Saturday, April 30, 2011

One Two, Buckle My Shoe

If the court decisions keep on at their current rate, one could imagine a time when the average citizen will be forced by law to tie the shoelaces of the super rich whenever they demand it -- codified by a current interpretation of the constitution that seems to have less and less to do with individual rights. The other decision is the more important, but first the latest NFL Lockout stay (Yahoo News), that sides with the owners against the players who are not even close to "slaves," as some argue, but who certainly are being exploited not only in financial, but physical terms as well. The players argument is clear and persuasive: their average career lifespan is 3.5 years and, given salary minimums, that can be as little as $1.2 million for a player whose career ends after those 3 year. The players are the ones who are bringing in the fans and risking their current and future health, and do deserve a slightly larger take of the profits and better benefits. More telling is the number of players who end up committing crimes, in jail or bankrupt within ten years out of the league. The owners are making huge amounts of money and their argument is simply that they want a bigger piece of the oversized pie (Legal Arguments). And a continued lockout sanctioned by the federal courts might just let them have their cake and eat it too (which is a phrase I've always found silly, because why would one want a cake that they couldn't eat?)

The other decision, from the supreme court, is substantially more troubling (New York Times).It sided with AT&T Mobility against a couple arguing that they had the right to file a class action suit with others even though they had signed a standard "arbitration first" contract, after a $30 fee was added to their bill. The decision appears to end the ability of consumers to file class action suits, as companies can now simply use standards form contracts to forbid consumers claiming fraud from banding together and instead force them to do so alone. While many class action suits seem silly, as they only provide marginal settlements to individual consumers, they can be important in challenging and punishing corporations for their illegal or unsavory practices. Without this power, consumers are essentially left at the whim of the many small (and larger) ways in which corporations take our money or practice fraud. The decision continues the court majority's approval of forced arbitration over litigation, an absurd legal standard that undermines the rights of consumers and helps protect corporations from being penalized for their actions. The whole system of forced arbitration is absurd, with corporations demanding that consumers and workers go through an arbitration process that often benefits the company. And it reminds one of the continuing costs of allowing 8 years of Bush and co -- the financial crisis, ridiculous expenditures on Iraq and Afghanistan that have helped create a growing debt being used as an excuse to cut social services and a supreme court that seems intent on turning the clock back on American jurisprudence while consistently supporting the interests of corporations over citizens. 

This occurs as two other states consider limiting employees collective bargaining rights: Massachusetts and  Florida (following successful efforts in Ohio and Wisconsin). The financial crisis arguably caused by the free market, appears to be the key legitimator of continuing to give the fictitious, fickle market control over our lives.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Donald Trump Called Out

CNN, which has been making the call for "balance" an almost absurd raison d'etre of late, does have at least one pundit willing to call people out. In this You Tube clip, you can see Eliot Spitzer take on "the Donald" for potentially lying about his financial situation: CNN Clip. It is a real pity that Spitzer ruined his political career -- as he has taken on power in a way that few other in law, politics and now media do. The slippery slope of Trump's financial situation, personal narrative and past will certainly come to the fore if he does decide to run, though the negative press around his potential campaign might just keep him, and the circus his candidacy would instigate, from ever coming to fruition. Let's hope he and his hairdo take a pass and just keep abusing average people and celebrities who have an inexplicable burning desire to work with him.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cheating the Cheaters

Accountability, on the surface, makes sense. If democracy is to function properly we need transparency and tools to ensure that the government is indeed serving the interests of the people. We need tools to help us in deciding if a particular policy is working and to contemplate alternatives that might make government and society function better. The push toward accountability accelerated dramatically under Reagan, as he consistently talked of governmental waste. And he certainly had a point. The accountability movement in schools was much slower, though it accelerated dramatically after the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Now test scores are the key measure of success in our schools. Rather than provide a fundamental critique of this law and its shortcomings (which I have done in previous entries), I want to focus on one particular problem that has emerged -- the bringing of politics into the equation.

Politics and education are inextricably bound for a number of reasons, among them the nature and content of knowledge taught, the focus, funding differentials, teacher training and the relationship of schooling and education to democracy and equality. But more specifically, mayoral takeover of schools has been accompanied by a strong necessity to show results for political purposes. As I noted in an earlier post, in New York City this has manifest itself in making the tests and the grading of tests easier and easier to ensure positive results. In Houston and Texas it led to widespread fraud and the pushing of students to drop out before high school level exams and drop out rates were accessed. And now in DC, where former chancellor Michelle Rhee gained positive press for turning the system around, we find that widespread fraud appears to exist in actually changing the tests themselves (with a statistically significant overrepresentation of wrong answers changed to correct ones): USA Today.

