DATA DUMP

Posted in Quick Hits on August 16th, 2012 by Ed

Most social and economic data end up telling predictable stories; shockingly, income and education are correlated! Poverty and crime go hand-in-hand! Abstinence Only sex education doesn't work! We see "studies" and "reports" that reveal these facts get emailed and passed around Facebook, resulting in a collective well-duh response that reinforces what common sense tells us. I don't really get interested until the data tell us the opposite of what we expect. For example, how many of you would have guessed that the United States trails nearly the entire industrialized world in car ownership (including leases) per capita? Don't lie. You thought we were #1 too. Don't worry, though. Despite being far from #1 in that category, we still use more than twice as much energy per capita than even the energy hungry countries of Western Europe.

How can it be that America, the land where profligate energy consumption is treated as a birthright, has fewer cars per capita than pansy-ass France? This is America, land of the SUV and the morning commute and the culture of car worship. This is a country that never saw a public transportation proposal it liked. We have to have the most cars. Hell, in most cities and towns in this country it's practically impossible to accomplish the basic tasks of life without a car these days. So what's the deal?

As the first link (from The Atlantic) suggests, part of the problem is economic inequality; we'd probably own more cars if we could afford it. This is supported by data reported widely earlier this year that the average age of cars on the road in the U.S. has never been higher. That's a clear sign that we're modifying our consumption to reflect unemployment, underemployment, lower wages, and uncertainty about the future.

How do we manage to use so much more energy if we have fewer cars? While the obvious answer is that we drive bigger, less efficient cars – and believe me, we do – the more pressing fact is that we drive more. Europeans have smaller cars (much to Americans' amusement) and don't drive them as often or as far. The daily drive from the suburbs to Downtown might be a staple in the American suburbs but is not common elsewhere. Even if we all drove tiny Euro-style hatchbacks we'd still use far more energy per capita because miles driven per capita are off the charts here.

Nothing quite like unexpected results to force us to confront our new economic reality. Luxury car sales are still going strong, though! So there's that.

CONSCIENCE BALM

Posted in Rants on August 15th, 2012 by Ed

What those of us in the logic-based community have known for years is finally common knowledge if not exactly front page news: in-person voter fraud is not a thing that exists. It is a boogeyman made up by Republicans as a Trojan Horse for voter ID laws intended to suppress turnout among the demographics least likely to have a state-issued photo ID. Pennsylvania, one of several states embroiled in VID-related legal battles at present, has admitted that the sole type of voter fraud preventable by VID laws – voter impersonation, etc. – is nonexistent not only in PA but in any other state as well. This meshes with a more recent, comprehensive national study that uncovered all of ten verified instances of in-person voter fraud. Certainly voter fraud exists (particularly with absentee ballots, which can be filled out by god-knows-who) but none of the laws passed in recent years will do anything to stop it.

So we can officially put to rest the whole "millions of illegal voters" myth. Now that the evidence is incontrovertible, I'm curious to hear how our friends on the right will address the fact that these laws they've supported, sometimes vociferously, are really laws to stop blacks and Latinos from voting. Even in conservative circles I doubt many people would stand behind that idea with pride, so some mental gymnastics are necessary in order to keep consciences clear. There are only a few options at this point for the Big Fan of Voter ID Laws:

1. Ignore the data. This might be easy given how little coverage is devoted to this issue.
2. The always popular "I don't have to believe your facts because they're from the liberal (academia, media, etc.) and therefore 'biased' and worthless."
3. Moving goalposts; "Well, voter impersonation might not be a real thing, but Voter ID laws were necessary and positive for several other reasons…."
4. Concede past results but point to a dangerous future, i.e. the "millions of amnestied immigrants are coming to vote for Obama" argument.
5. Admit that you were wrong.

It's likely that as more VID laws end up in court and more states debate similar legislation we are about to see a lot of moving goalposts. It will turn out that VID was never about fraud at all, but actually about some deeply principled affirmation of the responsibility of all citizens to bargle bargle blah blah etc. We're likely to see the high profile Republican candidates do their best to avoid the issue altogether or continue to speak about fraud in the hypothetical, with no concessions to reality.

