Posted in Quick Hits on May 7th, 2017 by Ed

If you want an example of how American politics have departed from traditional norms to introduce an element of Third World Strongman unreality into our discourse, look no further than what just happened to Medicaid.

Step 1: Campaign on a promise not to cut Medicaid
Step 2: Cut almost a trillion dollars from Medicaid
Step 3: Insist that cutting almost a trillion dollars from Medicaid made it better (alternate excuse: they're not "cuts", they're ways to give states "more flexibility" – presumably the flexibility to kick a lot of people off Medicaid)

And of course it will work. Millions of die-hards, many of whom have no meaningful idea of what Medicaid is or how it works, will from this day forward insist to their last breath that not a penny was cut from it, or any cuts that might have happened made it way better.

It gets sadder by the day that so many voters in this country could not figure out what the French were able to: that a choice between a bad candidate and a candidate who literally threatens the basic institutions of democracy to increase his or her odds of being able to establish authoritarian rule is an important choice and one worth making.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 16th, 2017 by Ed

It's a virtual certainty at this point that our President is going to use nuclear weapons on someone – Does it matter who? – just to do it.

Having already prevailed upon the Pentagon to drop "the biggest bomb you have" on a rural area in a country that is essentially medieval, it's clear that he believes that this "sends a message." He's not entirely wrong. It sends the message "I am completely insane," after all.

Aside from its obvious saber-rattling and dick-waving value, using nuclear weapons appeals to his belief that doing something that no one else would do is a sign of bold leadership. Add in the fact that it will send all the right people into fits of apoplexy – the U.N., Europe, liberals, the media, people who read books – and it becomes more a question of when rather than if.

Recognizing that there is virtually nothing of value to bomb in Afghanistan – we've heard the bullshit about "underground tunnel complexes" that turned out to be fantasy before, remember – North Korea seems like the more likely target. Or who knows, maybe he'll blow one up at random just to make himself feel tough.

It isn't hard to picture him yelling about "a real big bomb, the biggest one!" because we have seen that this is his entire worldview in a nutshell; things that are real big are better than things that are not, and the biggest thing is definitely the best thing because it's big. In short, he thinks like a 10 year old boy. We've known that for a long time. What is beginning to sink in is exactly what the consequences of that mindset are going to look like. Remember all that talk during the election about making sure that an unhinged egomaniac didn't get his finger on the nuclear trigger? That wasn't idle talk, it turns out.


Posted in Quick Hits on March 29th, 2017 by Ed

It's hyperbolic to call Trump the equivalent of a third world dictator. We have functioning institutions, even if they are eroding, and no matter how much he may wish the office of the president confers upon its holder dictatorial powers it does not. Nonetheless, it's not an exaggeration to point out that there are some specific tendencies he shares with the Russian, post-Soviet, and third world strongmen he so admires (they have such great "control" of their countries!)

Trashing the media and using the state as though its purpose is his personal enrichment is old hat. Any half-assed elected leader can try that. Where Trump truly excels is the consolidation of power into an inner circle consisting almost exclusively of family members. This is like, Tinpot Dictator 101. Family members are the only people you can trust not to murder you in your sleep, stage a coup while you're traveling, or (more relevant to the American setting) turn prosecution witness and start testifying against you. Everything about Eric screams "prison snitch," though. I wouldn't be surprised if he started singing anyway.

Nepotism exists in some form in every system of government. It's simply rare for nepotism in the White House to be as blatant as it is right now or for the family members given paid staff positions to be so utterly devoid of talent. Sure, JFK gave his brother an appointed position. But it was difficult to argue that Robert was not qualified for the job. What has anyone related to Trump done except spend his money and shoot endangered animals for fun?

The way the White House has leaked like a sieve during his first 70 days in office was most likely a wake up call that many of the people he thought he could trust during the campaign are actually – surprise! – self interested professionals who would murder their own mothers if it helped their careers. As that sinks in it was only a matter of time before Ivanka moved into the White House. He still has a few kids left to hire, and I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up in various advisory roles before long. Hey, Barron is only 10, but he could be put in charge of cybersecurity or something. He does show grandpa-dad how to use the internet after all.

