Thursday, June 28, 2012

I Thought It was Homage, but it was Just a Photoshop

Okay, I'll admit it.  I fell for this one.  I wasn't fooled by the photoshop of Sarah Palin in an American flag bikini firing off a gun.  But I thought this one was for real.  Obviously staged, as an act of homage,  but real nonetheless.

Making the comparison, though, it is clearly too exact and just has to be photoshopped.

So, where does that leave us?  About where I said before:
Republicans will warn that if the Democrats win, healthcare reforms will vest next year lead to the end of liberty as we know it, complete government takeover of healthcare, Communist tyranny, death panels, euthanasia of seniors, T-4,Soviet tanks in the streets, cats and dogs living together, etc. Democrats will warn that if Republican win they will block health care reform from vesting and you won't get all those benefits we promised you back in 2009. It isn't hard to see which is the stronger argument.
The opinion is a long one.  I will go over it later.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Scalia's Dissent

Scalia issued a dissent so radical or, more accurately, reactionary (in the sense of wanting to turn back the clock) that not even Thomas was willing to follow him there.  If the majority shows a disturbing faith in the wisdom of the federal government, Scalia shows an equally disturbing faith in state sovereignty, ignoring what it has all too often meant in the real world.

For starters, Scalia denounces the entire opinion as an attack on Arizona’s sovereignty.  Excluding people is an essential attribute of sovereignty.  He makes some decidedly dubious constitutional interpretations.  The Articles of Confederation made the “inhabitants” of one state “citizens” of another, allowing a non-citizen inhabitant of one state to claim citizenship in another.  The Constitution limited this to citizens of one state being citizens of another.  The federal government was given sole authority over naturalization in order to keep one state from naturalizing people and forcing other states to accept them as citizens.  Scalia takes this to mean that giving the federal government sole authority over naturalization is meant to make it easier for states to exclude people.  That is a dubious argument.  The citizenship clause of the Constitution has the obvious effect of forbidding states from excluding people who are U.S. citizens.  The obvious reason for giving the federal government sole power of naturalization is because immigration and naturalization are so closely linked to foreign policy which is, of course, a sole federal prerogative.  Giving this power to the federal government does prevent one state from undercutting another’s laws by introducing a laxer immigration policy.  It also prevents one state from excluding others by introducing a narrower immigration policy.  Either way, state power is clearly limited.  The Constitution allows states to exclude unwanted products, which Scalia dubiously interprets as a power to exclude unwanted people.  He also somehow interprets the Constitution allowing a state to wage war if invaded or in imminent danger of invasion as a sign that it may exclude unwanted immigrants.  He then argues that in the early history of our country, states regularly excluded unwanted people (including free blacks).  Indeed, for much of our early history, states did a whole lot more to exclude people than the federal government.

 Above all else, Scalia emphasizes protection of state sovereignty.  If states cannot exclude, they are not sovereign.  At the same time, he admits that the federal power over immigration has substantially eroded their sovereignty.  But he wants to preserve any portions that remain.  He will admit that state laws must yield to federal law if they seek to exclude those who federal law would admit, or admit those who federal law would exclude.

His view on the power of Arizona police to check the immigration status of people they arrest does not materially differ from any of the other justices.  Unlike the others, however, he argues that Arizona is entitled to have its own immigration policy, one stricter than the federal policy, so long as there is no direct conflict.  The close relationship between immigration and foreign affairs does not impress him.  Arizona may not be able to force the federal government to deport certain people from the U.S., but it can deport them from Arizona.  He goes over all the provisions, arguing at length that the state, in defense of its sovereignty, may establish tougher enforcement penalties than the federal government, so long as there is no direct conflict.

He then first says that if the federal government does not have resources to rigorously enforce immigration laws, then it should welcome Arizona’s help.  Next he strongly denounces President Obama’s decision to exempt people under 30 who were illegally brought over as children.  Arizona, he says, should not be bound by the Executive’s refusal to enforce the law.  Finally, he asks, would the states have ratified the Constitution if they had known this decision would be made.   If that is to be the standard of constitutionality, I don’t see how modern society can be made workable.  One can imagine any number of things that go on today that no one in 1787 would have consented to.  Its decision issued the same day that states cannot limit the influence of big money in politics is a good place to start.  Fill in the blanks for yourself on other subsequent developments people in 1787 might have rejected, for good and for ill.

Waiting for the Healthcare Decision

Well, the Supreme Court pulled a trick on us.  After creating the impression the Monday was the last day they could issue opinions for this session, they have postponed their opinion on Obamacare until Thursday.  In the meantime, however, they have left an opinion on the Arizona immigration law for us to chew on that should keep us quite busy enough until Thursday.

Combing through the somewhat stilted language of the opinion, what  happened was this.  Unauthorized presence in the U.S. is illegal, but not a crime.  It is penalized by deportation, which is a civil, not criminal, proceeding.  Knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant is a crime for the employer, but not the immigrant.  Only the federal government, not the states, has the power to deport.  State and local officials may report illegal immigrants and turn them over to federal authorities, but not deport them.  

Arizona passed a statute, known as SB 1070 (Senate Bill 1070) that did four things) that did four things:

(1)    It criminalized unauthorized presence in Arizona;
(2)    It criminalized any illegal immigrant holding a job;
(3)    It authorized state and local police to make arrests on immigration offenses;
(4)    It authorized state and local police who made arrests for non-immigration offenses to check the immigration status of the person arrested.

The federal government challenged all four provisions as unconstitutional infringements on the federal government’s exclusive power over immigration. 

Elena Kagan was disqualified from ruling on the matter because she had argued on it in the lower courts.   The remaining eight justices unanimously upheld the provision that state and local police could check the immigration status of people arrested for non-immigration offenses.  Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Sotomayor, Breyer and Ginsburg voted to strike down the other provisions.  (Justice Kagan would undoubtedly have joined them is allowed).  Justices Scalia, Alito and Thomas all dissented (in part) saying they would have upheld at least some of the other provisions.  These were their rationales.

The majority stressed the importance of exclusive federal control of immigration because it is so closely related to foreign policy. They emphasized the importance of giving the federal government wide discretion on decisions about who to deport.   They then explain that state law may be overridden (preempted) by federal law in three circumstances:  (1) a federal statute that expressly preempts state law; (2) federal rule so pervasive as to leave no room for the states (field preemption); (3) state laws that conflict with federal law, either by directly contradicting it, or by interfering with it. 

The majority then found that a state criminalizing unauthorized presence it the U.S. fell in the category of field preemption.  Only the federal government can regulate the presence of aliens in the U.S. or penalize violations.  Such a framework had been on the books since at least 1940.

The majority also struck down the provision criminalizing work by people illegally present in the state.  Its grounds for doing so were that the federal government had explicitly chosen not to criminalize such employment, but only to subject it to the civil penalties of denial of legal status and possible deportation.  Furthermore, the federal statute expressly forbids states from imposing any greater penalties on employers.  Once again, the majority appears to find field preemption. 

