Thursday, December 06, 2012

More On Costas and Guns

I’ve been thinking of posting more, to follow up on my earlier post, about the kerfuffle over Bob Costas’ comments Sunday night regarding the Jovan Belcher/Kasandra Perkins murder/suicide case, and about this country’s gun culture, but Will Bunch’s HuffPo blog post is more worth your time than anything I might write. The money quote:

Look, I'm a politics fanatic and a sports fanatic — and I don't want to see stark political commentary become a regular halftime feature. But every once in [a] while, there is something that that, in [Mario] Savio's words, makes you so sick at heart that exercising your right to free speech — in a place and at a time that will shock some people, to wake them out of their slumber — isn't just brave, but it is absolutely necessary.

Bob Costas threw himself on the gears Sunday night, even as the me-too machine of “popular" opinion chewed him up. It was absolutely the right thing to do.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Why Is This Controversial?

Yesterday, in my regular perambulation around Teh Intertooooobz™, I came across this HuffPo article presenting Bob Costas' Sunday Night Football comments about the tragic story of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher's murder of his girlfriend and subsequent suicide. Costas anticipates the inevitable "mindless cliche" that a story like this "really puts it all in perspective," and quotes/paraphrases Fox Sports analyst Jason Whitlock's column on the story, which says, in part:
Our current gun culture simply ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy, and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead.

.... What I believe is, if [Belcher] didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.
Costas' comments were variously described as "controversial" and as generating a "firestorm of reaction," and the HuffPo article includes a slideshow of tweets in response. In the face of the controversy, Costas has now said his comments were "a mistake" (though he certainly did not apologize for his stand on gun culture), but I wish he hadn't: While it's true that a 90-second spot during a football broadcast is not enough time for a nuanced discussion of complex issues, even starting the conversation was valuable, and the outrage of people who don't think "politics" belongs on a sports broadcast is a Feature, Not a Bug©!

My question is, why in the hell is any of this controversial? How can anyone doubt that the gun culture in this country makes us less safe? Or that, like countless other victims of domestic and interpersonal violence, Kasandra Perkins and Jovan Belcher would likely still be alive if a gun hadn't been easy to hand?

Certainly the issues around gun culture, and what to do about it, are complex, as Costas says, but I want to focus on one of the tweets featured in HuffPo, from Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce (@jkelce):
Does Bob Costas know that people are murdered everyday by means other than gunshots? Removing guns will not stop psychos from killing people
Some variation of this argument always comes up whenever there's been a shooting that results in public conversation about guns, and it's always transparent bat crap. Of course there are other ways to kill people besides guns, but so what? Guns make it vastly easier to kill people, and to do so quicker, from a greater distance, and with less exposure to personal risk: That's the whole frickin' reason they exist!!

For those gun advocates who eagerly declare that guns aren't really required to do all sorts of mayhem, let me just ask: If that's so, why are you so scared that somebody might take away your guns? Surely you can do the things you need them for — defend your home and family from crime, repel tyrants, hunt elk, whatever — just as easily with a pocketknife or a fireplace poker, right? After all, what's good enough for "psychos" ought to be good enough for heroes, too, oughtn't it?

It's ridiculous.

Could Belcher have beaten Kasandra Perkins to death, or stabbed her, or run her over with his car? Sure. But he couldn't have done any of those things with a single, instantaneous, thoughtless twitch of one finger. And he could have started to do any of those things and still had a chance to stop himself before it was too late.

A determined killer will, I agree, find some way to kill, gun or no. But from all we can tell, this is not a story about a determined killer: It's a story about a young man who got angry with his girlfriend. It's a story about an argument that, in all likelihood, only turned lethal because Jovan Belcher happened to have lethal force literally at his fingertips. Jason Kelce may think it's a "MORONIC statement" for Whitlock to say, and Costas to repeat, that Belcher and Perkins would be alive if there hadn't been a handgun in the picture; I think it's stone cold truth.

How many other arguments have turned deadly in just the same way, because a gun happened to be nearby? How many petty crimes turned to murder? How many accidents and misunderstandings have led straight to the grave because a gun was involved? And when we are talking about "psychos," how much greater the body count because they have one or two or four or six guns than if they had knives or swords or clubs instead?

I don't hate guns categorically, or want to ban them (or think banning them would be politically possible even if I did want to), but please, for the love of all that's holy, can we stop pretending our gun culture doesn't make us less safe? Can we at least try to have a much-needed discussion about this topic with some semblance of sanity?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

No, You Don't Suck

A Facebook friend of mine — a classmate throughout grade school and high school (one of many with whom I have reconnected through the magic of teh intertooooobz™ in recent years) — today posted a link to this website, not to promote it, but to cast a critical eye on its products: T-shirts (and hoodies and sweatshirts and wristbands... but as far as I can tell, not coffee mugs or tote bags) emblazoned with the words Without Jesus I Suck!

Reaaally, now...?!?

The comments to my friend's post seemed mostly to be reactions to the crassness and vulgarity of the phrase, and to its embedded potential for sexual innuendo, but one commenter cut through all that: Citing the doctrine of total depravity, he opined that the people wearing the shirt were mistaken; that even with Jesus, they still suck!

I beg to disagree. In fact, I utterly reject any notion that humans — with or without Jesus — suck.

I'm not a theologian, of course, and I make no pretense of understanding the technical details of argument between the differing versions of this doctrine. But notion that we are all inherently depraved... wicked, in fact... and inherently powerless to be anything else strike me as a sort of mass cultural psychopathology, regardless of who may think it's good theology. It is nothing less than a broadly shared self-loathing, and there's no way it can be the basis for humans living together in anything like harmony or justice.

Indeed, I think (though my wife believes I overplay this, and it's quite likely she's at least partly right) that this idea of the innate corruption of humanity... indeed of everything in what John Donne called out as the "dull sublunary" sphere of human existence...  lies subtly, almost invisibly, at the root of a large number of our social problems: It is, I think, part of why we undervalue, if not outright demonize, physical pleasure and behaviors that are focused on pleasure; it is part of why we celebrate toil and hardship and suffering, not only because of good things that toil and forbearance in the face of hardship and suffering can enable, but also for its sheer, punishing difficulty; it is, more importantly, part of how ostensibly loving, compassionate, godfearing people can so easily discount others' suffering in the public sphere.

A world populated by people who believe we, by our very nature, do not deserve pleasure and do deserve pain and hardship and punishment will, not entirely surprisingly, be a world full of pleasure dulled by shame, in which unnecessary hardships are viewed, perversely, as just.

And that sucks.

Myself, I have a different view. There are plenty of individuals, of course, who could fairly be said to "suck," based on their personal behavior... but humanity as a whole? By its inherent nature? No, I'm sorry: I hold not with Augustine or Luther, but with Shakespeare. I said the link that spurred these thoughts was posted by an old high school classmate, and I recall the quote I placed in my senior class yearbook, from Hamlet (though admittedly I first encountered it in Hair):
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals....
 I believe human life is not innately depraved, but innately valuable and noble. I believe that the founders placed the pursuit of happiness aside, and equal to, life and liberty for a reason. I believe that happiness itself is the purpose of life, and that we should pursue it — including physical pleasure — without shame or regret. I believe that toil and suffering are noble only to the extent that they enable noble ends; they are never noble in their own right, nor does any human inherently deserve to suffer... nor should any of us be complacent (never mind satisfied) in the face of others' unnecessary toil and suffering. I believe, as William Faulkner asserted in accepting the Nobel Prize, that humankind will "not merely endure: [we] will prevail."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Blast From the (Holiday) Past

I know many people will think this perverse, but I love holiday shopping. Normally I hate struggling with crowds, but once Thanksgiving has come and gone and the Christmas season is properly begun, I love getting out in the stores and malls, mingling with the happy throngs. Charlie Brown and Snoopy can whinge all they want about commericalism; I just adore the sounds and sights and smells and joggled elbows of the winter retail rush.

