Nuts and Bolts, Part 3
It’s been so long since I last worked on this topic that when I finally came back to it, I found a draft of Part 3 that I’d apparently started working on many moons ago but had no recollection of. Hmmm… whatever. I thought about picking it up, but it’s just too long too long too long. This has dragged on enough, and I have to finish, get some final kicks in on this dead horse and get past it because, man, there are just so many issues to address and so little time - pregnant wife, law school, part-time job, video games, and beer that won’t drink itself - sometimes I need some me time, you know? So here we go, just as fast as we can…
- We’re going PLAID
PREVIOUSLY, ON NUTS AND BOLTS (Part 1, Part 2): We established (with numbers!) that the top socioeconomic class (1%) of the good ol’ U.S. of A. had experienced incredible growth over the last 30 years while the rest of us had remained pretty much stagnant. As for why that happened, it looks like the Democrats failed to maintain the balance between the hippies and the carnivores by selling out to corporations, and crony capitalism took off in a big way. We left off with two unanswered questions: 1) why didn’t we feel it if we were stagnant while the 1% realized huge gains in their holdings? and 2) what’s it all mean? What is this underlying problem of all human societies ever that needs to be addressed?
- Kung fu monkeys? I knew it! No, wait; that can’t be right
Financing. That’s the answer to the first question. DONE.
Oh… should I explain that a bit? OK, but remember this is supposed to be a short episode. We started living on credit. Credit that could be rolled over and rolled over from credit card to credit card long enough that the housing market had gone up enough for us to refinance our houses and pay off a chunk of that credit card debt. Rinse, repeat. It works as long as it works, that is, as long as the housing market keeps climbing, allowing for regular refinancing and absorption of that other debt. But when that housing market collapsed (maybe you heard about that back in 20-aught-8?), the fountain of credit dried up, and so did the real-estate value that had been backing all of the working-class debt. People had less, many of whom were suddenly upside-down on their home mortgages, and they couldn’t borrow any more to stay afloat.
- And you lose a turn. And we’re taking the ladders out
So most people were stagnant over the last thirty years but didn’t realize it because of a growing reliance on credit. Now for the finale! It all comes down to this one, simple fact: power and influence accumulate and concentrate at the top, in the hands of relatively few individuals (often referred to as “the 1%” in the U.S. today). That’s the answer to the second question. And that’s the answer to the whole shebang, really. It’s our main problem. With everything, every human society ever. That’s the answer that I promised so long ago when I started this insane Nuts and Bolts series. You’re welcome.
- It feels good to be appreciated
“BUT WHAT ABOUT SOCIALISM!?" your hippie heart screams (unless you’re a Republican, on the yellow brick road to see the Wizard about getting a heart). Sorry, hippies, refer to my statement above. Every system EVER. Well… maybe not. Some out there might be figuring this thing out right now, and maybe deep in history there have been some tribes somewhere that had some inkling of this and had stopgaps in place to prevent it (before they were overrun by a neighboring tribe, or by, you know, western civilization). But that’s not the point. The point is that every system is susceptible to this if you don’t devise a way to keep things in balance.
It doesn’t matter if you eliminate money from the system and base it on this, “everyone owns everything” idea. Power and influence are what matter. In a capitalistic society (or a mixed economy, like ours - and if you didn’t know it is actually mixed, you ain’t been paying attention, brother) wealth is the most direct measure of power and influence. So the accumulation of wealth (which is happening) results in an accumulation of power and influence. But taking away the money doesn’t take away the tendency for power and influence to accumulate; it just sort of makes it harder to track. Sure, in a socialist society, everyone owns all the bread. But who decides how the bread is distributed? … See what I mean? Power and influence.
- Yeah, man, tota… wait, what?
-Interlude: before I go on, there’s an important lesson here, folks. Your ideology DOESN’T MATTER. It’s not about capitalism vs. socialism. It’s about us vs. our own nature. We find a way to corrupt every system. So in any system we arbitrarily devise, the key thing we need to focus on is a way to address and correct for corruption.-
- Sorry, lady, you were wrong too. Nice books, though
It’s a self-propagating problem because the more power and influence someone has, the better they are at getting more power and influence. That’s why, generation after generation, power and influence concentrate more and more into the hands of the few, regardless of the ideology your system is based upon. If your society doesn’t figure out a way to limit the accumulation of wealth and power, you can expect one of a few things to happen: 1) revolution, 2) some kind of collapse and dissolution, possibly followed by civil war, 3) invasion by an opportunistic external power that realizes you’ve grown weak with so much of your population impoverished [side note: the new Red Dawn starring Thor sucked; the original version was much better. WOLVERINES!!!] 4) possibly other reality-altering overturns that my late-night brain is failing to imagine at the moment. Regardless, the result is some kind of societal reordering to reestablish balance. Sometimes it works, while other times it may take a few tries (see: French history).
- Viva la liberte
I don’t want to bum you out, man. I’m not in the business of harshing mellows. (I’m a pretty chill dude if you get to know me.) But that’s the direction we’re headed. We need to stabilize. We need balance. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying there shouldn’t be rich and poor (though poverty is a different issue, something that doesn’t need to exist in a developed nation). In fact, there definitely needs to be a healthy measure of dichotomy to incentivize the pursuit of excellence (probably). I’m just saying that, from bottom to top, we need to keep things balanced. When the dichotomy between your powerful and your helpless (in our case, rich and poor) becomes too great, when the tower grows too tall to be supported by its base, it tumbles. It all comes crashing down, one way or another. The foundation of the next tower is laid amidst the rubble of the last, and the cycle starts all over again.
- But don’t worry too much about it. Enjoy some tea-cup kittens!
Our Dead Founding Fathers Are Dead…
… and any claims that anyone makes about what the esteemed founders of our nation would have thought about any number of issues in our modern nation as it currently exists are merely guesses that, regardless of their untestable accuracy, are in any case completely irrelevant.
Let me preface the rest of this by first saying that I have the utmost respect for these individuals and their contribution to our nation in particular and democracy in general. What they did was truly remarkable. I would probably give my little toe for the opportunity to discuss politics with any one of them over a frothy beer. I just don’t like people misrepresenting and co-opting their work to serve selfish, petty ends. OK, on with the show…
Why These Arguments Are Irrelevant
Let me give you an example… Did our founding fathers intend for our government to be secular or religious? As we’re talking about a group of individuals, it’s likely that they held among them a range of differing opinions. You can argue it either way, but if you do, you run the risk of getting caught up in the debate over what they meant and what they wanted, rather than discussing what makes sense for us today, right here and now.
Whatever they really thought doesn’t matter because, frankly, they’re dead. They don’t live in our world, which has gone through 200 years of development (including industrialization) and growth since they all stopped having anything to say about anything. Their abilities to take in new and relevant data for devising useful opinions stopped when each of them died.
Have you ever changed your opinion about something? Of course you have. Why? Probably because you gained new information or had some new insight that led you to a different perspective. Every day, we’re taking in information and adding to the collective experience of our lives, leading to a constantly evolving impression of the world around us. You know who can’t do that? Dead guys.
It’s important to understand that. Even if someone could, with complete certainty, say precisely what a historical figure thought way back then, those opinions lack the perspective of the last 200 years. It’s completely naive to think that, whatever their opinions were, they wouldn’t have changed all the way through to the present day. 200 years, man… that’s a long time to stick to your guns.
And there’s another problem with this intense focus on the supposed intentions of the founding fathers: it undermines the relevance of our own opinions and our collective ability and responsibility for determining what is best for our society. I’m not saying the work they did and their writings don’t matter. They do, and it’s important to study them and understand the decisions they made in the context of their time. But it’s just a piece of the puzzle, a fraction of the relevant data that should be included when we form our own integrated opinions. Our opinions about what makes sense for us in our modern world are what matter most.
If you need to take a page from the playbook of our founding fathers, realize that they did in their day exactly what I’m saying we should be doing today. As students of history, they had significant and relevant perspectives for forming their own opinions and systems, but they sure as hell didn’t let the inequities of the past limit the range of possibilities they considered for the future. If that was their modus operandi, they likely would never have sent a strongly worded letter to George III about the rights and responsibilities of each individual regarding representation and self-determination. If we then allow ourselves to be content adopting, without examination, opinions that have been handed down to us, we’re doing a grievous disservice to the very legacy we think we’re honoring.
Why People Do This
Cutting through all of the crap, people do this to lend merit to arguments that can’t stand on their own. At its heart, it’s just name dropping. An argument or opinion that has its own merit, if properly outlined and explained, should be self-evident, requiring no additional support from a group of dead guys to lend it weight. An argument either makes sense, or it doesn’t, and whether or not Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton would hypothetically agree with it makes it no more or less logical.
Let me give you an example: wearing a seatbelt is a good idea. Can you argue with that? Sure. Most people don’t, but that doesn’t mean you cannot construct an argument against it. In support of wearing a seatbelt, one could cite any number of statistics that correlate decreased fatalities and injuries with increased use of seat belts. But if you wanted to be obstinate about it, I guess you could make an argument against wearing seat belts based on, I don’t know… the improbability of getting into an accident at any one time, or population control, or something. Whatever. The point is, it’s a statement that you can argue for or against, depending on your personal brand of (in)sanity.