I suppose I should express outrage, but we've descended so far into pure farce at this point that it would feel insincere to play at surprise.


Posted in Quick Hits on March 28th, 2017 by Ed

Whenever conservatives complain that government-run health care would result in someone interfering with decisions that should be made by patients and doctors, limiting individual choice, and restricting or rationing access to certain kinds of care I ask the same question: What the hell insurance do you have? Because my insurance company does all of that, and then some. And over my working life I've had insurance (HMO, PPO, hybrid) with several large providers (Aetna, Humana, BC-BS) and this was true of all of them. There was a rule book. There were gatekeepers. There was ruthless cost cutting. And the restrictions on doctors and patients imposed by the insurer were too numerous to count.

It forces one to wonder; if this hypothetical Freedom is so important, why does the name tag of the person interfering with it matter? Why is it the worst scenario imaginable for a Government Bureaucrat to tell you that you need a referral to see a specialist but a victory for the glorious free market when the functionary imposing that rule on us works for Wellpoint? The distinction seems beyond meaningless.

We see the same thing unfolding as Republicans in Congress roll back nearly every regulation intended to protect privacy on the internet. The worst thing Joe Trump Voter can imagine is The Government invading our privacy. But if Comcast wants to do it and then sell access to your private information (including potentially to the government, of course) then…hurrah for capitalism?

Anti-government invective paired with pro-business propaganda has produced some monumentally strange results in the belief systems of many Americans.


Posted in Quick Hits on March 16th, 2017 by Ed

Apropos of nothing, if you're looking to add to your reading list and want some informative non-fiction, the two best academic-sociological books about race in the United States are Omi & Winant, Racial Formation in the United States and Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. The latter, in case the title gives you second thoughts, is not a "Well white people had it just as bad, because 200 years ago Americans were mean to the Irish but bootstraps!" screed. It is actually a really well historically grounded explanation of how, by virtue of being white, Irish people transitioned from being a minority targeted with derision to part of the American Majority.

Oh, hell. While we're at it, want to read something about a period in American history that's both relevant to current events and almost completely forgotten? Are you ready to start throwing punches if you see one more book about World War II or the Civil War? Alasdair Roberts' The First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 is pretty great. What we Americans know about our own history is not only limited but also focuses overwhelmingly on a small number of discrete events. This is a good read about the nation muddling through a long economic downturn that threw the political system and social institutions into disarray. It also – teaser! – led to the creation of American cities' first municipal police forces.


Posted in Quick Hits on March 14th, 2017 by Ed

There are two possibilities to explain the random release of a random piece of tax information about Donald Trump. Three if you count coincidence.

One is that Trump had these released as a red herring to redirect attention away from additional revelations about his Russian ties that may be coming out this week. Or, in a less Machiavellian sense it may just be an effort to garner attention that has been drifting away from him and toward the stillborn House GOP health care bill.

The other is that Donald Trump is a very vain, dumb, and predictable person, and that somebody – perhaps a fired U.S. Attorney who was leading the investigation into DeutscheBank's ties to Russian organized crime and money laundering – wanted to establish that Donald Trump earned a huge amount of income in 2005. Perhaps they knew that if a document showing Trump in a favorable light were leaked, he would rush to confirm its authenticity. Having released it himself to deny the hated media a chance to scoop him, there's no plausible way to refute it now.

The crystal ball is murky, but one thing is absolutely certain: There are but a few reasons one person pays another vastly more than the actual value to buy a piece of property. None of those reasons involve things that are legal. Aaron Schock is about to go to prison for it. Duke Cunningham did go to prison for it. And Donald Trump received $100 million from a Russian organized crime figure for a property not worth 1/3 of that, which the buyer never even occupied and eventually had demolished. This came at a time when Trump was deeply in debt to a German bank that is under investigation for helping Russian criminals launder money using third parties.

Most people saw a big non-story on Tuesday evening. Maybe it's actually a prosecutor building a case.


Posted in Quick Hits on March 13th, 2017 by Ed

"Barack Obama is spying on me through my microwave."

