DEBT PEONAGE

Posted in Rants on May 21st, 2009 by Ed

On Wednesday the House passed an important piece of legislation tightening regulations on credit cards, legislation that we can safely assume would not have come within 1000 miles of passage under Republican leadership. The bill raised less of a fuss than I expected – although maybe I should withhold judgment until Talk Radio and the wingnut blogosphere has had a few days to settle on a talking point and go into pant-shitting rage about the encroaching socialism of it all. What objections have been raised are as predictable as they are confusing.

The primary criticism issuing from the lenders is that the new regulations will make it very difficult to extend consumer credit to "risky borrowers" and that it will dampen consumer spending, further wounding the already battered retail sector of the economy. Both of these complaints are patently silly. Regarding the first, that is precisely the intent of the legislation. The fact that lenders are complaining about this is indicative of just how much of their profitability relies on lending money to people who stand absolutely no chance of repaying it. The second claim is spurious, implying that debt is a prerequisite to consumption. If only we could think of some way to have people buy things without borrowing the money to do it.

Encouraging less borrowing and less debt-fueled consumption will force people, for better or worse, to live within their means. Because of this fact Congress and the lending industry have been like two men pressing guns to one another's foreheads regarding loose credit and government regulation. Representatives of both parties know this is the right thing to do (witness the 90-5 vote in the Senate on this bill) but have always been afraid to do it explicitly because it will force people to realize just how little wealth they possess. Since real wages stopped growing thirty years ago the political system has relied on the complete abandonment of sound lending practices to placate the unwashed masses with easy credit; as I've said many times on these pages, "Sure, you can have a raise" was gradually phased out in favor of "We're cutting your salary, but here's another MasterCard!" So throughout the last few decades the lending industry has refused to blink, knowing full well how harsh the political retribution would be, primarily for the Republicans, if the working poor and middle class suddenly realized exactly how much of the American Dream they can really afford.

I'm not painting the Democrats as heroes here; current events have more to do with the increased regulations than any show of political will. But it is going to be interesting to see how the lower income and overextended middle class voters so crucial to the 1994-2004 Republican majorities react. It can't be easy to realize just how financially unstable one is when ability to go balls-deep in debt is taken away, an ability that has been the key to maintaining the illusion that our generation is not the first to be less financially successful than our parents.

The downside of this legislation for the lenders is that they lose a very profitable component of their business – banging honest borrowers with fee hikes and charging non-payers substantial penalties. I'll try not to lose sleep over that while reminding them, amidst their whining, that there is no Constitutional right to maintain the profit margins they enjoyed before this crisis. To claim that regulating dishonest, gray area practices by lenders will (further) bankrupt the banks and bring lending to a halt is approximately as logical, and as true, as claiming that laws against stalking and rape mean there will be no more sex.

MEANS TO NO END

Posted in Rants on May 20th, 2009 by Ed

If we try to wring positives out of a terrible situation, I'm glad to see that two recent high-profile cases – one in Washington and the other in Florida – are bringing public attention to the problems of visitation for gay and lesbian partners during medical emergencies. I'm tempted to describe the rules governing these situations as barbaric, but I'll go with a nice, emotionless adjective instead: pointless. The practice advances no legitimate medical, social, or legal interest whatsoever.

I'd like to think that no matter how much one hates The Fags that, in a simple nod toward human decency, he or she could accept the rationale that if persons A and B spend 20 years in a relationship we might allow A to visit a hospital room for the last few hours of B's life. Far be it from me or anyone else to expect extreme social conservatives to have any class, but it would be great to think that they can treat their "enemies" with a modicum of respect. It does not seem hard, in my opinion, to disagree with someone vehemently about an issue, perhaps even hating one another, and still act like humans. If I'm in a room with Michelle Malkin and she collapses from a heart attack, I'm going to call an ambulance. If James Dobson's wife is dying, I'm not going to seek out a bureaucratic way to keep him out of her hospital room. These actions don't indicate friendship or kindness. It's merely the bare minimum recognition of what separates humans from hyenas.

