DRAWN TO SCALE

Posted in Rants on February 28th, 2016 by Ed

The human brain is not great at conceptualizing very large numbers. We know what they mean in the abstract, but it takes a considerable amount of effort to wrap one's mind around the idea of a billion or a trillion of something. Personally, I think this is especially true with long periods of time, which in turn explains why so many people have a difficult time grasping things like evolution or climate change that happen on scales of millions of years. Sure, we read or hear "three million years ago" and think, gosh, that's a long time. But it doesn't properly register just how long a time that is, or how far away Alpha Centauri is, or how many people died during World War II.

This is also true with money. Everyone understands that a millionaire is rich and a billionaire is really rich. When candidates propose, as every Republican presidential candidate has done this year, cutting taxes on people worth that much the average person thinks of the wealthy as being in the same frame of reference as him- or herself. They're not. If we change the units, it's much easier to see how unlike us they really are.

According to the Federal Reserve, the median household income in the United States in 2014 was $54,462. Let's call that $54,500. Now let's compare that to a million and a billion dollars. Finally, let's compare it to the Koch Brothers' combined net worth of $41.1 Billion (call it $41 even).

54,500 seconds is equal to 15 hours. That's the median household's annual income in units of time. A million seconds is 11 days and 12 hours. Quite a difference, isn't it?

A billion seconds is 31 years. Actually, 31.6 years if you want to be specific.

The Koch Brothers' net worth of $41 billion in seconds is 1,296 years.

So when we say "the wealthy" we are not, as most people conceive of it, talking about people doing five, ten, even a hundred times better than us. We are talking about people who don't even exist on the same scale as us.

Despite the fact that the Kochs are more worried about taxes on investments than on income, keep in mind that of the GOP front-runners, Donald Trump wants to lower their tax burden from 39% to 25%. Cruz has proposed a 10% flat tax. Rubio wants to keep the top bracket at 35% but reduce the dividend and capital gains taxes to zero. Because obviously people in that universe of wealth deserve a break compared to someone who actually works for their income.

The point has been beaten to death since the late 1990s that the Republican Party and its affiliated mouthpieces have worked wonders by convincing poor white people to vote against their own economic interests, or to believe in the fantasy of trickle-down benefits to come if only our Job Creators are treated well enough. I wonder how many of those same voters would feel if they could grasp effectively the size of the fortunes of the people they march to the polls to support. They probably envision us all in the same boat. We're not.

NPF: HAIL COLUMBIA

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 26th, 2016 by Ed

The popularity of and reverence for Christopher Columbus in the United States is more than a little puzzling. That an Italian mariner of bewilderingly little talent, sailing for the Spanish crown, who landed in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispanola (today's Haiti / D.R.) became an American icon makes sense only in the context of American culture and society immediately after independence from Great Britain.

As new nations always do, the US experienced a fit of nationalism and a backlash against all things reminiscent of the now-hated British. For the first two centuries on the North American continent, we had played the role of loyal subjects to the Crown and accordingly most pre-Revolutionary places and institutions bear distinctly British (or less commonly other European nations') overtones. We have states, for example, named after William Penn, Queen Elizabeth (The Virgin Queen, hence Virginia), the British Channel Island of Jersey, King George II, the Duke of York, and the 3rd Baron De La Warr, not to mention two Carolinas named after Charles I and countless cities named after the likes of Lord Baltimore. Very suddenly in 1776 it became highly unfashionable, bordering on socially unacceptable, to show pride in any name that served as a reminder of the humiliating subjugation to a faraway island in Europe, and henceforth only good American names would suffice.

The problem was that America didn't really have any American history distinct from that of Britain upon which it could draw. There were the Native Americans – and indeed many Native American place names dot the map east of Ohio – and some admiration for the French who had aided us during the Revolution (Lafayette and King Louis both became popular naming inspirations). There were also living American icons, primarily Washington, but one could only name so many things after a man who was still living and around whom many feared the development of a cult of personality. So that is how Americans at the time seized upon an Italian mariner of bewilderingly little talent, sailing for the Spanish crown, as a national icon. Columbus, who had very rightly been completely ignored and forgotten in this country up to the American Revolution, suddenly became America's founding saint for the sole reason that he was untainted by any association with England.

