INDEPENDENCE FROM REASON

Posted in Rants on August 31st, 2009 by Ed

Like any President taking office with impossibly high expectations and in the middle of a serious crisis, Obama's approval ratings have declined steadily since Inauguration Day. It is easy to look at the aggregate numbers and start jumping to conclusions but the partisan breakdown is far more interesting:

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Essentially there has been no change among Democrats. The trend is nearly flat. Republicans have behaved predictably. Frankly it's amazing that Obama had a 35% approval rating among that group nine months ago, and it was inevitable that the moment he did anything one might expect from a generic Democratic president that modicum of support would disappear. Independents show the same trend as Republicans. The magnitude is different, obviously, but the pattern of immediate and gradual decline of support (and increase in disapproval) is identical. Why?

Political science may not have revealed everything about the mind of the American voter, but we do know that "independent" doesn't mean what the media thinks it means. It is important to understand the loaded meaning of the term, the prevalence of social desirability effects (the tendency of survey respondents to give the answer they feel is expected of them or is most socially acceptable rather than an honest answer), and the scant attention most Americans pay to all things political. In this context, "independent" means any of the following:

  • 1. A person whose ideological preferences legitimately lie between the two major parties. These are True Independents, and this is what pundits and political figures have in mind when they use the term. But there is no evidence that they form a majority of the Independent group.
  • 2. "I don't know." When someone asks you a question to which you don't have an answer "Independent" is a convenient out. Few adults are keen to admit that they pay absolutely no attention to politics.
  • 3. Republicans who are tired of Obama-lovers giving them crap about being Republicans. The same effect would have been in play in 2003-2004, when voters to the left of Goldwater might have chosen Independent as a way out of conversations they didn't want to have with their yellow ribbon-clad friends and co-workers.
  • 4. People who have a strong ideological preference but think that being Independent makes them look cool. Seriously. There is a psychological benefit people can derive from declaring that they are Independents, i.e. free thinkers who are open-minded and unwilling to submit to a party label or to follow crowds. If you don't think independence and individualism are loaded and comoddified terms, watch Nike and soft drink commercials for an hour and get back to me.
  • 5. Something I like to call "Dr. No Syndrome" – people who oppose everything, including the major parties. No matter what Obama does, these folks won't like it. Government is bad, the parties are bad, the media is bad…

    When we understand what Independent really means, graphs like the ones shown above make more sense. Democrats stand by their man. Republicans surrender whatever hope they had of Obama being a Republican. And Independents are an amalgam of the angry, the ignorant, the dishonest, and the legitimately moderate. The last group receives the most attention and their motivations are imputed to all voters who call themselves Independent. The media's willingness to assume that all Independents are thoughtful moderates is but more evidence of how favorably the concept is looked upon in our society. Phenomena like the tendency of Independents to be strangely hostile to Democratic presidents or the seemingly random fluctuations of opinion within the group are an artifact of its status as a catch-all category for voters with very different motivations, levels of information, and ideological preferences.

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    NPF: DIGNITY SMACKDOWN

    Posted in No Politics Friday on August 28th, 2009 by Ed

    Mike (who's now a columnist for the Atlantic Fuckin' Monthly, and is really starting to make me look like a great big loser in comparison) brought something legitimately life-changing to my attention. Hulk Hogan, erstwhile star of Santa With Muscles, Suburban Commando, and whatever else a person holding a paycheck offers him, is now Teabaggin'. As the spokesretard for GuaranteedLowerPropertyTax.com (sweet site, dudes) the alpha-Hulkamaniac is making appearances at events like this Orlando Teabagging on August 22. Be careful – this video is really painful. Prepare to watch a grown man who was already the punchline to a bad joke lure dignity behind a barn and finger it.

    It may not be possible to ascribe a shark-jumping moment to a "movement" which from its very inception has so closely resembled Dadaist performance art, but this is the point at which even the teabaggers realize that everyone's laughing at them, right? Right?

