Recycled Genius

RecycleSomeone on Twitter just reminded me of a very interesting article I wrote over three years ago that looks at the two famous movies lines "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" and "Are you talking to me?" I think my analysis is very interesting, Are You Talking to Napalm in the Morning?

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Morning Music: My Favorite Things

My Favorite Things - John ColtraneOkay, it's almost over. Today, we will do "My Favorite Things" from the 1965 film The Sound of Music. I liked the musical very much when I was young. I don't care for it so much now. I'm not that fond of Christopher Plummer — except when he's playing a Klingon. But mostly, there is just something offensively earnest about the whole thing.

When I was younger, I always wondered about something. In the play, the new Nazi Youth Rolfe does not summon the Nazis — allowing the family to get away. In the film, he does, leading to a rather stupid car chase. I had wondered if this was an indication of changing ideas about human nature. But later I concluded that it was formal. In a play, you couldn't have a chase. In a film, you can. Simple as that. I still prefer the non-chase, because I want to believe that people are basically good.

Luckily for you all, I just remembered that John Coltrane did a great version of the song. That's piano by McCoy Tyner — another of my favorite things.

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Anniversary Post: Berners Street Hoax

Theodore HookOn this day in 1810, the Berners Street hoax was perpetrated. Theodore Hook made a bet with his friend Samuel Beazley that he could make any house in London the most talked about within a week. He did this by sending out thousands of letters to people asking for different services. So, for example, a dozen chimney sweeps showed up. There were also doctors and priests and lawyers. There were also various deliveries of pianos and so on. It got so bad that the police had to be called in to disperse people and keep them away from the house.

Hook was just 22 years old and I suppose can be forgiven. He did, of course, great harm to a lot of hard working people. I hardly worry about doctors and lawyers. But chimney sweeps? It is the kind of prank that only someone of a fair amount of privilege would do. Others would be too busy trying to get by. At the same time, the Romantics, despite being often quite silly in their ways, were at least concerned about more important issues.

There was some search made for the perpetrator of the crime, but clearly not too much effort was put into it. I suspect it was understood that anyone able to perpetrate that costly a hoax would be reasonably well protected. I don't miss the amusing aspects of the prank. At the same time, I have a hard time not seeing it from the perspective of class. This was not long after the French Revolution when people like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft were seriously discussing how to improve the world. And young Mr Hook was just causing the 19th century equivalent to a traffic jam.

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Give Thanks for Thanksgiving — You Might Not Have It Much Longer

Peanuts ThanksgivingHappy Thanksgiving everyone! It is actually a holiday that I kind of like. That's because it is just about eating. I think we could use more holidays like this. In fact, as time has gone on, I've become more fond of holidays. The reason is simple: the oligarchs are trying to destroy the very idea of holidays. Americans work far too much. We need to take more time off. Part of our economic problems come from the fact that those who do have jobs work a lot, leaving an unreasonable number of people with no work at all.

In other countries, the people have chosen to exchange increasing productivity for more leisure time. This makes sense. But Americans have not in general made that decision. They've taken all of the increased productivity in a higher standard of living. I think that is likely not an actual choice. In the United States, not "living to work" is seen as a moral failing. But at some point, the "family values" crowd might consider what is better: being able to afford a better television and iPhone or being able to spend more time with their kids?

Of course, for the last four decades, American workers haven't traded their productivity gains for either more leisure or a higher standard of living. All those productivity gains have gone to the owners of capital. The whole social contract in America has broken down. And I've been waiting for decades for the people to do something about it. But they seem too busy just trying to make ends meet to do anything else.

In addition to this, conservatives have gotten really good at defining as "normal" and "moral" the current system that enriches the powerful at the expense of the weak. It reminds me of Newspeak in 1984. The idea of the language was to make it so that people weren't even able to think heretical thoughts. The very idea of freedom would be gone from people's minds. I run into people all the time who are poor but somehow think that the capitalist system is God given. We have embraced capitalism in the past because it worked -- for both owners and workers. Now it has stopped working for the vast majority of people. But capitalism is embraced for ideological reasons rather than practical ones. And that is evident in the fact that most workers don't think that capitalism has to prove itself. Capitalism never fails -- it is only failed.

