OUT IN THE STREET, THEY CALL IT MURDER

Posted in Rants on July 6th, 2016 by Ed

What can be said at this point that hasn't been said before? I got halfway through writing about Alton Sterling, felt like I was repeating myself (which no doubt was true) and realized that there was nothing to say that Roxane Gay didn't say in the New York Times:

It’s overwhelming to see what we are up against, to live in a world where too many people have their fingers on the triggers of guns aimed directly at black people. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to allow myself to feel grief and outrage while also thinking about change. I don’t know how to believe change is possible when there is so much evidence to the contrary. I don’t know how to feel that my life matters when there is so much evidence to the contrary.

This is what happens when tragedy becomes routine. Even with a second video that looks even worse (for the police) than the first, we all kinda know where this is going. It isn't going anywhere.The police will investigate themselves and determine they did nothing wrong. The Justice Department will make some noise and then back out once the media and public have moved on to something else.

After another round of listening to right-wing white men with hard-ons for guns (although oddly enough they don't seem to be leaping to the defense of Mr. Sterling's right to have had a gun in his pocket) invent a reality that allows them to pin the blame on anything and everything but race, we're left with the same problem. That police manage to place white people carrying guns under arrest constantly without shooting them, and that white people openly brandish guns (as allowed by law) without so much as a second glance from law enforcement, has to be explained away with complicated logical gymnastics to avoid the reality that police approach white and black suspects differently. They respond to them differently. Even black police treat black suspects differently. The culture of law enforcement reinforces the idea that a white person with a gun is probably a law abiding citizen who, even if arrested, certainly won't attack police. A black person is a criminal, period, and must be approached with a hair trigger since all black Americans really truly desire out of life is to kill cops.

In this case we've fabricated a tale in which a man with both hands cuffed behind his back and two police officers sitting on him was "reaching for a gun" despite the video showing nothing of the sort. It was bad enough in the days before smartphones when there was no visual evidence to contradict the horseshit Official Position of the police. And now that we have it, we're apparently willing to ignore it and stick with the old system of weaving a tale that conforms to our preferred conclusion, a racist version of the Just World Phenomenon wherein everyone gets exactly what they deserve and nothing more. Or less.

JIM RUTH GETS THE FJM TREATMENT

Posted in Rants on July 5th, 2016 by Ed

As the writers at Lawyers, Guns, and Money already noted, only the fact that the following opinion piece ran in the Washington Post (which presumably checks on such things) stands between us and the conclusion that it is a parody and its author is not a real person. "Jim Ruth" is taglined as a "retired financial adviser," which if true suggests that pretty much anyone can write a featured editorial in WaPo these days. Maybe if you send in 100 cereal box tops they give you 500 words. That explanation for how this happened is as plausible as any other.

If you're ready to read some Grade A, Hope Diamond level bullshit passive-aggressive rationalizations for voting for Donald Trump despite the fact that he is an idiot-child sociopath beloved by white supremacists and every American who has lost a toe on a carnival ride, read on. To reiterate one final time: this is real. You may need to come back to that sentence to ground yourself; it will be your Inception totem in the dreamlike netherworld of white Boomer fantasies in which you are about to be cast three levels deep. It is entitled – You ready? Have a sip of your drink. Dim the lights. – "I Hate Donald Trump. But He Might Get My Vote."

There is no god.

No Trump campaign buttons or bumper stickers for me.

That sounds like something a human adult who can read would say. That's great, but forgive me if we don't burst into applause for it. It's like declaring, "I have no plans at present to burn down a mosque." It's a declaration that raises questions about why you would even have considered it in the first place.

I’m part of the new silent majority: those who don’t like Donald Trump but might vote for him anyway.

Oh, you mean white people over 50. Yeah, no, that's not a majority. In fact you're all dying much more quickly than you're being replaced with new Old White People. Also I'm not entirely sure Jim Ruth knows what "silent" means. These people are the literal antithesis of silent. They bleat like goats being castrated without anesthetic. The average Trump supporter shouts more than any human being who is not employed as a gym teacher at a bad middle school. A roomful of Trump supporters sounds like a demented chorus of whistling teakettles backed by the undulating beat of an air raid siren.

