NPF: ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 16th, 2012 by Ed

The Vegas post from last Friday spawned one of my favorite comments of the many thousands that have been posted here over the years:

Vegas is what people who have never seen America, or who have never seen an America that exists past the nearest Circle K, imagine when they think of "having a good time." All the things one can do in Vegas–Eat, Drink, Gamble, Watch Sump'n Purty/Dirty–these are not recreations of substance, but of quantity. They appeal to people who literally have no idea how to have a good time, because either their culture or their income doesn't allow it. Vegas offers them plenty of what they've been *told* is a good time–or a *lot* of what they've had to made do with in order to have a good time (booze and carbs and throwing a little money away at the OTB parlor.) If "Steak" is good, "All You Can Eat Steak" is better. If pissing away a few bucks on the Lotto is good, pissing away the mortgage at the slots is better.

But what I'm aware of in Vegas is how *forced* it all seems–how the people there are actively *trying* to have a good time. Because they came all this way, and spent all this money, and yet somehow, *somehow*, it's not quite filling the emptiness inside. So they overcompensate, with "Wooo"s, and drinking-dares, and forming into roving gaggles. But you can see it in their eyes, especially when they're briefly stuck–waiting for the elevator–in line at the buffet–at one of the endless lights on the Strip's crosswalks. They're worried that everyone else seems to be having such a good time, and what's *wrong* with them?

This struck me as an excellent description of Vegas and why I find it more sad than fun. Then on Monday of this week I had the – misfortune? luck? blessing of divine providence? – to visit Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Briefly. But for far too long. And I staggered away from that experience feeling certain that the core of this comment is absolutely correct; Americans are so psychologically off kilter that many of us do not appear to know how to have fun. We follow the rest of the herd and do what Everyone describes as fun. I am unsure what conclusion is reached at this point – Do we convince ourselves that we had Fun even though we didn't, or do we conclude that Fun isn't actually fun and resolve that it's not worth the effort? – but I do know that you'll never see a more confused, disappointed, and defeated mass of humanity than you'll find wandering the streets of American tourist traps. At least Vegas has liquor everywhere.

If you've never been to Gatlinburg, you probably have. It goes by lots of different names in this country. Myrtle Beach. Wisconsin Dells. Panama City. Niagara Falls. Williamsburg, VA. Ocean City, MD. The Bourbon Street part of New Orleans or the Wharf in San Francisco. Any place that looks like a state fair (where anything can and will be deep fried or airbrushed), smells like an outdoor toilet, boasts establishments that feature the terms "Ripley's" or "Guinness Book of", promises "handcrafted" things from "natives", and where the local economy appears to be based entirely on t-shirts bearing the name of the town, the Confederate flag, Jesus, or all three. If you like watching middle aged people who have trouble walking roam aimlessly (with their sullen, miserable children) while gorging themselves on fudge, funnel cakes, cotton candy, and corn dogs, book your visit today. Otherwise, pass.

As a former Midwesterner I have taken many trips through Wisconsin Dells, to which Gatlinburg is strikingly similar (albeit without the Jesusy overtones, which the Dells replace with "Indian" kitsch). Other than Noah's Ark, which I suspect would be fun even as an adult, I was always struck by how not-fun it was. And I was not alone in that regard. My parents looked miserable. Everyone looked miserable. Everyone looked like they were about to start screaming, pointing fingers, and accusing each other of dozens of personal failings at any moment. It looked like the kind of place that pushed bad marriages into divorce and made kids realize that if this is Good Clean Fun then maybe drugs aren't so bad after all. Everybody simply went because everyone else went, and then presumably returned and told everyone at the office that it was great – the cheap buffets, the dingy motels, the tsunami of Chinese souvenirs – for fear of going against the prevailing wisdom. It's a great place to take The Kids!, thus ensuring that another generation will grow into adulthood with a warped, pull-lever-to-receive-pellet understanding of how to have fun and that another generation of Eastern European summer workers will experience America at its sweatiest and most miserable.

In closing, 45 minutes in Pigeon Forge made me want to join al Qaeda. If people honestly enjoy that place, we are beyond saving. Bring on the flood.

BULL MARKET

Posted in Rants on March 15th, 2012 by Ed

There aren't many growth industries in this economy, but the U.S. has consistently churned out one commodity in record numbers since the 1970s: prison inmates. Thanks to the War on Drugs, corrections has transformed from a relatively modest component of state budgets to a resource hungry leviathan that cash-strapped legislatures are now struggling to control. In California, for example, prisons were 2% of the budget in 1980 but now consume a full 10% of every dollar the state takes in. Texas is now spending $6,000,000,000 annually on its carceral empire, nearly 8% of a state budget facing a $20 billion shortfall.

