Category Archives: Politics

What Does Being Broke Mean

In this article at the LA Times (which I read in the paper copy of Hartford Courant), the authors quote from Rep. Tim Walberg, placing his quote in an argument frame:

Republicans argued Friday that Americans are willing to accept diminished social programs in return for a firmer fiscal standing.

“They understand in my district: We’re broke. If we don’t deal with this, we lose the social safety net,” said Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican from a southern Michigan district that voted for Obama. “I think they’re ready.”

The often repeated “we’re broke” assertion is common from the GOP. But, again, the last time I was at Best Buy, numerous people were at the store making purchases. In fact, I saw a fifty inch television being squeezed into a minivan. This casual observation can be used as evidence to make a counter point to Mr. Walberg. Indeed, if a deficit were some measure of “brokenness,” then every country on the planet would be broke.

Broke in my estimation means that Best Buy would close and that every dealership in the country selling Subarus would be eating 100 percent inventory. Indeed, I also read in the Courant that our local gambling houses shared over 30 million dollars of booty with the state in the month of March, which means that people are somehow finding plenty of money for slot play.

One of the ironies of the “we’re broke” meme is the implication by Walberg that the social safety net is something he’s actually concerned with. If this were so, then it would stand to reason that Congresspeople like Walberg would be promoting policies that boost the living wage and augment cultural investment.

The Big Lie of the Day

The big lie of the day today, this Friday the 18th, as I work with html canvas code, is the cry all over the news that the United States is broke. In this country millions of people are out at the restaurant; they’re out in their cars buying gas and going about their business; they’re at the store buying groceries (I was at the store today purchasing lettuce, root beer, and tomatoes, and saw them doing this, too, one guy at the meat counter even ordered some deli). Best Buy and the Apple Store are probably packed. If the United States were broke, none of this would be happening.

If we were broke, Congresspeople would be at home guarding their water bottles, hunkering down in their holes. The problem as I see it is that currently budget and other policy insist on the status quo. There’s very little talk of raising top tier tax rates and finding some way to lower healthcare costs, which would probably create surpluses. Politicians know this. But they don’t want to direct their attention to these small matters. In all this mix, the housing bubble and the looming new tech bubble have been shoved under the carpet. Have real wages gone up in this country? Where is the money going? Not, I would argue, to pensions.

The lie of “the busted bank” is argued as having something to do with nature not policy. It’s the alignment of the stars, some argue; it’s the way things are so we must adapt and adopt.

Is John Boehner right when he asserts that Government borrowing is taking money away private interests? How so? Interest rates argue otherwise. But the economists can settle that question. If Wisconsin (and I mean this ironically) could find a way of controlling health care costs, this other budget nonsense about the “only way to solve” the problem would probably go away. Note that was no TARP for the states.

One Reason why “Job-Killing” is Bad Language

AP has an interesting report today on the use of statistics.

A recent report by House GOP leaders says “independent analyses have determined that the health care law will cause significant job losses for the U.S. economy.”

It cites the 650,000 lost jobs as Exhibit A, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office as the source of the original analysis behind that estimate. But the budget office, which referees the costs and consequences of legislation, never produced the number.

Many have suggested that the short title of the bill is a bad idea because of the use of the word “killing.” More to the point, the question might be, instead, thoughtful titles in official work by Congress. To inject vehement language into a title is cynical, and, as AP confirms in this case, incorrect. How would it play, for example, if the bill to amend the law used the words “health care law” without use of “Job-Killing”?

One reason: the bill would be a irrelevant. “Job-Killing” in this case is meant to “prove” that facts have been verified by evidence. Is this intentional “error of fact” or the wishful thinking fallacy.

Let’s assume instead a need for a higher burden of proof to write legislation.

The Uses and Misuses of the term Rhetoric

I don’t usually watch cable news. I tend more toward radio these days. But I happened to catch Rachel Maddow’s show on January 10th. I thought she was very good, examining a number of issues relevant to the current tragedy in Arizona sanely and coherently. However, I was struck by a moment when she entered into an analysis of language issues as they relate to speech, description, and meta-analysis.

