HURRY! IT'S CONTAGIOUS!

Posted in Rants on May 31st, 2011 by Ed

On January 7, 1973 a young man named Mark Essex, who had shot and killed a police officer a week earlier, walked into a Howard Johnson's hotel in downtown New Orleans and went on a shooting rampage. By the end of the day he had killed 9 people (including 5 police officers) and wounded 13 more. Police from surrounding jurisdictions flooded into New Orleans during the long siege around the hotel. At one point a New Orleans police commander noted a group of cops from a small, rural town repeatedly firing their weapons toward the building from a few hundred feet away. "What are you shooting at?", the commander asked them. Their response: "The hotel." The incident ended with Essex going out action movie style, dying in a hail of bullets as he made a defiant charge at dozens of police. The coroner noted over 200 distinct bullet wounds during his autopsy.

These anecdotes illustrate a sociological phenomenon called contagious shooting. Each individual starts shooting because everyone else is shooting, irrespective of necessity and often without even knowing why. It tends to be a problem with police and less so in the military. Soldiers are trained extensively to combat this natural human tendency in a dangerous situation: identify the target, assess the threat, don't waste ammunition, and so on. Police, for reasons about which we could speculate all day, tend to be less judicious and more easily influenced by group dynamics.

On May 5 of this year, police from four different agencies participating in a raid of a home in Pima County, Arizona on a search warrant regarding a marijuana trafficking ring. They entered the home of 26 year old Jose Guerena, a two-tour Iraq War veteran. As people tend to do when armed home invaders burst through the doors and windows out of the blue, Guerena went for his personal firearm. Despite the fact that he did not fire, an officer fired at him. A half-dozen others joined in, firing more than 75 rounds in 7 seconds at one suspect from 10 feet away. He was hit 60 times. The police are now going to extensive, questionably constitutional lengths to seal the search warrants and nail down a story that keeps changing by the minute. By the time they finish they'll have turned Guerena into a terrifying mixture of Tony Montana, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Hillside Strangler.

No, this does not happen every day. Many police manage to work for decades without unloading on a suspect. But in the highly militarized, War on Drugs, no-knock warrant era of law enforcement it happens alarmingly often. Some cases are high profile: the fifty rounds fired at Sean Bell (including one officer who stopped to reload and emptied an entire second magazine), 41 at an unarmed food delivery man who reached for his wallet, and an 88 year old woman shot 39 times during a high-larious "Whoops! Wrong house!" no-knock warrant incident.

The War on Drugs has changed law enforcement in this country so fundamentally that there is no clear way to reverse the damage. Police recruits now enter a culture that has been highly militarized since the late 1970s; even the longest-serving veterans still at work today have never known any other way of doing things. Armored vehicles, military rifles, armor-piercing ammunition, no-knock warrants, tactical gear…it's just the way things are done. You blaze away at suspects like Bruce Willis in Die Hard because, well, everyone else is doing it and that's what being a cop is all about – breaking down doors, smashing through windows, and unloading your firearm at the Scum of the Earth on the other side. Sure, innocent people get gunned down every once in a while, but isn't that a risk we have to take if we have unsubstantiated tips from paid informants suggesting that there might be marijuana in a home?

On the plus side, maybe they'll start using less forceful methods now that we can't resist unlawful police entry into our homes. If it's wearing a badge, obey it.

I feel safer already.

ANCIENT HISTORY

Posted in Quick Hits on May 30th, 2011 by Ed

Something about the name "Memorial Day" makes one think of the past – most likely the fact that it has the same latin root as "memory". Every year on Memorial Day we're encouraged to take a minute to remember the people who have died in the line of duty in the military. Inevitably this takes us back to grainy black and white pictures of Dad or Granddad in their World War II uniforms, or maybe Uncle So and So who fought in Vietnam. Lord knows the cable networks will be loaded to the gunwales with World War II themed programming marathons to help nudge you in that direction.

From the Associated Press three days ago:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nine NATO service members were killed Thursday in Afghanistan, including seven U.S. troops among eight who died when a powerful bomb exploded in a field where they were patrolling on foot, officials said.

