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Archive for January, 2012

Mittens and Taxes

[ 26 ] January 17, 2012 |

In light of the remarkably low tax rates Mitt Romney is paying, this bit from Rick Perlstein’s excellent new column seems especially relevant:

He’s still inauthentic – but with, I think, an exception. Every time he opens his mouth on the subject of capitalism, he says what he sincerely believes, which happens to fit neatly with present-day Republican ideology: that rich people deserve every penny they have, and if people complain about anything rich people do, it’s only because they’re envious.

In addition, Krugman makes an important point: this should help to illustrate how stupid it is that capital gains are taxed at lower rates than income. This makes no sense in terms of either equality or “free markets” – and the official Republican position seems to be capital gains taxes should be eliminated entirely.

Beverages

[ 24 ] January 17, 2012 |

A couple of beverage-related stories this morning.

1. If you didn’t oppose fracking the Marcellus Shale before, let the Post provide some really strong evidence while you should: there is a significant chance the fracking process will pollute the groundwater used by Ommegang for their excellent beers. The thought of losing Ommegang is too much for me to contemplate. Luckily, the Ommegang brewers are leading the charge to protect their product and New York’s groundwater.

2. I know progressives love to trash Texas left and right but it’s a land of small charms. One of those charms is the town of Dublin, which has a restaurant serving the a 19th century offshoot Dr. Pepper recipe. It is (or was) delicious. I used to drink a lot of Dr. Pepper, though I gave it up a couple of years ago. But the Dublin Dr. Pepper was amazing. The multinational beverage corporation The Dr. Pepper Snapple Corporation was never comfortable with this “threat” to their brand and now they’ve cracked down. Dublin was so popular it began to sell some of its product online, violating the six-county radius agreement they had previously signed. Instead of coming to a compromise and saving this unique product, the multinational chose to crush Dublin Dr. Pepper, pulling the naming rights. Theoretically, the Waco-based corporation is going to continue the recipe and the store, but without the town’s association with it. We’ll see how long this lasts.

There really is nothing else in Dublin. It was a tourist attraction for this reason alone. The future viability of this town relies on it’s connection with its version of Dr. Pepper.

If you go to the Dr. Pepper museum in Waco, the top floor is a love fest to the multinational that runs it. It’s pretty gross. Maybe it’ll include an exhibit on crushing small-town Texas.

More here.

Jacob Lew: Union-Buster

[ 58 ] January 17, 2012 |

Josh Eidelson on Jacob Lew, Obama’s new Chief of Staff. When Lew was Chief Operating Officer at NYU, he took the lead in crushing the university’s graduate student union, which had organized under the leadership of the United Auto Workers.

Makes you wonder if Mark Penn isn’t advising the president after all.

Don’t Forget the Apocryphal Cocktail Parties!

[ 23 ] January 17, 2012 |

When exactly did publisher of racist junk science Adam Bellow allegedly convert from liberal views he never seems to have expressed in public? Eric Alterman investigates:

Bellow has made a career of calling himself a former liberal, though just when he was a liberal is hard to say. Times publishing correspondent Julie Bosman cites having Saul Bellow as a father as part of his liberal pedigree, apparently unaware that the great Jewish American novelist was perhaps the heavyweight champion of literary neoconservatism. His final work, Ravelstein, was a celebration of Straussian philosopher Allan Bloom. Bellow fils has, on different occasions, dated his alleged conversion to Ronald Reagan’s election, Oliver North’s Iran/Contra trial, the publication of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and various offenses against decency he’s apparently witnessed while waiting on line for smoked fish.

Bellow seems to have been “transformed” into a conservative more often than baseball (and, therefore, America) have Lost Their Innocence. But, in fairness, without this transformation he could not have brought us original, not at all self-serving ideas such as “self-sustaining wealth and privilege are great!” The Republican Party, after all, is where the ideas are.

Keep the Damn Government out of My Taxpayer-Provided Healthcare!

