Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sleepy doggerel of unknown origin

Arsen posted an interesting item on Ghulf Genes today (Morning Red, Evening Dead!) on the German phrase "Morgen rot" and its origins and meaning.  I, of course, had nothing so useful to post in reply, but a bit of a phrase I once heard came to mind and I produced this bit of doggerel:

"The early bird gets the worm,"
Or so the much used phrase is turned.
A worm for breakfast? I'd feel forsaken!
The late bird dines on eggs and bacon.

The exact phrasing is probably mine, since I couldn't remember where I'd heard the bit about the late bird dining on bacon and eggs or how I'd heard it phrased.  I wish I could tell you where the concept comes from, but if anybody knows a source for it, let me know and I'll be happy to cite it and its origin properly.

Regardless, I like it!  It makes me want to write an entire book of anti-nursery rhymes.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Photos from Paris: La Tour Eiffel

Yes, we're back from Paris.  I had meant to put up a few posts here with some pictures while we were away.  Alas, the electrical converter that Monique and I brought with us didn't work with our laptop, so there was no photo editing or posting while we were there, and darn little writing of anything since I didn't have a keyboard.  Instead we just had to settle for relaxing with family; taking long, leisurely strolls; and visiting the occasional museum.

Darn.

Since this entire trip was conceived as a relaxing Thanksgiving week family visit with Monique's sister Michelle and her clan -- Max, Stella, Henry, and Malcolm -- relaxing around the apartment and taking the occasional adventurous expedition was just the right pace for us.  It was a splendid visit.

The result of our non-photo-editing in Paris is that we've had a suspiciously 20th-century return from our trip, with the equivalent of 50 or 60 rolls of 24-shot film on a couple of little digital memory cards.  And now that we have our home wi-fi working again (long story) yesterday was like the day on which all those rolls of film came back from the developer.  Since I was home sick yesterday with a cold -- we brought that back from Paris, too -- I occasionally roused myself from the couch and did a bit of sorting of our photographic treasure trove.

If you want to see the big, basic photo album of the trip, your best bet is my Paris 2012 photo album on Facebook.  Unfortunately, you'll need to be logged into Facebook to see it.  You don't necessarily have to friend me, though.  I leave my privacy setting pretty low over there rather than indulge the delusion that there's any privacy on FB.

Instead of replicating the album here for you non-Facebookers (for Pete's sake, just go create an ID/password and lurk, if you're that desperate to see the full slide show) what I thought I'd do over here on the ol' Patio Boat is to write a few posts in which I pick a few pictures from the trip, then talk about them in a bit more depth, either with a bit of the story behind the photo or maybe a bit about why I like that particular photo.

So, let's start with the photo of the Eiffel Tower that I posted first over on FB, mostly as a test of our newly restored wi-fi:


This photo was one of a batch of Tour Eiffel photos I took on the evening of our first Sunday as Monique and I strolled along the Seine.  Incidentally, we didn't really intend to stroll along the Seine on Sunday night.  We intended to go to Musée du Stylo et de l'Écriture, which we dug out of our Lonely Planet: Paris guide book, and which is only open on Sundays from 2 pm to 6 pm.

Or, I should say, I supposedly open on Sundays from 2 pm to 6 pm.  Because when we arrived there at 4 pm on Sunday, this is what we found:

(photo by Monique)

Yes, that's me standing indignantly in front of the shuttered museum.  I'm not sure why it was closed, but it's really just a little museum and is probably a one-person show.  Now we'll have to go back to Paris to see the world's greatest collection of pens and historical handwriting.

Darn.

Since the museum was a no-go, we decided to stroll through the neighborhood down to the Seine, then along the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. We're both quite fond of walking along the Seine in the evening after the initial plan doesn't work out, since I proposed to Monique on a stroll like that.

We eventually ended up at the Pont Bir-Hakeim, which is a nifty historic bridge ...

(photo by Monique)

... with a great view up the Seine to the Eiffel Tower:


I like the framing of the first photo above because of the framing of the trees on the left and the broader sweep of the Seine in the foreground.  But this one came out dandy, too.  We actually took quite a few photos at this spot. Most of them didn't come out well because we were trying to get ourselves in the photo, so we either ended up with the foreground overexposed by flash or the foreground totally dim.

One of my favorite photos from my first trip to Paris was an Eiffel Tower shot like this, with the light of the tower reflecting off the Seine.

BTW, the phrase "took quite a few photos ... but most of them didn't come out well" is pretty much my key photographic strategy.  I like to think that I have a decent eye for framing things in the shot, but I will gladly admit that my camera (a Canon Rebel EOS T3i) is generally smarter about light exposures than I am.  So unless I have something very specific in mind (and the owner's manual in hand!) I generally let one of the automated settings do the heavy lifting. What surprises me is how often the first shot turns out to be the best shot.

I caught a couple more pretty good shots as we walked up towards the Trocadero:



The Eiffel Tower is, of course, so synonymous with Paris that it's become the ultimate tourist stereotype.  Sometimes you feel really un-hip pointing at it or taking photos of it. But it's also a lovely symbol for the city, in great part because of how it manages to pop out over rooftops or on the horizon at unexpected moments:




Photographically, it's just hard to take a badly composed shot of La Tour Eiffel because of its lines and the way it sweeps to a peak while crossing the horizon.  However it is possible to have photos of the Eiffel Tower go awry for a wide variety of other reasons, especially when you're shooting at night. One of our favorite views of the Eiffel Tower is from the window of my niece Stella's bedroom.  For the first day or two we were in Paris it was too foggy to see the Eiffel Tower from Stella's window, but on our first Saturday night there it finally popped out:


This is one of a long series of nighttime photos through Stella's window that didn't work out quite as intended because of low light and hand shake.  Next time we're in Paris I'll bring a tripod and just set it up next to her bed for the week. I'm sure she won't mind.

Even though none of the photos from Stella's window turned out crisply, some of them ended up looking pretty cool, anyway, especially since my zoom lens required such a long exposure:


This was one of a long series of blurry Tour Eiffel photos we took during the week.  In the evenings the tower also "shimmers" for about five minutes every hour on the hour.  It's a great looking effect that undoubtedly requires a bazillion strobe lights.  It also led to these two funky looking shots, which I'm quite fond of:



In the end, a couple of my favorite shots we took of the Eiffel Tower were from the misty day Monique and I toured the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, which is fairly close to Michelle's apartment on Rue Menilmontant.  As we climbed the hill, the fog lifted just enough for us to see it in the distance, keeping watch over all:



And that's how I think of La Tour Eiffel.  Always there, keeping watch over all Paris, past, present, and future:


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The post in which this week's media obsession leads me to a brief rant


After a sordid week in the news I would like to state for the record that I have as little interest in the sex lives of our heterosexual soldiers as I have in the sex lives of our homosexual soldiers.  And I find none of it to be particularly relevant to the job at hand, fighting and winning wars.

I know that the military has enjoyed a completely chaste reputation throughout all history -- especially sailors on shore leave, renowned for their tendency to attend a brief church service before sipping a cup of tea and returning to their ship -- but I find it hard to fathom that in 2012 A.D. we are tossing generals overboard because of what they're doing with other consenting adults.  It's hard enough to find a good general, so frankly I don't care if he spends his off-hours hanging by his ankles from the ceiling at Mistress Crunchita's House o'Pain as long as he's doing a good job with his chunk of the war.

This seems a good time to remind everybody that by what seems to be our new standard, FDR and Eisenhower were unfit to lead us during World War II.  I'm just as happy we didn't throw them overboard for the second string.

