NPF: PLACEHOLDER

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 5th, 2016 by Ed

My commute to and from work is very long, but so far I've had a great deal of luck avoiding the kind of unforeseen events that make it even longer. If I can do the drive in three hours or a little less that counts as Normal. On Thursday, in a series of events that would be considered comical had I not known for a fact that people died, the drive took ten minutes short of six. Six hours sitting in a car, mostly riding the brake, is enough to ruin anyone's day. Five hours into that you will find yourself quietly envying the dead.

First a major interstate was shut down and everyone forced off it (to continue an agonizing northbound crawl along the tiny rural roads of central Illinois). This easily set me back 90 minutes. Another major accident that necessitated landing a helicopter on the highway to remove victims (presumably) cost another hour. When yet another accident promised to add time to my stint on I-90, I exited to navigate my way home on Chicago side streets…only to find the major non-highway east-west road closed for maintenance. We were re-routed through, among much else, a cemetery.

At this point I began to wonder if it might not be best to stop, give the car keys to the first pedestrian in sight, and start a brand new life wherever I found myself.

Accordingly the vigor to write a proper NPF is missing. If you're in the mood for some environmental realism, check out these sad-funny pieces on Norilsk, Russia and Baotou, China, two cities dependent on the smelting of extremely toxic heavy metals for their economic existence. If anyone lives to 50 in those places, he or she should be whisked away and studied to learn their secret to immortality. Baotou is the source of 90% of rare earth elements upon which modern electronics rely, although interestingly they are not called "rare earth elements" because they are scarce. Most aren't.

It's not your typical NPF, but do you notice in the pics from those two cities there isn't a single living member of the plant kingdom? Not a tree, shrub, or blade of grass. Yeah. That's kind of jarring.

POSTMORTEM

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2016 by Ed

It has happened. After months of being reassured that it wouldn't happen, here we are.

Early in the primary season I said that the weakness of the rest of the (non-Trump) Republican field is a serious problem. But I was wrong too; I thought eventually the non-Trump votes would coalesce around Marco Rubio. He turned out to be one of the worst candidates of all, which is like calling someone one the meanest guards at Auschwitz. Standing out among this group is a feat. But the reality is that Republican voters likely would have voted for just about anyone over Trump, and the party is such a shitshow that finding "just about anyone" turned out to be impossible. In the end they had to pin their hopes on a man so loathsome that not one person who knew him personally or professionally could be found to say something good about him. Oh, and Kasich, whose strategy seems to be to get 8% of the vote in every primary but refuse to quit because something something I guess there's a strategy there but probably not.

The big money and bag men in the conservative movement bet on a candidate (Walker) so marble-mouthed, uncharismatic, mean, and stupid that he didn't even make it to the Iowa Caucus and one so fundamentally incompetent (Bush) that not even a famous name, all the money in creation, and the blessing of the entire GOP establishment could win him better than a third place finish anywhere. The field was so bad and the Republican electorate is so mentally skewed that a man with no elected experience who is quite possibly insane and who never even pretended like he was campaigning seriously (Carson) got 10% of the vote. Red-meat Bible thumpers like Huckabee and Santorum never got off the launching pad. Recycled losers like Jindal, Rick Perry, and Lindsey Graham got so little attention other than mocking laughter that they quit before they too could win their 1% in Iowa. Rand Paul proved that he has a cult following of about 8% of the GOP electorate, just like his dad, and nothing beyond that. Shockingly, it turned out that nobody in any party was prepared to take bloated live-action Nelson Muntz / Tony Soprano hybrid Chris Christie seriously, nor a hatchet-faced sociopath with literally no professional, political, or personal qualities to recommend her to serve as dog catcher let alone president. It was worse than a clown car; clowns are, at least occasionally, funny.

That left three "serious" candidates – Rubio, because he was the only one who could accurately impersonate a human; Trump, because he was winning; and Cruz, because nobody is quite sure why but there he was. Perhaps he was just enough of a bloodless cipher that your average oligarch felt he could be an effective placeholder. Perhaps because someone deluded someone into thinking Hispanics would vote for him. Perhaps because he was just…there. In the end, existing and taking up space seemed to be his strong suit. After Rubio's oh my god this is so embarrassing I can't even watch this software malfunction on live TV, that's what Cruz was. He was Present. If half of life is showing up, I'm struggling to figure out what the other half was for Cruz.

