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.


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?


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.


Posted in Rants on April 18th, 2017 by Ed

I always read comments. I also try to ignore them. That's an odd combination on the surface, but for professional and practical reasons I have to resist the urge to get in back-and-forths that will eat up a lot of time that would take me away from the things I get paid to do. And I learned about ten years ago that in the case of trolls it is absolutely not worth it under any circumstances to engage with them.

If that read like a caveat, it is. I've never been more floored by the stupidity of a comment that was posted over on Facebook today, and it merits some attention:

I should never be surprised by the level of historical ignorance (much of it willful) one finds among people like this, but this literally took the air out of the room when I read it. That's how stupid it is.

Let's ignore the really obvious problem that there was this thing called Organized Crime that was imported to the United States by immigrants from Sicily and mainland Italy and eventually grew into one of the most violent and rapacious criminal enterprises in the history of human societies. Let's ignore the many 19th Century Irish immigrants who rose from the lowest rungs on the social ladder to take control of and abuse with every manner of graft and corruption known the political machinery of many of our biggest cities. Let's ignore all the people who hopped on a steamer to the U.S. because the law was after them and in that era traveling across the Atlantic was effectively the same thing as disappearing into the mist. Let's ignore all that. Instead let us focus on the concerted effort by Galleanists – Italian anarchists who became infamous when two of their ranks, Sacco and Vanzetti, were executed for a twin homicide that they in all likelihood did not commit – to bring about the collapse of the American government by exploding truly enormous homemade bombs and killing people by the dozens. I think today we call this terrorism.

Starting in 1916 with the Preparedness Day Bombing in San Francisco (10 killed), Italian anarchists led by a radical named Luigi Galleani (hence "Galleanists") orchestrated a sustained and organized campaign of murder and terror across the entire United States. In 1917 a bomb killed 9 policemen in Milwaukee. In June 1919, 25 dynamite bombs were mailed to major American political figures and judges, with one fatality. The 1920 Wall Street bombing involved a weapon of such size that not only were 38 people killed but damage to buildings like Federal Hall can be seen even today. Anarchist activity subsided briefly due to the Palmer Raids, but resumed with a wagon-sized bomb targeting the judge in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and the 1933 assassination attempt on FDR (which left one person dead) by an Italian anarchist who, admittedly, may not have been all there in the head.

Wait, there's more.

In 1916 a Galleanist working in a hotel kitchen attempted to fatally poison the guests at a civic banquet and managed only to badly sicken 100-plus people. Also in 1916 an Italian anarchist stabbed a Boston policeman who responded to a large bomb that had just been detonated. Sacco and Vanzetti, it bears noting, almost certainly did not commit the murder for which they were convicted, they did have extensive ties with Galleanist bomb-makers Carlo Valdinoci and Mario Buda, and substantial evidence exists to connect at least Vanzetti to bomb-making in relation to several of the attacks listed here.

But since Italians are white people and they go to church a lot and love their mothers it makes sense to overlook the fact that a non-trivial minority of those who came to the United States did intend to "destroy our way of life" and/or enrich themselves through murder and pillage. Before you can even say "Not all Italians!" you've uncovered the base hypocrisy of supporting restrictive immigration today because someone who might want to kill people might sneak in with the thousands of people who just want to live where they won't get hit by mortar shells.

No intention to pick on the Italians in particular here; I just happen to know a lot about the Galleanist movement, so it came to mind as an example. Certainly there are other examples. The point is the breathtaking historical vacuousness required to believe that the phenomenon of some portion of immigrants possibly being shitty people is a new one.


Posted in Rants on April 13th, 2017 by Ed

Being raised in a country that pretends it is a meritocracy sends most of us toward adulthood with some questionable expectations about how life is going to work. It doesn't take long for the national myth of "Work hard, be the best, and you will succeed!" to reveal itself for what it is. At some point you realize that there are an awful lot of people at The Top who only meet the "success" part of that formula…too many to be a coincidence. Often there is an urge to lie to ourselves, because we don't want to give up on the idea that we might someday Make It. But by the time one enters the workforce permanently, all of the illusions are gone. Most of the people at The Top are mediocre at best, idiots at worst, and they achieved thanks to an extraordinary array of advantages that almost none of them are willing to admit they had.

