BUNCH OF LIBERAL ACADEMICS

Posted in Rants on November 10th, 2011 by Ed

I secretly enjoy it when people go off on rants about the liberal Ivory Tower of academia; it gives me an opportunity to wait until the silly David Horowitz talking points stop flowing from their talk-holes and ask them a few specific questions about the ideological makeup of the typical academic community.

The truth is that the OMG LIBRUL BRAINWASHING hypothesis stands up well only under the conditions necessary for any right wing pet theory to hold up: cherry pick some confirming evidence and ignore everything else. Sure, you're going to find a bunch of bleeding hearts in the Sociology department. Anthropology is basically a hippie commune. Don't even ask about the "Cultural/Media Studies" departments. OK, great. We've just identified about 2% of the faculty and departments at any major university. Now let's take a stroll over to the business school. Or the law school. Or the Econ department. Bastions of left-wing rhetoric, right?

The reality is that every department on every campus could be teeming with True Believer socialists committed to brainwashing their students and the level of indoctrination wouldn't hold a candle to the average two course Macro/Micro sequence in Economics. This is not to say that Econ professors are especially conniving, ideological, or bad at teaching. The problem is simply that teaching Economics in the modern American educational system means teaching Neoliberalism. It's basically Intro to Hayek and Friedman. Fukuyama may have overstated things by declaring the End of History, but we've certainly seen something close to it in Economics. There is nothing but Neoliberalism now. Everything else is quaint, referred to only as a historical curiosity, and worth knowing only inasmuch as it sets up the victorious tomahawk dunks of Neoliberalism.

Some young Harvard students have made waves recently by doing the sort of thing only college undergrads have enough self-importance to do when they walked out of Greg Mankiw's Intro to Macroeconomics class and forwarded an open letter to the media to air their grievances. Mankiw's intellectual dishonesty is well known to veteran readers of this forum, and apparently his teaching is as well rounded as his journalism and commentary. That is, his students seem to think he's teaching a 16 week infomercial for his textbook and the One True Path to Economic Righteousness.

This is news because it happened at Harvard and to an economist with a non-negligible public profile. The reality, though, is that this is pretty much par for the course in that field. Introductory economics classes, as a prerequisite for admission to business schools, pretty much give the Alex P. Keatons of the world what they want. These departments think that intellectual diversity means throwing in a reading from Robert Reich.

This is traditionally justified with appeals to Neoliberalism's often touted empirical rigor. It is "positive" and highly Scientific, thus it can reasonably be put forth as the One True Economics. It's not that economics curricula are biased, it's just that there is only one economic school of thought that makes sense! What do we need multiple theories for when we already have one that explains everything?

Oddly enough, educating Americans to believe that there is one correct economics seems to be correlated with our collective inability to consider any real alternatives politically. Perhaps this is why our solution to every economic dilemma is, "Do it again, only harder." What was that definition of insanity again?

KETCHUP = VEGETABLE

Posted in Quick Hits on November 8th, 2011 by Ed

With so many Americans in poverty in the 2010 Census, the government is working to alleviate the underlying causes of poverty including income inequality, unemployment, and outsourcing.

No, I'm kidding. They're just going to change the definition of poverty. That will conveniently eliminate half of the rise in poverty since 2006….

…by counting safety-net programs that "have played a large and mostly overlooked role in restraining hardship."

This is nothing more than a shell game: changing the metric by which poverty is measured in order to say that there aren't as many poor people. Whenever you reset any previously arbitrary measure to a new arbitrary measure, it becomes difficult if not impossible to judge progress over a long time.

More importantly, counting money and other aid given to the poor as a part of the measure of whether or not they are poor sort of misses the point that if they didn't have those programs, they would, indeed be poor.

This is all academic, of course, since no one is really poor anyway. How can you be poor if you have a cell phone?

ANY SON-OF-A-BITCH

Posted in Rants on November 7th, 2011 by Ed

This is one of my favorite passages from anything written in the English language, in this case The Grapes of Wrath:

"Well, I was there. They wasn't no agitators. What they call reds. What the hell is these reds anyways?"

Timothy scraped a little hill level in the bottom of tile ditch. The sun made his white bristle beard shine. "They's a lot a fellas wanta know what reds is." He laughed. "One of our boys foun' out." He patted the piled earth gently with his shovel. "Fella named Hines-got 'bout thirty thousan' acres, peaches and grapes-got a cannery an' a winery. Well, he's all a time talkin' about 'them goddamn reds.' 'Goddamn reds is drivin' the country to ruin,' he says, an" 'We got to drive these here red bastards out.' Well, they were a young fella jus' come out west here, an' he's listenin' one day. He kinda scratched his head an' he says, 'Mr. Hines, I ain't been here long. What is these goddamn reds?' Well, sir, Hines says, 'A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five!' Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says, 'Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a-bitch, but if that's what a red is-why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever'body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds.'" Timothy drove his shovel along the ditch bottom, and the solid earth shone where the shovel cut it.

