FINAL EXAM

Posted in Rants on May 22nd, 2017 by Ed

When I have the opportunity to teach a senior seminar – intended to be a capstone to the major, a "big picture" course – I assign a reading list that frames what I believe will be the defining Big Questions of the next half-century or more. One: How will the state respond to the possibility than in the future, improvements in productivity and technology will result in an economy unable to produce enough jobs to sustain our current market-oriented system? In other words, how (if at all) will governments adapt when there is no longer a need for labor as we currently understand it. This is essentially the Player Piano scenario. To undergraduates about to head out into the world in search of employment this question resonates.

The second: How much are individuals willing to change their way of life and the current understanding of individual rights to combat non-state actors? In other words, terrorism is essentially impossible to stop by any conventional means. One man can rent a truck and drive it into a crowd and the Good Guys combating terrorism will never have had the slightest chance to intervene. One person can walk into a crowded place with a gun, no prior planning or terror-networking involved, and fire away. The only way to prevent this type of terrorism is by giving up our concept of privacy on a scale that is currently unimaginable. Theoretically, if The Government read every person's online activity and monitored every phone conversation on Earth in real time it might be possible to intervene against Lone Wolf or decentralized terrorist network attacks. You could in theory find every person who visits an ISIS propaganda website and send the police crashing through their door moments later. You could even have smartphone technology that records and transcribes every conversation in range. You could even, if future technology advances at the rate we have seen in the last 50 years, have the ability to record and transcribe our thoughts. Don't laugh – research on how to replace user interfaces (mice, keyboards, tapping the screen) with technology that reads our thoughts is in progress. Are we there yet? No. Might we get there? Sure.

Whenever I see something like the apparent terror attack in Manchester on Monday evening I become more convinced that this second question is going to make or (probably) break western democracies in the coming decades. With enough of these attacks over a long enough timeframe individuals will gradually grow fearful of everything – flying, public transit, sport events, concerts, malls, any public gathering of more than a handful of people, tourist destinations…you name it. People will find that no amount of resources allocated by the state can stop terrorism of this type because it requires only motivation and the amount of planning a dullard could complete in 20 minutes. The goal of people like Osama bin Laden was and is to bring about the collapse of Western societies by exploiting their weakest points. It is a long game, aimed at making us slowly lose our collective sanity and resort to increasingly undemocratic rule and concentration of power and wealth in the state until it collapses from within. It's working so far. Give the US and France and the UK twenty more years of random, periodic carnage and it is likely to produce some results that seem far-fetched now.

We will have to choose as societies whether we will live with a persistent low level of danger (You're still incredibly unlikely to die from terrorism compared to just about anything else, but the fear it causes is disproportionate) from insidious elements that wish to do us harm or whether we will subvert a handful of the core, defining principles of 20th Century Western democracy in exchange for greater security, real or perceived.

We know which the Boomers choose, but in twenty years none of them will be left. Today's young adults ultimately will be the ones who have to pull the trigger. It will be a historic decision; once the path toward a surveillance state and "clash of civilizations" policies toward Muslims is chosen, the consequences for our nations and the world will reverberate for the next century.

FORESEEN CONSEQUENCES

Posted in Rants on May 16th, 2017 by Ed

Of all the styles of pundit writing the most loathsome is the "You can't blame me for failing to foresee this, as nobody could have foreseen it!" self-absolution. And when this three-ring shitshow in the White House meets its tragi-comic end, whether on schedule in January 2021 or earlier, it will take a great deal of fortitude to plow through the inevitable hand-wringing pieces from Republicans who fancy themselves Serious People without projectile vomiting our spleens onto the ashes of whatever is left of us by then.

