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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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 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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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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June 4, 2010

Propaganda for your Pants

Filed under: feminism,gender,media and pop culture — Tags: , , , , , — Ethan @ 7:31 pm

A little while ago, I got the chance to tour parts of the CDC. While waiting for our contact to come and lead us through the impressive maze of the place, we killed a few moments wandering around the main attraction of the Visitor’s Center: the CDC’s museum to itself.

At the time, their temporary exhibit was a retrospective of STI public health campaigns. It was fascinating stuff, from the now-quaint syphilis scares to the deep, deep disgust with women’s sexuality.  (Note: all these images are from Mother Jones recent retrospective of military propaganda The Enemy in Our Pants, which inspired this post. Check it out)

Yeeeeah. I love a good pun, but seriously. Booby Trap? Are you fucking kidding me? There are pulp novels from the same time period with classier covers. This is a hairs breadth away from suggesting that woman’s vagina is a spear-lined pit covered in palm fronds. And they go on like that, one after another, warning innocent men of the horrible, horrible things that could befall their precious wieners, should they get too close to any of the local ladies.

Well, except maybe for this one. Made for the British public just before the US sent a massive wave of troops in to prepare for D-Day, it puts the blame squarely on the hoards of apple-cheeked, sex crazed GI’s.

The other thing that really caught my attention was the  stark difference between a lot of the first-generation PSA’s and the ones that came later–the first syphillis treatment ads basically just said “Hey, did you know you could stop having syphillis? Ask your doctor!” Which, given all the havoc untreated syphilis can cause, was probably all they needed to say.

Similarly, the posters from the pan-African smallpox eradication campaign all translated to variations on “If you go to your local clinic and get vaccinated, you won’t ever get smallpox. Bring the kids!” with matching illustrations of a friendly-looking man in a lab coat holding a minimally intimidating vaccine gun, followed by happy families celebrating their smallpoxlessness. I mean, that shit pretty much sells itself, right?

But by the 60′s, one US ad for the oral polio vaccine mentioned its ‘great taste.’ Which is nice and all (I’m guessing it was for the polio vaccine carried on sugarcubes ) but seriously? Even if it tasted like rotting shark asshole, it keeps you from getting polio. There’s no question about whether it’s worth it.

Yeesh. Americans.

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April 22, 2010

Georgia Legislature: Embarrassing Us in Front of All the Other States, Again

So, there’s a bill before the Georgia legislature right now, banning Georgians from non-consensually implanting microchips in each other. Fair enough, I’d figure that would fall under assault or something, but sure. Forcibly implanting something under someone else’s skin is Not Ok.

A few years ago, some friends of mine were doing a study on bats where they were implanting  subcutaneous RFIDs about the size of a grain of rice into the animals and releasing them. They got drunk one night and decided they should inject themselves with a chip each, to see what it was like for the bats. Apparently, it hurt more than a little, but less than a fuck ton.

Yet no one is currently running around Georgia like a mad animal-shelter worker, tagging residents with their own home addresses in case they get lost (though that might do my brother some good). Nor do they plan to. As near as anyone can tell, the fine ladies and gentlemen of the Georgia state legislature are pushing SB 235 to protect us all from the Mark of the Beast ™, which they seem to think will take the form of a microchip implant (I think they mean an RFID tag, in this century. But who knows).  Despite growing up mostly in the bible belt, I have no real idea of what the hell they’re talking about. I think it has something to do with Satan tagging people to take to hell, or somesuch. I don’t know, my parents are atheists. Form what I’ve pieced together from incoherent billboards and Chick tracts, the Unholy One will kick off the end times with some sort of game of Mafia, where if you get tricked into letting yourself get marked, uh, you lose. For eternity. Until Jesus un-tags you, or you reach base.
But the real question is, why is this matter up for debate in the state legislature? Are they tired of trying to end droughts with prayer? Trying to draw attention away from their massive budget shortfalls, their education cuts, or their refusal to pony up even a little bit of cash for mass transit, even when the federal government is offering to pay for high-speed passenger rail through the state? Getting bad press for trying to sue to stop Georgians from getting healthcare? Probably. But so what if the state falls apart for the next 10, 20, or 50 years? They’re protecting us for eternity. That’s why they can’t be bothered to worry about the trifling details of governing in this world.

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December 26, 2008

More Fawning over Political Appointments

Ok, I promise this will be the last one. Probably.

Anyway, the scientific gossip mill (yes, there is one, so stop snickering) has it that Obama will appoint John Holdren as his top scientific adviser. From Wired Science:

Holdren, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and former director of the Woods Hole Research Center, is best-known for his outspoken views on climate change, energy and government.

“The ongoing disruption of the Earth’s climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable,” he wrote in October in Scientific American. “To achieve a better-than-even chance of not exceeding that figure, human emissions must start to decline soon, falling to about half of today’s level by 2050 and further thereafter.”

Lookin’ good. He’s all over environmental policy, and he at least says serious stuff about climate change. Plus, he should have an easier go of it that this poor bastard had under Bush. (also, what is it with presidents picking laser experts for high-level policy jobs? Is it just because lasers are badass, or is there some sort of relevence I’m missing here?

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December 20, 2008

Midnight Regulations: Not just for HHS Anymore

Though Bush had done enough damage with the Amish Busdriver Rule (h/t Rachel Maddow), barring hospitals from booting workers who refuse on religious grounds to to the jobs they were hired to do? Well, there’s more. Cara at Feministe has a whole round-up of other on-the-table changes, including gutting the endangered species act, allowing coal mines to dump into rivers, upping logging, fucking up family medical leave, allowing more domestic spying, and paring back limits on lead and other pollutants.

This is fucking bad, folks.

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