Tom laughed. "Me too, I guess."

This is illustrative of a very important hill on the rhetorical battleground in modern politics, the idea that self-interest is good for some people (say, high income earners who don't like paying taxes) but evil when pursued by others (say, people living hand-to-mouth). We are inundated with this message by our media and political elites. Banks have a right to make a profit; people who want to retire at a semi-reasonable age and perhaps collect a few Social Security checks are unreasonably greedy. CEOs must be rewarded with outsized compensation packages; workers must be Reasonable and understand that wages have to fall. Shareholders deserve a return on their investment; those greedy bastard teachers are destroying the country with their incessant demand for a 2% cost of living raise.

If you pay attention you will be floored by how often you hear expressions of condemnation or surprise because some individual or group is logically defending its own interests. Look at the salary those lazy UAW bastards want! Look at all these hippie protesters demanding more, more, more! Look at these old geezers complaining about Medicare cuts! Look at how Joe leaves work every day at 5:00 on the dot…it's almost like he doesn't want to work uncompensated overtime! The problem with the world these days is that everyone wants to work as little as possible rather than as hard as they can!

This is little more than a symptom of the market-as-religion mantra – that you and I can't make any demands about our salary, working conditions, and so on because they are set by The Market. Mortals must not distort The Market by trying to get anything more than what the company feels like paying. When The Market decides that you no longer get vacation days or health insurance you are a greedy SOB for trying to hang on to them. A normal person would just accept that with a big smile and keep working harder, according to the David Brookses of the world.

In reality, any rational person would defend his or her own interests in this situation. If Social Security was the most bankrupt, lavish, excessive pension system on the planet, it would still make perfect sense for seniors to try to prevent cuts to it. It benefits them. Why would they give it up without a fight? That would make no sense whatsoever. It doesn't imply that they're right or that Social Security (in that hypothetical) is a well designed system, but from the individual beneficiary's perspective it makes perfect sense to fight any attempt at cuts.

I make it a habit to answer rhetorical questions of this type. When someone asks, "Can you believe that these UAW guys want to get paid to not work?" I respond with a hearty, "Of course. That sounds awesome." This type of response is not only irritating but also completely honest. What in the world could be better than getting paid to not work? If someone offered to pay you to not work, you would throw your back out jumping at the opportunity. While that is the unassailable truth, you won't find many water cooler blowhards, media personalities, or comment trolls willing to admit it in the "OK for me, but not for thee" society we have built for ourselves in the past thirty years.

NPF: REPRESENTIN'

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 4th, 2011 by Ed

My brother-in-law graduated from Freeport High School in Freeport, Illinois, and my favorite part about this rather mundane fact is that the school's mascot is the Pretzel. The Freeport Pretzels. At sporting events the students liked to chant "You can eat us but you'll never beat us." Everything about that is awesome. It amuses me to no end.

On the other end of the state, in not-so-lovely Pekin, Illinois, the town high school was going for a different effect. Historically, the teams were known as the Pekin Chinks. The mascot was two students dressed up like, well, "chinamen" or whatever. Picture Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's and that's probably a good approximation of the extent to which this was offensive. Fortunately the school changed the mascot to the still-vaguely-Asian-but-less-offensive "Dragons" in 1980.

As someone who works in higher education I feel more strongly than most that athletics should be a minor aspect of a school's focus. That my current university defines itself so completely by its football team is, well, evidence of some rather misguided priorities from the top all the way down to the student body. Nonetheless, every school's mascot becomes part of the identity of the students and the alumni. If you graduate from Purdue, you will be a Boilermaker for life. As a Wisconsin B.A., I am not at all ashamed to be a Badger. It's not a common mascot. It's unique. It is readily associated with Wisconsin, both the state and the school.

Is there anything less interesting than Lions, Tigers, Bears, Eagles, and other such obvious choices? Put a little effort into it, people. At the college level, look at Campbell's Fighting Camels (mascot: Gaylord the Camel…the jokes practically write themselves), the LaSalle Explorers (anything named after a specific person is automatically neat), the Manhattan Jaspers (named after a popular early priest-administrator), the Loyola Ramblers, the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils, the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns, or the WKU Hilltoppers. Those nicknames have some sort of local context and are unique to their school and region. And then, of course, we have the legion of joke mascots: the Fighting Artichokes, Banana Slugs, Anteaters, and the legendary Scrotie the Scrotum.

So, impress me with the awesomeness and obscurity of your high school or university mascots. Feel free to draw our attention to appropriately interesting or hilarious mascots from schools you have not attended as well. I'm sure there is some entertainment value to be had; bonus points if you are a Pretzel.

