Thomas Frank's latest is on the post-Great Recession resurgence of the McMansion. After falling briefly in 2009, the average square footage of new home construction in the U.S. has resumed its inexorable growth. It's a surprisingly bland offering from Frank, telling us little that we didn't already know. With no judgment – because god knows I've been there – it comes off as a piece one writes when unable to think of a topic on a deadline.

The main point is that new home construction is a kind of monument to American vacuousness, as our society place great value on living not only in large homes but in large homes of the dumbest and most ostentatious kind. One thing I think Frank misses, or misses a chance to emphasize, is that the Babbitt class has always valued size as a means of displaying wealth. This is not a new phenomenon. There are plenty of differences, though, between the Big Houses of yesterday and of today. The real issue is a little more subtle than his approach suggests.

I live in a home built in 1907. In fact the entire neighborhood consists of homes built between 1880 and 1910 (which, I believe, was the last time anything good happened to this city). To illustrate a few points, I wandered around with my camera for about a half hour on Sunday afternoon. Suffice it to say the homes here are not small. They border on giant. And these were homes occupied by bank managers, dentists, realtors…precisely the kind of new money middle class that flocks to McMansions today.

Single Home

It's not only big, it's adorned with a lot of the same gaudy ornamentation that characterizes today's suburban tract palaces. The nouveau riche of today appear to be startlingly similar to those of the turn of the 20th Century. That said, there are a number of respects in which I think Frank has a point that he didn't do enough to make.

1. Much of the difference can be seen in the quality of construction. The Middle Class Manses of 1900 were built like brick shithouses. That they are all still standing in cities all over the Midwest, despite having received minimal upkeep for decades or in some cases being outright abandoned for some time, is a testament to how they were constructed. The homes around here certainly look worse for wear, but they are structurally sound. McMansions, despite their enormous size and matching price tags, absolutely reek of cheapness. As Frank says, they are meant to be "flipped" in ten years. They are just enormous piles of pressed board, plain white paint, plain carpeting, and hollow doors set on flimsy Chinese hinges. With the possible exception of the de rigueur stone countertops in the kitchen, nothing in these homes is designed to last 30 years let alone 100. If you've been in one, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's hard to reconcile their high prices with the feeling that it's just a gigantic version of that duplex you rented for a year in college.

2. The old homes, despite being equally prone to show-off ornamentation, had an architectural style. It might not be one that many of us find pleasing or tasteful, but it was a style. McMansions, on the other hand, are stylistically illiterate collages of generations of tacky details: turrets, bay windows, cornices, gables, columns, dormers, chimneys, ornamental brickwork…you name it and the lowest bid contractor will slap it on the flimsy exterior. McMansions are the Michael Bay movies of architecture.

3. While the older homes were very large, they held larger families with more children. In the case of wealthier parts of society around 1900, there was domestic staff around the house as well. The size of the older homes had a functional purpose.

4. The older homes were vertically oriented and fit closely together. Here are a couple of (not great) pictures I snapped to try to illustrate the point. Note that all of the houses in both pictures are, by any definition, exceptionally large. Click to embiggen:

Row 1
Row 2

In the first picture in particular you can see that you can reach out a side window and high-five your neighbor in these houses. And here is where I think Frank really misses an important point. The McMansion is not merely stupid, big, and stupid-big, it is purposely designed to waste space. They're two stories to project size, but primarily horizontally oriented – in layman's terms, they sprawl idiotically in every direction. They sit on lots designed not only to set them back from the street but also to keep them a safe distance away from the neighbors. If they don't have moats it is only because zoning boards won't allow it.

5. Finally, the laughable sameness of today's megahomes represents a change. Turn-of-the-Century construction shows that buyers and developers at least bothered to hire a few different architects, build more than three floorplans per development, and paint the exteriors something other than white.

