INFLATIONARY SPENDING

Posted in Quick Hits on August 3rd, 2015 by Ed

Came up with a fun idea over on the Facebook page today. If you're not inclined to use that omniscient data mining platform feel free to sound off in the comment section here.

If you went to college, post the years you attended what one year of tuition (independent of scholarships, grants, room & board, etc) cost during your tenure. Then look up what one year of tuition costs today and report the difference. I'll go first.

1997-1999 University of Wisconsin: $12,000 (one year out of state rate)
2015 University of Wisconsin: $26,660

That's a solid 125% increase in 16 years. It's ok though. I think wages and inflation went up about that much in the same timeframe.

PERTINENT INFORMATION

Posted in Quick Hits on August 3rd, 2015 by Ed

The first time I heard of Samuel DuBose, recently shot in the head by a University of Cincinnati police officer, was in a CNN story. None of the details in the case – the release of the video or the indictment of the officer – were yet known. And the second paragraph, which in CNN Style is also the second sentence, pretty well summarizes how these stories are reported until the evidence of wrongdoing by law enforcement is so overwhelming that a standard victim-blame paradigm falls apart:

cnn

It's cute how they try to portray themselves as real journalists bringing much needed news to the outraged community when at the earliest opportunity to report the story they fulfilled their role as establishment bag men with a flourish. Reporting on the dead unarmed black guy's arrest record is par for the course; pointing out how many children he fathered shows real commitment to the Good Riddance narrative.

BEST SIXTEEN YEARS OF MY LIFE

Posted in Rants on July 30th, 2015 by Ed

Having recently sold an older but impeccable German sports car for a substantially cheaper and more practical Japanese econobox, I found myself in the odd position of having an amount of cash on hand greater than what would be necessary to escape the country on short notice. In the spirit of responsible adulthood I decided that it would make the most sense to close out my student loan debt. My student loan debt is old enough to drive; I graduated with my bachelor's degree in 1999 and the money owed for services long ago rendered has been more or less a permanent feature for my entire adult life. Now it's gone.

I had to borrow about $30,000 to cover my educational expenses between the time I graduated from high school in 1996 and from college in December of 1999 (grad school fortunately didn't cost anything except seven years of my life that I'll never get back). Combined with perhaps another $5000 run up on credit cards to cover my extravagant insistence on food and shelter and the earnings of various part-time forms of employment throughout, my college degree cost me around $35,000. As insecure and unsuccessful people tend to do, I'm always eager to point out that I wasn't on the Mommy and Daddy plan as most undergraduates are/were. I did the kind of shit that political candidate boast about in an attempt at authentic Common Man cred. There was more than one occasion on which I got 30 days of meals out of a 50 pound bag of rice. I probably have all the canceled rent checks in a box somewhere, and I can regale you with how hard it was to make some of them clear.

The point here is not that I'm a good person because we all know that's silly, nor is it to argue that hard work and self-reliance build character. I wouldn't recommend doing it that way to anyone, ever. It sucked. It was equal parts anxiety and fatigue and it was absolutely No Fun. If someone else would have offered to pay my bills I would have taken them up on it in a heartbeat. Anyone who claims otherwise, that they would never pass up the character-building opportunity it offers, is lying or very stupid. Instead, the point is that I managed to get out of a very good state university with a degree for a grand total of $35,000, give or take. What would the same thing cost today? Any way you look at it, my experience of being a normal person going to a normal school without a massive amount of outside financial support now sits on the boundary dividing unlikely and impossible.

If, instead of something like $12,000 per year the school had asked me for $25-30,000 per year as they do today, what would have been my options? There's no way I could pay that out of pocket. Assuming I borrowed it, my total debt at graduation would look more like $90,000-100,000 instead of $30,000. It took me long enough to pay back what I actually owed. How long would it take me, and at what cost to my other financial options in life, to pay off three times as much? Aside from the baseline cost of tuition and other class-related expenses like textbooks and fees, the cost of living in most college towns has gone through the roof as well. I dare you to find affordable housing (for students and non-students alike) in the proximity of your average big university. As an undergraduate I was able to rent studio/efficiency apartments for something like $400/month back in the late 1990s. That same apartment is, according to the property management company's website, a $900/month apartment 16 years later. And I bet it's still the same carpet.