TENSION

Posted in Election 2012 on November 3rd, 2011 by Ed

In my presidency course I have a lecture that begins with a nuts-and-bolts description of the daily life of the president. While it is a powerful and often glamorous position, it entails living a life that not many of us would want to have: the 16 hour workdays, the grueling travel schedule, the death threats (and oppressive level of security necessary around your family), everybody constantly bitching and moaning about how terrible you are, and most of all the incredible amount of stress that accompany all of the responsibility.

For these reasons and more, it's important that we have a psychologically strong president. Even if we have to accept a president with a terrible set of beliefs and issue positions, he or she should at least have a grip on sanity. That basic ability to perceive reality correctly and respond to one's surroundings in a lucid manner is a bare minimum qualification for the office.

The mental health of presidents is definitely challenged by the job. It must be hard to deal with all of that pressure without cracking. Perhaps some of them do crack – Nixon, Buchanan, Wilson – and the consequences are felt around the world. Fortunately we have a campaign process, one that is grueling and mentally draining in its own right, to weed out some of the wannabes who are all too ready to crack under the strain of the spotlight.

Like this guy.

If you have yet to see, hear, and experience Rick Perry's speech to the Cornerstone Church in New Hampshire, you must treat yourself. Much of the speculation since the speech has centered around whether Perry is drunk, high, or possibly both during this lamentable shitshow of a performance. To me it is more likely that he has simply cracked under the strain of high expectations and a heretofore underwhelming showing.

As much of a field day as the media had in 2004 with Howard Dean's "yee-haw" moment – incontrovertible evidence of his lack of psychological fitness for the presidency, we were repeatedly told – it will be interesting to hear the mighty Beltway sages' take on Perry's rambling, incoherent, and labile performance. We were flatly reminded that no one with Mr. Dean's red-faced temper could be trusted with his finger on The Button. While I suspect that most observers already recognize that Perry's campaign is dead in the water – it's more like watching someone commit suicide than an actual campaign, anyway – I can't wait to see whether they will make excuses for this bizarre public spectacle or call him out for the unstable lightweight he appears to be.

SHOW OF FORCE

Posted in Rants on November 1st, 2011 by Ed

Last weekend I watched and read about the aftermath of the Oakland police department's decision to forcibly remove camped out protesters. At the time this struck me as a very strange choice on the part of the city. The Storm Troopers of America approach to dispersing peaceful crowds is public relations suicide when every cell phone is a still and video camera. To wit, it didn't take long for video of the serious wounding of a protester and Iraq War veteran to contradict the official line that he was injured by other protesters throwing rocks and bottles. Even absent anything exceptional happening, the standard "cops beating and tear gassing people" footage tends to reflect poorly on city leaders.

Our government at every level makes decisions with public relations in mind and a media strategy in place. This media strategy seemed odd to say the least. Police have learned a few tricks since Chicago '68, namely how to break up crowds without resorting to medieval battle tactics. There are ways to deal with "noncompliant" people that don't produce these Twitter-friendly pics of projectile injuries (If you've ever been paintballing, you know goddamn well what that person's bruise is from.) Cops are not renowned for their brilliance, but someone in the room when this decision was made had to be smart enough to realize that this was a PR blunder in the making.

Looking back, that was something of a naive reaction on my part. Just as the removal of the protesters had nothing to do with permits or whatever official excuse is proffered, the use of force in doing it has nothing to do with the nature of the protest. It's about a different kind of public relations. Police appear with their full array of paramilitary gear for the same reason that people painted their faces and chanted before going to battle thousands of years ago. It's about intimidation and sending a message about who is in charge.

Sure, there's an initial wave of bad publicity when the images hit the news. But people forget quickly, and the story becomes just another reminder to know one's place. Never forget who is in charge or what awaits you if you challenge it, however ineffectually. Then the media goes to work, encouraging the usual victim blaming mentality – If the police told them to leave and they didn't, then anything the police did to them is their own fault, you see – and smear tactics (Dirty hippies! Potheads! Anarchists! Malcontents!) to convince about a third of us that it's a damn good thing that the police did what they did. The suburbanites terrified of the outside world and the blue hairs who love nothing more than young, preferably brown people being arrested make up the bulk of this group. It also includes the elites who see the police for exactly what they are – the security force of the status quo. It's not a huge group of people in total, but they vote and elected officials care what they think.

There is a message. In the short term, the message is that the police are out of control. In the long term, it's that they are firmly in control. They got what they wanted and the protesters didn't. As someone put it many years ago, "Go back to bed, America! Your government is in control. Keep drinking beer, you morons. Watch Love Connection or something. Get fat and stupid."