The majority also struck down the provision giving police authority to make arrests for suspected immigration violations on the grounds that it gave them broader authority to make such arrests than even federal immigration officials.  It further argued that our current immigration statute controls when state and local officials may arrest for immigration offenses.  This looks like a case of (3), state laws that conflict with federal law indirectly, by interfering with it.

Checking on the immigration status of anyone arrested, by contrast was allowed.  The reason given was that the method of checking was ask the federal immigration officials, and that such consultation is expressly authorized by the federal immigration statute.  It found that nothing in such express authorization was violated by making such consultation mandatory.  It did warn Arizona not to arrest people for traffic offenses just to check their immigration status, or to prolong detention too long after an arrest to run the check.  In short, it let this provision stand, but warned Arizona not to commit serious abuses under it, or it might hold such abuses to be unconstitutional.

Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito issued dissents.  The dissents are placed in order (I assume) of seniority.  But I will go by order of intensity. 

The mildest dissent was by Alito.  He agreed that Arizona could not criminalize mere presence in the state because of field preemption.  He did believe, however, that the state could criminalize working in the state and authorize arrests for immigration violations.  Like the others, he said that the federal immigration statute expressly authorized states to ask federal authorities for immigration status on people arrested, and required the federal authorities to answer.  Requiring Arizona authorities to check the immigration status of anyone arrested must therefore be allowed.  He further said that the federal government’s only argument against this provision was that it had priorities on deportations, and that the Arizona authorities might ask for immigration status on someone they did not intend to deport.  Mere policy cannot preempt.  He would also allow a traffic stop to escalate into an arrest for an immigration offense, a position not shared by the majority.  He also agreed with the majority that Arizona cannot criminalize unauthorized presence in the state.  This has been the rule since the 1940’s.  By contrast, the Supreme Court had previously upheld a state statute criminalizing working in the state by illegal immigrants.  The current ruling was going against a previous precedent which Alito preferred to keep.  The fact that Congress expressly preempted any more severe state penalties on employers but not employees convinces Alito that more severe state penalties on employees is allowed.  He would also uphold the provision allowing Arizona police to make arrests for immigration offenses because it does not authorize arrests merely for unauthorized presence, for committing a deportable offense (i.e., a crime).  He also says that since state and local police are authorized to cooperate with federal authorities in making immigration arrests, the state and local police, and not just the feds, may take the initiative.  Although such authority could be carried out in an unconstitutional manner, Alito would require some evidence that it is carried out in an unconstitutional manner before forbidding it.

Thomas ‘s dissent is short and simple.  Nothing in the federal immigration statute forbids any of the Arizona provisions.  Therefore they are not preempted.  Scalia's dissent is so extraordinary as to require its own post.

I am left with mixed feelings about this opinion.  On the one hand, it is a humane opinion, seeking to prevent states from launching all-out campaigns of harassment and persecution against anyone who looks to Hispanic in order to persuade illegal immigrants to "self deport."  On the other hand, it shows a degree of deference to the federal government and presumption that the feds are always right that could be very uncomfortable in some other situation.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Tea Party and Fascism

This was an old obsession of mine, comparing various American political movements to fascism to see if they fit (invariable answer: No).  So I might as well apply it to the Tea Party.  Some people have accused the Tea Party of having a fascist tone.  Is there anything to it?

In this case, I will not go by my own amateurish definitions of what fascism might be, but by what serious scholars have seen as its traits.

Stanley Payne, in Fascism: Comparison and Definition (1980) offered three main clusters of traits. Let us see how well they apply.

A. The Fascist Negations: 

-- Anticommunism.  Communism is not exactly an issue these days.  Still, if you substitute for anti-Communism, anti-radicals seeking to overturn the social order, it clearly applies to the Tea Party.  I should add that I think the Tea Party seriously overestimates the radicalism of the current administration and its threat to the social order.  But so what?  Classical German fascists came to power largely because German conservatives seriously overestimated the radicalism of the Social Democrats, and underestimated the radicalism of the Nazis.

-- Antiliberalism.  That means having to define what it is to be liberal.  On the one hand, there is no doubt that the Tea Party crowd uses "liberal" as a curse word.  On the other hand, many might say that they are the true liberals, the classical liberals who favor old-fashioned liberal values like free markets and minimal government.  But I would say fascists are above all else anti-liberal in the sense that I have defined liberalism -- placing universalism ahead of in-group loyalty.  Tea Parties are also anti-liberal in that sense.  And, unfortunately, they have taken a strong sense of in-group loyalty into partisan politics, in the form of being unwilling to accept elective government not controlled by their (political) in-group.

-- Anticonservatism, (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly with the right).  No, the Tea Party is clearly not anti-conservative.  It is better characterized as somewhere between conservative and reactionary.  

Tea Party members fear radicals threatening the social order because significant parts of the social order really are being threatened.  Homosexuality is becoming ever more accepted.  Gay marriage is gaining traction.  Global warming is threatening the fossil fuel industry and may force changes that can hardly be imagined.  Our population is becoming increasingly Hispanic, especially in the younger generation, weakening our cultural cohesion.  As our population ages, programs for the elderly are becoming strained and will become increasingly more strained.  Furthermore, all these trends are independent of partisan politics and will continue regardless of who is elected.  Most Tea Partiers, I think, know this.  To this extend, Tea Partiers are the sort of conservative who stands athwart history, shouting stop!

Then again, the Tea Party is proving quite successful in other areas.  It has for all practical purposes repealed Roe vs. Wade and re-outlawed abortion in many states.  Its drive to deregulate the economy, cut taxes at the top, shred the social safety net, and (in some states) kill the public schools in favor of a voucher system are proving highly successful.  Whether these, too, prove to be inevitable trends or whether Democrats have some power to derail them remains to be seen. But in any event, these are all conservative or reactionary goals, and definitely not anti-conservative.

B. Ideology and Goals: 

-- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models.  I see no evidence of this.  The Tea Party goal appears to be a massive reduction in government, at least in its mommy functions, and at least for people under 65.

-- Organization of some new kind of regulated,multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist.  I see no evidence whatever that the Tea Party favors anything of the kind.  What the appear to favor is a return to the Gilded Age (with the presumed exceptions of keeping Social Security and Medicare), which was anything but a "
regulated,multiclass, integrated national economic structure."

-- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers.  I have no idea.  Foreign policy does not appear to be the Tea Party's major interest.

-- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture. I have no idea what this means.  It sounds a lot like "fundamental transformation," though, something the Tea Party dreads.

C. Style and Organization: 
-- Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects. I would say that running around in 18th Century costumes and the intense veneration of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as a sort of immutable archetype
 counts.  But so what?  Lots of non-fascists political movements do the same thing.

-- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia. Mass mobilization, yes.  Militarization, no.  Mass mobilization alone does not make a movement fascist.  The Civil Rights movement mass mobilized as well.

-- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence.  The Tea Party often uses violent language and violent imagery.  It does not, however, practice actual violence.  Indeed, the advanced age of so many of its members make the whole idea of the Tea Party as Brownshirts absurd.

Tea Party
Brown Shirts
See any differences?

-- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society.  On the one hand, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman are heroes to the Tea Party.  On the other hand, they do seem to be making a concerted effort to cut off women's access to reproductive care (at least for poor women), which looks suspiciously like an effort to keep women (at least poor women) in their place.  But no, some right wing movements do look like nothing but an outbreak of testosterone poisoning.  The Tea Party does not appear to be one of them.

-- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation.  Quite the opposite, the Tea Party largely a movement of the old, offended at the younger generation's perceived fecklessness.

-- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective. Well, there is Rush Limbaugh, I guess.  Also Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Roger Ailes.  If these are the true leaders of the Tea Party, then it is something new (so far as I know) -- a political movement led by media personalities who shun public office rather than politicians.  (There have been many media moguls who were important political figures in the past, from Horace Greeley to Silvio Berlusconi, but most of them have also sought office.  A political movement whose leaders refuse to run for office is so unfamiliar as to be impossible to categorize.  Alternately, one could call the Tea Party a grass roots, leaderless movement.

In addition, Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism offers nine "mobilizing passions" of fascism. Again, applying them to the Tea Party;

-- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions; I think this is true.  It is what makes the Tea Party so dangerous.

-- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it; I don't think this is true.  As discussed above, I think the Tea Party applies in-group loyalty to partisan politics in a manner dangerous to the health of democracy, but I certainly don't think they go this far.

-- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external;  I have no doubt that Tea Partiers see their group (defined as conservatives, Real Americans, or whatever) as a victim and are prepared to go well beyond generally accepted democratic norms, but nothing as far as all that.

-- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;  Yes, I absolutely do think that is a major factor driving the Tea Party.

-- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;  To some extent.  I think the desire for a closer integration of a purer community is largely what drives the Tea Party's hostility to immigration and concern over who is and is not an Authentic Real American.  No doubt they greatly fear the alien Other.  I see no evidence of exclusionary violence, though.

-- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny; No, the Tea Party shows no interest in such a leader and prides itself in being leaderless.

-- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason; Irrelevant, since there is no Leader. On the other hand, they do show a certain tendency to reject facts in favor of going with the gut.  But it is their gut, not the leader's.

-- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success;  Once again, the Tea Party uses the language and imagery of violence sometimes, but not the actual practice.  Give the advanced age of so many members, I do not believe it has a capacity for violence.

-- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.  This is a decent definition of American exceptionalism.

CONCLUSION:  The Tea Party is best characterized as reactionary.  It either stands athwart history shouting stop or seeks a return (perhaps successful) to the Gilded Age.  It engages in a delegitimization of the opposing party that is dangerous to the health of democracy.  But it has none of the ambitious goals or violent methods or leader worship characteristic of true fascism.  Try Ron Paul.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Last Chance to Comment Before the Supreme Court Rules

So, the Supreme Court has put off its decision on Obamacare until the last possible minute.  That last minute is Monday, June 25, so tomorrow we will learn their ruling.  Before they get it in, I will make a few last minute comments.

I, like so many others, was much struck by Ezra Klein's article on the subject.  He begins by setting forth the ways in which the mandate-and-subsidy system was a Republican idea.  It was first proposed by the Heritage Foundation in 1989.  When Bill Clinton's proposal failed, the Republicans proposed a mandate-and-subsidy system as an alternative, with 18 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate.  From 2004 through 2008, proposals for a mandate-and-subsidy had considerable bipartisan support.  Mitt Romney held such a system up in Massachusetts as a proud achievement.

Klein speculates that if Clinton had endorsed the mandate system then, it might have passed.  My own guess is no, Clinton's touch would have had deadly to a proposal then as Obama's is now.  That is because of the phenomenon the article goes on to discuss, of tribal politics.  Ultimately, most people care less about the substantive content of a proposal than whether it comes from Team Us or Team Them.

On the other hand, I am inclined to agree with Kevin Drum.  Republicans have knocked down one Democratic plan for universal health care after another and done nothing to advance the goal when in power.  This is because they do not agree with the goal.  They do not agree that ensuring access to healthcare for everyone (or perhaps for anyone) is a legitimate government function.  And to the extent that it might be a legitimate government function, it certainly is not legitimate for the federal government.  But at the same time, Republicans have never actually come out and said so.  Invariably, they pretend that there might be an acceptable way to ensure healthcare for all, it just isn't what the Democrats are proposing.  I can only assume that Republicans have never come right out and stated their opposition to any government attempt to make healthcare available to all is that they believe such a position would not be popular.  But they are getting closer to expressing such a view now than ever before.

To continue with Klein, he quotes a most disturbing account of how the mandate came to be widely seen as unconstitutional, quoting the libertarian legal scholar Orin Kerr:
Orin Kerr says that, in the two years since he gave the individual mandate only a one-per-cent chance of being overturned, three key things have happened. First, congressional Republicans made the argument against the mandate a Republican position. Then it became a standard conservative-media position. “That legitimized the argument in a way we haven’t really seen before,” Kerr said. “We haven’t seen the media pick up a legal argument and make the argument mainstream by virtue of media coverage.” Finally, he says, “there were two conservative district judges who agreed with the argument, largely echoing the Republican position and the media coverage. And, once you had all that, it really became a ballgame.”
Jack Balkin, a Yale law professor, agrees. “Once Republican politicians say this is unconstitutional, it gets repeated endlessly in the partisan media that’s friendly to the Republican Party”—Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the like—“and, because this is now the Republican Party’s position, the mainstream media needs to repeatedly explain the claims to their readers. That further moves the arguments from off the wall to on the wall, because, if you’re reading articles in the Times describing the case against the mandate, you assume this is a live controversy.”
In other words, Fox News is now arbiter of what is and is not constitutional!  It is bad enough that in today's hyper-polarized atmosphere, legislation is impossible unless the same party controls not only the Presidency, the Senate and the House, but a 60-member super-majority in the Senate.  Now it appears that any major initiative by Democrats is impossible even if they have the triple crown because the Supreme Court (legitimized in its actions by Fox and abetted by the MSM) will declare it unconstitutional.

At the same time, the Supreme Court recognizes political limits and is unlikely to take action that is too unpopular.  All of which goes to reinforce the point I made at the time the legislation was passed.  I did not foresee a constitutional challenge to the mandate, let alone such a challenge being successful.  (The rule up till then had been that Congress could pass laws directly over individuals, but could not "commandeer" states).  But I did foresee that the Republicans would make blocking implementation a key issue in the 2012 election.  I therefore thought it was a huge mistake not to have the benefits vest until 2014.  Or, as I put it at the time:

Consider what the 2012 election could sound like. Republicans will warn that if the Democrats win, healthcare reforms will vest next year lead to the end of liberty as we know it, complete government takeover of healthcare, Communist tyranny, death panels, euthanasia of seniors, T-4,Soviet tanks in the streets, cats and dogs living together, etc. Democrats will warn that if Republican win they will block health care reform from vesting and you won't get all those benefits we promised you back in 2009. It isn't hard to see which is the stronger argument.

