NPF: HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 14th, 2011 by Ed

Look, I know a number of things to be true:

1. Southerners generally cannot drive for shit even in the most pristine road and weather conditions.
2. It doesn't snow much in the South.
3. When #2 is not true, everything shuts down and few people attempt to drive.
4. There are no plows or salt trucks in most of the South.

Combined, these facts mean that very few people in a place like Georgia have any experience driving in typical Midwestern/Northeastern winter conditions. I would not expect anyone here to be good at it per se. But for the love of all that is holy, come on, people. Most aspects of winter driving require only a basic understanding of the laws of physics.

Wait. Maybe that's the problem.

In any event, in future "Snowpocalypses" please try to bear a few key pieces of information in mind or, failing that, to consult this website liberally on your mobile device (not whilst driving, of course).

The Basic Premise: Snow and ice reduce traction. Logically, then, the most dangerous parts of driving in ice and snow are accelerating and decelerating. Your goal is to maintain a nice, reasonable, consistent speed. You can drive in relative safety in snow, solid ice, slush, or freezing rain as long as you remember three things:

1) Slow down. Your F-250 King Cab 4×4 does not make you invincible. Your BMW X5 is not a yuppie snow plow. You can't go 20 over the limit on ice. As for all of you speeding along in your broke-ass 1994 Chevy Lumina on bald summer tires, as much as I would like your experiment to run its course and for you to be removed from the gene pool, I have no intention of being taken with you. All that said…

2) Speed the hell up. Listen to me. Listen as hard as you can. DRIVING 10 MPH IS NOT SAFE. In snow or in any other conditions. It is in fact terribly dangerous. What is wrong with you people? You are not driving through a Cambodian minefield with a collection of Faberge Eggs balanced carefully on your hood. It's just snow. Yes, driving really fast is dangerous. But if you ride your brake, everyone has to slam on the brakes when they come upon you or the massive line of cars forming right on your bumper. Plus…

3) You cannot ride the brake up an icy incline. Physics. Basic goddamn physics, kids. I saw no fewer than five cars stuck on inclines on Monday, each spinning its wheels like a coked-up teenager. Listen very carefully. If you do not give it some gas while going UP a hill, you are going to lose speed. Eventually you will lose so much speed that you will stop moving. Then when you decide to punch the gas, you will spin your wheels. Why? Because you are on fucking ice, "Son." Your car will just slide off in some non-forward direction. When you reach the ditch or the big pile of snow on the side of the road, you will be stuck. Or you will hit the car behind or next to you. Physics, people. Incline. No traction. Speed up.

I am glad we had this talk. Next week I will cover merging into moving highway traffic, parallel parking, and other mysterious skills of the Midwestern Yankee.

THE ORIGINAL ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION TREATMENT

Posted in Rants on January 13th, 2011 by Ed

One more set of comments and then I'm getting off of the Giffords thing. Palin and Glenn Reynolds and the torrential flow of stupid is making my head hurt. Like yesterday, I have two separate but related points. Unfortunately (for me) a lot of writers around the internets have already jumped on these, but I'll say my peace anyway.

So let's talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the political aftermath of America's semimonthly mass shootings. Let's talk about guns.

1. This is not a photo of the actual weapon used in the shooting on Saturday, but it is the same caliber and with the same magazine:

Since the Assault Weapon ban was allowed to die in 2004, cheap, high capacity "extended" magazines have flooded the market. They are illegal in a handful of states but easily available online, at gun shows, and so on. No one who identifies as a strong pro-gun advocate has ever been able to offer a remotely convincing (or even plausible) answer to my question regarding the above photo: what legitimate purpose can this possibly serve?

Recreation? I'm pretty sure you can recreate with the standard 15 round magazine. Hunting? Who in the hell hunts with a pistol? And if you did, do you need 33 rounds in case the deer call for backup? Personal defense? Well, that looks very difficult to conceal and remarkably awkward to handle, aim, and fire under duress – and once again, only in the most sophomoric Rambo fantasies can anyone concoct a scenario in which you would need to shoot 33 times at a mugger or home invader. The gun pictured above was basically designed around the firearm needs of Mexican drug cartels.

