I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS

Posted in Rants on January 18th, 2016 by Ed

It's hard to overstate what a non-event last week's "capture" of U.S. Navy personnel who were detained in Iran for all of about 15 hours after straying into Iranian territorial waters. Information released by the Navy today underscores how routine the incident was, with the exception of the sailors being taken off the ships briefly for clumsy Iranian military propaganda purposes.

That timeline and the White House response are an example of how international relations are supposed to work in a world run by adults. Since provoking war with Iran while trying to get them to accede to the terms of an agreement to limit their nuclear program presumably is not on the agenda, we can be pretty confident that, conspiracy theories aside, the detour from international waters was either a pure accident or a simple case of young officers trying to shave some time and fuel off their route with a quick shortcut. As Ben Carson and the other GOP candidates were busy trying to turn this into Iranian Hostage Crisis 2016, the non-incident was over before they could even settle on alarmist rhetoric.

The psychology of elected officials and voices in the media that demand that the U.S. "look tough" and "stand up to" Iran, suggesting that somehow what happened is a source of enduring national shame, is both obvious and sad. Why were Iranians able to board the ships? Presumably because the Navy personnel judged correctly that their minor detour was not worth starting a bullet exchange over. Why didn't Obama stand up and start beating his chest and issuing ultimatums? Presumably because we made a mistake and that's OK. It happens. We made a very, very insignificant mistake and nobody got hurt and it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. The best way to play this isn't to escalate it, but to give Iran a good, condescending, "A propaganda video? Come on dude, that's so North Korea."

There are a lot of people in this country who appear, at least in their political views, unable to admit a mistake without being struck dead by shame and humiliation. I feel really sorry for them and the people who have to interact with them. What an exhausting, pointless waste of energy it must require to keep up that facade, to choose to saber-rattle and fight over every little thing lest one Shows Weakness in Front of the Russians. It's nothing short of amazing how much the words "I'm sorry" can simplify life, even if, as is often the case in international affairs, you aren't entirely sincere. There's nothing wrong with that. Especially when dealing with an incident so insignificant that no amount of histrionics can make anyone care about it let alone look at it as a great national crisis.

GO WEST, YOUNG MAN

Posted in Rants on January 18th, 2016 by Ed

19th Century newspaper baron Horace Greeley is best known for the quote borrowed for the title of this post. As the founder and editor of the New York Tribune (which later merged with the Herald before shutting down in 1966) he was a champion of the Whig, then Republican, antislavery movement. What not as many people remember is that he donated his body to be defeated by Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election. Many modern sources list him as a Democrat, but in truth the Democratic Party was so weak during Reconstruction that they endorsed Greeley rather than nominate their own candidate. The general election was therefore a competition between two factions within the GOP, one of which had nominal Democratic support.

That's not the interesting part, though. Greeley is the only major party presidential candidate to drop dead before Electoral votes were cast.

I won't rehash the entire Electoral College system here (here is a primer if you're lost) but its most useful contribution to modern American politics seems to be the introduction of a number of great hypotheticals. With the ages of a number of candidates in this election more than a handful of people have brought up scenarios in which a nominee dies. What happens? It depends a great deal on when they die.

For the sake of argument let's say Clinton and Warren (VP) win the Democratic nomination. Just to facilitate this example. Anything that happens before the Democratic convention would be an easy solution for either party, by the way. Running in the primaries is not strictly necessary to win the nomination if a candidate – Clinton in this example – were to win delegates in the primaries but die before the delegates cast their votes at the convention. Those delegates would become uncommitted, which is the same thing that happens to delegates won in a primary when a candidate drops out. And really, dying before the convention is nothing more than dropping out of the race. Really emphatically.

After the convention but before the election, if either nominee died they would be replaced according to the rules established by the parties. It wouldn't necessarily be the most formal process; in 1972 when Thomas Eagleton was removed from the Democratic ticket, the nominee (George McGovern) was basically told to pick someone else by the Democratic National Committee. There could be a second, smaller convention in which people in leadership positions met to choose someone in the old (pre-1968) convention style. If the VP nominee died, a new person would be chosen. If the presidential nominee died, either the VP nominee could be elevated to the position or a different person could be chosen. It would be kind of a mess.

