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Archive for March, 2015

Game of Thrones podcast: Season 2, Episode 8 — “Prince of Winterfell”

[ 3 ] March 31, 2015 |




The Erroneous Premises of Third Party Curiosity

[ 244 ] March 31, 2015 |

byrd_courtThose Were the Days!

Tomasky has a good Nation piece laying out the straightforward point that in the current partisan context the electoral choice for virtually any segment of the left is straightforward — pull the Democratic lever.  This is boring, but this doesn’t make it less true.  As always, Tomasky is especially good on of elites advocating heighten-the-contradictions strategies that are notably unpopular with the people upon whom the contradictions will be most heightened.

Max Sawicky has a response that, as always with Max, is worth reading.  But, as always with attempts to argue that third party politics have the potential to solve problems, his response is also highly unpersuasive.  The fatal false premise comes early:

 We can stipulate from the outset that these days, most any Democrat for president will be less evil than most any Republican…It follows that whatever legion of minions the Democrat would bring with her into the executive branch will be comparatively superior as well. This is not really controversial, nor is it really on point.A different issue is the political dynamic of the right-drifting center. As the center drifts right, so do the Democrats.

This was also the core argument of Adolph Reed’s recent Harper’s piece. And the main problem remains that it is transparently wrong. The idea that the Democratic Party of O’Neill/Byrd/Carter is more progressive than Democratic Party of Pelosi/Reid/Obama…I have absolutely no idea how this premise could be defended.

Sawicky continues:

They may be less evil, but they are more evil than in previous periods. Mondale and Dukakis took up bankrupt deficit reduction mania. Bill Clinton destroyed Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Both Clinton and Obama came close to cutting Social Security. With sanctions, Clinton greased the skids for a second war with Iraq.

As it happens, this was the other most crucial failing of Reed’s version of the argument: most of the evidence cited to buttress the claim that the Democratic Party has shifted inexorably to the right comes from stuff Democrats did 20 or 30 years ago (and most of that from periods in which the Republican Party controlled Congress.) There’s also the problem that the many flaws of Democrats from preceding periods are airbrushed out of the story. To the parade of Democrats who endorsed “bankrupt deficit reduction mania” we should probably add…Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who actually implemented austerity policies with disastrous consequences. (When reflecting on this Golden Age of the Democratic Party, we should perhaps also recall such matters as the white supremacy that tainted even the achievements of the New Deal, the segregationists nominated to the Supreme Court, the people sent to concentration camps on the basis of their race, inter alia.)

On the other hand, the tendentious case against Obama consists solely of the fact that he “came close to cutting Social Security.” This is not in fact true — there was never any chance that Republicans would accept Chained CPI in exchange for what Obama was demanding in return — but the Chained CPI deal was still a bad deal and the criticism of Obama for offering it (at least before his re-election, when he apparently thought it might fly) is merited. But if arguing that the Democratic Party is always shifting to the right, you can’t just look at things that didn’t happen; you have to look at things that did happen, and once you consider the most important expansion of the progressive state since the Johnson administration along with ARRA, Dodd-Frank, the Obama administration’s use of regulations to combat climate change and the repeal of DADT, the claim that the Democratic Party is to the right of where it was 40 years ago has no content at all.

Change in the American political system doesn’t come from third parties; it comes from social movements and primaries. The shift of the Democratic Party since the 90s is an illustration of this, not a counter-example.

On final point, on Max’s response to Tomasky’s point about how most Naderites were exempt from the dismal consequences of Naderist theories of electoral politics:

Tomasky suggests that protest votes are easy for bourgeois elitists who will not suffer from the machinations of retrograde Republican governance. This is a little rich. Of course, votes for the Democrats are not costly for elites either. It’s good to be the king, as long as your feet stay dry.

Well, yes, elites will do fine either way; some Nader supporters have lower tax bills thanks to Nader’s vanity campaign, but I don’t think that motivated anybody. But that’s not the issue. The question is what effect vote-splitting has on the most vulnerable people in society, and the answer is that throwing elections to Republicans has very bad effects on them in the current partisan context. If this is what we’re risking, there had better be some important benefit being gained in return. At this point, the fact third-party politics at the federal level has no actual upside becomes highly relevant.