Damon Young – the always, always worth reading Damon Young – has a great, blistering take on Sean Spicer as perhaps the most relevant current example of what happens when people (almost inevitably, as in Spicer's case, white men) rise to the top in politics without having any actual talents or qualifications for the positions they're given. They're in completely over their heads, having been given a tremendous amount of responsibility they have no idea how to handle; really, honestly, literally no idea whatsoever. People like (all of the) Trump(s), Kushner, Spicer, Bannon, and the like are where they are because they're rich, white, and male in a country in which a disturbing number of people seem to think that those are the REAL important characteristics to look for in a leader. None of this education or experience or competence nonsense like we had with O'Bummer and his fancy law degrees or Killary and her decades of public service. Just give a rich white guy the keys and everything will be fine. If he's not a great person, well then how did he get so rich, HUH?

White men like me often read these takes and get defensive; "I'm a white male, and *I* certainly haven't been given a job in the White House or as a CEO because of it!" True. Absolutely true. But the point is not that all white men are hugely successful without having earned it. Instead it is that the vast majority of people who are hugely successful without having done much to deserve it are white men. In a society where so much boils down to connections and "pedigree" – going to the right schools, having the right last name, being in the right social circles – it is entirely logical that after two centuries of limiting those necessary forms of social currency to white men, most of the people who manage to benefit from them will be, well, us.

We've all seen how this works at the smaller scale – when a 23 year old is put in charge of your workplace because he has a fancy degree, or when the boss puts his idiot kids in charge of adult employees with decades of experience. Now we're getting a chance to see how well it works when we scale it up to the national level. Spoiler alert: It works just as well.


Posted in Rants on April 10th, 2017 by Ed

Jason Vuic is a non-fiction writer who has chosen, apparently, to specialize in writing books about things that were spectacularly bad. His first two cover The Yugo, that punchline of the late 80s, and the legendarily winless and incompetent 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who lost their first 26 games as a team).

If you were born before, say, 1985 and have paid even passing attention to professional football at any point, you probably recognize the Buccaneers for their legendarily bad uniform – color – logo combination. "Creamsicle" is a commonly used metaphor. It turns out, Vuic describes, that they originally (and unbelievably) decided simply to copy the orange-and-aqua colors of the Miami Dolphins and the "pirate" logo of the Oakland Raiders. When the league (and lawyers) complained, team execs – with no focus groups, relevant experience with design, or particular forethought – changed the aqua to red and had a new mascot, "Bucko Bruce", redesigned in a less pirate-y, more Three Musketeers style. Oh, and Bruce is winking. He was supposed to wear an eyepatch but the Raiders complained. So the swashbuckling rake is winking.

The fashion faux-pas underscored the team's punching bag status, and in the 1990s they redesigned the colors and uniforms to something more aggressive and manly. And you know what? Before long, people missed the Creamsicle uniforms. Now, of course, the Creamsicles, Bucko Bruce, and all the other garish stuff is back.

The logo and color scheme devised in the 90s was what we would expect: professionally done, carefully market tested, and in every respect it met expectations of what a uniform might look like. It was absolutely, totally Fine. Competent. Guaranteed to appeal widely. The old logo and color scheme, in contrast, was drawn up without much thought by people with (apparently) bizarre taste and no real interest in getting feedback from the public. And that simply is something people don't see a lot of anymore. It might have been bad, but its "badness" made it unique in the era of highly polished public image crafting. Bucko Bruce would never happen today, and that, to people who like it, is precisely the point. Now we get things so generic – "Las Vegas Black Knights", most recently – that I guarantee you will forget everything about it ten minutes after you see it.

And now, the payoff for the extended metaphor.