The baffling thing about the case in Florida is that the people in question did everything "right." They had living wills, they had written Power of Attorney, and they had explicit advance directives. The hospital's half-assed justifications refer to "the amount of visitation allowed in a trauma emergency room should be decided by the surgeons and nurses treating the patients.” Would having one more person in the room have made any difference, medically or practically, in treating this patient? (note: she was alone in the room and barely conscious for about 12 hours) And if allowing a family member to see the soon-to-be departed conflicts with legitimate medical concerns, how do we explain the curious lack of news stories about people who are Opposite Married (my new favorite euphemism) having the same experience? Well, OK, it can happen if you're a black male but overall there is hardly an epidemic of "traditional" families suffering the same treatment.

In summary, this is a rule selectively applied which serves absolutely no purpose. Leave Teh Gayness out of it for a minute. If doctors are not actively treating the patient, what harm can come from having a visitor, be it a spouse, sibling, child, paperboy, or stranger? There are inherent pitfalls in policies that seek to limit something to "immediate" or "real" family. What if a child is raised by his aunt and uncle? Are they "real" enough to get the rights afforded biological parents? What if an adult has no immediate family and instead relies on a close network of friends for support throughout a long, terminal illness? Do we tell her "Sorry, you don't have a family, so no visitors"? The law appears ill-equipped to answer such questions. But it does know that it don't like the gays.

In wars, people spend all day trying to kill each another but still feed captured prisoners, provide medical treatment for enemy wounded, and bury one another's dead. It shouldn't be much to ask Americans, even Americans who despise one another and think that Fags are Goin' ta Hell, to recognize some very basic, very minimal rules. Very little about the homophobic segment of the population shocks me, but you would have to color me legitimately shocked, maybe even appalled, to discover that they derive any benefit or pleasure from the idea that people who love one another and spend their lives together – even in a manner of which one does not approve – are kept apart in the last hours of someone's life.

FROM WHENCE WE CAME

Posted in Rants on May 19th, 2009 by Ed

Admit it, you haven't thought about George W. Bush in a while. Don't worry, no one will judge you. We've all fought long and hard to win the right to not have to think about him anymore. Who could blame you for taking advantage of his glorious departure from the national stage?

As is usually the case when nations emerge from the rule of the corrupt, the evil, or the incompetent, it is going to take quite a few years for America to come to grips with exactly what we were dealing with between 2001 and 2009. The left are tired of thinking about it. The right are trying to pretend like it never happened. And the great apathetic masses are in denial, lest they feel responsibility. But Frank Rich's Sunday op-ed in the NYT is the kind of must-read that forces us to recall 2003 and admit, "Holy shit…things got really bad there for a while."

Rob Draper, the author of the Bush biography Dead Certain (in which many top administration officials agreed to participate), has blown the lid off of just how creepy Donald Rumsfeld is and how easily the child-President was manipulated by those around him. During the first days of the Iraq War, Rumsfeld sent his daily Worldwide Intelligence Update to the Oval Office with covers adorned with "inspirational" pictures…and Bible quotes. Really, you have to see this slideshow to believe it. What were supposed to be the most elite, secret, high-level intelligence briefings available to anyone in Washington were adorned with covers that look like the photoshop work of a 12 year-old at Bible Camp. For instance, on April 3, two days after the Jessica Lynch story was revealed to be fiction and the former commander of CENTCOM took to the NYT editorial page to criticize Rumsfeld's prosecution of the war, the President received his intelligence briefing featuring Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

The scary part, of course, is that Donald Rumsfeld doesn't give a flying shit about the Bible. He was cynically manipulating someone who he believed, or knew, to be an empty vessel easily led around by the nose. Even some people within the Pentagon were alarmed by this tactic, which played directly into terrorist propaganda about the American messianic complex and holy war against Islam. Rich notes, "As one alarmed Pentagon hand told Draper, the fallout 'would be as bad as Abu Ghraib.'"

Look at that slideshow and remind yourself – audibly, if necessary – that these people were in control of the most powerful nation in the history of mankind. For eight years. The effect is chilling, not unlike the realization of how close one came to death in the aftermath of a bad car accident.

BADGE ENGINEERING

Posted in Election 2010 on May 18th, 2009 by Ed

It's odd that conservatives are so eager to see the American auto industry go belly-up. These same right-wingers are employing one of the strategies most directly responsible for Detroit's demise in their own (endless) search for a new savior.

