EXIT ENGLISH

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

If you have never noticed that most (but not all) post titles here are song titles or lyrics, rest assured that today it was a difficult choice between what you see above and "Stop Me if You've Heard This One Before." Because I know you're going to be truly shocked to hear this, but the UK's vote to exit the EU is yet another example of people over 50 voting to destroy an institution that, having benefited from it for decades, they no longer wish to pay for. There is some interesting exit polling data here that ultimately boils down to a tale you're tired of hearing. Old people wanted it, young people didn't. Dumb people wanted it, people who have Fancy Book Learnin' didn't. Repeat until we're fighting over a conch shell.

brexit

It's impossible to read voters' minds based on election results. Vote totals are like an ancient oracle – everyone agrees that they are saying something but exactly what is, even if few are willing to admit it, ambiguous at best. It is hard to tell if older British voters are ignorant of how much they as individuals and as a group benefited from membership in the EU or if they simply no longer consider the benefits to be relevant to them personally and therefore no longer care to pay for others to enjoy them. If they are retired on fixed incomes, perhaps they simply no longer respond well to arguments about The Economy writ large. If they don't care to leave a 20 mile radius around their homes, maybe unrestricted travel within a group of 27 nations has lost its appeal. Or perhaps they're at that point of decay at which fear of a changing world, dislike of anyone and anything Different, and good old fashioned nativism trumps anything approaching a rational analysis of costs and benefits.

Ironically, if the UK is anything like the USA, the Eastern European immigrants that so vex older British people are the only ones who will accept the pitiful wages offered to wipe their ancient asses in hospitals and retirement homes across the country. At this rate, god knows their children will be neither willing nor able to care for them as they age. We've already got two jobs that don't pay enough to make ends meet.

TALES OF WHITE RESENTMENT: THE MURDER OF VINCENT CHIN

Posted in Rants on June 23rd, 2016 by Ed

On June 23, 1982, thirty-four years ago today, two unemployed Detroit auto workers (both white) were hanging out at a strip club called Fancy Pants in Highland Park. At the same time, a Chinese-American named Vincent Chin was there having his bachelor party. Drunkenly, the white auto workers began harassing him and his party, at one point yelling according to witnesses, "It's because of you motherfuckers we're out of jobs!" Chin did in fact work tangentially in the auto industry as a draftsman for a parts supplier on the outskirts of Detroit. Unless the Chinese auto industry was more relevant in 1982 than anyone outside of Fancy Pants knew, it is assumed that the hecklers thought Chin was Japanese. Close enough for angry white people, I guess.

Chin, according to witnesses, exercised his God-given right to fuck with drunk assholes, making fun of them and verbally egging them on. So they responded in that whitest, malest of ways, scouring the neighborhood for a half-hour after the club emptied out before finding Chin in a McDonald's, presumably drunkenly waylaying some fries. They waited until he emerged and then beat him to death in the street with a baseball bat. Any number of the blows to his head once he was unconscious could have been the fatal one. Witnesses, of which there were many, reported hearing them yell further racial slurs at him.

Beating a person to death in front of an audience with the knowledge that one is unlikely to be punished is something Americans usually associate with white-on-black violence in the pre-Civil Rights South, but it worked in 1982 Detroit as well. The Wayne County prosecutor and judge not only allowed them to plea-bargain down from 2nd Degree Murder (murder without premeditation, which is actually kind of dubious here given the length of time they spent searching for their intended victim, but we'll let that slide) to Manslaughter, but he noted that "These aren't the kind of men you send to jail" when releasing them immediately with a small fine and three whole years of probation.

