Thursday, May 31, 2012

Roll Over, Believers In Birtherism! Make Way For The Latest Mania: Wiferism!!

Last Friday — May 25, 2012 — Birtherism reared its slimy head like a movie monster that won't die. No Baloney Joanie (Walsh) was exercised in her Salon column on May 25, 2012.

[x Salon]
Hey Mitt: Dump Trump!
By Joan Walsh

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Yesterday it was funny: Mitt Romney announced he was having a fundraising contest to let supporters win a dinner with the farce that is Donald Trump. President Obama has raffled off dinners with George Clooney and former President Bill Clinton; Mitt’s got Trump. Any questions? Do you see a stature gap between the two campaigns? Do you want to have dinner with two guys who like to be able to fire people? Whatever floats Mitt’s boat.

Today it’s appalling: puffed up by Romney’s flattery, the preening, orange-haired narcissist doubled down on his idiotic birther claims against the president, telling The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove: “Look, it’s very simple. A book publisher came out three days ago and said that in his written synopsis of his book, he said he was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia. His mother never spent a day in the hospital.”

If you haven’t been following the story, and I tried not to, the addled spawn of Andrew Breitbart found a dusty 20-year-old catalog from Obama’s former literary agency that said he was born in Kenya. An assistant quickly said that she wrote down incorrect information. Trump doesn’t believe her.

“That’s what he told the literary agent,” Trump told Grove. “That’s the way life works … He didn’t know he was running for president, so he told the truth. The literary agent wrote down what he said … He said he was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia … Now they’re saying it was a mistake. Just like his Kenyan grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and she pointed down the road to the hospital, and after people started screaming at her she said, ‘Oh, I mean Hawaii.’ Give me a break.”

Give us a break, Mitt. It was already embarrassing that you were using Trump as a fundraising lure — why not raffle off a dinner with Dick Cheney, who’s hosting a fundraiser for you in July? At least Darth Vader has gravitas; Trump is a joke. Pretending to run for president, Trump made birtherism his big issue, and ultimately Obama responded by prevailing on the state of Hawaii to release his long-form birth certificate — a truly sad moment for this country, when the overwhelmingly elected president, a black man, has to show a nasty rich white guy his papers.

If you ever want an example of the vicious political double standard that helps Republicans in this country, here it is: Democrat Hilary Rosen said something inartful about Ann Romney being a stay-at-home mom, and the entire Democratic Party had to denounce her; Obama campaign leaders tripped over themselves to be the first to push her under the bus; Rosen immediately apologized. But Romney has been able to keep his ties to Trump as well as misogynist Rush Limbaugh without political penalty — so far.

This is a moment for the presumptive Republican nominee to stand up for sanity and distance himself from the crackpot birther fringe, and tell Trump he’s going to have to cancel their dinner date. Maybe he’s got to wash his hair that night. Or one of Ann Romney’s cars.

Does Romney have the integrity and courage to do that? I don’t think so, but I’d love to be surprised. Ω

[Joan Walsh has been the editor-in-chief of Salon, a San Francisco-based on-line magazine since February 2005. She joined Salon as its first full-time news editor in 1998, and became managing editor in 2004. Walsh had previously worked for In These Times and the Santa Barbara News and Review. She has written freelance articles for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Nation. Walsh has published two books, (with C.W. Nevius) Splash Hit: The Pacific Bell Park Story (2001) and Stories of Renewal: Community Building and the Future of Urban America (1996). Walsh holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin.]

Copyright © 2010 Salon Media Group, Inc.

To enhance your enjoyment while reading about Dumbo/Teabagger manias, here is a Cee Lo Green anthem for all Dumbos/Teabaggers (including Big Love & Comb-Over):

[x YouTube/CeeLoGreen Channel]
Fuck You (2011)
By Cee Lo Green

But, wait! There's more! If this is a (fair & balanced) response to Birtherism, so be it.

[x HBO]
"Real Time With Bill Maher" — Wiferism (Episode 250 — 5/25/2012)
By Bill Maher

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MAHER: The media can keep giving this story oxygen, but I think they’re neglecting a much bigger scandal, which is wiferism. Mitt Romney comes from a Mormon background. I don’t know how many wives he has. I’m not saying I believe in that. I just say he was born in a Mormon compound, I’m not a wifer, but for some reason he has never shown his original marriage certificate and we’d like to show it to you now.

