An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

September 16, 2010

Bible Belt Progressives: Tougher Than Most

Filed under: Government and Policy — Tags: , , — Radical Scientist @ 8:16 pm

As we get ready for the midterm elections, I can’t help but think it’s a shame our only nationally elected office is the presidency (with the +1 going to the VP). The US south produces a steady trickle of smart, personable, intensely capable, and often unflappable genuine progressives. The sort of people who can make liberal, even fairly off-to-the-left (by US standards) policy seem common-sensical, can make nice with their far right opposition without caving, and  win over voters in unlikely ways. These few-and-far between stalwarts of the rural left would make any swing-state democratic recruitment committee cry with joy. But thanks to the regional nature of our political system, their careers are generally doomed, and they usually find their talents are better spent in business, non-profit, or bureaucratic sectors.

Take the term-limited outgoing mayor of my hometown. She’s the executive of the combined city/county government in the smallest county in Ga, with one of the highest poverty rates around. She managed to stay popular and get re-elected despite colleagues who think Rails to Trails is some manner of European communist plot to make Americans simultaneously  gayly svelt and morally weak. She pushed through domestic partner benefits and barred gender identity based discrimination for county employees as soon as  activists pointed out no one had done those things before, and the conservative local paper didn’t even notice. She’s a Jewish woman running a small town in the Bible Belt, yet her opponent’s anti-semitic attacks backfire with unusual intensity. Hell, the greatest backlash of her administration came from angry college students and hipsters over an indoor smoking ban. As a now-former bar employee and asthmatic, I’m pretty pleased with that one. Plus, all the bars in town got nice little patios, so I’m gonna call that one win-win. My city is like the puppet town in Mr Roger’s Neighborhood (ok, but with more meth)–the mayor walks around town, people greet her by name everywhere. It’s burningly cute.

You’d think the popular term-limited mayor of a congressional district’s largest city would be a natural candidate against incumbent Republican/conspiracy theorist Paul Broun. But no, thanks to gerrymandering by the republican controlled state legislature after the 2000 census, Broun is essentially untouchable. I don’t know if our outgoing mayor (or anyone else reasonably qualified) would want the seat if she had a decent shot of winning it. As it stands, though, we’ll be stuck with one of the SPLC’s least-favorite public figures until he dies (or retires to spend all his hours looking for Obama’s birth certificate) since the only person with enough free time to lose that hard is a socially inept law student.

I genuinely believe that in electoral politics and activism, there are some real advantages to coming out of a place where you’re in a stark ideological minority (or make up the majority in a smallish, isolated area). It certainly doesn’t work for everyone, and I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t amazing people working in places where they have wide support. But the US left in general is plagued by some recurring weaknesses: An inablity to work with or win over people who don’t already support your ideas. Trouble knowing when to fight the imperfections in your own coalition vs. when to take on mutual opponents together (generally, I think we need less of the former and more of the latter). Difficulty staying engaged after a major loss. None of those are traits you can afford when you have massive opposition. Since we’re not getting proportional representation anytime soon, maybe it’s time the DNC sent some talent scouts out this way armed with a stack of Greyhound tickets to Ohio and Florida.

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August 15, 2010

Oh, We Were Supposed to Follow The Whole Law? Whoops.

Filed under: Government and Policy,Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Radical Scientist @ 12:35 pm

You know how when you go to the DMV, they also ask you if you want to register to vote? That’s because the 1993 National Voter Registration Act compelled states to make it easier to register to vote, by offering voter registration to people seeking other government services. simply having DMV employees ask people if they want to register while their at it has added millions of people to the voter registration rolls.

Except that’s not the entirety of the law. It also mandates that states offer registration to people when they sign up for welfare programs, including foodstamps, disability services, Medicaid, and S-CHIP (health coverage for children whose families are just above the Medicaid income cap). And if a state doesn’t comply, the justice department can sue to force them to comply. Which they’ve started doing, 17 years after the law was passed. Thanks Bush. And Clinton.

