Showing posts with label it's a mystery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label it's a mystery. Show all posts

Friday, April 11, 2014

What's amusing me this week

The Stephen Colbert freak-out on the right. Who would have thought that the conservatives in this country would care so much about who replaces David Letterman? Based on the clips I'm seeing, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other right-wing talking heads have apparently never watched Letterman's show. They seem to think that Colbert will be bringing some radical left-wing agenda to CBS in an attempted liberal take-over of popular culture in a way that has never been seen before in the hallowed space of the Ed Sullivan Theater. From the way they're freaking out you'd think that it had been Dennis Miller sitting at that desk and bantering with Paul Shaffer for the past 20+ years. It's bizarre. Letterman has been taking shots at the conservative side of American politics for a long, long time. He was merciless in mocking George Bush, he's targeted Rush Limbaugh in the past, and he's been consistently irreverent when it comes to going after people in positions of power. In short, Colbert isn't going to be saying or doing anything that Letterman hasn't already said or done, albeit in a slightly different style.

In any case, it is definitely weird that the right-wing pundits would worry at all about who's going to host a late night television program. Why do they care? Is Rush really that insecure about his growing irrelevancy and shrinking (dying?) audience that he feels obligated to rant about Colbert? Does Hannity actually believe that Colbert succeeding Letterman is still more proof of growing decadence in American life? It's all very strange. Amusing, yes, but still strange.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ethical qualms, moral dilemmas, counterfactuals

In the long tale of the world most of us are the recipients of stolen goods and the fruits of murder, just by happening to be alive after they happened, and atrocities cannot be undone later.  – John Barnes
I did a blog post the other day on one of the things we denizens of the United States seem to have gotten right: as a general rule, we don't go around trying to figure out ways to kill each based on where someone's great grandmother was born or what language some distant ancestors spoke. We've got various alliances, networks, cliques, and cults that might despise each other, but if we accuse each other of not being true Americans it's not going to be because someone's great grandparents spoke Hungarian or Tagalog when they got off the boat 100 years ago. There's a reason for this: assimilation. Some of it was voluntary, but quite a bit was forced. 

Which brings up the issue of ethical qualms and moral dilemmas. I once read a statement attributed to Lenin in which he said that in order for the end to justify the means, you have to have an end you can justify. Which strikes me as being a tad tautological, but it does make sense. If you're going to break eggs, you better be planning on ending up with an edible omelet. So today we Americans are the fortunate beneficiaries of a policies instituted decades or centuries ago that in retrospect do not seem to pass the smell test. Taking Native American kids away from their parents and shipping them off to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native language was barbaric. Punishing the children of immigrants for speaking Italian or German or Slovenian in an American public school was almost as cruel. People were stigmatized, treated horribly, for displaying any signs of foreignness. The end result was a populace unified by a language and common culture, but obtained at the cost of losing their past. Was this a good thing or a bad thing?  And was it necessary to use force? Would assimilation and adoption of a common language have occurred as rapidly if official policies hadn't pushed for both? Is there even a way to decide questions like that decades later?

As for counterfactuals, there is the intriguing question of whether or not assimilation, forced or otherwise, would have occurred among the non-Native groups if they had all felt like they had someplace to go back to, i.e., that there was a motherland just waiting to be reclaimed. Although some immigrants came with the intention of just working for a few years, making a fortune, and going back to the old country to buy a farm or start a business, the majority recognized this was it. There was no going back. Once they got off the boat from Europe, Africa, or Asia, most were here to stay. 

In contrast, in the Soviet Union, Stalin tried shuffling various population groups around in an attempt to Russianize everyone (which was, come to think of it, pretty bizarre, given that he wasn't Russian himself) and eliminate non-Russian languages within the borders of the Soviet Union. It didn't work. Once the Soviet Union fell, the former Soviet republics discarded using Russian as a language pretty rapidly and different ethnic groups that had been sent off to colonize in eastern Siberia started moving back to where their grandparents had lived. It's a lot easier to keep the idea of repatriation alive when you know you can walk there if you're determined enough. 

Would the Russianization have worked given a few more generations to oppress and coerce people? Again, an unanswerable question. Borders have shifted numerous times, nation-states have risen and fallen, and populations have shifted in response to wars, famines, and plagues. Some cultures and people vanish as though they had never existed; others endure. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Another author I cannot read

Joyce Carol Oates. The woman is one of the most prolific American authors around. She's published a gazillion short stories, been featured on Oprah's Book Club, and received multiple awards. I'm not sure how I had managed to avoid knowingly reading anything by her until this week, but I had. So the last time I was at the library I decided it was time to remedy that deficiency. I checked out a recent collection of her short stories, Dear Husband.