Lately I've made an effort to expand into Serious Writing, the kind of thing that appears in legitimate media outlets rather than a self-maintained blog. In that process I've learned that one of the hardest things about Serious Writing is that in the process of bringing it to the standards and expectations of a Real Media Outlet Editor, the less interesting it is. The more Serious my writing is, the more it sounds exactly like anyone else. I understand the industry conventions and professional obligations that require writers to omit things I like (gratuitous profanity, constant parentheticals, the non-sequitur, seemingly out of place historical anecdotes, dick jokes, odd metaphors). I do. I get it. But once I take all that out, what is there to make it worthy of notice? It feels (and is) generic, anodyne, and tepid. It is easy to digest and easy to forget.

Nothing. It's Fine. It sounds reasonably Professional and Serious. But an Editor could (and will) see it and conclude correctly that a thousand other writers could have turned out the same thing. And that is why it is very hard to succeed in Professional, Serious Writing. If you have a particular voice that stands out, you're not giving them what they're looking for. If you smooth out all the quirks, you're bland and unlikely to stand out.

It's not a grand conspiracy. Again, it makes complete sense why Editors and publishers can't have writers who talk like longshoremen making odd and oblique references that will confuse rather than enlighten. It is disappointing, albeit unsurprising, to see the way the Machine is designed to churn out a consistent and predictable product and that only the rarest writer – and I know some damn good ones – can produce work that comes out of the cutting room with any sort of personality or recognizable Voice. Publishing has some uncomfortable similarities to the music industry, designed to ensure that everything sounds essentially the same.


Posted in Rants on April 9th, 2017 by Ed

American presidents and military high-ups love cruise missiles. They are so popular that "Tomahawk" is among a handful of pieces of military equipment that the man on the street knows by name in this country.

Like so many things, the cruise missile was born in World War II. Both Germany and Japan – in extraordinarily different ways – fielded them as a weapon of last resort. WWII enthusiasts could rack up points on your average pub quiz by noting that the Nazi V-1 "buzz bomb" was the world's first cruise missile, although it was primitive to the point that it had to be aimed at something city-sized (London did just fine) in order to be reasonably assured of hitting a target. It was essentially a terror weapon, not a practical one. Its effects were psychological; it flew in low and fast, made an ominous sound, and unlike a German airplane, was for all practical purposes unstoppable.

The Japanese came up with a far more accurate and effective cruise missile, although with less advanced technology. They solved the problem of accuracy by putting human pilots in theirs. They taught pilots to fly just feet off the surface of the ocean and, to the mortal peril of American sailors, crash them into big Navy ships while laden with explosives. It was far cruder than Germany's cruise missile, but it worked far better.

That's all a cruise missile is today – a small, fast jet aircraft without a pilot. It comes in too low and fast to be shot down by air defenses, and often too low even to be effectively spotted on radar. By the time you realize it's coming, it's already too late to do much about it.

The things military planners love about the cruise missile are their speed, high level of accuracy (although the military always finds a way to downplay the risks of "collateral damage"), and stand-off capability. The people who launch a cruise missile are very far away from where it will blow up. Launching cruise missiles comes as close to eliminating the potential for American casualties as is possible. It's like sending waves of kamikazes at the Bad Guys without the inconvenience of having to put pilots in them.

The problem is not that cruise missiles kill people, as all military forces have tons of ways to do that. Cruise missiles kill people will essentially zero risk – political or military – to the launching nation. Presidents starting with Reagan were quick to learn that there are no real political consequences to lobbing these things around like candy at a parade. If no Americans are killed, some Bad Hombres are killed, and there is a nice fireworks show to boot, the American public barely noticed when they're fired off by the dozen. Committing ground forces or using manned air strikes have enormous costs in terms of political capital, American casualties, and of course economic cost.

