Friday, April 26, 2013

Dick Gephardt And Education Reform In Minneapolis

MinnPost has a tragic/comedic article about (yet another) brouhaha surrounding the issue of education reform in Minneapolis.  Minneapolis Public Schools has been working with a project sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation called the RESET campaign and at a recent event CNN commentator and principle Steve Perry said some things that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers found objectionable.  The result was a series of public statements from both the president of the Federation and a woman named Lynnell Mickelsen who is the head of a school reform organization called Putting Kids First Minneapolis followed by a statement by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson which seems to be the educational policy equivalent of "can't we all just get along?"

If you follow The School Reform Wars feel free to read the letters and use them as evidence of the morale superiority of your side and the hypocrisy and awfulness of the dreaded enemy.  But my response was more of a "pox on both your houses" thing after reading about what I considered to be poor politicking.  Steve Perry started the whole ruckus by saying things like "we need to call out the roaches" when referring to incompetent teachers and obstinate teacher's unions.  He may have a point that there are incompetent teachers that should be removed and in many districts teacher's unions can make this more difficult, but it's hard to see what he's trying to accomplish here.  Barring a big change in state law any change in the hiring and dismissal process in Minneapolis's school system is going to have to include changes in the contract between teachers and the district, that is, it is going to be something that the teacher's union agrees to.  Calling people "roaches" before you ask them to do something doesn't strike me as a particular wining strategy.

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president Lynn Nordgren then responded to this provocation by making a series unreasonable demands. First she demanded:
We demand Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson immediately end the partnership with the anti-teacher RESET campaign. There is no place in the collaborative partnership that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) has attempted to foster with the district over the past several years if they are going to be involved with a campaign like RESET.
So because a cable news talking head said something you don't like the school system should break it's ties with one of the biggest philanthropic organizations in the state?  That doesn't seem like a wise choice to me.  This was followed by another demand that the entire leadership team at Broadway Avenue drop whatever it is they are doing and prove their metal:
We call on Superintendent Johnson and all associate superintendents to spend a week teaching in a classroom. If they are ready to be a part of a campaign that blames every problem in the education system on teachers, they should be ready to be in classrooms showing us how to fix it.
I guess the "collaborative partnership" is over then.  Because some guy from CNN said something you didn't like?  This attitude is no more helpful than Perry's.

Michelsen's response has it's own problems. First of all it unfortunately contains what I like to call "liberal race trolling" which is the unfortunate tendency of certain liberal commentators and bloggers to try and prove their moral superiority over other liberals by stressing that they are "more" concerned about racial justice issues (and thus "more liberal") that other liberals. There's tons of this all over the liberal parts of the internet, and while Mickelsen's points are nowhere near some of the stuff I've seen it unfortunately does contain quotes like:
If the district publicly distances itself from the RESET campaign, that would be a clear signal to the community that the district, once again, is more concerned with the feelings of (mostly white, middle-class) adults than improving the academic outcomes for (mostly brown, low-income) children.
Does this mean that in districts with more minority teachers the problems are necessarily better? Well no, just ask Chicago. Just ask the District of Columbia.  These types of comments also just muddy the water, Washington D.C. shouldn't get a pass just because it's teaching staff is more diverse that Minneapolis, indeed the D.C. school system is much, much worse than ours.  More importantly though, this is a terrible political strategy! In a city of 385,000 people, let alone a country of over 300 million, the only way to do effective politics is through coalitions and partnerships. If right out of the gate you start bashing groups you have to work with or potential allies you probably aren't going to get very far.

A better strategy would be to look for allies rather than jump up to defend the honor of some out of town cable news talking head. At the very least setting up your battle as being between white middle class adults and minority children seems like a poor strategy to me as only one of these groups can vote. Indeed, you could turn the argument around and argue things like "If we don't reform our struggling school system now, in the future the state government could come in take away our local control!" This has the benefit to making the middle class white people be on the same side and the minority children, and does it by pointing out a issue (local control of schools) that middle class white people care a lot about!

A great example of this "let's fix things" politics, as opposed to the "I art more righteous than thou" model can be found in Richard Ben Cramer's great book about the 1988 presidential campaign What It Takes. Cramer is profiling Democratic Congressman Dick Gephardt, who ran for President in that cycle but ultimately lost, and makes a great point about why he was such an effective member of Congress:
Or sometimes, he [Gephardt] might explain that he agreed, but this other guy had a problem, and then he'd explain the other guy's problem. But usually he'd have a plan to get the other guy half of what he wanted, to solve his problem and that way, you'd get what you wanted, or some of what you wanted...if Dick could pull it off...anyway, he was for you.
And sometimes if it was a planned disagreement, like a caucus, or a conference on a bill where the Senate and House could not agree, or some other forum of organized bitterness [like a school board meeting! ed. note] Gephardt would go onto "receive" for a whole day...and when everybody was exhausted, and sour, and stinking from flop-sweat, and the whole ship was on fire from the cannonades on either side, there was Gephardt...who would suddenly take his chin off his fist, break his RCA-dog face into a smile of empathy for all, and he's say: "Lemme see if I can make a suggestion...Bob, Marty isn't this where we can agree, for a start?..." And then he'd lay down some narrow gangplank of common ground, where everyone, from any deck, could get off the burning ship before it sank. And it was beautiful the way he could do it, because everybody would leave with something to tell the voters. He would draw for them their bottom lines-what they really needed to get away with their skins...because he did understand, and the way he did that was, he listened...
Well, that was his goal. Gephardt thought his job was to make the system work on the problems. (Kind of radical, but there it was.)
If you've read the book or know about Gephardt's political career it's obvious he cares a lot about things like failing schools, trade deficits, vanishing jobs in the Midwest and the decline of Unions.  But at the same time he never lets his passion for these issues damage his ability to do the hard daily grind of real politics.  A new teacher contract could have a lot of things that Mickelsen wants, but it probably won't have everything she wants.  That wouldn't make it a failure, instead it would make it just another step forward on the difficult road to social change.  It would make it part of how our political system works on the problems.  Kind of radical, i know, but there it is.

