SUPERLATIVES

Posted in Quick Hits on October 14th, 2013 by Ed

Having just driven 1000-plus miles in three days, I can't work up the sap for the post planned for Monday. Trust me though, whenever I spent 15-20 hours alone in a car on empty rural roads, a handful of epic posts usually follows.

In the meantime, I have two new nominees for the Worst Place in America: Joplin, MO and Fort Smith, AR. Don't give me the tornado excuse for Joplin. And Fort Smith would be vastly improved by a few EF4s. I continue to maintain that the worst actual city (not tiny rural pile of rubble) in the country is Fresno, though God knows there are plenty of contenders (everything in upstate NY, Reading PA, Worcester MA, Peoria IL, South Bend IN, Houston, and a handful of other Rust Belt atrocities in Ohio and Michigan). Nonetheless, both Joplin and "The Fort" merit strong consideration.

On the plus side, if you want to feel thin and smart, you'll be king of the world in either place.

NPF: ED TALKS

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 10th, 2013 by Ed

Given my level of hatred for the whole spectacle it's a minor miracle that this is the first time I've ever mentioned TED Talks on here. With people who know me In Real Life, TED Talks are widely understood as one of the topics one does not broach unless prepared to hear Ed go on a mini-rant. When people first started noticing TED videos, it struck me as well-intentioned albeit unbearably smug and cloying. I figured there were some videos worth seeing and a bunch of others that were not. But it was stunning how rapidly a handful of TED talks became hundreds and then thousands of TED talks. I thought, "There is no way that there are this many people in the world with something interesting to say." The numbers seemed to line up better with a different subgroup: wealthy people who achieve orgasm to the sound of their own voice. Preferably while it generates every meaningless buzzword the brain can produce.

The whole phenomenon got so big so fast – and then became so obviously full of shit to the majority of us – that I felt like the moment had passed; TED Talks became an easy target and I had little to add to the horse-beating that others had not already covered at great length. It has been amazing, however, to watch the TED "brand" mature and eventually become completely meaningless as every "entrepreneur", shill, and con man on the planet seemed to have done at least five of these goddamn things. It amazes me that hunger persists in the world, what with the 50 TED talks done every year that solve the problem.

TED is like a concentrated version of NPR – the richest, whitest, most self-congratulatory circle jerk of elites spewing breathless bullshit. That is not to say that there are no good TED talks; that is to say that you'll probably never get to the good TED talks because you'll tire of wading through the garbage. Like NPR, it tries to appease its white-as-hell audience by injecting the kind of buzzwordy "diversity" that a white-as-hell audience wants to see ("Drawing inspiration from Kanye West and Adele, singer-songwriter Elle Varner writes about girl power and fun in an eclectic mix of hip-hop and soul.") Unlike NPR, they follow it immediately with another Business Casual asshole from the Wharton School yammering on about microlending.

And that, my friends, is what intrigues me enough to finally post about such an obvious target: the perfect synthesis of empty corporate-motivational speak, self-promoting assclowns with no accomplishments beyond drawing from a trust fund, and Diversity Mascots. Oh, and occasionally they throw in a serious academic ("Philosopher S. Matthew Liao directs the bioethics program at NYU and has kicked off the discussion about bio-engineering humans to help combat climate change.") who has cynically figured out how to extract gobs of money from stupid people on the Silicon Valley "Thought Leader" circuit.

This has come to a head because, I kid you not, I know one of these people "performing" (if that is the correct word) at TED's NYC tryout camp. They don't call it that, but what else is it? It's an invite to spring training for people who may have what it takes to wander around Silicon Valley giving $50,000 dinner speeches to Google zillionaires. For the ease of storytelling, let's say my friend= is male. I won't be specific because, despite everything I am about to write, I like this person.

He and I were in the same social circle many years ago when I lived in Chicago – around 2000-2003. He is by anyone's account a bright, positive, ambitious, and outgoing guy. He is also, by equally unanimous account, an attention-desperate self promoter with no discernible skills or accomplishments beyond 1) indefatigable enthusiasm and 2) a trust fund. His professional accomplishments since we both departed Chicago consist entirely of having somehow managed to get his name and face on a large and random selection of media despite having no experience, training, or skills that would ostensibly qualify him to speak on any subject with authority.

In other words, despite being a positive and occasionally charming character, this is the absolute last person on the planet that should be classified as a "Thought Leader". As his thoughts consist mostly of "Hey look at me!", I fail to see what TED is really about beyond providing therapy and faddish platitudes to the Valley's moneyed Steve Jobs cultists. It is not hard to believe people who tell me that there are some great TED talks out there, nor is it hard to believe that at this point the only real requirement to become one of these people is the ability to spout pedantic bullshit with enthusiasm for 12 minutes.

And that's when it hit me. Since the casting call for TED superstars appears to consist of "self-promote by blathering on for 10 minutes about how profound something stupid and anecdotal was," my old acquaintance might be just perfect for the job after all.

BLIND SPOT

Posted in Quick Hits on October 9th, 2013 by Ed

One of the most impressive aspects of modern conservatism is how completely a-historical the movement and its ideology have become. Most humans tend to remember things that happened in the past; some even learn from the experience. American conservatives, conversely, not only prove staggeringly ignorant of historical details but they also have a habit of proposing ideas that have failed spectacularly in the past as though they are new and untested.

Let's deregulate capitalism and let the free market govern us! We tried that during the Industrial Revolution; try Googling "robber barons." Let's engage in regime change and nation-building! We won the Vietnam War, didn't we? Tax cuts produce runaway economic growth! Except for when they don't. And now we're hearing the backbenchers who are morons even by the standards of House Republicans proposing that defaulting on debt obligations really won't be such a big deal. As shocking as this will be for a group of people with the long-term memory of goldfish, we tried that once as well. It ended up being expensive. Really, really expensive.

It would be overly optimistic to think that the nation, or at least a small group of people with considerable political power, could analyze a historical event, draw conclusions about its consequences, and perhaps learn something useful from it. You know, the kind of things we ask high school students to do with a history textbook. You may claim that the GOP remembers this incident but simply does not care or they welcome its destructive consequences. I am more pessimistic. If the over-under on the number of House Republicans who have heard of and can explain something about the 1979 default was set at 50, I'd take the under. All in.

BLOODLINES

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

Since our entire country has been on this Randian-Libertarian-Nihilist streak for the recent past and foreseeable future, I have a question about something that has been bothering me: why do these Objectivist-Superman-Job Creator types oppose inheritance taxes? In fact, why do they believe in inheritance of assets at all? I mean, if every man should have to make it in the world on his own mettle without outside interference, then the children of the rich should have to hack it without a financial booster seat. Furthermore, since they're so qualified to succeed in life of their own accord, they should have no need for dad's and granddad's millions.

I may be a simpleton, but it would appear to me that once you accept a system of hereditary wealth the whole "level playing field" thing goes out the window. Maybe I just need to get out my picture of Milton Friedman and pray harder.

PRIORITY ONE

Posted in Rants on October 7th, 2013 by Ed

Say you were the president of a large, middling public university and you had to find a way to compensate for declining state funding. If your first reaction is, "We should build a $246,000,000 football stadium for our thoroughly mediocre team!" then you might have a future in university administration, at least at Colorado State University.

In much the same way that "Tax cuts create jobs!" is an article of faith among conservatives despite all evidence to the contrary, "The athletic program will draw out-of-state students" is an article of faith among the university brass. State universities rarely have trouble attracting enough in-state enrollment, as "cheap and close to home" are two powerful selling points for the parents of college-bound students. However, what universities and state legislatures really love are the out-of-state students who can be socked for two, three, even four times as much tuition. State legislators know that their constituents will be angry if in-state tuition rises. And the people affected by out-of-state tuition don't vote for the Colorado state legislature so the political cost is zero.

The question, however, is what would draw kids from other states to Colorado State. No offense to CSU, which I'm sure has fine programs, but there isn't much to make it stand out among the hundreds of other similar, and often cheaper, public universities. People from all over the country will apply to elite schools like UC-Berkeley or Michigan, but the many universities that fall into the Average category are nearly indistinguishable. What distinguishes Colorado State from Washington State from Illinois State from Southern Florida? We could argue that one is as good as any other, and therein lies the rub.

Despite low attendance (sub-30,000) at the current stadium, CSU boosters appear to think that a quarter-billion dollar 40,000 seater will soon be filled with fans and drawing in students from all over. This logic is questionable at best for reasons that should be obvious. The string of assumptions is perilously thin – that great football stars will start choosing CSU because of its stadium, that the team will become a powerhouse, and that a good team will bring in students from California and so on. That certainly could work. It also very easily might not work. There are dozens of other big universities trying the same trick, many of which – Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Wisconsin, Ohio State, UCLA, and so on – are quite good at it, way ahead of an upstart program, and, not insignificantly, not located in Fort Collins, CO.

