Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What's Wrong With the Hope Machine?

In case you haven't been reading your Doonesbury lately, Garry Trudeau has been cranking out a series of smart, wickedly funny comics on the fundamental disconnect between the hype and the reality of Obama. It started on Sunday:

Click for a larger image.

Monday - Talking to W

Tuesday - Talking to Bill

Wednesday - Reflections on the Nobel Committee

Trudeau perfectly captures the cognitive dissonance of The Precious in his plaintive/brutally honest line "What's wrong with the hope machine?"

And is answering his own question.


PS - Be sure to catch Trudeau's take on Roman Polanski when Boopsie gets asked to donate money to a Polanski defense fundraising dinner. Heh.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Hard Work of Peace

The debate over the appropriateness of the Peace Prize award continues to roil the the blogospheric waters. It will end up being a political liability, I suspect, especially after Obama himself sheepishly admitted he did not deserve the prize - and accepted it anyway. A gracious declination would have made a positive impression on people like myself; those who are skeptical of Obama's actual talents but want to see him succeed because no one can afford to lose more ground to the Movement Conservatives. (For example, I am pleased to see him publicly committing to end DADT and DOMA, but will wait for tangible results before breaking out the champagne.) I wait, as do most of the reasonable skeptics I know, to see Obama personally perform the hard work of peace.

Friday, October 09, 2009


As a partial antidote to the Nobel news that the committee decided to cast a vote that made them feel good about themselves and their moral superiority rather than recognize people who have literally risked their lives for years to bring stability and peace to their part of the world, I offer up a photo essay from Big Picture on the Boston Globe web site:

The Berlin Reunion

"Earlier this week, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Berlin, Germany to watch a several-day performance by France's Royal de Luxe street theatre company titled "The Berlin Reunion". Part of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Reunion show featured two massive marionettes, the Big Giant, a deep-sea diver, and his niece, the Little Giantess. The storyline of the performance has the two separated by a wall, thrown up by "land and sea monsters". The Big Giant has just returned from a long and difficult - but successful - expedition to destroy the wall, and now the two are walking the streets of Berlin, seeking each other after many years apart. "

The photo essay is spectacular. Take a few minutes to view it.

The reunion of Berlin, and the eventual reunion of Germany itself, was accomplished by ordinary people seizing a "moment of madness" (to cite my old professor Ari Zolberg's classic essay) to make the impossible real. I remember being crammed into a dorm room, watching a tiny TV with horrible reception showing people pounding away at the Wall with hammers, axes, steel bars, or just using their own hands, ripping down the will of the dictators that they should be a subject and sundered people. We passed around alcohol and screamed in delight every time someone whacked another chunk away or reached through a gap to embrace someone on the other side.

The next day, the school was in party mode. Every class held was about the Wall. Ari was grinning from ear to ear, and we teased him to tell how his essay explained this particular moment, which he did. Reagan had challenged Gorbachev to "tear down the wall", but it was the ordinary person who made it happen. What Gorbachev did do was refrain from doing anything, refusing (whether through principle or necessity is irrelevant) to send in force to quell the uprising. Action and inaction combined to create a world altering event.

I am, perhaps, not as dismayed as some over awarding the prize to Obama. The committee is composed of Whole Foods Nation types and their action says far more about their personal narcissism than it does about anything else. They selected their fantasy of making the world into their image through sheer cool awesomeness. The award itself has a checkered past. As Tom Lehrer wryly commented, awarding that prize to Henry Kissenger made political satire obsolete.

I also note that the actual people in the administration doing the hard work of peace - Clinton, Holbrooke, Mitchell, and the hundreds of State Department staff who don't get their names in the papers but who get the job done - are steadily giving me hope for an effective, humane and coherent US foreign policy. I add in the work done by Robert Gates and Jim Jones and their respective staffs, too. Their tasks are made more difficult by operators like Biden and McChrystal, who try to game policy through leaks and public posturing to force the President's hand and thwart the efforts of the policy team.

