Wednesday Jams

I have been slacking in the Sharing of Tunes Department, largely because I have been delving into my external hardrive for some older items I haven’t listened to in a while and/or because I am writing longer pieces on some other things that have been occupying my playlist. Anyway, let us address this situation.

Though I came to this party slightly late, I have had Cults in my head intermittently since I finally checked them out a couple months ago. They are great! Besides being obviously catchy, they are able to channel a retro-sounding vibe without being either derivative or ironic. And, in keeping with similar descriptive constructions they sound unique despite being fairly straight-forward. And their self-titled album cover is catching. Hooray for long hair!

But onto the jams:

Here is their official video for “Abducted.” It is kind of bonkers, but worth watching:

Here is a professional-quality live version of “Bumpers,” on a rooftop, somewhere.

Finally, for the sake of including yet another one of their songs that I greatly enjoy, here is a fan-made video for “Go Outside.” I have no idea what is going on here, but I do think it is great that people do this sort of thing, and bikes are fun:

(Here is the official video for “Go Outside,” which is also great/weird in the same vein as “Abducted,” but not embedded here to avoid redundancy.)

Congressional Pay and Democracy

It can be hard to know how seriously one should take primary campaign discourse. For example, is it a waste of time to engage in detailed policy analysis of fake candidate Herman Cain’s fake 9-9-9 tax plan, since both will be forgotten in the very near future, or does the situation, however removed from political reality (or actual reality), afford us the opportunity to discuss the relative merits of various ways to structure the tax code? It is hard to say, and in general I try not to get too immersed in coverage of the current Republican primary campaign out of fear that the relative wackiness of this group serves to provide low hanging fruit for both the news and entertainment industries that distracts from potentially more important issues. There is certainly elements in these campaigns worth analyzing, to be sure, but there are also a lot of distractions, and it can be hard to tell which is which. Incidentally, this is also the central feature of all contemporary media.

In this context, I initially greeted the news of Rick Perry’s plan for a part-time Congress with a “whatever…dude just wants attention” response, but I think there are some issues worth addressing here.

In short, Perry calls for Congress to work half the time they do now, while getting half of the pay. The idea is that this will create a “Citizen’s Congress” composed of members that do something else for a living and conduct the will of the people on the side.

Now, it is impossible to know if Perry is sincere about this. I am not a superstitious person, but I will admit I hesitate to make fun of him out loud, since we all know what happens when we don’t take these kind of things seriously. (Although I think the above picture of Perry is simply beyond awesome. It is transcendent.) Sincerity notwithstanding, Perry is obviously playing to the widespread public disapproval of Congress. This dissatisfaction was displayed rather unambiguously this week when polling data indicating less approval of Congress now than other current and historical issues such s Nixon during Watergate, BP during the 2010 oil spill, and the US becoming Communist.  I am not sure why Rasmussen is polling about the US turning Communist in 2011 (do they know something I don’t?), but there you have it. I hope some pollsters out there are able to collect data on how people would rank all of those things transitively, because I think that would be enlightening.

However, I don’t think Congress is that unpopular because they are too professional or doing too much. As the way public opinion responded to the ridiculous debt ceiling debacle over the summer indicate, people do not like Congress largely because they don’t think legislators are addressing issues that affect them, either because of inaction or capture by narrow interests. None of these problems indicates the solution if for Congress to have less opportunity to legislate.

The practical results of implementing such a plan are intuitive, as others have already pointed out. In lieu of direction from the legislature, more decisions would end up being made by executive agencies, an issue that would be compounded by the increasingly vague laws written by an uninformed and largely absent legislature. Now, the issue of whether the country should be governed by a more unitary executive branch whose agencies have wide latitude to govern in an efficient and technocratic manner extends back to Alexander Hamilton writing in the Federalist Papers, but that is not the debate Perry is raising. As a Perry staffer notes regarding the plan, a part time Congress is a good idea because “[w]hen they’re not here it is necessarily limited government.” But you do not get less government if Congress isn’t around as much, you just get less democracy, since, as stated, other, unelected parts of the government would have to step in and run the show. And the plan would do nothing to curb the power of lobbyists and other interests that would certainly try to influence the bureaucracy now tasked with making decisions Congress is not around to make (though this is already a problem even when Congress is around). Of course, lobbyist and outside influence would because a requirement to provide the part-time legislators with necessary information that they would no longer have the time or staff to obtain. And this would do nothing to alleviate, and would likely exasperate, the problem of needing to raise money for elections.