To make a long story very short, "badge engineering" is a term used to describe auto manufacturers' strategy of selling the same vehicle under several different brands with only minor cosmetic changes like different hubcaps, upholstery, paint colors, or clip-on plastic bumpers. Rocket scientists like Roger Smith decided that a great way for manufacturers operating multiple brand names (i.e., the Big Three) to save money would be to design just a few vehicles and then sell five versions of each. For example, the recent Chevy TrailBlazer has been or is sold as the Saab 9-7x, Isuzu Ascender, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, and Oldsmobile Bravada. Despite many promises from Detroit to quit this ridiculous practice it continues unabated (see the "new" Pontiac G3 and note the odd similarity to the Chevy Aveo, which is itself a badge-engineered copy of the Daewoo Kalos).

Two problems with this strategy stand out. First, it demonstrates naked contempt for customers' intelligence. Americans may not be terribly bright, but only the most knuckleheaded failed to realize that the Buick, Chevy, Olds, and Pontiac dealers (or Ford/Lincoln/Mercury, Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge) were selling the same damn thing. Second, it only works with good products. When the Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in America it certainly didn't hurt Mercury dealers to offer an identical car, the Mercury Sable. But badge engineering can turn a bad product into a disastrous one. When GM released the ghastly Chevy Uplander minivan it didn't have one flop on its hands; it had four, including the identical Buick Terrazza, Saturn Relay, and Pontiac Montana. This concept escapes the Big Three, who think there are consumers who look at a bad Chevy and say "Gee, I'd buy that steaming pile of shit…if only it had a Pontiac badge on the hood!"

This is where the GOP should pay attention.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is term-limited and stepping down in 2010 to devote his full energy to a kamikaze run at the White House in 2012. His likely replacement, State Rep Nikki Haley, has an excellent chance to win both the primary and an uncompetitive general election in 2010. You heard it here first: if she wins in 2010 it is only a matter of time until conservatives beat the drum for Haley to run for President herself in 2012 or 2016. She'll be their next next big thing. Why? Is Haley a brilliant politician? Of course not. The reason is that prior to marriage and politics Nikki Haley was Nimrata Randhawa, the daughter of Sikh immigrants. Yes, this run-of-the-mill winger is young, female, AND a minority – with a nice, anglicized name that won't frighten away old white people! Sweet jumping Jesus, it's like the heavens parted and God sent Republicans Their Own Obama! Sure, they said the same thing about Palin and Jindal, but Haley is really going to be it!

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
The 2012 Republican (optional equipment shown; MSRP $21,499)

The GOP has been selling America the same product for 30 years, an all-purpose generic conservative I'll call the UniCon (not to be confused with Unicron or the unicorn). UniCon worships Reagan, regurgitates supply-side economic theories (name-dropping Hayek and Friedman at regular intervals) and relentlessly campaigns for "lower taxes" and "cutting spending." UniCon loves the military, doesn't negotiate with Our Enemies like the fruity liberals do, and generally believes in re-living the Cold War. UniCon has the predictable hard-right positions on "social issues," solemnly talks of "values" and "life," and mentions "God" like he or she has Tourette's. UniCon rails against the stock culture war Enemies List: unions, the media, academia, activist judges, the ACLU, "inner cities," Hollywood, secularism, socialism, tinpot dictators, Big Government, instant replay, the Yeti, and fluoridated water.

Newt Gingrich is an example of the UniCon. People don't like Newt Gingrich. His career on the national stage was brief and now he's wringing an income out of the right-wing media/foundation circuit while deluding himself into thinking that he's getting back into politics. The GOP sees that he lacks broad appeal – and they conclude that the packaging is the problem. See, they know that you like everything he stands for, so rather than questioning the message they simply search for a new way to deliver it. They're quite convinced that you're saying "Gee, I'd definitely vote for that…if only it had tits." Hence every person the party offers up as a savior is, in any meaningful way, indistinguishable from Newt Gingrich.

At a complete loss for new ideas, the GOP badge engineers the same candidate repeatedly. You want one with a cowboy hat? Here's George W. Bush. Want one sans penis? Sarah Palin! Do you prefer black? Take this Steele fellow for a test drive. If black isn't your color, how about a less threatening minority, perhaps Indian? You'll love Bobby Jindal. Are a traditionalist looking for the no-frills model in classic white? Have a gander at Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty. Would you prefer your white guy with a drawl? Mark Sanford or Haley Barbour should do! We've got a different (looking) candidate for every conceivable taste! Mormons. Catholics. Jews. Senators. Governors. Businessmen. Hollywood celebrities. Retired athletes. Young. Old. Fat. Slim. Bald. Hirsute. We can even offer exotic custom jobs like "young Indian-American female Governor." How's that for customer service?

