Monday, June 23, 2014

JQ and Entitlements

Mix Bake Shop
Decaf Americano
Almond Croissant

I should back-up.  I realized after trying to explain the last blog to my mom that I didn't explain things very well last time.  I did ramble the hell on, and made some points, but even I was pretty confused with the flow of thought upon rereading it.  Let me try to be clearer.

The question is, "What are we entitled to?"  The answer depends on the context.  In a state of nature, the answer is, "Bupkis!"  But that is the state of anarchy - of freedom in its purest state.  That's not the democratic answer.  But interpretations of what democracy is differ, so we'll focus on ours in particular.

All men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, chiefly: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Paraphrasing, but these are our guiding principles.  Everything we set down specifically is derived from this premise.  So, then, what logically follows?

The equal protection part seems pretty obvious.  Equal protection, equal participation in this society and the government created by it and for it.  Should have been obvious from the start.  People keep trying so hard to screw this one up, though.  It should also be obvious that it's not enough to have equality in theory, but in real practice, too.  For example, saying that black people have the right to vote but then creating special rules and circumstances designed to keep them from exercising that right - that directly violates the foundational idea of this social contract.

The harder one is that Pursuit of Happiness part.  Interpreting gets a little more fuzzy, but you can still make arguments that tie back to it.  I think that's where we derive our New Deal type social benefits.  These so-called entitlements - social security, medicaid, unemployment insurance, minimum wage - whether or not they are universal Federal policies, are all attempts to compensate for those anarchic forces that prevent equal participation.

("Naa, naa, naa, na-na-na-nah... hey, Jude..."  The music here is so much better than wherever I was during my last blog.  Much better for thinking.  Where was I?)

Financial insecurity undermines any individual's ability to participate in society, and to pursue their happiness in a real, meaningful way.  In theory versus in practice, again.  It can also shorten their life, and certainly impact the quality of the life they do have.  So there's two founding principles that demand some kind of action to provide financial stability for any J.Q. American.  And, no, just "creating more jobs" does not provide financial stability, Mr. or Ms. Politician.  Because, as I have said many times now, labor is an inelastic good, you have to take some measures to ensure that those who sell their labor do not have their goods exploited.

Which brings us around again to how minimum wage should be set.  But I think I might be over-doing it again.  Save it for next time.

Rhetorically, this is about where people scream, "Socialism!" and start thumping their copies of "Atlas Shrugged."  Calm your twits, people.  Extreme imbalances of power (such as monopolies, for instance) are undemocratic because they limit or eliminate equal protection and participation.  That means it's appropriate for the government to intervene in some way to mitigate the disparity.  That doesn't mean the government should step in to eliminate all disparity.  As long as everyone is protected from infringement upon their liberties, and as long as they have a meaningful chance to participate.

I'm not well-read enough to have a nuanced discussion of what socialism really is.  I know enough to say that socialism as Marx and Engels envisioned it has never actually manifested.  The governments that have called themselves socialist have actually been authoritarian or despotic.  Submitting to a single party rule without the ability to dissent or challenge or change the policies governing you does not produce a society that is construed for the greatest good for the society as a whole.  Socialism, if it's about anything, is about about caring for all members of society, not suppressing all members but the few in power in the name social good.

I prefer democracy.  I know I'm biased it's what I grew up with.  I like to think it makes the most sense.  With anarchy, there is free will and only free will, and liberty is not guaranteed.  The strong can act upon their will, but if you are the less fortunate, it can make no difference what your will is, if the mighty can keep you from acting upon it.  Likewise, the collective strength of a united society could be used to care for the members thereof, or it can be used to blunt their liberties.  In either case, your well-being is uncertain.

With democracy, we strive for the middle ground.  Enough security gives us the stability we need to exercise our freedom to achieve our will, though we sacrifice just enough that we do not impede the freedoms of others.

That's the idea anyway.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

J. Q. American

12oz Iced Soy Mocha

Exceptional Americans get too much damn airtime.  Yes, it's nice that someone accomplished something that the average person has not, or does not that often.  Good for you!  The problem is this nonsensical claim that Americans are inherently exceptional, or at least disproportionately so.  Just because we have ancestors who often had to endure extraordinary circumstances to get here, does not mean all of our ancestors had some extraordinary genetics which they passed on to us.  Desperation and incarceration were also common catalysts for their arrival on these... appropriated lands.  Oh, and let us not forget that even idiots do big things sometimes.

The real exceptionalism is not in Americans but in America.  In the history of the world, America really does stand out as an ideal.  Its essence is not about the select, the elite, the tribe.  It is about the everyman.  All men are created equal.  Period.  America has been failing this ideal since Day 1, but the Idea of America has been too strong, too true, to let the hypocrisy remain unchallenged.  Too many have suffered under this flag, and continue to suffer, but the Idea is stronger and will win out in the end.

