Friday, September 24, 2010

You don't need a weatherman to know when the wind doesn't blow

Paul Krugman thinks that the latest House Republican "Pledge to America" is nonsense, and I'm sure he's right.  Nobel in hand, maybe not necessary in this case, he tells us that the GOP can't cut taxes, end budget deficits, and preserve Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending without otherwise abolishing the federal government.

This is low-hanging fruit, even if it might plant its seed and sprout in a few months.  But what do Democrats have to offer in return, beyond the criticism?

Throughout my life, one nice thing about the GOP has always been its straightforward approach.  Republicans want to cut taxes, cut most government programs, promote big business, and increase defense spending.  I'm not sure where all the deficit reduction talk comes from.  It might be some way to express their dislike for the federal government while also seeming responsible.  Safe to say, actual deficit reduction has not been part of the program.

Try to come up with a similar list for Democrats.  During the New Deal and the Great Society, Democrats deployed sweeping, aggressive federal action to confront major economic and social crises.  I think those Democrats would have embraced the notion that during major crises government is the solution.  Ever since Bill Clinton declared an end to the era of big government, I don't know that many Democrats would make that same case.

Once that argument is foreclosed to Democrats, they deprive themselves of the ability to offer a real alternative to the GOP.  Obama tells us to band together.  He acknowledges that times are tough.  He reminds us that Bush got us into the mess and that we don't want to go back to the bad old days.  And we get the notion of passing more stimulus, as if the only solution we could conceive of to our problems is for the government to put more cash out there.

But we don't get a program.  We don't get a compelling name for what we're doing (slogans count, Obama seemed well aware of that on the campaign trail).  We don't get a comprehensive series of laws, targeting all of the causes of this mess.  And nothing we do is built around a theme, a powerful, unifying idea that explains what the government is going to do in the face of this crisis.  

I'm sure people can give plenty of reasons why this hasn't happened.  The political climate in Washington has changed.  The country has shifted to the right.  And on and on.

I know that's dismissive.  I'm just not interested in talking about losing necessary battles we don't even have the courage to join.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Why I sometimes hate the Internet

Oh, we few, we happy few, who find ourselves occasionally reading or writing at Ben's Blog.  I try, I really do, but the Internet is tough.  I mean, I want to spend some time with it, but, like a crazy friend, you get that call and hit ignore, whatever you've been telling yourself.

So, yesterday, my lovely wife made me aware of this post at Feministe by Monica Potts about body mass index (BMI).  Many people have criticized BMI as a bad indicator of health, arguing that people can be healthy at any size.  Those people, some of whom dub themselves part of the fat acceptance movement, rage against an establishment media that throws around "Obesity Epidemic" pretty freely, and uses BMI to define who is obese and therefore unhealthy.

The post is pretty banal.  Being a part of various Internet sub-cultures gives people a weird sort of tunnel-vision. Who else but someone steeped in the feminist blogosphere would wake up and think, "Gee, I think the idea I really need to go out and defend today is 'fat is bad.'"  But that is more or less what this post does, arguing that BMI is relevant, that we should pay attention to it.  On the way, she makes some silly fat jokes and says nothing new or interesting.  If she has an angle, I don't know what it is.

This would be annoying enough, but then comes the deluge.  If you do go over and look at the post, be sure to read some of the comments.  Here are some highlights:
But right now I am literally shaking from anger.
Now I will go sit quietly somewhere else on the Internet until I stop feeling ill.
I hate this post. I hate you for writing it. I pretty strongly hate feministe for posting it.
what the fuck is this post.  what the fuck are your responses to people’s legitimate anger about the legitimately douchey and wrong things you said in this post.  what is going onnnn
Fuck you, Monica. Fuck your arrogant tone and FUCK your dismissive attitude.
There are some more nice moments, but I think you get the picture.  And I have to wonder: do people really get this upset when someone writes something trifling on the Internet?

Two other themes run through the comments:  threatening to never go to the blog again and anger over comments not making it through moderation.  The first I just think is funny, and it's another thing you see all the time.  The second I think is sad.  I mean, whatever people think about what's going on, if you read the comments, it's pretty clear that all kinds of stuff was getting through, including stuff that sounded pretty nasty and personal (see above).  It all reeks of a combination conspiracy theory and sense of entitlement, as if people have some right (another thing you see all the time) to comment.

So, I have some sympathy for the author.  But I can't let her off that easy.  Take a look at this response she has for her detractors:
So mostly I stay out of comments and let people say what they want: we’re all adults and we can disagree. But I’m going to say this. I greatly resent the idea that I’m not a feminist because I don’t tow the line on the fat acceptance movement. There are women in the world suffering because rape is a tool of war, there are women in the world still dying preventable deaths because of childbirth, there are women in the world watching their children die from hunger, and there are women in the world who are paid nothing or pennies for the work they do. The idea that worrying about women’s health in a way that acknowledges that obesity correlates with diseases that kill women and that fat acceptance may actually harm them — because despite the fact that posters are operating under the belief I’m unaware of the movement I’m actually very much aware, and disagree vehemently with it — is anti-feminist, is really offensive to me. Poor women die of heart disease, cancer and stroke, whether you want to believe it or not. They die because they don’t have medical care at all. The BMI is a useful indicator of the prevalence of illness in society, and that’s really important.
I'm not going to dissect this.  But it is one of my favorite responses, and I suggest you all use it as often as possible:  whenever people accuse you of not showing enough compassion, just tell them that you care about some group of people who are really screwed, make up something horrible if you have to, and then give them a smug, self-satisfied look.

Works for me all the time. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

If you're tired of the big so so

I've been turning this George Packer piece about the US Senate over in my head for awhile now.  It's a good article, although I'm not sure it tells us much we didn't already know:  the Senate is pretty worthless.  They never get anything done, the minority can use a bunch of arcane procedural maneuvers to stop almost anything from happening.

And I keep coming back to the same question:  why do we put up with this?  At one point in the article, Packer talks about some new members of the Senate wanting to reform some of its rules, making it a bit less Sisyphean to try to get something done.  But, of course, that ain't gonna happen:
Newcomers like Udall seem to think that the Senate has grown so absurd and extreme that some kind of reform is inevitable. Perhaps they need more time to plumb the depths of the institution’s intransigence. According to Sarah Binder, a change in rules is extremely unlikely; Republicans would be implacably opposed to, say, weakening the filibuster, and so would some Democrats, especially long-serving ones. “I would oppose that,” Chris Dodd said, adding of the freshmen, “These are people who have never been in the minority.”
This is the problem with Senators and other privileged people.  They think they have succeeded based on their merit, rather than by a combination of good fortune and dumb luck.  They think they deserve a say.  They think there is some intrinsic value to preserving mechanisms that ensure everybody has their day.

But there isn't.  There's no reason any one person, elected by the good people of Montana or even California, should ever be able to stop anything.  And that's exactly what the filibuster, and all these holds and unanimous consent rules allow people to do.

I don't care how Chris Dodd feels about his years in the minority.  Senators need to get over themselves. 

The real cost of the high cost of a legal education

Since I just got canned, I have had plenty of time to worry about all the money I owe to the people who funded my legal education.

I owe various robber barons, Northwestern University, and Uncle Samantha about a quarter of a million dollars. I often tell people that I have a mortgage but no house.  When I say this, I am not joking.  Well I am, but it's one of those sad ironic jokes, not an absurd one.

The most unpleasant chunk of this debt is on a ten-year clock, and can't be put on any other track.  Some of the other loans, like the ones now held by the feds, offer more attractive options.  Still, all of this boils down to me having to pay out about 2300 dollars a month.

Here, I should note that Northwestern gives me 13,000 dollars a year to help me pay off my debt.  A bit of basic math will tell you that this only helps me meet about half of my debt burden, but it helps.  In fact, I'm sure it made all this luxury I see around me possible.

My primary reason for writing this is that I want your sympathy, love, and spare cash.  But, failing that, I want people to understand why this is something bothersome.

When I went to law school, we were always having events sponsored by major corporate law firms.  Those law firms all recruited on campus, in our classrooms, at the behest of our administration, the same administration that encourages people to pursue careers in corporate law, that shakes its alumni down for donations all the time, that cares a great deal about a US News ranking that incorporates employment levels and starting salaries into its evaluation.  These are the same people who set law school tuition.

Now, I tend to wretch at the "best and the brightest" rhetoric pumped by "elite" law schools at their charges.  But the people who go to these schools, by and large, are pretty sharp.  And a decent chunk of them don't want to chase paper.  But they will, if they can't see another path.  Our law schools owe us better, they owe the people better, they owe the profession better.

Because, as much as I sometimes make fun of it, and although I'm not sure I'll continue in it, law is a noble profession.  When they kick out your front door, a lawyer is often the only one who stands in the breach between you and incarceration, or eviction, or not getting the few bucks in SSI you need to keep eating.  I understand not everyone wants to do that work, but more people would if it wouldn't put them one pink slip away from poverty.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

We will get fooled again

Matthew Yglesias offers a reasonable prediction of China's economic and political future:
Historically, few authoritarian regimes have seen that their own self-interest is best maximized via enlightened policies. But at least one interpretation of what’s happening in China is that the most important authoritarians around have figured this out (Abu Dhabi also seems to have) and this is driving major improvements in human well-being.
He raises this point during a broader discussion of democracies, authoritarian states, and the relative economic prosperity of each.  His central point, via Dani Rodrick, is that democracies fare better than authoritarian regimes, for a variety of reasons.  He goes on to talk about Singapore, and to make his observation about China.

But he doesn't confront the dark side of his prediction.  If China continues to grow, loosens its grip a bit, and delivers sufficient "major improvements in human well-being," its government might become unassailable.  At that point, it will have succeeded in filling the void left by the Soviet Union and providing a new alternative to liberal democracy:  authoritarian capitalism.

He also concludes with this:
I’m not sure whether China’s leaders can keep delivering growth, but if they can’t it’ll be hard for them to stay in charge.
This goes down a little harder.  Nothing lasts forever, and when China as we know it follows every other nation into the dustbin of history, I have no idea how it will happen.  But I do have trouble imagining, given advances in military technology, how an economically-driven revolution would happen there.  And other countries have plenty of incentives to keep China stable.

In the end, this is a huge obstacle to people in China becoming freer.  If the Chinese government can sustain enough growth to keep elites happy, can use authoritarian methods to keep people in line, and can continue to make itself indispensable to the world economy, things aren't going to get any better.  Rather than embracing freedom, it will keep it's hand on the dial, doling out just enough succor to keep people from rocking the boat.  At that point, the "enlightened policies" that offer some "improvements in well-being" will serve as little more than a palliative, a new opium for the masses.

So, who was it again who took the bomp from the bompalompalomp?

I just saw this article from the bastion of the establishment media.  It's about the Colorado Senate primary.  Read it if you'd like, noting perhaps the cute picture of one white guy or another with his daughter popping out the back of his head, a young Athena to his Zeus.

Or don't read it.  I don't know why you would.  At this point, I feel like I've read a million articles about politics just like this one.  It tells me who ran, who won, who's up, who's down, what it all might mean for this player or that one.  But it doesn't tell me anything about what this all means, what might be at stake for me, or my neighbor, or my sister-in-law in California, or anyone but the candidates named in the article.

We put up with article after article like this, each one only interesting to people who follow politics the way others follow sports.  I can see why this article would appear in some political trade, but why does it appear anywhere else?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Our Misspent Youth

There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year
I am going to make it through this year if it kills me
--The Mountain Goats, This Year
At GenCon, I played an amazing new role-playing game, Misspent Youth, by Robert Bohl.  For a host of reasons, I can't imagine something more appropriate to talk about in the first real post on my resurrected blog.

I should warn you ahead of time though, caveat emptor, that this post isn't about Misspent Youth.  It's about my favorite topic, and the only one on a day like this I seem to know much about:  me.

Misspent Youth allows people to come together and tell stories about oppression and how young people carve out their own identities in the face of that oppression.  Before doing anything else, the players create a world together.  They start by discussing bullies, and the things bullies do that they all hate.  With that foundation, the group creates an oppressive authority and adolescent characters who will, in whatever limited way they can, resist that authority.

I could say a number of things about creating a game like this, how I think it has an interesting hook, how I think it's nice to focus on the kinds of people (adolescents) and the kinds of issues (freedom and oppression) that don't get enough play in the gaming world.  And I do think all those things, although I don't know how interesting those observations are, and there are surely people here more qualified than me to comment on how Misspent Youth compares with other games out there.

But, I've already told you I'm going to talk about me instead.  For me, this game was not just an interesting, thought-provoking way to role play while exploring these issues.  For the past year and three months, I have worked with oppressed young people.  The young men who I serve are all poor, they all have special education needs, have all had friends die in acts of violence (about half of them have seen a friend murdered).  They also are all involved in the juvenile justice system.

These are the forgotten members of our society, people who have been dealt the shortest end of the shortest stick since conception, since Jim Crow, since the Middle Passage, since one man (I hate to use sexist language, but it almost certainly was a man in this case) decided to put his boot to another's throat and keep pushing and pushing until he got what he wanted.

That's what Misspent Youth forces us to confront, how much of our history and our present are wrapped up in oppression, in maintaining privilege, in making sure people know their place.  And, because the game takes place in the future, we also have to confront whether we'll keep living this way, keep taking everything we can from anyone who can't defend herself.

But it also reminds us of something else, something so simple and beautiful it takes your breath away:  when one person, especially someone young, throws her own little monkey wrench into the machinery of repression.  Because, I can tell you from my experience in my job that our society had basically one message for our misspent youth:  comply.  Don't think too much, don't step out of line, listen to your case workers and your teachers and your parents and the cops and do whatever they tell you to.  And, whatever you do, never question the authority.  If, while reading the last sentence, you have decided that this seems like a recipe for creating broken people who will see nothing for themselves but a life of crime, congratulations on a) not being an idiot and b) not bearing any responsibility for what we euphemistically call the "juvenile justice system."

I guess after all this ranting, I might tell you a little bit about the game's mechanics.  We chose to fight an authority that was using state-sponsored religion to destroy history, although we could have fought a corporation destroying freedom or some similar option.  Then we came up with a variety of character concepts and each chose two.  Mine were "needs to be in charge" and "tagalong."

After you choose your concepts, you choose a means, motive, opportunity, and MO for your character.  These were all fairly easy.  But then I froze.  Because the final thing I was supposed to choose when I created my character was her dysfunction, her deepest secret, the thing that lets her fight the authority but will ultimately destroy her, a quick synopsis of her innocence in all its wonderful, tragic glory.

But the only dysfunction I could come up with was my own.  I had been thinking about it all week, because I was almost certain that I was about to lose my job (I did, this morning).  I started to tear up.  I had talked about the job a bit earlier with my new friends and fellow games, against my better judgment.  I guess I was feeling vulnerable.

So I wrote it down:  she thinks she can change the world.  Because, you see, one of the things you can do is sell out your personal traits if you need to do something desperate to defeat the authority.  In essence, if your own skills and convictions betray you, you can start to behave like your oppressor, giving up a bit of yourself you can never get back for short-term success, even if, in the end, the authority is still winning by co-opting your soul.  And your dysfunction is always the last thing you sell out, after the authority has consumed every last bit of your own identity.

I think I still have mine, wilted little thing though it is, although who knows for how long.  I have clung to it over the past year, even as it has dragged me across our ransacked urban frontier, littered with broken lives and the bodies of children.

Maybe someone will give me the chance to sell it out.  Maybe I'll take it.  I've seen too many good people do too many horrible things to think that I'm above much of anything at this point.

But maybe I'll hang on, just a bit more, fight one more fight before I slide into all the creature comforts you can enjoy once you've given everything else away to the authority.

I don't know.  But I do know that I want to thank Rob Bohl for helping me think these thoughts, and my fellow gamers for taking this journey with me.

And I want to thank the guys I've worked for over the past few years, for putting up with me, for opening up my eyes, for listening to me and letting me in, even though they had no reason to trust a young white guy with no idea how to help anybody.

If I have any shred of my dysfunction left, hopefully I will honor that trust by taking my finger and sticking it in the authority's eye every time I get the chance.  If enough people embrace that message, maybe we won't have to worry so much about our own misspent youth.