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Archive for November, 2011

Grim Reader

with 3 comments

Well, operating on more than four hours of sleep this morning, I should be able to do a little better.

But it surprises me that we’ve circled around to this again, and on two counts.

The first is–STORY.

Lymaree asks why I’d give up good STORIES because they contain “future technology.”

But I’ve said before that I DON’T READ FOR STORY.

I don’t mean to shout, but it seems to me that I’ve said this enough times now so that it should be the first thing you know about me. 

I read for character, and I read for a sense of place, but I never read for “story.”  Story doesn’t interest me very much, and it never has, even when I was reading as a child.

What I wanted from Nancy Drew was some sense of what it would be like to grow up to be Nancy Drew, and that sense was only valuable to me to the extent that it was actually possible for me to do that.

You guys get far too technical and philosophical about the “actually possible” thing.

Was it ‘actually possible” for me to be a girl detective solving crimes?  Nope, but that wasn’t the point.

It was actually possible for me to be eighteen, in possession of my own car, with a boyfriend and completely confident in myself.   Hell, I even had a lawyer for a father.

When I read to escape, what I don’t do is bury myself in a fantasy that can never come true on any level, so that I forget about my problems for a few hours and feel more refreshed when I go back to them.

I know people do that, but the very idea of it makes me cringe.  I have a near phobia about what I think of as “false hope,” of not facing facts and dealing with them. 

And I’m very, very bad at forgetting that the problems are there when they’re there.  I find it difficult to read anything at all, or to write, when problems are there.

When I read to escape,  it’s because I actually want to escape. 

I want to pack my bags, get up and go someplace.

Robert asks why I don’t just do that, and the answer is that it’s not always possible.  Sometimes you have family obligations or not enough money.  Sometimes you’re twelve years old and stuck living where and how your parents live until you reach your majority.

Things like travel books are actually very bad at giving you a sense of place. They’re written for tourists, and I suppose you could get, for them, some sense of what it’s like to be a tourist.  And there are some–the Dorling-Kindersley ones–that are wonderful for pictures.

But I don’t want pictures or a guide book, I want a sense of place.  Of what it’s like to be a human being in that atmosphere.  Of the there there.

To get to Gertrude Stein, one of the great writers of place ever to have existed on the planet.

So was Hemingway, by the way. 

But I’m not looking for “grim” when I look for a sense of place, and I virtually never read fiction that is primarily about “social problems,” although I don’t mind characters who have them as long as that’s not the focus.

Stein is never grim, and Heminway wouldn’t know a social problem from a skein of knitting wool.  A Moveable Feast–the faux-memoir of Hemingway’s writing days in Paris–is not grim, contains nothing about social problems and is about as atmospheric as…I don’t know what.

And no, I can’t go to “Heminway’s Paris.”  But I spent a good part of my adolescence reading to escape to Paris, and Hemingway helped. 

And in the end, I got to Paris, and not as a tourist, either.  I plotted my escape, and then I actually escaped.

If real, actual escape is impossible, if the best you can do is some fantasy that can’t come true on any level–why bother thinking about it?  And how could it possibly take your mind off anything, if you always know it’s made up and can never be any true part of your life in the future?

These days my big escape fantasies are London (possible, because I have someplace to be there, and I’ve already lived there for a good long stretch), Lisbon and Greece.  They’re all places I’ve been (and two, again, not as a tourist.)

For Lisbon, the best I’ve got is a Wim Wenders movie called Lisbon Story, nothing grim or serious about it, the best of the novels of Jose Saramago (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Blindness, All The Names) and the films of Manoel de  Oliveira. 

Those last I listen to mostly to hear Continental Portuguese spoken. 

For London, the best out there consist largely of things like episodes of As Time Goes By–once again, nothing at all grim–and for Greece I have a lot, including the old Hayley Mills movie of The Moonspinners and Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic. 

 A sense of place is not achievable in a travelogue, or a guide book.   To do it right, you need fiction or something close to it.

Jane Austen, though, I read for characters, and a sense of how men and women can be with each other.

And yes, I know all about Foyle’s War.  I own the entirety of it on DVD.

But anyway, I’ve never said that “grim” is better than not in fiction–I was talking, yesterday, about light, fluffy, silly cozy sorts of things.

But that’s something else, of course.

For what it’s worth, I’ve said all of the above before, and there has been discussion of it on this blog.

I guess you guys just don’t believe me.

Written by janeh

November 29th, 2011 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Immantenize the Eschaton

with 4 comments

The title of this post was a catch phrase about ten or fifteen years ago.  I never quite nailed down exactly what it meant, but I know the reason for using it.  Sometimes, things get entirely too serious.

And that is, I think, where I am this morning.  This is the beginning of what looks like a long and depressing week, if not something worse, and I am just tired to death of thinking of things seriously.

I look sometimes at all the things we say about–well, everything.  About morality and law and what it means to be human.  I look at it and wonder what it is we think we’re doing.

There are times when all this discussion seems to me to be so completely divorced from reality, it might as well be folktales about fairies and elves. 

Maybe it would be better if it were folktales about fairies and elves, because folktales about fairies and elves at least have the potential to be charming, if not diverting.

Sometimes I just want things to be settled.  Some of the people who comment on this blog have said that they established their personal philosophies early, and once they got past a certain age, that was done.

I had certain inclinations early, but I don’t think my “philosophy of life” is established even now.  I like some things and don’t like others.  There’s a lot about the world that just makes me angry, and I don’t mean just things that people cause and I’ve got some sane reason to be angry about.

When I get like this, I also get to wondering what murder mysteries are for–because in my mind they have to be for something, and “entertainment” is not an answer that makes any sense to me. 

Maybe what I mean by that is that I don’t know what people mean when they say they read “for entertainment,” and seem to imply that they read to stop their minds from working.  I can’t seem to stop mine from working no matter what I do, and the kind of book that would allow me to stop tends to just aggravate me.

And in the end, my literalness is undefeated.  I don’t read science fiction or fantasy because I’m not interested in reading about worlds I can’t visit. 

