Friday, September 01, 2017

The Time Is Now

Since the election there has been a lot of talk about the trump administration, and the ramifications of his positions for the American populace. There have been exhortations from the right to “just get over it” and accept the results of the election, even though they are tinged by a cloud of possible corruption by a foreign government, and there have also been just as vocal opinions on the left that it is only through citizen action such as protests, flooding legislators with phone calls and emails, etc. that we can slow the right-wing agenda.

Neither of these is going to work. The country is too polarized, trump is too divisive a figure, and the Republican stranglehold on power (through gerrymandering and voter suppression) is too great. Above all, however, there is one very important fact that rarely gets mentioned in the media:

Legislators don’t really give a damn what you think, and the unfortunate reality is they don't have to.

In 2014, Martin Gilens (a Professor of Politics at Princeton University) and Benjamin I. Page (a Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University) published a study of political inequality in America, called “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” The central finding was this: economic elites and interest groups can shape U.S. government policy — but Americans who are less well off have essentially no influence over what their government does.

The paper referred to over 20 years worth of data, measuring the involvement of the “upper class elites” (defined as the top 10% of earners) and the middle class as two separate groups, and tracking the passage and rejection of legislation based on involvement of these two groups. What they found was that, when the elites support legislation, it stands about a 45% chance of being enacted. When they oppose it, that chance drops to 18%.

However, when the impact of middle class voters are calculated, it turns out that legislation has about a 30% chance of being passed -- regardless of how vocal the middle class is about it -- basically, it doesn’t move the needle much at all. So while the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration may have made some legislators uncomfortable, for the most part the voices of the people are just so much white noise on Capitol Hill, drowned out by the sound of money pouring in the door from big donors.

That’s who REALLY makes policy in Washington these days. For example, the carried interest deduction, useless to most middle-class taxpayers because they do not have enough wealth for it to kick in, is a favorite of the top 10% because it slashes their tax bill to nearly nothing. Tax reform proponents have been agitating for this deduction to be removed from the tax code for years, but all it took was a call from one guy -- Mitt Romney -- to stop this movement dead in its tracks in 2012. And what does Mitt Romney have (besides elevators for his cars) that most people don’t?

If you said “eight figure bank accounts,” then you’d be correct.

Many people think that reversing Citizens United will solve the problem. It won’t. It will simply mean that big donors and special interests are going to have to be more creative in finding ways to influence policy behind the scenes. Which they will do, because they have the resources to mobilize whole teams of lawyers to find these ways.

Unfortunately, I fear, the only way we will be able to remove the stink of corruption and the greasy film of undue influence from big donors and special interest groups from American politics is to drop back ten and punt. I am not calling for a violent overthrow of the United States government, far from it. I believe we do have a basic framework in place that can be quite effective and beneficial for almost everyone in this country.

What I am calling for is a Constitutional Convention. I am calling for citizen representatives from every state and territory in the nation to convene in Philadelphia to discuss and ratify a new Constitution for the United States of America.

This is not a Democrat/Republican thing, or a liberal/conservative thing, or a Clinton/Trump thing. It has very little to do with the election of 2016 (although, to be fair, that did serve as a catalyst). This has to do with the 90% of Americans who, essentially, have no representation in our government because they simply can’t afford the cover charge. From the most conservative, red-meat, middle-America Trump voter to the most diehard liberal Bernie Sanders supporter, we all have to wake up to the realization that we just don’t matter in today’s America.

We must make ourselves matter. Nobody is going to do it for us. We have to stand up and make ourselves important, make ourselves be considered a part of the country instead of subjects of it, to realize the dream of a true small-R “republican” form of representative government.

In the history of every civilization, there comes an inflection point, a moment in time when the trajectory changes and society moves in a completely new direction. We are now at such a point in our history. In an effort to preserve the greatest political experiment in human history, we, the people of the United States of America, make this declaration that we will, from this point forth, be free from the tyranny of greed, corruption, and partisanship that has poisoned the well of society, and that all people are entitled to unassailable rights of life, health, equality of opportunity, liberty, and freedom from discrimination in all endeavors.

