Tuesday, May 25, 2010

communist and corporatist kitsch

The other day, I had a cup of "The People's Green Tea" made by the The Republic of Tea (those nice cylindrical tins with the paper wrappers you can get at Whole Foods).  The branding of the tea seems intentionally to invoke the People's Republic of China and Maoist simplicity.  And I got to thinking -- communism and communist kitsch is irresistible to corporate marketers because communism is fundamentally aspirational and communal.  Marketers know that people want not just a product but an experience, a brand that appeals to their aspirations in life.  Furthermore, people want connection with others.  And communism supplies a readily recognizable utopian ideal and communal emphasis.  Which is kinda fascinating when you think about it -- that both communism and corporatism are appeal to the same fundamental human desires for transcendence and connection. 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

the measure of a relationship

For me, the measure of any relationship -- romantic, friendship, work, family -- is that when we have a disagreement, can we talk about it thoroughly and openly enough such that we are able to reach a higher synthesis?  The ideal synthesis speaks to the relative truth of both of our positions while transcending our prior partial views on the matter.  I think we've all had relationships where people come to loggerheads and have to "agree to disagree" (permanent stalemate) or find ways to water each other down through some sort of lowest common denominator compromise (where neither person gets what he or she wants).  But those sorts of compromises, don't strike me as sustainable (I suppose they are sustainable in the very very short term but they fall apart in the short, medium, and long term). 

For me some of the greatest joys in life come from talking through something in a way that leads to an "aha moment" -- the intimacy of discovering a new higher truth bigger than the one we held before.  I've had jobs where my boss and I traded drafts (of grant proposals, press releases, speeches, etc.) back and forth -- and each person's ideas sparked a new burst of creativity and discovery in the other.  And I've also had jobs where the boss just had not done his/her (personal psychological) work, wasn't a great writer, or was just a dick -- where each disagreement led to stalemate or a series of lowest common denominator compromises until the draft was incoherent.  The same thing happens in friendships, intimate relationships, family relationships, etc. -- some are characterized by heart dialogue and higher synthesis and some are characterized by endless conflict and unresolved disagreement.  The higher synthesis relationships make me feel happy to be alive while it seems to me that the endlessly conflicted ones are not really worth spending much effort on because that relationship is not gonna be sustainable for any length of time anyway.

Over time, you can tell pretty quickly who you can riff and improvise with and who you can't.  And in the very best relationships, you are doing the dance of thesis, antithesis, synthesis all the time without a lot of conflict or disagreement because you've created enough space (trust + love + communication) for an ever-unfolding dialogue of exploration and discovery. 

I guess this makes me a Hegelian (thesis, antithesis, synthesis).  [And my boy Ken Wilber borrows this idea from Hegel and adopts it to Buddhism (even though I don't think it has anything to do with Buddhism -- the steps towards transcendence in Buddhism seem to go thesis, antithesis, nothingness, everythingness).]  But really it's Marx too -- Marx borrowed from Hegel, believing that the march of history consisted of thesis, antithesis, (higher) synthesis.

For me, one of the best resources for learning how to have the sort of dialogue that can lead to a higher synthesis is the book: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What if one could look up the credit score of every company -- just like they are able to look up the credit scores of customers?

All of us are walking around with a credit score hanging over our heads.  If you go to make any major purchase on credit -- a car or house -- even renting an apartment or applying for a credit card -- the lender will want to know your credit score.  A credit score is a measure of character -- it gives a numerical value for how trustworthy you are based solely on your past history.  It gives the lender a reasonable understanding of his/her/its risk and the likelihood that you will repay the loan.

Which I guess is fine as far as that goes.

But when I'm looking to buy a mutual fund, where is the credit score that tells me how trustworthy the financial services company is?  When I go to buy a car, where's the credit score that tells me how likely it is that company will follow through on its warranty?  When I buy a house, where is the credit score that tells me how trustworthy the builder is?  

See, the odd thing about our market economy is that it is completely asymmetrical.  Consumers, regular human beings, are all walking around with a number over our heads (instantly available online) that tells lenders exactly how much we're good for.  But there is no objective measure that tells us whether the company on the other side of the deal is trustworthy or not. In short, labor and consumers are graded, but in our capitalist system, capital itself never gets graded (which is how they are able to steal your 401(k), the U.S. Treasury, and the wealth of the entire planet...). 