First there was the transmutation and anglicizing of his Spanish name, Cristobal Colon, to something he was never actually called during his lifetime (the British also did this to Giovanni Caboto, "John Cabot"). Then the fact that he did not land in any part of what was actually the United States was swept under the rug, deeming it sufficient that he had landed in "The Americas." Finally, that Columbus was a poor mariner who insisted to his death that he had landed in Asia was deemed historically irrelevant. And then we started naming things after him with a vengeance.

From 1776 until about 1800, nearly everything of consequence requiring a name in the new United States was dedicated to Columbus. The classically British-sounding King's College in New York became Columbia University (1784). The region of the American Northwest explored beginning in 1793 was called Columbia (which lives on today in the part that was retained by Britain after a treaty: British Columbia). The Ohio Territory had its future capital, Columbus, established in 1797. South Carolina renamed its capital Columbia in 1786. The District of Columbia was chosen as the site of the future national capital (1790) with the Residence Act. A march written for George Washington's inauguration in 1789 became "Hail Columbia", America's national anthem until it was replaced with the Star-Spangled Banner in 1931. Counties, towns, bodies of water, and other geographic features almost too numerous to count were similarly given some version of Senor Colon's non-name as were scores of Columbian societies and institutions, one of which eventually became the Smithsonian Institute (that story will have to wait for another day).

Half of success in life is showing up. And that's how Columbus became indelibly stamped into the fabric of the United States: by not being British at a time in which lots of new things needed names.

SIMPLE FORMULA

Posted in Quick Hits on February 24th, 2016 by Ed

If you're not sick of reading about Donald Trump yet – Can you believe it's only February and we have to do this for almost nine more months? – Matt Taibbi has a typically strong take on his appeal and why the Republican Party is getting everything it deserves this year. He isn't saying anything that readers here don't understand already, most likely, but he lays out the argument effectively: the image of the GOP as the party of the bankers and of the country club (clurb) set is inaccurate. Sure, those folks are Republicans. But they would be a tiny minority in American politics if not for armies of angry, resentful, not terribly bright, and aging white people. That's the GOP. That's the bread and butter right there.

For every suburban Republican who loves tax cuts and the National Review there are a half-dozen of the people you see at a Trump rally. No matter how many times Republican elected officials and opinion leaders have tried to convince themselves otherwise, these people do not give one shit about Conservative Values or the principle of small government. They're angry and they've been convinced that government is to blame. That is about the extent to which they have opinions that could be called "political." The rest is simply nativism, the politics of blood. They just hate everyone different. It sounds like I'm oversimplifying that to insult them, but unfortunately that's all there is to it. They hate the gays, the liberals, the environmentalists and their "science", the Pope, the Jews, the blacks, the Mexicans, the Mormons, the young, the poor, and anything remotely "foreign" or unfamiliar (including, from the looks of his crowds, fruit and occasional exercise):

Yes, millions of people responded to (conservative) rhetoric for years. But that wasn't because of the principle itself, but because it was always coupled with the more effective politics of resentment: Big-government liberals are to blame for your problems.

Elections, like criminal trials, are ultimately always about assigning blame. For a generation, conservative intellectuals have successfully pointed the finger at big-government-loving, whale-hugging liberals as the culprits behind American decline.

Stupid people are short-sighted and for years nobody in the GOP appeared smart enough, or perhaps confident enough, to wonder aloud if leading the literal Mob around by throwing chunks of red meat toward it at regular intervals was going to become problematic. Ignorant rabble are not known for their logic, after all. It was inevitable that someone who has truly mastered the art of pandering to the lowest common denominator – America wooooo! Fuck the Mexicans! Let's bomb the hell out of everything! – would come along and upstage them. No matter how expensive their suits look or how many Cato Institute quasi-intellectuals appear on Sunday talk shows spouting the tired right-wing talking points we can all recite by heart, what Trump is doing right now is exactly what the GOP has been doing for thirty years now. He's just much better at it than they are, and now they don't know what to do.

