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Blackest and whitest names in America

[ 15 ] February 21, 2011 |


Photo: The improbably named Cherokee Parks.

Blackest names: DeShawn and Imani Washington

Whitest names: Jake and Molly Yoder.

What a long strange trip it’s been.

On Wisconsin

[ 244 ] February 17, 2011 |


Talking Points Memo is doing some great reporting on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s odious little stunt, whereby he essentially committed arson and then announced he needed to get rid of collective bargaining rights, in order to pay for more firefighting equipment:

“Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control,” says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future — a public interest think tank. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”

“The state of Wisconsin has not reached the point at which austerity measures are needed,” Norman adds.

In a Wednesday op-ed, the Capitol Times of Madison picked up on this theme.

In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state’s budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.

You can read the fiscal bureaus report here (PDF). It holds that “more than half” of the new shortfall comes from three of Walker’s initiatives:

* $25 million for an economic development fund for job creation, which still holds $73 million because of anemic job growth.

* $48 million for private health savings accounts — a perennial Republican favorite.

* $67 million for a tax incentive plan that benefits employers, but at levels too low to spur hiring.

In essence, public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda. “The provisions in his bill do two things simultaneously,” Norman says. “They remove bargaining rights, and having accomplished that, make changes in the benefit packages.” That’s how Walker’s plan saves money. And when it’s all said and done, these workers will have lost their bargaining rights going forward in perpetuity.

Apparently this fellow drank enough tea in the last few months to get the impression that he would be immune from any political blowback if he paid off his political cronies with money extorted from public workers. I suspect he won’t be the last GOP blowhard to get some reality therapy in the coming months.

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A bit more on drinking

[ 13 ] February 17, 2011 |

Rob’s post inspired me to look up the WHO report on drinking in the USA, and to do some quick calculations. According to this data, American adults (defined as people over 15) consume slightly less than two drinks per day per capita. This is using the standard definition of a drink as 12 ounces of beer, or five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. However, according to the CDC only 52% of American adults are regular drinkers (defined rather modestly as at least 12 drinks per year), while 35% of the adult population never drinks alcohol at all.

Thus half the American adult population is averaging around 3.5 drinks per day. That is a mean rather than a median — the median is probably not far from the one to two drinks per day that appears to correlate with better health than either total abstention or heavy drinking.

As Yglesias notes, much of the health risk associated with drinking in the USA could be mitigated if people didn’t have to drive everywhere.

Especially people with a lifetime OPS of 145.


[ 38 ] February 15, 2011 |

It’s early in the day, but Matt Yglesias has a good one:

Right now we have conservatives simultaneously calling for huge spending cuts and also getting the [lion’s] share of old people’s votes even while the vast majority of non-security spending is on old people. In essence, by first separating the domestic budget into “discretionary” and “entitlement” portions and then dividing the entitlement programs up into “what today’s old people get” versus “what tomorrow’s old people will get” the political class has created a large and vociferously right-wing class of people who are completely immune from the impact of their own calls for fiscal austerity.

Single-wing Politics

[ 111 ] February 12, 2011 |

This Bob Herbert column makes a number of points that seem, to anyone ever-so slightly to the left of, say, Barack Obama, unexceptionable to the point of banality. That’s not a criticism: as Orwell remarked, “sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” Pointing out that the United States has become an unapologetic plutocracy, in which The Money Party buys whatever legislation it favors and orders a well-compensated hit on any initiative it dislikes, is an example of fulfilling that obligation.

Herbert could have added that our foreign policy has also been almost as completely commandeered by elites that largely overlap those inhabited by our financial and corporate overlords. (Relatedly, Glenn Greenwald notes how elite opinion in America manages to condemn the undemocratic character of Egypt’s oligarchical corruption without a trace of ironic self-consciousness).

One important factor that enables all this is the almost complete exclusion of anything that could be realistically called “the left” from what is considered serious or respectable political debate in America. This isn’t true in regard to various culture war battles: When it comes to abortion, or gay marriage, or affirmative action, or the secularization of public life, or any of a number of other issues that are fraught — at least for cultural conservatives — with great symbolic significance, something that could be meaningfully called “the Left” is a recognized and often successful player in public political debate.

But when we leave the battlefields of the culture wars, and turn to economic and foreign policy, the left becomes either completely invisible or a target for derisive jokes about Michael Moore’s waistline, “crazy” feminists, etc. When it comes to blood and money, the debate in contemporary America takes place between the radical anti-government right (the Tea Party and its enablers), the radical authoritarian right (the Bush-Cheney-neo-con wing of the GOP), and the relatively moderate right (the Democratic party establishment, of which Barack Obama is naturally the leading representative). What, after all, could be characterized as genuinely liberal — let alone actually left-wing — about the Obama administration’s economic or foreign policy? The administration’s economic policy is “left” only in a world in which demands to return to the economic arrangements of the Gilded Age are considered part of serious political debate, while calls for a health care system that looks something like that enjoyed by every other developed country are dismissed as typical pie in the sky utopian socialism.

When it comes to foreign policy, the erasure of anything even vaguely resembling a left wing politics is even more complete. The Obama administration’s foreign policy — which after all merely reflects the position of almost all Democratic national political figures — is almost indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration in all important respects. For a politician to seriously question the imperial pretensions that fuel our current orgy of paranoid nationalism instantly marks that person as Not Serious in the eyes of our opinion-making elites.

On the most important issues of our time — questions of basic economic justice, and war and peace — the Overton window has been moved so far right that we have a political discourse which would have been largely unrecognizable a generation ago. The first step toward changing that situation is recognizing it for what it is.

Must . . . not . . . make . . . Althouse . . . joke

[ 53 ] February 11, 2011 |

Wisconsin’s new GOP governor is threatening to call in the National Guard to enforce his unilateral revocation of state employee contract rights.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

[ 32 ] February 11, 2011 |


From Jay McInerney’s review of Kenneth Slawenski’s new Salinger biography:

For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Sla­wenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Slawenski reports that of the 3,080 members of Salinger’s regiment who landed with him on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 survived three weeks later. Then, when the 12th Infantry Regiment tried to take the swampy, labyrinthine Hürtgen Forest, in what proved to be a huge military blunder, the statistics were even more horrific. After reinforcement, “of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into Hürtgen, only 563 were left.” Salinger escaped the deadly quagmire of Hürtgen just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and shortly thereafter, in 1945, participated in the liberation of Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later told his daughter, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.”

It’s remarkable how little evidence of such experiences is to be found in Salinger’s published writings (Slawenski suggests Salinger suffered from what would now be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as clinical depression). As we continue to be flooded by non-stop paens to “the good (sic) war,” it’s worth considering how on June 6, 1944, there was perhaps a 90% chance that the man who had yet to write The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories was going to perish on some forsaken beach or forest, as anonymously as any of the war’s 60 million other victims.

Comedy gold and/or Apocalypse Now

[ 34 ] February 10, 2011 |

The GOP primary season is shaping up as a reality TV freak show of Springeresque proportions, what with Michele Bachmann about to toss her tinfoil hat in the ring, Donald Trump threatening to make America “respected” again, and Sarah Palin continuing to mull whether to add her crayon-scrawled resume to the hopper. Then there’s Professor Gingrich making noises about bringing his unique style of pro-colonial historical analysis to the struggle to overthrow the Kenyan usurper. Throw in Ron Paul, this week’s version of Mitt Romney, and a healthy dose of groveling before the Tea Party’s demands that the government balance the budget by getting rid of NPR, and the 2012 presidential race promises to be a veritable laugh riot.

Of course one of these guys/gals could well end up getting elected, in which case the joke will be on Planet Earth.


[ 26 ] February 8, 2011 |

Laurence Tribe has an interesting piece in today’s NYT about how the SCOTUS should and apparently therefore will deal with the constitutionality of the ACA. The piece is interesting not because of its deployment of already well-worn arguments regarding the law’s constitutionality, but rather as a sociological document. To wit, what does Professor Tribe think he’s doing? One understanding of the piece is as a Profession of Faith in The Law, i.e., Tribe really and truly does believe that

(1) Questions such as the constitutionality of the ACA have legally correct answers — answers that exist independent of both the narrowly political and broader jurisprudential commitments of the socially authoritative interpreters of these questions (in other words, the answer to the question of whether a law is constitutional is something other than a prediction of what five SCOTUS justices are going to do); and

(2) The current members of the SCOTUS can be trusted to discern those answers correctly, and apply the law without regard to whether they personally like the outcome of the case and controversy in question.*

*Note that Tribe brackets Bush v. Gore so as to exempt it implicity from (2).

Another understanding of the piece is that Tribe doesn’t believe either of these assertions, or at least he doesn’t believe the second one, and he’s merely engaging in politics by other means, by trying to pressure a SCOTUS justice or two into acting as he would like to see them act — which of course is to uphold the ACA while purporting to vindicate the validity of claims (1) and (2).

Yet a third possibility is that it’s a little bit of both: that for someone like Tribe, belief in The Law, and the integrity of its interpreters, is a transitory thing — on some days he believes, on others he doesn’t, and on most he just doesn’t think about the question.

(For something that sounds very much like the voice of the true believer, see Professor Randy Barnett’s Senate testimony last week, that comes to diametrically opposite conclusions to those Tribe reaches regarding the ACA and the Constitution).

Yet another question this kind of thing raises, at least for me — that is, for someone who is professionally obligated to teach students to either actually have the beliefs about the nature of the law and legal decision making Tribe and Barnett profess to have, or to at least successfully simulate having those beliefs in the appropriate settings — is how do you deal with this stuff when you don’t believe in it yourself? This, needless to say, isn’t exactly a novel question. Back in the day, Roberto Unger observed that he joined a Harvard Law faculty full of “priests who had lost their faith but kept their jobs.” (For some reason this remark has always reminded me of the Monty Python sketch in which Dinsdale Piranha is described as “a cruel man — but fair!”).

At one level this is a purely practical question. Doctrinal legal analysis isn’t a particularly difficult activity, as intellectual ventures go, but still like any technical, highly self-referential discourse, it’s full of terms of art, rhetorical strategies, and picayune disagreements that are really hard to follow if you’ve lost your faith in the basic cogency of the whole enterprise. Reading a debate between Tribe and Barnett about the Commerce Clause, if you don’t believe in any of this stuff, is probably a lot like trying to follow a theological debate about the Nestorian heresy if you don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, or a heated argument about whether Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalin’s interpretation of Lenin’s revolutionary praxis were valid if you are not now and never have been a member of the Communist Party.

It’s funny because it’s true

[ 129 ] February 7, 2011 |

Bill Maher. I think it was the guy who owned the Cowboys back in the 1970s who pointed out that the NFL owners were a group of “28 capitalists who always vote for socialism.”

Also, although I like my NFL football as much as the next guy whose sister hasn’t been assaulted by Ben Roethlisberger, I’m finding it more difficult to stomach the Super Bowl, which over the years has become an orgiastic celebration of the corporate state, militarism, and the media-entertainment complex. I especially dislike the oh-so postmodern meta-analysis of the commercials, which inspires the Don Drapers of today to pull stunts like the Timothy Hutton Groupon ad. This cynical and tasteless exercise in generating publicity via “outrage” was made even more obnoxious by the fact that ad agency that produced it — a Boulder outfit that transports its drones around town in a bus with the legend “Paradigm Shattering Machine” inscribed on the side — no doubt pitched the thing on the basis of the claim that exploiting the suffering of the Tibetan people to sell product was actually really helping those people, because it would raise “awareness.”

That said, I thought the Eminem Chrysler ad was pretty cool (although, like Bladerunner, it would have been better without the voice-over).

Ann Althouse and the paranoid style

[ 155 ] February 3, 2011 |

One big problem in America today is that people like Glenn Beck are spouting a lot of bizarre conspiratorial paranoid nonsense in “respectable” high-profile media settings, because their employers have found that encouraging crazy people to regale millions of Americans with pernicious lunacy on a daily basis is quite profitable. I wish it wasn’t necessary to point out that this is an undesirable state of affairs. I also wish it wasn’t necessary to point out that pointing out this is an undesirable state of affairs is not an attack on “free speech” in any useful sense of that term.

Still, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride:

Remember when lefties were all about free speech? When did that change? Why did that change? Perhaps the answer is: Free speech was only ever a means to an end. When they got their free speech, made their arguments, and failed to win over the American people, and when in fact the speech from their opponents seemed too successful, they switched to the repression of speech, because the end was never freedom.

This is Professor Althouse’s response to Robert Wright’s suggestion that on the whole it’s a bad thing that Fox News provides Glenn Beck with a multi-million viewer nightly platform, given that he uses it to say lots of certifiably crazy stuff in the guise of “political analysis.”

Now of course phrasing the matter in this way only proves that I am a clueless member of The Left, who has failed to appreciate that, in the literal sense, Fox didn’t “give” Beck his enormous audience: Fox merely facilitated Beck’s extremely successful (from a financial point of view) campaign to transform himself into one of America’s most popular demagogues. Yes indeed: Beck’s career represents a remarkable triumph — both for himself and for Rupert Murdoch’s fabulously profitable brand of gutter journalism — within what the ingenuous Professor Althouse calls “the marketplace of ideas.” That this is the case might give one pause about the value of that metaphor, and the possible failures of that “market.”

In America today, paranoia runs deep — and it seems to be contagious. The quote above is a classic representation of the paranoid style. Consider the identities of Althouse’s crypto-Stalinist bogeymen of the moment: Robert Wright and Scott Lemieux! Again, is it really necessary to point out that someone who claims that, in America today, people like Wright and Lemieux are at the center of a Vast Left Wing Conspiracy to crush political dissent via the “censorship” of Glenn Beck has lost all sense of perspective?

Obama invites Elliot Abrams and Robert Kagan to the White House

[ 58 ] January 31, 2011 |

To discuss what “we” should do about “our” Egypt problem.

The good folks at Commentary are in ecstasy.

What exactly do these people have to do to discredit themselves? Is it even theoretically possible?

Apparently a neo-conservative is a liberal who was mugged by reality, and decided he was never going to visit reality’s neighborhood again.

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