Here's what I think these straying generals deserve: a few months on the couch, some frosty stares from their wives, and a few jokes at their expense.  (Yes, it is fair that "Hey there, hot stuff, want to write my biography?" is now America's favorite new pickup line, finally knocking, "Hey there, hot stuff, let's hike the Appalachian Trail," off its lofty perch.)

I will also admit that I have no idea what to make of the shirtless FBI guy, but as always with these sorts of things, it's mostly a question of whether the photo in question was welcomed by its recipient or unwanted.  Again: consenting adults.

As long as the media and Congress seem to have infinite time and resources to investigate sex scandals in the military, here's a real sex scandal for them:  the Defense Department estimates that 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the armed forces last year, but only 3,000 service members reported being assaulted, and about 240 cases were prosecuted.

There, there's your real scandal.  Go spend some ink on that.

In the meantime, we're still a nation at war, and it would be nice if everybody spent more time focusing on that instead of indulging in all this prurient hand-wringing over these pecadillos.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Four quick thoughts on yesterday's election


I have all sorts of thoughts about yesterday's election, but have instead been busy as heck at work all day and am running off to a village water management board meeting, so I'm just going to type like heck for a few minutes and let fly.

1) Congratulation, Democrats.  Don't get cocky.  The GOP somehow managed to nominate the living embodiment of everything that's gone wrong in our economy. Then he ran on a platform of everything that's wrong with GOP economic theory these days combined with a breathtaking cynicism and contempt for the truth.

And we still only managed to beat him by a few percent. More thoughts on what we should be doing better in the future later.

But in the meantime, despite my criticism above I'm extremely proud that we re-elected Barack Obama as president.  All in all I think he did a very good job in a difficult situation during his first four years. And I'm excited to see what he does with the next four.


2) Republicans, you don't want to hear this from me, but you've now been defeated in the popular vote for president in five of the last six elections.  If you want this trend to continue, by all means come away from this election thinking that the problem was that Mitt Romney wasn't nearly conservative enough.

Your real problem is that apparently most of you have abandoned reality for the Fox News / Rush Limbaugh fantasy bubble.  One thing I used to like about conservative opinion was that it prided itself on being a fact-based alternative to the muddle-headed fuzzy thinking of liberals who preferred wish-fulfilment policies to reality. Now the Democratic Party seems to have a monopoly on science and math and reality.

If you bought into your punditry's criticism of the polls or its criticism of Nate Silver's analysis of the polls, last night you got a good dose of how far from reality you've been living over the last four years.  And guess what? It hasn't just been polling.  It's been pretty much everything.  You can either plunge back into denial or you can begin to deal with it like an adult.

You want to compete for votes in the 21st Century?  Here's a place to start: global warming is real and man-made. What should we do about it?  If you want to argue that point by denying climate change or its causes, you're not ready to govern in the 21st Century. You deserve the future drubbings you're going to take at the polls.


3) The gerrymander is alive and well.  I'll do the math later, but the outcome in this race would've looked much different if we had fair and competitive legislative seats at the federal, state, and county levels.  There was a lot of attention yesterday on all the ways that some people were disenfranchised at the polls. But there's not nearly attention paid to the ways in which we're all disenfranchised by the redistricting process before the voting even starts.

3A) The Electoral College must go.


4) For the most part I'm really proud of the way voters cut through a lot of tough decisions yesterday.  But there was one item that made me think that 10,809 voters in my own township need to go back to Remedial Voter school.  From the Spinal Column's Election Results Coverage:

Commerce Township Clerk

Even though township Clerk Dan Munro said he would resign the clerk’s job if elected in the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election to work in the private sector, voters overwhelmingly chose him over independent candidate Janet Bushey, who Munro is backing. 

Munro received 66 percent of the vote (10,809 votes) to Bushey’s 33 percent (5,376 votes).

Munro has stated publicly that if he was elected, he would resign effective in January 2013 and recommend that the township Board of Trustees appoint Bushey. 


If you voted for Dan Munro for Commerce Township clerk yesterday, you might want to consider that you're letting the "R" next to a name lead you into some bad decisions in the ol' voting booth.  Dan's a good guy, but he took another job, and was only on the ballot because it was too late to get off the ballot.  For Pete's sake, he endorsed his opponent!

And then she lost to him by 33%!!!

I get that I live in a Republican-leaning area and that it was a long, long ballot.  But, seriously, some of you need to pay a bit more attention to what you're doing.

If that ballot was a car, I'd be issuing 10,809 of you a traffic ticket and sending you back to remedial driving school.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Presidential Campaign Update: One Week Remaining. (Thank God!)

A week from now, the presidential campaigns will be trying to drag the last few recalcitrant voters to the polls before collapsing in exhaustion as they await the final result. (The polls close at 8 pm here in Michigan. Results begin to flow by 9 pm.)  Usually campaign workers themselves are the most tired people in all the land by the end of Election Day, since most of them finish the last four days in a doughnut-and-caffeine driven sleepless frenzy.  Honestly, I've known campaign workers who were so tired by the time the polls closed that they went home, fell asleep, and didn't even find out the result until the next morning.

But this time around, I'm pretty sure all of America is equally tired of this campaign.  And why not? Thanks to an entrenched opposition in Congress and broadcast platforms dominated by Fox News and the various right-wing radio commentators it has lasted for all four years of Obama's presidency. As a Democrat I would've greatly appreciated it if Obama had begun campaigning himself in response, since he left the field open for the GOP electoral wave of 2010.  But after two years or so of his re-election campaign, I must confess that I've now had more than my fill of fundraising pleas and viral videos from the home team, too.

Worse yet, since I decided in an act of sheer masochism to pay attention to the GOP primary and write a few blog posts about it, I've been paying far too much attention to the whole thing myself for nearly a year.

Believe me, I'm as ready as anybody for 8 pm on Nov. 6 to arrive!

So what I can I write as it all comes down to the end that you haven't already read a hundred times on a hundred other blog posts?  What have I learned in the last year that's worth passing along?

Well, let's see.  Since the last post I wrote was back in mid-September when Obama had gained a lead in the polls while Romney was still in mid-implosion from his intemperate remarks around Libya and the 47% tape, a quick recap of events since then might be in order.

The biggest development since then was the debates, especially Romney's decisive victory in the first debate in Denver.  Going into that night Obama had opened enough of a lead that an excellent chance had developed that some of the GOP SuperPACs would pull much of their funding from the presidential race and redirect it into the Congressional races.  Romney's victory didn't just close the gap in the polls. It rescued his campaign's ability to muster the resources they would need to compete down the stretch. Obama flubbed the one real opportunity either campaign has had to deliver a knockout blow.

Fortunately for the Dems after a couple of weeks of full-panic mode, Obama bounced back with better performances in the final two debates to right the ship and return the race to what it has pretty much been all along ... a really close national race with a slight edge for Obama in a few Midwestern swing states, most notably Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  (As always, I recommend Nate Silver's Fivethirtyeight.com blog for a good look at the overall state of the polls.)

So, what do Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan have in common?

Yup, it's the auto industry.  Barrels of virtual ink have already been spilled online about how this race may ultimately come down to 2009 and what Romney wrote ("Let Detroit Go Bankrupt") versus what Obama did to rescue the auto industry when it faced bankruptcy and dissolution.  I'll simply add that I think there's a lot of justice if this election comes down to that one issue.  It's a good distillation of their core beliefs, and in retrospect it's quite apparent that Obama made the right call.

I expected the debates to be the last newsworthy event in the campaign.  Then Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast last night and caused widespread damage.  It's too early to tell whether there will be any impact on the final voting numbers, but it seems likely to be a good test of Obama's efforts to revamp FEMA and to improve the nation's disaster response. The chance to act Presidential during the last week of the campaign has to be good news for Obama, especially given the contrast with Romney's remarks during a primary debate in favor of eliminating or privatizing federal disaster relief.  A few kind remarks from New Jersey Governor and GOP keynoter Chris Christie probably don't hurt, either.