Kasich won one state – his own – and was not a serious candidate except in the minds of people who managed to convince themselves that despite winning 8% of the vote in every primary, the system could somehow be rigged to make him the winner because, well, he doesn't seem like he's going to leave behind a safe deposit box full of preserved skin samples from the people he's eaten. And in this field, that was an achievement on his part not to be taken lightly. But he was never going to sniff the nomination, not even close.

And so Republicans have to grapple with the reality that maybe, just possibly, the reason they couldn't produce a candidate to wrest the nomination away from a con man who isn't even a Republican and doesn't stand for anything in particular but sure is good at getting attention is that everyone they've been electing for the past 25 years is terrible. Almost without exception. By electing anyone willing to say "Obama sucks, we can bomb our way to security, brown people are scary, and the government needs to be drowned in a bucket" without bothering to vet them for, you know, sanity or a modicum of human interpersonal skills, they have loaded their party's ranks of potential candidates for high offices with people who are unelectable without the help of gerrymandering and low midterm election turnout. When it ceased to be important whether a candidate was creepy or insane or borderline illiterate or totally ignorant of the world outside of South Carolina and Fox News, the die was cast and it was only a matter of time until someone came from outside of the party and stole this from them. It turns out that when the system can't be manipulated and rigged to guarantee Republican wins no matter how bad the candidates are, those candidates struggle. Shocking, really. They turned to their party's bench and found nothing there. Imagine a sports team that abandoned tryouts and instead just took the first 20 people to show up and state a loyalty oath with apparent sincerity. What would that team look like on the field? Well, imagine no more. Here you have it.

The best part about this as an outsider who actively wishes ill upon the entire conservative movement is the knowledge that its reaction to this crisis will be to insist that it needs to get even more conservative and vicious. I can't wait.

NEARSIGHTED

Posted in Rants on May 2nd, 2016 by Ed

If it is impossible to understand a place completely without having lived there, then I guess I know the Midwest and not much else. Sure, I've moved around, but mostly around the region. This hasn't been intentional. It's a matter of where my academic and professional opportunities have been. Now that I teach here, there are a lot of frustrating reminders of one of the worst things about Midwesterners: being modest to a fault, and screwing themselves in the process. We aim low for the same reasons we buy shitty American cars even when we can afford better ones: because nothing is worse than being cocky. If we don't revel in mediocrity, our friends and neighbors are more than happy to knock us down a peg.

One thing I like about my current job is doing advising. Many schools have dedicated advising staff, but this way the faculty and students get to know one another a little better. It is, however, endlessly frustrating to try to get students to expand their worldview beyond central Illinois. As I have told them many times, the biggest difference between them and students at a fancy name brand East Coast university is not intelligence but ambition. Given equivalent academic skills, the student from Williams or Villanova or NYU wants to move to The City and be a big shot; my students want to move back home. Those students want to go to law school or to get a Master's and they aim for Ivy League schools; mine apply to unranked programs "close to home", i.e. in the middle of nowhere. It's not a question of resources, either, as the people I deal with are more than average in that area. It's the fact that no one has encouraged them to do anything for their entire lives except to live At Home. Aiming high to them means getting a middling law degree and then moving back home to work at the county courthouse on the square.

If that's the life people want for themselves, then that's great. More often I get the feeling that it's less the life they want than it is the only life they can conceive of, which isn't great. Maybe I can't explain this well enough to make sense to anyone else, but it's hard to hear the same excuses I've made all my life: it's too expensive, it's too far away, I'm not good enough for that. Is going to law school at Stanford or Harvard expensive? Sure is. But for that price you get to do whatever the hell you want for the rest of your life while getting paid well to do it. Which is, you know, a pretty good trade off.

