James Baldwin Next Time

James BaldwinBefore I get to the birthdays, I think we should deal with a bit of history. On this day in 1934, Adolf Hitler became Fuhrer of Germany. Don’t you just love those 20th century despots? They could never use a regular word like “president” for a title. They always had to come up with something specific to themselves like “grand poobah.” So Hitler becomes his grand poobah-ness. That’s another thing about the Nazis: I’ve always been fascinated with its cult like structure. When the Nazis took over the parliament, they disbanded it and made Hitler the Grandest of the Grandest of Grand Poobahs. I never understood that until the last couple of years. Now I fully believe that if a strong Republican leader came along, the Republicans would be willing to legislate Congress out of existence and give complete power to this leader. Look: I know that all this sounds very Godwin’s Law. But how can it be otherwise when one of the great American political parties is running with full force toward fascism?

Statue of LibertyAnyway, five years later—To the day!—Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard (two “Jewish” scientists) wrote their famous letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt about the bomb. The two events are clearly connected. Eventually humans would have created nuclear bombs, of course. But Hitler moved the idea along. I still blame the United States for both of its attacks on Japan. But there is no doubt that Hitler was more of a villain, even in this one way.

Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, was born on this day in 1612. What I find remarkable about her, is that she was not a beautiful woman. And this is true even though she died at the young age of 29. But she does look like she had blond hair and blue eyes. So there’s that. French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was born in 1834. Guess what he designed? Very possibly the inventor of the telephone Elisha Gray was born in 1835. Alexander Graham Bell managed to get the patent for it, however. This is something very typical that I talk about a lot: few people are really ahead of their time. And those few who are, are generally ignored in their own lifetimes.

John French Sloan - McSorley's BarOne of the greatest stained glass artists ever, John Radecki was born in 1865. The great American painter John French Sloan was born in 1871. He was one of the founders of the Ashcan School. Think: Edward Hopper. The Russian city artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky was born in 1875. Producer Jack Warner was born in 1892.

And now we must discuss the German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann who was born in 1905. He is not exactly a twelve-tone composer, but he’s pretty damned close. This is a form of music developed by Arnold Schoenberg. It is also called “atonal” and “serial” because it uses the 12 notes in the western octave and uses them in the same order over and over again. And truly, there are twelve-tone pieces that I quite enjoy. But it’s rare. They are really difficult to listen to. They seem designed to annoy. So here is Hartmann’s Symphony No. 2 Adagio. Listen if you dare:

That same year, 1905, the beautiful and sassy Myrna Loy was born. Here are a number of scenes with her as Nora Charles in The Thin Man movies:

And TV’s Archie Bunker, Carroll O’Connor was born in 1924.

Actor Peter O’Toole is 81 today. I’m not a big fan of his, but I love a number of his films. And nowhere is he better than in Dean Spanley, one of my favorite movies:

For the record, not only is Dean Spanley a great film, it is one of those rare movies that is better than the source material. In this case, it is Lord Dunsany’s My Talks with Dean Spanley. If you haven’t seen it, please do. It is currently on Instant Watch on Netflix.

Horror film director Wes Craven is 74. Musician Mojo Nixon is 56. I’m not that into him, but his song “Don Henley Must Die” is a classic:

Actor Mary-Louise Parker is 49. And director Kevin Smith is 43. I respect his work but it does nothing but annoy me.

The day, however, belongs to the great writer James Baldwin who was born on this day in 1924. I don’t really know him as a novelist. But his essays are amazing. I don’t think of him as a “black” writer because it often seems like he understood what it is to be white better than I do. Here is a quote from an essay “The White Man’s Guilt” that very much catches the essence of being limited by your own privileged:

People who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, sine they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world. This is the place in which it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.

Happy birthday James Baldwin!

Senate Likely Remains Democratic After 2014

Elephant and DonkeyWith all the talk of 2014 being a big year for Republicans, it is easy to lose sight of what the coming election really looks like. Thankfully, Jonathan Bernstein has put together a useful primer on the next collection of Senate races. Up to now, I’ve just vaguely figured that the Republicans had a fifty percent chance of taking back the Senate. It turns out that their chances look a good deal worse than that.

Let’s start with the overview. Assuming that the Democrats get back the New Jersey seat vacated by Frank Lautenberg, they will start with an advantage of 55-45. That’s a very likely case. I often think that the Democrats are incompetent politically, but I don’t see how they could blow this one. Given that, the Republicans have to gain 6 seats in the Senate. That’s because Joe Biden would be the 51st vote for the Democrats if the Republicans only closed the difference to 50-50.

According to Bernstein, there are three Democratic seat retirements that are likely to go Republican: Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. These are all strong Republican states where strong Republican candidates are running. There are also four Democratic incumbents who are running in strong Republican states: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. That’s a total of 7 currently Democratic seats that are vulnerable.

On the other side of the calculation, the Democrats have two decent opportunities to pick up seats. One is due to the retirement of Saxby Chambliss in Georgia. The other is Mitch McConnell’s race in Kentucky. Interestingly, his challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes is currently beating him in polls. So if the Republicans are to gain control of the Senate, they must hold these two seats and get 6 of the 7 good opportunities they have.

Let me put some numbers to this. As usual, I’m going to push hard to make this look as good as possible for the Republicans. Let’s assume that the 3 open races are almost sure things: 80% likely. Further, let’s assume that the 4 incumbents are favored to lose: 60%. Plus I’ll give George an 80% chance of staying Republican and McConnell a 60% chance of re-election. The statistics on this are a little involved because we have to look that the chance of the Republicans winning all and all but one of these races. Still, the chance turns out to be 17%. And even if I up the Republican chances to 90% for the likely cases and 70% for the favored cases, the chances don’t even break 50% (but they come really close).

So things look good for the Republicans, but they are definitely a long shot at taking over the Senate in 2014. Of course, this is just how it looks right now. But events could move in either direction. And as of now, I don’t see the Republicans doing anything to help their chances. Personally, I’m hoping for a Susan Collins retirement!

Stronger Unions Make Everyone Richer

Matt YglesiasThis morning I was having a discussion about income inequality. It still amazes me that the power elite don’t see the problem. Of course, I’m expecting too much; the power elite are as shortsighted as anyone—maybe even more so. The problem is that as fewer and fewer people have all the money, the economic system just doesn’t work. As billionaire Nick Hanauer has noted, the rich only wear one pair of pants at a time; they only drive one car at a time; they only get one gallbladder operation at a time. Income inequality will eventually destroy the economy. The rich may end up a very exclusive club, but they would be lords of a dark age where being rich wouldn’t mean much. As conservatives like to say, the poorest American today is better off than than richest European king of 500 years ago. (That’s not technically true, but you get the idea.)

Matt Yglesias has been hammering away at a related point for some time now. I haven’t found it that compelling. He’s been arguing that all the cash that corporations are sitting on should either be invested, distributed to shareholders, or (best of all) paid out in bonuses and higher salaries to employees. I’ve tended to think that Yglesias is being hopelessly naive. I’ve seen this with most conservatives: they think that we don’t need government regulations because businesses will generally do the “right” thing. But I know this isn’t a description of Yglesias; he’s a well informed and thoughtful guy.

This morning, he wrote an article that better explains where he’s coming from, How 40 Years of Union-Busting Has Failed America. He’s making the same argument, but looking at it in a different way. He starts by noting that the big anti-union push of 40 years ago was justified by an argument. It was an argument in three parts: (1) if unions were less powerful, companies would have more profits; (2) if companies had more profits, they could invest more; (3) if they invested more, there would be more economic growth and we would all be richer. But as he shows, only the first step has happened: companies have not invested more and the productivity gains have not been any better (they are actually worse) than they had been.

There is an obvious argument to be made here that Yglesias is again being naive. It is true that conservative intellectuals made that argument about unions. It is not true that policy makers basically defined unions out of existence for this reason. It always was (and this dates back well over a hundred years) the case that the business community hated the very idea of unions because they do not want to share the fruits of their businesses with their workers. Like I said, this is a shortsighted view. But this is the way that people think. No one can seriously think that eliminating the minimum wage is going to increase economic growth. Yet the same people who hate unions hate the minimum wage. And it is for the same reason: so the rich can have more money.

