Posted in Rants on October 11th, 2017 by Ed

When I lived in Indiana, I took my sister's small children on more than one occasion to the very good children's museum in Indianapolis. It is a five-story affair with a large central spiral ramp, sort of like a normal museum but with a miniature Guggenheim in the atrium to connect all the levels.

The museum came up with one of the best ideas for emptying out at closing time that I've ever seen for a facility that deals mostly with children. An employee dressed in full drum major regalia started at the top floor and loud circus / parade / marching type music started playing on the PA. Every kid in the place ran to the atrium and got something (a mask, a pennant, a yo-yo, a noisemaker, etc) to join in the "parade." As the drum major slowly worked his/her way down the ramp engaging in Antics of the kind children would like, every kid fell in behind making spectacular amounts of noise and generally running wild. The parade continued all the way down to the main lobby, then out the front door, then a short way around the block toward the parking lot…where employees were waiting to gather everyone's parade props.

The first time I saw this I was floored at how clever it was. They tricked a thousand toddlers into filing out of the building quickly and in relative order. Imagine how long it would otherwise take every parent to corral their kid in what is essentially a giant building of toys. Come on, honey, they're closing! No, you can't play just one more game! Leave the Legos there! No, get back here! We have to leave!

Instead, five minutes of the Bozo marching music and the building is ready for the night crew to clean up. Brilliant.

I keep thinking of this example as I read the increasingly numerous and alarming stories about our toddler-president and how hard the inner circle of people around him supposedly has to work to keep him from killing us all. Apparently DC Republicans are as aware that we are dealing with a child as the rest of us have been since Day One. So I, a childless man, wonder why we aren't using more of the tricks available to us for manipulating the behavior of toddlers. Apparently parents and professionals who work with children have a deep reservoir of tactics that are mysterious to the rest of us. What else have you got?

Maybe if every day the White House had a parade for Trump and everyone told him how great and wonderful and special he was, they could lead him outside and lock the door behind him. Maybe while he stuffed his pockets with candy someone could slip his phone out of his pocket. Maybe they could feed him so much cake and ice cream that he'd go on a titanic sugar binge for 40 minutes and then crash hard for hours while other people hurriedly did Governing Stuff.

What I'm saying is, we as a nation have a child. It is up to us to parent him, apparently, since life is not fair and the adults who are supposed to do it are being deadbeat dads. What are some of your ways to trick a 4 year-old into behaving well or at least being distracted? And can you send a quick note about it to Gen. Kelly?


Posted in Rants on October 4th, 2017 by Ed

There is real hope that the Supreme Court could deal a blow to partisan gerrymandering schemes during this term, which bodes well for the aftermath of the 2020 Census.

But it wouldn't be 2017 if I let you get excited. Don't get very excited. This isn't going to end gerrymandering or even partisan gerrymandering; it may put an end to partisan gerrymandering so blatant, so "Ha ha fuck you what are you gonna do about it" bad that when the map is rejected in Federal court one can only say, "You could have gotten away with it, but you got greedy."

Look. Gerrymandering is no longer an art. It is a science, thanks to GIS software, massive data mining of social and demographic data, and bitter partisanship. People who are good at this sort of thing could gerrymander a Republican majority in the Illinois State Legislature (which is currently 2/3 Democratic). If you think I'm kidding, trust me – I'm NOT an expert and I can do it. As long as one throws shame out the window and is willing to draw the most patently ludicrous districts without any reference to reality or legal precedent, it can be done.

The era of party bosses eyeballing wall maps and drawing districts with a marker are gone. This is block by block, house by house precision. The technology has made political power and sheer gall the only impediments to gerrymandering the hell out of a state.

Turning 45% of the vote statewide into 60% majorities in the state leg as Wisconsin Republicans did may no longer pass muster if the Court does rule against the state. However, defining what is and isn't "partisan gerrymandering" will not have a clear definition. Like many things dealing with this topic it will have to be treated on a case by case, "I know it when I see it" basis. The Courts have long recognized that race is a relevant factor in redistricting, so…I mean, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to draw districts in a way that favors your party while using "Well, we were just keeping Communities of Interest together!" as cover.

A favorable ruling would be a rare bit of good news in this otherwise abysmal year, but go into it with your eyes open. This is, at best, going to end only the most comically over-the-top abuses of the redistricting process. All of the ordinary gamesmanship and attempts at system-rigging will putter along. That would be a net positive, but certainly no reason to have a ticker-tape parade.


