Friday, April 29, 2011

the sexual revolution happened for a reason

So first I just want to echo and endorse everything ENB says here about yet another "provocateur" saying that women were happier before the women's rights movement, that "feminism is the anti-Viagra," that Phylis Schlafly has, like, the most mind blowing sex life of any woman in the world, blah blah blah.

Can I add the simple fact, largely ignored both here and in these kinds of arguments generally, that a big part of feminism originally was precisely that many or most women were sexually dissatisfied? We couldn't even have this conversation about feminine sexual satisfaction without the feminist movement. And women in America were sexually unfulfilled precisely because of these 1950s era He-Men of yore. I know there's this Don Draper image out there now, but the actual 1950s husband didn't give a shit about his wife's sexual satisfaction, and it showed. A major element of feminism was and is that women's sexual desire is real, legitimate, and important, and that women like orgasms as much as the boys. (You'll note that this project is still ongoing, and not without opposition.) If these traditional male figures were such dynamos in the sack, there wouldn't have been any need for women to agitate for equal access to a fulfilling sex life.

Ultimately, the important point is as Linda Young, quoted by Liz, says: "Ogas, like lots of folks, finds it easier to parse people and ideologies into black and white polarities than to consider the complex grays that don’t fall neatly into categories. A feminist with cleavage in high heels who wants to be ravished in bed is not a contradiction!"

The fundamental failure of so many "big-think" pieces about gender roles and the sexual/romantic marketplace is that they severely undersell the realm of the possible. It is, I assure you, entirely possible to do one's best as a feminist and as a boyfriend or husband and when having sex. You can, depending on the dictates of the particular pairing, treat your woman partner as a complete equal in, say, discussions of politics, open doors for her and refer to her as your girl, and occasionally throw her over the arm of the couch. Maybe your first instincts in that direction won't track perfectly with her desires, but the beauty is that human beings have the capacity for human communication, and your partner can say "you need to stop interrupting me whenever we talk about money/I can pull the chair out for myself/I want you to take without asking sometimes." I do have sympathy for some men who feel clueless about how to walk these lines, and yes, I do think that occasionally the way we talk about this stuff is dismissive of male anxiety to the point of being unfair. But just ask. Talk it over. That's part of the nice part, right, that two people who like each other and want each other to feel good can almost always get there if they are open and communicative.

Of course, I imagine some commenter will pop up and tell me that it is all so much more tragic than that. Well, because it's my jam, I want to say again... chill. I think there's a danger in reading too many of these sex/gender/feminism/the future/whatever trend pieces. Because of the media's endless insistence on the sensationalistic, most of these pieces are written with a breathless, panicked attitude and expressed in exaggerated terms. (It's the End of Men!) But remember, trend pieces are dangerous not merely because they often have low standards of evidence, but also because nobody individually is a part of a trend. A person is in his or her own life. Wherever these trends are taking place, you don't live there. You live in the ebb and flood of your own life, and in that space you have agency. I'm saying: you can choose.

I do have sympathy for men who feel lost, inasmuch as I have sympathy for anyone dealing with loneliness. Loneliness is a fissure in the human condition. But you can't fix things by retreating to sexist tropes, you can't do it by investing everything with a tragic attitude, and you can't do it by imagining that you are caught up in psychosexual forces that are plotting against you. When in doubt, assume equality between men and women in expectations, needs, and desires, ask questions when lost, and remember that the elementary rules of treating other human beings well transcend questions of sex and politics.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Portrait of My Father as a Young Man

by Rainer Maria Rilke

In the eyes: dream. The brow as if it could feel
something far off. Around the lips, a great
freshness-- seductive, though there is no smile.
Under the rows of ornamental braid
on the slim Imperial officer's uniform:
the saber's basket-hilt. Both hands stay
folded upon it, going nowhere, calm
and now almost invisible, as if they
were the first to grasp the distance and dissolve.
And all the rest so curtained with itself,
so cloudy, that I cannot understand
the figure as it fades into the background--

Oh quickly disappearing photograph
in my more slowly disappearing hand.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

keep radio silence

At a particularly important and vulnerable moment in my academic/professional career, I am hiding out from certain online creeps for the time being. I'm not trying to be mysterious. I'll talk to y'all soon.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

balloon juice post

I wrote another post for Balloon Juice, this one about education. I'm fond of it.

illuminating!

So apparently, the daughter of Amy Chua, of "Tiger Mother" fame, has a blog. Interestingly, it seems to work as evidence against Chua's point. A big part of that whole idea, after all, is bound up in the continued mythology about individual outcomes being the product of individual inputs. In other words, pushing her daughters so hard and advocating others do the same is bound up in the hoary old philosophy that one's life is the product of one's smarts, hard work, and talent. The question of whether one determines the outcome of his or her own life, I will insist, is empirical, and further I think that sophisticated enough scholarship could eventually determine the degree to which this is true with great quantitative accuracy. There is great deal of very interesting scholarship being produced considering various Matthew Effects, such as Pygmalion effects, and the degree to which they contribute to our usual metrics for success. Personally, I don't think the idea that you largely determine the outcome of your life bears empirical scrutiny even now, and I think continuing research will demonstrate the idea as the pleasing, quasi-religious fantasy that it is with great analytical sophistication.

But in the meantime, consider Chua's daughter. By the usual metrics of bloggy success-- how many people read her-- she is quite successful, with dozens of comments for each post and 200 followers on Blogger. Could anyone, though, argue that this success is the product of hard work, initiative, practice, and the general instrumentalization of human life that attitudes like the Tiger Mother advocate? Obviously not; even independent of a consideration of the quality or value-added of her work, blogs with four posts don't tend to have large readerships. The interest in her blog stems from the particular celebrity of her mother, a situation that has nothing whatsoever to do with her ability, drive, talent, or intelligence. As this post from Double X suggests, I'm sure Chua-Rubenfeld could get a book deal today if she wanted to. The question is how her mother could possibly assimilate that fact given the dictates of her parenting philosophy.

Not that she couldn't maintain her belief in self-determination; I'm just not sure how she would go about explaining it. What always strikes me is the persistence of this belief in the face of overwhelming personal evidence that undercuts it. Regardless of the empirical undermining of this traditional mindset, I'm sure it will endure. It's too baked into our foundational ideology.

few more things about college

I'm actually as disturbed by this emailer to the Daily Dish's criticism as I am by Peter Thiel's piece in the first place.
The difference between Harvard and its highly selective (i.e., wealthy) franchises from the rest of the colleges rests not with their undergraduate educational model but with the motivations and accomplishments of their students. Plenty of perfectly bright kids don’t work very hard in high school. And even some that do, and do well, go to colleges that don’t challenge them. And to round out those kids, there are plenty who didn’t have the opportunities to cultivate their intelligence, coupled with some kids who just aren’t that bright.
The intimation that the advantage of Harvard et al. is that they challenge students more academically is undercut by just about everybody who went to one of those schools. You'll find that most Ivy league students will freely admit that it isn't hard to succeed academically at these schools. They are, after all, generally regarded as the pinnacle of grade inflation. (As those who read me regularly know, I'm skeptical about the importance of grade inflation, for various reasons.) In his book Privilege, Ross Douthat goes on at some length about the fact that getting into these institutions, and advancing in important extracurricular activities in them, is much harder than getting good grades in them.

Incidentally, to their credit, most of the Ivy league graduates I know say that, while there are many brilliant students at Ivy schools, and the general caliber of student is quite high, there are also a fair number of dumbasses. This is perhaps largely explained by legacy admissions, which generally provide the biggest boost to admission chances and apply to a far higher number of students than most people assume. But it's also a matter of understanding that there's a great difference between intelligence and the capacity to get good grades in high school. I'm always a bit mystified by those who assumed that anyone who earned a certain class rank must be smart. Is there anyone out there who would report that class rank, at their high school, correlated perfectly with their perceptions of who was smart? Anybody at all?

