Saturday, May 31, 2014

Second Fiddle

So I'm in Starbucks this morning, and among the many other people in the place with me were a mother and her young daughter. At one point, the mother answers her cell phone, and within a couple of minutes, the child, having become bored with not being the center of her mother's attention, takes to pounding on the arm of a nearby easy chair. After a couple minutes of this merry drumming, her mother looks up from her call, and asks her to stop.

"No." The child replies, without pausing.

This happened a couple more times, and the child drummed pretty much all through the mother's telephone call. Every time the mother would ask her to stop, the child would say "No," and continue on. It wasn't until the child realized the call was winding down that she relented.

When the mother finally finished her call, and confronted the child, she was clearly frustrated. But what did she expect? It was clear to me that the child had come to see her mother being on a phone call as a license to do as she pleased, since the mother was clearly unwilling to interrupt her call to intervene in whatever the child was doing. This isn't the kind of situation that develops overnight. It's going to be a good deal if work for the mother to re-establish her authority in the child's eyes. Making it clear that she's more important than the telephone might be a good start.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Soft Money

For me, Capitalism is merely a thing. It's not inherently good or bad. It simply is. Just, as H. L. Mencken pointed out, the trouble with Communism is the Communists and the trouble with Christianity is the Christians, the trouble with Capitalism is the Capitalists. It's hard to drum up support for a system that people feel is set up in such a way that it's impossible to win by telling them that they should be grateful for the opportunity to lose

But I suspect that what really bothers people about what passes for Capitalism in the United States is that "the 1%" (although, honestly, we're really talking more about the .01%) spend a little too much time claiming that they're being persecuted for "working their butts off," when they're really simply become very good at getting others to the heavy lifting for them. I think that they also but too much effort into blaming people who aren't like them, rather than showing people how it's done. Mark Twain noted that truly great people want to see you become great as well, and I think that we tend to lack that because our culture is driven by the (false) perception of scarcity.

In the end, it takes more than skill to be successful in America. I know plenty of people who have serious skills, but aren't regarded as successes (worst of all by themselves), because the combination of traits and circumstances that it takes is fairly complex. I think that part of the problem is the continued attempts by people to boil it down to nothing more than "skill and hard work" and then a tendency to sneer at people who aren't getting ahead and claiming it's because they're simply too dishonest to own up to their own laziness. The idea that the same traits that were venerated in small agrarian communities also cut the mustard in populous, advanced and technological societies that literally span continents sets a lot of people up for failure. But since they understand that they're doing what they were told to do, and playing by the rules as they understood them, it's no wonder that they look outside of themselves for answers - and often see conspiracies. But I think that a better solution is to have a better understanding of what the rules really are, not just what someone tells themselves to stroke their own ego.

But we don't teach economic literacy as a general skill here in the United States. It's possible to be considered well-educated, and never really have been taught the basics about how the economy that we're expected to live and function in works. Accordingly, for many of us, it's a black box. And I think that this allows for a level of economic judo - the wealthy are using the way we live our lives on a day-to-day basis against us, all the while telling us that the problem is that we aren't doing enough of what we're doing.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Differently Similar

By the time I was in my mid-to-late teens, I began to understand a curious paradox. When people, White or Black, sought to elevate themselves over others by invoking famous names, everyone was the same. They, and everyone that they identified with, were the same as the famous people whose names they would recite. The qualities that made the famous people famous and well respected were present in everyone who shared the "same" color skin. And everyone who wasn't like them was the same in being utterly different from the famous people. The qualities of the famous people were absent, because the skin color was different. Likewise, when they sought to denigrate others by invoking infamous names, the qualities that made people reviled and hated were also transmitted through skin color. But when it was pointed out that there were infamous people who shared a skin tone with them, then everyone was different, and the the failings that made their infamous people bad were limited to the infamous, and did not spread around to anyone else. People, I find, hold this particular brand of Doublethink in their heads quite easily.

I was reminded of this in the context of reactions to three rather sad episodes that have come to pass recently. The shootings perpetrated by Elliot Rodger in California, the revelation from Pakistan that a man whose pregnant wife was murdered by her family had in fact been married before - and had slain her so that he could re-marry and the gang-rape and murder of a pair of Indian girls from from the "untouchable" caste. The latter two stories both brought out internet commentators who made a show of wringing their hands before labeling the cases as proof that Pakistanis and Indians, respectively are all something less than human, and for one particularly spiteful person, less than animals. Yet they also maintained (because it was quickly brought up) that to tar all of America with the Elliot Rodger brush was to wrongly smear upstanding Americans. Because things are different here.

