Monday, November 23, 2015

What the hell is "poverty appropriation"?

I grew up in a relatively poor family that relied on hunting for a lot of our food. As an adult, I've discovered that a lot of what I ate on a daily basis - meats like quail, duck, and venison - have become staples of haute cuisine, served on tiny plates in some of the world's most expensive restaurants. This has always struck me as a sort of mildly interesting curiosity, but little more; it's just what happens when rich people look for novel ways to distinguish themselves from the middle class.

Today, however, I discovered that I am actually a victim of poverty appropriation.

If it seems strange to only discover this after reading an article, bear in mind that when July Westhale worries about The Troubling Trendiness of Poverty Appropriation, what she actually means is "poor-culture appropriation". Bourgeois hipsters are not, that is to say, actually eating up all the deer, or buying up all the tiny houses, or using up all the welfare - things that I, as a poor person, might have noticed. Westhale does touch on a concern that the spoils from trust-fund anarchist dumpster-diving expeditions aren't "going to any folks of color," but there is of course no reason to think of food access in the United States as a scarcity issue. Nor is there any reason to consider the popularity of dive bars and grape soda to be significant drivers of capitalism's actual mechanism of immiseration: the appropriation of labor.

That is obviously the sort of appropriation that poor people universally give a shit about, and there's a reason why: something is actually being appropriated. Similarly, you might be able to piss off some Indians by "culturally appropriating" yoga - but if you really want a sure-fire way to annoy them, try materially appropriating their country for the British empire. There seems to be a direct relationship between the material consequences of appropriation and the odds that you are actually going to cause someone grief and hardship. Maybe that tells us something?

Westhale doesn't seem to appreciate just how subjective and idiosyncratic her grievance is. It's perfectly legitimate for her to experience the irony of hipsters slumming it as a bitter reminder of their privilege, and for her to begrudge them the choices she didn't have. Personally, I was actually less embarrassed about my childhood when I discovered the culinary prestige of wild game - I'm glad that it has been "glamorized", and my experience of poverty would have been worse otherwise. Obviously, these are deeply personal sensitivities, and our politics can't hope to provide universal prescriptions on how to navigate them as a society.

What we can do, however, is try to preempt feelings of resentment or embarrassment about poverty by trying to eliminate poverty itself. This means paying attention to poverty's material causes and fighting for a redistribution of wealth - not just a redistribution of whatever you can find in the dumpster.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Peter Daou fails up, you tread water

Two weeks ago:
I'll put this as gently as I can: the only thing that is less likely than a Sanders win is you getting a significant job working for Hillary Clinton...when the new positions eventually open up, there is going to be a long line of people who are better connected and more qualified than you waiting to fill them.
Yesterday:
...the Clintons bring with them a network of aging professionals who have accumulated on their aging political careers like dust on a Fleetwood Mac vinyl. Paradigm case-in-point, Peter Daou: best known as a proud death squad vet, but also a 50-something media advisor who has built his career around the Clintons. He was the Internet Director for Hillary's disastrous 2008 online campaign; right now he seems to be vying for another position with his hilarious "Hillary Men" initiative.
Today:
Hillary Clinton ally David Brock is acquiring a media outlet, sources involved in the negotiation and sale of the site tell The Huffington Post...Peter Daou, digital media strategist for Clinton's 2008 campaign, will serve as the new CEO of True Blue Media.

Attention political media: do you get what just happened here? Peter Daou ran a catastrophic failure of a communications campaign in 2008. He has spent the past seven years since then hopping from Clinton project to Clinton project as a "consultant". He wanted a role with the 2016 campaign, so he launched his ridiculous "Hillary Men" schtick to make a giant show of desperate, shameless servility to his patron.

And now, just a few days after another massive PR disaster - Daou unmasked as a death squad monster and an embarrassing third-person "I'm not mad" post - he is being rewarded with a lucrative prestige appointment to a Clinton 2016 media front.

