Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The “Failure” of Democracy

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At my most cynical, I’ve been known to declare that the best form of government is an enlightened dictatorship. The only problem, of course, is the enlightenment. I say this having never lived under a dictatorship, nor can I easily point to a dictatorship that may be considered “enlightened.” I can think of a number of despots that had and implemented good ideas – indeed, far faster than the mechanisms of democracy can spin – but none that had truly unqualified benevolent rules.

I think of this as I read David Weigel’s implied repudiation of democracy‘s ability to solve the problems of the Rust Belt. Namely, he lauds Emergency Manager Louis Schimmel for his efforts in balancing the budgets of Pontiac, Michigan and similar formerly industrial towns. Schimmel uses terms like “right-sizing,” – a euphemism of a euphemism of a euphemism – is given carte blanche by the governor to break union contracts, and, well, ends up sounding like the consultant a major corporation hires to do all their layoffs for them.

Yes, laying off civic employees and cutting union contracts would be a very difficult thing for a democratically-elected representative to do, especially in a company town like Pontiac, Michigan. However, there should be no reason to force a mayor to do so, nor should there be a reason to hire a consultant to play axe-man.


Because it is not the job of individual townships – or even their county and state governments – to reverse the woes of the Rust Belt. That’s a national problem. The city of Buffalo and, indeed, all of upstate New York, has been dealing with a shrinking population and a consistently high unemployment rate. A streamlined Pontiac, Michigan, will not generate business investment because firing everybody doesn’t provide reason for businesses to invest there. There is nothing a township, democratic or otherwise, can do to reverse national trends, and the only reason they would cut services and jobs is due to immediate budgetary concerns – a problem far better served by federal subsidies than the execution block. Like jobs training programs, cutting local government doesn’t change the economy; it only changes who’s best placed to survive a bad situation: Each town is pitted against its neighbors; a grudge match for scraps. A zero-sum game.

As such, what happens under this policy is that northern Rust Belt cities are brought down to the same level of southern Right-To-Work cities, and as I’ve argued earlier, that is a net loss for the working man. In essence, as the body has no more fat to burn, it instead burns muscle. We have been forced to eat ourselves to survive, and while we can cut jobs and wages and pensions all we want, but not only is that not new demand, it’s actively working against generating new demand. To force this future on these townships by destroying their democratic institutions seems only to add insult to injury.

City planners in upstate New York have, similarly, been talking about “reducing housing stock” in order to raise the value of housing. This is, in my opinion, another ironic attempt by appointed “experts” at enforcing an “economy of scarcity” above all other considerations. In protecting the welfare of the public, it’s ghoulish. In terms of economic policy, it’s still bad: Will this generate new demand for construction jobs? No, because if the population was there, they probably couldn’t afford new housing. Few people can. So why do it? Who benefits? The top, of course – landowners, remaining business owners – and they were never friends of democracy.

If there’s to be an argument as to the failures of democracy, it should be situated at where the problem actually lies: The federal level. It should be a well-reasoned debate as to the fact that a democratic system set up with multi-layered protections against doing no ill can be hijacked by cynical operatives and held hostage against those wishing to do good, however incrementally. Abusing filibuster rules to hamstring Congress from its appointed task – even in the face of a crisis that threatens the country – is as perfectly legal as it is unethical, unconscionable and immoral.

However, even then, it is a policy debate, and to answer this problem by appointing an executive with sweeping unilateral powers is a perversion of the argument. In short, this Emergency Manager is yet another method used to make sure that the poor burden the most of the economic downturn; the rich are given yet another tool in their toolbox to destroy elements of our government and governance that they find inconvenient. They’ve already gotten municipalities – big and small – to give decades-long, endlessly renewed tax moratoriums of the largest industries at the cost of the public services the industries depend on. Why should we accept this current ploy – this destruction of democracy – with anything but adamant hostility?


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Sarah Schulman is somewhat nonplussed by the willingness of the gay and lesbian community – having newly earned their civil rights – to allow themselves to be co-opted by conservatives as a hammer by which to beat Muslims. Indeed, Israel is trying to fight its PR war against Palestine by pointing out that they are more tolerant of gays (conflating this to mean that the injustices they regularly inflict on Palestinians is glossed over by showing how socially liberal Israelis are, because liberals don’t do such things, et cetera) and Germany and the Netherlands found new allies in their fight against Muslim immigrant communities.

I’ve seen something like this before.

Back where I used to work in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, the building (or as they call it now, the “campus,” ever since the large school was closed) houses four schools. All of these schools are divided by racial lines. Three of them are Black/Latino – in that there are literally no white students – and the last one is an “international” school with mostly Asian/Middle Eastern first- and second-generation students.

