Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Great American Nightmare

TAPPED Archive | The American Prospect:

Steven Calabresi waxes hysterical and ludicrously implausible: "If Mr. Obama wins we could possibly see any or all of the following: a federal constitutional right to welfare; a federal constitutional mandate of affirmative action wherever there are racial disparities, without regard to proof of discriminatory intent; a right for government-financed abortions through the third trimester of pregnancy; the abolition of capital punishment and the mass freeing of criminal defendants; ruinous shareholder suits against corporate officers and directors; and approval of huge punitive damage awards, like those imposed against tobacco companies, against many legitimate businesses such as those selling fattening food."

The kerfuffle over the New Yorker cover featuring Barak Obama in Muslim garb fist-bumping Michelle in an Angela Davis afro petered out long ago. Latte-swillers were afraid that Joe and the hockey moms would catch a glimpse of it at newsstands and take it seriously. They didn't.

I thought that this cover was a very good idea. There are all kinds of inchoate fears swirling around in people's heads that they never scrutinize and can't quite articulate. Bring them to light, display them clearly, and they're embarrassed: "Do I really believe that Michelle Obama is a terrorist packing an assault weapon? That Barak Obama will hang a picture of Osama Bin Laden over the mantle and burn the American flag? Jeez--I'm an ass."

What we need here is a new Handmaid's Tale displaying, with great clarity, the content of working class conservative's worst nightmares in the way that the original represented the nightmare vision of secular liberals.

Here it is. Legions of Welfare Queens taking advantage of their constitutionally guaranteed right to welfare living high on the hog. You can see it now: the greater part of urban areas turned into boiling slums where the idle poor spend their days sitting on the stoops drinking, playing craps in the streets and driving around in their Cadillacs at the taxpayers expense while near-destitute white people (yup, white) toil at two or three jobs to support them.

Affirmative action gone wild. Small business owners continually monitored, forced to hire representative numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Muslim terrorists. High tech firms employing illiterate black dudes with gold chains and ornamental gold teeth as software engineers to meet their quota, paying them to explore porno sites on the internet.

Government-financed abortions through the third semester: heavily pregnant Welfare Queens queuing up outside Planned Parenthood, where squalling babies are dumped in the trash out back. The mass freeing of criminal defendents: hoards of dangerous criminals pouring out of the prison gates to rape and pillage.

Corporate officers and directors harrassed continually with frivelous lawsuits. Zorba's Greek Buffet of Chula Vista slapped with a multimillion punitive damages suit for moussaka.

That's it, i'n'it? But show them what they believe and they might have second thoughts. Display it Hieronymous Bosch style--the obese Welfare Queens dipping into buckets of Colonel Sanders as they drive around in their Cadillacs and homocidal psychopaths pouring out of prisons to sack American cities as Grand Ayatolla Obama in his turban and Michelle in her afro cheer them on. Reducio.

But maybe I'm wrong. Most people I know took The Handmaid's Tale seriously. They're convinced that there are hoards of Fundamentalists who enjoy vast political power, who could very well take over and would, if they did, establish exactly the sort of regime it portrayed. And I know quite a few people who believe that all Christians are secretly on board with this agenda or are, at the very least, "enablers."

I detest the working class, but I do think they're smarter than this.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Politics and Modality

Is Anybody Happy? - Op-Ed -

Joe the Plumber! Joe is, of course, the conservative guy from northwestern Ohio who told Obama: “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more” because he planned to buy a business that he hoped would reel in more than $250,000 a year in profits. The proper answer, as Obama should have known, was: “No, it won’t.”...Joe the Plumber, it turns out, is actually named Samuel and is not a licensed plumber. He has a lien on his house for unpaid taxes. While his professional life is still a little hazy, there is not much evidence he’s ever going to become a small business owner. And he would be a beneficiary of the Barack Obama tax plan.

So why is Joe/Sam not a rational self-interested chooser?

It depends on what you mean by "self." Sam, a grunt who works for a local handyman outfit, is interested in the well-being of a possible self, Joe the Plumber--his counterpart at another possible world. Lost in logical space, he imagines that he is Joe, a hard working plumber at that possible world, who is about to buy a business that will bring in $250,000 a year. So Sam supports actual world policies that will benefit Joe who is, in a latitudinarian sense, a "self."

This is no more or less rational than Diana-Worship. During Princess Di's brief, inconsequential life millions of fat, working class housewives adored her. It is hard to understand way they didn't resent her. Here was a woman who had everything anyone could possibly want, including immense wealth and the prospect of being Queen of England but was still whining. But instead, lost in logical space, they empathized with her vapors and her silly romantic notions. They had princess-counterparts at other possible worlds and a "self"-interested concern for their well-being.

Maybe that's one of the differences between economic liberals and conservatives. Conservatives are modal optimists. They imagine themselves at possible worlds where they are better off, where their counterparts are rich plumbers or even richer princesses and, out of modal "self"-interest, support policies that would benefit their privileged counterparts even at their own expense. Liberals, like me, are modal pessimists. We obsess over the plight of our unlucky counterparts and promote policies that would benefit them--usually at our own expense.

I never did like Princess Di or have any lively sense of what my taller, slimmer, richer counterparts are up to at their respective possible worlds. But I have a very vivid sense of my unlucky counterparts' lives and constantly spin out their stories in great detail.

I have never gone through a check-out line without imagining what it would be like to be a supermarket checker, trapped in a 2 x 2 space for 8 hours a day, doing endless, boring, repetitive tasks, with no product to show, no possibility of achievement and no way out. When I order stuff on the phone, I imagine being a "customer service representative" locked into a cubicle in a room full of women in cubicles taking phone orders, thinking about ways out. I could go to beauty school at night or take a course to be a medical records clerk, but how much better would that be? Besides, after a day at this job I'm knackered. I go home and cook, clean up, and then all I'm good for is vegging out in front of the TV. I can also easily imagine myself as a data entry operator, trapped in a cubicle inputting meaningless figures. I'm under constant supervision and every keystroke is monitored. There's no way out. The only other jobs I could get are equally bad.

I imagine myself a working class housewife pushed out of the house by my husband, Joe the plumber. "Get your fat ass down to Walmart and get a job, bitch." What can I do? If I leave this jerk I'll be working at Walmart anyway and be poor to boot. I once had options, when I was too young to appreciate them, but I don't any more. I could have gotten better grades in high school, gone to college and got a more interesting job. But I didn't. So now I'm stuck in a life of soul-sucking, mind-killing drudgery and there's no way out--at least not in this possible world: I can still read romance novels, follow the lives of the rich and famous on TV and imagine being Princess Di.

Whose fantasies are more rational? Harsanyi pumps our intuitious about fairness by asking us to imagine ourselves living everyone's life in turn. This is, now that I think of it, a restricted possible worlds fantasy and one that poses some metaphysical difficulties. We are to imagine a range of possible worlds, one for each member of the current population, which are qualitatively exactly similar to the actual world but where we ourselves are different people. Alternatively, we are to imagine ourselves as modal super-persons, transworld merelogical sums of persons at these possible worlds, and ask how the world should be in qualitative terms to make the modal super-person of which we are world-bound parts better off.

This pumps liberal intuitions very effectively because there are ever so many more miserable lives than good ones.

We could imagine it using that the clock metaphor pop science shows use to help us understand geological time: "At 11:30 pm the dinosaurs emerge; at 5 seconds to midnight we have the Industrial Revolution." Imagine: for 12 hours you are an illiterate peasant farmer working to eat and eating to work; for another hour or so you're a member of a hunting and gathering tribe, trudging endlessly through the jungle looking for edible berries and hoping for a large mammal kill so that you can get a little protein and take a rest; for another 3 or 4 hours you're a beggar, prostitute or hustler in an urban slum; for most of the time left you're scanning groceries, inputting data, flipping burgers or working in a call center; for half a minute you're successively a college professor, a lawyer, a dentist and a plumber with a $250,000 a year business; for a nanosecond you're a movie star, a professional athlete, a best-selling author and Princess Di.

For perhaps 5 or 6 hours you're sick and in pain. For most of the day you're physically exhausted. For all but two or three minutes you're engaged in mind-killing drudgery--trapped, constrained, in an agony of boredom.

Harsanyi got it right: this is the version of the Golden Rule that bites. The problem with political conservatives and other Romantics is not a lack of sympathy but a lack of imagination.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Plastic Obama

Op-Ed Columnist - Thinking About Obama -

We’ve been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness...There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious. Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he’s become a homeostasis machine...Obama, the sojourner, seems to go through various situations without being overly touched by them.

What a thoroughly unpleasant human being--if he is a human being. My mini-theory is that Obama is a hologram projected by After extensive marketing research, the Democratic party has re-branded itself with the logos, color schemes and candidate that Americans will buy.

Even apart from his remarks in camera to big bucks supporters about blue-collar voters "clinging to guns and religion" it isn't hard to see why he's been branded as an "elitist." He instantiates the quintessence of posh, along with the MacMansions to which Americans aspire, the shopping malls which are our agoras and the groomed, uniformed flight attendants ushering us from one immaculate airport to another. This is what we want: a flight-attendant-in-chief, immaculately groomed, without quirks, eccentricities or passions, without aggression or fight, who effortlessly floats to the top without striving.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Joe the Plumber and the American Dream

Plumber From Ohio Is Thrust Into Spotlight -

Mr. McCain...[cited] “Joe the Plumber” [Wurzelbacher] as a symbol of how Mr. Obama’s tax policies would hurt small businesses. Since his initial exchange with Mr. Obama, Mr. Wurzelbacher has become a favorite of anti-Obama bloggers and television commentators. On Neil Cavuto’s program on Fox News, for example, he was asked if Mr. Obama’s response about “spreading the wealth around” satisfied him, and gave an explanation that the McCain campaign was quick to send around to reporters. “His answer actually scared me even more,” Mr. Wurzelbacher said. “He said he wants to distribute wealth. And I mean, I’m not trying to make statements here, but, I mean, that’s kind of a socialist viewpoint. You know, I work for that. You know, it’s my discretion who I want to give my money to; it’s not for the government decide that I make a little too much and so I need to share it with other people. That’s not the American Dream.”

I'm working right now on a paper for a conference on the American Dream so these issues are much on my mind. American Dreamers assume that the Market is perfectly efficient and so, given that people respond to incentives, will produce the greatest desire-satisfaction for the greatest number. The Fundamental Theorem of the American Dream is that there are trade-offs between equality and opportunity, security and freedom.

It is easy to see how opportunity preludes equality. Some people are just going to be more productive than others because of their native ability and propensity for hard work. If you smack them down with redistributive tax schemes in the interests of promoting equality, they'll have no incentive to produce and we'll all be worse off because there will be less stuff to go around. It is also easy to see why security and freedom are incompatible. People need the stick as well as the carrot. Where there are social safety nets in place, potentially productive individuals won't be driven to extend themselves out of fear and will, as a consequence, be less productive.

The Theorem however is false, which shows that there's either something wrong with derivation or the axioms from which it was derived. The US trails affluent, industrialized nations in both equality and social mobility: American men are less likely to find themselves in different economic segments of the population from their fathers in the US than in social democratic, egalitarian Denmark. As for the fear factor, insecurity discourages risk-taking. Americans, contrary to all expectations, turn out to be more risk-averse than Chinese who, relying on economic safety nets provided by kin and by the state, can afford to extend themselves.

After 15 years of hard work Joe the Plumber was in the process of buying a plumbing business, which he anticipated--rightly or wrongly--would net him more than $250,000 a year. An unseen presence throughout the debate, McCain invoked him in an appeal to the nation of shopkeepers Americans imagined themselves to be. But in fact there are are relatively few small business owners in the US and, of those, very few net $250,000 or more:

According to figures compiled by the Small Business Administration, there are fewer than six million small businesses that actually have payrolls. The rest are so-called nonemployer firms that report income from hobbies or freelance work done by their registered owners, earning as little as $1,000 a year. Of these, according to a calculation by the independent, non-partisan Tax Policy Center, fewer than 700,000 taxpayers would have to pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama’s plan. But even some of these are not small-business owners in the traditional sense; they include lawyers, accountants and investors in real estate, all of them with incomes that put them in the top tax brackets.

The American Dream Joe described is out of reach for most Americans, and may not even be feasible for Joe. The odds are stacked against small business owners and even if his business doesn't fail in the first year, as most small businesses do, it is unlikely that he'll make $250,000 a year out of it.

Most people can't even make a start on Joe's American Dream. I could never even dream of starting a plumbing business because I couldn't be a plumber. I'm a woman: women can't get apprenticeships in plumbing or other blue collar trades. That's just the way it is. Back when I was a kid even being male wasn't enough to open the magic door to plumbing: you had to be Italian. And even then, it wasn't easy if your grandparents came from the wrong part of Italy.

There are a thousand assumptions, customs, practices, informal procedures and unwritten rules that restrict people's options in virtue of sex, race, ethnic origin, family connections or lack thereof, economic status and circumstance. School and scouting are fair meritocracies: if you're smart, hard-working, ambitious and persistent you get your grades, credentials and merit badges. But adult life in the Real World, particularly in the part of it working class Americans inhabit, is nothing like that.

Most grown-ups know that the official rules are a sham. Everyone knows that women have to work harder than men to prove themselves and that there are some jobs women just can't get--as well as jobs men just can't get. Everyone knows that it's not what you know but who you know. Everyone knows that open bidding is usually nothing but window-dressing: construction projects go to relatives and croneys. Everyone knows that hard work, initiative and persistence rarely pay off. A few very lucky people have jobs where achievement and advancement are feasible. Most work at routine jobs where there is simply no way to to show their stuff: you clock in, do what your told or look busy if there's nothing to do, and clock out.

It isn't big government or high taxes that impose constraints, but the customs, practices and unwritten rules operating under the radar that restrict our freedom, limit our options and undermine initiative. Government is the liberator. By legislating and enforcing official rules to achieve fair meritocracy, the state imposes relatively minor restrictions on the few but opens wider opportunities for the many and expands overall freedom.

Monday, October 06, 2008

John McCain: Straight Shooter?

A friend sent this to me. Check it out.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A Herd of Mavericks

Biden Teaches Palin the Meaning of 'Maverick'

When my husband was a starving student he used to get his teeth fixed for free by dental students at his university who needed live subjects for practice. It was always an adventure and, on one occasion, a student slipped and drilled a hole in his cheek.

I wouldn't trust a trainee dentist, much less an amateur, to work on my teeth or go to a maverick dentist with a penchant for unorthodox dental procedures. Neither would most Americans. But, at least until recently, when it comes to politics Americans want amateurs and mavericks. Why?

Because most believe that in areas outside of mechanics and technology, expertise is a sham. Dentistry is a mechanical business, like engineering and computer repair so certainly we want people with training, skills and credentials to do these jobs. But everything else, most particularly politics, is just a matter of common sense. The pretense of academics in the humanities, journalists, politicians or others who don't monkey with machinery or push symbols to expertise is nothing put a scam. People who set up as "professionals" in these disciplines are just corrupt, overpaid hucksters who band together to feather their nests and to exclude others from jobs that any sensible person could do--and, indeed, do better than they can. The subtleties and complications they talk about are nothing but a smoke screen to obscure the fact that they have no real expertise and their machinations only make them less effective in doing jobs that really take nothing more than common sense and good will.

That, I suspect, is the thinking behind Americans' contempt for "professional politicians" and "Washington Insiders," and their demand for term limits to insure that politicians never become professional. It's also the source of Americans' sympathy for conspiracy theories, contempt for all components of The Establishment and conviction that there is an enormous amount of vital information that every Establishment organization, from the mainstream media to the medical profession, doesn't want us to know. There is, we believe, the technology to produce light bulbs that will burn forever but the Establishment doesn't want us to know that. MMR vaccine causes autism but the Medical Establishment is hushing that up, just as it hushes up the virtues of herbal cures and alternative medicine. Aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, but that information was suppressed by the Military-Industrial Complex.

Enter the mavericks. A maverick is an outsider, a loner, an independent thinker who rejects Establishment orthodoxies. Americans admire mavericks because we believe that outside of strictly technical areas, expertise is nothing but a sham--a stifling, corrupt, entrenched orthodoxy. And so, fully one third of Americans are political "independents," unaffiliated with any political party. They regard themselves as mavericks and support politicians who claim that they are not politicians, who assure self-styled maverick voters that they will not toe the party line.

In the course of the Vice Presidential debate yesterday, Sarah Palin was at pains to assure voters that both she and John McCain were mavericks. When asked how her policies would differ from McCain's if he were unable to complete his term in office and she were to assume the presidency, she assured the audience that she and McCain disagreed about a variety of issues (without getting specific) because they were both mavericks.

If I were a Republican and believed this I would certainly not want either McCain or Palin in office any more than I would want a maverick dentist drilling my teeth. I would want someone who would faithfully represent my political agenda and had a cadre of technocrats on tap to implement it. But I'm a Democrat, and I want professional Democratic politicians in office to promote my agenda.

Both Palin and Biden, following their bosses, made a fuss about bipartaisanship. I don't want bipartisainship any more than I would want "fair and balanced" coverage of evolution and "intellegent design" in the public schools or equal time for astonomy and astrology. Evolution is good science; "intelligent design" is junk. I don't want equal time for good science and junk science or for science and superstition, and I don't want any compromise in politics or equal time for the Republican junk agenda. Americans' preoccupation with bipartasinship is just another manifestation of the assumption that ideology is balony so that partisanship is no more than corrupt, self-serving factionalism.

But the Rodney King program is bs: we can't, and shouldn't "all get along" because some of us hold view that are correct while others hold views that are incorrect and pernicious. We should no more compromise with Republicans' agenda than oppositon parties should have compromised with Hitler's program, or proposed 3 million Jews to be gassed rather than 6 million.

If this sounds extravagant it may be because progressives don't take their own program seriously. Millions of Americans have been trashed: they've lost their jobs, their health insurance and their homes. The economy is in meltdown and we're mired in an unwinnable war in Iraq that has trashed the country and cost thousands of lives. This isn't a consequence of personal incompetence or of corruption: it is the direct result of a wrong-headed, failed ideology. The Bush administration is the reducio of that ideology and nothing is going to change until Americans get it.