By contrast, if the exchanges are actually up and running in 2012, it will be extremely difficult for Republicans to convince anyone that liberty has ended, death panels are murdering seniors, Soviet tanks are occupying the country, cats and dogs are living together, etc. Instead, Democrats will tell people that Republicans want to take away their health insurance. It will be a tad bid awkward for Republicans to tell people who have purchased policies with government subsidies that their doing so has ended liberty as we know it, and that if we don't take away their insurance, the country will degenerate into a Communist tyranny. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

The first decision of Hell Week has taken place.  The people of Greece have blinked. Once again, they have chosen slow strangulation over jumping off the cliff and hoping to survive.

As many people have pointed out, the Greeks have essentially two options.  They can stay the course, squeezing their economy harder and ever harder in hopes of convincing their investors they are sincere.  Or they can default on their debts and leave the euro.  Everyone agrees that the immediate aftermath of such a default and devaluation will be catastrophic.  But no one knows what the longer range consequences will be.  Our experience with sovereign default and devaluation is sparse, but revealing.  Consider:

Russia, 1998:  The transition from Communism was disastrous in Russia. Coal miners and many other workers went unpaid.  Interest on sovereign debt alone exceeded tax revenue by 40%.  In much of Russia, the financial system had broken down so far that money ceased circulating altogether and the economy went on a barter system.  In an effort to keep the ruble at its currency peg and stem capital flight, interest rates were raised to as high as 150%, with devastating effects on any part of the economy that still had a working finance system.  None of this was sustainable.  On August 17, 1998, the Russian government default on its debts and let the ruble fall.  The immediate aftermath was catastrophic.  Inflation hit 84%.  Food prices rose by 100%. Import prices quadrupled. Many banks failed, and people lost their savings.  Yet recovery was rapid.  Much of the country was on a barter system and therefore unaffected by financial upheavals.  The rise in import prices allowed domestic industry, up till then undermined by cheap imports, to recover.  High oil prices also helped.

Argentine, 2001-2002:   Argentina was long troubled by severe inflation, and in 1991 it took the truly drastic step of making it "freely convertible" to U.S. dollars, i.e., requiring the central bank to have one dollar on hand for every peso in circulation, and to make the conversion for anyone who requested it.  Unfortunately, having so many dollars on hand required a lot of foreign borrowing, which ran up a lot of debt.  Furthermore, as the dollar went up, imports became cheaper and cheaper, gradually undermining domestic industry.  By 1999, investors were becoming increasingly nervous about Argentina's ability to make its payments.  Interest rates went higher and higher, causing great damage to the economy.  The shrinking economy cause increasing budget deficits.  The IMF demanded cuts and more cuts, which shrunk the economy even more.  As the currency peg looked less and less stable, people began converting their pesos into dollars, causing a general run on the currency.  The government froze bank accounts.  As in Russia, the situation was unsustainable.  The government defaulted in December 2001 and abandoned the currency peg in January, 2002.  The immediate aftermath was catastrophic.  The currency crashed, inflation surged to about 80%, peaking in April at 10% per month.  As foreign debts surged, many companies failed.  Unemployment hit 25%.  Yet recovery was rapid.  Exports surged once the peso fell.  More expensive imports allowed domestic industry to recover.  Growth rates exceeded 8% per year from 2003 to 2007.  High soy bean prices helped.

Iceland, 2008:  Iceland's 2008 financial crisis is considered the worst (relative to the size of the country) of all time.  Icelandic banks ran up 50 million euros of foreign debt, backed by an 8.5 million euro economy.  With foreign debts so much larger than its total economy, the central bank was unable to back Iceland's banks.  The Icelandic government nationalized the banks, found them unsalvageable, and allowed them to default on their external debts.  The internal banks have been reconstituted.  (The government did not default on its sovereign debt, but did allow the banks it was responsible for to default on theirs).  The currency plunged.  The immediate aftermath was catastrophic.  Supermarkets had no currency to buy imported goods.  People started hoarding. Half the shops were empty.  Yet Iceland is recovering surprisingly well, returning to an economy of fishing and aluminum smelting from one of banking.

Ecuador, 2008:  This one is less familiar and the outcome is still unclear.  But Ecuador apparently took advantage of the 2008 financial crisis to buy back its bonds at 35% of value.  Outcome remains unclear.

All of this is by way of saying that if Greece defaults and devalues, there is plenty of precedent to suggest that, after a traumatic beginning, it could turn out well in a surprisingly short time.  Or maybe not.  None of the successful defaulters had trading partners going through a major crisis at the same time.   All of them had currencies that at least physically existed.  Greece does not.  All the other countries were simply abandoning a single currency peg.  Greece threatens to break up an entire currency union.  So what worked in these other cases might not work for Greece.

This paper is one of many arguing that an Argentine-style default and devaluation would work for Greece.  But it offers another interesting, unconventional insight.  It quotes George Soros, who knows international creditors well and understands how they think, as saying that creditors want to make default as painful as possible in order to discourage it.  For any private borrower, creditors can seize collateral, but for a country that is not possible, so pain is the only "collateral" available.  The paper goes on to comment:
The European authorities look at Greece’s situation mainly from a creditor’s point of view. From this point of view it is not necessarily bad that the adjustment is painful. Furthermore, if the Troika [European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF] were to provide a program that allowed Greece to recover quickly, then Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy would also expect something similar. That is another concern that the European authorities are likely taking into account, which can motivate them to back policies that are bad for Greece.
The European authorities also have ideological and political interests that can have a large impact on their policies. These two are difficult to separate, but they are very much on display in the documents and statements of the troika. Ideologically/politically, they want a smaller government in Greece, with less regulation, much lower wages, and weaker unions. . . . To the extent that these ideological/political priorities are more important to the European authorities than an economic recovery in Greece, there could be a lot of continued and even permanent, unnecessary suffering for the majority of Greeks.
From a creditor perspective, the worst case scenario would not be Greece defaulting, leaving the euro, and never recovering.  It would be Greece defaulting, leaving the euro, and bouncing back as rapidly as Russia, Argentina, and Iceland did under similar circumstances.   That would be disastrous because it would encourage other countries to do the same.

And yet, as the examples above illustrate, creditors have not generally been successful in their attempts to make default as painful as possible.  In all these cases, default has proven to be the better option, and recovery has been remarkably fast and strong.  All of which would seem to create another  incentive for creditors, although they show no sign of interest in it.  Make the alternatives to default less painful.