This is the beginning of our new Declaration of Independence. Like the founding fathers, we are standing up against tyranny, against having the will of the few imposed on the many, against the systemic corruption and favoritism that has turned America into nothing more than a branch office of huge companies and special interest groups.

The campaign of donald trump centered around the slogan “Make America Great Again.” To many people it represented returning to an earlier, simpler time and traditional values (with the word "traditional" having different meanings for different people). For a ugly, detestable few of his supporters it was license to unleash latent hatred -- against minorities, immigrants, Muslims. However, it centered around the idea that America had lost its greatness, that it was no longer the beacon of hope it had been the world over.

It's a rather depressing outlook, in my view, which is why I would like to launch an effort to "Make America Greater." After all, this is a pretty good place to be already ... consider that I have been calling trump out for being a traffic-cone-colored nightmare, a dumpster fire in the flesh, the personification of venereal disease, etc., pretty much with impunity, thanks to the First Amendment. There aren't too many other places on this ball of mud we call Earth that would let me get away with that kind of thing.

I usually sign off with "I gotta lie down." In this case, though, lying down is not an option. If this is going to happen it's going to take work, and dedication, and some talents that I do have and many I do not. Therefore, today my sign off is this:

We have work to do.

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Advertising: Waste of Time, or Major Annoyance?

And now, in other “holy crap but this is stupid” news ... the Tea Party has posted a graphic to Facebook (and, I assume, the fourteen people using Google+) that shows an American flag waving in dappled sunlight as it is being carried by a guy in a t-shirt and a baseball cap at what looks like a picnic. Pretty much your generic, all-American, mom-and-apple-pie stock photo.

However, being the Tea Party, they couldn’t just give leave it at that. They had to fuck it up with what is arguably one of the dumbest captions ever.

“Like if you agree: The American flag should be allowed EVERYWHERE in the United States!”

Now, before some right-winger gets his nineteenth century bloomers in a twist, and starts hurling spittle-flecked invective at me for being a socialist gay-loving gun-hating anti-christian muslim abortion-having terrorist, let me say right now that, first, I’m a guy, so I CAN’T have an abortion, and second, I resent being called a terrorist. Moving right along ...

My issue with this post isn’t that it is in support of flying the flag. I fully support that. No, my complaints with this piece of dreck are:
  1. By asking people to support the idea that the flag should be allowed everywhere in this country, they are implying that it is currently NOT allowed everywhere. I challenge anyone, right or left, to find any place on American soil where the flying of the American flag is prohibited by law.
  2. It’s not ideology. It’s marketing. Every time someone likes this post, or shares it, the people who put it up are notified, and bingo! You now end up getting “sponsored content” from every right-wing nutjob franchise with a message and a few bucks to spend on a mailing list.

This same approach is used by the posts that challenge you with something ridiculously simple, such as “I bet you can’t name an American city that doesn’t have the letter ‘E’ in it!” (side note: you’d be surprised at the number of people who answered “New York”). You accept the “challenge” and post your answer, and then, shockingly, you are now getting approximately 600,000 emails every day for Canadian Viagra.

This middleman economy is getting ridiculous. First, there were salespeople ... middlemen who performed a useful function, allowing people to buy products from distant manufacturers without having to actually travel to the manufacturing facilities.

Then there were advertising guys. It could be argued that they served a useful function as well, by allowing producers to get the word out about their wares in an efficient manner, even if it was a pack of lies.

Now we’re at the point of having entire businesses based around the idea that advertising is a product in and of itself, something to be bought and sold on the open market. And in what is the most idiotic variant on this concept are the aggregators: those links (you know the ones: “This is the one trick insurers don’t want you to know!”) that take you to another web site that collects your information ONLY SO THEY CAN SELL IT TO PEOPLE WHO SEND YOU MORE ADS.

A few years back it reached the height of absurdity when there were ads on television ADVERTISING THE ADS FOR THE SUPER BOWL. Not the Super Bowl itself, which in my opinion is the height of overblown silliness (it’s just a football game, people!), but the ads they were going to show during the broadcast.

This is getting out of hand. At the rate we’re going, the employable population of this country will be broken down as follows by 2050:
  • 1%: CEOs who make insane amounts of money for playing golf, having affairs, and testifying before Congress.
  • 98.9999999999999999999%: Middlemen of one form or another: sales, marketing, customer service, lobbyists, assistants, etc.
  • 0.0000000000000000001%: Some guy named Steve, who is in charge of watching the robots on the assembly line and calling the IT guys when one of them goes berserk and starts outfitting Camrys with roof-mounted missile launchers (not that this would be a bad thing, especially in DC traffic).
So this needs to stop, m’kay? We need to rise up and show that we’re not going to take it any more! Let’s join together and start a movement that responds to anti-advertising! Any time you see an ad for something write a letter to that company that says “I saw your ad for (Buick/Samsung/McDonald’s/some random pharmaceutical company), and as a result I will NOT buy (the new LaCrosse/the latest tablet/a Quarter Pounder/drugs) from your company! Further, I will urge all my friends to follow suit! Neener, neener, neener!”

That’ll teach ‘em. Smug bastards.

This points to a larger issue: we are rapidly devolving into a “middleman economy”. Let me back up and ‘splain ...

‘Way back in the olden days, the economy was simple: one group of people grew (or made) stuff, and another group of people traded their stuff for the stuff from the first group of people. Once all this trading was going on, soldiers would show up, take everything, and leave both groups with nothing. This system was in place for centuries, and worked pretty well ... unless, of course, you were in one of the two groups of people who lost everything, which let’s face it you probably were because the people who ended up getting everything were the nobility and there were only, like, six of them.

Then some mud-spattered peasant came up with a brilliant idea: instead of carting around livestock to trade for bushels of grain, what about an easily portable marker, made out of a semi-precious metal, say, that could be used instead? This way he could go to a farmer with the grain and say “Look, I’ll gladly give you a cow in exchange for this big pile of wheat, but I don’t have it on me. Tell you what. I’ll give you this metal disk -- let’s call it a coin -- and take the grain. Then you come by my place later, and when you give me the coin back I’ll give you the cow”.

So this worked well for a while, but eventually the number of coins got to be so huge that some guys decided “Hey, wait a second. Why spend our days climbing around in the mud with livestock for a few coins when we could keep track of everyone else’s coins for them, and leave the livestock-climbing for the weekends?” And thus was the concept of a “middleman” born.

At first, middlemen served a useful purpose, especially once the Industrial Revolution got into full swing. Instead of a manufacturer of plows selling directly to the customer, forcing everyone to go to some bleak, desolate area in Pennsylvania to get the damn thing and then lug it all the way back to Possum Junction, Alabama or wherever, they could just trot down to the friendly neighborhood plow dealer, who would sell them the plow and even deliver it for them, all for only slightly more than what the manufacturer would have charged.

However, as time went on, more and more people saw that the middleman actually had it pretty easy. The guys making the stuff worked long, hard hours in dangerous conditions, and they often were left high and dry when the manufacturer picked up and left for cheaper locales. The consumers were usually farmers, who spent months in the fields, getting sunburned and bitten by bugs, only to have everything wiped out when the frost came earlier than expected.

The middlemen, however, did okay regardless. This caused a lot of people to sit up and take notice, and pretty soon almost everyone was involved in selling something to someone else. This became so popular, in fact, that a new breed of middleman popped up: the broker. This was a guy who would (for a fee, of course), help you find the right middleman for what you wanted to buy.

Time continued to pass, and things became even sillier. Soon there was another, slimier, creature that appeared on the landscape, whose job was ostensibly quite simple: he was tasked with telling you about the stuff you wanted to buy before you knew you wanted to buy it, thus making you want to buy it even if you didn’t really want to buy it before. This is called “advertising”. It is also known as “lying”.