So what if I told you, hypothetically, that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would be against wearing seat belts? Would that change your opinion of whether or not wearing a seat belt is a good idea? Probably not. And it shouldn’t. You have a firm enough grasp of the subject matter and all the data you need to make an informed opinion yourself. Why then, should it matter whether or not Benjamin Franklin supported secular governance? In this case, is his 200-year-old opinion of what was best for him and the nation he lived in more significant or relevant than your opinion about what is best for you and the nation you live in? Absolutely not.
To be clear, while everyone has a right to their own opinion, there’s definitely a huge difference between an informed opinion and an uninformed opinion, and it’s the tragedy of our times that many executive and legislative decisions are made on the basis of woefully uninformed opinions. But developing an informed opinion on secular governance isn’t as straight forward as developing an informed opinion on seat belts. The arguments are more complex and harder to understand, and that makes us less sure and more vulnerable to outside, questionable influences.
Maybe you feel conflicted about the issue, or at least it isn’t so clear, and someone comes along and offers to alleviate the responsibility of having to work it out for yourself by handing you the supposed opinion of an authoritative figure from our nation’s history. That sure makes it easier, right? I don’t have to work it out for myself because someone that was better at it and knew more about it than me already worked it out. If only Admiral Ackbar were here.
Why This Is SUCH A Bad Idea
As perviously mentioned, there’s the whole problem of relevance after 200 years of development and growth. Remember that in the nation they crafted, slavery existed and women couldn’t vote. We have, in the centuries since, realized the underlying principles that gave rise to a nation that allowed such atrocities were terribly misguided, and we evolved beyond them. That our founding fathers held certain opinions is not, then, sufficient ratification of those opinions.
In addition to that, there’s the problem of accuracy. First of all, people are misquoted, or have things they never said attributed to them, or have something they said taken completely out of context ALL THE TIME. And the people that are listening to this misinformation (that would be us) are terrible at fact checking. That makes support for any given opinion, based on what so-and-so says George Washington said, dubious at best.
Even if someone is quoted verbatim and in context, from which period of that person’s life are you pulling that quote? Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin lived to be over 80. Do you think some of their opinions may have evolved in the 60 years between turning 20 and turning 80? Of course. Could it be possible to find two quotes from different points in Ben’s life (or Tom’s life) that completely contradict each other? Absolutely. When we look at a historical figure, it’s easy to forget that they were real people, making mistakes as we do, learning as we do and changing their opinions over time.
Then which Thomas Jefferson do you quote, 30-year-old Tommy, or 60-year-old Tommy? Whichever one agrees with you, of course. (And that’s only assuming it’s important to you that you quote him accurately and in context). You see, that’s how it works. The people running around, quoting the founding fathers all the time to support their opinions usually didn’t arrive at their opinions from studying the works of the founding fathers. Often, they already had their opinions, and they just went and found quotes that seemed to back them up. It’s a much easier strategy for putting some weight behind your opinion than, say, making a good, clear argument that is supported by evidence and data. It’s a pretty safe bet that, if you have to do some name dropping to support your argument, it’s because you have a weak argument.
This doesn’t just apply to the founding fathers of our nation, by the way. You’ve likely seen this same strategy applied, using any famous and respected name, in countless e-mail forwards and chain messages that get propagated through social media. I’ve seen terrible arguments made in support of untenable, weak and inconsistent opinions inaccurately attributed to everyone from George Carlin and Andy Rooney to Albert Einstein. Any time you come across this kind of name dropping in support of an argument, watch out. And please, for the love of sanity (if only mine), look hard at the logic behind the argument and do some fact checking on the accuracy of such quotes before you pass them on.
Nuts and Bolts, Part 2
And now, it’s time for the exciting sequel to Nuts and Bolts, Part 1.
Getting Back to It
Last time, we left off after using a macabre thought experiment to demonstrate two main points: 1) randomness can lead to variation (inequality) in an otherwise even system, and 2) through a positive feedback mechanism, inequality can be self-amplifying, leading to greater inequality. Thems a lot of boring words, I know, but hang in there; I guarantee at least one hilarious cat pic before this article is over.
- But not yet. For now, there’s serious business to attend to
So obviously I’m working my way around to talking about stuff like Occupy Wall Street and the 1% vs. the other 99%, right? Well… that’s part of it, sure, but it isn’t the whole shebang, not by a long shot. Remember, I said this problem was something affecting every human society ever. No small claim, that. This issue that’s risen in social consciousness in the U.S. recently is just one specific example. But it’s a good one, so let’s pick it apart and see if we can come to some general, broadly applicable principles that extend beyond the one example that is the U.S. (Hint: we will. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this).
Since 2008, there’s been a lot of hype about the growing financial gap between the rich and the rest of us. There are a lot of ways people try to spin the numbers, but it’s pretty evident that something started to change about 30 years ago, leading to a significant increase in the growth of that gap.
- Our lagging equestrian skills?
[Sidenote: if you, dear reader, happen to be one of those very few super rich people out there, i.e. not among ‘the rest of us’, can I please have a grant to support myself so I can write on sociopolitical issues full-time? I guarantee that, for a sum relatively so small compared to what you have that you would never notice it missing, you can pay my rent and keep me permanently soaked in creativity-enhancing Scotch. Don’t do it for me. Do it to fight social injustice. Do it for the American underdog, without whom we wouldn’t have such Hollywood treasures as Stripes, Major League, or The Karate Kid (though we’d also avoid travesties like Rudy). It’s a good cause, I assure you.]
- Playing football well is an accomplishment. Incessantly bugging the coach until he gives you a couple of pity plays is not
If you are skeptical about this or plainly disagree (about the rich-poor gap, not about the Rudy thing, which is clearly undeniable), check out this collection of charts at motherjones.com. They cite the sources of their data below each chart, so you can go directly to each source to see if they’re a bunch of pants-afire, dirty fibbers. All of you disbelievers have fun doing that; we’ll be here when you get back. The rest of you, let’s move on.
The Plot Thickens
While looking at those charts, I was reminded of something I couldn’t immediately place. Have a look at this one on the average household incomes from 1979 to 2007.
It basically says that the bottom 80% have been stagnant in their economic growth since the 80s, and even the next higher 19% have shown only modest growth compared to the top 1%. Something about that graph for the top 1% seemed really familiar. After letting it stew in the back of my brain for a while, I finally remembered what it reminded me of. Check out this chart for the growth of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) over the same period.
Maybe you don’t immediately see what I’m getting at because the charts are on different scales. So let’s do some quick and dirty photoshopping to flatten and stretch the top 1% graph from the Mother Jones chart to something that can be overlaid on the DJI chart. Now have a look.
See what I mean? The graph for the top 1% and the graph for the value of the DJI are undeniably correlated. Go ahead and try to tell me this is a coincidence. (And I’ll tell you to shove it). The reason these two graphs parallel each other, while the graphs of the other 99% basically flatline, is that nearly all of the financial sector economic growth in the U.S. since 1980 was absorbed by the top (most by the top 1%, a bit by the next 19%).
Whatever money you’ve made (or lost) getting played by the stock market (har har, I make funny), the whole time, you’ve been scrambling after tiny crumbs from someone else’s sandwich, mistakenly thinking you were getting to take a bite. A sandwich so big that just a few extra crumbs can make you feel financially secure, even accomplished. On the other hand, having too few crumbs means that your kids don’t get braces.
- A) your kids’ college funds. B) early retirement and a vacation home. C) a small, private island. D) tasty bacon
There are two lines of questioning that come up at this point:
1) How can anyone make the claim that the bottom 99% have experienced almost no financial growth? Through the ’80s, ’90s and even the early 2000s, we kept buying more and more. More cars, bigger cars, SUVs with built in navigation systems and heating coils in the seats. Bigger houses, filled with VCRs and later DVD players, big screen TVs, flat screen TVs, HD flat screens, Playstations, Xboxes, Nordic Tracks, Jack Lalanne Power Juicers. We ate out all the time, burned gas to drive to the Blockbuster just down the street, and never skimped when our friends’ kids were selling Girl Scout cookies. If we were financially flatlined, how’d we manage all of that?
2) What changed and caused this rapid financial growth for the very wealthy while the rest of us were stagnant? If this Underlying Problem is something affecting all societies, why did it wait until the ’80s to rear it’s head? Did glam metal piss it off? Who do we need to sacrifice to appease it?
I’ll tackle the second line of inquiry first. No, it wasn’t glam metal. Or at least not just glam metal. I’m pretty sure most of it was John Hughes’s fault… Wait, no, that’s not right. He had nothing to do with it. His only crime was making a stream of movies that ensured no adolescents in the actual world would feel their lives were normal, acceptable or cool enough. But that’s another story entirely, so stop distracting me. Let’s get back on track.
- I wore pink as hard as I could, but it was never pretty
As I’ve mentioned before in this treatise imploring you all to ditch the Democrats and Republicans, the end of the ’70s marked the start of something categorically stupid. The Dems, or at least a significant portion of them, sold out and started accepting corporate funding. If you don’t believe this, check out An Unreasonable Man (also mentioned in the article linked above), in which you’ll see video footage from Dem conventions and meetings where they openly, unabashedly talk about whoring themselves for corporate money.
- When a corporation and a politician love each other VERY much, they give each other a special hug. Ironically, it’s the rest of us that get screwed
Now, I’m not saying I was a big fan of the Dem party or platform prior to the day they started grabbing their ankles for big business. But before that, at least there was some kind of balance between the two ruling political parties. Everyone knew where everyone stood.