Hey, one can dream!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

False Memory: pp. 327-375 (Minus the Ahriman parts)

After leaving Dr. Ahriman's office, Dusty and Martie go down to the car.  He asks her about the book.  Martie has no recollection of where she got it.  When he hands it to her, she doesn’t open it.  When he asks her what it is about, all she can do is recite her usual canned phrases, “Entertaining plot, colorful characters.  I’m enjoying it.”  As she keeps repeating the same thing, she begins recognize she is just reciting canned phrases and has no idea what she is talking about.  This is a classic case of Getting Too Close, the ideal opportunity for her to have a mini-blackout just like Susan's and then have an irresistible urge to change the subject.  Later, Dusty could tell her about her odd behavior, and she could be alarmed because exactly the same thing happened to Susan when she asked Susan how she knew Eric was having an affair.  If I wanted to put in just one other case of a blackout like Susan's, this would be it.  Of course, that would require a break in the progression of the plot, some sort of diversion after Martie insisted on changing the subject, but we could get back to it later.

Instead, Dusty tells her the book is about brainwashing, something Martie clearly did not know.  Dusty then says it was about a soldier named Raymond Shaw, and Martie says, “I’m listening.”  Unlike Skeet, though, she only goes into a trance for a few seconds.  When Dusty doesn’t know the haiku, she snaps right back.  Dusty convinces her of what his happening by saying “Raymond Shaw” again and putting a candy in her mouth before she snaps back.  When she sees the name written or speaks it, she shivers with a strange unease but does not go into a trance.  But seeing the name does not break its power; she still goes into a trance when Dusty speaks it.  Needless to say, Dusty notices a marked difference between  Skeet's reaction and Martie's.  He describes Skeet as "loosey-goosey, babbling about the rules, upset with me because I wasn't operating him correctly."  He considers Martie to be "tighter."  This seems to suggest that he thinks Martie is operating the way the program is supposed to work, while Skeet is malfunctioning.  This turns out to be true and, unlike some other oddities, to be adequately explained.  Whether it is something Dusty should have recognized is hard to tell.

Dusty tells Martie about Skeet’s odd episode in the clinic and she tells him about Susan’s phantom rapist.  And Susan still isn’t answering her phone.  After picking up a book of haiku from the foreman, they head to Susan’s house and, of course, find her dead in the bathtub, with decomposition accelerated by the heat of the water.  Imagine if we had not been told what happened the night before.  Suppose we just knew about Susan’s phantom rapist, and that she was about to catch him on video.  Then she stops answering her phone and turns up dead by apparent suicide.  Wouldn’t the suspense be a lot stronger than if we knew everything that had happened.   They call the police, tell them about Susan’s agoraphobia, but leave out the phantom rapist and Martie’s autophobia.  The police have no doubt it is a suicide, express sympathy to Martie, and recommend Dusty take her to a bar for a few drinks.  (Again with the alcohol!  And it is definitely being used as a coping mechanism, not just a beverage).

They go to a bistro, have two beers and dinner, and talk about brainwashing and haiku.  Dusty makes the argument that Susan was programmed to commit suicide.  His argument rests on the eerie parallels between what is happening to them and what happened in The Manchurian Candidate.  Needless to say, this requires the assumption that what The Manchurian Candidate describes is actually possible.  It is not.  A nice touch occurs when Dusty also gives as evidence that Dr. Ahriman thought it was incredible that both Martie and Susan would be stricken with such extreme phobias.  This, he proposes, is because Ahriman is trained to look for psychological cause and effect, not for brainwashing and programming.  He misses another golden opportunity that Koontz offered, but failed to follow up on.  Recall, when Ahriman left Susan’s apartment after ordering her suicide, he locked the door but could not engage the security chain.  He did not think the police would notice that detail.  Indeed, since Dusty and Martie opened the door, the police did not even think of it.  But Dusty could.  Using his photographic memory to recall that the chain was not engaged, he could ask Martie if Susan was always careful about the security chain. Martie would say yes.  Then Dusty could point out that it wasn’t engaged this time, meaning that someone must have been there.  But Koontz misses the opportunity.

They look through the haiku book for haiku that give them the same shiver “Raymond Shaw” gave Martie.  I don’t know how plausible that is, but given how implausible everything else in the novel is, we might as well do something to give our characters a clue.  Dusty finds one that gives him a shiver, but not in the same way.  Skeet’s “Clear Cascades” haiku is in there.  Dusty’s haiku matches his nightmare about the lightening and the heron, “Lightening gleams/and a night heron’s shriek/travels into the darkness.”  Martie’s is “Blown from the west/fallen leaves gather/in the east.”  That matches her nightmare.

Mahogany forest In Martie's nightmare, she and Susan are in a clearing in a forest of mahogany trees.  Martie has never seen mahogany trees before, but somehow knows what they are. Martie on a couch, Susan on an armchair.  Light streams in through a picture window.  A one-fanged snake bites her, but no one is alarmed.  Strange things happen.  Pop cans and sandwiches float in the air and get eaten, with no one visible to eat them.  Then a wind blows in from the western window, gathering up the fallen leaves and turning them into the Leaf Man who attacks Martie in her dream.  She is paralyzed, unable to run, and the leaves blow into her nose and mouth, choking her.  Dusty recognizes the snake as an IV bottle and the leaves as the contents, entering her body.  Neither of them recognize where Martie and Susan have been that has furniture and a large western window.  I know, more programming.

One haiku they do not find is the one Martie thought she read in the book, “Pine wind blowing hard/quick rain, torn wind paper/talking to itself.”  On the one hand, it’s an understandable decision.  If Martie actually read the poem she thought she read when she was seeing the scene that looked so much like Ahriman’s office, it might trip her suspicions.  On the other hand, it would be really good if Koontz somehow explained what the !@#$&* that strange sequence was supposed to mean.

All this time, Martie has been having little attacks of intensified fear every hour.  In fact, they occur exactly on the hour, with such regularity that they have to look a little suspicious.  Again, I get it that they don’t suspect Ahriman because they have been programmed not to.  But still, the regularity of the attacks just has to be suspicious and look pre-programmed.  Regular phobias just don’t act like that.  Imagine, once again, if the book had not told us any more than Dusty and Martie know.  Wouldn’t it strike the audience as odd and distinctly unnatural to have the anxiety attacks occur so regularly?  And wouldn’t there be something sinister about Dusty and Martie’s inability to see that as sinister?

They go home.  Valet the dog is glad to see them.  Closterman’s secretary has dropped off a copy of his latest book, Learning to Love Yourself.  Dusty sees something strange here.   Closterman doesn’t like Ahriman, so why the unsolicited gift?  In an epigraph before the first chapter is Ahriman’s favorite haiku.  This is enough to seem odd even to Dusty and Martie, brainwashed though they are.