This is an example of what's wrong with gun politics, and the NRA in particular, in this country. Americans, including Ed, have no problem whatsoever with the fundamental right to own a firearm. But the NRA has been insisting for 30 years (Does anyone even realize that they used to be sane?) that Americans are guaranteed the right to own every and any type of firearm their hearts desire. This is patently false, unsupported by anything in the Constitution or laws that followed it. Armor-piercing bullets! .50 cal anti-materiel rifles! Full automatic! 35 round magazines! Hand grenades! You can't ban anything because it will be a slippery slope to banning everything!

Let's be clear: the 33 round magazine for a 9mm handgun – like the one pictured here and used in the Giffords shooting – serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever except to enhance the number of rounds that can be fired in a spree killing or drive-by shooting. On the off chance that Congress considers a knee-jerk ban on these magazines it won't matter, as tens of thousands of them already circulate in the U.S. And capacity is certainly not the only relevant factor, as the Virginia Tech shooter used handguns with standard 10- and 15-round magazines (although even the 15 was banned until 2004). What this is, however, is an excellent example of how the "Guns don't kill people" argument is deeply flawed. With 15 rounds, the Tucson shooter hits (and possibly kills) half as many people. Our insanely lenient gun laws directly resulted in him being a better and more productive killer. We have ensured that when people snap and decide to start shooting people, they can shoot more, and more powerful, ammunition.

2. Fox News is furiously pounding away at its collective pud over the non-story of the innocent bystander who was armed and rushed over to confront the shooter – the typical right-wing "saves the day with his concealed handgun" fantasy. Alas, the assailant had already been subdued by (unarmed) bystanders when Johnny Rambo arrived. What the WSJ story that started this meme neglects to mention is pretty stunning:

"I came out of that store, I clicked the safety off, and I was ready," he explained on Fox and Friends. "I had my hand on my gun. I had it in my jacket pocket here. And I came around the corner like this." Zamudio demonstrated how his shooting hand was wrapped around the weapon, poised to draw and fire. As he rounded the corner, he saw a man holding a gun. "And that's who I at first thought was the shooter," Zamudio recalled. "I told him to 'Drop it, drop it!' "

But the man with the gun wasn't the shooter. He had wrested the gun away from the shooter. "Had you shot that guy, it would have been a big, fat mess," the interviewer pointed out.

Zamudio agreed. "I was very lucky. Honestly, it was a matter of seconds. Two, maybe three seconds between when I came through the doorway and when I was laying on top of [the real shooter], holding him down. So, I mean, in that short amount of time I made a lot of really big decisions really fast. … I was really lucky."

When Zamudio was asked what kind of weapons training he'd had, he answered: "My father raised me around guns … so I'm really comfortable with them. But I've never been in the military or had any professional training. I just reacted."

In other words, the effect of Zamudio's weapon in this incident was to dramatically increase the odds that someone else who had nothing to do with the attack was shot and perhaps killed. Among right wingers, the "saves the day with guns" fantasy has cured more unresponsive penises throughout the years than all of the Viagra in the world. While it's commendable that he (and other unarmed bystanders) intervened, Zamudio is the prototype of the self-certified, self-trained, self-appointed vigilante who dreams of blazing away at the bad guys but in reality can only produce one of three outcomes:

1. Vigilante shoots the assailant. Victory parades are held in his honor.
2. Vigilante shoots additional victims, either through poor aim or mistaken identity.
3. Vigilante is shot by the real cops who arrive to find some idiot in street clothes blazing away like John Woo is directing him.

One of those three is a positive outcome, and it is arguably the least likely one by far. Just as guns kept in the home for "defense" are infinitely more likely to be used in a suicide, homicide, or firearm-related accident than to be used against actual Bad Guys, introducing more armed people into spree shooting scenarios offers poor odds of making the situation much better along with much higher odds that the situation will be made worse.

