Idiosyncrasy, Authenticity, and Blogging

Andrew SullivanIs blogging dead? Many people are greeting the blogging retirement of Andrew Sullivan as a sign that it is. This is preposterous. I can’t really speak about what he does, because I actively avoid him. But what most people think of as blogging is someone famous for something else who also has a blog. That’s not what it is. I enjoy reading Jonathan Chait, for example, but his “blog” is just a side thing he does because “everyone has to have a blog.” But there is nothing about his “blog” that speaks about him. It’s just brief articles that are written by him — every couple of days.

I know what people mean when they talk about blogs. They look back at 2003 when blogs were just finding their way. There was still a lot of interaction: blog to blog communication. Clearly, that is a thing of the past. But as far as I can tell, that was mostly useless. And I still see vestiges of it in modern blogs. People will post a brief introduction and then just quote someone — often unedited. I don’t like that. It strikes me as lazy. (Of course, I have something similar with my quotations.) But this seems to be what people think of as the glory days of blogging.

But I think if people were to go back to early days of blogging, what they would find is that the blogosphere looks very much like it does today. I think it is just that because it was new, it seemed a lot more exciting. The idea that nobodies could contradict establishment media figures seemed revolutionary. And it was revolutionary and now we find ourselves in a different media world. But that revolution had nothing to do with Andrew Sullivan. He became editor of New Republic in 1991 — almost a decade before he started blogging. I’m sure Sullivan could have gotten a good circulation if he had started a newsletter. So who cares?

The truth is that the blog is what replaced the mimeographed zines of the 1980s. If the blog is dead, it is just one idea of the blog: the blog as a marketing tool. Jonathan Chait’s “blog” isn’t a reaction to not having another platform for his ideas. He blogs to market New York Magazine. Even Paul Krugman uses his blog simply to work out ideas for his twice weekly columns for The New York Times. For the 14 “Daily Reads” I list on the right, only six are what I think of as blogs: Beat the Press, Booman Tribune, Economist’s View, The Equitablog, Hullabaloo, and Incident Economist. And even among these sites, I’m mostly pushing the definition. Incident Economist, for example, is largely a repository for The Upshot cross posts and Aaron Carroll’s Healthcare Triage videos. And it doesn’t accept comments.

I think that much of the commentariat want it both ways. They want blogs to be freewheeling, exciting, personal. But they also want them to get huge amounts of traffic and be impactful. And this is why the “blogs” that major outlets put up are blogs only in that they use blogging software. They reflect the organization first and the writer second. If I were to sum up Frankly Curious in three ideas, it would be: Don Quixote, puppets, and left wing politics. It is not a recipe for huge amounts of traffic, but it does reflect who I am better than any other work that I’ve ever done.

There once was a blogosphere that was exciting and idiosyncratic. Then all the media outlets came in and added to that blogosphere. But as they were corporations, they soon found a way to make their blogs as careful and inoffensive as their regular output. And then everyone bemoaned the end of the blogosphere. But the blogosphere hadn’t gone anywhere. It was just that many in the media lost site of what blogging was. They mistook a faster publishing schedule for blogging. But I don’t think that was ever blogging. It was just a reaction to blogging. That’s what media outlets do. It wasn’t as egregious as taking Fats Domino and creating Pat Boone. But it’s no more authentic.

Inequality Is Bad for the Rich

Robert FrankI’ve been studying inequality for more than 30 years, and for most of that time it’s been an issue well out of the limelight. And so I’ve been delighted to see it enter the political conversation in a big way recently.

But something major is missing from that conversation, which centers on questions of fairness. Fairness clearly matters, but focusing on it presupposes a zero-sum competition between different classes. That’s consistent with the conventional view that inequality is good for the rich and bad for the poor, and so the rich should favor it while the poor should oppose it. But the conventional view is wrong.

High levels of inequality are bad for the rich, too, and not just because inequality offends norms of fairness. As I’ll explain, inequality is also extremely wasteful.

It’s easy to demonstrate that growing income disparities have made life more difficult not just for the poor, but also for the economy’s ostensible winners — the very wealthy. The good news is that a simple change in tax policy could free up literally trillions of dollars a year without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone…

—Robert Frank
Why Have Weddings and Houses Gotten so Ridiculously Expensive? Blame Inequality.

House’s 56th Repeal Vote Doesn’t Mean Anything

John BoehnerMichael Hiltzik published what is the best headline I’ve read in a long time, New “Productive” Congress Takes a Vote… to Repeal Obamacare. Thus far, only the House has voted. This is their 56th repeal vote. It’s shocking. It is impossible not to ask why the Republicans think they are in Congress. I’m not someone who thinks that Congress should get something — anything — done. But the people in Congress should be working on the same stuff that they would be working on if they did have control of Congress and White House. These endless repeal votes are nothing but messages sent to their base. And I understand that some of this is to be expected. But 56 votes?!

To make matters worse, John Boehner provided the lamest excuse I have ever heard, “We have 47 new members of Congress on the Republican side who have never had a chance to cast their vote to repeal Obamacare.” What are they? Grammar school children? They have to go on yet another field trip to the zoo because some of the children have never had a chance to see a caged rhino? This is madness. What’s more, it’s silly. The idea seems to be that these Republicans need to prove that they are serious about repealing Obamacare to their bases. But everyone knows such a vote is meaningless as long as Obama is in the White House. Would all these Republicans really vote to repeal Obamacare if it actually would take healthcare away from their constituencies? I’m not sure. So the 56th repeal Obamacare vote is even pointless as a symbol.

Some — like Greg Sargent and Jamelle Bouie — are saying that this does not bode well for Obamacare if the Supreme Court decides to muck things up with King v Burwell. This is the case that uses one small contradictory passage in the new healthcare law to argue that people in the 36 states that don’t run their own exchanges. The argument then goes: if the Republicans are even now voting to repeal Obamacare, they certainly won’t be willing to make the trivial fix to it to overcome the Supreme Court challenge.

I don’t think it is as simple as this. For one thing, the Republicans may hate the poor, but they love big corporations. Hobbling Obamacare at this point would be very bad for business. Now I’m sure that there will be a lot of Republicans who will continue on with their foolish and dangerous behavior. But I don’t think the Republican Party as a whole will. It’s just like shutting down the government or breaching the Debt Ceiling. These are great issues to grandstand on. But they are not nearly as popular when the grandstanding actually means something.

Hiltzik noted an interesting situation that the Republicans find themselves in. If they do nothing to fix the problem that is before the court, the justices may decide that finding against the law is too harming and decide to uphold it. But approving this simple one-sentence fix would be seen by many as a vote in favor of Obamacare. Of course, we know what the Republicans are going to do: nothing. And if the Supreme Court finds against the law, we will see more support for doing something than we now do.

The bottom line is that the Republicans get lots that is positive and nothing that is negative for voting to repeal Obamacare at this time. We aren’t going to see what they really think until their votes actually mean something. So I don’t see the 56th repeal vote as any more significant than the 55th. Hiltzik is right that politically, it looks bad. But I don’t think the American people ever believed Boehner and McConnell when they claimed that they were going to start governing.

IBM CEO Gets Big Raise for Bad Performance

Virginia RomettyDid you get a 6.7% salary increase this year? Of course you didn’t! You’re a Frankly Curious reader. You work for a living. A 6.7% raise is more than the cost of living. And if there is one iron rule in the Land of Opportunity™, it is that the American worker should never see any gain from her increased productivity. She should feel grateful that she even has a job! Of course, the situation is quite different for the people at the top of our economy. In a bizarre kind of logic that I’ve never understood, if someone is rich, she must constantly see improvements in her salary. Otherwise, she might have her feeling hurt and not be a “job creator.” Or something.

Consider IBM Chairman and CEO Virginia Rometty. She got a 6.7% raise this year. But it hardly matters. Given all the other salary increases, I doubt she will notice it. As it is, it is only an extra $100,000 per year. That’s right: her base salary raise is not even quite double the median income of two American households. But I suppose that Rometty will struggle through this clear insult because of other compensation that she’s getting. For example, she’s getting a $3.6 million bonus for last year. She’s also getting a $13.3 million stock incentive. But she’s going to have to wait a whole three years to cash that out. I just hope her children can wait that long for new shoes.

According to the power elite in this country, such largess is the result of just how productive people like Rometty are. But Michael Hiltzik has provided the low down on this one, IBM Redefines Failure as “success,” Gives Underachieving CEO Enormous Raise. Rometty’s performance has been impressive in a certain way:

Here’s the record for 2014 the board thought was good enough to warrant a raise for Rometty: IBM’s revenue declined by nearly 6%, and net income by 27%. IBM shares began 2014 at a dividend-adjusted $183.12 and ended the year at 160.44%, a decline of 12.4%. During that period, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 12.4%. (As we write on Monday, IBM has fallen further to $152.12.) IBM has been the worst performing stock on the Dow Jones Industrial Average for two years running.

My take on the whole thing is that her performance doesn’t matter. When CEOs get bonuses because their companies were more profitable, it is rarely because of the CEO. It is much more likely to be the vagaries of the economy. Yet the CEOs and all the other high level executives get huge bonuses because of this. The workers, of course, do not. And that is the critical fact in all of this. Among the Skull and Bones crowd, there were girls you slept with, and girls you married. When those boys grew up, they understood just as well that there are people who get bonuses, and people who don’t. And we are the people who don’t.

Hiltzik pointed out that the four IBM board members who approved Rometty’s raise are all former CEOs. So the move isn’t surprising, “Corporate CEOs are, as a species, known for a sense of entitlement that could make $17 million in raises, bonuses, and ‘incentive compensation’ seem like punishment.” That sentence is like a soothing bath: just to hear the word “entitlement” used to describe the rich! It is entirely correct, but also rarely unheard. According to most in the mainstream media, “entitlement” is something that poor people feel.

This is all part of what I wrote earlier, We Need to Embrace Class. The issue is not that the rich are different from the rest of us. The issue is that everyone thinks that they are different. And that’s why an unsuccessful CEO can be given $17 million in extra compensation for manning her company on its long trip into irrelevance. Because the rich can never be allowed to fail. Because the rich must be constantly pandered to. Because the rich are rich!

Jennifer Jason Leigh

Jennifer Jason LeighThe great actor Jennifer Jason Leigh is 53 years old today. How great is she? Is she even great? I don’t know. I’ve had a crush on her for decades. But there are three films that she stars in that I think are really good: The Hudsucker Proxy, Dolores Claiborne, and eXistenZ.

It isn’t surprising that she really came to my attention in The Hudsucker Proxy. In it, she does her own — over the top — version of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday — one of my all time favorite films that I still watch regularly. Tim Robbins actually kind of annoys me in The Hudsucker Proxy, but Leigh more than makes up for that. But it remains a lesser Coen Brothers outing. Here’s the “I’ll stake my Pulitzer on it!” scene:

Dolores Claiborne is a really fine film, although deeply disturbing even as it also contains great humanity. Leigh again plays a journalist, but this time a deeply screwed up one. It’s an interesting film in that her character is actually what the story is about. Check it out if you get a chance. Here is a representative scene:

eXistenZ is a great film. And almost no one has seen it. I’ve been an evangelist for the film. But I get very few takers. I’ve given it out many times. I’ve purchased it at least five times. What do I have to do? It should at least be a cult classic, but it has managed to avoid even that. (Note: the following scene only has about 4,000 views, even though it was released over three years ago by a huge YouTube channel.) Regardless, Leigh is great in it:

Happy birthday Jennifer Jason Leigh!