I should add here that Ahriman is a great haiku aficionado.  It is his sole appealing trait.  Haiku holds such fascination for him that he often seems to think in haiku, composing one for every occasion and then grading himself on his work.  I am not a haiku aficionado and therefore am in no position to know whether a haiku is good or not.  One thing only is clear – Japanese poetry is clearly not as lavish as English poetry.  The simplicity of a haiku can be jarring to one who is accustomed to equating poetry with lavishness of language.  There is only so much lavishness you can fit into 17 syllables.  Some of Ahriman’s haikus make the attempt to capture the lavish nature of English poetry in a mere 17 syllables.  Others do not.  Incidentally, the novel will take a markedly anti-intellectual tone later on, but I don’t think Ahriman’s passion for haiku is supposed to that, in addition to other forms of villainy, he is also a pointy-headed intellectual snob.  I think it just reflects Dean Koontz fondness for haiku.

Dusty and Martie go upstairs to listen to Susan’s phone messages on the answering machine.  There are two messages from her.  One is her earlier message in which she called to ask Martie what she thought of the plan to videotape the phantom rapist.  The message doesn't actually mention videotape, though, just a call for help. Then comes her second message,  "It isn't Eric, Martie.  It's Ahriman.  I've got the bastard on videotape."  Shock! And suddenly they recognize all the clues were there all along.  

Imagine if Koontz had declined to reveal any more than Dusty and Martie knew.  Imagine if he had been a little more subtle in the clues he planted.  Then the reader would have the same reaction.  Shock!  And suddenly the reader recognizes the clues were there all along.

Four Interactive Relationships in Action

Following up on my previous post on the four types of interactive relationships, author Gabriel Rossman suggests that a lot of social conflicts and scandals are the result of confusing which type of relationship applies.  He focuses on inappropriately applying market pricing.

Taking an extreme example:  Suppose a man and woman have a one-night stand.  It would be utterly unacceptable for him to pay her $100, but perfectly acceptable for him to give her flowers and other gifts worth $100.  The cash inappropriately labels their encounter in the market pricing realm.  The gifts -- well Rossman doesn't explore what the gifts would mean, although they seem to suggest authority ranking -- the woman's power at dispenser of sex places her on a rank above the man.

He recounts two stories both involving Mitt Romney, one seen as admiring and one as critical.  In the admiring story, Romney showed up with other church members to help a fellow Mormon load up and move, even though he had a broken clavicle and was thus of limited use.  Romney was rich.  Why not just hire a substitute who could certainly have worked more effectively?  Because to do so would inappropriately move into the realm of market pricing and activity properly belonging communal sharing, and weakened the ties that Mormons cherish.

On the critical side, a police officer interrupted Romney while launching a boat and told him the license number was not properly displayed, and that there was a $50 fine for launching it.  Romney launched the boat anyhow, so the officer then arrested him for disobeying.  Romney interpreted the encounter in the realm of market pricing -- $50 was a price worth paying to avoid delaying the launch.  The officer saw it as one of authoritarian ranking -- he, speaking for the law, had given an order that he expected to be obeyed.

Rossman also argues that this is why our various forms of in-kind assistance for the poor (Food Stamps, rent assistance, Medicaid, etc) will never be replaced with pure cash transfers.  Cash transfers assume that such assistance is in the realm of market pricing -- whatever the poor choose to spend the money on is, from their own perspective, ideal.  But most people want to assure that it is put to "good" use and therefore insist on an authority ranking relationship.

This analysis helped me understand a lot of things.  It made sense out of people who fear government taking over their Medicare.  Medicare is a matter of authority ranking in the sense that paying a Medicare tax is mandatory, but once people qualify, their healthcare is paid for on a market pricing basis.  What they are saying is that they fear their relationship with Medicare being turned into one of authority ranking.  Indeed, much of the fear of Obamacare has taken the form of fears that government will extend its roll in authority ranking over any activity that might affect people's health.  And, not coincidentally, many of the people who most fear such an outcome are also the people who wish assistance to the poor to take the most authority-ranking form possible.*

It also explains why libertarians dismiss as absurd the possibility that any sort of oppression could take place through employment.  Employment is a market pricing arrangement when people take or leave a job, but an authority ranking one on the job.  Libertarians have great difficulty understanding anything other than market pricing relationships, and thus don't see any potential for abuse in the context of authority ranking.

It also explains what bothered me during the Asian crisis of 1997.  People blamed the crisis on "crony capitalism," defined broadly as basing economic decisions on any sort of human relationship, rather than purely on the bottom line.  My reaction was then and remains that making such a demand is absurd. It is expecting people to behave in ways that go completely against human nature.  I now have a better label to put on it.  What commentators saw as an inappropriate intrusion of authority ranking and equality marking (and perhaps even communal sharing?) into the realm of market pricing I saw as an inhuman demand that market pricing be the sole mode of people's business relations.

It also explains a lot about a short but fascinating book I read about life in a Medieval English village.  It focused on the 13th Century, as the earliest time that had enough written records to document what the village was like.  Most village inhabitants, at least most who appeared in the manorial court, were serfs.  They held their land from their lord and paid for it in labor performed on their lord's land.  The system was highly inequitable and served the participants badly.  The amount of labor a serf owed his lord was proportional to his land holding.  Serfs with a larger holding owed their lord (as I recall) 117 days labor a year, while poorer ones holding only half as much owed 58 days.  It will not escape the reader's attention that the larger the holding, the greater the demands it made on the holders' time to cultivate their own land.  The extra days they owed their lord must have been a crushing burden.  In the meantime, the poorest serfs had so little land they owed very little labor to their lord, but their holdings were not enough to support them.

Cash came to the rescue.  By the 13th Century, England was very much on a cash basis.** Time and time again, one of the wealthier serfs would be charged in manorial court with neglecting his duty to work on his lord's land and fined for it.  Time and time again, they would pay, and the lord would use to proceeds to hire the poorer tenants to do work they were not under obligation to do.  The book commented that failure to show up happened too commonly and systematically to be an accident.  Presumably the wealthier serfs grew enough surplus for sale that they made the conscious decision they would rather pay the fine than do the work.  The fact that the fine did not go up for even the most habitual and flagrant offender indicated that their lord considered the fine an acceptable alternative.  A system of payment by services was giving way to a system of payment in cash.  At the time, what struck me most was that it did not pass through the seemingly obvious intermediate step of payment in kind.  But what not appears to have been happening was that a system of authority ranking was giving way to a system of market pricing.

No doubt there are may other examples if one starts looking.

PS:  I neglected another example.  That one came from a child rearing book I found particularly annoying.  The book purported to advocate "democratic" parenting, which gave children a choice.  The choice consisted of "You can [do whatever the parent wants] OR [punishment]."  In other words, it was an attempt to disguise a relationship of authority ranking for one of market pricing.  The assumption was that children would not always obey, that they might "choose" punishment a few times, but that after a few times they would learn their lesson and choose obedience.  The book generally disapproved of corporal punishment.  But it also warned against too-mild punishment, especially of a pecuniary nature.  If parents tell their children, "You can do your chores OR you can lose your allowance," children might decide that losing their allowance was worth avoiding chores.  Like serfs cheerfully paying their fine rather than working on their lord's land, or Mitt Romney taking out the boat with defective licensing, planning to pay the fine later, such children are attempting to turn a relationship of authority ranking into one of market pricing.  The book's advice was to change to rules at this point and tell the children you didn't actually mean it to be a choice.  I was outraged.  Unfair!