You, media person, will never write a take so hot, break a story so big or publish an essay so profound that you will come anywhere near a career like Daou's. As long as this wretched system remains in place you will spend the next several decades frantically trying to keep pace with the cost of living and sighing helplessly as a thousand well-connected doofuses step in line ahead of you. I have no advice left to give, just the usual refrain: fuck Hillary Clinton, fuck David Brock, and fuck Peter Daou.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hillary Clinton is the last gasp of the boomers

I’m more interested in how “folks wanna pop off” found its way into the President’s lexicon. Does he possess a reservoir of culturally relevant slang terms and colloquialisms that he employs when White people aren’t around? We know he code switches... but he’s also a 54-year-old man who hoops in Sam’s Club Nikes and tucks his shirt into his sweatpants...This is not what cool people do. Cool people do, however, reflexively use “pop off” to address haters. President Obama is a paradox. - Damon Young
On the topic: we aren't ever going to see anything like this written about Hillary Clinton, are we? For every (probably choreographed) media moment where Obama drops a reference from urbandictionary dot com, we have - particularly in recent months - seen an (equally choreographed) grasp at relevance from Clinton. But Hillary is about as connected to youth culture as Homer is when he tries to talk to the kids about Grand Funk Railroad. And the only people who would deny this are other olds.

Take for example what was clearly orchestrated as a meme-worthy moment of casual Clinton hipness:


This of course got precisely the reaction it was begging for...



...from people in their fourties.

It can't be exaggerated just how dated and derivative this is. Clinton remembers it because Obama did it to her almost eight years ago, and even then the Jay Z reference was already about seven years old. When this was fresh, during Bush's first term, most of Clinton's youngest supporters were already in their thirties.

This is the rule of Clinton-culture: she can only see America's youth through the eyes of a boomer. She brings Katy Perry on board because Katy Perry is one of the few pop stars that 64-year-olds will listen to. She is baffled by emojis and crashed and burned when she tried to use them in her campaign. Her media surrogates are left to praise the hipness of...writing in cursive, black-and-white polaroids from the 1950s, and (seriously) "hold[ing] something up against a brightly colored wall".

To answer Young's question, we can be fairly certain what is actually happening. Barack Obama has a communications team that keeps close tabs on youth culture, and they tactically integrate this into their messaging. As proven in 2008, they are able to do this far more effectively than Clinton. This is in part because the Clintons bring with them a network of aging professionals who have accumulated on their aging political careers like dust on a Fleetwood Mac vinyl.

Paradigm case-in-point, Peter Daou: best known as a proud death squad vet, but also a 50-something media advisor who has built his career around the Clintons. He was the Internet Director for Hillary's disastrous 2008 online campaign; right now he seems to be vying for another position with his hilarious "Hillary Men" initiative. So far, this has mostly involved Daou (and 50-something partner Tom Watson) whining about getting pwned by the kids, rallying the olds, and hilariously failing at social media.

We almost never see these kinds of disasters with Obama because Obama hasn't spend as long building up a stagnating professional entourage. And this is one reason why Bernie Sanders has had a far more successful youth campaign as well. It's not the candidate's age that matters (Sanders is older than Clinton and clearly finds social media baffling as well, though he does appear to have an instinctive knack for it); it's the age of his campaign, which of course reflects his campaign's relationship with the culture. The kids, of course, totally get it:

Hillary Clinton's professional media surrogates don't seem to have picked up on this yet, though they will one way or another. She can't speak to the young because she's surrounded by aging boomer cronies, and if she gets elected we're going to be dealing with boomer culture and boomer politics until the rest of us are as old as they are.

Friday, November 13, 2015

David Brooks and the nouveau riche

David Brooks evidently talked the New York Times into sending him on a posh vacation - or perhaps they decided he needed it. However it happened, now the rest of us get to deal with the pretext for the whole adventure: a ridiculous bragsplanation of how great it is to be a pampered bourgeois journalist.

Predictably, the piece has provoked all kinds of well-deserved disgust and murderous resentment from just about everyone who isn't David Brooks. Still, I think one of the most sinister aspects of this piece is the way it still manages to veil the obscene decadence and power of the 1%. Even Brooks seems to think he is writing about what it is like to be rich -- precisely because he, like most of his readers, will never have any idea what being truly rich really is.