It's not rare for college-aged people to be lacking in life experience and limited in worldview, so in that sense there's very little unique about my experiences. I simply never expected to be in the position of having to inflate their expectations. I assumed they'd all be aiming too high and I'd end up having to talk them down to something more realistic. This is a weird issue for me because more than anything I wish someone would have encouraged me to aim a little higher when I was younger, so I don't doubt that I'm projecting a little. Most of all, though, I want students to give themselves options so that whatever life they end up with does not make them feel trapped.

We tend to dislike people from the coasts for being egotistical and full of themselves, but honestly we would benefit from taking a page out of that playbook once in a while. In grad school a professor explained to me and my cohort that one of the reasons we (public school kids) have a hard time competing with the Ivy League kids is that they've spent their whole lives learning how to talk about how great they are and we've spent our lives downplaying and underselling anything that makes us stand out. It's not a difference in ability – although that factors in as well – it's a difference in attitude. It took a while to appreciate just how right he was.

BACKGROUND RADIATION

Posted in Quick Hits on May 2nd, 2016 by Ed

Here's a screenshot I grabbed from CNN early last week. See if you notice anything odd.

cnn

Take a look at the secondary stories in the column on the left. You know, the "Kinda important but not too important" list. Halfway down, beneath the story about a zookeeper who got eaten by a tiger, we have two separate incidents with a total of 13 people shot dead.

What can you say anymore about a country in which eight and five people being shot to death almost simultaneously is barely news. We're so used to it, it is the background radiation of living in the U.S. We long ago passed the point of caring; now we're not even noticing.

EXCLUSIVE: CRUZ RUNNING MATE LIST

Posted in Quick Hits on April 27th, 2016 by Ed

My anonymous source in the Cruz campaign was kind enough to send me this. Looks like Carly Fiorina, shockingly, was not their first choice!

Cruz

BEDFELLOWS

Posted in Quick Hits on April 26th, 2016 by Ed

You've gotta love Fox News, bless their little hearts. They sure are trying. You can imagine how silly they must feel writing headlines like "Cruz stays in the Republican presidential fight by quietly scoring delegates." They probably drink themselves to sleep in the tradition of Soviet propagandists who just faked another set of economic reports for the 7th Five Year Plan.

A REAL PUZZLE

Posted in Quick Hits on April 25th, 2016 by Ed

The bar is set pretty low regarding what we expect from CNN at this point, but even by their Wolf Blitzery standards this "Voices from the Rust Belt" thing is delusional. It's little more than a variant on the Hard Working Americans / Salt of the Earth Blue Collar Types (read: white people who live in shitty places) theme that the mainstream media simply can't let go, probably on account of the fact that their average viewer is 65 and thus able to remember a time when Erie, PA mattered.

rust

Having ruminated over the causes and consequences for decades, the present reality is that there is no real economic reason for these places to exist anymore. They once serviced geographically-bound industries that either have ceased to be relevant or have been brutalized by free trade agreements. As I tell every single half-sentient adult I meet in rural Central Illinois, the solution to the problem is to leave. Get out. Move somewhere with jobs and something to do. The good times are never coming back to Buffalo and Flint.

As the CNN piece itself notes, most mobile individuals do leave, and in fact have already left. So, one might ask their producers, what is the point of focusing on these places? Why do we care about the Voices of the people left behind, the vast majority of whom are just too old to let go of the place psychologically. Anything that could be done to "save" these places is never going to be done; the country is too all-in on globalization and the inerrant wisdom of the free market to countenance sentimental arguments about saving some massively polluted shit hole in rural Ohio.

They can call it whatever they want, but we can spot "Let's tell our old, sad, white viewers in Scranton or some other place we wouldn't live on a bet that they're still really important" when we see it.

TIRED, TIRED, TIRED OF WAITING

Posted in Rants on April 25th, 2016 by Ed

Election fatigue is a real thing. In fact it is several things. In political science it most often refers to the inverse relationship between the frequency of elections and voter turnout. American elections are numerous and frequent, and since most citizens are not terribly committed to the act of voting they are highly unlikely to do it repeatedly. That's why we get "high" voter turnout between 55% and 60% for presidential elections but something in the mid-thirties for off-year elections like 2014. For things like primaries and local elections, turnout in the single digits is not at all uncommon.