For many of us, Trump has only one redeeming quality: He isn’t Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t want to turn the United States into a politically correct, free-milk-and-cookies, European-style social democracy where every kid (and adult, too) gets a trophy just for showing up.

If every email forward sent from a Hotmail or AOL account in the past eight years could be condensed into a single, insipid statement, this is it. If you didn't read that card catalog of right wing talking points in the voice of your uncle who claims he can't work because he's "disabled" but sure does ride his ATV and complain about lazy black people a lot, then you did it wrong.

Have you noticed that these people REALLY don't like "political correctness"? As best I can tell, what they mean is that they can no longer call that woman at work with short hair a dyke without getting in trouble. It's their god-given right, dammit.

Members of this new silent majority, many of us front-wave baby boomers, value hard work and love the United States the way it was.

Hoo-boy. I got some work to do here. OK. Members of (this new silent majority,)* (many of us)** front-wave baby boomers, value hard work and love the United States (the way it was)***

*Minority
**All of us
***Back when being white and male was 95% of the battle, and the other 5% was pretty much "not being Jewish or gay"

We long for a bygone era when you didn’t need “safe spaces” on college campuses to shelter students from the atrocity of dissenting opinions, lest their sensibilities be offended. We have the reckless notion that college is the one place where sensibilities are supposed to be challenged and debated. Silly us.

This is the Rainbow Parties of the 2010s. Honest to god, I have taught at three different universities of substantial enrollment and literally have not once ever encountered anything like this. This is what people who have never been on a college campus think a college campus is like. To the extent that students exist who feel this way, they are very few in number and probably no different a proportion of the student body today than such Overly Sensitive Strawmen have ever been in the past. Yeah, some people cry when they receive criticism for the first time. That isn't new. The other 99.9% of college students are interested in, in descending order, boning each other, getting drunk, and looking at their phones.

And please don’t try to stereotype us. We’re not uneducated, uninformed, unemployed or low-income zealots. We’re affluent, well-educated, gainfully employed and successfully retired. Some of us even own our own business, or did before we retired, creating not only our own job but also employment for others. While we’re fiscally conservative, we’re not tea partyers. And on certain social issues, many of us even have some leftward leanings. Shhhh . . .

OK so you're a "majority" but you're affluent, well-educated, and gainfully employed or retired? Yeah the majority of Americans are affluent. This guy knows what's up.

Bonus lolz: "Don't stereotype us! We're not like those Skoal-chomping fucktards who vote for the same people as us and believe all the same things we do! We're different."

The only pleasure the new silent majority has taken throughout this primary season has been watching progressives marinate in their own righteous indignation. They were giddy, like spoiled children opening Christmas presents, as they watched 17 Republican combatants call in airstrikes on one another. But eventually the tables turned as the Hillary-Bernie slugfest got ugly, and we took particular delight in the sourpuss expression on the faces of the lefties we know when they realized that the Republicans, left for dead, suddenly had new life and a chance to win the presidency.

It's hard to sum up six months of the nomination process involving 20-some candidates in a short paragraph, but…really? This is what Jim Ruth ("Jim Ruth") took away from that? Because it sounds an awful lot like the summary of a sporting event one would hear from someone who did not actually watch that sporting event but overheard some people who did watch it but aren't real bright summarize it.

We are under no illusions about Trump.

To read Jim Ruth say a bunch of things that contradict this statement directly, press 1
To read Jim Ruth tell some bumper sticker jokes about Hillary Clinton, press 2
To read Jim Ruth make a logically consistent argument suggesting underlying integrity, press 3

Hey, this phone doesn't have a 3!

We know that this Man Who Would Be King is a classic bully and a world-class demagogue in his personal, professional and political lives. He will continue to demonize his perceived enemies and take the low road at every opportunity.

