• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Dumdums in Paradise

    Posted by Sean at 08:38, September 21st, 2011

    Instapundit links to David Brooks’s latest repellent column, in which he uses the old trick of repeating the same self-abasing apology over and over and over in the hopes that his audience will say, “Well, gee, don’t beat yourself up over it; it wasn’t that big a deal”:

    Being a sap, I still believe that the president’s soul would like to do something about the country’s structural problems.* I keep thinking he’s a few weeks away from proposing serious tax reform and entitlement reform. But each time he gets close, he rips the football away. He whispered about seriously reforming Medicare but then opted for changes that are worthy but small. He talks about fundamental tax reform, but I keep forgetting that he has promised never to raise taxes on people in the bottom 98 percent of the income scale.


    The president believes the press corps imposes a false equivalency on American politics. We assign equal blame to both parties for the dysfunctional politics when in reality the Republicans are more rigid and extreme. There’s a lot of truth to that, but at least Republicans respect Americans enough to tell us what they really think. The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths. To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.

    The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals. I guess I understand the choice, but I still believe in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. I may be the last one. I’m a sap.

    Why, yes, you are! And a ninny. Not that that’s anything new. Years ago, someone (I think Diana Mertz Hsieh, though I can’t seem to find it in her archives) made the point that a lot of people who congratulate themselves on how “moderate” they are are trying to prioritize several conflicting things at once. Packaging themselves as friendly and accommodating means they don’t have to make hard decisions about priorities or look for the flaws in their own logic. It means they can think they sound saintly, rather than moronic, when they bleat things like “I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country.” Which stale ideological debates? Those in which each of the two major parties is at pains to show that the other has a worse record of pork-barreling and pandering to beneficiaries of major entitlements? Okay. I’m happy to call that one a draw.

    But then we still have the debates over how much earnings the government should commandeer and spend, whether the government should try to pick winners and losers in industry, and how best to exercise our role as a superpower. We may get sick of discussing those things, but they’re only “stale” if you wish the opposing side would just shut up and accommodate you already.

    Also, hovering in there is the unsavory implication that those who let themselves be duped by Obama are still superior because they were motivated by caring too much. Brooks ends, after all, with yet another “I’m a sap,” not “I’ve learned my lesson and won’t let sentiment get in the way of my principles again.” This is the sort of thing I’m seeing a lot of here in New York: acknowledging that one was a sucker for Obama’s rhetoric but concluding that, really, it’s better to be hopeful, optimistic, willing to take chances, willing to believe…than to be a crabby, cynical libertarian like some other people in the room.

    Sorry—no sale. I feel a great deal of sympathy for those who agonized over their vote in 2008, recognized that they were making a necessary compromise, and decided that Obama’s excesses would probably be reined in by the rest of the Washington machine. I feel no sympathy whatever for people who were more concerned with affirming their own ability to dream than with looking reality in the face. (And yes, I know that Brooks may not be a naturalized citizen and may not have been able to vote; his cheerleading was offense enough.)

    * And you thought repellent was too strong a word, didn’t you?


    Posted by Sean at 18:02, September 11th, 2011

    Just about everyone I know here in the City wants to “move forward,” which is a slightly euphemistic way of saying “not spend time thinking about 9-11 and what it meant.” I was living abroad at the time and don’t know what it was like to be here, seeing the ash cloud and the absence where the towers used to be without the mediation of the camera. Not reliving a personal trauma you can do nothing to alter is a sensible way of dealing with it, and we Americans have moving forward in our blood. Our ancestors were the ones who didn’t just sit still and accept the trouble they’d been born into; they moved and left it behind.

    That’s a good way to be, right up to the point at which you’re conveniently ditching the lessons of the past in addition to its grudges. I’m not happy with everything we did in response to 9-11, but I think we were right in the main. The spy capers and cops-and-robbers action many people were suggesting toward the end of 2001 sound nice, but they require more coordination to pull off than our super-bureaucracies have shown themselves capable of. (Naturally, we had to add one [Homeland Security] and inflate the power of another [the TSA] so that it’s now body-searching American air passengers with an avidity normally associated with the more disreputable South African diamond mines, but my libertarian ire at those developments is a topic for another day.) I’ve supported the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions since when they were announced, and I still think they were the best serious plan anyone had proposed. I don’t like the idea of America as the world police, but I do like the idea of showing terrorist groups and the regimes that support them that they had better not try that again. I’ll be overjoyed if the result is an efflorescence of democracy in the Middle East, but the most we can make a priority is leaving behind functional societies that know the US is not to be trifled with.

    9-11 and what came after have seen the best in many Americans: acts of bravery both by ordinary citizens thrust into extraordinary circumstances and by our trained defenders who put themselves in harms way to keep the rest of us safe. There’s nothing morbid or solipsistic about failing to “move on” with such alacrity that we don’t take time to honor them, or to reflect on the eternal truth that barbarism is always looking for ways to bring down civilization. Our way works, and we’re right to hit back, hard, when it’s attacked.

    Added: Sarah has a post up in which she says the following:

    We can stop looking like the patsies of the world. We can stop being so easy to hate. That starts one on one, and person on person. You do not let foreign friends, in fact or online, talk about the US as being responsible for their plight. You just don’t. You man up; you woman up; you adult-it up. You educate yourself and you come back with facts. You tell them the truth and shame the devil.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people will accuse you of “politicizing” a discussion on a social occasion if you respond to some casual America-sucks/the-West-is-oppressive-and-awful remark of theirs with an actual, like, dissenting response. It can be immensely satisfying, if still wearisome, to maintain an amiable tone of voice while asking exactly what is political about saying, “I think President Bush has done an admirable job of staying restrained under trying circumstances, considering what most global military powers through history would have done immediately after an unannounced attack on their people,” and not about saying, “Cowboy! Quagmire! Root causes! Disproportionate force!”

