Posted in Rants on April 18th, 2018 by Ed

In my course on Media & Politics one of the themes I harp on is the centrality of newspapers to American journalism. This is a point that needs to be made to people under the age of 25 because reading a newspaper or finding one in the driveway every morning are experiences they do not necessarily have. To them, getting news from a newspaper is what using the telegraph would be to people of previous generations. These kids, like many adults, now get their news from "the internet" writ large, and they do not have any clear or meaningful mental differentiation between the the website of a newspaper (e.g., New York Times Dot Com) and any other site providing news. The same holds true for TV news networks – CNN isn't a TV station to an 18 year old; it's just one of many places on the internet that offers news.

It is not difficult for them to grasp that the business model of newspapers in the current media economic landscape is…perilous. Physical newspapers have a shrinking and aging audience. Newspapers' websites are competing with internet-only entities with vastly lower overhead costs. And their costs are lower, of course, because most of what they are doing is re-reporting things from newspapers. Same for TV news networks and their online entities.

The problem, as I emphasize, is that the vast majority of actual reporting is done by newspapers. Browse the various online news aggregators and pay attention within the stories. They inevitably link to or reference a story "originally" or "first reported in" a major newspaper. It's not as if Slate is hiring and sending out reporters. Some of the largest online entities have a skeleton staff of correspondents (maybe a DC / White House person) but they certainly don't have reporters working, you know, the city hall beat.

It's an inverted pyramid; as newspapers cut more and more staff (either due to legitimate economic necessity or takeover by venture capitalist types who just want to "run a lean operation") there is less and less reporting. And that's bad, especially when the number of "media outlets" re-reporting the work done by actual on-the-ground journalists grows. It's like quadrupling the number of car dealerships, making them all sell the same car model, and then not producing many of them.

Check out this story of the photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his mid-action photo of a car hitting protesters in Charlottesville – a photo he took on his last day working for the Charlottesville Daily Progress. The next week he started a job…running the social media account of a brewery. Why? It pays more and has more stability. While I don't begrudge the individual for choosing, as I would, the best paying and most stable career option, it's an incredibly sad commentary that our system better rewards tweeting for a beer company than producing iconic, sometimes world-changing journalism.

Mr. Kelly is hardly alone. Anecdotally, I know a ton of journalists (not including freelancers) and every one of them sweats out having a paycheck from month to month. Staff cuts and ominous meetings with the new managing editor and ombudsman are commonplace to the point of numbness. When the opportunity arises, they frequently switch careers. They stop doing real journalism and almost inevitably transition into more lucrative but (I say this without judgment) more frivolous work. Lots of kids used to grow up wanting to be a reporter like April O'Neill or Clark Kent; nobody grew up wanting to be a Brand Ambassador for a skincare pyramid scheme. Yet we all choose the latter eventually because we all need to eat. I get it. It's incredibly hard to make a lower middle-class income in journalism, a few high profile media outlets aside. I'd take the beer tweets job too, man.

In short, this is a totally unsustainable model. Almost all mass media depend on newspaper reporting as primary source material to endlessly repackage as "different" pieces as the ability of newspapers to survive financially (and employ actual reporters) shrinks every day. This edifice will collapse, and soon.


Posted in Rants on April 15th, 2018 by Ed

In 2015 a Ph.D. and MD team of researchers published a paper, "The Myth Regarding the High Cost of End-of-Life Care," that struck me as very interesting. One important component of debates on healthcare costs is the perceived high cost of treatments that do not meaningfully extend life or improve the quality of life – the perception, in other words, that doctors throw every procedure and medicine available (at patient insistence) at people who are unavoidably terminal.

The Aldridge-Kelley paper is one of just a few proper studies I've come across that characterizes it as a myth (see also this University of Michigan analysis). Their conclusion that end-of-life costs comprise about 13% of all healthcare spending and thus is not out of line with common sense expectations is contradicted by data thrown around in every healthcare policy debate I've ever seen. In fact, a Medicare study argues that end-of-life spending on healthcare is unchanged over 20 years.

This is an issue, in other words, in which we seem to be influenced heavily by anecdotal evidence ("Well, my grandmother…") and numbers sourced from groups like insurance companies or issue activists with an agenda. Of course Insurance, Inc. likes the narrative that they're forced to cover pointless procedures on dying people.

