The "New! Less Evil! More Populist!" GOP

Since their drubbing in the 2012 election. Republicans with an eye for National Electoral Politics have come to the realization that their party must come to terms with the fact that it just might support policies that are favored by a minority of Americans, and not by minority Americans.  The party seems to be casting out in all directions to heal this PR wound, and to throw a smokescreen in front of the parts of their platform that, though ugly, they won't change (at least 3 metaphors in that sentence. You're welcome).

They hope that by joining in real and meaningful conversation on immigration reform, they can shake the "papers please" albatross that is keeping them from reaching out to Hispanic voters. Voters who, many of them Catholic, the party believes shares its values (that their antagonistic stances on labor issues might prove a further barrier has not, as of yet, occurred to them).  The idea is, if Hispanic voters stop thinking of Republicans as the party that wants to deport, harass, and force language classes upon them, perhaps they can begin to win some Hispanic votes.

Unfortunately, this effort has a couple roadblocks on its way to GOP electoral success. One, which I mentioned already, is the fact that Republicans dislike the idea of organized labor--a bloc that has, in some cases, been a strong ally to disenfranchised and migrant workers who would otherwise be taken advantage of. Two, it ignores the larger problem the Republican party has with other voting blocs (i.e. the middle class), which is that the GOP has become a reverse-Robin Hood party of protecting the rich at the expense of the poor.  And sadly, some of the most prominent members of the party, most vocal on shedding this image, are also most guilty of its perpetuation. When you stop listening to their words, and start looking at their deeds, the difference is striking and anything but populist.

Take a look:

Governor Bobby Jindal when he knows the nation is listening: "We must not be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys. We've gotta be the party that shows how ALL Americans how they can thrive. We're the party whose ideas help the middle class and help more folks join the middle class. We're a populist party and we need to make that clear to every voter and every American."

Governor Bobby Jindal when he thinks the only people listening are his GOP controlled Statehouse: "Our goal is to eliminate all personal income tax and all corporate income tax in a revenue neutral manner."  That manner? Raising the sales tax statewide.
The impact of which is a relative tax hike of 3.4% on the poorest 20% of Louisianans, an tax hike of 1.2% on the middle 20%, and a tax break of 2.3% (or $25,423 which is more than half the median income for a household in Louisiana) for the richest 1% in the state.

Representative Paul Ryan to his party: "[President Obama] means to delegitimize the Republican party, and House Republicans in particular. The President will bait us. He will portray us as cruel and unyielding. We can't get rattled. We won't play the villain in his morality plays."

Representative Paul Ryan when asked for his vote on a bill that would allow the National Flood Insurance Program to take on debt to provide relief to families and businesses devastated by Hurricane Sandy: "Nay."

Clearly this is a party with more than a simple PR problem. Until Republicans actually begin to act in the interest of the middle class, and not in the interest of the Grand Old Plutocrats, I don't envision them making serious strides towards national political relevance soon.


On Christian Liberalism

I am a liberal.

I believe in equal rights for LGBTQ Americans. Not just marriage rights, but housing, employment, and benefits protections as well.
I believe in the social safety net. I believe our nation is strongest when we take care of those who cannot, due to youth or age or circumstance, take care of themselves.
I believe in a woman's right to choose. Being raped, or making a mistake, should not result in a woman being punished with 9 months of pregnancy, much less a lifetime of motherhood she is ill-prepared for.
I consider myself a feminist. I abhor the objectification of women and the resultant "rape culture" that is ever-present in American society. I believe in equal rights for women, that is, equal pay, but also equal opportunity for advancement, even advancement into positions of power. I believe a woman's ideas should be considered as strongly as a man's, and that she should be given opportunity to teach others and to lead others if she proves herself capable.
I abhor racism. I cannot abide Islamophobia, nor racism against blacks, nor any form of discrimination.
I believe in strong gun control--stronger probably than most.
I am a pacifist. I believe the United States must promptly leave Afghanistan, must really leave Iraq, and must end the global war on terror, which it continues to fight through classified drone strikes that murder innocents and radicalize survivors.