Having created a voter registration and turnout machine in 2008 unlike anything seen before in American politics, I see no reason why the Obama campaign can't devote similar resources to acquiring valid ID for voters who currently lack it. It's legal to drive a voter to the polls; surely it is also legal to drive someone to the courthouse to get an ID. That seems like a relatively obvious way to address this problem, albeit not one that will have a 100% success rate. The perfect is the enemy of the good in politics, and what might be a good way to minimize the effects of newly-legislated voter suppression should not be cast aside because it won't help everyone.

A lot of relatively sane people with functional moral compasses continue to vote Republican for some reason, and it will be interesting to see how they come to grips with the fact that, oh, I guess these laws Our Guys have pushed for the last four years really are about keeping Undesirables away from the polls. That doesn't seem to be in line with freedom, justice, and the American Way. Then again if they are students of history they no doubt realize that engaging in legal chicanery to prevent black people from voting is very much the American Way. This is one instance in which an appeal to the words and thoughts of the Founders will actually support the Republican position on an issue.

THAT WORD, IT DOES NOT MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS

Posted in Election 2012 on August 13th, 2012 by Ed

It should surprise no one that the bar for qualifying as an intelligent person is pretty low in America, especially in our glurge factory of a media. Yet the most alarming aspect of Mitt Romney's "bold" decision to cave to the big GOP money and shackle himself to the anchor that is Paul Ryan is the repeated references to his new partner's considerable intellectual gifts. Given that we now live in a world in which shows about Honey Boo Boo and married couples with 19 children are on something with the gall to call itself "The Learning Channel", it makes sense that Paul Ryan would qualify as an "intellectual". But it is a Book of Revelations-level warning sign of the misguided Moderation Worship among the bobbleheads of the Beltway media that in their desperation to say something good about the cargo cult of nihilists that is the modern GOP, they have decided that Paul Ryan is a deeply intellectual man of ideas and principles – a leading thinker of his day.

That their decision to so label Ryan coincides almost perfectly with the storyline pitched in the campaign press releases is irrelevant, as they decided back in 2010 that, apparently on account of the fact that he has no personality whatsoever, he must be a man of great intellectual Seriousness. We have all made the mistake in our social lives of assuming that someone who is really quiet and reserved must have something interesting to say. We generally learn our lesson after a few bad dates, however, and the stakes are nowhere near as high as they are when the media decides to take leave of its senses. Whatever the psychology, there is not enough alarm at the fact that our media have decided that the quiet, weasely, dead-eyed weirdo who likes to write manifestos (!!!) of his Darwinist view of the world must be, by virtue of his lack of car salesman / televangelist bluster, a genuine, bona fide Intellectual. If he's not politician handsome or articulate, surely he must be brilliant; to conclude otherwise would be to admit that his ancestors' money got him elected. Somewhere in Janesville, Wisconsin an equivalent man without wealth and means looks at Ryan on the TV during his night shift at Shoney's and laments, "That could have been me."

Ryan's qualifications as a Great Thinker appear to be as follows:

1. He can write something 96 whole pages long. Even though much of it is alarming-looking but factually errant graphs, no one who can write almost 100 pages about a Serious subject like the budget can be less than a genius to the Wolf Blitzers of the world.

2. He "makes tough choices", which is to say that he enjoys writing about ideas that will make a lot of people suffer. He didn't come up with any of said ideas, but he says things (on paper – more on that in a second) that are politically unpopular. And they are politically unpopular because they are essentially recitations of his idol Ayn Rand's "The rich are different, and they owe no one anything" worldview. His ideas are unpopular because, unless you are a titan of industry or child of inherited wealth, he is trying very hard to fuck you.

3. He talks a lot about ideas. Terrible ideas, yes, but ideas nonetheless. The media are so desperate for any politician, especially on the right, to meet their superficial criteria for Seriousness that they're too busy making goo-goo eyes and trying to hide their erections to ask if the ideas are any good. Or, you know, if they are total, fabricated-from-whole-cloth bullshit. He has Ideas. That's enough.

4. His ideas have been around long enough to be digested with ease in the Beltway. That is, nothing he's saying is original, so the Panelists and Columnists and Hosts don't actually have to learn anything new. This is just standard Drown It In the Bathtub boilerplate with some shiny graphics and a rambling, college research paper-style introduction.

In the three-ring idiot circus of 21st Century American politics, that is what it takes to be a certified Thinker. When you're in love you can overlook a lot of flaws in the target of your affections, often with painful results. The slobbering love affair with Ryan, driven by the media's mortal terror at being accused of Dreaded Liberal Bias if they fail to treat Republicans and their ideas as just-as-good in every way, has prominent media personalities to overlook some glaring holes in the Congressman's intellectual foundations.

First, his copiously lauded budget proposal is more vague than anyone who has not read it would believe. If I told you, for example, that the basis of his entire proposal is trillions of dollars in tax cuts (almost all for the…well, go ahead and guess who) to be offset by "closing loopholes in the tax code" you would not be shocked. If I then told you that not one single specific example is given in the entire document, you would not believe me. You would accuse me of orchestrating a smear on his budget, because no one could possibly take it seriously if it was based on decimating tax revenue and then, uh, somehow balancing this out with, uh, something else. Yet that is exactly what is found in his Brilliant Repository of Economic Genius: nothing. It is an Underpants Gnome proposal: cut taxes + ???? = PROFITS!

Second, and far more importantly, a Man of Ideas would not feel the need to misrepresent them in the face of even the most mildly skeptical audience. Ryan can enrapture an audience at the Cato Institute or local Objectivist society and he can sound downright brilliant to the Steve Kings and Jim Inhofes of the world. But give him something other than a softball or a blowjob and suddenly he doesn't hate government nearly as much as you've been led to believe, as Charles Pierce notes.

When I pointed out to Ryan that government spending programs were at the heart of his home town's recovery, he didn't disagree. But he insisted that he has been misunderstood. "Obama is trying to paint us as a caricature," he said. "As if we're some bizarre individualists who are hardcore libertarians. It's a false dichotomy and intellectually lazy." He added, "Of course we believe in government. We think government should do what it does really well, but that it has limits, and obviously within those limits are things like infrastructure, interstate highways, and airports."(Nick Lizza, New Yorker)

To understand Ryan, his worship of Rand, Hayek, and the like, and his own budget proposal is to understand that he believes nothing of the sort. He might believe that government should pay private corporations to build things like infrastructure, highways, and airports, but that is another story altogether. Paul Ryan, Boy Genius, is such an intellectual coward that he will not even be honest about what he believes and what his proposals would do to government. He wants the social safety net to disappear, but only with the caveat of excluding anyone currently enjoying its benefits – you know, the people who might vote against him if they have to make any sacrifices on his account.

The Republican Party never has been good at the soft sell, but you can't say they don't try. A long string of pitch men, alternating between phony populists (Bush, Reagan, etc.) and pseudo-intellectuals (Phil Gramm, Newt, Ryan, etc.), has tried its damndest to convince you, the Little Guy, that the GOP is really on your side. That Ryan is the latest choice to deliver its message – Serve the Plutocracy and it will reward you! – is puzzling. Here is a guy who can't even pull off enough of a smile to qualify as a smiling killer, an elected official with so few of the skills native to politicians that the media must pretend he is brilliant in order to give him a redeeming quality. And that will be his ultimate downfall. No matter how often we are told that he is an Intellectual, he lacks the guile to hide what he really is: a Randian hatchet man who learned everything from his privileged upbringing except how to act like he cares about other people.

NPF: SUGGESTION BOX

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 10th, 2012 by Ed

Reader,

The time has come for changes here at Gin and Tacos, a subsidiary of Nordyne Defense Dynamics. To accompany the relocation of the world headquarters from the South to the Midwest, the Board of Directors feels that it is time to freshen up the image of its signature blog. After debating several ideas for radical change – switching to an all-mime video blogging format, replacing NPF with "Hardcore Pornography Thursday", shifting our primary focus to Perfect Strangers slash fiction – cooler heads prevailed and it was decided that the status quo would be maintained for content but the content delivery needed a makeover.

Now it's time for a little market research. What suggestions do you, the loyal consumer, have for us? Are there particular features you'd like to see added to the site? Glitches in need of fixing? Layout/readability issues that bother you? A few issues are already well known to the higher-ups: comments get cut off with some regularity, and we will add threaded comments to facilitate bickering with bb responding directly to previous comments. We are also aware of issues with the current background at higher screen resolutions and with certain browsers. So those problems will be addressed. Any suggestions (about design and layout, not content) you wish to offer here will be taken seriously and subjected to due diligence.

Like all grotesquely large corporations, Nordyne has decided to outsource the job of Gin and Tacos Webmaster to an outside contractor. Do you think that might be you? Are you man/woman enough to fill that important role, probably for little to no compensation? Do you want your creative stamp to imprint upon this website and resonate with visitors for years to come?

It has been about four full years since the Big Redesign (from the old "green gin bottle" background and Moveable Type to the current Soviet propaganda/WordPress motif) and we believe that it is high time for the next step in the visual evolution of the internet's premiere source of politics, random information, and jokes about pant-shitting.

Sincerely,

Armand B. Ginandtacos IV
CEO and Potentate
Nordyne Defense Dynamics

CHAUVINISM

Posted in Rants on August 9th, 2012 by Ed

I've paid very little attention to the Olympics, primarily because I lack the inner strength to suffer through the NBC coverage of the games. Instead of showing viewers, you know, the Olympics, they broadcast the occasional event in which an American – more accurately, one of a small handful of Americans deemed marketable – is expected to do well. There are events other than swimming, gymnastics, basketball, and the 100m dash, believe it or not. By following the No Americans = No Coverage rule, NBC (and the rest of the American media) missed one of the few legitimately interesting and compelling things to happen so far.

In a fencing match between a South Korean, Shin A Lam, and a German, Britta Heidemann, Shin was leading with 1 second on the clock, meaning all she needed to do was go one second without being touched to win. Unfortunately for her, the timekeeper – who turned out to be a 15 year old (!) volunteer (!!!) – did not start the clock when the match resumed, giving the German extra time to land a hit on Shin and win. One second was actually more than three seconds.

The South Koreans appealed, and the appeal process required the athlete to remain on the floor for the duration. In this case that meant 75 minutes. Seventy-five excruciating minutes of watching someone who has probably spent her entire life preparing for something that lasts a second, and then having the accomplishment taken away by the ineptitude of the Olympic bureaucracy. So, this is what everyone watched for an hour:

I mean, why cover that when you can do another fluff piece on Michael Phelps or Douchebag of the Decade candidate Ryan Lochte? Anyone else thinking about blowing your brains out rather than sitting through another Andrea Kremer Q & A? Yeah, I thought so.

But it's just the Olympics and sports are an irrelevant distraction, you say. You're not wrong. Yet this is symptomatic of the provincial attitude that dominates all news coverage in the US, not merely the Olympics. What the cable networks euphemistically call "World news" is a small part of all coverage and is inevitably America-centric anyway, focusing on wars (at least those of interest to the US) and economic news covered from the what-it-means-for-America perspective. As ignorant as most Americans are about their own country, our domestic knowledge is genius-level compared to what we know about the rest of the world. That ignorance has practical consequences; it's relevant that lots of Americans believe that Canadians and Brits have to wait a year to see a doctor or that France is the last bastion of Marxism-Leninism. We hear bits of foreign news filtered through our established stereotypes about other countries – the bi-weekly "Mexico overrun by drug lords" story tells us what we expect to hear without bothering with the minutiae of, I don't know, why Mexico is a narco-state and what might solve the problem.

In 2004 during the coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami, possibly the most destructive natural disaster in recorded history, several cable networks noted separately the death toll – eventually around 200,000 – and the number of Americans killed – something like 75. I remember being taken aback by the tone of that coverage, the assumption that American viewers either cannot, or do not care to, identify with 200,000 dead (brown) people but might consider this a legitimate human interest story if we point out that a few dozen American vacationers may have been in there as well. The implication that the lives were somehow differently valuable based on nationality was…I'd say shocking, but in reality its par for the course with the US media. All of our news, whether it covers sports or major world events, is passed through the "How does this affect ME?" filter in an effort to prevent us from learning anything we don't absolutely have to know, or learning much of anything at all for that matter.