It doesn't take a very deep reflection on the current state of the country to realize that little has changed in the last 34 years. Any behavior up to and including cracking someone's skull with a baseball bat is acceptable as long as the perpetrators are white, the victims aren't Real Americans anyway, wink, and white people have sufficient cause to be (choose one: angry, scared). The lesson we refuse to learn from the murder of Vincent Chin and thousands of other crimes like it is that the more we scapegoat and condone vilification of a group of people, the more we signal that their lives aren't worth quite as much as our white ones. There are a ton of not-terribly bright people out there – the kind who get drunk at strip clubs and think it's a decent idea to beat someone to death because he or she made you mad – who internalize that message very well. It turns out that if you tell enough half-wits enough times that (insert demographic group) is to blame for the problems in their life resulting from ignorance, laziness, and limited opportunities, some will eventually cross the line from merely being assholes into violence. Every aspect of our society, culture, and justice system that reinforces the message that Their lives are valued at a discount shares responsibility for crimes like this one, not for swinging the bat into the skull but for teaching white people, especially men, that the system will look the other way and accept the right to commit violent acts out of hate as just another thing they are owed.

AGENDA-SETTING

Posted in Quick Hits on June 22nd, 2016 by Ed

CNN ran the ten-thousandth story about how Social Security will "run dry," this time "by 2034." The headline is misleading, as the story goes on to explain that beyond that date Social Security benefits would be reduced, not eliminated, but that's only the second-most dishonest thing going on here. The full text includes the following gem of Beltway consensus "Guarantee victory for the status quo by defining the options" agenda-setting:

To make all of Social Security solvent for the next 75 years would require the equivalent of any of the following: immediately raising the Social Security payroll tax rate to 14.98% from 12.4% on the first $118,500 of wages; cutting benefits by 16%; or some combination of the two.

In The Semi-Sovereign People, E.E. Schattschneider asserted that "the definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power" (1960/1975, 66). We may never find a better example than this one. Here are your options, America: raise taxes or cut benefits. Or, you know, we could lift the earnings cap ("on the first $118,500 of wages") that serves as little more than a tax break for people making six figures and then fund the system for the next century without a second thought. Congress could do that at any time, and it happens to be the simplest and best solution to the problem. Too bad it's not an option. There are only two of those: raise payroll taxes or cut benefits. Any questions?

If you get a stain on your shirt, according to CNN I guess your only two options would be to continue wearing the stained garment or throw it away. Getting it cleaned to remove the stain is just crazy talk.

FEEL THE ACTUAL BURN

Posted in Rants on June 21st, 2016 by Ed

A minor news item from the weekend.

On Sunday a passenger flight from Houston to Phoenix turned around midway and landed safely at Houston. There were no mechanical issues. All passengers and crew were healthy. No storms were encountered. What happened was that the pilots and their airline were aware of laws that forbid planes to land when the temperature exceeds 120 degrees. At that point certain instruments on older planes may lose precision and smaller planes are subject to additional danger from the waves of heat radiating up from the ground.

It's likely that the plane could have proceeded without incident and the turnaround could be described as an abundance of caution. But the incident highlights the fact that Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport recorded a record high of 117 F in the shade on Sunday, with ground temps on the black asphalt runway easily over 120. For the overseas folks, 117 F is 47 C. It is, in the scientific sense, balls hot. It's almost too hot to imagine. Having spent a fair amount of time in southern Arizona, I subscribe to the easy to mock "It's a dry heat!" theory. Compared to sweltering Midwestern and Southern humidity, I find that 100 F in the dry desert does not feel as hot – as long as you're in the shade. 110 F in the shade might be bearable, even if still hot. In the sun you'd be dead in a couple of hours.

The question the current Southwestern heat wave raises is one that is one it might be useful to start thinking about more: At what point is it just going to get too hot to live in some parts of the world? Calm down, I'm not talking about right now. In the long term – thirty or forty years down the road – the continuation of current warming trends could push it to the limit of what we can reasonably inhabit. Some serious research has suggested that at some point between 2050 and 2100, for example, parts of the Middle East and Africa may simply be too hot for humans to survive in. Granted it is arguable that humans can survive in any environment given all the advantages of technology, but with caveats. One is that infrastructure degrades at a certain point – roads buckle, rails bend, and transformers explode. Another is that if the ability to live in an environment depends entirely on limitless availability of water, electricity, and air conditioning in the middle of deserts, such an environment is "habitable" only in a limited sense. We assume those things, which far from guarantees that they will always be there. The combination of water scarcity and sheer heat eventually have to reach a breaking point. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but we can't hold back nature forever.