Politics can be difficult and frustrating at times, but it is important not to take these frustrations out in unproductive ways. Improving our educational systems is a monumental task, but it won't be made any easier by ridiculous demands or dysfunctional politics.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Dismal State Of The Dismal Science Continued

Maybe we are just in a news lull with the end of the Boston bombing mega story, but there was a lot of chatter yesterday about how smart, or "smart" George W. Bush really was.  It was all started by the former head of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers Keith Hennessey, who wrote a blog post with the "please link to me" title of "George W. Bush is smarter than you."  Ezra Klein wrote a good response about how this might be true but Bush was still terrible at being President while Matt Yglesias made good points about the awfulness of Hennessey's post and what the questions are that we should be asking about the Bush legacy.  Heck a search of the longwalk files has reviled that I've written about this too.

Hennessey argues that George W. Bush was in fact very smart mainly because when Hennessey worked for him Bush seemed smart in briefings and meetings, he then goes on to explain that the whole reason people doubted the brain power of the 43rd President is because the media is biased against people from Texas.  This is typical boiler plate you'd expect from a loyal Republican solider (Hennessey came up in Trent Lott's farm team in the '90's) and a person that worked in the White House from 2002 to 2009 and didn't really register with me.

What annoyed me was the way this whole blog post get's started:
The new George W. Bush Presidential Center is being dedicated this week. This seems like a good time to bust a longstanding myth about our former President, my former boss.

I teach a class at Stanford Business School titled “Financial Crises in the U.S. and Europe.” During one class session while explaining the events of September 2008, I kept referring to the efforts of the threesome of Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner, who were joined at the hip in dealing with firm-specific problems as they arose.

One of my students asked “How involved was President Bush with what was going on?” I smiled and responded, “What you really mean is, ‘Was President Bush smart enough to understand what was going on,’ right?”

The class went dead silent. Everyone knew that this was the true meaning of the question. Kudos to that student for asking the hard question and for framing it so politely. I had stripped away that decorum and exposed the raw nerve.
If the question really was suppose to be "Was President Bush smart enough to understand what was going on, right?" Hennessey is the wrong person to ask.  The reason?  Hennessey didn't know what "was going on" then or now, indeed no economist does.

Take a step back from terrible economic problems that have plagued the developed world since 2007 and think of what economists can really tells us about what happened and why and you are struck by the fact that they simply don't know.  Almost no economist of any ideological or political persuasion predicted the crash.  Since then their predictions have varied wildly and are often wrong.  Austerity was suppose to lead to growth in Europe but instead it led to a continent wide depression.  Our nation's deficits were suppose to lead to inflation or recession or inflation and recession, instead we have slow growth and record low borrowing cost.  In short a huge number of people, like Hennessey, who had spent their life's work trying to be able to explain these things were shown to have no idea what they were talking about.

Some economists, Paul Krugman comes to mind, have been making predictions that come true.  Indeed Paul's mathematical models and theoretical frame work have a pretty good track record over the past 10 years.  But that doesn't mean that Krugman has discovered the secret to fixing our economic problems, he could be simply getting lucky or his analysis may be good in this situation but unhelpful in a situation we might face in twenty years.  Meanwhile award wining economists quoted by powerful politicians all over the West seem incapable of basic excel coding, or at least checking their work.

The history of economics is filled with very smart people thinking they had "solved" problems, only to see those problems rear their heads again and again.  Indeed both liberal and conservative economists thought 50 years ago that they had solved the problem of another Great Depression forever.  Of course, they hadn't.  In fact, they'd also created new problems along the way.  But instead of even a small amount of self reflections over the failures of this discipline, from it's ranks we just the self-serving bromides of party loyalists explain their old boss really was a genius after all.  It's like living in the mind of narcissistic tenured professor.     

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Obama and LBJ

It's become chic lately to compare Obama's legislative record unfavorably with LBJ's. The New York Times ran a front page article today that made a typical case, complete with colorful anecdotes about Johnson engaging in some old fashioned bullying and the standard hand wringing that Obama doesn't "twist" enough arms. There were a lot of responses the folly of this argument, Greg Sargent had a good general take down and Jonathan Bernstein had another one focusing on reasons political science tells us this is wrong at The Washington Post. I won't go into the basics of why this argument is wrong, I've written about it before if you are interested, but I really did like Bernstein's last point:
6. And this one is overlooked: Johnson’s bullying style was successful … for a while. By the end of his presidency, it wasn’t working any more. Getting a reputation as an effective negotiator has a lot of advantages, but getting a reputation as a bully who can’t be trusted creates a lot of problems — even if bullying can be effective in the short run.
This is a great point and something I don't think get's stressed enough about LBJ in particular or the Presidency in general.