When I want to escape, I don’t want to escape into my imagination.  I really want to escape.

Today I want to escape, but what I’m going to do is take Matt to the train station and come home and worry about what I have to worry about.

It’s making me very tired.

Written by janeh

November 28th, 2011 at 8:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Not Sunday

with 4 comments

It is Thanksgiving week-end, and as on all Thanksgiving week-ends, I have become majorly disoriented.  Yesterday felt like Saturday, today feels like Sunday, and I’m going into panic mode because I have a lot to do on Monday.  I also have a lot of papers to correct, the super-duper, extra-long, have-to-be-MLA-documented papers that I do earlier and earlier every term to give the students time to fix. I need to give them time to fix, because the average grade on these things tends to be around 40.  Out of 100.

The grades are that low because nobody ever listens, or maybe because nobody believes it when college teachers say “do it this way or you fail.”  What I get most often from students, even good ones, is the indignant declaration that all the information in the Works Cited is there, so why should it matter if it isn’t in the right order?

 In other words, I’m not looking forward to going back to the fray this coming week, because it will in fact be a fray.

I’d probably be feeling better about it if I could only get it into my head that it isn’t yet Sunday.

Tomorrow is Sunday, but that’s a nervous breakdown for another day.

In the meantime, I’m reading my way through this year’s entry by James Schall, one of my favorite writers and a man who is well into his eighties by now.  I find this depressing, but Schall probably does not.  He’s an old-fashioned Jesuit.  He tends to think of death as part of life and eternal life after this one as an absolute certainty.

The book is called The Modern Age, and the chapter I’m reading at the moment concerns two things that Schall finds related:  the Christian doctrine of the (absolute necessity of) the resurrection of the body, and various modern phenomena such as cloning, sex change operations and in vitro fertilization.

Schall is a philosopher and a theologian, which means he either knows even less than I do about the science of this sort of thing, or that he cares less. 

He’s a big proponent of the idea that the first duty of every human being is to know what is, on the assumption that only when we know what is can we know ourselves.

And that is why, I think, that I’m feeling so frustrated about the fact that he has (at least so far) said nothing about the to issues involved in this kind of thing that interest me the most.

The first is mostly just a perplexity–in some of these cases, we don’t actually do what we’re saying we’re doing. 

There may come a time, for instance, when we can in fact change the sex of human beings at will, but that time is not now.   What we call “sex change operations” at the moment are largely, if radically, cosmetic.  The DNA of a human being who has undergone such an operation remains distinctively male or female as it was at birth, as dows that body’s functioning when it comes to hormones.  That’s why people who have undergone such operations must take hormone supplements for life. 

This is not, in and of itself, a reason not to perform those operations, or undergo them, but it does give me pause on an existential level:  if we are not actually accomplishing a change of sex when we perform or undergo such operations, what are we accomplishing?  And why?  What does one get from such an operation–and the attendant problems of a lifelong regime of hormone therapy–that could not be accomplished simply by living as the sex one preferred to be.

And don’t tell me that just living as the sex one would prefer to be is “living a lie,” because until we have the technological problems of sex change actually worked out, the operation is living a lie, too.   It’s just considerably more expensive and considerably more physically dangerous.

But that is, essentially, a matter of psychology.  What seems more fundamental to me is the other question:

How much can you change the physical human being before that human being no longer possesses “human nature?”

All secular attempts to discover and articulate an objectively based moral code assume that human nature is something largely fixed and inborn.

Note the “largely.”   I am not denying the importance of nurture here.

Still, there are things that are considered to be not only common to all human beings, but common to all human beings in all times and all places regardless of race, creed, upbringing or culture–jealousy, sexual passion, a sense of justice, an awareness of death.

Okay, that wasn’t even pretending to be an exhaustive list.  But the fact that human beings over a vast array of different times, places and cultures all experience at the most basic level the same things is not only the basis for believing that an objective moral code is possible, it’s also the basis for believing that we can understand each other at all. 

We read Homer and the Bhagvad Gita confident that we not only can, but will, “get” them.  Modern filmmakers dig up the epics of lost civilizations and turn them into superhero movies.  We watch Othello working himself up at Iago’s lies and roll our eyes, because Othello is just like our idiot brother in law.

But here’s where the doctrine of the resurrection of the body has a point–if we no longer have the experience of our bodies, we are no longer human.   To be actual, real human beings, we must, first of all, be physical. The promise that we would somehow “survive” death as a ghost, that we would be able to split soul and body and still be ourselves, is false.

And we can see, in one case, how a change in the way we experience our physical bodies has caused an intellectual and emotional disconnect with previous generations.  We’ve talked about it here, in the past:  the fact that we can no longer “understand” death in the same way that an Elizabethan playwright or a classical Greek poet did.

We do not experience death, or the immanence of death, in anything like the same way.   John Donne would have found the death of a child heartbreaking, but perfectly normal.  Children in his era frequently died before their 12th birthdays.   It was part of the reason families had so many children.

For that matter, John Donne would have found it perfectly normal for a wife to die in childbirth.  For centuries, childbirth was the single most common form of death for women under the age of 40.  A first childbirth was a leap into the unknown–no way to tell, until you’d undergone it, whether your body could safely deliver a child at all–but subsequent childbirths remained dangerous for a host of reasons. 

The entire concept of courage is different, I think, for somebody who expects that death can come at any time anyway and someone who thinks “normal” means living to a ripe old age.

I also happen to think that this is part of the disconnect between the West (or the industrialized nations as a whole, to include Japan) and radical Islam–radical Islam is a product of societies where death is still a common thing, commonly experienced and ever-present.

But here’s the thing–if we accept that in changing the physical reality of human beings in any way we also change human nature in at least some way, we are not at the same time saying that we should not make such changes.

As far as I’m concerned, the change in the nature, experience and consequences of childbirth have been largely to the good.  I am, as I’ve noted here before, one of those people who would have simply been dead in any society other than the modern one.

Once we’ve admitted that, however, the question becomes–how do we decide what, if anything, is “too much” change in the human body and therefore “too much” change in what it means to be human?