Well those sound like some pretty goddamn convincing reasons not to vote for the man who gets to decide when nuclear weapons are used. I'd say that person would be quite dangerous with power.

And we know that if Trump makes it all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the view after that is murky at best.

SO WHY NOT LET'S ROLL THEM DICE, AMIRITE? Seems responsible.

We’re confident that he will surround himself with smart and capable people from the business world, as well as some Capitol Hill veterans. But here’s the rub: Past business associates describe him as a micromanager who likes yes men at his side. How long this new Washington brain trust will last in a Trump administration is anybody’s guess.

Yeah I'm also confident that the man who wants the GOP convention speakers to be a bunch of sports celebrities because he's "sick of politicians" is definitely going to surround himself with a real mix of talent and experience.

I read the work of college undergraduates for a living and this is the actual dumbest argument I've ever read.

Who’s to blame for the Trump phenomenon? There’s culpability on both sides of the aisle for the absence of bipartisanship that fueled his rise. The left blames the policies of a fragmented, delusional, right-wing GOP. But the left bears responsibility, too.

Who here is surprised that it's "the left's" fault? In fact, it wouldn't be entirely surprising if it was you know who's fault…

Turns out that the obstructers in Congress weren’t just the Republicans, as Bob Woodward reported in his book “The Price of Politics.” President Obama kept “moving the goal posts” in the 2011 sequester negotiations with Republicans. And who can forget the way Republicans were bullied over health care? They were left with no choice but to use every procedural maneuver in their arsenal to block, delay or postpone the liberal legislative agenda.

Ahh that's the stuff. OK seriously, which one of you wrote this? This section doesn't even make sense. And how could anyone not respect the intellectual integrity of an author who falls back on "We would totally be reasonable if the other side just wasn't so darn awful and dangerous" argument. Because that's what Republicans are: people who would work with Democrats if only they would believe all the same things as Republicans do.

So why then would rational, affluent, informed citizens consider voting for The Donald? Short of not voting at all — still an option some of us are considering — he’s the only one who appears to want to preserve the American way of life as we know it. For the new silent majority, the alternative to Trump is bleak: a wealthy, entitled progressive with a national security scandal in her hip pocket. In our view, the thought of four to eight more years of a progressive agenda polluting the American Dream is even more dangerous to the survival of this country than Trump is.

Finally, some honesty. What he means is, "We're scared." The world is different than it was fifty years ago – and somehow this surprises us, probably because we are unbelievably narcissistic and stupid – and we can't handle it. We want the demagogue who promises us that we can go back to women knowing their place and the homos staying in the closet and the blacks using the other door. That's what "American Dream" means to people like this guy – not the dream of freedom and prosperity, because as the author states he already has that. What it means, then, is the dream of a nation in which they (white men) hold a dominant position in the social, economic, and political hierarchy. He just claimed a few paragraphs ago that he and this "Silent Majority" have done extremely well. So if this isn't a social hierarchy thing, what exactly is it?

I'll wait.

So come Nov. 8, you’ll find many of us sheepishly sneaking into voting booths across the United States. Even after warily pulling the curtain closed behind us, we’ll still be looking over our shoulders to make sure the deed is shielded from view. Then, fighting a gag reflex, we’ll pull the lever. We hate Donald Trump. But he just might get our vote.

The funniest thing about this is the way he mocks Safe Spaces College Kids when in fact this entire column is a classic example of one of the most legitimately annoying thing The Kids These Days do: Wasting mental energy trying to explain how they have noble motives for making selfish choices. Look, Jim, you are going to vote for Donald Trump because he stands for everything you do. You just said as much in the preceding lines. All you're doing here is intellectualizing (or trying to, badly) your reactionary politics to make yourself look like a smart person making a sound, reasoned choice for which valid arguments can be made. I hope it made you feel better, Jim, because those of us who had to read it certainly don't. As the Kids say, tl;dr – Old racist white guy tries, fails to argue that he is not old racist white guy for voting for old racist white guy.

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PATRIOTIC REFLECTIONS

Posted in Rants on July 3rd, 2016 by Ed

On this Independence Day, don't let anyone tell you what it means to be an American.

