Sunday, April 28, 2013


In [the University of Texas] case, although colleges benefit from a diversity of ideas, to use skin colour as a proxy for this implies that all black people and all Chinese people view the world in a similar way. That suggests a bleak view of the human imagination.
Time to scrap affirmative action
So, I would submit, does American history.

In yet another tiresome complaint against the practice of Affirmative Action, The Economist states: "Governments should be colour-blind."

Really? Now, there is a new concept. But here's a statement that they don't make: Societies should be color-blind.

There is a lot about encoding racially-based preferences into law that turns out to be more trouble than it's really worth. But you're always going to have trouble dismantling them because they exist for a reason, and in nine times out of ten, that reason hasn't gone anywhere, regardless of how much progress has been made in the meantime.

The fundamental problem with most Affirmative Action programs is that they seek to balance what is understood as an active societal tendency to conflate the content of a persons character, their academic prowess, business acumen, or what-have-you with the color of their skin with an equally active counterbalancing force. As has been pointed out, this a difficult balancing act to manage, let alone master, and it creates any number of perverse incentives. But rather than simply assuming, as The Economist does, that you can concentrate on other areas, and the old prejudices and in-group preferences will simply evaporate (or that they already have), governments should focus their efforts on creating policies that obviate active discrimination in the culture at large. One of the few prejudices that people have that's stronger than their animosity for one another is their dislike of wasting time and effort on things that will not bear fruit.

Working to create a society in which discrimination is seen as simply useless will remove the barriers that Affirmative Action programs were designed to take down, but I think that they'll have the added benefit of removing the learned helplessness that dogs many minorities. This David Horsey cartoon from 2008 illustrates what I mean. If President Obama had been raised in a society of people who worried that they'd never see him succeed, he wouldn't have managed to get to a point that allowed him to be a role model.
We can't always wait for someone else to show us what can be done.
Most African-Americans are convinced that they live in a system that is so stacked against them that they need programs like Affirmative Action to get anywhere. In my own opinion, the fact that President Obama didn't grow up in that demotivating environment was crucial to his success, because he didn't see himself as mounting a quixotic crusade in the face of White opposition. Programs that allowed more African-Americans (and other minority groups) to feel (and, let's be sure, this is a feeling we're talking about) that they didn't need to somehow overcome a White majority they understand as hostile - and more importantly, ultimately in control of everything around them, including their opportunities - would do a lot to obviate the need to overtly race-based remediation programs.

Of course, I realize that what I'm asking for is not simple. So perhaps rather than simply having a sunny view of human imagination, it's time that we put it to work for us.

Friday, April 26, 2013

One Hundred, But Never Plus One

Philosophical debates about open borders or no borders raise an interesting question in my mind, one that I rarely see dealt with. What, I wonder, is the difference between group individual ownership and collective ownership?

Consider the following scenario. There are 100 people, who each have one acre of land to their name. The parcels are contiguous, effectively forming a single 100-acre parcel. It's well-resourced and productive land, and so the 100 people are all doing okay for themselves, but are hampered by the fact that each is working an individual parcel of land with a home on it. So the hundred of them get together one day and decide that they're going to shift things around a bit. They move all of the homes into a small area of the land, say 10 acres. And they'll farm, mine, et cetera, the other 90 acres. But each person retains ownership of their original 1-acre parcel of land. They simply allow the other members of the community more or less free access to it, and effectively barter between each other to keep everything even - so the people who own the acres on which the houses sit collect rents from the people who live in the houses, and at the same time, pay land use fees to the people who own the land that they work on. And this is a contractual agreement - absent either leaving the community and selling out to the others or breaking some sort of agreed-upon rules, neither party may unilaterally break the agreements once they enter into them. The overall result of this agreement is that the land is used more efficiently, and so everyone does noticeably better for being a part of this community of people.

Now, consider a slightly different scenario. The same 100 people live on the same 100 acres. And they decide to concentrate the living areas and the working areas of the land as before. But this time, each person owns privately the small plot of land upon which their home stands, and the rest of the land is "owned" by the community as a whole. Everyone is entitled to use it, so long as they follow the agreed-upon rules. And again, each individual finds themselves better off.

In each case, a 101st person appears on the scene, and wants to move into this community, as things are better there than they are in the place where the newcomer came from. Everyone says "No." In the first scenario, no one rents the newcomer a parcel of land to build a home on, and no-one rents them any of the working land for them to make a living on. In the second scenario, the group simply unanimously decides not to allow the newcomer in. And, in each case, they are ready to use force to keep the newcomer out. In the first scenario, the person who owns whichever parcel of land the newcomer trespasses on rallies the others to aid in ejecting them, and in the second scenario, a group of the community members take it upon themselves to remove the newcomer from common land.

So. What I want to know is why is the first scenario considered acceptable to open/no borders supporters, but not the second? Why must land be privately owned by a single individual in order to be controlled? Why can 100 individuals own parcels of land, and make completely arbitrary determinations as to who may or may not use, access or live on their individual parcels, but once they decide to pool their land into a common ground, they, as a collective lose that right?

If you approach this from the Right side of the political spectrum, it's easy to simply chalk it up to anti-collectivism, and move on. But it's worth noting that the Left isn't necessarily immune to this formulation, either, as they too can support the idea of private ownership of land, yet feel that there is a moral wrong in closed borders. So I'm curious as to how the understanding that the two ideas are different arises.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bad All Over

So... who has it worse when it comes to breaking into the current job market? Stay-at-home parents returning to the workforce? Those over 50? New college graduates? Low-income Blacks and Latinos? Those out of work for 6 months or longer?

Well, to a certain degree, it's all of the above - and more. As the "great recession" gained momentum, millions of people lost their jobs, and the unemployment rate soared. And even though the recession has formally ended, the unemployment woes haven't, because what counts is GDP, not the workforce. And even though the number of jobs has been slowly climbing, the main reason why the current unemployment rate is where it is owes more to the a lower participation rate than it does to hiring.

It wasn't been difficult to find articles outlining the difficulties of this or that group in finding work since the beginning of the recession, and it's hasn't been difficult to find people calling for new laws or regulations to make life easier for them. But this doesn't do anything about the underlying problem, namely that (overall) it's an employer's market. And when employers have their choice of applicants, and there are large numbers of applicants for any given position, they're going to be selective, and often that selectivity manifests itself as using shortcuts and assumptions to screen people out of consideration. And this results in certain groups feeling the pain more than others.

While I understand the calls to spread the pain around, somewhere along the way we abdicated to Congress and the Executive branch the task of finding a way to reduce the pain. It's a task that they haven't been particularly suited to. So maybe it's time that we started looking for ways to relieve them of it. The solution to damaging selectivity among employers is simple. Put them in a position where they need to hire badly enough that they can't afford to be selective. Of course, there's nothing simple about implementing that. But that should tell us that where we should be spending our energies.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

You Say You Want a Revolution

"Americans Can’t Handle the Truth" is a great, attention-grabbing headline. And a complete pander, as anyone reading the article (a book review on Davd Stockman's The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America) will assuredly pat themselves on the back for being one of the few, the proud - those who can handle a truth that sends their countrymen scrambling to find sand to bury their heads in. But it's inaccurate.

When Jim Clifton (CEO of Gallup) gets to the actual point, it's not, in reality, that Americans can't handle the truth - it's that they don't volunteer for pain. "I hate to say it," Mr. Clifton writes (personally, I doubt the truth of that), "but most of us would rather the president and our representatives in Congress don’t cause us any pain. [...] We elect our officials to create no discomfort for us, and they deliver." (Which raises an interesting question for me. Who does elect political representatives on a platform of making them suffer? Does Germany have a Torture Party or Japan a Sadomasochism Party?)

Clifton's policy prescriptions are fairly stereotypical conservative boilerplate, as are those of Stockman's that he recommends. But that's beside the point. What is important is that the context in which he presents them is designed to make the point that in order to get the promised future benefits, the nation must endure short-term pain. And who has ever managed a campaign on a platform of making people worse off? I understand a faith in American Exceptionalism, but when that exceptionalism calls for Americans to somehow be immune to the facet of human nature known as "loss aversion," it starts to seem a little fishy.

It makes little sense to complain about Americans acting in the same way that people the world over do - and then present an argument that plays into the very behavior that you're complaining about. In other words, don't present an argument that posits pain first, gain later and then complain that the predictable loss aversion response that results is a result of people not wanting to hear the truth.

Regardless of how people like to see themselves, support for making painful changes to our current society doesn't arise from some inner strength, or commitment to looking the truth in the face, no matter how painful it is. It arises from resignation - and, it should be said, a certain level of loss aversion - the understanding that the pain is coming, whether we like it or not, and by acting now, we can lessen the pain. Revolutions don't come about because people enjoy risking their livelihoods and/or lives for a better future that may not actually happen. Revolutions come about because the status quo is so terrible that the risk seems worth it. Many Americans are not at that point yet. Expecting them to act as though they are, and then looking down your nose at them, is not helpful.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Incredible Shrinking Money

Deflation is toxic for any economy, but particularly for an alternative one like Bitcoin. No matter what kind of currency we're talking about, deflation causes hoarding -- why buy something today if you can buy it for less tomorrow? -- that crushes economic activity. The question is what to do about it. In his classic essay on the Capitol Hill babysitting co-op, Paul Krugman explained that the easiest solution is to just increase the supply of money to meet the increased demand for money. In other words, get that printing press going! That stops hoarding, which gets people buying again, which sets off a new virtuous cycle.
Bitcoin Is No Longer a Currency
Okay. I have to admit that I don't understand the love affair with inflationary currencies and the erosion of savings that results. Part of it is not understanding the distinction between "saving" and "hoarding," other than saving=good and hoarding=bad. But regardless of what you call it, the whole reason for it is not just to get the best price on a flat-screen television, it's to be able to save excess resources for a day when you need them and cannot work to create new resources. Or have decided that fifty years of the rat race is enough. Under an inflationary regime, one's savings (or hoardings, if you prefer) will quietly dwindle away, whether you spend them or not, and so forces investment just to break even. Thus a certain level of risk-taking is required just for an hour of work today to be worth an hour of work in the future. And if that risk doesn't pay off, your only options to recoup it are more work or more risk-taking - and we all know where a lot of risk-taking lead us. Given that, I'm not sure I understand how "virtuous" the cycle of inflation is, since central banks have shown a recurring unwillingness to remove the punch bowl before party guests are being shuttled away in ambulances or the back seats of police cars - so if inflation appears to be making things better in the short run, it's a safe bet that it will continue until it bites everyone in the ass.

It seems to me that the love of inflation is based on a love of consumption. But a certain amount of consumption is a given. No matter how much I think the price of food, clothing and shelter will drop tomorrow, I have to stay fed, clothed and out of the elements today, so the consumption being driven is purely discretionary - things that are nice-to-haves, that I can do without - perhaps forever. This is what allows me to put off buying them, hoping to save just a little bit more by waiting and waiting...

One of the things that caused the most recent bubble in the economy was that the United States was maintaining a negative savings rate - people were, on aggregate - not only spending every dime that came in, but they were borrowing on top of that. And look where it got us.

Looking at this, I disagree with the statement that deflation is necessarily toxic - unless your economy has grown to depend on discretionary spending, the sort of thing that can be pushed forward by threatening an individual's wealth - "You can either buy something with it today, or be left holding worthless paper tomorrow," only works when the timing of spending is up to the individual, and not other factors. After all, one can't simply empty their bank account and stockpile food before the prices go up - unless they plan on eating hardy non-perishables for the rest of their lives, and has someplace to put it all.

If we're in a situation where our economy only works by pushing people to spend money that they don't need to spend as quickly as we can, the toxicity is likely in something other than our choice of currency.

Cookie Jar

A[n] argument that has always been a bit weak has been the attempt to minimise the extent to which allowing same-sex marriages will change the definition of marriage for straight married couples.
It's a big deal when social institutions change this way, and if conservative heterosexuals feel their marriages are affected, they're right, even when the way they phrase their complaints is wrong.
And now on to polygamy
I would say that this is badly phrased, almost to the point of worthlessness. A better away of putting it would be as follows:
[I]f conservative heterosexuals feel their marriages are affected, those feelings are valid, even when the way they phrase their complaints seem personal and subjective to others.
There is a difference between acknowledging the legitimacy of an emotion, and stating that such an emotion is therefore grounded in a factual circumstance. I have been unable to find any evidence of a change in heterosexual marriage beyond the loss of an exclusive privileged position for married couples. To use an example that parents may be familiar with - It is possible to accept that a child's hurt feelings at another child receiving a cookie are valid - but this does not mean that the child's argument that they are injured by the other child having a cookie - when they also have one and are not being asked to divide it - must be taken at face value. (And note, I don't intend to imply childishness on the part of heterosexuals who claim injury - the example is simply a convenient, and hopefully, accurate and easily-digested, analogy.)

As the meaning of the phrase "all men are created equal" was expanded to include non-landowners, women and non-whites, there WAS, on the other hand, a significant, factual change in what it meant to be a landed, white male - the loss of total control over the Republic. When the franchise was legally limited, those with it had the sole power to select representation. Others were subject to what the founding fathers claimed they had specifically fought to end: taxation (and being subject to a whole host of other legal circumstances) without representation. The end of limited access to the vote meant that circumstances were now different, as the once exclusive club of voters was now subject, at least potentially, to having their interests challenged, and maybe even damaged, at the ballot box by others who previously had only the choices of accepting what they were given, leaving the country or being criminalized. Straight married couples faced no such status alteration - and I have yet to encounter an argument for anything else that they lose in the transaction that doesn't transform marriage into a strange sort of zero-sum game, or an argument over a word.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


[I]t is one thing to believe that deficit reduction is the most important issue of the day. It is another to imply that the Middle Passage was like "riding on a crowded airplane when you're not in first class." It is one thing to believe that America must always have the world's strongest military. It is another to say, "Thank God for slavery." It is one thing oppose gun regulation. It is another to say, to "the white man for going there and getting us here, I want to say 'Thanks.'"
Ta-Nehisi Coates The Conservative Black Hope, Cont.
Okay. I'll bite, and tackle the question of "Why?"

I understand the idea that there's something wrong with downplaying the horrid conditions on slave ships to the Americas. I honestly doubt that Jesse Lee Peterson, the man to whom Mr. Coates is referring, would actually find being chained naked in the hold of a wooden sailing ship with inconsistent access to food, water and sanitation to be in any way similar to being seated in a crowded economy class airplane cabin. And I doubt that even the most ardent critics of airline travel would, if they experienced being shipped across an ocean in the way slaves were, describe the two as similar. So this, at least, strikes me as a factually inaccurate statement.

But the rest of it? That modern African-Americans should thank both God and "the white man" (along with the Arabs and blacks that also participated in the slave trade) for their ancestors being forcibly removed from their homelands and enslaved? It's understandable why people become bent out of shape about that. It's not much different than when Pope Benedict XVI claimed that South American natives had been "silently longing" to become Christians and so welcomed the conversion that came with a violent conquest. But in both cases what you have is someone saying that, despite the details of HOW it had been carried out (and Peterson does, rather clumsily, acknowledge that there was a lot of suffering involved), that group A had done group B a favor. In other words, all's well that ends well.

And therein lies the answer to our question. Jesse Lee Peterson's defense of slavery as a means of adding "American" to "African" triggers fears of justifiable marginalization. That once it's decided that someone's culture, religion or standard of living are lacking, that it's okay for other people to come in and have their way with them, so long as, at some point in the future, a "proper" state is reached. The ends of "correcting" perceived "barbarism" justifies any and all means that will achieve it.

But it's worth pointing out that Peterson is never quoted saying any of this. I doubt that you could get him to sincerely state that he believes that it would be justified to re-institute slavery from Africa (or anyplace else, for that matter), so long as, in two to four hundred years, the descendents of the enslaved would be wealthier, healthier and more Christian than those left behind.

The fear of marginalization is one of the most enduring legacies of oppression. The concern that the past won't stay dead can be ever-present. But it's not an objective thing. It exists within us to the extent that we allow it. And while there is nothing wrong with pointing out the factors that fuel that fear, it's important that we don't let them take on a life of their own, and that we don't attribute ill intent to the people whose statements awaken our concerns. Implication is in the eye of the beholder, and speaks more loudly of the listener than the speaker. We should remember that.

Cheap, Cheap, Cheap

Ron Johnson, the former Apple executive who was brought in to turn around foundering retailer J.C. Penney has been ousted, and is being replaced by the man that Johnson replaced, Mike Ullman.

Well, in the fine tradition of webloggers everywhere, I have a bit of completely unsolicited advice for Mr. Ullman. According to the Forbes article, the reason why Johnson was unsuccessful was that he was unable to "lure shoppers with everyday low prices rather than the sales for which the chain has long been known." Which I guess makes sense. While it's not really the way that I shop, I suppose there's something to be said for the idea of simply waiting that once something has been marked "50% off for a limited time," you simply go out and buy it, and assume that you're getting a good deal.

But for me, J.C. Penney had a more immediate issue, and it goes something like this. A little more than a year ago (in the February to March timeframe of 2012) I went to a few J.C. Penny stores and purchased some turtlenecks, my preferred cool-weather shirt. Of the six that I purchased, none survived to see this past Christmas. Four of them, in fact, were thrown out prior to the end of the spring "turtleneck season." Neither low everyday prices nor random acts of discounting make much of a difference when clothing begins to develop holes large enough to admit a finger before being worn a half-dozen times. I'll admit the price I paid for the shirts was rock-bottom. But, I hadn't paid much more for the previous batch of shirts that I purchased from Costco - the lifespans of which were measured in years, rather than months or weeks.

I understand that "in this economy" that people feel poor, and therefore are exceedingly price sensitive. And so offering low-low prices can get people in the door. But my most recent experience with J.C. Penney wasn't "inexpensive," it was "not worth paying for," and very nearly "you'd have to pay me to take this stuff." And if you want to make it as a retailer, shoppers have to feel that they've received good value for money. No matter how low the prices are, or how deep the discounts.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who, Really, is the Barbarian?

One final point. It is often said that racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress. Nothing points to the silliness of that idea like the Holocaust. “Civilization" is irrelevant to racism. I don't even know what “civilization” means. When all your great theory, and awesome literature, and philosophy amounts to state bent on genocide, what is it worth?
Ta-Nehisi Coates Humanism and Holocaust History
What I find the most interesting about this point is that it is nothing new. While a lot of the modern conception of Conan the Barbarian is caught up in the portrayals of the character as a fur-underwear clad, hyper(psuedo)masculine, overmuscled, macho-guy, he-man, one of the basic themes that Robert E. Howard was exploring in many of the Conan stories (which were started in 1932) is that “civilized” people were routinely capable of much more egregious behavior than the barbarians that they so sneeringly looked down upon. And while we now find the concept of “the Noble Savage” to be quaint and fairly racist itself, it was often intended as a reproach of civilized men, who were often capable of committing atrocities beyond the wildest dreams of the “less advanced" peoples.

It's worthwhile to remember that the very term “Barbarian” was coined by the Greeks not because of the way that any particular groups of people behaved, but because the language they spoke - or failed to speak. According to a show on Western civilization I recall, the term “Barbarian” could easily be translated into modern English as “babbler” - as in one who didn't speak a real language, a.k.a., Greek. “Civilized” is a label that people began to give to themselves because they didn't know, or didn't want to know, that what set them apart from their fellows wasn't simply being ready, willing and able to conceptualize people who were unlike them as somehow scarcely beyond being animals. And like most self-applied labels, it is less an objective descriptor than it is a self-serving justification.
“Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.”
Benjamini Franklin Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America
It is easy for us to forget that labels are, first and foremost, words. And and while words may describe things, they are not the things themselves, and so the attributions that we give to words are independent of the traits of the things, or people, being described. Regardless of how invested we are in thinking otherwise.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Prayer Versus Progress

People who once would have been called "dead" as soon as their heart stopped are now being pulled back to tell their families--one last time in this world--that they love them. People with compound fractures no longer have to spend their lives hobbling. Polio is gone, and leprosy can be cured. You'd think Pat Robertson, at least, would give God some credit there. Instead he seems to be saying those don't count because humans were involved, too.
Why Are There So Few Resurrected Corpses in the United States?
While this sort of thing is often cited as an example of "how humans segregate the sacred and the mundane, in effect cordoning off 'faith' when the results of their faith are in fact all around them," I think that it goes a lot deeper than that. This article is about Robertson's answer to a question about why there are more overt "amazing miracles" in "places like Africa" than here in the United States. And his answer was simple - people "overseas" are more "simple, humble" and willing to believe what Christian missionaries tell them about God, and so God is more willing to directly intervene in their lives.

This idea, that God has turned his back on the educated, Western world in favor of the simple, humble and, it must be noted, dependent people of the Third World is a part of the anti-intellectualism that pervades parts of America. People overseas are morally superior to graduates of the Ivy League not because they do a better job of abstaining from theft, rape and murder than people who (like Pat Robertson) went to Yale Law School, but because a widespread lack of education and thus, technology, renders them unable to rely on their fellows for help, and so their best hopes lie with fervent prayer for divine intervention. That, and some folk remedies that border on crimes against humanity.

Robertson's basic point is a simple one: God, effectively, expects us to be dependent, needy and convinced of our own inability to subsist without him. I'm not sure that this speaks well of either Robertson's concept of God, or those who would follow it.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Playing on the Dark Side

It's an easy enough question: "How do you respond to people who think RPGs are somehow evil or corrupting?"

With an easy enough answer. "I simply ask them 'How?' And then, I listen to the answer."

One thing about gamers - they tend to view everything in a game as unreal. Especially fantasy games. And it doesn't occur to them that there are people in the world, and in the United States, who believe that witchcraft is real, and that there is a supernatural adversary out there who has the ability to grant otherwise everyday people supernatural powers in order to make them into weapons against God and those who follow him. It doesn't occur to them that there are people who honestly believe in demons and possession and that Satan is after people's souls. I take seriously the fact that there are people who honestly believe that I can crack open a Players Handbook and recite a spell that may slay them on the spot. Not because I think they're stupid, but because they have about as much first-hand knowledge of witchcraft and fantasy gaming as I do of nuclear weapons. None. Everything I know about atomic bombs I know because someone told me it was true, and with no other frame of reference, I believed them.

For some people, it really is as simple as someone they trusted telling them something that turns out to be untrue. They believe that you can learn actual magic from a gaming manual. If they're willing it's easy enough to show them otherwise. But some games don't help. The Palladium (fantasy) Role Playing Game, has pages of magic circles, along with what materials they must be made of, and what incantations go along with them. Why would you expect someone that believes in the supernatural to immediately conclude that they were all fictional? And some literature is even worse. The novel "Witchdame" opens with a warning not to attempt the magic spells detailed within. Was the author serious? Hell if I know. But I do know that there are people out there who style themselves Witches and other magicians. I don't see what stops them from also being novelists.

For some people, it's less about actual witchcraft than it is about making people comfortable with magic and the supernatural. I never know what to say to them. I don't believe in magic. When someone tells me they're a magician, I may suspect their sanity, but I don't bat an eyelash. "Meh," I reply. "Whatever." But I understand the Christian who then tells me "But that's what Satan wants you to think." How do I convince someone that Satan is merely a scapegoat for man's inhumanity to man, when they have been taught from childhood that he's a real being and a deadly threat? After all, my own disbelief in Satan is not a result of scouring the Universe and finding no trace of him - it's a result of being dubious about the supernatural as a child, and then spending time in a Catholic high school with a bunch of self-righteous jerks who had no intention of taking responsibility for their own bad acts.

There are other answers that people give. I listen to them, respectfully, and then rebut them the best I can, if I can. Sometimes, I can't. Sometimes, it's not about me, or games, or the supernatural. It's about them, and something that they need to believe, for their world to make sense. I don't try to change their worldviews. There's no profit in it.

But most importantly, I don't stress over it. We don't have to see eye to eye on it. I'm fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where even if people are convinced that I am a witch, they have no legal recourse, and are unlikely to attempt murder. And that means that sometimes, the answer to the question can be the easy way out: "Nothing."

Sunday, April 7, 2013


"May I give you a hand?" I asked, walking closer.

The balding man had been seated in his wheelchair near the wrought-iron fence by Starbucks, trying to get the attention of a passer-by when I approached. From where I had been standing, waiting to cross the street, his back was to me. A large backpack sat in his lap. The man twisted uncomfortably to look back at me. I'm too accustomed to sitting in office chairs, I said to myself. Wheelchairs, dummy, don't swivel. I circle-sidestepped, so that he could see me more easily.

"Can you push me to the corner?" he asked, pointing ahead of himself, up the street. My gaze followed his outstretched hand. The sidewalk sloped steadily upwards in the direction that he was pointing. On the one hand, I'd walked that block before, and realized it wasn't flat. On the other hand, part of me was just then realizing that it went uphill.

"Of course," I replied, taking his wheelchair by the sturdy black handles near the man's shoulders. It was out of the way, but it wasn't far. And I could spare five minutes. That same cavalier attitude towards time was constantly overcommiting me, but I ignored the little voice in my head that chided me for adopting it yet again.

It was immediately evident why he needed a hand. Moving the man forward required more effort than I'd credited it with, given the gradual slope of the street at this point. The chair was solidly built, feeling like the proverbial cast iron. Had you asked me how much it weighed, I couldn't have told you, bit it was clearly more than I thought it did before I started pushing it. The man himself didn't seem particularly heavy, nor his backpack that large, but together they were a load; I was unsurprised that, left to his own devices, the man had been unable to make headway. But I'd soon settled into a steady march step and had the man rolling up the slope.

I would say that we chatted as I pushed him along, but, honestly, he did almost all the talking. (Which was a nice change of pace. I do have a tendency to prattle on, if given half - or less - a chance.) He mainly thought out load, observing what was happening on the street around us. For the most part, I simply listened, only occasionally offering a comment. He seemed happy to have someone to talk to, and spoke un-self-consciously; and I didn't want to interrupt that. He avoided the subject of himself, or his impairment, until I pushed him over a disjointed bit of the sidewalk, and the jostling set the brake on the right wheel.

He asked me to pause for a moment, and when I'd complied, undid the brake. "When you're walking," he observed, "the bigger bumps in the sidewalk aren't a problem. But if you're in a wheelchair, or on a skateboard, watch out." And then he went back to the topic of the people and things around us.

"Okay, this is good," he said, as the sidewalk leveled out a few feet from the corner. I let go of the handles on his chair, and stood still as he maneuvered his chair 90 degrees to the right, and started wheeling himself away along the sidewalk perpendicular to the one we'd just been on. "Thank you."

"You're quite welcome," I said with a nod, seemingly already having forgotten that facing away from me, the man could not see me.

About a yard away, he turned his chair somewhat, so that he could again see me more easily.

"Nice hat."

"Thanks." I said.

And with that, the man wheeled himself on his way, and I resumed my journey to track down some lunch.

Striking Out

On April 3rd, there was a fast-food workers strike in New York City, the second in two months. The strikes were organized by a group called Fast Food Forward, which is calling for fast-food restaurants to pay a "living wage" of $15 an hour. For many New York fast-food workers who currently earn the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, this would more than double their current pay.

I was reading the NPR story on this, and two points came up, that commonly become lost in the shouting and acrimony that tends to grow up around stories like this.


"People like me, we don't have education to get a better job," says [Gregory] Renoso [,a deliveryman for Domino's Pizza]. "We have to do the fast-food industry. But the fast-food industry [doesn't] pay."
And secondly:
"Folks can't just move on to other jobs," says [Jonathan] Westin [a campaign manager for Fast Food Forward]. "If they could, they probably would have, because the conditions are so bad. The problem is, these are the jobs that are out there. There's really nowhere to go."
These two points - that people with few marketable skills have few options, and that jobs are hard to come by - are, in a lot of ways, the elephant in the room that goes unaddressed.

The very day that fast-food workers were going on strike in New York City, another NPR story came out - this one talking about the record demand for H-1B visas. So there are jobs going begging, and there are people begging for higher wages. The barrier is that the striking fast-food workers in New York don't have the skills that the companies looking for H-1B visa immigrants need. And the fast-food workers don't have the resources to obtain those skills.

And, as Mr. Westin points out, the number of jobs for people without marketable skills is small - the number of people for whom these are the only jobs that they can realistically compete is relatively large. And the large labor supply means that labor is cheap.

Striking may give the picketing workers a greater sense of agency and self-worth, but it doesn't a) increase their economic worth, or b) increase the overall number of available jobs. These two factors, taken together are a large part of the reason why our current economy is so broken and unequal. Simply jacking up wages by fiat is not going to change that. Instead of trying to limit the damage that a broken system does to vulnerable people, we would better spend our time attempting to fix the system.

What the working poor need in the long run are two things - better access to skills, and a broader choice of employment. Generally speaking, if you have one, you have a better chance of having the other. The economic boom time that we now refer to as "the Tech Bubble" supplied both of those things, as companies scrambled to take advantage of new technologies. Perhaps it's time that we shifted our efforts to where our next new technologies are going to come from.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Future Past

Others say “If we don’t look forward, we won’t have a bright future.” This might be a good piece of advice for people who hide in the past, but it is hardly constructive for people who surrender themselves to memory deletion.
On China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia
But how, I wonder, does one distinguish the two?

I recall arguments between myself and family and friends, where we tossed those accusations back and forth. I would argue that it imperiled the future to live in the past, and they would respond that I had been brainwashed by powerful interests who sough to hide their misdeeds to evade justice. In the end, we never reconciled. They still refuse to acknowledge that it isn't 1950 anymore and I refuse to see how I'm abetting and perpetuating injustice. Which of us is right? Either of us? Both?

History is a strange thing because we often don't want to differentiate between it and the present. Unless we do. When we want to nurse our dislike for people or institutions past acts become destiny, proof of an enduring evil that can never be altered. We willingly tar people with the sins of forefathers so long dead that they're well on their way to becoming fossil fuels. When we want to like someone, the actions of the past become bad choices, sometimes driven by youthful indiscretion, sometimes by forces outside of the person's control. Bygones, we tell ourselves, are bygones, and the next time, things will be different.

And when we champion the past as destiny, we tell those who disagree that they're hiding from the past. And when we don't, we see that others are living in the past. So, what IS the best way to reconcile the past with the present and not compromise the future? Or are we each left to find our own path?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Who Said, She Said

“I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.”
Ashley Judd*
* Maybe.

This comment was reported by the Huffington Post last month, and may have helped demolish any chance that Judd had of successfully running for the Senate seat currently held by Mitch McConnell. Given that political operatives were already turning over the rocks in an attempt to find useable dirt on the actress/activist's past, it seemed that she was being taken seriously by the Republicans, and a statement like this would have been attack-ad gold.

Except for the small fact that maybe it didn't actually happen. An advisor to Judd says that she made no such comment. In response the journalist who broke the story says “that Judd didn't announce this comment to the rest of the dinner's guests, only his source,” and that he doesn't know who else heard it.

Hurray for anonymice.

I understand the drive to get scoops and whatnot. But here we have a comment that can't be corroborated because no-one else may have ever heard it, and it's impossible to question the source, because no-one knows who that is, other than the fact that they were “a Judd supporter.” (You'll excuse me, however, if I'm skeptical about the idea of someone who supported Ashley Judd running for Senate telling a reporter about a comment that seemed tailor made to scuttle her chances of actually winning an election in today's political climate.)

I get that anonymous sources make journalism easier. People are more willing to step up and talk about things that others might not want made public if they're reasonably sure that they won't face retaliation. But anonymous sources also make disinformation easier because they can be difficult, if not impossible, to either evaluate or validate. And they also lend themselves to a “some say” style of journalism, where readers are left to chose what to believe in a vacuum - and so they go with what easiest, or what fits in with what they already want to believe. And I just don't see how that's informative.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Everybody Run

Well, it's happened again. Someone pulled the Dihydrogen Monoxide hoax and a bunch of people were sucked in. It's just that this time, there were nearly felony charges leveled. Now, I'm not going to get up on my high horse about scientific or mathematical literacy or anything like that. I'm old now, and so I've become okay with the fact that many people are completely unaware of the fact that you can actually refer to water in any number of ways other than just calling it "water." If you'd mentioned "Dihydrogen Monoxide" to me a month before I'd first heard of this rather long-running hoax, I likely would have had no idea what you were talking about, so I sympathize.

The problem here is the propensity to panic in the face of an unfamiliar and (albeit intentionally) scary-sounding name. Especially given that many people have, at their disposal, a quick means of looking things up. And, of course, it was April Fools day. Skepticism of anything that sounded the least bit off should have been at an all-time high - especially when morning show disk-jockeys are concerned.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shocked, SHOCKED, I Tell You

So allow me to recap: A concerned mother writes to her state representatives urging them not to vote for legislation that will inevitably lead to the bullying of her atheist child… and one of the representatives writes back to say the eight-year-old girl is a fool with a darkened heart for not believing in God.
Arkansas State Representative Calls Eight-Year-Old Atheist a Fool

Who cares? I mean, really. A Christian said something mean about someone, using the Bible as the basis for their statements? Horrors.

Why is this news to anyone?

Not to say that being a Christian automatically makes one mean, but it's really past time that Secular Humanists, Atheists, Brights and anyone else who bothers to define themselves by what they don't believe in started actually expecting that people do believe in whatever it is are going to act in accordance with those beliefs.
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.
Psalms 14:1 (King James Version)
So, given that the above passage is in the Bible, if you don't believe in God, and you encounter a Jew or a Christian who claims to follow the Bible faithfully, but doesn't regard you as a corrupt fool, perhaps you should be asking them about how they reconcile obedience to their scriptures with obvious cherry picking, rather than patting them on the back, and giving them your Seal of Approval. It's disingenuous and, frankly, bordering on idiotic to expect support for religious pluralism from someone who understands that the particular belief system that they espouse is not only superior, but self-evidently correct. Especially when a supernatural Adversary whose only aim in life is to "lead people astray" is a major character in that belief system. (If you do get it, great! Maybe... But having the expectation of it is stretching things.)

The point here isn't that we should expect anyone who believes in something that we don't be uncivil about it. But we shouldn't be so constantly surprised by the incivility of people who are members of a group that defines itself specifically as being in opposition to others - especially given the fact that no group that's large enough to have entered the public consciousness is small enough to not have any jackasses in it. There comes a point where being "outraged" about this or that insensitive or intolerant comment goes from actual "outrage" to simply a form of pointing and laughing at someone who you have decided is less intellectually advanced than you are. Eventually, the Cataloging of Sins becomes about nothing more than proving one's own ethical (or moral, if you will) superiority to those benighted people who don't have the civilized instincts to treat people that they understand to be wrong as if they were actually right.

It's unproductive. At best. Representative Payton is unlikely to be shamed into changing his stance because some Atheists are critical of him. In fact, it's simply liable to elevate his standing in the eyes of his constituency. Especially if the whole "minute of silence" thing is, as Mr. Mehta suspects, "really just a way to push prayer into the public schools," as it's unlikely that the Representative would be backing this if the people who voted for him were likely to punish him if it passed.

Publicly keeping the "us versus them" conflict going isn't going to do anything to help a little girl who is being harassed on the playground - mainly because it simply pushes the idea that "you're different from me, and that's bad," which is the root of such harassment in the first place. Rather than keeping one's friends close and one's enemies always in mind, we're all better off surrounding ourselves with people who have demonstrated that they can disagree with others without threatening them or being threatened by them. Leave the haters on the outside, looking in, without the benefit of attention that gives them power.