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Posts Tagged ‘politics

“There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: ‘I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.'”*…

 

McKinsey

 

 

McKinsey has a lot of high-flying rhetoric about strategy, sustainability, and social justice. The company ostensibly pursues intellectual and business excellence, while also using its people skills to help Syrian refugees. That’s nice.

But let’s start with what McKinsey is really about, which is getting organizational leaders to pay a large amount of money for fairly pedestrian advice. In MacDougall’s article on McKinsey’s work on immigration, most of the conversation has been about McKinsey’s push to engage in cruel behavior towards detainees. But let’s not lose sight of the incentive driving the relationship, which was McKinsey’s political ability to extract cash from the government. Here’s the nub of that part of the story.

The consulting firm’s sway at ICE grew to the point that McKinsey’s staff even ghostwrote a government contracting document that defined the consulting team’s own responsibilities and justified the firm’s retention, a contract extension worth $2.2 million. “Can they do that?” an ICE official wrote to a contracting officer in May 2017.

The response reflects how deeply ICE had come to rely on McKinsey’s assistance. “Well it obviously isn’t ideal to have a contractor tell us what we want to ask them to do,” the contracting officer replied. But unless someone from the government could articulate the agency’s objectives, the officer added, “what other option is there?” ICE extended the contract.

Such practices used to be called “honest graft.” And let’s be clear, McKinsey’s services are very expensive. Back in August, I noted that McKinsey’s competitor, the Boston Consulting Group, charges the government $33,063.75/week for the time of a recent college grad to work as a contractor. Not to be outdone, McKinsey’s pricing is much much higher, with one McKinsey “business analyst” – someone with an undergraduate degree and no experience – lent to the government priced out at $56,707/week, or $2,948,764/year.

How does McKinsey do it? There are two answers…

The estimable Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) explains: “Why Taxpayers Pay McKinsey $3M a Year for a Recent College Graduate Contractor.”

See also: “How McKinsey Makes Its Own Rules.”

[Image above: source]

* “Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”  —  George Washington Plunkitt, New York State Senator and “Sage of Tammany Hall

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As we reconsider consultants, we might recall that it was on this date in 2010 that Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, despondent after the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides, set himself afire in his home town of Sidi Bouzid… a central catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution— the Jasmine Revolution– and the wider Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic regimes throughout the region.

220px-Mohamed_Bouazizi_2 source

 

“The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes”*…

 

middle class

 

But is there a middle class?…

Every politician defends the middle class, but none of them knows quite what it is. In August, during a town hall, Joe Biden said, “We have to rebuild the middle class, and this time we bring everyone along.” In his telling, the middle class is part memory and part aspiration, less a demographic group than a morality tale of loss and redemption. It “isn’t a number,” Biden is fond of saying. “It’s a set of values.”

For many social scientists, though, the middle class is a matter of numbers. The Pew Research Center says that anyone who earns between a mere two-thirds of the median household income and twice that amount falls within it. By that definition, just under half of all American adults are middle class. Unlike in Britain, where the category is seen as more culturally refined, the American middle class includes blue-collar workers whose consumption patterns fit the bill; they can buy a home or put their kids through college. Biden defines the middle class even more expansively. To be middle class, he said in Iowa this summer, is to know “that your kid is safe going outside to play”—something most humans, if not most large primates, would agree they want. To be middle class is to be, well, normal.

Republicans, for their part, rarely promise to rebuild the middle class; they want, as President Trump has said, to make it “bigger and more prosperous than ever before.” But liberal politicians from Biden to Barack Obama to Elizabeth Warren often vow to restore the middle class to the former glory of the three decades after World War II—a time when, they say, prosperity was shared and class conflict neutralized.

Even then, however, there was a sense that the middle class was in crisis. In his 1956 best-seller, The Organization Man, William Whyte wrote of a middle class—an implicitly white middle class—trapped in suburbs and office jobs, shorn of the entrepreneurial individualism and wartime solidarity of earlier generations. In 1969, a New York Times reporter found in Italian-American Queens a community trapped between escalating grocery bills and the expanding “ghetto.” In 1977, the middle class was “struggling uphill,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. In 1992, it felt “betrayed” and “forgotten,” according to the Times. And since 2008, Times subscribers have read of a middle class that is “sagging,” “shrinking,” “sinking,” and “limping.” In short, the middle class, as our politicians imagine it, has never really existed [in a settled, continuous way]: It is always in decline, always on the brink of being rebuilt.

To imagine the middle class, then, is to invoke a myth. Politicians use it to bind Americans together in a shared hope that they can one day return to the lost idyll of the postwar period. In that sense, the concept is remarkably optimistic, if somewhat inconsistent. As Lawrence Samuel argues in The American Middle Class: A Cultural History, the term expresses two incompatible things: It suggests that the United States is a classless society in which most citizens belong to the same social sphere, even as it hints at a rarefied class above the middle that anyone can reach if they work hard enough to ascend the ladder of opportunity. These can’t both be true—if the United States were a classless society, there would be no need for upward mobility. The metaphor gives the lie to the myth. Every ladder, after all, has a top and a bottom—and it’s the bottom that bears all the weight…

Politicians– and business people and academics– are quick to reference “the middle class.”  John Patrick Leary (@johnpatleary) explores “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Middle Class.”

* Aristotle

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As we contemplate classification and its consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1792, during George Washington’s first term as president, that the first edition of The Farmers Almanac was published.  (It became The Old Farmers Almanac in 1832 to distinguish itself from similarly-titled competitors.)  Still going strong, it is the oldest continuously-published periodical in the U.S.

Almanac source

 

Written by LW

November 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water”*…

 

Water

 

The dangers of environmental pollution receive a lot of attention nowadays, particularly in the developing world, and with good reason. Air quality indices are dismal and worsening in many places, with India, in particular, facing an acute public-health emergency. But as serious as the pollution problem is, it must not be allowed to obscure another incipient environmental catastrophe, and potential source of future conflict: lack of access to clean water.

We may live on a “blue planet,” but less than 3% of all of our water is fresh, and much of it is inaccessible (for example, because it is locked in glaciers). Since 1960, the amount of available fresh water per capita has declined by more than half, leaving over 40% of the world’s population facing water stress. By 2030, demand for fresh water will exceed supply by an estimated 40%.

With nearly two-thirds of fresh water coming from rivers and lakes that cross national borders, intensifying water stress fuels a vicious circle, in which countries compete for supplies, leading to greater stress and more competition. Today, hundreds of international water agreements are coming under pressure…

In 2015, United Nations member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which include an imperative to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”  Yet, in the last four years, matters have deteriorated significantly.  Jayati Ghosh explains “The Growing Threat of Water Wars.”

For a combination of historical and statistical perspective on water conflict, see “Whatever happened to the water wars? More of them have happened than most people think.

* Benjamin Franklin

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As we struggle to share, we might send rational birthday greetings to Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born on this date in 1694.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.

 source

 

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures”*…

 

stranger_than_nonfiction_1050x700

 

Helen Hunt Jackson is best remembered for her novel Ramona, originally published in 1884. The story of a half Irish, half Native American orphan and her lover, Ramona was a blockbuster success. The book remains in print. At least five movie versions have been made. There have been staged Ramona plays in the Ramonabowl in Hemet, California, since 1923, with hundreds of costumed volunteers. Many credit the novel with giving birth to California tourism.

Jackson called Ramona the “sugar-coating of the pill” of her polemical mission to get Americans to reconsider their treatment of Native Americans. Jackson’s goal was policy reform. She wanted to expose genocide and land theft, the outrages that made the modern West. She wanted Ramona to have a sociopolitical effect like Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The pill wasn’t swallowed. “Californians preferred the sugar coating, the vibrant costumes of a multiethnic past,” writes the literary scholar Lisa Mullenneaux in Ploughshares, not the actual colonial past with all its culpable horror…

Jackson [had been] a crusading investigative reporter. In 1881, she published a damning indictment of the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans. A Century of Dishonor was the first work published under her name. She sent copies to every member of Congress. It was, as Mullenneaux describes it, “the first serious study of U.S. federal Indian policy.”

Turner calls it “the first pro-Indian book to make a significant impact on the American reading public.” It did cause a stir, but a stir was not nearly enough for Jackson. She said of her newfound social purpose to help the Indians that “a fire has been kindled within me which will never go out.”

She had few allies in this crusade. The 1871 Indian Appropriations Act had made all Native Americans wards of the state. Removals and reservations made way for white settlers and their descendants who were neither introspective nor retrospective. One journalist described Jackson as being without a “genuine sympathizer” among whites in the entire state of Colorado. Teddy Roosevelt included her among the “hysterical sentimentalists.”

What if she tried a more propagandistic approach? Ramona was the result of that tactic, a novel detailing injustice and romance, full of local color and sentiment, as well as the tragic history of the erasure of California’s native populations. The result was a smash hit—but it failed in its mission even as it became a runaway cultural phenomenon. Instead, Ramona birthed a fantasy of Ye Olde Alta California. This was costume drama instead of history. A Century of Dishonor, meanwhile, was long out of print (though not so anymore). As Mullenneaux writes, it continues to inspire those trying to right historic wrongs…

Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona Did What Her Nonfiction Couldn’t“– and vice versa.

See also: “The Story of the Great Japanese-American Novel,” No-No Boy.

* Jessamyn West

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As we muse on methods, we might recall that it was on this date in 1839 that the Liberty Party was announced.  The first anti-slavery political party, it was born from the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) to advocate the view that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  William Lloyd Garrison, leader of the AASS, held the contrary view that the Constitution should be condemned as an evil pro-slavery document.

The party, which ran its first slate the following year, included abolitionists who were willing to work within electoral politics.  (By contrast, the radical Garrison opposed voting and working within the system.)  Many Liberty Party members joined the anti-slavery (but not abolitionist) Free Soil Party in 1848 and eventually helped establish the Republican Party in the 1850s.

liberty Party source

 

“Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes”*…

 

McDonalds

 

One of Northern Europe’s arguably most distinctive exports is “slow TV”: real-time recordings of train journeys, ferry crossings or the migration of reindeer, which regularly draw record audiences.

Among perhaps the most successful — and least exciting — examples of that genre is the live stream of a McDonald’s cheeseburger with fries. At its peak, it drew 2 million viewers a month. The only element on the screen that moves, however, is the time display.

The burger looks the same way, hour after hour.

As of this week, it has looked like that for 10 years.

Purchased hours before the corporation pulled out of the country in 2009, in the wake of Iceland’s devastating financial crisis, the last surviving McDonald’s burger has become much more than a burger. To some, it stands for the greed and excessive capitalism that “created an economic collapse that was so bad that even McDonald’s had to close down,” said Hjörtur Smárason, 43, who purchased the fateful burger in 2009. To others, the eerily fresh look of the 10-year-old meal has served as a warning against the excessive consumption of fast food…

A symbol for our times: “The cautionary political tale of Iceland’s last McDonald’s burger that simply won’t rot, even after 10 years.”

* Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

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As we muse of the messages in our meals, we might send gloriously-written birthday greetings to today’s epigramist, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; he was born on this date in 1922.  In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction, with further collections being published after his death. He is probably best known for his darkly-satirical, best-selling 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut called George Orwell his favorite writer, and admitted that he tried to emulate Orwell– “I like his concern for the poor, I like his socialism, I like his simplicity”– though early in his career Vonnegut decided to model his style after Henry David Thoreau, who wrote as if from the perspective of a child.  And of course, Vonnegut’s life and work are resonant with Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

Author Josip Novakovich marveled that “The ease with which he writes is sheerly masterly, Mozartian.”  The Los Angeles Times suggested that Vonnegut will “rightly be remembered as a darkly humorous social critic and the premier novelist of the counterculture“; The New York Times agreed, calling Vonnegut the “counterculture’s novelist.”

220px-Kurt_Vonnegut_1972 source

 

 

 

 

Written by LW

November 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Infrastructure is much more important than architecture”*…

 

The wind driven Kincade fire burns near the town of Healdsburg, California

 

A kind of toxic debt is embedded in much of the infrastructure that America built during the 20th century. For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books.

In software development, engineers have long noted that taking the easy way out of coding problems builds up what they call “technical debt,” as the tech journalist Quinn Norton has written.

Like other kinds of debt, this debt compounds if you don’t deal with it, and it can distort the true cost of decisions. If you ignore it, the status quo looks cheaper than it is. At least until the off-the-books debt comes to light…

All told, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion to get Americans back to an acceptable level of technical debt in our infrastructure.

Of course, it’s been saying that for many years. The number is so big as to be almost laughable. It’s 2.4 times the amount Donald Trump’s tax cuts are to add to the American budget deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Washington Examiner

Climate change will soon expose a crippling problem embedded in the nation’s infrastructure.  In fire-ravaged California, it already has: “The Toxic Bubble of Technical Debt Threatening America.”

[TotH to AR]

* Rem Koolhaas

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As we aspire to be good ancestors, we might recall that it was on this date in 1906, at the first International Radiotelegraph Convention in Berlin, that the Morse Code signal “SOS”– “. . . _ _ _ . . .”– became the global standard radio distress signal.  While it was officially replaced in 1999 by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, SOS is still recognized as a visual distress signal.

SOS has traditionally be “translated” (expanded) to mean “save our ship,” “save our souls,” “send out succor,” or other such pleas.  But while these may be helpful mnemonics, SOS is not an abbreviation or acronym.  Rather, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letters were chosen simply because they are easily transmitted in Morse code.

220px-Thesos source

 

 

Written by LW

November 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens”*…

 

Wonder Bread

 

Because of its central role in human nutrition, bread has appeared in countless cultural and religious keystones: the epic of Gilgamesh; the description of Egypt as the land of bread-eaters; Jewish oppression and the feast of Passover (bread of the afflicted); the Roman cry of “bread and circuses”; bread as a symbol in the poetry of Omar Khayyam; bread that signifies the body of Christ in the Eucharist. In short, made with simple, wholesome ingredients, bread is the staff of life. German bread continues to exemplify this tradition, one that Jews were supposedly destroying with processed white bread.

In contrast to the German disdain for white bread, in the United States it had become a symbol of successful industrialization, of a promising modern future. In the early twentieth century, Americans had developed a new anxiety about the potential contamination of their food supply. Eugene Christian and Mollie Griswold Christian exemplify the dramatic phobias surrounding both home-baked and bakery-bought bread in their 1904 book Uncooked Foods and How to Use Them: A Treatise on How to Get the Highest Form of Animal Energy from Food, with Recipes for Preparation, Healthful Combinations and Menus. They write, “Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ, because millions of these little worms have been born and have died, and from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog.” Yum! Mass-produced bread seemed somehow safer, more sterile, in the public eye…

Food, politics, and culture– the dark and white flours of ideology: “Breaking Bread.”

* Robert Browning

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As we loaf, we might recall that it was on this date in 1826 that Noah Cushing, of Quebec, who two years earlier had received Canada’s first patent for his mechanical washing machine, patented a threshing and winnowing machine… which was briskly overtaken by Cyrus McCormick’s better-performing reaping machine, patented in 1834.  Threshing and winnowing capacities were added to the reaper to create the now-standard “combine” that’s used to harvest grain.

450px-Plaque_du_Premier_brevet_d_invention

Plaque commemorating Cushing’s (first) patent

source

 

Written by LW

October 31, 2019 at 1:01 am

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