…Max responds, you should read.

Good Job NYU

[ 9 ] March 31, 2015 |


NYU deciding to open an Abu Dhabi just gets more and more embarrassing for the school. You’d think the school would consider academic freedom and the protections of its faculty in the United Arab Emirates. But of course it didn’t. Because it was always about cashing checks.

When One Is Being Self-Consciously “Politically Incorrect,” One Is Almost Never Being Funny

[ 295 ] March 31, 2015 |

I don’t know anything about Trevor Noah, and am reluctant to say that individual tweets should ever be a firable offense. I have no reason to think he’s an anti-Semite as opposed to someone with faulty theories of comedy.  Still, all three tweets in the collection starting with the “Jewish kid crossing the road” one get increasingly anti-Semitic. At this point, many people will bring up the defense that you have to be “politically incorrect” to be funny.  I think this is quite silly in theory.  But it’s inapplicable in this case at any rate, given that Don Rickles’s writers might have rejected them for being stale and witless. (“Jewish chicks don’t give blowjobs! Dhat’s da joke!”) Even if we assume arguendo that they’re not motivated by animus, I hope they’re not representative of what he thinks is funny, or his Daily Show might make me look back fondly on Tough Crowd With Rupert Pupkin (which, come to think of it, was a show essentially premised on the idea that as long as you were being “politically incorrect” it didn’t matter if you were being funny.)

…Jessica Winter:

The problem is not that Trevor Noah tells offensive jokes. It’s not even that he routinely breaks The Daily Show’s covenant of speaking truth to power in favor of speaking truth to fat chicks or Thai hookers or, as the Washington Post’s Wendy Todd points out, black Americans who give their kids names that Noah disapproves of. The problem is that Noah’s jokes are so annihilatingly stupid. Are they even jokes? Are they meta-jokes, like the “My arms are so tired” airplane joke he made on his first Daily Show appearance? Or did he mean that as a joke, too?!? Trevor Noah: ontological mystery.


The Indiana backlash

[ 114 ] March 31, 2015 |

I’m not particularly troubled that some of the backlash against Indiana right now is a bit confused on the law, in large part because the backlash clearly gets the politics so straightforwardly and obviously right. But if I were the backlash coordinator, I’d direct my minions to start following up assertions that “of course it’s not our intent to authorize discrimination against gay people” if perhaps one way they could make their protestation seem vaguely sincere would be to follow 20+ other states and their largest city and make discrimination against LGBT people illegal. Because right now “God told me to” and “gays are icky” are equally lawful reasons to discriminate against LGBT people in Indiana with respect to housing, employment, schools, public accommodations and insurance markets. A group of legislators who really, really don’t intend to authorize discrimination against their LGBT citizens would surely want to do something about that, wouldn’t they?

Destroying Workers Compensation

[ 19 ] March 31, 2015 |

Orange Man Injured

Workers compensation is under attack. Although the system has never provided benefits at a level that really makes up for the suffering of an injured worker (the only fair system would be 100 percent compensation for lost wages and benefits) and although the system was designed to protect corporations from workers suing them, it still provides at least some benefits to American workers who get sick or injured on the job.

Not surprisingly, in this New Gilded Age, this system, like the rest of American labor law, is under attack. That attack is being led by corporations such as Walmart, Lowe’s and Safeway.

ARAWC’s mission is to pass laws allowing private employers to opt out of the traditional workers’ compensation plans that almost every state requires businesses to carry. Employers that opt out would still be compelled to purchase workers’ comp plans. But they would be allowed to write their own rules governing when, for how long, and for which reasons an injured employee can access medical benefits and wages.

In recent years, companies have used that freedom to severely curtail long-standing benefits.

Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, already allow employers to opt out of state-mandated workers’ comp. In Texas, the only state that has never required employers to provide workers’ comp, Walmart has written a plan that allows the company to select the physician an employee sees and the arbitration company that hears disputes. The plan provides no coverage for asbestos exposure. And a vague section of the contract excludes any employee who was injured due to his “participation” in an assault from collecting benefits unless the assault was committed in defense of Walmart’s “business or property.” It is up to Walmart to interpret what “participation” means. But the Texas AFL-CIO has argued that an employee who defended himself from an attack would not qualify for benefits.

