Feb 032016
 

skinner-lab-work-70
In a pioneering experiment in economic behaviorism,* B.F. Skinner attempts to prove the theory of trickle-down economics **

 

Introduction

In  our previous entry, we continued our exposition of the film The Big Short. We noted the role that the bond ratings agencies played in the spreading the financial virus known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and their mutant offspring, synthetic CDOs, in the 2008 financial collapse. In this installment, we expand  our exploration of the Dunning-Kruger effect by delving into the related fields of behavioral economics and behavioral finance. And we document how the fraudulent  mortgage bond industry directly gave rise to the Tea Party.

Behavioral Economics

In the film The Big Short, Dr. Richard Thaler, author of Misbehaving: the Making of Behavioral Economics, identifies the key driver behind bubble psychology as the hot hand fallacy, an allusion to a basketball player on a hot shooting streak (with an assist from Selena Gomez; see previous entry). In the financial universe, it refers to the belief that because stocks and real estate have gone up in the past, they will continue to do so in the future. Okay, maybe with some dips and valleys along the way, but not enough to separate a True Believer from his or her’s God-given right to fabulous riches and a glorious retirement.

Behavioral economics can be defined as:

…the study of the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences for market prices, returns, and the resource allocation. Behavioral economics is primarily concerned with the bounds of rationality of economic agents. Behavioral models typically integrate insights from psychology, neuroscience and microeconomic theory; in so doing, these behavioral models cover a range of concepts, methods, and fields. Behavioral economics is sometimes discussed as an alternative to neoclassical economics. [cites omitted; emphasis mine]

Of the three prevalent themes underlying behavioral economics―heuristics, framing, and market inefficiencies―the ones that concern us here is framing.

Framing: The collection of anecdotes and stereotypes that make up the mental emotional filters individuals rely on to understand and respond to events…human beings are by nature “cognitive misers,” meaning they prefer to do as little thinking as possible. Frames provide people a quick and easy way to process information. Hence, people will use the previously mentioned mental filters (a series of which is called a schema) to make sense of incoming messages. This gives the sender and framer of the information enormous power to use these schemas to influence how the receivers will interpret the message.

Given that my ontological bias is rooted in The Urantia Book, permit me to share this excerpt from its 1.1 million word text concerning “the bounds of rationality” and framing  [emphasis mine]:

Partial, incomplete, and evolving intellects would be helpless in the master universe, would be unable to form the first rational thought pattern, were it not for the innate ability of all mind, high or low, to form a universe frame in which to think.…And while such universe frames for creature thought are indispensable to rational intellectual operations, they are, without exception, erroneous to a greater or lesser degree…

While the passage above concerns a general discussion of cosmology, it does reflect the relativistic nature of all thinking. As above, so below. It’s good to keep in mind that any attempt by a part to comprehend a whole, in this case the individual’s attempt to cognize the financial universe in which he or she is embedded, is problematic; i.e not absolute, subject to change. It also underscores what behavioral economics refers to as the “bounds of rationality.” People who violate those bounds are what we here at Urantian Sojourn like to call Teh Stupid and Teh Crazy. While I don’t think that the Wall Street banksters who brought us the financial collapse consciously engineered it, their unshakable belief in their own competency (a hallmark of the Dunning-Kruger effect) helped convince other “cognitive misers” to buy what they were framing, er, selling.

There is a scene in The Big Short where a discouraged Dr. Burry (who had predicted the collapse of the subprime loan industry some 4 to 5 years before it occurred; and is an example of an arbitrage participant mentioned in the section below), tells an employee to start liquidating some the fund’s other assets to pay the premiums due on their insurance swaps. The employee asks him whether his whole thesis about the subprime loan industry could be wrong. Burry replies that he just couldn’t see how―numbers didn’t lie in his world. But in contrast to The Street as a whole, he admitted being wrong was at least a possibility. It’s people who can’t even admit the possibility of being wrong that is the subject of the film’s epigraph:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. –Mark Twain

Burry would have been proven correct a lot earlier if the market wasn’t as crooked as he subsequently discovered it to be. As firms like Goldman Sachs, which had underwritten a big chunk of his credit default swaps realized they were going to get crushed, they artificially kept the market alive as long as they could, frantically dumping their swap liabilities on any sucker they could find, including their own unsuspecting clients.

Behavioral Finance

The central issue in behavioral finance is explaining why market participants make irrational systematic errors contrary to assumption of rational market participants. Such errors affect prices and returns, creating market inefficiencies. The study of behavioral finance also investigates how other participants take advantage (arbitrage) of such errors and market inefficiencies.

Behavioral finance highlights inefficiencies such as under or over-reactions to information as causes of market trends and in extreme cases of bubbles and crashes. Such reactions have been attributed to limited investor attention, overconfidence, overoptimism, mimicry (herding instinct) and noise trading. Technical analysts consider behavioral finance, to be behavioral economics’ “academic cousin” and to be the theoretical basis for technical analysis.

Having dabbled in technical analysis (TA) over the years, that last sentence provoked an “aha” moment for me. I’d never bothered to look into the psychological underpinnings of TA, of why certain chart patterns correlated with significant price movements. It was enough that there exists a high degree of correlation between the two. From the perspective of behavioral finance, taking the pulse of the market in general or individual stocks in the particular is really a way of divining how investors are using their emotional and cognitive filters to “make sense of incoming messages.”

In addition to technical analysis, another approach to investing is fundamental analysis. Tune into any of the three major business news channels and you’ll be treated to an endless parade of “experts” framing that day or week’s trading activities with narratives that, on the surface, seem to explain what’s driving the market at any given time. But after a couple of decades of watching these people, I’ve concluded that a great deal of their “analysis” is simply designed to keep the rubes in the game by providing seemingly “rational” explanations for what are largely high frequency, computer driven trading schemes that use “dark pools” of money and others forms of subterfuge to separate investors from their money.

Other interesting psychological insights that behavioral economics and behavioral finance brings to the table include: the dynamics of  loss aversion―the tendency for people to strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains; the endowment effect―a hypothesis that people value a good more once their property right to it has been established, the curious tendency to value one’s own property over the identical property of another; and my personal favorite, conditional expected utility, defined as:

A form of reasoning where the individual has an illusion of control, and calculates the probabilities of external events and hence utility as a function of their own action, even when they have no causal ability to affect those external events.

What could be more devastating to a control freak than to suddenly realize that the basis of his or hers presumed control is an illusion? As in, mortgage bonds never fail? Stocks and real estate prices will rise ad infinitum? It takes a person with a special cognitive makeup to so staunchly believe in their own competence, while the world they helped create comes crashing down around their ears. Just what was going on inside the hamster wheel  brains of these Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe? Ask any of them whether they considered themselves “smart,” and no doubt the answer would be yes. I recently came by this definition of smart by neuroguy at the Big Orange in his diary titled “Dr. Ben Carson is not Smart.” Think of it as an inverse definition of Teh Stupid.