Two Afghan policemen also died and two others were wounded in the explosion in the mountainous Shorabak district of Kandahar province, 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the Pakistan border, said Gen. Abdul Raziq, chief of the Afghan border police in the province. "Two months ago, we cleared this area of terrorists, but still they are active there," Raziq said.

(snip)

Roadside bombs killed 268 American troops in Afghanistan last year, a 60 percent increase over the previous year, even as the Pentagon employed new measures to counter the Taliban's makeshift weapon of choice. Defense officials attributed the rise in casualties to the surge in U.S. forces in Afghanistan last year.

The number of U.S. troops wounded by what the military terms improvised explosive devices also soared, according to the most recent U.S. defense figures. There were 3,366 U.S. service members injured in IED blasts – up from the 1,211 hurt by the militants' crudely made bombs in 2009, the figures show.

Despite the fact that the death of Bin Laden pushed it even further out of sight and out of mind, the ongoing wars in the Middle East (soon to celebrate their tenth anniversary) are producing more casualties every day. Today. Currently. Right now. Sure, it's great that we all remember Granddad on Memorial Day, but take a few minutes today to think about the people who are being added to the rolls of the dead and wounded as we're sitting around the grill or pool.

These are current events. That we prefer to think of it solely as a historical phenomenon is part of the reason that it continues with no end in sight.

NPF: NET BENEFITS

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 27th, 2011 by Ed

I've never been a big video game / computer game guy. As a kid I played what I think is a fairly normal amount of Nintendo for the average American teenager of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The last video gaming system I owned was a Super Nintendo, to let you know how much I stay on top of console technology. In fact, with the exception of a $5 copy of Counter-Strike I put on my PC five years after the game ceased to be popular, I am essentially game-less.

OK, OK. Also the Call of Duty series. Lately I don't even have time for that, though. Still waiting to get Black Ops. Despite this damning exception, hopefully the point holds: I've never been a Gamer. So I don't really get what compels people to be Gamers. Not dabblers or dilettantes, mind you, but the obsessive "I play WoW 19 hours per day" kind. The games people play these days, especially the "role playing" kind, are a little too…intense for me.

My sense that this is not a world I have the time or inclination to enter was reinforced when I saw this story about how Chinese prisoners are being forced to "gold farm" en masse in World of Warcraft and other popular MMORPGs. For those of us not in the know, players can perform mindlessly repetitive tasks to amass in-game currency ('gold') that can be used to purchase items of value to one's character. And apparently players looking to save time are willing to pay money – real life money – for these in-game currencies. So Liu and his fellow prisoners play WoW until they amass 100 gold doubloons or whatever, and then some gamer kid pays $50 in real money for them via PayPal, credit card, etc. Man, I remember when good ol' prepaid credit cards were good enough for transnational money laundering.

Since this is not my subculture, this story shocked me. I have a vague sense of how "into" these role playing games some people get, but it's surprising to learn that enough people people are willing to shell out money for goblin armor and wizard spells or whatever to sustain a multi-billion dollar black market. I mean, when Chinese prisons are forming work details to turn out vast amounts of a given item, it's safe to say that global demand is high.

I suppose the following is true of any hobby – we know how expensive hobbies get, right? – but it blows my mind that people get enough of a psychological benefit out of a video game to make a second life out of it (and don't get me started on Second Life). The idea of getting far enough into virtual / alternate universes to start shelling out money to buy fake objects from Chinese prison sweatshops is…as I said earlier, a little intense. All these years I thought games were supposed to be, you know, fun. This just seems like work. Work mixed with escapism. In a way, the fact that someone managed to combine those two is pretty impressive. I'll stick with Tecmo Bowl.

SPEAKING OF ENDURING APPEAL

Posted in Quick Hits on May 26th, 2011 by Ed

Unfortunately I've spent a few long days writing the stuff I actually get paid to write, which means I'm out of words and I will have to throw link salad at you today.

1. Speaking of "enduring appeal", how about that Tea Party? Here's a real photo of a recent TP event in South Carolina. Granted, keynote carny Donald Trump canceled at the last minute…but even minus the headliner you'd think they could get more than the estimated "crowd" of 15 to show up.

