Monday, October 29, 2012

Alabama to Vote on Removing Racist Words from Constitution

Voters in Alabama will decide next month whether to remove racist language from the state's 111-year-old constitution, and the ballot measure has drawn opposition from what might seem an unlikely group: black lawmakers.

Amendment 4 asks voters if they support deleting references to separate schools for white and black children and a poll tax, wording already invalidated long ago by federal law.

The measure's sponsor, Republican state Senator Arthur Orr, says the changes are needed to help Alabama move beyond its history of racial segregation as the state competes globally for economic development.

But some black legislators and the Alabama Education Association teachers union are urging voters to reject the amendment on November 6. They fear removing the controversial language while also leaving in wording that does not guarantee a free public education to school children could do more damage.

The amendment could lead to more support for vouchers and private schools while hurting efforts to increase funding for public schools, opponents said.

"This is old sleight of hand that appears to be giving something worth nothing and taking away something that is valuable to the future of our children," said Hank Sanders, a Democratic state senator and leader in the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus.

"Amendment 4 is just putting lipstick on the Constitution," he said.

Supporters say the measure does not tamper with education rights and would not have any impact on funding.

"This bill does not change the landscape for education," said Othni Lathram, director of the Alabama Law Institute, a legislative agency that helps revise out-of-date laws.

If approved, the amendment would delete wording that permitted schools to be separated by race. The language was added in 1956 as a last-ditch effort by the state to avoid a federal court order to desegregate Alabama schools, said Howard Walthall, a constitutional law expert at Samford University.

Language that says "nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense" would still stand - validation, Sanders worries, of a legal opt-out on public education.

Alabama voters defeated a similar amendment in 2004. That measure reinstated language from the original 1901 constitution that guaranteed children the right to a publicly funded education, and critics warned it could result in higher taxes.

Orr said he decided to raise the issue again after learning racist language in the state's governing document had been used against Alabama. During a hot competition for a German company, a rival recruiter pointed to the controversial wording as a reason to avoid moving to the state, Orr said.

"Having such language in the state's most important document is abhorrent and repugnant, and we need to remove something that has long since been rejected by the people of Alabama," Orr said.

Even if voters reject the latest amendment, the racist language could soon be scrubbed from the constitution.

A committee is working to rewrite each section of the Alabama Constitution of 1901, a cumbersome process given that the document includes more than 800 amendments.

The group is set to begin work on the education section next year, and Walthall said that effort would likely result in the controversial wording being taken out.

"Neither the folks who are supporting Amendment 4 nor the good people who are against are opposing removing racist language," he said.,0,5588949.story

Keep President Obama in the White House

President Barack Obama entered the Oval Office under dire conditions - a hemorrhaging economy and a dispirited GOP intent on limiting him to one term, at any cost.

Despite those odds, he has kept his cool and his head.

His policies helped the middle class and kept a deep recession from becoming worse. He repaired America's reputation in the world. And he got important legislation passed.

For that, the nation is better - not fully healed, but pushing forward. He has earned another four years.

Among his top accomplishments, Obama:

-Ended the war in Iraq.

-Is on track to responsibly bring troops home from the war in Afghanistan, following the killing of America's top enemy, Osama bin Laden.

-Pushed through tax cuts for the middle class.

-Signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to better protect women from discrimination.

-Ended "don't ask, don't tell," allowing gays and lesbians to serve without prejudice in the military.

-Created the Consumer Financial Protection bureau, which has successfully led to new safeguards.

-Sparked efforts to improve education and expand and lighten the cost of student college loans.

-Boosted the fuel economy standards for cars.

-Signed the Affordable Care Act, his signature achievement so far that will give Americans access to insurance, regardless of pre-existing conditions and without limits.

No question, Obama has underperformed in some ways, too.

He needs to pick up the pace of wooing more lawmakers personally to build consensus and get more legislation passed. His good ideas to put Americans to work on improving infrastructure, education and alternative energy need more votes. He'll need to shift his campaign crowd skills to one-on-one arm twisting with the next Congress.

So why not recommend Republican candidate Mitt Romney?

We have no clue which Romney he would become as a president.

Would the nation get the Massachusetts, pro-health-care-for-all, rather moderate model?

Or the hard-right, tea party panderer of the primaries, who sought dubious immigration policy advice from Kansas' Kris Kobach, an alienator of national proportions?

Or the new, improved, peace-loving final debate version?

A strong executive who can buy and sell companies and is used to getting his way is not the same as a visionary leader who can pull people together.

Romney's comment in a private donor setting - belittling the 47 percent who don't pay income taxes as freeloaders - is damning and hard-to-shake evidence that he may not really care so much about many Americans of lesser portfolios.

And it's immensely troubling that Romney's tax plans don't add up. His wish to lower all tax rates, without specifying how he'd counter the revenue loss with elimination of deductions and loopholes, is not acceptable. Will home mortgage and charitable deductions get the boot? Or will he eventually try to sell his fluctuating "cap" on the total dollar amount of deductions, which in some iterations wouldn't make a dent in the debt?

As a successful businessman, it's hard to imagine Romney accepting his own nebulous presentations if someone else were pitching them to him as a financier. So why should Americans buy vague promises?

Romney's abortion ideas and general views on women (no comment on pay equity) are troubling. There is a real risk his Supreme Court appointments would be anti-abortion, and women's private health decisions could be dangerously restricted.

His one major foreign policy trip this year included an insult to the Brits over their handling of the Olympics and then cozying up with a major donor in Israel, skipping the Palestinian-Israeli border dispute areas.

In too many ways, Romney resembles a slick salesman, willing to fudge and say anything to close the deal.

It's no deal for us.

We look ahead to four more years of Obama's reasoned, compassionate and forward-looking ideas on good jobs, fair taxes and better education to meet the global competition.

Read more here:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

How Fox News Created a New Culture of Idiots

Cable news has created an entirely new breed of blowhards -- and the style has infected banking and even the arts

Assholes largely share a thick sense of moral entitlement. Just as hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, late 19th and early 20th century businessmen like Cecil Rhodes, Albert Beveridge and John D. Rockefeller all felt a need to invoke entitlement on a cosmic scale, in effect sensing that something might be majorly amiss. In stark contrast with the grandiose reasoning of the era of colonialism, the asshole in more recent modern life often requires little or no pretext of larger cause for the special privileges he feels entitled to enjoy. He will usually have some sort of rationalization ready at hand — he is not the psychopath who rejects moral concepts altogether — but the rationalizations are becoming ever thinner, ever more difficult to identify. This newer, purer style of asshole often just presumes he should enjoy special privileges in social life as a matter of course and so requires little by way of reason for taking them as the opportunity arises.

The older style of asshole is comparatively easy to sort into types, according to their different thick entitlements. To the extent we can identify a definite moral outlook and confidently reject it as wrong, we can even take comfort in our sense of clarity about how the asshole goes awry. The newer style of asshole is more disquieting because he is harder to pin down. His thinned-out and shifting rationalizations won’t necessarily settle into any particular sustained moral perspective that we can confidently identify and challenge as wrong. Instead, his sense of entitlement is mainly identifiable in functional terms, as the stable disposition to come up with some such rationalizations or other, as the situation requires. Because the newer breed of asshole is harder to pin down, we will pay even greater attention to the details of our exemplars, if only to illustrate that there is indeed a newer, thinner, and purer asshole style. (And, again, where you don’t share my moral and political opinions, you might think of different examples of the same general type.)

*   *   *

Earlier assholes presented examples of self-aggrandizement in the name of a larger moral cause. The newer style of self-aggrandizing asshole needs little or no such pretext.

Donald Trump plainly likes being on the air. He is convincingly portrayed as an asshole in the documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” (answer: Trump, as one man’s greed and ego brought down a whole sports league). Lately, however, Trump has become something closer to a media buffoon—except that he does not seem to be joking. Like Falwell, Trump believes there is something important in his appearing and reappearing in the news and on TV, without betraying any sense that a lot of us have a hard time seeing what that important something would be.

In Trump’s defense, it may be said that he is merely an “ass-clown” or, still more charitably, an elder master of the attention-getting  game  now played  daily by  the Facebook youth. He may in that regard seem a role model, an accomplished media entrepreneur, and while this isn’t quite a public service, it is at least the kind of thing modern society loves. In a culture of narcissism, you don’t need any special reason to lay claim to the attention of others; you simply get attention as you can, as anyone else of course would (“if you don’t flaunt it, you don’t got it,” to reverse a familiar saying). On the other hand, if we find our current zeitgeist mistaken, on the grounds that laying claim to the attention of others does require good enough reasons — whether for the sake of modesty or just for the sake of not adding to the deafening contemporary media noise machine — then we can view narcissistic attention seeking as a way of acting like an asshole. Our narcissistic age thus might help explain why assholes seem to be everywhere of late.