There has been at least some religious and moral objection, somewhere, to each new medical innovation–to anesthesia in childbirth, to vaccinations, to corrective surgery of things like hare lips, to sex change.

What I keep trying to figure out, without much success, is whether or not there is a logical construct that would provide some kind of guidelines for when what we’re doing is a Good New Thing and when what we’re doing is Completely Unacceptible.

Sometimes it simply seems that Huxley had it right where Orwell had it wrong.  The future isn’t 1984, it’s Brave New World, where the drive to create the New Social Man will no longer stop at reconstructing the mind but go on to reconstructing the body.

But the real thing that nags at me is this:  when I get to thinking about these things, the back of my mind keeps saying:  why the hell not? 

It’s not that I can’t see we’d have something to lose, or that what we’d have to lose would be profound.

It’s just that pain and suffering and death seem to me good things to get rid of, even if getting rid of them would not, and could not, produce that vaunted heaven on earth.

Maybe it’s just that, at this time of year, I get oddly morbid about everything.

Or maybe I just need tea.

Written by janeh

November 26th, 2011 at 10:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Occupy This

with 10 comments

I am sitting here this morning in a sort of odd frame of mind.  I actually have classes today, which borders on the absurd.  Virtually no one will come, and the ones who do will not be paying attention.

I’m also less inclined than I might otherwise be to have a fit about this, because I know something about how hard it can be to get train tickets for the Thanksgiving break. 

I’ve tried to buy train tickets for Matt on the Monday before Thanksgiving and lost the place in the time it takes to get the registration form to load.

So I’m just sort of wandering around the house this morning, feeling aimless.  And since that’s the case, I’m reading a lot of things I wouldn’t have bothered with if I’d been busier.

And I have a question.

Why do so many people who write stuff insist on thinking–or saying they think–that the Occupy Wall Street movement is “significant” and likely to cause big changes any day now?

Before one side or the other goes into huge paroxysms about how the media is all leftist or all rightest or the police don’t bug the tea party, I’d like to point something out.

I was there the last time.

I not only marched against the war, I got arrested for it a couple of times, and I was on the organizing staff of at least two rallies. 

We got a lot more people in those days, and we caused a lot more disruption one way or the other.

But no matter how much people like to claim otherwise, what we did not do was usher in a grass-roots resurgence of liberal (we’d now call it “progressive”) principle.

To the extent that the old anti-Vietnam War movement did anything at all at the grass roots, it ushered in thirty years of steadily growing conservative hegemony. 

By the time Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, political discourse in the US had moved so far to the right that it would have been unrecognizable to anybody who had grown up during the New Deal.

This can be a little difficult to recognize, because both sides persistantly refuse to honestly define their opponent’s positions, and the Left especially has a set of complete cliches about what is supposedly going on on “the right.” 

Mind you, the right is no slouch in the direction of making a mess of its reports about the other side, but for whatever reason, its operatives have been a lot more careful about making sure that they’re targeting real opponents and not fantasy ones. 

The right, in other words, has been considerably more interested in winning elections.

The National Review, for instance–William F. Buckley’s flagship conservative magazine–has spent the last several issues discussing the disconnect between working class white voters and the core conservative base–

The core conservative base wants to end entitlement programs, the working class white voters want to retain and expand them.

And that particular series of articles has been refreshing in what it has not done–it has not ascribed the policy preferences of these voters as somehow arising from their inability to understand what’s in their own interests, or due to their “fear of change’ and all the rest of that rot.

In other words, the articles treat voters with whom the writers disagree with respect in the only sense “respect” be in a case like this–as being fully competent human beings who know their own minds.

You treat people like that, and you might almost get them to listen to you.

OWS, however, seems to be doing all the usual things and receiving all the usual yawn-intensive reaction from the man in the street–unless it does something that gets that man absolutely furious, like blocking an off-ramp to I-84 in Hartford during rush hour. 

The OWS thing reminds me of the riots we have to have anytime the G-8 meets–exercises in faux-revolutionary nostalgia rather than serious political statements of any sort, and, as always, claiming to speak for a lot of people who resent the hell out of so being spoken for.

And nostalgia seems to be what is going on for a lot of the writers who are writing about the movement, both in favor and against.  Picking up the political magazines this week has been like time travel: there are the liberals proclaiming that Young People are Changing Everything, and there are the conservatives talking about how people on these protests should bathe and get a job.

And buried under all this, of course, are actual issues that both sides agree on–or at least both sides attending OWS and Tea Party rallies.

The banks shouldn’t have been bailed out, and the bankers should have been subject to criminal prosecution in some cases and civil suits capable of doing them serious economic damage in others.

That’s one.

College costs too much.  NCLB should be abolished.  George W. Bush was a bad president. 

Those are some more.

In the meantime, I have to listen to a lot of nonsense about how Authentic they all are (from liberals) and how unwashed they all are (from conservatives).

They’re neither, really.  They’re just playing games, and provoking reactions they expect will be largely safe enough.

Then they give press conferences where they declare that obviously the Establishment is against them, or else why do they get pepper spray and riot police when the Tea Party does not.

They expect nobody to notice that Tea Party rallies get all the necessary permits, show up when they say they will and leave when they say they will, and clean up after themselves.

But it’s okay if they don’t notice it, because it’s mostly a game, the object of which is to be able to declare that you’re Sincere and Moral, unlike all those idiots wearing American flags on their hats and talking about the second amendment.

I played that game once, and it ended up making me embarrassed.

These days, it just makes me tired.

Written by janeh

November 22nd, 2011 at 10:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Free Whatevers

with 2 comments

Well, today has come, and I feel almost human.  At least for the moment. 

I think I might be able to get back to the Liberal Education thing by the week-end, if the holiday doesn’t kick my ass in ways that require me to rant nonstop for a couple of days.

But let’s get to Michael’s question:  how does someone in a free market compete for work against free labor?

And the question confuses me in a number of ways.

The first part of my confusion is that it seems to be an unnecessary question–you can see it all around us as we speak. 

