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Water in the West

[ 56 ] September 23, 2013 |

How bad is the long-term drought in the West? The enormous rains of last week in Colorado helped a lot locally, barely put a dent in the larger indicators.

If you don’t believe the drought monitor, take a look at Lake Powell, a good barometer of water conditions in much of the West. By early September, the lake’s surface elevation was a whopping 33 feet below last year’s level on that date, and 65 feet below 2011′s September level. The rains helped, barely: The water level rose about two feet before leveling off. It would take dozens of this summer’s biggest deluges to bring the lake back up anywhere near where it should be at this time of year.

Dozens of floods are necessary. Of course nobody wants dozens of floods. What we really want is long-term rainfall. But the reality of climate change in the West means that long-term drought is the new normal.

Occupy’s Incompetence

[ 192 ] September 23, 2013 |

Who could have guessed that a bunch of Occupy anarchists who don’t trust government or institutions or systems of real accountability would prove a complete disaster with money? Oh right, me. Their Rolling Jubilee operation was supposed to buy off people’s debt. They raised a quick $600,000. What’s happened since?

Initially, Rolling Jubilee was forthcoming. It made two purchases of medical debt, one in November 2012 and a second in January 2013. For each, they provided a summary of the key statistics that was easy to scan and helpful. Those summaries allow you to see that so far, Rolling Jubilee has spent $28,079 buying debt, which provided relief to 1108 people. This is a mere 4.6% of the total funds Rolling Jubilee has raised. So it’s legitimate to wonder what they’ve been doing with the rest of the dough in the meantime.

They also held two board meetings, one in January and the second on February, but the minutes were skimpy, troublingly informal and fell well short of basic requirements (no indication of who submitted them, whether there was a quorum; contrast the Rolling Jubilee record with those from this legal guide for not for profit board minutes).

But the big problem seems to be the lack of a proper governance structure. A board, be it for a profit-making organization or a not-for-profit, is not supposed to be identical to the people running the venture. It is designed to oversee the people doing the work and to serve as a check and control on them (boards will typically have some key people from the organization involved, such as the executive director, but the majority are not in operating roles). However, the titles of the individuals listed as board members are all corporate officer titles: President, Vice President, Secretary, etc. At this remove, it looks as if Rolling Jubilee has an inherently defective governance structure, with the board too involved in the actual work of Rolling Jubilee to provide proper oversight (no one will put on his board member hat and find fault with the work he did while wearing his Rolling Jubilee worker bee ha).

And there red flags even in what little we can see of what Rolling Jubilee has been up to. They’ve publisheda statement of financial and control policies, and some of them are troubling. Individual board members have the power to spend significant amounts of Rolling Jubilee funds and make binding commitments:

– All Board members are authorized to individually sign checks up to $10,000. Checks greater than $10,000 require a signature of a second Board Member.
– All Board members are authorized to enter into contracts for activities that fall within the purview of the organizational mission.

To put it politely, a $10,000 signing authority for a board member is simply unheard of. And in general, there’s no reason in any organization for lots of people to have spending authority — let alone board members who, as we see above, should not have executive authority. It’s preferable to have as few people as possible empowered to disburse funds (the board minutes also show that unnamed tech people are handling PayPal, and funds can be disbursed from PayPal, so it may well be that people in addition to the board members are disbursing funds).

I spoke to someone who sits on the board of a foundation with a $100 million endowment and has also been on the boards of smaller not for profits. When I told him that Rolling Jubilee gave board members signing authority up to $10,000, the first sentence out of his mouth expressed shock. The second had the words “criminal” and “attorney general” in it. An investigative journalist who looked at the financial policies page said by e-mail: “This is shocking. They’re either corrupt or incredibly incompetent, either way this is appalling.”*

I doubt there is real malfeasance going on here, although it’s possible. Much more likely is complete stinking incompetence, which is what you’d expect of an organization with so few governing rules. My guess is that everyone stopped showing up for meetings and no one knows what they are doing and there are like 2 people figuring it all out.

DeBlasio in Nicaragua

[ 8 ] September 23, 2013 |

We need more major political leaders who did solidarity work in Nicaragua for the Sandinistas.


[ 16 ] September 21, 2013 |

For your Saturday night, Louis Armstrong in Copenhagen, either 1933 or 1934 (sources use different dates). This has to be one of the first recordings of live music on film. Sound is pretty good too.

The Gun Scare

[ 132 ] September 21, 2013 |

We know of the Red Scare. On campus, anticommunism during World War I and after World War II led to fired faculty and silenced opposition.