In fact Johnson himself saw that his arm twisting would cause problems in the long run. In Michael Beschloss' book "Reaching For Glory" about the Johnson Presidency in 1964 and 1965 Beschloss points out that Johnson accurately predicted that he would only enjoy a brief period of success steam rolling Congress:
After the victory of 1964 the old master had warned his staff that despite the huge Democratic margin on Capitol Hill, they would have only six months or so before exhausted, resentful members of the House and Senate began to rebel against the lash of the White House. After enacting the most important legislative program since FDR's First New Deal, LBJ suffered his initial major repudiation- on home rule for the District of Columbia-in September 1965. "It only takes one for them to see they can cut us and make us bleed," he told his aides. "Then they'll bleed us to death on our other legislation." About Congress he was rarely wrong. The bleeding had begun...
By 1966, as Jonson had predicted, the backlash against the Great Society, civil rights, and a stalemate in Vietnam was in full snap. In the midterm elections Republicans gained forty-seven seats in the House, three seats in the Senate, and eight new Governors, including Ronald Reagan in California. Richard Nixon chortled to friends, "We've beaten hell out of them, and we're going to kill them in '68."
Mighty Johnson had struck out, and of all things on a DC home rule bill.

The point isn't that Presidents aren't powerless or irrelevant, whose in The White House matters a lot! The point is that Presidents are not elected Kings, the are office holders in a vast and complicated democratic system with limited power. If you want to pass a gun control bill you either need to change the position of the Republican Party or change who controls the House of Representatives. This is hard work with no guarantee of success, but if we spent more time trying to do these things and less time complaining about Obama, we might do better.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why George W. Bush Was Such A Bad President

Over at his blog, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein made a great point about why George W. Bush turned out to be such a disaster as President.  Bernstein argues that:
George W. Bush's presidential library is about to open, and so we're getting Bush stuff all over the press, such as this National Journal piece on Bush's "Reluctant Re-Emergence on the Political Scene" with a subheadline that "these days he's more interested in painting, golfing, and enjoying time away from politics."

Which makes me cranky because as far as I can see, he was always more interested in golf, baseball, and pretty much everything except the world of public affairs.

Oh, I think he enjoyed the game of electoral politics (is it too mean to say that he enjoyed it especially when he was winning? Perhaps). As Richard Ben Cramer taught us, the Bush family is nothing if not competitive. But beyond that? I find it very, very, easy to imagine that he paid little attention to public affairs either before or after his political career.

And I think that's highly unusual for politicians, and pretty much unheard of for presidents.
I've written about this before, specifically explaining George Bush's failures as being due to character flaws like being "incurious" is not the write way to think about it.  n this post I think that Bernstein really gets to the heart of matter.  That is, Bush was never interested in public affairs to begin with, and as a result his leadership always revolved around attempting to "win" in the short term, with little regard for the long term impact of his decisions and policies or the larger questions about the purpose of politics in the first place.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Dismal State Of The Dismal Science

Economics occupies a strange place in our public sphere.  While it is certainly one of social sciences that relies heavily on theory and argument, as opposed to a branch like physics which is based totally in math, it is often treated as a more "serious" discipline than say sociology of political science.  I guess because economists publish their findings with lots or numbers, charts and graphs.  This has been going on for some time, 50 years ago economists were often taught with bizarre contraptions that seem like something out of a steam punk novel, today using powerful computers and things like systems management theory economists can construct "models" of how markets work that are so complex very few people in the world can actually understand them.

There is one small problem, theses theories are often wrong.  Earlier this week it was revealed that one of the foundational papers arguing for austerity and smaller deficits in the face of our economic woes was in fact a fraud.  The paper published by two economists named Reinhart and Rogoff originally argued that nations' with a national debt of more that 90% of their GDP experience a major slowdown in economic growth.  Matt Yglesias has said, "This is literally the most influential article cited in public and policy debates about the importance of debt stabilization..."  This paper has been used repeatedly to make the argument both in the US and Europe that smaller deficits through austerity is more important than trying to lower unemployment and create jobs. 

The errors in the paper are quite numerous, Paul Krugman summed them up as:
According to the review paper, R-R mysteriously excluded data on some high-debt countries with decent growth immediately after World War II, which would have greatly weakened their result; they used an eccentric weighting scheme in which a single year of bad growth in one high-debt country counts as much as multiple years of good growth in another high-debt country; and they dropped a whole bunch of additional data through a simple coding error.

Fix all that, say Herndon et al., and the result apparently melts away.
Which is polite academiceese for "your paper is a fraud, or you are grossly incompetent at your job."

While it's always enjoyable to poke fun at so called "experts" when they fall on their faces, I think it illustrates something much bigger.  The dismal science is simply in a dismal state.  Despite a huge number of professors all over the world, despite massive government and private funding of economic "experts," despite requirements that undergrads take classes in economics, and legion of grad students continuing to pour into it's study, the discipline seems to illuminate nothing about our world.  Worse, when economists do come to something close to a consensus conclusion, it might just be because someone typed the wrong number into a excel spread sheet as much as anything else.

To make matters worse Reinhart and Rogoff aren't owing up to their mistakes, instead they are spinning like beltway champions now that they are confronted with the reality of their screw ups.  They've just issued a Nixonian non-apology apology.  A key part of science and the whole peer review process is people have to be willing that admit they were wrong, if they don't it becomes difficult to advance human knowledge.  Instead what we see is two economists who seem more devoted to a political ideology, or perhaps their careers, than what trying to learn about how economies work.     

A few months ago I read an interview with British film maker Adam Curtis where he referred to a lot of economics as "a failed pseudo-science."  At the time I thought that was a little harsh.  But looking at this failure, and the refusal of these two economists to even own up to their error, maybe Curtis was on to something after all.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Please Don't Say "Mullahs," And Can We Please Wait A Few More Years Before The Next War?

So some "distinguished professor" at the University of Texas named Jeremi Suri has an Op-Ed in The New York Times where he calls for us to "Bomb North Korea, Before It's Too Late." The piece itself is the type of dry academic prose that I typically try to avoid, but it's is calling for a policy that could result in a war in which hundreds of thousands of people could die, so I think I should respond.  Suri starts out by listing all the weird and bad things the North Korean regime has been doing in the past few months in the second paragraph and then in a Apollo Moonshot jump-to-conclusions states in the next paragraph that, "The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched." That is, bomb North Korea.

It's amazing to read, if only because it highlights the blind ignorance and foolish assumptions that got us into the Iraq War, and have been prevalent in numerous other military disasters. For example, Suri explains that when longwalkdownlyndale worries that bombing North Korea might cause a war in which a lot of people might get hurt, it's okay because it's "unlikely":
The North Korean government would certainly view the American strike as a provocation, but it is unlikely that Mr. Kim would retaliate by attacking South Korea, as many fear.
Yes but how unlikely?  If you played Russian Roulette with one bullet in the gun it's "unlikely" you will die (only a 16.7% chance that is) but that doesn't make it a good idea.

From a historical context his argument seems to come out of another dimension.  History is filled with examples of his type of thinking leading to disaster.  I'm sure Agamemnon would have loved to have this Suri fellow around to say things like:
The Trojans may view our fleet arriving as a provocation, but it is unlikely that Priam will resist us as many fear.  We are mighty Greeks while he is an old weakling and his son Hector will bow before us and return Helen. 
Then three years into the siege Suri could write a book about other great things the Greeks had done, and two years after that he could write another book about "lessons learned."  Too bad we couldn't have learned any lessons from the Iraq War.  No matter, "distinguished professors" of international relations rarely have to man the parapets, or admit they were wrong.

A more modern example of Suri's folly is that his foolish assumption at the core of his Op-Ed, that no small country would ever defy American power, lays at the heart of the Vietnam War.  Or if you'd like a foreign example of Suri's foolishness it's that he is profoundly underestimating the chaotic nature of war.  At the outbreak of World War I the German military assumed it was facing a short war against France and Russia that Britain wouldn't even enter.  The German armies invaded Belgium in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, to outflank the French, surround and destroy the French armies and capture Paris.  There was one problem, their core assumptions were wrong.  Because of the closeness of Belgium's channel ports to Britain, because of British public outrage over a tiny neutral country being pulverized by an aggressive power and because Britain had guaranteed Belgium's independence since 1830, Britain declared war.  And now the two front war Germany was already facing would also involve a country with the most powerful navy on the face of the earth and an empire that included a fourth of the world's landmass.  The German general staff probably thought this was "unlikely" too.

These are all hallmarks of a bad Op-Ed and the sorry state of our public debate about foreign affairs but they are not Suri's worst sin.  No, his worst sin comes in a throw away comment, I assume to gin up support for Korean War Reloaded with neo-cons chomping at the bit for a war with Iran.  Suri writes:
Most of all, North Korean threats will encourage isolated states across the world to follow suit. The Iranians are certainly watching. If North Korea can use its small nuclear arsenal to blackmail the region with impunity, why shouldn’t the mullahs in Tehran try to do the same? 
First he plays the Iraq Card, "Weakness anywhere will make every bad country get nukes everywhere, tomorrow."  But what is really terrible is how vague a so called "expert" is in one of the US's more widely read newspapers.

So called "experts" are always dropping the term "mullahs" to try and scare us.  A cheap trick to gin up support for whatever they are hocking these days.  But the use of these buzz words only strike me as an example of their ignorance about what they are suppose to know about.  It would be nice if instead of playing the "Islam is dangerous" card, they could answer some basic questions.  What is a "mullah," and how does one become one?  What are the names of the "mullahs" who run Iran?  You used the plural so how many of them are there?  Three in a sort of "mullah troika?"  Or 2,000 in a "mullah politburo?"  How old are they?  What are their family backgrounds?  Does their education stress deliberative answers about esoteric questions of theology?  Or practical politics?  Or electrical engineering?  How much of a role do how many of the "mullahs" have in economic policy?  Foreign policy?  Supervision of the Iranian Film industry?  I know  nothing about most of these questions, but if you think Iran is some dictatorship controlled by "mullahs" you obviously don't know what you are talking about.

I used to get annoyed about political reporters who didn't know, or wrote as it they didn't know, how a bill becomes a law.  Or economists who were completely oblivious to what's going on in my country.  Now I guess to have to add people who style themselves as knowing something about foreign affairs, but obviously don't.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Problem With Protests

Over at The Monkey Cage Joshua Tucker put up a great post on how to make political science research more accessible. While the video is certainly fun to watch, and quite a change from your typical scholarly article, I found that the substance of the video also makes a great point. The video depicts a scenario where a country's people mobilize to overthrow an unpopular despot and after a lot of hard work and sacrifice they succeed in ousting him. Unfortunately rather than ushering in a golden age, the new leader commits many of the same errors as his predecessor. A situation not unlike what we've seen in Egypt over the past few years with Mubarak's replacement also trying to do things like limit freedom of expression and consolidate political power. This "one step forward, two steps back" scenario has the potential over time to lead to people becoming less interested in political involvement as they see the ultimate results of their actions being replacing one crook with another. Far from creating a new form of democracy, we just get political stagnation instead.

