Now that Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, and it’s unlikely that the US will find itself entrapped into large military engagements for a while ( at least until a generation or two retires and a new round of pugnacious policy bros descend upon Washington DC) the pipeline of civilians turned service-members turned civilians again is going to be reduced to a trickle.
Whereas a post-9/11 military probably experienced an increase in breadth across American society in terms of socio-economic status, race, etc., the military will once again be dominated by legacy kids, small-towners, and southerners. Most importantly, most of you will never meet or run across these people; they will probably retire or stay in the areas their final duty stations were in, or they’ll return to their former communities.
This is to say that the military will pass back into the shadows of the American psyche, back where the ugly stereotype persisted of the military being only the failed high school kids and crazies, only reaching public awareness when service-members do bad things or when the Twitterati decides that a military is, like, sooo passé in today’s cosmopolitan society.
Since I got out of the Army in 2007, I lived in DC for 4 years, and then moved to NYC where I’ve been since 2011. DC actually has some veterans, though most people you’ll meet probably work in the periphery of military affairs: analysts, military groupies (of which there a lot), policy, advocacy. NYC has virtually no veterans at all. At NYU the main contingent of veterans is definitely in Stern Business School, so you know what that’s like. I’ve been told there’s also a large group of veterans at Columbia’s business school and at my grad school’s competitor, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. I don’t really hang out with any of them. When I do see a veteran, he’s just visiting town on leave and recognizes my tattoo.
This is all to give you some background for what I really wanted to say, which is to respond in some sort of truthful way about what it’s like to be a veteran in today’s day and age.
In a Former Life
Being a veteran is something you sort of tuck away — it just has no relevancy to a civilian life. What I mean by this is, no one you meet knows anything about the military, nor do they particularly care or like it. If anything, people finding out you were in the military probably makes them feel some annoying twinge of responsibility to say “thank you for your service” or to exert a little extra energy to make sure your poor veteran is alright. Or maybe there’s some fascination there: “I was gonna join, but…”
To me, I was lucky to have an Army job with lasting benefits to my personal and career competency — military intelligence — so I wasn’t hamstrung there the way some others might be. But in terms of hiring I’m not sure that background imparts much of an advantage at all. It’s unapproachable by most people who don’t know how that side of things works. If anything, the insinuation of military intelligence smells of NSA, Snowden, massive surveillance, etc. It’s as if people don’t even realize that nations collect on each other and that there are large forces at work 24/7, that not everything in the world is just hunky-dory, that legally-permissible wiretapping is a requisite for both intel and law enforcement.
This is the kind of disconnect that will really get to you — when something you really care about and worry about and wish to protect people for is completely taken for granted and even reviled. A thankless job.
The Years We Spent Disconnected from the World
Day-in, day-out, I think the biggest impression that is left upon others from my veteran status is that I’m a little old for my position. That is to say, those 5 years I spent wearing the flag on my shoulder and little hair on my head or face were 5 years that most people spend climbing the career ladder. If it weren’t for 9/11, or for enlisting, I’d be a 31-year-old instead of 36, and that changes others’ views quite a lot, whether they realize that veteran status or not.
Just imagine this disconnect. Most young kids turn into precocious young adults full of potential where they’re told they have the entire world open to them, then they claw their way to some sort of sustainable position and then they grow old and they hopefully reach contentment and/or have kids and grandkids so that in the end they can die happy.
Meanwhile, I knew some young adults who trained for battle, who trained how to kill and how to protect and how to serve, dying in some dust pit somewhere, or in some shitty barren wasteland, such that two service-members in Class A uniforms appear at their young spouse’s or parents’ door to inform them of grave news. That dude who did my dentist checkup or that dude I did US weapons training with died thousands of miles away in a war zone and everyone else moved on. Those dudes helped defend turf in some other country that we’ve since given up. Those guys’ lives were cut way short in comparison. My 5 years, which pales compared to the 10-25 years of military experience many I met in the Army now have, was spent getting to know THOSE people.
I hope most people who have lost friends on the job (military or other hazardous jobs) would tell you that the job itself isn’t quite as meaningful as being among brothers and sisters and being able to help them and live with them and work with them. It doesn’t matter on a personal level so much that we gave back territory that we fought and lost blood and life and treasure for, as long as we cared for each other. I mean you hope that in such a sensitive job as being a soldier, that you are asked to do things that really mean something, but you don’t always get to pick your battles. It’s a valid argument to say that maybe the US handled Iraq completely wrong, but what we know now is not what we knew then and some of us enlisted right after 9/11 to go fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. What’s not valid is hearing criticism from people who willfully remain unaffiliated to anything so that they’re never called upon or held responsible for anything. Lack of action can be wise at times and cowardice at other times.
In a post-military world, where everyone is essentially out for themselves, what’s missing is that sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps and real compassion for those you work with. This generates some sadness, particularly for a former sergeant who was trained to always be improving and mentoring and living amongst his soldiers.
Thank God for families, and for being able to build them. I’m on my way, there.
Anyway, back to the topic. What being a veteran has left me with is an unshakeable confidence in my ability to self-assess, self-improve, and self-correct. I’m happy I sacrificed my time for a greater good (the mere act alone proved to my internal self that I would do it, if called upon). I also know what I’m not, and I hope I never try to act like someone I’m not. I’ve seen great people, who sacrifice all their time to family and country. Great people who are continuing to serve their entire careers in the armed forces. Great people who serve in elite units as well as the worst-managed, poorly-financed units.
I hope I can identify good people from bad, and knowledgeable people from the willfully ignorant, and never stand in the way of people who do good for others, their community, and the world. I know how far I can push myself and when I need to push myself harder. I definitely became a man in the meaningful sense of the phrase because of being in the Army. I saw how other people live, throughout the US and abroad. I hope to retain that humility in understanding and respecting how other people live, even if they hate your guts just because of what you’re wearing or where you’re from or what you’re doing.
All this gets tucked away — I keep to myself mostly — but if I meet other veterans or others who have served in the line of fire (police, fire, State, USAID, DART, etc.) then it’s like being with old friends. It’s a virtual community, as they say. You can talk about things you can’t talk about with others outside the community. It awakens a dormant part of my very vivid past, a past I care for very much and am very proud to have experienced. It doesn’t happen often that I get to talk to other veterans, and not all veterans are good people, but it’s definitely at least some sense of feeling “at home”.
Perhaps one thing I’ve noticed after leaving the military is being able to identify really stand-up people in civilian life. GREAT people! The kind of person you know would excel in leadership, who cares for those around him, who makes others better, who pushes himself to his limits, who shows humility and empathy and sympathy to even the people he meets whom he stands nothing to gain from. There aren’t many of these people but man, they shine out from the rest like the freaking Southern Cross.
With that afore-mentioned pipelines of veterans trickling to almost a stop, the virtual community of veterans is going to get smaller and that part of my life will get tucked away even further. We all have virtual communities and past parts of our lives that make us feel like this, I suppose. But like I said, what I took away from it — a deep love and appreciation and respect for my own limits and talents and vulnerabilities and strengths — will stay with me forever.
So that’s how I feel when someone asks what it’s like to be a veteran. It’s a solitary experience, but I think other brethren will agree — there’s a richness there that can never be taken away and will always be compared against.
The Snowden leak has been immensely disappointing all around. It makes me sick to my stomach to read different constituencies circling their wagons on it. The outcome is almost certainly already written.
First of all, people are acting like it’s a major revelation that this stuff has been going on. Really? It’s been in the news since post-9/11 took shape, and, among people in DC who care about this stuff, it flared up in 2006 and 2007 with the EFF and ACLU finding its scent. Whistleblowers have been punished, military blogging has been pretty much extinguished, FISA silliness has made its way into Al-Qaeda propaganda, Hollywood movies, bad TV documentaries.
Technically speaking, with sheer processing speed and storage being rendered inexpensive with the advent of cloud computing and parallel processing across networks, along with massive amounts of investment by the NSA into equipment so much that it would affect local power stations, what did people really think was going on? Room 641A was uncovered by Mark Klein, a whistleblower whose name no one knows, and showed how the FBI could tap into telecoms. When did that happen? 2006! How much more evidence did people need for the story to blow up?
Mark Klein, whistleblower
People I know in NYC are for the most part universal human rights-type liberals, which is to say they strongly believe that the notion of freedom has something to do with expecting freedom as a standard right for all, but not really having much idea how to implement or enforce it except through dreamy notions of Hans Zimmer-soundtracked Supreme Court victory films and through self-example (thus “hipster” stuff like gardening, eating healthier, being a smarter consumer, exotic hobbies, etc., but without a similar push into practicing politics).
I felt like I was a broken record in our flying robots class as people would worry about the impact of drones, while I saw drones as an eventuality of the future and cared more about the policy impacts of an unchecked and unnoticed NSA, both my allegiance and suspicion of its work coming during my time in service when all this stuff was basically being prototyped in Iraq (after years of research on systems such as Echelon). Drones are a tool to gather intelligence for larger databases, and a technological replacement weapon for cruise missiles and gunships. By themselves, Predators and Reapers will be footnotes in history. The apparatus that collects, collates, targets, and scores potential enemies of the US will have a legacy that will lead us well into the end of this century.
Many of the non-security people I follow on Twitter are mostly journalists or DC -based or -biased analysts, which means to say that they are indulging in the sauciness of the Snowden story while at the same time indignant at the idea that the government is spying on journalists as well as the American public.
The initial journo phase of giving Snowden a pass on reporting accuracies gave way to a more careful view of his story now (in other words distancing themselves from admiration of his courage), particularly as he’s had contact with countries considered non-friendly with the US and incompatible with the principles of freedom of speech and civil liberty. There’s still a strong undercurrent among these people though of defending the whistleblower aspects of Snowden’s actions while downplaying his questionable behavior in other countries.
But look, here’s the thing with all this, and I’m sorry for all the setup to get to this. The story’s going to keep morphing and Snowden supporters are going to continue to modify their lines to fit the current narrative. There’s no accountability for such people giving half-baked opinions and mawkish support for a man who is for the most part inconsistent (see his IRC logs and personal work history) on the matter — no one will call them out later on it.
Journos will turn on or bail on this guy. He’s just a tool to them. Assange has turned into a punchline for the intelligentsia while Manning has turned into the equivalent of those ads on late night TV for abused pets that need healthy homes. I saw one tweet suggest that Snowden is to Greenwald as Manning is to Assange. A pawn in a larger dance.
Snowden reminds me of those LulzSec guys before they got caught. Everyone likes the story of the fugitive — it plays well in the media. FUGITIVE AT LARGE! NEW DETAILS, NEXT! In my opinion the LulzSec folks were far more compelling than Snowden’s story: they were directly challenging the international community to cooperate to find them and arrest them — they lived in multiple countries and they had a technical superiority edge at first that must have deeply concerned law enforcement, but they were ultimately undermined, most notably by their leader becoming an informant for the FBI! I can only imagine that LulzSec was a wakeup call for building up more serious capability within intelligence to keep up with blackhats online.
What should be more scary is not how authorities are reacting to Snowden, but how they managed to thoroughly infiltrate Anonymous, WikiLeaks (Sigurdur Thordarson), and even LulzSec — people who were more capable of hiding their digital footprints than most people in society. Given attempts to infiltrate Muslim communities in NYC, running operations to entrap potential jihadists throughout the US, and so on, virtually no organizations seem to be impenetrable to government operations.
Snowden, contrary to his depiction in the press, seems like your typical mixed bag type of person. Contradictory views at different times, inconsistent motivations, full of character flaws. It’s completely up in the air how his story plays out, but I think the easiest thing to conclude is that the guy has always wanted to be where the action is (a feeling I can relate to) and was seemingly raised to believe that nothing is impossible (see his 18X special forces attempt, et al) and that actions speak louder than words (being the figurehead of this NSA leak). I’m interested in the guy too but I agree that the NSA news must be fully integrated into American citizens’ notions of what is going on behind the scenes.
As for Greenwald, the guy is fighting the good fight but is a super-douche (putting him in the panned-theon of Tom Friedman, Umair Haque, Evgeny Morozov, Paul Krugman, Jeff Jarvis) and so even if I’m harsh on him, for the most part it’s been good to watch him speak up for things over the years that people have ignored. But seriously, why do these guys twitter-search their own names for any mentions and feel compelled to talk back? It’s the number one reason I call them Morozlov and Greenlold — so they don’t throw a Twitter fit in a @mention.
It would be alright if this eavesdropping news was somehow a revelation but the bottom line is that people have not been paying attention for the last decade or so. Most importantly, the NSA story has been decontextualized from post-9/11 security mission requirements and solely towards some happy fantasyland where America lives out some high school class teaching of freedom of speech and international role model-setting of a higher moral arc towards justice.
That is to say, there is next to zero intelligent balancing of the issues being discussed in the circles that should be setting the debate for everyone else. The NSA has a pretty clear objective and it’s fairly good at executing that objective: monitoring communications and creating target packages for people who come up on its radar. In an environment where potential enemies don’t line up in formation to attack, basic pragmatism and realistic world view would acknowledge the need for tactical and organizational ability to collect that kind of data.
Furthermore, it would be ludicrous for the US government to not pursue serious (fair trial) charges against Snowden, based solely on the current standing of the law. It has to prevent leaks and it has to protect its intelligence. Why do people act surprised that the US government would be seeking to detain and prosecute the man behind a massive breach of classified information and ensuing media controversy, all while passing through China and Russia?
At the same time, the networking of our data online not only increases the government’s ability to collect, it also increases the abilities of adversaries (say, China) and non-states (hacking groups, organized crime, etc.), so the public needs to be vigilant about its rights to protect its data from those groups.
All of this is within the perfectly rational and justified perception among caring Americans that the NSA’s eavesdropping programs have gone way out of control and pose a threat towards American citizens’ civil liberties.
But you don’t hear this. The decontextualization makes it sound like the NSA is J. Edgar Hoover putting intel hits on everyday Americans for no reason, when in fact it’s more of an intelligence effort to adapt to today’s big data environment — and the NSA will do whatever it is allowed to by those who set policy (Congress), who set legal precedent (Supreme Court), and who actually have skin in the game (military, security, etc.). 9/11 was perceived as a massive failure to many professionals who dedicate their lives to ensuring that it never happens, and they will dedicate the rest of their careers to doing whatever is in their power to try to prevent 9/11 from happening again.
Do you begin to see that there are different interests at play here and that they all have varying degrees of legitimate concerns and readily apparent biases?
The bottom line is that hey, you just found out about this and it’s like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in college and now you’re one of the few initiated who gets what’s really going on in the system man. Enslavement, dude.
Do you know how frustrating it is to listen to people whose opinions came from a BuzzFeed blurb about a Mother Jones article (that cites news from years ago as breaking) and are all the sudden pro-disclosure rules and anti-intelligence apparatus?
Do you know what it’s like to read hit-and-run op-ed pieces about how intelligence agencies continue to fail to find viable targets from the same types of people who laughed at the crowdsourcing effort to find the Boston bombers?
Do you know what it feels like now, after having had my clearance revoked back in the day, during a deployment, because I was blogging honestly (but not giving away OPSEC) about what was going on in Iraq before the Surge and ethnic cleansing and before there were the chilling-effect blog rules in place now that have all but cut off most reports from servicemembers deployed abroad? Let me please hear from kids who skipped out on our last decade of deployments which required leadership of smart, freedom-loving Americans who were lucky enough to not be too busy trying to save what was left of the lives they were clinging on to (which is how lower middle class, the poor, and victims of Katrina spent the last decade). Let me please hear about speaking truth to power from kids who weren’t there, didn’t see it happening, and only found out about it years later because they’re always on the internet. It’s easy to speak out in hindsight or when nothing is at stake for you.
I’ll tell you who gets hurt in this. First of all, the public will put up an outcry over this only so long as it’s in the paper. For that reason I would think Wikileaks is the way it is: shilling for story, content, and control of the narrative. They want to ensure that it stays on Page 1. But really I don’t think much will change because there’s little check on the government to prevent electronic data snooping and very few people actually understand the mechanics behind how it works. Also security concerns will still trump privacy concerns. So the public is going to continue being spied against with few checks or even basic smell tests to see if the government should not be spying on this person or that person. We’ll continue to see bizarre, brief fiascos like Stop and Frisk and CIA-NYPD collaboration to provoke, say, the Muslim community.
[the above is my ITP classmate Atif Ateeq’s thesis about bringing context back to Muslims and Arabs who were decontextualized after 9/11]
The behemoth which is the system that allows government and corporate spying will continue almost unabated against citizens around the world, regardless of their affinities. The technical ease is too great and the will to put understandable limits on it by decision-makers is too weak. It’s a cliche in the science fiction world but it’s an easy eventuality. I can only see this disparity in interests increase as tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) continue to get scaled down for easier use by lone wolves (see 3D printing, propagation of extremist material, biohacking, DIY energy devices).
