I came across a 2013 article from the New York Times old Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, about the paper’s use of the word “entitlements” to describe Social Security, Medicare, and other federal “outlays,” to use the more technical language that once drove coverage of tax policy. Sullivan agreed with a reader that “entitlements” is a partisan, sneering term for federal retirement benefits. It suggests that beneficiaries are claiming an unearned privilege.

So I looked into the word’s history in the New York Times, and it may not surprise you to learn when “entitlements” entered the political lexicon.

Continue reading “Entitlements”


Exciting announcement!

Keywords for the Age of Austerity will be published in good old fashioned book form sometime (hopefully) next year! I’m very excited that it will be published by Haymarket Books, one of my favorite publishers and the perfect place for it. In order to create an artificial scarcity of essays on the culture of austerity, I will be suspending new posts for a while to drive up the market for my book!

Continue to watch this space for occasional new posts, though, and all of your old faves.

The Gospel According to the Job Creators

In the beginning–roughly 1990–there were the Job Creators. All good things were made by them; without them there was not any thing made. And then came Obama.

Before the coming of the age of the Job Creators, though, men knew only “job creators” as industries: the pharmaceutical industry, for example, was a job creator, and small businesses were job creators. The first Bush presidency appears to have been a watershed in the transformation of “job creators” from an institutional, collective noun to the personalized, quasi-messianic, and often mocked but still resilient character of the Job Creator we know today. One of the first such usages of Job Creators as individual capitalists to make it into the New York Times comes from the first President Bush, who linked “job creators and innovators” with that lovable underdog, the “small business.”

President s Address to Nation on Federal Deficit and the Budget Agreement; Oct 3, 1990; New York Times pg. D28
“President’s Address to Nation on Federal Deficit and the Budget Agreement,” New York Times, Oct 3, 1990

That same year, the apartheid South African parliament debated internal migration in the country and concluded that the Whites–already the master race–could also lay claim to the title of “job creators.”

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Debates of Parliament, Volume 9, Issues 18-20. South Africa: Government Printing Office, 1990

I’m not sure what came first–the racist mystique of the apartheid job creator or the elitist messianism of the American Job Creator–and I wouldn’t assume any causal link between them. But they do work together nicely. A search of the New York Times archive shows the term spiking dramatically around the re-election campaign of Barack Obama in 2011-12.

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 “War of Ideas on U.S. Budget Overshadows Job Struggle,” New York Times, June 3, 2011

“Job creator” is the well known rhetorical means of framing plutocratic dispossession as an economic stimulus–and as a favor bestowed from on high by a class that loves us. Tax cuts = job creation, goes the familiar formula; this is how a pro-Trump group calling itself the “Job Creators Network” understands the President’s proposed new tax plan, for example. (You can find the them on the web at taxcutsnow.org, of course). “Creation” is a way of talking about “jobs” without talking about “production,” class, or actual work. And while “Job Creators” may be a euphemism for “rich person,” its modern history makes pretty clear that really alludes to a particular kind of rich person: just ask the Boers. Or Donald Trump.


Defining “innovation”: sometimes it’s easy

The New York Times has a fun little “national health care systems” bracket tournament in its print edition today, so you can compare how successfully or not various countries on the planet monetize their citizens’ sickness and mortality. Or to put it another way, “which of these nations has the best health system?” (The winner, for some reason, is Switzerland.)

Not even a panel heavily weighted towards “health-care economists” could see the United States past the second round, where it lost narrowly, 3-2, to an eventual finalist, France. (The United States defeated Singapore in the opening stage.)

In the U.S.-France showdown, the advantage of France is described as “access”–by which is meant affordability and widespread availability of low-cost health insurance and medical care. The virtues of the United States are “innovation,” which is not defined at all, as is so often the case. So we have to try and read between the lines. It’s not too hard: a reader would need to discern that, for its advocates, “innovation” in the U.S. health care system means “medical technology.” Given the privatized nature of the U.S. health sector, it follows that what what we are really talking about here are “profitable medical technology corporations.” As if the function of a national health-care system is to facilitate the profitability of manufacturers of medical machinery. As if there were no other ways to incentivize such manufacture outside of an unequal, byztantine, and inconvenient privatized system.

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I wonder if you replaced “innovation” with “profitable medical technology corporations,” though, if it would still get 2 votes even in this field.

On Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit

I finally saw Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s film on the Algiers Motel killings, and I have to say I came out of the theater quite shaken by it–it’s visually exhausting, thanks to the frenetic, riotous movement of Bigelow’s camera throughout. And a viewer familiar with the Algiers Motel killings can only watch the unfolding drama with an awful sense of dread, knowing as one does in advance the fate of the dead, and the rough order in which they will die. This puts an extra dramatic burden, at least for me, on the necessity of bringing those victims to life, of making them more than just the soon-to-be-dead-of-the-Algiers, which is a burden that the film doesn’t meet. So even though it’s emotionally grueling, given the brutality it depicts, there’s also something unfeeling about it.

