On the Hermeneutics of Twitter Humor

At 11:19 am Jesse Singal wrote the following tweet:

At 11:44 am he wrote this tweet:

Your assignment: please write an essay of no more than 10 double-spaced tweets examining what this means for digital communication and the future of global civic society, with a special emphasis on the intersectionality of gendernormativity, power relations in capitalist transactions, and the implications of the 140-character limit on feminist ontology. You may use any form of splaining you wish.

Many years ago I wrote a blog post about the refinery problems that plague Southern California almost like clockwork every single summer. The timing is an eerie coincidence, isn't it? I haven't continued to follow this story since then, but I'm happy to report that 12 years after I wrote about it, it's still happening:

Los Angeles-area gasoline prices rose over the last week and could tick even higher as a result of unplanned refinery outages and delays in the Exxon Mobil Torrance refinery’s return to full service, fuel experts said....Analysts say the Torrance refinery might not reach 90% to 100% capacity for several more weeks....In addition to the repair delays in Torrance, unplanned outages at other refineries in Southern California as well as at a BP refinery at Cherry Point, Wash., which supplies fuel to California, have contributed to rising gasoline prices in Southern California.

In June, the flowers bloom, the Dodgers swoon, and refineries fume. But no worries. When summer is over and everyone has come home from their vacations, I'm sure all these refinery problems will be miraculously solved.

Meg Whitman—former eBay CEO, former Republican candidate for California governor, and current mortal enemy of Donald Trump—asked Speaker of the House Paul Ryan how he could endorse a guy who's just the latest version of Hitler and Mussolini:

Ryan explained the difficult political situation he was in, as the leader of House Republicans. While spending a couple of weeks last month deliberating about an endorsement, many of his members increased pressure on him to back Trump. Many of them represent districts where Republican voters are strongly supportive of Trump, Ryan explained....The audience was described as largely anti-Trump yet sympathetic to Ryan's predicament.

Translation: Yes, Trump is a singularly moronic and demagogic candidate, and it's appalling to think of him in charge of a lemonade stand, let alone the US nuclear codes. But hey, we still have to win the House, so Trump 2016!

I was chatting with a friend yesterday about the (alleged) anger of low-income whites this election season, and she asked what kinds of concrete, long-term trends might be responsible for this. Concrete in the sense of important, measurable stuff that truly makes people's lives worse. The truth is that I don't know of many. Crime is down. Teen pregnancy is down. Student test scores are up. Graduation rates are up. Illicit drug dependence is down (yes, really) and it's way down among teenagers. The growth rate of health care costs is on a multi-decade downward trend. The Great Recession did immense damage, but we've been recovering nicely for several years: growth is steady; unemployment is below 5 percent; inflation is below 2 percent; job openings are rising; and household debt, which has been trending downward for nearly a decade, is at its lowest point since 1980.

So what negative trends are there? That is, big trends, the kind that affect lots of people and aren't easy to turn around. Rising student debt, for example, wouldn't qualify. In the great scheme of things, it's not that damaging,1 and it could be turned around pretty easily if we felt like it. It's not burned into the fabric of society or anything.

Nor am I thinking of partisan issues. If you're liberal, you're unhappy about the growing assault on abortion in red states. If you're conservative, you're unhappy about the growing acceptance of gay marriage. That kind of stuff is always around.

That said, two big negative trends come to mind. First, wages have been sluggish for decades and flat-out stagnant since the beginning of the century.2 Second, marriage rates have continued to slide. This produces more single mothers struggling to raise kids with no help, and more single fathers who cough up child support every month but don't see their kids much and live frustratingly solitary lives. And the standard of living for both is effectively worse than it was for their parents, since they're managing two households on about the same income.

In terms of broad societal trends, life has improved over the past couple of decades in nearly every respect—even for the working and middle classes. But these two big exceptions might be enough to produce an electorate that's pissed off enough to elect Donald Trump.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth saying that my own personal view remains the same as ever: the electorate isn't more pissed off than it usually is. All that's happened is that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have milked the normal amount of voter anger more effectively than usual, and social media has amplified it more than in the past. The case for this seems overwhelming to me—though I'm still open to contrary arguments based on actual evidence. But if you continue to believe in the anger theory and you want to know why people are so angry these days, wages and marriage are the two trends I'd look at.

1FWIW, I recommend you give this some real thought before dashing off to Twitter to tell me what a clueless moron I must be.

2The long decline in the labor participation rate is a related issue, but it's much trickier to figure out exactly what's going on with this. The participation rate for men has been declining steadily since 1950, so obviously it's not caused by something that just started in the past couple of decades. About half of the decline is due to retirements. And there's some evidence that the declining rate for women is mostly caused by giving up second jobs that never provided much net income in the first place. So...call this half a trend if you want, and then you've got two and a half trends to think about.

Three Little Questions

The First: How long before l'affaire Curiel dies down and Republicans go back to being outraged at any suggestion that Donald Trump is a racist?

The Second: Many of us have been on the receiving end of overwhelming Twitter mobs—most of them angry and semi-literate, some genuinely violent. But have any of you ever experienced the opposite? That is, hundreds and hundred of tweets overwhelming your Twitter feed to tell you how great you are and how your latest piece was a work of genius? Let's be clear: I'm talking about a universe in which you are not Beyoncé, and yet you receive a tidal wave of tweets from total strangers coming at you so fast and furious that you can barely keep up with them.

The Third: A week ago Hillary gave a speech demolishing Donald Trump's vague gestures toward a foreign policy. A couple of days later Trump told Jake Tapper that he planned a "little retort." We were supposed to get it on Monday, but it never happened. Do you think he's going to follow through eventually, or should I just throw this onto my ever-lengthening list of things Trump promises but never delivers?

