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Archive for January, 2012

Tonight’s Analysis This Afternoon

[ 55 ] January 31, 2012 |

I think Jamelle has all the essential points down in advance of the Florida results being announced. I think most people are going to accept what should have been obvious as soon as Rick Perry (the one candidate who could have been a conservative alternative to Romney with enough establishment support to compete) imploded: Romney is the Republican nominee. I doubt Gingrich would have had any chance even if he was running a serious campaign from the beginning, and he wasn’t. At any rate, after tonight nobody is going to think Newt can win, so anybody wanting to avoid acknowledging Romney’s inevitability is going to have to contrive some kind of white knight scenario. But that’s obviously not to happen — it will be literally impossible for a new candidate to win, and while it’s theoretically possible for a new entrant to force a brokered convention Jamelle is right that nobody has the “considerable fundraising and organizational ability, a national constituency, and a message that can appeal to a broad swath of the Republican Party,” that would be necessary. (And, in addition, there’s the fact that Bill Kristol’s fantasy candidates just don’t want to run. It’s not as if Romney’s vulnerabilities weren’t obvious last year; if Daniels or Ryan or whoever wanted in they would have done it when they could win. And after tonight, Romney will be a lot less vulnerable.)

Romney will be the candidate, and Republican voters will reconcile themselves with him very quickly. I very much doubt that Newt or Santorum are in this for the long haul, but I also don’t think it matters.

They can (mostly) hear those whistles blowing. (Mostly.)

[ 29 ] January 31, 2012 |

Juan Williams wrote a column on conservative dog-whistles in which he points out the obvious:

The language of GOP racial politics is heavy on euphemisms that allow the speaker to deny any responsibility for the racial content of his message. The code words in this game are “entitlement society” — as used by Mitt Romney—and “poor work ethic” and “food stamp president”—as used by Newt Gingrich. References to a lack of respect for the “Founding Fathers” and the “Constitution” also make certain ears perk up by demonizing anyone supposedly threatening core “old-fashioned American values.”

Conservatives are pouncing on the idea that “Founding Fathers” could be what Williams calls a “racial code word,” and admittedly, it’s his weakest example. (Though you need not be a Constitutional scholar to understand that everyone who signed that document was not only white but that many of them owned slaves.) The dog-whistle status of the public fellation of  source texts is questionable, but Gingrich’s refrain about Obama being a “food stamp President” certainly isn’t. Because not only is it a dog-whistle, it’s a dog-whistle whose etiology is a matter of public record.

According to a source of unquestionable integrity, on January 5, 2012 Newt Gingrich told an audience in Plymouth, N.H. that if he were invited to speak at the NAACP’s annual convention, he would accept and “talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Far from being an idiopathic charge arising from some haze of liberal thought, the connection between blacks and food stamps is present right there in the very words Gingrich said:

NAACP + Food Stamps = Dog-Whistle

This isn’t that complicated: Gingrich created a rhetorical situation in which any invocation of food stamps would signal to his intended audience that he was talking about black people. The fact that he dispels this notion is belied by the undercurrent of thought that gave rise to the equation in the first place. If he didn’t associate black people with food stamps, mentioning the NAACP wouldn’t have triggered a canned statement about food stamps.

Conservatives may wish this weren’t the case—that is, they may want to talk about the rise in food stamp consumption under the Obama administration—but Gingrich has made it impossible for them to do so without invoking the racist undertones of his statement.

Labor Notes

[ 45 ] January 31, 2012 |

A lot of interesting things under the radar right now:

1. It looks like Minnesota is going to have a right to work a person to death law on the ballot this fall. A right-wing legislator is introducing this bill. Republicans control both houses of the Minnesota legislature. If the bill can pass both houses, the governor cannot veto it, and it goes to the voters. It will join an anti-gay marriage measure, making Minnesota a hot bed of politics this cycle. Minnesota should have a bit enough progressive presence to fight this back, but the state also has odd politics and so who knows.

2. The new Revel Casino in Atlantic City has a very special employment policy: workers are hired for 4-6 year terms. Then they are fired and have to reapply. No seniority, no rights. The second Gilded Age advances another step. Revel received $261 million in tax credits to build this casino and are trying to bust the UNITE-HERE union that represents casino workers.