Essentially calls for accountability must be accompanied by checks and balances that address the penchant toward cheating and manipulation as ways to avoid the pressure of that accountability. We want to know that our children are being educated in schools, but we want that to manifest itself in smarter, more independent and responsible adults -- not simply in a population that masters a few basic skills (if that) and learns the valuable (but socially destructive) lesson that one should do anything to succeed. While teachers across the country recognize that teaching to the test is undermining education in America, they continue to be the ones blamed for the failure of our schools. It is time to scrap the accountability and choice movement and build a more reasoned, holistic series of measures that allow real teaching and learning to return to the classroom.


"Sustainability" is usually used as a word to describe preservation of the environment and to address the growing ecological crisis that could lead to the destruction of the planet. Yet, as I often argue in this blog, there is another kind of sustainability that must be addressed if we are not to say goodbye to democracy -- and that is the sustainability of popular sovereignty against the threats of neoliberalism, neoconservativism and emerging and solidifying plutocracies. A great article by Tax expert David Cay Johnston on April 13 (Portland The Week) provides solid evidence to support the claim that tax changes since the ascendancy of Reagan have accumulated predominantly at the top (at the individual and corporate level). How long can the current system be sustainable as inequality increases, the middle class is squeezed and the number of poor increases not only in the periphery and semi-periphery countries but in the Western core itself. We have already seen these tensions explode across Central and South America and in a more muted sense in America and Europe. But what will happen if predictions of a new "jobless economy" really come true? Will people continue to support a system that can't meet their minimal needs? Can ideology continue to function as the material and symbolic violence of poverty continue to increase? One could argue, as Polanyi did in the 50s, that the only logical responses to this reemerging crisis are fascism, communism or a New New Deal.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fetishism and Empathy

Theorists of popular culture have long spoken of fetishism, the process by which an object is mystified and emptied of its productive process. Starting with Marx, passing through Freud and with a corrective from Lacan, the key idea is that commodities are fetishized as supernatural things than create jouissance (or pleasure) through our desire to own them. Products thus relate to deeper desires, displacing lack and desire through their relationship to the real. Substitution is the key concept, with relations between people replaced by relationships between people and objects. This substitution erases the exploitation and alienation inherent in capitalist production but also creates the quasi-religious relationship that develops between consumers and the sensuous commodities. The system then weaves a "system of needs" into a "libidinal economy" that connects people through the mediation of commodities and markets. Psychoanalysis looks at this relationship from the individual first through the trauma of castration anxiety that leads to the neurosis and psychosis that results from replacing sexual desire with fetishized objects to Lacan, who looks at the lack that develops between subjects and their other (first the image in the mirror, then the symbol). The point, again, is that an innate substitution occurs between the relationships between people and the relationships between people and objects. Zizek thus points out the humanism in Marxism, in that overcoming commodity fetishism implies a fully transparent society where there is no need for substitution.

I was thinking about this theory in relationship to the question of empathy, a key concept in a humanistic approach (or even post-humanist biopolitiical approach). Without empathy, social justice becomes meaningless and democracy loses its truly radical potential. It we are replacing relationships between people with relationships between people and objects - or subjects and objects - how does this affect our relationship to each other? If we are fetishizing commodities and fetishizing images, how does this affect our ability to emphasize with other human beings? Even when we try to buy "sweat shop free" clothes, are we really concerned about people or just doing it to feel better about ourselves? When we interact with our friends and family with facebook or through text, does this alter the nature of the exchange, the mediation done through the very objects we are fetishizing? Empathy still exists in the world, but if we go back to film studies where fetishism theory really emerged, does it explain why we can cry in a movie then ignore the homeless person we walk by? When one thinks of neoliberal ideology and its incantation to act in our own self interest as a way to be citizens and serve society, does this further solidify the point? And when we add the "blame the victim" argument that has dominated conservative discourse since Reagan, are we left in a society where there is really no place for empathy outside the small circle of family and friends (if it even extends that far)? Certainly I exaggerate the relevance of these new circumstances, with plenty of empathy still obviously existent across the country and world, it certainly leads one to pause and contemplate the future of humanity. Can fetishism and commmodification of all human emotions ultimately lend itself to a society founded on an underlying sociopathology (the absence of empathy and concern for the ramifications of one's actions on others)? I believe hints of this are already present across the social, political and economic landscape. I will provide examples in future entries . . .

