SOME PANTLOAD GETS THE FJM TREATMENT

Posted in Rants on November 18th, 2009 by Ed

The world headquarters of TownHall.com, pictured here, is like Mecca for dipshits. They pray toward it five times daily. And every day their faith is rewarded.

Since it's apparently 2001 and Tom DeLay is still relevant, it's time to debate the estate tax again! Wooooo! Since its big guns are all far, far too busy writing about Islamistical Muslimist Terrorists shooting up military bases and being found innocent in liberal New York courtrooms (seriously, there are like 25 columns about it), TownHall had to hand this important task to some bag of fluid in a cheap suit named Ed Feulner. Ed is up to the challenge though, serving up a steaming cauldron of persuasion called "Time to Bury the 'Death Tax'". See what he did there? Bury the death tax? Oh, you'd best call the babysitter, dear readers, because wordplay like presages something so awesome that a responsible adult could not allow children to see it. Let's roll.

Kevin Hancock simply wants to harvest trees — sustainably — and create jobs in the process. The federal government may put a stop to all that.

That's why I'm calling my Congressman – and I recommend you do the same – and telling him "Vote NO! on the Stop Kevin Hancock from Harvesting Trees and Omnibus Defense Spending Reconciliation Bill!" NO on H.R. 312, YES on Kevin Hancock harvesting trees.

His business, Hancock Lumber, has been in the family for six generations. It owns 30,000 acres of Maine timberland and employs 550 people. But Kevin already knows that when his elderly mother dies, he’ll have to sell off huge swaths of his land to pay the ensuing tax bill.

Wow, his company is that big and they don't have any other source of revenue? Given that…hmm…the tax only applies to estates worth more than $3 million, there should be some cash available. Nah.

It’s an example of the long reach of the death tax

Estate tax. Understandable typo.

the penalty families have to pay when a loved one dies and leaves them significant assets.

Right. The "penalty" that a fraction of a percent of households have to pay when Dad tries to will the kids his $3 million-plus estate, thus essentially giving each of them a couple million dollars in income – unearned income, like winning the Lotto -for that tax year.

Yet, for Hancock and many others, some relief may be in sight. In 2001, lawmakers passed a law that gradually phased out the levy, which has destroyed countless family-owned businesses over the years.

So many that Ed Feulner couldn't possibly take the time to mention an example here. Businesses destroyed by the estate tax, like examples of voter fraud, are so pervasive that it's not possible to identify any specific cases.

The death tax has been stepped down from 55 percent (for those in the top tax bracket) 8 years ago to 45 percent. But that gradual decline was just a prelude for 2010, when the tax will — finally — disappear all together.

The top bracket is for estates worth more than $10 million. Thank god it's expiring next year, one of the hidden "Surprise! Fuck you!" landmines left behind by the Bush administration. Oddly he didn't believe strongly enough in repealing the tax to take the revenue hit on his own watch.

Unfortunately, like the killer in so many slasher movies, the death tax could return to menace family businesses again in 2011. Unless Congress acts, it’s scheduled to return to the obscene 55 percent rate after next year, thus reawakening the nightmare of the American Dream.

Slow down with the pop culture references, Mr. Radical!

Lawmakers are poised to take action soon. But Americans should insist they take the right action. For example, earlier this year the Senate passed a non-binding amendment that would set the death tax at 35 percent starting next year. That’s quite a jump from zero percent, and would be a big step in the wrong direction.

A non-binding amendment? Wow. It's almost like we're dead broke and the Senate is looking at every source of revenue carefully, understanding that we have to make choices that may be unpleasant or involve sacrifices.

The sensible thing would be for lawmakers to leave the current policy in place and allow the death tax to go away completely. With the Senate already facing titanic struggles over health care, global warming and federal spending this year, there’s no point in attempting to upend a policy that’s already set in law.

I just called one of my friends at the University of Arguments and he said this is, without a doubt, the lamest argument in the history of arguments. The law's on the books, so we might as well leave it – so much easier than changing it. Is the Senate composed of 19 year old stoners who can't be bothered to get up for Funyuns and will stare at a 12 hour Dirty Jobs marathon because it's so much easier than finding the remote?

Besides, Americans deserve to see how much better things would be without the death tax, especially since repealing it might help our country — finally — pull out of recession.

See, Ed's really looking out for the little guy here. For you. This isn't about preserving the wealth of the top tenth of one percent of the population. It's about letting you see how much better the world will be when phenomenally wealthy people get to hold on to just a little bit more of the money they earned, especially since they've been earning so much more once they moved your job to Indonesia.

The death tax is a job killer. Heritage Foundation economists found that the…

Yes, let's ask non-partisan experts at the Heritage Foundation! I wonder if they will reach the only conclusion they've ever reached about anything ever. In other news, the National Association of Corn Processors have conducted a study on the deliciousness of corn syrup and discovered that corn syrup is a nutritious, delicious, and essential part of a daily diet without which you will develop AIDS.

By the way, remember the Heritage reference. I have a surprise for you at the end.

found that the federal levy leads to the loss of between 170,000 and 250,000 potential jobs each year. (It’s impossible to be more specific, simply because those jobs were never created in the first place. We certainly could use them now).

"It's really hard to be specific when you're basically bending forward and pulling statistics out of your ass."

How does it kill jobs?

30% are killed in the initial blast; essentially any job within 1000m of the tax is instantly vaporized. Medium-term effects like shortwave ionizing radiation kill another 30 to 40 percent of the jobs, while the final third die an excruciating death over a period of several weeks as radioactive Estate Tax Fallout enters their respiratory systems.

Partly because it encourages wealthy Americans to spend their money today rather than invest it in growing a business.

Spending money does not help the economy. Or create "demand" for "products and services." None of which has ever created a "job."

After all, we’re all going to die.

Hey, this guy's right! We are going to die. That's why I don't waste the precious time I have on this planet worrying about what the Waltons will have to cough up when they die and leave a quarter of a billion dollars to their kids. I'm glad we had this talk.

What’s the point of building a bigger nest egg if Washington is just going to take a third of it, a half of it, or even more?

There is no point to acquiring a couple million dollars if any of it is taxed. No incentive. None. You'd be an idiot to do it.

Because the estate tax discourages investment, it also holds down wage growth. Since businesses have less funding, they’re less able to purchase new tools and equipment. So workers are less productive and suffer slower wage and salary growth.

This paragraph was plagiarized from a high school macroeconomics textbook from 1958. This is really very simple, kids. If Mr. Spacely has to pay an estate tax to will the widget factory to his son, then they can't invest in new assembly line machines to help you make more widgets. Ultimately this will cause him to open a widget factory in Guadalajara. Are you still with me? This is all very simple: do what the plutocrats say or they'll destroy you to preserve their obscene wealth.

The death tax also hammers some Americans more than others

Yes, it hammers those affected by the "death" tax – people with assets worth more than $3 million – and hammers the rest of us not one goddamn bit. Quite a hammering disparity.

since it especially targets landowners.

Isn't about time someone looked out for their interests?

Millions of farmers, ranchers and homeowners have, like the Hancock family, improved their land. Yet when they die, the federal government punishes their heirs.

It "punishes" them for being handed millions in assets they did nothing to earn except be born. I don't know how I sleep in a world with that kind of cruelty.

Death and taxes, they say, are both inevitable. But it’s not inevitable that one must lead to the other.

This is its own paragraph, denoting how proud Ed was of his clever allusion to the death theme.

Americans are set to get a glimpse of life without the death tax next year. After that, Lawmakers should act to make sure this levy goes away. Completely and forever.

Get mad, people. Then get involved. That exemption of the first $3 million in inherited property followed by a progressive tax that tops out around 50% for estates worth $10,000,000 or more may not seem like it's going to ruin your life, but that's beyond naive. Go ahead thinking that it's not going to hurt you. Let your guard down and then before you know it, the estate tax is taking your house, making you fat, and probably trying to have its way with your daughter.

By the way, might it have been worthwhile for Ed Feulner to point out that he's the President of the Heritage Foundation when appealing to their expert judgment in the column? Apparently Ed was too busy calculating the value of the estate Mom and Pop – who owned a North Shore real estate empire in Chicago – were going to leave him to pay any attention in those college ethics classes.

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GOING ROGUE

Posted in Rants on November 17th, 2009 by Ed

(To answer your question in advance, I owe early access to the text to blind luck, persistence, and a helpful friend in the industry who demands anonymity. Cross-posted at the Putz.)

