AT LEAST I KNOW I'M FREE

Posted in Rants on July 5th, 2017 by Ed

I almost made it through Independence Day without hearing Lee Greenwood. Alas, I asked too much of myself and this great land.

When I heard it on Tuesday evening, under protest, I marveled at the spectacular corniness of the lyrics. Of particular note is the refrain insisting that the best part about being American is that, come what may, at least Americans have Freedom.

This song was written at the tail end of the Cold War and relied heavily, as did all unsophisticated appeals to patriotism, on the Communist boogeyman. People who lived through that era remember well the tales of political prisons, bread lines, state-controlled everything, and generalized gray malaise that awaited the Free World if Communism were to emerge victorious from the battle of ideologies.

There is no point in rehashing all of that here. What is important and uncontroversial is that the Cold War is over. Communism is Over, despite the handful of mental stragglers who insist that China's lip-service version counts. Other than North Korea, which is too crazy and pitiful to serve as a boogeyman that threatens the Way of Life of the Free World, it is difficult to find examples today of people who are not Free in the sense that Lee Greenwood and Americans during the Cold War used that term.

There are only two threats to the Freedoms of Americans now: ourselves, and our economic system.

To the extent that Americans are not free to say or live as they please today, it is because groups of people who have been oppressed continue to be oppressed by a political majority that insists on imposing its beliefs and cultural attitudes on everyone. To the extent that our ability to do what we please with our lives is limited, it is because we are all too busy trying to scrape together enough money to make ends meet to do anything else.

Implicit in the Cold War Freedom narrative was the ability of a person who worked to earn enough to support a family and perhaps even enjoy a few things in life. Now that we have replaced that notion with "Get a second job" and "Spend your free time serving people in the Sharing Economy," the idea that we are Free because we can wave Bibles around and hoard guns and go online and say awful, stupid, unhinged things is only fooling the easily fooled at this point. An honest appraisal of their own lives by anyone who spent Tuesday belting out Lee Greenwood's chorus would conclude that we are all as free as we can afford to be, and no more. Big Brother isn't the reason you're not free to do what you want with your life; capitalism is.

That is not to say, "Tear down capitalism! Anarchy! Full Communism or fuck off!" It is to say that we owe it to ourselves to be realistic about what, if anything, makes us feel less Free. What are the limitations of your life? What makes it so that you can't say what you want to say, live where and how you want to live, and be happy as you define it? There's a very good chance that the answers to those questions sound the same for most of us: you need a paycheck, and you're tied to a job you probably hate. And because of forces entirely beyond your control, it's very likely impossible for you to quit, move, live as you please, and still somehow pay your ever increasing cost of living.

If "Freedom" means saying whatever we want on the internet and buying a lot of stuff, we have Freedom. But take a look at the unemployment numbers, your stagnant earnings, and the job opportunities around you and Freedom in a more mature, meaningful sense may not feel like the right word anymore.

YOU ARE CELEBRATING PEOPLE WHO READ BOOKS

Posted in Rants on July 3rd, 2017 by Ed

Standard patriotic celebrations of the 4th of July must, as if guided by some unseen law, involve the worship of the people and icons that represent Freedom. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Liberty Bell, and of course The Founders – Washington and Jefferson are the standards, Madison makes the occasional appearance, Hamilton is Cool now, and honestly I wonder how many people know Lincoln was not a contemporary of any of them.

It is trite to point out that the majority of Americans displaying these symbols can tell you almost nothing factual about them. Everyone loves the Constitution but nobody has read it. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are effectively the same thing to many adults. Details of the lives of The Holy Founders are scant; you can drop jaws easily by pointing out that Jefferson didn't write the Constitution. Americans are bad at history. Nothing about this is new or interesting.

That was as true during the founding days of this country as it is today. Your "average man" in 1776 was barely literate or worse. But in the past, we've been less open about embracing ignorance, stupidity, and lack of intellectual curiosity as desired attributes in our leaders than we do at present. A nation that embraces the current president not in spite of but because of the fact that he has never read a book and does not know basic facts about American history is about to wave around the names and images of people like Jefferson without realizing the irony of the mixed messages.

Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect who owned the largest private library of books in the world at one point in his life. He founded the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress. He described his idols as Newton, Locke, and Bacon. He chaired the American Philosophical Society for a time. He spoke and wrote in five languages including English. He invented several gadgets for which he received patents.

The point is not that Jefferson was a Good Person. There is considerable room for criticism of his views (on slavery, most obviously). The point is that, in addition to being kind of a hypocrite and a d-bag with a sketchy private life like all elected officials before or since, he was smart. He was interested in things. What allowed him to achieve the things for which dullards wave around his picture and scream WOOO AMERICA! today was that he, in the common parlance, read books and stuff.

In addition to T-Jeff, the "Committee of Five" that drafted the Declaration of Independence included:

-John Adams, a lawyer who studied religion at Harvard and throughout his life.

-Benjamin Franklin, the inventor, linguist, philosopher, and Man of Earthly Delights whose accomplishments are so extensive and well known that they need not be repeated here but seriously this guy's idea of a good time was writing a new alphabet. And orgies. He also liked orgies.

-Roger Sherman, a major founder of Yale University, lawyer, career public servant, probably the most "all business" of this fivesome.

-Robert Livingston, speaker of six languages, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, amassed his own near-Jeffersonian private library, self-taught engineer, enthusiast of education in The Classics

Maybe in their private lives they were all scumbags. But our system of government is designed to function under the leadership of scumbags; idiots, however, present a much more serious challenge. Today we glorify people the nation's founding men – giving them more credit than any small group of people deserves, of course, for shaping the institutions of such a large country – while missing the point completely on what made them "Great" as the average modern Patriot would so define it.

They were "Great" and they accomplished things because they were not stupid. They were not Great because they "believed in small government" or "were for individual rights" or whatever spittle you might get by posing this question to random Patriots over the holiday. They were children of the Enlightenment, and they were interested in learning things. It is a deep irony that the people most likely to hold them up as examples of all that is right in American history are the least likely to follow their example and pick up a goddamn book at some point.

NOTES ON A DICTATOR

Posted in Quick Hits on June 29th, 2017 by Ed

In 1961, Esquire asked Saul Bellow to comment on Nikita Khrushchev's antics during his second visit to the United States. The Russian's first trip in 1959 was a source of merriment for everyone involved, a two-week carnival with Nikita K as its grinning, mugging star. His second visit was limited to New York City and was spent mostly in the headquarters of the UN, highlighted by K's infamous shoe-banging incident. Bellow wrote of the chaotic man in control of a massive nuclear arsenal with global reach (original article behind paywall):

Masked in smiles and peasant charm, or exploding in anger, the Russian premier releases his inner feelings and if we are not shaken by them it is because we are not in close touch with reality.

That seems relevant today for some reason.

A MODEST PROPOSAL FOR CONGRESSIONAL HOUSING

Posted in Rants on June 28th, 2017 by Ed

Many are the tribulations of serving the one's fellow man in that most august of legislatures, that which convenes under the opulent dome of the Capitol of the United States in Washington, D.C. The endless toil one undertakes in pursuit of the Common Good is well enough known that we need not recount those tales of hell here. But reader, being in session for up to six fortnights annually is just the tip of the iceberg of Congressional lamentations. I prithee be seated and have ready a strong drink as I take the reader through horrors as yet unimagined.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah showed exceptional bravery in calling attention to a problem that legislators have suffered heretofore in silence. Despite being paid the paltry sum of $174,000 per annum, members of Congress must contend with the high costs of housing in our kingdom's capital. Dear reader, your heart would break to hear some of the tales of what these poor, gallant men have suffered in private. Orrin Hatch was found recently living in the L'Enfant Plaza bus station, earning cold bits of oatcake and treacle from a cruel blacksmith for whom he rendered the most back-breaking service. Mitch McConnell wishes fortune would smile on him as much; he is taken to wandering the streets of his evenings, lighting his way through the mazes of tenements with a short length of rope dipped in embalming fluid and set ablaze. Where he finds his meals we dare not ask.