If Obama was politically savvy, he would have declined the award. In truth, it is a greater burden than a support*, setting expectations on situations like Afghanistan that won't be met because national interests and political ideals do not coincide, and adding another log to the fires of resentment against Obama for being The Precious; the object of obsessive desire by a sheltered, privileged, powerful socio-economic class and a person whose real world accomplishments are negligible compared to the hype that surrounds him. It would have served him better politically for the committee to have leaked that he had been nominated but declined. I am curious as to who submitted the nomination as it would have to have been done before he even took office. The nomination submission period closed two weeks after the inauguration, but a nomination is not just sending in a name. It involves a nomination package that takes some work to prepare and submit. The groundwork for the nomination came well before the inauguration. That piece of information could also become a political negative.

Overall, the award strikes me as a tone-deaf and politically stupid move on the part of the awards committee. It comes across as hubristic and self-indulgent. It talks to those already in agreement about the superdoublegood wonderfulness of Obama and distances those who are waiting to see tangible results. To the degree that it may complicate the actual work of the State Department, it is harmful.

It does not unify the sundered people.


*Contra the effect of the award for Al Gore, which provided greater legitimacy to his efforts as well as slapped the Bush/Cheney administration in the face.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Do the Math

A few people who left comments on the last post failed the math portion of the quiz, big time. I posted Russ' comment since he was the least offensive of the group, but even he really needs to brush up on the reading comprehension. He said he lives on $20K a year (which is not very much) and spends no more than $50/week on groceries. He gives examples of what he purchases, which sounds a lot like what I buy every week. He then claims how this is because he cares about nutrition, not stuffing himself ("The difference is that I do not view a meal as an occaision to fill my belly. I am more concerned about nutrition, fat content and calories.").

Let's do some math, m'kay?

Here is a table of the household income and expenses mapped out by Red Queen in her post, How about you economists do some fucking math instead. I've adjusted a few numbers to make the splits work more evenly, but it's within a couple dollars of her estimates. I use a simplified balance ledger style to show how the money amounts rise and fall through the month:

Paycheck #1$917$0$917
Payroll Taxes$0$56$861
Groceries - 15 Days$0$15.25/
Paycheck 2$917$0$917
Payroll Taxes$0$56$861
Utilities - Phone, water,
power, trash
Household - TP, clothes,
medicine, lightbulbs, gas
Groceries - 15 Days$0$21.50/

I assume all extra cash goes to food, and that non-food household expenses besides utilities average $75/month. That works out ot $36.75 per person, per month for groceries, which is misleading because that it does not take account of cash flow problems. Maybe one month they don't have much household expenses and they have a whopping $40 per person per month. That windfall breaks out to:

  • $10/week
  • $1.33/day
  • $0.44/meal

For comparison, I spend @ $240/month per person:

  • $60/week
  • $8.57/day
  • $2.86/meal

I'm only spending $10 more per week than Russ. I have six times the buying power compared to an individual in a poverty level family of four. What does that get me? I've totaled up a day's worth of food so you can see how the money is divvied up:


  • Cereal - $0.50
  • Milk - $0.22
  • Sugar - $0.03
  • Total: $0.75

Not too bad. If I had really gone for the belt tightening, I could have had oatmeal for @ 20 cents a serving, but then I would have to factor in the time and gas to cook it.

Lunch (Yes, I really, honestly eat this every day for lunch):

  • Bell Pepper - $1.00
  • Carrots - $0.15
  • Celery - $0.34
  • Cauliflower - $0.36
  • Snow Peas - $0.44
  • Radishes - $0.20
  • Hard boiled egg - $0.12
  • Total - $2.61

This is looking good and virtuous! Except that my virtually all vegetable lunch just cost nearly two days worth of meals in Red Queen's budget.

Dinner - Cost out a pot of home made vegetarian chili and divide by four servings:

  • Pinto beans, 1 cup, dry (no cans for me!) - $0.30
  • A bell pepper - $1.00 (I used it so it wouldn't go bad)
  • An onion - $0.17
  • A 1/4 package small tomatoes - $0.75
  • Small can of tomato sauce, off brand - $0.63
  • Half head of garlic - $0.13
  • Entire tub of Trader Joe Salsa - $2.99 (Purchased for a party, frugally used to avoid waste)
  • A few chipotles - $0.41
  • Oil to brown the vegetables - $0.23
  • Total - $6.61 or $1.65 for four servings

Let's round out that meal with $0.10 of cooked rice and $0.30 for half a sour dough mini baguette from Costco for a grand meal total of $2.05. My meals for the day came to $5.41, lower than average because my weekend dinners tend to be more elaborate and because I haven't factored in my two cups of coffee and one can of Diet Coke that I also consume each day, nor the $0.10 worth of pretzels that's my mid afternoon snack. (Yes, I buy pretzels in bulk and take a serving to work in a ziplock bag.) My consumption for one day was more than half of the weekly food budget in a poverty level household, and I was eating what would be considered frugal, cost-conscious meals.