It's a great Prospect Theory problem if ever there was one.

SELF-INTEREST DEFINED

Posted in Quick Hits on January 12th, 2011 by Ed

I am not trying to be lazy here, but today's post will be relatively brief. Just a couple of follow-ups on Monday's post about the Giffords shooting in Tucson.

1. Glenn Reynolds gives us excellent evidence, as usual, of everything that's wrong with the right wing in American politics. Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, who is attempting to position himself as one of the "mainstream" presidential candidates in 2012, made the following statement about Sarah Palin's "crosshairs" advertisement on Good Morning America:

"(I)t wouldn't have been my style to put the cross hairs on there."

That's it. That's what he said. He even followed it by noting that there is "no evidence to suggest that it had anything to do with this mentally unstable person's rage and senseless act in Arizona." Criticism any milder than that would, of necessity, involve a handjob. Here's how Ol' Perfesser Shit-for-Brains responded to Pawlenty's slice of milquetoast:

TIM PAWLENTY DEMONSTRATES THAT HE’S NOT MAN ENOUGH TO BE PRESIDENT.

He links some no-name hack on Pajamas Media – in other news, PJ Media apparently still exists – who states that Pawlenty "preemptively caves in to false lefty narrative" and "I’m tempted to scratch him off my 2012 short list" (which I'm sure is tragic, tragic news to former Gov. Pawlenty).

Glenn "Manly Man" Reynolds and his keyboard chickenhawk allies will have none of Pawlenty's namby-pamby talk, which is a perfect example of why nothing remotely sane comes out of the GOP. You tell 'em, tough guy!

2. Rep. Peter King, the hardcore wingnut from New York, is suddenly in favor of "gun control":

With that in mind, Peter King, the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg this morning proposed federal legislation that would prevent people from knowingly bringing guns within 1,000 feet of an event at which members of Congress and federal judges are appearing.

I guess the 2nd Amendment isn't quite so sacrosanct when King thinks about the possibility of someone shooting him.

A FREE MARKET ODYSSEY

Posted in Rants on January 11th, 2011 by Ed

What follows is a story that is true in every detail, a tale that is, to borrow a phrase from ex-President Bush, "uniquely American." Rather than giving away the ending, I will tell the story chronologically (and for the sake of the reader, as succinctly as possible).

Nov. 30, 2010: Recognizing that I would run out of a prescription medication sometime in early January, I called my doctor to make an appointment. As is the case with most "managed care" insurance plans such as the one offered to employees of my current university, patients are funneled through a ludicrously small number of "primary care providers" who serve as gatekeepers to specialist physicians, lab tests, outpatient care, and prescriptions through the insurer. Since it takes an average of around 6 weeks (yep) to see this overwhelmed small medical practice, calling shortly after Thanksgiving afforded me a slim chance of seeing the doctor before my pill bottle ran dry. I was lucky enough to secure an appointment, though.

Dec. 31, 2010: My Blue Cross health insurance expired effective this date because…

Jan. 1, 2011: Having had the temerity to get married in 2010, I started a new insurance plan with the new calendar year under which my spouse is also covered. The new insurer (I will point no fingers, but it rhymes with "Miser Hermanente") sent me not one piece of information in the four months (August 7 wedding) preceding this transition. Not an email, not a new insurance card, not a form letter. Nothing. I had to re-check with HR several times to ensure that I had filled out the requisite paperwork correctly. I was assured that new coverage would begin on 1/1/11.

Friday, Jan. 7, 2011: I saw my doctor for about 30 seconds. He wrote me another 12 months' worth of prescriptions and refills. See you in 2012, health care provider! I'm glad we had this talk.

Saturday, Jan. 8: Having missed the closing time of the Kroger pharmacy on Friday evening, I went to pick up my medication on Saturday morning. They informed me that my old insurance number was invalid. Never having received a new one, I called Miser Hermanente. They have no customer service reps of any kind available on weekends. None. I resolved to call them first thing on Monday and return to Kroger.

