State of the Union

Don Draper Returns for One Last Shot at Salvation

After Sunday night’s premier of season seven of “Mad Men” aired, the critics agreed: this first episode of the final season, “Time Zones,” is a foil of the very first episode of the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It’s January of 1969, the nadir of bohemian ennui, a stark departure from Camelot’s straight-laced glamor at the top of the decade. But in “Mad Men”’s world, the emphasis isn’t on what has changed, but what hasn’t. Don’s is still tensely married to a (admittedly different) statuesque woman; Peggy is still frustrated at the office and in her personal life; Joan’s loneliness still undercuts her book-balancing, man-taming acumen. All these tropes were present in the very first episode, and nine years later, we can see how far these characters haven’t come.

But this season, there have been significant changes under the guise of sameness; the largest is that Don’s leave from his firm is an involuntary one. Don has played hooky before, but always on his own terms. Less and less of Don’s life, as we see, is within his control. Gone is the lean, mean advertising machine. He’s been replaced by a sallow sadsack, a shell of his halcyon days. Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic contrasts the Don from the first season and with this one in season seven:

The last shot of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is of Don’s home life, complete with a pretty young wife and children—which reveals that Don spends his days lying to and fooling other people. “Time Zones,” however, finds Don lying to everyone about how he “has to get back to work” and remaining somewhat deludedly optimistic about returning to SC&P, then ends with a closing shot of Don’s home life. This time, he’s sickly-looking and miserable, out alone in the cold with just his muddled thoughts. This time, it looks more like he spends most of the day consciously fooling himself.

In spite of Don’s unraveling, the culture critics at Slate feel Don’s self-deception can still work, at least at work, at least for a little while. One of the episode’s highlights is the “Accutron” pitch, delivered on the lips of Don’s former colleague Fred Rumsen, but with all the punch and power of a Don Draper masterpiece.

Regardless of whether or not Don still has the “it” factor that gets him out of every jam thrown his way, the cornerstone in Don’s rootlessness is Anna Draper’s absence, whose maternal guidance was an essential component of Don’s confidence. Read More…

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Discrimination Is a Distraction from Real Wage Gap Causes

The White House of late has been peddling the claim that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar for the same work. Elizabeth Plank and Soraya Chemaly from PolicyMic ran with this dubious statistic, creating the hashtag #withoutthewagegapIwould that circled the Internet with statements such as: “without the wage gap I would be able to buy my sister a house.” Phrases of that ilk are meant to elicit an immediate and visceral reaction. Were it not for the wage discrimination, women’s finances would dramatically improve. But would they, really? There has been strong blowback against that statistic, with substantial evidence showing it to be incomplete and applied to incongruous employment situations. Misrepresenting data that affects half of the population, even if well-intentioned, risk framing the problem incorrectly, making the path to a viable solution much steeper.

Christina Hoff Summers of AEI, writing at The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post, crunched the numbers and determined that when relevant variables are controlled for (such as occupation, time in the workplace, and college degree) the pay gap between men and women shrank from 23 cents to between five and seven. It’s not yet clear whether or not discrimination accounts for that last nickel, but it disarms a would-be political platform purporting to give underpaid women their retribution. Matt Yglesias attempts to argue that statistical controls identify discrimination rather than disproving it, but fails to explain how the wage gap is caused by discrimination.

One explanation for the gap is the professions that women choose: women are more likely to take jobs in the caretaking and artistic fields while men are more likely to elect for professions requiring technical expertise. More women are graduating from college, but fewer of those graduates are getting degrees in STEM fields, where the most lucrative jobs are. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, since 1990, the amount of men earning computer science degrees has nearly doubled, while the amount of women earning degrees has stayed the same after a brief bump in the early 2000s. Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women claim that this self-selection is not a woman’s choice at all, but pernicious gender stereotypes predetermining her career path. While there may be little data to support this, but there is significant evidence to support the idea that the main culprit responsible for women’s inability to keep pace with a men’s earning power is the bearing of children. Read More…

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Comcast Swallows Time Warner, With Democrats for Dessert

Comcast’s blockbuster acquisition of Time Warner Cable for a cool $45 billion hit front pages again this week in anticipation of the Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which will review antitrust laws regarding services provided by telecommunications companies. Comcast will also soon have to lay its defense before the Federal Communications Commission, which will closely scrutinize the merger’s impact on public consumption.

According to the New York Times, the most crucial concerns should be raised over high-speed Internet service, not cable television. Comcast’s share of the high-speed Internet market is larger than its cable TV market share, as it holds between 40 and 50 percent of the market for high-speed Internet service. Comcast’s rising market dominance has upended net neutrality, a principle that prevents Internet service providers from blocking or privileging content. It has also strong-armed major companies like Netflix to the negotiating table. Netflix struck a deal with Comcast in order to preserve its ability to provide streaming services to its customers, but according to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, it sets a dangerous precedent. He says in Slate, “If this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future.”

“Crony capitalism” is a politicized term for institutionally supported greed. Comcast has leveraged its considerable financial assets to acquire its biggest competitor, and its political opposition. To make sure that the merger prevails, Comcast has already invested heavily in the Democratic Party, with generous contributions to the Democratic National Committee followed up by extensive lobbying. Executives from Comcast were present at the state dinner welcoming French president Hollande and his wife. Comcast will come out of this merger one of the most powerful telecommunications providers in the country, with the weight to make even otherwise big content providers like Netflix bend their knee. They have the money to play the Washington game and turn the tables in their favor.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah has already voiced his opinions on the principles involved in a strongly worded op-ed in National Review Online late last week. Without mentioning the merger, Senator Lee more broadly condemned the Obama administration’s participation in “crony capitalism,” claiming it was destroying market competition, harming the poor, and destroying the middle class. The op-ed went on to detail the benefits of true market competition and allowing small businesses to flourish to create job growth. Reaping political benefits from the line of argument will require more than words, however. Lee continued, “a still-distrusted GOP first must end cronyism in our own ranks. The GOP has to close its branch of the Beltway Favor Bank and truly embrace a free-enterprise economy of, by, and for the people.”

For years, corporate greed has been associated with Republicans, but this merger shows that political influence, Democratic or Republican, is for sale to the highest bidder. If the GOP leadership is smart, they’ll at least make the appearance of breaking away from allowing corporations to stack the deck in their favor, and towards championing local businesses that promote sustainable economic growth. The Senate hearing on Wednesday provides an opportunity to send a signal to the private sector that mergers are not insurable through fundraisers, and to take a first step towards winning back the public trust.


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What Would Tocqueville Say About #CancelColbert?

Suey Park, a 23-year-old self-professed activist known on Twitter for the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick, which provided Asian women a space to discuss and vent the limiting and often stereotyped perceptions of Asians in popular culture, took on a big fist last week with her latest cause, #CancelColbert. The hashtag was in reaction to Colbert’s proposed fictional non-profit, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”. The joke’s target was billionaire and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. The joke cleverly, if crudely, demonstrated how a public gesture to make amends with a marginalized community could backfire spectacularly.

Park belongs to a generation that uses the Internet as a virtual public square to air grievances and provoke discussion. As recently as five years ago, this meant ranting on a forum like Reddit, where new topics came and went everyday without anyone noticing. With the advent of social media as an unofficial fifth estate, trending topics can be either a boon or bane to journalism and public debate. Park has stood apart from the pack, however, in her ability to harness the general snark and point it in a particular direction. In this case, the target was Colbert, a seasoned comedian with a primetime show. It worked: the hashtag trended for days and became a story that was picked up by major media outlets.

Mocking Colbert seems, frankly, superfluous, as mocking is something he already does quite well. It goes without saying that the Colbert Report is satirical, and it is always obvious whom Colbert is lampooning. During Obama’s campaign in 2008, Colbert called the then-senator a “a secret time traveling Nazi Muslim” and there was no backlash, at least certainly not to this degree. What changed? The emergence of “hashtag activists” like Park who rally thousands of their peers to police the Internet and publicly shame those with whom they disagree. There is a line between advancing public debate and mudslinging, and it’s a pretty thick line—well-worn with laws and ideas ranging from the First Amendment to Tocqueville, and that distasteful little patch in our history called the McCarthy period.

Tocqueville’s insights on the dangers of democracy—mob rule—are especially relevant here. He wrote: “I am therefore of the opinion that social power superior to all others must always be placed somewhere; but I think that liberty is endangered when this power finds no obstacle which can retard its course and give it time to moderate its own vehemence.” The power he is referring to is the sovereignty of the people, the majority who elect politicians, and along with it, set the agenda. Twitter has no such middleman, no representative to advocate policy in virtual space. There is the instant gratification of a response, and the fickle herds that congregate and disperse around hashtags that may or may not be promoting informative discussions. There is an opening for leaders to direct majority rule as they see fit, to set the agenda and push all who disagree with them off the Internet. The result is democratically enforced censorship.

Yes, there is racism, and, yes, we need to talk about it. But viral hashtags calling for public penance do not celebrate free speech: they create a mob demanding blood. Just as virtual public squares can be a place for peaceful gatherings, they can also be a place for mobs to assemble and clamor for their own skewed, narrow view of justice.

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New York’s Segregated Schools Need New Answers

Friday’s Bloomberg article confirmed a longtime suspicion about New York public schools: New York State has the most segregated schools in the United States. It seems counterintuitive, as New York is a Northern state never subjected to Jim Crow. But the deep-seated economic inequalities in New York have created a new form of segregation that exist outside the rule of law but nonetheless affect the opportunities of thousands of students, many of whom will be firmly stuck in the cycle of poverty before they even begin their first day of kindergarten. In a state as liberal as New York, a haven for unions, powerful Democratic politicians, and organizers, those who champion the underdog and preach equality for all are failing the very people they claim to help.

Part of what drives this segregation in New York State is the economic stratification of New York City. Simply put, students from low-income households attend failing public schools, while students from wealthier families have their choice of charter schools, specialized high schools, or private schools. Stuyvesant High School, the most famous and selective specialized high school in New York City, offers admission to whomever passes their rigorous examination, regardless of economic background or ethnicity, but only seven black students were admitted this year, down from nine last year. While there is no law prohibiting black or Latino students from attending to Stuyvesant, low-income families often do not have the resources to help their children prepare for such a rigorous entrance exam. Additionally, if the student is an English learner, he or she will have a steeper uphill battle to receive an even passable education.

One possible factor that could explain such segregation is housing discrimiation. Jamelle Bouie, in one of his last pieces for The Daily Beast, described in stark detail the consistent and systematic methods by which blacks, many of whom were migrants seeking opportunities in the North, were prevented from securing stable housing. The result was the creation of the ghettos that sprung up in Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, and East Coast ones like Baltimore. The schools in these areas often underperform, with high dropout rates and low test scores in reading and math.

In cities like New York, low-income neighborhoods have seen little improvement in their local public schools. In the 1960s, following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, black and Latino children were integrated into predominately white schools, but nothing was done to fix the dilapidated schools they were extracted from, which have limped into the 21st century leaving thousands of dropouts in their wake. In 2014, the battleground for achieving greater educational equality has been charter schools, publicly-funded but privately-run schools that often share space with decrepit public schools. One bone of contention in the controversy is the accusation that charter schools siphon resources from public schools.