In fairness, my take on the methodology of the studies mentioned above is that they all define health care spending in a way that is likely to under-count true spending. They exclude the cost of prescription drugs, for example. The estimates they offer could reasonably be characterized as conservative. However, their underlying conclusion remains persuasive in the context of the really big medical expenditures that naturally accompany the end of life – hospitalizations, hospice or nursing home stays, major surgeries, implants, drugs administered as an inpatient, and so on.

The news item about Barbara Bush brought this point back to mind. She's 92 and has reached the point at which she and the other people involved have concluded that she's dying and medical care is futile now beyond providing palliative treatment. And really, isn't that what usually happens? How common is this straw man really, the dying person who demands putative miracle cures right up to the very end?

In some ways high end of life costs are unavoidable. That trip to the ER after a major car accident and the ten surgeries that follow are the cause of mortality and they can't be distributed throughout life. Hospice stays and hospitalizations are other examples of incredibly costly things that aren't going to happen unless…well, unless you're in failing health. And for every single one of us human beings, failing health is a process that begins at different points but always ends with death. Many of us are lucky enough that "failing health" and death are relatively proximate on our timeline. Whenever it happens, unless we die of unnatural causes, it's very likely to be expensive. Nothing about that is new.

It is worth remembering that the available data does not support the argument that end-of-life care is disproportionately expensive. A cynic might even wonder if it is yet another attempt to blame the individual for spiraling costs of the ridiculous system – "industry" is a better term, in fact – that so many Americans in positions of power seem dead-set against changing. The way people use a badly flawed system is a symptom, not a cause, of those flaws.


Posted in Rants on April 9th, 2018 by Ed

There are bad arguments, and then there are arguments that are offensive and insulting in addition to being bad. James Traub offers up the latter in this widely-circulated piece from The Atlantic this weekend. For those interested in a more complete takedown rapidly written up by Jamelle Bouie, the title of which says everything you need to know about how bad the initial argument is: "Democrats Shouldn't Give In to White Racism." Kinda embarrassing that that needs to be said.

This is nothing new. We have been hearing variants of this argument from within the Democratic Party since the 1960s – "In order to appeal to the majority of whites, we need to be willing to throw minorities under the bus." Ergo, the more the Party does to stand up for the rights of and issues of particular relevance to African-Americans and Hispanics, the more it will push away white voters of the kind who (in Traub's words) inherently see the appeal of a "message of collective responsibility and common purpose." But they also, you know, don't like black people very much.

The last time we saw this strategy in practice – trying to build a white majority by pandering to racist tendencies and throwing minorities in the meat grinder – was during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Despite the near-worship with which many Democrats see him today, there is unequivocal evidence that "Welfare Reform" and "Sentencing Reform," two positions the 1990s Democrats adopted explicitly to steal the GOP's thunder in the never-ending battle to appeal to white reactionaries, have inflicted more pain and suffering on black and Hispanic communities than can adequately be conveyed in this space. Sentencing reform will, from the perch afforded us by history in a few more decades, be recognized as one of the most shameful moments in Democratic politics. And they embraced it willingly in a calculated effort to appeal to the kind of white voter who thinks the problem with this country is that not enough people (wink) are being locked up in prison.

The fundamental flaw in this logic has always been apparent and is never explained. It presupposes some additional value gained from building a *white* majority, as if one white voter is worth more than one vote. It makes even less sense here in 2018 than it did in the mid-90s given our changing demographics to throw the moral high ground in the crapper in a (likely failed) attempt to woo the kind of white voter who wants a social welfare system but is also kinda racist when as an alternative the Party could make a better effort to appeal to the 30% and growing of the electorate that is not white. Rather than, as Traub suggests, dialing back on the ol' equality for all thing in order to appeal to some stereotype of a midwestern blue collar white voter why not, say, try to push up black turnout by a couple percent by going hard on problems with racial disparities in policing and the justice system as a whole? Or maybe try holding out on DACA for more than two days so the nation's millions of Hispanic voters don't feel like the old, white Democratic leadership is always going to sell them out at the first opportunity?