“Smart” is a multifaceted cognitive feature composed of excellent analytical skills, possession of an extensive knowledge base that is easily and frequently augmented, possession of a good memory, and being readily curious about the world and willing, even eager, to reject previously accepted notions in the face of new data. Being smart includes having the ability to analyze new data for validity and, thinking creatively, draw new insights from existing common knowledge. [emphasis mine]

Or as The Urantia Book puts it:

The true teacher maintains his intellectual integrity by ever remaining a learner.

Assigning Blame

There are any number of conventional explanations for the Great Recession. All may be true, as far as they go, and include the following:  it was another example of the greater fool theoryit was due to a lack of regulatory oversight by an underfunded SEC; it was the product of unethical investment banksters packaging subprime loans and credit default swaps into bogus mortgage securities, CDOs, and synthetic CDOs; it was the fault of corrupt bond ratings agencies, foremost among them, Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s.

I would nominate the ratings agencies as the primary culprit. It was they who sprinkled holy water on dogshit and turned it into fool’s gold, the better to rip off first-time home buyers, teachers, little old ladies, and international pension funds. You know―people whom the Tea Party blames for the whole freakin’ mess.

Origin of the Tea Party

I nominate  Rick Santelli, CNBC‘s resident blowhard bond maven, as the founding father of the Tea Party movement. During a television broadcast in February 2009 (that I happened to view live at the time), Santelli delivered an apparently unscripted rant in which he blamed first time home buyers for the 2008 collapse, instead of the Wall Street banksters who so assiduously recruited them to keep their mortgage bond scam going. (Go to minute 2:18 of the clip below to see his call for another Boston tea party, to the cheers of his fellow bond traders.)

CNBC’s Rick Santelli calling for the creation of a modern day Tea Party

Blaming the victim is a stock in trade tactic of the Powers That Be, and can be considered a form of institutional projection. Why the Tea Party and others are willing to blame the victims rather than the perpetrators is a question perhaps best explained by Thomas Frank and his classic book What’s the Matter with Kansas? I can’t help but wonder whether the vehement victim bashing so characteristic of right wingers doesn’t reinforce their own sense of victimhood. If the “takers,” Mitt Romney’s 47%, are the hammer, and they the anvil, the one in their eyes weilding the hammer is, of course, President Obama. Without his critical role in preventing another Great Depression, they would have really become victims of the first order. (Or as me wooden-spoon-wielding Irish granny would have said: “Stop your bellyaching, or I’ll really give you something to cry about!”)

Regulating the Regulators

Leave it to a turn of the of the millennium Roman satirist, Juvenal, to ask the essential question:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Who will guard the guards themselves?

Take the Securities Exchange Commission. (Please!) Incapable of exercising its watchdog role because of persistent efforts by congressional Republicans to underfund it and stock it with past and future industry hacks  (tactics they employ to hamstring other regulatory agencies like the IRS), there exists a well lubricated revolving door for underpaid government employees to bolt an agency for lucrative jobs in the very companies they are charged to regulate. This unfortunately legal but morally reprehensible practice is captured in a scene in The Big Short in which an SEC employee is sunning herself at a Las Vegas hotel-casino  pool on her own dime, shopping herself to potential employers. (They are all in Vegas for the annual American Securitization Forum convention,  the one that Steve Carell and his partners attended at the behest of Ryan Gosling‘s character, described briefly in the previous chapter.)

The perennial complaint of the Wall Street Republican Ruling Class, and therefore the top issue of every GOP congressional and presidential wannabe, is that there is too much regulation―corporate, environmental, and especially, financial. Even President Bill Clinton bought into that latter steaming pile of horseshit when he signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Ac in 1999 that repealed essential parts of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933put into place to prevent Wall Street banksters from spawning another Great Depression. Clinton also signed into law the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which exempted credit-default swaps from regulation, laying the groundwork for the subprime loan fiasco that followed. Whether he knew it at the time or not, Bill Clinton proved to be a classic Wall Street tool. (Hullo Hillary―care to distinguish yourself from your hubbie’s brilliant policy choices? During the next debate, perhaps?)

Half a millennium earlier, none other than Leonardo da Vinci observed:

He who does not punish evil commands it to be done.

We are all on trial here, on this World of the Cross. So, belly up to the bar―no, not that bar, silly―the bar of justice, cosmic justice. As The Urantia Book puts it:

Mercy may be lavish, but justice is precise…For mercy is not to be thrust upon those who despise it; mercy is not a gift to be trampled under foot by the persistent rebels of time.

In the final chapter, we provide an overview of the current world economy and ask the question: Are we wiser now, having experienced the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. Or are the cognitive filters that produced the 2008 crash still in place, leaving us blind to the next catastrophe.

NOTES

*I thought I was really stretching it by using this photo of B.F. Skinner to make a point about behavioral economics, but then I came across a paper by Battalio, Green, and Kagel (1981, p 621), in which they write:

[Studies of economic behavior in non-human animals] provide a laboratory for identifying, testing, and better understanding general laws of economic behavior. Use of this laboratory is predicated on the fact that behavior as well as structure vary continuously across species, and that principles of economic behavior would be unique among behavioral principles if they did not apply, with some variation, of course, to the behavior of nonhumans. [cited in Behavioral Economics]

**Another way of describing trickle-down economics, the economic theory so dear to Republicans and Wall Street banksters that holds that tax breaks for the rich benefit the middle-class, is this:

The way to feed rabbits is to feed hay to horses.

 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Part III

 Posted by on January 10, 2016 at 12:01 AM
Jan 102016
 

obamaguns dunning-kruger
A commentary video from the NRA claimed that President Obama stood in front of “the wrong people” when delivering a speech about gun violence before gun violence survivors, and that instead he should have stood before “the groups he is really helping: gang members, felons, and repeat offenders.” Media Matters

Introduction

In Part II of the Dunning-Kruger effect, President George W. Bush was presented as an example of a leader who couldn’t recognize and accept his own limitations, and was thus easy to manipulate. His position as president of the United States (and his mediocre IQ) made him especially vulnerable to sophisticated Wag the Dog operations designed to portray him as the kind of competent, intelligent leader he wasn’t. The apparent strategy of his handlers was to keep him tightly scripted and out of the public eye as much as possible. To that end, George  spent 407 days out of his office during the first three years of his presidency, at either his fake ranch in Crawford, Texas, or the Bush family retreat at Kennebunkport, Maine. (Remember the fake turkey he presented to the troops in Iraq? Symbol: meet reality.) By contrast, President Barack Obama, spent some 125 days out of the office over a comparable length of time.