Dems were mainly a bunch of bitching sissies, bad at war and dirty campaigning, but staunch in their march against social inequity, resolute in their pursuit of ever-increasing bureaucracy in inefficient social systems. Meanwhile, the GOP was basically a frat house of rich dudes, drunk on power at the ultimate kegger, intent on keeping their party going as long as possible while keeping all the nerds out. Maybe I’m being a little hyperbolic, but you get the point. No real surprises. Wolves were wolves, sheep were sheep, both sides stood up to the other, and it all averaged out, resulting in some kind of moderation and relative balance.
- Like when Vin Diesel and the Rock eye-hump each other
But that all changed when businesses started buying off Dems. Middle-of-the-road legislation started fading into a thing of the past as the scales were gradually tipped in favor of the corporations and the rich. That is precisely why that was the time in which the rate of growth in the financial sector markedly increased.
1980 saw the first repeal of part of the Banking Act of 1933 (AKA the Glass-Steagall Act), which had been put in place to prevent the kind of investment and speculation practices that led to the Stock Market Crash of 1929. And coincidentally (not really), since the regulations imposed by the Banking Act were in place *presto change-o* we had no huge speculative bubbles followed by economy-wrecking collapses. We had recessions and stagnation sure. But huge, wealth-destroying bubbles weren’t repeating every decade. Another part of the act was repealed in ‘82. Both of those repeals were committed under the Reagan administration, no surprise there. But the coup de grâce, the final, most severe blow to completely undue the Banking Act came in 1999 and was signed into law by Bill Clinton. In case you don’t remember, he was a Democrat.
- Maybe he was just distracted that day
Boom and Bust
Sure, the economy started growing in the ’80s and everything seemed to be booming. More for everyone, right? How can I complain about that? Well, look back at that chart above about average household incomes since 1979, and try to tell me that trickle-down economics works. (And again, I’ll tell you to go shove it. Again.) Through all of that economic expansion, barely anything trickled down below the top 1%, and nothing at all trickled down below the top 20%.
- Yeah, like this, except there should actually be one more step of empty glasses at the bottom to more accurately reflect reality
Even worse, that substantial growth was all a house of cards, based on market-destabilizing speculation and over-leveraging of deposited funds. The barriers that had separated investment banks from commercial banks had been dissolved, and as a result, commercial banks could sell the home mortgages they owned to investment banks, which in turn lumped them together, repackaged them and sold them as high profit investments in the world market.
- Nothing can go wrong here… Wind? No, the wind never blows
But wait! That’s not all! Let’s say that you’re a commercial bank hanging out right after Clinton blew the doors to fiscal irresponsibility wide open. Being able to sell off mortgages you hold means that, if borrowers default, you don’t have to eat the loss. But the investors that bought slices of mortgage pie from the investment bank have to open wide and take a hearty bite. Back when defaults were yours to eat, you really had to screen any borrower you gave a mortgage to because any default cut directly at your bottom line. Thankfully, that isn’t a problem anymore! Now you’re just concerned with turning over as many mortgages as you can as quickly as you can.
- "Jackpot, baby! Time to party." -Mortgage Brokers (ostensibly)
So how hard do you think you screen borrowers now before giving them a loan? Answer: not very hard. You don’t need to because there’s no risk to you. In fact, you might even start going out looking for people to give loans to, instead of waiting for them to come to you. And you might just convince them to go for that $500,000 house that they always thought was out of reach. They’re a little nervous about it, sure. But hey, they trust you because you’re the frigging bank, and banks don’t give out loans to people that can’t possibly pay them back, right? But what they don’t know is that you don’t care if they default anymore. This type of lending is what we call ‘predatory lending’. It’s the practice that eventually led to such a high default rate that the entire housing market collapsed. And that started the whole house of cards tumbling down.
All of this happened because the Democrats failed to hold the line, allowing cracks to form in the dam. (To be clear, I’m not absolving the GOP of responsibility. But a wolf is a wolf, and it’s your fault if you let one into your chicken coup.) The rich started systematically buying more and more influence over government policy and legislation; the cracks sprung leaks, the leaks grew and washed away the dam. The result was A) less and less oversight and regulation of the institutions of the rich (big corporations, banks, investment firms, etc) by government entities, like the SEC and the EPA, and B) legislation that favored the rich and their institutions, like tax cuts for the rich and the aforementioned repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. And that is why the gap between the rich and the poor started growing much faster in the ’80s. Finally, after all of that, we’ve managed to address the second line of inquiry.
- I’m spent
Now back to the first line of inquiry. OK. Suppose all of that is true, and suppose the rest of us were economically stagnant over the last thirty years while the rich got richer. Why didn’t we feel poor? How did we afford our glamorous rockstar lifestyles?
Get the answer to that, and learn how what’s happening in the U.S. is a symptom of a ubiquitous problem in all human civilizations ever, when you tune in next time, for the super-exciting conclusion to the epic Nuts and Bolts Trilogy: Nuts and Bolts, Part 3!
John Cheese Gives Good Interview
I know you all must be on the edge of your seat waiting for Nuts and Bolts, Part 2, the exciting sequel to Nuts and Bolts, Part 1. And it’s in the works, so don’t fret. I always deliver on promises of enlightenment; just ask anyone that’s ever argued with me about anything. But recently, in an astounding display of dedication to his readers, John Cheese threw out an open invitation for interviews, and I had to get in on that mess while the getting was good.
A Little Background
John Cheese is a columnist for Cracked.com. He’s also the inspiration for the titular character in David Wong’s truly awesome comedic horror John Dies at the End. (Note: ‘titular’ is word I rarely have occasion to use.) He cranks out at least one excellent article a week, many of which seem to be generating ever greater buzz. His recent article 5 Ways We Ruined the Occupy Wall Street Generation has over two million hits already and has been linked to by the Huffington Post. All of this recent success comes after a long struggle with alcoholism and years in the trenches working a physically demanding labor job. John is definitely on the rise, but the path that led him to where he is now keeps him strongly connected and devoted to his fans.
I’m totally stoked to have the opportunity to present to you John Cheese…
In a recent interview, you mentioned the importance of staying busy when trying to kick an addiction. You also said that you and your fiancée would soon have another go at quitting smoking. Are you taking on so many interviews to ramp up your level activity in preparation for your next bout against nicotine?
We are preparing for it, but I’m going to have to see a doctor in addition to my personal attempt. I get almost violently angry over the smallest of things when I quit smoking, so I have to find something — counseling, medication — to help me through that.
As far as the interviews, that was just something I wanted to do for fun. I have a lot of people who want to ask me questions, but a lot of them are really timid about it. I’m not an unapproachable guy, but people seem to think they’re bothering me when they send me questions. I just want them to know that I’m just another guy on the internet, just like them. I just happen to write for a big comedy site.
Before sobering up, were you complacent about being an alcoholic, or were you struggling to quit all the way through, aware that it was a problem? What finally made the difference and gave you the resolution you needed to stay sober?
In many ways, I knew that I was an alcoholic the whole time. I understood that I had a problem, but I wasn’t really willing to quit. I liked drinking. It was fun. It was my stress relief. My “off” switch.
What finally made me decide to put down the booze was a long look around my apartment. We lived in the tiniest place I had ever seen. Four rooms total. It was the upper level of a garage that had been converted into a one-person apartment. But on the weekends, it was me, my fiance, and all three of my kids, trying to maneuver around in that shithole. It was impossible.
Then I got to thinking about my bills and my health. And I realized that I could change everything if I just gave up the booze. So I put it down and haven’t touched it since. That was a little over two years ago.
Do you attend AA or any other type of support group for dealing with addiction? As a self-proclaimed angry guy (don’t worry; you’re not alone), how do the 12 Steps sit with you? More specifically, how do you feel about the emphasis on subverting one’s own will to that of a higher power?
I don’t attend any groups. My support comes from my friends online and my fiance. They help me through the really bad parts. And you wouldn’t believe the amount of support I receive from readers of my column.
I’m glad you asked that about the “higher power” thing because SO many people misunderstand that. I know tons of Atheists who attend AA, and they have no problem with the rule. It’s because the rule isn’t some underhanded hook to drag people into religion against their will. The “higher power” is the idea of accepting that there are things out there that are more important than yourself. Things that may be beyond your control. That higher power could mean society in general. It could also mean your kids. One guy I talk to said he went to a meeting and met a guy whose higher power was his cat. Some people claim “the idea of love” is their higher power.
People getting up in arms over that one, small, almost insignificant phrase drives me crazy. It’s a manufactured outrage over something they don’t and won’t ever understand. And it’s not Atheists as a whole who are doing it. It’s people who are flat-out anti-religion. They’re inserting their own meaning into the “higher power” in order to create a rebellion against it.
The bottom line is that AA has helped hundreds of thousands of people. Without a leader. It’s not one guy trying to impose his will onto the masses. It’s group-run. Atheists, Christians, Agnostics… Nobody is telling these people that they have to believe in God in order to get clean. That’s ridiculous.
I dug your recent article apologizing to the Occupy Wall Street generation. (Yes, I still dig things. No, I don’t know what the hip cats say these days.) Considering the glut of well educated, unemployed young adults that lack useful trade skills, what do you (or will you) tell your own kids about the usefulness of college?
It’s a necessity. A Bachelor’s Degree is the new high school diploma. Yes, you can get a job without one, but the chances of you landing something meaningful and significant is lower, the further down on the education scale you go.