Because he's personally a member of the nouveau riche - or at least an aspiring member - Brooks does have the standard petit bourgeois class consciousness which reminds him of his own inferiority:
What sort of people go on a trip like this? Rich but not fancy. It is a sign of how stratified things have become that even within the top 1 percent there are differences between single-digit millionaires and the double-or-triple digit millionaires...Very few of these people were born into money. They did not dress rich, talk rich or put on airs. They have spent their lives busy with work and family, not jet-setting around or hanging out with the Davos crowd.
For starters, perhaps it's enough to note how Brooks casually equates class with wealth. This is something you do if you want to think of yourself as rich but a significant amount of your wealth is tied up in your house; but there's a world of difference between Brooks and the guy who just has millions of dollars just waiting to be invested. That's why the World Wealth Report defines HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals, their euphemism for the rich) as "those having investable assets of US$1 million or more, excluding primary residence, collectibles, consumables, and consumer durables".

More to the point, the "differences between single-digit millionaires and the double-or-triple digit millionaires" Brooks mentions aren't just matters of dressing rich or talking rich. By the time you hit the high-double-to-low-triple millions, what Brooks thinks of as a newsworthy luxury vacation is something you can afford literally every day of your life. By the time you're a billionaire, Brooks' vacation is about as expensive for you as a dinner out is for the average American couple.

Compare this to the final passage, where Brooks reveals his notion of luxury:
The caviar in Russia was really nice. So was the beautiful hotel pool in Morocco, the sweet staff at every stop and the little cubes of Turkish delight. And yes, over the course of the three days at the Four Seasons in Istanbul, I did drink both bottles of champagne.
None of this is even particularly luxurious. It's a cartoonish imitation of luxury, the sort of thing you see Scrooge McDuck do in a children's comic book. Of course Brooks thinks that being rich is about eating caviar in Russia and Turkish delight in Morocco; if they flew him to Paris, I'm sure he would've had the nicest frog legs the Four Seasons can buy. There is, meanwhile, a reason why Jay-Z raps about million dollar vacations and gloats that "what you call money / I pay more in taxes" - if you want to learn about wealth, listen to someone who's actually rich.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Give the children a say in our national debt

If you'll allow me to channel my inner Ron Fournier for a moment, I'd actually like to endorse a point that both Republicans and blue-dog Democrats have been making about the debt. Multiple candidates alluded to this during the GOP's most recent debate in Milwaukee, but Rep. Leonard Boswell - a board advisor for First Budget - puts it best:
Partisanship aside, what matters most to me, as I think about my eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, is the legacy of debt we are leaving to them and future generations.
Boswell may be confused in thinking that debt today implies economic hardship for future generations, but the underlying point is indisputable: quite obviously, the decisions we make now will have significant consequences for years to come. On this point there seems to be a bipartisan consensus, and a nearly universal fear that, as Marco Rubio worries, "our children will be the first Americans ever left worse off by their parents."

That said, this whole line of thought always strikes me as odd, because its proponents never carry it to its obvious conclusion: that we should give the people with the greatest stake in our economic future some say in it. That's just one of many reasons why I've been arguing that we must give children the right to vote: the inalienable right to participation in power has always been the moral foundation of democratic thought, and the arguments against doing so are generally indistinguishable from all of the historical arguments against franchise for women, non-landowners and non-whites that we long ago dismissed as monstrous and indefensible.

Unfortunately, since we don't give children the vote, polling outfits generally aren't interested in what they think about spending and the national debt. Polls among other age groups, however, tell us a lot:


First, we see that across the board - and by overwhelming margins - people in every age group overwhelmingly prioritize recovery spending over debt reduction. Second, it's clear that younger voters are less concerned about the debt than everyone else. In fact, only among voters under 30 does the preference become so strong that we actually get a majority opinion: most young voters want the debt to go up.

