Sunday, June 23, 2013

Politically Correct - Conservative Style

Conservatives never have been big fans of watching what they say. They are Americans and this is a free country, damn you, so read the First Amendment and shut up already. Or something along those lines. They are, of course, quite good at critiquing others for “whining” when they complain about racism, sexism or any other ism, that all really only exists in the minds of liberals anyway. And they are equally adept at ending conversations with a series of phrases that spell doom for their opponents, including “race baiting,” “class warfare,” “socialist,” “tax and spend” and the like. But conservatives are not known for taking words too seriously, now are they?

Well it turns out some are. In fact, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) recently complained about being called a “climate denier” for his doubts about the human contribution to global warming. He claimed that the term came too close to the much more maligned “Holocaust denier.” (Salon) While there might be some truth here, this seems to go against everything Conservatives stand for – making them seem like the new PC party. It might be a welcome change, allowing liberals to actually support the First Amendment, something far too many only do selectively. For example, are the liberal professors and students that work to block individuals they disagree with from speaking at campus events. This is exactly what Freedom of Speech is about – allowing people who disagree with us, or even make us sick with their hatred, to have the opportunity to have their voices hurt.

Conservatives have been playing victims for almost 25 years now, starting with the election of Clinton and the conservative radio, television and internet punditocracy that was borne in its wake. But while they are offended by everything from affirmative action to liberal media, many of us believed they adhered to the old playground axiom “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Apparently, even this truism no longer exists on the right. So watch your mouth, or they’ll wash it out with carbon monoxide emissions!  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The New Social Contract ... Let them Die on the Line

After almost 250 years of existence, the corporate world has decided to move beyond gaining full citizenship rights for themselves to rewriting the social contract. No longer is it based on civil liberties, justice and the pursuit of happiness. Today it is merely the pursuit of maximum profits. What does the new contract then look like? In the simplest terms it is a dog eat dog world and you better hope you’re not wearing milkbone underwear. Corporations want to eliminate workers protection, healthcare benefits (at the business and governmental level), regulations on their activities (particularly when they are deleterious to the community, state, nation and/or globe), government oversight, taxes (personal and corporate), personal and corporate liability (in courts, through tort reform), public services of all kinds, and the latest … retirement itself.

The business world was never crazy about social security. Sure it took the homeless old people off the streets and their workers might someday claim it, but it meant people were alive who weren’t working. So now that the budget forecast has improved and talk of deficits taken a backseat, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will step up their efforts to attack Medicare and Social Security anew: Slate. Not retirement and healthcare programs they pay for; the ones the government does. It’s hard to understand such a ridiculous perspective unless you understand the victory of instrumental rationality and the ends (profits) justify any means (moral ambiguity or pure turpitude). We have entered a new phase where corporations work harder and harder to create a poor, ignorant, supplicant workforce that literally chops and shops until they die. Maybe it’s time for a serious dialogue about our national priorities?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Good News for 12-Year-Old Boys, Monkeys and Bears ... Oh My!

The Republican-led House just can’t stop trying to limit abortion. Their latest gambit – outlawing the procedure after the 20th week. The argument? Unclear as usual, except for the question of when “human life” begins. But one Congressman from Texas, Michael Burgess, has come up with a rather unique explanation for why we need to consider fetuses as human – they masturbate (Slate). That’s right, masturbation is now the key criterion for who has rights under the U.S. constitution.

This is, of course, good news for pubescent boys, who could argue that they should not only garner the right to vote as soon as those hormones kick in, but maybe two or three votes. And creatures across the animal kingdom can rejoice as well as the U.S. constitution becomes a viable resource to protect their rights, particularly against corporate malfeasance. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Detroit to Itself … Drop Dead!

An infamous New York Daily News headline of 1975 read “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” a response to his threatened veto of any bailout for the City, which was on the brink of bankruptcy. NYC avoided that fate, but 60 cities, municipalities and villages have attempted to file Chapter 9 since 1954, with 29 cases dismissed. The latest to tempt the route of last resort is Detroit: New York Times. This is ground zero of the cost of globalization, increased inequality, neoliberal tax/fiscal policy and the void between the promise and reality of the new world order. A city that once boasted 1.8 million citizens, many with quality jobs for the auto industry, is now an urban wasteland of 700,000. Infrastructure is collapsing, services are being cut, poverty is up and the cities debt load could easily eat up 65 percent of the annual budget.

