Artist and Rat Budd Schulberg

Budd SchulbergI just watched Good Night, and Good Luck, and I’ll probably write about it later. But it is especially appropriate because that movie is about the Joseph McCarthy communist witch hunts. They shine such a light on who we are both as a society and as a individuals. And one of the people who got that light shined on him was Budd Schulberg who was born on this day in 1914. He was one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history. But when he was ratted out to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he dutifully came before the committee and sang like a bird. (Note: the HUAC was not McCarthy’s, but it is a major player in the witch hunts.)

One thing that is most sad about the artists who got caught up in all of that is that their interest in equality and nondiscrimination and justice is generally what got them in trouble. So even the “rats” were generally good people with the right instincts. And that was definitely true of Schulberg. His novels What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall are filled with humanism. And his screenplays On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd both probe the way that powerful people control the common man. So I think they more than make up for his performance on the HUAC. After all, the problem is us, not him.

Happy birthday Budd Schulberg!

Paul Ryan More Racist Than Ever

Paul Ryan - Eddie MunsterTwo weeks ago, I wrote about Paul Ryan’s Racist Dog Whistle. This was about his contention that poverty was the result of lazy inner city men. Despite much contention to the contrary, it was pure racist dog whistle politics. Since then, Paul Ryan has gone around trying to prove that he isn’t racist. And it was in the service of that goal that he ended up on Bill O’Reilly’s The Factor Tuesday night.

The appearance was mostly notable because Bill O’Reilly used the opportunity to get his racist hate on. But Joan Walsh noticed some really interesting things in her article, Paul Ryan’s Endless “I Am Not a racist” Tour. Ryan used fellow Representative Barbara Lee from nearby Oakland to claim he wasn’t a racist. “She knows me well,” he said. “And she knows that I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” You know the drill. It’s the modern version of, “Some of my best friends are black!” The nice black lady says he ain’t racist so he ain’t.

Bill O'ReillyBut as Walsh points out, after using Barbara Lee for political cover, he stood by while Bill O’Reilly savaged her, calling her a “race hustler.” Conservatives like Paul Ryan are in a tough place. They know that it is no longer okay to be explicitly racist. But their ideological appeal still depends upon racism. I don’t know where Walsh stands on the issue, but to me it is very simple: Paul Ryan is a racist. People seem to miss the fact that outward signs of racism change over time. Just because Ryan isn’t a fire breathing bigot who uses the n-word doesn’t mean that he isn’t racist. As I wrote when I first covered the issue:

He seems like an Ayn Rand true believer. Yet he doesn’t make the Ayn Rand argument: selfishness is good and all that crap. Instead, he makes the argument that is coded to sound okay to moderates but which simultaneously pushes all those tribal and racist buttons. So I don’t think he necessarily holds the “screw the poor” opinions because of any personal racial animus. But he sure is willing to knowingly use coded racist rhetoric to reach his preferred Ayn Rand dystopian future. And that is racist.

This all comes from to Lee Atwater’s infamous “nigger, nigger, nigger” quote. It doesn’t really matter what’s going on inside Paul Ryan’s pea brain. He can be nice to every black man he meets on the street. The fact is that the policies he pushes harm the poor and enrich the wealthy. And given that our society is already racist and so blacks are more likely to be poor, his policies primarily hurt them. Or as Lee Atwater would put it, all the policies Paul Ryan is “talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is: blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

It doesn’t really matter how he got to those policies. And notice: you could have said the same thing about poll taxes. You could have said the same thing about “literacy” tests. The people who push them always claim that they aren’t about race. But when we look back on them we see that of course they were about race. And that will be true in 40 years when people look back on Paul Ryan’s “culture of dependency” argument.

Corporate Bureaucracy

Corporate BureaucracyThe standard conservative line is that governments are bureaucratic and unresponsive while privately held companies are innovative and responsive. There was never any theory to explain why that would be. And in my experience, it isn’t true. It’s just a tired talking point of right wingers who hate the government.

I grew up in small businesses. My parents pretty much never had regular jobs. And it is a freewheeling lifestyle. And a stressful one. So I have a certain fondness for people who choose that path in life. They are often quite innovative in their ways. As a result, I was really interested to read Martin Longman a couple of weeks ago, Franchisees Should Unionize to Raise Wages. It tells the story of the “typical franchisor/franchisee relationship.” And it ain’t pretty.

People who own a McDonald’s franchise, for example, have very little control over costs. They can’t find a cheaper supplier of English muffins, for example. They are required by law (Court ruling!) to buy them from McDonald’s. What’s more, they have almost no control on what they charge for food. So if employees got a raise, the money would come only out of their profits. They are forbidden to “innovate.”

What really stands out to me in this story is just how bureaucratic the franchise corporations are. The reason is that according to conservatives, there are two worlds: the world of the bureaucratic government and the world of the innovative private sector. But the truth is far more murky. The government is very often incredibly innovative. It still boggles my mind how much the DMV has changed from the early 1970s to today. But for conservatives, it is always the early 1970s. You would think they’d never had to register a new car.

On the flip side of things is that the corporate world is filled with bureaucracy. We have the example of the franchises above. But my personal favorite example is my interaction with the phone company. At the end of the calls, the tech people are forced to recite the tired, “We’re glad you have chosen AT&T…” Regardless of how personable or rude the agent was, they always turn into a corporate automaton at the end of the call. That’s corporate think for you.

Now I know that there are reasons for all this. In the McDonald’s case, the company wants customers to have the same experience at a restaurant in San Francisco as they do in Lovett. And AT&T is trying to push an image of themselves in their support calls. In both cases, it’s about branding. But it’s a rigid form of branding. Certainly third party vendors could provide exactly the right kind of muffins for the franchisees. Support personnel could push the company line in a way that was specific to them rather than reading a prepared statement.

Institutions of all kinds have to balance the power of individual initiative with the desire to provide a unified customer experience. There is nothing that stops the government from doing this well. And there is nothing that dictates the private companies will do it well. Actual experience shows this. But conservatives continue to push this tired line that the private sector is always innovating. If there’s one thing the last four decades have shown, it is that as companies get bigger and customers have fewer choices, they become far more bureaucratic and less accountable than government agencies.

Nate Silver’s Bizarre NYT Parody

Nate SilverNate Silver wrote a bizarre article at FiveThirtyEight last night, For Columnist, a Change of Tone. It is a parody of an article in The New York Times and it attacks Paul Krugman, implying that Krugman has been attacking the new website because it left The Times. Since it is done as satire, it is hard to know what to make of it.

As you probably know, Silver became something of a media star when he predicted the last few elections quite accurately. And liberals especially liked him in 2012 because his model told liberals what they wanted to hear: Obama was winning the election. At no time during the general election did his model have Romney even close to Obama. That included the period after Obama’s less than impressive first debate. Silver was the main counterweight to all the pundits who talked about ridiculous notions of “political momentum” and the distribution of yard signs.

Paul KrugmanIf we take Silver’s article as fundamentally serious, it shows that Silver really doesn’t understand the nature of the many complaints about his new venture. All it shows is that there is a correlation: since leaving The New York Times, Krugman has been critical of Silver. But that’s not the only thing that happened when Silver left. He also greatly expanded his work and has put out articles about global warming and economics. These are fields that are distinctly different from poll aggregation. So the correlation could just as reasonably cause one to conclude, “Krugman doesn’t like Silver since he branched out into fields he clearly knows nothing about.” Or there could be other reasons. The “leaving The Times” narrative seems highly unlikely.

But is Silver serious? He ended his article with a paragraph that I might have used to lampoon him:

While it can be easy to extrapolate a spurious trend from a limited number of data points, the differences are highly statistically significant. At his current pace, Mr. Krugman will write 425 more blog posts about FiveThirtyEight between now and the 2016 presidential election.

I get the impression that Silver isn’t really sure what he wants to say. On the one hand, he seems to be bothered by all the attacks on his new site. On the other, he seems wryly aware that his statistical work has been thin.

The best take on the article is that Silver is saying that everyone is jumping on the site based upon little data. But the article makes it appear that Krugman was right in his initial assessment of FiveThirtyEight, “What would be really bad is if this turns into a Freakonomics-type exercise, all contrarianism without any appreciation for the importance of actual expertise.” I’m afraid so.

The biggest problem, is not the current criticism of Nate Silver. It is rather how much praise was heaped upon him before. I really liked his work during the 2012 election. But he was not the only one doing that kind of work and not even the best. To his credit, Silver always said that there was nothing special about what he was doing. And as is now becoming clear, there is nothing very deep about Silver’s thinking. For that reason, it is probably best that he stick to sports and other kind of “horse racing” analysis.