My ovo-vegetarian, gluten free, ultra healthy meal cost the most, delivered a lot of nutrients and a decent amount of calories (@300), but I have to consume nearly 1 lb of raw vegatables in a single sitting. I end up eating my lunch over several hours, which I can do since I work at a desk and don't get hassled by a supervisor.

I'm sure I could reduce the cost of what I ate even more if I really, really tried, but cutting down more on that menu takes time and effort. I could get cheaper salsa, cook oatmeal instead of eating cold cereal, go without the bell peppers (2/5 of my food budget for the day, right there) and eat more carrots and celery.

But we're talking nickles and dimes at this point and not addressing the high cost of housing, child care, and transportation that is putting the food budget into a bind. Groceries are minor compared to these intractable costs. They end up being bargaining chips because a lot of food is cheap and a few days of going hungry is not precisely starving. You can gorge at a later meal, or scarf down somebody's leftover birthday cake in the break room.

I showed you a healthy, inexpensive day's meal plan that is still far too expensive for a poor household to manage. The food cannot be viewed in isolation from the other demonds on the budget, as well as the less obvious demands on time and the way in which low-paying work does not support the leisurely eating habits that go with consuming lots of roughage.

Obesity is endemic throughout American society. I work with a lot of fat people, myself included, and we're a pretty well-paid bunch. What we are seeing is the transformation of instances of obesity into pathology when the individual is from a socio-economic class we disdain. Hence the arrogance of Ezra Klein presuming to tell Red Queen that if she is fat (or, rather, that she *is* fat because of her socio-ecnomic markers) it is because she has a psychological problem related to her poor self-image/esteem/deep rooted desire for sweets/ etc. rather than saying that the food industry and low-wage employment creates a situation where people have only a little money to spend on a wide range of poor quality but easily obtained and easily consumed foods.

Pathologizing a condition like obesity privatizes it, making it a condition of personal rectitude that is my own weak-willed fault, and obscures the social structures that make this condition so prevalent, particularly among the poor.

Let's get the big ticket items like health care and child care figured out before worrying about the breadth of anyone's ass


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Red Queen on Food

Go right now and read the Red Queen of Elizabitches about what poverty does to food budgets. She's giving Ezra Klein a lesson in reality. Here are the concluding paragraphs, but read it all for the math lesson:

So most of the month lunch is a candy bar and a coke (or 800 or so calories in fat and sugar for under 2 bucks) and dinner is hamburger helper and a can of green beans (a little more than 5 bucks to feed 4 people and about 400 calories per person).

That is why poverty and obesity go together. It's not because twinkies are the prozac of the lower classes, but because our Darwin approved bodies recognize starvation and fight to hold onto every possible calorie. It's the thrifty fucking gene in action, and a wee bit of math would have shown that out.

I always get infuriated by the earnest assertion of people with money to spare at all times that, really, these poor people need to learn how to maximize the nutrition in their diets by shopping with cash at weekly farmers markets and getting organic produce that is only $2/bunch for kale.

This was also a poorly explained aspect of my post about refusing to take checks - sometimes that cash isn't there until day after tomorrow, and if you hand over a check late in the day at a grocery store, chances are it won't clear until sometime the business day after that.

You spend the money you have to secure the goods you can. You don't buy soy milk because it is expensive compared to powdered milk. Fatty hamburger is cheaper per pound than tofu and tempeh and fills up a teenage stomach much faster. Canned vegetables - you know, the off brands made with the non-organic vegggies and bathed in salty, preservative laced liquid - are cheaper than frozen which are cheaper than fresh. They don't go bad, either. Am I going to buy the store brand squishy white bread for .99 (a day or two old, but, hey, toast it and who knows the diff...) or the artisan baked French White loaf with the extra chewy (i.e., inedible) crust made from the organic, stone-ground flour fo $3.89 per paper-wrapped loaf?