That is third world country debt and perfectly exemplifies the harsh costs accrued by the victims of neoliberal globalization gone wild, even in the Global North. The answer to this growing problem? More cuts, of course, just as a Democratic Presidential hopeful in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, touts his “Tax-Free NY Zones” near public universities: Salon (more on this later in the week). It seems the worse things get, the worse the ideas to solve our problems … 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Curse of 3 and 13

Another U.S. Open in contention, another failure for old Phil. Mickelson is always the bridesmaid and never the bride when it comes to the Open, a prize that has eluded him by one position for the sixth time today. This seemed to be the one where he could excise those old ghosts of summer’s past, finally leading going into the final round (by a stroke), on father’s day (after he won father of the year for flying all the way back to San Diego for his  daughter’s graduation the night before the first round) and on his 43rd birthday, to boot. Even after two double bogies on the front nine and a number of lipped out putts, he hit a magical holed eagle on the 11th to take the lead by a stroke. By Mickelson often finds ways to lose and the 13th is where it all began to unravel. The easiest hole on the golf course over the four days and the easiest in an Open in years is a simple par 3 at pitching wedge length with a few routes that draw the ball right toward the pin. Mickelson sized up the hole and then, after discussion with his long time caddy “Bones,” picked the wrong club, sending the ball over the green and making a birdie hole into a bogie hole. Two holes later, his shot landed a little short and rolled down the hill. Again he chose one of the five wedges in his bag and then chunked it a bit and sent it far past the hole – another bogie. Phil then had two reasonable birdie putts, but neither went in and, after sending his 18th hole drive into the rough and his subsequent shot short, he needed a miracle chip hole-in to force a playoff. It never should have come down to this with at least 10 lipped out or over-the-hole putts failing to drop over the past three days. So the crowd favorite didn’t have the dream finish and Justin Rose, a 32-year old who is more famous for his Ryder Cup play than his disappointing failure to lodge a major until today, is the winner and Phil might just have missed his last great chance at the coveted prize.

Now to Tiger Woods, a mere four majors away from tying Jack Nicklaus for the most in history. But he has now gone five years without a single one and one begins to wonder if he will eclipse the record he has coveted since his teens. Woods troubles since that last Open win in 2008 is his burgeoning habit of disappearing in the third round. Sure he had a terrible final round as well today, but it is the third round where he has fallen out of contention in so many majors since the slump began. Starting with the 2012 Masters, Woods has not shot in the 60s on the weekend of a major Championship, a streak of 11 rounds. Last year, he led the Open after 36 holes, only to shoot a 75-73 weekend and fall to 21st. And since a third round 66 at the 2010 Open, he is 14 over on Saturdays at majors. Many thought this is the tournament where he would break the slump. He has already won four times this year and, but for a two stroke penalty and unlucky ball that hit the flag stick and fell into the water, was close to winning the Masters. But Tiger collapsed in the tough conditions of an underrated Merion course that took almost all the best players in the world to task over four days. Will Tiger do it? For some reason I still think he will win at least the four majors necessary to tie Nicklaus, though I’m no longer certain he’ll break the record. He just needs to remind himself that he used to be the best closer in golf. Mickelson, so beloved as much for his many failures as his successes, will remain a crowd favorite, but I don’t see any more majors for the San Diego native, who will be kicking himself for the rest of his life – blowing six chances at his dream! Of course the $48 million he makes and year and private jet he’s flying around must be some consolation.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Movie Review: And Now a Word From Our Sponsor

Quality movies have a combination of ingredients that make them great. These tend to include compelling characters and moving arcs, a riveting plot, hope, love, sex, romance and a happy ending. Scripts that don’t work generally fail in one of the three main areas: plot, character and/or dialogue. A film that fails in all three areas is a relative rarity and thus director Zack Bernbaum should be congratulated from achieving that rare feat – making a movie that has a quality cast and absolutely nothing else to offer, beside a couple of clever jokes.

