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the GOP engaging in gerrymandering because of the way they swept state houses in the recent election.

When commentators blithely note that Republicans will have a “redistricting advantage” next year because of their dominance in state houses, they gloss over the ugly details of what that means. Few are willing to speak The G-Word, but Jonathan Chait at The New Republic takes the plunge:

2. Redistricting. If that’s not a problem enough for Democrats, it’s about to get a lot worse. Republicans had their wave election at a very convenient time, putting themselves in position to control numerous state legislatures and thus control the next round of redistricting, which will last a decade. Partisan gerrymandering can be an extremely powerful tool, and combined with the natural geographic gerrymander, can give Republicans an overwhelming advantage, if not quite an absolute lock.

The reason even most liberals are keeping mute about the horrors of the upcoming Republican gerrymandering is that Democrats have been the most ardent practitioners of it whenever they’ve had the slightest chance. You may have wondered how America overall tends to prefer conservative policies (pollsters like to say “We’re a center/right country”) yet we often have a liberal or at least Democratic majority in the Congress. How can this be? Gerrymandering. It’s so powerful that it has at times fundamentally altered the political slant of our government. Many of the worst gerrymandered districts illustrated in tomorrow’s Part II of this essay (“The Top Ten Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts in the United States” — don’t miss it!) are the handiwork of Democratic politicians, so the Democrats would have no leg to stand on if they were to now turn around and criticize the Republicans for doing what they’ve been doing for decades — centuries, even. The Republicans have done it too, of course, but in the majority of states in recent cycles, the Democrats have had the advantage, and they’ve not been ashamed to use it.

But that brings up a question of morality: Should the Republican class of 2010 continue the partisan cheating? Is turnabout fair play? Just because the Democrats have attempted to skew the national dialogue for decades, does that give the Republicans the right to do so now? And if your answer is “No,” then how can we possibly stop the practice? Because if the Republicans refrain from gerrymandering the 2010 census, then the Democrats’ pre-existing gerrymandering will remain in place, allowing them to remain over-represented in future elections, and when they regain power they’ll continue redistricting the country to their advantage, laughing at the Republicans for not having done the same when they had the chance.

Now how does gerrymandering work in practice? Zombie has some really nice illustrative graphics:

Sample population distribution: each symbol represents a voter in a generic state.
Option 1: A fair and evenhanded redistricting.

“In the illustration to the left you see a schematized state. The new census shows that it has 15 inhabitants, scattered equally throughout the territory; 9 of them are consistent voters for the “redstar” party, represented by red stars; 6 of them are “greendot” party voters, represented by green dots. The time has come for redistricting, and your job is to carve up the state into three congressional districts each containing exactly five voters. What do you do?

“Option 1: Well, a 9-to-6 split in the electorate means that the state is 60% redstar and 40% greendot. So if your goal was to be as fair and evenhanded as possible, you’d draw the district lines as shown in the illustration at the upper right: you’d end up with two districts which were majority redstar, and one district that was majority greendot, and thus the voters of the state overall would get fairly true representation of their political views in congress. (In this example, District 1 would have a 3-to-2 redstar majority, District 2 would have a 3-to-2 greendot majority, and District 3 would have a 4-to-1 redstar majority.)

But what if you were a partisan redstar politician? Your goal would not be to have fair redistricting; your goal would be to shut out your opponents as ruthlessly as possible. And thus we turn to the next possibility: Majority gerrymandering.

Option 2: Majority gerrymandering to ensure complete electoral dominance.



Option 3: Gerrymandering designed to ensure over-representation for the smaller party.



“Option 2: If your goal was to ensure that your redstar party won as many seats as possible in upcoming elections, you’d strive to create districts in which redstar voters had a slim majority in every single district. So you could gerrymander the boundaries to look like they do in the illustration at the lower left. In this example, each and every district has been purposely designed to have a 3-to-2 redstar majority, and the end result would be that all three districts would elect redstar representatives, and the 40% of the population who are greendot voters would be disenfranchised — no elected official would represent their views.

And lastly: What if you were an incumbent greendot politician looking at the new census map aghast, noting that demographic shifts had now given the opposition redstar party a 60/40 advantage among voters. What would you do? More precisely, what would you do if you were really really evil, like the typical politician? Why, you’d resort to the most diabolical form of redistricting, Minority Gerrymandering:

“Option 3: Behold the horrors of what gerrymandering can do. In this final option, shown in the lower right illustration, the greendot party, despite having only 40% of the vote, has managed to draw the districting lines in such a way that they end up with a two-to-one advantage in congress! The greendot redistricters achieved this feat by shunting as many redstar voters as possible into a lopsided “electoral ghetto,” in which District 3 has a solid 5-0 redstar majority; this soaks up and wastes most of the redstar voting power, leaving the greendot party with a 3-to-2 advantage in Districts 1 and 2.

“Clear? This is gerrymandering in a nutshell. And once you’ve mastered it, you’re ready to become a politician and thwart the will of the voters”.

(S)he continues:

And don’t assume that if you discovered a district that is, say, 85% Republican, then you have strong evidence of Republican gerrymandering. Quite the opposite. Such districts are almost always the handiwork of Democratic redistricters trying to cram as many opposition voters together as possible, an example of the practice known as “packing”:

The two aims of gerrymandering are to maximize the effect of supporters’ votes and to minimize the effect of opponents’ votes. One strategy, packing, is to concentrate as many voters of one type into a single electoral district to reduce their influence in other districts. … A second strategy, cracking, involves spreading out voters of a particular type among many districts in order to deny them a sufficiently large voting block in any particular district. The strategies are typically combined, creating a few “forfeit” seats for packed voters of one type in order to secure even greater representation for voters of another type.

