OH FOR TWO

Posted in Rants on June 25th, 2017 by Ed

A curious pair of totally unconnected articles made the rounds last week.

Bruce Bartlett, a Republican and former Reagan White House hand, wrote a well-reasoned piece for Politico with the says-it-all title, "Trump is What Happens when a Political Party Abandons Ideas." The argument is one that most of us already knew (although there is something refreshing about hearing it stated explicitly) – that in the pursuit of power, the GOP has engaged in so much hypocrisy that it no longer really stands for anything. If everything is OK as long as a Republican does it – and oh my god is it ever OK to the post-Reagan GOP – then there really is nothing that defines the party except the quest to remain in power. Bartlett's argument is not flawless. For example, most people would recognize at least some core policies associated with the GOP; cutting taxes (albeit with no real strategy or goal other than to cut them and keep cutting them) and making the government not work are two things all GOPers seem to embrace. In the larger sense, though, he is right. There are no white papers supporting their policy goals. Hell, in eight years they didn't even bother to assign some junior staffer to grab two interns and bang out some kind of "alternative" to the ACA.

A few days before Bartlett went to press, the usually unbearable Matthew Yglesias noted in response to the Georgia special election, "Jon Ossoff’s Georgia special election loss shows Democrats could use a substantive agenda." The original title of this piece was much spicier, and toning it down is the Vox-iest thing Vox ever Voxed. But in the resplendently logical argument, the author makes the important point that the Democratic Party has nailed "Trump is bad" and "Republicans are bad people, and we are the alternative to Republicans," but have essentially no coherent policy agenda that a normal voter could name. I argued last week that all special election analysis is over-analysis and that these attempts to divine meaning from a House race here or there are ridiculous. That remains true. However, Yglesias is correct that the Democrats have run these races in heavily red districts like some sort of weird referendum on Democrats being Different from Republicans without making it clear exactly how other than being hipper, more charismatic, and Not Republicans.

Some of you can see where I'm going with this.

If both of these authors are correct, then we have two political parties that aren't really about anything. They're competing fiercely and inarguably offering Americans some kind of choice – only someone truly out on a limb would argue that there is no difference at all between having Trump or Hillary in the White House – but they're more like two sports teams than opposing political parties at this point. How can you have two groups locked in fierce competition when neither one of them really stands for or is about anything coherent? Easy: you frame things as the politics of identity. Republicans present themselves as Real America – the red-blooded, gun- and Bible-waving tough guys who like big bombs and shitty gas mileage and women and minorities who Know their Place. Democrats present themselves as the educated elite that lives in big cities and looks down its nose at people who shop at Wal-Mart, think the Earth is 6000 years old, and drive big stupid trucks.

Granted, defining the political process around a cultural or identity based divide is viable. It has been and is done around the world. Sure, it usually results in people trying to purge society of the Other, but besides that I can't think of any drawbacks.

The obvious imperative is to get back to having a political system based on opposing views about the appropriate policy direction of the government. But given that most of the country isn't even interested in learning if the Kremlin altered our election results, let's not hold our breath.

PROGRAMMING NOTE, 6/2017

Posted in Quick Hits on June 25th, 2017 by Ed

I've noticed the post frequency trailing off a bit, but for once I have a half-decent excuse. Without getting into any premature details, I've been doing a great deal of writing lately. Sometimes after a full day spent writing, the last thing one feels motivated to do in the evening leisure hours is more writing. Plus, the quality of writing one produces at the tail end of a long session often is quite poor, like the 9th inning pitches of a guy who has already thrown eight innings on a hot day.

The situation has been noted, and the management is working to improve it. Please remain patient. There is a payoff.

THE BEEF O'BRADY'S BOWL OF POLITICS

Posted in Rants on June 21st, 2017 by Ed

Every sport has an off-season and dead periods in which a fan will lower his or her standards considerably to be entertained. College football, for instance, has a dead month between the end of the season (around Thanksgiving) and its Bowl games (centered around Jan. 1). Some of the more piddling Bowl games try to take advantage of this by scheduling themselves on dates with no other sporting competition. Say you run the Hot Dogs Bowl, which matches up teams like Southwestern Tech vs. Wyoming A&M – not exactly clash of the titans. You can play on the same day as most of the Bowls and nobody will watch. Why would they, when the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl are on? Or you can schedule your game on something like Dec. 17 and be the only game on TV for a span of several days.