Traub may not be a person who holds racist beliefs. I don't know him. But what he's proposing here is racist on a very fundamental level. It is racist because it implies at every stage of his logic that getting more white people to vote for Democrats is what really matters here. I thought winning elections and having a coherent ideology that differs from the increasingly batshit Republican Party was most important. Everything about recent elections – the huge numbers of eligible non-voters, the changing demographics of the electorate, the disparity in issue preferences between younger and older voters – suggests that there are more votes to be won by taking positions that appeal to the 50-60% of eligible Americans who are not voting than to craft shameful appeals to white "moderates" that require backing down on commitment to full equality for LGBTQ people, African-Americans, immigrants, Latinos, and other marginalized groups that should see the Democratic Party as their natural political home for some reason more compelling than "The GOP is even worse."

It is difficult to say which part of this argument is worse: that someone is proposing that the Democrats throw African-Americans under the bus for the umpteenth time to try to appeal to whites who want stuff from the government but don't like black people, or that even the most cursory look at reality suggests very strongly that it wouldn't work anyway.


Posted in Rants on April 4th, 2018 by Ed

Listening to Trump talk about the southern border and Mexico makes it more apparent than any other issue (China and tariffs being a close second) how much the guy literally just says whatever he thinks of to get through the moment with zero forethought, ideology, or long term strategy.

If he's mad at Mexico and immigrants, Mexico has a weak border policy and Mexico sucks.

If he's mad at the American political system and immigrants, Mexico has a strong border policy and Congress won't equal it.

As was blatantly obvious before the election, there is no policy, no *anything* lending coherence to these outbursts. He says whatever will square with, at most, his previous four or five sentences, and then moves on. It's like writing non-canon fan fiction; as soon as that rant is over, it's like nothing that was said ever happened. It's self-contained and has no effect on anything before or after it.

On the plus side, some of the "Never Trump" right-wingers who voted for him anyway are probably starting to recognize how useless all their theories about how he would grow into the office were.

Oh, who are we kidding. They don't reflect on their decisions.


Posted in Rants on April 2nd, 2018 by Ed

Americans seem all to grasp the plot of 1984 and other dystopian depictions of the omniscient surveillance state while, unsurprisingly, learning entirely the wrong lesson from them. That has contributed more than anything else to the modern dilemma of how to get the benefits of using the available technologies without surrendering our privacy to unregulated non-governmental entities.

A moron, or someone who knows what it is about but has never actually read it, uses 1984 to illustrate the point that we must be absolutely vigilant against any attempt by The Government to limit our precious freedoms. Yet these same people willingly, even eagerly, endorse the growth of an unregulated data scraping colossus dressed in the platitudes of the libertarian wet dream of a free market.

I have written many times that I don't express any outrage over things like Facebook, Google, our smartphones, etc collecting data about us because from the beginning I had no expectation that those entities would respect my privacy and information. Only a dolt would use Facebook without assuming that every single thing on the site is collected, sifted, and sold. That's how they're making money. I don't lie awake at night paranoid that my iPhone is spying on me, but I also expect that every task I perform with it is similarly creating bits of User Data somewhere. I don't enjoy or approve of it, but I recognize it as a tradeoff I am making. I reap the benefits of this technology and in return the companies behind it profit from using my habits to target ads at me or to sell to third-party marketers. Simply put, I'm not upset because I have always known it was happening.

The thing that people in general, and right-wingers in particular, have always misunderstood about the value of the sci-fi dystopia genre is that it was never going to be The Government here in real life. We'd never have a government forcing us to install listening devices in our house (as, famously, in the TVs in 1984). It was always going to be Big Business. And they were never going to force anything on us. They were going to make us want to do it, and to pay them for the privilege. So while Uncle Freedom and the middle aged patriots were putting on stupid tri-cornered hats and waving guns around to protest Big Government, the free market quietly began to do every single thing the evil government was purported to be planning.

Surveillance? No government could ever devise a system that tracks and monitors us as effectively as the one we've happily chosen for ourselves. Invasion of privacy? For the right price, every word you've ever typed in an email or anywhere on the internet has left a trace that can be unearthed. Control of the news? Look at what the President does with a simple, free Twitter account to lead the media around by the nose, or how state-sponsored propaganda networks like RT and Fox News have come to dominate the landscape.

Imagine the blood-curdling outrage that would result from the government forcing every news network to recite some kind of creed during every broadcast; yet when a company called Sinclair does it, well that's fine. Because it's not the government. And as long as it's not the government, the deluded logic goes, our Freedom really isn't at risk.

