Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pumped Up Kicks

I'm super busy with class stuff this week, and while I'll be back on track posting tomorrow, I know I'm not going to get to something substantive today, so I'm giving you this amazing clip that Christopher Bird over at Mighty God King posted.  I've watched it like 18 times since last night and I can't stop.  Sorry about the start-of grad-school bobble, y'all...back to the grind tomorrow!

For comparison's sake, I often have trouble walking in a straight line.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

FLASH: The Founding Fathers Didn't Have the Internet and THAT'S OKAY.

I have been waiting to use this for actual years.
I've noticed an increase in an eternally irritating phenomenon in the past couple of years, and I'd like to try to inject some sanity into the situation.  I speak, of course, of the frequency of the phrase "the Constitution says X is bad/good" applied to issues that the Constitution has absolutely zero commentary on, or else don't have a clear stance.  This has got to stop, people.

That it needs to stop does not mean that I don't understand it, and I think understanding why people are so quick on the The Bible Says trigger is an important piece of the problem.  We're in a wholly new era in terms of information.  Not only are we awash in viewpoints, news and "news," but the Internet allows us to filter out the information in which we are uninterested.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it does allow us to disappear down the wormhole of theory.  There are endless refinements within political thought, and anyone could easily spend a lifetime arguing minutiae within a particular side or alignment.  For instance, my friend Aaron is an enthusiastic and active libertarian who is supporting Gary Johnson for President.  On a regular basis, he winds up in arguments with folks who are supporting Ron Paul; in fact, much of my knowledge about both of these libertarians is spun off of these exchanges.  Within these arguments, there's plenty of simple camp-to-camp bickering, but there are also discussions of how libertarians should stand on various issues and legislation.  All of this is within the confines of libertarianism, so this debate - which is in no way close to running out of steam - is moving on without even touching other political ideologies.  The same arguments go on among my liberal friends and I, and I'm sure among my more active Republican friends as well. This is, to say the least, disconcerting.  Once you figure out what kind of liberal you are, how do you acknowledge valid points in conservatism or actualize the ideology you've worked out?  When will this freaking project end?

I think once you realize this, it's pretty easy to feel like you're drowning in options.  Obama's campaign and election - regardless of how you feel about the outcome - galvanized this country.  People who had never even thought twice about politics started paying attention and started forming opinions.  This is awesome!  Except that it did exacerbate the embarrassment of opinions situation.  So now you have lots of people, all of whom have spent various amounts of time thinking about politics, all engaging in public debate.  In the midst of all this, people want to find a way that elevates their stance or gives them some kind of solid edge.  Recently, the go-to tactic has been to say that the Founding Fathers espoused your position.

Look, it's really easy to cherry-pick pretty much everything written by the Founding Fathers, and to find other people supporting your interpretation.  I've been studying politics for a long time and I can tell you that at this point I can make the Founding Fathers say whatever the hell I want them to, because the great thing about the American government is that it came out of a public discussion.  This is not, of course, to say that everyone was invited to said discussion, but it does mean that we have a great body of work that includes patriots on either side of the debate, Federalist, Anti-Federalist, and even some ideas that don't fit entirely into either camp.  I see your James Madison and raise you Patrick Henry, and so on and so forth.  The problem is that these arguments were not made for sound-byting, they were made for debate, and this means that context matters.  You don't get to be all "so and so said this once so I win" when they said something a lot more nuanced and grey than the point you're making.  That's not fair to you nor to the Father in question.

Moreover, I think we'll all be better off if we accept that there were some things the Founders simply didn't know and did not have test cases for.  We live in an amazingly fast, connected, plentiful time, and many of the checks and considerations that the Founders put in place were simply not built for this era.  Now, that doesn't make their framework irrelevant or useless, it just means that we need to think seriously about what the larger ethic they were trying to codify was and translate it to what we are working with now.  The staggering population growth we've experienced between 1787 and the present matters too.  The Constitution was built in part by examining what had and hadn't worked in other nations and societies up to that time, all of which were on a smaller scale than their modern day manifestations or the current American population.  This is the same reason that socialism brings huge benefits to Scandanavian countries even though their sociopolitical models would be extremely difficult - if it was possible at all - to apply to America.  Politics of the 1700s and before were considered in the context of the time, and there were many fewer people to rule, no matter how you were doing it.