Humans, it has been said, do not scale well. We form into cliques and tribes, and once we have done so, seek to use that tribal identity as a means of proving our legitimacy to ourselves and others at the expense of those from other tribes. Even when we're supposedly fighting for our very existence against outside forces, we find it difficult to impossible to temper this habit. Of course, we are not all like this. But when we are different, sometimes we're still like everyone else.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Male of the Species

Men typically route their feelings toward and competition with one another through women, [Eve Sedgwick, author of Between Men] says. Women become tools through which men show their power and worth to other men. Success with women is also an important part of men’s self-image—that’s a big part of what it means to “be a man.” [...] To him, women aren't people; they're markers of who is and who is not a man. If a woman chooses someone else, the thinking goes, that means Rodger and others like him are not men.
Noah Berlatsky “Elliot Rodger and Poisonous Ideals of Masculinity
You see this dynamic at work, I think, in the stories of harassment that Amanda Hess relates over at Slate. Not having been present for any of those events, and being unable to read minds in any event, I can’t be sure, but it makes sense to me. It is logical to me that someone who needs to prove his worth and validity to himself is not going to have room for considerations of any others. In a society were men are not permitted to stray outside of fairly rigid boundaries of masculinity without a chorus of voices demanding to know what's wrong with them, it is no surprise that self-loathing often claims those who cannot compete their way within its confines.
And [Elliott Rodger] destroyed himself, too: that pitiful failed thing who was not a man.
How do we stop this? There are calls for relaxing laws against involuntarily committing people to psychiatric institutions, calls for more gun control, calls for harsher punishments for men show show abusive tendencies. I do not argue against any of these things. But maybe, in addition to them, we need a broader understanding of who a person can be, and still be a man. The desperate struggle for survival against the elements, animals and other tribes is mostly a thing of the past. While we may, in fact, sleep peacefully in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf, the fact remains that we do not need all men to be rough or ready to do violence. We can allow some of them be civilized, or even feminine, and not think less of them. We have that luxury. We should make better use of it. When the path for men from being “broken and wrong and failed” to feeling competent and masterful must go through obliviousness to, if not complete disrespect for, the thoughts, feelings and humanity of women (or anyone else), this situation is going to play itself out, over and over again.

To “be a man,” is, in it’s simplest form, to be the male of the species homo sapiens. Perhaps the best way to spare more people from becoming victims of another Elliot Rodger is to demand nothing more.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Looking Down

This is an odd photograph. It left me with the feeling that, even though I'm nowhere in it, that it's about me. Not because I see myself in the subject, but because of a nagging feeling that this is my relationship to the subject. Looking down from an aloof position, high above.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Out, Out

There's an argument for the death penalty (and, apparently, the electric chair specifically) that goes something like this:

If a man raped your daughter and murdered her, You'd wanna see him fry.
Well, given that I copied that verbatim from a discussion about capital punishment, this particular argument goes exactly like that.

While I understand the sentiment, this has always struck me as an exceedingly weak argument for capital punishment. Mainly because it refuses to take ownership of the issue. Taking a stand on an issue means taking responsibility for that stand. Which precludes claiming that people who don't agree with you are dishonest, not thoughtful or have never had anything awful happen to them. (Reality intrudes, too. There are people in the world today who have had a loved one raped and murdered, but yet do not support the death penalty; whether out of personal mercy, a willingness to forgive or an understanding that another body doesn't make anything better.)

We, as a society, are within our rights to decide that death is an appropriate punishment for certain acts. Right now, that means that the collective we are okay with (or at least not heavily opposed to) the idea of the state executing people. Now, in my opinion, this means that at least some us understand that we're likely to do in some innocent people that way (and have likely already done so), and also understand that we're taking a risk that we, or someone we care about, might even be one of them. But, especially, if we have enthusiasm for the idea, we should be secure enough in our willingness to support state-run executions (and sometimes, it seems, state-encouraged vengefulness) that we don't have to question the motives, consideration or experiences of others.