But this weekend, I didn't have to go to the mall to get my blast of holiday nostalgia: It was waiting for me at the local CVS:









It's the DiscoveryKids Color Me Rocketship, and it took me straight back to my childhood, when I had, courtesy of the ads in the back of my comic books (or maybe it was Boys' Life?), first a cardboard spaceship and then a cardboard submarine!



These cool — and huge — toys provided a lot of under-the-tree impact on Christmas morning for very little money (even in late-60s dollars), and were incredibly cool to play in. Not the most durable of toys, but they didn't require any batteries, and any toy you wear out through happy play beats the ones that break down on Christmas morning, or eat batteries like Pez, or never really work at all. Just the right amount cooler and fancier than an empty refrigerator carton, these corrugated ships of dreams presented the same blank imaginative canvas.

I hadn't thought about my childhood fantasy transports for years, but stumbling upon the drugstore Space Shuttle brought it all back. The new version is improved in some ways: The tab-and-slot construction is undoubtedly safer than the sharp-edged rivets of the 60s versions, and I don't recall the old interiors being as detailed and play-friendly as the new one. But maybe the best thing about the Color Me Rocketship is how powerfully it reminded me of my days as Buck Rogers and Captain Nemo in those back-of-the-comic-book marvels.

I doubt there are any pictures of me in my submarine or spaceship, but teh intertoooobz has pictures of everything, and if it weren't for the fact that my backyard didn't have a fence, this could easily be me and my "Polaris Nuclear Sub," right down to the hair color (not to mention the Polaroid print).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Again, Krugman Has the Answer

Despite my excuses about not blogging much during the campaign (and especially the last 6 weeks or so of it), I was, of course, thinking about All the Things™; I just didn’t have time (or mental space) to write my thinkings down. What I did have time for, occasionally, was posting articles and columns to my Facebook timeline... and one of the people I most often shared that way was Paul Krugman, who often seemed to crystallize the things most on my own mind. Again, today, he's come to my philosophical aid.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about has been my growing frustration with the fact that it has become so common — right, left, or center — to discuss economic policy in terms, first and foremost, of what will work. This is, I think, a category error: Economic policy should serve the needs of society, and our society is not some sterile engineering project whose only purpose is to function well in a mechanical sense. Instead, society is a moral imperative: We join together to collectively guarantee each other’s rights, and for our mutual defense and support… including material support.

As such, the first goal of economic policy ought to be to help realize the moral imperative to which our very society is devoted… which is to say, the first goal of economic policy ought to be economic justice. The “engineering project” part — making things actually work — is crucial, of course, but it is secondary to, and in the service of, that first goal.

Too often, though, the “solutions” to our economic challenges offered, even by ostensibly progressive voices, have been entirely focused on making the numbers work, and not focused much at all on the human justice issues behind the numbers. You know, that “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” stuff? The part about “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”? Does it really honor those founding principles to slash our collective spending on the social support mechanisms for a minimally dignified, happy human life? To stop helping our neighbors who are poor or homeless or unemployed or sick or hungry? To force our parents and grandparents to stay on the job well into their allegedly golden years, and then force them to become part-time financial managers and insurance analysts once they are retired, in lieu of taking care of them in a secure, life-affirming way?

No, our first obligation is to craft a society that truly honors those founding principles, and that puts in place a sturdy floor to resist downward pressure on human dignity and material wellbeing. Only then should we begin to worry about how to pay for it. If we’re honest, and truly keep this moral imperative first among our priorities rather than venerating the individual success of those among us who are already the most fortunate, we will find that we really can afford it. As Paul Krugman reminds us, “economic justice and economic growth aren’t incompatible.” We seem to have forgotten that, Krugman notes, but he points out that…
America in the 1950s made the rich pay their fair share; it gave workers the power to bargain for decent wages and benefits; yet contrary to right-wing propaganda then and now, it prospered. And we can do that again.
I believe he’s right: We can do it again. I hope enough of us believe it to make it so.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

No Longer Waiting To Exhale

Logically, you'd'a thought somebody as breathlessly concerned with the outcome of our recent election as I am would have blogged quite a lot over the last few months... but in fact, I only managed a handful of posts. That's because I was actually working on the election, supporting, in concert with the Vernon Democratic Town Committee and the Quiet Corner Democrats, the campaigns of Congressman (now also Senator-Elect) Chris Murphy, Congressman Joe Courtney, Susan Eastwood for State Senate, and John Murphy and Claire Janowski for State Representative (not to mention collateral support for other state senate and representative campaigns).

And, of course, our essential president, Barack Obama.

Well, of course, now the election is over. Susan Eastwood and John Murphy ran great campaigns, of which I am proud and for which I am grateful, but couldn't overcome their long starting odds. Otherwise, though, it was a great Election Day for the Democratic candidates I supported, and for Connecticut, and, I am absolutely convinced, for the United States and the world.

"[T]he arc of the moral universe is long," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, "but it bends toward justice." I believe that with all my heart, and I believe we live in a time when the arc is bending ever more sharply. But I also believe progress can be thwarted... delayed... deferred... and I feared we were at risk for that in this election, as those who are on the wrong side of history recognized their last, best chance to turn back the tide.

Now, after not only Democratic but progressive candidates, and progressive ideas, won the people's approval across the country, I feel I can breathe again. The work is not done, of course; we can't simply rest on our laurels. But I have great hope for the years and decades to come.

And with that, maybe I'll have a renewed freedom to write out my random thoughts and bloviations here, and on my food blog as well, as opposed to just dashed off Facebook comments. I already have a few ideas in mind; watch this space.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Strategery?

Democrats and Democratic-leaning pundits were profoundly puzzled that President Obama didn’t attack challenger Mitt Romney, during Wednesday night’s debate, on his video comments characterizing 47 percent of the country as inveterate dependents who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives, but perhaps they anticipated that Romney was prepared to walk back that position, as he did the day after the debate:
"Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you're going to say something that doesn't come out right," Romney said. "In this case, I said something that's just completely wrong."
Breathless headlines featuring the words completely wrong imply that Romney has issued a truly consequential correction to his position… but unless there’s far more to his comments than the AP story reports, this is not really that. He does go on to say…
"And I absolutely believe, however, that my life has shown that I care about 100 percent and that's been demonstrated throughout my life. And this whole campaign is about the 100 percent."
…but that’s no more than the same platitude he mouthed when the video comments were first released. What, exactly, does Romney think was “completely wrong” about those remarks? Does he no longer believe a large fraction of the American population is made up of moochers and freeloaders? That they not only do not “take responsibility” for their lives, but can never be persuaded to do so? Does he no longer think that people who, for whatever reason, don’t pay this one form of tax therefore have no “skin in the game” when it comes to government or the public good? Does he no longer share his running mate’s view that the country is sharply divided into makers and takers? If his position has changed, Thursday’s glib and superficial comments do not say so.

In point of fact, the original comments were taped back in May, and Romney has presumably been telling donors and supporters more or less the same thing all this time. Certainly his running mate and surrogates have been saying things in public that, while not as explosively phrased, are perfectly consistent with Romney’s “completely wrong” comments, and the notion that nearly half of us are “takers” has been right-wing orthodoxy since well before Mother Jones released the Florida videotape. And it’s not just professional pundits: I’ve been hearing this sentiment repeated by conservative Facebook friends, and as a volunteer political canvasser, I’ve been hearing it from voters on the phones and at the doors.

The damning thing about Romney’s comments was precisely that they weren’t a misstatement or an error: They reflected the real views of the Republicans and movement conservatives who are Romney’s base of support, and of the conservative legislators and opinion shapers with whom he would have to work if he became president. It’s possible (but IMHO unlikely) those comments don’t reflect Romney’s own personal beliefs — it wouldn’t (not by a long shot) be the first time he’d said what his audience wanted to hear instead of what he really thinks — but he can’t successfully distance himself from them with a single paragraph. You can’t wave away a core belief of your own political movement with a one-liner.

