Friday, February 27, 2009

Update on Montana "Personhood" Amendment

Yesterday I wrote about Montana's personhood amendment. It passed barely in the state senate, by 26-24. Today I caught up with Planned Parenthood's Stacy Anderson, who is working on this issue there. It turns out that pro-choicers shouldn't be too worried about Montana and what Anderson calls "extreme" legislation.

"This is actually a repeat of legislation that we beat in 2007, not only in the legislature but also in the ballot initiative process. So maybe they're thinking that the third time's the charm but they don't have the votes to get it out of the House," Anderson said.

She also told me the anti-choice legislation is about 100 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment, which is what this is proposed to be. She also had some things to say about the language, which I wondered about yesterday. While she wasn't totally sure where it had come from, she noted that there's a reason they went with this particular language, "That language has been approved by our attorney general in the ballot initiative process so I suspect they wanted to just stick with the language that they know will get though," she said. "It's literally the exact language that was used in 2007."

It also sounds like there was a broad coalition that fought the legislation in 2007, so even if the anti-choice movement in Montana did somehow manage to get enough votes, they'd still have to fight groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the ACLU, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and other medical groups. In other words, Anderson doesn't think this legislation is going anywhere.

"It's just unfortunate that we have to continue to talk about such an extreme piece of legislation when there's real situations with the economy and children's health insurance and prevention strategies that aren't getting near the amount of attention that they should be," Anderson said.

Light Rail in Minnesota

It looks like Congressman Keith Ellison is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Martin Olav Sabo. Sabo, who had been in Congress for 14 terms, managed to bring home federal funding for a Minneapolis Light Rail. Minneapolis and St. Paul have long been cities that, like many American cities, has depended heavily on highways and cars rather than investing in public transit. The Minneapolis and St. Paul bus systems serve the city moderately well, but the expansion of public transit in the Twin Cities is long overdue.

View Larger Map

Ellison is seeking to change that. The stimulus bill included $20 million for a new light rail project to connect downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. Many think that the two cities are simply divided by the Mississippi river, but the two are actually separated by about 9 miles. All I have to say is too bad this wasn't around for the Republican National Convention. It would've made it a lot easier for people to go back and forth between the two cities.

Reproduce -- Or Else

I have to agree with Stanley Fish on this one. If you haven't been watching Big Love this season, you should be. If you haven't seen it before, get the DVDs in your Netflix queue immediately.

While at first the early episodes of Big Love were targeted at humanizing polygamists, showing that in their own weird, fucked up way, they were a family that loved each other very much. They looked out for each other. They protected one another. (Spoilers to follow.)

This season, that meme has been turned on its head. Slowly, the Henrickson family is falling apart. This high-drama series has steered away from the mafia-esque themes in the last season and has begun focusing on the internal fissures within the family. Earlier in the season, an attempt to add a fourth wife crashed and burned. Members of the family are diverging from their firmly held conservative beliefs.

Nicki has emerged as one of the most fascinating characters this season. She is both fiercely loyal to her biological mother and resistant to the manipulations of her father, a character eerily modeled after Warren Jeffs, while still helping him to be acquitted of charges of statutory rape. Meanwhile, she's lying to her husband and sister wives about trying to get pregnant -- she is secretly taking birth control. Just a few episodes ago, Nicki's sister wives escorted her to a fertility doctor to see why she hadn't been conceiving. While in the room with the doctor, Nicki asked for another birth control prescription.

One of the scariest things about the last episode that I just watched last night was when the family discovered that Nicki was intentionally trying to avoid pregnancy. In a terrifying moment, her husband, Bill, orders her to stop taking the pills immediately. He accuses her of defying her heavenly duty by not wanting to bear children.

The episode also showed the trials of the eldest daughter, who is pregnant. In a moment of great irony, Barb accuses her daughter of taking birth control pills. If only Sarah had been taking birth control, she wouldn't be faced with the difficult situation of what to do with her pregnancy. At the end of the episode, she miscarries. (A plot twist I find a little too convenient.)

The reason the character of Nicki is so fascinating is because she has grown up on the fundamentalist compound. She still remains close ties to her family there, and she often guilts her own family when they are going against the "principle." She knows the rules of polygamy and believes in them -- but she still resists having more children. The last episode reveals it may be because she doesn't necessarily feel attracted to her husband. She's even been toying with the notion of an affair with her boss. And this family is supposed to represent the "normal" polygamists.

The problem here is a question of autonomy. These are battles that we like to think we've already fought and tucked away long ago, but some women are still living out the battles of control over their reproductive lives. The character Nicki is lucky -- although she had to lie to her husband, she still had the ability to obtain a prescription for birth control. There are women that are in a similar position where they don't want more children, but don't have as easy of access to birth control.

Rescinding HHS Regulation

I blogged before about the horrible midnight HHS regulations that President Bush tried to enact in the last months of his presidency. Today, there's good news. President Obama's administration has begun the process of rescinding the regulation that were supposed to "protect" doctors and other medical professionals from being "forced" to administer abortions or birth control if it went against their conscience. The regulation would've actually restricted women's access to abortion or birth control, giving the federal government the power to cut off funding to entire institutions that employ doctors or nurses who object to procedures like birth control and abortion but the institutions themselves conduct them.

This regulation was misguided, allowing sweeping government intervention to limit women's access to health care while pretending to make the controversy about individual right to religion. The right to religion is already protected under numerous provisions of the law. The regulation Bush proposed wasn't about protecting freedoms or even about good public policy. It was about finding ways to limit women's access to reproductive health care. It specifically targeted the kinds of care that only women receive. The Bush administration, in other words, wasn't rushing to make a "conscience" rule for the distribution of Viagra.

The Obama administration is slowly seeking to undo some of the most egregious policies the Bush administration pursued on reproductive health. That is, except for abstinence-only programming.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

News and Young People

Today Pew released a study that spells bad news for newspapers. The survey question asked if respondents read the news 'yesterday.' Overall news consumption is down to 39 percent from 2006, when it was 43 percent, but among those the numbers of online newspapers increased from 9 to 14 percent. Interestingly enough, they didn't bother to check demographics like income or race, but instead stuck just with age/generational groups. It turns out my generation, the Millennial generation/Generation Y, is overall the generation that is least likely to consume news. But our consumption of online news is about on par with Gen X, the highest consumer of online news. Take a look at this graph on the left.

I wonder if Pew also took more social networking into consideration. Some young people may consume news more passively as they use other social media. Sometimes they only read articles their friends post to Facebook or link to on their Twitter feed. But, even though social networking is all the rage, if this is true, I would still guess the trend would be limited to a very small and privileged class of young people.