You may have noticed that these trends force debt hawks into a hilarious dilemma about children's suffrage. After all, the standard argument against giving children the right to vote is that their opinions would diverge significantly from everyone else's; but here, children can only diverge from public opinion by agreeing with the debt hawks. And this, according to the debt hawk narrative, would make perfect sense, as children have such a unique stake in reducing spending.

Debt hawks have nothing to lose and everything to gain by supporting children's suffrage. In the "worst" (and most likely) case, the status quo would simply continue, with children supporting the overwhelming American preference for more spending and less austerity. In the best case, they will have won much-needed political allies, advanced a cause they believe in, and (most importantly) avoided the ghastly crime of denying children the opportunity to salvage their own future. Either way, debt hawks are out of excuses. Either they'll give kids the right to vote because they care about the children - or they won't, because they don't.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A word of friendly advice for Hillary's media surrogates

I'll put this as gently as I can: the only thing that is less likely than a Sanders win is you getting a significant job working for Hillary Clinton.

It's no secret what's going on here. A lot of you have ambitions! This isn't speculation - you've talked about this to your colleagues over coffee or beers, and word gets around. Neither is it uncommon, or even necessarily shameful. Journalists who cover politics are naturally interested in politics, often because they want to do good in the world. Maybe one day you will! Let's hope so, at least.

The past seven years have been pretty good for people on the career track you aspire to. For one thing, digital media has expanded rapidly, and with it whole new fields of opportunity, even within the White House. Additionally, Obama came into office with a professional network that was somewhat sparse compared to his predecessors. 

What this has meant, in practice, is that there has been some minimal room for aspiring public servants to build reputations in journalism as loyal and powerful political allies -- and then cash in. Rarely, this has actually meant a direct role in White House communications, which in turn has meant all the things you'd love to do: meet with important people, develop high-level messaging strategy, and see your name in prestigious publications and on prestigious invitations. Slightly more often, this has meant serving as a private-sector signal-booster in the occasional messaging campaign, which occasionally comes with its own set of perks.

What I want to make clear here is that those days are coming to an end.

First and foremost because all of the positions are already taken. The people who produce content for Hillary Clinton will largely be the people who produced content for Barack Obama. There will be no new Ezra Klein to conduct long-form, widely publicized Vox interviews with the president, because a perfectly good one already exists: his name is Ezra Klein. We recently learned that Jon Stewart has been quietly working as a consultant for Obama over the past several years, but you are not going to take over this role under Hillary because Jon Stewart is already doing it again.

Second, because when the new positions eventually open up, there is going to be a long line of people who are better connected and more qualified than you waiting to fill them. When Jon Favreau leaves the White House as Director of Speechwriting, Lissa Muscatine or whoever is obviously going to have dibs. Do you seriously think, given the decades of powerful loyalists she's accrued, Hillary Clinton is going to make you the next Samantha Power?

This is how it's going to play out. Over the next year or two, a lot of you are going to get one-off "analyst" or "consultant" contracts with no serious obligations, except for the implicit quid-pro-quo that you'll play ball with Clinton's messaging in your writing. If you're persistent enough they'll hint at some long-term full time opportunities with the campaign, but nothing will actually materialize. As a matter of standard practice, the contracts will of course disappear - for many of you as soon as the nomination is secure, since they'll feel confident about your loyalty at that point. For the rest of you, of course, you'll never see any contracts or opportunities at all, since you're already giving Clinton what she wants from you - favorable coverage - for free.

By the time Clinton is elected, the opportunities will have dried up completely, and you will be exactly where you are today - except, of course, a few years older. It's going to be a truly depressing spectacle over the course of this campaign to see so many journalists sell so much of their integrity and their future for so little. My only advice is to anyone who sees Hillary's campaign as a path to upward mobility: get out while you can.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

No, Michael Booth, language is not keeping people out of the Nordics

"The difference is, few actually actively seek to move to Scandinavia, for obvious reasons: the weather is appalling, the taxes are the highest in the world, the cost of living is similarly ridiculous, the languages are impenetrable, the food is (still) awful for the most part and, increasingly, these countries are making it very clear they would prefer foreigners to stay away." - Michael Booth
As far as I can tell, almost all of this is factually incorrect. The Nordics have some of the highest net migration rates in the world: Norway's is higher than any other European country except for Luxembourg, Sweden ranks in the top 25, and Denmark ranks just three spots after the United States at 43. All of this is not only easily verified - it is common knowledge among anyone who has paid any attention to global migration issues over the past decade. The Nordics have become havens for immigrants all over the world, and the reasons why are fairly obvious.

