Saturday, August 30, 2008

Who’s Whining?

The whining war has started in earnest. Last month, when Phil Gramm famously suggested that these United States might be a "nation of whiners," it was considered such a catastrophic gaffe that the McCain campaign immediately dumped him as economic advisor. In the interim, though, it's become clear that Gramm's remark wasn't as random as it appeared. It seems that some conservative talking heads and "scholars" have set about trying to argue Marie Antoinette's point. One wonders if Gramm started the ball rolling or merely spilled the beans.

My favorite example thus far comes from my second favorite New York Times columnist, David Brooks (Nobody tops the Krug-Man). Brooks faces that wrenching internal conflict that bedevils all neoconservative 'intellectuals'. He'd desperately like to write like William F. Buckley but he'd prefer his persona to more closely resemble that of Chuck Norris. The result is a column that delivers broad-brush generalizations and shallow logic in really fine, learned language.

Brooks' column two weeks ago was a truly stellar example of the form. Fresh off his hilarious lampooning of pseudo-intellectual pretense, (One can only guess if he was really aware of that last layer of irony.) Mr. Brooks jetted off to China. He wasn't there to buy bootleg electronics either, he was there to learn.

The first Chinese dispatch took the form of an insightful gloss of Asian collectivism. For the second, Brooks was on assignment in earthquake-torn Dujiangyan and there he found a brand of stoicism that would shame Winston Churchill. People whose loved-ones had been crushed in an instant by the quake then cremated without ceremony by the military were cracking jokes under a communal tarp. Instead of getting choked up over their loss, they dwelt on the free healthcare they'd received from the government and the adequacy of their temporary digs.

It was obvious where he was going. Massive disaster, terrible loss of life, lethargic government response; his professed incredulity at the sanguine attitude of these Chinese survivors had to have its root in some sort of contrast. To whom would Brooks compare these happy-go-lucky proletariat mascots? The answer came in the last sentence. "When you compare these people to the emotional Sturm und Drang over lesser things on reality TV, you do wonder if we Americans are a nation of whiners."

Reality TV!? Really? Are you absolutely sure there's not some other group of people you were thinking of but didn't think you could call "whiners" in a national newspaper?
I know it's Tim Gunn's phrase and all but, as you toured the crumbling ruins of a Chinese village were you really thinking about Project Runway?

Just in case he was contrasting this Chinese unflappibility with another group of disaster victims that interrupted the president's vacation and wrecked his approval ratings, lets' not forget where we live. Despite the fact that we can no longer claim to be the world's greatest carbon emitter, the United States still has a larger economy than China's. This is despite the fact that we have fewer than a third as many people. In a nation as rich as ours and as powerful as ours, people tend to have higher expectations. People tend to expect the infrastructure around them to work and they expect their government to work for them. If it doesn't, instead of just making-do, people in the United States have a recourse that perhaps the Chinese don't. They can simply elect people who'll do a better job. It's not whining as much as accountability.

I suppose it's possible, however, that David Brooks was actually thinking about reality TV. In that case, it bears mentioning that Michael Kors can be a total bitch if your hems aren't straight.

Friday, August 22, 2008

John Wiley is Pissed!

There's ample evidence in the public record that John Wiley has an extraordinarily low bullshit tolerance. I don't think I've ever seen someone in such a politically connected position with such an obvious allergy to other people's crap. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the agenda of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce ("We want a highly skilled workforce and first-rate infrastructure and *NO* we don't want to pay for any of it.") would tend to rub him the wrong way, especially as the university budget is chronically hamstrung by the horrible political culture they dominate.

Wisconsin's prima donna business lobby took the full brunt of one of Wiley's rhetorical stiff-arms today and I don't think anyone is surprised that they immediately started bawling.

I'll admit, I'm too lazy to check it out myself but it appears WMC's list of "factual errors" contains a few . . . well, factual errors. The Journal Sentinel pointed out that, if WMC actually did lobby for the passage of the university budget, they failed to report it to the state. Illusory Tenant piled on by helpfully explaining to James Buchen that, really, ad hominem is a fancy Latin word for a personal attack so, yes, WMC most certainly did level personal attacks against Lewis Butler.

Another high-profile shot across (if not into) WMC's bow. On the one hand, you could say that all of the heat they've been taking has been coming from "Liberal Madison." On the other hand, you could say that they've now been castigated by the state's most successful high-tech firm (Epic Systems) and the leader of its largest economic engine (UW - Madison). For a business lobby, things could look better.

Monday, August 11, 2008

If You Build It, Some Might Come

The State Journal's AP pile held an interesting tidbit, today. Apparently, the National biothreat lab that the UW Madison was hoping to host at its Kegonsa Research Campus might be going to Mississippi. Well, probably not anymore if people want to save face. It seems that Flora Mississippi was one of five sites short-listed for the facility over several places (including UW's KRC) that were scored higher by an expert panel.

The panel was overruled by a political appointee, Undersecratary Jay Cohen, who obviously took more away from his meetings on the subject with Mississippi representative Bennie Thompson (D- MS) than Thompson did. Thompson claimed never to have talked with anyone at Homeland Security about the center. The department says he talked to Cohen twice. Indeed, all of Mississippi's powerful congressional delegation seemed very sure they weren't aware of the ratings system and indignant that such a "rumor" would get started. At any rate, the department was free to disregard the recommendations of this "phantom panel."

Bottom line, it stinks and clearly Cohen anticipated why. With several biotech powerhouses vying for the opportunity to host the center (UW - Madison kept company in the losers pile with sites in California, Texas, Georgia, Maryland and Missouri) why slip in Flora Mississippi? Cohen's logic on the subject is a simple misquote of Kevin Costner, "When Built, they come."

The phrase holds partly true here. No-doubt, Homeland Security could build the thing in Guam and they'd find people to staff it. The question is, who? Are top researchers in bacteriology and virology, who can command a lucrative research position at any of the multiple institutions trying to lure them, going to pack up and move to rural Mississippi? What opportunities for collaborative research and technology transfer are going to be lost because the lab is unaffiliated with a major biotech hub? Did anyone consider any sort of accountability to the taxpayers to build the facility someplace that might actually facilitate its function?

Oh well, another victory for blatant cronyism. Maybe, with better placed congresspeople, UW could snag a federal grant to study gulf-coast hurricanes.

p.s. It should be noted that, in dismissing UW-Madison's bid, Cohen cited local opposition in the form of resolutions from the Town of Dunn and the Dane County Board. I suggest that, in thanks to the board and town for torpedoing a multi-hundred-million-dollar facility to pander to a bunch of cottagers, we uproot the disgusting monolith of a courthouse the county threw up in the middle of one of Madison's signature views and plant it squarely on the shores of Lake Kegonsa. Just a thought.