TRUMPED

Posted in Rants on February 22nd, 2016 by Ed

For what seems like forever we have been waiting for the Trump campaign to come to an end, to reach the point at which the joke will be over and the GOP will pick a real candidate. As you may recall I thought the end of his campaign would come when the actual voting began and the lack of a ground game and professional campaign organization would catch up with him. Unfortunately to knock Trump off his perch there is another necessary ingredient that has not materialized: an alternative candidate who isn't complete garbage. There remains a chance that Republicans can rally around one of the others – most likely Rubio, whom I argued five years ago was the only candidate in their field with any semblance of personal appeal. But the window in which that could happen is diminishing.

In the future we may look back at the Jeb! campaign as one of the most spectacular failures in the history of American politics. One got the impression all along that he was their Mitt Romney-esque fallback option, that if none of the other candidates caught fire the big money people behind the party could go with Jeb! and at the very least feel confident that he wouldn't screw anything up too badly. His ineptitude as a candidate took everyone by surprise. He proved incapable of generating any momentum despite his massive bank account and near-universal name recognition. Imagine Hillary Clinton spending $150 million and never finishing better than 4th in a primary and you get the picture of what Bush managed to do.

The stunning failure of their empty vessel / cipher / hereditary heir apparent has left the GOP scrambling, though. Trump's level of support is what it is, and if the party could unify behind one other candidate he remains beatable. But which one? Jeb! was abysmal. Rand Paul was a non-starter. Recycled evangelical puds like Santorum and Huckabee never got off the ground. Christie was never taken seriously. Fiorina sounded good on paper but whenever she opened her mouth everything in the room died. Kasich is far too dull and too "liberal" (the imaginary GOP version of liberal) to appease competing factions in the party. Carson really isn't even running. That leaves Cruz, who looks like a cut-rate mortician and sounds like the lunatic he is, and Rubio, who can't seem to do anything except repeat canned phrases interminably.

Now that we are down to four candidates (excluding Carson) and one of them is not acceptable to the GOP base (Kasich), look for the big right wing donors and the RNC leadership to throw their weight behind Rubio, or perhaps Cruz, in a last ditch effort to save themselves from Trump. The more they dither on choosing between the two, the higher the chance that it will be too late by the time they act. In an ideal GOP scenario, Cruz would accept some kind of concession to drop out and leave Rubio as the last man standing in opposition to Trump. If the political class was able to sell George W. Bush as a bootstrap-pulling cowboy then there is no reason they won't be able to sell Rubio as some sort of charismatic young go-getter.

There is no reason at all to feel sympathy for them; metaphors about reaping and sowing come to mind. The GOP establishment made Donald Trump. It had dozens of opportunities to push back against the insanity of some of their supporters and they chose instead to fan the flames for short-term benefits. That paid off in 2010, but now the true long-term costs are becoming apparent. Couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch of hacks.

By the way, on the point of timelines: if an independent candidate wants to enter the race that decision will have to come very soon. Ballot access rules vary by state but some deadlines for appearing on the November ballot are approaching. Jumping through the many hoops set out to disadvantage third party and independent candidates takes time, and in most states a candidate would have to get tens of thousands of signatures very quickly. If that decision hasn't been made by March 1 the window in which it could be practical may close.

WUSS EPIDEMIC

Posted in Rants on February 22nd, 2016 by Ed

At regular intervals Americans work themselves into a frenzy about the insidious creeping Pussification of America. The evidence is everywhere: the Political Correctness police have taken away our god-given right to use ethnic slurs, schools are now concerned exclusively with inclusiveness (the grammatical irony of which is underappreciated), violence is unfairly slandered, and so on. Essentially, everywhere one turns there is mounting evidence that Americans are a bunch of whining, emotionally fragile wusses. Some college sophomore getting upset over a word someone used is the harbinger of the downfall of Western Civilization. In the glorious past, by contrast, people were Tough and didn't stand for This Nonsense. People had strong backbones and didn't let mere words hurt their feelings, and if someone insulted you, you (choose one: Took the high road and won through your superior principles / Punched them in the nose, an act roundly approved of by onlookers since the speaker Had It Coming).

