Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The Big Apple Nipple Crisis

August 24, 2015

So it has come to this.

What do you get when you mash up a) prudishness, b) a nanny-state mentality, and c) politically correct gender neutrality?

Legislation to ban public toplessness – male and female!

Photo by Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

Photo by Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

The casus belli is the “desnudas” of New York’s Times Square – gals with breasts covered only with body paint who pose for tourist photos, for tips – which Bronx Democratic State Senator Ruben Diaz* (a pentacostal minister) wants to banish. Casey Seiler’s droll reportage in the Albany Times Union quotes Diaz: “If equality laws are in the way, let’s push for equality so neither men nor women can go topless in our streets.” He seemingly said this with a straight face.

Missing from the story is why this is a problem requiring legislative action and penal laws. Diaz says, “so families can enjoy New York.” Many members of families enjoy seeing breasts (I do). But seriously – okay, semi-seriously – if the concern is about children, I doubt that any, in today’s American culture, will truly be morally corrupted by seeing painted breasts. Indeed, it could be a good teaching moment. And if you’re Amish, or whatever, and really want to shield your kids’ tender eyes, why then, don’t visit Times Square. Which is, after all – hello – Times Square, for cryin’ out loud.

imagesIn the Twenty-first century, this story would have been ridiculous enough, without the added fillip of banning male toplessness too, in some brain-dead application of gender equality. Need I really explain (well, I guess I do) that it’s not invidious discrimination when laws make reasonable distinctions based on differing facts and circumstances? And that male and female chests differ? (Vive la difference.)

As to the latter point, please refer to an incisive and erudite discussion in my 8/14/14 blog post.

The Times Union also notes that NYC Mayor de Blasio “has convened a task force” to address the desnuda crisis. It’s reassuring that New York is so free of serious problems that public officials have time for nipple issues.

* Not Assemblyman Felix “Mr. Nanny State” Ortiz!

Piketty, Inequality, Envy, and Fairness

August 16, 2015

Unknown-1The rich-hating left went orgasmic over Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I previously discussed the controversy. Now I’ve read the book.

Not the thunderbolt of lefty wet dreams, it’s mainly dry economic history and analysis. Much I found interesting and informative. But it’s one of the most poorly organized books I’ve ever read, meandering repetitively to and fro.

Piketty’s big “revealed truth” is r>g – that is, return on capital (r) exceeds economic growth (g), which leads to capital accumulation, and thus rising inequality. His data does show r>g through most of history. Well, not data exactly, but mostly assumptions and estimates. UnknownBut never mind. A bigger problem is that for the last century, 1913-2012, g>r! Piketty says this was due to the 1914-45 “shocks” (wiping out many fortunes) but that past norms are returning. So the future will more resemble the 19th century than the 20th? However, taxes were negligible before the 20th century. Thus in order to project future after-tax r>g, Piketty makes the heroic assumption that taxes on capital and its return will fall to zero! Even while he advocates greater taxation.*

imagesThat r exceeded g through most of history is hardly news because g (economic growth) was practically zero, while capital would nevertheless earn some return, typically farm produce or by lending money at interest. Now we have significant growth that, for the past century at least, has exceeded return on capital. But why let facts spoil a pretty theory?

Inequality may also rise from pay gaps. Piketty focuses on corporate “supermanagers,” whose pay he doubts is justified by merit or productivity. Unknown-2I agree – it’s due to incestuous boards of directors. But even if “supermanager” pay were drastically cut, would that money then flow toward the bottom of the income distribution? Surely not. It would go to shareholders; the rich would still get richer.

Much inequality talk casts the rich as squeezing the share of productivity begrudged to employees. That’s not how the economy works. By and large jobs pay what the market dictates, in order for businesses to attract and keep the needed workforce. They can’t just arbitrarily pay less; but nor can they pay more; if they want to stay competitive and employ anyone at all. Worker pay is not what’s left after the rich have “taken” their “share” (or more than their share).

Piketty’s constant use of the words “take” and “share” implies a zero sum game where one person’s larger share makes others smaller. Similarly, the language of “distribution” implies a pot of pre-existing wealth to be divided up, as though some god ladles out portions. But that’s not how an economy works either. In the main wealth is not “taken” but gained from other people handing it over willingly – in exchange for something (a product or service) they value even more. No zero sum game, that makes everyone richer. The pot grows.