Anywhere in the declining Midwest you can get these old homes for a song. There are no longer enough well-to-do people here – actually, there just aren't enough people, full stop – to support the value of old homes in the city along with the new construction out in the suburbs. They're not always pretty on account of age and neglect, but they have what the cool kids call Charm. Charm is a way of saying that, unlike most of what is built today, every home does not look identical. They are made of actual building materials instead of compressed granite dust, plywood, and bricks you can crush with your hand. If the bankers' homes of 1900 were the expression of the stupidity of the era like McMansions are of today, then the inescapable conclusion is that American stupidity has gotten much more potent in the intervening decades.


So this is what's going on over at Tea Party Nation. Mary Baker of "Conservative Moms for America" – Seriously, is there anything that makes you want to take someone seriously less than when they begin any statement that isn't about parenting a child (and a lot of statements that are) by identifying themselves as a mother? – shares some deeply thought provoking ideas about why the gays are like the KKK:

When white supremacy tried to make a mark in American history it was viciously attacked quickly put down by the people of our nation . But Gay Supremacy is becoming a monster that carries greater evils than white supremacy ever did. White Supremacy was focused on how a group of people felt about another group of people. They created various barriers for those they hated and their views about their superiority to others provided the frame work for the citizens of this nation to search their hearts and understand that God has created every person in His image. However Gay Supremacy's hate reaches much farther than a specific group of people. Their is no common ground that can be reached. Their is no searching of the heart or consideration of God's principles. Their hate is generated only by self centeredness and hate for anyone who disagrees with them.

Any person who disagrees with their evil beliefs will be viciously attacked and destroyed. I could disagree with the beliefs of white supremacist and still hold to Biblical views about life, marriage and sexuality. Many people in America fought against their own kind in order to rid us of this hateful group but Gay supremacist have bullied every sector of our nation and now sit as the giant bully against all Americans who disagree with their radical agenda. Christians are not bigots because we don't embrace immoral lifestyles. Currently gay supremacist point their anguish at Christians but anyone who stand opposed to the Gay supremacist is game for utter annihilation.

Our state government must now take the lead in protecting the religious freedoms and right of expression of the citizens of their state from this new enemy the Gay Supremacist.

I struggle to think of anything more historically ignorant and offensive that I have read. Oh, let's check out the first comment!

Both Conservatism and Christianity has no problem with the right to live the gay lifestyle, in accordance with religious freedom which all Christian churches promote, so long as the gay lifestyle is not sanctioned by the State.

You raise an interesting point about "White Supremacy vs. Gay Supremacy" – driving people out of corporations is just like the KKK driving black people out of town, and liberal bullying is just like KKK cross-burning.

Just like White Supremacism claimed "States' Rights" support their actions, "Gay Supremacism" claims "Equal Rights" support their actions.

As conservatives, we must fight both White Supremacism and "Gay Supremacism" and support freedom for all races and sexual orientations.

Yep, that's actually worse. Because the only way you can top the people who write for Tea Party Nation is by turning to the people whose days are spent posting comments on Tea Party Nation. Just remember, the Tea Party and the Republican Party are very different. No overlap whatsoever.


There is precious little to add to what this piece over at Death & Taxes has already said, but I will make the effort nonetheless.

But Robert James Talbot, Jr. gets arrested for terrorism and I don’t see a thing about it until days later, until this weekend when I happened upon this article from the Southern Poverty Law Center. So weird! In fact, most of the other articles I’ve been able to find are from local Texas news sources. Very few national outlets have even bothered with the story.

Talbot is a white, radical right-wing conservative who was arrested by the FBI on charges of “attempted interference with commerce by robbery, solicitation to commit a crime of violence and possession of an explosive material.”

He set up a Facebook page, “American Insurgent Movement” in order to recruit five or six like-minded folks for what he called a “a Pre-Constitutionalist Community that offers those who seek True patriotism and are looking for absolute Freedom by doing the Will of God. Who want to restore America Pre- Constitutionally and look forward to stopping the Regime with action by bloodshed.” People, whom he said, must be willing to walk away from their lives to “stop the regime.” His plan was to rob banks to fund his revolution, and then also blow up mosques. He claimed to have already cased several Bank of Americas.

He wasn’t shy about his intentions, and even brazenly posted the following messages to the group’s Facebook page:

“Liberty movement starts this summer for those who are up for anything. Email the admin if your [sic] interested in walking away from your life (we have weapons if you need a weapon) to stop the Regime. We always will be recruiting. …You will be giving your life for a greater nation restoring liberty and the Lord himself. Stopping the New World Order and banking cartels.”

“That is exactly what I will have my men do during the heist. Same goes with the Muslims. Mosques are to be a blast! With three of my guys with FA [full automatic] AK’s [AK-47 semi-automatic rifles], we will send that white house worthless piece of dirt and his Muslim brotherhood a message they will never forget.”

And on March 15th…

“In a few weeks me and my team are going active for Operation Liberty. I will not be able to post no more. We will be the revolution, things will happen nationwide or in the states. They will call us many names and spin things around on media. Just remember we fight to stop Marxism, liberalism, Central banking Cartels and the New World Order.”

He was arrested after meeting with three undercover FBI agents who were pretending to be interested in helping him rob an armored car, and providing him with C-4 explosives. He also told the undercover agents that he planned to locate and kill a police officer who arrested him for drunk driving.

Now, call me crazy, but I have a feeling that if Talbot had been, instead, a Muslim man plotting to blow up Christian churches, that this is something that would have made the news cycle, in pretty heavy rotation. Despite the fact that two people with a similar ideology once committed one of the most tragic incidents of terrorism on U.S. soil, it is highly unlikely that other like-minded folks–like Larry Klayman and friends–will be put on the do-not-fly list anytime soon.

The if-he-was-Muslim point is almost too obvious to bother making – replace white with brown and Lord with Allah and we'd have a full-blown media circus on our hands. This raises two useful questions. First, is the problem that the media didn't pay enough attention to this jackass or that it pays far, far too much to other would-be terrorists? Realistically this guy posed a minimal threat to the public; anyone stupid enough to post stuff like this on Facebook is going to attract undercover FBI/ATF agents like a ham attracts starving dogs. This story isn't a big deal, and that's the point. Most of the Great Big Terrorism Scares involve bumbling dipshits who couldn't rob a liquor store without getting caught (e.g., the Fort Dix plotters in 2007) yet the media routinely turns every example into a 9/11 near miss. Lots of people plan things, yet it's only when white people do the planning that the media are able to distinguish between a plan and a realistic threat to the public. Strange.

Second, how much of the activity on the Militia/"Patriot"/Ultra-right in the U.S. is abetted by the indignant howling that conservatives do whenever law enforcement suggests that, you know, gun-toting lunatic McVeigh types pose a greater threat than Scary Foreign Muslims? Perhaps it has been too long since Oklahoma City and Americans forget what kind of people make up the survivalist Right. Maybe the terror acts perpetrated by non-U.S. citizens have simply been better executed and therefore more memorable. Or maybe a significant minority of American conservatives think that plotting to overthrow the government is a reasonable response to electing a moderate Democrat to the White House. Hmm.


Over time I've learned the futility of trying to interact with people in comment sections on the vast majority of websites. The odds of changing someone's opinion are so very low when the opinions they express are of the Thought Terminating Cliche variety or some subliterate expression of racism. Sometimes I wonder if the people commenting on news sites are even people as opposed to paid astroturfers or spamming software; it is only the doubt that a computer could be programmed to generate anything as stupid as the average Journal-Sentinel Online comment that convinces me of the human touch behind them.

(Seriously, the JSO has the worst comment sections I've ever seen. The three regions in Wisconsin are apparently Milwaukee, Madison, and 1950s Mississippi.)

There are only two comments I ever find myself tempted to make anymore. One is to point out during bitch sessions about lazy employees (usually Union Thugs) that the lard-assed white guys making these comments are most likely at work browsing the internet and posting inane comments on the company dime. The second is to ask people why they have not quit whatever job they have in order to become teachers. Because boy oh boy, to listen to right-wingers tell it, teaching is the sweetest, cushiest, most lucrative racket posing as a career ever devised by man. And part of me always wants to ask these people what keeps them from boarding this mighty gravy train. Summers off! Enormous salaries! Cadillac health care and retirement packages! No real work to do, just glorified babysitting! Ironclad Union Thug protection! Teaching is just a big pot of gold delivered in installments.

Since regional shortages of K-12 teachers are real and demonstrable, there are only two reasons that the average internet commenter / AM Radio Caller would not take advantage of such a sweet deal. One is that they are so professionally successful that even the gold plated deal given to teachers can't hold a candle to their wealth. Since these people are sitting around during business hours posting barely coherent comments on the internet, I will assume that this is not the case for most of them. The second is that they lack the intelligence or attention span required to get a Bachelor's Degree and a teaching certificate.

For a very small percentage of these blowhards there might be a third reason: in the back of their minds they realize exactly how miserable and thankless being a high school teacher is in 2014. They realize while making snide comments about "planning periods" and "summers off" that teaching K-12 is a life of ten-plus hour days, taking work home every night and weekend, surrogate parenting the dozens of students who have effectively no adult guardian, and opening up the newspaper to read about how teachers are Public Enemy #1 in post-Koch Brothers America. All that for a starting salary in most states just north of $30,000 and the incessant interference of every Teabagger and young Earth creationist who manages to talk the local car dealerships into buy him into the state legislature.

Sure, teaching is a blast. And it's super easy as long as you never have to make a lesson plan, grade a stack of 50 poorly executed assignments, listen to screaming parents, talk for six or seven hours per day to an audience that bores almost immediately, and quasi-parent the seven year old who's wearing shorts during a blizzard because his mom disappeared on a bender a couple days ago and he doesn't know where his clothes are. Do all of that without losing your temper, drinking at lunchtime, punching a student (or coworker, or parent), or forgetting that people in the capitol want to tie your salary to your students' grades.

When teaching at the college level feels difficult, my colleagues and I like to remind ourselves that, well, at least we don't teach high school. Our hats tip to the people who do and don't have the luxury of telling a student "You're an adult, I don't care if you do this or not" or seeking cover behind a law that prevents us from dealing with whiny parents. But perhaps I have it all wrong and the life of a middle- or high school teacher is all breaks, handing out worksheets, and sitting on the beach all summer eating bon-bons. I encourage more people who believe this is the case to sign up for the World's Easiest Job and try their hand at it.


When I need to make a joke about white trash – and believe me, the last 12 years spent in Indiana, Georgia, and central Illinois have made this necessary on more than one occasion – my go-to cultural reference point is the Chevrolet El Camino. If I'm feeling punchy I can sub in the Ford equivalent (the Ranchero) or, to test the depth of automotive knowledge of the intended audience, the El Camino's identical clone the GMC Caballero. I'm sure these were fine vehicles in their day and in some parts of the world the "ute" body style is quite popular (I'm looking at you, Australia). There is just something about the unholy wedding of a pointlessly large 1970s American sedan with the bed of a pickup truck, however, that screams "Both humans and animals have been conceived in the bed of this vehicle." If you see any of these vehicles on the road today, you can rest assured that the family of six shoehorned into its single bench seat is on the way to pick up some scratch-off tickets.

Is that mean? Yes. That is very mean. But for whatever reason, the Coupe Truck idea did not attract a very high class clientele in the American market.

Despite the jokes that they invite, there is something lovably silly about these vehicles. They look so ridiculous and mis-proportioned that it becomes endearing. Not so, however, with Japan's response to the late 70s/early 80s car-truck conglomeration craze: the Subaru BRAT. That's supposed to stand for "Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter", which lets you know right off the bat that nothing good is going to come of this. Basically Subaru designers hacksawed the rear end off a Leone sedan and made…this:


The best part, however, is that Subaru engineers and bean-counters collaborated to circumvent a 25% U.S. import tariff on trucks (the known in the auto industry as the "Chicken Tax"). They did this by classifying the BRAT as a passenger car, which they achieved by…bolting two seats into the exposed bed of the truck. Look at these and try to envision any scenario in which the "backseat" passengers would survive an accident. Or normal driving over 30 miles per hour.


Note the plastic sled-type handles affixed to the seats. So your odds of remaining in the vehicle at speed were a function of grip strength. Awesome.

Fortunately Subaru forewent plans to weld the seats to the bed in favor of bolting them in place, so with ordinary tools a buyer could (and almost all immediately did) remove the seats. But in promotional photos, Subaru was legally obligated to play along with the conceit that this was a four-passenger car; hilarity ensued.


Yeah, good luck with that guys.

Like all horrible things from the 70s and 80s the BRAT is celebrated for its awkwardness by today's irony hungry hipsters. Jonny Lieberman at Motor Trend is polarizing – some people find his videos unwatchably annoying, while others appreciate his silly enthusiasm – but I would recommend giving his five-minute jaunt in the BRAT a viewing if you're bored. It's fun, it takes the car at face value, and if nothing else we learn that because the gearshift attaches to the transaxle through a crude hole cut directly into the floor of the cabin, illegal drugs can be slipped out of the vehicle during a traffic stop.

Subaru produced a more modern but equally ridiculous version called the Baja from 2002-2006 before finally admitting that the American market simply isn't, uh, ready for this type of car. However, given our fondness for all things retro it wouldn't be surprising to see some manufacturer resurrect this idea again in the future.


To the surprise of many people who just emerged from an underground bunker and haven't read the news since 1960, the Supreme Court struck down on Wednesday limits on federal campaign contributions. In other words, it struck down a law that will affect primarily House races; 2012 showed that all bets are already off in the presidential race and this ruling is unlikely to make that situation any more ridiculous. "Slouching toward plutocracy"? You must have fallen asleep in the passenger seat, friend. We reached plutocracy four years ago.

The following is a sentiment I have used this forum to express previously but it bears repeating: there already exists no meaningful limit to the amount of money an interested party can pour into federal elections. There are no billionaire donors who were foiled in 2012, for example, by any existing laws. All of the money is already getting in, and in the special case of the presidential race it has reached the point of diminishing returns. There is only so much spending a campaign can do and the marginal benefit of running a commercial 8000 times in the Dayton media market instead of 7000 times is vanishingly small. In that spirit, the recent decision may be a useful reminder that the Supreme Court is firmly under right-wing control until someone does us the favor of dying. What it does not do is make a meaningful difference in the amount of money that will be spent in congressional races. They're already obscenely expensive and everyone who wants to pour in more money already has plenty of available options for doing so.

When it comes to campaign financing, the presidential and congressional races are a distraction from the real problem – money being poured into state and local races in which huge infusions of outside cash can and do alter outcomes. Throwing an additional million dollars into a Senate race is the equivalent of pissing into Lake Michigan. However, pouring $100,000 into ten state legislative or judicial elections – elections in which the amount of money spent is comparatively low – can be decisive. Increasing Hillary Clinton's war chest by 0.1% makes no difference; tripling the war chest of some yahoo Sunday School teacher from Bargle County running for the State House on an anti-Sharia plank does.

No right we have is completely without limits, and that includes the 1st Amendment under which campaign spending (as "political speech") falls. What this Court will consider an acceptable limit on this right appears to be so small and mysterious as to be inconsequential in practice or theory. Under these circumstances, the presidential and congressional campaign finance situation is beyond saving. Just forget about it. The amount of money being spent has doubled every four years for the last several decades and will continue to do so. The problem is that the money is starting to pour into low-attention races at an alarming rate. Worse yet, the Court's position hampers any state-level efforts to pass meaningful regulations.

This is bad and it is going to get worse.