Don't let whoever can shout the loudest define who is and is not a Real American. Ronald Reagan and Audie Murphy were Americans. So were Sandra Bland and Mother Jones and Fred Hampton and Eugene Debs and Paul Robeson.

Don't let other people use their total ignorance of history to invent an America that never was and then insist that we must return to it – an America devoid of slavery, inequality, Indian genocide, gender discrimination, and white supremacy.

Don't let anyone rewrite American history as an unbroken tableau of pure Rugged Individualism devoid of collective action, community, public goods, and the role of central government.

Don't feel ashamed to assert the difference between patriotism and jingoism just because the people around you think they are one and the same.

Don't forget that Mel Gibson or Chuck Norris or John Wayne war films are not documentaries. They are idealized fantasy versions of what in reality were struggles that required monumental collective sacrifice and effort to achieve success.

Don't let anyone forget that this country has, for more than 300 years, become home to people of every language, skin color, religion, nation of origin, and ethnicity. Rarely have we succeeded in welcoming all of these people with open arms, but we have the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and recognize how much better we are for it.

Don't support the fallacy that America has buried all of its problems in the past; that, OK, maybe a few people used to be racist but now we elected a black president so racism is over; that the drum beat of war hawks may have led us astray a few times, but this time is different; that we used to discriminate against women but stopped, and we used to treat poor people badly but now we don't, and that unfettered Robber Baron capitalism brought us to ruin once but this time just you watch and see the magic.

Don't let anyone convince you that it's OK to vilify other Americans to justify one's own failures. The poor did not steal your money. The Mexicans did not steal your job. Nobody is coming for Your Women or your guns or your Bibles.

Don't be silent when people voice support for denying rights to other Americans that they demand for themselves.

Don't let descriptions of the Good Ol' Days go unchallenged, without pointing out how many people had to be oppressed and discriminated against to allow white middle class America to enjoy the post-War prosperity to the extent that it did.

Don't listen to rants about The Young People These Days without recognizing how many advantages our predecessors had that young people today do not and never will have.

Don't be swayed by symbolism and empty emotional appeals. Think about what being an American means rather than shouting bumper sticker slogans.

Don't forget to remember all that we do have without forgetting all of the ways in which we can do better.

And, most importantly, no matter how much as it seems like a good idea to light a firework while it's in your hand, trust me on this one. It isn't a good idea.

NPF: HOME OF THE FUTURE

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 2nd, 2016 by Ed

The buildings we live in have changed remarkably little over the past few centuries. Sure, they're better constructed today and take advantage of a slew of technological advances. Fundamentally they haven't changed much – some combination of wood, stone, and metal on a concrete or stone-like foundation. Build some load-bearing walls and top it off with some kind of roof that hopefully won't catch fire or let the rain in. Put a few windows in the walls for light and ventilation. Add some doors. Voila.

I've always been fascinated by efforts to depart from this basic formula, none of which ever manage to catch on. That suggests that people are resistant to change, but also that, well, the basic design works pretty damn well. Sometimes we stick with things because they don't need much improvement.

Two specific examples from the United States of efforts to improve upon the basic design are, to me, especially interesting. One is the Lustron home that emerged after World War II in response to the nationwide shortage of cheap housing for returning GI Bill home buyers. Lustron was a marketing name for steel baked with a porcelain enamel. The sales pitch was that such homes eliminated the maintenance and deterioration issues of wood and drywall. It never needed to be painted, it wouldn't absorb moisture, and it would not fade or crumble with time. And believe it or not, to look at the surviving Lustron homes today you'd never guess their age from the condition of the exterior. The homes were very small by current standards (about the size of an average 1 or 2 bedroom apartment today) but the manufacturers were not kidding about the durability of the enameled steel construction. They did not rust or wear.

lustron

Despite the advantages (and some disadvantages, as temperature control was an issue with the steel walls) the heavily marketed homes were not backed by a robust system of manufacturing and distribution. In other words, they were great at selling them but not great at building them as quickly as competing vendors of traditional wood-and-vinyl siding houses could slap them together. People wanted houses and they wanted them now. Lustron could promise a nice house, but with subdivisions exploding around major cities with cheap ranch houses the buyer could step into tomorrow, the company eventually failed. They had the last laugh, though. Compare these homes today to any houses flung together in haste between 1945 and 1950 and see which one you'd want to occupy.