Once you get past the different exteriors, of course, these candidates are carbon copies of one another. They are UniCon. Like their counterparts in the corporate offices of the Big Three, the GOP is convinced that the underlying product is great and the public is simply waiting to find a body style that it likes. Stupidity is stubbon; even bankruptcy hasn't convinced the auto manufacturers of their errant ways. So I'm bullish on the number of electoral drubbings the GOP can endure before the light finally goes on.

SANDRA LEE ASKS, "WHAT'S DIGNITY?"

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 15th, 2009 by Ed

We already knew that host of Food Network's abominable Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee can't cook. Let's put it this way: if you have a can opener, a microwave, and some old I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! you could do her job standing on your head. But I imagined that she thought of herself as a serious culinarian, however misguided that might be. One must at least keep up appearances while hosting a cooking show, no?

There was a time at which Food Network programming mostly featured chefs – that is, trained and experienced people who have successfully made their way through the culinary world based largely on talent. As old-school TV chefs like Julia Child or Martin Yan (from PBS's awesomely lo-fi Yan Can Cook) proved, however, being a great chef does not mean one has great "camera appeal." At some point the quest for ratings led Food Network to write as many of their Big Name Chefs as possible out of their programming to be replaced with chirpy, mall focus-grouped bobbleheads who smile pretty while throwing out marketable catchphrases but are not chefs. Thus we are subjected to amateurs and glorified home cooks like Paula Deen, Guy Fieri, Rachel Ray, and the horrific Ms. Lee. Anthony Bourdain described her as follows in a lengthy rant about the "Newer, Younger, More Male-Oriented, More Dumb-Ass Food Network":

Pure evil. This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time. She Must Be Stopped. Her death-dealing can-opening ways will cut a swath of destruction through the world if not contained. I would likely be arrested if I suggested on television that any children watching should promptly go to a wooded area with a gun and harm themselves. What’s the difference between that and Sandra suggesting we fill our mouths with Ritz Crackers, jam a can of Cheez Wiz in after and press hard? None that I can see.

While I find her show unwatchable, I've wondered if Mr. Bourdain's comments were unnecessarily harsh. For example, he says much the same thing about Rachel Ray, who I find supremely irritating but has put out a number of excellent cookbooks which suggest that, yes, she knows enough to be useful. Lee's show, which consists mostly of opening cans and/or preparing boxed grocery store items ("Coming up next: how to make great instant mashed potatoes!"), might not be a complete synopsis of her talents and her take on cooking. She could, like Emeril, be a decent person who happens to have a horrendous TV show.

Then I saw this.

Sandra, you shameless hooker.*

First of all, describing her as a "Chef" disregards and disrespects the real meaning of the term. Second, what's the matter Sandra, you don't have enough fuckin' money? As the star of a show on the Food Network you need to look at America with a straight face and talk about how delicious KFC is for another paycheck? The TV show, the book deals, the magazine gigs…those don't make her rich enough. She needs to shill for fast food that tastes like cleaning a grease trap with one's tongue in order to make ends meet.

One of two things must be true here. Either Sandra Lee really thinks KFC is awesome, which would be a damning critique of her judgment, or she is an empty shell of a person who has no self-respect and literally will do anything for a dollar. I have not eaten at a KFC since I was about 10, and even then, when my diet consisted almost entirely of fried/salted snacks, candy, frozen entrees, and fast food, it tasted like Frank Perdue shitting on my tongue. I always thought their motto should be "KFC: We use the chickens that die of natural causes…and pass the savings on to you." The shriveled, emaciated, oily, flavorless wads of garbage they serve to life-weary or seriously misguided people around the world are the kind of food one would expect to eat in the aftermath of a nuclear war – when the survival crackers run out and we're reduced to gnawing the bones of the family pets who perished in the first strike. If it was possible to taste despair, it would taste like Original Recipe KFC.

