Monday, December 29, 2014

Robert Samuelson to Middle Class: I find your lack of faith disturbing

Robert Samuelson says the middle class is thinning out because it doesn't believe hard enough:

What the middle class faces today is a crisis of faith. Being middle class is more than attaining some threshold income. It also involves embracing a set of beliefs that, unfortunately, have been severely shaken. 
Middle-class Americans believe in opportunity, stability, reward for effort, a brighter future and the ability to control their lives, as sociologist Herbert Gans showed in his 1988 book “Middle American Individualism.”
Anybody who endured any bout of unemployment during the Great Recession would be bound to have their faith in such precepts shaken. There's nothing like wondering if you're going to be poor forever to make you question the American dream. And that's true even if you got back on track, somehow. I've got a good job these days, one of the best I've had, but I'm also deeply aware of how fragile it all is — how lucky I am to have found my way back.  The underlying faith I used to have that things would generally be on an upward trajectory? Gone. I miss it.

Samuelson adds:
The economy is more random, unstable and insecure than we imagined. It is less susceptible to policy engineering. The fact that the upper classes can better shield themselves against its upsets naturally breeds resentment.
That's not quite right. The resentment is bred more from the fact that the upper classes are shielded by government from the vagaries of the economy more than the lower classes are. Banks were too big to fail, our tax dollars bailed them out, and executives kept on collecting bonuses. Middle class home buyers found themselves stuck with underwater mortgages,meanwhile, and got lectures about responsibility. The people most directly responsible for screwing the economy suffered little, if any, long-term consequences. The rest of us are still living with consequences in many cases. Hard to have faith when lived experience contradicts it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The disaster that is the F-35

Total taxpayer losses in the failed Solyndra solar-energy program might come, at their most dire estimate, to some $800 million. Total cost overruns, losses through fraud, and other damage to the taxpayer from the F-35 project are perhaps 100 times that great, yet the “Solyndra scandal” is known to probably 100 times as many people as the travails of the F-35. Here’s another yardstick: the all-in costs of this airplane are now estimated to be as much as $1.5 trillion, or a low-end estimate of the entire Iraq War.

Netflix Queue: The Master

Lots of thoughts inspired by my viewing of The Master on Netflix, but the easiest to convey is this: Joaquin Phoenix's face in this movie is an amazing thing, a craggy and broken down work of art. So amazingly photographed by Paul Thomas Anderson and his crew.

After New York: A question about police, protests, and the limits of politics

Since it now seems to be a common theme on the right that critics of police practices enabled the (horrible, awful, only-to-be-condemned) murders of two New York cops, a question:

What is a permissible level of protest regarding police activities?

What is a permissible level of criticism?

Are any protests or criticisms permissible, or do they by definition contribute to a lawlessness that endangers police lives and thus our civic order?

The war in Afghanistan is over. Long live the war in Afghanistan.

Well, that was anti-climactic:

The United States and NATO formally ended their war in Afghanistan on Sunday with a ceremony at their military headquarters in Kabul as the insurgency they fought for 13 years remains as ferocious and deadly as at any time since the 2001 invasion that unseated the Taliban regime following the Sept. 11 attacks.
We've been fighting and dying in Afghanistan for 13 years. We're going to keep on fighting and dying in Afghanistan ... only not quite as quickly as we have been. That's not war anymore? George Orwell, call your office.

Big-government conservatism

Robert P. George, natural law theorist extraordinaire, is in my morning paper:
Considered as isolated acts, someone's recreational use of narcotics, for example, may affect the public weal negligibly, if at all. But an epidemic of drug abuse, though constituted by private acts of drug-taking, damages the common good in myriad ways. This does not by itself settle the question whether drug prohibition is a prudent or effective policy. It does, however, undermine the belief that the recreational use of drugs is a matter of purely private choice.
A lot of my conservative friends are fans of George, I think, and look to him when making arguments against gay marriage. (He's talking about pornography in the current column, though.)

What's striking, though, is how closely this argument for drug prohibition mirrors the argument for, say, banning old-style lightbulbs in favor of more energy-efficient modern models — a project that caused no shortage of chest-beating among many of the same conservatives who are allied with George on matters of morality. It's an odd concept of liberty and governent's proper role in our lives that anguishes over lost light-bulbs but feels free to deny the marriage contract to individuals. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

To my Republican friends, a note on race

Too often, I end up in conversations about race and politics that end up a free-for-all about which of the two major parties does more to appeal to modern racism. It's a circular argument, and I think it does more to block progress on the topic than it does to help.

So, here's my own small and meager attempt to break through.

I acknowledge that, for much of its history, the Democratic Party has been the party of white racism.

I believe that white racism is probably the single most destructive force in American history.

I acknowledge that it was Democrats who kept anti-lynching bills at bay for much of the 20th century.

I acknowledge that it was Democrats who kept civil rights bills at bay for much of the 20th century.

I acknowledge that LBJ said and did racist things, and sometimes voted for racist legislation.

I acknowledge the Dixiecrats were an offshoot of the Democrats.

I acknowledge that Robert Byrd was at one time a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

I acknowledge that on occasion, there are those in the Democratic Party who exploit racial solidarity in cynical ways, for personal or political gain. I acknowledge that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have sometimes earned the cynicism they're offered as a result.

In short, I acknowledge that the left side of the political spectrum has a problem, historically, with racism — and that this is true because America, historically, has a problem with racism.

And I acknowledge that I (and many on my side) are quick to see racism on your side and much more forgiving when we detect it among our putative allies.

To whatever extent I am party to these sins: I repent.

I cannot control or even influence how you discuss and approach race. But do not let my own approach harden your heart so that a productive conversation is impossible. I acknowledge my errors, and those I am heir to.

And I hope someday, the conversations we have on this topic can be productive, full of reflection, instead of never-ending attempts to assign blame to somebody else. Wisdom begins with humility — knowing how little we know, knowing that we, and those who came before us, have often fallen short.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Penn State and Paterno Truthers: "It's All About the Student-Athletes" Edition

Following up on my column today at PhillyMag, I'd like to address one issue that keeps coming up from critics of the NCAA sanctions against Penn State:

I'll quote a Penn State friend: "None of the student athletes who are currently at Penn State were involved with the Sandusky mess, very few of the coaches who are currently there were around during that time, heck- some of the students weren't even BORN yet. So why are they the ones being punished by the NCAA's overreaching?"

That is, to my mind a bit of a canard. There's not a single person on the team, at this point, who didn't choose to be there knowing the sanctions in place. Penn State is on its second coach since then; every player who was on the team at the time was allowed to transfer without penalty; every player who remains on the team or who has joined since knew what they were getting into . They are not victims.

(This argument, incidentally, means that there should never be NCAA sanctions, because every punishment ends up affecting student athletes who weren't present at the time of an offense. That effectively means institutions can't be held accountable for breaking the rules by their employees.)

It's also why I'm skeptical about the "it's for the student athletes" stance that so many Penn Staters present. The student athletes made their choices, eyes open. The institution, however, is still paying a price. I think, all told, that's appropriate.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A reminder: The surge failed.

With Iraq suddenly embroiled in a Sunni-Shia civil war that risks leaving the country in the hands of the "worse than Al Qaeda" comic book name of ISIS — Hydra was already taken — one thing is worth remembering: We knew this was going to happen years ago. It was just a matter of time.

Lots of people — conservative hawks, particularly — feel like the Iraq War was won with the "surge*" that came as a last-ditch gamble in the final two years of the Bush Administration. And in fact, the surge — combined with the so-called Anbar Awakening— did reduce the violence in Iraq quite a bit. But the surge was designed to accomplish a number of strategic goals that never got accomplished: A reduction in violence was supposed to give Iraqis the space for crucial reconciliation and institution-building achievements that never occurred. Which is why we're here today.

*It's insane how quickly all of this has receded from "current events" to "history." Damn.

In June 2008, Foreign Affairs offered this assessment of the surge:
The surge has changed the situation not by itself but only in conjunction with several other developments: the grim successes of ethnic cleansing, the tactical quiescence of the Shiite militias, and a series of deals between U.S. forces and Sunni tribes that constitute a new bottom-up approach to pacifying Iraq. The problem is that this strategy to reduce violence is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state. If anything, it has made such an outcome less likely, by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni Arab tribes and pitting them against the central government and against one another. In other words, the recent short-term gains have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.

In response to all of this, conservative hawks replied: "Shut up." The surge didn't achieve its goals, they said, but it succeeded because Iraq had found a new bottoms-up approach to creating peace that nobody anticipated.

It's clear now they were wrong. Again.

The result of all these errors is that it's been a long time since American officials could make a "right" call in Iraq. Stay? You'll just keep getting Americans killed in a war that had already dangerously weakened the country and its credibility. Leave: You set the stage for extremists, massacres, and strongmen to fill the vacuum. There was never any good way to stay; there was never any good way to get out. We're seeing proof of the latter, now, but both propositions are true. What a tragedy. What a terrible, awful tragedy.

Friday, May 9, 2014


In May 2011, I entered the hospital with constipation, found out I was on the verge of dying, went into surgery and had my guts opened up. I woke up in extreme pain and deep humiliation from the colostomy bag I was suddenly, unexpectedly (though temporarily) forced to wear. The combination of events sent me into a fairly deep — and, I think, understandable — depression.

I remember the first time I laughed. It was that Thursday in the hospital; I was to leave the next day. I was resting with a TV that didn't actually offer audio for all the channels it showed — NBC was among the silent offerings. Still, I tuned into Community that night, which was ending its second season.

And that night, I laughed for the first time since the surgery. It had everything to do with this moment:

That's the character Troy, popping up out of a garbage can and seeing his friend Abed for the first time this episode, set during an Old West-themed paintball game. There was something about the look on Donald Glover's face, the pure joy of recognition, that elicited deep and involuntary laughs from me.

Then the pain took over. And I wept.

The first two years of Community's run — long thought by many observers to be the show's finest — coincided with two of the toughest years of my adult life. My illness occurred during the second year; I lost my job the first. I felt haunted by failure. Community was one of rare pleasures I knew during that time. Among the best? My then-toddler son slipping into bed with me on Friday mornings when I was still in too much pain to do anything but recover, so that we could watch the latest episode together on the iPad. He can still sing the theme song.

It's just a show. And what Community meant to me is probably not what Community meant to you, if you watched it at all. We all encounter art —even silly, disposable, pop art —with the baggage we bring to it. I brought a little extra to this show; and I'm sad to see it go.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Donald Sterling Doesn't Just Have a Race Problem. He Has a Class Problem.

A lot has been made about the comments (allegedly) made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling about race. But I think his comments about class are also kind of interesting. Here he (allegedly) is, talking about Clippers' players:

The woman reminded him that the Clippers roster is primarily black. 
“I support them and give them food and clothes and cars and houses,” said the man alleged to be Sterling. “Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?” 
“Who makes the game?” he continued. “Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”
And hey, has there ever been a more perfect example of capital's view of labor?

Me? I'm pretty sure the league doesn't exist at all without the efforts of its workers. People buy tickets to watch the players. People buy the jerseys of players. Networks pay hundreds of millions of dollars to show players playing on TV. The owner, when he's seen during these broadcasts, is seen for a few moments if at all.

In other words: The players, the workers, generate whatever monetary value the team has to Sterling. Yet he sees himself as the provider! He gives them food and clothes and cars and houses. He makes the game.

I'm not being Marxist here: The NBA isn't a global phenomenon without owners to organize teams and an administrative office that exploits the game for maximum exposure and popularity. But the product, at the end of the day, isn't just the fruit of the players' labors — it is the players labors.

Thing is: Donald Sterling appears to be an exceptional racist. I don't think he's an exceptional captalist. He really thinks he makes the league. That should probably offend the player almost as much as his (alleged) racism.