Thursday, June 2, 2016

'Reform' deformed

After a long talk about the unusual political campaign with an old friend and colleague of yore who used to be in the middle of such things -- I continued to muse on why so many primary voters have refused the old, time-tested political lies, surprising candidates and experts repeatedly. At the same time, new and different lies, hitherto unpopular and apparently preposterous, are suddenly attractive to some number of Americans.
    Just how many of us have passed this tipping point is a likely focus of tracking polls. And we can guess from the advertising and slogans -- custom modified lies --  based on these polls, as they appear. The ultimate poll, as they say, is in November, but its binary result will be discussed for a long time after.
      Calling a political lie a lie takes us back to Orwell, and his warnings about misuse of language. Phrase wars are not new, and we have seen concepts tucked into linguistic Trojan horses like "right to life" and "right to choose." I know a young financial advisor who has no idea that calling estate tax "death tax" is a conservative meme devised in the 1970s. Ordinary language would indicate that the tax is measured by the size of the estate and not the manner of death. But it was a useful political lie to rename a tax that unfairly took money only from heirs to an estate as a tax assessed at death, which strikes the poor as hard or harder than it hits rich families. Almost all of us are opposed to death, while we are more divided about the utility of hereditary death.
     Some meanings reverse by misuse, such as 'literally,' which now means what 'figuratively' used to mean, back when figuratively was the opposite of literally.
    And so to 'reform.' Here is a word central to more than a century of political truths and lies, that is now stronger in its reversed meaning than it was at the turn of the previous century. At that time, reform in politics referred to a moderate restructuring of corrupt and/or wasteful government agencies or practices. It was contrasted with revolution, and it certainly had populist opponents.     
     But generally reforms would be aimed at making things better. They typically included regulation if not legislation.
      Now reforms aim at making things cheaper. They typically aim to reduce regulation.
      Because reforms were achieved by compromise (which has not always meant surrender) the term 'reform' was always complicated and remains so.
       But the balance shift from betterment to cutbacks is continual and consistent.
        I am not arguing that everything is getting worse, only things described as reforms.
      Case: education reform. Education reform used to be about encouraging teachers and students. The phrase today invokes decades of attacks on teachers, their salaries, unions, tenure, professionalism, training, experience, and vocation.  For students, education reform now means high-stakes testing, narrowing of curriculum, purging material of interest. (The word 'relevant,' which used to mean germane and imply material that would interest students; in the dialogue of contemporary school  is now a swear-word applied to material that might distract students from rote learning necessary to pass the annual gauntlet of tests.
     I have a more specialized interest in "mental health reform" a subtitle for bills in both houses of Congress which propose to focus research and treatment dollars on "evidence-based"  practices as determined by Congressionally reviewed plans developed by carefully specified credentialed experts. What if, like a lot of people coping with mental health issues, you don't have a clear diagnosis and the treatments haven't worked well?
     There are, as often under the reform label, some attractive features to these bills, too. But if anyone proposed to "reform" a mature science like physics in this way, they would be exposed to ridicule for stifling innovation. Only in a scientifically weak area like psychiatry/psychology, still doing as much "human services" as "evidence-based treatment" can the reform label be slapped on a program -- as in the more extreme House bill -- to disempower the majority of practitioners in the field -- social workers.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Slipper limpets as food; from the new, widened political horizon

I only learned last summer that slipper limpets, "boat shells" on Cape Cod, are edible. I learned this browsing North Atlantic Seafood, by the late Alan Davidson, a wonderful book (and cheap used on Amazon, follow the link). Davidson, however, confuses our native crepidula fornicata with some other limpets, maybe true limpets or invasive crepidula that bother oyster beds in Northern Europe. Ours mostly stick to rocks, although they will develop chains on shells, pilings or anything else solid they can glom onto, glomming being the defense of limpets. I went oystering this winter several times in Pamet Harbor and saw few limpets, nor does any Cape town require shellfish licensees to harvest and kill slipper limpets, as they require us to deal with whelks, moon snails, starfish, green crabs, and other actual predators of commercial shellfish.