Okay, so the hierarchy so far is that the Manufacturer/Grower (Maker) comes up with something he or she wants to sell. They get the advertising guy in on things, who then comes up with a way to make whatever doohickey the Maker has come up with sound like the greatest thing since sliced bread (unless, of course, the product is sliced bread, at which point the ad guy’s job sucks). The ad guy then gets the word out to the consumer. The Consumer would then contact a broker to locate a sales guy to sell them the doohickey, and the sales guy would then pay the maker.

Now, here’s where it gets REALLY stupid.

Some time in the late 1990s, someone realized that the best way to make money on the internet was to sell advertising. Sure, there are sites like Amazon and eBay that actually sell stuff, but for the most part the internet is driven by advertising dollars.

So now we have a situation where you have entire companies who DON’T MAKE ANYTHING, and whose sole purpose is to have other people pay them for the privilege of being able to annoy even more people with ads about stuff that they don’t care about. Further, there are people whose ENTIRE CAREER is based on doing this.

Pretty soon you’re going to have a situation where the United States is nothing but porn, ads, and fast food*, and we will be a nation of fat, one-armed slobs with no money who are being laughed at by the Chinese or the Germans or whoever rises to the top of the international economic dung heap next.

I gotta lie down.

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*Note: It’s too late. This has already happened.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

We Need To Grow Up

There was a study conducted in 2014 that asked the question: how much effect does public support or opposition to any piece of legislation have on the chances of that legislation actually being passed? The answer was, on the whole, not much. This held true across genders, races, nationalities, ethnicities, regions of the country -- every measure showed that public support would boost a bill’s chances of passing by between five and ten percent.

Things got really interesting when the researchers broke it out by income level. What they found is that, for the top 10% of earners, the chances of a bill being passed rose proportionally to the amount of support from these top earners. The bottom 90%? If the public support from this group was near zero, the bill had about a 30% chance of being passed. And if the bill had near unanimous support from the bottom 90%, the bill had about a 30% chances of being passed.

You get that? For the bottom 90%, public support or disapproval of any piece of legislation -- whether it’s the Affordable Care Act or a Steve Bannon sponsored bill that would grant full tax amnesty to all white male Protestants -- doesn’t even move the needle.

This is not going to change anytime soon unless we each make an effort.

Part of the problem is our campaign finance system that rewards corruption and inside baseball, which I will cover at a later date. Today, though, we need to address the increasing polarization in this country.

It is no secret that people are splitting into multiple camps and screaming at each other instead of talking to each other. Supporters of donald trump routinely post things to social media -- often from unreliable sources -- that "prove" what horrible people liberals are and that not supporting trump is going to lead to pestilence, death, famine, economic ruin, and more death. Conversely, opponents of trump do the same thing with their own unreliable sources that "prove" that all trump supporters are knuckle-dragging racist morons who are gleefully ushering in the new fascism and shooting minorities for sport.

And donald trump is not the only dividing line. There are Democratic trump supporters just as there are Republican trump opponents, yet they focus on the difference in party affiliation. Conservative vs. liberal. Citizens vs. non-citizens. Old vs. young. Male vs. female. Gay vs. straight. Discourse in the United States has become less a means for debate and more a tawdry reality show in which hair-pulling tantrums and underhanded scheming get the highest ratings.

It's not just limited to the US, either. Great Britain had Brexit. North Korea has Kim Jong Un's insecurities masquerading as national policy. Russia has its own imperialist agenda. The Middle East has -- well, the same ridiculous religious conflicts it has always had between religions that are fundamentally the same.

This begs the question: did this polarization originate in the United States, or were we infected by an outside carrier?

My personal opinion? It's the latter.

Human beings are tribal animals. We are hardwired, and have been for millions of years, to accept people who are part of our tribe -- Democrats, Red Sox fans, Rush fans, bald guys -- and to resent those who are outside the group -- Republicans, Yankee fans (let's face it, a well deserved shunning there), people who think Rush is overrated, the hirsute -- as being a potential threat. This is part of the deepest internal machinery of our psyches, and while it can be overcome it takes a conscious effort of will.