Long-time readers know my Crazy Old Man theory that the mass migration of population and economic resources to the Sun Belt is a temporary phenomenon. There simply is no long-term logic, for example, to having 10 million people live in the Phoenix-Tucson urban area with water sufficient to sustain maybe a quarter that many. Add in (slowly) rising temperatures, longer summers, and explosive population growth and it's clear that the current trends cannot continue indefinitely. The United States industrialized and populated itself from the Northeast and Midwest because, despite the crappy winters, they were actually survivable during the summer before the widespread availability of cheap power and they have ample water resources for transportation, agriculture, and urban use. We probably won't be alive to see the waves of migration reverse and move back in that direction, but it will happen eventually. The funny thing about unsustainable behavior is that it can't go on forever.

SHITTY MIDAS

Posted in Rants on June 19th, 2016 by Ed

As horrifying as his rise has been, from an academic perspective it's hard not to find Trump interesting. One thing I wrote about a while back is the rare opportunity to see a modern American election devoid of ideological content. We also get to watch a campaign and candidate almost literally do everything wrong. Even in situations that are difficult for a campaign to botch, Trump finds a way. He's like King Midas, if everything he touched turned into a rancid heap of excrement instead of gold.

As common as they are in our society, a spree shooting is a pretty easy, routine play for an elected official or candidate. "What a terrible tragedy. My thoughts are with the victims, families, and community. We must (proposal that will never happen but sounds good) to avoid tragedies of this kind in the future." It's very difficult to screw up. Certainly it's difficult to screw up to the extent that your terrible response as a candidate overshadows the event itself. But here we are. He went from bad – congratulating himself on his own brilliance without mentioning the victims – to incomprehensibly bad, which is to say things so stupid that even the NRA has to distance itself from the rhetoric. Ignoring the fact that an armed, on-duty Orlando PD officer was at the club during the event, Trump rambled to a salivating audience:

"If we had people, where the bullets were going in the opposite direction, right smack between the eyes of this maniac," Trump said, gesturing between his eyes. "And this son of a b—- comes out and starts shooting and one of the people in that room happened to have (a gun) and goes boom. You know what, that would have been a beautiful, beautiful sight, folks."

Because what we really want is piss-drunk 23 year olds at "last call" time at a dance club firing a gun for any reason, ever. NRA lobbyists had to hit the Sunday shows to point out, "No one thinks that people should go into a nightclub drinking and carrying firearms. That defies commonsense. It also defies the law. It's not what we're talking about here," and "I don't think you should have firearms where people are drinking." That is, the Republican candidate for president could not manage to make statements about gun rights that the NRA could agree with. That's incredible, if you think about it. Almost impossible to believe. Yet here you have it.

It's also interesting to watch Trump try to use a positive affect toward LGBT people as a means of furthering anti-Muslim sentiment – which is a page straight out of Geert Wilders' playbook for modern far right politics in Europe. One author called this "pro-gay Islamophobia," which is a neat phrase. It's concern trolling about the intolerance toward gays and lesbians in Islam (and, you know, Christianity, but that part gets left out) to further the argument that the religion is somehow incompatible with Western Values. The goal is to make xenophobia and anti-immigration policies more palatable to people who instinctively avoid ultra right wing politics. It's the face of a kinder, gentler neo-Nazism.

We might as well get used to the fact now that the statement "Surely it can't get any worse than this" is bound to be false at any point in this campaign; any assertion that we've hit rock bottom inevitably will end up being retracted and revised.

NPF: HANGING ON

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 17th, 2016 by Ed

As you read this I am driving an unreasonable distance to see 90s grunge rock has-beens Candlebox play an embarrassing venue in an embarrassing location. I am doing this purely for lolz, as the kids probably no longer say, as I didn't even like this band when they were "popular" in 1994. It started out as a joke, then one of my friends I don't see often enough offered to come, and now it's happening. I suppose I've spent $20 on dumber things.