I think it's fantastic that there's such a fight to get the Founding Fathers on our various teams, because it means we still care about what they said and the country they built.  We should still care about that.  But the thing is, the Founding Fathers were on all of our teams...they were working to build a more perfect union (more perfect, not infallible) for all of us, not one side of the aisle or the other.  If we understand them in this way, it will allow us to have a much more robust and productive conversation about how to move their work forward, to the benefit of us all.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Perspective and Conversation

I am prone to flying off the handle and producing some towering rants on the matter of political sheistiness, usually that coming from the right because frankly I think they are wrong about the way we should be governed, but the left doesn't get all the way off the hook either.  However, I always make a conscious effort to calm down in reasonably short order, and it's because of statements like this little nugget from Rep. John Fleming (LA):

‎"By the time I feed my family, I have maybe $400,000 left over."

On its face, this looks like a supercrappy "let them eat cake" type statement, as Dr. Bill pointed out on Facebook.  However, Dr. Bill offered this observation in reaction to my commentary, that being that this may not be said so much out of cold-heartedness as of ignorance, much as Marie Antoinette's famous line likely was (if she said it at all, over which there is some debate).    For the sake of discussion, let's look at the whole exchange, which is available in video here.

Chris Jansing: With all due respect, Congressman, the Wall Street Journal estimated that your businesses,  which I believe are Subway sandwich shops and UPS stores - very successful - brought you last year over 6 million dollars.

Congressman Fleming: Yeah, that's before you pay 500 employees, you pay rent, you pay equipment, buy food...the actual net income of that was actually only a mere fraction of that amount."

Jansing: So you're saying that if you have to pay more in taxes you would get rid of some of those employees?  These are not as successful business as one would want to indicate?

Fleming: I would say that since my net income - and again that's the individual rate that I told you about - the amount that I have to reinvest in my business and feed my family is more like $600k of that 6.3 million, so by the time I feed my family I have maybe $400,000 left over to invest in new locations, upgrade my locations, buy more equipment and all of that.

Jansing: You do understand, Congressman, that the average person out there making 40, 50, 60 thousand a year, when they hear that you only have $400,000 left's not exactly a sympathetic position.

Fleming: Well again, class warfare has never created a job, and that's people that will not get jobs.  This is all about creating jobs Chris, this is not about attacking people who make certain incomes. You know, in this country most people feel that being successful in their businesses is a virtue, not a vice.

Boy, lots to unpack here.  

So first of all, the reason that comments like this prompt me to calm down when I'm angry is that I'm pretty sure Fleming is speaking here out of ignorance rather than any kind of mean-spiritedness.  I'm guessing that he thinks $400,000 is obviously a meagre amount, and does not question his decision to bring this up.  Here are the principal problems with his statements.

  • By his own math, Fleming is taking about $200,000 to feed and support his family.  About 30% of Americans live below the lowest tax bracket, which kicks in around $20,000.  Fleming is opting to take about ten times what a significant proportion of the US population must live on to support his family.  I don't begrudge him that, but I do think he should avoid acting like he's scraping by.  $200,000 is certainly making good money; his family does not need to worry about where their next meal is coming from or about keeping the lights and heat on.  He is a successful businessman.
  • Having $400,000 to reinvest in your business may not be the same as being awash in millions that will allow you to buy your own private army to solidify your market dominance, but it's not doing terribly, either.  What he's actually saying in this exchange is not that he only makes $400,000 a year but that he has that amount to reinvest in his businesses.  If he's routinely getting that amount out of his businesses, he is doing fairly well and is able to sustain his existing franchises and consider expansion.  
  • Lest we forget, his businesses did bring in $6 million.  We can deduce that these businesses would net him a fair amount - maybe not $6 million, but a good solid chunk of change - if he was to sell them.  Not all wealth is completely liquid or completely cash.  These businesses, particularly in their current state as stable enterprises in the black, are assets for Congressman Fleming, even if he cannot go out tomorrow and buy a Lambo with Subway sandwiches.  He is doing fine.
The thing that's most galling to me about this, though, is his closing statements.  In them, he suggests that tax reform is about penalizing certain incomes, and that it views success as a vice.  This is not the case.  What he seems to fail to grasp is that having a business does not entitle you to some exemption from tax liability.  Not every business does - or should - succeed, and not every business should - or does - make massive profits.  You do not gain a higher moral, social or political status by being daring enough to start a business, nor by creating a successful one.  What people calling for tax reform - particularly for taxing the rich - want is for everyone to pay their fair share, whether they own the business or are employed by it.  It is that simple, and I hope that Fleming and his ilk can understand it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