Friday Bird Blogging

I'm not quite reduced to posting pictures of seagulls yet, but I'm getting there if those baby geese don't show up soon. In the meantime, here's a snowy egret. We don't often see them in our local pond, though they're hardly uncommon around here. There are lots of them in a nearby marsh, and at least a few who hang out in a nearby flood control channel. But we get them every once in a while. They're lovely critters, aren't they?

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 June 2016

Marian bought a new pod a few days ago. Apparently it's supposed to look like a rock, but I'd say it looks more like Jetsons-retro. All it needs is an antenna to complete the look. It's now upstairs in the sewing room, where both cats compete for it off and on.

In other news, Palmerston the Foreign Office cat is learning Japanese.

I commented briefly yesterday on the CBO's latest report about the distribution of household income, but I didn't get a chance to show you the main event: Income growth since the Reagan era. Here it is:

The nice thing about the CBO income estimates is that they're pretty comprehensive. This one, for example, shows market income, which consists of labor income (including cash wages, health insurance, and the employer’s share of Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment insurance payroll taxes), business income, capital income (including capital gains), and retirement income. Other CBO income measures include government transfers, so you can get a good sense of how incomes are affected by social welfare programs.

As you can see, the market incomes of the rich bounce up and down a fair amount because they rely on volatile income sources like stocks and other investments. 2013 was not a good year for them—though we already know that they made up some of this ground in 2014 and 2015.

But for the unrich—which is, roughly speaking, everyone making less than $100,000 per year—nothing ever changes. During a period when real GDP per capita increased 77 percent, the income of the unrich has increased only 18 percent. That's about half a percent per year, and all of it came from a single decade: 1993-2003. The rest of the time there's been literally zero growth in the income of the unrich.

Economic anxiety may not be the real motivation for angry voters in this election, but it sure ought to be.

A new Pew report says that Hispanics are pretty optimistic about the future. Ben Casselman comments:

Hispanics’ optimism seems to fly in the face of one of the dominant narratives of this year’s presidential campaign: voters’ economic anxiety. Despite an economy that has, by most conventional measures, improved by leaps and bounds since President Obama took office, Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, Bernie Sanders have successfully tapped into a deep well of anger and fear about the country’s economic direction. But that anger is concentrated among whites; many minority voters, as the Pew survey shows, are far more optimistic.

A few months back, I argued that voters’ anger stems more from longer-run anxiety than from concern over their immediate economic prospects....Gallup in recent months has shown a divergence between Americans’ relatively positive assessment of their current economic conditions and their increasingly pessimistic outlook.

But for many non-whites, the pattern is the opposite: They are concerned about the present but optimistic about the future....40 percent said their finances were in good shape, compared with 43 percent for the public at large — but they see brighter days ahead. More than 70 percent expect their children to be better off than they are.

If you insist on continuing to look at this year's election through an economic lens, you'll never figure out what's going on. Overall, middle-class incomes have been pretty stagnant over the past couple of decades: up during the dotcom boom, down during the Great Recession, and ending up pretty close to where they were in 1994. That's obviously a source of frustration. But it's not as if this only affected whites while blacks and Hispanics have been kicking ass:

"Economic anxiety" as a campaign issue has always been a red herring. And even if you back off a bit and try to limit it solely to the notion that whites are losing ground to minorities, the evidence still doesn't back you up. You can cherry pick here and there if you want to make that case, but it's tough sledding. Basically, everyone's been in the same boat, and blacks and Hispanics haven't really made up any ground versus whites.

So white anger isn't really about blacks and Hispanics taking their jobs. Or about blacks and Hispanics making more money and leaving whites behind. Nor do whites have any special economic reason to be more pessimistic about the future than blacks and Hispanics.

If you want to get to the root of this white anxiety, you have to go to its roots. It's cultural, not economic. It's demographics, not paychecks. It's about not being the boss anymore. It's about lower-class white communities now exhibiting pathologies—drug abuse, low marriage rates, etc.—that were once reasons for them to look down on blacks.

Really, we just need to give up on the whole "economic anxiety" argument. When something only affects whites and lacks any real economic motivation, race is a whole lot more likely to explain things than jobs. Let's not keep looking around the economic lamppost just because the light is better there.

Karin Lang, a State Department official responsible for records management, testified yesterday about Hillary Clinton's email practices:

Lang, a career employee who in July 2015 became director of the Executive Secretariat staff, which is responsible for records management, said that while a unit responsible for FOIA requests was told that Clinton had no government email account when she took office in January 2009, no one in the unit ever asked whether she used a personal account to conduct business before she stepped down in 2013.

"Prior to Secretary Kerry, no secretary of state used a State.gov email address," said Lang, supporting an explanation given by aides to the presumptive Democratic nominee for president that her email setup while at State was not unusual.

…Lang said that the FOIA office did not begin to search for records in response to Judicial Watch's 2013 request for information concerning Abedin's employment until after the group sued, and that at the unit chief's direction, the FOIA office searched only human-resources records, not emails.

Apparently the head of State's FOIA unit "grew curious" about Hillary's email arrangement when that famous picture of her using a BlackBerry first appeared. It just goes to show that fame has both its ups and downs.

But now a question. This is probably going to expose an embarrassing lack of knowledge, but I finally have to ask. After Vice News1 filed its lawsuit against Hillary, a judge eventually ordered State to release every single email she had sent and received as secretary of state. Another judge recently ordered a similar broad release in a different case brought by the Republican National Committee.

What's the deal with this? Has any cabinet officer ever been ordered to release the entirety of his or her correspondence—either hard copy or digital—before? Is a broad FOIA request all that's required? Or does this kind of thing only happen to Hillary Clinton?

1Or Judicial Watch? Or someone else? I can't keep all 35 suits demanding the release of Hillary's emails straight.