Posted in Rants on October 2nd, 2017 by Ed

Bill O'Reilly is the only right-winger who is honest about the whole movement's position on the 2nd Amendment.

This is the problem in a nutshell. "The price of freedom." It doesn't matter how many people die. The rights of every impotent old white guy who needs to hoard guns in order to Feel Like a Man are more important than human life. The rights of suburban commandos to stock up on guns to fend off the Young Black Bucks or the Thugs or whatever euphemism is currently in fashion are more important than human life. The rights of some guy to indulge his hobby (Can I make chemical weapons in my basement and call it a "hobby" as long as I don't use them to kill anyone?) are more important than your right to leave the house and be reasonably certain that you're not going to get shot at random.

Mass shootings are to the modern US what human sacrifices were to some societies, but replace the sun with 2nd Amendment and the bountiful harvest with Freedom. If 58 people have to die so that we may enjoy the freedom to own 35 guns – the killer had at least that many – that is a sacrifice white America is prepared to make. YOU are a sacrifice they are prepared to make. You don't matter. Nothing matters. All that matters is Larry Limpdick's need to feel tough or manly or important or strong or ready for the Race War he and everyone else in the comments section of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is certain is coming because BLM or campus libtards or something.

We have so thoroughly normalized a completely demented, paranoid, conspiratorial, afactual right-wing worldview that a man can buy 35 guns and not only are there no meaningful obstacles to doing so but the fact isn't even considered especially noteworthy or out of the ordinary. The very fact that we live in a society where a person can announce that they own 10 or 25 or 50 or 100 guns and the overwhelming, immediate response is not "What in the living fuck is wrong with you?" followed by a psych evaluation is the definitive proof that this will keep happening over and over and over again.

It's not merely acceptable, it's normal. And it's not merely normal, it's a sign of patriotism and masculinity. You don't like guns? What's wrong with you? You queer or vegan or somethin'? Don't you love your country?

This will never stop in a society that thinks there is nothing abnormal about fetishizing and stockpiling something that has no purpose – "fun" doesn't count here, sorry – other than to kill.

The guy who did this is not scary because he is insane or mysterious. He is scary because he is normal. All of us know probably a half-dozen of this guy. Because we live in a society that tells itself that it's perfectly normal for a person to stockpile enough weapons to outfit a brigade of paratroopers. Despite the insistence that this is a perfectly normal and healthy thing for a human being to do, it is not. It is fucked up. And until we drop the "mental health" canard and admit to ourselves that the problem is we have allowed a deeply violent, paranoid, and twisted worldview to become so ordinary as to attract little notice, these sacrifices will continue on a more or less regular schedule.


Posted in Rants on September 26th, 2017 by Ed

This is (gasp) almost four weeks old, but it's important and it kept getting pushed back.

Around Labor Day the New York Times ran a terrific piece comparing the difference across time in the same basic, stereotypically Lowly job – being a janitor – for a large company in 1980 and today. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the salaries are almost identical; I tend to assume, obviously wrongly, that jobs characterized as menial tend to pay less now than in the past. Marta cleans Apple headquarters for $16.60/hr (before you flip out, remember that salaries are inflated in Cupertino) and Gail earned only slightly less inflation-adjusted to clean Eastman Kodak's offices 35 years ago. But the difference, which I'm sure you know from painful experience, is…

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Ms. Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies. Ms. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.

They both spent a lot of time cleaning floors. The difference is, for Ms. Ramos, that work is also a ceiling.

This sort of "domestic outsourcing" receives far less attention than the kind involving the more conveniently targetable foreigners, and it is completely out of control. I see ads daily on public transit for "local outsourcing" of IT, which is a slick marketing term for firing all your IT employees and paying piecemeal, an hour here or there, for IT help. The hourly rate is probably crap, but that's not the point. The point is that the hourly rate your company pays Local Outsource Bro Startup (LOBS) is your soup-to-nuts cost; that's it. No payroll tax – that's LOBS's problem. And no benefits, sick time, paid vacation, and so on. Not because LOBS is responsible. Because there are none.

Academics recognize this as the trend toward hiring adjuncts, who work on one semester contracts without benefits, to replace tenured faculty who are owed annoying things like health insurance and can only be forced to teach the number of classes for which they are contracted. Professionals like accountants recognize this in the myriad apps and online services that centralize, piece out, and otherwise package their services in tiny bits for consumers. Even doctors are now being harnessed into "seeing" patients via webcam or replacing specializations like radiology with off-site services that require only an internet connection.