Can this be acceptable in a society that fancies itself civilized? I think not. Reo. Chaffetz has requested in the spirit of humility and Christian charity a $2,500 monthly allowance for housing these wretches of public service, the amount reflecting not avarice but the rapacious cost of housing in our capital. Only his imminent retirement to gentlemanly life with what remains of his shattered health enables him to make such a bold proposal, one so necessary to the spirit of democracy yet so incomprehensible to the common man.

The prejudice and simpleness of the ordinary American dooms this proposal to a stillbirth. He who is happy to live in a shack and eat whichever child is least likely to survive cholera cannot but marvel at the thought of $2,500 – every month, at that! Nay, then, we cannot renumerate our humble servants. Fortunately there is another way. I daresay, a better way.

How, your author was brought to wonder, has the government of this great nation dealt with the lack of affordable lodgings in our cities in the past? Surely elected officials are not the first citizens to fall victim to these horrors, First Citizens though they may be. And I am pleased to report, reader, that a solution presented itself upon diligent research.

Pray Congress appropriate the funds to build one large edifice – a tower in the mold of the greatest tall buildings of our greatest cities – with 535 units of individual residence! Within this single building every member may find succor and comfort without privation without burdening the nation with annual payments of rapacious rents. Thus with a single building project of reasonable scope (the erection of such a structure is well within the means of the most pedestrian of the men of trades) can the state provide for the needs of the many burdened by a poverty of available lodgings!

Such a concept is likely foreign to the reader; thus an illustrationist has undertaken to provide this rendition of the spirit of the work:

Thus has the state provided for the needs of the unhoused in the past; thus shall it be again in the future! Failing this, let us eat them.

Submitted humbly for your consideration,
G. Tacos

YES, THE COLIN KAEPERNICK THING IS ABOUT POLITICS

Posted in Rants on June 27th, 2017 by Ed

If you're an NFL fan you can skip ahead a bit. If not, grab a drink and gird yourself: I have to explain a football thing. Without it, the institutionalized racism and "It's OK to be opinionated so long as your opinion is virulently jingoistic and fetishizes the military!" culture won't make sense.

Briefly, at any given moment there are maybe 12 human beings on the planet capable of playing Quarterback in the NFL well enough for a team to reach and win the Super Bowl. For reasons you are not interested in, it's the hardest athletic role to fill in team sports. This explains, if you were curious, why the same few famous names end up in the Super Bowl year after year: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers. Because their teams are lucky enough to have one of the small number of humans who is good enough to get them to the championship. There are probably 10-15 more "OK" quarterbacks who can lead their teams to the playoffs, but only a few truly elite ones.

I mention this to preface the point that anyone – ANY ONE – with the merest glimmer of talent at the QB position is given dozens of opportunities to play until he has failed so many times that there is absolutely, conclusively no doubt that he doesn't Have It. The shortage of QB talent is so acute that even a hint that a guy can play is worth a look. Played well in college? Bring him in! Had a couple good games as someone's backup? Bring him in! Led the Biloxi Deer Ticks to the Mississippi Semi-Pro Football Conference title last year? Bring him in!

A football fan friend and have a running joke about a forgettable player named Jason Campbell. Because he started for a team once (and was not good), he attracted the label "Former starter" or "capable of starting" and parlayed it into a long career with many teams. He was never good, yet team after team would bring "former starter Jason Campbell" in and give him his 37th chance to prove himself a good QB. He wasn't.

OK. Now. In context, Colin Kaepernick took a team to the Super Bowl. Not "showed potential to." Not "Played in the Super Bowl of the Norwegian Summer League." The actual Super Bowl. And. AND. His team came within one iffy referee's call of winning that game. His game has shortcomings and he has played less spectacularly since that Super Bowl – again, not worth going into – but he took a team to within one play of a championship in a league that will give literally any bum whose arm hasn't fallen off multiple shots. Now, he can't find a job and more than a few of the bolder voices in the sport are starting to wonder.

Is his style on the field unconventional? Yes. But you cannot and will not convince me that in a league where winning is everything, coaches get fired if they don't produce, and teams spend billions shooting for Super Bowls that no team would look at his body of work and think "Let's have him in for a look-see. You remember him, he's that fella who almost won the Super Bowl that one time."

