National Day, Hong Kong edition

HongKongWe read, write and talk about how much giant corporations are willing to pay to support the fiction that climate change isn’t happening, so let’s not talk about it (because shut up!). Similarly, how long will the People’s Liberation Army put up with protests of this size? Tear gas and crowds that big are beginning to put them on front pages. Then what? Crackdown? Is that the game plan?

While many Hong Kong residents support the calls for greater democracy — dubbed the “umbrella revolution” by some, although the crowds’ demands fall far short of revolution — the unrest worries others.

“I strongly disagree with the protesters,” said an older woman who gave only her surname, Chan. “Those of us who came to the city 60 or 70 years ago had nothing and we worked and suffered so much to make Hong Kong the rich city it is today. And now the protesters have made our society unstable. For me, being able to eat and sleep is already a luxury. I don’t need democracy. What does it mean?”

Many younger Hong Kong residents raised in an era of plenty and with no experience of past political turmoil in mainland China have higher expectations. Under an agreement set in 1984, before most of them were born, Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong residents civil liberties unseen on the mainland after it took control of the city of 7.1 million in 1997.

The protesters are dismayed by China’s decision last month that candidates in the city’s first-ever election for its top leader must be hand-picked by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing tycoons. That move is viewed by many residents as reneging on promises to allow greater democracy in the semi-autonomous territory, since Beijing had promised that the chief executive would eventually be chosen through “universal suffrage.”

A promise since the time of the ‘handover’ was popular elections by 2017, and now that looks a little… different. Civil disobedience is unpredictable and that’s the last thing the Communist Communist Party wants. If anything is allowed to get out of hand in HK, look for similar kinds of demonstrations in the other megalopolises of the mainland. But a heavy-anded crackdown also seems unlikely. Watch the bond and stock markets teeter for a few days – they hate disorder, people, rights, democracy. It’s not what they’re about. Who has the upper hand, moving forward? How much can be paid to deny this is happening? Also, pay attention to which Westerners criticize the protesters and why.

Images: Christian Science Monitor, Wally Santana

Anniversary of Emancipation

On this day in 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Labor historian Erik Loomis at LGM details the reasons why it was considered a cowardly half-measure by some at the time, and also why it was political genius as well as morally correct:

On the other hand, African-Americans, north and south, knew what the war was about. While many in the North were trying to say it wasn’t about slavery per se, like southern whites, African-Americans never had any question of the stakes. Frederick Douglass and other northern black leaders urged Lincoln to immediately emancipate the slaves and organize black regiments for the Army. Perhaps more importantly, slaves themselves took advantage of nearby U.S. troops, fleeing to the military. Generals such as Benjamin Butler quickly recognized the potential of taking away the South’s labor force and turning that into a Union labor force. But Lincoln, nervous about the effects of making this an official policy on his plans to lure the South back into the Union, originally rejected the idea.

By mid 1862, Lincoln began to change his mind about the expediency of freeing slaves. The situation in the border states was more secure, with the ardent secessionists now significantly outnumbered by unionists. Congress pushed him on this, passing in March 1862 a law barring the military from returning escaped slaves to their owners. Still, Lincoln decided to avoid Congress and issue the proclamation as Commander in Chief, thus avoiding a tense debate and possible rejection. Lincoln wanted a major victory by Union forces before he issued it so it didn’t look desperate. Unfortunately, he had George McClellan as his commanding general, which meant that no major victories was likely. With the partial victory at Antietam a few days earlier as good as Lincoln was going to get, he decided this was the time.

There is a reason we revere certain people in our history, and not because of any one single thing they might have done. Any country is blessed to have individuals who can navigate conflicts with no obvious right answer or guaranteed outcome. Courage, sure. But also willingness to change one’s mind, an ability to see through perilous issues and steer clear of needlessly dramatic acts in favor of compromise, even and especially when it comes at a cost to your reputation and credibility. Lucky to have someone who could walk this minefield at that hour, even though we’re now mostly unable to appreciate the doubt and misgivings it took Lincoln to think he could preserve a union that was worth preserve. Without an elevated idea of his country and its countrymen, only lesser outcomes would have been imaginable.

Image: “Emancipation,” Thomas Nast lithograph, circa 1865, via Library of Congress.

News Profit

papersI guess that could be prophet, but that’s a bit cheeky and I already miss the Amatriciana.

The impetus of media properties to destroy their product marches on. Bottom-line news gathering, a strict misnomer, has become the new if nonsensical metric. Where can this be headed, other than the obvious? The Washington Monthly looks at the future of cross-subsidies:

In the past, when media companies funded labor-intensive journalism—foreign coverage, investigative projects, beat reporters who spend days tracking down leads—we believed this reportage was very valuable, even financially. Readers wanted to know, advertisers liked the prestige that high-quality reporting brought, and the publications made plenty of money.

Occasionally a wiseass would say something like, “The box scores are paying for the Baghdad bureau,” and we thought, Well, maybe that cross-subsidy exists, maybe it doesn’t—but the whole package seems to be doing just fine.

The Internet blew apart the package and eliminated the cross-subsidy. Now readers can go to ESPN and get box scores, and they can go to a separate site to get news. Sports scores no longer subsidize the foreign correspondent, and the comics no longer support the city hall reporter.

This has led us to confront the ugly reality of just how lousy—financially speaking—many of our journalistic projects were. Media managers can now produce a profit-and-loss statement not only for the news division as a whole, but for each reporter—and each piece of content.

That is a dangerous sort of urgency. Immediate returns on investment is just instant gratification by [barely] another name. It’s not a viable practice for anything.

More broadly, news can be boring. What we are convincing ourselves to be true is merely self-fulfilling, and an indication that any number of things could be. But once information and news reporting become just more ‘content’ that has to compete for eyeballs, then we really need to keep one eye on the till. But beyond certain levels of comfort, even paranoia is not a sufficient motivating force. The challenge to education is ignorance; the need to know, in order to inform our assent or rejection, only grows with the complexity shrouded in simple choices. Re-discovering self-interest can be brutal and unforgiving, but it’s the only thing that will liberate the buyer’s impulse.


The Boutique Age of journalism

Not my phrase. From a podcast between Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Miles O’Brien where they cast CNN as the Wal-Mart of journalism:

They then discussed the notion of “fair and balanced” reporting, with O’Brien recounting an occasion in which he brought his producers a story that 95 percent of the scientific community agreed on. “Is it fair in a story about climate change,” O’Brien said, “which is clearly what I’m talking about, to do this journalistic convention of equal time for both sides. This is a huge mistake for journalism.”

Tyson agreed, saying that the conventional solution means that you get “one person to represent that 5 percent, but then he gets 50 percent of your time.”

They went on to discuss the use of a Jessica Yellin hologram during the 2008 election, which is not that far off from my assertion that actors will begin to be portrayed by avatars, instead of humans, in the not to distant future.

Dystopia? How would we know?

Fishing Nets and Fighter Jets

Chinese_Fishing_Nets_CochinAnd I should have thrown Opening Day in there too, but, you know, symmetry.

The new IPCC report, building on previous assessments, has made the future impacts of climate change all the more specific and detailed:

Scientists are increasingly finding a greenhouse gas fingerprint in extreme weather around the world. In the UK, the floods of this winter and the droughts of three years ago are a potential sign of things to come: risks of floods, droughts and heatwaves will increase in future. This is because of carbon already in the atmosphere and what we will add in years to come – even if we are successful cutting emissions.

And it’s very true, I know some of these scientists, though I don’t look favorably on their new fondness for adaptation in the face of these changes. One – we don’t mean it. Two – we don’t mean us. If you have the means, you will continue to design and develop useless, needless fighter jets. Meanwhile, Bangladesh. Should be meanswhile. I’m calling the dictionary people tomorrow.

We should still be focused on mitigation – reducing the greenhouse gas pollution that leads to climate change – it is still the cheapest path:

Mitigation efforts bring many “co-benefits” in addition to their reduction of greenhouse gas pollution. They benefit human health, energy security, biodiversity, and the general resilience of our environment and economy. The figures in the article do not include the economic impact of these co-benefits, which significantly reduces the net cost of mitigation.

Likewise, climate change brings harmful impacts that are not included in the purely economic cost estimate used here. This is acknowledged in the article, but it bears repeating. Lost lives don’t have a recognized economic value, and many of the soonest and harshest impacts of climate change will be in poor countries that won’t make a big splash in terms of global GDP.

Image: Chinese fishing nets in Kochi (India) via wikimedia commons.

So that’s where they come from

Paul Krugman reviews “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by French economist Thomas Piketty, and discovers the origins of “Confiscatory Taxation on Excess Incomes: An American Invention.” What do you know?

one point Piketty makes is that the modern notion that redistribution and “penalizing success” is un- and anti-American is completely at odds with our country’s actual history. One subsection in Piketty’s book is titled “Confiscatory Taxation of Excess Incomes: An American Invention”; he shows that America actually pioneered very high taxes on the rich:

When we look at the history of progressive taxation in the twentieth century, it is striking to see how far out in front Britain and the United States were, especially the latter, which invented the confiscatory tax on “excessive” incomes and fortunes.

Why was this the case? Piketty points to the American egalitarian ideal, which went along with fear of creating a hereditary aristocracy. High taxes, especially on estates, were motivated in part by “fear of coming to resemble Old Europe.” Among those who called for high estate taxation on social and political grounds was the great economist Irving Fisher.

Just to reemphasize the point: during the Progressive Era, it was commonplace and widely accepted to support high taxes on the rich specifically in order to keep the rich from getting richer — a position that few people in politics today would dare espouse.

There are many reasons our precursors would have been against these trends that support the creation of an American aristocracy. Egalitarian ideal? Isn’t that socialism? Creating wealth is fine and plenty noble, but safeguarding it is not what life is about – much to the dismay of some of us. To our further dismay, the whole notion of what was and what was not imagined by the founders of this country or by later generations who helped shape it continues to be a poorly understood system of rakes on the path. Please do watch out.

Image: Andrew Carnegie, who made a lot of money but also had ideas about the role of surplus wealth that many might find surprising.

Viewers like You

Ec_logo_800-300x225I love loathe stories like this – not because of how they’re reported or who they’re about, but because they are unfortunately true:

Most Americans likely assume that the NewsHour (which, after all, is made with support from viewers like you) is actually owned and produced by PBS. It is an understandable assumption considering PBS’s own president declared that the NewsHour “is ours, and ours alone,” and further considering that the program receives millions of public dollars every year.

However, since 1994, the NewsHour has been produced and primarily owned by the for-profit colossus, Liberty Media. Liberty, which is run by conservative billionaire John Malone, owns the majority stake in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions – the entity that produces the journalistic content of the show. While other standalone public television projects are often produced by small independent production companies, the NewsHour stands out for being owned by a major for-profit media conglomerate headed by a politically active billionaire.

But now that ownership is about to change. According to an internal memo sent to staff by NewsHour’s founders and minority owners Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, ownership of NewsHour will soon be transferred from Liberty Media to Washington, D.C.’s PBS member station, WETA.

I know – I have a public television project – there are all kinds of weird machines whirring within every sausage factory. But this split of an ostensible public good into partnerships with for-profit companies more resembles how/where democracy goes to die, if I can borrow from Pierce (And I can. Everyone can). Just look at the language MacNeil/Lehrer uses use to justify the need for an ownership change, proving you can tell yourself most anything.

And the point isn’t just the loss of a source once perhaps trusted that now should be applied only by trained cynical professionals. The realization, if that’s what it is, is that independent media outlets practically need to be hardcore believers to exist at all – despite the success of some, it’s a drag when the most important societal functions can only be left in the hands of the pure of heart and selfless of motive.

Image: 1970s PBS children’s series “The Electric Company.”


As much as I want to and probably should just post poems all the time, some serious OMG as Nomoremister points us to a post about the less humane reasons why high levels of inequality are so damn bad:

What is happening in America today is both unprecedented in our history, and virtually unique among Western democratic nations. The share of our labor force devoted to guard labor has risen fivefold since 1890 — a year when, in case you were wondering, the homicide rate was much higher than today.

Is this the curse of affluence? Or of ethnic diversity? We don’t think so. The guard-labor share of employment in the United States is four times what it is in Sweden, where living standards rival America’s. And Britain, with its diverse population, uses substantially less guard labor than the United States.

In America, growing inequality has been accompanied by a boom in gated communities and armies of doormen controlling access to upscale apartment buildings. We did not count the doormen, or those producing the gates, locks and security equipment. One could quibble about the numbers; we have elsewhere adopted a broader definition, including prisoners, work supervisors with disciplinary functions, and others.

Sure I’d rather dwell on why growing inequality is unjust and unhealthy for a democracy. But this is the Third World coming to a United Staes near you. Gruesome.



I know everybody’s heard of Robespierre, but this guy Saint-Just was also fascinating:

When the Revolution began in 1789, Saint-Just was considered by many to be too young, and he was unsuccessful in his early attempts to get involved. In 1790 he took the Civic Oath and so entered the Revolution through the Jacobin party. The next year he wrote Esprit de la Revolution et de la Constitution de France which was a great success. Finally, in 1792, he became a deputy to the Convention. He was now able to make his speeches in Paris, and he quickly made a name for himself as he called for the death of the king. On July 10, 1793 he became one of nine members of the Committee of Public Safety and, along with Robespierre, very influential in the Reign of Terror. He was elected president of the Convention for the month of Ventôse. During this time he called for the arrest of Danton and Camille Desmoulins (a supporter of Danton). They were soon executed.Robespierre was now opposed by many, but Saint-Just stood by his friend and attempted to speak on his behalf. “I defend the man in question because his conduct has appeared to me to be irreproachable, and I would accuse him if he committed a crime. Great God! What kind of leniency is this that plots the ruin of innocent men?” he said in his last speech. Because of this action, Louis was arrested along with Robespierre, Philippe Le Bas, Couthon and Robespierre’s brother Augustin. On July 27, 1794, Saint-Just was sent to the guillotine with Robespierre and died for his Republic. The “Angel of Death” was only 26.

Maserati commercials during the Super Bowl? Clueless barking at a Moonless Tuesday.

The Irascibles

It’s akin to a cliché folding in on itself and forming a kind of ironic paper airplane that gets tossed into the future.


It landed on my table in the form of the Stevens and Swan biography of Willem de Kooning and it’s funny to set aside your naiveté or nostalgia – or invite them both in for a drink – and think about our mid-century art heroes. To set the scene, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to include no judges sympathetic to abstract art on the panel of its juried show “American Art Today, 1950”:

The snub was a godsend to the downtown artists: the museum performed to perfection the part of stuffy, blinkered fool, evoking the famous failure of the bourgeois Salon in Paris to include many of the great modernists. The artists around the Club could now, in turn, play the part of the slighted impressionists. They wrote an “open letter,” intended to be widely disseminated, to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dated May 20, 1950, and reported two days later on the front page of the New York Times under the headline, “18 Painters Boycott Metropolitan: Charge ‘Hostility to Advanced Art.” the letter began, “The undersigned painters reject the monster national exhibition to be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next December, and will not submit work to its jury.” The artists patronized the Metropolitan – the presumable guardian of eternal values – by offering its leaders a history lesson: “We draw to the attention of those gentlemen the historical fact that, for roughly a hundred years, only advanced art has made any consequential contribution to civilization.” The group also picketed the museum, attracting further attention.

Emphasis mine. Part of that further attention was that Life magazine, “following the actions of the avant-garde with bemused interest since its feature on Pollock,” decided to publish a piece on the opening of the controversial exhibition – including the above picture of the excluded protesters.

Published under the headlines of “The Irascibles,” a name taken from an earlier editorial in the Herald Tribune criticizing the protesters, the photo by Nina Leen portrayed fifteen of the original eighteen painters who signed the letter to the Met. Highly theatrical, the artists were “arranged like a still life, staring into space, their expression serious, skeptical, demanding. Not one smiled.”

Pollock is at the center, very carefully positioned, with de Kooning on the upper left. The only woman is Hedda Sterne. A key to all the people in the photo is here. “Together, the artists seemed to embody their headline, “The Irascibles,” a name that was itself a dramatic piece of public relations that brought to mind every cliché about the struggle between the avant-garde and bourgeois society.”

And yet, can you imagine any subject getting a group of artists on the front pages of national publications today? Wait, don’t answer that.