Sunday, Jan. 9: My prescription ran out. Abruptly quitting anti-seizure medications can cause…seizures. I am worried.

Monday, Jan. 10, 10 AM: I call Miser Hermanente and discover that due to inclement weather, all Georgia offices are closed and only a skeleton crew is available. The weather is no one's fault. I wait on the phone for an hour before a nice, harried lady tells me they have no record of my existence. I have no account number because "They're a little backed up entering new customers for 2011." 30 minutes pass before she manages to push whatever magic buttons are necessary to enroll me in their system and give me my very own ID number for the insurance plan.

12:00: Armed with this information I return to Kroger. They cannot bill my insurer because Kroger pharmacies are not in the Miser "network." Nor is CVS. Nor Walgreen's. Nor Wal-Mart. Nor…anything except Rite-Aid, which I thought had gone out of business in the mid-80s. The nice pharmacist calls all three Rite-Aids in town to transfer the prescription. None are open due to the winter storm (or what passes for one in Georgia).

1:00-3:00: I work the phone attempting to find an open Rite Aid and arrange the necessary bureaucratic mating rituals. Shortly before the Kroger closes at 3, I find that one pharmacist has arrived late in the afternoon at an open Rite Aid 25 miles away. I catch the Kroger pharmacist as she is walking out the door. She angrily agrees to call the Rite Aid for me.

4:29: I arrive at the Rite Aid. Due to the lack of snow/ice removal equipment in the south and the complete inability of anyone in Georgia to drive a car in winter conditions, the 25 mile trip takes almost 75 minutes (I left around 3:15).

4:30: Armed with my Member ID number, I stride with pride into the empty Rite Aid. The kind pharmacist readies my medication, and none too soon. I am feeling shaky (literally and figuratively) at this point.

4:35: Apparently, says the pharmacist, Miser uses some subcontractor to manage its prescription billing and they have no record of my existence. My ID number and other information from Miser is useless. I call the company again. Fortunately, wait times are reduced as more employees staggered into work throughout the afternoon.

4:55: With the Rite Aid about to close (and freezing sleet starting to come down atop the snow) the Miser representative gives me a final "I give up. Call back tomorrow or something." I take out my American Express and pay $633.35 for 30 pills – about 55 hours after I went to pick up the prescription the first time.

April, 2011: Ed receives reimbursement from his insurer, although it is much less than the amount he paid because their rules state that prescriptions should be billed directly rather than paid and submitted for reimbursement.

THE MORAL: Aren't you glad we don't have government-run health care? Just imagine the high cost, poor customer service, long wait times to see a physician, and nightmare of bureaucratic hoop-jumping we would have to deal with. Why, we would have to navigate a labyrinthine bureaucracy for days on end just to refill a lousy prescription.

THE UNASKED QUESTION

Posted in Rants on January 10th, 2011 by Ed

Even the most casually observant American, especially one who spends any non-negligible amount of time on the internet, realizes that there are a lot of nutty people in this country. Everyone has one neighbor they make a point of avoiding. Everyone has one co-worker who is a plausible candidate for an office/factory/whatever killing spree. Everyone sees anonymous comments scattered about the internet that leave little doubt that there are people out there who are…out there in more ways than one.

Given the number of nuts we know to be out there, we are remarkably tolerant of the kind of political dialogue that A) stokes the paranoia of people who are already nuts and B) strongly encourages people who could otherwise be normal and sane to adopt the attitudes, beliefs, and thought patterns of someone who is nuts. The average gun- and silver-hoarding militiaman is, by and large, a sane person capable of leading a normal life who instead withdraws into a world of conspiratorial thoughts, paranoid reasoning, and dangerous beliefs. The average 9/11 Was an Inside Job idiot is another example. These people are not born, they are created. They have and will always exist. The question is why America seems to have so goddamn many of them.

