NPF: STILL BETTER THAN SPIRIT

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 25th, 2017 by Ed

Having mentioned Charles Lindbergh's 1927 Transatlantic flight earlier in the week I cannot help myself from giving you just a peek inside the rabbit hole of the early days of aviation.

Flying is terrible, right? It's a thing we endure because the other options are so much more time consuming. Unless you can afford to upgrade to First Class (which basically just replicates what flying was like prior to the 1977 deregulation) you grit your teeth and exchange both comfort and dignity for an inexpensive ticket. Yes, many domestic US tickets approach or exceed $500 in coach depending on your destination and dates, and $500 can hardly be considered "cheap." However, in the grand scheme of things it's about what we can expect unless the airlines wish to resume the ritual of declaring Chapter 11 once per decade.

This is our fault, of course. Actually it's capitalism's fault, but let's keep this manageable. If given the option between a $1000 ORD to SFO ticket with pampering, comfort, and no additional add-on costs or a $255 ORD to SFO ticket that entitles you to be treated as subhuman and confined to a space in which you can barely fit, which will you pick? Your personal preferences and financial situation might point toward the $1000 ticket. Most of us suck it up and take the cheapie. We punt on comfort. The rotten business model in use across the industry offers us the opportunity to get things like legroom and dignity and checked baggage if we fork over the money. Very few passengers choose to do so.

I digress. The reason I mention this is simply to use flying in 2017 as a point of comparison for the following anecdote.

In 1934 the Australian airline Qantas began the first London to Sydney air service. Australia is a chore to fly to even today from Europe or North America. Modern equipment has improved things vastly, as you'll see, but flying to Southeast Asia or Australia-NZ borders on grueling in the best circumstances. In 1934 well-off Brits were astonished to learn that they were free from the tyranny of the steamship and could actually be flown to Sydney and back with each journey taking a mere…are you ready? Twelve days! It was practically like teleporting.

The next time you grumble (as I do, constantly) about flying today consider the ordeal it was in the early days. The flight departed London and before arriving in Sydney it required five changes of aircraft (!!!) among the 12 to 15 layovers, disembarking to travel across Italy via train (Mussolini forbade foreign airlines to cross Italian airspace), and twelve days and nights all for the low price of about $18,000 in 2017 US dollars. For Americans, Australia was on the far end of the early Pacific routes, immortalized by Pan Am's China Clippers, that stopped and spent the evening at five or six fly-speck islands in where grand hotels had been built hastily to pamper passengers who were forking over a lower class working person's annual salary for a seat aboard the loud, primitive flying canoes of the age.

You can't call modern air travel perfect, but it helps on occasion to remember how far it has come.

Actually that doesn't help at all. I want whoever invented the reclining coach seat to be guillotined.

BACK WHEN BEING A NAZI WAS A CAREER-ENDER

Posted in Rants on May 24th, 2017 by Ed

There's nothing meaningful about anniversaries per se; they are but a convenient excuse to raise and recall historical events that are interesting, relevant, or important. Sunday was the 90th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic from Roosevelt Field to Le Bourget in Paris. Truly, honestly, it stands as one of the most incredible (if pointless in the practical sense) feats a person has ever accomplished. A modern equivalent might be someone named Jane Doe showing up at a spaceport with a capsule she made in her yard and flying to Mars by herself while Elon Musk and NASA look on and predict her imminent death…followed two years from now by footage of her standing on Mars waving.

I could talk endlessly about the technical aspects of the accomplishment, so I will stop myself in advance. Suffice it to say that papers called him "Lucky Lindy" not simply because it sounded cool but because the quest to fly the Atlantic from New York to Paris produced nothing but an impressively long list of corpses until Lindbergh did it, and continued to kill well funded, highly experienced crews in technologically sophisticated aircraft for years after. To point out just two examples, pioneering French aviators Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli flew a technological marvel called L'Osseau Blanc to their deaths in an Atlantic crossing attempt shortly before Lindbergh's try. And Richard Byrd's team, which included both a dedicated navigator and a radio operator, survived its crossing flight but missed its intended arrival point in Ireland by nearly 800 miles. They crash-landed in France, essentially hitting Europe at all only because it is too big to miss if one flies (generally) eastward. Lindbergh, meanwhile, flew what was essentially a powered box kite alone, navigated with a pad of paper on his knees and zero forward visibility (the windshield was blocked with a gas tank), and landed exactly where he said he would, to the foot.