Circa 2005 when it became so obvious that the Iraq War was a poorly thought-out, poorly executed misadventure in imbecilic optimism as a one-to-one replacement for strategy and legitimate cause, Very Serious People on the right began lining up to purge themselves all over our eyes. What was once the very best idea suddenly became the worst foreign policy disaster in American history, but lest the gentle reader entertain thoughts of questioning the judgment of people like George Will it must be pointed out that no one – no one at all – could have foreseen in 2003 that the invasion could possibly turn out in any way other than Super Great. No one could have known, for example, that the White House cherry-picked intel, placed huge amounts of political pressure on agencies to reach predetermined conclusions, and generally had no goddamn idea whatsoever to do once it used the military to smash Saddam Hussein's regime into dust other than "They'll hail us as their liberators and everything will be great." Never mind that all of this was widely recognized and shouted until hoarse for 18 months leading up to the war. Nobody could have known.

And now we will have to read the same masturbatory thinkpieces all over again. Because clearly nobody could have predicted that taking a person with obvious personality disorders who has never had a job before and is proud of the fact that he has no idea what he is doing and making that person president would turn out poorly.

It would not surprise me if a lot of the Republicans and conservative media figures have their "the day after Trump is gone" pieces in the can already. Even Fox News has to be planning ahead despite their comical efforts to keep this unfolding disaster away from the dead octogenarian eyes of their remaining viewers; a slew of "What went wrong and why are we not at fault for failing to mention any of this before it actually went wrong?" pieces exist in the ethers, awaiting only the push of a button to be unleashed and accepted unquestioningly. Revisionist history as absolution is the only thing the right does as effectively as phony moral outrage and IOKIYAR-ism.

Spare us. That's all I ask. Living with the consequences is punishment enough. Don't double down by telling us that an honest person had no idea how this was going to turn out.

WEB OF SECRETS

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2017 by Ed

The curious lack of enthusiasm for getting to the bottom of the ties between the current administration and Russia is about more than partisan politics and Americans' general lack of interest in anything substantive. The whole story makes people uneasy because it speaks to a fundamental change in the world that has unsettling consequences for all of us. Privacy is essentially dead, and we don't want to learn just how dead it is. The implications are too frightening.

We get stories about email hacks, computer viruses, information theft, and other forms of electronic snooping to understand – whether we realize it or not – that the concept of privacy on the internet does not truly exist. Anyone willing to devote the time, effort, and resources to getting at our personal information can do so. The only reason it doesn't happen to you and I is that you and I are not important. If we were, hell or high water couldn't stop an interested party from reading your emails, flipping through your text messages, and so on.

Given the extent to which we have transitioned huge parts of our lives onto the internet, this is not a reality we are eager to confront. Not many of us have an internet footprint that would involve issues of national security, but I think it makes people profoundly uncomfortable to see these stories on the news and realize that under the right circumstances, everything we have ever said or done online could suddenly become available for the world to read. If you don't believe that, pause for a moment and imagine that everyone you know could read everything you've ever said (some of it about them, no doubt) in a text, email, IM, and so on. The best case scenario would be some serious embarrassment. The worst is documentation of activities that could land you in legal trouble, given that those text messages to your weed dealer probably aren't nearly as inscrutable as you suppose them to be.

The technology and talent for invading someone's privacy online will only get better in the future. The fact that your credit card number, identity, bank account, and email haven't been hacked is not an indication that online security measures are protecting you, but that you're not important enough for the people who have these skills to use them against you. As the ability to pry improves, electronic blackmail is likely to become the unstoppable billion dollar illegal activity of the future. "Pay up or else everything goes on Wikileaks" is a demand that many people in the professional world are likely to have a hard time ignoring. If you're in a field in which it matters in the least how other people see you (i.e., nearly every profession) you aren't going to be pleased by the thought of the world finding out that you forward off-color jokes, have a deep and lasting fondness for illegal drugs, consume a truly heroic amount of porn, write long harangues against your immediate superiors at work, like taking pictures of yourself in various states of undress, have a thriving account on Furry Fetish Personals, or any of the hundreds of other things people do in their private lives under the assumption that the phrase "private lives" is meaningful. We aren't quite ready to admit to ourselves that if the wrong people take an interest in you, the idea of privacy effectively ceases to exist.