(In saner times Christie's remarks would go under the heading of "common courtesy during a disaster".  But one week before Election Day is not a sane time, so Christie's comments seem to have caused quite a stir among the punditocracy today.)

However, the truth is that there are very, very few undecided voters left at this point.  The vast majority of the electorate will watch this crisis play out with partisan eyes, especially since they will generally watch the disaster response play out this week through media channels that will reinforce their preconceived notions.  I have a sneaky suspicion that Fox News won't discuss climate change much this week, but MSNBC will invoke Hurricane Katrina more than a thousand times 'twixt now and Nov. 6. Righteous indignation will rise on both sides, but few minds will be changed.

In nitty-gritty electoral details, the states that suffered the most damage weren't particularly in play this year, though Virginia, Ohio, and New Hampshire did all receive a bit of damage from the storm.  I'd guess that nothing that comes out of the Sandy aftermath is likely to change many minds in Ohio or to motivate a sporadic voter in Virginia to show up on Nov. 6.  But I do predict that pundits will cite Sandy and its aftermath as a key turning point, no matter who wins when the votes are counted.

What else have we learned from this election? Well, I did recently finish off a really interesting book called The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It had a lot to say about how genuine campaign experimentation has taken hold in a lot of corners of the campaign biz, and how the results are changing the ways that campaigns try to reach voters to change minds and push them to the polls.  But if you want to know more about it, rather than drag you through the details let me send you to this recent Slate article written by Issenberg: Obama Does It Better: When it comes to targeting and persuading voters, the Democrats have a bigger advantage over the GOP than either party has ever had in the modern campaign era.  I'm not sure I entirely agree with the conclusion in the article's title, but it's an interesting read and you'll learn a ton about modern campaigning.

And that's about it.  The 2012 campaign has been one of the strangest electoral sagas I can recall, especially on the GOP side where that unbelievably loopy assortment tried and failed to knock Romney out of his seemingly inevitable front-runner spot: Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Thaddeus McCotter (Good God, that's right! Thaddeus McCotter was in this thing before resigning his office in disgrace!), Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer, Rick Perry (Ooops!), Ron Pawlenty (more dull than loopy, really), Jon Hunstman, and probably another dozen too obscure to even mention with this gang.

And let us never forget that even Jimmy McMillan, the founder of The Rent Is Too Damn High Party also declared at one point that he would enter this year's Republican field.  Though he never qualified for a ballot, in retrospect we can all agree that he would've been a better selection than Donald Trump.

And yet here we are with what everybody pretty much predicted at least a couple of years ago: a close election between Obama and Romney that'll probably come down to what a hundred-thousand or so Buckeye fans decide to do on Election Day.

So with all that, what's my own prediction for the outcome one week from today?

Well, Nate Silver is my guiding star, so I reckon I'll go with a 294-244 electoral victory and a 50%-49% popular vote edge for Obama.  We shall see.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Random pre-storm Hurricane Sandy commentary...

... from my Facebook account today:


John Magee 
We're already seeing cloud bands and wind from Hurricane Sandy in Detroit. I sincerely hope all of my friends and family on the East Coast have battened down the hatches and gotten themselves out of flood zones. I have a feeling this is going to be a bad one.

Phil Gaven 
I haven't any hatches to batten. I'm hatchless.

John Magee 
Phil, strap down the beehives and put little teeny weeny life jackets on all the bees!

Jeffrey Kofsky 
I just wish I had a wheelbarrow full of booze!

John Magee 
Jeff, It's not enough to just have a wheelbarrow full of booze when Frankenstorm hits. I had to do important pre-storm preparations ... like making sure I had a cooler full of mixers on hand and ready to go.

Jeffrey Kofsky 
And most of those are sold at stores that actually require you to wear pants in order to be served, I suppose. Tough life!

John Magee 
In these trying times we need to pull together as a nation and stop worrying about the arbitrary issues that politicians use to divide us, like who is and who isn't wearing pants at the store.

Monday, October 1, 2012

How Gerrymandering Is Destroying Our Democracy

Okay, so that headline sounds a bit grandiose, but if you asked me to name the most corrosive element in our democracy right now, it wouldn't be campaign finance, media outrage machines, lobbying gone wild, or any of a dozen other very real problems that we have.

I would nominate the widespread practice of gerrymandering: drawing voting districts along partisan lines either to give one party or the other an advantage in a legislature, or to give both parties safe seats that leave incumbents more accountable to challenges from the far wing of their own party than from opponents from the other party or from the middle of the electorate.  A lot of voters are unaware that this activity even happens, much less how it has become a rigged system to choose your lawmaker for you.

Before I go much farther down this path, I'm going to recommend to you an article on gerrymandering in this month's Atlantic magazine: The League of Dangerous Mapmakers by Robert Draper.  Go give it a read ... I'll be here when you get back.


[Brief interlude of whistling while I wait.]


Okay, you're back?  Fascinating, isn't it?!

That's pretty much the article that I would have liked to have written on this topic, if I had more time and actual journalism skills.  The only difference is that I probably would've used some local Michigan examples that appear on my own ballot: the Thaddeus McCotter saga in Michigan's 11th U.S. House District, the bizarre and brutal story of the redistricting re-legislation for the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, and a half-dozen other good examples from the Republican-controlled redistricting process in Michigan.  Rest assured, they're all as good as anything in that article.  A couple of them are even more colorful and egregious.

But rather than depress you with a long saga of political malfeasance and skulduggery, let me just state the problem as I see it, and talk about how we can fix it.

When I look at the U.S. Congress and our state legislature in Michigan these days, I wonder how these institutions became so broken.  The biggest problem that I see is that moderate lawmakers from either party are nearly extinct. There will always be a certain number of safe districts, but the systematic push to ensure that the vast majority of our legislatures will only be chosen in a primary means that moderate and independent voters -- by far the biggest bloc of voters in America -- are almost entirely unrepresented by their lawmakers.

Is it any wonder that our state and federal legislatures look broken and gridlocked most of the time?  We take the people most stridently opposed to one another, leave them unaccountable to the voters, and then ask them all to work it out nicely.  Good luck with that!

The good news is that this is one thing that is broken in our system that I think we can fix.  As mentioned in the Atlantic article, several states have adopted non-partisan redistricting commissions. And although partisan shenanigans were often involved in their adoption, it still strikes me as a very big step in the right direction.

After this year's election, I plan to follow up with a look at the results.  My theory is that the states with nonpartisan redistricting boards will have much closer general election results than the states whose boundaries were drawn by boards dominated by a single party or boards drawn by bipartisan commissions.  Meanwhile the average margin of victory in the other states will have grown even larger as everybody settles into their new and comfy safe districts.  Believe it or not, my general expectation is that the next Congress will be even more intransigent than the current disaster.

Comfy, safe districts are the problem here, folks.  We have an awful lot of lawmakers who are far too comfortable in their position and far too unwilling to compromise with one another to get things done.  It needs to stop, and we need to be the ones to put a stop to it.

Friday, September 28, 2012

First sunset cruise with the wheelbarrow o'booze

For reasons unknown Facebook seems unwilling to take my photographs again today, so Blogger gains a few more photos.

When last we checked in with our heroes, they had just won an entire freaking wheelbarrow full of booze:



Good grief, look at it all! This house isn't big enough for all this hooch! It'll have to go ... one drink at a time.  And so, with sunset looming on a Friday evening, it seemed a good time to take a crack at drinking down some of this ridiculous pile.


Tonight's winning drink? Sour apple martini mix and Luksusowa triple-distilled potato vodka from Poland.


That's right, my pretties. You're all destined for this glass mug.

Your time will come. Your time will come.


And so we launched the final Friday night sunset cruise of September on Wolverine Lake.



Katie the Beagle took the lookout position at the bow.



The view from the captain's chair.




Katie the Beagle abandons her post at the bow to collect some petting.



Moonrise.












Yup, more petting for Katie the Beagle.



Finally, the sun had set, so we pulled into port beneath a full moon and headed back inside for a nice hot bowl of delicious leftover chicken stew.  And yes, the sour-apple martinis were tasty.

All-in-all, a splendid sunset cruise on a truly lovely September evening.

The Outrage Machines

One of my Republican friends posted a link on my Facebook wall to this Fox News story (US officials knew Libya attack was terrorism within 24 hours, sources confirm) and then said:


"John, Please explain this away with one of your impartial blogs. Lie after lie after lie for a week until someone was hauled in front of congress. Ambassador Rice should have resigned rather than lie on five different Sunday talk shows for the President. Truly sickening."


By the time I saw the post it was late -- and frankly, I was more interested in the enormous wheelbarrow filled with hooch that I had just won -- so my reply was certainly not what he desired:


"You want me to start fact-checking Fox News, now? Isn't there a whole chunk of the Internet dedicated to that?"


But after thinking it over a bit further today, I think it might be a good idea to write a bit to explain why I reacted that way, so here goes.

There is a large section of the media that are outrage machines, devoted to creating outrage and then directing that outrage towards partisan ends.  The largest and most successful segment is the conservative-oriented Fox News and Rush Limbaugh segment, with all of the associated pundits, commentators, and writers.  The left wing has never been nearly as successful at this, but although Air America proved a fiscal flop on the radio, MSNBC and Current are actively flying the liberal flag on cable TV.  And Doonesbury still crushes Mallard Fillmore on the comic-book pages, so at least we Democrats still have that going for us as long as Garry Trudeau keeps plugging away.

There are also an awful lot of institutions out there that make a good-faith effort to provide what passes for non-aligned journalism these days: assorted newspapers, wire services, trade journals, web sites, local TV news, radio news, PBS and NPR, and the national news networks. Many of them have partisan leanings of one sort or another, especially the web sites.  If you looked at PBS and NPR on that list and immediately thought either "liberal media bias" or "false equivalency sellouts", you now at least have an honest answer as to where you stand on the news consumer political spectrum.

The real bias that I find in most of the non-outrage-based news organizations is towards circulation and ratings numbers.  Or, if I may quote the popular saying in newsrooms regarding stories with violence and crime, "If it bleeds, it leads."  One of the real flaws in modern journalism is the enormous 24/7 news hole that they need to fill and the business needs that all too often drive them to value ratings over informative content.

And so the outrage machines spend all day every day shouting about whatever it is they're outraged about that day because that's what they do.  And the more legitimate news organizations also spend a lot of the day inflating the importance of whatever news they have because they have an overwhelming need to convince you that whatever it is they have to plug the news hole at that moment is so important that you must devote your time and attention to it.  (Or, to put it as a local TV news tease, "Tonight we have new information that could save your life. We'll tell you about it after the break....")

When the Information Age started to break, I had a naive belief that now people would free themselves of the narrow tunnels through which they viewed the news and take advantage of the new opportunity to search for themselves across a sea of diverse opinions.  I should have thought a bit more carefully about human nature before jumping to that conclusion.  In general we seem to have instead chosen to take advantage of the explosion of news and information availability to search diligently for the pack of opinions that exactly match our own preconceived notions.

A depressing number of Americans choose to immerse themselves in the outrage machines of the right or of the left to point that they exclude opposing or neutral opinions from their news diet, and instead engage solely with the straw men summoned by their own side.  To these people liberals are idiots who want to destroy America and conservatives are a pack of greedy fascists who don't care about anybody but themselves.  If you find yourself uttering either opinion on a regular basis, you may be spending a wee bit too much time in your outrage machine.

I've spent a lot of my lifetime with a pretty good view behind the curtain of news organizations and their product.  I grew up around a small-town newspaper (the ol' Glens Falls Post-Star, shoutout to Hometown, U.S.A.!) worked for a couple of newspapers, and later worked at least part-time for it and a couple of other small newspapers.  I also spent several years as a high-volume periodical indexer mostly working with business periodicals, which was an unimaginably great opportunity to see beyond the day-to-day details of the news and really understand the structures and frameworks upon which nearly all "news" stories are based, be they ginned-up outrage messaging, genuine journalism, or the eyeball-trolling that makes up the bulk of the news cycle.

For those unlikely to spend a few years in an intellectual sweatshop perusing the back pages of Bond Buyer and American Metal Market, you can see much the same effect if you compare sports radio and commentary with political radio and commentary -- same structures: different themes, topics, and details.

And so whenever I see any news story, I reflexively evaluate it for a lot of things beyond the details in the story:


  • What's the source?
  • What's the bias?
  • What's the credibility?
  • Who is quoted and cited?
  • Is there confirmation from other media sources?
  • Can I trust this individual item, or should I confirm it myself from a different news source?
  • Is it noise or is it news?

On my own scale of news evaluation, Fox News scores pretty highly for having a clearly understood bias -- which is a plus with me, since at least I know where they're coming from -- but very low on the credibility scale due to their well-known and long established habit of embroidering fact with a complicated web of half-truths, omissions, and the occasional flat-out whopper.

Before shooting me as the hopelessly liberal biased messenger of that evaluation, let me give you two fairly recent news stories from reasonably credible sources:


Or, if you would prefer a more entertaining take on Fox News's credibility, I refer you to the cumulative broadcasts of The Daily Show for the last umpteen years.

And so when that Fox News story got posted on my timeline with the comment at the top of this post, I didn't think, "My gosh, this is terrible. This set of facts makes me entirely re-evaluate everything I've learned over the last three years and nine months of the Obama administration."

I really had three simultaneous thoughts:

1) How is this story any different than the hourly scream of outrage at Obama's presidency that appears nonstop on Fox News?

2) I have no interest in digging into this particular story to try to disentangle what is true, what is half-true, what is omitted, and what is outright lie.  It's an enormously time-consuming enterprise, just to get to the starting point. There are tons of people interested in and dedicated to this sort of fact-checking of the opposition outrage machines. I ain't one.

3) You spend your days immersed in an outrage machine, and now you want me to explain why you're outraged?  It seems self-evident.

But in any event, the posting did make me do a bit of thinking, which is always good.  So here's my post on that story.

-----

P.S. All of which isn't to say that I don't think there are some pretty good questions that need answering about the Mideast embassy riots and the Libyan incident in general. To start with, why the heck was there apparently no freaking security at that consulate?  Who exactly was responsible for that? How close are we to finding the perpetrators? Do we get to drone-strike their asses? Have we done so already?  (And better yet, can we start being a bit more selective about when and how we're using drone strikes? Killing off a specific terrorist is great, but it's also limited in efficacy when you generate enough ill-will to create five more.)

But international crises are notoriously complex, and understanding them well enough to evaluate what went on and who knew what when takes a lot of research and usually requires access to classified security briefings.  I don't have any of that stuff at hand and I am certainly unlikely to collect all the data anytime soon.

P.P.S. Speaking of news sources, if the situation is as grim as my description above, what would I recommend?  In general, my advice would be the same as I'd give to anybody about their eating habits: moderation and variety. As a longtime news junkie, I find that my own news intake often lacks moderation, so I try to make up for that sin with variety.

My primary news sources are the four newspapers that I get regularly: The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, The Oakland News, and the Spinal Column, our local weekly newspaper.  I don't read them cover-to-cover every day.  Most mornings I just hit the sports section and the comics ... it's about all I can stand of the news in the morning.  But I do try to give them a good regular browse in the evening when I get a chance.  And I usualy dig in a bit deeper on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  I also get a pretty good variety of newsletters and magazines that I browse and read as time permits.

