Friday, September 28, 2012

Creepy Smiling People May Have Opinions, But They Don't Tell Me Much About the ID Law

A few weeks ago, when looking up information for someone on alternative ballots on the PA voter information website, I noticed on the sidebar that the PA state government had made an instructional video about the photo ID law.  Earlier this week, during one of the rare moments in which I was watching television, I saw the commercial for the first time, and its uselessness prompted both a laugh and a sigh and made me decide that it was time for me to write a take-down of all of how trite the commercial is.

Let us begin, and let us do a play-by-play of the commercial.


WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE SMILING AT ME?  One can tell that the director told these two people, "Now, I want you to smile warmly.  Do you get that?  I WANT WARMTH."  However, already, I want to change the channel because I think that this is going to tell me about how I can lower my cholesterol.  Considering that I am a vegetarian, my cholesterol is very fine, thank you very much, smiling people.


Now, the warmth is gone from the smiles, and these people are looking at me with "serious" faces and asking me if I "care about this election."  O MY GOSH, I DO.  I MUST BE THEIR TARGET AUDIENCE.

Also, the background music to the commercial has such a pseudo-dramatic quality to it.  I'm waiting for it to reach a crescendo in which some wonderful act of patriotism, citizenship, etc., takes place and everyone erupts into applause.


Another silent person smiling "warmly" at me.  Your smile conveys warmth, my friend, but it conveys no information other than "I am not a threat to you."  And I was not worried about that.


If you have an opinion....
If you want a voice...
If you want a voice...

I want all of these. Are they selling me a voice?  Can I buy some new handy-dandy mechanism that can better vocalize my opinions because these people seem so articulate at it?  Is it cheap, though?  My vocalization of my opinions is important to me, but I don't know how much I'm willing to spend at the moment.

The repetition of "If you want a voice" continues the pseudo-dramatic quality of this commercial.  You can tell that the ad creators thought that this would "resonate" with the viewer.  But they were wrong.


"Sir, I want you to smile confidently now.  We don't need warmth; we need confidence.  Straighten your posture sir, shut up, and you're good to go."


If you want to make a difference...
If you want to vote...

Again, I feel as though they are reading my mind right now.  THEY ARE JUST TOO CLEVER.  I do want to vote, and I do want to make a difference.  Will your opinion vocalization device help me to vote, too?  THAT'S MAGIC.

Now, the smiling people are telling me to "Show it."  This sounds a bit too much like "Shove it" to me.  Why are these smiling people cursing at me?  I thought we were friends!

You may be smiling again, girl, but you already rudely told me to "show it."  We need some time to rekindle this friendship.  Maybe the bland narrator voice will help.


My AP English teacher in senior year in high school often used "Show, don't tell" as a succinct recommendation for good writing.  However, although that works in writing, it does not hold as much weight in a commercial.  Showing me a photo of a driver's license or a passport does not have as much of an effect as telling me because I may not be watching the screen at all points, and the telling in the ad is necessary for reinforcement.

Also, this commercial has shown a driver's license and a passport.  What about a nursing home-issued ID?  Or a municipal ID?  What about the fact that my expired driver's license can still count as long as it did not expire more than a year ago?  Where's the list of all of the ID's, either spoken or written?  Maybe they forgot as Governor Corbett himself did.


Why is the cameraman zooming in on the illustration of the Statute of Liberty on that passport?  Um...PATRIOTISM?

Also, when a commercial tells people to call this number or go online for more information, how many people actually do so?  Moreover, how many of them actually have computers on which they could look up that information about which you are speaking?



If you care about this country....



It's time to show it.

I love how none of these people demonstrated the act of showing their photo IDs at a polling booth. They are just showing their IDs to a television viewer.  Can I just videotape myself waving my ID around and smiling warmly and then have the ability to vote in November in PA?  My guess is no.