While work habits can tell us something about a president’s general cognitive approach to problem solving and crisis resolution, they are other data points worth considering. They include: staff choices, the ability to delegate, the degree to which they write their own speeches, and intellectual curiosity. (Hint: One of the nicknames Bush earned for himself was “Incurious George.”)
Poster Chiled for the Dunning-Kruger effect

What Me Worry?

Perhaps the most telling comparison are the two men’s respective psychological profiles. In 2004, Dr. Justin Frank wrote his classic book Bush on the Couch. I was quite intrigued by the original and look forward to reading the revised edition published in 2007, which among other things describes Bush’s “telling habits and coping strategies—from his persistent mangling of English to his tendency to ‘go blank’ in the midst of crisis.” Remember his deer-in-the-headlights look when an aide interrupted him to tell him that the World Trade center was burning while he was reading My Pet Goat to Florida school children?

I also look forward to reading Dr. Frank’s analysis of President Obama, Obama on the Couch, published in 2012, and comparing the two in a future post (or five). For now, a blurb relevant to our current discussion will have to suffice.

 “Dr. Frank argues that the President’s decisions are motivated by inner forces – in particular, he focuses on Obama’s overwhelming need to establish consensus, which can occasionally undermine his personal—and his party’s—objectives.”

In Dr. Frank’s own introduction, he notes that Obama’s passion to find common ground actually makes Tea Party types even crazier, which goes a long way towards explaining their vehement resistance to everything he proposes. What makes their fanatical opposition all the more remarkable is that it reaches its greatest intensity when it concerns an issue that they themselves supported in the past, some ten in total to this accounting at Electablog. These include: the individual mandate at the heart of both Obama Care and Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health  care plan; donor disclosure in campaign financing reform; clean energy measures; changes in Medicare to save $700 billion; creation of a deficit reduction commission; and background checks for gun purchasers. (For the latter, see also: Republicans-suddenly-turn-against-enforcing-existing-law-on-guns-because-Obama). In other word, they are incapable of taking Yes for an answer.

Obama and Dunning-Kruger: A Psychological Corollary

Being investigations into human behavior, cognitive studies are designed to be nonpartisan (maybe not always successfully so, but at least they try). A related corollary of the Dunning-Kruger findings that I believe President Obama is representative of can be found in the following observation:

The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.

I once commented that if the young “Barry” Obama, growing up in Hawaii, had gone to a public school instead of the sheltered confines of a private school, he would have graduated a lot tougher, street smart kid. As such, he would have learned to better divine the malicious intent of others. I lived on Maui during the seventies when “Kill Haole Day” was an annual event celebrated in the public schools; when it was open-season on “heepies” like me. Hippies were perceived as weak, shiftless, nudist drug addicts who had taken over some favorite local beaches, and were thus fair game.(Imo, we were proxies for many otherwise justifiable local discontents, like the invasion of hotel industry that paid shit wages and, of course, high-end housing developers.)  I learned pretty quickly to recognize “the evil eye” and other signs of imminent danger, a cognitive skill that me daddy ironically called “native intelligence.” I can  think of a few times when a single “miscalibration” would have resulted in serious harm to my person.

During his early years in the White House, Obama was seemingly the last person to grok the fact that the Right Wing hated his guts and would do everything in their power to destroy him and his presidency, notwithstanding the obvious signs that were out there. Beginning with his inauguration, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell set out to derail Obama’s legislative agenda. This despite the  fact that the country was reeling from the economic catastrophe of the Great Recession,  a moldering shit sandwich that Bush left Obama in an Oval Office desk drawer. It took an extraordinary level of denial for Obama to have thought that the Rethugs would willingly compromise on policy differences and work for the better interests of the country; that his charm and intellectual acuity would win the day; that he could get the leopards to change their spots. It was only after the 2014 elections that he began disabusing himself of this near fatal cognitive “miscalibration.”

Really, all he had to do was pick up the phone and call “the first black president,” Bill Clinton, for an inkling of what was to come. (If the Clintons had procured  even a small royalty from the sales of books, videos, t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc., from the cottage industry that institutionalized “the politics of personal destruction,” Hillary could never have claimed that they left the White House “dead broke.” As if….)

Recently, it was reported that―horror of horrors!Obama doesn’t watch enough cable news, and therefore doesn’t understand the nation’s concerns about  terrorism. Instead of spending critical time listening  to self-promoting, bloviating talk show hosts dedicated to the failure of his presidency (consequences to the country be damned), Obama prefers to listen to the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies for information about threats to the Commonwealth. These include dangers from ISIS/Daesh/ISIL, Russian military machinations, China’s growing power and influence, the national security implications of global climate changemass killings, the growing anti-government militia movement, etc., etc.

Some, like me, would consider eschewing the manufactured reality of the cable news media-industrial-complex a feature and not a bug, but what do we know.

Another corollary:

…highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, they may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

One of the most frequent criticisms of Obama is that he is arrogant, aloof, detached, and, clench your cheeks,  professorial. He analyzes a problem, comes to a logical conclusion, and expects every one else to do likewise, once they’ve been presented the facts. But for those with a different point of view and a different agenda, No Drama Obama is out of touch, especially with the nation’s  feelings about terrorism. And according to two time presidential candidate and loser, Mitt Romney, out of touch with reality itself.

Gun Control: Obama’s Dunning-Kruger Breakaway Moment

Terrorism aside, the issue that has finally forced Obama to transcend his “miscalibrations” about the competency of others to realize their own stupidity is, tada―gun control.  His new, tougher attitude towards the gun lobby was on full display Thursday night at a “Guns in America” town hall meeting at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, hosted by CNN. Author of Idiot America Charlie Pierce has the coverage:

“Yeah, I meant what I said,” Obama said when asked about the op-ed by moderator Anderson Cooper. “And the reason I said that is this: The majority of people in this country are a lot more sensible than what you see in Washington.” Obama singled out the National Rifle Association as one of the “loudest, shrillest voices” against gun control and told the audience “[that] the way we break the deadlock on this issue is when the NRA doesn’t have a stranglehold on Congress in this debate.” To that end, the president said, “I want to throw my shoulders behind those who want to solve problems, and not those who want to get high scores from an interest group.”

It should be noted that the NRA chickened out when CNN invited them to attend the discussion. And that a new CNN poll shows that 67% of Americans support the gun control measures Obama announced this week. Pierce broadens his field of fire by taking the media to task for their enabling role in keeping the crazy going crazy:

Moreover, he was taking no guff from Cooper on the subject of why people believe nonsense about what his real plans are. Glory hallejujah, said I. Somebody finally is taking the Third Great Premise of Idiot America—Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.—seriously enough to refute it.

