2010 - %3, August

Customer Service Blues

| Sun Aug. 29, 2010 12:18 PM EDT

Keith Humphreys says that dealing with the DMV is one of the most common ways that Americans interact with their government, and the fact that DMV performance is generally horrible makes people hate the entire enterprise of representative democracy. "DMVs undermine our faith that the public sector can do anything right or that it even cares if it does," he writes, "and that undermines a basis for a democratic society." Even granted that Keith was having a bad day (at the DMV, in case that's not clear), Mark Kleiman has a question:

If poor DMV performance threatens democracy, does the equally unhelpful attitude and operational design I’ve encountered in dealing with cable companies, power companies, health insurance companies, credit card companies, and USAir and United Airlines threaten capitalism?

Excellent question! Here's my best guess at an answer. People complain about customer service from big, faceless corporations all the time. But when they do, they complain about a specific corporation: "Time-Warner sucks," "I hate Verizon," "I'm never flying Delta again," etc. In their minds, these are separate companies that have performed badly, but they don't necessarily reflect badly on the entire enterprise of capitalism. Besides, in many of these cases there's at least theoretically the possibility of taking your business elsewhere.

In the case of governments, people don't distinguish as well. If they have run-ins with the IRS (federal government), the DMV (state government), the zoning commission (city government), their trash pickup (county government), and the municipal water company (an independent agency), these are all "the gummint." And, of course, in all these cases there's not even a theoretical chance of dealing with anyone else. If you need a business license, the only place you can get it is the county clerk, and if their hours happen to be 9-5 on weekdays and they require you to show up in person and wait in a long line — well, that's what you have to do.

But it's still a bit of a quandary. If I had to guess, I'd say that the average joe actually gets more grief from dealing with big corporations (cell phone provider, cable company, airlines, etc.) than from all levels of government combined. Most of us, after all, don't interact with the government all that much aside from mailing them checks now and again. What's more, there are institutional reasons that explain lousy customer service in both cases — though, ironically, they're mirror images: lack of competition in the case of government (so they don't have a lot of incentive to improve) and too much competition in the case of corporations (which forces them to cut service to the bone in order to stay price competitive on their main products).

So which is worse? My mother was complaining last night about the LA Times' inability to deliver her paper correctly. "How long has this been happening?" I asked. "About fifty years." And recently it got even worse because they've installed a new payment system that's shot full of bugs, leading to missed deliveries and bad billing. But then there's my sister, who owns a condo and has spent the last several months fighting the County of Los Angeles, which recently decided to update its property records and determined that her garage (which is attached to the main building, not a separate structure) didn't belong to her anymore and auctioned it off. That was after she'd called several times and was assured it was just a mistake and not to worry about it.1 So now her association has had to hire a lawyer of its own to straighten this out.

Which is worse? My sister's problem is certainly more severe, though it will eventually get cleared up. My mother's is merely annoying, but chances are her service from the Times will stay terrible forever. Take your pick.

1Quick hint for life improvement: whenever anyone tells you something is just a mistake and "not to worry about it," start worrying. This is almost a certain sign that you should immediately panic and start burning up the telephone wires demanding a resolution in writing at the earliest possible time.

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Glenn Beck's Great Whiteout

| Sat Aug. 28, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

As we passed the Washington Monument this morning and waded into the growing crowd of thousands at today's "Restoring Honor" rally, my friend, Chris, surveyed the turnout and then leaned in toward me. "Other than that guy back back there selling flags," he said somewhat discreetly, "I've got to be the only black person out here today."

He had a point. There were people of all shapes and sizes, young and old (though mostly old), from near and far at the rally on the Washington Mall—and, truth be told, they were almost all white. Despite the impressive turnout surrounding the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool, I needed only two hands and maybe a few toes to tally the number of non-white attendees. You couldn't miss the irony: On the same day and at the same location as Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech—when conservative icon Glenn Beck would repeatedly invoke King's memory and message on a stage featuring a portrait of Langston Hughes and a relative of King Jr.'s as a speaker—there were few, if any, black people in sight. "I've seen more people who're black onstage than at this whole thing," Chris said at one point.

