WARRANT SERVICE

Posted in Quick Hits on September 29th, 2013 by Ed

In a move that surprises no one – certainly not the regular Gin and Tacos reader – all of those surplus Mine Resistant-Ambush Protected Vehicles that Congress bought are finding their way into the hands of domestic police departments.

In a rather crass effort to score political points by showing how much they Support the Troopstm, the folks in Congress went on something of an MRAP binge in the Aughts. Like so much surplus Department of Defense gear, it was only a matter of time until the Pentagon started handing them out to local governments in desperation to get rid of the goddamn things. Alternatives include shipping them to the US for (expensive) storage, giving them to other governments, and cutting them apart for scrap at four cents per pound.

The Dallas County Sheriff has taken possession of an International MaxxPro, pictured here:

That Dallas County has the vehicle is indisputable, leaving only the question of why. Why? Why in god's name would county sheriffs need something so heavy that it's barely functional for street use? Well…

The underlying reason seems to be that military trucks are fucking cool, but no one's actually saying that. The sheriff's office is touting it as a tool that will help them better serve warrants.

"Having a tactical vehicle will not only provide warrants execution with the equipment to assist in performing their jobs but will provide an overall safety arch," Chief Deputy Marlin Suell wrote to commissioners.

The world makes more sense to me knowing that the sheriff of Dallas County, Texas is named "Marlin Suell."

At least this kind of bald, pointless, hyper-overkill militarization will start to make Americans think twice about the changes in police in this country since 1980, right?

THANKSOBAMA

Oh for fuck's sake.

NPF: TAKE A LAP

Posted in No Politics Friday on September 27th, 2013 by Ed

A few weeks ago a successful political scientist wrote a blog post about the four-plus years and multiple rejections it took to get a single paper published. Academic publishing is hard. If you are not a person who handles (constant) rejection and (incessant) criticism reasonably well, this is not the right profession for you. This post appears to have done a lot of good, though. Many of my peers have been genuinely surprised to see that even the "stars" of the profession struggle and deal with loads of rejection.

It is surprising only inasmuch as the successes are public and the failures are not (I'm something of an outlier in my willingness to talk openly about getting rejected). Social media distorts our perspective on how well others are doing. We show the world pictures of our friends, not the time we spend alone on the couch. We post pictures of our vacations, not of us dragging ourselves out of bed at sunrise to drag ourselves to work in the rain. And we post things like "Woo! Just got a paper accepted!" but tend not to tell the world when we've been shot down.

This brings me, however circuitously, to the point. Do we use social media mostly to brag? Probably. And I'm a-ok with that.

My social circle is mostly academics, marginally employed creative types, and other types of people who are generally served more lemons than lemonade by life. Despite what the collages of smiling pictures we post on Facebook suggest, things aren't always great. For all of the rejection we deal with, I have no problem whatsoever with my friends doing some electronic bragging. If it took you five tries and three years to get a paper published, you've goddamn well earned the most trivial of victory laps. I understand why some people think this is tacky, but in my view life deals us enough downers that we deal with privately to justify a little glory-basking when things go well.

Not too long ago, one of my many academic friends got tenure. He announced it to the world on Facebook. A different person sent me a message to the effect of, "Isn't his bragging the worst? What a tool." It's not wrong to assume that Ed, The Guy Who Hates Everything, would sympathize. But here's the thing: getting tenure occupies a full decade of a person's life from ABD to Associate Prof. For all of the nights/weekends that person stayed in working while others went out, for all the sleepless nights and rejection and stress, they have more than earned the right to say "Hey, I made it" even if it is fishing for pats on the back. I'm happy for him. I want to know when things go well for him. I'll gladly dole out some back-pats.

Yes, if you gloat obnoxiously about every conceivable thing that goes right in your life, you probably need to tone that down a bit. The rest of us reserve our right to slap you if it comes to that. But there's no need to be shy about it when things go well. We're adults here. We understand that the mundane and the miserable take up a large enough share of life; when good things do happen we need to embrace them. Unless you happen to have a magically perfect life, you eat enough shitburgers to treat yourself to the occasional slice of cake.

