Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tween Queens

Some of us remember the age when kids should be seen but not heard, or maybe even not seen that much. Youth was to be lived freely, spending hours outside with friends, hiding in the kitchen or upstairs as parents had the parties and went out. Those bygone days are long gone, with kids increasingly dominating parents lives from the moment of inception. Parachute parents, soccer moms and the many other monikers used to describe middle-class and rich parents today all conjure images of overplanned youth, living vicariously through kids, play dates, harassment of teachers that borders on assault, educational videos and software and, of course, fashion that can start in infancy. Many have decried the way we have deified youth in popular culture and the press, but we seem to be further going along the path of acceptance that every year of our lives moves us away from the apogee of youth and naivete. Yet the deification of youth has certainly turned toward the absurd in recent years. From boy and girl bands to teenager fashion lines to megastars like Hannah Montana, we have entered a parallel universe where teens and even preteens are becoming the biggest market for popular culture. Of particular concern is recent trends in film, television and commercials to show youth as the ones with all the wisdom and savvy and doltish parents led along the path of enlightenment by said tween sages (think Definitely Maybe among so many). Now the tween market has decided to label some of these young girls as fashion icons, who in some cases are starting their own lines: What does this say about our culture? One obvious thing is the idea that innocence and youth are the apogee of existence, and that aging is the process of moving away from perfection. That is obviously an old trend, but it's interesting to consider how this aligns with the sexualization and aforementioned push to make these kids grow up to fast. Is youth preferable because of the lack of responsibility and marring effects of experience or simply because they are less cynical and their bodies don't sag yet? Another related trend is the anti-intellectualism so endemic to American culture. All you need to know about the world is available to kids of 11 or 12, even before they've experienced it (in the case of Definitely Maybe, love and romance). So what use is school or education? Third, is the idea that youth is sellable, like everything else in the universe. Kids are a huge market and the idea that one should enjoy that youth has been largely supplanted by two trends: marketers desire to sell them cool (which usually means acting older and more cynical then kids would otherwise be) and an education system that makes it clear their futures are riding on getting the appropriate grades and test scores to succeed economically as adults. I wonder if the loss of childhood bodes poorly for the future of democracy, as these kids are brought into the adult world so early they never have access to the idealism and creativity that often serve as the foundation of hope in a better world. If the kids are indoctrinated into the new world order before they even know who they are, is there any "them" that exists outside that social structure?

On a completely unrelated note, I think it might be time to retire the "What would * do?" trope. It was funny for a little while mocking the "what would Jesus do?" movement, but it really has just become a phrase that, like "thinking outside the box," actually demonstrates the lack of creativity of the one using it. RIP WW*D, I hope.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Oped Objectivity?

Michael Bloomberg has just announced that he is adding an opinion section to his financial news organization: This opinion section will apparently offer only "ideology-free, empirically-based editorial positions about the pressing issues of our time." And what do "ideology-free" editorials look like? Bloomberg news editor in chief Matt Winkler argues they are "based on a sensibility that attempts at least to understand what are all the facts that we're dealing with when we bring our wisdom to an issue ... to look at things as they are and then to come up with a solution to make them better. It's a realistic approach." A realistic approach is what editorials try to do in general, isn't it? And as Bloomberg himself has made clear by touting his educational achievements based on flawed statistics and simply making state tests easier (the national NAEP scores in New York City are actual flat over his tyrannical stewardship of the NYBOE), facts and empirical evidence can be skewed to say just about anything we want them to say.

The deeper problem with the idea of "ideology-free" opinions is there adherence to a positivistic perspective that continues to dominate American research and epistemology today. By pretending at an objectivity that is impossible, it gives the imprimatur or reality without much to back up that claim. Beyond the ability of numbers to be manipulated is the ideology invoked in a "realistic" or "pragmatic" approach to policy and reform. Both signify an underlying cynicism of the possibility of radical change and an unspoken adherence to the status quo. At most, pragmatic policy advocates call for slow, incremental change -- even when the situation is dire. And though Bloomberg is certainly not the classic conservative -- as he is liberal on social issues, has occasionally raised taxes on the rich and sees a much more active role for the government in legislating healthy behavior -- he is, at bottom, a capitalist who is supportive of Wall Street, anti-union, pro-trade and bases his governing style on a mixture of tyrannical fiat (or bullying individuals or groups to his will -- as with the police, fireman, teachers union and city council on term limits) and scientifically-based efficiency, that tends to eliminate the human element from the equation. 

Many point to Bloomberg as a model example of how to run a big city effectively, but that certainly depends on who you talk to. Rents continue to rise even as the non-Wall Street workforce of New York City suffers. He undertook an ambitious redevelopment plan for the city, with many of those plans left undone as the financial crisis hit. He has, in my estimation, worsened the education system in NYC (with some minor improvements to his credit) and created a general political climate that undermines the rather vibrant democracy that has always defined New York. And some of his bad decisions appear to relate to an immutable hubris that he is above political games and essentially right about everything (because he is rich enough not to be encumbered by special interests or ulterior motives). On the surface, there seems to be some merit in the ability of a billionaire politician to stay above the political fray and enticements of public office, but what is missing in this narrative is the biases that tend to come with being a billionaire to begin with.

Bloomberg believes he can run the government like a business, a now commonly held belief among most conservatives, and many centrists and liberals. But the problem with this line of reasoning is that private and public organizations have different aims, different strengths and weaknesses and different stakeholders. Where efficiency might be the main goal of private enterprise, other concerns influence decision-making in the public sphere -- for example positive and negative externalities and concerns about the common good. People and numbers are not the same thing and we can see on a global scale what the cost of business models of governance look like -- increased poverty, increased inequality, lack of accountability, major asymmetries in power and decision-making and environmental and health crises that seem without solution. "Objective" and "ideology-free" opinions sound wonderful on the surface, particularly in these partisan times, yet what is lost? A deeper structural analysis of problems and new, creative solutions. Moving beyond the what is to the what can and what should be. Any nod to utopian notions of a better, more just world. And too often the human element that should be at the center of any public policy decision.

Population Trends Favor GOP

The U.S. Census Bureau released findings today that show an expected shift away from Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest to warmer states including Florida, Texas and Arizona. The big winner is GOP stronghold Texas, which will gain 4 seats. Florida will add two and South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Nevada will each gain one. The losers include New Jersey (1), New York (2), Ohio (2) and Illinois, Mass., Michigan, Missouri and Iowa (1 each). Califronia broke even for the first time since 1920. The shift is amplified by the fact GOP governors reside over GOP state legislatures in six of the eight states that will draw new district lines for the 2012 election. So after a short-lived hope that we might be experiencing a political realignment away from the 30 years of conservative rule, it appears likely that they will solidify their hold on the House in the next election. As to the 2012 presidential campaign, the electoral college changes do not appear to be sufficient to affect Obama's chances of reelection, though things will most certainly change in the next two years.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fluoridation Conspiracy?