Also, whenever I watch this commercial, I think of Michael Jackson's "Black or White"--namely, the "talking heads" part of it, in which an array of people reflecting 90s "diversity" talk bob their heads to Michael Jackson's song.  I was very disappointed that the PA photo ID ad did not have any head morphing.  I think that was a big mistake on the director's part. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Echo Chamber of the 1% and the Muffled Voice of the Demos

The corrupting influence of big money and the never-ending campaign cycle on US politics extends beyond the pay to play and crony capitalism that can drive economic policy-making.  The constant fundraising that elected officials must do in order to obtain and retain elected office limits the ideas, opinions, and experiences to which they are exposed on a daily basis.  When politicians host dinners with entrance fees larger that what many Americans make in a year, they will be answering different questions and hearing different complaints and priorities than they would in a more economically diverse crowd.  As our opinions are shaped by our experiences and our daily interactions with others, the opinions of such politicians will inevitably conform more to that of their donors--if they had not conformed already.  Granted, if the opinions of the donor class matched those of the general public--a microcosm of the ideological spread of American society (but with yachts!), then the risk of the calcification of the Beltway echo chamber might not be as grave.  However, a recent study by social scientists at Northwestern and Vanderbilt proves otherwise.

Scholars Benjamin Page (Northwestern), Larry Bartels (Vanderbilt), and Jason Scawright (Northwestern) analyzed how the policy priorities of the wealthy (near or in the top 1%) differ from that of the general public, and the divergence was often quite wide.  The sharpest divergence in opinion often lay in questions of job creation.  Whereas only 19% of wealthy Americans agreed that the government should ensure that everyone who wants to work can find work, 68% of the general public supported such a statement.  Of any of the programs and proposals addressed in the survey, federal job creation ("The federal government should provide jobs for everyone able and willing who cannot find a job in private employment") had the weakest support (8%) among the very wealthy despite having 53% support among the general public.  Likewise, whereas a strong 78% of the general public favored a living wage ("Minimum wage high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line"), less than half of wealthy respondents (40%) thought so.  We can also gain some perspective on Mitt Romney's recent condescending comments about the "47 percent" when seeing that less than half of the wealthy Americans surveyed believed that the government should ensure that no one is without food, clothing, or shelter--even though over two-thirds of the general public (68%) thought it should.

Other policy statements that commanded well over 50% of general public support despite weak support among the affluent include the following
  • National health insurance financed by tax money (i.e. single payer): 32% of wealthy vs. 61% of general public (Wonder why the public option got tossed aside so quickly?)
  •   "The federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have good public schools they can go to." --- 33% of wealthy vs. 87% of general public
  • "The federal government should make sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so." -- 28% of wealthy vs. 78% of general public
Several other policy statements  hovered around 50% public support despite negligible support from the very wealthy:
  • "It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes."--13% of wealthy vs. 46% of general public
  • "Our government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich." -- 17% of wealthy vs. 52% of general public
And, to fellow environmentalists, it should come as no surprise that, when the wealthy interviewees ranked a list of current problems by perceived importance, climate change was dead last--with only 16% viewing it as "very important."  (Budget deficits, on the other hand, were seen as "very important" by 87% of the wealthy subjects.)

This reminded me of a passage from a lecture John Dewey gave at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1938 entitled "Democracy and Education in the World Today," in which he paraphrased Felix Adler (NYSEC's founder) and offered his own insights:

"....that 'no matter how ignorant any person is there is one thing he knows better than anybody else, and that is where the shoes pinch on his own feet'; and because it is the individual that knows his own troubles, even if he is not sophisticated  in other respects, the idea of democracy as opposed to any conception of aristocracy is that every individual must be consulted in such a way, actively not passively, that he himself must become a part of the process of authority, of the process of social control; that his needs and wants have a chance to be registered in a way where they count in a determining social policy..."

When the top 1 or 2% of the population have not only an inordinate share of wealth but an inordinate share of political influence, the conceptions of equal human worth and shared community upon which democracy rests will inevitably suffer.

Friday, September 21, 2012

When Did Not Having Crazy Eyes Become the Standard of Moderation?

At a phone bank I was hosting the other day, one of our volunteers noted that she thought that Scott Brown (R-MA) was a “good guy” and that she probably would not be working as hard for Obama’s re-election if Huntsman were the GOP candidate.  This prompted my usual annoyance with the attribution of an aura of moderation to politicians who do nothing to warrant it—unless we say that not having crazy eyes and not saying “communist” every few words are the standards for moderation.

