10/18/13

Rhymes with Yokel: Why Small Government is No Substitute for the Feds



Bankrupt this guy and....

The current financial mess and Congressional hissy fit have revived the grandest of American sports: ranting over taxes. It is the ultimate Straw Man debate, though. Nobody, and I mean nobody, actually likes to pay taxes. Lefties want to keep their dough just as much as the tempests from the Tea Party. As one of the former, let me make it clear that this lefty doesn’t like paying income tax, sales tax, excise tax, or backdoor levies such as vehicle registration fees, phone surcharges, or turnpike tolls. A particularly loathsome fee is the $1.40 I have to shell out for 14 miles of New Hampshire I drive on I-95 on my way to Ogunquit, Maine. Live free or die my ass–more like live like a freeloader off of money gouged from the Bay State.

That 14 miles is partly what this essay is about. Every time any sort of financial crunch hits, the collective reflex is to start ranting over federal taxes–as if these exist in a vacuum. The tax system is a big daisy chain–every dime you remove from the federal part of it is going to be assessed further down the line. If there are fewer dollars for the feds to give out for colleges, for example, state governments are pressured to come up with the scratch. If they can’t, they tell schools they have to raise their tuitions to erect new facilities, pay profs, or dole out financial aid. Students and their parents then go back to the feds and seek grants, but there are fewer of them, so they seek federal loans instead, only to find out that there’s less money for these as well. So they borrow money from banks, and what are interest rates but a tax under a different name? If you can’t relate to that example, look at what has happened to highway funding over the years. The interstates are rutted because the feds don’t have the money to rebuild them, the bridges are unsafe because cash-strapped states defer maintenance, and your street is filled with potholes because local government isn’t getting any help from the feds or the state. They only get money from one place: you! I now pay almost as much per month in property taxes as I paid for principle when I had a mortgage. My state sales tax has gone up 40%. I hate paying those things!

At the end of the day, though, it boils down to a single question: Which master do you wish to pay? And that’s where the most na├»ve of all tax debates takes place. Even the Tea Party thinks we need some services, so how do we fund them? This question is where the Loony Right and the Batshit Crazy Left meet–they both think small-is-beautiful decentralization is the way to go. In the abstract, rightwing libertarianism and leftwing anarchism sound really good. Let’s depend upon ourselves, or voluntarily associate with likeminded radically free individuals and live in a society beyond government. The first problem is that it’s all a bunch of romantic twaddle when put into practice, and the second is that it ignores the reality that we need big government more than we need small government.

...you're at this guy's mercy!
Spend enough time observing grassroots government and you’ll come to appreciate why local and yokel rhyme. I lost my romance for localism by observing the institution often upheld as the very model of democracy: town meetings. You have no idea how seriously out-of-touch people can be until you watch two grown men literally come to blows over whether or not to spend town money to dump a load of gravel on a washed out back road! Nor can you appreciate the depths of pettiness until you see half of a town vote to fire two reading teachers, put buckets under a leaky roof, and defund art, music, and all non-sports extracurricular activities rather than raise property taxes by .5%. Think I exaggerate? Look at local schools–firmly under the thumb of local control. To maintain certification, public schools must meet (ridiculously low) state standards and the rest of a child’s educational experience is at the mercy of local school boards and taxpayers. In the 1980s I taught in a Vermont district in which texts were expected to last 15-20 years. (Try teaching anthropology with a book printed in 1964!) Five miles away, in IBM-enriched Essex Junction, schools spent more each year on videotapes than my district spent in five for textbooks. Come to Massachusetts and walk the halls of the new school in tony Newton. Then take a drive to Holyoke High. Still think local control is a wonderfully democratic ideal?