A job pays what it has to pay for an employer to find people willing to work for him who have the skills and credentials he thinks he needs to get the job done.

If an employer tries to pay less than that, he gets people without the skills or qualities he wants.  If he pays more, he either kicks himself in the butt or he can demand higher skills and credentialing levels–he can count on being sought out by the best of the best in the skill/field/vocation.

There is, of course, no “free labor” in the US at this time, not only because of the minimum wage–which is largely a negligible factor, for a number of reasons–but because of things like antidiscrimination law, which require employers to be very careful about any standard they set that might end up looking as if it has a “disparate impact” by race or gender.

Henry Ford could probably not get away with his famous $5 wage rate (or its equivalent) today, because he’d almost certainly find that the standards he was setting for hiring would be declared discriminatory.

But in spite of the modifications, we compete in the labor market with “free labor” all the time. 

Which made it a little confusing as a question.

But I think the underlying assumptions run like this:

Big corporations have all the resources and they control all the jobs.  They can set wages anywhere they want.  If they are not restrained in some way–minimum wage laws; unions; whatever–they will set those wages at starvation rates, and we will have to grovel and take it because otherwise we will go homeless and starving in the streets.

Actually, the assumptions go even deeper than that, but let me try to work with the above scenario.

1) It’s an incredibly passive way of looking at the world.   All productive activity occurs elsewhere.  All invention happens elsewhere.  “Ordinary people”–meaning people who aren’t, say, Steve Wozniak–have no other choices but to take whatever they’re handed. 

But this is not the world I live in.  I come from the ethnic traditions I come from–THERE’S a grammar disaster for you–and that of course skews my perceptions some, but one of those traditions feels about working for other people the way Jewish dietary law feels about pork.

Never mind the fact that most people in the US don’t work for large corporations.

What working for a large corporation does–or has done at times–is to afford some people a stable source of employment that comes with lots of perks, like company-subsidized health insurance and retirement pensions. 

And that, of course, is very nice.  It’s a lot easier than what my grandparents (and a fair number of my cousins) did and are doing.  It takes a lot less effort, at least seems to eliminate a lot of uncertainty and worry, and provides that “middle class way of life” whose standards are always steadily marching upwards.

But it’s an illusion to think that it was ever the life for more than a tiny minority of people in this country, never mind on this planet. 

Of course, there are also

2) Unions, which are kind of a mixed bag. 

Unions may work for their members, if the conditions are right.  They did very well by auto workers for decades, for instance, but they did so because:

a) manufacturing could not be shipped internationally.  It had to be done here, which limited the available labor in one way and

b) it consisted largely of skilled work, which limited the available labor in another way and

c) the companies involved were not only prosperous, but prosperous in such a way that they had no significant competition from anywhere else.

Given those conditions, labor unions do a wonderful job for their members. 

Some of what they do will even spill over to their nonmembers.

But one of the things I have always found curious is the tendency of people proclaiming the Postive Unalloyed Good of Unions to face the fact that for nonmembers, unions often don’t look like such a good deal.  And that goes for forced members, too.

Go down to your local community college, and you’ll find a nice handful of highly educated people who are liberal in every other sense who froth at the mouth at the mention of unions.  They’re “adjuncts,” and they are required to pay for “representation” by the local college teachers’ union which sees its job as protecting the perks and pay of full time faculty against the very part time faculty they claim to also “represent.”

This system has resulted, by the way, not in better pay and conditions for college teachers, but for better pay and conditions for a small handful of college teachers and largely worse pay and conditions for the part timers. 

And that’s in teaching, which is a profession that fits the above three conditions.

Union demands pretty much killed off newspapers in most major cities, because in a world where newspapers had to compete with television and radio, they couldn’t pay the demanded salaries and benefits and still produce a product at a price people were willing to pay for it. 

So unions will modify the landscape for some people under the right conditions.

What modifies the landscape for all people is labor law, which is something very different.

It’s more stable, but it ends up hitting reality in the face in the same way as above, it just takes longer.

3) But the REAL underlying assumption is this:  somebody else has put his life, his effort, his money into building a business.  If he wants to hire people to work for him in that business, he automatically owes those people (irrespective not only of the market, but of reality) a certain standard of living.


The guy who invents the automobile can make his product himself by hand in his garage and get rich selling each individually crafted project to people who want it. 

In fact, that happened. 

Henry Ford, among others, figured out that he could make even more money mass producing them. 

But the choice was not between “having a good job with Ford” and “having a bad job with Ford.”  It was between “having a job” and “not having a job.” 

The jobs did not need to exist.  They aren’t a natural resource, just there for us to stumble upon. 

And, hell, natural resources require all kinds of inputs from actual human beings before they’re worth anything.

Change is inevitable.  You cannot protect yourself from it in the long run.  None of us is guaranteed that the world we’re born into will look anything at all like the world we leave when we die. 

All life is risk and uncertainty.

And in reality it can never be anything else.

Written by janeh

November 21st, 2011 at 11:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

I’ve probably used that as a post title before. 

I’m too wrung out to go look at the moment.

But I knew, all the way back two weeks ago, when the electricity had been out for five days, that what was going to come of that was that I was going to get sick, and I got sick. 

I got royally sick.

This morning, though, I just feel–after eleven hours of sleep–as if I’d run two marathons back to back and will never want to move again.

But I can type, so here I am.

I’ve been watching with a certain amount of interest the discussions in the comments, and I want to make a few observations:

First, I’m with Robert on the issue of “sustainability.”  What cannot be sustained will fail.   Sometimes what would fail needs to be accounted for in some way–say, the generators at the local hospitals, which were not meant to go continuously for nine to eleven days–but other times it does not, and the present distribution of wages in corporations seems one of the latter. 

But the thing that really struck me was the thing about how, even though American workers have become so much more productive, their wages have not risen accordingly. 

And it struck me because it’s one of those things whose particulars are never spelled out.

In this way, it reminds me of the thing about “back in 1970, families could afford to have mother stay at home full time with the children.”