Personally, I'm in the "not really opposed" camp. But I wouldn't be unhappy if it went away, especially because I understand the risks and believe that the death penalty shouldn't be a means for us to outsource our need for vengeance, simply so we can sate our anger and bloodlust without risking getting any of it on our own hands. And I think that it often becomes just that. The state shouldn't be an instrument of revenge. If I decide that I have a need for vengeance against someone who has done me a grievous harm, it's my job to put a bullet in them. And then to camp out on the courthouse steps with the smoking gun and a willingness to do the time.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gritty Realism

You've likely heard of the experiment where they sit a child down in front of a marshmallow, or other treat, and tell them that they can take the treat, or have that treat and another treat if they wait for the researcher to come back into the room. The upshot of this research, we've been told, is that there was a correlation between how long the children could hold out against claiming the treat (and thus, forgoing the second) and their life outcomes later in life. And so people have been trumpeting how having grit and being able to delay gratification means that one does better in life - good things come to those who wait, and all that.

And, because everything in the United States has to be somehow political, it's also been help up as "proof" that staying out of trouble with the law, working one's way through school, putting off childbearing until after firmly establishing a career and married life are paths to success. Which, really, is all well and good. The issue I have with this formulation is that people who don't follow this path are pointed to as moral reprobates, and people whose poor choices and willful lack of impulse control disqualify them from sympathy and/or the social safety net when they're down. Of course, the Internet is a big place, with lots of people on it. It's hard to talk about anything online in a large enough forum without having to deal with a jerk or ten. Or an unrepentant snarker, like myself. But once people began attempting to make causal links based on the study, I started thinking about the assumptions that underlie it.

And I had a thought. The original study is always presented with the idea that the child understands that the second treat is a given. If they simply wait long enough, they'll have two treats, rather than one. But where does that assumption come from? And so I concluded that it would be interesting to do a study where you run the trial twice. You divide the children into two groups, and the first time you run the trial, one of the groups of children never receives the promised second treat - no matter how long they wait for it. The researcher open reneges on the deal. This struck me as one of the wildly unethical (at best) sorts of experiments that used to occur to me as a psychology major back in college, so I was somewhat surprised to find that someone has actually done something along those lines.

Waiting is only the rational choice if you believe that a second marshmallow is likely to actually appear after a reasonably short delay—and that the marshmallow currently in your possession is not at risk of being taken away.
Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability
Sure enough, they found that if they made a promise to a child, and then broke it, the child waited less time before eating the first marshmallow. "We demonstrated that children’s sustained decisions to wait for a greater reward rather than quickly taking a lesser reward are strongly influenced by the reliability of the environment (in this case, the reliability of the researcher’s verbal assurances)."

One of things that I learned from working with children is that they're not as naïve (call it "innocent" if you're feeling charitable or "stupid" if you're not) as many adults want to think they are. The understand risk and reward. As the researchers point out, for a child in a situation where there is little adult supervision and other children around who are bigger than they are, waiting often risks ending up with nothing. "For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed."
Turns out that you don't have to be old enough to swing a racquet to realize this.
It's unreasonable for us to assume that society's promises are any more ironclad than anyone else's. And in a society where news stories about how the middle class is feeling strapped and how the poor can wind up in modern-day "debtor's prisons" are never far away makes sense that some people are going to conclude that holding up their end of the bargain is never going to pay off. And this doesn't even begin to address those people who came up in situations where the promises of authority figures, well-intentioned or not, were simply tickets to disappointment.

One man's "lazy" is another man's "not being a chump." If we want more buy-in to the system, we have some work to do to make it more reliable.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex

A little while ago, I (foolishly) wandered into yet another online debate about abortion, one that also happened to talk about prostitution. And before long, I found myself wondering: "Why are we even pretending that this is about anything other than sex?" As near as I can tell, two of the big hot-button social topics of today, abortion and same-sex marriage, really boil down to a (reasonably) simple question - "Where do you stand on people (or sometimes, just women) having sex casually and/or primarily for the pleasure of it?" There are the extremes of "Go for it," and "It's absolutely wrong," but there are a lot of stops in between, and they aren't always in the same order. And when we're talking about things like abortion, same-sex marriage, extramarital sex, sex work, multiple marriage, contraception, pornography, et cetera, a lot of what we're really doing is taking a stand somewhere along that continuum.

So why not always frame the discussion in those terms? Why not be for or against same-sex marriage simply on the basis of whether or not one thinks that the state should offer relationships that obviously are not going to result in biological children the same benefits as relationships that apparently (correctly or not) could result in them? Why not openly frame arguments around prostitution in terms of whether or not we should find it appropriate to treat non-marital sexuality in the same manner as any other good or service?

I suspect that part of it is simple prudishness. Despite the centrality of sexuality to the continuation of the species (and most species, for that matter) it's something that's widely considered completely inappropriate to ever talk about. Talking so much about the plans you have for buying a home with a prospective partner that your audience is ready to slit their wrists is chalked up to social ineptitude. Three words about what you'll do in the bedroom is a cardinal sin. By the same token, we find it okay for children to park themselves in front of a screen showing (appropriately sanitized and strangely inconsequential) violence for hours on end. A kiss at the wrong time, on the other hand, or the hint that there's something more than that happening, and the Moral Guardians call out a SWAT team.

Not dealing with that makes the discussion, more often than not, an exercise in obfuscation and absurdity, as people go back and forth on tangential subjects and attempt to maintain consistent positions about things they barely care about. Maybe it's time that we simply laid our cards on the table and talked about what we really understand the issue to be. It can't be any less constructive than what we're doing now.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Story Problem

Choose one:

The U.S. is being overrun by a wave of anti-science, anti-intellectual thinking.
The Death of Morality and the End of America.
Which headline/subtitle resonates most with you? The dueling narratives of the United States as a nation of once-intelligent people who are becoming dumber or a nation of once-upstanding people who are becoming immoral are really about searching for the answers to the following equation:

Elevating the worldview, X, to its deservedly central place in American public and civil life = The solutions to the serious problems, Y, that plague our society.

It's a longstanding disagreement, if a falsely dichotomous one, and it's unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. Because it tends to present an apparently simple answer to a complex question - how does one create a society that works as well as it can, for as many people as it can, more or less indefinitely? For many people, part of the answer is to restrict the choices that people may make - steer them towards "good" choices and away from "bad" ones. And that's where values and worldview come in. Both sides of any debate like this have, as their foundation, the idea that a certain view of looking at the world naturally leads to people making the best available choices. But wrapped up in all of this, is a search for Truth. Or, perhaps more precisely, The Truth. And when social disputes come down to matters of Truth, not only do people feel that they're in the right, but that the opposition has sinister motives at heart.

If the devoutly religious community in the United States sees the rise of secular intellectualism as little more than a thinly-veiled Satanic plot to shift the nation away from the values that allowed it to be protected from a hostile world by a benevolent deity, the intensely scientific community in the Unites States sees calls for the restoration of traditional moral values as little more than a thinly-veiled clerical conspiracy to prevent the nation from continuing to adopting the values that allowed it to lead the way to demonstrable benefits for the human condition.

In the end, you wind up at a point that is common for people espousing mutually-exclusive paths to improbable goals - the contention that their worldview, rather than having been found to be simply good in a world that wants perfect, was never sincerely implemented with an eye towards giving it an honest chance to demonstrate its, if not perfection, superiority. Which is perhaps the root of all ideology because it always allows for failure to explained away. The story is never found wanting.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Being Whole

My status message for today: Reclusive and discriminable.

After being introduced to Connie Sun's blog by Robert Krulwich over at NPR, I've added it to my regular webcomic diet. A lot of her strips deal with the trials and tribulations of being a single, thirty-something, Asian woman in New York City. Being a single, forty-something, African-American man in the suburbs of Seattle, I find it interesting the degree to which I can relate, despite the differences in our lives, and how we came to them. Occasionally, it seems like watching my own interior life unfold from a distance, with someone else playing the part of me. But the really interesting part is watching her lay out some of the same conclusions that I once arrived at, but from a completely different direction.

As someone who was intentionally single throughout my twenties and thirties (and is intentionally single now), I spent a lot of my adult life fighting with people's assessment of me as a broken individual, living a life beset by illness or injury. And on top of it, my refusal to see myself as injured, ill or incomplete was itself a part of my pathology. For me, these discussions, as well-meaning as they were, often took on an ominous undertone of: "You're different, and that's bad." And I feared being bad, and so I often sought to defend myself with "I'm different, and that's superior." And in so doing, I challenged the intelligence, wisdom and thoughtfulness of people I claimed were my friends over a judgment that possibly existed only in my head.

Eventually, I learned that the correct response to: "You're broken," whether stated in as many words or not, was: "So what if I am? I'm good with it."

And reading Miss Sun's comics, as different as our circumstances are (or were), reminds me of the path I walked to that point of greater self-understanding and self-acceptance. Like the understanding that I, on my own, can be whole. But it is also the differences in that path that are fascinating. It's one thing to understand on an intellectual level that the path I've chosen is well-worn. It's another thing entirely to watch someone else walk it under such different circumstances than I have.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


"A little-known aspect of the juvenile justice system requires young offenders to pay for their own prosecution and incarceration."

The subtitle of the article: "Some Kids Get Charged Twice for One Crime," is accurate enough, but it's incomplete. In that, it seemed to mirror the piece as a whole, which I felt could (or possibly should) have been longer, because it touched upon so many different items of interest - the police and courts assessing charges against suspects, the fact that even the innocent must pay and the refusal of jurisdictions to explain the fees in detail. But the piece sort of limits itself to seeking sympathy for poor youth caught up in the system, rather than dealing with the broader questions of perverse incentives, a disingenuous system and opaque procedures.

Of course, it all makes a certain level of sense - the author is described as: "a senior producer and reporter for Youth Radio." Youthful reporter pursues story about youth problems for a youth audience. Not a problem, really. But in this case, it makes the story seem unnecessarily narrow. One doesn't have to be a teenager to be saddled with the costs of post-arrest investigation. Juveniles aren't the only people from whom jurisdictions attempt to recoup costs. And it's likely that advocates would also find themselves stonewalled if they asked for a line-item breakdown of the charges for an adult.

But the perception that the story is takes a broader issue and only explores a single avenue of it doesn't make it a poor story. (After all, it isn't a poor story.) But it does come across as being a slanted one. But perhaps this is because The Atlantic isn't a youth publication, and so the tight focus of the piece on the late DeShawn Morris and his mother gives the piece a tangible sense of unbalance that wouldn't be noticed by the "target demographic," as it were. In the end, I think, this is really what perceptions of media bias are all about - encountering something aimed at a demographic other than one's own and thinking that what has been encountered is a lack of fairness and objectivity rather than a lack of depth or breadth.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Punishment and Reward

I was originally thinking about the Death Penalty. It is the ultimate sanction in the United States. For some, it is state-sponsored murder. It is a very long process, but if a person commits a serious enough crime the government, be it the federal government or that of the state in which they live, is empowered to take their life.

But if someone does something of outstanding merit for society, what is the state empowered to do for them? It cannot give them life that they would not otherwise have had, so what is the reward? A medal, apparently.

As an outside observer of the United States, what would one think that we valued? Presidential Medals of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medals are rare. Much more so than Death sentences or Life in Prison. Were I to run for public office, one of the worst things that could be said of me was that I was "soft on crime." But if I were to be indifferent to seeing to it that our fellow citizens (of the nation or the world) were properly lauded for the services they render us, would I be so obviously unfit to serve? Why are we not as invested in rewarding those who have done us a service as we are in punishing those who frighten us? If the values that we say we hold are so important to us, why do we not do more to honor those who exemplify them?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Oil

Si fuera petróleo no andariamos con CARTELITOS Salvad a las niñas #hijosdeputa. Maybe he's right, and if there were oil at stake, we'd make bigger signs.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't really find #hashsign campaigns to be all that compelling. They strike me as a form of public slacktivism, where the point is to demonstrate just how concerned one is, without actually having to make any sacrifices. (Now, on the other hand, because the Obamas are intensely unpopular with the American political Right, the First Lady is opening herself up to later criticism, as soon as it is politically safe to do so. So the situation is a bit more delicate for her that it would be for, say, myself.) The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad (more popularly known as Boko Haram) militants who abducted, and have reportedly sold into "marriage" (sex slavery being a more apt description) more than two hundred Nigerian teenagers from a girl's school in Chibok, Nigeria, are unlikely to be doing anything other than laughing at this sort of social media campaign. When calling for "awareness" is the only arrow in your quiver, it's going to be a short war.

I'll also be the first to admit that had Boko Haram done something that represented a clear and present danger to the long-term strategic interests of the United States, that, at this moment, they'd be fighting for their lives, and that the neighboring countries that they may be hiding in would find themselves facing some serious gunboat (or, gundrone) diplomacy. Like many other nations, the United States does not tolerate aggrieved groups trying to strong-arm their way into something that we feel belongs to us. Just like many of said aggrieved groups are aggrieved because they feel that the United States, the West, Christianity or whomever, has strong-armed their way into something that they feel justifiably belongs to them.

But I think the reaction that: "Well, if it were oil, then a more effective response would be mounted," has become something of a reflexive and meaningless cheap shot that actually evades the central issue - that on issues of "human rights" the United States, and, honestly, the global community as a whole is all talk. Part of what drives that is simply the magnitude of what happened. If we assume that what Boko Haram has done falls into the category of "stereotypical kidnapping*," Nigeria lost, in a single night, more children than the United States did in a year.

But Nigerian militants have directly threatened the flow of oil out of the nation before.
Militants from [Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or] MEND and other groups have killed soldiers and security guards, kidnapped foreign oil workers, set off car bombs in the delta city of Warri to protest the visit of Chinese oil executives, and, to show off their reach, overrun an oil rig 40 miles (64 kilometers) offshore in the Gulf of Guinea. The attacks have shut down the daily flow of more than 500,000 barrels of oil, leading the country to tap offshore reserves to make up for lost revenue. With each disruption, the daily price of oil on the world market climbed.
Curse of the Black Gold
Where were the U.S. military's boots on the ground? As of 2009, the United States was buying some 44% of the oil that Nigeria exported, making the country the fifth-largest supplier to the United States. And half a million barrels of oil a day was more than a quarter of the country's production - surely that much oil at risk would have made it worthwhile to send in the Marines, no? While the American economy is famously (or infamously) oil-dependent, in all honesty, it's not like we drink the stuff. (At least not straight, anyway.) And while access to energy is likely one of things that would push the United States into a war, for whom isn't that true? Do we really expect that, say, Brazil would simply let the lights go out and return to a pre-industrial agrarian society if they thought that a military intervention would postpone or prevent it?

It's perfectly justified to be critical of us here in the United States for constantly talking up concepts like freedom, justice and human rights, yet consistently failing to put our money where our mouths are, unless there is a "compelling national interest." But the fact of the matter is that humanitarian military intervention has seldom worked out well for the country. Sorry states of affairs in other parts of the world just aren't as important as avoiding flag-draped coffins here at home. So those criticisms are likely to be ineffective, at best. The cliché that the United States will always be ready to make the world safe for "cheap" oil, however, is overstated. It resonates because it provides a neat explanation of the past decade or so, and is always handy to use as a bludgeon. But use the trope of Wars for Oil as a stand-in for the shallowness of America, rather than simply call us out as shallow?

*Stereotypical kidnapping:
A nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Everyone's a Teacher

I always bristle a bit when someone implies that I don't have anything to learn from someone else, because of the simple fact that they're different from me, and that they've lead a much different life than mine. The world is a very big place, and I'm a small (in the cosmic sense) and limited person. There's all kinds of stuff that I just don't know, and whenever someone is willing to share some of it with me, I'm all ears. And I'm starting to learn that I should be that way even when my initial impression is that they're full of crap. Because, trolls aside, I'm not important enough for people to put a lot of effort into leading astray. As much as it stings to come away from an interaction with someone feeling like an idiot, sometimes, when someone says that I'm doing it wrong - it's because I'm doing it wrong. And at the very least, I'm doing it differently than the way that they found works for them. And even though I'm not them, and we're all unique, I'm not so alien as to be above doing things that other people have identified as worthwhile.

Sometimes, I think that the most difficult thing to learn in our lives is that we spend our lives learning. I've done some really boneheaded things in my life because I didn't know any better. But now I do. It was a learning experience, just as much as the things that I blundered into (or even meticulously planned) that worked out gloriously. I know things that I should do again, and things that I should never, ever think of repeating. But tomorrow, something is going to happen and my first thought is going to be: "Oh, damn. What the crack do I do now?" And part of me will be upset that, after decade upon decade of gathering knowledge, from the profound to the trivial, into a great big pile, I'll have no idea of what choice I should make. Because it will be a novel situation. To me, anyway. But someone will have already been there. And even if their life up until that point was completely different than mine, they might have a useful insight. And if they offer it, it's my job to take it in good grace, rather than feel put down by it, or ashamed that I hadn't thought of it already.