In the classic Stanley Kubrick spoof Dr. Stranglove, a mad general believes the Russians are contaminating our water to take over America. Fluoridation conspiracy theories have been around for decades, but what about a real threat to our water? One might remember the film Erin Brockavich, based on the true story of a woman that helped stop PG&E to pay more than $330 million to the families in Hinkley, California that had suffered through high cancer rates and other sicknesses. One would think after such a find, the EPA would test water to determine if Cromium-6 was present. But of course rationality has little to do with government regulation, particularly when big money and large corporations have a stake in the regulation. And so a just completed study by the non-profit Envionrmental Working Group found that 31 states have levels of the carcinagen that are dangerous to humans: Even drinking bottled water might not be safe as much of it is not properly filtered. Examples like this only amplify the need for the revaluation of values I mentioned in post below: a way to force corporations to measure their bottom line versus the social costs of their actions. On a more positive note, a week after the bill seemed dead, the Senate passed the first major food safety legislation since the Great Depression (arguably another victory for Obama):

DADT Finally Over ... Missile Treaty Might Die as Well

A piece of good news emerged today as Obama finally came through -- ending Don't Ask Don't Tell and hopefully putting a first nail in the coffin of the final form of acceptable discrimination in America. While Gay Marriage is still not legal in most of the country, this might be the start to ending the absurd anti-constitutional double standard when it comes to sexuality. Unfortunately, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConell appears to be ready to take out his anger at the decision by working to undermine the latest arms treaty with Russia: McConnel following the Republican penchant for going against perceived wisdom -- in this case that of the administration and nation's military leaders -- claims it could inhibit development of missile defense and that eight months was not enough time for adequate debate. This appears as disingenuous as arguments against global warming, but the truth has little to do with conservative orthodoxy these days.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What's at Stake?

As I contemplate the Republican victory in the election last month, it occurred to me what is at stake in a broader sense. I have often spoke of the environmental damage, of increased inequality, of growing poverty and of the possibility of America falling further behind its competitors to the East and West. In a broader sense, what is at stake is the moral and ethical foundation of our very society. Republican rule over the past 40 years has led to a profound revaluation of values that has placed the individual at the center of social and economic life. After the Great Depression, the government and community took center stage and led to a period of increased civic responsibility, government intervention, regulation and a sense that the common good trumped the interests of the power elites. This story, of course, simplifies history, but it was clear, as Kenneth Galbraith among many noted, that governments could work toward reflecting the interests of the common good.

Since LBJ's Great Society, there has been constant pressure to reign in the size of government, to undermine the Keynesian goal of full employment and to deregulate the economy. At it's heart, neoliberal ideology is founded on the principle that the common good is best met by allowing individuals to act in their own interest without the influence of the government. Citizenship was rearticulated in consumption-oriented framing and attacks on the Nation-State and Welfare State sought to undermine the role of the government in regulation, ameliorating the deleterious effects of the market economy and ensuring relatively fair allocation of the costs and benefits of society. Thus ensued a period of privatization, dismantling of the social safety net, a shift from a focus on unemployment to low inflation, an anti-union and anti-labor stance, a backlash against feminism and civic rights legislation and a major change in tax laws that has resulted in one of the greatest transfers of wealth toward the top in history.

The new common sense is premised on the efficiency of markets and the relative ineptitude of government. It harkens back to the invisible hand of Smith without any reference to economic theory since the 70s, which has highlighted the flaws in this argument -- from asymmetries in power and access to knowledge, to barriers to entry for new firms, to market power and imperfect pricing mechanisms. While economists have recognized the necessity for government regulation of markets, conservatives have pushed for just the opposite, and have largely succeeded in establishing a society where corporations are responsible to no one but their shareholders. Yet history has consistently shown that government intervention not only protects citizens from the excesses of corporations, but tends to lead to more economic stability and growth. Even today, with the new realities of global competition, countries like China, India, South Korea, Malaysia and Brazil have all benefited from strong government oversight and planning of economic development -- while others that either embraced or were forced to accept neoliberal models of development have seen increased poverty, lower or negative growth and a general decline in sovereignty and quality of life.

So when I think of what is at stake, I believe it is the future of the globe and quality of life of its inhabitants. Are we to establish international bodies that can temper the excesses of the market system? Are we to find ways to more equitably allocate the costs and benefits of society (through a return to progressive income taxation and a stronger, more just legal system)? Are we to find ways to align corporate and social interests? Can we create a new ideology that places social responsibility alongside individual interest? Can a renaissance of democracy undermine the power of corporations to largely control public discourse and policy? Our collective futures are at stake, and I only hope that citizens wake up to the direness of the current situation before it is too late.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Extra Extra . . . Don't Read All About It

A Bloomberg poll on the eve of the election found that two-thirds of likely voters believed that, under Obama and the Democrats, middle-class taxes had gone up, the economy had shrunk, the billions to bailout banks were forever lost, that illegal immigration had skyrocketed and that the healthcare bill would increase the deficit. The truth ... 1. Taxes are lower for 95% of U.S. Citizens, 2. The economy has been growing for five straight quarters (though minimally) 3. Most of the TARP money has been paid back 4. The number of illegal immigrants has fallen precipitously (by over 1,000,000) and 5. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the healthcare bill will actually LOWER the deficit.

So what is the problem? Is it merely an ignorant, apathetic citizenry that's not paying attention? Is it Obama and the Congress failing to get the message out on their successes? Is it a media that has abrogated its responsibility to report the truth to the public? Is it the unprecedented hundreds of millions spent on this election cycle by corporations and Wall Street to ensure their interests are protected? Or is it a combination of all of these? I believe the truth is the last. People appear to be bamboozled by a power structure that always has them looking in the wrong place for the answers. From the right wing demagogues on the radio and television waves to fear mongering attack ads to a mainstream media even more feckless than the Democratic party, the truth has become too inconvenient for the power structure to abide. And one of the worst education systems in the developed world, backed by a media culture that celebrates stupidity and anti-intellectualism with the aplomb of Jerry Lewis fans, has created a populace that can't seem to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

What can be done? There are certainly no short term solutions to this problem, but it certainly points to the need for alternative news sources that can reach the masses, for real improvements in the education system that go far beyond constant testing and a focus on basic skills, community organizations that help inform local citizens of the truth and charismatic leaders that hold steadfast to their ideals, rather than being swayed by cynical management of image and popular opinion. At it's heart, the real issue is one that Clinton once argued for (even as he is one of the primary architects of turning the Democratic party to the right on the issues that really mattered) -- to get people to think. We live in a world where knowledge is more readily available than at any time in history, but people must seek out information less tied to particular ideological positions and scavenge through the piles of bullshit to find the truths that would lead them away from a party interested only in supporting a status quo that hurts the average citizen more and more every day. At a deeper level, we need a revaluation of values that fundamentally questions the ethics that dominate decision-making in the U.S. and world today. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some good news . . .