The problem with that one is that its underlying assumption–never actually stated–is that the only reason most mothers are now in the workforce is that their families can’t afford to have them stay home.

I think that is probably demonstrably false, and that if we went back to a family-wage system with lots of money for the breadwinners, most women now would still elect to work, even when their children were fairly small.

The problem with the productivity and wages of American workers is this:  it does not indicate in any way why American workers are more productive or if those workers are the same ones who were doing the jobs 40 years ago.

The way the proposition is stated makes it seem as if what is going on is this:

Susan works as a typist.  Through her own effort, industry and talent, she has made adjustments to the way she works that result in her greater productivity for her employer.  Therefore, it is only “fair” that her salary should have risen with her productivity.

I don’t really like the whole “fair” thing.  I’m with the people who say it’s mostly a childish world, meant to demand a world that does not exist. JFK was right, life isn’t fair, and never will be–and it probably shouldn’t be.  Justice is one thing.  Fairness is–well, nobody quite knows what it is.

In this case, though, I think the underlying, unstated assumption is almost certainly wrong.

If Susan is more productive at her job, it is not because she worked and innovated to get that way, but because somebody else, somewhere else, invented new machinery or processes that make it possible for her to be more productive, even if she’s done nothing about how she herself works at what she does.

In that scenario, I don’t see how even a vague standard like “fairness” would require us to pay Susan more.   Susan’s greater productivity is not the result of anything she has contributed to the enterprise.

And even with that, I’m outside the realm of the real world, where even if Susan HAD behaved as in the first scenario above, her salary would be determined by the law of supply and demand.

But let’s leave the law of supply and demand for the moment and look at the other part of the problem:

The “is it fair” scenario assumes that the worker whose productivity has risen is the same worker, or at least a worker with similar qualifications as the first.

But this is not necessarily the case.  In fact, it’s not even likely.

Fifty years ago, a worker who could barely do arithmatic couldn’t work as a cashier.  With the old, non-digital cash registers there was still quite a lot of arithmatic to be done. 

You can see the issue clearly in those few restaurants and bars where “servers” still run banks–that is, they’re given a set amount of money at the start of the night and expected to make change for customers from it.  When the night is over, they dump their money out, pay back the house the amount in the original bank (they’ll have given the money collected from tabs to the house as the night went on) and whatever is left is their tips.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. 

But these days, a worker whose arithmatic is rank awful, or nonexistent, can still work as a cashier in anyplace where servers don’t run banks, because digital cash registers have taken all the guess work and side problems out of cashiering. 

Hell, in some places, workers can be cashiers even if they can’t read.  Some of the fast food restaurants have cash registers with pictures of their products on them, and the cashier doesn’t even have to punch in the price.

Forty years ago, a worker with these skill levels would not have been working as a cashier, and would have been working at something (if at all) paid much less than cashiers were paid then.

That worker has seen her wages rise, even if the wages for the position have not–it is a position she could not have held before the technological changes, and all the positions she could have held would have paid much less.

And, I will admit, my best guess is that what we’re seeing is more like scenario three than the original set of unstated assumptions.

And at that point, what we’re seeing is not only not “not fair,” but the whole thing about “workers’ wages are stagnating” is mostly an illusion.

And that is especially the case if the worker with the skills required for the original position as cashier has gone on to another job which, due to technology, now requires her skills instead of the greater ones she doesn’t have that would have made her ineligible for it.

Okay, I can type this morning, but maybe I can’t write.

I can see a lot of things that I think are illegitimate in this system as it stands.

I don’t think it’s “socialism” as of yet–the largest difference between socialism and capitalism is not whether or not business are regulated (there’s always some regulation) or whether or not social programs exist (there have always been some of those) but whether redistribution of resources is seen as a fundamental function of the government–and we are, thankfully, not there yet.

I do think that we’re rapidly going down the road of corporatism, and that is just as bad and possibly worse.

That is,  there should have been no bailouts, and the people at the heads of the banks and the coroporations that engaged in that spree of risky lending should have been allowed to crash and been held liable in courts for the money they bilked people out of.

But the bubble and the crash  came about precisely because we didn’t make that a principle up front–because through Fannie and Freddie we guaranteed risky mortgages that were likely to fail, thereby making banks feel they had nothing to lose by making such mortgages, since they couldn’t get hurt if they DID fail. 

And that was as much a matter of Democratic Party policies as Republican ones.  It was the Clinton administration that demanded that the banks make more loans to low-income people and Barney Frank that led the charge requiring Fannie and Freddie to lower their accounting standards in order to guarantee such loans.

It was both Bush and Obama who pushed for bailouts.  The big difference there was that the Bush administration was just bailing out the banks.  The Obama administration seems to have been bailing out everybody.

“Fair” is not only not possible, it’s not even advisible.

Rational, however, is both, and nobody is being rational here.

I’m going to go have some tea and music.

I throw this out


as being on the subject we started talking about all those weeks ago.

Written by janeh

November 20th, 2011 at 11:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 21 comments

So, here we are.  It’s Thursday, and after spending nearly a week feeling sort of yuck, I now have a fever good and proper and everything looks like glass. 

I’m not necessarily complaining about this.  It was more or less inevitable when the electricity–and the heat–stayed out for eight days and four hours. 

And I have nearly a week coming up, after tomorrow, when I have virtually nothing to do at all but collect a kid from the train station. 

But in the meantime, I’m not very coherent.

That said–

I think the problem is defining “a family could live on one standard.”

Many years ago I came across a book called The Way Home by a woman named Mary Pride. 

She was then–and may be now–a big noise in the Christian homeschooling movement, but her book was about how women could choose to stay home full time.  And her big caveat thing was this–it’s always possible to do this if you’re willing to live on your husband’s income. 

And her point, of course, is that most families are not willing to live on one income.  When they say it’s “impossible,” what they usually mean is that they’re not willing to go without the things that would make it feasible.