ASS-BITTEN

Posted in Rants on September 25th, 2013 by Ed

Most "Government 101" type textbooks begin with a wordy introductory chapter about why government exists. This takes students through basic concepts like the use of politics to solve problems without resorting to violence and collective action problems. CAPs are a very basic kind of problem wherein what is good for an individual (especially in the short term) is not good for the whole. As the recently-mocked Ezra Klein notes, the study of Congress is basically the study of CAPs. The current "efforts" (inasmuch as political kabuki theater counts) to shut down the government are a perfect example; each individual Republican benefits from trying to shut down the government but the party as a whole is likely to suffer badly if it happens.

Individual Republican legislators benefit because trying to shut down the government appeases Teabagging types and lessens the odds of a primary challenge from the right. This situation has been a challenge for the congressional leadership structure for 230 years. Leaders like Boehner & Co. traditionally rely on persuasion to keep members in line. As Klein says, "Threats, flattery, fundraising money, and plum committee assignments are all deployed to keep members of Congress from undermining the group in order to help themselves." In other words, the ability to talk individual members into supporting the collective good depends on the leadership being able to offer rewards that members cannot get elsewhere.

One of the problems the current House GOP is discovering, aside from the general recognition that Boehner is terrible and the backbenchers are a collection of rubes, zealots, and morons, is the fact that fundraising money is no longer an effective carrot. For that, the party has only itself to blame. By fighting so hard for the changes that were ushered in by the Citizens United decision, Republicans created a system in which individual candidates or members of Congress can get gobs of money without the party's help. All they need is a cranky billionaire in their corner or sufficient ideological extremity to ensure access to the Tea Party / FreedomWorks / Koch Industries trough of money. John Boehner's threat to withhold funds from the National Republican Congressional Committee doesn't exactly leave any members, even freshmen, quaking in their boots.

Whatever misfortunes befall the House GOP at this point are rooted in their decades of advocacy for unlimited campaign spending. They got what they wanted and now it is coming back to bite them in the ass. There's only so much the Speaker and Majority Leader can do to sway members with talk of committee seats. When the ability to get elected and re-elected depends more on groups outside of the party than on the party itself, you're not going to have a very cohesive party. If, hypothetically, your members were mostly none-too-bright extremists, you might end up with quite a mess on your hands. When the members are more afraid of the donors and Tea Party groups than the leadership, the collective action problem becomes nearly impossible to resolve.

They have made their bed – let them lie in it. With a Koch brother of their choice. I hear Charles is a cuddler.

ADJUNCTIFICATION

Posted in Rants on September 24th, 2013 by Ed

This story about Margaret Mary Vojtko, a recently deceased former adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University ($32,000 annual tuition, exclusive of room and board), made the rounds on the internet late last week. Eventually NPR picked up on it, which makes perfect sense. It's a hanging slider in the strike zone of NPR's core demographic, touching on higher education, poverty, and people falling through the cracks of society.

I am glad this story has gotten exposure. The "adjunctification" of higher education has happened rapidly and mostly in the shadows for the past twenty years. Some estimates now suggest that half of all college courses are taught by adjuncts or other non-permanent faculty. For the unaware, adjuncts reside on the bottom of the academic totem pole. They have no formal affiliation at the schools where they teach. They are paid a flat rate per course with no guarantee of future employment and no access to the benefits available to full-time employees. They are essentially migrant workers; they often spend careers wandering from place to place and it is not unusual for adjuncts to make ends meet by teaching at multiple institutions simultaneously. An adjunct who picks up four courses per semester and perhaps another two in the summer might clear $25,000-30,000 before taxes without insurance, retirement plan, or transportation costs.