Family Planning in the Federal Budget

While we're all talking about increases in the budget Obama's team proposed, I'd like to take a minute to note that the budget also proposes expanding access to family planning under Medicaid, the exact measure that was stripped from the stimulus package. It is also actually going to save money over time. It'll save $10 million in 2010, $25 million in 2011, $45 million in 2012, and so on until the estimated total savings of $190 million in 10 years.

More 'Personhood' Legislation

Today Montana's state senate passed legislation that would define life as beginning at fertilization. It's part of the broader "personhood" movement that passed legislation in North Dakota's house (speaking of, here's an editorial from the Grand Forks Harold saying the legislation "goes much too far"). Here's from the Personhood USA press release:

Helena, Montana - 02/26/2009 - Montana's Senate passed constitutional Personhood Amendment, SB 406, in a 26-24 vote. The amendment, introduced by Senator Dan McGee, passed on its third reading on the Senate floor this morning. This is the first Personhood Amendment in U.S. history to pass a State Senate.

"Senator Dan McGee, writing the language of SB 406 himself, has shown what it truly means to be pro-life," stated Keith Mason, of Personhood USA. "Senator McGee's successful efforts on behalf of all human beings at all stages of human life are a giant step forward in historic efforts to ensure the rights and protection of every individual."

SB 406, which defines person for the purposes of application of inalienable rights, states, "All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights...person means a human being at all stages of human development of life, including the state of fertilization or conception, regardless of age, health, level of functioning, or condition of dependency."


SB 406 must continue on to pass the Montana House of Representatives with a majority vote of 74. Once it passes, it is to immediately become a part of the state's constitution. The race is on between Montana and North Dakota for the first Personhood legislation in our nation's history, as Montana's Personhood Amendment continues on to its House of Representatives, and North Dakota's Personhood legislation continues on to its Senate.

But the actual text of the legislation is somewhat vague:
Section 1. Article II, section 3, of The Constitution of the State of Montana is amended to read:

"Section 3. Inalienable rights. (1) All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life's basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.

(2) For purposes of this Article, person means a human being at all stages of human development of life, including the state of fertilization or conception, regardless of age, health, level of functioning, or condition of dependency."

NEW SECTION. Section 2. Effective date. If approved by the electorate, this amendment is effective January 1, 2011.

NEW SECTION. Section 3. Submission to electorate. This amendment shall be submitted to the qualified electors of Montana at the general election to be held in November 2010 by printing on the ballot the full title of this act and the following:

[] FOR defining person as a human being at all stages of human development of life.

[] AGAINST defining person as a human being at all stages of human development of life.
You'll notice that this legislation doesn't attempt to define life as beginning at fertilization. My thought is that it is intentionally vague and they want it to be challenged in the courts. "All stages of human life" is subjective and nonsensical. I'm having a hard time figuring out why the personhood movement isn't trying to go for the full life-begins-at-fertilization language.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Abstinence-Only Programming Continues

Cara at Feministe brings up the fact that the proposed budget does cut abstinence-only programming money, but not to zero, as Nancy Pelosi promised at Netroots Nation last year. Instead, the omnibus bill will be cutting abstinence-only programming by $14 million, leaving a total of $94 million to fund these failed programs.

If we were to base our policy on evidence, we wouldn't fund these programs that do nothing to reduce the rate of teen and unintended pregnancy or the spread of STIs. Instead, this is a "compromise" that gives social conservatives grants to continue paying clowns to tell people not to have sex.

About That Competition Thing ...

Kevin Carey, as usual, makes really excellent points on the Quick and the Ed about the education stuff I posted about here. His point is slightly different, although he does touch on the graduation rate stuff, and he focuses more on the competition component of Obama's speech. Our goal, Obama said, should be to have the greatest proportion of college graduates in the world. Carey grounds this statement effectively:
If we want to be #1 in the percent of adults age 25-64 with a bachelor's degree, that won't be too hard, because we currently trail only Norway, 31% to 30%.

If we want to be #1 in the percent of adults 25-34 with a bachelor's degree, it will be much harder. We're still at 30% on that measure--educational attainment in the U.S. has been steady for a long time--but Norway is at 40%, the Netherlands 34%, Korea 33%, Denmark 32%, and Sweden 31%, Israel 30%. This is the trend that has everyone so worried--the difference between the two age cohorts shows that we used to be much better than everyone else (we're far ahead in the 55-64 age bracket), but other countries have since caught up and moved ahead.

In terms of the percent of adults 25-64 with a bachelor's or associates degree, we're #3 at 39%, behind Canada (47%) and Japan (40%). In the 25-34 cohort, however, we're 12th (also 39%), and some countries like Canada, Japan, and Korea are so far ahead (55%, 54%, 53%) that catching up in eleven years is unrealistic.

Women's Studies

I like many other feminists and academics, don't quite know what to do with David Horowitz. He's releasing another book, called One-Party Classroom. It's pretty much exactly like his last book that attacked professors, colleges, and universities for being too liberal, except that this time he steps up his criticism of women's studies departments.

This isn't to say that women's studies departments aren't deserving of criticism -- many very liberal people criticize how women-centric they are and how they don't necessarily encompass alternate expressions of gender and how they are marginalized. I, in fact, never took a gender or women's studies class in college, even though some mistake me for a women's studies major. You don't necessarily need a class to learn how to pick apart cultural hegemony, and you could even argue that the kinds of students taking these classes aren't the ones that really need to learn to look at gender from a new perspective.

But it seems weird to attack women's studies departments for not including conservative perspectives. The whole point of the discipline, after all, it to point out that the conservative perspective on gender is the dominant one and there there are many very small things that affect our actions without our even realizing it. This can only lead me to conclude that Horowitz isn't making a real intellectual argument about diversity of viewpoints, but rather an ideological one. It seems clear he views women's studies classes as threatening a viewpoint that firmly places men in positions of power, and he goes about attacking it accordingly.

So maybe, after I've written all that, it's true that we should just ignore Horowitz. After all, it's not like women's studies departments are going anywhere. In fact, the opposite may be true. As women break more and more barriers, looking at gender constructs from a critical perspective becomes more important, not less.

Jindal on Health Care

I also watched Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's not-state-of-the-union speech last night. One thing, among all the pretty weird things in his speech stuck out to me:
To strengthen our economy, we also need to address the crisis in health care. Republicans believe in a simple principle: No American should have to worry about losing their health coverage -- period. We stand for universal access to affordable health care coverage. What we oppose is universal government-run health care. Health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients, not by government bureaucrats. We believe Americans can do anything, and if we put aside partisan politics and work together, we can make our system of private medicine affordable and accessible for every one of our citizens.
It's an obvious point that probably a million people have made by now, but the reality is that patients aren't making decisions about their health with just their doctors. It may not be a government bureaucrat that's making decisions about what kind of treatments you have (unless you're on Medicare or Medicaid) but it is an associate in an insurance office that's approving or denying a medical procedure.