Now give me three seconds and four words and I will, possibly irreparably, shake your faith in my convictions as I laid them out in the paragraph above.

I am a Christian.

In my life experience, I have found no four words that will more quickly alienate me. More quickly make conversations awkward. More quickly cause joints to be hidden, cause jokes be left without punchlines, cause conversation partners to clam up, cause listeners to spontaneously begin to sweat and protest and object.
I have found no four words that will cause listeners to immediately begin to assume terrible things about my character and my likely beliefs.

And let me interject here to say that I do not consider myself persecuted, I find nothing surprising about the behavior I'm describing, and I am well aware that as a straight, young, married, home-owning, white anglo-saxon protestant American I am privy to a world of blinding and unavoidable privilege.

The reality of life on the Left is that the true blue lefties are vegan, think the capital-D Democrats are too moderate, and are atheist. You may deviate in the first two, but not in that last one. The question of "why" is an indictment not of the left, but of the Church.

Would Jesus hold that any group, regardless of their beliefs or preferences or loves be treated as less than equal? He spent time with tax collectors [people so vile they literally profited from the act of raising money for the government that was oppressing their neighbors], prostitutes, and Samaritans [an “impure” neighboring people group who worshiped incorrectly and traced their ancestry to other oppressors of Israel].
Would Jesus have a problem with the social safety net? His apostles enacted one, as described in Acts 2.
Would Jesus own guns? When arrested he stopped a disciple who acted to defend him, and healed the wound of his captor. He spoke of turning the other cheek, and of offering your tunic to the robber who takes your cloak.
Would Jesus support war? Sorry, this question is absurd on its face.

Would Jesus object to the legalization of abortion? Honestly, he probably would. Vehemently. However, in Colossians Paul writes instructions of behavior that hinge pretty specifically in Chapter 3, Verse 1, on being expectations of believers. It has always been the standard of Christian living that we must adhere to our rules, and that it is foolhardy and alienating to expect non-believers to adhere to them.

I can debate the theology of the above with believers if they'd like, but that isn't why I'm writing today. I lay these beliefs out only to explain that I reject the notion that Christian faith and lefty politics are incompatible. Though if I'm being honest, I'm less likely to accept the idea that right wing politics and the Christian faith are compatible.

Yet the loudest voices in the church today do not accurately reflect the teachings of Christ. The loudest voices of our faith consistently speak intolerantly, speak oppressively, speak judgmentally, and speak without mercy. While I obviously cannot say that they do not speak for some Christians, and cannot likely say that they do not speak for MOST Christians, I write today to say that these voices do not speak for all Christians.

It is a truly shameful reality of modern American Christianity that we have allowed the Jerry Falwells, the Pat Robertsons, and the Mark Driscolls to represent us in the public square. These men, and others like them, have taken a faith that was intended to be a beacon of love and charity and kindness and insured that its public face has been one of scorn and intolerance. Christianity is the faith that rejects science. Christianity is the faith that blames gays for hurricanes. Christianity is the faith that suggests white bloodlines should remain pure. Christianity is the faith that says that quiet, sensitive men are not men at all. Not really. Christianity is the faith that somehow fails to find these contradictions, these hypocrisies, outrageous.

I do not know what to say to my fellow man to assuage his fears and doubts with regards to my beliefs. Others, who say they believe as I do, have betrayed him far too consistently. My brothers have denied his rights, shown hatred to his friends, and murdered his sister's doctor.

It feels insufficient to attempt to apologize on behalf of these idiots. It is insufficient. All I can do is declare my intention to fight to stop this behavior in both the world and in the church.

All I can say is that we Christians are not all like the Christians you usually hear about. Mark Driscoll is not my pope. The Pope is not my pope.

