SELF PRESERVATION ENTERS THE BUILDING

Posted in Rants on February 28th, 2011 by Ed

The situation in Wisconsin has taken yet another fascinating turn, as (unionized) police officers have joined the ranks of the protesters in the Capitol. It doesn't quite have the same substantive impact as Libyan army units defecting to join the anti-government wave but it's an intriguing development nonetheless. Police are not exactly a profession that one associates with anti-government protests, obviously, and moreover some police organizations actually endorsed Walker just a few short months ago (N.B.: the media's allusion to "the police" endorsing him is incorrect – of over 300 police labor organizations in the state, four of them did). Well, I guess they're un-endorsing him now.

What changed? Even Republican elected officials aren't stupid enough to mess with law enforcement, what with all the War on Drugs, Tough on Crime rhetoric and the constant emotional appeals to our various Heroes in Uniform(s) in place of actual arguments. Indeed, Walker's various Gilded Age union-busting proposals have repeatedly and explicitly excluded police and firefighters (Heroes! 9/11! Bald Eagles shitting red-white-blue chemtrails!) Given the presumption of special treatment and the natural antagonism that exists between cops and dirty hippie protesters, why would they take the unusual step of becoming protesters themselves?

For once and once only I am going to assume that the correct answer is "Cops are not idiots."

I've written at length before on the progression of inter-class victim-blaming in this country since 1980. First they convinced the blue collars to scapegoat the Welfare Queens. Then the suburbanites scapegoated the blue collars and their cushy union factory jobs (hence NAFTA). Then the suburbanites started to cannibalize themselves: first the greedy retirees with their sweet benefits were redefined as Leeches, and now it's the teachers and public sector workforce. While Americans in general have failed to notice how this game of "Find a new scapegoat every 3 years until there's no one left with benefits or a salary over $10/hr " has progressed methodically for several decades, the cops appear to have no illusions about what is happening. They are waking up to reality: "They're going to come for us next."

Yes, they are. Though cops and firemen are left out of the Kochs' Walker's plans for the time being, imagine that he succeeds in crushing the teachers/public sector unions now. In two years they will need a new scapegoat. It is already well established that the right wing media machine and Teabag-o-sphere can demonize anyone, so why not America's Heroes? Can you imagine a lot of salutes to the bravery of our police and fire departments followed by caveats about deficits, austerity, and "tough choices"? By the time 2013 rolls around and the public has acquiesced to the public sector being crushed, there's absolutely no reason that another manufactured budget deficit couldn't serve as an effective burning Reichstag to rally the timid, scared, angry public behind the whitest "Fuck the Police" movement ever seen.

First they came for the minorities, and I did not speak up because…

WALKER! WALKER! WALKER!

Posted in Quick Hits on February 24th, 2011 by Ed

The title is a weak attempt to reference Tora! Tora! Tora! That the effort was probably unsuccessful is underscored by the fact that I am currently explaining it.

In Wisconsin-related news:

1. Rasmussen Reports – they of the infamous +4% average Republican bias in their 2008 presidential election polling, appears to have gone full Zogby. That is, what was once considered a legitimate albeit right-leaning organization is now just a bunch of hacks using cheap parlor tricks to produce numbers that will please the paying client. I was going to do a full post on this, but Nate Silver and a couple folks from Pollster already did write-ups. This saves me the trouble of having to explain question order effects. Any remotely knowledgeable pollster understands this concept; hence it is immediately obvious to all of us (I count myself among the remotely knowledgeable) what Rasmussen was trying to pull here. They knew exactly what they were doing.

2. Why go through the trouble and expense of cooking the poll numbers when you could just lie and reverse the "for" and "against" numbers? Oh, Fox. You make so many mistakes, like when you accidentally put a "D" next to the names of Republicans who get embroiled in scandals. Whoopsie.

3. On the topic of slipping non-collective bargaining related ideological pet projects into the bill, Walker's proposal includes a number of changes that would allow state executive branch agencies to make changes to Medicaid and Medicare without input from the legislature. Because if sweeping changes are going to be made to a major social program then clearly the best way to do so is outside of the democratic process. By gubernatorial appointees. I don't see what could go wrong.

4. Will somebody AutoTune the fake David Koch – Scott Walker prank call already? I'm disappointed in you, internet.

GO WITH WHAT YOU KNOW

Posted in Quick Hits on February 24th, 2011 by Ed

I need to take a little Scott Walker break, although check back early Thursday afternoon for a new post with a roundup of Wisconsin links.