Shin lost, by the way. The officials boned her a second time after the lengthy delay, despite video evidence of the rule violation.

Tags:

HOW NOT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY

Posted in Rants on August 8th, 2012 by Ed

Recently Sarah Palin appeared at an event dressed as your 15 year old daughter.

Seriously, those Superman t-shirts were popular at Hot Topic. In like 1997. Now, in an effort to give her the benefit of the doubt, clearly this is some sort of casual, let's-attract-some-young-people kind of event (note the guitars in the background). Nonetheless, it is difficult to comprehend how it is difficult for Palin (and her acolytes) to comprehend why no one takes her seriously.

In a perfect world people would not be judged on their appearance. The world's greatest surgeon or lawyer could walk around dressed in a burlap sack and no one would think less of them. Every pair of pants would have an elastic waistband. Unfortunately the world is not perfect, and thus we are forced to wear real pants and uncomfortable business attire. In a professional setting, walking in wearing pajama pants and that bitchin' mustard-stained Primus t-shirt (Pork Soda-era) isn't going to cut it. And even if we are wearing the latest fashions, other people will make judgments about us if we are wearing, shall we say, "age inappropriate" attire. Is it fair? No. Is it stupid? Yes. But it's one of the many parts of adulthood that we stare down, suck it up, and accept.

So maybe Sarah Palin is some kind of agent of change, a radical willing to lead the way toward a new, less shallow society by encouraging us to judge her on the content of her ideas rather than her appearance. A few problems emerge. First, just imagine what the reaction among Palin's conservative fan base would be if, for example, Elizabeth Warren appeared at a campaign event dressed this way instead of Palin. Oh, the pant-shitting, my friends…the pant-shitting seas would be angry that day. Second, everything about her political career has been an effort to divert attention from her ideas (or "ideas"). Third, she gets a tremendous amount of mileage out of her appearance ("Dan Quayle with tits" was my conclusion the first time I heard her speak) and martyrdom (Look at how mean the media are to Queen Sarah!). Finally, we do have a regrettable tendency to judge female public figures on their appearance and style, full stop. Would we be so critical, or even notice at all, if this was a male political figure? For once I'll argue that we would. If Mitt Romney or Barack Obama – or even a professional Appearer like Russ Feingold or Al Gore – dressed like a 15 year old I'm pretty sure it would raise a lot of eyebrows and be grist for the commentary mill. Imagine any of those men wearing this and escaping comment:

The reality is that Palin, to the extent that she ever was, is no longer relevant. She'll probably be appearing in a thong and halter top soon just to get a few more minutes of attention. "Shame" is not part of her vocabulary or worldview. Someone toss her a multicolored beach ball and she'll do a trained seal act if it means you'll look at her and/or give her a few more dollars. If she has to dress like the Lord Mayor of MILF Island, so be it. And she wonders why she's taken as seriously as Carrot Top, even in the milquetoast-preferred, content-optional world of the Beltway.

By the way, take one last glance at that picture and remember that John McCain wanted that to be next in line for the presidency. Country first.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE

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

Another week, another mass shooting. America truly is the greatest country on Earth, at least at this.

It's almost too obvious to point out the disparity in news coverage and public outrage – even given the ephemeral nature of Mass Murder Outrage in this society – between the shooting at a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Sure, maybe it's just a case of mass shooting fatigue given the close proximity to the Colorado incident. Or maybe neither the media nor the public can identify with odd, furreign-soundin' dark people from a religion they've never heard of. You know, it's not like they're Real Americans who do 'merican things like go to Batman movies on opening night. And far be it from any of us to learn how to feel genuine sympathy for people who are not identical to ourselves in almost every way.

The next time someone recites the trite mantra of "senseless" or "random" violence – the "guns don't, people do" argument – kindly remind them what those two words mean, because a white supremacist gunning people down in a Sikh temple is neither.

Oh, remember that Homeland Security report about how ex-servicemen were turning to extremism in increasing, even if still small, numbers? Good thing that was a load of nonsense!