Following American politics for the last two decades (and teaching about it for the last six years) I often feel like our political spectacles have taken on the air of an elaborate Dadaist performance piece, with each "Tea Party," Fox News segment, and Republican Savior more egregiously blurring the lines between reality, farce, and surrealism. We watch each Sarah Palin or Bobby Jindal speech fully expecting Ashton Kutcher to appear and let us in on the joke, informing America that it has in fact been punk'd and laughing uproariously at our gullibility. Our collective capacity for credulity has been strained to breaking.

Now we are faced with the daunting task of wrapping our minds around the Palin memoir Going Rogue, appearing atop a bestseller list near you. Millions of copies will be sold of a book written by someone who can't write, intended for an audience that doesn't read, about the thoughts of a person who doesn’t think. God is dead.

If you are in a hurry, here is the succinct version of this review: Going Rogue is shit. It is groundbreaking in its banality and disregard for facts. If you are sentient, it will pain you to read it. Imagine watching your parents 69 one another while John Madden sits behind you and bellows out color commentary and you will have some idea of how excruciating and profoundly scarring it is to plow through each page of this wholly fictional monument to self-aggrandized mediocrity. Going Rogue is to the art of writing what the Holocaust is to the concept of a just God – the piece of disconfirming evidence so overwhelming that we are left questioning whether it can exist at all.

Going Rogue is not without merit. It certainly delivers what its intended audience wants. Readers who already like Palin will love it, much as America's pedophiles will find the latest Jonas Brothers DVD to their liking. The authors' talent for communicating the ex-Governor's unique rhetorical style in print is remarkable – the Sesame Street cadence of her delivery and the intermittent Tourette's-like winks leap off the page. The book, recession priced at just $9, is also an ideal gift for the Aunt or Uncle who assaults your email inbox with a dozen weekly communiqués on the President's Kenyan birth and the constitutionality of income taxes.

Unfortunately that is an exhaustive list of its strengths.

The book is less a biography than an elaborate press release. Its 432 pages (with sixteen pages of pictures – and no index) barely feign interest in describing Palin’s life in detail. It moves as quickly as possible to its real raison d'être – a methodical re-imagining of her entire political career replete with more excuses than a Cleveland Browns post-game press conference. Palin has never done anything wrong. The public have merely been led to believe that she is a dangerously stupid, erratic narcissist. Going Rogue is all about setting that record straight, offering a wildly implausible excuse for every crash and bang in her train wreck of a political career.

The theme that permeates the book – and with all the subtlety of an Oliver Stone film – is Palin's overwhelming magnanimity. The book itself was written solely for our benefit, to set straight all of our misconceptions. Her Hindenburg interview with Katie Couric was done only because Palin pitied the struggling journalist (no mention of how her personal generosity forced her to answer simple questions like a lobotomized rube who had never ventured beyond Wasilla). Her hillbilly-wins-the-Lotto shopping sprees and misuse of Alaska taxpayers’ funds to take her daughters on vacations in $3000 per night hotels either never happened (er, she "usually" eschewed lavish accommodations for simple ones) or were forced upon her by others; McCain aides practically held a gun to her head and made her buy a new wardrobe. She resigned the governorship halfway through her only term for the benefit of the people of Alaska (admittedly she may be onto something there). Her enormous legal bills stem from frivolous ethics complaints by her enemies, and she has borne these costs for you – out of the kindness of her heart. Buying her book and electing her to the presidency is the least you can do in return, ingrate.

A serious question arises from her narrative. Is she a sociopath with a messiah complex – i.e. she actually believes the version of events she relates here – or is she simply a shameless liar? Does she honestly fail to realize that the McCain team was bending over backwards to protect her from her own stupidity when she rails on about how they abused, demeaned, and stifled her? Does she honestly believe it when she describes herself as someone who "wouldn’t stand for" a conflict of interest from a public servant, or does she consciously sit down at the keyboard and say, "I think I"m gonna make some shit up here!" with the intention of burnishing her image?