Depending on what you do for a living, you could be legally (or at least ethically) bound to take action upon hearing this statement from another person. Imagine yourself in any number of scenarios – Teacher and student. Doctor and patient. Therapist and client. Service provider and customer. Supervisor and employee. Coworker and coworker. Or simply a friend, relative, or casual observer who hears an adult make that statement. Your first inclination might be to verify that the speaker was serious and not speaking figuratively. Your next would be to figure out how to get this person to a competent mental health professional for a check-up.

If your friend started posting conspiracy theories at this level of paranoia you would be alarmed. And you would be right to be alarmed; thoughts of being the subject of surveillance or conspiracies are a sign of a person in the early stages of losing contact with reality. Yet it is apparently the New Normal to have thoughts like this expressed by the President of the United States and his inner circle. Conspiracy theories are a useful tool for someone like Trump, but we have to start raising the question of how much of this is believed versus how much is spat out for calculated effect. There is no way to ascertain the truth now that the tidal waves of ridicule have washed over Kellyanne Conway. Certainly she will hide behind the "I was just kidding" defense that serves the far right so well. But I am not entirely convinced that these delusions about being spied upon are all a case of artistic license. We have to consider the possibility that these people in control of the Executive Branch believe that their appliances are being used to spy on them.

If a student said this to me and was not obviously kidding, I would be obligated to do something about it. Fortunately there are some things I could do – involve health professionals, report it to a higher authority at the university, and so on. There's nothing I can do when I hear it on the news, though, from some of the nation's most powerful people. We are taking another step toward life in a sub-Saharan style kleptocracy, right down to the crackpot dictator and his inner circle of relatives and cronies. Trump isn't necessarily Mobutu-level crazy, but he isn't necessarily sane either.


Posted in Quick Hits on March 9th, 2017 by Ed

A good, semi-long read from a 30+ year veteran coal miner on why the jobs are disappearing, why they're probably not coming back (hint: it's not Obama, and it's not Stupid Environmentalists), and why people who work in that field have such a strong emotional attachment to the work.

It's a nice, sympathetic way of telling people in coal that they have to deal with the exact same reality that people in every other field are dealing with: in our economic system, we all have to find ways to adjust to the reality that whole industries will disappear when technology or global economic forces replace the need for us to do them. This neatly summarizes how I feel when people in blue collar industries go on and on about the hardship of being in a field where jobs are disappearing: "Really? Join the clu(r)b."


Posted in Quick Hits on March 1st, 2017 by Ed

Don't get anyone who likes The Simpsons talking "best episodes" unless you have a couple hours to kill and sufficient devotion to the show to argue fine points like Frank Grimes vs. Hank Scorpio for best one-show cameo. Depending on the context and the definition of "best," there are probably 20 episodes that could plausibly hold the title. For its commentary on organized labor in the United States, though, "Last Exit to Springfield" has to be near the top of the list.

Over the past two weeks the automotive press has been full of stories about Elon Musk's (he of Tesla and PayPal fame) efforts to stave off unionization at his Fremont, California factory. His strategy is to treat his employees like toddlers, apparently, and convince them to forgo unionization in exchange for toys and treats and a trip to Six Flags. If you think that's a metaphor, it isn't: he has offered quite literally to give the factory a frozen yogurt bar and a roller coaster in exchange for a union-free contract. I would like to point out that the year is 2017, and this exact scenario was in the aforementioned Simpsons episode in 1993.

Carl: But seriously, we have to vote on Mr. Burns' new contract. It's basically the same deal, except we get a free keg of beer for our meetings. (crowd cheers) In exchange for that, we have to give up our dental plan. (everyone cheers and rushes over to the beer keg)

Lenny: (pours beer) So long dental plan!

You can't make these things up.

There are arguments to be made (albeit not necessarily equally persuasive ones) for and against unionization. You have to love the cynicism of the ruling class when it doesn't even bother making them and instead jiggles its car keys and a squeaky toy in front of labor, expecting that to convince them to give up rights and long term economic benefits.

And you know what? It'll probably work.


Posted in Quick Hits on February 13th, 2017 by Ed

The "Everything is Terrible All the Time shirts are back in stock. Here's your big chance to finally be cool.

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