BURNING A HOLE

Posted in Election 2012 on August 6th, 2012 by Ed

I'm not sure how widespread this expression is, but when someone appears to have an urge to buy something frivolous or has more money than they know what to do with my dad always says, "What, is the money burnin' a hole in your pocket?" I was about four years old the first time he explained what this meant. It has always stuck with me as a gentle reminder to resist the temptation to spend money just to spend it. Not a bad parenting lesson (although complicated by the fact that he often spends money as though it is radioactive).

Thanks to Citizens United and the exponential growth of the cost of elections even before that decision, we are about to be subjected to a record-breaking amount of advertising in this election – just as we were in 2008, and 2004, and 2000, and etc. Candidates are getting better at raising money and they can always, always come up with new ways to spend it. One of the problems with campaign finance is that there is a threshold beyond which raising additional money doesn't really help a campaign, yet the candidates continue to fund raise regardless. In 2008 the Obama campaign raised so much money that they had to make up "I dare you" stunts – running TV ads in Arizona just to see if they could make McCain's head explode or buying 30 minutes of network airtime for a ridiculous infomercial-style narrative ad – just because, well, why not? So, nothing dissuades candidates from raising money – that is, they will never stop and declare "Eh, this is enough." – and some of them raise so much that they will spend it just to spend it, often with little or no return. When all else fails, advertise more.

We who live in the trenches and research electoral politics have made some pretty darn solid findings over the years. One of the most useful, in my view, is the rapidly diminishing returns that advertising brings. The first time you see an ad it might have some small effect on you – even something as slight as learning or remembering the candidate's name. The next two or three exposures will reinforce what you've learned. The next 80 times you see it are essentially pointless. Yes, repetition is the key to making sure that the greatest number of different people see the ad, but TV/radio/web ads also have a tendency to reach the same viewers over and over again. Living in a swing state in 2008 (Indiana), I can soberly estimate that I saw most of the Obama campaign's Midwest ads several hundred times each. I'm not even kidding. There were individual commercial breaks in which the same ad would play five or six times. And this went on for months.

Post Citizens United, the doors have opened for anyone with a checkbook to air campaign advertising. Many of us are justifiably disgusted with that Supreme Court decision, yet it's worth asking what all of these additional hundreds of millions of Koch-and-friends dollars are really going to buy; they're going to buy more advertising. And as 2008 proved, presidential campaigns have already approached or even exceeded the point of complete saturation. The only thing to do is to saturate the airwaves with even more commercials that will have little to no impact on viewers and engage in even more microtargeting – such as the Obama campaign's use of in-game advertising in multiplayer video games to reach young males or Google's newly announced ability to target web advertising to specific congressional districts.

If a man walks into a store with money that is burning a hole in his pocket, the salespeople surely will find a way to relieve him of it. Advertising professionals and the political media (which relies on election season like regular networks look forward to the Super Bowl) are similarly prepared to relieve campaigns, plutocrats, interest groups, and other relevant parties of their money knowing well that the mentality governing modern elections is, "Do everything, and do lots of it" and no one will ask too many questions about what all that money really bought.

NPF: T & A

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 3rd, 2012 by Ed

During the last summer Olympics I did a post wondering why women's beach volleyball (and to a lesser extent, the shirtless men's version of the same) had to be played half-naked. To say that the photojournalism of this sport focuses excessively on tits and ass would be an understatement.

The number of women's beach VB photos in which the athlete's head is omitted borders on comical. So this blogger took the concept beyond the beach and asked, what if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball? The results are predictably amusing.

I for one could do with more James Harden and Kevin Durant ass shots.

SCENES FROM THIS AMERICAN LIFE

Posted in Quick Hits on August 2nd, 2012 by Ed

Yesterday approximately 20,000 people around the world died of starvation while hordes of mostly old, mostly fat white American Christians flocked to a fast food chain to spend money and consume fried chicken from cancer- and disease-ridden chickens that suffered every second from birth to slaughter to show support for said chain's willingness to donate millions of dollars to stop The Gays from getting married.

Meanwhile, people who buy multiple boxes of Sudafed or who purchase money orders over $1000 end up being tracked by law enforcement while individuals who buy thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition are not.

Cool. Carry on.