BRIGHT ENOUGH

Posted in Rants on April 15th, 2013 by Ed

You've heard the silly cliche about states as "laboratories of democracy" in the American federal system, and there is some truth to it. When a policy implemented in one state produces a positive result, other states imitate it. This assumes that state legislatures are innovative and more willing to try new things than Congress, which sounds pretty neat. Unfortunately, it turns out it's much easier to get elected to most state legislatures compared to Congress, which means a lot of state legislators are crazy people.

Legislative professionalism is a key concept in the study of state politics (see Squire 2007, "Measuring State Legislative Professionalism" SPPQ 7(2): 211-227 – warning: political science content) referring to the resources available to legislators. In some states, being in the legislature barely qualifies as a part time job and pays almost nothing (ex: Kansas) while others like California resemble the U.S. Congress in terms of salary, days in session, staff, and financial resources available. In low professionalism states, the people who serve are not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Consider New Hampshire. The small, lightly populated state elects 400 members to its lower house and pays them $100 per year. If you move there, the odds are half-decent that you can serve in the legislature at some point. You might not know squat about government or politics, but don't worry. You'll find yourself in good company.

This is a partial explanation of why we see so many stories passed around the internet of some Republican state legislator saying something borderline insane and why we see so many truly idiotic things passed through state houses (recent favorites include the Alaska nullification bill and North Carolina's proposal to establish Christianity as the state religion). It is possible that these legislatures propose such bills to attract attention or to make an ideological statement. It is equally possible that they do it because they are composed of people who are dumber than a sack of doorknobs and/or mentally ill.

Not being an optimist by nature, it's hard for me to argue that this scenario produces a net positive in terms of "innovation". In South Dakota, the state house recently killed in committee a bill to criminalize texting while driving. Such bills have been passed with little opposition in other states, and experiments have shown that TWD is at least as dangerous, if not moreso, than intoxicated driving. Furthermore, the bans are a rare example of legislation that enjoys near-unanimous support among voters. You'd have better luck finding people who support legalizing drunk driving.

If such a bill died in committee in Congress, we would follow the trail of money to discover the cause. It would turn out that, in this example, big phone and internet companies hired armies of lobbyists and spent millions to turn members of Congress against it. But that doesn't explain what's happening in South Dakota. The bill died because the lower chamber (it passed in the state senate) is full of people who are too stupid to live, yet somehow judged bright enough to craft legislation. Why bribe or lobby people to support a repugnant issue position when you can simply sit back and let some yahoos convince themselves to support it for no reason other than their own bizarre worldviews.

States certainly are laboratories, but they're ones available to untrained, amateur, and potentially unstable scientists who usually produce the legislative equivalent of an exploding beaker.

NPF: NETWORK

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 12th, 2013 by Ed

No, I'm not referring to the classic 1970s Sidney Lumet film. I mean the kind of "networking" that is essential to success in…essentially every profession. I can't decide if it's a terrible thing or the absolute worst of all things.

Certainly I would hate it less if I were better at it, but I have a very low tolerance for people who are full of themselves and the painfully socially awkward. Since that covers about 94% of people in academia, I find this process to be painful in the extreme.

Hi! I noticed that your life is infinitely better than mine because you went to the Correct grad school. May I pretend that you're interesting for a few minutes in the hopes that you'll throw me a few crumbs at some point? Fantastic! Gee, where's a carbon monoxide leak when you really need one?

PROGRAMMING UPDATE

Posted in Quick Hits on April 10th, 2013 by Ed

This week I'm at the most wonderful place in the world – a mid-level academic conference! Your heart would burst to learn how much fun it is. Kidding aside, I am looking forward to spending a week around people who speak in sentences, occasionally read books, and do not patronize Golden Corral. Accordingly, content will be provided haphazardly this week. I do hope to bang out a few real posts between now and Sunday, but today you get salad. Delicious, leafy salad, loaded with croutons of knowledge.

1. Boy do I feel bad for anyone stuck living in Kansas, aka Brownbackistan. Sam Brownback is a crazy person, as evidenced by his residence with a creepy cult of ultraconservative Christians called "The Family" during his tenure in DC. Can you believe that the least insane name they could come up with was "The Family"? Me neither. Anyway, now-Governor Brownback is showing that the Romney/Ryan campaign strategy that worked so well in 2012 has staying power; rather than bothering to concoct a rationale for his actions and beliefs, he's simply lying his ass off. Kansas schools are badly underfunded and, in major cities, closing? No they're not! Just…tell everyone they're not. Because fuck it, that's why. This amusing Wichita Eagle editorial explores the differences between the Kansas described by Brownback in his role as a Republican Heavyweight (of last resort) and the actual Kansas inhabited by Kansans. The GOP is really embracing this Just Lying strategy. So much easier!

