Saturday, September 30, 2006

Can’t Even Throw My Vote Away

I’ve spent the last half-hour sort of but not really paying attention to an episode of Jeopardy airing on a local channel. Near the end was a brief in-show commercial for the antacid which sponsored the closed-captioning for that episode. Otherwise, every single commercial was a political ad for various candidates in the upcoming state elections. No exaggeration: nothing but political commercials. And mostly attack ads, too. I haven’t heard that much ominous music since my Goth days, and even then I went in for stuff with actual melodies. No mention of my country or state turning into a totalitarian dystopia, either.

“Well,” I thought, “I’ve already said that from now on I’m going to throw my votes away and just vote libertarian. I wonder who they're running in Connecticut, anyway?” I checked the state party’s site to find out.

Oh Christ, this is sad. Six candidates in the whole election: three guys running for comptroller, treasurer and secretary of the state, one guy running for US Congress but not in my district, and two guys running for the state house of representatives, but neither in my district.

Nobody running for governor, U.S. Senator, attorney general, or any state legislators that I can actually vote for, where I live.

So what do I do — skip the big races altogether and vote only on those three questions that can be answered “libertarian”? Hold my nose and vote for the lesser evil among the two big-party candidates, as I’ve always done before? Or cast my vote for another third party? That would mean a choice between the Greens (no), Constitution Party (hell no, they’re theocrats), or the American Reform party. Except I don’t think that last one is running candidates anyway.

There’s definite irony and probably a profound lesson in the ballot I’ll face now that I’ve finally grown disgusted enough with the system to actually Do Something about it in the voting booth.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Another Threat To Airline Security

One night last summer I trimmed my hangnails in a hotel room 2,000 miles from my home, an act of anti-government rebellion that could’ve put my name on a terrorist watch list if anybody in the TSA knew that I’d smuggled a set of nail clippers in the single carry-on bag I bring along on business trips.

Eventually the Feds rescinded the ban, only to impose a new one on liquids and gels. That ban lasted a couple of weeks until they relented and said okay, you can have shampoo and hand lotion but only in those tiny overpriced trial-sized bottles sold in bins at the drugstore. And you have to carry the bottles in their own clear zip-locked bag, separated from the rest of your luggage.

Here’s a conundrum: we’ve reached the point where the government actually regulates how you carry toiletries when you travel. And yet if I say something like “these stupid rules aren’t meant to make us safer, but only train us in habits of evermore mindless obedience” I guarantee someone will accuse me of paranoia.

Fine. I won’t say it. I’ll just tell you about the latest reason you can be detained at the airport:
A Wisconsin man who wrote "Kip Hawley is an Idiot" on a plastic bag containing toiletries said he was detained at an airport security checkpoint for about 25 minutes before authorities concluded the statement was not a threat.

Ryan Bird, 31, said he wrote the comment about Hawley -- head of the Transportation Security Administration -- as a political statement. He said he feels the TSA is imposing unreasonable rules on passengers while ignoring bigger threats.

A TSA spokeswoman acknowledged a man was stopped, but likened the incident to cases in which people inappropriately joke about bombs. She said the man was "a little combative" and that he was detained only a few minutes.

Exactly what words did this nameless spokeswoman use to compare “Kip Hawley is an idiot” to a comment (even a joke) about something that makes airplanes explode? Anyone with such a poor grasp of analogies probably can’t be trusted to reliably distinguish between “combative” and “rightfully annoyed.”

Bird, the vice president of a company that manufactures industrial equipment … entered the airport checkpoint with a see-through resealable bag containing small containers of toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash and hair gel -- in keeping with new TSA requirements.

"My level of frustration with the TSA and their idiotic policies has grown over 2 ½ years," he said. "I'm frustrated that poorly trained TSA people can pull random passengers out of line and pat them down like common criminals. The average traveler has no recourse."

Bird put the marked bag in a plastic tray along with his shoes and cell phone. A TSA screener saw the bag and went to get a supervisor, who grabbed it and asked Bird if it was his.

"It was obvious that he was already angry," Bird said, adding that the screener told him, "You can't write things like that."

The supervisor told Bird he had the right to express his opinions "out there" -- pointing outside the screening area -- but did not have the right "in here," Bird said.

TSA called the cops. Bird wasn’t arrested, but “detained” until everyone in authority was satisfied that the words “Kip Howley Is An Idiot” written on a plastic bag (with magic marker, I presume) wouldn’t threaten the security of the airplane.