As a fan of the sport, if you are sitting at home with nothing else to do or out at the bar with your friends and the game is on the big screen, you are likely to watch. But there is always a moment in which you look at the fourth-rate action and ask yourself, "What in the hell am I watching this garbage for?" And you answer yourself immediately: Because there is nothing else on. This is it. And since you're a fan, it scratches your itch a little even if it's basically crap.

(The Beef O'Brady's Bowl is a real thing, incidentally.)

This is a Special Election in a nutshell. Everyone who is interested in politics focuses on it, and the forces of money and enthusiasm within the system are brought to bear upon it for the simple reason that there is nothing else for them to do at the moment. The 2018 Elections won't begin in earnest until next spring. Everyone is sick to death of hearing and talking about 2016. The day-to-day of DC politics is grinding along, but people (read: clickers, viewers, and readers) find elections more interesting than procedure. So if there is an election – any election, anywhere – CNN and the like start beating the drum hard.

We just got a week of saturation coverage of a goddamn special House race in Montana. Montana. And not one but two non-consecutive weeks of wall-to-wall coverage on an R+20 suburban district in Georgia. Like any election, the media are desperate to have these isolated races Mean Something. In reality they do not. Yes, the GOP probably should take it as a not-stellar sign that Democrats were able to get anywhere close to either of these seats. But what these races "mean" in the larger sense is nothing. They mean that when held singly, a House race gets thousands of times the attention it would get if held simultaneously with the other 434.

In ordinary circumstances, GA-06 would not even be a blip on the radar. You would not have it on any list of "races to watch" and you certainly would not be able to name either candidate or put any stock in the outcome. That's worth bearing in mind when the tidal wave of Hot Takes washes over us this week.

STRATOSPHERE

Posted in Rants on June 19th, 2017 by Ed

Of all the things I've figured out about life – by no means an extensive list – the lesson that took the longest to sink in is that wealthy people or people in the social "elite" however you choose define it do not have advantages for the reasons the rest of us usually think. People assume that Old Money or social status allow one to play The Game with any number of advantages like better preparation, more knowledge, or better connections. This is true for people playing The Game, to be sure. But the elites are not competing like the rest of us, with varying degrees of advantage over one another. They are playing an entirely separate game. They live, for all intents and purposes, in a different world.

It's certainly not an important news item given all that is going on in the world, but earlier this year Marc Mezvinsky's hedge fund shut down earlier this year. If that name seems familiar, it's Chelsea Clinton's husband. Bill and Hillary's son in law. But beyond the status he gained in marriage, his own mother was a Member of Congress (she of the infamous "Bye Bye Marjorie" vote to pass Bill's budget in 1994) and his father was a millionaire financier in addition to, obviously, also being a Congressman. Incidentally, he spent some time in the pokey for his financial dealings, but hey, nobody's perfect. So, to say Marc has and has had it all would be an understatement.

He garnered some attention during the Greek debt crisis by using about $25 million to buy Greek sovereign debt for pennies on the dollar despite the fact that the government was clearly indicating that it would default. Now, as far as investment ideas go this is not strictly an awful idea; he made a gamble that someone – the IMF, Germany, the EU, China, private banks – would bail Greece out at the last second. Had that happened, the notes he bought at something like $0.04 on the dollar would have paid off with a gain of thousands of percent. Seriously, it's not a strictly terrible idea. It was not totally implausible that someone would bail Greece out.

The problem was that this isn't really "hedging" anything in the sense of what a hedge fund is actually supposed to do. This is more like betting on a three legged horse with 10,000:1 odds to win the Kentucky Derby. This was buying junk bonds and losing, essentially. The other problem is that Greece did in fact default and he was totally exposed. He lost $25 million overnight.

It is arguable that in the world of banking and finance, $25 million is like 25 cents to the rest of us. But it represented a good portion of his fund's assets, and with their closure in February it is obvious that this fit into a pattern of big losses. The financial aspect of this story is uninteresting unless you happen to be very excited by financial wheeling and dealing. What strikes me about this single example is that this guy pissed away $25,000,000 and nothing happened to him. Nothing. He's not in legal trouble. The fund's investors aren't wielding torches and howling for his blood. He hasn't been ostracized by Wall Street. In his reality, this is maybe, at worst, cause for some good-natured ribbing from the fraternity of his fellow untouchables. He might get some grief after a couple drinks at exclusive charity events. Hey Marc, wanna buy some Greek magic beans? Hi-larious.