The more colloquial sense of the term "fatigue" also applies, though. Election fatigue also is a real thing in the sense that we just get sick of hearing about it after a while, even if it is an election in which we intend to participate. With the nomination process and the presidential election "pregame" starting earlier every election cycle, the opportunity to be bored with it before the actual election has even started is ample. I know you find politics interesting; otherwise it's highly unlikely that you would be a visitor here. Now be honest: you're pretty sick of this election already, right? The last dozen or so articles to flit across your field of vision didn't give you the slightest urge to read them, I'm guessing. Blah blah Trump, blah blah brokered convention, blah blah Bernie Something, blah blah Hillary Clinton sucks, and on and on it goes.

It's possible that I'm projecting my own fatigue here. My perception that most people have very little left to say about the election that has not already been beaten to death is backed up by some simple data, though. After peaking early in March, Google Trends for "Trump" and "Bernie" have cratered in April. It stands to reason, as most people with any non-zero amount of interest in politics have almost certainly had all the opportunities to learn about these candidates that they need. What is left to say about any of them? In theory the GOP nomination process, which is as occluded as any recent major party nomination has ever been this late in the primary season, should have our interest peaking. Instead we're not much interested in hearing any more about a "brokered convention."

This would be fine if not for the fact that we have six full months to go, and it isn't clear how a loss of interest this early in the year will affect outcomes if at all. Many scholars of campaign effects argue that voters generally start paying attention to the election six to eight weeks before the November finish line, and perhaps that will happen once again this year. Given the overall distasteful nature of the two likely nominees, that can't be taken for granted. There is no way to test this hypothesis, but I'm confident that we could hold a Trump-Clinton general election tomorrow and achieve a result no different than we will see when it happens in November. The odds that we will learn anything new, or be paying sufficient attention to these ass clowns to notice if anything new comes up, are long.

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

Posted in Rants on April 20th, 2016 by Ed

Occasionally I'll use this space to offer book suggestions in case you find yourself in need of reading material. This is less a suggestion than an assignment. This will be on the test.

Mike Konczal gave me a heads-up on Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a non-fiction tale of people in Milwaukee living on the bottom rung of the housing market: black families in the north side ghetto and white families in a trailer park that sits literally atop a biohazard. For a casual reader this book is a Rorschach Test, a study in confirmation bias; whatever your existing beliefs about the root causes of poverty and the underclass, you will find ample evidence to support it here. The most remarkable achievement is the ability of these stories to make the reader sympathize with everyone involved. You feel for the poor single parent living in a house with no refrigerator; then you feel for the landlord who stopped putting in refrigerators after six of them were destroyed or sold for beer money. You feel for the people who have to clean up foreclosed, abandoned, or evicted houses that resemble landfills. For a few pages I even felt bad for the cops – Milwaukee cops.

I've never read anything that had me teetering back and forth quite like this. You understand why people feel less than human living in an apartment with no appliances and no front door; a paragraph later, you understand the frustration of replacing the front door 17 times in 5 years for tenants who pay rent a few times annually at best and will end up destroying anything you put in the apartment. The tenants give up. The landlords give up. The agencies intended to deal with these social problems give up. And eviction, which used to be about as common as a solar eclipse fifty years ago, becomes so common and frequent as to be routine. If you believe the system is the problem, this book will reinforce that. If you believe individual responsibility is the problem, this book will do the same for you.

The obvious poverty red flags are well represented: joblessness, the paltry income afforded by what jobs are found (either fast food, nursing home cleanup, or cash-in-hand day labor are about it), the drugs – alcohol – cigarettes troika that eats up so much money, bad personal decisions, and lack of education. Rather than beat those dead horses, there are two things that have been on my mind since reading this.