Daniel Foster is one of the National Review's most reliable neocon extremists. This is no mean feat, akin to being the tallest guy in the NBA. If you think I am exaggerating, his proposed solution to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was to "nuke it." Seriously. It only makes sense, then, that his "solution" to the unrest in Libya involves aircraft carriers and air strikes – American ones, of course.

With reports that the Gaddafi regime — or what’s left of it — has effected the indiscriminate massacre of Libyan civilians, up to and including air strikes in Tripoli and the planned carpet-bombing of Benghazi, the suggestion that President Obama establish a “no-fly zone” above Libya has begun popping up on social media. I don’t say this lightly, but I think POTUS must so act.

After 32 years on this planet and almost a decade of devoting my time to trying to figure these people out I am not surprised that Mr. Foster doesn't seem to have learned any lessons from the last ten twenty fifty 100 years of aggressively interventionist American foreign policy. What does continue to escape me, however, is what motivates this knee-jerk recourse to American military intervention as the solution to every problem on the globe. Foster's "I don't say this lightly" indicates either a dry sense of humor or a delusional personality trait requiring medical attention.

Given how obvious it seems to the rest of us that Libya's domestic politics must play out among Libyans (as opposed to a solution brokered at gunpoint by the Pentagon – no, no problems with legitimacy there) I struggle to understand what intervention is supposed to accomplish and how. Do people like Foster think that we can air-strike our way into the hearts of foreigners, a revision of the old "They'll hail us as their liberators" theory? Or do they resort to sending in the Air Force because, well, that's the extent of what they know how to do?

SILENT CAL

Posted in Quick Hits on February 23rd, 2011 by Ed

Since the Wisconsin budget "repair" bill stuff from Monday and Tuesday is still getting a lot of attention I'm going to be more succinct than usual today. The amount of attention Monday's post has gotten is equal parts rewarding and disturbing. I can't believe I'm the only person who bothered to, you know, open a copy of Walker's bill and read it. Not exactly Woodward and Bernstein stuff here.

Speaking of the fundamentals of journalism, CNN saw fit to commemorate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' record five years of silence during oral arguments in the most cloying way possible given the limitations of existing technology. None of the 112 men and women who have served on the highest court have managed to go a single one-year term without asking a question, yet Silent Cal (with respect to the original) has managed to do it five times consecutively.

This type of story has appeared in the mainstream media several times in the past few years, inevitably focusing on the same basic folksy themes – Thomas' silence as an artifact of his humility, intellectual seriousness, childhood racial abuse, growing up with English as a second language, and so on. Journalistic treatments of his judicial Persistent Vegetative State always tactfully avoid raising the possibility that Thomas has no judicial philosophy beyond "What Anton said" and that upon appointment he was expected to do little more than sit there, shut up, and vote as ordered.

On the topic of not-so-folksy themes that didn't find their way into this piece, Congress sure doesn't seem very interested in the revelation that Thomas lied on his tax returns – for nineteen years – to hide his wife's six-figure income from conservative interest groups like the Heritage Foundation. Or failing to recuse himself from the Citizens United case even though his wife's lobbying firm has extensive connections to Citizens United and other right-wing interest groups.

Then again, I see no reason why his wife getting paid (handsomely) to lobby against campaign finance laws would compromise Mr. Thomas' judgment on a pivotal case. He'd have to think about the case and possibly even form an opinion about it before any compromising could occur.

THE IMAGINARY MANDATE

Posted in Rants on February 22nd, 2011 by Ed

I'm as shocked to say this as you are to hear it, but in a strange way I feel bad for Scott Walker. He is facing a backlash – including among some of the people who voted for him – for doing exactly what any moderately informed observer would expect Scott Walker to do once elected Governor of Wisconsin. The situation is roughly similar to that of President Obama, who campaigned on health care reform and then was put through the wringer when he actually proposed it. Walker is in the same boat, the primary difference being substantive (health care reform was intended to help people, whereas Walker's goal seems to be to screw the greatest possible share of the non-investor class). Both Walker and Obama made one of the classic mistakes in American politics: assuming that most of the electorate had the slightest idea of what the candidates stood for when voting for them.

The idea of a "mandate" is probably the most overused and overstated concepts in media coverage of elections. We have known for a long, long time that mandates are essentially a myth (see Robert Dahl's classic "Myth of the Presidential Mandate" from 1990). Elections are to modern politicians what oracles were to the ancient Greeks – all agreed that the oracle is the voice of a god, but everyone present admitted that when it spoke it was not as intelligible as desired. Elections say something about what the public wants. What exactly it says to the elected, however, is subjective and largely a projection of his or her own desires. The Teabagger interprets election as a mandate to Teabag; I imagine that the shock of being disabused of that notion must be great.