On the broadcast side, I usually catch the headline news on NPR in the morning, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report at night, and I DVR most of the Sunday-morning punditry shows, both local and national.  I watch very little local television news, and practically no cable television news at all, though I will tune in on occasion when something newsworthy happens, mostly to see commentary from the various perspectives.  In the mornings and when I drive I listen to podcasts instead of the radio, usually on non-news topics like fantasy sports, science, and comic books.

And on the web I tend to browse around a bit from story to story and my sources vary from time to time.  Sometimes I'll check Google News, just to see what their front page looks like. On the local front I find that MLive.com often makes a good news supplement to my newspapers.  I've been giving Twitter a good (Monique would say, "obsessive") workout as we come down the stretch in this election cycle, and have found some pluses and minuses. Twitter tends to get more than a little echo-chamberish, so I'm trying to make sure I have a good assortment of perspectives in there, but I'm not at all convinced I've found the right balance yet.  I'm sure I'll write up a post about the experience of following this election via Twitter after it's all wrapped up.

Finally, in the place of moderation, I do occasionally concede to sheer news exhaustion and institute a full news ban until I'm ready to engage with it all again.  I think the longest in the last decade or so lasted three or four months.  I find that I need a reasonably coherent perspective to be able to absorb as much news as I usually do, and stepping away from it altogether is a great way to find my center again.  When you spend a lot of time within the news cycle, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between news and noise.

So, if you've found yourself in a state of perpetual outrage at the news, let me heartily recommend a few months away from the outrage machines.  You'd be surprised at what they look like when you check back in.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Wheelbarrowful o'Booze

After a longish day and evening, I arrived home to discover that I had won one of the top raffle prizes at this year's "Taste of the Lakes" benefit fundraiser for Lakes Area Youth Assistance: an entire freaking wheelbarrow filled with wine and liquor!



Monique with the now-emptied wheelbarrow.  I had to scoot off to another fundraiser before the drawing.  But fortunately Monique was able to stay behind to collect our winnings!

As God is my witness, I have no idea where we're even going to put all this booze.  It's too bad none of my friends like to drink.  And since Monique is usually done after a glass of wine, I reckon I'll have to swill nearly all of it myself.

I don't want to have to guzzle it all, but I feel I need to ... for the kids, you know.

(A sudden cry goes up around Wolverine Lake: "You need somewhere to put it? Put it in ME!")


BTW, we figured out what most of it is, but if any of my Russian-speaking friends and family can tell me what this bottle of Ukrainian liquor is, I'd be grateful.  I'm guessing it's some sort of pepper-infused schnapps.

If the next few months of postings seem even more incoherent than usual ... well, you'll know why.

And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention to all of you that LAYA is a great program for at-risk youth run in conjunction with our local schools, police, municipalities, and courts.  If you'd like to help out, there are tons and tons of ways to get involved, and they can always use more help.  You can find out more at Lakes Area Youth Assistance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

SuperPAC followup: Secretive 501(c)(4)s and Rove shifts spending to the Senate

A couple of follow-up items on yesterday's post on SuperPACs in this election cycle:

My friend Jason Cornett mentioned that I failed to discuss the more secretive SuperPACs with status as 501(c)(4) status, which means that they're classified by the IRS as tax-free nonprofits dedicated to "social welfare" issues.  They are under much less restrictive reporting rules, but also have some tighter constraints on how much electioneering they can do. Of course, the enforcement of those constraints in the post Citizens United legal environment is a matter of some debate. All of this makes it difficult to know just how much they've raised and what they're spending it on.

He also passed along a link to a good Huffington Post article discussing them in some detail: Secretive 501(c)(4) nonprofits report only a fraction of elections fundraising and spending.

One of the largest of the 501(c)(4) orgs in terms of political advertising is Crossroads GPS, the sister organization of Karl Rove's American Crossroads SuperPAC.  In yesterday's post I mentioned that I thought that one of the most interesting indicators of how Mitt Romney's chances are really viewed inside the Republican Party would be whether Rove continued to invest his SuperPAC money in Romney's campaign, or if he shifted it towards the Congressional races in an attempt to either retake the Senate or in the worst-case scenario for Republicans, try to hold the U.S. House of Representatives.

This afternoon we have this story from CNN: Crossroads ads continue in fight for U.S. Senate which tells us, "The $5.5 million ad buy hits five Senate candidates in states thought to be in the balance for which party controls the upper chamber come November-Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Ohio and Indiana."

Here are the rankings of these five states in the Presidential and Senate "Tipping Point" rankings on Nate Silver's fivethirty.com blog, which give the odds that winning a state could either decide the presidential race or decide control of the Senate:

  • Florida (3rd Presidential, 10th Senate)
  • Virginia (2nd Presidential, 1st Senate)
  • Nevada (6th Presidential, 5th Senate)
  • Ohio (1st Presidential, 6th Senate)
  • Indiana (Not-ranked Presidential, 7th Senate)
The ads themselves are targeted specifically at Democratic Senate candidates.  But it does look a bit to me as if Rove is at least trying to get a two-for-one value here, mostly targeting states that are important in both the Senate and Presidential race.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Keep Your Eyes on the Money: SuperPAC Stretch Run Edition!

On Friday afternoon Mitt Romney's campaign capped a few of the worst weeks of a presidential campaign in recent memory by finally releasing Romney's 2011 federal income tax return.  In general, I don't think the tax-return stuff would have been a big issue in this campaign if the Romney economic plan wasn't comprised mostly of a large tax cut for folks in his bracket, especially for those who like him gather most of their income through capital gains and other unearned-income sources.

And while it would be fun to jump on the various tax items that a lot of Democratic pundits had fun with this weekend -- especially Romney's decision not to claim more than a million dollars in deductions because it drove his effective rate to truly unseemly levels -- the pile of money in the returns turned my thoughts to a money issue more directly tied to the election: campaign fundraising, especially for the new SuperPACs that have hulked over all things campaign-finance this cycle.

One of the especially bad developments for Romney in August was that he both his campaign fund and his supporting SuperPAC fell behind Barack Obama in fundraising.  Campaign momentum aside, there are some interesting structural reasons why Obama's campaign fund may very well outraise Romney down the stretch.  According to stats from a recent New York Times article, Obama's fundraising base contains a very large number of small donors. He has collected more than twice as much money from donations of less than $200 than has Romney.  While many Romney donors have already donated the federal maximum of $5,000 in this cycle ($2,500 for the primary, another $2,500 for the general election) these small Obama donors haven't nearly approached federal campaign limits and can presumably keep donating right through November.

In fact, many of the small Obama donors have been donating on monthly payment pledges that will keep the money flowing into the Obama campaign fund right through November.  Many other small donations come in the form of entries in various online contests that the Obama campaign offers, such as an entry in a "Have Dinner with Barack" contest. And sometimes, the small-donor base just fires off another $5 or $50 or $200 credit-card payment whenever Romney says something that particularly annoys them.

Surprisingly, not all of Romney's big donors from the primary have maxed out to his general election campaign.  According to the same New York Times article, 32,000 donors who gave the maximum $2,500 donation to Romney's primary campaign have yet to donate to his general election campaign.  This could be good news for Romney, another $81 million in donations just waiting to be scooped up.  Or it could be very bad news for Romney if it means that more than 30,000 deep-pocketed donors decided that investing any further in the Romney campaign was a bad investment.

