Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Beginning of the End tells the story of two Obama supporters who were nearly assaulted for showing up at a McCain rally in Florida.

"I had a guy tell me he was gonna kill me," reported one of the men.
This has gotten out of hand. The point that Bill Bishop has been making over at The Big Sort, that we are separating ourselves into mutually exclusive groups, is becoming more and more apparent.
"We read apart, live apart, watch apart, blog apart, and drive apart; we are one country that lacks any shared experiences or, it seems, common purpose."
Bill Bishop

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Abraham Lincoln, 1858
Lincoln, however, did not expect the Union to be dissolved - the house wasn't going to fall. He understood that one side or the other would prevail, and that, in effect, a monoculture would come into effect. It took a war, but the culture of slaveholding was extinguished, and the United States became a Free nation.

Will today's Liberals and Conservatives wage war to eliminate their opposition? And if they don't, how will we return to shared experience or a common purpose? A war with outsiders has never, despite what some people have said, brought this about. During the Second World War, European Axis prisoners of was routinely received better treatment than did black soldiers, or Japanese-American citizens, at the hands of the United States. The war against Communism in Veit Nam seemed to do little or nothing to make us into a single society, accepting of all its members. And a woeful lack of trained speakers of Arabic to help wage the War on Terror didn't keep the military from expelling homosexuals with required skills.

I don't claim to have a spectacular imagination, but I don't know what else would work. As the partisan atmosphere becomes more and more toxic (as people simply recirculate their own air more and more), we've moved beyond looking for solutions to simply looking to assign blame. While it is important to understand the conditions that brought us to the point where we are now, the public floggings of the people who nurtured those conditions (while it may be satisfying) does nothing to change those conditions. We are reaching a point where partisan bickering will take us to a point where we beat each other with fiddles while our home burns around us.

Anyone who has ever attempted to get a quarter-dozen people to agree on all the toppings for a pizza understands the impossible task that lies before anyone who would attempt to forge 300,000,000+ people into a single cultural entity. In very real ways, our society is only as harmonious as it is because we stopped engaging with one another around many important issues.

If there is one thing that is a strike against both Senators McCain and Obama, it's that they didn't have the sense to walk away while they still could. I suspect that whichever of them wins, a year from now, they'll wish they hadn't. Senator Obama is likely to get some time to work with things - he's likely to have a Democratic Congress to back him up - in so far as a Congress run by Democrats can do anything in concert. But the Republicans aren't going to be content to wait out their exile in the political wilderness - sabotage will be the order of the day. You could make the point that even the most strident Republican would back a good idea that came from the other side - but once you've become convinced that simply the fact that it originated with the other side makes it a bad idea, monkeywrenching goes from being contrary to a sacred duty.

In the meantime, the house will become further divided against itself. And I expect that this time, it will fall.

In Defense of Consumerism

Can we PLEASE stop whining about the "consumer economy?" I, for one, am okay with the consumer economy because the alternative is either a welfare state in which a large percentage of the population is supported while they do nothing useful, or one in which everyone works in necessities and infrastructure, mainly standing around doing nothing.

One of the hallmarks of a modern society is that if you add up all the people that you need for necessities (food, clothing, housing, that sort of thing), and infrastructure (roads, law enforcement, power, basic communications, et cetera), you get a number smaller than the total number of people in the workforce. If we all only purchased those items that we really needed - becoming a nation of ascetics, as it were, what would everyone else do for a living? Subsistence farming? And are you really sure that if everyone lived like you, that your job would survive?

I don't get up and go to work every morning because I'm enamored of consumer society. If I don't work, I don't have a way of making money to buy food, clothing, shelter and transportation, and I don't have the skills or the resources to supply all of these things myself without help from anyone else. And I likely don't have the skills to be able to trade with people who are good at it, as I'll be out-competed by people who are better farmers, tailors or carpenters than I. My skills lie in other areas. Areas that, frankly, don't directly keep anybody alive or our society viable. If everyone decides to avoid those things, I lose the opportunity to work. And with that, I lose the ability to pay for the things that keep me alive and our society viable. And so I become a either freeloader or a semi-skilled, make-work charity case - neither of which is good for the culture as a whole.

The whole point behind non-essential specialists in a society is that they support themselves doing things that don't need doing. And in doing so, they invent and improve and innovate. There's a reason why technology advances faster now that it did 2000 or even 200 years ago. I don't know that it's worth giving up, in the name of an ascetic's virtue.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

He's Only One Man

Skinheads were plotting to kill Senator Barack Obama. Really? Never saw THAT coming.