No. YOU Move.

America has made a lot of promises in its time on this earth.  A lot of them are good.  We drew a line and said "we are all due life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  I've talked before about how much I love that we are promised the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself.  It's better that way, because that way you never stop imagining happiness and chasing after it.  That way, happiness changes, and you can find it anywhere - ahead of you, behind you, in your loving arms - and know you can continue seeking new happiness out every day.

One of the challenges, though, of being American and of being given these rights, is that you need to worry about those three things in equal measure.  I love this Captain America frame because it highlights something important to the preservation of our republic: taking public, vocal stands.  There is literally no way for us to all agree, and we certainly can't do it by assuming everyone understands our reasoning and our positions.  We have to continually discuss and consider the problems we face as a nation, not only to resolve them, but to interact with each other as citizens and to hold our government accountable.
"Doesn't matter what the press says, doesn't matter what the politicians or the mobs say, doesn't matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.  This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences.  When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world -- "no, YOU move."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years Later, and Ahead By A Century

With illusions of someday casting a golden light,
No dress rehearsal, this is our life.
That's when the hornet stung me and I had a feverish dream;
With revenge and doubt tonight we smoke them out...
The Tragically Hip, "Ahead By A Century"

I've written about September 11th so many times.  Nothing I've produced, no matter how graceful in its simplicity or florid of language, can top Sarah Bunting's piece For Thou Art With Us.  

I'm 28 now.  I'm a graduate student, far from politics.  I'm far away from DC, where my friends comment on my energy when I return.  When I was 18 I didn't know anything, but I thought I knew it all.  I still don't know it all, but now I'm aware of it.  I regret that it wasn't simply the brilliance of Aristotle that made me understand how little I knew.  It's a little bit like learning that the stove is hot; someone can tell you it's hot, but you'll remember it forever once the shiny, tight burns have healed and only the scars remain, fading through time as you grow older and wiser.  September 11th was what taught me how little I knew and how little I would be able to know before I shuffled off this mortal coil.  There are people and there are acts that I will never understand. 

In America, we are deeply attached to our sense of fairness.  Even though we know life isn't fair, we appeal to it so frequently.  We're driven to mention it even as we acknowledge that fairness isn't the point.  There is very little that is less fair than what happened on September 11th.  People were simply going to work, on a beautiful day, when our world changed.  Over the course of the past ten years I have had nightmares about being at work - at jobs nowhere near Washington or New York or Pennsylvania, jobs that have nothing to do with what I was doing in 2001 - and being engulfed in flames, struck by what sounds like monsters but I know are aircraft, watching my friends burn by my side.  The worst part is that I don't wake up screaming or crying.  I sleep through these dreams, waking up exhausted and paranoid.  I don't claim to know what every American feels, but I think some variation of this is what has been happening to everyone over the past ten years.  This immense, sudden, violent unfairness has haunted us, because it removed our ability to ever again appeal to fairness or to pretend we are in some what guaranteed it by virtue of our government and our society.  Nothing is the same, but everything looks like it is.