2. You've probably seen this NPR piece about the rise of disability – more accurately, the assignment of SSI disability benefits – in the U.S. over the past decade. Having worked in a field involving a lot of indigent people, I was aware that disability benefits can go to people who, by any vernacular definition of the term, are not disabled. It is staggering, though, to see the growth of SSI benefits in recent years as a sort of secret, de facto unemployment dole. It has become a place where we stash people who lack, or no longer have, marketable job skills and for whom the next step down on the socioeconomic ladder is homelessness or the illicit economy. I intend to say a lot more about this piece when time permits.

3. Look! Political science that isn't useless! Larry Bartels and colleagues have started to release some of the findings of their multi-year study of the attitudes and opinions of the super-wealthy. I had the good fortune of hearing Bartels talk about this project during the planning stages but not enough good fortune to get involved with it. It was clear from the beginning that this would end up being remarkably interesting. Indeed, some of the findings are exactly what you'd expect, but others paint The 0.1% in a more pragmatic, less Evil light than we often see. Here's a brief summary or, for masochists, the whole article from Perspectives on Politics2.

SELECTIVE APPLICATION

Posted in Quick Hits on April 8th, 2013 by Ed

In response to undercover videos from animal welfare groups depicting cruelty to and torture of animals in large scale farms and food processing facilities, state legislatures are passing tough new laws to crack down on individuals and employers who abuse animals.

Ha! No, just kidding, they're passing laws making it illegal to record video of factory farms, slaughterhouses, and processors, or to apply for a job with any of those without disclosing involvement in animal rights groups. These efforts are remarkably similar to last year's effort to pass laws (most notably in Illinois) criminalizing video recording of on-duty police.

In both instances the argument that, "If you're not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about!" is conspicuous in its absence. I guess that applies only to the rights of individuals, not of corporations (which are people, right?) and police (who demonstrably are not).

NPF: BALANCE OF POWER

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on April 5th, 2013 by Ed

(Mind the category tag; you're really not going to give a crap if you don't like sports. Even if you do, it's dicey. For non sports fans, here is the just-released archive of the National Security Agency's classified internal newsletter, "Cryptologs", from the 1970s to the late 1990s. There is plenty of redaction, but also plenty of amazingly interesting tidbits.)

I have the bad luck of being a devoted fan of three teams that have been very bad for a very long time, experiencing a modicum of success only recently. The White Sox had not won a championship since 1917 when they were victorious in 2005. The Cardinals managed the improbable feat of winning one playoff game between their NFL Championship in 1947 (!!!) and their run to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. And the Blackhawks, saddled with the worst non-Donald Sterling owner in professional sports for decades, won a Stanley Cup in 1961 before experiencing four-plus decades of futility.

Even as a young Blackhawks fan in the 1980s it was apparent that the team would not win a championship until Old Man Wirtz died. The last decade of his horrible life was a dark time for Chicago hockey fans, immediately after the dynamic teams they fielded in the early 1990s (Roenick, Chelios, Belfour, Suter, etc.) but before the Cup-winning team of 2009 began to take shape (the current lineup of Toews, Sharp, Kane, Keith, etc.) To be blunt, the Blackhawks teams of the last few years before Wirtz's 2007 death were among the saddest excuses for hockey in the history of the sport.

The 2003-2004 season – the impending lockout wiped out the following season, if you recall – was the Hawks' nadir as a franchise. Not only was the team awful, it was awful with no hope of future improvement. The players were old, anonymous journeymen (their top center was 33 year old Igor Korolev, who managed three goals all season) and young minor leaguers who…belonged in the minors. Their coach, Brian Sutter, was ordered halfway through the season to lose as many games as possible with the goal of getting a top draft pick. Being a somewhat self-respecting person, he refused. So the Wirtz's long-time hatchet man, GM Bob Pulford, developed a brilliant strategy of putting any player who showed a slight ability to play the game of hockey on Injured Reserve with mysterious ailments. This deprived the coach of what few half-decent players he had, and the team won exactly 3 of its final 20 games that year. It was brutal.