That's really the problem with Wall Street right now.  There is no objective measure that tells us the credit score of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley etc.  That's why Retail Investors are Fleeing the Stock Market and YTD Domestic Flows Into Stocks Are Negative. Indeed if these companies were given a credit score based on their past history -- no one would ever do business with them again because they are not creditworthy.  That's the crazy thing about the present political moment -- the U.S. and the E.U. are throwing trillions of dollars at companies that, if they were a person, would not qualify for even the most basic entry-level credit card. 

In some ways then, Yelp and Zagat's Guide and Consumer Reports and Edmunds Car Buyers Guides and even customer reviews on Amazon.com are an attempt by people to create a credit score for companies and products.  But it still seems to me that there is an ENORMOUS UNMET DEMAND for a single trustworthy measure of the creditworthiness of major corporations themselves (not a particular product that the company sells -- but the company itself).  And really, if we could build a system to score the trustworthiness of each corporation, it could become the basis for reregulation the economy --  requiring every company to live up to the highest standards of creditworthiness or lose their license to operate in our economy.

Update #1Branding is an attempt, by corporations, to finesse the issue of creditworthiness -- to create the impression and emotional sensation of trust, without any bona fide data to back it up.  In fact, branding is the opposite of creditworthiness in a way -- in human terms it's the equivalent of a person applying for a credit card saying, 'don't bother researching my credit history -- look at how pretty I am!'  Branding intentionally lights up the emotional parts of the brain associated with desire so that we will turn off the rational parts of the brain used to assess risk -- in order to sell products at a higher profit margin.  So at the core then of the capitalist system there is this disconnect (between the brand image and the actual product itself), this built in incentive to lie in order to generate ever higher profits.  Thus one of the key functions of the public sector is to reign in this impulse to lie that always appears in the marketplace.  That's the point of regulation, to correct for the defects that are an inherent part of a market economy.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

going to church vs. seeing a psychologist

Okay last post for the day...

A while back I spoke with a friend who used to be a church pastor but who now does one-on-one (psychological) counseling with people.  I asked her which one she preferred.  "Oh being a counselor is soooo much better than being a pastor!" she said. Surprised, I asked her why.  She explained that when people come to church, they are looking to sit back and be entertained.  When someone goes for counseling, they are looking to do work, they are looking to grow and change and become a better person. 

That conversation has really stuck with me because it rings true from my experience. 

And it got me wondering whether perhaps, the purpose of religion is NOT to help people become more ethical, but rather to make people feel righteous about stuff they are already doing (usually homophobia, male domination, reinforcing the status quo, etc.)

Because really when you think about it, religious people are some of the LEAST ethical people in society.  Ask any waitress in America about the horrible tips from people who come to brunch straight from church and you'll see what I'm talking about.  And people who really want to grow, who really want to challenge themselves, and who really want to change who they are to become better people -- almost always go see a counselor/therapist to help them get there.  It's really quite fascinating. 

Please boycott the American Cancer Society

Talk about being a card carrying member of the veal pen, Holy shit! 

This week, the White House released an advanced copy of a report from the President’s Cancer Panel.  It's surprisingly good.  Among the findings:

It calls on America to rethink the way we confront cancer, including much more rigorous regulation of chemicals. Traditionally, we reduce cancer risks through regular doctor visits, self-examinations and screenings such as mammograms. The President’s Cancer Panel suggests other eye-opening steps as well, such as giving preference to organic food, checking radon levels in the home and microwaving food in glass containers rather than plastic.

More importantly, the report suggests that the dangers of cancer from chemicals in the environment are a huge problem that deserves more attention.

“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”

The President’s Cancer Panel report will give a boost to Senator Feinstein’s efforts. It may also help the prospects of the Safe Chemicals Act, backed by Senator Frank Lautenberg and several colleagues, to improve the safety of chemicals on the market.

Finally, finally(!) we have a rigorous scientific study that will get lots of attention and begin the process of regulating some of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals in our environment that are untested and unregulated -- and likely causing cancer in children and adults.

So what does the American Cancer Society do with this good news? In a statement this week they poured cold water all over it and said it went too far:

A dire government report on cancer risks from chemicals and other hazards in the environment has drawn criticism from the American Cancer Society, which says government experts are overstating their case. 