A new poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows that Obama holds an early lead over all Republican contenders in his presumed bid for reelection in 2012: On a particularly positive note for those of us who are sanguine of a return to sanity, Obama would beat Palin 55 to 33 percent in a head-to-head match-up. Obama also holds a 7 point lead over Mitt Romney and a 20 point lead over a generic Republican candidate. One only hopes that Obama reads the papers and recognizes that he does not have to abandon his base to appease the Americans who just flipped the house.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Facts Are Stupid Things

Reagan once offered this line and beyond absurd adherence to Reaganomics and trickle down economics, this appears to be another legacy he has left to the party he helped build. Two stories today offer further proof of the Republican dislike of facts and arguments that don't fit their corporate-sponsored ideology. In the first, we learn that Fox News execs informed anchors that they should not mention global warming trends without immediately acknowledging the oil-company sponsored research that questions these claims ( This came after an anchor had the gall to note that this decade is set to be the warmest on record. We recently learned that Fox reporters were also told to use "government option" instead of "public option" when covering the healthcare reform debate last year, based on research that the former phrase was less popular with the masses (remember the tollling bell "death tax" strategy?). The second story regards the ongoing debates about the fiscal crisis: Apparently the four Republicans on the commission to determine the root causes of the crash have decided that government, not Wall Street, is solely to blame for the housing bubble that led to the fall of the house of Lehman and the global financial crisis we are still living through today. CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, or predatory lending practices, apparently had nothing to do with the problem; it's just the Community Reinvestment Act myth that the government forced lenders to give out crappy loans -- which they then sold in secondary markets where they were bundled together and sold again, with insurance from AIG to back these crappy derivatives up if they happened to fail, which seemed unlikely given the AAA ratings they received. And of course it wasn't AIGs faul that they then sold insurance on these instruments/derivatives not once but up to ten times, or that Lehman and Goldman were selling CDOs to customers while buying the insurance and betting against them at the same time. No it has to be the governments fault because in Republican la la land, government is good for, huh, absolutely nothing, say it again. That's true, except when they are using the government to offer corporate welfare, pay off their corrupt benefactors or to legislate morality. Facts are, I suppose, stupid things -- unless one wants to save the country from the bloating plutocracy that seem intent on destroying us all in their ceaseless pursuit of more money than they could ever spend in 10 lifetimes.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Will to Act

In an interesting article in the November 25, 2010 New York Review of Books "The Way Out of the Slump," Paul Krugman and Robin Wells review three recent books from leading economists. The point of the article is that many economists recognize what is necessary to fix the domestic and global economies (or at least return to the growth of a few years ago, as "fix" holds broader connotations), but seem to lack the will to actually advocate for those positions. Among the obvious necessities at present is another Keynesian fiscal stimulus package. While it might not be politically realistic at the moment, it's hard to believe that Americans will readily accept 10 percent unemployment in the medium to long run (particularly when 10% really means closer to 16-20%). We also need to regulate banking/investment firms that continue to take huge risks, undermine the public good to line their own pockets, pay out huge bonus packages to CEOs who are essentially criminal in their disregard for the ramification of their actions (both to the economy and their own companies) and find ways to make companies spend and invest again. As I mentioned a few days ago, American corporations just had their most profitable quarter ever, but they have not started hiring new employees or investing.

The lack of political will to act is backed by the lack of will of experts to advocate for the necessary steps to actually start the economy growing again. Instead, they continue to focus on the threat of inflation (when the real threat is deflation) and on austerity measures that will only make matters worse. The same can be said of the global economy, which needs fundamental change to address growing poverty and inequality in the developed and developing world. The bankruptcy of ideas in the world today needs to be address or I fear we stand on the precipice of major global economic disaster.

Who America Voted For and What We're Getting

So Republicans will soon take over the house and use that position to enact their policy agenda. After the tax cut deal with Obama, two troubling perils loom in the future. The first is that the temporary payroll tax reduction (from 6.2 to 4.2%), which reduces revenue to Social Security and will cost the government $120 billion, might become permanent:  The recent trend to make tax cuts temporary and then call any attempt to return rates to their former levels a "tax raise" has been very effective at continuously lowering the overall tax rates in the U.S., and undermining the progressive nature of taxation. So the dream of destroying Social Security now appears within reach.

The second peril relates to state budget shortfalls: It appears the GOP is planning to stop providing funds to states facing growing debt and deficit burdens. This could cause states to declare bankrupcy, and thus destroy the public employee unions.

In a broader sense, I must again ask what the long term goals of the party are? Without social security, an increasingly large percentage of our elderly would fall into poverty. With states in bankruptcy, the U.S. would fall further behind in the global markets many of them covet. If we continue to increase the gap between rich and poor, social unrest and poverty will only increase, making our streets less safe. If we continue to ignore the cost of environmental neglect, the planet could someday become uninhabitable. And if we don't regulate banks and investment firms, we continue to allow sociopathic personalities to hold inordinate sway over the economic and political worlds.  In the end, it appears the Republican party has become the apocalyptic party -- willing to destroy the country in pursuit of an agenda they don't themselves seem to really believe in.

So the bankruptcy of their ideas could ultimately bankrupt America, and in the process go a long way to make the position of the average citizen in the globe even worse.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Obama/Bush Tax Cuts Extended

One of the signature elements of Obama's campaign for change was to repeal the Bush tax cuts, which exacerbated a 30-year trend toward increased income inequality. However, along with a much less ambitious healthcare bill, concessions on the relief and recovery bill that received no Republican votes, escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the inability to pass substantive financial and banking reform, Obama has again relented -- showing that change was merely a strategy for election, not a call to arms for the administration once it reached office. 

