26 September 2008

Ideologies 101

Most readers of this blog (any good writer should know his audience and this is much easier with an audience in the single digits) would probably already agree with the following thought experiment. If we all took or taught an introductory survey of political ideologies, and in it we went through the fundamental tenets of conservatism, and then we compared the policy positions, legislation passed, party platform, and even the rhetoric of the American Republican party, we would find very, very little in the way of connections between that party and that ideology. Indeed, Bill Clinton is probably the most 'conservative' in terms of political ideology of any US president in the last few decades.

Some might wish to argue that this is because today's Republicans are 'neo-conservatives'. Fair enough, but this doesn't really help their case. Generalizing broadly, the neo-con ideology = crazy Wolfowitz foreign policy + neo-liberal domestic policy. In other words:
  1. there's nothing inherently conservative about Bush foreign policy and that wasn't even the policy of the Republicans during Clinton's presidency
  2. on economic issues neo-conservativism simply IS neo-liberalism, and therefore it's not very conservative
I bring all this up as I think it's related to a couple of political moments from this week. First up is something that Andrew Sullivan said on last week's Real Time. (Talk about a guy that will make your head spin when it comes to the label 'conservative'; Sullivan is a gay, moralizing, libertarian who hates Bush.) In the process of blaming the current economic crisis on stupid people who took out stupid mortgages, thereby perverting the triumphant march of pure capitalism, Sullivan went off on a side-tirade against US tax law for its distortion of economic interests – skewing them toward buying homes rather than renting (the libertarian individual in a capitalist system, says Sullivan, should be completely free to buy her shelter in any form she wishes). But here's the thing: within a genuinely conservative worldview, it makes perfect sense to encourage home ownership. Home owners protect and preserve their property. There's less crime in places where people own their homes. Home ownership encourages individual saving through home equity; it's an act of indvidual responsibility. And one could even go on to argue that home-owners make better parents (though I wouldn't go there myself). Indeed, overall, I like the tax code the way it is, for precisely some of these very much conservative reasons – and this despite the fact that I'm not receiving the benefit of the tax break at the moment.

But the problem isn't with the general preference for home ownership, and this current crisis has nothing to do with that. Conservatism isn't to blame; neo-liberalism is. It was the effort to turn the bursting tech bubble into a newly-emerging housing bubble through deregulation, fancy new investment techniques and schemes, etc. etc., that led to the housing bubble. It has nothing to do with home ownership per se; it has to do with buying 4 homes in 5 years, and all the while remortgaging like mad (the housing bloggers consistently refer to this as treating the house as an ATM). Here I refer to individual behavior, but it's painfully obvious to most people (Sullivan exempted) that the real thieves in this process were the folks generating huge profits on each and every transaction. And let's be honest: there was some serious manipulation and deception going on in the mortgage industry. One potential reader of this blog may recall a 2 hour phone call in which I called on all my powers of persuasion to talk her OUT of that interest-only ARM that she did not in any way need or want, but which the broker swore to her was her best choice. 

Something similar can be said (this was the second example) about the 'who to blame' game vis-a-vis the crisis. There are some great videos and blog posts on these here interwebs trying to lay it all at Carter and Clinton's feet. That's largely rubbish, but there's a shred of truth in it. While the Bush administration surely went way too far, and surely did so more explicitly for corporate profit, the whole thing is the continuation and maximization of neo-liberal logic. Defend Clinton all you wish; he was a much better neo-liberal than Bush, but he was still a neo-liberal. And it's not clear that we wouldn't have ended up here anyway. After all, the UK is very close to the same precipice, and they were led there by just one political party.

24 September 2008


Thanks to Frances for this very informative post on the perilous situation Congress now faces. I could have used it last night when I was trying to explain to my father what a bind Congress is now in over the bailout legislation. 

He, quite reasonably, wants to be able to say, buck fush, don't give the corporations billions of taxpayers dollars, but instead let them all lose as much money as is humanly conceivable. It's an appealing sentiment, but, alas, capitalism doesn't work that way, because it's not an "opt-in" system. Very very few of us can find a way to get outside of it, and thus when the corporations lose most of what they have, a lot of people making very little money could lose everything (house, job, retirement - in economic terms, that's pretty much everything). 

In other words, we DO have a "trickle down" economic system. This is a lesson I learned at a very early age from my father's wisdom. It's the two rules of plumbing: 1) payday is on Friday, 2) shit runs downhill.

I grow increasingly convinced that today capitalism simply IS  a pyramid scheme, but with one crucial twist. In a standard pyramid scheme, the creators of the scheme convince a lot of people to start signing up to it. The creators get rich, the very early adapters may make money, and the late entrants all get screwed. But in today's cowboy capitalism, you are either rigging the game or your are conscripted into it. There's really no way to stand outside of it and laugh at the idiots who thought this sort of thing could go on forever. Because knowing it will collapse isn't really very funny. When it collapses for them, it takes those laughing down as well. Worse still, the rich will lose millions in the collapse, but they will still have a few million left. Those who didn't start with millions could be in big trouble. 

Hmm...almost makes you wonder if there's not another option to rigged corporate capitalism. ...Oh, sorry, I forgot, 1989 proved beyond all doubt that there are NO OTHER options. Too bad about that.

06 September 2008

Big City Service Review: Peapods

You know you live in a city when....

the local grocer carries more than one type of olive oil. Or carries olive oil at all. Or, let's face it (and sadly), you have a local grocer instead of a super WalMart.

One of the big things I was dreading upon moving back to the US was the lack of delivery for groceries. Going to multiple stores for the food that we eat was one of the things I did not miss at all, nor did I miss driving an hour (F'Burg to Richmond) to buy an organic vegetable, when we lived in the mid-Atlantic last time. Moving to the UK and discovering grocery delivery rocked. It meant not driving at all, ever. It meant spending 10-15 minutes on-line putting stuff in the cart instead of an hour in the store squinting at labels and inspecting veggies. It meant no distractions, no parking, no struggle to remember what we had last time that was good, fewer choices. We like fewer choices. I blogged about this before.

When we moved to Baltimore I did not assume that the same service would be available. Folks in Seattle and SF and NYC might get delivery, but they are the privileged few, and this would not occur second-tier big cities. I am so so happy to be wrong. We had our first batch of Peapod-delivered Giant groceries this past Wednesday. Stoked!

Ease of on-line GUI: 3.5 out of 5. I will update this rating upon our second delivery, when the interface will have a history of what I've ordered before. Navigation through the virtual shelves was good. Searching was occasionally problematic, returning a shelf rather than an object, trying to guess the brand I want when I'm not interested in brands, I'm interested in the food type and whether it can be had in an organic variety. So the lean towards the brands was a bit, er, American for my taste. But you can select "natural and organic" on the top level, which then means all of your subsequent navigations hit the org stuff first. Not sure what "natural" means, but...

You can pick your delivery slot after shopping, which isn't the case for some of the UK versions. This I like. And the page doesn't reload when you add to your cart, which is good--you don't have to wait, just click and then scroll on down. Also nice: all objects from a shelf/search are displayed in one page, so no clicking through to multiple pages. Anyone buying groceries on-line will most likely have a better-than-dialup connection and thus long lists of items works just fine. Good information about the products as well.

Delivery options and cost: full disclosure here--my threshold for cost of grocery delivery is quite high. Peapod reduces your cost the more you buy. Over $100 it's $6.95 plus a fuel surcharge of $1 and change. (What is it with US nickel and diming? Just charge $8 already. Anyway...). This is comparable to the UK delivery charge (£2.50-£6). You can book a 2-hour window, which isn't as good as Sainsbury's (1 hour) but equals Tesco. Or if you know you're home all morning or all afternoon, you can select that option (7:30-1) and save $2. All of this is well within my threshold. How much would you pay someone to go to the store for you, select the food you want, pay for the gas, save you the hassle of unloading the cart, bagging, loading the stuff in your cart then into your car, then carrying it into your house? That's worth a lot more than $8. They'd have to charge me $15 before I'd start hesitating. And I'd still pay it. Oh, and I ordered Tuesday evening around 4 pm for a delivery slot of Wednesday morning. Had my groceries by 11:30.

Delivery itself: The driver had my number and so could call for directions/instructions. He was very courteous and helpful. the food came in heavy-duty cardboard boxes which we will give them back next time. I tipped him--one doesn't do this in the UK, so I was a bit concerned it was the wrong thing to do, but then I realized I was in the US, and thus...The only option not available (yet?) with Peapod is one involving less plastic. Tesco offers a 'green' option in which they show up with plastic bins with your groceries loose--they wait as you unload it, so it takes a bit longer. Peapod could do this easily with their nice boxes--I'd even pay a deposit for the boxes if necessary to reduce the packaging.

Food quality: excellent. This is the one where friends say: but I want to pick my own eggplant/peaches/lettuce! What if it's rotten? What if it's about to expire? It is in the interest of the store and the delivery service to give you the absolute best, most beautiful, fabulous, without blemish produce you have ever seen. It is also in their interest to provide food that expires at least a few days in the future, but ideally at least a week out. I find food that expires further out than that to be suspect on a number of levels, but that's me (I finally threw out the half and half we bought when we first arrived (August 15) this week, even though it was ostensibly still fine--it's not fine. it's not okay. milk should go bad within a week of opening. moving on.) I am impressed with the quality of the food we got from Peapod/Giant, especially since I wasn't so much trusting Giant on this. But they completely overwhelmed with the freshness of the produce and the beauty of the lettuce. The only problem with ordering produce on line is that sometimes it's not the size you're envisioning (esp. for organic veg which tends to be smaller). This you figure out with time. No surprises with Pea/Giant.

Overall: Great, positive experience. We'll see how it develops as the usage increases. Hopefully it will maintain its high quality and be able to add in some of the small things I'd like--mostly the low-plastic/packaging options.

01 September 2008

McCain is not the only who doesn't get it

I missed all the fun around here and over at Ffb, and I also missed most of the Democratic convention, because I was at a convention of my own - listening to a lot of political scientists talk.

Unsurprisingly, election politics didn't come up very often at panels, but the last paper on one panel I went to was a reading of Obama, particularly through the lens of The Audacity of Hope (be on the lookout to see the written version of this paper appear in Harpers in a few weeks). It did surprise me a bit that after this paper was given the entire discussion focused directly on Obama.

It was mostly critical (but more in the 'we're worried he'll lose' mood than the, 'we don't like him' kind) and it was almost entirely centered on Obama the person, Obama the politician, Obama the democratic nominee.

This discussion was carried out after Obama gave his speech. The speech was on Tivo waiting for me, but I hadn't seen it yet. So I sat in the room listening to everyone talk, repeatedly thinking: 'they really don't get it, do they; it's not about Obama in this way'. It's about (the possibility of) a new political moment. It's about all those new participants in the process. It's about the demos, not Obama.

Last night I watched the speech, and, of course, as you all know, Obama spelled it out by saying, literally, 'it's not about me'. And the scene of almost 80,000 people, some moved to tears and all jubilant and energized to a degree that I have simply never seen in my lifetime - this scene made that point for Obama.

More striking was the post-speech commentary on MSNBC. First Keith Olbermann described the power and historical importance of the speech in a way that only Olbermann can. Then Chris Matthews came on and sounded like he was just a few degrees away from tears. Later, Pat Buchanan had to be cut off becuase he was gushing so much about the speech. Throughout, the commentators kept going to the text and reading quotes and citing things, like they were academics or something. And the entire discourse was about the nation, about political action, about choices and possibilities; almost none of it was about political baseball.

Even if Obama loses, I'll never forget how the power of his words forced even the pundits to think about politics as something more than petty games of power and influence and to recognise a possibility for a democratic movement, for collective action, for what political theorists often like to call 'the political'.

How is it then that the day after this speech was given a bunch of political theorists sat around and talked about 'Obama' as if all that mattered was his political calculations? How is it Pat Buchanan and Chris Mathews cared about the words in the speech and some of the most important thinkers of the political did not?