    It’s especially odd to hear this stuff in Japan, the very model of a country that took its competitive impulses into the sphere of the market after our grandparents bombed them into recognizing that it was pointless to keep them in that of the military. The Japanese archipelago has few mineral resources, and its arable land would fit into my parents’ backyard in Pennsylvania, but Japan focused on the resources (dogged human effort and learning) it had and figured out how to make them into prosperity and an orderly society. What exactly is America doing to prevent other countries from doing the same? Colonialism had a lot of bad effects, and our history classes in the US rightly point them out. But the burden of proof is on post-colonial-studies types to explain why countries that are now independent are supposed to be full of people who can only chafe resentfully at oppression.

    I begin to wonder

    Posted by Sean at 13:14, July 12th, 2011

    Andrew Sullivan has probably done more than anyone else in contemporary America to lend credence to the old so-con charge that even gay men who seem sober and worldly on the surface are emotional wrecks underneath. Ever since President Bush didn’t snap to on same-sex marriage, Sullivan’s made a habit of inflating his every petulant little emotional reaction into a matter of earth-shaking significance, as exemplified by his utterly bizarre public obsession with whether Sarah Palin is actually Trig’s mother. At this point, Sullivan’s blog is where you go to see just how classless, graceless, and common a DC status-seeker can actually be.

    It is, therefore, pretty comical to see Jonathan Rauch, ensconced for the time being as a guest poster at the Daily Dish, contrast Sullivan’s online oeuvre favorably with the ephemera emitted by most other bloggers (via the admirably restrained Megan McArdle):

    I submit that the whining of traditional journalists (you know, the kind of people who punched their tickets on newspaper police beats where they learned quaint notions of fairness and accuracy and keeping one’s opinions out of it and all that) is nothing compared to the self-congratulatory smugness of internet culture, which tells us at least five times before breakfast that it is the Great New Thing.

    It isn’t. For people who want to read and think, which is still a lot of people, the worldwide web is an incorrigibly hostile environment. Thank goodness, it is already in the process of being displaced by the far more reader-friendly world of apps, which is hospitable to quality writing and focused reading, as opposed to knee-jerk opinionating and attention-deficit-disordered skimming. The blogging format, I believe, was an outgrowth of a particular technological moment, specifically the gap between the decline of paper and the rise of HTML5. Its heyday is over.

    There are a few great bloggers out there. Andrew Sullivan is one of them. But they’re depressingly rare.

    Interesting. Sullivan can’t even get the title of the classic Dead or Alive song right—that’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” sweetie—so I assume it’s not finicking accuracy from which his Great Blogger-ness is presumed to spring. (It’s probably not his lack of self-congratulatory smugness, either, given that Sullivan seems to think that God came to him in a gay bar—yes way!—and designated him Prophet of the Benign Hidden World therein.)

    Also interesting is the locution “reader-friendly,” because what surrounds it indicates that Rauch is thinking like a writer rather than like a reader. Most of us general readers understand that books, journals, popular magazines, and blogs provide different depths of coverage for any given topic, and we weight what we read accordingly. It really isn’t all that hard to distinguish between a monograph with fifty pages of endnotes and a quickie blog item with two links. Or even a longer blog item with a boatload of links. I suspect that’s the reason that bloggers who want to present long, worked-out arguments tend to write actual books for the purpose.

    McArdle’s commenters focus mostly on how wrong Rauch is to equate blog posts with reporting, or to say that something that won’t be read decades from now hasn’t served a useful purpose, or to hold up conventional journalists as models of accuracy and impartiality. All good points, but I think there’s another to be made.

    Here’s the thing: a lot of journalists seem to assume that a grounding in j-school ethics curricula and vaguely defined “critical-thinking” skills can make up for not actually being deeply informed about what the hell they’re writing about. It drives us readers bananas. Over my eleven years in Tokyo, I participated in more conversations than I can count with other foreigners about what idiocies our home-country media routinely peddled about East Asia. Ditto the test-prep field, in which I worked for a decade. Keen observation skills, which most professional journalists undoubtedly have, just aren’t always a substitute for living in a region or working in an industry as a long-term, fully invested participant. In such situations, the blogosphere has been a very good corrective. Readers can go to blogs to see articles scrutinized and pulled apart (“focused reading,” we might call it) by actual specialists in the topic in question, and the result is an increase in both real knowledge and healthy skepticism. Most of us started bookmarking blogs precisely because we wanted to “read and think” beyond what we were already getting from standard-issue news and academic outlets.

    I’m using the term standard-issue mindedly. I swear I would be retired to Antibes by now if I had just one red cent for every article by a Real Journalist that started like this:

    Molly sits at the teak table, its top polished to a mirror shine, in her family’s kitchen. Each week Jeff comes to their gated community in a leafy, exclusive Long Island town to tutor her in SAT math. Mom and Dad met as undergrads at Tufts, but their dream for Molly is a significant step up: she’s aiming for Yale, and they’re betting $350 an hour that Jeff can get her there. Jeff himself went to Williams, and he’s one of a growing number of graduates of hyper-competitive colleges who have discovered that they can make as much money as their former classmates in corporate America by entering the burgeoning college-coaching sector blah blah blah.

    And compared to Japan, the test-prep industry gets off easy. Give me the vitality of incorrigible hostility any day of the week over that insufferable, ostentatiously contemplative, I-am-alive-to-the-Zen-like-vibrations-of-all-things-Yamato tone that no Western reporter can apparently avoid when writing about Japan. And the paradoxes—every damned thing reported about Japan has to come down to some kind of paradox. Journalists reporting on Japan will apparently accept anything done by four people in Tokyo as a trend. They make the staff of the NYT Style Section look cautious.

    This is starting to sound like the usual screed against the big, bad MSM, but that’s not where I’m going, exactly. Most reporters work hard and generate good prose, and it’s only fair to acknowledge that the grunt work they do is the basis for a great deal of blog commentary. Fine. But plenty of reporters, commentators, and editors give every indication of not knowing what they don’t know. Maybe it’s not their fault, but it means that what they produce often doesn’t stand alone as useful information about the topic at hand. Good blogs supplement it, which Rauch might know if he spent less time reading his man Andrew Sullivan.

