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July 30, 2013

NY Times coverage of the Farm Bill

On the New York Times's National News page today, these two headlines appear right next to each other:

NY Times on the Farm Bill

That's 5 million people that would lose food stamp benefits if the House version of the Farm Bill passed. (The food stamps budget is still part of the Farm Bill.)

Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture sent out over $10 million in subsidies to 1,000 farmers that had been dead for over a year, and $22 million in crop insurance payments to 3,400 people who had been dead for over two years. In order to deal with this, the Government Accountability Office suggests the USDA runs its list of farmers through the wonderfully diabolical-sounding "Death Master File" before it gives more public money to dead people.

Help poor people get enough food, or subsidize dead farmers to grow commodity corn that gets turned into high fructose corn syrup. Gee, Congress, quite the political conundrum you've got there.

March 5, 2013

Hands On a Hardbody

Hands On a Hardbody

One of my favorite documentaries of all time is 1997's Hands On a Hard Body, which tells the story of an East Texas car dealership's publicity stunt of giving away a tricked-out Nissan pickup truck to the contestant who can keep one hand on the truck the longest. It goes on for many days. These kinds of contests aren't unusual, at least in Texas, but this documentary is the best kind of human drama--the stakes are high, the competition is physically and psychologically agonizing, and the contestants represent a wonderful cross-section of real-life Americans that I don't think the world's best casting director could have improved.

So of course I had to see the new Broadway musical Hands On a Hardbody, which is in previews. When you look at this production, it looks pretty weird: the book is by Doug Wright, who is most famous for winning a Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife, about a transgendered woman in Nazi Germany. BUT: Wright is from East Texas, so there you go. The music is by Trey Anastasio from Phish. I was a little worried about how jam band noodlings would work in a Broadway musical, but the songs are very catchy and represent a great range of American music: rock, country, soul, and gospel. I think it's going to do well--reviews come out in a couple of weeks.

One of the best things about the musical is that it adapts the fragmentary documentary into a narrative structure, and ties the contestants together into a coherent group, all driven by one thing: economic desperation. These people don't just think it would be nice to have a fancy truck, they really, really need this truck. There are stories of unemployment, families falling apart, and how much it sucks to be poor and stuck in a crappy little town. It's like if you take the original documentary and filter it through A Chorus Line, you'd get this musical.

Steven Soderbergh recently said that he's hoping to direct some theater now that he's stepping back from movies. This is just the kind of thing I think he'd be great at, if he decides to go big and commercial instead of doing oblique little Off-Broadway stuff. Lately his movies have been all about money and what people will do to get it. We don't often see poor, desperate people in big Broadway musicals, but maybe this will inspire him.

My main hope for this musical is that it will finally bring a proper DVD release for the documentary. Right now, used VHS seems to be the only way to see it (DVDs are selling for over $100!) It doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, either. But if the show's a hit, maybe more people will get to experience the original in all its glory.

NY Magazine has an interesting explanation of the onstage truck, which the cast members move all over the stage with remarkable ease. It's a 2001 Nissan with the engine removed, on invisible rolling casters. Cool.

May 16, 2012

NY Times hits new height of NY Times-iness

Mother and daughter, freezing eggs together

The closest thing we've got to a national, general interest newspaper is probably The New York Times*, but the paper itself seems to possess an exasperatingly adorable fixation on its imagined core audience: super-privileged white people. Non-rich Times readers roll their eyes, but we've grown accustomed to their fussy little non-news human interest stories on the lives of the very fancy, such as the difficulty of finding repair service for high-end kitchen appliances in vacation homes, yoga for dogs, and the article guaranteed to turn me into a sputtering indignant crazy person, the one about wealthy Ivy League-educated young mothers who decide they don't want to work anymore and wonder whether or not that makes them feminists, when what it really makes them is rich.

This week, the Times has almost out-Timesed itself with an article called "So Eager for Grandchildren, They're Paying the Egg-Freezing Clinic". It's got everything for the elite: the compromised fertility of aging single women, over-involved parents, and super-expensive, questionably-effective technology that only the rich and desperate can afford.

Here's the story: in a new trend among rich white people, parents who have grown weary of waiting around for their single daughters in their 30's to produce grandchildren decide to pay $8,000-18,000 for their daughters' saggy old eggs to be harvested and frozen.

Says mother Gloria Hayes of Darien, CT (who appears in the photo above, which is so perfect it's like a cliché of a cliché):

"I just didn't feel right approaching her about it, because it's almost a criticism in a way -- 'You're getting old,' " Mrs. Hayes said. When Jennifer finally floated the idea, "I was thrilled. I thought this could just take a lot of the stress off her."

...

When Brigitte Adams, a San Francisco marketing consultant, brought up the idea of freezing her eggs to her parents, her father quickly approved. So quickly that, for a moment, Ms. Adams felt stung. "It was a little degree of shock," she said. "This is actually real if they're pushing me towards this," she recalled thinking at the time.

The really wonderful/horrible thing about this article is that these parents have found a way to both emphasize their children's advancing age and waning fertility, and infantilize them at the same time!

One more thing: in a coincidence that seems strange at first, but upon reflection is almost too perfectly on-the-nose, two of the young women featured in the article now write for blogs about their personal egg-freezing experiences. Eggsurance.com and RetrieveFreezeRelax.com. I know.


* There's also USA Today, but I don't think anyone reads it unless it's dropped in front of their hotel room door.

April 18, 2012

Why we love eating crap

Junk food in grocery stores

It's become very fashionable to talk about the concept of "food deserts" as an explanation for why so many Americans, especially poor Americans, don't eat healthy food and are overweight. The thinking goes, if poor people had access to fresh produce and other healthy food, they would eat better, and be less fat. But they don't have access, so they eat Ding Dongs and pork rinds and whatever you can get at a liquor store snack rack.

Personally, I think this line of thinking is garbage, which is why I'm so psyched about an article in today's Times about the myth of the food desert and access/inaccess to healthy food as a predictor of weight problems. Two new studies basically debunk two big ideas that went into the "food desert" myth: that poor urban neighborhoods don't have grocery stores, and that living close to a grocery store makes it less likely that you'll be overweight.

Turns out there are just as many grocery stores in poor neighborhoods as in rich ones, and proximity to a grocery store has no bearing on thinness or fatness. The scientists involved didn't propose an explanation for this, but I have a few of my own. First, EVERYBODY LOVES TO EAT CRAP. Also, JUNK FOOD COMPANIES SPEND BILLIONS ON ADVERTISING.

It really bugs me when people in positions of power talk about how to change poor people's eating habits, as though poor people are powerless to make good decisions about what they want, and if a kind benefactor just paid for a bunch of green carts selling fruits and vegetables (like we have all over NYC now) poor people will gratefully enrich their diets with wholesome produce and stop having diabetes and heart disease.

Look at rich people, who supposedly have ample access to fruits and vegetables and pretty much anything else they want! Have you seen a menu at a fancy restaurant lately? With all the expensive and totally unhealthy pork belly hash and the duck fat tater tots and dates wrapped in bacon and peanut butter and, God help us, fried pizza?

The fact is, whether we have nice produce at our grocery stores or not, and whether we shop at Whole Foods or at a corner store, we as humans still love to eat greasy, fatty, sugary garbage. We can't help it. As Cintra Wilson once wrote, left to our own devices, people would consume nothing but bacon, cans of whipped cream, and Starburst.

The other problem is grocery stores themselves--even in rich neighborhoods in New York, I see anemic looking pink tomatoes and gnarly wilted lettuce and shriveled green beans all the time. Gristede's sucks whether it's in Washington Heights or the West Village. It's not like "nice neighborhood" or "grocery store" means "decent produce" in this city. And you can bet every store's shelves are well stocked with an impressive selection of Pringles™.

But changing people's behavior is a whole lot harder than just installing some green carts, if you're concerned about healthy eating. Plus it might mean looking critically at how rich people behave, which I seriously doubt is any better than poor people in terms of Cheetos™ consumption. Maybe the only thing that unites Americans now is potato chips.

November 8, 2011

Ai Weiwei and Chinese philanthropy

Ai Weiwei

There's been a great story developing for the past few days about everyone's favorite dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who was detained for three months earlier this year for "tax evasion", and now isn't allowed to leave Beijing.

Now 20,000 of his supporters in China have been sending him money. A lot of money: over $900,000 so far. The cover story is that people want to help Ai pay his $2.4 million tax bill, but since everyone knows the reason the Chinese government is watching him has nothing to do with taxes, and since he claims he has plenty of money and doesn't need the donations, it's really a big spontaneous diss to the government.

The state of philanthropy in China is weird. The country has plenty of rich people, and increasingly a lot of charitable rich people, but there's historically been a lot of suspicion about giving money to nonprofit organizations that are essentially controlled by the government, and could be shut down if they take a critical stance. Or setting up a foundation that might be private in name, but is ultimately controlled by the government. And I'm pretty sure there aren't tax benefits for donating money in China.

Which is why I love that so many people are going straight to Ai Weiwei's house and literally wrapping money around pieces of fruit, or folding it into paper airplanes, and throwing it into his yard. They're also wiring him cash. One donor said he sent money because it's "a rare opportunity to support what I believe. I will keep my receipt of the postal order forever, because it is my first real vote."

Here's a bit about the government response to the public outpouring of support for him:

In a commentary Monday, the state-run Global Times cited unnamed experts as saying Ai could be suspected of "illegal fundraising." It also said the movement did not represent the larger Chinese population. "It is absolutely normal for a certain number of people to show their support for him with donations. But these people are an extremely small number when compared with China's total population."

"Illegal fundraising"?! Regular Chinese people are throwing their money at this man's house. Ai hasn't decided if he'll pay his tax bill or not, because it would imply his arrest was justified.

But regardless of whether he sucks it up and pays the bill or not, people are using their money and philanthropy to make themselves heard. Ai says, "The government hates this the most."

October 10, 2011

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you

Take Shelter

Remember two years ago when Up In the Air came out, and people said it was the perfect movie for our times because it was about layoffs? How simple life was back in 2009. Here in 2011, Take Shelter is the perfect movie for our times, because it takes every paranoid thought you've ever had about our unhealthy, unfair, and dangerous world and how it's going to ruin your life and/or kill you, then shows that those thoughts are 100% correct.

Michael Shannon plays a regular Midwestern family man who slowly becomes consumed by paranoid delusions about violent storms, attack dogs, shadowy evil figures and other nightmarish stuff. His delusions create all kinds of problems for his confused family and co-workers who pretty much think he's nuts. He figures he must be nuts, too: his mother is schizophrenic, and he assumes he must be going down the same path.

Except here's what makes this movie so great, and so important to watch if you've ever felt overwhelmed by the terrifying realities of our world and tried to convince yourself that you're just over-reacting. YOU'RE NOT. Look around! If you watch the news, you know the terror is real. Masses of birds really do fall dead from the sky. Tornadoes destroy towns and kill hundreds of innocent people. Tsunamis and earthquakes level cities. Unethical banks have ruined our economy. It's enough to make a sane person become unglued. If this world doesn't sometimes make you feel like you're going crazy, you're probably not paying attention.

Take Shelter might be the greatest vindication for rational paranoia I've ever seen. It's like if Signs and Don DeLillo's "White Noise" both represented logical responses to everyday life. Michael Shannon has made a career out of playing unhinged people, from a wild-eyed, contamination-obsessed maniac in Bug to the truth-speaking institutionalized neighbor in Revolution Road. No one's better at making insanity look both agonizing and like a perfectly reasonable response to being alive. Ebert describes him as "an actor of uncommon force." This guy's gonna to win himself an Oscar some day soon.

August 26, 2011

Be prepared!

Hurricane Irene path

As the east coast prepares to get pounded by Hurricane Irene, I bet a lot of us in the Northeast are finding ourselves in the strange position of wondering what exactly we're supposed to do to prepare. Sure, we know how to drive in snow and that the best way to cope with a 100+ degree day is to go the movies, but we're not used to hurricanes. What if we actually get hit by hurricane-level wind and rain and really bad things start to happen?

It wasn't until this morning that I thought about the possibility of an evacuation of some parts of the city and greater region. I stood in the shower, listening to Bloomberg talk about possible evacuations on the radio, and realized that everywhere I thought of as a safe place to go in case of a bad storm was actually just further along the storm's likely path. Hmm. Where exactly would I go? Scranton?

I had an unsettling mental image of myself innocently wandering into Port Authority with a backpack and some vague notion of hopping on a Greyhound bus headed anywhere west, and being swept up in a chaotic horde of thousands of pissed off New Yorkers who don't have cars and all decided at around 6:30 on Saturday that the Lower East Side and Red Hook aren't the greatest places to be in a city where the streets flood on regular rainy days, fighting over standing space in the aisle of a Coach USA bus to Binghamton that's filled with screaming children and has an overflowing toilet in the back.

It's probably not going to happen that way. My guess is, it'll rain like hell and be windy and wild, the subways will flood and shut down, and maybe, worst case scenario, we'll lose power for a day or two.

So I'm preparing by ensuring I have plenty of the following things: clean underwear and cash. And some beer in the fridge.

In a piece on NPR this morning about how the big box stores are stocking up on essential items, I heard that the rest of America has a similarly cavalier attitude to their post-storm preparations. What's the single item that most people rush to Walmart to buy for a major storm? Batteries? Drinking water? Generators? Nope. Strawberry Pop-Tarts. That's true American grit.

Nate Silver calculates that, even if a Category 1 storm hits land 50 miles from Manhattan, the damage will be in the multi-billions of dollars, and if it's a direct hit, tens of billions. A weak Category 2 storm hitting Manhattan would cause damage worth half of the city's annual budget.

Gothamist has a map of the city's evacuation zones (the link to the city's map is reeeally slow today.) Don't go to the beach, and stay safe, everyone.

May 18, 2011

Some guys just have the knack

Officer Moreno, charged with rape     Dominique Strauss-Kahn, charged with rape

New York has a couple of high-profile alleged rapists in the news: Officer Kenneth Moreno, accused of raping a drunk woman in her apartment, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of attacking and raping a maid in his hotel room.

Let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that Moreno and Strauss-Kahn did in fact rape their respective victims. Both of these guys are opportunist rapists: I don't think either attack was premeditated, but when they realized they'd encountered vulnerable women they thought they could take advantage of, they went for it.

But one of these guys could teach the other a thing or two about how to commit rape if you want to get away with it:

First, pick a woman who is totally wasted. That makes it harder for her to defend herself, and makes it easier to discredit her in court. Officer Moreno is a real pro at this one, with the added bonus of being an alcoholic himself, so he could tell a story to the jury about how he empathized with his victim and spent those four visits to her apartment counseling her through her addiction, spooning in her bed, and singing "Livin' On a Prayer" to her.

Strauss-Kahn, on the other hand, selected a sober, able-bodied woman for his attack, and while he apparently was able to ejaculate somewhere during the assault (EWW EWW EWW), she eventually fought him off and got away.

Second, wear a condom. That way, there's less chance of physical evidence. Officer Moreno confessed to his victim, who was wearing a wire, that he used a condom when he raped her (and has subsequently gone through all kinds of bizarre logistical contortions to explain that one.) But he successfully avoided leaving any trace of his bodily fluids in the apartment or on his victim, while Strauss-Kahn's genetic material is being extracted from the Sofitel carpet and analyzed as we speak.

And we have the NY Post to thank for this additional piece of advice: you should wear a condom in case the woman you rape is HIV+.

We'll know in the next day or two if Officer Moreno gets away with it or not. I think it's going to be a lot harder to get to a guilty verdict for him than it will be for Strauss-Kahn, if he ever goes to trial. He may be a brilliant economist, but he's one sloppy rapist.

I hope they both get locked up forever.

April 19, 2011

Oil spill victims

Victims of the BP oil spill in Mathews, LA

This is my favorite photo related to the BP oil spill. It was taken at a meeting about compensation claims. I love these guys. All the anger, desperation, and weary determination that people in the Gulf Coast have been experiencing for the last year is all over their faces.

The photo is part of an article about the anger people in the region have for Ken Feinberg and the shoddy treatment they're getting in the compensation claims process. By many accounts, the process has been inconsistent, opaque, slow, and generally ineffective in helping people affected by the spill. Feinberg's law firm has been running the victims' fund since July, and in that time have given out less than 20% of the total fund. And they recently got a raise from BP. It seems like whatever hatred people had for BP when it all started a year ago has now been transferred to Feinberg.

In response to complaints that the claims system doesn't work, the article says that Feinberg admitted "there may be inconsistencies. But I think those inconsistencies are relatively rare."

I'd like to see him stand in front of these guys from Mathews, Louisiana and say that to their faces.

There's a really good series of short articles about different people affected by the oil spill in the Times, including a restaurant owner, a shrimper, and a Vietnamese shipyard worker.

April 18, 2011

Hey everybody, it's TAX DAY!

Tax forms

There are a few different approaches you can take to paying your taxes:

  • Protest large corporations that rake in billions in profits yet somehow don't pay any taxes at all (e.g. MoveOn.org's protests at Bank of America and Boeing.)
  • Protest the very existence of a federal government and its tendency to spend money on things (e.g. the Tea Party's "out of control spending" rallies.)
  • Feel mild resentment about the things you don't support that you know your taxes are helping to pay for (wars, high fructose corn syrup) but pay anyway because it's the right thing to do, plus you have to.
  • Refuse to pay your taxes for 10 years due to a belief that law enforcement and the IRS are part of the "Zionist Illuminati", stockpile weapons, and end in an 8-month standoff with US marshals, like Ed and Elaine Brown of Plainfield, NH.
  • Derive a certain dorky satisfaction from doing your civic duty and making sure that you and the government and your fellow citizens are square. In more ways than one.

Related to that last approach (where I ended up this year) I really like what David Foster Wallace has said about taxes. In 2005, he wrote a letter while researching The Pale King, saying, "I have a vague, hard-to-explain interest in accounting and tax policy (utterly divorced from my own taxes, which I pay promptly and fully like an Eagle Scout)."

He's a little self-deprecating about his dutiful approach to taxes, but he's more profound in his essay about grammar, "Authority and American Usage", which appears in Consider the Lobster. In a discussion of politically correct language, he ends up comparing right and left ideological arguments about redistributing wealth through taxes, pointing out a huge mistake by the left in framing taxes as some sort of charity:

Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people's sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people.

Along the same lines of paying taxes as a form of self-improvement, there's a great short essay on leftist fiscal policy website Our Fiscal Security called "Giving Meaning to Taxes". Here's an excerpt:

Most other things that require effort and sacrifice--family, service, charity, and volunteerism--have virtuous, or at least redeeming, meaning associated with them ... The stories we tell about tax day reflect a chronic disconnection from our role as citizens; they are devoid of civic meaning. Taxes pay for the things that underpin our public life and connect us to one another through our communities, our states and our country. When we lose sight of this, taxes are seen as merely depriving us of our individual property. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as stewards of a common good, as citizen managers of public systems and structures that secure the city, state and country we live in, then taxes are our contribution to something important that is bigger than we are.

Let's thank our grandparents and great-grandparents for building the highway system, Social Security, and public universities, and pay our taxes with a cheerful, Eagle Scout smile.

December 7, 2010

How have the Democrats caved today?

Obama caves on taxes

Today's "deal" between Obama and Republican members of Congress is yet another example of Democratic insecurity and timidity that is starting to border on some kind of pathological political personal disorder. OK, Obama felt like it was more important to get extended unemployment benefits than to go to the mat over the Bush tax cut issue, and everybody seems to like the payroll tax cut (even though it doesn't help poor people in any particular way.)

But also lowering the estate tax for multi-million dollar inheritances?! As the Times wrote in an editorial, "That is not compromise. It is capitulation."

Here's a perfect illustration of how desperate the Democratic self-esteem problem has gotten. On NPR this morning, former Democratic representative and current political commentator Martin Frost said, "The worst thing that can happen for Democrats right now would be to block anyone from getting a tax cut because we're mad about the wealthy getting tax cuts, and then have the economy continue to deteriorate – then we'd be in real trouble."

But, Morning Edition asks, wouldn't the Republicans actually be blamed for refusing to compromise and raising taxes for the middle class?

Martin Frost replied, "You're asking me why the Democratic Party isn't very good at messaging right now? I don't have an answer for that."

That's it right there: even when the Republicans make it glaringly obvious how little they care about anybody but rich people, the Democrats still willingly take the blame for bad policies and a bad economy.

Democrats need to stop being so weak and start feeling strong and powerful. This party needs a hot bath, a cute new outfit, lots of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and some inspirational posters with unicorns on them to hang up around the congressional chambers.

Believe in Yourself poster

March 12, 2010

Public money double standard

Boys and Girls Clubs vs. Lockheed Martin

Today we heard that a group of Senators in the Finance Committee (all Republicans, btw) are concerned about the total compensation that the CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs Roxanne Spillett receives, which when you add up her salary, benefits, bonus, and payments into her retirement fund, is almost $1 million. The Senate is considering renewing a grant to Boys & Girls Clubs of $425 million over five years, but until the organization answers questions about the CEO's salary and their high travel budget, these Senators say they're not making any grant.

You probably know that Boys & Girls Clubs of America runs local centers for kids in cities all over the country. They do mentoring and after-school education programs for kids, mostly in poor neighborhoods. Their annual budget is over $100 million, and in 2007 they were the 7th biggest nonprofit organization in the country.

The Senators are concerned that this million dollar compensation for a CEO is too high, because she is the CEO of a charitable organization that receives public funds for about 40% of its budget.

This makes me want to spit. I don't necessarily think the CEO of a nonprofit should make $1 million a year (Roxanne Spillett's actual salary is $360,000) and I bet that the Clubs' staff who work directly with youth probably get unfairly low pay, like almost everyone in the nonprofit sector does. But this congressional scrutiny is based on an unspoken assumption that people who work for nonprofits should not be well compensated for their work. Like the sense of well-being they get from helping people should be adequate justification for a meager salary. Especially when some of that salary is paid for with public funds.

This is crap. Let's look at another big recipient of public support: Lockheed Martin. Lockheed is the world's largest defense contractor, and 85% of its income comes from the US government, i.e. public money.

Last year, Lockheed's CEO Robert Stevens' salary actually fell by 10%, due to government spending cutbacks and everything that was happening with the economy. So that reduced his compensation to $20 million. TWENTY MILLION DOLLARS. 85% of which is paid for by US taxpayers.

Lockheed is a much larger organization than Boys & Girls Clubs; it had $43 billion in revenue last year. The Washington Post said some people saw Lockheed's top salaries as "insensitive" during last year's financial crises.

When our government gets suspicious of generous executive compensation and questions travel budgets and benefits packages, and they go after the $1 million compensation of the head of one of the largest nonprofits in the country that helps 4.8 million kids a year, but don't think twice about the $20 million salary of the head of a weapons manufacturer that US taxpayers are funding, it drives me up the wall.

Another thing: Lockheed Martin is a publicly traded company. That means most of the shareholders' income essentially comes from US taxpayers, too. Apparently our government thinks it's OK for shareholders and executives to get rich using the public's money, but only if those people are making weapons. Not if they're helping kids.

Roxanne Spillett, I bet you earn every penny.

May 9, 2009

Who'dat?™: The ravages of age

Today's celebrity photo isn't quite tricky enough to be a Who'dat?™. But it does speak volumes about how strange people look as they get older and their faces get weirdly taut and sort of horizontally elongated.

Who'Dat?

Try to guess who this is, then click on the photo to see if you are right.

But OK, I'll just tell you.

Tori's features, which could be attributable to something other than bad plastic surgery, I guess, aren't even the weirdest part of this Reuters article. She has a new album out soon called Abnormally Attracted to Sin, and guess what it's about. Female sexuality? Faeries? Freaking out on peyote? Nope. The economy!

"The world has changed completely, it seems, in the past two years. The world that we all knew before, could wake up in feeling safe, now it seems that everything has been turned upside down," Amos told Reuters in an interview.

"The record is asking all kinds of questions about power -- how do we define it? Because if it's with money then we're all in trouble. And what is success? What are we attracted to? Because it kind of needs to change.

"I started thinking we can redefine what is a sexy, powerful male. To me that's the greatest challenge we have right now, because if we don't, a lot of relationships are just going to be ripped apart."

OK everyone, here's what you can do for our crumbling economy. Take Tori's advice, and make out with a sexy unemployed guy!

April 27, 2009

Timely programming

Law and Order: CI, Michael Emerson

While flipping channels in a hotel room the other day, I landed on the Washington, DC version of My9 (which is called My20, and is just as bad) and an old episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Some darkly clever programmer picked the single episode of that show that would most freak everyone out last week, amidst the growing trend of people deciding to kill their families.

The episode is called "Phantom", and was from the first season of the show, in March 2002. It's about a seemingly respectable middle-aged man who gets caught living a lie and making fraudulent investments with his family's money when his elderly father starts asking to withdraw his cash. The man starts to panic, and finally tries to kill his young children so they won't learn the truth and despise him.

Familicide--ripped from the 2009 headlines! Creepy. And who plays the fraudulent schemer but BENJAMIN LINUS!

You can watch an edited version of the episode on YouTube that gives you all the good parts in under 15 minutes. Including a particularly awesome Vince D'Onofrio, talking down a shotgun-wielding Ben Linus in an absurdly melodramatic, yet oddly affecting, speech that shows all the best and weirdest aspects of his character. That show was better than I think I realized at the time.

April 10, 2009

Recession roundup

Abolish Money photo

[from NY Times Picturing the Recession series]

Here's a brief list of things people are doing right now as a result of the recession, besides the usual cutting back on expenses and getting canned:

March 30, 2009

So that's why my friends in advertising are getting laid off

Empty billboards in Times Square

This austere, zen-like photo of empty billboards in the middle of Times Square is from Slate's Shoot the Recession series. This one is especially recognizable as I've been noticing the empty storefronts and dark signs around midtown lately. Could this signal the demise of the cleaned-up, corporate New Times Square? The last 42nd St peep show, Peep-O-Rama, closed in 2002; we could be due for a porny backslide.

The entire photostream is on Flickr, which includes some good shots of a boarded-up Bank of America window, a 50% Off sale at a liquor store (don't see that every day) and an Always Open store with both "Closed" and "For Lease" signs in the windows.

The Times now has a similar online photo submission thing called Picturing the Recession, so you can share your own financial desperation with the world.

February 4, 2009

Recession hits the Times Dining section

Biggest Loser kitchen

Hard times seem to have arrived all at once at today's Dining section. The main articles include a piece on the desperate measures expensive restaurants are taking to get people to come in; peanut butter as a recession-proof source of protein that everybody loves, salmonella be damned (though I was stunned to learn that smooth far outsells crunchy in American homes. I'm a superchunk girl.)

The other main feature is about NBC's "The Biggest Loser", which appears in the Dining section although the main involvement that the show's contestants have with food is that they don't eat any of it. Also odd that they chose to cover the show now, when it's been on for 7 seasons, but I guess now is a good time to report on a show that encourages viewers to alternately fast and eat nothing but asparagus (which makes you pee your weight off, apparently.)

I've never watched a whole episode of "The Biggest Loser", and the only bits I've seen consisted of overweight people suffering through byzantine and painful-looking physical challenges. The Times focuses on the diet part of the competition, and uncovers all kinds of really freaky relationships with food that contestants have, which are probably intensified by having to lose hundreds of pounds with piles of money at stake, while on national TV.

Some especially crazy highlights from the article:

  • "The first two weeks, you're throwing up so much from working out, you're so tired, the last thing you want to do is eat," said Ed Brantley, a chef in Raleigh, who in the last season lost 139 pounds (more than 40 percent of his body weight). [This is because they work out SIX TO TEN HOURS A DAY.]
  • Soon, food becomes the devil they love to control. Every contestant is required to eat a minimum number of calories each day and is supposed to keep a daily food journal to prove it. But many of them actually eat less. "It gets so you crave that feeling of going to bed with hunger pains in your stomach," said Erik Chopin, a Long Island deli owner who won the show in 2006, going to 193 pounds from 407.
  • During scheduled "temptations," contestants are bribed to eat junk food with prizes like cash and calls home, sometimes while locked in a dark room with mountains of candy. "We want to simulate the real world in there," said Dave Broome, a co-creator of the show. [Mountains of candy? That's a real world I want to live in.]

The upshot of the article is that once they're back in the actual real world, the one with food other than broccoli and kale in it, most contestants put the weight back on.

Though this is definitely the most belt-tightening Dining section I've ever read in the Times, it also features a Frank Bruni review of the Oak Room, "A Waltz of Gilt and Truffles", that contains this: "My fork sank into tender venison in a classically dark, rich, winy sauce as my eyes traveled up, up, up the sculptured oak walls toward a ceiling more than two stories high. That ceiling was framed by yard upon yard of gold molding and trim. If heaven is wood-paneled, it probably looks something like this."

The rest of us will just stick with our peanut butter and carrot sticks.

October 2, 2008

The South Bronx on the $700 Billion Bailout

James Jacobs talks to the NY Times

As always, the Times does a great job of going into neighborhoods and asking New Yorkers what they think about national political or economic events. They went to the Morrisania neighborhood in the Bronx and asked residents about the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. Responses are funny, and show a clear, and justifiably cynical understanding of what's going on:

On a chair outside Johnson’s Barbecue on Tinton Avenue in the Bronx, Keith McLean had thoroughly considered the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. "That’s for C.E.O.'s.," said Mr. McLean. "And I am a P-O-O-R."

The accompanying video captures the best bits, with one guy on camera and another guy shouting commentary off-camera:

"It’s corporate America doing what corporate America does," Mr. Jacobs said.

"Organized crime," Mr. McLean said.

"It's the new organized crime," Mr. Jacobs said.

"Ain’t nothing new about it," Mr. McLean said.

"We're not going to see none of that," Mr. Jacobs said. "Not one red cent."

One woman in the video is worried about her 401k and that the effects of bank failures will eventually trickle down to her. But the guys at the barbecue, who don't exactly raise concerns about their investments, had more to say about the aspect of the meltdown that affects them personally--the irresponsible lending that caused it in the first place.

"I was out of work there for a couple of years, and I ended up with three credit cards. American Express. Visa. I forget the other one. And the banks give all these loans to people knowing they can’t pay, but they get a commission."

These guys should open a financial advisory service. If they tell me I should put my savings in shoeboxes and hide it behind the couch cushions, I'm doing it.

September 18, 2008

The Joads, 70 years later

Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother

One of the books I read in high school English was The Grapes of Wrath, which we read for its social commentary on the Great Depression-era exploitation of desperate people and their struggle to maintain some dignity as they fight to survive. Mostly what I remember about that book is being grossed-out by the last scene in which Rosasharn breastfeeds a dying old man. That one scene probably prolonged millions of teenagers' feelings of confusion and revulsion over their adolescent bodily development for many months or years.

But one other scene I remember is where Pa Joad, the patriarch of the Joad family that we follow on their journey to find work out west, is confronted by a man who explains the harsh economic truth behind the myth of plentiful jobs in California that all the people in the migrant camp have been clinging to.

From the screenplay based on the book:

"How many of you all got them han'bills? Look at 'em! Same yella han'bill--800 pickers wanted. Awright, this man wants 800 men. So he prints up 5,000 a them han'bills an' maybe 20,000 people sees 'em. An' maybe two-three thousan' starts movin, wes' account a this han'bill. Two-three thousan' folks that's crazy with worry headin' out for 800 jobs! Does that make sense?"

Today, AP describes our current economic situation as "the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression". In another article, they describe modern-day Joad families setting up tent cities in western towns where people have come expecting to find jobs. Except that instead of looking for fruit picking jobs in California, they're looking for casino jobs in Reno:

A few tents cropped up hard by the railroad tracks, pitched by men left with nowhere to go once the emergency winter shelter closed for the summer. Then others appeared — people who had lost their jobs to the ailing economy, or newcomers who had moved to Reno for work and discovered no one was hiring.

Within weeks, more than 150 people were living in tents big and small, barely a foot apart in a patch of dirt slated to be a parking lot for a campus of shelters Reno is building for its homeless population. Like many other cities, Reno has found itself with a "tent city" — an encampment of people who had nowhere else to go.

Out of a dozen people interviewed in the tent city, six had come to Reno over the last year, hoping for casino jobs.

"I figured this would be a great place for a job," said Max Perez, a 19-year-old from Iowa. He couldn't find one and ended up taking showers at the men's shelter and sleeping in a pup tent barely big enough to cover his body.

The casinos are actually starting to lay off employees.

The article also refers to growing tent cities in Santa Barbara, Fresno, Portland, Seattle, Chattanooga, San Diego, and Columbus.

June 12, 2008

Straight people: Start being more like non-straight people

I love my Moms

Lisa "Opt out revolution" Belkin has a piece in the upcoming NYT magazine about parents who, radically, share the work. The Times is clearly prepared for this to be the most-emailed article of the week, having already given Belkin a blog entitled "Equal Parenting". As usual with Belkin, the article is really about middle class problems. Although she claims that the maldistribution of domestic work persists across economic classes, this 'solution' is apparently only appropriate for middle class couples.

Many of the couples in Belkin's article used an organization called Third Path, to help them figure out how to organize work and family time. Third Path will give couples "one-on-one coaching to develop their unique work-family solution" for the low, low price of about $125 per hour. Third Path helpfully suggests that you could give (or request) this coaching as a wedding or baby shower gift. Ew.

This week the Times also published a piece on what straight folks can learn from same-sex couples,(something Belkin also discusses):

"In heterosexual couples, women did far more of the housework; men were more likely to have the financial responsibility; and men were more likely to initiate sex, while women were more likely to refuse it or to start a conversation about problems in the relationship. With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally."

So the take home message seems to be: Be fairly wealthy, be more like gay people, pay for expensive life coaching.

Image by arimoore.

May 13, 2008

Third World? Third Helpings!

McDonalds in India

That title was coined by a friend, T-Rock, when reports of growing obesity rates in developing countries emerged a few years ago.

But now it relates to Bush's recent explanation for why we are in the middle of a global food shortage--people in poor countries are eating too much.

This is incredible: in talking about the food crisis, Bush referenced India and its growing middle class. "When you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up."

High demand for food is because of India? So if all those people in India would just stay poor and malnourished, there would be plenty of food to go around! Wow.

A representative from a poverty research institute in India hit back, and is quoted by the Times as saying:

"If Americans slimmed down to the weight of middle-class Indians, many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates." He added, archly, that the money spent in the United States on liposuction to get rid of fat from excess consumption could be funneled to feed famine victims.

Americans eats an average of 3,770 calories a day, which is more than anyone else in the world according to the UN, and 50% more than what the average Indian eats per day.

Maybe Bush is coming down on India for being such greedy snack-hogs because they've ignored his recent request to stop their plans to pipe gas into their country from Iran. Of course, they'll probably just use the pipeline to blast in more delicious Iranian cakes and halva and kebabs, those piggies!

April 15, 2008

Tax Day: It's on like a pot of neck bones

Today's a good day to pause and think about the Official Tax Preparer of Amy's Robot, Mo' Money Taxes. You should probably take the time to go and watch all of their brilliant commercials, featuring words of wisdom such as "yesterday I had no money, but today I got mo' money because of Mo' Money Taxes and it's on like a pot of neck bones!"

Another great thing about Mo' Money Taxes is their clever, subtle use of scare tactics:

money.jpg


Here you see three black women being tied up by thuggish white guys who work for a nasty Other Tax Company and are going to take all of their money. Good thing they can go to Mo' Money Taxes instead!

The latest ad is known as Mo' Money Vice which is like Miami Vice, but with more taxes and more bootyliciousness.

April 8, 2008

Childcare solutions

workbaby.jpg

The US has the stingiest parental leave policies in the world, so apparently some companies are now trying something new. According to a number of recent articles, at least 83 companies are now encouraging mothers to bring their pre-crawling babies to the office. There's even an organization dedicated to promoting Babies in the Workplace which claims that "having babies out in society gives people who otherwise don't see babies an opportunity to enjoy the calming and rejuvenating effect of them. " Uh-huh. I could say the same for puppies and loud hip-hop music.

As you can imagine, not all co-workers like the idea:

"I do not go to work every day to listen to the breeders' brats scream all day and to smell their baby poo diapers. And I certainly don't want to walk past a cubicle to see some woman breastfeeding her baby. NO."

Actually, that quote sounds like it's from someone who just hates kids in general.

There's a lot that doesn't seem good about this trend. As Zoe Williams points out: "If you're being asked to do your job and your childcare at the same time, the implication is that one of those things is not work."

Many of the bosses and parents quoted in these stories act like this is a great benefit. Compared to no paid parental leave, I guess it's not a bad thing. But I hardly think most parents would choose to bring their cute little screamer to work if they only had some more appealing options.

February 28, 2008

America's weird orange jumpsuit fetish

America's Prisons

In a study by Pew, we learn that America has more people in prison or jail than any other country in the world. "Is that a higher percentage of the population in prison, or more actual prisoners?" you ask. Smarty pants. Both!

We started 2008 off with 2.3 million people in prison or jail, compared to 1.5 million in China, a country with nasty human rights practices and a population 4 times bigger than ours.

That's 1% of the adult population overall. 1 in 100 American adults is in prison or jail. Among young black men, it's 1 in 9. That's right, 11% of young black men are incarcerated. That's ten times more than the rest of the population.

Why do we lock up so many of our citizens? Because we can. Or rather, we can when our economy is doing well. A director at Pew says, "We tend to be a country in which incarceration is an easy response to crime. Being tough on crime is an easy position to take, particularly if you have the money. And we did have the money in the '80s and '90s." Now that we're broke, we're thinking that violating parole or driving drunk maybe isn't worth $45,000/year per prisoner.

Recently, the states with the most people in prison have reconsidered locking up so many of their citizens--but not because it's a terrible system that doesn't work. Mostly because it's so expensive.

So our country has swung from the "tough on crime" era of the '80's to the "let's spend our money on more important things, like the war on terror and tax rebates" philosophy of the current decade.

The Voice did an article a few years back about so-called million dollar blocks, or individual city blocks where the state is spending at least $1 million per year to incarcerate some of its residents. It was a great piece about all the creative and wonderful things you could do for one city block with a million dollar investment every year, apart from the tempting option of locking up a the same group of people over and over again.

January 30, 2008

Edwards is out

John Edwards

John Edwards is withdrawing his candidacy today after a string of third place finishes in early primaries. Things were looking pretty good after he beat Hillary in Iowa, but since then he's been at around 15% in other early voting states.

The bad news: those of us in later voting states can't support the candidate who more than any other talked about the reality of poverty in America, who kept public attention on the ongoing public service disaster in New Orleans and other Katrina-affected areas, and who spoke most forcefully about how corporate interests hurt regular Americans, especially in terms of health care.

AP writes:

Edwards burst out of the starting gate with a flurry of progressive policy ideas — he was the first to offer a plan for universal health care, the first to call on Congress to pull funding for the war, and he led the charge that lobbyists have too much power in Washington and need to be reigned in.

The good news: we won't have to hear Elizabeth Edwards say shit like "I'm disappointed in Michelle Obama" and "I think I'm more joyful than Hillary is" and "Remember everyone: I have breast cancer!" anymore.

Edwards is expected to announce his withdrawal today in New Orleans, and will probably make the case for better government intervention in rebuilding the city and helping people still suffering from tremendous losses two and a half years after the storm.

January 23, 2008

A Hell's Kitchen Economics lesson

 Olde English 800

Today the Times covered Eliot Spitzer's proposal for increasing NY state revenues for the coming year, which is a strange blend of encouraging some problem behaviors for residents (thousands of video gambling machines installed at the racetracks) while trying to discourage other problems (raising taxes on malt liquor and, weirdly enough, illegal drugs.)

But the political is personal, and the Times is at its best when it captures the reactions of regular New Yorkers to otherwise dull legislative proposals.

So they went into businesses along 10th Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood where people love their 40s, which nobody knows better than bodega workers.

"It's bad for the people," said Niff Alaradem 29, a clerk at Clinton Gourmet Market, at 46th Street and 10th Avenue. "You see so many alcoholic people, it's all they drink, Colt 45, Olde English, everything. They take one of these big bottles and it's dinner."

The Times asked some local residents what they thought about Spitzer's plan--specifically, his proposal to raise the tax on malt liquor from 11 cents to $2.54 per gallon. The responses they got perfectly illustrate a number of key economic concepts:

Regressive Tax: "It's messed up, it's wrong!" said Darryl, who looked as though he was in his 50s and was bundled up against the cold. "You got mostly poor people like me buying malt liquor."

Inelastic Demand: Roman Isre, 28, a barber at Erik’s Barber Shop on 10th Avenue, said he bought malt liquor once or twice a week. "That's bad!" Mr. Isre said when told about Mr. Spitzer’s proposals. Would he buy less malt liquor? Mr. Isre smiled. "Nah. You got to do what you got to do," he said. "It’s like gas. You drive the same mileage for $2 a gallon or $3.50 a gallon."

Cost-Benefit Analysis: A and A Market and Deli, at 45th Street and 10th Avenue, used to sell as many as 40 cases of malt liquor a week, but it became too bothersome to stock. "We have arguments here, very loud arguments," said Mustafa Saleh, 27, the deli’s manager. "They don't want to pay." When customers did pay, it was annoying, he said. "They paid in change," he said, "$2.50 in nickels, dimes and pennies; that’s the kind of money they have."

You can argue that raising the price of a 40 through taxes will encourage people to stop drinking so many of them, but my guess is that this population isn't likely to respond to higher prices by quitting drinking. If anything, they'll just switch to beer, which will continue to be taxed at a lower rate due to its lower alcohol content.

But they won't be happy about it! Darryl, the bundled-up 50 year-old, was asked why he bought malt liquor rather than beer: "Darryl looked quizzically at a reporter and replied, 'You get twice as much, and it’s got a bigger kick to it.'" Smart shopper.

January 22, 2008

Always be Deciding

decider.jpg

I guess Ben Bernanke woke up this morning and was all "Oh shit, I guess the Times just said I was the decider" so he decided to slash interest rates while everyone was still asleep. I wonder if sometimes he wishes he could just go back to being a regular baseball nerd economist.

December 3, 2007

How you can help with the national debt

National Debt Clock

AP tells us today that our national debt is growing by $1 million every minute. This rate is so fast that about a year from now, the debt clock pictured above that used to be on West 43rd St (it was moved recently to make way for fancy new green building One Bryant Park) won't even have enough digit spaces to express the whole number.

That's $10 trillion! $10,000,000,000,000.00! God bless America.

Since we're obviously a totally irresponsible bunch of financial reprobates, and considering that rising interest rates are only going to make things worse, this makes me wonder: What kind of idiot is still willing to lend us money?

According to AP, part of our debt is held by U.S. citizens who live here and read the paper every day and still think that buying government bonds is a good investment. But a lot of investors are foreign: 44% of our publicly held debt we owe to foreign governments and investors. Japan has the biggest share.

Former Congressional budget anaylst Stanley Collender is concerned. "The first day the Chinese or the Japanese or the Saudis say, 'we've bought enough of your paper,' then the debt — whatever level it is at that point — becomes unmanageable," he says.

Our individual debt allocations are already $30,000, so what the hell--we might as well be patriotic consumers and start buying as many products as possible directly from the countries that our government owes money to. Go ahead and stand in the huge, crazy line that forms outside the Nintendo store at Rockefeller Center at 7:30 AM every time they get a new shipment of Wii consoles in. It's good practice for the bread lines we'll all be standing in when we're old and Social Security is a distant memory.

And while you're at it, support our nation's fiscal philosophy and get some new credit cards. With a few more big credit limits, your salary is doubled!

November 27, 2007

Young Kenyan men enjoy same gifts-for-sex benefits young women have had for centuries

Charlotte Rampling in Heading South

Reuters had an article yesterday on the trend of older white English women going on vacation in Kenya, and while there, taking out hot young men, buying them clothes and expensive dinners, and having sex with them.

The white beaches of the Indian Ocean coast stretched before the friends as they both walked arm-in-arm with young African men, Allie resting her white haired-head on the shoulder of her companion, a six-foot-four 23-year-old from the Maasai tribe.

He wore new sunglasses he said were a gift from her.

"We both get something we want -- where's the negative?" Allie asked in a bar later.

Apparently the negative is that a lot of hotel managers and members of the Kenya tourism board are lumping these women in with other sex tourists who come to Kenya to pay 12 year-old girls or boys for sex.

Which is nuts. Old, wealthy sugar daddies everywhere have long enjoyed taking much younger women out, showering them with gifts, and having sex with them. Some might go so far as to marry them (Billy Joel, Donald Trump, Fred Thompson, Ben Kingsley, Les Moonves, I could go on all day) but plenty more just enjoy the arm candy for a while then drop them (George Soros).

At last, young men from poor countries with little opportunity for living in economic security get to enjoy the same temporary access to nice clothes and fancy dinners that young American women have been hustling to get their hands on forever! Why should sex-for-goods be exclusively a rich man/poor woman transaction? I'm so glad to see these enterprising young African men are finally able to exploit their youthful hotness with all the savvy of a midwestern high school dropout draping herself over aging producers at Hollywood parties.

22 year-old Joseph, a Kenyan man who says he has slept with over 100 white women, says:

"When I go into the clubs, those are the only women I look for now," he told Reuters. "I get to live like the rich mzungus (white people) who come here from rich countries, staying in the best hotels and just having my fun."

He could be half the girls in their early 20's who hang out at expensive Tribeca bars hoping to snag free drinks from an investment manager.

The movie Heading South came out in 2006 and featured Charlotte Rampling (in the photo above) traveling to Haiti to have sex with young men in the 1970's. A long article about the movie goes into all these complicated arguments about sex, economics, political power, gender roles, exploitation, and on and on.

Seems like the only new or interesting thing happening here is that the older, richer person in the dynamic is female and they have to go to other countries to find young men willing to do what many young women in rich countries have done basically forever. Yawn.

November 21, 2007

Eliot Spitzer reconsiders that whole "steamroller" thing

Eliot Spitzer reconsiders

It's been a rocky time for our governor, who swept into his first year of office promoting himself as a "fucking steamroller", guns blazing, ready to take on a mess of a state legislature and make some big changes.

Last week, a poll set his favorability rating at a crappy 41%, with only 25% of voters saying they would re-elect him. That's less than a year after winning almost 70% of the vote in an election in which many New Yorkers were relieved to finally have a Democrat running the state again. The two biggest stories about his governorship so far have been his proposal to offer driver's licenses to undocumented residents that nobody liked, and the "Troopergate" debacle.

It's been a total public relations disaster.

So he announced yesterday that single-swipe subway fares would hold steady at $2. This is being regarded by some media, including the Post of course, who calls Spitzer a tooth fairy, as pandering to grumpy voters in the face of fiscal experts who predict a major downturn in the region's economy in the near future, which will make fare increases necessary eventually.

Who knows? Maybe Spitzer is trying to change his public image and soften the pit-bull approach he's taken since the start of his term. But if he really is trying to get people to like him again, this approach isn't going to mean much to New Yorkers.

The Times interviewed several subway riders to ask them what they think about the single-ride price staying at $2. Considering only 7% of subway and bus riders actually pay $2 per ride according to the Straphangers Campaign, their responses aren't surprising:

"If they’re not hiking the $2 rates, there’s some way it will come out of our pocket," said Ellene Wundrok, a real estate broker from Flushing, Queens. "The tourists might benefit. They’re the ones that buy the $2 fares, not people who live in the city."

Joseph Rivera, 20, a graphic design student from Brooklyn, said that riders might react angrily once the authority announces what the increases in other types of fares will be. "This has the potential to backlash on him."

And this is hilarious: the Daily News jubilantly takes full credit for the non-increased $2 fare through its Halt the Hike campaign, and quotes chirpy reader Elsa Butler who gushes "The Daily News coverage has been fantastic!" I sure hope all those happy tourists getting a price break start picking up the Daily News down at the Publix!

I think actual New Yorkers understand that all the capital improvements the MTA plans to make over the next few years will require a big cash influx. A NYT editorial states that the MTA wants to bring in $580 million of new money in the next 2 years, so a fare increase for unlimited Metrocards may be unavoidable in that period. The MTA decides on its entire new fare plan on December 19.

But until then, we should use the Pizza Connection economic law to demand that midtown pizzerias stop charging $2.25 for a slice.

October 24, 2007

San Diego and New Orleans now have at least one thing in common

Big fancy burned houses

Once the fires stop burning, San Diego and surrounding areas will be left with a lot of charred houses and a lot of displaced people. Reports are talking about 1,500 homes destroyed as of right now. A lot of them were probably very big houses, like this photo of the remains of a multi-million dollar house in Rancho Santa Fe.

Comparisons are already being drawn between this disaster and the hurricanes of 2005. The Times has put together a simple chart comparing the populations of New Orleans and the areas around San Diego that were evacuated, and as you can probably guess, the people in San Diego are a whole lot richer, whiter, and have more cars to evacuate in. The Red Cross estimates that 350,000 homes were destroyed in Katrina and Rita.

But there are some things that these two very different regions of our country share: a take-no-prisoners approach to defending one's home against the perceived threat of looters.

In a article that compiles comments posted by San Diego-area readers, the Times quotes Jason S., whose family members made their way back into their evacuated neighborhood in Poway:

"Last night, my brother snuck past police barricades to check on our family home and watch for looters," he wrote. "Despite the risk, I think everyone is really proud of him for doing this."

After he returned from the home, his brother reported that a neighbor was camped out on another lawn with a shotgun and a sign that read "Looters will be shot."

"Looters will be shot"... where have we seen that before? Oh, hey! It's that guy! From New Orleans!

New Orleans looters beware

He must have moved to Southern California to get away from natural disasters and find a prettier woman.

September 6, 2007

Now you can be a patriot AND an elitist

Made in USA

Remember when campaigns trying to get people to Buy American were mostly Wal-Mart territory and made you think of eagle-emblazoned sweatshirts and visors with flags on them?

Today, the NY Times tells us that the fashionable liberal elite has embraced Made in USA products. The local food movement, the high carbon footprint generated by buying European bottled water, and toxic Chinese toys have all inspired the urban cognoscenti to start supporting some domestic companies, particularly when their products are more expensive than foreign ones.

Price seems to be the determining factor when wealthy people decide it's cool to buy American; as the Times says, "It is hard to imagine, say, that people who tote reusable cotton bags to Whole Foods will ditch their beloved Saabs for an American-made Chevrolet Cobalt." But $1,250 custom-made bikes, designer t-shirts with flags on the tags, or top of the line New Balance sneakers with big USA logos? Sold! Conspicuous consumers are suddenly turning into a bunch of flag-waving patriots.

But this is still a pretty recent demographic shift for the Buy American market. Many products that proudly display their Americanness might be a little too patriotic for those who are really just "people wanting to have guilt-free affluence,” as Alex Steffen, editor of a sustainability website, calls them.

Yes, the less prestigious side of "Made in USA" is still with us--it's not all hand-painted sustainably-harvested wooden toy trucks. You can still be outrageously tacky while spending an assload of money on showing the world that your purchases are not just more mass-market knockoffs from China:

Hyper-patriotic car:

Flag gown:

Flag iPod case:

Flag jewels:

America, fuck yeah!

May 30, 2007

Immigrants in NYC

NYC locksmiths

The NYT has a great feature today on how the immigration legislation now in Congress, the first major new legislation in 40 years that might actually pass, will affect the social fabric of New York City.

Among urban areas with high populations of immigrants, New York has an especially high ratio of legal to illegal immigrants, and a large majority (72%) of those immigrants come to the city to be reunited with family. Since the new legislation would value education and marketable skills over family members already in the country, it will have an especially big impact on cities like New York.

A couple of the families interviewed for the article really show how much the city needs the highly motivated people who come here looking for a better life. Jamal Hussain, 26, is a Bangladesh-born owner of a deli at Delancey and Allen streets. He got loans from family members to open his business four years ago. He says, "'I’m a hard worker, motivated.' said Mr. Hussain, who has repaid the loans, married, had a baby, and bought a house in the Bronx. 'Kids are going to school, they’re being doctors, lawyers,' he added, citing a niece who is a graduate student in science at New York University. 'Bottom line, instead of bringing those people already educated from over there, we have the opportunity to be homegrown Ph.D.’s.'"

The article says that Mexicans have entered the top three biggest immigrant groups in the city, along with Dominicans and Chinese. But of course, New York's growing Mexican population tends to be viewed differently than in other, less diverse parts of the country: "In dense and diverse city neighborhoods, they generally have been absorbed as just one more immigrant group."

With so many different kinds of people coming to the city, New York even has its own, weirder, more high-brow version of coyotes, which the Times coincidentally also covered today. A guy named Ralph Cucciniello was charged with fraud for swindling illegal Irish immigrants out of $5,000 each for non-existent aid in getting legitimate papers through the Yale Immigration Law Clinic, which he made up.

He operated the fake law clinic from a desk at the Yale Law library, but has never been affiliated with the school apart from doing some volunteer research for a professor. Over the last two years, he got over 200 immigrants who wanted to be legal to give him millions of dollars, giving them nothing in return. Many of his victims won't talk to prosecutors for fear of getting deported; as one said, "Now I feel like my head has a flashing light on it screaming ‘I’m illegal’."

April 16, 2007

IRS suddenly seems like the most reasonable office in our government

1040

It's tax time! The season when even those who truly believe in a strong social safety net start thinking how those kooky Libertarians might actually make some sense. Or, if you got a refund, a flutter of benevolent gratitude for that most generous of government institutions, the Department of the Treasury.

The Times has a piece today about how more and more undocumented immigrants are filing their tax returns. The number of returns that had an individual taxpayer number issued by the IRS to people who don't have social security numbers, known as an ITIN, went up 30% from 2004 to 2005, and new ITINs were issued to more people in 2006 than ever before. In 2005, people submitting their returns with an ITIN paid a total of $5 billion in taxes.

Which explains why the IRS doesn't ask about immigration status, and has created an identification system for people who are living and working illegally in the country--they pay. The pragmatic Commissioner of the IRS Mark Everson said, "We want your money whether you are here legally or not and whether you earned it legally or not."

If only the rest of our government took such a practical approach to how to deal with people who immigrate here to work, right? Commissioner Everson probably would love to see drugs legalized too, since it would increase his agency's revenue by at least one hundred million percent.

Despite the growing tax dollars that undocumented workers pay, people who think immigrants come here to rob convenience stores and go on welfare still assume the worst. Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies says, "First of all, almost all the people filing tax returns are doing it because they’re going to get tax refunds. It’s a bad thing, because they’re not obeying the law — they’re deciding which laws they prefer to obey."

This doesn't seem to be true, at least not in New York. A nonprofit in Jackson Heights that helps low-income people prepare their tax returns, Food Change, says that two-thirds of the 1,700 ITIN returns they've done this year end up owing more taxes, not getting refunds. The average income of these returns was $9,400--further demonstrating that undocumented workers aren't exactly living the high life in this city.

One immigrant in the article, Elsa Forero, is from Colombia. She works as a baby sitter and gets paid in cash. Now I don't know about you, but I wonder how many teenagers in wealthy suburbs are declaring their babysitting income to the IRS. Elsa had to pay the federal government $579, and expected a state tax credit of $115. "I want to pay taxes because I live in this country and I like to follow the rules," she said.

Paying taxes will probably be a step toward legalization in whatever immigration reform bill finally gets passed in Congress. Maybe the IRS should act like any other industry and start running some PSAs and making campaign contributions to key Senators if they want to keep seeing their revenues rise.

April 12, 2007

The nicest thing I will ever say about Paul Wolfowitz

Wolfwitz

A few things about Wolfowitz. He is: universally hated at the World Bank, wears socks full of holes (warning: gross), is apparently still married, but got his girl on the side a job at the State Department that is still paid by the Bank, to the tune of $193,500 ($10,000 more than Condoleezza Rice makes!), and is just generally a misguided corrupt ghoul. And I'll never get over that comb video.

But I will give him this: when the man decides to apologize for something, he actually gets around to apologizing, and does it in a way that at least sounds sincere.

"I made a mistake, for which I am sorry." He says that he will accept any remedies the World Bank's board proposes.

See how easy that is, politicians and talk show hosts across the land?

November 16, 2006

NYC is really, really big

US population map

[Time's visualization of US population density]

Most of us who live in New York probably only experience a few small bits of the city in our daily lives--our home neighborhood, work, favorite bar, Trader Joe's. It can be easy to forget how absolutely enormous this city really is, and how impressive it is that this whole operation functions as well as it does (notable exceptions: finding affordable housing, transit strikes, Ludlow St on Saturday nights, walking through Rockefeller Center anytime between now and New Year's Day.)

Last night at an event held by Robin Hood, Mayor Bloomberg threw out a few statistics that reminded me of the giganticness of our city:

  • The projected increase in New York's population over the next 10 years will be larger than the population of Pittsburgh (pop. 335,000)
  • The number of students in the NYC public school system (1.1 million) is more than the population of Detroit (887,000)
  • The number of people that will live in the new affordable housing units slated to be built is more than the population of Atlanta (471,000).
  • NYC's annual budget ($53 billion in 2007) is bigger than every US state budget except for New York, California, and Texas.

Plus, over 300,000 people work for the city.

Then when I think about how most of us all take showers at about the same time as everybody else every morning, my head really starts to spin.

October 17, 2006

Mail order brides stalled by anti-commercial-romance legislation

Russian mail order brides

The NY Times today has a pretty standard piece on men who buy wives for themselves through internet "don't call it mail-order" dating/marriage sites. As if not being able to get anyone in your own country to marry you weren't bad enough, these guys are suffering through some added inconveniences at the hands of their own government.

Congress created the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, or Imbra, in March. The legislation "is intended to give foreign women and the American government more information about the men who seek so-called mail-order brides." In other words, Congress recognized an alarmingly fast rise in reports of abuse from women who came to the US to marry guys they met online. So they made a law that gives these women more information about the criminal record and marital history of their future husbands before they pack their bags and become legally bound to a man who has gone out of his way to find a wife who has no way of knowing any objective information about him. Men must now also provide this information to the government when applying for a fiancée visa. Sounds like a great idea, right?

Not so, according to the buyers. The customer is always right, and that should extend to spousal transactions, say purchasers of foreign brides. “We should have the right to correspond with, date and marry the person of our choosing,” said David Root, who has been involved with many women from the former Soviet Union in the past decade but has not married any of them. “The government shouldn’t interfere in this.”

He may have a point--Americans can indeed marry whomever they please. And it's not like they're forcing these women to leave their homes for a lifetime of marriage to a man who is often, let's face it, a total stranger. The man that the NY Times story follows, Adam Weaver, sounds like a nice enough person who was seeking an "old-fashioned girl", and now just wants to marry his Colombian fiancée (she's 17 years younger than he is, does that mean she qualifies as a "girl"?) without a lot of delays.

But some men who get into foreign marriage services clearly are delusional: there's a hilarious example in Sam Smith, who owns a company called I Love Latins, based in Houston [site not really safe for work]. In explaining the appeal of his service, he says, “It all started with women’s lib. Guys are sick and tired of the North American me, me, me attitude.”

"Me, me, me", huh? And what kind of attitude is it that compels a wealthy American man to search for another human being on a shopping site using criteria like age, weight, height, religion, and command of English, and then pay thousands of dollars for this probably low-income person from a poor country with few or zero opportunities for a stable life to leave their home and enter into a legally-binding contract with them that allows that person to live legally in the US only if they remain married? That's altruism! Right, Sam Smith?

June 9, 2006

Gulf Coast: still a mess

Here on the East Coast, it can be easy to forget about Katrina and how little recovery has been made in the nine months (!) since the hurricane. For the people living down there, or unable to return to their former homes, it's all still happening.

To illustrate just how much life is not back to normal on the Gulf Coast, the NY Times is doing a series of articles on the current state of the towns along US Highway 90. The first article is about shrimp season, which is starting up in Bayou La Batre in coastal Alabama, and all the fishing boats that are still grounded, stuck in bushes or in the woods.

These stranded boats mostly belong to immigrant Vietnamese fishermen who didn't have insurance. FEMA apparently won't retrieve private property, and the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to figure out how to move these 100-ton boats, some of which are half a mile from the water, without disturbing protected wetlands. So they're still up there.

grounded fishing boat

"If Katrina ever slips momentarily from one's mind here — if — the plain sight of these boats in the woods snuffs the daydreaming. The slow, complicated efforts to extricate the hurricane-stranded vessels mirror the slow, complicated efforts to extricate this hurricane-damaged city of 2,100 from that one day last August."

Another great and strange picture in this piece features some Mennonite volunteer recovery workers playing volleyball near their temporary housing site.

Mennonites playing volleyball

May 31, 2006

Sweet Cherry: the immovable object of strip clubs

Sweet Cherry topless bar

The NY Times has an unbelievably extensive article today on a Brooklyn strip club, Sweet Cherry, that has been under attack by city council, local residents, and state politicians for years, yet refuses to close. Back in the '90's with the introduction of Giuliani's new "zoning laws" (aka rampage of sanitized Disneyfication,) a lot of strip clubs, topless bars, and porn shops closed down. Apart from a stretch of 8th Avenue in the 40's, most of the city's smut has been banished to industrial areas like 11th Avenue, and Long Island City in Queens.

But the intrepid Sweet Cherry just won't quit, despite an impressive criminal history. The Times says,

Sweet Cherry is a great champion, brazen and near untouchable. The authorities have documented an in-house narcotics trade, pronounced the club a brothel and charged the manager with rape. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Once, patrons repeatedly stabbed an off-duty police officer, who lost partial use of his right hand. Once, a manager of bouncers for Sweet Cherry was shot dead in his apartment.

But despite two civil actions by the Police Department, voluminous criminal charges and neighborhood protests, the club has been closed for a total of just six days this year. Eleven days after its latest reopening, two dancers were charged with breaking a beer bottle over somebody's head.

The bar is in compliance with zoning laws, so the city has tried to go after it for all its other, very plentiful violations. And failed every time. Now that some small-scale industry and more families are moving into the area, they're stepping up their consistently ineffective efforts.

The article is a great read, with exhaustive details on the many drug busts that have happened at the bar, the employment and possible harrassment of underage dancers, the off-duty cop who mowed down three people after leaving another strip club on the same street, and the dancers such as "Diamond, whose real name was Jennifer, and Chastity, whose real name was Chastity."

There's also an interesting map of the still-standing strip clubs, topless bars, and peep shows in the city that have also resisted closure. Still a few hanging on in Times Square/Hell's Kitchen. My favorites are Wiggles and Goldfingers in Queens.

May 10, 2006

Katrina horror stories just keep coming

Michael Brown's hair mousse

In case you've started to forget the jaw-dropping political failure of responsibility we witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, a couple of stories today should freshen up those memories.

First up: what happened to the teenagers in New Orleans' juvenile detention center. The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which was working to improve the conditions that incarcerated juveniles lived in even before the hurricane, held a press conference yesterday. 15 year-old Eddie Fenceroy said he spent three days without anything to eat or drink, standing in sewage-filled water that reached past his hips. 150 kids under 17 years old were housed with adult prisoners at the parish prison (minors aren't supposed to have contact with adult convicts,) and were later evacuated with the adults to a highway overpass, where police held them at gunpoint. Which I suppose is arguably a step up from standing in sewage up to your hips.

Next is a report from the Center for Public Integrity, which includes even more embarrassing emails from Michael Brown to various colleagues in the days after the storm. On the day the storm hit, the always immaculately-groomed Brown was getting ready for a TV interview and emailing with his then-deputy, Patrick Rhode:

"Yea, sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair," Brown e-mailed Rhode.

"Me too!" Rhode replied.

Of course, FEMA and the rest of the government soon started getting attacked in the press as an inept, racist institution. On September 7, around the time that Eddie Fenceroy was being held at gunpoint on a highway overpass as part of his prison's evacuation, Brown wrote to his press aide: "I am tired, no, angered by charges of racism. You know that neither me nor anyone associated with me is a racist. Grrrr.

"How was that Sonic burger?"

February 9, 2006

Vamos Army!

What's the U.S. Army to do when its go-to population for new recruits becomes disillusioned and stops enlisting? African-Americans represented 22% of new Army recruits 4 years ago, and now make up only 14%. How about moving on to another population of young people that are poorer, less educated, and have fewer job opportunities than average?

Yes, the Army is recruiting hard among Latino teens. As the NY Times reports, in cities with high Latino populations, those young people have become a top priority for the military. Latinos make up the fastest growing pool of military-age people, and as Lt. Col. Jeffrey Brodeur, commanding officer at the recruitment office for several western states says, "They are extremely patriotic."

However patriotic they may be, these kids also have parents, many of whom are wary of the recruiters that don't speak their language. And, you know, are trying to convince their kids to go off to war. "My parents think I'm going to go in the Army and die, but I wanted to do it," said an 18 year-old who has already enlisted and will go to boot camp once he graduates from high school.

The military can be an effective way to get out of poverty, but poor people who aren't white have historically been better represented on the front lines than among officers. The Times says, "Critics say that Latinos often wind up as cannon fodder on the casualty-prone front lines. African-Americans saw the same thing happen during the 1970's and 1980's, an accusation that still reverberates. Hispanics make up only 4.7 percent of the military's officer corps."

Let's just call this new initiative Operation: Escudo Humano.

February 1, 2006

America slowly starts to wise up

Americans watching State of the Union

Last night's State of the Union address saw our President somewhat less ambitious and cocky than in earlier speeches. Alessandra Stanley thought he looked "defensive". And as AP found during interviews with viewers across the country, Bush has good reason to feel less sure of himself: Americans are finally seeing through the bullshit, even when he talks about topics everyone can relate to, like the economy and education. Nice timing, America.

Here are a few excerpts:

At a viewing party in Costa Mesa sponsored by MIKA CDC, a Christian nonprofit, 57-year-old high school U.S. history and economics teacher Paul Stroud said, "We're going to go bankrupt and my students are going to end up in an economy that has the rug pulled out from under them. I think George Bush Jr. is probably the worst president in the history of this country."

Anne Jowaisas, an independent 38-year-old nanny from Richmond, said, "In terms of his speech, it was a good speech and he delivered it pretty strongly. But I had a lot of skepticism on what he had to say." She said that Bush's plan to reduce the deficit by 2009 by cutting programs raised plenty of questions, asking, "how is all this going to balance out?"

World War II veteran Joe Benavidez from Albuquerque said, "He wants to cut taxes and do good on the deficit? How do you do that? He'll cut a lot of programs — programs people need. Talk is cheap."

After Bush mentioned the Gulf Coast in one or two sentences deep into his speech, Tom Short, 75, a Republican and a Korean War veteran in New Orleans exclaimed, "Did I miss something? I think that's a crying shame."

But some Bush supporters stood behind the speech. Particularly the young, moronic, selfish ones.

Jesse Samora, 21, a political science and history major at Metropolitan State College of Denver, treated Bush's speech like the Super Bowl, hanging out with friends and barbecuing hamburgers. They leaped out of their seats to cheer Bush when he said "hindsight alone is not wisdom" and "second guessing is not a strategy," as he referred to recent criticism of the war in Iraq.

Samora said the speech only strengthened his belief that Bush was doing a good job protecting the country from terrorists. "As long as I can go to sleep at night and know I'm safe," said Samora.

Jesse. Could some of your false sense of security come from the fact that you live in DENVER? Do you want the president to protect our entire country, or just you and your high-fiving friends on your college campus?

December 13, 2005

Superman at the WTO

Superman protester

Superman: fighting for truth, justice, and limitations on free trade

Related?: Superman's gigantic package out of control in the upcoming Superman Returns, aka Gay Superman, aka Brokeback Krypton.

November 15, 2005

Total psycho of a CBO Director to leave post

Holtz-Eakin is out

Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin, Director of the Congressional Budget Office, and former White House economist, has announced that he is leaving his position at the end of a year, one year short of his full four-year term. Holtz-Eakin has been a promiment economist for many years, holding teaching positions at Columbia, Princeton, and Syracuse Universities, and was appointed to lead the White House Council of Economic Advisors during Bush's first term. He's no chump!

But something seems to have gone dreadfully wrong with Holtz-Eakin's economic judgement in the last few years. Let's look at some of the outrageous things this guy has done as Director of the CBO:

  • Said that Bush's tax cuts and big spending plan could not lead to economic growth: "The message is that you cannot grow your way out of this," he said, referring to our explosive deficit.
  • Released a report noting that Bush's tax cuts strongly favor the very wealthy.
  • Questioned the validity of privatizing Social Security.
  • Stated that getting rid of the estate tax would reduce contributions to nonprofit organizations.
  • Determined that allowing same-sex marriage would increase federal tax revenues.

Holy Moses! This guy is a maniac! He clearly does not understand this administration's economic or political views at all. Thank God this moron is history.

But seriously, we can imagine that life must have been total hell for Holtz-Eakin these past few years. We hope he'll have a much less combative experience at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he plans to work starting next year. But we'll be left with some new robot CBO Director who won't cause so much trouble for the administration.

November 10, 2005

A brief note on the riots in France

Riots in France

Now that the riots in France are starting to quiet down, let's take a look at the larger history of French agitation.

In the late 18th century, groups of poor French people were fed up with years of oppression and social and economic injustice. They took to the streets in a variety of attacks on the upper classes and the structures that supported them. From the Wikipedia entry on the French Revolution:

"A number of factors led to the revolution; to some extent the old order succumbed to its own rigidity in the face of a changing world; to some extent, it fell to the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie, allied with aggrieved peasants and wage-earners."

For the past two weeks, groups of young French people, mainly immigrants and the children of immigrants from North Africa, have taken to the streets to burn cars and break things out of frustration at years of oppression and social and economic injustice. Specifically, unemployment, police harrassment, racism, poverty, and an interior minister who refers to them as "scum" and pledges to clean out the public housing projects where many rioters live.

The main differences between the events over 200 years ago and those happening now seem to be that 1) white French people don't seem to understand that they themselves are the oppressive force of injustice to be toppled this time, and 2) the rioters of today are far less violent than during the first revolution. Cars have been burned, sure, but hardly any people have been hurt or killed in two weeks of widespread rioting.

I have yet to talk to anyone who isn't at least a little bit pleased that France is finally being exposed as a discriminatory and racist country that has been totally indifferent to its unequal treatment of its citizens. Especially when French people are often pretty condescending about issues of race in America and everywhere else. Time to wake up, people! Sorry about your cars.

By the way, I can't wait to see The Economist bitch-slap France for its handling of all this in tomorrow's issue.

September 23, 2005

Botched evacuation, take 2

Wilma Skinner and Dageneral Bellard in Houston

How have our nation's emergency preparation systems learned from the failure to effectively evacuate the Gulf coast in advance of Hurricane Katrina, resulting in needless loss of life? Let's look at an AP piece on what's happening in Houston.

Wilma Skinner would like to scream at the officials of this city. If only they would pick up their phones. "I done called for a shelter, I done called for help. There ain't none. No one answers," she said, standing in blistering heat outside a check-cashing store that had just run out of its main commodity. "Everyone just says, 'Get out, get out.' I've got no way of getting out. And now I've got no money."

"All the banks are closed and I just got off work," said Thomas Visor, holding his sweaty paycheck as he, too, tried to get inside the store, where more than 100 people, all of them black or Hispanic, fretted in line. "This is crazy. How are you supposed to evacuate a hurricane if you don't have money? Answer me that?"

Some of those who did have money, and did try to get out, didn't get very far.

Judie Anderson of La Porte, Texas, covered just 45 miles in 12 hours. She had been on the road since 10 p.m. Wednesday, headed toward Oklahoma, which by Thursday was still very far away.

"This is the worst planning I've ever seen," she said. "They say, 'We've learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina.' Well, you couldn't prove it by me."

On Bellaire Boulevard in southwest Houston, a weeping woman and her young daughter stood on the sidewalk, surrounded by plastic bags full of clothes and blankets. "I'd like to go, but nobody come get me," the woman said in broken English. When asked her name, she looked frightened. "No se, no se," she said: Spanish for "I don't know."

Her daughter, who appeared to be about 9, whispered in English, "We're from Mexico."

Skinner, accompanied by her 6-year-old grandson, Dageneral Bellard [Ed. note: This kid has an awesome name], would settle for a bus.

"They got them for the outlying areas, for the Gulf and Galveston, but they ain't made no preparations for us in the city, for the poor people here. There ain't no (evacuation) buses here. I got nowhere to go."

OK, so there are still people stranded in Houston. What about those who have cars and followed orders to evacuate? The NY Times reports:

Heeding days of dire warnings about Hurricane Rita, as many as 2.5 million people jammed evacuation routes on Thursday, creating colossal 100-mile-long traffic jams that left many people stranded and out of gas.

"The question is how many people will be gravely ill and die sitting on the side of the freeway," said State Representative Garnet Coleman, Democrat of Houston. "Dying not from the storm, but from the evacuation."

Timothy Adcock, 48, a Houston landscaper who was in the 15th hour of inching to Tyler in a companion's pickup truck after his car broke down under the grueling conditions, said, "I never saw anything so disorganized."

"We did everything we were supposed to do," Mr. Adcock said, "secure our house, left early, checked routes, checked on our neighbors." But he said, "when we got out there we were totally on our own."

A high-occupancy vehicle lane went unused, he said, and they saw no police officers. At one point, Mr. Adcock said, he called the Texas Department of Transportation for an alternate route, but the woman who answered could not find a map.

Officials in Texas also said they recognized a serious situation had arisen in the evacuation, with many people stranded on traffic-choked highways, without gas and without water. The state had promised to send gas trucks to relieve the problem, Houston Mayor Bill White said, but he could not say how long it would be before those trucks arrived.

Mayor White deflected questions from reporters asking him to assess who was to blame for what happened Thursday, specifically the lack of gasoline where needed.

"This is not the time to look at who should have done what on the emergency," the mayor said. "This is not the time we're going to get into who should've done what."

Yeah, this is not the time for the blame game! That was three weeks ago! I know it's almost impossible to tell the difference between the two, but come on, people, get your disasters straight.

Somebody get Anderson Cooper down there to start laying into some officials.

September 20, 2005

NY Times looks at stay at home moms... again!

Today's Times has an article about young women at elite Ivy League schools who are planning to leave their careers and stay home once they have kids. You know, exactly like that other article they published almost exactly two years ago ("The Opt-Out Revolution"). The main difference is that, while the 2003 piece interviewed about five Princeton graduates to support its generalizations about American women, today's piece includes interviews with four students from Yale, as well as one from Penn and two from Harvard.

Questions neither article goes into: why aren't young men at these elite schools being interviewed by the NY Times about if they'll stay home once they have kids? Why are these young women all assuming that it is their choice and their right to have a man support them and their children for their entire lives? Why are privileged young women unable to think outside conventional gender roles in envisioning their futures? What do women at East Tennessee State University or Lehman College think about work and family? When discussing family values and personal goals, why don't issues like saving to buy your first home and building financial stability come up?

And I love this guy at Harvard who in his American Family class, during a discussion about women giving up careers to stay at home and raise their kids while their husbands support them, said "I think that's sexy." It sure is, dude! You know what else is sexy? When women don't vote. And are illiterate! That's fucking hot!

It is such a riot when the Times runs series like that one about class from earlier this year, to show how in touch they are with all the different sectors of Americans and all the struggles that working people face in their lives, and then they keep coming back to articles like this one about the young wealthy elite who can just flippantly decide whether they feel like having a job from one year to the next, and talk about having a job or not like it's some kind of moral issue of being a good parent.

Here's an idea: rather than blowing $250,000 on Ivy League college and graduate school when you know you're going to stop working once you have kids, how about donating that money to some low-income woman or man who wants to go to school and actually use their degrees to have a career in law or business or academia, while the most challenging thing you'll have to write is your kids' Montessori school applications?

September 16, 2005

The Neo Deal +

We can probably agree that last night's primetime address was the President's best speech, and that from a certain point of view, it was just about equal to the occasion. Despite going a little overboard on the religious aspects, he said what everyone wanted him to say, but didn't think he would: New Orleans will be rebuilt, and he accepts responsibility "for the problem and for the solution." Along with that, it sure sounded like we got a hefty dose of something even more unexpected: big government.

On its surface, the speech seemed to promise that the federal government, working closely with the cities and states, would take responsibility for the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans and the gulf states. He talked about the funding directives he's signed, the ambitious initiatives he'll propose to Congress, and the federally-assisted job banks he wants to set up. Looking closer, though, you'll see that this rebuilding plan -- the largest in our nation's history, he says -- will be driven not by the public sector, but by private industry. And the responsibilities that remain in the public sector will be taken over by the military. In this way, Bush has found a way to appear to be embrace New Deal/Great Society-style big government while actually throwing open the doors to unbridled capitalization and militarization. Rather than the liberal social plans we've seen on such occasions in the past, this time around we will see a neo-conservative approach to a national project.

Up to now, neo-conservatism has been defined by its foreign policy agenda. Its domestic agenda -- to the extent that it even exists -- has been the subject of much less attention. However, just as 9/11 gave the neo-conservatives the chance to apply their ideas to the real world, I believe that Katrina will offer them a similar opportunity to shape and apply their domestic agenda.

9/11 was a world-changing event, and when they were called upon to do something -- anything -- Bush & Co. immediately recognized the opportunity for what it was: a chance to start fresh, to do whatever they wanted. The country was in crisis and unwilling to seriously question whatever Bush came up with, as long as some action was taken. So when Cheney unveiled "the Bush Doctrine" on Meet the Press a few days later, no one questioned it.

Katrina offers the same opportunity, but on the domestic front. We all know we need radical change in the way the government responds to disaster, and we all know that the rebuilding will be on unprecedented scale. No model exists for how to proceed. In other words, it's a chance to start fresh, to come up with a plan to do something. Anything. Because of the enormity of the situation, as with 9/11, Bush is free from precedent. He can make stuff up, he can single-handedly rewrite the law (see you later, posse comitatus), he can accuse people of being unpatriotic when they question him. These things will happen.

This time around, of course, Bush's approval ratings and credibility are in the basement, and this could hinder his efforts to enact his plans. But I'm certain his numbers will begin rising because of the speech. For the first time since this mess began, he sounded in control, almost authoritative, and it was clear that he had a plan for how to proceed. (Although his insistence that he would order all the cabinet secretaries to come up with emergency response plans begs the question, "What the hell have they been doing since 9/11?"). Regardless, next week the Republicans in Congress will rally around him, finally, and his agenda will start moving forward.

But what is that agenda? Again, listening to his speech, you'd think we were in for a grand federally-funded public works project. But beyond the funding of the initial clean-up efforts, it was hard to discern how much of the money for the rebuilding would actually come directly from the government. In the coming weeks, I believe we will see that the government's financial role in all of this will not actually be all that significant (relative to what we've seen in the past, and relative to the total cost of the rebuilding), and will prove to abandon all those liberal/centrist principles we thought we heard in the speech last night in favor of an emerging neo-conservative domestic agenda, the central component of which will be privately-funded, large-scale economic development programs.

One of his three major proposals, the creation of an economic opportunity zone in the gulf states, represents a massive expansion of a recovery method that is a familiar plank in every urban conservative's platform: give businesses incentives to operate in depressed areas, and they will create jobs and an economic engine. Sounds great. But we've already gotten an idea of what these "incentives" might entail: Bush has waived the restrictions guaranteeing a market wage for workers involved in reconstruction efforts. We can only assume that reduced taxes and the relaxation of other regulations designed to protect workers and communities will follow. If not, what incentives would the companies have to get involved in this decimated region of the country? He didn't say it directly, but it almost sounded like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana would all be turned into one giant Business Improvement District. Presumably, low taxes and low wage requirements will be offered to draw corporations to the area, with the benefits supposedly trickling down to all these workers who will be making less than a fair market income.

Putting the interests of the corporations above the interests of the workers is a far cry from the days of FDR and LBJ. Bush said workers from the affected areas will be considered for the reconstruction jobs, but what guarantees will there be once the corporations who have to fund all this rebuilding have their say? I imagine a repeat of what happened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 at Ground Zero: the initial wave of emergency personnel, Red Cross volunteers, and union workers will be replaced by a flood of low-wage immigrant workers cleaning up the mess, receiving support services (meals, etc) from other low-wage, immigrant workers. I'm all for giving jobs to immigrants, legal or otherwise, but I'm concerned in this case that the workers receiving the jobs will not be the same people who lost theirs in the disaster, and that the workers who do receive the jobs will not get the wages or benefits that should be part-and-parcel of any job, especially ones so vital to the national interest, symbolically and economically. Put another way: who do you think will be cleaning up all the toxic materials that have washed all over the landscape? The same folks who used to live on that land?

Bush also spoke repeatedly of having small businesses, particularly minority-owned businesses, involved in the effort, in part as a means of balancing out the racially-imbalanced effects of poverty that has characterized (at least) that area of the country since its earliest days. I'm glad he said all of that, even if he doesn't follow through on it. But at the same time, I'm worried it's going to be like after 9/11 when he told America not to blame the Muslims, and then he just started bombing all of them over there and arresting all of them over here. It's good to tell America we need to support minority-owned businesses, but let's hope that Bush has the guts to continue supporting them when Halliburton, et al., complain when they are denied a contract that instead went to a smaller, minority-owned local firm.

I'm also hopeful that Bush's specific mention of the link between poverty and race is an indication of an unexpected part of the neo-con's domestic agenda: some progressive form of social justice. The approach to establishing social justice -- the government-enhanced "free" market, apparently -- might differ from liberal methods (affirmative action, special protections), but just the fact that it's a consideration is an encouraging step forward from paleo-conservative attitudes. It has been said elsewhere that neo-conservatism has its roots in certain brands of liberalism, and the neo-cons are concerned with issues of equality, social justice, and so on; Bush's repeated and specific references to these topics suggest that we will be hearing more about them.

But we will also be hearing about a less appealing part of the neo-con's new domestic agenda: the militarization of formerly civilian operations. Bush very clearly stated that next time around, the military will be in charge from the beginning. And it didn't sound like he meant the National Guard...I'm pretty sure he meant the active duty armed forces.

The lesson learned from FEMA's failure should have been that you don't appoint political cronies to the agency that is called on to Manage Federal Emergencies. But Bush has ignored that lesson in favor of a false one far easier to sell to Americans in a "do anything" state of mind: civilians are incapable of responding effectively when the shit hits the fan, therefore we need the military to step in. Instead, he might have said that FEMA's failure has called attention to the need for better planning and training, to hire more people, to put together a reserve system of civilian workers trained in emergency response who will be immediately ready next time. But Bush skipped that step, and went straight to the more obvious, but ultimately, more dangerous solution. To be sure, the military is currently the only government apparatus that runs with the efficiency and precision mandated by large-scale disasters. But the military is trained to kill people, not save them. As one soldier, a member of 4th25, the hip-hop group who recorded the album Live from Baghdad, recently said in an interview (paraphrasing here): "I can't remember one time where I was trained to hand a goat to somebody. But that's what they have us doing over there in Iraq." How many exercises does the average soldier perform in which he takes a sick baby from a mother who can't get on a bus? How many in which he has to nicely persuade a person to leave his home?

Because of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, Americans are for some reason now conditioned to equate images of soldiers aiming their weapons at helpless fellow citizens as a sign of order, rather than one of a situation gone horribly wrong. If the Bush plan to give authority to the military in natural disasters is enacted, the sight of machine-gun toting soldiers patrolling our streets will be familiar, not shocking. In addition to just issuing directives about who is in charge, will Bush also provide the military with substantive training in emergency response and peace-keeping? I'm not saying our military is not capable of responding to nearly any situation. I'm just saying that asking them to do so without proper training is potentially at least as fatal as letting an unprepared civilian agency take over. The problem with FEMA wasn't that it was run by civilians. It was that it was run by incompetent civilians.

The other benefit to Bush & Co. of the militarization of emergency response is that it further blurs the line between the war over there and the war over here. We can increase military spending even during times of peace reduced conflict because we need to prepare the military for "the next Katrina." Disagree? You must not be very patriotic, then. Bush very noticeably used the word "united" to describe how the nation should be in its response to Katrina, a purposeful echo of his (and other Republicans') words after 9/11, the message being that those who express dissent or even question his policies are guilty of being anti-American. Will we hear Bush leaning on the phrase "the lessons of Hurricane Katrina," as much as we've heard about "the lessons of September the Eleventh"? Let me tell you something, America, in case everyone forgets in the next few months: Hurricanes and terrorists are not the same thing.

But apparently, we can triumph over both through our patriotism and, of course, our faith in God. I'm not quite sure how or whether it fits into any real neo-conservative agenda, but Bush sure came on strong with the religious stuff last night. I guess this is his/Rove's nod to the Christian right: a back-door method of funding faith-based initiatives. I was shocked when he mentioned only two kinds of recipients of the (already) $100 million assets of the Bush Clinton Katrina Fund: the governors of the three states (which I knew), and faith-based organizations (which, of course, I didn't). What about the non-faith based groups that have been down there working themselves to death, no doubt burning through every dime and contingency plan they have? They'll get nothing from the fund, simply because they don't work in the name of a higher power? I hope this doesn't turn out to be the case.

Apart from his reference to the BCKF, he also explicitly asked us to give directly to faith-based organizations, i.e., local churches. I know the churches are putting some people up temporarily, but Jesus, don't their expenses amount to a drop in the bucket compared to the relief needed by, say, the actual people who lost everything in the hurricane? Are those people just supposed to wait to get their $5000 debit cards and below-market wages from Halliburton and Bechtel? Regardless, Bush's repeated mentions of faith-based organizations, his direct discussion of "grace" and a higher power, and of course, the almost creepy, coded reference to "a house not made by hands" was, to me, an implication that from here on out, we can expect to be hearing a lot more about the importance of (quasi-)public funding of faith-based initiatives.

Of course, all that stuff he talked about -- the enterprise zones, the homesteading, the massive rebuilding, the loan programs, the faith-based funding -- may never happen. He's only got a couple more years before he's given unofficial lame duck status (or senioritis, maybe, in his case), and there just might not be enough time to jumpstart all these ideas. As Amy observed, it's been four years since 9/11, and since then, a whole lot of nothing has been built down at Ground Zero, and that's just a few acres, not thousands of square miles.

But, assuming he and those close to him maintain their political will power, it seems that Bush's speech last night will serve as a blueprint for his domestic policy agenda for the remainder of his term, just as his speech after 9/11 did for his foreign policy, and Americans will finally get a taste of what happens when neo-cons enter both foreign and domestic entanglements. -ADM

I don't have much to add to ADM's thorough analysis of Bush's attempt to cast himself as some sort of Socialist bastard offspring of FDR and Keynes. I agree with Bush's basic theory that small businesses and local entrepreneurship are what is going to make the Gulf region functional, and that it might even help lift some people out of the poverty they've lived in for generations.

But tax breaks for small business owners, like tax breaks for the poor, aren't the magic solution because many struggling small businesses don't pay significant taxes anyway. I was glad to hear Bush mention low-interest loans to help local businesses get off the ground, but then again, look at how the Small Business Administration's special loan program for businesses affected by 9/11 worked out: a dog boutique in Utah got a special loan.

Long-term recovery from the Katrina disaster is shaping up to be primarily a construction and re-development project. Given the enormous leeway that developers have been given in recent years to do whatever they want in the name of business and growth (especially in booming southern and Sun Belt states) without some muscular oversight provided by the federal government to ensure responsible and just practices in rebuilding the Gulf coast, we're just going to see huge corporations using cheap labor getting those gigantic contracts. And the people who were poor before the hurricane will just get more of the same. -Amy

September 14, 2005

The trouble with philanthropy

Some of the ideas in this post are going to horrify a lot of people. And I'm definitely going to go to philanthropy hell. But I'm going to say it anyway.

I'm not so sure that giving to Katrina relief organizations is such a great idea.

Now hold on there a second, charitably-minded Americans. The generous spirit and civic participation of our country is one of our best qualities, and our generous tax benefits that encourage giving are more sophisticated than most of the rest of the developed world's. But there are some services that our government is perfectly capable of providing with the tax revenue it already has, without everyone having to give even more.

Publicly funded government services exist for a reason. "The market" can go only so far in providing basic and necessary services such as education, healthcare, housing, defense and security, and public transportation for every citizen. Rescue and relief work after a catastrophic natural disaster is the kind of gigantic project that is best handled by the well funded government agencies that exist for the very purpose of providing recovery services.

Giving to post-Katrina relief efforts is now at about $740 million. Total giving could end up surpassing what was raised for 9/11 relief and for tsunami relief in Asia. It's great that Americans are so eager to help their countrypeople who are in desperate situations. But today I was reading an essay by pissed off lefty writer/cartoonist Ted Rall, which is titled "Charities Are For Suckers". I hate that title, but here's what he has to say:

"Government has been shirking its basic responsibilities since the '80s, when Ronald Reagan sold us his belief that the sick, poor and unlucky should no longer count on 'big government' to help them, but should rather live and die at the whim of contributors to private charities. The Katrina disaster, whose total damage estimate has risen from $100 to $125 billion, marks the culmination of Reagan's privatization of despair.

"Why should New Orleans' dispossessed have to live in private shelters? We live in the United States, not Mali. There's only one reason flood victims aren't getting help from the government: because the government refuses to help them. The Red Cross and its cohorts are letting lazy, incompetent and corrupt politicians off the hook, and so are their donors.

"It's ridiculous, but people evidently need to be reminded that the United States is not only the world's wealthiest nation but the wealthiest society that has existed anywhere, ever. The U.S. government can easily pick up the tab for people inconvenienced by bad weather--if helping them is a priority. That goes double for Katrina, a disaster caused by the government's conscious decision to eliminate the $50 million pittance needed to improve New Orleans' levees.

"Tragically, our generosity feeds into the mindset of the sinister ideologues who argue that government shouldn't help people--the very mindset that caused the levee break that turned Katrina into a holocaust and led to official unresponsiveness. And it is already setting the stage for the next avoidable disaster.

"It's time to 'starve the beast': private charities used by the government to justify the abdication of its duties to its citizens."

And please forgive me, but I totally agree.

The problem is, if all those generous people who donated to relief efforts didn't do so, all the displaced people from the Gulf coast who have lost everything would probably be even more screwed than they already are. And these people need services now. The government has (finally) gotten its shit together and has been running rescue operations and pumping water out of New Orleans. But thousands of evacuees are being fed and housed by the Red Cross with donated money.

If Americans do someday get fed up with donating to nonprofits to do the work they have already paid the government to do via taxes, it would still take years (and maybe a few administrations) for our government to react, pick up the slack, and start using its resources to serve its own people without depending so heavily on private nonprofits.

I'm not suggesting that the government provides all services better than private nonprofits do--far from it. Local organizations that run after-school programs for youth, community development agencies, environmental conservation groups, all kinds of advocates for various issues, legal aid, arts organizations--please keep giving to these. Local nonprofit organizations that provide focused services to specific populations generally do much better work than a government agency ever could.

And nonprofits may be best suited to manage successful long-term recovery for displaced Gulf coast people, with things like helping them find new jobs and new places to live, deal with medical problems, and start to cope with the trauma they've suffered. Organizations doing that kind of work do need donations. But we have a very big and very rich government that is best positioned to do the big immediate relief stuff. It's time for the government to take responsibility and stop shifting this work onto nonprofits.

September 8, 2005

Rebuilding New Orleans

Now that those affected by Katrina are mostly either staying somewhere safe or dead, media attention is turning to long-term recovery. Should New Orleans be rebuilt? Will people ever want to live there again? And some people are asking what I think is the real question here: what the hell are hundreds of thousands of evacuated people with no home, no job, and no money going to do for the next 6 months to a year while everybody discusses the first two questions?

Clearly, the government can't support the entire populations of New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi, and all those other ruined cities, for months on end. The evacuees' self-preservation instincts and the desire not to live in a football stadium in Houston has kicked in, and as of yesterday only about 3,000 evacuees are still in the Astrodome. Other shelters also report greatly reduced populations. Those $2,000 debit cards being given to evacuees should help more people get to other cities to stay with family and friends.

But wherever the evacuees go, before too long they'll have to find more permanent places to live, and jobs. The instantaneous unemployment of hundreds of thousands of people in all sectors is a huge deal, unlike anything our country has faced in recent years. New Orleans was a city with a lot of serious social problems before the hurricane hit, but social problems can be fixed through careful policymaking, time, and money. In the late '70's, New York was going down the tubes; today it still has some big problems, but it's a totally changed city.

A history of poverty is no reason for not rebuilding a damaged city, like Jack Shafer suggests on Slate. It's a reason to rebuild it into a better city, as David Brooks writes in the NYT. There's also a fantastic piece in the New York Press, which is usually full of reactionary garbage, about how the rebuilding of New Orleans "is an unprecedented chance to create something new and vital, to sow equality where there has been segregation, democracy where there has been corruption, and beauty where there has been ugliness."

Also, New Orleans is one of our country's most important ports. You can't just move the place where the Mississippi River ends. We're still a country largely dependent on shipping, both for imports and exports, and that's not going to change.

Another silver lining: the new request that Bush sent Congress for $51 billion in relief money is the start of a larger reassessment of some of the administration's biggest goals in social and economic policy. The Washington Post reports, "The disaster has forced the Republicans to temporarily set aside a planned fall agenda of tax relief, spending cuts and retirement savings initiatives, as well as to react to public outrage over the government's slow response to the crisis." Some of those spending cuts were to be for Medicaid, which is now where many evacuees will probably get their healthcare coverage for awhile. Looks like the plan to gut our government's social programs has been derailed, maybe for the next three years.

September 1, 2005

What the fuck is going on down there? +

Waiting for help in New Orleans

What the fuck is going on down there?

You mean to tell me the United States cannot get it together to save these people, feed these people, and have some semblance of law and order? We need to have dead people in the parking lot of the Convention Center, with no one around to tend to them? People need to break into the food stores in the Superdome?

Jesus. What is wrong with us. -ADM

A few selections from an AP article about what's going on in New Orleans:

"'Hospitals are trying to evacuate," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan, spokesman at the city emergency operations center. 'At every one of them, there are reports that as the helicopters come in people are shooting at them. There are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, `You better come get my family.'"

This because there IS NO ONE coming to get these families. FEMA has been in New Orleans for three days, and this shit is still going on. Why is this happening in our own country, in a city that everybody knew was going to be hit by a massively destructive storm? Why is no one in charge?

"Mayor Nagin called for a total evacuation of New Orleans, saying the city had become uninhabitable for the 50,000 to 100,000 who remained behind after the city of nearly a half-million people was ordered cleared out over the weekend."

So there is still 10-20% of the city's population in the city? An effective emergency evacuation operated by the National Guard would not have left 100,000 people behind.

"Some Federal Emergency Management rescue operations were suspended in areas where gunfire has broken out, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said in Washington. 'In areas where our employees have been determined to potentially be in danger, we have pulled back,' he said."

If FEMA staff get to leave areas where there is gunfire, then where is Homeland Security? Isn't it their job to work in the problem areas? Where is the National Guard?

"Outside the Convention Center, the sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement. Thousands of storm refugees had been assembling outside for days, waiting for buses that did not come.

"47-year-old Daniel Edwards said, 'You can do everything for other countries but you can't do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military but you can't get them down here.'"

Guess what? The Navy is finally sending an aircraft carrier to the Gulf of Mexico. Like NOW they send an aircraft carrier.

Cities like New York have learned to have a coordinated response to disaster. Maybe one problem is New Orleans' bad infrastructure and bad city management. But the national response has been disgraceful. The message to U.S. cities from the federal government seems to be "You're on your own."

And what do you want to bet that after it's all over, Bush comes out and says all this feel-good garbage about how inspiring it is that regular American citizens reached out to help their neighbors, all because all our public services completely fucked up?

Here's what Bush is saying about the looting and violence going on now: "I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this — whether it be looting, or price gouging at the gasoline pump, or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud. And I've made that clear to our attorney general. The citizens ought to be working together."

Right. How about zero tolerance of leaving a large sector of a poor and largely non-mobile population behind to fend for themselves in a destroyed city? -Amy

According to our friend Mike: at the Bush-Bush-Clinton press conference right now, Bush is spending a lot of time talking about oil. Meanwhile, a sniper is shooting at the hospital. -ADM

April 19, 2005

The latest on Wal-Mart in NYC

unions hate Wal-Mart

After Wal-Mart's plans to open a store in Queens got shut down by caterwauling unions, residents, and city officials, the company has set its sights on the next logical market: Staten Island. Staten Island occupies cultural territory more closely aligned with New Jersey than with the other four boroughs of New York, so I can see how this might make sense. A developer is considering two locations in Staten Island: Richmond Valley and Mariners Harbor.

However, they're still encountering some resistance. The United Food and Commercial Workers are fighting the proposed store, and designed a billboard in protest. The billboard was to feature a giant fire-breathing Godzilla next to the Verrazano Bridge, with a caption reading "The Wal-Monster will destroy Staten Island businesses and devastate our quality of life."

Of course, that billboard is never going to see the light of day, because guess who owns the billboard the union has already contracted to rent? Clear Channel! Those champions of free expression. It's no big surprise that Clear Channel would be on the side of Wal-Mart in this case, but it's their rationale for not allowing the union's billboard that will make you crazy. They somehow found a way to co-opt 9/11 as an excuse to censor a billboard. Says a executive from Clear Channel Outdoor, "Are we perhaps oversensitive on this? Maybe. When it comes to images of violence in New York City after 9/11, we feel we have to be very careful."

So the union dropped some of the more violent language from the tagline, changing it to "The Wal-Monster will diminish Staten Island businesses and impede our quality of life." Clear Channel still rejected it.

With big-media friends like Clear Channel, Wal-Mart doesn't even have to get directly involved with those dirty protesters and unions. It's probably only a matter of time before they open their first NYC store.

March 22, 2005

McCain sucks it up for Bush

The beleaguered John McCain has emerged from his world of tears once again to support the President, this time by expressing support for Bush's social security overhaul.

Actually, he didn't exactly come out in unambiguous favor of the Bush plan, which cuts benefits to all recipients of Social Security, especially the disabled and children whose parents die young. What McCain said at the rally is this: "I say to our Democrat friends: Come and sit down at the table and let us work together to save the safety net for future generations of Americans. The door is open to the White House and on the Republican side of the aisle. We must do this together. We know how much money is coming in. We know how much money is going out. Does anybody believe we should wait — we should wait until there's no money that we have to cut off people's Social Security checks?"

Translation: "Hi, Democrats? You wanna help me out here? This guy is CRAZY! GET ME OUTTA HERE!" just like poor Catherine Martin screaming at Jodie Foster from the bottom of Jame Gumb's well of torture.

But Bush is glad to get any time on stage with McCain in which he plasters that tight smile on his face and mouths words of half-hearted support. Photos from the event show that polite but weary-looking McCain we've seen so many times before.

McCain smiling

But in an unguarded moment, McCain can't help but show the world what a horror his life has become, as he winces in anguish at how the ideals of his party have become warped beyond recognition.

McCain grimace

Poor John McCain!

February 23, 2005

Next target: AARP

Cerative Response Concepts, who are the same consulting group who worked with Swift Vets for Truth during the presidential campaign, have gotten to work on another key item on the Bush agenda, and guess what? They're using unethical and confusing methods to degrade another opponent of the Administration. USA Next is a conservative lobby group who hired them to create an ad attacking AARP, who have (obviously) expressed criticism of the Bush plan (which, in the words of Billionaires for Bush, seeks to make Social Security neither.) They also attack AARP in a number of pieces on their website.

This is the ad, with a graphic big red X on the solider, and big green Checkmark on the couple [see complete ad here]:

USA Next ad

Here's a letter from AARP about their stance on Social Security.

February 14, 2005

Everybody hates No Child Left Behind

NY Times headline: "New US Secretary Showing Flexibility on 'No Child' Act"

"Oh alright, I guess it's OK if we leave some children behind. Especially those poor, stupid ones."

OK, really what the headline refers to is some policy elements of NCLB that the new Secretary of Education, Margaret Spelling, is realizing are totally unworkable. For example, 4,000 veteran North Dakota elementary teachers were declared unqualified through NCLB standards, and after they protested, Secretary Spelling said they were qualified after all. She also agreed to ignore the part of the act stating that students in low-performing schools can transfer to better ones in the case of New York City, where this is physically impossible due to overcrowding. Of course, this prevents NYC students from taking part in what was supposed to be a major benefit of NCLB for families who can't afford private school. For now, the concerns of overcrowded high-quality public schools have won out.

Back to the article: "Ms. Spellings said that she intended to balance states' rights to control schools with the federal government's responsibility to reduce the achievement gap between suburban white and urban minority students. 'That's the most important thing I'm going to do, to thread the needle of that balance,' she said. The president, she said, wants her to 'get with the states and the Congress and work the problem.'"

"Thread the needle of that balance"? What does that mean? Maybe the Secretary was reduced to nonsensical metaphors because the issues of class and race in public education are far too complicated to be solved by obsessively testing middle schoolers.

Interestingly, it's the state that voted the most for Bush last year, Utah, that's especially unhappy with NCLB. Maybe that's because many traditional Republicans value local government more than seemingly ineffective federal programs, and they're not too keen on the burdensome requirements that NCLB has placed on public education, which is supposedly a state-operated service. So they're trying to pass a law for state governance of public education.

"Top educators are all demanding more freedom from the federal law's dictates. The legislature is considering a bill that would require Utah's superintendent of public instruction to give state educational goals priority over the federal law. The superintendent, Patti Harrington, urged lawmakers to pass it and predicted in an interview that they would. 'We don't have much regard for No Child Left Behind in Utah,' Ms. Harrington said. 'For rigor, yes, for achievement, yes, but this law just gets in our way.' She called the law's accountability system 'convoluted,' its method for defining highly-qualified teachers 'faulty,' and its requirement that disabled children be tested at their grade level rather than at their ability level 'ludicrous.'"

January 26, 2005

Some of Bush's best friends are black

bush loves black people

"'African-American males have a — have had a shorter life span than other sectors of America,' said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. 'And this will enable them to build a nest egg of their own and be able to pass that nest egg on to their survivors.'" [AP]

See? It's actually good that black men have short life expectancies! Once we privatize social security, you'll be happy that you die young!

"Exit polls showed that Bush received just 11 percent of the black vote in November's election, a slight increase over the 9 percent he received four years earlier."

January 5, 2005

What it means to be generous

The outpouring of cash that Americans are donating to tsunami relief organizations is getting a lot of praise in the press, and rightfully so. The Christian Science Monitor goes as far as to say that giving has undergone a "profound shift" in the US, as regular people reach into their pockets to help the reconstruction of already poor nations, ravaged by a tragic natural event.

The CSM article suggests that perhaps Americans want to change the current world-view of our nation, to convince the rest of the world that Americans are compassionate, not just well-armed. This is certainly an understandable desire, and I'm pleasantly surprised that many Americans have even noticed that our position as a moral leader has taken a battering in recent years. Or even over the last 40 years. Regardless, I'm happy that Americans realize that we're unliked these days, and that they've tried to do something about it by giving money to tsunami victims.

But let's not get too carried away with the self-congratulatory pride. As Nicholas Kristof points out in his Op-Ed today, America is still relatively far down on the generosity ranking when our enormous wealth is considered. Foreign aid to poor countries in general is still only 0.1% of our annual budget, even though the wealthiest members of the UN collectively decided that foreign aid should constitute 0.7% of their budgets. Many Americans think that we give around 24% of our budget to foreign aid, demonstrating that the general public has literally no idea that our supposed generosity toward poor countries might be a lot of money, but it is still woefully inadequate and, yes, stingy. Kristof also points out that the number of tsunami casualties roughly equals the number of people worldwide who die every month from easily preventable diseases like malaria.

We Americans also tend to have very short memories. A lot of people are donating to tsunami relief efforts, and that's great, but many donors are stipulating that their cash go ONLY to the immediate needs of tsunami victims, as though there were no other people suffering from disasters in the world. Remember Sudan? Remember Afghanistan and Iraq? The organizations that are working in South East Asia are mostly all working in these other places too, and have been all along. Doctors Without Borders has notified potential donors that they have enough money to accomplish their goals in the tsunami-affected countries--no more tsunami donations, please! They do encourage donors to give to their ongoing relief efforts all over the world. Much like some donors to 9/11 relief funds got all outraged when the Red Cross used some donations for long-term relief, instead of immediately giving all of it to victims' families, many tsunami relief donors seem to be equally short-sighted.

Who do we want to help here, victims of this disaster, or our own international image? It's wonderful and generous if you want to give money to these relief efforts, but take five minutes and make sure you're giving to an organization that is doing the work on the ground, and still needs more support. Give2Asia is part of The Asia Foundation, and is working with local Asian organizations to use contributions for both short-term relief and long-term recovery. Contributions given out of guilt are certainly just as valuable as those given for more altruistic reasons, but it's important to remember that there is great need in a great many countries that will still be there long after this new crisis is over.

December 22, 2004

Adulthood blows

In this week's Village Voice there is a pair of interesting and self-indulgent pity pieces entitled "Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young", about how much it sucks to be:

a) a young woman, with changing expectations regarding the balance of career, personal development, marriage, and family, especially when we still make 76 cents to the male dollar, goddammit. And going to college was fun, but it didn't help us get a good job and now we're in massive debt and if we get ever divorced we'll end up in poverty. And,

b) a young man, with all that debt from college when we idiotically signed up for credit cards and blew all the money we didn't have on CDs and beer, and now we don't know if we'll ever be able to pay it all back, let alone buy a house, and HELL no we have no plans to get married because debt is emasculating. And man, college sure was a waste of time and money.

There is also a good but depressing follow-up about parents, who look on their children's financial situations with horror and despair. And offer a few brief comments along the lines of "Do you have any idea how hard we worked to save money to pay for college for you?!"

Yes, we're pretty much all poor and indebted, which is determining our major life choices. If you're going to a household for Christmas this week at which you will be asked about your future/job/marriage/children/declining ability to buy any presents for your family members at all, you might want to read these pieces and get your cultural and economic explanations ready.

And if you are at the stage of your life where you are considering where to attend college, and if you will be paying for most of it yourself, may I suggest selecting a public university.

Christmas in the red for Eastern Europe

Now that so many formerly communist nations have joined the EU and embraced consumerism, many of these households are finding out what Christmas in capitalist countries is all about: accumulating debt. While credit card companies describe eastern and central Europe as "virgin territory with a large potential for growth", Hungary's largest bank expects that household debt as a percentage of GDP could double in the next 5 years across the region.

Stores in Poland and Romania liberally offer shoppers personal credit, charging hefty commissions on their loans. The Czech Republic calls their popular new gigantic new supermarkets "hypermarkets", perhaps a reflection of the frenzied state of shoppers, free to borrow and spend like they yearned to do while under communist oppression. The article reports, "The new mores are light years from the philosophy prevailing under the communist system -- when consumption was constrained by the scarcity of products, meager salaries and a lack of loans."

So enjoy your portable DVD players and new leather furniture sets this Christmas, eastern Europe! While you're reveling in the holiday spirit, remember the true meaning of capitalism: a 21.99% APR.

December 3, 2004

A Public Scolding From Michael Powell

What happens when you spend your days getting screamed at? If you’re FCC chair Michael Powell, you write an op-ed in the New York Times, attempting to justify the recent fracas caused by your office. Powell fussily blames “those who make a handsome living by selling saucy fare” for creating most of the trouble (a clear jab at Howard Stern, who abused him on a recent radio call-in show). Powell also reaches right for the heartstrings with the most tired of all censorship arguments: of course he supports the First Amendment, but by God, he’s also a parent.

I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of this, but his conclusion struck a nerve:

“Berating citizens who believe in values and reasonable limits is insulting and polarizing and distracts from the legitimate issues of this policy debate. Critics of the law should instead focus their efforts on changing the law, if that's what they want.”

Oh, I see now. Instead of whining about the law, we should change it!

Does Michael Powell live in Fairyland? Does this man truly not know anything about the organization that he runs?

In one sense, Powell is absolutely right. The FCC “isn’t in the business of censorship”. They’re “in the business” of supporting business. The act that created the FCC also determined that radio would be funded through advertising, eliminating the possibility for educational and socially responsible programming. Since then, the FCC has been “in the business” of consolidating control of the American communications industry into six or eight conglomerates. And the American people have never, ever, had a voice in this process – except for the American people who sit on the boards of Viacom and NewsCorp, or belong to the National Association of Broadcasters. Changing the laws, as Powell so blithely suggests, would require a complete overhaul and revision of seventy years of business-friendly legislation, as well as going head to head with one of the most wealthy, powerful lobbies in this country. You want to talk about "legitimate issues of this policy debate"? Why don't you start there?

Powell can protest all he wants about the FCC not being a watchdog, but what he doesn’t seem to realize is that the organization has backed itself into that corner. Where did these “certain broadcasters” who “trade responsible restraint for torrid sensationalism in the relentless race for ratings” come from? They are a direct result of our government’s policies.

I’m not saying that the FCC is single-handedly responsible for creating all the garbage on television today, but they are certainly responsible for our lack of choices. If our airwaves were instead filled with a diversity of programming from a multitude of sources not dependent on advertising dollars, then Mr. and Mrs. Powell could just change the channel when they fear their children might be exposed to boobies, and stop scolding the rest of us for not wanting to lose the few freedoms we have left.

November 29, 2004

Exchange Rate Disco

euros

Europeans, their minds addled by the record high value of their currency against the US dollar, enter a whirlwind of gleaming bank notes and blurry glowing exchange rates. These euro-folk--even their exchange bureaus look like clubs.

The Guardian offers some analysis on why the falling dollar will make it harder for European companies to compete internationally against our US companies and their increasingly low relative prices. Americans considering travel to Europe any time soon might want to pack a few lunches to bring along, since your cash won't be worth much.

November 19, 2004

A Warm Welcome For President Bush

Santiago protests

This is the fourth straight day of protests in Santiago, Chile against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (you know the members of APEC better as "our masters").

“We are protesting not only because of APEC," one protester said, "but also because Bush is coming, who is the No. 1 terrorist of the world. And he is coming to do his utmost to ensure that they keep impoverishing people.”

Charge!+

You know how every now and then, you get those letters from your credit card company that are all, "Hey! You're such a valuable cardholder that we're raising your credit limit!" and you're all "Fucking yeah! Now I can buy that X-box!"

That's why today, Americans are totally psyched that Congress raised President Bush's credit limit by $800 billion! Our new $818 trillion borrowing cap is 70% of the entire U.S. economy! And you know what that means? Even after you drop $577 million on storing nuclear waste in Nevada, you still have like, a bajillion dollars to spend at Banana Republic! Is this country great, or what?!!!

Unrelated: Europe Pleads with U.S. to Bolster Dollar

Update: Although not expected until Monday, Bush signed the increase into law this morning before leaving for Chile. Phew! Now he can cover that Andean silver jewelry for the girls, and take Laura on the cruise she's always wanted. Ka-ching!

November 9, 2004

David Brooks and Wasteland America+

officepark

Today's Op-Ed by David Brooks, our favorite moderate conservative, offers an interesting study of one of America's fastest-growing demographic and geographic classifications: the exurbs. Exurbs are not really suburbs, because they don't rely on a nearby city, they're not traditional small towns, and they're certainly not urban either. People who live in exurbs live, work, shop, and especially drive in an endless array of strip malls and office parks, with nary a tall building or subway station to be seen. They have no contact with urban life. As Brooks says, they are "huge, sprawling communities with no center."

In other words, the most repellent form of civilization. I am not personally familiar with the I-4 corridor in central Florida, Mesa, AZ, or Henderson, NV--some of the exurb examples that Brooks offers--but I bet these places have lots of SUVs that never conquer any rocky terrain, no sidewalks or bicycles, and basically zero locally-owned businesses. Brooks seems to have chosen to write this Op-Ed as an extended and impressive rationalization for why his book about exurbia, On Paradise Drive, which came out six months ago, hasn't sold very well. He posits that the very people who might have been interested to read about the cultural phenomena that they constitute had no way of learning that the book existed. He says that his book tour took him to places like New York, Berkeley, and Seattle, so he was unable to promote in a central place where exurbians congregate. My guess is that these exurban shopping centers are probably not overflowing with quality bookstores. I would also guess that the residents of exurbia are too busy idling in traffic and affixing plastic siding to their houses to buy books about the changing cultural and geographic landscape of America.

However, these exurbs probably do have decent public schools, and a thriving community of non-denominational churches. Brooks notes that the Republican party got inside the "conservative but also utopian" sprawl of the exurbs, and convinced the people there to vote for them. I find it interesting that as the physical landscape of America becomes more and more foreign to small town and city dwellers like me, the political landscape changes right along with it, in similar ways. If you can see the appeal of living in a place like Polk County, FL, then voting Republican could certainly make sense too. Hopefully the Democrats will realize that these days, lots of Americans truly do not care about community issues and poverty and people who are less fortunate than they are; they just want low taxes and a yard and Outback Steakhouses. As Brooks says, "Get out into the sprawl, into that other conversation. It's a new world out there." -Amy

I can think of two other reasons Brooks' book isn't selling well: 1) It received mediocre reviews, even from his own employers, and 2) why would people in the "exurbs" want to read a New York Times writer's often insulting generalizations about their lives and choices?

In this Philadelphia magazine article one writer takes on Brooks' sweeping claims(including the mysterious statement that it's impossible to spend more than $20 at Red Lobster) by travelling to Franklin County PA. As it turns out, Brooks is often willing to dismiss facts to make his (often distorted) point.

Are there cultural divides in the US? Of course, and it's increasingly important that we understand them. But Brooks' "moderate conservative" label isn't even the issue in this instance as much as his elite urban attitude. In trying to sell his book to those "exurbites", he ultimately makes the same mistake the Democratic party did: talking down to the people you want on your side.

And David - nice try on the tour excuse, but even Mesa, Arizona has readings at the Barnes & Noble. - Emily

September 1, 2004

Robot On The Spot: Unemployment Line

An early morning protest at 8:13 today targeted increasing unemployment and decreased funding for job training programs. The event was organized by People for the American Way, and included thousands of people standing in a symbolic unemployment line for about three miles, stretching from Wall Street to near Madison Square Garden. Passing bus and cab drivers who had driven along the whole stretch of the line claimed it looked really cool, and we were glad to participate in a protest whose primary activity was not yelling at the police. Photos will come soon, but in the meantime, here's AP coverage.

August 17, 2004

Working with Rich People

Personally, my policy about dealings with the very wealthy goes like this: they already have all the money and all the power, so why should they have my respect too? But then, I'm not the chief concierge at the Ritz-Carlton, and Frederick Bigler is. People like Mr. Bigler are the real reason that rich people are happier than the rest of us poor old saps: when you're rich, you can pay people to do absolutely anything for you, even things you don't actually need to ask them to do. They'll just come up with new and inventive ways to make you feel like you are more important than everybody else.

And when you're paying $595 to $12,000 a night for a room, you expect that kind of service. He will escort you to the bathroom instead of just showing you where it is (I assume this is in the lobby, not in your suite,) he will rent you an armored car to take you shopping, he will send up special treats for your dog that you didn't even ask for, and this is my favorite, he will orchestrate a "Charlie's Angels" theme weekend for you and your girlfriends and narrate the activities he has planned for you via a cassette tape that he slips under your pillow every morning. It's sort of like having your mom stay with you in your hotel, except a fabulous, indulgent, doting mom who is at your beck and call and never tells you you've had too much to drink and get your hair out of your face. Mr. Bigler says he "likes making them feel special," but apparently what guests at fancy hotels really want is some kind of grown-up version of a nanny. See the outstanding title essay in David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again for further reading on this subject, using the example of guests on a luxury cruise.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Bigler is not a native New Yorker--he grew up in Lancaster, PA. The secrets to much of his success as a concierge are his skill in reading people, giving them what they want, and also just being polite. He says, "Some New Yorkers aren't aware that if you don't give someone eye contact, it's considered rude."

August 5, 2004

Shame on you, realtors.

Is it any wonder, that when urban renters are consistently subjected to publicity like this:

“Can a regular middle-class human ever afford a window on the confluence of sea and sky, the dance of light on a lake, or a river winding through the woods?… there is a current listing in Sea Bright [New Jersey] for a condo on three levels in the Waterways complex, one block from the Atlantic Ocean, overlooking the Shrewsbury River. The list price is $635,000. The condo, three steps from a new riverside walkway, has the all-vacation all-the-time ambience that comes with floor-to-ceiling windows on a view that would inspire a poet.”

That it results in things like this?

“An eight-month study released yesterday by Pennsylvania officials confirms what many residents of the Pocono Mountains have long suspected: foreclosures have reached stunning levels, especially among homebuyers new to the area, many of whom paid more than market value for their homes....many of the homebuyers were former renters lured by slick marketing from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx to a cluster of gated communities 100 miles from Manhattan...

..."I think a lot of these people were first-time homebuyers who believed in the American dream, but they probably got in over their heads," said Mr. Goldstein, the director of policy for the Reinvestment Fund. "Many of them are already gone, but there are plenty of people who are here doing everything they can to make outrageous payments, and they're always on the brink of foreclosure."

August 2, 2004

Being Rich (and poor) in America

The Business section of today's Times offers some interesting insights into the economic psyche of America, the richest country in the world. In case you haven't noticed, working and middle class people haven't been doing so well: over the last 20 years, inflation-adjusted wages have stayed flat for just about everybody except for men in the 95th earnings percentile, whose wages have grown by a third. And as we all know, fewer people than ever have health insurance through their employers: "The Kaiser Family Foundation, in a recent update on its survey of health care benefits, estimated that the percentage of full-time workers who participate in employee health insurance plans has declined to 56 percent in 2003 from 80 percent in 1990." The article also includes statements from a whole lot of working families who find it harder to make ends meet due to layoffs, medical bills, and child care problems. People who work in the public sector are delaying retirement to compensate for huge losses in invested retirement savings.

But you'll feel heartened to hear that high-income fields are paying better than ever. "Professionals in fields like accounting, engineering and architecture are particularly optimistic. 'I think things are getting a lot better,' said Connie Berry, an accountant who relaxed poolside on Thursday with her husband at the Wilderness resort. 'I just got a raise; my husband has gotten a lot of new clients. I think Bush is doing a great job.'" Great, Connie! Connie and her husband were interviewed while vacationing at the $200-a-day Wilderness resort, a moderately-priced water park/hotel that, in theory, should be in within the reach of many middle-class families.

The problem is, more and more families can't afford places like Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort. One reason for this is growing personal debt. Families today are more likely to go into debt just to keep up with day-to-day expenses. Low interest rates have also encouraged spending: a man interviewed for the Times article, Donald Sokalezuk, is an accounts-payable supervisor at the University of Pennsylvania. "He said he used cheap loans to buy a new camper and a new truck. 'I probably have as much debt as I ever had, but I have a lot more stuff,' he said. He did grumble that health care costs had greatly outpaced any pay increases in recent years." Exploitative changes in the credit card industry in recent years have contributed to our growing debt.

But credit card late fees and lower monthly minimum payment rates alone aren't driving people into debt. We have to spend our money irresponsibly in order to get ourselves seriously in the hole. And what better way to encourage people to live beyond their means than to make them feel poor and deprived? Enter a brand new batch of shopping magazines! Lucky will be joined by Shop Etc., and the boys will have both Cargo and the new Vitals to show them how to shop more. Lucky, "the magazine about shopping," will soon have one million paying readers; advertisers love this, because the content of the magazine is nearly indistinguishable from the ads. A director at an advertising firm says about shopping magazines, "They are offering advertisers a much shorter distance between message and purchase, which is highly attractive." Conspicuous consumption of goods like clothes, shoes, makeup, appliances, and home decorations is being pushed not only by advertisers, but also by supposedly neutral journalists and editors. Spend spend spend, America!

In case you also need guidance in how to purchase big-ticket items, Donald Trump has thoughtfully planned to launch his own magazine, Trump World. His editor says "the magazine would feature Mr. Trump's business and real-estate advice, as well as helpful hints on spending the riches that result."

About Economics

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