Sometimes all of the planets align perfectly, and it amused me to have Walker's mini-revolt happen during the same week as the "revelations" that the Iraqi defector / intelligence source known as "Curveball" (if you ever want to experience boiling blood, check out Bob Drogin's book of the same name) was unabashedly lying his ass off when his statements about Iraqi chemical/nuclear programs, often gleefully reported by Judith Miller, were used by the Bush administration to pave the road to war. In my view, there's no reason to be angry with Mr. Curveball. He was merely an individual acting out of self interest, of which there are about 6 billion on this planet. The anger should be directed at those who consciously chose to believe him even though he was completely, transparently, and perhaps even shockingly full of shit. People like Rumsfeld and Powell are coming forward in full Righteous Indignation mode, flabbergasted that an informant would or could lie. But it was patently obvious at the time that the source was fabricating his story…obvious to everyone except those who wanted to hear and believe exactly what he had to say.

So it is with Scott Walker. The most casual participant in the political process knows exactly what they will get when they vote for and elect Tea Party types and the more extreme right Republicans in general. No, he never came out and said "Hey, I'm gonna ream you public employees so hard you won't walk right for years!" on the campaign trail. He might even have said a lot of sweet sounding things to the contrary. Only a voter lying to himself or completely ignorant of politics, however, would actually believe it. It's time to stop being angry with Scott Walker, which makes no more sense than being angry at a dog for barking and chasing cars. Instead, our anger is more fairly directed at the swing voters who decide American elections – the kind of mushy, ill-informed "independent" who would vote for him and then be shocked to learn how extreme his brand of governance is. People like Walker will continue to get elected so long as there are voters who are willfully ignorant of what candidates really stand for or so easily duped that a few sound bites can overwhelm all available evidence that the Governor-to-be supports an agenda of the kind of corporate cronyism and pathological hatred of government that defines people of his ideological stripes.

When you vote for people like Scott Walker and Ron Johnson, this is what you get. How unfortunate it is that the rest of us have to be chained to so many people who have not yet figured that out. As long as the electorate is composed substantially of people who won't understand that the glowing stove is hot until they put their hand on it, we will continue to suffer Scott Walkers at unpleasantly regular intervals.

STAND AND DELIVER

Posted in Rants on February 21st, 2011 by Ed

The most random thing happened to me on Sunday evening; I fell asleep at 7:30 PM. Consequently, even though I am now more awake than any non-meth addict should be at 5 AM, the Great Big Wisconsin Post will have to wait one more day. Until then, enjoy this bit of validation of the continuing relevance of the basic exchange theory of politics.

The lion's share of attention regarding Scott Walker's legislative proposal has been paid to the effort to revoke Wisconsin public employees' collective bargaining rights, but the 144-page bill (more reliable link here) is a far more exhaustive and inclusive list of the fundamentals of Republican politics in the 21st Century. Not many people have the time to plow through the whole bill but those who do will be rewarded with plenty of gems like this:

16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).

If this isn't the best summary of the goals of modern conservatism, I don't know what is. It's like a highlight reel of all of the high-flying slam dunks of neo-Gilded Age corporatism: privatization, no-bid contracts, deregulation, and naked cronyism. Extra bonus points for the explicit effort to legally redefine the term "public interest" as "whatever the energy industry lobbyists we appoint to these unelected bureaucratic positions say it is."

In case it isn't clear where the naked cronyism comes in, remember which large, politically active private interest loves buying up power plants and already has considerable interests in Wisconsin. Then consider their demonstrated eagerness to help Mr. Walker get elected and bus in carpetbaggers to have a sad little pro-Mubarak style "rally" in his honor. There are dots to be connected here, but doing so might not be in the public interest.

I think the "Budget Repair Bill" is Wisconsin's very own Vanguard moment.

NPF: THE REJECT PILE

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 18th, 2011 by Ed

Frontline is still killing it this season, most recently with "Post Mortem", an episode about the lack of standardization and reliability in post mortem medical examinations. Shows like CSI make the public assume that a team of crack investigators is on the case whenever someone dies, but in reality death certificates are signed by doctors on what amounts to an honor system, autopsies are rarely performed, and those that are performed are not often done well. Part of the problem is that most jurisdictions either elect coroners (who don't even need to have a high school diploma let alone any relevant training) or outsource post mortem investigation to private contractors staffed mostly with otherwise unemployable doctors.