With two games left in the season the team was bad enough to be assured of the #1 overall draft pick. To be certain of that outcome, Pulford determined that the team's goaltenders – the eminently forgettable duo of Michael Leighton and Steve Passmore – were both "injured" and thus unavailable. They called up from the minors a failed former first-round pick named Adam Munro to play out the string. In the second to last game of the year, Mr. Munro stood on his head for 60 minutes in goal, stopping 41 of 42 shots by the equally terrible Phoenix Coyotes before surrendering a goal in overtime. In the NHL a loss in overtime is worth 1 point in the standings (compared to two for a win, zero for a loss). That one point knocked the Blackhawks out of contention for the first draft pick; instead they ended up with the third.

The first pick was some guy named Ovechkin, followed by Evgeni Malkin at #2. With the #3 pick, the Blackhawks took the legendary Cam Barker, who is currently disappointing his 5th NHL team. The Blackhawks have certainly turned things around in recent years, but I never see Ovechkin or Malkin without thinking, "Damn you, Adam Munro!" Oh, the possibilities.

FEARSOME

Posted in Quick Hits on April 4th, 2013 by Ed

While Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone unarguably had a bigger cultural impact, Fear by Barry Glassner is the best non-academic book written by an academic in the last several decades. Partially inspired by the moral panics of the 1980s (satanic ritual abuse; it's everywhere!) he argues that despite living in the safest society in recorded history, American exist in a culture of perpetual fear. Some of these fears are mountains made out of anthills; how big of a threat were "bath salts" or the Swine Flu, really? In other cases we're simply afraid of the wrong things – driving is infinitely more dangerous than flying, yet few people are afraid of the former.

If we asked Americans whether nuclear or fossil-fuel power generation is more dangerous, I have little doubt that the former would win in a landslide. And why not. Three Mile Island! Chernobyl! Fukushima! The three oil spills in the United States in the past week – to say nothing of the many equally catastrophic oil-related disasters over the years, including the Exxon Valdez, Ixtoc-1, Deepwater Horizon, and more – attract barely a fraction of the attention of nuclear disasters. And that says nothing of the long-term, subtle damage caused by fossil fuels like air pollution, environmental degradation, and water contamination. Say "toxic waste" and people think of nuclear power, not Love Canal.

We're not afraid of any of that despite the fact that it represents a real threat. Extracting, producing, and burning fossil fuels is an orgy of pollution and exposure to carcinogens. That all lacks the zing of the nuclear boogeyman, though. Radiation, not air pollution, made Godzilla and thousands of other mutant monsters. You can build movie, novel, and video game plots around radioactive beasts and nuclear explosions. It doesn't work for fossil fuels, does it? Fallout wouldn't be much of a game if the central plot point was an oil spill ("Here! Quick, pour some Dawn on this oil-coated seabird! I SAID HURRY, GODDAMMIT.")

With things that are actually dangerous – fossil fuels or driving, for example – we excuse away any hints of fear. Global warming isn't real. Oil spills don't happen very often. Pollution isn't as bad as treehuggers say. I'm a safe driver. My car has eight airbags. This would make more sense if we did not simultaneously invent nonsense to be terrified about. Maybe in a bizarre way it actually makes us feel more secure. If we convince ourselves that nuclear power or flying or SARS are your biggest threats, those things are all pretty easy to avoid. With our arbitrary and irrational list of dangers kept at a safe distance (because they either don't exist or are incredibly rare) we feel blissfully secure while we go about our lives and do a great number of things that are far more dangerous.

If you're not convinced, how much opposition was there to the building of an oil pipeline through now-oily Mayflower, Arkansas? Would they have been a bit more agitated if the proposal was to build a nuclear waste repository or a power plant instead? This kind of contradiction is the natural product of a society that combines a constant state of fear with overwhelming ignorance.

SOFT MARKET

Posted in Quick Hits on April 2nd, 2013 by Ed

Over the years I've gotten the impression from the comments (particularly on audience participation-type posts) that a good number of regular readers work in what I'll inadequately and generically call "tech" – IT, electrical engineering, programming, and the like. Having zero experience in your field I need to rely on your guidance here, even though it may be anecdotal.

There are some points of debate on which I do not know the facts and therefore have no confidence in my opinion, yet one side of the argument so strongly reeks of bullshit that I become certain that I am right. And every time I hear someone argue that we need to let in more foreign workers on H1B visas to do Tech Stuff because there are not enough American workers who can do it, without seeing any data my immediate reaction is to call BS. "There are not enough Americans with the necessary skills" sounds to me like "There are not enough American workers willing to live five to an apartment and do this job for $22,000/year."

