SCENES FROM A PSYCHOTIC BREAK

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

A vignette from a nation in the final stages of dementia:

Last night, in between approving city expenditures and other routine agenda items, the Topeka, Kansas City Council debated one rather controversial one: decriminalizing domestic violence.

Here’s what happened: Last month, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office, facing a 10% budget cut, announced that the county would no longer be prosecuting misdemeanors, including domestic violence cases, at the county level. Finding those cases suddenly dumped on the city and lacking resources of their own, the Topeka City Council is now considering repealing the part of the city code that bans domestic battery. […]

Since the county stopped prosecuting the crimes on September 8th, it has turned back 30 domestic violence cases. Sixteen people have been arrested for misdemeanor domestic battery and then released from the county jail after charges weren’t filed. "Letting abusive partners out of jail with no consequences puts victims in incredibly dangerous positions," said Becky Dickinson of the YWCA. "The abuser will often become more violent in an attempt to regain control."

Well, at least we have our priorities straight. Better to decriminalize things than to pay enough in taxes to allow the government to enforce the law. And if you have to decriminalize something, why not start with wife beating rather than, you know, something important like possession?

Yes, I understand that part of this is a political pissing match between the city and county, each trying to embarrass the other as they quibble over shrinking budgets. That said, legalization schemes of this type are like cannibalism: if you're seriously considering it, you're either beyond desperate (say, on a desert island) or completely divorced from reality. We're beyond desperate, alright – desperate to cling to a failed, debunked political and economic ideology no matter how absurd the costs.

ORACLE

Posted in Rants on October 11th, 2011 by Ed

In the flurry of Steve Jobs related items that were thrown at you last week, you most likely saw quotes from his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. This quote, in particular, appeared on my Facebook feed no fewer than ten times:

You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

(Full text of the commencement speech here)

I understand why people find this inspiring or profound. But this is absolutely terrible advice from a practical standpoint.

Most of us are never going to get paid to do what we love. Work is something we do to support ourselves. Ideally, we don't hate it. That's the best most of us will ever do with our employment – we can consider ourselves fortunate if we don't actively loathe it. But love it? Steve Jobs got paid to do what he apparently loved, and good on him. He is not like most of us, though. He had a lot of talent and he happened to love something that was beyond lucrative.

I am biased here, not only because I am a negative bastard in general but also because I deal with so many people in the demographic Jobs was addressing in this speech. Many undergraduates are far too practical, choosing career paths that neither make them happy nor suit their talents simply because they have been promised that it will make them rich. An equal number of them, however, could stand to be more practical. The number of people who plan to make a living in creative fields (writing in particular) or whatever is the latest fad career portrayed on popular TV shows vastly exceeds the number who can conceivably do so. And let's face it – unlike Steve Jobs, most of us simply aren't good enough at the things we "love" to make a living off of them.

The kind of advice Jobs is giving is very common; we're all supposed to encourage people in this way. Is that a good idea? Looking back on my life, I don't wish I had followed my dreams or any of that crap; I wish I had not chosen a profession I like in which there are no jobs and at which I am not good. Let's face it, most of us have pretty impractical dreams. They're certainly not practical as careers – the kind that pay the bills – for many people. Unless you're fortunate enough to really, really Love devising consumer goods for which people will pay a ton of money, it might not hurt to think about a career path in slightly more practical terms.

CRYING POOR

Posted in Rants on October 10th, 2011 by Ed

It is indisputable that the gay rights movement has made substantial progress over the last three decades. The pace of change has accelerated in recent years, in part because the chosen tactic of the anti-gay lobby has become ineffective over time. They have attempted to turn the political tide against gay rights with the timeless "If we let the gays _______, then (insert apocalyptic prediction here)!" tactic. Then, when some state or city decides to let the gays _______, we notice that…absolutely nothing happens. If we let gays teach, all of our kids will get raped! If we let gays serve openly in the military, they'll be so busy fellating each other and converting the straights that our national defense will collapse!

Although it took a while, people eventually began to figure out that, well, nothing Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell predicted actually happened. Everyone met some gay people and realized that they're not bile spitting, child molesting monsters. Americans might not be the sharpest knives in the drawer, but it appears that it is possible for us to see through these cheap scare tactics with enough repetition. After 99 dire predictions that come to nothing, very few people seem to put much stock in the 100th. We have applied that logic fairly well to social issues – racial, gender, sexual orientation, etc. – throughout our history.