Sarah Palin’s speech today illustrates the problem of language in context. While Palin’s intention with this video was probably meant to deflect “attention,” she, instead, garnered more with her use of the term blood libel. It’s perfectly fine for Palin to defend herself in the public sphere. But before this is done, some reasonable framing of the problem should be made, and a reasonable amount of research, also, as words themselves require study. Rhetorical frames help to put an intention into context.

But back to the question of rhetoric. Rhetoric can be defined in may ways.

Rhetoric is:

1. An art of expression or persuasion
2. The study of a variety of communication forms and their nature; the study of discourse
3. The methods and techniques of numerous forms of communication, including the use of the variety of Figures of Speech and much more in this context
4. A work by Aristotle

But rhetoric isn’t speech or writing that is intended to be misleading or bits and pieces of talk meant as such. Nor is rhetoric a specific technical device: this, for example, is rhetoric, and that is a hen laying an egg. I often hear the word rhetoric in relation to political speech or advertising. Political rhetoric or “campaign rhetoric.” The term will be used in a pejorative sense: “Oh, that’s just rhetoric.” Or, “We should stop the rhetoric.” Or, “If we could just get away from the rhetoric.” I suggest that this is a misuse of the term and clouds a more significant problem in expression: the need for precision. Which is why I found Dr. Maddow’s (I believe she has a Ph.D from Oxford) use of the term rhetoric odd, as her program was very much concerned with precision. But what was the context?

In a reference to Sharron Angles’s expression “Second Amendment” remedies, Maddow urged the audience not to describe this term as rhetoric or as rhetorical. She was meaning to differentiate rhetoric from figurative and literal expression or from outright misleading analysis. I quote from the transcript lengthily:

Also, while we are clearing stuff up in the increasingly nasty discussion about whether or not over-hyped or violent political rhetoric is relevant at all to this crime, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s frequent references to Second Amendment remedies that has repeatedly been [sic] described as rhetoric. To be clear, that should not be described as rhetoric. Campaign rhetoric is stuff like Arizona’s Ben Quayle, Dan Quayle’s son promising in that campaign ad to kick the hell out of Washington. He’s not going to literally kick the hell out of anything. That’s metaphor. That’s rhetoric, right? Sharron Angle spoke of Second Amendment remedies literally. Here is her comment in context, as reported by “The Reno Gazette Journal” in May, quote, “What is a little disconcerting and concerning is the inability for sporting goods stores to keep ammunition in stock. That tells me the nation is arming.” “What are they arming for if it isn’t that they are distrustful for their government? They are afraid they will have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways.” Take it from the context in which she spoke. The Second Amendment remedies thing was not a metaphor. It was not rhetorical. It was Sharron Angle’s analysis suggesting that people are going to shoot their way out of their current political situation. She was literally talking about actual guns and ammunition being purchased from sporting goods stores. She meant it literally, that people will turn to guns. That is a lot of things. It may not be relevant to this. But if you’re arguing about whether or not it is relevant to this, you should not describe it as rhetoric.

The question at hand seems to be: should this or that speech be taken metaphorically or literally. Strictly speaking, this really has nothing to do with whether something is “rhetoric” or “rhetorical.” More to the point, “second amendment remedy” is metonymy, the replacement of a related term or idea for something else, like saying to the police with the thief dead in the kitchen: “Well, he slid through the widow. I took out my pistol. And boy did I give that fucker his second amendment remedy.” If the police know the Second Amendment, they might grasp the figure. If they’re aware of Second Amendment debates, they might respond: “Which militia did the dead guy belong to?”

I understand Maddow’s point and grant her the authority she’s due. But the question of the tragedy in Arizona is about health care, the easy availability of weaponry, and irresponsibility and irrational priorities in this country. I really don’t think Palin or Angle grasp the complexity of these issues and the language and importance of rhetorical frames, however, and this should have been the point.

As to the use of the term “blood libel.” All Palin had to do was look it up and do a little rhetorical analysis. Alas.

On State Rights

This from McClatchy but linked to the original source:

Lawmakers are pushing three identical bills to exempt Kentucky-made guns and ammunition from federal background checks, dealer licenses and other national regulations if the items remain in the state.

If this is so, there must be some sort of special quality to the metal in Kentucky guns, just as there might be a special quality to the fruit in Florida Orange juice. They will be able to speak, too, and understand: “You, there, stay in the state.”