Moreover, I never saw them on a menu or met anyone else who ate them, although limpets called 'lappas' are an Azorean delicacy, and Azorean Portuguese fisherman and their descendants are a significant ethnic population on the lower cape. There is or was some commercial exploration of them in Rhode Island, according to this interesting study out of Roger Williams.

Well, I was picking up a few summer and fall, and steaming them with clams, and picking them out of the shell and throwing them in the chowder. I ate some and found them tasty, and they added a lot to the broth. But only in the last month have I really got into them. One reason is that at this time of year, the larger ones -- which have turned female -- have perhaps an eighth of a teaspoon of golden, mildly delicious roe. So I was collecting a tablespoon or so of roe and offering it on toast. It is the season of pre-spawned shellfish, the clams are fat, too, although the quahog roe is black. And on some windy days, and weak tides, I wasn't getting out enough to get a lot of clams on the beaches, so I was back in the shallows, picking up lots of limpets.

Aside from the rare treat of the roe, which will never hit restaurants because it's too much work and a short season, limpet meats (mostly the "foot" muscle than makes a suction cup) are tasty and twice as nutritious as oysters, and the broth, which is easy -- you just steam them off the rocks and filter out the sand -- is superior. The broth could be commercialized, should be. Picking the meats is a fair bit of hand labor, even for free food. I spent about an hour working through a half-gallon of slipper limpets and small rocks, ending up with more than a quart of rocks, about as many shells, and a cup-and-one-half or a little more of loose limpet meats and roe. I thought about limpet hash, but decided to grind and freeze.

I now have about a cup of ground grey and gold limpet meat frozen, and maybe a quart of broth, and could make a pure limpet chowder or stew, or clear soup with asparagus (a complementary flavor, I think)  but am thinking of mixing with breadcrumbs and stuffing something small -- like macaroni shells. But it may be too strong a taste. I could make a stodgy fried cake like a clam cake. That would be similar to the Azorean way of eating limpets (look like true limpets in the pictures) in a rice pilaf. (They grill true limpets in Hawaii, possibly due to Portuguese influence as this also an Azorean way.)

Or, and this may be the thing: I could get wonton or ravioli wrappers from a Chinese grocery, mix ground limpets with ginger, mushroom, carrots in bits, scallions -- and make a limpet dumplings or wontons. Serve them as pot-stickers, or dumplings in a fish soup.

So that's a dispatch from the political horizons of the politics of food, eat local, eat wild, eat sustainable. Wikipedia says the natural science of limpets is fairly developed, but other than their sexual switch having attained a certain size, and with other limpets around, what do we know? What are the predators of slipper limpets? I see some empty shells drilled, which is moon snail modus operandi in Cape Cod Bay. And I bet gulls get a few loose big ones, although they are looking for stranded clams and slow crabs mostly when I am out at low tide. Can tautog eat them as they cruise for crabs?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Election perspective from the edge

To catch up on the pattern breaking presidential election, I as usual called this one badly, nagging people for most of the summer and fall that Donald Trump's "lead" consisted of not one single pledged delegate. I kept hammering this one as his initial "victories" conveyed fractions of a percent of the necessary convention votes. I said some similar things about Sanders on the Democratic side. I advised people to follow the money, as the pacs have better polls than the media publish. I noted the pacs on the conservative side switching to Senate races as a kind of white flag (this may prove out). But mostly I missed what was happening until after the first "Super Tuesday" when Jeb Bush was quoted directly saying that the Republican party seemed split and hinting that the party system itself was in decline.

Party system in decline has been the arc of my lifetime, as I remember watching on television the first one-ballot conventions (1956) of both parties, annoyed they were pre-empting my favorite kid's shows. Citizen's United I flagged for friends as another nail in the coffin of political parties, hastening the day when ad hoc coalitions of money would package and present nominees of theoretical parties. I did not flag that this would create a crisis first for the Republicans, when pac money would actually fail to deliver a packaged candidate.

What I think today, is that the paradigm shift is better seen as the end of one of the long periods of political stalement. We had a series of very close presidential elections, and presidents at the inner edge of each party, often tied up with Congressional majorities of the other large party. One time this happened was 1840-1856, when we had a series of Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs, while the three major leaders of the period (Clay, Calhoun, and Webster) never got past the Vice Presidency. Another possibility is 1876-1912, an era of Republican presidents who retreated on Lincoln priorities, with Democrats largely controlling Congress from the end of Reconstruction.

In each of these cases, there was a dead Gorilla on the floor -- slavery to 1860, and robber barons and corruption to 1912. I'm not saying no one spoke of these things. And I cannot say that 1860 ended slavery or 1912 ended gross capitalism. But in each of those elections the party system broke down and voters and parties could not sustain compromise. In 1860 both parties split, and a new party won the presidential election. In 1912, the Republicans split, and a new Democratic coalition seemed to assemble.

So what is the dead gorilla of  1988-2016? It may well be the issue of wealth and poverty, with increased discussion of terms of trade and immigration. This would explain some of the success of Trump and Sanders, and the interesting phenomenon of dissatisfied voters going from one to the other in open primary and caucus states. The rupture is such that at this time, it is hard to see that either party will assemble a strong ticket, although the Republicans would appear to have the larger problem. Oddly, the think tanks of the conservative world had prepared position papers about wealth and poverty, reframing into Republic themes of "job creation" by promoting business. Promoters of this had a nickname "reformaCons" and some program ideas about prison reform and mental health as well as education and higher education. But these policy papers and the candidates who were studying them seem to be off the table now. It is possible the Republican money people will simply concede the presidency and regroup for another two years in opposition in Congress, if they do not lose the Senate in the process. This is a better option if the Democratic ticket is based on the relatively conservative and tentative leadership style of Clinton-Obama.

The Democrats are also split deeper than they would prefer, and by similar problems with defining a platform in an atmosphere where business rights and responsibilities are suddenly in play. They had been coasting along as a party somewhat more socially liberal than the Republicans, and if anything *more* pro-business. That isn't playing with voters very much better than traditional Republican themes about national security are playing in Republican primaries.

Always important to notice what is unsaid: The usual undebateables are more remote than ever. Anyone heard a word about the nuclear arsenal or any foreign policy field outside a few great powers and the Middle East? South America? Could be underwater.

Also notable: Repubs have largely stopped mentioning Obama. One line about repealing affordable health care, with an exception for people with previous conditions. His foreign policy, once the fantasy game of conspiracy theories is now just "tired." His incredible usurpation of unconstitutional powers (both parties have built the Imperial presidency for more than 70 years) -- a few lines from the Dems about trade treaties (all fast-tracked by Republican Congress), not a word about letting states legalize marijuana despite existing federal law against doing so. Announced 7 years ago, not a peep.

What will happen? Who will be nominated? I don't know. They don't know. It is hard to see a high turnout with candidates who carry so many negatives (Kasich is the surviving exception, and his negatives are there, just in storage). Lots of pac money and dark money to be spent, on someone or more likely against someone.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Returning to this project

6-1/2 year on. I got a full time job the next month. Well, the reading and posting of commentary on Christopher Lasch hasn't been productive, and the political process in US has degenerated in fascinating but unpredicted ways. My own life has changed, as I am no longer writing for paid publication, and working full time as a paraprofessional social worker. I write as many words as ever, but they are protected medical information, under the HIPAA cone of silence. This bring me back to the blog as an outlet for writing and collecting essays, not all of which will be on political horizons. As I am aging at the usual rate, I would like to get some notions out, which in younger days I might have noted for future articles or books. So if I can figure out the program, I will broaden the title, and probably link from Facebook or

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Christopher and Mark

As a food writer, I felt compelled to go to the film, "Julie and Julia." I was not crazy about it, but it did give me a certain idea, which was to do what Julie did, only with a masterpiece of political theory, The True and Only Heaven, by Christopher Lasch. There are some interesting parallels. This is the last book Lasch published in his lifetime, and one of few that was written as a whole book rather than a collection of articles. At the time he published it, he was almost the age that I am now (58 vs. 60). It is a really long and difficult book that I have started and dropped a lot of times, so doing it in a year would be a the kind of project Julie did. Like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, this book took the author quite a long time -- most of the Reagan and Bush I years -- to finish it. In addition, it is a very challenging book, apt to make both leftists and rightists uncomfortable. Lasch was a man of the left who tended to cross lines in the culture wars and honor the family values of paleo-conservatives. Thus while Mastering the Art... is a very influential book whose time has come and gone; True and Only Heaven is a very respected book whose time of influence has yet to arrive.

Since this is my first entry, let me start with the introduction. It states some of the main themes of the book, in particular a critique of progress. Lasch states that he began his thinking questioning why theorists of the both the left and right were so unwilling to accept limits on economic expansion or other kinds of progress, indeed the limits of the human lifespan itself, in the face of a century in which progress had lead to such disastrous results. The first chapter is about the failure of right and left, but let us not get ahead of ourselves.

Perhaps the most astonishing statement in the introduction is that Lasch has set his compass toward "petty bourgeois morality." The much-derided views of the lower-middle-class, in the opinion of a man who had spent a lot of his life with Marx and Freud (Lasch's continuing use of Freud, whose reputation today is perhaps even lower than that of petty-bourgeois morality, is a subject of real fascination for me.) provides a historical thread to his examinations -- and Lasch was first and always a historian -- and situates a consciousness of civic responsibility that is neither elitist nor fully egalitarian, skeptical of progressive optimism, yet hopeful of moral improvement.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Six months into Obama

His study of Lincoln and Roosevelt and Clinton is impeccable, leaving the Republicans in disarray. And because no progress (Professor Lasch frowns from above upon the word) is possible without compromise and unity, he has rebuilt civil society to some extent.

But of course our policy in South Asia has not really changed, and continues to drain our resources without much to be optimistic about. Obama has dealt intelligently with events in Iran that might slowly bring that strategic country back toward its natural alliance with the US. But:

1. The Obama administration has had little effect on the most dangerous aspect of the economic crisis, which is foreclosures.
2. Green initiatives are distant.
3. Healthcare reform is developing quite slowly, and the president has already promised to begin dismantling Medicaid, which is the present system for the poor and disabled.
4. Stimulus funds have no federal guidance as they did under FDR.
5. The financial sector continues to manage its own recovery.
6. Rising petroleum prices threaten recovery.
7. State revenues in freefall are leading to cutbacks that will further cripple the overall economy.
8. World cooperation on economic matters is not very good -- the president does not control this, but can influence it.
9. Key jobs in the administration remain unfilled, delaying progress.
10. The president has deferred several campaign promises, including the overdue elimination of "Don't ask; don't tell," a policy which had already been overtaken by reality the day it was announced.

I could probably think of more, but sometimes the first things that come into the mind are a good index of one's real feelings. President Obama inherited a difficult hand of cards, but thus far has, in my opinion, played too defensively. He risks the possibility that some smart Republican, perhaps Newt Gingrich, will begin capturing the debate on taxation, education, immigration, healthcare, or financial regulation.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Obama remakes the center

I may be less on the political horizons than I imagined. As the US and the world seem to be moving into a serious economic depression, I don't welcome this breakdown of the existing system and consensus as much as I thought I would. It may be simply age, but I find myself arguing to conservative friends why the various bailouts of giant financial institutions are necessary for the ordinary person to have a chance, where I would once have looked to grassroots action and building new institutions, and let the old ones fall of their own weight.

Thus President-elect Obama's clear intention of organizing a government of national unity rather than something novel and 21st Century seems to lots of people to be, in fact, something novel and 21st Century rather than a revival of the New Deal with all of its contradictions except racial segregation.

Is the swing back from the Bush administration so much relief, desite many of the same people and security policies to which Bush shifted in the last year or so? Is the sense of national emergency so unifying that a little social peace with not so much social justice now feels right?
I know that when I wasearly in my 20s, I would have welcomed a depression as a cleansing, because I wrote an article on that theme for a weekly when I was 24. Now I am nearly 60, and I am not so eager to see 10-15-20% unemployment, not so comfortable among angry people in the street, more concerned about who takes care of the disabled and elderly -- roles I am taking on in a large sandwich generation.

I can remember the slogan "Part of the way with LBJ." And I can remember regretting it when President Johnson expanded the war in Vietnam and kept trying to kill me and my friends. But now I fell like "Most of the Way with BHO." So it will be interesting to see where his compromises begin to feel like too much left on the table, and when I start heading out for the horizons again.

Et tu?