Monday’s Mtg: Is Big Finance Finally Tamed?

After seven long years, the most destructive financial crisis since the Great Depression is beginning to fade into memory – and myth. We haven’t talked about it in a while (2010 bailouts, 2012 EU crisis). Most discussions these days still are focused on assigning blame. This is understandable as well as necessary for accountability and for moral and ethical reasons. But, it shortchanges, IMO, another more timely aspect of the financial crisis that gets way too little public attention: Are our governments doing enough to prevent or a least, better contain the next one? Is our fragile financial sector finally tamed and at an acceptable cost?

We have to know the answer because there’s always another crisis. Since 1980, the world has seen 6 major global financial crises; a dozen or so smaller, regional ones; and, by one count, close to 150 single-country banking crises. Crises are frequent, getting bigger, and are easily transmitted around the globe. Our global financial system has yielded many benefits, but it is bubble-prone, panic-prone, and seemingly inherently unstable.

Since 2008, governments put in place a smorgasbord of new regulations to try to better monitor global finance, fix the system’s worst vulnerabilities, and prevent or better respond to the next crisis. What’s been done is very complicated (maybe too complicated, as we’ll discuss). I read a lot on this subject, but I don’t know the whole lay of the new regulatory and macroeconomic land very well, especially some of the more arcane efforts.

So, I thought Monday we would focus our discussion on the most important actions taken in the United States to prevent future financial catastrophes. Most of them stem from the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, so I will open us up by describing the basics of what that law tried to do and the major regulations that have come out of it. I may also briefly outline some other governmental actions in this area that have gotten even less media coverage but will affect us all.

Of course, we cannot spend an entire evening discussing banking regulations. (Who would want to?) So, in discussion maybe we can focus on a few big macro-level issues, like the “too big to fail” problem, the benefits versus the costs of new regulations, and the obstacle of Wall Street’s vast political power.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Causes – Big Finance: How much blame do private financial actors deserve for causing the crisis? How big a factor was financial fraud and lawbreaking? Were the banksters “out of control?”
  2. Causes – Who else: Were deeper, structural causes the real problem? What did governments do wrong and why?
  3. Choices: After the crisis hit, what options did governments have to stem the crisis and reform the system? Why did they choose some (bailouts) and not others (nationalizing big banks, aid to homeowners)?
  4. Fixes: What was done in the end? What is in the Dodd-Frank law?  What else?
  5. Results: How can we know if these policies are either (1) working, or (2) working too well by burdening the financial sector/real economy?
  6. What do you think will happen in the next crisis? Same old same old, or something more radical?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is it time to change California’s ballot initiative process?

Monday’s Mtg (8/24/15): How Common Are Wrongful Criminal Convictions?

This week we have an interesting topic from Linda, our defense attorney. I  know little about the issue of wrongful criminal convictions. Like everybody else, I read about them on occasion. But, only the really egregious ones make the national news, like the recent case of a man freed after serving 34 years for a rape/murder he did not commit.

Fortunately for us (and for at least a few of the falsely imprisoned), a number of organizations are dedicated to exonerating such people, notably The Innocence Project and Wrongfulconvictions.org. Their heartbreaking cases, or even a quick Googling of the topic, suggests the scale of this problem could be larger than most people imagine. It’s not just murders and rapes and pre-DNA convictions. Wrongful convictions may be fairly common for lesser crimes, like assaults or burglaries. These miscarriages of justice have many causes, including:

  • Bad evidence: Shaky eyewitnesses, false confessions, and bad forensic science;
  • Police and prosecutorial misconduct: Some accidental, good-faith mistakes; some deliberate and malicious;
  • Incompetent defenses: Bad defense attorneys and underfunded and overworked public defender systems.

And those are just before the wrongful convictions. After a person goes down for a crime, the obstacles to getting his/her case reexamined are enormous. The burden of proof essentially transfers onto the convicted and it’s a large burden (I think). As I’ll discuss in my brief opening, one reason it’s so hard is that being innocent is no excuse. I’m serious. Generally under the law, a convicted criminal cannot be exonerated unless he/she can demonstrate (from prison, often!) that the process under which they were condemned violated their due process rights. If they got a “fair” trial but a wrong outcome, too bad. Plus, 95% of criminals plead guilty in a plea bargain. So, there is no trial at all to question, just the actions of the police and prosecutors, who, as we’ve all seen with recent killings of unarmed citizens, almost always get the benefit of any doubt..

Only a few links this week – Some broad overviews of the problem, plus a little bit on causes and ways to improve the system. My big question on this topic is the last one, below: What does this problem say about our legal system as a whole? Are wrongful convictions just the tragic but infrequent and inevitable “false positives” generated by a gigantic criminal justice system in a very high-crime country? Or, are they yet another manifestation of a rotten criminal justice system, intrinsically connected to mass incarceration, police abuse, etc.?

Hey, not every problem has to be connected to much bigger and long-festering systemic problems. But, where there is the former, there is usually the latter.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Frequency. What do we know about the problem of wrongful criminal conviction? How many are we sure have happened versus estimate? Is the problem a large or small part of American justice?
  2. Who/When: Who gets wrongfully convicted – Which types of crimes and/or defendants and/or victims and/or locales?
  3. Causes. Why does this happen? Is it individual errors or systemic problems?
  4. Solutions. What remedies have been suggested? Which ones have been implemented and by whom? Why/Why not? Results?
  5. Disease or symptom? What does this problem say about our criminal justice system? Tip of the iceberg of injustice? Small, isolated problem?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is the U.S. financial sector finally tamed?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Anti-Science Views of the U.S. Right and Left

Ali’s idea finally arrives! I imagine our immigrant from Iraq member suggested this topic because he has been shocked to learn how ignorant Americans are about science and how often those beliefs influence public policy.

Me, too. Public ignorance of basic scientific principles and facts is kind of legendary in this country. We have touched on it tangentially before, but not really since 2011 meetings on anti-intellectualism and the politicizing of science. We’re going to debate my pet peeve, political ignorance, on September 28. So, our summer of ignorance will be a long one.

As for science, we all can name a few big areas of illiteracy that make it into the news on a regular basis because it they impact politics and public affairs.

  • Climate change denialism.
  • Anti-evolution/creationism.
  • Vaccines.
  • Genetically-modified organism (GMO) food.

There are others. I’ve met people in recent years that believe the government and/or corporations are dispersing harmful chemicals nationwide in a deliberate effort to increase the rate of disease. Pro-life advocates believe abortions cause breast cancer and the pill is an abortifacient (the AMA and American Cancer Society disagree). Bruce, our neurologist, has mentioned before that a lot of his patients want only “natural” treatments, rather than those icky pharmaceuticals with their industry-bought scientific studies. Abstinence only education. Fluoridated water.

Anyway, I think we should start off on Monday by getting some facts of our own. I’m going to do some research on how many Americans actually believe the major scientific fallacies I listed above. Then, we can debate what to me are the really important questions, like who encourages people to believe this stuff, and why do some anti-science views end up influencing public policy while others do not?  Do “both sides really do it” equally?

Discussion Questions –

  1. How many Americans hold flat-earthly wrong views on the major scientific questions of our day? Has it gotten worse or better in recent decades?
  2. How do these opinions break down by Right and Left, politically? When is ideology/partisanship a driver of ignorance and when is it just coincidence?
  3. Who in positions of influence is abetting this scientific illiteracy? Politicians? Religious authorities? News Media? Bogus think tanks? People making money off the ignorance?
  4. Who cares? Which anti-sci views are hurting us all by influencing public policy (e.g., climate) or third parties (e.g., anti-vaccine)
  5. What can be done? Better science education? Better news media? Less craven politicians?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Wrongful Criminal Convictions.

Follow-up to last night’s mtg (8/10/15) on immigration politics

I seldom do follow-up post anymore.  But, this article explains what social psychology experiments reveal about the motives of the 30% of Americans that oppose all immigration. (Note that my research showed that number at about 20%).  The articles discusses racism versus cultural anxiety, how much “illegal” versus “legal” matters in people’s attitudes, and a lot more.

