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K Marx The Spot

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16 June 2007

Some Good News in the Big D

The good news from Dallas is that an openly gay man has a real chance of winning a race for mayor in a large American city. I would not have expected that Dallas would be the avant-garde of gay political gains, but any city in which the Democratic establishment has not panicked about the Pink Peril is one more city in the sane column.

Posted by Tim W at 6/16/2007 06:42:00 PM

"Alert" of the Week

How can you tell when your federal government is run by knaves? One way is to be on the lookout for alerts like this one.

Federal agents are warning leaders at some of the [Boston] region's top universities—including MIT, Boston College, and the University of Massachusetts—to be on the lookout for foreign spies or potential terrorists trying to steal their research, the head of the FBI's Boston office said yesterday....

"What we're most concerned about are those things that are not classified being developed by MIT, Worcester Polytech, and other universities," said Warren T. Bamford, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office. He said colleges are vulnerable to those looking to exploit that information and use it against the United States.

The FBI's website says universities should consider the possibility of foreign spies posing as international students or visitors and terrorists studying advanced technologies and scientific breakthroughs on campus, as well as violent extremists and computer hackers.

Now, get this straight: the FBI is discussing unclassified research—topics that are not considered vital to national security, and the sorts of things that academics discuss at conferences and publish in research journals all the time.

How is it possible that things that researchers are trying to get published in open forums are somehow targets of espionage? Somehow it does not seem all that plausible that al-Qaeda is looking for a few months' advance notice of the latest in distributed computing, literary criticism, or materials science. But it does seem plausible that the Bush administration will do almost anything to foment fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/16/2007 06:34:00 PM

14 June 2007

One Step Forward

The Massachusetts legislature voted today, 151 to 45, to defeat a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage. A 2003 state court decision had forced the state to allow same-sex couples to marry, and supports of the legislation failed to get the 50 votes in favor that they needed to send the amendment to the 2008 ballot.

One truly remarkable aspect of this decision is how it illustrates that political preferences change over time: the 151 votes to kill the amendment have not always been there: a parallel vote in the last legislative session garnered 62 votes in favor, and the legislative votes in the months after the original court decision showed bare majorities in favor of gay and lesbian rights. Politicians, pundits, and consultants who speak of triangulation and moderation miss the point—on issues, even deeply emotional ones, voters and legislators can and often are persuaded to change their opinions on issues.

Another remarkable aspect of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts has been the widespread realization among the electorate that same-sex marriage is something that does not harm those in traditional marriages—yes, there will be those who dress their homophobia in terms of "protecting traditional marriage," but for many straight voters, expanding the definition of marriage was something with no negative consequences. And politicians have noticed—despite a great deal of fuming by the right wing in Massachusetts in the last two years, not one opponent of the proposed amendment lost his or her legislative seat on 2006.

And that brings me to one of the disappointing aspects of the amendment process. A number of the proponents of the amendment were Democrats (several opponents, even early in the process, were Republicans who took civil liberties seriously). Take this profile in courage: Representative Donato from Medford. Donato claims that the people "have a right to vote" but somehow managed not to take that same line on a universal health care amendment that the legislature killed in January. Donato has already attracted one Democratic opponent for the 2008 primary, but there are 24 other Democratic representatives and 3 Democratic senators who voted to approve the amendment. In a sane world, the Green-Rainbow party would have as its primary 2008 campaign objective to get serious challengers to each of these 27 bad apples. In the real world, of course, the Greens are not much of a grassroots party at all: simply running in 27 races (out of 200) would be a manifold increase from what it has done in any recent election.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/14/2007 10:26:00 PM

11 June 2007

Independent "Democrat"

Not long ago, Joe Lieberman was the Democratic Party's nominee for Vice President. And he seems highly motivated to prove how bad a Vice President he would be.

Today, the Senate voted to cut off debate on a motion to express no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose sworn testimony to Congress earlier this year seems dissembling at best and wholly untruthful at worst. Of the 53 votes to cut off debate, 46 came from Democrats and 7 came from Republicans. Four Democrats missed the vote—three who are running for President, plus Tim Johnson, who is recuperating from a stroke. The only so-called Democrat who voted not to cut off debate was "independent Democrat" Joe Lieberman.

When he first was elected to the Senate, Lieberman won by running to the right of liberal Republican Lowell Weicker. Nowadays, the left flank of the Republican Party has moved rightward—no one will mistake Norm Coleman, Susan Collins, Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith, Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, and John Sununu for Jacob Javits and Lowell Weicker. Yet Joe Lieberman has moved even further to the right than the Republican Party has.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/11/2007 07:27:00 PM

09 June 2007


If the BBC is right, then having red hair in England makes one a target for frequent harassment. While I would not expect everything in the United States to mirror similar sentiments in the United Kingdom, the two countries seem to have wildly divergent cultural attitudes.