We pushed onward into the crowd, trying to get closer to the front, where Beck was. But before we could get there, a middle-aged woman suddenly reached out and grabbed Chris' arm. She pulled him close. The woman, as sweaty as the rest of us, asked Chris if he planned on attending the NAACP's rally later in the afternoon. Without waiting for Chris' response, she told us, "I kinda want to go, but I feel like I wouldn't be welcome." Hard emphasis on the wouldn't be welcome. A bit surprised, Chris looked at me and then replied, "You mean kind of like I feel right now?"

A bit later on, after the rally had ended, Chris told me he didn't mean to respond to the woman quite like he did. He didn't feel any animus from the crowd, he said. Nonetheless, we agreed that for an event whose central figure, Beck, preached the importance of faith, hope, and charity, and drew heavily on King Jr.'s legacy, the paucity of non-whites in the crowd was startling. Not that it's any big surprise, though. The tea party, whose followers made up a good percentage of today's attendees, tend to be white, wealthier, male, and married, polls have shown. A racially diverse turnout at a Glenn Beck rally? In your dreams.

Glenn Beck: Televangelist

| Sat Aug. 28, 2010 4:08 PM EDT

For weeks prior to Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, the conservative talk show host kept insisting that his demonstration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial wasn't going to be a political event. Of course, no one believed him. Maybe they should have. Beck made it clear from the minute he jogged on to the stage that despite the presence of Sarah Palin, his much-promoted event would not be political, but religious. And if grassroots conservative activists came looking for marching orders, they might have left a little disappointed. Beck did deliver his signature rants about how the country is going to hell in a hand basket, but his prescription consisted of little more than maddeningly vague allegories about "a man with a stick" (that would be Moses) and such platitudes as, "God is the answer and he always has been." With this heavy focus on God as political savior, the rally seemed to mark Beck's official transformation from Fox News talker to Mormon televangelist. All he really needed for the revival was a tent.

Prior to the rally, critics and civil rights leaders took umbrage at Beck for promoting himself as the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr. and for planning the event on the 47th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech. That didn't slow Beck down. At the rally, he talked about how much he identified with the slain civil rights leader, noting he was even staying in the same DC hotel where MLK had rested his head after his legendary speech. But the similarities ended there. King used his rally and speech to move an agenda forward. He called on the crowd before him (and people watching elsewhere) to pressure Congress to change discriminatory laws and to focus on jobs. What did Beck ask his hundreds of thousands of followers to do?

The Beckheads who'd been waiting in the hot sun for hours got these marching orders: "Pray on your knees. Recognize He is our king. Pray on your knees and let your children see their parents humbled before God." Oh, and of course, like all good televangelists, Beck asked them to give money—not to candidates or political parties, but to a church. Beck talked wistfully about the spiritual transformation he underwent after he embraced tithing, which is heavily encouraged by his Mormon church. He said at first he was resistant, happy to show off the $20 he put in the plate on Sunday morning, but not much else. But now, he said earnestly, "It is my joy and my honor to tithe 10 percent."

But the real proof of Beck's televangelist conversion came with his revelation that God answers his prayers for money. In a tale straight out of Pat Robertson's 700 Club, Beck said that as he was working on the logistics for the big rally, he discovered that his fundraising efforts had come up $600,000 short. Naturally, he prayed: "Lord, we don't have anything else left." And he said, "Within two days, without telling anyone about it, $600,000 came in."

The crowd seemed to be OK with all of this. For all the talk about how Beck's event was going to be a test of the strength of the tea party movement, I met a fair number of people who had nothing to do with the tea party. That's no shock; lots of tea partiers who don't fancy Beck wouldn't have been caught dead on the Mall today. There is a fairly serious distinction between Beck followers and those who consider themselves true tea partiers, and it rests almost entirely on the religious issue. As one attendee from upstate New York explained to me, "The tea party is just about lower taxes."

The Beck crowd, by contrast, had all the trappings of a reconstituted, 21st Century Christian Coalition. While political signs were banned from the event, the marshals didn't seem to object to the two enormous crucifixes some people brought to the front of the crowd. Lots of the people in attendance appeared deeply religious. A Boy Scout troop leader from New Hampshire was wearing a scout hat that identified him as "Elder Delevan," as in Mormon church elder. Joan DeMasi, 79, from Warwick, Rhode Island, told me that she had been drawn to the rally by "God–and Glenn Beck." She said she was tired of "people not saluting the flag and not believing in God." So from her perspective, "Restoring Honor" was simply "incredible." Whether the rest of the tea party movement will share such a glowing assessment remains to be seen.