Like, duh.

I have the luxury of eating a red bell pepper every day. I love those peppers. I never got them as a kid because they cost too much. I wasn't able to buy them as an adult until after I got a realatively steady high tech job. They are sweet, crunchy, tasty and packed with so many wonderful micro-nutrients per gram it boggles the mind. They are also $1 each, $30 per month (more, because some go bad), and about 100 calories. That's just 7 cents less than the per day food budget of Red Queen's family of four at the poverty line.

Think about that. My one bell pepper, inadequate to provide even a single meal, is worth almost as much as the entire day's food budget for someone who is at the poverty line. A $2 bunch of kale (I mention this because discussed on some food site as being the obvious choice for someone on food stamps to buy) might go a bit further, but is still all or half of a day's food allowance for one person. If I cook it up into a pot with pinto beans and some minced onions, then it might help make a meal, but why waste the $2 on the kale when I can get some sausage to go in the pot?

Most times, onions are cheap. Potatoes, too. Cheap bacon, probably bacon ends sold in a big box, mostly fat and really salty. Now, there's a yummy meal - pork fat, potatoes and onions. You think I'm joking? I'm not. I'd like a little salt & pepper to go with it, but I can do without and I'd gladly eat it. Even now when I can afford "better", I love a baked potato mashed with some onion cooked in a slice of bacon.

The obsession of the well-off upper middle class with the eating habits of the barely scraping by poor is both domineering and obscene, a deep desire to force their food choices (too little for too much) onto others who have little choice, and to closely observe, weigh, measure, and manipulate the bodies of subjects unable to avoid this invasion.

Who in this exchange better knows the cost of a pound of flesh?


PS - An observation. I'm getting more and more spam comment posts that have vague political stances and then include a link to "my site" which is something commercial, usually travel or "dating". Why put that much effort into spam?

It's the Power, Stupid

Pat Lang, of Sic Semper Tyrannis, posted the following observation about Obama going to Copenhagen to win the 2016 Olympics for Chicago (my emphasis):

"In making his pitch, the president had said that a nation shaped by the people of the world "wants a chance to inspire it once more." Never before had a U.S. president made such an in-person appeal, and Obama's critics will doubtlessly see the vote as a sign of his political shortcomings.

"I urge you to choose Chicago," Obama told members of the International Olympics Committee, many of whom he later mingled with as some snapped photos of him on their cell phones.

"And if you do — if we walk this path together — then I promise you this: The city of Chicago and the United States of America will make the world proud," the president said." Yahoonews.
$50 million dollars in costs sunk seeking the games and a great deal of private money to be made if they had the games. Those were the stakes. For that possible gain, the prestige of an already diminished president was wagered, and lost.

What we have learned from this is that the president is not his own man. His first inclination was to send his wife to appeal for the prize. That would have been wise.

Now we know that the Chicago money that drove his campaign is still very much in the driver's seat.

That is bad news. pl

Lang's analysis manages to cut to the heart of the problem Chris Bowers frets over, providing a political perspective (contra a policy perspective) on the problem. Interestingly enough, it also touches on Paul Krugman's concern in yesterday's column about misunderestimating the gambits being run by the Movement Conservatives.

The pithy response from Col. Lang cuts in two ways.

First, he talks about why the prestige and power of the Presidency was misused. Obama was called upon to play the huckster for parochial financial interests. He went to a high profile event for the sake of Chicago business interests. He went to obtain money for the private sector in a very crude way when the chief popular criticism of his adminsitration is that they are cosseting the monied class. It reinforces the perception that Obama is merely the bag man for financial elites. The US did need to have a significant presence in Copenhagen to bargain for the Olympics if only for appearance's sake, but the wider financial advantages of the games are questionable.

The second point is more subtle. A president's political capital is the perception that he can deliver on promises, whether to harm or to help, and this capital is not apportioned by type. By that I mean that a president can't wall off political weaknesses; a failure in one venue has repercussions for others. What Obama traded away for the sake of some crony capitalism was his efficacy in every scenario where he has to offer a credible promise. Small events reverberate when dropped into the Right Wing noise machine, and this sets the agenda for how to frame perceptions.