Unknown-3In today’s world, not just “supermanagers” but top performers in any field earn much more than the nearly-as-good. Take LeBron James. It might seem absurd to earn so much for something so meaningless as getting a ball through a hoop. But millions enjoy watching it, and willingly pay, in various ways. So LeBron gets rich. Is that social injustice?

We can debate who deserves what income, and I’d agree with Piketty that much high pay is undeserved. But should it be forcibly confiscated (as Piketty urges) in conformance to those debatable opinions? By what right may I (or anyone) dictate what’s fair for others to earn? I eschew such arrogant presumption.

Meantime Piketty acknowledges that bare mathematical inequality tells us little. In the past a small minority lived well (to the extent technology allowed), while most lived wretchedly. Today the whole picture has shifted dramatically to a higher level of overall societal wealth: the rich are even richer (hence mathematically more unequal), but the rest are much richer too. Indeed, their living standard is actually comparable to that of the past’s wealthiest (if not better, considering health and longevity).** That today’s inequality might mathematically equal 1800’s says nothing.

Yet Piketty writes as though modern inequality exactly parallels that of centuries past. Relative living standards are no part of his analysis. images-2Piketty’s focus is entirely upon the wealthy, analyzing their situation in depth; the non-wealthy are present only as shadows, with no discussion of their situation and its changes. A Martian reading this book would have no idea how much ordinary lives have improved.***

The book indeed omits any analysis of economic inequality’s goodness or badness. The answer might seem self-evident. But clearly, perfect equality of wealth and income would not be just but unjust because different people earn/deserve differing outcomes; not to mention the matter of incentives for people to be productive (hardly theoretical in the experience of communist societies). The real question is what kind of inequality is acceptable. Some writers have attempted to grapple with this, but not Piketty. All he does is to project rising mathematical inequality – which he himself cautions tells us little.

Yet he’s terrified that the 1% will monopolize all wealth, with the 99% having nothing. The absurdity of such dystopian fantasies is simply this: who will buy all the goods and services whose sale undergirds the 1%’s wealth?

Unknown-4Their wealth is not a problem, nor is high inequality, so long as most people can live decent lives; and helping those who can’t does not require knocking down the rich. They don’t get their wealth at the expense of the rest. Steve Jobs impoverished no one but got rich through products that benefited millions. Had he not, all that wealth would not have been “distributed” to others. It would never have existed. Indeed, we would all have been poorer.

This book, obsessed with the rich and oblivious to the lives of others, would be better titled Envy. unknown1 Resentment at others’ success (especially when seemingly undeserved) is a powerful human emotion, often underlying egalitarian politics. Life is unfair, and we must work for fairness – but by building people up, not tearing others down. Envy and fairness don’t mix well.

* Rising inequality is often blamed on tax cuts, the top mid-century U.S. income tax rate having exceeded 90%. But never discussed is what rich people actually paid. Piketty himself notes they can legally avoid having taxable income, allowing returns to accumulate untaxed instead. So in practice nobody ever paid anything like 90%. Yet Piketty forgets this in claiming that lower taxes have raised inequality. (Rich people still pay far the lion’s share of income taxes.)

** This actually applies even to the poorest in advanced societies; especially taking into account government benefits. Today’s U.S. “poverty” line equates to a middle class living standard of just a few decades ago. Poverty ain’t what it used to be. And even in developing countries, the almost universal abject deprivation of the past is inexorably going away, afflicting now only a small minority of world population.

Photo by Walker Evans

Photo by Walker Evans

*** Nor would many Earthlings, romanticizing the “good old days.” But read, for example, Evans and Agee on the extreme poverty of rural 1930s Alabama. The work was grinding; the food disgusting; clothes made from used burlap sacks; copulation the only recreation. And those were white folks.

Are Men Necessary? (Is Hillary?)