I understand how one could become a spokesperson for the culinary equivalent of Chernobyl and still have enough balls to host a cooking show and use the title of "Chef" but until Sandra Lee came along I had a hard time believing that anyone could be so devoid of self-awareness as to do it.

*Please note that this is a reference to Ms. Lee's willingness to prostitute her "credentials" as a "chef" to hawk disgusting, processed junk food to a seriously overweight nation and not a reference to prostitution in the traditional sense. I have to point this out because, as you are all aware, I am a misogynist who hates women.

SCENES FROM A COLLEGE CLASSROOM, PT. 2

Posted in Quick Hits on May 14th, 2009 by Ed

Best plagiarism story ever: guy copies paper directly off of a website (a simple cut-and-paste job) and subsequently submits a paper with html tags in the text. So at the end of paragraphs the reader would find phrases like [imgsrc="nixon_main.jpg" align="center"].

And yes, he actually had the nuts to argue with me about my shocking, tenuous conclusion that he had plagiarized.

THE INALIENABLE RIGHT TO STFU

Posted in Rants on May 14th, 2009 by Ed

Americans almost universally love praising, extolling, and vociferously defending Our Rights, which is amusing because Americans almost universally understand them about as well as theoretical calculus. As sure as you can be that lazy people will use "the right to bear arms" or "freedom of religion" or "the right to privacy" as rhetorical devices, you can be equally sure that the speaker hasn't the slightest goddamn idea what any of those things mean.

Let's pick on Carrie Prejean again. I feel a little guilty about kicking someone who is only 21 and mentally about a decade younger but she has chosen to make herself a spokesperson. In her umpteenth news conference since she became a global punchline (but she really hates all the publicity, honest!) she went on such a stupid and unconscionably shameless rant that I don't care if she can cure AIDS with her earwax, I'm still going to make fun of her. The video is available here, but the basic theme of the soliloquy is that she had a grandfather who fought in WWII (hey me too! we're so unique!) to defend her freedom of speech:

“On April 19th, on that stage, I exercised my freedom of speech and I was punished for doing so. This should not happen in America. It undermines the Constitutional rights for which my grandfather fought for (sic).”

Then, like the walking public relations ploy that she is, she cried. Perhaps amidst all the reminiscing about her grandfather she forgot about the millions of women who fought and sacrificed so that someday society wouldn't see women as vapid pageant automatons who cry for sympathy whenever things get too tough for their delicate constitutions and fragile minds. Oh, if only a man would come to the stage and protect her!

The above quote is but one example of the 15 times she mentioned "freedom of speech" and her "rights" in her performance. Someday if she has a few spare hours in between appearances on Focus on the Family and the conservative lecture circuit (coming soon to a Lions' Club basement near you!) I will explain everything that is wrong with her premise. Let's look at the sum total of Our Hallowed Right of Free Speech:

Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech

See that? That's it. If you want to pick Constitutional nits – and I know a Mensan like Carrie would – technically the principles of incorporation and equal protection in the 14th Amendment also prohibit state governments from enacting laws abridging the freedom of speech.

Seriously, that's it. Freedom of speech means that neither Congress nor your state legislature can pass a law prohibiting you from expressing your thoughts. Surveying the breadth of literature in print – white supremacist tracts, incitement to revolution, instructions for making a truck bomb, Bobby Flay slashfic – you can see that this right is close to inviolate.

I am now checking to see if Congress passed a law telling Carrie Prejean that she couldn't say the following (which, incidentally, I consider pretty tame):

Well I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one way or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. You know what, in my country, in my family, I do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised and I believe that it should be between a man and a woman.

As far as I can tell, no such law is on the books. When she talks about being "punished" for "exercising her right" I can only assume she means that negative publicity and losing the pageant are punishments. Having established that no one and nothing prevented her from speaking freely, this boils down to whining about the way other people reacted to her comments.

Inasmuch as negative publicity or intense criticism constitute a punishment, Carrie is like most wingnuts in that she is incapable of understanding the dynamics of cause and effect when they make controversial statements. She isn't being punished for exercising her right; she is being punished for exercising them in a way that makes people think she's a fucking asshole. And the last time I checked (17 minutes ago) there is no Constitutional protection from large groups of people thinking you are a prick based on how you exercise your 1st Amendment rights.