It’s true that suffering schools are not directly linked to any particular liberal policy. But the fact cannot be ignored that New York public schools, despite gains made under the Bloomberg administration, are still woefully inadequate. Only 66 percent of New York City high school students graduate, of whom a paltry 47 percent were ready for college, according to data released in December 2013. The bureaucratic maze and insufficient funding make it impossible for students to have their basic needs met to acquire the academic skills to lift them out of poverty and put them on the path to success. New York has long been regarded a bastion of liberal efficiency and equality, an example to the rest of the country for its tolerance and diversity. But this gaping inequality can no longer be swept under the rug. Underpinning this segregation are racist housing policies and willful “scrubbing” of undesirable students from charter schools, which impede black upward mobility as much as the laws in the Jim Crow South. It’s time for New York politicians to understand that their methods for facilitating opportunity have failed, and be more open to new ideas, perhaps from the other side of the aisle.

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Huawei Builds China’s Own Internet “Home-Field Advantage”

Last weekend, the New York Times and Der Spiegel reported that the NSA has been spying on and hacking into Chinese telecommunications company Huawei since 2009 according to documents released by Edward Snowden. The Chinese response has been swift and strident—high ranking officials condemned these actions and predictably called for an end to the espionage. This disclosure strains the already complicated relationship between the U.S. and China as both giants race to ensure their own economic growth and national security.

At the same time, China may be taking baby steps towards laying down underwater internet fiber optic cables similar to the infrastructure the NSA and British spy agency GHCQ have exploited, what the NSA called their “home-field advantage.” This tactic was among the first in a series of staggered revelations from Edward Snowden in June of 2013. Through a program called Tempora, GHCQ can store communication data for three days and can store metadata for up to 30, providing GHCQ with more metadata than the NSA’s program, with less oversight. This surveillance is conducted partly with assistance from private companies, known as “intercept partners.” It is also conducted without the companies’ knowledge, however, relying on geographic proximity and national familiarity to tap major cables and core internet switches. Now Huawei appears to be developing a similar “home-field advantage” for China. Its current scale is quite small, but Huawei intends to be “one of the top three in the industry.”

It has been well-established that Huawei’s leadership has ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese government. The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei was a PLA engineer, and Sun Yafang, a executive board member, previously worked at the Chinese spy agency, Ministry of State Security Communications Department. When Huawei was still a fledgling company, Sun provided Huawei with millions of dollars to keep it afloat. Since the 1990s, Huawei has repeatedly attempted to establish a foothold in the U.S. telecommunications market, with no success. The United States has remained wary of the Shenzhen-based company, and consistently thwarted Huawei’s efforts to break into the U.S. markets. Finally, at the end of 2013, Huawei announced its intention to seek other opportunities to expand. Huawei has repeatedly denied any significant ties to the Chinese military or government. Read More…

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Taiwan’s Protests Could Mean Trouble With China

Taiwan, the semi-autonomous nation not known for making waves, is erupting over a trade pact with China. Last week, hundreds of student protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral legislative body, demonstrating against the Guomindang’s (KMT) unilateral passage of a service trade agreement signed last year. According to CNN, protesters successfully blocked riot police from the Legislative Yuan with chairs, and have been seated both in and outside the building, singing, chanting, and holding up signs. Police have since used force to clear the Legislative Yuan, with the prime minister saying that the students were “paralyz[ing] our administrative workings,” according to a New York Times report yesterday.

The pact’s passage breaks the KMT’s promise to collaborate with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), staving off an inevitable conflict with the opposition over the pact. The DPP’s longtime stance is rooted in advocating full Taiwanese independence and dissolving ties with China, with much of its energy expended attacking the KMT for colluding with China against local Taiwanese interests. One of the DPP party slogans is, “sell Taiwan”, implying that the KMT is a cowardly puppet government with no interest in advocating for Taiwanese independence.

The protests come at the tail of a long decline in popular opinion of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou, whose conciliatory stance with China has incited a slow-burning resentment among his political opponents, and has even caused those within his own party to distance themselves from him. Ma’s approval ratings have dropped close to the level of disgraced former DPP prime minister Chen Sui-bian, who was convicted of money laundering in 2009.

