¡Ay Madre de Dios! ¡Que Lastima!

Via Chateau Heartiste, a joyfully non-PC blog which brings the merciless insights of evolutionary psychology to bear on the dating landscape in advanced capitalist societies in the Global North, comes this priceless anecdote, from a Village Voice article about guys who dig morbidly obese women:

“There aren’t many fat girls in Spain,” reports Charlotte, who spent six months as an exchange student there in 2006. Back then, she weighed 425 [that's a dainty193 kilos - ed.], and she claims that the department organizers at her Northeastern women’s college tried to dissuade her from going abroad because she was “too big.” She balked and went anyway, though she admits European daily life was far more taxing: The public bathrooms were “itty-bitty,” the online clothes retailers she frequents didn’t service Spain (Lane Bryant’s sizes are too small for her), and walking was the primary method of transportation. “Anytime I would walk down the street, people would stare at me like I was a circus sideshow. Here, people kind of like glance out of their eyes, but there people would stop and stare as I walked by.”

One time in Spain, an old woman spotted Charlotte in public, stopped abruptly, and crossed herself. “Like I was Satan.”

Here you have a nice anecdote that helps explain why urban density and car-dependency have helped made America the fattest country on earth. I have to admit, the old woman crossing herself made me laugh. I can't imagine how Charlotte made it. It gets to be 35+ degrees in Spain in the summer, day after day, and air-conditioning is often hard to find. As David Letterman once said, 'Think of the chafing'!


The Coming Student-Loan Crash

Malcolm Harris has a fine article about the impending student loan debt crisis in America:

The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans. Last August, student loans surpassed credit cards as the nation’s single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet for all the moralizing about American consumer debt by both parties, no one dares call higher education a bad investment. The nearly axiomatic good of a university degree in American society has allowed a higher education bubble to expand to the point of bursting.

Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy,  then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.

***

[T]he rapid growth in tuition is mystifying in value terms; no one could argue convincingly the quality of instruction or the market value of a degree has increased ten-fold in the past four decades (though this hasn’t stopped some from trying). So why would universities raise tuition so high so quickly? “Because they can” answers this question for home-sellers out to get the biggest return on their investments, or for-profits out to grab as much Pell Grant money as possible, but it seems an awfully cynical answer when it comes to nonprofit education.

First, where the money hasn’t gone: instruction. As Marc Bousquet, a leading researcher into the changing structures of higher education, wrote in How The University Works (2008):

If you’re enrolled in four college classes right now, you have a pretty good chance that one of the four will be taught by someone who has earned a doctorate and whose teaching, scholarship, and service to the profession has undergone the intensive peer scrutiny associated with the tenure system. In your other three classes, however, you are likely to be taught by someone who has started a degree but not finished it; was hired by a manager, not professional peers; may never publish in the field she is teaching; got into the pool of persons being considered for the job because she was willing to work for wages around the official poverty line (often under the delusion that she could ‘work her way into’ a tenurable position); and does not plan to be working at your institution three years from now.

This is not an improvement; fewer than forty years ago, when the explosive growth in tuition began, these proportions were reversed. Highly represented among the new precarious teachers are graduate students; with so much available debt, universities can force graduate student workers to scrape by on sub-minimum-wage, making them a great source of cheap instructional labor. Fewer tenure-track jobs mean that recent PhDs, overwhelmed with debt,  have no choice but to accept insecure adjunct positions with wages kept down by the new crop of graduate student-workers. Rather than producing a better-trained, more professional teaching corps, increased tuition and debt have enabled the opposite.

***

Homeowners who found themselves with negative equity (owing more on their houses than the houses were worth) could always walk away. Students aren’t as lucky: graduates can’t ditch their degrees, even if they borrowed more money than their accredited labor power can command on the market. Americans overwhelmed with normal consumer debt (like credit card debt) have the option of bankruptcy, and although it’s an arduous and credit-score-killing process, not having ready access to thousands in pre-approved cash is not always such a bad thing.  But students don’t have that option either. Before 2005, students could use bankruptcy to escape education loans that weren’t provided directly by the federal government, but the facetiously named “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act” extended non-dischargeability to all education loans, even credit cards used to pay school bills.

Today, student debt is an exceptionally punishing kind to have. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no expiration date and collectors can garnish wages, social security payments, and even unemployment benefits. When a borrower defaults and the guaranty agency collects from the federal government, the agency gets a cut of whatever it’s able to recover from then on (even though they have already been compensated for the losses), giving agencies a financial incentive to dog former students to the grave.