WTF!?  Complete and total insanity.  Or rather, this is what your brain looks like on corporatism. 

The American Cancer Society is one of the wealthiest non-profits in the world.  For every $1 spent on direct service, approximately $6.40 is spent on compensation and overhead.  Their board is chock full of wealthy corporatists and pharmaceutical executives who don't make money on prevention -- they only make money on new drugs to treat cancer.  So faced with the opportunity to REDUCE cancer by regulating synthetic chemicals in the environment that may cause cancer, the American Cancer Society says "no thanks."

That's cool.  Fuck 'em.  If the American Cancer Society won't step up to prevent and reduce toxins in the environment (for fear it would hurt the interests of their corporate board members) then I say we boycott their ass. 

So please don't give money to the American Cancer Society -- no matter how nice those return address labels they send you for free in the mail might be.  Thanks!  

Also if the American Cancer Society wants to be the PR firm for wealth industrialists (read: toxic polluters) and pharmaceutical companies, that's fine.  But they should have their 501(c)(3) non-profit status revoked as a result.   

Update #1:  Yeah, yeah I know that the American Cancer Society statement was kinda nuanced and said a few nice things about regulation as well.  But they also knew full well that they are an issue validator (meaning that people look to them to lead on the issue of cancer -- and if they don't choose to lead on a particular fight, no one else is going to get out further in front than they are. Issue validators, because they are closer to the issue than the general public, give the signal to the wider community when something is worth fighting and when it is not).  And when Dr. Michael Thun, an epidemiologist from the cancer society, posts a statement calling the report unbalanced -- they knew full well how it would be used in the debate to knock down attempts at regulation.  It's really quite shameful. 

If you want to reduce cancer causing toxic chemicals in the environment, please donate to the Environmental Working Group instead.

Update #2.  Apparently, this is not the first time that the American Cancer Society has gone out of its way to oppose efforts to alert the public about environmental causes of cancer.  From the May 10, 2010 edition of the New York Times:

New York unveiled what it billed as the nation’s first comprehensive statewide cancer map, which became available Monday on the Web site of the State Department of Health. The creation of the map was opposed by the American Cancer Society when it was proposed two years ago...

It's really hard to overstate how completely vile it is for a group called the American Cancer Society to go out of its way to shield industrial polluters from scrutiny, so that the the pharmaceutical companies on their board can make more money. 

Charles Murray finally admits that school choice isn't about performance, it's about ideology

For decades conservatives have been telling anyone who would listen that U.S. needed to destroy the entire public education system in this country and replace it with a system of vouchers whereby parents could send their kids to any school -- public or private.  We were told that if schools were forced to compete with each other, the magic of the market would naturally lead to better schools and improved test scores.  Never mind that this same market just pissed your 401(k) down the drain while enriching Goldman Sachs and destroying the global financial system almost overnight.

Progressives correctly recognized the wolf in sheep's clothing -- vouchers would be a subsidy to conservative families who already pull their kids out of public schools to send them to religious schools.  And progressives knew that the vouchers would never be large enough to cover the full cost of education -- conservatives' goal of course was to punish poor people and brown people by giving tax breaks to the rich while destroying the educational system serving the rest of the country.

Then a funny thing happened.  President Clinton called their bluff.  He said 'you want to create your own schools -- fine.  We'll call 'em charter schools -- they'll still exist within the public school system -- but you can run 'em and any kid who wants to can attend your charter school.'

So all sorts of philanthropists and entrepreneurs and ideologues of various stripes poured into the school system to create charter school -- all with the goal of showing the existing educational leaders that they (the newbies) knew better.

Now after a nearly 18 years of experimentation in creating and running charter schools a new study is out that looks at the effectiveness of charter schools.  And results are not impressive:

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.” 

Like always, exposed to the rigors of the real world, conservative ideology falls apart:

Perhaps the sharpest knock on charters — one that even some proponents acknowledge — is that mediocrity is widely tolerated. Authorities are reluctant to close poor schools. Some advocates concede that the intellectual premise behind school choice — that in a free market for education, parents will remove students from bad schools in favor of good ones — has not proved true.

“If you look at the hopes and dreams from 1992, it didn’t pan out that quality would rise because of marketplace accountability,” said James Merriman, chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center. “It turns out you need government accreditation to drive quality, and the human capital to make schools go. The hard lesson is, it is so dependent on human capital.” 