So, the cruise missile has in recent decades fully uncoupled the moral and political risks of warfare from the anticipated benefits. The easier it is to use them, the more likely they will be used. And so they've become a kind of American military reflex, our knee jerk response to problems that a president wants to "do something" about but is unwilling to bear the political costs of putting American lives at risk. They get to look Tough, they don't have to deal with the blowback of flag-covered coffins returning home, and the media and public show no real interest in what is on the receiving end as long as it is Bad and gets blown up. As long as the targets are restricted to countries that aren't anywhere close to able to retaliate militarily, this is a slam dunk from the White House and Pentagon perspective.

The prospect that the current President is going to figure this out is cause for real concern. It's low commitment, low investment (since there is always an unlimited amount of money at hand for the Pentagon's desires), and panders to the kind of voter who is likely to respond very favorably to the idea of Shit Gettin' Blowed Up. The technology has taken so much risk out of the equation that the question of whether cruise missile strikes are a good idea rarely gets asked. As long as we can, what's the point of asking if we should?


Posted in Rants on April 5th, 2017 by Ed

On Monday we looked at a Thought Leader-ish attempt to explain how working full time on minimum wage in the U.S. ($7.25/hr, no benefits) could allow a person to meet expenses and – and! – even "build wealth." Let's talk a little more about that $7.25.

I keep no secrets about what I am. I am a soft, middle-aging, middle-income professional with an advanced degree and a mediocre salary that allows me to live comfortably because I have no dependents. I'm not the hardscrabble poor, nor am I Wealthy unless one compares my financial situation to that of a homeless person. Recently I was recreating with a similar person – 40s, professional, Doing Fine financially, urban – and we got to talking about minimum wage. Accounting for various forms of withholding, a $7.25 hourly rate translates (and we were/are spitballing here) maybe $6/hr in net income. It's probably slightly less, and yes, a person earning this would qualify for things like the EITC at tax time, returning some of the withholding. But set that aside for now. Let's say that depending on where one lives, an hour of work at minimum wage nets six dollars.

My friend said – and maybe this is the kind of thing that only soft, non-poor middle age types can say after years of being spoiled by middle income living – "If someone told me that if I sat in a soft, comfortable chair doing nothing for one hour they would give me six dollars, I wouldn't do it." And I never thought about this previously, but almost immediately I realized I felt exactly the same. If a stranger grabbed my arm and said "If you (insert literally anything here) for one hour I will give you $6" I would laugh and keep walking.

Perhaps a person in deep poverty would feel differently, but the point that hit me was how truly little $6 is. And I'd like to think it's not just very little money to us because we're middle income urban hipsters. It's just not much, period. It's two gallons of gas, or one McDonald's Value Meal in some low cost of living areas, or 1 thrift store t-shirt, or 3 hours of City of Chicago metered parking, or…you get the idea. Six dollars, to all but the totally destitute, would very quickly be judged in economic terms, "Not worth an hour of my time." It strikes me as at or below the amount of money one could make panhandling or collecting returnable aluminum cans for an hour or two.

Obviously nobody works for one hour in reality. But just as obvious is that minimum wage employees are not working full time (40 hours) in all but the rarest cases. Figure 30 hours per week using our $6 net figure and you are taking home…$180 per week. For those of you who are also fortunate enough to make something more than that, sit back and think about that for a second. I socialize with people who think nothing about spending $180 on dinner. If you think about minimum wage employment in terms of actual dollars, it's not at all difficult to come to the conclusion that regardless of whether one is comfortable financially or at the poverty line it would be hard to look at the prospect of working to bring home $180 per week and thinking, "What's the point?"

The minimum wage is adjusted in nominal terms maybe once per decade, and as soon as that happens time and inflation eat into it in real terms. The reality is that in 2017 it would net a quasi-full time employee an amount of money so small that no amount of barebones living could compensate for its lack of buying power. If the only thing you took away from the example above is "Ed is a bourgeois asshole," congratulations, you're not terribly bright. Being lucky enough not to have to rely on the minimum wage at this point in my life makes it more, not less, obvious how unacceptably low it is. The next time you are in a bar serving $12 cocktails and $8 pints, remember this and maybe you will learn something about how little six dollars means to you, too.