3. Great Mike Elk piece on the 13 year struggle of Brooklyn’s Cablevision workers to unionize with the Communication Workers of America. CWA used a complex media strategy to undermine Cablevision’s intense anti-union pressure placed upon workers. Winning by a nearly 3-1 margin, which is a blowout compared to usual numbers after companies seek to destroy the organizing campaign, this is a major win for CWA and the workers.

Is the Federal Government Too Generous To Working-Class People?

[ 111 ] January 31, 2012 |

The Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that poorly educated government workers make more than they would in the private sector. That’s hardly surprising. What’s equally unsurprising is that pro-business writers are saying that government workers make too much money. First up is my new favorite Atlantic hack Jordan Weissmann:

It’s great that the federal government is providing livable wages to workers, and their families, who would probably have a tough time of it in the private sector. But as an efficient use of resources, the current setup doesn’t make much sense. This might sound cold-hearted to some, but this is exactly the opposite of what the chart should look like if we’re interested in attracting the best and brightest to public service, and keeping them there.

So it’s great that the federal government treats working-class people with dignity but this needs to end yesterday? For someone like Weissmann, committed to defending the nation’s income disparity and defending the privileges of the 1%, this is typical but still awful. For Weissmann, the only workers that matter are those with advanced degrees. Working-class people I guess should go work at Wal-Mart or something.

Of course, Kevin Drum also equivocates on whether this is a good thing:

Would the quality of the federal bureaucracy improve if we paid less for low-level jobs and used the money we saved to compete better for top-level managers and other professionals? Maybe! But the CBO punts on this: “A key issue in compensation policy is the ability to recruit and retain a highly qualified workforce. But assessing how changes in compensation would affect the government’s ability to recruit and retain the personnel it needs is beyond the scope of this analysis.” Maybe next time.

Hiring working-class people hurts the quality of the federal bureaucracy? Should you need a master’s degree to work for the Postal Service? A Ph.D. to hold a mid-level job in Commerce?

What’s remarkable is the assumption by both writers that the government should target primarily the highest educated people. Does anyone in this society care about workers with only a high school education? Are we really going to accept their exile to the lowest levels of the workforce and permanent poverty? Should even the federal government follow the corporate social Darwinist model?

….Of course, Megan Mcardle just comes out and says that those lazy fat government workers make too much.

The Extinction of Megaupload

[ 64 ] January 31, 2012 |

Although SOPA and PIPA were defeated for now, the corporate-government attack on file sharing continues unabated. Most significantly was the government shutdown of Megaupload a couple of weeks ago. Regardless of an overarching bill ending filesharing, the media companies are using their full power to end the practice.

One can make a copyright argument that if you really want a Metallica album, you should buy it. I get that. But the ending of the entire practice has very real consequences. Take for instance, the now deleted site Holy Warbles. In response to the Megaupload ban, Blogspot has deleted many of the blogs that shared files. Holy Warbles was one of these. Holy Warbles was a great site that I sometimes used. It did not traffic in the new Chris Brown. Instead, it found obscure vinyl, largely from foreign artists that would never, ever be released on CD or digitally and made it available to people.

The blog Bodega Pop argues that this is akin to closing the modern version of a library:

Most notably, Owl Qaeda’s Holy Warbles, which first had its Megaupload content stolen by the FBI action. As if that weren’t enough, no doubt freaking out over the Megaupload action, Blogger simply shut his blog down, claiming multiple instances of copyright infringement. Of–we should be clear–expressive cultural artifacts that were either long out of print (and never to be reprinted) or so obscure as to be readily unavailable to anyone whose head is not a giant interactive encyclopedia.

The last thing I downloaded from HW was a rare, completely out of print album by Marie Jubran, a Syrian artist who recorded mostly during the 50s I think and who doesn’t even have so much as an English-language Wikipedia page. I have a lot of Arabic music from the period and a couple of related books, and I’d never even heard of her before visiting Holy Warbles. That is the sort of thing we’re talking about. Gone now. Not just the music, mind you, which is lovely. But an artifact that is now once again unavailable for, say, anyone studying the region and period.

Holy Warbles, and blogs like it, are–for all intents and purposes–libraries. That, really, is their function. Libraries that store things that not even the NYPL or Queens Borough Public Library have. (I should know; I’ve ransacked both for their CD and other media collections, which I–yes, you guessed it–immediately download to my computer. Will the FBI be visiting our libraries next?)

Indeed. Should the government confiscate actual libraries CD collections? After all, I could check out a CD and burn it to my computer. Isn’t that also taking money out of the pockets of corporate shareholders?

Phil Gramm for Dummies

[ 57 ] January 31, 2012 |

Money matters a great deal in politics, but Prick Erry impressively demonstrates that it only goes so far if your backers have nothing to work with.

Today in Great Hatchet Jobs

[ 85 ] January 31, 2012 |

When a studio 1)dumps a movie based on an expensively acquired series of detective novels clearly intended to be a franchise in the January dead zone, 2)based on the Saturday reviews apparently refuses to screen it for critics, and 3)it stars Katherine Heigl, winner of the 2011 Nic Cage Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Indiscriminate Script Approval, the review pretty much writes itself.   Nonetheless, to his credit A.O. Scott put in more effort than the filmmakers:

“One for the Money,” the latest Katherine Heigl vehicle to park itself in the multiplexes, is also the title of a best-selling novel by Janet Evanovich. It is worth stating this fact at the outset to avoid the mistaken but entirely plausible assumption that the phrase somehow made its way onto the lobby posters from the subject line of an e-mail from Ms. Heigl’s agent.

There are now 18 volumes in Ms. Evanovich’s series about Stephanie Plum, the Trenton bounty hunter played by Ms. Heigl with brown hair and an accent that might suggest New Jersey to someone who once overheard a conversation about an episode of “The Sopranos.” “One for the Money,” in other words, is an attempt to inaugurate a new movie franchise, something that might appeal to women and mystery fans. This is a perfectly sound ambition, but the movie, directed by Julie Anne Robinson from a script by Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray and Liz Brixius, is so weary and uninspired that it feels more like an exhausted end than an energetic beginning.

[...]

A caper unfolds, clumsily and without much conviction, bringing Stephanie into contact with a cheerful prostitute (Sherri Shepherd), a nasty kickboxer (Gavin-Keith Umeh) and his trainer (John Leguizamo), and various others. There is action of a sort — a car blows up, shots are fired — and what might pass for witty, sexy banter to someone who once overheard a conversation about an episode of “Moonlighting.”

Speaking of television, the one mildly interesting thing about “One for the Money” — apart from Debbie Reynolds’s scene-stealing shtick as Stephanie’s grandmother — is that it offers a data point for those studying the cultural decline of cinema. I don’t mean this in any grandiose or melodramatic way. Not long ago it would have been possible to convey the bland, lazy, pedestrian qualities of this picture — its lackadaisical pacing, by-the-numbers performances, irritating music and drab visual texture — by likening it to a made-for-TV movie or an episode of a series on basic cable. But nowadays that would be praise, and movies like this must set their own standard for mediocrity.

The Muppets Take Fox News

[ 36 ] January 30, 2012 |

Outstanding.

Apologizing for Exploitation

[ 55 ] January 30, 2012 |

Tom Krazit at Paid Content has a piece up apologizing for Apple’s exploitation of Chinese workers in the creation of its products. Krazit argues that Apple really can’t do anything about the problem–the jobs aren’t coming back to the US, it would be too risky for Apple to open its own factory, and China might not allow any real reform anyway.

Most of this is hogwash. The idea that an enormous multinational corporation which just had one of the most profitable quarters in the history of any corporation in the history of the human race is completely incapable of paying its workers a living wage would be laughable if it it didn’t shill for immorality. Take this paragraph for instance:

The truth is that an entire consumer electronics industry depends on these factories for their livelihoods; the dozens of companies and millions of people that have made a handsome living on the spread of mobile technology, gaming consoles, and high-definition televisions into everyone’s lives. And China depends on the demand for its manufacturing services driven by Western consumers who want quality goods at a low price, knowing that few other operations are able to hit those targets as consistently as its homegrown manufacturing base.

OK, but how does this get in the way of paying a decent wage. Apple prices are not low and people are desperate to own its products, but even given the general principle that people want to buy things for cheap, it’s not at all clear that you can’t provide reasonably priced goods and pay people good wages. We did this during the great period of unionization in this country after World War II; admittedly, our level of consumer spending was not so high as it is today, but people also witnessed rapidly increasing consumer power during those years. Even outside of that, given Apple’s gargantuan profits, there’s no way they can’t ensure better working conditions through throwing their considerable corporate weight around. Those contractors do whatever the corporations want them to do. They want so much product at so much cost. And they get it to them. This does not have to be a constant downward. If the corporations want the contractors to pay more, that will happen.

Krazit’s one point worth serious discussion is the role of the Chinese government, who may well be obfuscating any information coming out about their workers’ lives and who could theoretically provide a structural barrier to a corporation wanting to pay its workers more (assuming any of us take seriously the idea that Apple executives really care all that much about how these workers live, which I most certainly do not). If China truly sees its future as providing cheap manufacturing labor, I can see why it might want to discourage one company from paying too much in the fear of driving off other companies. But that’s happening already. As China begins transitioning to a more mature and wealthy society and as workers get sick of dying in factories and having babies born with cancer, companies are moving to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other nations with working conditions even more wretched. And while I don’t doubt the power of the Chinese government, I do not at all buy the presumption that Apple is somehow helpless to improve their workers’ lives in the face of the Chinese government. This is patently absurd.

Apple could do any number of things if it were serious about allowing its workers to live better lives. It could slightly reduce profits and earmark this money specifically for workers’ wages. It could open its own factory in China, hiring skilled technicians and creating a modern version of a company town (a scenario also ripe for abuse, but it isn’t worse than the present situation). It could then allow western reporters, environmental consultations, human rights groups, and whoever else full access to that factory. Even if you take Krazit’s point seriously that they jobs can’t leave China because that’s where the expertise lies (which begs the question of how computers were made before they were in China and what will happen when computer companies move their factories to nations with ever-more degraded labor), it hardly means that corporations are helpless to do anything at all about their workers. It’s that they don’t really want to do so.

Henry Miller

[ 51 ] January 30, 2012 |

Very interesting Jeanette Winterson take on Henry Miller in the Times Book Review.

I suppose my problem with Miller isn’t that he was a misogynist per se. Philip Roth is a misogynist and he’s one of my favorite living authors. It’s that Miller was a hypocrite. Roth knows he’s an asshole. Miller seems to have legitimately believed that he was some sort of revolutionary in his lifestyle of making women prostitute themselves to support him and paying for sex himself if he couldn’t get it for free. This is what is so galling about Miller as a talking head in “Reds”–it’s not that the dates don’t work out right and Miller never knew John Reed. It’s that they would have found him abhorrent.

The other huge difference between Miller and Roth is that most of Miller’s fiction just isn’t very good. There is something about Miller that attracts the literate male in his 20s. That included myself, around 1999 or so, though I quickly grew out of it. And while “Tropic of Cancer” is a good book, it is not a great one. And it is a stretch to call most of his other fiction more than passably good.

More problematic are smart people turning Miller into a hero today, as the Frederick Turner, author of the book Winterston reviews, seems to do. The mythology around Miller says a lot about the psyche of the American male who loves him, longing for days of empty sex, literary poverty, and before feminism. Says Winterson:

Miller had attended political meetings as a young man, but he was uninterested in political activism — and when the war broke out, he left Paris to return to America. Not for him the heroics of Resistance. Yet his lifelong pose was as a warrior fighting with homemade weapons against an indifferent, crushing industrial machine for which nothing mattered but profit and every­thing was for sale.

It never occurred to him that no matter how poor a man is, he can always buy a poorer woman for sex. It does not occur to Turner either, who calls Miller throughout a “sexual adventurer.” This sounds randy and swashbuckling and hides the economic reality of prostitution. Miller the renegade wanted his body slaves like any other capitalist — and as cheaply as possible. When he could not pay, Miller the man and Miller the fictional creation worked out how to cheat women with romance. What they could not buy they stole. No connection is made between woman as commodity and the ­“slaughterhouse” of capitalism that Mil­ler hates.

Turner loves Miller’s “war whoop” against modern industrial America. Hope is hopeless, but the lone voice of the prophet cries out like a Jeremiah among the brothels. Confusingly, Turner asks us to believe in both the war whoop and Mil­ler’s Buddhist-like acceptance of the world as it is. The last chapter is written as a rapturous riff on “what if” we could shed our illusions and live in the “moral” Miller universe, with its “realities,” “learn how to love it?” “Le bel aujourd’hui.”

Well, what if we accept Turner’s assertion that “Cancer” has traveled from banned book to spiritual classic that tells us “who we are”? A reasonable objection is that “we” cannot include women, unless a woman is comfortable with her identity as a half-witted “piece of tail.”

I’m sure some of you will disagree, so have at it.

Ideology and legitimation

[ 24 ] January 30, 2012 |

“Ideology” can mean a number of things. I’m using it here in the sense of the received consciousness of a particular social order, which legitimates that order and helps reproduce it. The lawyer and sociologist David Riesman aptly described how ideological modes of thought produce a kind of “sincere” mental state that allows someone to habitually believe his own propaganda. A dominant ideology generates a set of views that distort social reality in a particular way: in a way which advances the economic interests of the dominant group, without the members of the group becoming conscious of the fact that they believe what they believe because it is in their self-interest to believe it.

A simple example might be how the ideology of free enterprise capitalism in early 21st century America creates a sincere belief in the mind of a hedge fund manager that paying himself a salary of one billion dollars, which is then taxed at a lower rate than the salary of the average American full-time worker, is wealth maximizing for society as a whole, and therefore by definition a good thing. Read more…

On Douthat’s Reactionary Mind

[ 62 ] January 30, 2012 |

I had been meaning to get to Douthat’s argument about how requiring employer-provided health care packages to provide coverage for contraceptives is the death knell of civil society or something. Fortunately, I was procrastinating we got some classic long-form Holbo on the subject. There’s no such thing as one key passage — it’s all great — but I’ll arbitrarily highlight this line of argument:

[Corey Robin] digs up fun quotes from old, odd sources.

“In order to keep the state out of the hands of the people,” wrote the French monarchist Louis de Bonald, “it is necessary to keep the family out of the hands of women and children.” (15)

[...]

Douthat, being a much kinder, gentler De Bonald, would only apply the principle in small ways, to certain traditional sex roles and social hierarchies. He thinks a semi-subordinate status for women, where reproductive stuff is concerned, seems right. But he wouldn’t want to put it that way, because it sounds bad. There should be some way of making out how really the issue is freedom and community. That is to say, Robin is basically right about the way Douthat thinks and argues.

This is a crucial point. Obviously, neither Douthat nor the religious officials resisting this particular regulation deny that as long as we’re going to have a private insurance system largely provided by employers who receive tax benefits, there has to be extensive regulation ensuring that this insurance is actually worth something to people who get sick. There’s no broader principle of liberty being breached by the Obama administration’s regulation. Reproductive health is an important component of health care and it’s logical that employers be required to provide it if they want the tax advantages that come with providing insurance. (And remember that were talking about religious organizations performing the secular function of employers here; for better or worse, for example, the Supreme Court unanimously held just this month that religious organizations qua religious organizations are exempt from civil rights law.) It’s not a coincidence that the one exemption that is being sought happens to involve the subordination of women, and involves invoking a “principle” so essential to the faith that it has been overwhelmingly rejected by practicing Roman Catholics. Even leaving aside the highly unattractive vision that places “community” above gender equity and liberty, what we’re talking about here is a Potemkin “community” — trying to impose anachronistic, reactionary views on birth control on lay Catholics who by and large don’t believe in them.

Obviously, it’s a very good thing that these feeble arguments failed.

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