Even more surprising than Obama's edge in campaign-specific fundraising in August is that Obama's SuperPAC (Priorities USA Action) also outraised Romney's SuperPAC (Restore Our Future) in August.  The SuperPAC structure was expected to give the Republican Party a decisive fundraising edge this year.  And so shortfalls in the wild and woolly world of unlimited donations are a very bad sign for Romney.  It may be that this was a blip for the Romney campaign due to a poor convention for the GOP and a good convention for the Democrats.  Or it could be another sign that the state of the Romney campaign has led Republican donors to shift their donations elsewhere.

As we saw in the primaries, fundraising is a good indicator of support and enthusiasm for a campaign.  As hope for victory dries up, so does fundraising.  A lot of commentators like to credit fundraising for victories. (i.e. "Candidate A won because she outraised Candidate B by a 3:1 margin.")  And indeed, strong fundraising and smart spending are two important signs of a strong campaign. But that analysis misses the point that campaign funds flow towards a winning campaign for many non-financial reasons that correlate with a victory.  And while a shift in fundraising doesn't always correlate with a shift in the polls, a shift in fundraising that is also accompanied by a shift in the polls is a good marker of underlying change in the campaign.  This seems to have been the case with Obama's August surge.

So, who are the SuperPACs and how much money do they have?  Fortunately for us, the Wall Street Journal has created a handy online summary: How Much Are Super PACs Spending.  Many of this year's SuperPACs are concentrated on congressional elections or primary challenges, especially Republican primary challenges by Tea Party candidates.  They're all interesting, but the four largest SuperPACs merit a closer look. Here they are in decreasing order of cash raised, with expenditures updated into mid-September:

  • Restore Our Future (supports Mitt Romney.) Raised: $96,667,002, spent: $83,999,252, on-hand: $12,667,750. Has raised $5 million or more from three donors, including $5M each from Sheldon & Miriam Adelson, who financed nearly all of Newt Gingrich's SuperPAC during the primary. This SuperPAC has thus far spent $70M+ opposing other candidates, mostly through negative advertising: $31M opposing Obama, $21M against Santorum, and $19M against Newt Gingrich.
  • American Crossroads (opposes various Democrats.) Raised: $56,764,412, spent: $13,513,512, on-hand: $43,250,900. This is the famed "Karl Rove SuperPAC." As of Aug. 31 it had by far the most cash on hand, and had spent $11,546,973 of $12,840,081 (90%) in opposition to Obama.  Their decisions and actions over the next six weeks will be interesting.
  • Priorities USA Action (supports Barack Obama.) Raised: $35,636,122, spent: $30,046,678, on-hand: $5,589,444. Has raised $2 million or more from five different donors, and has spent 100% of its money opposing Mitt Romney, mostly through negative ads.
  • Winning Our Future (supported Newt Gingrich.) Raised: $23,921,215, spent: $16,319,639, on-hand: $7,601,576. Remember the sad spectacle of Newt Gingrich traipsing out to Vegas every other week, hat in hand to drum up another check from Sheldon & Miriam Adelson to keep his flagging campaign alive for a bit longer? In the end, the Adelson's donated $20,000,000 (84%) of the nearly $24 million gathered by Gingrich's SuperPAC. And it appears that Adelson associates made up another big chunk beyond that.  What's most interesting to me is that it looks as if there's more than $7 million still sitting in this SuperPAC's accounts.  If so, what they plan to do with it is anybody's guess.
So, here's the thing to look for as we come down the home stretch.  What will American Crossroads do with its big pile of cash.  It was originally targeted for a huge negative-ad buy in the ten or so swing states that will likely decide the final electoral college totals.  But this money isn't controlled by Mitt Romney or his surrogates.  It's controlled by Karl Rove, a very smart political operative with a good sense of when and how he's getting bang for his buck.

If Romney can make up some of Obama's lead in the polls, especially in the swing states, Rove seems likely to continue to spend the vast majority of this money on anti-Obama advertising.  But if Romney continues to lag in the polls, a big pile of cash may get diverted into downballot candidates, to try to keep hopes of a Senate takeover alive for the GOP, to stave off losing to the House to the Dems, or possibly even to try to hold or take some state legislatures and gubernatorial seats that may still be close.

In the last few weeks there's been a lot of hand-wringing among conservative pundits and a lot of premature victory parties among liberal pundits.  But as we come down the final six-week stretch of Campaign 2012, my pick for the most telling vital sign of the Romney campaign may just be how American Crossroads spends its massive war chest.  If American Crossroads continues to drop 90% of its money on anti-Obama ads in swing states, it's likely that the panic level inside the Republican establishment is being overstated by the media.  But if you see their spending move away from the Romney campaign and towards struggling House, Senate, or state office candidates, you'll know that even Karl Rove has thrown in the towel on Mitt Romney's candidacy.


-----

Footnotes

Friday, September 21, 2012

And now, the rest of the story...

After yesterday's post with the newspaper story from 1943 about my grandfather's service in the Merchant Marine during World War II, when a Nazi submarine torpedoed and sank his ship in the Atlantic, I happened to be on the phone with my Dad.  I'd heard the story before with a few different details and one notable addendum.  My father had also heard some slightly different details -- our recollection of the tale as told by my my grandfather is that he actually broke both arms when the torpedo struck his boat --  and had more detail on the notable addendum.  Others who have heard the tale are invited to send me corrections or additions, so that we get things as right as we can.

And with that, let me summon my best Paul Harvey voice to tell you all The Rest of the Story....


Merchant Marine Midshipman John M. Magee from Chestertown, New York, had survived the sinking of his ship in the Atlantic in January 1943.  He and his shipmates had been set adrift after questioning by the same Nazi submarine that torpedoed them.  They were rescued by a destroyer belonging to a neutral country, and seemed likely to spend the duration of the war interned in a neutral port.

But Midshipman Magee smuggled himself onto an allied destroyer and after serving with the gun crew as that ship fought in several battles, he finally returned to Allied soil when the ship put into to Ireland.  But what next? Although he had reported in to the Red Cross, he was still a long way from returning home or to to active duty, a process that could take months and months while the war waged on.

Then as he went through Red Cross processing, one of the clerks suggested that he might be able to speed his way back to America and back to duty if only he had a little clout or some strings he could pull. Was there, perhaps, a general or admiral who could speak up for him? Perhaps somebody in the American War Department?

Midshipman Magee thought it over and had to admit that, no, he didn't have any strings to pull in the War Department.

"How about the State Department?" asked the clerk, suggesting perhaps the final option.

And then, Midshipman Magee paused and thought.  After a moment he came up with a name and said that, yes, there was one fellow from the State Department that he'd met before, though it had been a couple of years.  You see, his father Dr. John Magee used to spend some time at the thoroughbred racetrack down in Saratoga, New York, during the August meet. And there was this fellow from Kentucky, a nice older gentleman who worked for the State Department, who enjoyed the races, too.  In fact, his father and the gentleman from Kentucky had often dined together back in the days before the war.

And so Midshipman Magee offered up the name of the gentleman from Kentucky, in hopes that the gentleman might be able to help him get home.  And a telegraph was queued up and eventually dispatched to Washington, D.C.:

MIDSHIPMAN JOHN M. MAGEE IN DUBLIN. STOP. WANTS TO GET TO USA. STOP. PLEASE ADVISE.

And eventually a telegraph returned from Washington, D.C.:

MUST BE MISTAKE. STOP. MIDSHIPMAN MAGEE KIA WHEN SHIP LOST AT SEA MONTHS AGO. STOP.

For although he had passed through a neutral country and finally made it back to Allied territory, word of Midshipman Magee's rescue had not yet made it back to America.

A few more telegraphs crossed the Atlantic, and orders came down to put Midshipman Magee on the first and fastest transport back to America, the Queen Mary shipping out of Scotland.  And less than two weeks later Midshipman Magee was indeed steaming into New York Harbor.  Those orders returning Midshipman Magee back to the United States of America were followed immediately and without question because they bore the name of the older gentleman from Kentucky, the name Cordell Hull.

That would be Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the longest-serving Secretary of State in American history. The Cordell Hull who had already directed American foreign policy for ten years, and would in two more years be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for establishing the United Nations.

Cordell Hull had many good days in office, but I like to think that his best day was the day he discovered that the son of a friend, that my grandfather, had not been swallowed by war and sea and helped return him to the United States safe and sound.

And now you know ... the rest of the story.

-----

At least, that's the story the way I heard it, and I'm sticking with it!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What my grandfather did during World War II

My cousin Marcus sent along a great newspaper clipping this morning from The Glens Falls Times in 1943.  My grandfather and namesake, John Merton Magee, served in the Merchant Marine during World War II aboard a ship that was torpedoed in the North Atlantic.  I had always heard the story when I was growing up, but didn't know that there was a newspaper account, too.  Here's the text, with a .jpg of the original clipping below:

Glens Falls Times (1943, date and page currently unknown)


John M. Magee, Chestertown, Was Aboard Merchant Ship Torpedoed Off Africa; Suffered Broken Arm

Midshipman John M. Magee, son of Dr. and Mrs. John A. Magee of Chestertown, formerly of Glens Falls, has returned to duty with the United States Merchant Marine after spending three weeks' liberty with his parents.

Early in January Midshipman Magee left the East Coast aboard a ship which was part of a large convoy. The ship lost the convoy as the result of being crippled in a hurricane, and proceeded alone. About 800 miles off Africa she was struck by a torpedo fired by a German submarine. Magee was on duty in the engine room at the time and was rendered unconscious, but revived when water poured into theengine room, and he reached the deck through an escape hatch. Later he found his arm had been fractured.

The ship was abandoned and after she sank the submarine surfaced near Magee's life raft and he and his companions were told to tie up to the U-boat. This they did and they were questioned for about an hour before being allowed to cast off. The next day they were picked up by a neutral destroyer and after being on it for four days while she was searching for other life boats and rafts they were taken to a neutral island port.

Midshipman Magee and his companions spent the next two months there, not knowing whether they were to be interned for the duration or not. On St. Patrick's Day an allied destroyer came into port and Magee, after switching uniforms with a sailor, was stowed away aboard her. She was a striking force and he was put with a gun crew, standing both gun and sea watches. He saw action in the English Channel and off St. Nazaire battling German submarines.

When the destroyer put into Ireland Magee was put ashore and after going through the usual routine the Red Cross quartered him at Magee College, which is used to house service men. He was in Ireland for about a week and then was sent to Scotland, where he stayed about the same length of time at another rest hotel for allied service men. While in Londonderry he saw the mother of General Montgomery.

Magee attended Chestertown High School and North Carolina State College, Raleigh, N.C. At North Carolina State he played basketball with "Bones" McKinney, who is well remembered in Glens Falls, having played on the Durham High School TEam, winners of the 1940 Eastern States tournament.




-----

And from Marcus, this is how this little historical gem made it back to the family:

Hey guys! Bill Carboy (lives on Loon Lake) had a phone call from the widow of the former Chestertown High Basketball coach who asked that he deliver a newspaper article that her husband had kept from the Glens Falls Times in 1943. Said article is attached hereto. I thought it was pretty cool! I hope that everyone is doing well. If I've left anyone out, forward away! -Marcus

-----

Click here for Part 2, the amazing second part of this story: And now, the rest of the story.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

So, Who Are the 47%?

Since Mitt Romney has identified the 47% of Americans who do not pay the federal income tax as people who "believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it," I thought we might take a closer look at these 47% of Americans who are mooches and layabouts destroying the fabric of our society.

Although Romney said, "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," I'm an optimist.  Maybe we can identify some of these slackers and figure out how to stop them from further leeching off good federal income-tax paying Americans like you and me.  Or at least maybe we can deport them so that they stop wrecking the USA for the rest of us.


Active duty military in a combat zone: about 90,000 soldiers in Afghanistan -- Oops. So much for my plan to move them out of the country. This group of non-payers aren't even in the country right now.  On the bright side GIs, maybe Uncle Mitt wants you to move out of that combat zone.  This seems at odds with his foreign-policy plan to keep you in Afghanistan indefinitely, so I admit to some confusion on the point. Maybe if you're lucky he'll just remove the combat-zone designation to give you your self-respect back by letting you pay federal income tax again.

And I must admit that Mitt has a point here. When my neighbor Nick got shot in Afghanistan, I'm pretty sure he felt entitled to free government health care afterwards, especially while the blood was still coming out of the wound.  In the meantime, I think those of us over here in the States would feel better about the direction of this country if you would all please start bucking up for those cushy barracks and tasty MREs.


People who pay payroll taxes, but don't earn enough income to pay federal income tax: 28.3% of all Americans -- It was probably news to these folks that Mitt doesn't think they pay "no income tax" since they certainly pay federal and state taxes on their income.  However, I'm glad that Mitt was here to break the news to them that they consider themselves to be victims.

The average Wal-Mart worker fits in this category, as do a lot of other service industry folks, laborers, and non-union factory workers. The next time you order a filet mignon at the local steakhouse, be sure to let your waiter know that he's failing to take personal responsibility for his life.  I'm sure your meal will be all the more flavorful for the exchange.

So, how did the folks the Wall Street Journal likes to call "lucky duckies" get to be so lucky? For the most part they were the recipients of tax reductions passed by Republican administrations, especially the Earned Income Tax Credit promoted by Ronald Reagan and the Child Tax Credit initially passed by Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress in the late 90s, then expanded by George W. Bush and the GOP Congress in the early 2000s. The idea of these credits was to reduce poverty by making work pay better for the working poor.  As a result, people who really were laying about would start working and climbing the income ladder.

As near as I can tell, this has actually worked pretty well.  The majority of people who collect the EITC do so for two consecutive years or less, and in the long run pay far more into the system in income tax than they collected from the EITC during the short time they benefited from it. (Americans who pay no income taxes, EITC edition.)

I have a lot of sympathy for this group because I spent some time as a member of it.  And you know what? Most of these people are busting their ass to build a better life.

If you want to know why Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan, and why today's Republican Party bears little resemblance to the GOP of 25 or 30 years ago, this is a good place to start.  Ronald Reagan understood that the working poor were working for a better life, and looked for policies and programs that would help them to make it up the ladder of American success.  Mitt Romney holds them in contempt as hapless slackers who "will never take responsibility for their lives."


The Elderly, 10.3% of all Americans -- Social Security income is exempt from the federal income tax.  Sure, you and I might say that these folks worked and paid into that system their whole lives with an expectation that it would pay them back after they retired.  Mitt Romney would say they "believe that they are victims ... who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

On the bright side for these folks, the Romney/Ryan plan to drastically cut Medicaid payments to nursing homes and replace Medicare with a voucher program should soon give our old folks some incentive to be out pounding the pavement and looking for work.

At this point you might think that Romney and Ryan are unlikely to do much about these 38.6% of Americans who are either the working poor or retirees.  Surely they can't possibly be planning to fund vast tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires by balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and elderly?

If you think that, you haven't been paying attention to the states in which these Tea Partying Republicans swept to power in the 2010 elections.  Here in Michigan, for example, the Republican Party passed a large business tax cut by reducing the state earned-income tax credit and increasing taxation of pensions.  This is no longer the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan.


Nonelderly, income under $20,000, 6.9% of all Americans -- I don't have much insight into this group, but most of them are the genuine poor.  I'm pretty sure it contains a fairly desperate assortment of the truly destitute, the homeless, prisoners, the mentally ill, and indeed some number of grifters and bums who really are hapless layabouts sponging off society.  On that last group, I'm pretty sure that Mitt and I do share a common opinion.

However, I should point out that -- although I think this country could use a good dose of sentencing reform -- unlike Mitt I'm pretty happy that quite a few of those two million or so prisoners are indeed receiving free government housing.

As for the rest of these twenty million or so genuinely poor folks, Mitt's main concern is apparently that "our message of low taxes doesn't connect."  I can ease a bit of his worry there, since this is a group that turns out to the polls in very low numbers because most of these folks have bigger problems on their plate.

But I guess this is also where I may fall out of Mitt's favor despite the fact that I pay income taxes.  Personally, I think some government intervention to get these folks back on the right track with a bit of health care, housing, and food might be in order here.


Other, less than 1% of all Americans -- Again, another group whose details are a bit difficult to figure out.  I suspect it includes many or most of the soldiers I mentioned at the top, and I'm pretty sure it also contains the final group that I'd like to discuss:


Millionaires, about 4,000 individuals with incomes over $1,000,000 -- Mitt Romney, why do you hate these "job creators?"

Is Mitt part of this final group?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Harry Reid's guess is yes, and he claims he has a source.



Footnotes

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mitt Romney and the Mother Jones Video

Caveat, the first: if you're looking for a relatively neutral discussion of the mechanics of campaigning in this post, this isn't the post for you.  Go back and revisit some of my earlier posts back in the lofty, more elevated days of the presidential primary.  Today, I'm a pretty damn aggravated Democrat, mostly because I think that Mitt Romney genuinely meant what he said in that tape about both Obama supporters and the working poor.

To be honest, having posted yesterday's overall campaign update I had intended to pivot to a discussion of the mechanics of gerrymandering as my next political post.  Or maybe even to do a little follow-up blurb on Granholm's conference speech, which is an interesting study in the differences between events in person and on the television.  But as I said yesterday, events could intercede in the progress of the election and it appears that the video released by Mother Jones magazine of Romney speaking candidly at a fundraising event may have risen from the level of a routine campaign gaffe to a genuine event in the campaign.

And the more I've thought about it, the more I'm irked about what Romney had to say about me, my family, and an awful lot of hard-working people that I've come to know over the years.

So, first up, a few links to the videos on the Mother Jones website, for those who haven't yet seen part or all of the video:

Excerpts:
The full video:



Now, the second caveat.  I've only watched the excerpts thus far.  But, heck, utter ignorance of a situation didn't stop Mitt from letting fly about Obama and the Cairo embassy last week, so I reckon I can cast forth a few reasonably well informed opinions on the topic without too much worry.  So here goes, in no particular order:

1) My initial reaction was "So what? This is the sort of stuff that the right-wing punditry is saying all the time. Mitt's now had a 'Todd Akin moment' of his own, saying in public the things that some of the right wingers believe and say amongst themselves, but usually know better than to utter in public or when the cameras are rolling."

Then I thought about it a bit more, watched a few of the videos again, and got a bit more aggravated by what he had to say, especially about Obama supporters and people who don't pay the federal income tax.

2) I'm not going to spend this post fact-checking Mitt, but here's a reasonably good compilation by Brad Plumer of The Washington Post on the taxes that people do pay.  It's worth checking out: Who doesn’t pay taxes, in eight charts.

3) Worth noting: in the speech Romney conflates the 47% of Americans who don't pay income tax with a number of 47% of Americans who definitely plan to vote for Obama.  There may be some overlap, but those two groups are definitely different forty-seven percentages.  So, one of my immediate aggravations: I'm voting for Obama and as near as I can tell I pay a considerably higher percentage of my income in taxes than Mitt does. In fact, as near as I can tell, most Americans pay more of their income in taxes than does Romney.  So I'm tempted to ask when Mitt's going to take responsibility for his life and stop mooching off of me?

4) Also worth noting, the federal income tax is just one of many, many, many taxes that people pay.  Conflating not paying that specific tax with "pays no taxes and just wants a handout" is ... well, it's just ridiculous.

5) Just a general observation on body language and tone.  This is the most honest-seeming version of Romney that I've yet seen.  No matter what you think about what he's saying there, if he could channel that body language and tone during public campaign appearances, he'd be more effective.  This kinda gets back to what I said during the primary about the photo with Romney and his Bain cohort all holding up the hundred-dollar bills.  If Mitt would let that guy out on the campaign trail, people would like him more.

6) Despite what I said in #5, this should pretty much put an end to any "yes" votes on the standard polling question "understands the problems of people like me" for respondents with a net worth of less than a million or so.

7) In my younger and poorer days I had a few years in which my income tax total was zero or close to it.  In particular I remember that I spent much of one of those years unable to work because I was taking care of my disabled grandparents.  Mr. Romney, please explain to me in words that I can understand how I was failing to take personal responsibility and care for my life during that year.

8) Yeah, #7 again.

9) Second question for Mitt Romney ... well, third, since I think he's going to need to explain #7 to me a couple times to make me understand:

Mr. Romney, my father worked various jobs for nearly forty years, much of that time as a logger and small-business owner.  After an illness, a stroke, and nerve damage he went on social security disability.  I generally figure him to be a Republican voter but am I correct, Mr. Romney, that you advise him to vote Obama?

Follow-up: Mr. Romney, is he also failing to take personal responsibility and care for his life?

10) Good God, add a chair and I'm Eastwooding.  It's come to that.

11) Memo to all politicians in both parties.  It's 2012.  If there's more than one person in the room, you can go ahead and assume that somebody's shooting video with a smart phone.

12th and final) Before this year's campaign I used to kinda think that Romney was probably a pretty decent guy who'd let his ambition to be President lead him to do and say things he might not have otherwise, but that he was likely to switch to a fairly center-right position if he managed to win. Over the last year Romney's campaign in the primary and now in the general election has slowly but surely made me think that maybe he really isn't a good person inside, though I doubt he'd understand why I think that. Despite being a Democrat, I don't really like thinking that about a presidential candidate for either party.

Sometimes I think we all want to give politicians a pass on what they say and do during campaigns, but having been a candidate I can tell you that what you say and do during a campaign is a direct reflection of who you are.  And right now I'm looking at a man who made hundreds of millions of dollars with a business model that relied on throwing thousands of people out of work and onto the federal safety net.  Mind you, there's a good debate to be had about the destructive creativity of capitalism, net job growth, etc., but I don't think that anybody would argue that the Bain model of private equity involved a lot of what we could euphemistically call "collateral damage."

But it turns out that Romney thinks that people who have been thrown out of work through no fault of their own "believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them."

In my final February post on the Republican primary I wrote this about Romney: "He might be the worst of the choices because as near as I can tell all he stands for is a belief in his own competence. Worse yet, he seems to think that belief entitles him to take whatever position is most convenient for the room he is addressing. There are plenty of political offices in which competence without a moral, ethical, or philosophical compass is a positive boon, but President of the United States is not one of them."

Romney's campaign since then has made me more convinced than ever that what I wrote then was correct.  He has also managed to convince me that if elected he would indeed govern as the "severely conservative" leader that I thought was only a pose during the primary.

In that same post, I also wrote this: "C'mon, GOP. I'm not rooting for you. But I am at least rooting for you to produce a responsible alternative."  That still goes, though at this point I can add, "Better luck in 2016" since there are no do-overs at this point.

And as long as I'm revisiting that February post, the sentence, "Tim Pawlenty, come back. All is forgiven!" is still applicable.

Given the mess that the Romney general election campaign has been to date, I rather suspect that may be the one bipartisan note I can include in this rather ranty post.  So I shall end on it.