Media, Politics, and Irony

Zeleny and Rutenberg write in the New York Times

Yet openly seeking political advantage in tragedy is a delicate business and can backfire, as some of Mr. Clinton’s aides suggested.

As generalizations go, that’s a pretty safe one. But it is meaningless, when anything said, any appearance made in media can cross contextual boundaries.

On Saturday, numerous appearances were made by commentators and concerned citizens on the Gifford’s attack and the language about media and message volatility came out quickly, where much discussion was made and will come in the future about “boundaries,” regardless of the many ways that ideas can be interpreted by sane and unhinged people alike. The graphic referred to in the article, the now infamous “cross-hairs” image, was removed, I believe, from the Palin website on Saturday, although I’m sure of that this is an accurate statement.

The attack by Jared Loughner on the public square is significant. One reason was the commonplace nature of Gifford’s gathering, attended by young and old and others who just figured they would make a visit and then leave and go about their business. Here’s a generalization: many tragedies like this begin as commonplace or prosaic–go to work, get on the plane, open the front door–and then the world shifts. The reader might remember those demonstrations outside the Phoenix Convention Center that altered the character of a fairly straightforward Presidential event, making it something other that it was intended. It was transformed into something bizarre. In the case of the Gifford gathering, it became bizarre, cruel, and where language meant as figurative becomes actuality.

One important notion in fiction is that depicted events are perceived as possible in actuality. The writer doesn’t assert that things are real, however. There’s really no differentiation of this notion across the genre or in modes, such as surrealism or realism. In the Kafkan or Twainian mode, we recognize the strange and the absurd in actuality. In a sense, this a recognition on the writer’s part of the power of irony. When people say “Truth is stranger than fiction” they mischaracterize the nature of fiction.

Let the Blame be Spread Like Salt

Evan Thomas in this Newsweek article takes a straightforward and somewhat odd position, adding to the ever-growing advice-giving genre. He writes

His only hope to be an effective president, to secure his legacy, is to tell the whole truth about the deficit, the debt, and the only real way out—to be, as he put it, “straight” with the voters.

This seems simple enough. Thomas goes on to hint at what a program of honesty would look like. He writes

There may not be a single political professional in Washington who would agree with this advice. I’ve never met one. Generally, the suggestion that a politician call for tax increases and cuts in Social Security and Medicare is greeted with hoots of derision.

Thomas here suggests that Mr. Obama’s solutions should include the above. I can hear this speech by the President: “American people: we’re going to cut Social Security and Medicare today. Good luck to you.” Later in the article, Thomas gets to what might be called the “ethic” of doing the right thing (the right thing of course can be inferred) by making an appeal to sacrifice.

Only the president can make the case for sacrifice, and it won’t be popular. As it is, most people already think they are doing their share by paying taxes and resent the idea of paying more, especially if their house is underwater, and they believe (rightly or wrongly) that financial geniuses on Wall Street are to blame. To call for sacrifice, the president will have to be willing to make a sacrifice himself. Obama can offer his own political career. He can put his reelection on the line. He can make the 2012 election a national referendum on doing the right thing.

I’ll get back this shortly but first provide another quote that illustrates Thomas’ take on yet another problem area with deficit and economy: the state employee question:

A real growth spurt, in any case, will require government spending on badly deteriorating infrastructure and massive research and development. But there is no money—not in the federal treasury, nor at the state level. Thanks to massive (and largely unnoticed) giveaways to public-employee pension plans, big states like California, New York, and New Jersey are even closer to bankruptcy than the federal government. A column by David Brooks of The New York Times recently noted that New Jersey badly needs a new tunnel to New York, but can’t afford it because the money has been spent on generous benefits for public employees. In California, the state is paying its bills with IOUs.

The question of growth spurting is a current hot topic. Investment in infrastructure and RnD are positive things, of course, and would likely be even better if states would shrink their operations and maneuver “giveaways” to this research. Thomas’s application of the oft-used accusatory phrase “Thanks to” is nice icing, as in “Thanks to you, I’m in the friggin’ poor house.”