I would also just say, for starters, that whenever you put “Detroit” in the title of a thing (see also: Detroiters) it’s a good sign that the thing in question is not going to be about Detroit in any serious way, but just some generic urban placeholder for something else: “race relations,” “urban crisis,” “gentrification hijinks,” etc. This is not new or unique to Bigelow’s film–elsewhere, I’ve written more about the way in which Detroit serves as a metonym for various other national fantasies or fears. This can, of course, be true of any city but the effect is intensified in Detroit, the film, which uses an introductory Jacob Lawrence montage to introduce the rebellion as an explosion of dashed black hopes and reactionary white backlash in the wake of the Great Migration. Detroit, in this film, is every northern city, which isn’t untrue. But because the film lacks much political perspective, and because of the narrative restrictions of depicting an hours-long ordeal in a single room, and for some other reasons (see below), Detroit as a distinct place, landscape, economy, culture, and so on, never really appears. There’s not even a midwestern accent in the whole film.

The film’s feeling of placelessness, along with its almost non-existent characterization, really made me appreciate John Hersey’s narrative decisions and granular focus on the participants’ backstories in The Algiers Motel Incident. (I wrote more about these here, in Guernica) The film’s focus on a singularly talented victim, the Dramatics singer Larry Reed, really makes the movie into the sort of “tragedy” Hersey said he wanted to avoid: a routinized spectacle of black suffering, which predictably elicits what Richard Wright called the “consolation of tears” in its audience. Everyone in the movie feels like a myth or a caricature–the innocent victims, the monstrous cops. The only exception–and this is a telling misstep by the writers–is one of the white characters, the brave white maybe-prostitute, Juli, who talks back to the police.

This, to me, misses a big part of what makes the Algiers Motel story so compelling and scary to me: the normality of the participants, which is what Hersey emphasizes. The victims for him were just regular kids, or at least they were trying to be, in a city and country determined not to allow them. And the cops weren’t uniquely awful people, like the villain in the film. What’s worse is that they were rather typical white Detroiters who, in a moment of crisis, just “did what came naturally to them,” as one reviewer of the book put it.

And some specific points:

  1. What was the point, really, of the Mel Dismukes character, played by John Boyega? If the film sets out to exonerate him, I don’t think it succeeds. His character makes very little sense: he’s treated as an innocent peacemaker who is also improbably a fly on the wall, witnessing all of the police torture and even trying to forestall it. But why would the police–especially police as paranoid as these are made out to be–allow a black security guard to just hang out while they beat and murder people, unless he’s complicit with them?
  2. A perhaps historically pedantic point of information: one of the film’s obligarory sympathetic policemen is a homicide detective who, early in the film, says that he is going to recommend murder charges for the character played by Will Poulter, who seems to be based on the real-life Detroit cop David Senak. Senak was a vice squad officer implicated in the Algiers killings who also shot a looter in the back in the early days of the uprising. Narratively, this episode establishes the Senak character’s unhinged violent streak, but it also suggests that the forthcoming charges motivate his wild behavior later–he’s got nothing to lose anymore. Yet it wasn’t actually illegal at the time for cops to fire on fleeing suspects who refused an order to stop, even those suspected only of looting.  Murder charges would never have been forthcoming–and Senak’s motivations must have been deeper, or more complicated, than the film allows.
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    1967: Death in the Algiers Motel and Beyond, 2017, Rita Dickerson, acrylic on canvas.

    I was suspicious of some of the Twitter critiques I read of the film’s lack of black female characters, for the reason Bigelow herself offered: there were no black women present in the Motel itself. But after seeing the film, I would say that the character of Pollard’s mother should have been more prominent–and not just to check off a box. Rather, her advocacy for her son was such a prominent part of the real-life Algiers Motel case (which Hersey, again, emphasizes) and featuring her would have given the movie some of the political and emotional heft it just doesn’t have.

The scandal of “campus free speech” bills

The organized anti-academic right has claimed its first major legislative victory, with North Carolina’s bill, HB 527, naturally called the ACT TO RESTORE AND PRESERVE FREE SPEECH ON THE CAMPUSES OF THE CONSTITUENT INSTITUTIONS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA. The bill is based on the Goldwater Institute’s model bill, versions of which have been proposed in Michigan and Wisconsin, among other places. I wrote about the Michigan bill here. The fallout of the Charles Murray affair and Ann Coulter dustup has continued much longer than I expected.

One other common thread: Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, champion of the North Carolina bill, and Michigan Sen. Patrick Colbeck, sponsor of Michigan’s harsher measure, are thought to be running for governor in their respective states, and are grandstanding on this non-issue to burnish their right-wing bona-fides. These laws are thus fruit of the same unvarnished courage that powers Ann Coulter.

The North Carolina bill is a watered down version of the Goldwater bill, which calls for expulsions or suspensions of students who “infringe” upon the free speech rights of others.  The Carolina bill includes that artfully vague wording, barring conduct that “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution” or “substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others.” What “substantially,” “disrupts,” or “interferes” means will be left up to campus administrators and the kangaroo free speech courts these laws set up to regulate students’ speech rights.

The good news, sort of, is that the Carolina bill only calls for unstated “disciplinary measures,” rather than specific punishments. The bad news is that it will be left up to the whims of individual campus administrators to set these policies. Dependence upon the political courage of university administrators is never a happy place to be.