There were early signs of commitment to the rhetoric, but the just passed election seems to have dissolved all of his resolve and we now find ourselves with yet another Democratic president largely capitulating to Republican ideology: Apparently, this is the latest installation in what has become one-way bipartisanship:, with Democrats folding to Republican demands even when they are in the majority while Republicans make few or no concessions under any circumstances. Maybe it should be renamed as biRepublicanism -- a nod to the Clinton years and continued Democratic fecklessness. Income inequality not only brings up questions of morality and justice, it leads to economic inefficiencies and undermines democracy. Essentially we have set up a system here and globally where economic growth and profits are largely allocated to those at the top as unemployment increases, poverty and quality of life worsen, wages remain stagnant or fall, people in developing countries suffer or die prematurely and policymakers simply reflect the interests of these elites. As Stiglitz and Krugman among many have so aptly argued, this inequality undermines the economy and creates havoc that could see even worse systemic collapse in the future. If you haven't already, I highly recommend the documentary Inside Job to give you further insight into the crash and what was behind it. In any case, let's break down the numbers on income inequality in America today (more to come in future postings):
  • Top 1 percent of income earners made 8% of total income in 1980 and 16% in 2004. The numbers are even higher today 
  • Top 20 percent control 80% of wealth. Here are the number in 2001. They are much worse today
    Top 01%  -  33.4% 
    Next 09%  - 38.1%
    Next 10%  - 12.9%
    Next 20%  - 11.3%
    Middle 20% - 3.9%
    Bottom 40% - .3%
  • Between 1972 and 2001, real wages grew overall, but were relatively flat for the average worker. Productivity and profits increased, so where did the money go?
-          Top 1% saw 87% gain ($402,306)
-          Top .1% 181% gain ($1.7 million)
-          Top .01% 497% gain ($6 million)
  • CEOs to average worker salary30x in 1970 to
    116x in 90s to
    over 300x today

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Absurdity of Conservative Discourse

Missouri state treasurer Sarah Steelman, announcing her intentions to run for the Senate in 2012, made the following comment,

""We need jobs - urgently. We need to balance the budget - urgently," she said. "We have to fight if we're going to save this country for our kids and grandkids. There is no time to wait."

On the surface, this reads like a sensible soundbite. But what is she really saying? Most respectable economists agree that to stimulate the economy, we probably need another stimulus package -- though most lose the will to actually advocate for what they believe. In other words, the government has to spend a chunk of money to stimulate consumption and business investment (particularly as corporations that just had their most profitable quarter ever still refuse to hire workers). So a stimulus costs money and undermines the ability to balance the budget. Further, they want to balance the budget but make the Bush tax cuts permanent, costing the government trillions of dollars in lost revenue and further exacerbating the growing inequality between rich and poor.

To put it more simply, statement one and two stand in stark contradiction to one another. If you want to do the first, the second becomes a longer term goal. If you want to do the second, you can do little to work toward the first. Yet this sort of tautology tends to work with the American people because they don't have a basic understanding of economics. They simultaneously want  the government to intervene and hate when it does. They want lower taxes and have somehow lost faith in the progressive tax system that actually works toward the very liberty they are so inured to. And they blame the government for not fixing problems without giving them the resources to actually intervene. Thus Republicans might continue to win office working against the interests of everyone except their corporate sponsors.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Tax Trap and Democratic Fecklessness

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) met with President Obama a few weeks ago and according to a report on ABC News reports that he is willing to work with him in the future . . . if he moves to the center or right ( So when the Republicans are in the majority, they ignore and bully Democrats and do what they want. When they are in the minority, they ignore and bully Democrats and don't let them do anything. Many might see this as a troubling trend that undermines democracy, but the strategy appears to be working and might just allow them to regain control of the House and maybe even Senate this November. How does it work? As I wrote yesterday, a lot has to do with the media playing along with their framing acumen and rhetorical devices.

Among those strategies are the following: 1. Manipulate the truth and history to its most convenient rendition then offer quotes to the media who tend to report what you say without any fact checking or context. 2. Spread fear that any change will destroy the country, even as your policies have been leading us along that path for years. 3. Rule as if by fiat, even after one of the closest elections in history, then demand more bipartisanship before rejecting any bill you disagree with. 4. Sound reasonable as you push a corporatist agenda that undermines the interests of the people -- while pretending to represent those very people from the "elites" who have little power. 5. Capitalize on anti-intellectualism by rewritting history, spreading tautologies, and using religion, jingoism and nativism (in addition to racism, sexism and nativism) to rally your base and scare the white middle and working classes.

These strategies have been effective since Reagan, with a few bumps in the road, though the election of Obama seemed to have the potential to create a political realignment in America. It has not come to pass. Why? Well the strategies above have been very effective. And on taxes, an issue at the heart of attempts to reaffirm the role of government in the economy, Republicans have been pulling the same trick for years -- pass tax cuts that are supposed to be temporary (the only way they are a real stimulus to the economy) and then complaining that any attempt to let them expire is a "tax hike." Here is McConnell on the issue, "“This is a debate on tax increases. The current level of taxes has been there almost a decade." He also told us how Obama can regain the ear of Republicans: "We're interested in cutting spending and debt. If he becomes interested in that, I think he'll find us a willing partner. He says he's for trade agreements. We'd like to ratify trade agreements. He says he is for nuclear power. We'd like to do that. He says he is for clean coal technology. We'd like to do that. I mean, there are areas where we'd ought to be able to work together for the good of the country.” So follow Clinton and become a Republican in social Democratic clothing and we'll follow your policies while allowing our attack dogs (Limbaugh, Focus on the Family, Beck, Grant, O'Reilly, Tea Party, etc.) to pound you relentlessly.

Yet it would be unfair to ignore the Democrats complicity in their own failure. Obama ran a brilliant campaign and won a resounding victory. And then he got caught in the bipartisan language games Republicans bamboozled the media with. Obama is pushing policy through without our support, even though we are the minority and will not support anything he does. As Krugman argued on his blog a couple of days ago (, "This theory led to a strategy of playing it safe: never put forward proposals that might fail to pass, avoid highlighting the philosophical differences between the parties. There was never an appreciation of the risks of having policies too weak to do the job." The idea of not highlighting the differences between the parties is exactly the problem, and the idea that Obama might be the next "great communicator" has failed to materialize. If Democrats want to maintain power and actually get something done to change the current course of America, they need to provide an alternative narrative to America that transcends the ability of Republicans to dominate the debate and undermine their call for change.
P.S. An article in the New York Times today shows the lengths politicans go to raise money, including allowing corporations to donate to their chairites: While this isn't implicitly bad, it is obvious another way that corporations dominate the political landscape today. 

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The "Partisan" President?

