RESTLESS

Posted in Rants on July 30th, 2014 by Ed

I live in an economically depressed Rust Belt city. One of the things that came as a shock for the first few months was the vast quantity of able bodied adults who spend normal business hours wandering the city doing god-knows-what. This is to be expected, of course, given that there are hardly any jobs to be had here and even fewer worth having. Like most places that fall on hard times, there is a powerful feeling of idleness here (which I contribute to during the summer months by working without a fixed schedule). I might be making unwarranted assumptions; for example, some of the people doing nothing in particular by day may work at night. Nonetheless, let's tilt the rhetorical playing field in favor of the "Get a job, you bums!" argument and assume that they're unemployed.

We are told constantly that even if the jobs available are minimum wage, 30 hour per week ones that won't earn us enough to meet ends, we should work to experience the "dignity of work." I've been hearing that phrase since I was old enough to understand it. Paul Ryan likes to say it a lot, as does any other right-wing gasbag worth his think tank paychecks. The theory appears to be that even if you're staggeringly poor, you should work because, like, it will build your character or something. You'll feel rewarded and motivated and productive and then your life will start to improve. I think. The trope is usually followed with a reminder that the Economics for Tots version of capitalism dictates that if you work hard, your rewards will increase over time.

Whenever I hear this I wonder if anyone – rich, poor, Unitarian, etc. – actually feels this way. Is the feeling we have at our jobs accurately described as "dignity"? Most jobs, especially the service industry type most likely available in a place like this, treat people with the antithesis of dignity. They are degrading, occasionally humiliating. Your employer and the people you serve will both treat you like shit a lot of the time. And you will find that, surprisingly, working harder doesn't necessarily lead to making more money or getting a less terrible job. Working harder just makes your employer better off. Even if the job is pleasant you'll find that living on minimum wage isn't exactly a dignified experience.

Look, I get it. I get the Protestant Ethic thing, the idea that being productive in some way is good for us. Personally I find being inactive, unproductive, and idle to be tremendously depressing. I feel bad about myself when it happens. At the same time, we should all feel comfortable embracing the fact that jobs are mostly terrible. Working may give us dignity, but being at work certainly doesn't. A job is a thing we do to make a living, not a conduit for spiritual advancement. Reducing unemployment would be great, but can we drop the Cotton Mather bullshit?

The most obvious flaw in the "dignity of work" argument (aside from the reality of how little actual work the super-wealthy do on a daily basis) is embedded in conservatives' own rhetoric about minimum wage employment. These jobs, they remind us, are not really meant to provide someone with a living. Fast food and retail jobs are for high school kids to make some extra spending money part time for a few years before moving on to something more substantial. To close the circle of illogic, then, the people I see wandering around at 2 PM on a Tuesday afternoon should go get a job at McDonald's to experience the Dignity of Work, even though that job does not, and is not intended to, pay enough for an adult to make a living. Cool.

I'd agree that work, in the sense of a purpose or goal toward which we direct ourselves, contributes to giving life meaning and purpose. There is dignity to be found in that kind of work. What people like Paul Ryan do is conflate "work" and "job", distorting the phrase to the point of making it meaningless at best and false at worst. If anyone has found dignity in waiting tables at Denny's and getting stiffed on tips I'd like to meet them.

SCATTERSHOT

Posted in Rants on July 28th, 2014 by Ed

I have a sincere question for concealed/open carry advocates or anyone else who cares to hazard a guess.

This is going to require one assumption – that the point of carrying a gun, concealed or otherwise, is to have it available for self defense (mugging, etc.) or to intervene in a Virginia Tech-type spree shooting incident. You know, the Heroic Bystander, Good Guy With Gun Stops Bad Guy With Gun thing the NRA and its water-carriers are always talking about.

As we are constantly reminded from casually following the news over time, The Police aren't great shots. Perhaps they are the best possible shots under the circumstances in which they shoot, but even if so the statistics show that their best is pretty bad. It is hard to find comprehensive statistics on police discharging their guns, so information from the FBI and individual departments has to stand in. Consider this:

According to a 2008 RAND Corporation study evaluating the New York Police Department’s firearm training, between 1998 and 2006, the average hit rate during gunfights was just 18 percent. When suspects did not return fire, police officers hit their targets 30 percent of the time.