The idea that a doctor and a patient are making sound decisions about your medical future is a nice one, but it's not very realistic. After all, few people can actually pay for the medical procedures they need out of pocket, so what they need is an insurance company or a public plan to pick up the rest of the cost.

Jindal's speech revealed a lot of the right-wing criticisms we're probably going to be hearing about health care reform in the next few months or years. Prepare yourself.

Creating Opportunity?

I really liked the part of Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress last night (It's not a State of the Union speech, okay? Even if it seems exactly like one. It's not. Really. It's not.) where he talked about education:
Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.


It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
So I might not be a total education wonk like Ben or Sara, but this seems to be really ambitious to me. Perhaps overly ambitious. It's an ideal that sounds really nice, having everyone complete at least a year of postsecondary training of some kind, but it doesn't seem realistic.

After all, as Obama himself pointed out, we have a really high high school drop out rate. It's also really hard to get people to finish college once they start. The problem isn't asking to people to start a postsecondary education, the challenge is making it possible for them to finish it.

I've done enough reporting on college cost and student loans to know that it's really hard to figure out why people drop out of school. Even when you ask them and they say they drop out of school for "financial reasons" it's hard to know what that means. Did the debt burdens they took on become too high? Were they working a full-time job in addition to going to school full-time and they just couldn't keep up after a while? Did they have a sudden medical problem that took over all their savings?

These things are really hard to determine, but the problem with dropping out of college is it's kind of a double-whammy. Not only do you have to start repaying your loans, you also didn't get the degree that was supposed to get you a better job to help you pay them back.

The result here perhaps isn't that we need more opportunities for people to start post-secondary schooling (although if we can increase high school graduation rates so more can actually have the opportunity for it, that'd be awesome) but perhaps we need to figure out a way for those who start to get something worthwhile out of it -- in the end, that probably means making sure more people graduate.

Obama has the right instinct in creating more opportunity, but that opportunity should count for something other than saddling students with debt they can't pay off.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Emily Bazelon at Slate today tries to look at the notion of the "opt out" revolution through the lens of the economic crisis. She relies on some anecdotal evidence (as almost all contributions to this debate do) to illustrate a telling point:

I got e-mails from a man and a woman from opposite sides of a different gender divide. In both of their (separate) marriages, it was the woman who'd lost her job. Paul reported that his wife "refers to herself as a 'freeloader' and makes remarks that she is 'worthless' because she is not bringing in an income." His reassurance, he says, doesn't seem to help. The laid-off wife who wrote in, Beth, said that since she was laid off in December, her husband "has become increasingly distant, almost resentful." He's under pressure at work—additional pressure, since all the earning responsibility is his now—and he misses spending time, which Beth now has more of, with their daughter. "Because the present is so bleak, it is hard to be optimistic about the future," she concludes.

This is a reminder that women's work is already integral to the lives of many families. If their jobs have been secondary, it doesn't mean that either half of the couple wants that work, and the income it brings in, to disappear. So to recap, the recession is increasing the number of couples in which a man's layoff underscores the importance of his wife's job—and, secondarily, the number of couples in which a woman's job loss makes the same point.

To go back to the silver lining, at least for feminists, economist Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress points out that these trends "confirm that the opt-out story"—the notion that educated women were voluntarily abandoning their careers in droves—"turns out to be a non-story."
While media is busy pointing to feminists and conservatives fighting over women who stay at home, it's important to note that women's wages are an important part of your average American household. Women aren't choosing to work or not work, they work because they have to, except when they get laid off. Then they can't work and it's a problem.

This isn't to say that there aren't a lot of issues to be worked out with responsibility of child care and domestic chores (women almost always end up doing the greater proportion of them), but the whole idea of the single breadwinner is pretty much dead in modern America. Few families can afford to only have one parent work. Single mothers make this point obvious. It seems clear that the stay-at-home mom stereotype has always been just that: a stereotype.

Family Planning

Guttmacher is releasing a big report today on family planning. You can find the study here (PDF), but I also wrote about it on RH Reality Check today.
[A]s a comprehensive study from Guttmacher Institute released today points out, using birth control is a "nearly universal" experience in this country - more than 98 percent of women use birth control at some point during their reproductive lives.

However, the study also revealed that the use of contraceptives is becoming less common in this country for woman who are black, Hispanic, and low-income. Gaps between usage levels among white women and other populations that had been narrowing during the 1980s and early ‘90s have been widening again. Only 7 to 10 percent of white women from 1982 to 2002 (the most recent year data is available) did not use contraception, but rates among black and Hispanic women actually rose to 15% and 12%, respectively, in 2002, figures that had dropped to 10% and 9% in 1995. And the gap isn't just race-based. Now, about 20 percent of women who are at risk of unintended pregnancy who are at or below the poverty line aren't using contraception, a rate that had dropped to just 8% in 1995.

As a result, unintended pregnancy is on the rise for minority and low-income groups. Though the overall national rate of unintended pregnancy has held steady in recent years, falling rates among affluent women masked an increase among poor and low-income women. "Between 1981 and 1994, the national rate of unintended pregnancy fell 14%, from 60 to 51 unintended pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15-44. But between 1994 and 2001, that overall national rate stagnated. Worse yet, rates among poor and low-income women rose considerably over the latter period, even as they continued to fall among more affluent women, thereby exacerbating already substantial disparities," reported to study.
Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Men and Abortion

Via Jill at Feministe, this piece on AlterNet (well, originally, Nerve) is really good. The author does a good job of being really honest about how she felt about her decision to have an abortion. The reactions from men ranged from the style of "OMG you're so brave" to downright judgmental:
The conversation from there went smoothly enough, despite all the speech-slurring, until I said I'd felt no attachment or angst going into the clinic. He pounced: "How could you not have felt anything? I don't believe you! It's only natural to feel something."
The piece is really about the fact that liberals haven't really figured out a good way to talk about choice. The right has it down pat. To them, it's a tragedy or it's murder. All the left has come up with is "choice." While that's an important part of the discussion, it doesn't address the idea that some women who have abortions might feel relief, sadness, authority, or any mix of emotions.

The notion that people can't talk about abortion in a real way is particular to men, even liberal right-to-choose, million-woman-marching men isn't totally out of left field. Although it's not just straight men that can't always articulate this subject well (even if they're totally comfortable disclosing the details of their testicular cancer), it's a problem of how we deal with this issue.

Abortion is a topic that women talk about. In fact, it neatly falls into the category of "women's issues." The implication is not just that men can't and shouldn't talk about it. I think all too often we're unwilling to let men enter into the abortion debate because they cannot be put in that situation, so their feelings are irrelevant. But if men are asked to think, to really think, about this issue, then perhaps we can take abortion out of the pro-choice, pro-life dichotomy and begin to talk about how this is an issue that affects people's lives. It is part of reality. By making it so private you can't share women can't even share it with the next person she dates, abortion is a reality that men never have to deal with. And I think that's probably a bad thing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

'Politically Shrewd and Naturally Likable'

Wow, Tim Pawlenty either has some really good friends at the Star Tribune or he's a lot better liked than I thought. Via Politics in Minnesota, check out this screen capture (left) of the sidebar the Strib has in their "Politically Connected" part of the website.

I knew that Pawlenty was probably positioning himself for a 2012 run, but I had no idea his influence was so great.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

McDonalds v. Starbucks

Well, this oughta get the next round of political analysts going. Pew has a survey about if people would prefer to have a McDonald's or a Starbucks in their neighborhood.

Overall, people preferred McDonald's (43 to 35 percent), but demographic breakdowns show that the richer, younger, and more liberal you are, the more likely you are to prefer coffee to a quarter pounder. I guess the stereotype about the wealthy latte-sipping liberal is true, sort of. In any case, the data is worth spending five minutes with and laughing at.

Michelle Bachmann's Drivel

Michelle Bachmann did an interview last week with KLTK radio where she claimed that the stimulus was designed for Democrats to give money to "their favorite constituencies" and declared that "we're running out of rich people in this country." She said that the stimulus plan was favoring Democratic districts and circumventing Republican districts.

Well, MNPublis did a little fact check. Apparently Bachmann's district stands to benefit the most from the bill in terms of job creation. So while she runs around blaming the "community organizer in chief" for overspending at the expense of Republicans, she's benefiting from it. Well, she does say "this is serious."

Slavery and Our Country's Past

On Wednesday Michelle Obama asked a group of 6th and 7th graders visiting the White House, "Did you know that African American slaves helped to build this house?" It's a rare moment of honesty about our country's past.

It reminded me of last weekend, when my cousin was visiting D.C. we went to the top of the Washington monument, something I've never done in the two-and-a-half years I've lived in the city. On the elevator on the way down, a man in a top hat and penguin suit that worked for the Park Service mentioned that "some may wonder" if the monument was built by slaves. The answer? Apparently no one is sure -- or willing to admit -- how many, if any, slaves were used to build the Washington monument.

Robert Mills, the architect of the monument, once wrote that "slavery is an evil" and some believed he paid everyone that worked on the project. But I tend to think that historic opposition to slavery is often mistakenly equated with modern equality work. Even if it's true that Mills opposed slavery and demanded that the blacks working on the project be paid, it's almost certain they were paid at a lower rate than the white workers. After all, it's clear that even as the country's foremost abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln still didn't believe in equality for whites and blacks. It was the attitude of the time, but that doesn't excuse it.

More on North Dakota

Yesterday I wrote about North Dakota's House passing a bill that would define life as beginning at fertilization, threatening all kinds of normal and widely accepted family planning practices like birth control and in vitro fertilization in addition to banning abortion (despite whatever talking points the anti-choice community might be giving).

Today I have a piece up at RH Reality Check that looks at this legislative initiative as well as the one in Maryland -- that one everyone is viewing as a waste of time, since Maryland already has a Freedom of Choice Act in place. Go ahead, read about it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Meet the New Policy, Same As the Old One

On thing that has bothered me is how little Americans seem to care about policies that relate to Latin America. When Americans do care about Latin America, it's in a very narrow we-don't-want-no-foreigners-here debate over immigration or a "buy American" brand of capitalist jingoism.

Luckily superstar Campus Progress/TAP intern Jake Blumgart actually went to the trouble of doing some reporting on where Latin American policy is at. The result is a little more than depressing:
[Cynthia] McClintock is a political science professor at George Washington University and belongs to the Latin American Studies Association, the largest academic organization in the field. After the election, McClintock co-signed a letter to President Obama urging him to respect the new popular, leftist movements that have been springing up across Latin America over the past ten years. By adding her name to the letter (and penning an article explaining why), McClintock placed herself outside of Washington’s mainstream consensus on Latin American policy. She arrived at the hearing for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee well aware of that fact.

Many held high hopes for the hearing, which was the first held by a foreign affairs subcommittee post-inauguration. Titled “U.S. Policy Toward Latin America in 2009 and Beyond,” the meeting could have signaled a new chapter in U.S.-Latin American relations—which would have come as a relief to many in the hemisphere after eight years of disastrous Bush administration policies (on Cuba, drugs, and immigration, to name a few). But as the hearing got underway, McClintock—and anyone else who hopes Barack Obama’s mantra of change will apply to Latin America, too—was sorely disappointed. Instead of charting a new way forward in U.S.-Latin American relations, the hearing reconfirmed America’s commitment to polices that have been overwhelmingly rejected across the region. Both representatives and witnesses adhered to the tired solutions of the past, promoting Cold War era animosity and discredited neoliberal trade policies that do not reflect the new political realities in Latin America or the promise of Obama’s multilateral foreign policy. As it turns out, the new U.S. policy towards Latin America will look awfully familiar.
It's more than a little depressing how Cold War-era policies are alive and well in relations with Latin America, even though the Cold War itself is long dead.

On Generations

I just got back from another in a long series of events that attempts to define the Millenial generation -- my generation. This event was at the New America Foundation and was called "The Latest Generation" and was based on two NAF-sponsored reports, Yes We Can: The Emergence of Millenials as a Political Generation [pdf] (oh yes, they went there) and The Millenial Pendulum: A New Generation of Voters and the Prospects for a Political Realignment [pdf].

While both reports have some interesting nuggets of fact, they are heavily laden with some broad and general assumptions of privilege of my generation. We're a generation that "trusts institutions," finds value in volunteering and public service, doesn't like to "take risk," and is "upbeat and optimistic." I know, I know, it made me gag a little too, but for me the most interesting part of the event was something brought up by Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE and one of the co-authors of the second report. He noted that all of these facts tend to be about the college-educated and college-bound members of the Millenial generation. When he conducted a focus group with inner city youth, they associated "community service" with a penalty rather than a run for office. In the end, Levine said, "about half of the generation isn't represented by the numbers we've been showing you."

There is, of course, reason to believe that young people are overwhelmingly progressive and are likely to remain so over the course of their lives. We may grow slightly more conservative over time but the analysis seems to suggest that the starting place matters. Here's a graph from that second report to show you what they were talking about:

The Plastics

Yesterday when my colleague Jesse sent me this Vanity Fair article about a woman who goes "undercover" to three different plastic surgery consultations I didn't quite know what to think of it. It's a well-written article, and the author has many of the same attitudes about plastic surgery that I do: It's not for her.

For those that don't want to click through and read the whole thing, here's the article in brief: Doctor #1 is much like the plastic surgeon in the "Freak Show" episode of Sex in the City, verbally drawing lines all over the "imperfections" in her body; Doctor #2 used compliments, constantly praising her and telling her she has a beautiful body; Doctor #3 continues to remind her that she gets to choose what she wants to do, often telling her that she doesn't need many of the procedures suggested by Doctor #1.

Aside from the problematic "undercover" nature of the piece -- I didn't really see why it was particularly vital to misrepresent herself since the doctors probably told her many of the same things they would have told her "on the record" -- I ended up feeling a lot more sympathetic to the plastic surgeons than I thought I might. Sure, the compliments are manipulative. The kind of clientele that seeks out plastic surgery is ego-driven enough that the complements feed into the motivation to undergo the procedure. But two of the doctors she visited seemed more grounded in reality than you might expect. They told her certain procedures weren't necessary (although one could argue that correcting one breast hanging a little lower than another isn't something that's necessary either) and reminded her that she was already beautiful.

Still, this body image stuff is more intangible than we like to admit. There is no policy prescription to make women feel better about their bodies. The author of the piece admitted that after her first session, she was more judgmental about her appearance, and after the doctor referred to part of her ass as "banana rolls" she admitted she'd never think of her favorite fruit the same way again. These attacks, however subtle and self-induced really do affect our mindset. After my last doctor visit, where my doctor pointed out I'd gained ten pounds in two years, I suddenly began weighing myself every time I went to the gym. It may make us seem insecure, but these insecurities are the result of a reality. It is the reality where we are judged, sometimes harshly, on our appearance.

North Dakota the Next Place of Abortion Controversey?

After South Dakota both overturned and rejected an abortion ban, you'd think the humble Midwesterners would be tired of heated national controversy. Perhaps not. I've been getting press releases from Personhood USA, a pro-life group that is making its mission to get as many laws on the books that define life as beginning at fertilization. Of course, these proposed laws would do silly things like ban access to birth control and cause the investigation of miscarriages -- side effects the proponents of the law decidedly ignore or deny.

Well, yesterday North Dakota's house passed a bill that would define life as beginning at fertilization. The bill now goes to ND's Senate. The state is dominated by pro-life Republicans, so it may be that this bill could actually end up getting passed. I think the pro-life community should be very worried, since bills like this are designed to be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Great Parents, Boring Television

I normally enjoy reading Lisa Belkin's blog at the NYTimes, but this post is weird. She asks, why are there no good parents on television these days? Then she compares the fictionalized families of the past portrayed on The Cosby Show, The Brady Bunch, the Partridge Family -- I'm surprised she didn't throw in Leave It to Beaver -- with today's reality TV shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County, Supernanny, and The World's Strictest Parents.

The first and most obvious answer is that bad parents just make better television. Rather than looking at television as a cultural teacher, we now look at it as a modern-day freakshow of the weirdest people out there where we can exercise our judgments on them in the comfort of our own homes. Good parents are boring. They resolve conflicts, set boundaries, and reward their children for good behavior. It all makes for pretty vanilla television.

But that leads to the second answer to why modern reality television doesn't depict perfect parents: it's because they don't exist. No matter how awesome your family is, no one has it perfect. Parents yell when they shouldn't. They have bad days. They forget about their kids' soccer matches. Life isn't perfect. We shouldn't depict it on television that way.

Online Newspaper Rankings

Today must be the day for lists. NiemanJournalismLab published a list of the top 15 newspaper websites according to traffic. It's interesting to compare this to Editor and Publisher's ranking of all news sites that they published last month. Apparently Huffington Post is pulling in about 7 million readers, about on par with the fourth ranking website on Nieman's list, the LA Times. This just goes to show that you should compare HuffPo to other news gathering sites rather than to other blogs.

It's also interesting to look at their highest month of traffic. Many times they will list what caused it: for the NYTimes it was the Elliot Spitzer scandal, for the Wall Street Journal it was the Lehman Bros. collapse, for the Boston Globe it was the Red Sox, and for the Politico their highest traffic was in October 2008 -- right before the election. These things all intuitively make sense. If there is news happening somewhere, you turn to the paper that has the highest profile in that area or subject matter that they specialize in. The hint then is not to do more national stories, it is to do stories that cover the subject they are supposed to cover well.

Bristol Palin and Abstinence Programming

So Bristol Palin (obviously) has said that abstinence-only programming "isn't realistic." Though she said she "didn't want to go into detail" it's pretty obvious that she had some, uh, firsthand experience about how abstinence has failed for her. Does this mean she wishes she had learned more about condoms and birth control? It's hard to say. The clip from the interview is short and it seems that the interview itself didn't, in fact, "go into detail" about what Bristol Palin believes is and isn't acceptable to teach in schools.

Of course, Bristol Palin isn't the one making policy for our policies on sex ed. It's a combination of funding through Congress and the way various departments distribute the funding for this kind of education. But Bristol is high-profile living proof that abstinence as a form of policy if you want to prevent teen pregnancy doesn't work. She has become an unlikely posterchild for a failed policy that can dramatically affect someone's life.

Apples and Oranges

Time published the list of best blogs of 2009. This is firstly kind of weird because 2009 is still in its infancy, but also weird because there seems to be no coherent way that they chose their list. (They also include a list of the five most overrated blogs.)

When you put Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, both which I would consider more competitors to a newspaper websites, with Andrew Sullivan's more traditionally political blog the Daily Dish. They then throw Google's official blog, which is really more like a way of distributing press releases about the company, into the mix. It seems clear that Time didn't really have any criteria other than that all of these things were on the Internet.

This is a really common mistake that people make. Just because things are all on the Internet doesn't mean that they are comparable kinds of information. Similarly, you wouldn't compare the print version of Auto World with The New Yorker or a student alt weekly. They are different kinds of information and even though they are both distributed on paper it doesn't mean they're comparable. This is what makes me think that old media is doomed. As long as they continue to lump all websites together they can never hope to make the transition to new media.

The other point is that this list of "top blogs" is pretty un-diverse as well. There are a ton of really great blogs written by women and people of color, but they didn't really make it into Time's list. Mainstream media can't realize the value of including diversity in media, and this may become another reason why these media companies may fail. One of the great things about the Internet is that more voices are added into the mix than the constraints of print costs could allow. But Time doesn't seem to acknowledge that.

What Is Centrism, Anyway?

Paul Waldman talks about how during the stimulus negotiations, the centrists ultimately won out. Many people pride themselves on being "somewhere in the middle," but Waldman has a harsher take on it:

So just what does it mean to be a "centrist"? To people who don't care much about politics, it may just seem like centrists are a third team between the right and the left, doing their best to advance their own interests, just as everyone else does. But if you believe political beliefs matter, and that politics is where our competing visions of the world come to fruition or are defeated, then centrism is the most cynical ideology of all, one utterly devoid of substance.

That isn't to say that one has to be a conservative or a progressive to be principled. Libertarians are among the most politically principled people you'll ever encounter, and their views don't line up neatly on the left-right axis that defines much of our politics. But unlike libertarianism -- or conservatism, or progressivism -- centrism defines itself not by fundamental principles or a particular view of the way the world works, but simply by what other people are thinking. The centrist isn't sure what he believes until you tell him what the left and the right believe. Only then does he know where he should put himself.

With all this talk about what is conservative and what is liberal, it's worth pointing out that centrism isn't really an ideology in and of itself. It's true that centrism is an ideology of relativism. It's really odd, then that someone would proudly call oneself a "centrist" when there is no coherent ideology that goes with that. In the end, the center is what is left over after the right and the left have staked out their positions. It is a remnant of an ideology, not one itself.

Flag-Draped Coffins, Revealed

The Washington Post reports today that President Barack Obama is thinking of reversing his stance on allowing photographs of dead soldier's coffins to be taken and published, reversing an 18-year-old policy, in place since the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

This is obviously a difficult space to negotiate; it's a balance of allowing respect of fallen soldier's families in grief while allowing images of the human cost of war to be publicly circulated. Policies about disloyalty and anti-war messaging bans have been in place since World War I but the defense department still sends a press release every time a soldier (or sometimes a group of soldiers) gets killed in action. It doesn't make sense for flag-draped coffins, an overall rather un-graphic image, to be banned from public discourse -- especially when the names of those contained in the coffins aren't shown to the public. It's sort of sad it took a freedom of information request to get access to these images.

Dear John

Via my colleague Jesse, this account of a prostitution case in the Boston Globe just goes to show how effed up the system is. It's a case where an instance of prostitution turned into an instance of extortion; the prostitute demanded more money in exchange for not revealing the businessman's name. The result: the prostitute's name is part of public court records while the businessman has managed to remain anonymous.
What followed, say several legal specialists, illustrates how a prosperous individual with high-level connections can marshal the formidable resources of federal law enforcement to turn the tables on a criminal and preserve his good name - even if he himself had repeatedly broken the law by paying for sex. In contrast, the alleged prostitute's name is all over court records.
This isn't surprising. What has basically happened in this country is that we are (sort of) opposed to prostitution. But almost all of law enforcement is directed at the prostitutes themselves, not those that solicit the services. Prostitution is one of the most complicated problems in law enforcement today, but the disproportionate blame on the women in these cases makes no sense. If we are going to say prostitution is illegal, why are so few men prosecuted for it? The answer is because they are powerful, well-connected, and can afford expensive lawyers that can keep their names private. Now, becoming "tough on prostitution" is likely to fail in the same way becoming "tough on drugs" has. But reading articles like the one today in the Globe just infuriate me.

Uh, Where's the Diversity?

Today Al Kamen in the Washington Post writes about how Barack Obama, despite making history with by becoming the first black president, still has a fairly male, white cabinet when you look at his first picks.
Thirty-eight of the 56 appointees (68 percent) are men, (But white men, representing 46 percent of all picks, fall short of a majority.)
It's true, though, that Obama's doing better on increasing diversity than his predecessors:
By way of comparison on a few of these statistics, 39 of Bill Clinton's first 48 nominees (81 percent) were white and seven (15 percent) were African American; 75 percent were men. Of George W. Bush's 28 first nominees, 22 were white (79 percent) and only 14 percent were women, according to data compiled by the Presidential Transition Project at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.
Still, if you were expecting Obama to be a shining beacon of diversity in the upper tiers of the government's elite, you are bound to be disappointed. This goes back to the age old "chicken and egg" diversity problem. The most common response to complaints about lack of diversity is that there just aren't women and minorities that would be considered qualified for such leadership positions. But how are we supposed to increase diversity if we never give anyone but an old, white man the opportunity to lead something?

I'm not entirely surprised that Obama's cabinet is rather homogeneous. After all, there's always the competing, counterintuitive argument that might win out. Obama, because he is black and on the younger side, "needs" older, established Washington types to build his credibility. This is problematic, to say the least. Chris Hayes did a good job of illustrating how certain Washington people keep getting recycled even if past performance has been less than stellar.

Obviously people shouldn't be appointed solely because they fulfill a diversity requirement, but all too often there are qualified people out there who would both do a fantastic job and would add necessary perspective. The government's job is to work for everyone, not just the white men.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sarah Haskins on Chocolate Commercials

I never realized how creepy chocolate commercials were until Sarah Haskins pointed it out:

"Kiss In" in Mexico City

There's this very bizarre story from Mexico City where the mayor is trying to promote sex by giving away free Viagra to men over 60 years old and sponsoring a "kiss in" this weekend on Valentine's Day. But why is Mayor Marcelo Ebrard doing all this?

The initiative may be more about politics than anything else, and with nationwide elections looming in July, candidates across Mexico are beginning to lay the groundwork for their campaigns.

To bolster the fortunes of his leftist Party of Democratic Revolution and to further his own dream of becoming the country’s president in 2012, Mr. Ebrard has pushed to legalize abortion and gay civil unions in the capital and crack down on illegal street vendors and unlicensed taxi operators, who have long been associated with crowds and crime. His plan to expand subway and bus service is ambitious and popular.
While Ebrard might be attempting to liberalize Mexico City's policies to gain popularity, I doubt he can run on a platform of Viagra.

Economy Down, Condom Sales Up

One of my favorite things to blog about is condoms. I haven't had the opportunity in a while, but yesterday's news story about how condom sales are up lately. Some suspect it may be that it's because we're in a depression and people are trying to be extra careful about not getting pregnant when they can't afford a(nother) pregnancy. Historically this isn't such an unusual trend. Last year I read Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage and she talked about how marriage and fertility rates dropped dramatically during the Great Depression in the 1920s and 30s -- and that was before they had birth control pills.

Photo by Flickr user by piperkinsvater.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

About Bernard Goldberg

Well, I guess you know what this is all about.

Happy Birthday NAACP!

Today is Lincoln's birthday. It's also the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the most important organizations in our country's history. I'm going to refer you to the Miami Harold's Leonard Pitts, Jr., who has a fantastic column on the subject today:

The Movement, which held a subsequent meeting at Harper's Ferry, W. Va., issued a statement that said in part, ''We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.'' But the movement, hampered by various difficulties, soon sputtered and became inactive.

Then the riot came.

For six days in August 1908, a mob of white people surged through the streets of Springfield, Ill., lynching and maiming black people at will and at whim. The irony of this happening in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, earnestly if somewhat simplistically revered as the Great Emancipator, was lost on no one, the rioters least of all. ''Lincoln freed you, we'll show you your place,'' they cried as they flogged black people through the streets.

The appalling spectacle energized white liberals like Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard. On Lincoln's 100th birthday, Feb. 12, 1909, they joined with DuBois and other remnants of the Niagara Movement to issue a call for a conference on race.

That call -- a century ago Thursday -- was the birth certificate of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Lincoln may have emancipated the slaves, but it is the work of organizations like the NAACP that continue to work toward freedom.

Republican, Meet Democrat

Michelle Cottle today blogs about a style section story in the New York Times about a Northern California couple that invite conservatives and liberals to the same party and -- guess what -- they get along! Cottle explains that while the rest of the country might be politically polarized (I sort of wonder where she gets this from. In my experience people just don't talk about politics that much so might not know when they're consorting with members of the opposite party.) but she notes that in Washington, it's easy to get along with people of any political stripe:
By contrast, it's hard to be a part of political Washington and not wind up mixing with members of the opposite team. You get introduced to one another and must make small talk at professional dinners, cocktail parties, soccer matches, ballet classes, panel discussions, television green room, fundraisers, and so on. Even people who make a living publicly trashing one another learn to interact politely. Stories are perpetually written about Liberal Senator X's long-standing friendship with Conservative Senator Y and how that relationship might impact Legislation Z. Conservative lobbyists break bread with lefty reporters. Liberal pollsters invite Republican Hill staffers to their book parties. Bob Barnett serves as everyone's book agent. (Make that everyone famous.) You discover that members of the opposition don't have horns (well, most of them don't) and aren't trying to destroy the republic. Now and again, you even invite some into your own home.
Perhaps for Michelle, someone who has lived in the city for many years and covered both parties for her job has picked up a few friends on both side of the aisle. But I would say that's less true for someone like me. The closest I come to conservative friends are the libertarians, that come with their own idiosyncratic views of the world that might occasionally line up with those of their liberal friends, but I don't have any socially conservative friends in the city.

That might be because cities generally tend to be less socially conservative than suburbs or rural areas of the country. It could also be that my friend group is all made up of relatively young people who moved to the city to work in liberal politics, media, or advocacy organizations. Furthermore, unlike in the rest of the country, it's rare when politics doesn't come up in casual conversation in my friend group. It's so often that I forget that people don't talk about politics that much in the rest of the country. My news jokes and snide comments probably range from offensive to just plain baffling to members of my family or other friends in other parts of the country.

Is this kind of polarization bad? Probably, but you can't really make rules about friends -- I need to have at least one friend of x persuasion. You pick up friends along the way in life, and sometimes, when you work at an organization or in a field that tends to sway one way or another, you find yourself lacking in friends of the opposite party. It's a somewhat natural part of life. But that doesn't mean you can't be friends with people who you don't agree with on election day. It just depends what your friendship is based on.

Mother Jones and the Interwebz

Mother Jones has a new redesign. It's charming. It's pretty. It's less clustered than their old one. But I still have some issues with it.

First of all, I would have thought that Mother Jones would have taken this opportunity of launching a new website of having some new, fresh, and interesting articles on their homepage. Instead, much of the content billed on the homepage is from their (now very old) January/February issue. They of course have new content from their blogs that they tease in a thin line of text-only hyperlinks at the top of the page, right under the header. But for the most part, much of the content on their homepage, while good, is stuff I've already read.

Secondly, I was horrified to discover that Kevin Drum, someone I've enjoyed reading since he was at the Washington Monthly, is back to a limited RSS feed. The title of his posts appear, but that's it. No teaser text. No full posts. I know that there's constantly a tension about full RSS feeds. The marketing-types will try to tell you that you need people to click over to a homepage so they can actually count who is reading the page. But for someone like me, who already scans many blogs and news articles, I find this just a waste of time. Sadly, this may mean I eliminate Kevin Drum from my RSS feed altogether. I may only read him every other day or every couple of days. Eventually, he may fall out of my daily routine and I may stop checking him altogether.

I don't mean to paint a doomsday scenario, but the reality is that if you're going to sink a lot of money into a redesign, you need to make a reason for people to go to your website. Limiting the RSS feeds and posting not-so-timely magazine articles may not be the best way to do that.

Update: Just as I was writing this post, Kevin Drum posted something saying the RSS feed is having "teething problems." I hope this gets worked out soon.

On Wasteful Spending, AKA Stimulus

Jon Chait largely has the defense of wasteful spending right in The New Republic today. He does an excellent job of refuting right-wing claims that this is just "wasteful" spending:

Congressional Republicans have continued to churn out lists of "wasteful" spending in the stimulus bill, highlighting such outrages as funding for Amtrak, making federal buildings more energy-efficient, flood-reduction projects on the Mississippi River, and the like. They have assailed the bill as a "wish list." Well, yes. If you suddenly had to spend $10,000, would you spend it on things you'd always wanted, or would you spend it on something you'd never even considered before?

The mass ignorance on display was best exemplified by the contretemps over a provision to help undergird hemorrhaging state budgets. Most states are required to balance their budgets annually. During downturns, their revenue collapses and their costs (on things like Medicaid) rise. This forces the states to raise taxes and cut spending, the exact opposite of what you want in a recession.
This is why you've seen Republican governors like Florida's Charlie Crist are in favor of the stimulus bill. They have to balance their state budgets and need help from the federal government. In Crist's case, he's hoping to avoid increasing taxes, the ultimate Republican holy grail.

And it's important to keep in mind that many of the "wish list" items that Republicans are blaming Democrats for are things that, in most cases, will create jobs in construction and technology or even decrease costs. Republicans did a good job of arguing that putting family planning in the stimulus bill (mostly a corrective bureaucratic measure that would eliminate wasteful paperwork) was something that would ultimately save money in the long run. That means that much of the protests against the stimulus are just ideological chatter.

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin Of Species -- Darwin's seminal work that set this evolution/creation craziness into play. To celebrate, I recommend reading Richard Dawkins' article in The Times. (See also this rather adorable piece in Mother Jones by Josh Harkinson about Darwin Day celebrations in San Francisco.) Though much if it is a favorable review of Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne, he also presents a firm argument about the anti-intellectual nature of arguments against evolution:

But now a certain kind of anthropologist can be relied on to jump up and say something like the following: Who are you to elevate scientific “truth” so? The tribal beliefs are true in the sense that they hang together in a meshwork of consistency with the rest of the tribe’s world view. Scientific “truth” is only one kind (“Western” truth, the anthropologist may call it, or even “patriarchal”). Like tribal truths, yours merely hang together with the world view that you happen to hold, which you call scientific. An extreme version of this viewpoint (I have actually encountered this) goes so far as to say that logic and evidence themselves are nothing more than instruments of masculine oppression over the “intuitive mind”.

Listen, anthropologist. Just as you entrust your travel to a Boeing 747 rather than a magic carpet or a broomstick; just as you take your tumour to the best surgeon available, rather than a shaman or a mundu mugu, so you will find that the scientific version of truth works. You can use it to navigate through the real world.
It's so true. It's baffling to me why creationists will trust science to heal them with antibiotics or to get them safely somewhere in a car, but when it comes to the changes in biology over time, there's no such need for science. You can't pick and choose with science. It is more than a set of theories, it is a way of thinking critically about the world. Once that critical thinking goes out the window, it's hard to know where thoughtful analysis won't be attacked.

He also talks of how parents to an all-too-excellent job of pressuring their children into not believing evolution:
In October 2008, a group of about sixty American science teachers met to compare notes, at the Center for Science Education at Emory University in Atlanta, and they had some revealing experiences to relate. One teacher reported that students “burst into tears” when told they would be studying evolution. Another teacher described how students repeatedly screamed, “No!” when he began talking about evolution in class.
Why would 10th grade biology students (at least, that's the age at which I learned evolutionary biology) protest learning about science so much? It's most likely that they've been indoctrinated by parents, other teachers, pastors, and other grownups to reject the scientific teachings in this regard and this regard only. How frustrating that they reject one component of science but then turn the page to talk about how cool lasers are.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Corrective Ads on Birth Control

I missed blogging about this yesterday because I just got too busy, but the New York Times notes that Yaz, a birth control pill, has been running some rather weird ads lately that "clarify" what the pill does. The ad seems to be a sequel to an ad where women sit around in a club talking about birth control -- don't worry, one of them is a medical student, so she knows about this stuff -- and it depicts one of those actresses issuing a "clarification" for some of the claims Yaz has made.

The thing is, the problem with Yaz's advertising is somewhat systemic of birth control advertising as a whole. Yaz made a point of talking about how the pill made your skin clearer or reduced PMS, rather than touting the pill's primary purpose: to prevent you from getting pregnant. Sarah Haskins did an excellent job of satirizing this phenomenon, but birth control advertising has very little to do with birth control. So, by Yaz making an attempt to bill how the pill has other desirable side effects, the company ended up overstepping its bounds and had to issue clarifying ads. Had the company just stuck with the actual purpose of the pill, they perhaps wouldn't have had to issue an embarrassing correction.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Difference Between iTunes and News

No one knows what to do with the newspaper. Or the Internet. Or with intellectual property generally. Last week I wrote about Walter Isaacson's idea in Time magazine to charge "micropayments" of 10 cents for an article or $2 for a month's subscription. He got the idea from iTunes.
There is a multitude of reasons why [Apple CEO Steve] Jobs won't save newspapers (and it's not just because the secretive CEO hates the media). Put simply, journalism is not music. Yes, Jobs convinced consumers to pay for music in digital form. But unlike an individual newspaper link, an iTunes purchase becomes digital property a music lover can enjoy for life. (I must have listened to the latest Animal Collective tracks a dozen times last week before I got sick of them.) Compare that to a dispatch from Baghdad or an analysis of the stimulus bailout. No matter how illuminating and engaging, journalism is fleeting by comparison. What's the value differential between owning music for life and scanning one article? Hard to say. But it's probably a lot less than the 10 cents Isaacson proposes.
As I said at the time, I wasn't necessarily opposed to the idea Isaacson proposed, but we're forgetting how broadcast media evolved, almost entirely dependent on ads because it was impossible to tell who was "subscribing" and who wasn't. It's sort of similar with the Internet. You can password protect all you want, but that can decrease your traffic, which can decrease your advertising revenue. It's a bit of a conundrum.

It's also weird that Isaacson proposes this "micropayment" idea as the one that will save newspapers. All he's really doing is coming up with an additional revenue stream for websites. This idea of micropayments wouldn't eliminate ads. It would supplement them.

Then I saw Isaacson on The Daily Show, where he and Jon Stewart both managed to come across as the oldest foggies ever:

Not to say that there isn't a "tactile" quality to newspapers and magazines, but it's a little absurd to argue that because people like holding things, the newspaper industry is saved. That's, um, weird. Especially considering that people already use computers so much in their daily lives, and with more and more people accessing the internet on their phones, it's just odd to say that holding things is the new way. Sure, there's a bit of self-satire there, but it's just not the way of the future. Accept it and move on.

Paul Waldman's Insights

I kind of love how sarcastic Paul Waldman is. This passage of his column today made me laugh out loud:
So last week we heard Michael Steele, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, declare grandly, "Let's get this notion out of our heads that the government creates jobs. Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job." Steele's elaboration attempted to acknowledge that there are people who do in fact work for the government, but he was nonetheless unable to claw his way back to reality: "Small business owners do, small enterprises do. Not the government. When the government contract runs out, that job goes away." As opposed to a job in the private sector, which once it is created, lives on forever, though the 598,000 people who lost their jobs last month might tell you different.
It's always so absurd to me how conservatives seem to believe that the government doesn't actually do anything. They seem to believe that trash magically disappears, drivers licenses appear out of nowhere, parks stay manicured on their own, and public schools are filled with disciplined, self-taught students. Furthermore, Republican politicians tend to think that they are employed by someone other than the government and that their staffs work from a privately subsidized budget.

It's certainly true that there are some instances of waste in the government but most of the services provided are vital to a well-functioning economy. These are the kinds of jobs that the stimulus bill is designed to create. Conservatives just seem to forget how the government works.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Back From Atlanta, Clark University Lays Off 70 Faculty

This weekend I was in Atlanta for Campus Progress' very first Southern Regional Conference. This time, we had an activism track for those activist-types and a journalism track for the nerdier writer-types. Overall I was really impressed with a lot of the young people I met there. I also was impressed that a lot of our guest speakers like Ta-Nahasi Cotes, Christopher Hayes, Richard Kim, and our keynote, Isabel Wilkerson, weren't all doom-and-gloom about the future of the journalism industry.

It seems clear that media is in an economic crisis, just like the rest of the country. That, in turn is prompting a lot of changes in how media is presented -- something that would have happened eventually, but now that companies are trying to trim their budgets, they're also trimming in places and starting to see what doesn't work anymore. Many of our speakers noticed that although media seems to be "dying" it won't be dead. Instead, it just might look a little different than the hard-core newspaper days of yore. Wilkerson seemed particularly optimistic, pointing to the times historically when people said upon the invention of the radio and the television that the newspaper was dead.

This morning I saw this article in Inside Higher Ed about how Clark Atlanta University, the place where Wilkerson teaches, has laid off about 70 faculty members last week, some of them forbidden from teaching this week and had their classes canceled on Friday. Perhaps Wilkerson was optimistic about journalism, a profession in which she'd reach success by working at the New York Times and winning a Pulitzer Prize, over academia where her colleagues are getting the boot. Apparently in these tough economic times, even the university isn't a safe haven.

UPDATE: Apparently I was totally wrong. Wilkerson teaches at Emory University, not Clark. I take a week off from blogging and totally fail. The point is still interesting, though, that academia, which has traditionally been seen as a "safe" place to wait out a recession may not be such a safe place after all.
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