Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is trying to drum up support for a nationwide moratorium on political contributions.
While the message was ostensibly aimed at Washington DC, it should also be taken to heart outside of the beltway, because there's a simple point for the rest of us - we should stop attempting to buy elections. (Although it turns out the "we" in question is a very small group, overall, given that only four one-hundredths of one percent of Americans give more than $200 to candidates.) Given that Schultz normally donates to Democrats, it remains to be seen if Republican donors will see this as an opportunity to step into the void, and try to make the money race work in their favor. History suggests that it will. Honor is nice, but winning is better.
If Schultz somehow manages to significantly lower the amount of money that flows into political campaigns, it could have a transformative effect on American politics. That alone makes it worthwhile.
Monday, August 29, 2011
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is trying to drum up support for a nationwide moratorium on political contributions.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
I went down to Lake Forest Park this past weekend, to take some pictures of a small peace monument that the local anti-war activists had erected. I was late getting there, and so the "early crowd," a handful of support-the-troops types, were already present when I arrived. And I ended up spending most of the next two hours speaking to both them, and the peace activists that followed them.
Both sides, it turns out, are terrible salespeople for their respective positions. But I did learn something interesting about them, and perhaps, activists in general. It seems, that no matter who you talk to, one of the reasons why their message doesn't gain any traction is that the gullible masses have been hoodwinked by the lies of the "mainstream media." The universality of this idea is striking, if for no other reason than it doesn't ever seem to strike any of them as odd that the other side says the exact same thing - it all becomes part of the narrative of conspiracy and victimization. But it struck me as odd. And the conversation with a peace activist helped it all fall into place.
I'd pointed out that the peace protests had been going on for some time. Pretty much every weekend for the past eight and half years or so, yet they weren't making any noticeable difference in things. There was no public outcry against the wars. And the number of people who attended their weekly rallies was steadily shrinking - even some of the regulars had stopped coming. Surely, I reasoned, the problem was that their simple signs, while photogenic, just didn't have enough space to really make the point in ways that were important to people. Perhaps they needed a website, I suggested.
I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it wouldn't work. People simply wouldn't come and read something that didn't jive with what they already wanted to understand was true. The best you could do was to engage people face to face, and hope to convert them. And that's what the signs were for, to raise their awareness and interest. But, I pointed out, what if people aren't interested in what's on the sign? The man's own sign was about bringing the troops home. I'm ineligible for military service, and I don't know anyone who's active duty, so while it would certainly be nice, the troops coming home doesn't mean anything to me, directly.
"So," I asked him, "If you guys get your way, what's in it for me?"
And this is where the familiar pattern emerged. The man launched into an animated diatribe about all of the ills that "the fascists" as he called them, had perpetrated upon the United States. It took some doing, but I finally managed to stop him long enough to say that it was all fine and good, but it still didn't answer the question of how his dream of a social democracy would be of direct benefit to me. So he switched tack slightly, and narrowed his focus to gasoline prices. I tried to explain to him that gasoline prices hadn't really made much of a difference to me over the past few years. Which started him down the path of attempting to convince me that I had been damaged by higher gasoline prices, but was too brainwashed to realize it (because questioning your audience's judgment and/or sanity is always a winner).
Anyway, I suspect that you see where this is going. I simply couldn't seem to get him to engage with me on the topics that I was trying to convince him were important to me, personally, in a way that explained to me how my interests would be advanced. But what was really odd about it was I couldn't convince HIM of that. He was dead certain that he was addressing the topics I was raising head-on. Suddenly, it all clicked. Unable to understand that I didn't find his argument compelling because it didn't relate to things that I was concerned with, the only reason he could see for why I wasn't won over was that someone else had gotten to me first. But to me, he was creating a massive false dichotomy. The simple fact that "the fascists" were bad didn't mean that his particular alternative was any better - it was still an unknown quality to me. It's part of the problem of attempting to define anything in terms of what it is not. What it's not can be a awful lot of things.
In the end, I wasn't able to get him to understand that he wasn't making a compelling case. Or, perhaps more accurately, I couldn't convey to him that I saw the world as something other than black and white. I guess it's like attempting to explain to someone's who's color blind that they've mis-colored something. The picture they draw looks just like the world around them as they see it. What frame of reference do they have for someone else's vision?
Monday, August 22, 2011
The Economist asks: "What’s Schadenfreude in Chinese?"
It turns out that there is a phrase that translates into German as "schadenfreude." It is (in Mandarin, anyway) the idiom 幸灾乐祸 (Xìng zāi lè huò), which means "To gloat over others' misfortune."
But because the moderators at The Economist take "You may not: [...] Post Messages in any language other than English;" to mean NO non-English characters are allowed, even if the rest of your comment is in English, you can't actually post it to their site; and so any comments that actually contain the Chinese for "schadenfreude" are removed. This is, of course, the way of things with no-tolerance policies. This one can be faulted for being somewhat unclear, but, on the other hand, it does seem to be applied across the board, as I wasn't the only person to run afoul of the policy.
|Now You See It...|
|Now You Don't|
There's something amusing in that. Not the least of which is the fact that The Economist is being fairly draconian in enforcing their website's commenting rules. Of course, since The Economist is not a government agency with any enforcement powers, what they're doing isn't censorship, per se. But they are doing what they've been willing to criticize others (including China) for. Enacting sweeping blocks against what people can say, presumably to protect their readers, and responding sternly to transgressions, even when no harm was intended.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
A lot has been made of the role of the "Housing Bubble" in the current economic malaise. But I think that a large part of the problem is that there may be a much larger bubble at work here that hasn't been spoken much about.
Here's what I mean. In the run up to the most recent recession, personal incomes for most of the people in the country were flat, and in some cases, once you adjusted for inflation, they were falling. But... when home prices started to take off, people didn't pay much attention to that. Between rising home values, and the ability to turn that into cash via home equity loans, people "felt wealthier." But most of it was "paper wealth." In effect, people were taking out loans based on an opinion of the amount of money that someone would be willing to pay to buy their house - they didn't even have to have an offer in hand or a potential buyer lined up. And so things collapsed when it finally got to the point where that expectation - that someone would want to pay that price - turned out to be misplaced. And so the "paper loses" came rolling it. But no-one wants to take them. The homeowners claim it's not their fault, and the banks have more money anyway, and the banks want the federal government to take the loss, and the public is already grumbling about the money that was spent propping up the automakers... You get the idea.
Okay. With that out of the way, let me move on to another bubble that may be at work here. Right now, the United States government has, in effect, made a number of promises to people as to services it is going to provide, goods it is going to produce or secure and funds that it is going to disburse. But, at this moment, in order to keep those commitments, it is borrowing 40¢ of every dollar that it is spending. And one of the more or less unnoticed features of the current fighting over the budget is the idea that the United States economy will grow large enough and quickly enough to allow us to repay those loans - which had once been a staple of the "deficits don't matter" crowd - has quietly been abandoned. And so, eventually, the expectation that government will fulfill its promises will turn out to be misplaced. And to the degree that those promises have been converted to "paper wealth," there are going to be losses.
And I don't think that many people realize just how much their standard of living has been propped up by public spending. While people are quick to point out things like Medicare and Medicaid or Social Security, the fact is that there are a lot of other programs. One is the FDIC. One thing that you sometimes hear people saying is that "Savings is investment." To the extent that this is true in the United States, it is only true because the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has turned bank savings accounts up to a certain size into a zero-risk investment vehicle. Otherwise, any savings that you absolutely needed to be able to draw upon later couldn't be made available for investment. And in invest, you'd have to accept the possibility that you'd loose your principal and/or (likely and) not having access to your funds on your own schedule. And simply storing money for safekeeping would involve a cost. But there are other costs as well, that we often don't think about - I have more free time than I otherwise would because I don't have to keep careful track of what's going on at my bank - if they go under due to bad loans, that's not my problem.
To a degree, this is just a factor of a moderately socialized economic structure - certain risks are spread throughout, and that brings certain benefits with it. But then that 40¢ rears its ugly head again, and we realize that this can't go on forever. Again this is just the nature of the beast. Where the problem arises is the extent to which people have structured their finances and their lives around the expectation that these programs are going to continue. Going back to my example of the FDIC, when it was created, back in 1933, it was intended to be temporary. Granted 77 years isn't exactly forever, but it's unlikely that it's going to be wound down any time soon, and so people have come to make commitments based on the idea that it will always be there. This paper wealth, and the paper wealth created by other government programs, is no less a part of people's lives than home prices. And so if the expectations that underlie that paper wealth unravel, there will be losses. And the fight over who winds up holding the bag will go on, and the economy will founder until it's resolved.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
From talking to people on both sides of the American political divide, I've learned a few things from each in the past month or so.
- "The Media" is suppressing the Truth. The Majority agrees with them. You just don't know that because the media gatekeepers are maliciously working for the other side due to an ideological commitment to falsehood, and no amount of public outrage or money can change that.
- Lies are everywhere. No matter where you look, people believe falsehoods that have been foisted upon them by the very people who are supposed to be looking out for them.
- The People don't really know what's best for them. They've been conditioned to believe that what is really the truth is actual bad for them, and so they wall themselves off from anything that they disagree with. You have to confront them, and pry open their minds, one at a time.
But what's really interesting is that both sides will tell you this, and it doesn't seem to compute when you tell them that you've heard it all before - from the other side. I guess the idea that they have something in common just isn't their thing.
Friday, August 19, 2011
|So good, you can't eat just one.|
The crows clearly preferred the cookies to the slices of bread, I think because it was easier to fly off with a whole cookie. And since the crows were clearly wary of getting too close to me (read: within about 15 or 20 feet), anything they could snag and then fly off with was a good thing.
This particular crow was willing to be a bit more patient when he was in the line of fire, and would pick up a cookie, set it atop another cookie, and then pick up both of them at once, and fly off, netting 160 calories with a single trip into the danger zone. Of course the more cautious crows, waiting at various points outside the frame, would immediately swoop in as he made his getaway, hoping to force him to drop a meal that they could get without having to get too close to the dangerous, camera-wielding predator that was keeping the area under surveillance. (The crows were fortunate that the ducks never figured out what was going on. Being willing to pretty much stand on my feet for a free meal, the more or less tame local mallards would have fearlessly picked the table clean then waddled over to ask for more. Which may explain why we eat duck regularly, but "eating crow" is only an expression.)
In any event, it was educational to watch the birds interact with the food, each other and me. I should do it again sometime.
Starting not very long after the collapse of the housing bubble, I started seeing spikes in the amounts of material in the trash compactor and recycling dumpsters. Whereas before it would be rare for either to ever completely fill up, they'd go from empty to completely full in sometimes less than 72 hours. Or you'd drive by in the morning, and there would be a huge amount of stuff that hadn't been there the night before. Sometimes, you'd find a bed or a desk stuffed into the trash compactor in the middle of the month.
The head of maintanance was a fellow expat Chicagoan, and we'd chat whenever we got the chance, and he told me that it was people from the local neighborhood, driving into the complex at night to dump their trash. "Go look out in the area on trash day a few times," he told me. "See which houses don't have garbage cans out." So I did, and lo and behold there were a few houses that never had garbage cans out. Once, you could chalk up to them just forgetting it was trash day. But when I went through for the third time in as many months, and the same houses still didn't have trash cans out when everyone else did, I started to grow just a bit suspicious.
Then I started to pay more attention. Every so often, I'd come home late, as in after 9 pm or so, once it had gotten dark, and there would be a someone, a couple, or maybe even a family unloading a remarkable number of bags and boxes from a car or large pickup truck. And they'd watch me, as I went to the mailbox, or dropped something in the recycling bin. Sometimes, you could tell that they didn't belong there - they were quiet, and hostile to being addressed in any way. Other times, they'd try to be friendlier about it. They'd explain, unasked, that they were moving out, and just finishing cleaning up. On the 10th of the month. Possible, but not likely. Espcially where no moving trucks or piled-high pickups had ben seen recently. One time, I saw another resident confront someone, and be threatened with bodily harm if they didn't back off. The threatening man and his wife dumped some furniture, climbed back into their pickup truck and quickly fled the scene as more residents began to arrive.
I can't say that I'm surprised by this, given that trying to get something for nothing is almost a large a part of the American Dream as home ownership. It's a large part of the reason that we're in the state that we're in right now. Large sections of the country aren't densely enough populated for any reasonable level of taxation to pay for the infrastructure and services needed for the place to viable, and so the rest of us end up funding it, either through direct infusions of tax money or by paying off the bonds that the federal government has floated to borrow the money needed. But it's smaller things as well, Anyone who works in an office environment likely knows at least one person whose idea of shopping for school supplies is to raid the copy room for pens, notebooks and binders.
One of the things that I find many Americans to be remarkable good at is pleading poverty, regardless of their circumstances. I've known people in steady jobs with salaries that reach nearly six figures, and who have enough money that they don't keep it all in one bank because of the limits of deposit insurance who still think of themselves as being on the verge of living on the streets. It's this sort of constant insecurity that drives people to see themselves as needing to "share" in the things that other people have. It won't be until we start seeing ourselves as at least secure, if not affluent, that we'll stop casting our eyes on what others around have.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
"The West have been talking about supporting internet freedom, and oppose other countries' government to control this kind of websites, now we can say they are tasting the bitter fruit [of their complacency] and they can't complain about it," wrote one commentator in official Communist Party mouthpiece, People's Daily.Translation: How's that irony taste, chumps?
London riots: China raises questions over safety of 2012 Olympic Games
Western governments, here in the United States and abroad are going to have to do a better job with making the case for going after social networking sites, or, more likely, simply drop that line of reasoning, if they are going to avoid looking like hypocrites in front of the rest of the world. It's going to be hard for them to claim that only protesters in countries that they happen to have some sort of (generally) adversarial relationship with are engaged in legitimate action, while their own citizens are simply lawless hoodlums.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
"Corporations are people, my friend...every (thing) that big corporations earn ultimately goes to people."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the Iowa State Fair, Thursday, 11 August, 2011.
"Dear friend,Sigh. Here we go again. I don't think that it takes too deep a reading of Governor Ronmey's comments to understand what he was trying to say. Rather than referring to any sort of literal or even legal "personhood" for corporations (which has already been established by the judiciary), he was making a more or less valid point. Corporations are comprised of, well, people. Including those shady shell corporations that people and businesses set up to hide their activities from scrutiny. All corporations are effectively simply legally recognized groups of one or more people. And, up to a point, the money that is made by corporations does eventually wind up in the hands of people, although Mr. Romney seems to forget that corporations can and do hold assets in their own names, sometimes precisely because those assets are therefore not controlled (in a legal sense) by the people who run the corporation. (And perhaps more importantly, Mr. Romney left out the fact that when the money "ultimately goes to people," it's in a very skewed distribution.)
Did you see what Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney said yesterday? He actually told an Iowa crowd that 'Corporations are people.'
Corporations are people? Could the GOP be any deeper into the pockets of big business?
This is a perfect example of the crazy ideology we’re up against, and what our Emergency Media Campaign is designed to fight. We need to raise $50,000 by midnight to send this message from coast to coast: Corporations are NOT people. People are people, and we must put the needs of the American people – not multibillion-dollar corporations and their tax loopholes – first. Will you help us?"
The Democratic fundraising e-mail that landed in my inbox on the 12th.
In my opinion, a more salient criticism of Romney's statement would have used the entire context, not just a convenient snippet. Of course, this isn't the way that political fundraising works. It's about hyping the idea that the Opposition of made up of unhinged ideologues who must be fought to prevent them from victimizing us all. But, for the sake of argument, let's say that Mitt Romney IS actually crazy. As in should be in inpatient treatment for psychotic disorder crazy. So? How does telling me that obligate me to believe that whatever candidate or group of candidates needed $50,000 by midnight last night is any LESS crazy and ideological? Or simply even a better option? The basic logic of a false dichotomy - Republicans are crazy, so you'd be better served to vote Democrat (and give them money to convince others to do the same) - is on full display here. And of course, the Republicans likely do the same thing in their mailings - them = bad so by process of elimination us = good.
Of course, this is nothing new. But the unthinking regularity of it all makes it ever more tiresome.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
So I'm reading Google+, and Will Wheaton posts about the end of Eureka. Now, I haven't watched SciFi, excuse me - SyFy, in quite some time. Mainly because it all started to seem like random low-budget crap, and eventually, reality television started to make an appearance. Eureka seemed to have broken that particular mold, but the announcement that it was being cancelled was the first I'd ever heard of it, so I wouldn't actually know.
Something tells me that even though Eureka was SyFy's highest-rated show, it simply wasn't pulling in enough viewership to attract decent advertisers. If the commercial breaks had pitches for alarm pendants, acne creams and shady out-of-state lawyers looking to sue over unpronounceable diseases resulting from sketchy medications, it wasn't drawing in enough people. While I'm not as tied into the science-fiction scene as I used to be back in the day, it's not like I've dropped off the face of the Earth, or anything like that. So why didn't I hear about the show while it was still a going concern? Especially one that everyone thought was so amazing? So I find myself wondering to what degree the community of viewers who were passionate about the show were passionate about evangelizing it to other people. Don't get me wrong, Will Wheaton's a pretty great guy, from everything I've heard. But, I've never actually met him in the flesh. Surely someone a bit closer to my everyday life had seen the show?
Yes, yes, I know that the network is supposed to be doing the promotional work, but, as the saying goes, "if you want something done right..." Corporate executives are in the game for the money. And that money comes from advertising dollars. And advertising dollars come from companies being willing to pay to piggyback their message on the back of a television program. If you're watching a television show, and the commercials that come on are for things that have no resonance for you or for anyone you know, there could be a problem. The audience is too small and/or too broke for advertisers to want to pony up enough money to reach that audience for the show to cover its production costs and the desired profit margins. Well these days (like most days), the only science fiction fan with any money is Paul Allen, so if you want a show to last, you've got to get it a bigger audience. So next time, shout it out loud, people! Okay, so it's cool to be into something before everyone else is into it. But if it doesn't last long enough to catch on, there won't be a something left to be into. And "I was into it before it died a whimpering death" just doesn't have the same cachet.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Seattle is considering an ordinance that would require employers to provide some amount paid time off for sick employees. Unsurprisingly, the debate on this is basically a series of ideological talking points, repeated over and over again at ever louder volumes. (Since, obviously, if they other side isn't swayed, they must not have heard you.) You'd think that this would be a relatively straightforward cost-benefit analysis. Yet both sides appear to be scrupulously avoiding approaching it in that way. And so the dueling echo chambers ramp up the volume.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
This seems to cast the problem as one of access, rather than buying habits. It's not like it's hard to find fresh fruit in the Seattle area. This billboard is not in one of the "food deserts" that it proposes to change. There's a supermarket within walking distance, as well as a butcher that sells organic meats, a store where you can get fresh bread and any number of small restaurants of varying cuisines. And given that the supermarket is open 24 hours a day, if you're buying tobacco, rather than fresh fruit, access isn't the problem.
Still, I understand the sentiment behind it, and the "think of the children" call to action. But perhaps everyone would be better served if they kept their attention on the customers, and let them drive the changes they want.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Nobody In Particular is starting to drift back into Things Aaron Dislikes, so here's a little something I picked up from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer a few years back that I really enjoyed.
It was called 50 Pretty Good Rules for Life, and it was written by a man named Bill Center, who wrote a reader blog called A Radical Centrist on Globalism and Trade. (I should see if he's still writing it elsewhere.) Of course I don't follow all of the rules - I've pretty much chucked #3 right out the window, but they make for a pretty good outlook on life, which most of us could use. Especially those of us who revel a bit too much in our own cynicism.
- Always play by the rules!
- Treat everyone you meet with respect and dignity. Never intentionally alienate anyone. You can never have too many friends.
- Avoid cynicism and sarcasm. No matter how cynical you become, you'll never be able to keep up. [But I'm getting close... I little longer and I'll be out in front, let alone just "caught up."]
- Nothing is impossible to the person who doesn't have to do it themselves.
- Once you know a person, if you can't get along with them it's at least partly your fault.
- Never be vindictive. When doling out punishment, always err on the side of leniency.
- Never stand so close to your position that when your position goes, you go with it.
- Be an encourager. Never ridicule dreams, quench hope, or give up on fellow human being.
- Express your gratitude. We owe a lot to others. Thank them often.
- Be generous. Help those in need. Tip big. Don't hesitate to pay more than your fair share. It won't lower your standard of living.
- You can't make someone else's choices. Don't let someone else make yours. Choose to be happy.
- Call your Mom. If it's too late for that, call someone else who'll be equally happy to hear your voice.
- The details are just as important as the big picture.
- Listen carefully. Opportunity often knocks softly and wisdom sometimes whispers.
- Respect your elders. If things work out really, really well you will eventually be old yourself.
- Stay calm. Lighten up. The first report is usually wrong. Except for rare life-and-death instances, things are seldom as bad as you imagine and almost always look better in the morning.
- Vote or keep quiet.
- Try at least twice as hard to understand the views of others as you do to explain your own. It helps to start by assuming not everyone who disagrees with you is an idiot.
- Always know where you're headed. Have a personal mission, vision and goals. Set high goals for yourself and high standards for yourself and others. Have at least one truly audacious goal.
- Fortune favors the well-prepared. The harder you work, the luckier you get.
- Get up early. Get to work early. Go home early.
- When dealing with the media, remember, they always get the last word. Never do or say anything you wouldn't want to read about on the front page.
- Take responsibility for your own life. Never blame circumstances, other people or bad luck. Life is not fair. Don't whine – ever.
- Don't expect people to follow your advice and ignore your example.
- Treat children as your equals. Don't patronize or talk down to them. Cherish them for who they are, not who you'd like them to be.
- Take good care of yourself. You're gonna live longer than you expect and good health is a joy and productivity multiplier. Death is nature's way of telling you it's time to slow down.
- Be loyal. Keep other peoples' secrets and don't burden them with yours.
- The world is changing, and will continue to change, like it or not. Our challenge is to help ensure it changes for the better.
- It is rare for someone to remark, "Gosh that speech was too short."
- Don't waste too much time trying to stifle bad ideas. It's tough enough to get a really good idea implemented.
- Pray for wisdom and courage, not for stuff.
- Be yourself. If that's not good enough, try harder. Never stop working to improve yourself.
- Become a good mentor and learn to accept mentoring from others. No matter what stage of life you're entering, you've never been there before and you still have a lot to learn.
- Learn the power of forgiveness and practice it. Forgive yourself first. Don't dwell on past mistakes. Learn from them and vow to do better in the future.
- The only way to accept a complement is to say "thank you" and then do your best to live up to it.
- Hire people who are smarter than you are, then listen to them and take care of them.
- Strive for excellence, not perfection. Seek quality and value in all things.
- Remember, overnight success usually takes at least fifteen or twenty years.
- Media bias is inescapable. Avoid consuming only the news with which you agree. Limit your daily media intake or risk distorting your view of reality.
- A successful marriage depends less on finding just the right mate than becoming just the right mate.
- Never say you don't have enough time. You have precisely the same amount of time as everyone else. Use it wisely.
- It's hard to be truly humble, which is mystifying when you consider how much we have to be humble about.
- Share credit; shoulder blame.
- Have the courage to always say and do the right thing regardless of the consequences to you.
- Never hesitate to say: I don't know, or I need help, or I made a mistake, or I'm sorry.
- Don't gossip or speak ill of others.
- Stay open to new ideas, new experiences and new people. Darwin posited "survival of the most adaptable" not "survival of the fittest." It's more important to be adaptable than to be tough. [Darwin borrowed the term from Herbert Spencer to stand in for "Natural Selection." (On the Origin of Species, p. 77.)]
- Trust your instincts. Be decisive, even if there's a chance of error or mistake. Don't let risk of failure stand in the way of a good decision.
- Stick with the optimists. Things will be tough enough if they're right.
- Sometimes you gotta break the rules – especially when confronted with a "no win" scenario. When necessary, ask forgiveness and press on!