Random fact of no particular relevance: Today is the 102nd anniversary of the Tunguska Event. If you don't know what it is, you should read about it…as long as you're prepared to have your mind moderately to severely blown.
I could not devise a way to combine these two items so today will be a rare post in Standard Blog Style, i.e. a buffet of unrelated links.
1. From Mike, tangential to Tuesday's gun post: Legislation ("Supported by the National Rifle Association!!") has been introduced in the House to exempt guns from bankruptcy proceedings. I have to give them credit for putting some thought into the still-ludicrous rationale; allowing banks to repossess our guns would deprive us of our (newly extant) God-given right to protect ourselves. I support this legislation. Sure, they can take your home, your car, your life savings, and everything you've ever worked for in your life, but JP Morgan will be legally required to leave you a fair chance to blow your brains out, start a criminal career, or murder a family member under the stress of your disintegrating lifestyle. Congress is always looking out for the little guy.
2. Confederate Yankee has long been one of the dumbest sources of misspelled, grammatically tortured right wing spittle on the interwebs, but the guy managed to top himself with his musings on the Senate proposal to extend unemployment benefits:
(prominent liberal bloggers) moan and wail because it appears a Republican filibuster may finally end the unending unemployment gravy train…The filibuster has support because Republicans and Nelson understand that you can't keep plunging the country further into debt and expect to climb out of a recession. By stopping unemployment benefits, the Senate will force those lazy Americans enjoying "funemployment" to get off their backsides and get back to work.
I was going to FJM this, but it is some new, advanced kind of rhetorical technology. It is self-mocking. Let's try to think of all of the things that are more fun than being unemployed and, for the rare unemployed people who qualify, reaping poverty-level financial benefits for a couple of months. This won't take long because the correct answer is NOTHING. Nothing is more fun than Funemployment!!
Read the whole thing if you like bad arguments. It is the fucking Comstock Lode of anecdotal evidence.
Thank god the Supreme Court session has ended and we can stop talking about this stuff. Soon.
So, lots of weeping and rending of garments over the Chicago anti-handgun decision. Even more hysteria about the concept of incorporating the 2nd Amendment. As I don't subscribe to the slippery slope school of logic (incorporation today = striking down background checks tomorrow) and I think this will have shockingly little impact on substantive gun control legislation, I'm more interested in the underlying issue here – everyone, save for the NRA hardliners, recognizes the need for some kind of "control" on private firearms. The big problem is that we know exactly which guns are the problem and, as Chicago just discovered, it's virtually impossible to craft legislation to restrict them.
As a kid, my family was not big on guns. I think my dad had his father's WWII .45, which was more for sentimental reasons than any of the usual motivations for gun ownership. But as a public prosecutor for many years he always impressed upon me the futility of the kinds of showy gun control legislation produced by Congress. The mid-90s "assault weapon" panic was, and still is, a textbook example of a red herring. "Assault weapons" are involved in about 0.1% of gun crime, if that. The other 99%+ primarily revolves around one type of weapon: small, cheap pistols with large magazine capacities. The movies in the 1980s convinced a lot of people that criminals and gang members were wandering the streets with machine guns and AK-47s. Such instances are rare and exceptional. By and large, violent crime is committed with the bottom of the barrel in the firearm market.
Take the Virginia Tech slayings as an example. The killer used .22 pistols. They are usually used for shooting at paper targets. A decently heavy wooden door has a chance of stopping a .22 pistol round. This is absolutely the last kind of firearm that legislation would ever try to ban. Yet the small round (which enables many to be crammed into a single magazine, giving the handguns a high capacity) works just fine against "soft" targets, i.e. someone's chest. Focusing on the guns alone and not the killer's mental issues, on what basis could legislation be written narrowly enough to ban such things?
Given the obscene number of handguns already circulating in the U.S., bans on new weapon sales can't even begin to solve the problem. And as long as people persist in the delusion that having a gun in the house makes them safer, there will be howls of protest about such laws despite their relative ineffectiveness. Our solutions appear to be:
1. Take the right-wing argument to its logical conclusion; arm everyone to the teeth and live out some kind of Mad Max scenario.
2. Ban handgun sales and ownership – a move that, as gun propaganda rightly points out, will not stop people who aren't concerned about things like laws and licenses.
3. Ban all gun ownership. Same problem, plus the Constitution makes this untenable.
It seems like we're drifting toward #1 not because the conservative majority on the Court and in Congress for the last 30 years have been successful at executing a nefarious plot to manipulate the law, but rather because the other two options are some combination of ineffective, unrealistic, and unconstitutional. We've saturated this society with so goddamn many guns – especially the worst kind for criminals to have, the small, cheap, big-magazine ones – that I don't see how we can make this country "gun free" even if we wanted to. And the 2nd Amendment clearly does confer some kind of right to individual ownership (although we could reasonably debate in what context that applies).
The problem, in essence, is that we're out of answers and we, like the Courts, appear to have settled on the least terrible one. Yet we know that it's a non-solution, even when our bluster and attempts at self delusion indicate otherwise. We know goddamn well that the pistol isn't going to protect us when someone breaks into our home as we sleep or charges in through the front door, gun in hand, as we watch TV. Deep down we know or at least should know that the odds of using a firearm to successfully execute any of the fantasy scenarios presented by NRA types are close to nil.
So what is the answer? How do we do the impossible, or at least the highly improbable, and craft legislation that addresses the massive supply of guns already in circulation while protecting the basic 2nd Amendment right and parsimoniously targeting the kind of cheap, disposable handguns that actually fuel street crime? The next good answer I hear to any of these queries will be the first.
There's not much I'd like to do less than to start writing up a Supreme Court case on a weekly basis. Two weeks ago the Court dropped Berghuis v. Thompkins on us, quietly ruling that Miranda rights must be positively invoked to protect arrestees from making incriminating statements. That was my Supreme Court fix for the first half of the year. But now, with absolutely no attention whatsoever from the media, the Court has made another incredibly tone-deaf (and 5-4) decision in favor of, well, not you.
Despite all of the condemnations of corruption and dedication to the moneyed interests among our elected leaders, the 5-vote conservative (ahem, "strict constructionist") block on the current Court is without a doubt the most reliable servant of Corporate America in our Federal government. Citizens United v. FEC made it clear several months ago that "public interest" was a figment of popular delusions in the opinions of Alito, Scalia, Clarence "What Anton Said!" Thomas, Roberts, and the "moderate" Anthony Kennedy. They live in a sterile fantasy world in which corporate rights and individual rights counterbalance one another, as though the two opposing sides are equally powerful.
Has anyone heard of Rent-a-Center v. Jackson? Anyone? I didn't think so. Let's take a brief look at this masterpiece of Bush-era conservative thinking, this window into Anton Scalia's mind.
The facts of the case are not fundamentally important. Mr. Jackson sued his former employer, Rent-a-Center, for discrimination on the basis of race. What is relevant is that as a condition of his employment Jackson signed an arbitration agreement at the time of hire, as do all Rent-a-Center employees. The agreement stipulates that charges against the employer are decided by an arbitrator – in short, the employees essentially surrender their right to pursue claims of discrimination, harassment, etc. in state or Federal courts. You know, just the basic "Sign here to waive certain constitutional rights" paperwork.
There's nothing illegal about such an agreement. But under the Federal Arbitration Act, employees can still ask a Federal court to rule on the fairness of their arbitration agreements themselves. In other words, "I was forced to sign this in order to get the job" is not a valid argument, but employees could petition the Federal courts to invalidate agreements that are grossly unfair, including those that charge punitive fees, mandate arbitration hearings in distant, remote locations, or allow employers to choose an arbitrator that is clearly a kangaroo court paid handsomely to rule in the Boss's favor.
Sounds reasonable, right? Your employer gets to screw you by forcing you to sign away rights as a condition of employment but at least the law throws Joe Public a bone and lets him use the courts to ensure that he receives somewhat-kinda-slightly fair privatized justice. Just about everyone can agree about that. Everyone except America's employers and five important people in Washington.
The Scalia-authored opinion rules that is legal for arbitration agreements to stipulate that challenges to the fairness or legality of the arbitration process must be decided in arbitration. So if your boss chooses Dewey, Fuckem and Howe as the arbitrator for your claim – and you happen to notice that DFH has a flawless 100% record of siding with the employer – your challenge to the fairness of the arbitration process is heard…by the arbitrator in question. Scalia's logic, as usual, is something along the lines of "Well no one puts a gun to your head and forces you to sign the agreement." Good point, Anton. We'll just move on to one of the dozens of other jobs we have waiting for us.