The currency of politics is power. Power is the ability to deliver. Failure to deliver reduces power.

Obama has yet to intimidate his opponents or reassure his contituents that he can deliver. The smackdown, the goods, neither are in evidence. This single event, the failed bid for the Olympics, cannot be viewed politically in isolation from events, like the dissing Obama received from one of his own generals, for example. It has nothing to do with hope, change, mad consensus building skillz, or bipartisanship.

It's the power, stupid.


Friday, October 02, 2009

The Hacks, the Whores, the Purchased Fellows

(This post got delayed few days due to family stuff and a insane work week.)

Bob Somerby points again to the origins of why the Left makes no lasting headway against Movement Conservatism. My emphasis in bold, Bob's in italics:

But such is the heartbreak of Friedman Disease. Here’s how it’s defined in the medical texts: The inability to be truthful about the Clinton/Gore years.

This disease has always driven the press corps, including its mainstream and “career liberal” factions. It drove the press corps during that era; it has driven the press ever since. It has driven the Marshalls, the O’Donnells, the Olbermanns, the Corns—the Dionnes and, of course, the Gene Robinsons. Frankly, it has driven the Riches. And of course, the disease is contracted from small, slimy microbes which breed on the set of Hardball.

But uh-oh: Taylor Branch had never played Hardball before last night! He arrived on the set in good health.

This disease has always served the interests of the big rollers who have made a joke of your discourse—who began to consolidate their power during the Clinton/Gore era. From that day right up to this, a Hard Pundit Law has obtained, enforced from precincts on Nantucket: To get on Hardball, you had to contract Friedman Disease—to agree that you never would tell. And the weak little hustlers all caught the disease. Taylor Branch, arriving from outside the system, showed up last night in good health.

Go ahead—observe it again. You never see this on these programs. Taylor Branch made an accurate statement!

The New York Times and the Washington Post drove the Whitewater scandals.

Gene Lyons wrote the book on that matter—in 1996! But so what? The entire “career liberal” world—the O’Donnells; the Olbermanns; the Dionnes; the Joshes—ran off screaming into the woods. Given prevailing winds of change, they knew they mustn’t tattle or tell.

This is one of the present but unidentified elements of Boehlert's Bloggers on the Bus, the degree to which the 2008 campaign became the event that exposed the cooptation of most A-list writers in Left Blogistan by the mainstream media, and a big slice of the B-listers, too.

This is why Somerby has placed Josh Marshall squarely with the anti-liberal talking heads like Dowd and Matthews. When he talks about "weak little hustlers", he is talking about the very people that Boehlert both praised as having influence, yet also backtracked on, wondering aloud at how little influence they had compared to the levels of noise they created.

Marshall, more even than Markos, is the quintessential "purchased fellow" in Left Blogistan, someone who had his awareness rased by The Howler and The Horse and who imagined himself following in their footsteps. His writings about Trent Lott and the assault on Social Security materially affected politics for the better. As I said in some post last year, I once has TPM as my home page because of how Marshall was able to use his connections to rake up the muck. I don't bother with Josh anymore as he has become the subject of Somerby's posts, deliberately seeking out the powerful and comfortable who are more concerned about Bubba's weight than about his long slide back into the poverty that condemned his grandparents to toil and early death. Like other people afflicted with Friedman Disease, Josh is on his knees looking for a pacifier to suck on.

Somerby gets dismissed as a crank because he won't quit pounding the drum (though he's not been pounding Kevin Drum as much as in times past) about the Clinton/Gore years, his focus on the events of that time being represented as mere partisanship for Gore. Why won't he give up on that loser? Somerby's point is simple:
What the media did to the Clinton/Gore administration was conduct a political war against liberal interests as such. Accepting the terms of the debate about Clinton/Gore is a material blow against the politics that administration represented.
It doesn't mean that administration was beyond criticism. It means that the efficacy of the political attack on the administration is inseparable from the social and class based attacks on the individuals at the heart of the administration. Paul Krugman gets this. As he says in today's column, The Politics of Spite:

The key point is that ever since the Reagan years, the Republican Party has been dominated by radicals — ideologues and/or apparatchiks who, at a fundamental level, do not accept anyone else’s right to govern.