Part of the answer lies in our values and laws. People have the freedom to disseminate any information (factual or otherwise) or opinion they choose. That is something that should never change. The real issue, then, is why we are so socially tolerant of behavior and belief systems that are so aberrant. Herein lies the problem. In some ways American society is stunningly judgmental; in others we are too hesitant to judge. This, I believe, is the partisan political component of Saturday's events in Arizona, because the mainstream Republican Party has fallen particularly short on this issue (although all of us share blame to some extent).

There is a very simple, useful question that we do not often enough ask in the United States, especially where politics are concerned. The GOP, in the last several years, has avoided it altogether. We need to make a concerted effort to stop excusing or encouraging insane behavior and ideas with one question: "What in the hell is wrong with you?"

No one asks that anymore, which is odd given how often the need to do so arises.

When someone shows up at a presidential event with a semiautomatic rifle over his shoulder, conservatives rush to justify it. He has a permit! It's a 2nd Amendment right! Guns don't kill people, people do! Nobody is willing to grab the guy and ask, "You brought an AR-15 to an event where the President of the United States is appearing in public? What the fuck is wrong with you?"

When a Republican candidate suggests "Second Amendment remedies" to the "problem" of having Democrats in elected office, the Republican primary voters of her state reward her with the nomination for the Senate. They do not stop and ask, "What in the hell is wrong with this person?"

When radio and TV pundits tell a country already overpopulated with potentially violent, armed nutcases that Obama is just like Hitler and Stalin and One World Government is on the way and the Federal government is coming to confiscate your guns and so on and so forth, Republicans say "Wow, look at his ratings! I gotta get me on that show!" They do not pause and ask the media personality, "What in the hell is wrong with you?"

When the Republican nominee for Vice-President distributes an advertisement with 20 Democratic members of Congress in rifle crosshairs and constantly uses what she innocently calls "hunting imagery" like "locked and loaded" to "take down" the opposition, right wingers trip over themselves to explain away her behavior as harmless. None of them look at their own movement and ask, "My God, what in the hell is wrong with some of you?"

When someone shows up at a Tea Party rally with a sign that says "We came unarmed [this time]", his fellow protesters think it's so cute that it becomes a popular catchphrase and t-shirt slogan. They don't say, "Put that down, you imbecile. What's wrong with you?"

When a Republican media darling Congresswoman says "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us 'having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,' and the people — we the people — are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country", far too few people in the party are willing to ask her, "Michelle, what in the hell is wrong with you?" and her district returns her to Washington repeatedly.

When a young man devolves into incomprehensibility and obvious mental imbalance right out in public for everyone to see, he is much more likely to find a community of people with similar beliefs who will encourage him rather than a shocked society that asks, "Dude, what the hell are you talking about? You need help."

I've called out the GOP here because violent, overblown, apocalyptic, and, most importantly, false rhetoric is a much bigger problem on the right. We are all afraid to say that and they squeal like teakettles if anyone even suggests it. If your first reaction is that "both sides" share equal blame, listen to or read some Coulter, Savage, Limbaugh, Beck, et al and ask yourself who you think you are kidding. Read The Eliminationists and get back to us with some equivalent examples of "leftists" trafficking in similar rhetoric.

The point is that this is yet another opportunity for our society to reject the prosaic "just a bad apple" theory of why violence like this happens. We can say: Yes, there are always going to be nutjobs out there…so in what way is it remotely responsible for the media, party leaders, and elected officials to fan the flames with violent, paranoid rhetoric? Why is there so much rationalization and so little condemnation when we hear and see this kind of behavior? Because everyone is Entitled to Their Opinion, no matter how insane it may be. While that is true in the legal sense, it is not absolutely true. We need people in general, and Republicans in particular, to take a more active role in condemning this kind of rhetoric – before something terrible happens, not when the body count starts rising.

I've offered just a few examples here of the kind of words and actions that are likely to push otherwise normal people toward skewed ways of seeing their fellow Americans and to push people who are already borderline nuts over the edge. When you encounter this stuff, how do you react? Do you justify, condone, rationalize, and excuse? Or do you state in no uncertain terms that balanced people in a civilized society consider such behavior unacceptable?