I have questions: why does Thomas claim that only the President can make the case for “sacrifice”? Certainly the President could make the case to “cut Social Security,” but so could the leadership of the GOP and AARP. Dean Baker makes a different case:

Of course the facts are very clear. There is no truth to the whining about out of control government spending. According to the Congressional Budget Office, non-interest federal spending was 18.8 percent of GDP in 1980. In 2020 it is projected to be 18.6 percent of GDP.
. . .
And of course the whole long-term deficit nightmare story is driven entirely by our broken health care system. If per person health care costs in the United States were the same as in any of the wealthy countries with longer life expectancies we would be looking at huge budget surpluses, not deficits.

Thomas’s point, of course, goes to the President’s credibility and a wish-list; I take Baker’s arguments above as treating evidence specifically, regardless of what may or may not be on the President’s mind. As Thomas writes, the President could act like other exemplars of “sacrifice”:

But rather two large and noble groups: people who serve in the armed forces and every parent who has sacrificed himself or herself for a child. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen routinely put their lives at risk for something other than the modest pay they get. Mothers sacrifice themselves—their sleep and careers and peace of mind—for their children on a daily basis, often without really thinking about it. In every case they are subordinating their physical and material well-being to something greater than themselves: the love of a child, or their comrades in arms, or their country.

This finally gets us to the quick of the matter, I think. But the problem here is that the infrastructure that supports the “soldier” is a massive part of the US budget and parents really don’t have much of a choice, as the poop doesn’t clean itself and we don’t pay parents what they’re probably worth.

Ultimately, the problem with all this is that the framework Thomas draws is under dispute. My position is that supplying advice to Presidents in this manner won’t actually solve any problems. I’d rather see the author ask more questions and perhaps cite research that concludes that California’s “giveaways” are indeed significant enough to hoist up with such prominence. He doesn’t even ask if “giveaway” is the word he should use. The CCEA Outlook study is a good example of things people might consult.

The Problem with Solutions is They’re Boring

The last several years I’ve attempted to get students interested in design, urban/suburban relationships, and issues related to human ecology. It’s not exactly sexy stuff when compared to the typical college classroom writing fare, as illustrated in rhetorics and readers: death penalty, drug legalization, gun control. That sort of thing. The death penalty has very much been in the news and people get excited and impassioned about it, but, in the classroom, it’s difficult to develop fresh and impactive perspectives.

I would hazard that most issues come with nuance, but nuance can be boring and even boorish, much like punning when under the influence or during a card game. In his article, Balancing Act: What Can be Cut from State Spending, John McKinney promotes three arguments in support of a cost cutting project. He writes:

Being honest about the crisis we face; building a bipartisan coalition of legislators committed to reducing government spending and creating jobs; and bringing state employee wages and benefits more in line with the private sector are keys to responsibly balancing the budget.

This thesis goes for the throbbing jugular of that cussing giant so often seen in adventure tales. The first issue goes to the image of GAAP, which most commentators agree will reveal the real CT budget mess and hence promote an honest picture of what needs solving. The second issue goes to the image of a “balanced” legislature with equal parts Democrat and Republican (but not Green Party) which would promote “bipartisanship.” The third issues goes to the image of the over-expensive state employee as moocher (I fully disclose myself as one of these cadges).

I contend that these “images” are fads. While exciting, they amount to either herring being dragged along the path or those typical “perspectives” of the out party who always accuses the in party of either having caused all the problems, having ignored the real solutions, or keeping all the marbles to themselves. As the issues with state employee moochers, the author does supply evidence of this grubbing. He writes:

Connecticut’s government has grown beyond taxpayers’ ability to pay for it. In fact, state spending has increased 227 percent since 1980 — rising from $4,400 per household to more than $10,000 per household — while median household income remained relatively flat.

and later

Unlike the state’s private sector, which lost 100,000 jobs during the recession, the public sector avoided layoffs by granting concessions. Still, state employee wages and benefits account for nearly 25 percent of total government spending (more than $4.5 billion annually), and further concessions must be part of any responsible proposal to eliminate our deficit.

There are a couple of issues with this evidence, all, of course, subject to rebuttal. The author does supply the cost of its own employees to the private sector in order to provide comparison. In argumentation, relations should accompany statistics to supply both context and relevance. What is, for example, the percentage of payroll for GM or Apple, Inc and, even better, why and even better why the difference? Secondly, the author fails to define “private sector” or evolve the issue of “entity” in the eyes of government, as “small business” are treated differently than large corporations, and sectors complicate things. A sub-issue here has to do the other “75 percent” question or to payroll as “percentage of gross” benchmarks across the board.

In addition, the author does not develop this idea: “bringing state employee wages and benefits more in line with the private sector are keys to responsibly balancing the budget.” This idea is a garble requiring definition and substantive evidence. Would, for example, lining up state employee wages and benefits be “key” or would it make things worse? Line them up with what, for example, as “lining” would imply similarity that may be difficult to solidify?

While there is debate about the proper application of idioms such as “the devil is in the details” (van der Rohe) or “God is in the detail” (Flaubert?), I generally agree with Tom Condon in his assessment of “the problem.” The problem is in the sewer. But that’s not very exciting. And Jeffrey Thompson’s recent study on infrastructure and tax incentives certainly makes an alternative case than McKinney’s. But no one’s going to build a reality show around “drinking water infrastructure.”

What to do about the season?

This video by Robert Desposada is one of hundreds of persuasive artifacts running this political season. I’ve heard that the cost of all campaigns will run upwards of billions, and yet politicians will claim that they want to run as cost savers, fiscal conservatives, and reformers. The California Ryan campaign might have done better to invest in start-ups and other investments, rather than dumping short term money into a Governor’s job. It’s an astounding phenomenon that would-be politicians, tea-partiers or nor, would seek work in institutions they despise and waste so much money to do so and yet claim they would support the smoke of lower taxes and the diminishment of an already diminished government or, as I’ve been wont to joke, guvment.

Everyone likes the sound of efficiency, reform, and change. But to advance the argument that the Obama administration hasn’t done enough after two years is somewhat ignorant and historically ineffective. Madison, Jay, and Hamilton are light on qualifications for office in their writings about the character of public servants, but I don’t think they would claim that one person might be better than another if those people who ran shared deep commitment and knowledge about the world and the systems with which we work.

As an academic, I’ve lived most of my professional life on the fringe of “public opinion,” as liberal, socialist, commie, and atheist. Because I’m a professor, I have “no clue about the real world,” “have never met a pay role,” am “biased toward the progressive crowd,” and sit at the knee of “satan.”

I really couldn’t give a jot about any of the above, but I am amazed at the litany of ignorance on the air waves and have, happily enough, found sanity in John Dankoski and Company at WNPR as they’ve carefully brought almost every candidate in for questions and debate and have brought a coolness to things unviewable on TV. But the larger climate is soured by waste, tendentiousness, cliche, lazy logic, and a strange impatience by the electorate after so many years of bizarre destruction that can’t be easily dusted away as a “that was then” phenomenon because that’s a dismissal of history and the linger of past influence.

Yes, we can cheer the second amendment (which is, of course, good for the gun business), but that’s not the only amendment in the document that matters, and, like the bible, the whole is being lost to easiest stitch to remember or the most quotable bit.

Those who voted in GW are paying for their choice just as are those of us who didn’t. We have trillions to spend yet on GW’s decisions and that’s real money that people could’ve kept. And the bills will mount on national health care and the schools will continue to crumble no matter how many guns people buy. Beware.

Questions of Fairness and Common Sense

Rob Simmons in today’s Hartford Courant writes: “I’m told that up to 30 percent of state employees are eligible for retirement. If so, then a 30 percent across the board cut is not out of the question. Nor is it unfair. It is common sense.”

This comes in one the Courant’s more bizarre opinion sections, where Simmons and Lamont write about politics in the context of their experience and party affiliations.

The above opinion by Simmons grabbed my attention. It would be more than interesting if those eligible at the college retired because the result of such mass exodus would pretty much render the institution unable to fulfill its mission, which is difficult to do as it is at current staff levels, and the possibility of this slow diminution is actually not so far from reality. I’m cool on the sentiment Simmons makes, although the logic of attributing cuts to common sense is inaccurate. The question of pairing back on government is a serious one but it would involve major study into what aspects of government might be unnecessary or inefficient. That would cost money also.