And yet if I say something like “these stupid rules aren’t meant to make us safer, but only train us in habits of evermore mindless obedience” I guarantee someone will accuse me of paranoia.

By the way, here’s what the police had to say about the incident:

A spokeswoman for the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office said the TSA did call the sheriff's office to report an upset customer at the checkpoint. A deputy went to the scene, interviewed all of the participants, ran a wanted check on the man, and referred it back to the TSA after determining no crime had been committed, Deputy Darice Landon said.

Landon said the original call came at 2:21 p.m., and it was unclear how long the man was detained. There is no indication that he was combative, she said.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

And I Am The Queen Of Romania

This has been all over the mainstream media lately, so it must be important news: Yale’s putting seven of its lecture courses online, absolutely free.

The 18-month pilot project will provide videos, syllabi and transcripts for seven courses beginning in the 2007 academic year. They include "Introduction to the Old Testament," "Fundamentals of Physics" and “Introduction to Political Philosophy."

None of this counts for credit at Yale or any other school, though some of it’s bound to be interesting. Between libraries and the Internet, however, free access to information is almost taken for granted these days. Why did this get so much attention?
Students at Yale -- one of the nation's most exclusive schools and the alma mater of U.S. President George W. Bush -- can be expected to spend nearly $46,000 for this year's tuition, room and board.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for us to share a vital and central part of the Yale experience with those who, for whatever reason, are not in a position to pursue a Yale education at first hand," Yale President Richard Levin said in a written statement.

Ah, yes. A vital and central part of the Yale experience: Old Testament knowledge found in a specific Yale course. Truly high among the list of motivations students have for spending $46,000 this year.

Look, I’ll probably watch a lecture or two when they come out. Just don’t try to tell me I’m soaking in the benefits of Yalehood by doing so, okay?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Posting Comments? You Got Problems, Son

To see just how high up the Internet has elevated modern political discourse I did a quick search on Google: 67,500 hits for Democraps and 70,700 for Rethuglicans. (Note to posterity: if you’re reading this because you found it in the archives, the numbers are probably bigger by now.)

Do flame warriors talk like that in real life? Probably not. We’ve all heard for years that the anonymity of the Internet gives people free reign to behave in ways they never would around flesh-and-blood people. A psychologist (and former science journalist) named Daniel Goleman says it’s because our brain doesn’t function properly when we chat with others online:
Q: The Internet has made communication so easy, but you suggest that such electronic discourse may have a real downside. You mention that the social brain (described in the book as a set of "neural networks that synchronize around relating to others") is active in a human contact, but that it isn't active online. Can you explain what's happening here?

A: It's been noted since the first days of the Internet that it allows a person to say something they would never say were they face-to-face. The social brain refers to the very extensive circuitry active in some way during a social interaction. The social brain doesn't just take in what the other person is doing. It tells us what to do next to keep things operating on track. If we're upset or agitated and we're with the person, we might say something artfully because our social brain is telling us how to do it. But without it online, it lets us do whatever we want — and sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

Does this theory completely fall apart when you look at the millions and millions of people who manage to go online without their social brains conking out and turning them into jerks, or is it just me? Here's a radical theory: maybe certain people don't bother making the effort of self-control when they can hide behind an anonymous identity instead.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Lysistrata In Colombia

I’m one of those (ahem) refined creatures who generally prefers my news free of sensationalism. But when the BBC’s very homepage has the headline Colombian Women Against Murder Call off Gangster Sex Ban how can one not want to know the details? Turns out there's a city called Pereira, battleground for enough violent gang warfare to give it one of the highest murder rates in an already murderous country. So the girlfriends of the gang warriors started what they called a “cross-legged strike”:

Pereira's security chief hailed the strike as a success, saying the women had shown they could win with what he described as "very noble weapons".

There were some 488 murders reported in Pereira during 2005, with 90% of the dead gang members aged 14 to 25.

Launching the strike, the women vowed to withhold sex until their boyfriends stopped fighting.

"I would prefer him getting angry to having to go and cry at his funeral," one of the strikers said.

These women are heroes. I hope they all had great make-up sex with their boyfriends, too.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Our Final Excuse Gone

Manfred Nowak, whom the BBC describes as “the UN’s chief anti-torture expert,” says that torture in Iraq may be even worse now than it was under Saddam Hussein:
The UN report says detainees' bodies often show signs of beating using electrical cables, wounds in heads and genitals, broken legs and hands, electric and cigarette burns.