Any more than you can wave away your own long-held, long-promoted tax proposals with a one-liner (albeit often repeated) denial in a debate. Based on the president’s response to Romney’s claim that his own plan wasn’t his plan on taxes, it seems Team Obama didn’t anticipate it; perhaps they did anticipate that Romney would try to wave away the 47 percent issue, and didn’t want to give him such a large stage on which to do it?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Three Things You Need To Know About the Romney Video

Most of the commentary around the video Mother Jones released yesterday of Mitt Romney addressing a roomful of high-dollar donors has focused on the single, most obvious, aspect of what he said, but I think there are really three salient observations arising from this episode. One of them isn’t as bad as it sounds… but either one of the other two ought, in my opinion, disqualify Mr. Romney from the presidency.

The most consequential aspect, and the one primarily being discussed, is the contempt Romney expressed for nearly half of his fellow Americans, and uncritically for all of President Obama’s supporters, calling them, in effect, lazy moochers who can’t be persuaded, under any circumstances, to take responsibility for their own lives or be productive members of society. This false generalization is not merely offensive in principle, though it is certainly that; it is not merely terrible electoral tactics likely to turn off the very swing voters Romney is focused on, though it is certainly that, as well; it is also a judgment, which Romney can never un-say, that would likely make it impossible for Romney to lead this country were he to be elected. Consider President Obama’s words in Grant Park, Chicago, on Election Night in 2008:
”…while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.¹ As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.’ And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.”
How can we imagine a President Romney saying anything similar (and having anyone believe him) after having written off half the country as not only unprincipled, but intransigently so? And having characterized half the country as, in effect, undeserving and incorrigibly selfish children, how could we hope his approach to governing would be anything other than punitive and authoritarian? This is not just about socioeconomic prejudice, though it is about that in spades; it is also about the fundamental conservative vision of government as a process of identifying and correcting moral deficiencies: what George Lakoff calls the strict father model.

Ironically, I suspect one of the reasons some conservatives are terrified of government is that this authoritarian vision of government as a moral “corrections officer” is the only model they have. In fact, though, that’s not, and never has been, how our government actually operates, and it’s hard to see how a man who has articulated such a paternalistic view of half our population could be an effective president.

But in addition to revealing a paternalistic contempt for a huge fraction of the people he seeks to lead, Romney’s comments also reveal a sloppy and innumerate mind: 47 percent is probably a reasonable estimate of the number of voters who are committed to voting for the president, and who are beyond persuasion to do otherwise. 47 percent is also the characteristic number that’s been consistently thrown around on the right as the proportion of the population that “doesn’t pay any taxes.” Now, there are lots of reasons to criticize that assertion, but that number is a persistent and popular meme in the right-wing blogosphere and Facebookosphere.

What Mitt Romney appears to have done is seize on 47 percent to conflate what are actually two distinct populations: The 47 percent who don’t pay federal income tax are not the lazy slackers Romney caricatures them as, of course, but they are also not the same as the group of people who are committed to voting for the president, no matter that they share a number. For one thing, it’s 47 percent² of Americans who don’t pay income tax, but 47 percent of voters who are undissuadably committed to supporting the president. As much as we may wish it were otherwise, the population of registered voters is smaller than the population of eligible voters, and that, in turn, is smaller than the whole American population. My own admittedly anecdotal experience is that no small number of President Obama’s supporters — who not only vote for him but devote no small amount of time and treasure advocating for his reelection — are solidly in the tax-paying classes, while many Republican voters likely fall into the group that doesn’t pay income tax (e.g., many conservative senior citizens don’t pay taxes, due to the nontaxability of Social Security benefits and special tax deductions available to the elderly).

That Romney has apparently confused these two distinct groups based on a numerical (shall we say, numerological?) coincidence does not speak well for his possession of the analytical powers we expect of an American leader. I don’t imagine Romney is stupid, mind you, but a sloppy comment like this suggests he may be intellectually lazy. Or perhaps he just doesn’t think “the 47 percent” deserve his consideration? If his contempt for the struggles of working people and the poor didn’t already disqualify him for leadership, his disinclination to even think hard about their struggles surely ought to. No matter what Rick Santorum thinks about “elite, smart people,” I think that’s who most of us want in the Oval Office.

The third aspect of this — Romney’s assertion that “my job is not to worry about those people. …” — may not be quite as awful as it sounds. Remember that this was a campaign fundraiser, and he was talking campaign strategy. If what he really meant was, “my job [as a candidate] is not to worry about those people [who aren’t going to vote for me anyway]”… well, every serious candidate for office has said the same thing (or has had a campaign manager or consultant say it too them) at some point in every serious campaign. It is a truism of politics that before your platform, no matter how noble, can become policy, you must first win. So noting that a campaign can’t afford to spend time and resources talking to the unpersuadable is just smart electoral strategy.

It would, of course, be easier to credit that motivation to Romney if he hadn’t followed that sentence with “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives [emphasis added]”… which gets us right back into the realm of strict father contempt.

So maybe this part, too, really is as bad as it sounds, after all.

           

¹ I anticipate the rejoinder that President Obama has not, in fact, healed those divides; I submit that it hasn’t been for lack of “determination” to do so. Indeed, many of his own partisans complain that the president has invested too much of his political capital on bridging divides, even after it was clear there was nobody on the opposite bank also interested in bridge building.

² Actually, a little more than 46 percent, but the right seems to be good at rounding up instead of rounding off.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Message From the Doors

No, not those Doors; Jim Morrison hasn't risen from the grave! The doors I'm talking about the ones I knocked on today, canvassing for Democratic candidates Joe Courtney (running for reelection in Connecticut's 2nd Congressional District), Chris Murphy (running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman, who is retiring), Susan Eastwood (running for State Senate in the 35th District), and John Murphy (running for the 8th District in the Connecticut state house).

Canvassing and phonebanking — direct, real-time contact with voters — is hard work, but I love doing it. I think if more people got involved in campaigns, fewer people would be cynical about politics, in part because of the contact with voters, and in part because, at every level below presidential races, volunteers actually meet the elected officials and candidates they're working for, and they get to see that most of them (in my personal experience, all of them) are intelligent, hardworking people deeply committed to working for the good of their constituents (or those they hope will soon be constituents).

I get that there are differing philosophies about government and society, so "the good of their constituents" is up for debate... but that's why we have elections, and that's why election results ought to matter. Disagreement alone shouldn't be a cause for cynicism — it's the mark of a healthy, diverse culture — but when it turns out that the debate didn't matter, because the winning ideas aren't allowed to actually win, even the most hopeful among us are at risk for despair.

I was hearing a bit of that at the doors today: More than one voter told me they had supported President Obama in 2008, but they weren't planning to support any Democrats this year. Now, when they train you on canvassing, they tell you not to spend too much time at any one door: The point is to gather data and identify supporters, and the key is knocking on as many doors as you can get to. But I couldn't leave these doors without finding out why these voters had changed their minds.

It turned out they hadn't changed their minds: They still believed in the same things and wanted the same changes that they voted for 4 years ago, but they're disappointed... maybe even disgusted... that so little seems to have gotten done, and that things still seem so tough for so many people. I might (though I didn't today) argue with them over how much has gotten done, but on the surface, it's a reasonable response: These people haven't fixed things, so let's get some different people.

But under the surface, it's more complicated: These people haven't fixed things, in large part, because the different people stopped them... not just because they disagree, but because they refused to accept that they lost the argument fair and square. And even if you think that these people are aren't doing enough, aren't trying hard enough, it doesn't follow that what they're trying to do is wrong, or that doing the opposite would be better.

I know not everybody supports the president's policies or the progressive Democratic agenda. But if you do support them - if you still believe in the things that led you to vote for hope and change 4 years ago - please know that you can't achieve your ends by voting for Republicans, nor by not voting at all: The only possible way to fix the things that disappointed you about the last 4 years is to give the president 4 more years. He still believes in the things he believed in then; what he needs to give you the things you hope for is more time... and more Democrats to work with, both in the Congress and in state governments around the country. Voting for different people might feel good for a moment... but not only will it not accomplish the change you want, it will make it impossible.

I think I convinced at least one of the voters I talked to today, but this is what terrifies me: That we'll lose the argument this time not on the merits, but because people who actually agree with us have been driven to cynicism and despair. I won't stop worrying about that 'til after November 6. Talk about riding the storm out!