The article can be found here.

Monday’s (8/10/15) Mtg: The Politics of Immigration

Two years go one of my favorite political analysts predicted that immigration policy was going to be the big sleeper issue of the 2016 election. I thought this was overstated. But, I also believed the elite news media was missing the importance of immigration in our politics. In the last 20 years a substantial chunk of the electorate has developed a thick crust of anti-immigrant hostility, especially but not exclusively on the Right. It is a minority within the GOP, but a much-feared and influential one.   At the same time, the Media also was failing to understand that public opinion towards immigration was complex and divided by class and other  socioeconomic characteristics, too.

Well, thanks to Donald Trump, immigration is back on the front burner. Since I haven’t the slightest doubt that the Media will fail to do its job again, I’m glad this topic came up for Civilized Conversation now, before elite Media memes have hardened into stone. We can do better. We could hardly do worse.

I’m very short of time this week. But, I will try to do enough research to open our discussion by describing the basic topography of public opinion on (legal and illegal) immigration. Then, we can debate the incentives politicians in both parties face on this issue.  My hope is the understanding we gain will help us understand what happens the next year and a half.

Discussion Questions (detailed) –

  1. WHAT does the U.S. public really think about immigration issues and how important is this issue to them? How do opinions vary by
    1. Partisanship and ideology?
    2. Socioeconomic status, religiosity, geography, and other factors?
  2. WHY do people hold these opinions? Rational interest? Support for rule of law?  Economic scapegoating? Racism/xenophobia? How can we tell which motive rules?
  3. HOW has public opinion influenced political leaders’ strategic calculations?
    1. In general.
    2. On specific issues, like on comprehensive reform, border security, path to citizenship? How about on Obamacare and criminal justice reform?
  4. GOP/Conservatives:
    1. Do the most anti-immigrant base votes rule the roost? How much room for maneuver do GOP leaders have?
    2. What role has conservative talk radio/news media played?
    3. Will immigration politics determine the GOP presidential nominee? How anti-immigrant will the GOP congress be
    4. Trump: How many GOP voters really support his wall + deport all POV? Is he saying anything not said every day in conservative news media?  Will he harden the party’s stance on immigration or is this xenophobia’s last hurrah?
  5. DEMS/progressives:
    1. Obama: How supportive are they of Obama’s immigration policies? Who dissents?
    2. Clinton: What’s in Hillary’s new immigration plan?
    3. Motives: Is this all about winning Latino votes, or is it principled?
    4. Will Dem policies drive away White working class voters? Is it worth it?
  6. FUTURE: How might politics of immigration change in the next 2 yrs? In 10?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Anti-Science Views of the Political Right and Left.

Monday’s (8/3/15) Mtg: Cyber Security Threats and Responses

Until very recently, one seldom could find coverage of cybersecurity issues in general interest news publications, except in response to specific huge and hugely-embarrassing data breaches of both governments and corporations that have become routine lately. As one analyst I read observed, studies of cybersecurity resemble studies of nuclear strategy of the 1950s that were “unclear about the meaning of offense, defense, deterrence, escalation, norms, and arms control.” Cyber threats are so new and evolving so fast that even the best experts struggle to keep up.

Still, I think Bruce is right that this is too important a topic to keep ignoring. My modest goal for Monday – unless Bruce knows this area well – is for us to et a basic understanding of what is at stake in cyber security. The experts disagree on that, too, mind you. But, at least we can get a basic idea of what may be going on in this hidden realm, how major advocates view the threat(s), and what our government is at least trying to do about it. Also, cyber security relates to other, very, very important issues, such as who will control and regulate the Internet n the future and whether we can create any international norms of behavior for cyberspace and/or cyber-arms control..

Way outta my league. I’ll just start us off on Monday with a bit of term-defining of cyber-crime, cyber-security, and cyber-warfare. Bruce?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: The Politics of Immigration Reform

Monday’s Mtg: Inequality’s Causes and Effects

[Note: This will be our first meeting at the PANERA CAFÉ at 5620 Balboa Ave.]