But going to college isn’t just about getting a degree so that you can land a better job. It’s about college life. There are invaluable lessons to be learned about socializing. Living on your own. Meeting deadlines and showing up on time. That degree is only one small part of the benefits of higher education.
As someone that was raised in a less-than-ideal environment, what are your main objectives as a parent? Is your parenting style more willful and proactive or more laid back, and has it changed significantly since you got sober?
My overall goal as a parent is to make sure my kids are not only taken care of physically, mentally, and financially, but to do it while making sure that they know they are loved and appreciated.
Most of the time, I’m laid back. I let my kids get away with more than most parents because I know what they can and cannot handle. I know their maturity levels, and I reward them based on that. They all play games that are rated Mature. But the second I didn’t think they were ready for certain content, I’d pull it. And they’re cool with that. They know they get leeway with me, and they respect my decisions when I make them.
Are you hypersensitive to any signs of addictive tendencies in your kids? Or are attempts at prevention a fool’s game? Put another way, do you feel it’s more efficient to spend your energy trying to prevent a fall or by helping them get back up?
I keep them educated on addiction and bad behavior. We talk openly and honestly about it. What to expect. What the myths are, as well as the truths. That honesty, I believe, is the best prevention I can offer.
My oldest son just turned 13. Which means his rebellious phase is just around the corner. At no point have I told any of my kids that they’re “not allowed” to do drugs. Doing that so close to the rebellious phase is the same as me daring them to do it.
On Dick Jokes
How and when did you and Wong meet? Was it love at first sight? Or was it the way I like to picture it: initial loathing based on misunderstanding, gradually undone by a number of unlikely, zany mishaps that threw you two together until finally you realized you were perfect for each other? (Personal note: I may have to limit the number of romantic comedies my wife makes me watch.)
You’re actually closer than you think on that second assumption. We had an art class together sometime around 1989-1990. I sat down beside him and would make occasional jokes, which he would nervously laugh at and then stay quiet pretty much the rest of the class.
One day, I picked up his history book and started leafing through it for whatever reason, and I noticed that he had drawn huge afros on every picture in the book. Not just the people, but on horses, trees, buildings. I knew at that point that we were going to be friends, but he was so withdrawn and seemingly against the idea.
Over time, he started talking more and we started hanging out, outside of school. Eventually, we became best friends and remained so even when he moved 2 1/2 hours away.
Follow Up Thoughts - Alcoholics Anonymous
In retrospect, my question regarding AA’s emphasis on subverting one’s will to a higher power was probably a bit of ill-conceived, albeit unintentional trolling. John’s articles are frequently laden with irreverence and anger, and without much consideration, I jumped on what seemed to be an opportunity to prod him into a rant. In fact, I support AA and its mission (it’s been an important factor in the life of someone very important to me for over two decades), so goading someone to have at it can serve no constructive purpose, just sensationalism. But John turned it into something constructive and offered some great insight.
Thanks for the interview, Mr. Cheese.
Nuts and Bolts, Part 1
Illumination Is Nigh
I’ve been on summer hiatus for a bit, all the way through autumn in fact, but I’m back. And we’re going to jump right in with a doozy, so brace yourself. I’m going to illuminate the real nature of a fundamental problem vexing every human society, ever. What do you think of that?
Maybe you think it’s about ideologies, capitalism vs. socialism, blah blah, etc.
It’s more basal than that, more organic. And in fact, it turns out to be pretty simple; it just isn’t obvious. Once I explain it to you, though, you might be surprised you never realized it before. And you might find that it will start to affect the way you see other things too. So sit back; I’m about to blow your mind.
Or rather, I will soon. But not quite yet. The principle is simple, but it is not a simple thing to explain. So I’m going to briefly veer off course to describe an analogous situation that will help to illustrate my point.
Getting All Sciencey
Let’s say you have a group of nine identical, six-month-old wolf pup clones (WPCs) in your lab. Don’t ask me why. You just do. Welcome to the world of Science where stupid questions don’t get you closer to your next fellowship. Results do.
So you have this group of WPCs. They were all started in test tubes at the same time on the same day, and they’ve all been subjected to the same environment since. Same amount of food, same amount of water, same amount of play time and sunshine (none), same amount of fluorescent lighting (lots), same amount of exposure to the crying and outright waling of bizarrely emotional graduate researchers (inexplicably common).
They all have the same muscle to fat ratio and the mass with a variance of just a few grams -the WPCs, not the graduate researchers… or maybe they do. No one’s bothered to check. The point is, it’s unlikely that your graduate researchers would be the same mass because you’re not allowed to clone them. Yet.
The WPC cages are even in a circle, so that no difference in behavior will arise from having a middle cage vs. having an end cage (a trick you learned while training your graduates). Hey, this is science; you’re precise. In every measurable way, your clones are exactly the same. Fungible wolf pup clone units (FWPCUs?… no, too long).
And that’s when you come along with your highbrow sciencey ways and your cold impenetrable heart. On this day, these sad creatures will get to, for the first time in their tragic clone lives, step out of their cages. Not only that, but they’re going to get the chance to eat some nice steaks. That’s a great opportunity for them, since you haven’t fed them in two days. But here’s the really hilarious part, and by, ‘hilarious,’ I mean, ‘despicable’: there are only three steaks.
Why would anyone be so thoroughly cruel to a bunch of wolf pup clones? Refer to the part above regarding stupid questions.
Anyway, I’m sure you have an idea of what comes next. In the name of Science, you drop the three steaks in the middle of the ring of cages. Then you release the shackles binding nine silently weeping graduates, so they can each open one of the WPC cages, all at exactly the same time. There’s some fighting for the steaks, of course (between the WPCs, not between the graduates; they learned their place long ago), and maybe a steak or two gets torn into a couple of pieces, so more than three WPCs get to eat a bit. But any way it goes down, some of the WPCs eat, and some don’t.
So which ones get fed? Well, because they all start off exactly the same, it’s random. But now, some of the WPCs have eaten, and some haven’t. Where everything was once equal, now there is variation (i.e. inequality).
Two more days of WPC starvation (and maniacal laughter) later, you drop three more steaks. Who eats this time? Well, now it’s not as simple as last time because the WPCs are not exactly the same anymore. There is certainly an element of chance, but it’s no longer completely random. The WPCs that ate steak two days ago are likely healthier, stronger than the ones that have not eaten in several days. They’re now more likely to win in the competition to get steak.
As you follow this experiment through additional trials, what you observe is that, over and over again, the stronger (better fed) clones will have ever greater success, a higher probability of obtaining more food in the future trials. Meanwhile, a WPC that ate nothing during the first trial is less likely to get steak during the second trial and even less likely to get steak during the third trial, etc. This leads to an ever widening dichotomy between the most fed (strongest) and the least fed (weakest).
And finally, we’ve demonstrated the main points of this analogy. One: even in a system wherein everyone starts on the same level (equal), randomness will give rise to variation (inequality); some will get more, and some will get less. Two: those that get more initially, as a result of the advantage gained by having more, will be better poised for getting more in the future, a positive feedback mechanism.
Now, having finished with the boring analogy set in the realm of questionable science, we can return to the safe solace of sociopolitical discussion. HOW EXCITING.
So What’s The Frigging Point Already?
Tune in next time to find out!
Cover Letters: a Descent into Madness
With unemployment so high, the companies that are actually hiring have the advantage of needing you less than you need a job. Competition is rigorous, and just getting an interview requires an application with some oomph. So I’m going to take a minute to talk about cover letters and how they can lead to madness. Maybe you think these things do not seem to be related. They are.
As my wife and I prepare for a move back to the States after three years living abroad, I find myself busily hacking out one cover letter after another. It’s a banal and futile-seeming attempt to expound on my various self-assigned merits and virtues without sounding like the braggart I actually am. And the entire process has inspired a crystal clear insight that burns intensely in my mind. I thoroughly hate writing cover letters. But if I want a job that is in some way reflective of my education and experience, I don’t have much of a choice.
It feels cheap and shallow. The whole thing is an attempt to paint a picture based on what I think they might want to hear, what I imagine they might be looking for, but that’s a lot different than knowing. So I spend countless hours trying to fabricate an image in a bunch of hypothetical minds, a version of myself that I hope might get them interested. I’m trying to appear to be what I suppose they want me to be. It seems a lot like prostitution, but less honest and straightforward.
And they know how contrived it is. I know they know this because I’ve been where they are and I always knew. In staffing positions that I’ve overseen, I’ve read probably something on the order of a hundred or more cover letters, and in nearly every one I read, I could see, writhing within the prose, this distasteful struggle to sell something without looking like a salesman. So now I’m sending out my own cover letters, and I’m supremely self-conscious of the fact that they’re seeing in my writing these same uncomely things.
It’s unpleasant, and it’s frustrating, and most of all, it’s disheartening. I love to write. Obviously. But trying to use that creative-writing mechanism in my brain to compose a cover letter feels terrible. This recent binge in uninspired, hack writing is one of the reasons my writing for this blog has slowed down recently. That mechanism gets worn out trying to be creative in a venue that seems incompatible with creativity.
So the other night, after days of banging out a number of these insincere-feeling travesties, I got a little fed up, a little apathetic, and then, a little rebellious. It probably didn’t help that 2:00 AM had come and gone, and was already fading into increasingly subjective memory. My right brain is pretty sly about slipping into the driver’s seat once my left brain starts to check out for the night. It’s easy not to notice this until my right brain already has the accelerator floored. By the time I finally do realize my thought process is altered, and think to ask my good old right brain if this is really wise, you know, maybe we should put the brakes on, the response I get is usually something along the lines of an emphatic, “don’t worry, man; I got this.”