After the election but before Electoral votes are cast – the Greeley predicament – is a bit more of a problem. Despite the fact that some states have "pledge laws" for Electors that are very likely unenforceable, Electors can vote for whomever they want. In 1872 nobody much cared because Greeley lost the election soundly, but the Electors split between voting for the deceased candidate and voting for an assortment of other politicians. Thanks to the 12th Amendment Electors cast two votes, one for president and one for VP. So, if the Clinton-Warren ticket won and then Clinton died, a plausible solution would be the Electors casting their votes for Warren as president and…it gets interesting. Could they collaborate and choose someone else to serve as VP? If you read Article II of the Constitution there would be nothing to stop them. They could also cast blank ballots for VP and then allow Congress to appoint someone to fill the position, as happened when Gerald Ford was chosen as VP upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew.

The really tricky part is the gap between the casting of Electoral votes and inauguration. It's a period of about 4 weeks, from late December to January 20. Having already received votes from the Electors, neither candidate could be replaced by the Democratic Party at this point. Alternative interpretations of the Constitution would abound, but the clear course of action would be the elevation of the VP-Elect to the position of President-Elect. Technically, I think the process would be the swearing-in of the VP-Elect and then, with the Presidency vacant upon the end of Obama's term, immediately elevated to the presidency. Then Congress would be required to fill the VP spot.

There's a contingency in place for just about any scenario. Nonetheless it should be obvious that losing a candidate at some point during the election – or especially after the election – would be a mess. The territory might not be entirely uncharted but it would be, with respect to Horace G., effectively unprecedented.

BOOKS OF NOTE

Posted in Quick Hits on January 13th, 2016 by Ed

I haven't done this in ages – it must be years, and I'm too embarrassed and lazy to look – but here are a couple of interesting books I've gotten through lately. Non-fiction, obviously. Nobody knows what kind of fiction anybody else will like.

1. Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat (Anastacia Marx De Salcedo). Hold on, hold on. It's not about the military. It's essentially a history of processed food, the technologies of which have been driven almost entirely by war and the needs (and funding) of armies. Granola bars, canned protein, preservatives, dehydrated food, freeze drying, chocolate bars…they all came about largely due to efforts to solve the logistical problems of feeding large numbers of men with high calorie needs in a variety of locations and climates. All of the "military" food technology transitions seamlessly to the consumer market. The Army wanted bread that wouldn't go stale for months on end and it got it; now it's virtually impossible to find bread that doesn't have a bizarrely long shelf life. The author is kind of annoying in more than a few passages, obviously too eager to mine the thesaurus (Anyone who uses the word "leitmotif" in a sentence describing granola bars is trying too hard to let us know she went to, let's say Columbia) and the anecdotes about herself and her family add little, but overall it's a great read. The chapters on the Edible Bars of Matter revolution and the technology behind extended food freshness are worth it.

2. 1946: The Making of the Modern World (Victor Sebesteyn). Having previously read his 1989, it made sense to see his take on the other of the two pivotal and defining years of the 20th Century. America is drowning in World War II content – books, movies, games, etc. – but they all end with V-J Day. Yet what happened in the immediate aftermath is the really interesting stuff, not who shot who at the Battle of Somesuch. The author was born behind the Iron Curtain and, for my tastes, fills both 1989 and 1946 with way too many "Communism is bad, kids" reminders (We get it, we've seen the highlight reels of the tomahawk dunks of free market capitalism's victory, Victor) but is a thorough and very straightforward writer. Of particular interest was the considerable attention he pays to the issue of mass rape (and, less sinister, the frenzy of consensual fornication that coincided with it) in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Japan and Germany. Few authors, and fewer male authors, bother to include that among the admittedly lengthy list of horrors of the war. Attention is also devoted to areas beyond Europe in quantity, with thorough chapters on the partition of India, the establishment of Israel, the Chinese civil war, post-war Japan, and other non-Western subjects. You'll understand a lot more about the world as it looks today by the time you finish this.

If you're looking for books, those are books.