With the invention of twenty-four-hour TV news cycles, the wonders of technological change have created assholes specifically designed for TV. The cable news asshole is self-aggrandizing but not purely so; there is a slight pretext of service there. While few of them nowadays would pretend to be engaged in distinguished public service in the fourth estate, many will say they are really pleased to be giving people what they want.

People apparently want to listen to blowhards. Thus Chris Matthews has a popular show on MSNBC. The faux blowhard Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central blows harder, except that Matthews is not staging a ruse. He traffics in attention-grabbing — every day is D-day intensity, even when he is saying little of consequence, as though little or no reason to claim our attention were required. Another left-leaning bloviator, Keith Olbermann, at least offers moral outrage as grounds for our concern, even as he is a worse asshole for feeling entitled to set aside any sense of measure in making outrageous, indulgent moral criticisms.

When it comes to cable news assholes, however, we need not bother to attempt evenhandedness between left and right. The right-leaning version of being “fair and balanced” — that is, Fox News — is our gold standard. It pioneered the genre; it dominates in viewers, ratings, and profits; and it leads the way in innovation of the new asshole styles. We therefore pause to dwell on the case.

Neil Cavuto, a Fox News host, was actually called an asshole on the air. Here is an exchange from his show about fiscal stimulus and its relation to job creation with the mild-mannered AFL-CIO chief economist Ron Blackwell:

Ron Blackwell: Why don’t you let me finish my thought?

Neil Cavuto: You never answer a basic question.

Blackwell: I’m answering you right now.

Cavuto: Why will spending work?

Blackwell: These programs created jobs but not net creation. We lost more jobs because of the recession than were created by these programs.

Neil Cavuto: Wait a minute, Ron. You’re the chief economist there. Where did you get your degree? A baking school? Where are you cooking up these numbers?

Ron Blackwell: Oh that’s an insult. You’re a joker. You’re an asshole.

Blackwell apparently felt it was not sufficient to call Cavuto a “ joker.” Cavuto was not trying to be funny, nor is he dull or uninformed and pretending to be otherwise. Cavuto fully grasps the difference between job creation and net job creation, and he knew full well what point Blackwell was making. He therefore cannot be classified as a mere “ass,” with the suggestion of donkeylike stubbornness of mind combined with obliviousness to basic concepts or the social situation. Cavuto in fact staged a ploy: a dodge. He shifted attention away from the point made to the qualifications of the person making it in order to score dialectical points with the audience.

This is at the very least an asshole move. One often can permissibly shift attention in a conversation, but here it is at best unclearly justified. Interrupting Blackwell several times and then accusing him of not answering his question does not count as even half-cooperative discourse, not even by the low standards of American politics. Even that would not have been so bad if Cavuto had meant to initiate something like a meta- conversation between the two speakers, a conversation in which Blackwell could have later complimented the tactic of diversion with a “touché!” or “well played, sir.” Cavuto betrays no hint of metacooperation. He simply feels entitled not to wait his conversational turn. He does not have to actually listen to an opposing perspective, even from the person he is talking to. Cavuto could perhaps argue that the host must exert heavy control over the terms of debate, because polite terms will not do. Or maybe he feels justified in his bullying as long as he is scoring points in a kind of televised game show, with influence, profit, and fun as his justly deserved reward. Either rationale could constitute a sense of entitlement — something like the right to rule, or at least to shut the opposition out, while taking the moral high ground.

Bill O’Reilly is the original cable news asshole and among the  founding Uncompromising Arbiters of Real American Values Who Heroically Fight Corrupt Liberals as a Moral Bulwark Against the Decline of Civilization. So it is interesting to observe that O’Reilly has become less of an asshole in recent years. Why is unclear. He enjoyed marked success as a politico-asshole entrepreneur. But with others flooding into a new, well-rewarded role, perhaps he was out-assholed on both the political left and right. What to do then? Out-asshole the out-assholers? Perhaps O’Reilly didn’t have it in him. Perhaps this just seemed unappealing or lowly. Perhaps he was admira- bly tempered by an authentic need to be, or at least be seen as, the Reasonable Common Man. If so, this is laudable and good, and it takes some of the edge off watching him. It even encourages appreciation for his mastery and formidable display of the dark asshole arts in verbal debate: the selective outrage, marshaled in defense of the victimized common man; the dogged quibbles over petty details; the seizing of any interlocutory moment of weakness (such as a pause for thought); the refusal to see and understand, supposedly on righteous principle but mainly to distort and distract. One would almost admire his scrappy tenacity were he a real underdog rather than a very rich and extremely influential member of the political elite. (The real victimized common man has stagnating wages and uncertain work, perhaps a TV but not his own show on TV.)

It is not just Fox News commentators but Fox News itself that has the appropriate, in-your-face, I’m-entitled-to-do-this, especially-because-you-dislike-it vibe. Which should not be surprising from a tightly controlled outfit in which everything flows from a single source, chairman Roger Ailes. Ailes has personal flaws that do not necessarily make one an asshole but that clearly shape the coverage, including his paranoia and his extreme politics. We find more telling evidence by considering the man in a happy moment, a victory lap. In an event celebrating Fox News’s success, Ailes said of the competing networks’ talent, as though sharing in the agony of their defeat: “Shows, stars, I mean it’s sad, you know? . . . I called and asked them all to move to the second floor wherever they were working. Because when they jump, I don’t want it to hurt.” By which he meant that he wouldn’t mind at all if his competitors not only lost the contest but felt humiliated enough to kill themselves. He meant of course to gloat but also to show his contempt. He meant to broadcast his contempt and to have a laugh about his being in a position to advertise it.

The comment was at least poor sportsmanship. A longtime practitioner of blood sport media politics, Ailes has emerged as its undisputed heavyweight champion. Politics is indeed a rough sport, but there are still boundaries that while crossed are nevertheless there, or sort of there. It is possible to have a minimal sense of respect among fellow sportsmen, seen as equals off the playing field, and even to display grace in both victory and defeat. Ailes’s comment suggests that he makes little effort at this, even as he does make an effort to draw attention to the fact that he cares not. He keeps it personal, on and off the court.

Ailes is a poor sport but not in a set contest fairly won. His main victory was to redefine the whole sport itself — that is to say, to redefine news. While American TV journalism has always walked a fine line between informing the public and satisfying media capitalism’s demands for viewers, ratings, and ad dollars, the line was more or less there, and it represented respect for what some regard as the fourth branch of government and a democratic society that depends on real news. Ailes obliterates that line with his “orchestra pit theory,” which he puts as follows: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?” The implication of course being that TV can and should cover the sensation rather than the substance, that it should move still further away from professional journalism and toward infotainment in a pure ratings contest. Fox News has changed the game and won, with an ever-thinner pretext of service. (It has very little actual news gathering and reporting staff; it freely crosses its own purported division between reporting and editorializing; and it now boosts for and even instigates protest movements and financially backs specific political candidates.) For its loyalty and attunement to its fans, it has been richly rewarded with outsized profits and unprecedented political influence.

If we ask why Ailes fought so long and so hard for all this, however, the answer is not simply the ample rewards. His victory lap comment also suggests fundamental contempt. It suggests contempt not just for his competitors but for a society of people who have always counted on news with a lot of information shaped by a good-faith attempt at impartial presentation. Our fundamental need in a democratic society, for each of us to make up our own mind, now goes unmet by the whole media environment. It reflects not the minds of equals deliberating together about what together to do but the tenor and voice of a single asshole’s mind.


Cable news assholes are distinctive for their knowing awareness but willful disregard of how they are perceived by others. They are flush with Frankfurtian “bullshit,” where bullshitting (speaking without regard for the truth) is something that can be done with a tacit understanding among speaker and audience that truth is not being told.  A quite different class of asshole, by contrast, is marked by his utter failure to appreciate how he is seen.

Such was the display in Paris at the fashion show debacle wrought by Kanye West’s rough transition from pop music performer and producer to clothes designer. West had promised, with his fashion debut, to “change the course of fashion.” When ill-fitting dresses, pants, and jackets, styled with bits of fur, were not well received, West complained bitterly, but not simply out of rudeness. As one reviewer explains:

What  was  most  confounding  about  Mr. West’s  behavior, after years of obsessive study of the industry, was that he demonstrated very little understanding of how he might actually be perceived by retailers and editors who have a vast amount of experience at detecting utter nonsense.

