Saturday, February 15, 2014


In a reflection of just how committed Republicans are to lying about that Congressional Budget Office report on how many people might end up leaving their jobs as a result of the Affordable Care Act, CBO Director Doug Elmendorf felt compelled to put out another memo, this one reiterating what was clearly stated in the actual report: As many as 2.5 mln people may choose to leave full-time work when they have the option of getting affordable health insurance somewhere, Joan McCarter noted at

One of the “Frequently Asked Questions” in the memo is “Will 2.5 Million People Lose Their Jobs in 2024 Because of the ACA?”

Elmendorf answers, “No, we would not describe our estimates in that way.

“We wrote in the report: ‘CBO estimates that the ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5% to 2.0% during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor.” The reason for the reduction in the supply of labor is that the provisions of the ACA reduce the incentive to work for certain subsets of the population. ...

“Because the longer-term reduction in work is expected to come almost entirely from a decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply in response to the changes in their incentives, we do not think it is accurate to say that the reduction stems from people ‘losing’ their jobs.”

Dean Baker wrote at (2/12) that the withdrawal of people from the labor market would likely have a positive effect on those who want to work. “At a time where we still have millions of people unemployed or underemployed, the people who retire or cut back hours to be with kids will be opening up jobs for younger workers unable to find work or full-time jobs. Since we have a Congress that is unwilling to take the steps to increase demand in the labor market, the best way we may have of increasing job openings is by reducing supply.

“The reduction in labor supply is also likely to have a positive impact on wages. In fact, the CBO numbers implied that wages would on average increase as a result of the ACA. While it projected hours worked would fall by between 1.5-2 percent, it expects that compensation will only fall by 1%. This implies an increase of 0.5-1 percent in average hourly compensation.”


As many as 17,000 Americans may die as a result of the refusal of 25 states to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid to cover families who live in poverty. Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the City University of New York estimate that between 7,115 and 17,104 deaths will be attributable to the lack of Medicaid expansion in opt-out states.

Medicaid expansion in the opt-out states would result in 712,037 fewer persons screening positive for depression and 240,700 fewer individuals suffering catastrophic medical expenditures. Medicaid expansion in these states would have resulted in 422,553 more diabetics receiving medication for their illness, 195,492 more mammograms among women age 50-64 years and 443,677 more pap smears among women age 21-64.

The study, “Health and Financial Harms of 25 States’ Decision to Opt Out of Medicaid Expansion” by Sam Dickman, David Himmelstein, Danny McCormick, and Steffie Woolhandler, was published on the blog (1/30).

In Texas, the largest state opting out of Medicaid expansion, the researchers found 2 mln people who would otherwise have been insured will remain uninsured due to the opt-out decision. Medicaid expansion in Texas would have resulted in 184,192 fewer depression diagnoses, 62,610 fewer individuals suffering catastrophic medical expenditures, and between 1,840 and 3,035 fewer deaths.


Approximately 5.8 mln of the poorest Americans who would have been eligible for Medicaid had their states expanded the program under the Affordable Care Act will either go uninsured or be forced to find other, more expensive means of health coverage, according to a detailed new county-by-county analysis by the Urban Institute.

Sy Mukherjee notes at (2/11) that 25 states and the District of Columbia have committed to accepting generous federal funds to raise Medicaid eligibility to all Americans earning up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Had every state expanded Medicaid — as the law originally intended — the Urban Institute estimates that 10.3 mln poor and uninsured adults would be newly eligible for the program.

Instead, just 4.4 mln uninsured low-income adults will become eligible in the pro-expansion states, while 5.8 mln will be shut out of Medicaid in the other half of the country — including more than 1 mln in Texas, where a quarter of workers are uninsured. And since the ACA did not expect states to refuse Medicaid expansion, it did not provide insurance subsidies for people earning poverty wages. So 27% of uninsured adults in states refusing Medicaid expansion would have been eligible for coverage had their states accepted it, and nearly 5 mln of these Americans are expected to fall into a coverage gap where they make too little money to qualify for the health law’s private insurance subsidies but too much to qualify for their state’s existing Medicaid program.