WAYLAID

Posted in Quick Hits on January 7th, 2011 by Ed

So, I had some relatively light stuff for NPF. But Thursday evening we hosted a dinner party as part of my wife's ongoing effort to make me socialize with other human beings.

I am not going to say whom, but one of us invited this really nice guy who just happens to be a white supremacist with a real affinity for Mark Steyn, and after listening to him rant for about an hour to close out the evening I don't much feel like writing anything non-political or fun. Or much of anything at all.

On the plus side, I feel like I have grown somewhat as a person. Eight years ago I would have flipped the dinner table, pinned him down, and turned his face into a pound of ground chuck.

SCREAMING AT A WALL

Posted in Rants on January 6th, 2011 by Ed

I've been getting more than a little comedy mileage out of this story lately, primarily because on the morning of January 3 it was blaring from CNN.com as the headline story. If you don't wish to click through, the headline reads: "Dollar General to hire 6,000" and the story boasts of the many new jobs being created by the discount retailer. For non-American readers, note that Dollar General is essentially the rock bottom of the retail industry in the U.S. The average DG shopper has more food stamps than teeth and can tell you quite a bit about how to tend to a meth lab.

Leaving aside the question of whether surging demand at the store for poor people is really a good sign, of course it's a Good Thing that they are hiring. Nobody disputes that. I'm glad that new people will be hired, even if mostly for minimum wage service jobs. What slays me is CNN's palpable desperation to convince readers that the economy is getting better. As one regular reader noted when I brought up this story on the Facebooks, "Next up on CNN: 3 New Burger Kings Opening In DC Metro Area Thanks to Obama Tax Compromise." It's good news, but the enthusiasm is more than a little…comical, I think.

I understand what CNN and the White House are attempting to do in their mad effort to convince everyone that things are getting better with the 2012 presidential election getting disturbingly close. However, there are two very important reasons to believe that they are wasting their time.

1. There is a strong partisan bias to people's perception of political reality. That is some combination of silly and terrifying – after all, facts should be facts – yet years of research in political science provide ample evidence to support it. To wit: (from Bartels, L. 2002. "Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions." Political Behavior 24(2): 117-150)

The above graph (click to embiggen) shows individuals' perceptions of whether unemployment increased or decreased during the Reagan years (1981-1988). The data plainly show that as we move across the ideological spectrum from strong Democrats to strong Republicans, respondents' perception of the unemployment question becomes more favorable. About 10% of Democrats stated that unemployment got "much better" while over 50% of Republicans stated the same. The question of whether unemployment went up or down, and by how much, is not a subjective one. There is a correct answer here. Yet a substantial portion of the responses appear to be motivated by partisanship (and presumably, by extension, attitudes toward Reagan). Elsewhere in his paper Bartels provides identical evidence from the Clinton years when respondents were asked to state if the budget deficit increased or decreased over a given time period. This is not an opinion question, yet lo and behold Democrats stated (correctly) that it decreased while Republicans claimed that it grew. In other words, even IF the economy shows improvement only the President's strongest supporters are likely to accept that as fact. Yes, there is some marginal benefit with independents and fence-sitters, but the economic news would need to be quite positive for an extended period of time for it to matter.

2. This issue is particularly ill-suited to persuasion. Aside from the role of partisanship, individuals are likely to form perceptions about the economy from their own circumstances and those of their social network. If you are unemployed (and/or you know 10 people who can't find decent work, have been foreclosed, etc.) the media or some candidate are going to have a hell of a time convincing you that the economy has improved. This is an issue on which personal experience and anecdotal evidence are particularly powerful. In my own experience, I have had a very difficult time convincing myself that the job market in my field has improved (in fact, hiring is up slightly this year). Why? Because I'm still looking for work and my social network is filled with a dozen other people unsuccessfully searching for full-time work. The result is a fairly natural reaction: we accept that the numbers might be improving but reject the idea that the economy is getting better until our own circumstances, and those of our friends/family/colleagues, start to get better.