Huntsman, of course, does not have crazy eyes, and he was “moderate” enough to accept an appointment by the Obama administration as Ambassador to China.  But how does this really stack up with his issue statements in his failed bid for the 2012 GOP presidential ticket?


The video of Mitt Romney writing off 47% of the population as lazy good-for-nothings has caused a media flurry this past week.   The statistic, of course, refers to those who do not pay federal income taxes—a group that includes senior citizens on Social Security, servicemen in combat, college students, and the working poor.  Huntsman, like his friends in the Grand Old Party who want to “expand” the tax base, probably views these people as “lucky duckies” as the Wall Street Journal so crassly and condescendingly referred to them.  In his tax plan, he suggests eliminating ALL credits and deductions.  That means no more earned income tax credit and no more child tax credit, changes to the tax code that would make the working poor start paying taxes on the income that they barely make.  Huntsman’s tax reform would include this tax increase on low-income families in order to fund a massive tax reduction on high-earners (who would get to enjoy a 34% lower marginal tax rate).  In addition to eliminating the capital gains tax, Huntsman also wanted to reduce the corporate tax rate form 35% to 25%, claiming that the US has too high of a tax on businesses—a comical complaint when, for instance, 30 companies paid NO federal income taxes between 2008 and 2010 because of because of our extensive corporate welfare program. 


Although Huntsman may believe in global warming, his energy plan does not show any desire to address it.  The section on “Energy Security” on the Huntsman 2012 website does not include a single mention of renewable energy sources.  Sorry, wind and solar energy, we need to focus on tar sands and offshore drilling.  His plan, which emphasizes oil and gas, is the “drill, baby, drill” mantra from 2008 in policy reform.

Bye, Bye, Regulation
  • ·         Gutting the Department of Education
  • ·         Gutting the Environmental Protection Agency
  • ·         Gutting the National Labor Relations Board
  • ·         Repealing Dodd-Frank
  • ·         Repealing the Affordable Care Act, and
  • ·         “Aggressive” promotion of trade liberalization

Although his corporate school reform recommendations do, for the most part, represent the sad state of a growing bipartisan neoliberal consensus, the language in his Education section about “acknowledging hard truths” shrouds an elitist worldview with ambiguous language.  The section, for all practical purposes, says little more than “Poor people don’t need to go to college.”

Replacing populism with elitism does not a moderate make.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Definition a Day Keeps the Muddle Away

 So have a few.

As Republicans like to brand the centrist politics of Clinton and Obama as socialism, the Bush years brought a demonization of the word "liberal", and the word "liberal" doesn't even mean what it does in other countries, political terminology in the US often gets confused.

So, here, let me begin a growing list of political definitions.

Common Sense: Used to imply that a recommended policy proposal is the only possible one which rational beings could reach through discussion, with all other proposals being no more than the ramblings of fringe lunatics.  "Common sense" proposals when common are often not sensible, and when sensible probably are not common.

Corporate Liberalism: A historical thesis coming out of the New Left in an attempt to explain the failure of socialism in the US.  Describes a reform ideology in which reformist liberals work together with big business to ensure market provision of public goods, guaranteeing a market share to a small group of businesses and undermining socialist alternatives. See Affordable Care Act.  See also the history of US broadcasting.

Elite Centrism: the combination of slightly socially liberal and economically conservative views whose adherents like to view themselves as superior to partisan “bickering” and whose political ideal is manifest in the belief that all of the nation’s problems could be solved if only we could just get a group of Ivy League graduates (preferably with private sector experience!) to sit in a room and figure out how to slash the welfare state together.    Anything slightly left or slightly right of their view is “ideological” or, if too far away, “radical.”  To the elite centrist, politics is not about morality or ideology; it is simply the sound management and assertion of power by educated aristocrats.  At its most annoying, see Thomas Friedman.  At its least annoying, see The Economist.  For historical reference, see Max Weber.

Republican Party: an authoritarian anti-communist "populist" alliance of petty bourgeois shopkeepers, corporate titans, and certain segments of the working-class prone to irrationalism and anti-intellectualism unified by a cult of heroic violence and a myth of a past national greatness under attack by an effete and degenerate liberalism and the encroachment of outsiders. 

Tea Party: “the revolt of a malignant petty bourgeois rabble” (to use the words of Thomas Mann)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Chemically-engineered Fat-Free Hamburgers, or How Our Debate on Energy Parallels that on Food

Several months ago (and by several months, I think I mean a year), I was trying to explain to someone why clean coal was an oxymoron and that, even if cleaning coal were possible, it would be a waste of money. To explain this, I drew parallels to another problem of energy in the US--that of food.

"So, I have an excellent idea for how to solve the obesity epidemic.  What we should do is pay scientists--or the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, whatever---money so that they can chemically extract the fat out of hamburgers.  Right?  People eat lots of hamburgers; they don't want fresh produce.  So we should make the hamburgers better for them by blowing ridiculous sums of money on this scheme to engineer fat-removal.  Now, we certainly won't change the ways that we raise the cows; that, of course, need not enter the picture.  The same can be said for the idea that maybe, just maybe, instead of eating these fat-removed hamburgers, people would be better off eating fresh produce, and we should spend our money on getting fresh produce available.  Madness, I tell you!  If we don't invent chemically-engineered fat free hamburgers, the Chinese will do it before us.  They've certainly taken a liking to beef lately."

However, as I began to think on this more, I realized that the parallels extended further.

The trio of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) can be paired with the trio damaging the American diet:  fat, sugar salt.  Clearly, we've already established the coal-fat connection.  Sugar would be the equivalent of oil.  Sugar (especially HFCS) is in just about everything that we eat, and the only way to avoid it would be to avoid purchasing any item that has been remotely processed.  The US has also invaded other countries and threatened their sovereignty because of its sweet tooth just as it has for its oil fix.

Salt, then, would be natural gas.  People like to say that natural gas is "clean burning," and salt has no calories, right?  You want to lose weight--start replacing fat and sugar in your diet with salt!  No calories--amazing!  Let's dump salt on all our food so that we won't need to grease it up or sweeten it.  Now, despite the occasional studies that try to prove otherwise, we all know that salt is still bad for your heart, and no person in their right mind would tell you that salt, salt, and MORE SALT is the best way to a healthful diet.  Salt, like natural gas, is also an enemy of fresh water and pleasant drinking water.

Although, at first, I thought that artificial sweeteners (e.g. Splenda) would be a great parallel for biofuels, I have since realized that an even better one is the potato.  "You want vegetables in your diet?  Have a potato!"  Granted, potatoes, being high in starch, are low on the totem pole of vegetables, they have arguably more industry and political advocates than their other vegetable peers.  (Think back to the recent school lunches debates.)  However, replacing sugar, salt, and fat with lots of starchy potatoes will still not make you healthy. 

Coffee would be nuclear power.  "I've got the perfect solution for your diet problem.  CAFFEINATE, CAFFEINATE, CAFFEINATE."  Right?  Caffeine has no calories and can help you lose weight.  (Coffee and cigarettes, the diet of the stars!) Granted, though, it makes you thirsty, and if you drink too much, you might explode.

All the while, the idea of investing money in increasing access to locally-grown produce falls by the wayside because that, of course, could not possibly be the best way to improve our energy intake.

Third TIme's a Charm

For the past few months, I have often thought to myself, "Self, why don't you take your ramblings and musings and make them into coherent, insightful, and witty blog posts?"  After congratulating myself on this wonderful suggestion, I then spend a long time thinking about a blog title and then come to one that I only partially support, and I eventually end up tabling the project for a bit.  However, never fret--I have decided once more to attempt a blog, and as it's the third time, it is scientifically proven to be successful. I have now settled on "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Trees" as a new blog title, one of which I am extra fond because it is an acronym.  (Amusingly, I did not realize this at first.  Someone else pointed it out to me, and then I patted myself on the back because of my subconscious cleverness.)

Here's to September 14th, the 260th anniversary of the British adoption of the Gregorian calendar.  If not for this decision, it probably wouldn't even be September 14th today.