Posted in Rants on April 3rd, 2017 by Ed

The present wave of write-ups about the filibuster being in peril is based on a fundamental flaw. The filibuster has been dead for years. This is just making it official. Democratic institutions don't run on rules – they run on norms, the most crucial of which is that you don't change the rules whenever you want to do something that isn't possible in a given set of circumstances. Once that norm goes out the window, then the rules no longer matter.

Perhaps the dumbest argument is that Senate Democrats should "reserve" the filibuster for some future nomination or bill. That is transparently stupid; if the GOP will "go nuclear" (a hack phrase if ever there was one) now they will be just as willing – a cynic might say "eager" – to do it in the future. And if the GOP is willing to do the parliamentary equivalent of firing an arrow, waiting until it strikes something, and then drawing a bulls-eye around it, then there is no use in getting into fifth-dimensional chess arguments about strategy. Once it is established that the rules can be changed whenever they are inconvenient, strategy is obsolete. Imagine a soccer match in which one team makes whatever it does on the field retroactively legal while the opposition tries to play by the traditionally accepted rules. Once the first team amends the rules to allow the use of tasers on defense and picking the ball up and throwing it into the goal on offense, it has ceased to be a soccer match in any meaningful sense.

The demise of the filibuster dates to the W Bush era and the appointments of Roberts and Alito. The much-heralded 2005 "Gang of Fourteen" consisting of quasi-moderate Republicans and some barely left of center Democrats was touted as a means of preserving the filibuster, but in reality it merely set the precedent that the Republicans are more than willing to change the rule whenever there is a chance that they will not get what they want. The "compromise" worked because Senate Democrats agreed to cave and vote Bush's nominees onto the Federal courts. Had that outcome not been engineered, the filibuster would have died right there. Since then the rule-in-force has been that either the GOP gets what it wants or it will change the rule. The practical consequences of that approach are no different than if the rule were simply repealed.

In the brief window in which Democrats controlled the Senate, the marvelously ineffectual Harry Reid imposed changes to the filibuster in response to Republicans' refusal to allow a vote on, well, essentially anybody appointed by Obama. This deft bit of strategy on Republicans' part ensured that the argument could be framed as, "Well Harry Reid did it, so…" What Reid did was no different in practice than what the GOP majority does now and had done in the past; the only difference is that the minority GOP called his bluff and forced him to make actual rule changes whereas Democrats in the minority are so eager to cave to Republican intransigence that McConnell and Co. never have to bear any political cost.

Is there any point to attempting to filibuster Gorsuch? Not much. Potentially the GOP could get some flack among the few people who pay attention to such trivialities for messing with the rule book to achieve partisan goals. But that talking point is likely to have currency only with people who already despise the current crop of Republicans. So, is there any point in not attempting to filibuster him? Again, not really. Filibuster him and the rule gets changed; don't filibuster him and the Republicans have successfully bullied them into compliance yet again.

You can tell the Democratic Party routinely gets out-maneuvered because so many of the decisions it is faced with boil down to, "It doesn't matter much either way." If that isn't the definition of Ineffectual, then what is?


Posted in Rants on April 2nd, 2017 by Ed

The state of the world today has us all doing double takes at every news item that seems like it can't be real. As we are learning, the line between what can and can't be real these days is getting indistinct. But when someone posts an infographic called "Build Wealth on Minimum Wage" on March 30 – just before the official day of things that Aren't Real – well, a man could experience an existential crisis trying to figure out if it's serious or next-level satire.

Since the website that posted it has since removed all reference to it after a torrent of mockery, let us assume it was serious. Fortunately it is cached here and I uploaded the entire (large) infographic for your viewing pleasure as well. I wanted to make sure you realized I wasn't fabricating this.

Since these aren't ideal reading formats, let me summarize the key points.