For some reason this was the most interesting aspect of the episode for me. Lots of people get medical degrees. So what happens to the ones who, despite that fact, are completely incompetent? Alcoholics? Ex-felons? Previously I was under the impression that doctors who fell into this category all ended up working in prisons, which makes perfect sense. After all, who's going to care if the prisoners complain and who else would take such an awful job? But thanks to Frontline we now know that jackholes with medical degrees have other options. Like taking a circular saw to the cadaver of a car accident victim for eight hours per day.

This got me thinking more about analogies to other professions. What happens to shitty lawyers? Do they end up in a basement somewhere thumbing through manila folders for the rest of their lives, or is there some lawyering equivalent to "alcoholic autopsy specialist"? Where do engineers who lack the ability to engineer a birdhouse end up practicing their trade? Do teachers who get busted running meth labs out of their basements or appear on registered sex offender lists end up teaching calculus on an oil rig or something? Is there some hidden underbelly of the airline industry filled with pilots who couldn't even hang on to a job at a regional airline?

Tell me, where do the burnouts, losers, and felons in your particular field end up? Thirty years ago I'd say that for PhD-holding academics the "reject pile" meant adjuncting at terrible colleges, but the way the industry is today I think that's what about 75% of us are going to end up doing. We'll have to think of something more degrading for the true incompetents.

ALL HALEY

Posted in Quick Hits on February 17th, 2011 by Ed

Two quick hits for today:

1. I have never donated money to a presidential candidate and I never thought I would, but I am writing a check to Haley Barbour for President post haste. It is not possible to overstate the extent to which the 2012 election needs this guy. Can you imagine how boring it will be to watch Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney run against the "Defending the Mushy Center" version of Barack Obama? Good lord. It will make the 1996 and 2000 races seem like enthralling, white knuckle thrill rides with high turnout. Haley Barbour is like Central Casting's version of a Republican presidential nominee: a fat, sweaty racist from Mississippi with a Boss Hog drawl. Short of exhuming and reanimating George Wallace to run on a ticket with Orval Faubus, Barbour is the best thing that can happen to this election. I need entertainment value to get through an 18 month election cycle; it won't get much better than seeing Obama debate Foghorn Leghorn. Maybe we can even convince him to wear a giant cowboy hat.

2. CNN ran a mildly caustic piece about the rapid income growth enjoyed by the wealthy compared to the stagnant earnings of the middle class since the 1970s. While I firmly believe that class is an integral concept in understanding politics, economics, sociology, and the like, I am always frustrated by the extent to which terms like "middle class" are meaningless in the American context. No one knows what that means – we know only that we're all part of it (in our own minds). When 40% of households with incomes under $20,000 identify as middle class (!!!!) there is a problem. When fully one-third of families with incomes over $150,000 say the same, it becomes clear that the label is applied loosely at best. I'm curious to know if the fact that everyone thinks they're middle class is a result of self-delusion or years of concerted misinformation.

MY FELLOW AMERICANS, BEND OVER

Posted in Rants on February 16th, 2011 by Ed

There are few things that irk me more than working on a post here and there for a few weeks and then having someone else beat me to it, as Matt Yglesias did here. Nonetheless this is worth saying again and somewhat more forcefully.

It is hard to pick just one thing to earn the title of Most Infuriating in the faux-debate about Social Security reform, but if forced to choose I would have to pick the idea of grandfathering seniors out of the impending cuts. Leaving aside momentarily the fact that the claims of a rickety, insolvent system on the verge of going tits-up at any moment are a wild exaggeration at best, the institutionalized kissing of the asses of seniors is the biggest obstacle to introducing sanity into the upcoming reforms. Every proposal thus far, and we may safely assume any forthcoming ones as well, stipulate that no substantive changes will be made to the SS benefits of people currently 55 or older. You know, that voting bloc with extraordinarily high turnout composed of aging Boomers who want to burn every bridge once they have safely crossed it.

In keeping with the modern political tradition of refusing to demand any sacrifices from voters (at least not the ones who matter to the Beltway) we are about to be promised radical changes to Social Security that don't require the vast majority of current or near-future recipients to experience any changes. "But I paid into it my whole life!" they say, as if people who have merely paid into it for 30 years are not stakeholders. This is a politically expedient bit of ass covering used by both parties – and frankly a little more tasteful than some other efforts at pandering to seniors – but the absolute worst possible way to approach reform, virtually guaranteeing that the same portion of our society that spends most of its life being shat upon will bear the brunt of the consequences and see few if any benefits.