My guess is that most families could live on one income if they were willing to live the way our families did when they only had one income–houses in the 900 to 1200 sf range, no air conditioning, no cable, one family car, new clothes bought at the start of the school year and restricted to what was absolutely necessary (shoes, for instance, consisting of one pair of school shoes, one pair of dress shoes, and one pair of sneakers of the cheap variety).

I think we vastly underestimate the difference in the definition of “a middle class standard of living” between the 50s and late 60s and now.  I came from a very well-off family, and I got a new coat, new dress and new dress shoes for Easter, plus maybe five skirts and sweaters for “school clothes” and a pair of school shoes, plus a winter coast if I’d outgrown the last one, plus those inevitable Keds for gym. When I got to high school, my father let me have a purse.


And that was pretty much the shot for all of us, including those of us from families who were undeniably rich.  My mother was the full time wife of a “prominent” and very well paid attorney, and she cleaned her own house. 

So my guess is, most of us, even in the Great Recession, could live on a single salary IF we were willing to live on it.  Mostly, we aren’t.

As to ab’s suggestion that there might be a link between restrictions on the workforce–no children allowed, women at home–and higher salaries for working class and middle class men:  a couple of things.

First, working class wives always worked, even back then.  They were just restricted as to what they could work at.  Aside from nursing and teaching, they were largely barred from the better paying working class jobs.  Men worked the shop floor, and only men in the best paid places.  Men were the firemen, the policemen, even the garbagemen, and a lot of unions worked very hard to keep women out.

Which makes me think that there should be some connection between higher wages and the restriction of the workforce (keeping children and women out), because limiting the supply vis a vis the demand drives wages up.  That is, after all, what unions do.  They restrict the workforce at a company to a subset of all possible workers in the economy and then use that restricted supply to force up wages and benefits.

As to whether women went out to work because men were no longer making a living wage, or women went out to work to raise their family’s standard of living–

If I remember rightly, being of the generation when women first went out to work, my guess is that the answer is: neither.

Women of my kind and class weren’t interested in raising the family’s standard of living, because we weren’t interested in getting married and having families. 

What we were resisting was largely the idea that what we were supposed to do with our very extensive educations was to settle down somewhere and housewife, or–more and more common for the “girls” who came just before us–work for a few years as a secretary or assistant and then chuck it as soon as we got a wedding ring.

I can say with some confidence that, for myself, I wouldn’t have been interested in that narrative.  And it got less and less interesting as public pressure brought an end to the more obvious forms of discrimination–the policy at Time, for instance, to hire men right out of college as writers, but women right out of college as researchers, at half the money.

Or the policies at most of the top law and medical schools of restricting the women admitted to any class to single digits.

But after all of this, I still think that the real reason wages have been stagnating is this:  the period at the end of WWII represents an historical anomaly that won’t come again. 

We’re just not the only industrial country in the world any more.

There’s actually competition out there.

And, unfortunately, we got to a place where it looked so natural to us to be the only man standing that we have convinced ourselves that:

a) we should just live like that without having to work very hard for it or to practice self-control or deferred gratification and

b) that if we don’t get it, there must be some vast conspiracy somewhere that’s denying it to us.

And now I really feel awful, and I’m going to go off and find some tea.

Today, unfortunately, I do have things to do.

Written by janeh

November 17th, 2011 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Liberte, Egalitie…

with 9 comments

In a way, it’s odd to be talking about this when the post I’m mapping out to start the second phase of “places where a resurgence of the liberal arts education seems to have led to a society-wide rise in moral standards” is largely bound up with just this conflict between liberty and security, and therefore almost necessarily between individualism and unity.

And I am, you know, what I am.  I am not the kind of perso who “fits” very well pretty much anywhere–to the point where I sometimes think I subconsciously react against any and all attempts to allow me to fit by getting very prickly.  I’m not a Republican or a Democrat.  I’m not a liberal or a conservative.  I’m even an introvert or an extrovert depending on where I am and what I’m doing.

And I have been, over the course of my life, on the receiving end of several attempts to fix me.  I suppose it was a piece of good luck that I landed in school only at the very beginning of the craze for “diagnosing” children with all kinds of “disorders” if they didn’t conform to what everybody else thought they should be doing in school.

Even at the very beginning, though, there was a fair amount of clucking about my being “unbalanced” (all she ever wants to do is read and write–she needs to do some sports and get out and have fun) and a lot of consternation about the fact that I would not only challenge teachers, but refuse to back down.

And I admit to being a little astonished that my own generation, which was so militantly opposed to conformity in principle for much of its youth, now seems to revel in a system whose entire purpose it to impose conformity by any means necessary.

Because, you know, that’s what this is.

All of it–from seat belt laws to freshman orientation “diversity training’ to the labeling of any diversion from a narrowly defined “normality” a “disorder” to be medicated–is a systemic attempt to impose universal conformity by force.

We talk a lot about diversity, but it’s really the last thing we want.  We are required to think alike in all things deemed important–and even where we’re encouraged to find our “individual voices,” we’re only encouraged as long as those voices produce the generally accpeted platitudes.

Any real diversity–a black guy who is opposed to affirmative action, a woman who thinks sexual harrassment law is unjust to men,  a Latina who wants to stop illegal immigration–and the system begins to give evidence of being about to pop an aneurism.

We’re not even subtle about it. 

It’s what gets me about the nature of the climate change debate.

Forget, for a moment, about the specifics of the science, and look at the argument as it tends to be presented.

What is that argument?  “A consensus of scientists…”

This is the ad populam fallacy.  It amounts to saying “it’s true because everybody says so!”

And no, the status of scientists as “experts” does not change the nature of that argument.  Stampeding experts have been wrong before.  They’ve been wrong often. 

The mere fact that the majority of scientists accepts conclusion X does not in and of itself make conclusion X true.

We do everything by consensus these days, and it’s really frightening.  And we have far less tolerance for real diversity than we had in the Fifties.  We are determined not only that we will all think alike–smoking it bad, helmets increase safety when riding a motorcycle, the only possible reason for the differences in test scores among racial groups is that the test itself is racist, killing off old people when they fall deeply into illness or dementia is a kindness, sexual orientations include only those kinds of sex we approve of–but that we have the right and duty to legislate in any case where it appears we don’t.

