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Dead Student Debt, Sophie’s Presidential Choice, Institutional Mistrust & Freakonomics as Prison System Eugenics

June 15, 2012

I went from zero to crazy pretty fast this morning. Maybe I’ll dip back into the insanity around lunch time.

Student debt unto the umpteenth generation. I never advocate violence, but I can see how somebody might go postal. Their son is dead, the debt collector scum are hounding them at every turn, they can’t figure out who owns the debt – was it some kind of complex derivative at some point? – and they can barely make ends meet. As we increasingly financialize, monetize and use debt as our primary growth industry, collectors will become more and more empowered. Already they are using the legal system to jail people who do not pay in some states. Rent seeking and usury are back with a vengeance. This isn’t as simple as “contract law;” in fact – just like mortgages and property law, it would appear that the very question of ownership has been subverted by the profit seeking debt overlords. The way property law has been completely undermined by MERS should make any self-respecting libertarian’s head explode, but alas most of them reveal their true colors on this front… Just another horror story / snapshot of the new American normal. Ho hum.

There are, I think, three way you can hear the Obama – Romney dueling speeches from yesterday:

  • An old style conservative versus liberal set of economic ideas (though in reality it is like neo-liberal light versus industrial strength neo-liberal)
  • Subtle jockeying to be the candidate who gets to “frame” the discussion. Romney was all emotional button pressing, while Obama wanted to make it about “choice.” In other words, Romney wants you to vote as a referendum on Obama’s presidency while Obama wants you to see the “rational choice” for the next 4 years.
  • Naive drivel that purports to lay out a choice when in fact the political system is so broken that no *real* choice exists.

David Dayen opted for choice #3.

Obama says that the public will have to settle this debate from these two competing visions. “In this democracy, you, the people, have the final say,” he said. Only it never works this way. It never really has worked this way. In this democracy, money and power have traditionally had the final say, regardless of what the people wanted. First of all, in the modern era, as long as you have 41 Senators of the opposite party, a trifle like an election will not guarantee the passage of any one party’s agenda. But going deeper than that, what we’ve seen over the last decade is that some agenda items will pass regardless of public opinion, and some will not. And here, that filibuster threat just melts away. If the government wants to indemnify telecommunications companies who cooperated on spying on US citizens, divided government will not be a barrier. If Wall Street wants to return to the days of penny stocks and gut investor protections, divided government will not be a barrier. If corporate welfare is needed, the 60 vote threshold is not. If politicians want to go to war – or maybe it’s the contractors who start it off – that can happen, with or without Congress at all, apparently.

In fiscal terms, this idea that the people have the final say should be the standard, but it really has not been in recent years. Budget reconciliation was used on the Bush tax cuts, but not on any straight fiscal measures in the Obama Administration (only as a means to finish off the health care law). Moreover, there are plenty of issues outside the purview of Congress, like on housing or regulatory policy against the banks, where the Administration has not used its power.

So when the President says that “this election is about our economic future,” when he says that “this election is your chance to break that stalemate” between two fundamentally different ideas, he makes it sound far more simple than reality. And we can see that reflected in the last four years while he was in office.

So, at least we have that going for us…

If you can believe the polling (and while they didn’t poll on it, I bet pollsters and statisticians poll low in confidence too), but if you can believe the numbers, nobody in America trusts any of our institutions. Except the military.

The data is really clear — when you look across the landscape, American trust in pillar institutions, like the financial sector, big business, media, science and academia, and even religion are at or near all-time lows.

They’re at all-time lows even compared to when this polling was initiated in the 1970s, in the wake of Watergate. The big worry after Watergate was that the country was suffering from a crisis of authority. It didn’t trust institutions. The irony is that the polling was initiated in the 1970s, and what was then viewed as the nadir of public trust in institutions turns out to have been the high watermark. There is much less trust now than there was then. The exception is the military, which is the most trusted institution in American life. The least trusted institution in American life is Congress. I think that says a lot about where we are politically in and of itself.

This book sounds interesting, and so far Chris Hayes has done some good work… But I have a gut-level instinct about this phenomena: While I am sure that rank incompetence and the somewhat abundant availability of that data, plus the institutionalized distrust of institutions (paradox alert) have played their respective parts, I think it runs deeper. We are feeling the full brunt of the “Postmodern, Mediated” interiority expansionary destabilization. OK, I might have made the last few words up, but you can easily grasp my point – we are less trusting because we are immersed in a constant flow of information custom designed, tailor made, market-tested to sell us nonsense about ourselves, politicians, products, worldviews and on and on. We are simply more aware that this is a sham, and that even if it were sincere, there is no truth except my own narcissistic little individual subset of media generated opinions. “One big festering neon distraction.”  And while defaulting to the subtextual, subliminal apprehension that we are at all times and in all ways being lied to, cajoled and marketed at is indeed its own form of paradoxically embedded mediated state – defending even as it succumbs to larger and more subtle framing – it does erode what little trust these institutions have, or at least does so when you talk to pollsters. Very “Meta.”

And if you needed a reason to not believe in your “elected representatives,” here is a nice $ per hour breakdown of what it costs to hold these seats:

Most expensive Senate seats

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif): $2,444/hour

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.): $2,068/hour

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.): $1,875/hour

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): $1,823/hour

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): $1,812/hour


Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): $1,749/hour

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.): $1,685/hour

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.): $1,627/hour

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas): $1,611/hour

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.): $1,573/hour

How about in the house?

Most Expensive House seats

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.): $3,391/hour 

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio): $2,449/hour

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.): $1,636/hour

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.): $1,489/hour

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.): $1,185/hour

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.): $1,128/hour

Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.): $1,128/hour

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.): $1,013/hour

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.): $981/hour

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.): $925/hour

And if that weren’t enough for you, I came across this debunking of the Freakonomics guy:

As Steven Levitt’s S.H.A.M.E. Profile demonstrates, Levitt is a dyed-in-the-wool Chicago School neoliberal who believes in the sanctity of “the market” and a small government whose function is restricted mostly to protecting property rights. He has used “objective” economic research and mainstream credibility as cover, while attacking teachers’ unions, advocating for the privatization of prison labor, spreading crude climate denialism and promoting rank “free market” ideology that sees human labor as a resource to be extracted for maximum profit. Levitt has also developed a nasty habit of misrepresenting the research of other scientists in order to reach predefined ideological conclusions, and has failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing about Levitt is his enduring interest in researching and “proving” the effectiveness of authoritarian and, some would say, borderline eugenicist policies. Aside from doing studies on the positive effects that incarceration has on society (we benefit to the tune of $15,000 per inmate per year if inmates are packed into overcrowded conditions), he published a paper that argued that an increase in abortion rates among black women in the 1970s was the main reason for a drop in crime in the 1990s. The methodology and data of his research were discredited by other economists, but Levitt stuck to his original conclusion linking race and crime: fewer African-American children correlates to less crime. Levitt’s explanation wasn’t just wrong, it was extremely sinister, reinforcing a racist stereotype of the worst kind with a seemingly modern “scientific” explanation.

Ho hum. The News Makes Me Crazy.

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