It's not as though American universities have a shortage of people in the STEM fields, and the quality of American education in these areas is supported by the fact that foreign – Russian, Indian, Chinese, etc. – students come to the US in droves to get college degrees. If people travel halfway around the world to go to Stanford and Harvard and Michigan and Georgia Tech, I find it really hard to believe that those universities produce Highly Skilled non-U.S. Citizen graduates but insufficiently skilled U.S. Citizen graduates. That makes…no sense. None.

I'm certainly not on some xenophobic soapbox here, upon which I am fighting to keep the foreign hordes away from our precious jobs. However, the basic argument parroted by the lobbyist tool CNN asked to write that column is illogical and implausible. He bandies about words like "innovation" as if the reason tech companies hire from Pakistan and China is that all of the world's best minds are there. It sounds a lot more like the industry's interest is in expanding the quasi-indentured servitude system that is the H1B program, which imports cheap foreign workers and works them like the rented mules that, contractually speaking, they are.

REAL 'MERICA

Posted in Rants on April 1st, 2013 by Ed

Using this type of data in a lot of my research, I'm a sucker for the periodic feature stories about extreme points of the Census; you know, America's richest / poorest / least populous / etc places. CNN had one recently about Franklin County, Mississippi. It's the place where, according to the Census, no one is gay. That's right. Statistically, it is 100% gay-free. It's some sort of Mormon/evangelical paradise!

Of course the premise of the story is not to be taken literally; there are gay people in Franklin County even if they do not report it on the Census. More accurately, Franklin County is the place where no one admits to being gay, even if the neighbors know.

Franklin County is, as the data and the author's description reveal, a shit hole. Let me put it this way. If your idea of heaven is the dead space between Natchez and Brookhaven, MS then you're in for a treat. Otherwise, I hope you like unbearable heat, poverty, and isolation!

franklin

And yes, that is the "Homochitto National Forest." Why? Because life is beautiful, that's why.

This is a good illustration of a dilemma I've been mulling over since adolescence. Why is it that we're always pining over "Real America" as a society when it's such a crappy place? These are rural communities where there is nothing to do, full of planted fields, white people, and humorless Christians. Their levels of poverty and ignorance give the most dilapidated urban areas a run for their money. Please remind me why we're supposed to want the rest of the country to be more like these places.

Seriously, does Franklin County sound like the kind of place you would live willingly in the deepest reaches of your nightmares? It has 8,000 people. It's in the middle of nowhere. The residents (all caveats about Southern hospitality and politeness to strangers aside) sound like the kind of people you would go far out of your way to avoid having to spend the rest of your life around.

Conservatives can't even pull the Liberal Elitism card here, because they don't want to live in these places either. That's why they're flocking to the suburbs over the last 30-plus years. This isn't about gay people being welcome or not welcome in rural Mississippi (hint: they're not) but rather why anyone wants to live in these places. Everyone who has the financial and professional means to leave these places does so. So why is it that every four years the media waxes eloquent about Real 'Merica and Hillary Clinton's "Hard Working Americans" (uneducated white people) and other symbols of the Norman Rockwell 1940s America that no longer exists, if indeed it ever did.

As Garrison Keillor wrote many years ago:

People who want to take a swing at San Francisco should think twice. Yes, the Irish coffee at Fisherman's Wharf is overpriced, and the bus tour of Haight-Ashbury is disappointing (Where are the hippies?), but the Bay Area is the cradle of the computer and software industry, which continues to create jobs for our children. The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco, Texas. There may be a reason for this. Creative people thrive in a climate of openness and tolerance, since some great ideas start out sounding ridiculous. Creativity is a key to economic progress. Authoritarianism is stifling. I don't believe that Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard were gay, but what's important is: In San Francisco, it doesn't matter so much. When the cultural Sturmbannfuhrers try to marshal everyone into straight lines, it has consequences for the economic future of this country.

Franklin County, MS sounds like a horrible place and I hope never to screw up badly enough at life to get marooned there. The lack of (Census-recorded) gay people there is not damning evidence in itself, but is a symptom of the larger problem with our cultural emphasis on the virtues of small, rural America. No thanks. Hell, I'll take supposed nightmare places like Detroit or Cleveland over the rural Land That Time Forgot. Whether you personally like living in one of these places is not relevant here; the point is that the country would do well to work at being less like these places, not more.