August 6, 2015

UnknownWhen I reported buying, at a used book sale, Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? I said I’d let you know the verdict after reading it. I bought it because Dowd is – can I say this? – one bitching writer. In her columns she’s a zingermeister who loves playing with words (though that can get wearying at times).

imagesThe book is basically about what used to be called “the battle of the sexes.” Dowd, calling herself a feminist, unsurprisingly takes the side of women. But she’s an equal-opportunity cynic, skewering both sides of every controversy. While she doesn’t like Clarence Thomas, she thought his feminist critics were disingenuous, using the sexual harassment stuff as cover for what was really a (failed) political take-down. Unknown-1And Dowd is scathing about the hypocrisy of those same feminists, so censorious toward Clarence Thomas, but all too willing, because of politics, to give Bill Clinton a pass regarding Monica (not to mention Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, and Kathleen Willey). Dowd’s chapter on the episode has a pages-long riff about how he became obsessed, deranged, by thoughts of Monica and sex. But it turns out the “he” is Kenneth Starr (Clinton’s prosecutor).

Dowd also drops a dime (writing in 2005) on Hillary. It’s a good reminder (I haven’t forgotten, though most people seem to have) about all the unseemliness: the mysterious profits trading commodities futures; her healthcare debacle; images-1and how on leaving the White House the Clintons “backed up the truck” and made off with $86,000 worth of furnishings. Et cetera. Dowd doesn’t even mention the mystery of the subpoenaed Rose Law Firm records, the Marc Rich pardon, the Lincoln Bedroom, and to me the most disgraceful of all, Travelgate.)

If you’re counting, that’s eleven past scandals (not even considering Whitewater, or the new one, e-mailgate). Do we really want these grifters back in the White House?

But the book is mainly about the male/female thing. images-2One chapter concerns orgasms, with Dowd wondering why women have them at all, evolutionarily speaking, since they’re unnecessary for procreation. She winds up theorizing that it makes women favor men considerate enough to pleasure them, who will probably be better daddies too. But my wife pointed out that orgasmic contractions help move sperm toward the business end of the plumbing. Unknown-2And I thought Dowd missed the most obvious explanation: orgasms make women want to copulate. (Any Muslim practitioner of female genital mutilation would have told her that.)

Here’s an example of Dowd’s sardonic style: “deep down, beneath the bluster and machismo, men are simply afraid to say that what they’re truly looking for in a woman is an intelligent, confident and dependable partner in life whom they can devote themselves to unconditionally until she’s forty.”

That’s a good description of my own marriage, minus the last bit (at 56, my wife is still a keeper). But it may be true for the kinds of people Dowd hangs out with in her high-powered life as a big-time syndicated columnist.

Unknown-3This was a problem I had throughout the book. For example, Dowd talks about cosmetic reparation, like Botox, which everybody now does – everybody – men included. Well, maybe everybody in Maureen Dowd’s fey cocktail party milieu. But she has nothing to say to, or about, ordinary “everyday” folks. The book is mildly amusing, but if you want to find out whether men are necessary on Main Street, look elsewhere.

House of Sand and Fog

August 2, 2015

UnknownMassoud Behrani, 56, is a California garbage man. He used to be an air force colonel; in Iran; fled with his family when Khomeini took over. A man accustomed to deference, now he works demeaning jobs while running through the family’s savings to keep up appearances of prosperity for the sake of his daughter’s marriageability.

This 1999 novel, by Andre Dubus III, starts off when a life-changing break comes. Unknown-1With the last of his funds, he manages to buy a nice bungalow very cheaply at auction, after the county seized it for nonpayment of taxes. Behrani believes he can triple his money and use this as a springboard into a dignified real estate business.

But . . .

Then we meet the property’s dispossessed former owner: Kathy, 36, with a history of substance abuse which she seems to have more or less overcome. Her husband (whom she met in rehab) has left her, and she is hunkered down, just trying to hold things together. When she’s dunned for a puzzling business tax, she goes to the county and files paperwork explaining she owes no such tax. Thinking that’s the end of it, Kathy discards, unopened, subsequent letters from the county tax office.

imagesOne lesson of this book is: don’t ignore mail from tax authorities.

So Kathy suddenly finds herself ousted from her home by sheriff’s deputies. She goes to a legal aid lawyer. Turns out the county screwed up, big time: had the wrong address. But Behrani insists he’s now the legal owner, won’t budge, and tells her she should go sue the county.

