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Category: General

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 2

[ 44 ] February 3, 2016 |


Face front, true believers!

Welcome back to A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, where I explore how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics.

Today, I’ll be exploring how real-world politics intersected with Chris Claremont’s classic run on X-Men. Now, Claremont X-Men is some of the richest source material imaginable, given the way that the mutant metaphor has been used to address contemporary social issues facing different minority groups.

So what ripped-from-the-headlines issue will be looking at this week? Canadian politics from the 70s!

Read more…


Presidents Lead Coalitions

[ 367 ] February 3, 2016 |


There’s a certain left critique of Hillary Clinton — Doug Henwood’s being the ultimate example — that take an oddly liberal atomist view of politics. Not only is this type of critique obsessively focused on the presidency, it’s obsessively focused on the unfettered will of the occupant of the White House. As applied to Hillary Clinton, the argument seems to be that legislation her husband signed in the 1990s represents the Real, Authentic Hillary Clinton while her considerably more progressive platform and rhetoric in the 2016 primaries represents the Phony, Pandering Hillary Clinton. This line of thinking completely fails to understand how politics works:

I don’t think so. In part, Clinton may be reacting to Sanders. But really the power of Sanders’ challenge is as much effect as cause. It represents a Democratic coalition that is well to the left of where it was in 1994 or 1976. The political landscape has changed, and even Bill Clinton would govern very differently if he took office today than he did in the ’90s.

For example, Hillary Clinton has been forcefully arguing for an end to mass incarceration and denouncing the racist effects of these policies. But, as first lady, she supported the 1994 omnibus crime bill signed by her husband that severely exacerbated the problem. Some liberals are surely worried that the 1994 statute represents the “real” Clinton and she’ll go back once the primaries are over.

I don’t think, in this case, there’s much basis for concern. It’s important to understand the politics of the era, and how much things have changed. The 1994 omnibus crime bill had, at the time, broad support within the Democratic coalition. Only two Democratic senators voted against the bill, and one was the conservative Alabaman Richard Shelby. Among the members of the House who voted for the bill was…Bernie Sanders. The statute was, in retrospect, a terrible mistake, but it was based on bad assumptions that were widely shared by liberal and moderate Democrats alike at the time. Neither Clinton nor Sanders would make the same mistake again.

Or take gay and lesbian rights. Bill Clinton thought it was politically necessary to sign the appalling Defense of Marriage Act after it passed with veto-proof majorities, and Barack Obama thought it was politically necessary to nominally oppose same-sex marriage. And, yet, the Supreme Court justices they appointed provided four of the five votes necessary to not only strike DOMA down but hold that the right to same-sex marriage was guaranteed under the Constitution. Both Clinton and Obama applauded these decisions, and no serious contender for the Democratic nomination will ever again oppose same-sex marriage. A party’s leaders tend to move with their parties.

To assume the Hillary Clinton of 1994 would be an accurate reflection of the Hillary Clinton of 2017 is to fundamentally misunderstand how politics works. When JFK made Lyndon Johnson his vice presidential nominee in 1960, labor and civil rights groups nearly revolted in view of Johnson’s fairly conservative record representing Texas in Congress. When he became president, Johnson signed arguably the most progressive collection of legislation since Reconstruction. It wasn’t that Johnson changed; it was that he was representing different constituencies in a different political context.

Needless to say, with Republican control of the House all but assured there will not be another Great Society if either Clinton or Sanders get elected. Indeed, the differences between a Clinton presidency and a Sanders presidency are probably much narrower than many supporters of either assume. But even if Sanders doesn’t win, the support he’s generating is having an effect. If the Democrats are going to keep moving away from their timid ’90s, his supporters need to keep the pressure on.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the outcome of the Democratic primary is inconsequential. There remain real substantive differences between Sanders and Clinton in 2016. Most of these differences aren’t very important given nearly-inevitable Republican control of the House. (I actually to some degree accept the defense of the essential unseriousness of Sanders’s health care proposal that the details don’t really matter given that no good reforms are passing during the next president’s term, but this cuts both ways.) But some could still be important: on trade, on some presidential appointments, on some regulatory priorities. I personally think the “Overton Window” is back-of-a-cocktail-napkin junk and don’t see any evidence that presidents trying and failing to do things makes them significantly more likely to happen in the future, but obviously that’s essentially impossible to prove or disprove and if you believe this the stakes of the primaries are larger.