I tip my hat to the White House and the media for making the effort, but it simply isn't possible to talk people into believing that the economy is improving. Getting that idea to take root among the voting public will require, you know, actual economic improvement…and even then half of America won't believe it. We have ample evidence, in the timeless words of The American Voter, of "the role of enduring partisan commitments in shaping attitudes toward political objects."

Tags:

CULTURE WAR FODDER

Posted in Rants on January 5th, 2011 by Ed

Shortly before Christmas a story of a San Francisco mother and a group called Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit against McDonald's for marketing Happy Meals (including toys) to children. I have been meaning to comment on it, although not in the way that this kind of story is intended to provoke comment ("McDonald's is preying on children!" "Learn to parent rather than waiting for a judge to do it!" "Won't somebody please think of the children?")

The media are obsessed with this stories of this kind – the classic "The whole world has gone crazy, Ethel!" stories for middle aged men reading the newspaper in a well-worn recliner. It is intended to provoke ranting and a quick scan of the internets reveals that it works like a charm. Parents vs. Courts – vote here and be sure to use the comment section to let everyone know What's Wrong with the World.

That's why these stories bother me so much. It's not that they set people off a-rantin'. It's that they set people a-rantin' without even paying lip service to the issue of whether this is a representative example of…anything. Remember the tale of the college graduate who sued her alma mater in 2009 because she couldn't find a job? That kept the blogosphere and the talk shows and your nutty aunt who sends you 10 emails every day and the people around the water cooler busy for a week. Which is good, because unemployed graduates suing universities is an epidemic. Right?

This obsession with "News of the Weird" stories is the ultimate source of straw men in a nation full of people who don't know their neighbors' names. Uncle Al may not leave his house except to go to work and he may never have met a person from California, but goddammit, he knows exactly what them San Francisco libruls are like. He knows what Messicans are like too, not to mention the homos, big city black people, The Feminists, college kids, and so on. These stories fit the preconceptions of a nation full of angry, angry people – Look! Everyone else is an asshole! Everyone else has a gross sense of entitlement! Whatever happened to hard work? – and they provide what looks deceptively like evidence. Have you heard what the libruls are doing now? They're suing McDonald's!

Of course a reasonable analysis of the McDonald's lawsuit would see the plaintiff as someone cooperating with a small, relatively unknown interest group in what amounts to a publicity stunt. In the hands of our commentary driven media and society it becomes a harbinger of the end of Western civilization. And right now I sound like the crank, predicting doom from what appear to be harmless, somewhat silly news items. Maybe that's true. Or maybe these pieces of Culture War bait are yet another tactic aimed at creating prejudices and stoking distrust of the strange, scary world (and people) around us. I guess the best thing to do is vote for people who will protect Common Sense and Our Way of Life.

POLITICAL THEATER

Posted in Rants on January 4th, 2011 by Ed

For someone who allegedly makes a living teaching people about political science, I have a remarkably low level of interest in actual politics most of the time. I have occasional bursts of enthusiasm but for the most part I have no interest in the parts of governing that amount to elaborate mating dances. Frequent readers know, for example, that Supreme Court confirmations are just about the least interesting thing on Earth to me. Senate judiciary committee hearings are little more than a week of Senators mugging for the camera and trying to put together an appropriately "fiery" sounding speech until everyone gets bored and the nominee is inevitably confirmed anyway. Wake me when it's over.

This heavily hyped "showdown" over raising the debt ceiling is drifting into Totally Uninteresting territory before it even begins, and we collectively share the misfortune of having to sit through a few weeks of it anyway over the next few months. The orange one himself, John Boehner:

"I’ve made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with (the debt ceiling)," Mr. Boehner, who is slated to become House speaker in January, told reporters. "We’re going to have to deal with it as adults," he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."

Moron-in-chief Pete Sessions (R-TX):

"My sense is when you’re out spending wildly and then you’re willing to raise the debt limit, that’s a problem," Mr. Sesssions said. "When you are [coming in] with a comprehensive plan, including a budget that clearly lays out priorities and expectations of performance, then say you have to deal with what is there—[that] is a very responsible position…We have to have a discussion with our newest members that involves more of a plan…The United States must pay its bills."