You would think that conservatives would put their tail between their legs and crawl back under the rock they came from.  But if there is one thing we know about conservatives, evidence to the contrary rarely derails their dystopian dreams.

So into the debate walks cracker ass cracker racist mutherfucker Charles Murray with an Op Ed in the New York Times this week. [For those who don't know Charles Murray, he's the author of the Mein Kampf of modern conservatism, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life that argues that wealthy white people who have every advantage in the world are just better people than poor people of color and so they deserve all the advantages they get.  Like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged it's an execrable piece of writing and thinking -- and like Atlas Shrugged it sold like crazy because it basically functions as conservative porn.]  And in his Op Ed on May 4, Why Charter Schools Fail the Test, Murray finally admits what progressive have been pointing out for years -- school choice isn't about effectiveness, it isn't about test scores, it isn't about education, it is solely about ideology.  Murray:

As an advocate of school choice, all I can say is thank heavens for the Milwaukee results [that showed the charter schools underperformed regular public schools]. Here’s why: If my fellow supporters of charter schools and vouchers can finally be pushed off their obsession with test scores, maybe we can focus on the real reason that school choice is a good idea. Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise.

...And yet, knowing that [that charter schools do not outperform regular public schools], I would still send my own children to that charter school in a heartbeat. They would be taught the content that I think they need to learn, in a manner that I consider appropriate. 

Murray doesn't care if kids are learning.  He doesn't care if the nation falls behind other nations in math and science and economic competitiveness.  His ideology tells him that schools should teach in a certain way and the results be damned.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

New Rule: No Civil Disobedience Until You've Made 1,000 Phone Calls

White people love getting arrested for protesting things they claim to care about. In fact, I'm surprised that the blog Stuff White People Like hasn't already done a post on civil disobedience -- because if there is one thing white people love, it's getting arrested for a good cause. 

I want to share my own experiences with civil disobedience briefly and then make the case that white people should do a whole lot more phone calling and a whole lot less getting arrested to show how much they care.

Nineteen years ago, the first Persian Gulf War was just starting to heat up.  I was in college and I started participating in meetings on campus about how to stop the war.  One of the first suggestions that came up was, 'let's commit civil disobedience.'  Out of an anti-war group of roughly 200 people, about 30 of us split off to form an Affinity Group dedicated to pursuing civil disobedience. As I learned, ya gotta have an Affinity Group to do this kinda thing.  Everyone in the Affinity Group plans an action and then some members volunteer to get arrested while the rest of the members witness (talk with press and police) and then post bail to get the arrested members our of jail.

Members of our Affinity Group tried to get arrested in a "Die In" at the White House prior to the start of the war.  But the D.C. police have seen everything and they hate the additional paperwork from having to arrest people every weekend.  So they just let us die in and lay on the cold hard pavement while they stood around chatting with each other.  Their supply of donuts and coffee was greater than our supply of warm clothes and patience, so we returned home unarrested.

Undaunted we did a civil disobedience vigil at the Federal Building in Philadelphia a few days later.  But again, we couldn't get arrested to save our lives.  Black people get arrested for driving a car in the wrong neighborhood, brown people get arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts but white people can't get arrested even when they BEG the cops to arrest them.

And then, the 100-hour (1st) Persian Gulf War was over.  The short duration of the war was actually a problem because many of our non-hierarchical Affinity Group meetings took 5 or 6 hours.  By the end of the war our Affinity Group had probably spent more hours in planning meetings than the war itself took.

But we were determined to get arrested doing civil disobedience.  The next event on the progressive protest calendar was Earth Day.  So a subset of our Affinity Group -- the more environmentally minded members, split off to form a separate Affinity Group to do civil disobedience in connection with Earth Day.

So on April 22, we dutifully headed up to Manhattan for an Earth Day protest on Wall Street.  While the D.C. police seem intent on ignoring you, the NYPD seemed more focused on humiliating protesters.  They herded us into a little square "official protest zone" purposefully designed to make our numbers look small and pitiful against the backdrop of the NY Stock Exchange.  Too cramped to march around, we were supposed to yell while standing in place behind a series of metal barricades across the street and down about a block from our intended target.

