Monday, September 27, 2010

Let Me Entertain You

The Congressional Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security invited Stephen Colbert to testify--in character--about the working conditions of illegal immigrants on America's farms. Colbert participated in a United Farm Workers awareness campaign, and spent a day laboring at a vegetable farm in New York in August 2010.

Here is Colbert's statement to the committee:

You can find the entire two-hour hearing here. At 1:56:43 in the video you can find California congresswoman Judy Chu's exchange with Colbert (including her point that Clint Eastwood and Sesame Street's Elmo have testified before Congress and his very serious points about the gravity of the immigration issue).

Colbert's testimony comes on the heels of Lady Gaga's rally to end the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell policy, in which Gaga made salient points about the injustice of the law.

Celebrity activism is often ridiculed and sometimes it ought to be, especially when arguments are made on the basis of star power alone. But we should not slip into ad hominem arguments and refuse to engage with important and relevant arguments just because they come from someone in the entertainment business.

The documentary Poliwood, directed by Barry Levinson, explores how the celebrity and the politician have merged into a single entity; there is no clear distinction between the two anymore, if there ever was one. The celebrity adopts and dramatizes public issues, the politician is required to present their arguments with the skills of an entertainer, and both are required to perform on camera.

Some have bemoaned this development, as evidenced by both Fox News and MSNBC's negative reaction to Colbert's testimony. Both shamed the appearance as detrimental to the integrity of the instituion. But I have to wonder if Colbert's testimony, especially his final exchange with Congresswoman Chu, was really worse than condemning immigration reform to superficial lip service. For that matter, it is hard to argue that Lady Gaga's remarks--and her tendency to scream them into the microphone--were really more crass than representatives enabling homophobia by upholding the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell policy.

Outside of the primary issues at hand, Gaga's rally and Colbert's testimony are very good indications of where we are as a people and how media has so saturated our lives. At the risk of sounding cynical, it seems like only a matter of time before our elections take the form of reality television. But if the entertainers are making better arguments than our politicians, then we might as well take them more seriously.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Race, Age, and Taxes

Check out this article by Ronald Brownstein at National Journal Magazine on the projected changes in America's ethnic makeup over the next few decades and how it relates to our economic future. Here are a few key excerpts:

Two of the biggest demographic trends reshaping the nation in the 21st century increasingly appear to be on a collision course that could rattle American politics for decades. From one direction, racial diversity in the United States is growing, particularly among the young. . . . At the same time, the country is also aging, as the massive Baby Boom Generation moves into retirement. But in contrast to the young, fully four-fifths of this rapidly expanding senior population is white.

Although cultural disputes often generate the most heat, government budgets are likely to become the central point of conflict between younger minorities and older whites. At the state level, where governors are grappling with persistent deficits, the strains revolve around the choice between raising taxes or cutting spending. At the national level, Congress faces not only that familiar debate but also the competition between investing in education and other programs that benefit children, or spending on those that benefit seniors, primarily Medicare and Social Security.

* * *

This competition for resources takes place amid a stark divergence in the political preferences of the old and the young. . . .  And yet, as Davis and Rosenberg both note, Republicans are generally pushing to retrench entitlement programs that benefit the senior population that is increasingly leaning toward them. Democrats, meanwhile, resist constraints on entitlement costs that could help fund investments in the younger, heavily minority, generation that has become the foundation of their electoral coalition.

* * *
"The Baby Boom has a tremendous stake in investing in the education of young Latinos and African-Americans so they will get good jobs and we can tax the daylights out of them to support [the Boomers'] retirement," [Stephen] Klineberg, the Rice University sociologist, says. "The [racial] gap in achievement has to be narrowed if there's any serious hope for American competitiveness in the global economy."
Indeed, Frey projects that if the U.S. does not significantly improve college completion rates for African-Americans and Hispanics, the overall share of American adults with college degrees will decline "very sharply in the next 10 or 15 years." That's an ominous trend in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

* * *
If anything, the nation's evolving demography may wind these tensions even more tightly. While the share of the population represented by young people is expected to stabilize at just under one-fourth, the senior share is projected to steadily rise from about one-eighth today to one-fifth by 2040. By Frey's projections, that will slowly shrink the working-age population -- those who provide the tax base for young people and seniors alike -- from about 63 percent of the society now to 57 percent by 2030.

In that world, the generational and racial implications of the choices between tax cuts and spending reductions, and between public spending aimed at the old or the young, could grow increasingly explicit and explosive.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Al Franken on Don't Ask Don't Tell and DREAM

Here is Senator Al Franken's full statement, made on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, calling for the end to the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy and the passage of the DREAM Act.

Friday, September 10, 2010

No Porn for You

On the subject of empty political posturing, the Winona County Board has altered its employee travel policies, requiring its employees to choose from a list of lodging services that do not offer pornographic pay-per-view programs.

The implication here is that employees were previously allowed to watch pay-per-view materials on the county's dime. Putting a stop to that, whether the employees were watching HustlerTV or Nickelodeon, or at least making them pay for their entertainment out of their own pocket, is reasonable.

But let's have a quick reality check. First, the county's new policy doesn't just forbid employees from ordering porn in their hotel room while on business; it forbids them from staying in a building that has porn available. So let's say an employee travels to a location where there are two hotels available, and one is significantly less expensive than the other but it has porn accessible in the room. At a time of tightening budgets, where services are being cut for lack of funds, the employee would be bound to spend more of the county's money just so they can stay in a room that doesn't offer porn.

Second, pornography is really in the eye of the beholder. To carry on with the earlier example, an employee may spend more of the county's money to stay in a hotel that does not carry pay-per-view porn, but what if the hotel they patronized had HBO or Cinemax? Or what if the employee decided to relax after a hard day's work with an in-room screening of Blue Velvet, Basic Instinct, or Lolita? Already it should be clear that the board's new ruling is capricious and does little to curb the behavior it's seeking to stop.

Third, despite some local organizations petitioning the county board to the contrary, there is no causal link between pornography and violence. That's not to deny the existence of violent pornography but for the policy's advocates to say that this measure will protect women is nonsense. In fact, the March 2010 issue of The Scientist included an article that showed an inverse relationship between the consumption of pornography and the rate of violence. To say it simply, the more pornography society uses, the less sex crimes it has.

While I can commend the board for having it's heart in the right place, clearly its head was somewhere else. And all of this will be a moot point in months and years ahead as the hotel pay-per-view industry is dying out anyway. But as admitted by council member Marcia Ward (who abstained from the vote), the policy has further implications. Should the county also file restrictions that employees, while traveling on county business, cannot drink or smoke or stay in hotels that have bars or smoking rooms? And what purpose does this serve?

If the board was really interested in really helping women it could do so much more. But this isn't about helping women. It's about politicians conspicuously polishing their good-guy badges.