The other people to get hurt will be security people. The narrative of the post-9/11 story for intelligence has been that it took the rest of the blame for Iraq that Dubya didn’t soak up. “The intel was bad,” people remember. But Tenet went along with pushing for Iraq in the end, even though key intel analysts were advising the complete opposite. After that was settled, recommendations were made, particularly in Congress, to boost the concept of fusion centers, which were supposed to prevent stovepiping of intelligence within agencies and to possibly allow for a layered effect of intel analysis where different types of data could be plotted against each other to build out networks of important terrorist individuals. Well, fusion centers ended up costing a lot of money and were for the most part just okay but not terribly productive. Where security is now is that data is now streaming in faster than it can be analyzed, and so systems need to be built to sift through it. And after this scandal, it is likely that checks will be put back in place to make at least some of that data integration difficult again.
In short, I would think that it will be at least a bit more frustrating for analysts to do their jobs and to perhaps prevent another attack on American assets — maybe not even through figuring out a specific plot but by knowing the internal networks of highly capable groups.
To sum up: Americans weren’t paying attention and expect to be briefed on intelligence that they A) don’t care about, B) don’t know anything about, and C) don’t have time for. Americans are acting like a nosy, shitty boss calling in from St. Maarten for a checkup.
Really the debate about NSA stuff should focus squarely on the test to allow for eavesdropping: the court order. Instead of the rubber-stamping of FISA requests which has been standard operating procedure, there should be a stricter, more accountable, more quantifiable test for how analysts (who should be enabled to find oddball connections and sketchy hypotheses) go about getting further approval for eavesdropping. [As a note I should add that someone I respect on Twitter countered my rubber-stamping statement and said that there are stringent tests and quick retractions for requests that have errors in them or that are not valid. So it’s not as easy as I made it out to be, but I do believe it’s telling as a trend that, according to judicial reports, the end result of rejected requests is near-zero. I defer to an expert though.]
THIS is the fascinating part of the debate. Yes, allow for eavesdropping, but ONLY if there’s a strong case for it that’s demonstrable through evidence. The same it has ALWAYS been. How do we do it? Well, I don’t know, and we need to have very smart people think about solutions. I could say that we allow citizens’ interest reps onto the board but that might give away tactical intelligence. What about algorithms? As I understand it the NSA had attempted to score potential targets using algorithms already. I know people like Morozov would roll their eyes (which is about all they ever do) but algorithms, properly understood for the bias inherent in the creation of any algorithm, could provide a way for multiple interest groups to weigh in on what would constitute a threat or a viable target so that it could be non-specifically applied (read, programmatically) to actual targets so that it could be analyzed later. Right now this system of judges approving anything that passes past their desks is not working, mostly because judges are always going to be supportive of law enforcement efforts, particularly with regard to terrorism. Why would they get in the way of a dedicated law enforcement team?
If Only the Apple Store Sold iFreedom in Spotless White
I really want to go back to that part about the journos turning on Snowden.
I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to deal with the disloyalty and hypocrisy of people on that count. Here are a bunch of people upset that the government is tracking them, even if they had security passwords and encryption and all that. They were upset that an American has to leave his own country to whistleblow on it, which somehow turns the US into East Germany. If only there were networks, projects, and technologies which might allow citizens to return their own privacy and security!
If only there were something like bitcoin to circumvent large-scale banks and payment systems which can block your money from going to online poker, drugs, and anonymous bitcoin transactions! Well, bitcoin did blow up in the news recently, and what did the twitterati and intelligentsia do with it? They laughed at it, said it would never work and was unstable in comparison to the American dollar. They felt it was like throwing your money down the drain.
And okay. If only there were some way to pass information, download movies, files, etc. easily, without having to pay some middleman extra money or to be subject to their licensing rules! Oh, you mean like torrents or napster or whatever else? No way dude, I’m not risking my clearance or well-being for being flagged as a pirate; that’s not as cool as using my walled garden App Store on my locked-in iPhone. Torrents? Peer-to-peer? Well, it’s SLOW. :( And I don’t have time to figure that stuff out.
If only there were anonymized networks so we could use the web as it was originally intended again! Yeah well isn’t Tor for people to sell guns and drugs and child porn? It just sounds kind of shady lol. How about mesh networks where people pool together their internet connections so you can connect to a network no matter where you are? [check out my ITP classmate Sean McIntyre’s work on building mesh networks in Brooklyn] Nah, I want my own connection! I need blazing speed to stream my GoT.
Decentralized Social Networking
What is diaspora*? Oh wait, that’s the one with the dead co-founder right? Wow that was rough. But hey diaspora* isn’t as nice as Facebook so I’m not going to switch right now.
The point is that for a community that claims to be for breaking down mechanisms for control by a government that is spying on it, thought-leaders have been shooting down all the grassroots, open source, hacker-built, decentralized products that have sprung up recently.
The contempt people have for all these technologies that would help free them from corporate or government interests? Well, it just makes me think that people aren’t as desirous of freedom as they claim — it reduces technological interest among most people to just another coolness factor. Do you have the latest iPhone? Sorry, I only use Instagram after I deleted my Facebook account (a personal favorite considering Facebook owns Instagram). Macs are for overpaying idiots.
The lowest level of Maslow’s Digital Needs Curve has shit like iPhone, cloud services, gawker, reddit, and whatever else people REALLY want to use daily. I’ve seen fairly savvy journalists on Twitter railing against Obama on his policy against whistleblowers in one tweet while drooling over their new iPhone 5 in the next.
It was all topped off for me seeing the utter contempt from the twitterati and most liberals with the Occupy movement. From its very onset, people who constantly act like they’re for a more democratic and grassroots system, sticking it to the banker-politician complex, etc. would laugh in the face of Occupy while at the same time being drawn to it as some chic “fuck The Man” rebelliousness. People would go visit Zuccotti but always with a curious detachment and ultimately a pointed, knowing critique of how Occupy had no leaders or had too broad a platform or whatever else they would claim as armchair protest organizers. Protestourism.
Occupy had its own problems and the issues that Occupy folks would bring up were some of the most important of the day (money in politics, lack of prosecution for finance industry scammers, and so on) but really it failed because, despite everyone saying it’s a problem, it’s not THAT bad a problem.
It’s not as though the Occupy protesters were dying in the streets from police abuse, malnourishment, or invasion from foreign enemies. We barely see the poor in our day-to-days, let alone see people from the poorer parts of the city protesting. The iconic Occupy protester would be a fairly well-educated person who had life pretty good. Is that person going to be there when the weather turns cold? Or when Occupy gets too dangerous? No.
What has been telling to me as I’ve gotten older is spotting which people will stick up for what they believe and who will disappear when things get less convenient. My main critique with my generation is that it stands up for nothing. Maybe things are good enough that it doesn’t have to? It’s a generation that is against most forms of patriotism (so passé!), against joining the military (don’t be a sheep), against religion (Hitchens and Dawkins are MY gods), against political affiliation (I don’t like boundaries, man), against pretty much any form of outright aligning yourself with any larger organization or cause. Even joining that DC kickball league is a barely acceptable affiliation. We are all lone boats out on the ocean, apparently. Which is fine except the politics of my generation is largely based on liberal socialist ideals for collectivized Wilsonian whatever, health care or taxation etc. I understand the folks who live out in the country and don’t want anyone to come near — but urban liberals are not those people.
I believe at some point in life you have to start standing for something. Maybe it’s in some ways naive or dumb, but it’s important, particularly for men, to have a set of principles and values that are immutable. Shapeshifting and adapting to whatever is hot is something that younger children do as they try to find themselves, and I just think that once you get old enough, you have to be the person defining what’s important in life. Maybe there’s some truth to the argument that Americans in their 30s are the new infantile Americans in their 20s. What does it mean to be American anymore, where borders cease to matter and people switch from city to city with the same standard of living, as part of some cosmopolitan elite ideal? What does it mean when a whistleblower travels to a Chinese surrogate and then to Russia with America’s technical secret goldmine in tow and people are more concerned about the soap opera of a missing man than of a massive foreign policy disaster?
What it says to me is that most people don’t understand the gravity of situations across the world. Poverty reduction has been reduced to feel-good slacktivism, foreign policy has been reduced to Hollywoodish notions of outmoded Cold War era spy games, homeland security has been reduced to comedic Paul Blart-quality bureaucracies.
It just makes me not want to pay attention to more and more people who don’t have experience, who have no skin in the game, who have no cause to stick their necks out for. It increases my willingness to listen to those who are on the ground, who have hammered out any naive notions or ideals of how the world really works, leaving only hard-nosed pragmatism behind.
How Convenience is at Odds with Art
This brings me to a bigger subject: art. I never thought I was going to be an art student, particularly after being in the Army and having a love for business. The quality of the art students I’ve met in terms of their abilities to look past what is useful or what provides an immediate payoff or what seems possible at the time, along with their technical and ambitious abilities to actually carry through with them, I’ve just been so impressed. I still associate most art with projects carried on for no reason in particular and which don’t really make much sense and which seem to take up a lot of unnecessary room. That said, art school is just as expensive as other schools. (this artist wrote a post on why you SHOULDN’T go)
But what I’ve come to feel about art is that what I associate with art is only what has been successful art in the past. The cutting edge art of now and in the future is not going to be seen as accepted, as cool, as mainstream. To understand what the fringes of meaningful art are now is to look not at what will be cool (advertising and design have successfully co-opted that particular game) but to look at what is seen as obscene, weird, disconnected, and offensive. Meaningful art now is not called art: it’s called some variation of the term hacking. Experiment, play, prototype, tool around, whatever.
In school I learned the ITP hacker ethos. The ITP hacker ethos revolves around the 80’s-based mystique contained in phreaking, War Games, Sneakers, Easter Eggs, sleight of hand, Max Headroom, Hackers, etc. Now society seems to think geeks are cool, but the real geeks are the ones who stay glued to the computer, hacking away on some tech that may not even pan out or make sense to anyone outside of a handful of people. The chaos behind the high latency of Tor, or the arms race of pirates and copyright holders through torrents, the idea of darknets: this is the uncomfortable edge of where art is. It’s childish and naive in some areas, it’s foolish and illegal in others, and it’s unproductive and a dead end too. It’s not polished, it’s not beautiful, but what it does is test legal limits, test technical limits, test ways of seeing the world.
Drones. A touchy subject. For ITPers, it’s a mix of unsurpassed American military might, combining speed, surveillance, technology, and intelligence, all of which are core advantages to American power. But it also stands for death, particularly collateral death. It stands for disposition matrices and hitlists and reaching out and touching someone and the disconnect of killer and victim and secret orders signed by the President. Drones are one of the best examples of a conflict between liberal disgust with warfare and conservative Jacksonianism and exertion of power.
So it has been depressing to read about drones because few people fall somewhere between those two extremes. But some people have begun making what I consider to be fine art, and it has not come in the usual form of something beautiful.
Bridle realizes that drones are more than the sum of their 3D parts; they are the capillaries of a network, the point at which lines of computer code, political power, and obscured decision-making appear in the physical world. “This is what I’m really interested in at the moment: trying to push this debate back from the fetishization of the drones themselves, back into the computational networks behind them,” he says of his piece “Disposition Matrix,” a computer monitor reeling through a software program Bridle wrote that searches public resources for people who have a connection to drones and a series of volumes printed from the findings of the program, conveniently accompanied by some gloves for museum visitors to don as they flip through the pages. The program is meant to evoke the system and variables that generates an official “kill list.”
This is the greatest form of art for me. Technical understanding of something to the point that you can recontextualize it and link it back to the bigger themes involved.
You should also watch my ITP classmate Josh Begley’s thesis presentation on dronestre.am, his API for accessing info about deaths as a result of drone strikes. Particularly interesting were his remarks on geography being an inescapable reality and thus the increasing importance on mapping blank spots in reality, his interest in that sparked by Trevor Paglen and his “experimental geography”.
Drones as peace advocates discuss them are boring things. A drone today is just a gadget, but what lies behind it is sophisticated blending of GPS, radio comms, cheap parts, remote weaponization, integration of real-time video and control into the commander’s toolkit. Beneath the drone debate was always the intelligence debate, which the public has only now decided it wants to take part in, despite Bradley Manning rotting away in jail and the NSA blooming in size and a witchhunt for whistleblowers within the government. Way to ferret out the main story, armchair analysts.
One of the quieter stories I read about in Wired a while ago was one that has stuck with me for a while. It was a glimpse at UX, Urban eXperiment, a French hacker-collective. Wrote Jon Lackman:
UX is sort of like an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde—confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new—its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.” The group claims to have conducted 15 such covert restorations, often in centuries-old spaces, all over Paris.
Begley’s and Paglen’s interest in the unmapped spaces may coincide with UX’s wishes to find and protect that which has been forgotten. Anonymity can provide security when everyone is too distracted to pay attention.
Why do they care about these places? Kunstmann answers this question with questions of his own. “Do you have plants in your home?” he asks impatiently. “Do you water them every day? Why do you water them? Because,” he goes on, “otherwise they’re ratty little dead things.” That’s why these forgotten cultural icons are important—”because we have access to them, we see them.” Their goal, he says, isn’t necessarily to make all these things function once again. “If we restore a bomb shelter, we’re certainly not hoping for new bombardments so people can go use it again. If we restore an early 20th-century subway station, we don’t imagine Electricité de France will ask us to transform 200,000 volts to 20,000. No, we just want to get as close as possible to a functioning state.”
UX has a simple reason for keeping the sites a secret even after it has finished restoring them: The same anonymity that originally deprived them of caretakers “is paradoxically what’s going to protect them afterward” from looters and graffiti, Kunstmann says. They know they’ll never get to the vast majority of interesting sites that need restoration. Yet, “despite all that, the satisfaction of knowing that some, maybe a tiny fraction, won’t disappear because we’ll have been able to restore them is an extremely great satisfaction.”
Art stolen by UX, on display out of public view, in tunnels
Today’s cutting edge of art is also political, because expression vs. government is a tangible, dangerous battle that we witness daily in various forms. I consider Ai Weiwei to be one of the most daring and genius artists of the day to reach widescale attention, but almost no one has heard of him. I recommend you read this article about him.
All art is political in the sense that all art takes place in the public arena and engages with an already existing ideology. Yet there are times when art becomes dangerously political for both the artist and the viewers who engage with that art. Think of Jacques-Louis David’s involvement in the French Revolution—his individual investment in art following the bloodshed —and his imprisonment during the reign of terror. If it were not for certain sympathisers, David may well have ended up another victim of the guillotine. Goya is another example of an artist who fell foul of government power. There are instances in the 20th century when artists have faced down political power directly. Consider the photomontages of John Heartfield. Heartfield risked his life at times to produce covers for the magazine A/Z, which defied both Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Backpacks spelling out: “She lived happily for seven years in this world”
As an idea of what he has done, he built a marvel, then disavowed it (the Bird’s Nest), he created a facade of backpacks outside a museum to represent the lost children who died in China’s major earthquake while back. In his words:
The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.
Most poignantly, he was detained and beaten by police in Chengdu after he had gone there to support a local activist Tan Zuoren (who was on trial for helping create a victim database for the aftermath of the earthquake) and snapped this photo of himself with cops in an elevator, which he shared across the internet:
That photo tapped into elusive, seductive themes. Social media, a joke to its trollish inhabitants like Evgeny Morozov (whose skin in the game involves finding a new fellowship at a university to bum around in while writing a book attacking all the people who provided material for it). The Chinese police, a symbol of ham-fisted authority. The artist as a threat (with multiple police surrounding one unarmed artist). Surveillance, cleverly used by Ai Weiwei to take videos of the police who tried to threaten him with video and photos.
It wasn’t being arrested by police that was rebellious or artistic — any fool in the US can get arrested these days just for acting like a jackass, and Ai Weiwei wasn’t even doing anything at the time. It wasn’t some artistic stunt — Ai Weiwei, already known for art, was seeking the truth in recording names of those killed in the earthquake. He…just sought the truth.
The reaction: he survived the altercation and had a choice response for the police.
The tragedy: almost no one knew this had all happened! Even fellow art students. I can barely comprehend this. The disconnect is glaring. You know, I’ve served my time. I’ve reinvented myself to fit in to various communities, to take up their rituals and make them my own, to become a part of those communities, to care for them and to be cared for by them.
Now that I’m out of school, I feel like I’m freed from that need to try to catch up with what other people have done, and instead I should begin to forge my own artistic path, to be okay with creating things that no one understands. My own temptation to believe that I should be trying to convince others has long before died as I realized it is certainly not my talent. My dreams of grandeur have been tempered by failure, by meeting people far more intelligent and wise and wonderful and humanistic and charismatic and insightful than me, and by realizing that the best I can do is get my own affairs enough in order that I will have time to be able to help others — a project I’m still working strenuously on. To these ends, I feel as though my bullshit filters are honed (filtering out the day-to-day nonsense in different industries while selecting the genuinely new and game-changing events) and I’ve become very good at understanding the people who are really pushing things to the edge — and I want to promote and encourage them to continue to contribute the beauty to the world that they so wonderfully create.
I suppose I just wish that people would have a more understanding perspective of the world — understanding peoples’ motivations for doing things, understanding the reasons for why traditions or events came to pass, understanding the chaos as well as the order. What I see is not a lot of understanding, compassion, or sympathy in the world, but a whole lot of laziness. It’s toxic, and it leads to people being able and thinking it only natural to take advantage of others — in a world where we wish and idealize that people would help each other instead.