Our group quickly surmised that being crammed into the official protest zone was worse than useless.  So we wandered around looking for ways to get our message across.  And sure enough, a couple blocks away we discovered a local news crew doing a live broadcast about the protests.  Sensing correctly that this was about the only chance we were going to have to get our message out -- one of the members of our group walked out into the middle of the street and just stood there.  He was promptly joined by four or five other members of our group and they stood together holding hands in a line blocking traffic on a major Manhattan street (now that I think about it, I believe the street they were blocking was Broadway).  The timing was impeccable.  The news cameras had something to focus on, the reporter had something to talk about, and the riot police had someone to arrest.

I videotaped the whole encounter.  The Rodney King beatings had just happened in LA, showing both the ruthlessness of the LAPD and the importance of videotape.  We figured that if police could see that we had a camera recording our actions -- that our protesters would be less likely to be harmed.  

Within about two minutes our group was rustled into the back of a waiting NYPD paddy wagon. Our members sang a little song as the doors closed and the paddy wagon drove off.  And our Earth Day Protest had made the morning news in the largest media market in the U.S.

But here's the thing -- the protest made absolutely no difference.  There was no policy that we were advocating, no specific law that we were trying to pass.  It was pure white guilt kabuki theater.  It made us feel better for a day -- that we were doing something -- when in fact, we weren't actually accomplishing anything.  

So I just want to make 2 related points about civil disobedience:

1.  We are doing it wrong.  Almost all modern uses of civil disobedience bear NO resemblance to the civil disobedience committed by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The situation facing the civil rights movement was completely different than the situation facing privileged white Americans today.  In the deep south in the 1950s blacks couldn't vote so they had to resort to means outside of the electoral system. Moreover, MLK and the SCLC were breaking unjust laws.  MLK wasn't blocking traffic just to get arrested.  The laws that were broken -- sitting in at lunch counters, crossing a bridge to the other side of town (where blacks weren't allowed), sitting at the front of a public bus -- all of those were unjust laws.  Through their actions the civil rights movement was saying, 'we are challenging your authority to rule because you are violating widely held moral principles of fairness and justice.'  The thing I disliked about our Wall Street protest was that we had no problem with the traffic laws in Manhattan -- but that was the law that we were breaking.  In most modern uses of civil disobedience, the law that is being broken is completely unrelated to the issue that is being protested.  It's just protest as theater -- which is not the purpose of civil disobedience.

2. Civil disobedience should only be a last resort, not a first resort.  Civil disobedience should only be used after ALL other avenues to reach a resolution have been exhausted.  Look, if you care enough to get arrested, you should care enough to at least make a few phone calls first to ask for a redress of your grievances.  But how many phone calls do most protesters make before getting arrested?  Real phone calls -- to people who don't agree with you but who are in a position to do something to improve the situation?  Prior to our protest on Wall Street NONE of our group had made ANY phone calls to any of these Wall Street firms to ask them to change their behavior.

Look, creating lasting change is about gaining power.  And the way you build power is through building relationships.  And the way you build relationships is through talking with lots and lots of people.

So I propose a new rule:

Thou Shalt Not Commit Civil Disobedience Until You've Made At Least 1,000 Phone Calls.

Calling the President, your two Senators, and your Representative in the House -- that takes 4 calls.  So what are you going to do with your other 996 calls?  Ah, that's where it gets interesting.  Who has a vote or say in making the decision that you want to see enacted?  Who are they connected with?  What do they care about?  How do they see the world?  If you are unhappy with a company -- who are their largest shareholders?  Largest customers? Points of vulnerability to public opinion? If you are upset with a politician -- how many calls can you make to voters in his/her district?

The fact is, if progressives (as a movement) required that no one could participate in a civil disobedience protest until he/she had made 1,000 targeted calls -- then we would never need to get arrested. If we each made 1,000 phone calls we would win on almost every issue that we care about because our members would be building the sorts of networks of relationships that lead to power.

The 1,000 phone call rule could be seen as a rite of passage -- like the100,000 prostrations, known as "chak-boom" in Tibetan, required of anyone who aspires to become a Buddhist monk. 

If you are not making phone calls, knocking on doors, and talking with people who can impact the outcome of a decision -- then you are not actually serious about your issue.  You are just engaging in kabuki -- narcissistic performance art to assuage your white guilt to make yourself feel better.