You are liberals, and you know that not all Muslims are terrorists. I implore you to use the same logic to believe that not all Christians are bigoted, oppressive assholes. There are some of us, I say with some hope that there are many of us, who want only to show love to you.

Jesus spoke of “The Kingdom of Heaven,” an alternate reality existing on this Earth now in which the poor were rich, the powerless had value, and the downtrodden have worth and love and a hand reaching out to them in the darkness.

That is my religion.


My review of Panic 2012 by Michael Hastings

The latest from Michael Hastings, Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama's Final Campaign is a brisk and enthralling book that does what it says on the tin. Hastings' writing style oscillates between that of straightforward, traditional journalism and Thompson-esque stream-of-consciousness gonzo journalism, resulting in a read that never bores, but also never leaves reason to doubt its veracity.
Hastings' book tells, primarily, the story of the “panic” experienced by the Obama campaign following the President's disastrous first debate with challenger Mitt Romney, and the hair on fire weeks that followed. It's difficult to ascertain how much of this panic was legitimate and how much was manufactured (by the media for ratings, or by the campaign itself for fundraising purposes), but that's half the fun. By focusing on the debate prep, the advertising, and the social media campaign, Panic 2012 provides great insight into the highly effective, if not exactly well oiled, Obama 2012 Machine.
Hastings' take on events is especially unique given his outsider status on the trail. Having moved from Rolling Stone (where he was no friend to the Obama agenda) to up-start Buzzfeed, Hastings lacks some of the clout and most of the goodwill held by his counterparts on the trail. The resulting point of view is a sharp look at not just the campaign, but the media that surrounds it.
As fascinating as the campaign's actions are, some of the best bits of the book come as Hastings focuses his attention on the White House press pool.  This collection of, as Hastings calls them, the best and worst journalists in the business manages to provide meaningful content in trying conditions, but also manages to flaut some of the expectations that Joe Public might have governing journalistic behavior. Most common and humorous, is the serious chafing Hastings describes in the multiple occasions on which he is told arbitrarily and after the fact that a given event is "off the record."
Panic 2012 is certainly not the definitive look at Obama For America 2012--Hastings got almost no access to key campaign players until after the election. It is, however, an exciting and insightful look at the campaign. While more exhaustive accounts are surely forthcoming, it's difficult to imagine that many will be as much damn fun as this one.
Hastings is perhaps still best known as the author of "The Runaway General," the Rolling Stone piece that ended Gen. Stanley McChrystal's career (and its' book-length followup The Operators). It is unlikely that Panic 2012 will end any careers (though stick around till the end for a Rahm Emanuel anecdote that will SURELY complicate the mayors'), but it certainly confirms that Hastings' career is one worth continuing to watch.
Check out excerpts here and here.


Writing Mr. Portman

This morning I was perusing the internet when I found an article from MaddowBlog that described Ohio Senator Robert Portman giving an inaccurate description of the nature of the debt ceiling. As a constituent of his, I was more than a little annoyed by this. So I wrote to his office:

I am writing to say that I do not appreciate it when my state's senator lies to his constituents and to the American people. The US economy, operating on a fiat currency, is not the same as my checkbook. The debt ceiling is nothing like my MasterCard.
It is irresponsible for Senator Portman to claim such, and in doing so he is either dangerously ignorant of the facts, or willfully lying to me and my fellow Americans.

As the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, I feel it is unlikely that Mr. Portman doesn't understand the true nature of the debt ceiling--that is, that it covers spending ALREADY APPROPRIATED by Congress, and is not itself an authorization for additional spending.

If the Senator wants to claim that the constant, thoughtless raising of the debt ceiling "sets a precedent" that makes future spending likely, that is his prerogative and he may in fact be accurate in making such claims. If he wants to make those claims, though, then he must make THOSE CLAIMS and not lie to the American people about the nature of the current situation simply to promote his agenda. Especially not when nearly every economist on both sides of the aisle has confirmed that no less than the "Full faith and credit" of the United States of America is at stake.

