Mitt Romney has had what could be argued as the worst three weeks of any presidential campaign in recent history. First, he (or his chief strategists) decides to give a valuable Thursday prime time speaking role during the RNC to let an actor improv with a chair for 15 minutes. Then the candidate makes truly vile remarks questioning the President’s patriotism during an on-going attack on American personnel (if anyone had any evidence of a presidential candidate ever doing this, I’d love to know about it). Finally, Mother Jones magazine releases a video of the candidate at a fundraiser claiming that the 47% of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes are all Obama supporters. These supporters are “victims” that refuse to take responsibility for themselves and as such, Governor Romney feels he doesn’t have to worry about them.

The punditocracy is apoplectic. Claiming that the election is over and marveling at that profound boneheadedness of each individual gaffe. But while the “experts” can signal the end of the Romney campaign, the campaign itself can point to the scoreboard. Look at Gallup’s tracking poll today. Through out this week of gaffes, Obama’s lead has gone from 50%-43% at the start of last week to 47%-46% today. So if you’re a Republican Romney supporter, it would seem that you want your candidate to be committing more of these “gaffes”?

What gives? Well, it appears that these might not be gaffes at all. If you look at this chart from Talking Points Memo, you’ll note that the Democratic party is must more multi-racial/multi-ethnic/multi-cultural in terms of its supporters than the Republican party. As such, an appeal that emphasizes the dangers of multiculturalism (appeasement with external threats, seeing redistribution as welfare clientelism rather than civic obligation) might stick with undecided voters who might be a bit squeemish about the “big picture” shifts in both US and global demographics.

While I don’t think any of these moves were done on-purpose, the Romney campaign may have stumbled on a new campaign strategy – abandon framing the election about economy and have a debate about how to respond to “the other” without and within. Romney can cast himself as the stern, take no quarter, dad who handles global threats the way you would a disobedient, self-indulgent child — you “talk tough” and “pull out the belt” if you need to. Domestically, you “take away the toys” from self indulgent children who need to learn self-respect and manners. It’s an appealing narrative (whatever the social and policy costs), and I wouldn’t discount it’s effectiveness. Granted, I still think the president will win, particularly because I’m not sure this approach works will in swing states. But on
Intrade, Romney chances of winning the election are at 32%… if I were a betting man, I might put down a buck or two with those odds.

I am teaching a couple of sections of “Introduction to the Study of Global Religions” this semester, and, as it turns out, last week was quite important for globalization and religion.  Unfortunately, we were so busy in class with discussing readings that we did not get to unpack the extremely confusing events centered around protests to an American-made video about the Prophet Muhammad.

So, here is an attempt to engage those issues.  For really good summaries of global issues like this, I always turn to the BBC’s website.  Muslims see the Prophet Muhammad as the model for living a good life, and God’s chosen recipient for the revelation of the Qur’an.  I think it’s important to start with those basic facts before delving into analysis.

With the facts in mind, what is “thick” about these global events?  My mind goes to the roots of the highly offensive video, which are are quite mysterious.  It was filmed in a shroud of secrecy and deception.  The film seems to have ties to extremist of certain American Christian groups, as well as a member of a Los Angeles area Coptic Christian community.  A soft porn director seems to have been misled in being hired to film the video.  The actors starring in the film also report being duped.

I think the film itself is embarrassingly bad: cheap production, bad acting, with much of its dialogue strangely dubbed over the voices of the actors.  How could anyone take something this ridiculous (and disgusting, and just plain stupid) so seriously?  Somehow, the enigmatic nature of the film, its content, and its history played really well in getting angry people all over the world even angrier.  The embarrassingly bad film was made to embarrass the sentiments of its viewers.

I think this film spoke the language of embarrassed, angry people (who act in the anonymity of mobs) because it was made by embarrassed, angry people (who hide behind duplicitous anonymity).