Education is a big job–too big to be left to the whims, budgets, and vendettas of locals. We really hate Big Government, right? Tell me how well local government and private charities handled the Great Depression. Anyone who wants to paint Franklin Roosevelt as a communist had better be prepared to explain how the nation was better off under Hoover than under New Deal. But let’s forget ancient history. Tell me what would have happened without federal presence during the Deepwater Horizon spill, Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Sandy. Each of those could/should have been handled better, but while you’re spilling anti-FEMA bile, tell me who else had the resources even to attempt tackling problems of this magnitude. While you’re at it, convince me that the last recession wouldn’t have been much, much worse had it not been for the American Recovery and Investment Act. Though I didn’t care for the bailouts, many economists argue that the Troubled Asset Relief Program staved off a serious depression. We should debate how tax money gets spent, but we again come back to scale. Who was going to take on the collapsing economy, your local bank? If not the feds, who will fund vet hospitals, elder care, energy development, the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control, consumer safety, or the military? (The very thought of the military makes the tax-hating right giddy!) Let’s face it, without the feds, local governments would sell every inch of the National Park System to developers.

We all hate taxes, but don’t confuse what you like with what you need to do. And don’t be a yokel.  

10/16/13

Dan Brown's Inferno: Half-Baked More of the Same

Inferno (2013)
Dan Brown
Knopf, ISBN: 9780385537859
* *

Dan Brown is a terrific storyteller and a terrible writer. There, I’ve said it. I’m sort of okay with that. If I had to choose, I’d rather read a good story told clumsily than wade through ostentatious prose that goes nowhere. In my adult life I’ve given myself permission not to read authors who make my head hurt from an overdose of style–Joyce, Pynchon, Proust, Shakespeare, Joyce Carol Oates. I don’t want to impress anyone with my erudition; I just want to curl up with a good read.

Therein lies my Dan Brown dilemma. Is he a good read? Not any more. Inferno is like the cheap, sweet wine one consumes as a college first-year–delicious until you get sick on it and never again wish to imbibe. Brown’s 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code was a great romp and rode high on everyone’s guilty pleasures list. In it, most readers met Robert Langdon for the first time–a dashing world-famous Harvard art historian and symbologist. Maybe that should have tipped us off. There simply aren’t many famous art historians and dashing people don’t come from Harvard!

Okay, that was a cheap shot. On a more substantive level, what we subsequently discovered is that Brown’s earlier novels were just lead ups to The Da Vinci Code and that he’s been rewriting it ever since. His formula is always the same. Something horrible has happened (or is about to occur) that coincidentally involves a trail of clues encoded in symbols that only Langdon can unravel. He’s already an international academic star who routinely lectures on archaic symbolism embedded in art works before engrossed audiences that number in the thousands, so it’s natural that the world’s law enforcement agencies, museums, and NGOs would seek him out and jet him to exotic foreign locations. (Has Dan Brown ever been to an academic conference? Most art history lectures are attended by tens, not thousands!) Along the way, Langdon meets up, James Bond-like, with a whip smart young woman who will help him solve the mystery (or not) and to whom he’ll be physically attracted (or not). The novel will then unfurl at the pace of a high-speed car chase with death being cheated every five pages or so. In between, Langdon demonstrates his ability to make intuitive leaps that no one ever makes, and a penchant for delivering mini art history lessons as he does so.

Inferno is more of the same, though its prose is even more clunky than usual. This time Langdon’s off to Florence, Venice, and Istanbul to help (or is it hinder?) the World Health Organization and perhaps save humankind. His sidekick is Dr. Sienna Brooks, who gets sucked into his symbolist vortex after treating a gunshot wound to his head that leaves him unable to recall having left Cambridge, Massachusetts, let alone being shot in Florence. Then it’s Da Vinci Code all over again, except this time the clues lie in Dante’s Inferno and in paintings by Botticelli and Vasari. It’s a good thing Langdon is a quick thinker and his amnesia effects only his short-term memory; otherwise he and Sienna wouldn’t be able to elude Italian police, a professional assassin, or the trained forces of a shadowy group called the Consortium, which reminded me more of Kaos from Get Smart than anything really sinister. In case you’re wondering how Langdon can solve complex puzzles so quickly when it comes to obscure symbolism, we’re told (numerous times in several books) that he has eidetic memory, which means: (a) photographic recall, and (b) that Dan Brown uses a thesaurus.  