I AM THE WARRIOR

Posted in Rants on January 13th, 2016 by Ed

The Supreme Court is almost certainly about to gut public employee unions, including teachers' unions. Briefly, state laws currently can compel some people to pay union dues if they benefit from the collective bargaining done by the union on behalf of all employees. Otherwise any rational person would realize that the dominant strategy is that of all Free Riders: contribute nothing, hope the contributors succeed, and then enjoy the benefits. Since a teachers' union bargains on behalf of all teachers and not just union members, the seemingly sound logic goes, all should contribute.

The complicating factor is that unions, like corporations, non-profit groups, and many other entities, donate money in elections and are active in other aspects of the political process. It was only a matter of time until someone interested in becoming a right-wing martyr filed the right lawsuit. He/she can go on tour with Kim Davis. Think of the ticket sales.

Literally the first thing I cover when teaching Intro to American Government is the concept of a collective action problem. It's the backbone of the course, and it comes up repeatedly. The textbook explanation is that rational individuals have the incentive to free ride. What I don't cover but believe to be an important part of the resistance to collective action is that people (read: conservatives) wildly overestimate what they are capable of achieving on their own. Why should we have single-payer healthcare, I will be able to pay for my own healthcare. Why donate to an environmental group, if the water is gross I'll just move. And who needs a teachers' union, I'm awesome and I'll either negotiate a sweet deal all by myself or I'll just get a higher paying job at another school. Believe me, there is not a single social, economic, or political problem you can present to 19 year olds as a hypothetical that they are not 100% confident that they will solve on their own initiative, most likely incorporating the use of Bootstraps. It's understandable at that age. Unfortunately a lot of people never seem to grow out of it.

In an entirely different course we read Anthem, selected because it is the shortest and thus least painful Ayn Rand piece and because it is one of the finest works of comedy ever penned. How can you do anything but adore a story that ends with a man drafting an ode to individualism in a house someone else built and that he broke into. Anyway, the real money scene is where the protagonist heads out into the forest and, in the space of a few hours before dinnertime, he makes a bow and arrows and shoots plenty of birds out of the sky to feed himself. He also gets a few by throwing rocks at them. This is a minor detail in the story but, in my view, is a great litmus test of a fundamental personality characteristic. The kind of person who thinks, "Yeah that seems plausible" believes that some people, namely themselves, are simply Great and therefore can solve any and every problem on their own through the force of their own Greatness. The other kind of person looks at a man running off into the woods with no supplies, food, clothing, or tools of any kind and thinks, "Well he's gonna be dead in about a week."

When someone shrinks from collective action it might be based on a rational belief that the group will succeed regardless and the benefits will be available for everyone to enjoy. It also might be the result of decades of bombardment with Rugged Individualist homilies and the belief that there simply is no problem that one cannot solve with their own (no doubt inestimable) talents. The latter goes one of two ways. For some people, a life of social privilege and unearned wealth reinforce the belief that one is Great and needs no one else. For the rest life has some real big surprises in store.

CAN'T STAND IT. I KNOW YOU PLANNED IT.

Posted in Rants on January 11th, 2016 by Ed

I had the good fortune to attend a conference in San Juan for half of last week; "fortunate" in the sense that it was 86 degrees when I got on the plane Sunday morning and 7 – 7 goddamn degrees – when I got off in Chicago. Beyond that I got to visit America's politically ambiguous colonial non-state possession for the first time. Although I didn't see the entire island or get to stay for very long, the short visit did motivate me to do something Americans tend never to do: pay a little bit of attention to Puerto Rico.

About the extent of my knowledge of Puerto Rican politics and internal affairs, as is the case with most Americans, is that they are all screwed up. The island's government is deeply in debt, its population is aging and unproductive because the young people leave to the mainland US for higher wages, and Congress has no intention of altering the relationship between PR and the rest of the country because of course every aspect of that relationship has been defined in a way that benefits us. That's how colonialism works.

Puerto Ricans have some interest in statehood, which is a non-starter with a Republican Congress. Their objection, as with D.C. statehood, is the inevitable addition of two more Democrats to the Senate should PR become a state. Ironically, in the 1990s it was the Republicans who were all for PR statehood. They pretended that it was some sort of principled stand but most people saw it as a transparent effort to curry favor with Hispanics. Believe it or not, it was even more cynical than that; they wanted to make PR a state so that the government would no longer be obligated to pay the island for the use of various military facilities on it like the test bombing range on Vieques. It was a classy move, although obviously it went nowhere.