Though I feel the Senator should apologize for these dangerous claims, I know more about politics than to expect as much. Instead I will settle for Mr. Portman simply not making them again.

As the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, I feel it is unlikely that Mr. Portman doesn't understand the true nature of the debt ceiling--that is, that it covers spending ALREADY APPROPRIATED by Congress, and is not itself an authorization for additional spending.
If the Senator wants to claim that the constant, thoughtless raising of the debt ceiling "sets a precedent" that makes future spending likely, that is his prerogative and he may in fact be accurate in making such claims. If he wants to make those claims, though, then he must make THOSE CLAIMS and not lie to the American people about the nature of the current situation simply to promote his agenda. Especially not when nearly every economist on both sides of the aisle has confirmed that no less than the "Full faith and credit" of the United States of America is at stake.
Though I feel the Senator should apologize for these dangerous claims, I know more about politics than to expect as much. Instead I will settle for Mr. Portman simply not making them again.
A little later in the day, I received a (surely boilerplate) response from Portman's office. I was more than a little annoyed to find that it perpetuated the same lie I was writing to have addressed. Here it is (emphasis mine):

Dear Adam,

Thank you for contacting me to express your views on federal spending and the debt ceiling. It is good to hear from you.

As a member of the Senate Budget Committee, I am particularly concerned by the enormous growth in the deficit and debt.  These are the most serious problems facing this and future generations.  This historic level of debt creates an environment of uncertainty in the economy that hurts investment and risk taking.  The out of control federal spending must be stopped so this enormous burden is not passed on.  If we continue to live beyond our means today, we will mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren- lowering their standard of living.

America's staggering debt and deficit are directly linked to our ability to move the economy and create jobs. Without a serious commitment on our short and long term spending, we cannot create a pro-growth environment that's necessary for a strong economy.  And without stronger economic growth, we cannot hope to emerge from the dangerous overlay of debt.  We must both restrain spending and grow the economy to regain footing.

In light of our deep fiscal problems and the current economic challenges facing all Americans, I believe every area of government must be examined for savings.  As American families have tightened their belts over the past couple of years and businesses have had to do more with less, the federal government has taken the opposite path, spending more, growing bigger, and becoming more involved in our economy and our lives.  This year's $16 trillion debt and estimated $1.1 trillion deficit are at record levels. Getting our deficit and debt under control is the single most important step we can take to get our economy going and create the jobs we need so badly.

Raising the debt ceiling in order to continue on the path of unsustainable spending would be irresponsible.  Any debt limit increase must be accompanied by credible and meaningful deficit reduction.  Our current fiscal path is likely to plunge the United States in a debt crisis that will erode our children's futures and for the first time in our history, leave the next generation of Americans worse off than this one. 

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write.  I am honored to represent you and the great state of Ohio in the United States Senate.  For more information, please visit my website at www.portman.senate.gov, where you may also sign up for my newsletter.  Please keep in touch.

Rob Portman
U.S. Senator

To say I was unimpressed with this response is an understatement. As I began to type out my reply, however, I noticed that this email had come from a "no_reply" email address. So I called Senator Portman's Cleveland office at (216) 522-7095. I spoke to Lucy, a staffer who (after an awkward moment putting me on hold abruptly) politely listened to my concerns. She suggested I write again, and say that I wanted a supervisor to respond to my email "correctly." If I still don't get the response I deserve, I'm to call her back directly.

Here's my second email:

My name is Adam Heffelfinger. I wrote to the office earlier today to try to obtain an explanation as to why Senator Portman is perpetuating the untrue description of the debt ceiling as an authorization for additional spending. After receiving a boilerplate response from your office that CONTAINED THE SAME LIE I WAS WRITING TO HAVE CORRECTED, I called your Cleveland office where Lucy directed me to write again and ask that my email be given to a superior, so that it may be addressed properly.

Again, the Senator is claiming that raising the debt ceiling gives the President license for additional spending. It does not.