West is not exactly shameless, which would require his having a clear sense of how others regard him. He is interesting more because he seems unable to piece that regard together, even from readily available material. Nor is it that he lacks a basic human capacity of self-observation, caused by some cognitive malfunction. His album Graduation begins “Mr. Fresh, Mr. . . . by his self he’s so impressed,” and the track “Barry Bonds” shows some grasp of how this must look to others: “I’m high up on the line you can get behind me / But my head so big you can’t sit behind me.” But beyond general impressions, and his awareness of obvious sneers (he complained in Paris that the fashionistas keep looking at him “like I’m Hitler”), West seems unable to pick up his reflection in the eyes of others, from what is evident to all. Would fur in the summertime really be the Second Coming in the fashion world? Was it unthinkable that people would question that as a design idea?

West is also awfully rude (he constantly swears, and famously crashed Taylor Swift’s MTV award acceptance speech, insulting Swift to boot). And of course many a self-styled, self-described genius has lived in massive error about his greatness. West is of special interest because he seems almost unable to move from huge self-absorption to a rudimentary grasp of the public world.  He probably is able, and so we recoil from his failure to treat others decently. But the sense of inability is enough to turn pure revulsion into mixed sympathy. For all we really know, we, too, could be a brain in a vat, or subsisting on an experience machine, or living inside the Matrix. (How would you know otherwise?) It is hard to watch someone who is in effect living that out, someone who is trapped in a giant delusion.

It is instructive to compare West to asshole artists such as Pablo Picasso or Ernest Hemingway or Miles Davis. None were mistaken about their greatness. All were wrong about what their greatness entitled them to by way of special treatment from others.  Here it is harder to be understanding. It is indeed desirable for a society to afford its great artists special opportunities for creative production for the good of all. But there are limits, and many true geniuses do manage well enough to abide by them, perhaps by nurturing a grounding sense of gratitude for being endowed with special creative privilege. Those who don’t are pure asshole. They take full credit for their achievements and expect further benefits in return, despite the fact that their success would never have happened without society’s gift of creative opportunity. (Artists who must fend for food or fight against an invading army tend not to get a lot of art done.) Things could easily have gone differently and the artist would never have succeeded. Gauguin, for example, might have never made it to Tahiti if the boat from France had encountered bad weather or mechanical troubles, much as many great talents fail simply because they are ahead of their time. We put up with the artist’s delusion that his work is only to his credit, that it is we who are chiefly in his debt, because we find our world better with his artworks in it. Without that, however, the asshole artist becomes thoroughly repugnant. Imagine a failed artist who is not a genius, who continually demands further creative privilege, perhaps at a significant cost to society, and who cannot be moved by or even grasp gentle advice that he should consider working at Starbucks, where people are actually served. This guy, we want to say, is an asshole in spades.


Artists are of course usually more prone to self-loathing than to delusions of grandeur. The same cannot be said of bankers of late. Bankers, as a culture, have an extraordinary sense of their own importance with a correspondingly extraordinary sense of entitlement to monetary reward. This amounts to a grand delusion, which the recent global financial crisis has helped almost everyone except bankers to see through. Bankers sit somewhere in between West and Picasso: not entirely delusional about their importance but wildly delusional about what that importance means.

To see this, we should rehearse some properly uncontroversial truths. Financial markets do indeed have an essential function in a capitalist society. A capitalist society’s guiding idea is precisely that a society will put its savings to its most productive uses, for the sake of an overall improvement in living standards, by allowing resources to be allocated by financial markets rather than centralized decisions. The goal is not freedom per se. It is not enough that traders are left free to transact (and so pool information, spread risk, and so on). If the basic purpose of financial markets is to be served, the functioning system has to actually lead to improved living standards by boosting production in the real economy. This by no means happens automatically. World history is replete with financial crises that did lasting and catastrophic damage to whole economies (e.g., the Great Depression, the “lost decades” in Argentina or Japan) and to people’s whole lives (e.g., people lost their homes, retirees lost much of their savings, eager workers were left unemployed, college graduates saw worse employment prospects over the longer haul, and so on).  In recent decades, after many insisted that “this time is different,” because the risks of crises have been reduced, the 2008-9 financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession made it abundantly plain that painful crises can and will continue to break out. Few issues compare in importance with whether financial markets function in the right way, such that their basic function in a capitalist economy is well served.

To continue with basic truths: with the United States, where the crisis first broke, as an example, the economy saw its greatest rise in general prosperity during the “boring” postwar years, before  financial “innovation,” when  the  “best and brightest” did other things, largely of a scientific or engineering nature.

A key cause of the recent crisis (among many causes) was that, through mathematically sophisticated “innovation,” firms and traders were allowed to take on far too much risk. Once it became clear that the prices of fiercely complex financial instruments had little connection with the real value of real assets (e.g., homes), the whole system unraveled. The markets have continued to function only because large firms were bailed out by governments, with taxpayers picking up the tab. With little choice in the moment of crisis, society in effect assumes the risk so that firms and traders can continue to reap huge rewards.

We consider how this might reflect a larger culture of entitlement in chapter 7. For now, let us focus on particular people and, in particular, an unusually candid conversation among two bankers and two journalists in a Wall Street bar. The journalists are suggesting that the bankers should be grateful to society that it bailed out their industry and saved their jobs. The bankers disagree, arguing that their jobs are to their own credit and, in particular, their smartness.

Jane Feltes: You think you got to keep your job because you’re smart? You got to keep your job because you guys got bailed out. You guys got bailed—

Bar Patron 2: No, no, no, no, no. That’s not what happened with my job. I mean, survival of the fittest.

Bar Patron 1: Because I’m smarter than the average person.

Davidson: And even if the government bails out your industry that failed, you still say it’s because you’re smarter.

Bar Patron 1: No. The government bailing out an industry was out of necessity for whatever the situation was. The fact that I benefited from that is because I’m smart. I took advantage of a situation. Ninety-five percent of the population doesn’t have that common sense. The only reason I’ve been doing this for so long is because I must be smarter than the next guy.

Bar Patron 1 credits his job entirely to his own talent. Notice that he does not deny the plain fact that society has just bailed out  the  whole  industry,  saving  many  “smart”  people  from together wrecking the whole system. What he claims is that this plain fact is nevertheless wholly irrelevant to what bankers are due. The feeling seems to be widely shared in the industry. Bankers feel very sure of their entitlement to enormous benefits, and therefore feel mystified and even victimized by the suggestion that they are overpaid. Indeed, in interviews with bankers about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, bankers privately say that their critics lack an appropriate sense of gratitude.

To say that this point of view is a massive delusion is of course to assume that there are good reasons, available to all, for taking the facts of the matter to be otherwise. There are many widely cited reasons for this. There is, for example, the sheer enormity of social costs of the crisis: by some estimates, enough to put the banking industry out of business if it was actually asked to pay for the damage done. There is the implicit government subsidy, which allows “too big to fail” banks to take ever-greater risks, knowing that they’ll be bailed out if things go too far south, allowing bankers to take huge profits while taxpayers assume the risks. And, if nothing else, there is the fact that the run-up to the recent crisis involved fraud on a massive scale, which has largely been left unpunished, with profits intact. With some exceptions, few have paid for breaking the law.

Why do these reasons fail to move general banker opinion? Bar Patron 1 might simply be reasoning as a psychopath: he’s not using moral concepts like deserts or gratitude but simply reporting what happened — the government bailed out the industry — and then reporting that he has in any case, in the “survival-of-the-fittest” manner, profited as a result of his smarts. That is no reason, however, to think that he shouldn’t feel grateful for having his industry bailed out, for being able to keep his well-paid job. Yet Bar Patron 1 seems to be saying precisely that he owes no debt of gratitude, a clear moral claim. In that case, his reasoning is better put as follows: he deserves his rewards, because our system reliably and justly rewards talent, and because he is especially smart. He must be smart, because he is in fact well paid, and because our system is in fact the kind of system that reliably metes out just deserts.

This thesis is of course pretty rich in light of the fact that our current system has just done inordinate damage to the real economy (unless of course the system is reliably rewarding the talent for doing inordinate damage). But let us assume that Bar Patron 1’s perspective is grounded more in a philosophical outlook than in facts. Bar Patron 1 seems moved not by facts but by a certain idea of a capitalist society, the idea that, in a free market, people get what they deserve.

Even on philosophical grounds, however, this view is exceedingly hard to defend. That is true according to none other than the archconservative twentieth-century apologist for capitalism, F. A. Hayek. He writes:

There is little a man can do to alter the fact that his special talents are very common or exceedingly rare. A good mind or a fine voice, a beautiful face or a skilful hand, a ready wit or an attractive personality are in a large measure as independent of a person’s efforts as the opportunities or the experiences he has had. In all these instances the value which a person’s capacities or services have for us and for which he is recompensed has little relation to anything that we can call moral merit or “deserts.”

The billionaire investor and oracular philosopher Warren Buffett echoes the point:

My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.

In other words, ideas of deserts just don’t justify the going rate of rewards. Bar Patron 1 cannot infer his IQ or his deservingness from his paycheck.

Some bankers inadvertently confirm the point by offering plainly bad arguments in place of the appeal to deserts. Some argue, for example, that bankers should be appreciated because, as one money manager put it, “Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well. Let’s embrace it.” This, again, is not exactly credible after the banking sector has just caused the largest crisis in seventy years. In any case, the financialization of the economy is less a matter of inherent skill than decades of political decisions that in effect passed up opportunities to invest in infrastructure and education that might have supported high-skilled manufacturing. Globalization might then have had a chance of bringing rising wages instead of a three-decade period in which increasingly productive workers have in effect not seen a pay raise.

Given the thinness of the arguments, the honest bankers are perhaps those who resort to cosmic grandiosity. Thus Lloyd C. Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, quips — with a definite whiff of Rockefeller or Beveridge or Rhodes — that bankers are “doing God’s work.” Blankfein may not be an asshole, but this is an asshole remark, even if it was mildly ironic. It implies not just that bankers are “doing good things” but that their work is somehow within God’s plan or somehow brings them closer to God. Even if the comment was merely a joke, it was a “fuck you” type of joke, given that it was made in public in the wake of a crisis that had just upended millions of lives. It suggests complete obliviousness to how others will hear the remark, though not simple cluelessness. The man is hardly an idiot, and so his obliviousness is better seen as expressing a sense of entitlement, in this case, apparently of an unspecified God-sized kind.

This attitude among the new bankers stands in marked contrast with bankers of an earlier era. Consider the former Goldman CEO John Whitehead, a member of the civic-minded “Greatest Generation” that ably steered the dynastic wealth of Rockefeller and the like toward the social good. In lamenting that executive compensation today discourages the long view, and so has “got to be changed,” he explains why Blankfein, and by implication the new generation, “doesn’t get it.”

[Blankfein] never thought that if the public is losing their jobs and we’re in a recession, it isn’t a very good time to talk about the justification for a $60 million bonus. He doesn’t get it! . . . He says, “ I’m the CEO of the best financial service firm in the world. And I’m the CEO, I’m its head man. I deserve to be paid more than anybody else. And I’m prepared to fight for it, and boast about it. Because I’m proud of it.”

But, much as with Bar Patron 1, Blankfein’s appeal to deserts rings hollow in an industry that almost drove the global economy off a cliff.

We might put the general lesson this way: the banker’s position of high reward is a privilege. The position itself exists only because of societal need and design. That any particular banker holds a given position is in large measure good luck. Since many people are hardworking enough and smart enough to do the job (again, financial markets worked better from a crisis-avoidance point of view before they became mathematically sophisticated), any given banker is replaceable: it would be equally well for society, or indeed better, if someone else took his or her place, especially if he or she is very talented, since talent is more important in medicine, teaching, or science. For those who do work in finance, the enormous benefits are a societal gift but with conditions attached. The financial system needs to be organized so that it reliably works to the benefit of real people in the real economy. When this requires significant reorganization—including such things as reserves requirements, international securities taxes, the segregation of investment and finance, expansion of IMF and ECB last-resort lending capacity, breaking up “too big to fail” banks — then bankers have no reasonable complaint. If a given banker doesn’t like the gift, he or she can give it back (and seek work at Starbucks, a good high school, or a biology lab).

The banker’s sense of special entitlement is therefore akin to that of our imagined failed asshole artist. Neither the banker nor the failed artist has produced the goods, and yet both go on complaining about not getting what they deserve, seemingly unable to grasp how this could be a colossal, delusional mistake.

This hardly means that all or even most bankers are delusional assholes; some genuinely do understand why the public would be enraged. Carmine Visone, an older-school Lehman Brothers managing director, could never believe his social worth was what he was being paid and so served the homeless out of gratitude and responsibility to society. Still, a delusional banking culture makes being an asshole especially easy, which may itself explain why asshole bankers seem in abundance lately.

Bill Maher, ‘If the Mittmobile Does Roll into Washington it will be Towing Behind it the Whole Anti-Intellectual, Anti-Science Freak Show’

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Koch Brothers & Their Amazing Climate Change Denial Machine

Bad News for Romney: Ohio Early Voting Turnout is Up for Obama, Down for GOP

In a conference call with reporters Obama campaign manager Jim Messina dropped some devastating numbers on Romney. Messina pointed out that more people are early voting for Obama in 2012 than did in 2008.

Messina laid out what early voting is looking like for the president right now. He said Obama is winning early voting in Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Ohio early vote turnout is higher for Obama in 2008 than in Republican counties. He said that this election is more diverse. Most new registrants are under 30. 2/3 of those who have early voted are women, African-Americans, and Latinos. Democrats are winning everywhere where there are in person early votes.

Obama’s campaign manager explained why they think some of these polls are way off in the battleground states, “I do think there is some differences in states, we delve very deep into these states, and we think some people aren’t getting it right about who this electorate is going to be.” We continue to think the math has changed in Florida.” He said there are 250,000 more registered African-American and Latino voters in Florida, and that overall early voting among African-Americans is up 50% over 2008.

New voter registration numbers in Ohio heavily favor Obama. Four in five Ohioans (81 percent) who have registered to vote in 2012 are either female, younger than 30, or African-American or Latino. 64 percent of Ohioans who have registered to vote in 2012, and the same percentage among those who have already voted, live in counties that President Obama won in 2008.

The polling numbers for early voting in Ohio also back up what the Obama campaign is saying. A Survey USA poll found that Obama leads by 19 points (57/38) among those who have already. PPP found that Obama leads by 52 points (76%-24%) in Ohio early voting. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found Obama leading Romney, 63%-37% with early voters. Even Republican pollster Rasmussen has Obama leading big in Ohio early voting, 63%-34%.

Recent early voting numbers in Ohio back up the Obama campaign’s claim that early voting is up for Obama and down for Romney. 582,402 ballots have been requested this year from precincts that Obama won in 2008, 33,414 more than in from precincts that McCain won.The total number of votes already cast this year (both by mail and in-person) from precincts Obama won in 2008 is 261,304 – 55,636 more than from precincts McCain won.

When people worry about the voting machines in Ohio, one of the things that must be considered is that the election has to be close enough to be stolen. During the conference call, both Axelrod and Messina suggested that their goal was to pile up huge margins in the early voting swing states that would make the math for Romney difficult to impossible to overcome on Election Day.

I am a believer in the importance of vigilance against election fraud. I think letting the people who would cheat know that we are watching them does serve as a deterrent, but what must be kept in mind is that election must be close enough to be stolen.

Only a fool would believe that Romney wouldn’t cheat if given the chance, but the purpose of the Obama ground game is to pile up a big lead in early voting, so that the Republican Party doesn’t get their chance to pull any Election Day shenanigans in Ohio.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why a Romney Win Would be Bad for America

There’s a strong case against Mitt Romney’s candidacy that has nothing to do with ideology. Which is probably a good thing, because no one really knows where Romney fits on the ideological spectrum, and if he really has any deeply held policy views at all.

My own sense, as I’ve written before, is that Romney’s party label tells us pretty much all we need to know about how he’d govern.  He’s the nominee of a party that has adopted a far-right platform, and if he were to win he’d have little choice but to stick to it. Conservatives have long viewed Romney’s ideological credentials with skepticism; under a Romney presidency, they’d be perpetually on-guard for any hint of betrayal. Failure to govern as the conservative he swore he was during the GOP primaries would open a rift in the party and threaten to destroy his presidency.

But part of Romney’s appeal to swing voters is an assumption that he’s faking it – that he said the words he needed to say to win the Republican nomination, but that as president he’d revert to Massachusetts Mitt, the middle-of-the-road pragmatist who shunned culture war politics and wasn’t averse to working with Democrats. I have a hard time seeing this, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it actually is his intent. Even then – and even if you think this would work out OK for the country from a policy standpoint – there’s still a compelling reason to fear a Romney win on Nov. 6.

The basic problem has to do with the behavior of Romney’s party over the past four years – reflexive opposition and obstruction rooted in electoral strategy, not ideology – and the lesson that politicians from both parties would draw if it results in a one-term Obama presidency.

Essentially, Republicans looked around when Obama was sworn in and saw political opportunity. They had lost the White House and faced steep Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. In a way, this made them weak; they had no power to advance their own agenda. But it also gave them strength; they had considerable power to stall Obama’s agenda, and with economic anxiety rampant, it seemed logical to assume voters would blame the ruling party if things didn’t turn around quickly.

The result is that Republicans devoted themselves not to constructively criticizing Democratic proposals, crafting feasible alternatives, and accepting olive branches from the administration but instead to cranking up the hysteria and treating virtually every Obama initiative as a step toward socialism. They matched this with legislative obstruction, tying up scores of nominations, forcing a record number of filibusters, and forcing Democrats to pass their agenda on party-line votes.

The calculation was that Republican cooperation would signal to the public that progress was being made and that Obama was living up to his promise to change Washington. But if they railed against him and his agenda instead, Republicans would create an air of controversy around every Obama proposal and bring his approval rating down that much faster.

Mostly cut out of this equation has been policy. Congressional Republicans bitterly deride the stimulus, even though it was loaded up with tax cuts and infrastructure spending that Republicans had traditionally supported. But where was their viable alternative? Healthcare is even more egregious. Obama spent months cultivating Republican support and adopted a basic framework – an individual mandate that would strengthen private insurers – that originated on the right. Not only did they unanimously oppose it; they’ve still failed to produce their own plan to replace the Affordable Care Act – despite promising to do so for more than two years. And while they did rally around Paul Ryan’s long-term budget blueprint, Republicans have had nothing to say on the country’s immediate jobs crisis, offering only tired rhetoric about high taxes and wasteful government. And, as Jonathan Bernstein points out, they’ve offered nothing substantive on foreign policy, settling instead for fake scandals and symbolism.

If Romney wins in two weeks, Republicans may well find themselves with complete control of Washington again. And they will have achieved it by doing nothing but opposing, attacking and obstructing Obama. As Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann explain in “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” this kind of conduct by an opposition party works in parliamentary democracies like Britain. But our system isn’t designed for it. If Republicans win back power with it, though, there’s no reason to think they won’t behave the same way again the next time Democrats claim power. For that matter, it’s possible Democrats will begin to behave the same way.

This last point is worth considering for a moment. There’s a school of thought that Democrats will always be open to entreaties from a Republican president, for the simple reason that they believe in an active and robust government. So, for instance, George W. Bush found Democratic support – sometimes significant Democratic support – during his first term, even though Democrats were still furious over how he’d won the presidency. But if Republicans succeed in making Obama a one-termer, who’s to say how Democrats will react – and if their party base will even allow any cooperation with President Romney? (Again, this is accepting the idea that Romney would even try to reach out.)

Elections shape the behavior of political parties. Recall that Bill Clinton got more cooperation from Republicans as he beat them (first with the 1995 shutdown, then in the 1996 election), to the point that Republicans ultimately went looking for their own Clinton in 2000, keying in on the affable George W. Bush and his compassionate conservatism. The GOP’s post-2008 behavior has not been healthy for our system of government. It’s troubling to think what might happen if it’s rewarded.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Blue States are from Scandinavia, Red States are from Guatemala

THIS ELECTION, we’ve heard a lot about divisions that define America. First it was the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Then it was the moochers and the makers. Politicians, of course, love to claim that we are more than the sum of our differences, but the dividers actually have a point. In all kinds of real and practical ways, the United States today is not one nation, but two.

We’ve come to think of “blue” and “red” states as political and cultural categories. The rift, though, goes much deeper than partisan differences of opinion. The borders of the United States contain two different forms of government, based on two different visions of the social contract. In blue America, state government costs more—and it spends more to ensure that everybody can pay for basic necessities such as food, housing, and health care. It invests more heavily in the long-term welfare of its population, with better-funded public schools, subsidized day care, and support for people with disabilities. In some cases, in fact, state lawmakers have decided that the social contract provided by the federal government is not generous enough. It was a blue state that first established universal health insurance and, today, it is a handful of blue states that offer paid family and medical leave.

In the red states, government is cheaper, which means the people who live there pay lower taxes. But they also get a lot less in return. The unemployment checks run out more quickly and the schools generally aren’t as good. Assistance with health care, child care, and housing is skimpier, if it exists at all. The result of this divergence is that one half of the country looks more and more like Scandinavia, while the other increasingly resembles a social Darwinist’s paradise.

Americans have been arguing over which system is morally and economically superior since the beginning of the republic. But every now and then, the worldviews have clashed and forced a reckoning. The 2012 election is one of those moments.

 One of the campaign’s most contentious issues is the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—the legislation that finally mended a gaping hole in the American safety net. Yet already this year, more than a dozen Republican governors have called upon their states to reject or resist the ACA. If they get their way, Americans living in states that implement the ACA will effectively have a right to health insurance. Americans living in the anti-ACA states would not. Now, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are vowing not only to repeal the ACA altogether, but to turn vast swaths of public policy—including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing—over to the states.

This promise gets little attention, but it is one of the most radical parts of their agenda. It would entail a massive transfer of authority away from Washington, arguably unprecedented in U.S. history, in which states would get a lot less federal money for welfare programs and a lot more power over how big those programs should be. The blue states might scrape up the money to replace existing federal funds on their own. Red states would almost surely seize the opportunity to pare back the already meager assistance they provide. Tens of millions of Americans would likely lose health insurance. Millions more would likely lose access to food stamps, the program that has become the primary safety net during the Great Recession.

Romney and Ryan like to say that giving states more autonomy would encourage innovative and efficient solutions to social problems. But what their agenda would really do is undermine modern standards of economic security, creating among the red states a region in which government doesn’t even try to guarantee that everybody can pay for basic necessities of life. It would do nothing less than change the postwar definition of what it means to be an American.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL blue state is, of course, Massachusetts. There, health care is available to almost everybody, regardless of income or preexisting medical conditions. Welfare benefits are among the most generous in the country, and the state spends hundreds of millions on public housing each year. These programs don’t always lift people out of poverty or protect them from financial catastrophe. Still, Massachusetts’s residents get a lot more help from their state government than people who live elsewhere in the United States. It is reliably at the forefront of efforts at the state level to do what the federal government will not.

This may have been what John Winthrop, the early governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, envisioned when he crossed the Atlantic nearly 400 years ago. Near the end of his journey, Winthrop famously exhorted his fellow Puritans to create a “city upon a hill,” a place where a sense of obligation to the common good superseded self-interest. In colonial times, during their fabled town meetings, New Englanders established America’s first public schools and worked to look after those who had fallen on hard times, even though it meant higher taxes. In Albion’s Seed, a history of colonial settlement patterns, David Hackett Fischer writes that efforts to care for the vulnerable “went beyond the minimum.”

About a century later, a wave of immigrants from central, southern, and eastern Europe arrived in the Northeast and upper Midwest, grafting Catholic notions of social justice and Jewish notions of social responsibility onto the old Yankee sense of mutual obligation. By that time, the industrial revolution was forcing governments in the Northeast and upper Midwest to confront problems of urban poverty and gross labor abuses. Many historians argue that this stew of culture and circumstance helped to create the prototypes for the reforms of the Progressive era and, later, the New Deal—whether it was the minimum wage, which started as a state law in Massachusetts, or Social Security, which was partly based on a public pension program in Wisconsin.

The South was slower to industrialize and slower to take measures to protect the vulnerable. By the time of the Great Depression, most Southern state governments did not provide any form of cash assistance to people in poverty. One likely reason was the region’s own equally distinctive colonial ancestry. Appalachia had attracted fiercely individualistic immigrants from the Scottish and Irish woodlands. Virginia’s founders, meanwhile, were a group of well-educated elites who, unlike the Puritans, wanted to recreate the society they left behind, including its class divisions. People in the South had a “downright aversion to any actual exercise of authority beyond the barest minimum,” W.J. Cash explained in his 1941 classic, The Mind of the South. And as Fischer notes, public spending and taxes in prerevolutionary Virginia were half of what they were in Massachusetts; in Appalachia, the numbers were lower still.

But something else had soured the South on social welfare: race. Programs to help poor people were, inevitably, programs to help African Americans. Southern whites wanted nothing to do with helping former slaves get an equal footing in society. They did embrace the New Deal, in part because Franklin Roosevelt and his allies went out of their way to accommodate their racial sensibilities: Social Security, for example, initially exempted agricultural and domestic workers. By the 1950s, however, the South was once more under attack for its denial of civil rights to African Americans. Later, it came to see the anti-poverty programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as yet another effort to redistribute money to blacks (even though, like the New Deal, it also helped many whites).
In national politics, champions of the Southern worldview advocated a restoration of power to the states—by, among other things, shrinking the size and scope of the welfare state. They quickly found allies in the increasingly conservative Republican Party, which was launching a counterrevolution against big government. Plenty of Northern whites, it turned out, shared the antipathy toward the War on Poverty. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan made “devolution” part of his agenda, attempting (unsuccessfully) to turn food stamps over to the states and (successfully) to nominate federal judges who thought the U.S. Constitution dramatically curbs federal power.

The biggest victory for these counterrevolutionaries came in 1996, when Republicans passed a bill, signed by Bill Clinton, to “end welfare as we know it.” The legislation gave states wide leeway over how to manage benefits and, over time, gave them less money to spend. Another major triumph came this summer, when the Supreme Court ruled that the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid was “coercive” and made it easier for states to opt out of that part of the law. Among the first governors to welcome the ruling was Texas Republican Rick Perry, who characterized President Obama’s health care reforms as “brazen intrusions into the sovereignty of our state.” This was fitting, because, just as Massachusetts is the model for the blue state, Texas is the model for the red.

Today, Texas doesn’t even try to provide the kind of protection for its vulnerable residents that Massachusetts does. It has more uninsured residents than any other state in the country; its lawmakers have repeatedly refused money from the federal government to expand health insurance for kids. Its welfare program is among the nation’s stingiest: Eligible families get less than $300 a month, about 19 percent of the federal poverty line. The Texas state housing budget is a mere $5.5 million—a tiny fraction of what Massachusetts spends, even though Texas has almost four times as many people. “There’s no other state money allocated for housing,” says John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, “unless you want to count prisons.”

THIS PATTERN generally holds for the red states and the blue states overall. In a statistical comparison complied at the request of The new republic, experts Marcia Meyers from the University of Washington and Sarah Bruch from the University of Iowa compared state performances on nine safety net programs for unemployed workers and low-income families. They found that blue states assisted more people in need and provided more generous benefits than the red states—even after adjusting for the fact that the blue states tend to be more expensive places to live. “The story is pretty clear,” Meyers says. “If you are poor, you want to live in a blue state.”
Blue states also invest a higher proportion of their budget on safety net spending, according to a study compiled by Curtis Skinner, director of family economic security at the National Center for Children in Poverty. This category includes major, means-tested programs like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as well as smaller programs for foster care, homeless shelters, and so on. The ten “highest expenditure” states are blue states; eight of the ten “lowest expenditure states” are red.

The easiest way to grasp what this means for the actual residents of red and blue America is to look at Medicaid. Although the federal government sets minimum standards for coverage and benefits, states have discretion over how many additional people to include. Based on data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the five states with the strictest criteria for working parents are Arkansas, Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas. The five states with the least restrictive requirements are Minnesota, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, and Wisconsin. A Minnesota mom with two kids and a job that doesn’t offer health insurance can get Medicaid as long her annual income doesn’t exceed about $40,000. But if she moves to Arkansas, she’ll be ineligible for Medicaid as soon as her household income reaches $3,150 a year—not nearly enough to pay for basic living costs, let alone health insurance.
Romney and Ryan would argue that there’s a virtue embedded in the red-state model. Government handouts, they say, cause dependency and discourage people from working. Most scholars would agree that happens sometimes. But they would also argue that the programs need to be fixed, not obliterated. (It’s the difference between adding a work requirement to welfare and simply slashing its funding.) “Public programs have some unintended consequences,” says Luke Shaefer, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan. But the best evidence suggests that the “benefits far exceed the relatively minor negative effects.”
By nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states. It’s impossible to prove that this is the direct result of government spending. But the correlation is hard to dismiss. The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. (The fifth is New Mexico, which has turned blue.) And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue: New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota, and Hawaii. The numbers on infant mortality, life expectancy, teen pregnancy, and obesity break down in similar ways. A recent study by researchers at the American Institute for Physics evaluated how well-prepared high schoolers were for careers in math and science. Massachusetts was best, followed closely by Minnesota and New Jersey. Mississippi was worst, along with Louisiana and West Virginia. In fact, it is difficult to find any indicator of well-being in which red states consistently do better than blue states.

IF RICK PERRY wants to strip the Texas welfare state bare, why should voters in Maine or Oregon care? If anything, the blue states would probably benefit from such a move. Since red states have more poor people, and since their state governments spend less money on the safety net, they receive a larger share of federal funds. Among states that voted Republican in the last three elections, all but one gets more money back from the federal government than it pays in taxes. For most Democratic states, it’s the opposite. Looked at this way, the red states are the moochers and the blue states are the makers.

But reformers and progressives in the blue states have never been content to ignore what’s happening in other parts of the country. In the nineteenth century, this meant that an African American shouldn’t be a slave just because he lives in South Carolina rather than Vermont. In the twentieth century, it meant that an African American shouldn’t be dispatched to the back of the bus—or barred from entering the voting booth—because she called Birmingham, not Boston, home. The United States was one country, with one set of rights. No state or section had the right to take those away.
Restricting access to public assistance and programs obviously isn’t on the same moral plane as denying people the right to vote or holding them as slaves. But these things should weigh on our consciences all the same. Food stamps keep people from going hungry. Unemployment checks prevent people from losing their homes. Health insurance keeps people from suffering and dying. Food, shelter, medicine—these are basic needs to which all people, and certainly all Americans, should be entitled. Over the course of the last century, from the Progressive era through the New Deal and Great Society, the United States slowly but surely moved toward guaranteeing those things. Giving the red states the power to deviate from this course means giving them the right to undo that progress.

Advocates for the red-state approach to government invoke lofty principles: By resisting federal programs and defying federal laws, they say, they are standing up for liberty. These were the same arguments that the original red-staters made in the 1800s, before the Civil War, and in the 1900s, before the Civil Rights movement. Now, as then, the liberty the red states seek is the liberty to let a whole class of citizens suffer. That’s not something the rest of us should tolerate. This country has room for different approaches to policy. It doesn’t have room for different standards of human decency.,1&fb_action_ids=4709937429454&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%7B%224709937429454%22%3A394830663919027%7D&action_type_map=%7B%224709937429454%22%3A%22og.likes%22%7D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What life in Mitt Romney’s America Would Look Like

I'll give it to Mitt Romney. During the debate he looked and sounded pretty “presidential”: good haircut, power tie, in command (total control, really) of the debate. He followed the basic rules that I and other consultants tell our clients when they prepare for a debate: Speak directly to the TV cameras. Stick to your script and use every question to get back to the same points—whether or not those points actually respond to the question, and whether or not they are true.

Romney’s performance had the intended effect. Virtually every poll across the nation had his numbers soaring in the past week. Many show him leading Obama both in the popular vote and in critical swing states.

Presumably, that means many American are now ”looking at Romney in a new light.” While his running mate Paul Ryan didn't do as well, for those who were swayed by Romney's performance, it might be prudent to think past his style or what positions he chose to take that night. Based on Romney’s record—as well as the agendas of his party, his running mate and the Super PACs to which he would owe his victory—let’s take a moment to envision what life would be like under a Romney presidency.

In Romney's America, with Obamacare repealed on “the first day,” women, who for the first time are now guaranteed life-saving exams and contraception at no cost, would be back on their own. They’d once again be faced with the choice of whether or not they could afford the Pap smears, mammograms and contraception that not only improve their lives, but in some cases, save them.

And women who need to end a pregnancy could very well be out of luck. Romney has said that he would pick Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. And in the worse-case scenario, the bills supported by his running mate Ryan and other Republicans would deny abortions even in cases of incest or rape.

In Romney’s America, those with pre-existing conditions (including having had a C-section or, according to some insurers, just being female) are also out of luck. Outside of Massachusetts, they’re on their own, at the mercy of individual states and insurers who could legally deny them coverage or offer it only at exorbitant rates, just as they can now. And if you are someone who has little sympathy for the uninsured, remember that it is the rest of us who pay the bills, through higher local property taxes, higher hospital costs and insurance rates.

Seniors too would suffer—Romney’s repeal would mean higher Medicaid premiums as well as higher wellness visit and prescription costs. And his pledge to restore $716 billion dollars to providers be at the expense of healthcare services for the aged and poor.

In Romney's America, it would be harder than ever to find a job. Destined for the dustbin would be the estimated 1.9 million new private-sector jobs that Obama’s pending American Jobs Act would create. Not to mention that, if Romney running mate Paul Ryan’s proposed “Path to Prosperity” budget were to pass, rather than prosperity, the U.S. will likely see another 4.1 million jobs lost by 2014, according to the Center for Tax Policy. Despite his recent disclaimers, Romney’s previous endorsements of his running mate’s budget, coupled with the fact that he will owe his victory to the extreme Right, means that he’s likely to see it passes.

And that’s just in the private sector. Romney’s pledge to cut government programs will also mean more cutbacks for teachers, fire fighters, police officers, construction workers, healthcare professionals and others.

In Romney's America, it would be harder to attain the skills needed for a job that supports a family. The Ryan budget would slash spending on college tuition grants by 42 percent and kick 1 million students out of the program. Ryan's debt-ceiling bill would preserve $261 billion for the military (a budget larger than those of the next top 10 military powers combined) at the expense of those most in need: 1.8 million Americans would lose food stamps; 280,000 children their school lunches, and 300,000 children their essential health care benefits.

At risk, also, would be the air we breathe and the water we drink. With Romney and Ryan at the helm, under the guise of freeing companies from the “tyranny” of regulation, the executive branch would put its clout behind pending Republican bills that remove limits on mercury in the soil and water, and slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s staff and authority. Such bills offer a windfall to companies but place a great toll on Americans, who would have to pay the costs of toxins in their bodies.

In Romney's America, the very rich would be protected while the rest of us fend for ourselves. Just as Romney's Bain Capital relied on government welfare—a $10,000,000 bail-out in 1993 and various tax loopholes—Romney's tax cuts would overwhelmingly benefit corporations and their millionaire and billionaire owners. Romney and Ryan would extend the Bush-era tax cuts and dole out another $2.5 trillion to the wealthiest Americans by reducing the tax rate on top earners from 35 to 25 percent, lowering the corporate rate to 25 percent, and ending the alternative minimum tax. In fact, the Ryan budget slashes $5.3 trillion in programs and services for poor and working people, including both the Child and Earned Income tax credits.

These cuts are under the banner of fiscal responsibility, but in the meantime, Romney would continue the kind of profligate military spending that, along with Bush’s two wars, added more than $10 trillion to the national debt. And as if that weren't enough, Romney would eliminate the estate tax—again benefiting the super-rich—and deprive American coffers of another $1 trillion over ten years.

As a result, in Romney's America, our property taxes would be higher and our quality of life lower. Federal funds for education, law enforcement, food safety, and housing production would be slashed, pushing those burdens down to states, cities and towns. Our roads and bridges would go unrepaired and scientific research would wane, diminishing our competiveness in the global economy.

And, of course, in Romney's America there would be no Big Bird. And perhaps that little quip says it all. In Romney’s America, the wealth from our collective efforts wouldn’t go back to the collective good through programs like Sesame Street. Instead, the Koch Brothers, the Sheldon Adelsons, and others would take that wealth and claim it as their own.

Romney was right, however, about one thing. November 6 is a defining moment. However flawed they were, the founders of the nation were bent on creating a society that guaranteed opportunity and mobility. And however flawed President Obama may be, he has fought to ensure the realization of that American dream. In Romney's America, the policies and programs that have allowed for the pursuit of that dream would be reversed.

Romney looks good, talks a good game and is clearly not troubled by sticking to the facts or any particular set of principles. That may be good enough for television, but it’s not good enough for America.

How Higher Education in the US Was Destroyed in 5 Basic Steps

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report [3] on the defunding of public education by saying,

“In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in our graduates, the out-of-control tuitions and crippling student loan debt. Attention is finally being paid to the enormous salaries for presidents and sports coaches, and the migrant worker status of the low-wage majority faculty. There are movements to control tuition, to forgive student debt, to create more powerful “assessment” tools, to offer “free” university materials online, to combat adjunct faculty exploitation. But each of these movements focuses on a narrow aspect of a much wider problem, and no amount of “fix” for these aspects individually will address the real reason that universities in America are dying.

To explain my perspective here, I need to go back in time. Let’s go back to post-World War II, 1950s when the GI bill, and the affordability – and sometimes free access – to universities created an upsurge of college students across the country. This surge continued through the ’60s, when universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The liberal arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late '50s into the '60s — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses. Who didn’t like the outcome of the '60s? The corporations, the war-mongers, those in our society who would keep us divided based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation.

I suspect that, given the opportunity, those groups would have liked nothing more than to shut down the universities. Destroy them outright. But a country claiming to have democratic values can’t just shut down its universities. That would reveal something about that country which would not support the image they are determined to portray – that of a country of freedom, justice, opportunity for all. So, how do you kill the universities of the country without showing your hand? As a child growing up during the Cold War, I was taught that the communist countries in the first half of the 20th century put their scholars, intellectuals and artists into prison camps, called “re-education camps.” What I’ve come to realize as an adult is that American corporatism despises those same individuals as much as we were told communism did. But instead of doing anything so obvious as throwing them into prison, here those same people are thrown into dire poverty. The outcome is the same. Desperate poverty controls and ultimately breaks people as effectively as prison…..and some research says that it works even more powerfully.

So: here is the recipe for killing universities, and you tell me if what I’m describing isn’t exactly what is at the root of all the problems of our country’s system of higher education. (Because what I’m saying has more recently been applied to K-12 public education as well.)

Step I: Defund public higher education.

Anna Victoria, writing in Pluck Magazine [4], discusses this issue in a review of Christopher Newfield’s book, Unmaking the Public University [5]: “In 1971, Lewis Powell (before assuming his post as a Supreme Court Justice) authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memorandum, [6] and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The title of the memo was “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” and in it he called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.” How would they do that? One, by increased lobbying and pressure on legislators to change their priorities. “Funding for public universities comes from, as the term suggests, the state and federal government. Yet starting in the early 1980s, shifting state priorities forced public universities to increasingly rely on other sources of revenue. For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011.” That’s a loss of more than a third of its public funding. But why this shift in priorities? U.C. Berkeley English professor Christopher Newfield, in his new book Unmaking the Public University posits that conservative elites have worked to defund higher education explicitly because of its function in creating a more empowered, democratic, and multiracial middle class. His theory is one that blames explicit cultural concern, not financial woes, for the current decreases in funding. He cites the fact that California public universities were forced to reject 300,000 applicants because of lack of funding. Newfield explains that much of the motive behind conservative advocacy for defunding of public education is racial, pro-corporate and anti-protest in nature.

Again, from Anna Victoria:

“(The) ultimate objective, as outlined in the (Lewis Powell) memo, was to purge respectable institutions such as the media, arts, sciences, as well as college campus themselves of left-wing thoughts. At the time, college campuses were seen as 'springboards for dissent,' as Newfield terms it, and were therefore viewed as publicly funded sources of opposition to the interests of the establishment. While it is impossible to know the extent to which this memo influenced the conservative political strategy over the coming decades, it is extraordinary to see how far the principles outlined in his memo have been adopted.”

Under the guise of many “conflicts,” such as budget struggles, or quotas, defunding was consistently the result. This funding argument also was used to reshape the kind of course offerings and curriculum focus found on campuses. Victoria writes, “Attacks on humanities curriculums, political correctness, and affirmative action shifted the conversation on public universities to the right, creating a climate of skepticism around state funded schools. State budget debates became platforms for conservatives to argue why certain disciplines such as sociology, history, anthropology, minority studies, language, and gender studies should be defunded…” on one hand, through the argument that they were not offering students the “practical” skills needed for the job market — which was a powerful way to increase emphasis on what now is seen as vocational focus rather than actual higher education, and to devalue those very courses that trained and expanded the mind, developed a more complete human being, a more actively intelligent person and involved citizen.

Another argument used to attack the humanities was “…their so-called promotion of anti-establishment sentiment. Gradually, these arguments translated into real -- and often deep -- cuts into the budgets of state university systems,” especially in those most undesirable areas that the establishment found to run counter to their ability to control the population’s thoughts and behavior. The idea of “manufactured consent” should be talked about here – because if you remove the classes and the disciplines that are the strongest in their ability to develop higher level intellectual rigor, the result is a more easily manipulated citizenry, less capable of deep interrogation and investigation of the establishment “message.”

Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).

Vice-President Joe Biden, a few months back, said that the reason tuitions are out of control is because of the high price of college faculty. He has no idea what he is talking about. At latest count, we have 1.5 million university professors in this country, 1 million of whom are adjuncts. One million professors in America are hired on short-term contracts, most often for one semester at a time, with no job security whatsoever – which means that they have no idea how much work they will have in any given semester, and that they are often completely unemployed over summer months when work is nearly impossible to find (and many of the unemployed adjuncts do not qualify for unemployment payments). So, one million American university professors are earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work. Keep in mind, too, that many of the more recent Ph.Ds have entered this field often with the burden of six figure student loan debt on their backs.

There was recently an article [7] talking about the long-term mental and physical destruction caused when people are faced with poverty and “job insecurity” — precarious employment, or “under-employment.” The article says that, in just the few short years since our 2008 economic collapse, the medical problems of this group have increased exponentially. This has been the horrible state of insecurity that America’s college professors have experienced now for 30 years. It can destroy you — breaking down your physical and emotional health. As an example:  the average yearly starting salary of a university professor at Temple University in 1975 was just under $10,000 a year, with full benefits – health, retirement, and educational benefits (their family’s could attend college for free.) And guess what? Average pay for Temple’s faculty is still about the same — because adjuncts now make up the majority of faculty, and earn between $8,000 to $14,000 a year (depending on how many courses they are assigned each semester – there is NO guarantee of continued employment) — but unlike the full-time professors of 1975, these adjunct jobs come with NO benefits, no health care, no retirement, no educational benefits, no offices. How many other professions report salaries that have remained at 1975 levels?

This is how you break the evil, wicked, leftist academic class in America — you turn them into low-wage members of the precariat – that growing number of American workers whose employment is consistently precarious. All around the country, our undergraduates are being taught by faculty living at or near the poverty line, who have little to no say in the way classes are being taught, the number of students in a class, or how curriculum is being designed. They often have no offices in which to meet their students, no professional staff support, no professional development support. One million of our college professors are struggling to continue offering the best they can in the face of this wasteland of deteriorated professional support, while living the very worst kind of economic insecurity. Unlike those communist countries, which sometimes executed their intellectuals, here we are being killed off by lack of healthcare, by stress-related illness like heart-attacks or strokes. While we’re at it, let’s add suicide to that list of killers.

Step III: Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.

This new class takes control of much of the university’s functioning, including funding allocation, curriculum design, course offerings. If you are old enough to remember when medicine was forever changed by the appearance of the HMO model of managed medicine, you will have an idea of what has happened to academia. If you are not old enough – let me tell you that once upon a time, doctors ran hospitals, doctors made decisions on what treatment their patients needed. In the 1970s, during the Nixon administration, HMOs were an idea sold to the American public, said to help rein in medical costs. But once Nixon secured passage of the HMO Act in 1973, the organizations went quickly from operating on a non-profit organization model, focused on high quality health care for controlled costs, to being for-profit organizations, with lots of corporate money funding them – and suddenly the idea of high-quality healthcare was sacrificed in favor of profits – which meant taking in higher and higher premiums and offering less and less service, more denied claims, more limitations placed on doctors, who became a “managed profession.”

You see the state of healthcare in this country, and how disastrous it is. Well, during this same time, there was a similar kind of development, something akin to the HMO — let’s call it an “EMO,” Educational Management Organization, began to take hold in American academia. From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country. And just as disastrous as the HMO was to the practice of medicine in America, so is the EMO model disastrous to the practice of academia in America, and to the quality of our students’ education. Benjamin Ginsburg writes about this in great detail in his book The Fall of the Faculty [8].  

I’d like to mention here, too, that universities often defend their use of adjuncts – which are now 75% of all professors in the country — claiming that they have no choice but to hire adjuncts, as a “cost saving measure” in an increasingly defunded university. What they don’t say, and without demand of transparency will never say, is that they have not saved money by hiring adjuncts — they have reduced faculty salaries, security and power. The money wasn’t saved, because it was simply re-allocated to administrative salaries, coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries. There has been a redistribution of funds away from those who actually teach, the scholars – and therefore away from the students’ education itself — and into these administrative and executive salaries, sports costs — and the expanded use of “consultants,” PR and marketing firms, law firms. We have to add here, too, that president salaries went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars – salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes, or generous housing allowances, cars and drivers, memberships to expensive country clubs.

Step IV: Move in corporate culture and corporate money.

To further control and dominate how the university is "used” -- a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative – university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job.” Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history.

Anna Victoria writes:

“Many universities have relied on private sector methods of revenue generation such as the formation of private corporations, patents, increased marketing strategies, corporate partnerships, campus rentals, and for-profit e-learning enterprises. To cut costs, public universities have employed non-state employee service contractors and have streamlined their financial operations.”

So what is the problem with corporate money, you might ask? A lot. When corporate money floods the universities, corporate values replace academic values. As we said before, humanities get defunded and the business school gets tons of money. Serious issues of ethics begin to develop when corporate money begins to make donations and form partnerships with science departments – where that money buys influence regarding not only the kinds of research being done but the outcomes of that research. Corporations donate to departments, and get the use of university researchers in the bargain — and the ability to deduct the money as donation while using the labor, controlling and owning the research. Suddenly, the university laboratory is not a place of objective research anymore.

As one example, corporations that don’t like climate change warnings will donate money and control research at universities, which then publish refutations of global warning proofs. Or, universities labs will be corporate-controlled in cases of FDA-approval research. This is especially dangerous when pharmaceutical companies take control of university labs to test efficacy or safety and then push approval through the governmental agencies. Another example is in economics departments — and movies like The Inside Job [9] have done a great job of showing how Wall Street has bought off high-profile economists from Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or MIT, to talk about the state of the stock market and the country’s financial stability. Papers were being presented and published that were blatantly false, by well-respected economists who were on the payroll of Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.

Academia should not be the whore of corporatism, but that’s what it has become. Academia once celebrated itself as an independent institution. Academia is a culture, one that offers a long-standing worldview which values on-going, rigorous intellectual, emotional, psychological, creative development of the individual citizen. It respects and values the contributions of the scholar, the intellectual, to society. It treasures the promise of each student, and strives to offer the fullest possible support to the development of that promise. It does this not only for the good of the scholar and the student, but for the social good. Like medicine, academia existed for the social good. Neither should be a purely for-profit endeavor. And yet, in both the case of the HMO and the EMO, we have been taken over by an alien for-profit culture, our sovereignty over our own profession, our own institutions, stripped from us.

A corporate model, where profit depends on 1) maintaining a low-wage work force; and 2) charging continually higher pricers for their “services” is what now controls our colleges. Faculty is being squeezed from one end and our students are being squeezed from the other.

Step V: Destroy the students.

While claiming to offer them hope of a better life, our corporatized universities are ruining the lives of our students. This is accomplished through a two-prong tactic: you dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, to question, to reason. Instead, they are learning to obey, to withstand “tests” and “exams,” to follow rules, to endure absurdity and abuse. Our students have been denied full-time available faculty, the ability to develop mentors and advisors, faculty-designed syllabi which changes each semester, a wide variety of courses and options. Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.

The Second Prong: You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt free. Younger people may not know that for much of the 20th century many universities in the U.S. were free, including the CA state system: you could establish residency in six months and go to Berkeley for free, or at very low cost. When I was an undergraduate student in the mid- to late-1970s, tuition at Temple University was around $700 a year. Today, tuition is nearly $15,000 a year. Tuitions have increased, using CA as an example again, over 2000% since the 1970s. This is the most directly dangerous situation for our students: pulling them into crippling debt that will follow them to the grave.

Another dangerous aspect of what is happening can be found in the shady partnership that has formed between the lending institutions and the financial aid departments of universities. This is an unholy alliance. I have had students in my classes who work for financial aid. They tell me that they are trained not to say “This is what you need to borrow,” but instead, “This is what you can get,” and to always entice the student with the highest possible number. There have been plenty of kick-back scandals between colleges and lenders — and I’m sure there is plenty undiscovered shady business going on. So, tuition costs are out of control because of administrative, executive and coach salaries, and the loan numbers keep growing, risking a life of indebtedness for most of our students. Further, there is absolutely no incentive on the part of this corporatized university to care.

The propaganda machine here has been powerful. Students, through the belief of their parents, their K-12 teachers, their high school counselors, are convinced by constant repetition that they HAVE to go to college to have a promising, middle-class life, they are convinced that this tuition debt is “worth it” — and learn too late that it will indenture them. Let’s be clear: this is not the fault of the parents, or K-12 teachers or counselors. This is an intentional message that has been repeated year in and year out that aims to convince us all about the essential quality of a college education.

So, there you have it.

Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will all be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. The only people immediately benefitting inside this system are the administrative class – whores to the corporatized colonizers, earning money in this system in order to oversee this travesty. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The real winners, the only people truly benefitting from the big-picture meltdown of the American university are those people who, in the 1960s, saw those vibrant college campuses as a threat to their established power. They are the same people now working feverishly to dismantle other social structures, everything from Medicare and Social Security to the Post Office.

Looking at this wreckage of American academia, we have to acknowledge: They have won.

But these are victors who will never declare victory — because the carefully maintained capitalist illusion of the “university education” still benefits them. Never, ever, admit that the university is dead. Quite the opposite. Instead, continue to insist that the university is the only way to gain a successful, middle-class life. Say that the university is mandatory for happiness in adulthood. All the while, maintain this low-wage precariate class of edu-migrants, continually mis-educate and indebt the students to ensure their docility, pimp the institution out to corporate interests. It’s a win-win for those right-wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

So now what?

This ruination has taken about a generation. Will we be able to undo this damage? Can we force refunding of our public educational system? Can we professionalize faculty, drive out the administrative glut and corporate hijackers? Can we provide free or low-cost tuition and high-quality education to our students in a way that does not focus only on job training, but on high-level personal and intellectual development? I believe we can. But only if we understand this as a big-picture issue, and refuse to allow those in government, or those corporate-owned media mouthpieces to divide and conquer us further. This ruinous rampage is part of the much larger attack on progressive values, on the institutions of social good. The battle isn’t only to reclaim the professoriate, to wipe out student debt, to raise educational outcomes — although each of those goals deserve to be fought for. But we will win a Pyrrhic victory at best unless we understand the nature of the larger war, and fight back in a much, much bigger way to reclaim the country’s values for the betterment of our citizens.

We have a big job ahead of us, and are facing a very powerful foe in a kind of David and Goliath battle. I’m open to hearing ideas about how to build a much, much better slingshot.