Anyone surprised by the venomous, over-the-top opposition to Mr. Obama must have forgotten the Clinton years. Remember when Rush Limbaugh suggested that Hillary Clinton was a party to murder? When Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government in an attempt to bully Bill Clinton into accepting those Medicare cuts? And let’s not even talk about the impeachment saga.

The only difference now is that the G.O.P. is in a weaker position, having lost control not just of Congress but, to a large extent, of the terms of debate. The public no longer buys conservative ideology the way it used to; the old attacks on Big Government and paeans to the magic of the marketplace have lost their resonance. Yet conservatives retain their belief that they, and only they, should govern.

Krugman draws a direct line between the demonization of the Clintons and the political objectives of the Movement Conservatives. I get this. The Purchased Fellows (which I think I will use instead of Blogger Boyz from here on out) do not appear to be capable of getting this, certainly in part because their own sense of self is inseparable from their very confused disdain for things working class. In today's post, Somerby reminds us:

“It is possible to sympathize with Clinton,” Thomas grandly allows, showing the greatness of his high class. He then shows why any informed observer—any observer like Branch—would have felt that way in real time.

Why is it possible to sympathize with Clinton? Good lord! Because the New York Times and The Washington Post (and the networks; and the news magazines) “were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington” during the years of his presidency! This is a truly remarkable statement. But just like Friedman last week, Thomas brings us this remarkable news exceptionally late in the game—about fifteen years too late. And why is Thomas telling us now? Enjoy the comedy gold:

The endless string of special prosecutors and the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive in retrospect.
In retrospect, the war against Clinton seems obsessive! So says Evan Thomas, lying right in your face. In retrospect!

In this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman recalls just a few highlights of that disgraceful era. These things “seem excessive” to Thomas—now. But not so at the time!

It didn’t seem excessive to Thomas when Rush Limbaugh suggested that Hillary Clinton helped murder Vince Foster.

It didn’t seem excessive to Thomas when Jerry Falwell spent years peddling the Clinton murder tapes—remaining an honored guest on Meet the Press, and on cable “news” programs.

It didn’t seem excessive to Thomas when Dan Burton was shooting up pumpkins in his back yard, showing how Foster may have died.

It didn’t seem excessive (or strange) to Thomas when the original special prosecutor got canned by a panel of right-wing judges—and was replaced by a well-known conservative functionary.

It didn’t seem excessive to Thomas when Fools for Scandal published the documents the New York Times had disappeared in the course of inventing the Whitewater “scandal.”

It didn’t seem excessive when a first lady was called a “congenital liar” by a bungling major columnist. It didn’t seem excessive when the Village called her every name in the book as they pretended that she had lied about the Cubs and the Yankees. It didn’t seem excessive when the Post published that disgraceful piece by Andrew Sullivan, two days before the 1996 election. (Headline: “Clinton: Not a Flicker Of Moral Life.”) It hadn’t seemed excessive when that same baboon had published that crap by Betsy McCaughey, in 1994—a piece whose fraudulence became quite clear in rather short order.

These events made perfect sense at the time! To Thomas, they only seem excessive in retrospect! By the way, did it seem excessive when the Post and the Times invented all that sh*t about Candidate Gore, then pimped it for twenty straight months?

Look at what was done, and by whom, the Incomparable One says, and ask whose side you are on? What of the last political season will only seem excessive "in retrospect"?

The Purchased Fellows, in need of good incomes, health insurance, and insider connections, succumb to Friedman Disease. They seem befuddled by the way in which ordinary America is mostly going "meh" at The Precious. They don't understand the bumper stickers (like I saw in my company parking lot this week) that has a picture of Bush and a picture of Obama flanking the words "So what has changed?" They don't understand why people like Taylor Branch speak respectfully and affectionately (though also sharply and critically) about Bill Clinton.

To do that, you would have to be able to respect the person, his political vision, and what he was trying to accomplish for ordinary Americans in the face of the Movement Conservatives' height of power.

Doing that will get you unpurchased, real fast.