    Watching the clothes

    Posted by Sean at 08:35, July 7th, 2011

    Instapundit observes that the LAT‘s Michael Hiltzik is “really upset” that BMW is laying off the unionized teamsters it employs directly at one of its California warehouses and going to let a contracting company handle staffing from here one. Michael Hiltzik grew up here in New York and went to Colgate, but it’s possible that he’s from a working-class rather than comfy-bourgeois family background. He sure as hell doesn’t sound like it, though. His column displays the ignorance of someone who never spends time with people who work with their hands except cabbies, waitresses, and interview subjects:

    As of Aug. 31, the plant [will] be outsourced to an unidentified third-party logistics company and all but three of its 71 employees laid off.

    The union contract will be terminated. Some of the employees might be offered jobs with the new operator, but there are no guarantees. And no one expects the new bosses will match the existing $25 hourly scale or the health benefits provided now.

    Every working American should be dismayed by — and afraid of — what BMW is doing.

    These employees exemplified the best qualities of the American worker. They devoted their working lives to BMW, at a time when it was building and solidifying its U.S. beachhead. Their wages, with benefits, paid for a reasonable middle-class lifestyle if they managed it carefully. Throw in the job security they were encouraged to expect, and they had the confidence to make sacrifices and investments that contributed to the economy for the long term, like college education for the kids, an addition on the house, a new baby. Then one day they were handed a mass pink slip, effective in a matter of weeks.

    My father worked for Bethlehem Steel when I was growing up, and he spent much time in my teenage years laid off. There are few more effective ways to get at me emotionally than to tell me about some laboring man who’s suddenly out of a job and feeling unwanted by the labor market. My father was called back to the Steel my senior year of high school and is still working for its most recent owner, so things worked out for my parents, but there were some real nail-biter years in there.

    My parents would probably have loved to own a detached house, with the possibility of putting an addition on or a pool in. But my brother and I grew up in a tiny two-bedroom rowhouse that we rented. My father made a little extra money by being the landlady’s de facto super, doing odd jobs as needed. My mother worked part-time in the cafeterias in our school district once my brother started first grade. And while my financial aid package from Penn was generous enough to allow me to go, my parents sat down with me my senior year of high school and said, “Look, kid, you may be working your way through college depending on how things go.”

    So I’m kind of lost when Hiltzik patronizingly bleats about the “reasonable middle-class lifestyle” (reasonable to whom, kemosabe?) that these people all assumed they could expect in perpetuity and have now lost. The economy has sucked for three years. Didn’t anyone stop to think about what might happen if BMW’s fortunes turned sour, or, as is happening, it decided to reorganize in order to stay financially healthy? Hiltzik talks in passive voice about “the job security they were encouraged to expect,” but you kind of have to wonder whether BMW was leading them on or the teamsters’ union just gave them to understand that it would always find a way to strong-arm the company into striking a deal to their advantage.

    Kim du Toit wrote into Instapundit with some harsher words for Hiltzik’s profilees:

    By Hiltzik’s own admission, the plain fact of the matter is that these BMW union workers were getting middle-class salaries for doing piecework. Amid all the “woe is us” stories, one attitude shines through: the unionized workforce expected a sinecure for their “loyalty” and are now devastated by finding out what we non-union workers have always known: employment is not guaranteed, and if you continue to ask for more money than the job is worth, you will eventually lose your job.

    I don’t know that sinecure is the word I’d choose, but I wouldn’t say it’s not apposite. The people Hiltzik describes probably did work hard. But having grown up with a USW father, I heard plenty of stories of coworkers who wanted to punch in, do exactly what they were told, punch out and forget about work. (I also heard plenty of stories about coworkers who were just plain lazy but were protected by the union, but for now let’s just assume that Hiltzik’s fantasy obtains and everyone involved here pulls his or her weight.) There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it means that decisions about the future of the company will be made while you’re not paying attention by people who care.

    And I can understand where Kim’s pissy tone comes from, given Hiltzik’s insufferable pious-lefty tone:

    The Ontario union, Teamsters Local 495, got Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Reps. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) to write painfully polite letters to Jim O’Donnell, chairman of BMW North America, asking him to reconsider. When I say that’s the least they could do, I’m talking literally — it’s the very least. How about hauling him before a televised hearing and having him balance out a $3.6-billion taxpayer loan with the firing of 70 American workers? The company surely wouldn’t characterize its federal loan as charity, but neither is maintaining its parts distribution workers on a living wage.

    It’s fashionable to observe today that the loyalty the BMW workers gave their employer was naive; complain to manufacturing CEOs about their remorseless hollowing out of middle-class livelihoods to maintain payouts to shareholders, and the answer you get is that this is merely the way of our hyper-competitive modern world. Nothing personal; it’s the tyranny of the marketplace.

    Yeah, I have no doubt that top management at BMW would call it “the tyranny of the marketplace”—not to acknowledge reality, but to disguise it in order to avoid bad PR. As Hiltzik himself implicitly acknowledges in the previous paragraphs, BMW and the Fed are part of the same big-government/big-business club of glad-handing and special deals for insiders, which circumvents the market forces that would crush a company like BMW if it couldn’t solve its own financial problems without an infusion of DC cash.

    And while we’re on the subject of diction: I’m not sure loyalty in this case means what Hiltzik wants it to mean. Some of the workers at the Ontario plant probably genuinely love what they do and love doing it for BMW. But dollars to doughnuts, others are just too complacent to think about changing jobs, especially if the employment market sucks and they know they’re being paid at the top end of the wage range for what they’re doing. That’s certainly rational on their part, but that doesn’t mean it’s rational not to plan for what might happen if the gravy train ever stops. When contracts expire, sometimes they’re not renewed. To paraphrase Kim, just because you’re good at what you do, that doesn’t mean the union isn’t getting you more money to do it than keeping you on is worth in the current economy. Note that I’m not just talking about what the workers themselves are paid. Hiltzik weirdly writes as if that were the only cost associated with them, but of course it’s not. Negotiations with the union and compliance with the vagaries of the NLRB (mentioned by Instapundit) and assorted regulations have to be factored in.

    My point isn’t that Hiltzik has his angels and devils reversed. Maybe BMW really is being venal toward workers who poured themselves into building the company from their own small part of it. But you can’t simply start the narrative in the present and leave it to be assumed that keeping things as they used to be is a viable alternative. Someone with actual experience of working-class life, I can’t help thinking, would have asked a lot more about the past than comes out in Hiltzik’s soft-focus flashbacks.