I was working on a cover letter for a couple of positions at Google, one analyst position and one position dealing with green initiatives, and I decided to have a little fun with it. I dropped all pretense of trying to tell them what I thought they wanted to hear, and tried instead to serve them up a warm slice of my irresistible (to me) personality. What came out of this process was very different than my preceding cover letters. And with my right brain at the wheel, hauling ass into the deepening night, I submitted the application, for better or worse, cover letter and all. Thanks a lot, right brain.
But hey, you never know. It occurred to me the next day, once logic and reason seemed again within reach, that this could be a valuable social experiment for me. So I’m posting my cover letter here to bring you in on this little test run. And we’ll see in time if this will turn out to be a good lesson in what you should do or what you should not do when you try to get an interview with Google. Either way, being sincere felt really good.
I’ve annotated it with bold numbers in parentheses in an attempt to explain the tantalizing, madness-tinged pseudo-logic exercised by my exhaustion addled brain. I’ve also included a few random pics to deaden the pain of so much text. Enjoy.
I am quite enthusiastic about the possibility of working for Google for a number of reasons, on all of which I’ll expound. But first, a bit of background is necessary, and with any luck, that background might just inspire mutual enthusiasm.
Two days after completing graduate school, I jumped on a plane bound for Germany to join the woman I hoped to marry, while she worked towards her own PhD. We anticipated a year, maybe a year and a half. Three years later, we’re married(2), and the final few months of her research have brought us to Prague, Czech Republic. My turn has come up, so next month, I’ll be returning to the U.S. where we’re planning to settle and start a family.
I’m interested in Google because it is purportedly an excellent place to work, and I believe it. Every Google product I’ve used reflects creativity, innovation and forward thinking(3). In a Freakonomics blog(4), Stephen Dubner wrote about his visit to Google and the excellent experience he had there, interacting with happy, creative minds. I would like to be part of that team(5).
I’m independent by nature, or at least I used to be. If you told me ten years ago that I’d work and travel all over Europe and the Middle East(6) and finally arrive at the conclusion that the most fulfilling happiness comes from cooperation, interacting with other people and becoming part of a community, I would not have believed you. And yet, I now believe it with conviction(7). The intervening years since graduate school have taken me far and wide, always on the move. I want to find a home and start a job without having an exit date already looming on the horizon(8). I want to get a cat(9).
In me, Google will get someone that is in it for the long haul. I may have started in a basement laboratory (tragically the truth, not embellishment for effect), but I escaped, learned how to approximate normal human behavior and emotion(10), and met with notable success in professional settings. In two and a half years, I worked my way up through management positions of increasing responsibility(11). I’ve hired and managed field representatives and faculty spread throughout the Middle East. And though I was still only an assistant professor, my success in management garnered for me the position of Science Faculty Advisor. I believe my professional experience and background in rigorous scientific methodology will make me an asset to Google. If that isn’t enough for you, I’ll even juggle and walk the slack‐line (no joke)(12).
Regarding analysis: in general, my background in science has provided me with substantial formal training handling and interpreting data. Specifically, my publications in theoretical chemistry required the integration of massive data sets to devise well‐substantiated conclusions. In a professional setting, my work included analysis of course scheduling and enrollment data to guide the fabrication of future schedules.
Regarding Green initiatives: as a chemist and an environmentalist, I independently began to study up on different energy resources, with an eye on sustainable development, many years ago. Later, my understanding and awareness were reinforced when I had to teach much of the material in the college classroom. I’m familiar with current and proposed energy technologies, their relative efficiencies, advantages and disadvantages. When it comes to this subject matter, I would have absolutely no trouble catching up on any area in which I might be deficient.
I believe I would be a good addition to your team. If you hire me, I’ll even buy a smartphone running Android(13). (That IS a joke; as soon as I touch down Stateside, I’m going to buy one either way.) If you happen to be so overwhelmingly enthusiastic about talking to me that you don’t want to wait until I get to the States (“we are the dreamers of dreams”)(14), I’m quite amenable to any form of online communication: chat, video chat, etc.(15)
Here’s the subtext I was hoping to convey‐
(1) Geek reference: “Greetings, Programs,” is a salutation used in Tron. And the staff members at Google call themselves “Googlers.” In truth, the late night editing made me miss a typo in the original. I actually said, “Greeting, Googlers.” *Sigh* So if I don’t get an interview, I can blame it on that. (2) Adaptability, follow‐through and commitment. (3) Enthusiasm for the product = employee loyalty. (4) I read smart things. (5) I’m one of you. (6) I am experienced in culturally diverse environments and very cool. And actually, I’m still self sufficient, but also… (7) I’ve got that teamwork thing covered. (8) I’m someone you can invest in. (9) I’m funny and nurturing. Also, everyone is so inundated with funny cat stuff on the Internet, that I suspect this statement will evoke endearing imagery, associating me with happy thoughts. (10) I don’t take myself too seriously, but I am smart and… (11) Others take me seriously enough to promote me. (12) I’m a ninja. (13) More enthusiasm for the product, including specific knowledge. And more humor, the standard fall back. (14) Self‐effacing sarcasm to mellow the self‐back‐patting from earlier + geek reference: old school Willy Wonka quoting O’Shaughnessy. (15) I’m savvy with the tech, a modern dude.
Regardless of what comes of this experiment, the experience will certainly change the way I approach writing cover letters. I don’t want to return to writing them the way that I was; it was too phony, too demoralizing. It left me with the inescapable feeling that the discomfort I felt while writing was in some way perceptible to the readers. So I’ll just have to find a happy medium somewhere between being professional and talking about cats.
For those of you that find this type of reflection terribly boring, but have inexplicably still made it this far, hang in there. I’ve got more sociopolitical stuff in the works, a few topics I’m looking forward to addressing. The day may eventually come where I run out of such issues to whine about. But I sort of doubt it.
To Effect Change, Do Things Differently
I’m not even going to beat around the bush on this one. If you are tired (like me) of the way things are going in the US, stop voting for Republicans and Democrats. Vote for third party candidates. I don’t care which. I definitely see more eye-to-eye with some political parties than others, but this isn’t a Left vs. Right issue to me. I’ll be happy if you vote for anyone besides the candidates of the reigning parties, be they liberal or conservative.
As long as the US political arena is the exclusive stomping ground of the Dems and the GOP, nothing will change. And -now this part is important, so perk up for a second- they don’t want it to change. Why would they? It doesn’t matter which of them happens to be on top at any given time. As long as the competition stays between the two of them, it’s their game, regardless of which of them currently represents the majority or holds the White House. That’s bad for a few reasons (on which I’ll expound). But fear not, intrepid reader, it doesn’t have to be this way.
The insidious term, “bipartisan,” has seeped into daily usage. Its existence is based upon, and instills within us, the presupposition that American politics are the providence of only the Democratic and Republican political parties, completely disregarding the possibility that any other political party has the potential to be a significant part of the process. It does this by setting in our minds the perception that there are only two options: either A) the two parties can work against each other on an issue, or B) they can each choose to sacrifice some part of their respective oh-so-noble-and-important ideologies in order to reach an accord. By presenting us with options, they distract us, and our field of vision is narrowed. This prevents us from realizing that we don’t need either of these bloated, dysfunctional parties deciding what issues are and, more importantly, are not on the table.
It would be like some jerk coming into your house and saying, “Hey, buddy, my dog can crap on your sofa or on your rug, so which is it gonna be?” You’re caught off guard and worried about your sofa (it is Italian leather, after all). So you end up with a soiled rug; yet somehow, you’re still relived that at least your sofa is OK. It doesn’t even occur to you that instead of going for the less distasteful option, you can reject the very premise that this jerk can determine your options. What you should’ve said was, ”I’m not your buddy, pal, and your dog CAN’T CRAP ANYWHERE IN MY HOUSE.”
But we don’t think of this because, in our information-dense, modern world, it seems a lot easier to simply pick an option presented to us. And because it doesn’t occur to us that we have other options, the supposed public servants in both reigning parties can apply the term bipartisan like some honorific of highest merit as if they’re going above the call of duty to cooperate with each other. Apparently, some politicians are so dedicated that they’re even willing to set aside their useless party rivalries to reach an accord, for the good of the country. What a nice bunch of folks.
Everyone likes capitalism, right? So let’s take a good, old-fashioned capitalist approach to analyzing the long-term domination of US politics by the Dems and the GOP. Capitalism relies on competition between providers of a service or product to ensure that the customers (us) get the best service or product for the lowest cost. But over time, the two-party dominated system has evolved into something that suffers from the same drawbacks as a monopoly. Because there isn’t enough competition in the system to ensure quality and accountability, both have steadily declined.
Imagine you’re a consumer in the market for a TV. For many years, there have only been two manufactures, and each of them has about half the market cornered, either through brand loyalty or, more likely, through simple lack of awareness of alternatives. Both of them make faulty, unreliable TVs, but instead of trying to compete for a greater market share by making better TVs, each simply spends its resources trying to undermine the public image of the other. It’s easier to make the other guy look bad than to build a better TV. This is exactly the fix we’re in with the Dems and the GOP running the show.