You will not convince me – football reference joke ahead – that a league in which Josh McCown is on his TENTH team and is being handed a starting job yet again despite never having done so much as sniff a winning record has no use for Colin Kaepernick on the field. Teams routinely sign guys proven beyond any shred of a doubt to be mediocre or worse with no room for improvement. No league in which a coach can convince himself that he's going to ride Mike Fucking Glennon to a championship is one in which a coach cannot look at Kaepernick and think, "I'll recapture the magic!"

So when players grumble that Kaepernick has been blackballed for his outspokenness, what they are really saying is, "We have a guy playing QB who can't hit his ass with both hands in his back pockets, and you're telling me Colin can't find a job?" They know. They know better than anyone how rare a QB is, how terrible some of the QBs in the league are, and how many times a player with the tiniest shred of talent is given second, third, eighth, tenth chances to start. But when a guy kneels for the National Anthem or says "Hey it might be nice if cops stopped shooting black people," suddenly his phone won't ring.

It's not hard to figure out. All the excuses in the world can be made and have been made. The NFL has no policy against players voicing their opinions when those opinions are similar to the content of a Fox News comment section. That's just fine. Anything spicier than that, though, and the league can't handle it.

There's no conspiracy. It's a case of the biases being ingrained in the system so thoroughly that nobody even needs to tell teams not to sign him. They wouldn't dream of it.

THE JEFFERSONS, BUT SUPER WHITE

Posted in Quick Hits on June 27th, 2017 by Ed

Movin' on up (Moooovin' on Up!)
To the East Side

For the first time I received money in exchange for writing a thing and I put my real name on it. Check out this thing on Rolling Stone about paying less attention to Trump and more to state legislative elections in 2018, since state capitols are the source of the real nightmare legislation in recent years.

More exciting (for me anyway) developments are a-brewin'. Stick around.

OH FOR TWO

Posted in Rants on June 25th, 2017 by Ed

A curious pair of totally unconnected articles made the rounds last week.

Bruce Bartlett, a Republican and former Reagan White House hand, wrote a well-reasoned piece for Politico with the says-it-all title, "Trump is What Happens when a Political Party Abandons Ideas." The argument is one that most of us already knew (although there is something refreshing about hearing it stated explicitly) – that in the pursuit of power, the GOP has engaged in so much hypocrisy that it no longer really stands for anything. If everything is OK as long as a Republican does it – and oh my god is it ever OK to the post-Reagan GOP – then there really is nothing that defines the party except the quest to remain in power. Bartlett's argument is not flawless. For example, most people would recognize at least some core policies associated with the GOP; cutting taxes (albeit with no real strategy or goal other than to cut them and keep cutting them) and making the government not work are two things all GOPers seem to embrace. In the larger sense, though, he is right. There are no white papers supporting their policy goals. Hell, in eight years they didn't even bother to assign some junior staffer to grab two interns and bang out some kind of "alternative" to the ACA.

A few days before Bartlett went to press, the usually unbearable Matthew Yglesias noted in response to the Georgia special election, "Jon Ossoff’s Georgia special election loss shows Democrats could use a substantive agenda." The original title of this piece was much spicier, and toning it down is the Vox-iest thing Vox ever Voxed. But in the resplendently logical argument, the author makes the important point that the Democratic Party has nailed "Trump is bad" and "Republicans are bad people, and we are the alternative to Republicans," but have essentially no coherent policy agenda that a normal voter could name. I argued last week that all special election analysis is over-analysis and that these attempts to divine meaning from a House race here or there are ridiculous. That remains true. However, Yglesias is correct that the Democrats have run these races in heavily red districts like some sort of weird referendum on Democrats being Different from Republicans without making it clear exactly how other than being hipper, more charismatic, and Not Republicans.

Some of you can see where I'm going with this.