Or, better yet, we’re so sure that our way is the only way that we think we have a right and duty to impose our will even in the absence of law, under the guise of “protecting children,” for instance, or on the assumption that anybody who disagrees with us must be either stupid or mentally ill.

It’s this ultimate belief that there is Only One Right Way and that any dissent from that way is Mental Illness or Stupidity that makes it possible for the OWS people to claim that they “are the 99%” 

Are they, really?  Is it really the case that 99% of the people in the country agree with them?

There are certainly some points of agreement–the Tea Party is just as determined to “do something” about rogue bankers and banks too big to fail–but my guess is that on a lot of the issues they have only a small minority of their fellow citizens on their side.

On those issues, though, they’re perceived to be on the “right” (meaning conformist) side–and therefore the press is about how legitimate they are, not about how they’re too stupid to know their own interests or are being manipulated behind the scenes by sinister forces.

The Mental Illness ploy is particularly vicious, because it circumvents the usual American resistance to the imposition of conformity–a Mentally Ill person is not really making the choices he’s making; he has no control of those choices.  And since he has no control, he cannot be said to be choosing.  Therefore, we can interfere with and prevent him from making this bogus “choice.”

It’s a free country for those of us who are Mentally Well, but the Mentally Ill are in the grip of compulsions outside their control, and they cannot even be said to be capable of freedom until they’ve received “treatment.”

And we’ll know when they’re fully functioning adults again–because then they’ll make the same choices and think the same things that we do.

In pursuit of total conformity, we have turned out schools and even our doctors’ offices into mentally therapeutic watch zones.   “Mandatory reporter” laws mean it is dangerous to the point of lunacy not to turn in the kid and/or his parents if there is anything at all that looks odd about him.  After all, to report and be wrong only harms the child (or the old person) and his family.  Not to report will get your license taken away.

And watch that get a lot worse in the wake of the Penn State thing, where an honorable and accomplished man (Paterno, now) who did absolutely everything right, ended up getting fired in disgrace anyway.

(And yes, Paterno did everything right.  He was told a story by a colleague about abuse and he reported that story to the Penn State administration, who were the people charged with bringing in the police.   The person who actually witnessed the absue has not been fired.  As far as I can tell, Paterno simply had the bad luck to be the most famous person in the vicinity of the problem.)

I’ve made myself thoroughly depressed, I think.

So I’ll go off and actually get some work done.

Written by janeh

November 14th, 2011 at 9:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

On Topic Sundays

with 5 comments

So it is Sunday, and I have music and Harriet Vane.

And, like I said,  I’m still not inclined to do a lot of work right now.

So, I want to make explicit the question that keeps popping into my mind.

When I talk about small government here, I am usually fairly explicit about what I mean.

I mean putting an end to government intrusion into the private decisions of private life. 

I mean things like seat belt laws, childhood obesity campaigns,  bans on Happy Meals, motorcycle helmet laws–the entire panoply of regulation and legislation meant to make us behave “for our own good” and sometimes justified by saying that “it’s for the children, and we need to protect them when their parents are stupid.”

As soon as I start talking about that here, a half dozen people start talking about evil corporations despoiling the Arctic wilderness and food safety laws meant to keep us from running into the E-boli bacteria.

But saying that the government should not be allowed to tell me I have to wear a seat belt if I ride a motorcycle, or that CPS shouldn’t be allowed to issue a degree (not voted on in any legislature) that makes spanking “child abuse,’ is not the same thing as food safety laws or the Glass-Steagal Act.

And I’m in favor of bringing back Glass-Steagal, and I think we should never have gotten rid of it.

I’d read the “study” in Michael’s article–the 43,000 corporations that supposedly “rule the world”–and I thought it silly the first time.  The article posted here said that people have had “some problems” with its methodology, but in fact they’ve had a lot of problems with its methodology.   Never mind the fact that any secret conspiracy to control everything that requires 43,000 anything to maintain is dead in the water before it starts.

But it’s still not the issue I brought up, and it still has nothing to do with what I’m talking about.

In fact, what I’m talking about makes it MORE likely that corporations will get to control your life.

There is, for instance, the new trend for courts to allow employers to demand that you behave OFF the job the way they want you to–that you not only not smoke at work, but not smoke at home, either.

To me, this amounts to a reinstitution of slavery.  In a captialist economy, I sell my time to my employer, and when I’m off the clock what I do is none of his business.

But since the government already thinks of me as a child whose behavior has to be manipulated and regulated even in the confines of my own home, it naturally enough sees nothing wrong with my employer controlling my behavior in the same way.

And in what way will the food supply be threatened if we require OSHA to enforce laws and not make them?  Or if we insist that OSHA has no right to issue regulations with the force of law that will allow them to enter my private residence at will and inspect my home office to make sure it meets “safety standards”?

The OSHA thing isn’t something I made up, by the way.  They tried that on a few years ago and had to back down because of public outcry.  But they have not retreated on their position that they have a right to make such inspections of my home.

And that they do not have to follow any form of due process, do not have to have probably cause that I’ve committed a crime, and do not have to have a warrant.

If the history of bureaucracies is any judge, they will float the idea every year or so until they manage to get it through when nobody is looking.

And, if they ever do, there will be no more Gregors.

I cannot sit in ergonomic chairs.  My back just won’t handle it.  This already bars me from being hired for all kinds of things I am qualified to do–nope, OSHA says you have to sit in that chair, you can’t sit in that chair and you can’t work–but if such a rule was carried into my own home, I wouldn’t be able to work at all.  No more sitting at the computer.  No more writing in the morning.  And what am I complaining about?  It’s for my own good.  I must only think I can’t use those chairs.  They’re really better for me than the one I do use, and I’m just to stupid (or have too little common sense) to know it.

I will say, however, that even if I didn’t have a problem with those chairs, I’d still be opposed both to OSHA being able to issue such a regulation that would have the force of law, and for any agency of the government, federal or state or local, to be able to enter my private home without that warrant or probably cause.