On an intellectual level the majority of Americans believe it's important to know fully what sort of connections elected officials might have to a foreign government or any other potentially questionable interests. When we pause to consider how that information has become available to the public and to law enforcement, though, we are divided into two groups: those of us made uncomfortable by the extent to which electronic spies can pry into our lives and those of us who don't understand the issue well enough to realize the implications.

ON THE STRAWS PRECEDING THE BACK-BREAKING ONE

Posted in Rants on May 11th, 2017 by Ed

There was a good deal of (always welcome) criticism of two similar previous posts drawing parallels between the Russia scandal and Watergate. The most common charge was that I am excessively optimistic and fail to consider how craven the modern Republican Party and its leadership are when it comes to defending their own and maintaining themselves in power. In other words, things are Different now and the people in control of Congress are unlikely to turn on one of their own no matter what. Even if he's not really one of their own, he is a useful idiot.

The original post, "On the Nature of Tides" was general and preceded the inauguration by a week. The second, "On the Properties of Wind," was from late March and emphasized that Trump had not even been in office for 90 days at that point and the Russia problem is not one that would be resolved immediately. Instead, it was/is likely to smolder and get worse over time. That point Trumdeserves some additional emphasis this week.

First, remember that this administration has barely crossed the 100 day mark. It remains unrealistic to think that any Congress, even one with principles, would have railroaded any president out of office by this point. What we are learning this week – and this is crucial – is that the Russia story is never going to go away. It may briefly be pushed off the front burner in favor of some momentary flare-up, but it keeps fighting its way back into the headlines. The most persuasive reason to believe it will keep doing so – and this is equally crucial – is that Trump is very stupid and he will keep doing things to bring attention to it and make it worse.

It is worth remembering that not only did it take time for Watergate to torpedo Nixon but the crime itself was not what brought him down; the attempts to cover it up, including efforts to stifle the FBI that amounted to abuse of power and interference with an investigation, were ultimately fatal. It is easy for fatalism to set in, and these days liberals talk as though suffering from political PTSD – the big strong man is invincible, nothing will ever get better, everything is hopeless. This line of argument ignores one of the most obvious and important things about the man in question: He is incredibly stupid, impulsive, and childish, and as a result he will continue to manage the Russia story by tantrum, guaranteeing that it will never go away and it will get worse with time.

LIKE SHOOTING FISH IN A McMANSION

Posted in Rants on May 8th, 2017 by Ed

Astute commentators have been pointing out since November the massive flaw inherent in the "white working class" (in media usage, read: hillbillies, white trash) argument to explain the most recent election: lower income people of any race tend not to vote much, and nothing about the demographics of Trump voters as a whole suggests that poverty is among their defining characteristics. The median income among voters – not mere "Hey I like that guy!" supporters, but actual cast-a-ballot voters – is well over the national average. Hell, according to the stated figure the median Trump voter is out-earning me considerably. And I'm not a poor person.

The reality is that no amount of think pieces about Appalachia can obscure the fact that Trump is a phenomenon of white suburbanites (combined with poor turnout among people most likely to support a Democratic candidate). If you are like me and spent any portion of your formative years in the suburbs, you have known this in the marrow of your bones and don't need any data to prove it to you. In truly poor areas, white conservatism is mixed with a healthy dose of apathy and indifference. In rural areas it is mitigated by the remnant fumes of agrarian populism (and a total dependence on government subsidies). But the suburbs…the flame burns clean there. Don't go to small town Appalachia if you want to see pure, mindless adherence to the Fox News version of reality. Pick a big city and head for its newest New Money suburbs.

Jesse Myerson offers a useful take on why this is. Suburbanites have just enough wealth to convince themselves that they are just one step away from cartoonish one-percenter wealth (Just don't ask too many questions about debt!) and therefore are not only susceptible to Horatio Alger "hard work is all you need" narratives but also to scapegoating groups perceived to be the last obstacle between oneself and True Wealth. Gosh, just think of how much better everything would be if only my money wasn't being given to Welfare Queens / Immigrants / Chinamen / Etc.