Think about that. He threw $25 million down the drain and nothing happened to him in a world in which a woman who is 10 minutes late for her minimum wage retail shift because the school bus didn't show up to get her kid not only gets fired but is confidently told that she deserves nothing better. This is a society where teachers get fired if parents complain about them, where people who do their jobs well and work hard are laid off or fired anyway because of *shrug* "Progress" But if you're one of the chosen, you cannot fail unless failing up counts. Flushed $100 million of venture capital down the drain at your startup? LOL bro, it's cool, here's more money to play with. Your last company fired you after you took over as CEO and ran them into the ground? Don't worry, another CEO gig awaits. There is no end to the number of mulligans these people give and receive within their exclusive circle of Old Money and Ivy Leaguers deemed worthy of admittance. The poor (or merely Not Super Wealthy) need discipline and punishment – one mistake and it's all over. The wealthy, though, need coddling and endless do-overs; how else will we encourage them to Create and Innovate, amirite?

The only profession in which a person can be demonstrably terrible yet continue to get rewarded over and over again is being a left-handed starting pitcher. And that's just a supply problem. There is no shortage of cocky Stanford-minted scions of the Old Money willing to play with, manipulate, and gamble other people's money, yet the same guarantees of lifetime job security and lavish compensation apply.

That's the different between the oligarchs and everyone else. It would be nice to live in a world with a gentlemen's agreement that no one can be permitted to truly fail, but I guess most of us would settle for one in which any job was available and maybe a few of them even had paid vacation days.

PRETEND WE HAVE A JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

Posted in Quick Hits on June 19th, 2017 by Ed

One silver lining to the increased attention given to police using lethal force is that some of the creepier aspects of the cop subculture are being exposed to the public. Turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that a lot of contractors who market themselves to police departments under the guise of "training" are absolute lunatics.

The officer recently found not guilty of manslaughter in the Philando Castile shooting, for example, attended a training session for something called "Bulletproof Warrior," an odd name for a program aimed at police officers who are neither bulletproof nor "warriors." The gist of the program is that every suspect is waiting to kill you, it will happen in the blink of an eye, and the Bulletproof Warrior must silence that nagging voice in his head that says not to kill people. Kill or be killed, so you better hurry up and shoot the suspect before he shoots you.

I mean, what could go wrong.

Also take a look at this guy named Dave Grossmann (who was featured in the 2016 documentary Do Not Resist) who promises trainees that they will have the best sex of their lives on the day they finally kill someone.

For all of the "Not all cops are bad!" talk that takes place, where are the people in the police departments that use this sort of "training" who should be standing up and saying, "Hold on, this is completely insane"? Maybe they exist and get silenced. Or maybe they don't exist. What would be nice is if we had a real Justice Department that did the job of overseeing law enforcement in this country, one that would use every tool at its disposal to take Federal control over any police department whose leadership looks at what these "trainers" have to offer and decides that this is how street cops should be interacting with the public. It would be nice not to have to tiptoe around reality whenever the topic is law enforcement; a real political leader would say unequivocally, "Anyone who thinks the problem with law enforcement in this country is that police do not shoot enough people is not fit to have a badge and a gun, period."

It would be nice. Too bad we can't have anything nice.

NONE OF THIS IS OK

Posted in Quick Hits on June 13th, 2017 by Ed

Not cool with the slow rise of fascism? Don't think it's normal to have a white supremacist blogger on the National Security Council? Then it's time to let everyone know where you stand.

What: The all-new Gin and Tacos "None of this is OK" shirt. Canvas brand, screenprinted (no print on demand BS) front and back, Navy Blue, women's v-neck and men's/unisex crew neck available. Canvas sizing guides for unisex and women's v-neck shirts.

When: This is a pre-order for shirts I will have in my hands in three to four weeks. That means they will likely ship to you the week of July 4. If I can get them earlier, so will you. I appreciate your patience. I am not an Amazon warehouse. I am a dude in an apartment with some mailing labels and envelopes.

Cost: $20 for either style (unisex or women's). PayPal only please.

Shipping: $4 is added to each US order for shipping + packaging. For international orders, I'm sorry to say shipping is $10. While I am not looking to become a titan of commerce here, I do have to avoid selling these at a loss and Int'l shipping costs $12-15 from the US.

Ordering: Please use the correct order button, Domestic or International. Anything outside of the U.S., even Canada, must use the International button.


Domestic Orders (USA)





International Orders




Don't be left out!

DADA

Posted in Quick Hits on June 12th, 2017 by Ed

Rankings and superlatives are endlessly subjective. What does "best" or "most important" mean? Bear that in mind when I describe Barbet Schroeder's Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974) is the best documentary ever made. Is it the most enjoyable? The most technically accomplished? The funniest? The most informative? No. But it's the Best.

If this seems like a random thing to bring up, I'm doing it at this moment because the Trump cabinet meeting on Monday looked like a scene taken directly from that movie. In fact there is an extended scene of a cabinet meeting and many other settings in which subordinates are forced to praise him effusively, even comically. I saw video of the Monday meeting and read the quotes the various secretaries were forced to offer up and the similarities were more than a little eerie.

As difficult as it is to believe, the depiction of an illiterate, violent, charismatic, psychotic dictator in his own words (the film has about 50 words of narration total, and the director lets his subject speak for himself) feels topical here in the United States in 2017. Now, let's not go overboard. Our current president doesn't murder and torture his enemies by the hundreds, if only (primarily?) because he couldn't get away with it. But within the framework of institutions that constrain him – something conspicuously lacking in 1970s Uganda – it's essentially the same person. If Amin can't read and Trump can but refuses to, what's the practical difference?

The idea of a nation being run by a large, violent child who requires constant ass-kissing and obsequious praise to teeter back toward something approaching sanity and away from another temper tantrum is not new. Nor will the consequences of it in the United States be as brutal and severe as they are and have been in many countries around the world. But if you've been waiting for a Smoking Gun to prove that our president has the classic narcissistic Third World Strongman personality, you can rest your case now. A person who is not severely maladjusted is embarrassed by fawning praise by obviously insincere lackeys. Trump apparently can't function without it.

On the plus side, we all know what happened to Amin.

NPF: MISSILE MAIL WAS EXACTLY WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 8th, 2017 by Ed

When America's economic and military power were peaking in the late 1950s, our government and military were willing to pour money into some pretty dubious ideas. Why? We could afford it. Everything gets the green light when not only is the national mood one in which the threat of the Soviet Union is the dominant concern but economic growth is averaging double-digit percentages annually. Sometimes in hindsight it appears as though we did things that had no real point just…because we could. Because why not. Because rockets and jet planes and big bombs are cool and hey we heard rumors that the Soviets are working on it and by the way did we mention the 12% GDP growth last year?

It is important to preface the following story with the context that in 1959 the U.S. was losing the Space Race and lagged behind the Soviet Union, albeit temporarily, in the development of large missiles. This was considered of extreme importance because of course every missile used to loft something heavy into space was also a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead or ten halfway around the world.

Perhaps eager to have a "Look! A success!" headline or perhaps simply for the sheer hell of it by the permissive logic of the Pentagon in those days, on today's date in 1959 the submarine USS Barbero launched a Regulus cruise missile at Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the many arguments in favor of doing so, the missile was not intended to destroy Jacksonville. Its warheads had been replaced with two mail containers filled with commemorative US Postal Service items to celebrate the first delivery of "Missile Mail." So, in case any part of this is unclear, the Navy collaborated with the Post Office to see if mail could be delivered by cruise missile.

Why? I mean. Why the hell not, right?

The Postmaster General enthused – with a straight face, apparently – that "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." The Pentagon, however, admitted candidly that there was no possible way to make rocket delivery of mail cost effective, with each cruise missile costing the 2017 equivalent of over a million dollars. The stamps carried by the Regulus mail had a value of four cents each. It didn't take a UNIVAC to figure out that this wasn't actually about delivering mail. A more reasonable interpretation would be that, with Sputnik and the American failure(s) to imitate its launch, the US wanted to show off that it could fire a cruise missile 1) from a submarine, and 2) with comparative accuracy over a long distance. No doubt the Post Office enjoyed the publicity and all involved, in that wholesome gee-whiz 1950s way, considered the stunt Neat-o, but other than to stimulate the American imagination and send Russian surveillance personnel to bang off a dispatch to Moscow about a cruise missile there was no real reason for doing this.

Wasteful? Sure. At the same time, it's hard to argue that Americans are happier today now that shenanigans of this type have been eliminated from the budget in favor of orienting all of the Pentagon's funds directly to killing foreigners.

CUT BAIT

Posted in Rants on June 7th, 2017 by Ed

It is fashionable and born of good intentions to say that Community as a concept is important, positive, and is worth preserving. All of those things can be true while also recognizing that at some point the patient is deceased and no amount of medical intervention will bring it back to life.

Cairo, IL just received attention in the form of an NPR story about its latest in a drawn-out series of death throes. For those who have not had the pleasure, Cairo (KAY-row) is the worst and saddest place you can find in the United States. I have been to all 50 states. I have driven through every inch of the Midwest, which practically abounds with Sad Places. Cairo is the worst. It is a cross between a theme park Ghost Town and a FEMA camp for evacuees from a natural disaster. There is nothing in Cairo. Nothing.

Cairo was important and viable a long time ago due to its geographic position at the confluence of two major rivers. Since this is not the 19th Century anymore and riverboats are not the driving force behind the economy of the region, there no longer is any reason for Cairo to exist. It is conveniently positioned for river traffic but otherwise totally desolate. It is a four-plus hour drive to any city of consequence (St. Louis, Louisville) and even a solid hour removed from remote backwaters like Paducah, KY. When a description of your location uses both "Paducah" and "one hour from," you are admitting defeat.

Even the schools in Cairo are closing, and not for the trendy budget-slashing reasons. They are closing because there are no students. Everybody able to leave this place has left. They have left because there is no reason to stay. Emotionally, I find the willingness of the remaining residents to try to Save Cairo endearing. Intellectually I know that A) it will not work and B) there is no defensible reason to try.

When the state and Federal governments reckon the amount of money they pour into a place like Cairo, the following offer would be in the best interests of everyone involved: give every man, woman, and child in Cairo who does not own a home a voucher for a free moving van, a check for $10,000, and advice on places they could move that are not totally devoid of opportunities and amenities. Give every home or property owner in the city a check for their property and send them on their way similarly. Just pull the plug. The place is finished. Go.

If that seems ludicrously expensive, cutting checks would cost little compared to the long term costs of keeping places like this on life support for no reason anyone can articulate. And there is plenty of precedent for it. The EPA and Congress have evacuated communities before due to determinations that remediation would be so prohibitively expensive that the only cost-effective option is to pay people for their property and move them elsewhere. Gilman, CO. Picher, OK. Centralia, PA (of the infamous smoldering underground mine fires). Times Beach, MO (which is so soaked in dioxin that even the rodents died). These are not examples from 1850 during the Gold Rush. These are recent. This can be done. It is done, when deemed necessary.

It is not absolutely necessary to wait for enough toxic material or enough flaming coal to accumulate before the government decides that a place is no longer habitable. A broader view would include things like economic prospects and quality of life in determining habitability. The problem places like Cairo cannot solve is that the provision of public goods is expensive and providing them in the middle of nowhere at great cost for no obvious reason is a proposition that, rather than leading to eventual improvement, signals the beginning of a death spiral from which small towns rarely if ever recover.

I want to be clear that my point is not "Let Cairo fail" but that Cairo has already failed. It's dead. This is not Detroit, a place with all the amenities of urban life that is struggling to realign its public policy with its reduced population. This is a tiny city that has literally nothing going for it, where the few people who remain are either directly or indirectly (through government employment, just about the only decent employment remaining) subsidized. If subsidizing the population had the tiniest hope of improving the situation there I would be all for it. But it doesn't take an expert in economics or urban planning to take a look at the place in person and realize that it has flatlined.

Should the government go on a town-killing spree to save money? Absolutely not. But with a handful of the worst cases, it would make sense to ask what rationale there is for trying to save places that are too far gone to ever recover when the money could be better used to provide the same citizens with meaningful improvements and better quality of life elsewhere. There is a point at which cutting bait and declaring that there is nothing left to do is in fact the right thing to do.

A MINOR DETAIL

Posted in Quick Hits on June 6th, 2017 by Ed

The Washington Post ran its twice-annual "Poor people in rural areas are all getting signed up as disabled" piece last week, this time featuring some of the most conveniently – almost comically – unsympathetic characters yet. They're poor! They're dumb! The only multisyllable words they use are trendy medical diagnoses! They're divorced a half-dozen times! Look at how many kids they have! Yeah, we get it.

The tiny detail that is wholly omitted from this story, which does describe a real trend and cites the statistics to prove it, is that the rapid surge in disability recipients is largely due to concerted efforts by states to shift people from their own social safety net to the Federal government. Things like unemployment insurance, housing subsidies, etc. are the financial responsibility of the states. Beginning in 2008-09 when state budgets across the country lurched into crisis mode, strategic governors and state legislators saw easy pickings in encouraging state social services agencies to push people toward SSI, disability, and other programs for which the tab is picked up by the Federal government. This saves states millions at a time when saving millions is of particular importance politically and practically.

You'd think that would be worth mentioning. You'd think an honest journalist would drop that in the piece somewhere, or that an editor doing due diligence would add it after the fact. Instead, the emphasis seems to have been on making sure that there were enough pictures of fat stupid poor people.