It is enough to make me skeptical that the right was ever really worried about Freedom and Privacy and Liberty at all, but merely the idea that the state or anyone else would engage in policies they didn't like. Because when the iron fist of 24 hour surveillance and propaganda comes from the libertarian or nationalist far right and free market – as it most certainly has – they don't seem to mind nearly as much. The First Lady suggests kids eat more vegetables and everybody loses their shit; one unaccountable corporation takes control of a huge share of local media in the U.S. and puts them on a propaganda script and those same vigilant patriots are either silent or downright enthusiastic.

If being oppressed by the state is so frightening, why is being oppressed by private enterprise no real cause for alarm among the fierce freedom advocates on the right? Maybe – just maybe – they're down with totalitarianism as long as there's no risk that it will express even a passing interest in advancing the public good. Perhaps the scariest part of 1984 in their reading was not the surveillance state but that the government fed everyone.


Posted in Rants on March 25th, 2018 by Ed

In Illinois, the primaries are over. Your state may still be in progress toward its nominations.

I cannot stress enough (and you'll get a dose of this in the upcoming Episode 003 of the podcast) that there is a time and place for everything in the electoral process. There is a time for fighting it out within the party, for all the Centrists screaming at the Bernie Bros and the Leftists telling the Liberals to go to hell. Then after the dust settles you're left with candidates that, for the most part, nobody is real excited about.

People make a big show of holding their breath and insisting that they'd rather stay home or vote for (opposite party candidate) or piss away their vote on some Green Party person who's going to consider getting 1% a major moral victory. This is a natural reaction to losing, because losing sucks and is frustrating. One of the virtues and millstones of adulthood, though, is being mature enough to get over it in a reasonable amount of time.

Do you think I'm excited about the prospect of voting for generic, soft-center billionaire JB Pritzker for Governor of Illinois? Of course not. He's like a sack of platitudes coated in the politics of opportunism. Am I going to vote for him? Of course. I'm not stupid.

Objective #1 – and it's worth noting the enormous size of the gap between this and all other objectives in importance – is to get rid of these bastards. The ones in office with the R next to their names. We will have plenty of time to fight about which Democrats are the Good Ones and which ones are useless dead weight when we have the luxury of time. Right now, politics is a life and death matter for a lot of people in the United States. It's easy to treat politics like a debating society or an exercise in moralizing (in which nothing matters more than your conscience) when your relatives aren't the ones being deported and you're not the one getting gunned down because you reached for your phone.

Believe me, I get it. Many of these people are not what you want. But the first objective, the short term necessity, is to get the party that supports literal fascism out of power. Your feelings can wait. These are not normal times. There is a sense of urgency here.

Step One is "not Republicans." Everything else is a luxury that too many of the most vulnerable people in our society cannot afford at the moment. We have to put out the fire before it will be productive to spend time fighting about how to rebuild the building. Nobody wins by waiting until there is nothing left but ashes.


Posted in Rants on March 19th, 2018 by Ed

What are the biggest companies in the US?

Ask a large enough sample of Americans that question in the past and I bet you'd be able to assemble a full list of the Top 25 or 50 in the Fortune 500 fairly easily. Try the same experiment now and I'm not entirely sure some of them would ever come up. And that's very strange.

What are the first ones that came to mind when you read the opening sentence? Apple? Amazon? Walmart? GM? ExxonMobil? UPS? AT&T? Perusing the Fortune 500 list is an interesting exercise in assumptions vs. reality. Some are a lot lower than you'd think because the list ranks by revenue, not profit or market cap. So McDonald's doesn't crack the top 100. Google ("Alphabet") is 27th. UPS is 48th. Microsoft is 28th. Citibank is 30th. Citibank!

So what IS up at the top? My guesses were: banks, oil companies, and mega-retailers (Amazon, Costco, Walmart, etc). I wasn't way off, but the Top 25 had a few that were very odd to me:

1 Walmart
2 Berkshire Hathaway
3 Apple
4 Exxon Mobil
5 McKesson
6 UnitedHealth Group
7 CVS Health
8 General Motors
9 AT&T
10 Ford Motor
11 AmerisourceBergen
13 General Electric
14 Verizon Communications
15 Cardinal Health
16 Costco
17 Walgreens Boots Alliance
18 Kroger
19 Chevron
20 Fannie Mae
21 J.P. Morgan Chase
22 Express Scripts Holdings
23 Home Depot
24 Boeing
25 Wells Fargo

Guys, I might be projecting my own ignorance here so correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm convinced that we could poll Americans by the tens of thousands before anyone mentioned "Express Scripts Holdings" as one of the 25 biggest companies in America. Not far behind on the list of "Never heard of them" candidates (unless you work in the medical or insurance industries) would be AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson.