You know the narrative.

There is no doubt that examples can be mined in this age of limitless information and habitual exhibitionism of individuals being Too Sensitive. The problem is the broad conclusions drawn from these incidents about Society writ large and the failure to recognize that finding the balance between free expression and an environment of hostility toward people of certain social categories is one that takes time and some trial and error. Few Americans seem capable of agreeing upon the point at which forms of expression become harmful to others, but there is more or less unanimous agreement that most of us need to grow thicker skin.

Except cops. Cops can react like histrionic preteens to the slightest criticism without anyone telling them to Grow a Pair or stop Overreacting or Man Up or Quit Whining or any of the other comment section favorites. The rules for non-police are clear: Whether someone uses a word that makes you uncomfortable or plants a burning cross in your front lawn you must shrug it off. For cops, conversely, any comment consisting of anything less than fawning praise is not only to be brought up repeatedly until the end of time but is justification for reacting like an inconsolable toddler.

In any other context something as utterly irrelevant and insubstantial as a Super Bowl halftime show would bring forth a torrent of words lecturing us about how easily offended we are and if you don't like it, just ignore it and all that. But we are now entering week three of police unions wailing about how badly their fee-fees were hurt by the mean singing lady. Where are all the old white local newspaper columnists telling them to shut up and grow a pair? To ignore her if they don't like what she has to say? Where are the philosophical defenses of her basic right of expression? Isn't this the advice routinely given to people who have the temerity to point out when things are, you know, racist or whatever?

If the tables were turned – and if cops had the heroic toughness we are obligated as a nation to point out regularly – it seems that the police union would be instructed to respond along the lines of "I guess she's entitled to her opinion" or "We're professional public servants, we do our job protecting people who don't like us as well as we do for people who love us." Or maybe something nice and flippant like "Who's Beyonce?" or "I didn't watch her show, it was too boring." There might even be scattered calls to take the high road and make no response at all to underscore her insignificance. Isn't that how Tough people would respond, in the traditional narrative?

Instead they're still bleating about how terribly their feelings were hurt by a song-and-dance number characterized as "anti-police" by people who seem to believe that without constant, lavish praise a police officer cannot perform his or her professional duties. To its credit, the media is not giving the non-story of their outrage much in terms of legs, but it would be nice if somebody pointed out, for example, how different the reactions were when University of Missouri students dared to complain that pickup trucks full of white students were driving around campus screaming racial slurs at black students who were such whiners for trying to make such a big deal out of it.

EXIT STRATEGY

Posted in Rants on February 17th, 2016 by Ed

While we're on the Supreme Court and the dead pool, it wouldn't be the worst time to start thinking about a replacement strategy for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I know. I know. She's great. People love her. The internet loves her. But despite some evidence that she may be the Highlander, she isn't immortal. She's an 83 year old woman who has been diagnosed with and treated for colon and pancreatic cancers. Frankly it is nothing short of a miracle that she is alive. She must have a combination of unbelievable luck, freakish physical constitution, and the best medical care money can buy just to be alive and breathing right now. The five-year survival rate for a woman her age when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is zero. Zero. And yet here she is.

She seems like the kind of person who will serve until she can no longer serve. In academia we call this the "feet first retirement plan." The kind where they carry you out of your office for a ride in a nice black car. It's not surprising. Her husband is dead and it's hard to imagine she wouldn't get bored sitting around waiting for The End without the job to keep her active. That said, she's also smart enough to understand her position on the Court and the politics of appointing replacements.

One off-the-wall strategy would be to retire now. Force the Senate's hand on voting for replacements and let her preferred ideology come out ahead in the long run. Subtracting Scalia (who gets it right 0% of the time) and Ginsburg (95%) and replacing them with two people who are 50 years old and will get it right 75% of the time but for the next 25 years is a win any way you look at it. Obama might not be able to appoint a replacement who matches RBG for progressive zeal, but he certainly could appoint two left-center types who would vote in the public interest far more often than not.