There are many reasons one becomes an adjunct. Many adjuncts are outstanding teachers who end up adjuncting because of bad luck, bad timing, or family factors (i.e., the need to stay in a city where no jobs are available because of a spouse's job). Others could not finish their Ph.D. and thus are limited in the type of employment they can obtain in higher ed. Some are adjuncts because they're not very good at their job. In other words they are like the workforce in any other industry: some are outstanding, most are average, and some are bad.

From administrators' perspective, adjuncts are great. They have no power, they cost next to nothing, and undergraduates rarely know the difference among the various "classes" of faculty. Hiring adjuncts saves valuable resources that administrators can spend on their own salaries, more administrators, new buildings, and other non-essential, non-academic things. The number of adjuncts is somewhat limited at prestigious institutions, as their presence hurts the school in magazine rankings and overall reputation. But at schools that don't care about prestige and operate on volume (especially the kind that teach non-traditional students (read: grown ups with jobs) adjuncts can make up almost the entire faculty. Words like "extension", "online", "night classes", "branch campus" and any adjective indicating a direction on a compass are a giveaway that few permanent, full-time faculty will be found in classrooms.

In a world in which we have "permanent temps" in the workforce it's not surprising to find quasi-permanent adjuncts as well. Vojtko was at Duquesne for over 30 years. The school was probably glad to have her; she taught essentially a full professor's courseload for 1/3 the total cost. She was probably glad to have, at least informally, regular work in one place. Between the low pay and lack of benefits, it is neither unusual nor surprising to hear that a lifetime adjunct in her eighties died in poverty, especially given that she had cancer. You can read the sad story in the original op-ed piece.

With all that said, two things jump out at me as I read and re-read this story.

First, the implication that the university should have continued to employ her is dubious. I can count on zero fingers the number of people who teach effectively at age 83 in my career. A small percentage of professors teach well into their late seventies and beyond, but they are outnumbered by the ones who should have hung up their spurs years ago. In Vojtko's case I can't imagine that an 80+ year old with cancer – a person who probably belongs in an assisted living facility – was effective in the classroom. I don't know her. She may have been a good teacher. There is reason to be skeptical, though.

Second, where are Medicare and Social Security in this story? As far as I understand these programs, an 83 year old should have been more than a decade into her eligibility for both. Social Security certainly doesn't provide for a luxurious lifestyle, but it's enough to keep the power on. Medicare might not be the finest insurance plan on the planet, but certainly it should have given her access to hospital care and prescription drugs. How was this woman completely uninsured?

A few odd details aside, this is a story that needs to be told. Academia is not different than the rest of the economy, constantly drifting toward the elite utopia where salaries are low, job security is nonexistent, benefits are a dream, and the people at the top are rewarded ever more handsomely for their combination of stinginess and sheer ignorance. It's a world in which the people who do the actual work are treated as disposable and the con men in Management require ever-growing compensation to keep doing the grueling work of cutting costs.

This is the future. We have seen it, and it blows.

RED AGITATORS

Posted in Quick Hits on September 23rd, 2013 by Ed

Based on a totally unscientific survey – meaning I asked a class of 25 for a show of hands – I learned that The Grapes of Wrath is not assigned as broadly as I assumed. I didn't think it was possible to go to high school in the United States without reading it (or at least being assigned to read it). It turns out that in my non-random sample of 25, no more than three or four had read it previously. Don't worry, I'm fixing that. For this small group, anyway.

What exactly were they assigned, I asked? According to the Center for Learning and Teaching Literature, the ten most assigned books do not include The Grapes. The list also omits some of the other more socially- or politically-oriented classics like 1984, Brave New World, The Jungle, and a bunch of other things that I assumed were read commonly. What is well represented is relatively inoffensive fare (Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, etc.) These are of course excellent choices. They are somewhat light on heavier social and political themes, though.

States and school districts vary widely in how they choose required readings. And for all I know, The Grapes of Wrath could be somewhere in the top 20-30 assigned books and therefore still pretty popular. Groups like school boards tend toward the least offensive choices when making decisions; it's a product of committee thinking. Perhaps the novel just isn't as worthy and popular as I thought. I could just be biased or delusional. Is is difficult, however, to imagine that the exclusion of a book about how our economy systematically generates and thrives on a new form of serfdom is a complete coincidence.