If both of these authors are correct, then we have two political parties that aren't really about anything. They're competing fiercely and inarguably offering Americans some kind of choice – only someone truly out on a limb would argue that there is no difference at all between having Trump or Hillary in the White House – but they're more like two sports teams than opposing political parties at this point. How can you have two groups locked in fierce competition when neither one of them really stands for or is about anything coherent? Easy: you frame things as the politics of identity. Republicans present themselves as Real America – the red-blooded, gun- and Bible-waving tough guys who like big bombs and shitty gas mileage and women and minorities who Know their Place. Democrats present themselves as the educated elite that lives in big cities and looks down its nose at people who shop at Wal-Mart, think the Earth is 6000 years old, and drive big stupid trucks.

Granted, defining the political process around a cultural or identity based divide is viable. It has been and is done around the world. Sure, it usually results in people trying to purge society of the Other, but besides that I can't think of any drawbacks.

The obvious imperative is to get back to having a political system based on opposing views about the appropriate policy direction of the government. But given that most of the country isn't even interested in learning if the Kremlin altered our election results, let's not hold our breath.

PROGRAMMING NOTE, 6/2017

Posted in Quick Hits on June 25th, 2017 by Ed

I've noticed the post frequency trailing off a bit, but for once I have a half-decent excuse. Without getting into any premature details, I've been doing a great deal of writing lately. Sometimes after a full day spent writing, the last thing one feels motivated to do in the evening leisure hours is more writing. Plus, the quality of writing one produces at the tail end of a long session often is quite poor, like the 9th inning pitches of a guy who has already thrown eight innings on a hot day.

The situation has been noted, and the management is working to improve it. Please remain patient. There is a payoff.

THE BEEF O'BRADY'S BOWL OF POLITICS

Posted in Rants on June 21st, 2017 by Ed

Every sport has an off-season and dead periods in which a fan will lower his or her standards considerably to be entertained. College football, for instance, has a dead month between the end of the season (around Thanksgiving) and its Bowl games (centered around Jan. 1). Some of the more piddling Bowl games try to take advantage of this by scheduling themselves on dates with no other sporting competition. Say you run the Hot Dogs Bowl, which matches up teams like Southwestern Tech vs. Wyoming A&M – not exactly clash of the titans. You can play on the same day as most of the Bowls and nobody will watch. Why would they, when the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl are on? Or you can schedule your game on something like Dec. 17 and be the only game on TV for a span of several days.

As a fan of the sport, if you are sitting at home with nothing else to do or out at the bar with your friends and the game is on the big screen, you are likely to watch. But there is always a moment in which you look at the fourth-rate action and ask yourself, "What in the hell am I watching this garbage for?" And you answer yourself immediately: Because there is nothing else on. This is it. And since you're a fan, it scratches your itch a little even if it's basically crap.

(The Beef O'Brady's Bowl is a real thing, incidentally.)

This is a Special Election in a nutshell. Everyone who is interested in politics focuses on it, and the forces of money and enthusiasm within the system are brought to bear upon it for the simple reason that there is nothing else for them to do at the moment. The 2018 Elections won't begin in earnest until next spring. Everyone is sick to death of hearing and talking about 2016. The day-to-day of DC politics is grinding along, but people (read: clickers, viewers, and readers) find elections more interesting than procedure. So if there is an election – any election, anywhere – CNN and the like start beating the drum hard.

We just got a week of saturation coverage of a goddamn special House race in Montana. Montana. And not one but two non-consecutive weeks of wall-to-wall coverage on an R+20 suburban district in Georgia. Like any election, the media are desperate to have these isolated races Mean Something. In reality they do not. Yes, the GOP probably should take it as a not-stellar sign that Democrats were able to get anywhere close to either of these seats. But what these races "mean" in the larger sense is nothing. They mean that when held singly, a House race gets thousands of times the attention it would get if held simultaneously with the other 434.

In ordinary circumstances, GA-06 would not even be a blip on the radar. You would not have it on any list of "races to watch" and you certainly would not be able to name either candidate or put any stock in the outcome. That's worth bearing in mind when the tidal wave of Hot Takes washes over us this week.