2. The upcoming election is going to see a revival of the 2004 Karl Rove strategy of driving up far right turnout by putting gay marriage referendums on the ballot in key states. I question the wisdom of that from a political perspective. It's only a matter of time until one of these measures gets defeated, and you have to wonder if it will happen in Minnesota. That's just the kind of population to be more annoyed than enthused by this sort of red meat being thrown at Bible thumpers. Social attitudes about gay issues are changing rapidly and it's possible that the GOP is going back to the well one too many times with this trick.

3. Give it a few more weeks and penis cancer will have a higher approval rating than Rick Scott.

4. David Frum has a very interesting commentary on the right shooting itself in the foot with the wildly unpopular Paul Ryan budget; party activists demand that candidates swear fealty to it under penalty of death (ask Gingrich), all but guaranteeing that they'll be radioactive to voters outside of the GOP base. I caution against reading too much into special elections, but the numbers from NY-26 are alarming to conservatives like Frum who can think about things and understand numbers.

5. Watch Rob Woodall, the GOP Rep who made waves earlier this week by telling a constituent to "take responsibility" for her own health care rather than asking the government to give her Medicare. When questioned about why he doesn't lead by example and decline the government health plan (note: He has repeatedly advocated abolishing not only Medicare but all employee-provided health insurance as well) in favor of going out and purchasing his own insurance – like he tells his constituents to do. His brilliant response? "Because it's free." I haven't seen a man eat a bullet on video like that since Budd Dwyer.

More soon.

ENDURING APPEAL

Posted in Rants on May 25th, 2011 by Ed

Conspiracy theories about a small, secretive cabal of people – variously referred to as "bankers", "financiers", or "industrialists", which are code words for Jews, Jews, and Jews, respectively – have incredible staying power. Even the most rudimentary public opinion data go back no more than a century, but phenomena like the Anti-Masonic Party or the Know-Nothing movement (based on theories that the Pope was scheming to run the U.S. through an influx of Irishmen and Italians) show that the idea that someone is secretly Running the World is not new in American politics. This idea appeals broadly, too, from simple minded people who boil all of politics down to a Wizard pulling levers behind a curtain to highly educated people who spin elaborate webs of conspiracy centered around an individual (the Koch Brothers, George Soros, the Pope, etc.) or group (i.e., Jews).

Recently I had a conversation with someone highly intelligent who postulated that the difference between presidential candidate Obama and President Obama is so dramatic that the following theory seemed plausible: every new president is summoned to a secret meeting with the (Illuminati / Bilderberg Group / Trilateral Commission / New World Order / Swiss bankers / etc.) who explain to him a dozen topics that are off limits and give him a list things he can't do. Over the years I have heard many people muse about this, many of them logical, astute political observers, in an effort to explain the extraordinarily narrow ideological and functional range in which American politics operate.

Why? Why is this such a popular idea? On the most basic level, conspiracies are popular because people like to believe that the world is more exciting and complex than it really is – sort of an anti-Occam's Razor. It's disappointing to think that most social, economic, and political phenomena have very mundane explanations. But there's an additional explanation that we too often overlook in the U.S. since the uncoupling of income, class, and politics: policy outcomes are remarkably similar (and serve the interests of the same constituents) regardless of who holds political power.

Take, for example, two pieces of health care legislation passed seven years apart. Medicare Part D (2003) came from a Republican Congress and was signed by a Republican president. Obama's health care reform bill came from two chambers with large Democratic majorities. Yet the two pieces of legislation are essentially identical – they are convoluted schemes for taking hundreds of billions of tax dollars and funneling them into the waiting, open palms of private insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Part D was a baldly political effort to kiss the asses of the elderly while Obama's bill was a half-hearted effort to follow through with a campaign promise, one that ended up unrecognizable by the time it passed. They look remarkably similar, of course, because the same lobbyists wrote both bills.

While there are meaningful differences between our major parties, the old saying is that there's really only one party in America and it's called Big Business. There is no secret conspiracy or grand explanation, just the grinding, banal reality that our political system and elections are largely theater (Presidential elections are important! For…judicial appointments, I guess!) while the most crucial issues are met with either elite consensus or more likely are off the table altogether.

DEFAULT MODE

Posted in Rants on May 24th, 2011 by Ed

Interesting and unsurprising poll data from the Associated Press reveals that substantial majorities of Americans oppose Paul Ryan-style Medicare reform or cuts to Social Security. The public also considers the two programs highly important.

Overall, 70 percent in the poll said Social Security is "extremely" or "very" important to their financial security in retirement, and 72 percent said so for Medicare. Sixty-two percent said that both programs are extremely or very important.

This is the basic dilemma of modern American politics, as you already know. Large majorities support balancing the budget…and oppose raising taxes, meaningfully cutting defense spending, altering Social Security or Medicare, or doing much of anything else that would bring the budget closer to balanced.

There is almost a temptation to feel bad for our elected officials – damned if they do, damned if they don't. The public howls about the deficit but won't accept cuts to anything except programs that we imagine to be large but are actually insignificant (foreign aid, NPR, etc.) and the usual killing of the draft animals (education, social welfare, etc.) Combined, these cuts make hardly a dent in the problem. The temptation to pity them evaporates when one realizes why they inevitably drift toward "solutions" like these. Even among the unpopular solutions, why would they propose something like Medicare cuts – let's be honest, even the GOP knows this is political suicide – before tax increases, defense spending cuts, and so on?

The answer is pretty obvious: because when the chips are down, they will stab you in the back at the drop of the hat. They don't care about you, regardless of party. You are not important. They would rather try to ram Medicare reform down your throat than to bite the Pentagon and Wall Street hands that feed them or raise taxes on their own income bracket. The choice between cutting Social Security and lifting the payroll tax cap (without which Social Security would be solvent in perpetuity) is no choice at all. The default solution is always, always to throw you under the bus.

You can learn a lot about someone when you force them to make choices, eliminating the natural tendency of individuals to take the path of least resistance and please everyone. If I have four cats and I tell you I love them all equally, that doesn't tell you much. If the house is on fire and I can only save one of them, you're about to find out which one I actually love the most. In flush times our elected officials will gladly appease us – doing so is good politics and the path of least resistance. If the money is there to pay for everyone's wants (see: 1950-1970), why not just pay for it all? When reality demands selectivity, we quickly discover what and who really matter.

Our elites are slowly discovering that they need to touch one of the untouchables: raising taxes, cutting the Dept. of Defense, or cutting SS/Medicare. Faced with three politically unappealing choices, it's quite revealing to see which one people like Paul Ryan and Obama's catfood commission decided to bite the bullet and endorse.

WHITE HORSE

Posted in Election 2012 on May 23rd, 2011 by Ed

Well, strike Mitch Daniels.

In a turn somewhat reminiscent of Colin Powell's refusal to run in 1996 (motivated largely by his wife's disdain for the idea) the Indiana Governor removed himself from the list of 2012 GOP contenders. Daniels appeared to be swayed by the "no" votes of his wife and children; I won't rehash all of the unsubstantiated rumors about the Daniels' marriage, but his wife was clearly of the opinion that it wouldn't be pleasant to litigate on the national stage. For the unaware, Daniels and his wife Cheri married in 1978 and divorced in the early 1990s. Then Cheri married some other guy before re-marrying Mitch in 1997. Tons of salacious theories about why they divorced are in circulation.

I still believe that the Secret Ay-Rab (Didn't realize that his grandparents are Syrian immigrants? Yeah, that probably would have "come up" in GOP primary campaigning) represented the best chance Republicans had to defeat Obama despite the fact that Daniels stood little chance of surviving the nomination process. Teabaggers would have torn him apart and religious conservatives are unlikely to have been swayed by his recent look-how-Jesusy-I-am grandstanding at the expense of Planned Parenthood. In the general election, though, his appeal could have been substantial.

Where does that leave the GOP field? Well, it's weaker. And it was already weak. Losing Huckabee and Daniels in rapid succession has left the party with few viable options. The biggest beneficiary of Daniels' exit has to be Tim Pawlenty, who now stands virtually unopposed in the "mainstream candidate who isn't Mitt Romney" role. T-Paw may have the appeal of white bread wadded up and dipped in tepid tap water, but if you're a moderate-ish Republican who can't overlook one of Romney's twin heresies – Mormonism and the Massachusetts health care reform law – you're really running out of options. Who else is there at this point? The Gingrich 2012 rollout has been a stunning failure on the level of the Edsel or Heaven's Gate. Ron Paul is a cult figure. Michelle Bachmann is mentally ill. Jon Huntsman has zero name recognition and twin heresies (Mormonism and working for the Obama administration) little different than Romney's.

A quick perusal of the available options makes it obvious why the GOP is starting to look around for a savior to come over the mountain riding a white horse. We saw this reaction in 2008 as well; when it became apparent in late 2007 that the field was terrible the Draft Fred Thompson drumbeat rose to a crescendo. Similarly, we are now starting to hear much more about "drafting" Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Rick Perry into the race. As Mr. Thompson proved in 2008, there are substantial problems with the Savior plan.

First, the candidate probably isn't as good as the panicky rank-and-file imagine him to be. Most other GOP elected officials are currently treating Ryan like he has leprosy; his defining attribute is a proposal to replace Medicare with a voucher and a mandate for Granny to find her own health insurance. Christie probably can't get re-elected in New Jersey and has the look and personality of a Sopranos extra. Perry's tired horseshit might play in Texas but unlike the previous Lone Star State Governor he can't even plausibly fake the centrist/moderate/compassionate conservatism persona. Everything you need to know about the field is encapsulated perfectly in the fact that these three knuckleheads are the "saviors".

Second, it's already getting late for someone to jump into the race. The Iowa Caucuses are six months away. The candidates who figure to be competitive in January have already laid the groundwork for a campaign and have boots on the ground in key primary states. Thompson proved that it's remarkably difficult – let's go ahead and say impossible – to throw together in a rush a campaign good enough to navigate the modern nomination process. Mitt Romney already has nine figures available in his war chest. What will a new Savior have when he declares in mid-June?

The GOP's saving grace might be that the candidate with the least appeal to the party base but the best odds of competing in the general election may win by default. If Pawlenty fails to catch fire – not hard to imagine, is it? – then I can't imagine who other than Mittens is going to win this thing. As nuts as the GOP base is, I have a hard time seeing Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Ron Paul being serious contenders as opposed to flag-bearers for a specific faction in the party.

If these were my options, I'd be dreaming up fantastic scenarios involving knights in shining armor too.

NPF: THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 20th, 2011 by Ed

Sometimes I worry that I am turning into Andy Rooney as I get older, and twenty years from now ginandtacos.com is going to be beaming (directly into your brain stem, I assume) rants about how every time I open a bag of potato chips it's already half empty. What is the deal with that? Did I not pay for a whole bag, Lay's? AOL-Chrysler Lay's, a division of Citibank Grumman?

When I witness behaviors in public and social settings and conclude that society is going to hell on a greased shutter, my Andy Rooney fear seems well placed. Imagine an old man going on a rant about how kids are wearing baggy pants and don't say "sir" or "ma'am" anymore and the whole country's going to hell. When I feel myself drifting into that territory, I try not to share those feelings with the world.

Today we're going full Rooney.

Like many people it bothers me quite a bit when I am interacting with another person – face to face, not electronically – and they are glued to a spacephone. Texting, twittering, checking email, staring aimlessly at the internet, etc. It's not unreasonable to expect that when someone is trying to talk with you, you will, like, listen to them and maybe make some eye contact and respond and stuff. Don't ask me to lunch with you or to meet you at the bar tonight if all you plan on doing is staring at the internet. I can sit around alone at home and I don't need to go out and spend money for the privilege.

I think that's fair. I'm not being unnecessarily uptight on that point; if a person is speaking to you in a social setting, do not ignore them to start staring at Facebook. That isn't asking much.

Of course, the younger generation has no problem doing this, mostly because they are physically and emotionally incapable of NOT staring at the internet or texting, etc. for more than a few minutes at a time. And over time we see more and more people comfortable engaging in this kind of behavior. I'm picking on The Kids, but older people do it too (especially Very Important Business Types). We can agree that it's irritating but it's hardly worth blowing out of proportion, right?

Two incidents.

First, I was dining in a swank restaurant in February. A woman was on her cellphone and couldn't possibly hang up long enough to interact with a waiter (not to mention her dining companion). Yet she needed the waiter's services. Her solution was to loudly snap her fingers at him, not unlike one would do to a dog, and point at her plate to indicate that she wanted pepper on her salad.

Second, I had to spend that pointless day at the DMV getting a license and plates last fall. There was a large sign over the service counter stating that people would not be served unless they stopped talking on their cellphone when the reached the front of the line. I asked the kindly bureaucrat who served me if this sign was preemptive or if people actually expected to be served while yapping away on the phone. She assured me that people do exactly that all the time.

Look. We already have the regrettable tendency to treat other people like they are of no value whatsoever to us, especially strangers and/or people in the service industry. I'm not exactly a stickler for etiquette and I'm not going to complain that America's Goin' To Hell because we violate some rule from Emily Post about using the proper salad fork. But I think it's fair to be alarmed at our willingness to expect people to interact with us while we ignore them. I worry about that. I worry about what it says about our society and how little we care about anyone other than ourselves. I worry that our already waning interest in the people around us has entered some sort of death spiral.

That's straight Andy Rooney. I recognize it. But what the hell, people. When you can't be bothered to hang up or stop texting long enough to nod, smile, or perhaps speak to another human being, we have a problem. When you leave your house you accept an implicit social contract that requires you to respond to the presence of other people. You have to brake when they are in crosswalks, step around them on sidewalks, and speak to them when you need or want to interact with them. It's tough, I know, but nobody said life would be easy.

CIVIL RELIGION

Posted in Quick Hits on May 19th, 2011 by Ed

Read the comments (and the editorial, which is almost as bad) to learn that the USPS should be eliminated so the free market (UPS, FedEx, etc.) can do the job better, cheaper, and more efficiently.

Makes perfect sense, right? The free market does everything better! Which is why the USPS already subcontracts express deliveries to FedEx, and FedEx relies on the USPS to carry the majority of its domestic packages because they can't do it themselves cost effectively.

REPROGRAMMING

Posted in Rants on May 18th, 2011 by Ed

Highly observant long-time readers are probably beginning to notice that every time Ed has a doctor's appointment he ends up posting about Fox News. Well, I had an appointment Tuesday morning. Now guess what.

Like most of you (I assume) I don't watch much Fox News. In fairness I rarely watch TV news on any network, relying instead as so many Americans do on the self-selection offered by the internet. What little I see on the FNC comes from clips circulated on the internet, brief glimpses while I flip through channels, and maybe a few minutes here and there during election season. For the most part it is an alternate universe – I know it exists and I hear about it often, but our paths almost never cross. Except when I visit my doctor. He and his unironic "These Colors Don't Run" bumper sticker have FNC playing on multiple TVs throughout the office, so I usually catch about 15 minutes in the waiting room.

Today, through sundry intricacies of our remarkable system of managed care that I needn't recount here, I waited well over an hour before the good Doctor saw me. It would guess that it has been a decade since I sat and watched 80 or 90 minutes of Fox News, probably not since I last lived with my dad and thus was indirectly exposed to O'Reilly every evening after work. That DiMaggio-like streak ended today. The volume was up so loud (the old people need to be able to hear it, after all) I couldn't bury my nose far enough in Popular Mechanics to ignore it.

I am not an unbiased observer, obviously, and I watch Fox the same way most people watch circuses or episodes of Two and a Half Men. Despite these handicaps I am confident that the following is a valid conclusion: anyone who watches this channel for multiple hours daily would be categorically insane after a few months. Everything about public opinion and the Tea Party and oddities of the American electorate make perfect sense after watching this for an hour or two. If this was your only source of news, you would become one of them. Your relationship with reality would be tenuous at best, and more likely nonexistent.

You can actually feel the propaganda techniques start to numb you after a while. In small doses it has no effect, and we see it with a mixture of disdain and bemusement. It just seems kinda silly. Watching it all day, every day (as the staff at the office in question do) would be like the prison camp scenes in The Killing Fields – listening to Khmer Rouge propaganda blared over a loudspeaker until insanity becomes the new normal. Is Fox the Khmer Rouge? Of course not. They've just mastered the same methods of persuasion.

If my hypothesis seems implausible, I invite you to try it yourself sometime. Resolve to sit firmly on the couch and watch Fox News for two uninterrupted hours. Let us know how you feel afterward.

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