But let's not kid ourselves. It affects us all, but it is hitting hardest among people with the least economic power and with the most replaceable skills. Your massive companies of today are no longer hiring their own security guards, drivers, janitors, warehouse grunts, and the like. Add in tasks that have been effectively eliminated by technology (the typing pool springs to mind) and you have a workforce in which the Gig Economy reigns.

There is a tendency in the professions where this is not the case to shrug and wonder why one should care. The answer is simple: because this economic model will come for you too, someday. Yesterday the janitors, today the payroll department, tomorrow the "Creative Talent" or whoever near the top happens to think of themselves as somehow unique or irreplaceable. If you're lucky, your specific field can hold out until you reach retirement age or the sweet release of death. In time, though, it's inevitable. I've spent almost two decades repeating the same thing on here and any of us who live long enough will eventually discover that it is true: the forces unleashed in the 1980s will not, and probably cannot, rest until every last one of us is paid hourly with no benefits. If you think a postgraduate degree or a Management Position immunizes you, just wait.


Posted in Rants on September 25th, 2017 by Ed

Fellow political scientist and not-fellow regular Washington Post contribution Daniel Drezner has a great column up this morning encouraging Americans (ok, basically the media) to stop getting our collective panties in a bunch about college students' attitudes toward free speech. I was working on a similar piece, which I have just deleted in anger and cursed Prof. Drezner's ancestors.

Articles about college students by people who do not spend their working lives on a college campus are inevitably bad. Hilariously bad. Bad like that right-wing Christian fantasy film God's Not Dead, which represents a fever dream of what a college campus is like by a bunch of people who have never been on one.

Since this isn't the Washington Post and I don't have an editor here I'm going to cut to the chase: 99.99% of college students don't care. About anything. Half of them consume so little news that even asking them about the major headline stories of a given time period draws blank stares more often than not. If they have opinions about political or social issues, more often than not it amounts to parroting the reactionary views of their parents and all the Fox News their parents exposed them to. The idea of college undergraduates as a gaggle of barbarians mobbing the proverbial gate is endlessly amusing to any college faculty. If you can get these kids to show up to class and hand in their assignments it's a goddamn miracle.

The media inevitably gravitates toward the outliers – Evergreen State, Oberlin, Reed, Wisconsin-Madison, and the small number of campuses where student activism seems to be the predominant recreational activity on campus (and often takes its most extreme and mock-able form). I went to UW-Madison. There was lots of activism. But even there, the overwhelming majority – probably 4/5 – of the student body gave exactly zero shits.

I've written about this before and want to again reiterate that it's not intended as criticism, but to all intents and purposes most of today's college undergraduates are basically kids despite being adults on paper. They care about texting their friends, sleeping, getting drunk / high, partying, socializing, sleeping, watching Netflix, sleeping, getting drunk, and staring at social media. They are more mature than a high schooler, but their preferences are much the same. Does your high school-aged kid seem like a raging activist? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Same thing, but older. That's a college student.

On every campus and among College Students writ large there is a core of students deeply involved in social and political issues. But that has always been the case. Nothing is new here. The idea that the entire demographic is being mobilized as some sort of Red Brigade is beyond silly. You couldn't mobilize the average undergraduate to dunk his ass in water if you set it on fire. And I say that with love. They're not bad people, the occasional real bastard aside. They just have a very small bubble in which they live and there's not much room in their cognitive world for anything but their own immediate wants and needs. I suspect that was as true about 19 year old Americans in 1800 as it is in 2017.


Posted in Rants on September 21st, 2017 by Ed

Since Simon Kuznets developed the useful concept of Gross National Product in the 1930s, many critics have pointed out one of this major flaws: by aggregating the dollar value of all goods and services exchanged in an economy, it can "reward" some horribly inefficient behaviors in the form of higher GNP. With the assumption that a higher GNP/GDP is a sign of a stronger and better economy, the most valuable citizen is not an entrepreneur, a laborer, or an inventor. It's a terminal cancer patient who just wrecked his Lamborghini and is going through an expensive divorce. Think of the billable hours he generates for the legal profession. Think of what his hospital bill will be when all is said and done. Look at all the Economy he's generating.