[ 14 ] January 17, 2012 |

I would have to agree that this effectively summarizes the Republican position. Restricting unnecessary medical expenses under Medicare — death panels! Providing health insurance to the working poor so they won’t suffer or die unnecessarily — communism!

UPDATE: The competition for worst song of the past 5 years is not quite as clear-cut as the above video would make it seem.

Blue-Green Alliances

[ 29 ] January 17, 2012 |

Last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed the United Nations Investor Summit on Climate Risk. He made a couple of important points.

First:

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

Taking on the threat of climate change means putting investment capital to work creating jobs. It means building a road to a healthier world and a healthier world economy–one less dependent on volatile energy prices, one where many more of us have the things that modern energy makes possible.

But of course, as Trumka notes, fighting climate change on the ground is deeply complex:

Now, some people’s response is to demand that we end all coal production now—they say “End Coal.” Never mind that such a thing is simply not going to happen—there is no substitute now for metallurgical coal and if we stopped burning coal this afternoon and cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent, as Mayor Bloomberg advocates, he’d be reading handwritten memos by candlelight this evening. Given that reality, it’s important to think about how that slogan is heard in places like my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

Nemacolin lives on coal—the coal mine my grandfather and my father went down to every day of their working lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines that carry coal to other plants. When these folks hear “End Coal,” it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.

Trumka goes on to state that in the transition to a green economy, working-class people need to be the first consideration, not the last. That can be easier said than done. As Ken Ward notes, the United Mine Workers, Trumka’s home union, has not exactly articulated a very clear environmental critique of the coal industry. The coal is running out in many Appalachian mining communities and the UMWA sees itself attacked from all angles, even if evils of mountaintop removal are obvious. It hasn’t even expressed strong stances against companies on worker health, by which it could define an environmental program even if it can’t fight to end mountaintop removal.

This gets to the complexities of the blue-green alliance, or the coalition between labor and environmental groups to craft policies that builds a unionized and sustainable future. There are clear areas where labor and environmentalists should have a common agenda–green technology, worker health, pollution. But there are equally clear lines that demarcate where the two groups can and can’t work together, particularly in extractive industry unions. My book-in-progress explores how logging unions in the Pacific Northwest organized around environmental issues, broadly defined. In the 1970s, a strong blue-green coalition (though I don’t believe the term had been invented yet) existed in the Northwest, with logging unions allying with environmentalists to keep workers safe and force timber companies to comply with the era’s new environmental regulations. But this was fraying at the same time it was peaking. The International Woodworkers of America had long criticized the timber industry’s unsustainable cutting, but when the rubber met the road and environmentalists in the 1970s and 80s were demanding increased wilderness areas and the protection of the last remaining old-growth stands, how could they vote their own members out of work? Especially when their union was coming under attack from so many other sides, with mills shutting down left and right?

The lesson from both the Northwest forest and Trumka’s coal miners is cultural. In the end, cultural divides shouldn’t stop anyone from promoting environmental positions with as much vigor as possible. But there is something very real about the resentment engendered when so-called outsiders (a term that can mean so many things) demand the end of an extractive industry without much thought into where workers are going to go. Even though those jobs are probably going away anyhow, it gives business a convenient target to direct workers’ ire. Of course, I don’t have any great answers about how to avoid this problem except to build understanding between the two constituencies, hoping that alliances over keeping workers’ bodies safe and air and water clean lead to stronger connections that allow environmentalists and labor to build toward understanding on the more intractable issues.

What’s the matter with Romney?

[ 98 ] January 16, 2012 |

As he cruises toward the GOP nomination Mitt Romney can’t seem to stop saying things that, besides being intellectually dubious and morally offensive, are almost certainly going to be damaging to his presidential aspirations:

Romney has made the “class envy” trope central to his message. In his New Hampshire victory speech Romney whined that President Obama “divides us with the bitter politics of envy.”