But what Hillary Clinton is saying in 2016 is a much more reliable guide to what her governing agenda would be than legislation that passed with overwhelming majorities in 1994 or 1996. The robust support Sanders is attracting means is an important win for liberals in the Democratic coalition even if he doesn’t win the nomination.

…Bouie has related thoughts.

Annals of the academic rat race

[ 185 ] February 3, 2016 |

demon liquor

A prominent molecular biologist at the University of Chicago has resigned after a university recommendation that he be fired for violating the school’s sexual misconduct policy. His resignation comes amid calls for universities to be more transparent about sexual harassment in their science departments, where women account for only one-quarter of senior faculty jobs.

The professor, Jason Lieb, made unwelcome sexual advances to several female graduate students at an off-campus retreat of the molecular biosciences division, according to a university investigation letter obtained by The New York Times, and engaged in sexual activity with a student who was “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.

If you want to get all technical about it this is what is known as “rape.”

Dr. Lieb, who has received millions of dollars in federal grants over the last decade, did not respond to requests for comment.

Always the dollars.

At Chicago, students praised the university for swift and decisive action. But some students and faculty members also raised pointed questions about whether the university had placed female graduate students at risk by hiring Dr. Lieb . . . He was put on staff despite potential warning signs.

Such as?

Before he was hired, molecular biologists on the University of Chicago faculty and at other academic institutions received emails from an anonymous address stating that Dr. Lieb had faced allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct at previous jobs at Princeton and the University of North Carolina.

Hmmm, better get our crack investigative team on this one.

Yoav Gilad, a molecular biologist at Chicago who was on the committee that advocated hiring Dr. Lieb, said he and his fellow faculty members knew that in February 2014 Dr. Lieb had abruptly resigned from Princeton University, just seven months after having been recruited from the University of North Carolina to run a high-profile genomics institute.

That’s what you call an industrial-sized red flag. So we check the story out and . . .

But Dr. Gilad said that when it was contacted, Princeton said there had been no sexual harassment investigation of Dr. Lieb while he was there.

OK these GUYS are scientists not lawyers, but do you really have to be a lawyer to recognize how meaningless such a statement from the previous employer is under these circumstances? (For instance, have these people never heard of a confidentiality agreement, or the potential difference between looking into claims of sexual harassment and a formal “sexual harassment investigation?”) In short, shouldn’t your candidate have some super-convincing explanation about why, although this all looks really bad on its face, it’s not what it appears to be? Yes, he should! And Leib’s explanation for flat-out quitting a better job than the one you’re deciding whether or not to offer, seven months into the better gig, in the wake of an allegation that this was the second time he had gotten out of Dodge ahead of the posse was:

[Gilad] said efforts to find out more about what prompted Dr. Lieb’s departure proved fruitless.

Well not exactly:

Faculty at Chicago said that Dr. Lieb had told them during the interview process that Princeton faulted him for not informing them about a complaint of unwanted contact filed against him at North Carolina, where he had taught for 13 years. But he told them he had seen no reason to do so because the investigation had not found evidence to support the claim.

Subsequently, he gave permission to Princeton to examine his personnel file. Chicago, too, received permission to look at the file, Dr. Gilad said, adding that the examination of the records did not raise red flags.

Separately, Dr. Gilad acknowledged, during the interviews of Dr. Lieb, he admitted that he had had a monthslong affair with a graduate student in his laboratory at the University of North Carolina.

Maybe these people were born yesterday, but was it in the afternoon? Again, he quit his tenured position at Princeton seven months after he got there, and was flat-out unemployed when Chicago was interviewing him.

At Chicago, the hiring committee struggled, Dr. Gilad said, to balance a desire to protect students with a desire not to convict someone without evidence. He said Dr. Lieb had not been found guilty of any offense at North Carolina. The department of human genetics voted unanimously to hire him.

“It’s hard to say this in retrospect,” Dr. Gilad said, “but what’s the value of investigating anything if an unsubstantiated allegation itself invalidates the candidate?”

OK, again, not lawyers, but — come on. This isn’t a criminal trial. Or a civil action. Or an investigation of a current employee, where considerations of exactly how much evidence you need before you take somebody’s job away from him are vastly more difficult and pressing. This is a job interview. And there’s a lot of at least circumstantial evidence that your potential candidate might be kind of rapey. Why in the world would you hire him — in a world full of superbly qualified candidates for this kind of job — especially after “efforts to find out more about what prompted Dr. Lieb’s [extraordinarily suspicious] departure proved fruitless.” (Not actually a true statement of course, but accepting it as true for the purposes of evaluating the decision to hire Lieb in the light most favorable to the quasi-defendant here, i.e., Chicago).

But Joe Thornton, a faculty member in the department who raised objections before the vote, said in an interview, “I don’t think that’s the right standard to use.” He added, “It may be a legal standard, but we should be capable of making more nuanced judgments about the environment we’re creating for human beings that are doing and learning science.”

Bless you, other Joe Thornton, for talking some basic common sense, but it sounds as if somebody tried to snow you with the claim that it would in some way be violating Lieb’s legal rights not to hire him under these circumstances. If so, that claim was absolute nonsense. “We think there’s an unacceptable risk this guy may sexually assault a student or three at some point” is — check this out — a perfectly legal basis for deciding not to hire somebody.

So why did they hire him anyway?

Dr. Lieb brought scientific cachet and a record of winning lucrative grants to a department that had recently lost two of its stars to other institutions.

Well then.

Meanwhile, the world’s top science journal noted recently:

How many senior scientists — usually men and usually with significant power over the careers of those in their labs — have been sanctioned and disciplined by their universities for sexual harassment? Nobody knows, especially not young researchers who eagerly apply for their first jobs, spend long hours on fieldwork and feel under pressure to socialize and make contacts after hours and at academic conferences. How many times have colleagues turned a blind eye to inappropriate comments and actions, and made excuses for people who should know better — and who are morally, legally and contractually obliged to behave better? How many young scientists have left positions, or left science completely, because of such behaviour, or because it is seemingly not taken seriously?

We don’t know the answers to those questions. But one thing we do know is that sexual harassment is a serious problem in science. And we know that young female scientists are speaking up about it. We know this not because universities are being transparent about such complaints and how they are dealt with, but because, dissatisfied with the official responses, victims, journalists and others are bringing the facts about these complaints to light.

This was the social context in which the University of Chicago decided to “take a chance,” as they say in parole board hearings, on what they apparently decided was the spectacularly unlucky (but extremely well-funded) Dr. Lieb. Shame on them.

Your Moment of Zen

[ 24 ] February 3, 2016 |

Today’s Rudolph William Louis Giuliani Award For Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Primary Campaign Excellence Goes To….

[ 101 ] February 2, 2016 |



Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was not in Iowa on caucus night, but his cash certainly was. The former Florida governor spent more money in Iowa than any other candidate and still lost big in Monday’s state caucuses.

According to ad-buy data collected by Morning Consult, Bush and his super PAC, Right to Rise, have spent about $14.1 million on ads in Iowa. That’s more money than any other presidential candidate has spent in the state. And ultimately, the return on investment for Bush was dismal.

Since he received just 2.8 percent of the vote in Iowa Monday night — and walked away with just one delegate — Bush ended up spending about $2,800 per vote.

That’s about 18 times as much money as first-place winner Ted Cruz spent for each vote he received. It’s also 34 times as much as silver medalist Donald Trump spent, and 10 times the amount spent by third-place winner Marco Rubio.

At least Kasich and Christie just blew off the state. Jeb! really did try, and he got walloped by a guy who’s running more a Pyramid scheme than a campaign and whose debate performances make Rick Perry look coherent and lively. It’s either an impressive testament to just how much damage Fredo did to the family brand, or perhaps evidence that George W. was Sonny (“I though Santino was a bad don”) and Jeb! is Fredo.

Help solve a culinary mystery

[ 72 ] February 2, 2016 |


The other day I had an enormous craving for something brothy and Asian and noodly, so I  made some chicken noodle soup with an Asian spin. I sauteed some minced green onions, lots of fresh minced ginger and several cloves of garlic in oil, then added carrots, shredded chicken and chicken broth. I also added some soy sauce and a little brown sugar. I added some napa cabbage towards the end of the cooking time and finished the soup with more freshly-grated ginger, some chili oil and some fresh, chopped basil. I served it over hot cooked pasta with some Sriracha and fresh lime juice. It was…fine but it tasted very one-note for reasons that are still beyond me. (Sort of just chicken noodle with a bit of ginger in it.) Can any of you figure out why it was so meh, because honestly I’m still stumped and it’s bugging the crap out of me.

St. Ralph Speaks, Generic Words Next To Each Other Edition

[ 168 ] February 2, 2016 |


Rich Juzwiak describes a Ralph Nader rant as a “good one.” It is…not that. It is in fact very, very dumb.

The candidates still narrow the agenda. That is, the voters are not propelling into the electoral arena and debate the kind of things like cracking down on corporate crime in the ghettos against consumers, against workers. They’re not pushing in the issues on housing and public transit and empire abroad. They’re not pushing for restoration and rebuilding of our public works the facilities in every community that are crumbling. We’ve seen ‘em: bridges, highways, water/sewage systems, public transit.

Yes, I don’t understand why the Democratic candidates simply refuse to discuss the nation’s infrastructure. Both Clinton and Sanders ignore the issue in their policy platforms, and both Clinton and Sanders ignore the issue in their public speeches. Only Ralph Nader considers these issues important.

In addition, nobody could fairly listen to the relatively brief speeches given by Clinton and Sanders last night and think that the scope of the issues being addressed by the Democratic candidates is narrow or trivial. The two candidates advanced progressive positions on a wide range of issues: healthcare, education, the minimum wage, criminal justice, wages, gun control, worker’s rights, and climate control. Looking at their campaigns as a whole you’ll see much more. In fairness, neither Sanders nor Clinton is addressing the most important issue of our times, whether public libraries are built to Ralph Nader’s precise aesthetic preferences.

Nader’s tired, generic, dishonest rant reflects a man for whom it’s always 1996 1976 [thanks to Erik for the friendly amendment] and is convinced that he’s the only honest man left in the world. The fact that some people are still buying his con at this late date is rather pathetic. Whichever of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders you prefer, they’re both people of far more depth and far more meaningful progressive commitment than this tired, endlessly narcissistic hack.

Most predictable lazy framing move ever: David Gergen (natch) asks whether GOP will nominate the “moderate” Rubio over the “extreme” Cruz

[ 125 ] February 2, 2016 |

cruz rubio

Voters on both sides were sending a clear message of no confidence in the economic order. Who can remember a presidential campaign in which the most extreme candidates have done so well in the first round?

It is true, of course, that each party may ultimately embrace a nominee closer to the center. That is obviously the case with Democrats where Hillary Clinton remains the favorite, and Marco Rubio’s surprisingly strong showing will encourage GOP elites to believe they, too, can secure the nomination for a more moderate candidate.

Here’s a list of 20 key issues. Cruz and Rubio either strongly or substantially agree on 18 of them. The dime’s worth of difference between them is that Cruz wants to privatize social security and Rubio says he doesn’t (Florida!), and Cruz says he doesn’t think marijuana is a gateway drug (Rubio probably has to play the unrepentant drug warrior because of his Miami Vice uncle). So even the tiny differences between them split in terms of which one of them is more politically moderate, relatively speaking.

On basically everything else they’re indistinguishable, except that Cruz is despised in a purely personal way by GOP insiders, which hardly makes Rubio more moderate, as opposed to less slappable.

But the conventions of political journalism more or less require Gergen to spew this nonsense from his MacBook Pro, so there you go.

Requiem for An Epic Grift

[ 69 ] February 2, 2016 |


On conventional terms, Ben Carson’s cosplaying as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination was a failure, with the 9% of the Iowa caucus vote almost certainly the peak. On its own terms, however, it was highly successful:

In the final three months of 2015, the Carson campaign paid:

$4,769,922.68 to Eleventy Marketing Group. Eleventy Marketing Group’s president is Ken Dawson, who is also Carson’s chief marketing officer.
$2,871,229.50 to TMA Direct. TMA’s president and CEO is Mike Murray, who is also Carson’s senior advisor for grassroots marketing.
$1,256,436.09 to Communication Manager Source, which is run by Joanne Parker, wife of the aforementioned Dean Parker.
$138,666.06 to Vita Capital. Vita Capital’s CEO is Dean Parker.

That’s over $9 million siphoned directly to companies owned by Carson staffers, out of a total of $27 million spent by the campaign in that time. A great deal of the campaign’s expenditures went to marketing, which completes the cycle by bringing even more money into the Carson campaign.

Viewed correctly as a front designed to transfer money from rubes to various marketing executives, the Carson “campaign” was a massive success.

The True Cost of Uber

[ 37 ] February 2, 2016 |


Uber, like the cowboy socialists of the West, talk all about private, individualized effort that makes America great. And like those cowboy socialists, Uber also relies on the government for everything, effectively socializing their business model on the rest of us while doing everything possible to escape paying the taxes that would contribute its fair share to those services. A government starved of resources then has to turn to private companies to provide basic services. A vicious circle results:

Compare this with the dire state of affairs in which most governments and city administrations find themselves today. Starved of tax revenue, they often make things worse by committing themselves to the worst of austerity politics, shrinking the budgets dedicated to infrastructure, innovation, or creating alternatives to the rapacious “platform capitalism” of Silicon Valley.

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that promising services like Kutsuplus have to shut down: cut from the seemingly endless cash supply of Google and Goldman Sachs, Uber would have gone under as well. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Finland is one of the more religious advocates of austerity in Europe; having let Nokia go under, the country has now missed another chance.

et us not be naive: Wall Street and Silicon Valley won’t subsidise transport for ever. While the prospect of using advertising to underwrite the costs of an Uber trip is still very remote, the only way for these firms to recoup their investments is by squeezing even more cash or productivity out of Uber drivers or by eventually – once all their competitors are out – raising the costs of the trip.

Both of these options spell trouble. Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).

The only choice here is between more precarity for drivers and more precarity for passengers, who will have to accept higher rates, with or without controversial practices like surge pricing (prices go up when demand is high).

The broader lesson here is that a country’s technology policy is directly dependent on its economic policy; one cannot flourish without the active support of the other. Decades of a rather lax attitude on taxation combined with strict adherence to the austerity agenda have eaten up the public resources available for experimenting with different modes of providing services like transport.

This has left tax-shrinking companies and venture capitalists – who view everyday life as an ideal playing ground for predatory entrepreneurship – as the only viable sources of support for such projects. Not surprisingly, so many of them start like Kutsuplus only to end up like Uber: such are the structural constraints of working with investors who expect exorbitant returns on their investments.

Finding and funding projects that would not have such constraints would not in itself be so hard; what will be hard, especially given the current economic climate, is finding the cash to invest in them.

Taxation seems the only way forward – alas, many governments do not have the courage to ask what is due to them; the compromise between Google and HM Treasury is a case in point.

There’s really no way out of this outside of vigorous taxation and investment in social services. Of course, that’s the opposite of where most American elites are today, with former Obama advisers now working for Uber and of course Republicans hating any public services.

The Bone Cancer Primary

[ 6 ] February 2, 2016 |

This clip sums up my feelings about last night’s Cruz victory.

Lead in Baltimore

[ 13 ] February 2, 2016 |


Flint is not the only American city where governmental failures and mendacity have exposed people to lead. Baltimore has certified houses as lead-free that are not in fact so.

When people in Baltimore talk about “lead checks” they are not talking about the inspections that are supposed to ensure that children aren’t endangered by lead poisoning; they are talking about the settlement payments that come after the damage is done. In the most recent discovery of fraudulent lead inspections, the inspector was not named, but is known to have worked for American Homeowner Services LLC between 2010 and 2014.

Although there have been dramatic reductions in lead poisoning in Baltimore over recent decades, an investigation by the Baltimore Sun in December showed that more than 4,900 children have been affected by lead in the last decade – 129 in the last year alone.

But Saul Kerpelman, a lawyer who has handled thousands of lead cases, says these numbers don’t really show the extent of the problem. Those numbers, he said, are calculated based on a blood lead level (BLL) of 10 micrograms per deciliter (mg/dl). But the CDC has recently determined that any amount of lead in a child’s blood can immediately and irreversibly cause brain damage. Kerpelman said that if you cut the BLL number in half to the current threshold number of 5 mg/dl, there could be as many as 4,000 cases in Baltimore last year and if the acceptable lead level were set to zero, it could be as many as 10,000 exposed children. Kerpelman said that out of the more than 4,000 cases he has dealt with, “99% are black”.

“The hysteria about Flint, Michigan, is totally justified,” Kerpelman said, referencing findings that residents had been using water with alarmingly high levels of lead. A Guardian investigation in the wake of Flint has found that cities around the country are systematically distorting water tests to underplay the amount of lead in the water.

But Kerpelman says Baltimore’s problem with lead paint is even worse because such a large percentage of the city’s housing stock was built before 1978, when lead paint became illegal, and is owned by landlords who see their properties “not as an investment [but] as a cashflow machine” in “the same areas where there used to be legal segregation and those were the only places that a black person was allowed to live”.

Many of the same absentee landlords come up in these cases over and over again.

“If you type Stanley Rochkind into Maryland case search, his name comes up over 500 times,” Kerpelman said.

Nothing like a slumlord and a corrupt investigator working together to poison tenants.

Significant lawsuits are the way to stop this problem. Of course, when Republicans talk about “tort reform,” this is exactly the type of lawsuit they are talking about.

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