Thursday, August 30, 2007

With Luck, Bin Laden May Live Forever

Mark Buchanan's smart blog The Social Atom professes bafflement over Tom Friedman's professed bafflement over the Bush administration's failure to use its vaunted PR capabilities to discredit Osama bin Laden among the world's Muslims:
I don't find anything puzzling here at all. This administration invented the "War on Terror," and induced every major news organization to go along with the phrase, making it seem almost like an element of objective reality, rather than the very effective demonstration of framing that it is. Terrorism may be real, but the "War on Terror" is a psychological tool of US politics.

I haven't seen any evidence to dissuade me from the belief that this administration is far more interested in appearing to face up to the threat, than in actually doing so.
Well put. But I myself am a bit baffled as to why Buchanan doesn't take the obviously logical next step, which is to recognize that both the Bush administration and the Republican Party are positively dependent on Osama bin Laden for any remaining political influence and appeal they have.

It may have been impolitic for her to say so, but Hillary Clinton was not wrong when she said that a terrorist attack prior to the 2008 election would likely be a major plus for the Republicans. Yes, I know it's not logical--why should a devastating policy failure by the incumbent administration help that administration's party? But the way these issues get covered by the media--with help from the hapless Democrats, I'm sorry to say--that's probably what would happen.

In objective terms, Osama bin Laden has clearly become the Republicans' best friend. So not only does the Bush administration have no real incentive to try to marginalize or even to capture bin Laden, it actually has a positive incentive to prop him up.

Which raises the question: If bin Laden were to be killed or captured, would the administration want us to know? Or would they prefer to have him remain available as a bogeyman, the way the government of Oceania kept "Emmanuel Goldstein" alive as a threat just to spice up the daily Two Minutes' Hate?

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fortune Magazine: America Dangerously Lagging in Worker Abuse!

The International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations tracks data about how workers are treated around the world. Recently (June 2007), ILO released a study called Working Time Around the World, which examines employees' work hours in various countries. (You can find a press release about the report and a link to its key findings here.)

Here is how ILO sums up the study:

[A]n estimated 22 per cent of the global workforce, or 614.2 million workers, are working "excessively" long hours.

Shorter hours, the report says, can have positive consequences including benefits to workers' health and family lives, reduced accidents at the workplace, as well as greater productivity and equality between the sexes. At the same time, the study says a considerable number of short-hours workers in developing and transition countries may be underemployed, and thus more likely to fall into poverty.

"The good news is that progress has been made in regulating normal working hours in developing and transition countries, but overall the findings of this study are definitely worrying, especially the prevalence of excessively long hours", said Jon C. Messenger, Senior Research Officer for the ILO's Conditions of Work and Employment Programme and a co-author of the study.
Now, how does the United States come out in this study? Here's what ILO says:

In terms of those countries with the highest incidence of long working hours for 2004-05 (defined as more than 48 hours per week), Peru topped the list at 50.9 per cent of workers, the Republic of Korea at 49.5 per cent, Thailand at 46.7 per cent, and Pakistan at 44.4 per cent. In developed countries, where working hours are typically shorter, the United Kingdom stood at 25.7 per cent, Israel at 25.5 per cent, Australia at 20.4 per cent, Switzerland at 19.2 per cent, and the United States at 18.1 per cent.
So, the news about the U.S. is pretty good, then! We have our share of people who are working too darn hard, but fortunately the numbers are relatively low compared to other countries--less than one fifth of the total workforce. Maybe this makes up, in part, for the widely-reported fact that Americans get far less vacation time than their counterparts in other developed countries--and that the U.S. is the only developed country with no legally mandated time off.

But if you think it's good news that "only" eighteen percent of Americans are working "excessive hours" as defined by ILO, you aren't economics columnist Geoff Colvin. Here's how Colvin spins the exact same data in the current (September 3) issue of Fortune magazine:

By global standards, we're lazy. We've been getting lazier. And the days of the American dolce vita may be numbered. . . . When it comes to what we might call hard work, meaning the proportion of workers who put in more than 48 hours a week, America is near the bottom of the heap. . . . I know, I know--you're working harder than ever, and so is your spouse. But we're not talking about you; we're talking about the whole country, on average. And I'm afraid the findings are dramatic.
For Fortune magazine, it's a darn shame that more Americans aren't working excessive hours! What ever happened to the good old work ethic? How will our "couch-potato nation" ever hold its own against those hard-working Asian hordes?

Colvin caps his column with an anecdote from GE chief Jeff Immelt about visiting the Chinese Transport Ministry and finding everybody working all day--on a Sunday. Immelt frets: "I believe in quality of life, work-life balance, all that stuff. But that's the competition. So unless we're willing to compete . . ."

It's not clear to me in what sense Americans are competing against workers in a Chinese government agency, but let that pass. The real point of the story is that Jeff Immelt obviously wishes he could make GE's workers put in seven-day weeks--for their own good! So they can compete!

Particularly revealing, I think, is the part of the column where Colvin assures his readers that they themselves are "working harder than ever." We can see what this is all about. The mid-level executives who make up the bulk of Fortune's readers love to think of themselves as over-worked, over-stressed, over-burdened. (For all I know, they are.)

So Colvin, perhaps semi-sarcastically, throws them that crumb. His message: We, the dynamic managers of America, are more than pulling our weight. The problem lies with the playful, indolent darkies at the bottom of the totem pole--those administrative assistants, customer service reps, and assembly-line workers who are living la dolce vita and actually getting home in time to eat dinner with their kids once in a while! The outrage!

Fascinating, isn't it, to see how the world is viewed by people who fancy themselves the bosses of the rest of us?

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I'm a Government Bureaucrat, Please Spit On Me

Listening to the radio this afternoon I heard one of those ads that's supposed to simulate a slice-of-life conversation. The dialogue went something like this:
Grown-Up Daughter: Hi, Dad, I'm here to rescue you from sitting with little Billy. Say, what are you doing?

Elderly Father: I'm checking out information about long-term care insurance. You know, in case I ever need to go into a nursing home.

G.U.P.: Good for you, Dad! Tom's parents never made any plans, and now we're faced with some big bills.

E.F.: [Sympathetically:] I know. [Then, in a tone of profound loathing:] And I don't want the government making the decisions for me!
The ad goes on to provide an 800-number you're supposed to call to learn about nursing-home insurance. Not until the very end does it disclose the sponsor--which I assumed would be some insurance company, or maybe an insurance association. But no. The final line of the ad is, "This has been a message from the New York State Department of Health."

Isn't that sad? Apparently the "government-is-evil" meme has sunk so deeply into the popular culture that even government bureaucrats have to pretend they have contempt for government.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Rudy Giuliani, The Real Russ Cargill

Josh Marshall's fine blog Talking Points Memo clues us to to a fascinating tidbit buried in the recent New Yorker profile of Rudy Giuliani. The crucial nugget:
"As for securing the border, Giuliani proposes the construction of what he calls 'a technological fence,' which he insists would be much more effective than a simple physical barrier. Giuliani's security division is a part owner of a company that is developing such technology with the defense contractor Raytheon."
Of course, as Marshall notes, back in 1994, then-mayor Giuliani was making the eminently sensible point that, with a nation as huge and wide-open as the United States, it would be virtually impossible to "secure the borders" sufficiently to keep all illegal immigrants out. But now, running for president in a Republican party whose most rabid rightwing supporters are frothing at the mouth about keeping the swarthy hordes at bay, Giuliani has evidently decided that his sensible point from a decade ago is no longer operative.

And by the merest coincidence, a bunch of Giuliani cronies have a technological fix for the problem--which Giuliani himself will profit from. How convenient!

And here I thought that the character of Russ Cargill in The Simpsons Movie was an exaggeration! Cargill is the EPA head under a Schwarzenegger administration who seals off the polluted town of Springfield under a vast bullet-proof dome--which by the merest coincidence is manufactured by Cargill's family business, Cargill Domes.

Took about a month and a half for real life to catch up with that one . . .

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A Moral Crusade by Evangelicals for Evangelicals? Then Count Me Out

Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has made a specialty of sympathetically analyzing the social and political attitudes of evangelical Christians. His 2004 book Soft Patriarchs, New Men, examines phenomena like the Promise Keepers and concludes that conservative churches are doing a good job of "domesticating" men and turning them into sensitive, caring, and generous husbands and fathers.

Now, in this column in The Wall Street Journal, Wilcox does something mildly unusual for a conservative commentator: He acknowledges the wide gap between evangelical professions of "family values" and the way evangelical Christians actually tend to live:
Studies indicate, for instance, that teen sex and divorce are as common among evangelicals as they are among other Americans. Indeed, divorce is especially high in Bible Belt states such as Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas. . . . According to my research, nominal evangelicals have sex before other teens, cohabit and have children outside of wedlock at rates that are no different than the population at large, and are much more likely to divorce than average Americans.
Now, those of us blue-staters who don't share the evangelical persuasion regard facts like these (along with relatively high rates of suicide, domestic violence, and other social maladies in the Bible Belt) as good reasons to disregard the lectures we keep hearing from our southern cousins about how we ought to arrange our family lives. But Wilcox veers to an unexpected point--that those lectures aren't directed toward us at all, but toward lapsed evangelicals:

Are evangelicals hypocrites, intent on imposing biblical values on others that they themselves cannot live up to? Media reports to the contrary, and despite the bad example of the occasional evangelical leader (e.g., Ted Haggard), churchgoing evangelicals actually do better than most Americans in living up to their distinctive worldview. . . .

But even after controlling for class, I find that nominal [that is, non-churchgoing] evangelicals do worse than other Americans. Why? I suspect that many nominal evangelicals are products of a Scotch-Irish "redneck" culture, still found in parts of Appalachia and the South, that Thomas Sowell and the late Southern historian Grady McWhiney argue has historically been marked by higher levels of promiscuity, violence and impulsive behavior. This cultural inheritance, and not their Protestantism, probably helps to account for the poor family performance of nominal evangelicals.

So the next time one hears about evangelicals trying to impose their family values on the rest of us, remember that they are probably more concerned about the families of their nominally Protestant brothers, cousins, neighbors and friends in the Bible Belt than they are about folks in Massachusetts.
Wilcox's sociological observations are interesting and, to my mind, quite plausible. (Though I wonder how conservatives would react to Wilcox's comments about southern "redneck" culture if they came from a Harvard professor writing in The New Yorker or The New York Times rather than a University of Virginia professor writing in The Wall Street Journal. Actually, I don't wonder--I can hear the shrieks of indignant protest now.)

But Wilcox--like the evangelicals he studies--ignores an obvious point: If red-state Christians are mainly worried about their own morality and that of their fellow Baptists, and basically unconcerned about "folks in Massachusetts," then why the hell do they have to drag us into their crusades? Why do they want to censor the TV shows, movies, and schoolbooks used by the whole country? Why do they want to reshape the US Constitution and stack the Supreme Court to represent their values? Why do their churches act as canvassing centers for Republican presidential candidates? Why do their politicians delight in demonizing people from Massachusetts, and New York, and San Francisco, and much of the rest of the non-Confederate states?

The "family values" crowd mocked Hillary Clinton for saying "it takes a village to raise a child." At the 1996 Republican convention, Bob Dole drew cheers for sardonically declaring, "It does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child." Rick Santorum wrote a whole book about the same theme. Yet somehow this crowd doesn't seem to be able to raise children by its own professed values without first remaking the entire country in its image.

If the real target of the evangelical values-mongers is the problems caused by "redneck culture," fine. They can save their sermons for the rednecks, then, and leave us blue staters to sip our Chardonnay in peace.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

What Motivates Phony Attacks on Liberal "Phoniness"?

There's been quite a spate of newspaper columns recently accusing liberals of hypocrisy.

First, there was Robert Samuelson in WaPo, deriding liberals for driving the Prius. (As you may know, this is now a personal insult in our home.) Samuelson calls the hybrid "a hippy car" and "a fashion statement," a way for liberals to compensate for lacking the guts to push for the tough political measures that are really necessary to avert global warming--measures that include enacting tougher automotive mileage standards so as to reduce auto emissions.

Of course, Samuelson ignores the fact that the Prius actually performs up to tougher mileage standards today, thereby reducing auto emissions immediately, which might seem to undermine the contention that owning a Prius is a meaningless symbolic gesture. One might also think that the fact that Samuelson himself has consistently opposed tough political measures to avert global warming also undermines his criticism. But never mind. The column may have been devoid of logic, but it provided Samuelson with an opportunity to mock liberals, which evidently was his only real purpose.

* * *

Then there was this article by Noam Schreiber in The New Republic. Schreiber attacks John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama for their stance on the legal loophole that allows hedge-fund managers to pay taxes at a lower rate than ordinary workers. All three advocate eliminating the loophole--and they do so despite the fact that they've raised campaign money from hedge-fund managers who benefit from the loophole.

Now, Schreiber actually agrees with the stance taken by the three Democrats. But he's annoyed with them because their position has not proven to be politically suicidal. Schreiber complains that the Democrats' pro-tax stance is not "heroic" because it hasn't harmed the party's fund-raising efforts:
According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, employees of the eleven firms represented by the Private Equity Council, an industry lobbying group, gave Democrats 51 percent of their $2.7 million in political contributions in 2000. Democrats spent the next several years opposing George W. Bush's income tax cuts for the affluent, along with his efforts to cut the capital gains tax and the tax on dividend income. All of these measures dramatically lowered taxes for the private-equity-fund set. And, when all was said and done, giving by Private Equity Council members had shifted dramatically--toward Democrats. The firms gave 69 percent of their $3.4 million in political contributions to Democrats in 2006. Suffice it to say, there's little evidence from the last six years that rich fund managers take offense when Democrats try to raise their taxes.
This means, Schreiber concludes, that the candidates' position on taxes is "pretty costless," and a form of self-righteousness that the media should "call them on."

Evidently the spectacle of liberals adopting a policy position that Schreiber agrees with leaves him totally unimpressed--unless they are made to pay a heavy political price for it. I guess Schreiber would be really turned on by a replay of the Mondale or Dukakis candidacy. Now there were candidates who did a great job of alienating potential supporters! What heroism!

* * *

Today, the third piece of the trifecta fell into place: Stanley Fish's latest column in the Times, which uses (of all things) ABC's forthcoming sitcom about the Geico cavemen as a platform for attacking liberals who worry about discrimination against racial minorities. (I'm not sure how a bunch of comedy writers became representatives of political liberalism, but I guess this makes sense in Fish's universe.) To mount his attack, Fish leans on logic borrowed from The Trouble With Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels:

Michaels's big point is that Americans, especially Americans on the left, love discrimination. Not that they love to practice discrimination; they love to deplore the fact of discrimination. And they love to propose strategies for lessening it: affirmative action, the celebration of diversity, the promotion of a culture of respect.

The reason we love those strategies, Michaels says, is that they involve cosmetic changes that allow us to feel good about ourselves while also allowing us to turn our eyes away from the economic inequalities that remain untouched as we busily respect everyone in sight.

Respect is an easy coin to proffer; it doesn't cost much.

Michaels argues that if we think "racism is the problem we need to solve," all we have to do to solve it is "give up our prejudices." But if we think our problem is that too many people are poor, hungry, homeless and uneducated, solving that problem "might require us to give up our money."
Quite an insight! Those liberals who deplore racism certainly are phonies. If they really cared about Black people, they wouldn't be fussing over racist attitudes. Instead, they would support policies that could make a genuine difference in the lives of poor Blacks. They'd oppose massive tax cuts for the affluent and would favor using the higher tax revenues generated to support programs for housing, health care, and better education. They'd defend Medicaid, Head Start, infant nutrition programs, job training initiatives, and similar programs. In short, if liberals were sincere, they would back the entire conservative platform for combating poverty rather than opposing it as they do. Oh, wait a minute . . .

* * *
Of course, these three columnists are coming from three very different places. Samuelson is a once-respectable economist who has increasingly become a predictable hack supporter of cliched right-wing positions. Schreiber is a political journalist looking for contrarian angles on the news; some of his columns are interesting and insightful, while others, like the example above, are clinkers. And Fish is a grouchy conservative academic whose specialty is conjuring up pseudo-profound significance for his personal hobbyhorses. (He devoted his previous Times column to exploring the socioeconomic implications of the fact that Stanley Fish finds it annoying to buy coffee at Starbucks.)

However, the three columns illustrate the fact that a large number of people with prominent platforms in the mainstream media find liberals personally distasteful. They don't necessarily disagree with liberal ideas; in fact, these writers often claim to agree with them. However, they associate "liberalism" with personal qualities they profess to abhor, such as "hypocrisy," "posturing," and "preening."

Yet it's difficult to see how any actual hypocrisy, posturing, or preening by liberals is involved in the cases these writers angrily cite. Are Prius owners "hypocritical" because they drive a car that actually reduces carbon emissions? Are Clinton, Obama, and Edwards "posturing" because they advocate a tax policy that most people agree would be fair and effective? Are liberals who deplore racism and are willing to back up their beliefs with genuine social action "preening"? I don't see how. (And I certainly don't see how liberals deserve labels like "hypocritical," "posturing," and "preening" more than conservatives who use "family values" as a cudgel against their political opponents . . . but I digress.)

The truth is that the "liberals" being derided by Samuelson, Schreiber, and Fish have done absolutely nothing wrong. Their sole offense is taking a public position on something on avowedly moral grounds. Liberals oppose reckless pollution of the atmosphere, tax loopholes for the rich, and racial bigotry because it's the right thing to do. But saying so offends cynical columnists--especially conservative ones--because it challenges one of their cherished assumptions: namely, that self-interest is the only real motivation behind any public behavior.

Being cynical columnists, they can't wrap their minds around the idea that someone might actually care enough about doing the right thing to behave in ways that conflict with pure self-interest. Yet liberals do this all the time. (My taxes will go up if the liberal policies I advocate are enacted.) The only way for the cynics to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance is to assert the phoniness of the liberal positions.

And so the cynical columnists set out to demonstrate that phoniness--facts and logic notwithstanding.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

America--Land of Wealth, Privilege, and Aristocracy?

When I was growing up, way back in the middle of the twentieth century, everyone "knew" that the U.S. was the land of democracy, freedom, and equality--not just in a political sense but in a social and economic sense as well. Movies, books, TV shows, cartoons, newspaper and magazine columns, advertisements, and other forms of pop culture all routinely played off the notion that, in America, everyone up to and including the president was "just plain folks," while in Europe the old spectres of class, caste, and hereditary aristocracy continued to haunt society, repressing individual freedom and making life a lot more boring, stodgy, and stifling.

Hence the stock imagery of the breezy, informal American (played by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart) turning up at a British fox hunt, a French dinner party, or an Italian embassy ball and shocking (yet secretly delighting) the stuffy, overdressed Europeans with his casual, friendly, unassuming manners. The unspoken message: We Americans don't give a hoot about class distinctions, wealth, or privilege. We just take every person as he or she comes, and we delight in deflating pomp and arrogance.

Well, that was then. Today, it seems, as the wealthy overlords of America's new Gilded Age become ever more entrenched, the real bulwark of the spirit of egalitarian democracy is now what Donald Rumsfeld once derided as "old Europe." According to this story in today's Times, the latest blockbuster bestseller in Italy is a The Caste, book denouncing the class privilege and insularity enjoyed by the nation's politicians:
If sales of the book are a good measure, the authors seem to have caught the wave of a widespread malaise here. Since it was published in mid-May, "The Caste" has sold 630,000 copies, a phenomenon in a country where a nonfiction book is considered a best seller once it hits the 20,000 mark.

"What's striking is how the book exploded off the shelves," said Giuliano Vigini, a publishing expert.

Cesare Salvi, a senator with the Democrats of the Left, said: "Sure, I've read it. More unfortunately for politicians, everybody's reading it." Mr. Salvi's own 2005 book about the political machine, "The Cost of Democracy," will come out in paperback in September.
What's more, the book seems to be having an impact on the privileged politicians it attacks:
In July, Italian politicians tried to repair their image. The cabinet approved a bill aimed at "containing the costs of politics and administrative apparatus." Parliamentary leaders agreed to $82 million in cuts. Members of Parliament will now get smaller pensions, and only after five years in office. Their pensions will also be frozen if they hold other public offices. Also cut was an annual $4,200 stipend that lawmakers could use for study abroad.
By contrast, as income inequality and the concentration of power among privileged political and business leaders continues to rise here in the U.S., the general public seems to be reacting not with outrage and protests but with bored yawns. And the few people who find these trends outrageous, like John Edwards, are rewarded with attacks on their "hypocrisy": "How can he speak out on behalf of the poor when he himself is not poor?!"

I guess the American economic and political systems are going to have to become even more unresponsive to the needs of the average person--and show even more signs of flirting with a general collapse, as they did in the 1930s--before the outrage level will rise high enough to revive the old attitudes of disdain for unearned privilege and respect for egalitarianism . . . attitudes I once thought were permanently engrained in the American character.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Whole-Hearted Semi-Defense of the Annoyingly Talented Barry Bonds

As he usually does, King Kaufman at Salon has the best take on the biggest current sports story--in this case, Barry Bonds's long-awaited claiming of the lifetime home run record with his 756th blast last night.

Like me, Kaufman has long defended Bonds against the exaggerated vitriol he has received from moralistic fans and hostile sportswriters. Kaufman keeps asking some obvious but not-so-easy-to-answer questions, such as: Why exactly are steroids (if Bonds did in fact use them) so much worse than any other illegal drug that athletes have used? How do we know that steroids are the cause of Bonds's home run explosion, as opposed to any of half a dozen other factors one could point to? And why is Bonds being made to bear the obloquy for the (apparent) sins of a whole generation of athletes? I've never heard any convincing answers to these questions.

Which is not to say that I am a big Barry Bonds fan. My reaction to his record-setting achievements is much like Kaufman's:
As Bonds circled the bases Tuesday, his relief at reaching the milestone was palpable. I felt relief too. This complex, complicated, confusing chase is finally over. Hardly a marvelous moment, more like the end of something I'd been anxious to see end.

After years now of wondering how I'd feel when Barry Bonds, who plays for my team, who's the best hitter I've ever seen, who's one of the most disagreeable public figures of my lifetime, broke Hank Aaron's career home run record, at last, I had the answer.

The answer is I don't know.
The fact is that Bonds isn't much fun to root for (even for a Giants fan, as Kaufman's ambivalence testifies). He is surly, self-centered, and egostistical. But then, I feel the same about several others among the greatest ballplayers of recent decades. Roger Clemens comes to mind, as do some players that legions of sportwriters have treated like gods, including Pete Rose (click here to read about some of his latest amazing antics) and Cal Ripken (whose pursuit of the consecutive-games-played record at the expense of his team struck me as more selfish than heroic).

Yet the records compiled by Clemens, Rose, and Ripken will--appropriately--appear in the record books without any asterisk or other disclaimer. And the only reason Rose will never join Clemens and Ripken in the Hall of Fame is the fact that he idiotically violated the rule against gambling that is prominently posted in every major league clubhouse. You couldn't put Rose in the Hall without in effect repealing that rule and opening the sport to unabashed manipulation by gangsters. Yet despite his stupidity and his repulsive personality, Rose is still universally acknowledged as a great ballplayer--which he was.

And so is Barry Bonds, like him or not.

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