4.12.2014

New piece up Salon

Greetings. My piece on how police unions are dominating municipal budgets and crowding out badly needed social spending is finally up at Salon. I think the argument I'm making here has at least some appeal for people of all political stripes, and the feedback has been pretty positive so far. Thanks to anyone who shares it, and if you read the piece and have something to say about it, please join the discussion in comments.

3.31.2014

When cops become economic elites

I have a piece coming out in Salon at some point in the next few days (4/7 update: slight delay at Salon but it should run later this week), and I want to just quickly comment on some local news, as it will add some context to the argument I make in the piece.

Nassau County, comprised of the western half of Long Island, has long been in a state of persistent fiscal catastrophe, despite being one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. Nassau was so terribly mismanaged that, back in 2011, New York State was left no choice but to seize control of the county's finances, via a control board called the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA). This made national headlines.

Some progress has been made but NIFA still projects a $122 million deficit in 2014 and large deficits through 2017. Despite this, a report came out today revealing that twenty Nassau police officials earned more than $400,000 last year. One retiring police lieutenant made $554,000; more than $53,000 of that was in overtime pay alone. Several other cops also raked in more than a half a million. Not bad for a public servant, working for a fiscally ruined county, huh?

The argument I make in the piece is that obscene police salaries at the state and local levels deserve more attention from progressives (from people of all political persuasions, actually). These police salaries don't exist in a vacuum; state and local politics very often involve brutal, zero-sum wars over funding, and when cops are paid so handsomely, it necessarily sucks oxygen out of the budget and leaves less for other agencies. As an example, last week an article was published highlighting how Nassau (led by Republican County Executive Ed Mangano) has cut spending for 53 nonprofit youth organizations that do drug education and treatment. Many of these programs are in line for further cuts or even elimination of all funding. This in the middle of a legitimate heroin crisis that has caused hundreds of deaths on Long Island over the past few years. 

Needless to say, advocates for youth drug education programs have minimal political clout. Police unions, on the other hand, are often very powerful, and local politicians rarely have the courage to stand up to them. Paying cops salaries that place them in the top 1 or 2 percent of the income ladder, and slashing funding for desperately needed social services, is about as unconscionable as anything that can happen at the local level of politics. Until right-thinking people demand their local politicians prioritize social spending over paying cops outrageous salaries, the latter will have very little incentive to stand up to police unions, and will continue to happily turn more and more cops into economic elites. I present a number of other examples from across the country in the Salon piece, both at the state and local levels, and my hope is that people start talking more about this.

3.02.2014

New piece at CounterPunch + a few thoughts on the Oscars

I have a piece up at CounterPunch this weekend on the U.S. Government's selective outrage regarding human rights crises around the world. The U.S. is rightly fuming over the heinous crimes the Sri Lankan regime commited in the course of its assault on the Tamil population in the north. But we remain virtually silent on the brutality of the theocratic dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and the deteriorating outlook for human rights there. I mention some of the more disturbing recent developments in the Kingdom. It's not good. But, they're our beloved allies, so don't hold your breath waiting for any kind of meaningful condemnation from the Leader of the Free World™. Check it out here.

*****

The Oscars! What a great year in film. I've changed my mind a million times about my preferred choices in the major categories. I've also read a lot of Oscars pieces over the past few days and other people's thoughts and analysis have definitely crept into my own thinking (I particularly recommend reading Mark Harris at Grantland). I definitely don't have any particular insight into how the votes will go, and I haven't followed the betting lines that closely, so my predictions are basically worthless (I don't have any real upsets anyway). As always, though, one should keep in mind that the Academy voters are 94% white and 77% male, and that - at least according to most insider accounts - how these people want to be perceived is more important to them than what they actually think about the various films and performances. Anyway, here are just a few thoughts on the major categories.

Best Picture
The only nominee I haven't seen is Philomena. I find this to be an impossible choice. Nebraska was probably the movie I most enjoyed this year but, of course, it doesn't have the juice to win Best Picture. And that's okay. In my view, the Best Picture should have a certain scope and ambition. As much as I love little movies like Nebraska and Her, I don't think they should represent, for posterity, the absolute pinnacle of filmmaking over the course of an entire year. The contenders are 12 Years, American Hustle, and Gravity. I loved all three. It seems almost absurd to compare such dramatically different movies. My own choice would be Gravity. What Cuaron created was a colossal, groundbreaking work of art, like nothing we've ever seen before. It towers above anything else created this year. 12 Years was a brutal, gut-wrenching experience, revolutionary in its own right, but I have to go with Gravity as a singular artistic achievement that deserves to be honored. I do think 12 Years takes it, though. 

Best Director
Cuaron. If you're not going to give him Best Picture then you simply have to give him Director. 

Best Actor
I'm really surprised at Ejiofor's collapse; four months ago he seemed almost a prohibitive favorite, now he's a distant third on the betting sites. Which leaves McConaughey and DiCaprio. Search high and low and you won't find a bigger McConaughey fanboy than me. Other than Joaquin he's my favorite actor. I'm excited for anything he does. The idea of him winning a Best Actor award is incredibly awesome. But after going back and forth I'm throwing in with Leo here, on the grounds that no one else in Hollywood could have given that film anything close to what Leo gave it. Just try to picture someone else, anyone else, as Jordan Belfort. Dude was on screen for almost the entire three hours and it was his charisma and range that made the film. Ironically, the only other guy in Hollywood I could even fathom pulling off that role is... McConaughey. MM was great in Dallas Buyers but I just don't view it as the kind of performance I'll always remember. I find him more mesmerizing as Rust Cohle, to be honest, and even as Mud. But I'm sure MM will take this; he's still a big chalk even though Leo seems to be getting some late steam. And that's alright, alright, alriiight.

Best Actress
I don't have any strong opinions here. My love for Miss Adams is well-documented but, gloriously plunging neckline aside, I don't think her performance is quite in the same league as those of Bullock and Blanchett. And between those two, I have to take Bullock, just because I liked Gravity much more than I liked Blue Jasmine, and, again, on the substitution theory: I don't think anyone else could have pulled that role off quite like Sandra. Blanchett is the overwhelming chalk though so there isn't much drama here.

Supporting Actor
Simply put, I think Fassbender was unbelievable in 12 Years, superior to Leto in Dallas Buyers, and I don't understand why he's not going to win this. No beef with Leto. But read Franco on Fassbender's performance. He sunk his teeth into that role and kind of took over the film. Dude is just a force of nature as an actor. He'll get rewarded some day. Just needs the right role.

Supporting Actress
My choice is Nyong'o and I think Nyong'o edges Lawrence. J-Law was kind of just being J-Law in American Hustle. Russell gave her some great dialogue and let her ham it up. I can't really see an argument for rewarding that instead of Nyongo's powerful, dignified performance, in which she struck just the right emotional tone. I hope she gets this. 

Original Screenplay
Jonze all the way. Russell is a master but he can write these movies in his sleep and American Hustle isn't as good as Silver Linings. The dialogue in Her, particularly between Joaquin and Scarlett, was enthralling and genuinely brilliant. And it confronted some fundamental questions about what it means to be alive in 2014. If this doesn't deserve an Oscar for original screenplay then I don't know what the hell does. The writing was pretty close to flawless.

No real horse in any of the other categories. Enjoy the show. 

1.30.2014

New piece up at Truthout: The New York Times finally calls torture "torture"!

Hi. Over at Truthout today, I do what I do best, which is bash the New York Times. Specifically, I show that how the Grey Lady covers the issue of torture depends almost entirely on which government happens to have committed it. When Enemies do it, it's torture. When the U.S. does it, it's "enhanced interrogation."

It's pretty short. Read it.