Aside from the very troubling idea that employers can exploit the power imbalance inherent in employment to force their workers to waive their right to access the courts, this decision waves a bright green light in front of corporate America, practically begging them to divert their employees into the privatized pseudo justice system of for-profit arbitration. Even better, it lets them know that they can feel free to establish their own phony arbitrator or patronize an existing one with a reputation for delivering in exchange for its fee. Without access to the courts to challenge the fairness of the process, the arbitration doesn't even have to put up the pretense of fairness or impartiality. They can walk into the meeting with a giant flashing sign reading "YOU LOSE" and there's nothing you can do about it now as long as the agreement is worded to redirect all of your legal challenges to the arbitrator.
So goodbye Federal Arbitration Act. Striking down laws isn't activist when right-wing sycophants do it. Activism or not, any decision that whittles away at the few assets individuals have to protect themselves in the course of their employment is A-OK with Anton and the boys.
Grab some stickers. Papa needs a new pair of everything. These are perfect for your laptop, bumper, guitar case, locker, bike helmet, front door (keep the Jehovah's Witnesses away), bong, or forehead. In the absence of clothing, one or more stickers can be placed hastily over your genitals. Coffee mugs coming soon. You people aren't going to leave me with a giant box of unsold coffee mugs, are you? I'm thinking you are.
3" x 5" stickers on heavy white vinyl – $3.50 (shipping included, unless it's outside of the U.S.)
Among other more obvious historical firsts President Obama is the first president to be driven around in a totally custom-made car. The security and communications requirements have become so extensive – a negative pressure system for chemical attacks, IED-proof armor on the doors, a mine-proof underbelly, Level IV bullet resistant glass, etc. – that the body and frame of a normal limousine could no longer bear the added weight. Customizing a Lincoln Town Car or Cadillac Fleetwood is no longer sufficient, so the current Presidential State Car was built from the ground up. "Car" is a wild misnomer, as "The Beast" (as the Secret Service calls the 12,000-pound vehicle) is more tank than car. While the styling cues and badging mark the car as a Cadillac, the resemblance is only superficial.
Built on the platform of the GMC Topkick – a commercial vehicle used as a platform for fire trucks, ambulances, and dump trucks – the PSC has eight inches of titanium armor in the doors, bulletproof glass nearly a foot thick, and generally looks more like a bunker than a car as this Life Magazine photo illustrates:
The exterior bodywork had to be designed carefully so that the vehicle could fit inside a C-17 Globemaster, which, for the record, is really fucking big. The President is not allowed by the Secret Service to be transported in vehicles provided by other nations, which is logical given that he often ends up in dodgy places. Thus wherever he goes, the car goes. The engine is classified but is known to be a very large diesel, which breaks with the tradition of all previous presidential carriages. It also indicates that the Secret Service is minimally concerned about high speed (although I'm sure it's plenty fast) and very concerned that the PSC is able to batter its way through barricades, climb small obstacles, and push other vehicles out of the way. The high-torque diesel is ideal for all three applications.
It is a sad commentary on the current state of the country and of the world that the president must be trucked around in what amounts to a impenetrable bomb shelter on wheels, but that is where we are at in 2010. It is not where we have always been – although in fairness, a couple of assassinated presidents might have benefited from protection of this kind.
The first president to ride in an automobile was William McKinley, although it was a brief novelty ride in something considered far less reliable than a horse in 1900. The first to use on a semi-regular basis a car purchased by the Federal government for the president was McKinley's successor, Teddy Roosevelt. The car was a steam-powered (!!!) Stanley. Hey, if Robert Fulton's brainchild was good enough for a locomotive, surely it belonged in automobiles as well. TR's successor William H. Taft was the first to own a personal vehicle; he squeezed his corpulent hide into this sweet-ass White Model M Steamer:
The first vehicles that indicated the realization that the president required customized vehicles was unsurprisingly FDR, who received two massive Cadillac convertibles in 1938. They accommodated his physical needs and made some basic security concessions as well. This was upgraded to the first vehicle specifically customized on order from the White House, the "Sunshine Special" V12 Lincoln convertible procured in 1939. This is after he already survived one assassination attempt in an open-topped car. Smart.
Post-War presidents had a succession of opulent Lincoln convertibles, none of which, being convertibles, offered much in the way of upgraded security. Communications, at least the wireless kind, were so rudimentary that there wasn't much to put in a car at the time, so the presidential cars were essentially just really nice cars. Kennedy's soon-to-be infamous Lincoln – a landaulet, a strange convertible-limousine hybrid – featured telephones based on two-way radio technology, which was quite advanced for 1960. This photo clearly shows the bizarrely placed "jump seats" in which Governor Connolly sat during the assassination in 1963.