This all-consuming fear that chases us into our dreams and into the dark corners and bright daylight of our lives is not to be minimized.  However, giving into it is to give it power, and to turn our fear into legitimate concern.  In the past ten years, we have abandoned so many civil rights in the name of safety.  We have abandoned so much of the fabric of America for the sake of protecting against what might happen.  We have continued two wars, one of which was invalid from the start and the other of which will never be won in any meaningful sense beyond what was accomplished a few short months ago with the death of Osama bin Laden.  We must celebrate this dark anniversary with a revival of our courage.  This is no small task.

It takes courage to reject intrusive searches and accept risk back into our lives.

It takes courage to stand up to a police state and risk bodily harm.

It takes courage to fight against those who would take our rights for their own gain.

It takes courage and it takes strength to reverse these ten years of fearful relinquishment of what makes us who we are.  I am afraid.  I know many others are.  I know many of us feel like we cannot possibly fight the forces who have risen to power while we were hiding under the blankets and wishing for a new day - those of immense power and of immense fortune, who seem to control every aspect of our lives.  But my friends - my fellow Americans - we have to try.  We have to try, and we have to be brave.  We have to be involved not just with national politics but with our communities.  We have to reach down to those of us most bereft of power and hope and help them up, so that they too can join us and so that we all can emerge free from this crushing fear.  We have to offer up the best of our communities as candidates - business people and parents and the unemployed and the students - the people who want to fight for us, and to return us to our best selves.

The people who have perpetuated this fearful existence seem bigger than life.  Some of them have weapons, some of them have militaries.  Some of them employ us, hold sway over our mortgages and leases and bank accounts.  But they, too, are people.  Despite their greatest hopes, we still have the power of our Constitution...and we still have the power of numbers.  We, too, sing America - and we must, ever more so on this day, ten years after the world fell in.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chess and Politics, or Why I'm Not Watching These Stupid Debates

I've been trying to learn chess.  A close friend with whom I share a competitive streak is an enthusiastic chess player, and this made me decide that I would learn chess secretly, then finally challenge him to a game and annihilate him, emerging as Queen of the Chess People and probably going on to international fame and fortune.

You will be shocked to find out that this did not go quite to plan.

Our first game didn't go catastrophically considering my super-beginner starting point, but needless to say I lost more or less immediately and have continued to do so both online and in person, and a week or so ago, he informed me he'd just won his 1500th game on a particular app.  He'd probably want me to also point out that he has lots of losses, too (he is trying to sell me on the Losing is Part of the Process concept, which is true but also infuriating), but the guy's win percentage is 0.648 and 1500 wins is impressive so really, who cares about his losing?  My online loss percentage is 0.777 and even that's ridiculous and actually more like 0.977 because most of the "wins" in my stats are timeouts from opponents - I've won one game fair and square.  Queen of the Chess People indeed.

Anyway, this whole chess business is a challenge because while I learned some basic stuff about movement and object when I was younger, I know next to nothing about tactics and actual strategy and I have been learning slowly.  One of the most helpful things this friend has gotten me into the habit of doing is to look at the opponent's move and figure out what they're up to first, before deciding what to do.  This has not yet brought me to a place where I always make the right move as a result, but at least the thought process is the correct one.  Sometimes when you look at the move, you see that you must deal with the resulting position immediately, and sometimes you look at it and see that you have a little bit of time.  I have developed a bad habit of talking to myself when I'm playing online, and I often respond to moves that allow time with "...but so what?"

That's kind of how I feel about a lot of polling and particularly about the GOP debates going on these days.  "...But so what?"  There is so much ink being spilled over the various debates and who said what and all this stuff, and I think we probably should be talking about the content of what the candidates are saying, but there's a whole other layer of bullshit over the top of this that drives me right up the wall, and that layer is comprised of polls and commentary.  There is so much focus on how these people would fare against Obama, and let's start is still 2011.  The election is in November of 2012.  There is absolutely no telling what could happen in the interim - there could be more natural disasters, there could be another financial meltdown, the Euro could collapse, etc.  - and any major event could dramatically change Obama and any opponent's chances.  Moreover, not a single GOP candidate has any kind of solid platform that the public is clear on at this point.  While they all have positions and such, the debates thus far have basically been extended Two Minute Hates on Obama and his various policies (and I'll leave it to you to decide what other groups have received some of said Hate), and little has been articulated about how they would do otherwise.  It's a beauty contest at this point, so of course people are going to rank GOP candidates higher than Obama - Obama has an actual Presidential track record, and these people are speaking in glittering generalities.  So I don't care about how [Insert Candidate Here] is polling against Obama, because it is September of 2011 and they haven't even articulated positions yet.