It is not coincidental that everyone – and we can use that term without hyperbole – involved with the McCain campaign and not named "Sarah Palin" has already lambasted this book as, variously, "pure fabrication," "other worldly," "blatantly and absolutely inaccurate," "total fiction," and "a serious mixing of truth and imagination." These charges would be predictable from liberal opponents, but they come from fellow Republicans. That is the shocking and crass aspect of this book. It is petty, vindictive, and reads like Palin was checking names off of her Nixonian enemies list one by one as she wrote, and the targets of her limitless bile are almost exclusively other Republicans. Barely a word is uttered of President Obama or his campaign aside from some factually errant potshots at his policies – including the "bailout" legislation signed by George W. Bush, underscoring Palin's slavish attention to detail. Nary an insult is leveled at Obama, Biden, or other Democrats on a personal level, something that cannot be said for Steve Schmidt and the rest of the McCain team. Schmidt may have seemed to the rest of us like a salty, dumpy campaign pro desperately trying to maintain order in a campaign that, thanks to Palin, skirted the line between chaos and comedy – half Ringling Brothers circus, half Triangle Shirtwaist fire. But Palin once again sets straight the record, depicting Schmidt throughout as a profane, hysterical misogynist hell-bent on destroying her and, she bizarrely claims, forcing her to abandon the Atkins Diet.

Going Rogue is many things, but it is not a good biography. It is a fantastic work of fiction and therefore not totally undeserving of commercial success. Every autobiography – be it from a political aspirant or the latest WWE superstar – massages the truth to some degree. Abraham Lincoln once called tact the art of describing others as they see themselves. This book proves that there is not enough tact in the world for a person with even the most tenuous grip on reality to describe Sarah Palin as she sees herself. If this is her attempt at positive spin, it is cynical and petty. If, on the other hand, she believes a single word of this, she is psychologically unfit to run for dog catcher let alone President of the United States.

In short, the book provides ample proof that Sarah Palin's version of her own life is like the Turkish government's version of the Armenian Genocide – and approximately as trustworthy. Going Rogue is an irritatingly vernacular, fantastical, and cloying autobiography of a malignant narcissist, every bit as thunderingly stupid throughout as the person behind it. In what world is it either necessary or desirable to spend $9 and four hours to figure that much out about Sarah Palin?

RUMSPRINGA

Posted in Rants on November 16th, 2009 by Ed

I've always admired the Amish tradition of rumspringa – which is not merely a really fun word to say but also a show of tremendous faith in the power of a belief system. Upon reaching adulthood (if 16 can be so described) young Amish people are encouraged to explore the non-Amish world. Some, although certainly not all, go all out and spend a year or two indulging in big city life with all the sex, booze, and teen shenanigans they can find. The theory behind it from the perspective of the Amish is simple: if our faith and way of life are worth a damn, people will come back to it. They will see what else is out there and decide that the our way is superior. If they like the mainstream society better, then it's best they go to it.

This is something that fundamentalist Christianity, for example, can't do. That is why parents of that persuasion work so hard to shelter their children from the rest of the world (the love affair between fundies and homeschooling being a good example). They know that their ideology is ridiculous and their way of life both unfulfilling and miserable. The children must be raised on a strict diet of fundamentalist nonsense and never be allowed to stray into the normal world. If they clamp eyes on a Harry Potter book, they'll realize how will we keep them reading Left Behind?. Great pains must be taken to forbid them any basis for comparison, because humorless, ascetic, fundamentalist Christianity of the American wingnut variety will always look like the inferior option. The only way it can win is if it has no competition.

This analogy comes to mind as we observe the pitifully predictable pant-shitting from the Erick Erickson and Glenn Beck types over the decision to try the five biggest al Qaeda names in custody in a civil court in New York. If we have any faith at all in our system and the guilt of these men, what difference does it make where and how we try them? Extensive evidence exists linking them to their crimes, evidence independent of the admissions they have made under various levels of coercion and punishment. We have miles of bank records, for example, detailing Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali's role in al Qaeda. Why do these people insist that he be tried in a darkened room by a military tribunal? Of what are they so afraid? Do they seriously think any of these people are going to walk? If so, that is irrational. If not, they are only afraid that the trials will embarrass them by revealing their disdain for the law whenever it gets between them and their goals.

There should be nothing to fear in an open courtroom. Either we have a rule of law worth defending and to which we adhere, thus differentiating ourselves from terrorists, or our system is a sham and we need to resort to Third World justice to get the outcomes we want. If their guilt can't be proven without resorting to allegations beaten out of them in a metal shipping container somewhere in Afghanistan, then obtaining guilty verdicts in kangaroo courts would reduce us to their level. Actually, it would make us inferior to them, as at least they are forthcoming about their disregard of the law.