Okay. She can write. She is really good with a pen, a master wordsmith. But depressing? Words fail me. I don't expect every book I read to be super upbeat or have a formulaic happy ending. After all, I like Russian novels. I read the short stories in The New Yorker. I even have a subscription to The Sun. But there are limits. The characters in the stories in Dear Husband don't lead lives of quiet desperation. They lead lives of such total despair that the reader finds herself wanting to join them in a warm bath while chugging a whole lot of Xanax and Jack Daniels with a nice old-fashioned cut-throat razor on the side.

You know, this baffles me. "This" being the gazillion publications. If Dear Husband is typical Joyce Carol Oates, why on earth would any reader ever buy more than one of her books? Do people think that if a book makes them feel horrible it is somehow great literature? Do they view reading as punishment, some sort of penance they endure to prove to themselves they're smart? Are they trying to impress the librarian or the Barnes and Noble cashiers when they pick up something by Joyce Carol Oates instead of Janet Evanovich? It's a mystery.

Okay. It's time to go read something light and escapist to purge the memory the Oates book. Maybe I'll re-read Crime and Punishment. After reading Oates, Dostoevsky will seem like P. G. Wodehouse in comparison.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Odd thoughts in the middle of the night

Sometimes I wake up thinking about the most inconsequential things. Why? With everything that's going on in the world, why on earth would I wake up wondering how the parents in large families manage to come up with names for their children?

One of the things I do as part of volunteering with the local historical society is dabble a bit in genealogical research. People contact the museum asking for our help in tracking down death certificates, marriage licenses, and other records. Sometimes I'm able to find what they need; sometimes there's nothing. But in any case I have been noticing just how large some of the families were. We've had a couple requests come in for information on one of the local well-known pioneer families, a family that stands out for multiple reasons, but that I find particularly notable for the remarkably good health of the matriarch of the clan. The woman had at least seventeen children who survived into adulthood, or close to it. The matriarch herself was probably in her nineties when she died.

So do I wonder about how she managed that? Good genes, clean living, sheer dumb luck? Do I think about the changes she witnessed over her lifetime, which spanned approximately 1820 to 1910? No. I wake up wondering just how the heck she and her husband came up with names for the kids. The first couple of little barracudas would be easy. As good Catholics, they'd just do the usual Apostles and a Mary or two. But once they hit the 10th or 12th they'd be starting to run out of the better known saints. And by the 17th? I can't see a priest being willing to baptize "Jesus Christ Not Again."

Then again, by the time they hit the 17th, the older kids would be leaving home, so maybe they just started over from the top of the list.

This particular family was so large that the descendants who are several generations away from the original pioneer couple do not realize that their great-great-grandparent was one of 17 siblings. I don't know why that surprises me -- with one exception, I have no idea how many siblings three of my grandparents had, and I actually knew one grandmother -- but it always does. Maybe it's because the family is so well known in local history that it always seems odd that more information didn't get passed down in family folklore after the descendants moved away.

I've always kind of wondered about naming traditions in general. I've known people who were determined that each child have the same first initial, there are others where one particular name seems to get repeated over and over, and of course we've all seen the sorry influence of soap operas, movies, pop stars, and cultural icons. One of my friends was named Mercedes, and, yes, it was the car that was the inspiration. Even better, the family mispronounced it.

I can't get too judgmental, though. Both my kids have names inspired by books, and relatively obscure books at that. My older daughter is still annoyed that I happened to read Zuleika Dobson when I did, and the younger daughter has spent half her life telling people that no, Tamar isn't Biblical, it's a river in a Victoria Holt novel. I keep telling them to count their blessings. I could have been reading Podkayne of Mars when the nurse asked me what to put on the birth certificate.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The persistence of binary thinking

I was watching "Real Time" the other night and it hit me again how trapped we all seem to be in thinking that for every problem there are only two answers: The Right Answer and the Wrong Answer. The panel was discussing the Obama administration's use of drones for targeted assassinations of possible terrorists. There are huge problems this whole notion, of course, ranging from violations of international law and the moral repugnance of planning to kill multiple innocents ("collateral damage") in an attempt to take out just one mastermind, but those aren't the subject of this post.