STRATOSPHERE

Posted in Rants on June 19th, 2017 by Ed

Of all the things I've figured out about life – by no means an extensive list – the lesson that took the longest to sink in is that wealthy people or people in the social "elite" however you choose define it do not have advantages for the reasons the rest of us usually think. People assume that Old Money or social status allow one to play The Game with any number of advantages like better preparation, more knowledge, or better connections. This is true for people playing The Game, to be sure. But the elites are not competing like the rest of us, with varying degrees of advantage over one another. They are playing an entirely separate game. They live, for all intents and purposes, in a different world.

It's certainly not an important news item given all that is going on in the world, but earlier this year Marc Mezvinsky's hedge fund shut down earlier this year. If that name seems familiar, it's Chelsea Clinton's husband. Bill and Hillary's son in law. But beyond the status he gained in marriage, his own mother was a Member of Congress (she of the infamous "Bye Bye Marjorie" vote to pass Bill's budget in 1994) and his father was a millionaire financier in addition to, obviously, also being a Congressman. Incidentally, he spent some time in the pokey for his financial dealings, but hey, nobody's perfect. So, to say Marc has and has had it all would be an understatement.

He garnered some attention during the Greek debt crisis by using about $25 million to buy Greek sovereign debt for pennies on the dollar despite the fact that the government was clearly indicating that it would default. Now, as far as investment ideas go this is not strictly an awful idea; he made a gamble that someone – the IMF, Germany, the EU, China, private banks – would bail Greece out at the last second. Had that happened, the notes he bought at something like $0.04 on the dollar would have paid off with a gain of thousands of percent. Seriously, it's not a strictly terrible idea. It was not totally implausible that someone would bail Greece out.

The problem was that this isn't really "hedging" anything in the sense of what a hedge fund is actually supposed to do. This is more like betting on a three legged horse with 10,000:1 odds to win the Kentucky Derby. This was buying junk bonds and losing, essentially. The other problem is that Greece did in fact default and he was totally exposed. He lost $25 million overnight.

It is arguable that in the world of banking and finance, $25 million is like 25 cents to the rest of us. But it represented a good portion of his fund's assets, and with their closure in February it is obvious that this fit into a pattern of big losses. The financial aspect of this story is uninteresting unless you happen to be very excited by financial wheeling and dealing. What strikes me about this single example is that this guy pissed away $25,000,000 and nothing happened to him. Nothing. He's not in legal trouble. The fund's investors aren't wielding torches and howling for his blood. He hasn't been ostracized by Wall Street. In his reality, this is maybe, at worst, cause for some good-natured ribbing from the fraternity of his fellow untouchables. He might get some grief after a couple drinks at exclusive charity events. Hey Marc, wanna buy some Greek magic beans? Hi-larious.

Think about that. He threw $25 million down the drain and nothing happened to him in a world in which a woman who is 10 minutes late for her minimum wage retail shift because the school bus didn't show up to get her kid not only gets fired but is confidently told that she deserves nothing better. This is a society where teachers get fired if parents complain about them, where people who do their jobs well and work hard are laid off or fired anyway because of *shrug* "Progress" But if you're one of the chosen, you cannot fail unless failing up counts. Flushed $100 million of venture capital down the drain at your startup? LOL bro, it's cool, here's more money to play with. Your last company fired you after you took over as CEO and ran them into the ground? Don't worry, another CEO gig awaits. There is no end to the number of mulligans these people give and receive within their exclusive circle of Old Money and Ivy Leaguers deemed worthy of admittance. The poor (or merely Not Super Wealthy) need discipline and punishment – one mistake and it's all over. The wealthy, though, need coddling and endless do-overs; how else will we encourage them to Create and Innovate, amirite?

The only profession in which a person can be demonstrably terrible yet continue to get rewarded over and over again is being a left-handed starting pitcher. And that's just a supply problem. There is no shortage of cocky Stanford-minted scions of the Old Money willing to play with, manipulate, and gamble other people's money, yet the same guarantees of lifetime job security and lavish compensation apply.

That's the different between the oligarchs and everyone else. It would be nice to live in a world with a gentlemen's agreement that no one can be permitted to truly fail, but I guess most of us would settle for one in which any job was available and maybe a few of them even had paid vacation days.