Friday, September 14, 2012

More About Heartbreak

In my last post, I mentioned that I'd considered, then thought better of, a longer post about the situation in Egypt and Libya, which has sadly now spread to much of the rest of the Muslim world, and is affecting American businesses and the outposts of other Western governments.

Even though there's now reason to think the fatal attack on our consulate in Benghazi was a planned terrorist operation and not a protest-gone-wrong after all, there's no doubt there were actual organic protests in Egypt and elsewhere, nor that it's common around the world for people to attack the U.S. Government for the actions and words of American (or at least U.S.-based) individuals and private businesses.

What I had in mind to say on Wednesday, but couldn't figure out how to articulate without appearing to validate the actions of thugs, was this: I think the reason people around the world blame our government for the speech of individuals is that they simply don't believe our government doesn't control our people's words... and I fear the reason they don't believe that is that it's never been true for them in their own countries.

None of that excuses or justifies violence and murder, of course, but one of the many things about this story that breaks my heart is that it stands as evidence of how many people around the world have lived under tyranny for so long that they can't even wrap their heads around real freedom. The behavior of the violent mobs (and let's remember that many of the protestors have not been violent) is inexcusable, but that doesn't mean they're not victims, too.

On Wednesday, I was afraid to say this; last night, in the final segment of her show, Rachel Maddow was braver and smarter than me (she almost always is):


Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Heartbroken for More than the Obvious Reason

I had a longer post in mind about the tragic loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, and two of their colleagues in Benghazi, Libya, but I find I'm too heartbroken. Heartbroken for the obvious reason, of course, but it's more than that:

Today may be the day Mitt Romney definitively lost the 2012 presidential election. That's a result I devoutly hope for... one that I believe is vital to the secure future of our nation... and yet I can take no joy in it. By choosing to take cynical political advantage of American diplomats in peril, and by doubling down even after that peril turned lethal, Romney defiled the political process.

That might sound like a joke — how could politics get any more defiled than it already is, right? — but it's not: Politics — the actual practice of democratic self-government — is at the very heart of the American idea. It's a big part of what Stevens, Smith, and the others were in Benghazi to represent, and what they were trying to bring to the Libyan people.

Romney's callous and cynical comments not only disrespected these brave Americans' deaths, they disrespected the very thing they gave their lives for. They deserved better.

And that is all I can bring myself to say tonight.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Do We Really Need Gendered Restaurants?

In the grand scheme of things, restaurant concepts aren't the most consequential of all possible things, so I won't take up too much of your time with it, but this story of a "steakhouse for women" bounced off my head today.

At some level, I get it: The traditional steakhouse ambiance — baked potatoes and great slabs of bloody beef, served up with multiple martinis, cocooned in an environment of dark tones and leather upholstery — is the quintessence of Hollywood masculinity. But does a separate-but-equal feminine counterpart work against that stereotype... or does it simply reinforce it?

Restaurants have all sorts of "hooks," some clever, some silly, and some borderline offensive, and ultimately there are more important things in the world... as hours of watching the Democratic National Convention this evening have driven home for me.

But all things being equal, I think I'd rather live in a world without gendered restaurants.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Way Better

As we steam through convention season, we've been hearing the question "are you better off than you were 4 years ago" almost incessantly, and frankly, it's pissing me off. Of course, we are better off than we were in late 2008 — anyone who says otherwise is suffering from an epic case of situational amnesia — but the question as posed has embedded in it two assumptions that I cannot abide:

First is the assumption that comparing two points on the "graph" of history is meaningful to making a choice between two sets of policy options. Instead, I think what's important is to compare the same point on two parallel graphs: That of what actually did happen, and that of what would have happened if we'd made different choices.

We know the choices President Obama made, and we know that Mitt Romney would have made different choices... because he's told us so. In late 2008, our economy was in freefall, and as candidate, president-elect, and then the newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama supported and/or took steps to stop the headlong slide... steps that Mitt Romney and his party have condemned.

So it's as if we were an out-of-control downhill skier, careening toward a collision with the trees, but we've regained control, skidded to a safe stop, and started laboriously sidestepping back up the hill. The right question to ask is not whether we're higher on the hill than when we lost control: Maybe we are, and maybe we aren't, but the question that matters is where would we be if we hadn't taken the steps we did? If we'd tried some different method to miss the trees.

Many of us, of course, are still hurting: We've lost a job, or a home, or a life's savings. But as a society, we are collectively better off than we were in those crazy, out-of-control days of 2008-2009... and I'm absolutely certain that we're better off than we would've been without TARP and the Recovery Act and the auto bailout and Dodd-Frank and the payroll tax holiday and the extension of unemployment benefits and... well, you get the idea.

And while we're talking about "as a society" and "collectively," let me get to the second thing that pisses me off about this question:

Why do we assume that "better off" can only be measured in financial terms, and only in terms of individual wellbeing?

I was lucky, more or less, in the financial downturn: I lost a couple years of raises, but I didn't lose my job, and my pay is higher now than in 2008; we lost essentially 3 years of appreciation in our 401k, but it's recovered, and the account balance is higher than in 2008; we lost some of the equity in our home, but we didn't lose our home, and we've never been "upside-down" in our mortgage... so you tell me whether I'm "better off" in strictly material terms.

But strictly material terms aren't all that matters to me. I'm better off than I was 4 years ago because of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. I'm better off because more of my neighbors enjoy the access to quality healthcare my family already enjoyed. I'm better off because same-sex couples can marry in my state, and because LGBT folk can serve openly in my country's military. Hard times come and go, but whether we're better or worse off materially, financially, at any given moment, we are all better off when we're working to build a fairer, more humane, more mutually supportive society.

I'm convinced that that's what Barack Obama has been leading us to do over the last 4 years, and I'm convinced that's how he will lead us for the next 4 years. So yes, dammit, I'm better off.

Way better.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

That's Not Whining...

Here’s an article that I think is not wrong, but misses the point rather badly. That is, Kimberly Stiens is certainly correct in pointing out that a single college-graduate 20-something earning more than $30 thousand per year (with healthcare and paid vacation) doing work they care about probably shouldn’t be whining about how poor they are… especially not while they’re knocking back their second $8 cocktail in a trendy DC bar. And we should all be mindful that literally billions of people around the world would not only trade places with almost any American, but would walk across broken glass to do so. Most of us in the U.S. — including even most of the least fortunate among us — are vastly better off than huge percentages of our fellow humans, and we should be grateful for that.

But does that mean that worries about the middle class are misplaced, as Stiens suggests? That we should all join her in being “sick of hearing about the trials and tribulations of the middle class”? I don’t think so, for a number of reasons.

First, I think it’s a bit of a strawman. I haven’t been spending a lot of time clubbing with ambitious, privileged recent graduates in DC — maybe my daughter, who has just started as a George Washington University graduate student will be able to provide me some field intel on the question — but in terms of the political discourse around the plight of the middle class, what I’ve been hearing was really not been primarily privileged youths whining that they’re not even more privileged. Instead, the discussion has been about the increasingly great number of people who are falling out of that privileged group, and the increasingly fewer numbers of college graduates who can count on joining it. Stiens’ own article admits that the middle class is shrinking, and points out that she was far more confident about her future when she enrolled in college (in 2004) than she was four years later when she graduated. Those are important facts, and they’re not rendered less important by the fact that some young adults can still afford to go out drinking. We ignore the shrinking of the middle class, and a whole generation’s loss of confidence in its future, at our peril.

Second, I think Stiens is a bit na├»ve about how deep or durable her privilege is. She’s young, and presumably healthy, and as yet has (as far as we can tell from the essay) no spouse/partner, children, elderly parents, etc., depending upon her to provide some or all of their support: When she happily announces that her job provides healthcare coverage, she doesn’t mention how good it is, nor what her share of the premium is, nor what her share of the premium will be once she needs to change her coverage to “Employee + Spouse” or “Employee + Family.”