Bodies found at the Baghdad mortuary "often bear signs of severe torture including acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances".

Many bodies have missing skin, broken bones, back, hands and legs, missing eyes, missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails, the UN report says.

Victims come from prisons run by US-led multinational forces as well as by the ministries of interior and defence and private militias, the report said.
We invaded a country run by one of the worst dictators on Earth (according to thousands of sources, none of which I feel like Googling now) and we managed to make things worse. Though I’m sure there are still plenty who’ll argue that the Iraqis are better off for having us there. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to clean up the mess we created? I'm not sure it's possible.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

No Popeye Jokes Here

As a kid I’d have been ecstatic if the Feds warned everybody that the nation’s entire spinach supply might be contaminated with a deadly bacterium. “I can’t eat this, Mom, it might have e. coli!” Lucky, lucky kids of today, living in an America transformed (if only temporarily) into a spinach-free zone. Fields across the nation are being plowed under and spinach bags removed from supermarket shelves, while elsewhere investigators use DNA to track down the original source of contamination.

Fun fact about e. coli: it lives in the intestinal tracts of animals, and the main way it spreads to new places is via the animal’s poop. The resulting illness is bad enough, and can be fatal when the victim already has a vulnerable immune system or thinks too much about just where their illness originated from.

Terry Jones of Monty Python fame narrated an excellent eight-part documentary called Medieval Lives. That’s where I learned that, since the only fertilizer medieval farmers had was manure, they always boiled their vegetables into slime before eating them. Jones tasted the resulting glop and called it disgusting.

I have no real point here. However, I did have a birthday a couple of days ago so I’m working through some rationalizations about the long-term health implications of my continued vegetable avoidance. I can only tolerate them when they’ve been well-cooked and doused in cream sauce. But suppose I were one of those health-food fanatics who actually eats salads rather than merely picking cucumber slices out of them? The very state where I live had someone come down with e. coli from the contaminated spinach. That could’ve been me!

So I had a steak-and-cheese sandwich for dinner tonight and praised myself for my healthy eating habits.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Hungarian Rhapsody

There’s been rioting in Budapest for two nights now. Well, maybe "vigorous protests" is a better word. Monday night’s protest was a violent one — cobblestones tossed, cars burned and 150 people injured, with 102 of those being police. But Tuesday’s protest, though large, was peaceful, according to the BBC.

Why the rioting? The Hungarians are furious because their Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, lied in order to win re-election. More specifically, in his first term he accomplished absolutely nothing, and someone leaked a tape of Gyurcsany admitting this.
In excerpts broadcast on state radio, Mr Gyurcsany candidly admitted his government had accomplished "nothing" and had been lying for "the last year-and-a-half to two years".

"We lied morning, noon and night," he said in a speech punctuated by obscenities.

Mr Gyurcsany won the elections on a platform of tax cuts, but has since proposed tax increases to deal with a huge budget deficit.

That’s why they’re rioting? A do-nothing administration, a tax increase and a few bad words said in private but caught on tape. . . and they want their leader to resign so badly they’re rioting.

Our president just admitted the existence of secret CIA torture centers across the world. And the only reason taxes haven’t gone up is that we’ve got deficit spending instead. To these and a thousand other governmental sins intrepid Americans, myself included, have responded with indignant blog posts.

You know, I’m glad the streets outside are quiet and my car hasn’t been torched. But I can’t bring myself to look at Budapest and then back home and say it's the Hungarians showing the wrong response.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Stealing On The Side Of The Angels