Yes, the Dems and GOP do compete against each other, with vigor even. In fact, their motivation for trumping one another is part of the problem because it has completely usurped good policy making as the priority. The party with the upper hand at any given time is most focused on maintaining the upper hand. The trailing party is most focused on gaining the lead. When one side proposes a new piece of legislation, the other side doesn’t even ask, “is this law good for the public; does it make sense?” Instead, the first consideration is which stance on the proposed legislation will result in the greatest leverage and power, i.e. “do we have to support it and look magnanimous, or can we stonewall them and make them look inept?” Competition within politics will only be beneficial if it is a competition for providing better public service. Their skewed, maniacal priorities have led to an unwholesome competition that is causing the decline of our nation.
It is also important to realize that the competition is often directed at a very narrow range of issues, mainly cultural: gay marriage, abortion, religion in schools, etc. These are all issues that elicit a strong emotional response, distracting the majority of the public from the issues that are not up for debate. For instance, why hasn’t the Glass-Steagall Act been reinstated to separate investor banks from depository banks and build greater stability into the financial sector? Why is government oversight of industry so limited, and why are the appointed regulators frequently drawn from companies they’re supposed to regulate? Why are there military contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq getting paid much more than our troops to do jobs that our troops are trained to do?
The entrenchment of the two leading parties has lead to systematically corrupt, crony capitalism via lobbying and campaign contributions. In simpler terms, our politicians are bought and paid for by those with money, i.e. not you. You don’t have the money it takes to buy influence, so they aren’t enacting legislation or making decisions about policy for your benefit. The wealthy get the politicians elected, and the politicians make sure the wealthy stay wealthy. It’s an opportunistic cycle of power, and you’re not part of it.
Perhaps you are a registered Democrat, happy to decry corporate ownership of the Republican party, proud to stand with the party that represents the interests of and fights tirelessly for the lowest rung, the abused and downtrodden, the otherwise voiceless poor… Shenanigans! You have been fleeced. What you think you know about the Democratic Party once may have been true, but starting sometime in the late 1970s, they very unceremoniously forfeited their virtue. They were losing too many elections to the better (corporate) funded Republicans, and they thought, “hey, why shouldn’t we get corporate funding too?” The seemingly obvious conflict of interest must not have occurred to them, I guess, because they jumped right into bed with the corporations like a floozy on prom night. Watch An Unreasonable Man. About an hour into the film, you’ll see footage of a big mixer set up to introduce Democratic candidates to corporate representatives. So awesome.
Or maybe you’re comfortably prosperous, and you vote Republican because you don’t want to be singled out by the Democrats and saddled with more than your fair share of taxes, especially since the money will just go to lazy people gaming the social programs set up by the Dems. Well, do you remember this link from above? According to the data presented by Professor Domhoff, the bottom 40% of the population (that’s over 100 million Americans) controls less than 0.5% of the nation’s wealth. For all of the alleged gaming of our social programs, those swindlers and grifters don’t seem to be amassing a great deal of wealth.
Here’s another fun fact: David Brooks recently gave a TED talk in which he quotes a poll indicating that 19% of Americans think they’re within the top 1% of earners. Now, I might not be so good at, “the maths,” but something there doesn’t add up. Why are many Americans so worried about the statistically insignificant dent made by social program freeloaders? And why are so many Americans convinced they’re much wealthier than they are? In this, the Republican Party has been very clever. We Americans are a supremely confident and independent lot, and the Republicans have managed to manipulate these feelings to get us to identify with their agenda. They’re playing on our pride.
Imagine, for instance, the titanic volume of misconception that arises when the population hears that a proposed tax increase would affect just the wealthiest 10% of the nation. If 19% of Americans believe they’re within the top 1% of earners, how many mistakenly believe they’re within the top 10%? I don’t know the number, but let’s estimate 40% for a quick thought experiment. By that estimate, 30% of the population would be mistakenly fighting a tax increase that wouldn’t even affect them (the 40% that think they’re in the top minus the 10% that actually are). In a population of about 217 million adults, that’s around 65 million voters supporting a Republican agenda that isn’t even aimed at helping them. And what’s worse is that this proposed tax hike would loom more threateningly to those 65 million voters precisely because they don’t have as much money as the people the tax hike would actually affect.
If you’re reasonably successful and think the Republicans are trying to protect your paycheck from tax hikes, statistically speaking, you’re probably wrong. Again, you’re not one of the people that they’re trying to help. But it’s important to them that you think you are.
So where does this leave you? Well basically, unless you’re a corporation or someone independently wealthy enough to buy influence through campaign contributions and lobbyists, it leaves you without representation in your government. I don’t know about you, but that pisses me off more than a little. I’m so upset that I’m even writing a blog. That’s serious business.
In the meantime, you vote for your side (or more likely, simply against the side you think is worse) as though it can make a difference. Maybe you don’t even think it will make a difference, but you’re not sure what else to do. Of one thing I am certain, if we continue this way, if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, nothing will change, just as it has continued to not change for several years. We cannot do exactly the same thing over and over again and hope that next time, miraculously, the result will be different. And yet, that is how we’ve been approaching this problem. We do this for the very simple reason that we’ve let the Democrats and Republicans convince us that they’re our only options. They are not.
So let’s get right to it. From this point forward I will no longer vote for Republican or Democratic candidates. I don’t care how good the candidates appear to be; if they’re running for one of the two leading parties, I refuse to vote for them. If they want my vote, they’ll run on a different ticket. And yes, I do think there are some genuinely good public servants among them. But a vote for anyone running as a Democrat or Republican is a vote to keep things the same, to continue on the path that has led the US to where it is today: in economic crisis with no elected representation in the government really willing to fight for the reform and regulations necessary to prevent the kind of economic collapse we just experienced. (Aside: Watch Inside Job to get a good idea of what happened with the economy. You can tell it must be cool because it’s narrated by super spy Jason Bourne.)
I implore you to do the same. Boycott the Dems and the GOP. Not only that, encourage others to boycott them as well. We need to do things differently if we want things to turn out differently. Voting for third party candidates, not as a form of symbolic protest, but to actually get them in office is the key. We need to break the monopoly that the Dems and the GOP hold on politics. We need new players that aren’t part of the systematic cycle of corruption. If enough third party candidates of varying ideologies are elected into office at every level, something wonderful can happen: competition between politicians can be revived, competition to best serve the public through the heartfelt pursuit of ideals, rather than a useless rivalry for control.
If you’re thinking right now that third party candidates can never play a serious role, then you’re part of the problem: a self-fulfilling, pessimistic prophecy. I can’t fault you for this; I felt the same way, and for a long time, I voted for the lesser of two evils (though my opinion on which side that was changed over time). I didn’t realize how bad things had gotten until collapsing banks and government bailouts piqued my interest in economics. Several months of subsequent research revealed to me that we’d long ago lost the balance of ideology in government that kept us centered.
If I can change, then so can you. And if you can change, others can as well. Realizing that is the key. If Crocs and Silly Bandz can catch on, then so can political movements aimed at constructive change. In fact, this might not be as difficult as you’d first assume. Ideas can be spread on the ground floor from person to person. What we need is to get enough people on board with the idea to reach what’s called (by Malcolm Gladwell, among others) the Tipping Point, the threshold level of saturation after which spread of the idea will increase exponentially.
Look at it this way. If you commit to voting only for third party candidates and encourage others to do likewise, what is the worst thing that could happen? Failure. Not getting enough people to follow suit. In which case, nothing would change… exactly what will happen if you don’t do anything at all. No one likes to fail, but the risk in this case is certainly outweighed by the potential gain. So stop whining about how improbable it is and start making it probable. Effect change. Be part of the solution. Vote third party and get others to vote third party. Push to revive competition, and thereby increase quality, in public service. If you do, we can get our country back on a path toward fulfilling its potential. And that would really be something.
UPDATE, 12 May 2012 - for anyone on facebook, we’ve just put up a community page to support boycotting the Dems and GOP. It’s called Vote Off-Brand (to avoid confusion with the political party actually named “3rd Party”). Like it, link to it, support it, shout it from the mountain top, please. Let’s get this thing rolling.
Previously, I discussed the need to move towards a more science-centric focus in the public school education system. The goal of this proposed strategy is to produce future generations of voters that will better understand the sociological and political issues that affect them, allowing them to make better informed decisions. However, I did not discuss the more pressing issue: the inability of the current public education system to efficiently educate students, regardless of the educational focus or philosophy. This is a complex and delicate issue to address, so I initially avoided it pretty much as hard as I could.
Hesitance aside, I did mention that I wanted to address this topic in a follow-up entry (spoiler alert: it’s about to happen). While it seems prudent to approach this topic with care, it should definitely be discussed because the ramifications of better education in the US would be far reaching. The US is still the most powerful nation on the planet. The path it takes in the future will continue to affect not only its own populace, but the rest of the world as well. Having an educated voter base to properly guide future policy-making in the US could significantly impact the world as a whole. Avoiding the discussion about the current public education system would be easier on me, but it won’t help anything along. Also, Bill Murray is kind of a hero of mine, so following the precedent he bravely set, I’m just going to take a bite out of this turd and hope it turns out to be a Baby Ruth.
As always, the first thing is to understand the problem at hand. For anyone unfamiliar with the current state of affairs in public education, I recommend the documentary Waiting for Superman. It comprehensively presents a certain perspective on the current problems, a perspective that resoundingly rings true to me. Like anything of this nature, it is important for one to watch this film with a critical eye, especially if the issue is something with which one is unfamiliar.