After that unpleasantness, the Secret Service started to realize that convertibles, even with the top up, were a horrible idea. In 1969 the White House finally received a bulletproof and armored Lincoln limousine which was used by Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan – including the latter's assassination attempt in 1981. Reagan switched back to Cadillacs in 1983, although I can't locate information about why. There may be a reason or it may mean nothing in particular. But his new limo was enclosed and heavily armored. Armor upgrades in the 1989 Lincoln delivered to George H. Bush necessitated a transplanted Ford Truck V8, the first indication that the armor requirements of the presidential limo were beginning to tax the limits of standard car designs. Clinton received a Cadillac Fleetwood-based limo in 1993 and his successor took possession of the last limo based on a "normal" car in 2005: a Cadillac DTS-based limo which is still used as a backup by the current president. The Secret Service reportedly was unhappy with the performance and structural integrity of the Bush DTS, as the amount of equipment added during customization badly strained the passenger car underpinnings of the vehicle.
It would be nice if President Obama and his successors could hop in a convertible and wave to parade crowds, but it appears that those days are over. On the bright side, however, it would take a tactical nuclear strike to put a scratch on the passenger compartment of the new Presidential State Car. And there's probably some classified piece of security equipment to protect it from that too.
Watch and listen to the following and tell me if you think this sounds like A) a serious, major-party candidate for the U.S. Senate in Nevada or B) Dadaist performance art, a parody of the worst possible candidate in the history of electoral politics extending her middle finger to voters and practically daring them to vote for her.
This is like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross running for the Senate. "You're all spoiled, lazy assholes. Jobs are for closers. What's my name? Fuck you, that's my name." Angle is telling voters in the state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation – take that, Michigan! – that the root of the problem lies in their slothfulness and sense of entitlement. "Spoiled", that's what they are.
Let's investigate those claims, momentarily suspending disbelief and pretending that someone like Angle would choose her words based on readily available data.
Nevada's unemployment program is unremarkable, calculating benefits using the same "High Quarter" method employed (see what I did there?) by the majority of states. Using the most recent data I could find, a report from February 2010, the 2009 average weekly benefit ($305) and average duration of benefit (16 weeks) were both within 1% of the national average.
$305 weekly would be $7.62/hr assuming a standard 40 hour work week. The minimum wage is set by state law in Nevada at $7.55. At 40 hours that would produce $302 before taxes. So the unemployment benefits spoiling the hell out of Nevadans paid a premium of $3 over minimum wage – for about four months. On July 1 the minimum wage increases to $8.26 in Nevada, meaning that unemployment will pay the equivalent of about $30 per week less than what the most feebly compensated hourly workers will make.
In other words, unemployment benefits in Nevada do pretty much what they are intended to do: provide short term, subsistence level income for people who have been involuntarily separated from their jobs. Perhaps Sharron Angle should be prepared to tell us the proper level at which benefits should be set in order to properly encourage people to work. Perhaps a maximum benefit of $100 per week, paid in a moldy onion sack full of quarters placed atop a tall, greased flagpole, would provide the right incentive. If the issue is that the dole and menial jobs pay essentially the same, why are we supposed to jump to the conclusion that the welfare state is too generous? It is far more relevant to ask why all of these jobs our elected officials are telling us to take pay wages that barely cross the poverty line.
"Logic" like Angle's takes me back to my childhood, to lectures from brainwashed Reaganites about how poor people were just lazy and the problem was that welfare paid them a six-figure salary to sit on their asses enjoying their big screen TVs and bouncing cars and all those other silly things that negroes like (All unemployed people were black). It has been a while since we've been blessed with a politician sufficiently disconnected from reality to make this argument in the middle of a double-dip recession in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the country. We should bottle Sharron Angle – to preserve her special essence, not to deprive her of oxygen. We need to keep her talking, as she appears to be another gift that will keep on giving.
Being a Midwesterner – my first 31 years were divided among Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana – deindustrialization is something I have seen in painful detail. It's not an idea or something I need to learn about in Michael Moore movies. I've seen Youngstown, Fort Wayne, Saginaw, Buffalo, Rockford, Detroit, and the dozens of others like them. To some extent they all look the same, which is logical given that their histories are so similar. They peaked in 1950, treaded water throughout the 1960s, started to suffer from foreign competition in the 1970s, turned into post-apocalyptic war zones in the 1980s (inspiring an entire genre of white suburban revenge fantasy films like Robocop and Death Wish in the process), and were dealt the final blow in the 1990s with NAFTA.