NPF: SECRET RECIPE

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 13th, 2009 by Ed

I understand the inherent appeal of things like Food Network's behind-the-scenes shows or Anthony Bourdain's best-selling Kitchen Confidential. Restaurant food is a black box for the average diner. We sit down and place an order. A server disappears behind the proverbial curtain with our request and returns 20 minutes later with food prepared with skills greater than our own. We want to know what goes on behind the closed kitchen doors. Most of all, we want to know Why I Can't Make ______ Taste Like This At Home. What is the restaurant industry secret? How do they convince us to pay for things we could theoretically make for ourselves? Hmm.

Recently some prominent food writers were in a huff over a positive review NPR's Kelly Alexander gave to The Cheesecake Factory – exactly the kind of generic, megalithic outlet of processed, pre-cooked slop that Serious Food People love to hate. Heresy! Alexander might as well have written a praise piece on Hamburger Helper for Bon Apetit. But acid-tongued Michael Ruhlman accepted a bet from Alexander to try the restaurant with an open mind. He admitted that his meal involving several Cheesecake Factory entrees was in fact quite tasty.

The point is not that food snobs should be more accepting of gargantuan chain operations with a loyal clientele of tourists, business travelers, and rubes. The point is that there is absolutely no reason food from The Cheesecake Factory shouldn't taste good. Ezra Klein pointed out the painfully obvious – the food is disgustingly unhealthy. It's loaded to the gunwales with the things humans are genetically hard wired to binge eat: salt, fat, dairy, sugar, and lots of other things that fuel our obesity epidemic. It's not hard to make something tasty after it has been battered in starch, deep fried crispy, salted like mad, and served in a dairy-heavy sauce or gravy to the tune of 3000 calories. It won't make you feel good, but it's goddamn well going to taste good. It has been engineered – often quite literally in a laboratory – to taste good. And it's not hard to make good cheesecake at 1000 calories per slice.

Not all restaurants embrace The Cheesecake Factory's strategy of an overwhelming menu and Flintstones-sized portions. But living with a cooking professional has blown the lid off of the big restaurant secret for me: they just put way more salt, heavy cream, and butter in everything than you would do at home. Yes, cooking skill adds something to the finished product as well. The biggest reason you can't make it taste like that at home, though, is that you have restraint. Restaurant professionals get over that quickly. When you are baking something at home, there comes a point at which you say "OK, I'm not putting any more butter in this." You start picturing yourself getting fat or having a heart attack and you pull back. If you work in a restaurant, you are putting more butter in that motherfucker. When you make pasta sauce or a basic soup at home it would never cross your mind to dump in a quart of heavy cream. In a restaurant that is likely the first and last step in cooking either. Watching your calories at home? Good, because nobody cooking in restaurants is watching them. Their goal is simple. They want to make you a return customer by serving mysteriously tasty food that you just can't seem to replicate in your kitchen.

I'm not making a value judgment here. It isn't good or bad. It just is. Frankly I feel like unhealthy food is the best vice and far less damaging than tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or watching Glee. I see no point in approaching it with any air of mystery, though. It tastes so good because people in restaurants are better cooks, use better ingredients…and make sure that everything on your plate is liberally jacked with all the delicious things that are antithetical to your waistline and cardiovascular health.

DOWNTIME

Posted in Quick Hits on November 12th, 2009 by Ed

Sit tight for the next few days. I'm transferring to DreamHost without the slightest fucking idea what I'm doing and with the able assistance of their entirely ridiculous DIY guides ("Don't have metal stucco lath? Use carbon-fibre stucco lath!"). I expect to screw this up mightily and repeatedly. If this site is down, give it an hour or two and I'll probably be back.

INSTITUTIONALIZING SOCIOPATHY

Posted in Rants on November 12th, 2009 by Ed

My opinions about Ayn Rand have been stated unambiguously. There is no silver lining to anything Rand, not her infantile "philosophy", sub-Twilight writing skills, or legions of socially retarded acolytes who devote their "lives" to annoying the living shit out of the rest of the world and wondering what it would be like to talk to a woman. The great thing is that I don't have to pretend differently. It is perfectly acceptable in the academic world to treat Rand's Objectivism like the intellectually bankrupt farce it is. If I say Catholicism is a big pile of bullshit, I will get fired or at least seriously disciplined. If a student makes some Ron Paul argument about abolishing the Fed I am not allowed to laugh at him. But Ayn Rand? She is taken as seriously as astrology. If a student complained I think the people in the Dean's office would hit him with pies.