But these gerrymandering strategies can backfire — as they did in 2010, spectacularly. Which explains how the Republicans managed to win so many seats in a nation significantly gerrymandered by Democrats. What happened is this: Over the years, Democrats in many states created many congressional districts in which they diluted Republican voters to approximately 45% of the electorate, thinking this a safe margin for Democratic politicians to win every future election. But in a “wave year,” enough disgusted swing voters abandon the party in power and (at least temporarily) switch allegiances, and suddenly the 45%-and-no-more squandered Republican vote climbs over the 50% mark. Boom. Gerrymandering has blown up in the politicians’ faces.

Zombie: Barry O, He Go: the Cargo Cult Presidency of Barack Obama

A few days before Halloween, from our favorite Undead American: Barry O, He Go: the Cargo Cult Presidency of Barack Obama. [Wikipedia links added.]

The presidency of Barack Obama is a cargo cult. And Obama himself is the new John Frum.

But unlike traditional cargo cults, which persist despite decades of fruitless prophecies, the Barry O cult is disintegrating before our very eyes, as Hope and Change Airport — built entirely out of hollow bamboo and even hollower promises — has failed to attract the predicted heaven-sent magical prosperity.

Read the whole thing. Relatedly, see Richard Feynman’s definition of cargo cult science.

Zombie and the Heinlein Political Compass

In an otherwise very interesting post on how the original ’60s counterculturists and today’s Tea Party may have more in common than they realize, Zombie proposes yet another version of the political spectrum/compass. As I have never had much use for the simplistic “left/right” or “conservative/liberal” divide, I’ve always been intrigued by attempts to come up with something more thorough.

One can, of course, easily add so many variables that one can no longer see the forest for all the trees. One would end up having to do something akin to what statisticians call “principal component analysis”: trying to explain as much as possible of the variation in a dataset using as few variables (or fixed linear combinations of them) as possible. Many attempts have been made: this Wikipedia article, while it obviously has numerous flaws, is a good starting point for reading.

Actually, if I were to give Zombie’s spectrum a name other than the “Zombie spectrum”, I might call it the Heinlein Political Compass. Its two main axes directly refer to two of my favorite Heinlein aphorisms:

A. “Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” (Time Enough for Love (1973) and The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (1978)).

B. “Correct morality can only be derived from what man is — not from what do-gooders and well-meaning aunt Nellies would like him to be.” (Starship Troopers, Ch. 8 )

This former dictum corresponds to Zombie’s horizontal axis (degree of government control). In the well-known “smallest political quiz” (a.k.a. the Nolan Chart), this variable is split up in two axes, which represent economic and personal liberties. (“The [social] conservative wants the government out of your wallet and in your bedroom; the liberal wants it out of your bedroom and in your wallet; the authoritarian wants it in both and the libertarian in neither”, as the common folksy description goes.)

The latter dictum defines Zombie’s vertical axis, belief in, vs. skepticism about, the malleability of human nature. Stalinists, Maoists, and the Khmer Rouge take one extreme position (best illustrated by the Soviet regime’s approval of the anti-hereditary theories of Lysenko), while Nazism, with its belief in complete racial determinism, takes the other extreme. In more temperate climes one might find, on the upper half of the axis, the liberal who daydreams of people giving up armed conflict or financial self-interest, and on the lower half of the axis, the hard-nosed conservative who may love world peace and lovingkindness every bit as much as the liberal but simply accepts the fact that man isn’t wired that way.

Anyhow, without further ado:

The Zombie/Heinlein chart bears a more than superficial resemblance to Jerry Pournelle’s Political Axes. Pournelle (who has multiple academic degrees) wrote his political science thesis on how people’s political orientations cannot be explained by a single axis. He ended up picking two main ones:

  • “Attitude toward the State”: varying from state worship at one (totalitarian) extreme to the state as the ultimate evil at the other (anarchist) extreme
  • “Attitude toward planned social progress”.

This latter axis, while strongly correlated with the Zombie/Heinlein vertical axis, is not identical to it. One can still believe in some form of planned social progress (such as trying to undo discrimination against certain groups — or for that matter, in favor of specific groups) while being skeptical that human nature will ever fundamentally change. Note, for example, that 200 years ago the idea of slavery being a moral outrage was considered revolutionary, while nowadays, almost nobody would consider buying and selling human beings as anything other than a moral outrage. Yet I would be hard-pressed to say that human motivations and urged changed in any significant way — only the rules by which the game is played have fundamentally changed.

On a Sabbath note: Both Judaism and Xianity are ambivalent on the “malleability” axis. Certain Christian core beliefs (such as that in original sin) would appear to favor the “innate” half-axis, while others (such as the belief in the transformative nature of ‘accepting Jesus’) point in the other direction. Some interdenominational faultlines cross that axis: compare the Quaker insistence on total pacifism with “Just War theory” (originally Roman Catholic), for instance.

Meanwhile, the Jewish belief in “Tikkun Olam” (literally “healing the world”) would seem to fall on the “malleable” half of the vertical axis, and has been (successfully ab)used by some liberal Jewish theologians to sell Jews on the liberal orthodoxy du jour. However, Jewish rabbinical thought is full of statements that point in the other direction, from mundane skeptical attitudes such as “if you are planting a seedling and they come tell you the Messiah is coming, finish planting and then go greet the Messiah” to the fundamental belief that every human being has innate altruistic (“yetzer tov”, literally “good impulse”) and egoistic (“yetzer hara”, literally “bad impulse”) — and that it is good that human beings are this way, as “were it not for the yetzer hara , nobody would marry, build a house, or beget children” (Genesis Rabbah 9:7).