The point of the morbid example is simply that not every form of economic activity is inherently "good." The American economy could hugely benefit, for example, from bombing several major cities (what a boon for the building trades!) or infecting half the population with some long-lasting and expensively treated disease. Most of us would prefer that economic growth result from something less dismal.

Similarly, single-payer is beginning to attract support from more than just the far left lately. Don't misunderstand – I don't believe SP is coming soon or that huge majorities of Americans suddenly support it. But it is transitioning into the mainstream of the health care debate, which eventually will have a positive effect on policy. You can tell it's being taken more seriously because the campaign of concern trolling against it has intensified noticeably during this session of Congress.

The LA Times has a decent piece on three prominent types of SP concern trolls – "We need more details," "It's too expensive," and "It'll never happen" – but I believe another important kind is absent: the "Think of all the middlemen of the health care industry who will lose their jobs!" troll. The Chamber of Commerce, reliable organ of Business writ large, is most aggressively pushing this narrative. You know they must be worried if they're willing to pretend they care about The Working Man's job.

Conceptually, it isn't difficult to imagine a switch to single payer eliminating some jobs. The administrative bloat in our healthcare system is beyond most people's comprehension – I've had the misfortune of seeing it from the inside earlier in my career. People whose days consist of filing and refiling and appealing and refiling various insurance claim forms and managing the labyrinthine network of medical records are two tasks that involve more person-hours than you can imagine. A single payer system would de-complicate those issues at least somewhat if not entirely, and the paper pushing jobs our current system creates so readily would decline.

Other generally pro-SP estimates argue that a changeover would create jobs in the long run. It's a very difficult thing to forecast and there's no way to resolve the different predictions at this point. What is undeniable, though, is that "It employs a lot of people" is a very bad reason to keep a healthcare system as it is. The ability to access basic medical care without risking long term financial ruin should be a fundamental compoonent of any society that considers itself civilized. And for an issue on which costs and inefficiencies are brought up constantly, sticking with the current system because it creates a ton of jobs for middlemen, rentiers, and layers of superfluous bureaucracy is a very bad argument. The system's inefficiencies bloat costs and need to be eliminated, but they also create jobs so should be kept? C'mon guys. Pick one.


Posted in Rants on September 19th, 2017 by Ed

Another week, another urgent exhortation to CALL YOUR SENATORS RIGHT NOW TO SAVE HEALTH CARE. SERIOUSLY IF YOU DON'T DO IT RIGHT NOW ALL IS LOST. I know we said the same thing last week when we asked you to drop everything and call your Senators, and we weren't lying then. We're not lying now either. This just keeps happening, like, every week. And it will until someone puts an end to this farce.

I don't think anyone is in charge of the GOP right now; it's a rudderless ship so enormous that momentum alone will carry it onward for another couple of years after its crew pulls a Mary Celeste. But Ryan and McConnell are conniving little weasels of the old school of weaseling, and they are not above using the din of the Trump Circus as cover for their otherwise moribund legislative agenda. The fact is that the more they propose an ACA repeal – and this latest bill is distinguishable from the "skinny repeal" option from two months ago in name only – the higher the odds they will succeed. Short attention spans and, much more importantly, fatigue work against anyone trying to organize opposition to it. You can only see that URGENT MESSAGE to CALL YOUR REPS IMMEDIATELY so many times before you stop calling, before you eventually stop noticing it altogether, and before and it becomes another repetitive background image in the cheap cartoon we're living in right now.

Perhaps you're full of vim and vigor and I'm projecting here. The social media effort to flog opposition to Graham-Cassidy felt more than a little tired and desperate, though. It felt like the tenth cup of coffee you consume in the vain hope of inspiring one last burst of activity from your adrenal glands. At some point it becomes a lost cause. All the coffee in the world isn't going to keep you awake and alert.

Here's a great analysis of the irregularity of voting on this bill before it has a CBO score and honestly I just can't, again. We've been through this so many times already. Each iteration will have fewer activists showing up at protests, fewer people dutifully calling their reps in Congress, fewer people summoning up the outrage that we all seem to be exhausting on a daily basis for the past seven months. And that, of course, is how they will win (If they do. It's not a given. For now.)

Mobilizing activists is like asking your friends to help you move; the more often you do it, the closer the odds of a positive response get to zero. That's a Big Ask, and you have to hoard it and use it strategically. The Democratic base came into 2017 low on enthusiasm and energy to begin with, united and motivated seemingly by hatred of Trump alone. Bringing back a Single Payer proposal was a reasonably smart move if for no reason other than the potential to generate a little enthusiasm. They're going to need it.