Romney complained to on Wednesday’s Today show, “Everywhere [President Obama] goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it will fail.” In maximum Thurston Howell III mode, Romney allowed, “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms.” But the president is talking about it in public!

How uncouth. Doesn’t Obama know that it’s always best to discuss the unwashed masses over martinis at the gentlemen’s club?

Although Romney doesn’t drink martinis, over the past year or so he’s made a number of remarks that make him sound like a caricature of a country club Republican. Given that Romney is clearly good at electoral politics — giving Ted Kennedy a scare in 1994, getting elected governor of Massachusetts a few years later, and winning the GOP presidential nomination this year isn’t a bad track record for someone who didn’t get involved in electoral politics until his mid-40s — these remarks seem quite mysterious. (When you make Newt Gingrich sound like the voice of reason on an issue you may just have moved a tad too far to the right).

In addition, one would think that Romney — a child of pretty much the most privileged background it’s possible to imagine — would be especially sensitive to charges that he doesn’t understand that financial success and failure in America are not doled out to individuals strictly on the basis of personal merit. Here, the contrast with George W. Bush is instructive: To all appearances Romney is both much smarter and much more intellectually curious than Bush the lesser, yet Dubya at least had enough common sense to burble some banalities about “compassionate conservatism” rather than, as Romney has, throwing an unintentional spotlight on his own spectacularly privileged biography.

Perhaps one clue to Romney’s remarkably tin ear when it comes to his unconditional support for the excesses of our plutocracy can be found in this claim, from the biographical section of his Wikipedia entry: “[Romney] attended Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, a private boys preparatory school of the classic mold where he was the lone Mormon and where many students came from even more privileged backgrounds.” On one level this quote, which has three supporting citations, is simply bizarre. While at Cranbrook, Romney was the son of an extremely wealthy man who was also a major media celebrity (among many other things George Romney was the subject of a Time magazine cover story), not to mention the governor of the state in which Mitt’s high school was located. There were twelve million high school students in America in the early 1960s, and it’s plausible that if one were ranking those students on the basis of their relative socio-economic status, Mitt Romney might have quite literally have finished first.

All this is very puzzling, given that Romney’s aggressive refusal to make any concession to the tropes of noblesse oblige sounds very much like the kind of attitude that many self-made man who grew up in socially marginal circumstances takes on after he’s made it big (Ironically, George Romney, who really was a self-made man from a genuinely marginal social background, had a solicitude for the less fortunate that by comparison to his son seems in retrospect almost communistic).

Mitt Romney’s politically inopportune embrace of the idea that the only reason America isn’t quite yet a perfect meritocracy is because of government interference with the miracle of the free enterprise system requires, I think, some sort of at least partially psychological explanation, which will be rooted, as such explanations are, in his personal biography. And I suspect — I am putting this forward in the most tentative way — that such an investigation might end up focusing on the role that Mormonism and his apparently genuine embrace of his Mormon identity have played in Romney’s life. Instead of playing the role of the generous quasi-aristocrat, which even a egotistical blockhead like Dubya was able to more or less pull off, there is an air of the perpetually bitter outsider about Mitt Romney — of the parvenu who is at some level not quite certain that his exalted status will ever be fully acknowledged by those whose approval he most craves.

Or who knows, maybe he’s just another endlessly entitled rich guy. But it’s a question that will be worth exploring for at least the next ten months.

Follow that thought!

[ 3 ] January 16, 2012 |

(Yet another one of those posts.)

The opening credit sequence in Fight Club is a nifty little reverse-literalization of a common directorial device for representing thought on screen. The technique typically works in the manner it does at the end of the film’s first scene. Start with a medium close-up of a face:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h02m31s183

Note that the narrator indicates that he’s had a revelation. The camera supports his claim by zooming into a close-up:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h02m34s212

Then into an extreme close-up:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h02m35s231

By zooming in on his face, David Fincher indicates that the audience is about to enter his mind. It’s as if the camera’s going to continue through his eyes and into his memory, which is why—as is the case here—such zooms are so often followed by a flashback:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h02m36s240

Call it an abuse of frontality—that feature of a frame that allows the audience to drink deeply of a character’s eyes and acquire sympathy with or knowledge of what lies behind them—but it’s really just an arbitrary convention. There’s no logical reason zooming in on a face should signal the beginning of a flashback. But it frequently does. What’s interesting about the opening title sequence of Fight Club is that it reverses the convention. Via CGI, the audience sees an idea—represented by an electric flash of blue light—form:

Read more…

O’Keefe vs. The State of New Hampshire

[ 62 ] January 16, 2012 |

Apparently, James O’Keefe’s latest illegal stunt ended up being more illegal than he intended it to be. He only intended to commit voter fraud to demonstrate that voter fraud could be committed, but because he chose to impersonate a living voter and misrepresented himself as that person, he may have:

(a) Pose[d] as another person with the purpose to defraud in order to obtain money, credit, goods, services, or anything else of value;

(b) Obtain[ed] or record[ed] personal identifying information about another person without the express authorization of such person, with the intent to pose as such person;

For those who’d prefer not to watch the tape, O’Keefe’s undercover agent attempted to (a) pose as another person to acquire something of value (Robert William Beaulieu’s franchise), and (b) acquire information (Beaulieu’s address) in order to pose as him. I’m not a lawyer, but it would seem that the only ways O’Keefe avoids being charged with identity theft in the state of New Hampshire is to claim that the right of suffrage has no value — and good luck with that one — or that he never intended to pose as Beaulieu in a voting booth, which he can prove by pointing to the fact that his cameraman walked out before actually voting. More significant, to my mind, is that O’Keefe seems to have sharpened his focus: before, he went after voter registration fraud and called it voter fraud, when in truth there was no fraudulent behavior involved. (You can register as “Donald Duck,” but you can’t vote as him.) Now, he realizes that it’s not the registration that’s the “issue” — such as it is one — and is attempting to commit actual Class-A-felony-type voting fraud.

I console myself with the knowledge that should he manage to do that, he’ll be convicted by evidence from his own camera.

Ron Paul Ain’t Good on Foreign Policy

[ 461 ] January 16, 2012 |

Freddie De Boer gives us a heartfelt defense of Paul-curiosity:

I don’t know if that grave was one of the few to be opened and explored. Even now the Indonesian government broadly obstructs attempts to investigate the events of the Year. The “conservative estimate”– that is, the one that won’t get you laughed at by Very Reasonable People– is that 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered, all under the considerable support of the United States. Some Indonesians I know find that estimate a laughable, inflammatory underestimation, but okay. Render unto Caesar. Half a million people, stuff underground or thrown into the sea. Lined up and shot in the back of the head, or hacked to death with machetes, after having been forced to dig their own graves and those of their families. You’ve heard it before. You’ve likely even heard that we supported it in every way conceivable, providing intelligence, arms, and funding to the new junta, including a literal hit list. If I know the average political mind today, many could read about these events with only eye rolls. They don’t deny the factual accuracy of the claims. They don’t even deny their horror. They just react as if talking about them is something gauche, uncool, boring. Few could deny their truth, at this point; the declassified CIA documentation is, as always, terribly frank. You’d be amazed at how many offer justifications to me. These people were commies, after all.

If you think that 1965 is ancient history, and that you are thus free from the burden of responsibility, I would remind you that the Clinton administration backed the Indonesian government in its atrocities against East Timor, where perhaps a third of the population was murdered; that Dennis Blair, former Obama intelligence official, had direct authority in our support of those war crimes; and that today, the Indonesian military is doing this to the people of West New Guinea.

I hardly need to tell you that our support of Indonesia and its military is ongoing. We are up to our elbows in the current regime, just like we were with the Suharto regime. (A Clinton apparatchik called him “our kind of guy.”) And in a democracy that makes it our responsibility. A foreign army that takes our money and our training and applies them to the harassment, oppression, and murder of its own people– that’s our responsibility. Yours and mine…

..What I insist, and what people like Glenn Greenwald keep insisting, is that Ron Paul’s endless failings shouldn’t and can’t exist as an excuse to look away from the dead bodies that we keep on piling up. What I have wanted is to grab a hold of mainstream progressivism and force it to look the dead in the face. But the effort to avoid exactly that is mighty, and what we have on our hands is an epidemic of not seeing.

Here are two assumptions embedded in this post:

1. The Indonesian government wouldn’t or couldn’t have carried out serial pogroms and violent state-building exercises without the support of the United States.

2. A President Paul, by withholding support and instigation, would have prevented these bad things from happening.

The first is a matter of historical debate. The CIA surely played a role in the fall of Sukarno and the murderous rise of Suharto; it’s far from clear, however, that CIA influence was determinative either in spurring the conflict or in producing a specific outcome. It’s also surely true that the United States maintained good relations with the Suharto regime for commercial and what it perceived to be strategic reasons, and that the US continued this support while Indonesia engaged in a variety of exceedingly violent statebuilding projects at various points in its periphery. The United States continued to sell Indonesia weapons during this period, took some steps to shield Indonesia from international scrutiny, and largely avoided using commercial ties as leverage over Indonesian behavior.

Again, we can debate as to how much this amounts to “piling up dead” for which the United States presumably holds responsibility. For my part, I think that lots of countries have brutal, bloody factional conflicts, and lots of countries engage in brutal statebuilding efforts without any assistance from the United States, so in general I’m inclined to think that US positive influence (making it happen) over these events is fairly minimal, with the real responsibility of the US in this case lying in its rejection of using any tools of negative influence (political or economic leverage, which was considerable) to moderate the behavior of the Indonesia government. Political leaders have terribly good reasons to kill other people for political effect; the United States rarely has to try very hard to convince them to do so, and often cannot convince them to refrain from doing so.

And so this brings us to assumption the second, which is that a President Paul would somehow have done something to make all those Indonesia people not dead. I suppose it’s possible that a President Paul would have refrained from supporting the Suharto coup, although it’s also certainly possible that Paul’s free market commitments would have made anti-communist activity attractive; I don’t know enough about Paul’s early career attitudes regarding the USSR, the Sandinistas, etc. I guarantee you, however, that President Paul would have lifted not a finger to assist all the Indonesians killed in the wake of the coup, or in the various statebuilding projects later engaged in by the Suharto and post-Suharto governments. President Paul might not have engaged in a direct military relationship with Indonesia, but he would not have prevented American private military firms from contracting with the Indonesians in training and advisory roles; he would not have prevented the Indonesian military from purchasing all the military equipment that it could afford from US defense corporations; he would not have prevented US corporations with interests in Indonesia from calling (publicly or privately) for violent defense of their extractive and labor interests; and he would not have supported any robust international action to condemn or isolate the Indonesian government.

Now you may say “but all that stuff happens anyway,” and that’s true to a point, although it’s also true that the United States finally did exercise some restraint on Indonesia with regards to East Timor, and played a not-completely-inconsequential role in the fall of Suharto. But that’s rather my point; for progressives, Ron Paul is less change than you want, and not at all the change you’re looking for. The world of a President Paul is not one in which the United States refrains from facilitating the murder of people in foreign countries; it’s a world in which the institutional structure of that facilitation is somewhat different, mostly in that it involves private actors undertaking direct policy rather than working through the US government. It’s also a world in which all of the multilateral institutions designed to alleviate human misery are undercut or actively destroyed by principled isolationist policy.

And this is my second point; De Boer compares Paul with Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, arguing that they’re all dismissed by mainstream liberals as being ridiculous, etc. But this comparison rests on a basic falsehood, which is that the foreign policy of Ron Paul resembles that of Sanders or Kucinich in any meaningful way. Kucinich, for example, is an avid supporter of the United Nations, as well a host of other international institutions. He also supports robust foreign aid, and a variety of other positions that suggest a commitment to using US social and economic leverage in a non-violent way to improve international outcomes.
Bernie Sanders has a very similar record. Kucinich and Sanders are both firmly on the left side of the liberal internationalist consensus, while Paul rejects that consensus altogether. This means that they incidentally share a few positions, just as Kucinich and Sanders incidentally share a few positions with Jim Demint, but it doesn’t mean that they’re saying the same thing about foreign policy, or that progressives ought to think of them in the same way.

On this last issue, much of De Boer’s anger seems centered on the belief that Kucinich, Sanders, and Paul are being subjected to the same attacks from progressives for the same reasons, but I don’t think that this is true. What animates progressive rejection/derision of Sanders and Kucinich stems from the belief that their policy proposals, however sensible, are too far to the left to win, and that in any case both have a variety of personal characteristics that make a Presidential victory unlikely. What animates progressive hostility to Paul, on the other hand, is that he’s a paleo-conservative with horrific views on economic, social, and most foreign policy issues.

And so no, it’s not a tribal reluctance to come to grips with the failures of the Democratic Party on foreign policy that makes progressives inclined to reject Ron Paul out of hand. Rather, it’s a sensible, realistic appreciation of the totality of political character of Paul and the movement he represents. To my mind, this rejection is far more thoughtful and reflective than the decision to cherry pick a few of Paul’s views in isolation from the rest of his politics, then laud him as a figure worthy of consideration.

Uh, No?

[ 3 ] January 16, 2012 |

I understand that I have been admonished to not write about such trivialities, but having come across Larry Johnson interrupting his search for the Whitey Tape to give his reaction to the news that GOP sixth-stringer Jon Hunstman is dropping out, I can’t resist quoting:

So?

What do you think? Is this a “game changer?”

Clearly, Matt Bai notwithstanding, Huntsman failed to “close the deal” with the Republican electorate, which thew him “under the bus.” On “steroids”! I’m sure Hunstman’s six remaining supporters will really “bite the bullet” and “give 110%” to Mittens.

“A memoir might conveniently free Flanagan from one of her fiercest hostilities — her resistance to empirical data or any evidence at all.”

[ 21 ] January 16, 2012 |

The pay at online journals being what it is, I’m pretty sure Irin Carmon isn’t getting paid nearly enough to justify consuming 200+ pages of Caitlin Flanagan in a narrow time frame.   But fortunately for us, we get an excellent takedown out of the deal.   On the phenomenon described in the post title, I loved this:

Flanagan mocks, for example, the suggestion on a Planned Parenthood site that abstinence-only education is linked to the rise of previously exotic forms of sexual activity (read: oral and anal) for teens who want to stay “virgins.” She concedes the existence of a Columbia University study that found that abstinence pledgers were far more likely to have those forms of sex, but sniffs, “I would hardly count Columbia as the go-to source for information on the hearts and minds of evangelical teenagers.” Yes, what do those wine-sniffing Upper West Side liberals know — except that the study, published in a peer-reviewed journal, actually drew on longitudinal data of 12,000 teenagers. This is rich coming from an author whose most decisively cited sources include “a friend who attended a leadership conference for girls” and “every woman I’ve known.”

But what’s particularly striking about Flanagan is not only that she seems to think entirely in terms of one-dimensional essentialist stereotypes, but these stereotypes often fail even to plausibly describe any known partial or contingent reality. My favorite example:

Roll your eyes all you want, and I did, at declarations like “one of the signal differences between adolescent girls and boys is that a boy does not fetishize the tokens of his childhood.”

I….Jesus. Right, The Phantom Menace took in nearly a billion dollars because young men everywhere were inherently hankering for a horribly written and acted 2 and a half hour movie about an intergalactic trade dispute or something. And maybe after Flanagan has looked into that she can google “Judd Apatow.”

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