More to the point, Lindbergh's act achieved him a kind of fame that has no modern equivalent. The news cycle is so short today that the kind of all-encompassing, smothering, planetary fame that met Lindbergh will probably never be repeated. He became famous to the point that living anything resembling life became impossible for him and more or less destroyed him. It led directly, through constant reports about details of his home life, to the kidnapping and murder of his son in what was, until the OJ Simpson Trial (more on that in a moment), the Crime of the Century.

So, parts of us feel sympathetic to the idea that Lindbergh might be driven by the harassing pressures of fame and adulation to become…a little odd. Maybe develop something of an antipathy toward his fellow man. He could have been forgiven a curmudgeonly, even misanthropic, leaning or two. But that's not what happened. What happened was not forgivable. In a high school auditorium in Iowa in 1941, Charles Lindbergh doused himself in gasoline and lit a metaphorical match. His speech on non-intervention, coming on the heels of years of uncomfortable flirtations with Nazism, "America First" boosterism, and the very darkest corners of the generally already quite dark Eugenics movement, ended Charles Lindbergh with an immediacy and finality that was nothing short of breathtaking. It is impossible to think of another example of a person who went from universally admired public figure to persona non grata as quickly and totally as Charles Lindbergh. OJ Simpson is a rough equivalent, although his popularity never reached the heights of Lindbergh's. Bill Cosby comes to mind as well, although he was already well past his peak of esteem by the time his public defenestration came. Lindbergh went from proposals to name new states after him to He Whose Name is Not Spoken literally overnight.

It is more than a bit striking, then, to read the text of Lindbergh's career-ending speech now, in light of the knowledge of the revulsion with which it was greeted and how thoroughly it destroyed the public reputation of a man who until that moment could virtually do no wrong. Does it not seem almost…tame, by today's standards in American politics? Far from being career suicide, giving that speech today would merit a book deal, a syndicated talk show, and a career in Republican electoral politics. Compare this to the writings of people who currently occupy positions of authority in the damn White House and Lindbergh practically comes off as some sort of reasoned moderate. My point is not that Charles Lindbergh's anti-Semitic, eugenics-guided fascist sympathy adds up to an idea that is defensible or has merit; the point is that none of this would hurt him or his reputation much today. The actual President would shower him with praise, which contrasts neatly with FDR's take ("If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this, I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.")

There was a time when being at least borderline into Nazism was a liability in America. Apparently that time has passed. Of course, until WWII began Lindbergh's views were not exactly unique among Americans. However, rather than continuing to reject them based on the lessons learned during that almost unimaginably destructive conflict, we are now content to move backward and claim that perhaps we had things right all long back in the days when Madison Grant was respectable reading. I don't need to explain in much detail what that kind of thinking led to, I hope.

FINAL EXAM

Posted in Rants on May 22nd, 2017 by Ed

When I have the opportunity to teach a senior seminar – intended to be a capstone to the major, a "big picture" course – I assign a reading list that frames what I believe will be the defining Big Questions of the next half-century or more. One: How will the state respond to the possibility than in the future, improvements in productivity and technology will result in an economy unable to produce enough jobs to sustain our current market-oriented system? In other words, how (if at all) will governments adapt when there is no longer a need for labor as we currently understand it. This is essentially the Player Piano scenario. To undergraduates about to head out into the world in search of employment this question resonates.

The second: How much are individuals willing to change their way of life and the current understanding of individual rights to combat non-state actors? In other words, terrorism is essentially impossible to stop by any conventional means. One man can rent a truck and drive it into a crowd and the Good Guys combating terrorism will never have had the slightest chance to intervene. One person can walk into a crowded place with a gun, no prior planning or terror-networking involved, and fire away. The only way to prevent this type of terrorism is by giving up our concept of privacy on a scale that is currently unimaginable. Theoretically, if The Government read every person's online activity and monitored every phone conversation on Earth in real time it might be possible to intervene against Lone Wolf or decentralized terrorist network attacks. You could in theory find every person who visits an ISIS propaganda website and send the police crashing through their door moments later. You could even have smartphone technology that records and transcribes every conversation in range. You could even, if future technology advances at the rate we have seen in the last 50 years, have the ability to record and transcribe our thoughts. Don't laugh – research on how to replace user interfaces (mice, keyboards, tapping the screen) with technology that reads our thoughts is in progress. Are we there yet? No. Might we get there? Sure.