This is particularly alarming when one considers that:

The NYPD has some of the most comprehensive and sophisticated firearms training of any police force in the country, using a combination of live fire, non-lethal force and simulated scenarios.

It stands to reason that officers in smaller departments with fewer resources and less rigorous training would fare worse. However, lacking better data let us assume that the NYPD numbers – about 1 in 5 bullets in firefights and 1 in 3 otherwise – are roughly representative of the nation. This likely gives cops more credit for accuracy than they deserve, but let's run with it.

The majority of bullets that miss the intended target presumably hit nothing, and a minority of them hit bystanders. The reverse could not be true unless the police fired into a densely packed crowd, which is possible but unlikely. This is to say that police inaccuracy creates some non-zero risk for bystanders and the public in general. Missed shots, in short, are a bad thing.

The police have many, many benefits that a civilian carrier would not. Their firearms, if we use the NYPD as an example, are expensive automatic pistols designed for accuracy (limiting recoil, for example) and in calibers (9mm, .380 ACP, etc.) chosen specifically to avoid over-penetration (Which concealed carriers also tend to avoid. Zing!) if the bullet misses the target. The police, in other words, are shooting with weapons chosen specifically, usually through extensive trials and testing, to give them the greatest possible chance of hitting the target and not harming anyone else. They're not blazing away with .44 and .357 revolvers like in the cop movies from the 1970s. Check out the prices on the handguns your local PD uses – usually H&K, Sig, or Glock. Not cheap, are they?

So. With everything factored in to maximize accuracy, the police are still really goddamn inaccurate.

At long last we come to my question: If this is the police performance, how accurate do you think civilian carriers would be in any situation in which using their gun was justified? Let's say a mugger accosts them in a dark street or a man with a gun starts shooting up their office building.

In contrast to the police, civilian shooters have no formal training for using a gun in a "live", stressful situation. Often they have no formal training, period. Civilian shooters also have a variety of weapons ranging from state-of-the-art to Grandpappy's Old Six Shooter. They also have a tendency to own, and perhaps carry, firearms that are ludicrously overpowered for any practical use. Flip through a handgun magazine at the bookstore and look at some of the shit being advertised and written about. My stepbrother has a Desert Eagle. The last time I went to a shooting range, one of my acquaintances was plugging away with a .454 Casull revolver suitable for killing elephants or shooting down Russian helicopters. Anecdotes? Yes. Rare? I doubt it.

Leaving aside the question of how the police are supposed to tell The Shooter apart from a civilian carrier who is plugging away in the middle of a spree shooting, what percentage of bullets fired by bystanders can we expect to hit an intended target rather than coming to some other, potentially dangerous end? It's hard to imagine how they could conceivably exceed the performance of the police – performing under duress is a bitch, after all – so that 18% figure for the NYPD would seem to be the absolute upper limit.

My guess (and I'd love to know if any data are available) that something on the order of 5% of bullets fired by non-law enforcement shooters hit the intended target. I'm inclined to guess lower, but since we're being generous with the police figures let's extend the same courtesy to carriers.

NPF: CAN'T LOSE 'EM ALL

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 24th, 2014 by Ed

I wouldn't describe myself as a lucky person. Don't misunderstand, I am extremely fortunate in the opportunities I have been given in life and things of that nature. But luck? Nope. I'm terrible at the random-events type of luck. Never win anything in games of chance. Never have random encounters that lead to wacky adventures. Never shop on the day where everything happens to be 50% off. Never find $20 lying on the ground. So be it.

For more than a decade I have been trying to concoct a reason to travel to Cloquet, Minnesota. It's a town of 12,000 people halfway between Minneapolis and Duluth, not one of the more trafficked areas in this great land. Only a few of you will recognize the name for any reason other than living in the immediate area. Cloquet is the location of the R.W. Lindholm gas station, the only extant part of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City utopia (and, it goes almost without saying, his only gas station). I've driven unreasonable distances to see FLW structures in the past, but ten to twelve hours one-way to see a gas station seems a little excessive even for me.