The second factor he points out is that suburbanites, having engaged in a pattern of increasing their spending every time income increased, are overwhelmingly dependent on the value of their homes as the foundation of wealth. Many have borrowed huge amounts against their property, and many more rely on selling it and using the proceeds (the mortgage long since having been paid off) for retirement. If non-white people move into the area, home values will fall. Nothing will turn a suburbanite into a white-hot ball of rage more quickly than the prospect of losing some of the equity in their home. These are not good homes, objectively. They are flimsy, expensive to heat and cool, and ugly. They have no inherent value, so the value of their location (i.e., far away from Those People) and sheer size determine their worth on the market.

These are valid points. To them I would add two more that Myerson missed.

One is that suburbanites are, as a group, unhappy people. I swear to god, you will never meet people who have more but are less happy than your random South Suburbs of Chicago people. These are people who – to engage in a little cheap armchair psychoanalysis – have spent their whole lives believing that the next purchase would finally make them happy and it didn't work out. If only I had a bigger house, or the 5-series BMW instead of the 3-series, or more jewelry, or just MORE of everything…then surely happiness would be here. So they are unhappy despite in material terms having nothing really to be unhappy about.

Second, and related tangentially, is that the design of suburbs combined with the huge amount of time suburban adults spend alone in their own homes divorces them fairly effectively from reality. They don't see much of the real world. They see a gated community of white people with big houses, and perhaps some glimpses of the rest of the world out of a window during a commute. They use the media to inform them what cities and rural areas are like in the same way that you and I rely on the news to tell us what is going on in China. Chicago might as well be China to someone living in its suburbs. They are as likely to form an opinion of it based on what Bill O'Reilly says as they are by driving 15 or 20 miles to do anything there.

I try not to go back to visit family unless I absolutely can't help it. Kunstler was right; we built a landscape of crappy places and became crappy people.

AVOIDING CONSEQUENCES

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2017 by Ed

I like political science. It's interesting, which is helpful given that I do it for a living. Theories that help us understand the political world change over time out of necessity because the political world changes. Some people find this unsatisfying or use it to argue that the term "science" is not applicable. These people prefer the iron certainty of the hard sciences and their various laws, and that is a valid preference. A social science combining rules, institutions, and human behavior has a different type of appeal and value.

When major events happen in the political world, my social media lights up with a lot of interesting comments from people who know a great deal about the process of legislating, bureaucratic theory, and other specialized topics. I like this a lot. I'm starting to feel, however, that the behavior of the American electorate and the state of the American political system no longer conform to logic or reality enough for any kind of rigorous analysis or application of findings from previous research to be useful. That sounds chicken little-ish, I know. It sounds like an overreaction. It also sounds terrifyingly plausible.

As people who study Congress and congressional elections debate the strategy (and consequences) of the House vote on Thursday, the basic assumption is that voters will respond to decisions made by their Representatives in a way that is predictable. I have doubts about the usefulness of that assumption in modern politics. The post-reality world that a lot of Republican voters inhabit is the culmination of a decades-long process of false equivalence and a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to facts. What does it matter that the bill reduces the number of people who will have health insurance if you can simply say it doesn't and a not-insignificant proportion of voters will accept that and applaud? Does it increase costs? Sure does. But once "This will lower costs!" comes out of the President's mouth, that's Problem Solved for all but the most marginal Republicans in Congress.

Seeing modern American politics as having crossed the Rubicon is no longer a belief confined to permanent pessimists and doom-and-gloomers. There now is a substantial number of us for whom reality and facts simply do not matter, and that turns any attempt to understand or analyze the behavior of political actors on its head. Republicans control the narrative to the point that convincing voters that the economy is better since Trump took office can be accomplished by saying "The economy is better now" and repeating it until it becomes accepted as fact. We have taken a step backward, or maybe sideways, or perhaps through a portal to another dimension. I don't feel like this is temporary, or limited to Trump, or a phenomenon that affects the entire political spectrum evenly (liberals, if anything, insist on Fact Checking everything to death until there is no coherent policy they can be identified with). And I'm dealing with the nagging sense that the knowledge that has been accumulated over the years will be of limited use now.