A fine mess. Dilemmas of justice are often not right against wrong but right against right. Behrani isn’t entirely in the right, but he has so much invested in this bungalow, not just money but hopes and dreams, that his unwillingness to kiss it off is at least totally understandable.

Of course, this story is only beginning, and portends no good outcome. Especially once Lester is in the picture.

Unknown-2He’s one of the deputies, and he’s really fallen for Kathy. They commence an affair. Lester feels ready to ditch wife and kids for her. And he wants to help get her house back.

Things “spiraling out of control” is a cliché, but that’s what happens. One thing leads to another. Lester is not a bad person – actually noble in some ways. Nor is he a psychological “case.” Just a pretty normal, ordinary guy. But one thing does lead to another.

Yet I had trouble quite buying it. I know how good people can have lapses of judgment – been there and done that myself in fact. And up to a point Lester’s actions almost make sense, until they don’t. Finally he crosses the line and does something he absolutely shouldn’t. I thought an inner voice ought to have screamed No! But I guess, in the moment, people can ignore such voices. And the reader, already suspecting this story won’t end well, now knows it will end very badly indeed.

Unknown-3Storytelling is as old as language. Something in us craves it. Why? We evolved as the most social of creatures, our very lives dependent upon interaction with others. And it’s to help in that, to help us understand people, that we love stories. It’s why we read books like this: to understand a little better what makes people tick.

Yet ironically it often makes me feel like a Martian. One thing we do when reading a story is to compare ourselves to its characters, measuring ourselves and our lives against them and theirs. And it’s like I live in a bubble, antiseptically, cordoned off from real life lived by real people, like those in House of Sand and Fog.*

 But maybe it’s just that I had the operatic drama in my own life decades ago – so long ago that it’s as though it happened to a different person.

images-1* Recently I ate dinner at a bar (long story), next to two guys who, fueled by more beers than I could imagine drinking, were having heated guy talk. Very ordinary guys. And again, beside them, I felt totally like a visitor from Mars.

The $15 Minimum Wage – Money From Heaven

July 29, 2015

UnknownDo you favor a $15 minimum wage? Nobody asks where the money comes from. Heaven, I guess.

We’re told that if you give low wage workers more cash they’ll spend it, great for the economy. As though it’s free money.

Unknown-2

 

Or else the money is imagined to come out of business profits. When pigs fly. It will actually come from higher prices. And since low wage industries (like fast food) often serve poorer people, the extra money earned by low wage workers will ultimately come from . . . low wage workers.

Economics 101 says that when prices rise, demand falls. Raise the price of low skilled labor, and businesses will buy less of it. They’ll seek ways to automate instead (more self-service checkout machines if cashiers become too expensive, for example), which is already happening. imagesHigher minimum wages can only accelerate that – bad news for low skilled workers – who, once unemployed, often stay unemployed.

People imagine businesses can just pay more because they have profits to spare. In reality, profit margins tend to be pretty thin – like around 3% of sales for supermarkets. There’s no room for fat because in a globalized economy every business competes with every other. McDonald’s doesn’t compete just against Burger King and Wendy’s, but every other food option including home cooking – and indeed against every other conceivable product people could decide to buy in lieu of big macs. So prices must be kept as low as possible. Force prices up, due to higher minimum wages, and a business may become non-competitive. Bye bye jobs.

Yet defying this economic logic, advocates of higher minimum wages claim studies show they don’t actually kill jobs. Maybe so – in the short term at least – and if the rise is small, staying under 50% of median wages. But $15 would double the minimum wage, to 77% of the median. The long term impact on low-skill jobs is frightening.

Unknown-3We’re also told government is in effect subsidizing businesses like McDonald’s, that don’t pay a living wage, with food stamps and so forth filling the gap. That’s twisted logic. After all, plenty of people who get food stamps earn nothing. So you could equally say McDonald’s payrolls actually reduce what government must provide. Anyway, we give food stamps, and other welfare, because we as a society deem it the right thing to do. We shouldn’t expect (or force) private companies to do that for us.

In fact, higher minimum wages are an ineffective way to combat poverty. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 20% of the income benefits would go to those below the poverty line. (Most minimum wage workers are not primary family breadwinners.) So programs like food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, are much better targeted for helping the poor – without pricing low skill workers out of the market.