This is what passes for media coverage today: Apparently it involves listening to conservative framing and repeating it without question. Reporting from the American Political Science Association, the Washington Post seems unwilling or unable to escape the general discourse in America today. While they don't blame Obama fully for the partisanship that has ensued since his election, they put the major onus on him. For example, are quotes like this, "Obama would have been better off trying to assess what the public was prepared to accept, rather than to have acted in ways that assumed he could change it." Yet the public voted him and Democrats in in record numbers; at least by recent historical standards. He ran on hope and change and while he has done little to allay the cynicism of the public, he has certainly changed the nature of the debate: including reasserting the role of government in the economy. It is united Republican opposition to anything and everything Obama does together with the fact that "A large proportion of voters on the losing side in 2008 . . . had by election day come to regard Obama as the McCain-Palin campaign had portrayed him: as an untrustworthy leftist radical with a socialist agenda . . . There was also an undertone of racial animosity." Yet the paper refuses to really focus on this aspect of what they call a populist movement. They might want to read the recent article from the New Yorker about the Koch brothers, who have funded conservative movements for years and essentially funded the events that have moved the Tea Party to the forefront of media coverage today. This is not to say that Obama does not deserve some of the blame for the current polarization. For one, he has turned away from the rhetorical flourishes that resonated with the public after eight years of Bush. And he has taken a conciliatory, post-partisan tone, seemingly tone deaf to the new "party of no" GOP. And that same argument that the conservative "populism" is new is itself tone deaf to the past 30 years, since the rise of Reagan Republicans, who have consistently used populist rhetoric to garner the support of working class people who often suffer under their policies. Obama has accomplished an incredible amount in two years, particularly if you frame it within the post-Great Society years, but the media has turned on him and few report his record without quotes from conservatives or complaints about his tone, his radical agenda or the liberals and radicals who have turned against him. The supposition of a neutral media has always been as absurd as the idea that it is "liberal," but its irresponsible coverage since Bush was elected would be scandalous, if not criminal, but for a public that doesn't have the knowledge or care to really question them. Where is the next Edward R. Murrow to challenge this malaise?

The "Polarizing" President?

This is what passes for media coverage today: Apparently it involves listening to conservative framing and repeating it without question. Reporting from the American Political Science Association, the Washington Post seems unwilling or unable to escape the general discourse in America today. While they don't blame Obama fully for the partisanship that has ensued right after his election, they put the major onus on him. For example, are quotes like this, "Obama would have been better off trying to assess what the public was prepared to accept, rather than to have acted in ways that assumed he could change it." Yet the public voted him and Democrats in in record numbers; at least by recent historical standards. He ran on hope and change and while he has little to allay the cynicism of the public, he has certainly changed the nature of the debate: including reasserting the role of government in the economy. It is united Republican opposition to anything and everything Obama does together with the fact that "A large proportion of voters on the losing side in 2008 . . . had by election day come to regard Obama as the McCain-Palin campaign had portrayed him: as an untrustworthy leftist radical with a socialist agenda . . . There was also an undertone of racial animosity." Yet the paper refuses to really focus on this aspect of what they call a populist movement. They might want to read the recent article from the New Yorker about the Koch brothers, who have funded conservative movements for years and essentially funded the events that have moved the Tea Party to the forefront of media coverage today. This is not to say that Obama does not deserve some of the blame for the current polarization. For one, he has turned away from the rhetorical flourishes that resonated with the public after eight years of Bush. And he has taken a conciliatory, post-partisan tone in much he has done that seems tone deaf to the new "party of no" GOP. And that same argument that the conservative "populism" is new is itself tone deaf to the past 30 years, since the rise of Reagan Republicans, who have consistently used populist rhetoric to garner the support of working class people who often suffer under their policies. Obama has accomplished an incredible amount in two years, particularly if you frame it within the post-Great Society years, but the media has turned on him and few report his record without quotes from conservatives or complaints about his tone, his radical agenda or the liberals and radicals who have turned against him. The supposition of a neutral media has always been as absurd as the idea that it is "liberal," but its irresponsible coverage since Bush was elected would be scandalous, if not criminal, but for a public that doesn't have the critical knowledge or care to really question them. Where is the next Edward R. Murrow to challenge this malaise?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

History Rewritten Again

Republicans are at it again, rewriting inconvenient truths to serve their larger national ambitions. This time it is Mississippi's GOP governor Haley Barbour( who wants to avoid being tagged with any of the Southern strategy history as he prepares to take on the first black president. History is clear in showing that LBJ and the Great Society support for the civil rights movement realigned the political landscape in America. The party that had once tacitly supported segregation and opposed attempts at true equality for Blacks, at least in the South, was now aligning with the civil rights movement and as LBJ purportedly said in 64, "losing the South for a generation." Barbour wants to erase this history and rewrite the move of Dixieland from democrats to Republicans as completely unrelated to White resentment at the improving conditions of Blacks across America. From the birth of the Republican Party and its support for Abolition and then Reconstruction, the South was firmly Democratic, no matter the mood of the country. That all changed with LBJ and support for Barry Goldwater as the anti-affirmative action candidate. Ever since, the GOP has been building its base on latent racism and attacks on affirmative action and any policies that were perceived to hurt White, Christian America. While Obama had some surprising victories in the new South, that racism continues to be at the heart of so much Republican campaigning. Political expediency has stepped in and it will be interesting to see if the mainstream media allows Barbour to tell his tale without any fact checking and challenge. Recent history tells us he just might get away with it ...

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Cynicism & Republicans

I wrote my dissertation on cynicism and democracy and have often wrote here about the topic as well. When Obama won the election in 2008 I had hoped that it was a direct challenge to what I argued was a pervasive cynicism in American democracy. He ran on the dual messages of hope and change and that appeared to resonate with a population tired of the cynical, backward looking policies of the Bush administration. And yet two years later it appears Republicans are on the brink of winning back majorities in the House and maybe Senate: How have the Republicans done it?

I believe the rather obvious answer is by returning to the cynical policies that have won them power since Reagan. They run as white victims, as anti-Government, pro-business "populists," as latent (or in some cases obvious) racist, anti-Gay, xenophobic candidates playing on white male resentment at the cultural revolution of the 60s and on fear and greed. The past few weeks have shown us just the latest examples of this strategy in action, including the attacks by Focus on the Family on a very serious problem in schools: bullying (, arguing that gays have underminded the "Christian" spirit of those programs, the absurd call to God and the founding fathers of Glenn Beck last week ( and the continued anti-immigrant, Obama is a Muslim, Communist non-citizen discourse and so many other overt and covert nods to their White, Christian, Free Market ideology.

But this is old news and has been going on for over 30 years now. The problem I see is the media's myopic adherence to conservative discourse. Just today, John Dickerson at Slate argues that Obama is making Bush look good in some ways: And this follows articles in the New York Times and Washington Post in recent days that blame Obama for all that ails America. I believe this started soon after Obama entered office and has only worsened as time has gone on. While the New Yorker and some political coverage has made the salient point that Obama has kept many of his problems, is enacting the very policies he promised when he ran, and as the left has made abundantly clear (and I agree in some cases), is far more moderate than many had hoped. But what happened to those who voted for him two short years ago? Has he really been that disappointing? Did they really think he could fix all of our financial and social problems in less than two years? And do they really believe a return to the failed policies of Reagan and Bush will really somehow work this time? I, for one, hope they wake up in time. And hope is really all we have right now.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Elections for Sale

Last week we heard that Fox was giving $1,000,000 to Republicans to help win the midterm elections. Now the magnanimous folks at the Chamber of Commerce have committed to spending $75 million to support candidates who are ""supportive of the free enterprise system" (  Most of those candidates are, unsurprisingly, conservative Republicans. Since Obama's election, the group has spent $190 million on pro-business lobbying and elections, including helping to elect Scott Brown to the Senate in Massachusetts:

The group is claiming itself as a veritable "third party" in American politics today, now that spending caps have been lifted. One could argue instead that they are "the party" in American politics today, spending so much money directly or through its powerful members that they essentially own much of DC. Less than seven years after McCain and Feingold tried to limit the power of corporate money in politics, we are going to the other extreme. And whose cause are they supporting? The very actors who have been instrumental in the financial crisis and growing gap between rich and poor.  Democracy cannot function when the powerful can buy elections, spending so much money they shout out the voices of everyone else. This is particularly true when the media is bought by those same interests, supporting their causes most of the time. Democracy is supposed to be participatory, with everyone having a voice. But where are the voices today? The only group garnering any real interest from the media at present is, ironically, the Tea Party, a supposedly populist movement that just supports the very tired conventional wisdom that created the current mess. Where can a real opposition come from? It's hard to say when the majority party seems unable or unwilling to offer a real challenge to the corporate/conservative juggernaut. The people have to reclaim the government, just as we did at the birth of the nation.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Good for the Goose . . .

Republican logic generally has little to do with fact or rationality. In the latest example, they are now arguing Saudi Arabia would never allow a Church to be built in Mecca: And what's good for one of the most repressive societies in the world is obviously good enough for America. The stupidity of the argument would be appalling, if it hasn't been at the heart of our actions post 911 -- including unconstitutional (and anti Geneva Convention) torturing, the Guantanamo Bay fiasco and detention centers in the country, the illegal war in Iraq and a whole host of other morally contemptible actions supposedly justified by the "war on terror." This latest campaign, to stop a mosque from being built too close to the World Trade Center site, continues this faulty and dangerous logic. Will we soon have a second constitution specifically for Muslims? Or why not make them wear stars on their sleeves? This is not to say that the extreme elements of Islam are not still a profound danger to the world -- just that showing conciliatory side on something as innocuous as this could create goodwill and assist those who are fighting to suppress and defeat that more radical element from within. Of course, that's merely the mad ramblings of a radical lunatic who doesn't realize we are in a clash of civilization that will define our collective future.

P.S. On a related note, the idea of the big lie appears to continue to dominate certain ranks of the GOP post-Bush. Why do 1 in 5 people believe Obama is a Muslim? Well, maybe it's all those Republicans saying so (before correcting themselves, after they get the quote in the press):

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Where Are You? . . . Just Check Facebook

Facebook has just launched Places a new application that allows you to check in at various places across the city:, letting anyone with access to your page know where you are. While the idea might appeal to some -- friends can quickly find you or know if you are close by and that random guy or girl you've been flirting with might just show up unannounced, one wonders if it really does anything but keep you under surveillance by parents, jealous mates, exes and anyone else who wants to spy on you (in addition to the criminals that could also take advantage of the information). Not only does it tell people where you are, but can also tell them who you're with. Isn't it easy to just text or call someone you are going to meet up with? Are the chances of a chance encounter really worth meeting back up with that stalker who hacks your page or you forgot to defriend? What do we really gain from announcing to the world everywhere we go? And how many relationships will end under the paranoid delusions of a jealous partner? In the latest attempt to completely undermine privacy, the site might actually succeed. The odd thing is how many people will openly embrace this intrusion -- I already know one friend on Facebook who must have been part of the beta version -- increasingly living their lives out loud for all to witness; in real time! It is odd for those of us that still value our privacy, but the inversion of the public and private spheres Zygmunt Bauman argued for in the End of Politics only appears to expand endlessly outward. And unlike 1984, people are openly choosing to be monitored now.

P.S. For those who want to disable this feature, the following article provides all the infomration you need to restore a modicum of privacy:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mosque Melee

The ongoing controversy of a Mosque being built by the site of the World Trade Center seems to highlight a fundamental disconnect between conservative and liberal notions of freedom. To conservatives, who tout freedom as if it was their theme alone, freedom is just another word for following their worldview blindly. They believe freedom exists for corporations, white Christians, those who have blind allegiance to the flag and media outlets that support their ideas. When it comes to gays, those who critique America, immigrants, liberal professors, Muslims and anyone who disagrees with conservative orthodoxy, freedom must be limited. This includes those who, in what some might consider a conciliatory move, want to build a mosque not at the World Trade Center site, but a few blocks away (and by the way, there already is a mosque close by). What is the real issue? Respect for the victims of 911? Or is this yet another example of realpolitik? I'm leaning toward the latter. Religious freedom is at the heart of the constitution they love, unless it disagrees with their desire to end that pesky separation of church and state, allow equality to all (the 14th amendment), give due process to all citizens or a host of other issues that contradict their worldview. What is interesting is that the framing of the issue again appears to be working. Ignorance may very well be bliss, but not to those of us that believe the constitution serves to offer all Americans access to real, positive freedom.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Be Stupid

You may have seen the 2010 Diesel advertising campaign somewhere around town, on a billboard, in a store and or in some other instantiation. It all revolves around "Being Stupid." Among its many mantras include "Smart Critiques. Stupid Creates," "Smart May Have the Answers, But Stupid Has All the Interesting Questions," "Smart Has the Plans, Stupid Has the Stories," "Smart Listens to the Head. Stupid Listens to the Heart," "Smart Says No. Stupid Says Yes," "Stupid is Trial and Error. Mostly Error," "Smart Had One Good Idea and That Idea Was Stupid," "If We Didn't Have Stupid Thoughts We'd Have No Thoughts at All," "Only the Truly Stupid Can Be Truly Brilliant" and "Smart May Have the Brains But Stupid Has the Balls." Usually it is a series of billboards that end with the "We're With Stupid." (

While the ad has a certain resonance, attempting to argue for the freedom of the human spirit, creativity and a certain joi d'vivre, it also captures one of the deepest problems in America today. Essentially, do we really need advertisers to implore Americans to be stupid? Aren't we succeeding on that score without the necessity of reinforcement? A troubling trend that has developed is a firmly entrenched belief that actually thinking, critiquing, being creative outside the largely delimited scope of consumer culture and thinking outside the business language of "thinking outside the box" may actually lead to something truly radica or innovative. Wrapped around a relatively cynical veneer is the continued triumph of the conservative idea that certain knowledge is dangerous, that elites are those that are actually educated and question conventional wisdom and that accepting things as they are is a more pragmatic and realistic approach to life. This is fortified by a ahistoricity that demands short term and long term amnesia. They thus accept American exceptionalist ideology, fully believe that corporations and the market are somehow de facto superior to the government (even in the midst of the financial crisis), that the poor and minorities are to blame for their own situation (even if they work 60 hours a week) and that teachers somehow define all that is wrong with education. A deeper problem appears to revolve around a certain laziness of thinking across the political spectrum. I find many liberals as bad as conservatives at accepting party or ideological orthodoxy without any real thought or critique. The immanent critique of critical theory or perpetual deconstruction of Derrida seems like the only way to get out of the current intellectual malaise, but one wonders whether people have the will or training to actually inspect their own ideas with any rigor. In fact, schools seem to be teaching students the opposite most of the time these days (under the auspices of passing tests and keeping knowledge "neutra").

A new poll reinforces our adherence to stupidity, or maybe just not thinking at all. Apparently one in five Americans now believe that Obama is a muslim: Um, he isn't! And this follows a series of misperceptions of the public in recent years, from a belief that Saddam Hussein planned 911, to the idea that it was Iraqis on the planes, that there were weapons of mass destruction there, that we later actually found them and that our mission in Iraq was to spread democracy once the other reasons proved false.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

We Don't Want No Subway Restaurant

Springdale Utah is fighting an interesting battle at the moment -- trying to keep chain resaturants out of their quaint little town of 500, located near the foothills of Zion National Park. And the chain restaurants that are itching to disrupt the local charm of the town are hopping mad about it: In yet another test of how much power corporations wield, the fundamental question is whether their interests trump those who would gain, or suffer, at their expense. Does a town really need to allow businesses to open within its borders? Los Angeles, as an example, has kept Wal*Mart out for many years, arguing they would cause too much harm to local businesses. Other towns across the country have also controlled access to their populations, for economic, moral or aesthetic reasons. And shouldn't they have that freedom? Religious groups have kept out porn and stripper clubs, conservatives are trying to block a Mosque from being too close to the World Trade Center (even though one already exists within four blocks) and the list goes on endlessly. We have given first amendment rights to corporations and more recently allowed them to spend as much on elections as they like (Fox just gave Republicans a $1,000,000, maybe finally putting to rest the silly "fair and balanced" moniker they have been touting for years -- though I'm sure the "no spin" zone will continue to keep the oxymoron-rich station happily sequestered from reality). The fundamental question we never seem to ask is whether corporations should really have so much power over our lives. Sure there are towns like this, academics and "special interests" that seek to limit corporate power, but a national debate on whether they should have free reign over our lives is largely missing. And yet corporate excess is at the heart of so many of our problems today, from global warming and income distribution problems to the current financial crisis and real concerns about privacy, safety and our control over our own bodies and future (as they buy up the very essence of our being -- the genome). This debate is necessary, but one wonders where it will come from in a country where politicians are essentially corporate sponsors, selling their votes to the highest bidder. Et tu, Subway?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jetblue Blues

Steven Slater appears to be the latest media spectacle to become a household name, after he told off a cabin full of JetBlue customers, grabbed a beer and slid out the emergency exit. While many across America are lauding him as a working class hero -- a redux of the 80s mantra "take this job and shove it" -- I wonder if some of these may realize they themselves are the reason he took a leap off the plane's ledge toward momentary freedom (he was arrested when he got home and could face up to seven years in jail). Hating our jobs used to be an American pasttime, though it appears many were pretending to like theirs while secretly reading Dilbert or watching Office Space with great relish until the latest financial crisis. Now we appear back to open contempt and can celebrate Slater as not a buffoon, but a hero. Yet to return to my point, one reason he did this is because too many passengers are unbearable. They don't listen to exhortations to turn off their cellphones and pagers, get out of their seats early, try to ignore any and every rule on getting water, going to the bathroom and even giving the person sitting next to them a tiny little sliver of the arm rest. One reason jobs may suck in America is because of the way we treat those we are in contact with. But that's just crazy talk. Everyone else is a jerk and I am perfectly well-mannered. Sing Slater's praise and then headbutt a stewardess for fun next time you fly!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Lame Duck Congress?

So Republicans are now passing out oaths to Congressmen asking them to pledge not to engage in any lame duck Congress activity. Ironically, one of those leading the charge is presumptive presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who12 years ago led a lame duck Republican House to impeach Clinton, even as they seemed to lose a number of seats because of the investigation: Rumor has it Dems are poised to use the lame duck to pass unpopular legislation like cap and trade, card check and tax increases. Are Republicans right? I have always been troubled by the lame duck sessions myself. The will of the people is enacted primarily through the vote and the fact that legislators and presidents often use those last few months to pass unpopular bills seems to undermind that will. I wish Democrats had the will to pass some of this legislation before the election (except cap and trade, which seems to be a bad idea in its current form -- another windfall for banks), but afterwards it simply seems cowardly at some level. On the other hand, without the ability to steer public discourse in a positive way, one wonders if it would cost them even more seats in the interim election cycle? What continues to confound me is how effective conservatives have been at arguing for essentially returning to the path that got us into this mess, even as unemployment lingers at 10%, the mortgage crisis continues and the economy seems nowhere near a real recovery that positively affects most citizens. Myopia, cynicism and fear seem to define the heart of the problem and why Obama has essentially abandoned the message that won him the election (particularly hope and change) is probably the most upsetting aspect of where we stand today.

On a related note, Target has gotten in trouble in Minnesota for spending large amounts of money to support a far-right candidate that culminated in their stock dropping $1.3 billion in value. But the tone-deaf CEO is listening to Wall Street and ready to keep the engine of corporate greed pushing forward undaunted. At least American companies are thinking in the long term. Unfortunately the long term seems to be about their interests alone, leaving the rest of us out in the cold -- particularly those who allowed Bush to stack the court with conservatives in constitutionalist sheeps clothing offering more and more rights to corporations while taking them away from the average citizen (as with the backtracking on Miranda, among other things). The conservative juggernaut can be relied on for one thing -- hypocritical consistency of message.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

To Fight Racists or Not to Fight Racists

The U.S. Commision on Civil Rigths appears to think racism is a thing of the past, and have instead spent most of their time and resources researching the conservative pet project: "reverse racism:" Rather than look at the fact that racism appears to have again moved to the forefront of American life since the Obama election, or look at the income/wage differentials, disproporationate cost of the mortgage and larger financial crisis on Black Americans or explore the increase in Anti-Semitism in America today (,0,3140086,print.story), the group has relentlessly pursued charges that the Black Panthers intimidated voters in the 2008 election; even as these charges appear to be largely baseless. As I wrote about a few days ago, the politically expedient strategy will probably play dividends, as working class, middle class and even highly educated upper class White males seem to increasingly buy the story that Blacks and other minorities (and women) are given unfair advantages in education, jobs and life in general. While the numbers tell a different story, when groups charged with protecting the civil rights of all citizens focus exclusively on perceived white slights, the future looks bleak for ever reaching the Martin Luther King dream.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Teabaggers are like the founding fathers . . .

and apparently Jesus Christ: This according to conservative activist David Barton. Barton has long been making the comparison to the founding fathers, apparently confusing limiting government power with ceding power completely to corporations and the church. The quote from a radio broadcast:

"[T]he media has decided to take on the Tea Party and whack 'em because really, the Tea Party, if they have their way, the liberal left is going to be on the outside in this thing. So the best you can do is try to villainize these guys. You know, when Jesus got a really big following, they started saying 'oh, he's a wine-bibber, he's a glutton,' they started all the name-calling and finger-pointing; you know, he's trying to install himself as king and he's going to kick out Caesar, trying to get the Romans stirred up. So they used all these ridiculous charges and so this is nothing new."