Imagine if a chemist could combine table salt with mud and declare that the result is 24 karat gold. Or diamonds. Or magical potion. Or anything else he or she felt like calling it. That would render most if not all of the knowledge accumulated by practitioners of chemistry over the millennia useless, would it not?

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT

Posted in Rants on May 1st, 2017 by Ed

If you want to feel old, teach. That movie quote is not wrong: You get older, the students stay the same age.

Your cultural references are all dated, even when you think things are recent (ex., The Wire is already ancient history. You might as well reference the Marx Brothers). You reference major historical events that they've sort-of heard of but know essentially nothing about (ex. the Cold War, Vietnam, the OJ Simpson trial, etc.) You do the math and realize that they were 3 when 9-11 happened. And of course it only gets worse with time. You get used to it.

One of the saddest moments I ever had in a classroom, though, involved Rodney King and the LA Riots. We are currently approaching the 25th anniversary of those events that left such a mark on everyone who lived through them. Of course "25th Anniversary" is a bold warning that students, both college and K-12, will have only the vaguest sense of what the proper nouns refer to. A few semesters ago in reference to the Michael Brown / Ferguson incident I mentioned Rodney King in an Intro to American Government class. I got the blank "Is that a thing we are supposed to know?" look that I have come to recognize when students hear about something that happened more than six months ago. "Rodney King?" More blinking. "Can someone tell why the name Rodney King is important?"

One student, god bless her, raised her hand. I paraphrase: "He was killed by the police and it caused the LA Riots." I noted that, no, he did not die, but the second part of the statement was indirectly true. God bless technology in the classroom – I pulled up the grainy VHS-camcorder version of the video, as well as a transcript of the audio analysis presented at trial. We watched, and then talked a bit about the rioting following the acquittal of the LAPD officers at trial. They kept doing the blinking thing. I struggled to figure out what part of this relatively straightforward explanation had managed to confuse them.

"Are there questions? You guys look confused."

Hand. "So he was OK?"

"He was beaten up pretty badly, but, ultimately he was. He died a few years ago from unrelated causes (note: in 2012)."

Hand. "It's kind of weird that everybody rioted over that. I mean, there's way worse videos." General murmurs of agreement.

"Bear in mind that this was pre-smartphone. People heard rumors, but it this was the first instance of the whole country actually seeing something like this as it happened. A bystander just happened to have a camcorder" Brief explanation, to general amusement, of what an Old Fashioned camcorder looked like. Big, bulky, tape-based. 18 year olds do not know this.

I do believe they all understood, but as that day went on I was increasingly bothered by that that brief exchange meant. This is a generation of kids so numb to seeing videos of police beating, tasering, shooting, and otherwise applying the power of the state to unarmed and almost inevitably black or Hispanic men that they legitimately could not understand why a video of cops beating up a black guy (who *didn't even die* for pete's sake!) was shocking enough to cause a widespread breakdown of public order. Now we get a new video every week – sometimes every few days – to the point that the name of the person on the receiving end is forgotten almost immediately. There are too many "Video of black guy being shot or beaten" videos for even interested parties to keep them all straight. Do a self test. Do you remember the name of the guy the NYPD choked out for selling loose cigarettes? The guy in suburban Minneapolis whose girlfriend posted a live video on Facebook after a cop shot her boyfriend in the car? The guy in Tulsa who was surrounded by cops and unarmed while a police helicopter recorded an officer deciding to shoot him? The woman who was found hanged in her Texas jail cell leading to the public pleas to "Say Her Name"?