The film starts with a decent hook, an ad agency CEO who can only speak in jingles. From there it goes nowhere really slowly – even though the film runs only 1 hour and 23 minutes. Parker Posey, as a widowed mother of a precocious child (Karen Hillridge), and Bruce Greenwood, as the aforementioned CEO (Adan Kundle), do their best to create a romance out of one clichéd scene after another, but it all seems to fall flat. The precocious daughter Meghan (Allie McDonald) has a funny scene talking about kissing at the beginning, just so you can later be saved by Adan from an over-eager boyfriend. She claims her life is messed up, though it is unclear how and the big revelation is that her mother wouldn’t let her in to see her father when he died two years earlier (what a terrible mother!). So we have a messed up family that needs to be saved – so enter a quirky, advertising exec “genius” who is fully aware of what is going on around him, but can only talk in those clever little jingles that are really profound if you just really listen. Alternatively, this could be the longest commercial people pay to see, even ending with what appears to be a BMW ad.

To provide a little distraction from the really dull story at the center of the film, enter a bad guy, Lucas Foster (Callum Blue), who wants to take over the company from Adan. In the end, he does, but I’m not sure why we should care. So we have a flat love story that’s barely a love story at all, cleverly unclever dialogue, a bad guy who just isn’t bad enough (and actually wins in the end) and a girl who doesn’t really change in any profound way. In fact, no one really does, except Callum, who now is the CEO of the company. Bad movies are made all the time, of course, and the only thing surprising about this bomb is that two decent actors decided to waste their time making it.

Why review it then? I actually thought it provided great advice for what not to do to screenwriters: 1. Make sure your characters are interesting and have a problem (backstory) that is compelling. A lost loved one always works in building sympathy, except when you take forever to tell us and it just doesn’t seem that tragic. 2. Stories need character arc – ie, the character has to grow in some way, learn something, fail or succeed and thus change. 3. If a story isn’t really working, make the bad guy worse. The bad guy here is just a cliché of the over-caffeinated ambitious twat who, again, gets what he wants in the end. 4. Even if a movie kind of sucks, a good ending can go a long way to giving the audience what they want. But the previous three ingredients are important in getting to four. A quick kiss on the lips and a hug before the main character departs, with no clear indication of the future, just doesn’t do anything to move the audience. And 5. Ending with a commercial is always the wrong choice. I’m not sure if they were paid for product placement, but given the constant barrage of advertisements, they should have been – and then the placers should have demanded their money back. This is the worst movie I have seen since an ill-advised decision to half-watch Break Dawn: Part 1 on HBO a few months back. And thus the F.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

And the Beat Goes On ...

Another shooting, another deranged young man and another who was able to amass an arsenal of weapons and ammo that would have made John Dillinger envious (LA Times). This latest tragedy happened to occur on a street less than 30 blocks from my apartment, luckily while I was teaching in North Hollywood. The frequency of these shootings has become so common that it appears like just another news story that will soon fritter out, replaced by another celebrity breakup, constructed Obama scandal or sports star who turns out to be a cheat. Will we learn nothing as the mean streets of suburban America become more dangerous than Tel Aviv at the height of the terrorist attacks? Will we ever pass sensible gun control laws that actually makes it harder for the mentally unstable to acquire weapons? Can our schools do a better job of diagnosing and helping these troubled youth? And will we ever have a real conversation about the deleterious effects of Hollywood and video game producers love affair with violence?

The reality is that America has a culture of violence that has to be addressed at all levels. Those same violent videogames and movies exist in Japan, South Korea and China, where violent acts at are substantially lower rates (though there was a horrific school shooting in China a couple of years ago that the government covered up). Canadians own as many guns as Americans, but don’t seem to go on rampages that they must know will end in their own death. England has more broken homes than America, so it’s not that alone either. But when you combine the dramatic gap between rich and poor, the spectacle and consumer cultures that seize our children as nowhere else in the world, the endemic unhappiness that seems to plague the country, the celebration of violence without any nod to its effects and the ready availability of not only guns, but semi-automatic ones to almost anyone, you can see where the problem lies.