Alternatively, if the Democrats make gains in the Senate in 2016 and retain the White House – the first is almost certain, the second more likely than not right now – Ginsburg may want to start thinking of retiring before January 2019. She would be nearly 86 years old at the time. If the Democrats outperform expectations and manage to take control of the Senate in this year's election, this becomes a no-brainer. There will be nowhere to go from that point – Democratic president and Senate – but down in terms of the environment for her replacement to be named.

It's tempting to say it's her life, do as she pleases and be happy with it, but the reality is that her position affects 320,000,000 Americans directly and intimately. If she is as committed to her beliefs and ideology as she appears sincerely to be, it would be irresponsible not to think about the circumstances under which her successor would be appointed.

WAITING GAME

Posted in Rants on February 15th, 2016 by Ed

The first reaction to Scalia's death from nearly everyone I know in political science was to declare with complete confidence that there is no chance of the Senate voting on a nominee until after the presidential election. Here I want to elaborate on why I think that is nonsense so that in a few months I can rub many faces in this.

One legitimate point in favor of the "no confirmation" argument is that the Republican Party of 2016 is completely unaffected by logic or historical precedent. The fact that no seat has sat vacant for 11+ months since the Civil War does not mean they won't leave a seat vacant for 11+ months, nor will the fact that their position makes no sense in either logical or practical terms get in their way. They are more than capable of and willing to do really stupid things.

My position is that Obama is going to nominate someone quickly and the Senate GOP's political capital will give out long before next February. The 2016 Senate races feature 7 incumbent Democrats running for re-election and a whopping 21 Republicans (leaving aside for a moment the open seats). These Republicans include many first-timers who got really lucky and won in a GOP wave election in 2010 and now face very long odds of getting re-elected. Republican Senate wins in places like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – all of which the GOP won in 2010 with flat-out terrible candidates – are, if not flukes, at least veering uncomfortably close to fluke territory. Next, add in the open seats the GOP desperately wants (Florida, Nevada, etc) and it is clear that the balance of Senate control is very much at stake in this election. Republicans trying to hold or take seats in generally liberal or liberal-leaning states are going to sign their own electoral death warrant by taking the hard-line position on this. In states where people voted for Obama twice in substantial numbers, "I agree with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump on this vote" does not seem like a winning message.

In short, the GOP runs a very real and legitimate risk of having a delaying tactic blow up in their faces by pushing the vote back to early 2017 when the Senate could be controlled by Democrats. They're not great long-term thinkers, but certainly someone has to realize that this is a possibility. Since no one among the GOP higher-ups can have any illusions about how this presidential election is shaping up for them, the idea that they are on the cusp of taking control of the White House borders on hilarious. It is entirely possible that the Senate Republicans are dealing from their position of greatest strength right now and that their advantage will only erode the longer this drags on.

Were the party run by intelligent people they might understand that currently they could force at least some kind of concession from Obama in the form of a centrist New Democrat corporate type (as is widely rumored already). Given who this nominee replaces, even appointing that kind of jurist would represent a huge shift away from the right in the overall ideology of the court. And Republicans could at least draw comfort from the fact that this is precisely the type of "liberal" with a hard-on for corporate power who is likely to please them on some decisions.

The idea that waiting somehow improves their position is premised upon one or both of two propositions: that their Senate majority will increase or that they will take the White House. The former has the closest thing to 0% chance of happening that exists in the universe of this election. If anything, they are overwhelmingly likely to lose at least a couple seats (Mark Kirk is about as likely to win Illinois as I am) and possibly even to lose control of the chamber. If Trump wins their nomination, the consequences down-ballot for GOP House and Senate candidates could be dire. As for the latter, the odds of taking the White House – any objective analysis of the election as it unfolds would have to conclude that the Republicans have a chance greater than zero but it certainly is not looking likely right now. A more brutally honest view is that they have a terrible field of candidates, none of whom can even get the Republican primary electorate to get behind them, who would be a substantial underdog in the general election.

