Friday, January 17, 2014

Oh Well, So Much For Marrying Up

Wait--I understood that if poor people just got married enough that poverty would end? Now, according to David Brooks, it turns out that when people practice "assortative mating" that there won't be enough rich men to go around. I has a sad.

Kathleen Parker a few days ago:

More to the point, we know that being unmarried is one of the highest risk factors for poverty. And no, splitting expenses between unmarried people isn’t the same. This is because marriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times.

David Brooks today:

At the top end, there is the growing wealth of the top 5 percent of workers. This is linked to things like perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street, assortative mating (highly educated people are more likely to marry each other and pass down their advantages to their children) and the superstar effect (in an Internet economy, a few superstars in each industry can reap global gains while the average performers cannot).

Emphasis added to remind us all that Brooks' goal posts have left the building, hell, they are in Antigua.  The crushing burden of income inequality is not because the top "five percent of workers" get inordinate rewards (though they do) its that the ownership class of the top 1 percent aren't really workers at all in a traditional sense, and their income and their assets are not the product of their earnings at all. They have nothing in common with labor and neither education nor marriage have anything to do with their power.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

No He Didn't

Look, TPM, Axelrod's tweet didn't say "Christie will survive this scandal" it referred specifically to the press conference and said "he will live to fight another day" which is true. Nothing that has come out so far caused him to resign during or right after the press conference and he has clearly indicated he intends to fight for his governorship. But he lives only "to fight another day"--that's not guarantee that he wins the battle tomorrow or the next day.

Art and Fear, Some Notes (Part I)

I'm reading a marvellous little book called Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.  It was recommended to me by Hillary Rettig who I've never had the pleasure of actually meeting or working with but whose newsletter I have the good fortune to be on.

Here are some choice quotes and then, time permitting, some thoughts.

The Topic:

"This is a book about making art. Ordinary art...not made by Mozart.  Making art is a common and intimately human activity...This book is about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do.  It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work."

The Nature of the Problem:

"Making art is difficult.  We leave drawings unfinished and stories unwritten.  We do work that does not feel like our own.  We repeat ourselves.  We stop before we have mastered our materials, or continue on long after their potential is exhausted.  Often the work we have not done seems more real in our minds than the pieces we have completed."

This really resonates, for me, not only in terms of capital A art, but in terms of my own "work" which is anthropology, reading, and writing.  And now, of course, its as true for my *&%% applications to the Master's Program in Social Work as my Thesis.  Beginning writing, polishing my writing, and finally, choosing when to end my writing has always been incredibly painful for me and has always happened on someone else's timeline, not my own.  My department actually had to call me when my dissertation was (finally) due and demand I turn it in. I'd tried to miss the deadline again to take the pressure off myself and they woke me up at six a.m my time and said, basically, "we aren't going to let you blow your deadline. You missed the deadline and we are holding it open so send that fucker in."

Speaking specifically of Art, and not (say) of work done in the sciences or social sciences, the writers say:

"It may have been easier to paint bison on the cave walls long ago than to write this (or any other) sentence today.  Other people, in other times and places, had some robust institutions to shore them up: witness the Church, the clan, ritual, tradition. Its easy to imagine that artists doubed their calling less when working in the service of God than when working in the service of self."  

I could quibble with that or start a conversation about what it means to do sacred, or propitiatory, or invocatory, or negotiatory, art or art as personal narrative within a familial setting vs art for the market in a subsistence or feudal economy but I won't. I love the image and I find it provocative.

"Not so today.  Today almost no one feels shored up. Today artwork does not emerge from a secure common ground: the bison on the wall is someone else's magic.  Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.  Making the work you want to make means setting aside these doubts so that you may see clearly what you have done, and thereby see where to go next.  Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself."
On Art and Talent:

"Yet even the notion that you have a say in this process conflicts with the prevailing view of artmaking today--namely, that art rests fundamentally upon talent, and that talent is a gift randomly built into some people and not into others. In common parlance, either you have it or you don't--great art is a product of genius, good art a product of near-genius (which Nabokov likened to Near-Beer), and so on down the line to pulp romances and paint-by-the-numbers.  this view is inherently fatalistic--even if it's true, it's fatalistic--and offers no useful encouragement to those who would make art.  Personally, we'll side with Conrad's view of fatalism: namely, that it is a species of fear--the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak."

 I have two sets of thoughts on this--one, I read these words and think about my struggles as a professional, or to remain a capital P professional while I've been outside the paid work world for so many years.  I'll have more to say about that later.  The second set of thoughts is that the realm of that which is Art and that which is creative is so, so, so, much more extensive than I thought.  As I read ahead in this book I began to recognize the creative impulse in my own life and how I have (more or less successfully) carried it through in my life as a mother and, though I gag a bit saying it, as a person making a haven in a heartless world, a hearth that is always burning, a place of retreat and renewal in a workaday world.

One of my arts--though its not seen that way in the world--is for raising children.  I've been working at this task for 17 years now and although its repetitive and filled with seemingly bureaucratic or administrative tasks like set up and clean up, buying boots and washing clothes, making a million meals and wiping up projectile vomiting, it seems to be going very well.  The end product is not a single, finished "thing" but an ongoing relationship with another human being, and the joy of it has to be found in the process which you either love or you don't.

One reason you can't focus on the "end product" is that, with luck, you won't see the end at all.  I come from a world of ordinary tragedy.  My sister died when I was eight and she was six.  My husband's niece died when she was nine and my own daughters were six and four.  Having lived in Nepal I well know that this is merely ordinary tragedy.  There are greater and more horrific ones every day.  But, nonetheless, I have always known, since before my oldest daughter was born, that this life, this relationship of mother to child, was incredibly precious, fragile, temporary, and to be loved from moment to moment and not only in retrospect.  Of course that is incredibly hard to do since we are always living in the past and the future--worrying about what we did wrong that led to the present difficulty, and trying to stave off future harm, or bring about future bliss, by making the right choice right now.  This is something I see all the time with the young, first time mothers, with whom I work.

It is only in reading this little book on Art, however, that I have come to recognize my approach to this process of mothering as, essentially, artistic--hard, focused, playful, creative, improvisational, process oriented, repetitive, respectful of the materials, experimental, always pushing the boundaries of my talents and the materials (the children).  There are even occasional "performances," one might say, holidays, meals, recitals, when the children and the family rush to finish some kind of piece of culturally significant meaning.  In that I think we are very like the imagined cave people making their bison and hand paintings on the wall.  Or a medieval village operating in sacred time and space, enjoying a local festival for its own sake and not as a performance for others.   We rush about together, enacting family solidarity and making a sacred space for the meal, or the recital, and then we all throw ourselves down and do the thing and then clean up and start again on the next thing.  (This is especially true of something like Passover, which combines elements of everything from religious ritual to theater to family play, but its true on another level for every family meal we have and every little family ritual from the way we read books at bedtime to the way we now watch particular tv shows (Fringe, The Americans) or live theater (a lot of Shakespeare) together.

Even though this book came to me as a revelation its not like I did not already know, in my bones, what was in it.  This perception--that art, as life, is what you make of it not the perfection of the end product--is pretty much received wisdom by this time, isn't it? Its certainly the basis of some important works in child rearing, for example, such as "Raising Lifelong Learners" and even, I would argue, "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, How to Listen so Kids will Talk."  Both these books and many others reflect a belief about the world and about children which assumes we can't know, a priori, what the finished product should look like--and neither can the child. There isn't always going to be a single right answer or a single right choice in the world and, in any event, we are not going to always be there to supply the motive force or the judgemental voice pushing the child (or the evetual adult) into doing "the right thing."  There isn't going to be one kind of good person or perfect adult--just a person who can continually grow, connect, engage, mature, love, and share in a wide variety of circumstances and in the face of adversity.  I could write an entire essay on the contrast between this viewpoint and that of more authoritarian or (in this country) christianist theories of child rearing such as that of the Perls.

In the realm of education this is especially true.  I was definitely raised in the era of the romance of the talented prodigy. Certain things, like language, math, and art were believed to be the purview of the super talented.  Skipping grades, just "knowing" how to do something, having perfect recall or being fast at learning something were considered attributes of the good student and something that the rest of us simply needed to acknowledge and move aside for.  If you had a talent for something, you would work hard at it and get good grades, if you didn't have a natural talent for it, you plugged along without much help until you finished the minimum required and then you dropped it, with a sigh of relief.  This is as true for "art" classes which were under attack when I was in school in the 60's and 70's as it was for mathematics, language, or music.

In a revolt against this we sent our children to an alternative school (not surprisingly, since there's nothing new under the sun, my great grandfather was one of the exponents of the Modern School Movement and most of the "new" educational philosophies are drawn from this now rather old movement).  So, for my daughters, the emphasis has always been on process, not product. On learning to use mathematical concepts and numbers as everyday tools and for play, not merely to pass a test.  The result are two children who are extremely comfortable with working through things that they don't already know, with slowness, with the act of doing math rather than merely getting the right answer.  Not that it hasn't always been a struggle--in fact this quote from Math Babe's essay on the topic came to me because my youngest daughter, in her new school, was falling into the trap of regarding math as something that "good" mathematicians do "fast."

Here’s the thing. There’s always someone faster than you. And it feels bad, especially when you feel slow, and especially when that person cares about being fast, because all of a sudden, in your confusion about all sort of things, speed seems important. But it’s not a race. Mathematics is patient and doesn’t mind. Think of it, your slowness, or lack of quickness, as a style thing but not as a shortcoming.
Why style? Over the years I’ve found that slow mathematicians have a different thing to offer than fast mathematicians, although there are exceptions (Bjorn Poonen comes to mind, who is fast but thinks things through like a slow mathematician. Love that guy). I totally didn’t define this but I think it’s true, and other mathematicians, weigh in please.
One thing that’s incredibly annoying about this concept of “fastness” when it comes to solving math problems is that, as a high school kid, you’re surrounded by math competitions, which all kind of suck. They make it seem like, to be “good” at math, you have to be fast. That’s really just not true once you grow up and start doing grownup math.
In reality, mostly of being good at math is really about how much you want to spend your time doing math. And I guess it’s true that if you’re slower you have to want to spend more time doing math, but if you love doing math then that’s totally fine. Plus, thinking about things overnight always helps me. So sleeping about math counts as time spent doing math.
Mathbabe's observation about math is, in essence, the basic observation that the Artists make in Art and Fear.  If you want to be doing this thing, whatever your creative format is, you have to want to do it a lot.  Both because doing it a lot is necessary to doing it well, and because--hey, its your life, if you aren't enjoying it you are wasting your time.

Hopefully Part II will come over the weekend.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Listening to Warren Zevon. So Many People This Could Describe.

Mr. Bad Example

I started as an alter boy, working at the church
Learning all my holy moves, doing some research
Which led me to a cash box, labeled "Children's Fund"
I'd leave the change, and tuck the bills inside my cummerbund
I got a part-time job at my father's carpet store
Laying tackless stripping, and housewives by the score
I loaded up their furniture, and took it to Spokane
And auctioned off every last naugahyde divan
I'm very well aquainted with the seven deadly sins
I keep a busy schedule trying to fit them in
I'm proud to be a glutton, and I don't have time for sloth
I'm greedy, and I'm angry, and I don't care who I cross
I'm Mr. Bad Example, intruder in the dirt
I like to have a good time, and I don't care who gets hurt
I'm Mr. Bad Example, take a look at me
I'll live to be a hundred, and go down in infamy
Of course I went to law school and took a law degree
And counseled all my clients to plead insanity
Then worked in hair replacement, swindling the bald
Where very few are chosen, and fewer still are called
Then on to Monte Carlo to play chemin de fer
I threw away the fortune I made transplanting hair
I put my last few francs down on a prostitute
Who took me up to her room to perform the flag salute
Whereupon I stole her passport and her wig
And headed for the airport and the midnight flight, you dig?
And fourteen hours later I was down in Adelaide
Looking through the want ads sipping Fosters in the shade
I opened up an agency somewhere down the line
To hire aboriginals to work the opal mines
But I attached their wages and took a whopping cut
And whisked away their workman's comp and pauperized the lot
I'm Mr. Bad Example, intruder in the dirt
I like to have a good time, and I don't care who gets hurt
I'm Mr. Bad Example, take a look at me
I'll live to be a hundred and go down in infamy
I bought a first class ticket on Malaysian Air
And landed in Sri Lanka none the worse for wear
I'm thinking of retiring from all my dirty deals
I'll see you in the next life, wake me up for meals

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Check This Out

These are something called "Animations of Mortality" by Smut Clyde and I think they are wonderful. The link takes you to many more but this is one of my favorites. I hope it reproduces well here. Its a bit hard on the eyes, I think, and if you have some form of epilepsy you might want to look away. But what I love about it is the way it draws your attention to the foundational image. Leaping between glimpses of the variations makes you strikingly aware of what was important and what was not important, what had to endure to make the image a workable "type" and what could be altered or deleted without affecting the meaning or the impact. We were discussing great actors and irreplaceable forms of characterization in films today over at Lawyer's Guns and Money (yes, I was wasting time doing that) and it occurs to me that this is a visual representation of some of the issues raised in doing any new production of a well known story such as the version of Twelfth Night I just saw in New York, or the ones I might see in the future.  The Joan of Arc which I saw last year was a stripped down version of the original--no props, no real costumes, and only four actors playing some 12 to thirty roles.  And yet it was, recognizably, indisputably, St. Joan.  Similarly once you've seen enough of this image you will recognize it anywhere, even drawn down to its simplest form.

Ars Moriendi

Dwell in Possibilities. The New Year's a Blank Page.

Its already half past noon on the first day of the New Year and I'm tingling with the possibilities and procrastinating the shit out of it.  I started the morning by beginning to read "The Strange Death of Liberal England (1910-1914) and it is absolutely my new favorite old book of all time.  Here is the author's description of Mr. Asquith, then Prime Minister, contemplating the recent death of his King, (ETA thanks to sharp eyed readers) Edward VII,  while staring at Halley's Comet, Comet, Comet (damn you, Smut Clyde).

"A character from one of Voltaire's tragedies would have done justice to this...situation...but neither Mr. Asquith's temperament nor his rather stolid figure had any business to monopolize so pregnant a scene.  He has recorded it in one lightless sentence in his "Fifty Years of British Parliament," and one can imagine his face, faintly illuminated in the twilight, a bland and weary face, in which frankness and reserve had long fought themselves to a stand-still.  A touch of flamboyance (sic) in the long white hair, a hint of fantasy at the corners of the mouth gave this face a certain incongruity, as though a passage of correct and scholarly prose had been set up in too fanciful a type.  Mr. Asquith was essentially a prosaic character."

Or take this description of Liberalism itself:

"Liberalism in its Victorian plenitude had been an easy burden to bear, for it contained--and who could doubt it?--a various and valuable collection of gold, stocks, bibles, progressive thoughts, and decent inhibitions.  It was solid and sensible and just a little mysterious; and though one could not exactly gambol with such a weight on one's shoulders, it permitted one to walk in a dignified manner and even to execute from time to time those eccentric little steps which are so necessary to the health of Englishmen." 

I also especially like his almost biological and organic approach to English Politics, which is especially striking in comparison to the more engineering and structural approaches you see in US political theory.  Naturally one reads the current book in the light of one's own preoccupations--the topic of the first section is the war between the Lords and the Commons, the Conservative party (spanning both Lords and Commons) and the Liberals (largely in the Commons) for control of the government and the right to raise taxes and conduct business.  I see the current struggle between the Republican Party (reactionaries, cultural conservatives, nationalists and jingoists and religious and sexual bigots) vs the Democratic Party (variously and quaveringly socially liberal and fiscally conservative) especially over the ACA and its passage and implementation.  But here's how the author describes the political world generally:

"The soil of the eighteenth century was very rich.  Far beneath its surface the struggles of history, long dead, worked their powerful chemistry: here were the corpses of feudalism and absolutism, in various stages of decay; here were the ashes of heretics, the blood of rebels, the nourishing mineral relics of ignorance and patriotism.  There was scarcely an institution, political or social, which did not flourish in this earth and grow fat; and particularly was this true of the House of Lords..."

I love the vision of the political realm as a burgeoning, seething, cemetery in which new ideas and growths push up from the hidden, but not forgotten, corpses of the past.  For one thing its so lush and filled with images of sensual decay and rebirth.  For another, it reminds one that in politics as in psychology there is always the danger of the return of the repressed or the revolt of the unconcious against the conscious.  At any rate it is a necessary corrective to the pure, cold, corporate model used to explain American politics.  The author of "The Strange Death" does not imagine any Schoolhouse Rock version of "How a Bill Gets Passed." (Here I'm going to make a bit of a jump but reading the first few chapters of TSDOLE really is pretty jaw dropping.*)

How do we get from the seething sepulchres of British politics to the whited sepulchers of US  politics? It must be some process of wilful forgetting.  But you see it all the time.  In analyzing why the House voted this way, or why the Senate is reactionary and unrepresentative, we are given dry as dust analyses of voting patterns and demographics and committee forms.  But this leads the unwary reader or political novice to think that you pop your representatives and their votes in one end of a cold black box and the legislation pops out the other end.  Thats not what is really happening in the political world--its a lot closer to two (or more) competing farmers cultivating some kind of biological product in their home sewage treatment plants, hoping that from the mixture of compost, gases, and luck something good will pop out that will please the buyer every two years. This fundamental misunderstanding: the mechanistic versus the biological viewpoint, leads to constant disapointment on the left and right.**

  This is why, on the left, you have such a raging fury at the Democrats for being unable to pass a perfect, leftist, ACA bill and now you have Booman furious that the Democrats "didn't fight hard enough" for the Unemployment Insurance extension when he thinks they had "the most leverage" during the budget agreement.   Booman says:

On the political front, I note that Harry Reid intends to make the first order of business on Monday an effort to extend unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million people who just lost that benefit on Saturday. His fellow senator from Nevada, Dean Heller, is co-sponsoring the legislation along with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI).
However, there is little reason to believe that the House will agree to an extension, and they certainly won't agree to one unless it is offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. The best time to extend benefits was when the Murray-Ryan budget negotiations were underway, because the Republican leadership and most of their appropriators were desperate for a deal. The White House doesn't think a deal was attainable that included an extension, and that may be true. But, for me, that just makes it less likely that an extension can be achieved now.
Personally, I think the truth is more that the White House wasn't willing to risk losing what they got out of the deal by insisting on an extension, and they figure that they can use it as an effective political issue. I got a bit of a brushback on that, by I don't care if it strikes some folks on Pennsylvania Avenue as an offensive suggestion. I think they made a calculation, and the long-term unemployed were left to the mercy of the House Republicans.

Booman thinks that the Democrats could have gotten a budget deal that included the UE but which didn't require "spending cuts elsewhere in the budget."  Now, he thinks, when  Reid and Obama basically shove the House up against the wall and demand a UE extension he thinks the House will have the stomach to "demand spending cuts elsewhere in the budget" i.e. offsets in the new budget. Worse--since this is merely a question of tactics--Booman thinks that the White House "made a calculation"   and left the "long-term unemployed to the mercy of the House Republicans."  So the White House chose a worse deal (Budget compromise, no more shut downs, partial end to the sequester) when Booman thinks they could have gotten all that and a bag of chips and this is evidence of some kind of cowardice.  But, of course, Booman has no reason to believe that the Republicans wouldn't have held firm and demanded "budget offsets" in order to include UE in the original budget deal.  And there is every reason to believe that they did, or would have, and that it was understood by the Dems that UE extension was both a bridge too far and, if I may mix my metaphors, an anvil to hang around their necks after the new year.

And that is precisely what the Democrats are doing. They are teeing up another confrontation over the UE expansion in which the lines are clearly drawn.  It may be true that the big money backers of the Republicans no longer feel the sense of urgency that they felt prior to the budget deal--but does that mean that there are no relevant political actors to be mobilized? Or that there is no long term utility to mobilizing those actors?  Booman thinks that the new "calculation" (Brrr! Evil!) will fail because there is now nothing that the Republicans want, as a party, that they can get through a UE extension.  But is that really true? Or is that, obviously, a failure of calculation or a different calculation?  This is just a new version of the "Green Lanternism" (this is in quotes in case my parents are reading) argument for Single Payer.

We are not going to get to a new nirvana of political perfection simply by the Democrats stepping in, again and again, to clean up the messes the Republicans leave in their wake.  At a certain point the voters have to step up to the plate. 1.3 million unemployed people being cut off insurance is not a Democratic plan.  Its not even the failure of Democratic plans.  It is what happens when a lot of political balls are in the air, and a lot of intransigent political actors answering their own needs.  The Democrats saved something in the negotiations from the wreckage of a dysfunctional partisan conflict which amounts to the total nullification of, and denial of, governance.  They lost something, too, or they may have.  Its like saying "if you'd put your money down on that hidden card it might have won you the game. I haven't seen the card, but it could have been the right one."  You just don't know that. Booman doesn't know that.  The only thing we do know is that the failure of a UE  is the obvious fruit of Republican hatred of workers.  If voters won't turn out to vote the Republican House out of existence there is not much the Democratic party can do to stave off the total destruction of the country.

I'm horrified by the cruelty and intransigence of the Republican party but I can't stop them from doing their worst--I don't know why Booman thinks anything short of accidental detonation of a neutron bomb can do so.  They are on a certain course and they are not going to be moved by pleas of humanity--only by threats of losing their seats.

*Basically: in 1909 England was drowning in debt.  The Liberals drew up a make or break "People's Budget" which was so terrifyingly progressive that most of them didn't want it (it included income taxes, liquor taxes, and a slew of new taxes on land and on mineral extraction).  However, they put it forward in order to dare the House of Lords, which had been vetoing legislation at an alarming rate, to try to veto (against all custom) a Budget Bill.  Does this sound at all familiar? They basically dared the House of Lords, as Harry Reid dared the Republicans on the filibuster, to cross the line.  When the House of Lords, against the advice of the Conservatives in the House, took the bait and vetoed the Budget bill, the government fell and the Liberals went back to the country to get a new Mandate.  Their "calculation" to use Booman's term, was that they would be returned with such a majority that they would be able to force through any new budget that they wanted.  In the event, they lost their majority and had to treat with the Irish members to get their support.  In other words: like any political calculation, it was a gamble.  But there's no other way to play politics. Every piece of legislation is crafted as a vote getting compromise, or as a bludgeon to smash your enemies. Only thirdly, in a divided government, is legislation purely about getting something done.  (If you want to hear how this amazing story of government by brinksmanship turns out you have to go ahead and read the book yourself. But I do want to add that given the fluidity of then British Government structures and laws relating to political organization the negotiations involved (among other things) the threat of Edward the VII (and later George V) diluting the House of Lords by appointing Liberal Peers.  Its as though Obama could have cowed the Senate Republicans by threatening to appoint 10 or 20 new Democratic Senators.

**You can fill in the blank yourself on right wing arguments for purity of essence and their rage at anything that smacks of compromise or interaction.  Their belief, which closely parallels that of the leftist critiques of Obama, is that if you have a majority (and every house member is considered to represent a majority) then majority rule means your will must be done.  Where "your will" isn't done there is no question but it is the result of cowardice or duplicity on the part of your representatives who were either not pure enough, or outright traitors to their professed beliefs.