The debt ceiling allows for borrowing to cover spending already ordered by Congress. This is a relatively simple and uncontroversial fact.

Yet, Senator Portman's boilerplate response to me included the following:

"Raising the debt ceiling in order to continue on the path of unsustainable spending would be irresponsible. Any debt limit increase must be accompanied by credible and meaningful deficit reduction. Our current fiscal path is likely to plunge the United States in a debt crisis that will erode our children's futures and for the first time in our history, leave the next generation of Americans worse off than this one."

The implication here is that, somehow, NOT raising the debt ceiling would be less catastrophic than raising the debt ceiling. Raising it would allow the government to continue to operate as usual, not doing so would harm the "full faith and credit" of the United States, negatively impact the perceived worthiness of US Treasury Bonds in world markets, and might lead to the government not making payments to things ranging from the FBI and FDA to social security recipients and, yes, debt service.

I would like an explanation as to why someone as knowledgeable about matters of budget as Senator Portman would perpetuate this false description of the situation. I find it difficult to believe that he is ignorant of the truth of the matter, and find his continued participation in a skewing of the reality of things to be a dishonest political shortcut at best, a craven lie with dire consequences at worst.

Thank you.

I'll update this post if I get any further responses.


Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace

So then here is a question that's all but unavoidable at the World's Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the US: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does "all right" even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?
--David Foster Wallace, "Consider The Lobster"


There is a point near the end of David Foster Wallace's essay "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" where DFW speculates that the platitudes and cliches that spout endlessly from the mouths of athletes do so because the athletes themselves actually experience reality in the simplistic manner these catchphrases attest. Perhaps Natural Athletic Talents are just that because, in the moment of trial, what goes through their heads is quite literally nothing at all. They tell us "You just gotta take it one ball at a time," because that's the true and exhaustive explanation of events as they see them.
It's fair to assume that a major league scout or a coach selects a NAT because he understands that their specific outlook is devoid of distraction and singular of focus, and that this precision is exactly what is needed on the field. The truly great athletes, that is, the NATs, do what they do because they experience the doing simply and effortlessly and without question or distraction.


From the representation of his work offered by the collection Consider The Lobster, it seems to me that magazine editors tapped David Foster Wallace again and again because his is a mind that functions in exactly the opposite way in which he describes the mind of a NAT. Looked at from the perspective of their likely original pitches many of these pieces possess a similarly mundane and thankless starting point. "Review this dictionary." "Review this biography on Dostoevsky." "Go to the Maine Lobster Festival." "Go to the AVN Awards."
DFW is not a NAT because he is incapable of simply doing what is asked of him in a way that is effortless and free of distraction. DFW may, however, be a genius because he can be distracted and can be willing to follow that distraction well past the original assignment.  Many of the pieces in Consider The Lobster are the result of a man who, when given a simple path to follow, had a remarkable ability to turn a corner and start sprinting in a different direction. A direction that usually ended in profundity.


When tasked with reviewing a remarkable biography of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, DFW discovered in the writing of FMD a certain bravery and reality that he felt much of the writing of modernity lacks.  Dostoevsky wrote believable 3-D characters who lived in complex, interesting, and engrossing plots. Unsatisfied with just these twin achievements in literature, FMD also wrote about the most important themes in human life: love, death, war, suffering et al.
Wallace was not content to simply explain the greatness of FDM, or even that of his biographer. (See already how far from our initial premise we've come?) He instead felt it important to contrast the fact that FMD wrote brilliantly and with importance while modern writers would be inclined to use sarcasm or ironic distance or even tricks of formatting to allow themselves to touch on such themes without having to, gasp, address them with honesty and sincerity.  What DFW decides, instead, to do, is contrast the import of Dostoevsky with the inconsequence and insufferability that results when a writer tries to poke heavy themes with a stick from a distance. And he does this by touching these themes in just the way he's decrying: "sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit."