The younger red-diaper baby at K Marx the Spot World Headquarters has red hair—and the strangest reaction to her hair color came from an adult who tried to dye her hair the same color as my daughter's. (That is strange in a good way, by the way.)

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Posted by Tim W at 6/09/2007 04:10:00 PM

Best Economics Post of the Year

The Calculated Risk weblog highlights one ridiculous side effect of the rush to private equity. The same companies that are making a commission on selling high-yield bonds to pension plans are recommending that those plans buy these bonds. Ordinarily, this would be a garden-variety example of today's financial marketplace, but the bonds in question are worse than ordinary junk bonds—they carry the first-loss position before the ordinary junk.

You take a bunch of subprime loans, and make a pool with them. Then you tranche that pool up and create a security... Then you take those low-rated subordinate tranches and put them into a pool with a bunch of other stuff (commercial security tranches, corporate debt, junk bonds, heaven knows what), and then you tranche that up into a new thing called a Collateralized Debt Obligation, the "beauty" of which is that it's an actively traded, not static pool, so that while you might know what's in it the day you bought part of it, you may never know what's in it after that. Then you take the lowest possible tranche of the CDO—the "equity" portion or the very first part to take any losses, which is so high-risk it is referred to as "toxic waste," the stuff that is unrated by the rating agencies because it has no "credit support" whatsoever—and you put it in a pension plan managed by some goofball who thinks that it must be a good deal because a party who owns some of the higher rated tranches—the ones you "support" with your equity piece—tells you that if the planets align and the Messiah returns and everybody rolls a lucky seven, you'll make 20%!

I'm still not sure everyone is getting the picture here, so let's try this: the subordinate tranche of a subprime ABS/MBS is a "pig." With or without lipstick. The equity tranche of a CDO made up of subordinate tranches of a subprime ABS/MBS, mixed up with some other junk you do not understand, is a pig of a pig, distilled essence of pig, ur-pig, Total Ultimate X-Treme Mega Pig. Buying a B tranche of a subprime ABS is playing with matches. Buying the equity tranche of a CDO is playing with a blowtorch in the parking lot of the Exxon station while wearing a St. Lucia wreath on your head.

To put it another way, when someone is selling you a tranche of a security, there is a reason. It is because someone else did not want that part. Sometimes, that someone else is too risk-averse, but often that someone else has made a reasonable decision. Buying a lower-rated tranche is gambling that their risk assessment is somehow flawed. And buying an equity tranche is not only gambling that everything will go right and you will actually earn you stated return, but that the other tranches are filled with fools who are getting better security when they do not need it.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/09/2007 12:16:00 PM

Worth a Laugh

The tag line says it all: because real gay and lesbian news is too depressing.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/09/2007 12:12:00 PM

Do As I Write, Not As I Do

Remember when Robert Bork was preaching the gospel of Tort Reform? Thou Shalt Not Sue for Frivolous Punitive Damages and all that?

Those days have passed, it seems.

Judge Robert Bork, one of the fathers of the modern judicial conservative movement whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected by the Senate, is seeking $1,000,000 in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages, after he slipped and fell at the Yale Club of New York City. Judge Bork was scheduled to give a speech at the club, but he fell when mounting the dais, and injured his head and left leg. He alleges that the Yale Club is liable for the $1m plus punitive damages because they "wantonly, willfully, and recklessly" failed to provide staging which he could climb safely.

Judge Bork has been a leading advocate of restricting plaintiffs' ability to recover through tort law. In a 2002 article published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy—the official journal of the Federalist Society—Bork argued that frivolous claims and excessive punitive damage awards have caused the Constitution to evolve into a document which would allow Congress to enact tort reforms that would have been unconstitutional at the framing:

State tort law today is different in kind from the state tort law known to the generation of the Framers. The present tort system poses dangers to interstate commerce not unlike those faced under the Articles of Confederation. Even if Congress would not, in 1789, have had the power to displace state tort law, the nature of the problem has changed so dramatically as to bring the problem within the scope of the power granted to Congress. Accordingly, proposals, such as placing limits or caps on punitive damages, or eliminating joint or strict liability, which may once have been clearly understood as beyond Congress's power, may now be constitutionally appropriate.

So, it's somehow a crime against sanity for a woman to be given $2.7 million (reduced by the trial judge to $480,000) in compensation for third-degree burns that required skin grafts and a week in the hospital, but it is well and proper to sue for over $1,000,000 because of a hematoma to one's leg. What a brave new world that has such thinkers in it!