The scare tactics are still quite effective, though, when it comes to the politics of economic issues. No matter how many times the prediction is made and later proven false, "If we ________, then American businesses will (fail / stop hiring / etc)!" never fails to mesmerize the majority of the country and, more importantly, the media.

This line of argument has been trotted out by the top 1% in opposition to every meaningful effort at economic reform, regulation, or the creation of a social safety net. Because we are ignorant of history and even moreso of economics, we continue to fall for it despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the southern aristocracy claimed that agriculture could not be economically viable in the U.S. without slavery.

When Free Silver was a political issue, financiers argued that removing the U.S. Dollar from a convertible gold standard would collapse the entire economy.

The meat trust told everyone that the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 would bankrupt them all and shutter the packinghouses.

During the Progressive Era, the steel and textile industries swore that they couldn't keep their doors open without child labor.

The plutocracy made dozens of dire predictions in advance of the Sixteenth Amendment legalizing Federal income taxes, none of which came true.

During the Depression, banks swore that the New Deal would regulate them to death while what remained of American industry swore that legally protecting organized labor and instituting the minimum wage (in 1938) would be the final nails in its coffin.

The collapse of both the social and economic order of the country was predicted when women and blacks were integrated into the workplace.

The Great Society and higher corporate tax rates after the unprecedented economic growth of the 1950s was supposed to lead to unfathomably high levels of unemployment.

Then something strange happened. Despite this lengthy history of failed predictions – and there are many more beyond the few I've mentioned here – we started believing whatever the top 1% told us about the economy. Right around, oh, I don't know, 1980. They told us that they wouldn't hire us unless their taxes were lowered. They told us that Big Government regulations were killing them. They told us that they couldn't afford lavishing us with things like vacation days, pensions, or health insurance. They told us that they couldn't compete anymore unless we changed the laws and allowed them to make their products overseas. They told us about their "right to make a profit" after the government socialized their losses. And here we in 2011 listening to our economic elites tell us for the 200th consecutive year that we're regulating/taxing them to death and, golly, they just can't hire any of us unless we do something to sweeten the deal on their end – holding the vast majority of the nation's wealth, apparently, not being a sufficiently sweet deal.

We used to be able to see through this. That was before the thirty year marketing campaign to make us sympathize with the poor, poor folks up at the top who simply can't get by unless the rest of us work two jobs, make jack shit, and have neither health nor retirement benefits. At this point I'm not sure that most Americans can even conceive of a course of action other than praying to our Job Creators and hoping that they see fit to throw a few pennies in our direction. Because everyone knows that if we raise taxes, unemployment will triple and half of American businesses will go under…just like what happened when taxes have been raised in the past.

NPF: MAXIMIZING

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 7th, 2011 by Ed

Viola died. She was a good girl. I don't think it's accurate to say that I'm less sad than I have been with past rats, but I am somewhat cheered up by the fact that she had a good, long life for a rat in her circumstances. We got her from an animal rescue, and she is presumed to have come from a pet store originally. Since they breed for quantity and don't bother selectively breeding around health problems, it is unusual for pet store rats to live very long. Viola was just a couple months short of three years, which is elderly in rat terms. Her sibling Olivia is still plugging along.

People ask me about my choice of pets given their short lifespans and the regular sadness of losing them. Well, I like rats. Love them, even. When I consider their short lives I take comfort in giving them the best possible lives given the time they have. And I take the best possible care of them to extend that time. Basically, it sucks to lose them after just a few years but I know that no rats on Earth are living better than mine. I think that's all we can do for our pets – we try to make the most out of the time they give us. We love them and we enjoy their love in return, be it for a month or 20 years.

DELAYED DEVELOPMENT

Posted in Rants on October 6th, 2011 by Ed

Bill Bennett, as you already know, is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. His rhetorical style begins with his predetermined conclusion before devoting far more words than necessary to all types of fallacies of reasoning in an attempt to support it. Most recently he has shared his thoughts on the often bemoaned (but not actually a real thing) "Crisis of Manhood" afflicting young men today.

Long story short, women are now getting more college degrees than men, and their incomes are rising at a dramatically sharper rate. Could that second point have anything to do with the fact that female incomes are basically, you know, still catching up with males, Bill? The thing about growth rates is that they look really high when you start with such a small number. But I digress. Men aren't growing up. It's an extended, and possibly permanent, state of adolescence, as men become slackers in their twenties rather than employees, homeowners, husbands, or fathers.

The sad thing is that there is an important point to be made here, and instead Bennett is trying to twist reality around his "Men aren't manly enough anymore since women cut their balls off" thesis. The real issue, which he hints at while pointing out that 18-24 year old males play more daily hours of video games than 12-17 year olds, is much more compelling: we have entire generations of people who aren't growing up because they are not going through the normal socialization process that is supposed to follow college graduation. When U.S. News estimates that 85% – !!!! – of the Spring 2011 graduating class moved back in with their parents, we have a bigger problem here than 1970s feminists making men feel all butthurt or whatever his point is.

Two real whoppers deserve further comment:

If you don't believe the numbers, just ask young women about men today. You will find them talking about prolonged adolescence and men who refuse to grow up. I've heard too many young women asking, "Where are the decent single men?" There is a maturity deficit among men out there, and men are falling behind.

Classic Bennett, with a dash of Friedmanesque unattributed quotes from strangers for good measure. I may be biased here, but Bill, the absolute last demographic that should be consulted on issues of maturity and adulthood is Twentysomething Women. I deal with men and women in this age group all day, every day, and I have the added benefit of having just been divorced by a 28 year old who spent the majority of the seven years we were acquainted struggling with issues related to direction, motivation, and maturity. I hold this against no one. My point is simply that it's beyond comical to point to 24 year old women for commentary on the state of male maturity. If there is a maturity gap, it isn't very big. The average 24 year old woman may think it is, but part of being immature is being deluded about one's own maturity level. For every young man sitting in mom's basement playing Call of Duty, there is a female counterpart either living with the 'rents or burning through their money living the same kind of extended adolescence Bennett bemoans – spending most of her days starting a dozen new "creative" projects she'll never finish, dressing like a Ugandan refugee, and wondering why no one else is mature like her.

Then, this:

While women are graduating college and finding good jobs, too many men are not going to work, not getting married and not raising families.

Uh, care to cite some stats there, Bill? Women are graduating college and finding…that the job market is shit, just like it is for us grunting cavemen. Setting aside the fact that women are more likely than men to get degrees in fields with little income potential – Again, I don't judge. I have two political science degrees and I earn exactly shit. – how does the fact that they have pulled ahead in degrees granted lead to the assumption that they are "finding good jobs"? Again, what we have here is an economic issue that Bennett is somehow trying to make a gender issue.

It isn't. It's a symptom of a larger problem: that young people are graduating college but continuing to live and act like children. Why wouldn't they? They're not earning anything, so they continue the Broke Undergrad lifestyle to which they are accustomed. They don't have jobs to force them into an "adult" routine of hauling their asses to work and back every day, for better or worse. They fail to become financially or emotionally independent of their families. They lack the means to take on responsibilities like home ownership, marriage, or parenting even if they were motivated to do so. But they lack motivation because they graduate into a world that has nothing for them except "No Vacancy" signs. Twentysomethings are disturbingly immature, perhaps even more so than in past generations, because they cannot get onto the conveyor belt that takes people to the kind of job-kids-spouse-house version of adulthood that Bennett believes they need.

Oh, and despite all that growth, women still earn less than men across the board.

But other than that, great points, Bill.

A HERO IN A LONG LINE OF HEROES…

Posted in Election 2012 on October 5th, 2011 by Ed

(Bonus points for identifying the song and artist from the title without resorting to Google. Amazingly, she once put out a good album. It was a long time ago.)

After the first two Knights in Shining Armor charged over the hill but somehow failed to save the day – their knightly skills having been somewhat overrated in the telling – the Republican Party found itself in need of yet another savior. The search for someone young, hip, and exciting led them, naturally, to first-term New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. His main qualifications appear to be speaking like an extra in The Sopranos and having that unusually aggressive personality type usually found among people who kill animals for fun. Alas, Gov. Christie has definitively – or at least apparently definitively – excluded himself from the field.

In realityland, Christie would have been hard pressed to declare at this point. The first primaries and caucuses are in about 90 days. Due to the condensed, front-loaded primary calendar, he would have needed to put a complete campaign team on the ground in about 30 different states in just a few weeks. That's just not possible, even assuming (irrationally) an unlimited amount of money. Additionally, there's no way that his statements about extremism and stupidity among Teabaggers – he is the governor of a liberal northern state, after all – would have had most of the party base whining about him in short order. Like so many Wesley Clarks and Fred Thompsons from the past, the idea of Christie running has more appeal than Christie actually running.