When doing the math, the inescapable conclusion is that anyone who hopes to get a college degree today is in one of three situations. They could get a cheap online degree and find that it's worthless. They could borrow the money to pursue a more expensive and valuable degree and then graduate with a truly crushing and ludicrous amount of debt. Or they could have rich parents who pay for it, graduating with the ability to pursue opportunities rather than taking whatever shit job pays best in order to start chipping away at a six-figure loan balance.

YEARS OF MAGICAL THINKING

Posted in Rants on July 27th, 2015 by Ed

When living outside of a major metro area the economy tends to revolve around a very small number of large employers. Most often these are, despite what right wingers would lead you to believe, either government (city/county, school districts, police and fire, etc) or private industries that are little more than thinly disguised conduits for government money (hospitals, higher education, state contractors). Usually there are a handful of actual private enterprises that are large enough to matter; the monolithic Factory or Mill that lends a company town feel to the area. Its fate and the fate of the local population are intertwined, Accordingly the average person becomes more intimately familiar with the inner workings of otherwise unremarkable companies than a person living in, say, New York or Boston would ever be. A thousand people are probably laid off or otherwise rendered unemployed in New York City every four hours. In the middle of nowhere, where the prospects for finding a different job at anything above the minimum wage, no benefits plateau are bleak, that same 1000 layoffs will hit the community like an earthquake.

Late last week – "Break bad news on a Friday" being one of the cardinal rules of modern corporate PR – Mitsubishi announced the closure of its sole U.S. manufacturing facility in Normal, IL. Along with State Farm insurance and Peoria-based Caterpillar, Mitsubishi was one of the sole companies with a major employment presence in Central Illinois (and one of the only blue collar employment opportunities). Now other than State Farm (and Beer Nuts…) the Bloomington-Normal area, population 135,000, is entirely dependent on Illinois State University and other public sector sources for employment at any level above the service industry. Local reaction has been the predictable mixture of anger, sadness, and resignation; this has happened so many times "downstate" (i.e., any part of Illinois not immediately adjacent to Chicago) that it hardly surprises residents anymore.

The reason for the plant closure could not be more obvious. Unless you live in the area, where employee-discounted Mitsubishis are ubiquitous on the roads, or are really interested in the auto industry, there is a good chance you had no idea Mitsubishi still sold cars in this country. They have not been a player in any segment of the U.S. market for two decades. Other than their $40,000 boy racer Evolution model, a favorite of the teen Fast & Furious set, no product they've made since the early 90s has garnered more attention than the bare minimum obligations of the automotive press. Nor have any reviews surpassed "Well, I guess it's not awful, but there are probably 10 options I'd buy before this" in the realm of the positive. More often the commentary has been downright brutal; what may be the company's final new model in this country, 2014's Mirage, was almost immediately placed on "10 Worst Cars of all time" lists. The Normal factory was producing about 50,000 cars annually – most sold at a substantial discount and loss to employees or in annual summer fire sales – despite having a capacity of over 300,000. It didn't take a genius to figure out that this wasn't a going concern.

Irrespective of the complete lack of advertising for Mitsubishi products and their stark inferiority to the competition, I'll give you ten seconds to guess who or what shoulders the majority of the blame for the factory closure in the local press.

If you didn't guess the UAW, try again.

I don't know what I expect from people anymore. We've all read What's the Matter with Kansas? and internalized its narrative by now. We've all become well enough versed in armchair psychology to understand that people who experience this kind of economic dislocation are going to look for someone to blame and their choice of whipping post might not be terribly logical. But I want to grab people and shake them, not to make them See the Light but simply to get an answer to the question of what exactly the absence of unionization would have done to improve this situation.