The Clueless Continent, Continued

And speaking of American ignorance, here's another consequence of the American media's preference for screaming matches about hot-button issues -- in this case, the perennial "why are we helping Ghana instead of Grandma" debate, as the article puts it:

In poll after poll, Americans overwhelmingly say they believe that foreign aid makes up a larger portion of the federal budget than defense spending, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, or spending on roads and other infrastructure. In a November World Public Opinion poll, the average American believed that a whopping 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. The average respondent also thought that the appropriate level of foreign aid would be about 10 percent of the budget — 10 times the current level.

Compared with our military and entitlement budgets, this is loose change. Since the 1970s, aid spending has hovered around 1 percent of the federal budget. International assistance programs were close to 5 percent of the budget under Lyndon B. Johnson during the war in Vietnam, but have dropped since.\


Stupid, American Style

The price of gasoline is pretty high in the United States right now. Not in international comparison, where it's still ludicrously cheap, but in comparison to what Americans -- who've let a completely car-dependent culture arise around them despite repeated oil shocks -- think they should be paying.

This fact, unfortunately, could have world-historical importance. American voters, ignorant and fickle creatures that they are, might well vote for any Republican to punish Obama for 'not doing enough' about U.S. gasoline prices, which of course are largely beyond his control. As Dave Weigel puts it:

Speaker of the House John Boehner made a prediction Monday about Barack Obama's re-election bid. "If gas prices are $5 or $6, he certainly isn't going to win." It might be the least disputable thing a politician has ever said. Well, yes: If people have to keep paying more and more to fill their cars up, the president could lose re-election—even to one of the current batch of Republicans. There's evidence, circumstantial but graphically compelling, that the president's current poll numbers are a function of the price of gas.

Now, most mainstream American journalists, like most Americans, have grown up in a political culture where the smarts of the 'common man' are universally assumed. The 22nd-tiredest political cliche in the United States is 'my opponent is underestimating the intelligence of the American people, who will see right through his craven pandering/blatant scare-mongering...' So Weigel calmly assesses the chance that gasoline prices alone will drive the next American election without ever once stopping to say to himself, or his readers: "Many of my countrymen are such fools that they will change control of the White House to a party with a different foreign policy and different spending priorities and different social values based solely on the price of one consumer good whose price the President cannot even control. God, how depressing. I should drop whatever I'm doing right now and dedicate my life to trying to improve the political judgment of my fellow Americans."

But that's clearly not the mission the American press corps has given itself. Here's a remarkable press statement from Obama yesterday (h/t Ed Philp) , in which he expains his decision to release his own birth certificate to defuse the moronic, years-long non-controversy over whether he was born in the United States:

Even Obama, who never flies off the handle, can't resist several digs at the press corps for giving 'birthers', as the morons are known, two long, pointless, wasted years of attention.

The truth is that the American journalistic lanscape -- especially when it comes to TV, the only source of news for most Americans -- is dominated by carnival barkers. Most of the news providers are for-profit companies, competing against one another for ratings. They will broadcast whatever attracts eyeballs, not whatever edifies -- yes, edifies* -- viewers. And that means stories that feature exciting controversies about emotionally-laden themes. As a result, the political judgment of those lost souls who get their news from TV becomes ever more adolescent. They're trained to focus on meaningless personality traits, ginned-up pseudo-conflicts, or vacuous horse-race bullshitting about who's got the better 'ground game'. Whatever ability they may have had to carefully balance competing policy priorities shrivels up and blows away.

And so, for the past few years, there have been thousands of U.S. television hours spent on the question of whether Obama was born in the U.S., usually in the form of idiots pontificating about the issue in ignorance, or 'debates' in which people yell at each other. These hours could have been devoted to America's two, ongoing, pointless, expensive wars, or strategies for containing health care costs, or analyses of the Arab uprisings, or even a good old-fashioned doughty, earnest documentary about water rights. But all those things would have cost a lot more money than inviting a couple of blowhards into the television studio and/or would have required finding people who actually knew what they were talking about. So they weren't done. Instead, the completely irrelevant non-controversy of Obama's 'real' place of birth was kept alive.

Since the press wouldn't police itself, Obama finally had to take action, and his frustration is visible. But even if this pointless distractions is largely put to rest, another one will surely follow, and the press corps will surely give it attention as long as it boosts ratings. As James Fallows said, "This is not a great day for the press."

* Sure, edify has all sorts of tea-cozy, church-basement-lecture overtones of stuffy didactic earnestness, but we elitists need to proudly reclaim it. I'm so old that I remember when there were some American intellectuals and officials who, quaintly enough, actually thought television might actually one day help improve people's judgment, and were disgusted at what it was doing instead:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

That was back in 1961.


Spray-On Christianity

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And now, just in time for Christmas, a post on religion!

Let me expand a bit on the last post. The priceless quote came from an unnamed fellow soldier of the interviewee, Josh Stieber, a disillusioned American soldier who eventually claimed conscientious objector status rather than continue to serve in Iraq. Stieber's response to his friend's comment about Jesus was pretty appropriate: if being arrested, tortured, mocked, forced to wear a crown of thorns, and then crucified is not being 'punked', then nothing is. The notion of Jesus as behaloed Rambo, resentfully taking a beating but then returning with some sort of blessed bazooka, is as blasphemous as it is ludicrous.

Yet I have no doubt that Stieber's friend genuinely believed that Jesus was into the occasional ass-kicking. It's just one of the more amusing instances of a general phenomenon: Huge numbers of Americans who consider themselves Christians will happily convince themselves that their faith permits -- or encourages -- whatever it's in their interest to do at any given moment. Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron, was renowned for his aggressively public religiosity. Nor is he alone: here's the website for the Real Estate Prayer Breakfast: "At Real Estate Prayer Breakfast, we lead people in the real estate community into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ by creating business environments where God can be discovered." By joining the Host Committee, you agree to "[f]ill your seats with individuals from the real estate community that do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

I have no beef with Christians, or real estate agents for that matter. But what's eerily amusing about all this mixing of Christ and capitalism is the unstated presumption that real estate brokers in suburban Houston are at the very epicenter of God's concern -- perhaps even of his Plan for the World. The realtors go to their prayer breakfast, secure in the belief that their God is smiling down approvingly on their listings, and no doubt many of them will say a quick prayer of thanksgiving after closing a major deal. The notion that God might actually disapprove of their line of work or -- even worse -- not give a damn about it has never crossed their minds. Of course, all of those troubling Bible verses about selling your possessions have long been smoothed over by generations of pro-free-market exegesis, a form of gob-smackingly shameless special pleading known informally as the 'prosperity gospel.'

Over at Slate, Shankar Vedantam has an interesting theory about American spray-on Christianity:

Two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services. Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists...

There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: Americans are significantly more religious than the citizens of other industrialized nations.

Except they are not.

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.

Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it's like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They'll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

If you ask Americans whether they went to church last Sunday, many of them will say yes. But if you ask them how they actually used their time last Sunday, without specifically mentioning church, the number who "went to church" drops by half:

[A recent study] found that the United States and Canada were outliers—not in religious attendance, but in overreporting religious attendance. Americans attended services about as often as Italians and Slovenians and slightly more than Brits and Germans. The significant difference between the two North American countries and other industrialized nations was the enormous gap between poll responses and time-use studies in those two countries.

Or, to put it another way, Europeans are honest about whether they go to church or not, while Americans are hypocrites. The two phenomena are intertwined: Americans ostentatiously trumpet their claimed Christianity because they think it helps them be seen as 'good' people. Similarly, they feel no shame in spreading this comforting, all-purpose balm of diffuse righteousness over every single part of their lives, no matter how mundane or questionable.

I can't think of any better way to close this post than to quote H.L. Mencken on the U.S., where I'll be sojourning over the next few weeks:

Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly – the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances – is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.


Scientists in the Basement

ahh, the traditional 4th of july bonfire! such memories...

One of GJ's many invaluable roving informants sent me this book, 'America Through the Back Door'. It's a 1952 East German translation of a book by one N. Vassiliev, who claims to have spent three years in America in the late 1940s. According to the jacket blurb, he promises to show us the "backwardness of the social organization in 'God's own land'", including the desperate farmers who "don't own a single blade of grass on their farms", the misery in the slums, and the "scientists living in basements" (?). Stay tuned for a review an excerpts sometime in the next few weeks!

Does anyone happen to have any more information about this book or its author? (The author's name is 'N. Wassiljew' in the German transliteration, the German translation is by Marga Bork). I'd love to get some background, if any exists.


@executioner: 2 Kewl 2 C Killer Croak LIVE!

Take Americans' tendency to catastrophically tasteless overshares, multiply it by new technology permitting them to inflict said overshares in real-time, and add in a self-aggrandizing elected official capitalizing on the publicity generated by an execution, and you get death, tweeted live:

"A solemn day. Barring a stay by Sup Ct [US Supreme Court], & with my final nod, Utah will use most extreme power & execute a killer. Mourn his victims. Justice".

At least he didn't use any emoticons.


Floyd Landis Doubles Down, Melts Down

Here's the latest news from cycling:

Floyd Landis, the American cyclist whose 2006 Tour de France victory was nullified after a positive doping test, has sent a series of emails to cycling officials and sponsors admitting to, and detailing, his systematic use of performance enhancing drugs during his career. The emails also claim that other riders and cycling officials allegedly participated in doping, including seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.

People will find this news interesting for several reasons, but I have a special one: I actually read Landis' book. After he was stripped of the TdF victory, he launched a draining, $2 million legal battle to clear his name. Not only that, he wrote an entire book -- called Positively False -- arguing his case.

On practically every page of the book, he protested his innocence and harshly attacked the practices of the anti-doping agencies. A relative who's interested in cycling loaned me the book, and I read it, thinking it would be wise to keep an open mind until I heard Landis' side of the story. Ultimately, I found it only moderately convincing. Landis and his lawyers had obviously carefully examined the testing process and found some real flaws, but he was never able to come up with a convincing counter-explanation for his damning results. Reduced to its essentials, the argument was highly legalistic -- not "I can prove I'm innocent," but rather "The process you used to prove my guilt was flawed." Many will call this a typically American defense, and I can see why.

Technical legal arguments aside, Landis stridently proclaimed his innocence. He never doped, anywhere, at any time, for any reason, evah. He was just an aw-shucks, corn-fed, goody-two-shoes Pennsylvania Dutch farmboy who was being unfairly targeted by the cynical (read: European) authorities. And frankly, the enormous financial sacrifices he was making to fight his appeal through all the instances gave his claims a bit of credibility. Why on earth would he bankrupt himself and put himself through hell for a lie?

Well, now we know the answer: because he had a sociopathic streak as wide as the Alps. He assured literally millions of people that he was innocent, and was consciously, knowingly lying the entire time. Am I wrong in thinking there's something American about this sort of brazen hypocrisy? Other examples abound: the male Christian fundamentalist anti-gay crusader who recently toured Europe while receiving "erotic massages" from a rent-boy, or the latest in an endless line of conservative 'family values' politicians found to have been screwing around. The latest of these sad sacks actually recorded a video praising sexual abstinence with the very aide he was shtupping!

I'm not saying that hypocrisy is uniquely American, of course. What I'm saying is that it seems that America produces an unusual number of hypocrites who not only live by double standards, but shamelessly, openly, and enthusiastically champion the very standards they daily violate in the bedroom or boardroom. I ascribe it to the narrow, unforgiving code of middle-class morality which most Americans feel the need to appear to be upholding. The inability to reconcile their drives and their image lead them to feats of compartmentalization that normal humans can only gape at in horrified fascination.

I may be off-base here, but I just don't find this particular brand of hypocrisy as often in Europe. Europeans are keen to keep their personal lives private, and aren't given to the kind of black-and-white 'straight talk' that leads to categorical statements such as "I never doped" or "I'm not gay" or "I would never cheat on my wife." The European style, to me, is embodied by Miterrand's famous quote: "I was born Christian and shall doubtless die in that condition. But meanwhile..."

And meanwhile, here, I want back the 3 hours I spent reading Landis' book, and the 4,593,254,210 synaptic firings I devoted to wondering whether he might have been the victim of injustice. And I'm not alone...


Like, Totally Whites v. Italians

Brief update from the road. First, John over at Obscene Desserts sent in this (source unknown):

Englishlike


Second, overheard at the Atlantic Grill on Cambridge. Two older men (heavyset, dressed like the construction firm owners they are) and one younger woman (black hair, artificial tan) are discussing recent developments in the building trades in a heavy local accent. Suddenly the woman pipes up and says: "Yeah, things are tough over in Allston. Jimmie just had to lay off an Italian and two white boys!"