Objectivism and creationism are two sides of one coin, which explains why no one is obligated to take either seriously in academia. Creationists seek academic validation for their childish beliefs and ignorance. "Intelligent Design" is a feeble attempt to dress up their stupidity as a science. Objectivists similarly seek validation from philosophy departments for their adolescent selfishness and malignant narcissism. Philosophers aren't likely to consider "Being a self-absorbed, delusional prick" to be a coherent belief system on its own, so they call it an -ism in an effort to polish the turd. So far, no dice.

My intuition has always been that Rand herself was essentially a sociopath – not because it is a good, nasty pejorative but because I literally think she fit the characteristics of a sociopath. Her novels are thousand-page catalogs of warning signs. Rapes, murders, bombings, and mass killings of innocent nobodies, only to have the author reveal that they are not innocent at all. Every victim deserves it in Rand's fiction and every protagonist is a borderline psychotic who is utterly incapable of feeling love or kindness toward anyone but himself. She exalts mass murderers, sexual deviants, egomaniacs, and flat-out assholes. Her books don't feel like novels. They feel like the revenge fantasies of the 12 year old fat kid who everyone picks on and nobody befriends as he silently fumes in study hall, doodling violence in the margins of his notebook and hatching a plot to make everyone worship him or else.

Two new biographies of Rand have been released, Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller. Both are ably parsed in this outstanding review by Johann Hari. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. In short, the biographers provide all of the evidence I'd ever need to support the hypothesis that Rand was Ted Bundy with a bigger vocabulary and enough self control to avoid crossing the line into serial killer territory herself.

A Russian Jew from a broken home with an aristocratic mother, "Rand" fled the Bolshiveks (after developing a deep hatred for the way their ideology upset her world of servants and leisure) to Hollywood and set about creating a movement that diametrically opposed Communism. Selfishness was praised, kindness was derided, and vast swaths of humanity were written off as "lice" fit only for disgust and extermination. But the overarching irony to Rand's entire silly career is how completely she embraced the worst excesses of Soviet Communism in developing her "Institute" and career as a philosopher and idol – authoritarianism, absolute prohibition of dissent, and a cult of personality that would embarrass Stalin, Hoxha, Kim, and Turkmenbashi. Because she was a shitty writer her novels were filled with characters who were ham-fisted stand ins for herself, characters who suffered the same basic contradiction and psychological disorder: overwhelming hatred for almost everyone on Earth coupled with a desperate, deep-seated psychological need to be liked. But Rand did not simply need to be liked. She needed to be worshiped in ways befitting the demigod she believed she was.

When she got addicted to uppers in her later life it is an interesting coincidence that both she and her insular cult of acolytes began resembling another great charlatan of the 20th Century – L. Ron Hubbard and his "movement." The high priestess of spiritual and intellectual freedom surrounded herself with sycophants and worshipers from whom she tolerated not the slightest bit of dissent. Expressing any individuality in the world of the great individualist herself was forbidden. Most sociopaths and narcissists inevitably turn into a parody of themselves as the followers they worked so hard to brainwash wander away one by one. In Rand's case she became a parody of what she claimed to despise, dying alone and unloved in her tiny cult where conformity and fanatical devotion to the Ideology were taken to levels that no Bolshivek could have imagined possible.

Thus will it be for everyone who subscribes to her sorry excuse for a belief system. But unlike The Master herself, the great unwashed masses of teabagging Objectivists truly will die alone and unable to delude themselves into thinking they commanded the army of acolytes they felt they deserved.

TWO LETTERS OFF

Posted in Rants on November 11th, 2009 by Ed

Now that the House has finally passed a healthcare bill, a lot of attention is focused on the so-called Stupak Amendment barring federal dollars from being used to buy any insurance policy covering abortion with the usual exceptions for rape, incest, and so on. Let's forget about how we feel about shmushmortion for a few minutes and ask two practical questions.