Finally, leaving the Court at 8 members for a year will create a ration of 4-4 votes wherein Scalia would have been the deciding 5th vote for the conservative bloc. Though such tie decisions do not establish precedent, they will affirm the (generally liberal) decisions of lower courts in a number of important pending or upcoming cases. This would at best set back by several years the conservative movement's efforts in a number of issue areas.

The fact that delaying the vote is stupid and ultimately likely to hurt the GOP far more than it helps them does not mean they will decline to do it. These are petulant people playing to an audience of morons. However, please keep in mind how often GOP Congressional Tough Talk actually gets backed up these days. Based on the recent past the more likely scenario is that they will threaten, showboat, whine, throw tantrums, and then eventually hold the vote anyway. Unless of course they shut down the government, which they totally swear they're really gonna do one of these times.

NPF: FIAT LUX

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 12th, 2016 by Ed

The electric light bulb was invented much earlier than most people realize. That is, if you don't mind a light bulb that burns out in two or three hours. There's a reason most sources qualify Thomas Edison's achievement as the man who invented the first practical, long-lasting light bulb. The idea was more than a half-century old by the time Edison and Joseph Swan (the Briton who invented the carbon filament bulb nearly simultaneously to Edison) made commercially viable designs. As is often the case, the invention everyone remembers only made the leap from theoretical possibility to practical reality because of a much less glamorous invention (and inventor) nobody remembers. You can stop reading at this point if you've heard of Hermann Sprengel.

As early as 1800 scientists working with electricity demonstrated all of the principles necessary to create electric light. Humphry Davy used a platinum filament and a huge amount of current in 1802 to generate a feeble light – not much, but considering Edison and Swan didn't patent their bulbs until 1879 it demonstrates just how old the idea was. In fact, by the 1840s there were any number of patents for incandescent bulbs of varying designs and materials. Of particular interest is the mysterious American John Starr, who patented a bulb in 1845, died immediately of cholera, and disappeared from the historical record. Nothing is known about him and only the diligent archiving of the US Patent Office allows us any evidence that he existed. His design was never exploited commercially.

Part of the problem in developing electric light was obvious – the "electric" part was lacking. Any home that wished to make use of electric appliances prior to 1880 had to build its own electric generator on-site. This is where Edison succeeded, and really truly succeeded, in a way neither Swan nor anyone else did. He didn't just invent a bulb; he convinced Gilded Age New York industrialists to build a power grid across the city. Many people had designs for bulbs but only Edison had a design for how to get light bulbs from patent drawings and laboratories into houses and places of business.

The two major obstacles to the design of the bulb itself, independent of electricity, were the material of the filament and the ability to remove air from the bulb (to extend the life of said filament). Every manner of material on Earth was tried and rejected as a suitable filament once the basic principles and components of incandescent light were understood. Eventually a thin piece of carbon – charred wood shavings, bamboo, or even paper – through which current could flow in a vacuum was identified as the answer (metal filaments of tungsten and tantalum were invented just after 1900 and put the German giant Siemens on the industrial map). But that was all well and good except that nobody could achieve a suitable vacuum during bulb manufacture. Enter Hermann Sprengel.

The German engineer developed a device, universally called the Sprengel Pump, that enabled air pressure to be reduced to less than one-millionth of its atmospheric level. While not a perfect vacuum it was more than close enough to enable the light bulb to make the leap from idea to mass produced reality. Incidentally, the Sprengel Pump relied upon a process involving considerable amounts of mercury, so many early Edison researchers and workers lost teeth, sanity, or central nervous system functioning in service of achieving that elusive vacuum. It is not unfounded to wonder if Edison himself had a touch of the Mad Hatter syndrome, as he worked with the device intimately and was known to be, you know, a dick. But that is merely speculation.

So without Hermann Sprengel there is no light bulb, and without the light bulb there is no Thomas Edison as he is known and revered today. And don't mention Edison around the British. They're still a bit sensitive about Joseph Swan getting the historical shaft.