The other scheme – one remarkable in its failure given the man behind it – was Thomas Edison's all-concrete home. Though better known for other things Edison and his associates made great advances in the mass production of concrete ("Portland cement") in the United States, and his company came to be a major player in that industry. Edison and some other wealthy backers believed that a cheap poured concrete home was the solution to America's housing needs, arguing that such homes could be built rapidly and at low cost due to the simplicity of materials. And when Edison said "concrete home" he meant the whole damn thing. They had concrete furniture. Concrete appliances. Concrete walls, floors, and roof. You were getting a house that you could move into immediately with almost no possessions.

Unfortunately, while the material used to build the homes was simple, the process of building one was extremely impractical. Builders refused even to consider buying a quarter-million dollars worth of molds, forms, and pouring equipment necessary to begin constructing them. Those who tried found that construction was near impossible, since they could not figure a way to keep the concrete poured at floor level from hardening before the rest of the home had been poured on top of it. Concrete that dries at different rates ends up brittle, and test homes ended up leaking. And it turns out concrete furniture and appliances are kind of a terrible idea.

To his credit, the small number of concrete houses built have aged beautifully. Visitors have described them as claustrophobic on the inside, with the unusual temperature and acoustics of a concrete bunker (not surprisingly). While they are rather cool in summer, they're freezing in the winter. They were just too hard to build and too "different" from traditional wood-framed housing to catch on. Home builders didn't want to make them and home buyers weren't interested in buying them. The handful that were built are footnote curiosities today.

Don't even get me started on missile silo homes or we could be here all day.

NEW NORMAL

Posted in Rants on June 29th, 2016 by Ed

While some people devote their mental energy to going insane with fear and retreat into the belief that any problem can be solved with enough money and Anglo-Saxon masculine Toughness, the rest of the world begins to realize that living with the permanent, inescapable threat of terrorism is just the new normal. We are seeing why terrorism is so effective and so popular as a tactic – it works. It creates a state of constant fear driven home by the realization that it can't be stopped. It can be fought against, curtailed, and kept in check, but it can never be stopped. As long as there are a handful of people who can get their hands on guns (and god knows anyone can) and think of some brilliant strategy on the order of, "Let's go to the mall / airport / train station and shoot a bunch of people!", terrorism will continue. There is no way around it. High tech, expensive plots can be foiled because there are so many things that have to go right to make them work. Low cost, crude plots like the kind seen in Paris, Orlando, or Istanbul. It's some guys with homemade bombs and cheap guns. No perversion of the balance between freedom and security can account for that, provided they're not dumb enough to do things like call information and ask for the number for ISIS.

You can kill as many terrorists as you want, pass a bunch of laws that create the illusion of security, and vote for as many right-wing xenophobic ultra-nationalists as you can find, and ultimately it won't bring the one thing everyone seeks: peace of mind. The feeling that one can live and work and travel and play without the risk of some idiot with a small arsenal bursting in and blowing himself up or firing off a few hundred rounds. The risks can be minimized but never eliminated, which is slowly driving older, more reactionary cliques in the Western world insane. This isn't The Commies who could be kept at bay with Deterrence and saber-rattling, nor the Nazis or Imperial Japan who could be bombed and burned and shot into submission. It's a new, persistent threat that our aging leaders are trying to counter with strategies from a different era.

Europe and the US are starting to experience a state of affairs that is already quite familiar to states with weaker central governments. Take your average poor or moderately developed country and the power of the government doesn't extend much beyond the borders of major urban areas. With rural areas not under effective control, the urban population gets used to living with endless, percolating insurgency in The Countryside. And every once in a while a car bomb explodes or a mortar shell lands in the suburbs or someone wearing a vest of cheap plastic explosives blows himself up in a market. That's just life.