The big problem, from a brutally realistic perspective, is that these places didn't just disappear when they were declared unnecessary by the wonders of globalization and unregulated capitalism. Their hollow, crumbling shells still exist. We can still wander around their (now vacant) 1950-vintage storefronts and the neighborhoods that have long since made the transition from working-class housing to crack dens and squatters' tenements. So even though singular events – the closing of the Big Factory in a company town, the rapid decline of a key industry – signal the death of a place like Flint, the process of dying is drawn out painfully. It takes decades, not years, for the residents to admit that It is never coming back and things are never going to be the way they used to be again. After a dozen failed "revitalization" and re-development plans, everyone just sort of…gives up.
Evansville, Indiana ("E-ville" to its residents, all desperately seeking an escape) fits the classic Rust Belt model very well despite avoiding the kind of epic, media-friendly collapse suffered by Flint or East St. Louis. Its death has been a slow process. The major employers didn't disappear overnight; they slunk away one by one. Windsor. Guardian Automotive. Zenith. Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Enfamil / Mead Johnson. And now Whirlpool. Now there's pretty much nothing left. A place that was already sad has gotten even sadder. Even the service industry jobs will disappear without a middle class to blow its paychecks around town.
Until now this story is unexceptional. It's nothing new. NAFTA, Mexico, and moving vans speeding toward Guadalajara. The wrinkle in the Whirlpool tale, however, is the $19 million they just took from the Federal government as part of the "stimulus" spending. The money was awarded to develop "smart" clothing dryers that will, like, be Green or something. In a shameless example of quite literally taking the money and running, it appears that Congress's investment in Whirlpool's business is reaping great dividends for the American taxpayers in…Mexico. Now, I understand that these two things are not directly related; the grant money is to develop a quasi-new technology while the E-ville factory made standard refrigerators. Nonetheless the disconnect is striking, with the company quite literally taking the money with one hand and handing its manufacturing jobs to Mexico with the other.
Has there ever been a single piece of legislation or act of Congress that did more to fundamentally alter our society than NAFTA? Part of me says no because it merely finished a process that had already started in the 1970s. On the other hand, the speed with which it has dropped the hammer on so much of the Northeast and Midwest is shocking, leaving cities with no time to adapt or transition their economies away from manufacturing. According to President Clinton we were going to solve this problem by "re-educating" laid off workers in some vague and unspecified way for some vague and unspecified jobs with the word "tech" in their description. Alas, the process of imbuing 45 year-old factory workers with three kids and a mortgage with the skills needed for the High Tech jobs that don't exist anyway has not been a smooth one. As much as this will shock people who opposed NAFTA at the time it was debated, the only promise that this Agreement kept was sending good American jobs to the developing world (which, coincidentally, doesn't actually appear to be Developing. But that's another story.)
Congratulations, President Clinton. Your legacy is intact.
(The following commentary was submitted by regular commenter HoosierPoli. Aside from being generally interesting – albeit considerably longer than you're used to on this site – it is relevant to the current BP situation among other Obama-related issues. As inexperienced bloggers stand to benefit the most from feedback, I'm sure that the author would appreciate your reactions. Without further ado, I present "Barack Obama Is Not Your Personal Fucking Santa Claus.")
Lately, there has been an undeniable trend in the medium of modern discourse in which I find myself writing. I lack a better term for it, so I am forced to call it the “Self-Righteous Liberal Bitch-o-Sphere” (Actually, I take that back; that IS the best term for it). Anyway, since you’re here, reading this, you know what I’m talking about: an endless procession of what passes in the US for leftists, saying at every turn how Barack Obama is actually a secret conservative Clintonite triangulator who’d just as soon sell out his dead mother to cash in on the old Washington games; a golden-tongued huckster who sold us on a Utopian ideal and then delivered more “business as usual”. I’m not sure what’s more distressing; that so-called educated and informed people have swallowed right-wing narratives hook line and sinker, or that they’ve convinced themselves that it’s actually of their own devising.