    It has to be difficult to deal with being washed up as a celebrity, but there is a way to do it gracefully. Musicians can just retire rather than accepting the gigs in Branson and at state fairs. Actors can quit the business rather than doing Lifetime movies and infomercials. Athletes can walk away from the game before they get carted off on a stretcher or kicked off the team. In light of this reality, I struggle to think of a less dignified post-fame outcome for Hogan. Just about anything would be better. Getting a facial tattoo and going Muslim. Getting arrested for luring 11 year-old sex partners via AOL chat rooms. Joining the 9/11 Truth Movement. Accidentally choking to death during autoerotic asphyxiation. Starring in a Tyler Perry movie. Cutting a rap album. Anything.

    As a final insult, please note that "GuaranteedLowerPropertyTax.com" is far from an advocacy group for tax bitchers. It is a for-profit enterprise sending forth The Hulkster to drum up business. I realize that Joe the Unlicensed Plumber already covered this ground when he attempted to parlay his "fame" into a website which asked readers to pay a fee to "help vote the IRS out of business," but somehow Hogan gives decency a suplex off the top turnbuckle and manages to sink lower than a man who made Sarah Palin sound like Bertrand Russell.

    SADNESS TOURISM

    Posted in Quick Hits on August 27th, 2009 by Ed

    Unfortunately I must be very brief today. I wholeheartedly recommend you read this article from Vice (the online magazine that brought us the wonderful Guide to North Korea video series) on the media's voyeuristic obsession with the death throes of Detroit. The city is rotting and as the author notes it has become something of a rite of passage for journalists and media outlets to do the stock "Detroit is being abandoned, here are some pictures of how decrepit it is" story. My favorite part aside from the endless stream of non-local media asking local writers to take them on tours of all the best depressing spots is the fact that Time was so lazy that they sent a 24 year old kid to do their token Detroit Is Sad piece; not only did he have all of six hours in the city upon which to base his prose but he was too young to rent a car and had to be dropped off downtown by a taxi.

    I guess if Brazilians can sell "Favela tours" to white Euro/American tourists there's every reason for our media to believe that we'd be entertained by a superslum in our own backyard.

    DOUBLE STANDARDS

    Posted in Rants on August 26th, 2009 by Ed

    Perhaps, especially if you live in the northeast, you've been exposed to the story of Diane Schuler, the New York housewife who killed eight people in a traffic accident and became the target-of-the-day for pundit windbaggery and righteous indignation when she was found to be blind drunk at the time. She drove the wrong way up an exit ramp and collided head-on with a Suburban. All three occupants in the other vehicle died as did Schuler, her daughter, and her three young nieces.

    Harpyness has an interesting commentary, albeit one with which I am not in 100% agreement, on the gender aspect of the waves of how-dare-shes raining down on the "Monster Mom." Some commentary has taken to blaming feminism for an alleged increase in alcohol abuse among women (although to be fair, it does not state that explicitly; nonetheless I tend to agree that it can be inferred). I can add nothing to the stupidity of that statement that I did not volunteer when K-Lo blamed feminism for domestic violence. It seems like a patently ridiculous claim, no? The alcoholic / pill-popping 1950s housewife is a stock character in American culture – not to mention, if you feel like going way back, the laudanum- and brandy-swilling 19th Century frontier wife. These pre-Women's Liberation movement examples seem to nod in recognition of widespread social problems throughout our history with women drinking and drugging to escape the desperate unhappiness of strict gender roles.

    Beyond that, there are two things that interest me about the story and the commentary linked in the previous paragraph. First, I think the most interesting gender aspect of this issue is the idea of male denial that women in the wife/mother roles could have "that problem." Her husband has made numerous public statements to the effect of "My wife was not a habitual or heavy drinker." Now, count me lucky in that I have no alcoholics in my nuclear family. Neither parent so much as drank a glass of wine let alone got loaded. So it is perhaps because of this non-experience that I find the husband's statements fantastic. Schuler's autopsy showed that in addition to marijuana, her BAC at the time of autopsy was 0.19%. That isn't drunk; that is John Bonham drunk. That is fucking plastered. A person of Schuler's size would need ten shots of hard liquor in an hour to reach that – and considerably more if she was in fact a habitual drinker with a high tolerance. I find it simply unbelievable, although not impossible, that this is something that flew under the radar. Sure, maybe no one saw her drinking. But when someone is that drunk – so drunk that eight year-olds are on cell phones noting something clearly aberrant about the person's behavior – how can one ignore that?

