Joe Biden is Obama's secret weapon

Mitt Romney has a credibility problem.

Shepard Smith, the Fox news anchor, was talking about Mitt Romney's "friendship" with Newt Gingrich when he said it, but the sentiment could apply categorically.

"Politics is weird. And creepy. And now I know lacks even the loosest attachment to anything like reality."

I laugh every time I watch that video.

There is indeed something weird about Romney's singular focus on the economy when he, as the former head of a private-equity firm that bought and dismantled companies for profit, knows as much about job creation as a butcher knows about animal husbandry.

There's something creepy about a Republican ignoring tried-and-true red-meat issues, like gay marriage or immigration or "religious liberty," with which Republicans are historically good at dividing and suppressing votes.

And there's something truly surreal about Romney's avoidance of the words "George W. Bush." In Florida last week, Romney said that Obama doubled the national debt but didn't mention the part about the stimulus program, the auto bailout and the fact that George W. Bush added $4 trillion to the debt. (In fact, it was Vice President Dick Cheney who said deficits don't matter.) Evidently, Romney is banking on memory loss but just to be sure, he's avoiding Bush's name so as not to remind us where much of that debt actually came from.

Yet there was a moment of clarity last week of the kind that comes from having the scales fall from your eyes to see the truth about America's classless society. The Obama campaign released a video about the time Bain Capital, the Wall Street firm Romney once headed, took ownership of a steel mill in Kansas City. Former workers recalled Bain loading the mill up with debt, filing for bankruptcy, firing employees, closing the mill, shirking pension obligations, and walking away with a smile.

Let me say this. My father is a truck driver. He hauled steel for more than a decade. He was proud, as most white working-class men are, and he saw what happens when rich guys take over a steel mill. They don't care about the important stuff, only money, and even when they have "enough," as my dad would say, they want more until the company is bled to death. The Obama camp was careful to avoid appearing to be anti-private equity (since so many firm directors give to the Democratic Party), just anti-vulture capitalism. But that kind of hairsplitting means little to working-class men like my father. They know the truth when they see it.

Shortly after it released the video, the Obama campaign released "The Biden," as they like to say. That is, Joe Biden, the vice president, who actually comes from working-class stock. Picking Biden as his running mate was brilliant, but we didn't see it as such four years ago. With the economy still humping along, with Romney as the richest man ever to run for the White House, with unlimited sums of money being poured into this election -- all this makes it crystal clear why a cool and rational wonk like Obama needs a pulpit-pounder like Biden.

The campaign "released" Biden on Youngstown, Ohio, an old mill town gone to seed like rest of the Rust Belt that rings around the Great Lakes. In a speech, Biden took on the notion that complaints about inequality and injustice are rooted in envy. "[Romney] doesn't get what's at the core of all this. It's about people's dignity." He went on:

I resent when they talk about families like mine, what I grew up in. I resent the fact that they think we're talking about envy. It's job-envy. It's wealth-envy. That we don't dream. My mother and my father believed that if I wanted to, I could be President of the United States, I could be Vice President. My mother and father believed that if my brother and sister wanted to be a millionaire, they could be a millionaire. My mother and father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams. They don't get us. They don't get who we are.

As Bob Moser, of the American Prospect, said: "This wasn’t Obama’s brand of 'class warfare,' which never actually sounds like a declaration of war. This was righteous fury. The real thing. From the gut."

Biden's right. Romney has a credibility problem. He told college students that a simple solution to the rising cost of tuition is to borrow from your parents. He made a bet with Rick Perry (who didn't accept) for $10,000. He said speaking fees of over $300,000 "wasn't much money." And he said his wife drives not one but two Cadillacs.

There's another reason why Romney "doesn't get what's at the core of all this." As the American economy has shown signs of tepid but incremental improvement, Romney has pivoted to focus on debt. The hope, I suspect, is that talk about the national debt will sound so big and scary, as it did two summers ago, that Romney will seem to be the most sensible choice.

But most people don't understand debt, and they don't want to. They understand their own (which is bad), but not the federal government's (which might be good, it depends). What they do understand is jobs. Their jobs and the jobs of the people they love. I'd bet that in the minds of most Americans, the national deficit is big and scary, and somebody ought to do something about it, but it's not as pressing or immediately felt as losing one's job, health insurance, home -- or sense of dignity.

Perhaps politics does lack even the loosest attachments to reality. That's certainly a luxury Romney and the others of the 1 percent can afford. For the rest us, though, this is the real thing. Life lived from the gut.

Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.


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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.