So, it is a bad idea. It is also not a real idea, since no Congress is going to pass a law that would take away their power and reduce their pay. On this second point, I absolutely love that in the New York Times story on this, they go to Paul Horwitz, professor of constitutional law at the University of Alabama to establish that the legislation for this “would have to be passed by the very people on the receiving end of the pay and budget cuts.” I think it is absolutely great that the Times consults academic experts on these matters, though I have to suspect that Professor Horwitz had something more insightful to say that simply confirm that Congress is the body of government that passes legislation. Anyway.

But more than being a bad idea because of the effects it would have if carried out, what troubles me is the rhetoric behind this, which I think taps into the same problematic argument about government workers being overpaid. It is one thing to suggest members of Congress are doing their jobs poorly. They are doing their jobs poorly. I ride my bike by the capital all the time and regularly think/say out loud that the people inside are making terrible decisions at this very moment. But this is not the same thing as suggesting that the government or democratic institutions are bad in general. One of the things that was so infuriating about the debt ceiling debate this summer and the potential government shutdown debate from earlier in the year was the nihilistic approach of the tea party-backed conservative republicans towards potential default/government shutdown that suggested that such calamities would helpfully serve to teach the evil government a lesson. Guys, we are going to have a government. Debating what the government should or should not do is not the same as sabotaging the government and preventing it from doing anything.

And Perry is offering a similar line of reasoning here. He is playing off of widespread disapproval with Congress and anti-government sentiment more generally to propose something that would make government somehow less able to do its job well. Yes, Congress is a total disappointment right now. Bummer. But we should be trying to remove constraints from doing good things and/or incentives to do bad things rather than turning the whole thing into a bunch of amateurs (literally!). Perry presents the plan with language about bringing fundamental reform to Washington, noting that he is “a true believer that we need to uproot, tear down and rebuild Washington, D.C., and our federal institutions.”

He goes on to discuss how our elected representatives “get paid more than three times the average American family, and they have doubled their own budgets in the last decade.”  This is another issue that pops up quite a bit in the discourse and in public opinion that I find problematic no matter how frustrated I am with Congress, this idea that legislators are overpaid. It is fine that they get paid more than the average family; they have an important job! Where is all the corporate executive-apologist rhetoric about high wages to attract top talent when you need it? They also have to maintain a residence in their district as well as Washington DC, which is not a cheap place to live. And this idea that they have “doubled their budgets” is unhelpful since, again, it is not a bad idea for them to have resources to do their jobs, but also the there is no context to understand what this “doubling” actually means. It sounds like a lot of increased spending, but is of course nothing in the context of the federal budget.

I want the government, both elected officials and the bureaucracy, to be composed of well-paid professionals. Not extravagantly paid, but paid in line with the importance of their job. There are basic, practical reasons for this. Decent pay could (maybe, hopefully) reduce the incentive for corruption or for people in government to pursue more lucrative work as lobbyists or something similar. But the broader issue is one of status. We should hold the work of governing in high regard and have high expectations of our democratically elected leaders. If they do not meet expectation, we should elect different people. If there are systemic problems that make electing the right people, we should try to address that with measures such as campaign finance laws. As it is, the system highly favors the election of the rich to elected office. But deprofessionalizing and reducing the pay of the legislature would certainly be a constraint on electing representatives to serve our interests. During its long transition from monarchy to representative democracy, advocates for representative government in Great Britain had to fight for members of parliament to be paid. Paying MPs was rightly considered important for democracy, since otherwise one had to be independently wealthy in order to run for and serve in government while still supporting their family. Paying elected representatives allowed more than the elite to run for office. Perry’s plan to deprofessionalize Congress, and the antipathy towards effective government it stems from would constitute a regression of democracy.

Basketball and Militarism

This past week ushered in the start of the college basketball season, and a welcome start it is indeed. But before I had the opportunity to watch my team, the Syracuse Orange, handily defeat Fordham in their season opener on Saturday, my attention was directed towards the North Carolina Tarheels and the Michigan State Spartans, two teams that began their season in a slightly more ostentatious fashion.

I am referring, of course, to the regular-season college basketball game played atop a still-in-service aircraft carrier off the coast of California, in honor of Veteran’s Day.

I met this news with an unlikely combination of “I cannot believe this is happening” and “of course this is something that would be happing.” After the game, I spent the weekend casually inquiring to people I know about what they thought of the whole affair, with responses ranging from “it was awesome, I hope they do it every year” to “fascist debacle.” Something for everyone!

My inclination to be weirded-out by the matter was tempered slightly by the realization that this certainly must be an exciting event for the people who actually serve on this ship; out to see for months at a time, as well the more general idea that there are undoubtedly many veteran’s and nonveterans alike who found the whole operation to be a fitting way to honor those who have served. I have no interest or reason to want to rain on that parade.

Nonetheless the whole thing was a bit strange and more than a bit problematic. The issue isn’t to question why anyone would find such an event appealing, the fact that such an event is so widely appealing is the whole point. The trouble lies in a cultural discourse that continuously creates/reinforces consent for a militarized approach to the world.

That people find this a suitable way to honor veterans on Veteran’s Day is fine, and the idea that many find this cool and exciting is also totally understandable. I am sure I would have had a blast if I were in attendance. It was in many ways a unique and exciting event. (Speaking of it being a unique event, the commentators mentioned numerous times that players had said how they had not played a basketball game outside in years, highlighting another trend in the culture of athletics that, while fascinating, is as academics like to say, ‘beyond the scope of this work.’) But at the same time we should be clear that we are conflating two distinct things: the idea that we should honor those who served and the idea that armed combat is fun and exciting. Of course, this is nothing new, nor is the intimate connection between sports and nationalism. For example, what would have become of our troubled nation if George W Bush hadn’t thrown a perfect strike in the opening pitch of the 2001 World Series? Fortunately we don’t have to know the answer.

But the event more than made up for any concern that its message wasn’t new with how in-your-face it was. The players from each team wore camo-themed jerseys with the letters USA in place of their names. The President and First Lady were there. The event was sponsored by, among others, Quicken Loans, the Navy Federal Credit Union, Miller High Life, Coca Cola Zero, and Applebees. (Again, something for everyone!) The aircraft carrier itself, the USS Carl Vinson, was (and this is impossible to make up), the ship from which the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was launched and the vessel from which his body was buried at sea. The event can be characterized by many things, but subtle understatement is not one of them.

The whole situation, and the coverage surrounding it, relentlessly hammered home the idea that not only is the military awesome, but that there is no conceivable alternative position. Prior to the game, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo commented  regarding the aforementioned camo-themed jerseys that “[w]hen I spent some time coaching the troops in Kuwait a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to get to wear fatigues twice. That was certainly a thrill for me, and if a player doesn’t get a little more excited wearing this, there’s something wrong.” But coach, the splotchy pattern is just terribly unflattering for my figure. Can’t I just wear a flag-shaped lapel pin?

Similarly, ESPN’s Dana O’Neil literally began her post-game interview with UNC coach Roy Williams by asking if the whole event was what he expected or more than what he expected. Chill with the tough questions Dana, the poor guy had to travel through three time zones to get here.

Again, the point isn’t to be crank about the whole thing and tell people they can’t enjoy themselves a silly basketball game on a military vessel. There are worse ways to spend a Friday evening. And this combination of sports, nationalism, and look-how-cool-this-military-stuff-is can be found all over the place, including my neck of the college sporting world.  The issue is the cumulative cultural implications of events like this. For example, I think it has become acceptable to make the argument that the major media organizations in the United States were quick to assume the role of cheerleaders prior to the Iraq war, and only got around to asking changing questions a few years on, well after things had decidedly not gone according to plan. Events like the Carrier Classic do much to lay the foundation for that this sort of thing.

Though there are plenty of people who write on this, Andrew Bacevich’s book The New American Militarism  offers both a convincing and authoritative take on the cultural foundations of the United States’ militarized approach to pursuing its interests in the world.  Bacevich describes The New American militarism as a reaction to anti-war movement during the Vietnam era and as being characterized by not only a deference to soldiers and military institutions, but an enchantment with the modern aesthetics of war; a captivation with smart bombs and predator drones, with a way of fighting that more resembles the experience of playing a first-person shooter video game than the more messy affair captured in old war movies. One effect of this new aesthetic (in addition to the all-volunteer nature of the US military), is that people can be captivated by war without being truly affected by it. We are doing our duty of honoring the troops by watching this basketball game, a point driven home by how out of place President Obama’s mention of ‘oh yeah and we are trying to see if maybe we can actually get these guys jobs when they come home’ in his pre-game speech seemed from the otherwise unequivocally celebratory atmosphere.

The tension between honoring the service of veterans and celebrating war is inherent in the holiday itself. It makes sense that we might rename Armistice Day, the internationally recognized holiday commemorating the end of the First World War, to Veteran’s Day as a way to honor soldiers of all wars. But there is nonetheless a qualitative difference between celebrating the end of war to honoring those who fought in wars, and the distance from the latter to a straightforward celebration of war is much shorter.