The science of trying to define what high school kids look for when choosing a college is the closest thing to alchemy that one can get paid to do these days. It's tough to model irrational or quasi-rational decision making, and who knows what combination of factors will or will not bring more applications to CSU. What is certain is that the $250 million stadium will be an enormous yoke around the university's neck for years to come, and it might be a crushing burden if it hosts half-empty football games. Having a big-time athletic program is indeed a good drawing card, but CSU's booster appear to be overestimating the ease with which an Alabama-caliber football program can be built.

GROW A PAIR

Posted in Rants on October 3rd, 2013 by Ed

It didn't take the collection of stooges and sociopaths at Fox News long to feed the network's slack-jawed, largely immobile viewers their Shutdown talking points. You see, it's not really a "shutdown" since "most" government employees are still working – at least until the money runs out, although the Fair Balancers neglect to mention that part much. It's merely a "slimdown", a term that has Frank Luntz's donut-sticky fingerprints all over it and which I expect to propagate throughout the lexicon about as efficiently as "Homicide bombers" and "Freedom Toast." That is, it will be used mostly to mock people stupid enough to take such a thing seriously.

As stupid as this game of semantics and branding may be, it is based on an actual fact: as usual, the tough-talking GOP is unwilling to go all the way. When they say "Shut down the government" they really mean "shut down the parts we don't like." Exceptions are always made to soften the blow for their voting base of rubes, hillbillies, and the blobs of hate and Lipitor that fill Sun Belt retirement communities. If they want to shut down the government, let's shut down the government. All of it. Everything from the military down to the Social Security administration and Medicare. Shut it down, all of it, and see how long it takes the electorate to flay the GOP "Suicide Caucus" alive.

But they never do that. They don't have the balls. They want to talk tough and take pseudo-stands without really inconveniencing any of the people that matter to them. They want to push, but they're terrified of pushing too far. Consider, for example, the right-wing stance on health care for the past…half-century. They adamantly refuse to consider single-payer and now they won't even support what used to be their alternative to single-payer, a system that funnels people into private insurance. But at the same time, they never repealed the laws that require any patient who presents in an emergency room to be treated regardless of ability to pay. They want to make sure that their poor, rural base can still get medical care (as long as they're willing to be crushed by a mountain of debt when the ER bills arrive). I've argued that they should close this loophole. It wouldn't take too long – nor too many bodies found dead on sidewalks in front of hospitals that refused to treat them – before people would have enough of this shit and demand a new system.

Fox News and I are strange bedfellows for the moment, I guess. For different reasons, we each want to emphasize that the government isn't really shut down. They're using Orwellian language to attempt to re-frame the debate; I'm pointing out that the GOP hasn't truly "shut down" the government because they know that if the country ever had to experience a real, complete shut down, the government would be un-shut down in about an hour. Americans don't have much capacity for self-sacrifice these days. Many people are inconvenienced or made to suffer by this "Slimdown," but it's not a number great enough to scare Republicans in entirely safe congressional districts. If everyone had to suffer and be inconvenienced, though, this would be over so fast that people like Ted Cruz wouldn't know what hit them. That is why they are so careful, with their endless reserves of cowardice, to ensure that their grandstanding doesn't affect a large enough group of people to pose a threat.

How brave. Someday we will sing ballads of their heroism before the statues erected in their honor.

BURNING DOWN THE VILLAGE

Posted in Rants on October 2nd, 2013 by Ed

This week I'm checking an item off the bucket list: assigning Watchmen to a bunch of college students and getting paid to talk about it. It's a delightful tale of – spoiler! – the dangers inherent in disregarding all morality to further what one perception of the greater good. A story in which deeply flawed characters, and one in particular, act on the belief that they've figured out what's best for society is a compelling way to explore ends-justify-means morality. It might even be applicable to current events. Somehow.

The House Republicans' position for the past few weeks is simple to understand: They've decided that health care reform shouldn't happen and it's OK to subvert the democratic process or fly the economy into a skyscraper in order to stop it because goddammit we're right. They know better than the courts, the president, the voters, or the Congress that passed the law. They have Truth and Rightness and Freedom and Bald Eagles on their side, so anything they do is justified. If people end up dying, so be it. They can make a disingenuous "I've made myself feel every death… see every innocent face I've murdered to save humanity" speech when their imagined victory comes.