Living in Central Illinois has provided more opportunities to say "Holy shit, I can't believe they're still touring" than my first three decades on the planet combined. We've been visited by Dokken. Ratt. Survivor. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Molly Hatchet. Every butt-rock hair band from the 80s that had one hit and that you haven't thought about in 20 years. For The Youths, we also get all the late 90s-early 00s nu metal hacks. Papa Roach came. Sevendust. Uncle Kracker. Staind. Kid Rock. All that stuff. Basically, Peoria and Springfield are the next step down on the waterslide from major stadiums to concert halls to clubs in big cities to clubs in smaller cities to…well, the bottom of the touring barrel. County Fairs. Hillbilly bars. VFW halls. Bowling alleys. It's not hard to look at a band playing the Dew Drop Inn in Dothan, Alabama and wondering if they're on stage thinking about that time they played the Meadowlands or Wembley. It must be depressing. And it's certainly easy to mock for us ironic hipster types.

Whenever this comes up in conversation – "OMG can you believe Everclear is still touring and they're in Peoria?? God give it up already losers!" – my first reaction is to laugh, then to feel sorry for them, and finally to think, "Well it beats working in an office or at Burger King." If you can get paid to do something that for 99% of the population would be a hobby or recreational activity, why wouldn't you do it? I'm sure the folks in Candlebox or Foreigner know that some people are laughing at them, but so what? They probably no longer earn huge paydays, but they have to be making as much or more than the average stiff in the labor market. Doing forty per week in a cubicle or at Jiffy Lube feels bleak a lot of the time, so if similar or better money is to be made by standing on a stage for an hour playing songs while drunks scream the words…hell, I'd take that option ten times out of ten.

At some point I stopped looking at it as hanging on to faded dreams of stardom (although certainly that might be the mindset of some people who can't let it go) and began to see it for what it is: a way to make a living. And comparatively speaking, a fun way. I knew a guy who played minor league baseball for about fifteen years. People often snickered that he was delusional about making the major leagues and couldn't walk away. His perspective was totally different. He knew he wasn't going anywhere; he also knew he got paid about $30,000 to play a kids' game outside during the summer for six months per year. The other six months he worked odd jobs for additional cash. Annually I'm quite certain he made more when all was said and done than a lot of the manual labor and office bodies that thought he was crazy.

Yes, it's easy to laugh, and today I will probably laugh a few times. But you know what? Good for you, Candlebox. Millions of people have to wake up on this Friday and go to a lousy job. You get a check for a couple thousand bucks to play songs you wrote 25 years ago for an hour. I don't think there's any doubt about who wins this day. I'd get on stage and sing "Far Behind" too if anyone would pay to see me do it.

DEVIL TAKE THE HINDMOST

Posted in Rants on June 15th, 2016 by Ed

It's the second week of June and Republicans in Congress are already fully committed to writing this presidential election off and trying to save their own hides.

All delusions about Trump settling into Mature Campaign Mode and sticking to the teleprompter have been crushed brutally; in the first week after he promised to behave, he made a trainwreck of a response to the Orlando massacre, implied that Barack Obama is somehow involved with ISIS, and doubled down on his "Let's round up the Muslims" talk. Republicans in elected office literally cannot go one day without being asked to comment on something new and idiotic he said. And they're already crying uncle: a laundry list of prominent House and Senate Republicans – Cornyn, Barrasso, Tim Scott, Bob Corker, and many more have declared that they will no longer respond to questions about the statements of their own party's nominee. Two of the longest-serving Senate Republicans, Orrin Hatch and Lamar Alexander, chose to pretend they haven't heard any of Trump's statements or that Trump isn't actually the party's nominee, respectively. Two months out from the convention, it's already Every Man for Himself.

As I've said all along, regardless of the Democratic nominee we are going to see Trump destroyed by historic margins this November. He has a core of really loud, really enthusiastic supporters – and everyone else hates him. His poll numbers are abysmal. Trump is currently tied with Hillary Clinton in Utah. UTAH. The state that provided the largest GOP margin of victory in every presidential election since 2000. Even Red State, of all sources, is alarmed by his terrible poll numbers.

What we're seeing now is Republicans slowly coming to grips with the reality that this is it. This is how he's going to be for the entire campaign, unless he gets even worse. And they're shifting into survival mode. One invariant characteristic of elected officials is self-interest, and it is dawning on congressional Republicans that Trump is a disaster of the magnitude that could pull the entire party down with him – and certainly more than a few current GOP incumbents. One of the lifeboats is pulling down the entire ship and everyone is rushing to cut it loose. These people might be dumb but they're not stupid, and they're certainly adept at looking out for #1. Not one of these people like Donald Trump; they don't owe him anything, and they all realize clearly that Trump would not stop to spit on them if they were in flames. Trump is not one of them. He is an interloper. I have no sympathy for them, as they created the forces that made Trump possible, and it is gratifying to watch them scramble to avoid the fallout now. Metaphors about reaping and sowing come to mind.

The eagerness with which his co-partisans are rushing to distance themselves from Trump says more than any poll between today and November will about the outcome. It's too bad Sanders couldn't pull it out, because any Democratic nominee could crush this guy. This is not a blog one comes to expecting to feel better about the human condition after reading, but here's your optimism for the year: Americans recognize this for what it is. Not all of us, of course, but more than enough to ensure that Trump's candidacy is the disaster it was meant to be.

SEEK AND DESTROY

Posted in Rants on June 13th, 2016 by Ed

There are two distinct groups of people who are really into Trump. I understand one of them very well because I've spent my entire life around them. The other group I only encountered recently.

The first is white people over 50. These people have, for the most part, remarkably good lives (or at least no excuse not to). I'm from the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where about half of all working adults got their paycheck from the public sector when I was growing up. Cops, public school teachers, state-county-municipal employees, streets and san workers, you name it. The people I knew growing up are, for the most part, retired or near retirement, coasting on massive (and massively expensive) government pensions. They live in relatively pricey, lily white suburbs. Their lives literally could not be any easier, and they owe every penny they've ever earned in their lives to the government. They're retiring in a level of luxury and comfort their children and grandchildren will never know, on the public dollar. And, almost to a person, they love Trump, Fox News, constant outrage, etc etc. Some are scared of a new world and a new society they don't understand. Some believe things used to be better and don't understand why that's no longer the case. Some really, really don't like brown-skinned people. These are not, broadly speaking, intellectually curious people. There's a lot they no longer recognize or understand, and they have no inclination to accommodate the way they think to a new reality. So they sit around, double-dipping state and county pensions after they retired (for the first time) at 50, in large homes with two expensive cars ranting about how terrible everything is.

The second group – and color me sheltered, I suppose – I didn't encounter until four years ago when I moved to Central Illinois. They are not all over 50. In fact, many are younger and have legitimate economic grievances, hence the part of Trumpism that appeals to people who are angry about American jobs being outsourced overseas. Nothing in my first 33 years prepared me for how bitter, angry, and flat-out mean people who live in shitty places are. They hate their lives, and they hate them with good cause. They're simply looking for someone to take that fact out on. It's not surprising once I saw it and thought about it; take any relatively normal human and have them spend 30 years in the middle of nowhere in a town that smells constantly from its rendering plant and where the best restaurant is a Hardee's and he or she will be pretty bitter, resentful, and angry too. These are people who have never met a Muslim, yet they're furiously angry at Muslims. They also hate immigrants, Mexicans who are not immigrants, blacks, gays, Big City people, professors, doctors, lawyers, teachers…basically everyone who isn't white and a member of their shitty church. They adopt this cartoonish hyper-jingoistic and faux-Country manner and style, talk a lot about Real 'Muricans and people who aren't Real 'Muricans, and recite lists of grievances about everyone to blame for the fact that they didn't try hard enough in high school to get out like some of their friends did. Obama, Hillary Clinton, ISIS, Jews, gays, welfare queens – anyone will do. They love Trump because he's blaming the same scapegoats. It is emphatically not hard to get these people to be really, really angry at some target. Any half-talented charlatan can do it.

Of course not everyone who lives in these places fits this description; the ones who are enthusiastic about Donald Trump do, though. I've thought a lot about what thread connects these two superficially very different groups, and the best way I can describe it is disappointment. These are people who thought life would be better than it is – or perhaps even feel entitled to more than what they got – and they don't want to blame themselves for whatever shortcomings there are, real or perceived. They're comfortable middle class people who are mad because they expected to be rich, and poorer people who are mad that they didn't become comfortable middle class. Their circumstances are different but the palpable, deep seated sense of having been cheated out of what was theirs is the same. Unable or unwilling to grapple with the complex set of structural economic changes that left them in their respective situations, they take the easy way out and blame it on any convenient target. The politics of blood and culture are the path of least resistance, and the choice between confronting the reality that they're financially insecure because the trickle-down economics they professed faith in for decades does not actually work or blaming the Mexicans and the blacks is no choice at all.

WAILING AND GNASHING OF TEETH

Posted in Quick Hits on June 12th, 2016 by Ed

Whenever someone says there's nothing the government can do to stop mass shootings, remember that in December the Senate voted down a bill to prevent people on the terrorism watch list from buying guns. That's right – Senate Republicans are so corrupt, so totally beholden to the NRA that they wouldn't vote to ban sales of firearms to actual…let's call them "Terrorism enthusiasts." People who have made contact with known terrorists. People who are big fans of ISIS websites. Are they all terrorists? Of course not. Might it be a reasonable idea to think twice about letting them load up on guns? Well. Maybe that much caution is appropriate.

This gentleman's Twitter account is detailing exactly how much each member of Congress who voted against that bill – people who wanted to make sure that individuals on the terrorism watch list could buy guns – received from the NRA recently. As usual, all they can do is offer their Thoughts and Prayers. Thoughts and Prayers. Thoughts and Prayers. It's just too bad that there's nothing else they can do about it.

House and Senate Republicans currently up in arms over Islamism and terrorism had an opportunity to prevent something like this from happening but they didn't. Keep that in mind. Remind them of it every time they wail and rend their garments over another Tragedy that no one anywhere could possibly have stopped unless more people had more guns.

Prayers are for the dead. The living deserve more.

NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH GAVE AN ENTIRE ISLAND ANTHRAX

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 9th, 2016 by Ed

World War II brought out the insanity lurking beneath that famous British reserve. Not only did they try to blow up an entire island, but they rendered another one uninhabitable for decades – after they killed a bunch of sheep, of course.

We tend to forget how poorly WWII was going for the Western Allies before 1943. Preparing for the worst or perhaps eager to inflict the worst on Nazi Germany, the British began secretly developing an offensive biological weapons capability in early 1942. Military scientists made an aerosol out of anthrax and managed to rig a munition to disperse it. To see if the setup would work and produce lethal results, they needed somewhere very remote and very empty to test it.

Enter Gruinard Island. In Scotland, of course. Because they flipped a coin and it was either that or Ireland. Because Britain.

The island's small handful of residents was displaced by the government. More accurately they were replaced. Replaced with sheep. Eighty sheep were imported to see how they would react to being blasted with weaponized, extra-virulent anthrax. Ooh, the suspense! Are you ready for a shock? They died. Autopsies revealed that they died of anthrax. Watch some highly strange footage of the "experiments" here.

The tests proved, in case anyone was skeptical, that bombing German cities with anthrax would have lethal consequences that could linger for decades (note: anthrax is a rugged, hard to kill spore, which explains its popularity as a bioweapon). This proved remarkably prescient, as the British soon discovered that poor Gruinard Island was thoroughly, perhaps permanently, infected with literal tons of anthrax bacteria. Eventually the displaced owners and the general public started clamoring to clean up the problem in the late 1970s. A legitimate cleanup effort began in 1986, and it turned out that after an entire island gets drenched with liquid anthrax it's really hard to decontaminate it. For the next four years the tiny (0.75 square mile) island was bathed repeatedly in 300 tons of formaldehyde mixed with seawater. Some very nervous sheep were introduced in 1990 and their health was monitored closely.

They lived. The sheep lived.

The original owners were sold their island by the UK government for the 1942 purchase price of 500 pounds, and 26 years later there have been no cases of human, sheep, or any other mammal contracting anthrax on Gruinard. Hard to imagine what could grow in formaldehyde-soaked soil, but I guess nature is resilient.

The punchline? The secret project was called Operation Vegetarian. That famous British wit.