Say whatever the hell you want, Carrie, but don't start bawling when people tell you to piss off. Our rights protect our actions; they do not protect us from suffering consequences. The fashion industry has a higher-than-average number of gay men in it. If you get on stage at a widely publicized event and say that gay marriage is wrong, they are going to be mad at you. They probably will not like you, and inasmuch as any of them can affect the outcome of the contest in which you are participating they will vote against you. This is all shocking, I know.

Sixteen year olds who read Walden for the first time often latch on to Thoreau's idea that an individual should violate laws that he or she feels are unjust. What said readers often ignore, of course, is Thoreau's warning that one should be prepared to suffer the consequences of violating the law. So violate laws if you must, but don't be shocked when you end up in jail. It would be nice if someone explained to Ms. Prejean that neither the law nor common sense protect us from the consequences of our actions. If I interview at Brigham Young University and say "Man, Mormonism is epic retarded!" I am not going to get that job. If I interview at a small Baptist school and ask "I hear that Jesus was a big fag. Is that true?" I am not going to get that job. This is all very basic common sense, almost as basic as the idea that telling a gay beauty pageant judge that you think gay marriage should remain illegal will make it hard for you to advance your career in fashion and on the pageant circuit.

The more I hear her talk the easier it is to understand why she's incapable of figuring this out.

EGO DEATH

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13th, 2009 by Ed

I drive a 2000 Nissan Sentra which I purchased new. It has 132,000 miles on it. It's gray. The exterior is a topographic maze of dents, streaks of paint from other vehicles, chips, and rust spots. It is, in the truest sense of the term, basic transportation. But it runs like a tank and excepting an alternator which gave up the ghost at 118,000 miles it has had no mechanical failures. I get up every morning and it takes me where I need to go. I win no style or cool points in the process, but cheap, durable, and reliable are all that I need.

Despite my bland choice of conveyance, I like cars. They're neat. I read blogs like AutoBlog, The Truth About Cars, and Motor Trend. But I also like reading about the space program, and that has never made me consider purchasing a space shuttle. Hence I can enjoy reading about exotic sports cars and new technology without feeling the need to spend. My car will do until it falls apart.

The preceding two paragraphs, assuming that my opinions on this matter are not rare, say everything one needs to know about why the American auto industry has become a joke, a collection of free market ideologues sucking the public teat and utterly unable, after 30 years of being spanked by the Japanese, to make a car anyone wants to buy.

Cars like mine – actually, Japanese cars as a whole – are derisively referred to on automotive blogs as "appliances." Boring, not "fun" to drive, and unlikely to make one's acquaintances green with envy. In contrast, partisans of American autos tout Detroit's proclivity for turning out cars for "enthusiasts," big hey-look-at-me cars with huge engines that go VROOOOOM! This point is not entirely invalid. Companies like Honda and Toyota make cars that blend into the background and last forever without the need for repairs every 5,000 miles. Driving a Toyota Camry is about the farthest one can get from automotive thrills without bringing mopeds into the conversation. Detroit titillates the 12 year-old boy in American males with their go-fast Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, and retro-everything muscle cars. Vroom.

The Big Three and their loyal fans simply don't understand that "appliances" are exactly what most American consumers want. We want a car that starts when it's cold out, doesn't require extraordinary maintenance, and runs for a decade or more. When Detroit monopolized domestic auto sales prior to 1970, the nation was experiencing a period of unparalleled prosperity. Not only did middle class Americans have the means to replace cars frequently but ample 1950s-style social pressures to keep up with (or preferably one-up) the neighbors. GM, Ford, and Chrysler responded accordingly. They made big, garish pieces of shit with V8s and attention-getting bodies. Why spend money on making a durable car? Everyone buys a new one every two years anyway!

New models were never really new. They were the same basic cars, year after year, which the manufacturers "updated" with their familiar bag of cheap gimmicks: chrome strips, tail fins, trunk spoilers, and "pizazz." When the Japanese finally figured things out in the seventies (Japanese imports were few and universally terrible before that) they marketed value, reliability, durability, and attention to detail. And when the American economy stopped growing like gangbusters many consumers realized that buying something that fell apart, rusted out, or exploded at 20,000 miles wasn't very appealing. The proportion of Americans whose self-esteem was tied up in the kind of car they drive was vastly overestimated in corporate boardrooms around Detroit. We happily drove the bland, pizazz-free cars if it kept us away from the repair shop.