These kids have grown up in a world where this is background noise. It is part of the static of life in the United States. Whether these incidents outrage them or are met with the usual excuses (Comply faster, dress differently, be less Scary) the fact is that they happen so regularly that retaining even one of them in long term memory is unlikely. To think about Rodney King is to imagine a reality in which it was actually kind of shocking to see a video of four cops kicking and night-sticking an unarmed black man over the head repeatedly. Now videos of police violence are about as surprising and rare as weather reports, and forgotten almost as quickly once passed.

(QUIZ ANSWERS: Eric Garner, Phil Castile, Terence Crutcher, Sandra Bland)

THE GAME

Posted in Rants on April 25th, 2017 by Ed

To be perfectly honest, it isn't that hard to get a Ph.D. if one is not terribly picky about the name of the institution on the diploma. It's hard to write a great dissertation. Writing a bad one only takes the willpower to sit down and pound the thing out on a keyboard. Such a dissertation, if the author could find three to five Ph.D. holders willing to sign off on it (difficult but perhaps not impossible), would be useless for the purposes of academic employment. But hell, if he or she is just really excited about the opportunity to call oneself "Doctor" without being factually incorrect, this would do the job.

The point is, Ph.D. holders are not common but neither are they rare. We all would like to believe we are very special and brilliant, of course. In reality most of us just made it through the process with persistence and a little help from the people guiding us through grad school. I like to think of my degree not as a sign of brilliance, but as an indication that I was willing to stick it out in a process where most people get frustrated at some point and walk away. And in higher education, a field in which nearly everyone has a doctorate of some kind, you are just as likely to encounter knuckleheads as you would be in law, medicine, business, the military, social work, or any other profession. It's possible to be the holder of a real, hard-earned Ph.D. and to call oneself "Dr." and still be kind of a doofus. Trust me.

One thing that isn't common, though, is the Ph.D. equivalent of a "diploma mill" for a Bachelor's degree. There's kind of a well-defined process and most colleges and universities have no interest in doing the kind of hoop-jumping necessary to receive accreditation as a Ph.D.-granting institution. So the set of places where one can get a Ph.D. in at least one field is necessarily limited to a small segment of higher ed, tending toward the large and well funded research universities. Your local commuter school can't simply decide to grant you one at random unless they have a Ph.D.-granting program already in place in your field. They usually don't.

An established political scientist has done some digging into Trump favorite and self-described "terrorism expert" Sebastian Gorka's Ph.D. He and the conservative media just love throwing around the "Doctor" title as though it grants him papal infallibility on all matters Islamic. Gorka, it must be said, seems like a total fraud. One of my former students – so proud! – got him to melt down at a panel Q&A session by asking him about his membership in Nazi-affiliated organizations. Everything about him screams "Who the hell is this idiot and where did he come from?" Fortunately a guy with a real Ph.D. from a real university did the light digging necessary:

Gorka is a fraud – a charlatan of the most brazen hue – a snake-oil salesman whose supposed Ph.D dissertation would have never passed muster in America or Britain and to put the cherry on the cake was approved by an fraudulent panel of examiners.

Gorka is Hungarian-English. He gained an American passport in 2012. His nationalist parents fled to London from Budapest in 1956. His dissertation – Content and End-State-based Alteration in the Practice of Political Violence since the End of the Cold War: the difference between the terrorism of the Cold War and the terrorism of al Qaeda: the rise of the “transcendental terrorist” – was apparently granted in 2007 by Corvinus University of Budapest. The tract is long on Islamaphobia and the unsubstantiated claims of the polemicist but short on theory, evidence or academic rigor. Corvinus is not an institution with a profile, so I looked: sadly it doesn’t even make the top 1,000 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Even Gorka’s attendance poses a mystery. When exactly was he a graduate student at the university? Did he take classes? Did he receive any training in Islam or Islamic studies? His CV notes that he left Hungary in 2004 to work for the US Defense Department in Germany and then in 2008 relocated to the US. There is no evidence that he ever returned to live and study in Budapest.

