INCENTIVES

Posted in Quick Hits on December 13th, 2011 by Ed

Front-running presidential candidate Newt Gingrich knows a good idea when he sees one, particularly when it originates in his adopted home state of Georgia:

Speaking to about 200 employees at Insight Technology, a defense contractor in New Hampshire, the former U.S. House Speaker called for funds workers pay into unemployment insurance to be diverted to training programs.

"I am willing to continue unemployment compensation, but I would attach to it a training requirement," the Georgia Republican explained. "So if you sign up for unemployment compensation, you would also sign up for a business to get trained to learn a new skill. Because by definition, the reason you're signing up for unemployment compensation is you're not finding a job at your current skill level."

"Now if you took all the money we spent in the last five years for unemployment compensation, if that had been a worker training fund, you'd have a dramatically better-trained work force. We have thousands of jobs available that people can't fill. You have people over here that want a job, but they don't have the skill. You have jobs over here that requires a skill that's not currently available," he added.

"I don't want to pay people 99 weeks to do nothing."

The former House Speaker was most like referring to a program called "Georgia Works" where companies are provided unemployed trainees for free. The state provides a $240 stipend — cut back from $600 last fall — to the trainee each week for up to eight weeks.

So let's review the mechanics of Georgia Works. Businesses can take unemployed people, get eight weeks of work out of them train them on the public dime, and then decide whether to hire them at the conclusion of eight weeks. From the perspective of the unemployed, this program offers…well, eight weeks of work at a sub-minimum wage pay rate. Oh, plus "training."

If this sounds like a publicly-funded temp agency to anyone, that isn't quite the case. Temp labor can be employed for extended periods of time whereas Georgia Works expires in about two months. Sure, it could be used as a long term source of free labor if an employer decided to keep bringing people in for eight weeks of – *cough* – training before letting them go and replacing them with another Georgia Works recruit. But that would never happen. Unless of course there was a large, permanent population of the desperate and unemployed.

Yeah, this is the plutocrat approved post-New Deal vision of the social safety net. I mean, it stands to reason that the most effective way to get businesses to hire the unemployed is to set up a state-subsidized program that gives businesses free labor. Ideas like this make me thankful that we still have a robust two party system.

Democratic President Barack Obama has also praised the program.

"There is a smart program in Georgia," Obama said during an August bus tour. "You're essentially earning a salary and getting your foot in the door into that company."

Jesus titty-fucking christ…

AUSTERITY

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

From the Associated Press:

Mary Power is 92 and worried about surviving another frigid New England winter. Deep cuts in federal home heating assistance benefits mean she probably can't afford enough heating oil to stay warm.

She lives in a drafty trailer in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood and gets by on $11,148 a year in pension and Social Security benefits. Her heating aid help this year will drop from $1,035 to $685. With rising heating oil prices, it probably will cost her more than $3,000 for enough oil to keep warm unless she turns her thermostat down to 60 degrees, as she plans.

"I will just have to crawl into bed with the covers over me and stay there," said Power, a widow who worked as a cashier and waitress until she was 80. "I will do what I have to do."

Thousands of poor people across the Northeast are bracing for a difficult winter with substantially less home heating aid coming from the federal government.

"They're playing Russian roulette with people's lives," said John Drew, who heads Action for Boston Community Development, Inc., which provides aid to low-income residents in Massachusetts.

The issue could flare just as New Hampshire votes in the Republican presidential primary.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she hopes the candidates will take up the region's heating aid crunch because it underscores how badly the country needs a comprehensive energy policy.

Several Northeast states already have reduced heating aid benefits to families as Congress considers cutting more than $1 billion from last year's $4.7 billion Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that served nearly 9 million households.

The first thing that comes to mind: thank god the Pentagon's trillion dollars weren't affected.

The second thing: I thought turning the thermostat down to 60 was just something one does when winter arrives. Are there people in this country who can actually afford the luxury of not being balls cold in their own home for the entirety of winter? If I had my thermostat set to a reasonably warm temperature my electric bill would be about $600/month.

And that brings me to the third thing: I have electric heat and the subject of this news item lives in one of the many older homes in the northeast with oil heat. These are two of the least efficient, most expensive ways to heat a home. The percentage of homes in this country with badly antiquated heating/cooling systems must contribute mightily to the vast amount of energy resources we consume in this country. We tend to focus inordinately on cars and our consumption of gasoline, but something tells me that making sure homes and shared buildings have heating systems that post-date the Industrial Revolution would accomplish nearly as much to "reduce our dependence on foreign oil" and other energy-related buzzwords.

But I'm overlooking the most obvious aspect of this story. Namely, the ongoing quest to figure out what in the holy hell is wrong with us as a country.

NPF: DEMYSTIFICATION

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 9th, 2011 by Ed

There was a time not too long ago when people – from small children to adults – could look at some celebrities and public figures as role models. Or they could simply be awed by the power, fame, wealth, and talents of various celebrities. Someone like Babe Ruth or The Beatles were, like, not even human. They were gods living on a separate plane of existence above mere mortals. Rock stars, Hollywood icons, powerful elected officials, titans of industry, professional athletes…all of these people formed an elite to which us common people implicitly understood we did not belong. They were special.