Right now I'm in Erie, PA – Not because I lost a bet, which I assume is the most common reason someone goes to Erie, PA – on my way to Cooperstown to see White Sox legend Frank Thomas inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. On Friday I will drive right past Buffalo, NY. And by random luck, the Pierce-Arrow Museum (a defunct manufacturer of early 20th Century luxury cars) in Buffalo has opened a licensed (those of you who are fans know the Gestapo-like zeal of the FLW Foundation for preventing unauthorized adaptations of The Great Man's work) full-sized construction of Wright's service station design. It hasn't been on display for very long, and I found out about it last week completely by chance. While the score remains lopsided, tally one for Ed in the battle against bad fortune.

Remember that post from a few months ago about how I don't know how to have fun? Well relax, everyone. I think you can see that I've got it all figured out.

PHRASING

Posted in Rants on July 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Higher Ed administrators are, bluntly, the worst people on Earth. Take everything obnoxious about the MBA and law school types, give them no relevant skills other than self-promotion, pay them exorbitantly, and give them jobs consisting mostly of filling their own time with endless Meetings and Committees. It is a high six-figure "Dig hole, fill hole" job, yet by and large they seem to think they are brilliant and important because, hey, they don't merely work at a university, they're in charge of it. Picture a baby in a car seat using a toy steering wheel to pretend to drive a car. Pay it $250,000 per year and call it Associate Dean of Development, teach it outdated 90s business school jargon, and you've got yourself the perfect administrator.

Sure, some Deans and Presidents and Provosts are great. They're brilliant and have vision. For the most part, though, it is just staggering how ignorant they are as a whole. If you want to learn a lot about which online schools or public university system branch campuses are offering the best deals on tuition and the easiest classes, peruse the CV of the higher ups at any university. Like all people who aren't terribly bright, they're incredibly tone deaf. They don't quite understand why everyone dislikes them so much, being incapable of differentiating between things to say with the Inside and Outside voices.

This Chronicle piece from the always hilarious "Provost Prose" column has made the rounds recently as an example of just how utterly clueless and tone deaf the academic One Percent can be:

My wife and I gave our daughter a choice for her sixteenth birthday. If she wanted, she could have a party or we could go on a family cruise. Deep down I was hoping she would select the cruise but my wife and I were both very careful not to have our choices influence the conversation. I was very pleased when the choice was a cruise but then there was a major surprise. She would like her birthday cruise to be the same islands cruise we took as a family six years ago.
I tried to convince her to select another cruise destination. The 2008 cruise was terrific but there were still so many places for all of us to see that I didn't want to consider a repeat prior to visiting more places for the first time. But since this was my daughter's cruise, we went with her decision.

But there were differences worth noting the second time around. The ship hadn't changed much and the itinerary/tours hardly changed at all but what did change made the experience even more special. The staff seemed noticeably more positive and supportive. Last time, this wasn't a strong point; this time it helped enhance the experience. And the food was also noticeably better, both the buffet style food as well as the specialty restaurants. There was even one outstanding chocolate dessert which always resonates well with me. The entertainment was also more substantial. Overall, even though so much remained the same, the changes noticeably enriched the experience.

In the cruising business as well as in higher education and almost all other businesses, it is often the little touches that make the difference between an OK or good experience and a memorable experience. The overall experience matters most but customer satisfaction is often determined at the margin. Small changes can make meaningful differences. Some of these changes cost money, others are cost neutral. For those of us in higher education, even when our programs are strong it is worth the extra time and effort to see what can be strengthened.

Where to start.

Perhaps, as we approach the tenth birthday of the era of furloughs and frozen salaries, it is not the best idea to write a column about how as the Provost you give your brat teenager birthday gifts that cost many thousands of dollars. When the faculty and staff have gone six years without a raise (or are getting their 0.5% annual pittance increase) and tuition goes up 5-10% every year, you might think twice about advertising your own largesse. If you were smart. Instead of a Monty Python parody of an Upper Class Twit.

