Saturday, November 29, 2008


There are times when your only recourse is to congratulate people on the purchase of their portable touch-screen appliances before they will leave you alone.

However, if they also got a good deal on the item, forget it: you're screwed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The rich man's burden

I have read a series of articles detailing how poor people suffer when the very wealthy suddenly become less wealthy, principally because they have less wealth to with which to promote their own charitable foundations. Apparently, wealthy people do far more good with their wealth than poor people can ever do with their poverty; in fact, the amount of good done is directly proportional to the dollar amount that appears alongside their name in related news coverage.

If there's any question left as to whether poor people can possibly compete with the wealthy when it comes to selfless do-goodery, just tell me the last time you heard of a poor person parting with a million dollars in stock dividends in order to fund a cure for cancer? It is to laugh! Poor people suck, man! Let's worry about getting the wealthy back in the black so they can go on saving us all. Tax cuts all around!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Heels in low places

I would love to know by what argument American women were induced into walking on stilts so to affect a more "professional" appearance. "Make your legs appear longer, your breasts more available, be at all times slightly off-balance -- only then you will be taken seriously by your colleagues."

It would be easy to blame women for ever accepting this (at least if you share the view that high heels do not make sense as everyday footwear), but my guess is that the practice must have coincided with women's breakthrough into the workplace, and for this reason was not anticipated as a problem; or perhaps it was already so closely associated with the business world that it possessed an emancipatory appeal. Also, because the victory for women in the workplace did more to challenge the authority of the men at home than it did to challenge the authority men at work, it was in this respect quite limiting: men merely consolidated their authority over women in a new domain.

No doubt men sought common cause with the more parochial thread of feminism, which they viewed as manageable -- certainly preferable to the idea of women's equality overall -- and which granted them more extramarital options, besides. One might even view it as a net gain for professional men, if not for husbands: Women want to work? Sure, just create a distinct standard of "professionalism" for women, loaded with whatever men want -- less pay, upscale hooker wear, whatever. It's not by force; the women who want to succeed will know what to do.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Power makes anybody respectable. Give the terrorist an air force and he becomes a nation-builder.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The burdens of "private" property: A case study

The neighbors have a private garage in an area of Philadelphia where parking is scarce, and visitors frequent. What a luxury! They never have to look for a spot like the rest of us.

Now if only they could find the owner of the vehicle who has blocked their driveway on any given day. They knock on doors and check the bakery. They fret over what to do. They are nice people -- they'd rather not tow -- but they have things to do.

My spouse searches for a spot after working all day, and sometimes all night. But she has 150 or so potential spots to work with, often with reasonable success -- occasionally not. It can be annoying, but look at the bright side: she can leave whenever she wants. Moreover, she did not pay a premium for this freedom, bundled as it might have been into the cost of her housing. Compared with the amount of time and energy our neighbors spend trying to "enforce" access to their garage, I expect my wife spends considerably less just by parking on the street. What a luxury!


It is often the case that when perceived community rights -- for example, sufficient parking -- are subordinated to private property rights -- the right of individuals to purchase exemption from collective problems -- the community ends up winning one way or the other. This is inevitable in my view: No matter how many signs my neighbors post, without a broader solution to the parking problem, there will always be somebody who needs to just "pop out for a second" to grab something in the Italian Market. You can say that is wrong, or illegal, or whatever; but in practice, that does not count for very much: people still need to park.

If individuals have rights, then all individuals have rights, not particular individuals. This is widely misconceived in our society, premised as it is on the inviolability of private property rights. The fact that words are written on paper to insulate one group of individuals from the plight of a majority of individuals has never in history proven very persuasive to the majority, which is why riot police are necessary to make the point. Human groups that work through problems by consensus don't normally devolve into violence -- which is why nobody attempts to tear gas Grandma over the Thanksgiving turkey, even if they don't eat meat.