This predated the Founding Fathers. It predated human civilization. Hell, it predated humans. As a result, this sort of "us vs. them" mentality is something we are all born with, and it has fundamentally shaped our approach to pretty much everything, from throwing rocks at the guys on the other side of the river because they were demons, to the current conflicts in the Middle East: our side has the good guys, the other side has the bad guys, and the bad guys need to be eradicated.

In my lifetime, the earliest manifestation of this in the public arena -- at least, of which I became aware -- came with the election of 1980. Ronald Reagan freely demonized liberals on the campaign trail, while Jimmy Carter exhibited restraint and did not characterize all conservatives as evil, thick-headed, whatever. As a result, his message was more nuanced and required voters pay more attention (of course, the rampant inflation and the hostage crisis beginning in 1979 didn't help matters for him one bit).

As we all know, Reagan pretty much walked away with that one. I think it was because he was a master of creating sound bites -- little nuggets that were easily memorable and could easily accept any meaning the listener wanted to attach to them. Carter's statements, on the other hand, required critical thinking and attention, and were not as pliable in their meaning.

This is how it has progressed since then. Each election brings a candidate who is a little better at playing to the news cycle, who has a little more skill in crafting a vague, non-specific message that somehow resonates with people based on folksy charm and seeming regular guy-ness. Reagan walloped Mondale, who was a policy wonk -- really smart guy, but with all the appeal and charisma of a flat tire. Bush Sr. similarly trounced Dukakis, who was as wonky as Mondale but somehow even less exciting. Clinton proved to be an even folksier entrant in '92 and '96, and Al Gore and John Kerry were both easily out-aw-shucksed by George W. Bush.

The only exception to this trend has been Barack Obama, simply because the pendulum swung too far toward the "dumb but likeable" direction with Bush II, and the economy was in ruins at that point, and people were starting to gain a dim realization that having a smart but boring guy in charge might be a good idea. However, this was the anomaly, as in '16 we faced a similar choice: on one side, someone who was incredibly intelligent and experienced, with a good handle on the subtleties of both domestic and foreign policy, and on the other hand a guy who bragged about the size of his winkie during a presidential debate.

And at no point during the shameful, salacious, embarrassing election of 2016 were the two sides ever communicating with each other. Sure, it was a very vocal election -- from the 'roid raging "I love trump!" guy, to the Bernie-or-busters, everyone was screaming into the void, trying to be the loudest one in the room ... and nobody realized they were just adding to the white noise.

Which leads us to where we are now: with a country that is so polarized, so intent on being right and on demonizing the other side, that nothing of substance can get done. Republicans spent years screaming about the Affordable Care Act, saying it was a horrible deal, but not once did they offer anything realistic to replace it -- despite repeated invitations from Democrats to do so. Democrats have been complaining about Republican intransigence since roughly the last Ice Age, yet have not really made a concerted effort to reach across the aisle and say "y'know, y'all do make some good points now and again."

It needs to stop.

Unfortunately, it's not going to stop unless and until we -- all of us -- stand up and demand that they start behaving like adults. And we cannot do that until we start behaving like adults, and stop yelling at each other, and constantly playing a game of "gotcha" at every opportunity, and start listening to what people with whom we disagree have to say.

Then -- and only then -- can we employ the roughly three pounds of gray matter we each carry around in our skulls and demand that these clowns, these shrieking agitators who run for office, be held accountable and stop spewing bullshit at every opportunity. We need to step up and ask them the tough questions, and not relinquish the platform until they give a solid answer.

It's going to take work. Most people won't be interested in putting in this work and would prefer to cruise along as they have been, basically jamming their heads in the sand because it's too difficult, or they don't have time, or they are tired from dealing with adulting, or any of a myriad of other reasons, many of which are perfectly valid. But a society like ours demands participation from all, and this is not an easy task.

It's a necessary one, though.

I gotta lie down.

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Come At Me, Bro

So the latest stunt from Ron DeSantis and the Floriduh GOP -- and that's all they are is stunts -- is SB 1316, a particularly odious and...