First, how can this be constitutional? Right now abortion is a constitutionally protected right. Whether it's your favorite or least favorite right, or if you don't believe it's a right, I'm really unclear on if or how this is legally justified. Can Congress prohibit its money from being used on any insurance policy that covers bariatric surgery? Tonsillectomy? Prosthetic ears? Any of the dozen magic dick-hardening medications on the market? It's not a slippery slope game. There is literally no difference among abortion, these examples, or anything else we can imagine. From an insurance company's perspective any medication or procedure is reduced to a dollar amount. What's the difference? Well, abortion is ingrained in our political culture as an exceptional issue. We just accept treating it differently. We expect to make convoluted exceptions and caveats for it. Practically, however, I can't stress enough that this makes absolutely no sense. It is as legal as any of thousands of other covered procedures and there is no more logical justification for the Stupakid Amendment (see what I did there) than for an amendment banning federal dollars for policies that cover antidepressants.

Second, from a straight cynical perspective, an abortion costs three or four hundred dollars and takes an hour. Compare that to the cost of prenatal care and delivery over nine months. For people who are allegedly so concerned about the vast costs of healthcare and "rationing" scarce specialties like OB-GYN, this should be a no-brainer. Having fewer pregnancies saves money and resources. I don't understand why fiscal conservatives aren't on board with the economics of this.

Third, who is this actually hurting? Women who want an abortion and don't have $400. Notice that this isn't banning anyone from having abortions. It forbids insurance purchased through the federally-funded exchange program from paying for it. Women who are upper- or middle-class will either have an insurance policy that does not rely on federal funding or they will just pony up the $400. Mom and dad can still pay for private school Suzie's secret abortion. So, the amendment amounts to a great way to ensure that women who don't want a child but can't scrape together a few hundred dollars are having more children. That sounds awesome. Call me a eugenicist, but women who don't want children and have no money are not what comes to mind when I think of groups that should be denied access to abortion. I don't believe that we should encourage people to have abortions because they have little money, but neither do I believe that we should let economic realities take the decision away from them. I think we want women having children because they chose to do so, not because they reeeeeally wanted to abort but couldn't find $400.

My lack of interest in abortion as a political issue is well documented, but I am continually baffled by our collective insistence on having one set of logical rules for 99% of political questions and a special, esoteric set of rules for abortion.

FINISH LINE

Posted in Quick Hits on November 10th, 2009 by Ed

I finished my Ph.D. on Monday afternoon. I am signed, sealed, and delivered. It is now Dr. Ginandtacos to you.

As I have found the completion of this task both completely overwhelming and strangely unfulfilling, I can't lasso enough neurons and get them pointing in the same direction long enough to write anything coherent for Tuesday.

We convince ourselves that our lives will change when we pass these kinds of mile markers, but tomorrow I wake up and go back to work (notwithstanding the intervening 10 hour drive back to Georgia). I did take a few hours Monday afternoon and evening to feel awesome. I'm glad I did. Now, back to the salt mines. The degree is only relevant inasmuch as it is a prerequisite for landing an academic job. When I finally pass that mile post (a real job, not the hey-we-need-someone-for-a-few-years kind) I might even pause to feel awesome about it for a whole day.

But probably not. I'm not really wired to do anything but choose and fret over progressively more unrealistic expectations for myself.

QUIET YEARNING

Posted in Rants on November 9th, 2009 by Ed

We know how much right wingers love their revenge fantasies. You know, the masturbatory daydreams in which all of America – no, let's say the whole world – comes back on their hands and knees groveling for Dick Cheney and George W. Bush and the John Birch Society and Joe McCarthy to save them. They look at the results of the last few elections and ruefully point out that We'll Be Sorry for our naive folly, reminding us that we will look back on 2001 through 2008 as the golden age of the American Empire. I understand the psychological causes of this kind of juvenile fantasizing. Like the kid with no social skills on a playground, Republicans have to compensate for their near-complete inability to relate to other human beings by telling themselves that soon the entire public, most of which thinks Republicans are incompetent assholes, will have a change of heart and declare the GOP the most popular kids in school. If you're Dick Armey, it makes perfect sense that you need to tell that to yourself. I understand the value of protecting one's ego with delusions.

This, on the other hand, is just stupid.

Perhaps the Brits give us even less credit for intelligence than we deserve as a nation, but the headline-as-premise "Bloodless President Barack Obama makes Americans wistful for George W. Bush" breaks new ground in the art of projecting one's own desires as public opinion. His premise is not, to his credit, that George W. Bush was a better president or even an adequate one. It is that Bush was more exciting. He was clearer about his goals and preferences. He was more "real." It was easier to relate to him. He governed with emotion, and Americans want to see some "fire in the belly," as the author calls it. All of these statements are both true and completely ridiculous.

