July 25th, 2005

pod

I was too tired and this came out jumbled

This weekend I finished reading What's the Matter With Kansas. It's an interesting book about the reasons and ways in which poor Americans vote against their own economic interests while tilting at windmills that will likely never fall, like abortion rights or the "coarsening" of our culture. Among its various theses some seem to have more credibility than others, but one that stood out to me as particularly interesting is a specific vision of class and class warfare that Thomas Frank sees in the "Backlash" culture. After reading the book and pondering its claims, I see it too.

Frank believes that the reason the Democrats are falling to the Republicans in such droves is in part because the Republicans have invented a new form of class warfare. This form is ingenious in that it removes economics from the loop. Republicans talk about economics mostly to bolster programs that will benefit the rich, often through lies or misrepresentations,* but it's not where they win most of their votes. Those are won through "values" arguments, things like abortion or gun control or evolution in the schools.

So how are those arguments class related? Frank argues persuasively that the new class battle lines are drawn not between rich and poor, but between "Liberals" and "Good People." Liberals are a largely invented class of people who run all the important institutions in this country, from the courts and the schools to the scientific community and the media. They poison society with their high falootin' ideas and ideologies and no amount of economic or political power can defeat them. Liberals represent some sort of new aristocracy, imposing their filthy vision from the top down, and conservatives are a populist rebellion fighting the good fight for freedom and the American way.

This is, of course, bullshit. Any reasonable person can see that conservatives have control over the vast majority of the government, while the Fox/Fox News values dichotomy shows pretty clearly that it's not liberals poisoning the airwaves, it's vast media conglomerates who do so for the sake of profit. It is one of the many incongruous stances Frank brings up that conservatives want to handcuff these corporations in terms of free speech while releasing them from environmental, labor, and financial regulations, all in the name of the little guy.

Anyway the Liberal aristocracy vs Good People plebeians theory has one potentially fatal flaw, which is how to explain all the rich "good guys?" After all conservatism in this country is still run by and for the scions of wealth, unlike the vast majority of true populist movements. The way Frank claims the movement explains this is through "Lifestyle choice." In other words some people choose to be rich stockbrokers or lawyers or businessmen and some choose to work dead end jobs without health insurance or retirement money. This is, of course, beyond ludicrous. While life choices certainly do have an effect on outcomes, if guy A studies while guy B drinks guy A will likely end up with a better job, nobody chooses to be dirt poor. Back in the days of the union laborer a person might choose to build cars rather than go into management because he wanted job security and more time with his family, but nobody chooses to be laid off or expendable. There are also many factors beyond choice that greatly influence outcomes. George Bush didn't choose to be born into a rich and powerful family. Some black kid didn't choose for his grandfather to be lynched for having too successful a business, thus setting back family fortunes several generations. Choice is only one factor, in some cases a relatively small one, but conservatism acts like it's everything.

This creates a weird imagined utopia where the workers are happy in their ramshackle houses and soon to be outsourced jobs, and the bosses are happy in their growing mansions and with their shiny new yachts, and everyone fights together against the damned liberals trying to screw up gumdrop fantasy land with their abortion pills and bad TV. Of course this isn't true, the fact is that the workers are getting more and more miserable with the shrinking number of crumbs they get from the table, the bosses are the ones paying for the "liberal" media to produce that schlock, and when you send a man to congress to fix the problem of violent video games all he comes back with are more tax cuts for the rich and reduced pollution regulations so that chemical company up the road can dump its waste directly into its employees' water supply. The moral warriors go to congress promising value changes which the people want, and economic changes that they're much less enthusiastic about, and end up ignoring A while going whole hog on B.

And holding this whole exploitative system together is religion. Religion helps bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots by promising that if the have-nots continue to be poor and know their place for the next sixty years they'll become haves for eternity. This isn't much different than what they tell suicide bombers really. You be virtuous and give up everything and you'll be rewarded in the next life. Me? The leader? I can't give up my life or lifestyle, I'm needed here in this world, you, your fun starts in the next.

It's all a massive scam and it's working very well. The war on liberalism is right out of 1984. It's impossible to win or even make progress in, it's against a shadowy undefined enemy, and it distracts the sheep from paying attention to who's really shearing them.


*A good example of this is the "Ownership society" bullshit. Citing the stat that 50% of American families have money in the stock market is a classic red herring, because it's how much you have that counts. Let's say you're Joe Average and outside of your pension fund you have $4,000 in the stock market. Let's further say that you make a respectable return of around 5% on that $4,000 (that's the approximate average return for a small balanced portfolio. You're pulling in a whopping $200 a year in investment income. At a capital gains tax rate of 15% that means that if you sell the portfolio off at the end of one year you're going to pay $30 in capital gains taxes. Say Goodbye to that mid-priced Xbox game, Uncle Sam just raided your pockets. Now compare that to someone with, say, $1,000,000 in a hedge fund pulling in a return of 15%. He is making $150,000 in capital gains, and taxed at 15% he'd have to pay $22,500 in taxes. Now this is a greatly simplified version of how these things actually work, but the point is this. The rich derive much more of their income from investments than the poor or middle class do, and cuts to capital gains disproportionately benefit them. The ownership society thing is a crock of shit. Most middle class people have the majority of their money in tax-deferred retirement funds and (especially) their homes. That's a very different thing than having a lot of money at play in the market.
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Gatorade Sommelier

Hello, sir or Madam, and welcome to my convenience store. Oh I see you are purchasing a chocolate energy bar, a lovely choice. By the sweat on your brow might I guess that you have just been out exercising? Why yes, I am very observant. Would you care for a sports drink? Oh, of course you didn't see any out there. Do you think that we would leave our sports drinks in those cheap coolers with the soda pop and beer? The sports drinks are in a climate controlled refrigeration unit beneath the counter. Wouldn't want the children getting their grubby hands all over them, would we.

Ahh, so you are interested? Good. May I make a recommendation. With that particular energy bar I think you will want to go with a more classic drink, nothing with the bite of a Powerade or All sport. No my friend, what you need is a nice refreshing Gatorade.

What's that? Gatorade tastes like salty water with a tangy aftertaste? A common misconception, a common misconception. No, my friend, if that's what you think it tastes like then I'd venture to say you've never really tasted it. Here, I'll put a little orange into a paper cup for you. Sip that. Feel it in your mouth...good...good...now swallow. How was that? Not bad huh? Really hits the spot. Perfect. Okay, so would you like a bottle? Perfect. Let's see...what goes best with a chocolate bar like that? I'd normally recommend something in a '98 fruit punch, but I'm not sure you're ready for some of the more complex flavors. No, I think that for you the best choice would probably be a '01 32 oz lemon lime or a '02 16 ounce Riptide Rush. If you are feeling adventurous the '04 Tropical Intenso is a possibility, but if you make that choice there's no going back.

What's that? What do they taste like? The lemon line is a tart and satisfying flavor that will bring on the craving for chocolate like nothing you have ever experienced. The Riptide Rush is like someone took grape and kicked it up a few notches. It's a potent flavor indeed. Unfortunately nobody can be told what Tropical Intenso Gatorade tastes like. You have to experience it for yourself.

How's that? You want a 32 oz Riptide Rush? I'm sorry I don't offer that flavor in that size. I only sell the 16 ozers. It's a responsibility thing. No I won't sell you two 16 oz bottles, that's too much. You can't handle the rush, you can't possibly handle the rush. Here let me open one for you to let it breathe. Smell the cap.

That's right. Spectacular. Now, shall I ring it up for you?

Okay. That's it. I'm not selling you 32 ozes of Riptide Rush. I won't do that and I'm going to have to ask you to put the energy bar back and leave my establishment. That's right. Get out. I don't do business with your kind. If you can't appreciate the proper way to enjoy a sports drink then you won't be enjoying a sports drink at all. Not from me. Oh, go ahead. Go to Gristedes. They'll sell you whatever you want there. Overdue it. I don't care, but I won't have it on my conscience!

Bastard. Bastard. Bastard...

Hello Sir or Madam and welcome to my convenience store. I'm sorry about that little outburst. It was a misunderstanding. I just need a moment to compose myself...

There we go. I see that you have selected our turkey sandwich. An excellent choice, Jose is a master with the slicing machine, you will find the slices both thin and succulent to your tastes. I see also that you have a 12 oz can of Pepsi. That's fine, but if you don't mind may I recommend, as an alternative, a delicious sports drink. Yes, nothing quite compliments the taste of turkey and mayonnaise like the refreshing flavor of a citrusy concoction designed for athletes. You didn't see any in the coolers near the soda? Of course not. That's not where we keep it. See we have this special refrigerator behind the counter where...