My neighbors, being the least influential of the "propertied" class -- i.e., mere homeowners -- may enjoy the benefit of an odd zoning officer lending a sympathetic ear to their troubles. Yes, it is a shame people have no respect for the law, he will tell them. But because they have no clout -- neither in property nor in numbers -- they will have to deal with the problem themselves; he will say this in so many words, if not explicitly: Not all property is created equal.

This is just one mundane example, but I believe the principle can be extrapolated generally -- to health care or the environment, for example, and many others in which private property claims exist in conflict with perceived public needs.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Don't hate the player, hate the game

Business professionals must secretly love stories about "greedy executives," probably because the trend assigns culpability to individual, rather than "corporate," behavior.

Personally, I don't believe there is such a thing as a greedy executive. There are only "executives."

For example, nobody uses the term "corrupt mobster" because they understand what the mafia as an institution implies. Sadly, such "understanding" is too often precluded by a big enough salary, a claim to some reputation of importance, or the hope someday achieving these.

Having said all this, I nevertheless would like to point just how poorly old, white dudes fare on the more, how shall we say, "extreme" end of the executive continuum. Represent.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Worship by Southern Protestants and other evangelicals could face increased oversight by federal regulators should an Obama administration commitment to reduce CO2 emissions be realized, a spokesperson for the US Chamber of Commerce told the Wall Street Journal today.

Many business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, oppose EPA regulation of CO2. "They're [EPA officials] willing to regulate everything from the industrial sector to warehouses, offices, schools and churches," says William Kovacs, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Congress vetoes Christmas; New rules deprive youngsters of their favorite lead-based toys

With the economy reeling, many Americans have scaled back their expectations this holiday season. But even the most modest consumers are making some allowance for the happiness of their children, particularly around Christmastime.

"My kids love Christmas," remarked Cassandra Wilson of Chicago, Illinois: "They can't get enough of it."

Getting enough of Christmas may prove difficult for some of America's smallest consumers this year, thanks to a controversial new ban on the sale of lead-based products in the US. Many retailers and manufacturers are lobbying to relax enforcement of the "Scrooge Act," which they say will dampen the enthusiasm of America's youth at a time of national crisis.

"The last thing you want to do in the middle of an economic downturn is tell kids that Santa Claus is being held hostage by communists," said Philip Blowery, president of the US Chamber of Commerce. "Hell, when I was kid, my brothers and I -- we practically ate lead toys for breakfast. After all, what's childhood without the smell of an action figure being cooked over an open flame? It's a sham, that's what."

Marlene Sparks of the National Association of Manufacturers agrees. "Look, nobody is telling the little tykes: you have to purchase toys with lead in them. All we are saying is, we have a large inventory of lead and non-lead based products, and the government shouldn't be making this choice for you."
Taylor was bipartisan

For liberals, a cautionary tale of science in the service of power. For conservatives, more proof their college-educated betters have the wrong "values."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Death with dishonor

Lest we think the Republican Party has been routed by Barack Obama's small donor fund-raising coup without taking the appropriate lesson: They are suing to overturn the ban on large donor contributions.

It is fair to say that the purpose of pursuing power is to eliminate competition, not to create it.

This is why when I hear George W. Bush defend "free-market enterprise" I can only conclude he likes these words so much that he has appropriated them to describe his economic philosophy, characterized as it is by government advocacy for his own concerns.

I imagine that when Hu Jintao does the same in China, he calls it "socialism."

So it is that the citizens who speak loudest become the voice of the nation. Everybody else can either fall in line or be baptised anti-American; "Americanism" is whatever the powerful have endorsed.

Without a committed examination of either power or class, Americans are often vulnerable to importing their priorities, prejudices and fears from those who "speak loudest" domestically. This leads to strange preoccupations among working people about topics as irrelevant to their daily existence as whether China will someday pose a challenge to US global supremacy. This cannot by any stretch of the imagination be the natural concern of an auto-worker or retail clerk who does not know if they will have a job tomorrow. These are concerns that arise solely within the ranks of a foreign policy apparatus whose mandate is to guarantee markets and resources for American investors abroad. The fact that they even enter into anybody else's head owes to the near-monopoly control that corporate ownership places over information in the United States. "If this is what the prominent figures of public life are concerned about, then it must be important" -- this is the effect that such power centralization produces in any society. One can hardly imagine it being very different for citizens in the former Soviet Union.