I'll reserve judgment about the rest of his criticism, but as a linguist and a Swedish speaker I am fairly confident in dismissing his complaint that Nordic "languages are impenetrable" as objectively incorrect.

For one thing, it's hardly even necessary to speak the local languages to live in the Nordics: 90% of Norwegians and 86% of both Swedes and Danes speak English. These numbers are of course even higher in the major metropolitan cities where most immigrants live, such as Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo. Nordic cities also tend to be unusually conscientious in their efforts to accomodate other language communities. For example, a typical sign in Malmö:


You may notice, in addition to the temporary welcoming sign for refugees, the permanent sign in the background identifying Malmö's Central Station. A foreigner like Booth might be impressed that Sweden went out of its way to erect permanent English-language signage for people like him, but it's actually even better than that: the sign is written in Swedish. See, it turns out that English and the Nordic languages are often nearly identical! A quick look at the language tree explains why (click to enlarge):


Like English, the Nordic languages are Germanic. About 1,500 years ago, they were all the same language. Since then they have moved in different directions, but they all retain certain ancestral features that survive to this day in often quite similar grammars and vocabularies. These can be quite technical to spell out, but in practice their shared heritage means that they are, contrary to Booth's bizarre speculation, quite accessible compared to other languages. Since English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, this makes the Nordics an unusually friendly place for anyone moving in from another country. A simple example: the English sentence "I sit and drink ale" translates into Swedish as "Jag sitter och dricker öl." Just by looking at the two it's painfully obvious which words are doing what, and it would just take a brief history lesson to explain why the words sound different at all.

The irony here is that even if we took all of Booth's criticism seriously, this only strengthens the case for a Nordic economics: look at everything that people are willing to endure for the sake of a robust welfare state! But given his radical ignorance on just this one narrow point of linguistic trivia, there's probably no reason to assume he's right about anything else, either.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Does Clinton think that "black lives matter" is up for debate?

"I am going to get to some very important points that actually prove that black lives do matter and we have to take action together." - Clinton 10/13/15
The genius of "Black Lives Matter", as a political slogan, relates to what psychologists would call its underdetermination. Taken literally, it's not actually making any kind of inflammatory or controversial argument - but this is because modern political discourse has emptied antiracism of all meaning, so that one can plead "of course black lives matter" even as one supports police brutality, austerity, employment discrimination, and all of the other afflications that plague black Americans. It is this very emptyness that makes #BLM such a potent Rorscharch. The subtext people read into it has nothing to do with some kind of real latent meaning to the phrase - it depends entirely on their relationship with the speaker. When a racist hears a black American use the phrase amid an aggressive demand and assertion of her rights, of course he is going to read all kinds of bizarre subtext into it.

That's why I find it so nuts that Clinton's response to hearing "black lives matter" is to set out to prove it - as if black Americans are asking for her validation, or as if racists are simply waiting for a sufficiently persuasive counterargument. Black Americans are not asserting that "black lives matter" as the conclusion of some debatable argument, to be established with clever reasoning and evidence; it is the premise of an argument that is meant to compel conclusions, in particular "police brutality and systematic racism in our criminal justice system needs to stop."

Clinton may be intending to signal solidarity, but what her phrasing reveals, ironically, is that she actually thinks of "black lives matter" as a debateable assertion. She seems awful proud of coming to the right conclusion here, but it strikes me as damning with faint praise to applaud her for endorsing as "proven" such an uncontroversial premise about the value and dignity of human beings. That, unfortunately, is where her liberalism is likely to position us for the next four to eight years: arguing that black lives matter and that we should take action together instead of actually taking action.