Now I’m getting a lot of my information, I must say from a book called Me So Romney, the Secret Love Life of the World’s Horniest Mormom. Again, I’m not a wifer, I’m just saying that he has the blood of a nomadic polygamist tribesman, and I think that has shaped his world view.

Now this is a copy of Mitt Romney’s marriage license. I specifically asked for the original. I even offered to go to the Romney house and take it out of Ann Romney’s wedding scrap book, but for some reason they frowned upon that idea and instead sent me this obvious photocopy, and isn’t it a little weird that they chose to only send the short form license?

And why next to Ann Romney does it say spouse and not only spouse? I’m just asking the hard questions that the lame stream media won’t ask about Mitt’s unholy harem of obedient sister-wives, which I really hope I’m wrong about.

But, now look at this. This I’m told is the Romney tooth brush holder. And think about that strained look on Mitt’s face. That’s the look of a man who has not been able to get into the bathroom since 1988.

Plus, how is it that Ann and Mitt Romney have five kids and they’re all thirty years old? And here, what is Mitt pointing to in this picture? The Olympic symbol. What is it? Five rings and what else has five rings? Five wives.

And why did Mitt Romney strap his dog to the roof of his car? Could it have been because the station wagon was full of wives? I’m not saying I believe this wifer stuff. I take Mitt Romney at his word. But how do you explain this video? Ω

[William (Bill) Maher, Jr., is a comedian, actor, writer, and producer. He hosted the late-night television talk show "Politically Incorrect" on Comedy Central and ABC, and is currently the star of "Real Time with Bill Maher" on HBO. Maher received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Cornell University in 1978.]

Copyright © 2012 Home Box Office, Inc.

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Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Before Class Is Dismissed Today: A Consideration of The Dreaded, Evil, Nasty Comma

The comma is basically the single detail in writing that causes more difficulties and gets writers into more trouble than any other element in the writing process. If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of the most tricky grammatical device of them all, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Most Comma Mistakes
By Ben Yagoda

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As I noted in my earlier article, rules and conventions about when to use and not to use commas are legion. But certain errors keep popping up. Here are a few of them.

Identification Crisis
If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m referring to a student’s writing a sentence like:

I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.

Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None are correct — unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:

I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.

If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another correct sentence:

I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.

You need a comma after “movie” because this and only this is Mr. Allen’s newest movie in theaters, and before “Jessie” because she and only she is the writer’s oldest friend.

The syntactical situation I’m talking about is identifier-name. The basic idea is that if the name (in the above example, “Jessie”) is the only thing in the world described by the identifier (“my oldest friend”), use a comma before the name (and after it as well, unless you’ve come to the end of the sentence). If not, don’t use any commas.

Grammatically, there are various ways of describing what’s going on. One helpful set of terms is essential vs. nonessential. When the identifier makes sense in the sentence by itself, then the name is nonessential and you use a comma before it. Otherwise, no comma. That explains an exception to the only-thing-in-the-world rule: when the words “a,” “an” or “some,” or a number, come before the description or identification of a name, use a comma.

A Bronx plumber, Stanley Ianella, bought the winning lottery ticket.

When an identifier describes a unique person or thing and is preceded by “the” or a possessive, use a comma:

Baseball’s home run leader, Barry Bonds, will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.

My son, John, is awesome. (If you have just one son.)

But withhold the comma if not unique:

My son John is awesome. (If you have more than one son.)

The artist David Hockney is a master of color.

The celebrated British artist David Hockney is a master of color.

And even

The gay, bespectacled, celebrated British artist David Hockney is a master of color.

(Why are there commas after “gay” and “bespectacled” but not “celebrated”? Because “celebrated” and “British” are different sorts of adjectives. The sentence would not work if “and” were placed between them, or if their order were reversed.)

If nothing comes before the identification, don’t use a comma:

The defense team was led by the attorney Harold Cullen.

No one seems to have a problem with the idea that if the identification comes after the name, it should always be surrounded by commas:

Steve Meyerson, a local merchant, gave the keynote address.