The first time I read 1984 I wished Orwell had explained how the hell postwar Britain and America turned into the horror that was Oceania. But I’m figuring this out for myself now. Great Britain, building upon its groundbreaking work putting government cameras throughout the public sphere, is now adding speakers so cops in remote locations can bark orders to the proles on the street:
Britain's first 'talking' CCTV cameras have arrived, publicly berating bad behaviour and shaming offenders into acting more responsibly. The system allows control room operators who spot any anti-social acts - from dropping litter to late-night brawls - to send out a verbal warning: 'We are watching you'.
I could console myself with the thought that at least this is Britain, not America, but I’m sure the talking cameras will soon migrate across the pond just as their silent brothers did before them. Besides, the cameras are smashingly popular:
Law-abiding shopper Karen Margery, 40, was shocked to hear the speakers spring into action as she walked past them. Afterwards she said: 'It's quite scary to realise that your every move could be monitored - it really is like Big Brother. 'But Middlesbrough does have a big problem with anti-social behaviour, so it is very reassuring.'
See? Law-abiding people don't mind the cameras. By the way, that “anti-social behavior” includes littering, and a guy on a bicycle riding through a pedestrian area. (He dismounted after the camera yelled at him.) That’s what Karen Margery wants Big Brother to protect her from — not a prolific serial killer stalking Middlesbrough, but untidy ruffians and out-of-place bicyclists.
if the city centre scheme proves a success, it will be extended into residential areas.
Maybe we’ll get lucky and some cheeky chavs will steal the cameras. Otherwise, care to place bets on how long before they come to the U.S.?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Won’t Someone Think Of The Serial Killers?

I grew up near the extremely historic cities of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown, Virginia, which are so jam-packed with memorials you can’t even fart there without stinking up some patriotic monument: Washington slept here, Cornwallis surrendered there, and the first African slave auction in America took place on this spot. Meandering through this region is a touristy road called the Colonial Parkway, which looks exactly the way a colonial-era highway would have looked if people had asphalt back then. There are no street lights or roadside businesses, the road is narrow and shoulderless, and the bridges and overpasses are made of rustic-looking bricks.

It’s a gorgeous drive in the daytime. But the dark, isolated parkway could be scary at night, especially in the late 1980s when at least eight people were murdered there by the Parkway Killer. They never did catch the guy. The police and FBI speculated that the killer’s modus operandi was to pose as a police officer and pull his victims over. And I remember the huge outcry when local cops insisted that yes, there’s a serial killer on the loose and he might be posing as an undercover cop, but you still have to pull over if you see a flashing light behind you in an unmarked car on the Colonial Parkway at night. The cops finally relented: okay, if an unmarked car tries to pull you over you can drive to a populated area before you stop. But don’t even think of speeding up in the meantime.

Since I’m not a sports fan I only just heard about what happened to Steve Foley, a linebacker (whatever that is) for the San Diego Chargers (whoever they are) who got shot three times by an off-duty police officer. The cop followed Foley for 30 miles, until Foley pulled into his own driveway. He didn’t show a badge or any ID; Foley was simply expected to take this stranger’s word for it: trust me, I’m a cop. Not in uniform, not showing a badge, not driving a cop car but you have to believe I’m a cop anyway.

I guess Foley didn't take the guy's word for it, so he got shot three times and his career may be over. We've heard about Foley because he's famous even though people like me have never heard of him. If those three shots happened to Steve Foley the office drone or Steve Foley the guy who's out of work, nobody would know of this at all.

Look, I understand why even honest cops who aren’t power-tripping would insist that people obey police with uniforms and badges. But what is the presumed benefit of telling citizens “you are legally required to obey any stranger on the street, so long as he says ‘I’m a cop’ first?”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Poison Poultry Problems

Sometimes I find a story like this one online which sends a pang of envy through my heart: why couldn’t that have happened to me? As a small-town reporter I’m stuck trying to make interesting stories out of town-council budget discussions and Lions’ Club fundraisers, and meanwhile in Texas an obscure little fair called the Quadrangle Festival is ruined when dead pigeons fall from the sky:

TEXARKANA -- The city's annual festival was marred by dead pigeons nose-diving into pavement and others dying on downtown sidewalks after they ate poisoned corn from the roof of a nearby bank branch.

Authorities said they cleaned up more than 25 sick or dead birds following miscalculated pest control efforts at a CapitalOne Bank branch.
"The death of these pigeons was more than an unfortunate accident," city president for CapitalOne Bank Lacy McMillen said in today's online edition of Texarkana Gazette. "It was not the intention of the bank to harm any of these birds."

McMillen said the bank hired an exterminator to handle its pigeon problem after a bird entered the bank and defecated on a customer.

I don’t blame the bank, but a plague of kamikaze pigeons can’t be good for a fair’s bottom line. Those festival participants down in Texarkana must be furious, what with their event being ruined by dying pigeons dive-bombing their customers.

Or maybe they’re just worried about the pigeons:
Vera Martin, working at a handbag booth at the city's weekend Quadrangle Festival, said the poisoning sends a bad message to children. "I think it's cruelty to animals," she said. "What other animals could be killed in the process of doing this?"

This version of the story’s just an AP rewrite. The small-town newspaper which originally broke the story of this event shows how the AP shortened Vera Martin’s quote:
“I think its cruelty to animals,” said Martin.

“What is this telling our kids? If we killed them (animals), we would get a ticket or a fine. We raise our kids to protect these animals and they come and poison them,” said Martin. “What other animals could they kill in the process of doing this?”

Rats, perhaps. Or is Vera Martin worried about housepets which might consume the poison pigeons? If that’s her point, she sure as hell took the scenic route to get there. Incidentally, where do you draw the line between animals and vermin, in regards to which ones you can acceptably kill and which ones you can’t? Rats, roaches and insects in general fall into the “okay to kill” category. Pigeons?
Lori Anderson, a member of the Texarkana Humane Society, said though pigeons are sometimes considered “nuisance birds” anyone who wants to kill them should have a permit to do it.

Oh no. Baaaad precedent, especially if rats evolve cuteness like their cousins the rabbits and squirrels. (Cuteness is the only reason a certain children’s book is titled Peter Rabbit rather than The Thieving Rodent Whose Father Became Hasenpfeffer After He Stole The Hard-Working Farmer’s Carrots.) The only plausible rationale for pigeon permits shouldn’t come from the Humane Society, but those who might say Capital One had no right to turn their private pigeon problem into a public nuisance.

And yet, what if a homeowner plagued by flying cockroaches lays out poison, but not enough to kill them immediately? And thousands of palmetto bugs swarm out onto the street to die. If you have the right to kill a nuisance animal with poison, should you be held responsible if the animal proceeds to die without showing respect for property boundaries?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Obligatory 9/11 Anniversary Post

Ceremonies are useful for helping people deal with loss. I’ve attended plenty of funerals where I never even knew the deceased, but I knew someone close to the deceased and so attended the funeral to support somebody I cared about in his hour of grief.

I’ve been asked to attend funerals, but I’ve never been asked to attend a five-year anniversary ceremony in remembrance of one. And if any friends of mine asked me to, I’d tell them in all honesty that they should strongly consider the possibility they’re being morbid to the point of unhealthiness.

The only good thing about the 9/11 memorials going on today is that nobody’s rehashing the tired old “Pearl Harbor” metaphor, probably because five years after Pearl Harbor the war it spawned had been over for more than a year, and our side unequivocally won. How long will America repeatedly pick at the scabs of 9/11 and then express surprise that the scabs we keep picking refuse to heal?

EDIT: While commenting yesterday on Jim Henley's excellent blog, I finally realized why we're making such a fetish out of 9/11: we have no victories to celebrate, so instead we brag of our defeats.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

I’d Make A Great Terrorist Mastermind

Why hasn’t some enterprising terrorist outfitted a flat-chested female suicide bomber with plastic-explosive breast implants yet? The beauty of a plan like that (from a villainous mastermind perspective) is, even if the plot fails in the sense that the bombs are discovered before they can be set off, it will be a success in terms of terrorizing the population. Consider: the infidel government has already banned certain foods and all beverages, toothpastes, hair-styling products, and anything else that might theoretically be an explosive in disguise. If the government discovered an implant plot, its overreaction would do more to disrupt American air travel than detonating a nuke at O'Hare.

The TSA will waive the no-beverages-on-board policy if you’re a diabetic (up to 5 ounces of juice), and let you carry baby formula if you’ve also got a baby. Why haven’t the terrorists found a diabetic suicide bomber to carry five ounces of liquid explosive disguised as fruit juice? Or carry explosive formula? If they have no qualms about killing people, I'm sure they can steal some woman's baby as a prop. And though they can no longer smuggle explosives disguised as gel shoe inserts onto a plane, they can use a wheelchair with gel-cushioned seats and pads, both of which are allowed by current guidelines.

I almost hope my imaginary double-D bombshell is caught in an airport someday, even though flying in the aftermath would be very difficult for women with bad-grade bra sizes. Once you know logic and good sense are out to lunch anyway, there’s good perverse fun in seeing just how much garbage they'll eat. I read of a terrorist caught in possession of dolls whose clothes were made of explosive nitrocellulose — how do you think the government would respond if they caught a bunch of guys trying to board a plane while wearing explosive clothing?

The anniversary of 9/11 is almost here, and a lot of people are wondering why the terrorists haven't struck again. I'll tell you why: because they lack imagination.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Hot Yet Boring Background

The newspaper business is the only job I can think of where men repeatedly complain about excessive length: “Seven inches is too long, Jennifer! Better cut this down to four!” But sometimes I have the opposite problem: a boring meeting only has about three column inches’ worth of actual news which I must stretch out for at least ten, so there won’t be too much white space on the page.

Fortunately, I can usually fill a few inches with background material. For example, when I write about the latest developments in the town’s attempt to convert the land next to Ye Olde Historick Mill Wheele into a park, I include a paragraph explaining how the town bought the properties over the last few years, and ran environmental studies, and found out the land was polluted and applied for clean-up grants and so forth. Each clause of that paragraph was, at one time, an entire news story in its own right, but now it’s just the background information I include in case any readers don’t know it.

So anyway, today the president has finally admitted what many knew already: the CIA has super-secret prisons hidden throughout the world. And some of the things which go on there aren’t strictly orthodox, perhaps, but they’re certainly nothing to worry about:

The CIA operates secret prisons abroad for holding key suspects in the war on terror, President Bush acknowledged Wednesday.

Though Bush said the United States never tortures suspects, "alternative" interrogation methods are used to glean information from them. These procedures "were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary," he said.

Bush doesn’t give any details about what these tough, lawful and non-torturous methods include, or if any of these methods are mentioned in the Pentagon’s new Army manual, which bans the use of torture.
The Pentagon also on Wednesday released a new policy directive on detention operations that says the handling of prisoners must -- at a minimum -- abide by the standards of the Geneva Conventions and lays out the responsibilities of senior civilian and military officials who oversee detention operations.

The new Army manual specifically forbids intimidating prisoners with military dogs, putting hoods over their heads and simulating the sensation of drowning with a procedure called "water boarding," one defense official said on condition of anonymity because the manual had not yet been released.

The military is expected to abide by the Geneva Conventions but the CIA still doesn’t have to, said the president. And the CIA can still pick up detainees if it wants to. This all might be news to you, but here’s something that isn’t:
Allegations that Americans have tortured prisoners captured in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have dogged the Bush administration since April 2004, when graphic photographs of Army reservists mistreating prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad became public. (Watch Bush explain why Iraq is central to the war on terror -- 1:51)

This is not meant to be shocking or surprising; it’s just a two-and-a-half-year-old back story to something more recent. I don’t expect my mill-wheel readers to be shocked when I write that the proposed parkland needs a clean-up, either. It's old news.

We’re all familiar with the metaphor of the frog in the lukewarm water: he doesn’t notice that the temperature’s getting hotter and he’s slowly cooking to death. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen that image used in regards to Americans’ loss of liberties. And now here’s a news paragraph which mentions very casually, as explanation rather than revelation, that Americans have the reputation of being torturers. But this isn’t meant to scald you; it’s just the background temperature of a news story about how yeah, the CIA keeps secret prisons throughout the world and the treatment within may not live up to the Geneva Conventions but so what? In a few months this will just be background information for some other news story.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How Do You Solve A Freely Chosen Problem?

Though we’ve already got soccer moms, NASCAR Dads and security moms, the Washington Post (as well as MSNBC’s registration-free version here) has a new set of voting-bloc parents to introduce to the country: “mortgage moms” who are worried sick about the economy and want the government to do something about it.

‘Mortgage moms’ may star in midterm vote
With wages stagnant and debt growing, Democrats see an opportunity

It’s not the stagnating wages that cause most of the problems in the story, but people’s staggering debts and the softening of the housing market:

BURLINGTON, Ky. - Life is cramped at the Condit household. Dale and Sharon Condit and their two young sons need more room but can't seem to sell their current home — on the market now for three months.

In a year when politics is being roiled by angry debates over the Iraq war and immigration, it might seem odd to imagine the midterm elections being waged over square footage and closet space. But these are parts of a lifestyle that Sharon Condit, a deputy clerk of court, describes as dogged by a sense of limits: "We have dreams of this future, but we can't get it right now."

Okay, so they want to sell their house and buy a bigger one, but can’t find a buyer. Being stuck in a cramped house sounds more like an inconvenience than a crisis, though it must be frustrating to feel you’re standing still rather than making advances. But it’s even worse to feel you’re going backward:
At first glance, the economy's role in this year's midterm elections is a puzzle. Economic growth and unemployment are at levels that in past years would have been a clear political asset for the party in power.

But one layer down in the statistics, the answer is more clear. Flat wages and rising debt nationally have converged to leave millions of middle-class households feeling acutely vulnerable to bumps in their financial planning. The most visible of these are rising energy prices and a softening housing market.

A less obvious but powerful variable is the interest paid by people carrying credit card debt or mortgages whose monthly payments vary with interest rates. People buffeted by these trends have given rise to a new and volatile voting block.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for people who got themselves in debt for things they didn’t need and couldn’t afford. And getting an adjustable-rate mortgage when interest rates are at their lowest point in history is pure dumbassery. If there were only one or two people in this predicament we could shrug them off as fools about to learn some hard lessons about the dangers of debt. But it’s not just a couple of people — it’s enough to become a national problem rather than a collection of personal ones.

So here’s a question for free-market libertarians: is there a solution, when so many individuals make uncoerced bad choices that the sum total of those choices begins to cause national repercussions? I’m not arguing for a government fix, but what’s the free-market one?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Follow The Money Where?

Since it’s Labor Day weekend — the holiday celebrating the workingman — I wasn’t surprised to find a New York Times article about the state of the average American worker, as indicated by the latest Census Bureau figures. Between Jayson Blair and banging the Iraqi war drums the Times no longer deserves the reputation for honesty it once enjoyed, yet I see little reason to doubt a story like this:

JUST in time for Labor Day, the Census Bureau seemed to indicate that labor itself was no longer such a good way to get ahead.
Incomes rose last year, thanks largely to higher Social Security payments and investment returns, the bureau said last week. But median earnings failed to keep pace with inflation for a second straight year. Even as the economy has continued to grow recently, some workers have accepted outright pay cuts, men have dropped out of the labor force, and debt has kept rising relative to income.

So things got better for pensioners and those who live off their investment incomes, but worse for those who actually work for wages. Which doesn’t surprise me, but does tie in with the question I’d meant to ask anyway: where exactly does America’s wealth come from these days?

There was a time when American companies manufactured goods sold to eager consumers all over the world, and our country got rich. Now companies like Lockheed and Raytheon and Westinghouse are basically welfare recipients, making expensive weapons our government buys at exorbitant prices.

Except for weapons, we don’t make much to sell to the rest of the world. (And even the weapons we export are often paid for by us, via foreign aid.) When manufacturing died we heard “Don’t worry! We’ll transform ourselves into a sleek service economy!” But it turns out a lot of those services can be outsourced. As for those which remain stateside — who’s ultimately generating the wealth to pay for all this?

We export food, for a profit. We export weapons, but not really for a profit. We make money exporting our pop culture and music to the rest of the world. And we still have a pretty good computer/software industry. But otherwise, what do we actually do? How is our wealth created? We’re not even paying for the stuff we import from China and elsewhere, but buying it on credit. What happens when it comes time to pay our debts?

We still have the outward appearance of a wealthy and strong society, but are we generating new wealth or spending our hoarded principal?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Slumber-Party Foreign Policy

Girls between the ages of eleven and fourteen have slumber parties from time to time, and I personally find it embarrassing to remember the ones I attended. I’m thinking in particular of all the time my friends and I spent talking about boys we liked in school and, more importantly, convincing ourselves they liked us, too. Our conversations always went something like this:

“When Jimmy walked by my locker today he said ‘Hi, Jennifer’ instead of just ‘hi.’ Hi, Jennifer. Definite emphasis on my name.”

“Oh. My. God! He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t like you. And guess what! Danny asked to borrow a pencil from me in math class today, and you know that look he gets sometimes? When his eyebrow goes up a little? Well, he totally had that look when he asked me.”

Before you roll your eyes too much, let me point out that I stopped this around age twelve when I had the sudden stunning insight: I can convince myself, here, that he likes me, but that won’t change whether or not he actually does.

When you analyze a situation hoping for a certain outcome, it’s easy to view reality in a self-serving way. Which brings me to the stunning report that our president says the Pentagon is wrong in its assessment of Iraq: we’re nowhere close to a civil war over there.
"Our commanders and diplomats on the ground believe that Iraq has not descended into a civil war," Bush said. "They report that only a small number of Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, while the overwhelming majority want peace and a normal life in a unified country."
I’m sure they do. And I wanted Jimmy to ask me to the dance, too. But he never did. By age twelve I’d figured out the difference between persuading myself and altering reality. I wish our president would.
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