The concerns adopted by the average person which find their origins among elite constituencies span so many areas of human life that they deserve examination on a case-by-case basis. But just to illustrate the scope of the problem: consider the defining characteristics of female beauty in the United States, a wealthy society, versus those existing in poorer societies. In the United States, the prevailing "standard" of female beauty often approaches something not unlike malnourishment. But since this is what appeals to wealthy men, it is a standard which has a certain to "appeal" to us all: it puts us in closer proximity to rich men. On the other hand, in nations where food is scarce, a different preference among the affluent may be observed.

To come directly to my point, most of what we have come to accept as the elemental conflict when it comes to electoral politics is really just an imported feud between groups who presume the right to run the country on behalf of everyone else. The is summed up very well by the whole sordid "red state," "blue state" construct. First, let's recognize it for what it is: a carving up of the nation in the image of elite differences, as embodied by the Democratic and Republican parties. Either you are committed to "victory," or you feel the "true war" is in Pakistan -- not Iraq. Either you want to keep corporate taxes low, or you want to bribe specific corporations to keep jobs in the United States. You want the energy industry to "drill, baby, drill" or you want to pay the energy industry to not merely "drill, baby, drill" but also pursue a longer-term conversion to alternatives, which they will enjoy similar monopolization over. As Ralph Nader recently suggested on Real Time with Bill Maher, what wins is war, nativism, pollution, monopoly; what loses is public health, plurality, peace and democracy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


All of this has left us in a precarious place. With the Obama win, the technical experts will resume the roles they have traditionally held in the American executive branch since WWII, just as they occupy the executive positions of most contemporary US institutions. Under conditions of popular democracy, such expertise could be put in the service of addressing popular concerns: How do we make health care efficient and universal? How do we make schools safe and productive? How do we retool our energy infrastructure over the long-term to produce energy, not poison? How do we produce the things we need without becoming slaves to the process of producing things? How do we reasonably integrate raising children into the work/life balance? How do we take the deteriorating conditions of our communities, on the one hand, and the thousands of people without reliable work, on the other, and sensibly put the two together to create a common solution? How do we stop putting vast amounts of our national wealth into war projects that empirically make us less safe?

We do not live, day to day, under conditions of popular democracy; we live under the conditions set for us by the investor and managerial classes, whose legally sanctioned object is to do what is best for themselves, regardless of what it does for anybody else. What it does for others is incidental. The "economy" is the name they give to themselves. When the economy is doing well, it does not mean you have a job; it means profit and market share have grown for investors, bonuses have increased for executives. Sometimes this happens by depriving you of work, sometimes not; either way, you are not in charge. The experts who monopolize wealth -- they are in charge. They offer you a dream, an American dream: one day you will be like them, giving orders, doing to others what has been done to you for so long.

Even when we elect a man -- so far, a man -- to the nation's "highest office" who is modestly committed to social justice, he is constrained by the economic straitjacket of private monopoly control. Any public project which takes from investors their daily bread, or from managers their just reward or total autonomy, without their consent, is an attack on the rights of the "individual" -- which is to say, that minority of individuals who have assumed the right to infringe on most basic requirements of all others. Insofar as this class owns the newspapers, the cable news networks, and employs the radio personalities, analysts, and entertainers; their grievances will clamor louder than every empty stomach in America. They will make the unreasonableness of a "populist" president the headline of every printed page in the republic.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


The technocratic manager, being the face of economic monopoly, is a useful target for those who aspire to administrate on behalf of that monopoly. Even the most undereducated American understands that government does not represent his or her interests, and subsequently is receptive to explanations which explain why this is so. Of course, nobody interested in attaining power over others is going to attack the principle of monopoly on which their bid for "leadership" is premised: the problem, therefore, is not how power is distributed, but instead the "quality" of whatever minority wields it.