Additionally, even if well meaning, perhaps a pleasure cruise is not the best metaphor for the college educational experience. We're supposed to want them to learn something, right? Not merely to be entertained? But…

…administrators really do buy the "Student as Customer" "business model" for higher education. The student pays (more accurately, either the student loan programs or the Bank of Daddy pays) and we are supposed to fawning serve them not unlike dining hall staff on one of Carnival's pestilent shit-barges. Is everyone here having enough fun? What can I do to make your college experience more fun, Allyssonn?

If you want to know everything that is wrong with higher education without having to do copious research, just bookmark this page and remind yourself that people like this are running it.

GHOSTS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 22nd, 2014 by Ed

On a long drive to the Gulf Coast a few weeks ago I happened to drive right past Leakesville, Mississippi. This would be of no interest to me or anyone else ordinarily, but Leakesville is the final resting place of Bill Hicks. Now, Mr. Hicks was an important figure in my life even though I never met him. My respect for him goes a bit beyond Fandom or "He's a comedian I really like." So I considered it obvious that I should stop to pay my respects.

Briefly, Leakesville, MS is a goddamn dump.

In my travels through 49 of the 50 states (I'll get you, Alaska) I've been through hundreds of Leakesvilles and so have you. The rusted-out farm implements / hardware store announces the beginning of the town and its end is marked by the combination gas station / Subway. Between those navigational aids you find a handful of churches, one or two dilapidated bars, and mostly deserted houses of the pre-WWII vintage. Despite having only a few hundred or thousand residents there are three or four pharmacies in town to tend to the elderly and a not-incidental number of prescription opiate addicts. If anything else is open for business – and that is a big If – it is a rehabilitation center to help old people move their withered limbs and wheeze through their Winston-stained lungs for another year or two. The only thing in the town that looks like it could withstand a stiff breeze is the Post Office (or on the Plains, the USDA office). The population consists of people under 18 waiting to escape and old people waiting to die.

Census after census we see that small towns are dying all over the country. Very few Americans live in them anymore. Once the current cohort of elderly stragglers dies, they will be abandoned for all intents and purposes. From that perspective I can never figure out why we venerate these places. They are, by nearly any criteria, terrible. And more importantly, they're already shells of their former selves. It is as if we have some kind of collective hysteria in which we pretend that Small Town America is a thing even though it is about as real as the Wild West at this point.

Even in so-called rural states, the majority of the population now lives in urban settings (including suburbs). The election year pandering to "hard working Americans" and good ol' salt of the Earth types (read: white and white, respectively) is indicative of nothing more than lazy, Beltway-centric media coverage that relies on tired tropes and is aimed at an intended audience with an average age of about 70. Even those elderly news viewers are increasingly urbanized, unless anyone out there considers southern retirement meccas to be small towns.

Every election year – and more accurately, every time I take a long drive through the back roads – I am baffled by our obsession with the idea of small towns. We might as well be holding tight to the idea of Conestoga wagons. If it's anything other than a yearning for the idealized version of the 1950s Norman Rockwell America that never was and actually kinda sucked if you weren't white and male, I don't know what it could be.

OWN IT

Posted in Rants on July 20th, 2014 by Ed

In ten-plus years of regularly updating this site I can't remember having written a single thing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. If I have, it escapes my unusually detailed memory in matters like this. I see the conflict as essentially intractable, with Israeli politics driven by right-wing militant assholes who look, act, and sound exactly like the right-wing militant assholes we have here in America (which explains the post-Cold War love affair with Israel on the American right) and Palestinian politics driven by extremist "Wipe Israel off the map" types. Neither nation – the textbook definition, as in a group of people with common culture, language, and historical background – is led by people representative of the public will. This is to say that I believe a two-state solution could easily be hammered out of we shot all of the political and military leaders and selected an average soldier, cabdriver, teacher, ten year-old, and housewife from each nation and locked them in a room until they came to an agreement.