What exactly is it that could have helped this situation – a moribund, clueless company designing products for third world markets and then trying to sell them to Americans at market prices? Are we angry that the UAW didn't give Central Illinoisans the right to work for the $8/hr Mitsubishi could have paid factory workers in rural Mississippi? Are we upset that we never had the chance to work for the $1/hr that Mitsu pays its manual labor in Thailand, Malaysia, and India to assemble cars (the justifiably maligned Mirage is made entirely in Thailand)? This isn't an example of a company closing a factory and moving it elsewhere for cheaper labor. The company is getting ready to abandon the U.S. market entirely because it sucks at what it does and it is not remotely competitive in this market at any labor cost.

It used to be that when the company went through layoffs and firings, people got angry with the company. Or "the bosses." Or "management." Even a passing understanding of this situation would direct the area's anger toward Japanese boardrooms where bad decisions and bad products originated. If ever a company had a legitimate economic argument for closing a factory, Mitsubishi has one here. Nobody buys their cars because their cars are shit. I understand how "the unions" are an easier, more proximate target than a faceless corporation. I understand why people blame them even when it makes absolutely no sense in context. It would be interesting, though, to know exactly what these anti-union people envision would have happened here without Union Interference. The obvious answer – "Everyone would have made less and then gotten laid off anyway" – hardly seems worth getting in knots over. An unemotional observer might describe that as no real loss at all. A smart one might conclude that the only chance we missed was for the situation to be worse.

COURSE OF ACTION

Posted in Quick Hits on July 23rd, 2015 by Ed

I hadn't a clue that performing in blackface was still a thing, but some part of me knew that if anyone in the United States still performed in this shall we say "controversial" medium it would probably be a cop. Now the whole country knows that, yes, blackface is still a thing some people do and yes, the master of the art form is an ex-cop who was fired from the Baltimore PD for being too racist. Pause for a moment to consider how racist you have to be in order to be ruled Too Racist to be a Baltimore police officer.

Assuming you are not performing in a film or play in which re-creating the late 19th or early 20th Centuries involves the realistic depiction of a minstrel show, it is not complicated to determine whether or not donning blackface is a good idea. For anyone who might be confused I have assembled a handy flowchart. Consult it as often as necessary.

blackface

The academic part of me thinks I understand, or am capable of understanding, why people behave the way they do. I'm no sociologist or psychologist, but it doesn't take much to come up with a persuasive explanation of why people think this sort of thing is OK. At the most basic level, though, I have a difficult time fathoming how an adult human being would need to have it explained to him – in 2015 – that performing in blackface maybe isn't a great idea in the midst of a racially charged series of events involving the deaths of black men at the hands of cops.

Can anyone's lack of self-awareness be that complete? Or does he know but simply loves to troll? Given that the stated purpose of the event was to raise money for the indicted cops, trolling seems unlikely. That only leaves one option.

REFRESHER COURSE

Posted in Rants on July 21st, 2015 by Ed

So the Sandra Bland dashcam video can be filed directly under "Exactly What I Expected." Take a look here if you haven't seen it yet. Shockingly, the narrative the police pushed bears no relation to what's on the video. There's a half-decent chance this cop will end up fired, but that doesn't really help the person who's dead now.

There are two things every law enforcement officer in this country needs to have explained to them before they work another minute. First, we are not obligated to kiss your asses or be nice to you. There is a good chance that if we're dealing with you, our day has been or is about to be ruined. Assuming we didn't decide to murder someone or rob a liquor store that day, it's likely that you're about to hassle us over some minor infraction – 7 mph over the limit…my god, I'm history's greatest monster! – and hand us a ticket we can't afford now that local governments have decided in the face of declining budgets that law enforcement is an alternate form of tax collection. We understand that there's nothing to be gained by being rude, which is why most of use are curt but not aggressive when dealing with whatever crap you are about to subject us to. We are legally obligated to do very little – to provide identification, not to be violent, to comply with the handful of things you're allowed to ask us to do when we interact. That's it. Nobody cares if your feelings are hurt or if your ego reacts poorly to being treated with an attitude other than meek deference.

Second, we don't have to do things just because you tell us to do them. Whether we smoke a cigarette while sitting in our own car is not under your purview. We don't have to get out of the car when you repeatedly refuse to tell us why we've been detained. There is no law that states that we have to stop doing anything that you might be irritated by or that somehow displeases you. This includes smoking, talking on a cell phone while not driving, and being a black person who doesn't act like a 1930s Hollywood Step-n-Fechit toward anyone with a badge.

Oh, and if we refuse to do something that the law does obligate us to do, that doesn't mean you get to shoot us. That's what the law says. In practice, though, "All that matters is the cop had his feelings hurt and Sandra Bland is dead because she wasn’t nice enough to him." Pretty much sums it up, and unfortunately it happens so regularly now that people are getting numb to it.

WOW MUCH BRAVE

Posted in Rants on July 21st, 2015 by Ed

Have you ever noticed that when someone is described as "saying what everyone's thinking" or "telling it like it is" what follows is inevitably racist and "everyone" in this case means white men in their 60s or older? In 36 years I can't think of one occasion on which someone said What Everyone is Thinking that reflected what I was actually thinking. Perhaps I am just an outlier. Or maybe I'm not ideologically compatible with people who like to use phrases like that to appeal to large groups of dipshits.

This rant has been circulating online under the title "News Anchor Gets Fed Up With Obama, Says What Everyone’s Thinking In EPIC Rant." If that does not portend a string of words on the level of a local newspaper comment section, nothing does. If you choose to click this link you will see two minutes of stupidity dribbling out of the mouth of the 22 year old UNLV sorority girl who gave an impressive enough cue card reading to get a "job" with something called "One America News Network." I accept no responsibility for your choices.

There's no reason to watch, though, because you've heard this all before. What follows is standard, predictable Pamela Gellar / Donald Trump style anti-Muslim boilerplate. Blah blah appeasement, blah blah get tough, blah blah round them all up and deport them even if they're citizens, blah blah. Nothing about this is new. Nothing about this is interesting. There is a population out there, apparently, that just wants to hear it at regular intervals and preferably from a Maxim-looking white girl in her 20s.

The part that kills me is the way people pass this stuff around the internet and applaud her "bravery." So bold! So fearless! Willing to speak the truth! Listen. Going on a rant against a small minority group, no matter who it is, is never brave. Next to getting admitted to Arizona State it's probably the easiest thing to do in the United States. It involves no risk aside from the risk of being admitted to the elite circle getting fat off the Fox News Guest gravy train and the D-list conservative pundit circuit. Yes, the First Amendment protects the right to say things like this. No, re-hashing nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-everyone not like Us rhetoric does not qualify as edgy, brave, or refreshing. They're just taking turns saying the same thing to the same receptive audience of slack-jawed yokels and fearful, narcissistic suburbanites.

ON EATING ROACHES AND TALKING TO REPUBLICANS

Posted in Rants on July 19th, 2015 by Ed

In graduate school I had a colleague who was forever paying to see really bad movies and then expressing disappointment after the fact. Being blunt and generally unsympathetic, I finally asked her: What exactly were you expecting when you paid money to see these obviously horrible movies? Did you think the Sir Thomas More monologue from A Man For All Seasons was going to show up in the middle of Fast & Furious 4? Ben Affleck was going to channel Lionel Barrymore in Gigli? New cinematography techniques would be employed in the filming of Beerfest? I mean, being disappointed is never fun but at some point you have to reflect on the criteria you're using to decide where to set your expectations when it's happening over and over again.

Right wingers no longer anger or frustrate me because age and experience have taught me what to expect from them. Like a terrible pop country song, I only need to hear a few words to complete the rest of their sentences. Lots of people still get riled up because they share that characteristic that defined the first five years of Obama's presidency – the steadfast belief that Republicans will be Reasonable People if appealed to properly. This logic mimics the compulsive gambler who thinks that the next hand will be the big winner. For my own sanity I decided after experiencing the beginning of the Iraq War that I would never again expect that anything other than their own base self interest and craving for power motivates conservatives. There is no logic, there are no principles, there is no moment of clarity. There is only narcissism. That's why it is ludicrous to expect any consistency in their rhetoric from one moment to the next. Six years ago John McCain's major asset was his status as a war hero; now he's a big pussy because he ejected from a flaming airplane over Vietnam.

Does it make any sense? Of course it doesn't. Why would you expect it to.

Here's a perfect example, courtesy of A Good Cartoon. Recently in San Francisco a non-citizen named Francisco Sanchez fatally shot a young woman who was almost certainly not intended as a victim (details are fuzzy on whether the shooting was a pure accident or if the victim was shot accidentally while Sanchez struggled with someone else). Right wing hack editorial cartoonist was quick to point out that Sanchez was only partially responsible – Obama and Liberal Pussy Immigration Policy both helped him pull the trigger. They literally had their hand on the gun. They are equally culpable.

Sanchez

But if we look back to previous high profile shooting incidents, Ramirez has…a somewhat different message about responsibility.

Remember Jared Loughner, the guy who shot Gabby Giffords and killed a Federal judge?

Loughner

It was all him. 100% him. Absolutely no outside influences of any kind, and how is the availability of guns even possibly relevant.

Brown

Michael Brown is also 100% responsible for his own death. The guy who actually shot him bears no responsibility, not even one-millionth of one percent. Again, no longstanding social or cultural issues come into play either.

"Discovering" that a right-wing Tea Party type changed his tune to suit the ideologically correct narrative – rugged individualism one minute, It Takes a Village the next – should not surprise you. If it does at this point I'd suggest that you are not paying enough attention or perhaps are tiptoeing into the territory of naivety. In 6th grade I watched a classmate eat a live cockroach on a dare. He gagged and retched and made a great ruckus about how terrible it tasted. Even at the not terribly wise age of 11 I thought, Were you expecting it to be filled with chocolate ice cream? His example, though, was redeeming in the sense that he never* made the same mistake again.

*(Dan W., if you're out there and still eating cockroaches I am very disappointed. You're 36. Get it together.)

NPF: JUMPING THE GUN

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 16th, 2015 by Ed

I am a man who loves, and regularly makes, a good Edsel reference. That car and New Coke are probably American culture's most prominent examples of commercial failure, although I'm not sure if either are familiar to younger generations anymore. Although historical revisionism has emboldened some defenders of both – It is often claimed, for example, that the Edsel failed but contributed to the development of important technologies, which is very stupid and false and also its grille looked like a vagina – they largely deserve their reputation as disasters. We could probably add Netflix's "Qwikster" to the pantheon if it hadn't disappeared so quickly (see what I did there) that already almost nobody remembers it. Americans love winners but are fascinated by losers, provided they lose spectacularly enough. Nobody notices a 2-14 football team, but go 0-16 and suddenly we can't get enough.

What I find really interesting, though, are things that fail but then become huge successes later. My stock example when attempting to explain this phenomenon (side note: we should come up with a name for it. Lazarus effect?) is Zima. Remember Zima, the first mass-marketed "malt beverage" in the United States? Released in 1993, Zima was the butt of about 10% of all American jokes for the duration of that decade. Letterman and Leno beat it to death. Saturday Night Live lampooned it. The public ridiculed it; one commentator noted in a retrospective that, "There are a million ways to slight a rival's manhood, but to suggest that he enjoys Zima is one of the worst." I remember being in junior high – before anyone was even drinking beer or had any meaningful point of reference – and hearing regular Zima jokes. The product disappeared from shelves despite Coors' valiant (and expensive) marketing efforts, but the ironic part is of course that such "alco-pop" and non-beer bottled malt beverages are now wildly popular – Smirnoff Ice and Zima are virtually indistinguishable. While the masculinity-destroying stigma remains, malt beverages are available in hundreds of varieties now and sell briskly. From "hard lemonade" to Smirnoff to a newly available alcoholic root beer, things that come in a beer bottle but aren't beer have never been more popular.