At it's heart, this follows the sine qua non of the conservative movement -- victimhood at the hands of insidious liberals, who are seeking to make America a gay, godless country dominated by foreigners, where individuals have no freedom. Of course, they want to limit freedom in countless ways -- from ensuring that all people follow their blind faith in markets and corporations, ignore racism, sexism and every other ism except jingoism and don't bother with pollution, corporate malfeasance, annoying workplace safety rules, etc. Fear and victimhood really define their entire discourse, and in a country that celebrates victimhood like no other. The fact that the victims of the left are really the victims of the very forces that prop up these activists or capitalize on their radical agenda, is an irony that escapes their somber, angry tongues. Really it is proof of the Dunny-Kruger effect, where people you don't know much tend not to recognize their ignorance and so fail to seek better information. Let mindful stupidity ring!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Billionaire Blues

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner announced that the Obama administration will allow the Bush tax cuts to expire yesterday, setting up a battle with Republicans and a few Democrats. Billionaires could lose millions, but the very same group that is talking about closing the deficit knows that these tax cuts helped allow the deficit to balloon, together with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the very necessary stimulus: The argument goes that tax cuts will make matters worse for the economy just when we are hoping to see a recovery. But is this necessarily true. As the Wall Street Journal argues, the top five percent account for 30 percent of consumption. But shouldn't this be troubling? Don't we need to build an economy where spending is more equitably allocated among the population?

And an article last month in Vanity Fair only strengthens the argument ( It details the work of pop artist and millionaire Peter Max, who "paints" rather banal pictures of the famous for charity then sells them a triptych based on that original painting. The article starts with what I find a rather prescient argument "A sure sign of imminent collapse is when the obscene becomes normal. And it is clear that Wall Street has become obscene. Just a few points from the article should highlight the level of obscenity -- in the very year when this financial crisis started, 2007, five hedge fund managers made over $1,000,000,000. Not in net worth, in one year. How did they do it? Not by really adding value to the economy -- but by taking advantage of market imperfections and looming disaster, most obviously in the case of John Paulson, who made a fortune on CDOs and other instruments betting against bad mortgages. The top 100 earners had a combined take of $30 billion, or $300 million each (on average). The sum pales in comparison to how it was made though, as many with poor performance still pull in their 2 percent management fee and 20 percent on anything they make. That's the base, though, some charge as much as 5-44 (SAC Capital's Steven Cohn). But even former cab driver Bruce Kovner (who manages $12 billion), made $200 million for a flat performance. Infamous Liar's Poker star John Meriwether made $100 million for making 0%. The point is that these men add little to the economy, in fact leading the economy toward disaster as they control over $2 trillion in assets. Wall Street is a necessary evil that provides money to companies to grow, while helping scoot those who fail out of the market all together. The men in charge need to be well-paid to do their jobs well, ensuring the market functions properly. Yet it has been clear for some time that their added value, outside their personal wealth, has been going down for some time. Is taxing those who make obscene salaries really going to destroy the economy? Is regulating them so their are limitations on what they can accomplish really going to destroy America? As I've written about before, a society that disavows the relationship between success and performance stands in great danger of selling itself out, just as Peter Max seemed to do a long time ago. Art reflects life here in a way that should give us pause.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Media Malaise

The Sherrod story shows the nature of a news cycle that, unlike say the Watergate scandal, does not wait for anything pesky like fact checking or even an interview with the person being charged. Instead the instantaneous nature of news today ensures that we will act first and then ask questions later. It highlights the major problems and potential advantages of media today. The first thing to say is the power of bloggers to actually influence policy, something that should theoretically lead to a stronger democracy where we do not have to count on the mainstream media to dominate the political discourse. On the other hand, it continues to show how effective conservative media personalities are at scewing the news and dominating the "liberal press" through scare campaigns, emotionally charged reporting, the spreading of half-truths and outright lies and by framing debates in their own terms. In a broader sense, it highlights the problems with the mainstream media today. As their staffs are cut, the profit motive comes to increasingly dominate decisions on what and how they present news and the elite nature of the top institutions moves further away from the muckrackers of yore, the major outlets in both print and on television have increasingly followed the model of Fox News and its many offshoots. Rather than actually fact-check, they just report what is said by others and hope for the best. Given that so many of these others are ideologically-infused in their reporting, they fall prey to the charge that he said-she said coverage merely gives credence to whoever speaks the loudest. And conservatives will probably always win this game. The media still has the power to serve as the fourth estate of government, checking the power of the elites inside and outside government. But they must go beyond the surface and discourses of the two parties and more radical fringe to actually report what is true and untrue in ongoing debates. This is particularly true regarding the question of race, where we continue to debate the absurd notion of "reverse racism" much more than we look at the actual numbers, which show lower wages and wealth, higher unemployment, lower academic achievement (in schools that are quantitatively and qualitatively worse in significant ways), lower life expectancy and a whole host of indicators that show that Blacks in America are not given an equal opportunity to succeed in a country that prides itself on the promises of the "American Dream." What's possibly the most surprisingly is how little soul searching appears to be occurring within the ranks of the mainstream media, who seem to be more interested in maintaining their withering power to frame the debate.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Will She Stay or Will She Go

The right wing looney tunes are at it again, and the administration seemed to be listening to them this time -- at least the head of the USDA. After firing Shirley Sherrod for reverse racism, the head of the department is backpeddaling, realizing he is the latest victim of the "spin zone." ( Apparently a video that showed her admitting "reverse racism" at a recent NACACP event turned out to be cleverly recut to eliminate important details, including the fact she later helped the white farmers she oringinally spurned and that the event took place years ago. On top of this, it appears that she is still friends with the family. The head of the USDA and White House have now offered her her job back and openly apologizized, arguing they acted rashly in their fast-paced discussion of Sherrod's speech. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said mistakes were made because of a "frenzied culture where everything happens so quickly." ( What's fascinating about the story is both how conservatives continue to dominate the race debate in America today and the fact that reverse racism is always big news while rampant racism, often among these same conservatives, too often goes unreported. Is a reasonable debate on race possible in contemporary politics? Events since the election of the first Black president make the answer appear less sanguine than we might have dreamed in 2008.