Posted in Rants on September 13th, 2017 by Ed

Something has been bothering me lately.

First, remember when Insane Clown Posse's popularity started to wane – I mean, how many times can you write the same song and put on the same Faygo-soaked show? – and they made the Big Reveal that for their entire decade-plus long career their secret message was actually…Christianity? It was one of the strangest deus ex machina moves in the history of showbusiness. People around the world could honestly say in unison, "I did not see that coming," and anyone who said they did was obviously lying. Nobody saw it coming, especially given that it wasn't true and made no sense and was just a play for attention as the rest of the world was losing interest.

That was amusing.

I can't offer an equally compelling or nonsensical Reveal, but sometimes I wonder if the handful of people who read this or follow Gin and Tacos in other formats get what it is about. I've been doing this for a long, long time now and I find it extremely rewarding and if someone else gets something out of it, that's terrific. Whatever level you might enjoy it on is fine by me. If you don't enjoy it, I don't take it personally. Nothing is going to appeal to everyone, with the possible exception of cheese fries.

Regardless of whether you are new or have been around forever, or read every day or once per year, or hate it but still read it for some reason, lately I have had this nagging feeling that a lot of people (who comment, otherwise I have no clue what you're thinking in response) are missing the point. So, here is the Big Reveal: this isn't and never has been about Politics. It's a blog about bad logic. Bad arguments. Conservatives are not The Enemy. Centrists aren't either. The whole point, and what gives me some small amount of pleasure, is to make fun of bad arguments and the motives of people who make them. Usually the motive is either 1) they are lying to you, and think you're stupid enough not to notice that their argument makes no sense or, 2) they're really bad at logic and don't understand that the argument doesn't make sense (or, more often, is totally inapplicable to the point).

My parents could tell you stories about me at age four throwing tantrums because something didn't make sense, or school detentions piling up because I had the really unfortunate habit of pressing adults with questions about Why when rules were clearly arbitrary or when the motives were misrepresented (I mean, if we're clearly doing something to kill time, let's just admit it, ok?). So I don't know, maybe I'm just difficult. Scratch that. I am a very difficult person. OK. I get it.

Here's the thing, before I digress too far – a lot of people (apparently) read the things I barf into the ethers with the understanding that it's About Politics. And that causes a lot of problems, because the point here isn't to support one political viewpoint or another. It's to make fun of really bad logic that makes no sense. The consequence is that if you're following this as the average Sports-type politics blog (Our team is great! Go team! Boo, other team!) you're probably going to get super cranky when the criticism turns toward Your Team. The 2016 election, for example, was a ludicrous experience (for many reasons, of course). Team Hillary couldn't stop screaming that I'm a Bernie Bro, Team Bernie couldn't believe what a sellout centrist fake-liberal asshole I am.

As a result, over time I've been trying harder and harder to make everyone happy on the politics front. At the same time, as many of you know, I've been trying to break into Professional Writing for Serious Media Outlets, which (as I've rambled about) requires changing one's writing style to appeal more broadly. The combined result is that it has been getting less fun. I don't enjoy it any less, but it's less fun. Does that make sense? I hope it does.

The more you try to massage something to make it appealing to Everyone, the less interesting it's going to be. And lately I feel like everything I say is trying to anticipate and preclude various inevitable criticisms. And not only is it less Fun, and not only does it feel defensive, but it's also pointless. It's pointless because when 10,000 people see something, some of them are going to respond critically without even reading it. Some of them will be critical because they misread it intentionally or otherwise (It's always much easier to respond to what you heard than to what a writer said). Some of them are just assholes.

And there's one other complicating factor that is unpleasant but undeniably a part of this: the world of writing creates strong incentives to Build the Audience. Want to write a book? Better show off how many followers you have on Social Media. Want to write for a big website or magazine? Well how many people follow you on Facebook, sonny? Which, as much as we all hate admitting that the Free Market influences us, is a powerful incentive. Don't piss off the audience that took so very long to build! Keep everyone happy! Offend no one! Apologize readily! The audience's eyeballs and various clicks are a valuable currency, not to mention that it's hard to see something you worked so hard and for so long to build (an audience, because who wants to write stuff nobody will ever read?) recede.