Reporting on the conflict also tends to the ridiculous extremes: the virtuous Israelis defending themselves against subhuman terrorist child-killers, or the poor, defenseless, blameless Palestinians minding their own business until Israel decides to start killing people en masse. On balance, in recent years my sympathies are probably more on the Palestinian side but I want to be emphatic that I see no Good Guys and Bad Guys in the conflict. Both groups of people have legitimate historical and current grievances, and both have been responsible for a lot of wanton destruction over the years. It takes a motivated brand of thinking to look at Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon and argue that one is a terrorist and the other a paragon of virtue. Nobody has the moral high ground. That was abandoned decades ago in favor of a grinding slugfest, a war of attrition led by dead-enders in both camps.

One thing, however, consistently bothers me. It bothers me so much that after ten years I finally feel like it's worth pointing out, and it explains why I find the current Israeli political leadership so unworthy of respect. It's the "human shields" argument. They use it over and over and over again. The U.S., not incidentally, used it during the 1991 Gulf War as well. All but the most Kool Aid-soused partisans understand that the "human shields" argument is bullshit. It is a charge you level at the enemy when you killed a bunch of civilians and you aren't willing to accept responsibility for it.

War is awful. Awful things happen to innocent and not-so-innocent people alike. When a nation chooses to wage war, it needs to accept its fundamental..awfulness. When you decide to go to war, you have to be prepared to kill civilians because the killing of civilians is an absolutely unavoidable part of modern warfare. You take the greatest possible pains to avoid doing it, but it happens. Here's what anyone with an ounce of honor and a sense of real leadership in the political-military sense would say when a bunch of Palestinian civilians are killed in air strikes: "We regret that civilians were killed. While we make the greatest effort to avoid harming civilians, we recognize that it is a reality of this kind of warfare. Our enemy operates from urban areas and thus even with great caution, civilians are unfortunately in the line of fire. We hope to end this conflict as quickly as possible so that no further suffering is necessary."

In other words, grow some fucking balls and own it. Be responsible for your own actions and, if you honestly believe your cause is just, defend them. Instead, we get "human shields." Yeah, that must be why there are dead civilians. It certainly couldn't be that military strikes are nowhere near as precise as governments the world around would have people believe. Which seems more plausible – Hamas lining up children to serve as human shields, or an Israeli strike on a military target causing collateral damage to nearby civilians?

If a nation is not willing to accept the consequences of waging war and instead pursues the cowardly tactic of attempting to shift moral responsibility for its own actions onto the enemy, it should re-examine the virtuousness of its cause. If the act requires a propaganda-based defense to justify it, the nation would do well to consider whether it is truly the best course of action.

And that's all I have to say about that.

NPF: FREE AT LAST

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 18th, 2014 by Ed

Are you sick of going into restaurants and seeing "No Praying!" signs everywhere? Do you feel unsafe at the local Olive Garden because your waitress is unarmed? Have you ever looked at a Hooters and thought, "That's just not tacky enough"? If so, your prayers have been answered. Grab all of your firearms and take a trip to Rifle, Colorado to enjoy a meal at Shooters Grill, where brandishing firearms and praying in public (which I think Jesus was against, but what did he know) are both encouraged.

This Hooters/James Dobson Fever Dream hybrid reflects its owner's love of the Bible and Constitution, so unlike other restaurants all over the United States you won't be stopped from praying before you eat by Union Thugs or Liberal Academics or Activist Judges or whatever. The Yelp reviews are a hoot, too. Apparently the salt & pepper shakers are shotgun shells (photo evidence helpfully provided), the whole restaurant grinds to a record-scratch halt if a non-white person enters the premises, and the food looks and sounds about as appetizing as a redneck middle school cafeteria.

A priority stop on any gastro-tour of America, to be sure.

EXPERTS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 17th, 2014 by Ed

In the early stages of any foreign policy crisis – long before anyone knows what actually happened – only one thing can be certain: Noted Foreign Policy Expert John McCain will be on TV talking about it, and by "talking about it" I mean waving his dick around.