    Perhaps this was a one-time bender by Schuler and there was no prior behavior to cause raised eyebrows. But assuming that is not the case, this could only fly under the radar if A) Schuler was the world's highest functioning drunk and an amazing actress or B) David Schuler either willfully ignored his wife's alcoholism or was psychologically incapable of accepting it. Women with alcoholic husbands can sometimes ignore the obvious and convince themselves that things are OK as long as Hubby keeps bringing home a paycheck; on the flip side, perhaps we need to spend some time asking to what extent men are deluding themselves about spousal alcoholism with the belief that if Wifey is unhappy and drinking "shuts her up" then it is OK.

    Second, Harpyness comments on Ray LaHood's statement ("Sadly, the number of arrests of women driving under the influence is on the rise. This is clearly a very disturbing trend.”) about female DUIs. The author states, "No, what’s “sad” and “disturbing” is not that more women are being arrested, but that that DUI arrests are going up, period." I think there is an obvious problem with both statements' assumption that this factoid means more people are drinking and driving. I have a more plausible explanation: municipal governments are broke and DUIs are costly. Police are both eager to pull over more vehicles and more likely to write a citation after doing so. They need the cash. Maybe in the past police officers, the large majority of whom are male, were more willing to let women off with warnings. You remember the advice your cynical parents and relatives gave you when you started driving: "If you ever get pulled over, cry." Maybe that is effective overall and even more so for women. I have no idea. But regardless, there is no logical basis for taking the fact that female DUIs are on the rise as evidence of more drinking or more drinking and driving by women and/or men. It proves that cops are giving more tickets. DUIs are a lucrative source of income. They run well over $1000 per pop. State and county governments are broke. It's not unreasonable to connect the dots. Either the underlying condition or the enforcement thereof could be responsible for the increase.

    Overall, I find it somewhat ludicrous that gender and feminism have been dragged into this conversation at all. Male or female this person clearly lacked any sort of judgment and our sympathy should be for the people whose lives were ended or changed by her lack of judgment. While we are getting lathered up about her apparent alcohol problem, however, we might benefit from examining her husband's comments more closely and asking what we can learn about our society's conception of when alcoholism and denial thereof are acceptable.

    PERSUASION

    Posted in Rants on August 25th, 2009 by Ed

    I am far from an expert on the presidency, although I do hope for my students' sake that I have a decent understanding of the office and its powers. Like the vast majority of people who teach it, I subject my students to Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. Students hate Neustadt. I mean, they loathe it. The book is 49 years old, laden with references to names and events of the 1950s for which today's reader has little context. Worse, his dull writing style reads like the owner's manual for an appliance. But we can never get away from Neustadt because he nails the fundamental dilemma of the presidency (and its solution) so completely.

    Briefly, the expectations on the modern president are far greater than the powers of the office. There is an "Expectations Gap" wherein the public expects President Obama to fix a lot of things he lacks the power to fix. The president's control over the economy is indirect at best and his role in the legislative process is extremely limited. When Candidate Obama promises health care reform, what he does is paint himself into a corner from which he must find some way to get Congress to provide reform. He can't just do it himself. Most of us realize this.

    The academic study of the presidency is largely a matter of explaining how presidents overcome this gap – how to get done what the powers of the office do not allow. Neustadt's answer? (This is where my former students start having flashbacks and chanting the answer without being fully aware of doing so). Persuasion. Presidents have myriad tools at their disposal for persuading Congress to do their bidding. Note well that this is not talking about persuading the public, which is a different animal altogether. He means persuading the people who matter most.