I'd argue that we've seen this a lot in the past 20 years of progressive protests. One example I came across on the internet a while ago was about evolving views on The Million Man March. During the 90's and 00's we had period outbursts of political activity in the black community that often seemed to come out of nowhere and seemed to have the potential to cause a lot of change in our societies political and economic dynamics around race, indeed some of their contemporary chroniclers called them "a new civil rights movement." Back in 2001 Ta-henisi Coates wrote a long profile of Louis Farrakhan that highlighted his own experience with the Million Man March when he was a college student at Howard Univeristy in 1995:

During the months before the Million Man March, the anticipation at my university could have sent a small satellite into orbit. Nation of Islam speakers came to campus spreading the good word, and Howard's student association declared its support. The night before the march, Howard students convened a rally that was roundly attended by men and women. The next day I connected with a few friends and three of my brothers and walked down to the Mall to witness the greatest post-civil rights gathering of black America to date. 
Because black folks put a lot of stock in unity, the picture of hundreds of thousands of black men peacefully assembled was moving. We perceive ourselves as a perpetually fractured ethnic group and envy Asians, Jews, and white America. But on Oct. 16, 1995, no group looked more single-minded than black men. Public figures who in the past had had a rocky relationship with Farrakhan addressed the crowd--most notably Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz. Lawyers, ex-convicts, fathers, parolees, and students all swarmed the Mall. We took particular pleasure in defying all the stereotypes by not coming to the Mall and wrecking shop. For black men, it was like being a turkey all your life and getting a chance to fly for a day.
It was also Farrakhan's opportunity to fly. For years he had been shunned by the establishment, black and white. He'd been rejected as a hate-filled anti-Semite and been slammed even by the nationalists for his suspected role in the death of Malcolm X. But Farrakhan would leave the march as the undisputed President of Afro-America. Even Jesse Jackson had been forced to play second fiddle to him, and the rest of the black moderates who had tried to steer clear of Farrakhan's Million Man train were instead tied to the tracks.
Now this event was very important to a lot of people, but it's hard to see what actual political change it caused, something that Coates saw as a key role of both Farrakhan and the march. By 2001 Coates had to concede that. "Now, though, the threat of unleashing Farrakhan and his Moonie-esque minions isn't likely to leave many on Capitol Hill shaking in their boots." 

I'd argue this is just another example of the limited power of protests. So of course the protests in Tahir Square mattered and of course even smaller protests in America matter in the sense that they mattered enough to a lot of people that those individuals did the hard work of organizing and attending them. However, these protests are no substitute for the daily grind of politics.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reality And Reality TV

A poet in New York named Drew Gardner recently wrote a great piece about how reality television is giving us an insightful look at many of the troublesome economic trends our country is facing (hat tip to Alyssa at ThinkProgress).  The piece focuses on a new reality show called Killer Karaoke in which contestants attempt to perform karaoke while suffering degradation and/or brutality for cash prizes.  There are a variety of treatments you can suffer on this show, but this clip were a man attempts to sing the stupid 80's single "8675309" and serve the show's host (Steve-O of MTV's "Jackass" fame) a five course meal while suffering electric shocks so painful that they at one point cause him to collapse to the floor, is about as bad as they can get.  It's fairly amazing, if you made your employees at a business perform these stunts you would be liable for a huge civil lawsuit as well as possible criminal prosecution, but on TV it's just "entertainment."

The irony here of course, is that constants on reality shows are in many ways employees, they are just highly exploitable ones.  As Gardner points out:
Capitalist economic systems require one central point of internal logic for them to function; in order to constantly expand profits, workers must be paid less than the value their work creates, ideally as little as possible, as little as the labor market will bear.  In classical economic theory, new value only comes from one place, labor. In order to concentrate wealth for owners, shareholders and managers, this surplus value is then concentrated into financial instruments and forms of rent that charge the workers who created the value in the first place. It is a parasitic relationship.

Reality TV contestants are an excellent object for this kind of relationship, because they are a disposable, easily replaced group of workers. Because their working conditions are not regulated by the Screen Actor's Guild, contestants can work unusually long hours, Some shows require a working day as long as 12-18 hours. Appearing on a show requires temporarily leaving, even risking, one's job. Union pay for an actor on a scripted situation comedy is $25,000 per episode. Reality TV contestants are often paid nothing at all for their work, though some receive a modest stipend. Most agree to work for food and shelter during the time they are being filmed, in hopes that the exposure might lead to some future opportunity, if not just for the sheer narcissistic reward of appearing on television.
Even the rewards a reality show contestant can look forward to are also in decline, much like the wages and wealth of the working and middle classes.  The most you can win on Killer Karaoke is $10,000 and indeed the most they've ever paid out is only $7,800.  This is a steep decline from the $50,000 you could win by being brutalized or humiliated on Fear Factor a few years ago.  Indeed the whole reward system increasingly looks like the "heads I win, tails you loose" nature of our economy.  The pre-Great Recession hit Who Wants to be a Millionaire? almost guaranteed you could go home from the "hot seat" with $1,000 as long as you could get through the easy first round of questions.  While a savvy player could always opt not to guess at a difficult question and instead walk away with $8,000 or $64,000.  Not so with Killer Karaoke, only one person wins, you could suffer cruel treatment once confined in the public realm to things like testimony in Federal civil rights probes and get nothing out of the deal at all.

These trends are not just confined to Karaoke.  Gardner shows how they are quite apparent in more "mainstream" examples of reality TV:
The new economy of reality television has helped American Idol become the most profitable show in the U.S. Its contestants represent legions of unpaid laborers. American Idol presents itself as an aspirational drama, but the perspectives of the show are very much those of the ruling elite. Success in this competition is about pleasing famous millionaires on their terms...The essence of American Idol is not so much the performances of the singers as it is the dramatization of the unbridgeable class divide between the ruling elite panel sitting behind the desks and the average citizen contestants standing on stage.

The early rounds of American Idol feature inappropriate contestants with little or no talent who are intentionally let through the cattle call weeding process. This represents an ugly and compelling entertainment spectacle that allows viewers to enjoy the drama of a few elite upper class celebrities verbally torturing some unfortunate neurotic caught in their web. These early scenes are job interviews designed to go horribly wrong. The hopeless contestants seem to deserve this fate because their grotesquely delusional overestimation of their talents and complete lack of understanding of what is expected of them by their prospective employers violates some primal sentiment of self-preservation in us. What they are really being punished for is not a lack of talent. They are being punished for being socially maladapted. Sadistic spectators at a ritual enforcement of conformity, we enjoy watching these sickly deer being culled from the herd.
It's in other shows as well, Dragon's Den was a British reality show (adapted here as Shark Tank) in which a panel of smug millionaires listen to (largely bad) business proposals and agree to finance or reject them.  As Charlie Brooker pointed out, the "insights" of these millionaire genesis often aren't very insightful at all, and instead just sound like some upper class twit trying to sound like that champion of economic success: Vito Corleone.

In many ways, Killer Karaoke, just takes these trends to the logical next step, by removing the millionaires and letting us all cheer on the "miracle of the free market" from standing somewhere on the post-modern factory floor.  The contestants are just the mistreated day laborers and Steve-O is just the lucky one who managed to make foreman of the work gang:
[Host] Steve-O is consistently lucid and endearing on the show, even when the occasional shadow of substance-induced derangement briefly passes over his face. It's clear he is not really involved in the design of the stunts, which are extreme by game-show standards but lightweight compared to some of the activities featured on Jackass, which often veered closer to self-harm-oriented performance art than reality TV. Steve-O is very much a traditional game show host in this role on Killer Karaoke, an updated Bud Collyer. He stays out of the action and keeps to the role of explaining the stunts and drawing comments out of the contestants. In a recent interview about the show, he said, "Breaking bones and sticking things up my ass was not getting any easier." It's clear that he has a strong grasp of the economy of the show, and perhaps about reality TV in general: "It's about the misfortune of others and exploiting people's willingness to sacrifice their dignity and well being just to be on TV for a brief moment." Steve-O's host character is an expert on ill-advised activities who has happily gotten himself promoted to a upper management position.
In fact, the whole bare bones nature of Karaoke is itself a window into the increasingly unsustainable middle class rat race and might offer us clues on our future:
Instead of notes from a panel of wealthy authority figures, the contestants, rather, get one line of instruction: "No matter what happens, do not stop singing." All that is expected of them is to remain committed to the performance of the song in absurdly unacceptable circumstances. This mirrors being middle class in a country where a middle-class lifestyle has increasingly been an unsustainable performance that is only possible to continue though reckless borrowing. Is it that much of stretch to imagine a similar electric shock system being utilized on warehouse workers when the GPS units they're forced to carry indicate they're not moving fast enough? Currently these warnings come in text messages. 
Is this where our society is going?  I don't know, and after all this is "only a TV show."  But at the same time it might be a lot closer to home that we like to think.  I for one find this possibility quite frightening.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Some Thoughts on Margaret Thatcher

So Margaret Thatcher recently died. I think Jonathan Bernstein summed up her impact best over at his blog:
What matters about Thatcher, or at any rate about Thatcherism, is that there really was a significant change among elites about the power and efficacy of markets. My general sense -- and to be sure, this is an impression, nothing hard and rigidly empirical about it -- is that in the 1960s and through the mid-1970s, there really was a sense among many that markets were old-fashioned hokum, and that bureaucracies and other centralized planners could do many things far more efficiently. Oh, not Soviet-style central planners; by 1970, certainly, no one looked to the USSR (or China) as an economic model.
 I'd put it this way: I suspect...that if you looked around in 1965 the only people who would be referencing Adam Smith, at least in the US, would be a very small group of committed Goldwater conservatives. If you looked around in 1995, Adam Smith gets used by everyone across the ideological spectrum -- and perhaps more by liberals than by conservatives, who seem more interested in Ayn Rand once liberals dip into Smith and discover that they like him.
Of course, what liberals learned from Smith isn't to have "faith" in markets; it's to respect and use the power of markets.
I think that sums it up quite well. But then again, this isn't just because of Thatcher or "Thatcher," there were lots of other forces and people involved in this change as well, and not just among conservatives. Garry Hart spent much of his political career in the 80's pointing out the need for global competition and economic growth as opposed to a liberal economic policy solely defined by certain groups' interests or the need to redress historical wrongs.

While most people like to focus on unnecessary South American wars or her "personality," I'd say she was defined by her economic policies. Thatcher and her Young Turks believed that they could unleash a new golden age in Britain by rolling back the state, restricting the power of the professional classes that had long dominated British society and above all deregulating everything. The affects of these polices were quite widespread. Initially, they caused a massive recession where British manufacturing declined by 1/6, and at a rate faster than in the depths of the Great Depression while unemployment soared. To make matters worse these economic policies coincided with huge riots all over country. Indeed there is some evidence that Thatcher's policies were reigned in at this point by her cabinet as some of her Ministers grew concerned that they might lose control over sections of the country or have to impose martial law.

Later in the 80's the economy and stock market would boom but not because of Thatcher's great oratory skills, rather because of changes in the financial markets. Thatcher's government drastically altered the way fiance worked in Britain. Since time immemorial Britain had very strict capital controls about money going in and out of the country, Thatcher did away with all that and then completely deregulated the City of London (British Wall Street) in such a radical way that the reforms were referred to simply as "The Big Bang." Adam Curtis has a good montage capturing the mood of the time. The piece also hints at some of the losers of the time, something that most people ignore these days, and there were a lot of losers in Mrs. Thatcher's Britain.

In 1994 the European Union released a report that pointed out that one of the poorest small communities in Western Europe was not in socialist France, impoverished Sicily or the isolated mountains of Spain or Portugal. It was Grimethrope, located in South Yorkshire, once the heart of Britain's industrial north. Thatcher's policies were directly responsible for this. In short she continued the policy of de-industrialization that had been going on since the end of World War II, but at an even faster pace. In addition, her Government helped orchestrate the end of Britain's most powerful union during a huge coal miners strike in 1984-85. It's a long and epic saga, that involves secret hoarding of coal, cutting deals with branches of the union to break away and undermine the strike and the deaths of 10 people. In the end the Government won, and the coal industry was effectively shut down over the next decade along with most of the British manufacturing sector. You can argue that this was necessary or even good in the long run (few people do, instead they just ignore this whole story) but if you were the one on the wrong side of "progress" you might feel differently.

Unfortunately we aren't getting this story in our popular remembrance of her over the past few years. Instead we are getting a simplistic story about her told largely through the lens of "woman triumphs over sexism"-how awful those striking workers are kicking the side of her limo! how little they understand the need for gender equality!-and a simple version of the Cold War told as a moral fable. I guess that is just how our elites like to remember history, but if you are interested, there's a lot more to it.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Lightning Flashes In The Dark

It's strange.

When reading about the media it can sometimes be very strange. There is something there, but you can't quite see it. Something you can smell, but can't quite place it. It's like being in a forest in the black of night, you can see nothing, and then lighting flashes and for a moment everything is perfectly visible. The it goes black again, and it's hard to remember what it looked like.

I had a moment like that today while reading about Bob Woodard.

Bob was giving a talk (Woodward's off the cuff reminiscences of various Washington dinners can in no way be called a lecture) about his life and times covering (and being one of) the powerful. Woodward spent a good deal of time spinning his yarns about Washington and threw in one about why we should all mock Al Gore:
He [Woodward] also told an unflattering, but amusing story about sitting next to former Vice President Al Gore at a dinner, saying being with him was “taxing,” and added, “To be really honest, it’s unpleasant.”
Woodward said Gore pressed him on why the journalist didn’t go after Bush, who beat Gore in the 2000 presidential election, over the war in Iraq.
Gore was a former reporter before becoming a politician, and “he thinks he invented [reporting] also,” Woodward joked in reference to an often misquoted statement that the ex-vice president claimed he invented the Internet.

Got that? I sure didn't. Woodward has a tendency to make up dialog, so who knows what really went down, but just taking his word for it, this is awful. A former Senator and Vice President of the United States of America asks why so much of the media was asleep at the switch in the run up to and during the Iraq War and Woodward can give no answer. He can however tell the crowd "To be really honest, it's unpleasant." Hooray for the National Press Corps.

This is of course a lie, or perhaps more generously a gross distortion.  Al Gore never said "I invented the internet."  The radio program This American Life did a exhausted investigation into what sparked this lie, and traced it to a campaign event Gore did at a New Hampshire high school where according to the video and audio tape of the event, these were words Gore never spoke.  So the whole thing, the quote that has come to define one American politician was a lie.  This is your national press corps.

The awful journalists at TAL didn't stop there, they also interviewed the high schoolers who saw the Vice President campaign, and their descriptions are that of a person you and I have never met:
Lucas Gallo: He wasn't as stiff as people say he was. He comes out, takes his jacket off or whatever. He walks around, he asks for audience participation, he talks to the audience.
Ashley Pettingill: There's a question that said, what do you like to do for fun? And he mentioned that he liked The Simpsons.
Alyssa Spellman: He kind of understood that we are people, we are kids, but we're not dumb. We understand what's going on. And he respected that.
Lucas Gallo: I mean, he was still Gore. But he wasn't quite as stiff as like-- he didn't just get up and talk like the other candidates did. He's kind of a neat speaker to see.
Hell, he's probably more interesting than Bob Woodward talking about playing golf with Netanyahu.

This is like that flash of lighting in a dark wood. Woodward illustrates that class of journalists, of which he is the Dean, more interested being "in" than telling the truth, more interested in perpetuating their caricatures of politicians than explaining the complex and bewildering world we live in. Here is a powerful man, worshiping power, worshiping lies and worshiping his own ability to tell these lies and get away with them. Here is a powerful man ignoring one of the most important questions we can ask of the national press corps, our national press corps! Why on earth did you so blindly support such a disastrous war and defer to such a terrible president?

The best answer we get? "To be really honest, it's unpleasant."

I guess it is.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Michael Kelly's War

I just read a great piece by Tom Scocca in Gawker looking back on the death of Michael Kelly, and specifically how a lot of journalists are remembering him 10 years after his death.  Michael Kelly was the editor of The Atlantic and he was a huge proponent of the invasion of Iraq.  He was also the first American journalist killed there when the Humvee he was in came under fire and rolled over into a canal where both Kelly and the driver of the Humvee drowned.
The heart of Scocca's argument is that Kelly used his position as editor of one of America's more influential magazines to flog a war that became a disaster.  As Scocca put's it:
But: The driver was also killed. And so were more than 4,400 other American troops. And so were more than 200 other journalists and their assistants. And so were an uncountable number of Iraqis—so many that we do not even know how many tens of thousands of them there were, each one as alive and individual and human as Michael Kelly was.
This is as true as the fact that Kelly was by all accounts a loving family man and a great guy to work for.  While it is very sad that Kelly did in fact die, it is wrong to portray him as some tragic figure who stumbled into this fire fight while trying to go to Starbucks.  Kelly supported the war and used his powerful position as editor of one of America's more influential magazines to flog that war and then decided to put himself in harms way by "embedding" himself in a forward unit during the invasion of Iraq.  Of course no one deserves to die for their beliefs, but Kelly had a lot more say in the matter as to the risks to his own personal safety than troops "stop lossed" into repeated tours of duty or the Iraqi civilians whose opinion about the war nobody asked. 

Nor was Kelly some passive figure who merely "supported" the war. He repeatedly wrote and edited in a manner to exclude and bully people opposed to the war. Is that an overstatement? I don't think so:
[H]undreds of thousands of marchers—and many more millions who did not march—believe quite sincerely that theirs is a profoundly moral cause, and this is really all that motivates them. They believe, as French President Jacques Chirac recently pontificated, that 'war is always the worst answer.'

The people who believe what Chirac at least professes to believe are, in the matter of Iraq, as wrong as it is possible to be. Theirs is not the position of profound morality but one that stands in profound opposition to morality.
This is not an argument about how the war is a good idea, instead Kelly is making the argument that to oppose the war even on practical or historical grounds is to embrace an idea "that stands in profound opposition to morality."  It is one short step away from comparing anti-war protestors to terrorists.  It is not an attempt to have a debate about invading Iraq at all.  It is an attempt to stifle that debate and ridicule those who disagree with Kelly (who by the way were right while Kelly was wrong).  As well as an attempt to caricature all those who opposed the war as doing so because they were pacifists who think 'war is always the worst answer' or because they take their cues from Jacques Chirac.  This is cheap commentary par excellence (and for the record Chirac was right and Kelly was wrong).

Nor does his writing seem to contain much insightful analysis or grounding in reality, surely traits necessary to be a "great editor."  Indeed, some of his "analysis" sounds like it was based on talking points fired off by Karl Rove:
We are in a position of triumph, and potentially much greater triumph. A few months ago, all was still in tatters. Hussein still defied with impunity, still ruled unchallenged over his torture state, still schemed to advance his dreams of himself as the atomic Saladin... The will of one man, George W. Bush, changed all this.
Also, like Andrew Sullivan making up claims about Saddam's use of nerve gas, the "dreams of himself as the atomic Saladin" claim is just dead wrong.  Nor is this passage very accurate, even during the initial days of the invasion many of the problems that would plague the next decade were already apparent for those who cared to look.

Scocca points out that even the claim that Kelly was some great moralist because he was willing to put himself in danger is actually pretty weak beer:
That Kelly was brave in going to cover the combat does not change the fact that he chose to be bold with other people's lives. It was time to do something about Iraq—"to turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping," as Rupert Brooke wrote in 1914, in a sonnet celebrating the chance to go fight the Great War. A year later, Brooke died of an infected mosquito bite on a troop ship, taking his place among the 16 million corpses.
I guess that Kelly ranks higher than armchair generals like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, but in the end it's just not enough.  Kelly was a good man, but a good man in the service of a bad cause is not the type of hero we should look for.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Gravy Train

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a nice piece talking about the rise of Dr. Benjamin Carson the new conservative "it boy."  It's largely about continuing search by conservatives for a "great black hope" to finally banish that tyrant Obama from the realms of men.  Coates points out that:
Some of the most committed black people I know -- in some other America -- would be Republicans. But in this America, this conservative movement, has a fairly nasty romance with white racism. There are black conservatives (some Republican, some not) who manage to steer clear of this -- Bill Cosby, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and possibly Tim Scott. And there are others who, to put it bluntly, profit from it. 
Coates is talking about African-American thought leaders/talking heads who use the conservative movement as a gravy train, but it's important to remember that a lot of people in the conservative movement do this (although by no means all).  We like to think about politics as being a big ideological struggle between opposing views on what American society should look like, and to some degree it certainly is!  It can also be a public arena for interest groups to fight it out for their differing agendas.  But it is also an industry and unfortunately some people can use the conservative movement as a way to gain fame, power and fortune.  It's true that there are some liberals who try and do similar things, Michael Moore comes to mind, but it just doesn't compare.  Glenn Beck went from being just another radio shock jock to being worth tens of millions of dollars by peddling bizarre conspiracy theories.  Maybe he really is crazy, or maybe not.