In college, if you have an unpaid balance on your account, the bursar and registrar offices collaborate to block from you from registering for the next semester, you get dropped from your classes, or you won’t be awarded your degree.
This past year has been very difficult for a lot of people because of the pandemic, including some of my students. Some have been infected with COVID-19, some have lost family members, some have lost a job or two (as I did), and others have suffered in other ways that I can’t even imagine. It stands to reason that some students would have fallen behind in paying their college bills.
As part of the last spring’s CARES relief packages, the federal government dispersed funds for colleges and universities, including providing aid for students who might need support.
While CUNY did offer students some support, including providing them with iPads so they could do remote learning, the university has implemented two austerity measures that hurt students:
Students with balances due were purged from their Spring 2021 classes.
CUNY has raised the minimum number of students needed for a class to run, meaning it has reduced the number of classes available for students to take.
The first action causes all kinds of troubles. One Media Studies professor in shared the story of a student who was dropped from their classes and might have their student visa cancelled, which would put the student at risk for deportation. CUNY is cheap so it’s unlikely that the student owes tens of thousands of dollars.
The second action makes it harder for students to graduate in four years. The university has touted its Finish in Four program that largely depends on students taking classes during winter and spring semesters. At Queens College, the college cancelled all of the Media Studies classes this winter semester classes, setting back many students’ progress for finishing their degrees.
The administration just sent around an email proclaiming that CUNY fights for its students. Given how it has shut out students from registering for classes and cutting the number of classes available for them to take, the words ring hollow.
With age comes a lot of things, most of which are deemed negative by our culture. There comes slower metabolism, a changing hairline, and diminished opportunities to accomplish any meaningful goals. But with age also comes a few gifts, specifically wisdom and perspective.
I won’t pretend that I have acquired much wisdom at this age, but I do think that I tend to make fewer impulsive decisions of consequence at this age than I did when I was younger. But having lived many years, I do feel like I can relate a lot of new things to past experiences. This growing sense of perspective allows me to take things in stride more and not react to everything.
As I write this post on Thursday morning, Vice President Biden needs only six more projected Electoral College votes to clinch the presidency and defeat Trump. A lot of people seem are understandably anxious about the result, but as we’ve been hearing since the summer, there’s going to be a lot of mail-in ballots and it’s going to take time to count them. Officials are calling for patience. We likely won’t have a projected winner until later today or even tomorrow, which is three days after Election Day.
While I am also anxious about getting a result quickly, I am drawing on my memory of the 2000 Election to shepherd me through this time of uncertainty.
The 2000 US Presidential Election was one for the ages. As you know (or at least should know), it was an extraordinarily close race: one decided by the state of Florida, 537 votes, and its 25 electors, who put George W. Bush in the White House. We’ve been living with many of the consequences of that election to this day.
I was in 24 years old at the time, living in Santa Barbara1, and remember that I was applying for graduate school. I remember having a small TV set perched on a table next to my desk, where I was typing up a statement of purpose as part of my application package. Because I lived on the west coast, I was able to catch more of the Election Night drama than most people on the east coast were willing to tolerate. I watched as the networks called Florida for Gore, saw then-Governor Bush dispute that, and then witnessed the network anchors eat their words and claw back Florida as undecided.
Not having a presidential election called by bedtime on Election Day was unusual. I have a fuzzy memory of my dad coming back from voting one year. He was frustrated that the broadcast networks had called the winner of the race when he was in line waiting to vote. The broadcast networks could easily project a winner at the time because those races were not that close.
But that’s not the case in 2000. The uncertainty dragged on for weeks. Part of me felt exhilarated because I was living through a historic moment. I only really became aware of history in the 1990s, and let’s face it, that was a particularly stable, secure, and uneventful decade for Americans on a macro level. But the last couple of months of 2000 were dominated by counting the ballots in Florida.
We all know how things turned out. The counting and recounting in Florida went on. We learned the terms “hanging chads” and “dimpled chads” as ways to divine voter intent. Think about how much history hangs in the balance because some people can’t follow directions. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court stepped in to stop the recount so that Florida could send a slate of electors by the date proscribed in the Constitution.
As they say, you know how the rest of the story turns out…
None of this is to say that history will repeat itself. This appears to be a very different situation. It does not appear as if this race will come down to one state. Also, I’m heartened at the moment to know that Biden has multiple paths to victory—he only needs one of four states to win, three of which are quite likely. Trump, on the other hand, needs all four of them, and that doesn’t appear likely given the projected totals. In 2000, Bush and Gore each had only one path, and it was through Florida.
However, in the back of mind, I do worry that something unprecedented could happen. That is, after all, the precedent of the Trump presidency: it’s all unprecedented because no one has had the poor judgement to do this shit before.
We could see many lengthy court battles, several instances of intransigence among Trump and key members of his cabinet to ignore the results of the election, we could see state legislatures send competing set of electors precipitating a constitutional crisis. And if Biden only has 270 electoral votes secured, could there be a faithless elector or two? Some of these things have happened before, but a lot of is… say it with me… unprecedented.
In the meantime, we all anxiously wait. And for me, my hair will get only more gray as we grind through each day towards December 14 (the date the Electoral College votes) and noon on January 20 (Inauguration Day).
I was living in Goleta, which at the time wasn’t even in its own city. ↩
As I wrote earlier on this site, I’m lucky that I can work from home and still earn a paycheck. Of course, others are not so lucky and will either have to risk their health to work—or forgo a paycheck. This pandemic is turning out to be an economic catastrophe, in addition to being a health crisis.
The nonprofit local news site, The City, published a story about workers who cannot work from home. Most of the workers profiled seemed concerned but determined to carry on, but one of them, Fernando Rosario, a 68-year old plumber from The Bronx, is absolutely ignorant.
Writing for The City, Virgina Breen reports:
He watches the news, but doesn’t pay too close attention to swirling media accounts of the virus. “One thing nobody has been able to tell me: Where did this thing come from?” he said. “Like how did it get made?” He has his own method of dealing with the virus threat: “You drink alcohol — vodka — and it gives you protection. It kills everything.”
When Rosario rhetorically asks “how did [the virus] get made,” he’s clearly referencing the crackpot theory, advanced by the president and his ilk, that the virus was “made in China.”
And, no, vodka will give you protection from anything other than good judgement. But that’s clearly obvious.
First, don’t believe the crazy crackpot theories that the novel coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese lab. It’s nonsense. But by the way Trump mentions “from China” when talking about the virus, it’s clear he’s one of those crackpots. Fuck that guy!
Second, of course, health epidemics and natural disasters—unlike wars and financial crises, for example—are not necessarily caused by humans, but it is up to humans to respond to them. Trump and other autocratic world leaders have failed to appropriately respond to this virus.
I’m over forty years old, and I can only remember two times that I’ve felt scared over diseases. The two times I have been scared over disease was, in the 1980s, during the AIDS epidemic and, now, during the spread of the novel cornonavirus and COVID-19.
The AIDS epidemic was the defining public health crisis of the 1980s. As a child of the 1980s, I was terrified of contracting HIV because it almost certainly meant it would become AIDS. And, in the 1980s, AIDS was basically a death sentence. There was no cure and whatever treatments came along weren’t all that effective. It felt like there was nothing we could do to stop it or to treat it.
Reagan also embodied the then-novel Republican approach to government: starve the beast.
Republicans began dismantling the government by defunding it. Here’s how they did it.
Cut income taxes, especially for the wealthy and corporations.
Use budget deficits as the rationale to cut government spending.
With less money to do their jobs, government agencies would struggle to complete their missions and thus become ineffective.
Repeat the cycle with more tax cuts.
This brings me to 2020. It is becoming clear that Trump’s actions to slash the government spending, including firing the CDC’s pandemic response team in 2018 to cut costs, and to start an ineffective trade war with China has made it impossible for the US to curb the spread of the coronavirus beyond Wuhan, China. John Ferguson, a molecular biologist and an expert in virology, explained that the current crisis was exacerabated by Trump and his cabinet of incompetent apparatchiks (Trump’s unique twist on “Starving the Beast”). Ferguson writes…
If a Democrat were in office – say Hillary, for example, you could be 100% assured that she would be surrounded by competent people. I suspect the virus would have been slowed substantially as compared with our current situation. In fact, if our relationship with China hadn’t been ruined by Trump, it is entirely likely that we would have had CDC personnel on the ground in China helping to contain the virus in China. We certainly would still have a pandemic response team—you know, the one that Trump fired to save a few million.
A generation after the AIDS crisis, the situation with HIV/AIDS is considerably different. Treatments are available, although the for-profit pharmaceutical industry is still gouging the price of life-saving drugs. If you can survive in the Free Market, living with HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence it was in the 1980s. It is essentially a chronic condition, not unlike diabetes. But it took long-delayed government action, by George W. Bush, no less, to finally accomplish that in the 2000s.
In recent years, we’ve had a series of different novel viruses spread. We had SARS, MERS, H1N1, Zika and Ebola. All were severe, and all were contained. As Ferguson further notes:
Do you know why you don’t hear about Zika virus any more? Because it was swiftly handled by a team of competent professionals. There was no panic. It was addressed and then it was largely over. That’s not what’s happening here.
Instead what is happening here is that we have a global pandemic that will likely cause many deaths and ruin the economy for a long time. And let us not speak of the panic. Nothing like this happened with the other recent viral epidemics. But because our federal government was screwed, starved and strangled by decades of Republican rule, culminating in Trump and his band of unfit leaders, all of us are now the ones who are totally screwed.
Tax Day was over a week ago, and, as usual, I filed an extension along with hefty payment for my estimated taxes due.
However, this tax-filing season was different for two reasons. First, there was a lot of concern about the IRS’s preparedness after the most recent government shutdown, where thousands of IRS employees were furloughed for about a month. Second, this was the first filing season where most taxpayers be affected by the changes wrought by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The latter is the so-called “tax-reform law” that was a gift to corporations and the rich and a temporary tax relief to some workers, while growing the federal budget deficit by trillions of dollars.
After preparing my federal return, I found that much of the hype about the complexity of the new tax laws didn’t apply to me. Instead, I was alarmed at the elimination of two key income-tax reductions that I relied on to lower my tax bill.
The Personal Exemption
Under the new tax law, the standard deduction was increased to $12,000—up from $6,350 in 2017. On its face, this is great. It allows taxpayers to shield an additional $5,650 of income from federal income tax. In other words, while in 2017, you didn’t get taxed for the first $6,350 of income you earned, in 2018, you get to take home $12,000 of income, free of federal income tax. (Note that you’re still subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes on all income you earn from work.)
However, one of the changes of the tax law was that it eliminated the personal exemption. In 2017, that amount was $4,050 for individual taxpayers with adjusted gross income less than $261,500, which I presume applies to most workers.
Without the personal exemption, the effect of raising the standard deduction didn’t actually allow workers to shield an additional $5,650 of income from taxes. It only allows them to shield an additional $1,600. That has the effect of lowering your federal income tax bill—at the 10% rate—by only $160 over an entire year. That works out to about $13 a month.
Unreimbursed Business Expenses
Most taxpayers couldn’t take this deduction, but as a part-time college teacher, I did often claim it. I work from home a lot, and I am constantly buying books, supplies, paying for subscriptions, and investing in computer hardware and software to teach and to support that work. This was especially true when teaching online classes. That work seems more suited for a 1099-type gig than a traditional W2-type job because I do a lot of that work on my own schedule—often well in advance of the actual classes—and I do not travel to campus to do that work.
Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the deduction for unreimbursed business expenses was eliminated for most workers. It only allows workers in certain fields—specifically those working in the armed forces, as qualified performing artists, as fee-based government officials—to take these deductions. These carve-outs seem curious. I can understand why we continue to allow a deduction for members of the armed forces. This is a Republican tax bill, and the GOP is party of unthinking jingoism. The same probably goes for private consultants who work for the government, replacing career government employees. But why allow performing artists to continue to take this deduction? Is it because the president was a reality TV star before entering politics and would likely return to that arena afterwards?
Without this deduction, I didn’t have enough in itemized deductions to overcome the $12,000 standard deduction. Thus, I wouldn’t receive any direct tax relief from state and local taxes—which in New York State and in New York City are substantial. Nor would I receive any direct tax relief from charitable contributions.
In effect, this tax bill eliminated incentives for me to: 1. live in a state with high taxes2 2. contribute to charity 3. invest in my job beyond the bare necessities
Tax [and] Cut [for] Jobs Act
In an 1990s episode of the Simpsons, “The Day the Laughter Died,” Bart consults with attorney Lionel Hutz over a legal matter. Bart expresses confusion when the attorney asks for money up-front to take their case. “But your ad says, ‘Works on Contingency. No Money Down.’” Lionel Hutz explains that the ad has some errors. He promptly corrects it read: “Works on Contingency? No, Money Down!”
This so-called Tax Cut and Jobs Act was apparently similarly misnamed. If you have a job, you saw more tax… and more cuts to your ability to reduce your tax.
In order to unify our country and rebuild our civic fabric, we must address this lack of trust in the media that Logan identifies. Trump calls out media bias and is the strongest industry watchdog that conservatives have had in decades. This in part helps explain his sky high approval ratings among Republicans. Even if journalists dislike him, they owe it to the American people to respect and give a fuller picture of his policy approach. They need to quit playing the role of activist and stick to the role of reporter.
I disagree with her premise that reporters owe us a “respectful” and “fuller picture” of Trump’s policy approach. Both Sheffield and Logan imply that a full picture means providing what conservatives call “balanced” coverage. That for every critical story or aspect of a story, a reporter should also include a positive piece as well. That is not what a trained journalist should aspire to do.
Christiane Amanpour says as much in an interview with Preet Bharara on his Stay Tuned with Preet podcast, explaining the difference between truth and neutrality. The latter seems to mean something similar to what to Sheffield and Logan regard as”balanced.”
I don’t think it should be confusing. There’s the truth, and there are facts. And there’s empirical evidence. That’s truth, (and that’s being truthful when you seek and report in those parameters.) Neutrality is often confused by people for objectivity. People sometimes think that our golden rule, which is objectivity, means neutrality. It does not.
Neutrality is when you essentially put two opposing thoughts on the same platform, and give equal weight to two opposing thoughts. Now sometimes you can, but often you cannot. And let’s just take genocide for instance, which is where I learned my craft. There is no moral or factual equivalence between the gross violation of humanitarian law and mass killing of people based on their ethnicity or their religion. There’s no equating the perpetrators with the victims.
As I’ve written before on this site, trained journalists work like trained clinicians. They follow a set of procedures and practices to produce an accurate story—or diagnosis—lest the public suffer harm due to such negligence. They should be able to put aside their individual biases and contexts to do a professional job.
Sheffield and Logan note: there are “many courageous truth telling journalists who want to serve the public, and our hats are off to them as they inform and inspire us.” However, Sheffield dismisses the rest of the press entirely by referring to others as “mainstream journalists.” As we know, “mainstream” is code for the cadre of reporters who, according to Sheffield, conservatives, and right-wingers alike, “do not provide balanced and accurate information regarding [Trump’s] administration.”
Let us remind Sheffield that “balanced” and “accurate” have been co-opted by the right to sully the reputation of the professional, trained journalists who seek out the “truth” and “work in the public interest,” but may publish something critical of the president. Ultimately, that is what reporters owe the public: holding truth to power.
American Apparel was one of the few major imprintable mills that manufactured all of their products in the United States—in California, no less. However, the company was forced into bankruptcy due to bad management and was acquired by the Canadian textile conglomerate Gildan.
Almost immediately, the company began offering American Apparel “worldwide” products that were manufactured at an offshore facility and are available for a lower price than the USA-made. The idea was that you could get an American Apparel–style product at a lower price than a USA-made product.
With the US and China raising tariffs on each other over the last year, I offer one data point about how this is working out. American Apparel announced two broad changes to their pricing, effective December 31, 2018:
all products made in the USA will be more expensive.
selected products manufactured outside of the US will be less expensive.
Let the logic of that sink in…
The full announcement was sent to wholesale customers in an email, but the message—all of it plain text—was sent in an image. (Sidebar: why are people doing that again?) You can see the image of the announcement included in this post.
Last month, Zachary Pincus-Roth, writing for The Washington Post, reported on how The West Wing had become a way for liberals to escape the Trump era. He profiles a couple who, in 2018, produce a podcast about the series that wrapped back in 2006:
The Attrydes, both in their 40s, are apolitical, but still — these days, rewatching a show about idealistic wonks working for a Nobel Prize-winning economist president is “a little slice of heaven,” said Paul, wearing a gray “West Wing Weekly” sweatshirt. “It’s the president we all want but don’t have.”
The funny thing is that I seem to remember when the series launched in the late 1990s that the series was marketed as being about a presidency “we all want,” implying that it wasn’t one we had. And this was during the waning days of the Clinton administration, which admittedly was hardly a paragon of liberalism.
When the Trump presidency began to crystallize last year, I was watching the fifth season of House of Cards. As I was watching the calculating and diabolical machinations of the Underwoods, I often thought about how the Trump presidency made House of Cards look like The West Wing.
What I would give for Frank and Claire Underwood today?!?
I’m about two weeks late in posting about Rob Bliss’s attempt to raise awareness about net neutrality. Bliss rode his bike and set up traffic cones to throttle automobile traffic outside the offices of the Federal Communications Commission. Like the Burger King commercial I posted about last month, the metaphor of the bicyclist causing artificial congestion isn’t the best way to explain what is wrong, even if it makes motorists angry because they can’t go as fast as they want without first paying a toll or running-down the pesky cyclist.
Allow me to offer a better metaphor of what driving would be like without a “net neutrality” for roadways. Say, for example, that Ford built all the roads in your town. Ford allows all Ford cars and trucks to drive on these roads as often as they want at no cost. However, if you own a Toyota and want to drive to the grocery store, either Toyota the automaker or Toyota drivers will have to pay a toll of some type. Perhaps, Ford has a deal with Honda, allowing Honda drivers to also use the Ford roads for no cost. But it comes with certain restrictions: anyone driving an Accord can only drive with two passengers and no cargo. Otherwise, those drivers will have to pay an additional toll or subscribe to an expensive unlimited driving and carriage plan. And what about Tesla? Would those cars ever get to even use these roads? Probably not. So everyone in your town will basically own only a Ford because it’s cheaper and simpler to just do that. And because there’s no competition for Fords in your town, everyone will have same set of crappy Ford cars and trucks, and Ford will have no incentive to ever make anything other than those same crappy cars and trucks.
I should note that Ford has actually been making better cars and trucks than it did over the last half-century, but that’s partly because they don’t enjoy the kind of dominance they once had and because they responded to competition from Asian and European automakers.
As is becoming clear, raising awareness of net neutrality is not as crucial as it was just a few years ago. It’s clearly a hot political topic. What we need to do is to act: to do whatever it takes—through legislation or litigation—to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for communication. The Internet belongs to no one, but in the United States, the final mile belongs to one of a few corporations, usually your cable provider or an incumbent telephone company. We must insure that the infrastructure owners do not get to regulate or dictate what content can be carried over that final mile. Otherwise, we’ll all be driving metaphorical Ford Pintos on the Internet.
As I’ve mentioned before in a series of posts on this site, this is one of several deregulatory measures that this FCC, led by Chairman Pai, to give broadcasters and Internet service providers more power at the expense of consumer protections and the interest of the public.
Repealing the FCC’s net neutrality rules will make it possible for Internet service providers—your “beloved” cable and telephone company—to turn the Internet to something that could look like what we had with AOL in the 1990s: a closed network with curated content with limited access to the open Internet. The latter is what doomed AOL and its 2000 merger with Time Warner.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that AT&T is attempting to acquire Time Warner and its vast library of media properties and content. With net neutrality rules out of the way, a provider like AT&T can realize its vision to dominate the Internet. Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality” predicted as much in his 2010 book The Master Switch. Wu writes:
it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if AT&T and the cable companies exercised broad discretion to speed up the business of some firms and slow down that of others, they would gain the power of life and death over the Internet.
The telecommunications companies can do this because repealing net neutrality rules reclassifies broadband Internet service providers from common carriers to information services. The days of Internet-as-we-know-it might be numbered. At worst, it will be something like AOL in the 1990s. Or it will be something like cable TV and its curated 500-channel universe. Both were information services.
Centralize All Broadcast Activities
But it’s not just the Internet that Chairman Pai’s FCC has given over to the major corporate interests; he’s also cleared the way for broadcast station owners to expand their reach through out the United States.
Back in April, Chairman Pai led the FCC to restore the UHF discount rule, allowing owners of all-UHF stations to reach as much as 78% of all US households. As I wrote earlier, the UHF discount rule was developed in an era when US TV households mostly watched VHF channels 2-13 over UHF channels 14-69. The Obama-era FCC eliminated that discount on the grounds that the rule was deprecated. There is no difference in terms of VHF and UHF stations in today’s multichannel TV environment.
Also today, at the same Commissioners meeting to vote down the net neutrality rules, the FCC voted to review eliminating the 39% TV station ownership cap rule. This rule, designed to keep one station owner from reaching too many people through broadcasting, was already a relaxed version of the FCC’s original seven-station rule. But Chairman Pai apparently wants to allow broadcast station owners to reach even more American households and further reduce the diversity of voices using the public airwaves.
Both the UHF discount and the give Sinclair Broadcasting and the “New Fox” the opportunity to grow the number of broadcast TV stations they can own and expand their reach to US households. Not only could this have some competitive implications, it also forebodes some chilling ideological consequences. It’s not unlike what the Nazi’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1933:
Above all, it is necessary to centralize all radio activities to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones, to introduce the leadership principle, to provide a clear worldview, and to present this worldview in flexible ways.
Both Sinclair’s and Fox’s owners are both staunch conservatives and supporters of Chairman Pat’s boss Donald Trump and their news coverage has consistently supported Trump’s policies.
Take Action on Net Neutrality
Although I realize that the tone of this post is downright dreary, we the public can still take action to restore net neutrality rules. Basically, it comes down to fighting Chairman Pai on two fronts:
We can lobby Congress to pass “net neutrality” legislation. Any action the FCC takes on classifying Internet service providers—as common carriers or information services—can be rendered moot through legislation. It might take until after the 2018 midterm elections to get this done, but legislation is the only way to guarantee an open Internet for the long term.
Take the FCC to court. This is less than ideal because it must protect net neutrality rules within the current legal framework, which is not very specific about net neutrality. Nonetheless, Free Press plans to file a lawsuit against the FCC. I don’t know their legal strategy, but it might be on the grounds that the FCC has unlawfully abdicated its authority over the Internet. A lawsuit would likely lead to an injunction to keep the current net-neutrality rules in place. After that, prevailing in court could keep the Internet open, but as I wrote above, legislation is the best way to do it.