This time, Brown’s story is (even more) absurd and he simply doesn’t have enough material to sustain 465 pages. Moreover, Langdon is a little slow this time around as I was able to follow Brown’s well-marked trail and solve most of the book’s riddles several chapters ahead of the eidetic professor. Brown’s padding also shows in the prose. The book’s structure is something like this: dialog, Wikipedia-like art entry, chase scene, repeat. It is to literature what Thomas Kinkade is to art: a knock-off of a knock-off of a knock-off. It’s so ham-handedly written that it’s hard to imagine any publisher would touch it if hadn’t come from an author who had previously sold a gadzillion books.

I’m glad I borrowed Inferno from the public library rather than padding Knopf’s coffers. (Let this be a lesson to all who wonder if libraries still fulfill important social roles!) I ripped through the book, but mostly because I reached a point where I had gone too far to turn back. I’m cured, though. T’is time to silkscreen a Dan Brown book cover and emblazon the t-shirt with: “Been there. Done that.” I don’t want to choose any more–give me a good story and good writing.

Rob Weir

10/14/13

A Free Market Solution to the Redskins Dilemma

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This might work! 

Congratulations to the Washington Redskins. They made me do something I’ve not done in decades: pay nominal attention to the National Football League. I’m on record as hating football. But the ‘Skins have sent me to the morning paper to look at the NFL standings for the first time in years. (Jacksonville has a team? Why?) I receive great delight when I find that the Redskins have lost and, lucky for me, they seem to do that almost all the time.

Those who read this blog know that I recently posted about how the Redskins name is an archaic racist holdover from the days in which white cultural hegemony passed unchallenged–an embarrassment in the present-day reality of multiculturalism. I hope the Redskins lose every game until the name is changed, and I was similarly happy to see baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians lose. In the original post I sought to illustrate just how wrong those names are.

I now realize the error of my ways in appealing to morality and fair play. This is America after all, a place where the word ‘justice’ is often invoked and too seldom practiced. The moment one appeals to abstract principles other than individualism, one is subject to being called a liberal PC wuss at best or a flag-burning communist at worst. So I’m with the capitalist program now. Here’s the solution to ‘Skins controversy: let the free market private sector fix it.

The Redskins can pave the way as they appear to be so horrendous as to invite a radical change in direction. From what I read, they’re so stinky that even their most ardent fans would probably welcome a chance to disassociate with a name synonymous with losing. I propose that, starting with the Redskins, teams with socially awkward nicknames sell naming rights. We already do this for stadia and Bowl Games, so why not team names? It might even provide a large enough revenue stream for Washington to buy a few professional-quality players whilst shedding its troubling nickname. Win-win, baby!

A very mild dose of market constraint may be needed, though I suppose that won’t be a problem as antitrust exempt professional sports leagues are already the most socialist organizations in America. The NFL can’t be as desperate as National Public Radio and take backing from anyone who offers. It’s a matter of logistics, not ethics. The Washington Archer-Daniels-Midland: ADM Supermarket to the World simply wouldn’t fit onto uniforms–it’s too long even for the steroid-inflated bodies of football players. But I’m sure other compnaies would come forth. The team could try to divert attention away from steroids by calling themselves the Washington Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses. How about the Washington Quicken Loans.coms? Or maybe appeal to all those suburbanites who attend megachurches by becoming the Washington Hobby Lobbies? Or get some serious capital into the Capitol with the Washington JPMorgan Chase? (Singular names are all the rage in sports these days!) The Washington Bristol-Myers Squibb Kicks, anyone? Maybe the team could advance its standing with women via the Washington Pottery Barns. Does the team leave a bad taste in your mouth? How does the Washington Budweisers sound? Maybe Washington could piggyback on the idea of a big comeback and call itself the Washington Twinkies. Well… maybe not!

I’m sure some of you have ideas on the subject. As of this moment, though, I’m pushing for a total makeover. A new name means new uniforms, right? I’m thinking the Washington Armanis. New team motto: We Suck, but Boy Do We Look Good.