Readings: The President We Deserve

Noreen Malone wrote an article for New York magazine called “Oh, And He Is Also Driving Some Liberals Crazy,” about Donald Trump. You can find it in the 3/7/16-3/20/16 issue. The main takeaway is that we all created and incubated Trump–this isn’t just on Fox News alone, nor the populist Tea Party. Colbert, as did we all, joked about Trump’s zero-percent chances of winning the primary, which made us all eager to tune in and see what he’d do or say next. (Think Bulworth.) But part of this was out of genuine delight in hearing actual honesty out of a politician–even if it was abhorrent. As Malone writes:

For the past 40 years, even as candidates have moved toward greater levels of narcissism and power-seeking, they’ve also moved toward greater precision in their narratives, in their sound bites, in their adherence to lawyerly correctness and deadly carefulness. A news cycle that hungrily fed on “gaffes” seemed to guarantee that only personality-free robots who made the fewest unforced errors would ever become the nominee.

That’s not entirely true, if you look at Bush triumphing over Gore, but it at least hints as to why Trump might have been entertaining–at first. But then Malone continues:

Trump’s directness, his ridiculousness, his often spot-on and fascinating cruelty–he’s the star of a premium-cable show about a billionaire-populist anti-hero running for president, one we loved until we realized it couldn’t be turned off. Now the question becomes: How do you feel when real life is adapted from television, rather than the reverse?

This is what terrifies us. As in Idiocracy, we’re on the verge of voting for a cult of personality, for dumb spectacle and brash, unsupportable ideas, as opposed to actual governance. We distrust intelligence, because the truth is that the majority of us are petty, not-smart people, and–as one person suggested as a justification of all the various negative -isms out there–when we realize our own shortcomings, we love to see that there’s at least one other person lower on the rung than we are. There’s a person on my Facebook feed (a friend of a friend, thankfully), who insists that Trump must be elected on account of a single political issue–Clinton and Sander’s apparent support of partial-birth abortions (which is less about the thing itself and more about the wording of the laws that have tried to stop it, and the slippery slope that comes of restricting choice). Nobody cares about next season–we’re living from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and there’s always an even worse Big Bad hiding in the wings, should we manage to dispatch Trump.

Before they were popularized in the media, vampires used to be traditionally dispatched by sunlight–the idea being that no evil could stand being exposed to the pure good of the day. True Blood let vampires skirt that with fairy magic, The Vampire Diaries created magical daylight rings, etc. Trump’s a political vampire being kept aloft by the magical thinking of monomaniacal supporters; expose his lies and weaknesses and he simply keeps moving. The only way to beat bad television is to stop watching, and yet the worst, lowest-denominator shows seem to keep being renewed. (Thanks, Chuck Lorre!)

Be prepared to welcome our first Television President into the White House. Why couldn’t it have been Jed (Bartlet)?

Readings: Obama Takes on Climate Change

This is an old piece from Jeff Goodell’s 10/8/15 piece in Rolling Stone, but worth reading for the following excerpt alone. The following is President Obama’s response to Goodell’s question about the pope’s statement that “greed and materialism are destroying the planet.” Look at how balanced Obama remains in his response!

If you look at human history, it is indisputable that market-based systems have produced more wealth than any other system in human history by a factor of–you choose the number. And that has been, net, a force for good.

Wait for it, wait for it.

What I do think is true is that mindless free-market ideologies that ignore the externalities that any capitalist system produces can cause massive problems. And it’s the job of government and societies to round the edges and to address big system failures. That, by the way, is not controversial among market economists.

The bold is my emphasis, but I love how he starts with the classic tactic of agreeing with the opposition before pointing out a negative extreme and working in his overall point and policy, before backing it up tactfully (and casually) with the reference to common sense among actual experts in the field. He continues, then, into the specifics:

Pollution has always been the classic market failure, where externalities are not captured and the system doesn’t deal with them, even though it’s having an effect on everybody.

Well, when you put it like that! He closes with a nice healthy dose of optimism (tied to actual historical precedent), one reason why so many idealistic people (like myself) voted for him in the first place.

I think the big way that we solve any big market failure is to have a broad-based conversation and to come to a collective agreement that this is something we’re going to take into account in our day-to-day doing business. And when we do that businesses will find ways to profit from it, jobs will be created. We’re already seeing that when it comes to the solar industry…. So I am optimistic about us being able to solve this problem. But it is going to require that our politics catches up with the facts. And right now, in this country, our politics is going through a particularly broken period. 

This, by the way, is why I can’t vote for most of the people running for office. If you can’t be this coherent in your arguments, this consistent, then you shouldn’t be President. We get nowhere by being self-serving and short-sighted.

Readings: “Worklife”

Adam Davidson’s article on “Cleaning Up” from the New York Times Magazine (2/28/16) is something that we should take very seriously this presidential cycle–a little bit of Trump’s so-called business sense, a little bit of Sanders’s idealistic equality, and so forth. The basic concept is reminder of how short-term business decisions, usually fueled by the stock market and a reliance on immediate returns, can depressingly spiral downward for everybody involved. Managed by Q, Dan Tehran’s cleaning-and-more company, on the other hand, has been modeling out the long-term benefits that come from paying workers better, to the point at which they can also serve as marketing representatives, helping to defray the larger costs of drumming up new business (when you’re inevitably replaced) and constantly retraining a new staff due to the turnover that comes from being depressingly stuck in place without an opportunity to grow.