Quote of the Day: Glenn Beck, Scholar

| Sat Aug. 28, 2010 12:07 PM EDT

From Dick Armey, PhD University of Oklahoma, former economics professor at the University of North Texas, and former Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives:

One of the things that we see as we look at Glenn Beck's work that's been fascinating to me, is we see a more true and accurate history of the United States, and we see it documented at levels of rigor that, in fact, one would expect out of Ph.D. dissertations — it is serious, scholarly work....[Liberal critics] don’t have to argue with Glenn Beck. They have to argue with his documentation and they can’t match that level of rigor.

Somebody just shoot me now.

Live Tweets From Beckapalooza

Sat Aug. 28, 2010 11:03 AM EDT

Front page photo courtesy of HA! Designs -Artbyheather/Flickr.

How To Make 4.6 Million Cans of Beer Disappear (Updated)

| Sat Aug. 28, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Wounded Knee, South Dakota (Photo: Tim Murphy)Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Wounded Knee, South Dakota (Photo: Tim Murphy)Whiteclay, Nebraska—We'd barely gotten to the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge reservation before we were told we should probably leave. The main road through was under construction, and we stopped to ask a woman holding a stop sign how to get to Wounded Knee. She set us straight, but then, as we were ready to go, offered some helpful advice: "Don't get out of the car."

Excuse me?

"Don't stop anywhere. Don't get out of the car."

Of course, I don't think she meant we should stop in Whiteclay either. For the uninitiated, Whiteclay is the very first outpost* you hit driving south out of the reservation, folded just under the Nebraska state line. On this trip, I've seen cities that have died and cities that have been left for dead, but I've never passed through a place quite like Whiteclay, so one-dimensional in its horror it feels undead. Maybe the best way to fully understand the town's purpose in life is to just run the numbers, Harpers Index-style:

6–14: Estimated number of full-time residents of Whiteclay.

8: Number of people I saw drinking or passed out on the sidewalk at noon on a weekday.

4: Number of full-time liquor stores.

0: Number of city adminstrative buildings, churches or civic centers.

4,600,000: Number of cans of beer sold in 2009.

90: Percentage of those beer cans that were purchased by American Indians.

You get the picture. Alcohol sales are illegal on the Pine Ridge reservation, so Whiteclay emerged, like so many fireworks shacks and casino parlors across the continent, to give its neighbors across the border a quick fix. Nice, right? It's what capitalism must have looked like to Leon Czolgosz.

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Northwest and Northeast Passages Now Open

| Fri Aug. 27, 2010 5:35 PM EDT

The Northwest Passage is now open for business. And, as this satellite image composited by the The University of Illinois Cryosphere Today shows, the Northeast Passage is too. Jeff Masters at WunderBlog reports:

"It is now possible to completely circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean in ice-free waters, and this will probably be the case for at least a month. This year marks the third consecutive yearand the third time in recorded historythat both the Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage have melted free. The Northeast Passage opened for the first time in recorded history in 2005 and the Northwest Passage in 2007. It now appears that the opening of one or both of these northern passages is the new norm, and business interests are taking notecommercial shipping in the Arctic is on the increase, and there is increasing interest in oil drilling."

The National Snow and Ice Data Center says this year’s early clearing of sea ice likely results from record warm temperatures this past spring over the Western Canadian Arctic, as well as from an ongoing decline in older multiyear iceonce a hallmark of the Arctic, now seriously threatened. Spring 2010 was the warmest in the region since 1948, with some parts of the Western Canadian Arctic heating to more than 6°C/11°F above normal.

Meanwhile, sea ice around Antarctica is at a record high, which some mistakenly take as proof that global warming isn't real. In fact growing Antarctic sea ice is at least in part a result of a warming ocean, as SkepticalScience explains:

"The Southern Ocean consists of a layer of cold water near the surface and a layer of warmer water below. Water from the warmer layer rises up to the surface, melting sea ice. However, as air temperatures warm, the amount of rain and snowfall also increases. This freshens the surface waters, leading to a surface layer less dense than the saltier, warmer water below. The layers become more stratified and mix less. Less heat is transported upwards from the deeper, warmer layer. Hence less sea ice is melted."