Ultimately it is the title essay that most aptly displays for the reader the greatness of David Foster Wallace. No less a publication than Gourmet Magazine commissioned our author to travel to the storied Maine Lobster Festival. The MLF has a storied existence, both in the pages of Food & Wine and in the B-roll of Red Lobster commercials. The affair itself, however, seems unfortunately a bit more like something from the latter.
After learning from natives that they don't really attend and seeing for himself that the place is crass and disgusting and commercialized and bloated, DFW simply begins to run out of story. With more column inches to fill than he has so far, but likely fewer to fill than he would ultimately require, DFW turns his corner. The piece devolves into a brutal and stomach-churning examination of the creature at the very heart of the matter. Is it all right that we boil these creatures alive? They seem not to like it.
You need not care much for the lobster, but you will be forced to consider him. Homarus americanus. All evidence seems to lead us irreconcilable to the fact that the lobster feels pain despite the fact that it would be much more expedient and convenient if it did not.
Likewise, all evidence seems to lead us to the fact that an expedient completion of a simple assignment was beyond the reach of David Foster Wallace, and we are much the better for it.


My Review of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first novel featuring British secret agent James Bond. Though I enjoyed the book, it is very much a product of its time. Some of those artifacts were charming, but many more weren't. Worse, though book is only 181 pages, pacing problems make it feel much longer.

As Bond's undercover mission at Royale gets underway, the book really surprised me with an early indication that things were not entirely as they seem. Surprisingly for a book releassed in the 1950s, Bond bears witness to a fairly graphically described suicide bombing. The scene was startling and affecting, and these feelings weren't entirely lessened by the explanation later of what actually occurs (the incident turns out to have been a failed bombing attempt, not an intentional suicide bombing).

Unlike the recent film, the game Bond utilizes in his attempt to bankrupt the evil Le Chiffre is baccarat.  I knew nothing of the game before I started the book, but the rules are explained simply and elegantly before the game gets underway. Ironically, baccarat's simplicity actually makes the card game scenes easier to follow than the poker scenes in the Daniel Craig film.
I was definitely amused by a conclusion Bond reaches in chapter ten after identifying one of Le Chiffre's henchmen in a crowd. Bond him as a Lennie-like figure. "...but his inhumanity would not come from infantilism but from drugs. Marihuana, decided Bond."
The book is also not without some truly jarring misogyny. Most notably after Bond girl Vesper Lynd is captured by the dastardly Le Chiffre. Bond finds this to be quite an inconvenience:
"This was just what he had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man's work. Why the hell couldn't they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave the men's work to the men. And now for this to happen to him, just when the job had come off so beautifully. For Vesper To fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched and probably held to ransom like some bloody heroine in a strip cartoon. The silly bitch." Adding insult to injury, Bond then fantasizes about NOT rescuing her and shrugging off her disappearance to his superiors, before finally mounting his rescue attempt.
Ultimately, the poor pacing and an excrutiating final act kept me from really loving this book the way I wanted to. I didn't hate the book by any means, and the amount of praise Fleming's Bond novels have garnered is sufficient that I'm still interested in reading one or two more of them (at least), but I'd hesitate to recommend this one to just anybody.


"Live blogging" Alex Jones & Piers Morgan

So I am, full disclosure, watching the Alex Jones segments in their entirety for the first time.
I caught the end of the second one LIVE last night and have just been reposting them assuming they stay as good as they started. Here's part 1, I'll do part 2 in a separate post as soon as my wife gives me permission to turn the volume back up on my laptop (she's not an Alex Jones fan).

The segment literally JUST STARTED and I've landed wingnut bingo: Mao, foreigners, globalism, megabanks control the world (such as Reuters, Bloomberg & AP), drones

I'm literally only capable of watching this 60 seconds at time.
I overloaded and paused it at the 1 minute mark


and I just had to pause it again

I just want that on a loop.

and all the finger stabbing and screaming at piers who has uttered maybe 7 words at lower-than-his-usual-volume.

also "The republic will rise again." I think he means confederacy, but has somehow conditioned himself not to use that word.