Another emailer acts in some way as a corrective of the first emailer, but he or she gets it a little wrong too, I think.
I've discussed this with a friend who actually went to Harvard, and we decided the biggest difference in difficulty between his school and mine was the difficulty in getting in. We studied virtually the same things. Granted, my alma mater is considered a "public ivy" (University of Washington). But the real difference, and the difference that results from a very real form of scarcity, is that when I studied International Relations it was taught by a bright individual no one knows about. He was taught by Stephen Walt, a man on the cutting edge of IR theory. My professor was certainly capable, but his professor is a regularly published academic at the forefront of his field. You can't do 100 Harvards, and it's not because the "established elite" is trying to keep you down through manufactured "scarcity"
First, I don't think there's any use in designations like "public Ivy" or "little Ivy" or whatever else. The Ivy League is a sports league. As much as we all know what we're talking about when we use the term as a synonym for the elite, it perpetuates an unfortunate lack of clarity about what we're measuring when we measure a school's "value"-- and you can read many other explorations of the strange intersections of exclusivity, quality, resources, opportunity, etc., that are bound up in that idea. It's worth saying that any given U's graduate programs often play a disproportionate role in their perceived quality.

Anyway, yes, the various incentives for promotion and success in the academy by scholars play a big role in perceptions of quality. I don't know, though, whether it's helpful to think in terms of students getting lucky with bright and dedicated faculty. The fundamental thing about college for me-- and, yes, this certainly suggests that prices should come down-- is that any decently motivated student can find smart and dedicated faculty pretty much anywhere they go, challenge themselves, and get a great education. The same dynamic means that students can smoke weed for four years and float through with a C+ average. Part of the reason I blanch at simplistic discussions of school quality is that educational outputs are so contingent on student inputs. I am currently at a large research university which isn't particularly competitive. But any student who wants to absolutely can challenge him or herself and go through a challenging and inspiring curriculum.

If you were ever to go through the hiring process at a university, you'd see why. At any tenure-granting institution, jobs have applicants with CVs and qualifications that are crazy impressive. There's just that many applicants for so few spots. Wherever you go, you'll find brilliant faculty. The question is whether you seek them out and show the personal initiative to get the most out of your education. This is why it's so unhelpful to use diplomas as a crude proxy for student ability or achievement. I promise, there are students at any large state university who could go to an Ivy league school and succeed brilliantly. That's no knock on the Ivy league-- I'd be thrilled to teach at Harvard, completely independent of any professional or personal considerations beyond the joy of teaching-- it's just yet another reason to lament our inability to understand people holistically when they apply for employment or graduate education.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

wars are always founded on untruth

Pushed into the background by the clamor of budget issues and other aspects of domestic politics-- you know, the sort of things a democratic polity can and should worry about-- the situation in Libya continues.

At this point, it's plainly true that the narrow conditions of military intervention as set out in the first hours of the war have been totally transgressed. The fact that this no-fly zone was much more than a no-fly zone was clear in a matter of days. The fact that this was not a conflict that would be resolved in "days, not weeks" was clear soon after. That regime change was in fact the principle goal of this was denied, then asserted with qualifiers, then essentially embraced without preconditions, although always with a weird, one-hand-tied-behind-the-back quality. Now, NATO military "advisors" are aiding the rebels, meaning that there are now boots on the ground (in addition to those of unaccountable CIA agents and lawless mercenaries), which I was told again and again would never happen. If you would like to argue that advisors couldn't possibly become fighters, I ask that you consider history.

Let's not reprosecute our role in this intervention for the time being. What I would like to point out is that once again, we have ample proof that absolutely any projection of military force in the contemporary age will be justified by statements from the government that simply are not true. This is true of Libya, it was true of Iraq, it was true of Afghanistan, and it will be true again in the future. I can't tell you how many people insisted to me that I was not confronting the conflict that was to come, but some hypothetical quagmire that simply wasn't going to happen. The problem there was typical: these people were taking the government's word for it when it came to war, when ample history should have cautioned them against doing so.

Why does this credulity persist in the face of so much evidence that these statements can't be trusted? Part of it, I think, has to do with the continued efforts by some to attach great significance to the distinction between dishonesty and mere incompetence. The line, though, is hard to draw when dealing with the murky world of military accountability, and I think a functioning democracy has to privilege outcomes over intents. One way or the other, the official statements of the government about military matters keep ending up wrong, wrong, wrong. If we're ever going to evolve beyond our current condition of jumping into military conflicts heedlessly, we've got to abandon the pretense that the government tells us the truth about warmaking.

As he so often does, Larison put it best:
Then again, the reason our debates are so poisonous and our nation so divided might have something to do with the existence of utterly unaccountable members of the political class that can launch such a war, suffer no real consequences, and then reliably expect to be defended as “decent” and “well-intentioned” people who made understandable mistakes.

Monday, April 18, 2011

you're doing it wrong

No sooner do I write a piece that in part defends higher-brow art and in part criticizes the fanboy/geek mindset than Troy Patterson writes this and makes me want to start sleeping on Star Wars sheets again.I was going to go into one of my anti-Slatey screeds, but I want to stick to the point here.

True confessions: I'm not really into high fantasy. I dug it some when I was younger. I've never read anything by George RR Martin. And, yes, I have broad complaints about the way in which fanboy/geek properties have come to dominate pop culture. But Patterson's review, aside from failing for many of the reasons articulated by Matt Zoller Seitz, is making in my view a wrongheaded critique of fantasy art, and in a way that only enables the fanboy paranoia that they are being sneered at from afar.

Look, I'll lay my cards on the table: one of my complaints about the ascendancy of pop culture is that too many pop culture enthusiasts defend the potential of pop culture genres and media to be transcendent while ignoring the reality that most pop culture is nothing close to it. It's an old formulation and one I have enjoyed for my entire reading life. What is superficially silly, juvenile, sexless, and shallow in pop culture venues like comic books, science fiction, fantasy, and superhero stories can--can -- in the right hands and with delicacy, be used to access a second order seriousness, maturity, romance, and depth. In the best pop artifacts the absurdities of genre conventions are cast into relief with the most meaningful of human experiences, in a way that straight drama often can't access without succumbing to the maudlin, or the portentous. With rare exceptions (Terrence Malick springs immediately to mind), stories told in the "realist" mode have to deploy their romantic or tragic intentions tangentially, since audiences are on the lookout for didacticism or the heavy handed. Meanwhile, in sci fi and fantasy, emotion and drama can hide in plain sight. There's something about the way a romance plays out in contrast to, say, a druid beheading a dragon that allows for a guileless, direct exploration of love that is nevertheless (sometimes) satisfying. As I've argued, I think this is one of the primary appeals of young adult fiction-- including, yes, the Twilight phenomenon-- that it allows frank and unapologetic access to discussion of deep emotions for young people struggling with a period of great intensity.

The problem comes from two directions. The first is, yes, attitudes like Patterson's, where there is a kind of studied refusal to countenance the complexity of narrative, emotion, and drama behind the superficial childishness of the subject matter. Sci fi and fantasy can't survive readings that aren't charitable enough to consider them on their own terms, but then very few works of art can. Patterson's review is so gleeful in its superficiality, and so grating in the incongruity between the show it is describing and the show I saw last night, that I can only think that he made up his mind before he watched it. (And by the way, if you don't go out with a young woman you're attracted to because she likes to go to Renaissance fairs, you're just a loser. I imagine Patterson and Ross Douthat, sitting around complaining about the women who had the temerity to be attracted to them.)

The other side of the problem comes from the defenders of fanboy culture, who are in turn not discriminating enough about the actual narrative and dramatic content worked into the genre elements. This may in part be a reaction to exactly the dismissal of people like Patterson, though as I've long said, fanboys seem altogether too quick to imagine that dismissal everywhere, and to their discredit. Personally, I find most geek/fanboy art-- and I use those terms because in my experience, that is how such people self-identify-- to be, well, pretty shitty. Lots of bad sci fi and fantasy never actually gets around to dealing with anything that is important to me as an adult consumer of media. And if you'll forgive me for painting with a broad brush, it really is true that these genres and media have a consistent problem with expressing human romantic and sexual relationships in a way that adults care about. Many do, but in my limited experience, many more don't.