Monday, April 11, 2011

When 3% is 90%

Among the reasons Republicans gave for the almost shutdown of the government was abortion. Or more specifically, they wanted to defund that perennial friend to women and enemy of conservatives -- Planned Parenthood. What is PP's crime? Offering advice on abortions to women, of course. But more than that, according to one congressman, 90% of funding went to abortions. Is that true? Well, kind of. In the hyperreal world in which we live, where fact and fiction are essentially the same thing, 90% is close enough to 3%, isn't it (Chart)? Does any federal money actually go to abortions? Actually, the answer is no! What do Title X funds fund? Pelvic exams and pap smears, infertility screening, breast exams, testing for high blood pressure, anemia and diabetes, screening and treatment for STDs and safe-sex counseling. PP does, of course, also provide contraceptives, family planning services and, yes, abortions. But the federal government doesn't fund these services.

So what is the attempt to shut down the government really about? It is just the latest parry in the continued attempts to undermine the role of government in actually improving the lives of citizens. Essentially the goal is the fundamental rewriting of the social contract. Governments were formed to provide security to citizens, but also to serve their interests. Representative democracy is, in fact, founded on the idea that representatives will actually, gasp, represent the interests of their constituents. Yet that idea has clearly become passe in a world ruled by multinational corporations and their technocratic, ideological and political stewards. Rather than the government serving the interests of the average person, they serve the interests of the "market," an entity that essentially serves the interests of elites. Today, deficits and fear serve as the predominant mechanism to legitimate a system proven illegitimate by the latest financial crisis, and the reality of the past 30 years. Its ideological foundation rests on less and less firm ground. So what is a market acolyte to do? Continue to spew the myths with increased stridency, even as those myths become little more than fairy tales with nightmare endings. Use the media to back these arguments with spurious claims and outright lies. Close off spaces for people to become informed and actually debate the key issues of our times. Reduce education to serving the economic interests of the country. And act as if the status quo is inevitable and their is no alternative to the declining living standard of most denizens of the country and globe. How long can this strategy work? Only as long as enough people are comfortable enough to accept it and the rest ignore their power to demand better (through the very government they are taught to distrust and/or despise) ...

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Money Talks, Democracy Walks

Last week, the Supreme Court heard a case about the constitutionality of an Arizona law known as the Citizens Clean Elections Act. Essentially, the law provided for public subsidies for candidates who were far behind in campaign funds to "level the playing field." To the five judges who passed Citizens United last year, this is a now verboten argument, undermining the ability of corporations to overwhelm the voices of the people, or candidates who might not support their interests (and thus don't garner enough of their money). While that is not the argument they use, obviously, it appears to be the foundation of their underlying logic. On the surface, they have just completed the circle on decisions over the past 100 years or have essentially given corporations the same rights as citizens -- one should note without any of the same perceived obligations. In fact, if one thinks about the continued drive for tort reform, the constant push toward deregulation (even after the recent financial crisis and looming ecological disaster) and the attempts to lower or maybe eliminate corporate taxation (the story on GE from a couple of weeks ago was pretty telling -- they earned $14.2 billion in profits, but actually received $3.6 billion more in tax benefits: New York Times, it can be argued that the right wants to give corporations the rights of citizens without any of the responsibilities (or obligations in traditional political science parlance).

Yet the more troubling and recent argument that bodes even worse for democracy is the idea that money is speech. Money certainly talks, as we have been told for time immemorial. But does it speak? Does it allow for a dialogue? Should it be protected by the first amendment? I think the answer to the ironically named anti-federalists that demanded the addition of the bill of rights to the constitution is no. The bill of rights was, in fact, an attempt to protect the rights of individual citizens from excessive power by not only the government, but elites as well. Making money a part of speech undermines the very concept of the constitution, based on limiting not only the tyranny of the majority (as was clearly a concern for both Hamilton and Madison) but of the minority as well. Madison makes this very point in his argument about the power of factions, arguing sufficient diversity of voices fighting for their own interests would ensure that no interests predominated over all. By giving corporations, an entity with a prime directive very different from the individual (profit maximization), the same rights as an individual and money the imprimatur of a form of speech, we essentially allow corporations to not only dominate the debate within DC (as they tend to do through lobbying) but in the public sphere and election process as well (where they have had an undue influence for far too long).