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Posted by Tim W at 6/09/2007 11:53:00 AM

04 June 2007

Political Decontrol of the Economy

One of the findings in this little book is that American presidents try to have recessions happen late enough in their terms so that the economy is in full recovery entering a quadrennial election.

It looks to me that the Bush administration may have set up its second-term recession a bit too late: the reset points for a huge amount of adjustable-rate mortgage happen in the next 16 months, with November 2007 being the pinnacle.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/04/2007 07:03:00 PM

Deferral of Judgment

So much for sanity at American blood banks. All sorts of risky behaviors entail limited deferrals from donating, but male-to-male sexual contact, no matter what kind, still means a lifetime ban.

Before giving blood, all men are asked if they have had sex, even once, with another man since 1977, when the AIDS epidemic began in the United States, according to the drug agency. Those who say they have are barred from donating. The drug agency says those men are at increased risk of infection by H.I.V., which can be transmitted by blood transfusion. Anyone who has used intravenous drugs or been paid for sex is also permanently barred from donating blood.

In March 2006, the Red Cross, the international blood association AABB and America's Blood Centers proposed replacing the lifetime ban with a one-year deferral after male-to-male sexual contact. New and improved tests, which can detect H.I.V.-positive donors within 10 to 21 days of infection, make the lifetime ban unnecessary, the blood groups told the F.D.A.

In a document posted Wednesday, the drug agency said it would change its policy if it received data proving that doing so would not pose a "significant and preventable" risk to blood recipients.

The deferral guidelines make clear that some potentially serious conditions are not lifetime bans from donating. One can donate blood after recovering from many types of cancer. One can donate, after 12 months, after many types of exposure to hepatitis. One can donate, after 1 month, despite taking Propecia, which can cause birth defects in pregnant women. After 12 months, one can donate after successful treatment for syphilis or gonorrhea. After 3 years, one can donate after successful treatment for malaria.

What is particularly interesting is that blood donations are not tested for malaria, the passage of time is considered to be sufficient evidence that a previously ill donor is now no longer presenting a danger to a potential blood recipient. Yet a gay man who has always engaged in safer sex practices and has always tested negative for HIV and AIDS is permanently deferred.

The key difference is that lifting the proscription against sexually active gay men involves treating gay men as potentially healthy donors; admitting that homosexuality might be a healthy lifestyle would be a first for this administration.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/04/2007 12:06:00 AM

03 June 2007

How Stupid? This Stupid.

Just how stupid are the brainiacs in the Bush administration? Now we know.

The same top Bush administration neoconservatives who leap-frogged Washington's foreign policy establishment to topple Saddam Hussein nearly pulled off a similar coup in U.S.-China relations—creating the potential of a nuclear war over Taiwan, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell says.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the U.S. Army colonel who was Powell’s chief of staff through two administrations, said in little-noted remarks early last month that "neocons" in the top rungs of the administration quietly encouraged Taiwanese politicians to move toward a declaration of independence from mainland China—an act that the communist regime has repeatedly warned would provoke a military strike.

What makes this attempt at a change in relations with China the paragon of stupidity is why having an avowedly independent Taiwan was so important. While getting rid of Saddam Hussein was at least superficially a good thing—although what Iraq would be like without Saddam Hussein was potentially unsettling—Taiwan truly acts independently of mainland China. The current state of affairs between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington is a stalemate that all three sides seemed willing to maintain. But now no idea seems too stupid for the Bush administration to have seriously considered.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/03/2007 11:55:00 PM

02 June 2007

Gummed Up

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post describes the spectacle of the Sudanese ambassador to the United States holding up a bottle of Coca-Cola to illustrate how dependent the American food industry is on gum arabic.

Alas, the problem with the illustration is that Coca-Cola does not have enough gum arabic in it to list on its ingredient label. (Some descriptions of the natural flavors in Coca-cola describe gum arabic as an emulsifying component therein.)

Of course, showing Mentos and gumdrops at a press conference would look silly. And so would the spectacle of American reporters actually doing research to test the claims mentioned in their reports.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/02/2007 11:06:00 AM

Honesty in Washington

We may not know what outgoing Republican Senator Wayne Allard thinks of first responders, but we certainly know what his staff thinks of them.

"First responders in Colorado have recently provided critical services in the face of blizzards and tornados," added Allard. "Since I don’t think first responders have really done anything significant in comparison to their counterparts who have dealt with real natural disasters, I have no idea what else to say here..."

Yes, that is exactly what the press release said.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/02/2007 11:03:00 AM

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