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Viewing by month: September 2011

Sep 28 2011

At Extremes

We  live, so it seems, in an age of extremes.  Perhaps it’s too obvious a point to dwell upon, but recent events from Washington to Norway have me circling in thought about the culture of extremes, and of extremisms.  To judge from our fondness for the word itself, Americans are quite happy with the idea of extreme culture.  Extreme weather explains away global climate change and makes good TV fare to boot.  Extreme sports bring daredeviltry somehow within the fold of healthy athleticism, while still letting the wingsuit flyer or buggy roller keep his sense of being  above you inside-the-envelope types.  (The symbiosis of extreme sports, body-mountable mini video cameras, and YouTube’s exhibitionist theater is a sure sign of the times.)  Extreme makeovers of homes and bodies are entrancing media spectacles that provoke viewers’ unsettled desire for some ineffable, radical change, then channel it towards attainable catalysts like high fiber cereal, light beer, and sleeved blankets.  We may feel great sympathy and approval for the foster-mom’s fabulous instant home-cum-amusement arcade, and so transfer that sympathy to Craftsman power tools.  We may feel a horrified superiority to the face-and/or-body makeover subject’s willingness to undergo plastic surgery on her extremities while we can happily suffice with some new deodorant or eyeliner.  Extreme rides, extreme weight loss, extreme couponing, extreme yoga.  There seems to be no end of it, which is, I suppose, one meaning of “extreme.”

Even where the word doesn’t figure, extremism infuses the cultural air.  And water: Discovery Channel’s marketing-blitz Shark Week—nearly every commercial vaunts a clever tie-in—is always big in my house.  But as I watched Shark Week shows with my kids this summer, I felt a quasi-bored annoyance as each successive segment took us—cue ominous cello notes—Free swimming! Out of the cage! With the tigers and whites!  And what one Blakean voice-over called their “fearsome dentition”!  We gazed at stunts that “dramatically increase the danger of an attack” (so warned our narrator, Frontline’s sober Will Lyman, moonlighting from his usual work in political documentary).  We lowered our slices of pizza to exchange the knowing glance that says, “But I can to bring that risk to zero!”   I keep thinking back to one free-diving, dorsal-fin riding sharkist—his graceful and solitary silhouette against the mirrored sea surface accompanied by an almost religiously contemplative soundtrack.  At one level it was clear he wanted to be the shark—the pure and extreme top predator, the organism beyond all argument—and yet also be the prey who craftily, or luckily, escapes being dinner.  He remarked, on coming up for air, “It was the most profound moment of my life.”

Perhaps this strange mixture of solipsistic yearning and deathless deathwishing puts us onto something about our extreme fondness for extremes.  It’s there too in performance art extremism, like extreme ironing, which points to the deconstructive core of the culture of extremes as issuing from a real human urge to connect with something beyond the mundane and ordinary but also and in the same moment dejectedly admitting that, whatever this extreme activity is, it won’t fulfill that need longer than a free dive or free fall (in both cases and on several levels a striking abuse of the word “free”).  There is no lasting transcendence in our culture of extremes, hence the compulsiveness of extreme activities and their spectation, as well as their inevitable entanglement with consumerism.  From this position, perhaps we can see the self-consuming contradiction of the extremist as one who puts herself beyond the usual range of human activity or beliefs, yet still asserts to belong to and to represent, even more organically and essentially somehow, the core reality of things. Extremism is thus a conflicted phenomenon, a No that asserts its Yes-ness, a perfectionism claiming pragmatism, a fundamental irrationality.  Perhaps this revelation, if it is one, applies even to political extremism, limning a basic incoherence in the term.
To be continued…

Posted by Stephen J. McKenna at 9:41 AM - Categories:

Sep 26 2011

Millionaires and Taxes: A Reality Check

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0 comments - Posted by Ernest Zampelli at 9:18 AM - Categories: Economy

Sep 21 2011

Poverty Rates Climb… And Congress is Silent. Why?

The U.S. Census Bureau has released some disturbing new numbers measuring poverty in the United States.  More than 46 million Americans are currently living below the poverty line – a whopping 15% of the U.S. population.  Not since the early 1990’s has the percentage been this high.  And even worse, the data show sharp declines in real income, a record number of people without health care insurance, and particularly harsh economic conditions for women.

Yet despite widespread media coverage of these alarming figures, the reaction from Congress has been surprisingly muted.  Why?

To be sure, the current political environment is not conducive to Congress taking action.  The talk in Washington is about debt reduction, not federal spending.  Congress is sharply divided along partisan lines – Democrats control the Senate, Republicans the House – a recipe for policy gridlock.  Democrats, thinking to the next presidential election, worry that pushing the issue may only further connect Obama with the struggling economy.  And Congressional Republicans, an increasingly conservative party, do not want to lose the support of activist Tea Party groups, most of which are so opposed to government programs and regulations that they sometimes sound like the Anti-Federalists of the 1780’s.

But there are three bigger reasons that Congress is less likely to deal with poverty than it should.

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0 comments - Posted by Matthew Green at 10:16 AM - Categories: Social Justice | Education | Government & Civil Society

Sep 15 2011

Poverty, Civic Education, and Democracy

I happen to be working on a paper dealing with strategies that enhance civic education. There are extensive data showing that the quality of civic education differs according to the population being served. For example, in California, schools serving low income, “disadvantaged” students, tend not to have supplements to civics classes such as service, simulations, or discussions, whereas schools serving higher income students have these supplements (Kahne and Middaugh, 2009). Across the country, schools serving disadvantaged students tend not to have student governments and if they have them, student governments tend not to have a voice in policy (McFarland and Starrmans, 2009).

Recently published data on civic knowledge (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2010) demonstrate that the failure to use enriching practices is a lost opportunity. Disadvantaged students, defined here as being eligible for free lunches, benefit greatly when their teachers use discussion of the material being studied. 8th and 12th graders whose teachers say that they never or only a few times a year used discussion, scored 125 and 126, respectively, on the NAEP test. Their peers in classes where teachers used discussion on a regular basis, scored 155 and 152, respectively. (These are my calculations using the on-line data provided for NAEP by the National Center for Education Statistics.) The differences are statistically significant and indicate that disadvantaged students benefit from enriched civic education classes. (Advantaged students benefitted as well.)

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0 comments - Posted by James Youniss at 12:41 PM - Categories: Education | Government & Civil Society

Sep 8 2011

An Open Letter to My President

Dear President Obama,
Tonight you will address a joint session of Congress to outline your proposal to get the economy moving at a fast enough pace to finally make some significant and consistent progress in reducing the intolerable level of joblessness that has plagued the nation for too long.  I implore you Mr. President--do not waste this opportunity on proposals to placate in any fashion the congressional deficit hawks and Tea Partyers, the Mitt Romneys, the Rick Perrys, the Michele Bachmanns and their conservative academic economist advisors.  This Great Recession, precipitated by the financial crisis, is now a consequence of inadequate aggregate demand.  Consumer spending is insufficient because consumers are deleveraging and job prospects are woeful.  Businesses aren’t spending or hiring because consumers aren’t spending, not because of uncertainties about the debt, the deficit, regulations, taxes, etc. as some would argue ad nauseam, e.g. John B. Taylor in Wednesday’s New York Times.  And so, if the private sector is not spending, it is up to the public sector to fill the void, it is up to the public sector to spend, but spend wisely.  Ignore those who echo the tired conservative refrain that the $800 billion fiscal stimulus failed—it wasn’t large enough to even be called a stimulus and it was ill-targeted because you tried to placate those who cannot be placated.  Ignore those who argue that the government’s spending will simply “crowd-out” private spending.  That won’t happen to any significant degree in our current “liquidity trap” condition.  Ignore those who would demonize additional government spending because of its deficit and debt impacts.  The latter should not now be the main focus of macroeconomic policy.

From you I want to see a bold proposal that increases substantially federal aid to state and local governments, first for the maintenance of existing infrastructure (roads, bridges, sewer systems, schools, parks, recreation facilities, retrofitting of government facilities to enhance energy efficiency) and second for new infrastructure projects.  Most of the funds should be targeted to infrastructure maintenance as these projects tend to yield higher returns and can be started more quickly than new infrastructure projects. 

Extend unemployment benefits.  Pay little attention to those who argue that this kind of policy actually causes unemployment to be much greater and the duration much longer since it reduces the urgency of taking a job.  The evidence for this is really not very compelling especially with labor market conditions as they exist today. 

Stay away from proposing too much in the way of relatively ineffective tax cuts, even payroll tax cuts, for individuals and/or businesses.  The impetus that such cuts give to spending is relatively minor.  Indeed, this was a major problem with your first “stimulus” package.   

Do not compromise needlessly on delaying necessary regulations whether environmental, financial, consumer, or otherwise.  They are not the culprits here—the lack of aggregate spending is.

The additional spending should continue for about two years.  As the economy recovers and the unemployment rate shows a consistent decline, the weaning will have to begin.  Note that none of these short-run stimulus prescriptions should preclude discussions and/or passage of effective long-run policies and proposals to deal the long-term fiscal problems we face.  But please, do not use these long-term problems as an excuse for holding back any longer on the short run stimulus measures that are necessary to get out of the serious economic malaise in which the nation finds itself.

Mr. President, I wish you well.


Ernest M. Zampelli

1 comments - Posted by Ernest Zampelli at 8:15 AM - Categories: Economy