Of course, the working assumption here is that people who receive public assistance, being low income (by definition) and generally not stupid, will mostly vote for Democrats. And enforcement of the non-DMV parts of the law went completely enforced throughout the Bush years, as the Justice Department tried instead to whip up a dubious panic panic about voter fraud. As the NYT put it:

The Bush administration devoted its attention to seeking out tiny examples of voter fraud and purging people from the rolls in swing states. It did little to enforce the motor-voter law despite years of complaints from civic groups and Democratic lawmakers.

I do agree with Ed that registering people is not a guarantee of massively improved turnout–plenty of people will say ‘yeah, sure’ and forget it. But, in my very limited experience with Get Out the Vote campaigns, it’s a lot more work to get people registered and then get them to vote than to focus on voter turnout. In states (unlike mine) that have party registration, this is even more true–each party can turn to their own voter roles for targeted GOTV/ride to the polls/etc campaigns. Hopefully this will do some noticeable work toward undoing the Bush era purges.

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August 2, 2010

What Does an Illegal Immigrant Look Like?

The other day, I was out drinking with some friends, when some regrettable dude decided to hit on my friend Lauren. Between his fumbling attempts to tell her she must want to hear she looks younger than she is, being too drunk to realize she was brutally mocking him, and some crash-and-burn I’ll get to in a sec, it was bad. I have never seen anyone try so hard to impress another human, and come away looking so dramatically unfuckable. I’m surprised she didn’t brand ‘Douchebag’ into his forehead to keep other people from hooking up wit him. Seriously.

The nail in the coffin was when he decided to fill a lull in the conversation by asking what everyone thought of the then-new Arizona SB 1070. When faced with a unanimous angry face, dude perked up. ‘Y’know’ he said ‘I think it’s great.’ We were then treated to a looooong diatribe about how, since the law prohibits racial profiling, obviously the cops would never racially profile. Instead, they will just use their immigration-status-sensing superpowers to ‘just know what they [undocumented immigrants] look like.’

Now, a good chunk of my family is Scandinavian–my uncle, some cousins, and a few people of more convoluted relationship to me immigrated to the US from one of the more glacial, fjord-laden parts of the world. My uncle lives in a small Appalachian town where most of his friends don’t even try to pronounce his name correctly. He has a Sweedish Chef-meets-Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, wears black socks with birkenstocks, and greeted the rumors that Obama would socialize medicine with a smug ‘About time, ya?’ Dude is clearly not from around those parts.

But no one ever questions his right to be in the US.

People sometimes think my uncle is a tourist. They ask him how long he’s been in the US, how he likes it here, and so on. But they don’t think of him as an immigrant, his blue-eyed face isn’t the one people have in mind when they say we need a ‘solution’ for immigration. He’s just some guy who happens to be from somewhere else originally. I doubt it ever occurs to anyone that he could possibly be undocumented, even though the difference is a paperwork slip away. Strangers never harass him for his documents or ask what he’s doing here. When he gets a speeding ticket,  goes to the hospital, or waits outside while his wife goes to vote, his immigration status never comes up. No one ever questions his right to be in this country.

I told this whole rambling story to Mt Strikeout.  How I’m sure that whole side of my family could run every stoplight in Arizona without a single cop pulling them over and drawling ‘Y’all are awful sunburned to be from around here. You got your green cards?’ About how no one ever asks to see my uncles papers even though he’s so clearly an immigrant.

‘Sure,’ he said triumphantly, ‘But does he look like an illegal immigrant?’