George Bush enjoyed eight years in office because the Republican Party successfully advanced the argument that the technical administrators of the nation -- the media elites, the academic community, the leaders in government and in the corporate class -- suffered from an affliction of "liberal values" which, by definition, compromises one's moral legitimacy. These people may be well-educated and knowledgeable, but they lack the kind of basic decency that can be found most of the American electorate; so the solution is to elect leaders who are more "like" the average person -- someone like George Bush, for example; and now, Sarah Palin.

Conversely, much of the reason why Barack Obama won this time around owes to the fact that the Democrats had eight years of anti-intellectualism on which to anchor the reintroduction of the technocratic ideal -- that "having smart people run things isn't such a bad idea, after all." In ways that mirror the right-wing attack on "liberalism," liberals predictably attacked the Sarah Palin crowd as intrinsically deficient by the measure of liberal standards; and this time around, the argument proved persuasive -- namely after Bush's two-term catastrophe.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

We have seen before the dangers that lie ahead

The defeat of John McCain represents for many a triumph of educated secularism over the malign forces of parochialism and superstition. We are living in 21st century America, after all, not medieval Europe; and though most of us are not uncomfortable with some conception of god, at the very least let us use the fruits of human endeavor -- like science and reasoning -- to address our problems. Faith is fine in its place, and that is not the White House. Get some smart folks in there who've kept up on world affairs since the Bible and we are good to go. This characterizes a perspective which has held a number of disparate groups in alliance against a Republican victory this year.

It's a manifest tragedy that recent US history has only served to confirm this view. These are not lessons that should need revisiting, having been championed rather handily by the Enlightenment, and later weaved into the fabric of the American system, or so the story goes. But the Enlightenment went much further than merely advocating for rule by scholars or specialists -- in other words, by technocrats. It advocated rule by the subjects themselves. In other words, not "rule," but self-governance.

I'm fond of the idea that every victory poses a new set of problems, and this has informed much of my reaction to the defeat of superstition by technocracy. Technocracy is, frankly, a very dangerous thing. Because while knowledge and expertise may always trump ignorance and naiveté, power trumps them all. Remember that the Vietnam War was conceived and executed by the "best and the brightest": Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara hailed from the best universities and the biggest corporations. If this is meant to be what we are returning to, it should not be regarded with anything less than apprehension.

Rule by the educated and experienced, though different in form, is not itself a solution to rule by the idiot. The problem is "rule," not the personal quality of rulers. History knows no dearth of "exceptional" leaders who ground the powerless into a fine pulp when the occasion asked of it. This is why it is important to challenge the premise on which every "rulership" resides. It is quite often illegitimate in relation to the people it affects.

Perhaps a real life example can capture the concern best. A large portion of our time is taken up by submitting to the whims of one or another moron in order that we might afford the food we eat and the roof we keep. The process can take eight or more hours of the day; only if we are lucky do we find some modicum of satisfaction in the exchange. Mostly it is a time-consuming burden which almost invariably steals from our lives the chance to do what we would prefer to be doing, had we any choice in the matter. Thus we play the lottery, or smoke weed in the parking lot, or go so mind-bogglingly into debt that in several decades we may profit monetarily from the whole fucked-up situation that we refer affectionately to as a "career." Whatever the case, we are subjected to one or another variety of abuse, usually in the form of a superior who exercises authority over us, sometimes legitimately, but with little to no recourse in the event that they do not. We are told in response that we have the "freedom" to go elsewhere.