However, my students, at least, often wrongly omit a “the” or an “a” in sentences of this type:

Jill Meyers, sophomore, is president of the sorority.

To keep the commas, it needs to be:

Jill Meyers, a sophomore, is president of the sorority.

The Case of the Missing Comma
A related issue is the epidemic of missing commas after parenthetical phrases or appositives — that is, self-enclosed material that’s within a sentence, but not essential to its meaning. The following sentences all lack a necessary comma. Can you spot where?

My father, who gave new meaning to the expression “hard working” never took a vacation.

He was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1964.

Philip Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint and many other books is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize.

If you said “working,” “Iowa” and “books,” give yourself full marks. I’m not sure why this particular mistake is so tempting. It may sometimes be because these phrases are so long that by the time we get to the end of them, we’ve forgotten about the first comma. In any case, a strategy to prevent it is to remember the acronym I.C.E. Whenever you find yourself using a comma before an Identification, Characterization or Explanation, remember that there has to be a comma after the I.C.E. as well.

Splice Girls, and Boys
“Comma splice” is a term used for the linking of two independent clauses — that is, grammatical units that contain a subject and a verb and could stand alone as sentences — with a comma. When I started teaching at the University of Delaware some years ago, I was positively gobsmacked by the multitude of comma splices that confronted me. They have not abated.

Here’s an example:

He used to be a moderate, now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

It’s easy to fix in any number of ways:

He used to be a moderate. Now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

He used to be a moderate; now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

He used to be a moderate, but now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

He used to be a moderate — now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

How to choose among them? By reading aloud — always the best single piece of writing advice — and choosing the version that best suits the context, your style and your ear. I would go with the semicolon. How about you?

Two particular situations seem to bring out a lot of comma splices. The first is in quotations:

“The way they’ve been playing, the team will be lucky to survive the first round,” the coach said, “I’m just hoping someone gets a hot hand.”

The comma after “said” has to be replaced with a period.

The other issue is the word “however,” which more and more people seem to want to use as a conjunction, comparable to “but” or “yet.” So they will write something like:

The weather is great today, however it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.

That may be acceptable someday. Today, however, it’s a comma splice. Correct punctuation could be:

The weather is great today, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.


The weather is great today. However, it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.

Comma splices can be O.K. when you’re dealing with short clauses where even a semicolon would slow things down too much:

I talked to John, John talked to Lisa.

Samuel Beckett was the poet laureate of the comma splice. He closed his novel The Unnamable (1953) with a long sentence that ends:

… perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Which goes to show, I suppose, that rules are made to be broken. Ω

[Ben Yagoda (B.A. Yale, M.A. University of Pennsylvania) is the author of Memoir: A History (2009), About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), and Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) and the coeditor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (1997). He has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to more than fifty national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. Yagoda has been a Lingua Franca blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education since August 2011.) He is a professor of journalism and literary non-fiction in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.]

Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Just As There Ain't No Free Lunch, There Is No Easy Way Out Of This Damnable Recession

Today's sickening Hobson's Choice is

"The Choice"
By Ed Stein

A finance prof at the University of Chicago speaks the hard truth about the mess we're in today. Of course, the bottom line is to ask "How in hell did we get in this mess?" Both government and Wall Street share responsibility (along with the rest of us who slept through the entire runup to the Great Recession). If this is a (fair & balanced) Gordian knot, so be it.

[x Fault Lines Blog]
No Easy Way Out
By Raghu Rajan

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In the long run we are not dead, we will still be recovering from the Great Recession. We should therefore weigh stimulus policies not just on their immediate effect but on their consequences over time. Sensible Keynesians recognise this. They bet that reviving growth through government spending today outweighs the future loss of growth as the debt taken on to fund current spending is paid back. Consider two circumstances where this may apply.

The first is in a fully fledged panic where demand collapses, banks and companies fail and organisational capital is destroyed. Save, possibly, for Greece, it is hard to argue any industrial country is there today.

The second is when persistent high unemployment leads the long term unemployed to lose the habits and skills that make them employable. This is probably the more pertinent case in several industrial countries, such as the US and Spain. Increasing employment in a sustainable way today could more than pay for itself if people who would otherwise drop out of the workforce earn incomes.