Whenever I see something like the apparent terror attack in Manchester on Monday evening I become more convinced that this second question is going to make or (probably) break western democracies in the coming decades. With enough of these attacks over a long enough timeframe individuals will gradually grow fearful of everything – flying, public transit, sport events, concerts, malls, any public gathering of more than a handful of people, tourist destinations…you name it. People will find that no amount of resources allocated by the state can stop terrorism of this type because it requires only motivation and the amount of planning a dullard could complete in 20 minutes. The goal of people like Osama bin Laden was and is to bring about the collapse of Western societies by exploiting their weakest points. It is a long game, aimed at making us slowly lose our collective sanity and resort to increasingly undemocratic rule and concentration of power and wealth in the state until it collapses from within. It's working so far. Give the US and France and the UK twenty more years of random, periodic carnage and it is likely to produce some results that seem far-fetched now.

We will have to choose as societies whether we will live with a persistent low level of danger (You're still incredibly unlikely to die from terrorism compared to just about anything else, but the fear it causes is disproportionate) from insidious elements that wish to do us harm or whether we will subvert a handful of the core, defining principles of 20th Century Western democracy in exchange for greater security, real or perceived.

We know which the Boomers choose, but in twenty years none of them will be left. Today's young adults ultimately will be the ones who have to pull the trigger. It will be a historic decision; once the path toward a surveillance state and "clash of civilizations" policies toward Muslims is chosen, the consequences for our nations and the world will reverberate for the next century.

THE COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS NO ONE ASKED FOR

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 20th, 2017 by Ed

Class of 2017 graduates,

I want to take this opportunity to offer you the benefits, unsolicited, of all the wisdom I've accumulated in the two decades since I was in your position: fresh out of college and about to enter adulthood against my will. It is not in the nature of 18-22 year olds to take advice, but it is in the nature of people nearing 40 to look back on the advice they received and realize that some of it was helpful. So, without further literary foreplay, please remember the following as you move forward in life:

1. The two areas in which you should never try to economize are toilet paper and airplane tickets. One-ply toilet paper will save you a buck or two, but the costs of failure are catastrophic. Spend the extra money. And you will be enticed by the ticket on Spirit Airlines or something similar because it is $100 cheaper than every other fare. By the time you realize how miserable your flight experience is, combined with all the extra fees they will hit you with for the privilege of getting on the plane with your luggage, you will find that you didn't save money at all. You just flew a shittier airline and were more miserable than absolutely necessary.

2. Guac is extra. Guac is always extra, and honestly it's overpriced and not worth it. Avocados taste vaguely like soap.

3. Learn to cook a handful of things. It doesn't have to be fancy. The money you spend dining out will do more damage to your budget than you realize.

4. Leave your college town now. You're done there. It will be tempting to stick around because you like it and it's familiar. It will become sad very quickly, though, when you are That Guy Who Graduated and is Hanging Around Townie-Like. Moving sucks. Making new friends as an adult is hard. Do it anyway.

5. Don't go back to your hometown either. There is nothing there for you. Do things that have a future, not a past.

6. Everything sucks right now, and whatever job you find is likely to suck. I'm sorry. We are all sorry. But any extended period of idleness will make it that much harder to get into the workforce later. Tough it out. Often after a year or two in the basement of any profession you can make some connections that will better your standing in a couple of years. Who you know is important.

7. Take it easy with the alcoh…oh fuck it, you will probably spend your entire 20s drunk. Why not. It's the last time your body will be able to handle "partying" as you currently define it.

8. Buy one outfit now, and possibly an outfit that has the ability to be altered, for weddings. You are going to go to about 100 weddings in the next five to ten years and it can get really pricey fast.

9. Don't worry if everyone else is getting married and you're not. Statistically, half of these marriages will fail. It's OK. It's life.

10. This is the best time in your life to fail at anything. The consequences are less severe right now than they ever will be. In ten or fifteen years when you have more responsibilities – children, spouses, financial obligations, etc. – it will be extremely costly and impractical to move to Hollywood and try to become an actor, or write the great American novel, or open a small business, or try to unicycle across Siberia, or work on a cruise ship to see the world drunk and for free, or give it a go with your band, or set yourself up to provide a service that it may turn out is not in demand, or open that bar, or anything else. For most of the ideas and goals you have that do not involve working a fairly dull job for a paycheck, it's now or likely never. You can try something like this and fail miserably at 25 without crippling your future. At 55, you can't. It's OK. The hoary inspirational advice is right: a lot of very successful people went bankrupt, sometimes multiple times. If there is something you want to try that you will end up regretting if you don't try it, do it now. If you fail, nobody except you will feel the failure. And then you'll be young enough to start over.

11. Don't go to grad school unless you actually want to go to grad school. It's too pricey now to go just because you can't think of anything else to do.

12. Get an adult email address. Nobody is going to hire "FingrBlastr420@___.com." And while you're at it, go to a good bar and figure out which Adult Drink you like. You can't go to professional events with adults and ask for the neon flavored vodka nonsense at college bars.

13. Never let inertia make decisions for you. You don't have to marry him just because you've been dating for so long. You don't have to keep working at Job X because you've been there for 15 years already and blah blah. You don't have to buy a house just because it's that time, or because everyone else is doing it. You always have a choice about these things. Maybe getting married, having 2.3 kids, buying a house, and all that stuff is perfect for you. Just remember that you don't have to do any of it unless you really want to. The leading cause of unhappiness in the affluent world is people making choices to do things they do not actually want to do. When you think hard about it, there is very little you "have to" do.

14. If you don't have hobbies or interests, get some. Beyond college it is very difficult to meet other adults to socialize with.

15. Get out of the house. Nothing good happens to someone who is sitting at home alone. Go do activities you might not be super excited about or attend events that are only marginally interesting. Sitting around alone is a good way to ensure nothing changes. You want things to change, and change for the better. Get out and meet people. Most of the people you meet in your twenties will amount to nothing in your life, but one or two of them will make all the difference.

Everything is Terrible All the Time,
Ed

FORESEEN CONSEQUENCES

Posted in Rants on May 16th, 2017 by Ed

Of all the styles of pundit writing the most loathsome is the "You can't blame me for failing to foresee this, as nobody could have foreseen it!" self-absolution. And when this three-ring shitshow in the White House meets its tragi-comic end, whether on schedule in January 2021 or earlier, it will take a great deal of fortitude to plow through the inevitable hand-wringing pieces from Republicans who fancy themselves Serious People without projectile vomiting our spleens onto the ashes of whatever is left of us by then.

Circa 2005 when it became so obvious that the Iraq War was a poorly thought-out, poorly executed misadventure in imbecilic optimism as a one-to-one replacement for strategy and legitimate cause, Very Serious People on the right began lining up to purge themselves all over our eyes. What was once the very best idea suddenly became the worst foreign policy disaster in American history, but lest the gentle reader entertain thoughts of questioning the judgment of people like George Will it must be pointed out that no one – no one at all – could have foreseen in 2003 that the invasion could possibly turn out in any way other than Super Great. No one could have known, for example, that the White House cherry-picked intel, placed huge amounts of political pressure on agencies to reach predetermined conclusions, and generally had no goddamn idea whatsoever to do once it used the military to smash Saddam Hussein's regime into dust other than "They'll hail us as their liberators and everything will be great." Never mind that all of this was widely recognized and shouted until hoarse for 18 months leading up to the war. Nobody could have known.

And now we will have to read the same masturbatory thinkpieces all over again. Because clearly nobody could have predicted that taking a person with obvious personality disorders who has never had a job before and is proud of the fact that he has no idea what he is doing and making that person president would turn out poorly.