Racism, tribalism (America vs the World), classism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance... yep, they're still around.  Many Americans still subscribe to those bullshit ideas.  But those are un-American ideas, and the sooner we move past them, the better this country, and the world, will be.

So if the quintessential American is the Everyman, what should our policies look like?  Why does the rhetoric of today berate people who are average?  Why are all of our policies geared towards punishing the Mediocre American?  Sure people who innovate and create things help society in general.  But that's not everybody, and it can't be.  People who argue that all of society benefits when people are forced to achieve more for themselves because we've made minimum wage unlivable have no idea what's going on down at minimum wage level, have no idea what motivates people, and, I guarantee you, are not helping all of society.

We need to set policy based on what we can expect the average American to be and to do.  J. Q. American is an orphan and a C-student.  We can expect him or her to have no legacy, no family to carry him through his struggles.  We cannot expect there to be anyone who will support J.Q. while they finish school, or when they lose their job when they become injured.  We cannot expect him or her to have the skills necessary to rise to the next level of retail.  Trust me, not everyone can handle being a floor manager - there is a skill to getting yelled at for no reason by a complete stranger.  Entry level, or near it, may be the highest J.Q. ever rises, or maybe wants to rise.

What's so wrong about wanting work behind a counter?  It's work!  Often times it seems, it's more work for the one behind the counter than the one counting the cash ever has to deal with.  But it can also be satisfying.  I have enjoyed seeing the regulars, sharing laughs, crafting fine espresso drinks (I have not fully mastered latte art, but I did once make a volcano in the foam, I swear).  If that's what I love, then why make that unlivable for me?  Why force me into a profession I don't love, one I may likely be unsatisfied and unsuccessful at, just to generate more money for the economy?  You know, we need happy, satisfied people to have a healthy society, too.  And we don't have to maximize someone's financial output to have a healthy economy, either.

Somehow this myth has established itself that minimum wage jobs aren't hard work and don't deserve to be treated as valid worthwhile jobs for a person to hold longterm.  People don't stay in unsatisfying, low-wage jobs because they are lazy.  There may be an element of self-doubt or fear of leaving stability that holds some people back.  It might factor in for some people.  But if you would really rather be studying Slavic languages and maybe dream of being a translator someday, chances are you would go to school and study Slavic languages, and maybe international affairs, if you could.  But we don't make that tenable for J.Q. American.  Maybe a Privileged American with a family who could at least co-sign for a student loan and give them a place to live while they're studying, maybe they could see that dream through.  But not J.Q. who has nothing but their abilities and desires.

And let's ask again, why do we charge kids up-front for their education?  If it benefits all of us for people to achieve the most they can, to follow their dreams to the extent of their abilities, why don't we make that possible?  I just read two bits of data relating to student loans.  First, higher education used to be free or nearly free.  The only cost to the student was their effort.  And the benefit to everyone else was a more knowledgeable, more satisfied, citizenry at least, but who also likely had a better paying job than they would have without their education.  Thus, more tax revenue, more consumption for the consumption-centered economy.  More stable families with better outcomes and less need for assistance.  Wins all around!

Second tidbit, since 1981 the cost of tuition has increased 1200% - without justification.  There have been innumerable excuses given, but none pass scrutiny.  It has gone up that much because it can.  Education is an inelastic good.  It's not just that most of us would rather not work low wage jobs at Taco Bell or wherever and are willing to pay up to educate ourselves for a career we would actually enjoy.  It's because, increasingly, we cannot afford our low wage jobs - even if we do like them - and we will gamble our future (and our parents' retirement, if we have parents who can co-sign) on the hope that we might find some financial stability.  If we can ever get ahead of our student loan debt.

(The baristas have cranked up the overhead play and it's clashing with the Radiohead on my headphones, making me very distracted.)

So let's take a step back and ask how things should be structured for J.Q. American...  First, education provided from PreSchool through doctorate, if that's what he or she is up for.  All the outcomes for everyone are better.  Safety provided - police, paramedic, fire services.  No profiling, either, people.  And if there's a region where those services are lacking, then we all step in to make sure they are provided adequately, because it is inexcusable that any J.Q. American should be expected to live without basic safety.

Equal and affordable justice provided without bias.  No more of this mass incarceration... crime, there's no other word but crime to describe what has happened to our prison system.  Except exploitation and Jim Crow, of course.

Healthcare - provided.  We need to either treat it as a single-payer public service - fully-funded - or we need to treat it as an inelastic industry, regulate the hell out of it (compared to what it is like today), uncouple it from employment, and make it a non-profit industry.  (PS non-profits in general should be under much stricter compensation and profit caps than they are today.  No CEO of a non-profit organization should have a 7-figure salary).

Safety, justice, healthcare, and education...  All these things have to be fully funded and provided without bias for America to call itself America.

And these services are not inherently at the mercy of markets, no matter how much people with full bellies and gated communities will try to convince you otherwise.

Remember that the value of a dollar is arbitrary.  What is not intangible are our resources.  So let's ask - is there enough room for all of us?  Sure, if not all in the same place at once.  Is there enough food for all of us, enough clean water?  Currently, the answer is still yes.  Are there enough people willing to do the work that is necessary to feed and shelter us?  More than enough.  We've even got enough people left over willing to educate our children, treat our sicknesses, even provide our digital distractions and our lattes (if that's your thing).  So if the natural resources and the human resources are there, why are so many people going without?

It's because we have a distribution problem.

We have to start with the appropriate wage equation, and then we'll work on unraveling the convoluted tax system that has been crafted expressly to allow the wealthy to have even more wealth.

Crap! They're closing.  I'll have to pick this up later, specifically for how minimum wage should be crafted, and did I mention J.Q. is agnostic?

Ta for now!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Print isn't dead, damn it.

Almondmilk Cafe Mocha
Super Salad (minus the avocado)

If you follow me on Facebook, then you've probably already seen this.  I went on a mini rant a few days ago so I'm just mailing it in this week.  And then I shall go to conquer the Junk Drawer Room!  All hail the hanging file box!

Before I paste and format, however, a little update...  I have printed up all my blogs through mid-April with intentions of making a book out of them.  Or most of them.  With possible supplementing from journals.  I think.  My working title is, "Philosophist."  I would greatly, greatly appreciate any feedback, things you'd like to see, things that could go, suggestions for getting it published/marketing it.  I'm ready to go bookstore to bookstore with galleys or extracts to try to get booksellers (my brethren and sistren) to fall in love with it and promote it through staff selections.

It could happen.

Anyway, here's my former bookseller rant about e-books...

Print is not dead.

There will always be a market for the tangible read, be it a magazine, book, or newspaper... or birthday card, or menu, or save-your-soul pamphlet handed to you on a street corner.  Yes, the technology is shifting things towards digital, but it's not eradicating the desire for print.  Not for all of us.

It is a fundamentally different interaction to read something on a digital screen instead of reading something from the bounced light off a page.  Even the color of the page, the sheen, the gloss of it, makes a big difference.  Digital screens are wonderful for a range of reasons, but they can only emulate that analog interface so much.  The brain just responds differently, we have a different emotional sense depending on whether we are reading a story in a magazine on a train, or reading the same story on our smartphone (possibly on the potty).

And it matters more or less for different people.  For instance, some folks I've known with learning disabilities can barely process anything that is printed on white paper and have had to use special blue paper for their class assignments.  Still, many of us will take what comes and roll with it and be fine. 

I'm just saying that it's not exactly the same story as with the music industry and the advent of digital music.  You might make an argument that the quality of the recording is affected by the recording medium (vinyl, CD, 8-track, wax cylinder), but you are ultimately listening to music the same way: through speakers.  Crappy speakers, Bose speakers - but still speakers.  Reading on a device, however, beyond the lighting, is just very different than a book in the hand.

And a digital dog-ear is not going to placate me, thankyouverymuch.

The bottom line, though, is that the costs are changing and the business model has to change with it.  It is sad that, in so many cases, print media is being dumped instead of adapted.  It would be depressing if the print market that survives becomes a novelty for the wealthy.  The sticking point, to me, seems to be the cost of publishing as it has been done.  What we need is a technological advance in one-off publishing.

Imagine walking into your favorite bookstore...  Maybe the shelves are stocked with "review copies," or maybe they have kiosks where you can browse digital editions.  Maybe you can bring in your Nook or whatever and get a digital sampler.  And if you decide to purchase ye old fashioned paper book, the bookstore can then ring you up (first!) and go to the back and print off a decent Trade Paper or Mass Market edition of the book for you.  Or do it up front in the display windows, like when they make fudge in a candy shop.  With everything those 3D printers are making, you figure there's got to be some way to make it happen for books.

I don't know how things will have to change.  I don't know how to manage the costs to make it all cost-effective.  I do know that resources for printing are going to become more and more scarce, and publishing tens or hundreds of thousands of books per run (especially when so many titles die each year) is just not feasible.  But I also know that, while many of us are content to live a life of mixed media, we don't all want to go all-digital.

Thank you.  Curmudgeon, out!