Yes, Bush made clearer decisions. But they were terrible decisions. Repeatedly, and almost unfailingly. He "shot from the hip" or whatever stupid metaphor you want to use, but that is merely a positive spin on the act of making decisions without thinking them through, without considering the consequences, and with little or no information. People who can't tell their ass from a hole in the ground did find him very easy to relate to because he can't figure out the difference either. He governed with emotion because he lacked the brainpower to govern otherwise. All of these sexy, exciting characteristics led us to the brink of ruin.

Say we have two basketball players. One is a master showman – dressing flamboyantly, diving around the court theatrically, passionately berating the officials, and generally making a great drama of everything he does – who can't make a shot to save his soul. The second is as drab and unremarkable as one can be and he makes shot after shot reliably in every game. Fans might get a kick out of the first player, but which will help you win the game? So even if the author's premise is right (and it isn't, given the mountains of polling data showing that no one is wistfully recalling the last eight years) it would be a damning critique of the public and its inability to tell style from substance. Or to realize that substance is indeed the more important of the two. Yes, Obama is cold and technocratic; Bush was fiery and passionate. The former is cold and technocratic about good ideas; the latter was wildly passionate about terrible ones.

NPF: FRIEDMANESQUE

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 6th, 2009 by Ed

Forgive me for going all Thomas Friedman – "Here's this thing I noticed from this person I talked to, and here are some broad generalizations about mankind based thereupon!" – but the longer I teach the more this nags at me.

College-aged people today are on the internet about 18 hours per day. They go nowhere without a suite of disposable Chinese-made electronic devices, almost all of it devoted to listening to their horrendous AutoTuned "music" or browsing the internet. As a teacher this is problematic inasmuch as at any given moment 75% of the class have their laptops open and are diligently staring at Facebook. Another 15% are furiously texting away with their iPhones and Blackberii in their laps. The remaining 10% are either sleeping or, for want of other ways to occupy themselves, paying attention.

This can be irritating, especially when students choose to sit front and center in the classroom and pound away at their cellphone at point blank range. When I am trying to be optimistic, however, I consider that this should be producing generations of young people with good basic tech skills. They should be computer literate given that they are using one almost constantly. They should understand how to find things online given that they are online constantly. The constant reading and sending of email and other forms of communicating on the web should, theoretically, provide some incremental benefit to their writing abilities.

If any of you work in tech support, I bet you know where I am going with this.

These kids, unbelievably, are more technologically inept than my 60 year old colleagues whose first experience with computer data processing involved punched cards. Contrary to all logic and my minimal expectations, their near-continuous computer usage has had no effect on them. None. Many of them are absolutely fucking baffled by the concept of correctly attaching something to an email. Perhaps 1% of them understand how to take a Word document and make it into a PDF. Most of them have never used basic software like Excel or PowerPoint that comes pre-installed on their package-deal laptops. Installing a program is as comprehensible as open heart surgery. I recently overheard students talking about upgrading to Windows 7 and one asked earnestly if she needed to send her laptop back to the factory to have it done.

All that time on the internet must be helping though, right? Unbelievably about half of the students I encounter (and this is a pretty decent school, mind you) have not the faintest idea how to find something on the internet. I assign research papers in every class, and in the course of that assignment I am bombarded with emails to the effect of "I am having trouble findin sources for my paper on executive orders. do you have any suggestions?" As calmly as possible I am required to reply suggesting they enter "Executive Orders" into Google and, if they're feeling really punchy, visit the online library catalog and do the same. They ask me where they can find copies of the Constitution since the full document is not in any of our textbooks; again I have to point out that putting "Constitution" into a search engine produces quite literally hundreds of results, all of which will provide the mysterious information they seek.

In short, this constant exposure to the best consumer technology on the market today has had two effects: they know how to open Facebook and they know how to text message their friends in gibberish, in some bastardized version of the English language that has been lured into a windowless van and fingered. They have learned nothing else. My attempt to find a silver lining on the fact that they are forever glued to computers has failed. I suppose, given that high schools do not send students to college with basic math and writing skills, that it is silly to expect that they would arrive with basic computer skills. The only thing sillier is expecting that they might acquire any on their own.