I suppose it wouldn't do to have the kids learn that if you can create a large enough class of desperately poor people and 10,000 show up for 100 job openings, you can get people to work for peanuts. Or that it's necessary to denigrate the underclass by calling them dirty, shiftless, thieving degenerates in order to maintain social power. Or that any man who wants thirty cents when they're paying twenty-five is a goddamn Red. No, that won't do at all.

Admittedly I don't know anything about the process of choosing curricular materials at the K-12 level. Our homework – and this includes me – is to research and determine how reading lists are chosen in our local school district. It's something well worth weighing in on if possible.

NPF: PAIN DON'T HURT

Posted in No Politics Friday on September 20th, 2013 by Ed

A friend and ex-colleague was (and is) unusually obsessed with the 1989 Patrick Swayze work of art Road House. For the uninitiated, Road House is a movie about people punching each other. Swayze and Sam Elliott also take turns acting like hardasses. One of the best things on the internet is this 11 minute compilation of every fight scene from the movie.

It had been about 15 years since I saw this film when I discovered it on Hulu Plus last week. For shits and/or giggles I played it in the background while I did some grading and other mindless professorial tasks. Road House, ladies and gentlemen, is just terrible. Yet I can see how someone would get obsessed with it (and force repeated viewings upon his poor wife, which will almost certainly be a factor in the divorce proceedings). It is that lovable kind of terrible. It makes you want to like it by sheer force of its crapulence.

Alas, I don't think one can see a movie at the age of 34 and adopt it as a new Guilty Pleasure film; I am already set in my habits. Road House cannot be my Road House. In order to develop a lasting love affair with a movie that isn't even any good, one must be exposed to it as a child or adolescent (which I discovered when I watched The Princess Bride for the first time in my early thirties). One terrible movie I recall clearly from dozens of viewings as a child was Arnold Schwarzenegger's Commando. But it didn't age with me. I've tried to watch it maybe once in the last 20 years and holy balls it might be the worst movie ever made.

Also, adult viewings of Commando force me to confront the questionable parenting that resulted in me watching it a hundred times when I was like eight. My dad also took me to see RoboCop in the theater when I was nine. I'd buy that for a dollar.

So what is my Road House? The closest thing I can think of is Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls, which I have probably seen fifty times. It is terrible. It is terrible and I love it ("It's in the bone. It's in the bone!")
I have plenty of other go-to movies, but they're mostly Good. At least they are not obviously and aggressively bad and I love them in spite of that. For bad action movies I guess I don't mind throwing on Predator while I'm folding laundry although it doesn't arouse any strong feelings in me.

What are yours? The ones you know damn well are terrible yet you watch them repeatedly? It might be time for me to explore some other options in the universe of the charmingly crappy.

Oh, and I'm serious about Commando. Awful. Just awful. It's Bennett. Look at that fucking guy. Truman Capote would be a more menacing villain.

SKIP STEP ONE

Posted in Quick Hits on September 19th, 2013 by Ed

Mike Konczal brought this brief Ezra Klein piece to my attention earlier this week. In it, Klein claims that all of the financial advice you will ever need can fit on a 4×6 index card.

The advice is as follows:

1. Max out your 401(k) or other employer contribution plan
2. Buy inexpensive, well-diversified mutual funds
3. Never buy or sell individual stocks
4. Save 20% of your money
5. Pay credit card balances in full monthly
6. Take advantage of tax-advantaged accounts like Roth IRA and 529s
7. Pay attention to fees
8. Make your financial advisor commit to a fiduciary strategy
9. Support social insurance programs

Certainly this is all sound advice. So why does it just add fuel to my "God I want to punch Ezra Klein" fire?

Like most Beltway insiders, he is a mouthpiece for the politics of consensus and Reasonable People. He is a younger, hipper David (Gergen or Brooks, take your pick). This sounds like exactly the kind of financial advice we would hear from someone who would be shocked to learn that, what, maybe a third of Americans have 401(k)-type plans? That most people barely make enough to live paycheck-to-paycheck and saving 20% (is that in addition to or including the 401k?) isn't feasible? That there is an entire universe of Americans outside of DC and Manhattan who don't have a financial advisor?

This is great advice for people who don't need this advice. Honestly, if you have a job that pays you well enough to save a fifth of your income and take advantage of an employer contribution plan, you have to try pretty hard to fail to save money and have relatively solid finances. So thanks, Beltway journalists and Ivy League academics – we have solved a problem that didn't really exist. To the extent that there are people who earn enough to do all of these things but instead blow all of their money on shopping and a McMansion, I guess this could help. But are they going to start taking financial advice now if they haven't yet?

The index card needs one additional line at the top; "Step one – get a high paying job with excellent benefits." Without that, the rest is as useful as Esperanto.

JUST IN CASE

Posted in Quick Hits on September 18th, 2013 by Ed

Forget about the final three months of the year; competition for the 2013 Unintentional Hilarity award is all but over thanks to Robert Costa over at America's Shittiest WebsiteTM.

Leadership sources tell me the House GOP will soon vote on a continuing resolution that simultaneously funds the federal government and defunds Obamacare. Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are expected to announce the decision at Wednesday's closed-door conference meeting.

This means the conservatives who have been urging Boehner to back a defunding effort as part of the CR have won a victory, at least in terms of getting the leadership to go along with their strategy. But getting such a CR through the Democratic Senate and signed into law will be very difficult — and many House Republican insiders say a "Plan B" may be needed.

Here’s how my sources expect the gambit to unfold: The House passes a "defund CR," throws it to the Senate, and waits to see what Senator Ted Cruz and his allies can do. Maybe they can get it through, maybe they can’t. Boehner and Cantor will be supportive, and conservative activists will rally.

But if Cruz and company can't round up the votes, the House leadership will likely urge Republicans to turn their focus to the debt limit, avoid a shutdown, and pass a revised CR — one that doesn't defund Obamacare.

For the moment, though, the leadership is officially undecided. "No decisions have been made, or will be made, until House Republican members meet and talk tomorrow," says Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman.

Where to start.

Yes, Bob. It may in fact be somewhat difficult to get the Democratic Senate to hop on board with the pet project of unreconstructed Teatards. Informed Sources also speculate that it could maybe, possibly be a little difficult to get the President, who does not have to run for office again, to repeal his signature legislative accomplishment, however underwhelming or flawed it may be.

Indeed, "many House Republican insiders" believe that some sort of backup plan may be necessary. The only flaw with that statement is its implication that the scenario described here constitutes a "plan" in any sense of the term.

Meanwhile, well-liked Senator and noted bipartisan Ted Cruz will get to work on getting fourteen Democrats to board the FreedomWorks Express. I wonder who will jump ship first, Chuck Schumer or Dianne Feinstein? Maybe Dick Durbin. Sources hear that Bernie Sanders is already a lock to defect. Thirteen more to go, Ted!

We close out this journalistic abortion with a casual reference to destroying the global economy if by some miracle this brilliant plan happens to fail. It's beautiful to see that modern conservatism has reached a point where "and then we engineer the failure of the economy" doesn't even require an explanation. It can be mentioned in passing as though it is too obvious and mundane to explain in any detail.

For someone who is paid to talk about political science, I read and watch a shockingly small quantity of political commentary and news. This is why.

THE GREAT RESIGNATION

Posted in Rants on September 17th, 2013 by Ed

Imagine yourself one of the small number of Americans who have political power – real power. Say you wanted to browbeat Americans into accepting some truly awful aspect of their lives without complaint. It would be in your interest to have this awful thing happen so regularly that people would become resigned to it, aided by saturation news coverage emphasizing that it is inevitable and nothing can be done about it. After a sufficient amount of time you would most likely achieve your goal; people will just shrug their shoulders, accept it as part of life, and go about their miserable days.

With our latest public spree killing at the Navy Yards in Washington, the NRA appears to have accomplished its goal at long last. They have achieved their dream of an America in which an armed gunman can murder 12 people in public and no one will give it a second thought. It isn't shocking, it isn't a cause for outrage. It's just a thing that is going to happen a couple of times per year indefinitely because really, what can be done about it? Lacking an especially gruesome angle – in Newtown, for instance, the victims were all tiny children – we hardly even pay attention.

It feels as if no one has the energy to go through the motions, to take to their soapboxes and yell that America has either too many guns or too few. After Newtown, Americans have finally gotten the message: the gun industry owns the NRA, the NRA owns Congress, and Congress owns nothing but the votes it sells to the highest bidder. Nothing is going to change, ever, unless it involves arming more people in more places. So really, what is the point? Why bother? Why try to make changes that will never happen? People may not be smart but they are rational; most of us recognize a lost cause when we see it. We're left with no option beyond retreating into the fantasy that we can somehow protect ourselves with more guns and bigger locks on the doors.

Getting policies enacted is not a rare accomplishment for an interest group. Getting the public to accept their position as the status quo is harder but not unheard of. The NRA alone, it seems, has succeeded in reducing its opposition to total resignation. They are going to win every time. The only solution is more guns and the occasional killing spree is just a fact of American life now. Despite the saturation media coverage of these once-shocking events, they're treated essentially like the weather: it's just a thing that happens that nobody can control or predict, and it sure is sad when some people end up dead.

Lyndon Johnson once said that real power is getting someone to kiss your ass in a Macy's window and then announce that it tasted great. He wasn't wrong, but today real power is getting an entire nation to react to something that should be jarring with, "Just twelve? Regular adults? Oh how terrible. What's for dinner?"

GIVE THESE PEOPLE AIR!

Posted in Quick Hits on September 16th, 2013 by Ed

There is a scene in Total Recall (I refuse to see the "remake" and refer, of course, to the 1990 film) wherein a corrupt profiteer named Cohagen shuts off the supply of breathable air to part of a city managed by his corporation to "teach them a lesson" for hiding Arnold Schwarzenegger's character. It provides us with one of the more famously bad Schwarzenegger quotes from his Eighties "I haven't totally mastered English. Or acting." phase: "Give these people air!"

It's no "Get to the choppa!" but it'll do.

We've all realized by now that the 1987 Paul Verhoeven splatter-fest RoboCop was actually a documentary about how Detroit would look in 25 years; there may not be police-robots but Omni Consumer Products is getting ready to take over. I hadn't previously made the connection with Total Recall, though. It didn't seem plausible that some unelected sociopath would be able to turn off public utilities out of spite here in the United States. As a dystopian literary device, sure. But in real life? In the USA?

Well it turns out that last week's power outage in Detroit was done intentionally by the Rick Snyder-appointed "city manager" or someone in that office. It appears that on one of the hottest days of the year, "We did start calling our customers prior to taking them down and asking them to turn off air conditioners, but they weren't responding as fast as we would like them to so we had to send them a strong message by turning the power off." In the video, the speaker laughs a lot while explaining this. The power was down for four hours without warning.

There hasn't been a peep about this from the media, of course. Go ahead, google "Detroit power outage" and see if any major networks or newspapers covered this – despite the fact that the city manager's office explicitly admits responsibility. On video. In fact, if not for the local Fox station in Detroit – oh, delicious irony – it would be as if this never happened.

The city managers are eager to blame the city's power department and infrastructure as a means of hastening the privatization plans. Services are scheduled to be handed over to DTE Energy, because if the last three decades have proven anything it's that corporate control is pure and efficient whereas public control is inherently corrupt.

Just a friendly reminder to keep this in mind when the ALEC-sponsored "financial emergency" bills appear in your state legislature.