Another example is nowhere near as well remembered as Zima: the Lincoln Blackwood. It is notable mostly as the answer to the trivia question, "What is the worst-selling car of all time in the United States?" Put to death after only a single year on the market, barely 3,000 were sold and today they are about as common as Yugos on American streets. The Blackwood was the Ford Motor Company's attempt at a high-luxury pickup truck. Those terms didn't seem to fit well together when the vehicle was released in 2002. Luxury buyers didn't want a truck, and truck buyers didn't want the image of softness that comes with a luxury vehicle. So it went down in flames, yet just over a decade later the ultra-expensive, high end luxury truck is one of the most profitable market segment in the U.S. Lincoln now sells tons of Mark LTs, and even utilitarian pickup trucks like Ford F-Series, Rams, and Chevrolet Silverados are regularly sold at sticker prices exceeding $50,000 (it's possible to top out an F-150 at nearly $70,000, with luxury features comparable to any Mercedes or Cadillac). And for some generations the word "Escalade" is synonymous with wealth and luxury now.

Maybe it is in our character to laugh at new ideas as a knee-jerk response and then, when sufficient time passes, to fall in love with them. There are plenty more examples out there, I'm sure. Sound off in the comments if you have a particular favorite.

ROYAL RUMBLE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 15th, 2015 by Ed

One of the ego-killing aspects of academia is realizing that one's skills are not necessarily highly valued in other "industries." In my case the nearest I have to a marketable skill in the Real World is a good command of polling methodology and the psychology of survey response. I know my stuff in that area. Even so, it never fails to amaze me how much I don't know. For instance, I have no real clue (and I'm not alone here) how to poll usefully a 17-way race. Rarely is that necessary in American politics. Rarely, as 2016 is demonstrating, is different from Never.

I have to be very honest here regarding the Republican nomination: I haven't the slightest idea right now who's going to win. Look at these recent numbers via PollingReport.com:

Capture

As always it is advisable to be very leery of any poll in which "Don't Know" or "Unsure" is kicking the asses of the actual candidates. That's a reminder that a lot of people haven't started paying attention to this election yet (and who can blame them, being 15 months out). More amusingly, note that 13 (!!!) of the candidates are polling less than the margin of error of +/-5.3% in this poll. That means that despite the length of this list of options, only the top four have a level of support statistically distinguishable from zero with any confidence. The handful of candidates at 1% or zero are getting a very strong "Don't waste your time and money" signal here, although I'm sure they're busy telling themselves right now that all 30% of respondents who are Unsure will go for Bobby Jindal once the race heats up. Good luck with that.

There is an old saying in football that if you have three quarterbacks, you have no quarterback. That is, if your group of QBs does not have one person good enough to stand out above the others, what you really have is three pretty lousy players. Competition can be good for the parties, but looking over this list of knaves and has-beens gives me the sense that the saying applies here as well. If you have 17 candidates, you don't have a candidate. The fact that every one of these knuckleheads can look at the field and legitimately conclude "Hey, I could win this thing!" should be terrifying the GOP right now. With Joe Biden unlikely to run (and unlikely to do well were he to ill-advisedly choose to do so) the Democratic field is shaping up to be a classic two-way race not entirely unlike the 2008 nomination contest. It doesn't guarantee a general election victory but it certainly speaks to the strength of the frontrunning candidate in the Democratic field that not every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the party is saying "Why the hell not?" and throwing his hat in the ring.