But New York State is currently in a paroxysm of political pandering on this issue. Governor Cuomo set up a board to assess fast food minimum wages. Legions of workers duly came and testified that $15 would be peachy. The outcome was pre-ordained. Our local Times-Union has denounced it – because the $15 wage will be phased in, not immediate!

Never mind the absurdity of singling out one category of jobs (and, unfairly, only in chain restaurants). Or how “fast food” can actually be defined. Unknown-4Or that New York, due to high taxes, already high unionized wage costs and other costs of all kinds, and the most burdensome bureaucratic regulation, is just about the least economically competitive state in the union, making large swathes of upstate into job deserts.

Politicians in this free-money fantasyland will never have to answer for the economic consequences. Voters won’t connect the $15 minimum wage with unemployment higher than it would otherwise have been. Just as public officials don’t answer for all the other ways they’ve run the state’s economy into a ditch. Indeed, the resulting tough economic conditions just encourage more populist politics, preening “compassion” and doubling down with yet more of the economic follies that got us here.*

I too have compassion for fast food workers, and wish they could earn more. It’s a hard life, and I’m lucky to be spared it. (Though I did work one very crummy job in my teens.) But the answer is not to wave a magic wand and expect Heaven to cough up the cash. Instead it’s to stop making it harder and costlier for businesses to operate. images-1And to make sure more people get the education they need for decent jobs – at least finish high school (too many don’t). A key reason fast food jobs pay so little is because there’s a vast oversupply of poorly educated people to fill them.

* Like rent control — more effective than bombing for destroying affordable housing.

America’s Streets Are Not Paved With Gold

July 23, 2015

imagesThis poem came to me during July 4 fireworks surrounded by thousands of fellow citizens of every hue and stripe gathered in joyful celebration of America – right after I heard a radio program about the long desperate struggle of a Somali refugee in Kenya to get a U.S. visa.*

 

 

They said America’s streets are paved with gold.
It wasn’t true; it was a lie.
And even if they had been paved with gold,
What good would that do anyone?Unknown
Walking on golden streets
Won’t make you rich.
It won’t rub off on you.
You couldn’t pick it up and spend it.
Couldn’t eat it.

 

Yet still they come,
Knowing that America’s streets
Are paved instead with good will;
Are paved with live and let live;
With energy, imagination, grit, and spunk.

 

America’s streets are paved
With positive attitudes;
By people who say
The difficult we do at once;
The impossible takes a little longer.

 

America’s streets are pavedUnknown-1
By people who work at paving them
To make their own lives better
Through making life better
For other people,
Giving others roads to travel.

 

America’s streets are paved with mistakes
That we strive always to make right;
Streets where we take one step back,
And then go two steps forward.

 

America’s streets are paved
With Truth, Reason, Freedom, and Justice;
Streets that are full of potholes,
In this imperfect worldimages-1
Of imperfect souls.
Yet these paths will take us far,
Paving the way for all the world,
Paving our way to the stars.

* His name is Abdi Iftin, and if you’d like to contribute toward his college education, here is a Paypal link.
And here’s a picture he sent me, of him in Maine:

Abdi

 

 

What Is a Business For? Is Profit a Dirty Word?

July 15, 2015

UnknownAt a recent social event, most guests sanctimoniously agreed it was somehow disgusting that anyone should make a profit providing health care. One woman said she had no problem with a store profiting from selling sweaters; but no one should profit from people’s hardship or suffering. I frankly thought that bizarre. Isn’t the relief of suffering a greater boon, more worthy of compensation, and incentivizing, than merely supplying sweaters? I sure as heck didn’t begrudge the profit of the dentist who cured my tooth ache; that’s what motivates people to go to dental school, invest in offices and equipment, hire staff, etc., to provide such service. Nor do I resent the profits of the pharmaceutical company producing the medicine that makes my wife’s life livable.

Unknown-1Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.” But what is a business for? There are two schools of thought. One says a business’s only purpose is to make money for shareholders (the owners) and anything detracting from that is indeed a dereliction of its primary duty. The other side says a business should serve the interests of all “stakeholders” affected by its doings – including employees, customers, and the broader public. They note that in olden times a business seeking a corporate charter from the state (allowing limited liability for shareholders) was required in exchange to have a public benefit purpose. But that model was dropped in the 19th century in Britain and America, allowing corporations to be chartered just to do business.

Thus critics of capitalism talk as though the first side won the argument and businesses do exist solely for profit – in disregard of any other consideration – and hence are ipso facto a menace. For example, Naomi Klein, whose recent book I reviewed, seemingly thinks profit is the sole reason energy companies extract fossil fuels – the fact that society uses, needs, fossil fuels doesn’t enter into it. As if, remove the profits, and no extraction would occur.

imagesThis tells us there’s something incomplete in the view of businesses as solely profit maximizing creatures. It leaves out the way they do that – by supplying something beneficial to customers*, creating value greater than what is paid (of course some predatory businesses do the opposite, but that’s cheating). The point is epitomized by Steve Jobs. He made tons of money, but that wasn’t his ultimate objective – rather, the profits were what enabled him to perfect products useful to purchasers. That was his true motivation.

People who bought his products valued them more than the money spent. That difference, or surplus value, created by Jobs, increased societal wealth. Had he never existed, all those people would have been worse off. His wealth would not have been somehow distributed among them; it would never have existed either. This is what the 99%-vs.-1% mentality misses.

Today it’s more true than ever that business is really all about customer value, with the internet leveling the competitive playing field, giving consumers far more choices and access to information. A business whose products aren’t great, that doesn’t satisfy customers, will not survive.

Anyhow, it’s too simplistic to say (legitimate) businesses are only concerned with profit. The real world isn’t like that. It’s certainly untrue to say they care only about shareholder returns. Shareholder ownership is merely notional; in reality a corporation owns itself, buying shares merely entitles one to certain rights, while management isn’t meaningfully beholden or accountable to shareholders, instead running the company for its own purposes. And while a firm’s profitability does benefit managers, mainly they care about profits because profits advance their other agendas (a la Steve Jobs).

Unknown-2Also, speaking of the real world, corporate denizens are human beings, and while money is surely a big motivator, nobody is exclusively mercenary. Another big motivator is how one appears to other people – and in the mirror. Most of us want to be seen as doing good, and even to actually do it. Back in the ‘70s I was a regulatory lawyer battling Con Edison over its rates. The company was in financial trouble; and I actually felt management was betraying shareholder interests to bend over backward for consumers.

images-2Corporate greed? It’s not so simple.

At the end of the day, the most successful and profitable businesses are those that are best at creating customer value – which of course means societal value. Adam Smith wrote of the market’s “invisible hand” thusly benefiting society. I heard a radio commentator say Smith might have been right in his simpler time (1700s) but not in today’s world rife with inequality. Really? In Smith’s day, the great mass of humanity everywhere lived in squalid poverty – whereas in the last century, worldwide average real dollar incomes quintupled. That colossal fact is not negated by the inequality of the few with great wealth. They haven’t stopped billions of people from seeing a quantum leap in living standards in modern times. And that vast enrichment is nothing other than the cumulation of customer value created by businesses seeking to profit thereby – i.e., free market capitalism. A stunning vindication of Adam Smith and his invisible hand.images-1

* To quote management guru Peter Drucker, “There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer.”

Pope Francis: Is Consumerism Bad?

July 11, 2015

imagesPope Francis has denounced consumerism as a “poison” that threatens true happiness, and is an assault upon the poor. What does he say does bring true happiness? Faith in a nonexistent deity. The bit about the poor is equally fallacious.

I’m going to repeat here what turned out to be one of my most-visited blog posts ever, from December 2008, titled “Is Consumerism Bad?” —

Ellen Goodman, in her 12/15 column, is one of those rejoicing that materialist consumerism, at which they’ve always sneered, is falling victim to the recession, as people cut back spending. They applaud this as a simply wonderful retrenchment, a return to sanity and virtue.

But why are we in a recession? Because people are cutting back spending. None of the other factors would actually cause a recession if they weren’t causing spending cutbacks. When people buy less, businesses need to produce less, so they need fewer employees. So people lose their jobs; then they too will spend less; so then even more people lose their jobs. And Ellen Goodman thinks this is a good thing?

“Materialist consumerism” is people buying stuff that other people think they shouldn’t. But a free society has to mean people pursuing happiness by doing things–like spending their own money as they choose–that others disapprove. Some social critics just hate this. They’d prefer it if right-thinking moralists like them got to tell everyone else how to live.

Such people, like Goodman, do believe that an economy based on consumerism is somehow an offense against virtue. But what else, actually, could any economy be based on? The “economy” means you produce goods and services that I buy, and I produce stuff that you buy; which makes us both better off. That production of things people want is the source of all wealth and income, our entire standard of living. It doesn’t come from heaven, or “society,” or government. You may sneer at consumerism, but you don’t want consumers to stop buying what you yourself are employed to produce; you’d be out of a job. And if all consumerism stopped, we’d all be out of jobs.

Christians, Gays, and Sin

July 5, 2015

UnknownEven before the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, I wrote that gays (and the left in general), having basically won this fight, should ease up and be magnanimous, allowing their beaten foes some space for living their beliefs – just as, for years, gays begged for that themselves. The principles of tolerance and pluralism run both ways. But many on the left act as though only their freedoms matter.

On the other hand, some anti-gay and Christian advocates seem to have become unhinged. Listening to them you’d think anti-gayness is the very heart of their religion. As if the Bible’s main message is gay-bashing.

imagesMore generally, the Christian side in the “culture wars” of recent decades seems to exhibit an obsession with sex (as David Brooks discusses in an excellent recent column). These folks do a great disservice to their faith. No wonder younger people, with more relaxed attitudes, are abandoning traditional religion in droves.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m no fan of religion, but surely it has a better story to tell that is getting lost in all the noise about gay sex. This meshugass makes religion even more absurd than it was already.

The Obergefell gay marriage decision is not going to become another divisive Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t surprising that Roe provoked a huge backlash, since that ruling was legally, culturally, and morally weak. Legally, because its dicey “privacy” theory was not in the Constitution; culturally because the country wasn’t ready for it; and morally there were reasonable, deeply felt arguments against it.

Unknown-4In contrast, there are no good moral arguments against gay marriage. Just because the Bible says something is wrong doesn’t make it so. Christians choose to ignore many of the Bible’s outlandish, atavistic pronouncements (like gathering sticks on the Sabbath also being a sin punishable by death). The true moral criterion (rationally speaking) is whether anyone is harmed, and gay sex and marriage harm no one.

I do not dismiss the dissenters’ contention that this should have been decided by democratic processes, not judicial fiat; I so argued myself, a few years ago. However, I have come around to the Court majority’s view that “equal protection of the laws” properly applies here. Thus Obergefell has much stronger legal legitimacy than Roe did. As for democracy, it seems more like the court was bending to popular opinion than defying it. The nation was ready for this.

images-1The argument that it opens the door to polygamy and so forth is ridiculous. There are sound social policy reasons to ban polygamy (we wouldn’t want Donald Trump hogging all the women – though perhaps any who would join his harem are best left out of the marriage pool anyway). Gay marriage, in contrast, is a positive societal good, with no downsides. More child-friendly two-parent families will help counter the decline of traditional marriage and the resulting social dysfunction.

All this suggests that Christian resistance is not only a lost cause* but a very bad one. Surely religious believers can find better things to talk about than what married people do in bed. Aren’t there worse sins in the world to get upset about than (a small minority of) people loving the “wrong” partners?

Unknown-3I’ve never understood anyway why Christians get so manic about other people’s sins. If they truly are sinful, they’ll simply go to Hell, no? Why isn’t that the end of the story?

Worry about your own sins.

* Who are they kidding, talking of a constitutional amendment? Hello, it would need ratification by 38 states – whereas nationwide public opinion goes the other way.

Introverts versus Extroverts – A Personal Take

July 1, 2015

imagesAre you an introvert or extrovert? I sure know which I am. (Why do you think I’m sitting here by myself writing a blog?)

One of my book groups has read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The basic theme is that introverts aren’t defective, just different, indeed in some ways superior, and the world can benefit from that. There are more introverts than you think; many hide it.

I believe we read books like this to better understand people, but especially to find ourselves in their pages, and ponder the comparisons and contrasts with others. Certainly true for me. I had many flashes of recognition reading Cain’s book.

A repeated motif is how introverted children and youths suffer, trying to fit in. This I did not experience at all. Why? I think I was such an extreme introvert, so socially isolated, that other kids, and their attitude toward me, just didn’t matter to me; hardly even registered with me. Maybe that was good because I grew up uninjured. Albeit socially clueless.

UnknownOne take-away from the book is that it’s complicated. There are so many convoluted and seemingly contradictory points about intro/extroversion that one’s head spins. It’s no clear-cut, either/or thing. It’s a spectrum, and moreover, what Cain calls intro- and extroversion each entails such a host of disparate characteristics that any given person can mix-and-match.

Surely true of me, despite my childhood. I’m not a down-the-line introvert (or libertarian or conservative). But I do tick a lot of the boxes. One in the book that really rang my bell: “I often prefer to express myself in writing.” images-1Bingo! E.g., this blog again. But it also brought to mind how often in my romantic history I’d felt compelled to take pen to paper, composing some immensely long screed trying to set things right with a woman. (It never worked, except for the last time.)

One introvert profiled in the book, who experienced childhood agony, but wound up successful and happy, says he frequently imagines going back to tell his nine-year-old self how well it will all turn out. Another flash of recognition for me: I do this too. But for my self in my twenties. If I didn’t suffer as a kid, I did then – over women. images-2So I like to go back and tell that earlier self about the fantastic wife he’ll wind up with. I even show him a photo. (But, unlike the guy in the book, I don’t think the message actually got through.)

Another profile, of an introvert-and-extrovert married couple, also gave me an aha! moment, and fresh insight concerning my relationship with Pam, who lived with me unhappily and finally left after twelve years. She was initially attracted to me because I did something much out of character (as a “bad boy;” I’ve written about this), but I didn’t live up to the promise of that episode, and she came to peg me, understandably, at the wrong end of the cold/hot spectrum. Interestingly, that needle moved in my favor (temporarily) when, toward the end, I again did something uncharacteristically hot blooded – a play for another woman. But meantime, our frequent quarrels much resembled those of the couple in the book. Pam was a volatile let-loose type, whereas I, always futilely seeking to dampen conflict, would try to be as restrained as possible in responding. This actually drove her nuts – just like the husband in the book.

So – how did the ultra-introvert child become a seemingly more or less almost normal adult? The book talks a lot about the coping strategies of introverts for achieving their goals, mostly faking extroversion at times. But in my own case, my saving grace was ultra-rationalism. Whereas the book portrays introverts as often struggling with fears, phobias, and anxieties, I never did. Unknown-1A salient example is the extremely common fear of appearing in public. I’ve done it fairly often; I know I’m okay at it; so I’ve never had any stage fright. I think I’m really good at sizing up risks rationally and seeing them in proper perspective.

(Not that I claim perfect, consistent rationality. E.g., with Pam; and (see below) my career choice.)

The book makes a strong case for free will – emotions may be hard to control, but we can and do control our behavior. Introverts especially, tending to be sensitive and reflective. When I finally got out of school (and, importantly, my parents’ home), like many introverts I changed my behavior to get what I wanted. It wasn’t a social life, exactly; what I wanted was girls. Unknown-2So I started doing social things, to meet them (this was pre-Tinder); and brazenly asking out any girl on any pretext. If she laughed in my face (it happened), would it be The End Of The World? That was again my ultra-rationalism at work, figuring the potential gains outweighed the costs. (Though it did take persistence, it paid off in the end, with a jackpot.)

Career is a particular problem for introverts, in a world where “hail fellow well met” is the ideal and flash often trumps substance. While one can, again, fake it, up to a point, the book emphasizes that there are actually a lot of ways for introverts to succeed. It profiles one classic introvert who became a super salesman – basically by perfecting the art of listening to customers. The thing is to seek a career path that actually fits one’s personality type. imagesI became a lawyer – a big mistake of my clueless youth – yet luckily stumbled into a job where most of my work was solitary. (No law firm would hire me; I must have been abysmal in interviews.) Later I stumbled into a different remunerative career (coin dealer) where I rarely even have to encounter other humans in the flesh. Perfect!


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