No, what struck me was Bill Maher's persistence in framing the discussion as an Either/Or question. You know, we either use drones to blow up someone's house or we do nothing. In Maher's world view there was only one Right Answer. It was like Maher was trapped thinking in Basic: for him everything was either a 1 or a 0; there were no other numbers. Dylan Ratigan kept pointing out that there were alternatives to drone strikes, such as special operations teams (e.g., Seal Team Six), that could be sent in to extract high profile human targets. Jeremy Scahill was being quite persistent in reminding everyone that drone strikes are not particularly effective. Among other things, they do a really nice job of recruiting new persons into supporting anti-U.S. terrorism. Blowing apart a wedding party or a gathering at the local coffee shop with a U.S. drone strike is a really good way to persuade the survivors they want to sign up with Al Qaeda or the Taliban after all. A more effective strategy might be to come up with ways to reduce support for terrorism, not bolster it. Maher wasn't having any of it. In his mind, there were two possibilities: doing nothing or using drones.

This is a situation we encounter all the time in our every day lives. We all know people who can't seem to figure out that for any situation there can be multiple responses. They decide that there is one Right Answer, and if for some reason that answer doesn't work out, they're paralyzed. The idea that there can be multiple right answers never sinks in. I'm not sure where this tendency comes from. It is the end result of being told over and over in school that there's only one right answer for any homework or test question? Have we been brainwashed by too many generations of politicians who insist publicly that there's only one policy solution to any particular problem? Are we humans just naturally lazy thinkers? We're always exhorting each other to "think outside the box" but we almost never do. It's a mystery.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why do you think they call it work?

My mother used to say some people would bitch if they were hanged with a silk rope.* I think she was talking about Republicans.

I was listening to the news this morning and learned that a report from the Congressional Budget Office indicates that one of the consequences of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is that the number of people working may drop. Apparently the statisticians are predicting that some people will leave the work force or reduce their hours because their income is no longer needed to pay for health insurance. For example, a person who is currently working multiple part-time jobs may realize he or she only needs to work one. Or perhaps a two-income couple will realize they can get by on one income now that they're no longer saddled with $1000 a month in health insurance premiums. In short, the Affordable Care Act could lead to more people experiencing less stress and financial pressure, i.e., some people are going to be able to enjoy more leisure time. This possibility is generating all sorts of sound bites from the right about what a horrible, horrible outcome this is and how it's yet another example of the rolling train wreck that is Obamacare.

I don't get it. How is people having to work fewer hours to survive a bad thing? Work is something people do because they have to. For most people on the planet, it's a necessary evil, a means to an end and not the end in itself. Even people who genuinely like their jobs would probably prefer to spend less time at the job and more time doing other things. If work was fun, you wouldn't see bumper stickers telling the world "The worst day fishing beats the best day at work" or "Retired - every day is Saturday!" So if the Affordable Care Act means more people get to enjoy time having fun instead of staring at a computer screen or flipping burgers it strikes me as being one more thing to be happy about.

Then again, the S.O.'s ultra-conservative teabagger cousin recently hurled what he thought was the ultimate insult against the S.O.: "He only worked when he had no other choice." WTF? Isn't that what all of us do? If we didn't have to do it, it wouldn't be called work.

[*It always struck me as an odd saying. I think I'd complain no matter what type of fiber was used. What's the point? Silk doesn't chafe so the rope burn will be less dramatic? You're still dead.]

Monday, January 6, 2014

Snow days? We never had snow days

Got up this morning to below zero temperatures outdoors. According to the indoor/outdoor thermometer, it was minus 13.9 and dropping at 6 a.m. Today's predicted high is slightly warmer; it's supposed to climb all the way up to minus 6. Fahrenheit, of course, I don't want to think about what it would be in Celsius because Celsius always sounds colder.

What intrigues me about this particular cold snap is the way people are reacting to it. Below zero temperatures aren't exactly new here in the U.P. I can recall many winters where the lows would be down around minus 30 or even 40 below, especially toward the end of January and the beginning of February. I can remember waking up one morning at my parents' house, a structure that relied on one pathetic oil-burning space heater to prevent frostbite and hypothermia in its residents, and finding ice had formed in the water glass on the nightstand. And how did we all respond to this bitter cold? We got up, got dressed, ate breakfast, and then headed out the door to walk to school through waist deep snow. Uphill. Both ways.

Well, maybe no waist deep snow and there was a school bus, but nonetheless we went to school. No one panicked because it was, holy fuck, cold. It was northern Wisconsin in the winter. You expected cold, you dealt with it and quietly hoped for an early spring. Didn't matter just how many brass monkeys were shedding testicles, unless that cold was accompanied by blizzard-like snow conditions, you went to school.

Even 20 years ago bitter cold didn't inspire entire states to close their school systems. Back in 1993-1994 we had a record cold winter. Temperatures were minus 20 or colder in the middle of the day for what seemed like weeks on end. Municipal water pipes froze that hadn't frozen since they were put in a hundred years earlier. But people bundled up, kids kept getting on school buses, and life went on.

So what's different this time? Is this yet another phenomenon that we can blame on the Internet and/or social media? Or is it simply the result of the traditional mainstream media flogging a story to death because nothing else has been happening in the world lately and they're tired of talking about the Winter Olympics and Russian homophobia? Why are people freaking out now over single digit below zero temperatures predicted to last for only a couple days when not long ago all it would have merited was parents reminding kids to dress in layers. I don't know. I do know that the local TV station put up a list on Facebook of schools that are closed today, and it seemed to cover just about every district in the Upper Peninsula. Just because Minnesota panicked we're supposed to, too? Unreal.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Weirdness in the spam folder

Like everyone who blogs, every so often I'll have a comment show up that at first blush appears to be from someone saying something nice about a recent post but is in fact spam. You know, it'll have a line or two complimenting the post and then a "this may interest you" with a link. If you click on the link, you discover you're at a site advertising something you have absolutely no interest in -- male enhancement products, office space in Bangalore -- but usually the spam comment is at least directly linked to something you wrote. Granted, sometimes the post in question is a really, really old one, but you did at least write it.

Well, I got one the other day that was stranger than usual. It referenced a post I'd supposedly done on a topic I vaguely recalled but had done so long ago it might as well have been on a different planet. I've never had a spam comment that reached back 2 or 3 years in time, so that made me curious. I went looking for the original post. I could not find it. The link in the comment that included the post's title was a dead link. Very strange. So then I did several searches of the blog archive using terms that one would think would either be used as labels or would show up in the text. No luck. So then I decided to read my blog backwards. I learned a few things that weren't exactly news -- among other things, I used to have a serious addiction to C-SPAN -- but I never did find a post with the title the commenter had used. Very, very strange.

Monday, March 18, 2013

But does it run?

The S.O. and I have been Leviathan shopping lately, looking for a motor home similar in size and amenities to the one his brother owned but available for much, much less money. For some reason, shopping for an RV is starting to remind me of politics. We've been hearing a lot of promises from sellers -- it runs like a charm, never had any problems with the generator, etc. -- but with no evidence to back those promises up. Yesterday we looked at a vintage Georgie Boy that had me thinking of Paul Ryan's budget plan: Ryan swears it'll solve the country's deficit problems, get the economy back on track, and be a general boon to everyone, but there's no evidence to support his claims. He's promising the equivalent of a brand-new, fresh off the assembly line vehicle while you're busy looking around and seeing the 30+ years of grease in the kitchenette, sagging cabinet doors, holes punched in the paneling, threadbare shag carpeting, and cracked windshield. Then you ask, "but how does it run?" This is the point where the prospective buyer expects the seller to whip out a key and fire the beast up. Instead, the response is, "Trust me. It runs great."

I don't think so. If it ran great, it would be running when the buyer went to look at it. Just like with Ryan's proposed budget; if he really believed it would work, it would contain specifics instead of indulging in platitudes, vagaries, and direct contradictions. Ryan's current budget plan is the same one he's been trotting out for several years now. About all he does is change the title and maybe the color of the comb binding on the printouts.

As for our motor home search, this business with the beasts sitting there inert when the prospective buyer arrives to examine them has me baffled. We've looked at two used RVs this month. One was immaculate on the inside; it was a 1989 Winnebago but the carpeting and upholstery looked new. It was spotless. It was also basically exactly what we were looking for when it came to size and interior layout. The other one was an ancient Georgie Boy; it looked like something Randy Quaid would drive -- the interior layout wasn't bad, but was thoroughly obscured by years of having been used by a family with multiple teenage boys. It was, in a word, disgusting.

In both cases, though, the interior was irrelevant. What mattered was the engine. Did the beast run? Who knows. In both cases, the seller swore that there were no mechanical issues, the thing ran like a charm, it might need a minor tune up after sitting all winter, but no big deal. It would have been a lot easier to believe the sellers if the vehicles had actually been running while we were there.

Despite the squalor, I am still a little tempted by the Georgie Boy. It would require a lot of elbow grease, but it does have several things going for it, chief of which is an incredibly low price tag. Now if we could only be sure it actually runs. . .

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Odd dilemmas

What does one do with a spare refrigerator when there is neither a garage nor a basement family room in which to park it? Back in October we arrived home from vacation to discover our refrigerator had died in our absence. Tried a couple of things and concluded it was really, truly dead. There are no refrigerator repair persons within a reasonable distance of our place, so we went for the easy option: drove to Marquette to Menard's and bought a new refrigerator.

Since then, the old refrigerator had been sitting outside while we tried to figure out what to do with it. A couple weeks ago we decided to drag it into the Camp (aka The Woman Cave; I've got all my sewing stuff set up there) so the S.O. could tinker with it in a warmish space. If it was salvageable, like if all that had gone wrong was a relay got fried, we'd order a part online. If it wasn't salvageable. . .  well, I do like to garden, and they say that as you age, raised beds are a good idea because you don't have to kneel to weed. We shoveled the snow off, dragged it in, and then let it sit for a few days so all the snow and ice could melt off and the electrical wiring could dry out. Yesterday the S.O. decided to start the diagnostic process. First step: plug it in.

Next step: do some muttering, mostly of phrases sounding suspiciously like "What the fuck?" and "Why the hell. . . ?" Bottom line: the repair work apparently consisted of letting it get snowed on for awhile and then plugging it in. Just like it mysteriously died back in October, now in late January it is working just fine. It's a mystery. Now all we have to do is figure out where to park it so it's not in my way. Maybe the S.O. would like a beer fridge out in the barn?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Level playing fields

One thing that's always intrigued me is the way any change in the overall business climate always results in a handful of business owners howling like wounded banshees about the devastating effect those changes will have on their specific companies. We hear the howls every time a suggestion is made to raise the minimum wage, alter the legal hours minors can work, or limit the tasks certain classes of workers can do. At the moment, we're still hearing the howls about the evil, evil effects of the Affordable Care Act. You'd think that after the shit storm that erupted over John Schnatter's pronouncements about the ACA forcing him to lay off workers that business owners would have learned to keep their mouths shut. You'd be wrong. The latest idiot is some fool in Omaha who owns a few Wendy's franchises. He apparently hasn't figured out that bloviating about cutting your workers' hours to avoid paying for health insurance isn't a real smart move.

Leaving aside for now the issues of the negative publicity he's generating, i.e., he's openly saying he'd rather have his employees' illnesses go untreated than make sure they could afford to see a doctor occasionally (does Wendy's have a secret sauce? And just how much snot goes into it?), just think about the ego involved. The man thinks the world revolves around his business, that his handful of fast food outlets is absolutely unique in the costs he's encountering as part of doing business. His expenses are going up so how is he expected to compete with the other purveyors of grease and soggy french fries? It doesn't seem to have occurred to him or to John Schnatter or any of the other asshats whining about the costs resulting from the Affordable Care Act that every other business owner in the U.S. is facing those same cost increases. The playing field is level. Their competition is going to be experiencing the same situation; everyone's costs are going up by the same amount and they all risk similar penalties for noncompliance.

If only one hamburger outlet had to raise the prices on its cheeseburgers by a dime to compensate for an increased business expense, the business might have a reason to whine. It would be harder to compete if only one business was getting hit. But when all of them are? Maybe the cumulative effect will be that customers buy a few less burgers over a year's time, but the price increase isn't going to be what determines which specific burgers they buy -- it's going to be the overall image of the company that makes the difference. Everyone's been subjected to the same change in the cost of doing business; no one's been advantaged or disadvantaged relative to the competition.

In short, while there maybe some minor differences in the products being sold (e.g., Wendy's has its mystery meat chili, Runza has runzas, McDonald's has the filet-o-fish), for most people fast food is fast food. Not a whole lot of thought goes into deciding between one quick lunch and another. I think the S.O. and I are pretty typical in the way we pick a place to eat when we're in a hurry: convenient location comes first on the list and what's actually on the menu is a secondary consideration. Unless, of course, the CEO for that particular company has managed to demonstrate some first-class asshat behavior, in which case it doesn't matter if it's the only fast food outlet in the county, we won't eat there.

Just how stupid does a CEO have to be to go out and deliberately generate negative publicity for his business? And just how do these idiots get to be CEOs in the first place? The stupid, it burns.

Monday, January 7, 2013


Do you ever bother with dream analysis? I have acquaintances who read deep meanings into every dream they experience. They keep dream journals and reach for a pen as soon as they're awake. I'm always quietly amazed they can remember anything. When I dream, I usually just remember flashes of weirdness. Like this morning. I woke up feeling like I'd just shot a scene from Them!, although I didn't have a conscious memory of having seen any giant, fire-breathing ants. Very strange. This was one of those mornings where I kind of wished I could remember more. Were the S.O. and I somehow shrunk down to the size of ants, or did we encounter ants that had mutated to the size of Shetland ponies? What sort of deep meaning, if any, should I read into it? Or was this simply a reminder to add ant traps to the shopping list?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Is there any other type?

Have supermarkets started peddling potatoes grown in vats? Is there some new secret process for producing spuds that doesn't involve dirt?

And what unnatural oil might be like? WD-40 maybe? Or maybe 10W30?

I'm also mystified as to why any company feels like it has to include advertising on the bag the product is in. I'm pretty sure that anyone who's pulled a bag of chips off the shelf has already decided those chips are going in the shopping cart.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Literary influences

Over at Possum Living, Tracy did a post a few days ago with a photo of a reserved parking space at a law firm in Grand Junction, Colorado. His post reminded me that back in the '60s, when I was still young and impressionable, there were several books that were "must reads" among my more literate friends. The big three were Stranger in a Strange Land, Lord of the Rings, and Atlas Shrugged. Some of us read them all, some read only one or two, but I'm pretty sure everyone I knew back then recognized every book as being pure fiction, the equivalent of Peyton Place or Hotel but with (perhaps) slightly more literary merit. I don't recall anyone viewing any of the novels as laying out some core philosophy on which they planned to model their lives. Oh, some of us went through a phase where we'd talk about "grokking" something, and at one point a friend and I actually wrote notes to each other using Tolkien's runes. None of us, however, ever took Atlas Shrugged seriously. 

I'm not sure why. We were definitely nerdy, which seems to be a prerequisite for being seduced by Ayn Rand and Objectivism. It's obvious there are a lot of people out there (Congressman Paul Ryan springs immediately to mind) who were deeply influenced by what now strikes me as being a godawful novel with turgid prose, improbable plotting, clunky characterization, and truly boring, boring, boring wordsmithing (I'm thinking now the only reason I ever read the entire thing to begin with was I had too many hours of study hall my senior year and, bad though the book was, it beat doing trigonometry problems). Even stranger, not only do they read it, they think it lays out a reasonable philosophy for running a country. I don't get it. Why fall for the philosophical musing of Ayn Rand and not some other author? I know that by the time Congressman Ryan was an adolescent, the "must read" list of novels had changed. He graduated from high school in 1989 during an era when Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy were dominating the best seller lists. Why didn't he have Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan fantasies? What on earth was the attraction of Atlas Shrugged

For that matter, and fine-tuning my bafflement a little, what on earth was and is the attraction of Rand's atheist philosophy, Objectivism, to persons like Congressman Ryan who claim to be devout Christians? One of Objectivism's core tenets is a belief in reason and science, which is essentially the antithesis of religion. A belief in Objectivism and a belief in God strike me as incompatible -- you can have one or the other but not both. For that matter, how do you square a philosophy that advocates selfishness (objectivism) with one that advocates charity and social responsibility (Christianity)? It's a mystery. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The fetishization of the private sector

One thing I've always found mildly baffling about the right wing is its unrelenting fetishization of the private sector. To hear politicians like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and their ilk tell it, the private sector -- i.e., for profit businesses -- are always more efficient and more cost effective than anything the government can possibly do.

I can halfway understand it when it's politicians like Ryan, Newt Gingrich, and some others doing the bloviating. They have no substantive private sector experience. Gingrich, for example, went from grad school to teaching at a public university to being a professional politician. His private sector experience came after he left government, and then it consisted (and still consists) of selling himself, not a particularly useful product. Ryan has at least seen the private sector from the sidelines -- his great grandfather founded Ryan Construction, a company that grew into a substantial business -- although his entire adult life has been spent in government, first as an intern and employee and then as a career politician. The no real-world experience leaves them free to fantasize about how much better things must be outside the stifling constraints of a government bureaucracy. I get it. I worked for the government, too, and I'm familiar with the frustrations.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, should know better. He was, after all, a vulture venture capitalist. He's intimately familiar with the major difference between government and the private sector. Businesses can fail; government cannot. Romney knows businesses fail on a regular basis. He knows this on a personal level (someone should ask him sometime about how well the car company that his father ran is doing these days -- anyone seen an AMC Ambassador for sale lately?) and on a business level. Romney may talk a lot about job creation, but the reality was that his company, Bain, specialized in finding businesses that were asset-rich, stripping those businesses of anything that could be easily liquidated, and then pushing the businesses into a shark tank. Bain can point to some success stories (the classic one being Staples), but they also nudged a number of companies into bankruptcy.

Of course, businesses fail all the time. Maybe Bain just sped up the inevitable a little for the companies it sucked the life out of. A person doesn't have to do much research to come up a lengthy list of companies that were booming not many years ago and have faded into obscurity or totally vanished today. Kodak, Enron, American Motors, Gimbels Department Stores, Woolworth's, Eastern Airlines . . . the "rust belt" is full of industrial ruins, the remnants of what used to be foundries and factories, and every state has its ghost towns that boomed for awhile around a sawmill, a copper mine, or a textile mill. It doesn't matter what area of the private sector -- manufacturing, extractive, or service -- a business is in, it can fail. It can fail fast -- the Small Business Administration optimistically notes that "70% of new business are still in operation two years later," which is another way of saying that 30% have gone belly up -- or it can fail slow. Studebaker was in business for over 100 years and successfully transitioned from building wagons to building automobiles, but bad management succeeded in killing the company in the 1960s. Woolworth's and Gimbels were both retail giants for decades, but longevity wasn't enough to save them.

The Small Business Administration also says that the five year survival rate for new businesses is a whopping 51%. Wow. That's definitely cheerful news. If you start a new business, you've got a 50/50 chance of staying in business long enough to pay off a car loan.

Which brings me back to my original question: why the fetishization of the private sector? Based on its failure rates, the private sector doesn't exactly inspire confidence it would be a good role model for government. The one thing it does well appears to be failure. You know what they call it when governments fail? Bosnia. Rwanda. Somalia. Afghanistan. Things get really messy, and people die.

[I do actually know the answer to my rhetorical question. Romney et al. want to apply the Bain model to the U.S. government, i.e., strip it of anything worth selling, award no-bid contracts to their cronies, and then pass the cannibalized corpse back to the next administration to try to re-animate.]

Monday, July 30, 2012

Be true to your school?

Okay, I've gotten semi-used to the idea that you can customize just about anything. I was even sort of enthusiastic about the notion of a Virginia Tech garden gnome. But stilettos? Especially stilettos in the rather hideous school colors of burnt orange and maroon? Much as I like saying I got a couple of my degrees from VPI, I've got to wonder about anyone who would actually wear these.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Question: What is the actual unemployment rate in the United States these days?

Answer: No one knows.

I haven't been paying much attention to the news lately, but one item that has gotten repeated a lot (even on the local classic rock station) is that the latest official national unemployment rate has dipped below 9%. This is viewed as good news, and maybe it is. Then again, maybe it isn't. Have the numbers gone down because fewer people are losing their jobs? More people are returning to work? More people have had their unemployment benefits run out and so are no longer counted as among the unemployed? How about the jobless who never qualified for unemployment compensation to begin with? Did they count when they first lost their jobs, and do they count now? Does anyone know?

This is a question I've thought about for years. At one time the official unemployment rate was determined by doing a phone survey of a random sample of the population: x-number of households would be called and people asked if they were working or looking for work (and, from what I could determine from looking at the Labor Department web site, that's still the methodology used). Didn't matter if you were working less than full-time or if you were working for less money than you wanted or needed, if you collected wages for at least one hour of work per week, you were employed. If you had been unable to find work for so long you'd given up, you were no longer statistically unemployed. You might not have a job, you might wish you had a job, but if you weren't out there pounding the pavement or sending out resumes, you were not unemployed for statistical purposes.

Phone surveys have some obvious flaws. Even back before the proliferation of cell phones, there were always people who did not have a telephone. Any active job seekers who didn't have phones were automatically excluded from the survey data. Given that people without jobs are probably more likely than people with jobs to not have a telephone, how skewed did that make the data? Who knows? And did anyone care?