That was about all I knew. Well, there was one more thing: over the past year I kept reading that there was a lot of controversy on the island over the issue of cabotage. This information created two problems for me. First, every time I see it I replace "Sabotage" with cabotage and get the song stuck in my head. Second, I have no goddamn idea what cabotage is. It seemed worth a half hour on the way to the airport to read a little.

Cabotage is, "the transport of goods or passengers between two places in the same country by a transport operator from another country." It is forbidden in the United States by the Jones Act, which is nearing its 100th birthday. For example, that a Panamanian ship cannot stop in New Orleans and then stop in San Juan. Only an American owned, registered, and crewed ship can transport things from cities like Houston or New Orleans to the island. This is important because PR has to import nearly everything (for reasons that are controversial, but for which the island itself deserves at least some blame). In short, the highly consolidated US shipping industry has Puerto Rico over a barrel. As you might expect they take every opportunity to ream them.

The real tragedy is that mismanagement – both self-mismanagement and ineffective governance by colonial powers like Spain and the U.S. – has created a dependence on imports that isn't strictly necessary. The island is well suited to agriculture but grows almost none of its own food. It has some of the best conditions for a renewable commercial timber industry but instead imports wood from the U.S. and Canada. Compared to much of the Caribbean, it is underdeveloped for tourism and undercut on price by similar destinations in the region. It's a sad state of affairs and one that is not rare around the world: a place with a lot of potential that it will never realize for political reasons.

It will be an ancillary issue at best but during this election it wouldn't be surprising to see the candidates pressed on bailing out the Puerto Rican government as it comes closer to defaulting on its $70 billion in debt. I'm no economist but at a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 68%, promising alternatives to a Congressional bailout are neither numerous nor apparent.

THE WELL-LUBRICATED SLOPE

Posted in Rants on January 7th, 2016 by Ed

Nothing makes clearer the complete intellectual bankruptcy of the NRA and its acolytes quite like the reaction earlier this week to Obama's beyond-milquetoast executive order about background checks at gun shows and for internet gun sales. As far as "gun control" goes, that is just about the least you could possibly do and still qualify. That makes it about one tenth of one percent more difficult to buy a gun. I am going to be accused of hyperbole here so click the link if you don't believe me: everybody supports this. 85% of Republicans support it. In public opinion terms, when one in ten people will support or oppose literally anything you can put on a survey because of measurement error, not reading the question, or just trying to be cute/funny, 89% of Americans supporting something is the functional if not statistical equivalent of "everybody." The reason it enjoys universal appeal is that it is basic common sense, it is merely an extension of an existing law, and it is such a diminutive baby step that even the most lunatic gun nuts would have a hard time calling it "gun control" with a straight face. If anything, the fact that this is the extent of the regulation our political process can successfully enact against the firearm industry shows how completely pro-2nd Amendment forces have won this debate. This guy had to fight and eventually circumvent Congress to do something that literally no person, gun owners included, in their right mind opposes or considers onerous. It's like he passed an executive order saying people have to be 21 to buy alcohol in a bar as well as in stores. This is the biggest non-event in the history of government regulation.

So leave it to Ted Cruz, an hour after the announcement, to claim that Obama is in tactical gear and arriving at your home shortly to take your guns. The same Obama who has been in the process of coming to take your guns – It's gonna happen any second now, be prepared! Better stock up! – for seven full years now. Because he issued an order that an existing law governing in-store gun sales should also apply to internet sales.

The reality, as we've said so many times that it makes me feel weary even to think about typing it out again, is that the NRA is the marketing arm of the gun industry, not a legitimate "interest group." Their job is to drum up fear so that people will run out and buy more guns. They represent gun manufacturers, not gun owners. That they represent the latter is an illusion. The only rhetorical tool they have in light of the overwhelming meagerness of the amount of regulating the government does to firearms – in reality, not in the fever dreams of the Bundy Militia – is the constant recourse to the slippery slope. Oh sure, this might not be much but it's the first step in a chain of events that ends with Bill Clinton and the ACLU and Liberal Professors and Feminists and Welfare Queens kicking down your door and pulling your guns out of your hands. These weak, nearly futile efforts at regulating gun sales are always, in right wing rhetoric, the tip of an iceberg nobody can see and that we never seem to hit.