Attitudes like Patterson's do certain aggrieved geeks the favor of confirming their suspicions that the world is full of people who dismiss individual works because of their genre or media. It's those generalized dismissals that people rightly rail against. I will continue to insist that this is actually committed much more often against art that is considered difficult or high brow, and I will also insist that it's far better to get the kind of art you want produced, as sci fi, fantasy, and comic book geeks do, than it is to achieve some sort of nebulous concept of critical respect. But that's no reason for reviewers not to get it right.

Ultimately, I've just got to say-- I think Patterson's piece is perfectly typical of the particular pathologies of Slate. I've long been struck by the fact that being a permanent arts and culture writer for Slate seems to require a general contempt for every actual artistic or commercial product. It's not that they never produce positive reviews, but that the general posture of Slate's criticism seems to be the defensive crouch. And there is a kind of fussy relationship to cultural signaling that makes it all worse. I used to listen to Slate's Audio Book Club a lot. One of the permanent projects of my adulthood is to spend less time hating myself, so I had to give it up. But if you listen to more than a few of these podcasts-- featuring a rotating cast of characters like Patterson, Stephen Metcalf, and Katie Roiphe-- what will strike you is the relentless negativity demonstrated towards these great books. In a completely unscientific way, I'll suggest that the dominant majority of the opinions in the podcast are negative, if not outright hateful.

I'm less concerned with the spectacle of a bunch of writers complaining bitchily about talents like Cormac McCarthy or Joan Didion or F. Scott Fitzgerald than I am with the way in which this represents a growing trend of criticism oriented towards resentment. Observe someone like Nathan Rabin, who let slip today that he sees being a film critic as an exercise in perpetual disappointment; this is in keeping with my general sense of his work at the AV Club. My intuition, which is perhaps unfair, is that this is likely a product of anxiety based on having your professional life dedicated towards considering other people's art.

That might sound like a blanket condemnation of reviewers, but in fact it's anything but. Good, muscular criticism is crucial to the artistic enterprise. I think being a professional critic can be a deeply valuable enterprise. Without critics, media can very easily devolve into perpetual ass-kissing. I like and respect Tina Fey, for example, and am eager to read her book, but I've been put off by how often, in the promotional tour she's doing, she comes back to the slights she's received on the Internet. Particularly because she gets, I would say, rather glowing press in general, it makes me wonder what unanimity of praise would satisfy her. There's no sense in which a critical eye is unnecessary or unwanted. But weariness-- which I find more and more reviewers trying to cultivate in their work-- is fatal for a critic. If you are too weary of bad art to give charitable readings to good or middling art, time to hang 'em up.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Yglesias responds

via email:
I'm sorry if you don't like Twitter, but I hardly see how it's done a discourtesy to you to discuss your work in that medium as opposed to an email or a blog post or whatever.

But be that as it may, I stand by the point about policy content. In both your piece on "the fundamental question" and then in that followup you go on at some length about the different perspective your background gives you and your dark suspicion that my own life has led me to some erroneous conclusions, but you don't really say what it is you think ought to be done that "wonky" bloggers (like, say, me) disagree with. Does power matter? Yes, it does, I agree. 

reducing college costs

Now, having said that a pure dollars and cents vision of college education is a mistake (and one that the university has never endorsed), I'll readily concede that tuition needs to come down. How?

1. Rein in administration spending. Between 1993 and 2007, the number of college administrators for every 100 students grew by 39%, while the number of professors grew only by 18%. That's a great first place to look for recovering funds. Meanwhile, faculty salaries have largely stagnated. While it's hard to find data on college administrator compensation writ large, there has been the high-profile realities of ever-rising college president compensation. Getting a handle on the number of administrators, and on their compensation, is a necessary first step to reducing costs.

2. Reduce the number of services provided by most colleges. This is a large part of achieving number one. And it hurts-- one of the great things about universities is that they provide so many services, clubs, sports, groups, charities, on and on. But all this stuff is expensive, and it contributes a lot to that administrative creep. The sad fact of the matter is that Harvard and Yale can afford to offer all things to all students, but your average state U or private liberal arts college can't. This reflects a larger problem where the absurdly competitive culture around high ed-- competitive between students and competitive between colleges-- has created an expectation that all colleges need to attempt the same things. That means that colleges abandon one of their greatest strengths-- their situatedness, their context. Whenever you read about reforming higher education (usually from conservatives who hate higher education), you always hear about how the university should be this universalized, deracinated structure. That's a terrible idea. Part of the beauty of the modern university system is that individual colleges take on the character of their locale. They should remember their particularized nature and stop trying to provide everything that other colleges do.

3. Stop (or never return to) the madcap physical expansion. During the go-go 2000s, there was a vogue for physical expansion on college campuses, whether new construction or renovation. There was a lot of giving from those who have been enriched during those boom times, but you'll note it did nothing to slow the rise in tuition. This is because of one of the difficulties facing college financial officers: those who give the most want something to show for it, and this often means a new shiny building (with their name on it). As all of these newly minted hedge fund millionaires started looking for new status objects to buy, the started to give to universities, but often with the money earmarked for new construction. The problem is that often what colleges need the most is just donations to the general fund, and that new construction promises future costs in maintenance and upkeep.

Remember, again, the terrible status game that many colleges get themselves into. If Bowdoin gets an expensive new gym, surely Bates must have one too. If Williams redoes its library, the pressure is on Amherst. These physical expansions are ludicrously expensive. Again, the prisoner's dilemma for colleges persists; many want to get out of the cycle but none feels like they can do it unilaterally.

4. Penalize taking longer than four years; incentivize taking less. Student debt figures are inflated by the fact that so many students take more than four years to finish college. Since there clearly isn't much in the way of social expectations pushing students to finish in the traditional four years, it may be time for schools who have to start to enact penalties for students taking longer than four years.

5. Recognize that not everyone is equipped to graduate from college. This is a much longer conversation, one I've engaged in before, but it is worth pointing out that students who are ill-equipped for college take longer to graduate and run up higher debts. Additionally, the rise of more student support services and remediation programs contributes to higher administrative and employment costs. I am a firm believer in the importance of providing students with the support necessary to excel, particularly those from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds, but I also think that at some point, all of the questions facing the university force us to confront the fact that college for everyone is not a sustainable or desirable system.

Update: Commenter P says
Re: point 1, it is true that there has been unusually high growth in university staffing over the past 20 years. And as a university administrator myself, I can tell you that there is a lot of bloat. (Most of it, at least at my institution, is devoted to maintaining obsolete paper-based business processes that that the private sector modernized decades ago. I'm thinking of things like paper timesheets here.)

But there have been two major trends in the past 20 years that have required a lot of administrative hiring. First of all, in the 90s you had the IT revolution, which required a massive staffing increase in IT departments. Second, these days many universities are trying to boost study abroad programs and recruit more international students. This has caused a smaller hiring boom, mainly at less prosperous schools that weren't already doing this. But even at top schools, you see hiring going on to boost programs in China, India, etc.
In the interest of service blogging, here's something via Reihan Salam (a conservative commenter who has constructive criticism and suggestions for higher education) for frequent commenter Phil K that suggests the kind of deracinated college education I abhor:

"You’d create a sustainable economic model by focusing on technological rather than physical infrastructure, and by getting people of means to pay for a specialized experience. You’d also construct a robust network so people could access resources whenever and from wherever they like, and you’d give them the tools to collaborate beyond the lecture hall. Why not fulfill the university’s millennium-old mission by sharing ideas as freely and as widely as possible?"
Incidentally, the actual "do this and be safe" edifice in America, of course, is to be born rich. Then you never have to worry about anything. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

speak up, my man, and be accounted for

So one thing that I've always tried to do is to be open about what I think, to be communicative in my disagreements, and to call bullshit bullshit. Everybody gets it, left or right, friend or foe. This is unpopular on blogs, where people constantly hide what they really feel, defer to friends, choose career over principle, say what is politic instead of what is true, and generally corrupt their message. If you read me carefully, with charity, you'll find that I always express sympathy for the professional politicos who are often put into difficult positions by the realities of blogging and punditry. I just don't think that those realities function as excuses. Maybe I'm wrong.

My commenters like to tease me a bit about my focus on Yglesias. For all of my complaints, I admire and appreciate Yglesias. If you check out this post, you'll see why. He believes, deeply, in the need for society to provide for the worst off. He is a vocal, articulate, and principled critic of conservative bullshit. He's got real clarity when he talks about the bogus capitalist notion about what kind of suffering is deserved. You could check my record. I've said for years he's my favorite blogger. He's obviously bright, committed to the best of the liberal ideal, and just the right kind of snotty towards his conservative foes. (I owe him a beer for his work on Jonah Goldberg.) He's wrong, about a lot of things, but so is most everybody. The beauty of saying how you feel is that you've said how you feel. It's not just that a liberalism built on pity and paternalism denies people dignity and destroys their self-determination. It's that it's bound to lose, in the long run. If you think that the noblesse oblige of rich people is a reasonable long term guarantor of the needs of the poor, I think you're mistaken. The alternatives aren't easy to accomplish. That's life.

So here's this:



Now, look, this is simply a true fact-- between the two of us, Matt Yglesias and me, one person has lived with nothing; one person has known real material need; one person has confronted life without the benefit of a net. I never try to blame people for not having experienced material hardship. The point of providing for one's family, after all, is to prevent that sort of thing for your children if you can. But what I do blame people for is incuriosity. I don't care that Yglesias doesn't know what need is, but I do care that he doesn't care that he doesn't know what need is. On balance, I have been the beneficiary of so many privileges, and having known need, I am in a better position to appreciate them, to look on with mute horror at how much is denied to so many. But I don't pretend that everyone knows the same thing about what it means to suffer. No one who ever suffered could. I didn't come to the left-wing because I learned about John Rawls at a private high school. I came to the left-wing as I watched my family disintegrate, when I contemplated life in the state child welfare system, when I slept in a garage. None of that makes any difference about who is right. He might be right, about every word. It'd just be nice, I think, for the scions of millionaire families to perhaps exercise a little discretion when they throw around talk of the poor.

But really, what I want is that when people want to talk publicly, they actually talk publicly. I hate Twitter because its bogus public/private fusion let's people bitch to a select group of interested parties without exposing themselves to the wider world. I hate Twitter because having followers insists that you have an Amen chorus to confirm your opinions and give you a false sense of consensus. I hate Twitter because it takes smart, discriminating people and dulls their senses by allowing them to communicate with people just like them. I hate Twitter because it's an empty proxy for the rest of the world.

If you want to talk about policy, please, let's. You're better at it than me and you've accomplished more politically than I will my whole life. But talk to me. Don't hide in the endless echo chamber of Twitter. I'm right here. I don't come with an institutional affiliation. I don't come with followers or commenters or colleagues. I've just got this blog I started at the public library. It's just me, and it's always been just me, and I wage my arguments out where everybody can see them. You can send me an email, or you can take to your blog, or you can keep your complaints to yourself. But if you're gonna come to fight, fight. It's a minor courtesy, but it means so much.

yet another casualty

You know going back and forth with a few people about this education bubble issue, many thoughts occur to me, but none more important than this: education cannot survive on what I am horrified to find is the generally assumed model, that it exists for the purpose of increasing earning potential. To see an education, college or otherwise, as merely a way to increase the amount of money you make is a terrible corruption and fundamentally unsustainable. Education was never intended that way, and it cannot succeed on those grounds.

It never ceases to amaze and dismay me. This totalizing vision of mankind as homo economus, where absolutely every element of human life is reduced to the exchange of currency and resources, has vast, negative consequences. People see them every day, and yet nobody is willing to walk back from the path we're on.

once again: there can't be a higher education bubble

Conservatives hate the university, for reasons of elementary anti-intellectualism and because they hate any enterprise that doesn't kiss their ass. (I'm serious; anti-conservative bias, in the conservative mind, now means the absence of pro-conservative bias.) Meanwhile, everybody loves contrarianism, and many people are resentful that, having graduated from competitive colleges, they've been unable to get employed in the kind of jobs they want, so there's a lot of anti-university animus out there. Enter Peter Thiel, and his argument that we have an asset bubble with higher education. (As breathlessly, credulously reported by TechCrunch writer Sarah Lacy.)

Now, Thiel's a certified Randian nutcase, and you'll find that the regard for this opinion stems from the anti-academicism I discussed above. But it's important to say that you don't have to have any particular orientation towards the university at all to point out that Thiel's argument is bogus. It's bogus not just because we aren't in a higher education bubble, but because you can't have a higher education bubble. You can't have an asset bubble, in any conventional meaning of the term, when you're dealing with an asset that can't be transferred. Here's what I said in a comment written some time ago:
The housing bubble was a bubble because people were able to borrow against the market value of their homes. The fluctuation in the home's value is actually of little concern to an owner who intends to hold the asset. It is of great importance to the owner who is either planning on selling the home soon, or who is borrowing against the value of the home. Neither of these situations apply to college students. 
You can't have a classic asset bubble when the asset in question is non-transferable. The students are expecting to earn more based on the possession of the degree, and this can turn out to not be the case-- but let's be clear: the value-added of a college degree has never been higher. Generally, talk of college students not getting the value for their degree is limited to anecdote. On the level of data, the financial incentive for attending college has never been higher. To wit.

Anyway, I digress. While a college degree may or may not confer a financial advantage equal to the price of attendance, that is irrelevant to the formation of a classic asset bubble. You can't speculate on the value-added of a college degree. The degree is non-transferable; you can't take a bet by buying someone elses or reduce risk by moving yours away. And while there is some limited action in derivatives revolving around student loans, it is nothing compared to the endless derivatives, hedges, and collateralized debt that went into housing. Because, again, when an asset is non-transferable there's limited opportunity to speculate.
Really, both education and housing suffer from being defined as investments rather than tangible goods. A house's value can fluctuate wildly without cause for concern if the owner's primary interest is in living in it. (Refinancing your mortgage, after all, amounts to a bet by the bank on the future value of your home.) Meanwhile, higher education is treated as though it is only a financial instrument, rather than having the actual value of having been educated. Of course, education isn't going to look worth it, when you separate it from its actual value! It's like buying a chair, refusing to value the ability to sit in it, and calling it a bad investment if the chair doesn't rise in value. The question isn't purely of value but of utility.
Again, consider the housing bubble. Had it simply been a matter of individuals transferring houses at unrealistic prices, and then having those prices be adjusted to a more reasonable level, the financial risk to the greater economy would have been contained. Individuals might have recklessly based their personal finances on their ability to renegotiate their mortgages with the banks, presuming the value of their homes would never rise. (Note that even this limited risk taking is impossible with a college degree; go to a bank and see if you can get a loan risked against the rising value of your degree.) That would have caused financial distress for the individuals borrowing against the values of their homes, but it would have been contained. What made the danger so great was that so many other people had essentially made the same bet, securitizing and trading pooled mortgage risk with the assumption that home values would only continue to rise. Not only is there no equivalent investment vehicle with the value of a college degree, it's difficult to imagine how any such investment could work. Again, when you can't transfer an asset, the ability to speculate on that asset is very limited.

Also very important: stock and publicly traded asset bubbles have been especially pernicious because they have come to represent such a huge part of our economy and growth. The subprime mortgage crisis was an existential threat to our economy because such a huge portion of our economy was based on its continued existence. Meanwhile, what the value of a college education is meant to contribute to, increasing worker wages, is now, I'm sorry to say, a very small part of our economy. Nobody's making bets on the value of worker compensation rising. Why would they? Real wages have stagnated for decades.

Why does a presumably bright person like Sarah Lacy report Thiel's alarmist talk so uncritically, and why do so many smart people buy into it? Because it's provocative and loud, and because it speaks to the fundamental anxiety of many of the people who live on the Internet. Which is why Thiel's argument is bound to be linked to and passed around all over the place, whereas arguments like mine will largely go unheard.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Katie Roiphe is just the worst

Despite her heroic efforts to pretend that she's doing otherwise, Katie Roiphe has taken to Slate to try and score some points against Ayelet Waldman in their feud. Roiphe being Roiphe, she has to find some petty sexism to wedge in there, so she chooses to refer to Waldman-- who is a successful and prominent writer and former successful and prominent litigator-- as "Mrs. C," after her husband, Michael Chabon. Which is a way to diminish Waldman's own accomplishments and suggest that she is only the wife of a prominent man, without really coming out and saying it.

So, you know, kudos, Katie.

Monday, April 11, 2011

you can't defend something by constantly apologizing for it

I guess I don't have much to say about the continuing disagreement over what Planned Parenthood does than to say that this kind of weirdness is bound to happen when you keep apologizing for something you ostensibly defend. The failure in the Will Saletan/Bill Clinton line-- where you ostensibly want to keep abortion legal, but you acknowledge it as this terrible event best to be avoided-- is obvious. People don't feel compelled to defend what even supporters concede to be unfortunate. You're asking voters to thread that needle regarding a complex issue towards which many feel very emotional. It's a recipe for losing a base of support.

I know none of this is particularly novel. At the end of the day, I support abortion rights, and that means that I don't define abortion as some terrible, cruel necessity but as the valid expression of a woman's right to mastery of her own body. Asking me to do the dance where I define abortion as bad but necessary empowers the people I disagree with, removes the conversation from the practical realities of what law and policy should be, and most damningly, invites consideration of the kind of "perfect world" rationalizations that are the enemy of sober thinking about abortion in the first place. We don't live in a perfect world, and I refuse to define my politics in relationship to a theoretical one.

a bit more on Ulysses

OK, I tried the snotty version. Let me give you the sincere version.

Last night I read this at the Daily Dish:
A reader reminds me, apropos this post, of the great quote from Philip Larkin on "difficult art." It's in his wonderful collection of music criticism, "All What Jazz." In it he writes that the great bane of modern jazz and other forms of modern art is that they "take what was once among our pleasures, and place it among our duties."
Rarely has the occasional wisdom of curmudgeonly prejudice been better expressed. Which goes for much of Larkin, of course, that crotchety, reactionary dreamer.
Well, I have a lot of fondness for curmudgeons, but I had to hit the bed and sleep on it cause I was so worked up.

Here's a proposition I'm gonna put out there that you kind of have to just buy into, because it can't be proved: I like reading Ulysses. In fact, I love it. I get pleasure out of it. Now here's a thought that is a necessary adjunct: my liking Ulysses is not a statement of value about what other people like, or even worse, a statement about the value of other people who like different things. People take that for granted with 99% of the art and media we consume. But for some reason, when it comes to art that is considered high brow, avant garde, or difficult, people assume judgment. I can't help but think that this assumed judgment plays a big part in attitudes like Andrew's.

"Difficult," when it comes to art, is a difficult word. The idea that there is a contradiction between deriving pleasure from something and being  challenged by something is undermined by anyone who has ever played a sport or a video game, hiked a mountain or done a 1000 piece puzzle, surfed or sailed or learned to play guitar. There are all different kinds of pleasures to be had in arts (literary, visual, film, musical, and whatever else). Sometimes what you want is art that announces its pleasures right away, where you can't miss what is enjoyable and where the gifts are immediate. Sometimes what you want is art that challenges and undermines your expectations, that gives its pleasures up grudgingly and in part, and that destabilizes you and what you believe. Both have value. The beauty of it is that, in theory, the choice is yours, and there's no penalty for sticking to any one path.

But only in theory. I would like to ask those who don't like difficult art to practice a little empathy. Because those of us who like books like Ulysses or Carpenter's Gothic, Japanese noise rock, the movies of Bela Tar, or sundry other art consistently labeled as intentionally difficult are constantly being denied that choice. I can't tell you how many times someone, in real life or on the Internet, says in one way or the other "you can't really like that" in response to a particularly challenging work of art. So many ideas seek to undermine the very concept of personal taste and idiosyncratic artistic desires: you only say you like this to be cool/appear arty/justify your graduate program/be a contrarian/feel smart, and on and on. It's not enough for people to say "this is bad" or "I don't like this," which is to be expected. For whatever reason, people feel compelled to deny the very existence of disagreement on the merits of these works. And you'll note that, despite the stereotype, the opposite attitude is vanishingly rare. I have certainly never said "you shouldn't go see Transformers 7, that's too lowbrow," and I find that sentiment almost totally absent from discussion. To say that the people going to see such a movie don't really like it is, I would wager, literally unheard of.

If I can't inspire any sympathy in you, please consider the question in purely practical terms. As someone who comes from a geeky/pop culture loving family, I have been sad to gradually become more and more disgusted by the edifice of pop culture fandom online. I have because I find ingratitude such an ugly failing, and if there is one thing that animates the geek/fanboy mainstream (lovers of comic books, video games, sci fi, fantasy, etc.), it's ingratitude. Everything that is produced in pop culture is made for you, yet the constant attitude is "nobody respects us." Every other movie is a superhero movie. TV is packed with sci fi and fantasy. Video games are omnipresent. And yet all I hear from fanboys (a term I have used in the past with endearment) is the idea that they are some terribly marginalized and oppressed minority. Bullshit. The respect that matters is respect from the commercial establishment, and they have given you everything you want.

Meanwhile, consider people who like the difficult, the abstract, or the obscure. Think of opera fans. Think of fans of orchestral music. Think of fans of live, non-musical, experimental theater. Think of fans of drama that centers on tragedy and adult relationships. They get so much less than those who love pop culture. Pop culture is inescapable; "high-brow" (or whatever) culture is hard to find. To act as though we have too many books like Ulysses and not enough like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is to take the conversation into the realm of fantasy. The continued existence of much traditional art is very much threatened. The continued dominance of pop/fanboy culture is assured.

I do like to talk up difficult and avant garde art. Not because I want to lecture or scold, but because there can be such pleasure in it, and pleasure accessible to a far wider array of people than you think. It will never cease to amaze me how many people claim not to like poetry until they have an enthusiastic guide sit down and explore a poem with them. Such a relationship can be a beautiful thing. Also beautiful is the fact that you never need to just choose one or the other. Lord knows I play too many video games.

Just like in politics, the idea that someone, somewhere is sneering at you is a terrible guide for your own behavior. You've got a lot to gain by abandoning the idea, and nothing to gain from keeping it. Personally, I think a lot of this stuff is wrapped up in attitudes that we've got to abandon-- conflating close-mindedness with populism and over reading cultural cues for fear of the dread "snobbery." Whatever the case, consider whether it isn't better simply to say that God made fleas and whales and pronounced both good.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

their new scheme

If you feel like taking the intellectual equivalent of a knee to the crotch, I highly recommend this piece from the Atlantic. If you want to know why exactly our economy is inevitably going to go hurtling off another cliff, you could do worse.

You can learn more from the tone of this article, actually, than you can from anything within its content. Because while the writer takes some stabs at being skeptical, the general attitude towards these hedge fund types is still one of deference and respect, rather than treating them as they deserve to be treated, like your drunk uncle at a craps table at the Bellagio. There's a lot of reasons why we seem simply incapable of reforming our financial institutions ("they've got the money" being numero uno), but the media's seemingly inexhaustible appetite for treating these people like geniuses, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, goes a long way.

The charming subject of this story is the brave new world of "quant" investing, where computers determine whether large swaths of stocks are undervalued or overvalued and buy and sell accordingly. I know what you're thinking: what could possibly go wrong? I agree, and I can certainly think of no recent history that might make me worried about this brilliant scheme! The subject of the personal profile in this piece is a Galtian overlord named Cliff Asness. (Remember that all magazine journalism about complex phenomena now has to be written like a celebrity puff profile; understanding stuff is just too hard unless you tell it like a fun little story about a real person you can get to know! Thanks, Michael Lewis.) Asness is right out of central casting: rich, entitled, and contemptuous of government and bailouts even though he was, er, bailed out:
Asness abhors the idea of increased quant regulation. With some reluctance--given the vitriol with which he typically condemns Washington on his blog--Asness conceded that the government bailouts in September and October 2008 saved AQR by rescuing the firms with which AQR trades, an outcome at odds with his Chicago-school economic training, which champions Milton Friedman, free markets, and the survival of the fittest. The bailouts "saved any levered fund's bacon," he said. (Of the $33 billion that AQR currently manages, $13 billion is in levered funds, which use borrowed money to increase returns on the equity invested.) Nevertheless, he remains unapologetically critical of the bailouts. He thinks the government should have let the banks fail and the chips fall where they would.
What a brave, brave stance. Now, you'll find that the article talks about Asness with a story the media loves to tell. He is described as the classic underachieving but brilliant kid who never wanted to do the hard work but got by on his big brain and gumption and sassiness and whatever. And he saw something that nobody else saw, and he decided to stick it to the man at the big firm and go rogue and make his own fortune, and blah blah blah blah.... How many times have we heard this story before?

But I know what you're thinking; this guy's rich! He must have some long history of success to be eligible for such hagiography from the august Atlantic. Here you go.
As it happened, AQR had started just months before Long-Term Capital blew up (and needed to be rescued), and in the midst of the Internet bubble, when anything related to the Web seemed to double or triple in price overnight. It was a world of irrational momentum, an environment that could not have been worse for Asness's investing style. In 1999, AQR owned a bunch of seemingly undervalued stocks, in businesses like banking and manufacturing, while holding short positions on seemingly overpriced tech stocks. The firm was getting killed, bringing to mind Keynes's famous observation that the market "can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent."

Within AQR's first 20 months, its $1 billion fund was reduced to $400 million. The firm was near complete collapse, but Asness fought hard to keep it alive. He added to his value investments as the bubble inflated and kept his short positions in place, with the hope that he could capitalize when it popped. He met repeatedly with investors, and argued that he would be proved correct once the hysteria subsided. And indeed, things soon turned around. From 2000 to 2002, in a bear market, AQR "made a ton of money," Asness said, and then for the next few years "made decent money" in a generally bull market. The firm nearly lost it all again in the August 2007 fiasco, and suffered along with everyone else during the financial crisis the following year. But because AQR was now more diversified--with products ranging from mutual funds for small investors to a variety of funds available only to sophisticated institutional investors--the threat to its existence was not nearly what it had been in 1999.
If your great accomplishment over eight years is "reducing the threat to your firm's very existence," you sure sound like the kind of Wall Street wizard we all want determining the future of our economy, am I right? What a record of proven results! You'll also note a really important part of how we the media talks about the markets: still, despite it all, irrationality in the markets is seen as some unusual and temporary phenomenon. There's no consideration here that the Internet bubble could be the expression of the market's fundamental tendency to an ever-more-violent bubble and bust cycle.

Here's the part where I get really mad, though.
Such losses can be fatal for fund managers like AQR, since sophisticated investors pay them big fees for exceptional performance and, understandably, have little patience for anything less. As AQR's founders felt the tremors from Wall Street rippling through their offices, Asness said, "we worried about the stability of the financial sector, the stability of the economy, and the stability of society." To Bloomberg Markets magazine, last fall, he was even more explicit: "I heard the Valkyries circling. I saw the Grim Reaper at my door."

Yet they survived.
 It's demonstrably untrue that these big time financial types live on the razor's edge of risk. That's a totally discredited notion, but one that persists. There are seemingly no consequences for people working in Wall Street. No matter how much damage they do, or how complicit they are in actions that wreak havoc on our economy and cause massive human suffering, they always fall upward. The word that really bothers me here is "survived." Now, I've never been the editor at a fancy magazine, but I'd like to think that one thing any editors can agree on is that words have meaning. And in this context, where so many Americans have been in situations where they might worry about Valkyries and the Grim Reaper, this is pretty inexcusable. Asness is described in the piece as having a personal fortune of $500 million. That's not surviving.

So this is the hot new investing mechanism, and it's where billions of dollars are going, and it's insufficiently regulated, and the people pushing it all have a stake in the game, and nobody is 100% sure if it will really work in the long run, and the interested parties have too much money for our political process to be able to rein it all in. It's just business as usual. You don't have to be Trotsky to look at our society and see that our relationship with the financial class is terribly and permanently broken. We are incapable of disciplining these people. There's apparently no series of events that can compel change in this arena. And so the boat we're all on together hurtles down the river.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

correction

Is Ulysses overrated?
No.

It is a work of incredible genius?
Yes.

Does its critics resorting to the old "you don't really like this" canard demonstrate the emptiness of their critique?
Yes.

Has Ulysses endured?
Yes.

Will it continue to endure?
Yes.

Will it still be read 100 years from now?
Yes.

Will anyone remember its many critics 100 years from now?
No.

Is that a fair and relevant question?
It's the only question.

it only takes one reason

I am not looking forward to the next election cycle. I mean, I think everybody hates election exhaustion. But this will be an exceptionally trying time for anyone who believes that America should have better alternatives than a center-right party and a right-right party.  The "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists" certainty of those who insist that anyone on the left has to vote for Obama is already getting ginned up.

(You've got to hand it Balloon Juice: no other blog in history has been so adept at perfectly defining bullshit and how it operates, and then turning around and engaging in precisely that kind of bullshit. A fun game you can play with Balloon Juice is to go through its wonderful lexicon, then turn to the posts on the front page and see how many of them are guilty of the sins the lexicon identifies.)

The Balloon Juice crew has been holding Andrew Sullivan's feet to the fire over the absurd Ryan budget, which is important, but holy moly. I would give that a good fisking but honestly it's all too wearying. Suffice is to say that this kind of discourse-politicing argument is going to become increasingly commonplace, until "YOU MUST VOTE FOR OBAMA" will become a mantra in the progressive blogosphere. Get used to it.

I'm sure I'll articulate why I can't support Barack Obama for the presidency in 2012 at great length in the future. In the meantime, at this particular moment, I'll just express one argument that by itself is sufficient for me to walk away from Hope and Change. I went to see Glenn Greenwald speak this past week, which was excellent. And in his discussion I had a moment of simple awe, as I remembered, and then finally really wrapped my head around, the fact that the Obama administration has asserted its right to murder American citizens with absolutely no due process or review of law at all. I mean, really think about that, for a little. What civil liberties can really remain at all, if the government retains the right to kill you at its whim? None of the rights enumerated in our constitution matter one bit if the government can simply murder you without cause or review. The police need a warrant to search my glove compartment if it's locked; the executive can send an agent to put a bullet in the back of my head completely with impunity.

This is a decision made and announced by fiat by the Obama administration. As Congress has abandoned any interest at all in protecting civil liberties, those issues are especially damning to the President. For that reason alone-- not even just civil liberties, but that one issue, the assertion of a universal and unchecked right to assassination-- I would never support the Obama candidacy. That alone, for me, is enough.

Update: It's been credibly argued to me in a back and forth with an emailer that it's stupid and counterproductive of me to talk about Balloon Juice as a whole when I'm responding to a post by a particular member. (She was much more polite than that, but that was her point.) So I apologize for that.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

non-rhetorical questions and out of control abstraction

One thing that I hope the Ryan budget opens up a dialogue about is my old formulation of the fundamental liberal question: what comes next? In other words, let's say the Ryan budget were to pass. What would it mean, concretely, in terms of programs cut is an interesting and important question. But the really important question is, what then? And the difficulty is that when asked specifically, this question is either taken as rhetorical (and frequently as emotional or unfair), or is answered with a great deal of abstraction.

Here's what I mean. Consider cutting SNAP benefits. Cutting SNAP benefits leads to more hungry children. Yet pointing out that consequence is consistently regarded as a blood libel, or crossing the line, or not engaging in substantive! respectful! debate! This is why I talk so much about the tyranny of social relationships in political commentary. It's considered out of bounds to say things like "your proposal leads to hungry kids," but cutting SNAP benefits leads to hungry kids. It just does. The thing is that when you're stamping around talking about the unfairness of the question, you aren't answering it.

The other alternative to treating such a question as rhetorical and insulting is to wax abstract. "Ah, well, getting our financial house in order means shared sacrifice...." And their eyes sort of roll back and they are lost in the world of abstraction. But hungry kids are strikingly non-theoretical. Just like, for example, homeless senior citizens or seniors who can't afford medical care without which they will die are strikingly non-theoretical. So, what will we do about them in the future? Let's complete remove any moral considerations here. Let's not even consider what these people deserve and what we think they should get. Let's just get to practical concerns. Look, letting Grandma live in the alley is an option. That could happen. Just like hundreds of thousands of kids not getting nearly the nutrition they need is an option. I'm just asking if we're cool with it. When you have the dorm room conversation with the Randian about whether we should literally let people die in the street, you've got to insist on the practical problems (do we just let the corpses pile up? do we pay teenagers to push around a cart?) as well as the moral problems.

Think that this isn't a realistic line of questioning, talking about hungry kids and homeless seniors and unemployed people turning to crime? Peep these numbers and really think about it. Forgive the large block quote here-- this is from the CBO's letter on the Ryan plan:
The path for all other federal spending excluding interest—that is, for discretionary spending and mandatory spending apart from that for Social Security and the major mandatory health care programs—was specified by Chairman Ryan’s staff. The remaining part of mandatory spending includes such programs as federal civilian and military retirement, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unemployment compensation, Supplemental Security Income, the refundable portion of the earned income and child tax credits, and most veterans’ programs. Discretionary spending includes both defense spending and nondefense spending—in roughly equal amounts currently. That combination of other mandatory and discretionary spending was specified to decline from 12 percent of GDP in 2010 to about 6 percent in 2021 and then move in line with the GDP price deflator beginning in 2022, which would generate a further decline relative to GDP. No proposals were specified that would generate that path.
Think about that for a little bit. All non-Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid spending reducing at that rate in that amount of time. These aren't deep cuts. These aren't harsh cuts. These are transformative cuts. And they will have consequences that are going to be, frankly, crazy. (I'm really going to enjoy watching the Republicans cut military pensions. Should be a winner.)

But abstraction will survive. The pundits, journalist, politicos, bloggers, and so on who advocate these cuts aren't the people who will live with the consequences. It's one of the most persistent and most vexing problems with our democracy: both the politicians in our country and the people who report and comment on them live in an entirely different economic station from the average American. David Brooks will never go to some poor hungry child's home and look the kid in the eye and praise Paul Ryan's toughness. He's not going to be forced to live with the day in, day out consequences of cutting unemployment benefits for millions of people. Nobody's going to be calling him, begging him to watch their kids for a couple hours because they can't afford day care anymore. Meanwhile, he and others like him will live in the world of abstraction, where the pleasant lies of metaphor shield them from a cruelly literal world.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

the real litmus test for Republican seriousness

"Serious" is a word that has been so denuded of content that I'm tempted to not even try and rehabilitate it. However, since we're debating this concept so fiercely regarding the Ryan Ripoff, I'd like to propose one litmus test for whether a Republican proposal represents toughness or seriousness, etc., in the way people mean it does: its orientation towards tax cuts on the wealthy. People keep saying, again and again, that this plan "touches the third rail" by proposing entitlement cuts. No it does not. The third rail for Republicans is raising taxes on the wealthy. And what does the Ryan budget do? It not only doesn't raise taxes on the rich, it cuts them. Among all the talk of shared sacrifice, with all the insistence that we've got to "get tough" and suffer together, on and on, it cuts taxes on the rich.

This is what has made so many conservative commentators so frustrating on this issue: they keep praising it for making touch choices when the choices are only tough on constituencies Republicans don't give a shit about, and for being tough in cutting things when what is being cut are things Republicans don't give a shit about. You want me to buy into claims of seriousness or toughness? Take on the actual power base of the Republican party and abandon the tax-cuts-for-the-rich orthodoxy. Then you can talk about toughness and seriousness. But, of course, you'll likely see no such proposal.

A Republican proposal that cuts taxes on the rich and cuts support for the poor is being called post partisan, gutsy, a new turn, revolutionary.... Bogus.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

seriousness and honesty are only conditionally virtues

I'm not going to say much about the Ryan budget, as it isn't my jam, but I want to point something out.

Ross Douthat, putting his most Very Serious hat on:
George W. Bush touched the third rail of American politics with his Social Security gambit, and lived to regret it. With their proposal to transform Medicare from an open-ended entitlement to a system that provides support for seniors’ premiums, Ryan and the Republicans are reaching out and grabbing it with both hands. In the process, they are being brutally honest with the American people, in ways that the Obama White House has repeatedly refused to be, about the scale of the deficit challenge and the scope of the reforms needed to address it.
Be prepared to hear tons like this in the coming weeks. This is a narrative that the mainstream media goes orgasmic over: talk of "toughness," "courage," "honesty," etc, in someone making a proposal that will anger a favored political constituency-- never mind that the people who Paul Ryan is getting tough on here are poor people, who are actually powerless. (The media particularly likes these getting tough measures when, as is the case for Ross Douthat and the political class writ large, they will not actually be asked to suffer at all, given their elevated economic station.)

But here's what you must remember, amid all of the inevitable talk about toughness and moxy and courage and gusto and whatever else: courage, honesty, seriousness, and assorted other pieces of vague praise are meaningless when married to bad policy. Being honest and being tough about your priorities are the opposite of virtues when those priorities are bad for the country and the majority of its people. It's the absolute worst kind of politico bullshit to act as though honesty qua honesty or toughness qua toughness matter when they are addressing a terrible policy.

I'll invite you to read Matt Yglesias or TAPPED's posts from the past day to get a good handle on the fundamental issues with Ryan's budget, as those folks are far better at writing about domestic policy than I am. What we absolutely have to insist on when discussing this budget moving forward is to point out what it represents: it is yet another attempt by conservatives and Republicans to speed even more resources towards the rich and away from the poor. Period, full stop, thanks for playing, enjoy the home game. Now, you might rightly wonder why someone would draft this immense document for achieving such a purpose, because at the behest of the conservative movement, we have done exactly that-- robbed from the middle class and poor to pay the rich-- for 30 years. Paul Ryan's budget hurts the poor in order to make things better for the rich. That's what it does. That's what it's intended to do. How could Ross Douthat support such a thing, when we have been traveling that road for decades?

I will quote Kevin Drum:
Years ago I remember a lot of moderate liberals talking about how the Bush era radicalized them. For me, it was the economic collapse of 2008 that did it. The financial industry almost literally came within a hair's breadth of destroying the world, but even so it took only a few short months for them to close ranks with Republicans and the rich to prevent anything serious being done to rein them in. Profits are back up, new regulations are barely more than window dressing, nothing was done to help underwater homeowners, bonuses are as obscene as ever, unemployment remains sky high, and the public has somehow been convinced that this was all their own fault — or perhaps the fault of big government, or big deficits, or something. But the finance industry has escaped almost entirely unscathed. It's mind boggling. If this doesn't change your view of who really runs the world, I don't know what would.
You'll note that this is merely one of the more recent and more damning examples, our total inability or refusal to discipline the financial sector being merely the razor's edge of our insane, endless push to better the wealthiest at the expense of everyone else. Decades of policy attend to the same goal. What I would ask Paul Ryan if I didn't know that he is a shameless fraud or Ross Douthat if I could reach him is, where is the limit? Is there truly no end to our efforts to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted? When does shame finally set in?

Douthat says, "Whatever you think of what the House Republicans are proposing, it’s the antithesis of politics as usual." No, Ross. It's the epitome of the politics as usual; it's an attack on those with no agency to defend themselves, celebrated for bullshit DC-insider code words like "tough" and "courageous" that mean nothing compared to the actual effects of the policy. Only someone looking down from the rarefied air of the NYT op/ed page-- financially secure, in possession of good health insurance, disconnected, unaffected by the proposed policy, and as deep in the bubble as one can go-- could call it anything else than politics as usual.

Update: To wit.

Monday, April 4, 2011

all by yourself

Duchamp, as captured by Man Ray
In his wonderful book Birth of the Cool, Lewis MacAdams writes, "Marcel Duchamp was spare, brilliant, detached, ascetic, easygoing, incorruptible, and great looking." In Duchamp, artistic genius, remarkable self-possession, and almost impossible personal style came together. If you admire the things that Duchamp stood for-- values before possessions, aesthetics before economics, the avant garde, nonconformity, detachment from material success, the rejection of the traditional, play as the heart of the artistic impulse, and in the words of MacAdams, the "studied indifference to the vagaries of fate"-- he seems tailor made for aesthetic heroism.

It's there that I look, to the past for heroes, because I take it and have always taken it as self-evident that I have and will find no community. I have plenty of friends, but politically, I am an orphan.

I can't imagine what it would be like to not feel that everything is wrong. I can't imagine what it would be like to not feel alienated from the great mass of the human race. I can't imagine what it would be like to spend a day reading online and to not feel, again and again, that nearly everyone is mistaken about nearly everything. I'm not looking for sympathy, at all. I'm just saying that this is my condition, and it's a condition necessarily shared not by a large percentage of all people but still by a lot of people.

This is a world that is not of my making and one which reminds me, every day, of this fact. Of the innumerable myths that the Internet tells about itself, perhaps the biggest is that the Internet brings people together and in so doing cures loneliness. The Internet is a profoundly lonely place. Human beings cure loneliness; their ideas cause it. I find something almost tragic about how we interact online. I have met and connected with so many great people. Occasionally those connections deepen. Often they don't, but are perfect as they are. I have also often run aground on the inability of electronic media to convey the emotional reality that is necessary to understand others and to be understood. There doesn't appear to be much rhyme or reason to when you get one or the other. I often long for the corporeal reality of person to person conversation when I'm arguing online. I don't think that we'll agree to everything, if we meet in real life, but I sometimes think "if I could only speak to this person, at least we could understand each other." There is such potential in physicality and presence. Physical interaction is not necessary in human contact, often not even desirable, but the opportunity for it-- for sex, for a fistfight, for casually laying your hand on a shoulder as you pass by on the way to the bar-- the opportunity is everything. Perhaps you see what I mean.

Paradoxically, what I find more and more is that the Internet is a place for people to affirm and support each other. It's as if the understanding of the fundamental weakness of these electronic proxies to represent human connection causes people to push for it more and more. And this could be beautiful. But it can also be dangerous. Because of the depth of the loneliness, I blame no one for how they interact and connect with others online. I just worry. I worry about the urge towards conformity. I worry about Twitter. I worry that all of those retweets and all of those "right on"s contribute to a kind of coarse postmodernism, where what the truth becomes what is most agreed on. I worry that dissent is confused with a lack of etiquette. And I particularly worry about the echo chamber effect, and the way that small groups of people who are just like each other can come to think of themselves as representing the opinions of everyone. On the Internet, we all make the world in our own image.

Duchamp, of course, had genius. I have only Duchamp, and Dorothy Day, and Eugene Debs, and Rainer Maria Rilke, and Simone de Beauvoir, and D. Boon.

Pushing people away should never be an end, but sometimes it is a necessary means to the end of being independent. Friendship is great, and I would never argue against it. I'm not saying be alone to be alone. I'm saying be prepared to stand alone, and to recognize that standing against everyone can be a position of righteousness. Make friends whenever you can, but when you need to, stand alone. Friends will understand. They'll probably dig it. And even being wrong isn't the worst thing in the world.

You can't be scared of being alone; you've got to view consensus as the possibility of corruption and ridicule as evidence that you're on to something. You've got to match the weight of the agreement of affinity groups with the power of your belief in yourself. You must respond to the bullying of crowds with the studied rejection of needing a crowd. You've got to be singular, you've got to be irresolute, and when necessary, you've got to be defiant.

The pressure, online, will always be to tack towards the crowd, and people will look endlessly towards their peers-- not intending to undermine the individual voice, but getting there, often, anyway. Don't get judgmental about it, but keep saying your piece. In the tenor of the single voice, you can find strength, and if you keep saying what you think is true, in spite of it all, you will find what is incorruptible in yourself.

straight fire

Forgive me for a post so bereft of content, but this is Greenwald, absolutely ripping it. Uncompromising and righteous.

failing students drop classes

This is a small bore point, but important, I think. The endless debate about grade inflation is almost silent on the fact that part of grade inflation, and I'd wager a big part, is that students who are failing drop their courses, and those Ws don't affect their GPAs or the overall GPAs of the school, professor, or department in question. At most universities, students can withdraw from a class without it appearing on their transcript through the first couple weeks of classes, withdraw and have a W appear on their transcript within the first half or so of the course, and in some places, withdraw with a W with the permission of the instructor, chairperson, and dean. Typically, Ws don't factor into a student's GPA.

Now, perhaps you feel that the academy is too generous with how late it allows students to withdraw from courses, and you might make a compelling argument. But you're arguing something very different from arguing against grade inflation. While a W doesn't hurt a student's GPA, meanwhile, it means that the student hasn't earned those credits, and more than a few Ws is typically seen as very damaging for a grad school application.

If a professor has made his or her grading criteria clear, then students should have a pretty good handle on whether or not they are going to pass the class. It's very common for the worst performing students to drop rather than take the F. This artificially inflates GPAs, but doesn't reflect on lower standards for a professor, university, or the academy as a whole. Quite the opposite. To not discuss this facet of the issue is distorting and frankly irresponsible.

I know two things about grade inflation: one, it isn't mathematically significant when it comes to separating student performance. It's just not. The second thing I know is that everyone believes in grade inflation, but nobody believes that their own grades were inflated. That should tell you something.

Friday, April 1, 2011

reason for optimism

Forgive me for just piggybacking on his point, but I want to echo Ross Douthat (and others) in saying that the recent high-profile defections from the Qaddafi government are heartening. Let's be brutally realistic: it's entirely possible that individual defectors will have no practical impact on the strength of the Qaddafi regime, and it's also very possible that a collapsing Qaddafi government could lead to a whole host of problems. (There's no guarantee, and there never has been, that rebel victory won't eventually turn to civil war due to divisions within that temporary alliance, or to the installation of a new autocratic government.)

But my greatest hope in a tragic situation has been and continues to be that the Qaddafi regime collapses internally, whether from his deciding to flee in the face of uncertainty, or from his military/advisers/inner circle deciding to push him out themselves. Perhaps then the infrastructure of civil society could be preserved while the monstrous governing party is pushed out in favor of a new government. It's a dim hope, with much that could go wrong, and we won't really know what the long term consequences of such a thing would be for many years, but it's worth hoping for.

If the Qaddafi government does somehow come to fall out of power, all people of conscience-- realists, liberal hawks, non-interventionists, neoconservatives, and all flavors in between-- have to be adamant: no American "influence" of the new government. No installation of friendly leadership, no de facto choosing sides with providing arms or money to favored actors within Libya, none of the endless machinations by our intelligence service of internal Libyan affairs. It's precisely that kind of flagrantly anti-democratic action that has so poisoned our reputation in that part of the world. We've got to hold their feet to the fire, and I expect every supporter of intervention to loudly insist that the United States not interfere in the formation of a new Libyan government. Look, you know my mind on this issue: I want no interference of any kind from the US. But certainly, the US backing off completely from Libyans forming a new government is something almost all of us can agree upon, if it gets to that point.

There's never been any contradiction between wishing for new government in Libya and refusing to advocate killing undertaken towards that purpose.

For now, of course, this talk is purely speculative.

today in unfortunate yet amazing errors, Freddie edition

So if you look down at my last post, you'll see a link under "constant violence." This was supposed to be a link to this piece from the NYT, which details the nature of current violence in Iraq. Unfortunately, it isn't. I'm part of that generation which has had its collective mind warped by the Internet who can't do one thing at a time, but has to have twelve tabs going with three different writing projects at once. I was sending a friend an IM, and I intended to send the link that ended up being attached to "constant violence" to her, and to attach the NYT link to "constant violence" in that post. And, well, I failed.

Now, if you click that link, you'll find that it's a particularly unhappy mix, as violence in Iraq is of course the most serious business. I really regret the error.

The open question is whether the link I sent in the IM-- which I preceded by saying "this is hilarious"-- is the one I had intended, or the NYT link about Iraqi violence. Chances are it's the link from the LA Weekly and I just used both by accident, but I'm afraid there's a chance it was the link from the NYT.

She hasn't gotten back to me since.