Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cui bono?

The S.O. did a post yesterday on drug testing politicians. His point was that from the perspective of harm reduction it would do society more good to make sure the lawmakers aren't stoned than it would to go after some poor sap applying for food stamps. That was, after all, the original argument for drug testing: harm reduction. Protect the public by keeping stoned long-haul truckers off the highways, chemically impaired pilots out of cockpits, and so on. I don't think most people have much of an objection to trying to ensure that someone flying a 747 or driving a school bus isn't high.

Of course, the rationale now for piss testing isn't to protect the public -- it's ostensibly to save taxpayer dollars by making sure lowlifes aren't swapping their food stamps (or the equivalent thereof) for doobies or meth. The folks peddling this particular brand of snake oil (criminalizing poverty and punishing the poor for being poor) always make it sound like huge savings are going to accrue to the taxpayers, which is bull. I couldn't find any recent data, but in 2006 the average welfare benefit per household in the United States was under $400 a month. Somehow I doubt that the potential savings from booting a tiny percentage of applicants out of the system is going to offset the cost of administering the tests. So the question what's the real motivation behind the push for drug testing? Cui bono? Who benefits?

Well, it's not the American public. The underlying motivation isn't austerity or saving the public money. It's to create more customers for the companies that manufacture and/or administer the drug tests. If you look at the history of drug testing -- from a few persons in sensitive jobs to company-wide or agency-wide pre-employment testing of everyone and anyone on the payroll, regardless of type of work done -- you see the sad history of products and processes in search of a market. People poor enough to qualify for welfare or unlucky enough to need to apply for unemployment compensation don't hire high dollar Washington lobbyists; the drug testing industry does.

Even more interestingly, quite a few politicians have financial interests in the testing companies. Why am I not surprised? With almost any social problem, when some politician proposes a solution, ask yourself "Who benefits?" and then follow the money. You won't have to flip over many rocks to find corruption oozing out. Classic example: Rick Scott, governor of Florida, pushed hard for drug testing people applying for welfare. Rick Scott, millionaire, had a major financial interest in the urgent care clinics that would perform that testing.

Of course, demonizing the poor and suggesting that anyone who is unlucky enough to need welfare is probably some drug-sucking lowlife also plays nicely into the right-wing's goal of keeping lower-income voters divided and marginalized, but I'm never quite sure which comes first: the political strategy or seeing a fresh opportunity for graft.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Another of life's little mysteries: mismatched talents

I've been working on fixing up a space to use as a home office. We have a front porch that started off as an open air space, but was later enclosed to create an airlock entry into the house. The interior was never finished, though. The walls were raw wood: T1-11 siding on the side that used to be an exterior wall of the house, and plywood on the others, and, with the exception of what used to be an exterior window, there was no trim around the windows or doors. I decided that if I was going to use it was a home office space, I was going to make sure the finishing work was done before any furniture got moved in. So I started painting.
Priming the T1-11
I love to paint. I really enjoy messing with color and changing the looks of things just by slapping a coat or two of paint on it. And that's the operative word: messing. I love to paint, but I'm terrible at it. I dribble, I splatter, I end up with paint on anything and everything that comes within ten feet of me. I start off with good intentions, trying to implement everything I've ever been told about the proper techniques to prevent strange runs and drips on the wall or woodwork or whatever it is I'm painting, and end up slathering paint on with a brush that has somehow devolved into a trowel. Naturally, this lack of skill is hard on the equipment. When I told the Younger Daughter I was using her Purdy brushes, I could hear her flinch over the phone. I had to quickly reassure her that I was joking, and I had acquired a stash of throw-aways.

Fortunately, in the case of my soon-to-be home office, the fact I'm a painting slob doesn't matter. I can't ruin the floor, because it's just scrap vinyl that's going to be discarded soon, and the wall surfaces (especially the T1-11) are rough enough that paint boogers aren't particularly noticeable. I didn't even have to worry about messing up the ceiling because it's going to be wallpapered with old quad maps -- and it's just OSB anyway. I have, however, told the S.O. he has to paint the door frame. Our front door is a salvaged antique door that the Younger Daughter put a lot of effort into refinishing. I kept it shrouded in plastic when I had to work near it, but I don't think even multiple plastic drop cloths would protect it from me if I had to be painting right next to it. So the S.O. gets to do it.
Final color in progress. I primed the ceiling because it's going to be papered, and wanted to make it easier for that wallpaper to be removed if we get tired of it. 
The S.O. is actually quite good at painting. He's meticulous, a perfectionist. When he paints something, it ends up looking good. No holidays, no paint boogers, no weirdness at all. Only one problem: he hates to paint.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

I say that without much enthusiasm. Christmas has never been on my list of favorite holidays. I associate the day too much with unrealistic expectations, crushing disappointments, family drama, and bad news in general. The ghosts of Christmas past include gems like the year the S.O.'s "bonus" from his employer was a pink slip.

Maybe it's the season, maybe it's the two funerals we've attended this month, or maybe it's just a generalized malaise triggered by the sad state of the nation, but I haven't felt much like posting lately. Here's hoping that now that the solstice is behind us and the days are getting longer again, the urge to write will return. Until then, happy holidays.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Writing Life and Reality Checks

The S.O. and I drove up to Calumet yesterday for an author's talk and book signing sponsored by the Friends of the Calumet Public Library. The S.O.'s cousin, Mel Laurila, had mentioned in June that his first novel, Mine Games, had been accepted for publication. At that time, he thought it would be rolling off the presses by late summer. Nope. Actual publication (as in hard copies ready for sale to the reading public) happened about a week ago.

Mel's talk was interesting, and not just for the specific insights into the book. It's a murder mystery set in Michigan's Copper Country that uses the possible reopening of a historic copper mine as a motivation for murder. Mel knows the area and the subject matter quite well, having graduated from Michigan Tech and spent the past 30 or so years working in the mining industry. The plot revolves around what happens when the mine changes ownership and someone dies. I look forward to reading it and seeing how I do with his challenge to see how early in the book I can figure out who's responsible for what.

His talk also served as a major reality check for any aspiring novelists in the audience. It really made it clear just how much work is involved in getting published, both before and after acceptance by a publisher. You hear stories about rejection -- Stephenie Meyer, for example, likes to tell interviewers that her first novel was rejected something like14 times before being picked up by a publisher. Well, it appears 14 rejection letters are nothing, a mere blip, they barely qualify as painful. Mel did 153 submissions to potential agents and publishers before hitting pay dirt. One hundred fifty-three. Now, that's persistence.

After publication, of course, you have to leap on to the promotion bandwagon -- hustle for book signings, arrange for talk show appearances, agree to anything and everything you can do to get the public to notice Your Book. If that hustling includes doing things like keeping cases of books in your car, seeking out every independent bookstore you can find on your own and persuading the managers to sell your book, you do it. -- because if some magic minimum number of sold copies isn't achieved, your first novel published could very well be your last.

Bottom line: if you believe in your work, you never give up.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

If you thought the gift shops at Disneyland were bad

An elderly relative died this past Monday; the funeral was yesterday. In most ways, it was a pretty typical event. The decedent was quite old, she'd been in declining health for a number of years, and her demise was not unexpected. People were understandably sad, tears were shed, and life goes on. The funeral itself was what one would expect -- the minister talked about the wonderful characteristics of the decedent (a woman he had  met one time, and then only briefly) while those of us in the pews did our own mental editing/reality check. (If the dearly departed were even half as wonderful as eulogies always make the deceased sound, it would be a lot harder to let go.) The only surprising thing was that the church was not as full as I had thought it would be given how active the woman had been in the community in her younger days, but then I realized that the decedent had simply managed to outlive most of her contemporaries.

Visitation at the funeral home the night before held a few surprises, though. I've always been intrigued about customs and practices surrounding death, the various attitudes and rituals and their evolution over time. Americans have always struck me as being a tad squeamish about the subject. After all, the culture has abdicated personal responsibility by allowing professional funeral directors to take over what were once intimate family tasks: preparing the body for burial, for example, and digging the grave. For centuries, too, western culture has isolated the dead from the living: unlike some cultures where the bones of revered ancestors become part of the household (e.g., skulls up on the ceiling beams or bones buried in the floor), western European societies planted the dead in graveyards. That's changed a little with the advent of cremation -- during the 20th century it became acceptable, if not widely common, to have the cremains of a loved one residing in a tasteful urn on the credenza in the living room.

I've got to admire the funeral industry for managing to take that tasteful urn and move it to a whole new level. While sitting around sipping coffee at the funeral home, I realized I'd inadvertently wandered into the world's creepiest gift shop. The built-in bookcases and various other surfaces were full of display models of different items grieving families can purchase. You can now get individual urns:
Instead of the deceased's ashes residing in one large urn for all eternity, you can divide him or her among the family members. Personally, I find this a little creepy, but I know not everyone feels that way -- my older grandson was the recipient of such an urn after his other grandmother died a few years ago, and he seems quite happy to have it.

Individual urns not quite your thing? Or there are so many family members (and the decedent was a frail little thing who's not going to provide much ash to work with) that even the small urns are too large? How about some cremation jewelry? You can have ashes compressed into fake diamonds, or you can go for something a little less intense, like a heart you can wear as a necklace or on a charm bracelet:
What about the men, you ask? After all, guys aren't likely to want to wear a heart-shaped pendant no matter how much they loved their mother. Got them covered. Keychains, with a wide variety of designs to pick from:
I can see it now -- "I'll take the one with the gecko on it. Mom always loved those GEICO ads."

The options for stuff you can do with cremains don't stop with urns and jewelry, of course. You can take those ashes and have them made into stained glass. You can buy various pieces of innocuous looking household items that have compartments for cremains: desk lamps, for example. You can get urns that look like bookends (and can be used the same way) if you want to be subtle, or you can get urns that look like miniature caskets or sarcophagi if you want the urn to be a blatant piece of memento mori.

But what about families who don't opt for cremation? Aren't they kind of S.O.L. when it comes to death memorabilia? Not really. There are now these nifty little pieces of jewelry, which get sold by companies such as Thumbies:
You can have your loved one's fingerprints permanently embedded in a piece of (not cheap) jewelry that you can treasure forever. Holy crap. First they guilt you into the Cadillac casket, and then they swing into full up-sell mode by peddling tchotchkes to help guarantee that whatever estate the decedent had is thoroughly eviscerated. I'd love to hear the sales pitch for this stuff. What can they possibly say? Your mother's last wish was to be fingerprinted? She never had a chance to do one of those plaster-of-paris wall plaques in kindergarten; here's your opportunity to make it up to her?

Bottom line: prearrangements are looking better and better. Signing up with a burial society, making damn sure everyone knows the one and only thing I want is the absolute cheapest cremation done as quickly as possible, ashes in a milk carton or coffee can because they're going to get scattered, and no money whatsoever being spent in the world's creepiest gift shop.

[cross posted at I See Dead People

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

An update, sort of

How many people are actually unemployed in the United States? I got another partial answer -- the estimated number of "discouraged workers." Those are the folks who have been unemployed long enough or had such disheartening experiences while job hunting that they've given up. Apparently it comes close to being a one-for-one match. That is, for every person who is officially unemployed, there's another person who's a discouraged worker and no longer counts. Which is, I guess, another way of saying that if the official unemployment rate for persons who would fall within the parameters of the labor force (ages 15 through 64) is about 9%, the actual is more like 18%. Maybe.

Whatever the real numbers are, it does raise an interesting question: just how the fuck are people surviving? I heard a bizarre story on NPR this morning touting the underground economy, the informal economy, which the supposed expert was quick to note does not necessarily entail illegal activity (e.g., drug dealing), but I find it hard to believe many people can manage to survive for very long by holding endless yard sales, scrounging for scrap metal, or doing unlicensed daycare in their homes.

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.]