Tuesday, December 31, 2013

And So Resolved

I don't have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don't believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don't even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don't know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

I'm also not a cynic. I think that those of use who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can't guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don't know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality. And I now feel myself more historian than journalist.
Ta-Nehisi Coates "The Myth Of Western Civilization"
Mr. Coates is neither friend nor acquaintance. For me, he is simply a columnist, although a very good one. Therefore I have no insight into his life before he concluded that the divine was unreal. Part of me hopes that he didn't feel the need to force himself to relinqush a long-cherished faith. Although I have never possessed on of my own, I understand that it can be a traumatic loss, and the world has enough sorrow as it is.

I am uncertain that, in the grand scheme of things, that any of the work that we do will matter, in any real sense. Its consequences may ripple through the generations that follow us, but what was done may almost always be undone. Still, I do it anyway. I brace myself against the universe and push in the direction that I think it should bend, because I think I know what Justice looks like, even if I doubt that I have any real hope of pushing the whole of existence towards it. Lacking a divine purpose, I create what I think should be from the scattered peices of both what is and what has been imagined; and while I am never quite satisfied with the puzzle that I have assembled, I will defend its versimilitude with the world that I see around me. I do the work, uncertain as I am of both the goal that I work towards and the possibility that I can even reach it, because it strikes me as required. The fact that there isn't an objective rightness that can be created doesn't release me from an interior need to create a world that I think is better than the one I currently perceive.

Before reading Mr. Coates today, I had jokingly decided to resolve to be anxious and easily distracted - to go for the "easy A," as it were. But now, I think that I will resolve to keep my mind on the work that I have set for myself, no matter how impossible it is. And to remember that the world as I understand it to be is not the world as it truly is; I must always be open to new ways of seeing and thinking and experiencing. While I will set my sense of empathy against any revealed standards of justice and good, it is important that I never shirk from doing so - I am not perfect in this regard, and many heads are better than one.

So I note with amusement that from having read an online column I have rededicated myself to a task that I'm fairly certain is manifestly impossible as my resolution for the new year. It's not the dumbest thing I've ever done. And I'm pretty sure that it's not the best. But I see no reason to let that stop me.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Someone, I think that it may have been James Fallows, once noted that China does, after a fashion, have a form of democracy. It's rooted in the fact that with a population of over a billion people, the Chinese Communist Party could never hope to put down a widespread popular uprising. And so while they can get away with things that we in the United States find over-the-top, if they push it far enough that the torches and pitchforks come out, it's game over.

I think, to a different degree, the same is true here in the United States. People may not have high approval ratings for the government, but the number of people who are upset enough about the way things are going to actively protest against it is fairly small, and the group of people willing to take up arms is effectively zero.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.*
What's interesting about this is that it basically says that the Constitution is means to an end. And one of the things that perhaps we miss in our day-to-day lives is that most of the things that we do are means to various ends. The American public is, rightly or wrongly, notoriously disengaged from the politic processes that run the country. And while there is a lot of hand-wringing about this, among good-government types, the fact of the matter is that most people don't care because their ends that they are working towards don't require a better and more responsive government than the one we currently have. In other words, they don't see a need to get out the torches and pitchforks (or in a lot of cases, even simply vote) to achieve their ends.

While H. L. Mencken identified the whole aim of practical politics keeping the population fearful and thus desirous of political leadership, I would submit that a this should be expanded to include keeping the enough of the populace just affluent enough that they have something substantial to lose in the case of a sharp social upheaval and the maintenance of that affluence just easy enough that people don't have an incentive to question what needs to be done in service of that maintenance. The rest takes care of itself, and the abstract ideals that people often claim to support can be set aside. American government is, in effect, a kludge, and one that works just well enough to get by without stepping on enough toes that the organizational effort required to displace (let alone fix it) it becomes rational. And generally speaking, the incentives line up to keep things that way. And therefore, until those incentives change, little else will.

*If you were a child in the 1970s, you have to sing this part. But you can leave out "of the United States," since it's easier that way.


The unspoken thing here is that the reason Americans aren’t more outraged or guilt-ridden is that the people dying are poor brown people—many of them in a tragic irony are classified as narcos so governments can claim it's just gang-on-gang violence.
Erik Vance "Cocaine Is Evil"
While it's nearly a matter of faith that the only people outside of the United States that White Americans care about are other White people, I don't think that this is at all accurate. And so for me, it's a tired old cliché, designed to try and guilt White America (because, apparently, the rest of us are either paragons of caring for Brown people, or simply don't matter) into caring about poor non-White people in other countries.

Good luck with that.

For starters, many Americans can just barely identify with other Americans of the same ethnicity who are of different socioeconomic backgrounds. While disasters may get people to rush to open their wallets, the day-to-day grind of poverty that exists in the United States barely registers for people who don't have to deal with it on a daily basis. You don't have to be a (relatively) wealthy expatriate to live in a bubble that insulates you from other people's realities. And given that, the idea that somehow, the average WASP would be keen on ending the cocaine trade if it happened to be operating out of England or Austria rather than Mexico takes on an even more ludicrous tone.

And, television portrayals notwithstanding, not everyone in Mexico is "Brown." There are White people there, too. (After all, there's a reason why Hispanics are commonly divided into "White" and "Non-White.") Surely some number of them have been killed due to some level of involvement in, or proximity to, the drug trade. (Or, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Surely, if what it took to generate public support for doing more about drugs was simply pictures of dead White people, Mexico could come up with some.

The fact of the matter is that it's unlikely that the average American who does cocaine concerns themselves any more with what it takes for that cocaine to get to them than the average American cares about how oil and natural gas are produced. And while the death toll in the fracking fields may not be anywhere near that of the trafficking corridors, it is rising. There may be people who anticipate a wave of outrage and guilt over the White Americans who never go home again, but I'm not one of them.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

And Then He Said

The conversation doesn't end here. Not by a long shot.
CFO tells CEO: We institute Differentiation into our annual reviews and identify skills development as one of the primary criteria that people will be judged on. Then we remove the low performers on that scale and hire in new people to replace them. We take the money that would have gone into the budget for employee development and use some of it to hire people away from our competitors, give some it back to shareholders to goose the stock price and we split what's left over.

CEO: Deal.
Now, my point with this isn't to indulge some passion for cynicism. It's to point out that things aren't as simple as they can seem. The graphic that leads this post (which I can't be certain is correctly attributed), and a few variations on it, have been making the rounds of social media (I encountered a couple of them on LinkedIn) because it fits into a narrative that many people want to believe - that they're factors in whether their companies succeed or fail. But the binary choice that it presents, that companies either invest in their employees or be stuck with them as-is, is a false dilemma. And people who have climbed the corporate ladder to the "C-Suite," even if it's only because they created the company in their basement, are often smarter people than to be corralled into such a black-and-white way of looking at the world. But more importantly, they tend to understand what they're doing. Sure, companies get it wrong at times. And it's likely that many enterprises could, in fact, do better for themselves (at least in absolute terms) by investing in their employees to a greater degree than they do now. But the central conflict originally identified, what happens when employees take that investment and parley it into gains for themselves elsewhere, has been a topic of conversation in my circles for my entire adult life.

The question of whether a business trains for the skills they want, hires them from a company that has trained them or simply places the onus on the employee to purchase their own professional training has many more moving peices than any simple text graphic can capture. And whether or not we understand the nuances of it all, the Powers That Be have to understand them. And they act on them. When we understand them for ourselves, we can better understand, and appreciate, those actions.

Without Looking Back

"[Washington] state's largest newspaper urged the machinists to take the new [Boeing] deal, apparently subscribing to the theory that extortion is the new compromise."
John Levesque, "Flying South" Seattle Business January 2014 issue.
Compromise is more than two parties reaching an agreement that benefits them both, even if it doesn't give either side everything that they may have wanted. Compromise is generally two parties reaching an agreement that benefits them both, even if it doesn't give either side everything that they may have wanted because it's the best option available to either of them.

Boeing can turn to what is effectively extortion (demanding that the machinists union give back pension and health benefits that had been granted in earlier negotiations) because, and everyone knows this, they have a much better Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement than the machinists do (even if the machinists' union sees the situation differently). By the same token, the Washington state legislature has, in Levesque's words: "offered the biggest tax break ever registered by the Institute of Servility and Submissiveness" because they perceive (correctly or not) that Boeing going somewhere else will hurt them as much or more than it will hurt Boeing. And in a zero-sum game, where the jobs that remain in the Puget Sound area aren't available to bolster economies and tax revenues in other parts of the country, Boeing is in a position to say "let's you and him fight."

One of the truisms of the modern world is that you can't go to someone as a supplicant and expect to be treated as an equal. Beggars, it has been noted, can't be choosers. Workers who are reduced to begging for the opportunity to support themselves and governments that must plead for taxable workers - parties that don't have the option of walking away - are going to be extorted because that's the way the system is set up. You can't negotiate with someone who knows that they hold a better hand that you do. They're going to extort you. That's the way the game is played.

Friday, December 27, 2013

This Is Only A (Bogus) Test

I haven't been paying much attention to the few social media sources I follow recently, and so the news that Wikipedia had been vandalized with racially-tinged messages calling for the impeachment of President Obama has escaped my notice until I stumbled across a page that was still vandalized. While the bogus "advertisement" was poorly done, it seemed to be an interesting trolling attack. From what I've been able to gather, the targeted pages all had to deal with China and related topics.

And that raises an interesting question for me: Who was the perpetrator, and who was target of the trolling? The "advertisement," when I saw it, didn't seem to lead anywhere other than a Talk Page (which, until is was deleted, was a strange mix of complaining about the supposed experiment in Wikipedia ads, people complaining that people who didn't see through the hoax were stupid, partisan sniping and comment vandalism). It's unlikely that it was meant to raise the possibility of impeachment, the Lyndon LaRouche PAC has been calling for the impeachment of the President (normally with posters that portray him with a Hilteresque toothbrush mustache) for years now, and it comes up from time to time in conservative radio.

A screenshot of the "advertisement" in question.
The bogus test advertisement has a definite TEA Party/Reagan's "Welfare Queens" vibe to it, so perhaps it was meant as a jab at American conservatism. Of course, it portrayed the President as a redistributionist - at least as far as giving things to black people was concerned, so perhaps he was the target. The pages that were vandalized all seemed to relate to China in one way or another, so maybe that was the connection. I have no idea.

But I have to admit that I'm curious.

You're From Where, Now?

Though no one quite puts it this way, the number-one selling point for the soundboard technology is obvious to Filipino telemarketers: Americans' xenophobia. We want to hear from people who sound just like us.
Alexis C. Madrigal. Almost Human: The Surreal, Cyborg Future of Telemarketing
It's odd. I never found myself being concerned with the foreign-ness of foreign accents, but with the lack of knowledge of circumstances they implied. Some years ago, here in the Seattle area, there was a radio advertisement for some sort of home monitoring company that played up the fact that they were based here in Washington - as opposed to Minnesota. ("Where there are a lot of lakes," the commercial reminds listeners, "But no floating bridges.") The pitch was the people locally would understand some of the issues around living in this specific area, and therefore wouldn't put you in a position of doing something that made sense for some remote location, but not for where you actually live.

It was the same when I would deal with recruiters from the Chicago or New York/New Jersey area. They would often ask questions that betrayed a complete lack of knowledge of local circumstances, like: "I see you live in Kirkland. Can you get to Redmond easily?" This told me that they likely didn't know much about the local area - and hadn't bothered to look it up - and so I was dubious that they knew enough about the jobs or companies that they wanted to set me up with to answer any substantive questions. (Which was often correct.)

And so what goes through my mind when I answer the phone and someone with a foreign accent starts pitching something is: "Here is a person working some outsourced job somewhere who likely has no firsthand experience with the product they're selling, and little to no knowledge of how you'd make the best use of it under the circumstances in which I would use it." Whether that counts as xenophobia, someone will have to tell me. (But, to be sure, if someone were trying to sell me lechón, and sounded like they were from closer to Kansas than Manilla, I'd be dubious about them, too.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Electricity can be dangerous.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


It's remarkable how much of what we commonly understand as the Christmas season seems to slip by you if you're not constantly out in the crush of shoppers. (And not being the sort who's into Christmas trees helps, too.) Especially if, as I do, you live in a place were snow and other common trappings of Winter are somewhat rare. Sure, there are the people who go all-out decorating their homes - there's one of those within walking distance, and a whole cul-de-sac full of them not too far away, but once the novelty of a zillion Christmas lights and inflatable Santas wears off, it's remarkable how easily you can drive right past it without seeming to realize it's there.

And so maybe it's just me, but this year, the holidays are shaping up to be rather quiet, feeling more like a misplaced weekend than a major (somewhat) religious celebration. But, as they say, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself, and so maybe today is a good day to find a way to raise the volume.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Winter doesn't really come to Seattle and the surrounding area all that often; but fortunately, we have pictures of it.

A Little Bit of Shame

I was at the grocery store today, and noticed that someone had abandoned a half-pound of pricey scallops in the cheese aisle. So I picked them up, and returned them to the seafood counter what happened to them after that, I don't know. Maybe, since the package was unopened, the scallops could still be sold. But perhaps it's more likely they went into the trash as a loss.

I suspect that someone had simply walked away from the food because they were too embarrassed to walk back the 30 feet to the seafood counter. It seems like a small thing to be concerned about. But I've encountered situations were people were expected to feel ashamed for less. I wonder what we could make better if we weren't so attached to shame.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

On a Mission

During an online discussion about The War On Christmas - and how Christmas is stone-cold routing the opposition - it occurred to me that Secularism needs missionaries. Not because I think that secularism needs to proselytize, but more as a public relations initiative.

When I meet people who are interested in changing what they think my worldview is, they tend to fall into three basic camps:

  • People who are attempting to gain me as a convert to whatever their chosen flavor of Christianity is. (And the only reason I say Christianity here is that I live in the United States, and I've never met an active missionary for a non-Christian faith. And yes, as far as I'm concerned, Mormonism is a flavor of Christianity.)
  • People who are attempting to get me to reject atheism as a worldview.
  • People who are attempting to get me to reject deism as a worldview.
Generally speaking, people in the latter two categories are jerks of the highest order. Which is unpleasant, but understandable. They're pushing back against something that they see as undesirable, which seldom makes for pleasant work, and they're focused on everything they understand to be (self-evidently) wrong with what they're pushing against. Therefore, they tend to view people who hold to that worldview as fools, dupes or knowing agents of misinformation, which seldom makes for a pleasant interaction.

On the other hand, people who are actively trying to get you to join their group, especially the ones who are good at it, are like any other sort of skilled salesperson - and has been pointed out, you generally don't approach selling someone something by calling them out for having the poor judgement to not have already bought it. Instead, they focus on the positive, looking to understand what someone wants out of life (or convincing them of what they should want) and then making the case that their particular brand of religion fits the bill.

This approach would likely do a lot to reduce the common public image of secularists and atheists as people who are attempting to tear down those they don't understand as being as intelligent as they.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Two Mr. Phils

Linda Holmes has penned an excellent piece over at NPR about A&E (the network once known as Arts and Entertainment) suspending Phil Robertson from the filming of Duck Dynasty. In it, she talks about Show Phil and Actual Phil and how A&E has set about protecting the version of Phil that they feel belongs to them from the version that belongs to him.

Because the media comments on the part of Actual Phil that landed him in trouble with A&E generally mesh (more in some places, less so in others) with stereotypical "conservative" and/or "Christian" values, the broader discussion (rather quickly) began to turn on whether or not Robertson was being persecuted by secular society.

Cue conservative charges of anti-Christian intolerance. So predictable.
Jonathan Merritt, The Real Duck Dynasty Scandal: Phil Robertson's Comments on Race
But really, what's at issue here is the nature of celebrity and the general set of values that "the public" tends to for celebrities to subscribe to. Despite a general suspicion that little is more fake than reality television, there's still a desire to see it as being more WYSIWYG than it actual is - to believe that the people would still behave the same way when the cameras are elsewhere. Which is what makes the appearance of Actual Phil problematic. Regardless of what you think of his opinions and/or any deeper meaning behind his words, the problem with the Actual Phil that was presented in the GQ interview is that he's not the blandly "wholesome," everyone-can-see-themselves-in-him everyman that wants A&E to present to us by way of Show Phil. And like just about every other television station, they would like to believe that he's the real thing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Money For Something

While the dust has not yet settled, the city of SeaTac, the location of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (but not, apparently, much in the way of municipal originality), appears to have passed a ballot proposition to raise the minimum wage for a number of jobs in and around the airport to $15 an hour. This, of course, has ignited all of the usual arguments between the Right and Left, with the attendant charges of unbridled greed, socialism, trampling workers' rights and being ignorant of unintended consequences.

While I've never really been against increases in the minimum wage, I've never really been convinced that it's the solution to the problem that we should be attempting to solve. Right now, the minimum wage is really about protecting vulnerable people against being exploited in a broken economy. But it doesn't make the more vulnerable (namely the unemployed) any less so, nor does it "un-break" the overall economy.

Not being an economist myself, I can't be sure that I have an accurate understanding of the issues, but I think that I've been able to suss out what some of the underlying issues are.

  1. The American Economy is, for the most part, efficient enough to produce enough goods and services to supply the current level of demand (which, it should be noted, is constrained in some sectors) without requiring the whole of the available workforce to work full time. And, despite what John Maynard Keynes, and many others, thought, the standard full-time workweek has not shrunk to below 40 hours. Mainly because since there are certain fixed expenses that accrue with each new employee, it is generally more efficient for an employer to have one person work 40 hours a week, rather than two at 20 hours each.
  2. Much of our economy is based on luxuries, or discretionary purchases - things that people may wish to have, but do not, in a strict sense, "need" to buy. This allows for an increased level of price sensitivity, which, in turn, creates a level of elasticity in the demand for goods and services.
  3. The skills required to do many jobs are commodities or resources themselves, and thus require a certain amount of access to resources to obtain. Additionally, many skills take enough time to obtain that someone who seeks training when a skill is "in demand" may find a glutted market for that same skill when their training is complete.
  4. The overall size of the labor pool is inelastic. It is difficult to impossible for the average person to support themselves outside of the broader economy, and international mobility for Americans to places that offer more opportunities are limited.
Accordingly, the ability to work and make a living has become something of a commodity itself. As a result, people have become expected to compete, and to a degree, expend resources simply to keep themselves clothed, housed and fed. This competition is what drives wages to poverty levels - poor people in need of work wind up competing with one another, and the unemployed, for the limited number of jobs that our current level of aggregate demand will support.

In the end, it's the slack and inelasticity of the labor market that are the problems. And the minimum wage isn't really the answer to this. Instead, it's the semi-solution that causes the least disruption. For now. But unless those issues are solved, the disruptions will come. And, like a lot of things, the longer it's allowed to simmer, the bigger the eventual bang will be.

Get 'em!

"Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves."
Rebecca Solnit, Diary.
While it's easy to see how Ms. Solnit comes to see the Google, and other technology company, employees who ride to work in their company-supplied busses as lording it over the long-time, and less affluent, other denizens of the San Fransisco area. The protest that halted one of the buses show the simmering resentment of those who feel that they are being pushed aside by the onslaught of technology money.

But one wonders if the anger is misplaced. The people who work in the technology industry are playing by the rules. If, as Ms. Solnit alleges, landlords are looking for ways to throw people out into the street and evade rent-controls to soak technology workers for a slice of their paychecks, isn't it they who are the villains?

When I spent some time at the Occupy Seattle protests (Remember them?) a few of the more conspiratorial of the 99% told me that The Power That Be often set the working people up to bicker among themselves to keep them from seeing the real enemy. For my own part, I suspect that such manipulation is wholly unnecessary - people spoiling for a fight often look for whomever is within arms reach, and those most often close at hand aren't those are the root of the problems.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Recently, the corporate evaluation process known as "stack ranking" has been in the news. Microsoft ended (or, depending on who you ask, merely altered) the practice and Yahoo started it almost immediately thereafter. Generally, speaking, the process is commonly described as working something like this - A set of grades or tiers is described and assigned percentages. So one could create five ratings, A through E and assign 20% to each of them. Come review time, everyone is placed into a bucket based on their performance relative to one another. People who wind up in the bottom group are in career trouble, as they are now on a track to be fired as poor performers, earning the process the unflattering name of "Rank and Yank."

Depending on your viewpoint, Jack Welch deserves the credit or blame for introducing this method to corporate America, and it was perhaps with this in mind that Mr. Welch took to a column on LinkedIn to defend the tactic. Welch started out by railing against the nickname of "Rank and Yank" saying:

Because most experienced businesspeople know that "rank-and-yank" is a media-invented, politicized, sledgehammer of a pejorative that perpetuates a myth about a powerfully effective real practice called (more appropriately) differentiation.
Differentiation, like any other practice, has to be correctly implemented to be effective. No real practice can be "powerfully effective," without a powerful commitment to making sure that it's done correctly. Mr. Welch, throughout the article, touches on things that have to be in place for differentiation to work, but never demands accountability from corporate America for ensuring those things are in place, preferring to attack the practice's critics - and in doing so shift his defense from the practice itself to the people practicing it, whom he seems to universally assume have implemented it in a manner that would meet with his approval. Although Mr. Welch does say that some companies undoubtedly leave parts of the process out, this doesn't prompt him to call upon companies to make sure that those parts are actually included. Instead he makes it into a failing of individual managers.

There is a difference between defending a process and defending organizations who implement that process. And for all that Mr. Welch has been a sucessful businessman, he doesn't clearly make that distinction. And in failing to do so, he misses an opportunity to educate, rather than castigate.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Up By Two

This is an awesome ad for Scrabble that I saw on the London Underground on a vacation to the UK. I'm kind of bummed that we can't have this sort of thing here.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Sale to Black

Well, here we are again, on another Black Friday. As retailers compete for the large, but still limited, number of dollars that people are going to spend for the holidays, and online shopping has broadened the reach of both sellers and buyers to just about any place on the globe, Black Friday has gone from being a chance to use a day off from work to get a jump on one's Christmas shopping to a worldwide retail phenomenon. And in so growing, like any number of other things, it's gotten, quickly and with great enthusiasm, wildly out of hand.

Or, has it?

It's become fashionable for those of us who don't actually venture out into the insanity that's overtaken the day after Thanksgiving to sit back and cluck our tongues at the greed and cupidity of the people who break down doors, brawl over merchandise or literally trample people beneath their feet in the service of saving money on a DVD player or video game console. Which is logical - it can be really hard to fathom just what about a new television is worth it. And so, when someone comments: "If you're getting arrested for fighting over a $100 TV at Walmart, you should probably reevaluate your life choices," we all nod in agreement.

But, as the saying goes, bad ideas don't survive because they're bad ideas - they survive because they represent rational choices to the people that make them. And given that Black Friday has been spawning retail chaos for the past several years running, it's not sneaking up on people - there are a lot of people out there who, understanding what's likely to happen go and do it anyway. What drives them to do so?
It's a holiday thing. I wouldn't understand.
I have no idea. And I think that I should be overjoyed by that. It would simply never occur to me to be caught up in a situation like the one in the video. Sure, there are times when I see something and think: "That would be cool to have," or "This would really make things easier," but I've never felt so hard up for something that wading into a mêlée to get it has ever even seemed reasonable, let alone necessary. The desperation that drives people to this sort of behavior, whether it's to get a Black Friday "deal" or simply to keep themselves and those they care for fed, clothed and out of the elements, just doesn't compute for me. It's something that I can only understand in the abstract.

And, as much as I might like to, I can't take all of the credit for that. Many other people made choices that brought me to this place where, despite an occasional flash of avarice, I understand that I have enough (and sometimes, like when I'm packing or unpacking things, that I have too much) - and tonight, I'll raise a glass to them.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Many v. The Few

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

While it's hard to trace this particular phrase back any further than The Wrath of Khan, it's something of a common trope, because the utilitarian idea of "the greater good" is a very old concept. This occurs to me in the context of charges being filed against some of the adults connected to the infamous 2012 rape case in Steubenville, Ohio.

While it's easy to become caught up in idea that what was done is self-evidently a "failure of humanity" or otherwise an act of irrationality and/or evil, it occurs to me that we rarely, if ever talk about a rather simple subject: Under what circumstances do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many, and where is that line drawn?

As usual, hard cases, which tend to come down squarely on one side of the issue or the other, are of little use in helping us work this out. But it seems to me that in this case, there were a number of people who weighed the harm that would come to their town, the local football program, or what have you against the harm to the young woman in question, and decided that she was an acceptable sacrifice. And while the widespread outrage over the case demonstrates people's disagreement with that choice, there are plenty of cases in which people have made similar decisions. And I suspect that it won't be long before we hear of another case in which people decide that in order to protect themselves what what seems like a trivial harm, it's worthwhile to inflict a much greater harm on someone else.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Looking In All the Wrong Places

"High minimum wages also hurts the people at the low end most. A kid with no experience and a questionable education is never going to get hired at 15 or 20 bucks per hour. He is left off the economic ladder entirely. We need to ABOLISH minimum wage laws."
Comment posted to "Tipping Is a Disgrace, but Where Did It Come From?"
The idea that young people won't be able to ever find entry-level work has become the "Won't somebody please think of the children," line of the pseudo-Libertarian armchair economist crowd. For me, the major problem with that line of reasoning is that is looks at a paying job as a form of charity - something that's offered to the clearly undeserving as some sort of favor, rather than a way of exchanging value (of labor) for value (of wages/benefits).

While I've never been a fan of the minimum wage myself, it's more because I think that it places the focus in the wrong place. The minimum wage is an attempt to take a broken system and make it less damaging to the vulnerable. A better solution, I've always thought, would be to make the system less broken or the people at low end less vulnerable. Abolishing the minimum wage does neither of these things. And the constant arguing over whether or not the minimum wage should be higher, lower or non-existent doesn't do them either.

The United States is a jobs economy. People look to the idea of working for someone else as their economic salvation, and, because of this arrangement, we've started accepting as normal a number of really wonky, and basically maladaptive, situations - like employer-sponsored health care. As was pointed out on one of the Planet Money Episodes of This American Life, no-one would sign up for such a system when it came to their groceries. And pensions are another wonky system. The gamble that you're making on someone's business sense by agreeing to what is the ultimate in deferred compensation is something that you otherwise couldn't get many people to agree to. But in the constant quest for jobs as the end all and be all of making a living, we accept these things.

What we need are fewer jobs and more entrepreneurship. Not that everyone can be an entrepreneur. You can't really sail a ship of any size with a crew made up entirely of Captains - you're going to need some sailors. But the more even that distribution can be, the more even the overall society can be. As a means of eroding the peaks and valleys of economic inequality, simply raising the minimum wage doesn't realy get us there. Not because it's an inherently bad idea, but because like a lot of things, there are assumptions between the implementation and the result, and if those assumptions turn out not to be correct, the result will likely be different than you were planning for.

Right now, we've structured our economy to make it possible for a relatively few highly efficient organizations to produce massive amounts of value, and then to distribute it among a relatively small percentage of the population. And I understand why we do that. It makes for massive Gross Domestic Product numbers, and explains why we have the highest aggregate GDP in the world and one of the highest GDPs per capita. But it contributes to some pretty clear income and wealth disparities because the people who are so efficiently pulling in this money are often disinclined to share - that's what allows them to be as wealthy as they are - they don't just give away money. We have to stop expecting that they will. Changing the system, so that more people can participate in it as something other than laborers, is likely to mean less overall efficiency. This overall drop in GDP will translate into a lower aggregate standard of living - we might even stop collectively being the richest people on the planet. We really have to ask ourselves if it's a worthwhile trade off. Right now, what we're trying to do is move money around after the fact, and complain that the people who lose it shouldn't miss it. That's unlikely to work. We need to solve the problem, rather than mask the symptoms.

Monday, November 18, 2013

It'll Never Fly

In her article "'The Best Man Holiday' And The Language Of Expectations," Linda Holmes points out the following:

As Lucas Shaw wrote yesterday for The Wrap, [The Best Man Holiday] joins 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, and other films from black filmmakers that have somehow surprised people with their success.
She then goes on to ponder why even the president of distribution at Universal, Nikki Rocco, wouldn't have expected this movie to open as strongly as it did, to quote Ms Rocco, "in my most non-lucid moment." And then she starts to ask why. Well, I, of course, have theory about that.

The TV Tropes entry for "Viewers are Morons" ends with the following understanding of what media executives think of their audiences: "not only are viewers stupid, they are also intolerant of people and things unlike themselves, ignorant, hate change, need to be instantly satisfied, and have the attention span of a goldfish."

I've made the comment before that in my opinion, one of the most enduring legacies of racism in the United States is the expectation of racism. Not only do Blacks and other minorities often expect Whites to engage in racist attitudes and behaviors, but Whites often expect racist attitudes and behaviors from one another. This applies itself in media. Whites are still the single largest demographic in the United States. If you assume that they will be largely disinterested in any movie where the primary characters are mainly non-Whites, it's easier to come to the conclusion that a movie with a largely Black or Hispanic or Asian cast is simply not going to do very well. Because well, Whites are intolerant of people unlike themselves. And so you wind up with, as Ms. Holmes puts it: "Analysts once again underestimate the box-office appeal of a movie about black people." (Which, in itself is indicative of another aspect of this - we don't commonly consider movies with few or no visible minorities in them to be "movies about white people." They're just movies. But if you think if White maleness as, rather than being simply one identity out of many, as the default position, and everything is a departure from that, becomes clear why USA Today called The Best Man Holiday "race-themed.")

Now the fact that Whites are considered to be poor candidates to see this movie is only part of the story. There's also likely an expectation that many Blacks will pass on seeing it. In part because The Best Man Holiday is a romantic comedy, and rom-coms are often considered to be Something White People Like. Which is often understood as Something Only White People Like. Which then casts Blacks as intolerant of people unlike themselves. But despite the fact that Black culture is somewhat different from White culture, their ideas of what constitutes romance and/or comedy aren't that far apart. After all, we didn't arrive on spaceships, and even if we had, we've had plenty of time to acclimate. (For my own part, I don't care for rom-coms. But this isn't because I'm Black it's because I have about half the romantic sense that Dog gave a cabbage, and find the mining of wacky relationships for laughs to be intensely boring.)

Of course, this is just my own theory as to why works by Black filmmakers are met with low expectations within the Hollywood establishment. I wonder what Ms. Holmes has come up with.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Illusion of Illusion

Most familiar brands are owned by a few large conglomerates. But, there are other options.
This graphic has been making the social media rounds for I don't know how long now. When you type "The Illusion of Choice" into the Search box of Google+, it comes up about a bajillion times. (Give or take a few dozen.)

While I understand the overall point of this graphic, it doesn't really show "the illusion of choice." It merely points out that many familiar brands are owed by a handful of companies. Now, it's true that most people are unaware of this. LexisNexis has a tool that will allow you to see corporate ownership chains down to about fourteen levels deep. I spend about three hours one night after work typing in the names of random companies and being surprised at how many of them were parts of massive webs of corporate ownership, and how the tendrils reached into so many seemingly unconnected areas. But the really interesting bit of it were how many outfits owned complementary businesses. The vacation business is the example that sticks with me. There are hospitality companies that own hotel chains, rental car companies, cruise lines, resorts - the whole nine yards. When you see a block of coupons for a number of different vacation-related services all together, it's a safe bet that there's a single corporate owner for all of them, once you follow the chain back far enough.

What this means in practice is simple: Making a meaningful choice requires more than just taking note of the sign over the door or the logo on the package. Deciding that "This chain restaurant sucks, and I don't want anyone associated with it to ever see a dime of my money again," requires more work than simply walking across the street to a different chain restaurant. Drinking SmartWater because you think you're sticking it to the owners of Dasani is slactivism, pure and simple.

Of course, this diagram is nowhere near complete, but the fact of the matter is that there's no product that any of these brands sell that can't be obtained from someone not associated with them. It takes time, effort and money to do it, however.

And that's what most people are really bothered by.

Finding shampoo that isn't made by Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson or Unilever is not an impossible task. But it's likely to take time that you may feel is needed elsewhere, effort that you have to slight something else to expend and money that then can't be used for more pressing needs. And to the degree that we understand all of these resources to be in short supply, and worthy of being conserved, it's easy to feel coerced into supporting corporate villains.

We may have every right to live in accordance with our priorities, but no-one has an obligation to make the choices that we exercise in doing so free. The world is interconnected. The choices that we make, and that other people make, all have ripple effects, and it's those ripples that shape the contours of the world that we live in. And while that doesn't make our choices illusory, it does make them, at times, expensive.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Trigger Alert

(In all seriousness, this post will likely contain triggers for some people.)

There any number of self-interested reasons to support the advancement of civil rights. "Let them niggers vote" or "let them fags marry" is actually a politically consistent position. It says, "I don't like you, but I'm not willing to put my tax dollars behind my dislike." Or even, "I don't like you, but I think I can profit from taking this position."
Ta-Nehisi Coates "Yeah, Alec Baldwin Is a Bigot"
But what about, "I don't give enough of a shit about you to care how my language makes you feel, but I have enough respect for your basic humanity to think that you're entitled to the same rights that I am?" Why can't the word, whether it be "nigger" or "cocksucking fag" or "cunt" simply be an expression of jackassery, rather than bigotry. While I agree with Mr. Coates when he observes that: "It is not incidental that slurs frequently accompany acts of violence—both systemic (withholding the protections of the law) and personal (beatings, torture and killings)," it seems to me that we should keep in mind that words are words and acts of violence, both "systemic" and personal are acts of violence, and that the two are not equal. The fact that one triggers us to brace for the other does not make them the same.

As an African American, I was brought up to believe that the word "nigger" was, just as Mr. Coates describes the word "faggot," basically: "like most slurs, is a word used to remove a group from the protections of society." And as a child and a young man, I was very sensitive to its use. But, as I grew older, I realized something. The people who used the word "nigger" did so not because they necessarily ready, willing or able to either withhold from me the protection of the law, or beat, torture or murder me - but because they understood that the word triggered fear in people like me, and by attempting to pull that trigger, they were hoping to control me. They hoped that I would become emotional; maybe fearful, maybe angry, maybe self-pitying, and they would on about their way, because, as I noted, they didn't care what I thought of them. Sure, I could grab some guy on the street and beat some "respect" into him; but regardless of how many people felt that the guy had it coming, their understanding would be unlikely to save me from the legal consequences of such an action.
An asshole way of putting this? Yep. More or less accurate? Also, yep.
While I find this e-card to epitomize insensitivity, crassness and simple spitefulness, the basic sentiment offered is correct. I've made quite a bit of the idea that the injuries that mere words (and Halloween costumes) do to us are basically self-inflicted, so there's no reason to beat that poor, dead horse any further.

There is a degree to which our reaction (or over-reaction) to certain words is almost a form of self-flattery - we perceive other people as being too dim to realize that they can pull our strings without having to do anything worse that form the correct syllables. Alec Baldwin doesn't strike me as being that dim. And therefore, it will take more than his simple use of the word "fag" to convince me that he honestly believes that gay men are not entitled to the same rights and responsibilities that everyone else is. The fact that he's a well-known and successful actor doesn't stop him from being insecure enough to be, basically, a troll. (And one of the ways in which we empower trolls is by being unwilling to regard their threats as empty.) So perhaps it's time for those of us who are offended by him to stop being insecure enough to be trolled.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Spiritual History

I was turned on to this video with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman, and something that Mr. Tyson said stuck with me.

When you look at people who are religious today, who are not in conflict with science, they have viewed their religious texts as a spiritual - something that gives them spiritual support. Not as a science textbook. [...] The conflict in society is when you have those who are still religious, who want to use their religious texts as their access point to understanding the natural world. And persistent efforts of the past to make that happen have just simply failed.
While it's an interesting statement, I think that is misses the mark slightly. The issue, as I see it, is with people who want to use their religious texts (given that Christianity is usually the religion being spoken of, that text is the Bible) as history books. Especially when they treat said texts as a literal, accurate, history of the events that it purports to chronicle.

This is the main problem that drives the conflict, as least as far as I understand the current conflict between certain strains of Christianity and secular science. Once one takes the Book of Genesis as a literal history, many parts of modern science become unacceptable. Not because the Book of Genesis has anything to say about the science, but because the science suggests that a completely different history must have taken place.

And, to a degree, there is yet another conflict that lies under all of this. Mr. Tyson points out that religious people who are not in conflict with science view their religious texts and spiritual documents. But one of the things that I have noticed when it comes to Christians (Evangelicals, mainly) who do see themselves in conflict with science is that they link the spiritual and, more importantly, moral utility of the Bible to it's historical accuracy. So, if there was no Garden of Eden or Great Flood, then the Ten Commandments lose their usefulness as rules.To the extent that this is true, the conflict between science and religion isn't going anywhere.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
Richard Cohen "Christie’s tea-party problem"

The problem here isn't that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn't actually racist, but "conventional" or "culturally conservative." Obstructing the right of black humans and white humans to form families is a central feature of American racism. If retching at the thought of that right being exercised isn't racism, then there is no racism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates "Richard Cohen in Context"

If Mr. Cohen is going to claim that the revulsion of "people with conventional views" is something other than racism, that's fine. But, given American history as we understand it, he acquires for himself the burden of explaining what their revulsion is. And this, if history is any indication, would be a tough row to hoe, even if Mr. Cohen had sought to attempt it.

Making the case that "the races" shouldn't mingle is an exceedingly difficult thing to get right, if it's possible at all, because there is no biological construct around most conceptualizations of "race," outside of outward appearance and/or presumed continent of origin. Nomenclature isn't useful - in common American parlance, I'm Black - yet an Indian co-worker who was of clearly darker skin tone than myself was Brown - as was the Chinese co-worker we were attempting to explain this to. And, according to a book I own that was first published in the 19th century illustrates, it wasn't all that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, when "race" was considered synonymous with "nationality."

Mr. Cohen's refusal to attempt the task may be understandable, in light of it's difficulty, but this makes it no less necessary. After all, if it looks like a duck and swims like a duck, people may be excused for believing that it is, in fact, a duck.


Over in The Atlantic, Mischa Fisher has ignited a teapot tempest with her article: “The Republican Party Isn't Really the Anti-Science Party.” Partisans from both side have been sniping at each other in what quickly became an expansive comments section, while other internet commentators have taken to critiquing the piece in other online outlets.

But Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely “anti-science” than any other demographic or political group. It’s just that “anti-science” has been defined using a limited set of issues that make the right wing and religious look relatively worse.(As a politically centrist atheist, this claim is not meant to be self-serving.)

But it came off that way, in part because I think that it was, at its heart, the wrong argument. To cast the Republicans as not-being “anti-science,” all that's really needed is to point out that the Democrats, while many of them are at least as nominally Christian as anyone else in the United States, tend to be strongly against initiatives that openly code Christianity into law. And while they are considered by some to be “anti-religion” for that tendency, this is generally understood to be a partisan criticism. It's really the same with Republicans, although there is the added wrinkle that among science boosters, it seems to be common to believe that science should, in effect, openly be coded into law.

Most of this is simply the nature of partisanship. There is a “shadow polarization” at work, with factions of the right and the left looking to forestall criticism of their chosen policies by looking for something greater than mere mortals as justification. A “greater Truth,” as it were. For the right, it's (generally) Biblical morality and/or tradition and for the left, it's scientific fact. And it's not really that either side completely discounts the other; rather, they disagree on what public values should be - and to the degree that each side bases its public values on different ideas, they set those ideas against one another.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Who Are We, Really?

One nation, under God,
With Liberty and Justice for all.
The end of the Pledge of Allegiance is part of American national mythology. It's something that a lot of people understand to be true. But for me, it raises a question. For a visitor to the United States, would it be at all evident that this were the case?

In my own experience, the United States, while certainly a single nation in the global geopolitical sense, doesn't come off as particularly unified. And neither to most the states, for that matter. Some of the rural Red states may appear to be somewhat homogenous, but even they have populations of people in them that would rather do things differently - they just aren't large enough to have any political clout. And across the nation as a whole, factionalism reigns. And there is a tendency, sometimes more open than at other times, for factions to press for the national interest to be a mirror of their own interests, at the direct expense of the interests of those outside of that faction.

As for under God, while the United States is ostensibly a Christian nation, again, I'm not sure that as a visiting observer, you'd conclude that the nation as a whole paid anything more than lip service to the idea of Christianity, or of a God that observed their actions, and would judge them on those actions.
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
While this quote is, almost certainly, bogus, I suspect that a lot of non-Christians would come to the same conclusion (perhaps with the help Christian defensiveness around it, which tends to be driven by the wording, which implies animosity).

Whether or not we've managed as society that practices Liberty and Justice for all of its members is also an open question. But again, I suspect that a visitor to the United States would conclude that we fall short. While some of this is certainly due to "whataboutism," the tendency of people in other nations to point to the shortcomings of the United States as a way of excusing the very real issues in their home nations, the fact remains that as an objective standard, Liberty and Justice for all is a very high bar - and one that it is often not politically expedient to strive for.

The common defense of this is a simple one: These things are hard, and, in very real sense, impossible to achieve, so holding people, especially an entire nation, to that standard is unrealistic and unfair. And there is some truth to that. But, from my vantage point, if we reframe the question to be would an outside observer conclude that we are sincerely striving for these things, I don't think the answer changes.

The modern United States tends to be, first and foremost, concerned with its affluence and security. This is, in my understanding, to be expected, and is not a failing. What stands out for me is the idea that these concerns are not legitimate enough to openly own up to.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Open Letter

"When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it At a time when the American people are still asking the question, 'Where are the jobs?' why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?"
Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) Speaker of the House of Representatives
Supporters Say Minimum Wage Hike Gaining Support
Well, Speaker Boehner, if you really want to know where the jobs are, look no further than wealth inequality in the United States. Not that the whole country needs to be "share and share alike" or any other radical plan, but when people who have money aren't really spending it, and the people who want to buy things don't have money to spend, then the velocity of money slows and economic activity slows down. It's not rocket science. As long as there's such a disparity between "the haves and the have nots," it's really going to be hard to get things moving. I get the concern that small business owners will have a harder time hiring new people. But that's not really what people are looking at. They're concerned that the people who own stock in WalMart or McDonald's are making a killing from passive income (money that they derive from investments and other sources that don't require direct labor) while "the little guy" does all the work, and sees nothing for it.

And you know what, Speaker Boehner? For all the complaining that you do about people acting on that perception, you sure haven't done jack squat to change it.

As long as people are a) feeling strapped and b) seeing "the 1%" living large - seemingly at their expense, they're going to feel that that the current system doesn't work for them. And as long as they don't see a path to success within the system, they're going to want to change it. And right now, that change entails what seems to people like voting for massive, faceless megacorporations to give up some of the wealth that they've been hoarding, and spread it around to everyone else. People are looking for a rising tide that, if it doesn't lift all boats, at least has a decent chance of lifting theirs. And if doesn't come along on the timeframe they want, they're going to create it themselves. You can either be a part of that tide, or be swamped by it. King Knut understood that the sea didn't answer to his commands. It's a useful piece of wisdom, Mr. Speaker. If you want people to do things differently, a nice start would be to quit with the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, and tell people: "here is a realistic plan that get you what you want, and aligns with our principles - here are the costs, and here are the benefits." I know - it's not the way that politics is played. Because some TEA Party Republican, Democrat or other opportunistic would-be politician is going to see an opening. They're going play up the costs and potential problems with your plan, and people are going to become nervous. It's human nature. People are going to focus more on the potential losses, especially if they're immediate, than the potential gains, especially if they're in the future.

The jobs, Speaker Boehner, are locked up in all of the money that's not circulating. Like it or not. Release the money, and the jobs will follow it. That's going to be a problem. The people who are holding it want to keep it, understandably, and it's going to be hard to convince them that they should part with it. But there seems to be a habit of defining "leadership" as: Getting people to do things that they'd rather not do. And if you're convinced than leadership is required, and it's not being shown, then I think that you know what you need to do...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


I have to hand it to Orson Scott Card. The man has had a book made into a major motion picture that almost no-one is talking about. People are complaining about him. And people are complaining about people complaining about him. People are making a big deal about boycotting the movie. And people are making a big deal about people making a big deal about boycotting the movie.

While it's said that any publicity is good publicity, I wonder if Card is wishing that the remarkable volumes of internet chatter were a little less about him, and a little more about Ender's Game. I can only imagine how frustrating it is for him to reach the big time, and for hardly anyone to devote any attention to such an achievement.

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Representation Without Representation

File under: Oh Noes! Other People's Representatives Do What They're Asked!

Nevada Assemblyman Jim Wheeler went on the record saying that if his constituents wanted slavery, then he'd vote (very reluctantly) to legalize slavery. And is being pilloried for it. Alexander Abad-Santos, over at The Atlantic Wire says: "And let's put it this way, if Wheeler's constituents in Nevada's District 39 ever believe in resurrecting slavery, we're all in trouble." But isn't this what it means to represent a constituency? That you advocate for their interests?

"If that’s [slavery] what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose … they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah."
This is a problem with the common American conceptualization of what legislatures are about. Whether or not the job of a legislator is to substitute their judgment for that of their constituents on matters of morality is subject to debate. Generally speaking, most people in the United States want their legislators to vote in a way that reflects their values and interests. But they also tend to want other people's legislators to also vote in a way that reflects their values and interests, rather than those of the voters to whom that legislator is answerable. This is often, cynically, termed "political courage," as it's supposedly courageous to ignore the wishes of people who elected you to, well, carry out their wishes, in favor of people who live somewhere else, and think that they know better. For those of you who wonder why "political courage" is so rare, this strikes me as a pretty good reason.
Assemblyman Wheeler is doing the job as he understands it's supposed to be done - rather than vote his own conscience, he votes his constituents' conscience (well, the conscience of a majority of the people who voted, anyway), whether he understands that conscience to be sound or not. If the population of Nevada (let alone of the 39th District) ever become pro-slavery enough that Assemblyman Wheeler actually has to wrestle with whether or not to vote their will, or let them blow his brains out, yes, we're all in trouble - but not because of Wheeler's loyalty to his constituency; by that point, it goes well beyond that.

"The purpose of the Constitution was to preserve the Declaration of Independence's right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' The word 'virtue' is not included in that phrase. Its omission is the single greatest innovation of the United States' founding."
Andrew Sullivan "Crisis of Faith" The New Republic, 25 April, 2005
I get that slavery is the United States' version of Nazism - an unambiguous Evil (or maybe even Eeeevil) that everyone must be against on general principles to be understood as properly human, let alone a respectable American. While I'm not sure that Mr. Sullian would approve of me quoting him in this context, his point still stands - our system of government was not put in place simply to legitimize what would, by necessity, be a certain minority of the public coding into law their own pre-determined understanding of what was right and proper. Enlightenment is not a pre-requisite for self-, or representative, government. We've allowed ourselves to become accustomed to the idea that when government knows best, it should hand the citizenry a fait accompli and set about sanctioning those who disagree. But this frees those who support what they understand to be correct way of doing things from having to lobby the public as to the correctness of their cause. Instead, they can simply write them off as stupid or bigoted and go on about their way. And that has always been where the trouble started.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck...
This postcard, which landed in my mailbox earlier this week, epitomizes, for me, an American tendency to feel that changing what you call something somehow changes the thing itself. There are a lot of times in which we use words that aren't intended so much as euphemism or idiom but as actual "alter egos" of a sort, for thing that is being referred to. Depending on which extreme of the political divide one sits on, for instance, the government of the United States is either "socialist" or "fascist." Libertarians are fond of referring to taxation as "theft." Or, less politically fraught, the fact that tomatoes are referred to (and legally classified) as "vegetables" based on how they are commonly used when, botanically, they are fruits.

Given how these linguistic inaccuracies are treated as truths or become de-facto truths in common usage, it's unsurprising that there are efforts to control the nature of political debates through getting particular language in front of the public early and then driving its adoption.

But, of course, a rose by any other name still being a rose, the actual thing itself is unchanged. "harvest carnivals" are still Halloween parties, and "Chinese checkers" is actually a German variant of an American game called "Halma," and the misnomers applied to them do alter that. The same is true in politics.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Of Baggage and Badges

In its zeal to root out terrorists, the Transportation Security Administration expanded its pre-flight screenings of passengers into looking into their car registrations and employment information, combing through government and private databases for information. And it's using that data for domestic flight screenings, rather than simply international arrivals, as in the past.

While I understand the comparisons to the secret police of repressive regimes, and the way this feeds into the idea that the United States is becoming a police state, I think that chalking this up to "police state" behavior does the people who actually have to go through it a disservice. I know several people who are openly critical of the current status quo. All of them are extremely unlikely to ever have go through this, given the system as it stands. And I suspect I'm never going to have to go through it either, despite the fact that I have no problem with labeling such measures security theater. People of middle-eastern backgrounds and/or who have names similar to the names or aliases of "terrorists," however, are much more likely to have to suffer through this - not because the government of the United States is worried that they'll foment some sort of violent revolution or other uprising, but because the populace of the United States is worried that they'll explode a bomb or otherwise attempt to kill Americans (and perhaps themselves).

With sincere apologies to H. L. Mencken, “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the record for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the willingness of the great masses of the plain people to throw those unlike them under the bus to protect their own safety or material comfort.”

Unlike police states, our government is unafraid of its citizens traveling from place to place in the name of a popular revolt. Our government is afraid of the majority of its citizens, who feel that they have something to lose, and are willing to put their boots on others people's necks to prevent themselves from loss, holding it responsible for the next attack on American soil. The sad fact of representative democracy is that perception is more important than truth. And the twin perceptions that we've somehow earned the absolute right to live lives that are free of things that (rationally or not) frighten us and that people like Abdulla Darrat are too scary to be afforded the freedoms that the rest of us take for granted mean that articles like this are greeted, in many quarters, with: "better that he be inconvenienced than I or a loved one be injured or killed." Many people agree with Former Attorney General John Ashcroft's assertion that, as  David Corn put it in Slate more than a decade ago: "Extremism in the name of civil liberties could lead to the destruction of the nation." Or, in the words of Justice Robert Jackson, "There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact." (Terminiello v. City of Chicago [1949])

But this is something to be expected. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, this "is not because America is uniquely evil, so much as it is because America is the work of humans. One wishes we would dispense with the entire industry of 'shining cities' and admit to this." But as we have determined for ourselves that we are above such fears and anxieties, we have closed ourselves off from a frank look at our own frailties, preferring to view those threaten us as the evil other.

h/t: Jamie Crisalli.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Teach the Children

But your child is no fool. She knows she has lice, and she knows what tomorrow is [the ELA, the statewide reading-and-writing test whose scores in this crucial year will help to determine your kid’s middle-school placement]. For her, the takeaway goes something like this: Always be kind and considerate of others, except in those cases where consideration impedes your own self-interest or convenience. Then, take care of yourself.
Ethical Parenting” Lisa Miller
This was, perhaps the most difficult lesson that I learned when I worked with children, back when I graduated college. Children aren't stupid, they aren't guileless and they understand power relationships. I'm not a parent myself, and those four-and-a-half years of working with children are one of the big reasons - I learned that I didn't have the patience to deal with childishness and lacked the stamina to watch everything that I said and did for more than 8 to 10 hours at a stretch. The children caught me swearing, once. To this day, I wonder where the energy came from that prevented it from happening more often.

At it's heart, ethics is the idea that there are more important things in life than "winning," whatever winning happens to mean in the moment. And therein lies the problem. Because sometimes winning means obtaining a new toy when you don't have the money to pay for it, and sometimes winning means having the money to afford bus fare to work, doing what's best for your child or keeping a roof over your head. And while one of society's rules may be "Follow society's rules," another of those rules is "Win at life - regardless of the rules."

The problem isn't that children will often do as the adults in their lives do, rather than as they say. The problem is that they will do what they see works. "Be the change that you wish to see in the world," has gone from nugget of wisdom to everyday aphorism to mindless cliché. But still few us do that in front of the people who matter most. Instead we teach them that there is nothing more abundant in their world than scarcity, and in a culture of scarcity, the most important thing in the world is to get whatever you can - and preferably more than everyone else around you. And we wonder at the world we've created.

Rational Interests

The social media "Share." The slacktivism flavor of the day.
Translation: Somewhere, someone is spending more money on what it important to them, than what is important to me.

Social media is good at these sorts of appeals. But it's poor at selling them. The United States spends a tremendous amount of money on its military - in some cases, money even the military would rather not be spent. The reasons for this are many, and some are complicated, but in the end, those expenditures are the result of rational economic decisions on the part everyone involved.
It's not that we're dupes of the advertisers; it's not that we're manipulated by special interests; it's not that we're those frail, irrational creatures that social critics often make us out to be. Rather it's that many of the decisions we confront are like those confronting participants in a military arms race. Countries don't by bombs because they're stupid; they buy them because it's bad not to have bombs when the other side has bombs.
Robert H. Frank "Falling Behind."
To change the way the world operates is difficult because it involves convincing people that their interests are served by whatever action it is that is being proposed. Assuming that we could divert some percentage of world military expenditure into increasing food security for everyone on Earth who does currently have it, the will to do so won't come from a plethora of random social media shares. Instead, it will come from making a compelling case (or, more likely a number of compelling cases) that it's a worthwhile expenditure.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rationalizers, Stop Rationalizing

You're victim-blaming. You should leave your doors unlocked and just ask thieves not to be thieves.
Slate's Emily Yoffe is taking it on the chin for an article warning college women about the dangers of heavy drinking, vis-a-vis sexual assault. Not that she didn't know what she was getting herself into:
But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.
The Atlantic was quick to pile on, apparently looking to one-up the clickbait headline that Slate attached to Yoffe's article with one of their own: Slate Forgot That the One Common Factor in Rapes Are Rapists. And the article itself is just as strident:
Yoffe failed to realize that there's one thing that's more common than alcohol when it comes to rapes. That would be rapists. While alcohol plays a part in a number of rapes, I can assure you that in every case (both male and female) of rape, there is at least one rapist. And, well, Yoffe's column isn't titled "Rapists, stop raping women."
But isn't the common factor in ALL crimes the fact that someone engages in criminal behavior? In the comments section of the Altantic article resides the snide comment that I opened this post with, which comes across as snide precisely because we would consider that to be absolutely moronic advice. I doubt that I could manage to convince any reputable online magazine to publish an article titled: "Thieves, Stop Stealing People's Stuff," that made the point that calling for things like deadbolts and burglar alarms was little more than a way to blame the target of thefts, rather than the perpetrators.

While I understand what's in play, the overall effect strikes me as an attempt to Newspeak misogyny and sexual violence out of existence. Declaring a broad range of topics to be "victim-blaming" and forbidding discussion of them is unlikely to get to the core of the issue. If a woman is raped, does anyone think that many people who are otherwise inclined to consider the perpetrator guilty would change their mind upon hearing that the woman as drinking beforehand? Treating victim-blaming tropes as if they were actually considered affirmative defenses, rather than after-the-fact rationalizations of a predetermined conclusion does everyone a disservice - and presumes that the rationalizations spread the conclusions, rather than the other way around. We have any number of reasons, some tied to the perpetrator(s) and others tied to the victim(s), for looking the other way when crimes occur, and the result is an uneven culture of impunity, that allows, if not encourages, predation under certain circumstances. What is now commonly termed "rape culture" is only one facet of this - previous manifestations have included what one could call "lynching culture," and perhaps even a "kidnapping and conversion culture" foisted upon Native Americans by Christian missionaries. These likely had both their warnings to potential victims and pushback against the idea that it was the job of the targets to take care, rather than the perpetrators to cease their behavior. While these things have been largely done away with, it was not that pushback that did them in - it was, instead, the fact that the greater society stopped the self-righteous rationalizations that allowed them to thrive.

Viewed from that angle, perhaps the message shouldn't be to rapists to stop the assaults (which seems that it would fall on deaf ears anyway) but to the rest of us to stop enabling them and/or looking the other way - and then blaming the victims to justify that behavior.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Art of Intransigence

Marc Ambinder lists five things that the House Republicans have managed to do with the shutdown standoff. Of them, I think that the fifth is the most important.

5. Ensuring their re-election.
They did this in such a way that "the potential and actual damage to the American economy is significant." But it gets them what they wanted - to be sent back to Washington. And, if it turns out that it does ensure their re-election, it did so by appealing to the sensibilities of the people that matter most - a majority of the active voters in their districts. And in the end, those are the people that those who disapprove of the way this has gone down need to be talking to.

Regardless of what one might think of the TEA Party and its politics, you have to grant them that they are organized, they are motivated and they're pretty much on the same page. That unity gives them quite a bit of power, even though they aren't a majority of the population. But while they're often portrayed as a group of wild-eyed fanatics who have hijacked the Republican Party, the fact is that many of the remaining GOP electorate has gone along with them - because during the primaries, they don't really care who is nominated, and during the general election, any Republican beats any Democrat (or anyone else from a different party for that matter). To the degree that Republicans are locked in a room with bomb-throwing lunatics (although it's not really accurate to portray them that way) they're the ones to turned the key. And they did this because they have their own perceived interests and power at stake, and "taking hostages," or simply throwing tradition and custom out the window is a rational, if somewhat extreme, way of protecting those interests. As the stereotypical Republican voter slides into the minority, this will become less and less a viable tactic, but they won't be the last people to decide that delaying the inevitable is better than facing it head-on.

The United States has never been as majoritarian as people like to make it out to be. The system was originally set up to offer some protections to certain minorities and while things have become a lot kludgeier in the past 200+ years, many of those protections are still in place - for those who know how to work the system. And right now, it's the Republicans, lead by their right wing, who know how to work the system. And they're going to do so to their benefit, not the nation's. Precisely because they're convinced that what is to their benefit is in the best interests of the nation as a whole. This is a common idea in the United States - rare are the groups who don't conflate their own narrow interests with expansive national ones.

Perhaps because of the disparate coalition that the Democrats' big tent philosophy has created, they're often in a situation in which it's often perceived as more virtuous to abandon the party than it is to stick with it when things aren't going your way. The Republicans have embarked upon the opposite strategy, and, more importantly, they've stuck with it long enough that it's paying off. Republican lawmakers know this. Calls from outsiders for "political courage" fall on deaf ears because most of them are little more than calls to be voted out of office in the next cycle. As long as the Republican base is more organized and unified, they're going to win more than one thinks they would, because they're going to put to best use the advantages that come from winning - such as living in highly gerrymandered districts. This makes their legislators relatively, if not completely, immune from national opinion. Congressional unpopularity, which is usually made up of calls to have other voters dump their legislators, simply won't be an issue. It's going to take dissatisfaction from within their districts, not from outside of it, to push them into changing their tune.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

One Job

When does a job, or a career, become a duty?

I tend to be a "media" pragmatist. Journalism is a line of work like any other. And while a lot of people may go into it with the intent to change the world, to further the cause of Good Government or any of a number of high ideals, at the end of the day, reporting is an occupation that many of its practitioners rely on to, first and foremost, pay the bills. This means that journalism tends to go where the money is. Because the simple act of watching or listening to the news doesn't put food on anyone's plate, keep them clothed or erect a roof over their heads, for most, if not all, "free" media, the audience is not the actual customer. As has been noted about a trillion times on the Internet, the audience, or at least the attention of certain subsets of that audience, is the product being sold, and it's the advertisers who hope to capitalize on that attention, who are the customers. This, generally speaking, is my counterargument to those who would like to see the media court-martialed for dereliction of duty - usually for not telling people what the would-be prosecutor wants them to know.

As far as I'm concerned, the news media in the United States is not, primarily, a public service. It's a business. And the goal of a business - even if it's not-for-profit - is to make money. Programming, and the people who create it, do not come free. (Normally. After all, there is the hobbyist issue to contend with.) Generally speaking, American news journalism is advertising supported. And what matters to them is reaching eyeballs - preferably attached to people who have money that they're willing to part with. And so this becomes one of the major tasks that the news media concerns itself with - getting people to watch.

And this creates the problem that media watchdogs are so acutely aware of - that the media tends to be more concerned with attracting the public than "properly" informing the public. News coverage that makes people into better citizens is wonderful - but if it's not interesting enough to watch, people will surf over to something that is. The general public, at least in the United States, are not "news addicts" per se; while they may watch the evening news as part of their daily routine, they could do without it. And there are multiple sources of news, many of which are in competition with each other for the same audiences.

Between these factors, it's not particularly realistic for someone to expect that the news is going to be presented the way they wish it to. Unless they're prepared to start writing some checks themselves.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Are You Better Than a Hobbyist?

Creative people, especially writers, are a funny breed. We are the only profession I know of who work for free. No coal miner, nurse, shipyard worker, accountant, or any other person with bills to pay works for free. But, that is what writers are often being forced to do. And the consequences for creativity and democracy are dire.
Jonathan Tasini "Other professionals don't work for free. So why are writers expected to?"
The difference between "creative people" and coal miners, nurses, shipyard workers and accountants is not entirely that these groups have engaged in "collective organisation." A large part of it is that I've never heard of anyone who mines coal or works in a shipyard as a hobby. Writers, artists, photographers and other people in creative fields are finding, more and more, that they have more competition than just one another. They also have legions of amateur creators who don't rely on their craft in order to put food on the table, but only to keep themselves entertained.

The Internet has made sharing information and moving it around the world a simple matter. As a result, the amount of material out there that's "good enough" has risen exponentially. And a lot of it is available at little or no cost. Yes, this makes being a professional creator more difficult than it used to be. But it's the nature of the business. It's hard to command high prices for work that someone else is capable of literally giving away. Eventually, the ranks of creative professionals are going to be whittled down to those people who consistently produce such high quality work that no hobbyist, no matter how dedicated, can reproduce; simply by virtue of the fact that their day jobs preclude them from putting in the time needed to bring their skills to that level. Getting to that point, however, is likely to be painful. Unionization may arrest the slide, but it's unlikely to reverse it, because "good enough" isn't going to go away.