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July 29, 2010

Never Saw it Coming

I was reading this editorial about the Shirley Sherrod debacle at the Nation by Melissa Harris Lacewell, when a little thought crossed my mind. Breitbart* must have assumed, on some level, that this would work. Riding high from his attacks on ACORN, and having suffered little blowback when his minions tried to tap a freaking Senator’s phone, I doubt he expected his frame-up of an obscure Obama administration official to backfire. There are a lot of variables there, most of which he correctly calculated–that the administration would react out of fear immediately (see Van Jones), that the media would give him press. There were only a few places where things didn’t go as expected: Sherrod stood up for herself rather than back away quietly, and the family she was accused of discriminating against stood up for her.

A lot has already been said about this whole thing, more completely and eloquently than I can say it. But reading Harris-Lacewell’s article, one thing stands out. Brietbart must have assumed that the poor white family in question, the Spooners,  wouldn’t come forward. That either they were redneck Georgia nobodies who wouldn’t notice they were being used in a blogospheric/inside-the-beltway scandal, or that they would stay silent if they did. What he did not anticipate was that they’d put their human decency and friendship with Sherrod ahead of racial loyalty, and call up CNN to tell the nearest reporter what was what.

In the Teabagger Mythos, it’s basically unthinkable that anyone with such impeccable Real Americans ™ credentials as the Spooners (Farmers? Check. White? Check. From an especially Real American state? Check. And so on)  would have a 20 year friendship with a federal official. It’s impossible that they would regard a woman of color who had any sort of power over them with anything but the rankest contempt, no matter how she used that power–even if it was to save their asses in a time of crisis.

Now, I don’t think they deserve endless reams of praise for this. I doubt there was any risk for them in doing so. And between Brietbart’s outright lying and everything Sherrod had done for them, it’s more like they would have been horrible people for not stepping forward. And it’s not fair that their word should carry so much weight, above Sherrod’s own, and even when the unedited video of her actual remarks is readily available.

But I will say this: When poor white farmers in Georgia build relationships with their black neighbors, and when they put defending those friends ahead of letting some white guy across the country exploit them for political gain, the conservative movement in America will be fucked. I dare say they never saw it coming.

*I am assuming Brietbart intentionally posted an edited video to attack Sherrod. The subtext, of course, insinuated that under the Obama administration the USDA would discriminate against white farmers, when in fact the USDA has a long history of discrimination against farmers of color, and moreover Sherrod was working for an independent group when she helped the Spooners find the bankruptcy lawyer who helped them keep their farm.

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July 21, 2010

Web Game: Build-a-Deficit

Filed under: Government and Policy — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 9:16 am

This is a fun little web game, if you are as embarrassingly dorky as I am. You get a list of big-ticket items on the federal budget, and you’re supposed to trim the national debt down to a target of 60% by adjusting spending up and down. Personally, it confirmed most of my biases: I cut the military budget & upped corporate and high-income taxes, and then had so much cash I came in 5% under the target and could afford to up most every welfare program in sight (let’s just say letting the Bush tax cuts expire is practically a cheat code). Try it yourself:

Budget Simulator | Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

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July 19, 2010

Mini-post: Anonymous Racists try to get Utah to do Their Vigilanty-ing for Them

I haven’t seen this much anywhere else, but this is fucking terrifying. An anonymous group of people in Utah sent out a list of the names, addresses, social security numbers, workplaces, phone numbers, children’s names and due dates (of pregnant women) they feel should be ‘immediately deported’ to Immigration, Enforcement and Customs (ICE) and media outlets. Their targets are 1,300 Latinos, who they claim are all undocumented. But unsurprisingly, that much isn’t even true–several of the people who have found out they were on the list have come forward to make it clear the group’s claims of careful data thieving are bullshit.

Colorlines magazine speculates that the information may have been stolen from (or rather, by people with access to) state health and/or employment agencies. They say Utah officials are investigating who might have stolen these people’s identity info, but ICE wouldn’t comment as to whether they intended to target the people on the list or not.

What. The. Fuck.

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July 16, 2010

Libertarians: Overt Douchbags

Today’s post is brought to you, belatedly, by this lovely post over (link should work now) at Gin and Tacos and my thoughts thereon. Long story short: the post is an, er, scathing critique of James Sherk’s (of the Heritage Foundation*) recent appearance on Hardball. (note: much of the audio on the latter half of the video is ruined by Matthews laughing his ass off the soundstage) Sherk asserts that, basically, the Science of Economics Proves having unemployment insurance discourages people from sucking it up and getting a job, any job, ASAP–even if that means moving to where the jobs are, or taking something out of your field and way below your former pay grade. Or all three. And, we are to believe, that’s a Bad Thing, because unemployed people are using Your Tax Dollars to hold out for jobs like their old ones, rather than accepting that the invisible hand of the marketplace has booger-flicked them out of the middle class.

One thing I’ve always wondered: Isn’t it maybe better, long term national economic policy-wise, for the abruptly unemployed to have a chance to hold out for whatever their definition of a ‘good job’ is? Having someone who’s highly trained–whether they have a Ph.D or 20 years experience as an underwater welder–take work way out of their field puts their skills to waste. I’m guessing Sherk would say they’re welcome to keep looking for another teaching or welding job while they flip burgers, but taking that minimum wage job is bound to slow down their job search waaaay down–it’s not like their new boss has any incentive to let a newly-trained employee leave, and they’re not under any mandate to give employees time off to go to interviews. I’m not just speculating, this was been a problem for me when I was in food service and looking to get out. The longer you’re out of a profession, the harder it gets to get back in. At 6 months, you’re an unemployed welder. At 2 years, you’re a former welder.

And for people who don’t have the education or experience to get out of shitty jobs, a sudden influx of formerly-white collar workers is bad, bad news. To take this to a bit of an extreme, consider this: when the last 5 people a McDonald’s hired have a BA or an MBA, there’s a good chance HR will start skipping over applicants sporting a GED. You can see this in places with chronic over education and high employment–isolated college towns and Portland, OR come to mind.

The percentage of Americans with college degrees has meandered ever-upward over the last few decades, and with it, the minimum qualifications for many jobs have gone up incrementally too. Office drone & secretarial type listings often demand a bachelor’s degree rather than a HS or associate’s degree, unskilled workers are expected to have graduated high school, and skilled labor has slowly swung from on-the-job training toward a tech school first, employment later model. I think this downturn will push that trend a little further, as the unemployed people with MBAs settle into office jobs a tier or two below their last position, the people with undergrad degrees go down another notch or two, and so on. People who are highly educated aren’t going to be unemployed forever, they’ll just wind up pushing everyone below them down a notch.

Human-interest stories about the crappy economy always focus on the former banker who now works as a gas station attendant. But what about the guy who can’t get a job as a gas station attendant because all those jobs are now going to college graduates?

I’m guessing Sherk hasn’t had much experience being unemployed without good prospects. So he sat down and thought real hard about it, read some intro economics texts that say things will all work out so long as everyone makes ‘rational’ choices and people have perfect information. And using his Rational Power, he deducted people should go where there are jobs.

But he obviously didn’t talk to anyone in the ‘real world,’ (or even in the rural poverty hot zones of Real America (TM)) or he’d have noticed that he’s full of shit. For starters, there’s no where in the US right now where business is booming and jobs are plentiful. And if he’d talked to anyone actually dealing with unemployment,* he’d know that the whole ‘rational decision’ model isn’t what’s actually sensible for people to do. In a model, moving for a crappy job is better than staying put with no job. But in practice, there are all kinds of costs–the cost of moving, of giving up your friends, family, professional network, etc. If only one person in a couple is unemployed, moving just to see if a state with 7% unemployment is better than one with 10% unemployment is especially stupid. I could go on, but I’m sure everyone gets the point.

*Yeah, I know, the Heritage Foundation fancies itself more conservative than libertarian, but in this case, the economic argument is pure free-market freebasing, which both teams support but libertarians do so with less social finesse. Sherk’s fuck-you-and-your-kids attitude is a stellar example of that kind of malicious social cluelessness. So there.

**At one point he cites his well-off unemployed friends, who he doesn’t seem to have talked to at all, and who are exempt from his admonitions to take jobs they currently consider beneath them.

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July 15, 2010

Trans Job Discrimination: Now With Numbers!

Two trans members of Make the Road/New York’s LGBTQ Justice Program were turned down for fast-food jobs in 2008, six years after the city banned gender identity based job discrimination. Which is hardly news, in and of itself–job discrimination against transgender, transsexual and gender-nonconforming people is tremendously common, and looking at the statistics for POC or women, it’s not hard to figure out that simply outlawing employment discrimination doesn’t end it.

But anything resembling hard facts about anti-trans discrimination are hard to come by. When their members got passed over for jobs, Make the Road decided to work on that. The end result is this recent 22 page report, aptly titled Transgender Need Not Apply, which details their DIY trial of a sociological technique–matched pair studies–to get some numbers to show the rational-fetishist crowd. You can guess how that turned out.

How it Worked

They picked two pairs of their members who were similar in as many ways as they could control for–one team was composed of Asian-American women in their late 20′s, the other of white men in their mid 20′s. The experimental difference was that one member of each pair was cis and the other was trans, and the the trans applicants disclosed their status on applications and in interviews.  They were outfitted with made-up resumes that gave them similar backgrounds and experience, with a slight advantage to the trans team members. And they underwent serious training to match their demeanors and interview behavior as much as possible.

The pairs then set out to apply for jobs at high-end retail stores–J. Crew, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Brookstone, etc. 24 different stores in all, for a total of 42 applications for each experimental group.* The cis testers got 14 job offers. The trans testers got 2. The way the numbers shake out, that totals to a discrimination rate of 42% against trans applicants, which is, well, pretty freaking high as discrimination stats go. How does 14:2 equal only 42%? The employers were saved some by that fact that many stores didn’t offer anyone a job, and a single store (the Virgin Megastore) picked the trans applicant over their cis counterpart. Once.

What Does it All Mean?

In their report, MtR were careful to point out that their study is too small to tease out intersectional discriminations, which they assure us they’ d like to do in a larger study that could measure the degree to which race and class factors interact with transphobic discrimination (I’d put my money on ‘multiplicatively’ or ‘exponentially,’ if anyone at the Radical Scientist Gambling Parlor were dumb enough to take the other side of that bet)

Personally, I’d be curious to see how trans men fare vs trans women, as there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that transmisogyny (that is, the particular cocktail of misogyny and transphobia aimed at trans women & other male-assigned trans people) is a huge, huge magnet for job discrimination, even compared to the transphobia-served-neat (and often with a chaser of male passing privilege)** faced by trans men. Unfortunately, with only 2 freaking job offers going to the trans testers, this particular study isn’t going to help there. You can’t study intra-community differences in hiring until someone hires some more freaking trans people. Like, a statistically significant number of trans people. Sheesh. We may be waiting a while for that one.

Thanks to Questioning Transphobia for picking up this story before me.

*Note that an experimental group is made up of the all subjects sharing a variable. So, the two cis testers are one experimental group and the trans testers are the other. Meanwhile, we also have two teams, one of a trans woman and a cis woman, and another with a trans guy and a cis guy. I know it’s a mess, but obviously, it matters how you divvy up the data.

**No more liquor metaphors, I promise. Not till we get farther into the weekend, at least.

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June 14, 2010

The Free Market Comes to Academe

Not too long ago, I finished my BS at a Huge Public University. For various reasons (partner working on a master’s, looming student debt, wanting to test-drive some research interests before grad school, needing to get some distance between myself and my GPA), I’ll be staying put and working for a couple of years.

Which should be fine–I worked my way through school doing science-themed drudgery, the Dept of Labor assures me my degree is in high demand, my needs are modest, and there’s an enormous land-grant university right down the street. So landing an entry-level lab tech job should keep me fed, housed and entertained for the foreseeable future, right?

Well, not so much. There are jobs out there for me, which is better than how most of America is doing right now. If and when I get one of those jobs, I will be making much more than I am now, by sheer dent of putting in more hours at a slightly-to-much higher paygrade.

But positions that used to be full time are now hourly. Nearly half the listings are for temps, but they’re not temporary jobs–at an interview recently, the PI told me they have funding and work to do for years to come, but it’s just too hard to get the administration to approve a ‘permanent’ position. They don’t want to pay for benefits. They don’t want to offer job security. And while that PI’s research sounds fascinating, and the people I met there would be great colleagues, I’m not sure I can get by making less than I did last time I was in food service.

Which isn’t a coincidence. Landgrant U is far and away the largest employer in an otherwise poverty-riddled small city. They set the tone for wages in all sectors. It’s easy to see the connection with geeky jobs like mine, but they also hire an army of custodians, cooks, welders, mechanics, office workers and so on. Budget cuts from the statehouse (and oh, how there are budget cuts) don’t just affect those employed by the school, they make sure other employers don’t have to compete. Hell, to the hypercapitalist Republicans running the state, that’s a feature, not a bug.

I’m lucky. I’m an able bodied white guy without any kids or family relying on my paycheck. I’ll be ok. But what the hell will become of my hometown if $10/hr temp work is the best thing out there?

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May 16, 2010

In Which I Wax Unecessarily Nostalgic, or Something

Filed under: Government and Policy — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 7:42 pm

Not too long ago, I finished Thomas Frank’s The Wreaking Crew. (It’s excellent. Read it. Seriously) There’s one passage, barely a footnote, that’s gotten stuck between my teeth, so to speak.

Frank spends most of the book weaving together the history of 20th century conservatism in the US (especially from Reagan on) and the concurrent history of DC as a city–from the boom years of the New Deal to the current creeping mansionization of the suburbs. At one point, he describes his first reaction to the boxy, cookie-cutter houses that popped up by the blockfull in the 30′s and 40′s. As a college student/punk  in the 80′s, his first glimpse of all that uniformity could basically be summed up with ‘Fuck this, get me out of here.’

But now, as a middle aged adult living in a much more stratified, quantitatively shittier America, he says he sees things quite differently.  Those neighborhoods were full of affordable housing, just big enough for a family to have a little yard, some on-street parking and two stories to themselves. They were built on grids, within walking distance of  Metro lines, schools and grocery stores. They were priced so that a family could afford them on a single modest bureaucrat’s income,  and 50, 70 years later they’re still standing.

Sure, the houses are architecturally uninspired. But the barely-middle-class American dream they were meant to fulfill isn’t even an option anymore.  Real wages are falling. Housing prices are going up. Job security is vanishing at an uncomfortable pace.And slowly, those neighborhoods full of ticky-tacky faux-federalist houses are disappearing, as developers buy up the lots to know them down by the fistful, putting one huge, spit-and-drywall ‘luxury home’ where two or three brick cubes had been.

As an adult, Franks basically says he finds boring-but-comfortable an acceptable dilemma. Given at least the option of a decent-paying, limited hours  day job, people can find their own meaning in life. They can have friends, family, hobbies. They can paint their ugly little houses bright colors, throw up a front porch,  and plant gardens where the postage stamp lawn used to be.

I just graduated with what the Department of Labor assures me is a useful degree in a field I love. But looking at the options I have, it’s been hell explaining to my Baby Boomer parents that I just don’t have the same choices they did. There’s no guarantee I’ll be ok so long as I don’t fuck things up royally (which they both did, one by being an alcoholic douchebag,  and the other by going into an industry that’s been slowly dying since the Reagan administration). I may not make more money, or be more happy than my parents were.I  will almost definitely be less secure than my grandparents were. And we didn’t even get better looking houses out of the bargain.

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