I also wish that people would understand that when they claim to want to know the truth — whether it’s about government spying or whatever — what they often only want is the drama behind popular exposure of the truth, when perhaps the truth was out there in the open for them to avoid and ignore for years beforehand. A critical look at “truth” involves, most importantly, a critical look at oneself and how much one will put on the line in order to accept that truth.
My thesis project for NYU-ITP has been Galapag.us, a tribe and ecosystem for promoting the idea that we should be radically open and transparent with our data so that we can form and share metrics to measure our progress and success in different areas of our lives. More info at the front page of Galapag.us.
I came up with the idea in 2006. An email I sent to my Army buddy in April, 2006:
I sort of had an idea but it seems like it’ll be difficult to build out. My idea would be for something similar to Xbox Live’s ranking system. Except it’s for your life. Privacy issues aside, people would volunteer to put in as much personal info as they want. At first it might seem cumbersome putting in so much info but I think as myspace and other services have shown, people are willing to do it if it means it cultivates their identity.
So for instance you put in your income and number of kids and connect your accounts for online game rankings (like in Halo or Battlefield 2) and your exercise plan and your birthdate and your finances and investments and how many web sites you’re on (like myspace, digg, yahoo, etc.) and from all that data, the company would generate statistics that break down your life and give you info about how much time you spend on certain tasks, how efficient you are with your money, what your online reputation is. Stuff like that. The core would be statistics…anonymous statistics I think so people won’t have any incentive to forge their results. The point would be to turn peoples’ lives into a numeric game where they can see how they rate in certain aspects of their lives. Think of all those online quizzes people take about what kind of lover they are or what their personality is. That could be tabulated into the statistics, which could be searchable or broke down any way the person wanted.
At the end of a year, we could look internally at our statistics and go visit the top overall people in person to go verify their data and videotape their lives, interview them. Then a winner would be announced…like the best person award. Heh…there’d be so much controversy and whining and competition if it caught on. Then we could write a book about our experiences going out and discovering what makes someone “the best” compared to everyone else.
So…that’s my idea so far. Sort of like a real-life RPG. Perhaps we could offer points for real-world scavenger hunts or traveling to different countries around the globe. What about having life coaches for certain segments, if someone was weak in an area like professional development? I was thinking we could also offer points for accomplishing certain tasks like humanitarian work.
A lot of stuff happened in the meantime: I got out of the Army, went to study foreign policy in DC, worked for Homeland Security, moved to NYC for school. And so now I’m wrapping up the thesis, which allowed me more than a semester to work just about full-time (including any waking moment) on trying to make Galapag.us a reality before I can either A) get funding or B) get an engineer/developer job after school.
So I present Galapag.us for thesis on May 15 at NYU. I have two weeks still to work on it before then. I think I’ve gotten it to a point where I can start letting alpha testers in to explore, and think about it. My work log has been tracked on the thesis blog.
node.js/express.js: So easy to build a site using this framework.
varnish/nginx+ngx_pagespeed: Caching, run-time optimizations for faster page loads/downloads. Routes to https and socket.io server too.
python scripts for maintaining server default state
celery for queuing
redis for temporary data dumps and lookups
mongodb for permanent data storage
angularjs for the comment system
I know the site’s confusing — like an airplane pilot dashboard. It’ll become more cohesive over time. A lot of things aren’t quite working yet, or they have filler data to get them going. Apologies for that. For more familiarization, try the welcome demo.
But here are some features that are worth checking out:
Comments will be available for tribe forums, formula critiques, peoples’ profiles. I decided to use angularjs so I could learn how to build SPAs with it!
By tracking individual data, one can also track internal company metrics and state-level happiness metrics too!
Each island has its own weather, environment, and bonuses/penalties for certain user behavior, so it benefits you to live on the island that incorporates your style best.
Professions and Skills
What does it mean to be “good” at something? Are companies hiring the most qualified candidates? How do we standardize that?
A profile for your data. You get reputation scores in different areas. Those scores are determined by which formulas you choose to use. You can also see your internet of things (devices, pets, objects) is on the bottom right, while you’ll also be able to create gaming characters using your own data.
You can complete quests within Galapag.us to gain experience. Some tasks will be data-gardening for other people, some will be to introduce gaming elements, others will be to visit lesser-seen parts of the site. But mostly the quests should be geared towards helping others.
Four years ago I wrote a longish post about how much Dubya and Obama had influenced my life. Basically, a coming-of-age while Dubya was governor of my state and owner of my baseball team, and then president of my country, and then commander-in-chief of my military-issued Army body, followed by the emergence of Obama from the Senate and from the best-seller lists to provide a return to a more sensible America.
The Last Four Years
Since Obama became President, I finished up my degree in foreign policy, studying alongside future foreign service officers, UN & World Bank leaders, etc., saw the cocktail-drinking elite crowd that David Brooks (why do you guys keep reading him?) sniffs derisively at while actually being one of them.
I worked for a couple years for Homeland Security, exploring the fringes of national security and learning just how little is in public awareness, such as the worsening Missouri/Mississippi river floodings/droughts, the Mexico-Guatemala-border cartel violence that led to Operation Fast and the Furious, the hush hush arms race between crackers and the government that led to AntiSec. Getting to learn about the goings-on of border towns and small cities struggling with the aftermaths of tornadoes and downsizing and local corruption. Seeing the Plaquemines parish forums light up after Deepwater Horizon, seeing anonymous bloggers and Twitter users report cartel movements in Mexico border towns because all the journalists were silenced/murdered. In the reeds.
Then I decided to move to NYC for more school, mainly to get immersed in startup culture and in learning coding the hacker way. The first year was tumultuous but I produced pretty good work — I attempted most of the project goals I set for myself already before NYU-ITP, while this school year I’d like to pursue two key ideas. One, Galapag.us, my reputation ecosystem, which will be my final thesis project. And two, an idea Monkey Pope and I threw around about having a site that sells unfashionable men sets of basic must-have clothes, which are then zeroed in upon arrival by a tailor.
The last school year ended with a whimper. Got dumped (second time in a year), had to move out of my place, didn’t know what I’d be doing over the important summer break, wasn’t feeling it from NYC. But it vastly improved: I got a paid internship at a tech startup (which is what I came to NYC to do), I met a woman who has proved to be someone who not only can keep up with me, but who also enjoys it and tests me (all very difficult things to find), and I’m happily living in Stuy Town in Manhattan. I’m pretty comfortable flipping from Arduino code to Python to crunching big data to building a kickass prototype, thanks to ITP. And I still have a whole school year to continue to improve. NYC taketh away, and NYC giveth. But NYC also means culture, big money, melting pot of ideas, massive opportunity, and, surprisingly, liveability.
So the Republican message from the RNC convention was, “Are you better than you were 4 years ago?” This old Reagan line is intended to blunt the Obama Hope message of 2008. It is intended to pick off the voters who vote mainly on an economic agenda, since the Republicans know they’ve isolated themselves from all but the most morally traditional die-hards on moral and religious issues.
My response? Yes, I’m better than I was four years ago. I spent 2001-2007 preparing for or acting in the service of the country after it was attacked by Al-Qaeda, who took advantage of our ignorance and lack of action. A small segment of the American population which concluded its military service in years since has fallen behind other Americans in many respects, because it chose to serve the country in its time of need instead of pursuing “rational self-interest”, a core Conservative belief. Americans after World War 2 were united by experience, whereas Americans during GWoT scarcely shared anything, anything at all.
Since Obama came in, my life has gone from pulling shift work on holidays and overnights in helping in some very small way to protect the nation towards creating cool cutting-edge shit in Silicon Alley, in the belly of the Manhattan beast that churns out culture, fashion, art, comedy, publicity, utility, productivity, business. I’m far closer towards building the future for myself and my family-to-be than I was in service of my country, an isolating enterprise.
Is the rest of the country? Well, obviously not — but it’s disingenuous to put the blame on Obama unless one also points the finger at the pursestrings that is Congress. But this is politics, so one shouldn’t be surprised. Public understanding of how Congress affects the workings of the nation is pretty low, possibly as low as the public’s approval of Congress itself.
A more accurate description of the last 4 years under Obama has been a massive churn. People write of a lost generation since 9/11, where middle class wages have dropped, the safety net and minimum wage are not enough to do their jobs, and the nation is polarized. But that’s not entirely accurate either. Inequality is the story: some people have become fabulously more wealthy and better-off, while some have completely dropped off American society’s radar — and the rest of everybody else has just held on, trying to make it with a harder job but less satisfaction. The churn I feel is structural, though most think it’s cyclical. The nation’s treasuries have had to absorb massive blows from military expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan and then bailing out a corrupt Wall Street whose tantalizing greediness sucked in both our most-talented kids as well as a labyrinthine system of new financial instruments along with high-frequency trading systems to arbitrage them.
But the lack of integrity in the core Republican message of “the last 4 years sucked” just isn’t going to have legs. They bring no grand vision which will unite their party — somewhat surprising considering before Obama took the stage, the Republicans appeared to have a bulletproof national campaign. The Republicans are playing a short-term game against a long-term winner (Obama, one of the most formidable figures in American history ever…more on that later).
I wrote a post earlier in January of this year about the election coming up in November. The stuff on Mittens and Bain stuck to some degree, and now there’s more about his wife’s dressage horse, his multiple houses, his sheltering money, his disconnect from the middle class he’s courting, etc. [N.B. I even wrote this before the campaign-ending tape came out with Mittens telling a private audience that 47% of the country is made up of victims who will vote for Obama no matter what.]
But Mittens is bizarre, because he’s not even a Republican’s Republican. Absent from RNC were quite a few themes that fell into style recently: the Tea Party, Palin, national security. Obama effectively negated the national security edge for the Republicans by doing that little thing…I don’t know, I forget…oh yeah, sending Navy SEALs to shoot bin Laden in the face. The Tea Party, predictably, disagreed with the Party, and Palin is a damn fool. The Tea Party was not even mentioned during the convention, was it?
I’m trying to understand Mittens better. He’s just so maddeningly obtuse. I’ve said it before but I keep hoping he’s Bruce Wayne. He’ll disappear for 7 years in Asian prisons, getting to know the criminal element and the life of those less fortunate. Then he’ll be taught by R’as al-Ghul about guardians and destroyers of society, and then he’ll return to the US to become a seemingly wealthy playboy by day but a vigilante servant of the goodness of society by night. I keep hoping.
The truth is it looks like Mittens is a cloistered politician who doesn’t even know that that’s what he is. I mean, here’re photos of him as a 17-year-old at a Republican convention, which he attended because his dad was Governor of Michigan. Career politician family. I am flummoxed that he would joke about being unemployed at a time when there’s such a high number of long-term unemployed. He says this because he honestly believes he is unemployed and running a campaign out of the goodness of his heart, and not because he’s no longer a private equity dude (e.g. leeches who prey off companies at their weakest). That he’s associated with being a business dude seems strange, because it wasn’t he who was entrepreneuring a new company or selling a good product, he was trading debt on other peoples’ work. Everything derivative, nothing original, nothing bold, now fantastically wealthy off escalating amounts of investment income. Wall Street and finance types are NOT businessmen. Business folk are Bezos, Gates, Hsieh, that hard-working family that does your dry cleaning or runs your local deli.
If anything, here’s what Mittens represents about business: “consults” others on how to do their jobs, doesn’t actually know how to do any job himself, and got over-promoted above his capability level. Sound like people you know in YOUR office? Business, this pinnacle of self-correcting efficiency, is FULL of people who are supposed to lead but don’t even know how to do, or follow.
I say Mittens is cloistered because I really don’t think he allows himself to view criticism of himself, or to see what the American public is dealing with. He was taped saying he thought the trees were the right height in Michigan, TWICE, the second time after he got pilloried in the press. Did he not get briefed on how dumb a comment that was? Furthermore, he has mentioned in more poppy interviews that he liked Twilight, and said, “I’m kind of a Snooki fan”. Probably the pop culture equivalent of Sarah Palin saying she reads “all of” the magazines and “a vast variety” of them. He either 1) doesn’t give a damn what people say about him (which is scary since he’s running for President) or 2) he literally has no connection with large segments of the American public.
Contrast this behavior with Obama’s upbringing. Obama wrote 2 books before running for office, but what was interesting about those books was that Obama was framing his life as a fascinating, varied, expansive adventure through American society. The intent of all this, including describing the equally fascinating stories of his parents and family, was to show the country that he deserved the highest office of the land, that he represented America, that he would understand how to deal with the broad array of issues a President would be faced with. He wanted to convey that he had walked the walk, put in the time, would bring honor to the presidency.
This message didn’t play as well against McCain (which made Palin even more puzzling as a choice) since McCain was a war POW. Then again, McCain was an entitled, protected product of nepotism who also played pranks on people (Dubya did this too) and managed to crash planes not just once (which would get most pilots taken off flight duty) but multiple times. The myth, the narrative, trumps reality.
But it is crushing to Mittens. Mittens is a nice enough family man I suppose, and would have been fairly harmless as just another rich person, but he’s completely inadequate for the presidency. And we don’t need nice familymen who made some money to be in a position dealing with an expressly-granted mandate to lead the military, protect the public interest, and advance a wide range of American priorities (you know, all the shit other than lowering taxes and gutting government).
He has not been in the reeds, he has not seen how the rest of America lives. No respect from me. I’d like to see him live anonymously. I’d like to hear him, and other rich types, or DC types, or whoever else overlooks those without power, talk about, say, all the people I see every day who, expecting nothing in return, make my day better. The very smiley old Korean lady at my old laundromat in the East Village who said I was handsome and find a wonderful woman to marry, her co-worker who never forgets which bag is mine even though it looks like everyone else’s, my Russian Jewish barber Mila in the East Village who tells me about her beautiful family and gives me kosher vodka, the bartender Noel at The Horse Box whom I witnessed handle the ENTIRE bar by himself on an NBA Finals game night, the checker at Duane Reade who’s tired of the city and is moving to Rochester, the folks at my bagel place who every morning when I grab a quick bite ask how school is going or where my girlfriend is or teach me new words in their language, the bartender Graham at 7A who says he will always listen to my problems, the Arab kid at the deli who’s studying foreign policy and asked my opinion of Iran, the dude at the front lobby of my office who never ceases to give the nicest “have a good night” wave, the people who when you just ask how their day is or how much longer till they’re done with their overnight shift, light up and realize that you actually care about them and don’t think they’re just low-wage incompetents. Those are the hard-working folks, the delivery guys who spend all day running food to the rest of us in the rain, at late hours of the night, hustling their asses off to make a few bucks on the streets of NYC. Those are the people who feed, support, help the rest of us get through our days, particularly as I’ve learned in Manhattan. I feel more kinship with these people than I do with the shit hangers-on who sit at their desks all day perusing light blue shirt and red tie combos on Pinterest and maybe getting a memo done about sending 50,000 more troops to Nowherefuckitallistan before complaining about how tired lunch made them (e.g. what happens in DC while, you know, the kids mentioned in their Afghanistan policy memo are sitting on a less-than-20-person patrol base surrounded by Taliban).
That’s the stuff I’d like to hear from someone like Mittens. Instead, we get him on tape saying that a town’s pride, its baked goods, must be from 7-11.
We deserve better than this shit.
The emergence of Paul Ryan was fairly interesting to me for two reasons. One, he’s the perfect DC type. Very athletic, younger, very studious on economics, probably wears those douchey button-up seersuckers and herringbones that DC folks love to wear throughout their days of, whatever it is, critiquing other peoples’ policy memos and browsing LivingSocial for shit to do on the weekends, to get away from the “fat tourists” who sully their city that they don’t use. The other interesting thing is that he has disavowed his hero worship of Ayn Rand.
I admit I’m fascinated with Ayn Rand. I mean, get a load of her. She was an immigrant who falsified documents to get to the US, and then she tried to cozy up with people in Hollywood, and then she wrote simple Manichean jerky books and essays about how economic self-interest is essentially Americanism (after she came around from hating democracy to loving it) and how being an asshat is justified because by only caring about yourself, you will prevent collectivist thoughts which would turn America into the totalitarian state Rand grew up in. To Rand’s credit, wow, she worked her tail off and totally bought into being an American citizen. Her theory of pursuing self-interest at all costs is completely unrealistic, and was layered into some pretty shitty L. Ron Hubbardish fiction, but I guess at the time, when communist thought ran rampant through Rand’s writing/intellectual peer community, she had at least an excuse to be paranoid. She crystallized self-interest in a way that no one else had, so much so that she continues to be popular today. But her view of the world, it’s so extreme and completely unrealistic and unbalanced that you have to question anyone who would want to apply it across the broad section of American life instead of treating it for what it is: intellectual exploration.
Anyway, Ryan disavowed Ayn Rand because her views against any kind of collectivism run right into the other pillar of Republican-ness right now: religion. She was an atheist and looked down upon religion, for what she cared most about were ideas, unique to each individual.
Can you imagine how fucked up the conservative school of thought is right now? It has to incorporate its belief in a strong military that can be used to push other countries and non-state actors into line, but it has to cut budget because it wants to starve Big Brother. It wants to take a bunker-buster missile to any sort of entitlement programs, Margaret Thatcher-style, to allow the market to fairly regulate itself by judgment of the dollar. It has to incorporate religion into a platform, but religion plays by rules separate from politics — oh, abortion? Drugs? Gay sex? These causes don’t directly lead to dollars so they’re a drag on the economic conservatives. Hell, the world’s religions have enough problems on their hands modernizing into today’s increasingly tolerant and connected world, and now politicians are trying to take the reins on them? Good luck.