Actually, this isn't their only rhetorical tactic. There's also lying. They use that one a lot.

REVOLUTIONARY

Posted in Quick Hits on January 6th, 2016 by Ed

Real update to follow shortly, but I had way too much fun with these not to share the deep cuts from the historical flag parody game.

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come and

THE SOFT TOUCH

Posted in Quick Hits on January 4th, 2016 by Ed

We have to be careful. We can't risk upsetting them. That will radicalize them and create more problems in the future.

That's a strategy that our government applies with great consistency and success in exactly one situation: when armed white people are angry and waving guns around. College students blocking a street? Break out the pepper spray and start cracking skulls. People protesting the fact that the police keep killing them? Same. Black guy holding a gun? Shoot first, ask no questions later. Muslims…existing? Put them under 24-hour surveillance. Security threats anywhere in the world? Bomb the living hell out of them, then wonder why we can't win the Hearts and Minds.

You see this kind of thinking on display everywhere, and it underscores how much we consider this to be the right of anyone white, waving a flag, and in a cowboy hat. Don't fill the place with tear gas and send in a hundred SWAT team members to shoot anyone who even looks like they might be thinking about touching a gun five or ten times. That might upset them. "We don't want another Waco!" Really? Why not? If law enforcement is going to be indiscriminately and excessively violent in this country it should be so for everyone.

CNN published this op-ed, which may be the most CNN thing of all time, with a bold intro about how These People Are Terrorists! before explaining that we absolutely can't use the least bit of force to arrest these people. I stopped counting after three Waco references. It's a good example of how deeply ingrained this mindset is. The state doesn't have to, nor does it ever, worry about angering black people. If anything radicalizes them to violence, we'll just respond with even more force. But hillbilly white people…that calls for indefinite tiptoeing. We wouldn't want to make any martyrs! Unless they're black, in which case there's no need to worry. We'll just rationalize how it's their fault they died.

If these people weren't white they'd probably all be dead or incarcerated already, or else they'd have half the National Guard and the entirety of the state police force waiting to bring about that outcome. If the government is worried about creating more of these people, maybe they should stop letting them act as they want with no consequences. That doesn't work with dogs and toddlers; it won't work here.

2015 GIN AND TACOS ANNUAL WHEEDLE SPECTACULAR

Posted in Quick Hits on January 1st, 2016 by Ed

Reader,

I make an effort to limit this kind of request or reminder, because nobody wants to read a hundred pleas per year for the kinds of things a dude with a website is supposed to request. I appreciate your patience with the following paragraphs. I don't maintain this site for financial reward, and I hate creating the impression that you're expected to pay for the privilege. You certainly are not. Not even a little. But if you happen to feel the urge to be generous, here are some options.

1. If you haven't already, follow G&T on the ol' Facebox. There's more to it than a bunch of links to posts. It's a little heavier on humor and lighter on politics compared to this site. And I'm supposed to, like, try to boost traffic and build a base of readers and all that shit. So do it.

Gin and Tacos | Promote Your Page Too

2. Speaking of, even though traffic has increased consistently over the years the site remains and will remain free of advertisements. If you have to ask why, you must be new. In lieu of advertisements you have to put up with the following few paragraphs once per year.

You can do nothing and continue to enjoy the site for free. This is called "free riding", and it's an entirely rational behavior. I have done (for eleven years!!) and will continue to do this every day whether I make a million bucks, nothing at all, or I have to pay out of pocket for the privilege.

You can use this tip jar / donation link to contribute an amount of your choosing to defray the costs of this site. If you happen to be saddled with extra cash and feel like donating fifty bucks, I will be extremely grateful. However, if donating fifty cents is more in line with your current budget, my gratitude will be no less. If zero cents is your preferred option, that's A-OK too. Your tips and contributions are (obviously) voluntary but greatly appreciated. Either way I'm glad you're here and I appreciate you.






3. Ed finally got around to getting coffee mugs like everyone always requested. Customize your own here (Zazzle isn't shy about big discounts). There is also the not quite as popular but equally spectacular Gin and Tacos t-shirt with the lovable slogan, "Dopamine's Only Natural Predator", on the reverse. If you're so inclined, knock yourself out. I also have some bumper stickers available to your right on the "Buy Stuff" link.