Conservatives are motivated solely by fear. That's it. Fear of the unknown, fear of things that are different, fear of change, fear that the government is coming to take what they inherited, and fear of a world in which they're not guaranteed social superiority and the institutions of society do not cater to them. Right now they're afraid and they've talked themselves into a pseudo-religious frenzy to (over) compensate for it. The House Republican caucus looks like a group of kamikaze pilots attending their own funeral before their voyage into immortality. True, the actual kamikazes just flew obsolete planes into the ocean and accomplished nothing. But this time will be different!

What they're afraid of is simple: they are afraid that everyone is about to discover how full of shit they are. This pattern repeats itself. Think about every time there have been changes to the legal status of gays and lesbians. The right has predicted the downfall of western civilization each time, and each time the law changes and…crickets. Tumbleweeds. Nothing happens. It turns out that the military wasn't brought to its knees by the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". The troops are not too busy cross-dressing and 69ing each other to do their jobs. All of their dire end-of-world predictions came to absolutely nothing. And that's what will happen again when this law goes into effect. More people will funnel money toward insurers – Remember how the Commie Socialist law is actually a handjob for the insurance industry? – and more people will enjoy the same frustrating, generally lousy, better-than-nothing health insurance that the rest of us have.

The death panels, the rationing, the six-month waits to see a doctor (which people with HMOs already have, but I digress), the skyrocketing costs, the doctors going out of business…none of it is going to happen. The Republicans are now backed into a corner; they are forced to recognize among themselves that they've been feeding the public a giant ration (see what I did there?) of horseshit at the behest of their beloved Job Creators and now the jig is up. They absolutely must stop the law at all costs or else face a future of half-assed explanations to Fox News hosts about why the dire predictions didn't come to pass. Maybe Dr. Manhattan/Ronald Reagan saved America with his super powers.

Because they're afraid they've convinced themselves that this is a jihad, an epic quest of principle and morality. In reality it is nothing more than a political ploy, a smattering of dilatory tactics arising from too many late-night masturbation sessions with a copy of Robert's Rules of Order during their formative years interning for the Heritage Foundation and dad's company. The only principle at play here is the basest kind of self-interest; they are terrified to be revealed for what they really are, and now they are scrambling. At first glance they might appear to be willing to burn down the village in order to save it. In reality, they're willing to burn it down in order to save themselves.

How noble.

FALLLLLLLLLLLLLING

Posted in Quick Hits on October 1st, 2013 by Ed

Many years ago I read a study of people who had survived falls from great heights – including a WWII paratrooper who fell 22,000 feet with no parachute – and I was struck by the nearly universal reports of a calm, serene feeling while it was happening. There comes a point at which you become so thoroughly screwed that your body and brain team up to decide that there is no point in freaking out about it. You'd likely be panicked if you had to jump out of a third-story window or if you fell down a long flight of stairs, but when falling from 22,000 feet it isn't even worth it to scream or be scared. I'd have to imagine, as the survivors reported, that the most likely response would be along the lines of "Well I guess this is it."

On a smaller scale we all experience the same phenomenon. We routinely get bent out of shape about matters that are trivial at best, yet when we are faced with an actual serious problem – even insurmountable ones against which we can do nothing – we do a better job of taking it in stride. I have a friend who was evicted from his house in 2010 when it was foreclosed; I recall speaking to him a few days beforehand and asking him what he was going to do. "Well, the bank's going to take the house and I guess I'll stay somewhere else." It blew my mind. Objectively, that's a great way to handle it.

Watching – at least to the extent that I can stomach watching this – John Boehner during this congressional kabuki theater makes me feel like I'm seeing the same thing in the beleaguered speaker. I don't feel bad for him; when you sign up to be the captain of the U.S.S. Batshit you get what you deserve. But man does he look calm for a guy who is totally powerless to stop this trainwreck. He can't control the House GOP any more than he can control the weather, and he knows it. He's just…placid. Here is an orange-skinned man who no longer knows fear. He knows how screwed he is and at this point he looks like he's considering getting hammered on Wild Turkey and riding the wave until it's over. He's pushing for a six week continuing resolution with the apparent hope that he'll come up with an idea in that time or fake his own death.

However this is resolved – the usual last minute "compromise", a temporary shutdown, or a protracted battle – the common thread is that Boehner is a passenger in the process. He knows he is supposed to be in control, and nominally he is. He may not be a rocket scientist but he is smart enough to realize that the laws of physics have taken over and he's along for the ride. If I'm ever as screwed as he is at this moment, I hope I can experience the same kind of serenity. Godspeed, Mr. Speaker.