There’s no doubt that having employer-subsidized health insurance is a privilege, compared to those living in poverty, but she may be surprised, when the time comes, to learn how much less of a privilege it is for her than it was for her parents’ generation. She might also be surprised to learn how many of her putative socioeconomic peers — people who are otherwise middle class — are uninsured or underinsured. I also note that her listing of employer-provided benefits includes paid vacation in addition to health insurance, but not paid sick time or a pension plan. Perhaps she just didn’t mention the former, because it seems to go without saying (except that for too many, it really doesn’t), but I’m guessing she doesn’t have a pension plan: Most new hires don’t, these days. If they’re lucky, they get some sort of tax-deferred savings plan (401k or equivalent), to which the employer maybe contributes a little bit, but for most working people under about 50, the traditional defined-benefit pension is giving way to market-based accounts that carry no guarantee of retirement income, or to nothing at all. To a single 25 year old, it probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the middle class has not only shrunk, it’s also gotten less secure — shall we say, thinner — in ways that will matter to Stiens someday, even if she can’t see it yet.

Does that mean she should join her whiny acquaintances and start complaining? Of course not. She’s not wrong to think she’s privileged. I’m privileged, too. But the fact that some of us — perhaps many of us — are still living what can only fairly be called a good life doesn’t mean the shrinking, thinning middle class isn’t a social problem, and a harbinger of even greater problems looming before us. It's a problem not only for the middle class itself; it's also a problem for all the segments of our economy that depend on a thriving middle class that feels secure enough to spend its "disposable" income... including those who really are poor, and whose minimum-wage jobs depend on a thriving consumer economy.

It’s a problem that arises from public policy, and one that can only be solved through public policy, and talking about it isn't "whining"; it's citizenship.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Not To Sound Like a Broken Record, But...

…I’m getting really, really, really tired of the Huffington Post and its misleading, hype-drenched headlines.

By “headlines,” I mean the text of links that appear along with a thumbnail photo on HuffPo’s front page, or on one of its main topic pages, and point to the actual story. In many cases, the title that appears above the actual story text is fine, but the “headline” link text implies that the story is bigger, juicier, or more consequential — often much more so — than it really is. The president has even mentioned this tendency in passing in recent weeks.

And speaking of the president, the example that has me griping about this again, even after the Jennifer Carroll story I’ve written about yesterday and earlier today, is this headline on the HuffPost Politics front page: “Obama Booed for Big Fail.”

”Big fail”? What could that mean? A major political gaffe on the campaign trail? Some inadvertent insult to an audience (or perhaps an advertent one, like Mitt Romney’s apparently deliberate diss of the NAACP last week)? An international-incident-provoking diplomatic blunder?

Nope. The president’s “big fail” was failing to realize that the “Kiss Cam” was trained on him and the First Lady while they watched the USA Basketball men’s/women’s Olympic prep doubleheader against Brazil last night at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. Not realizing the Kiss Cam was showing them (or perhaps not being familiar with the Kiss Cam concept, since I don’t imagine they have time to get to lots of games), the First Couple… didn’t kiss. And the crowd apparently booed… but given that the same crowd had given the president’s entourage (which included the vice president and the president’s personal aide Reggie Love, in addition to the First Lady) “loud cheers” when they first arrived, I’m guessing the boos were more along the lines of good-natured teasing than serious disapproval. After Sasha and Malia Obama clued their parents in at halftime, they got another shot at the public smooch, and this time they apparently stuck the dismount.

It’s a cute little human interest story about the president showing up to support our Olympic teams, but “big fail”? Eh, not so much.

Didn't I Just Say That?

HuffPo has (sorta’) changed its tune about the story I mentioned yesterday regarding Republican Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll: While yesterday the front-page link to the story described the sexual allegations against Carroll as “shocking,” today the link highlights “GOPer’s Strange Response To Sex Scandal Accusation” [emphasis added].

Well, duh! Didn’t I say her giggling, smiling, “folks who look like me don’t do that” response seemed odd? I would expect anger (if the accusations are unequivocally false), or steadfastly Clintonesque evasiveness (if the accusations are unequivocally true), or something… but I would not expect lighthearted non-denial denials. It makes me wonder if the real story is something in between unequivocally false and unequivocally true.

 It would be reckless to speculate about Carroll’s actual case, because all I know about it is what’s in this one news story (and the brief local TV report that was apparently its source), but let’s imagine a parallel, but purely hypothetical case: Imagine a public official who is bisexual but married to an opposite-sex spouse, and who engages in same-sex sexual activity with the spouse’s full knowledge and agreement. That is, imagine that they’re in what Dan Savage would call a “monogamish” relationship.¹ In such a case, facts similar to those contained in the “accusations” leveled at Carroll might not be scandalous at all… except, of course, to moralistic prudes, of which there is likely no shortage among Florida Republicans, nor among conservative, churchgoing southern black folks, either.

Whatever the actual facts are in Carroll’s case, awareness that the truth was potentially embarrassing in a social and political context, but not actually damaging in a legal or ethical sense, might conceivably lead to responses with the tone and tenor she displays in those soundbites.

Regardless of any speculation, though, it seems to me that there are only two questions in this case that are legitimately matters of public concern:
  • Did Carroll commit sexual harassment in a public workplace? This, of course, hinges on questions of consent and coercion and is not certain, even assuming the alleged sexual relationship actually took place.
  • Did Carroll retaliate against an employee who possessed potentially embarrassing information, as her accuser claims is the case.
Everything else — what kind of sex she likes, who she’s had sex with, even whether she’s broken any promises to her husband — is nobody’s business but the individuals directly involved.

 ___
 ¹ Notwithstanding the reports we heard during the Republican presidential nomination contest that Newt Gingrich had tried to retroactively legitimize years of marital infidelity by asking his second wife for an after-the-fact “open marriage,” some couples really do negotiate these things honestly, and in advance.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Lesbian Dalliance "Shocking"? SRSLY?

As much as I’m tempted to engage in a certain amount of schadenfreude when it comes to Republican sex scandals, there are several levels of FAIL in this HuffPo story, not least of which is my general observation that, all too often, the main thing that makes sex scandals scandalous in the first place is that our culture still treats sex itself as inherently scandalous.

But leaving that broad sociological question aside, this particular story is a catalog of troubling language and approaches:

 First, it’s yet another case of HuffPo’s habit of using misleading, over-the-top link text on its front page to overhype stories. While the headline of the actual story reads “Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll Denies Lesbian Relationship Claims,” the link text on the Politics front page hyperventilates, “GOP Lt. Gov Denies Shocking Sex Allegations.” Really? With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell dead and gone, DOMA on its legal deathbed, and increasing numbers of states embracing same-sex marriage, does a whiff of lesbianism really still make a story about sexual behavior “shocking”? I suppose some might think marital infidelity on the part of public officials is inherently shocking, but in this headline, does “Shocking Sex Allegations” really tell us anything that “Sex Allegations” wouldn’t tell us just as well?

But by now, I’m not at all surprised by yellow-journalistic headlines from this particular corner of teh intertoooobz. This would just have been another check in that box, if it weren’t for the quotes from accused Florida Lt. Gov. Carroll herself, including “Black women that look like me don't engage in relationships like that” (delivered with a giggle).

Huh? What does what she looks like have to do with it? I don’t even know what she means by that: Is she suggesting she’s not attractive enough to have a lesbian affair? Too attractive? Too “normal” looking? I can’t help wondering what she thinks people who “engage in relationships like that” are supposed to look like? AFAIK, people who look all kinds of different ways have all kinds of sex, and I’m at a loss as to why Jennifer Carroll might think otherwise. 


I’m also at a loss as to what she thinks her race has to do with it. I totally get that there may be some broad cultural differences in what sorts of sexual behavior folks engage in, and sometimes culture tracks closely with race (to the extent that concept has any meaning), but isn’t applying that sort of broad generalization to individuals the very definition of stereotyping, if not (in this case) racism?

Actually, taken together, “Black folks don’t do that” and “people who look like me don’t do that” sound to me like what Ben Bradlee¹ would’ve called a non-denial denial: Though the HuffPo story (based on a local TV news report) quotes her as referring to the accusations as "blatant lies," what she doesn’t clearly say is “I didn’t do that.”