Given the high caliber of person serving in the average state legislature these days, it should come as no surprise that the proposed solution is the usual privatization-?????-PROFITS!!! shell game that looks suspiciously like taking a payday loan. It looks like that because the logic is exactly the same: the state gets a one-time cash payment now, signs a 20 year contract, and then spends far more than the short term infusion of cash to meet the terms of the contract. Most states – Louisiana, Minnesota, Florida, Virginia, on and on and on – have discovered that the proposed cost savings from prison privatization are an illusion, as the state ends up spending less on salaries and maintenance but far more on secondary costs like medical care and lawsuits. But who cares! We can get the cash today!

Private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America recently sent an offer to 48 states offering immediate cash payments in exchange for 20 year contracts on the state prison system. Some states will undoubtedly take them up on the offer, either falling for the promise of savings through "efficiency" or reasoning that the current crop of politicians will be long gone by the time the piper requests payment. The offer has an interesting caveat, though – CCA requires the states to guarantee 90% capacity in the prisons for the duration of the contract.

Several of my social networking site friends focused on the 90% requirement when commenting on this story. Predictably, most sane people are appalled at the idea of the state guaranteeing to incarcerate a minimum number of citizens every year. I understand the shock and disgust, but this requirement should be taken with a grain of salt. Every single state prison system in the country is currently operating at 97% capacity or higher according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics – in some cases much, much higher – and as recently as 2005 every single state was operating over capacity. We have been locking up so many people with such draconian sentences for the last 30 years that nothing short of blanket pardons for all non-violent offenders could bring inmate populations below 90% of capacity.

I understand why the idea of guaranteed inmate populations is jarring. The modern American correctional system is already such a disaster, though, that such guarantees are hardly necessary. It would be like the Arizona State Legislature signing a contract guaranteeing a set number of stupid, psychotic bills proposed per session; the implications for the democratic process are troubling, but the practical matter of hitting the target is a given.

HEARTS AND MINDS AND WHATNOT

Posted in Rants on March 13th, 2012 by Ed

One of the oddest things about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is how little attention the American public has paid to them for the duration. Through the rose colored glasses of history, we generally accept that the public was involved in the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam to an extent that seems strange and foreign to us today. The news that trickles out of the Middle East has been and remains infrequent, bad, and received with little interest.

Focusing on bad news is neither exclusive to the American media nor to these wars. Still, part of me wonders if the situation in Afghanistan is not somewhat more positive than we might think because only the bad news gets reported. Then the other parts of me remind Part 1 that bad news is getting reported because the news is almost exclusively bad.

Last fall there was an astounding piece of public opinion research done in Afghanistan, showing that 92% of the 1000 Afghan males surveyed have never heard of 9/11. Think about that. They have no idea whatsoever why the US military is in their country beyond perhaps a vague notion that we do not like the Taliban. Conducting a scientific poll in a primitive, war-torn country with an illiteracy epidemic presents major challenges, and I have no doubt that the polling agency would allow that the data and sample are imperfect. Regardless, even if 92% is an overestimate the data still underscore the reason that we are not winning and never will win the war there. It is impossible to win the hearts and minds of a population with no understanding of the geopolitical events that started the war. It's also impossible to win hearts and minds by blowing stuff (and people) up, but that goes without saying.

So bearing in mind that the Afghan population does not know why we are there – Does the American public even know? Do our leaders? – consider this kind of news in rapid succession:

– The US military is caught burning Korans. I believe the official explanation that this was accidental only because I cannot conceive of anyone being stupid enough to do it intentionally. Regardless, Afghans are understandably displeased.

– With that fiasco fresh in everyone's mind a US soldier goes on a one-man killing spree, killing sixteen. Most were women and children. While the US military will argue that it can't be judged by the deranged choice made by a single soldier, the Afghan public is unlikely to appreciate that fine point of distinction. As a scholar quoted in the article notes, "This is a fatal hammer blow on the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Whatever sliver of trust and credibility we might have had following the burnings of the Koran is now gone."

That is starting to look like a fair assessment. It's hard to spot the end of a war that had no coherent mission and no measurable progress from the beginning, but I'd say this is looking quite a bit like the endpoint. There appears to be little left for the US military to do but turn everything over to the sparse, corrupt, and weak Afghan government and then pull up stakes in the middle of the night and disappear. It's eerie how we were just talking about the Fall of Saigon a week ago; we may be re-enacting something similar in the near future.

Will anyone even notice? Have the GOP candidates – or any candidate for Congress, for that matter – devoted anything but token attention and interest to Afghanistan? No, they're all breathlessly laying out plans to start a war with Iran, taking care to stand behind the podium to hide their erections. The war nobody paid attention to, fought for reasons Afghans didn't understand and toward ends that Americans couldn't define, will finally get the full attention of the political system…when the candidates decide that it will be a convenient excuse to call Obama a quitter, pansy, cheese-eating surrender monkey, and betrayer of the American way.

And ten or fifteen or thirty years from now, we still won't have learned our lesson about saving countries by blowing them up and trying to teach their people to thank us for it.

THE POSSIBLE

Posted in Rants on March 12th, 2012 by Ed

As a humble educator (at least in the material sense, for those of you who have concluded that I'm cocky as all hell) there are many things I can't afford. I am not in poverty, of course, but I consider my lifestyle to be modest. A twelve year old car, a rental ranch in the undergraduate part of town, and so on. I bring this up only to point out that I can't afford things like luxury cars, expensive vacations overseas, designer clothes, yadda yadda yadda.

And I point that out only to poke tons of holes in my logic. You see, I totally could afford a BMW or a month in a Tuscan villa if I was willing to make a ton of sacrifices. I could sell every single object of value that I own and, combined with my retirement savings, blow the proceeds on an epic vacation. I could move into a punk house and share the rent with 25 other people, redirecting what I currently pay in rent toward monthly BMW payments. Or I could do as many people do and borrow money to pay for these splurges. So the statement "I can't afford ____" is very rarely accurate. It would not be a good idea for me to do any of the things I suggested here. It's clearly not impossible, however.

To use somewhat less ridiculous examples, everything I afford represents a choice. I like to collect commemorative coins. They are not useful, but I choose to buy them on occasion. Each one represents something else I chose to forgo. It wouldn't be accurate for me to say "I can't afford $300 shoes!" In reality, I chose to spend the money on something else because I am lucky enough to have some disposable income each month.

OK. The boring part is over. Here's the point.

The Republican primaries – as well as the 2010 elections – have been lousy with declarative statements about what the United States cannot afford. To hear the candidates tell it, there is a laundry list of unaffordable items. Some are currently in the budget and some are merely proposals. The bottom line is clear, though: we just can't afford _____. Health care reform. Social Security. Medicare. Public education. Stimulus spending. Physical infrastructure. Public employees. The space program. Environmentally friendly technologies. These and more are just too expensive.

That disingenuous rhetoric pours from Romney, Gingrich, Santorum (increasingly), and every dour-faced old Senator who shoves his mug into a news camera. Of all the "lies" we talk about in the context of politics and especially in campaigns, this is the biggest and most pervasive. We can afford whatever we want. We sent a bunch of goddamn rockets to the moon just to give the Soviet Union a big middle finger. We spend literal trillions on our defense establishment. We subsidize all kinds of favored industries at the expense of others. And the household/personal budget is a poor analogy here, as the government has tools at its disposal that radically alter the equation. It can raise taxes. It can print more money (see: World War II). It can reallocate what it currently spends. It can sell assets (like gold reserves). It can borrow.

I'm not arguing that any of those are or are not wise. That depends on context and one's risk tolerance. Printing money, for example, is probably not a good way to address the problem. The point is that we could afford any of the things we are told we cannot afford. We simply choose not to. Candidates who say "America cannot afford…" mean "This is not on my list of priorities." The history of this country, particularly throughout the Depression and Second World War, have proven that we can "afford" essentially anything we want. The question is, are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices? For the military and for corporate largesse, yes. The opportunity costs of those priorities are immense. For anything else, therefore, the answer is no. We say we can't afford them because that sounds prettier than the truth, which is that they simply aren't important to us.

NPF: XANADU

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 9th, 2012 by Ed

I have now been to Las Vegas four times in my life, twice in the last six months. This is, in my view, a sufficient amount of direct experience to conclude with confidence that I don't get it. The phrase "_____ is why people hate America!" is overused, but it is tempting to say that Las Vegas is in fact why people hate America. Tempting, but wrong. At least based on the vast quantity of Japanese, European, and Middle Eastern tourists blowing obscene amounts of money there on any given evening.

That Vegas is garish and overdone requires no discussion. For many people this appears to be part of its charm. It creates for its visitors a unique experience. Bear in mind, however, that getting kicked in the nuts is also a unique experience. My primary issue, however, is not that the Strip is an incredible sensory overload, nor that everything that passes for entertainment – gambling, strip clubs, celebrity chef restaurants – is staggeringly expensive and leaves one with the feeling of being on a steam locomotive, shoveling piles of money into the roaring fire of the boiler.


Not pictured: taste, restraint, dignity

No, my problem is that I developed my mental image of Vegas as a kid from things like James Bond or old Rat Pack movies. And when you visit for the first time, it hits you: no one is wearing a tuxedo or playing high-stakes baccarat. It's a bunch of slobs walking around in flip-flops, their rolls of fat and Tweety Bird tattoos protruding from clothes that might have fit 5 years ago, stumbling up and down the strip with giant novelty frozen drinks in a container shaped like the Eiffel Tower. It's every jackwagon you see riding the average city bus, except they're piss drunk at 2 PM and they won't get out of your way.

The casinos, despite the amount of time people seem to devote to discussing their relative merits, are substantively identical once inside. And the patrons are almost universally depressing – old people, some attached to wheelchairs or oxygen tanks, listlessly pressing a button on a slot machine for hours and hours until the Social Security check is gone. The younger people are a mix of fratboy types and the kind of crowd one would meet at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the bad part of a rural Midwestern city. You see people who look like the only time they leave casinos is to tend to their meth labs or sell whatever they can burglarize from the seedy apartment blocks set just off the strip. You see a lot of old cocktail waitresses who look like they've lived indescribably rough lives, the kind that makes you look 60 when you're 42. You see pawn shops with lines of people out the door (and around the building) displaying baby strollers in the front window. There's nothing even fake-classy about the city. It's just sad. Apparently I'm more disturbed than most Americans by throngs of sex workers who look beaten up and strung out.

I enjoyed myself because I was with my friends and that's where they wanted to go. I will go again if it gives me the opportunity to be near people I like. But I do not get it. I do not understand the appeal, other than that many people enjoy an adult version of a low-rent Spring Break – say, whatever destination is two or three steps down from South Padre in terms of cost, class, and vomit coverage. Lots of people see Vegas as paradise, but all I see is one of the ugliest things in America built in the midst of one of the most beautiful. For the thousands upon thousands of dollars people spend there – throwing money away in casinos, paying for bottle service in tacky clubs with $30 drinks, seeing overpriced shows, shopping in "luxury" mall stores, or jamming $100 bills into the thong of some runaway from Beloit, WI – it blows my mind that none of the city's visitors could come up with a better destination on which to spend all that money.

THE PERFECT WIFE

Posted in Quick Hits on March 7th, 2012 by Ed

Late comedy night on Tuesday, so this will have to be brief. Thankfully someone already said 99% of what I want to say about this, so I will simply direct you to this discussion of how sad-creepy-terrifying Callista Gingrich is. She is in many ways the ideal Republican woman – silent, dressed like a funeral home director, and her face frozen into a frightening rictus.

Callista Gingrich definitely looks like she's trying to be a proper Republican candidate's wife. She has the frozen devoted spouse gaze down pat. She shops from the Serious Candidate's Wife clothing catalog, all clothes tasteful and designed not to call to much attention away from her husband. She unfortunately still needs to work on a genuine smile, but with Republicans, it's not that big priority.

But all may not be well with this cultivated persona, as this clip suggests.

When asked by a reporter what he was giving up for Lent, the hefty Newt admitted sheepishly that he was giving up sweets. Perfunctorily, the reporter asked the same of Callista. Her response had just a tinge of bitterness to it: "My opinion".

Yikes. Anyone want to guess what precipitated that response? Whatever it was, it's clear that for many in the GOP, that's the definition of a perfect Republican wife.

She most definitely has the Laura Bush "silent and obedient" thing down pat. Overall you really have to question the sanity of any woman who would become Mrs. Newt Gingrich and especially Mrs. Newt Gingrich #3. Part of me wants to pity her but the rest of me remembers that she did this to herself. Regardless, she offers all of us a glimpse into the twisted Republican Utopia, the ideal America in which the women are silent, the men do the talking, and the poor and colored folk Know Their Place.

HOW TO SCREW UP AN ARGUMENT EVEN WHEN YOU HAVE A POINT

Posted in Rants on March 6th, 2012 by Ed

So, Rush Limbaugh. By this point you know what he said, so I'm not going to recount it here. Here is the laundry list if you're curious, uninformed, or a glutton for punishment. Let's momentarily ignore the fact that Limbaugh is a sad, sad excuse for a human being who has to keep ratcheting up the shock factor to get attention because he's not relevant anymore, and therefore we're playing into his hands by talking about him. Let's also ignore the fact that I'm pretty goddamn sure he doesn't understand how birth control pills work, as he apparently believes that one can have "so much sex, she’s going broke buying contraceptives and wants us to buy them." This strongly implies that he thinks that birth control pills are taken each time a woman has sex. I think he's got them confused with his limp dick pills. But we digress.

After his half-assed non-apology, forthcoming only under the direct threat of having his radio show advertisers abandon him, the conservative media have gone into overdrive trying to turn this story to their advantage. This has taken the tried-and-true "But nobody complains when libruls do it!" format for the most part. As usual, this has involved collecting cherry picked quotes, misquotes, and totally irrelevant statements and presenting them as evidence that "the liberals" are every bit the misogynist pigs that Rush Limbaugh is.

Kirsten Powers has put together one such list, one that has achieved fairly wide circulation on the internets. One thing caught my eye:

During the 2008 election Ed Schultz said on his radio show that Sarah Palin set off a "bimbo alert." He called Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut." (He later apologized.) He once even took to his blog to call yours truly a "bimbo" for the offense of quoting him accurately in a New York Post column.

Thus Powers starts off with a fair point. Whether it's Ed Schultz, Rush Limbaugh, or Walter Cronkite, media commentators can certainly do better than calling women bimbos and sluts. Shame on Ed Schultz. And as much as it pains me to say it, Powers is correct in pointing out that there was little to no outrage surrounding Schultz's comments (although he was suspended by MSNBC). While we could argue qualitative points about whether Schultz's comments are as "bad" as Limbaugh's, the point holds. This could have turned into a good column for Powers.

Then she remembered her agenda, and things went downhill in a hurry.

Keith Olbermann has said that conservative commentator S.E. Cupp should have been aborted by her parents, apparently because he finds her having opinions offensive. He called Michelle Malkin a "mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick." He found it newsworthy to discuss Carrie Prejean’s breasts on his MSNBC show. His solution for dealing with Hillary Clinton, who he thought should drop out of the presidential race, was to find "somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out."

OK. That stuff really isn't misogynist. It's mean. It might be over the line of good taste in Cupp's case. It might just be unnecessary and irrelevant with the Prejean story. It might be juvenile to make cracks about Malkin's (ghastly) appearance rather than focusing on her (idiotic) ideas. But I think you would be hard pressed to label those comments misogynist, either in a vacuum or compared to Limbaugh's recent rants.

Left-wing darling Matt Taibbi wrote on his blog in 2009, "When I read [Malkin’s] stuff, I imagine her narrating her text, book-on-tape style, with a big, hairy set of balls in her mouth." In a Rolling Stone article about Secretary of State Clinton, he referred to her "flabby arms." When feminist writer Erica Jong criticized him for it, he responded by referring to Jong as an "800-year old sex novelist."

Hmm. I guess the balls-in-mouth thing is borderline at best, but the other two comments are about age and appearance. And the number of instances in which Taibbi has mocked the appearance of male political figures is longer than the phone book. So perhaps a better criticism would be his shallowness. Those quotes make pretty meager evidence for woman-hating.

Then things go completely off the rails.

In Taibbi’s profile of Congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann he labeled her "batshit crazy." (Oh, those "crazy" women with their hormones and all.)

Wow. OK. That's really reaching. Like, that's possibly the lamest effort to paint someone as a misogynist that I've ever seen. It's akin to calling Al Sharpton an asshole and then scare-quoting "asshole" as evidence that you hate black people.

Chris Matthews’s sickening misogyny was made famous in 2008, when he obsessively tore down Hillary Clinton for standing between Barack Obama and the presidency, something that Matthews could not abide. Over the years he has referred to the former first lady, senator and presidential candidate and current secretary of state as a "she-devil," "Nurse Ratched," and "Madame Defarge." Matthews has also called Clinton "witchy," "anti-male," and "uppity" and once claimed she won her Senate seat only because her "husband messed around."

This is weak sauce for so many reasons. First, do you really want to play the "Let's look at what pundits have called Hillary Clinton over the years" game, Kirsten? Second, I agree with the general consensus that Chris Matthews is a condescending, chauvinist asshead who would have fit right in with the media of the 1950s. This laundry list of words uttered about Clinton, however, hardly provide much evidence of that. I mean, calling someone "Madame Defarge" is hardly the sort of thing that would get the interest groups in a tizzy, even if Glenn Beck said it. Then she really stretches things:

Matthews has wondered aloud whether Sarah Palin is even "capable of thinking" and has called Bachmann a "balloon head" and said she was "lucky we still don’t have literacy tests out there."

Once again, those quotes have absolutely nothing to do with the main argument in this column.

The author then devotes a paragraph to Bill Maher quotes. We are all inescapably aware of the fact that Bill Maher is a jagoff. He's a paranoid, attention starved conspiracy theorist who thinks Jenny McCarthy is an authority on vaccination. After trying to suggest that Bill Maher is really important and well respected among liberals, she notes:

Maher has called Palin a "dumb twat" and dropped the C-word in describing the former Alaska governor. He called Palin and Congresswoman Bachmann "boobs" and "two bimbos." He said of the former vice-presidential candidate, "She is not a mean girl. She is a crazy girl with mean ideas." He recently made a joke about Rick Santorum’s wife using a vibrator.

Again, anyone who thinks it's appropriate to call women twats, bimbos, and cunts in any setting is an asshole. Point taken. The rest, once again, is irrelevant. He called Sarah Palin mean? Heavens!

So basically the take home points here are: A) Ed Schultz called someone a slut and a bimbo, for which he was rightfully suspended, and B) Bill Maher uses words like cunt and bimbo to describe female political figures. Everything else here, including the implication that Maher is held in great esteem on the left, is tangential at best and irrelevant at worst. She could have focused on Schultz and Maher, recounting in detail how various feminist figures and blogs failed to make the same stink that they have made over Limbaugh. That would have been a point earned and taken. Instead she got greedy, presumably because she didn't think two examples would be enough. She needed a parade of misogynist comments to give this argument gravitas. The finished product is so full of red herrings and flat-out lousy reasoning that the valid points she could have made end up lost among the nonsense.

ALL WORK AND NO PAY

Posted in Rants on March 5th, 2012 by Ed

I have a friend in a terrible situation at the moment, one that I've watched several friends and acquaintances go through over the past few years. Her company has stopped paying all of its employees. They were unable to meet the Feb. 1 or Feb. 15 payroll and, despite many promises and runarounds, there were no paychecks forthcoming on March 1 either. Being a practical person, I have advised her in the strongest possible terms to stop doing any work until paychecks are forthcoming. Yet she and the rest of the employees are still working. They're being threatened by their landlords and they don't have any groceries, but they're still working. Whenever I have a friend in this situation I am struck by the absurdity of the dilemma. How sad it is to realize that the American workforce is whipped enough to keep working even when it isn't getting paid. We have some misguided sense of obligation to our employers no matter how many times they reiterate how little obligation they feel toward us.

The contract between employee and employer, formal or otherwise, is simple: they pay us and we work. If we don't work they certainly aren't going to pay us. The inverse of that statement does not always hold, however. When one works for a smaller company, I understand that there is a stronger sense of, "Well if we all make a sacrifice now we can right the ship and then payroll will be back to normal. If we all quit, the company will definitely go under." That makes some sense. Up to a point. Inevitably, however, the reality of having bills to pay can no longer be ignored.

I would certainly like to think that I'm rational enough to refuse to work if I'm not being paid, but I've never been in a similar situation so I can't say with certainty how I'd react. If my friends are any indication I'd be showing up to work anyway, paycheck or no paycheck. How did we get like this? I mean, despite some aspects of this reaction being understandable, from a distance this looks like pure insanity. Battered Worker Syndrome at its finest. If our ancestors were brought here in a time machine and we tried to explain that sometimes Americans work without getting paid – either "off the clock" overtime or work in the complete absence of paychecks – they would return to their time convinced that people in the future are all insane.

Actually, not all of our ancestors. If we explained this to people from the late 19th/early 20th Centuries they could no doubt relate to it. This is precisely the kind of Gilded Era labor-capital relationship they would recognize. Thankfully that was followed by the Progressive Era and the growing recognition that, you know, human life and labor had some basic dignity worth recognizing and protecting. It took a long time, though, for that to sink it. It has taken almost as long – we're 31 years past the inauguration of St. Ronald – to beat that dignity back out of the workforce. If your employer stops paying you, show up to work anyway. Because your job is the most important thing in your life, and people who don't want to work (paycheck be damned!) are the lowest form of life. Leeches. Welfare queens. Bums. Criminals. The efforts at shaming the lazy, ungrateful American worker have succeeded so well that people are afraid to stop working even when their landlords are threatening eviction. The labor-management power imbalance is so severe that we don't even seem capable of standing up to our employers to say, "Uh, I'm not coming in tomorrow if I don't get paid."

That sounds like an eminently reasonable request, and in a reasonable world any employer would understand that the employees are not going to work (or be expected to work) without compensation. Here in the land of the unreasonable, we get pep talks about pitching in to help out The Team and guilt about failing to work regardless of the circumstances.

I don't know. I took a Friedmanesque approach here, basing this on anecdotal evidence from people I know. Maybe my friends are atypical and weird. I have the sneaking feeling, however, that this sort of "take one for the team" attitude (and expectation) is common given the general reverence with which The Bosses are treated in our society. That said, feel free to restore my faith in humanity by telling me I'm crazy and this doesn't really happen. Reassure me that American labor has enough backbone and common sense to stop working when the paychecks stop coming.

NPF: FORGET YOUR PAST

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 2nd, 2012 by Ed

I was half-tempted to skip NPF and eulogize Andrew Breitbart, but instead let's do A Little Politics Friday: here's a link to Andrew Breitbart's FJMing from 2008. That was back when he was merely dumb. It took him a few years to work up to being a malignant tumor on our public discourse.

And I'm sorry to be hitting you with all of these random links on Fridays, but HOLY BALLS THE BULGARIANS BUILT A GODDAMN JAMES BOND VILLAIN LAIR ON TOP OF A MOUNTAIN back during the Cold War.

Check out this site for a photo tour of the property. Usually I find blogs full of "Hey look, an abandoned building!" pictures somewhat trite, but this is no ordinary abandoned building and the photographer relays some interesting history behind it too. It's like a flying saucer / monument and it's covered with Communist-era frescoes. Someone graffiti-ed the entrance with the phrase (in English, curiously) "Forget Your Past." Not a chance, buddy. This is the kind of thing that needs to be remembered.

Oh, and incidentally, do any other fans of modern architecture note more than a passing resemblance to Oscar Niemayer's Congresso Nacional building in Brasilia?

Maybe "resemblance" is the wrong term, but there is clearly some shared stylistic DNA there.

A BUNCH OF PEOPLE WHO NEED TO BE SEVERELY BEATEN GET THE FJM TREATMENT

Posted in Rants on March 1st, 2012 by Ed

Throughout the Great Recession, I think we can all agree that the suffering of people on Wall Street has been overlooked. Max Abelson of Bloomberg tries to address that problem with, "Wall Street Bonus Withdrawal Means Trading Aspen for Coupons." This is one case in which it's best for me to say as little as possible by way of introduction, saving my comments for the text per the FJM format.

Andrew Schiff was sitting in a traffic jam in California this month after giving a speech at an investment conference about gold. He turned off the satellite radio, got out of the car and screamed a profanity.

"I'm not Zen at all, and when I'm freaking out about the situation, where I'm stuck like a rat in a trap on a highway with no way to get out, it’s very hard,' Schiff, director of marketing for broker-dealer Euro Pacific Capital Inc., said in an interview.

Schiff, 46, is facing another kind of jam this year: Paid a lower bonus, he said the $350,000 he earns, enough to put him in the country’s top 1 percent by income, doesn’t cover his family's private-school tuition, a Kent, Connecticut, summer rental and the upgrade they would like from their 1,200-square foot Brooklyn duplex.

"I feel stuck," Schiff said. "The New York that I wanted to have is still just beyond my reach."

The smaller bonus checks that hit accounts across the financial-services industry this month are making it difficult to maintain the lifestyles that Wall Street workers expect, according to interviews with bankers and their accountants, therapists, advisers and headhunters.

"People who don't have money don't understand the stress," said Alan Dlugash, a partner at accounting firm Marks Paneth & Shron LLP in New York who specializes in financial planning for the wealthy. "Could you imagine what it's like to say I got three kids in private school, I have to think about pulling them out? How do you do that?"

Facing a slump in revenue from investment banking and trading, Wall Street firms have trimmed 2011 discretionary pay. At Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) and Barclays Capital, the cuts were at least 25 percent. Morgan Stanley (MS) capped cash bonuses at $125,000, and Deutsche Bank AG (DBK) increased the percentage of deferred pay.

Wall Street's cash bonus pool fell by 14 percent last year to $19.7 billion, the lowest since 2008, according to projections by New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

"It’s a disaster," said Ilana Weinstein, chief executive officer of New York-based search firm IDW Group LLC. "The entire construct of compensation has changed."

Most people can only dream of Wall Street's shrinking paychecks. Median household income in 2010 was $49,445, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, lower than the previous year and less than 1 percent of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein's $7 million restricted-stock bonus for 2011. The percentage of Americans living in poverty climbed to 15.1 percent, the highest in almost two decades.

Wall Street headhunter Daniel Arbeeny said his "income has gone down tremendously." On a recent Sunday, he drove to Fairway Market in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to buy discounted salmon for $5.99 a pound.

"They have a circular that they leave in front of the buildings in our neighborhood," said Arbeeny, 49, who lives in nearby Cobble Hill, namesake for a line of pebbled-leather Kate Spade handbags. "We sit there, and I look through all of them to find out where it’s worth going."

Executive-search veterans who work with hedge funds and banks make about $500,000 in good years, said Arbeeny, managing principal at New York-based CMF Partners LLC, declining to discuss specifics about his own income. He said he no longer goes on annual ski trips to Whistler, Tahoe or Aspen.

He reads other supermarket circulars to find good prices for his favorite cereal, Wheat Chex.

"Wow, did I waste a lot of money," Arbeeny said.

Richard Scheiner, 58, a real-estate investor and hedge-fund manager, said most people on Wall Street don't save.

"When their means are cut, they're stuck," said Scheiner, whose New York-based hedge fund, Lane Gate Partners LLC, was down about 15 percent last year. "Not so much an issue for me and my wife because we’ve always saved."