Beyond that complaint, I feel like we need serious discussion about where this country is and will be, and the coverage of these debates along with the incessant polling and bullshit is making that impossible.  I've been down in the trenches, and I've been That Campaign Worker and That Staffer who knew all the numbers all the time.  I know how easy it is to get sucked into that and to continually fidget with poll data without prejudice - "well, the poll says." "Yeah but it's about how people with pets vote on Wednesdays in June."  "Yeah but it says."- but it really is distracting and foolish. Focusing on polls and pole position and all of this stuff makes the debates and the campaign at large about the election qua the election, not about the Presidency or Congress that will follow nor about need to select the best possible candidate on the basis of policy proposals.  It turns into a story about one freaking day and it's this kind of thinking that has given us the shallow, ignorant politics that currently has most of the country infuriated.

This brings me back to chess.  I've been reading commentary on last night's debate, and at a certain point I just sat back and thought "...but so what?"  None of this matters, really.  Last night was basically Mitt Romney and Rick Perry swapping jabs that were based on comparisons to liberals years out of public office.  I mean seriously...Al Gore Internet jokes?  Michael Dukakis slams?  Is it late night TV in 1988?  Oh and lots of "Obama is a poophead" level stuff, which...we know, okay?  You don't like Obama.  Noted.  Fine.  How about specific reasons for that?  No?  You'd rather stick with "[that policy I don't like] is bad."  Get the hell out of here.  This is a time for serious people willing to engage in serious debate with all Americans (and I direct this at Obama as well, whose communication with the American people has been massively problematic), not for juvenile sniping.  So although I know I'm many people's "Political Friend" representative, I'm not watching this stuff, because I don't have to deal with the move right's just one big "...but so what?"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

WARNING: School Incoming!

This semester's Murderer's Row:

  • Development of American Constitutional Law  This class was taught in a early-90s high school looking room this morning; it was a little trippy.  However, the professor is a new one named David Glick and all early indications are that he is awesome, starting with his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Astrophysics.  Yes really.
  • Approaches to the Study of International Relations  I'm currently planning to make IR my sub-field (Political Theory is the major field; American Politics the minor field), so I'm taking this core to prepare.
  • Freedom  How can you go wrong with a name like "Freedom"?  Taught by my favorite professor - Dr. Judith Swanson - and full of Hayek, who I've been meaning to read more of.  Can't wait!  
  • Quantitative Research Methods  This is not going to go well.  I was going to take this last semester put it off because I basically managed to pick the four hardest classes in the program for the same semester.  Thus I have read two syllabi for this course from two different professors coming from two different backgrounds that say, essentially, "this is useless for Political Theory people."  Obviously, more knowledge isn't a bad thing, and I probably SHOULD learn this, but since I'm almost certainly going to struggle, I'm a little resentful.
This is my last year of classes in my Ph.D program.  It seemed to go by so quickly, and in many senses it did; but on the other hand, I can practically feel my brain trying to make space for more smart up there.  My program isn't perfect, but it's been a wonderful environment for me to argue and talk with so many people like and unlike me.  While I am not as close to my classmates as I might wish, thanks to the commuting, I was thrilled to feel genuine joy throughout today as I saw my friends - Erin, of course, without whom I would be entirely lost, and who inspires me with her great attitude and ridiculously fantastic smile, but also seeing Tai Yi and Fatima and Doug and everyone else made me so excited to start a new year.  I'm really lucky.