I might be officially transitioning into the “old fuddy duddy” stage of life, but this article on the English Gentelman by Andrew Gimson in Standpoint struck a chord. All legitimate post-colonial, feminist critiques aside, Gimson paints an egalitarian and progressive notion of 19th century English gentlemanliness. Gimson references a 1982 book called The English Gentleman to describe the institution:

The idea of a gentleman was a more inclusive one than it sounds to modern ears. One of its greatest advantages was that you could define it so as to include yourself. You could behave like a gentleman, without possessing any of the social attributes which a gentleman might have: there was no need to possess a coat of arms, or a country estate, or engage in field sports, or wear evening dress

For me, the concept always smacked of privilege, sanctimony, hypocrisy and conformity. Seared in my mind as an exemplar of “the gentleman” is Ted Knight’s opus to pompousness as Judge Smales in the 1980 movie Caddyshack. One of the more memorable scenes is Ted Knight response to Rodney Dangerfield’s disparagement of his wife’s chastity. In response to the query “wanna earn 14 bucks the hard way”? Smales responds indignantly, “you, you’re no gentelman”!

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When I was 13, I wanted to be the Rodney Dangerfield character, who responds “yeah, and I ain’t no doorknob either.” Of course I would, why wouldn’t I. In the movie, Judge Smales is a racist, pompous, sanctimonious jerk. In the movies I grew up with, gentlemanliness was rightly exposed as a bright line to reinforce privilege and as a cudgel to asset moral and cultural superiority.

But that was 32 years ago. What does that leave us with culturally. What is particularly striking about Gimson’s article is his connecting the concept of gentlemanliness to progressive politics:

It influenced their system of education; it made them endow new public schools and raise the status of old grammar schools. It inspired the lesser landed gentry as well as the professional and middle classes to give their children an upbringing of which the object was to make them ladies and gentlemen, even if only a few of them also became scholars.

Where is this impulse in our politics to “do the right thing”? This all strikes me as I watched Mitt Romney, what one would presume would be the poster boy for gentlemanliness, disgrace his party yesterday by criticizing a sitting president while a foreign policy crisis was developing in Libya. This was a move that is more characteristic of an oaf than of gentleman (more Rodney Dengerfield than Cary Grant). Sociologist Ricahrd Sennett talked eloquently about all of this in his 1974 book, The Fall of the Public Man. But it seems that the idea of the “gentleman” public servant is becoming more and more anachronistic in our politics.

But what is hopeful is that the public still seems to look for “the gentleman” in American politics. Fred Kaplan had a good anecdote in Slate yesterday where he imagined what Romney could have done differently:

Imagine if Romney had called President Obama, asked how he could be of assistance in this time of crisis, offered to appear at his side at a press conference to demonstrate that, when American lives are at risk, politics stop at the water’s edge—and then had his staff put out the word that he’d done these things, which would have made him look noble and might have made Obama look like the petty one if he’d waved away these offers. But none of this is in Romney. He imagined a chink in Obama’s armor, an opening for a political assault on the president’s strength and leadership, and so he dashed to the barricades without a moment of reflection, a nod to propriety, or a smidgen of good strategy.

It would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, the jury is still out on whether it would have been the politically smart thing to do.

Two stories this week, oceans apart from one another, showcase strange wrinkles in gender inequity:

One from Egypt, where we learn that the brothers of the Muslim Brotherhood preach a socially conservative message to women who nod along:

Women are erratic and emotional, and they make good wives and mothers — but never leaders or rulers. …

“A woman takes pleasure in being a follower and finds ease in obeying a husband who loves her.”  …

“Can you, as a woman, take a decision and handle the consequences of your decision?” he asked.  A number of women shook their heads even before Mr. Abou Salama provided his answer: “No. But men can. And God created us this way because a ship cannot have more than one captain.”

The article goes on to explain that the Brotherhood’s hold on segments of Egyptian society come in part from the social services it provides, like “financial support to struggling households” and “mass weddings for low-income couples.”