This “movement” seems to consist of a number of readily-identifiable groups. You’ve got your standard neo-hippie cranks, for whom any economic or political event only serves to further validate their Glenn-Beck-in-hemp-underwear eschatology, to the point that they will ignore actual facts and burn heretics at the metaphorical stake for DARING to suggest that perhaps man’s hubris and disregard for Gaia may not be, at this immediate point in time, destroying civilization as we know it. You’ve got your political idealists, whose first exposure to American politics in its most unfiltered form was the Obama campaign, and who, as a result, have a view of government functionality that can only be described as wildly hallucinogenic. You’ve got your lazy liberals, who feel that if they hit FireDogLake AND the Daily Kos in one day, they’ve done their part to make the world a better place. And you have, here and there, a smattering of people who either know what the fuck they’re talking about and/or actually get off their asses and help improve the world, one small piece at a time. This last group is so tiny that they really don’t fall within the scope of this criticism.
But what all these people have in common is this: They all view George W. Bush as something approaching the purest embodiment of evil in history, and if not, then he’s a close second to Ronald Reagan. They blame everything from Katrina and Abu Ghraib, to 9/11 (in various forms) and the current Gulf disaster on the Bush Administration, sometimes shorthanded to just Bush. Either way, in their minds, Bush was personally involved in or responsible for almost all of the terrible decisions and policy disasters of the last two presidential terms.
I certainly understand the allure of this narrative; in fact, I admit that I fall prey to it with more frequency than I’d like. However, this narrative is misleading, and I’m not here to defend George W. Bush, but to show how it is distorting people’s ideas about what Obama is, or should be.
There are two fundamental errors in the Bush as Antichrist mindset:
The first mistake is assuming Bush had anything to do with the disasters attached to his name.
Bush and Ronald Reagan were very different people, with very different backgrounds and ideologies. It’s easy to forget now that Bush was a born-again and Reagan barely even WENT to church. But their administrations served remarkably similar priorities, and this stems from their most important commonality: They were both absolutely STUNNINGLY incompetent executives.
Neither of them had any idea what their various appointees were doing, or even necessarily who they were. The picture that has emerged of the Bush administration since its merciful departure has been not one of calculated malevolence, but one of almost pitiable impotence. Bush and Reagan were both quite personable campaigners who couldn’t administer a government if their life depended on it. The consequence of that is that when they took power, the people around them who actually knew the score had a very easy time doing pretty much whatever the fuck they wanted with no consequences whatsoever. Reagan had his Ollie North, Bush had his Donald Rumsfeld, and these guys are not exceptions. The Minerals Management Service was not a case of the foxes watching the henhouse; it was a case of NOBODY watching the henhouse and the foxes just walking right in and doing whatever they pleased.
You can certainly argue that Bush bears MORAL responsibility for what happened on his watch, but that doesn’t really mean jack shit at this point. He had no idea what people were actually up to underneath him. They simply gave him some marginal decisions to make, he would Decide them, then kick back feeling good about himself while they kept doing whatever the fuck they wanted. Just look at the financial crisis. When the shitstorm hit in September of 08, if you listen to the people that were there, Bush had literally no idea AT ALL what was happening. Not only did he not expect it, he didn’t even understand it. And when it came time for him to be The Decider, who was it presenting him with the decision? The former head of Goldman Sachs, a man that I guarantee you Bush did not personally select to be Treasury Secretary, but rather was a name selected for him by some Undersecretary of Buttfucking the Taxpayer, which he signed off on and gave a nice speech and then kicked back with a nice run and an evening of reflecting on how history will validate his Leadership. So Mr. Paulson shows him a plan to give tons of money to banks and Bush says “OK, whatever you think, Mr. Smart Suit-Wearing Guy”.
The point I really want to be stressing here is that at no point is one person in charge of all these terrible fucking decisions. It’s a bunch of different people, all of them assholes, most of them on the take, doing whatever the fuck they please. There’s nobody at the top, not even Cheney, and CERTAINLY not Bush. The second mistake is thinking that if Bush could get what he wanted, and Obama can’t, then Barack Obama must either be a worse executive than Bush or he must be a secret conservative.
This is a well-worn tale: “Bush got trillion-dollar tax cuts with only fifty votes in the Senate! He got the Patriot Act and gutted regulations, etc. He knew how to bring the hammer down to get what he wanted, and so if Obama can’t get (the public option/financial reform/energy bill/whatever) passed, he must not actually want it”.
This is a steaming crock of bullshit and it should be obvious why by now. At no point during his presidency did Bush ever get a single thing he wanted. The closest thing I can think of to an actual idea that started with Bush would be either No Child Left Behind or possibly the Mars program, and he actually got neither; neither was funded, neither has had any noticeable impact, both were basically DOA. Recently Bush claimed that he believed that oil should be phased out and wind energy is the wave of the future and, call me crazy, I think he’s telling the truth. If so, then it should be pretty fucking obvious that W was not the one calling the shots in his administration.
No, what Bush got was what OTHER PEOPLE wanted. Massive tax cuts for the ridiculously wealthy were, I promise you, not Bush’s intellectual baby. It was an idea that one of his advisors said would be a good thing, and a bunch of Congressmen agreed, and Bush signed off on it. Every major piece of legislation Bush signed was something he AGREED to, not something he specifically TRIED to get. In other words, the 8 years of Bush’s presidency, that long national nightmare, was really nothing more than bland acquiescence to an murderous and insane status quo. I expect that the outcome would have been identical if there had been no President at all.
A note about the Sympathetic Fallacy.*
The sympathetic fallacy is the very human tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human things. It is the source of our unshakable belief that our computers can understand us when we curse at them. It is (probably) the source of belief in God (but let’s not go there today). But, most relevant to our topic, it is the reason that we insist upon attributing human characteristics to governments, which may be made up of people but absolutely do not make decisions or in any way operate in the way that a person does. We like to say that the government “wants” this or that, but a government cannot “want” anything, because it is not a person. Unfortunately, this fallacy is really more on the level of a basic psychological illusion: even if we know about it, it won’t go away. And because it is so pernicious, it even demands a face to go along with that personality, and today, the face of the Government is none other than Barack Obama.
And so we come back to our Criticism-From-The-Left Obama haters. I have culled just a few comments from a comment section at Unnamed Liberal Blog (see if you can recognize it!), which I have deemed to be representative (of course, the reader is free to make their own judgments):
"I've sadly come to regard Obama as a Rockefeller Republican, but maybe he's further to the right than that"
“It seemed clear to me during the campaign that Obama was more conservative than most of my acquaintances thought, and I think his actions since the election demonstrate that. He talks nicely, but he's just not comfortable with radical solutions to anything (with 'radical' defined in terms of "sudden, dramatic changes of course")”
“News flash folks — Obama is to the right of Clinton, and HE was to the right of Eisenhower.”
I could do this all night, but you get my point. It started very early on, grew to an absolute fever pitch during the health care deba(cle)te, and has stuck around like a 4pm wine-and-Jagermeister hangover. If Obama is synonymous with “socialist” on the right, on the left it’s synonymous with “sellout”. On everything from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to immigration, Obama is seen as, at best, a total pussy, and at worst, a JAP (Just Another Politician).
But let’s be brutally honest with ourselves: Our last President showed us what the status quo is. Bush, by being essentially a rubber stamp (don’t let anyone get it backwards; in the 2000s, Congress did the pushing, Bush did the rolling over), demonstrated what our modern Federal government, left to its own devices, will get up to. And yet, whenever the CURRENT Federal government comes up with something that looks unpalatably familiar, the blame is instantly and unthinkingly heaped at the feet of Obama, invariably with some intolerably clever comment involving either “hope” or “change”.
Now I’m not here to be an Obama ballboy, but I do know this: Barack Obama is not a king. Barack Obama does not occupy 535 Congressional seats. Barack Obama’s opinions and beliefs about the way this country should be going, how we should be handling gay rights and global warming and Social Security, these count for EXTRAORDINARILY little when it comes to the governing process. Forget that tripe you learned as a kid about “the most powerful person in the world”; the President has got very little power beyond the ability to nominate judges and pray that he can get the head of the Ways and Means Committee to go along with his budget priorities. Our eight years of Bushanoia have given us an incredibly distorted view of what a President can actually accomplish; we just assumed that it was Bush at the wheel, when in reality he was passed out drunk in the trunk of the car. And so insofar as our government has accomplished anything even REMOTELY progressive or positive (and, in case you’ve forgotten, it has) in the past year and a half, the credit belongs to the incredible energy and discipline Obama has instilled in his administration, both directly and through his appointees.