Thirty years later and facing (or in the midst of) bankruptcy, Detroit is still trying to sell American cars with tail fins, racing stripes, and silly interior trinkets. If they could have a monopoly over domestic sales once again or if all American car buyers were guided by the impulses of a teenage boy, perhaps the recovery plans would work. Since reality precludes either, the prospect of seeing the American industry picked over and auctioned off to foreign manufacturers appears unavoidable. Of everyone and everything that will be blamed in the post-mortem (unions, unions, the UAW, and unions) the fact that the Big Three are still operating like it's 1957 will conveniently escape mention.

Tags:

ODD SYMMETRY

Posted in Rants on May 12th, 2009 by Ed

On Monday the Supreme Court refused to intervene in German efforts to extradite John Demjanjuk, an 89 year old Ohio resident alleged to be a wanted Nazi war criminal. He was deported on a 7 PM flight to await his fate in a German courtroom. Elsewhere the Pope was in Israel on Monday speaking about the Holocaust. Unfortunately for the Vatican, these stories are not entirely unrelated.

If you're wondering exactly how in the hell a high profile Nazi concentration camp guard could escape Europe and manage to live for 65 years in suburban Cleveland, answering that question involves delving into one of the more sordid chapters in the history of the Vatican and the post-War West. It is difficult to overstate the chaos that reigned across central Europe and in Germany in 1945. At the beginning of the year it was apparent that the thousand year Reich would not see 1946 (indeed, it collapsed in May) and vast numbers of Nazis realized that the things they had done were about to be discovered and judged by the rest of the world. Understandably, they wanted to get out. That was easier said than done in Germany during and immediately after the end of the War.

There were countries – notably Peron-era Argentina – that accepted guilty-looking and curiously wealthy German refugees without asking too many questions. The Allied armies, however, surrounded and attempted to apprehend as many Nazi party officials and German soldiers as possible, usually to detain them for imprisonment and/or trial.* Many Nazis realized that they were literally running for their lives and their attempts at escape reflect this. Some succeeded; well-known examples include Auschwitz "doctor" Josef Mengele,** who was arrested but escaped after he was not recognized, and Adolf Eichmann, who would famously be hunted down by the Mossad and executed in an Israeli prison.

Those who escaped had help. In many cases that help came from "ratlines", a community of Nazi sympathizers who functioned like the Civil War-era underground railroad. Except it was evil. And unfortunately for today's Catholic Church, the biggest and most productive ratlines ran through a Bishop named Alois Hudal and a large network of Croatian priests loyal to their nation's fascist Ustase government. These were clergy with positions of power and access to resources. Most priests devoted their powers to helping the millions of starving, homeless, maimed, and orphaned people across the continent. A handful worked feverishly to effect the escape of people like Klaus Barbie, Treblinka commander Franz Stangl, Croatian dictator Ante Pavelic, and hundreds of others who participated in Nazi war crimes.

The historical debate over the Catholic ratlines is intense. The Vatican relies on a "few bad apples" argument while many historians and Nazi hunters remain convinced that some, specifically Bishop Hudal, acted with the full knowledge of the Vatican which either approved of their actions or pretended not to notice. The undisputed facts are that Catholic clergy in Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, and South America facilitated ratlines and that Alois Hudal's immediate superior was a Cardinal Giovanni Montini in the Vatican State Department (Cardinal Montini became Pope Paul VI in 1963). Pope Pius XII, who reigned throughout WWII, has been widely described as a Nazi collaborator and anti-Semite in bestselling books like Hitler's Pope and Under His Very Windows. A class action lawsuit in US Federal court allegedly includes (still sealed) testimony from American intelligence operatives who state on the record that the OSS and post-War CIA were fully aware that Pius XII knew of and condoned the ratlines. Michael Phayer postulates in his recent Pius XII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War that the Pope's motivation was not anti-Semitism but the belief that communism was a bigger threat than Nazism combined with his early conclusion (circa 1940) that Nazi victory was inevitable.

