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....