1. Move to a cheap city. The author helpfully lists the 10 cheapest, highlighting places like Buffalo, Fort Wayne, Amarillo, Akron, Jackson MS, Detroit, and Shreveport.
2. "Find a place that costs less than $600/month for rent" – preferably "with utilities included"!!!
3. Eliminate your commute by getting a used bike (to ride to work in the winter in Buffalo or Detroit I guess)
4. Cancel cable
5. Don't eat out – "Elon Musk once ate on less than $1/day"!!!
6. Maintain a catastrophic health insurance plan to avoid being medically bankrupted
7. Shop at thrift stores
8. Do things for fun that are free
9. Invest your Extra Money
10. Make money in your "spare time" driving Ubers and whatnot

Some of this stuff is, admittedly, not horrible advice. When I lived on a very low income, paying for cable and eating out were the first two things I eliminated. I also put a moratorium on buying clothes, which is a bigger expenditure for most of us than we realize. But this is the kind of "financial advice" people get everywhere they look. Some people follow it, some people don't.

The basic premise of this Advice, though, is so stupid that it's hard to believe that any editor, even of a minor Financial Infographic purveyor, would sign off on it: Move somewhere it is cheap to live. Uh. A couple things here.

1. Moving is very expensive. I have done it probably 15 times in my life. Even loading the truck myself and unloading it myself on the other end, moving costs at least several hundred dollars for anyone who doesn't own a large moving van. Starting in a new location requires a lot of up-front cash as well: security deposits, "activation fees" for utilities, and so on.

2. His list of cheap cities are places with rampant unemployment and crime problems. It's a list of America's Crappiest Big Cities. Perhaps he should go check out the $500-600/month apartments in Jackson and Buffalo and see how livable they are. And how close they are (biking distance!) to anywhere one can work full time. Those cities are cheap because there are no jobs there and nobody wants to live there. People are leaving, and they are leaving for a reason. Why would anyone move there and expect to find work?

3. The assumption that anyone can get 40 hours per week of minimum wage work makes sense to someone who has never worked minimum wage jobs. I suppose you could cobble together multiple jobs to equal 40 hours, but you're not getting anything close to 40 at one job. In a dying city with a bad economy.

4. There are maybe two or three big cities in this country with sufficient public transportation networks (and weather suitable for biking at least some of the time) to allow residents to get by without a car. Going without access to a car in 99% of this country is close to impossible. You'll give back whatever you "save" from jettisoning a car in the jacked up prices you pay at Convenience Stores in food deserts where one finds things like $500/mo. apartments.

5. Cutting back on spending is good, albeit patronizing, financial advice, but the "budget" here assumes a person's spending is literally zero. That simply isn't realistic. Sure, a disciplined person can cut out the Meals Out and Costly Entertainment (movies, bars, etc.) but the idea of going years on end with nothing happening in one's life that would require spending money is quite stupid.

6. Even living this to-the-bone lifestyle recommended by the author with no spending and a mythical full time minimum wage job enables one to "save" a grand total of something like $3500 per year. Managing the infinitely unlikely feat of repeating this performance for five consecutive years, then, would result in saving up something like $17,000.

OK. That's not nothing. But it's hardly "wealth." Your five years of spartan living in a probably-dangerous apartment in a shitty place has left you with enough cash to buy a decent used economy car, pay maybe 1 or 1.5 years of tuition at a real institution of higher education, make a down payment on a really cheap house that will probably be in an area with a depressed economy, or something equally underwhelming. Maybe the real moral of the story is that no matter how ridiculously strict a person is about financial habits, $7.25/hr just isn't enough money to allow an adult American in 2017 to do much of anything except survive paycheck to paycheck in the very best scenario. And that's if you get close to 40 hours on the regular, which you won't.

Americans are terrific at learning the wrong lessons from looking analytically at poverty. Were this a satirical effort to show that someone earning minimum wage is in a no-win situation it would be brilliant. Instead we have yet another example of how clueless the Silicon Valley Thought Leader types are and how willingly they ignore the reality that the system they exploit so well is not sustainable in the long term.