IMPLAUSIBLE

Posted in Rants on February 10th, 2016 by Ed

When I cover interest groups in American politics there is a heavy emphasis on the ways in which the internet has made it easier to obfuscate. Groups not only can conceal their sources of funding and true ideological motivations – granted, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who's behind Working Families for Walmart – but more importantly a professional-looking online presence can completely obscure the size and influence of a group. The difference between a large, well funded, well organized group with a lot of members and a well funded, well organized group with few or no members is not always apparent at first glance. That's why it pays to do a little research. Especially if you're a journalist. Who exactly are these people so willing to provide you with quotes, data, and a story?

Last week the internet very briefly worked itself into a lather over some asshole who turned out to live in his parents' house who, despite being an absolute nobody with no evidence of having more than a handful of deeply disturbed followers, claimed that he and his "group" were going to pull off a worldwide event with 165 simultaneous big public rallies. These were claimed to be rallies to support his "legalize rape" ideology. Caitlin Dewey of the Chicago Tribune has a summary of what's blatantly, obviously wrong with this picture that is good enough to quote at length. I refuse to use his name and feed into his cheap publicity stunt:

***, known online as "***," is the self-styled prophet of a strain of radical misogynist pick-up artistry. He's also the proprietor of an obscure virtual empire that spans three Web sites, a forum and 17 self-published books. (According to analyses conducted for The Washington Post by the firms Tweetsmap and SimilarWeb, ***'s international "hordes" can be mapped to a few clusters of readers in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe.)

And yet, when *** proclaimed the objectively impossible — that his cult would emerge from the shadows on Feb. 6 and mass at 165 prominent public locations from Phoenix to Phnom Penh — millions of people, and hundreds of journalists, took his word for it.

The ensuing global uproar has manufactured publicity on a scale that few fringe Internet movements have ever dreamed of. By the time he "canceled" the faux-revolution Wednesday afternoon, *** had become a household name in places as far-flung as Winnipeg and Sydney — never mind that even social justice activists hadn't taken him seriously.

"We only count real organizations as hate groups," said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremists online and off. ***'s rhetoric has all the markings of hate speech, she said; but at the end of the day, "he's a guy with a blog."

Unfortunately for Beirich and others like her, the line between "real" movements and mere Internet grumbling is becoming increasingly hard to see. For one thing, the Internet makes it virtually impossible to quantify groups like ***'s, which claim to command — but rarely produce — untold hordes of followers.

Only one point there is questionable: is it really that hard to see the line between a real group of real people and some moron with a blog? (Hi!) The idea of "pro rape" activists is obviously disturbing and prompts a strong emotional reaction – almost as if that was the goal, right? – but the complete lack of basic skepticism applied to such an implausible bordering on delusional plan was disturbing. Countless legitimate and quasi-legitimate media outlets ran with this. Countless counter-rallies were hastily organized. Countless people I know offered heated, passionate thoughts about the idea that this could happen. And it's really hard not to look like a dick – I do that plenty and have been looking to cut back – and be That Guy who says, Who the hell is this person? Why has nobody ever heard of him before? How did such a patently insane ideology build a global following without anyone noticing until now? How many men, even deeply, truly, terrible men, are realistically going to do this even if they support the "message"? Everybody completely overlooked the fact that none of this made any sense whatsoever. It was transparently a cheap ploy for attention. By indignantly reposting the stories everywhere online, we probably brought him enough notoriety to actually find a few followers. His fan base probably exploded. From like, 100 to 500.

Of course not every person who sees a story is going to start fact checking it in depth; could the media not have dug just a liiiiittle deeper here though? One of two things must be true. Either they are too lazy to verify any elements of a story, or they knew damn well that this was nonsense but decided to run with it anyway for the rage-clicks. Something tells me it's the latter. Who cares if a story is true or makes any sense anymore as long as it confirms what a given demographic of readers believes about the world.

