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