It has been almost two years since President Obama declared that “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” are “the defining challenge of our time.” Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and every progressive I know believes the same. Hillary Clinton may not make inequality the rhetorical centerpiece of her campaign, but the policies she’s recommending are clearly designed to combat it. Even some conservatives are talking about inequality. (In fact, one might argue that Donald Trump sudden rise reflects a split between GOP elites and its base voters over inequality. His tirades target policies that downscale GOP voters blame – fairly or unfairly – for their stalled prosperity, like immigration and free trade.) The issue is not going away anytime soon.

I thought it might be useful for us to start at the beginning of the inequality debate by asking two basic (and not yet settled!) questions: (1) What’s been causing inequality’s sharp rise, and (2) what harm does it actually do? Of course, these are to some extent technical disputes among experts. Still, I think we’ll have no problem grasping the basic arguments, which will give us some insight and healthy skepticism going into the debate and bumper sticker slogan phase of the GOP and Democratic primary season.

I will start us off on Monday first by defining what is usually meant by “inequality.” Then, I’ll briefly explain its half-dozen or so most often-cited causes and effects. Partial lists:

CAUSES OF SOARING INEQUALITY (alleged) –

  1. Skills-based technological change: The idea that tech innovation has made Americans with the skills to use the technologies more valuable than those without the skills, and so the pay gap between them keeps widening.
  2. Trade and globalization may have put downward pressure on wages in sectors that are vulnerable to foreign competition.
  3. Immigration: The same night be true for low-skilled, non-college educated occupations that compete with either legal or illegal immigrants.
  4. De-unionization has weakened worker bargaining power.
  5. Financialization of the economy distorts incomes at the top and bottom.
  6. Corporate culture and structures may have changed to devalue workers and encourage excessive executive pay.
  7. Government policies: Tax cuts, spending cuts, anti-trust non-enforcement, mass incarceration, educational inequality, and a host of other policies have made the rich richer and left many of us to tread water or sink.
  8. The Great Recession could have suddenly magnified all of these other factors – or, maybe led us to overstate their impact.

EFFECTS OF SOARING INEQUALITY (alleged) –

  1. Stalled wages and social mobility for most Americans.
  2. Lower growth rates in the overall economy.
  3. Repeated boom and bust economic cycles from which only the rich recover quickly and fully.
  4. Slower recovery from the 2008 Great Recession and future recessions.
  5. Political polarization: There is an argument that soaring inequality contributes to partisan political polarization.
  6. Disconnected elites: Falling elite support for the 20th century American social contract, including full employment and the social safety net.
  7. Plutocratic elites: They’ve taken over our political system and used that power to…
  8. Rig the economic game to perpetuate their power and status.

Most conservative I’m familiar with argue that inequality has not risen by much if measured accurately, and/or that the increase is a result of “natural” market forces, and/or that it does more good than harm anyway.

Fewer links this week, even though it’s one of our more complicated topics.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Cyber-Security – Threats and Responses.

Our New Home – Starting July 27

As we discussed, beginning next week for our July 27, 2015, meeting on inequality, Civilized Conversation will change location.  I’ve selected the Panera Café at 5620 Balboa Avenue in San Diego.  It’s between the 805 freeway and Genesee Ave, in the large Genesee Plaza shopping center with the Target and Home Depot.

It’s a large Panera and, as you can see from the photos below, they have 3-4 different tables suitable for a group of 10-15 people.  There’s plenty of parking and other restaurants nearby, including a Five Guys and a Chipotle and a Native Foods Café.  I was not able to reserve us a specific table permanently yet.  But that may come with time and is not a worry anyway since they have so much space.

So, starting 7/27, look for us by the “CivCon” placard I will place on the table we’re using that night.  FYI, some nights we may be sitting outside, so consider sweaters/jackets.

Map.

Panera Balboa 4

Panera Balboa 1

Panera Balboa 2Panera Balboa 3

And, thanks to Tom and the rest of The Village Café people for hosting us briefly after the Coco’s closed!