Two of the three referees did not even have a Ph.D. One was the US Defense Attaché at the American Embassy in Budapest at the time, while the other was employed at the UK’s Defence Academy and just had a BA from Manchester University awarded in 1969. This ‘neutral’ examiner had published a book in Hungary with Gorka three years previously. While graduate students sometimes collaborate with their advisors the independent external examiners must have no nepotistic ties with the candidate. More important, a basic principle of assessing educational achievement is that your examiners have at least the degree level of the degree they are awarding. Undergraduates do not award Ph.Ds. In Gorka’s case the only examiner who lists a doctorate was György Schöpflin – an extreme right wing Hungarian Member of the European Parliament who recently advocated putting pigs heads on a fence on the Hungarian border to keep out Muslims. I have been told that Schöpflin was a family friend. Both Schöpflin and Gorka’s father fled from Budapest to London in the 1950s and both moved in exile right-wing nationalist circles.

If that is true, we are left in sum with a degree that was awarded in absence – on the basis of a dissertation without basic political science methodological underpinnings – and apparently from an examining committee of two of Gorka’s diplomat friends, with only BA degrees; along with an old family friend, Schöpflin.

In essence, that is a fake Ph.D. from a university nobody has heard of. He might as well have gotten two of his college roommates together with his fascist Dad's also-fascist friend and called it a dissertation committee.

Oh, wait. That's kinda what he did.

J.C. POCALYPSE

Posted in Rants on April 23rd, 2017 by Ed

I remember trips to the mall as a child. I remember the various chain stores that made up a shopping trip – maybe for clothes for a new school year (my parents preferred the Montgomery Ward Outlet Store for that, I shit you not) or just to kill time walking around indoors during the coldest part of the Chicagoland winter. Occasionally I think about the long gone names that were retail in my childhood. Carson Pirie Scott. Wieboldt's. Venture. Ames. LS Ayres. Zayre. Marshall Field. Montgomery Ward. Service Merchandise. And of course the giants – JC Penney, Sears, K Mart, and so on. Today of course it is almost all gone.

The 1990s were the judgment day of the big local department store. Regional powerhouses seemingly all became Macy's overnight. Marshall Field. Hudson. Bon Marche. Wanamaker. Jordan Marsh. Famous-Barr. Gimbel's. I'm sure you can remember your own, too.

The decline of many of the oldest names in department stores was an indication that during the 1980s the retail industry had recklessly over expanded. Suburbs along major highways decided in the 1970s that throwing up a giant mall was a guaranteed property tax goldmine, and with the economic slowdown of 1992 we finally admitted that there was only so much consumption Americans could do. Retail looked a bit worse for wear, but it was still a living thing. Then the Internet came along.

Now talk of the "retail apocalypse" is widespread and even Sears – ironically enough the "Amazon" of its day with the encyclopedic Sears Catalog – is sucking fumes. There is no mystery; there is no real reason to go to Sears when Amazon will sell you the same thing without the hassle. When one does go to Sears, as I did about a year ago for some household things when I moved, the sales staff recommend with uncomfortable regularity that you should go home and order the product, which is not in stock, off their website. More recently I visited Sears on a business trip on which I had forgotten to pack under-shirts. Not only was I quite literally the only customer in the store, but I had to search around for a good five to ten minutes to find a high school aged employee who could check me out. Her exact quote when I said "Excuse me" was, "Oh! You scared me." Busy night.

The real cost here is not a price paid in lost nostalgia for familiar brand names. The issue is the hundreds of thousands of (generally mediocre at best) retail jobs eliminated or soon to disappear. Retail jobs, remember, are the subpar replacement jobs that hoovered up people whose manufacturing jobs disappeared. These jobs are already one or more steps down the ladder. They barely pay enough for an adult working full time in the position to break even at poverty. And now even these barely adequate jobs are going to disappear.

There is no reason trying to "save" retail. First of all, it can't be done, and second, these jobs are not good enough for the people who hold them to care enough to fight for them. 30 hours weekly folding clothes at Penney's for $9/hr never sent anyone to the picket line; it's the kind of job that you shrug off when you lose it. It is disposable employment.