I believe we have already seen the effects of Citizens United in 2010, as the GOP won a landslide in the House and in state governments across the country. Since then, they have started to enact policies that are increasingly troubling to average citizens who recognize that the party supports the interests of the elites and corporations rather than the citizens they essentially bought. Is this democracy? Or is it the results of a stolen election followed by the successful nomination of two Supreme Court justices who pretended to be moderate but ended up being even more radical than their conservative predecessors? I can't help but think of the Pelican Brief as I contemplate the fading signifier we call "democracy."

Ceci n'est pas une femme

Rene Magritte reminded us almost a century ago that a painting is not a thing itself but a re-presentation of that thing. So the Mona Lisa smile that has garnered out attention for several centuries now is but a representation of that enigmatic woman we have never been able to meet in the real world. Sure we have written songs about her, people have made the pilgrimage to the Louvre just to stare at her surrounded by throngs of other tourists and separated from us by a huge glass encasement and the painting has been reproduced in books, posters, prints and on the Internet. But we might soon be able to move from the dessert of the virtual to the DNA of the real, as archeologists in Italy are seeking to exhume remains they believe are of the original model: Telegraph. The woman, Lisa Gherardini (a Florentine wife of a rich silk merchant) is believe to be housed in a tomb beneath a convent in Florence. But I wonder if the mystery that surrounds her really adds to the aura of the painting and its transcendental quality. Will we destroy her allure if we know who she is? Does her wealth and status undermine the rather radical nature of his framing and subject at the time? Will people be heading off to wherever the cranial remains are ultimately housed rather than the famous Paris museum? I'm not sure; and I'm not sure I care, but I suppose it does provide a respite from the disaster of the dessert of the real we live in.

On a slightly related note, a woman attacked a Gauguin painting in the National Gallery in Washington DC last week, screaming "This is Evil." The painting, Two Tahitian Women, portrays, you guessed it, two Tahitian women, both topless. While many feminists have faulted Gauguin's paintings for exoticizing these native women he often took as lovers, my guess is the woman thought the painting was evil because it dared to show the naked breasts of women -- a clearly unnatural sight that is destroying the very fabric of American society. Thank God we have defenders of decency and religious rectitude around to protect us from seeing those shameful symbols of sexuality and, um, our sustenance for the first several "sinful" months of our lives!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Republicans will unveil their 2012 budget proposal this week. Authored by Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, it is entitled "The Path to Prosperity." The plan calls for aims to cut federal by $5.8 trillion over the next 10 years by, among other things -- ending Medicare and replacing it with a "premium support system" that would provide $15,000 in premium coverage and more coverage to the poor, huge cuts to Medicaid, tax cuts to the richest Americans and corporations (from a top rate of 35% to 25%) and cuts to Social Security. The plan will not be passed, of course, as the Democratically held Senate and President Obama would never accept it, but it does but out a new blueprint for the 2012 Presidential debate. Many will critique it for cutting social programs for the elderly and poor, for increasing fiscal risk for millions of Americans, for hurting the poorest Americans and for giving even more money to the bloating wealth of the wealthy. Even some Republicans, including the "Gang of Six" critique it for not doing enough to increase revenue or address cuts in military spending (the biggest part of the budget). But there is certainly good news, if one considers the proposal from a pragmatic perspective:

- Cutting Medicare and Medicaid (as the new plan does not account for estimated increases in medical costs) should reduce life expectancy over time -- reducing the number of people requiring not only federal assistance for healthcare but also social security
- Cutting Medicaid in particular should worsen the health  of the poor, and they will thus hopefully die off sooner, improving the gene pool over time
- Among those who do survive, the plan should be a boon to the privatized prison industry, as a new rash of "clients" should emerge
- Increased tax cuts for corporations should improve profitability and lead to larger bonuses for top executives, who can use their leadership skills and influence to help Wall Street come up with another major money making strategy like CDOs
- Increased tax breaks for the rich will be good news for sellers of private jets, those renting and selling property in the Hamptons, sellers of Crystal, Gucci, Cartier and other "luxury goods" who have suffered under the strain of the financial crisis and the cuts to bonuses (oh wait -- well at least those bonuses should increase even more under the new plan).
- If we continue along this path, we can do away with the pesky, outdated notion of democracy altogether and adapt a political system more amenable to the needs of our most worthy denizens -- say a plutocracy along the lines of post-communist Russia

One may critique the humanity of the plan, but the numbers certainly add up if we are more rational in our analysis.