The Black kids didn’t like the Chinese kids. The Chinese kids didn’t like the Black kids. We couldn’t house them in the same place at the same time. Even during regular schedules, there were altercations on a daily basis where the Chinese kids (cutting classes by wandering through the Black schools) would treat the Black kids like potential criminals, and the Black kids (cutting classes by wandering through the International school) would taunt the Chinese kids with “ching chong” jokes. Punches got thrown.

So the teachers got together and decided they would have to give these students a primer on racism (and yes, the all white teaching staff did note the irony and the awkwardness of having to teach Black students about racism) but here’s where it got interesting: When asked in Social Studies class about the subject, it turns out that a lot of the Black students more or less defined racism as “bad things that happen to Black people.” As such, what they were doing to the Chinese students was categorically not racist because Black people, being victims, are perennially incapable of racism.

And the Chinese students? While they acknowledged the difficulties they faced with difficulty of language barriers and social exclusion, they were taught that Black people were untrustworthy, and that was the end of that argument.

So it came as no surprise to me that some gays didn’t mind being used to further ostracize immigrant communities in Europe or that, for that matter, some Jews didn’t see anything wrong with treating people like second-class citizens in Israel due to their ethnicity and faith. As it turns out, there are a fair number of people of any background that view prejudice only within the frame of their background, no matter how much lip service they give to the greater good of universal civil rights and social justice.

Abstraction – empathy – is a hard thing to teach.

If David Weigel’s so smart, why isn’t he running the country?

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“If Bill Clinton’s so smart, why can’t he save the Democrats?” asks David Weigel on Slate, before he completely misinterprets Bill Clinton and the Democratic party. To wit,

[Bill Clinton] had an airport-hangar-sized room to win over, and he did—by talking about why health care reform needed to pass.


Ah, this is the stuff that Clinton really knows but doesn’t say. He just implies it. Massive progressive reform isn’t going to happen anymore.

But, even watered down, Obama’s health care bill was massive progressive reform and, clearly, it happened. Yeah, it competes with the original Social Security for modesty, but damn, it got passed. And while polls say people hate Obama’s bill by name, they also say they love the shit in the bill. Such is our national network news.

Clinton has been in the peanut gallery giving sage advice for years, it’s true. But let’s not kid ourselves: If there weren’t term limits, he’d have been president in 2001, not George Dubya. And while I hate the premise of Weigel’s article (why isn’t Bill Clinton Jesus? – it kinda reminds me of people thinking Obama was Jesus during the campaign), it’s an opinion piece. But even as an opinion piece, it can’t keep the rhetoric straight: Is Bill Clinton looking for big policy reform a la health care (like he lauded, promoted and had himself attempted during his terms) or does he want Democrats to give up on those and focus on “micro-ideas about what could fix the economy?”

I think that, to Clinton, those aren’t mutually exclusive, and to listen to him on the Daily Show this week, he’s clearly about a hair’s breadth from demanding that Democrats get bolder – in their policy, in their politics, in their invective. That they should exploit their political gains. Y’know, kinda the opposite of what they’re doing. The very last thing the Democrats should be doing is what Weigel suggests, to “stop dreaming, get busy tweaking.”

Oh, and by the way, David: “How do you fix things when the natural majority party doesn’t want the government to govern?” I’ll have you know there have always been far more voters registered Democrat than any other party. We are the natural majority party, and we damn well want the government to govern.

Job Re-training


As I personally decide on whether to spend a pile of money to train as a health care technician on the suggestion of the Wall Street Journal in its series of articles on Electronic Health Records, I’ve come across an article on job training that argues that, on a macro level, a national job retraining program will not solve an economic crisis, since the problem is across the board.

“But retraining will not help with what economists call “cyclical” unemployment—the joblessness caused by an economy-wide lack of demand. And that’s the kind of unemployment that we have right now. Retraining might change who gets a job, but it does not change how many jobs there are.”

But it got me thinking about these Good Jobs™ that are only a training program away. According to Emily DeRocco, president of the Manufacturing Institute, “Unfortunately, these jobs require the most training and are traditionally among the hardest manufacturing jobs to find existing talent to fill.” In other words, they’ve always been under-filled, despite our colleges pumping out trained professionals all the time.


I suspect because these employers have been throwing out the sorts of jobs I’ve been seeing in my job hunt of late. If I may paraphrase:

“We want you to have ten years’ experience in this very specific sub-field that we may or may not have invented six months ago. You will have a generalist’s responsibility at this job, despite its requirements, there is no job security, and you will be paid a wage only interns usually see.”

If these positions are so hard to fill, why aren’t the employers paying for the training? Why aren’t they paying the sorts of incomes that would prompt entrepreneurial go-getters to tailor their resumes for them? It’s with this question that I must bring pause to my consideration to spend over a grand to train for a specific position without any guarantee of employment in that position. After all, I’m already 80% there. I’m already certified IT with history in database work. Why wouldn’t these hospitals teach me how to do their medical records?

I’m kvetching, of course, but it just seems silly to put the cost of training on the person least capable of paying for it, and even if the federal government were to offer training (on anything more than the lowest level of pink-collar jobs, as it is now) why is the burden on the government? It seems like, if the government is going to pay for this, they should pay for it by taxing the businesses that directly benefit – maybe even twice what the training’s worth, just to press home the point that businesses should be doing this themselves. Hell, there’s a precedent: San Francisco pays for universal health coverage for workers by taxing local businesses.

And if anybody cares to say that I’m acting entitled, remember that the private sector are the kinds of folks who seem to feed off catch-22s like where they won’t hire people because they’re unemployed or have a bad credit history (because they’re unemployed). As I’ve said before, being loyal to a system that isn’t loyal to you is more than a little masochistic.

Where Rich People Congregate

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David Sirota argues that cities – at least city politics – are experiencing a sea change in favor of corporatist policies, what with the inception of business-friendly leaders like Bloomberg and Emanuel, which calls into question their reputation as being liberal bastions.

Thing is, cities are not all one thing or another – that’s more indicative of company towns, or communities that are small enough to be more homogenous, demographically. New York has always held corporatist ties, despite being as radically liberal as it’s been known to be. All those massive towers and headquarters in Midtown didn’t just crop up in the last nine years. Chicago’s been home to just such a duality as well.

Cities have always been the citadels of capital and the bastions of anti-capitalism. Chicago is the city of rail barons and rail strikes. New York is the city that built the Chrysler building on 42nd street at the same time the American Communist party set up shop on 23rd Street; the city that simultaneously housed robber baron John Rockefeller and anti-trust legislator Teddy Roosevelt. New York donates the most money to both the Republican party and the Democratic party. It’s no surprise that local politics would reflect the battle between the moneyed and the masses – and sometimes the moneyed win.

It’s not a new thing, per se. It’s exactly how things have always been!

Missing The Point

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I never expected to read such an anti-intellectual diatribe on the New York Times as Ross Douthat’s column, blaming social mobility and a “meritocracy” for Jon Corzine’s crash and burn:

But this sudden fall from grace doesn’t make Corzine’s life story any less emblematic of our meritocratic era. Indeed, his rise, recklessness and ruin are all of a piece. For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington.

We got to the moon by scouring the country for intelligent people from all walks of life and throwing them into our top colleges. A pragmatic approach to seeking the best and the brightest was exactly what made this country great.

In this stead, to blame Corzine’s intelligence for his fall is deeply hurtful. It’s hurtful because it implies that he’s risen too high, too fast. That he’s Icarus. That he’s uppity. How can that be interpreted as anything other than an attack on our fundamental national pride, social mobility? It’s also hurtful because it implies that we don’t want intelligent people in office; that we would prefer unmitigated disasters like George W. Bush or, god forbid, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry or Herman Cain. It’s with that frame of mind that this passage made me blanch:

In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.

It is a mark of intelligence to know one’s limitations. Has Douthat never read Plato? “I know one thing: That I know nothing.” Assuming you know all the answers is a mark of ignorance. Indeed, which politician of late was more sure of himself than George W. Bush?

Douthat argues, “we still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.” He quotes the bible, “pride goeth before a fall.” I can think of a better quote. John Dalberg-Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Humble people do not run for public office. Asking for humility in an elected official is like asking for a vegan steak-chef. As such, it is no surprise when Corzine, who has fought tooth and nail in the service of his own career (and leaves MF Global with a $12 million golden parachute after running it into the ground), and has actually held public office – at the cost of $100 million in campaign funds – fails spectacularly. It is no surprise when any public figure fleeces the public, no matter their origin. That’s how the system is built.

I cannot stress enough that intelligence and success are rarely intertwined in America, beyond perhaps a cool cunning. A closer correlation to success in this country is pure chutzpah. To the aggressive goes the spoils. Our leaders were never academics with PhDs. They were street brawlers with JDs. And with that, I quote H. L. Mencken:

The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.

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