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E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

Deciding not to have children

How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.

Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”

That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.

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Estate tax unpopular not just with rich

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on repealing the federal estate tax, and while more Republicans favor this repeal than Democrats, I can’t be equally sure the rich favor it more than the poor. The reason is a conversation I had as a reporter in the mid-1990s with the late George McGovern, who lost the presidency so soundly in 1972.

I was interviewing McGovern about his book chronicling his daughter’s tragic death, not about taxes. But when I mentioned that I had cast my first presidential vote for him, we talked a while about national debates that never go away.

Although “income inequality” wasn’t a term then in use, the issue has always been with us. One way to lessen income inequality is the estate tax, designed to ensure that vast fortunes don’t stay wholly within certain families, thereby building up the wealth gap for generations to come.

McGovern specifically brought the estate tax up, not me. During his presidential campaign he had advocated raising the tax, he said, and one of his biggest surprises was the vigorous resistance he encountered among the poor and middle class, people who would likely never have to pay it.

Whether they had money or not, McGovern said, they thought someday they might. And if that day ever came, they wanted their heirs to hold onto every bit of it.

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More than just the Ryan budget redux?

Republicans in the House and Senate this week released their respective budget plans, and though they differ in the details they’re similar in their aims – namely, to use the deficit and the debt as justification for tax cuts for high earners and corporations and significant spending cuts in social programs. Leave aside the question of whether the deficit and the debt require such attention (plenty think they don’t, including the Obama administration); what House and Senate Republicans have proposed are essentially reboots of the Paul Ryan (2012 and 2014) franchises.

Which if you liked, then this you might love. Medicare becomes a voucher (i.e., “partially privatized”) program. Medicaid becomes a block-grant program. SNAP (food stamps) becomes a block-grant program. Dodd-Frank restrictions on Wall Street get watered down. And – wait for it – the Affordable Care Act is, finally, once and for all, repealed.

Much of this of course is dressed up in language making it sound sensible, maybe even noble: block-grants give states flexibility and improve efficiency; repeal of Obamacare equates to “patient-centered reform.” Few details are offered, though plenty of figures are tossed about – many of which can only be met with suspicion if not outright incredulity.Though the proposal calls for the repeal of Obamacare, it still counts as going toward the coffers the $2 trillion the law’s tax increases provide. Though the House and Senate plans assume deficit reductions of $147 billion to $164 billion from economic growth stemming from proposed cuts in taxes and spending, these numbers have been generated through the technical sleight of hand known as dynamic scoring. There’s also something in the House proposal being referred to as the “magic asterisk” – a provision for saving $1.1 trillion over ten years “by reducing outlays for mandatory spending other than on health care and Social Security.” No one’s quite sure where those cuts would come from, but they’d have to come from somewhere to meet the goal of $5.5 trillion in overall savings.

Early reviews on the Republican budget proposals: “If the budget resolution released on Tuesday by House Republicans is a road map to a “Stronger America,” as its title proclaims, it’s hard to imagine what the path to a diminished America would look like”; “[This is a] slumlord's budget, an evictor's budget, an auctioneer's budget of a kind that emptied towns all over the Great Plains. It assumes the existence of a propertied class and a servile class, both of them eternal and immutable”; “[I]t lays out a virtual war on the poor and middle class” and as such is “a bracing statement of Republican ideology.”

For his part, the president is disappointed that neither Republican proposal calls for investment in education, infrastructure, or research, and that neither is a “budget that reflects the future.” How much of that the Democratic minority can negotiate for remains to be seen, as does its overall ability to challenge Republican plans that according to Charles P. Pierce “solidify further the burgeoning oligarchy that is devouring the republic.”

Rich and Poor: Not a Moral Vocabulary?

Fellow dotcommonwealer Anthony Annett takes David Brooks to task for singling out the moral failures of the poor, while overlooking the “beam in the eye” of the rich. Annett rightly notes:

During the postwar era in the United States, there was a fair amount of solidarity between capital and labor. Unions were strong and respected, and the fruits of higher productivity were broadly shared. Top income tax rates were high, and it was considered unseemly for top executive compensation to soar to stratospheric levels. … But the social norms underpinned this model shifted dramatically during the libertarian revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s, heralded by the rise of Reagan. Now, it became acceptable to put self-interest above social solidarity. Top tax rates were cut, unions were attacked, and the financial sector was unleashed. It became acceptable to push wages to rock bottom simply to maximize shareholder returns and top executive compensation. It became acceptable to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of ethical standards to make a quick buck. It became acceptable to spend billions in lobbying for your own short term interest, while demonizing the poor, and fighting for your extra tax cut to come from their extra benefit. And it became acceptable to insist on the God-given right to perpetual pollution, planet be damned.