In other words, "Boy, all that crap sounded good during the election. Now grow the fuck up, children." Does anyone expect for a minute that the GOP, the quintessential party of the establishment if ever one existed, would default on our obligations and bring the banking and financial industries to complete ruin? Oh, some of them are serious. Michelle Bachmann is probably quite serious when she says she will vote against it. But so what? This is standard practice. The leadership cobbles together enough votes to pass it and then everyone else takes the political cover of voting against it. "Look!", the most vulnerable GOP freshmen will say in 2012, "I voted against it! The system is corrupt! I am but one man!"

Yawn. The only aspect of this that promises to offer any entertainment value is watching how much the Democrats give away for no good reason. This is essentially a big game of chicken – the GOP promising not to raise the ceiling without austerity, the Democrats daring them to default – and we already know who are the superior negotiators. Rather than saying, "Right, like you're actually going to do it" and digging in their heels, I'm sure the White House and Senate Democrats will be tripping over themselves to gut Social Security and Medicare every time Boehner pauses to take a breath…or perhaps to stifle his laughter.

Seriously, wake me when this nonsense is over. The GOP may be rife with lunatics, but it even more rife with people who take their marching orders from Wall Street.

GREEN MY EYES

Posted in Rants on January 3rd, 2011 by Ed

Jealousy is one of those terribly basic emotions that needs no explanation, similar to anger, fear, or elation. The field of psychology might not agree, but to my untrained eye it seems like envy is one of those things we are born with the ability to feel. If the other baby has a pacifier and I don't, I want it. This behavior changes little as we get older, although some of us mature emotionally beyond the age of 13 and attempt to put a lid on it. But let's be honest, it never really goes away. We can learn how to be happy for other people when they succeed, but we still want the shiny toys for ourselves too. For example, if one of my academic colleagues suddenly gets a job at Harvard I'm going to be happy for him; I'm also going to think, "Damn, I wish that was me."

I think that's OK. Which is to say I don't think it makes me a horrible person to react that way. I don't begrudge other people their successes and I also want to succeed. But what if I was a lot more bitter and angry? (note: I am already pretty bitter and angry) What if the administrations of universities across America whipped all of us at the bottom of the academic food chain into a frenzy over the rich, cushy lives of tenured faculty until we practically demanded that they destroy the tenure system altogether? "If we can't have the good life, no one can have it!" would be the rallying cry. Part-time, no benefit work for everyone! That, I would argue, would not be a very healthy expression of jealousy. I mean, if I'm going to have a shitty life what do I gain from other people having one too? Dragging other people down into the mud doesn't help me; doing so would be little more than a childish and petty (if understandable) reaction.

This issue is playing out on a national stage in the battles (or upcoming battles) over public employee pensions and health benefits (i.e. this piece on the current struggles in New Jersey). Republicans are building support for draconian cuts to the size and compensation of the public sector workforce – Those goddamn greedy teachers! – based on a very simple, natural reaction to tough economic times. Chris Christie, for example, isn't doing anything more complicated than pointing at public employees' benefits and telling the rest of the state, "Look! They have much better benefits than you. Doesn't that make you mad?" Boy does it.

And of course voters react the only way American voters know how. Demand better benefits and working conditions for themselves? Heavens no. Demand that Christie reconsider the state millionaire tax he vetoed over the summer so the state can meet its contractual obligations? Oh hell no. They demand the dismantling of public sector benefits. If I can't have 'em, nobody can.

It's yet another of the fantastic tricks our political elites have engineered since the 1970s. Cut private sector benefits, let real wages stagnate, and then tell the former middle class, "Now that you're struggling, doesn't it piss you off to have to pay for the pension of some cop who retires at 53?" It really is brilliant. Historically, plutocrats have had to force race-to-the-bottom capitalism on working people over tooth and nail opposition. Now they've found a way to make the serfs practically demand it.

It's amazing how they can get people to think so counter-intuitively. You could even say I'm jealous.