Opposition to the Medicaid expansion also disproportionately impacts poor people of color. An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that approximately 60% of uninsured black Americans, 51% of uninsured Hispanics, and 53% of uninsured people of color generally have incomes below the Medicaid expansion threshold. In fact, the White House sent out a fact sheet to reporters (2/11) claiming that more than 95% of eligible uninsured Latinos would qualify for “Obamacare” subsidies or Medicaid coverage if every state agreed to expand Medicaid.

Consequently, existing health disparities among these groups in these states — which already struggle with public health issues such as obesity and diabetes — are expected to get even worse.

States that have expanded Medicaid have seen robust enrollment to date. For instance, West Virginia has already cut its uninsured population by a third thanks to the expansion. A recent study by Avalere Health concluded that between 1.1 and 1.8 mln of Americans who enrolled in Medicaid between October and December of last year became newly eligible under expansion. If the Urban Institute’s and Avalere’s figures are correct, than somewhere between 25% and 41% of the newly eligible working poor have already enrolled in government health plans.

But Medicaid expansion is still on precarious footing in red states. Arkansas Republicans, who struck a historic agreement with Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and the Obama administration to implement an alternative, private plan version of the Medicaid expansion, have reversed course and are now considering nixing the hugely popular program. More than 80,000 low-income Arkansans would be kicked off their health plans if the GOP successfully repeals the so-called “private option.”

One of those residents would be 40-year-old Anita Geiger, a receptionist who works 15 hours a week at a school for disabled children. Geiger had a physical for the first time in five years after enrolling in a private option plan — particularly fortuitous because she found out she suffers from hypertension, which puts her at risk for a stroke, and can now afford medication for her condition. When the New York Times asked her how she feels about the prospect of being kicked off her plan by conservative lawmakers, she tearfully replied, “Have them walk in my shoes. I’m working, I’m going to school, I’m trying to better myself, and this is a help.”

Food Fight Fizzles

The $956 billion farm bill that President Obama signed into law on Feb. 7, after three years of wrangling and brinksmanship between the House and Senate, got mixed reviews from progressive advocates.

It’s a complicated bill, covering nearly 1,000 pages. The farm bill funds everything from school lunches and food stamps to soil conservation and crop insurance. It sets agriculture policy for five years but it allocates spending for 10 years. The biggest spending item is the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps 47 million Americans. Over the next decade the farm bill cuts food assistance by $860 million a year, or about 1% of the total. That will cut benefits for roughly 850,000 families by an average of $90 a month, but it could be counted as a win since House Republican leaders wanted to cut $4 billion a year from food assistance. That would have tossed 3.8 million financially stressed families from the program.

The conference agreement included none of the draconian House provisions and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP, Robert Greenstein of the progressive Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported. The SNAP cut tightens a loophole that allowed 17 states to stretch the benefit formula to boost the assistance above what it would otherwise be, he noted.

The bill continued subsidies for big agribusiness, despite both chambers previously committing to cut those subsidies. It eliminates direct payments amounting to $4.5 billion a year, which were paid to farm owners whether they actually farm or not. But the farm bill also increases crop insurance subsidies by nearly $6 billion; at least the farmer would have to incur a loss before collecting payments.

Among the highlights of the bill, according to Steph Larsen of the Center for Rural Affairs, is “conservation compliance,” which requires farmers receiving crop insurance subsidies to provide a minimum level of conservation, and Sodsaver, which would help preserve grasslands in six states. But the bill also cuts $4 billion from conservation programs.

On rural development, funding for rural programs is dangerously low, but the bill includes funding for two of the center’s high-priority programs — the Value Added Producer Grant program and the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance program.

The bill provides continued funding for training and mentoring for beginning farmers and ranchers, with a new emphasis on veteran farmers.

The bill also allows colleges, universities and state departments of agriculture to grow hemp (the non-intoxicating variety of marijuana) on an experimental basis for industrial uses without being penalized by the federal government.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), former chairman and now a senior member of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said the bill “is a sound, balanced, bipartisan bill. ... This agreement is not perfect and each side had to give a little. For example, I had hoped the bill could do more for conservation, but recognize the limitations of this budget environment. So too did conferees have to negotiate on support for modest food assistance. I take solace in knowing that no one who needs this assistance will be kicked off the program.”

However, the Center for Rural Affairs ended up opposing the final Farm Bill. Traci Bruckner, the center’s senior associate for agriculture and conservation policy, said the conference committee stripped out bipartisan reforms, which passed both House and Senate, and which would have tightened the definition of being “actively engaged” in farming. The current definition allows mega-farms to gain additional payments by defining passive investors as qualified farmers, even though those investors provide no real labor or management on the farm, she said.

The Environmental Working Group credited Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) with pushing some of the positive features, including new conservation requirements for farm businesses that collect crop insurance subsidies and more funding for local and organic farmers. “But those important provisions are outweighed by new, expanded and largely unlimited subsidies that do too much to help the largest and most successful farm operations at the expense of family farmers and the environment,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president of government affairs.

Still, many progressive producers were just relieved to get the bill through Congress. “The president’s signature brings closure to a long process of negotiations, sacrifice and compromise,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said. “The result is a solid piece of legislation that provides an adequate safety net in times of need, aids the hungry, protects the environment, creates jobs, keeps Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) intact and helps bolster rural economies.

“I am pleased that we now have certainty for our family farmers, ranchers, fishermen and hungry Americans. NFU will continue to work with the administration and policymakers on the implementation of this bill so that the US agriculture industry can continue to provide feed, fiber and fuel for our country and the world.”

The National Family Farm Coalition counted as wins the retention of the COOL laws and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards protections; $4 billion allotted for livestock disaster funds; crop insurance payments linked to conservation compliance; and renewed funding for local and regional food systems.

NFFC Board President Ben Burkett said, “At least family farmers and ranchers are not wondering about the status of key programs, but many of the policies will continue to benefit corporate, export‐driven agriculture. 2014 is designated as the International Year of the Family Farmer, and we must keep in mind who real family farmers are and what they really need.”

Progressives doubtless would have gotten a much better farm bill if Stabenow and Harkin had been negotiating with Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, and if Nancy Pelosi had been calling the shots on the House podium. But since the left neglected to turn out enough voters to maintain the Democratic majority in 2010 and again in 2012, Stabenow and Harkin ended up haggling with House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Vice Chairman Bob Goodman (R-Va.) and they had to answer to a sizable House caucus in favor of doing away with food stamps altogether. Elections do matter.

Pete Seeger, R.I.P.

Pete Seeger, a great American troubadour and a hero in the struggle for civil rights during a dark period in our nation’s history, died Jan. 27 at a hospital in New York City. He was 94. The only time he wouldn’t “sing” was when Un-American House members in 1955 tried to force him to talk about his association with the Communist Party in the 1930s (actually, he offered to sing rather than testify). He was prosecuted for exercising his First Amendment right to keep his mouth shut about his participation in legal political activities. He was indicted in 1957 on 10 charges of contempt of Congress. He beat the rap in 1961 when an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty, but the blacklist kept him off network TV until 1968, when the Smothers Brothers put him on their variety show. In the meantime, he spread folk music everywhere he could, from schools to labor unions and civil rights rallies in the United States and around the world and wherever he went he urged everyone to sing out!

We’re proud that Pete was a subscriber to TPP and he bought a subscription for the New Orleans Public Library in 2006 as it was rebuilding its collection after Hurricane Katrina. (He let the subscriptions lapse — pay attention to those renewal cards and letters! — but we’ll reinstate the library subscription in his honor.) So long, Pete, it’s been good to know ya. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2014
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Selections from the March 1, 2014 issue

Friday, February 14, 2014

Conservatives play Limbo Rock with proposals to lower minimum wage

By Marc Jampole

You can almost hear Chubby Checker intoning “How low can you go?” in the lowest register he could hit.

What made me think of Chubby’s hit, “Limbo Rock” is the limbo dancing that conservatives are doing with the minimum wage. It seems as if right-wingers are falling over themselves in advocating for a new minimum wage—that’s lower than the current paltry $7.25 an hour.  They want to reduce the incomes of our poorest workers as if the hourly wage were a Limbo bar and the object of the game was to lower it as much as possible.

In all cases, the right-wing Limbo-ists (or perhaps I should call them Limbaugh-ists) fervently declare that the lower minimum wage will benefit workers because it will enable businesses to hire more employees. The assumption—which common sense tells us is completely false—is that an employer will hire people they don’t need just because they can get them cheaply and that when wages rise, employers will fire workers whom they still need to operate their business. 

How low can you go?

How about $5.00 an hour, which is what retired public relations executive Robert G. Stayton thinks the minimum wage should be. His expertise, which he touts in an article titled “A Minimum Wage that Can Work” in the Wall Street Journal, is as a volunteer interviewer of the poor at a religious charitable organization in southwest Florida. Strayton pulls the $5 an hour number out of the air, just as he pulls out $3 as the future price of the McDonald’s $1 menu if the nation adopted the modest $10.10 an hour minimum wage that President Obama has imposed on government contractors for future contracts. Strayton’s math is shoddy: wages are one part of McDonald’s costs, which also include rent, utilities, raw materials and marketing. By increasing this one factor by 40% ($7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour), he thinks the final cost will triple. I hope Strayton gets help with his taxes. If labor accounted for 75% of the cost of a $1 item (it doesn’t) and McDonald’s raised salaries 40%, then to maintain the same profit (not profit margin) would require Mickey D to sell the items for $1.30.   

Strayton provides no basis for his economic argument except a tired old theory that was disproven years ago. He does give an ethical basis for lowering the minimum wage, which is as insultingly condescending to the poor as it is self-serving for employers: You'd think no one can value making $5 an hour. But for those in poverty, a primal need is immediate and reliable access to an income of one’s own. When one has nothing, anything becomes priceless. Watch the expression on the face of a poor person when you provide him or her with $2, $3 or $5 to put gas in a neighbor's borrowed car so he can bring free groceries, clothing, linens, housewares or furnishings from our organization back home. You'll see then the value of such a ‘trivial’ wage.”  That smile of a grateful poor person must make Strayton feel warm and fuzzy inside as he pours French Bordeaux into Baccarat glasses while enjoying the sunset from the deck of his yacht.

How low can you go?

How about $4 an hour, which is what Michael R. Strain is proposing in an article titled “A $4 Minimum Wage Can Get People Back to Work” published by Bloomberg News.”  Strain, a researcher at the notoriously anti-labor American Enterprise Institute, begins by bemoaning how little is being done by “our leaders in Washington” to address long-term unemployment in the United States, what he calls “the most immediate social and economic challenge facing the U.S. today.” 

Strain strains to show how much he cares about the unemployed. “Society owes these workers better -- creative public policies to help increase their chance of staying in the labor force. They want to work; they want to earn their own successes, to help the economy grow, and to support themselves and their families. But they can’t, in large part because they happen to be alive and working during a once-in-a-generation economic downturn.”

His answer is to reduce the risk to employers of spending $7.25 an hour for someone who has been out of a job for months or years, thus making employers more likely to hire the long-term unemployed. Strain couples this lower minimum wage with expanded earned-income tax credit or wage subsidies—federal transfer programs that supplement a worker’s wages with tax dollars.

In other words, Strain wants the government to subsidize businesses by allowing them to pay their workers even less than they do now. Strain is certain that employers will increase hiring, but why would they? If a company didn’t need the additional workers before, why would they need them now? What is more likely is that wages will go down and more employees of Wal-Mart, MacDonald’s and other low-wage companies will receive government assistance.  Right now 52% of fast food workers are using Medicaid, food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit programs. Do what Strain wants and that number will increase.

Strain calls it public policy, but I call it welfare for the wealthy, the only kind of economic stimulus program that conservatives like.

Shoddy math, false assumptions and a smug, self-serving moral tone always characterize these arguments against the minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits and food stamps.  All of it so they can steal more money from the poor. It’s pretty low, if you ask me. And just when you think that a right-winger has debased logic, reasoning and common sense as much as possible, another one emerges to lower the bar even more.

How low can they go? 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mattel buys cover of Sports Illustrated in campaign to congratulate itself for the image of women it sells

By Marc Jampole

Sports Illustrated and Mattel have entered into a relationship based on the exchange of money and sex. For those who haven’t figured it out yet, the whore is Sports Illustrated.

The transaction is what in advertising is called a “pay-for-play.” Mattel has bought four pages of advertising in the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and Sports Illustrated has inserted Mattel into the editorial content by putting Mattel’s popular Barbie doll on the cover of the issue, dressed in an updated version of the original swimsuit Barbie wore when the doll first hit toy stores in 1959.

News reports call the relationship between Mattel and Sports Illustrated a partnership, but it’s a partnership only in the sense that every commercial transaction is a partnership between buyer and seller. The buyer in this case is Mattel. The seller is Sports Illustrated, which has sold not only its cover, but also its journalistic ethics—if I can apply such a term to a parade of partially naked young women—for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver.  It makes me want to investigate the backgrounds of the live swimsuit models to see if perhaps one has rich parents who gave her a graduation present by buying into the issue.

Feminists have long campaigned against both Barbie and the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The short form of the argument made by many feminists (and I include myself in this group) finds that both objectify women into nothing more than bodies for display while creating an image of feminine beauty difficult if not impossible to attain for most women.

In Sports Illustrated, the objectification is explicit: no matter how accomplished the models are, they are on the cover or in the issue for one reason only—because they conform to the editors’ image of beauty. 

Barbie dolls do their damage in a much more subtle way by presenting a woman in many guises—girlfriend, beach beauty, princess, model and stewardess to be sure, but also businessperson, teacher and scientist—yet always in a physical form that is virtually impossible to attain. There is nothing inherently wrong with a girl (or boy) having a doll that it dresses and takes to imaginary beaches or tea parties. The various incarnations of Barbies may skew towards the sexist, but they include the possibility of non-sexist female roles. The problem is that the doll represents and is sold as an ideal female form that is in fact impossible to attain because of the unnatural proportions of Barbie’s dimensions.

The other concern parents should have with Barbie is that this little doll with the enormous bosom—like all branded series of toys—trains children to become mindless consumers: to go for brands and brand extensions; to collect variations of manufactured sameness; to consider objects in everyday life as manifestations of fashion; to discard last year’s fashions; to express relationships through buying and consuming things. Barbie is all about buying stuff. A girl may not be able to achieve Barbie’s top-heavy figure, but she can buy the clothes, jewelries and other artifacts of the glamorous Barbie lifestyle.

By buying the cover of Sports Illustrated, Mattel’s strategy is an old one that usually fails: conduct a PR campaign about an advertising campaign.  Mattel bought the ads and cover in Sports Illustrated solely to talk about it to the news media and public. Here’s why I know it: there is hardly any market among readers of Sports Illustrated for Barbie dolls. Men mostly read it, not children, and certainly not girls of the age of maximum Barbie interest. Moreover, for both men and women readers, they are reading the magazine in a “sports” mindset; they’re not thinking about what to get their children for their birthday as they might in a TV ad during a House rerun.  All toy companies including Mattel tend to place virtually all their ads in media children use. In a sense, Mattel created a special event that nobody attends but all the news media covers.

Through the years, I have heard several hare-brained ad guys tell me they think a new advertising or marketing campaign is newsworthy and that it will get a lot of coverage in the mass media.  They are almost always wrong, but in this case, Mattel figured right, because it shaped the ad campaign for the sole purpose of getting publicity. Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated is the kind of bizarre pop culture story that few in the mass media can resist.  Once the PR campaign is established, the subsequent ads—all in the right places—should prove to be more effective because people will be familiar with the news story.

Symbolically Barbie as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model takes objectification of women to a new level.  It’s not a young woman corresponding to the current ideal of feminine form promulgated by the fashion industry on the cover. It’s a plastic doll version of a woman.

For women, the message is that you can never reach this ideal. Losing weight, changing your hair and cosmetics, getting a little plastic surgery and wearing the right clothes could get you close to a human swimsuit model, but no one can attain Barbie’s dimensions and still be able to stand without tipping over.

For men, however, the message is just as pernicious: The swimsuit model defines what men should be pursuing, not only in looks, but in dress, demeanor and aspirations. The subtle message with Barbie is that you can not only have what the mass media tells you is a beautiful woman, but you can control her, too, just like humans control Barbies during play. The swimsuit model is at least a human being. Barbie is around for play purposes only.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

More proof that adults are maintaining habits of childhood: adult fans of My Little Pony & Lego

By Marc Jampole

For 30 years, children, primarily girls before their teen years, have played with plastic dolls called My Little Pony. The first My Little Pony hit the toy stores in 1983 as a single doll. Now manufacturer Hasbro sells dozens of models, each with its own name and distinct look; plus My Little Pony doll houses, board games, video games, movies, a TV series, live shows, apps, coloring books, stickers, ear buds, jewelry, calendars, party supplies, clothing, blankets, trading cards, sippy cups, toy cars and a series of female dolls called Equestria Girls. The movies and other narratives involving the little plastic equines take place in Dream Valley, an imaginary land of ghosts, witches and fairies. In these stories love and friendship conquer all and the good always win.

Every detail of every My Little Pony branded product is artfully designed to appeal to the traditional image of girls aged 4-11: the subject matter, the colors, the story lines in the narratives and every other element plays to the frilly and gentle conformist image of the traditional middle class American elementary school-aged girl.  Like Disney princesses, My Little Pony gives girls outlets for expressing and exploring the sexist values of traditional society while enforcing those values. More importantly, My Little Pony (and Disney Princesses) train young girls how to be brand-loyal consumers—they can practice their good consumer skills by collecting the myriad of My Little Pony products on sale once hooked on the brand. 

What a bizarre variation on the theme of adult infantilization is the growing number of adult men who collect My Little Pony products. These men are called Bronies and evidently there are enough of them to form fan clubs and to mob Brony conventions in Baltimore and California last year. The Baltimore convention was called BronyCon and attracted thousands of adult males dedicated to the conventionally sentimental plastic horse culture. A news report quoted one avid fan as saying “It’s fun and it’s sweet, and it’s a strong moral thing.”

Yes, My Little Pony presents a sweet moral universe, but it’s an uncomplicated one in which there are only good guys and bad guys and strict rules of conduct that leave no room for the ambiguity that haunts the adult world and propels adult entertainment. The morality is what we want little girls to believe before they grow up into young women. That adult men feel free to cross traditional gender boundaries and enjoy entertainment once thought of as only for females is a good thing. But unfortunately, we’re not talking about reading Doris Lessing or doing needlepoint.  We’re talking about a series of branded products focused entirely on the mentality and emotional level of girls before puberty.

It’s another example of adults who haven’t grown up, what I have been calling the infantilization of American adults.

And here’s one more example of adult infantilization in the news: AFOLs, or adult followers of Legos.   Inputting “AFOL” into my Google Search engine yields 1.6 million results; “Adult followers of Lego” (without quotation marks) yields 106 million!  These references send us to articles about AFOLs, AFOL fan clubs and chat rooms and even documentaries about the AFOL phenomenon. AFOLs certainly must have contributed to the amazing first week success of the Lego movie.

Unlike My Little Pony, which I believe is a tool to indoctrinate young girls into being quiet and happy participants in the Great American Consumption machine, Lego is a great toy. It gives children the opportunity to build things and to follow printed directions, but also the opportunity to explore the processes of putting things together to create their own constructions. I have fond memories of my son loving Legos as a child; he was able to build the most sophisticated and expensive Lego sets so quickly that I figured out that this first use of the sets cost me about $60 an hour. Luckily, he also liked to build his own buildings, ships and cities using the tens of thousands of little Lego pieces we accumulated over the five or six years he played with Legos, so I feel we got good value out of the toys.  

That was then and this is now—and in his case, now means conducting original research in the science of earth-quaking buildings en route to a PhD from Stanford. It’s obvious that his time with Legos helped him develop the intellectual skills he employs every day. I would, however, be concerned if he were still playing with Legos, went to Lego conventions or wanted to see the Lego movie.

Lego helped my son and many other boys and girls develop both intellectually and emotionally. It was the perfect toy for a pre-teen’s mentality and intellectual level. But it was and is a toy.  It frightens me to think that so many adults without children of their own are still fascinated by Legos.

Like the Brony, the AFOL reflects the infantilization of American adults. By keeping their old entertainment habits, infantilized adults remain in the intellectual and emotional world of the child.  It’s a trend that must warm the hearts of retailers, especially those of branded products. Whether it’s reading comic books, playing shoot-‘em-up video games, visiting Disney theme parks or playing with Legos or My Little Ponies, the infantilized adult is operating on the level of a child, and it’s far easier to manipulate a child into buying or doing something than to do so to an adult.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Joe Queenan’s narcissistic verbal selfie symbolizes what’s wrong with contemporary feature writing

By Marc Jampole

How soon would you get bored if every other song on the radio station included the exact same guitar riff, usually at the beginning of the tune? Not long I imagine. Nothing to fear: music producers and musicians would figure it out pretty quickly and come up with new riffs and other ways to make their songs interesting. Too bad that contemporary writers of features for newspapers, magazines and Internet media haven’t figure out yet that if you use the same verbal trick in every article, you’re going to end up with something bland and boring.

The trick is using an anecdote from the writer’s own life to begin or advance the text. Writer after writer persists on injecting an anecdote about themselves into articles. Are these writers so uncreative that they can’t figure out another way to start or move a piece along? I’ve said for years that it’s easy to write about oneself, but the professional writer can also write about other people and other things.  Far too many prose writers today feel compelled—no, obsessed—with throwing a verbal selfie into the article.   

Here are some recent examples:

If you think I’m creating a storm from a few raindrops, consider that of the 20 non-editorials in the New York Times “Week in Review” section of February 9, 2014, nine included anecdotes from the lives of the writers.  One writer remembers his experiences skiing as a child in article about the scarcity of snow in traditional winter resorts because of global warming. Another writer remembers an ugly incident from her childhood in a discussion of the purported lack of multiracial characters on TV. A writer who’s a nurse mentions her own experience in an article about poor communication between physicians and their patients.  And on and on… Some of these “verbal selfies” are appropriate to the article, but many just slow things down or serve in place of what could have been a more apt or illuminating example.

There are many rhetorical devices that writers can employ to make their case or tell their story. Why do so many stick to this one tired trope? Some thoughts:
·         The writers are lazy or so overwhelmed with work that they look into their own often paltry experience instead of taking the time to do actual research and reporting.
·         College journalism professors have stressed this one technique of writing a feature article to the detriment of all others, and mediocre writers are unable to discover other techniques on their own (Hint: read Dante, Dickenson, Shui Hu Zhuan and other great writers).
·         The prevalence of injecting the self into reporting has increased in tandem with the growing selfishness of all of society and with the growing prevalence of adults continuing to enjoy childhood pleasures well into adulthood. The narcissism at the heart of the verbal or the photographic selfie also can explain the politics of selfishness and the desire of grown people to visit Disney theme parks and read Harry Potter fiction.

At least in all the articles I have referenced so far, the selfie that each writer throws into his or her piece advances the topic of the article.  But in Joe Queenan’s stunning display of narcissism in a Wall Street Journal article titled, “A Word to the Wise,” the selfie constitutes the entire article.

In “A Word of Advice…on Advice,” Queenan proposes that Americans love to get advice—from books, from newspaper columns, from the Internet, from experts, from other people—but that the advice often doesn’t help.  Queenan starts with three anecdotes of advice he did not take, followed by a glib anecdote of the last time he remembers taking advice: when he was hitchhiking at night and a trucker told him not to accept hitchhiking rides from truckers at night. Finally we get to an expert—the only expert he quotes in the article. The expert says that most people don’t take advice because they feel that the person giving it is acting superior or being high-handed. No studies, no reference to years of clinical cases. Just the statement. Of course, Queenan does qualify the expert for us: he’s psychologist who played guitar in a failed rock-and-roll band 43 years ago—with Queenan! I guess if he’s FOJQ (friend of Joe Queenan), he must know his stuff. 

The remainder of the article drones on in the same vein: anecdotes from Queenan’s experience, advice Queenan has given others and glib statements that mostly support the conservative status quo that the Journal loves so much such as “At some level people know that, unless the good word comes from McKinsey or Warren Buffet, most off-the-cuff advice is useless.”  Queenan presents no reality on this issue outside of his own admittedly glib imagination. No studies. No textual analysis. No comparisons. No real world-renown expert. In fact, there is absolutely no content in the article. It’s a 2,329-word verbal selfie of Queenan.

After turning the article into his editor, I wonder if Queenan bought a pie from his local bakery, stuck his thumb through the crust, pulled out a plum and grinned broadly as he snapped a selfie with his smart phone.