If reform is truly necessary (as opposed to austerity hysteria used as a canard for hostility toward the welfare state in general) then everyone should be in this boat together. We should be sharing the sacrifices. None of this "Let's screw a lot of our constituents but protect the ones most crucial to our re-election" nonsense. If political leadership still existed in this country, a real president or Congressional leader would stand up and say "We'd prefer not to change Social Security but it looks like we have to. Everybody bend over. This is going to be unpleasant, but take some solace in the fact that everybody is going to get screwed." I calculate the odds of that happening at about a million to one.

Of course I feel bad for current SS recipients who are struggling to make ends meet even at current benefit levels. In reality I would prefer that the system be left as-is and any future revenue shortfalls remedied by lifting the cap on high income contributions. But the larger point is that this is indicative of a deeply disturbing habit that is ingrained in our political system: selectively screwing various groups based on their perceived electoral importance. Sure, let's just dump all of the consequences on the young. Maybe we'll switch it up next time and screw the poor, or maybe the blacks and Latinos. Whatever we end up choosing, for the love of baby Jesus please make sure no consequences befall the elderly or the upper middle class.

THE VANGUARD MOMENT

Posted in Rants on February 15th, 2011 by Ed

It is interesting that our President chooses to rely so heavily on the "Sputnik moment" metaphor given that the average American is about as likely to be able to perform the miracle of loaves and fishes as to correctly identify and explain the significance of Sputnik. Hell, half of us can't find Ohio on a map of our own country. Why would we know about something that happened in 1957?

Accordingly very few people, even among the minority that know to what Sputnik refers, remember the American response. Project Vanguard in the Naval Research Lab (one of the many non-civilian precursors to NASA) was already working on building a rocket booster powerful and reliable enough to put a satellite into orbit. Sputnik took Americans by surprise; more importantly it rendered an entire nation butt-hurt to the point that all pretense of rational thought was abandoned. We let our emotions make decisions for us, attempting to launch a Vanguard booster well before it was ready in order to, I don't know, show the Commies that we were…second?

With a "plan" like that it is hard to see what could go wrong.

*sad trombone*

Amongst the lofty sounding Sputnik metaphors and soothing rhetoric the President mentioned repeatedly the need to better educate the American workforce. Earlier I talked at length about the dubiousness of this logic, but let us accept it at face value for just a moment. If what we really need is a highly educated, technologically skilled workforce, then the budget proposal we saw today does not make a lot of sense:

(One) component of his FY 2012 budget, which will be released tomorrow, will likely pile more debt upon students who decide to pursue graduate school, potentially making the dream of higher education even more unattainable for many Americans. The move, say administration officials, is needed to ensure that a popular financial aid award stays available at current levels…Host Candy Crowley questioned (OMB Director Jacob) Lew about whether this would make graduate school less accessible for many Americans:

CROWLEY: Here's the problem, I guess. If you are a graduate — let's take one of your examples. You're a graduate student; you are, right now, getting loans. You don't have to pay those loans or any interest on them until you graduate. But now you have to pay — or it accumulates, I'm assuming — you have to pay interest beginning on day one of grad school, and that makes it so that you can't go to grad school.

LEW: Well, let's just be clear. Interest will build up, but students won't have to pay until they graduate. So it will increase the burden for paying back the loans, but it will not reduce access to education. That's, I think, part of how you can responsibly have a plan that deals with the challenge of solving our fiscal crisis, getting out of the situation where the deficit is growing and growing, but also investing in the future.

Part of me wants to make a detailed, reasoned response to this nonsensical argument. A bigger part of me wants to walk up to Jacob Lew, press my palms to the corners of my mouth, and exhale forcefully to make really loud farting noises.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have found our Vanguard moment. If anything can motivate Americans to seek and acquire the skills we so badly need to compete with the Chinamen it is an extra $5-10k in debt saddled to each professional degree. The message, of course, is that you should go to graduate school anyway. Think of the extra debt as additional motivation to take whatever the lousy job market offers you when you finish – and a reminder not to get too uppity with Management in that job you won't be able to afford to lose.

POSTSCRIPT: On its third attempt Vanguard succeeded in putting a grapefruit-sized metal ball into orbit. But. But! It's still in orbit, unlike Sputnik. It is in fact the oldest man-made object in orbit at present. So, uh, suck on that, Ivan. What, didn't they translate The Tortoise and the Hare into Cyrillic?