    The discomfort with Obama's performance which has been gnawing at me since January 20th has nothing to do with betraying ideology. He simply does not appear to understand how to get things done as President. Congressmen and Senators are persuading him, not vice-versa. I almost wept with joy upon reading the comments of Tom Johnson, who served a President who understood persuasion like no other ("What LBJ Would Do.") He is right. On every single point he is right. Without realizing it, I assume, he is summarizing Neustadt's view of presidential power. It is the power to persuade Congress. We can throw out all of the justifications we want – and I've trafficked in a few on this site, like blaming the spread of right-wing media – but despite all of it, LBJ would get this motherfucker done. And it would be as he wanted it, not as some watered-down piece of compromise legislation.

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    This is a picture of LBJ brow-beating a Senator – almost literally – into falling in line with the White House agenda. He was the undisputed master of this, a technique his colleagues came to call "The Johnson Treatment" (insert joke here). But he was not always aggressive. He could flatter, beg, connive, threaten, or whatever else he knew would work on a given member of Congress. His specialty was members of his own party who refused to fall in line – a problem Obama should recognize. More often than not LBJ put the fear of God into them. He laid out in no uncertain terms that the president can be either a guardian angel to a Congressman or the angel of death. His skills at bartering and log-rolling were legendary, but when those failed he had no qualms about being harsh. He made threats that were both clear and credible.

    Barack Obama's problem is not "Blue Dog Democrats" – in the Kennedy/Johnson era the Democratic Party had a large southern wing far more conservative than any Blue Dog and most of today's Republicans. Nor is the problem Glenn Beck, the minority party in Congress, or the insurance industry. The problem is that he does not appear to understand how a president gets what he wants. The solution certainly isn't town hall meetings and public relations campaigns aimed at clearing up the misconceptions of the ignorant. The solution, in colloquial and thoroughly gender-insensitive terms, is to stop being a damn pussy. Lay into recalcitrant Reps and Senators around the clock until he has the votes he needs. It is hard work and he needs to do it. He can continue to allow Kent Conrad and Bill O'Reilly to control his agenda or he can choose his priorities and get what he wants.

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    Look at the photos. Can you picture Obama doing this? I can't. I wish I could talk to the guy for ten minutes to communicate the fact that he, and no one else, is responsible for the content and fate of health care reform legislation. LBJ might have stayed awake for five days straight, shattered a few friendships, and given himself an ulcer and two heart attacks in the process, but he would get it done. He would get it done because he'd decide that it is important and therefore worth any sacrifice. Following his example would require only an understanding of the powers of the office and the willingness to push oneself to the limit. Which does Obama lack?

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    TOMORROW'S LOSERS

    Posted in Rants on August 24th, 2009 by Ed

    As I've watched the small, unrepresentative group of mouthbreathers who have decided to be most vocal in their opposition to health care reform, I can't shake the feeling that I've seen videos like this or pictures like the following before.

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    Why does it all seem so familiar? Could it be the recent exposure to so many teabaggers? No, the recognition comes from something much older and more important. Then I remembered and followed up with a little photo browsing:

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    Now, the attempt to pass health care legislation and the Civil Rights movement have next to nothing in common as issues, which only serves to underscore the following point. What we are seeing today is nothing new. It is the latest flare-up of a virus we have carried for more than two centuries as a society. There is a subset of our population, a group of people whose ability to attract attention is disproportionately large, who are psychologically and emotionally incapable of processing change of any kind. They are terrified of it like they are terrified of everything they do not understand, and they understand almost nothing (often by choice). They react in the only way they know how: anger and violence motivated by their own childish fear.

    That's what these reactions are about. They're not about policy (health care, segregation, taxes, etc.) because these people have virtually no relevant information upon which to base policy-specific objections. They are about fear of a very misguided conception of the consequences. They hear a phrase like integration or universal health care and react violently to the outcomes they imagine (i.e. black men wantonly raping women, legalized subjugation of "the white race", "death panels", medical rationing, and so on) irrespective of its relationship to reality. Like children, they imagine a monster in the closet and, rather than cowering in fear under the blankets, they set out to destroy as many closets as possible.

