Saturday, November 29, 2008

Did It Stop the Pain?

This morning, I'm sitting in front of my laptop, near a large window, through which I can see the gray-shrouded Saturday after a Black Friday. And I'm thinking again about the death of one Jdimytai Damour, whom, as you are likely aware by now, was trampled to death. Desperate shoppers literally busted the doors of a Wal-Mart and, in a rashness born of their sheer consumer panic, they trod a man to death under their feet. The recriminations have begun. The police have begun to analyze the security camera footage, searching for guilty shoppers, while those selfsame people likely go about their business, confident either in the incompetence of the authorities to find them or secure in their feeling that so many people (other than themselves, natch) are responsible that none are. And many people that were nowhere near the scene wrap themselves in sanctimony, decrying the savagery of unreasoning cupidity, relying on distance to hide from the decisions that they (and I, too) have made, and for which others have quite probably paid with their lives.

"How could anyone be so desperate for a cheap digital video disc player, a widescreen television set or a substandard - but yet must-have - toy from a sweatshop in some Godforsaken East Asian factory town that they'd fatally overrun an innocent, hardworking, man?" The moralists ask - waiting until they're sure we're watching before they allow themselves to wring their hands piteously.

But, as we all know, intense pain can make one do what one otherwise wouldn't. For those of us who can't attest to this from personal experience, no less an authority than the Bush Administration tells us so. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't have thought that the pain of thinking oneself deprived of affordable consumer goods would have ranked high enough to allow one to justify killing a man, but we all have our breaking points. Just as we all have our own tolerance for pretense. :) (And, yes, I am grateful that yours is high.) And isn't the whole reason for Wal-Mart (and the others, for that matter) to exist to salve the existential suffering that comes from realizing that you cannot claim your dignity or legitimacy unless you can demonstrate that you have enough of the right things?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thoughts, Prayers and Outrage

Wal-Mart, in a statement issued at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., said: “The safety and security of our customers and associates is our top priority. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families at this tragic time.”

Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death - The New York Times.

Thoughts and prayers. What does that mean, really? Especially in this case. Poor Jdimytai Damour, "hired from a temporary staffing agency and assigned to maintenance work," was trampled to death by crazed Wal-Mart shoppers this morning, who literally broke down the doors to get into the store. Apparently this is so traumatic to everyone who currently shops (Even those shoppers who "shouted angrily and kept shopping when store officials said they were closing because of the death"?) and works at Wal-Mart that the company offers up their thoughts and prayers to each of them, and their families - although nothing it seems, specifically for the slain man or his family. I guess they're withholding them until after the settlement - perhaps that will be their opening offer. (Yes, I'm being unapologetically uncharitable - the heady mix of faux-Christmas hype and random morons does that to me.)

But let's say for a moment that Wal-Mart does decide to offer thoughts and prayers specifically for the unfortunate Mr. Damour. What will be the effect? A memorandum from company headquarters asking for a moment of silence to consider the tragic loss of a temporary worker that the vast majority of Wal-Mart employees would never even have met? A request to commend the man's soul to whatever god an employee might follow? (And what about the atheist employees? Are they required to think harder than everyone else, to make up for not praying?) Is there a CCO (Chief Consideration Officer) who runs Wal-Mart's Thoughts and Prayers Management Office who will see to it that Mr. Damour and his family are properly remembered and are the beneficiaries of adequate supplication to the various divinities in which people profess belief? (Or will they find out what the Damours believe and target their efforts appropriately? Does Wal-Mart outsource the task to India? (I suspect that if they do, their service there may be quite busy, even backlogged, given local events.) And how do we know that it's worked? Will Mr. Damour be more at ease in his afterlife? Do they have someone "on the inside," as it were, who reports back on the condition of the departed souls for which this service is offered? Will his family be less bereft for the company's efforts? Is this something that they track in their annual report to shareholders? What do people's performance reviews look like?

Toys 'R' Us is perhaps in the same boat. They "issued a statement expressing outrage" over The Gunfight in the Toys 'R' Corral today. And the end result of this expressed outrage is going to be exactly what? Will the women whose brawling started the fracas be extra stung? Will the insult of corporate ire make the injury of their bloody noses and dead boyfriends/husbands all the more intense? Will their friends, acquaintances and families drift away, unwilling to risk the anger of the world's largest toy-centered retailer? Will other companies be angry too? Will this mean that Amazon will offer to be their new friend?

And what about the future? Can the company maintain this outrage? And what will come of it if they can? Floggings for unruly customers next year? (I'll volunteer for that duty. Pretty please? With sugar on top? I'll do a good job, really. I'll pay you...) A scowling Geoffrey the Giraffe, stalking the aisles and getting in people's faces? When a company becomes hacked off, does anyone really notice? Or care? Is corporate anger really going to make people think twice about packing heat into a toy store? Or starting throwdowns over the last Batter Me Elmo toy on the shelves? Do we expect that the people who fled for their lives from the sudden firefight to be comforted from knowing that Toys 'R' Us is mad as Hell, and isn't going to take it anymore? Or that it will make the experience less traumatic for the people who work there?

Corporate consolations seem cold comfort, and corporate ire an empty threat. More meaningless words to be piled onto an increasingly meaningless season. You don't have to be a true believer to understand that whatever holiness once created the holidays is long gone. Once upon a time, there may have been a celebration to rejoice in the coming of one faith's savior, but there's little chance that the supplication, consideration or wrath of even the most powerful corporate citizens will be the savior of lives lost and shattered in an ever-growing insanity.

Savage Bargains

Turns out that it's not really a sale until there's a body count. Black Friday, indeed.

Americans are masters of feeling oppressed by penury in the middle of the one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. Marketers take advantage of this by offering "doorbuster" (in this case, quite literally, it turns out) deal on a few selected items, and creating an incentive for people to be the first in line to "save money" to snap up items that they likely would have bypassed under normal conditions. The public responds with excitement and by piling "bargains" into their shopping carts, with little thought and perhaps less restraint. And in the end, no-one is responsible. The shoppers were upset, that even though a man had just been killed, they were being asked to leave the store, and Wal-Mart offered up the standard and meaningless "thoughts and prayers."

I don't know that there is any such thing as a good way to die, but being trampled to death by crazed Wal-Mart shoppers seems like a particularly bad and pointless way to go.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Who's Bad?

Dahlia Lithwick has an article in Slate in which she takes aim at the idea we're better off as a nation if we just let bygones be bygones in our execution of the "War on Terror," and that people who are pressing for prosecutions of Bush Administration officials who okayed things like torture are being naïve, or placing partisanship over harmony. (Side question: Why is it that we lambaste the Japanese when they go out of their way to maintain a harmonious society, while acting as though harmony is the only thing that stands between us an savagery when we feel the need to promote it, regardless how flimsy the reasoning?)

During the piece, Lithwick makes a very interesting point. "Michael Mukasey holds that those who authorized lawbreaking did so out of 'a good-faith desire to protect the citizens of our Nation from a future terrorist attack.' Witness after witness will tell the truth commission that they were scared; they were making quick decisions in the heat of battle, and that their hearts were pure." This may, however unintentionally, be the central issue that we need to deal with.

I have come to suspect that the point behind American jurisprudence has gone from the sanctioning of those who do Bad Things (violate the laws of the land), as a means of preserving order, to demonstrating our power over those that we understand to be Bad People (boogey men), as a means of reassuring ourselves that all is right with the world. Lithwick touches on this when she asks: "Is the truth that if we torture strange men with strange names, it's not lawbreaking?" Replace "strange" with "bad," (or, if you prefer, "evil"*) and I suspect that a lot of people would say: "Yes," regardless of their names. Once the point of the Law becomes to separate the Good people from the Bad people, it takes on a much different character than it otherwise would, being willing to gloss over the transgressions of the Good, and ready to punish the otherwise acceptable in the Bad.

If you read the rhetoric of the Bush Administration in a certain way, the point behind the War on Terror is that terrorists are Bad Guys. And as Bad Guys, they will do Bad Things, and so every moment that you leave them alive and free, you run the risk of some undeserving soul having an awful fate laid upon them. And nothing other than putting and end to their lives and freedoms will change that. And if the law happens to prevent that, more proof that the law was written by people who just don't understand what's really at stake here. It's seductive. It's the flip side of It's wrong to do (or let others do) Bad Things while just Following Orders. Because, if that's the case, isn't it also wrong to allow Bad People to do Bad Things while just Obeying the Law?

* For extra cynicism credit, you can also replace "strange" with "Muslim."

Give Us Your Money... Please?

Maybe somebody at Wells Fargo reads Nobody In Particular, or, more likely, it's just a rather random coincidence. But when I came home the other day (not long after the previous post) I had a message on my answering machine from Wells Fargo, reminding me of the $50.00 bonus for opening a $100.00 checking account. The interesting part about it was the sense of urgency. Not so much in the mode of "Act now, or you'll miss this exciting and important promotion!" - but more, it seemed, along the lines of "Please don't let this offer pass you by - we could really use the deposits."

Not to say that the message was plaintive, or pleading, but it did seem to favor a more "asking" approach than the hard sell that I have become accustomed to hearing from such pitches.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What a Difference...

About a year ago, give or take, I was in a Wells Fargo branch near my home. At the time, they were running an advertising campaign, which one could best title as "Someday." There where flyers on the table near the door. On the cover was a couple, dressed in light winter clothing, with a string of Christmas lights draped over the woman's hands. They were looking about themselves (she to the left, he to the right) with the grinning excitement of children who'd just been given a toy store as their holiday gift. She held a sign. "Someday I could buy all the things I deam about." The flyer was a promotion for a prize, an annuity to be paid off at the rate of $50,000.00 a year for the next 20 years. Basically, any use of a Visa credit card was a chance at winning the prize.

I'd picked up the flyer because it struck me as indicative of the problem with banking at the time. Banks, as I had been raised to believe, were places where one kept money for safekeeping, and perhaps as a sort of investment (I seem to remember promised interest rates being higher when I was a child). So it seemed somehow broken to me to have banks pushing borrowing as a means of funding consumption, which, as we all are now painfully aware, is unsustainable in the long run. Now, I'm not a complete naif. I understand that banking is a business. And that the point behind business is to make money. It's just that this struck me as the bank pushing a program that wasn't in the best interests of its customers, and I was somewhat impressed that they would be so brazen about it.

A while back, I received a flyer in the mail from Wells Fargo. "50 Ways To Spend $50," it proclaimed. On the list were things like a Window box, Cordless phone, Twenty cups of coffee and New Jeans. Not wanting to be seen as promoting nothing but profligacy in difficult economic times, Savings bond and Give to charity also made the list. The pitch was for new Wells Fargo checking accounts. Open one with at least $100.00, the pitch promised, and Wells Fargo would kick in another $50.00. (I find myself wondering what the catch is - after all, the smart thing to do is to open a $100.00 account, wait for them to deposit the promised $50.00, and then close the account, and shift the money to savings. Surely Wells Fargo knows this, and has something in place to prevent such a move, or there are enough fees and whatnot that they're sure to get the $50.00, and then some, back from you no matter what you do. On the other hand, they could simply be that hard up for new depositors that they're willing to take the risk.)

In both cases, the bank seemed to be working to promote spending. But I find it interesting that this time they're pushing you to spend money that they'll give you, rather than money that they'll lend to you.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Populism and Pretense

Congress and the media have been making a big deal out of the fact that the chief executives of the Big 3 automakers flew to Washington, hat in hand, to ask for bailouts in their private corporate jets. Bully for them.

But this is really little more than an exercise in populist hypocrisy. Were I a banker, and a family came to me to have their mortgage renegotiated, and I turned them down, because they had driven to the bank in their own car, rather than taking the bus, whose side would the press and the politicians be on?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Great Bit of Snark...

Courtesy of The Economist.

"And Barack Obama, committed to uniting America, could defuse the nation's culture wars by purchasing an alternative homeland for those of his countrymen who want more use of the death penalty, less gun control and no gay marriage. A slice of Saudi Arabia's empty quarter would do nicely; there's plenty of space and the new occupants would have lots in common with the locals."

"O give me a home..." The Economist. November 15th, 2008

Who Are You

So I get an unsolicited "pre-approved" offer for a MasterCard in the mail today.

They were reasonably upfront about the interest rates. They touted the fact that they didn't engage in Universal Default or Two-Cycle billing. And they listed a whole raft of fees that come with doing this or that - it seemed to be a fairly complete list. And they had a nice selection of different card patterns that you could choose from. And you could sign up for some nice perquisites. And it even has no annual fee (although most cards these days don't).

Only one thing was missing - the actual lending institution.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Smite Makes Right

I was reading an article on Slate a couple of weeks ago: "Does Religion Make You Nice?" It opens with the sentence: "Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists." In the opening paragraph Paul Bloom relates to us that in one of her books, conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger "approvingly quotes Dostoyevsky: 'Where there is no God, all is permitted.'"

I suspect, that one could re-write that as: "Many Americans doubt the morality of humans." Schlessinger's version of morality requires a belief in God because it's not about a commitment to ethical behavior - it's about obedience. The divinely-established morality of conservative religiousity doesn't require any cohesive, objective or independent understanding of right versus wrong. God's will and word is what makes right, and is to be followed, even when it is self-contradictory (despite the fact that "You will not kill" is one of the Bible's famed Ten Commandments, capital punishments abound) or leads to effects that one might otherwise be considered wrong or unethical.

This model operates on an understanding that the divine is in the role of a cosmic parent - someone who enforces discipline on a herd of self-centered, willful children, who might be well-meaning, but are incapable of fully internalizing the rules, and therefore WILL, if not carefully watched, do things that they aren't supposed to - even while thinking that their actions are, if not acceptable, completely justified.

Once you start to equate people with a state of perpetual spiritual childhood, it becomes more evident that morality MUST be an external force, that acts to suppress and control the irresponsible and potentially damaging impulses of the overall populace. And in the face of a controlling force that doesn't routinely (or ever) make itself objectively known (while many people claim to have a personal relationship with the Divine, no-one have ever managed to introduce Him to their friends in person, or get Her to be the guest of honor at their dinner parties) you're going to have people that doubt its existence. And in the same way that a child who doubts that a parent will catch them at anything is more likely to "behave badly," a person who doesn't acknowledge the existence of a punishing deity is unlikely to tailor their behavior simply to avoid divine sanction.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Let's Twist Again

I have finally learned the definition of "twisting someone's words." It appears that the phrase refers to the practice of taking the logic upon which an argument is built, and applying to to a scenario that the arguer doesn't like in an attempt to demonstrate the absurdity of the logic. (Or, more likely, the logical fallacy that the arguer has engaged in.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Save Our Program

Whenever tough economic times require that budgets be cut, you know that there will be a long list of people ready to argue that their pet project or favored cause should be spared the fiscal ax. And some of those people will go out and start looking for allies.

And so it is that I received an e-mail from the local progressive political group. (The Republicans have my telephone number, it seems, while the Democrats have my e-mail address...) It warns that a local county proposal to same money through eliminating family planning clinics for low-income families "is a really bad decision." It continues: "It's penny smart and pound foolish, and carries some terrible consequences."

To illustrate this, it holds out the example of "Karina."

"She was 18 years old and still in high school when she learned she was more than three months into an unplanned, ill-timed pregnancy. After developing diabetes mid-pregnancy, Karina ended up in the operating room to deliver her son.

The birth control to help Karina avoid pregnancy would have cost the County about $10 a month. Instead, this birth and the subsequent medical care needed for Karina and her baby cost the state more than $20,000. Today, a County Public Health Clinic is helping Karina avoid pregnancy until she is in a better financial position.

But the County is looking to eliminate family planning clinics and STD services to balance the 2009 budget."
But the issue for Karina wasn't that the family planning clinics weren't available - the budget cuts haven't gone into effect yet - it's that, from all appearances, that she didn't make use of them until after she'd already had a difficult pregnancy. Why should I care if the county ends a program, even one that only costs $10 per month per recipient, if people aren't using it in the first place? And the e-mail doesn't address what the county clinics would have done about the fact that Karina developed gestational diabetes - somehow I suspect that they would have spent much more than $10 a month looking after a teenager with a high-risk pregnancy. Why would you go around to people asking them to sign a web petition (Go slacktivism!) to save a program, using an anecdote that shows the program isn't even working all that well and likely needs even more money than they're already spending?

And, if you're attentive, you'll notice that it was "the state," not "the County" that picked up the tab for the delivery of Karina's son. So the county cuts the program, saving some amount of money, and the state picks up the tab for the deliveries? It might have "terrible consequences," but it doesn't seem all that "pound foolish." Unless, of course, you work for the state department of health.

Clearly, whoever authorized this e-mail didn't expect it to be picked apart (they may not even have expected it to be read carefully) by the recipients. And I guess that's the problem. The organization expected either that I'd care enough to sign their petition, or I wouldn't. They aren't asking for any personal sacrifice on my part, such as making a contribution to keep the clinics open. They aren't even offering a suggestion as to what other budget areas the county should cut to keep up the clinic funding, which would put me in the position of having to make a choice about priorities. Presumably, asking for sacrifice would entail a more completely thought-out pitch than looking for a knee-jerk reaction.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Pick One

"In a recent Zogby poll, 59 percent of respondents described themselves as 'fiscally conservative and socially liberal.'"
Kathleen Parker
I don't know if the Zogby poll is accurate or not, but I have been hearing quite a bit recently about a growing sector of the population that is in favor of fiscal restraint and small government, and frankly, doesn't give a damn about what other people do in their bedrooms. While I've heard such people described as "socially progressive," I think that "socially apathetic but turned off by invariably hypocritical social reactionaries" is likely a more apt description. Interestingly enough, this points to a certain disconnect between social and fiscal policy that the political establishment is trying to work their way around, without actually acknowledging. The disconnect always struck me as a huge one within the Republican party, where social conservatives tended to look for blatantly statist solutions to the "moral failings" of their peers. On the other hand, the Democrats, while they are socially liberal, sometimes to a fault, seem to have never seen a spending plan they didn't like.

It seems to be that whichever party reorganizes to fit the new demographic the best could be in for a long and productive majority.

Oh, Grow Up

A vandal has been going around Western Washington University, slashing the tires and keying the paint of cars Obama-Biden or anti Bush stickers on them. Only slightly more mature were the reactions in comments section of the story, mainly marked by flames and trolling. It's getting to the point where about the only people who seem to have taken what happened with good grace (rather than wallowing in being sore losers or petty winners) are those who didn't much care about the outcome either way.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Change You Can... Apply For?

The transition team for President-Elect Obama has a web site, Nothing out of the ordinary, but an acquaintance directed my attention to the jobs page, in which you may apply to be a political appointee within the Obama-Biden administration. Or so it says. Somehow, I seriously doubt that any position that requires a Senate confirmation hearing is going to be offered to a complete unknown whose only tie to the Obama administration is through a website where they submitted their résumé. If there are any jobs on Earth where getting the nod is more about who you know than anything else, they've got to be political appointees.

I know that President-Elect Obama has promised a new culture in Washington, but this, I'm not buying. (But I'm tempted to apply anyway, to see if I can learn the real reason behind this process.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Lesson

"I would think twice about going to a door that we don't know who lives behind."
This is the takeaway that Sumter County Councilman Charles Edens got from the shooting death of 12 year old T.J. Darrisaw on Halloween night? No wonder I didn't get any Trick-or-Treaters at my apartment.

But I would think that the lesson we should learn from this is that paranoid ex-convicts shouldn't be allowed to own firearms. Quentin Patrick, a 22 year old ex-convict, fired more than two dozen rounds "through his front door, walls and windows" after hearing two children knocking on his door. On Halloween.

I've never been a supporter of the Nanny-state solution to violence that says people shouldn't be allowed to own anything remotely dangerous because they might suddenly snap, and go on a multiple-murder spree, but convicts with possible mental disorders (a man who claimed he was Patrick's brother said he believed Patrick was suffering from post-traumatic stress) are something of an exception to my general rule of "let's wait until someone's shown themselves irresponsible before we take the decision out of their hands."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Electoral Lessons

I was over at John McGuinness' weblog, and found a link to "Things I’ve Learned This Election," on Vox Nova, a Catholic weblog. John makes a good point, in that it smacks of more non-productive complaining about how terrible Republicans are - kind of like the people who launch partisan flames in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Sound Off pages by referring to the parties as Repugnicans and Democraps.

"Things I’ve Learned" is an interesting post, but, honestly, overdone. It's all much simpler, and sadly, bi-partisan.

For a vocal segment (which may or may not be a majority) of the population:

  1. Their political stances stem from emotional attachments to positions that make them feel better about themselves and the world around them. They tend to see policies and initiatives they support as being an unmitigated Good for everyone.
  2. They actively, if unconsciously and unintentionally, edit their perception of the world around them, so that they perceive said political stances as objective, fact based and self-evident rather than emotionally comforting.
  3. They are convinced enough of their own sophistication that they believe themselves to be immune to being played for cynical political purposes.
  4. Understanding their politics to be obvious, they refuse to see those who disagree as intelligently, thoughtfully and rationally having come to a different conclusion as to the way forward; instead they see them as stupid, and therefore easily mislead by some cynical and evil mastermind, or as intentionally evil, themselves.
  5. They are apt to understand publicized flaws in people that they support as being overblown, while seeing flaws in the opposition as being the tip of the iceberg, and indicative of much greater problems.