It would not surprise me if a lot of the Republicans and conservative media figures have their "the day after Trump is gone" pieces in the can already. Even Fox News has to be planning ahead despite their comical efforts to keep this unfolding disaster away from the dead octogenarian eyes of their remaining viewers; a slew of "What went wrong and why are we not at fault for failing to mention any of this before it actually went wrong?" pieces exist in the ethers, awaiting only the push of a button to be unleashed and accepted unquestioningly. Revisionist history as absolution is the only thing the right does as effectively as phony moral outrage and IOKIYAR-ism.

Spare us. That's all I ask. Living with the consequences is punishment enough. Don't double down by telling us that an honest person had no idea how this was going to turn out.

WEB OF SECRETS

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2017 by Ed

The curious lack of enthusiasm for getting to the bottom of the ties between the current administration and Russia is about more than partisan politics and Americans' general lack of interest in anything substantive. The whole story makes people uneasy because it speaks to a fundamental change in the world that has unsettling consequences for all of us. Privacy is essentially dead, and we don't want to learn just how dead it is. The implications are too frightening.

We get stories about email hacks, computer viruses, information theft, and other forms of electronic snooping to understand – whether we realize it or not – that the concept of privacy on the internet does not truly exist. Anyone willing to devote the time, effort, and resources to getting at our personal information can do so. The only reason it doesn't happen to you and I is that you and I are not important. If we were, hell or high water couldn't stop an interested party from reading your emails, flipping through your text messages, and so on.

Given the extent to which we have transitioned huge parts of our lives onto the internet, this is not a reality we are eager to confront. Not many of us have an internet footprint that would involve issues of national security, but I think it makes people profoundly uncomfortable to see these stories on the news and realize that under the right circumstances, everything we have ever said or done online could suddenly become available for the world to read. If you don't believe that, pause for a moment and imagine that everyone you know could read everything you've ever said (some of it about them, no doubt) in a text, email, IM, and so on. The best case scenario would be some serious embarrassment. The worst is documentation of activities that could land you in legal trouble, given that those text messages to your weed dealer probably aren't nearly as inscrutable as you suppose them to be.

The technology and talent for invading someone's privacy online will only get better in the future. The fact that your credit card number, identity, bank account, and email haven't been hacked is not an indication that online security measures are protecting you, but that you're not important enough for the people who have these skills to use them against you. As the ability to pry improves, electronic blackmail is likely to become the unstoppable billion dollar illegal activity of the future. "Pay up or else everything goes on Wikileaks" is a demand that many people in the professional world are likely to have a hard time ignoring. If you're in a field in which it matters in the least how other people see you (i.e., nearly every profession) you aren't going to be pleased by the thought of the world finding out that you forward off-color jokes, have a deep and lasting fondness for illegal drugs, consume a truly heroic amount of porn, write long harangues against your immediate superiors at work, like taking pictures of yourself in various states of undress, have a thriving account on Furry Fetish Personals, or any of the hundreds of other things people do in their private lives under the assumption that the phrase "private lives" is meaningful. We aren't quite ready to admit to ourselves that if the wrong people take an interest in you, the idea of privacy effectively ceases to exist.

On an intellectual level the majority of Americans believe it's important to know fully what sort of connections elected officials might have to a foreign government or any other potentially questionable interests. When we pause to consider how that information has become available to the public and to law enforcement, though, we are divided into two groups: those of us made uncomfortable by the extent to which electronic spies can pry into our lives and those of us who don't understand the issue well enough to realize the implications.

ON THE STRAWS PRECEDING THE BACK-BREAKING ONE

Posted in Rants on May 11th, 2017 by Ed

There was a good deal of (always welcome) criticism of two similar previous posts drawing parallels between the Russia scandal and Watergate. The most common charge was that I am excessively optimistic and fail to consider how craven the modern Republican Party and its leadership are when it comes to defending their own and maintaining themselves in power. In other words, things are Different now and the people in control of Congress are unlikely to turn on one of their own no matter what. Even if he's not really one of their own, he is a useful idiot.

The original post, "On the Nature of Tides" was general and preceded the inauguration by a week. The second, "On the Properties of Wind," was from late March and emphasized that Trump had not even been in office for 90 days at that point and the Russia problem is not one that would be resolved immediately. Instead, it was/is likely to smolder and get worse over time. That point Trumdeserves some additional emphasis this week.