The second story comes from Coconino County Arizona, where Judge Jacqueline Hatch played the old game of blame the victim.  Quoting her own mother, the Judge scolded a sexual assault victim:

“When you blame others, you give up your power to change.”

As if it wasn’t bad enough that the POLICE OFFICER who was convicted as the assaulter received a light slap on the wrist.  Judge Hatch later apologized for her “poorly communicated” words.

As a bewildered outsider to both stories, I guess I can explain the complicity of some Egyptian women to the Muslim Brotherhood’s patriarchal agenda.  This is the use of tradition and religion to reject the hegemony of western liberalism in the form of women’s lib.  Moreover the Brotherhood speaks to a population trying to come to grips with tradition and religion after decades of Hosni Mubarak’s reign. Then there is the matter of the Brotherhood as an institution dispensing social services, etc.

But, I’ve got to ask, what makes a judge in America, who is also a woman, give voice to Judge Hatch’s kind of nonsense?

Every year around this time, I’m reminded of the opening page of Don DeLillo’s White Noise:

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories. The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags–onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

I’ve witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years. It is a brilliant event, invariably. The students greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse. Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures, as always. The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction. The conscientious suntans. The well-made faces and wry looks. They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition. The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names. Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage. This assembly of station wagons, as much as anything they might do in the course of the year, more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.

Talk about thick culture! One of DeLillo’s strengths has always been to act as a kind of ethnographer of contemporary American life (for a hint of DeLillo’s process, see the annotation of these paragraphs here). Here, he captures not only the extensive material culture of college life, but the not-so-subtle impression management of both the students and the parents.

Welcome to the new and returning Cobbers and college students everywhere!
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“Call Me Maybe,” the song of the summer, is the latest example of the music world being flipped on its head. Rather than emerging from the major-label promotion machine, its success was built through social media. So, goes this story in today’s New York Times.

Let’s hold aside for a second the holes in the the Times’ narrative. Nevermind that “Call Me Maybe” was promoted by industry-men, like Justin Bieber and Jimmy Fallon (as the story acknowledges). Nevermind that plenty of hits of the past have “trickled up” from the streets (Gladwell’s “The Coolhunt” describes that process well). Nevermind that many songs and artists have gained fame via social media in the past (as a case study in the risks of this, see Lana Del Rey’s SNL appearance). Nevermind that “Call Me Maybe” is about as conventional a pop song as there is (it’s not as if stereos on the beach are blasting Riceboy Sleeps this summer).

What the NYT has right is that “Call Me Maybe” is a powerful example of the fact that hits no longer have to come from the music industry. Social media offers an alternative pathway to success. In William and Denise Bielby’s classic (1994) work, “‘All Hits Are Flukes’: Institutionalized Decision Making and the Rhetoric of Network Prime-Time Program Development,” they argue that decisionmakers in the culture industries believe that it is impossible to predict which TV show, movie, or song will be come a hit. In this uncertain context, they make fairly conservative decisions that aim to reproduce past success (e.g., hiring established stars, making sequels, recording predictable three minute ditties, etc.).

In many ways, the “Call Me Maybe,” a-hit-can-come-from-anywhere model reaffirms the idea that “all hits are flukes” and may lead the music industry to revisit their assumptions. On the other hand, based on the Bielby’s work, we might speculate that the music industry will simply try to reproduce the success of “Call Me Maybe” by developing more aggressive social media promotion campaigns. There are some potential tie-ins here to my good buddy Ed Walker’s work on “Grass-Roots Mobilization, by Corporate America”. Just as trade industries and corporations attempt to reproduce “authentic” protest campaigns, we should look carefully for the corporate hand at work in the next big social media popstar.

An indulgent, self-promotion forthcoming… you have been warned!!

My new book Facebook Democracy is out and available through Ashgate press. Here’s a copy of the cover for you non-believers.

Tell you friends!!!

At ASA this weekend, I shocked the normally unflappable duo of Doug Hartmann and Letta Page by my vehemence when I pronounced that “I disdain the term ‘hipster’ as an analytic concept.” Though I have long disliked the term, I was feeling a special sense of grievance after seeing three different papers centered on the study of hipsters. I’d like to explain here a little bit of my opposition to “hipster.”*

First, let me clarify: I particularly take issue with the noun form of “hipster” (indicating a person or group of people). I’m less troubled by the newer usage of “hipster” as an adjective (“That’s so hipster” is a common accusation among my students), indicating a particular aesthetic mode. Skinny jeans, Buddy Holly glasses, irony, liking things before they were cool, PBR, whatever —  these are a part of an aesthetic style that is widely labeled as “hipster” in the U.S. Like grunge or preppy, I have no problem with labeling a style.

As for the noun form, here’s the bottom line: “hipster” is a broad category that encompasses so many different groups as to be utterly worthless. It seems to me that the most common group of so-called “hipsters” are the stylish, artsy residents of urban places like Williamsburg and Silver Lake. However, these kind of bohemians are more or less a permanent part of the urban ecosystem. Aesthetic styles of bohemians shift (e.g., from grunge to alternative to hipster since the 1990s), but the demographic remains constant.

At the same, “hipster” is sometimes used to refer to people who adopt the hipster aesthetic style even if they have no real bohemian philosophical commitments. Is wearing skinny jeans alone sufficient to be a hipster? Many of my students wear “hipster” clothing and like indie rock, but also eat at McDonalds, want to work for major corporations, and watch “How I Met Your Mother.” Surely, they’re not hipsters, right?

Finally, “hipster” is sometimes used to simply refer to rich, young people engaging in conspicuous consumption. The Times Style section recently reported that bars in Montauk have banned fedoras as a sign of their hostility to “hipsters.” While the article makes it clear that the unwelcome individuals are young, wealthy, hard-partyers engaged in grotesque conspicuous consumption, it’s not clear what makes them hipsters. Anyone with the money to party in the Montauk isn’t a bohemian starving artist. Nor are fedoras a sign of a particularly avant garde fashion sense — they’re on the shelves at The Gap this summer, as mainstream a shop as there is. Hipster, in this context, simply means a young, rich, urban conspicuous consumer. 

With “hipster” being applied to so many hetereogenous groups (bohemians, rich young people, anyone who has ever worn clothing associated the hipster aesthetic), it is a term so vague as to be useless. We can continue to use the adjectival “hipster” to refer to the aesthetic style, but social scientists would be better off being more specific about the group of people they’re describing (e.g., young, rich, educated, fashion forward, liberals, bohemians, music fans, etc.).

*For the record, given the fact that most of my wardrobe comes from the clearance rack at Eddie Bauer, I’m pretty clearly not any sort of hipster.

Ken’s comprehensive analysis of the ACA ruling provides much food for thought. For the Obama administration, they get sorely needed legitimacy for their centerpiece legislation. In politics, winning is better than losing and it allows the administration to “move on” from what has been a difficult political struggle for them. It gives Obama the ability to forward a narrative of having “solved” a major social challenge… even if there are flaws with the legislation.

Romney can run on repeal of “ACA”, but as Ted Lowi observed in The End of Liberalism, policy drives politics. For starters, the old maxim of American politics — It is harder to kill legislation than to pass it, — hold true in this instance. Once you build a constituency for a program (narrow benefits), those beneficiaries will fight tooth and nail to keep it, particularly if those constituencies have political clout. Imagine a coalition of “ordinary Americans” lobbying against changes to the law that would remove the ban on insurers dropping coverage for pre-existing conditions. That’s chum for 24 hour news networks (maybe not Fox). Those who oppose the law on philosophical grounds, one could argue, won’t have the same intensity of interest once the law begins to take effect. Opponents of the ACA can spin all they want, but this was the best, and perhaps only, chance to kill the legislation.

Whether ACA is good policy has to be considered in reference to the “politics of the possible.” This Chicago-style, horse-trading style of lawmaking is how Obama envisioned governing in those dewy-eyed days of 2008-2009. The law isn’t optimal, but the mandate brought the insurance companies to the table and in exchange real people get to avoid the calamity of getting kicked off of their plan without a pre-existing condition. For that reason alone it is more equitable than our current system. It’s messy, irrational, and clientelistic. In other words, American politics at it’s best.

For better or worse, this is what social policy looks like. Indeed, Congress might need to revisit this issue after the election. One thing the court did strike down the ACA provision that would allow the federal government to withhold Medicaid funding to states that did not extend the program to %133 of the poverty line. This could have far reaching effects on the Federal government’s ability to use “strings” to compel states to go along with its mandates. While lots of speculation suggests that states wouldn’t turn down federal money to expand coverage, that money is only temporary. As as we’ve seen in states throughout the country, services for the poor and indigent are one of the first things to get cut during hard economic times.

For the moment, it is a progressive social advance… and a progressive dying of thirst in the political dessert isnt’ well served to ask for a lemon with a gift glass of ice water!

From left are, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. (AP Photo/Dana Verkouteren)

Yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling [full text] on Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA or ACA) was an interesting one on several fronts. This post will go over political, legal, and health policy ramifications of the decision, focusing specifically on the individual mandate.

The Election

Earlier this year, I was of the opinion that regardless of the outcome of the case, Obama wins. Now, I’m not so sure that would have been the case. While a ruling against ACA would provide Barack and the Democrats election fodder by offering evidence of an activist conservative Court that is willing to override the will of Congress, I think a bigger danger would be tied to a divisive law that was a centerpiece to Obama’s first term that was deemed as unconstitutional. My opinion is that the electoral calculus favors Obama, but for him to be able to enact any change in his second term, he will need a mandate and enjoy Democratic control of the House and Senate. That might be a long shot. The trifecta of Presidency, House, and Senate is the real issue and precondition for an agenda of change—not the nationwide polling numbers, although perceptions of a close election are in the best interests of the media and could boost turnout, which would favor the Democrats.


Like Ike

While Romney and the Republicans may try to make hay out of repealing ACA, I’m not sure how much traction it will get. It could be part of anti-taxation rhetoric, given that’s what the Supreme Court based the ACA decision on, but that could be problematic given that Romney has already committed to tax cuts for the wealthy. While some of Mitt’s recent political rhetoric has a populist ring to it, the devil’s in the details. I think in the battle for swing state independents and moderates, I think Romney’s only shot is to go populist and appeal with a middle-class populism. While Obama’s track record, based on Voteview’s analysis of roll call votes {albeit an imperfect measure for the presidencies}, shows him as the least liberal Democrat since Johnson {who was a hawk during the Vietnam War}, Eisenhower was the least conservative Republican.

Perhaps rather than harken back to Reagan, Romney should go back to 1950s traditionalism and the political moderation of Ike. I feel that Romney is allowing himself to be heavily defined by others—be it Obama or the more socially conservative wing of the party. Maybe this is a reaction to McCain’s maverick, seat of the pants style that involved choosing a Sarah Palin, who wasn’t always rowing in the same direction as the campaign, and suspending his campaign during the fall 2008 financial crisis. Addressing ACA as a moderate populist makes more sense than taking potshots at Obama’s “bad law” that is now deemed as constitutional. Plus, Justice Ginsburg stated Romneycare was a reason she sided with the majority, which can be thrown in Romney’s face.