Finally, and this is strictly my not universally shared opinion, but if these rallies were real events, counter-protests are counterproductive. Nothing on Earth is sadder than a public event with like 12 people at it, which is exactly what a "pro rape" rally would have were it actually held. The presence of hundreds of counter-protesters and hundreds more journalists simply help the group ("group") achieve its goal of making it look like a big event rather than a non-event. This is the standard operating procedure for KKK rallies now and has been for years. Why show up and legitimize it? Let them have their event. It will be 15 people who all look like cousins addressing a crowd that doesn't exist, and the resulting images and video will speak for themselves. They won't even need a caption describing it as "pathetic."

WE'RE THE FUTURE. YOUR FUTURE.

Posted in Rants on February 8th, 2016 by Ed

The competition is fierce but the actual worst regular columnist in American journalism has to be Steve Tarter of the Peoria Journal-Star. Is it against the rules or the spirit of competition to pick someone from such a podunk media outlet? Maybe. But this guy is goddamn magical. He once did a restaurant review of Cracker Barrel. His standard fare is "business" stuff written from the perspective of a person forever trapped in 1957. I don't even think he's that old, to be honest. It's an extreme manifestation of the fact that everything in the rural Midwest is about 30 years behind the rest of the country. If it was popular on the coasts or in the cities during the Bush presidency, it'll get to Peoria sometime in the next 5-10 years. You don't find a lot of hot takes on the new economy in a place where every corner has a Family Video doing a land-office business. In 2016.

This humdinger from last week really shows Tarter at his Tarteriest, a word salad entitled, "Looking for a new career path? Freelance jobs, online employment are on the rise." If you live in a real city, read this and tell me it isn't depressing. Let's start with the fact that freelancing was a "new" "trend" in our economy in, what, 2000? Add in the fact that "online employment" – which Tarter, parroting most of his readership, does not really appear to understand – similarly has been popular for many years and you have a column that serves as little more than an advertisement for two losers who turned grant money into completely unprofitable "small businesses" of startling unoriginality. Oh, a website about "online career opportunities"? Gee why didn't someone else think of that. Explore an opportunity to become a "consultant"…that sounds lucrative.

This is why I'm sad a lot.

We hear a great deal at regular intervals about how Empowering the new economy is, freeing us from the shackles of a regular paycheck, benefits, and eventual retirement to let us run free in the playground of dreams that is piecing together a living a dollar at a time. Is it possible to cobble together some earnings online? Sure, things like Mechanical Turk pay in actual money. But the idea that this sort of thing can provide a real adult with a real working class income is ludicrous and indicative of someone who has no idea what he's writing about. Oh, the Internet! These nice young ladies told me there's all kinds of money to be made on there! Sounds good, where's my typewriter!?!

Remember, this guy is talking about making a living on the internet in response to the Fortune 500 employers in the region slashing a few hundred or thousand well-paid jobs every couple of months. You know. Because you can replace manufacturing jobs with pensions by turning people without any salable skills or familiarity with the tech economy into internet entrepreneurs. Sounds plausible, right?

I used to think that the economic elite wouldn't be happy until everyone in the country was earning minimum wage with no benefits. In hindsight that was naive; they won't be happy until nobody has stable employment of any kind. We can all drive them around for pennies as Uber drivers and do their laundry on some app that will make us underbid other unemployed people for the privilege and serve them food as just-in-time temps at mostly automated service industry outlets. This is the future we're striving toward as a nation, and it sucks. It sucks for 99% of the population on the planet but it doesn't matter. Eventually they will succeed in breaking the population of the idea that any employment is more stable than day-to-day, and lawyers and doctors and engineers will be groveling for nickels just like the rest of us. Here's an app that people can use when they need medical help, just enter the amount you're willing to pay and wait until your bid is accepted! Shit, where's my notepad? Has someone thought of that one yet? I should get in on the ground floor for once.

They call it economic freedom, but the absence of security is not the same thing as freedom. Insecurity just happens to be cheaper, so it needed a rebranding and a good marketing campaign. It has been relentless since the 90s or, in Central Illinois, since this year.