Sunday, January 21, 2018

Forward...

Yesterday was, I am told, a day for rallies and marches all across the nation. I didn't go downtown yesterday (that being like most days), and so I saw absolutely no sign of the activism that the news media told me was taking place.

And I wonder if that isn't a flaw in the way we think of activism today. It occurs to me that the way things are really done in the United States is not through activism, but through lobbying. Well-paid operatives present themselves to lawmakers and lay out for them their understanding of the world, as their employers would like to see it. Whether they present carefully-selected information points as facts to claim that what they are after is the best thing for the public at large, whether they offer corrupt quid-pro-quos or whether they simply offer assistance in whatever priorities the lawmaker has, the end result is that laws are passed (or defeated) in ways that largely compost with the interests of major, well-funded, interest groups.

For other things, things that the public finds important, marching in the streets is considered a victory.

It's easy to chalk a lot of this up to the "wealth and power" of the interest groups that hire the lobbyists. But the fact of the matter is for most of these groups (and, to be sure, individuals as well), it was the public that made them wealthy. And it is the collective societal willingness to take the lead from them that makes them powerful. These are not things that were forcibly wrested from society at the point of a gun or by force of law. These are things that society has willingly given, and even when the general understanding is that they are being used against the public good, there seems to be little appetite for reclaiming them.

Instead, people gather in small areas, and march.

This is not to cast aspersions on the marchers. They are doing what they understand that they need to in order to show their numbers and their desire to be heard. But they are never going to be as well listened to as a lobbyist, unless the cause is so obviously in the public's eye that only one outcome will save an elected official from unemployment come the next election cycle.

Participatory government is mostly taken to mean voting. But it has to be more than that. It has to mean a certain amount of interest in, and understanding of, the way things actually work. But that takes work, and it seems that there are only a few people who are ready and willing to put in that work, even if they are able.

It's odd to think that making one's way to a protest site and participating in public demonstration is the easy way out. But maybe that's what it is. And perhaps that explains why it seems so ineffective in the end.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Rip In the Big Tent

I was listening to This American Life, and they were talking about the Democratic Party, post the election of Donald Trump. The basic topic was the big split in the party that had opened up recently. What kind of surprised me was that no-one ever simply came out and said that the Democrats were still caught in re-litigating the Sanders-Clinton primary, with neither side either conceding that some or another circumstance had shown the strength of the other side, nor being willing to actively reach out to the other with an olive branch.

While the Republicans were effectively, if grudgingly, lauded for their decision to all come together around their opposition to President Obama after his election in 2008, it was also recognized that the Democrats couldn't manage to simply be the party of Opposing President Trump. Their voters expected more of them, and you sort of come to the realization that these Democratic voters themselves don't seem to understand that the question of the 2016 Democratic primary, namely, should the party move the Far Left or the Center Left, had never adequately been settled.

And at some point, it's going to have to be settled. Democratic voters are going to have to settle it without attempting to extort one another, and Democratic politicians and leadership are going to have to settle it without taking one or another of the voter blocks for granted. It's going to be a heavy lift.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Think of the Adults

One of the things that I learned fairly quickly when dealing with the adults who meandered in and out of the lives of the children that I worked with is that the value of children, and their entitlement to things like love, protection or even our modern understanding of what childhood should be, are not self-evident concepts, regardless of how ubiquitous they may have been in own lives.

There are a myriad of reasons for this. Sometimes, the only answer that I could come up with was effectively "Whatever happened to crazy?" Mental illness, it turns out, can do a fairly bang-up job of making people into absolutely nightmarish caregivers. Drug addiction also rates up there. Although, I suppose that you could make the point that past a certain degree, they're effectively one in the same.

There are also those people for whom things like love and value just look a lot different than they do to the rest of us. It can be difficult to empathize with such people, but managing to inhabit their shoes for a while can offer some interesting insights into a world that, despite being outwardly the same as the one that everyone else lives in, looks and operates very differently. And when the logic of it can be worked out, it's possible to understand how something that seems so broken, can be an expression of love and caring.

But then there are those people for whom children just aren't valuable or worthwhile in the way that society commonly says that they are. These are the people who are the most difficult to understand, and, accordingly, the most difficult to explain. Dealing with a foster parent who's upset that their foster child isn't a key to extra cash every month, or a birth parent for whom their child's highest use is as leverage over their partner is frustrating and draining for the simple fact that they can seem willfully perverse - deliberately mistreating their children for no other reason than it's the wrong thing to do. Of course, there is a logic behind their actions, and a basis for it that goes far, far, back. Likely to when they were children themselves.

And that's often the worst part about it. The understanding that the dysfunction that the parents display is likely to be passed along to the children, who will one day pass it along to their children. And the cycle will continue. It's a weight that can be difficult to shake, when one deals with it day after day after day, and in my case, I found that it threatened to become a part of me. It seemed to infect a lot of people. One thing that I always noticed when I went to conferences and the like was that if you put a bunch of people in a room and left them to their own devices, it became a matter of when the topic of making people have a license to become parents would come up, rather than if.

And that lack of compassion for the adults in the world is a common legacy of the things that the world often does to children. It's hard to see the heartbreaking things that people do as a result of anything other than sheer meanness, and eventually, the desire to make the world a better place manifests itself as an impulse to control those who don't behave as we would like them to. And in that, it occurred to me, many of use became these funhouse reflections of the very people we were so amped up about; distorted, but still recognizable.Once I understood that, I think that I understood the adults I dealt with better. Because I could then see the same impulses in them that I saw in myself and everyone else around me, simply distorted and made maladaptive.

It was a valuable realization, but in the end, it was not a comforting one, because it didn't chart a path forward to the world that I wanted. But learning to accept the world as it was, rather than as we wanted it to be, was one of the most valuable lessons that we could teach to the children in our care. It was only fitting that we learned it ourselves.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Changes

"For God’s Sake, New York Times," the headline reads, "#MeToo Is Not Going to End Flirting And Fun Sex." It's a point that has been made before in response to the idea that the current focus on sexual harassment and assault (especially given its penchant for after-the-fact realizations of bad behavior) is going to somehow drive every man in the country to completely sublimate any sexuality in the workplace.

But let's say, for a moment, that men nationwide start following the advice of New York employment attorney James Vagnini:

Vagnini says dealing with workplace gender relations need not be complicated:
"My general rule is: If you wouldn't say it to a man, don't say it to a woman. Your best bet is to leave it alone and just say, 'Good morning'."
So what?

Implicit in the debate over whether or not the workplace flirting and sexual flings between coworkers are going to come to a crashing halt is that there's something necessary about them. And although I met one of my girlfriends through a mutual employer (although we weren't in the same workplace), I think that human relationships will survive if the workplace becomes off-limits for looking for a partner.

The mores of sex and partnering change regularly. Trends and fads come and go, and technology introduces us to ways of meeting people that didn't exist a decade previously. This process has survived every social upheaval (major and minor) that humanity has seen fit to throw at it. And it will continue to do so in perpetuity. And so if tomorrow, men become cautious about making a move to the point of paranoia, mores around coupling will adapt to the new reality. Sure, some people will miss out on what may have been a really great relationship for them, but, as the saying goes, there are other fish in the sea.

And it can be said that there may even be utility in exploring what the world might look like in the absence of workplace flirting and fun sex. If we understand that the current atmosphere of sexual misconduct is, at least in part, a reflection of the way we currently understand and go about the search for sexual partners and/or sexual reputation, perhaps there are solutions to be found in looking at the matter differently.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Made In Elsewhere

Offshoring of labor, for all that it aggrieves the people who lose their livelihoods, has enabled business to remain in labor-intensive enterprises while, at the same time, putting downward pressure on costs. And, perhaps more importantly, it has allowed the public to purchase the trappings of affluence at a lower cost than they would otherwise. This isn't to say that it's necessarily a good thing, or that everyone should support the practice, but it is somewhat worthwhile to understand why it happens as often as it does.

This movement of jobs to places where the same work can be done for lower wages is a product of our own desire to buy things cheaply and/or see corporate profitability (and thus, stock prices) continuously rise. In effect, we've been importing poverty in the name of increasing our overall standard of living and corporate balance sheets. This, like the paradox of thrift, is simply another manifestation of the fact that our current economy is set up in such a way that what's best for any given individual can be bad for the group. While many people might not like what is happening, there isn't a broadly-shared idea of what should be happening, and the status quo (as unappealing as it may be) tends to be everyone's second choice.

Part of the problem is the parochial way in which lawmakers tend to see the world. While we might prefer the Congress act for the long-term good of the nation as a whole, the individual states and districts that Senators and Representatives are answerable to are primarily concerned with themselves, and the "National interest over Local interests" constituency isn't yet large enough to be able to elect/defeat candidates for national office on its own. (It is also very divided, as people tend to be more interested in targeting programs that benefit someone else, while seeing those things that benefit them as beneficial for everyone.)

Additionally, large American businesses typically seem to work in what could be described as profit preservation mode, eschewing risky creative ventures in favor of creating circumstances that seek to guarantee a certain level of profitability (including importing poverty). And while a number of people talk a big game about how "small businesses will save the world," policy tends to favor large businesses, which use the clout provided by their size to hold off smaller competitors. (Think about how things might be different if the individual brands that made up General Motors and Chrysler were still independent companies [I'm not an old man, and I remember when there were four big Detroit automakers.], and if banks weren't routinely allowed to buy up their failing competitors.)

This leaves us with a situation in which a number of factors routinely conspire to move work away from the United States, with its relatively high expectations for the standard of living that work, even relatively low-skilled work, should provide, and to nations for which wages that we would consider too low to be workable are a step up the food chain. And as high-speed communications and global supply chains make the world seem ever-smaller, the number of jobs that it will make sense to move elsewhere will increase. (If Africa, as a continent, ever manages to settle things down enough that it's "safe" to move large-scale employment projects there, we're likely to see another round of large-scale offshoring, as companies move to take advantage of the large labor force of poor people that will be made available.)

To a degree, we shouldn't care that other parts of the world are willing to perform low-skilled labor more cheaply than what would be a living wage in the United States. Last I looked we were supposed to have an educational system that was the envy of every other nation on the planet - do we really have a good reason to be squabbling with China over manufacturing jobs that don't even require a high-school education? (Of course, in this respect, it would be helpful to actually consider a high-school education to be, well, education. And for the most part we don't.)


Fighting to save industries that can be sited more cheaply somewhere else is a loser's game, that only works to the degree that a national economy can more or less achieve autarky. We're better off creating new industries, and letting companies arise, live and die in a way that creates technological and labor churn that creates new engines for growth and recurring labor shortages that make it worthwhile for the labor market to stay up on the latest tech. When some poor country somewhere decides that they want to spend their time making t-shirts or ball-bearings, we should be rushing to offload that sort of busy work to them, so that we put the best-educated labor force in the world to work on things that actually require the education that we spent so much on. Of course, this may mean altering our education system. While there seems to be an emphasis on well-rounded citizenship as a goal of education, it seems to me that a certain basic skills set is also a useful component. To be sure, the goal should not be to allow companies to offload their basic training costs onto the public (although that may have to be part of it), but rather to understand what basic skills will be needed in the overall economy by the time students graduate. This is, of course, a taller order than I'm making it out to be - if predicting the future were easy, we'd live in a much different world. But if we're effectively going to mandate that everyone spend a dozen years in school, we may as well do what we can to make that investment pay off for us.

This alone won't solve the problem. It is, after all, a very deep problem. And if we can't manage to create and maintain a constant demand for local labor to supply the good and services we need, we'll simply wind up in the same position down the road. But our current responses to living in a worldwide labor market are dysfunctional. So sticking with them won't do us any good, either.