As people, we are teaching machines. We instruct one another without even thinking about it, even when it's the furthest thing from our minds. Therefore, the opportunities to learn are everywhere. It's only natural for us to take advantage of them.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


Bees would be a lot more photogenic if they stood still once in a while...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Scrooge McDuck and Company

Seattle is moving forward with a plan to raise the local minimum wage to $15 an hour via a graduated plan that will roll out over the next several years. (By the way, before you chalk this up to "Socialism," understand that the one actual Socialist on the Seattle city council doesn't think that the plan moves quickly enough.) One of the benefits of this plan that I've heard on a few occasions, goes something like this:

[T]his will likely increase demand, by putting more money in the pockets of people who spend in the regular economy. This increased spending may lead inevitably to more hiring, as businesses look to capture more of the increased demand. I don't think a negative outcome is an inevitability, but I think what is likely is that places like McDonalds [sic] and Subway will just raise their prices a little (I'm willing to pay a little more for a McDouble if the person who makes it can afford to live a decent life). It would be foolish of businesses to layoff a bunch of people, and lose a share of the demand. I.E. businesses hire based on demand, not on the minimum wage.
Milkshakes are wonderful, but any politician will tell you, to REALLY bring all the boys (and girls, for that matter) to the yard, what you have to do is offer a free lunch. While I understand the sentiment expressed above, it works under the assumption that the extra money that goes into the pockets of minimum wage workers has two characteristics: 1) That were it not for newly-flush minimum-wage workers, it wouldn't be spent into "the regular economy" and 2) That the minimum wage worker who is now making about 160% of their old salary will still be living hand-to-mouth and won't be able to either place the new money into savings or pay down old debts. And so, to "the regular economy," raising the minimum wage effectively adds new money, created out of thin air.

To be sure, the assumptions that I've pointed out are not entirely implausible. The money that goes to workers under Seattle's new minimum wage may, in fact, come from funds that were simply sitting around somewhere doing nothing, rather than being transferred from one possible expenditure to another. It could be that most of the costs will be borne by people who have been hoarding money they will never otherwise have a use for, and that converting some of that excess wealth into income will boost the velocity of money in the local economy. And it's entirely possible that someone who needs to spend their entire paycheck to get by at $9.32 an hour (Washington's current minimum wage) while they will find their situation eased at bit at $15 an hour, will still be in a position spending their entire paycheck to get by every pay period. It's possible that people trying to make ends meet as independent adults on the current minimum wage are so deep in a hole that even a 60% increase in wages merely slows their rate of descent. But they strike me as unlikely, especially in combination.

In a republic, you don't normally get the best answer to a thorny question. You normally get the first answer that appears (correctly or not) to have no or minimal costs for the majority of those motivated to vote. The idea that raising the minimum wage will have a magical Keynesian multiplier effect through boosting aggregate demand fits the bill. There are plenty of people who feel that wealthy Americans have been amassing large stockpiles of case in vaults, and that the primary effect of raising the minimum wage will be to force them to pay some of that money out to the working poor in salaries. But, as the saying goes, wealthy people didn't get that way by giving away money when they didn't have to. So even if the economics somehow supported the idea that a boost to the minimum wage could be a free lunch, human nature dictates that there will be a bill for it anyway.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Jackasses for Freedom of Speech

Politically Correct adjective
     : agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people
     : conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated
Note the conspicuous absence of ": not being a jackass."

Political correctness has become something of a favored whipping boy (": a boy formerly educated with a prince and punished in his stead") especially on the American political Right because it becomes a really convenient way to push back against other people's rules around language in the name of "Freedom." But in so doing, "being politically correct" has become synonymous with "not being a prick," and so we're starting to see many people deciding that showing basic courtesies to others is somehow a transgression on their freedom of speech.

I've noted before that the baggage that comes with language is something that the listener carries around with them - it's impossible to insult or offend someone who either refuses to be bothered or doesn't realize that what you're saying should violate their sensibilities. I think that a number of people honestly do understand that, and many of us understand our own responsibility in this. But that doesn't obligate people to be sanguine in the face of intentional insults that are then cloaked in pushing back against the excesses of political correctness. In other words, even if I were to feel that using the words "jew," "welsh" or "gyp" as synonymous with "cheat" shouldn't be considered a punishable offense, I have no business using those words when I'm speaking to someone I know to be Jewish, Welsh or Gypsy (Romani). Or, for that matter, Egyptian. And if I do, I shouldn't claim that they have no business being offended, because I'm simply pushing back against "political correctness," any more than that claim is an appropriate defense against treating the word "bitch" as synonymous with "woman" or "girl."

One of my rules of life is: if you're going to do it, own it. If you want the freedom to say that you were gypped when your buddy jewed you after welshing on a bet, with the full knowledge of how that's going to be taken, go right ahead. But freedom comes with responsibility - in this case, the responsibility to deal with the fact that people you've offended are going to decide that you deliberately disrespected them by placing your freedom to offend their sensibilities ahead of treating them with what they understand they deserve. And whether or not the freedom argument is made from ignorance or intentional disingenuity, it's conflating two things that aren't actually the same.

For me, political correctness has always been problematic because it requires people to be aware of not only any number of potentially problematic words in however many languages one speaks, but the shifting preferences of any number of other groups (and sometimes, it seems, individuals). That's a really tall order. Understanding what it really means to be politically correct, however, is fairly simple. After all, it's in the dictionary.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


It was a simple enough question, if entirely random: (We had a lot of time on our hands when I was in college.)

"So, aliens are attacking the Earth, and appear bent on destroying humanity. What would you do?"

Ever the misanthrope, I answered: "Ask if they're taking applications."

I've mellowed to only being mildly cranky in my old age, but I still find that the tendency to see humanity as a blight upon existence lurks in corners of my mind, waiting to re-assert itself. And Ta-Nehisi Coates, over at The Atlantic, tends to know just how to awaken it.

As Bomani Jones noted back in 2006, Donald Sterling has long been a practitioner of racism and the NBA could not have cared less. Jones is rightfully apoplectic at the present response. That is because he understands that the NBA, its players and its fans, don't so much object to Donald Sterling's racism—they object to his want of elegance.

Like Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling confirms our comfortable view of racists. Donald Sterling is a "bad person." He's mean to women. He carouses with prostitutes. He uses the word "nigger." He fits our idea of what an actual racist must look like: snarling, villainous, immoral, ignorant, gauche. That the actual racism that Sterling long practiced, that this society has long practiced (and is still practicing) must attract significantly less note. That is because to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.
This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist
The words resonate with me, and the misanthropic impulse stirs. Part of me wants to welcome it back. But Mr. Coates makes is clear than ownership of the present circumstance belongs to all of us. So I have to own up to my piece of it, too. I spend a lot of time not caring about issues that I really wish would go away, but am not interested enough in to actually want to see them go away. And through that disinterest, I am implicated.

Owning that is a difficult thing because we've always been taught that only in blamelessness is there morality. Sometimes, even as tenuous a relationship as a single shared belief is enough to mark you, and so we argue against the association. We become caught up in a need to be free of anything that the people around us may find objectionable. And eventually, as we realize that it's simply not possible to completely unshackle yourself from anything that might be less than ideal, we become saddled with an acute understanding of human imperfection.

And when we see those imperfections as transgressions against us, anger sets in. Sometimes, it's anger at a subset of humanity. Sometimes, it's anger at the species as a whole. Always, I think, it reflects on the requirements that we've placed on our own self-respect.

Owning up to the idea that I would likely turn a blind eye to a deal that injured someone unlike me for my own benefit is hard. I don't want to be a bad person. I don't want to be snarling, villainous, immoral, ignorant and gauche (although I am, to be sure, left-handed, which I suppose makes me sinister, as well). But it's the very unwillingness to see these things in myself, and to uncouple them from the economics of my life that allows me to be, whether I want to our not, a racist. Racists are no more intentionally evil than potholes. They understand themselves to be every bit as justified in their actions as everyone else, and so they rationalize.

The only way to not do evil is to recognize that one is capable of evil, and to be okay with oneself anyway. It is our inner critic, pushing us to live up to the impossible standards it sets that drives us to do those things that we should not do, and then rationalize having done them. While, at the same time, prompting us to sneer at those who mirror our feared selves back at us and to envy those who don't.

I've mellowed in my old age because I now understand that I am not owed a certain standard of treatment by anyone. And that includes myself. They are not bad people. There are no bad people. There are only choices.

Somewhere, entwined together, are unconditional respect for others and unconditional respect for self. I don't know that I'll ever find them. I don't know that I'll ever be free of the hint of misanthropy - or the hint of self-anger that goes with it. But I continue to strive for it (and work not to become caught up in the striving). Serenity in the face of oafishness is difficult. But without it, what we have is self-deception, masquerading as elegance.