But Yglesias is right that the three part argument is the only argument that a majority of the people might accept for destroying the unions. And the data are in and we know the results: destroying unions has been bad for everyone. (I do mean everyone: even the rich would be better off in an absolute sense if we had less income inequality.) On a macro-scale, it all makes sense. But to any individual business owner it doesn’t. It is the same as the paradox of thrift. If an individual business pays its employees less, it will have a competitive advantage and thus make more money. But if all businesses pay their employees less, they will see their profits go down as consumers (who are also the workers getting paid less) don’t have as much money to buy things.

I suspect that there are many ways that we can go about fixing this problem. The first thing to do is for the government to start enforcing those labor laws that are still on the books. Then they could pass some pro-labor laws like Card Check. A more progressive federal income tax and a less regressive payroll tax would also help. Yglesias mentions a couple of his own, but I prefer mine that go directly to the heart of the problem. The point is that there are a lot of things we could do. And literally everyone should be on board with this.

IRS Scandal and Mainstream Media Failure

Mainstream Media

Steve Benen has written an excellent article about media coverage of the supposed IRS scandal, When the Media’s Attention Span Turns Reckless. As we all remember, the media was all over the story originally when the Republicans were making big allegations about the supposed scandal and how it reached all the way to the White House. Remember how IRS Chief Douglas Shulman visited the White House 157 times? Oh yes, those were the days of big media attention—the days when they didn’t know what was going on and so just passed on talking points.

But as facts came out, the media lost interest. On one level, this is nothing new. The media is only interested in exciting stories. But there are two reasons why we should care in this case. Benen discusses the first reason at some length: media outlets didn’t stop covering the “scandal” when nothing was happening; they stopped covering it it when things were happening, just things that pushed against the original narrative. He links to a paper in the Columbia Journalism Review, The Scandal Attention Cycle. It provided the following graph of scandal coverage in Politico, Washington Post, and New York Times:

IRS Scandal Coverage

One thing I find really interesting is that there is no increase in coverage on 18 July 2013, when Inspector General Russell George testified that his report was in fact one sided and focused only on what the IRS had done to conservative groups. In fact, there were no front page articles from the two newspapers that whole week. The New York Times managed only one article at all in its A section; the Washington Post managed two. That to me was the real scandal. George claimed that Darrell Issa never told him to only look at targeting of conservative groups, but all indications are that this was the case. Now that’s a scandal that a young and ambitious journalist might grab onto. And that brings us to the second reason you should care about the initial media freak out and subsequent disinterest.

The media is not doing its job. There is no journalism going on. When there were spikes in coverage, it is because the Republicans were making allegations. The original peak in coverage reflected only that Republicans said that there were bad goings on and Democrats were cowed. No one (other than a few bloggers) dug into what was known even at that time. While the mainstream press were still ramping up their coverage of this supposed scandal, I was writing that there was no scandal—and this was hardly a major issue for me! So why was it that someone as far outside the loop as possible could get this right while the professionals at major news agencies treated this nonsense like it was serious? That’s because most journalists really are nothing but reporters: they report what the two sides say and don’t dig any deeper. After all, finding the truth might lead to bias because as everyone in the mainstream media knows, the truth is right in the center between what the Republicans say and what the Democrats say.

The study puts the situation as bluntly as you will ever see in such an article:

With the notable exception of an A1 New York Times story in early July by Jonathan Weisman on “the more complicated picture now emerging” in the case, all three publications gave much less coverage to the story once the facts were known—and, in particular, much less front-page coverage.

The press may be enshrined in our Constitution, but at this point I hardly think it matters. For every courageous reporter like Glenn Greenwald, there are hundreds who are ready to run him down for the sin of not pandering to power. It reminds of the time right before George W. Bush went to Ireland. He was interviewed by Carole Coleman for Raidio Teilifis Eireann, the Irish public service broadcaster. He was clearly shocked that a reporter would ask real questions of him. But the issue wasn’t (as many liberals thought) that Bush would never allow real journalists to interview him. The issue was just that any president could assume he would be handled with kid gloves by the American press. And that’s more true now than ever.

Afterword

Before I get some push back on that last sentence, let me explain. The mainstream press are always more harsh with Democrats. There are two reasons for this. First, Democrats are generally more capable of holding their own. No reporter wants something like Sarah Palin not being able to mention any Supreme Court cases. Second, people in the mainstream press are paranoid about having liberal bias. I assure you that if Romney had been elected president, the American press would treat him with even more deference than they did Bush.