I will also say that I find it very curious that so many of the people I know who call themselves liberals, and who would have a complete raging fit if the cops entered an apartment without warrant or probable cause to look for weapons or drugs–find nothing wrong with this kind of thing.

I had a friend of mine tell me, very earnestly, that you didn’t need things like warrants and due process for these things, because they were “helping” and not prosecuting, and that unlike police officers, who were mostly bad and brutal and racist, social workers had good intentions and were trained to know how to handle these situations.

For what it’s worth, this is the big issue with the Tea Party, the one that Democrats get wrong.  When they’re talking about “big government,” they’re not talking about health and safety standards for handling raw meat.

They’re talking about the nattering, nitpicking, endless micromanagement of their private lives and the lives of their communities.

We complain in this country that too many people are apathetic, or that they’re “low information voters.”

But they’re apathetic because they have nothing to be enthused about.  If they go to the polls and vote for the local school board, what does it mean?  It means that they get to run their school by rules they disapprove of that were made somewhere else by people they did not elect and whose judgment they don’t trust.

And they’re not “low information,” either.  They’re just taking a calculated gamble.

Shrinking government just MIGHT get rid of some of those micromanaging rules.

A politician who wants to expand government might do a lot of things they like–universal health care, for instance–but he’ll almost certainly use that expansion to put even more of those rules in place that they want to get rid of.

Liberty before security.

Every time.

I’m going to go listen to Bach.

Written by janeh

November 13th, 2011 at 9:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Saturday in the Morning

with 17 comments

This is going to be very short, because I find myself in the curious position of still being mostly exhausted.  It turns out that I’m just the sort of person all those doom and gloom writers write about–take away my technology, and I go completely to pieces. 

Oh, I got all my stuff done, I even met all my classes–I think I may be the only person in the department who didn’t need to sign up for extra classroom space to make up for a day–but at the end of it, and nearly a week later, I find myself  wanting to do nothing more ambitious than rolling myself into a ball and going back to sleep.

And I can’t.  I have things to do.  I have pieces of trees, still.

All that said, I think I would disagree on one very important point here:  I think there is something inherent in bureaucracies that make them behave as they do.

And I think they all behave alike.

It doesn’t matter if they’re public or private, nonprofit or for profit, religious or secular.   The first imperative of a bureaucracy is to protect itself.  The second is to expand its power as far as it can possibly go.

The private sector bureacracies used to be less intractable because the people who worked in them were subject to being fired at will–they lacked the kind of job security the public sector bureacracies had through civil service laws.

These days, though, a complicated web of regulations and court decisions and law meant to “protect’ workers from everything from “sexual harrassment” to “discrimination” has made it politically impossible for any large organization with deep pockets to fire at will, so that they have developed internal controls meant to protect them from legal challenges that effectively make it difficult or impossible to fire anybody for cause.

Certainly, bureacracies often contain good people who want to do good jobs and even to help–but it only takes a minority for a bureacracy to behave like a bureacracy, and it always does.

Beyond that, my primary concern is with the relationship between citizens and their government, which SHOULD be that of an employer to an employee–that is, the citizens are the employers of government, and not the children of it.

“Preventive” and “protective” legislation and regulation of the kind some people have advocated here seems to me to be in direct violation of that concept of the relationship between a citizen and his government.

It assumes, rather, that the government possesses wisdom of a kind that the mere citizen–being not much better than a child, and probably both malevolent and self-destructive–cannot possess, and that government therefore must regulate for the citizen’s own good even behavior that is completely private.  After all, if the citizen was a fully functioning adult human being, he wouldn’t make these silly choices.

I would say that governments should not be allowed to make laws “for your own good” at all, and should restrict themselves to what can clearly be seen to be behavior that harms other people, and even then only when it harms them in a significant way–except that I’ve spent the last thirty years watching governments embrace pseudo-scientific crap in order to produce a “significant harm” where none in fact exists.

If you don’t believe me, I suggest you find yourself a first rate math major and let him take you through the protocols of all those studies “proving” that secondhand smoke is going to kill you. 

And no, I don’t smoke.  And neither does anybody else in my family that I know of.

So let me go farther than that.  Let me say that governments should not be allowed to make laws about private life at all unless they can show that such things are absolutely necessary to allow society to run at all.  That would strike off not only all the anti-tobacco regulations, but the federal ban on bake sales in public schools, and most of the drug laws.

As for families and what happens in them, I think that the case of the person who used t knife to make an 8 year old’s vagina large enough to get a penis into should of course be prosecuted for assault.  The laws for that kind of thing already exist.

But to assume that the fact that such people exist at all–they are not, obviously, common–is excuse for subjecting every family with a child to what amounts to the tactics of a police state is not just wrong, but worse than wrong.

A parent who has committed a crime against a child–or for whom there is probable cause to assume so–should be prosecuted like any other person accused of a crime, and that means with full due process of law and full recognition of both his right to the presumption of innocence and his other rights. 

There should be no case in which a government should be allowed to mete out punishment to a citizen–and having your child taken away from you is punishment, as is having to attend “parenting skills classes” or being forced to interact with your child only under the obswervation of a social worker–until it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that such a crime occured and that the defendant has committed it.

It should certainly never be the case that supposed “social experts”–social workers, psychologists, teachers, nurses–should be allowed to require parents to make decisions for their children that are opposed to the parents’ own understanding of what is good for that child, such as whether or not to put him on Ritalin or sending him to one “therapy’ or another.

And laws about what constitutes a crime against a child should be passed by legislatures, not issued as regulations by departments and then given the force of law.

I am inherently suspicious of all forms of centralized power.  But I am worse than suspicious of centralized power that claims it is only working “for my own good,” or that it is staffed by people so virtuous and well-intentioned that the danger of finding a Nurse Ratchet among them is close to nil.

Nurse Ratchets are drawn to bureaucracies like bees are to flowers, and in the end they run every bureaucratic organization ever built.

I have to go to the post office before it closes.

Written by janeh

November 12th, 2011 at 11:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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