Yes, I know, parental discipline really is properly a relationship of authority ranking and not one of market pricing.  But in that case parents should come right out and admit that they are engaged in authority ranking and not try to disguise the relationship as one that allows real choice.  Children will resent parent less who openly stand on their authority than parents who pretend to offer a choice, only to pull it back if they don't like what their children pick.

*To be quite fair to such people, Obamacare is moving Medicare more in the direction of authority ranking between Medicare and the doctor, that is, putting various types of pressure on medical providers to diminish costs.  Of course, private insurance companies have been doing the same thing for some time.  But free market theory says that our relationship with the insurance company is one of market pricing -- that we can quit and get a new insurance company any time we don't like the old one.  That strikes me as seriously ignoring the reality of unequal power between market players, but that is nothing new for libertarians.

**And another source I read pointed out that this should not be surprising.  Literacy and written records correlate closely with commercialization.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Four Interactive Relationships

I found a very useful piece of analysis with a useful link on Megan McArdle's blog*  McArdle is a semi-libertarian columnist who writes pieces that assume a mostly libertarian outlook, but quarrels on a lot of specifics.  She has been on leave lately and had others posting for her.  One of them wrote an excellent column on four types of interactive relationships and the difficulty traditional free market analysis has in recognizing them.  This is an immensely useful analysis, perhaps as useful as Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations, although I will probably not use these interactive relationships as often.

The author is Gabriel Rossman, significantly, a sociologist rather than an economist.  He, in turn, cites the anthropologist Alan Fiske in his view that interchanges normally take one of four forms:
  • communal sharing -- people are effectively a common unit and can freely draw resources from communal property, as with households
  • authority ranking -- people have asymmetric duties and obligations to one another, as with patron-client ties
  • equality matching -- people match actions on a like-for-like and tit-for-tat basis, as with friends
  • market pricing -- people commensurate across categories on the basis of ratios (with prices being a special case of these ratios when we have money as a unit of account), as with traders in a market
Communal sharing is the closest and most intimate of these relationships, usually limited to family or to close-knit groups that assume family-like characteristics.  Such groups meet the communist ideal of  "from each according to his ability; to each according to his need."  Such relations can be maintained only if the group can maintain strong uniformity and consensus.  (Such relations, by the way, are fine demonstrations of Haidt's foundation of in-group loyalty, in its best and worst forms.  They offer tremendous support and altruism, but also demand considerable sacrifice of one's individualism and can the potential for intense hostility toward outsiders and non-conforming members).

Authority ranking (obviously) corresponds to Haidt's foundation of authority.  Authority ranking relationships are asymmetric, with people owing unequal duties and one clearly in a position to demand deference of the other.  Unequal exchange and the duty to obey do not mean an absence of responsibility.  Superiors have a duty to protect subordinates, and subordinates may see their subordination at least in part as an expression of gratitude for protection.

Equality matching is the relationship between friends and peers whose relations are altruistic, but not as close ad in communal sharing.  People give friends gifts and do favors, but such things always imply a reciprocal obligation.  Failure to return a favor can end the friendship.  An exact accounting is not required, but things are never allowed to get as out of balance as might be tolerated in a family.  Any show of unequal status among people who are supposed to be peers is a source of resentment and hostility.  Haidt said that equality is not a moral foundation.  This would seem to suggest that at least in some contexts, it is.  Presumably this relationship would fit most closely in his moral foundations as the concept of equal and impersonal justice.

Market pricing is, of course, the most arm's length, impersonal, and individualistic of these relations.  It exists in most societies, with the exception of a few very primitive hunter-gatherer societies.

These relationships are by no means mutually exclusive.  People may relate to each other in any combination of the four, and some or all of them may come into play on any occasion.  And although these relationships exist in (almost) all societies, different societies may have vastly different ideas about then they are properly applied.

Economists, of course, focus their study almost exclusively on market pricing and can be remarkably obtuse about the other relational models.  Rossman suggests that learning all four is important because,  "A major source of social conflicts and scandals is when people disagree about what relational model does or ought to characterize an interaction."

I will discuss this at greater length in my next post.

What if McCain Had Won?

We now head into what Andrew Sullivan calls Hell week, when the Supreme Court decides whether and how much of Obamacare to strike down, and Greece decides whether to keep suffering the endless grind, or to leap off the cliff and hope for the best.  Looking at today's grim state of affairs, it is fair to ask, would we be better off if McCain had won in 2008?  I will break this down into several sections:

Partisan politics:  Republicans would be less insane and less obstructionist if McCain had won.  In the end, though, I can't endorse that as a reason to have voted for him.  That is submitting to blackmail by the Republicans -- elect us or we make the country ungovernable.  If American democracy is to keep its health, we can't let them get away with that.

War on terror:  I have no doubt that if McCain had won, he would have ended the (official) practice of torture, just as Obama did.  The issue is just too personal for him, and no one could call his patriotism into question over it.  Likewise, I may be mistaken, but I think he would have made some effort to close Guantanamo and give terrorists some sort of reasonable trial.  Unlike Obama, his patriotism and commitment to fight terrorism would not have been subject to question or the sort of hysteria that has greeted any attempt by Obama to recognize terrorism suspect as having even minimal human rights.  Whether he would have moved to roll back any of the more troubling domestic   surveillance programs is anybody's guess.  My guess would be no.  But even at his best, McCain would undoubtedly have done less than people like me would wish.  And we would cherish the illusion that Obama would have done better.  Now we know.

The economy:  This is the one reelection hinges on.  My guess is that McCain would have run up just as large deficits as Obama, but they would have been caused by tax cuts (mostly at the top) and not by spending increases.  He might have cut spending, but probably not by much.  I have no idea whether he would have instituted any sort of bank reform.  Maybe, to burnish his bipartisan credentials.  But by and large, I would guess the economy would be doing about the same under McCain as Obama.

Domestic policies:  McCain would not have passed any sort of universal health care.  But then again, either the Supreme Court or next year's Republican majority is about to take back the reform that Obama got through.  They have made it their first priority.  And my guess is that Republicans want to make the whole topic so toxic that Democrats will NEVER TOUCH IT AGAIN, EVER.  Keeping a large uninsured population is apparently a high priority for them.  If McCain had won, at least the topic would not be too toxic to address next time a Democrat won.  I doubt very much whether McCain would have gotten anything done on immigration or global warming.  He has shown interest in the topics in the past, and many Democrats would like to work with him on it, but the Republican base would just be too hostile to let it happen.

Foreign policy:  This is the scary place.  Who knows what McCain would have done in office next time an opportunity to start a war began.  Would he have kept troops in Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqi government?  Intervened on behalf of the Syrian rebels (with the Russians intervening on behalf of the government)?  Bombed Iran?  Made some sort of direct intervention democracy activists began demonstrating?  Who knows what he would have done.

My conclusion, then is that a McCain presidency would not have been all that different than the Obama presidency has turned out.  McCain would probably have had more space to reverse at least some of Bush's worst War on Terror policies.  On the other hand, he would have been more likely to start another war.  In the interest of avoiding a war, I will give the edge to Obama.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

False Memory: pp. 304-326

As Ahriman leads Martie into his inner sanctum and shuts the sound proof door, we can expect some serious exposition.  As we suspected, Ahriman is using his mind control powers to make Dusty and Martie feel strangely, even suspiciously, calm in his presence.  We see demonstrated what was at most faintly hinted at before.  Ahriman gained control over Martie by spiking her coffee in the waiting room.  He sound proofs his office so no one will know what he is doing to his patients inside.  He has a private waiting room outside his office so no one else, like the receptionist or other patients or family members, will see him come out and take control of the person waiting.  And I will have to admit that if Dean Koontz had taken my advice and postponed revealing Ahriman as the villain until his characters found out, all of this would be more difficult to reveal.  But the exposition leaves some important things unanswered.  It fails to explain Martie's mysterious phone call. In fact, it directly contradicts what we have been told before by saying that it was not until Martie's visit to the office yesterday that Ahriman implanted in her an intense fear of her own violent potential.  Yet Martie clearly started showing such fear before going to Ahriman's office, and even before his never-explained phone call.  None of this is ever addressed.

Once Ahriman has Martie alone in his office, he takes control.  He doesn't ask for voyeuristic details of her phobia thus far, but merely works on worsening it.  He shows her pictures of mutilated bodies and tells her to  memorize them and see them in her next panic attack.  He tells her that sadism is our true human nature, but even under his deepest spell, he cannot keep her from having compassion for the mutilated victims he shows her.

Dusty, in the meantime, is in the waiting room with the mysterious book that Martie thinks she has been reading, but really has not.  It is pristine and has never been opened.  But up till now our focus has been solely on the creep factor that she thinks she has been reading the book without really reading it.  Up till now that has distracted us from the actual contents of the book.  In fact, the contents have been entirely besides the point, so far as we know so far.  It is The Manchurian Candidate.   It seems incredible that Dusty would never have heard of this classic, but maybe I am just showing my age.  It is, of course, about brain washing and mind control.  (It is also a fantasy.  The sort of mind control the novel portrays is not possible).  And, much to Dusty's astonishment, it even features a character named Dr. Yen Lo.  As Dusty reads in fascination, looking for clues as to Skeet's condition, he hears the click of the inner office door opening.  He leaps to his feet and throws the book aside, fearing being caught with it.  This would appear to suggest that he already suspects Ahriman at some level, or why would he be afraid of being seen with the book?  Be that as it may, Ahriman now reveals what has long been screamingly obvious -- Dusty is under his control.

At this point, Ahriman offers a bit of exposition.  After assuming control of Martie, he had her drug Dusty's desert and conducted the programming sessions at their house.  Martie, under his control, could easily be put to the side.  He hooked Dusty up to an IV bottle which is apparently necessary to achieving proper control.  Valet the dog was much to sweet natured to be a good guard dog, so Ahriman just shut him up in the study with a yellow squeaking Booda duck.  This is a good bit of exposition.  It very nicely explains Valet's alarm whenever anyone starts to be under mind control.

It does leave a minor question open.  Apparently programming sessions call for hooking the victim up to an IV bottle.  That necessarily calls for some extended privacy without danger of interruption.  That was easy to do in Ahriman's office with Susan under mind control and out of the way, or in Dusty and Martie's house, with Martie under mind control and out of the way.  But how did Ahriman get sufficient privacy to go through three programming sessions with Susan?  His first session with Susan took place at his own house after she completed the sale, when he toasted the sale with champagne, spiking hers.  But how did he get close enough to conduct the other two programming sessions?   We don’t find out.

Ahriman also reveals that he knows how Dusty stopped Skeet’s suicide, but hasn’t given up wanting to make Skeet kill himself.  How does he know?  Presumably he asked about it during that other mysterious phone call when Dusty Caught the Dog Napping.  But we never find out.  It would only have taken a line or two, but Koontz doesn’t bother.  For that matter, how did Ahriman know he would find Dusty home alone at that particular time?  Presumably he wouldn’t want to exercise telephonic control when both spouses were home, or the one who didn’t answer would notice the other one was acting very strangely.  Maybe he ordered Dusty to be home at a certain time, and Martie to stay with Susan until after that time.  But we aren’t told.  Maybe I shouldn't complain that Koontz gave away the game too soon.  If he had only revealed Ahriman as the villain when Dusty and Martie found out, think how much more exposition he would have had to pack into even less pages.

Then Ahriman makes another blunder.  After telling Dusty not to interfere with Skeet’s next suicide attempt, and to get Martie to his office on Friday, he then tells him, “You will return to the outgoing waiting room, Dusty.  Pick up the book that you were reading and sit where you were sitting before.  Find the point in the text where you were interrupted . . . all recollection from the moment I stepped out of m office, just after you heard the click of the latch, will have been erased.”  He should have erased Dusty’s memory until just before he heard the click of the latch, not until just after.  To hear the click of the latch about to open and then not see the door open is a bit odd.  To hear the click of the latch, throw aside the book and leap to your feet, and then be sitting with the book in your hand, the door solidly closed, is a good deal stranger.  Didn't Ahriman notice that Dusty was throwing away the book and leaping to his feet when the door opened?  

So, Dusty hears a click, throws away the book and leaps to his feet -- and then finds himself again sitting with the book in his hands.  It greatly alarms him.  Clearly, he is missing more time, as if a celestial editor erased some moments from the videotape of his life.  “Apparently, an apprentice editor with a lot to learn.”  But Ahriman is no apprentice.  How could he make such a rookie mistake.  And why doesn’t the sudden lapse of memory in Ahriman’s office direct Dusty’s suspicion to Ahriman?  I know, because Ahriman programmed him not to suspect.  But really!

In any event, Dusty read that the brainwashed soldier in The Manchurian Candidate goes into a trance when someone tells him, “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”  He plays until he sees the queen of diamonds, and then becomes controllable.  Dusty supposes that the same thing is happening, except with a name from the novel and a haiku.  He calls his foreman and tells him to pick up Martie’s prescription for Valium and a book of haiku.  He is also convinced that the appearance of the book is no coincidence.  Someone must have given it to her to clue her in to what is happening. 

Martie emerges from Ahriman's office feeling better.  Ahriman has told her to feel no more than a vague uneasiness, with brief spells of sharper fear about every hour.  But at 9:00, she is to have the worst panic attack yet.  Martie, of course, is unaware of any of this.  She and Dusty leave with great admiration of Ahriman, and only vague forebodings about why.