But I think that this story focuses a little to much on the Senator. True, Senator Obama is running for president, but he was also intended to be the last stop on a murder spree that would have claimed the lives of more than 80 people, had it gone off. And given that the attackers presumed that the Secret Service would have shot them full of holes when they actually tried to attack the senator, you could make the case that Senator Obama was never really in any danger.

Of course, given the fact that these yahoos were busted before they'd even gotten around to attacking anyone, you could say that no one was in any real danger. But planning mass murder is still pretty serious, even when the planners are only a pair of rednecks out behind the outhouse somewhere. This seems to be lost in the celebrity angle of the whole thing.

Drip, Drip

I understand why Senator McCain has taken aim at Senator Obama's tax plan. I've never really been on board with the idea that tax policy was an appropriate vehicle for the redistribution of wealth myself. (We'll ignore, for the time being, that once upon a time, Senator McCain was. Legislators are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents. This will, at times, result in a certain level of inconsistency.)

But I don't think that I like the direction in which he has taken his criticism. Mainly because, in much the same way as "trickle down" economics during the Ronald Reagan years, it relies on wealthy people to be the final engines of the economy, and in return for that, it seems to favor the greater concentration of wealth, which, in my opinion acts as an active drag on the economy. Because, in the end, wealthy people hoard wealth. That's how they get to be wealthy people. While Senator McCain says that economic and tax policy should encourage people to create wealth, if you then let them keep all of it, the net result is that everyone else is relatively poorer. And in the capitalist system as we currently practice it, it takes money to make money - and so its mainly them that has, that gets. I don't have a problem with the idea that people want to hoard money. Given the chance, I'd make Fafnir or Smaug look generous by comparison. But part of what got into the situation that we're in right now is the increasing concentration of greater and greater wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and the fact that our current financial and legal structures encourage that.

The other thing that bothers me about Senator McCain's current rhetoric is that it makes work seem too much like charity. If we don't let wealthy people keep as much money as they'd like, they'll stop handing out jobs to the rest of us. While I understand that this is pretty much the way things do work these days, why do we want to encourage that? Why give a handful of people the ability to decide whether the rest of us have viable livelihoods?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

If You Read It...

...On the Interwebs, it must be true.

This is, perhaps, the most incredibly moronic thing that I've come across in ages.

"i won't put a mccain sign in my yard or on my car 'cuz i don't wanna get vandalized or even attacked or having their houses shot up like people are in other parts of the country."
This, based on a story about a Republican headquarters manager in Central Florida who had his home "shot up" (apparently by a pellet gun).
"The Republican manager said he is convinced he was targeted because of new McCain signs he added around his home.
'All I can tell you is this, I have a very good relationship with my neighbors,' Coverely said. 'I mow my lawn. The only thing that has changed is I have two McCain signs in my front yard.'"
I guess we can send CSI home - Holmes here has it all figured out.

Not to get too caught up in laughing at this guy, but don't kids in Florida get bored and shoot things with pellet guns just like kids everywhere else do? While it's possible that some disgruntled Democrat did take it upon himself to pester Rog Coverely by shooting pellets through his windows, this seems like the sort of act of petty vandalism that must happen a million times a week in the United States, election season or not. The fact that this guy can't come up with a better reason than "Democrats are becoming more aggressive," doesn't mean that he's right.

And such a minor incident doesn't mean "this election is turning violent."

Rolling the Dice

I encountered my skip-level boss, our General Manager, in the kitchen Friday morning. I had a talk with him about a career certification that I'm pursuing, and the fact that I want sure if I should gamble the money needed for the examination in such uncertain times. And he asked me a very important question.

"What makes you characterize this risk as a gamble?"
He was, of course, dead-on correct. (After all, you don't get to be a General Manager, if you're stupid, or don't understand why, how and when to take risks.) And as I thought about his question, I realized that I saw the examination as a gamble because I understood the cost, and the potential consequences of that cost, but that I didn't understand the benefits. So the risk matrix looked like this:

Cons: The examination is expensive.
  1. If I don't pass the exam, I've spent money on a certification I won't have.
  2. If the certification doesn't increase my overall employability/earning potential, that's money better saved or spent elsewhere.
  3. The certification comes with maintenance requirements, so if it doesn't lead to a raise, it's a net loss.
Pros: Passing the exam means I get letters after my name.
  1. Those letters could improve my overall employability/earning potential - by some percentage between 0 and x where x is an unknown that may itself be 0.
And therein lay the issue. I can see all of the downsides, qualify them, and understand the consequences if they come to pass. The upsides are basically hopeful things, but I have no way of knowing what the actual benefits will be, unless they come to pass, and I don't have a clear picture of what the likelihood is that I'll come out ahead. And I don't know of an unbiased source of that information. So I feel that I'm risking something, with no idea of how that risk pays off in the end.

To a degree, that is the way of things in our society. Information is power, and people who can keep information from others have an advantage. Bankers are constantly looking at whatever information they can get, to minimize their risks. Working under the assumption that "bad people are bad people are bad people," they want to know how many traffic accidents you've had, if you always pay your taxes on time, where you shop and who else is loaning you money. At the same time, the complex financial instruments that bankers were so in love with until a month ago were deliberately designed to be opaque - to make it difficult for people to understand the risks they were taking. Companies work hard to present a good face to the public, and will sue anyone who says otherwise - even if it's true.

And so, I see myself as blind - unable to see the forces that I need to be able to work within and around if I'm going to succeed in life. And so, confronted with choices, but unable to see the results of making them, I do the rational thing. Shrug, and roll the dice.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


If you haven't heard about "Joe the Plumber" by now, you've been living under a rock. He's the McCain campaign's latest weapon in the fight against Senator Barck Obama and the potential of a Democrat in the White House. I understand the point behind the narrative - that taxing the people with high incomes to fund tax decreases for people with lower incomes, to "spread the wealth" as Senator Obama (somewhat unwisely) phrased it, smacks of Socialism, and seems unAmerican.

It's interesting, but Joe Wurzelbacher the Plumber seems to be the perfect spokesperson for this message. If the news reports about him are to be believed, here's a man who has a lien against his home, for failure to pay about $2,000.00 in income taxes from his home state of Ohio. Yet he's supposed to be planning to purchase the business that employs him - one that makes about $250,000.00 in profits every year. Who on Earth is going to sell a quarter-million dollar a year revue stream to a man who doesn't even have the money to pay the state taxes on the income he already has? Given today's capital climate, who would lend him the money? We've got to be talking at least a couple million dollars here. Granted, this is a business, and not a guaranteed income, like the lottery or something - but still, this isn't something that would come cheaply.

And that, for me, raised an interesting point in Senator McCain's take on this. We're being told that we should oppose the rich (the top 5% of income earners, in fact) shouldering a greater portion of the tax burden in part because we want to make that kind of money one day, and wouldn't want to be saddled with the taxes ourselves. But how many of us can realistically aspire to that?

Another One Bites the Dust

Linens N' Things, unable to find a buyer in the current "tight" (that's an understatement) capital market, is closing its remaining 371 stores. This seems to have been a pretty quick decision - signs posted at the stores say that their most recent newspaper flyers won't be honored - the ones that came out today.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blame The Parents

Semaj Booker is back in the news again, having received another slap on the wrist after being caught breaking into an apartment. This child is well on his way to becoming a poster boy for "lock-em-up and throw away the key." I've never been one to believe in sentencing juveniles to life in prison for moderately serious crimes, but "the system" really appears to be bending over backwards to place this child back in the care of his admittedly overwhelmed mother, who clearly simply can't manage the child.

But this isn't to say that she should be jailed herself for her failure. I find the comments on the blog posting that seem to imply that Ms. Booker (or whomever is taking care of him now), should be punished to be not only mean-spirited but also simply odd. Andew and Lea Fastow (of Enron infamy) have children. In fact, they argued that they shouldn't have to serve prison terms at the same time, so that one of them could be home with their kids. No-one seems to be concerned that having fraudsters for parents means that the younger Fastows are likely to grow up to be white-collar criminals - who are capable of doing much more damage to our lives than the petty criminal that Booker is likely to become. And no one brings up their parents as failures, and suggests that they be punished for their children's crimes.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Still Being Stupid About Credit

It was only a matter of time. American Express is now scaling back cardholder credit and even closing accounts based on who they received their home loans from, and what stores they shop in, pointing out that these factors may be indicative of default risk. Not quite "fair enough," but I can see the logic here.

“Our credit experience with customers who have made purchases at establishments where you have recently used your card.”
“Our analysis of the credit risk associated with customers who have residential loans from the creditor(s) indicated in your credit report.”
Reasons American Express gave a cardholder for lowering his credit limit.
But this is the one that kills me. "Spokeswoman [Kim] Forde said American Express would not divulge any of the 'establishments' where a cardholder’s shopping might trigger a review." Meaning that you could go shopping at the wrong places, and suddenly find that your plastic isn't any good.

Why aren't we hearing about a mass exodus of American Express cardholders? Visa, Mastercard and Discover should be lining up to poach disaffected AmEx cardholders, and advertising around this night and day. Unless, of course, they're doing the same thing themselves. Didja read the fine print in your contract? No? Sucker!

But aren't we all?

Still Being Stupid About Sex

Okay, because it's been a while, back to sex offenses, and the moronic ways in which we react to them.

Now, police in Ohio have arrested a 15 year old girl on child pornography charges for using her cell phone to take nude pictures of herself, and send them to other people. And here's the kicker: "Authorities were also considering charges for students who received the photos." From another story in the same vein "The Wayne County District Attorney, Richard Healy, [...] did point out that anybody that received those photos, even if they didn't send them along, could be charged for possession as well."

To quote my buddy Ben: "What the fuck?" Okay, let me get this straight. Some random teenage exhibitionist takes naughty photos of themselves with their cell phone, and sends the picture to someone else. Not only are they now possibly on the hook for "juvenile child pornography charges," but so is anyone who receives the photographs? (Personally, were I a defense attorney in such a case, I would file a motion that charges be filed against anyone in the prosecutor's office who viewed the pictures. After all, they had to actively go looking for the pictures.) Why don't we just make everyone in the country sign up for being a sex offender now, and avoid the rush?

Those Wacky Psychotics

More from the Associated Press' "Odd" category...

Mich. 'Crucible' instructor accused of witchcraft
FERNDALE, Mich. -- A man assigned "The Crucible" in an adult education English class doused his teacher with a nonflammable liquid and threatened to burn her as a witch, police said.
This isn't "odd." It's a wake-up call that someone is going to wind up injured or dead if something isn't done for Mr. Najor. He's already admitted to attempting to kill someone by dousing her with holy water. Okay - so holy water hasn't proved fatal to anyone outside of bad vampire novels. But still - here is a man who is attempting to kill someone because he thinks she's a witch. He's 20 years old - this isn't a phase.

The fact that the teacher wasn't killed, and the bizarre way that Najor went about trying to kill her, make it easy to see why the AP labeled this story as "odd." But I think that such a label downplays they seriousness of what happened. This is a man who really needs some sort of mental health evaluation. Had he abducted her, and burned her alive at the stake, this wouldn't be a candidate for news of the wacky. If we're going to rely on the news media to inform us, perhaps its time that we ask them to drop the fluff, take serious items seriously, and save the "odd" label for things that are truly offbeat.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Damn It Feels Good To Be A Banksta

The webcomic Sinfest has never been particularly political or concerned with current events during its run, although that's changed recently. But this strip, I think, really taps into the way that many people are feeling about the recent bailout. But I suggest you get a look at it quickly - before the cease and desist letters start flowing.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What Next

Now that we've committed hundreds of billions of Dollars to keeping the financial system afloat, when do we start breaking up the massive megafinance firms? Not as a punishment, by any means, but as long as they are perceived as "too big to fail," it creates the risk that we're going end up right back where we started. It doesn't make sense to have so much wealth and power concentrated in one place, when ill-considered decisions (or simply risky plays that don't pay off) can sink the entire economy. Right now there are a small set of companies that need us (the public) much less than we need them, and when they get into trouble, we have to rush to the rescue, but they're able to insulate themselves from things that can sink hundreds of thousands of Americans. Any imbalance in accountability like this is a recipe for trouble.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Just How Stupid Are We?

The premise behind this book by Rick Shenkman is a very simple one - if you're under the impression that American representative democracy is in dismal shape, and want to know why, just look around you, at the people you see and work with every day - and you might want to take a gander in a mirror while you're at it. I'm not sure that I agree with Shenkman's use of the word "stupid," as "willfully ignorant" seems to be a more apt description. But "Just How Willfully Ignorant Are We?" makes for a clunky title, so "stupid" it is.

This is a short read, a little shy of 200 pages (in hardback) including a list of sources - this is a book that you can take down on a lazy weekend day. But Shenkman covers a lot of ground. He deals with the general lack of detailed historical and political knowledge that plagues the American public, pointing out in some cases appallingly basic facts that people claim ignorance of in polls and studies. (About 30% of the population doesn't know what the Holocaust was? Really? Only one in five can correctly tell you the number of seats in the United States Senate? A significant portion don't understand that amending the Constitution is the process by which changes are made? Wow.) Despite the huge amount of data at the fingertips of anyone who has a live web connection, many Americans don't bother to reach out and rake the information in. And, of course, where there is political advantage to had in ignorance, politicians encourage it.

After having made the point that the average American voter is ignorant, Shenkman goes on to explain that the electorate's tendency to believe what they want to believe short-circuits their rationality. Conservatives lionized Ronald Reagan, seemingly having forgotten that he ballooned the federal deficit - and they punished George H. W. Bush when he was forced to raise taxes to try and reign it in. Reagen became a myth, and Shenkman deals next with the American fondness for myths, most especially the myth of "The People," which holds that the average American person on the street is wise, intelligent and savvy about what government should and should not be doing. This in turn, segues into the idea of the people should be in control, even though, as Shenkman points out, the public's attention is fickle and tends to deal with very visceral, here-and-now issues, rather than the big picture.

And part of the problem is Television. Despite everything we understand about television, we seem to have a hard time understanding that we can't take everything we see at face value. Television is very capable of leaving out important context, and just as capable of being misleading, yet the public still tends to be uncritical of what they see on the Boob Tube. (Perhaps the biggest myth that we subscribe to is that we are never the Boob being referred to...) Shenkman, a former television managing editor, is able to provide some interesting insight into why even local newscasts are not as informative as one might otherwise think. As television has seemed to sap the collective IQ, politicians have responded by speaking to us at a lower and lower level. Despite the fact that we generally understand that it requires a college degree to have the skills to be middle-class these days, and many of us are involved in work that requires a certain level of technical understanding and education, the average political speechwriter targets their politico's words to a seventh-grade audience - where once upon a time, politicians wrote their own speeches to the twelfth-grade level. But as politics has come to turn more on emotion - facts are discarded in favor of "higher truths" - it has become less important to be eridute than it is to be emotionally engaging.

Unwilling to deal with the facts, and wrapping ourselves in comforting myths, we have difficulty seriously engaging current events and recent history - Shenkman devotes a chapter to how the public discussion of September 11th, 2001 has gone off the rails. Following that is a long chapter on why the myth of The People goes unchallenged - why it's so very hard to get away with the honest critique of ourselves that is required if things are going to change. Politicians flatter the public and attack their opposition by making appeals to "The People," which becomes an impossibly large and amorphous demographic, encompassing those persons that the listener identifies with, leaving out those they dislike, and managing to be a convenient catch-all that is utterly meaningless. The idea that criticism equals hatred, or at least hostility runs high, and so it becomes completely off-limits to criticize "The People."

Here, I'm going to take a little time out from what is already an overlong posting, and make a point. The problem with works that are critical of people, and require them to change is that most of them are never going to allow themselves to come into contact with it. I snagged Shenkman's book off of a grocery store shelf not because I felt the need to understand myself, but because I was interested in his critique of everyone - which meant that I could neatly avoid much in the way of personal responsibility. Being acutely aware that popular culture shies away from criticism of the public (the movies "Starship Troopers" and "V For Vendetta," for example were both made into affirmations of the audience, even though their source materials - a novel and a comic series/graphic novel respectively were indictments of the audience) I gravitate towards same, somewhat secure in the knowledge that I won't feel beaten up on when I'm done. While there were occasions when I realized that I, too, was lacking, I didn't come away with a newfound understanding that I'm a charter member of the willfully ignorant.

The book winds up with a chapter of advice and guidelines for getting out of the trap that many of us have so carelessly walked into. Being that our stupidity isn't a genetic condition, or a result of things simply being too difficult for any layperson to grasp, we can make ourselves into a people educated and thoughtful enough to be active participants in our democracy.

All in all, a read well spent.

But there are some parts of the book worth taking exception to. Shenkman sometimes indulges in shortcuts that don't help anything. "In 1986," he writes "Only 30 percent knew that Roe vs Wade was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion legal more than a decade earlier." The only problem is abortion was already legal in some states - Roe vs. Wade established a privacy right, within which a woman's choice to have an abortion could not be outlawed by either the Federal or State governments. Yes, I'm nitpicking (I do that a lot), and also simplifying - this is, after all, a book review. But the misconception that the very legality of abortion rests solely on Roe vs. Wade is incorrect, and based on an incorrect understanding of the decision. Stating things properly is wordier - but when you're clucking at people over their ignorance, feeding their misconceptions is sloppy.

And I disagree with his premise that a rational voter is a cynical one, treating any utterance by a candidate that might be suspect as a lie, designed to garner votes. While George H. W. Bush's pledge of "No new taxes" may have been ill-advised when he said it, for the public to not have bitten his head off when he broke it seems to say that one should expect random falsehoods from candidates about their plans, or that we shouldn't expect them to refrain from unworkable promises.