Scheiner said he spends about $500 a month to park one of his two Audis in a garage and at least $7,500 a year each for memberships at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester and a gun club in upstate New York. A labradoodle named Zelda and a rescued bichon frise, Duke, cost $17,000 a year, including food, health care, boarding and a daily dog-walker who charges $17 each per outing, he said.

Still, he sold two motorcycles he didn’t use and called his Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet "the Volkswagen of supercars." He and his wife have given more than $100,000 to a nonprofit she founded that promotes employment for people with Asperger syndrome, he said.

Scheiner pays $30,000 a year to be part of a New York-based peer-learning group for investors called Tiger 21. Founder Michael Sonnenfeldt said members, most with a net worth of at least $10 million, have been forced to "re-examine lots of assumptions about how grand their life would be."

While they aren't asking for sympathy, "at their level, in a different way but in the same way, the rug got pulled out," said Sonnenfeldt, 56. "For many people of wealth, they've had a crushing setback as well."

He described a feeling of "malaise" and a "paralysis that does not allow one to believe that generally things are going to get better," listing geopolitical hot spots such as Iran and low interest rates that have been "artificially manipulated" by the Federal Reserve.

The malaise is shared by Schiff, the New York-based marketing director for Euro Pacific Capital, where his brother is CEO. His family rents the lower duplex of a brownstone in Cobble Hill, where his two children share a room. His 10-year- old daughter is a student at $32,000-a-year Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn. His son, 7, will apply in a few years.

"I can't imagine what I’m going to do," Schiff said. "I'm crammed into 1,200 square feet. I don’t have a dishwasher. We do all our dishes by hand."

He wants 1,800 square feet; "a room for each kid, three bedrooms, maybe four," he said. "Imagine four bedrooms. You have the luxury of a guest room, how crazy is that?"

The family rents a three-bedroom summer house in Connecticut and will go there again this year for one month instead of four. Schiff said he brings home less than $200,000 after taxes, health-insurance and 401(k) contributions. The closing costs, renovation and down payment on one of the $1.5 million 17-foot-wide row houses nearby, what he called "the low rung on the brownstone ladder," would consume "every dime" of the family's savings, he said.

"I wouldn't want to whine," Schiff said. "All I want is the stuff that I always thought, growing up, that successful parents had."

Hans Kullberg, 27, a trader at Wyckoff, New Jersey-based hedge fund Falcon Management Corp. who said he earns about $150,000 a year, is adjusting his sights, too.

After graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, he spent a $10,000 signing bonus from Citigroup Inc. (C) on a six-week trip to South America. He worked on an emerging-markets team at the bank that traded and marketed synthetic collateralized debt obligations.

His tastes for travel got "a little bit more lavish," he said. Kullberg, a triathlete, went to a bachelor party in Las Vegas in January after renting a four-bedroom ski cabin at Bear Mountain in California as a Christmas gift to his parents. He went to Ibiza for another bachelor party in August, spending $3,000 on a three-day trip, including a 15-minute ride from the airport that cost $100. In May he spent 10 days in India.

Earlier this month, a friend invited him on a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The friend was going to be a judge in a wet T-shirt contest, Kullberg said. He turned down the offer.

It wouldn’t have been "the most financially prudent thing to do," he said. "I'm not totally sure about what I'm going to get paid this year, how I'm going to be doing."

He thinks more about the long term, he said, and plans to buy a foreclosed two-bedroom house in Charlotte, North Carolina, for $50,000 next month.

M. Todd Henderson, a University of Chicago law professor who’s teaching a seminar on executive compensation, said the suffering is relative and real. He wrote two years ago that his family was "just getting by" on more than $250,000 a year, setting off what he called a firestorm of criticism.

"Yes, terminal diseases are worse than getting the flu," he said. "But you suffer when you get the flu."

Dlugash, the accountant, said he’s spending more time talking with Wall Street clients about their expenses.

"You don't necessarily have to cut that, but if you don't cut that, then you've got to cut this," he said. "They say, 'But I can't.' And I say, 'But you must.'"

One banker who owes Dlugash $20,000 gained the accountant's sympathy despite his six-figure pay.

"If you're making $50,000 and your salary gets down to $40,000 and you have to cut, it's very severe to you," Dlugash said. "But it's no less severe to these other people with these big numbers."

A Wall Street executive who made 10 times that amount and now has declining income along with a divorce, private school tuitions and elderly parents also suffers, he said.

"These people never dreamed they'd be making $500,000 a year," he said, "and dreamed even less that they'd be broke."

*cough*

………..

I'm not going to say that anyone should track down the people quoted here and beat them until they wish for the sweet release of death, but…someone should probably track down the people quoted here and beat them until they wish for the sweet release of death.

I should probably say something more constructive, perhaps a detailed rebuttal of the arguments made here. I just can't.

I've got nothing.

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