First, remember that this administration has barely crossed the 100 day mark. It remains unrealistic to think that any Congress, even one with principles, would have railroaded any president out of office by this point. What we are learning this week – and this is crucial – is that the Russia story is never going to go away. It may briefly be pushed off the front burner in favor of some momentary flare-up, but it keeps fighting its way back into the headlines. The most persuasive reason to believe it will keep doing so – and this is equally crucial – is that Trump is very stupid and he will keep doing things to bring attention to it and make it worse.

It is worth remembering that not only did it take time for Watergate to torpedo Nixon but the crime itself was not what brought him down; the attempts to cover it up, including efforts to stifle the FBI that amounted to abuse of power and interference with an investigation, were ultimately fatal. It is easy for fatalism to set in, and these days liberals talk as though suffering from political PTSD – the big strong man is invincible, nothing will ever get better, everything is hopeless. This line of argument ignores one of the most obvious and important things about the man in question: He is incredibly stupid, impulsive, and childish, and as a result he will continue to manage the Russia story by tantrum, guaranteeing that it will never go away and it will get worse with time.

LIKE SHOOTING FISH IN A McMANSION

Posted in Rants on May 8th, 2017 by Ed

Astute commentators have been pointing out since November the massive flaw inherent in the "white working class" (in media usage, read: hillbillies, white trash) argument to explain the most recent election: lower income people of any race tend not to vote much, and nothing about the demographics of Trump voters as a whole suggests that poverty is among their defining characteristics. The median income among voters – not mere "Hey I like that guy!" supporters, but actual cast-a-ballot voters – is well over the national average. Hell, according to the stated figure the median Trump voter is out-earning me considerably. And I'm not a poor person.

The reality is that no amount of think pieces about Appalachia can obscure the fact that Trump is a phenomenon of white suburbanites (combined with poor turnout among people most likely to support a Democratic candidate). If you are like me and spent any portion of your formative years in the suburbs, you have known this in the marrow of your bones and don't need any data to prove it to you. In truly poor areas, white conservatism is mixed with a healthy dose of apathy and indifference. In rural areas it is mitigated by the remnant fumes of agrarian populism (and a total dependence on government subsidies). But the suburbs…the flame burns clean there. Don't go to small town Appalachia if you want to see pure, mindless adherence to the Fox News version of reality. Pick a big city and head for its newest New Money suburbs.

Jesse Myerson offers a useful take on why this is. Suburbanites have just enough wealth to convince themselves that they are just one step away from cartoonish one-percenter wealth (Just don't ask too many questions about debt!) and therefore are not only susceptible to Horatio Alger "hard work is all you need" narratives but also to scapegoating groups perceived to be the last obstacle between oneself and True Wealth. Gosh, just think of how much better everything would be if only my money wasn't being given to Welfare Queens / Immigrants / Chinamen / Etc.

The second factor he points out is that suburbanites, having engaged in a pattern of increasing their spending every time income increased, are overwhelmingly dependent on the value of their homes as the foundation of wealth. Many have borrowed huge amounts against their property, and many more rely on selling it and using the proceeds (the mortgage long since having been paid off) for retirement. If non-white people move into the area, home values will fall. Nothing will turn a suburbanite into a white-hot ball of rage more quickly than the prospect of losing some of the equity in their home. These are not good homes, objectively. They are flimsy, expensive to heat and cool, and ugly. They have no inherent value, so the value of their location (i.e., far away from Those People) and sheer size determine their worth on the market.

These are valid points. To them I would add two more that Myerson missed.

One is that suburbanites are, as a group, unhappy people. I swear to god, you will never meet people who have more but are less happy than your random South Suburbs of Chicago people. These are people who – to engage in a little cheap armchair psychoanalysis – have spent their whole lives believing that the next purchase would finally make them happy and it didn't work out. If only I had a bigger house, or the 5-series BMW instead of the 3-series, or more jewelry, or just MORE of everything…then surely happiness would be here. So they are unhappy despite in material terms having nothing really to be unhappy about.

