Category Archives: Random Blogging

Left, Right, Center–REALLY?

As the competition among Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination heats up, pundits are warning against taking the party “too far to the left,” or alternatively reminding readers that “centrists” are failing to connect with the party’s rank and file.

We are once again entering bullshit land, where labeling takes the place of analysis. Plop a label on a policy proposal and suddenly it is a call to arms: if the label says “left,” self-identified conservatives and centrists bristle and oppose it; if the label says “centrist” or “moderate,” it is reflexively opposed by self-identified leftists.

Needless to say, no one is considering the proposal on its merits.

This rush to categorize candidates and policies as right, left or center is not just misleading, it is lazy and often irrelevant (not every policy position can be crammed into a nice neat ideological box). This habit has irritated me for years– in fact, in 2003, I wrote about it.

Periodically, someone will respond to a column I have written with a statement beginning “well, you liberals always…” Being dismissed as a liberal always amuses me, because I hold precisely the same political values I held in 1980, when I was the Republican nominee running for Congress against Andy Jacobs, and a fair number of voters found me “too conservative.” The only thing that has changed is the label….

Well, to be fair, the GOP has also changed, galloping off to the radical far right, and pulling the “conservative” label with it. But I stand by the following paragraph:

This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)

Labelling an opponent’s proposal as “extreme” (left or right) is a tactic to undercut that proposal without actually engaging with it.

Allowing citizens to opt into Medicare (i.e. making Medicare a “public option”) or advocating expansion of the program (“Medicare for All”) are hardly proposals to dismantle capitalism. They are proposed solutions to a real and growing problem. Imposing higher marginal tax rates on the rich would return us to tax policies that used to be widely endorsed by both parties. Doing so would hardly turn America into a communist gulag.

These and other proposals may or may not be sound policy. We won’t know if we refuse to   address the particulars of suggested policies and instead simply label and dismiss them.

Pundits notwithstanding, the truth of the matter is that America doesn’t really have the sort of leftists that have long been active in Europe. What passes for left-wing in the United States is moderately progressive. To the extent there is extremism in the U.S., it is on the radical right, and the most important task facing Democrats and Independents is to rid the nation of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.

Flinging labels at each other won’t get that done.

 

 

 

No News Is Definitely NOT Good News

Indianapolis, Indiana used to have three newspapers. Little by little, we lost them–the Indianapolis Times went first, then the Indianapolis News, the evening paper, “merged” with the co-owned morning Star. Then Gannett bought the Star, and changed what had been a mediocre newspaper into a worthless compendium of sports columns and stories about new bars in town, wrapped around a daily “McPaper”–aka USA Today.

Gannett’s ownership led to a constant series of layoffs and outsourcing. The layoffs and firings decimated the news staff, with those having institutional memory going first, and the outsourcing of copy editing multiplied the number of misspellings and textual gaffes. All of this seemed–and still seems–insane to me: the only thing news organizations have to sell is news content; it makes no sense to save money by reducing your ability to produce the quality and quantity of what you are selling.

Now, a new organization evidently wants to buy Gannett. Ordinarily, I’d be delighted, but evidently, the potential buyer is even less interested in producing news than Gannett. According to a column in the Washington Post,

Print revenue is down, digital and mobile revenue aren’t nearly enough, and now a hedge fund promising even deeper cuts wants to acquire the company. If the future of corporate news operations looks bleak, that’s because it is.

In Tennessee, we’ve been watching the slow-motion destruction of our news institutions under Gannett for a few decades now, and the idea that things are about to get even worse is appalling. As badly as the country needs strong coverage of national news these days, the local news landscape is important, too. And what happened here mirrors what’s already happened in city after city.

The story of what happened in Tennessee mirrors what happened in Indianapolis.

In July, for example, local hospital operators LifePoint Health and RCCH HealthCare Partners merged in a nearly $6 billion deal that affected roughly 1,000 local employees. The Tennessean covered the story with an Associated Press dispatch written in New York, followed by a local rewriteof a news release at the end of the day. There was no follow-up coverage despite LifePoint’s founder receiving a $70 million exit package and 250 jobs getting eliminated.

In Indianapolis, the locally-owned Indianapolis Business Journal (disclosure: I write a column for the IBJ) does a good job of covering the business community. (It actually does a better job of covering state and local government than the Star, but that’s not its primary mission and being better than the Star is to clear a low bar.) Nuvo, our alternative weekly newspaper, does excellent reporting on selected scandalous or corrupt matters, but doesn’t have the resources to provide the sort of comprehensive coverage we used to get from daily papers. Thanks to the Star’s shortcomings, citizens of Indianapolis get only the most superficial coverage of state government, the legislature and city agencies.

And it matters.

When no one is watching the store, there is no way to evaluate whether  or how local officials are doing their jobs. There’s no “early warning system” allowing citizens to object to changing rules. There’s no authoritative, trusted source to rebut or confirm rumors or conspiracy theories.

It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion of the cited article:

All over America, we need something different: We need more reporters covering the issues that matter to our communities. We need to stem the crisis in statehouse reporting; here in Nashville, the Capitol Hill press corps has dwindled from 35 to just 10 over a few decades. We need more investigative power to follow the billions of dollars spent by state and local governments, often with little oversight. We need competition in places where corporate news has carved out monopolies and let local news wither.

 And we need to do it fast, because the butchers are sharpening their knives.

No news is definitely not good news.

 

Words Utterly Fail….

A few days ago, I posted about the excellent bill Congressional Democrats have introduced to begin the overdue cleanup of corrupted democratic processes. The bill includes curbs on gerrymandering and safeguards against vote suppression, among other things.

The one element of the bill that I figured was unlikely to be controversial was the proposal to make Election Day a national holiday. Good government groups have been lobbying for this for years. I mean, how can you argue against making voting easier for people who work long hours and have other problems getting to the polls?

Mitch McConnell–aka the most evil man in America–just answered what I thought was a rhetorical question. He has labeled the proposal “a power grab.”

I suppose if you are convinced that facilitating citizens’ ability to cast their votes will lead to  higher vote totals for your political opponents–if you know, in your heart of hearts that you and your party are historically unpopular– that might seem like a power grab…Still, it’s hard to imagine McConnell offering this argument with a straight face.

There has been a lot of outrage expressed in the wake of McConnell’s chutzpah, but I think Ed Brayton’s response at Dispatches from the Culture Wars is my favorite.

The man who refused to allow even a committee vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee for nearly a year so a Republican could appoint the next justice is accusing someone else of a power grab? The fact that he wasn’t immediately struck dead by lightning is powerful evidence that there is no god (or that god is a first-class jerk, take your pick). This is Trumpian-level lack of self-awareness and shamelessness. I can’t imagine how the man sleeps at night, other than on a pile of money.

McConnell was recently described by a historian as “the gravedigger of American democracy,” a description he has clearly earned. (Even Donald Trump, who never met a greedy thug he couldn’t relate to, evidently told aides that McConnell was “meaner than a snake.”)

McConnell has defended his opposition to making Election Day a holiday by claiming it would cost money, because it would require government workers to be paid. In Mitch’s world, the country can easily afford to give billions in “tax relief” to corporations, but can’t manage continuing to compensate government employees for one extra day off.

Hoosiers like to make fun of folks from Kentucky, characterizing them as not-too-smart hillbillies. I’ve always maintained that bigotry–even geographical bigotry–is always wrong. But to the extent that there is  evidence for that characterization of our neighbors to the south, it is that they have repeatedly voted for Mitch McConnell.

We The Raw Material

A recent article in the Guardian began with a paragraph that struck me as incredibly important, not just as an introduction to the subject-matter of the article (Surveillance Capitalism) but as an explanation for our tribalized and angry age.

We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead. Printing shaped and transformed societies over the next four centuries, but nobody in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (among other things): fuel the Reformation and undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; and even recalibrateour conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.

Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into our revolution, the one kicked off by digital technology and networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big deal and that epochal social and economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.

These paragraphs were a lead-in to a description of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, in which she describes “Surveillance Capitalism.” Zuboff is a Harvard Business School professor, and her basic insight is that the changes being made are less about the nature of digital technology and more about a “new mutant form of capitalism” that uses tech for its purposes.

It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.

“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”

The essential point being made is that we live in an era of both state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart, in which digital technology is separating people into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched–the “raw material.” We can limit state surveillance through the law, but at this point, there is no law restraining the use of our data by Facebook, Google, et al.

This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power.

I have no way of evaluating either the accuracy or the imminence of this threat. And that brings me back to the article’s opening paragraph. We are living in a time of profound change, and anyone who says they know where that change is taking us is smoking something very strong.

We are “raw material” in so many ways…..

 

George Will On Our “Shabbiest” President

When one self-regarding man undertakes to analyze another, it can get interesting.

I typically find George Will to be just this side of insufferable. If we are talking about people who clearly take themselves way too seriously, he may well set the bar for the category. That said, he is clearly very intelligent, and occasionally he’s even insightful. (I’m told by baseball fans that his observations about the game are excellent.)

At any rate, his recent description of Donald Trump in “The Shabbiest U.S. President Ever” strikes me as “on the money.”

The current iteration of the Republican Party doesn’t escape Will’s wrath, and he’s properly scornful of the Senate’s unwillingness to act as part of an independent branch of government. But he saves most of his considerable vocabulary of insults for Trump.

The president’s most consequential exercise of power has been the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, opening the way for China to fill the void of U.S. involvement. His protectionism — government telling Americans what they can consume, in what quantities and at what prices — completes his extinguishing of the limited-government pretenses of the GOP, which needs an entirely new vocabulary. Pending that, the party is resorting to crybaby conservatism: We are being victimized by “elites,” markets, Wall Street, foreigners, etc.

After 30 years of U.S. diplomatic futility regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the artist of the deal spent a few hours in Singapore with Kim Jong Un, then tweeted: “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” What price will the president pay — easing sanctions? ending joint military exercises with South Korea? — in attempts to make his tweet seem less dotty?

Will spends a few sentences berating the media for its “lazy” fixation on “Trump as shiny object.” Then he gets serious.

Dislike of him should be tempered by this consideration: He is an almost inexpressibly sad specimen. It must be misery to awaken to another day of being Donald Trump. He seems to have as many friends as his pluperfect self-centeredness allows, and as he has earned in an entirely transactional life. His historical ignorance deprives him of the satisfaction of working in a house where much magnificent history has been made. His childlike ignorance — preserved by a lifetime of single-minded self-promotion — concerning governance and economics guarantees that whenever he must interact with experienced and accomplished people, he is as bewildered as a kindergartener at a seminar on string theory.

Which is why this fountain of self-refuting boasts (“I have a very good brain”) lies so much. He does so less to deceive anyone than to reassure himself. And as balm for his base, which remains oblivious to his likely contempt for them as sheep who can be effortlessly gulled by preposterous fictions. The tungsten strength of his supporters’ loyalty is as impressive as his indifference to expanding their numbers.

This strikes me as an accurate–indeed, a perceptive– description.

I just can’t help wondering what a similarly penetrating examination of George Will would look like.