This is just beautiful. The president is telling members of his own party to man up and support mild gun safety measures of which nearly the entire country approves, and he’s telling the media to stop enabling crazy people simply because their madness is so sincere.

Certainty is the mother of sincerity. As Mark Twain observed:” It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And a corollary from A Compendium of Wise Sayings From George Costanza, also applies: “It isn’t a lie, if you believe it.” Cue music from Fleetwood Mac: “Tell  me lies, tell me sweet little lies…”

In close, we must ask: When will individual members of the NRA realize they are being used as dupes by the gun industry to jack sales? They should be less concerned about Obama taking their guns away and more concerned about the NRA and Fux News taking away what’s left of their common sense.

Case in point:

    According to a Fux News host,  Obama used a raw onion to fake tears while talking about school kids dying

Next, in Part IV of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, we look at the new film The Big Short, for an example of how incompetency at the highest levels of government and industry is not only excused, but rewarded.

The Dunning Kruger Effect: Part II

 Posted by on January 6, 2016 at 8:39 PM
Jan 062016
 

Dunning Kruger Road Kill CafeServing up GOP Goodies at the Legendary Roadkill Cafe

In Part 1 of the Dunning-Kruger effect, we introduced some of the findings of cognitive scientists David Dunning and Josh Kruger that explains why some people are incapable of recognizing their own incompetency and stupidity. Additional examples litter in the US political landscape like so much cognitive roadkill. For instance, over at the Big Orange, RET III writes about a particularly pernicious species of GOPer denial:

We are witnessing a sort of collective Republican denial where they cannot accept that they are not the ruling party, not the “deciders” (to use a former president’s phrase)…What is important here is not that Republicans object to the limits of their power, but that Republicans apparently cannot accept that such limits even exist.  Greg Sargent [of the Washington Post] recently caught this in a very revealing FOX News poll:

[Republicans] failed to block Obama’s transformation of the country; that must be because they didn’t even try, so they must be complicit. But this failure, too, is structural. Republicans don’t have the votes to surmount Dem filibusters or Obama vetoes. The idea that this can be overcome through sheer force of will (the argument conservatives are making in favor of another shutdown fight) is just another version of [the “Big Lie”].

Indeed, the Fox News poll unwittingly captures what is particularly problematic about this last one. It finds that 60 percent of Republicans feel betrayed by their party, and that 66 percent of Republicans don’t think their party did all it could to block Obama’s agenda. The poll asks why respondents think their party leaders failed at this: they didn’t really want to stop Obama; they weren’t smart enough; they would rather fight each other. The Fox poll doesn’t even offer respondents the option of choosing the real reason — that Republicans structurally lack the votes!

If anyone ever needed an example of how leading questions can be structured in propagandistic polls to produce a desired result, one need look no further than this example from Fux News. But that’s a topic for another day.

RET III also cites Jonathan Chait about the base’s disenchantment with the GOP:

This discontent runs much deeper and wider than Boehner. . . Boehner had the misfortune of leading, or attempting to lead, his party in an era when it had run up to the limits of crazy, where the only unexplored frontiers of extremism lay beyond the reach of its Constitutional powers.

Ah, “the limits of crazy.” To quote a man who should appeal to survivalists and militia members everywhere, author of Resistance to Tyranny, former Air Force Col. (Ret.) Joseph P. Martino, writes:

A wise man knows his limitations but never sets limits on himself. A fool does not recognize his limitations, thus limiting himself.

To paraphrase Dunning-Kruger: Fools lack the tools to recognize their foolishness.  The alternative to this lack of self-awareness is to blame someone else for their failures, like that secret Muslim-Kenyan commie illegally occupying the White House. Naturally, this illegal occupation trope is being sold to the gullible as a promise by certain GOP presidential candidates to repeal every piece of legislation, every executive order, signed into law by our illegitimate president. Because freedom!

George W. Bush: The Man Who Didn’t Know His Limitations

A man’s got to know his limitations“- Dirty Harry Callahan, Magnum Force

If historians need an example of the consequences of the failure of a 21st century power player to recognize his own limitations, George W. Bush is their man. Bush’s eminence grise, Dark Dick Darth Cheney, originally charged with finding a vice presidential candidate for future president Bush, recognized  Bush’s cognitive deficiencies early on. Opportunity knocked and Cheney answered, recommending himself for, and ultimately receiving, the job.

As a substitute father figure (Cheney was George H.W. Bush‘s trusted Secretary of Defense), he was in an ideal position to exploit “the Decider” for his own gain. No doubt Cheney used his one-on-one weekly Wednesday lunches with Bush to tell him what a freaking political genius and leader he was (the inestimable Charlie Pierce refers to Bush as”C+ Agustus); and to suggest various policy positions, like say, invading Iraq. The latter was an obvious manipulation of Junior’s daddy issues: What better way to supplant his father than by correcting his “mistake” in not deposing Saddam when he had the chance?

During the first Gulf War, Cheney had advised against overthrowing Saddam Hussein, knowing full well the disaster that would ensue. However, as Junior’s VP, he changed his mind. At the very first meeting of his national security team in early 2001, Bush blew off warnings from his terrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, about the threat posed by al-Qaeda. (Clarke was President Clinton’s terrorism chief and thus represented continuity on the subject between the two administrations.) Instead, Bush asked what it would take to overthrow Saddam. A few months later, he ridiculed  a CIA briefer for a memo he presented  titled: Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US , dismissing him by saying “You’ve covered your ass, now.” Five weeks later, nearly 3,000 Americans died in the infamous 9/11 attacks.

After the destruction of al-Qaeda’s main base of operations in Afghanistan in November of that year, Bush got his wish. Preparations were made to invade and occupy Iraq, despite there being no evidence that Saddam had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. Concurring were Secretary of Defense, Donald “Henny Penny” Rumsfeld, who had complained  there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq; his Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul “the war will pay for itself” Wolfowitz a leader of the neocons who had been trying to get rid of Saddam for years; another neocon, Under Secretary of Defense, Douglas “stovepipe this” Feith; and of course, Vice President Richard Cheney, former  CEO of  Halliburton/KBR, which just happened to gross over $39 billion from government contracts during the “nation building” phase of the worst foreign policy decision in American history.

Nation building has proven to be a profitable enterprise, a logical extension of , to gthe classic Vietnam war rationalization that America had to destroy the country in order to save it. Too bad that hundreds of thousands of people had to die; that hundreds of thousands more were physically and psychologically maimed; that millions had to flee their homes, becoming permanent refugees; that irreplaceable archaeological treasures were looted or destroyed; that the entire Middle East had to be thrown into turmoil (making Iran a hegemonic power in the process); and that the American taxpayer would incur trillions of dollars of recurring, interest compounding debt. To a psychopath like Cheney, that’s just the cost of doing business. Anyone questioning his war profiteering motive will likely get the same response that Senator Pat Leahy got on the Senate floor when he questioned him about his Halliburton ties, telling him to go “fuck yourself.

Camouflaging Incompetency

Naturally, such an unprecedented level of presidential incompetence had to be hidden, not only from The Decider himself, but from everyone living outside the White House bubble. Some of the world’s best PR people and spin doctors were put to work casting President Bush as the new. avenging sheriff in town, bringing justice to the world’s terrorist scum, a fusion of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and High Plains Drifter. (Bush Senior had seriously considered making Eastwood his vice president, so it’s safe to assume that Junior had some familiarity with Eastwood’s characters.)  Hell, if they could make a Vietnam War draft dodger a hero and Swift Boat his medal winning, presidential opponent, they could sell anything.

The fact that Bush ignored warnings of an imminent a-Qaeda attack? Put him on a pile of World Trade Center rubble,  one arm wielding a bullhorn, the other arm draped around an exhausted firefighter, promising revenge. Need to deflect attention from the fact that he had no exit plan after defeating Saddam’s pitifully over-matched military? Put him in a navy jet and land him on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier (anchored just off the coast of San Diego), dressed in a crotch grabbing flight suit that had Chris Matthews gushing over what his guest, G.Gordon Liddy observed made “the best of his manly characteristic.” For a backdrop, add a colorfully dressed deck crew. And behind and above them all, a large, professionally designed and printed banner proclaiming Mission Accomplished. (Bush’s handlers claimed the banner was a spontaneous creation of the grateful, carrier crew. Yeah, right.)

And then there was the all important on-going task of casting Bush as the successor to Republican icon, Ronald Reagan. If Reagan spent his leisure time on a ranch, riding horses and chopping firewood, then George would have to do something similar during his record breaking number of vacations at Crawford, Texas. Only his ranch was fake, with its pre-fab modular home and a total absence of–whadda ya call dem dar critters?– ah yes, horses! Dubya,  a self-confessed “windshield rancher,” eschewed horses, preferring to “ride” a comfy, late model air conditioned pickup truck instead.

In close, we revisit some of the classic cognitive stylings of the man with the room temperature IQ.

Next up in Part III: How President Obama demonstrates a corollary of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Part 1

 Posted by on January 3, 2016 at 11:31 AM
Jan 032016
 

Ryan's Muslim beard
Paul Ryan: From Ayn Rand Devotee to Acolyte of the Prophet Muhammad?

Is Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, a Secret Muslim? A longtime Ayn Rand devotee, Ryan, has  decided–hide the children!–to grow a beard. This has created a great disturbance in the force of the Wingnut Universe.  Beards, a staple facial accouterment among Muslims worldwide, are apparently a serious concern to the Guardians of Freedom and the ‘Mericun Way. (Preliminary channel checks show that  sales of guns, ammo, and fainting-couches are rising rapidly.) As Jeet Heer  writes in The New Republic: “This might be seen as a sign that the American right has finally crossed the border into looney-land.” Perhaps findings from the field of cognitive science, the Dunning-Kruger effect, can help explain why.

To put Dunning-Kruger into the context of current political events, consider this observation from The Hill:

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter says Ryan, just seven weeks on the job, is ripe for a primary challenge. “Paul Ryan Betrays America,” blared a headline on the conservative site Breibart.com. And Twitter is littered with references to the Wisconsin Republican’s new “Muslim beard.”

The final outrage that is causing Coulter and her ilk to brand a powerful Republican with considerable conservative street cred a traitor, was Ryan’s refusal to shut down the U.S. government over the 2016 budget. Bringing the government to a grinding halt is a tactic dear to Winger hearts, as reflected in their support for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who helped engineer the 2013 shutdown. Though the GOP establishment believes that the issue is a sure pathway to party suicide, you wouldn’t know it judging by recent poll results that show Cruz a strong second to Donald Trump in the GOP presidential primary.

How Dunning-Kruger Explains the Connection Between the Budget and the Beard

Wikipedia defines the The Dunning–Kruger effect as:

…a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. The bias was first experimentally observed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University in 1999. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately.

To put it in less politically correct terms, Teh Stupid lack the necessary cognitive skills to recognize their own stupidity. And to make matters worse, they will often double down on their ignorance by issuing authoritative opinions on non-existing “facts,” as late night television host Jimmy Kimmel demonstrates time and time again with his Lie Witness News segments.

                    Myths To Live By: The Musical Equivalent of Obama is a Secret Muslim

The inspiration for Dunning and Kruger’s research was an incident involving a bank robber (who unconsciously may have been trying to win that year’s Darwin Award).

The study was inspired by the case of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that, because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras. The authors noted that earlier studies suggested that ignorance of standards of performance lies behind a great deal of incorrect self-assessment of competence. This pattern was seen in studies of skills as diverse as reading comprehension, operating a motor vehicle, and playing games such as chess or tennis.

Not to mention choosing which political party to support. One need only review the relative performance of the economy under respective Democratic and Republican administrations to conclude that the latter is comparatively incompetent when it comes to issues like decreasing the budget deficit, lowering unemployment, raising wages, providing health care to millions of the uninsured, and keeping us out of stupid, trillion dollar wars, occupations, and self-defeating “nation building” enterprises.

You’d think that the denizens of the Wingnut Universe would have figured it out by now: the relationship between propagandistic  appeals to the darkest places of their ids, and whatever policy goal that The Powers That Be want enacted. That they insist on supporting policies and politicians that are inimical to their own economic interests and physical health and well-being is also addressed in Thomas Frank‘s classic book: What’s the Matter With Kansas. From the Amazon review of same:

A brilliant analysis-and funny to boot-What’s the Matter with Kansas? is a vivid portrait of an upside-down world where blue-collar patriots recite the Pledge while they strangle their life chances; where small farmers cast their votes for a Wall Street order that will eventually push them off their land; and where a group of frat boys, lawyers, and CEOs has managed to convince the country that it speaks on behalf of the People.

Denial, aka, the failure to recognize one’s various self-deficiencies, is a key component of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The following Monty Python bit  illustrates the principle.

                                                                              Tis but a scratch! A flesh wound!

I would enjoy nothing more than to see Barack Obama grow a beard, just to see how unhinged Wingers can get. Notwithstanding a September poll that showed 43% of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim, the ability of that particular Winger trope to enflame Teh Stupid against the president is losing steam. Despite unrelenting attacks from the Right Wing Noise Machine’s Mighty Wurlitzer,  and a sea change in the public’s concern about terrorism, Obama’s approval numbers are actually higher than they were a year agoBut the appeal to racial and religious prejudice is too strong a propaganda tool to abandon, so fresh meat is needed to keep fear alive.

And now, pinch hitting for President Obama, right fielder, The  Fountainhead Case Kid, Paul Ryan!

(Thus endeth Part I. In Part II, we explore further ramifications of the Dunning-Kruger effect on the 2016 presidential election.)

 

 

The Powell Memo: Part II

 Posted by on December 31, 2015 at 12:05 AM
Dec 312015
 

 

Repug2016Clowns

Awaiting the release of the new 2016 GOP clown car (lap band belts included)

In the Powell Memorandum, Part I, we explored the path to plutocratic power, beginning with a secret memo that future Supreme Court Justice Lewis f. Powell, Jr.  presented to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on August 23, 1971. The second stage of its realization was embodied in the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. And the third stage awaits fulfillment with a hoped-for victory in the GOP’s bid to win the White House (as well as maintaining control of the other two branches of government). It is to this third stage that we now turn our attention.

Hyperbolic, inflammatory rhetoric has been the hallmark of the 2016 GOP presidential primaries to date. For example: Marco Rubio‘s charge that President Obama is destroying the U.S. military; Rick Santorum‘s charge that the Obama administration is bringing in “radical Muslims and LGBT refugees to remake the country and undermine cultural values; Donald Trump‘s slurs against that Mexicans are rapists and criminals; Mike Huckabee‘s contention that there was no difference between President Obama’s handling of Social Security and Medicare and a Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme; Ben Carson‘s claim that the Egyptian pyramids were actually grain repositories built by and for the Jews; and Ted Cruz‘s promise to carpet bomb ISIS to see if he can make sand glow in the dark. None of this manipulative language targeted at the GOP id is likely survive the end of the primary elections.

However, the policy implications of this kind of craziness on the GOP platform is a clown car of a different color. With the advent of Superpacs, a consequence of the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in Citizens United, marginal candidates who would have previously dropped out of the running for lack of funds, can now soldier-on right into the Republican nomination convention. Instead of their delegates being liberated, i.e., up for grabs, will they now remain under his or hers control, and by extension, the control of the candidate’s  anonymous Big Money contributors? That’s a crucial question confronting Reince Preibus and the GOP establishment in the weeks and months to come. A brokered convention with  muscular Superpac component is shaping up to be the political equivalent of a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome sequel.

Traditionally, any candidate coming into the convention with less than a clear-cut majority has had to cut deals behind the scenes. This has taken the form of promised appointments to a future Republican administration, and/or incorporation of cherished policy positions into the GOP general election platform. Now the equation has changed. Now the smoked filled rooms will likely be filled with Superpac proxies for plutocrats like Sheldon Adelson, David and Charles Koch, Texas oilmen, real estate developers, Wall Street banksters, and hedge fund managers, who find their previous influence enhanced. Example: they can now effectively double-dip by giving the maximum personal donation, as well as by channeling funds anonymously through specialized 501(c)(4)s, aka “social welfare organizations.” (Is that last designation irony, hypocrisy, or self-parody? We report, you decide. )  

The promise of the majority in Citizens United that their ruling would maintain transparency in the political process may go down as the Court’s greatest helping of rationalized bullshit ever. An example of just how easy it is to skirt campaign financing disclosure rules was demonstrated by the Kochs in California during the 2012 financing ballot initiative, for which they were fined a measly one million dollars. Pocket change for the Koch brothers and other aspiring plutocrats, merely the cost of doing business in the Citizens United enabled dark-money universe.

It’s been a pretty straight line from the Powell Manifesto, to Citizens United, to the rise of anonymous billionaire financed Superpacs. As the crowded GOP presidential race has shown, there are no shortage of opportunists willing to prostitute themselves for a place at the table. So crowed in fact that debate organizers have been forced to add kiddie tables at each one the debates.

KidsTable2016Were’re Number One! We’re number One! 

While the the herd is being thinned (Rest In Pieces: Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry, George Pataki) many Superpac contributors may yet show a profitable return on their investment. Especially if the 2016 GOP convention in Cleveland this coming July becomes a brokered affair, where even a few Superpac committed delegates would be worth their weight in gold. Of course, that assumes a fact not in evidence: that there are any neutral brokers left in the party are acceptable to the Establishment Repubs on the one handMarco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Jeb!?! Bush; and on the other, right wing extremists that are currently leading in the pollDonald  Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson who collectively out-poll their Establishment rivals 3:1 (according to the latest CNN/ORC poll).

That said, the influence of Superpacs may end up being less than originally expected. One need only look at the biggest Superpac spending to date, some $50 million for Jeb Bush, and the meager results they’ve  produced thus far; and the success of the Un-Superac candidate, Bernie Sanders.

As for the rest of the GOP pack, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul, none of them seem to have a chance, especially if they don’t have significant Superpac backing. As for Carly Fiorina, she seems to be in the race only to improve her Q rating and corporate speaking fees, since she won’t even bother to post any position papers on her web site.

What started out as a messy GOP presidential primary looks like it’s going to get a whole lot worse. But as anyone who listens to the right wing noise machine knows, it’s all Obama’s fault. That’s been their default position for even self-inflicted wounds like the Trumpenstein monster they created, poised now to burn their laboratory/house to the ground.

Pass the popcorn, the pitchforks, and the torches.

Carpet Bombing Agrabah

 Posted by on December 22, 2015 at 12:00 AM
Dec 222015
 

carpet bombing agrabah

 Watch the sand glow: Ted Cruz’s alter ego sending his troops into battle to carpet bomb Agrabah

Introduction

According to a new poll by Public Policy Polling (PPP), 30% of Republicans and and 41% of Donald Trump supporters support the bombing of the city of Agrabah. Unfortunately for them, the strategic value of same would be nil, since Agrabah was the fantasy capital of Princess Jasmine’s homeland in the animated Disney cartoon Alladin.  The poll didn’t contain cross-tabs breaking down the preference of Ted Cruz voters, but consistent with his prior remarks, they’d prefer it be carpet bombing, to see if they could “make the sand glow in the dark.”

“It’s a whole new world,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling. “Republicans who support carpet bombing also support bombing magic carpets.”

Is Carpet Bombing a War Crime?

By “bombing magic carpets,” perhaps Dean Debnam meant to say magic carpet bombers, a reference to the new B-Stupid-2 heavy bomber that is being built in Cruz’s home state of Texas. In selling the plane to Congress, Cruz argued that expensive precision guided ordinance wasn’t needed when dropping a payload of unguided dumb bombs on terrorist controlled population centers. (/snark)

As the former Texas’s state Solicitor General, Cruz argued nine cases before the Supreme Court. He also clerked for former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. He’s a slick and experienced litigator. If pressed about the ensuing collateral damage that carpet-bombing would have on innocent civilians, and how that would put the US at risk for war crimes, he would likely argue that the legal threshold for war crimes has been satisfied. (See, e.g., Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory.) International law requires that such a catastrophic action as carpet bombing satisfy the demands of proportionality; i.e. that it does substantially more good than harm.

As long as Cruz and his ilk can ratchet up a proportionate amount of fear and paranoia, they can always argue that carpet bombing is justified. (The ends justify the means, and all that.. Marinate in copious amounts of American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, Superpower status, and might makes right machoism, and you can serve up as much collateral damage as you like. /sarcasm)

Does one even have to mention the moral and strategic blowback that killing thousands of innocent civilians with carpet bombing would generate? The propaganda value to ISIS/ISIL/Daesh?

More Stupid

All this marks a new chapter in Teh Stupid, with even 19% of Democrats favoring bombing Agrabah. If Hunter Thompson was alive, no doubt he’d be releasing a new book with a title along the lines of Fear and Loathing in US Presidential Politics.

A recent Zogby poll bears this out:

[W]hile Democrats had a 51% favorable view of Arab Americans compared with 23% who held unfavorable views and had a 44%/28% net favorable view of American Muslims, Republican attitudes of Arab Americans were 34% favorable/44% unfavorable and a 26%/53% net unfavorable rating for American Muslims.

Similar divergent views were found with regard to whether or not voters felt confident that an Arab American or an American Muslim could faithfully carry out their responsibilities in a government position…

And the same divide could be found in response to questions regarding whether Arab Americans and American Muslims should be profiled or whether Syrian refugees should be admitted to the US, with six in ten GOP voters saying that Arab Americans and American Muslims should be profiled and the same percentage rejecting the president’s goal of accepting 10,000 vetted Syrian refugees a year.

And in a finding that would make birther crusader and professional  religious bigot Donald Trump proud:

The most striking gap occurred in response to the question about the president’s religion with only one in ten Democrats believing that Obama might be Muslim and almost seven in ten Republicans asserting that he was either a Muslim (49%) or had no faith at all (19%).

BTW, has anyone heard from those two private investigators that Trump sent to Honolulu to prove that President Obama was actually born in Kenya, to a Muslim father? (A twofer appeal to both racism and religious bigotry.)  Or how Trump explains the virtuoso time-travelling feat of Obama’s mother retroactively planting articles describing his birth there in two different Hawaiian newspapers? Yes, indeed, it’s a whole new world. As Robin Williams proclaimed: “Reality: What a concept!

Zogby continues:

In each instance, this partisan split masks a deep demographic divide, with older, white, less educated voters, especially those who are self-defined as “born again Christians” making up the largest proportion of Republicans, and African American, Hispanic, younger, and more educated voters making up the Democratic side.

The poll also defined two important behavioral characteristics that, in addition to demographics, helped to shape attitudes of voters on these issues: voters’ sources of news and whether or not they know any Arab and Muslims. As expected, those who rely on Fox News held largely negative views on all these issues, but the same was also true of CNN viewers. On the other hand, the 30% of voters who rely on Internet or other news sources had significantly more favorable views on all the questions covered in the poll.

Similarly, the 30% of all voters who knew Arabs and Muslims had substantially more favorable views of both communities and were more opposed to profiling them than the population, at large. And, once again, in each instance, we observed the same demographic divide in the make-up of each group.

And finally, drilling deeper into the cross-tabs reveals this:

As significant as this Democratic/Republican divide might be, it becomes even more dramatic when we compare the attitudes of the sub-set within each camp who are supporting their party’s leading candidates. While 53% of Trump supporters have negative views of Arab Americans and 68% have negative views of American Muslims, 69% of Clinton supporters have favorable views of Arab Americans and 63% view American Muslims favorably. And while only 6% of Trump supporters believe the President Obama is a Christian (60% claiming he is a Muslim), only a handful of Clinton supporters say the president is Muslim while 74% believe Obama is Christian.

Observations From Neuroscience

Neuro-cognitively speaking, this year’s presidential battle (more so than others), is a battle between how liberals and conservatives use different parts of their brains to process perceived risks. In a study of FMRI brain scans conducted by Exeter University following the 2012 presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barak Obama, the researchers found the following:

Comparing the Democrat and Republican participants turned up differences in two brain regions: the right amygdala and the left posterior insula. Republicans showed more activity than Democrats in the right amygdala when making a risky decision. This brain region is important for processing fear, risk and reward.

Meanwhile, Democrats showed more activity in the left posterior insula, a portion of the brain responsible for processing emotions, particularly visceral emotional cues from the body. The particular region of the insula that showed the heightened activity has also been linked with “theory of mind,” or the ability to understand what others might be thinking.

While the study found no difference in the amount of risk people of each political persuasion are willing to take, how they process that risk, that is, in which part of the brain they formulate their reactions, likely determines the role that rhetoric plays in motivating a desired course of action. For instance, rhetoric that invokes the left posterior insula invites the listener to “walk a mile in another’s moccasins” as the old American Indian adage goes, to see what they see, to feel what they feel. Applied to military strategy, it enables a commander to anticipate the tactics of his or her adversary by, in effect, reading their mind. Or in General George Patton‘s case, reading the book of his arch enemy, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, as captured in this iconic scene from the movie Patton:

Conversely, individuals who gravitate towards the right amygdala (conservatives) are prone to the fear-based rhetoric like that used by Cruz and Trump, the latter who promises “to bomb the shit out of them.”

In their book, How God Changes Your Brain (2009), neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, M.D. and his co-author Mark Robert Waldman say this about the consequences of constantly appealing to anger, as Trump and Cruz relentlessly do:

Neuroscience tells us that the moment we see an angry face, or hear angry words, our brains kick into overdrive generating stress chemicals to make us fight or run. Anger generates anger, and the angrier a group of people get, the greater the possibility that violence will erupt.

Hate Speech

One thing leads to another. Violent, tough-guy, fear-based rhetoric meant to garner votes from a voting segment steeped  in racial hatred, religious bias, victim-hood, and nativism will almost certainly result in violence. Historically, we’ve seen this phenomenon directed at successive waves of immigrants. In the 19th century, Protestant “Nativists” precipitated riots against newly arriving Irish Catholics and French-Canadians, Polish, and Italian Americans.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the target was German immigrants. In California, the San Francisco Vigilance Movements of 1851 and 1856 targeted Irish immigrants, Mexicans laborers, Chilean miners, and Chinese railroad workers. In the early 20th century, Filipino, Japanese, and Armenian immigrants living in California came in for the same treatment. World War 2 saw Japanese American citizens thrown into internment camps. And violence against blacks in the South ratcheted to new heights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Conclusion

One doesn’t have to list the specific racial and ethnic slurs that accompanied each wave of violent extremism perpetrated mainly by white males against different religious, racial, or ethnic groups. Or look very far to find their descendants, for that matter. Just look for white guys wearing baseball caps with slogans encouraging us “to make America great again.” Chances are, you’ll find a large percentage there.

Sew the wind, reap the whirlwind.

 Anger is like a stone thrown into a hornet’s nest.
The Urantia Book

What’s In A Name?

 Posted by on November 17, 2015 at 10:45 PM
Nov 172015
 
17 Nov 2010, Ar Raqqah, Syria --- Sheikh Ghazi Rashad Hrimis touches dried earth in the parched region of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, November 11, 2010. Lack of rain and mismanagement of the land and water resources have forced up to half of million people to flee the region in one of Syria's largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the former Ottoman Empire in 1920. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA - Tags: AGRICULTURE ENVIRONMENT) --- Image by © KHALED AL-HARIRI/Reuters/Corbis

17 Nov 2010, Ar Raqqah, Syria — Sheikh Ghazi Rashad Hrimis touches dried earth in the parched region of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, November 11, 2010. Lack of rain and mismanagement of the land and water resources have forced up to half of million people to flee the region in one of Syria’s largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the former Ottoman Empire in 1920.

What’s in a name? That which we call a turd by any other name would smell as rank.
William Shakespeare [with apologies thereto]

In the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on Paris last week, GOPer presidential candidates are wetting themselves over the opportunity to change their image as clueless opportunists to macho champions of national security. A pissing contest has developed among the majority over whom would be tougher on the terra’ists than the feckless, petulant, secret Muslim in the White House. The centerpiece  of this emerging strategy is to put tens of thousands of combat troops into the Syrian meat grinder. (Time for a reprise of  The Who’s Teenage Wasteland?) Thus far, Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and celebrity entertainer Donald Trump have resisted putting “boots on the ground,” but don’t be surprised if they start walking that back as the campaign heats up.

Another refrain emanating from the right wing noise machine is to attack anyone that won’t accept their rhetorical construction, radical Islamists, to describe terrorists that use a distorted interpretation of the Muslim religion to justify their actions, and to recruit impressionable and disaffected youth. (For a counter-view, see Juan Cole’s Top Ten Ways Islamic Law Forbids Terrorism.)  That includes Senator Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama. Framing the conflict that currently exists between less than 0.01% of the world’s Muslims and the largely Christian world as a Clash of Civilizations is part of The New American Century promoted by some of the same neocons that are part of  Jeb Bush‘s foreign policy team— you know, war criminals— like neo-conman Paul Wolfowitz, who helped “liberate” Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein, setting into motion the very chaos responsible for the crisis that now infects the entire Middle East. (ISIS is the direct descendant of al-Qaeda in Iraq, created in 2004 to fight the US invasion.)

Naturally, the current batch of GOPer presidential candidates are too dense to realize that they are playing directly into the hands of the ISIS/ISIL/Daesh propaganda noise machine. Its operators would love nothing more than to get the non-Muslim world to condemn, by association, one of the world’s great monotheistic religions.

In conjunction with 1) the well-nigh hopeless economic situation facing the vast majority of young Arab Muslims, impoverished by the massive concentration of wealth into the hands of a few autocratic oil sheiks and their families (the ultimate example of wealth inequality); and 2) the history of Western military intervention in the Middle East that included putting military bases in the holy land of Saudi Arabia (which gave birth to the original Al Qaeda), together they provide a terrorist recruitment bonanza.  As former top aide and speechwriter to President George W. Bush and Washington Post opinion writer Michael Gerson writes:

Rejecting a blanket condemnation of Islam is not a matter of political correctness. It is the requirement of an effective war against terrorism, which means an effective war against the terrorist kingdom in Syria and western Iraq.

Not to be outdone by their Congressional colleagues, currently some 28 Republican governors and one Democrat have stated that, despite President Obama’s pledge to accept ten thousand Syrian refugees, a paltry sum compared to the commitment of individual European countries (Turkey is already hosting two million), they’re going to pull a Lester Maddox and block the “golden door ” of immigration with a big fat pick ax handle.  At least thirteen governors,  12 Democrats and one Independent, have said they would accept the refugees. While the Refugee Act of 1980 prevents states from refusing admittance, that won’t stop the Republican governors from posturing the hell out of the issue. Look for them to dump the mechanics of changing the law on Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Since 9/11/2001, none of the 784,000 refugees admitted into the country, some 35-40% of which are children, have ever been arrested on terrorism charges. Thus far, the federal government’s vetting procedures have worked just fine, thank you. (EDIT: By another accounting of approximately 785,000 refugees, a dozen have either been arrested or removed; none were from Syria.)

Furthermore, Wingers are attacking Bernie for saying Climate Change is the USA’s number one national security issue, despite reports from the national security community affirming same. (See also On the Record: Climate Change as a National Security Risk According to U.S. Administration Officials.) Instead of acknowledging that these reports even exist, Wingers resort to outrage and personal attacks, accusing Sanders of being weak on defense.

Most wars are the product of resource scarcity. In the case of Syria, a devastating drought forced rural farmers to abandon their farms and migrate to the big cities to feed their families. This created social pressures that resulted in a number of peaceful demonstrations that asked for greater governmental support. These pleas for humanitarian assistance were met with extreme violence from the government of Basshar Al-Sadad, and rapidly devolved into a catastrophic civil war. Initially, Sadad sent in his goon squads to suppress the protesters. When that didn’t work, he upped the ante. Among other war crimes, he denied food and medicine to desperate civilian enclaves, and dropped barrel bombs on them from helicopters, some of which are believed to have contained chlorine gas, according to the Syrian American Medical Society.

Funny how one thing leads to another. The same mindset that denies anthropogenic climate change as a factor leading to regional wars, denies that US the Exceptional is no longer capable of being the world’s policeman. They’d rather pursue their own ideological crusade. Some day maybe they’ll reach the same level of  insight that the great philosopher Pogo reached when he observed: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

If Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz had their way, they’d amend Emma Lazarus‘s poem affixed to the Statue of Liberty as follows:

“Give me your tired, your poor,  (so long as they’re Christian)
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free (except the chlorine gassed, who might be terrorists in disguise),
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. (maybe not Anders “I’m 100% Christian” Breivik, though)
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me: (Muslims need not apply, despite what the Constitution says about religious tests)
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (Sorry, out of order)