Express Scripts, for the record, fulfills prescriptions by mail for some big institutional clients like TriSource (the military's health plan) and Blue Cross.

Does anyone think it's a little weird that 1/3 of this list is companies delivering pills from manufacturers to customers? McKesson, Express Scripts, CVS, Walgreens, and AmerisourceBergen do nothing but. Walmart and Kroger both derive a large part of their revenue from pharmacy (see Target's recent alliance with CVS). Two more of the remaining companies (UnitedHealth and Cardinal Health) are big hospital-pharmacy conglomerates.

Compare that to the first Fortune 500 (in 1955) or even more recent examples from the late 20th Century. Now, I understand that the economy is bound to change, and should change, over time. Big steel companies from the 1955 list are no longer the economic titans they once were for reasons we all understand. The economy will change. But it's a little odd to see hard evidence that one of the things it has changed to is…mailing each other pills.

It's an additional layer of weirdness to think that all of the 1955 companies are, for lack of a more precise term, things people have heard of. Things people recognized as Big Business (the holding company Esmark, like Berkshire Hathaway today, being perhaps the exception). Perhaps people who work in the medical / pharma / insurance industry take this as a given, but it just does not strike me as common knowledge what a massive share of our economy is currently made up of companies that pass out prescription drugs.

The argument that America is over-prescribed is common, as is the recognition that medical care and drugs in particular are overpriced. There is compelling evidence to support all of that, and combined with an aging population and the availability of more drugs to treat more conditions than in the past we have created a kind of perfect storm of medical spending.

This is weird. As recently as 1990 or 2000 there were zero companies related to health care in the top 25. It shouldn't be a surprise that companies that barely existed 20 years ago might be economic giants today, but if forced to guess I'm assuming most people would identify internet giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the like as the likely candidates.

It would be remarkably interesting to see some survey research on this – comparing what Americans think makes up the largest shares of our economy versus reality. We recognize as a country that health care is expensive and a lot of money is spent on it, but insurers and drug companies like Pfizer, Merck, etc tend to bear the brunt of that criticism. I think many people would genuinely be surprised to see that the middle men are the biggest economic entities, often in the form of companies that exist largely in anonymity.

I don't know what, if anything, this means. I do wonder, though, about the long term prospects for an economy in which so much economic activity involves mailing and handing people – especially a very large generation of older people at the moment – pills. Express Scripts Holdings seems likely to go the route of Republic Steel in the long run.


Posted in Rants on March 15th, 2018 by Ed

This is the wrong moment, culturally, to try to sell a show about police.

Either you paint police in a negative light (or simply in a non-reverent light) and become a culture wars talking point or you fawn all over law enforcement and look like some kind of soft-focusing apologist. Either way, you kind of have to pick your side – and by extension, your audience.

The new Netflix series Flint Town does as good a job as any Rust Belt documentary – either on video or in the numerous anthropological pieces on places that are falling apart in the East Coast-centered media outlets – of making obvious that two truths can exist simultaneously without negating one another:

1. Being a cop in a place like Flint, MI is very close to the worst job on the planet
2. Holy shit are some of the white cops terrifyingly bad human beings and examples of exactly what people hate about police

I highly recommend giving this short series a watch for that very reason. What is happening in Flint is a worse version of something that's very familiar to Rust Belt residents; a story of decline, neglect, and poverty (personal and municipal) creating a toxic stew of mismanagement, crime, and the indefinable but palpable sense of a place going down the drain.

Flint is a city of 100,000 that has no more than nine – nine – police cars out on any given shift. This obviously makes the police feel vulnerable and overworked since violent crime is common in the city and they are on their own the vast majority of the time. From the citizens' viewpoint, this means the average response times for calls range from several hours to a couple days. When you can't get the police to show up for a few hours when you call in a shooting – not some minor "Teen boys fighting in the yard" thing, but people driving up and down the street shooting – it's difficult to imagine what sort of faith could remain in The System writ large.

Add in the very real fact that this same System actively ignored evidence that it was poisoning you to save some money on water and, well, is it hard to believe that Flint people are not exactly waving the American flag and beaming with pride? To a sentient person who thinks about things, their attitude comes off as perfectly understandable. Rational, even.

The African-American cops (at least those included in the series) are, to a person, empathetic. They talk about their jobs and about the city in a way that demonstrates a good grasp of the city's underlying problems. Most of the white cops are no different. But there are some troubling moments with the police as a whole in the series and, well, if you've seen it let's just say there are two cops in particular who don't come off looking very good by the end. It won't exactly surprise you when one of them starts telling the tale of the time he shot and killed an unarmed black guy.

The group scene that is most revealing involves the officer in charge showing the Philando Castile video to a large group of cops the day after it happened. Not surprisingly, every cop in the room immediately starts making excuses to justify it and explain why it was his own fault he got shot. Days later, the officers' reaction to watching the mass shooting in Dallas in which several cops died is dark and somber.

As a viewer it's hard not to feel like a basic problem is the inability of police to feel the kind of sympathy for citizens shot by cops that they feel for themselves as a group. Some guy gets choked to death in broad daylight by a cop? Too bad, he should have complied. But a cop getting shot…well, not a dry eye in the room for that idea.

Worse, the one Really Bad Cop talks repeatedly about how bad the public hysteria about police violence is for a cop's career. You know, one smartphone video of a cop beating up a black guy and just think of that poor cop – public shaming, denied promotions, maybe even getting fired (but probably not). And of course I'm watching this with my own biases about the use of force by police thinking, a cop just fucking killed a guy and you're wringing your hands at how it might keep him from getting a promotion.

And that crystallizes the problem pretty well. The problem is not Bad Apples, which are indeed found everywhere. The problem is the basket that keeps and protects the Bad Apples. You could walk away from the series with the optimists' view that, despite having a clearly horrible and thankless job, almost all of the cops come off as reasonable, balanced people. On the other hand, the cops who come off as narcissistic, bitter, and hostile, though few in number, seem to enjoy the empathy and protection of the rest. Everyone in that room was ready with a handful of excuses when they watched the Castile video, Good cop or Bad cop. Police excel at empathizing with their own kind. And even when as individuals they are capable of showing empathy for the people being Policed, that feeling appears to be superseded by the Blue Code when their group identity is under fire.

The most refreshing moment was a cop watching the Rodney King video and explaining why it was "bad police work." It marked maybe the first time in my life I've heard a cop admit that some other cops might be shitty at their job. At the same time, Bad Cop is full of explanations about the King video being "edited" so you "couldn't see the whole story," which is an excuse that was popular from the moment the incident drew national attention. It's too bad none of the police could watch a video that isn't 25 years old and come to a similar conclusion, like watching the Eric Garner video and concluding that using a WWE chokehold, which is against any written policy you're likely to find for a law enforcement agency, isn't a shining example of good police work.

Until the culture of law enforcement and the authoritarian personality types that are such wildly enthusiastic supporters of it in the public can admit that sometimes cops make mistakes or sometimes cops are bad at their jobs, then the Problem will never be solved. We know, and Flint Town demonstrates, that most cops are Good. The question, and the issue, is why the culture of their profession continues to protect the ones who are Bad.


Posted in Rants on March 13th, 2018 by Ed

It’s like musical chairs in the White House, except this game has a thousand seats and maybe 25 people playing the game. Cue the clip of Bart in the Leg-Up Program in Cypress Creek.

Someone is fired or someone resigns, then he (or almost never, she) is replaced by somebody Trump knows well personally. By definition almost everybody meeting that description of being “trustworthy” in his understanding of the term already has an administration job. So. Deck chairs, Titanic, etc.

It’s easy to get riled up about the truly appalling human being recently appointed to head the CIA, but unusually I don’t think there’s anything for Senate Democrats to gain by opposing her nomination or Pompeo’s elevation to Secretary of State.
First, in practical terms it makes no difference what pile of garbage fills these positions, the policy will be the same. Which is to say there will be no policy, or policy will be whatever Our President decides it will be on a whim. I mean, what did having Tillerson in State accomplish? What did he even do? Wasn’t he just one of the dozens of people who was supposed to “control” the infant in the White House. He didn’t.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate has no spine for a filibuster on this or, apparently, anything else. Accordingly, it makes next to no difference whether individuals in the Democratic caucus vote for or against these nominees. As the party tends to do, the members will no doubt play 15th Level Chess trying to “strategize” the correct move here. Senators running for re-election in Republican-leaning states will no doubt conclude that it’s in their best interest to vote yes.

In principle it’s gross, and in practice it’s irrelevant. Who is this hypothetical voter out there who’s thinking, “Well I wasn’t sold on Claire McCaskill but eight months ago she voted to confirm Mike Pompeo…” It’s a delusion propagated by the Sunday talk show pundit class. Fortunately it doesn’t make any difference. Either you’re willing to coordinate an effort to block a nominee or you’re not. For the reasons outlined above this isn’t a hill worth dying on. It’s also not a “strategy” play that’s going to accomplish anything.


Posted in Rants on March 10th, 2018 by Ed

Ben Mathis-Lilley has done a piece for Slate in which he undertakes an unpleasant task that, I would guess, many of us in the Writerly World have thought about but abandoned. In the fabulously titled, "Sweet Jesus, Will the NYT’s Conservatives Ever Write About Anything but the “Intolerant Left” Ever Again?" he actually goes over a year's worth of dreck from David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens, and the newest (and just over-the-top cartoonishly stupid) hire Bari Weiss to show every example of these highly paid writers churning out some slight variation of what is functionally the same piece. Lately it's not just a common trope – it's literally all they write about.

Of the four, Douthat is bravest about branching out into other subjects. Weiss is brand new, so perhaps it's fair to give her a larger sample size before concluding that this is all she will write (don't hold your breath, though, since this was her bread and butter before being hired). Brooks and Stephens, though, are making what I can only assume are substantial six-figure salaries to submit the same thing week after week. Is no one above them in the chain of command bothered by this? It isn't just lazy and intellectually dishonest (note: it is definitely both of those things), it's also spectacularly boring. I mean, absolutely goddamn tedious. Painful at this point. If you really did need to read this argument for the ten-thousandth time, you could get it in any college newspaper from any college Republican chapter vice-president.

That said, I'm about to stun myself and offer a weak…not defense, but understanding of why these columnists keep doing this.

High-end legacy media like the Times, the Atlantic, etc. are in a tough spot as far as hiring Conservative Voices. They *have to* have a couple conservatives on staff for reasons of balance and ideological fairness. For years, the culture of conservatism made it relatively easy to find the kind of conservative that would not be repellent to liberal readers – think Buckley, Safire, Irving Kristol, and that generation. Blue-blooded liberal readers may not have agreed with these guys often, but they were not offended by them because they had all the right – for lack of a better word – manners. They were Ivy Leaguers who could be counted on, in short, to represent the right's viewpoint without embarrassing the paper. They weren't some John Birch Society rustic rubes screaming about The Jews; they were Country Club conservatives and at the very least they could express ideas considered acceptable for cocktail parties and use big words to do it.

You could read it, in short, without wanting to vomit.

Today's right wing columnist is far more Westbrook Pegler than William Safire, more Father Coughlin than Irv Kristol. There simply aren't that many George Will types around who can do "From the Right" without absolutely embarrassing the paper or network. The people today who can do this – Steve Schmidt, Bruce Bartlett, SE Cupp, George Will, Bill Kristol, etc – are consequently in high demand. Not because they are brilliant, but because they have the requisite elite mannerisms to avoid repelling viewers like the Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, or Sean Hannity style braying jackasses do. So, in short, the NYT's options are pretty limited. They're not sampling from a very large pool of potential candidates.

Once these people are hired, what are they really going to write about during the Trump era? They're smart enough not to tie themselves to defending Trump, and in truth they probably find him hugely embarrassing anyway. George Will or Ross Douthat are not going to write for an audience of globe-trotting successful readers, "Yeah, fuck other shitty countries amirite!" They're forced to confine themselves to either focusing on policy that isn't really being debated at the moment – pretending Trump didn't happen, in other words – or tone policing.

Tone policing has tremendous appeal for a weekly columnist. It circumvents the need to learn about policy or be up-to-the-second on current events. Hell, you can write two or three of these "OMG campus liberals are mean" things and keep them in the hopper for months if necessary. Talk about evergreen. Maybe update a link or two and boom.

Right-wing columnists at places that expect their output to be Respectable – written well, not embarrassing, not baldly racist, etc. – are in a kind of holding pattern right now. The only way they can write columns about current events without having to tackle the difficult problem of the right's embrace of Trump is to create a straw man and tear it down over and over. Since newspaper readers skew much older, picking on The Kids These Days seems like as good a dice roll as any.

That said, please for the love of god stop writing this same goddamn column.