Are these social arrangements -- which nearly everyone dreams to escape, or at the very least aggressively solicits bribes to endure -- the result of GED aspirants chasing Jesus in executive suites? Or are they the rational product of an educated, secular class pursuing privilege and power for themselves? I submit that history has shown the phenomenon to be no safer when practiced in government than when utilized in the economy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day

Whenever you find yourself in mixed company, try not to draw too hard on the patriotism-pipe. Sure, it gets everybody high. But it can leave the uninitiated in a compromised state, more vulnerable to predatory suggestion.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Don't stand so close

It might be said of the Republican Party that one of the hazards of having too many resources while sporting an ideological straitjacket is that you're never really required to face the music if you don't want to.

As long as Barack Obama was the likely victor in the race for the presidency, the conservative intelligentsia was happy to anoint him the second-coming of Karl Marx. But now that he has won office, they have quickly reversed course and claimed a victory for Reaganism, which Obama's optimism and tax-cuttery -- "for just about everyone" -- allegedly invokes.

It would seem everybody wants a piece of Barack Obama these days. This is not unusual for a public figure with such widespread appeal -- if the KKK could only book him as keynote speaker for their annual white pride parade! But one wonders how long the honeymoon will last, and with which suitors. From this writer's perspective, it would only take a few steps towards easier unionization for the whole of corporate America (and their Republocrat allies) to launch what one observer has called "political World War III." Karl Marx may get his Republican due yet again.
The feel good fool of the year

Tom Friedman informs us:

America is surely the only nation that could — in the same decade — go to war against a president named Hussein (Saddam of Iraq)...and then elect its own president who’s middle-named Hussein.

Is this a great country or what?
America is surely the only nation that could -- in the same decade -- launch a cold war against a dictator named Joseph (Stalin of the USSR), and then elect a senator named Joseph (McCarthy of Wisconsin). What's more is that both received their Christian forename at birth!

Is this a great country or what?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Hot investment opportunities for 2009

People always see me reading the business rags and then ask where the smart money goes from here. Here is my advice: Invest in the kind of person you want to become, because, in the end, everything else is funny money. Nobody likes hearing this.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

US says Taliban endangers civilians

The US military has accused Taliban insurgents of endangering civilians by operating in populated areas where airstrikes lack precision targeting. The official statement came after a wedding party was bombed in Afghanistan on Thursday.

The US account -- in this case, that the Taliban prevented civilians from escape -- deserves scrutiny for several reasons. The first is the fact that the military offered no argument or evidence to support it, and was short on details generally. This is not unusual in and of itself; but, then, neither is the time-honored practice of "making shit up" to deflect responsibility to an enemy in the event of war crimes -- like when you bomb villages in order to "get your man." It's worth noting that the US has done a lot of this lately, killing scores of civilians, though rarely offering commentary except in high-profile cases like the above; or in response to cumulative popular outrage among Afghanis via the Karzai government.

The second is the disparate accounts coming out of Afghanistan from civilian witnesses and others, who have not ascribed to the Taliban a definitive role in the casualties. The bomb crater, on the other hand, is relatively straightforward as material evidence; it is not a mystery to the victims where it came from.

As a general observation, it is the nature of guerrilla warfare that insurgents "immerse" themselves in civilian populations. This is well understood by anyone in the US command. To the extent that the US military attacks the Taliban with bombs, they are communicating either an inability or an unwillingness to pursue the Taliban in ways which would minimize civilian casualties: in other words, bombs aren't the way to go if people matter. (Personally, I would extrapolate the argument to say that war is not the way to go if innocent people matter, especially when other options exist. And that is because whatever it is that war may not accomplish -- quite a lot, normally -- it will readily make up for in widespread suffering among non-combatants.) Clearly, the military has a mission to pursue al-Qaeda and the Taliban; it's also become apparent that they have few ways to do this outside of air power at the present time. Presumably this is why president-elect Obama favors redeploying ground troops to Afghanistan: but this will only reduce civilian casualties at best.

