Musings on connections…flights and friends

So, here I am flying across the American heartland, crushed into the cattle car that is modern air travel with the aggressive armrest using middle-aged guy beside me highlighting almost everything in a JAMA article, then going back and underlining about half of the highlights. Directly in front of me is the guy who moves like Stevie Wonder grooving to his music, yet this guy has no music turned on, he just randomly moves like that. Oh yeah, and Stevie Wonder thinks it’s cool to recline his chair all the way back and then flop around in it like an epileptic cow. Quality.

So as I’m sitting here updating my FourSquare locations with places like ‘Mile Marker 161’ & ‘Deserted On-Ramp’ in Kansas or ‘God’s Country’ (a farm) in Missouri, I’m completely amused that I can do that on the plane. So, now I get to dot my near mayorships of random shitty places in the US all the way from Dallas to Chicago amd then hopefully een Chicago to the Atlantic later (assuming that I make my connection in Chicago…the odds are about even on that one right now).

There is an absurdity about modern life. We share and post all kinds of meaningless shit in social media and think we’re keeping in touch with those we know or once knew (btw, asshole behind me is about three knee hands in my kidneys away from a stern ‘fuck off’ facial expression…and yes, my seat is in its upright position), but in a way it is kind of like being around them. Must of the stuff that happens on a daily basis is pretty much of the ‘hey, I took a huge dump’ quality and variety, yet that’s what we share with those most close to us.

So is the fact that this goes out to the couple of hundred people we know on Facebook and Twitter, some if whom we haven’t seen in 5, 10, or more years worthless? I don’t think so, especially for those of us who have moved around. Where we were once links by the places we live, now we’re more linked by the connections (good, bad, and ugly) that we choose to keep. Is this a good thing? Who the hell knows?

But at this point, I can amuse myself and maybe 10 others with bumfuck egypt updates and wait for the verdict on whether I’m going to make my connection to Manchester out of Chicago….

… a post script — I made my connection with 6 minutes to spare before they closed the plane doors to Manchester.

And keep in mind, Forbes isn’t exactly known for being a part of the “liberal” media!

The Tribune of the People

Then, comes the problem, the headache, or maybe its the head fake. No identification of a single loophole that will be closed. No concrete exposition about raising the capital gains tax on rich people. Our friends at the Democratic Party headquarters have estimated the savings for “ending all tax benefits for the wealthy” at $1.7 trillion; eliminating ALL corporate tax benefits to offset the corporate tax cut- $1.1 trillion and then another $1 trillion of middle class tax benefits to pay for the middle class cut=- another $1 trillion.

Imagine the chaos, the bitterness, the social unrest that would occur. But, then realize these measures only get back $4 trillion. There’s another $1 trillion to go.

via If Romney Cuts Taxes For The Rich By 20%, He Will Have To Raise Taxes For The Middle Class By $1 Trillion – Forbes.

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The first one to do anything loses…

Can you guess the context for the title?…………………Bureaucracy!

I recently found a quotation that summarizes the relationship between people and bureaucracy beautifully:

“Some third person decides your fate: this is the whole essence of bureaucracy.” ―  Alexandra Kollontai, La Oposición Obrera

Just by way of contextualizing Kollontai’s comments, she was a Marxist feminist who worked for and won significant advances in women’s rights in the newly formed Soviet Union.  Oh no, now I’ve gone and done it — I’ve identified the work of not just a woman but a Marxist feminist as a way to critique bureaucracy. That’s practically an abomination in the United States, but let’s get beyond the dogma for a few moments to realize that most of us have been hosed by some kind of bureaucrat. When most people think of bureaucracy, they think of the public sector and we know it’s easy to demonize the annoyances we have with government bureaucracies.  In fact, both the typical critiques and defenses of bureaucracy are always framed in terms of this false separation of the public and private sector.  Yet, these very boring and traditionally politicized debates about whether government is good or bad (yawn) really miss the underlying nature of bureaucracy — it is an organizational tool meant to separate work and accountability.

Bureaucracies can exist in any type of organization from public to private to nonprofit/ nongovernmental.

For example, several years ago I was trying to do research with an indigenous rights group and the structures of their organization were used to direct me from person-to-person and phone call-to-phone call. What I found out later was that because I was white, they were very nervous about letting me do any interviews with the members of the movement, but they were hesitant to actually say that. Now, in a historical context I can understand that, but it’s still a racist conclusion not based on the evaluation of me or my project. Yet, the organizational structure that was used in order to communicate the non-decision decision — bureaucracy. Ok… so nonprofit bureaucracy… CHECK.

Private organizations might have some of the most infuriating bureaucracies ever. We had Verizon Fios at an apartment and loved the fiber optic cable and internet — it was great. Then we moved to a house where we couldn’t get the Fios because it wasn’t available. We set up the new account, shifted our contract to a different provider but still using the Verizon packaging because we had the two-year contract. No problem, right? Yeah, until they charged us for early termination plus messed up a few other things. Here’s where the true bureaucratic craziness comes in — I spent 5 hours on a Saturday being passed from person-to-person, each claiming that it wasn’t their department, so by the time that I had spoken with several departments two and three times, each trying to scapegoat someone else, I lost my mind, used my sailor language, spoke to a manager and we finally got things straightened out — or so I thought. Three months later, while I was out of the country the television service was cut off and because it was in my name, I had to deal with it — my husband could not. After about an hour of sorting things out on the phone at international cell phone rates (yes, from Verizon as well), I just paid the whole bill only to be issued a full refund within 3 weeks.  Ok…so private sector bureacracy… CHECK

And, then there’s the obvious governmental bureaucracy (and no, this time, I’m not going to use an American example… there are too many fun ones here, but I’ll vary). The citizens of the UK, pissed off with the economy, Gordon Brown (and his unfortunate microphone gaffe), and the Labour party splits their votes between the Tories, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats (who as far as I can make out are the party that promises the world but seldom has the power to deliver).  Absent a clear majority, a coalition had to be formed and the Liberal Democrats decide to back a Tory government. And without a clear citizen mandate, they do as most conservatives do — move forward with the fervent conviction in their ideology behaving as though they have a mandate from the people.  So, now in the UK the bureaucracy’s response to a factory worker whose hand had been severed in an accident trying to get public assistance? You still have one hand, you can work in your career field. Then there’s immigration — an even bigger clusterfuck. Again,  absent a strong mandate, they rush 1,001 (no, not literally) rule changes about immigration through to be implemented in mid-July screwing up the system so long that the first of September a lot of those new rules had to be changed in order to even get international students into the country. For the rest of us awaiting news, it pushes our applications back months only to find that the rule changes have taken what was described in June as an easily supported application for settlement to a rejection but because they took so long, it screws up other avenues for visas in the short-term. Ok, so public sector bureaucracy… CHECK

So, let’s come back to the Marxist feminist’s critique of bureaucracies — third persons making choices for others (and often screwing up our lives). Now, when well used, these kinds of rule systems can be helpful. For example, even within Kollontai’s work, she wasn’t advocating doing away with the government bureaucracies that discriminated against women — her argument was that the bureaucracy must make better decisions for the people it governed.

In fact, that is a fair response to all bureaucracies — their existence isn’t the problem, their use to scapegoat owning uncomfortable decisions, to fleece consumers out of money, or to mess with peoples’ life plans (among so many other effects) are the problem. Too often, we see people in positions of authority in bureaucracy who have lost their humanity,  their minds, or just a basic grasp on reality that rules are necessary to keep things in society and life ordered but people cannot and should not use rules (or rule changes) to fail to do their job CORRECTLY.

It was not appropriate to use a bureaucracy to justify a racist argument against granting me research access just because it was more convenient compared to telling me that because I was white I wasn’t being granted access (later confirmed in a face-to-face). It isn’t appropriate to use an organization’s structure to hurt their consumers service or financially. And it’s certainly not appropriate to screw up existing (and probably already bureaucratically challenged) policies with even less clear and less sensible policies.

Like with most other Marxist critiques of capitalism and bourgeois problems, the critique is spot on. The challenge comes in what people can do about it, which is often the failing of Marxist critique — identifies the problems but doesn’t pose nearly as many solutions. With regard to nonprofits and private companies our recourse is often a bit limited because we can only indirectly affect them — unless enough people are pissed off like we saw with the mass campaign against Glenn Beck on Fox directed at threatening his advertisers with the loss of business.  Absent that, we can at least most affect government bureaucracies through the elections process.

Yet, that doesn’t even address the more fundamental challenge of bureaucracies — even when change is brought about, later bureaucracies can come in and fuck it all up (e.g., Stalin’s removal of many of the protections gained for women initially after the revolution in the USSR or Congressional removal of the protections of the Glass-Steagall  act protecting the economy from the financial industry–thanks to the GOP Congress and lack of advocacy from the Clinton administration).  Bureaucracy is necessary but it must be managed. It cannot be left to the lazy, unmotivated, and self-serving people that often self-select into these types of positions — protected from owning responsibility.

In the end — we should all become hyperactors — choosing to construct a new reality of bureaucracy.

If you build it, they will come! 🙂

Historical trends debunked…

Great cartoon about the absurdity of historical trends in presidential elections!

Why honesty and ethics should matter

100 years ago when I was a collegiate debater, I didn’t really think that speaking style and charisma should matter because I was ‘right’ (i.e., I had the best evidence to support my position). I was firmly committed to this belief because dammit, I’d sat through my philosophy classes, read The Republic  by Plato, and believed in the pursuit of knowledge and ‘truths’ (i.e., verifiable facts).

Here’s the trouble with placing too much providence on being right and not enough on being persuasive — we live in a world with a lot of competing messages. So, when my coach asked me, “Would you rather be right and keep losing debate rounds or would you like to start winning?” I was like, “fuck, this sucks” because he annoyingly correct. My interest in being competitive made me see a new ‘truth’ — having the right information on your side doesn’t matter if no one believes you. That’s a rotten pill to swallow, but it makes a lot of sense. Once I realized that resistance was truly futile, well… let’s just say that my debate record improved and the trophies piled up.

So, as I abandoned my overly rigid interest in merely being right both because I hated losing debate rounds and because I was growing up enough to realize the absolutist positions that Plato advocated were equally undesirable (seriously, Gold, Silver, and Bronze people… leave the cave dude, just leave the cave) because they just didn’t make sense in the real world.  About that time, I was introduced to Jean Baudrillard who made the argument that our day-t0-day world was no more real than Disneyland… that both were just inventions of humans that the reasons why we go to work, live the lives that we do, and make the choices that we make are because we all agree to the rules of the game.

I thought that I had become one with the game of selling the right message to the right audience at the right time — hell, it’s what I study, what I do professionally, and what I sell in my classroom. But I just can’t get past this whole ‘truthiness’ thing. Now, let’s make a distinction here — I don’t believe that there is one way to view the world. That’s one of the bonuses of not being dogmatic and not believing in “one true” anything — people can reason from the information and come to different and equally legitimate conclusions. But this is what’s been driving me crazy in the Fox News, G.W. Bush, anti-intellectualism (i.e., the “Golly, if s/he is someone that I could have a beer with, that’s who I should vote into office” approach to life), bullshit era that we’re living in — it’s not that I am hearing people who simply disagree with the conclusions about life and government (e.g., Rick Santorum), it’s that I’m seeing people willing to say anything to get into office, to get their next promotion, or to just “be polite” even if it’s not true.

I get that the stakes are high and if you feel like you’re right that you’re going to try to win the game, but at what cost? This can’t be a perversion of utilitarianism, where all that matters are the ends because if we travel down a bullshit road, that’s what we have when we get to the end of it, so we get to where we’re going, but we can’t enjoy it because we stink. To me, this is what has happened to the Republican party. President Bush was elected, in part, due to the swift boat campaign during the 2004 election — an attack that was discredited by almost everyone. Yet, that seemed to open the flood gates for ‘facts’ themselves to be open to debate in the modern era. We saw an explosion of lies about then Candidate Obama emerge in 2008 — ranging from his status as a ‘natural born citizen’ (and let’s face it, the crazy train that rode was unbelievable as there were bullshit explanations for everything including the birth announcement… that it had been placed just to cover up that he was born out of the US) to his willingness to support terrorism. I mean these got so bad that an unfortunate Senator McCain had to stop his own rally to (honorably) defend that Obama was a patriot and an honorable man.

But the crazy kept going with conspiracies about Obama trying to brain wash our children because he wanted to give a ‘welcome back to school’ address in 2009, that the Democrats were trying to implement death panels to kill grandma with the health care reform, and it grew into a movement known as the Tea Party — whose supporters came from frustrated Americans hurting in the economic crash, but whose big lie was its purpose. This wasn’t a grassroots party like the popular mythology liked to say, this was a party developed funded and promoted by the incredibly wealthy Koch brothers and until his ranting became too crazy, front-manned by Glenn Beck. Yet, time and again, their assertions have been based in lies and they prey upon the same chronically misinformed demographic of Americans that watch Fox News and can’t separate fact from opinion.

Now we come to this year’s presidential campaign and what I cannot believe is that candidate Romney’s campaign seems to be based in lies and gross misrepresentations of reality. This is the point that I started this blog with because I could not believe what I saw in watching the first debate.  And then last night as I watched the second debate, fact checking and reading the fact check report, here’s my basic conclusion — telling the truth needs to matter to Americans. I’m not making the same argument that I made when I was 20 — that charisma and style shouldn’t matter, but that it matters whether we’re considering a leader who is willing to try anything to win.

Sure, every politician is going to cherry pick information — duh, it’s called presenting yourself in the best possible light. That’s not what I’m talking about — I’m talking about the reality that almost every substantive claim that Romney makes is another pile of bullshit on our road to the election. Whether or not his policy goals are “right”, whether or not anyone likes him, whether or not people are unhappy with President Obama, none of that should matter because we fundamentally cannot elect a man who is willing to say anything just to win. Mr. Romney is not a stupid man — quite the opposite and that is even more damning. This isn’t Sarah Palin who frankly didn’t have the background, the ability, or the preparation to be on a national political stage — this is a man who’s well-educated, highly successful in very complex fields, and has a heck of a resume behind him. He is neither naive nor stupid. Yet, in most of his campaign ads, substantive arguments in the debates, and political speeches bases his assertions on information that is simply not credible.

Mr. Romney is betting that enough of the American public is too ill-informed, too apathetic, too frustrated, or just plain too stupid to know that he’s greasing the wheels of his campaign with bullshit. Yet, based on our elections in 2004 and 2010 he’s got good reason to believe it could work. That’s what’s tough to reconcile… it’s not that Romney represents style over substance because most of the time President Obama is just darned elegant. It’s not that Romney actually represents the conservative right — hell, they know he doesn’t (but they’re just going on the premise that he isn’t Obama). So, it comes down to the people in the middle and whether they are willing to hold their nose to vote against Obama because Mr. Romney is no one that we should vote for — not because I disagree with his politics, but because I don’t think that we can allow someone in the White House whose support for his case can be disproved in a 30 second Google search.

Who do we want to be as a people? This time, the question isn’t about whether we want a world that ‘traditional’ conservatives support — one focused on low taxes, low government intervention, high private sector etc…. nor is it a question about whether we want a world that ‘traditional’ liberals support — one with a strong safety net, strong public sector in addition to private sector, etc. This time the question really is are we willing to be a people who will vote FOR a candidate whose primary goal is winning, not leading; a candidate who will change his arguments depending on what he thinks will be what ‘people’ want to hear; a candidate whose honest reflection on the American people is that 47% of us aren’t worth his time; and a candidate who is simply not ethical in his advocacy? Because ultimately, we’re voting for the person and not their policies because the policies change because of circumstances and events.

President Obama — even though people may not like his policies — is a fundamentally good man — he is the American dream personified. Mr. Romney may be a good family man and I don’t doubt that he also cares most of the time, but I just think that he’s too willing to hold his nose and do what gets him what he wants.