    When social issues like gay rights, access to health care, and environmental awareness suffer defeats at the hands of childish lashing out and hysteria, there are few comforts to be found. What little exists is the reassuring feeling that the Brave Stand taken by today's Patriots will be remembered no more fondly than George Wallace's stand in the schoolhouse door. Today's videos and images, like the images of uneducated white hillbillies violently opposing the Civil Rights movement, will serve as pictures in a history textbook twenty years from now, pictures which serve no purpose but to show the next generations of school kids how ignorant, bigoted, and flat-out stupid people were back in the day.

    CELEBRITY

    Posted in Quick Hits on August 23rd, 2009 by Ed

    Holy balls, Mike was a guest on NPR's Planet Money!

    I'd just like to point out that any NPR producers looking for guests or publishing executives looking to award book deals should feel free to contact me. Really, don't hold back. True, Mike has a few things I lack (i.e. talent) but nonetheless I make up for it with persistence and sheer quantity.

    NPF: THE ALL TIME BASEBALL ALL-UGLY TEAM

    Posted in No Politics Friday on August 21st, 2009 by Ed

    Baseball fans can usually be found in heated debate over matters of dire importance such as the relative merits of Jimmie Foxx and Ralph Kiner as underappreciated power hitters or if the Big Red Machine could take down the 2004 Red Sox in a 7-game series. Here at ginandtacos.com we debate only the most important points of politics, baseball, or any other subject. Accordingly I decided to put together a list of the ugliest sons of bitches ever to play the game of baseball at the Major League level. Why? Because I like making fun of things. You should understand this by now.

    In the process of assembling this Dream Team I learned a very important lesson: there have been a lot, and I mean a lot, of ugly baseball players over the years. I don't mean ugly like some guy you know who can never find a date. We're talking scare-the-children ugly. Monstrously ugly. Possibly deformed ugly. And the hardest part of this exercise was narrowing down the list to a manageable number. I didn't pay too much attention to positions here; instead I nominated nine position players/designated hitters and then an assortment of pitchers. Godalmighty are there a lot of ugly pitchers. Without further ado:

    Starting Pitchers

    1. Don Mossi

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    What the fuck. He looks like someone microwaved John Kerry. His eyes are in the wrong place(s) and point in different directions. His ears generate their own weather. At first glance I thought this was Jar-Jar Binks.

    2. Zane Smith

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    Half Napoleon Dynamite, half enormous retarded guy. His mom had to safety-pin his mittens to his coat every day before he left the house. She also huffed Scotchgard for most of the second trimester.

    3. Randy Johnson

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    The Big Unit once lost a bar bet in Juarez, Mexico and had his face doused in acid by Carlos the Jackal. That's when he figured, "Fuck it. I'm growing a mullet." If he couldn't play baseball we'd be watching him shirtless and getting cuffed on COPS as his 500-pound live-in girlfriend explained the source of her black eye to the Wichita Police.

    4. Bartolo Colon

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    At this point in his career he is in no way distinguishable from the Hamburglar.

    5. Eziquel Astacio

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    You know how on House it's never lupus? Right here, right now, it's lupus.

    BULLPEN

    1. Pascual Perez

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    It amazes me that PP never comes up in these all-time ugly discussions. Look at this fucking guy. Like early 90s Deion Sanders after a four-day crack binge inside a blast furnace.

    2. Kent Tekulve

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    He looks like a barback at Studio 54 circa 1976. Most fans remember that his career was tragically derailed when he was arrested for murdering a vagrant to steal his Blu-Blockers.

    3. Jason Isringhausen

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    He recorded 47 saves in 2004, one for every chromosome he has.

    4. Julian Tavarez.

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    Tavarez is legally obligated under Megan's Law to register as a sex offender with all of the fans seated near the bullpen. He is one of the many players whose appearance is not helped by his staunch refusal to wear a uniform that fits. Looks like a burn victim and not entirely unlike Freddy Krueger.

    5. Charlie Hough

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    I remember going to Sox games with my dad in the early 90s and watching this fossil chain-smoke in the dugout between innings. Nothing like watching a 47 year-old guy throwing 63 mph fastballs hammering down Pall Malls on the bench.

    BATTERS

    1. Ron Karkovice

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    It's amazing how fat he was given how often the villagers chased him around with pitchforks and torches. "Karko" looked like he shaved with a belt sander and ate a shipping pallet of butter every morning.

    2. George Foster

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    If Pete Rose was the guy who gave the Big Red Machine its spark and Joe Morgan was the guy who kept it going, George Foster was lurking in the parking deck, patiently waiting to rape you.

    3. Marquis Grissom

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    Circus ugly. Like, people would pay to stare at him ugly. His eyes look like he is forever being bonked on the head with a cartoon mallet. A fatter Gollum.

    4. Bill "Moose" Skowron

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    Never a handsome man to begin with, Skowron took a turn for the worse in 1965 when he was hit in the face by Apollo 8 as it plummeted back to Earth. Then he lost a bar fight to the Yeti.

    5. Gates Brown

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    What in the fuck happened to this guy's head??? Here is a second shot to prove that the photo above is not a fluke. It looks like a grape. He is what I always pictured "The Laughing Man" to look like in the Salinger story.

    6. Willie McGee

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    A legitimate chore to look at. The only baseball player who can come close to earning the title "Scottie Pippen Ugly." McGee looked like he had just woken up for his entire 15 year career and killed time during pitching changes by drinking Thunderbird wine out of a paper bag in the outfield.

    7. Otis Nixon

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    It looks like the Atlanta Braves found a homeless crackhead behind the bus station and stuck him in center field. Here, let me fix that sentence: It looks like The Atlanta Braves found a homeless crackhead behind the bus station and stuck him in center field. (edit: I apologize for insinuating that Mr. Nixon used crack cocaine. In fact, as noted in the comments, he was a heroic consumer of powdered cocaine. Ginandtacos.com apologizes for the error)

    8. Don Lock

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    Don played in an era before the five-man rotation, interleague play, and mirrors. You could set your watch by a uni-brow like that.

    9. John Kruk

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    There literally could not be anything else wrong with his appearance unless we started removing eyes, ears, or patches of skin. From his bouffant New Kids on the Block bangs to his greasy-ass mullet to his "Aw, fuck it" facial hair, Kruk is a certified trainwreck. This photo also represents Kruk at his thinnest. By the end of his career (and today as an on-air personality) he looked like Orson Welles in his waning years.

    THE SCARLET DEBTOR

    Posted in Rants on August 20th, 2009 by Ed

    Before Mike headed over to guest-blog The Baseline Scenario for a week (notice how he started taking RortyBomb seriously about 6 months ago and is already 1000 times more popular / better at blogging than me? I have a feeling I'm going to be able to say I know a lot of famous people in 20 years from my commanding perch in obscurity.) he noted that we as a society are standing on the brink of employers utilizing credit checks in hiring decisions. In other words, you're unemployed. Your credit goes to shit. Potential employers start turning you away because your poor credit indicates "poor judgment." I can't wrap my head around the number of levels on which this is fucked up.

    First, the vicious cycle of unemployment-to-bad-credit-to-unemployment is not hard to spot. You get canned and end up living off your credit cards and/or filing bankruptcy. When employers use that as a reason to deny you a paycheck, you live off more credit and leave a vapor trail on your way to bankruptcy court. Second, to put on our social scientist hats for a moment, they appear to use Credit Score as a proxy for an unobserved/latent variable (judgment). But is there any logical basis for doing so? To the extent that the individual's judgment is an independent variable it is highly collinear with other vague ("the housing market", "the economy") or unmeasurable (life circumstances, etc.) variables. Frankly, a standardized test for applicants would do more to shed light on decision-making skills. So might throwing darts at a board, for that matter.

    Finally, have we bought into social darwinism so completely that we're going to start branding debtors with a scarlet letter – or perhaps we can tattoo their Equifax score on their foreheads – to mark them as undesirables? Of course we have. We're more than comfortable using debt as a form of social control and class stratification in this country. Consider the mid-nineties explosion of the "Intern Economy" in which employers started insisting that college graduates have internships to make their resumes "stand out." What does this accomplish? Does a summer or a year of fetching coffee and making copies really make someone more qualified for a job? No, but it does thin from the applicant pool any college kids whose parents lack the means (or the willingness) to support them while they work for free in New York, DC, or some other disproportionately expensive and happening place. Scanning credit scores, which will simply identify people who have no personal financial safety net, is the logical next step and a legally permissible alternative to writing "Sons of management only, please" in the job ads.

    Sure, this process will catch the morons who took $450,000 mortgages on a $40,000/yr salary or who routinely run up their Mastercards and file bankruptcy. In other words, it will catch the straw man debtor who lives in John Boehner's head. It will catch them even though they are a minority of people with poor credit. It will also catch a lot of people with excellent "judgment" who have gotten screwed. It's like fishing for tuna with depth charges. Sure, you'll get your tuna, and I guess you can ignore all of the other carcasses that float up alongside it.

    (PS: This is my favorite post title ever. Out of 1200 and counting.)

    NO ONE BEHIND THE CURTAIN

    Posted in Rants on August 19th, 2009 by Ed

    So I'm still figuring out where everything is here in my new hometown, and as a rat owner it can sometimes be challenging to find a pet store with the appropriate food. After being informed that the local branch of a chain pet store (PetLand) had the kind of food we need, I proceeded to have an experience which cost me some of whatever remaining faith in humanity I have.

    Without going into all of the details, I had a significant problem with the way some of the animals were being treated in the store. I got a little riled up. Both Liz and, later, other people to whom I described the incident reminded me that yelling at the clerk in the pet store isn't productive. It's some stiff making $6.50/hr who probably hates her job. And of course the only response one can get out of such people is "It's not my problem / It's store policy." Going up the chain of non-command produces similar results; no one ever has the power to fix things, no one is responsible, no one has control.

    Isn't that the real problem with this country? Now that we're one enormous, identical-looking strip mall from coast to coast, we feel absolutely no obligation toward one another's interests. If I was shopping in Jim's Pet Store I could probably talk to Jim, and since Jim and I are already neighbors he might actually care when I told him that I objected to his practices. But shopping in PetLand, Inc., which probably has a corporate office in some bland building in Kalamazoo? They don't particularly give a shit what you or I have to say. Nothing the chain does is accountable to a person; to the extent that they are accountable to anything it is an abstraction like "the market" or "the stockholders." It's yet another example of how efficient the market is as an arbiter of our relationships with one another.

    Liz worked in a restaurant before we left Bloomington, and she remarked constantly about how children no longer say "please" or "thank you" to service industry employees. It felt a little Andy Rooney, but it's a valid point. Forget about kids – does anyone say please and thank you in the faceless monstronsity that is the American retail sector v.2009? Try an experiment. Go into a Wal-Mart or a Burger King and try your hardest to give a flying fuck about anyone or anything in the establishment. It's virtually impossible, like trying to feel sympathy for a cockroach. It's nothing but shoppers who don't know one another making identical purchases (but no eye contact) and interacting only with the interchangeable employees paid squat to listlessly ring up our purchases. Then we wander back to our cars among the giant asphalt seas of nothingness which surround the commercially-zoned stucco monstrosities on the outskirts of town and drive home, transaction completed in total anonymity. Whether it's a block from home or clear across the country, every Home Depot (and the drones who staff them) look exactly the same, thus we treat them exactly the same: as strangers.

    Yes, I know the advantages, the endless choices and low prices made possible by the strip-mallification of the country and the standardization of the American retail experience. I am equally well aware of the downside: try to get someone to interact with you as one human being to another and you quickly discover that the whole thing is a big illusion. You're not in your neighborhood and you're not dealing with people. You're in an abstract world in which the things that look like people can't think for themselves and what appears to be a store near your home is really a corporate boardroom a thousand miles away bending to the whims of a master that exists only in the minds of the Investor Class.