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Archive for January, 2012

Republicans Are Opposed to Fair Play

[ 14 ] January 30, 2012 |

They want it all, and they want it their way.

Plus, Wilson is doing it wrong; when you’re enumerating the “luxury” goods that some poor people own, you’re still supposed to specify “color” TV, surely.

Newt Has Invented His Doom

[ 30 ] January 30, 2012 |

The first last step was touching the moon.

As the Republican primaries approach their de facto end in Florida, Newt is making a lot of noises about staying in to the end, and entertainingly is now resorting to the last refuge of pundits who want to deny the obvious, the brokered convention. Drum finds the possibility of Newt taking this to the convention plausible; I suspect that no matter what he’s saying now he’s going to find himself tired of getting his clock cleaned while running out of money pretty quickly. Either way, it’s worth remembering that there’s no actual evidence that a divisive primary hurts the electoral promises of the eventual winner, so it doesn’t really matter whether Newt stays in or not.

Their Brains Have Been Mismanaged With Great Skill

[ 62 ] January 30, 2012 |

Krugman on austerity in the UK, a terrible idea that has worked out horribly in practice:

How could the economy thrive when unemployment was already high, and government policies were directly reducing employment even further? Confidence! “I firmly believe,” declared Jean-Claude Trichet — at the time the president of the European Central Bank, and a strong advocate of the doctrine of expansionary austerity — “that in the current circumstances confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery, because confidence is the key factor today.”

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs. Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.” He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate. And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

A WPA For History

[ 79 ] January 29, 2012 |

The highly respected historian and radical Jesse Lemisch has taken the American Historical Association to task for its unwillingness to deal with the field’s employment crisis. Lemisch compares the AHA’s milquetoast market-speak to the lameness of Democratic Party solutions to the modern economic crisis. Both institutions have become infected with centrist market-oriented solutions to problems, a business model that has failed the country, leading to determined unemployment levels, millions of Americans giving up trying to look for work, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Lemisch has a particular idea in mind that the AHA and other academic institutions like the Modern Language Association should promote–a WPA for academics. How do you put thousands of unemployed historians and others to work? You create work for them, a la the New Deal. Lemisch provides concrete examples of creating digital archives, bringing obscure primary sources to public light, compiling important demographic information from public records, writing biographies, and any number of other interesting projects.

If historians need work, the AHA should promote the creation of work.

Alas, the AHA has done a pathetic job of serving a useful purpose in guiding its unemployed members to a job. The ideas AHA leaders have created–more archivists, more public historians–are almost without value. All are being destroyed by the same broken model of government disinvestment and corporate profiteering that torpedoed the rest of the profession and much of the economy. Several AHA leaders have scoffed at Lemisch’s WPA for historians model, saying that the market will take care of it. Not only does the insistence of smart people to argue that “the market” is an independent entity uncontrolled by human actions bug the living heck out of me, it’s just not true. The market is not an invisible hand, it’s a series of decisions of governments, economists, everyday people, and employers that create policies by which a nation guides its economy. This rhetoric just obscures who is shifting the levers of the economy.

The other problem with promoting the WPA idea is inherent within the AHA. It is an organization of the elite historians, by the elite historians, for the elite historians. The rest of us just pay dues, or not. Leadership within the AHA is controlled by the most senior and respected academic historians at the most elite schools. They see the ultimate goal of a history Ph.D. as one thing only–an academic job. Those who don’t get that job must not be worthy. Those who are getting Ph.Ds at a school like the University of New Mexico are too lowly to count. This elitism is evident:

After the above was completed, new information came in that the reader should have in hand, since it calls into question the whole position that the AHA has taken previously. At the heart of what Grafton and Grossman have been seeking is a claim of anti-hierarchalism: in order to deal with the job crisis, they want to change the culture of the profession so that non-academic work will no longer be seen as “plan B,” but will rather be given dignity and respect equal to that of traditional scholarship and teaching. But in fact, the argument is a stalking horse for a new hierarchy in which PhDs from elite institutions will get what will still be seen as the real jobs as scholars, and the academic proletariat will have to settle for non-academic jobs.

Grafton (University of Chicago AB 1971, AM 1972, PhD 1975) is one of four contributors (three of whom, including Grafton, hold named chairs) to “How Can We Better Prepare PhD Students for Nonacademic Careers?” University of Chicago Magazine, January-February 2012. Grafton argues, as he has previously, for preparing history graduate students for careers outside academe. But he also stresses his agreement with Chicago sociology professor Andrew Abbott, who believes that “we should not at all modify our teaching, our aspirations, and our emphases. We are in the business of perpetuating critical scholarship… we should teach to the top of the market.” Grafton states in response: “I agree with Andy that we have to keep the knowledge machine rolling, and that elite departments should be teaching people to join that machine at the top… [emphasis added].

This is not surprising–top 20 institution historians want to perpetuate their own control of academic knowledge, setting everyone else adrift. That might be slightly more defensible if it was even clear that historians from those schools were doing that much better finding academic positions than those of us who excelled at less prestigious schools. Of course, like law schools, history PhD programs do a terrible job of tracking and publicizing information on the success of their students after they leave the program. You might know of the big star who got the Duke or Brown job, but what about the other 10 students of x professor whom you have never heard of? What are they doing? Who knows.

It’s probably true that a WPA for historians isn’t going to happen. We have to think realistically, we are told. But there are no good easy policy options without a radical change in how we allocate resources. Of course, the WPA isn’t even radical, but a proven success. And even if it’s not going to happen tomorrow, the leading organization of historians needs to commit itself to being a lobbying force to find members jobs. If it doesn’t do that, what good is it? Not much.

Alternative Energy Subsidies

[ 28 ] January 29, 2012 |

If there’s one thing more frustrating to environmentalists than the reluctance of the government to subsidize clean energy production, I don’t know what it is. Not only is it central to any reasonable plan for fighting climate change, but it just makes sense on so many levels. Subsidies have brought the prices of renewables nearly to that of dirty energy and it is falling all the time. And of course, the government subsidizes the heck out of fossil fuel production in ways both direct and indirect. The federal government made its decision to go all the way with the fossil fuel industry in the 1950s (if not before) and that might have made sense at the time. That it doesn’t see the future today and continues to favor dirty energy over clean hugely hampers America’s future. Future leading nations will have access to renewable energy and affordable prices with governments building connections between industry and itself to press for national growth. The U.S. remains stuck on an antiquated model.

On top of that, it continually amazes me that petroleum companies don’t rethink themselves energy companies and get behind renewables with all their capital. Money is money. Renewables are the future. Make them profitable. Does it really matter whether you are burning fossils or channeling the sun’s energy? Some oil people like T. Boone Pickens get this. Most do not. Insane for future corporate bottom lines, the future of people on this planet, and our national interest.

Engineering Nature

[ 7 ] January 29, 2012 |

I found the comment section on my bayou post of yesterday interesting for a couple of reasons, including that saving the marshes is an impossible task. This really is not true. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have shaped the river to satisfy a number of masters, including the petroleum and shipping industries, the U.S. and Louisiana governments, the desire of New Orleans residents to stay dry, and their own need to justify their existence and expansion. The Mississippi is a fully engineered river system. But the marshlands are still savable within that system. Obviously, no one is going to call for the Mississippi to flow freely, in no small part because of the likelihood and historical frequency of it changing course (which was a real worry last spring with the floods). That will happen someday and will cause a massive economic disaster for the United States. But short of that, much can still be done. Water can be diverted into canals throughout the system and then allowed to flood locally over the marshes while still allowing plenty of water for shipping needs. The levees can be broken downstream and water can pass through of its own volition. In fact, there are several test projects for restoring marshlands that have proven locally successful. It really doesn’t take a lot for the marshes to come back–just let the silt settle and the alligators and land will return.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that in the United States and most of the world in 2012, all landscapes are engineered and controlled spaces. Even wilderness areas are heavily managed, in this case to not be commercially or industrially developed. But these are completely artificial boundaries that say much about our relationship with the natural world. Given this reality, we can choose to engineer nature in any number of ways to serve any number of purposes. We can’t completely control nature of course, although most Americans have a very difficult time understanding this. But we can and do shape the land for commercial development, residential development, parkland, wilderness, whatever. Managing it to create marshes is a question of political will, not engineering.

What is the Worst Thing Published in a Major National Newspaper Today?

[ 52 ] January 29, 2012 |

Fred Hiatt brings us a strong opening bid:

It also could have been possible that Witt wanted to preempt the inevitable investigation and humiliation. Whether the charge of “sexual assault,” whatever that is, was ever true is irrelevant to the immediate and substantively unfounded assault on Witt’s character.

[...]

Who knows what “assault” even means as used in this case? The definition of assault can range from “unwanted sexual advance” to rape as most understand it. As long as we’re making inferences based on anonymous allegations, an inquisition by any other name, we might just as readily conclude that this was no rape. The accuser first reported whatever happened to the university’s Politburo-sounding “Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center,” then later filed an informal complaint with the “University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.” Why not just call it “The Torquemada Institute”?

A strong entry! Not easy for the Times to compete with! But not impossible — you can always get Caitlin Flanagan on the horn:

Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away. Both history and myth are filled with stories of girls exhibiting bizarre symptoms around the time of puberty — from Cassandra and her raving, to the girls of the Salem witch trials, to the girls whose households were believed to be the site of poltergeist hauntings, to cheerleaders in New York and North Carolina. Pubescent girls, it seems, are manifestly more likely to exhibit extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms than are teenage boys.

Yes, this article was written in 2012 and is complaining about apocryphal uses of the word “womyn” (although, alas, no apocryphal tales of bra-burning.) And, yes, it may be even worse than this might suggest.

OK, I Will Allow Myself to Be Trolled By the Rick Reilly of Pop Culture Critics

[ 66 ] January 29, 2012 |

There are two types of criticism I find particularly irritating. On the one hand — this was particularly prevalent in Seattle alt-weeklies when I was a grad student — you have criticism that isn’t really about the music/movie purportedly being discussed but about what the critic thinks liking or disliking the art in question will say about your social status. On the other hand, there’s the faux-populist criticism that assumes that if you like any art less popular or more complex than Transformers 2 then you must be some kind of poseur arguing in bad faith. What makes Chuck Kolsterman’s TuneYards piece so special is that it manages to combine both of these angles (with a little Abe Simpson for seasoning.)

The thing has, at least, occasioned plenty of excellent writing that also actually tells you something about the band. Scott Creney, among many excellent points, notes Klosterman’s sexism (“At the top of Chuck’s list of relevant facts: Is she hot or not? One can assume this was not one of Chuck’s primary concerns when he started listening to LCD Soundsystem.” See also Jen Girdish.) Maura Johnston is excellent on Klosterman’s critical incompetence. And by critical incompetence, I don’t mean that his evaluation is wrong (he claims unconvincingly to like the album and it would be perfectly reasonable not to in any case) but that there’s no evidence he’s listened to it carefully even once. (The lyrics aren’t “indecipherable” and they really aren’t “asexual”; you’d think “my man likes me from behind” wouldn’t be too subtle even for a Brett Michaels fan.) Anyway, while Creney is also good on this point, my minor contribution is to point out that the entire premise of the article — to summarize it is to make it seem more coherent than it is, but roughly that people will be embarrassed to have liked whokill if Garbus doesn’t make a lot of better records that are also popular — is built on a foundation of 100% pure bullshit:

This happens all the time. It now seems super-funny that so many people once believed Arrested Development was among the most important bands of the early 1990s. The idea of anyone advocating the merits of Fischerspooner now seems totally ridiculous. It somehow seems crazy that Cornershop was previously viewed as luminous, even though their songs still sound good to me. It’s just an impossible problem: We always want to reward art for being innovative, but most artistic innovations are not designed to hold up over time. They exist as temporary reactions to other things happening within the culture. And that means they will seem goofy and dated when the culture changes again.

Let’s take these one at a time. I suppose very few people would strongly defend the merits of Fischerspooner now, but then very few people did at the time if their grand total of zero top 40 (let alone top 10) Pazz&Jop finishes is any indication. With respect to Cornershop, what happened seems clear — it took Singh five years to come up with a follow-up to When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, and while Handcream for a Generation was also a very good record it lacked another “Brimful of Asha” that could grab public or extensive critical attention. But, anyway, since Klosterman doesn’t cite anyone (including himself) who’s embarrassed for having liked Cornershop, and since if you liked When I Was Born at the time I’ll bet you still will even if you haven’t thought about the band lately, I have no idea what this this has to do with anything.  The band is “somewhat unfairly ignored,” not “routinely mocked.”

Then there’s Arrested Development. Here, at least we have a band that most would consider retrospectively overrated; I’m certainly pretty confident that if critics were polled about 1992 again their debut wouldn’t be the winner and I doubt it would be in the Top 10 of what was actually a pretty good year. (I’ll even throw a bone to Klosterman by speculating that some indie purists irrationally upset about Mould’s pop move and/or SY’s major label move may have underrated what strike me as two of the year’s great records, Copper Blue and Dirty.) But, again, what happened here seems pretty straightforward — sometimes a killer single puts an uneven record over (and not just in the pre-iTunes era: cf. Oracular Spectacular), and I’m sure some critics also overrated AD because most of the other critical and commercial hip-hop successes of the year were the work of misogynist assholes. So it’s not surprising that their reputation faded over time, especially since they disbanded after one real follow-up. But leaving aside that AD are more ignored than a punchline, there’s the issue that 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . was utterly mainstream music, expensively promoted by a major label, that went quadruple platinum. So what does this tell us about the “perils of indie stardom” that await Garbus after her weak-selling succès d’estime? Beats the hell out of me, and presumably Klosterman is hoping that an audience that hasn’t heard of most or any of these bands won’t notice.

I’ll Take the Triple, Please

[ 11 ] January 28, 2012 |

As Ari Kohen points out, posting this is virtually a contractual obligation:

For the record, the Fielders have together hit 16 triples; seven by the father, nine by the son.

Limbo Without Law

[ 45 ] January 28, 2012 |

Powerful and important reporting from Elise Foley:

On a single day this past fall, the United States government held 13,185 people in immigration detention who had not been convicted of a crime, some of whom will not be charged with one, according to information The Huffington Post obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Instead, at a cost of roughly 2 million taxpayer dollars per day, the men and women were detained while immigration authorities sorted out their fates.

[...]

Locking people up is big business. The Corrections Corporation of America, which gives heavily to both parties, is explicit about the connection between immigrant detention policy and the private prison company’s bottom line. “[T]he demand for our correctional and detention facilities and services … could be adversely affected by changes in existing criminal or immigration laws, crime rates in jurisdictions in which we operate, the relaxation of criminal or immigration enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction, sentencing or deportation practices, and the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws or the loosening of immigration laws,” the company wrote in an analysis for investors filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”

Definitely read the whole thing.

Save Louisiana

[ 44 ] January 28, 2012 |

Outside of the larger spectre of climate change, the biggest environmental crisis in the United States is the melting of southern Louisiana into the ocean.* A combination of diking the Mississippi River to prevent flooding and facilitate commerce and petroleum companies challenging through the marshes have decimated this unique and beautiful ecosystem to the onslaught of seawater. The channeling causes erosion, the dikes prevent natural replenishing of the marshes. This is not only about some alligators either. A great deal of our seafood comes from the area, particularly our shrimp, oysters, and crayfish. It is also much more than an environmental issue. The bayous are home to one of America’s most unique cultures; without the environment that shaped it, that culture wil disappear.

This is a solvable problem, at least for now. The long-term implications of rising sea levels will cause problems down the road. But we could reengineer the Mississippi to flood in various places in its delta to create new marshland. The area can recover fairly quickly. In an age where New Orleans has proven vulnerable to hurricanes, this is all the more important because the marshes provided a buffer against storms, sucking down their power before the storms hit New Orleans. By 2005, the marshes’ ability to do this had been severely attenuated.

Randy Fertel has an op-ed laying out the legislative options, which I fully support. I also highly recommend Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell for an overview of both the environmental and cultural issues involved here.

* I know there’s some serious competition for biggest environmental crisis, with the strip mining of West Virginia the most obvious competitor. Not surprisingly, our insatiable demand for energy and to control nature to serve our economic desires is at the heart of both problems.

Needs More Tebow

[ 57 ] January 28, 2012 |

Evidently, Bijan’s sophisticated empirical analysis in a dying thread merits front-page coverage. Although I certainly hope that in keeping with the tenets of Paul-curiosity reproductive freedom and other such trivialities were not considered “civil liberties” issues.

For a follow-up, maybe someone can conduct a study determining whether the ratio of “people complaining that post x with a 200+ comment thread is insufficiently substantive for their high intellectual standards” to “people who actually comment or link to the lengthy substantive posts on civil liberties/labor/foreign policy they claim to want” is 3 to 1 or more like 10 to 1.

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