She does point out that her accuser is single, as if that had anything to do with her veracity, and then says...
The problem is that when you have these accusations that come out, it's not just one person you're attacking. It's an entire family. My husband doesn't want to hear that. He knows the type of woman I am. I mean, my kids know the type of woman I am.
...as if either her husband's discomfort or her family's knowledge of "the type of woman [she is]" would have the power to change the accusations from true to false.

I don't know where the truth lies in this story, which has apparently been going on for some time. There may be genuine scandal here: spousal betrayal, perhaps (though perhaps not, as we have no way of knowing the private parameters of Carroll's relationship with her husband), and maybe workplace sexual harassment, since Carroll's alleged trysting partner was her aide. Or it might all be the vindictive fabrications of a disgruntled former employee, who was fired and is being prosecuted for allegedly leaking confidential materials.

What I do know, though, is that we shouldn't think the sex of Carroll's alleged lover is what would make this a scandal, and we shouldn't imagine we know anything about Carroll's sexuality based on what she looks like.

Both HuffPo and Carroll herself ought to know better.

____
¹ Or his movie incarnation, in any case.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Facebook Recycle: Right Wing Boogeyman of the Weekend

If I'm going to write blog-post-length Facebook comments, I might as well also post them on my blog, right?

I have a friend — not just a Facebook "friend," but an actual dear friend from days past —who can be reliably counted upon to occasionally post (or link to in comments on my posts) the latest right-wing "news" about the outrages committed by our third-world dictatorpresident. Today, it was a link to this website about the OBAMAPHONE, which my friend was upset about because...
  1. It's (presumably evil, socialist) redistribution of tax dollars! Also...
  2. Obama's falsely claiming credit for it.
Wondering how it makes sense to be mad at someone for appropriating credit for what you think is a bad idea? Yeah, me too. But this is not my friend's first rodeo: Anticipating skepticism (maybe mine in particular), she preemptively declared, "yes, I checked with Snopes - it's true!"

Well, I checked with Snopes, too, and read the site she linked to, and read the real government site about this program, and here, slighlty "revised and extended" (as they say in Congress), is my response:

First, I'm almost certain that site you link to isn't an official government site: It would have a .gov domain if it were, and it surely would be better designed and edited (i.e., the .gov sites don't usually have so many typos). Your criticisms of terminology ("Obama Phone") and specific claims are moot if, as I suspect, they're not actually the president's terms or claims.

Second, even that site doesn't say what you say it says: I doesn't attempt to give Obama credit for the program, clearly (and correctly) saying that "The Lifeline program was actually created decades ago [during the Reagan administration, in fact] to help low income families have access to land lines," and that the program has been expanded over time to include cell phones (more about that in a sec).

Third, it's not clear whether you actually object to "tax dollars" being used this way or only to the claim that the program is not paid for by taxpayers. Well, it's not: The Universal Service Fund is funded by fees paid by telecommunications companies. You might call that a tax on the companies (though Republicans are happy to distinguish fees from taxes when it suits their purposes; in fact, replacing taxes with user fees used to be a reliable Republican strategy, back in the day), but in any case it's not a tax on individuals. In practice, most of these companies pass the USF through to their customers, but that's their choice, not federal law. Ultimately, of course, everything any company spends comes from its customers, one way or another... but the key word is customers: everyone who purchases telecom services from a U.S. provider will end up paying a portion of this fee, whether they're U.S. taxpayers or not.
Taxpayers who are not phone company customers do not contribute to the fund; phone company customers who are not U.S. taxpayers (e.g., foreign nationals who do business with U.S. phone companies) do contribute.

Finally, did you actually read the Snopes article? It doesn't say this is true: It characterizes it as a "mixture of true and false information." The true part is that the program exists (and has, in its earliest form, since the Reagan years, as I said); the false part is that it's an Obama program. Even the free cell phone¹ part, SafeLink Wireless by TracFone, launched in August 2008... which is to say, months before Obama was even elected, let alone took office.

In summary, this is a perfectly reasonable social support program that's been going on, in one form or another, for decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Tell me again what you're so outraged about?
The comment thread that followed this included one of my friend's friends implicitly suggesting that giving poor people a cheap-ass phone and a handful of free minutes will somehow disincent them from looking for work (as if it's even possible for someone without a phone to look for work!), and another saying that Universal Service is a "socialist program."

After the smoke clears from the misinformation, strawmanning, and manufactured outrage, the question remains: Given that a phone number is essential to any effort at self-help, and that a phone can be literally lifesaving, do these people really think subsidized phones for the poor are a bad idea? I'm afraid they probably do. Strange as it seems, many conservatives I talk to seem to think the fact that someone is poor constitutes evidence that they deserve to be poor: If they just tried harder, of course, they wouldn't be poor, and why should we smart, hardworking people pay to help those who won't even try?

I can't adequately say how sad it makes me that some folks feel this way, and are so ready to write their fellows off as undeserving. I direct their attention to the "certain unalienable Rights" with which our forebears declared all are endowed; I search in vain for any level-of-effort test on that endowment. Never mind that most of the poor are poor for reasons beyond their own control; in no case are they undeserving, merely owing to their poverty, of our care and support.

___
¹ Actually, not all participating providers give free phones; some just give discounts

Friday, June 22, 2012

Podcast Timewarp: A Brainless Defense of Inequality

I have a job that keeps me at a keyboard for most of most of my days, and I've developed the habit of listening to podcasts while I work to help keep me sane through my daily toil¹. There are a number of time-sensitive things I make a point of listening to right away (e.g., The Best of Mike and Mike in the Morning would hardly be worth listening to days or weeks after the fact), but generally I have more stuff in the queue than I can keep up with, so occasionally I find myself listening to the podcast of a radio show weeks after it was broadcast, long after the opportunity to respond on the website comments thread, or by calling in, has passed. That's my Podcast Timewarp, and when the spirit moves me, I'm going to bring my untimely responses here to the Spleen for venting.

Today I listened to an hour of On Point Radio titled "The 1 Percent Speaks," featuring Ed Conard, former Bain Capital executive and author of Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong. I haven't read Conard's book, and much of the back and forth between Conard and fellow guest Timothy Noah of The New Republic was economic wonkery that's beyond my ken... but the gist of Conard's argument seems to be that huge inequality in the distribution of wealth is not only inevitable but actually desirable, because, he says, it's necessary to create the incentives individuals require before they're willing to take risks and generate the innovation that makes our economy so much better than those of other industrialized nations.

Huh, really?

Along the way to this stunning conclusion, he calls out the entrepreneurial darlings of Information Age innovation: Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Google, Facebook... and specifically name-checks Apple founder Steve Jobs several times. Apparently we need historically high levels of wage inequality if we're going to have any more Steve Jobses.

Well, that's bullshit.

It's particular bullshit as regards the actual Steve Jobs. I'm known to my friends as a bit of an Apple fanboy (not that most of them would use that term, since they share my enthusiasm), so it's not surprising that I read Walter Isaacson's massive biography of Jobs (well, listened to it, to be precise) pretty much as soon as I could get my hands on it. The picture that emerges from Jobs' story is one of a complex, strange, somewhat dark, often sad, and remorselessly brilliant man, driven by diverse personal imperatives. What does not emerge is the image of a person who would've become a lawyer or a shoe salesman instead if he'd thought he'd die with only $4 or $5 billion, instead of the $8 billion he actually made. Jobs emphatically did care about money, in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, but there seems to be no evidence that he cared about ludicrous wealth for its own sake, nor that he would have cared about the difference between merely ludicrous wealth and stupidly ludicrous wealth.

Keep in mind that Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in the mid 1970s, when tax rates on the highest earners were much higher than anything being suggested by even the most progressive thinkers today, and when the gap between rich and poor was vastly smaller than it is today. If fixing wealth inequality were really going to cost us the next Steve Jobs, we never would've had the first one!