So on this Thanksgiving, I hope that you did not have to work. What's more, I hope that you took care of all your shopping before today so that you don't have to go down to Safeway to pick something up. All that does is convince our corporate masters that everything must be open on Thanksgiving. But most of all, I hope you don't sneak down to one of those horrible pre-Black-Friday sales. Trust me: you don't need all that crap anyway.

Enjoy Thanksgiving! We may not have it much longer.


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AskForgiveness Day

TisquantumIt is Thanksgiving. And given that this post will go up at 11:05 am local time, I should already be cooking and, more important, drinking. But as I write this, it is days earlier and I am sober. So let me tell you a little about the Thanksgiving celebration. Don't get me wrong: any excuse for a party. And our society is sorely lacking in rituals that bring people together. So that's great. You should enjoy this day. And you should give thanks, because if you are able to read this, it probably means that your life isn't too bad. But that doesn't give an excuse to the bastards who run the world.

Anyway, I came upon an interesting article at Indian Country Today Media Network, Six Thanksgiving Myths, Share Them With Someone You Know. It wasn't like I was shocked or anything. But I did learn a great deal. One thing I did not learn, but that is very important is that the Wampanoag and Pilgrims were not all that friendly. In fact, the Pilgrims had chosen a former Wampanoag settlement. The tribe had abandoned it because previous European traders had caused an outbreak of plague that killed as many as two-thirds of the roughly 100,000 Wampanoag people who lived in 69 villages. Of course, it wasn't just the plague; traders also kidnapped tribesmen and sold them into slavery.

What I did not know is that the Indians and the Pilgrims seem to have gotten together because the latter group were acting like typical American idiots. They were happy about harvest, so they were shooting off guns and cannons. "The Wampanoag chief and 90 warriors made their way to the settlement in full warrior mode — in response to the gunfire." Since the Pilgims were vastly outnumbered, I guess they figured they should invite the concerned warriors to hang out and eat.

But the most interesting thing is that this didn't become a regular event. The original meal took place in 1621. But there were no similar celebrations for more than a decade. In 1636, a white man was murdered. Now, usually, that means he was murdered by another white man. That's the kind of thing that happens. If you look at the statistics in modern America: whites kill whites and blacks kill blacks and so on. But the Pilgims blamed another local tribe, the Pequot people. So in retaliation, the good Christian Pilgrims massacred them — burning many of them alive and killing many others by different methods. It is this massacre that the Pilgrims started celebrating each year:

The day after the massacre, William Bradford who was also the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote that from that day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots and "For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won."

Apparently, Thanksgiving didn't become the G-rated celebration of how super-keen things were between the Pilgrims and the Indians until the Civil War, when Lincoln used it to try to united the nation. And it is a nice story! But it should be treated like Santa Claus: a nice story, but not the truth. This nation has never come to terms with its treatment of the hundreds of native tribes. Maybe we should rename this holiday AskForgiveness Day.


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Morning Music: I Will Survive

TurkeyIt is the day — Thanksgiving day. Why didn't I do something else? Really. I've hated doing this. But okay, at least I've found a few clever animated parodies. This one is a parody of Gloria Gaynor's mega-hit "I Will Survive." In this case, it is a very self-assured turkey singing the song. We have one or more flocks of turkeys around where I live. A lot of people hate them because they cause damage. But I find them quite charming.

Just the same, I don't think much of them from a culinary standpoint. They don't taste that great. And if you are going to go to that much trouble for a meal, why not make a prime rib? Still, every year it seems that I find myself fighting with family members who want turkey because it is traditional. It turns out, it isn't. At the first Thanksgiving, they most likely ate duck. And isn't it interesting that we make a big deal out of the fowl that were killed by the Pilgrims, but not the five deer that the Wampanoag killed.


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Anniversary Post: the End of Democracy

Bush Sad ClownHas it only been 15 years?! On this day in 2000, the totally corrupt political hack Katherine Harris certified that George W Bush had won the state of Florida and thus was elected president of the United States. People have a tendency to add phrases to things like this with "despite losing the popular vote." Forget the popular vote, folks! We have an electoral college. The popular vote doesn't mean anything. If it did, then presidential candidates would campaign in a different way. So don't mourn for Gore because he lost the popular vote.

Mourn for Gore (and whole United States and really the world) because he won the state of Florida. The election was not stolen because Bush lost the popular vote. The election was stolen because the Supreme Court decided that the voters of Florida didn't matter as much as George W Bush matters. And so they found an equal protection clause in the Constitution that only applied to him. Interestingly, these were the same nimrods who can never seem to find an equal protection clause when it comes to anyone else. There is apparently a special Constitution that only conservatives can see.

Do you really think that you live in a democracy? You live in an oligarchy. Just ask Professor Chomsky:

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Trump Could Be Nominee and That's Not Good

Donald TrumpAlan Abramowitz emailed Paul Krugman with nine reasons why he now thinks that Donald Trump just might become the Republican nominee for president. The details don't much matter. Really it comes down to this: Trump is way ahead in the polls. The only "establishment" candidate likely to be able to catch him is Marco Rubio. No one really takes Ben Carson seriously — and for very good reason: he is a nutcase, and that becomes clearer and clearer every day. Other than the Christian nationalists, he has no base. So it really does look like a race between Trump and the even worse Ted Cruz.

Krugman noted this should come as no surprise. Why should the Republican establishment think that its base of voters would "be reasonable" about who they flock to. That very establishment has pushed a domestic policy of "death panels!" and a foreign policy of "Benghazi!" Thus, we have two kinds of Republican candidates: people who are crazy and people who pretend to be crazy to get elected. As Krugman said, "Primary voters are expected to respect that?" Actually, I think it is worse. How are primary voters even supposed to know the difference. From their perspective, the "establishment" candidates are just the ones who seem less authentic.

Ted CruzUnder normal circumstances, a Trump or Cruz Republican nominee would be a good thing for Democrats. But I can't help remembering that a lot of liberals were pleased when the Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980. "The people will never elect a McCarthyite freak like that!" Well, they did. And in a landslide. Will the American people, in their good sense, elect Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? Under the right circumstances, absolutely. This is one of the reasons I've been saying for years that the best thing for the Democratic Party is if the Republican Party started acting like a normal political party and less like a revolutionary power.

Let's look at the political science of it. I expect the economy to continue to improve for the next year. The Federal Reserve may screw that up, but I'm betting not. Given that, the Democrats have a huge advantage in winning the presidency. If the economy tanks, the election will be the Republicans to lose — pretty much regardless of who they nominate. But my great concern is how the Democrats could lose the 2016 election, even with an improving economy. Sadly, it wouldn't be that hard.

Political scientist Lynn Vavreck explains what needs to happen in her book, The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns. Most presidential elections are about the economy. So if the 2016 election is about the economy and it is doing well, the Democrats win the election. I'll bet a thousands dollars on that right now, and I am neither a rich nor a betting man. But if Trump or Cruz become the Republican nominee, they may not make the election about the economy. Obviously, what an election is about is not entirely up to the candidates. But they would both push immigration and terrorism. And if they could get the country to care about that and talk about that, they could win. It wouldn't be a large win — it would be a squeaker. But it wouldn't matter; it would still be a win.

Still, would that work? There is a second part of Vavreck's analysis: the issue that Trump or Cruz would run on would have to be one that the Democrat would be vulnerable on. Let's assume the Democrat is Clinton. I don't see her all that vulnerable. Sure, when ten Republican candidates stand on a stage by themselves, they take it for granted that she's been a terrible Secretary of State. But I don't think that's generally believed. If anything, most Americans think Clinton is a bit too much of a hawk.

The main thing is that a Trump or Cruz candidacy throws a random element into the campaign. Regardless who the Republicans nominate, I will be nervous for the next year.


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Why Do We Take Sam Harris Seriously?

Sam HarrisOver at Raw Story, Tom Boggioni reported on an amazing interview that Sam Harris recently gave. We all knew that the Paris attacks would make Harris more offensive than usual. But he is definitely upping his game. You'd almost think that he was running for president as a Republican. You may remember back a few years, Harris claimed that the Europeans "who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists." He likes these kinds of claims and then nitpicks those who claim that he is siding with fascists or whoever it is he is talking about at that point.

Well, in this recent interview with Douglas Murray, Harris asked and answered his own question, "What percentage of Christians will be jihadists or want to live under Sharia law? Zero." Well, given that Sharia law is the basic Islamic legal system, that's not too surprising. There are lots and lots of American Christians who want to implement Biblical law. This is the kind of sloppy mistake that Harris would never make if discussing an issue that he was not blinded by because of his hatred and fear. In general, I've found Harris to be a fairly smart guy. I found his article length book Free Will quite good. But if the discussion is Islam, there is no amount of nonsense that he won't haul out to achieve his predetermined conclusions.

This was said in defense of Ted Cruz and his preference for Christians. But as is always the case with Harris, he claims to be making a fine tuned argument, "I hope you understand that I am expressing no sympathy at all with Ted Cruz's politics or with Ted Cruz." Yes, no sympathy for Ted Cruz's politics — just his policies regarding Muslims? I'm not sure what to make of that. I think what he is really getting at is that the process by which Ted Cruz gets to his bigotry is different from the process Sam Harris uses. Cruz gets there by being a "religious maniac." Harris gets there through his special blend of pure logic and fearlessness in the face of PC criticism. Because if you listen to him, his argument for why other intellectuals don't agree with him is always just that his detractors let their manners get in the way of their clarity of thought.

But the big moment was when Harris compared Ben Carson and Noam Chomsky:

Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what's happening now in the world, I'd vote for Ben Carson every time. Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile, Ben Carson does not — the fact that he is a candidate for president is a scandal — but at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.

This is typical of Harris in that he isn't actually saying that he would vote for Carson over Chomsky. He's saying that regarding this one issue. But given how much Harris cares about this stuff, you would have to wonder. Regardless, I know that Harris will make a big deal out of people claiming that he said he would vote for Carson over Chomsky, and he clearly did not say that. I don't care. The issue is not who he would or wouldn't vote for. He said that that Carson understands these geopolitics better than Noam Chomsky. That's one of the most fatuous claims I've ever heard. You don't have to agree with Chomsky to see that.

Noam ChomskyWhat's more, he's simply wrong to say that Chomsky doesn't understand that the jihadists are the enemy. Chomsky's been very clear about that. The fact that Chomsky sees the jihadists in a broader context that is nuanced is only a reflection of the fact that Harris is wrong to say that Carson understands what is happening now better than Chomsky. It's all just amazing and I do not think I have ever thought so lowly of Sam Harris. I didn't think he was capable of making such an obviously unjustified claim.

This raises a really important question for me, "Why does anyone listen to Sam Harris on such matters?" He has nothing more to say on geopolitics than Dick Cheney does. In fact, he has the same things to say, as well. He shouldn't be taken seriously. He's nothing but an ideologue who continues to push us to do things that have not only hurt us internationally but also domestically. The opportunity costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — not to mention the "war on terror" — have been enormous. We have wasted trillions of dollars that we could have invested in our people and our infrastructure. And the result of wasting all that money has probably been worse than a wash in terms of the state of terrorism in the world.

I could go on and on. Harris' reasoning is totally messed up. His ideology is bankrupt. I think there is a lot of psychology going on here, because in his highly publicized email "debate" with Chomsky, Sam Harris came off as an idiot except to all his worshipful fans. But the main thing is that I see no reason to pay attention to Sam Harris anymore. I'm sure he won't miss me. There's a lot more money in appealing to people's hatred and fear. Appealing to people like me would lose him far more readers. But it's sad for a man who certainly thinks of himself as a serious intellectual.


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Morning Music: Over the River...

Lydia Maria ChildThis is a very hard week for me. For one thing, I have to go out of town and I'm super busy even while feeling under the weather. And then we have a week's worth of songs that I don't especially like. Today I thought I would feature, "Over the River and Through the Wood." It is based on a poem by Lydia Maria Child. She was an amazing person and so we ought to honor her. But the poem does not exactly inspire me.

Since I am the son of two black sheep, I don't exactly relate to the song. We almost never visited relatives when I was a kid. And when we did, I mostly remember people arguing. But that is the way of my people. There is nothing worth saying that it is not worth saying loudly and angrily. This may be how it is that I developed a feisty writing style, but am in person very quiet and non-confrontational.

Anyway, I went through dozens of versions of this song and could find almost nothing that didn't make me suicidal. But I did find this very nice and short ukulele version from Fingerstyle Ukulele Uke Channel. It's actually pleasant. It could have gone on for another few minutes:


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Anniversary Post: Battle of Triangle Hill

Battle of Triangle HillOn this day in 1952, the Battle of Triangle Hill was ended. It had been going on for a month and a half and the end result was: nothing. No territorial gains on either side. Well, nothing! Thousands dead. It's kind of like the war as a whole. It ended pretty much where it started. Yet when I was growing up, it was presented as a war that we had won. That was when we were still fighting the Vietnam War and victor was just another bombing raid away.

It's surreal to look back and see how in grammar school, we were all taught these lies of American supremacy. I'm sure that the Soviet Union was not teaching its children any more propaganda than we were getting fed. I mean, what was the War of 1812? It was at best a standoff, and that's just because England was involved in a far bigger fight. It's all so crazy. Most of our wars ended in muddles. Yet today, conservatives look back on World War II as though it were the way wars are supposed to be. And let's be frank, if it weren't for Stalin, that war in the Pacific would have ended in a muddle.

The entire history of humanity shows that we should do everything we can to avoid war. The world is too filled with people like Michael Gerson who want war at all cost — but for other people. So keep the Battle of Triangle Hill in mind the next time you think we ought to go to war. It is the perfect reminder that war accomplishes very little but death.

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GOP Will Never Support Good Tax Reform Ideas

Josh BarroJosh Barro wrote a really interesting article about a week ago, The Tax Code Can Be Simpler. But Not Three Pages. It leads off with Carly Fiorina's idea that the federal tax code could be replaced with three pages. This is in reference to the Hall-Rabushka legislation which, at 1,120 words would fit on three pages. It is also a flat rate tax plan, of course.

Before getting into it, I have a question: would Americans care that the tax code just got much smaller if it meant their taxes went up? Way up?! Indeed, other than demagoguing politicians, I don't know anyone who cares what size the tax code is. That's something for bureaucrats to worry about. The rest of just know the small bits of the tax code that we have to know. And if our taxes are really complicated, we get a professional. No one cares if the tax code is "73,000 pages." (In fact, the tax code itself is 3,728 pages — but anyone who listens to Carly Fiorina for facts deserves the ignorance they get.)

Fiorina is not pushing Hall-Rabushka because it is "simple"; she's pushing it because it is a flat tax.

But the thing about the tax code is that it is as complicated as it needs to be. Barro quoted Columbia Law School tax professor Michael Graetz saying, "The minute it’s passed, I’m going to call my dean and tell her to pay me only in goods." Because in order to keep the tax plan to 1,120 words, there are no taxes on benefits. There is nothing about bartering. There is also, of course, nothing about enforcement. What happens if you just won't pay your taxes. Oh, detail, details!

But that's the point. I know lots of conservatives who are outraged about the carried interest loophole. How can it be that hedge fund managers can take what is clearly earned income and have it be taxed at capital gains! Very simple: the tax code allows it. But these are the very same conservatives who rant about the number of pages in the tax code — not because they care but because demagogues like Carly Fiorina have made them think that it is a great concern. Do you really doubt that after Hall-Rabushka was passed that every CEO in the nation would see their salaries go down to $1 per year? Of course they would! They'd do everything to avoid paying taxes, just like they do now.