And that is precisely why this is so troubling. Even the crap work that people end up doing when they can't get a real (read: decently paid, possibly with benefits) job is going to become scarce. What precisely is an adult who used to work in a blue collar industry and replaced that career with punching a cash register at K Mart going to when that is gone? What is the next step down?

We are about to confront something that it is clear American politics is not capable of confronting: the possibility that we now have an economy of staggering size and wealth that cannot produce enough full-time jobs for the number of people in this country. We can't all make a living getting paid to Uber one another around, and there are only so many menial service industry jobs – making coffee, flipping burgers, etc. – to keep a limited number of people afloat. Structural changes to the economy that our political system refuses to do anything but encourage are going to force us to confront this unprecedented reality sooner rather than later. For years the standard palabrum for economic transition has been to tell the newly unemployed to learn some other skill and transfer to another section of the economy. What happens when there isn't one?

LOUD AND CLEAR, BRO

Posted in Rants on April 19th, 2017 by Ed

Special elections inevitably are overblown. Like, really overblown. Elections are ratings drivers for the media so they devote massive amounts of attention to whatever race is at hand even if it is as marginally important as, in this week's case, a single seat in the House. The weeks-long process of divining Meaning and Lessons from one congressional district will not be over for another few days and is worth what you pay for it.

Sure, it's not a great sign for the GOP that a safe district in the white suburbs of Atlanta is competitive and that a moderate Democrat almost won it without the need for a runoff. I wouldn't suggest the RNC and RCCC should feel good about that. However, it's one race and whatever sentiments are motivating casual voters at this moment will be long forgotten by next November's midterm. Hell, it will probably be forgotten in a month.

One piece of math that has nothing to do with the "Referendum on Trump" narrative jumps out of the results. The Democratic candidate (yes, singular) received 48.1% of the vote. Four other people on the ballot as Democrats received a combined 1521 votes, or 0.79% of the votes cast. Four candidates splitting less than one percent of the vote had no impact on the results. Had they all voted for the leading Democrat, he would have finished with 48.89% of the vote. Still not good enough.

I just want to meet the 1521 people who went out to cast that vote and ask them: What was the point of that? What did you accomplish? More importantly, explain what you *think* you accomplished, which is different from what you actually accomplished. Hint: nothing. You wasted your time. Were you trying to Send a Message to the Democratic Party? Well they heard you loud and clear. The message you sent was "I am a very stupid person."

Two months ago Tom F'ing Price was your House rep and you decided now that you need to put your foot down so the DNC can find some borderline socialist to run in the district. If it is not immediately evident to you why that is dumb without it being explained further, you may be a terminal case. Incurable.

What if instead of 48.1%, the final vote share had been 49.3%? How would you feel about that today? Would you feel like you sent your message then? I have surprising news for you – our two very large political parties do not bend to appease the half-percent of voters whose behavior reveals them to be illogical, impossible to placate, or downright stupid. They made every argument to you that they could possibly make in the context of this election. None of it sunk in. Why not save yourself the trouble and simply stay home next time? Subtracting your 1521 votes from the total cast would have helped Ossoff too (48.4% > 48.1%). So you didn't merely come out to cast a Meaningless Protest Vote. You actually made the odds of a positive outcome smaller, albeit incrementally, by showing up. You could have been merely passively stupid; instead you chose to be aggressively stupid. Why? To what end? Does anything you do make sense, ever, or is logic to your worldview what gluten is to your diet?

I hear and endorse the criticisms of the DNC, and I've talked about them extensively in this medium over the years. If that is a deal-breaker for you, living in white-ass Cobb County and expecting the Democrats to nominate Eugene Debs in a special election, then we will disagree but I understand. What I don't understand is going out to vote for some ding-dong who is going to finish with something like 300 votes. Stay home next time. Sleep. Get drunk. Watch porn. Do anything except what you did on Tuesday.