Annett is right that both structurally and culturally, we've shifted from a stance of solidarity to a stance of selfishness. Given that Brooks’s column offers some horrifying anecdotes of the destructive culture of poverty, it is only fair that Annett summon up the horrifying images of the filthy rich. I don’t deny the truth in either of these descriptions, but what bothers me about these kinds of dueling descriptions of our economic situation is the extent to which they have a tendency to fall into and trade on stereotypes. Again, there's truth here, but it is so easy for these generalizations to go too far, become too sweeping, and then impair constructive progress. In the first chapter of my book on luxury, I note that the tendency to lock discussions of economic ethics into structural debates controlled by “the market-state binary” means that

the debates also tend to leave things out and arrive at an impasse. They often neglect significant differences in behavior within the categories “rich” and “poor.” To put it bluntly, they trade on stereotypes of both groups, whether positive or negative, and resort to an anecdotal story or two to reinforce their preferred stereotype. The rich are either rapaciously greedy or noble “job creators”; the poor are either struggling victims in need of compassion or lazy, dependent freeloaders in need of personal discipline and a sense of responsibility. But surely neither group is in fact homogenous! “The rich” and “the poor” are misleading abstractions. Such stories often “explain” complex economic problems by scapegoating this or that subgroup – “Wall Street” or “welfare queens,” “government regulators” or “insurance company executives.” Sadly, this passes for reasoned, public debate.

So, Brooks and Annett both have valid points. There really are characteristic, if stereotyped, vices that afflict both rich and poor in our society. Both in fact tend toward the “libertarian default,” though in different ways. But a prudent discussion would get past the stereotypes and find ways to recover moral language that should be shared by all. I think luxury is a key part of that, a language of reasonably, self-controlled spending that recognizes the responsibility of using excess wealth for the common good. Wealth is there to be shared. There are rich and poor who in fact practice such sharing; there are also rich and poor who are consumed by consumption. The primary moral vocabulary is not “rich” and “poor”; it should be solidarity and frugality.

But a moral vocabulary “shared by all” is important, too. All this stereotyping and scapegoating does serve an important political function, which is a further consequence of the market-state binary: by focusing on groups of great wealth or severe poverty, the discussion tends to exempt “the middle class". If we can blame the Wall Streeters or the dysfunctional poor neighborhoods, then maybe our own lifestyles can get off the hook. But consider a different possibility: maybe the need for norms of solidarity, generosity, and frugality might be most powerful if practiced and expressed by the middle class, and particularly what I call the “39%” – that is, the upper two income quintiles below the 1%. The 39% control a lot of wealth, a lot of votes, and a lot of organizations. Solidarity and frugality could go a long way if that’s what the 39% sought. And of course, some do. Perhaps they are the really important cultural catalysts.

Virtue among the rich and poor

In a recent column, David Brooks wades into the debate on the huge gaps in income and opportunity that have arisen in the United States. He focuses on the plight of the poor, and his argument is essentially that the problem is not so much money and policies as norms and virtues.

In other words, he blames the poor for their own plight, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig immediately pounces. She argues, quite persuasively, that the moral values of the poor do not differ from the moral values of the rich, and that what keeps the poor down is daily grind of poverty and its soul-destroying burden. On this point, Paul Krugman is in complete agreement—he had noted for a while that social dysfunction can be traced to collapse in decent jobs rather than a collapse in virtue.

But I think that Brooks nonetheless makes a good observation. The cause of much of our social and economic malaise is indeed a breakdown in social norms, the habituation of some wholly unvirtuous behavior. He’s right that we need to look at this through the lens of virtue ethics, especially when he asks core questions like: are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good?

The only problem is, Brooks singles out the poor, when the real culprits are the rich. The real breakdown in social norms over the past few decades has come from the top.

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Drawing a bath for organized labor.

On Monday, Governor Scott Walker made Wisconsin the twenty-fifth state to enact “right to work” legislation. The law is not a jobs program. Neither is it a workers' bill of rights. It permits private-sector workers to opt out of paying fees to unions that negotiate their wages. In other words, it allows such employees to be freeloaders. Federal law already lets employees refuse to join a union, but in states without right-to-work laws employees must pay “fair share” fees to the union that secured their contract. For decades, right-to-work laws have been signed by governors across the South and West. But only recently have Republicans been able to pass them in the labor-strong states of the upper Midwest; Michigan and Indiana adopted right-to-work in 2012, and the new GOP governor of Illinois ran on it. President Barack Obama decried the Wisconsin law as “anti-worker.” The day after Walker signed the bill, the AFL-CIO, along with two other unions, filed a lawsuit challenging the statute—a pro-forma protest. Union leaders know that similar lawsuits in other states have always failed.

Given the Republican dominance of the Wisconsin legislature, the bill’s passage was a fait accompli. But the state senate and assembly held hearings anyway, during which a parade of critics—who vastly outnumbered supporters—voiced their concerns about right-to-work. Union members condemned the measure as an attack on labor. A bankruptcy attorney winkingly begged the legislature to pass the bill because it would be good for his business. And in written testimony the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) delivered a stirring defense of labor unions, affirming over a century of church teaching promoting their expansion. Or at least that’s what one might expect Catholic bishops to say about anti-union legislation. Instead, Wisconsin’s bishops offered what amounted to an extended shrug.

Quoting from its 2015 public-policy position paper, the WCC insisted that “the economy must serve people, not the other way around.” It continued: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers, owners, and others must be respected.” Those are the kinds of noises one expects to hear from bishops of a church whose popes have promoted labor unions for over a century. “There are not a few associations of this nature,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum novarum (1891), and still “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.” Leo’s wish has not been granted. In Wisconsin, for example, the percentage of employees who belong to unions has dropped from 14.2 percent in 2010, before Walker became governor, to 11.7 percent last year. Yet, reading the WCC’s testimony, it’s not easy to tell whether the bishops think that’s a bad thing.

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American climate exceptionalism

In most parts of the world, the idea of anthropogenic global warming is settled science. And why wouldn’t it be? One study shows that 97 percent of climate researchers actively publishing in the field support the idea. Another finds that 97 percent of peer-reviewed literature in the field supports the consensus view.

This seems pretty overwhelming. And in most places, it is. Most people accept the evidence as incontrovertible. But not so in the US, where the media portrays a stark scientific divide and huge numbers of people disdainfully reject the notion of anthropogenic global warming. This is also true of Catholics, including the wealthy types whose money has the ability to open church doors.

But why? 

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Koched up.

In the fall of 2013, the Catholic University of America announced a $1 million pledge from the Koch Foundation, one of the many not-for-profit outfits with strong ties to the billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch. The money, according to the university, would go to the business school, allowing it to hire professors and offer a course on "principled entrepreneurship." You may remember the Kochs from their charitable efforts to undermine public-employee unions, to support a campaign against renewable-energy standards, to suppress the vote, or to discredit the minumum wage (which the U.S. bishops want to raise).

A group of about fifty Catholic theologians certainly remembered. They sent a disapproving letter to Catholic University, voicing their concern that by accepting the grant, the university was sending "a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops." But university president John Garvey and business-school dean Andrew Abela remained unmoved. They replied by pointing out that several of the professors cash paychecks from universities that accept Koch money, and accused them of trying to "score political points."

If any of those theologians were clinging to the hope that, given enough time, Garvey and Abela might come around to the idea that there's something odd about a Catholic business school accepting money from people who are so deeply committed shrinking the social safety net, cutting taxes, weakening environental regulations, ending the minimum wage, and busting unions, they can let go now. Because Catholic University's business school recently accepted another $1.75 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation (in addittion to $1.25 million from other donors).

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Class or race?

Let's just say I am no fan of David Brooks. Usually I pass over his first sentence and move on. His column this morning got something important right (i.e., correct) and I read all the way to the end.

Spoiler alert: He mentions Ferguson and then goes on to open up a conversation we should be having about class.

"Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things....This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging."  Whole column here: NY Times.

"A Win for the Virtues of Loyalty and Fairness"

"Strikes don't strike me" was a favorite saying of Catholic Worker cofounder Peter Maurin; but even Maurin might have been pleased with the eight week strike by Market Basket workers and managers that ended yesterday with tears of joy shed at most of the supermarket chain's 71 stores in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

It's not just the fact that thousands of Market Basket's nonunionized workers happily went back to work after winning on their one and only demand.  Or that the strike was led by a nine member council of senior store managers who'd all worked for the company for decades.  Or that the workers were supported by a boycott semi-spontaneously organized and adhered to by hundreds of thousands of Market Basket's loyal customers. 

No, what might have pleased Maurin was the workers' solitary demand: the rehiring of fired long-time CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.  When's the last time workers---without the (admittedly meager under current US law) protection of a union contract---went on strike for their boss?

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Cracking the 'priesthood' of people who speak money

Today’s New York Times story on Argentina’s apparent financial default isn’t likely to make anyone more fond of hedge fund firms, except maybe those who, like the fund’s manager, tend to valorize the “rights of creditors.” The lead:

The hedge fund firm of billionaire Paul E. Singer has about 300 employees, yet it has managed to force Argentina, a nation of 41 million people, into a position where it now has to contemplate a humbling surrender.

Presented that way, the development seems an example of what Pope Francis had in mind when he used the term “savage capitalism” during a visit to a soup kitchen last year, and in fact, it’s exactly how Jubilee USA president Eric LeCompte characterizes it: “When Pope Francis has used the term savage capitalism he refers to a group of extreme actors who profit from exploitation of the poor. I can’t think of a more appropriate example than the actions of the vulture hedge funds and Argentina.” 

Imagery and metaphor are inevitable in accounts of crises like these, precisely because they can be useful in beginning to understand details that can otherwise be confounding. More from the Times story:

The campaign against Argentina shows how driven and deep-pocketed hedge funds can sometimes wield influence outside of the markets they bet in … While Mr. Singer’s firm has yet to collect any money from Argentina, some debt market experts say that the battle may already have shifted the balance of power toward creditors in the enormous debt markets that countries regularly tap to fund their deficits. Countries in crisis may now find it harder to gain relief from creditors after defaulting on their debt, they assert.

“We’ve had a lot of bombs being thrown around the world, and this is America throwing a bomb into the global economic system,” said Joseph E. Stiglitz, the economist and professor at Columbia University. “We don’t know how big the explosion will be — and it’s not just about Argentina.”

Battles, bombs, and explosions. That Elliott, a small New York firm generally unknown outside financial circles, can wield such power over a distant sovereign nation says much about its arsenal: It manages more than $25 billion in assets, an amount accrued through returns of 14% a year since 1977. By that measure, Elliott easily meets, if not embodies, the definition of a successful fund. And why might it be so successful? Perhaps because a hedge fund isn’t a “hedge” in the way that term might suggest—and in fact once was used, even in finance.

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Dumping the Economic Cover Stories

Karl Marx, in recounting the many horrors of the wretched conditions of 19th century British industrialism, sarcastically remarked, “Das ist der doux commerce!” Marx was critiquing the well-known idea that the rise of market economies had redirected human energies previously devoted to warfare into the more “gentle” (=doux) sphere of economic competition and acquisitiveness. The idea of le doux commerce was an idealized cover story. No one can doubt that rich barons trying to outdo one another in home furnishings is better than the battlefield. But the idea of economic competition as a systematic basis for a more peaceable society is far less compelling, once the whole picture of such a society is taken into account. The illusion of the cover story only survives if one ignores much of the picture.

Christianity is in many ways a faith that mercilessly exposes all of our cover stories. These cover stories are meant to comfort us, usually by telling us that our typical habits are commendable, or at least “not all that bad.” Sin is displaced onto a scapegoat, rather than being discovered and exposed in our own lives. Of course, Christianity can do this only insofar as it also preaches the always-greater power of God’s rich mercy. Christ crucified is the culmination of Jesus’ relentless truth-telling, while at the same time, is the promise of the greater power of perfect love. The prophetic Jesus and the forgiving Jesus are not Jekyll and Hyde, but instead are necessary complements for actual conversion and reconciliation. Without truth-telling, forgiveness is cheap or even unnecessary. Without forgiveness, truth-telling leads to despair or cynicism.

So it is disappointing that another idealized cover story for economic competition was recently forwarded, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, by Cardinal Timothy Dolan: the idea of “virtuous capitalism.”

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Kasper & Kaveny at Fordham.

Last night Cathleen Kaveny interviewed Cardinal Walter Kasper at Fordham University in front of a packed house. The cardinal has been making the rounds in New York and Boston, promoting his new book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. It was a fascinating conversation, veering from the abstract (How is mercy the key to understanding God's nature?) to the practical (How merciful must I be when grading students' papers?) and back again. Kaveny asked excellent questions, as did the audience, and Kasper offered fascinating responses, some of which I live-tweeted. After the event, one of my Twitter followers suggested I collect some of my my tweets via Storify. So that's what I'm going to do--or at least try to do. Caveat lector: unless you see quotation marks or I say otherwise, I'm not directly quoting anyone, and it's possible that I misheard some of the Qs & As (and sorry for any typos--autocorrect is against me). I've never Storified before, so bear with me--and let me know whether this is remotely useful--after the jump.

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U.S. conservatives frightened & confused by pope's moral world.

Yesterday Pope Francis took to Twitter to launch a new phase of Catholic Social Teaching. With just seven words he shook the foundations of the Catholic moral universe: "Inequalty is the root of social evil," Francis wrote. Both Catholic and non-Catholic observers alike struggled to find their bearings. Joe Carter of the social-justice think tank the Acton Institute responded quickly: "Um, no it's not. Hate and apathy are the roots of social evil." He wondered whether Francis had "traded the writings of Peter and Paul for Piketty"--the economist whose latest book on the unfairness of capitalism has become a global phenomenon.

Catholic Culture poobah Phil Lawler also expressed skepticism, calling the pope's tweet "a fairly radical statement, [and] as an a piece of economic analysis a very simplistic one." He decided that the best way to understand Francis's tweet was to go to the original Latin: that "version of this tweet is even simpler: Iniquitas radix malorum. That phrase has a somewhat different meaning." Lawler's Latin expertise leads him to assert that "iniquitas" might also mean "iniquity" or "injustice," which would "make more sense," even though the Spanish version of the tweet "admittedly looks more like the English."

Non-Catholic Mollie Hemingway was likewise confused. "I don't understand what this is supposed to mean, exactly," she tweeted, later suggesting "envy and coveting" were really to blame for social evil. Former Catholic Rod Dreher found himself flummoxed too: "What does that even mean?" He continued: "Twitter pronouncements like the Pope’s are simplistic and confusing."

It's true. Twitter is not an ideal place to advance complex moral arguments. Wouldn't it be better if the pope developed some of this at greater length, in, say, some sort of letter to the faithful? He might even consider exhorting his people in an apostolic manner, for example, with a title like Evangelii Gaudium or some such, perhaps under a section heading reading "The Economy and the Distribution of Income." Come again? He's done just that? Over the course of several paragraphs? And it's been publicly available for months? Oh. Roll tape. 

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An April Fools' Day Joke? Paul Ryan Proposes a Budget

More of the same from Paul Ryan

A full repeal of the ACA? Check. Cuts in food assistance? Check. Medicaid cuts? Check again. All these cuts add up in Ryan's mind to economic growth and a balanced budget. It boggles the mind. 

I think I've plumbed the depths of the impoverished libertarian vision; what I find baffling about Ryan's proposal is its purported moral (and even religious) message. It seems like nothing more than a mobilization of the Calvinist distinction between the damned and the Elect. And what a wonderful world in which to be one of the latter. Has conservative Catholicism crossed over to the side of radical puritanism?  

More Ukraine

Some follow-up stories on Ukraine, Putin, the snipers, and anti-Semitism.

Who were the snipers in Maiden that provoked the outrage that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovich? At first, rumors were Ukrainian intelligence services, then it was elements of the Opposition wanting to provoke more outrage, and now?  The Russians, of course.  Here: an AP report from Haaretz.

Why did Putin do this: Stephen Lee Meyer of the NYTimes, writing from Moscow, has a story suggesting that this was an ad hoc decision born of Putin's anger at Western interference in Ukraine. It is suggestive that Meyer seems to have gotten the story from leakers in the Kremlin and business world who may not be happy about how things are turning out.

Here is James Stewart on the NYT Business Pages "Why Russia Cannot Afford Another Cold War," offering an optimistic assessment of why Putin's plan will not work: Why? Russian capitalism. Too optimistic?

Anti-semitism? The Jewish Daily Forward, here in NYC, has an account.

And the Tatars? 300,000 live in the Crimea and form 15 percent of the population. They do not want to be joined to Russia. The New Yorker has this account.

That Cadillac ad isn’t about stuff?

If you’ve spent any time in the last ten days or so watching the Olympics you may have caught the ad from Cadillac and thought to yourself: wait -- what? To synopsize: pugnacious, squared-jawed guy speaks directly to camera about why the American way of doing things is so great, as he takes the viewer on a swaggering tour of his holdings: from the vista of his infinity pool, across the natural-lit expanses of his glass-sided home, and ultimately to his serene, manicured driveway, where a shiny new Cadillac ELR awaits the promised imprint of his imperial haunches. The ad is titled “Work Hard,” and on advertising site iSpot it’s summarized like this: “Why do you work hard, foregoing [sic] vacation, family, and personal time? For stuff? No, it’s for a sense of accomplishment.” 

Maybe the explanation is necessary, because the actual words—to say nothing of the accompanying images of male dominion (docile and quietly occupied daughters, winsomely smiling wife, immaculate open-floor layout)—do allow for other possible interpretations:

Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that's why. Those other countries think we're nuts. Whatever. Were the Wright Brothers insane? Bill Gates? Les Paul? Ali? Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right. We went up there. You know what we got? Bored. So we left. Got a car up there, left the keys in it. You know why? Because we're the only ones going back up there, that's why.

But I digress. It's pretty simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?

So: Inspiring, or repulsive? That’s the either/or quality of the debate that’s taken shape in the days since the ad first aired, but after repeated viewings I find it to be neither. Or, at any rate, not simply repulsive; plenty of commercials just by dint of their being commercials are repulsive. But the (quite literal) wink that comes with this ad pushes it into a different category. Come on, it wants to assure us, we know we’re being over the top here; we’re really just joking. But like anything that comes with a wink, there’s the other, underlying assurance to those in the know that it’s not a joke. Don’t be fooled by the appropriation of talismans of cool like Les Paul and Muhammad Ali—these are just two more acquisitions for this guy, accumulated cultural “capital” no more familiar to him than the art he’s purchased for his walls (as others have pointed out, doesn’t he realize that Ali forswore his given American name, converted to Islam, refused military conscription, and criticized U.S. policy on race and economics?). Don’t be fooled that he actually unplugs his little reward to himself—how much of an offset to a carbon footprint like his will an electric car provide? And then there’s the snotty French sign-off, which against the backdrop of international athletic competition underscores the current “maker” contempt toward any system not explicitly tuned to maximize personal wealth, American-style.

But it’s just a joke. And it’s not about wealth or stuff, even though the Cadillac ELR is, according to the advertising, “priced from $75,000,” home-charging station not included. 

UPDATED Melinda Henneberger to speak on Pope and Politics (Fordham)

UPDATE: event to be rescheduled due to weather and campus closing on February 3.

In the past month, several major news outlets have raised the question of whether Pope Francis is having an effect on political figures in the United States. Kathleen Hennessey's A1 story in the Los Angeles Times reported on how and why President Obama, for example, had come to quote the Pope.

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When the Internet isn’t neutral

“Neutrality” is a principle built into the whole idea of the Internet, an almost creed-like notion set out by the pioneers of the technology and devotedly intoned (sometimes proclaimed) by their legions of descendants worldwide. The idea that the smallest, least-followed blog or smallest local-business website should be available as quickly and easily, to any user, as are Google, Amazon, or CNN seems so basic, so true, to our understanding of how online information can be accessed and shared that it would barely dawn on us to consider it another way.

Which is maybe part of the problem. Anyone surprised by the decision Tuesday of a federal appeals court to strike down the concept of “net neutrality” – and many people are – probably thought little or nothing of the FCC’s decision in 2002 to classify the web as an “information” service and not as a telecommunications service like telephone, thus consigning it to a different regulatory category. Phone companies are obligated to place calls between parties without any roadblocks, and the same free and open flow of communications came to be an accepted characteristic of the Internet. For a while, the spirit of neutrality obtained—even to the point of “Net Neutrality” rules being enacted at the federal level in 2010. But the regulatory distinction between utilities and information services, an important one, was always clear to Internet service providers, which have long sought freedom from government limits on how they can use, and make money from, the networks they've built.

Fact is, the service providers are right, at least on the legal point – something the appeal judges were said to have noted somewhat ruefully in their decision (for this reason, the case doesn’t seem likely to go to the Supreme Court). Had the FCC simply categorized web service as a telephone-like utility back in 2002, people might not be so worried about what they woke up to today.

Which is what, exactly?

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