Daily Archives: 28 Jan 2015

John Boehner’s Rotten Jobs Paid Well

John BoehnerSunday night, I wrote about the pathetic 60 Minutes segment that allowed John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to come on and pitch their talking points unmolested, Shameless Republican Ad on 60 Minutes. I wanted to add one more thing to that. In the discussion of the minimum wage, Boehner began to wax poetic about his days of working his way through college. This appears to be the case. Unlike most politicians, Boehner really is from relatively modest circumstances. But that doesn’t make his argument any stronger.

He gave the same old apologia for allowing the poor to work for next to nothing:

I’ve had every kinda rotten job you can imagine growing up and getting myself through school. And I wouldn’t have had a chance at half those jobs if the federal government had kept imposing higher minimum wage. You take the bottom rungs off the economic ladder.

There are many things wrong with this. The biggest theoretical problem is that it depends upon a widely held myth about the way that business works. According to this theory, businesses hire people out of some sense of beneficence. That’s just not true. Businesses hire because they have to. They have work that needs to get done. So the idea that companies are going to cut workers because the minimum wage goes up is just madness. What will happen in a very small number of cases is that really badly run, inefficient companies, which are only profitable because they pay their works starvation wages, will go out of business. But these are just companies that are currently gaming the system and they deserve to go out of business.

But more important is the practical matter of just what the minimum wage was when little Johnny Boehner was working himself through college. He was born in 1949. So what was the minimum wage worth in the late 1960s? According to work by Dean Baker and Will Kimball, if the minimum wage had just kept pace with inflation, it would be $9.66 today (that’s with my adjustment from 2012 up to 2015). In addition, if it rose with productivity (which it always did until that time), it would now be almost $17.50. And if we look at just non-farm productivity growth, it would now be worth more than $23 per hour.

Real Value of Minimum Wage - Time Series

What Boehner did in the 60 Minutes interview is common among people his age. They look back on their own youths — when pretty much only youths had those kinds of jobs — and claim that they were just fine. Well that may be. But those jobs paid a lot more back then. If we use the non-farm productivity figure, John Boehner was earning three times what a minimum wage worker is earning today. And as I noted: these jobs are not for kids working their way through college; they are for adults with kids just trying to get through the month.

If Republicans and other conservatives want to stop the minimum wage from increasing, that’s fine. But don’t pretend that the minimum wage of today is the same as it always was. It isn’t. And until 1970, it always went up with the rate of productivity growth. It is no coincidence that when the minimum wage stopped growing, so did the wages for the rest of American workers. The current minimum wage simply adjusted for inflation is 67% of what it was in 1968, when John Boehner was doing “every kinda rotten job you can imagine.” The imagination problem is not with us; it is with him and all his conservative allies who can’t see that things have changed a lot since they were at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

Penn & Teller Nonsense

Penn & Teller BullshitI came upon a very interesting Rational Wiki article on Penn & Teller. This pair has bugged me for a very long time — especially after their ideological defense of Walmart. Their libertarian views skew everything they do. I generally have a problem when rich and successful people promote libertarianism. It is like someone who’s won a war saying, “Now let me explain why monarchy is the best form of government…” These are guys who had all the advantages of public education, unions and public sector jobs (Jillette’s father was a prison guard), and a safety net that allowed them to risk failure in a field where most fail. Yet now they have convinced themselves that it was all about them, and now they don’t want no stinking government to interfere with them — even at the cost to later generations having the same support that they depended on.

But the duo is interesting in that they are strictly rational when it comes to looking at claims like UFOs or ghosts, but when it comes to politics, they’re hopeless. On their show Penn & Teller: Bullshit! they couldn’t touch on anything even remotely associated with politics without falling into the ideologue’s trap: they started with their conclusion. (In fairness, their approach to UFOs and ghosts is probably just as predetermined — but those subjects have the advantages of having had actual scientists look into them.) Then their arguments were nothing more than setting up straw men to knock down and cherry picking data.

They were most notoriously wrong about global warming. Now a real skeptic looking into global warming would, I don’t know, talk to a scientist? Maybe James Hansen would have something to say on the issue. But Penn & Teller are far too smart for that! They went to the source of the best information on climate change: the Cato Institute. Because when you want objective information, the best place to go is to people who are ideologically committed to the science saying a particular thing. And even better, go to people who are ideologically committed in exactly the same way that you are! That way you can filter any actual information through that prism.

Okay, so that was back in 2003. There was little reason to doubt global warming then, but it was more understandable then. But in the years since, Jillette has only provided apologias for his previous positions. According to Rational Wiki, “In later interviews, Penn stated that anthropogenic global warming was probably real, but claimed that he was talking about not knowing whether ‘the whole package’ (ie the need for government intervention, presumably as opposed to a self-correcting market) was real.” But that’s not true: the duo was clearly making the case that all conservatives were making then, “We don’t know so we shouldn’t do anything!”

Further, Jillette (and Teller too, I assume) has only shown that he is doing the global warming denial steps. They are: (1) There is no global warming; (2) There is global warming, but humans aren’t the cause; and (3) Humans are causing global warming, but there is nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing rational about that. It is just, “I don’t want to believe and so I won’t.” And that makes him as rational and skeptical as your average fundamentalist Christian.

In 2008, the duo did an episode attacking the idea of carbon offsets. At that point, only loons were denying global warming. And there they were complaining about the most conservative response. Rational Wiki pointed out that in the episode, they used Argumentum ad Gorem, or Gore’s Law: “As an online climate change debate grows longer, the probability that denier arguments will descend into attacks on Al Gore approaches 1.” But what do you expect from a couple of libertarians? Rational argument?!

When it comes down to it, Penn & Teller will argue that they are just entertainers, “Just a clown! Just a clown!” But if that’s the case, why not step out of the skeptical movement? Why pretend that you are speaking the truth and not just pushing your own self-serving ideology? Why not stick to what you actually know? I would argue that the reason is because both these men are so deluded that they can’t even see their own biases. The same thing can be said for the New Atheist movement generally. And that’s probably why the New Atheists continue to admire them as their own.


See also: Philosophical Underpinnings of New Atheist Sexism.

Hodgman’s Chait “PC” Twitter Response in English

John HodgmanNo one asked, but here are my thoughts about the Jonathan Chait piece in New York Magazine, Not a Very PC Thing to Say.

I acknowledge the phenomena he is describing is an actual thing. I was on a campus in the 90s and am on the internet now. I’ve seen and occasionally been confronted by principled passion and vitriol in response to what I thought was a mild opinion. I have been flustered at the suggestion that my opinion is simply invalid due to my privilege. I have watched all sides become entrench — their circular arguments tighten into sanctimonious death spirals, as they jockey for grievance status. Sometimes I conclude that many people just want to fight for its own sake; it offers them something; the other is not important.

It was ever thus online, however, as it was ever thus in every smelly college coffee house ever. There are toxic, pointless arguments all over the internet since internet began. Social justice is just one flavor of contentiousness. But I will say that the “PC” critiques, even at their most infuriating to me, almost always make me think and yes check my privilege. I’d never heard of cisgender until it had been hurled at me as an invalidating insult on Twitter. I bet it’s true for Chait too. But I am glad I know it now; I am glad to give these issues thought. It enlarges me to be called out, even when I conclude the caller is a troll, and especially when it’s by a person I respect.

Jonathan Chait offers very little evidence against this form of contentiousness, other than the anxiety and hurt feelings of some colleagues. To suggest that somehow this discourse is hurting its own side has a name: concern trolling. But I don’t want to invalidate his argument. Rather, I want to make a counter argument of my own. If Chait and heroes of mine like Andrew Sullivan [!?] want to make common cause against SJWs with gamergate that’s fine.

But I’ve avoided discussing gamergate out of fear of being drawn into a speech war that has had real world consequences on both sides. Because there are those who truly monitor and punish speech with doxing threats and harassment — from every philosophical spectrum. I’ve never had an exchange with the so called SJWs that I couldn’t shrug and move on from — sometimes smarter for it. I’ve learned tons from contentious folks of other stripes of Internet warriors as well: gamergate, MRAs, far right wing.

But when expression of opinion is met with real world attacks, the occasional harangue of the politically correct feels small to me.

—John Hodgman
My minor edit of his 22 twitter response
Compiled by German Lopez at Vox

Palestine Gives Up on US — With Good Reason

Palestine Doesn't Trust USZack Beauchamp over at Vox wrote, It’s Over. It is more helpfully subtitled, “Why the Palestinians are finally giving up on Obama and the US peace process.” It’s a very interesting article. Basically, it is about how even Mahmoud Abbas has given up hope that a settlement can be reached in the traditional way everyone has previously thought with Israel on one side, Palestine on the other, and the United States in the middle. And it would seem that the proximate cause for this is John Kerry, who seems to have been every bit as clueless in dealing with the Palestinians as Condoleezza Rice had been — quite a feat!

But I wonder why anyone thought that the United States could be a neutral arbiter in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I understand that the key to the conflict is where you are going to start it. That’s always the way it is with conflicts. If you tell me when it started, I will tell you what side you are one. When the Soviet Union was a going concern, they traced the Cold War back to World War I, whereas the US traced it back only to the period after World War II. But regardless of which side you come down on in the Middle East conflict, who thinks that America is a disinterested figure?

Things were probably different back in the 1970s. But today, the United States is pro-Israel in a way that defies all logic. Especially among conservatives, there seems to be more commitment to Israel than there is to the United States.[1] I think that is mostly due to the fact that Israel seems like a “kicking ass and taking names” kind of a country whereas the US is committed to diplomacy and all that sissy stuff. (Not that we are, but we give lip services to it.)

But more than this, there is just straight up racism going on. Israel looks more or less like the United States and Palestine looks like those people — you know, the ones who attacked us on 9/11. Out of Palestine we see desperate and mostly impotent attacks on anyone they can. We call this terrorism. Out of Israel, we see properly uniformed and armed forces that are devastatingly effective. We call this “Israel defending its right to exist.” In fact, these seem to get me into more arguments than I like. I have no problem with people siding with Israel, but it is a fantasy to claim that Israel’s tactics make it noble; both it’s tactics and those of the Palestinians are dictated by their power differential.

Given that there is pretty much nothing that Israel could do at this point that would alienate the American public — at least the way it is covered in the mainstream press — it is no surprise that our government has no interest in being an honest broker in the conflict. And I think it’s very simple: it is to Israel’s advantage to do nothing — at least in the short term. And if Israel were serious about a deal, it would stop the illegal settlements. But I think it is intent on allowing the situation to continue until a unified Palestine is impossible — figuring that it will just be able to finesse the situation at that time.

So I’m not surprised that Palestine is turning to the rest of the world, where they are much more likely to find people who understand that both sides have their problems. There isn’t much of an audience for that in the United States. So it isn’t surprising that our government hasn’t managed to get anything accomplished in a long time.


[1] It’s been a couple of days since I wrote this and it just occurred to me that people may think I’m referring to American Jews. That is not the case. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me. I am, of course, referring to Republicans — most of whom are evangelical Christians. Their support has little to do with the need for a safe place for a historically oppressed people. Rather, it is simply Islamophobia and the belief in the book of Revelation.

John Banner

John BannerOn this day in 1910, the fine character actor John Banner was born. And 63 years later — to the day — he died. He had gone back to visit his home town. So apparently, you can go home — but it will kill you.

Banner is known for one thing: he played Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes. As you may know, I was crazy about the show when I was a kid. And I’ve never really abandoned that, although my interest has become much more about what the show said about American attitudes about its place in the world. There was the bumbling, by-the-book British Colonel Crittendon. There was the mysterious and never quite trustworthy Russian spy Marya. But most of all, there was Sergeant Schultz: the good German who is just caught in the middle of a bad situation.

In one episode where Hogan manages to convince the Nazis that the war is over, we learn that Schultz was the owner of Germany’s largest toy maker before the government took it over to convert it to military uses. He’s probably a social democrat. He doesn’t like the Nazis. But mostly, he just doesn’t like conflict, “When it comes to war, I don’t like to take sides.” But there are times when the plot is used to turn Schultz into a real Nazi as when he takes over as commandant and when he is put in charge of making a movie. As I wrote before, “Schultz was the heart of the show.”

A lot of people seem to have the idea that Banner died during the series run. This is not true. He went on to star in another situation comedy, The Chicago Teddy Bears. I don’t know much about it except that it took place in Chicago during Prohibition. Banner starred with Dean Jones (who by federal law had to star in every Disney movie from 1965 to 1980) as partners in a speakeasy. It sounds like a decent show, but few watched it and it was canceled after 13 episodes. The only thing I’ve found is this terrible copy of the opening credits:

Happy birthday John Banner!