That said, Q also profits from the other big moneymaker of this Disruptive Era–it serves as the middleman between offices and suppliers (of maintenance, IT, security, etc.), taking a small fee in exchange for essentially providing a speedy one-stop shop for all of an office’s needs. Then again, even if these fees are helping to prop up the higher wages for actual employees, isn’t that better? A company should be profitable, but how profitable does it really need to be, so long as it’s making money and growing? Happiness for customers and consumers should be the primary goal; money in the pockets of “investors” should be a secondary concern, especially if it’s at the expense of those who actually work at the company. Or put it this way:

If the company cut worker pay by $1 a week, the firm would instantly realize a profit of $52 million a year. Then image that the company cut wages $1 an hour. That would mean an additional profit of $2.1 billion. Maybe the chief executive would realize that cutting pay would inspire many to quit. But he could cut the working time in each office b, say, 10 percent, allowing Q to lay off–or not hire–100,000 workers worldwide.

There’s that slippery “less-is-more” slope to the hell that we’re currently in, where the comfortably rich still insist on squeezing the desperate poor, not really caring about the long game. (See also: the environment, the Ponzi scheme that is Social Security, etc.) I’ve worked for a consulting agency before, I’ve seen the way in which we’re encouraged to “improve efficiency,” which really boils down to “using less labor” and thereby “spending less,” regardless of how many untold benefits there are to having extra eyes, minds, and hearts dedicated to a project.

There’s a running theme to the remainder of the New York Times’s Work Issue, and that’s in creating a healthier, friendlier work environment–whether that’s in the places you have meetings or eat your food, or in the flexible scheduling that may have you working from home as needed. (The crucial bit is that the work gets done, right? So long as that’s happening, wouldn’t you rather that your employees be happy? And perhaps motivated, even, to do more?) Think of it as trying to start a fire: the more you pare down, with less tinder, a duller knife, the harder it is to spark something new. Don’t think, either, that just because the fire’s started, you can just re-task those engineers to something else, or “fire” them completely, because someone’s got to maintain it, improve it, watch it. So yeah, you’ve saved some money in the short term, but what will you do when you’ve ruined all of your tools and driven away all the people who once would’ve willingly contributed to that kindling?

There’s a better way–there has to be.

Readings: “President Trump, Seriously”

The following quotes are from Matt Taibbi’s article for the 2/24/16 issue of Rolling Stone. If you think these are good, check out the whole article.

There’s evidence that human polling undercounts Trump’s votes, as people support him in larger numbers when they don’t have to admit their leanings to a live human being. Like autoerotic asphyxiation, supporting Donald Trump is an activity many people prefer to enjoy in a private setting, like in a shower or a voting booth.

See also the reference to Cruz’s “absurd Swiss Army cliches,” or the way that he’s compared to “that escort who’ll be into whatever you want, for an hour.” Better yet:

[Neurology professor Dr. Richard Cytowic describes Cruz’s face with the] German term, backpfeifengesicht, literally “a face in need of a good punch.” This may be overstating things a little. Cruz certainly has an odd face–it looks like someone sewed pieces of a waterlogged Reagan mask together at gunpoint–but it’s his tone more than anything that gets you. He speaks slowly and loudly and in the most histrionic language possible, as if he’s certain you’re too stupid to grasp that he is for freedom.

The main takeaway from these larger-than-life buffoons is that we’re living in the world predicted by Idiocracy, albeit several decades earlier. We’ve turned politics into theater, thanks to the 24/7 stage provided by the media–or maybe it’s a bloodsport, or, given the short attention spans of the audience, the constant need to be dazzled, maybe it’s just a straight-up circus. In any case:

We let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.

And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He’s way better than average.

#OscarsSo Statistically Accurate, Unfortunately

I won’t for a moment suggest that there’s not a problem with the Academy being overwhelmingly white, or that it’s not a shame that for the second year in a row, there haven’t been any minority actors recognized in the twenty slots available to actors. But I will suggest, as Whoopi Goldberg does, that we ought to redirect our boycotts to where they rightly belong: on the studios that do not deign to fill their major dramatic pictures (or even their smaller indie flicks) with a more diverse and representative cast of actors. As Viola Davis said, while accepting her Emmy Award–and I’m paraphrasing slightly–you can’t win an award (much less be nominated) for roles that don’t exist. Given that the Oscars have no control over the quality or casting of the films that come out in a given year, it seems naive to blame them for not doing a better job recognizing minority actors. It’s that whole correlation/causation issue: yes, these results indicate the results of years of systemic racism (not only because the easiest way to become an Academy voter is to be nominated for one of its awards), but they don’t demonstrate that the Academy is to blame for the lack of nominees, even if you can name one or two subjective choices who just had to have been snubbed purely out of sinister spite.

Assuming that no legal bylaws about new inductees or the loss of membership rights existed and we could correct for the makeup of the Academy overnight to reflect, say, 2010 values (basically 63% white, 12% Black, 5% Asian, and 16% Hispanic or Latino), this means that to balance the existing 6,000 or so voters, 94% of whom are white, you’d need roughly 3,000 new members, all of whom are minorities. And because I doubt that you can name that many film-industry professionals who qualify, you’d have to expand the scope beyond those who are in Hollywood, at which point, what even are the Academy Awards celebrating? It’s meant to be an insular, self-congratulatory affair–we’re the ones who assign it a value by tuning in to the awards, as if they actually matter to anybody. (At least the Golden Globes are honest about how subjective and meaningless they really are.)

But let’s ignore that. Continue reading

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