Taxation vs. The Commerce Clause

While Chief Justice John Roberts is being lauded for his genius, this DC Bar post from January of 2011 presages his take on the matter. Jack Balkin of the Yale Law School is quoted:

“Balkin believes the best argument for the constitutionality of the individual mandate is that it is a tax. ‘It is an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code. It is collected on your tax return. It is collected by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It’s computed based in part on your income. It’s a tax.’”

A commerce clause interpretation gets murky fast because it’s one thing for Congress to regulate commerce, but quite another to require it. Chief Justice Roberts [pdf] made this clear:

“Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority. Congress already possesses expansive power to regulate what people do. Upholding the Affordable Care Act under the Commerce Clause would give Congress the same license to regulate what people do not do. The Framers knew the difference between doing something and doing nothing. They gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it. Ignoring that distinction would undermine the principle that the Federal Government is a government of limited and enumerated powers. The individual mandate thus cannot be sustained under Congress’s power to ‘regulate Commerce.’”

Tom Scocca in Slate argued that this could limit the ability of Congress to enact law through the use of the Commerce Clause. David Cole in The Nation isn’t so sure:

“When one adds the dissenting justices, there were five votes on the Court for this restrictive view of the Commerce Clause. But that is not binding because the law was upheld on other grounds. And while some have termed this a major restriction on Commerce Clause power, it is not clear that it will have significant impact going forward, as the individual mandate was the first and only time in over 200 years that Congress had in fact sought to compel people to engage in commerce. It’s just not a common way of regulating, so the fact that five Justices think it’s an unconstitutional way of regulating is not likely to have much real-world significance.”

The ultimate policy effect of the “tax” or “penalty” will probably work because of social psychology’s prospect theory—people don’t like losses and will avoid them. This will compel compliance with the program, allowing the pooling of the population to spread out the risk.

Health Policy

Is the ACA good health policy? Well, one view is that it’s flawed from a health economics point of view, as Larry Van Horn states. I think he conveniently omits the fact that there’s a difference between actuarial and social insurance, which I blogged about on ThickCulture back in 2009. The healthcare industry faces uncertainty, as the increased demand for services may not be offset by pressures on margins. The main question for patients will be whether access to high quality care will be available. As a documentary producer and researcher on the subject of primary healthcare, I’ve been following what’s been done in Massachusetts, i.e., Romneycare. Yes, there are issues with rural healthcare in the Commonwealth and CUNY-Hunter College Public Health professors, David U. Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler {former Massachusetts MDs} are advocating for a public health program that would further reform healthcare. I think they make some very valid points, but I tend towards viewing healthcare as social infrastructure. Specifically, they are advocating for:

  1. Cutting out middlemen {costly insurance overhead}
  2. Pay hospitals based on costs, not on a per-patient basis
  3. Enforce real health planning
  4. More primary care, less specialists
  5. Price controls on pharmaceuticals
  6. Cap salaries on health executives

My take is that the ACA will have a positive net effect on health outcomes by increasing demand and adding to the insurance pool, younger patients who tend to have lower incomes [see pdf from US Census]. I think the best to hope for in the current model is a minimal care floor that serves as a lower threshold. It won’t be perfect and it may eventually move the industry towards rationalizing prices, which can be quite exorbitant, as evidenced in a LATimes report:

“Of course, and it’s all part of a years-long game in which the charge for service, the true cost of the service, and the acceptable payment are in three different orbits. And that doesn’t even take into account how the charges are adjusted up or down depending on who’s paying them and whether they have worked out a deal. How can patients hope to make sense of such an indefensibly convoluted system?”

Why? The insurance companies won’t be able to cherrypick healthy patients and will actively seek ways to cut costs. Although, they will most likely try to continue the practice of finding ways to limit payouts to physicians, I can see the insurance industry scrambling to develop new models of healthcare with segmented markets and there may be innovations stemming from the policy. The industry will push hard for as little regulation as possible.

Finally, who will be the big winners in all of this? In my opinion, the lobbyists. Oh, and mea culpa…{h/t Kathleen Maloney}