In general, this is the case with any issue. An opinion based on information gleaned from a broader range of sources is more likely to be an accurate reflection of reality. Reliance upon a single source of information can result in startlingly biased opinions that inevitably hamper progress. For instance, it likely wouldn’t work to our advantage if an alien species based its opinion of the entire human race on nothing but episodes of Jersey Shore.
At the heart of the debate over public education, one finds the teachers unions (TUs), which it stands to reason, have a vested interest in the debate. As it turns out however, their interest may not stem from the purest of motivations. This is where the matter becomes easily clouded. TUs are surprisingly powerful and influential in policy making and swaying public opinion. Stated more directly, they skim quite a bit of money from teacher paychecks, and they spend a lot of it lobbying.
In the arena of public debate, the TUs have managed to make their interests seem inextricably tied to the interests of students and teachers, accusing anyone speaking against their policies of being set against teachers, education and even students. Superficially, this correlation may seem logical, which is why it is so easy for the TUs to manipulate public opinion. In this way, the TUs cleverly set the stage of the debate, making it difficult for anyone to speak out against them.
However, a deeper look reveals that the policies of the TUs are aimed simply at maintaining the power and influence they have accumulated. These policies do not favor excellence in teaching, thereby working against better education in our schools. Two policies stand out as the most egregious and counterproductive.
First, the TUs have set a policy to treat all teachers as exactly the same, like interchangeable units. No allowances or provisions are made for paying highly motivated, better performing teachers more as a reward for their demonstrated merit and effort. The only difference from one teacher to another is the amount of time each has put into teaching, i.e. seniority.
Second, the TUs have made it somewhere ranging from extremely difficult to nearly impossible (varying from state to state) for administrators to fire teachers for doing their jobs poorly. In fact, this policy is made necessary by the first policy. So hey, at least they’re internally consistent with their counterproductive strategies. Allowing administration enough elbowroom to eliminate bad teachers would, in essence, be admitting that not all teachers are equal. And that admission would undermine the whole premise that teachers should be paid (or retained during layoffs) according to seniority, rather than any other parameter.
It isn’t difficult to see where these terrible policies inevitably lead. The bad teachers are the ones that benefit the most from the TUs, and they do so at the expense of the good teachers. Thankfully, there seem to still be a number of truly motivated and dedicated teachers, willing to shoulder the added burden of keeping the dead weight afloat. I was lucky enough to have a few of these in the front of the classroom when I was in high school. They deserved much better than the compensation they received, unlike my world history teacher. He did nothing but read from the book, flirt with cheerleaders and lose my homework, that stupid, pervy jerk. But he had tenure, so case closed.
The whole system of compensation is designed in a way that will attract the lazy and complacent while repelling the motivated and accomplished. This is why teaching in the US is often thought of as a fall back if nothing better is available. The job is not respected because a large enough fraction of the people doing the job are not respectable. If not for the idealists, our schools would lack competent teachers entirely. But the idealism of the true believers can only carry the system so far.
Not only does the current system support teachers that lack merit, the problems with education are likewise blamed on everyone in the system ubiquitously. Thus, when there is a backlash, it’s against all teachers, making the job even less rewarding for those truly excellent teachers that should rather be lauded.
For instance, Wisconsin is currently going about reform in education in entirely the wrong way. They see the schools not doing well, and they want to indiscriminately punish the teachers for this by decreasing their benefits and compensation. But this is exactly the same strategy that led to the current problems, i.e. treating teachers as fungible units. Again, instilling this view of teachers as interchangeable is a proudly stated goal of the TUs. So ironically, I guess the TUs are getting their way, and now all teachers in Wisconsin, good or bad, will be treated equally poorly. This decaying system of diminishing rewards will now attract fewer highly qualified people, as they’ll be more likely to find greater rewards elsewhere. Somehow, I do not think this strategy will improve education in Wisconsin.
It would be much more effective to dissolve enough of the union power to allow administrations to hire and fire as needed and pay teachers differentially, according to merit. The public sector would then only need to worry about calling school administrations to task, as they’d actually have the power necessary to make a difference; micromanagement of such things as teaching certification would be unnecessary.
Evidence of the effectiveness of this type of strategy can be found among charter schools. While charter schools are a controversial topic, the issues surrounding them can be easily understood if viewed from the right perspective. The lesson to be learned from the relative successes and failures of charter schools is that it all comes down to the quality of the teachers. Normal public schools have no efficient way to get rid of bad teachers, so the system is saddled with them. Charter schools, however, usually aren’t constrained in the same way.
Yet, some charter schools fail miserably, and many perform no better than their normal public school counterparts. Such cases are inappropriately used by the TUs to vindicate the control they exercise over public school administrations. While having the ability to efficiently get rid of bad teachers is necessary, it is by no means a magic recipe that guarantees success; it just opens the door to the possibility of achieving success. Charter schools with determined and dedicated administrations that do a good job of finding determined and dedicated teachers succeed phenomenally. Those that don’t, don’t.
Everything I’ve researched thus far leads to the same conclusions, but all of that said and done, there is apparently another side to the story that warrants investigation. Recently Diane Ravitch was on the Daily Show to talk about her book, which apparently exonerates teachers and their collectivized bargaining, at least in part. I mention it here because I want to give fair representation to any possible opposition to the arguments I’m presenting. I haven’t gotten to her book yet, but it’s on my list of books to read.
During Ravitch’s interview, she mentioned the well known correlation between poverty and poor performance in schools. She seemed to feel the focus should be on ending child poverty instead of weeding out bad teachers, but she didn’t mention how this should be done. Maybe the solution is in her book. Now then, some people might call me crazy (and those people might not be wrong) but even so, I tend to think that educating kids will help them escape impoverished conditions. Furthermore, it would be difficult to even call this a chicken-and-egg type of problem, as Waiting for Superman makes note of several charter schools, like the ones started by Geoffrey Canada, that are undoing the correlation between poverty and poorly performing students.
Ravitch also told a story about a school principal she talked to that had, over the course of many years, overseen something on the order of three hundred teachers. In that time, the principle came across just one teacher that was truly unfit to teach. The principle managed to, “get rid,” of that teacher, though it isn’t made clear if the teacher was actually fired or was simply shuffled over to another district. In any case, I was the pupil of far fewer than three hundred teachers in all my years of schooling, and the number of unfit teachers I encountered was much higher.
Of course, both of our stories are anecdotal, but given the longstanding ineffectiveness of the public education system, I tend to think my experience more closely represents the mean. That being said, I do feel Ravitch’s book merits study with an open mind. Perhaps I will need to readdress this issue later, if her book manages to convince me that my current thinking is flawed. It’s certainly possible.
The debate over public schools is nothing new. If things like Waiting for Superman catch on with a broad enough audience, reform might be plausible within the not too distant future. Then again, the entire approach to education might be on the cusp of a change that could make this seemingly endless debate completely irrelevant.
Sal Khan is on a mission to make education freely available to anyone with an internet connection via his Khan Academy. He gave a TED talk, which is probably the best summary for anyone unfamiliar with his work, describing how he began, how it is organized and his vision for affecting education in the future (additional reading here). I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that Khan Academy is one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
Khan proposes a new methodology for teaching in which the students are assigned Khan Academy lectures for homework. The problems normally assigned as homework can then be worked through in the classroom to reinforce the material learned at home from the online lectures. The advantages of the system are numerous and better explained by Khan himself in the TED talk linked above. The important point here, something Khan is perhaps too polite to say directly, is that Khan Academy can facilitate education even in classrooms run by less than inspirational teachers.
While the rest of the world, including me, gets short of breath vehemently arguing the issue, Khan may just side-step the whole mess by changing the playing field instead of the players. Brilliant. And maybe a typical example of how the world works.
But if not, I think it’s time to start firing bad teachers, and paying good ones more. Just throwing it out there.
Of Saints and Scientists
The public arena is a veritable frenzy of debate over issues that require at least some background in science to be fully understood, things like stem cell research, energy policy, and environmental policy, to name just a few. Unfortunately, many of the most outspoken participants in such debates lack an adequate background in science to develop informed opinions or constructive political platforms. At the same time, the scientists participating in public debate are frequently drowned out and ignored as so much other background noise. However, that might be avoided if there were not so few scientists speaking out.
Prosperity in the future may be the providence of science and technology, but merely knowing more about many of the issues that affect society does not de facto qualify the practitioners of science for canonization. In actuality, it is precisely their unique perspective on such things that one could argue (and I do, right here) gives them a greater responsibility to speak out, be involved and contribute to the social debate. If the people that know most about an issue remain silent, what hope is there to truly find a resolution? Like Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Why then is it that more scientists do not get involved and try to make a difference? Well, possibly contrary to popular belief, scientists are people too; that is, they’re human. It may be that among humans, scientists have on average an even greater disinclination towards partaking in social debate and possibly falling under the public eye. This might be surprising to some, but scientists generally are not known to be the life of the party. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe they aren’t invited to enough parties, so they never have a chance.
Even if they were known for being adept in social situations, though, it wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d be more active in politics and public debate. In fact, social responsibility and activism are challenging for nearly everyone. Whatever prevents more scientists from being involved isn’t a problem unique to scientists. So the key to understanding this impasse lies in understanding a couple of things about human nature in general (not just scientists).