Second, and related tangentially, is that the design of suburbs combined with the huge amount of time suburban adults spend alone in their own homes divorces them fairly effectively from reality. They don't see much of the real world. They see a gated community of white people with big houses, and perhaps some glimpses of the rest of the world out of a window during a commute. They use the media to inform them what cities and rural areas are like in the same way that you and I rely on the news to tell us what is going on in China. Chicago might as well be China to someone living in its suburbs. They are as likely to form an opinion of it based on what Bill O'Reilly says as they are by driving 15 or 20 miles to do anything there.

I try not to go back to visit family unless I absolutely can't help it. Kunstler was right; we built a landscape of crappy places and became crappy people.

NEW MATH

Posted in Quick Hits on May 7th, 2017 by Ed

If you want an example of how American politics have departed from traditional norms to introduce an element of Third World Strongman unreality into our discourse, look no further than what just happened to Medicaid.

Step 1: Campaign on a promise not to cut Medicaid
Step 2: Cut almost a trillion dollars from Medicaid
Step 3: Insist that cutting almost a trillion dollars from Medicaid made it better (alternate excuse: they're not "cuts", they're ways to give states "more flexibility" – presumably the flexibility to kick a lot of people off Medicaid)

And of course it will work. Millions of die-hards, many of whom have no meaningful idea of what Medicaid is or how it works, will from this day forward insist to their last breath that not a penny was cut from it, or any cuts that might have happened made it way better.

It gets sadder by the day that so many voters in this country could not figure out what the French were able to: that a choice between a bad candidate and a candidate who literally threatens the basic institutions of democracy to increase his or her odds of being able to establish authoritarian rule is an important choice and one worth making.

AVOIDING CONSEQUENCES

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2017 by Ed

I like political science. It's interesting, which is helpful given that I do it for a living. Theories that help us understand the political world change over time out of necessity because the political world changes. Some people find this unsatisfying or use it to argue that the term "science" is not applicable. These people prefer the iron certainty of the hard sciences and their various laws, and that is a valid preference. A social science combining rules, institutions, and human behavior has a different type of appeal and value.

When major events happen in the political world, my social media lights up with a lot of interesting comments from people who know a great deal about the process of legislating, bureaucratic theory, and other specialized topics. I like this a lot. I'm starting to feel, however, that the behavior of the American electorate and the state of the American political system no longer conform to logic or reality enough for any kind of rigorous analysis or application of findings from previous research to be useful. That sounds chicken little-ish, I know. It sounds like an overreaction. It also sounds terrifyingly plausible.

As people who study Congress and congressional elections debate the strategy (and consequences) of the House vote on Thursday, the basic assumption is that voters will respond to decisions made by their Representatives in a way that is predictable. I have doubts about the usefulness of that assumption in modern politics. The post-reality world that a lot of Republican voters inhabit is the culmination of a decades-long process of false equivalence and a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to facts. What does it matter that the bill reduces the number of people who will have health insurance if you can simply say it doesn't and a not-insignificant proportion of voters will accept that and applaud? Does it increase costs? Sure does. But once "This will lower costs!" comes out of the President's mouth, that's Problem Solved for all but the most marginal Republicans in Congress.

Seeing modern American politics as having crossed the Rubicon is no longer a belief confined to permanent pessimists and doom-and-gloomers. There now is a substantial number of us for whom reality and facts simply do not matter, and that turns any attempt to understand or analyze the behavior of political actors on its head. Republicans control the narrative to the point that convincing voters that the economy is better since Trump took office can be accomplished by saying "The economy is better now" and repeating it until it becomes accepted as fact. We have taken a step backward, or maybe sideways, or perhaps through a portal to another dimension. I don't feel like this is temporary, or limited to Trump, or a phenomenon that affects the entire political spectrum evenly (liberals, if anything, insist on Fact Checking everything to death until there is no coherent policy they can be identified with). And I'm dealing with the nagging sense that the knowledge that has been accumulated over the years will be of limited use now.

Imagine if a chemist could combine table salt with mud and declare that the result is 24 karat gold. Or diamonds. Or magical potion. Or anything else he or she felt like calling it. That would render most if not all of the knowledge accumulated by practitioners of chemistry over the millennia useless, would it not?