Of course, I can already hear the (and I borrow humbly the term of the excellent Al Giordiano) poutrage machine beginning to stir from its slumber. “Fucking Obamabot” it will begin, its wit as sharp as ever. “You’re so stupid as to believe that Obama actually wants to change things. In reality, he WANTS offshore drilling, and he doesn’t want to help out gays. He wants a weak energy bill, and a crippled healthcare bill, and watered down token ‘progressive’ legislation while he bails out the bankers and screws over the working guy. He’s just another, differently colored cog in The Machine”.
To which I say: You could certainly be right. I mean, given all the layers of abstraction and sausage-making machinery between Obama and the rest of us, there’s really no way for us to tell. But if you make that argument, you have to make one conceit. If you actually believe that Barack Obama personally supports everything the Congress and Federal government have done so far in his presidency, you really have no choice but to admit that Barack Obama is the most talented political leader to ever walk the Earth. Because for an executive to always get what they “really want” on every single issue would be an absolutely unprecedented miracle of governance. If that is the case, then Barack Obama is playing some 11th-dimensional chess on a scale that has never before been witnessed.
Or, if you’re like me and you prefer the more likely explanation, Barack Obama is probably a fairly progressive person (if you pay attention to what actually comes out of his mouth, especially before he ran for president, this seems reasonably probable) and, more than anything, a highly talented executive who has managed to wrangle an mind-bogglingly huge bureaucracy, based on a frail and nearly-obsolete Constitution, chock-full of ideological opponents, massive egos, fabulously wealthy interests, and just plain antagonistic assholes and backwoods idiots, and managed to do more good with it in eighteen months than anyone in the past forty years. And on that point, the record is mercifully clear.
So next time you start to go on a tear about how Obama wants this, or Obama did that, or Obama is ignoring the netroots, or Obama is defending this or that Bush policy, please remember the sympathetic fallacy. The government is not a person, and Barack Obama is not your personal fucking Santa Claus.
*I have borrowed this section in part from a much smarter and more insightful commentator than I, but unfortunately I can no longer remember the source. If anyone could let me know who I’m ripping off here, I would like to add a proper citation.
We don't know what we think about a lot of issues – hardly a novel finding, dating back to Converse. What's even more problematic is how badly we misjudge what others think, which is a fundamental component of how we form our own opinions and orient ourselves toward society.
A real psychologist might disagree here, but political psychology evaluates judgment and decision-making under the assumption that much of human cognition is "hard wired" for basic survival functions and is quite poorly adapted to understanding abstractions like politics (see Kuklinski & Quirk, Reconsidering the Rational Public: Cognition, Heuristics, and Mass Opinion). In other words, our thought processes are geared toward self-preservation, including bolstering our self-image. This is part of the reason why having a low self-image is recognized as a medical condition. The "normal" mind excels at convincing itself that it is correct even when it is very, very wrong.
One of the tricks our minds use to make us feel better about the decisions we make is to convince us that others share our opinions. It is common in the absence of other information (and perhaps even despite it) to believe that the majority of our fellow citizens believe the same things we do. If I am against capital punishment and don't know anything about public opinion on that subject, I will guess that a majority of the public is also against it.
This, I believe, is one of the main culprits explaining survey results like these:
Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey. May 12-18, 2010. N=1,001 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.7
"From what you’ve heard or read, do you think the evidence on global warming is widely accepted within the scientific community, or do many scientists have serious doubts about it?"
Widely accepted: 37% Many have serious doubts: 49% Unsure: 14%
ABC News/Washington Post Poll. Dec. 10-13, 2009. N=1,003 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.5
"Do you think most scientists agree with one another about whether or not global warming is happening, or do you think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists on this issue?"
Most agree: 36% A lot of disagreement: 62% Unsure: 2%
Your gut reaction is probably that this is the media's fault – too much Glenn Beck, too many effective disinformation campaigns by denialist groups and professional "skeptics." But these are objective questions, namely about the scientific consensus. A five-second google search would reveal that 90%+ of climate researchers subscribe to the climate change hypothesis. Even denialist arguments on Fox News don't have the audacity to claim that a majority of scientists have serious doubts; in fact, the small minority status of the Skeptics is often played up to fuel the right's latent martyr complex. If we had the information we would probably answer the question accordingly. Lacking that information we just assume that everybody else probably believes what we believe, namely that global warmin' is nothing but a big pinko conspiracy to take away our Dodge Durango.
It is regrettable that we use our own opinions as a proxy for the majority so often given how sorely misinformed we are most of the time. But if I feel that it's regrettable, then surely most people do. A collective solution may be just around the corner.