NEEDS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 9th, 2015 by Ed

I'd like to thank Brother Kenneth Mehn, Order of Saint Augustine, who taught me about Maslow when I was a 14 year old high school freshman. What I'm saying is, this is partially his fault.

Maslow

HISTORIC HISTORICAL IGNORANCE

Posted in Rants on July 7th, 2015 by Ed

Every time another survey reveals that Americans can't find their asses with both hands in their back pockets knowledge wise, we end up having the same nails-on-chalkboard argument. Look how stupid everyone is, this is the problem! vs. What is the point of knowing facts anymore, you can just look everything up. I have tried over the years to become more open-minded toward the latter, with some success. It isn't a sign of moral and intellectual weakness for an individual to fail to know all of the members of the Supreme Court, provided they have a working understanding of what the Court does and how. In that example, Google will serve a roughly equal purpose to memorizing all nine names.

What that argument fails to account for, of course, is that this hypothetical rarely reflects reality. Apologists have argued that it's OK if American students, for example, do not know any facts as long as they develop critical thinking skills. The problem is that they suck at that, too. We've gone from a couple generations of students who memorized a lot of facts and information and may not have been taught much about how to put such information to productive use to generations who haven't memorized anything, don't pay attention to much, and are as good at critical thinking as the Chinese are at hockey.

This is why I've always been on the Facts side of the argument. And lately we are seeing the second major shortcoming of the "They can just Google it" thesis: Ignorance of information has a mysterious tendency to correlate with ignorance of history. History may be the subject area most affected by the declining relevance of actually learning things. I can't explain the Space Race to you if you don't know what the Cold War is, don't know what the Soviet Union was, and can't identify Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Sputnik, the Mercury Program, and other important figures. And none of the preceding will make any sense without understanding World War II, how it ended, and the geopolitical consequences. I can send you an article or even a video to explain the Space Race, but what good is that without some understanding of who these people and events are? What you're left with is a Michael Bay Transformers movie version of learning: nobody has any idea who is who or what is going on. It's a miasma of events and names that mean as much to most Americans today as Runic stones.

To see the practical results of this kind of collective mental atrophy, look no further than the Confederate Flag debate or, if you're a little more policy-oriented, the current economic situation in Greece. Watch Thomas Piketty calmly explain to a reporter that what Germany, the EU, and neoliberals the world over are demanding of Greece is the exact antithesis of what Germany, France, the UK, and other cripplingly indebted nations were asked to do at the end of WWII. The idea that austerity would solve a problem with debt was so patently ridiculous at the time that it was not even suggested. Quite the opposite; inflation and economic growth were understood to be the only logical ways to reduce a debt at 200% of GDP, and governments the world over were encouraged to spend like drunken sailors. Provided those drunken sailors had an eye toward building productive, growth-oriented industrial economies.

It worked. How many people today know that? What is being proposed now demonstrably does not work. How many people today know that? Once you've punted on knowledge and facts, the hope of having an informed debate is gone. The result is what we see today: people all around the world, from bankers and world leaders to reporters and newscasters to minimum wage earners on the street, who have absolutely no ability to look at two options and conclude that one has worked before and is therefore likely superior to the other that has been tried and doesn't work at all.

Good luck getting that from Googling "Greek debt."

THE HAUNTING

Posted in Rants on July 5th, 2015 by Ed

So, Bernie Sanders has started to get an increased amount of media attention lately. Take that with a grain of salt; part of it comes from the fact that his campaign has been doing some interesting things, and part of it is due to the media's need to cover a second (or more) viable Democratic candidate so that the nomination process is something more exciting than a Clinton Coronation.

The second caveat is that Sanders has been harvesting some low hanging fruit. Let's put it this way: if you're the progressive candidate and you can't get 10,000 people to come out to see you in Madison, WI you might as well throw in the towel. The headlines about his early draw in places like Oregon, Madison, and Berkeley are up there with "Dog licks balls" as riveting news. Furthermore, a good deal of the national media attention he has received is condescending, depicting him as your burned out old hippie uncle who once lived on a commune and probably has an extremely high electric bill (wink). It is hardly as if full scale BernieMania is on the verge of sweeping the country.