But there's one more problem with Conard's thesis, and it's this:


That's Jobs' parents' house, and that garage is the one in which Apple Computer famously began, rather as Hewlett-Packard had begun a generation earlier. Look familiar? It's a fairly typical modest middle class home. Other pioneers of the computer age — Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce of Intel, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Mark Zuckerberg — came from more or less privileged backgrounds, but all of them were, broadly speaking, of the middle class. None of them started with enormous wealth, and none of them was poor, either.

My hypothesis is that it's not the lure of great wealth that fosters risk-taking and innovation, but instead the key is a broad, flourishing middle class. The very poor can't take these kinds of risks: They don't have the resources to make the ante, and for many of them mere survival takes all their energy. The already-very-wealthy have too much to lose, and no need to take risks. But middle class families —whether blue/pink collar workers like Jobs' (adoptive) parents or professionals and academics like the parents of some of the others — can provide enough support for their kids' dreams to grow, while not presenting wealth (and its attendant responsibilities) that cannot be risked.

Jobs had disposable income to indulge a modestly expensive hobby, access (as a teen) to employment that could support expanding that hobby, and a secure family home in which to turn that hobby into a groundbreaking business. This is fundamentally a tale of middle class success.

The problem, both for Conard's thesis and for our country, is that the increasingly top-heavy distribution of our wealth is destroying our middle class. Conard and his fellow travelers on the right seem to think progressives want to destroy the rich and eliminate any hope of upward mobility for the next generation of Steve Jobses, but that's not what we want: We don't want to pull down the upper class; we just want to throw a lifesaver to the rapidly dwindling middle class, which really is the home of innovative risk-takers.

What do I know, you might ask? How do I know what "we" want? Well, because Rachel Maddow and Mother Jones told me so. One of the serendipitous joys of Podcast Timewarp is that it allows me to marry up a month-old radio show with an infographic Maddow featured on her show just a couple days ago:



It shows that, when asked what they think the wealth distribution ought to be (the bottom row of the graph), Americans are perfectly content to let the rich continue to be rich, with the top 20 percent retaining more than 35 percent of the wealth. In the ought-to-be distribution, the top earners are still at the top and the bottom earners are still at the bottom. And the middle are still in the middle. It's just that there's a fairer, more humane spread between top and bottom, and a lot more people in that creative, productive middle.

I guess Ed Conard thinks this goal would be a bad thing. But that's bullshit.
___
¹ OK, so what I do hardly counts as toil by any rational standard; allow me a tiny bit of poetic license?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

RIP, LeRoy Nieman

When I heard today that artist LeRoy Neiman had died at 91, my first reaction was surprise that he wasn't already dead; I haven't thought about him, nor heard anything about him, in years.

That's not to say I haven't ever thought about him, though: My father, who passed away in 2005, was a big fan of Neiman, who was most famous for his brightly colored, kinetic sketches, paintings, and serigraphs of athletes and sporting events. Serious art critics and aficionados typically wrote him off as "garish and superficial," when they weren't ignoring him altogether, but Neiman's work was wildly popular in its day, and he lived a flamboyant, globe-trotting public life: Imagine the commercial success of Norman Rockwell, facial hair to rival Dali, and the lifestyle of a happy version of Hemingway.

And then there was, of course, Playboy.

My father genuinely loved Neiman's painting style, no matter what the critics said, and even consciously emulated it in a couple of his own amateur paintings, one of which hangs in my upstairs hallway. But in the 60s and early 70s, Dad was also one of those white-collar suburban sophisticates for whom a subscription to Playboy was a point of pride. It can't have hurt Dad's opinion of him that Neiman had been involved with the magazine since its first year of operation; had created Femlin, the iconic "curvaceous brunette who cavorted across the [Party Jokes] page in thigh-high stockings, high-heeled shoes, opera gloves and nothing else" [NYT, 6/20/2012]; painted the running Man at His Leisure feature; and was generally more closely associated with the Playboy lifestyle than any nonphotographer not named Alberto Vargas.

As I learned researchingGoogling stuff for this post, Neiman's memoir All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs was published earlier this month, and I'm thinking it might be worth a look. Maybe it's time for another look at his art, too, now that his personal celebrity and commercialism no longer obscure the view. Personally, I always found the energy and dynamism of his images appealing. Much of it is "merely" illustration (but you could say that about plenty of other great artists, couldn't you), but not all. This image, for instance, is oddly reminiscent of one of my father's other favorite artists, Winslow Homer (compare):

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Miss Me? I'm Back...

I've been away from this soapbox for too long, and now that I'm back I have several posts in the pipeline... but just to prime the pump, I'll say that EJ Dionne is absolutely correct here, and it's something that needs to be said way more often. As he puts it:
Let’s turn Ronald Reagan’s declaration on its head: Opposition to government isn’t the solution. Opposition to government was and remains the problem. It is past time that we affirm government’s ability to heal the economy, and its responsibility for doing so.
Conservatives have been pounding out their demonization of the public sector for decades; it's time we start pounding out the actual truth with equal vigor.

More soon....

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sorry Jimmy; I Disagree

I love Jimmy Carter, and I think history will (eventually) be kinder to his performance as president than his contemporaries have typically been, but I think he's mistaken to feel "comfortable" with the idea of Mitt Romney as president, and I think he's dead wrong to use words like "moderate" and "progressive" to describe Romney.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Romney may, arguably, have been moderate back when he was governor of Massachusetts (even then, I think progressive would've been a stretch), but the current Republican standard bearer is not that same guy... or if he is, he's been lying through his teeth to his own party throughout the campaign: He's gone out of his way to position himself as "severely conservative," and we should take him at his word. But even if Romney were moderate (or "competent," which I frankly don't believe either), it wouldn't matter, because a vote for him is really a vote for the Republican Party. Romney may or may not be "the most conservative Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater," but the party he heads (heads; not, as far as I can tell, leads) is so far to the right that it would make even Goldwater blush.

Pure Awesomeness

I saw this on the web today, and just couldn't not share it; it's way too cool! Check here for instructions, credits, and the code to embed on your own blog.
Copyright 2012. Magnifying the Universe by Number Sleuth.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Gay on Facebook; Commie in Congress

What I don’t understand about this story is how Peter TerVeer’s Facebook activity “led his boss to discover[..] he is gay”: I “like,” “share,” and comment on lots of Facebook content supporting gay and transgender rights, but anyone assuming that means anything about my sexual orientation or gender identity would be entirely incorrect. In this case, TerVeer really was gay, and the workplace harassment he suffered was unjust on its face… but if that harassment was based on the assumption that he was gay, and that assumption was in turn based on his Facebook “likes,” then the fundamental injustice of homophobia is compounded by the all-too-common categorical error of thinking what someone likes or supports defines what someone is.

Of course, right-wing Florida Congressman Allen West doubles down on the error by inverting it, assuming that who likes you defines who you are: Apparently, when West claimed that about 80 Democratic members of Congress were communists, his “logic” was that they are members of the Progressive Caucus, and that the Communist Party USA has, according to West spokesperson Angela Marvin, “publicly referred to the Progressive Caucus as its allies.” SRSLY? Because someone expresses support for you, you’re suddenly just like that someone? Communist Party USA Vice Chair Libro DellaPiana, in the process of unequivocally declaring that no members of Congress are members of the Communist party, points out the absurdity of West’s position: “We support public parks and I assume Congressman West does too, that doesn’t mean he’s a Communist.”

Given how rabidly the American right seems to hate anything “public,” I’m not sure how safe DellaPiana’s assumption really is… but point taken, just the same: Neither what or who you like nor who likes you defines who you are. Homophobic bosses and right-wing radicals, please take note.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Couldn't Bring Myself To Make the Joke

Last week when I saw the headline Sex offender yells ‘Go Cowboys!’ as he’s executed, I bookmarked it instinctively, with the idea of writing some biting snark about my old home state of Texas, and the bizarre confluence of its twin addictions to football and executions.

But then I read the story, and couldn’t bring myself to make even bitter humor out of such a monstrously sad tale of loss and waste.

I’ve been thinking about it again today, because I’m proud to note that my state seems on the verge of repealing its death penalty law. Why would the story of Jesse Joe Hernandez, who murdered a 10-month-old boy and savagely beat his 4-year-old sister, and who was separately guilty of child sexual abuse, wife- and girlfriend-beating, and drug possession, and who seems to have exemplified the most irredeemable of human behavior… why would that story move me to look favorably on the repeal of the death penalty? Surely if anyone deserved to die for the way he lived, it was Jesse Joe Hernandez, right?

Except that the story of his execution doesn’t feel like a triumph for justice… not a victory for Hernandez’ victims, nor any sort of redemption. Instead, his last moments, as the lethal drugs flooded his body, were simply pathetic — “I can feel it, taste it. It’s not bad.” — and ultimately banal — “Go Cowboys!” Howevermuch Hernandez may not have deserved to live, it’s hard to see anything other than tragedy and error in his death.

And so I thank our legislators for the courage and leadership required to, in the face of the people’s emotional clinging to a false sense of retribution, turn away from the death chamber. I commend their actions to their counterparts in Texas, and in every place where the executioner still plies hir1 trade.


1 Not a typo; my version of a gender-neutral third-person possessive pronoun.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

More Republican Slut-Shaming

Sorry if it seems like a theme in my postings, but this kind of stuff has really been chapping my ass lately. Let’s review the bidding, shall we? A presidential candidate’s wife’s blind trust invests in a fund that owns shares (oh, excuse me: used to own shares) in a media company that owns a sexually oriented website that might (but then again, might not, depending on who you talk to) be complicit in underage sex trafficking.

And this has something to do with the candidate himself… how, again?

Oh, I remember: OMG! Teh secks!!! Yeah, that’s how.

Let’s be perfectly clear: I’m not defending underage sex trafficking, nor anyone who’s responsible for it.

But that’s not why this story is a story. This story is a story so somebody can put “Romney” and “sex” in the same headline. Now, I’m the first to call out most Republicans (and all of the remaining Republican presidential candidates) as hypocrites and prigs when it comes to human sexuality, and I’m the first to say sex-negativity, and its attendant sexism and misogyny, is an incredibly serious problem, but I’ve got a couple problems with this item:
  • Ann Romney’s “ownership” of anything sketchy is as diffuse as the interstellar medium, and Mitt Romney, the real target of this story, is yet one more step removed. As a comparison, my own 401k is partly invested in an S&P500 index fund: Am I therefore morally responsible for every act of every second-level subsidiary of every one of the 500 companies on that index? Is my wife? You might be able to make a logically consistent case that every owner, no matter how small the ownership interest, is responsible for every act of a company… but that’s not a very pragmatic position to take, socially, and it’s certainly not the standard we commonly apply.

  • Do we imagine that none of the other companies the GS Capital Partners III fund has invested in have ever done anything questionable? Of course not, but Candidate’s Wife Has Distant Links to Company that Did Something Sketchy has no sizzle as a headline… unless, of course, the “something sketchy” is (you guessed it) OMG! Teh secks!!! This story is a scandal because we’re addicted to the notion that sex itself is a scandal; sex would’ve been the lede on this, I’m convinced, even without the actually scandalous aspect of trafficking. Bringing this up is just plain slut–shaming.

  • Like the so-called sex scandals tried out against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, this is an attack on the candidate’s wife, which puts it in the category of misogyny (maybe that seems redundant to the slut-shaming point, but it feels worth mentioning separately). We progressives think it’s reprehensible when Democratic presidential candidates are attacked through their wives; why would we stoop to doing the same to Republican candidates’ wives?. Hillary Clinton was much more of a legitimate political partner when her husband was running for president than are Karen Santorum or either Mrs. Gingrich or Ann Romney; why would we tolerate attacks on the latter women any more than we did attacks on Hillary?

Look, I have many, many pressing reasons not to want Romney to be president, any more than I want Santorum or Gingrich to be president, but his wife’s gossamer-thin connection to illicit sex-work advertising isn’t one of them. These candidates pose a serious threat to the future of our republic… but calling “their women” sluts and whores (or, in this case, whoremongers) is entirely out of bounds. It’s exactly the sort of socially destructive sex-negativity and sexism that is one of the pressing reasons I don’t want any of them in the White House.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Mr. Coffee Moment

Reading this story today about the death of Mr. Coffee co-founder Samuel Glazer gave me a moment of pause: I was reminded yet again how many of the ubiquitous details of modern life are surprisingly recent innovations. Mr. Coffee first introduced automatic drip coffee machines — long a staple in commercial kitchens — to the home market in 1972, when I was just finishing up middle school1 and getting ready to start high school. In short order, the big percolators that had been the sine qua non for parties and holiday meals at my house and the homes of my parents’ friends essentially disappeared, and the market position of instant coffee took a serious hit. By now, the drip coffee maker is such a universal in the home kitchen that walking into a kitchen that didn’t contain one would seem freakishly odd.

Technological change is constant and continuous, of course: I don’t mean to suggest that any one invention (and certainly not something as cosmically small as a new style of coffee maker) is a watershed. But, perhaps because change is constant, with epochal changes accumulating in tiny daily increments, it sometimes catches me by surprise when I’m reminded how terribly new so much of the world I live in really is. It’s not so much a matter of the “shock of the new” as it is the shocking newness of the commonplace.

Watch an old movie, and find yourself wondering why the imperiled protagonist doesn’t simply call for help using a cell phone or Google the answer to their problem… and then remember that most people didn’t have cell phones or Google back then… and then take in the realization that the “back then” represented in this “old” movie is no more than 10 or 12 years ago! The technologies behind cell phones, computers, digital television, etc., may have been invented decades ago, but the extent to which they define the fabric of daily life for ordinary people is, from any sort of an historical perspective, instantaneously new: It’s essentially all happened within my adult life, and much of it has happened during the lifetime of my daughter, who will graduate from college this year.

Back in the early 70s, when Samuel Glazer was helping revolutionize home coffee making, microwave ovens and electronic calculators were making their way into homes (I remember what a revelation the 4-function, single-memory desktop calculator my dad brought home was, compared to the neighbor’s electromechanical adding machine). My father brought home an Ericophone handset at a time when owning your own phone (as opposed to renting it from the phone company monopoly) was still an exotic, legally grey activity, and pushbutton phones and home cordless phones (complete with walkie-talkie style telescoping metal antennas) were on the bleeding edge. Widespread adoption of cable television (“pay for TV?!?!”) was still more than half a decade in the future, as was the advent of home videocassette recorders (now, of course, themselves made extinct by the DVR and streaming internet video). The Apple ][ computer wasn’t released until 1977 (I bought my first, a 48k RAM Apple ][+, in 1982), and the original IBM PC not until 1981, but the computer-as-we-know-it has even later roots: the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and the first truly useful versions of Microsoft Windows not until the early 90s. I saw my first cell phone — an expensive, large-ish box permanently installed in the car of a privileged student at the private high school I taught at — in 1984, but it wasn’t until well into the next decade before the phenomenon of mobile phones in the pockets of the middle class began to be widespread.

Commercialization of the internet and widespread private access to the World Wide Web began around 1995, before which most people’s online experience, if any, was limited to proprietary membership services such as CompuServe, Genie, Prodigy, and America Online (AOL), accessed through glacially slow dialup modems. Only after the turn of the millennium, with the build-out of digital cable, DSL, and direct-to-home satellite services, did high-bandwidth, always-on internet access become commonplace. And, of course, smartphones and tablet computers, in which the telecommunications and computing streams are finally fully integrated, are barely out of metaphorical diapers.

And there you have it: The world we2 live in, constantly connected to a rich matrix of information, media, and communications (not to mention all the other technological and social innovations not directly related to the information technology revolution) is younger than this year’s college seniors. And yet… from moment to moment and day to day, it often seems as if it has always been this way.

Just like there has always been a Mr. Coffee machine in the kitchen.

1 Junior high school, in my actual case, but that term seems to be disappearing, along with junior college.

2 I’m admittedly using a fairly privileged version of we, here, but the world I describe is increasingly the cultural matrix for even the less privileged, at least throughout the so-called first world.