Then someone invented Twitter. And now we know exactly how banal, ordinary, and flat-out stupid most of these people are.

Twitter has eliminated the wall between the famous and the ordinary, allowing anyone with an internet connection to broadcast their unfiltered thoughts to anyone interested in reading them. The results are occasionally interesting but more often (and more predictably) a train wreck. Aside from the fact that most of them sound quite shallow and dumb, these social networking tools give us a glimpse of just how boring and unexciting the daily lives of the rich and famous are. Oh, look, LeBron James is tweeting about going shopping. Can you imagine Mickey Mantle going shopping? Mickey Mantle doesn't shop! He's Mickey Fucking Mantle! He hits home runs and does things no mortal can do! He probably fell to Earth during a meteor shower or something!

Of course the lives of Mr. Mantle and his fellow celebrities were every bit as dull then as they are today. The only difference is that fifty years ago you didn't hear, read about, or see Mickey Mantle going to a grocery store. You didn't get hourly updates from John Wayne as he waited around in airports. You didn't realize that Greta Garbo was a horrible person who bitched all day about how much her domestic servants suck. An individual could plausibly make these celebrities seem special, unique, and exciting. It allowed us to make role models or idols out of lousy people. I doubt that's a good thing, but there is something lamentable about the fact that Twitter has ruined the idea of the aloof, glamorous celebrity. It was nice when people could choose to pretend, if so inclined, that their favorite athletes and movie stars were special people or role models. Now we are constantly smacked in the face, 140 characters at a time, with the undeniable realization that they're mostly dolts with remarkably mundane lives who write at approximately a 4th grade proficiency level.

Without making a positive value judgment on the concept of celebrity, I don't think this is a positive. Suffice it to say that many of you who were young in the 1960s would probably have felt differently about The Beatles if, like today's musicians, they posted 15 daily updates for public consumption about how they're chilling in the studio and playing some PS3. Maybe there is some minute value in preventing reality from intruding on everything.

(PS: this site has a running gallery of ridiculous things that famous people tweet and the delightfully smart-assed responses.)

IS THAT THE WORD I WANT HERE?

Posted in Rants on December 8th, 2011 by Ed

Listening to various members of Congress argue in favor of recent legislation declaring the United States a battleground in the open ended war against an enemy – a concept, really – that cannot be defeated, I am stunned to realize that in the past decade American politicians have failed to discover just how goddamn creepy it is when they refer to this country as "the Homeland."

That term, popularized by George W. Bush in the immediate wake of 9-11, always stands out like a sore thumb in my mind. It is like an air horn going off in the middle of a piano recital. I do not think this is because I am overly sensitive to choices people make in the use of language; I think it is because "Homeland" sounds dissonant, clumsy, and totally unrepresentative of any concept one might reasonably associate with the political culture of the United States. It sounds more like the kind of language used in fiction and nonfiction alike to mark unmistakably those who stand in opposition to the American Way: Japanese and their Home Islands, godless Communists and their Motherland, evil Nazis and their Fatherland, and so on.

OK, so aside from facile observations about how a word sounds like other creepy words, what's the problem here? Isn't this sufficiently interchangeable with generic terms like "nation" or more common specific phrases like "American soil" or simply the United States? No. Look no further than the basic definition to see some of the problems:

Dictionary.com:
1.one's native land.
2.a region created or considered as a state by or for a people of a particular ethnic origin: the Palestinian homeland.
3.any of the thirteen racially and ethnically based regions created in South Africa by the South African government as nominally independent tribal ministates to which blacks are assigned.

Merriam-Webster:
1 native land
2 a state or area set aside to be a state for a people of a particular national, cultural, or racial origin

Hmm. "Homeland" has to do with the idea of being "native". Well, the last time I checked there is no common ethnic, cultural, or racial origin in the U.S., and to say that our country is "an area set aside for people of a particular national origin" is at once head-slappingly obvious and incorrect. After all, national "origin" implies membership at birth, which of course is only one aspect of American citizenship.

Calling this The Homeland makes no practical or rhetorical sense, unless of course one's conception of America is as a land of a single cultural (European) and racial (white) identity. Some people think that way – hell, throw in our single religion (Christianity) and you've pretty much summed up the Tea Party and Christian conservatism. But here in reality American culture and citizenship are defined by shared ideals and values. Ideals and values are about as far away from the idea of identity based on soil – that America is the patch of dirt on which it is situated – as you can get.

There is a very simple reason that no American citizen or resident calls this country The Homeland. We don't call it a homeland because it is more than that. Other nations might be crass enough, in the American chauvinist's way of thinking, to define themselves by history, borders, and patches of land, but not us. Until now, that is. What we're seeing is a symptom of a political class relying increasingly on jingoistic appeals and language and a population learning how to define itself, its nation, and its citizenship in the basest terms – you are One of Us or One of Them. You Belong or you are The Other. It's the mindset of a populace that is warming up to the idea of arbitrary arrest and detention of its own members in the name of order, security, and preservation of the social order.