One, and there's no way to say this without sounding like a judgmental asshole, is the role of family planning in exacerbating the already dire situations in which these people find themselves. You practically want to scream at the pages, please stop having more kids. There are numerous tales of people living on something like $650/month in total income…and they have three kids, and they have more kids as the story unfolds. There are a lot of issues balled up here: lack of effective sex education (in or out of school), lack of sufficient access to methods of birth control, and using children to fill an emotional void or try to hold onto a relationship partner. I can't put myself in the position of anyone in this book, and I have no idea what I'd do if I were. But if there's one thing the people described here are good at, it's figuring out how to survive. In many ways they are highly rational and they make decisions that eliminate anything that isn't absolutely essential. In that light, it's confusing to try to understand why "I shouldn't pay this month's rent because I'm about to be evicted anyway" makes sense (and it does) but "I shouldn't have a fifth child" does not.

The second is another foreign concept to me because I have an extremely small family. I have one sibling, no living grandparents, one aunt, and no cousins. In many of these (often enormous) poor families, there is a moral dilemma facing the one or two people who become financially stable. I can see how compassion fatigue would set in. How many times do you pay the past-due rent for your brother, knowing that in three months he'll be back asking for it again? You'd either become a hard-hearted bastard, telling your own immediate family members to piss off, or you'd help out until inevitably your relatives pulled you right back down into poverty with them. You can only hand over $500 for emergencies so many times before you have your own emergencies and find yourself without a safety net. These stories made me very thankful to never be put in that situation, and even more empathetic toward friends who regularly are in it. How many times can you hand over what ends up being beer money? And how do you sleep at night after you stop doing it?

It's not a fun read, but it's an excellent one. Most people do not realize – and here I do have a tiny bit of insight, having spent three years working in debt collection – that there is an entire Poverty Industry built up around extracting money from people in desperate situations. You need $100 in the next hour to keep your house? Payday loan at 25%. You've been evicted? Your stuff will be taken to storage and it'll run you $500 to get it back. You're at the end of your rope? Don't worry, there's a liquor store on every corner; sometimes two. You finally have some work? Well since you live in squalor and around constant violence, here are some expensive medical problems.

It is a machine, and nobody who gets caught in the gears ever gets out. You might be fooling yourself if you think you have any idea how to begin fixing this.

RUNAWAY JOB GROWTH

Posted in Quick Hits on April 18th, 2016 by Ed

Sometimes I start writing a post and it begins to sound vaguely familiar, so I double-check if I've done it before. In this case I've basically done it annually for 15 years. I'll give myself a pass since the news itself never changes and it seems like people are actually beginning to notice.

Stop me if you've heard this before: Job growth is robust, unemployment is low, and yet the job market is still poor. That's because for thirty years we've been hemorrhaging jobs that pay people enough to live half-decently and replacing them in the balance sheet sense with menial service industry jobs. Of the fastest growing sectors in the job market over the next decade, half of the top ten pay less than $25,000 annually. If you like wiping up puddles of body fluids in a nursing home for $10/hr or working at Burger King, these are going to be salad days for you. The world will be your oyster.

It's not relevant, despite that attempt at humor, that these jobs are shitty (pun intended, in the case of home health care). What is relevant is that they don't pay. They pay about two-thirds of the median annual wage, and that isn't exactly high; it's around $35k. A person with dependents could live on a $20,000/year job, if barely and as long as absolutely nothing unexpected goes wrong. It's a paycheck-to-paycheck existence at best. In reality it's more likely to be part of a two-job routine for an individual or one of multiple jobs held in a household. Because that job isn't going to allow anyone to do much more than scrape by. With some luck.

This may be the only thing that Trump supporters and the rest of us who read books and live in reality can agree upon: our problem isn't job loss as much as it is the loss of good jobs. There are, and will be for the foreseeable future, more than enough jobs making the lives of the top 10% easier. We can serve them food, clean their houses, drive them around, make their appointments, and take care of the dying parents they don't want to see. And we'll have no problem getting the chance to do it for little money and without any job security beyond day-to-day.

If you have a few minutes to spare and academic journal access, check out "Inequality and the Growth of Bad Jobs." Despite the fact that low-skill jobs have shrunk in number since 1960, low-wage work makes up most of job growth over that time period. The problems with our economy aren't hard to figure out in light of that information.