One possible outcome of these protests, especially if the trade pact is derailed, is that formal relations across the strait could begin to deteriorate. Damon Linker in The Week speculates that if China were to take Taiwan, it would herald the end of American expansionism in the region. He argues that in spite of written agreements to help Taiwan defend itself, the United States would be unlikely to join in such a war. American neutrality in a hegemon-underdog dispute would bespeak our weakening global image as the world’s national guard, in Linker’s view. While logically sound, this perspective overlooks one important aspect of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations: The United States’s ability to influence Taiwanese relations with China or in the international community was never very strong to begin with. Read More…

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CIA-Senate Feud Risks Partisan Impasse

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, forged a reputation as a staunch supporter of the NSA even as many of her allies on the left hailed Edward Snowden as a whistleblower. She suddenly and dramatically changed her tune last Tuesday when she accused the CIA on the Senate floor of deleting evidence during an investigation into the nature of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The investigation began in 2009, several years after tapes of the interrogations were destroyed. Then-CIA director Hayden released descriptive cables, stating they contained information similar to what was on the tapes. After an initial investigation concluded that what happened in those interrogation rooms was much more severe than what the CIA led them to believe, the Senate Intelligence committee voted 14-to-1 to conduct its own investigation.

Feinstein claims that in 2010, approximately 920 documents the Senate was reviewing were reported missing, and after initially shifting blame to their own IT contractors, the CIA claimed that the orders to remove the documents came directly from the White House. When staffers discovered the Internal Panetta Report, which was consistent with many of the findings of the independently conducted investigation by the Senate committee of the severity of alleged torture, they printed out a hard copy, placed it in a safe, and redacted information just as the CIA would have done. When the report disappeared, Feinstein brought her concerns to CIA inspector general David Buckley, who passed along his findings to the Department of Justice. The CIA responded by referring Feinstein’s staff to the DOJ for their own criminal investigation. Suddenly the people who had gone the extra mile to protect the report from deletion were now possibly being investigated for theft.

CIA director John Brennan flatly denied Senator Feinstein’s accusations in a briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations, stating “that is beyond the scope of reason of what we would do.” He all but accused Senator Feinstein of lying, and accusations flew the staffers stole the report from the CIA drives. As if on cue, a partisan battle erupted into public, with Sen. Mark Udall taking much of the heat. According to Politico, Republicans are accusing Udall of leaking information to the public about the CIA’s conduct. That he is on the Republicans’ target list for this fall’s midterm elections is mere coincidence.

The Washington Post reported that the Republican-Democratic divide on the torture report long predates this latest public development. Republicans reportedly withdrew from the joint investigation after learning CIA personnel would not cooperate, and conducted their own investigation in a separate secure room. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia was the one Intelligence committee member to vote against opening the investigation in the first place, and he now serves as the committee’s ranking member. While Chambliss has announced his retirement, the next Republican up, Richard Burr of North Carolina, has a history just as hawkish. Should Republicans retake the Senate this fall, Burr would ascend to the chairmanship, raising questions of whether the Senate’s own fight for its institutional independence has a November expiration date.

For the time being, however, there is at least one change has been made at the CIA, by the Senate. Feinstein, among others, complained that the very acting general counsel who referred the committee’s investigators to the Justice Department in the first place, Robert Eatinger, was himself responsible for many of the most controversial legal documents surrounding the use of torture and the destruction of the tapes. Last week, the Senate confirmed President Obama’s own pick for head Agency lawyer, bumping Eatinger out of the top spot.

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China and India Offer Russia Tepid Support

As coverage of the standoff between Russia and Ukraine continues and debate over America’s role in the conflict rages on, two crucial players have stepped forward to offer support to Russia: China and India. While no assumptions can be made about China’s diplomacy with Russia, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that an economic superpower would protect its trade agreements in the region. China is Ukraine’s second largest trading partner, a partnership worth $7.3 billion dollars a year, with a target of $20 billion by 2017.

China likely has no intention of endangering its profitable relationships in the face of geopolitical conflict. There is no indication that China will publicly condemn Russia’s actions: it may instead carefully weigh its options with regard to its political alliance with Russia and future economic opportunities with Ukraine. China has paid lip service to Ukraine, but that may change as the situation develops. A spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry reasserted its non-interventionist policy, but left room to switch platforms if it became expedient:

It is China’s long-standing position not to interfere in others’ internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today. China will follow the development of the situation closely and call on relevant parties to seek a political resolution of their differences through dialogue and negotiation based on respect for international law and norms governing international relations in order to uphold regional peace and stability.

As it currently stands, China has not made a definitive move towards either Russia or Ukraine. Joel Wuthnow, a China analyst writing for the National Interest, suggests that China may side with its previously established economic relationships: “In addition, China’s relations with Ukraine deepened in December with a “strategic partnership” signed by Xi and then-president Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement involved a five-year, $30 billion plan to boost PRC investment in areas including infrastructure, aviation and aerospace, energy, agriculture, and finance.” Much of China’s diplomacy springs out of its business partnerships, and thus far Ukraine does not seem to be an exception. But China also has no interest in estranging Russia, especially after Presidents Putin and Jinping appeared together in public at the Sochi Olympics, sending a signal of solidarity as the Western media raked Putin over the coals. Shannon Tezzi of The Diplomat posits that in spite of deep philosophical misgivings, China will put its developing relationship with Russia above its own political agenda, at least in this case. But public support of Russia is not without risk.

What’s confusing is why India has decided to come forward. Read More…

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We Know Obamacare Is Not At All Like Slavery

The most well-received remarks at this year’s CPAC were indubitably Rand Paul’s, who was likely test driving his Republican National Convention nominee acceptance speech. Barely trailing him in cheers, applause and audience size was Dr. Ben Carson. Carson is known as one of the most accomplished physicians of his time, but is building momentum as a rising star among conservatives. Hotel room keys and the shuttles to Union Station are adorned with Carson’s face, next to slogans endorsing him for president in 2016. During his speech, enthusiasts held up signs that read, “Run, Ben, run!” and the ballroom’s sudden swelled in size from onlookers and supporters. Carson’s relaxed mannerisms and tightly focused speech make him a natural, if unlikely, politician, and his prodigious career in medicine certainly qualifies him to discuss health care policy. But President? CPAC has had no shortage of eyebrow-raising moments, but that is the most unconventional one yet. Though Republicans once nominated a former Hollywood actor who went on to be a two-term president, so anything is possible.

Dr. Carson hit his talking points with airstrike precision, to the delight of his audience, who punctuated nearly every point he made with an ovation. Carson disparaged political correctness, likely a nod to the social conservatives who have been feeling that their place in public discourse is increasingly restricted as of late. And then, predictably, he launched into his tirade against Obamacare. And that was precisely when he lost anyone with a level head who has been following Carson’s ascendancy with interest.

Carson referenced—and defended—his claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to this society since slavery, calling anyone who believes that he equated the two institutions a “dummy”. Aside from that claim being patently false—there were a number of things that were nearly as bad as slavery, but none so awful as slavery itself—it is an irresponsible claim to make as a physician. Doctors are trusted to be objective and rely on facts to make decisions on courses of treatment. The fact that Carson was willing to wade into the political fray, making claims that can be easily misconstrued is alarming. Anyone hoping that Carson would bring some balance and perspective to the blaring rhetoric from CPAC this weekend was in for a disappointment.

Carson’s best-selling books—the nonpolitical ones—are nothing like his speeches, and the vast disparity between the two personas is unsettling. The pediatric neurosurgeon whose memoirs I read as a child emphasized self-reliance, hard work, and trust in Providence to achieve the impossible. The speaker today was a speech away from running for office on fearmongering and repealing Obamacare. I was hoping to see more of the man I trusted to perform a complex operation instead of a pedantic speaker that validated the borderline irrational whims of CPAC attendees.


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