He seems to think that the British invaded an already sovereign America in colonial times. He also asks Piers to "come to America," as though they aren't sitting in a New York City studio right then. Oh, and I all you have to do to become an American is 'go out shooting.'

How about Prozac? He seems to think the drug industry funds CNN.
Also, Prozac = suicide/homicide pills.

In the US there were over 11,000 shootings last year, but 75% of them didn't count, because you know, black people.
We'll spend the next minute plus dodging around the fact that there were way fewer gun deaths in England.

Instead, Jones asserts people in England are "running around burning cities down."

Wants to box Piers dressed as Apollo Creed. (Piers is expected to don the "Jolly Roger.")

Piers explains there were 35 gun deaths in the UK.
Beep boop. Does not compute.

Alex does that thing where gun nuts tell fans of restrictions that they're looking to ban the wrong guns, apparently not realizing that might inspire those in favor of control to just, y'know, ban EVEN MORE guns.


Jones explains that he doesn't lose his rights because their are criminals. Totally explaining the current legality of bombs, raping, burglary, yelling fire in crowded movie theaters, and making me not feel guilty about all of the things I've taken from stores over the years without paying for them.



My Review of Christopher Hayes' Twilight of the Elites

Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy is a critical look at one of the most basic and taken for granted aspects of American society: the meritocracy.  Second-nature to most of us, meritocracy is the idea that the best and the brightest among us should rise to the top. That pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps is possible, that the elite have earned their place, and that everyone has that opportunity. Ironically, this distinctly American ideal was first defined by an English writer who saw the "meritocracy" as the thing that would rise up to replace democracy once the latter had met with its inevitable failure.

Early in the book Hayes introduces us to the Manhattan based magnet school Hunter College High School. Hunter is lifted up by its administrators and alumni as a beacon of the meritocratic ideal. Entry to the school is gained through a single standardized test--the brightest get in. Period. Hunter is the perfect example of the level playing field of 'equal opportunity.' Any kid of any color from any borough can take the test and get in. The reality of 'equal opportunity,' though has produced stunningly unequal results: as the wealthy hire private tutors to prepare their kids for the Hunter entrance exam, Hunter administrators are (some privately, some publicly) watching the demographics of their school grow further and further from those of the city at large and are preparing for the rapidly approaching year where an incoming Hunter class contains no black or latino students.
Hayes then takes us on a tour through some of the most public failures of meritocracy. In Enron and Major League Baseball we see that it is very difficult to produce a system that rewards effort and doesn't also reward cheating. In the Catholic Church and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina we see the folly in a ruling class that lives a life insulated from those it is meant to serve, or that is unable to understand the basics of the underprivileged's lives (like that Katrina might have been difficult to escape for those on welfare because it made landfall at the end of the month, and there was no remaining room in folks' budgets for an additional tank of gas).

The thesis of the book is essentially that pure meritocracy fails when it pays attention to equality of opportunity and ignores equality of outcomes.  Within a generation (or less) those who benefit from meritocracy learn to game the system and hold onto their power. Then as inequality widens, these elites fall out of touch with the 'common man.' In American society, the idea of an elite ruling class socially distant from the vast majority of the population ought to be anathema; it is precisely the injustice of such an arrangement that drove our founding fathers to declare their independence. 

Twilight of the Elites is one of the smartest books I've ever read. The case studies Hayes lays out are sharp and informative and the insight he adds, both himself and through the many interviews he conducted in writing the book, is even sharper.  This book also marks the first time in my adult life I've found myself consulting a dictionary to ensure I've got the author's meaning (expiate and plebiscite).

It's certainly written from a progressive point of view, and I don't know that anyone who thinks of themselves as leaning towards the right side of the aisle would enjoy it as much as I did, but it is challenging and persuasive all the same. For liberals it's a must read.