I agree with the people who say that there aren’t really folks who believe in Reaganomic trickle-down theory. It’s really just about making sure that the government is smaller and that no one free-loads off the system. When I went on my trip to Ecuador this summer, there were a bunch of Americans and Swiss and Danes and a Brit. The Americans were drinking during dinner, and the topic of health care came up, because Americans LOVE to talk about health care. I wanted to peace out of that conversation so badly. Really what it was was a microcosm — drunk Americans telling anecdotes loudly about some lazy person they heard about who was living off welfare and not getting a job, while people in other first-world countries sat in disbelief that anyone would even argue about universal health care.
This particular conversation concluded with one American woman — who works in finance, I might add — saying that, although she gets scanned by TSA every time at the airport, she turns around and thanks them for their service. I chimed in, having worked for DHS, that no one at DHS thinks TSA is worth much respect at all. It gets all the funding, has a super-swank operations center, and employs low-wage people with no actual security or counter-terrorism accolades, to judge whether a bunch of already-pissed off passengers (because of shit airlines) are sneaking through with drugs in their asses or lizards strapped to their chests or some explosive residue in the soles of their shoes. EVERY DAY THIS HAPPENS. The most useless form of security. And she turns to me and says, “Well I know a guy in the DEA who says the FBI is useless, so it’s all relative and there’s always in-fighting.”
Fuck me. This is our America.
I’ve witnessed excellent leadership many times, in multiple contexts, most notably in the military. The Army taught me that looking the other way is wrong, it taught me to step up quickly and make things happen, it taught me to get things done, it taught me to always try to improve, and most importantly it taught me to take responsibility even if it’s bad, and even if I wasn’t directly involved in something going wrong.
I’ve also witnessed a stunning lack of leadership in other contexts. It’s rare that I’ll look at a politician’s biography, which I consider very important in understanding the depth and potential of a person, and be impressed. Usually well-moneyed, they came from rich families and pursued law (with no other experience) and then made a play for politics. And yet they are qualified to govern us, to “represent” us on deeply complicated policy issues in areas they would never hope to understand because they have neither the background nor the capacity to do so?
And I am expected to respect Americans who think Obama is the worst, even though objectively the guy has pushed as many, if not more, stuff in his first 4 years than most presidents in history have? I am expected to listen to conservatives talk about budget cutbacks while at war, to liberals who think they’re open-minded even though they hate religion and are on their third iPhone and sip lattes while clucking at some clever legerdemain in The Economist? I am expected to respect conservatives’ hailing of business while whole sectors in America are dominated by oligopolies? I am expected to respect liberals’ views on pacifism and negativity towards drones while they’ve never volunteered to serve to be boots on the ground instead of the safer approach of unmanned death from above?
Conservatives believe they should pay fewer taxes, liberals believe religion is the cause of ignorance and war. Liberals are wary of showing nationalism, conservatives want to make it rain vouchers in schools and God knows what else because public institutions are wasteful and incompetent.
Here’s what all that sounds like to me. It sounds like an American culture where people are afraid to volunteer their own time and bodies towards anything. Money is fine — easy enough to make a donation — but when it comes to volunteering to serve in the military or in the civil service, or when it comes to committing to a religion (by the way, religions’ core messages are always to be humble, charitable, and helpful to those less fortunate, despite what modern Elmer Gantries get notoriety for saying), or when it comes to being a proud American, or whatever, that’s when people tune out. American “duty” consists of raising a family and working hard, which are good enough values, but it’s NOT enough, particularly for men.
The problem with powerful men, and especially notable amongst politicians, is that they have been given the ability to change the world around them for the better, and yet they do not. It’s good enough for most to get paid, or to raise a family, but the true measure of a man is whether he can see outside himself and his immediate interests, and whether he can make other peoples’ lives better. Can a man be self-confident and assertive, yet still treat all walks of life as equals, and sacrifice his own safety to help the weak and oppressed?
Men are destructive creatures — it’s what they do best. But that recklessness and, to some degree, hopelessness, is also a man’s greatest strength for good: those qualities can push him to try to help others to his own detriment or destruction. That selflessness and blatant disregard for pre-established order is what could allow a man to make breakthroughs for society as a whole. I’m not saying women can’t do this either, but I’d rather a woman explain from her point of view how it’d be possible than for me to fumble through it. I know men better.
You don’t hear a thing about Afghanistan. Fuck that. We have tons of servicemembers still over there and it barely registers in the news. Last election, Iraq was a big deal, and so was Afghanistan. Obama promised to re-orient towards Afghanistan, and he did, and he even killed the big kahuna. And now he’s put an (albeit delayed) plan in place to leave Afghanistan, the destroyer of empires. Mittens cannot even hope to discuss Afghanistan in any sort of depth, just like him and the rest of the chickenhawk smalldick Republican leaders who never served can never hope to discern Chinese politicking from fat, lazy Saudi scheming in the Middle East. Seriously it would be nice to at least have a worthy Republican competitor who would not embarrass the US on an international tour, instead of figuring out ways to insult everyone along the way:
Anyway, my point is that true leaders and heroes are few and far between, those people who will stand up for something even if it kills them — and we are surrounded by people who have accepted a culture of “get rich or die tryin'”. We all need to expect more of ourselves.
The Real America, According to DC
I don’t purport to know what the real Real America is, since we live in a beautiful, massive country where my America is vastly different from that of a black bayou person in Louisiana, or a Mexican illegal immigrant sending remittances back to his family while he works his butt off in California, or some wealthy financier a few miles down the street in Wall Street, or a roughnecker or oilhand up in Alaska, or fucking Private Snuffy in Afghanistan wondering if that Afghan soldier is going to shoot him in the back, but I’ll give it a shot from what I think the political point of view is, bird’s eye view from DC. I guarantee you it is at least more accurate than what you’re hearing at either of the conventions right now.
The US absorbed two massive body blows, one on 9/11 that hit the finance district of the heart of American business and at the seat of American military Power Point power, and one in 2008 that resulted in the handing over of the reins from the government to banks in the name of saving the economy after quantitative coffer robbery.
The middle class and poor were the ones who took it in the gut. Banks are doing well, DC politicians aren’t much threatened by a changed political landscape, and Occupy was treated like a bunch of troublemaking unemployed no-gooders by even people my age. Middle income families lost a ton of wealth in the turmoil and the nation is still turning itself around economically. However, despite the resulting vast number of books calling out America as a superpower in decline, the US geopolitically, globalization-wise, militarily, and economically, is outperforming many places in the rest of the world, and those books have gone out of vogue.
The banks figured out how to make their operations even more opaque, and it dovetails nicely with what’s been happening in DC, which has been the classifying, privatizing, and disappearing of top secret contracting and government activity as our military transitions towards a drone future where fewer and fewer American lives will be put on the line, enabling for even less public outrage than we already have.
It blows my mind that a Republican public would be fine with eavesdropping of all our communications, the true form of control used in China, Soviet Russia, etc., but not fine with even the suggestion that a handgun be registered with ATF. This either shows a massive lack of understanding of the power of information after the 20th century, or an assumption that a redneck America that loves its guns is and should be the normal state of affairs and anyone else can screw off. I’m not sure which is worse. And how was that blown Fast and the Furious operation not a bigger thing in the news?
For most of my adult life I was worried about the terrorist threat but now, with most of the key players in that very particular generation of Al-Qaeda dead or detained, I’d say most of my old counter-terrorism friends have moved on and no longer see it as our chief security threat. What this leads to, along with a nation that is formidably resilient in the face of the turmoil in the last decade of absorbing so much damage, is a sort of optimism that there’s more upside than down. That we can go back to being creative, hard-working people with healthy families and tons of social mobility.
There are obstacles. Citizens United is a pretty horrid precedent, allowing corporations some individual rights. Opaque campaign financing so that ever-increasing cash reserves at companies (which are not re-investing those profits because they don’t need to or see no benefit in expanding operations) are being pushed into campaigns. See, this is where the two conflicting pillars of conservative thought are reconciled. Funnel enough money into candidates from your profits, buy them off, and they’ll give you deals to make more money, and at the same time, they will support your jackass social and moral and religious beliefs that you would not otherwise have been able to make sensible investments in. Money, in this beautiful free market capitalist society everyone dreams about, is supposed to let stupid ideas die (like disenfranchising whole segments of your population even though immigration can be the lifeblood of an economy), but in a corrupt system, money allows stupid ideas to carry on and even kill smarter ideas.
Freaking “run it like a business”. I grew up in a suburb of Dallas, TX when Ross Perot was running as the independent who sloughed votes off the Democrats because he was running on the Green Party ticket. The main reason for voting him was because he owned EDS and would come in to run the country like a business. I remember buying into this because that was what I was told, and that’s what everyone around me was saying. The philosophy grew into what has now become framed into libertarianism.
Here’s the problem. Like trickle-down, this philosophy holds little merit except as a mental exercise. It’s like a stupid business coaching book you see prominently described at the airport. It has some catchy title, it looks like it’s ball-busting cut-the-fat get-down-to-business business, but it’s really just simplistic meat-beating.
Let businesses be businesses. Let them hire and fire, grow and die, compete or not compete. May they boom and bust, create retired millionaires or leave the founders penniless. But they are not the other pillars of our society. The government is not a business — it has to answer to other forms of capital beyond financial capital. It has to respond to social and human capital. Religion is not a business too, I might add, and I’m sure within the inner circles of Republicanism, there’s some unspoken conflicts between run-it-like-a-business and help-thy-neighbor. Not even Calvinism or Ayn Rand’s contempt for altruism can get rid of that nagging feeling that you should look out for those around you, even if you don’t get a tax break for it.
So the thing is, the presidential race was over as soon as Obama was elected in 2008. No one else has been as influential as he has. I keep harping on this but Congress is where peoples’ focus should lie. According to Nate Silver’s 538 blog as of recently, the Democrats have an 80% chance of maintaining a majority in the Senate, but the more seats they pick up, the more likely they can work in concert with Obama instead of the deadlock that exists now.
The House is dire:
Stunning distribution of red states. The House is like intramural league for government. Anyone can sign up! Seriously, it contains some of the most mouth-breathing useless politicians in the country, and apparently anyone can get elected anywhere, regardless of party. Like, I think someone should run an experiment in their politics class where they choose one student to run for the House from their local district. I’m pretty sure they would win. All those ridiculous bills you hear about on TV? They come from the House, and thankfully they are usually shot down quickly by the Senate or even by the Supreme Court, right?
“We need an amendment establishing term limits for all Congressmen. I believe Congressmen should have the same retirement and medical plans as their constituents and salaries commensurate with those in the private sector. I am for a six year term limit and have signed a pledge for term limits. The two year election cycle for the House is a good thing, providing for constant turnover.” Oh hi, shots fired at Johnson?
“I oppose legal tactics to silence any opposition to the homosexual lifestyle and the state law requiring the teaching of homosexual history to children in public schools in California in grades one through twelve. I oppose the unequal balance of demands by atheists that their freedom to not honor GOD in public requires my loss of freedom to honor GOD in public.”
“Some Federal Departments could be eliminated because they are not necessary or their functions could be handled by state governments. This would cut costs and put power more in the hands of the people than Washington bureaucrats. The EPA, Department of Education, Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Department of Labor are on that list.”
Not an uncommon political ideology in Texas.
So, this election, don’t worry about Obama. He’s got this. (you should be more worried about who will run in 2016 for the Dems) But look to the House to see what the next 4 years will be like. The Senate will go to the Dems, but how strongly? The Dems I think should be pouring money into the Senate and House. The Republicans need to figure out some way to modernize their party and incorporate socially progressive views (which will pick off Dems and rope in liberaltarians), while at the same time coming up with a realistic way to deal with the necessity of government as one of the main pillars of a functioning American public life (government, business, the people, free press). And man, they also need to figure out how to incorporate immigration to reach out to non-white folk — after all, it’s been proven over and over that immigration (even illegal immigration) helps economic output and creates future generations of proud Americans.
Long rant, I know, and it’s missing tons of stuff. But I’m done with this now.
Not saying Obama’s perfect. As a wannabe hacker and media consumer, I think his handling of copyright reform, cyber-security, treatment of hackers, etc. is abysmal, particularly with regards to citizens’ privacy and eavesdropping. As a voter who relies heavily on information exchange and technology, this might be one of my top core voting values, as an Internet-American who considers online freedom and privacy as important civil rights concerns.
I’d classify myself as cosmopolitan or progressive, but I’d love to have a competent Republican party. I think the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools of thought are valuable to American politics, and most Democrats have no concept of the importance of guns, God, and limited federal power.
So we still have about 10 months of the election cycle left to deal with before Obama is re-elected. I’m not sure whether people are watching the Republican debates as a form of sport or whether it’s out of a desire to maintain the rituals of the democratic process, though I’m thinking it’s the former because there’s been almost no discussion of the Congressional races, which I consider to be far more important. After all, Congress is polling at, what, 9% approval? And has been overtaken by corporate personhood and super PACs and invisible lobby donors? And which controls the purse strings and momentum for all the reforms that the U.S. desperately needs right now?
What the Republican Nominee Would and Should Look Like?
I really thought Rick Perry would do better (I picked him as the dark horse GOP nominee), although I guess he’s not officially out yet. He shot himself in the foot more than a few times, though I still think in terms of maintaining the image of a more Jacksonian GOP, he’d be way better for Republicans than Romney. Perhaps someone like Romney crushing Perry says something different about the GOP, not that the GOP stands for any values but that it pushes through a milquetoast mitten that is closer to the middle, but which has neither the respect of even a mildly left or mildly right voter. Perry, a governor of Texas (which dwarfs Massachusetts), who is an actual veteran, etc. You’d think he’d attract the Republicans who want a bit more brawn and bravado. This was not the case though (unless there’s some miracle turn-around), so we’re left with Mittens, who I’d expect to get destroyed by Obama in a general election, especially if jobs numbers continue to improve. Maybe Dubya put such a dent in the Jacksonian personality (even after the massively Jacksonian Tea Party Movement) that Perry never had a chance.
“In August, during the run-up to the Ames straw poll, some Iowans were baffled to turn on their TVs and see a commercial that featured shots of ruddy-cheeked farm families, an astronaut on the moon and an ear of hot buttered corn. It urged viewers to cast write-in votes for Rick Perry by spelling his name with an “a” — “for America.” A voice-over at the end announced that the commercial had been paid for by an organization called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which is the name of Colbert’s super PAC, an entity that, like any other super PAC, is entitled to raise and spend unlimited amounts of soft money in support of candidates as long as it doesn’t “coordinate” with them, whatever that means. Of such super-PAC efforts, Colbert said, “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.”
“Just as baffling as the Iowa corn ads — at least to the uninitiated — were some commercials Colbert produced taking the side of the owners during the recent N.B.A. lockout. These were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too — an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. “What’s the difference between that and money laundering?” Colbert said to me delightedly.”
I remember in the last election, Rolling Stone put out a piece on John McCain which I thought really destroyed his entire career reputation. Tim Dickinson (I admit, he’s pretty lefty) wrote the piece, “Make-Believe Maverick”. It took his superficial reputation, a Navy aviator who was a valiant POW and who gave service to his country, and hollowed it all out:
“McCain’s admittance to Annapolis was preordained by his bloodline. But martial discipline did not seem to have much of an impact on his character. By his own account, McCain was a lazy, incurious student; he squeaked by only by prevailing upon his buddies to help him cram for exams. He continued to get sauced and treat girls badly. Before meeting a girlfriend’s parents for the first time, McCain got so shitfaced that he literally crashed through the screen door when he showed up in his white midshipman’s uniform.”
“He was a huge screw-off,” recalls Butler. “He was always on probation. The only reason he graduated [from the Naval Academy] was because of his father and his grandfather — they couldn’t exactly get rid of him.”
“McCain’s self-described “four-year course of insubordination” ended with him graduating fifth from the bottom — 894th out of a class of 899. It was a record of mediocrity he would continue as a pilot.”
“Off duty on his Mediterranean tours, McCain frequented the casinos of Monte Carlo, cultivating his taste for what he calls the “addictive” game of craps. McCain’s thrill-seeking carried over into his day job. Flying over the south of Spain one day, he decided to deviate from his flight plan. Rocketing along mere feet above the ground, his plane sliced through a power line. His self-described “daredevil clowning” plunged much of the area into a blackout.”
“Soon after McCain hit the ground in Hanoi, the code went out the window. “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital,” he later admitted pleading with his captors. McCain now insists the offer was a bluff, designed to fool the enemy into giving him medical treatment. In fact, his wounds were attended to only after the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was a Navy admiral. What has never been disclosed is the manner in which they found out: McCain told them. According to Dramesi, one of the few POWs who remained silent under years of torture, McCain tried to justify his behavior while they were still prisoners. “I had to tell them,” he insisted to Dramesi, “or I would have died in bed.””