Humans, like all animals, are motivated by incentive (nice explanation in Freakonomics). Evolution was keen to pare from the range of human behavioral traits, any tendencies to invest more energy than is absolutely necessary to obtain resources and reproduce. This is in order to conserve energy; it’s a simple matter of efficiency. Any members of the species that expended more energy than was necessary either did not survive or had fewer offspring. Expending less effort to gain resources and reproduce means that there is energy left over which can then be spent gaining additional resources and reproducing more.
Viewed from a different angle, these same human instincts urge laziness whenever possible. If no lions, bears or tigers are threatening the family, and all the kids have been well fed, there is no need to expend more energy. That’s the caveman equivalent of Miller Time. Expending more energy means needing to find and eat more food to replace that energy. Throughout evolutionary history, resources like food were not nearly as abundant as today, so conserving was a matter of survival. Now agriculture provides abundant food, and most of the lions are in cages (and also well fed). In this time of prosperity and plenty relative to the nomadic days of hunting and gathering, laziness is frequently an option. Without a significant incentive to do more, it’s very easy to succumb to the urge to do nothing.
That’s the thing about social activism. It requires a significant input of energy. To invest that energy without a reasonable expectation of some kind of return simply goes against the hard-wired, genetic programming, handed down to everyone by ancestors that survived harsher circumstances. The potential for return is there, or would be if enough of the right people jumped into the fray to be clearly heard over the rukus of the ignorant. On issues like energy policy, the right people happen to be scientists. More scientists need to start speaking up.
*This is just a metaphor… (but it really happened**).
**Just joking… (but seriously).
Whether it’s from a bombardment of Hollywood pseudo-science, a lack of proper education in the public school system, or maybe some alien plot to mentally hobble us before the invasion (probably that), a significant portion of the population in the US treats science like a kind of mysticism. This results in a couple of problems that can (and do) invoke blinding rage in those that are well educated in the natural and physical sciences (like me). It’s all too common to hear someone lacking a proper education in rigorous scientific methods spouting off and invoking the name of Science to support a claim that is completely unfounded (and obviously unscientific, though that might not be obvious to those without a background in science). But lacking an education in science doesn’t make someone stupid. Granted, someone might lack an education in science and be stupid, but those are separate variables.
(Aside: Though presumably rare, it is not completely unheard of for someone to be both formally educated in the natural and physical sciences and stupid. Sadly, it happens. I’ve seen it. It isn’t pretty.)
So when smart but non-scientific people hear obviously outlandish claims, purportedly proven or supported by science, they unfortunately may not know enough about science or the scientific community to know the people making the outlandish claims are not scientists (or at least not good ones). The result is that a lot of smart people end up doubting or even completely dismissing perfectly valid scientific research because they are not armed with the tools necessary to differentiate between the truth and the crap. Since no one wants to be made to feel foolish, rather than trying to tell the difference between the valid claims and the invalid claims, it can be easier to just treat it all with equal mistrust.
At the same time, there are also people that lack an adequate background in science but are eager to waive the banner high and vigorously nonetheless. Without the ability to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the outright insane, they answer the call to arms, indiscriminately defending anything of self-proclaimed scientific merit. Charlatans and snake oil salesmen continue to successfully peddle their causes and wares as the products of science, creating a dishearteningly confusing environment, because it works on some people. These pseudo-science con artist antics try. my. patience.
If that isn’t dysfunctional enough, the mystical powers attributed to science and its anticipated advancement are used, by otherwise very reasonable people, as currency to back blank checks signed against the future. I commonly encounter this type of reasoning: “I know it’s good to save energy, but I don’t have to worry about it so much because someday in the near future, scientists will figure out cold fusion.” Or, “I know I should sort my recycling from my waste, but I heard scientists are actually working on a way to convert garbage into a renewable energy source.” And my favorite, “Why would I worry about gas supplies running out? Scientists and engineers have already developed cars that can run on hydrogen, and there is plenty of hydrogen in the ocean. It’s all just a corporate-government conspiracy.”
The problem here is that many people know just enough about science to start in the right direction, but very soon after forging ahead with their reasoning, they end up way off the map. Science doesn’t work the way it appears in the movies. I’ve never seen a movie boring enough to accurately portray science. Once, on a flight from San Francisco to Heathrow, I couldn’t fall asleep, and I had to sit through Evita, an assault on my will to live that lasted over two hours. But even that heinous movie wasn’t as boring as would be a movie accurately portraying scientific research.
It’s pretty boring, is what I’m saying (and also, Evita was a really terrible movie).
Most of the time, scientific advancement creeps forward through unrelenting, painstaking research. The sheer volume of monotony researchers are willing to endure would probably baffle an outside observer, but people that can’t get dates are really motivated to fill the void. On rare, blessed occasions, a discovery of sufficient magnitude to be considered a breakthrough occurs. And while history has played witness to game-changing, paradigm-altering discoveries, these are truly far between. Einstein published his general theory of relativity ninety-five years ago, and it’s still big news. Tragically, talking about it still doesn’t get scientists dates.
It is possible that tomorrow, a team of dedicated scientists will make a remarkable discovery that facilitates the development of cold fusion, and humankind will be on the precipice of a new, sustainable era, free from its dependence on fossil fuels. It’s also possible that a hundred years could pass without anyone cracking that egg. So it’s really best not to count on it when we’re planning for the future.
These swift leaps in advancement are the only kind in cinema. It’s necessary in order to make it entertaining, and that is forgivable. But that, coupled with an abysmally incorrect understanding of actual, known scientific principles, results in some of the tragic garbage produced by Hollywood today. So people expect scientists to discover ways to do things that are already known to be impossible, and they expect this to happen any day now. But is it fair to blame all of this on Hollywood?
No. Hollywood isn’t to blame. It certainly isn’t helping matters at all, but it’s only playing to the standard the audience has set. The movie watching public has placed the bar low, so Hollywood doesn’t have to jump very high to clear it. Bad science in cinema propagates misinformation, but it isn’t the origin of the problem. If the audience had a better idea of what is and is not actually, physically possible, then Hollywood would have to raise its standard. A science fiction film would still need to draw on those unlikely paradigm-altering leaps in technology to stay interesting, but at least the science could be constrained to the realm of what has not already been proven impossible.
The root of the problem is a general lack of rigor in science education. This creates the initial vulnerability that can be exploited by any type of pseudo-science shenanigans, be they trivialities, like bad movie plots, or very serious matters, like inaccurate facts regarding issues that affect the entire planet (for instance: climate change, also here). A positive feedback loop is created (a downward spiral); as misinformation is spread, the state of confusion and contention intensifies because a significant portion of the population cannot distinguish which data is reliable and which is contrived. With no way to determine the difference, people take stances for one side or the other, on issues of great importance to society, based solely on biased beliefs and unsubstantiated opinions, rather than data and facts. What results is a social climate where any outlandish opinion may take hold. The voices of the scientists that should be leading the way are lost in the din.
The argument I usually hear is generally something like: “Why push people that will become lawyers, sculptors, office managers or whatever to learn more science? It won’t help them do their jobs, so they don’t need it. Of course you think people need a better education in science; you’re a scientist.”
I won’t rule out bias entirely, but my interest in science is not mutually exclusive of an interest in the arts or other pursuits (case in point: I blog). I do not undervalue or lack respect for other professions. But in addition to being the chosen field of a group of professionals, science also happens to be fundamental in understanding the physical world in which people live. (This isn’t a new idea.) I’m not saying everyone needs a profound understanding of quantum mechanics. But enough of a scientific basis to allow a majority of the population to sort the facts that are genuinely supported by research from the unsubstantiated opinions would move society forward by leaps and bounds. If a majority of the populace cannot be confused and divided against itself on such important issues, society will be one step closer to freeing itself from the stagnation that prevents real progress. Plus, sci-fi movies will get better.
For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that I’m not talking about the across-the-board educational deficiencies that unfortunately exist in the US public school system today. That is a separate topic that I hope to address at a later date. What I’m suggesting is a shift in the philosophical focus of school curricula. Students that have a reasonable grasp on the nature of the world around them are empowered to achieve greater success in any endeavor they choose. This should be emphasized and clearly stated in the pedagogic goals of the public K-12 education system.
The students that go on to become musicians or painters might (quite happily, I’m sure) never again use the atomic mass of helium in conjunction with the ideal gas law to calculate the approximate mass of helium in a given volume. But they’ll forever be much better equipped to avoid intellectual swindling in public discourse. And the analytical and reasoning skills the students developed to work their way through those problems will serve them every time they have any kind problem to solve (i.e. daily, for the rest of their lives). Such problem solving skills are ubiquitously applicable.
In a world where progress is technology-driven and technology is inextricably integrated into every day life, it is absurd for a substantial portion of the population to not have at least a basic understanding of the science behind it all. It is a severe lack of necessary functionality, and the symptoms of this are apparent in any public debate involving science, everything from climate change to stem cell research. This needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
I’m going to finish here with a bit of a tangent. I want to clear up a couple of glaring, abominable misconceptions. First, it isn’t possible to use humans, or any other organisms that aren’t autotrophs, as an energy source (sorry, Matrix, the whole premise of your plot is crap*). Second, producing hydrogen gas from water and then combusting that gas will not result in a net gain of energy (not sorry, Chain Reaction, your jumbling of unrelated ideas was entirely awful, and you were an unforgivably bad movie anyway). Both grievously violate the laws of thermodynamics and thus are indisputably impossible. Unless you sacrifice two male goats during a full moon on a Tuesday. But we don’t do that anymore because that’s dark Science. And we ran out of eye of newt.
*I still think Matrix is an awesome movie.