Monday’s Mtg: Nuclear Agreement With Iran.

As the whole world knows, on Tuesday night 7/14/15 the United States and 6 of the world’s major powers (+ the EU) announced a major arms control agreement with Iran. Historic, is more like it, for good or ill. After nearly 40 years of cold war, proxy wars, and sometimes actual war with Iran, the West finally has a signed, detailed, multilateral agreement to limit the Islamic State’s nuclear program. However, the agreement does far less than we initially wanted in terms of dismantling and eliminating Iran’s existing nuke program. Its provisions are complex and the road ahead is long. Few observers doubt that Iran has given up its desire to get nuclear weapons capability, at least in the long term.

Still, if this agreement (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) actually succeeds in achieving its stated objectives, Iran will be kept out of the nuclear weapons club for at least the next decade, and probably closer to two decades. If Iran can successfully cheat or if the treaty regime falls apart, Iran likely will get its bomb capability. The result of that likely (but not indisputably) would be war(s) and a regional nuclear arms race. The stakes are very high.

Congress has the next 60 days to approve or reject the agreement. Obama is aggressively stumping for approval while GOP politicians and conservative pundits have thunderously denounced it as another Obama appeasement of an implacable enemy. So, our little group is entering the maelstrom as it’s just getting started.

There’s a lot for us to talk about on Monday night. I will start us off with a short summary of the terms of the agreement. Then, I want to add what I think is some important context that I think will help us in evaluating the pros/cons of the nuclear agreement. Don’t be lulled by the over-the-top remarks the GOP presidential candidates are making. Legitimate questions really do exist about the merits of the agreement and I hope we can address each of the major ones.

###  I found us a great NEW LOCALE.  I’ll fill you in Monday and we can start meeting there on July 27. ###

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is in the new agreement with Iran?
    1. Basic structure and terms: Who has to do what by when and how, etc.?
    2. Enforcement: How will we monitor compliance and punish Iranian transgressions?
  2. Compromises: What have we conceded and what did we get in return, and the same for Iran?
  3. Comparisons:
    1. How far away from our negotiating objectives did we end up?
    2. Is this the best deal we could have obtained from Iran? How can we know that?
    3. Were there any realistic alternatives to this pact?
  4. Effectiveness:
    1. Will the agreement work – Will it successfully freeze and partially roll back Iran’s nuke program?
    2. Is that enough? How specifically could we have achieved more?
    3. How likely is the West to stay vigilant so the agreement doesn’t fall apart?
  5. The Region: How will this agreement affect our other conflicts with Iran and the region’s other festering problems? How might it affect politics inside Iran?
  6. To watch for:
    1. Key events in implementation calendar.
    2. Signs that signal Iranian cheating or manipulation?
    3. USA: Would a GOP president really abrogate the agreement?

LINKS –   Zillions – Focus on highlighted ones!

Next Week – Inequality: Its Causes and Consequences.

Monday’s Mtg: Can Science Explain the Mind?

We have another, excellent learn-from-Bruce meeting this week. Our resident neurologist will lecture on what science knows about the human consciousness. How close is science to knowing whether our self-awareness/sentience is an epiphenomenon of the physical structures and functioning of our brains? Is there any room left for an incorporeal, human consciousness, either divinely-created or in some other way non-physical?

To most of us secular types, the answer is clear: Anything we don’t know about the human mind we someday will know. Everything that exists in our consciousness has a physical analog, evolving naturally. Evolution invented us and then we invented “us.” Many religious people seethe at this POV, considering it arrogant and, at most, unprovable. Hopefully, Bruce can help us seculars better understand what it is we’re so damned sure about.

I – whoever and whatever that is – am really looking forward to this one. Below are a few inks of general interest googled by me. I will add in any readings Bruce suggests later this weekend.

There is a small chance I won’t be there again. But, again, not for lack of interest.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Via Bruce:

From me (they just seemed a little easier)

Next Week:  Nuclear Negotiating with Iran.

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