For those of you who contributed money to the book project I proposed over the summer, I'll be updating everyone on that matter shortly. And trust me that this post felt as awkward to write as it must have been to read.

2015 LIEBERMAN AWARD WINNER: DONALD TRUMP

Posted in Rants on December 30th, 2015 by Ed

(Editor's note: The Lieberman Award is given annually to the worst example of a human being over a twelve month period. Click the tag at the end of the post to review past winners.)

medalGin and Tacos and its parent company, Nordyne Defense Dynamics, hold very high standards with respect to the final product you see published here four or five times per week. When we say someone is an asshole, we want you the reader to know that we have done our homework and vetted the subject thoroughly. We aren't going to give you people who are just kind of an asshole. You can rest assured that when we look back at a year and say "This person was an asshole of such magnitude that 2015 was in part defined by how rotten he is at being human," the honor is richly deserved and well earned.

As loathsome as it may be at this point to give Donald Trump additional attention, there really is no other choice for this award. Here is a man who is so much of a asshole that he succeeds in making people like Ted Cruz seem rational and intelligent by comparison. He leads what is a fascist movement in all but name, exposing the ugliest aspects of the American electorate to no end more complex or noble than to bask in the attention it brings him. Here is a man so devoid of principles that he doesn't mind being embraced by the white supremacist movement and spreading its propaganda, operating on the apparent theory that it doesn't matter who follows him as long as he has a following. He may or may not, as Hillary Clinton claimed, be an effective recruiting agent for ISIS but he sure does wonders for the dying American neo-Nazi movement.

There is no doubt that the thrill of having an audience of fans and admirers is a high on which it is easy for a public figure to get hooked; Elia Kazan's 1957 film A Face in the Crowd demonstrates that principle and its deep roots in American politics. But like any addiction it has the ability to rob people of their dignity in the pursuit of the next fix. People with the ability to feel things like shame and self-awareness are confronted with a moral dilemma; how far will I go to get more attention? Will I lie to get it? Will I stoop to appealing to the lowest common denominator? Will I wade into the basest swamps of populism, playing on racism and xenophobia in exchange for the thrill of standing before a crowd of admirers?

Well, Donald "Lonesome Rhodes" Trump doesn't need to worry about any such questions, because in his mind there is no question. There are no issues of morality or decency, only the goal of having cameras and microphones stuck in his face. Anything that accomplishes that goal is, by definition, acceptable behavior. The end result of his egomania, and the sad willingness of the ratings- and hits-hungry media to debase themselves by rewarding it, is the death of the last few vestiges of dignity in American elections. What were already expensive, hyperbolic spectacles of little interest to many voting-eligible Americans have now become fully indistinguishable from reality shows – and not even the higher class of reality shows that require participants to have some sort of talent to put forth for public consumption, but the most vulgar, Real Housewives of Whatever variety driven exclusively by egomania and delusions of grandeur. So that one man can get half-erect from an ephemeral feeling of power, we've turned the process of electing the president of our country (a process already teetering on the brink of credibility in recent years) into a nauseating hybrid of Survivor and a lynch mob.

There is neither use nor interest in criticizing the things Donald Trump says because the words don't even mean anything to him. They are simply his calculation of whatever he can say at a given moment to draw the most attention to himself. And at this he is truly gifted. No one can deny his incredible instinct for self-promotion. His ideology is not an ideology; there is nothing he says that you could not find in YouTube comments posted by 14 year old boys. He says what people who don't think about things believe. And that is why they find him so inspiring. He boasts of "telling it like it is" when even the most cursory look at his life would lead to the conclusion that this man hasn't the slightest experience with reality or How Things Are. Yet the evil genius of it is that his intended audience is far too dumb to consider that, or to care when it is pointed out to them. The kind of person who could convince himself that a spoiled, sociopathic billionaire is the voice that the Common Man really needs is fully prepared to accept any logical impossibility that he decides to embrace.

In short, Donald Trump is not merely a terrible person. He was the terrible person of 2015. God help us, he will probably ruin most of 2016 as well.

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