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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Liberty for Legerdemain: How We Pave the Way for Our Own Parasitization with Naive Notions of Personal Responsibility

The Supreme Court has decided that no limit will be placed on the amount corporations can spend on campaign messages, making it possible for the exponential expansion of the already staggering propensity for money to control the message in American political discourse. Should corporations really be granted the same rights as individuals? That seems perfectly at odds with what the Founders intended when they codified such rights as the one to free speech. The argument for why this decision shouldn't scare the hell out of us is that we have to rely on individuals to be able to discern fact from propaganda. We've seen this argument before. Whenever regulations are suggested for the food industry, for example, the response is usually that people should be allowed to decide for themselves how healthy they want to eat.

No matter what corporate chicanery we discuss, from hidden credit fees and retroactive variable rates, to back-loaded mortgages, to cell phone companies using long automated voice menus to trick people into wasting minutes, to fast food poison, the libertarian response to proposed fixes is that any legislation will limit freedom and discourage citizens from exercising their personal responsibility. Morgan Spurlock, in his documentary Supersize Me, poses a question that exposes the naivety of that line of thinking. If fast food chains are really so concerned with providing responsible people with greater freedom of choice, why do so many of them have playgrounds attached to them? Maybe you want to claim in these cases that parents should be the responsible ones, but this line of reasoning assumes the very generational disadvantages conservatives want so badly to discount.

Part of the reason libertarians are so apt to play up the virtue of personal responsibility is that they want to take personal responsibility for their own successes--or if they haven't been successful yet they want to believe there are no limits to what they can achieve. But how we decide to behave depends on processes that occur in our brains, and therefore to argue there's no limit to personal responsibility is to suggest that our minds come equipped with infinite resources. It should be obvious to anyone who's ever struggled and failed to pay attention--to a child, to a spouse, to a teacher, to a book, to a show, etc--that cognitive resources are in fact quite limited. If you're not convinced on this point, try performing the simple task of storing in your short-term memory ten or more digits.

Wait, though, could I possibly be entertaining the notion that memory capacity is somehow related to capacity for making sound decisions?

It so happens that researchers at the University of Iowa have come up with a clever way of testing the limits of our good sense. In an article published in The Journal of Consumer Research in 1999, Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin describe their experiment on the effects of straining cognitive resources on impulse control. The experimenters gave participants a choice between a healthy snack, a fruit salad, and an unhealthy one, a piece of chocolate cake. But before being given this option half of the participants was given a two-digit number to remember, while the other half was give a seven-digit number.
What they found supports the idea that exercising personal responsibility is just that--an exercise, and it relies on the same store of cognitive capacity we rely on to remember things like phone numbers. The group asked to remember seven digits chose cake over fruit much more often than the two-digit group. This trend was even more pronounced when the experiment was repeated with individuals with impulse-control problems.
One implication is that people with more on their minds will have more trouble doing the responsible thing. Is it any wonder then that it is predominantly poorer people who suffer from obesity and its consequences? But even if you are one of those self-reliant types who bristles at the idea that we need a government agency to protect us from the depredations of the food industry, even if you happen to be really bright and proud of it, you simply can't pay attention to all the sectors in today's society in which you could be swindled. So you're wise to the credit card and mortgage scams--are you sure your mechanic isn't working you over? You're way too smart to feed your kids french fries every meal--but do you know how prevalent E. coli bacteria are in our (extremely consolidated) food processing channels?
I'm pretty sure I'm completely oblivious to several dangers I'm routinely exposed to by dint of being at the mercy of the hierarchical industrial society which keeps the decision-makers completely isolated from the human consequences of their decisions--all so they have more cognitive resources to devote to the bottom line. I'm also pretty sure that the billionaire executives are laughing their asses off at the irony that it's precisely those who believe in the omnipotence of their free will who are the easiest to manipulate.
Sad as it is to say, the more money you're free to spend, the more people you'll be able to convince, regardless of whether or not your message is true.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trip to Acres off Shoaff

Professor Lin's Scholarship in English Language class was cancelled last night.

Facing west on top, east below.

This house was fine when Obama first took office.

Yep, camera's in my outstretched arm. This is my contemplative look.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conscientious Consumption: Your Purchase is Your Vote

I came to the conclusion that I can't simply ride out the winter on my elliptical, that I need to return to the Acres Land Trust trails I discovered this past summer, snow-covered or not, at about the same time I read Ken Silverstein's article "Shopping for Sweat: The Human Cost of a Two-Dollar T-Shirt" in Harper's. The problem was that hiking in the snow called for some kind of boots, and countries with labor laws and environmental protections have a perverse tendency not to manufacture footwear.

After searching local big-name stores like Shoe Carnival and getting no closer than Vietnam--Vietnam?--I went on-line, where I discovered that both Wolverine and Redwing make products in America. However, I soon thereafter discovered that not all of the footwear these companies sell are manufactured here; in fact, only a few are. So, I ended up walking out of the Fort Wayne Redwing store, on State Street, with insulated, waterproof workboots, which are a little heavy for long walks and for which I had to shell out 200 bucks.

And now I need a coat because wearing a shirt and tie to work with an old hooded Carhart jacket is pretty hillbilly. Must I begin the search all over again?

It's a pretty sad commentary on us as a nation that the single determining factor in our choice of where to shop is the quality/cost ratio, especially if, as Silverstein suggests, an extra dollar added to the cost of most consumer products could make a significant difference in the lives of factory workers in third-world countries. Imagine if we as consumers demanded, en mass, that there be a third column beside product description and price which explained--accurately--the circumstances surrounding the item's production. Would we be willing pay a little extra for products made by people who make more per hour, enjoy reasonable amounts of time off, and work in healthy environments?

Unfortunately, this information goes unremarked upon, unthought about, and we go about life in our shoppers' paradise, callous and oblivious. Now I bet Target has cool jackets--I'll stop there on my way home.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Entrepreneurial Sins: Part 3 Environmental Degradation

That one of the byproducts of industry is pollution ought to be pretty obvious by now. So, as an example, I use a study from the University of Massachussetts-Amherst that doubles up on the entrepreneurial sins. The study shows that it is disproportionately minorities and the poor who are made to suffer from pollution--certainly not the industrialists who are making the profits.
Here is the study:
And here is commentary from The Baseline Scenario:

I'll end this series of entries by clarifying that I don't believe the evils inherent in capitalism make it an evil in itself. I do believe free markets, for the most part, are part of the basis for freedom in general. The problem is that the conservative ideology that asserts that unregulated market competition is in each and every case an unqualified good has ridiculously strong traction in America.

Market competition is good. But that doesn't mean we should let entrepreneurs and rich people do whatever they want--we humans have a tendency to justify things we ought to recognize are atrocious.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Entrepreneurial Sins: Part 2 Cruelty

The typical response of globalization advocates to having their attention called to the working conditions and living quarters of factory workers in countries the US likes to outsource to is that, bad as these workers may have it, their lives working for the factories must be better than their lives back home or else they wouldn’t have left their homes to work for the factories. In fact, the plight of foreign workers is held up as proof that the richer the entrepreneurial get, the better off everyone is.

How much rural workers’ lot improves with their move to factory dorms, however, is hard to determine. And of course the fact that they move is not necessarily proof of that improvement because they may have been motivated by false expectations. But getting into industrialization’s effects on population and standard of living takes us into Malthusian matters that are more distraction than crux. The glaring cruelty of the factory dormitory life of workers in developing countries—those without labor laws—is not that this life is better or worse than before the advent of globalization; it’s the gross discrepancy between conditions in the dorms and the outrageous wealth of those who profit most from the factory products.

If outsourcing makes businesses profitable enough to support million-dollar salaries for executives, then they ought to be profitable enough to support the improvement of working and living conditions for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Compared to those who grow up poor and ignorant in some village in China or India, any Harvard MBA has to admit his or her progress up the ranks was a pretty short climb. They pretty much stepped into their high-earning paradise, and yet they insist they deserve the earnings. When the day comes that villagers from developing nations have an equal chance of becoming CEO’s, then it will be reasonable to talk about who deserves the billions—as of now it’s ridiculous, callous, and cruel. On a smaller scale, an identical dynamic operates at every business where the execs make millions while the workers make what we in the middle class recognize as reasonable wages.

And this form of cruelty and injustice is benign compared with the most egregious blowback of globalization, the wars fought over resources, the deals cut with dictators and genocidaires, and the ecological destruction and environmental poisoning that effects the voiceless have-nots and leaves the haves plenty of leeway to look the other way—even to hire PR firms to convince everyone else they should be looking the other way too.

It must be borne in mind that the very reason outsourcing is profitable is that the places we outsource to have fewer environmental regulations and worker protections. The dismal life of the factor dorms is not proof of how well deregulation works; they’re proof of how unchecked chasing after the bottom line undermines anything resembling humanity.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Entreprneurial Sins: Number 1 Deception

The financial crisis was caused in great part by falling home prices, which led to defaults on loan payments. What this means is that the banks collapsed because they stopped making money off of people who shouldn’t have been given loans in the first place. Looked at from a distance, the mortgage economy was a system in which a rich few parasitized (supposedly for their own good) a poor mass.

Another prominent example of rich entrepreneurs parasitizing poor people is of course the credit card industry, with its astronomical interest rates camouflaged in jungles of fine print. Some very smart people, like libertarian and editor of Skeptic Magazine Michael Shermer, pat themselves on the back for all the credit card offers and loan offers they receive in the mail but are smart enough to realize are too risky. And shouldn’t everyone be that smart? Ironically, this is a really stupid argument, suggesting that we as a nation shouldn’t do anything about this deception because the people who fall for it should know better.

If we acknowledge a significant correlation between income and education, including education in personal finances, then the they-should-know-better argument becomes they-should-be-less-poor. It’s a tautology designed transparently to justify the exploitation of the less fortunate. Arguably, this sort of exploitation occurs whenever a business invests in marketing that effectively convinces people to buy products or services they don’t need and that won’t improve their lives.

I believe we have to accept that to some degree this dynamic of smarter people making money off of less smart people, of the advantaged taking advantage of the disadvantaged, is inevitable—even good for society as a whole. People really do need incentives to innovate and produce, but this observation need not, and should not, be taken to the extreme represented by conservative economic thinking. One good way to keep this necessary evil in check is to heavily tax those whose wealth derives from the less privileged masses and to invest in public education to help those masses be less gullible.

These basic forms of deception are serious enough, but industry-funded denialism of environmental dangers and human rights abuses is simply unconscionable. Can our sole guiding principle as a nation be the GDP? Can we allow the sole guiding principle of any individual company to be its bottom line?