So, there's a lot going on here. And it has made this no less rewarding, no less enjoyable, but a little less Fun. When it's not Fun, the final product isn't nearly as good or nearly as interesting. And after the last highly stressful (politically) two years, I'm tired. I'm exhausted, even. I'm not tired of expressing opinions that you are free to take or leave; I'm tired of trying please everyone. And I'm going to stop doing that, and go back to what I did for a very long time when nobody aside from a handful, maybe a hundred, people read this. Audience Building is tiring.

If you can't handle someone criticizing Your Team, go read Wonkette or Jacobin where you can be guaranteed 100% consistent Go Team coverage. They're both good. I read both regularly. If you can't respond with criticism that actually has something to do with what I said, go ahead and mash that "unfollow" or whatever. If you are an asshole, I'm probably going to be an asshole right back. If you want to yell at someone about what you heard without understanding the possibility that you're hearing what you want to hear based on your own biases, this might not be for you. If the best response you can come up with when someone criticizes a media figure or politician who is female is "omg why do you hate women," go read Jezebel or something. I have no interest in changing your mind, nor in being a target to absorb your late night drunken anger every time you are personally insulted by something that is not about you at all because you're kind of a narcissist. It's fine. We all have narcissistic tendencies. It makes neither of us a bad person. My only point is that nobody is forcing you to read this, the world is literally drowning in content you could be reading, and I have to start making peace with the fact that maybe this just isn't something you like, and that's OK.

This is all self-inflicted. I've been doing this to myself, and for a long time now. I'm not a victim of anything at all other than choices I've made that I want to stop making now because they're making probably my greatest joy in life less Fun. Nothing is going to change except my approach to this mentally. You're OK. I'm OK. We're all OK; we just aren't all going to like the same things. I love you all, but lately I've been caring way too much what you think and how you will respond. So, I'm just going to say what I want to say and you are going to respond how you want to respond. And hopefully everyone will be happier in that scenario. If we continue to share the same space, great. If we end up parting company, no hard feelings.



Posted in Rants on September 10th, 2017 by Ed

Here is a photo you have seen before. In all likelihood it is the most iconic image of the Nuclear Age: "Baker" test of Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands, 1946.

I want to draw your attention to something I bet you have never noticed in this photo before, as many times as you've seen it. See this black smudge on the nearly 1/2 mile high column of water thrown up by the underwater detonation?

That's the USS Arkansas. That's a 562 foot long, 26,000 ton battleship.

Look at the full sized photo and use that as a point of reference for scale. The giant destroyer was found later upside down in the lagoon with the side facing the blast crumpled like a soda can. The site also became unfathomably radioactive. Pieces of crushed coral and metallic sodium from the seawater were irradiated and flung about the Atoll. 15,000 Navy men were rushed in to scrub down the ships of the ghost fleet that had been set up as target practice and to bury some of the more energetic debris. No statistics on the amount of radiation those people absorbed (or what it did to them in the long run) are available.

I point this out to emphasize something that has been forgotten since the end of the Cold War during which nuclear weapons were something people thought about regularly. They used to be very real, not abstract, and now the opposite is true. Nuclear weapons are powerful. Staggeringly powerful. They are, in the parlance of The Kids, not fucking around. Crossroads "Baker," the subject of this infamous photo, was a replica of the nuclear device detonated over Nagasaki, which in turn was a replica of the "Trinity" bomb exploded in New Mexico as the first even nuclear device. In other words, the bomb that caused what you see in this photo was a small one. Primitive. Simple. By modern standards what you see here is puny. But it rendered the area uninhabitable for seven decades and tossed around some of the largest objects humans know how to make.

We live in a world in which people stopped grappling with the reality of nuclear war so long ago that we have whole generations that don't fully understand its implications, and older generations who used to understand it but have let the memories fade. It seems inevitable these days that someone – India, Pakistan, North Korea, or very possibly the US – will blow one up if for no reason other than that the world hasn't seen a mushroom cloud for decades and, well, let's just see if it's really as big a deal as people used to think it was. World leaders ("leaders") like Putin, Kim, and Trump refer to nuclear weapons in terms that show no understanding of or respect for their power. To threaten to use nuclear weapons at the drop of a hat is to admit that you have only the vaguest idea of the effects and consequences of doing so.

Why so many nations simultaneously find themselves led by someone who doesn't quite get it is above my pay grade to figure out. Maybe we've all lost our collective minds. Maybe nukes simply aren't the big political issue they used to be, so absenting them from our consciousness leaves a lot of people unaware of the gravity of the problem. Or maybe we are all fated to relive our worst decisions every time a tragedy recedes far enough into the past for people to start thinking "I mean, it can't really be THAT bad…let's just try one and see."

The first lesson we will learn if we go down that road is that a nuclear weapon that can pick up a battleship and fling it like a toy is only a fraction as powerful as the arsenal available today. Thermonuclear weapons – which were only an idea at the time this photo was taken – are almost limitless in their power and radioactive fallout potential. Politicians the world over used to recognize that nuclear weapons are not a thing to be trifled with; now, the more we talk about them casually or in a way that trivializes them brings us closer and closer to the point at which the useful fear of them is overcome by the impulsiveness and anger of the people who control them.

I have a bad feeling about it. All of it.


Posted in Rants on September 6th, 2017 by Ed

When teaching an introductory American Government course to freshmen who enter college with a wide range of skills and prior courses in the subject I have found it safest to start things with the basics. Real basic. We spend a week at the beginning covering "What is government and why does it exist" stuff before we even begin the Constitution and specifics.

One of the first tasks is to explain conceptually (again, without specifics) what government does. Almost any example you can conjure up fits into one of a small number of boxes: maintaining order, providing a forum for decision-making, providing public goods, organizing for collective defense, and so on. One of the most underappreciated of these basic tasks is enforcing predictability. No economic transactions, for example, are possible without predictability – X and Y must know that if they make a contract, either party violating the agreement can be taken to a court that will enforce it. Society functions very poorly without this; if you can't plan for the future in some very basic ways and rely on a few unexceptional assumptions (i.e., you don't need to spend 24 hours per day defending your home. You can leave it and feel reasonably confident that no one will break into it because they know the likely consequences) then your society breaks down. Government, then, is a bit like the weather forecast – it's more useful when telling you about the future than the present.

Trump supporters cite the president's rashness, lack of forethought, and unpredictability as an asset; he will "shake things up" or whatever. Who knows what he'll do from minute to minute. Wild card!

In reality, we will be lucky if that approach doesn't get us all killed. International actors are wringing their hands with the sudden inability to rely upon American intentions as a known quantity. The domestic policy process has ground to a halt in a way I never thought possible with the House, Senate, and Executive branch unified under one party. And increasingly citizens don't know if they can trust interacting with their own government. We have a reasonable idea of what the law is now, but what presidential mood swing will reshape it in six months?

Three recent examples stick out. First, he threw transgendered people under the bus after making explicit promises during the campaign to be "hands off" on those issues. Second, he told Congressional Republican leaders that he would make a deal with them on the debt ceiling and then, unprompted, cut a different deal four hours later without telling them. Never mind that legislating and inter-branch relationships depend almost entirely on trust, norms, and informal institutions. Third, he retroactively turned DACA into a trap to lure immigrants to their own deportation.

The DACA example is particularly insane. Think about what just happened. The federal government told people "Look, it's better to know that you're here than to have you here lurking around in the shadows. And it's not your fault mom and dad brought you here when you were four. So, come forward and we'll suspend deportation." Something like 800,000 people, with every intention of doing the Right Thing and following the rules, took advantage of it. Now, a few years later the same federal government (albeit under different leadership) says "lol jk, we're going to use the information you gave us to find and deport you."

This incentivizes the worst possible behavior, of course. It encourages immigrants to live in hiding and to go to extremes to avoid interactions with the state. Because in all honesty, those people have zero reason to trust the government at this point. None. Frankly, immigrants and transgendered soldiers aren't the only people with cause for skepticism. We all do. With no meaningful sense whatsoever of what is constitutional or legal, who the hell knows what this guy is going to change next? Hell, they're already talking about taxing 401(k) type contributions retroactively. Hey remember that money we said for 30 years that you could put away tax free? Ha ha jk give us a third of it! That'll really encourage people to save and plan for the financial future, right?

There's no value in going slippery slope here and pointing out what it looks like when this thinking is taken to its conclusion. Suffice it to say that "unpredictable" is just about the last adjective we want to be using in reference to the government and the law. No matter how much mouthbreathers with no understanding of – well, anything really – think it will be So Awesome to shake things up and show them politicians what's what, predictability is actually one of the fundamental objectives of any government. Without it life won't necessarily revert to nasty, brutish, and short but it will be a lot less pleasant than it needs to be.