WASF 2

Posted in Quick Hits on December 6th, 2011 by Ed

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post on education "reform" – a WaPo column on the relevance of standardized tests through the eyes of an adult school board member who (rather boldly) agreed to take the test and publicize his results. On the one hand, I have a hard time taking seriously his "I've never had to do math in real life, so why should kids learn it?" argument, which is both explicit and implicit here. On the other hand, it makes you wonder what the average school board member (or Concerned Parent, for that matter) would get on their kids' standardized tests.

I used to enjoy giving my intro classes the basic test immigrants are required to take in order to obtain U.S. citizenship. The results were…not pretty. "But no one needs to know this stuff!" was a common protest, but they somehow avoided linking that response to the question of why the test should be required of immigrants in that case.

WASF

Posted in Quick Hits on December 5th, 2011 by Ed

Since 2001 there has been a marked increase in the number of man-made social and political Crises threatening Americans, from terrorism to possible global pandemics to economic collapse to peak oil to the erosion of individual rights. It's tiring, spending as much time as we have been asked to spend terrified and fending off imminent doom. Accordingly I have tried hard to maintain a more even keel than Young Ed used to, resisting the urge to leap to attention as though the sky is falling every time a perceived threat or crisis appears on the horizon.

Forget all of that for a second. The sky is now falling. This is the end of the world as we know it: for-profit "education reform advocates" (lobbyists/privatization fetishists) are convincing legislatures to legalize "virtual charter schools". You might know these better as online courses. You know, those things that students learn absolutely nothing from. But you can't beat 'em for cheap overhead!

Read that link. We are so, so very fucked.

CHARACTER REHABILITATION

Posted in Quick Hits on December 1st, 2011 by Ed

One of the most interesting differences between liberals and conservatives, in my anecdotal experience, is the zeal conservatives have for re-litigating the past and attempting to rehabilitate the character of their most visible failures. Note, for example, the consistent efforts to rewrite the history of the New Deal (see: uberhack Amity Shlaes' recent garbage), Ann Coulter's "Joe McCarthy wasn't so bad after all!" crap, or Victor Davis Hanson's decades-long effort to make Curtis LeMay a figure of respect instead of a template for movie villains. There seems to be a different level of emphasis on…letting it go, so to speak.

The return on investment for this strategy seems remarkably low. The amount of effort required to create a new hero (Palin, Bachmann, Paul Ryan, etc.) is vastly lower than what is required to rewrite history, and the latter usually fails anyway. So of all the figures who could be praised in an effort to rehabilitate their reputation, I'm not sure why the comedy geniuses at the Von Mises Institute decided to start with Scrooge. Yes, the fictional character. The villain. The figure whose name has become synonymous with penury, greed, and the inhumanity of industrialized capitalism. Ebenezer Scrooge.

This deserves a full-scale FJMing like few things I've ever seen, but it's simply too long and too stupid to fit into my currently hectic schedule. Look at just a few of the things we learn in this opus, "In Defense of Scrooge":

So let's look without preconceptions at Scrooge's allegedly underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit. The fact is, if Cratchit's skills were worth more to anyone than the fifteen shillings Scrooge pays him weekly, there would be someone glad to offer it to him. Since no one has, and since Cratchit's profit-maximizing boss is hardly a man to pay for nothing, Cratchit must be worth exactly his present wages.

No doubt Cratchit needs—i.e., wants—more, to support his family and care for Tiny Tim. But Scrooge did not force Cratchit to father children he is having difficulty supporting. If Cratchit had children while suspecting he would be unable to afford them, he, not Scrooge, is responsible for their plight. And if Cratchit didn't know how expensive they would be, why must Scrooge assume the burden of Cratchit's misjudgment?

As for that one lump of coal Scrooge allows him, it bears emphasis that Cratchit has not been chained to his chilly desk. If he stays there, he shows by his behavior that he prefers his present wages-plus-comfort package to any other he has found, or supposes himself likely to find. Actions speak louder than grumbling, and the reader can hardly complain about what Cratchit evidently finds satisfactory.

I…I don't even know where to start with this. Just remember that you can't be underpaid if the inerrant free market has determined your salary (laugh along for a moment and pretend that's what actually happened here).

Scrooge's first employer, good old Fezziwig, was a lot freer with a guinea—he throws his employees a Christmas party. What the Ghost of Christmas Past does not explain is how Fezziwig afforded it. Did he attempt to pass the added costs to his customers? Or did young Scrooge pay for it anyway by working for marginally lower wages?

Yeah.

The biggest of the Big Lies about Scrooge is the pointlessness of his pursuit of money. "Wealth is of no use to him. He doesn't do any good with it," opines ruddy nephew Fred.

Wrong on both counts. Scrooge apparently lends money, and to discover the good he does one need only inquire of the borrowers.

Lending money is an act of kindness.

And then, most of all:

Dickens doesn't mention Scrooge's satisfied customers, but there must have been plenty of them for Scrooge to have gotten so rich.

Yep, that's how one gets rich in a Free Market: by merit. By pleasing customers.

The Von Mises Institute: Blending glibertarian fantasy and reality since 1982.