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) declared on Thursday there would be "incredible repercussions" if Russian forces or pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine shot down the Malaysian flight that crashed earlier in the day.

In an appearance on MSNBC shortly after news of the crash broke, McCain stressed it was too early to come to definite conclusions. However, he pointed out Ukrainian aircraft have previously been shot down in recent days and "mistaken identification" of the Malaysian plane could be "part of a pattern" that demands a powerful reaction from the United States.

"This was an airliner headed towards Russian airspace and it has the earmarks — and I'm not concluding — but it has the earmarks of a mistaken identification of an aircraft that they may have believed was Ukrainian. If that's true, this is a horrible tragic event which was certainly unanticipated by anybody no matter who they are. And there will be incredible repercussions if this is the case," he said. "If it is the result of either separatist or Russian actions mistakenly believing that this is a Ukrainian warplane, I think there's going to be hell to pay and there should be."

I wonder if he knows he's not the president.

MERCHANDISING EMPIRE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 15th, 2014 by Ed

It's time to tiptoe into the world of merchandising (posters and stickers aside) with some super-hip t-shirts like all the kids wear these days. Zazzle runs a tad pricey, but there are sales weekly. Any clothing purchase by midnight today (Tuesday) is 30% off with the lamentable code "SUMMERSTYLEZ".

shirt

Here's a direct link to customize and order your very own Gin and Tacos shirt, available in a range of colors and t-shirt styles (prices vary) if this bleak gray doesn't do it for you.

STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE

Posted in Rants on July 14th, 2014 by Ed

Here's a long, well-written piece about a factory closing in Sparta, TN. It's OK if you don't have enough time to read the entire thing, since you have already read this story dozens of times by now. You know the drill: Everyone worked hard and lived decently until The Company shuttered the factory and moved to Mexico or China. The town is now suffering from collective PTSD, with much of the population fleeing or sinking into poverty and vice; the few people who have been able to transition into other work are making peanuts and living paycheck to paycheck at a job that is likely to disappear soon and without warning. The role of the government is to come in and set up totally ineffective "retraining" programs among the rubble.

Once you read the first few paragraphs, you can finish the rest of it in your head. Only the names and locations change. We know this story by heart. We have read it before and we will read it again.

The question is, how many times is this story going to play out before Americans have had enough? Will the strategy of distracting the working class with "social issues" and redirecting their anger toward convenient scapegoats (minorities, The Gub'mint, immigrants) work indefinitely? Will we ever reach a point at which people refuse to take this shit any longer?

The most common criticism I get from this site is that I spend very little time (close to none, honestly) talking about solutions and lots of time talking about how much everything is screwed up. This is not an accident. I believe – and clearly there are people who disagree, and there are plenty of other sites for them to read – that it is facile and intellectually dishonest to peddle "solutions" to social problems of this magnitude. To do so would involve one of two things: advocating overarching solutions that are beyond anyone's ability to implement (Let's change our entire political system and the way that several hundred million people think about social responsibility and class!) or pitching achievable but ultimately useless solutions to make people feel like they're doing something (Write your Congressman!).

That is a long way of saying that I understand that figuring out what to do and how is a major obstacle to action. It's hard to expect people to Do Something when it is clear that nobody has any useful idea of what to do. I am amazed, though, by our capacity to hear this story over and over again without being affected by it, or by the capacity of people directly affected by these situations to do nothing but fume, watch more Fox News, and inveigh against the Unions and the Libtards and gee if only the rich didn't have to pay so much in taxes somehow my life would be better.

Roger & Me came out in 1989. Harlan County U.S.A. came out in 1976. The Grapes of Wrath has been on high school reading lists since the 40s. We've heard and seen this story repeatedly. We know exactly how it ends, every single time. We know, based on our post-1980 lurch to the right, that politically and economically fellating the rich doesn't fix the problem and functions only to make it really awesome to be rich. People appear to have breaking points, at least on some issues. After three decades of hearing this same story the only thing about them that remains interesting is the fact that yet another group of people in another town have been ground to dust and nobody intends to do anything other than sit back and wait for it to happen again.