It really was quite a read. The myths that are built upon people are powerful, and while it’s not always fair to look at someone through a microscope without supporting context (we all have our flaws), I think an American public should still hope for more from someone running for the highest office in the land.
Mittens Romney didn’t come from a military background, but his basic career check for the Party is that he was a founder of Bain Capital, a private equity firm. You might think that there is absolutely no way that a private equity executive would get elected after an immense outpouring wave of resentment against anyone and anything finance-related, but you’d be wrong. Mittens worked in the private sector, “employing” people, and in finance, so therefore he is the utmost man of capitalism, especially compared to an ambiguous academic like Obama. His liberal northeastern credentials (Harvard JD/MBA, state health care in Massachusetts, being a Mormon and not a Protestant (!!)) seem not to deter him from having all but wrapped up the nomination.
A quick aside. I went to see Zuccotti last week and it was walled off with barricades and a line of cops. They are preventing Occupy Wall Street from returning. Granted, OWS had its issues, but I still think it’s sad that patriotic Americans would be so negative on OWS. Particularly, when people complain that protesters should not “occupy” someone else’s property, that is exactly the problem.
If you believe in living in a free nation, the idea that you would need a permit from the government in order to protest against it seems insane. If the government can stop you from legally protesting in a space, how is having a permit to protest from 3PM to 7PM (while making sure you have money to pay for cops, toilets, etc.) or whatever showing any real sense of freedom? Okay, so maybe the local police and government want to preserve the security of a shopping area for commerce, or they want to organize a proper police shift to maintain security where protesters congregate, and so they can handle internal problems (such as some of the crime that happened within the camps). Fine, fill out paperwork to come up with a safety and security plan. But seeking government’s approval? It really does seem like daddy making you think he’s letting you do something really cool but really he knows you can’t do anything crazy while he watches.
If we’re going to play this charade where you’re allowed to protest legally (which is a contradiction), then the public space needs to be reaffirmed in some way. Land needs to be set aside for individuals to inhabit for a protest or cause, without restraints. This brings up a ton of legal/municipal issues, obviously, but I think most of them would have to do with police being able to retain order and safety (i.e. the land doesn’t become its own autonomous area). But seeing police block off Zuccotti was something that really saddened me, not as an OWS supporter, but as someone who treasures liberty and freedom. It really depressed me at some deeper level, though I think superficially I expected it and carried on with my sightseeing.
You’re Hired (for President)
So it would seem that the only real chink in Mittens’ myth armor (short of running against the most influential politician in the world right now, President Obama), would be scrutiny towards Bain Capital. And that seems to be where the journalists and Romney’s opponents are looking now. Reuters of all organizations put out a piece by Andy Sullivan and Greg Roumeliotis on Mittens a couple days ago, “Special Report: Romney’s steel skeleton in the Bain closet”, which reminded me of the McCain hit piece:
“Veteran crane operator Ed Mossman says he was ordered to pick up a load of steel that was 50 percent above the recommended weight limit – a prospect that could have toppled the crane and sent Mossman plunging to his death. When he refused, he says, he was fired after putting in 29 years at the mill.
“The first 15 years, I had the best job in the United States, as far as I was concerned,” Mossman said. “The last five years down there got to be pure hell.”
“Meanwhile, a wave of cheap imports from Asia drove steel prices down sharply, while costs for natural gas and electricity rose. The Asian financial crisis lowered demand for mined metals, which hit the company’s grinding-ball business.
“The company, along with other steelmakers, successfully petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission for tariff rate quotas on imported wire rods and also entered the federal loan guarantee program for troubled steel companies — two remedies at odds with a free-market stance. Romney now says it was a mistake for the government to try to protect the steel industry.”
There’s not much there that would stick to Romney, since it really doesn’t get into his personality and actions, but what his firm did by proxy. The McCain piece was far more enlightening — McCain was one of those guys in the military who had a get out of jail free card because of his lineage, and he was one of the assholes who acted unprofessional, screwed up all the time, and never got in trouble for it. I think those who’ve been in the military know the type.
So here’s another hit job on Mittens: this “public interest” piece about Bain Capital and Mittens being greedy and exploiting workers as part of a “raider” firm. The video was released by a nice group called “Winning Our Future”.
Oh good, the public is now catching on to the evils of private equity. But, oh wait, who is Winning the Future? It says it supports no particular candidate. But look at the suggested videos for that link. Winning Our Future sure seems to have a lot of pro-Newt Gingrich videos! Go to the Winning Our Future web site and it at least is more open about its support for Newt. But it also says, “Winning our Future is an independent expenditure-only committee registered with the Federal Election Commission. Winning our Future may accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations” and “Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.” See how confusing this gets for regular voters? No one knows who to trust anymore, because every message now has a hidden agenda. (hey journos, this means you guys need to man up and do your jobs)
I did go to Mittens’ Wikipedia page, and I noticed something peculiar about it, even as I admit I’m pretty progressive so I might be a bit biased. Look at how white-washed the page reads:
“Romney left Bain Capital in February 1999 to serve as the President and CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games Organizing Committee. By that time, Bain Capital was on its way to being one of the top private equity firms in the nation, having increased its number of partners from 5 to 18, having 115 employees overall, and having $4 billion under its management. It had made some 150 deals where it acquired and then sold a company. Bain Capital’s approach of applying consulting expertise to the companies it invested in became widely copied within the private equity industry. University of Chicago Booth School of Business economist Steven Kaplan would later say, “[Romney] came up with a model that was very successful and very innovative and that now everybody uses.”
“His experience at Bain & Company and Bain Capital gave Romney a business-oriented world view – centering around a hate of waste and inefficiency, a love for data and charts and analysis and presentation, and a belief in keeping an open mind and seeking opposing points of view – that he would take with him to the public sector.”
He sounds like a saint!
Compare with Obama’s Wikipedia page, which is of the more dryly-written variety you’d expect from Wikipedia. One thing about Obama. I’ve certainly been disappointed in some of the things he’s done (not defend the internet in bold terms, increased corporate-sponsored government monitoring of citizens, approved detention without full rights, etc.), but he’s still the foremost politician in the world — there is no equal in terms of influence right now. I don’t blame him for some of the things the U.S. has failed at since 2008, including the massive economic restructuring that will affect us for probably the next 20 years (as we appear unprepared for tomorrow’s jobs), and for large reforms that Congress has blocked every step of the way. He’s certainly not perfect but other stuff appeals to me: killings of terrorists, which I joined the Army to help with back in 2002 after 9/11, and his (laggard) drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think he’s greatly improved the U.S. standing and has shored up some of our weaker points, but we still have large systemic issues that Congress should definitely take more responsibility in fixing.
My point with all of that above, I guess, is that the presidential election is mainly about whose myth is more successfully created and defended. It worked for Reagan and Obama. Kerry after being Swift-Boated (which was almost profanely unfair for a veteran to hear) never recovered.
And it’s sad — I guess the presidential election is just more interesting because it comes down to a few contenders, but really the main concern this election cycle should be Congress.
While most superficially-concerned voters will just say, “Vote them all out!”, this disregards an understanding that the same types of people will just get voted back in. It is a systemic issue, where those who are given the most money will then get voted in, become incumbent, and will push through laws they did not write from lobbying groups who give them the most money. They are, as Bill Moyers put it at Nieman Watchdog, “little more than money launderers in the trafficking of power and policy”:
“The United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely getting by.”
“The revolt of the plutocrats has now been ratified by the Supreme Court in its notorious Citizens United decision last year. Rarely have so few imposed such damage on so many. When five pro-corporate conservative justices gave “artificial entities” the same rights of “free speech” as living, breathing human beings, they told our corporate sovereigns “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to their pouring money into political campaigns. The Roberts Court embodies the legacy of pro-corporate bias in justices determined to prevent democracy from acting as a brake on excessive greed and power in the private sector. Wealth acquired under capitalism is in and of itself no enemy of democracy, but wealth armed with political power – power to shake off opportunities for others to rise – is a proven danger. Thomas Jefferson had hoped that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and [to] bid defiance to the laws of our country.” James Madison feared that the “spirit of speculation” would lead to “a government operating by corrupt influence, substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty.”
Do we know who our senators and representatives are, or who their opponents will be? I guess I should ask, does it really matter anymore? Even when I lived in DC, and was wired into happy hours where friends would talk about their bosses or the latest scuttlebutt on the House floor, the actual “leaders” were more like horses or riding bulls or NASCAR vehicles to me. Look at the colors on that Mello Yello stock car! Look at the senator from Utah’s vibrant coat and mane! Look at MPAA master that bucking New York representative for the whole 9 seconds! Sponsored by Levitra, the New York Stock Exchange, and Charmin Bath Towel. Speaking of Charmin, “Enjoy your go” this November, America.
For last night’s Red Burns – Applications class, one of the group presentations addressed #OccupyWallStreet. I don’t usually speak in large groups anyway, mainly because I really, really hate fighting for my turn to speak, but #OWS is tough because it really makes me seethe to listen to people talk about it. It’s the same thing on Twitter. Even the group itself, which went to Zuccotti Park (I don’t believe in calling it Liberty Park till it has a breakthrough, and I think it fitting that they are occupying a private park named after a real estate mogul) often in order to document the experience and take part in it as well, was split on how it felt about the protest. A few classmates stood up to say that they are tired of protests and they don’t believe anything will ever change as a result of them, and they’ve seen it before from where they used to live (San Francisco, Phillippines, youth activist efforts). One said that they didn’t go because they didn’t understand what #OWS wants.
Maddening. I kept myself distracted by wrestling with a re-install of MySQL on OS X Lion, which I’d fucked up earlier in the day.
Here’s the problem I have with my fellow Americans with regards to #OWS. These same people, who spoke glowingly of the noble, courageous efforts being undertaken by the downtrodden working classes in the Arab Spring become strangely silent when it comes to American-born protests. On Twitter, I follow a lot of security people and people you would consider to be in the consulting, intellectual, and management classes. While they tweeted up a storm on the Arab Spring, presumably because of its implications for regional security, when fellow Americans voiced their disapproval with current conditions (which are, I think it’s still under-appreciated, historically bad in terms of income inequality and prejudiced against the public good, reaching levels only seen before the Great Depression), these people mocked them or ignored them.
It was the same during the summer and fall of Tea Party movements in 2009. And during the anti-war protests. Mocking or ignoring.
I went to most of the Tea Party rallies in DC. I was in DC during the inauguration, inauguration concert, OBL killing, government shutdown crisis, and other massive rallies (immigration, gay rights). The tenor of the city has definitely changed since Obama came in.
While I disagreed with the Tea Party (mostly I think they do not understand the role of public policy at all) and thought its invocations of history were bankrupt (read my blog posts here and here), I do think they were symbols that the Jacksonian school of thought is well and alive in America, and I felt sad that fellow Americans saw conditions as being so bad. The stupid two-party system, which has existed for, what, two centuries or something?, is now infused with corporate money and shadow organizations, introducing into our political DNA a pernicious political rift that only pits Americans against each other.
I do think that #OWS directly addresses the chief problems within the American system today. We are fortunate enough in this country that we do not have one simple demand, which is what people seem to be looking for. In other countries, this “simple demand” might be the removal of a corrupt dictator. That is the danger of singular cause movements. It focuses, essentially, on one person, or one group/class of people.
Saying you don’t understand what #OWS wants sounds precisely alike to me as when people say, “I don’t understand computers/science/math, it’s too hard.” Were you just supposed to know it intuitively? No, you have to go read about it and study and research it. There are two billion articles about why #OWS doesn’t have or want a simple list of demands. There are plenty of theories about whether they should seek specific issues later or just try to organize at this point. It should be noted that the Tea Party kind of fell off the rails once it was co-opted by politicians, was confronted for its fringe elements, and came up with its specific list of demands. Specific demands alienate people who were on board with some ideals but not others.
So saying you don’t understand #OWS is an intellectual cop-out. I am disappointed that master’s-level students would use this argument.
Another point which some of the group members who presented brought up was that while #OWS may not amount to much, it is still important in itself. The beauty of seeing the General Assembly, of seeing humans together, figuring out systems of hand gestures for communication or innovating low-tech solutions, forming working groups, blending internet viral activism with Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper tactics; this is really important stuff. If I had kids, I would want them to see that shit. I would want them to see humans self-organizing, sharing, communicating, seeking a shared future. When I went to Zuccotti Park and to the Washington Square Park protests, that was the real deal fucking Holyfield, seeing humans do what they do best: transfer information.
Some people are waiting for heroes to emerge to lead the movement. They inevitably bring up MLK Jr. The problem is, if you’ve ever read about MLK Jr., most of his life was spent being extremely frustrated with the impact of his work. He was thrown into fits of despair often when he would attempt to organize and galvanize people and it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t produce the results he wanted, either from getting the majority out into the streets, or in achieving political results. It wasn’t until things magically came together at some of the larger national protests that his voice took root and now the legend has taken over. But MLK Jr. was depressed during most of his time during the Civil Rights Movement. Being a “hero” is often a lonely experience. It ended in his assassination, and in JFK’s, and in RFK’s. If that is not a somber message about the role of heroes, I don’t know what is.
Anonymous has been interesting. It plays a fringe role in the Occupy movement, while it was pretty much center-stage on its own a year ago because of Wikileaks. I doubt many people actually saw V for Vendetta (like they didn’t see the Tea Party rallies or #OWS events either) which is the basis for the Guy Fawkes Anonymous masks that you see more and more these days. I think one of the most poignant scenes in that film is when the girl in the Anonymous mask is killed after she is caught putting up graffiti. After that, the social contract between the public and government breaks down, and the movie concludes with a sea of Anonymous masks converging in London, eventually overrunning the police and unmasking themselves to return to their real identities. Anonymous is some kind of Hobbesian manifestation that bothers people in that it reminds them that the strongest, most powerful man is still just a man, able to be brought down by the weakest, least important of men.
During a decade of post-9/11 hysteria, with all the stupid regulations from TSA, the newly-authorized secret spying on Americans based on mere suspicions, the corporate-endorsed wiretapping of internet service providers, anti-Muslim sentiment, and overseas military/intelligence/covert adventures, the anti-war movement barely registered. It was kept at bay by a respect for the warfighters and their tasks. It was kept at bay by apathy.
But most of all, it was kept at bay because very few Americans have ever actually participated in the armed services or known someone very close to them who has. Military bases are positioned well outside the normal paths and travels of most people, so unless military blood is in your family, you’ve probably never seen the sprawl outside Fort Benning or seen the old World War 2-era barracks or even seen many people in uniform except at sporting events and in Grand Central Station.
So these servicemembers have lived a silent decade, where friends have died, some have lost limbs, others have lost their minds. They can’t talk about it in public, because 1) no one will understand or 2) they will be put on display like they’re in a zoo. There is no shared sacrifice among the American public for military service. Just imagine how much more insular it is within AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other large civil service programs!
The people who didn’t protest out of respect for the troops, I question their logic. Had they shared the sacrifice, it would have been their necks on the line. Servicemembers aren’t really going to protest war — they volunteered to do service for the government. It requires attentive citizenries to defend the usage of servicemembers in warfighting for appropriate contexts. That civilians have abdicated their responsibilities towards the servicemembers of the U.S. is the ultimate slap in the face. But perhaps it also says a lot about the military, that it will continue to do its job professionally. The Army keeps rolling along.
So pardon me if I question peoples’ stated intentions for participating or not participating. Or maybe it’s not so much that, but the dismissiveness which those people give to OTHER people giving a damn about something.
I think that might be the only time I really get pissed. When people denigrate the efforts of others. When they put down or make fun of people who are trying to do something, anything, to make things better. That is the worst kind of cowardice, whether it’s born out of elitism or out of past failures or out of being afraid of future failures. Negative people tend to be reacting out of their own insecurities.
Maybe what topped the class off was sensing the disparity between the divided class and Red Burns, the mater familias of our program and a woman who’s changed the way thousands of people (at least) see the world. She is old and feeble now, and hard to hear, and definitely stubborn, but she obviously thinks #OWS is something important for us to pay attention to. But students, whom she is probably 3 to 4 times older than, ignore her hints that #OWS is a gamechanger. She has a keen eye and most importantly, has experience that is directly relevant to our futures, and yet I feel like she was being dismissed.
Back when I was at Georgetown, I was picked by my program’s staff to represent the program at the Achievement Summit, which brought together people like George Lucas, Bill Russell, Desmond Tutu, Sylvia Earle, Michael Dell, and many others, to talk to us grad students about what to do with the rest of our lives.
The overwhelming message was not that we should pat ourselves on our backs, but that we had a deep responsibility towards society. Given all these opportunities, privileges, and advantages, our role in life was to be leaders and to always look to better the lives of those less fortunate. We were told that our job was to take the hands of others and help them succeed as well. Our job was to use our talents and creativity and personal security to try things that were extremely risky, knowing they might fail, hoping to build something wonderful for the world. If we, the privileged few, were not going to take risks or to look out for others, then who would?
That resonated with me but I’m not sure how much it gets to others.
When I was in the Army, I had my clearance temporarily suspended (but got it back later, since nothing was officially wrong with it) because I was blogging and taking photos of my experience in Iraq. There weren’t the chilling effect regs there are in place now, which have stifled almost any word coming out of our overseas theaters. When I studied and worked in DC, my classmates and friends would refuse to use Facebook or other social networking because, mostly, they were afraid that employers would find out!