This is what happens now. Get used to it. Anyone who claims to know how to stop it either doesn't understand the nature of the threat or is lying.

EXIT ENGLISH

Posted in Quick Hits on June 27th, 2016 by Ed

If you have never noticed that most (but not all) post titles here are song titles or lyrics, rest assured that today it was a difficult choice between what you see above and "Stop Me if You've Heard This One Before." Because I know you're going to be truly shocked to hear this, but the UK's vote to exit the EU is yet another example of people over 50 voting to destroy an institution that, having benefited from it for decades, they no longer wish to pay for. There is some interesting exit polling data here that ultimately boils down to a tale you're tired of hearing. Old people wanted it, young people didn't. Dumb people wanted it, people who have Fancy Book Learnin' didn't. Repeat until we're fighting over a conch shell.

brexit

It's impossible to read voters' minds based on election results. Vote totals are like an ancient oracle – everyone agrees that they are saying something but exactly what is, even if few are willing to admit it, ambiguous at best. It is hard to tell if older British voters are ignorant of how much they as individuals and as a group benefited from membership in the EU or if they simply no longer consider the benefits to be relevant to them personally and therefore no longer care to pay for others to enjoy them. If they are retired on fixed incomes, perhaps they simply no longer respond well to arguments about The Economy writ large. If they don't care to leave a 20 mile radius around their homes, maybe unrestricted travel within a group of 27 nations has lost its appeal. Or perhaps they're at that point of decay at which fear of a changing world, dislike of anyone and anything Different, and good old fashioned nativism trumps anything approaching a rational analysis of costs and benefits.

Ironically, if the UK is anything like the USA, the Eastern European immigrants that so vex older British people are the only ones who will accept the pitiful wages offered to wipe their ancient asses in hospitals and retirement homes across the country. At this rate, god knows their children will be neither willing nor able to care for them as they age. We've already got two jobs that don't pay enough to make ends meet.

TALES OF WHITE RESENTMENT: THE MURDER OF VINCENT CHIN

Posted in Rants on June 23rd, 2016 by Ed

On June 23, 1982, thirty-four years ago today, two unemployed Detroit auto workers (both white) were hanging out at a strip club called Fancy Pants in Highland Park. At the same time, a Chinese-American named Vincent Chin was there having his bachelor party. Drunkenly, the white auto workers began harassing him and his party, at one point yelling according to witnesses, "It's because of you motherfuckers we're out of jobs!" Chin did in fact work tangentially in the auto industry as a draftsman for a parts supplier on the outskirts of Detroit. Unless the Chinese auto industry was more relevant in 1982 than anyone outside of Fancy Pants knew, it is assumed that the hecklers thought Chin was Japanese. Close enough for angry white people, I guess.

Chin, according to witnesses, exercised his God-given right to fuck with drunk assholes, making fun of them and verbally egging them on. So they responded in that whitest, malest of ways, scouring the neighborhood for a half-hour after the club emptied out before finding Chin in a McDonald's, presumably drunkenly waylaying some fries. They waited until he emerged and then beat him to death in the street with a baseball bat. Any number of the blows to his head once he was unconscious could have been the fatal one. Witnesses, of which there were many, reported hearing them yell further racial slurs at him.

Beating a person to death in front of an audience with the knowledge that one is unlikely to be punished is something Americans usually associate with white-on-black violence in the pre-Civil Rights South, but it worked in 1982 Detroit as well. The Wayne County prosecutor and judge not only allowed them to plea-bargain down from 2nd Degree Murder (murder without premeditation, which is actually kind of dubious here given the length of time they spent searching for their intended victim, but we'll let that slide) to Manslaughter, but he noted that "These aren't the kind of men you send to jail" when releasing them immediately with a small fine and three whole years of probation.

It doesn't take a very deep reflection on the current state of the country to realize that little has changed in the last 34 years. Any behavior up to and including cracking someone's skull with a baseball bat is acceptable as long as the perpetrators are white, the victims aren't Real Americans anyway, wink, and white people have sufficient cause to be (choose one: angry, scared). The lesson we refuse to learn from the murder of Vincent Chin and thousands of other crimes like it is that the more we scapegoat and condone vilification of a group of people, the more we signal that their lives aren't worth quite as much as our white ones. There are a ton of not-terribly bright people out there – the kind who get drunk at strip clubs and think it's a decent idea to beat someone to death because he or she made you mad – who internalize that message very well. It turns out that if you tell enough half-wits enough times that (insert demographic group) is to blame for the problems in their life resulting from ignorance, laziness, and limited opportunities, some will eventually cross the line from merely being assholes into violence. Every aspect of our society, culture, and justice system that reinforces the message that Their lives are valued at a discount shares responsibility for crimes like this one, not for swinging the bat into the skull but for teaching white people, especially men, that the system will look the other way and accept the right to commit violent acts out of hate as just another thing they are owed.

AGENDA-SETTING

Posted in Quick Hits on June 22nd, 2016 by Ed

CNN ran the ten-thousandth story about how Social Security will "run dry," this time "by 2034." The headline is misleading, as the story goes on to explain that beyond that date Social Security benefits would be reduced, not eliminated, but that's only the second-most dishonest thing going on here. The full text includes the following gem of Beltway consensus "Guarantee victory for the status quo by defining the options" agenda-setting:

To make all of Social Security solvent for the next 75 years would require the equivalent of any of the following: immediately raising the Social Security payroll tax rate to 14.98% from 12.4% on the first $118,500 of wages; cutting benefits by 16%; or some combination of the two.

In The Semi-Sovereign People, E.E. Schattschneider asserted that "the definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power" (1960/1975, 66). We may never find a better example than this one. Here are your options, America: raise taxes or cut benefits. Or, you know, we could lift the earnings cap ("on the first $118,500 of wages") that serves as little more than a tax break for people making six figures and then fund the system for the next century without a second thought. Congress could do that at any time, and it happens to be the simplest and best solution to the problem. Too bad it's not an option. There are only two of those: raise payroll taxes or cut benefits. Any questions?

If you get a stain on your shirt, according to CNN I guess your only two options would be to continue wearing the stained garment or throw it away. Getting it cleaned to remove the stain is just crazy talk.

FEEL THE ACTUAL BURN

Posted in Rants on June 21st, 2016 by Ed

A minor news item from the weekend.

On Sunday a passenger flight from Houston to Phoenix turned around midway and landed safely at Houston. There were no mechanical issues. All passengers and crew were healthy. No storms were encountered. What happened was that the pilots and their airline were aware of laws that forbid planes to land when the temperature exceeds 120 degrees. At that point certain instruments on older planes may lose precision and smaller planes are subject to additional danger from the waves of heat radiating up from the ground.

It's likely that the plane could have proceeded without incident and the turnaround could be described as an abundance of caution. But the incident highlights the fact that Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport recorded a record high of 117 F in the shade on Sunday, with ground temps on the black asphalt runway easily over 120. For the overseas folks, 117 F is 47 C. It is, in the scientific sense, balls hot. It's almost too hot to imagine. Having spent a fair amount of time in southern Arizona, I subscribe to the easy to mock "It's a dry heat!" theory. Compared to sweltering Midwestern and Southern humidity, I find that 100 F in the dry desert does not feel as hot – as long as you're in the shade. 110 F in the shade might be bearable, even if still hot. In the sun you'd be dead in a couple of hours.