A better option would be to abandon a military approach to Afghanistan altogether. It is not a region with a history of submitting to foreign power; it is better to draw the Taliban into some kind of political compromise rather than postpone that inevitability in a vain attempt to defeat them militarily. A military victory is unlikely, and what will be produced in the meantime is more civilian deaths and a heightened hatred of America.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Cashing in on Joe the Baptist

To get anywhere in the international relations biz, it's helpful to know the basics.

First, when the United States pushes to create an expansive missile infrastructure on another continent, it does so in defense of its "strategic interests," by definition.

Second, when an affected country like Russia announces the internal redeployment of its own arsenal should the US project go through, this constitutes an unbearable provocation aimed squarely at the new president -- thus fulfilling the Joe Biden Prophecy, and so on and so forth.

Stick to this script and you can make a lot of money writing op-eds, dude.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


Dude, Madeleine Albright is going to hate this. What's the point of having a military if we don't use it?
The Bradley defect

Well, that was a waste of news coverage.

But not to let a bad thing die, now we hear of the "reverse Bradley effect" in which voters don't admit to voting for candidates they don't like -- or something. Personally, any social theory premised on the notion that Americans would be bashful about airing "controversial" opinions to anonymous data collectors ignores a rather compelling body of evidence pointing to the contrary. Have these people never watched Jerry Springer?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama is not the poor

Barack Obama's electoral victory is hugely important on a symbolic level, and symbols matter, especially for the most vulnerable among us, who are routinely deprived even the most non-material of comforts. The significance of someone who 200 years ago would have been legally regarded as sub-human, the private property of another, now "running the country" surely cannot be overstated. The evidence for this is that the occasion has moved the world.

However, Barack Obama is one person, and symbols do not fill children's stomachs or keep them healthy, or give their parents the material means to raise them. Part of Obama's appeal has been his explicit commitment to address these kinds of issues, and it is reasonable to take him his at his word that he will try. But there is no guarantee that any of this will transpire; it will depend entirely on the level of public support for concrete policies aimed at confronting these issues.

This is very different from pledging allegiance to Obama as a politician, because politicians can and will be compromised. Wall Street, the defense and reconstruction firms, pharmaceutical companies, the energy industry -- these profit-driven concerns have all lobbied the Democratic Party intensely in the lead up to this election, and in many cases have openly embraced Obama as a competent and potentially malleable manager. It is not an exaggeration to say that these businesses are in "the business" of interfacing with government in order to shape policy around their concerns; they have more money, more technical expertise and more general knowledge of how "the system" works than most Americans -- a group that is likely to include Barack Obama himself.

Americans will able to advocate effectively on behalf of specific issues only if they remain loyal to specific issues, not to politicians or other individuals in power positions. To the extent that public officials support the things we care about, they deserve support; in the event they fall short, they deserve to be called on it. Politicians invariably shift their attention to whatever issues clamor loudest; rest assured, the profiteer is always clamoring, even if you, your friends, and your community are not. Anybody interested in "change" will have to identify the central institutions which thrive on established practice and attack them in ways that both expose and undermine their role in society. This usually means making a commitment to popular organizations which are designed for this purpose. Barack Obama's role should be viewed as marginal compared to our own; we control our own actions, not his; and even if he was not here we should be committing to the same things.
Is America post-nonsense?

Any society which logs hundreds of hours asking itself whether it has issues with a particular topic probably has some very serious issues with that topic.
Adding insult to comedy

If Al Franken unseats incumbent Republican Norm Coleman in the Minnesota Senate race, it will be the funniest part he has ever played.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The shit: One day closer to hitting the fan

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Don't quit your bidet job

Companies are grappling with a new kind of systemic risk according to the Wall Street Journal: a younger generation of workers who aren't interested in climbing the corporate ladder.

A new study suggests Japanese firms have some of the least ambitious younger workers. These employees do not feel the added pay or "prestige" of promotion is worth the costs of working longer hours or juggling extra responsibilities.

This has nonplussed upper managers and labor consultancy groups, who rely on recruitment for the health of their firms. Some companies have even pursued legal grounds to fire employees who refuse advancement.