Now I would have trouble hiring someone who DIDN’T appear on social media, but I get that privacy is a big deal. You should still show up SOMEWHERE though.
Anyway, here’s the kicker. America is indeed the land of opportunity. You can come here as a poor immigrant and build a pretty good life for yourself and your family and your kids. But you will probably have to keep your head down and stay out of trouble. You will most likely not be able to have an opinion, or to campaign for the ridiculous idea of equal rights for all people. You will have to act in your professional life like you never drink or party, that you never have a controversial opinion. You will have to get slapped in the face and take it, because you understand that that’s what it takes to just get by and raise your family.
And my generation feels that tension at the higher levels. You better have a squeaky clean resume if you want to go into finance. All your outward correspondences better relate to your work (how many Twitter folks do you know who ONLY tweet about their work stuff? it’s kind of sad sometimes). You better fit in or else you’re not going to get paid. You won’t “succeed” in life.
I worry that kids coming out of higher education are ready to subvert their entire personalities just to get a job. One problem with income inequality is that it narrows your choices. Instead of being able to find employment in a variety of services or good production or data analysis or entrepreneurial endeavors, you have to pick health care or finance or business or law. Or you work as a barista. There’s not as much in between, particularly outside of the large cities. It hollows out society. And thus you have to jump through more hoops to reach the higher echelons. You have to keep your head down, calm down and carry on.
I don’t think any of us want to see the U.S. become a place where the calculus changes such that people would much rather set themselves on fire or stand off against the military because they have no hope of jobs, families, or future. Right now most people still have options (though with vastly increasing structural unemployment, I worry this will change).
I don’t fault the companies so much. They are doing what they should be doing. Making money wherever they can, sending lobbyists to live lavishly in DC to represent their core interests, to evade taxes as best they can legally. They are winning the policy war in DC.
Mostly it is government failing to assert itself as a balancer of public, private, security, innovation interests. We have a complete failure of political leadership. And while government protectionism of business stymies much of public ability to organize and voice its own opinion (since business employs much of the public), I still do blame at least a little the citizenry for not drawing the line somewhere.
We are just all too busy fighting for our own little Americas, instead of building a new inclusive American Dream. I don’t think any of us were raised to be overtly tribal, but the system rewards those who do.
This is all the prism that the nation sees the #OWS movement through. It’s a depressing state of affairs. People arguing for separation of corporation and state, for denying corporate personhood, for removing private shadow financing of political campaigns, for increased enforcement by government agencies tasked to do what they currently are not doing, for balancing out the business-government-public-media equation so that they are all properly warring against each other. These are not crazy concepts. These systemic problems have been identified and much has been written on the subjects.
I don’t think my point is that everyone must participate in #OWS, but that those who don’t should not condemn it or dismiss it, for whatever reason. It has fringe. Yes, of course. Everything inclusive has fringe. Fellow Americans are taking part and we owe it to ourselves to understand it. We owe it to ourselves to care about SOMETHING in this life outside of ourselves and the kids, products, whatever we leave behind. How sad is it to see our best and brightest, our graduate students and creatives and intellectuals, saying they are “tired of protest” or “don’t think anything will change”? Have they given up on life already? Don’t we want to see our children be proud of what we have accomplished as human beings? I want my kids to look at me as someone who gave a shit about something and stuck to it. Or, to be, as Bill the Butcher says, “the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”
So here’s a challenge I guess. Who do you want to end up being? Will you end up defending your own interests at the expense of a majority’s? What is going to end up being so important to you that you will do dumb things and sacrifice your time and humiliate yourself for, just because you believe in it? And do you want to be the kind of person who puts down the beliefs of others? Will you try to work with them to build something better? Or will you keep your head down? Are you your fucking khakis?
A final note. Our guest speaker, Frank Migliorelli, an ITP alumnus from way back, was a great speaker, the kind of person you want to work with. All the junky debate and politicking that people get engaged in melts away when around someone like this. He’s passionate about education, about the opportunities and cool new niches that one could do the next project in. You forget about all the other stuff and you just want to make cool things. I’m happy that he ended the class on a good note, and I hope that he and others like him win the good fight.
We live within a culture where negative feedback is purposefully avoided. You can’t “dislike” on Facebook, you can only “+1” on Google+. Yelp was rumored to have strong-armed companies into paying to get rid of bad reviews. Online sites like Consumerist are attacked by businesses who claim they’re unfair. Most companies purposefully hide their contact numbers on their sites so you can’t easily call them (because if you’re calling, you probably have a problem with them!), you can’t cancel service on a web site and usually have to call, people avoid conflict and argument, companies set up complex levels of firewalls to prevent angry customers from getting anywhere, etc.
It goes further. The world’s standard for measuring national improvement is Gross Domestic Product, which only tracks consumption in a very crude way. Simon Kuznets, one of the architects of the GNP metric, admitted, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income… Goals for “more” growth should specify of what and for what.” But this forewarning was ignored. If someone gets cancer and has to purchase a bunch of equipment and pills and spend money in the hospital, this is counted as a net positive for society because of the purchases, even if all these resources are being spent on one person who is unable to contribute to society while sick. The U.S. government (!) is protesting credit rating agencies’ assessment of its indebtedness, where both the U.S. government has been profligate and the agencies have been corrupt in currying favor with the U.S. one moment and then trashing it the next.
The stock market, currently in shambles within the last few weeks, has scared nations yet again after a shock only three years ago. Predictably, the Greek government, which has watched its economy grind to a halt and reach almost-default levels, has decided to ban short-selling of stocks for two months. This is essentially an ideological move. Short-selling, where you make money by betting on a stock going DOWN, not up, has always been seen by non-market people as, in varying degrees, dastardly, unpatriotic, illegal, and even dangerous. It’s that last point regulators focus on. They believe that short sales by people who hate a company can drive a stock to zero. Meanwhile, market folks know that short selling actually adds more transparency, information, and support to stock prices, because there will be pressures pushing the stocks both up AND down, and not just up. The problem in a market without short sellers is that without them, when buyers disappear, prices collapse completely. No short sellers would be covering their positions.
And this says something else about markets. Very few people actually understand how they work. Virtually all the mainstream articles being written about the latest downturn are just flat out WRONG. You’ll get guys like this, who tell you to stay in the market so you don’t risk the upside (again, it’s always about things going up). He goes on in another piece to say that Wall Street is irrelevant! The Daily Beast, usually a pretty savvy digest of the most important stories, has turned to mush when it comes to the markets. Otherwise very intelligent people I follow online also have very flawed notions of how the markets work. The lack of economic understanding is frightening when you consider that these people probably know a little bit more than the politicians elected to vote on policy for government role in the economy.
I’d prefer to read people like George Friedman, who emphasizes that it is not just economy, but political economy, that we must talk about. Politics and the relations between power groups affects most of the dynamics in our lives, and we cannot act like the economy is some neutral entity that is impervious to human mistakes and designs. The “economy” is intimately wrapped within the designs of men.
I had to quit watching the daytrading IRC channels because even those high-frequency traders had what was basically a cynical Ayn Rand-ish slash Gordon Gekko slash Snake Plissken view of the world where you’re only successful if you cut others’ throats to get to where you are. Their adaptability to changing market conditions was highly questionable. Basic economic principles were ignored. But hey, they made good money so I can’t complain too much.
I would agree with Richard Florida (PDF), Umair Haque, Tim O’Reilly, and some others that we are in the very early, ugly stages of a transition to an eudaimonia society, from a purely consumerist society. I believe that we need to be able to take an honest look at how our society is structured and allow for more negativity in our metrics. We need to develop the capacity to take criticism, to be voted down, to be shamed when we do things that are wrong (a concept crudely and devastatingly wielded mostly by religion), to take a more holistic look at everything impacting our lives. Pure revenue should mean less if it comes at the cost of environmental degradation, pollution, lack of time at home raising families, lack of sleep, abuse from employers or manipulation from unions, etc.
Eudaimonia is a term fit only for us classicists, but @umairh's concept of the economics of the good life is spot on http://bit.ly/l25koR
“I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We’re not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live–but why we live, work, and play.”
The goal is for people to be able to pursue middle-class professions in fields that they are talented at, to unlock their creative potential, instead of shoe-horning people into certain professions if they want to live any kind of decent lives for themselves. The goal is for people to have a successful career but also a family to raise, a community to participate in, and a healthy life. The way society is constructed now, as I’ve said before, is a zero-sum kind of get-rich-or-die-tryin’ mentality where everyone is incentivized to fuck everyone else over, at least until one becomes wealthy enough to think about maybe working on philantropy for others.
These indicators are far more in line with how we actually consider the world subjectively. They capture our concerns, worries, and understanding of how much we feel safe living in our communities. But all of the factors are ignored in the top-line metrics that we use.
Which is sad because we live in an era now of big data. The top quants in the nation are working in finance, insurance, computer science, crypto. Yet the metrics we use for our own well-being and happiness are crude “neutral” measurements from another century.
The above chart shows the disparity between how the U.S. economy is measured through GDP versus how it is in actuality. In short, we have hit a plateau in our quality of life for almost 60 years, while our GDP measurement seems to indicate we’re much “richer” per capita. It coincides with increasing income inequality, measured through the Gini coefficient:
They show that our society as a whole probably peaked in overall access to happiness somewhere in 1968.
In short, we have insulated ourselves from seeing the negative aspects of our society. Amartya Sen calls this phenomenon “hedonic opulence”, Anielski calls it “chrematistics”, Clive Hamilton calls it “affluenza”. We believe that we can grow our way out of poverty, that if we have enough positives in a society, that we can just overwhelm the negatives. But the truth is that the negatives impact the bottom line of growth and positivity. A community full of pollution and crime will stop creative processes from flourishing there. A sick populace will be less productive at work, impacting overall economic success.
“Too much and too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product [GNP]… – if we should judge America by that – …counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
This is why I want to work on Galapag.us as my life project. It is an ecosystem for reputation. All the things you’ve worked on in your life are aggregated into metrics of your own design. The most popular metrics (say, success at being a contributor to your community, looking at data such as your volunteer work, church life, money donated, time spent tutoring other people or children, household income, trustworthiness, crime record, etc.) would be voted up to the top. We would not be constrained to just GDP. We could build our own metrics. Then those local, individual metrics could be aggregated for county level, state level, all the way up to national level. The data is anonymized as it is grouped, or, if you choose, fully identifiable and open if you are an open person.
The imperative, though, must be on more transparency and accountability. If we as individuals can’t handle being criticized publicly, then we can’t expect things to improve at higher levels of organization. Being criticized is not always a bad thing. If the criticism is fair, you should improve yourself with it. If it is unfair, your detractor should be penalized for making false statements. We do not have this kind of global feedback system in place. We are victim to flash mobs, anonymous attackers, stalkers, people who suffer no negative feedback from their actions. Galapag.us would fill this hole in the internet’s identity layer while still providing degrees of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.
Daniel Suarez’s seminal but overlooked books, Daemon and Freedom (TM), suggest deprogramming the “Non-Player Character”/NPC dynamic of being trapped within a world of simplistic metrics (the quotes below are from Freedom (TM):
“What do we look like to a computer algorithm, Sergeant? Because it will be computer algorithms that make life-changing decisions about these people based on this data. How about credit worthiness—as decided by some arbitrary algorithm no one has a right to question?”
“Imagine how easily you could change the course of someone’s life by changing this data? But that’s control, isn’t it? In fact, you don’t even need to be human to exert power over these people. That’s why the Daemon spread so fast.”
Suarez’s books propose that darknet hacker communities will spring up in the rural areas, away from legal restraints and the encroachment of lawyers, corporations, and other barriers to entry, creating more balanced, sustainable, networked communities for people to be rewarded at their individual trades by leveling up in the darknet world and then using darknet credits to earn a reputation and a living.
“Holons are the geographic structure of the darknet. Any darknet community lies at the center of an economic radius of one hundred miles for its key inputs and outputs—food, energy, health care, and building materials. Balancing inputs and outputs within that circle is the goal. A local economy that’s as self-sufficient as possible while still being part of a cultural whole—a holon—thus creating a resilient civilization that has no central points of failure. And which through its very structure promotes democracy. That’s what we’re doing here, Sergeant.”
“The Daemon financed this.” Sebeck turned to her. “Didn’t it?” “The Daemon’s economy is powered by darknet credits, Sergeant. Imaginary credits are all that money is.” “But there’s a theft at the heart of it.” She thought about it and nodded slightly. “Yes, the darknet economy was seeded by real world wealth. Wealth that was questionable in origin to begin with. Here, it’s being invested in people and projects that have begun to return value—not in dollars, but in things of intrinsic human worth. Energy, information, food, shelter.”
There are ways out of the messes we’re in, but most people see them as unconnected issues. But personally I see it as symptomatic of an entire society’s failure to examine itself. Gnowthi seauton. Jared Diamond-type stuff. Granted, it would be a LOT to expect humankind to be able to look at itself honestly, for humans always hope to avoid the negative and only see the good in the things they believe in, but this would be one of those points where one would hope that our civic leaders and politicians would be required to study — and therefore detect — such policy/societal failures and properly diagnose them.
Unfortunately, that is not the ruling class that we have, and we are not likely to correct these systems until an alternative system is built. Those who make money under the current system will resist, but even politicians go along with something when it’s shown to be successful. Hopefully for me it would be something like Galapag.us, but I would accept any attempts.
The only way to change our systematic problems is to build our own alternative.
One of the more popular domestic political narratives, after the most recent elections, is how progressives and liberals are losing patience with President Obama. The logic for the elections, inconceivably, was that somehow people who disagreed with President Obama’s falling into line with the Beltway mentality would then vote for Republicans and even the Tea Party candidates. Sure. Right.
I’d agree with David Brooks (who somehow manages to take off his top hat and monocle to write down notes pillaging the cosmo-drinking DC elite from the corner of a Georgetown party he’s attending with the rest of his fellow cosmo-drinking DC elite) who said in a column a little while ago that, despite President Obama’s flailing poll numbers, he is a shoe-in for a second term because there’s just no one else as compelling as President Obama. Not domestically, not internationally. I guess what the underlying message of this is that President Obama is the Tiger Woods/Brett Favre/Kim Kardashian of politics. And that’s what gets you elected.
Anyway. It has been baffling, even as someone who lives in DC, to watch Obama and other progressives defend horrible TSA precedents while leaving such glaring security vulnerabilities elsewhere. It’s been weird to see Obama waffle on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, or to continue to push for more eavesdropping, torture, secret trials, and other things you would expect a constitutional lawyer to object to on some sort of even minor grounds for an American who believes in values over survivalism and tribalism, us vs. them. It’s been alarming to see more searches and seizures, and pretty much every reaction to the Wikileaks (despite Assange being a douche). Where is the restraint? Where does this encroachment end?
The most ponderous lack of initiative perhaps is the willingness to not balance the budget and try to reduce the deficit, and then to compound it by defending Reaganomics by refusing to raise taxes for the ultra-rich, even as income inequality reaches historic levels.
The whole business just smacks of an ultra-wealthy class that sees no safe alternative for itself outside of “get rich or die tryin’”, despite realizing deep down that such an attitude for a society is unhealthy. “Get rich or die tryin’” of course has been the mantra for the United States for the last two decades or so (gangster rap and lobbyists capitalized on this pretty quickly — it took the blue-bloods a while to catch on before turning finance into a get-rich-quick theft scheme which adds little social value), and this mentality has spread across the globe as others realize it’s a more successful strategy for them to just follow along and ride the wave while they can.
Pragmatism is not a quality that the national political system finds much value in pursuing right now. While Senators, Representatives, and the Executive Branch probably have noble intentions at some level, the incentives towards chasing the money, chasing re-election, and irrational but very human game theory of screwing yourself as long as you screw your opponent more (by stonewalling in Congress) are just too great. Particularly since recent legal precedents allow for anonymous, unlimited funding of political causes in the name of freedom of speech.
Thus, it is impossible to have something like a Chinese Five Year Plan to come up with a pragmatic strategic reassessment of U.S. global or regional strategy (although the military does have quadrennial reviews), or a long-term pragmatic panel to figure out how to become debt neutral as a superpower (although this is being attempted by President Obama). Any attempts at a cohesive strategy are blown apart in the Senate or House as the debate between Keynesianism and Friedmanism/Randism continues. The GOP-controlled House, meanwhile, is promising to block all bills until tax cuts are extended to the ultra-wealthy. These are the times we live in.
This isn’t so discomforting if you’re of the belief that democracy is the least worst outcome amongst all others, as the saying goes. Maybe you believe that out of the chaos of democratic, representative politics arrives the outcome that’s most acceptable to all parties.
It will be a topic of great international affairs debate within the next century whether quasi-authoritarian governments at least in terms of strategy and planning will have advantages over the merciless political climate that modern democracy (within the U.S. anyway) promotes. Look how much interest there already is in watching whether China and smaller oil states can produce viable societies in their own top-down models or whether democracies like India or the U.S. can readily address their most dire concerns.
So what we’re left with is a hulking ship of a federal government that has yet to create enough of a crisis for itself that a leader will emerge with some vision or narrative for the country that can put to rest the unrealistic ideas of the latter 20th century. There still exists the possibility that the advent of new technologies and crowdsourcing and cloud behavior will fill the void of responsiveness and adaptivity, but this is more likely to happen at the lowest levels, where individuals and communities have the most access and the most responsibility.
Pragmatism at this time exists not within the realm of the federal government, or within states (which are led by those who seek to jump to the national level) but within the cities.
American cities are where the rubber hits the road. Dumb theories and ideas are less likely to hang around as long because of pragmatic, realistic concerns such as paying the police and firefighters and teachers and unions, while keeping crime down and raising educational levels and keeping the city from falling apart.
Washington is part of Richard Florida’s mega-region of Boston-New York City-Washington. These cities are instituting healthier meal programs in grade schools, bike-sharing programs, bike lanes, and other experimental ideas to improve the energy efficiency and economic output within the cities. If you want to see successful programs in America, look to the cities, not to states or the federal government.
You can see city-states as exceptions to their regions elsewhere: Boulder, Mexico City, Dubai, Hong Kong, Austin. These city-states exist in different worlds than the outlying regions they’re within. Different priorities, different incentives.
What I’ve seen during my time in the northeast corridor are a lot of cool initiatives that I never thought cities would embrace in the US, stuff like bike-sharing, bike lanes, healthier school menus, adding trees, putting more information and databases online, etc. That level of responsiveness is something I would never expect from some more invisible governments I’ve seen in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, etc.
I remember in 2008 when I went to the Academy of Achievement summit to listen to a lot of distinguished guests speak to grad students about how best to contribute to society. What I was struck with was the power that mayors have. Richard Daley (Chicago), Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles), Willie Brown (San Francisco) were in attendance. I even randomly ended up having breakfast with Mr. Daly.
I guess a good way to see the importance of mayors is to imagine Tommy Carcetti from The Wire. Starts out with high aspirations for bettering the community, deals with the gritty reality of managing a city, but can’t get over his ambitions to move up to governor. What if Carcetti just settled on going as far as the city level, while sending envoys to the state and federal levels to strengthen ties? What if the incentives to remain at the city level were greater such that Carcetti didn’t just lust after more power?
This is kind of rambling, but I do think there’s something actionable and powerful about the city level of society. It provides a breath of fresh air to see cities defy national calcification and implement smart ideas that help lots of people. Both the right and left are right to be distressed and alienated with the federal government right now. It’s not being responsive to today’s needs. So look to the cities, and look for the growing influence of city-states and mega-regions.
At the same time, I think it’s worth promoting more accountability of campaign finance and influence. De-linking money, particularly anonymous money, from political elections seems to be one of the best things we can do to get government officials and representatives who won’t see sucking up more cash as the highest achievement we can do both for ourselves and for our country.
On Wednesday, I went on a 5 mile run to the Capitol and back to my apartment before my afternoon shift of work began. On the west lawn of the Capitol was a fairly sizeable Tea Party rally that took up most of the greens. I’d heard a whiff of this rally while reading some of the political blogs, knowing that Michele Bachmann would be leading it, but knew little else. There were more people than I thought there’d be, I suppose, and filling that lawn was pretty decent.
I stopped at the half-point of my run to walk through the rally and to get a sense of what it was like. I’d seen the previous Tea Party that was held on the Washington Mall; it was much larger and more boisterous. The stories and photos online of some of the horribly racist, offensive, and ignorant things at the rally were true: that first rally really was a national disgrace and a panoply of the worst elements you could imagine.
However, this rally on Wednesday was not much like the previous one. Gone were the disgusting signs, replaced with signs that were far more focused on just health care and big government (and not the panoply of other conservative pet issues). It looked much more like a good ol’ fashioned American political protest.
The signs still compared Obama to socialism and communism, implying that he endorses Mao, that sort of stuff. But this at least makes sense from the perspective of people who believe that Obama is ushering in a predatory government. I have no problem with that line of reasoning from the Tea Party.
The audience seemed to be more fit this time, fewer obese and grossly overweight families. I would attribute this to the rally taking place on a weekday and with much less fanfare: people from the midwest and south couldn’t make the trip out for this one, because they had to work. This is just a hypothesis, though. The people at Wednesday’s rally seemed like the smarter, more politically savvy/motivated types.
The rally was, again, composed almost entirely of white people, most approaching their 50s or older. Again, most of the blacks, Latinos, etc. were DC and Capitol security.
This rally seemed only tainted by the large number of anti-abortion demonstrations, whereas the earlier rally in September only had anti-abortionists as a fringe element. But these people seemed to take center stage. I stopped by one demonstration, in which a man dressed up as the Grim Reaper with black covering his face, used a megaphone to mock Reid and Pelosi. Those two were played by characters wearing suits but covered in fake blood, locked in chains attached to fake baby fetuses. “Reid” and “Pelosi” wailed while the Grim Reaper taunted them about supporting abortion. I thought this was pretty grotesque, some sort of macabre scene you’d picture right before a stake-burning in Victorian England of some village witch.
“A seemingly endless parade of speakers seemed to encompass virtually the whole of the House GOP caucus.
“What really set this event apart from all others is that the long list of Republican lawmakers assembled before the crowd did so as part of a day’s work in Congress on the steps of U.S. Capitol, cheerfully facing a barrage of signs that decried Pelosi and President Barack Obama as socialists, and the president as a usurper and transgressor of the Constitution.
“Sure, you’ve heard that that story before, even bits and pieces of it out of the mouths of individual members of Congress. And, yes, U.S. senators and representatives have been present before on podiums where the Obama-as-fascist-socialist-Marxist-Muslim-foreigner story revealed itself in the chants and signage of protesters. But here was the leader of the House Republicans, addressing just such a crowd as part of his day job, leading perhaps 20 members of Congress to join that fray.”
This latest rally was a last-ditch attempt to lobby Congress to block “Obamacare”, which was debated extensively yesterday (Saturday) for a vote later that evening. I went for another run to the Capitol yesterday and there was a much smaller rally on the southeast Capitol lawn, participating I suppose in a vigil during the health care wrangling inside the building.
The President’s convoy was seen leaving the Capitol to the White House, and later I saw the Marine 1 helo convoy leaving the White House to God knows where. It was a busy day on the Hill while the rest of us DCists enjoyed our beautifully sunny and unseasonable warm weekends.
It’s pretty satisfying to be drinking beer with friends at a bar and see your House Representatives still slaving away at work.
Last night the House passed the bill and no one really knows what it all means and none of it probably matters till the Senate is ready to vote, anyway.
Here Comes the Opinion
So here’s my take on all this. Please read my previous post on the Tea Party for more context, first.
First of all, I think the Tea Party is intellectually bankrupt. The Gadsden flag, a yellow flag with a snake on it, accompanied by the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me”, is the prominent symbol displayed. This rattlesnake symbology is not really relevant anymore. Said Benjamin Franklin of the rattlesnake:
“I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”
This played well when America was an upstart group of colonies finding its cajones against an imperial British oppressor. Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project also plays off the rattlesnake, cut into 13 pieces for the original colonies. What the Hell is this supposed to symbolize back to the past? We should return to the colonial days before the Revolutionary War? Doesn’t it seem kind of silly to treat the world superpower as a rattlesnake that will bite if it’s not left alone?
Surely the thought behind this is that common working folk in America just want to be left alone and not be harassed with a corrupt, growing government welfare nanny state that usurps them through taxation.
Fine. But tie this into health care. Health care costs have skyrocketed and the system is not sustainable. The middle states will be even more burdened by this inflation of costs as the jobs that currently exist there disappear, combined with atrophying job skills.
Seriously, you want to be left alone? The American way of life will cease to be if you just want to be left alone. Encroaching corporate interests, already brethren with government regulatory precedents, are Big Brother’s brothers and sisters. You have as much to fear from big business as you do from Big Brother.
A Revised Mission Statement
The spirit of the Tea Party should be thus: elites, whether they be government or business, are encroaching on our personal rights and freedoms. Elites, whether they be government or business, seek fees, taxes, scams, oligopolies, and changes in the law in order to take away our hard-earning money. We, Americans, coming from a capitalist tradition, value first amendment rights, competition, and fairness above all.
Playing business off government is the only way to ensure proper competition: left alone, they will corrupt each other to take advantage of the people. Health care is uncompetitive, with 90% market concentration in some states. Telecom, retail (see grocery store shelf-space positioning), sports teams, et al are just some of the sectors in which we do not benefit from competitive markets but instead only have an illusion of competition. Yes, you have 20,000 products to choose from, but they’re owned by 5 companies. Yes, you have several telecom providers to choose from, but they all fix prices to be very similar, block new entrants, and are notoriously opaque about their operating practices. Yes, there are plenty of sports teams, but any attempts to compete against their leagues results in failure and artificially priced closed markets.
This is what the Tea Party should rally against. When I can see Drudge Report going off on Obama’s spending, and then go to Huffington Post to see them complaining against GM and Goldman Sachs funneling taxpayer money out to executives, there SHOULD be common interest there.
Democrats and Republicans enjoy the two-party system because they have no viable competition from new entrants. They can play off each other as it suits them and take bribes and lobbying knowing that any corruption is just written off as DC politics and not as a referendum to kill that party entirely.
The Tea Party has glimpses of being this way: it sounds like Palin and Beck are playing the populist drumbeat, fighting against the big party Republicans like Gingrich in, for example, east coast politics. But the bottom line is that the Tea Party is organized and motivated by staunchly conservative lobbyists. It is not grassroots by any means.
The Tea Party should attack it as big interests dividing and conquering the American citizen.
That the House GOP caucus made an appearance at the latest Tea Party rally might end up being a key moment. These career politicians and lobbyists, in an effort to thwart Obama and health care reform, are throwing their lot in with the anti-federal government right-wing that could just as easily turn on their masters and throw the top Republicans to the wolves when the wind changes.
So this is why I can’t take the Tea Party seriously. Clearly we need to break open all the monopolies and oligopolies that exist throughout our systems, but it won’t happen. Clearly the Tea Party could forge itself as the strong Public point of the triangle between Government, Business, and Public, but seeing as how the Tea Party is conservative, that makes it anti-union and anti-anyone who isn’t of the party (i.e. immigrants, minorities, the coasters).
When I was at Georgetown, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Eric Maskin came to speak about voting systems in the US. One of the ideas floated about in this discussion was having a multi-party election where conceivably you could come in second in every state and still win, because the people who came in first in every state were all different. That is, if there were 3 states voting:
Alabama: #1 A, #2 B, #3 C, #4 D
California: #1 C, #2 B, #3 A, #4 D
Texas: #1 D, #2 B, #3 A, #4 C
Then B would win, because it’d have gotten the highest number of higher positions. What this conveys is that party politics would become more about consensus, and not winner-takes-all. It incentivizes being less radical. It captures the silent majority’s opinions, which both the Democrats and Republicans both routinely claim backs them.
A viable third party would need something like this in order to ever be successful.
Some Final Points
Health Care Chickenhawks
A chickenhawk is someone who pushes for military aggression (usually conservative) without having ever served in the armed forces. But from time to time, Republicans have dared attack the only socialized medicine in the US outside of Medicare: military health care. Take Tom Tancredo, racist former presidential candidate. He argued that veterans want vouchers (lol, the only people who know what vouchers are are creative libertarians) instead of their government-provided health care.
Problem was, I guess he didn’t know his opponent, Markos Koulitsas, was a US Army veteran! I guess he just assumed that a liberal must be a pussy who would never fight.
So Markos laughs at Tom and calls Tancredo out for getting a deferment from Vietnam because he had depression. Tancredo got pissy and stormed off the set.
Chickenhawks are pretty vile because there’s a slew of them who continually send our nation’s children to war without having been to war themselves. This is a cardinal sin for anyone who’s been in the military: you don’t ask your soldiers to do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself. The list of Republicans, I might add, who never served, is pretty substantial.
The list is not exactly partial, nor does it include Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, who clearly never served, themselves. But let’s be honest. No left-wingers like Reid or Pelosi either, so it’s funny to see the right attack those two and expect a defense from progressives. They’ll get very little response.
My opinion is that I would rather have an integrated, digital health care 2.0. I enjoyed the days of walking into the Army clinic to get my yearly physical or shots or whatever and never having to worry about paperwork. It was done without my having to push it through the whole way.
Certainly, if I need some heart transplant, I’d want to pay for the best doctor I could find. But for most stuff? To include preventative treatment (which went out the door because of rising health care costs)? I’d rather walk into a government clinic, have it done, and never worry about it again.
The chickenhawks are examples of a larger trend: Republican ideologues are increasingly career politicians. No military experience, no public policy experience. They didn’t earn their way up through any institutions. They’ve been tucked away in think-tanks and lobbyist groups. They have no actual experience running anything, and if they did, it probably failed (see Bush the Younger, or Rove/Rumsfeld during Nixon).
Go ahead! Wiki it. Pick a Republican leader and see what his/her background is. John Boehner? He got a “bad back” and dropped out of the military, to go become a prolific House tearjerker. Phil Gramm? Got into military academy because of his dad, but then didn’t join the military. Studied economics instead, and went totally neo-liberal/Friedman (a fiery mess of economics we’re still recovering from, in reality and intellectually). Rush Limbaugh? Family of lawyers, was classified as injured and so was an emergency Vietnam draftee never called up. Glenn Beck? He was a morning zoo jockey!
I mean those were the first (and most notable) names I came up with! Total hacks. There’s absolutely no experience running anything except a media juggernaut or a courtroom there. [Note: Reid and Pelosi were little better…]
What’s worse: half these folks go absolutely gay for Ayn Rand. You know Ayn Rand. Fountainhead. Atlas Shrugged. Yes, she was a fiction author. FICTION. See this biographer talk about Rand on the Daily Show (I apologize for the lefty link). Yet she’s the heroine of some movement for entrepreneurship. Really? How many of today’s tech/social entrepreneurs love Ayn Rand? The selfishness and lack of empathy is so perfectly captured in Stephen Colbert’s book title, “I Am America (and So Can You!)”. It’s a wonderful mix of rugged narcissism and consumerism and desire for success all wrapped up in one. Even “Don’t Tread on Me” is essentially a selfish slogan. Quite a bit deal different than my old Special Forces unit’s motto, “De Oppresso Liber”, or “To Free the Oppressed” (or alternate translations).
Excuse me, but if you love small business or any kind of business, why would you advocate that businesses should have to provide health care coverage? This saddles businesses with paperwork, operating costs, and a lot of headaches that reduce their competitiveness worldwide.
It is no lie that America is home to commerce. But it’s also true that the US has some of the least competitive markets in the world. And these markets are backed by government subsidy and loose regulation.
The same for health care. For Americans who value competition so much, it just seems ignorant that they wouldn’t seek to have more competition for health care insurance providers.
I can seen an argument that the government should not get into health insurance, because governments tend to grow in influence and power and crowd out business. Okay, I can buy that. That’s why you have to have a legal spirit of regulation allowing for a government option to compete vigorously against private interests. The government option’s interest is in protecting the health of its citizens, while the private interest is to make profit.
These two must be put together in a system which encourages them to compete. This is the only way to make it sustainable.
Balance of Powers
To me, there should be a vigorously-fought balance between Government, Business, Citizenry, and the Media.
Government is currently made up of lawyers. It should be made up of public policy people whose only interest is to protect and encourage the Citizenry to be more active. That is, make sure the Citizenry is healthy, happy, and has protections and rights.
Business seeks profit. It is doing its job just fine in America, but it corrupts the country through lax regulation. While I see business as working fairly successfully, I see the Government as having been infiltrated by private interests and lobbyists so that the Government has not been doing its job of protecting the Citizenry’s interest.
Citizenry needs to hold Government and Business to account. Contesting large amounts of tax payer money for programs is key. But so is attacking companies that pollute the Citizenry’s land and environment. So is attacking the media for not providing them proper information.
The media could also use more competition. MSNBC and FOXNews are as partisan as you can get, and offer no value to the Citizenry at all. CNN is just plain worthless. There are plenty of journalists who are trained and professional enough to seek multiple views for their stories, but a corporate-dominated media structure means that ratings win, and the best way to get ratings is through opinion. Despite government-run organizations like NPR, PBS, and BBC providing good reporting, the Internet has now turned into the best source of news.
The Internet I did not include because it’s a medium, not a “branch” of government. But the Internet is the only place that still has options for the Citizenry to disrupt the other branches. This may change. If the Citizenry wants to maintain any sort of fingerhold on Business and Government, it needs to ensure that the Internet is a public space for the Citizenry to organize, learn, innovate, and experiment.
Boy, have I digressed… Sorry for this sprawling post.
Oh man, where to begin. I think I’ve been a little frustrated lately because I haven’t written in a while. So let’s get it out there so I can move on.
National Tea Party, 9/12
This last Saturday was the National Tea Party Day in DC. The Tea Party is a rallying cry for essentially Jeffersonian anti-big government, anti-taxation, anti-socialism, anti-public option Americans.
I live in DC. I went to meet some friends at the St. Regis hotel for drinks, since one of our friends was attending a wedding reception there for her friends. I think there were three weddings in the area because there were people dressed to the nines everywhere. But interspersed among them along 15th Street, since the St. Regis is due north from the White House, were tons of Tea Party out-of-towners. They wore the typical uniform of the red-blooded American patriot from the midwest and south. So imagine little black wedding party dresses and heels and tuxedos mixed in with American flag t-shirts, Don’t Tread on Me flags, large homemade posters decrying socialism, and 13 Colonies flags. It was quite a scene. Read this post for an idea of the iconography and symbology they use. Heavily Confederate, heavily Jeffersonian.
Inside the Tea Party
I am being generous in my description of the Tea Party because here’s what it really is: despite claims to the contrary (they say they are inclusionist) by those orchestrating it (Dick Armey, FreedomWorks, FOXNews, Glenn Beck), the Tea Party is almost exclusively old, white, fat Americans from the midwest and south (watch the videos, about the only minorities you see are the police, ironically…DC at least in the workplace is diverse, although not so much socially).
This panoply lends itself to legitimate elements of conservatism, as well as attracting isolationism, racism, and antiquated rhetoric, because they want to be left alone by the government, prefer Jeffersonian federalism, and couch their political rhetoric loosely around racist anti-Obama, obstructionist anti-Keynesianism, and anti-national anti-public school/health care/anything that takes money out of their pockets. As with any movement, the fringe elements make up a lot of the headlines.
The thing is, their political ideology has a strong historical foundation. The American debate has long focused around Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians arguing about central government vs. limited government, diplomacy vs. isolationism. The Tea Party certainly has legitimate doubts about the encroaching danger of a growing government, the problem of being taxed too heavily by hungry and wasteful federal programs, the desire to own guns vs. the fear of the government seeking to seize them, etc. They are the accountants of American domestic and foreign policy. Their first instinct is always to say no. And we need this.
Today’s American Policy Schools of Thought
One significant limitation with solely following this school, though, is that the world has become far more complex than these classic debates (fought out when America was not yet the superpower), and so has American history. Walter Russell Mead, author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, adds two more schools of American thought, the Wilsonians and the Jacksonians.
The Wilsonians can be best described as the non-government organizations in Washington, DC who lobby for peace in Darfur or de-mining Cambodia or human rights in China. They believe that the American freedoms we enjoy within successful democracy and human equality can be exported; we should spread those ideals abroad.
The Jacksonians are the belligerent, more realpolitik war-fighters who believe strongly in national security, honor, and individualism at any cost.
Naturally you can see that the Tea Party people take a lot from the Jacksonian movement, with their profession of faith for the 2nd Amendment, the vivid display of patriotism and love for the red, white, and blue, and resisting the “public option” of health care in favor of individualized, privatized health care.
But this is not what they choose to make the basis of their movement. They know that preaching fiscal conservatism is where they will be the most inclusive to the conservative base, judging by their organizing web sites. What’s interesting about that site in particular is that #tcot is a hashtag meaning Top Conservatives On Twitter (the libertarians’ is #tlot, the liberals are split up) and the site’s style is a direct knock-off of Drudge Report‘s site design (which I’ve since deleted as a bookmark despite it being a great place for a links, because it’s just become too much of a political EFP pushing anger at certain topics). The Tea Party Patriots web site uses film footage from FreedomWorks, the lobbying group that (and I’m trying not to be too judgmental here, but the FW logo is on everything) is pushing the Tea Parties.
I would describe myself as mostly a Hamiltonian (having had a Keynesian economics grad school education, admittedly), but I also draw heavily from the other schools: Jeffersonian appropriateness of levels of government and high requirements to declare war, Jacksonian desire for ferocity when war must be conducted and desire for militaristic honor in combat and argument, and Wilsonian dreams of universal human rights. I share libertarian suspicion of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve (and any organization that is not transparent and accountable to the people). I support companies in their mandates to earn as much money as possible, but I also think they must do it within the commonly-accepted range of American regulatory institutions protecting the public interest vigorously. I grew up in a Jeffersonian, libertarian Texas as a kid, fought in a post-9/11 Jacksonian US Army, studied at the afore-mentioned Keynesian economics institution, concentrated in a Wilsonian international development concentration.
What’s Wrong With the Tea Party?
With all that said, I feel as though I am qualified as a well-rounded American to question the motivations behind the Tea Party movement.
First of all, it is exclusionary, in that it is made up of old white people who are afraid of having things taken away from them by illegals, blacks, government, etc. As this recession becomes more severe, you can expect hatred to increase. In the past, when the economy did worse, groups like the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed higher enrollment.
I also feel it is out of touch, even down to its name: the Boston Tea Party desired representation for British taxation, in essence declaring that paying taxes was a way of expressing voting preferences. The Tea Party is anti-federal government, and desires to pay much less taxes (if not any), and thus, losing voting rights. This is a horrible distortion of the original meaning of a pretty significant declaration in favor of democracy by our forefathers.
For the Tea Party people to travel to a district (DC) that has no representation, down to the license plate (“taxation without representation”, to protest being over-taxed, seems ignorant.
The Tea Party also called itself teabaggers at first, until liberals informed them that teabagging was a lewd sexual act. Another massive blunder.
The Tea Party also will not to admit to this, but it consorts with racists. All-white crowds who bring firearms and yell down opponents? This is intimidation in its rawest and most public form: if you’re an illegal, a Latino, a black, a gay, then you better not attend. Racists rarely come out and say they hate other people (at least the white supremacists are honest about it), but it is intellectually dishonest for the Tea Party to say it is not racist while it does not censor its own members for being racist.
Again I must emphasize that the Tea Party expresses legitimate fears, once you get past the overt lobbying effort at the top of it. It is not a baseless, stupid movement. DC is a liberal town and most of the residents were unhappy to see the Tea Party show up in town. But as Mead writes,
“Divided We Coast. By the closing months of the Clinton administration, American foreign policy could have been compared to a car. In the front seat the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian schools agreed that the car should go as fast as possible, but they disagreed on the best course. Their feet were together in pressing on the accelerator, but they wrestled for the wheel. Jeffersonians, meanwhile, sat in the back and exercised the classic privilege of the backseat driver: They complained loudly and irritatingly that the car was going too fast, and that it was taking wrong turns.
“The three schools were so busy fighting that at first none of them noticed that the engine — the Jacksonians, whose support gave the car its real power and drive — were no longer responding. Hamiltonians and Wilsonians pumped the accelerator, but to no avail: The car continued to slow.”
For all the ill-informed bluster about death panels, socialism, big government, Nazi/Communist Obama Brownshirt Girl Scout Nazi Youths, the Tea Party engine is genuinely scared. For Obama and liberals to ignore these peoples’ fears and desires would be political stupidity and lack of empathy for fellow Americans.
In fact, the progressives, underneath it all, share a lot in common with these protestors. Both are deeply sensitive to the powerlessness they feel against elites and big government/business. They both feel as though the system has been stacked to pay off the elites and not the common man. Both fear a blow to the middle class. Both seek reform. If anything, both now benefit from the increasingly wise understanding of how money, politics, and influence can affect different organizations and legislation and externalities. We live in the first days of rapidly increased transparency (but not yet accountability, except through smear campaigns).
CNBC is Involved
CNBC has strangely had some connections to today’s debate. It perhaps began with Jim Cramer’s famous blow-up about how bad the crisis was (which Bush and Obama used stimulus money to prevent, successfully, I might add).
It continued with Rick Santelli, a trader and commentator on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, made a massively influential rant on CNBC about subsidizing losers using government money, to the cheers of fellow financial class traders.
So CNBC is intertwined in all these debates as well. Those who make the most money in this country, the financial executives and the industries that support them, have a vested interest in stoking up capitalist-socialist fears and monopolistic/subsidized conditions for their profit.
As an aside, I was watching FOXNews and Tucker Carlson (the kid who got beat up in school and is taking it out on us now, and also got beat up verbally by Jon Stewart on TV and was then trashed by CNN) did a smear piece on “The Trouble with Textbooks”, where he’s arguing that progressives and intellectuals are secretly inserting their messages into your kids’ textbooks. Better take your kids out of public schools. Let me guess. Are they going to Christian madrassas?
A Bad Summer
Obama clearly lost control of the message this brutal, brutal political summer during the Congressional lull. Obviously he fouled up the entire health care debate, allowing FOXNews to dictate the terms of the debate through town hall ridiculousness. He was not achieving the immediate success in jobs numbers he hoped from the stimulus. He has not pleased his progressive base by advancing on any civil rights fronts (the easiest of which would be to allow gays in the military).
He needs to engage the Tea Party people and address their demands. At the same time he should play the base off (Mead’s “engine”, made up of Jacksonians at their core) against the lobbyists and corporatists who are playing them like puppets. These lobbyists are scaring up the disconnected gap of the midwest and southern states who are afraid of losing more and more during a brutal recession and transformation of the American economy to that of an information economy. It is scary that lobbyists have convinced whites from the middle of the country to vote in favor of cutting taxes for the richest of the rich, disallowing better health care for those who can’t afford it, and in general voting to allow the most elite in this country to have less responsibility and compliance to the rest of us.
THAT is pretty disgusting. But Obama could exploit this divide. Keep in mind that it was Bush, an idealist but running as a conservative, who violated fiscal conservative policies. It was he who exploded the national budget deficit and negative trade balance. Just imagine if Obama cut back the anti-recession stimulus measures (which, I might add, he HAD to do, and which DID prevent a financial sector collapse) and ran as a fiscally responsible politician? He would win away a lot of scared, hurting midwestern whites.
Racism Grows With Recession
I’ll be honest. I’m getting a little worried. It is true that Latinos will become a major power in this country, through pure demographics. This will continue to exacerbate the divide between the cosmopolitan coastal cluster cities and the rural traditionalist interior. The radical whites that the Republican party has been forced to rely on (i.e. Palin) will continue to be disconnected and feel that the rest of the country does not pay its fair share of respect and resources to them.
Look at this one video of a guy who definitely does not want the US government, law enforcement, or anyone to go near him:
Now compare it to a jihadist video by Azzam al-Amriki, who, American interpretation aside, actually preaches on the face of it a message to the west to leave his people alone, get out of Muslim countries, and stop imposing foreign values on his people. He is anti-globalization and anti-financial system.
In both cases, they are in a private room, secluded, wearing the uniform of their people (cowboy hat vs. kuffia), listening to their music (country vs. jihadist), finger-waving that they will shoot to kill anyone who attempts to infiltrate. I hate to compare the two, but the similarities are striking; they both complain of an attack on their strong sense of identity, and they are both reacting against what they see are great injustices against their people.
Their concerns should not be ignored. They should be empathized with and understood properly. We should get a good sense of this loss of trust. When we ridicule Iran for rattling its sabre against Israel, we should remember that it is because Ahmadi-Nejad gets votes for being anti-Israeli. The Republicans get votes for being pro-white, anti-federal government. When we wonder why the Taliban has such a stranglehold in tribal AfPak, we should look at our own country and see the people who don’t want to live in the cities or be cosmopolitan or be around people who aren’t Christian, hetero, and white.
While fortunately our Americans are not militant, it is not a far cry to see that they one day may be.
A Call for Unity
Which is why it’s so crucial that we unite our nation. Through manifest destiny and the belief we are a city upon a hill with special providence, we’ve been provided one way or another with a secure geostrategic position nestled between Canada, Mexico, and two oceans. We are secure, if we are smart about what our vulnerabilities are and work to reduce them. We have the largest economy in the world and we are the largest country that has the most unified populace. We have naval, air, and space superiority over all the other nations. The Russians are weak, the Europeans are wrestling with forming a union, and China is running into significant demographic and political instability risks.
I believe in taking bold steps necessary to maintain American superiority, but I also believe that we must push a more equitable international system, and I also believe that the only risk we have is if we break apart as a nation. It was quite right of FDR to say that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Our position in the world is assured as long as we don’t screw it up.
“And finally, in our progress towards a resumption of work, we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order. There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.
“If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take, but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective.”
We face two domestic risks: that the white base will turn itself against the USA and break apart from the coastal liberal city clusters that provide most of the economic clout (e.g. SF, LA, DC, NYC, Miami). While they will manage to divide both coasts (which would give the breakaway states the ability to hamper coordination between the coasts), this would be even more destructive to national unity.
At the same time, the southwest continues to build dual loyalties: those to the union and those to Latino heritage. I do think that the southwestern states are strong contributors to the union, but if things disintegrated, the cultural, racial, and religious affinities might force them to create a sub-state, much like Kurds in Iraq. The failed War on Drugs has turned Mexico into a weakened state amongst drug cartel lions whose resources eclipse those of the nations in which they exist. This brings violence and drugs to our borders, which we can’t hope to guard effectively. Mexico is a primary national security concern, as a result. But we do very little to aid Mexico’s stability with our drug policies.
A Russian professor recently got a lot of press for proposing this break-up. The details are ridiculous (even indicating lack of ground truth knowledge of the USA) but in my mind, it’s the US’s only real risk.
Texas, where I’m from, of course flirts periodically with the idea of seceding from the Union. Its crazy governor, Rick Perry, is now joining up with Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, asserting 10th Amendment state sovereignty rights. This is fine, of course, but legal subtleties barely cover up a seething desire for separation from the Union.
The Tea Party was being sponsored partially by Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project. As this essay rightly states, the 9/12 Project is an attempt to commandeer a national event, 9/11, and commemorate it “their” own way. It separates my 9/11 from your 9/11. Having joined the Army after 9/11 to go fight terrorists, part of me wonders how many of the 9/12 Project answered their country’s call. Part of me is offended that they try to co-opt the military as being part of them, when I wore the American flag every day for 5 years too.
Losing national unity is our greatest risk in the long-term. Our success is so assured that it is almost as if we are doomed to ruin it if we are not vigilant about promoting equality and unity.
On PBS I was watching a documentary on some of the civil war leaders and presidents who tiptoed the line between these schools, in the midst of vicious civil war, America finding its place in the world, and ultimately Lincoln unleashing his generals to fight the Confederacy. It of course was the bloodiest war the US has ever fought (most civil wars end up being that way). Now, when political climates have turned poisonous, all these ancient resentments have re-surfaced. Just like what we might see in Lebanon, or Sudan, or Russia, or China.
There are common threads among pissed off progressives, pissed off libertarians, and pissed off conservatives: fiscal discipline, getting rid of corruption, re-evaluating our national interest based on risk-reward. There is common ground that could form consensus, if used correctly.
The Butt of International Jokes
But what are we going to do about this?
What are we going to do? We are fighting amongst ourselves, ridiculing each other, taking the high road while denigrating and minimizing the strength of our opponents. Meanwhile, we are losing our competitiveness. We are not educating our children sufficiently to compete in an increasingly global economy. While we fight with each other, Chinese kids are working their asses off. Indian kids are working their asses off. It’s the same worldwide. People are learning that they have to compete. Other countries are laughing at us in disbelief over our fear of socialized health care systems and our inability to deal with border violence, health care, government spending, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.
Meanwhile, we have strong elements in our country seeking just to preserve what they have. All these lost jobs in the US will never return. We have to keep educating ourselves so that we can fill the newly-created jobs. It will never be the past again, in terms of comfortable blue-collar jobs. It certainly won’t be that way if we radically privatize our country (no social safety nets, no government benefits for workers or citizens).
“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
Obviously Americans in Jeffersonian days still battled with the same balance between majority and minority, the Constitution and interpretation. But are we being played off each other?
In short, and I have said this before, we have a battle between elites, who are seeking to preserve monopoly status and government preference, and citizens who realize that the only way to make it in today’s America is to get rich or die tryin’. If you don’t get rich, you can’t feed your family. You can’t pay for health care. You can’t take any vacation. You can’t live in a safe neighborhood. It becomes a Hobbesian world where everyone is out to protect just their own families and maybe even their tribes. Large corporations, seeking protection under freedom of speech as “individual” entities, throw money at issues affecting them so they can influence policy, while at the same time using Milton Friedmanomics and Reagonomics to deny unions, public NGOs, and government oversight, the only institutions that can match corporate lobbies in influence, purpose, and money.
The American Dream becomes not one of inclusion, where we take in your poor, your huddled masses, promising them a fair start and a chance to get rich. The American Dream becomes “the greatest show on Earth” (thanks Bill Moyers) where you come to peddle your wares, make your money, and get out of the disgusting, violent market as soon as you can, to go live comfortably in a gated community where you’re safe from the violence and randomness that exists outside.
We as a country are going to have to make choices. And they are not really choices at all. Either we divide, and fall, or we unite, and fulfill what we consider our destiny.
We have to decide that we are true capitalists, who see firms as maximizing profit entities but working within the boundaries of a government that exists to protect the public interest and good.
We have to decide that yes, we are individuals who deserve our own rights, but those rights extend not only to us, but to those who are different than us, poorer than us, richer than us, from different countries, are here illegally, to every human on the planet. The liberals have to clean up their house, and the conservatives have to stave off death.
We have to remove obstacles towards implementing better project design and implementation. I don’t know how that will come about, except by the blunt force of inescapable technological advancement.
Mostly we have to decide that we’re going to do this together. With that, I think I should close with MLK Jr.’s last speech before being assassinated: