Politics, Numbers, and Government

I have two British friends who dwell on the conservative side of the political spectrum. One of them lives here in the States and the other over in the UK. Less than two years ago  my US Brit friend ran for local office as a Republican. Since then, he’s become increasingly horrified with his party and has started looking into independent conservative parties.

My UK friend, though, living at a greater distance, still seems (to me) to think it’s business as usual in US conservative politics. I tried to disabuse him of that idea — that today’s GOP is nothing like the GOP of the 90s. Or, rather, it’s only like the fringe elements of the 90s’ GOP that were mainly useful for hating the Clintons within boundaries but were otherwise kept on a leash, the ones who tried to put on a good show at Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. I tried to explain to him that the things these members of the GOP are saying are completely falsified by all available numbers.

And in our little email exchange he blithely dismissed the numbers: “Don’t trust them.” Our conversation ended shortly after that, but it stuck with me because I think it demonstrates widespread conservative misunderstanding about the US government. For one thing, he seems to think that the Federal government is a single entity. But we need to comprehend scale here. The Federal government employed about 2.7 million civilians and about 4.4 million people overall, if we include the military, as of just a couple of years ago.  As of the beginning of June 2017, Trump had appointed maybe a handful of people to posts: certainly less than 100. The US federal government is a vast complex of different departments largely staffed by people who stay in these positions for years, regardless of who holds the Office of the President or who is in Congress.

That is also true of the entities that gather our data, like the Congressional Budget Office or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This independence has been painfully illustrated by the recent numbers coming out of the Congressional Budget Office about the GOP’s latest iteration of their attempts at health care reform. According to the CBO’s latest numbers, the current GOP plan would cause 32 million people to lose health insurance over the next ten years.

Now keep in mind that the GOP currently controls all three branches of government. It can’t grease its wheels much more than that. And this control extends to Congress, which oversees the office producing these numbers.

If government numbers weren’t to be trusted, the CBO would be working for the party in charge right now by spitting out falsified numbers that make the GOP healthcare plan look good. But, it’s not.

The fact is, for the most part the federal government, as an entity, carries out business as usual regardless of who is in power. If it didn’t, this country would be in a much bigger mess than it is. The entities that gather our data attempt to do so to the best of their ability, and being who they are, remain the best source of information about the US economy, jobs, education, and a host of other segments of our society. This general distrust of “government numbers” can only proceed from an inattention to the facts or, in other words, ignorance.

Pay attention to the numbers. They mean something.

Understanding Vinyl

I need to warn you: I’m from the 70s.

Being from the 70s means I was born in the heyday of the vinyl era, saw its decline along with the rise and decline of 8-tracks and cassettes, the rise and decline of CDs and internet-based music, and have lived to see vinyl rise again. From my point of view, the history of music media has moved from analog (wax and vinyl) to digital (CDs, mp3s, streaming), with magnetic tape (reel to reel, 8-tracks, and cassettes) being a kind of intermediary between the two.

Vinyl has made a serious comeback that began around 2010 and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As a sign of the strength of this comeback, Sony Music, for the first time since the late 1980s, will begin production of vinyl records again. The return of vinyl is usually explained in terms of sound quality (vinyl captures more than .mp3s) and in terms of album artwork. I’m not sure I completely buy the first reason: even if it is technically true, I suspect most people listen to their records on something like this:

If you’re not spending at least $1000 on components and speakers, you’re not really getting better sound out of your vinyl.

By the way, I own the one on the right. Yeah, I’m a sucker.

Now album artwork is another matter. It can be substantial, and the experience of it in a CD package or online just isn’t quite the same. But album artwork is essentially packaging. It doesn’t have anything to do with the music. That’s fine, but this second reason is also complicated by the fact that music aficionados tend to look down on colored vinyl as being a gimmick. It’s not just a matter of the best packaging winning here.

I seriously can’t wait for a new release of Dark Side of the Moon that’s advertised as the “black vinyl” edition. The gimmicks will have won the day.

I would like to suggest that part of what’s really going on is a kind of cult or aura of authenticity associated with vinyl. One component is surely nostalgic: the two low-end record players pictured above are clearly retro in design and intended to be. This aura of authenticity also privileges original pressings over new albums, much like first editions and first printings of books might be worth more than later editions or reprints.

Following first edition market logic, that’s fine, but you need to understand that none of this has anything to do with the music either. Original pressings were on thinner vinyl that’s more susceptible to warping. That 180g vinyl thing isn’t just a gimmick. They’re more durable. 70’s albums weren’t recorded on equipment that was nearly as good as today’s, and oftentimes there would be a hiss in the background: the medium was so faithful it even captured the sound of the recording equipment. A remastered, recent pressing of Dark Side of the Moon is a much better product, at least in terms of music, than a first pressing of that album from the 70s. It would combine the best of both digital and analog.

But I’d like to take this argument a step further. It’s tedious to listen to vinyl, at least compared to listening to music on your streaming service, on an iPod, or on your phone. You have to stop every half hour at the most and flip the record over. Now — and again, this is because I’m from the 70s — my parents had a great, wooden stereo console that took up about six feet of one wall in our living room. It could stack maybe six to eight records. When one finished, the next one would drop down, and the needle would queue up on the next one automatically. The turntable was on springs, so it’d just lower a bit every time the next record dropped. At one point vinyl manufacturers started manufacturing double albums so that sides 1 and 3 were on one disc and 2 and 4 on another. That way you could stack them on players like this and listen to two sides before flipping the album over.

Back in the 70s, we didn’t want to have to flip our albums over every twenty to thirty minutes. We wanted good music in our cars. We wanted to listen to music while we were running or at work without disturbing anyone. And we wanted our music without background hiss. We wanted customized playlists (hence, the mixtape, originally on cassette). We really wanted to be our own and each other’s DJs.

So this 70s’ generation, out of a real concern for music, gave the world cassette tapes, Walkmans, iPods, digital music, and then downloadable and streaming music. It gave us $100 earbuds that have a better sound than any $100 speakers ever sold since the 1960s. The limitations of vinyl were the reason for digital music to begin with. It’s not a coincidence that I grew up in Southern California and the company that gave us everything that we wanted in a digital package, the iPod, originated in Los Altos, California in the 70s, about six hours north of where I grew up. It’s not that no one thought of any of this until Apple, Inc. came along. Apple was just replicating in digital form what was already hardwired into California culture in the 70s.

All of this by itself would make the cult of vinyl authenticity look a bit dumb except for two things:

First, the album artwork really is a lot cooler on a vinyl album. But I’m saying this as someone from the 70s. My friend Tony and I had this conversation about album artwork back in the 80s. He’s a great bass player and professional sound mixer, so he’s all about the music. He asked me back then what we lost by switching to CDs. I said, “The album artwork.” I’m a visual guy in part. He got what I was saying, but he just shrugged his shoulders. It really was all about the music for him, so he wanted it all on CDs.

Next, vinyl gives us our privacy back. No one is tracking your listening preferences to better serve you. No one needs to know what you even purchased, much less what you’re listening to between the hours of 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.

This close tracking of our listening preferences has changed the face of top 40 music. Digital, downloadable, and streaming music have so narrowly defined and targeted specific markets that top 40 music is for the most part nothing but the generic listening preferences of the largest cross-section of US consumers: a banal carousel of 90s’ style R&B, rap, and hip-hop, plus “country” that now sounds like 90s’ pop (except for Dolly Parton — I love you, never die — and “Americana”). New and interesting music is for the most part relegated to indie labels or niche markets, and rock and roll seems to be dying so badly that guitar sales are dropping. A lot of the most interesting music out there is, interestingly, varieties of heavy metal.

But I think vinyl sales tell us that this isn’t the whole story, and used records are coming back along with the increase in new vinyl sales. I think our listening preferences are more complex than the Billboard Top 100 would lead us to believe.

At least I hope so. So I’m taking some hope in the resurgence in vinyl. I don’t think Justin Bieber is the top target market for new vinyl sales.

Prom Night

Prom Night

She'd worked a long time to earn
enough money for the dress
she wanted.

Her softball team was behind
her, and her teachers too, who
saw that hard

work and her bright eyed pride that
very day of prom night. She
didn't make

it out of the neighborhood.
It happened in front of some
parents who

knew her. Dead on the scene when
the ambulance arrived, one
of the cars

crossed the lane. It was head on.
The text messages went out
just as the

kids were arriving at prom.
The counselor was called in.
One kid just

sat in the corner crying
until he was taken home.
Others went

in. The decorations were
beautiful 'cause Lindy did
such a good

job. The dresses were the best 
part: kids who looked like slobs all 
week looked like

gods and goddesses that night,
lords of springtime glory if
only for

one night. Most of them still had
a good time, somehow, that night.
One girl gave

it all up to a guy she
liked: a hard, stupid agent
of her quick

knowing, sudden adulthood,
and breathless flight from death. She'll
get married

too young, too quick, got that child
to care for. He'll cheat on her
in about

a year and they'll be one more
divorce stat. In the meantime,
a teacher 

comes straight home just to hug her
children, and the most helpless
of them all 

can do nothing but write yet
another damn poem that
makes sure we 
keep that bloody, gaping wound
wide open.

Wesson, MS 04 April 2017

Poetry at Millsaps Today

Earlier today, Millsaps College had scheduled the Jamaican poet Claudia Rankine to visit campus and read her poetry. She’s the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and unfortunately her flight was snowed in, so she couldn’t make it. In her place, three local poets and authors — and one undergraduate sociology student — read from her poetry and discussed it. The topic of race came up quite a bit, of course, as it is a central concern of Rankine’s poetry, but one point that came out about Rankine’s poetry is that it didn’t offer any solutions to the problems of race. One of the worst of these problems is how we tend to be intractably identified with a series of racial characteristics that seem to define our behaviors for others even before we act. Her poetry seems to hope that if these problems with race are presented clearly enough that others could eventually discover solutions.

Her Jamaican origins got me thinking about Caribbean history and, by extension, postcolonial theory. One of the central problems with Caribbean identity is that it is hard to define: for the most part, any original islanders have long since been gone, so that island populations tend to be a mix of Africans, Indians (from India), Native Americans, and a variety of Europeans. Compounding the problem is the fact that few, if any, islands have a single European identity. Islands tended to change hands among the British, French, Spanish, and other European nations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century as treaty concessions.

So the question left with Caribbean nations — once they cut loose of the last European country to have colonized them — is, “Who are we?” They are too distanced from their African heritage to claim that as their own, and they are not just African anyhow. They seldom have a single European language or background, and if they did, it would be oppressive, so why keep that?

One solution that has come up, however, is the idea of hybridity. History has left most Caribbean nations a diverse mix of a variety of European, African, and Indian influences. They have been left by history a hybrid of many cultures and languages, and once they realized that, they realized they could form a new cultural and national identity out of that hybridity.

And then I realized the United States is a hybrid nation as well. And more personally, that I am a hybrid person. I grew up in a brand new Southern Californian subdivision alongside Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, African-American, Puerto Rican, and mixed-race families. One couple was a Chinese man married to an African-American woman. Now when I say these families were Scottish, etc., I don’t mean really American with some Scottish background in the distant past. As Puerto Ricans we were all citizens of the United States from the start, but my mother grew up in Puerto Rico, as did my father’s mother, and Puerto Rico is very different culturally from the rest of the United States. Everyone else my age was first generation: first generation Scottish, Chinese, Irish, Mexican, etc. Their parents had moved to the US from those countries. My Chinese friend’s father didn’t even speak English yet.

So what is my culture? So Cal suburban? Yes, but a pretty diverse one, with many different languages, habits, and foods. But there’s more to it than that. I started thinking about Black culture and how much it made up my environment, and I realized that Black culture was a part of me. Among the hybridity that I experienced personally was a Black cultural identity. That was part of it too.

And while I realize this notion of hybridity is not an all-encompassing solution, I think it does present one possibility: every Black person in the United States can look at every white person in the United States and say, “My culture helped form who you are. It formed your history, your literature, your music, your art, your drama, your film, your sports, your science, your engineering. That means, like it or not, you’re part black. It’s not just that, as an American, I am part of your society. It’s that, as an American, you are part of mine.”

How might that change the terms of the discussion?