The question the current Southwestern heat wave raises is one that is one it might be useful to start thinking about more: At what point is it just going to get too hot to live in some parts of the world? Calm down, I'm not talking about right now. In the long term – thirty or forty years down the road – the continuation of current warming trends could push it to the limit of what we can reasonably inhabit. Some serious research has suggested that at some point between 2050 and 2100, for example, parts of the Middle East and Africa may simply be too hot for humans to survive in. Granted it is arguable that humans can survive in any environment given all the advantages of technology, but with caveats. One is that infrastructure degrades at a certain point – roads buckle, rails bend, and transformers explode. Another is that if the ability to live in an environment depends entirely on limitless availability of water, electricity, and air conditioning in the middle of deserts, such an environment is "habitable" only in a limited sense. We assume those things, which far from guarantees that they will always be there. The combination of water scarcity and sheer heat eventually have to reach a breaking point. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but we can't hold back nature forever.

Long-time readers know my Crazy Old Man theory that the mass migration of population and economic resources to the Sun Belt is a temporary phenomenon. There simply is no long-term logic, for example, to having 10 million people live in the Phoenix-Tucson urban area with water sufficient to sustain maybe a quarter that many. Add in (slowly) rising temperatures, longer summers, and explosive population growth and it's clear that the current trends cannot continue indefinitely. The United States industrialized and populated itself from the Northeast and Midwest because, despite the crappy winters, they were actually survivable during the summer before the widespread availability of cheap power and they have ample water resources for transportation, agriculture, and urban use. We probably won't be alive to see the waves of migration reverse and move back in that direction, but it will happen eventually. The funny thing about unsustainable behavior is that it can't go on forever.

SHITTY MIDAS

Posted in Rants on June 19th, 2016 by Ed

As horrifying as his rise has been, from an academic perspective it's hard not to find Trump interesting. One thing I wrote about a while back is the rare opportunity to see a modern American election devoid of ideological content. We also get to watch a campaign and candidate almost literally do everything wrong. Even in situations that are difficult for a campaign to botch, Trump finds a way. He's like King Midas, if everything he touched turned into a rancid heap of excrement instead of gold.

As common as they are in our society, a spree shooting is a pretty easy, routine play for an elected official or candidate. "What a terrible tragedy. My thoughts are with the victims, families, and community. We must (proposal that will never happen but sounds good) to avoid tragedies of this kind in the future." It's very difficult to screw up. Certainly it's difficult to screw up to the extent that your terrible response as a candidate overshadows the event itself. But here we are. He went from bad – congratulating himself on his own brilliance without mentioning the victims – to incomprehensibly bad, which is to say things so stupid that even the NRA has to distance itself from the rhetoric. Ignoring the fact that an armed, on-duty Orlando PD officer was at the club during the event, Trump rambled to a salivating audience:

"If we had people, where the bullets were going in the opposite direction, right smack between the eyes of this maniac," Trump said, gesturing between his eyes. "And this son of a b—- comes out and starts shooting and one of the people in that room happened to have (a gun) and goes boom. You know what, that would have been a beautiful, beautiful sight, folks."

Because what we really want is piss-drunk 23 year olds at "last call" time at a dance club firing a gun for any reason, ever. NRA lobbyists had to hit the Sunday shows to point out, "No one thinks that people should go into a nightclub drinking and carrying firearms. That defies commonsense. It also defies the law. It's not what we're talking about here," and "I don't think you should have firearms where people are drinking." That is, the Republican candidate for president could not manage to make statements about gun rights that the NRA could agree with. That's incredible, if you think about it. Almost impossible to believe. Yet here you have it.

It's also interesting to watch Trump try to use a positive affect toward LGBT people as a means of furthering anti-Muslim sentiment – which is a page straight out of Geert Wilders' playbook for modern far right politics in Europe. One author called this "pro-gay Islamophobia," which is a neat phrase. It's concern trolling about the intolerance toward gays and lesbians in Islam (and, you know, Christianity, but that part gets left out) to further the argument that the religion is somehow incompatible with Western Values. The goal is to make xenophobia and anti-immigration policies more palatable to people who instinctively avoid ultra right wing politics. It's the face of a kinder, gentler neo-Nazism.

We might as well get used to the fact now that the statement "Surely it can't get any worse than this" is bound to be false at any point in this campaign; any assertion that we've hit rock bottom inevitably will end up being retracted and revised.