Carly FiorinaThe rest of Barro's article is about how the tax code could be simplified and made fairer. Hooray! That's true. I think some of the ideas are great like having the IRS automatically fill out people's forms and then letting the tax payer make changes. But this is the fundamental problem with the so called reformacons like him: all they do is give cover to the truly vile plans of the conservative movement. If the tax code is actually going to be made simpler, it isn't going to be done so by Barro's party: the Republicans. I don't see the Democrats doing it either, but they stand a much better chance of doing so.

Tax "simplification" and tax "reform" are just euphemisms on the right for changing the tax code so the middle class pays more and the rich pay less. Fiorina is not pushing Hall-Rabushka because it is "simple"; she's pushing it because it is a flat tax. As the Tax Policy Center put it, "The family exemptions make the flat tax progressive for low-income households. But at the high end of the income distribution, the tax is regressive, just like sales taxes and VATs." In other words: middle class tax hike, upper class tax cut.

I'm all for discussing better ways to run the country. But I find it vaguely offensive when Josh Barro does it. The truth is that his actual policy positions put him well inside the Democratic Party. Yet he still carries the intellectual water of the Republicans. So candidates like Fionia can run around talking about how "conservatives" have all these great ideas for tax reform. Great propaganda! But they will never get into any Republican tax proposal.


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Why Is David Brooks Rich? Because He's Moral!

David BrooksI read three articles last night about David Brooks: one by Martin Longman and two by Matt Bruenig: one more recent (Why Not Shame David Brooks for Divorcing?) and another that I want to focus on, On Civility. I didn't know that Brooks had divorced a couple of years ago. And it isn't the point it. No one actually thinks that people they know should suffer through bad marriages. And no one pretends to know what David Brooks has really gone through in life. I'm sure he's like everyone with his good days and bad days and secret horrors.

The problem is that David Brooks has made a career of telling vast classes of poor people that if only they would act more like middle and upper class people — people like him — then they wouldn't be poor. The one core principle of David Brooks is that economic inequality is due to cultural inequality. His is the more intellectual sounding version of, "If those kids would just pull their pants up, everything would be fine!" Or if you want to go back five decades, "If those kids would just cut their hair!" Although Brooks would never admit it, it is poor shaming. People like Brooks never want to admit that their success has anything to do with luck.

The truth is not just that we can't be uncivil to David Brooks because he's an actual man. I don't know David Brooks. For all I know, he's a computer program — the newest version of CleverBot.

Bruenig's argument in the earlier article is that it is uncivil to shame David Brooks. He's a human being. He has feelings. But he and his conservative colleagues Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat are never attacked for their incivility toward the nameless poor. In fact, all three men are held up as "moderates" because they are for things like paternity leave. But that is all part of the underlying philosophy that people aren't poor because of their situations in life and social factors that have working against them long before they were even born. No, it is because they don't have those middle class mores.

This is also the beat that uber-racist Charles Murray has been on for years. When he isn't telling us people are poor because they are stupid, he is telling us that they are poor because of their cultures. This is the state of sociology in the conservative world. Correlation does not imply causation, unless that correlation can be used to justify the same old policies you always want — namely those that continue to enrich your social class at the expense of others'.

But the situation is worse than even Bruenig indicates. The truth is not just that we can't be uncivil to David Brooks because he's an actual man. I don't know David Brooks. For all I know, he's a computer program — the newest version of CleverBot. The truth is, because of my "colorful" life, people have had no problem being uncivil to me — in much more intimate circumstances than David Brooks has to put up with. The truth is that we can't be uncivil to David Brooks because he is one of society's winners. And to attack him would be to attack the whole society.

On the other side of it, attacking the poor is to protect the whole society. It is a way of saying that the society is great. The problem is that these poor people just can't get it together. It's like Singapore, which is generally thought the cleanest city in the world. Yet it still has rats. That's what the poor are to these apologists for the perfection that is the American economic system.

The argument of these social conservatives is that people are poor because they don't stay married and get a good education. But David Brooks is now divorced. What's more, he isn't that educated — as you can tell by the depth of writing. But he must be moral and educated enough — he's rich! I have a PhD in physics, I am divorced, and I am poor. Aha! That must be related. David Brooks only has a Bachelor of Arts, is divorced, and is rich. Aha! That must not mean a thing.


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