That said, he has a real shot at this. And Team Clinton must be shitting bricks right now. I suspect that more than a few who were around her toxic campaign in 2008 dare not say "Uh oh. Here we go again…" even though they're thinking it.

Here is the problem from Clinton's perspective. As commanding as her lead in name recognition and money over the rest of the Democratic "field" is, 75% of the party base is looking around hoping someone better will come along. Hillary Clinton seems like she could win a general election, and therefore nearly all left-of-center Americans consider her Acceptable. Acceptable and Great are not quite the same thing, however. She is the classic establishment candidate, and her argument for the nomination boils down to "It's my turn, and I deserve this." Like other establishment candidates (Mitt Romney, for example, who also saw his party desperately try to nominate literally anyone but him before circling back) her primary motivation seems to be that she really, really wants to be president. That's fine, but you can't make it this obvious. Democratic voters are more susceptible to idealists than Republicans. Someone who can come along and convince the party base that he or she might make things better rather than merely being Slightly Better than the Republican.

In 2008, Obama came out of nowhere, offered this to primary voters, and immediately eliminated Clinton's insurmountable lead. Sanders is capable of doing that. And I suspect the Clinton campaign knows it. Even if they won't say it, I think they also recognize that the fundamental problem is that while voters will take Clinton, nobody's terribly enthusiastic about it. We're all scanning the horizon looking for someone less infuriatingly Centrist, less New Democrat, less I Refuse to Take Positions on Anything of Importance and I'm Basically John McCain on Foreign Policy. Again, in a general election Democrats and left-leaning voters will vote for her overwhelmingly. She's good enough. Clearing the bar just barely will always leave her susceptible to challengers who leap over it and look like they could actually win a general election.

Sanders is not without flaws himself. He needs to be more conscious of his visuals when on stage or behind a podium. He needs some people who have a proven track record of running a winning campaign. He needs a goddamn haircut. As he stands, any opponent would have a very easy time labeling him an old codger from a bygone era. Image counts. Hillary Clinton (67) is nearly as old as Sanders (73) but looks nowhere near that age. Most people would be surprised to learn that she is even 60. Sanders also needs to avoid the fate of Howard Dean. The media will be eager to depict him as an old, ranting lunatic from the hinterlands and he needs to be careful not to give them the opportunity.

In 2016 the Democrats have a chance to give themselves a real leg up by the time the general election begins. While the GOP 20-way circus plays out as monkeys in suits flinging their own crap at one another on debate stages, the two older, mature looking and sounding Democratic candidates will turn on how well Clinton can convince voters that she is something better than Republican Lite and how "electable" Sanders can make himself sound.

In short, greet Sanders' increased visibility with guarded optimism. He can win, even if the odds remain a long shot for now. The best evidence that he is viable is the Clinton campaign's sense of alarm as they realize that she is not in fact the candidate of inevitability.

NPF: RUSSIAN WOODPECKER

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 2nd, 2015 by Ed

Early in June I checked an important item of my list of ridiculous and obscure things I want to see before I die. Today I want to share with you another one that I will probably never see in person, although as recently as the 1980s you could hear it at any point on the globe.

The Soviet Union, and Russians before and after it, equate size with power and success. When they build something, they build it big. Real big. Because if it's the biggest, it must be the best. And the best things are necessarily made by the best people. The logic is impetuous.

I talked a little about the idea of ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems in the previous post. The American approach to getting early warning of a sneak attack was to build a series of small radar stations across the remote Canadian Arctic. The Russian approach, not altogether surprisingly, was to build a really, really big radar. A radar so goddamn big that it could essentially see halfway around the globe. The result of this brute force approach was known to the Soviets as Duga-3, and to the prying eyes of NATO as "Steel Yard." To every amateur radio user on the planet, though, it was called the Russian Woodpecker.

duga

To make the concept work requires a very big radar and a huge amount of power. The huge amount of power produced a radio signal that created an equally huge amount of interference with radio signals and other forms of communication. If the nickname "Russian Woodpecker" was not self-explanatory, here's a clip of what the interference sounded like on normal radio channels. It took almost no time to locate the source of the signal as this massive pile of metal Tinker Toys near Chernobyl, Ukraine. Good thing nothing bad would happen there around 1986!

The USSR shut the contraption down pretty quickly when its functions were taken over by other, less cumbersome technology like satellite monitoring. The "Steel Yard" itself remains standing, though, and despite having been abandoned to nature over 30 years ago it remains in remarkably good condition. It's a rather popular destination for thrill-seekers, armchair Cold War anthropologists, and base jumpers. Eventually the elements (or a tactical airstrike) will take it down, but until then it will keep calling my name. Metaphorically. Unless they decide to turn it back on again.

PROSTRATING

Posted in Quick Hits on June 30th, 2015 by Ed

I have to throw myself at the feet of anyone who knows more about economics and international finance than I – what happens next now that Greece is defaulting on its loans?

I know that the current government is strongly anti-austerity, as is most of the population. I know that the Greek public wants to stay on the Euro somehow, although defaulting on the IMF loan and exiting the Eurozone should (on paper) make that impossible. The only situation I can recall from sort of recent history is the collapse of Argentina's currency and economy in the early 00s. However, in that case the debtor nation was not entwined in any international arrangement as complex, financially and politically, as the European Union.

It is well documented that when individuals end up in financial straits so dire that nothing they do will make it any better, defaulting becomes a more appealing option. "Fuck it, why not?" becomes a very appealing line of argument. If nothing helps, then in a sense nothing hurts either. To me it looks like Greece is heading toward a car accident and has decided its best strategy is to go limp and let the laws of physics take over.

So what happens next? With no political resolution possible and presumably no further deals with the IMF forthcoming, where does this put Greece six months from now?

THAT WORD, IT DOES NOT MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS

Posted in Quick Hits on June 29th, 2015 by Ed

Here at Gin and Tacos we adhere to the highest standards of journalism and morality. This requires an immediate apology and forceful correction when we make mistakes, as any journalistic enterprise is bound to make from time to time in the relentless pursuit of the truth.

Last week we mocked Bristol Palin for a second pregnancy while taking large sums of money to advocate abstinence. It turns out, though, that this pregnancy was planned. According to Bristol. So, to clarify: While getting paid to advocate abstinence, she got pregnant by some random guy for a second time. But she planned it that way. Thanks for clearing that up. Gin and Tacos regrets the error.

Actually, wait. Does she know what "planned" means?

She announced that the pregnancy was planned. Two sentences later she states "things did not go as planned." Then she refers to having "made a mistake." It's all very Palin – she literally can't keep her story straight for one three-paragraph press release / blog post. I predict a bright future for her as a grifter / presidential candidate.

That family is just insistent on checking every single White Trash box, aren't they. They won't be satisfied until Todd dies of a rabid dog bite and Tagg is seen driving the streets of Wasilla in a 1972 GMC Caballero.

ABOVE AND BEYOND

Posted in Rants on June 29th, 2015 by Ed

Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Supreme Court ruled that every state is obligated to issue same-sex marriage licenses, surprised me with its breadth. In it the Court dealt with two distinct but closely related big-picture questions. First, is a state obligated to recognize a marriage license, including those for same-sex marriage, issued by another state when it differs from their own practice for issuing licenses? Second, must every state issue same-sex marriage licenses by law regardless of their current policy? I confidently expected the Court to rule on the former and punt on the latter. They didn't.

For nearly 20 years I have argued that same-sex marriage is miscast as a moral issue and obfuscated with all of these irrelevant discussions of tradition and the nature of marriage in Western society. To me, the question is and always has been solely a matter of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution. Period. The FFCC mandates that states must recognize "public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state." The FFCC is the reason that you do not need to get a new marriage or drivers license when you cross state lines. Your New York drivers license is valid in New Jersey, and when you get married in New Hampshire you don't need a new marriage certificate when you move to Vermont (and, crucially, you also don't need to return to New Hampshire to get divorced if you choose to do so).

In this light, my opinion has always been that as soon as gay marriage became legal in one state – any state – it was effectively legalized everywhere. Even if Hawaii were the only state to issue gay marriage licenses, the FFCC obligates every other state to recognize it. I expected the Court to rule decisively in this manner, requiring every state to recognize all marriage licenses issued by any other state as valid for its own purposes. This would have allowed the Court political cover, sidestepping any discussion of the nature of marriage, the "moral" rightness of different types of marriage, and so on. The result, I expected, was that gay marriage would become similar to what divorce used to be in terms of interstate heterogeneity. Back before divorce was widely accepted, for example, Nevada was the only state to grant quickie no-fault divorces. So it was not uncommon for couples to file for divorce in Nevada, where the process was quick and easy, and return to their home state with a dissolution of marriage that every other state would be legally obligated to recognize. So, in such a ruling the Court would allow two men in Mississippi to drive four hours, get married just across the state line in Illinois (or any other state legally recognizing gay marriages) and then return to Mississippi, which would now be required to grant that marriage license full faith and credit. In this reality, you can imagine the ad campaigns: Gay Wedding Packages to Lovely Colorado! Come to California, all weddings performed, same day licenses! New York, a wedding destination that welcomes all!

Would that have been ideal? Certainly not. But it would have given every person who wanted to get married in a manner not recognized by their home state a reasonable method by which they could do so. Traveling across state lines obviously represents a burden, but one that the Court historically would not recognize as terribly onerous. Anything within the reach of a Greyhound Bus ticket is generally recognized as being accessible.

Had the majority limited itself to that logic, I think they might even have gotten Roberts on board. As it stands, though, the five-justice majority was far bolder and appears to have settled the entirety of the issue. In my opinion, despite the fact that I agree with their conclusions I fear that they made the opinion a bit more open to future undermining in the process. Kennedy's defense of the nature of marriage and its status as a basic right is eloquent but also subjective. It's the type of decision that a future Court with a radically different composition could have a field day reversing. But that will take quite a while, and it seems highly likely that within the next few years gay marriage will become ingrained as a social institution and so unexceptional to the vast majority of the population that objections will cease beyond the comparatively small world of die-hard religious fanatics. And as the Court ruling affects only civil marriage – religious institutions are wholly unaffected by this decision – they won't have a leg to stand on anyway.

GUNS OF BRISTOL

Posted in Rants on June 25th, 2015 by Ed

NPF, as it sometimes must be, is postponed for something too good to pass up even for a few days.

Many of you no doubt wish you were more successful. I certainly wish I was. On the one hand, building financial security and a comfortable life for oneself seems – and demonstrably is – more difficult than ever right now. On the other, we have examples trotted out before us almost daily of people without a shred of talent or work ethic who make money by the trash bag. Why can't we follow their example? If a moron can find ways to do no work while profiting handsomely, surely a half-smart person can.

It boils down to dignity and connections. You need to know the people who can get you a ticket on the gravy train, and then you have to be sufficiently amoral to get on board. So clearly Bristol Palin is good to go on both counts.

It's predictable but disappointing to see so much of the criticism and humor here boil down to Slut Shaming; jokes about how she can't keep her pants on are not only factually precarious (If you want to be rational about it, there's no proof that she's had sex more than two times. Maybe she just has really bad luck.) but more importantly miss the point entirely. First of all, who gives a crap how much sex she has and with whom. That's not our business. She's a legal adult. Rather than focusing on that, how about we talk about the real problem here: the staggering ineffectiveness of "abstinence only" approaches to sex education that eschew birth control, and the equally staggering hypocrisy required to be a highly paid spokesperson for Saving It For Jesus or what-the-hell-ever while being sexually active.

Again, to be clear, there's nothing wrong with being sexually active. There's also nothing wrong with getting large paychecks to tell people that abstinence is a great lifestyle. But you kind of have to pick one. To do both…I can't imagine the extent of the mental gymnastics necessary to rationalize that inside your head.

The Alaska Hillbillies are a group of people who collectively I have zero respect or sympathy for. Bristol Palin is an adult who has made herself a public figure through her career choice and her decision (hers! she has agency!) to be a spokesperson for abstinence. So by all means, point and laugh. Drag her through the mud where she and her entire clan of grifting con artists spend so much time rolling around. But do it for the right reasons, please. Laugh at her because she can't figure out how condoms work or, even worse, that it's somehow a better decision to be young and sexually active without using any form of birth control. And laugh at her for being just one more log on the fire of right-wing hypocrites preaching morals absent from their own lives.

SUPERPOWERED

Posted in Quick Hits on June 25th, 2015 by Ed

I'm tired of repeating this every few months, so rather than go through the whole spiel again I'll content myself to point out that it's positively staggering what a hack Scalia is. This dissent reads like they outsourced it to the comment section on Glenn Beck's website. I'd say this is no surprise but it is, a little. Apparently the residual idealism lurking deep inside of me wants to believe that our nation is led by people with at least a shred of shame and dignity. As it stands I'm not even sure Scalia is a person anymore. He may be a clutch of fusty marmots in a cheap black robe. They can make anything look human with CGI now.

AMERICAN CRAPCEPTIONALISM

Posted in Rants on June 24th, 2015 by Ed

Thus far I've kept the promise to myself that I would limit the Thomas Friedman style "observational" posts as I drive across the continent. One won't kill anyone though, right? And I promise I didn't interview a cabbie.

The remote parts of the Yukon and Alaska have a lot in common. The distances are vast, the landscape inspires a mixture of wonder and terror, and the people who live in the region practice a kind of self-sufficiency that seems foreign to people in urban areas. When running to the grocery store involves a seven hour round-trip drive, you tend to approach life a bit differently.

People in the region appear to share a lot of characteristics whether American or Canadian. One tangible difference in crossing the invisible line between Canada and the U.S. is immediately apparent, though. Americans have a fondness for warning onlookers to KEEP OUT of their PRIVATE PROPERTY because TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT that their Canadian self-sufficient cousins demonstrably do not share.

It makes perfect sense that the kind of person who would willingly live in such an isolated manner are, shall we say, desirous of privacy. They do not welcome uninvited guests, they do not revel in the company of others, and they willingly disengage from social institutions. Probably not big fans of the government. Alaskans, though, seem to think that someone is coming to get them in a way that Yukoners (??) do not. There's an explicit hostility on the Alaska side that isn't present in the otherwise quite similar Canadian side of the vast, empty north.

On some level this amuses me – the idea that The Government or the Illuminati or anyone else is interested in Randy's plywood shack and rusted hulk of a derelict Plymouth Valiant is almost heartbreakingly delusional but not quite to the point where it can be considered touching. I want to sit these people down and explain to them that having physically removed themselves from society by hundreds of miles of forbidding terrain in a region that experiences nine annual months of complete darkness is enough to convince people that they wish to be left alone. And the rest of us look at their hand-to-mouth existence without envy. In fact, most of us think they are crazy. Nobody is interested in removing the collection of bleached caribou bones from their yard. Of course, they'd shoot me if I tried to have this or any other conversation with them.

Is it a need to feel Important? Do they grapple with their own insignificance by imagining that the U.N. and Obama are plotting to come after them? Are they afraid of ordinary crime, like teenagers stealing things from their tanning shed? Or are they simply reveling in a persecution complex that justifies the level of misery that is their lives? The most interesting question, though, is why an invisible border filters out such attitudes as one heads east. If anything, Yukon Canadians (many of whom are Native) would seem to have more cause to be angry at the world than Alaskans who get a check from the State every year for doing nothing. But here we see the folly of applying logic to crypto-survivalists brimming with outward hostility.