Anything but the Debt Ceiling Fight

So it seems Congress, or at least the nihilistic wing of the House GOP, is gearing up for another fight over the debt ceiling. If you thought Debt Ceiling Fight I was bad, or for that matter that the Fiscal Cliff Fight was, I imagine you've got little stomach for this one. I feel for you. The facts are, though, this should not be a fight at all. This is a completely insane way for the House GOP to conduct themselves. Failing to raise the debt ceiling is, in essence, telling our creditors that we may not pay them back. It's defaulting. It's blowing up the "full faith and credit of the United States of America."
Let's get into why:

Firstly, the United States is not a household and its finances do not function like a household's.
This is why it doesn't actually need to balance it's budget. You can't take in less than you spend, but then, you don't have a sovereign currency, do you?
But this applies to the debt ceiling fight as well. When Congress "spends money" it does so by passing legislation that says "We will spend $1 billion dollars on project X." But neither Harry Reid nor John Boehner nor Barack Obama swipe the nation's credit card at that moment. The money is allocated and it is spent on the project when the project needs it (like after the plans are done and it's time to buy materials). This produces a delay between the time of "spending" and the time of borrowing that a household does not experience.
So people like to say that the debt ceiling is like a credit card's spending limit. That's sort of true, but it fails to take into account that you spend against your credit card in realtime, where the federal government does not.
When raising your credit card's spending limit, you are allowing yourself room for future purchases. When raising the debt ceiling, Congress is allowing itself room for purchases already made.
Raising the debt limit is NOT like raising your credit card limit, because you raise your credit card limit to spend more and the debt limit deals with spending Congress has already done.
It's calling your card company and saying "I just swiped my card to buy a $1000 TV, can you make sure my credit limit is $800 before this charge posts to my account?"
It's saying to those you owe (be it the card company or the poor guy at the TV store, "I have no real intention of paying for this."

But what's wrong with threatening government shutdown if the Senate won't get real about spending cuts?
First of all, it's a fallacy that this country has an existential debt or deficit crisis. We have a sovereign currency, so we can have a deficit. Also, most of the current deficit is a function not of the welfare state but of the recession (which you may recall was caused by deregulation of Wall Street, not welfare fraud or social security recipients living too high on the hog).
Some debt is necessary for the government to keep, the government's intention to pay (it's "Full faith and Credit") is what keeps the economy ticking in the form of Treasury bonds and the US Dollar. If the US Government paid off all of it's debts and deficits (not the same thing, btw) it would crash the currency.
But fine, let's agree for the sake of argument that spending cuts NEED to happen. If House Republicans were threatening a government shutdown until spending cuts were agreed upon, I'd be pretty upset but I wouldn't be apoplectic the way I am today. That's because what the House is talking about is NOT a Government shutdown. It's a detonation of the US Economy.
Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is nihilism. We're talking about investors foreign and domestic dumping US Treasury bonds decimating the government's ability to spend, raise capital, and probably issue a currency. We're talking about the US Government losing the ability to borrow money effectively at even 'acceptable to Republican levels.'
We're also talking about doing this to ourselves, thus pretty much permanently sacrificing the right of this country to hold itself up as a beacon of much of anything on the national stage. Once the global economy recovers from this cataclysm, no member of it is going to want to hear economic or governing pointers from the idiot who nearly destroyed it.

If this sounds extreme, that's because it is. What the Tea Party/Far-Right wing of the House Republicans are suggesting, and to a lesser extent even what their slightly-more-moderate Speaker is suggesting, is taking a hostage that they cannot afford to kill.
But as 67 House Republicans proved today in voting not to allocate $9 Billion in aid to displaced victims of Hurricane Sandy, this is a party that's capable of some pretty ugly shit to maintain their policy of non-compromise on fiscal matters.
Just look at your money and pray, because In God We Trust on this one.
Certainly not in the Grand Old Party.