The View From My Windshield: Hallowed Ground

| Fri Aug. 27, 2010 3:35 PM EDT

Wounded Knee, South Dakota (Photo: Tim Murphy)Wounded Knee, South Dakota (Photo: Tim Murphy)

Vote for Me! The One Who's Not a Broad!

| Fri Aug. 27, 2010 3:01 PM EDT

Former Mother Jones intern and current Salon.com writer Justin Elliott brings up some good examples of sexism in the race for seats this November. In one, Joe Miller briefly compares opponent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to a prostitute. In another, Ken Buck said Colorado voters should pick him over Jane Norton for the senate because he "doesn't wear high heels." Sexist attacks are nothing new on the campaign trail, though they somehow lack the destructive powers of racist remarks. But what some candidates are forgetting is that sexism is a two-way street.

Ken Buck said he made the remark about Norton's footwear because she had assailed his "manhood" in an attack ad where she said he should be "man enough" to pay for his own campaign spots, and that Colorado should elect a senator who had "backbone enough to stand her ground." Politicians use all kinds of gimmicks pursuing votes, but playing the gender card is a cheap shot, and one that often backfires. The "man enough" comment was indeed sexist, as was Buck's response to it. Norton hit back in this video, but eventually lost to Buck by 3 points last month.

Sharron Angle is another female senate candidate who's shown signs of playing the gender card, and not to her advantage. She said in two interviews that Harry Reid's attack ads were an attempt to "hit the girl." She told the Heidi Harris Show that Reid was bullying her in the campaign, "And he has been doing that to me and what we need to do is say, 'you know Harry, it’s not going to do you any good to hit the girl.'" I have a lot of issues with Angle, but I can't imagine portraying herself as a defenseless girl on the playground will do Angle much good: If you don't want to be bullied, Congress is the last place you should go. I don't think playing the gender card helps female candidates, but I for one would prefer to see candidates of both sexes attack one another based on what's between their ears rather than what's between their legs.

TransCanada Already Bullying Landowners in Nebraska

| Fri Aug. 27, 2010 2:48 PM EDT

A Canadian oil giant wants to expand an already-massive pipeline to bring oil from the tar sands of Canada all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. The US has yet to even approve the 1,980-mile TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, but the company is already sending threatening letters to landowners in their pathway.

In a letter sent last month to a landowner in Nebraska provided to Mother Jones, the company warns that the landowner could be forced to surrender his or her property if the landowner doesn't consent to the pipeline construction on their property. The company invokes a Nebraska state statute to threaten eminent domain should homeowners turn down their offer of financial compensation for agreeing to let the pipeline cross their land:

In order to construct the pipeline, Keystone must acquire a permanent and temporary easement over your property. It is Keystone's strong preference to negotiate a voluntary transfer with each property owner. However, in the event we cannot come to an agreement, Keystone will use eminent domain to acquire the easement, which is authorized pursuant to Nebraska Revised Statute 57-1101 et. Seq.

The letter goes on to offer a price to the landowners, which has been blacked out. It warns that this is the final letter, and gives the landowner just one month to respond. The company also offers to "provide compensation for any damages that occur during the course of construction including crop loss and any damages to fences, trees, or other improvements."

In case the landowner didn't get the threat the first time, the threat is repeated:

While we hope to acquire this property through negotiation, if we are unable to do so, we will be forced to invoke the power of eminent domain and will initiate condemnation proceedings against this property promptly after the expiration of this one month period.

This letter comes despite the fact that the project isn't even approved yet; in July, the State Department extended the review period for the pipeline by 90 days to give federal agencies additional time for comment. People who live in the region are justifiably outraged by the bullying from TransCanada before the oil giant even has the green light on the project.

The pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Houston would pass through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. It has been the subject of plenty of debate already, and even more so in the wake of the giant oil disaster in the Gulf. Then there was yet another oil spill in Michigan last month, one that dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude from the tar sands into the Talmadge Creek. That pipeline belongs to TransCanada rival Enbridge Energy, and certainly hasn't helped the public feel much better about the Keystone XL project (more on that here).

Environmental groups and the US EPA have raised concerns about the large amount of emissions from tar sands oil as compared to conventional sources. But there's a growing concern about the safety of the pipeline, which would cross 71 rivers and streams and the Ogalalla aquifer if it is completed.

The full letter, which was obtained by the National Wildlife Federation, is here.