September 19, 2014

Well that was a whirlwind twenty-four hours spent obsessing about another nation's government.  But the voters have spoken, and it's nae all the way.  (Though Prime Minister Cameron's remarks on the issue are not so much victory lap as hints at a very different, decentralized United Kingdom.  Interesting.)

And even though the story's done and the rabbit didn't die, I did receive a bit of correspondence from an old pal in London, a learned man who wishes to remain anonymous, which I quote in full:

Alan Cummings' comments are about spot-on.

And the Scots are in a position to do something about it. Labour voters who fear they'll not be represented by the toffs in Westminster are very likely to opt for a solution where they CAN vote a government in.

If the Scots leave, it will only exacerbate similar feelings in the north of England, where Tory deindustrialisation has destroyed communities.

Even if the vote goes in favour of the union, the debate across Britain may well grow, although that's just the view of this optimistic lefty.

In reality, UK politics is adrift as the political class has become a profession in its own right, with the Camerons, Cleggs and Milibands emerging straight from college into party duty and election.

There was a time when the seats of the Commons were filled by Doctors; Teachers; Lawyers; Industrialists; Trade Unionists and Loose radicals who had all worked for a living. In fact, those elected up until I reached my adult years were the product of the war.

One of my favourite quotes of all time was that of Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, who was asked about his time in the darkest hours of the seventies, when he had to devalue sterling and take the begging bowl to the world bank. The interviewer asked about the stress levels he must have faced. Healey, never known to self-doubt, scoffed at the suggestion. "Stress?" he barked "Stress? You're talking to the beach commander at Anzio!"

Scotland is not anti-English, but anti-Westminster. The people of Scotland do not feel they are represented, and they are reacting in a perfectly rational way.

And now we've all learned a little something about our friendly neighbors across the pond.  And maybe it's unfair of me to single out the Tories; it seems that the entire political class is to blame.

Now go wait in line for an iPhone or Talk Like a Pirate or whatever it is you people do to while away the endless stream of days.

Posted at 10:01 AM

September 18, 2014

There's a really interesting thing about today's vote for Scottish independence (or, alternately, the preservation of the United Kingdom).  Well, two interesting things, the first being that I'm kind of not sure how I'd vote, which is odd for me?  Then again, I'm not exactly a Scot either.

But the actually interesting thing about this is that, from what I've read, it seems that the primary motivation for the Scots that want to be free of the UK (aside from that urge for "independence" that Americans assume is genetic) is an utter loathing of the Tories.  I can't really link every thing I've read that leads me to this conclusion, but start with today's op-ed from Alan Cumming.

This is not about hating the English. It is about democracy and self-determination. Scotland is weary of being ruled by governments it did not vote for. The Conservative Party has virtually no democratic mandate in Scotland, yet too often, Scotland has been ruled by a draconian Tory government from London...

Sixteen years on, the differences between the basic tenets of Scotland and those of its southern neighbors are palpable: Unlike the rest of Britain, Scots still enjoy free higher education and free medical prescriptions. Even as parts of the National Health Service south of the border have been dismantled or privatized, Scotland's is still intact and prized. There is an exceptional commitment to the arts, too -- most visibly with the formation of the National Theater of Scotland.

Yes, this is about self-determination, but it is also totally political.  Everything that the Conservatives stand for — dismantling of public services, privatization, austerity, free-market fundamentalism — are things that are loathed in Scotland.  This is an ideological conflict, and, if it goes through (and I think I'm starting to lean Yes?), a big old slap in the face of Chicago school neoliberalism.

And there is something quite jarring seeing the Tory government of David Cameron, knowing full well that their mere existence fuels the independence movement, bending over backwards to potentially grant Scotland some very non-Tory concessions should they vote no.  I mean, wouldn't a committed ideologue stand fast to principle?  It's almost like that time in the late 80s when the world began to agree that yes, pro wrestling is fake.  The Tories are breaking kayfabe, implicitly admitting that their policies are cynical ploys to redistribute wealth upwards.

Well, I guess we'll know by dinner time, right?

Posted at 10:01 AM

September 16, 2014

If I had all the time in the world (spoiler alert: I don't have all the time in the world, I would snuggle myself up into a nice economic-justice beat like Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, who constantly writing about the kinds of stuff that I wish I was writing about.  For example, this short piece on one of Nolan's favorite targets, hedge funds:
The people who will continue to defend hedge funds are either A) People who have something to gain, such as hedge fund employees; B) People who have themselves invested in hedge funds, and are holding out hope that they will be the ones to beat the odds and strike it rich, much like lottery players hold out hope of finding the unlikely winning ticket; or C) People who do not know what they're talking about.

Yes, like that.

It's a small item, concerning CALPERS, the largest pension fund in America, who has decided to pull all of its investments from hedge funds, on account of hedge funds being a not-so-intricate scam designed to extract equity from the economy and consolidate it in the hands of a couple people who don't even pay proper taxes on it.  I.e., CALPERS decided that their investments would no longer be dumb money.

And it's not a long piece, but Nolan hammers away, and seeing his headlines interspersed with some of the other TMZ-chasing that you'll see on Gawker gives you hope that some of these issues (hedge funds, Walmart's treatment of employees, etc.) are penetrating the Zeitgeist.

Posted at 12:28 PM

September 11, 2014

Thirteen years is a long time ago.  In fact, I got a bunch of friends that were in high school thirteen years ago, or even middle school.  So yes, it is a very long time ago, but lemme tell you, there was a hot second thirteen years ago (that actually lasted a month or two) when it was impossible to conceive that there was gonna be another thirteen years.  And sure I'm was a sensitive kid and now I'm a sensitive geezer, hey, it was a shitty day!

And people all over the planet have shittier days on a daily basis, and all sorts of NYers had a shittier day than I did way back when, and lo! this is the twelfth time I'm doing this!  And I know that the day will be filled with ill-advised grief-marketing and endless where-were-you-when stories and also a bunch of irreverence bordering on cruelty.  Pretty sure I've been guilty of the last two of those.

But we're lucky to be here, you know?

Posted at 10:13 AM

September 9, 2014

It's baby election day!

Well, here in the State of New York, it's primary day — which, and not to wander too far afield here, I will always conflate with 9/11, because that too was a primary day, which primary had to be rescheduled (duh) and is probably a proximate cause for Mike Bloomberg's umpteen years as Hizzoner.

But today's a good primary day, because it's a chance for people of good conscience to give our incumbent governor, Andrew Cuomo, a shot across the bow.

There is very little chance that Cuomo will not win today against his challenger, Zephyr Teachout, a Columbia professor.  But aside from the policies of Cuomo that I find distasteful (charter school support, trickle down economic policies, casinos, fracking), Cuomo has just been a total dick about the primary.  He (or his surrogates, of course) unsuccessfully sued to get her off the ballot, he refuses to so much as say her name let alone debate her, and he went so far as to run and hide from her at a parade on Saturday.  This assholery is indicative of the Nixonian way that he runs Albany.  He needs some egg to wipe off his face.

And, quite frankly, assuming he wins today, he has a long way to go to win me back.  It's a lot of good will burnt, and I will not be used as a liberal strawman for him to bully so that he can keep hopes of running for president alive.  And as far as that goes: good luck with that, pal.

And in addition to these unsavory qualities the current governor possesses, there is the overview of the insidiousness of the process (as pointed out by Lawrence Lessig): Teachout is marginalized not because she is a neophyte or a woman, but because she has not fully participated in the process — that is to say, she has not solicited and obtained millions of dollars of "campaign finance."

And yes, I voted.  In fact, I got a sticker.

Posted at 9:57 AM

September 4, 2014

This nice piece by Heather Cox Richardson is a stunner of an historical context of the modern Republican Party in the guise of an op-ed.  Her premise is that the GOP actually has a long and storied history of broad appeal and populist policies, under Lincoln, Roosevelt (Teddy) and Eisenhower.

It's a scholarly look back (Richardson has a book on the history of the GOP coming out), and it ends with a sucker punch to the kidneys:

Twice in its history, the Republican Party regained its direction and popularity after similar disasters by returning to its original defense of widespread individual economic success. The same rebranding is possible today, if Republicans demote Reagan from hero to history and rally to a leader like Lincoln, Roosevelt or Eisenhower -- someone who believes that the government should promote economic opportunity rather than protect the rich.

It's one of those things that's a bit of a shock — before Reagan, Republicans has a history of using government to implement the public good, and are partially responsible for things like public universities, income tax and and publicly funded infrastructure.  Oh!  And ending slavery.  And yet now they are a bunch of vicious, crypto-racist sock-puppets bought and sold by whoever can afford to buy them TV ads.

And in this context the Reagan "revolution" was not so much the ascension of the Reagan Republican as it was the final victory of the wealthy in controlling government policy.

It all sounds so Koch brothers, doesn't it?

Posted at 10:11 AM

September 3, 2014

So yeah the awful that was August 2014 is now leaking into September.  Super.  We're learning to love the awful.

So here's some distracting comedy from the second most arrogant governor on the Eastern Seaboard, Chris Christie, as he works on his foreign policy chops:

It was not, according to several of those in attendance, a tough or unexpected inquiry. But Mr. Christie, usually known for his oratorical sure-footedness, offered a wobbly reply, displaying little grasp of the facts and claiming that if he were in charge, Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, would know better than to mess with him.

According to an audio recording of the event, he said Mr. Putin had taken the measure of Mr. Obama. "I don't believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment," Mr. Christie said. "Let's leave it at that."

That to my knowledge is absolutely unique in the history of American politics: a potential candidate counting his bullying as a qualifying argument for the presidency.

And I know I know, Lyndon B. Johnson, but I don't recall President Johnson ever shutting down a bridge to send a shot across the bow of some first-term podunk Representative.

Chris Christie is a living monument to his own self-regard.  Whatever.

Oh, and who's the first most arrogant governor on the Eastern Seaboard?  How about everyone just vote for Zephyr Teachout next Tuesday.  Let's just leave it at that.

Posted at 9:21 AM

September 1, 2014

So this iteration of this blog has been around for ten years give or take, which means ten times, give or take, that I've had the chance to say something cheeky about Labor Day.  You know, the day that we celebrate working by not working, the day that Republicans celebrate labor by toasting those who bust unions, bla bla bla.

Here's the thing.  It's nice to have a holiday, and it's nice to go through the motions to honor the American worker, but these days there isn't a much more exploited commodity than the American worker.  The few interests that actually directly employ their workforce do so in a way as to avoid granting them things like full-time employment and benefits that come with it (see Walmart and Starbucks).  Meanwhile the rest of American industry has adopted a model of "efficiency," under which every conceivable function of labor is contracted and subcontracted out until the workforce is nothing but a bunch of permatemps who are hired and fired at will.

Basically, "efficiency" is as deadly a threat to the middle class as anything, as it by definition marginalizes the workforce.

Of course there's dribs and drabs of good news.  The Labor Department is pushing back against the concept that franchise employees have no recourse against the actual franchises, and "wage theft" is now an actual phrase that carries meaning now, so that's good.

But, aside from being awesome to each other, if you really want to recognize Labor Day, read this from last year — Ken Layne explaining how Labor Day has been and is a scam to keep you poor and miserable.

Make sure to finish it before you go back to work tomorrow.

Posted at 12:28 PM

August 29, 2014

There's a paragraph that caught my eye in this profile of White House chef and friend-of-Barry Sam Kass by Jennifer Steinhauer.  (Which is a very nice profile of an interesting fellow who I guess talks to the plants in the White House garden?)  Paragraph follows:
At the same time, he has helped to popularize a way of eating embraced by moneyed urban foodies. Just as the first lady's fashion choices and toned biceps permeate the consciousness of the country, Mrs. Obama and Mr. Kass have taken organic gardening and the whole-wheat-ification of grilled cheese sandwiches mainstream.

Hmm now.  There's a bit of a backhand in the phrase "moneyed urban foodies" but let's think about that for a second.  Obviously, our relationship to cooking and eating has evolved in the past fifteen years or so.  And yes, from my (urban) perspective, there is a particularly focused sort of person that has become prevalent enough to become a stereotype — one that I call a gastrohipster.  But is this phenomenon restricted to just the moneyed (which means what exactly?) and just urban areas?

I don't get out of the city much, but on the other hand, I read a lot, and a lot of what I read is what you would call food journalism.  From the national monthlies like F&W and Bon App to the estimable journal Lucky Peach to whatever bloggy thing I can get my hands on.  And from this I do know that, while there may be a certain expense to entrĂ©e into the gastrohipster world, it is by no means limited to urban areas.  There are the back-to-the-earthers and the new-distillers and the reclaimed-barn-restos and they are scattered across the land.  The whole-wheat-ification is not limited to Brooklyn and its rivals.

But now, is this a case of causation on the part of Kass?  I mean, can you argue that the rise of the gastrohipster is because Kass popularized new cooking/eating trends, as did Jackie Kennedy for pillbox hats?

I have to say, I don't think so.  Whatever the polite term is being used for this Gastrohipster era, it is generally agreed that, while its roots go back to Alice Waters in SF, the inciting incident was David Chang opening Momofuko in 2003, which is well before Kass ascended to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  More likely Kass is a product of this lifestyle change, or even that everything is related and happening simultaneously without any knowledge of the other.

And for the record, even though I'm a bit of a dick about pretension and preciousness that can happen sometimes in cuisine, the more that take care in what we eat, the better it is for everyone.  So thanks to Sam Kass for his efforts in any event.

Posted at 10:05 AM

August 28, 2014

I have a crazy neighbor.  He lives on the same floor as I do.  We call him Gilligan, because he is spindly and wears a roll-up bucket hat.  He hides in the stairwells like Gollum.  He has been known to threaten dogs with tiny crowbars.  And sometime overnight, he taped xeroxes of this note up and down my floor and the floor below.  I'm transcribing it for your edification:


[Illustration of some stairs and a bathroom door.]


This is not his first public notice (the last one was more focused on the bowel trouble, adding the additional symptom of "sex-death" for the doggies), but I really think he's finding his voice.

Posted at 11:17 AM

August 27, 2014

Call me crazy, but this NY Times where do we go now? concerning the neighborhoods surrounding St. Louis is not only totally harrowing but also does not need the backdrop of the murder of Mike Brown to make it so.

And guess what?  It's totally a story about race:

In Maplewood [thirteen miles from Ferguson], according to a 2013 report by the state attorney general, black motorists were searched or arrested during stops at more than twice the rate of whites. Yet searches of whites and blacks were almost equally likely to turn up contraband. Messages for the police chief in Maplewood were not returned.

In the city of Hazelwood, blacks were twice as likely as whites to be searched during a police stop, and nearly three times as likely to be arrested, while searches of whites were about one and a half times as likely to yield contraband.

An inconvenience, you might say to yourself, or, if you're one of those law & order types, you might even say, the innocent have nothing to hide!  But these traffic stops are more than harassment.  They are actually funding the municipalities.

When a person fails to appear and pay [a routine traffic ticket], here as in many other places, a warrant is issued and that person's license is suspended. In the hodgepodge of cities that make up St. Louis County, some drivers may have multiple warrants. In Ferguson, more than one and a half warrants have been issued for every resident. And as the warrants stack up, so do the fines: Not showing up to pay a $90 taillight violation means a failure-to-appear warrant with its own fee of $100 or more; each successive failure-to-appear warrant adds to that; and if there is a stop, there are incarceration fees and towing fees.

In the end, said Brendan Roediger, an assistant professor at St. Louis University Law School, a person who had trouble coming up with $90 might owe a jurisdiction well over a thousand dollars.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story "The police aren't actually pulling people over to find contraband," he said. "They're pulling people over to see if they have warrants. And they always do. If you run a system that ultimately makes every black person in your town have a warrant, then racial profiling does work."

I know that debtor's prisons are basically back and ruining communities by criminalizing poverty, but this is exponentially worse because these St. Louis County towns are taking the modern-day concept of the debtor's prison — death by a million fines, penalties and service and handling charges — and injecting a racial element into it.

So in places like Maplewood and Hazelwood and Ferguson, not only is it a crime to be black and poor, the sick people in charge found a way to fund the municipalities off it.

Posted at 10:04 AM

August 26, 2014

Since I don't have any particularly useful thoughts at present, let's talk about awards shows!

This may well be a symptom of encroaching senescence, or just a projected crankiness, but I don't like those awards shows, no, not one bit.  Ordinarily an awards show would come and go without me even noticing, but now that I effectuate a portion of my human interaction over the Internet, the awards shows are impossible to miss because they crowd your feed like tribbles on the third day.  So there I am trying to mind my business, and then I get the one-two punch of the VMAs and then the Emmys.  On consecutive nights!

OK, here's the thing: these shows are nothing but self-congratulatory cynical displays of obscene wealth and privilege.  The Emmys, for the TV industry.  The TV industry is a remarkably remunerative profession, and not just for the actors.  It's really hard to get into, and once you get into it, you're largely set for life.  You get to buy a house!  Maybe think about private school for the kids!  And again that's the non-cast.  Actors, especially the ones that are up for awards, make unimaginable piles of money.  Really, TV acting is becoming more lucrative than movie acting.  And sure there are varying levels of skill at all of these positions, and maybe someone is the "best" at something each year.

But why the fuck should we care?  Oh sure we love our TV shows, and we love our constellation of celebrities, but how self-loathing is it to actually celebrate these people for having really nice careers?  I'm not saying that within the industry there shouldn't be a night of such a ceremony, but it kind of breaks my heart to see the amount of public bandwidth being devoted to multi-millionaires who pretend for a living patting each other on the back.

And the VMAs?  What the fuck if "video music" any more?  Sorry, doesn't exist: MTV can't even be bothered to retrofit its glitzy cash cow into proper current context.

I just think that there's something very Stockholm Syndrome about the whole thing.  And I'm sure I'll revisit this at a future date.

Posted at 10:12 AM

August 22, 2014

So I don't know if we're technically in the aftermath of Ferguson (I've a feeling that people in Ferguson would argue that we're not there yet), but no doubt you've seen the spate of stories concerning the gulf between black and white perceptions of the situation and race and all that.

Of all of the thousands of words, I was struck most by this passage from a NY Times story:

In interview after interview, people spoke of white flight from personal experience, ticking off their moves from neighborhood to neighborhood across the northern part of the county as if escaping a flood.

"They always want to stir up to trouble, the blacks," said David Goad, 64, a retired movie projector operator who lives in a neighborhood bordering Ferguson. "I grew up around blacks, so I know how they are," he said. "That's why we had to get out in 1962, because it was getting so bad."

Okay, I get it that race is still an issue in 2014 and another couple decades of dealing with this are needed for us to get in a relatively good place on this, but the fact that a dude would say that out loud to an identified reporter is something that blows my mind.

Yes, I do know people who believe exactly the same thing, but they are aware enough of the unpopularity (though many would blame 'political correctness') that they would never ever say something like that in front of strangers.

So basically we're stuck in 1972.  Save us Archie Bunker!

Posted at 10:08 AM

August 20, 2014

This is odd.

So the one aspect of the controversy over fracking that I've been paying particular attention to has been the unintended consequence of earthquakes.  Burning tap water is fun and all that, but earthquakes, that's something else.  And my impression has been, much like with climate change, that opponents to fracking (present!) are maybe jumping ahead of the science of the issue, and proponents of fracking (oil companies and stupid people) absolutely deny the causal relation no matter what the research says.  So I say, "How many earthquakes is too many earthquakes?" and they respond, "You're a Communist."

So it was a bit of a shock to see this AP article run without so much as a ripple of attention.  This article, you see, is premised on research alleging that fracking earthquakes are not so bad:

Man-made earthquakes, a side effect of some high-tech energy drilling, cause less shaking and in general are about 16 times weaker than natural earthquakes with the same magnitude, a new federal study found.

People feeling the ground move from induced quakes -- those that are not natural, but triggered by injections of wastewater deep underground-- report significantly less shaking than those who experience more normal earthquakes of the same magnitude, according to a study by U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Susan Hough.

A novel argument I guess, and a nearly-direct answer to How many earthquakes are too many earthquakes — three or four, I guess.

But use of the term 'man-made earthquakes' (by the Associated Press, not exactly a bunch of screaming Lefties) means that the fact that fracking causes earthquakes is settled, which is a thing that I did not know happened.

But I'll take it as a small victory.

Posted at 10:41 AM

August 18, 2014

So there's a fascinating thing going on, and I'm wracking my brain to remember if anything like this has ever happened before: we are in the midst of something like Horror Fatigue.

As in, there are so many giant bad dollops of news out there — we've covered this ground before, and seemingly it's about all I can write about these days — that there's room for nothing else.  And each day brings at least one and sometimes multiple outrages/sadnesses and you just start after a while to feel punch drunk.  Giddy, even, though not like you're making jokes like you used to, because it feels like a betrayal of the enormity of the circumstance.

I'm not whining!  If anything there's a novelty to it.  And of course we've been stunned into numbness before, with 9/11 being the obvious example.

But if 9/11 was one horse-sized duck, this summer is the summer of a hundred duck-sized horses.

Posted at 10:50 AM