Today we live in the Gun Scare. If professors speak out against the NRA, they are drummed out of their jobs.The website Campus Reform is their McCarthyite shock troops. I of course experienced this last December. Luckily I survived for reasons I will get to in a moment. David Guth, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas may not be so lucky. In a fit of despair after the killings in the Navy Yard last week, he tweeted, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.” Now Guth was obviously not calling for the murder of the children of NRA officials. What he was doing to desperately calling for the NRA to imagine this was their own children dying since these people seem completely immune to the thousands of deaths per year in the United States that come from the policies they support. There is evidently no limit to the acceptable casualties so that people can play with their shiny toys and feel tough against anyone they see.

Now Guth’s rhetoric was more unfortunate than my own. Whereas I used a common metaphor that no one could take seriously, Guth’s language was quite direct. But looking at the response to my situation and his shows very little difference from cowardly university administrations. Immediately, both URI and KU sought to distance themselves from unpopular opinions of their faculty that were a) not expressed in the classroom, b) were expressed on private twitter accounts, and c) had nothing to do with the university. It’s not the language or subject that bothers the administrations, it’s the idea that professors would speak up publicly on the sharpest and hardest questions of the day in ways that are not nice and thus draw attention to the university.

Guth is in real trouble. Of course he is receiving death threats from the same yahoos and idiots who sent me death threats. They’ve inundated his department, his dean, and his higher administration. I feel bad for all the people who get caught in the middle of this foolishness, as I did when it happened to me. He has been suspended with pay. He has state legislators calling for his firing. He’s at least tenured so he has some limited protection, but tenure doesn’t mean much when the rubber meets the road. Guth himself says that he agrees he should be removed from the classroom considering the situation. He’s putting up a brave front, but I wonder when or if he will ever return to the classroom. Or will KU fire him when the light moves on to something else?

Why do I have still have my job? Why was I not suspended? I think in the end I am lucky. First, I wasn’t just some dude tweeting, but I had prominent friends with access to other prominent friends and this led to real pushback that the URI top administrators did not expect when they distanced themselves their lowly assistant professor. Second, I had a union and my union rep was furious and really took it to the administration. Third, I teach in Rhode Island and not Kansas. Our state legislature can be nutty but it’s not filled with crazy Tea Party types who would do away with all the liberals in Lawrence if they could. Fourth, this happened to me at the very of the end of the semester and not the beginning. Had it, I don’t really know what would have happened.

It’s important that we push back against university administrations not supporting their faculty’s freedom of speech, even if you don’t agree with what Guth said. Because it’s going to be you next when you express any opinion, even outside the classroom. This is part of a specific right-wing war against the university. It is the last liberal bastion in America now that they’ve mostly crushed organized labor. Cutting German and French departments, devaluing the liberal arts and social sciences, and suppressing political dissent is all part of a larger project to undermine dissent and free thinking at the university and turn it into a training ground for what passes for the 21st century American economy. Faculty lack class-consciousness and a sense of solidarity with one another. Those who benefit from high salaries in business schools don’t think twice about the decline of the philosophy department. Our work is so atomized that we rarely talk to the people in our own departments, not to mention across the university. Schools with unionized faculty at least have that to bind us together and that helped me tremendously.

Unfortunately, Guth doesn’t seem to have that. His fate worries me greatly, because that could so easily be myself.

Ravitch v. Rhee

[ 146 ] September 21, 2013 |

Andrew Delbanco has a largely excellent review of the new books by Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee in the latest New York Review of Books. Essentially, the two come across in their books as you’d expect. Ravitch is passionate in her defense of teacher unions, subtle in her understanding that we need to fight both poverty and improve schools at the same time. She sees schools as largely succeeding (the idea that schools are failing our students seems to be conventional wisdom yet largely lacks evidence. And where are schools are failing, such as the teaching of art and music, its precisely because of the policies that people like Rhee support) and that if SAT scores declined in the 70s, it’s because far more children were taking them in an increasingly inclusive education system. She sees privatization as a great threat to our schools, with little accountability for charter schools and national priorities moving toward giving snake-oil salesmen access to our schools.

Rhee’s book seems to be an exercise in pure narcissism. She is perfect, everyone who opposes her is not just wrong but has evil, nefarious motives and must be personally impugned (an attitude and style of argument that I find particularly distasteful). She has no understanding of historical context and doesn’t care. Teacher unions are evil, she is pure. She wants the shock doctrine applied to the public schools and brooks no opposition to her project of turning our schools into a capitalist experimentation station. She thinks the whole world should be competing viciously in a William Graham Sumner-esque race to the top. She lacks the ability to look outside her own experiences growing up in a household where she was pushed hard by her parents to understand why others might not find this valuable or desirable or even possible.

Rhee says that we can’t solve poverty until we solve education. This is absurd on the face of it. First and once again, does education need to be solved? That’s not to say it can’t get better; of course it can. But not only is there zero evidence that Rheeism will improve education for the average child, but her policies make it harder to do what we really could do to improve education–increase funding for school programs, hire more teachers for smaller class sizes, increase funding to teach foreign languages and better prepare our students for 21st century global life, build schools with better learning (and working) conditions that actually have air conditioning (a major issue in the Chicago Teachers Union strike), increase the salaries of teachers to make it an appealing profession for young people, improve the intensity and quality of education programs at the college and university level, etc. But of course these things cost money and take political power and Rhee’s interest in those questions go only so far as it profits her and her friends.

I’m also curious, even if we do “solve education,” how Rheeism will solve poverty. Will it convince Congress to improve the food stamp program? Raise the minimum wage? Pass a national guaranteed income? Undermine racial segregation? Bring industrial jobs back to the United States for the working class? Of course it will do none of these things. I guess it’s supposed to make “job creators” or something, but the end game of Rhee’s ideas are never spelled out precisely because she completely lacks interest in the long-term implications of her project.

Overall then, the review is great except for the last paragraph. After spending an entire article talking about Rhee’s own self-regard and unwillingness to admit the problems in her points while also talking about the sense Ravitch makes, Delbanco closes with the following sentence: “One thing that certainly won’t help our children is any ideology convinced of its exclusive possession of the truth.” Ah, a classic both sides do it ending! Earlier, Delbanco talks about how Ravitch’s ideas make more sense but they won’t get you on the cover of Time. I guess a true judgment at the end of a hot topic domestic article won’t get you the featured New York Review of Books piece either.

Nonetheless, a review very much worth your time.

Dear Arabella

[ 23 ] September 20, 2013 |

Do you ever wonder what your LGM writers do on Friday evenings, scouring the internet to entertain you? Well this, your daily World War II musical artifact, is pretty much what I do. It goes well with a negroni. As does everything else.

…A film in the same series, “Yankee Doodler” is just a bit more problematic, as music, as racism, and as propaganda. But hey, it stars Fred from I Love Lucy.

Shorter Republican Party: “Religious Freedom=Christians Can Disregard Whatever Laws They Don’t Like”

[ 145 ] September 20, 2013 |

The Republican platform of allowing Christians to disregard whatever laws they personally find disagreeable continues.

Uncle Sam the Rapist

[ 52 ] September 19, 2013 |

Not sure what the Koch Brothers are getting at in this anti-Obamacare ad portraying Uncle Sam as a rapist. Given that he seems be to using the same transvaginal ultrasounds that conservatives like the Koch Brothers support when a woman wants an abortion, is Uncle Sam just practicing on all women?

In any case, it’s hard to imagine the Germans or Japanese during World War II using Uncle Sam in a more offensive and anti-American way than this ad.

….If you want to make Uncle Sam creepy, at least go old school Committee on Public Information style.


[ 27 ] September 19, 2013 |

César Díaz’s essay on the difficulties of growing up in Brownsville and then going off to college from a poor family and then living in white Austin is your read of the day.

It’d be nice of course if Guernica chose an image that was somewhere within 400 miles of Brownsville instead of the Big Bend. We’ll make up for it with a song from the finest Brownsville has to offer.

The Hackiest Hack in All Hackdom (TV Pundit Edition)

[ 76 ] September 19, 2013 |

Chuck Todd.

Vital American Holidays

[ 84 ] September 19, 2013 |

Happy Gerald Ford Stuck in an Elevator at the University of Pennsylvania Day!

Evidently, UPenn also has urinals sponsored by donors, so it has a number of things for me to visit next time I am in Philadelphia.

Among the other presidential moments that should be become a national holiday are:

Vomit Day–Celebrating the January 8, 1992 moment George H.W. Bush vomited in the lap of Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa
Pretzel Day–January 13, 2002, when George W. Bush nearly choked on a pretzel. We could even get some corporate sponsorship for this one.
And of course whatever day in his presidency Rutherford Hayes’ beard grew to its longest point.