sphagnum moss, dark water, and politics
Saturday, January 18, 2003
Feature blog of the day
Making Light has posts on: the creepy yet sad world of pathological animal collecting; modern day flint-knappers; and the Jewish love of Chinese food. What more can you ask for?
posted by Dan S. on 1:43 PM | | link
Friday, January 17, 2003
The triumph of dopes over self-interest?
Or maybe it’s the triumph of dupes over self-interest? David "Bobos in Paradise" Brooks’ piece "The Triumph of Hope Over Self-Interest" (on why Americans vote against their own economic interests) has already made the rounds of West Blogopia and Upper Opedistan, but I’ve just got to have a go at it. Too many people are agreeing to its conclusions (which do have some sense) without noticing the strings attached.
[note: long post with somewhat less than perfect clarity - make sure to read the American Prospect's Robert Kuttner.]
Brooks asks, apropos of that latest in a round of upwardly-redistributive tax cuts, "Why don’t people vote their own self-interest?" The answer is simple, as we can see from his own convenient paragraph headings.
People vote their aspirations.
(Here is the much mentioned ‘39% of folks think they are or will be in the top 1%’ statistic.)
Income resentment is not a strong emotion in much of America.
(Unless you live in Manhattan, you can happily shop at Wal-Mart with the rest of the proles and never get "plagued by a nagging feeling of doing without.")
Many Americans admire the rich.
Americans resent social inequality more than income inequality.
("As the sociologist Jennifer Lopez has observed: ‘Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got, I'm just, I'm just Jenny from the block.’" As long as rich people stay real, like Jenny and Mr. Bush, people warm up to them, but those snotty cultural-elite types who "seem to look down on megachurches, suburbia and hunters," they’re just bad. Oh, and it’s "I’m still, I’m still, Jenny from the block." A small but meaningful difference. It’s all in the details.)
Most Americans do not have Marxian categories in their heads.
(By which Brooks seems to mean that people don’t really accept class as a meaningful category. Instead of seeing "society as a layer cake . . .they see society as a high school cafeteria, with their community at one table and other communities at other tables. They are pretty sure that their community is the nicest, and filled with the best people . . ." (Of course, for some of us, the high school cafeteria-table analogy may summon up other responses)
In other words, Americans are ignorant and economically provincial and therefore their reaction to rich people is admiration and aspiration, so class-based strategies go nowhere. Sure, Brooks probably doesn’t mean it quite that way, but let’s really get real here - that's what he is saying. Anyway, the fact is that the whole piece starts from bad assumptions.
"Why don’t Americans vote their own self-interest?" Well, often a lot of them do. Close your history books, kids; I’m not talking about the Populists or the New Deal. Remember, in the last presidential election, it was the Democratic candidate who won the popular vote. Brooks points out that Gore couldn’t get the vote of "white males who didn't go to college, whose incomes have stagnated over the past decades and who were the explicit targets of his campaign." I don’t suppose it was because he had been vice-president for the last 8 years that their incomes have been stagnating? And it definitely has nothing to do with the GOP’s ‘Southern Strategy’ or the politics of resentment. Of course not. Brooks exclaims that Democrats even failed to muster opposition to the estate tax repeal, "which is explicitly for the mega-upper class." "Explicitly." Yes . . . well, if you remember, many people were led to believe that the "death tax" was a scourge of small business owners and family farmers. Sure, it eventually came out that all those stories of lost farms and such were, ah, lies, but c’mon! The retractions never matter.
"Why don't more Americans want to distribute more wealth down to people like themselves?" This is a slight-of-hand trick that is repeated throughout the piece. The question isn’t really whether to distribute more wealth downwards, but whether to stem the upward hemorrhaging of funds that has been going on for over two decades now. You can argue over the respective moral and practical merits of progressive vs. regressive taxation, but short of a scrap or two, that’s just not the offer on table. Keep your eyes on the magician’s hands: this confusion becomes very important in another few paragraphs
"People vote their aspirations." Now we’ve reached the 39% figure. 19% of Americans in a 2000 Time Magazine survey imagined they were in the top 1%, while 20% believed they would get there one day. There has been quite a reaction, at least in the NY Times letters column, to the opposition of Aspiration and Envy that Brooks is setting up here. Let’s pause and take a deep breath. [Inhale.] Yes, America really is, in many ways, a land of opportunity. People need dreams. There are probably deep-seated social psych (and common sense) reasons for this figure, important purposes it serves in a difficult world. BUT [exhale] . . . it’s not aspiration. It’s delusion. It’s aspiration’s dark sister. She’s the one with the eyes that are just a little too bright. She’s the one who tells you it’s ok when it’s really not. She’s the one who says keep going when it’s really time to stop. Go read Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s recent essay, the one about how the dream of sports as a ticket out of the ghetto is mostly a cruel joke. When you’re up to the point where
A group of black high school athletes were told that the odds against them making a pro team were nearly impossible. Fifty-one percent still believed that they could beat them.Look carefully. She’s there too, whispering into their ears and laughing. Sure, she’s beautiful. Yes, down here in this cold, shoddy place sometimes she’s all you got. And you just know that this, well this is special, you just know she’s going to play it straight with you . . .
After Aspiration comes Envy, both in the dictionary and in Brooks’ argument. Or rather, the lack of envy. While his next few paragraphs make intriguing points about the social balkanization of modern life, they’re really just backdrop to his claim that we don’t resent, envy, hate or even harbor deep animosity towards the rich When the Revolution comes, we don’t want to line them up against the wall and execute them. Instead, even when we’re not playing mental dress-up, we admire them. We like them. Why would we punish them?
Did you see that? That was what I was telling you to watch for a little bit ago. Remember, what’s at issue is not raising taxes on the super-rich. Those have been steadily going down. It's not whether we resent them and want to punish them. The issue is whether to continue to cut taxes in such a way as to especially favor them. To give them lots of money (which, being rich, they presumably have in adequate amounts). Money that might otherwise be used on things like health care, or education, or to help out the states so they stop releasing prisoners due to budget shortfalls - silly little things like that. That’s not really admiration, either.
Brooks’ might protest that what he’s really talking about is how Democratic candidates completely miss the point, and lose the race:
All of this adds up to a terrain incredibly inhospitable to class-based politics. Every few years a group of millionaire Democratic presidential aspirants pretends to be the people's warriors against the overclass. They look inauthentic, combative rather than unifying. Worst of all, their basic message is not optimistic.Well, a lot of things go on during campaigns, that’s true; but look past that at the dividend tax-cut affair. The basic Democratic message that made it out into the real world wasn’t that we "are a nation tragically and permanently divided by income," it was ‘hey, this plan overwhelmingly favors the very rich, and that doesn’t really seem right.’ Oh, how combative. Accept Brooks’ conclusion, as a number of smart bloggers have at least partially done, and you risk accepting the mantle of class warfare Bush is so kindly offering - untruthfully, and uselessly.
Brook’s advice to the Democratic Party is to stop all that noisy braying about class and play up the hope.
you can run against rich people, but only those who have betrayed the ideal of fair competition. You have to be more hopeful and growth-oriented than your opponent, and you cannot imply that we are a nation tragically and permanently divided by income.Now, some of this isn’t bad advice. Hope is good. The thing is, when you get quietly hopeful enough, almost anything sounds like braying. The thing is, sometimes braying is what the situation demands. Sometimes a good bray can cut through all those nice, soothing, calming words . . .
Remember, as Brooks has so nicely reminded us, many Americans are confused. Almost 40% of us think we are or will be in the richest 1%. Kip points out that most of us also believe that roughly 1% of Americans live in poverty (between 1-5 million) when the actual figure is closer to 11%. (33 million at or below the poverty line). Meanwhile, 47% of folks surveyed came up with a measure of "poverty" (less than about $35,000/year for a family of four) almost double that of the Census Bureau! We are often fed convincing lies (the death tax took my Daddy’s farm!). And (at least according to Brooks) we have no real idea how the other -top -few percents live; our thoughts on the matter are generally shaped by romanticized, media-driven fantasies. For folks securely in the middle, there is of course tremendous ignorance of poverty, either obscured or shaped by media-driven nightmares . . .
So what do we do? Somebody suggested better statistics, but that’s not going to work. What we need is a narrative. A good story - a true story. Yeah it’s gonna be kinda tough; no one likes giving up their delusions, but sometimes you have to, for real hope. Frankly, as I’ve said I suspect that the confusion isn’t quite as deep, or as deeply rooted, as Brooks imagines: beyond the level of fantasy people tend to have a fairly realistic idea of their life (given the inherent over-estimation of all but the depressed).
Anyway - we have to tell people a story about what life is actually like here in America. No rich-bashing (by which I DON’T mean the honest statement of facts that has been passed off as class warfare) . . . just pointing out that there are some few very, very wealthy people in this country and that giving them more money -which they may or may not use in a manner that helps the economy - actually does, for certain, mean that it is taken away from valuable services. Inclusiveness here.
Most people don’t really know what being wealthy means; we need to take a telescope and point it up to the glittery skies where there are such things as elite $15,000 preschools and such like; and we need to take a mirror and show people their lives. Never get "plagued by a nagging feeling of doing without?!" Let’s see: credit card debt, soaring numbers of failing mortgages, we won’t even get into the unemployment . . . It’s being plagued by a nagging feeling of something, anyway.
I have to agree with Brooks - like all good lies, there’s a sweet touch of truth - no (real) vindictiveness. We need to show folks not that the wealthy are bad, bad people, but that income inequality, here and now, does mean social inequality. Take those elite preschools, for example:
New York's top-tier nurseries can be feeder schools to the ''right'' kindergarten, and then Trinity and Dalton and upward to Harvard, and they offer the ''right'' social element.Meanwhile, public schools are disgustingly underfunded. The administration’s own education initiative (which is mostly crap but nevermind that for now) isn’t even well-funded!
Oh, I can’t say it right - listen to these folks:
I'd [this is Jeanne D’Arc speaking] take the argument a little farther. In fact, I don't have to, because someone already did. John Balzar had a great piece in Sunday's LA Times arguing that the biggest problem with the tax-cutting fever is not who gets what, but that it destroys the whole idea of "neighborhood values," and the "understanding that individuals do not prosper apart from the fortune of the nation." Most Americans are genuinely patriotic. They want what's best for their neighborhoods, their cities, their states, and their country. And taxes are our contribution toward making it work. At one time we believed that the more you received from the country (and rich people obviously get enormous benefits from living in this country; if they didn't they wouldn't be here), the more you owed it -- and as a result we had a genuinely progressive income tax. Balzar remembers that time, when tax rates at the highest earning levels were above 90%:Amen! That’s it - we’re in this together. It’s all about making sure this stays the land of opportunity.
And remember that Envy Brooks insists we don't have? Well, like Brooks' Aspiration, she has a sister too. I can't quite say what she looks like - like somebody you might see in a crowd. She has many names, too. I know one of them, though. It's equality.
posted by Dan S. on 4:54 PM | | link
If you sez it again and again . . .
The administration says the U. of Mich admissions programs are racial quota systems in disguise. Ok, and I say that Bush is a space alien in disguise. That doesn’t make it true.
The administration’s argument:
The system provided 20 points to minority candidates in a 150-point formula that assessed their qualifications. Also, minority students often had their applications marked so they could receive a second look not given to nonminority candidates.As a look at the actual admissions policy shows (or just scroll down), and as countless people have pointed out both generally and specifically, these minorities include not just people of color, but also athletes, folks picked "at the Provost’s discretion," the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and people with "unique life experiences, challenges, circumstances, interests or talents; connections to the University community" (legacy students).
If one human year equals seven dog years, how many repetitions of the truth equals one lie?
Digby has a darn tooting good post on the politics of affirmative action. Sisyphus Shrugged (among many others) made the same point as me, only better.
posted by Dan S. on 9:27 AM | | link
New reality show: Who wants a stunted, small-skulled baby?
A study following pregnant African-American and Dominican women in the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan has found that high levels of air pollution can cause smaller skulls in African American babies. The New York Times refers to "everyday pollutants in automobile exhaust, cigarette smoke and incinerators." Ok, car exhaust and cigarette smoke are pretty everyday, but incinerators are primarily a problem for the poor, often minority neighborhoods who lack the power to have them located elsewhere. Meanwhile, babies in both groups with the pesticide chlorpyrifos in their blood have lower birth weights. The article points out that chlopyrifos is commonly used in (presumably public) schools and public housing. The researchers are concerned because
low birth weight and smaller skulls had been found to correspond with poor health and mental problems later in life. "A number of studies have reported that reduction in head circumference at birth or during the first year of life correlates with lower I.Q. as well as poorer cognitive function," Dr. Perera said.Point 1: At least get the pesticides away from the schools full of growing children with developing brains! Have you guys been eating paint chips again?
Point 2. So, if you want a stunted, small-skulled baby who is likely to have poor health and mental problems, you should try especially hard to live in public housing near an incinerator. Oh, those lucky duckies . . .
Point 3. Yes, America is a level playing field with equal opportunities for all, no significant class differences and certainly no racially-based inequalities (except those that impact white people ) . . .
Point 4. It’s not about blame. There are no evil villains cackling over this - it’s a matter of systematic inequalities and injustice, and it is wrong. End of lesson. Now go type" environmental justice" or "environmental racism" into your search engine . . .
posted by Dan S. on 8:50 AM | | link
Watch this space
Coming soon: David Brooks and "The Triumph of Hope over Self-Interest:" Can we trust a man who can’t get the "Jenny From the Block" chorus right?
posted by Dan S. on 1:37 AM | | link
Well, on one hand . . .
Pandragon has a marvelous post, full of piss and vinegar and righteous anger, on the reality of white privilege and the absurdity of the angry rich white man. Come back soon, Jesse! For an interesting comparison,
Seeds of hatred continue to fester among Afrikaners who feel that the new democracy in South Africa and the freedoms enjoyed by blacks have robbed them of their heritage. While the buzzword in South Africa has been "reconciliation," and while the rest of the world has praised the political transition in this country as a miracle, as a civil war that didn't happen, some Afrikaners feel marginalized by a process that has ended decades of legalized oppression of blacks by a white minority government. They hate the power that the democratic changes have bestowed on a black government.And so on . . . Educate yourself. Visit whiteprivilege.com.
posted by Dan S. on 1:10 AM | | link
Oh, definitely frivolous. . .
After weighing in against affirmative action on MLK Day, what could Bush do for an encore? Perhaps entering the fray over malpractice - "pushing for strict limits on . . . jury awards," blaming "frivolous lawsuits" and "a litigious society" the same day the news covered a study on medical mistakes that found "operating room teams around the country leave sponges, clamps and other tools inside about 1,500 patients every year." Yes, yes, that’s only a tiny percent of the total number of surgeries, but still!
To be fair, though, kudos to the NY Times for pointing out that the main problem isn’t incompetent doctors or evil trial lawyers but ill-managed (dare we say even . . . greedy?) insurance companies.
It would be funny if some poor woman on Medicaid has to go back to the emergency room to have a surgical tool removed and is hit by a huge bill because she's exceeded the number of allowed emergency visits (see last post). . . Well no, it guess wouldn’t be.
posted by Dan S. on 12:24 AM | | link
Thursday, January 16, 2003
The Administration is now allowing managed care providers to limit and restrict coverage of emergency services for poor people on Medicaid. This reverses several years of policy, including that of the current administration as stated this last summer. Since 1997 Medicaid has used the "prudent layperson" standard - if your average Joe could reasonably assume there was an emergency, it was covered, even if Joe turned out to be wrong. According to the article, there was enough confusion and inefficency that state officials asked for help, but "the new policy, [Michelle Mickey, a policy analyst at the National Association of State Medicaid Directors] said, is above and beyond what the states ever requested or expected."
One hot idea seems to be limiting the number of permissable ER visits covered, in Louisiania , for example, to three. So speaketh Louisiana Medicaid director Ben Bearden:
Three emergency visits a year for an adult may sound like a small number, but it's really not . . . I'm 60 years old, and I've been to an emergency room once in my life. The E.R. is very expensive, and people in this state use it inappropriately. They go in for a stubbed toe.Well, I’m sure we’re all real impressed by Mr. Bearden’s good health, but that’s not the point. The "stubbed toe" bit is almost certainly a fantasy, which is not to say that unneccesary ER visits don’t exist - they do, and should not be encouraged. This move, though, is just egregiously stupid.
Forget about the plight of the poor bastards who exceed their maximum allowed emergencies per year and end up saddled with enormous bills. Think about public health. In this age of jet travel, antibiotic-resistant germs, and possible bioterrorism, WE DO NOT WANT TO BE DISCOURAGING ER VISITS! We do not want an epidemic being nurtured in some pocket of poverty because its carrier steered clear of the hospital as long as possible, giving it ample time to spread. And epidemics really don’t care about class warfare.
posted by Dan S. on 11:41 PM | | link
Refinance now, white people!
There’s a letter in the NY Times today that claims affirmative action’s got to go because it’s racism and after all, as Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it. Hmm, let’s see: the idea that, for example, blacks are more or less subhuman creatures suitable only for slavery, apartheid, lynching, job & housing discrimination, etc, equals the idea that we as a nation should attempt to correct for centuries of that by using race as a positive factor in college admissions. Sorry, can’t see it. Of course, what the letterwriter means is that they both are based on what he refers to as "the dangerous and outmoded notion that ‘race matters.’"
Tell it to Ismael Reed, who has an op-ed piece on the same (online) page recounting his attempt to refinance his mortage, a process repeatedly interupting by mysteriously rising interest rates
Harvard Law Professor Patricia Williams recounts a similar story in one of her books: a loan swiftly promised over the phone, where she cames across as a cultured, educated Standard English speaker, suddenly hit a wall when she showed up in person, unmistakenly black.
You don’t even have to rely on anecdotes. Reed points out that
In just one of many studies, a housing advocacy group in Washington, the Center for Community Change, last year examined federal data on mortgages and found that regardless of income, black people were more likely than whites to end up with high-interest loans when they refinanced their mortgages. A 2001 study by another advocacy group, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, found that lenders rejected prospective black home buyers more than twice as often as white applicants nationwide.And then there's that story in the Boston Globe about how black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to get stopped and searched by police, even though white motorists that get stopped are more likely to be carrying drugs (Having gone to school in Washington Heights in the late 80's, that's no surprise, given that every young white guy in New Jersey came over the GWB to buy drugs there).
Race matters! What a silly idea!
posted by Dan S. on 11:16 AM | | link
Legacy student goes after affirmative action . . .
So, says Bush, weighing in against affirmative action in the U. of Mich Supreme Court case,
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education," Mr. Bush said in a nationally televised address. "But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race. [emphasis added]Ok, here’s a bigchunk of the actual Michigan admissions policy, courtesy of a link from Atrios:
Counselors evaluate applications aided by a "selection index" worksheet listing factors the University believes important in composing a class, and select a numerical value for each factor, up to a possible total of 150 points. Academic factors account for up to 110 points. Eighty points are available for academic GPA from tenth and eleventh grades, and 12 points are available for standardized test scores. Every applicant from the same school receives the same number of points -- up to ten -- for the academic strength of that school. In addition, counselors subtract up to four points for an applicant who chose a weaker curriculum when a stronger one was available, and add up to eight points for an applicant who selected more challenging courses.How do I reward or penalize you? Let me count the ways . . .
posted by Dan S. on 8:42 AM | | link
Blaming the rollover victim
GM is now bashing the top auto regulator from my previous post (head National Highway Safety Administration guy Dr. Jeffrey Runge) and insisting that their SUVs are perfectly safe, and any deaths that might have occurred are the fault of stupid people who don’t buckle their seatbelts. Uh-huh. The NY Times article continues:
Heavier vehicles generally stand up better in collisions than lighter vehicles, but any benefit that sport utility vehicles derive from size is offset by the fact that they are three times as likely as cars to roll over and cause deaths. Over all, S.U.V.'s have a slightly higher death rate for their occupants than passenger cars, according to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences.And let’s not get into what happens to the other guys in those collisions . . .
posted by Dan S. on 8:15 AM | | link
Munchies, terrorism and SUVs, oh my!
Recently a little ad has been appearing on the online New York Times courtesy of the Anti-Drug people; it has a little pot leaf, babbles about how drugs support terrorism, and links to their site with more of the same. Now, let’s make no mistake, this is a valid point. The only problem is that - as far as I can tell - the site offers about as much evidence to link marijuana and terrorism as there is (so far) to link Iraq and 9-11. Nada. I wouldn’t quibble so much - any emphasis on social responsibility for consumers is good emphasis - but they have a damn pot leaf on the ad! That’s misleading and probably ineffective.
There is a consolation prize, however - we are told that marijuana sometimes makes people violent. The souls of a thousand martyred nachos cry out for vengence! Ok, that’s unfair. There is a link to a incident last summer out in California where some moron guarding a field o’ pot blasted a father and his two sons with shotgun pellets (all injured but alive, thankfully). And wait, there’s more . . .
"Would this tragedy have happened if the boys had not smoked marijuana? No," continued Crutcher. "I believe the suspect's THC intoxication contributed to his lack of care and social inhibition concerning pointing a dangerous weapon, a .22 caliber rifle, at his best friend, and then pulling the trigger."Apparently the previous spring in California (again) some kid killed his best friend after a bout of squirrel-hunting and pot-smoking. I don’t know if the THC connection is a Reefer Madness-style fantasy or indisputable fact; the whole thing is a pointless tragedy either way. Of course - to make an oft-repeated point - there is another drug which damages or destroys countless lives every year in America; a drug which can make people violent, lowers their inhibition, and impairs their facilities; a drug whose long-term side effects can include brain damage and death; and its name is - you guessed it - alcohol.
Now, I’m not some bone-dry hardliner panting for a revival of Prohibition. I just would love to see one of two things. Either the Anti-Drug folks pair the pot-leads-to-sexual-assaults-at-parties TV ad they’ve been running with one that shows more realistically how date rapes often happen (hint: see the above paragraph), or come Superbowl time those frogs better be croaking out "Mari" - "juan" - "a!" I’m serious.
Meanwhile, Disney-owned-ABC affiliates in New York and LA have refused to air poor Arianna’s "SUV’s support terrorism" ad campaign. Sigh . . . They’re really funny, though, especially the woman who chirps mindlessly about how she likes to sit up high . . . AOL had a Welcome Screen feature about how SUVs are terribly unsafe (according to the Administration’s top auto regulator) with accompanying unscientific poll. Rougly three-quarters of respondents who had just clicked on an headline about how SUVs will roll over and kill you thought they were very safe. Listen up, kids! That’s what smoking too much pot will do to you!
posted by Dan S. on 7:52 AM | | link
This blog has been laying fallow for a while because, uh, I exhausted the natural intellectual fertility of its soil and had to wait, drooling and staring at the wall, until it replenished itself? Actually, it’s been an interesting two weeks, what with unemployment and medical problems in the absence of health care coverage . . . in other words, life for an increasing number of Americans in this year 2003. The little pudgy tyke who anthropomorphically saw the new year in had a distinctly unpleasant grin on his little face. Anyway, all fixed now, I’m back, so here we go . . .
posted by Dan S. on 1:07 AM | | link
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