Many of the allegations about Vatican involvement in the Holocaust are speculative and irresponsible. Others, like the existence of ratlines running through the Church, are matters of fact. We may never have firm answers about the extent of the involvement of Pius XII, the future Paul VI, and other Vatican bigwigs in the Holocaust and its aftermath (let's safely assume that any damning evidence in the archives has long since been destroyed). Regardless, the coincidence of events like Demjanjuk's extradition and a new (German!) Pope's statements about the Holocaust will continue to dredge up unpleasant questions and memories long after the last few remaining Nazi fugitives join their former colleagues in hell.

*Operation Paperclip is a story for another day.
**When Slayer writes a song about you, you know you've done something bad. Oddly, they were widely accused of being Nazi sympathizers for that song, written by Jewish guitarist Kerry King and Latino bassist Tom Ayala.

STRICTLY FROM HUNGER

Posted in Rants on May 11th, 2009 by Ed

If you watch any nonzero amount of television you may have noticed an interesting trend in advertising since the beginning of the year. Your friends in corporate America have helpfully adjusted their tactics in response to the way the Invisible Hand adjusted your standard of living. If there remains anyone who doubts that the country has fallen on bleak economic times, watching an hour or two of TV will make that fact perfectly clear. Retailers have adapted to the current climate using one of two broad strategies.

First, there is the prominent "We're you're pals! We'll help you save money!" technique. They know you're broke but luckily for you they have products for broke people too. Hormel has doubled its ad budget for Spam and, for the first time ever, rolled out a national ad campaign for its dirt cheap, mucilege-like Dinty Moore beef stew. The soothing voice of Dennis Haysbert tells us tales of the Great Depression and reminds us of the simple things that make us happy – home cooked meals, etc. – while reminding us of the quality and value of Allstate. DirecTV pitches pay-per-view to its customers by helpfully noting "Did you know that when five people go to the movies you pay for the same movie five times? Why not pay once and stay in!"

Unilever has rolled out a national campaign for Suave, the shampoo equivalent of Top Ramen. The home remodeling industry, which for years has beaten consumers over the head with pitches about $20,000 kitchen remodelings, room additions, and luxury items, is now advertising hammers and wire to people who need to fix things themselves (Home Depot's new campaign: "More Saving, More Doing" over images of people fixing cracked windows). McDonald's loudly points out that its new Starbucks knockoff coffees cost half as much as the real thing. Microsoft's new ads say little about the commercial failure of Vista and a lot about the fact that comparable Apple products cost thrice as much as Windows-based PCs. Everywhere we look we're suddenly being sold the simple life. Take note during the next commercial break of how many ads are selling value, durability, and frugality.

The second strategy is the blatant but undignified "Please, please, please start spending again" ads for products which can't pitch a cheap alternative. Gillette Fusion ads now remind men that "when the Indicator Strip turns blue, change your blade for a better shave!" as Americans decide to wring twice as many shaves out of the obscenely expensive replacement blades. Nestle PureLife is pitching huge prizes and impressing the virtues of bottled water to a nation that suddenly remembered that it can drink from the tap for free. Starbucks, purveyors of the archetypical "I don't fuckin' need this" purchase for many Americans, is rolling out Value Meal-type offerings. Las Vegas, which exists solely for the purpose of getting fat midwesterners (and weekending mortgage brokers and talent execs from LA) to pour money into slot machines or blow it on shitty, overpriced shows, is dying the slow death of the overextended debtor.

And the auto industry? Good God, the auto industry. Dodge dealers have been heard to offer buy one get one free Rams and Avengers (think about that for a second). GM has once again resorted to 0% financing and piles of cash-back on the hood in an effort to move cars. Hyundai tells customers that they can return their car if they get fired or laid off – and unbelievably Saturn one-ups them by promising that you can stop making payments and keep the car. Desperation is thus re-defined. Even Toyota, the 900 pound gorilla of the auto industry, is telling customers "you'll never have as much buying power as you do right now!" In other words, thousands of cars sitting on lots and nobody looking to buy. And every ad, regardless of manufacturer, repetitively pushes fuel economy, resale value, financing, and discounts, discounts, discounts.

After decades of using advertising to whip up demand for expensive shit that no one really needs, corporate America has set its sights much lower these days. They know you're not going to remodel the kitchen or buy a Lexus; they'll settle for getting you to buy anything. Time will tell if even this lowered bar is too high given the current state of affairs.

Tags: