Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Headline of the day after, in the Guardian: Off-the-cuff and full of swagger: Obama's State of the Union leaves GOP enraged

The word that seemed to be most prominent in coverage was "defiant," as in Reuters: After defiant speech, Obama plugs tech jobs in Republican heartland

 E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post also noted the ad libs in the speech, particularly the first one, after declaring that the US has emerged from economic doldrums to silence from Republicans present he said: "This is good news, people."

"With those five words, President Obama made clear that he thinks it’s far more important to win a long-term argument with his partisan and ideological opponents than to pretend that they are eager to seize opportunities to work with him. He decided to deal with the Republican Party he has, not the Republican Party he wishes he had.

Those ad-libbed words followed what ranks as one of the more polemical passages ever offered in a State of the Union address. “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious,” he declared, “that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health-care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”

Good news, indeed, and in telling the Republicans that all their predictions turned out to be wrong, he reminded his fellow citizens which side, which policies and which president had brought the country back."

Dionne also quoted a line that sums up this "defiant" and direct tone:

And he got pretty personal with the honorable members of Congress when he renewed his support for an increase in the minimum wage. “If you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year,” he said, “go try it.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pick Yourself Up

"My fellow Americans, we too are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America."   President Obama, ending his State of the Union 2015


"Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different."

President Obama returned to the themes that first attracted national attention and inspired his first presidential campaign, once again standing against cynicism and for hope, calling for a unified commitment to address needs--and for Congress to at least pass some legislation on which they and Democrats agree.  But this time with the experience of the past 6 years in mind:

"A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.

A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.

A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments — but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward. That’s what the American people want. That’s what they deserve."

He began his State of the Union with the accomplishments of the past six years--reviving the economy, ending wars--that rhetorically allowed him to pivot to our ability (now that "the State of the Union is strong") to concentrate on building a better future, but that also gave a factual account of what in any objective evaluation constitutes a great presidency.

He outlined elements of his Middle Class Economics.  New tax proposals and free community college made the pre-speech headlines but to me the most impressive moments were the careful rationales made for the importance of increased access to childcare (combined with the growing necessity of two working parents.)  That a year of child care can cost as much as a year of college was new information for me.

  He reinterated his positions on a smarter foreign policy, war only as a last resort, against torture, and for closing Gitmo.  He added cybersecurity and a free Internet.  He was strong if brief on the climate crisis, beginning: "And no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change."

He made pointed references to the expensive lessons of these years of Bushwars, and of hysterical statements and inflammatory rhetoric reacting to the apparent crisis of the moment: "When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do."  Instead America leads "not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve."

In an effort to better use new media, the White House made the speech text available on the Internet in advance, and provided real time video with accompanying information in visual form.  So the President needed to stick to the prepared text, which he did but for one delightful moment towards the end, when he was preparing to say that he will concentrate on his agenda for the next two years without the distraction of politics.

"I have no more campaigns to run," he began, and paused at the smattering of applause.  "I know," he said, looking at the Republican side, "cause I won both of them."

Into the Gap Pours Fear Part II

[Part I is the post below this one.]

That 2014 was the hottest year on record, contradicting the latest claims of climate crisis deniers? (More on that in a post to come.) That there's yet another painful example (the state of Kansas) proving that supply side economics doesn't work?  Or growing evidence that Obamacare is working better than even its supporters predicted?  So what? The facts--new or accruing old--don't matter, writes Paul Krugman.  Not to the true unbelievers.

"And the list goes on. On issues that range from monetary policy to the control of infectious disease, a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience. And no matter the issue, it’s the same chunk. If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who snootily point out that the facts don’t support their position.

 The question, as I said at the beginning, is why. Why the dogmatism? Why the rage? And why do these issues go together.. Well, it strikes me that the immovable position in each of these cases is bound up with rejecting any role for government that serves the public interest." 

"And why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure."

Krugman links to this Corey Robin essay from 2012.  It's a political science piece that gets into group psychology, asserting that the support of political or corporate hierarchy often begins with a sense of preserving family hierarchy, or more broadly, the traditional lines of family, gender and racial power.

 I'm not sure Robin says this, but this easily extends to class, although it often means supporting a class structure in which you personally are relatively powerless and exploited.  It's one of several ways that this formulation supports the sometimes mysterious conjunction of lower middle class (white) conservatives with the interests of billionaires to keep things as they are, so they can keep making their billions in the same way.

Robin doesn't give much supporting evidence for his claims on the private-to-public support for hierarchy, but clearly there are ongoing changes in America that conservatives believe are wrong, and that includes most of those changes.  It's clearer in some areas than others--immigration for example--that people feel threatened, when the trends are against them anyway (ironically, to the benefit of the billionaires who fund their politics which first and foremost supports the billionaires' interests.)

But Robin seems on more certain ground when he suggests the reasons for the rabid quality of the right these days:

"There's a fairly simple reason for the embrace of radicalism on the right, and it has to do with the reactionary imperative that lies at the core of conservative doctrine. The conservative not only opposes the left; he also believes that the left has been in the driver's seat since, depending on who's counting, the French Revolution or the Reformation. If he is to preserve what he values, the conservative must declare war against the culture as it is. Though the spirit of militant opposition pervades the entirety of conservative discourse, Dinesh D'Souza has put the case most clearly:

Typically, the conservative attempts to conserve, to hold on to the values of the existing society. But ... what if the existing society is inherently hostile to conservative beliefs? It is foolish for a conservative to attempt to conserve that culture. Rather, he must seek to undermine it, to thwart it, to destroy it at the root level. This means that the conservative must ... be philosophically conservative but temperamentally radical."

And this is where the rabid right and the fundamentalist religious right meet.  In religious terms, today's family-hierarchy-destroying, etc. society is terminally sinful, and nothing will save us but a total return to their prescriptive righteousness as interpreted by particular preachers who cherrypick the Bible to support their political agenda.  As apostate fundamentalist Frank Schaeffer wrote:

"The leaders of the new religious right were gleefully betting on American failure. If secular, democratic, diverse and pluralistic America survived, then wouldn’t that prove that we were wrong about God only wanting to bless “Christian America?” If, for instance, crime went down dramatically in New York City, for any other reason than a reformation and revival, wouldn’t that make the prophets of doom look silly? And if the economy was booming without anyone repenting, what did that mean?"

There's another element that Christian fundamentalist leaders have in common with rabid right political leaders (as Schaeffer also notes): anger is good for fundraising.

Fundamentally, rabid right ideologues feel terminally threatened by a range of societal changes, some of them (like climate) emphasized or added to the mix for the benefit of certain billionaires in particular.  Each of these issues has an additional set of fears associated with it, particularly climate, which seems to threaten ways of life built around fossil fuels.  But basically these changes are threatening, and the response is fear translated into anger, which is fed and rationalized by ideology.

All of these are related to what's called income inequality, but for most people means less money to support lives that cost more every year, regardless of what the inflation numbers say.  When you see elements of your life slipping away, you fiercely protect what's left.  You don't want to risk losing even more.

  But nothing is just one thing.  Racial feelings related to status, regional and family history, local culture, all kinds of things play into the formation and expression of this resistance to admitting that there are problems that need new solutions, and not just some hazy and inconsistent return to an old order, or at least the parts of it you'd like to revive.

Whether there's any way to reach these people, or it's best to just write them off as a lost cause and endless energy sink, while devoting all efforts to building political power for supporters of these issues and occasionally contending for the hearts and minds of the muddled middle, are questions for later noodling.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Into the Gap Pours Fear

In his brief time in the public spotlight, Martin Luther King championed at least three interrelated causes.  The first of course is racial justice in America.  That aspect has been the focus of protests today related to the wanton killings of black men by police.

But King's concerns did not end with Selma or the March on Washington.  His persistence and eloquence advocating the end of racial injustice has become the least controversial of his public commitments, though it takes an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy for most conservatives to claim common cause.

He also became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, which roiled his reputation at the time.  But his most controversial concentration that remains a flashpoint (and therefore most ignored) is poverty and more broadly, economic injustice and inequality.  That's one reason I led the day with a quote from him on that subject.

It happened that his holiday saw the release of the latest and probably most detailed report on growing "income inequality," this time on a global scale.  The report from Oxfam made some headlines, since it found that by next year, the world's top 1% will control more wealth than the other 99% combined.

To be more specific, it's the combined wealth of 80 billionaires versus everybody else on planet Earth combined--all 3.8 billion.  This is a change from 2010, when it took 388 billionaires to balance out the rest of the global population.  And when the 1% had just 48% of the world's wealth.  The incomes of these 80 doubled since 2009.  Did yours?

“The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, said in a statement. “Despite the issue shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”

A summary of this study, with graphs and pie charts, can be found at the end of this article that begins by noting that a lot of these billionaires along with business and political leaders are going to be in Davros, Switzerland this week, talking about all this.

There are a number of even less appetizing details in the study, such as the fact that many of the top billionaires made their money from healthcare and pharma.  In other words, they became obscenely wealthy by taking advantage of the sick and dying, their pain and their fear.

It's already been widely reported that in his State of the Union on Tuesday President Obama will again talk about income and economic inequality, and barriers to fairness and opportunity in the U.S., and that he will propose new tax revenues from the very rich and tax breaks for the middle class, and that they have no chance of passing Congress.

But the situation remains, the proposed solutions are clearly inadequate (absolutely no one of prominence I know of is talking about anything like a guaranteed income, as King did) and even these paltry proposals are unlikely to be instituted. People are increasingly afraid.  You can tell because they aren't talking about it.

The Dreaming Up Martin Luther King Day Quote

"I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective -- the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty."

Martin Luther King, Jr.
excerpted Seattle Times

The irony is obvious. We're going backwards.  For more on the guaranteed income, an idea widely discussed in the 1960s and 70s, see the posts on this blog accessible through the "guaranteed income" label, and this post at Soul of Star Trek.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Is Print the New Vinyl?

Before we move on beyond this accidental series on digital domination, one interesting and perhaps delightful (if true) countertrend.  However, first let's restate the trend, with the eloquent opening to the previously quoted (in the last post) Leon Wieseltier New York Times Book Review essay (with my emphases), in your Sunday Times today and here online:

 "Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” 

What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous."

The death knell for non-digital reading and writing is often sounded, sometimes with lived alarm, sometimes with complacent (I've made my money and reputation thanks) acceptance.

But leave it to my favorite newspaper columnist, Jon Carroll at the San Francisco Chronicle, to find (or maybe make up, just a little) a somewhat countervailing trend: "Print is the new vinyl."

These words were uttered, he writes, by a tech savvy entrepreneur, suggesting a trend that combines retro with realization (that analogue records offer better sound than digital.)  Together they fantasized a sweet (if likely brief, or if ever) future:

"So perhaps the latest bunch of tech billionaires want quality too. They want long-form journalism, say, that can be reproduced in a portable and well-designed format. They want editing and fact-checking. Perhaps they want fiction, poetry, excerpts from the classics.

Nothing like old media to add that sheen of prestige. The guy I was with suggested that writers might once again make actual money, that the sight of someone carrying a book would be like seeing someone toting around a dulcimer — it indicates that they have hidden depths. We’re talking about a covert desire to follow the dream of the Enlightenment."

A last ditch dream?  Probably.  But I do recall that on several visits to a fashionable cafe in Menlo Park not far from Stanford--close enough to ground zero for the tech world--I saw more people reading books, newspapers and magazines than were starring at laptops and tablets, or even conspicuously glued to their smartphones etc.  A definite counter-trend to, for instance, the HSU campus.