The problem, of course, is that the appeal of his candidacy was driven by dissatisfaction with the current field. So the GOP now finds itself in need of a new Savior – and fast. As much as I like to think of myself as being abreast of electoral politics, I cannot fathom who that might be. Paul Ryan has already been the Savior, albeit briefly, before declining to run. Rick Scott is as popular as dick cancer. Scott Walker wishes he had dick cancer's popularity. Mitch Daniels is out. Every candidate with an ounce of name recognition from past elections – Gingrich, Santorum, etc. – is already running. Recruiting any GOP Senator to run given the current popularity of Congress (and Congressional Republicans in particular) at the moment seems beyond futile. There does not appear to be anyone left, at least among people who would even remotely consider running.

In the next few weeks I am betting that we will see some truly bizarre Draft So-and-So campaigns on the internet and in the media. David Petraeus. Dick Cheney. George Bush the Elder. Jeb (again). Sarah Palin (again). Rudy Giuliani. Katherine Harris. Mike Gravel. Ross Perot. John Anderson. Oliver North. Ted Nugent. Baltimore Orioles OF Luke Scott. Sideshow Bob. Gennifer Flowers. WWE superstar John Cena. This inanimate carbon rod.

Desperation does terrible things to one's judgment. But no matter how many names are floated in the upcoming weeks it is becoming increasingly likely that the Republicans are stuck, for better or worse, with the current field.

God have mercy on us all.

OFFICER FRIENDLY

Posted in Rants on October 4th, 2011 by Ed

Long-time readers are well acquainted with my attitude toward law enforcement in the United States, which could be described tactfully as "skeptical." My argument is not, and never has been, "Cops are bad people." In fact I recognize that they are no different from any other profession, with some mix of slackers, idealists, pragmatic clock-punchers, and people with dangerous personality disorders. The reason so many people dislike cops is not that they are evil people, but because of the role of the police in our social, political, and economic system.

We are encouraged to think of the police Serving & Protecting, or perhaps listlessly filling out a report when our crap gets stolen. That's well and good. The problem is that they are not really "there" to help you. They exist to maintain a social and political power structure, and most of the time you are dealing with them they are actively trying to screw you. On the latter point, this is precisely why astute people know never to say anything to a police officer except "Hello", "Am I under arrest or free to go?", or "I have nothing to say and I want a lawyer." But let's put that aside for the moment and consider the first point more closely.

Nothing makes me feel sketchier as a blogger than to lapse into Marxist rhetoric as social commentary, but I defy anyone to watch the way police respond to public protests and offer a superior alternative explanation. OK, fair enough, there is one caveat: right-wing public rage spasms are permitted. Teabaggers, immigration zealots, and sundry other collections of angry old white people can take to the streets donning semiautomatic rifles and threatening to revolt against the government without fear of molestation by the police. Their misguided activism advances the agenda of the top 1%, so the media and political class define it as socially acceptable. Police treat them accordingly, in addition to being sympathetic to "protesters" who are demographically similar to the average cop. But good lord, get a bunch of people in one place protesting against the powers-that-be and the police are suddenly replaced by the Storm Troopers of America.

You can make or entertain all the excuses you see fit – Lefty protesters are more violent! Teabaggers are well behaved model citizens! You can't block traffic! If you don't have a permit, of course the police will mace you! – but those excuses persuade you alone. We know exactly why they react the way they do. They do it because the people in charge – economically, socially, and politically – use them to send messages when the proles step out of line. Sticking it to The Man by voting for Barack Obama (Ha!) but that's about it. Know your place. There are things one doesn't talk about here, people one does not criticize, and aspects of our system that are not open for debate. If you're feeling rebellious the proper way to express it is to buy some particularly subversive clothing, or maybe to express your individuality by driving an x-treme car of some sort.

This has been true of the United States since our elites rebelled against the British for the right to establish their own social hierarchy with themselves perched atop it. Pick any strike, movement, or protest against the entrenched power structure and you'll see the police (or National Guard) are not intermediaries or keepers-of-peace, but aggressive defenders of the status quo. It's their job. Literally.

This is why "Occupy Wall Street" protesters, as non-threatening and disjointed a bunch of disaffected people as you're likely to find, are subjected to the same "pincering" tactics the NYPD (Our heroes! 9-11! Flags!) made so popular during the 2004 Republican Convention. You know, permit the protesters to enter an area, close off the entrance/exit, and then arrest all of them. That's what happened during all those Tea Party circle jerks, the ones we were told had hundreds of thousands in attendance, right? No, the guy waving the "WE CAME UNARMED…THIS TIME!" sign has nothing to fear from the police. It's the person with the "Why does 1% have all the wealth?" sign that ends up cuffed, in a van, and squinting through pepper spray.

In this instance, it isn't an oversimplification to point out that this says all you need to know about our country.