    The higher learning

    Posted by Sean at 08:28, June 17th, 2011

    Hi. I’ve been busy moving into a new apartment, taking a short vacation, and finishing a project at work with a very aptly styled “aggressive” deadline, so I’ve been happily unable to devote much time to thinking about unattractive leftist politicians in various states of deshabille, which seem to make up most of the news lately.

    Of course, people can be idiots with a mindless sense of entitlement with their clothes on, too. This character is all pissy that Megan McArdle’s been using his posts about defaulting on his student loan debt as a springboard for arguing that, well, defaulting on student loan debt is unethical (via Instapundit). If you want to get a sense why a growing number of people think Ivy League humanities degrees are a ripoff, just take a gander at some of his logic:

    You know who the first person was to sit me down and really talk to me about the seriousness of my debt exposure and the years of hard work I was going to have to put in to even begin to pay them off? A partner from my law firm, during the dinner my firm was having to convince me and others to accept their summer associate offers. That’s right, the first time an adult even attempted to explain to me what I had done to my future happened 18 months after I’d done it and as part of his attempt to sell me on being an indentured servant to my debt at his firm instead of somebody else’s.

    The second serious conversation I had about my debt load was during my exit interview for law school a week before I graduated.

    I’ve had to jump through more hoops to purchase a cell phone! I can’t smoke a cigarette in the park without the government stepping in to “save” me from my own choices. But I went from a happy college graduate to a person who will be in debt for the rest of his life on the advice and counsel of a form and two conversations over a three-year period.

    Excuse me if I feel like my creditors maybe took advantage of me and my admitted stupidity, just a little bit. Excuse me if, when I list the things that are important to me in my life, paying these particular people back isn’t exactly on my top ten list of things that determine my moral citizenship. The moral difference between the student loan industry and racketeering is what, exactly?

    Megan and I don’t know each other, but we were in basically the same major, at the same college, at the same time. I assume we had the same sorts of conversations with our friends junior and senior years. Everyone knew that the kids who went to medical or law school were basically mortgaging their twenties and early thirties in exchange for very high earning potential, which they would only really get to enjoy in middle age, after soldiering through years of punishing, soul-destroying work for demanding superiors…and paying off their debt. (Everyone also knew—this was twenty years ago—that tenure-track jobs in the humanities were getting scarce, which makes you wonder about all these people in the last decade who assumed they’d sail from their PhDs into secure, comfy professorships, but that’s a topic for another day.) The big loans were reasonable because of the big payoff later, as long as you didn’t mind locking yourself into one career. This was the sort of thing people talked about all the time.

    Of course, pre-med requires a lot of specific hard-science courses, so people didn’t really drift into it because they couldn’t think of anything better to do. Not so law school. Everyone who went to a hoity-toity college knows plenty of classmates who had shapeless arty/wordy careers for a few years and then decided getting a JD was the only way to convert their English major into a pile of money and prestige, whether or not they had any serious interest in jurisprudence. That the life of an attorney isn’t all like that moment in The Accused when Kelly McGillis suddenly finds that her hours of poring over reference books have yielded a way to get justice for Jodie Foster is presumably more real to them after they’re ensconced as junior associates than it was when they were in law school, but most of them realize that the grunt work is part of the bargain. Erin O’Connor had a good post the other day about, in part, aimless humanities majors that addressed this issue more generally.

    In the last few years, quite a few people really have been had by their grad schools. They went through mediocre programs with inflated placement rates and found themselves unemployable at the end. But that doesn’t describe Elie Mystal, the gentleman under discussion here. He went to Harvard College, then chose Harvard Law School (having also been accepted at Yale), then landed a job in a big-guns firm. Then he decided he didn’t like it and shouldn’t have to stay in it just because of some silly debt he’d taken at 22 when he wasn’t really thinking too hard about it. Seriously:

    I don’t expect McArdle to understand this, but you people who have actually been in one of these Biglaw jobs will understand what I’m talking: by the end, there was no amount of money my law firm could have paid me to stay. America could have been taken over by a fascist government and I could have been ordered to work at the firm, and I would have Von Trapp-ed my family over the Catskills into Canada. I know so many of you know what I’m talking about: when you are done with the particular job of being a Biglaw associate, you are D-O-N-E.

    Okay, but then you still have the D-E-B-T you signed on for. It’s perfectly understandable that Mystal decided he’d rather be a blogger and commentator than a lawyer, but plenty of people stay in jobs they hate because they have debts they voluntarily incurred and they, uh, feel obligated to pay them off.

    Perhaps it really is true that Mystal’s loan officers glossed over the amount of debt he was getting himself into, in the hopes he wouldn’t think about it too hard before getting himself on the hook. On the other hand, if he signed the damned contract and said he’d read it, what were they supposed to do—sit him down and confirm that he knew 100,000 is a Very Large Number? Your lender can assess whether you’re likely to be able to repay your loan. Your lender can’t assess whether you’re drifting into a career you might burn out on in half a decade. Anyway, given that Mystal appears to have been one of those humanities majors who were using law school to avoid dealing with the reality of the job market, it’s hard to imagine that any warnings about the reality of owing USD105 would have had much effect. And where were his parents, his advisor, his career counselor, his pastor, or his shrink in all this? When I was deciding what to do after graduation, I sought out people who I knew would make me think about the things that could go wrong, including, yes, “What if you figure out you don’t like your job five years down the line?” Mystal apparently didn’t, and now he not only wants to fob off responsibility for his own bad choices on other people but also wants to cast himself as bravely taking charge of his life. What a shyster.

    He does have a point that Megan McArdle’s analogy (between student-loan corporations and department stores) isn’t very good when you extend it, but I didn’t get the sense she was trying to extend it. Her point was to demonstrate that “Oh, well, the recipient is a big, nasty corporation” doesn’t relieve you of the moral obligation of paying the money you owe (as opposed to being able to feel morally and ethically good about yourself if you default, because everyone always knew that was an option you had). And really, even with dry goods, you can’t just use them for a while and then return them if you decide you’re tired of them. Mystal’s not alleging fraud. HLS gave him a degree that performed as promised and got him a job in a tony law firm. Now, unless I’m seriously misunderstanding, he’s just decided the work doesn’t suit him. That’s too bad, but someone with a sofa he’d bought from Macy’s five years ago would be equally unable to return it for store credit just because he decided it was the wrong shade of blue. Mystal wants his case to be instructive to others, but he himself is taking all the wrong lessons from it.

    Added on 20 June: Thanks to Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass for the link. She adds this to a post that generally agrees with what I wrote here:

    Caveat: I do think schools should educate students much better than they do about what student loans mean. They should explain how interest works, what their payment obligations will be when they graduate, what that means for what kind of major they can afford to pursue, what kind of job they will have to get, and what kinds of challenges they may have down the road when it comes to buying homes, raising families, etc. It’s well known that many undergrads today are bordering on innumeracy. A great many are financially illiterate. As I have argued before, colleges and universities have an obligation not only to ensure that they address those deficits through required coursework, but also to avoid exploiting those deficits by arranging loans they know most of their students can neither understand nor pay back.

    I don’t disagree with any of that. Indeed, one of the most ugsome things about Mystal’s line is that he’s clearly trying to slush himself together in readers’ minds with poor, unsophisticated kids who assume any loan you take out for private college or grad school will help you attain an earning potential that makes them easy to pay back. From what I’ve been reading over the last few years since returning to the States, a lot of those people are victims of outright fraud.

    Mystal is a victim of his own combination of Harvard-level book smarts and self-awareness-level woolly-mindedness. Maybe it really is true that an Aunt Louise or a Grandpa Dave could have made him change his mind by taking him aside and saying, “Look, kiddo, we’d be very proud to have a Harvard Law graduate in the family, but do you really want to commit to paying off loans until you’re 42? Why not work for a year or two…do something that lets you volunteer politically or try your hand at writing for pay before you decide to take this particular plunge?” Given his clear instinct for rationalizing whatever he’s taken it into his head to do, I’m not sure even that would have worked, though.

    Anyway, I don’t know what Harvard was like in the early ’00s, but I remember pretty clearly what Penn was like in the early ’90s. The financial aid forms were long and annoying, but you didn’t have to know much beyond the compound-interest formula to figure out what they meant in real terms. The exit interview and presentation were supposed to be pretty much a formality; if you didn’t already know what you’d gotten into, it meant that you hadn’t read what you were signing or asked one of the advisors in the financial aid office to explain what it meant the whole time you’d been in school. Not anyone else’s fault, I don’t think.

    Permanent campaign

    Posted by Sean at 23:05, April 3rd, 2011

    You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s that time again? Doesn’t it feel as if we’d just gone through this a few months ago? Make it stop, mother!

    President Barack Obama plans to send supporters a text or e-mail message announcing his intention to run for re-election, multiple Democratic sources tell CNN.

    The president is making his campaign official slightly earlier than is typical for an incumbent so he can get a jump on fund-raising in a season that’s likely to shatter all records. Obama’s team has been asking campaign bundlers to raise $350,000 each, no easy task since campaign finance laws limit gifts to $2,500 per donor. Two sources tell CNN the campaign team hopes that in total their bundlers will raise $500 million, leaving the campaign to raise another $500 million and amass a record-breaking $1 billion war chest.

    Just when I thought I’d gotten my Scotch consumption back to levels my doctor was happy with, the campaign’s starting again. Have another Antibes vacation on me, Laphroaig distillers!

    On the bright side, I’m assuming “presidential campaign bundler” counts as a type of job created (or saved) this year, so if there are that many of them that busy, we’ll have some rosier employment figures tout de suite!

    Naturally, the Obama administration can’t just say, “It’s going to be a vicious campaign, so we figured we’d get an early start on 2012.” Nope. Guess whose fault the accelerated spin cycle is?

    Oh, come on—more specific than that!

    One top Democrat says, “The Republicans are out there day in and day out beating up on the president — they’re basically running without filing. So to say we’re going first isn’t totally fair.” This person adds, “No one wants to start running now. The president is engaged in the country, this is about getting (campaign) staff up and running.”

    Additionally, top Democrats say two former White House staffers are likely to set up a third-party outside spending group. Former Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, former aide to then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have been approached by Democratic donors who are concerned about countering the influence of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers in the upcoming 2012 election.

    “Running without filing”? By opposing the other party’s president’s policies and principles (assuming they can even figure out what they are—I sure as hell can’t)? I always sorta thought that was just part of the rough-and-tumble debate we’re supposed to have in a free society. It’s not as if the GOP were relying on Tim Pawlenty or Mike Huckabee, after all, to register their displeasure; plenty of sitting congresspersons with no known presidential ambitions are also saying the president is doing a bad job.

    And is it my imagination, or is this bee in the leftist bonnet about the Koch brothers something that started buzzing really, really suddenly just several weeks ago? I mean, Gawd, now they’re commensurate in evil with Karl Rove. Pretty impressive. I’d have thought that would take a lot longer to work up to—but then, they’re libertarians, so you can’t put anything past ’em.

    In any case, the CNN piece says the announcement could come “as early as Monday morning,” so we have at least a few precious hours of tranquility left before the show starts. Where’s that bottle?

    Healing professions

    Posted by Sean at 09:22, March 7th, 2011

    Jeff is posting at Beautiful Atrocities again—latest post: “I snogged Gaddafi & all I got was this stupid nurse’s uniform.”


    Posted by Sean at 10:23, February 22nd, 2011

    My favorite comment on the Wisconsin flap to date, from one of the posters on the strangely addictive College Misery:

    I do not mind paying a fair share. Neither does anyone I work with. However, we do mind being professors on food stamps (at least 3 of my colleagues are the sole income for their families, and because our salaries are so low in the first place, they will qualify). I am OK for now–my OH makes less than I do but we don’t own a home, so our expenses can be managed. Thing Two is now two, so his daycare isn’t quite as expensive as it was before. But I am seriously rethinking living in this state if this is how it wants to treat its public sector workers…and I’m not the only one.

    As scarce as jobs in the humanities are, I might have to go back on the market—after finally earning tenure—to try to find a better-paying job. Or I might have to go back to the private sector, where I made better money and I still have connections.

    I do not want to do this.

    Really, princess? You do not want to do this?

    You don’t want to get a job with pay that’s more aligned with what you need in order to support your family, even though you could apparently do so pretty easily? Well, then, we’d better just march right up to that nasty-nasty Governor Walker and tell him you’re going to hold your breath until you turn blue if you don’t get what you want this very minute.

    I also love the flagrant, self-awareness-lacking snobbery of that whole “we do mind being professors on food stamps” thing. Public assistance is good enough for the single mothers et al. whom leftists are constantly haranguing us about helping; shouldn’t they be good enough for academics stuck in less-desirable positions? Surely living in a fashion that’s down with the proles is a good thing…for your, like, consciousness or what have you? (One might also note that every dime these people receive is already public assistance.)

    If full-time teachers are being paid so little that they qualify for food stamps, that sure does sound bizarre. But, as Wisconsin and other states are now learning, that’s what happens when you see every issue as something to be addressed through a funded government program. Keep sucking up wealth without creating any, and you don’t have enough to spend anymore. That it’s the public-sector workers who are being mistreated in this scenario is risible.

    Even better is the way that second paragraph continues:

    None of us gets into this profession for the money, but it’s disgraceful that we’re not going to be able to make decent lives for ourselves (I work in the two-year system, so we’re paid a LOT less than our counterparts in the 4-year schools).

    And if you think I should just shut up and be thankful to have a job, do me a favor and shut the f**k up. I am grateful to be employed, but I’m not going to take a kick in the teeth and ask for another one.

    They can’t live “decent lives”? Note that there’s not even the slightest attempt here to argue that these people are being paid less than the market value of the work they do, or that they’re not getting what leftists love to call a “living wage.” Maybe this writer and her other half really are living hand to mouth, but it certainly sounds as if they’re just strapped for cash like a lot of people right now: making do with a lot less than they’d like to have, but getting by.

    I admit that this kind of thing is a sore spot with me. My (USW member) father was laid off by Bethlehem Steel for an agonizing stretch in the mid-’80s. At one point, he was working night shift at the 7-Eleven, cleaning offices for Service Master, and doing odd jobs to keep us afloat. My mother worked part-time in the cafeterias in our school district. At one school, a certain teacher memorably informed her that she (my mother) should be washing her (Miss Thang the teacher’s) coffee mug because she (Miss Thang the teacher) was “a professional.” Few things play on my sympathies more than stories about overworked people who are treated like crap and have few options.

    People who want more money and have the option of changing jobs to get it? No sympathy. Being forced to choose between satisfaction and compensation is just everyday life for a lot of private-sector workers. You can’t, to coin a phrase, have everything. And if Walker’s move really is an excuse to go after public-employees’ unions, good. There’s no reason they should be able to use the coercive power of the government to wangle deals for themselves that the private-sector employees (whose taxes pay their salaries) cannot.

    If you want a laugh at the expense of the sanctimonious, BTW, read the comments attached to that post at College Misery, in which writer BurntChrome’s fellow travelers haul out every pseudo-insurgent cliche the left has ever dreamed up: “Standing behind you holding a torch and hayfork in spirit,” “speak[ing] truth to power,” “First they came for the communists…,” “Before they went after the welfare mothers and now they are going after the civil servants.” My favorite is the the commenter who claims to be—My sides! My sides!—“[h]umming the Marseillaise in your honor.” Delicious!

    Added later: Sarah also posted today about Marxist (and Marxian) fallacies about labor and value. You should RTWT, but here’s the liver of the fugu:

    To Marx value was raw material plus work. The means of producing that work (machinery, etc) were just sort of there. And he made no allowance for invention. (Which is why though Marxist revolutions often recruit intellectuals they’re the sort of intellectuals who never had an original idea in their life.) Of course in our day and age, invention and original thought are at least as important as machinery in creating product. Also, the raw material fallacy means all the countries who have nothing else to sell feel “exploited” because we’re taking their “value” away. Imbuing raw material itself with value means that it’s sort of like stealing national treasure. This has given rise to an entire colonialist-exploitation-theory of history which has held more people in misery in developing countries than the most brazen robber baron could manage. And no one, NOT ONE seems to realize that their raw materials mean absolutely nothing if not used. If someone doesn’t have an idea to use it. If the finished product is not good for something. In other words, if you’re not producing something that someone else finds useful. (I.e. enough to pay for.) If the relationship isn’t MUTUALLY beneficial.

    I kind of wish she’d used something besides the dog-turd analogy that follows, because it makes it easy for people to shrug and say, “What’s your point? No one’s arguing that people should be wasting their time shining up dog turds. We just think that professors of the arts (say) are as valuable to society as bankers, and that it’s worth using the state to transfer some money to them to recognize that, since the cold, impersonal, inhuman market doesn’t.” Nevertheless, the underlying point she’s making (or one underlying point she’s making) is a sound one: Just because you’re good at what you do and love it, that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a lot of money off it.

    A friend of mine, she cries at night/And she calls me on the phone

    Posted by Sean at 12:55, February 13th, 2011

    Crabby-ass Baby Boomer exceptionalism has been a bugbear of mine since childhood. My parents (born in ’48 and ’51) were generally pretty immune to it, thankfully, but it was everywhere once their age-mates had attained their majority and entered the media. Years ago, a commenter at Dean Esmay’s place warned that in a few decades we’d be seeing articles in Time about “The New Death,” as geezer Boomers refused to go through even their last major milestone without tarting it up as a vehicle for self-actuation. (It doesn’t seem to be archived, unfortunately—I think he suggested Nancy Gibbs as the writer, though that may have been my contribution.)

    We should have known better than to laugh, of course. Now that the first BBs are hitting 65, if they’re going to keep living independently, they’re going to need the same things Grandma did, only they don’t want to admit it. So marketing and UX people are finding ways not to tell them they’re past it (via Ed Driscoll, via Instapundit).

    Surreptitiously, companies are making typefaces larger, lowering store shelves to make them more accessible and avoiding yellows and blues in packaging—two colors that don’t appear as sharply distinct to older eyes.

    Invesco Van Kampen Consulting, an arm of Invesco Ltd., suggests financial advisers offer coffee cups with handles instead of Styrofoam (easier to hold), use lamps instead of overhead lights (less glare), and turn off the television when clients visit (background noise hampers hearing), says Scott West, a managing director.

    Euphemisms are flourishing. ADT, owned by Tyco International Ltd., is marketing its medical-alert system to aging consumers as “Companion Services.”

    Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s Depend brand, widely considered adult diapers in the past, has had a makeover in a new TV ad: “Looks and fits like underwear. Protects like nothing else.”

    Bathroom-fixture maker Kohler Co. struggled to come up with a more palatable word for “grab bar,” which boomers resist. It introduced the “Belay” shower handrail—named for the rock-climbing technique—which blends subtly into the wall of a tiled shower. “When you say, ‘We’ve got beautiful grab bars,’ [boomers] just say, ‘Naw,’ because they don’t want to identify as needing that,” says Diana Schrage, senior interior designer at Kohler’s design center.

    I have no objections to aesthetic improvements or better packaging—steel-tubing grab bars and diaper-y diapers are ugly. Why not make them more customer-friendly? And there’s no reason the elderly should resign themselves to putting on cardigans and brogues and sitting on the porch for the last twenty years of their lives. Healthy people who want to stay active should stay active.

    What’s chortle-worthy is the way Boomers love to imagine themselves as sassy, bold, in-your-face truth-tellers…but can’t handle even the slightest allusion to incontinence in an ad for adult diapers:

    “Past generations were more accepting that they had a condition, and this was the product that they have to wear,” says Mark Cammarota, Depend’s brand director. “The boomers don’t have that attitude. They demand and expect more.”

    In an effort to modernize its designs, Depend has introduced gender-specific versions and briefs with fashionable prints that imitate regular underwear. Some Depend packaging is labeled “underwear” and disguised to look like packs of cloth underwear, including transparent windows that show Depend undergarments folded just like regular briefs. The smaller packs hang on hooks instead of stacked on shelves like diapers.

    When casting for recent Depend ads, the brand looked for actors who appeared to be in their early 50s, a far cry from the brand’s former white-haired spokeswoman, June Allyson, who sometimes portrayed a grandmother.

    The new ads—which launched last month—feature a fit and flirtatious man in a coffee shop and a fashionable woman strutting down a sidewalk while tossing her hair, not a gray strand in sight.

    “We’re very subtle in that we don’t have to explain the problem and solution in the ads,” says Mr. Cammarota. “Boomers like seeing the confidence part of it.”

    Get back into life!

    Of course, Depend wouldn’t be able to get away with this if it couldn’t depend on viewers to know what product its brand name was associated with, and the reason everyone knows is that we all heard June Allyson talking about it, as forthrightly as you could on network TV, a quarter-century ago.


    Speaking of annoying delusions, Virginia Postrel posted a few weeks ago about that Kennedy miniseries that was rejected by the History Channel. Despite being a clan of jumped-up, cheap-wenching, prestige-buying, graceless, Pharisaical jerks, whose only major social contribution to date has been helping to keep the thirsty supplied with whiskey during Prohibition, the Kennedys are constantly foisted on us as some sort of American Ideal. Barf. My idea of a Kennedy docudrama would be called Sloshed: Smuggling the Hard Stuff and Swimming to Safety with Joe, Sr., and His Merry Brood, but in order to make it, I’d have to spend a lot of time thinking about the Kennedys, which I’d rather not do. Virginia links to an entertaining account of how the miniseries got scuttled. You’ll be shocked to hear that there was pressure from the Kennedys involved (particularly from Caroline, who is, you will doubtless be double-shocked to hear, a Baby Boomer).

    Virginia’s topic is glamour, and she focuses mostly on how depictions of the Kennedys (including the possible release of recordings of Jacqueline’s voice) affect their brand:

    The Kennedys’ glamour is an important income-generating asset, so I, too, doubt we’ll be hearing anything revealing. But we will hear something, which in itself is unusual.

    One of the world’s most photographed women, Jackie mostly let her carefully crafted image speak for her. (Here’s a rare photo of Jackie smoking.) Only a few public traces of her voice remain, most of them from the 1960 campaign or White House years. And unlike the graceful photos, they seem dated, calculated, and a little strange.

    Virginia links to YouTube videos of a few interviews with Mrs. Kennedy. What’s amazing is how much her self-presentation (from the shoulders up, anyway, though horsewoman Jackie obviously doesn’t walk with Marilyn’s hip-swivel) is like that of Marilyn Monroe—whispery, head-bobbing, fussy, deferential—even though they were polar opposites as icons of celebrity womanhood of the time. Now they’re both images to be maintained, and I think Virginia’s right: The feminist narrative about Marilyn Monroe is that she was a talented actress and comedienne beset by predatory men and forced into playing up the feminine vulnerability. It’s okay for her to sound a little ditzy, even if we know it’s something of a put-on, because it fits the narrative and we’re used to it. But to our ears, Jackie’s voice sounds jarring given her woman-of-arts-and-letters image, and a lot of effort is likely to go into keeping that image from being compromised.


    Title line from, of course, one of the first media products to usher in talk about the Baby Boomers’ reaching middle age. ( The Big Chill and thirtysomething and stuff had done a lot of fretting over unrealized ideals and grown-up responsibilities, but it wasn’t yet time for the OMG-we’re-almost-40! routine.) My mother played this album to death when I was a senior in high school:

    Hameau de la Reine

    Posted by Sean at 18:30, January 27th, 2011

    I grew up with uncles and cousins who hunted, family friends whose children went into the military, people who did physical labor and occasionally were injured on the job. It was just sort of assumed that everyone knew the world was a bruising place and that we were the descendants of the people who’d fought back and survived. The major part of civilization was figuring out how to cooperate or at least coexist with each other, and aggression could be channeled into good (military training or sports or debate) or ill (crime or bullying), but it couldn’t be made to disappear.

    Much of the left, though, seems to want to pretend that aggressive impulses only naturally arise in the hearts of their enemies. How else to explain everything we’ve been hearing and reading since the horrible spree killing in Arizona? When Barack Obama and other Democrats use hunting or battle imagery, it’s a particularly vivid metaphor that just shows how passionate they are about doing good despite the obstacles; when Sarah Palin and other Republicans (or, heaven help us, Tea Party members) use the same imagery, it’s a literal call to start attacking people and should scare the bejeezus out of us. Non-lefty bloggers of many political persuasions have given such arguments the drubbing they deserve many times over recently, and I didn’t particularly feel the need to weigh in.

    Then Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a piece for the LAT yesterday to defend her democratic-socialist crony Frances Fox Piven (via Instapundit via The Corner). Priven had attracted Glenn Beck’s attention by writing this column in The Nation:

    So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? After all, the injustice is apparent.

    An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.

    A loose and spontaneous movement of this sort could emerge. It is made more likely because unemployment rates are especially high among younger workers. Protests by the unemployed led by young workers and by students, who face a future of joblessness, just might become large enough and disruptive enough to have an impact in Washington. There is no science that predicts eruption of protest movements. Who expected the angry street mobs in Athens or the protests by British students? Who indeed predicted the strike movement that began in the United States in 1934, or the civil rights demonstrations that spread across the South in the early 1960s? We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.

    Now, Piven mentions several types of group action here, not all of them violent, and you might say that she didn’t choose her words well enough to identify which ones she was really endorsing. But she’s been a professor for decades. She has a PhD from the University of Chicago, an institution not known for encouraging slushy argumentation. And this was an opinion piece for publication, not (say) a dashed-off blog post that was submitted prematurely.

    I mean, suppose she’d written the following:

    An effective American political movement would combine the fired-up anger of the Greek and British riots with the peaceable techniques of the civil rights movement. It would be purposeful. Its members would make it clear that they would not be cowed, but they would also work to convince their countrymen who are still employed that everyone is part of the same struggle for social justice.

    That took me three minutes, tops. If what it conveys is what she meant, Piven could easily have said so. But she didn’t. Coolly placing riots and sit-ins in parallel allowed her to romanticize violent protest without having to say forthrightly that she’s eager to see it here in America, but “An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece…” strains plausible deniability to breaking point. The onus is on Piven to show how her words could be interpreted as opposing violence.

    Naturally, Barbara Ehrenreich doesn’t think so. She doesn’t see the aggression in Piven’s belief that “unruly mobs” would be justified, but she does see it in the empty big talk of Glenn Beck’s more volatile commenters:

    Why are Americans such wusses? Threaten the Greeks with job losses and benefit cuts and they tie up Athens, but take away Americans’ jobs, 401(k)s, even their homes, and they pretty much roll over. Tell British students that their tuition is about to go up and they take to the streets; American students just amp up their doses of Prozac.

    So perhaps economically hard-pressed Americans aren’t wusses after all. They may not have the courage or the know-how to organize a protest at the local unemployment office, which is the kind of action Piven urged in her December essay, but they stand ready to shoot the first 78-year-old social scientist who suggests that they do so.

    Look, madam, you‘re the one who wants fundamental social revolution—not American workers or students en masse. If social inequities matter so much to you and Priven and your cronies, why don’t you mob the damned city hall yourselves? You’re smart, articulate, credentialed. You have name recognition among the decision-making rich. If you impressed the American worker with your willingness to put your own comfort and status on the line, you might really start a chain reaction. (I don’t think that would actually happen, but you’re certainly more likely to encourage it through setting an example than through jabbering to fellow-travelers.)

    The explanation that people don’t know how to organize doesn’t wash. Everyday citizens belong to churches, charities, and all kinds of other groups that manage to hold meetings and fund drives. They’ve thronged to (orderly) Tea Party demonstrations. The idea that unemployed Americans are standing around thinking, “Jeez, my friends and I feel totally oppressed by the capitalists, but group-formation is for the bourgeois, so I guess we can’t do anything about it but drink more Pabst,” is just asinine. Maybe the reason people aren’t disrupting traffic and getting all screechy is that they’re busy figuring out what they can do about their own circumstances. There’s nothing even the slightest bit wussy about that.

    What is wussy—and I’m surprised people on the right haven’t jumped all over this, because it’s one of the most outrageous sentences I’ve ever read—is to say, as Piven does at the end of her editorial, “We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.” Got that, Nation readers? Don’t bother risking anything of yourselves. Wait until the churls have been out getting their heads busted long enough to make the movement a going concern, then get in on it. No one who holds that attitude or lets it pass without comment has moral grounds for bitching that America is no longer a democracy.


    BTW, I do agree that it’s stupid for people to say things like “Bring it on biotch [sic]. we’re armed to the teeth” and monstrous to say things like “We’re all for violence and change, Francis [sic]. Where do your loved ones live?” Ehrenreich’s generalized explanation for why people mention guns in the context of economic and political troubles is this: “But there is one thing you can accomplish with guns and coarse threats about using them: You can make people think twice before disagreeing with you.” Fine, point taken. I believe in answering arguments on their merits, and I’m not here to defend threats to someone’s loved ones.

    Nevertheless, I think Ehrenreich misses something important: The gun owners I know see learning how to use firearms as a manifestation of, and guns themselves as symbols of, self-reliance. You don’t ask others for help until you’ve exhausted all your own resources. You don’t sit around waiting for the government to clothe, feed, and medicate you, and you don’t sit around waiting for the police to show up when you’re menaced physically. Ehrenreich seems to want a direct causal connection between personal gun ownership and personal economic advancement, when I think what many people actually believe is that the two are both products of individualism. I’m not sure Ehrenreich would be receptive to that argument in any case, but the commenters at theblaze.com sure as hell didn’t help with their viciousness.


    One last thing that made me uneasy: What does Piven’s age have to do with anything? Offering to shoot her for her political positions is wrong, but it would have been equally wrong if she’d been thirty-eight or fifty-eight. If Piven has the vigor to write opinion pieces, she has the vigor to stand up to counterarguments.