The key question then is whether more government spending can make a real difference to the most severe employment problems. Here the case for a general stimulus becomes less compelling. In the US, demand is weakest in communities where a boom and bust in house prices has left an overhang of household debt. Lower local demand has hit employment in industries such as retail and restaurants. A general increase in government spending may be too blunt – greater demand in New York is not going to help families eat out in Las Vegas (and hence create more restaurant jobs there). Targeted household debt write-offs in Las Vegas could be a better use of stimulus dollars.

However, the past build-up of debt in now depressed areas may suggest that demand was too high relative to incomes. If so, demand, without the dangerous stimulant of borrowing, will stay weak. Policy should instead help workers move where there are suitable jobs – for instance, by helping them offload their homes and the associated debt without the stigma of default.

Employment is also lower in states that experienced a housebuilding bust. In these states, unemployment is higher among construction workers and in related jobs such as real estate brokerage. Could big publicly funded infrastructure projects, modelled on those in the 1930s, re-employ them? Possibly not, since today’s built-up US is less in need of infrastructure on that scale. Moreover, it is not clear that a worker used to putting up drywall can move easily to laying fibre-optic cable. Perhaps it would be better policy to support retraining for private jobs.

Japan, which had a huge property boom and bust in the late 1980s, provides a salutary warning of the difficulties of stimulus through infrastructure spending. Even though Japan covered much of the country with concrete, it never fully emerged from the crisis. For the Japanese, the long run has arrived, and they are older, fewer and have the highest government debt in the G7.

Japan acted far too late to shut down failed firms, write down private debts and recapitalise its banking system. It has not yet acted at all on the structural reforms needed to bring competition and efficiency into many of its domestic markets. Whether or not Keynesian stimulus staved off worse outcomes in Japan, it definitely saddled the country with huge debts without kick-starting steady growth. And the constant focus on spending, which politicians loved, arguably deflected attention from the need for reforms.
The US government can still spend. The UK is more on the margin. With a huge financial sector dependent on the government’s financial standing, it can take fewer chances with its finances. Austerity is painful, which is why austerity tomorrow is not credible. Yet shared tax increases and spending cuts can instil a sense of national purpose to help a country weather tough times.

For Greece, government spending is the problem, not the solution. A responsible government would implement judicious austerity, firing the party hacks who were hired in the go-go years, cutting wages and pensions and restructuring itself to collect taxes and provide useful services, even while retaining transfers to the indigent and elderly. As public sector workers share the private sector’s pain, national solidarity could improve. Also, improved government efficiency and other structural reforms will make it easier for Europe to provide the financing that will prevent even more savage cuts to government functions. And it will make it easier to write down Greek debt further and attract private investment, giving people hope of growth.

Targeted government spending, or reduced austerity, along the lines suggested by sensible Keynesians, might be feasible in some countries and helpful in speeding recovery. But we should examine each policy based on a country’s circumstances. We should be particularly wary of populist Keynesians, who parrot “in the long run we are dead” to justify any short-sighted government action. They do the world a disservice by suggesting there are easy ways out. By misleading people and their leaders, they may well precipitate revolution rather than recovery. Ω

[Raghu Rajan is the Eric J. Gleacher Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Rajan received a B.Tech. from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), an M.B.A. from the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He has written Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy (2010) which was the recipient of the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.]

Copyright © 2012 University of Chicago Booth School of Business

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Roll Over, Casper (The Friendly Ghost)! Make Way For Droney (The Friendly Surveillance Drone)!

Tom Tomorrow offers a macabre Memorial Day 'toon with an anthropomorphic robot aircraft. Droney is kid-friendly (up to a point) and has a not-so-nice aspect to his persona. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Droney's remote controllers or what Droney might do with an activated autonomous control? If this is (fair & balanced) suspicion of unmanned aerial vehicles armed with Hellfire missiles, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

(Click to embiggen — H/T to Daily Kos) Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2012 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Not So Fast, Bill Maher! Arizona May Be Stupid & Ruthless, But Texas Is Worse!

When it comes to ruthless stupidity, it's hard to top the Grand Canyon State. Governor Jan Brewer (R-AZ) — in her opening statement at a 2010 televised debate — went silent for approximately 9 seconds and then bolted from the stage. See her performance here. Then, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R-AZ) was annointed "Knucklehead of the Week" by the Newark Star-Ledger in today's issue of that fishwrap. "Sheriff Joe" is infamous for ruthless behavior towards the inmates in his jail facilities. Now, the fool is launching a criminal investigation of the Hawaii birth certificate that was issued to the parents of the POTUS 44. And not to be outdone, the Arizona Secretary of State — Ken Bennett (R-AZ) — in his role as the chief election officer, threatened to keep the POTUS 44 off the 2012 Arizona ballot until there was satisfactory proof that the POTUS 44 had been born in Hawaii. After receiving a reply from officials in Honolulu, Bennett said in a written statement that Hawaii officials "have complied with the request, and I consider the matter closed." Interestingly, Bennett also is the Arizona campaign co-chair for Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney. Arizona has compiled an amazing array of stupid and ruthless behavior. However, this blogger will put the ruthlessness and stupidity of the Dumbos and Teabaggers in the Lone Star State up against anything from Arizona. If this is a (fair & balanced) examination of sociopathy, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Nasty Like Us
By Edward Tenner

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Editors and pundits seem to agree that the 2012 presidential election will be one of the hardest fought in memory. Even the international press has jumped in; an Economist cover predicts “Hardball,” and in April The Guardian called the campaign “ruthless in its backstabbing,” warning, “you have seen nothing yet.”

What should be explained instead is how civil our recent contests have been, for as a society America has always been attracted to ruthlessness. It might be defined not just as hard competition but as the deployment of unfair, unethical and distasteful (if often technically legal) methods. American culture blended a Protestant sense of mission and virtue with a pragmatism that could countenance slavery and Indian removal.

America hardly invented ruthlessness — think of that all-American hero, Napoleon Bonaparte — but it extended it to the common people. Moralists from Benjamin Franklin to Horatio Alger and beyond might celebrate character as the path to success, but the man in the street knew differently. Adventurers like the notorious filibusterer William Walker became folk heroes. After a New Orleans jury acquitted Walker of violating the Neutrality Act of 1818, he began a fund-raising tour for a new adventure. The early 20th century rags-to-riches baseball star Ty Cobb “came in hard and with spikes high,” as his biographer Charles C. Alexander put it, and kept alive the false rumor that he sharpened them.

Secession sought to protect not just the plantation owners’ way of life but also the aspirations of Southern yeomen to slaveowning wealth, following the career of the populist military hero and president Andrew Jackson. And after the war, the robber barons were as much admired as condemned for their tactics. As the muckraking historian Matthew Josephson wrote during the Depression in his book The Robber Barons (1934), objections to the ethics of post-Civil War entrepreneurs like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were countered by the observation that they were “smart men.”

Americans had mixed feelings about their 20th-century technological and financial heroes, too. Thomas A. Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company hired thugs to enforce his patent claims; independent filmmakers moved to Hollywood partly to avoid them. Steve Jobs paid little attention to conditions in his Chinese contractors’ factories. After his death protests grew too large for Apple to ignore; but even then, not only was “bad Steve” praised, but many of the demonstrators in the early Occupy Wall Street movement still revered him.

Attacks on the ruthless may actually increase their allure. In the 1930s, The New Yorker reported that a young man applying for a brokerage job declared that he had read The Robber Barons and wanted to become one of them. Fifty years later, the Oliver Stone film “Wall Street,” intended as an exposé of greed, inspired a generation of fans of the fictional Gordon Gekko, as portrayed by Michael Douglas. Perhaps it was this dark glamour that helped persuade President Bill Clinton, supported by his deputy attorney general (and current attorney general), Eric H. Holder Jr., to pardon a refugee from justice, Marc Rich.

Liberal Democrats, no less than their Republican foes, have a heritage of ruthlessness. The patrician Franklin D. Roosevelt, as some of Richard M. Nixon’s Republican defenders pointed out during the Watergate crisis, had abused the powers both of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. and of the Internal Revenue Service. The fallen Canadian conservative newspaper publisher Conrad Black, in his biography of Roosevelt, even praised this side of his character (“dissembling,” “love of intrigue”), finding him so ruthless that he was able to conceal the extent of his ruthlessness. Mr. Black asserted openly what F.D.R.’s liberal admirers have believed tacitly: if he hadn’t been so bad, he wouldn’t have been so good.

It’s not surprising, then, that President Obama (supported by Attorney General Holder) has been positioning himself as a foe of global terrorism willing to approach, if not cross, ethical lines by targeting at least one American citizen for assassination without trial — a “possible” impeachable violation, according to the libertarian Republican candidate Ron Paul.

If Mr. Obama had to overcome the suspicion that, like Jimmy Carter, he wasn’t ruthless enough, Mitt Romney has a reverse challenge. His now defeated opponent Newt Gingrich circulated a video portraying him and his company Bain Capital as “more ruthless than Wall Street” — quite a ruthless gesture in its own right. Mr. Romney can’t retreat into moderation again now; he has to double down on creative destruction, arguing the long-term mercy of short-term ruthlessness to end the deficit crisis.

Politically and economically, Americans are very likely to remain of two minds. Even after Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter, one of the best sellers of the 1970s was Robert J. Ringer’s Looking Out for Number One (1977). Whoever will be elected in November, the attraction and repulsion of ruthlessness to Americans is unlikely to change. Ω

[Edward Tenner iss a visiting scholar in the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University and a senior research associate of the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History. After receiving the A.B. from Princeton, a Junior Fellowship of the Harvard Society of Fellows, and the Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Edward Tenner held teaching and research positions in Chicago and became science editor of Princeton University Press, publishing general interest books and launching competitive series in astrophysics, animal behavior, and earth sciences. His book Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (1996) has been an international bestseller and his most recent book is Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology (2003).]

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Finger Envy

Earlier this week, this blog featured one of Tom Tomorrow's not-infrequent 'toons featuring The I.H.O.T.F.M. (Invisible Hand Of The Free Market)-Man. Today, a student of Adam Smith provides a look at the worldly philosopher's consideration of wealth, poverty, and envy (as well as self-delusion). If this is a (fair & balanced) analysis of relative poverty, so be it.

[x Boston Review]
The Primal Ache: What Adam Smith Knew About Inequality
By John Paul Rollert

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Near the end of Liar’s Poker (1989), Michael Lewis’s indispensable memoir of his time as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers in the late 1980s, Lewis describes the emotional merry-go-round of receiving his first year-end bonus. Together with his salary, he’s earned $90,000, more than any 26-year old he knows, more than his father at his age, and as much as any other first-year banker at the firm. Lewis is ecstatic—“Ha! I was rich”—until the carousel clicks into gear. He begins thinking about all the money he’s made for Salomon and how much more others around him are taking home. Before long his bonus seems more like a poke in the eye than a pat on the back. “By the standards of our monopoly money business, ninety grand was like being on welfare,” he says. “I felt cheated, genuinely indignant. How else could I feel?”

Lewis learned one of the central lessons of wealth and wealth creation: being wealthy and feeling rich are often inversely correlated. In a room full of rich men, only one doesn’t feel poor by comparison.

This lesson is often overlooked in the ongoing debate over income inequality. Just as people at the top of the income curve conflate being poor with looking impoverished, those as the bottom conflate being wealthy with feeling like Richie Rich. Confusion on either side breeds contempt, while obscuring the felt consequences of inequality, which in an affluent society can be a matter not only of material need but also of bitterness over one’s relative position.

Adam Smith understood this. The author of The Wealth of Nations (1776) regarded human beings as creatures of appraisal and ambition. Smith believed that whether we are busy trading gossip or exchanging goods, we are constantly sizing up the world around us in order to guarantee our safety and improve our place. Our measurements, as such, are not made according to some universal set of standards. We are each other’s yardsticks, and we hate it when we don’t come out ahead.

This is to say that we long to get the better of inequality, no matter our present state. For Smith, this helps to explain the phenomenon—perplexing to some, enraging to others, but familiar to us all—of people who already have a lot and still desperately want more. “The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him,” Smith says of the wealthy landlord. “The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires.” The eye, here, is synonymous with the imagination, which, unlike the belly, is always unbounded. This is where our dreams reside, and Smith knew that even the wildest among them has an alarming tendency to grow, especially when it is on the cusp of being satisfied.

As an economic matter, the broader consequences of our insatiability are largely beneficial. The desire to get ahead compels people to work far harder than they would if their only concern were to get by. But while the striver’s instinct benefits society (yes, Smith is a trickle-down economist), the excessive effort can seem something of a waste. “In his heart,” Smith says, the wealthy man, at the end of his life, “curses ambition, and vainly regrets the ease and the indolence of youth, pleasures which are fled for ever, and which he has foolishly sacrificed for what, when he has got it, can afford him no real satisfaction.”

What he has sacrificed for is distinction—not to keep up with the Joneses but to ensure that they struggle to keep up with him. People are an intensely competitive lot, and while Smith was not so cynical as to predict Gore Vidal’s famous quip, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies,” he was not so far behind. For Smith, the virtue of a thriving society is the defect of a common vice: envy. We see what others have, and we want it for ourselves. What redeems our envy is that our effort to gain for ourselves what others already have doesn’t take the form of theft or repossession but instead is channeled into lawful exchanges that, over time, grow the wealth of a nation.

This is the invisible hand in action, and it provides the social promise of Smith’s work. But that promise is underwritten by a desire that is always morally suspect. Envy, the primal ache of inequality, motivates the merchant and pickpocket alike. Both pursue their own medicine, and Smith’s challenge is to convince us why only one remedy should be broadly prescribed.

This is no easy task. To demand that someone who is poor and powerless give himself over to an impersonal economic system that promises to reward him, over time, by the work of an invisible hand, well, that’s asking no small amount of faith. Say what you will about theft, the proof is in the taking.

To overcome this, Smith asks his readers to forget about the inequality most familiar to them—that which confronts them everyday when they see things in the hands of others they can only dream of owning themselves—and to instead consider the inequality across nations. Smith wants to know why certain countries are more prosperous than others, for he believes that in these differences lie the keys to economic growth.

This strategy is encapsulated at the end of the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations, where Smith goes to great lengths to describe the complex commercial system that supplies the needs of “the very meanest person” in a well-developed society.

Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must no doubt appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

Forgive Smith the unsavory stereotype. The point he is trying to make is that the inequality the peasant ought to consider is not that between himself and the European prince, but that between himself and the African king. The latter can take with impunity anything he desires, but the nation he leads provides little in the way of choice. The peasant, by contrast, lives in a society where his means are modest and his power limited, yet because of broader prosperity and the consumer choices available to him, he still enjoys a better standard of living.

In contemporary terms, we might say it’s better to be poor in Mississippi than rich in Mogadishu. That may be true, though by the same logic, it is also better to be unemployed in Holland than working class in Harlem. Smith is only trying to prove that free markets provide a better standard of living than can a highly centralized economic system. He says nothing about the policy choices a country might make in regulating its own system of capitalism to best provide for the poor and vulnerable. Moreover, Smith never contends that either the total wealth of a nation or even its median income is the last word on the moral status of economic arrangements. True, capitalism may best ensure that all people have food, shelter, and clothing, but it also exposes us to the afflictions of affluence, those, as Michael Lewis discovered, that wound our pride more than our person.

Some may argue that such distress is unworthy of being taken seriously, but “get over it” is a response more obtuse than enlightened, willfully indifferent to the role of personal pride in driving an economy and shaping our identity. We have to be honest in confronting the essential paradox of economic development, namely, that the wealthier a society becomes, the poorer many of us may end up feeling. Or, as a fellow trader replies when Lewis tells him of his own frustration, “You don’t get rich in this business. You only attain new levels of relative poverty.” Ω

[John Paul Rollert teaches leadership and business ethics at the Harvard Extension School. He is a doctoral student at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Rollert received a BA from Harvard College and a JD from Yale Law School. Rollert has been published in The Business and Society Review and the Yale Law Journal (Online). In addition to his academic work, he frequently writes on business, law, and politics for a variety of popular publications. His work has been featured in Slate magazine, Salon, The Harvard Business Review (Online), The Christian Science Monitor, and The Huffington Post.]

Copyright © 2012 Boston Review

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves