FIRST THINGS FIRST

Posted in Quick Hits on August 12th, 2014 by Ed

Another great day in a country in which it's far safer to be a white male openly walking around with a deadly weapon than a black male armed with either a fake gun (while in the fake gun aisle at Wal-Mart) or nothing at all. Rest assured, though, that when the cops gun down another black guy on suspicion of being a black guy with a gun (I mean, They all carry guns, right? To use against our womenfolk?) the news will focus on reporting about a handful of people who vandalized and looted a QuikTrip rather than the fact that the police added another name to the list of unarmed black men shot for being Probably Armed black men.

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Gosh I sure hope that QT is alright.

SAFETY NET

Posted in Rants on August 11th, 2014 by Ed

I see American society, and most societies around the world, as a hierarchy of three groups. At the top is the 10% of the population that owns all of the wealth and controls all of the institutions. Within this group is an even smaller elite that really owns everything, but for the moment let's set that aside and take a slightly more expansive view of who is included among the Haves. The second group is the 75% of the population that exists in the margin between comfort and total ruin. This includes (unless some of you are wealthier than I realize) all of us who essentially live paycheck-to-paycheck or close thereto, from menial service industry jobs to well-compensated professionals. Even those of us who are doing well aren't truly wealthy, though, since we're never more than a stone's throw from ruin. The people who have real power compensate us because we're in some way economically useful to them, allowing them to make more money and/or live more leisurely lives. They also ensure that we graduate college with enough debt to be servile in perpetuity, in addition to or instead of running up enough credit card debt to keep us in a state of constant readiness to accept whatever terms of employment and existence they dictate. Here, have another payday loan and pre-approved Platinum Card.

The third group is the bottom 10-15% of society. To the people in power, these people serve no purpose. They have no economically valuable skills to exploit. You just have to get rid of them somehow. And that's what the War on Drugs is all about. In a society that doesn't want to pay to educate its population well or pay for a social safety net or strive for full, well paid employment as an economic policy goal, there are only two options for dealing with the third group. In many countries around the world the leaders can just send out death squads and various uniformed skull-crackers to physically eliminate them. The second option preferred by societies like ours that fancy themselves above such tactics is mass incarceration. And the nice part about incarceration, aside from appearing more Civilized and Proper, is that the ownership class can profit handsomely from it and you can pay some of the would-be useless people to lock up and watch the others.

We are very slowly beginning to dismantle the War on Drugs as an act of national policy faith. We are doing this, and I sincerely believe that within a decade or two it will be complete, for all the wrong reasons. We're moving toward sentencing reform and marijuana legalization not because our previous policies make no sense but because states cannot afford the gargantuan systems of incarceration, punishment, and monitoring that they built beginning in the 1970s. With large states spending literal billions annually to maintain their leviathan departments of "corrections", it is finally dawning on some formerly gung ho drug crusaders that filling the prisons, jails, and parole systems with non-violent drug offenders is remarkably expensive. Add to that the fact that cash-strapped state and local governments realize what a tax cash cow marijuana is and it seems clear now that the first few dominoes have fallen that drug legalization is going to continue to spread in the near future.

I wonder, then, what will be the new national policy toward the third group in society – the underclass for which there is no practical economic use. We sure as hell aren't investing in education to increase the balance of useful skills. We aren't creating more jobs, and in fact there are not enough to go around even for people who do have the skills and willingness to work these days. My guess – and this is why I've been talking about "Brazilification" of the American economy for years now – is that we will take that final step toward Second World status as a nation by allowing First World wealth and opulence to exist immediately alongside massive levels of desperate Third World poverty. Of course poverty is already visible in the U.S., but there is another level of economic and physical segregation – think Rio or Mexico City – of inequality for us to achieve. We see it already in places like Chicago where rich, perfectly safe neighborhoods are cordoned off by law enforcement and local government to coexist alongside poor neighborhoods that are essentially free fire zones where city services barely operate, infrastructure is crumbling, and the policing policy is "Call us when there is a corpse to pick up."

If we're not going to incarcerate or employ everyone and we have no intention of creating a social welfare system that allows people to live like human beings even if they lack the Puritan sacrament of daily toil for a soulless corporation, then there really is no other option.

(PS: Don't worry, we'll still incarcerate tons of people even if the WoD is scaled back. I promise.)

NPF: WHITE HOUSE DIARIES

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 7th, 2014 by Ed

So this meme is going around:

hrc

Let's just say that is exactly what Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce want us to think.

BURN IT DOWN

Posted in Quick Hits on August 6th, 2014 by Ed

I usually use the Gin and Tacos Facebook page to make (attempt) jokes throughout the day. Recently I unleashed this howler, with an excellent rejoinder from a Mr. Martin:

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His joke got me thinking about the thousands of words written over the last few months about the disaster that is the Brownback administration in Kansas. Specifically, I wish I had a better understanding of the mindset of people who vote for someone like Brownback. Mr. Martin and I may have been (mostly) kidding, but as usual there may be a kernel of truth. Do conservatives actually think, "I'm voting for Brownback because things will get better once he is Governor!" or have they simply embraced nihilism and chosen the person they believe will do the best job of destroying the state?

I know enough Republicans to know that they are not all frothy-mouthed sociopaths even if the people they're electing lately are. But a guy like Brownback is so obviously devoid of any skills other than destroying government that it's hard to envision voting for him with any other end result in mind. They do everything but come out and promise to burn the country to the ground, so help them God. The next logical question, then, is why so many people think that when their Teabagging elected officials succeed at destroying the state, Republican voters will survive the ensuing chaos. I mean, who needs government infrastructure or a functioning economy when you've got a whole buncha bad-ass guns and a yard full of buried Glenn Beck gold?

MEDDLING

Posted in Rants on August 4th, 2014 by Ed

In his younger days, Walter Lippmann wrote the following about Henry Ford. Mr. Ford, as you are all no doubt aware, was staggeringly successful, wealthy, and nuts. He devoted as much or more energy to spreading his ideals (a curious mixture of Jeffersonian pastoralism, pacifism, worship of industry, and rabid anti-Semitism) as he did to making cars. In hindsight, of course, we ask why someone with an 8th-grade education and innate engineering skills would think himself qualified to rebuild society and reshape Americans to conform to his theories. Said Lippmann:

We Americans have little faith in special knowledge, and only with the greatest difficulty is the idea being forced upon us that not every man is capable of doing every job. But Mr. Ford belongs to the traditions of self-made men, to that primitive Americanism which has held the theory that a successful manufacturer could turn his hand with equal success to every other occupation. It is this tendency in America which installs untrained rich men in difficult diplomatic posts, which puts businessmen at the head of technical bureaus of the government, and permits business men to dominate the educational policies of so many universities. Mr. Ford is neither a crank nor a freak; he is merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success.

He wrote that about a century ago and almost nothing has changed in the interim. We still elect rich people who appoint other rich people to do jobs about which they know nothing on the unspoken assumption that anyone who has made (or worse, inherited) a lot of money must be good at everything. The part about appointing people to university boards of regents and trustees based on wealth is something that I've covered before and is a bigger problem than most people would imagine.

One thing that has changed, however, is that the ultra-wealthy no longer engage in the kind of utopian social engineering schemes that were all the rage around the turn of the century. It was hard to find a robber baron or other holder of great wealth who didn't have some crackpot idea about remaking society based on whatever pet cause he (or more rarely, she) happened to have: vegetarianism, spiritualism, Luddite leanings, socialism, free love, worship of the soybean, etc. Today a more skeptical society – more skeptical about some things, that is – would brand these people insane in a heartbeat. Imagine Henry Ford's lectures about International Jewry today or Bill Gates talking about building a utopian community where everyone farmed cassava and lived in group quarters. That would be…weird. Hell, it was already weird in Ford's time. Look at the way candy magnate Robert Welch's one-man anticommunist crusade, the John Birch Society, transitioned from a small but relevant force to a tiny fringe group of complete lunatics to see how attitudes toward the eccentric obsessions of the rich have changed over time.

Instead, today's rich try to normalize their efforts at social engineering by explicitly steering them toward politics. Electoral politics and governing in 1920 looked almost nothing like they do today, and the ultra-rich treated the political world as a minor sideshow compared to the almost limitless power of the oligarchy. Whether it's the Koch Brothers' economic and political brainwashing campaign or the Gates-Zuckerberg-Everyone Else heavy involvement in "education reform" and charter schools, the rich express the same impulse to remake society in a different manner today. Some of it, certainly, is motivated by plain greed; lowering taxes, staying on top of wealthy-specific issues like the estate tax, and securing fat government contracts are all as important as ever to the people pouring money into the political process. Underlying it all, though, is that "primitive Americanism" Lippmann identified, the idea that he who is good at making money knows best about everything. That they've gotten more media savvy about how they do their paternalistic meddling under the guise of charitable giving or political activism does not change the motive.

LACK OF CONSTRAINT

Posted in Quick Hits on August 4th, 2014 by Ed

Political scientists have been well aware since the early 1960s that what most people know about politics and government is minimal and that their beliefs lack constraint. Constraint is the idea that the things one believes should make sense together. Philip Converse (who is still alive, believe it or not) made his name by demonstrating that only a small percentage of Americans constrain their thinking in ideological terms. In the past decade or two we've seen an explosion of the use of ideological terms – liberal, conservative, socialist – but that doesn't mean they are used correctly. To the average crank, "liberal" means "Stuff I don't like."

This is not news to anyone. Whether you keep yourself current on public opinion data, study political science, or merely listen to the nonsense ideas people express constantly about politics, we recognize that opinions about one issue are not necessarily connected to opinions on another. This is true of Americans of any demographic, although better educated people tend to have slightly more coherent belief systems.

Writers who need to generate some content but can't think of a good idea can reliably churn out a "Look how stupid Americans are!" piece using polling data. It's hardly surprising. That said, I think most of us were a little floored to see just how little sense the political beliefs of "millennials" make. As in, they appear to make no sense at all.

This made the rounds online recently, and they do require some caveats. One is that young people generally know the least about politics, and this is not unique to the current crop. The second is that it is possible to have somewhat useful political beliefs without being able to answer the kind of questions that academics and pollsters expect you to be able to answer. Even with those caveats, this is pretty bad. A couple things stand out.

Even more than most Americans, their beliefs appear to hinge on how things are pitched and what terms are used. They are repelled by the term "Obamacare" to a greater extent than their elders, despite liking Obama and being supportive of national healthcare (What?). It seems that these responses are twisted by opposing forces – these kids have been bombarded by conservative propaganda since birth (hence their allergy to terms like "liberal" and "Obamacare") while their own political preferences, to the extent that they have any, are not nearly as paleolithic. The years of Fox News and Tea Party-themed lectures from dad lead to them rejecting things that contain the wrong keywords – Government bad! Liberal bad! Taxes evil! – but that aversion is not necessarily connected to any of their actual opinions.

Perhaps I'm trying too hard to read something into the aggregate data; maybe they really are as ignorant as the numerous "OMG look at how dumb they are" pieces suggest. Nonetheless, the data imply that things won't be getting much better in the foreseeable future.