A 2012 survey of Texas companies with private plans found that fewer than half offered benefits to seriously injured employees or the families of workers who died in workplace accidents. (The state plan, which Texas companies can follow on a voluntary basis, covers both.) Half of employer plans capped benefits, while the state plan pays benefits throughout a worker’s recovery.

With a national right to work bill almost certainly coming the next the Republican Party controls all branches of government, we can expect a legislative gutting of workers’ comp to follow. Already the system is severely weakened from what it once was, with huge disparities between states and workers bearing the cost of being hurt. Existing workers’ comp plans cost companies very little, especially those giant corporations like Walmart. But paying anything at all is too much for corporations and we are seeing that principle reenter American life. Workers will regain the right to sue in federal court if employers opt out of workers’ comp. But how confident are you that they will win the sorts of rewards that will force corporations back into the system?

Book Review: Thomas H. Guthrie, Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico

[ 23 ] March 31, 2015 |


The racial and cultural politics of northern New Mexico are tremendously complicated and fraught with conflict. This is primarily for two interconnected reasons. First, three major racial groups all compete for recognition and power–non-Spanish whites (Anglos in the local parlance), Hispanos (which is the usual term for what we might call Latinos in the rest of the country, but which also basically excludes recent immigrants), and Native Americans. Within those groups you then have divisions as well. Many people of course are mixed blood, but the politics of what it means to be mestizo are equally complex. Plus you have many different tribes who do not always agree. Second, the historical interactions of those racial groups are dominated by conquest and colonization, first of the Spanish over the Native Americans, then of the United States over both, and then of the rise of white tourist culture commodifying and fetishizing both the Native Americans and Hispano villages.

Though this is well-trodden in the scholarship of a number of fields, the anthropologist Thomas Guthrie usefully revisits the topic, exploring four different sites in northern New Mexico and the creation of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area to uncover how the official multiculturalism of New Mexico reinforces colonialism, even as both Hispanos and Native Americans buy into it in some contexts to make specific claims on the past and the present.

Guthrie examines four places for this study: the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, the portal outside the Palace where Native Americans sell goods to tourists, the mestizo city of Española, and the Hispano village of Las Trampas. The Palace of the Governors, the oldest administrative building in the United States, is today a museum. For years it was the New Mexico state history museum, but they built a new one behind it (which is OK, not great). But as Guthrie sees it, the focus on the exhibits now in the Palace tell a story that romanticizes the Spanish past while telling the story of Anglos through modernism and science in the exhibits about the building’s history, creating a (perhaps unintentional) narrative of brown people in the past, white in the present and future. Such a story is common in the tricultural mythology New Mexico that claims harmony but gives position of economic power and authority to white people, such as the famous murals in the Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico, displayed above.

Discussing the Puebloan peoples selling jewelry and other goods in the portal outside the Palace, Guthrie usefully notes the black hole that is arguing about authenticity, an inherently meaningless term but one with significant political and cultural power behind it. Ideas of authenticity have been used by both the museum and the indigenous people outside to exclude non-natives from selling goods there. Guthrie calls this a “staged authenticity,” but notes that those who criticize the idea of Native Americans selling goods in a commercial market at a historic site believe that real Indian “authenticity” somehow exists somewhere else rather than where actual Indians are living their lives. The “traditional” nature of the market might be a construction, but no more so than the ideas of its critics.

Española operates in an unusual space in northern New Mexico. Rather than an ancient village, it is a late nineteenth century railroad town. It is also the center of mestizo culture in northern New Mexico. Famous for its low-riding culture (you do see some crazy cars in that town) and its terrible heroin problem, the city is very New Mexican but lacks the classical physicality of the New Mexican town that draws in white tourists and their money, such as an ancient church and a plaza. To alleviate this, the city did put in a plaza in the 1990s, though this effort was opposed by many locals who preferred the city do something that would actually make a difference in their lives, like getting Wal-Mart to open a store there (which later happened anyway). The implementation of the plaza came out of the myth of triculturalism, assuming that the three cultures have lived in harmony for hundreds of years. Española also became the home of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, which is a National Park Service project to provide funding that allows regions to develop tourist infrastructure. The NPS impetus for doing this was commemorating the arrival of the Spanish in 1598, an event fraught with controversy in New Mexico even today. Finally, Juan de Oñate’s first capital in New Mexico was just north of Española, in land he stole from the Ohkay Owingeh people. When a statue of Oñate was placed north of Española, indigenous people were deeply angry because of Oñate’s mistreatment of the Puebloan peoples, most notably at Acoma, where he cut a foot off the tribe’s warriors after they resisted conquest. The Hispanos meanwhile see him as a hero. Someone cut the foot off the statue. It was replaced. Today this statue still divides New Mexico and is possibly the most egregious monument to the conquest of what became the United States in the entire nation, although I realize there is some competition for that title.

Las Trampas is a very poor Hispano village in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It has always been poor, going back to its origin as a frontier village with poor soil and under attack from the Comanches. The theft of the village’s land grant (to say the least, indigenous people are not sympathetic to this issue) and the migration of people to agricultural picking in Colorado only made it more marginal. This is a deeply poor place. But its quaintness makes it attractive to visiting whites, even though there’s really nothing there to visit. This leads to battles between white preservationists and local villagers over developing the village. In the 1960s, when the state finally paved the highway through Las Trampas, villagers were happy to have access to the outside world but white preservationists freaked out over how close the road would run to the historic church and that it would change the village character. Such issues, such as whether to use traditional adobe on the church, still roil the waters there today. Again, tourism becomes a means of colonizing in New Mexico.

Is this history complicated enough for you?

At the core of Guthrie’s argument is the need to take poverty and wealth seriously in analyzing and understanding the region. The region’s cultural narratives are heavily depoliticized in order to facilitate triculturalism and tourism. That means that the vast wealth disparities between white Los Alamos and Santa Fe on one hand and the Hispano villages, pueblos, and the mestizo city of Española on the other must be central to the politics of New Mexico. That is most certainly a conversation that the wealthy whites of northern New Mexico do not want to have. It means taking water rights and the impact of the land grant thefts seriously. It means discussing the problems of mass tourism. It means moving away from mythology and colonization as the central tenets of modern New Mexico and actually dealing with the legacy of colonialism.

The book is good. It avoids most of what bothers me about anthropology. He talks about himself a lot like most anthropologists, but given the frank hostility white anthropologists face in a place like Las Trampas, there’s actual value there. There are some “field notes” sections inserted into the chapters about the National Heritage Area meetings that I don’t think work very well because they aren’t particularly connected to the chapter at hand. A minor critique. This is a solid work with real value for helping us understand the politics of arguably the United States’ most culturally complex place.

Subtle Sexism and the Law

[ 34 ] March 31, 2015 |

A complex problem. 

Leveraging Synergies

[ 10 ] March 30, 2015 |

snapshot20070423114118Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I have advanced to the Sweet 16 round of Twitter Fight Club, and need your vote. Because the evil that men do lives after them, and the good is oft interred with their bones, vote @drfarls!

Through the Looking Glass, With Time’s Blog of the Year!

[ 109 ] March 30, 2015 |


The Gruber Did It!

John Hinderaker and Byron York are definitely onto something when they say that Harry Reid’s so-called “exercise injury” was really an elaborate cover-up.  But the real question is: why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Bill Ayers, Ace Rothestein, Jonathan Gruber…keeps ’em guessing like some kind of parlor game, prevents ’em from asking the most important question: why? Why was Reid injured? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?  And the answer, of course, is the powerful lobby of people eligible for tax credits to purchase health insurance on federally established state exchanges. Reid carefully omitted the “no tax credits for no eligible customers on the federally established exchanges so we can insure the Moops Resistance Army is fully funded muahahaha” language from all physical and digital copies of the ACA, but his guilty conscience was getting the best of him.  The uninsured lobby had no choice to rough him to keep him quiet.  Whether they used someone from back home in Kansas City or a scared M.I.T. professor or maybe a rogue operative who will need a liver transplant isn’t really the point.

Baby Carrier!

[ 24 ] March 30, 2015 |

Japan has an adorable new baby carrier!

JDS Izumo has entered service with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.  Izumo is the largest carrier (or “helicopter-carrying destroyer”) constructed by Japan since World War II. The 27,000 ton, 31 knot flat-decked warship gives the JMSDF critical advantages in anti-submarine and amphibious capabilities, and immediately becomes one of the most effective units in the Asia-Pacific.

Izumo and her sister represent an evolutionary step beyond the Hyuga-class light carriers, which displace about 19,000 tons. With the experience gained from construction and operation of the Izumos, Japan could easily take the next step to an even larger flat-decked amphib, or potentially to a full fleet carrier.

More on the “Stop Hitting Yourself” Theory of Governance

[ 110 ] March 30, 2015 |


Josh Blackman raises the new theory that Democrats should pay the price for Republican obstructionism to a new level:

I trace much of the intractable gridlock in Washington, D.C. to this very moment in 2009 when the ACA was passed on a 60-line vote. In much the same way that Kim Kardashian “broke the internet,” I think Harry Reid ramming the ACA through “broke the Senate.” This is to say nothing of his later decision to trigger the nuclear option, and eliminate the filibuster altogether for judicial nominees other than the Supreme Court. The intransigent Republicans take virtually all of the blame for the gridlock over the last few years, but much of it should fall at the feet of Reid.

This has the same problem as all versions of the theory: namely, the idea that there’s something presumptively illegitimate about passing legislation with “only” a 60% or 59% majority in the Senate is absolutely absurd. I actually wouldn’t bet that a conference committee would have modified the currently contested language of the ACA — everyone understood perfectly well that subsidies would be available on the federally established exchanges at the time, after all — but whether this is true or not the fact that a minority of Republicans in the Senate wouldn’t allow a vote on a bill that went through a conference committee cannot be blamed in any way on the Democrats and is a feeble justification indeed for willfully misreading the law.

Some additional notes:

  • How many Senate votes are necessary before Democrats are actually permitted to govern after winning an election?  65?  70? 80?
  • I note, again, that Mitch McConnell had announced ex ante that he wanted to deny Republican support for anything.  So, in other words, the only way that the Democrats could have avoided “breaking the Senate” would be…to do nothing.  I can’t imagine why Reid did not take this deal.
  • I’m curious why a bill that passed with 60 votes is cited as the one that “broke the Senate.”  Why not Bush’s second round of upper-class tax cuts, which passed the Senate with 50 votes + the vice president?  What about Medicare Part D, which got 54 votes in the Senate after extraordinary procedures were necessary for it to squeak by a 3-vote margin in the House?  Is it only Democrats who aren’t permitted to govern without at least a 61-seat supermajority in the Senate?
  • The “nuclear option” argument is, if anything, even worse.  Again, it’s worth recalling the context.  Republicans did not merely filibuster individual nominees that they considered unacceptable.  They were simply blocking en masse anyone that Obama nominated to the D.C. Circuit once he was in the position to make Democratic nominees a majority.  Which led to rules changes in which a majority of the Senate can confirm presidential nominees to the federal courts.  Which I’m supposed to be upset about…why is that again exactly?
  • It’s also worth noting that the “nuclear option” was not a Democratic innovation.  It would have been invoked during the Bush administration, except that Democrats made a deal in which they allowed multiple judges including Janice Rogers Brown to be confirmed to the federal bench in exchange for utterly worthless promises about future behavior.  If Republicans had agreed to confirm Pamela Karlan, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Reva Siegel, and Mark Tushnet to the D.C. Circuit I’m very confident that the filibuster rule would not have been modified. 

In conclusion, I would have to say that I am not persuaded that Democrats are obligated not to try to pass any laws to preserve the comity of the Senate or to ensure that the statutes they do pass will be misread by the courts as to defeat their clear purpose.

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