NRA spokesman and other gun control opponents like to argue that the bad guys will get guns anyway, but is that really true? Would all of these disaffected white suburban kids really have the wherewithal to find the weapons, the ammunition and enact the crimes? Could the ready availability of weapons and ability to accumulate them undetected by law enforcement make a moment of madness into a tragedy? Do we really need to celebrate violence with quite the aplomb that we do? What WWII should have taught us more than anything else, is that a crowd ushered into a culture of violence will often embrace it unquestionably. We do not live in a fascist state, at least not yet, but it does appear that all the hate, all the racism, all the anti-gay rhetoric and other forms of rabble rousing are having the natural, if unintended effect. Is this really the world we want to live in? The only way to start ourselves on the path to real change is to elect sane representatives (at this moment Democrats) to actually represent the interests of the majority – rather than a loud, boisterous minority.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Investing in the Future

A not so modest proposal for providing a major economic stimulus that doesn’t involve tax increases is available, though it has never been considered by more than a few random Representatives. What is it? Quite simply … forgive outstanding student loan debt. Many have labeled the latest group of kids “Generation Debt” (I first remember reading it in the Village Voice several years ago). Students leave college saddled with debts that rival a mid-tier mortgage. And while we can argue over the merits of youth paying for their own education, the reality is that the positive externalities associated with a more educated and skilled workforce far outweigh any costs. Today the cumulative student loan debt stands at over $1 Trillion dollars (CNN). Forgiving this debt, with a transfer from the government to banks would free up about 8 percent of GDP to push toward consumption. Sure some students will take that additional income and save it, but the reality is putting more disposable income in the hands of young people will invariably lead to increased spending – thus serving as a stimulus to the economy. Beyond this, there are a number of additional benefits: 1. Students with no debt load are more apt to spend time serving the public in either non-profits or public service positions. The pressure of debt repayment have long strained the non-profit sector, causing fewer talented people to make short or long-term sacrifices for the common good. 2. The immediate influx of cash into the economy means hiring more young people who bring fresh ideas to the workplace, thus providing for more opportunities for innovation and increased productivity. 3. Many of those young people would be in a position to purchase a home, thus serving as a boon to the housing market. And 4. It just makes sense in a democracy for youth to have the benefit of cheap education as it serves economic, social and political ends – particularly those a more free, vibrant democracy where new ideas and energy are brought to bear on the major issues of our time. We are clearly suffering through a dearth of new ideas and sensible solutions to the problems that ail us and freeing youth from the onus of excessive debt gives them more opportunity and even impetus to work to solve the problems that will define their collective future. 

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Conservative Revolution: Obstructionism

After 12 years of the conservative revolution ushered in by Ronald Reagan, a hiccup emerged in the guise of a chubby, but handsome philanderer from the South who promised to cross the partisan divide and govern economically from the middle and socially from the left. It was a huge challenge and one that could have destroyed the burgeoning GOP rule. What did they do to stem the tide of loss? A three-pronged approach to attacking from the rear, centered on wedge, attack and obstruct. Two years into the Clinton Presidency, this strategy showed its first major success, as Republicans took over the House for the first time in 50 years. Under the tutelage of Newt Gingrich, they put WAO into full effect.

I have often written here of the effectiveness of this plan. Clinton did raise taxes in his first term, to great effect, but other than the tech bubble that he left us with he will be remembered predominantly for a number of arguably “conservative” victories: deregulating telecommunications, radically reforming welfare, banking reform in 1998 that left us with the Wall Street we still suffer through today, filling our prisons with male youth of color, balancing the budget and shrinking the debt. And on social and environmental issues, his record isn’t much better. How did the GOP effectively push a popular president to the right? It was clearly WAO at work. Let’s focus on its use during the Clinton Presidency, and ever since.

1.  Wedge: while this last election and the falling stock of the Tea Party suggest new wedges need to be found, it is clear that the triumvirate of anti-gay (marriage), anti-illegal-immigrant (particularly of the brown persuasion) and anti-abortion stances are enough to win elections across the Southern and Middle states of America. The gay marriage issue, in fact, arguably won Bush a second term – as he won every state where there was an anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative including the decisive Ohio vote. And even with all the people dying in high profile shootings, the NRA can still round up heavy support for anti-gun-control fervor. Thomas Frank has covered this ground in depth in What’s the Matter with Kansas, although Larry Bartels makes a compelling case that Franks is wrong in his clever response What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas? While the last election showed that the cache of gay and immigration battering may be waning, there are always social issues important enough to many Americans that they can be swayed away from their own economic and political interests. And just as we thought another of those issues might fall off the table – Mark Rubio is now arguing we don’t have the votes for Immigration Reform, when it looked like a good bet mere weeks ago.
2.   Attack: Clinton truly was the Teflon President, considering how many investigations and attacks were levied against him. The fact that only one appears to have been based on fact, and we know which one that was, the constant necessity of responding to legal and political challenges undermined Clinton’s ability to rule. This has been more difficult with Obama, so the GOP has gotten even more nefarious with their charges – that he isn’t a U.S. citizen, that he is a Muslim, that he asked the IRS to attack conservative causes and that he is somehow culpable for Benghazi because he didn’t call it a terrorist attack within 24 hours. They have also, of course, used veiled and outright racism, called him both a socialist and a fascist (hmm, that’s confusing) and anything else they can to undermine faith in the President. Since the GOP doesn’t really stand for anything accept shrinking government and supporting corporate and elite power, the frequency and level of attack ads and campaigns has increased exponentially, facilitated by the Citizens United decision of 2010.
3.  Obstruct: When Bush was a couple of years into his Presidency, he complained vociferously that Democratic Senators were holding up his truly radical judicial nominees. Other Republicans argued that they had been much better when Clinton was in office. The reality? The exact opposite. The GOP blocked nominee after nominee, initiating a plan to stack the federal court system with conservatives at all  levels (particularly the Supreme Court – which is now the most pro-corporate in history). And they continue to do so today, blocking Obama nominees to the important federal appeals court in DC: The Hill.

This three-pronged approach to minority rule has been coupled with bullying and pushing through unpopular legislation whenever they do have power, as under Bush II. It is a winning strategy for the GOP, but probably a losing one for America. 

Thinking Inside the Box

Clichés fill conference rooms of businesses across America. Reinventing the wheel (which has been done a number of times – and in good ways), throwing under the bus (is it okay to throw them over it?), a win win situation (and the generally less popular lose lose situation – ala a major layoff), ramping up (which has confused down ramps for decades), core competencies (usually said by people without any – and often rather large cores to boot),  pushing the envelope (this should really become “forwarding the email”), hitting the ground running (which has scared the bejesus out of running ground for years), team player (generally stated by people who hate teams) and, of course, “thinking outside the box” are all staples parried about in lieu of the painful job of thinking and articulating a cogent thought.  

It appears thinking outside the box, beyond being the most overused and annoying cliché in history – really symptomatic of a person so stuck inside the box they could never even find their way out if given several years and simple direction – is poor advice for children. For the past 75 years, all expectant mothers in Finland are given a box: containing baby clothes, sheet, a sleeping bag, outdoor gear, bathing products, toys, diapers and a small mattress (which makes it a potential bed -- BBC). At the time the program was started, Finland had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the industrial world. Today it has one of the lowest while America has the highest among OECD countries. It appears thinking inside the box actually is a good idea, as is sleeping inside the box.

So my public service announcement for the day is to seriously consider whether you want to propagate these tired clichés any longer, not only for the damage it is doing to our collective IQ, but given the potentially perilous cost to children in Finland. 

Monday, June 03, 2013

War on Poverty

Oops, I mean War on the Poor. Corporations are paying the lowest proportion of taxes on profits since before the great depression. The labor (wages) share of GDP is also at historic lows. Poverty is on the rise and while unemployment is down, it is still well above the natural rate of 4 to 6 percent (depending on whether we consider before or after Clinton). At the same time, corporate bonuses are up, income inequality is increasing and a new power elite is establishing itself across the public and private spheres. So what should we do? Increase corporate taxation? Reign in the power of lobbying and campaign financing? Institute more progressive taxation overall?

None of those will do. In fact, the answer is to cut funding for food stamps a year after the rolls hit their highest level in history. Not only did every Republican Senator vote to block an amendment that would have reinstated the $4.1 billion in cuts to the program, 28 Democratic Senators did so as well. And who benefits? A small coterie of crop insurance companies. But the GOP isn’t done yet. They want further cuts to Food Stamps, Welfare, Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. And it appears Democrats from the House all the way up to Obama are willing to go along. Let them eat cake appears to have been replaced by “I don’t give a flying f*** what they eat.”