Another way of talking about unemployment rates is to look at how many people are drawing unemployment compensation at any point in time. If you're unemployed, you're on unemployment, right? Wrong. Depending on the state, as few as 30% of people who lose their jobs actually qualify for unemployment benefits. If your job is seasonal, you might be screwed: back during the Engler administration, the state of Michigan changed its rules to prevent seasonal workers from collecting anything. To draw any benefits in Michigan, you have to have wages earned in more than one quarter of a year during the past 5 quarters and you have to have earned  a certain minimum amount in each of those quarters. If you're a minimum wage worker depending on seasonal work (e.g., motel maid in a summer resort town), you may never earn enough money to qualify for unemployment when the inevitable furloughs happen. I had the disconcerting experience once of having worked full-time for almost a full year and then when the job ended in mid-June being told I didn't qualify for unemployment insurance because I had not been working in June the year before. It was bizarre: ten months of full-time employment at a decent wage, and still not eligible for unemployment compensation.

The other way (and probably the most common way) the unemployed find themselves disqualified for unemployment compensation is when their former employer makes a false claim that the employee was fired for cause rather than being furloughed due to lack of work. One of the great myths circulating among the credulous is that if you get fired, you can go on unemployment. Not true. Being terminated for cause (and cause can be very loosely defined) is an automatic disqualification. So is voluntary termination without cause -- i.e., if you quit a job because you don't like it, you can't draw unemployment; if you quit a job for a good reason (your paycheck bounced, for example, or working conditions are unsafe and you can prove it), you might qualify for jobless benefits. I once worked as a power sewing machine operator for a company where the paychecks bounced; several of us quit, we filed for unemployment, the owner* tried to deny the claim, and the unemployment referee ruled that it is a fundamental right of employees to get paid for their work. Of course, that was back in the halcyon days of the Carter administration; I fear the ruling would be different today.

So if the Labor Department's numbers are skewed because of a dubious methodology and the numbers for people drawing unemployment compensation only catch a minority of the actual unemployed, just what is the unemployment rate in the United States? Or, to put it another way, just how much worse is the truth than the sugar-coated information the politicians are giving us? Is there any way to know?

[*To this day, I'm amazed he was able to put down the coke spoon long enough to pay attention to the business for more than a nanosecond. Paychecks bounced because most assets were going up his nose.]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The place no one is supposed to know about

I found this photo while going through some files from my NPS days. The site is in a remote location, relatively inaccessible and out of the way in a park I'm not going to name, and is one of those things that's kind of sliding into local folklore, the tiny concrete village that looks as though Smurfs have set up housekeeping in the wilderness.
I wonder if it's still there? It's been about 7 years since I last saw it, and rumor had it that if the park superintendent ever figured out where it was, those tiny Smurf houses would become mobile homes.

And I've always also wondered about who'd take the time to backpack in either sacks of Quickcrete or shoebox-sized house-shaped lumps of solid concrete, but people have carried stranger things while camping.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

So what was the problem with Borders?

I went to the mall yesterday. Had some other shopping to do that was the real reason I was there, but could not resist stepping into the Borders Express store. It was packed. As far as I could tell, the major difference in the store's usual sales tactics was the huge "Going out of Business!!" signs in the windows. The stock was discounted, but not dramatically -- Borders did 20% off sales all the time before, it was just never on everything in the store. So why the stampede to shop there now? The illusion of bargains? If people really want to buy 6 or 7 books at a shot, why weren't they doing that back before the chain began going bankrupt?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Still another mystery

What's the point of robo-calls from collection agencies?

I swear that it's a rare day that I don't come home to find a message on the answering machine from some outfit attempting to dun someone I've never heard of for unpaid debts. The message always says something to the effect of "This call is for Joe Schmoe. If you are not Joe Schmoe, hang up now. By continuing to listen to this message, you are acknowledging that you are indeed Joe Schmoe. This call is being made for purposes of collecting a debt. Call this number 888-no-one-will-ever-answer to make arrangements for payment."

After being the recipient of numerous messages for Mr. Schmoe and other deadbeats, we tried calling the toll free number to ask them to please purge our phone number from their robo-call list. It was a slow afternoon -- the S.O. sat there listening to Muzak for a long, long time (half an hour? 45 minutes?) and no human ever picked up the phone. We just wanted them to stop annoying us, but what if we'd actually been Joe Schmoe and wanted to send them money? Why waste energy making dunning calls if on the rare occasion someone responds, no one's home at the collection agency to tell the debtors where to send the checks?

And for sure why waste resources on robo-calling? What the odds that random phone calls to people completely unconnected to the debtors are ever going to result in them actually finding anyone? Or are they operating under the theory that if they call everyone in the 404 area code, sooner or later good ol' Joe will actually pick up the phone?