Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Skewed Financial Perspectives

There was a brief article put out by Yahoo! and today, titled “Worst Paying College Degrees of 2011.” Followers of my blog will know that this is a topic that tends to get my dander up. I’ve already written fairly extensively on the methodological issues in assessing the value of particular majors, and the general problems involved in ranking them. The reason that this Monster article caught my attention is that it connects to a rather broader topic that’s been on my mind a good deal lately.

I was walking around another local street festival last weekend, where there was a arts and crafts show being held, populated by a variety of vendors presumably from the local area trying to sell a few instances of their hard work in order to support themselves through a livelihood about which they have a great deal of passion. In an environment like this, one presumes that the people you’re seeing must be struggling. It’s not necessarily a presumption based on careful observation. It’s a collective understanding that non-famous artists don’t make money from their art. I know that I was told that was the case all throughout my life. The term “starving artist” gets a lot of traction. I was also cautioned about the deficiency of money in my chosen profession. Writers don’t make much money, they said, and I’d have to be comfortable with that if I were to pursue that goal. I invariably told them that I was. But I also took them to mean that “not much” meant still being able to pay rent.

I’ve been to a lot of art shows and street fairs in my life, and it was only on this past Sunday that a certain line of inquiry triggered in my mind as I looked over the merchandise. Art’s not cheap. That fact applies not just to the price tag hanging off of a canvas or a sculpture, but to the various investments that go into its production. Every one of the people who were selling their work out on the streets of one of Buffalo’s suburbs had to have the capital for raw materials, printing costs, studio rental space, and such things as credit card machines. Every one of them had to have a couple hundred dollars just to purchase a slot as a vendor at the festival. But what really caught my attention as it never had before were some of the photography that was present. I’ve seen so much photography from far-flung places at the various outdoor shows, and it’s always been clear to me that the travel involved with acquiring and distributing beautiful foreign landscape shots required a great deal of money, at least by my standards. Looking over that work inspires me and yet makes me profoundly sad, because I certainly can’t go to witness its source first-hand, and in all likelihood I never will. But it was only this past Sunday that I attached the understanding of that relative affluence to the commonplace notion of the starving artist. When people say that artists don’t make any money, to what are they comparing their earnings?

As I think back on it, I realize I’ve encountered a skewed social perspective on wealth and poverty at every turn, all throughout my life. As a child I avidly read the annual almanacs, and I still remember looking through the figures for the median salaries of various professions. Teachers at that time apparently earned annual income in excess of thirty-five thousand dollars. Upon learning that information I was pointedly told that that wasn’t much money. And no, apparently it’s not much money by the standards of typical middle-class salaries, but it’s a goddamn lot compared to what a lot of people are earning, and any annual income I’ve acquired thus far.

I find that when people use phrases like “not much money,” they use it without a proper sense of proportion, an understanding of what that phrase means and what its use implies. When we discuss potential earnings or the outcome of a certain educational or career path, we tend to only start our assessment above a certain threshold. Thirty, forty, or fifty thousand dollars a year is conceived of as the low end of the spectrum for earnings, and salaries that approach and breach the poverty line are discounted altogether. That heavily skewed perspective allows us to talk about working artists as being in an ongoing struggle to keep their heads above water, even while they keep themselves in a strong enough financial position to support their art, often even traveling widely to create it, promote it, and sell it. That may not leave them with a heap of personal wealth at the end of the year, but describing anybody in such a position as struggling, or irresponsibly using the word “starving” trivializes the seriousness of genuine financial hardships in American society. Even saying that they make “not much money” is erroneous from the perspective of anyone on the bottom, and using that terminology belies one’s ability to genuinely empathize with the poor.

The same skewed perspective allows us to talk about the “worst-paying college degrees,” so as to suggest that people who acquire them and then actually obtain substantial employment in their field are paid badly. The Monster article lists the bottom ten disciplines, according to data from PayScale. The absolute lowest-paying item on that list is Child and Family Studies, which has a median starting salary of $29,600 and a mid-career median of $40,500. And if their data is to be taken seriously, the conclusion indeed ought to be that this is the “lowest-paying” degree, not the “worst-paying.” That may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s the difference between a quantitative observation of fact and a subjective statement as to the normative value of having a career that earns such a salary. Coming from his commonly skewed perspective, the author seems to be suggesting that those kinds of earnings will be part of a rather difficult life. But there are very many people who are craning their necks to look up at those sorts of earnings, and think that given their current situation, they could live quite comfortably in that range of incomes. I’m certainly one of them. And given that I have a degree that is not among the “worst-paying,” I’m tremendously embittered by the indications that by and large people in comfortable cross sections of American society are so poor at appreciating what they have.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Borders Bookstores: Murdered!

I expect to actually mourn the loss of Borders. For me, it’s like losing a long-time neighbor with whom you had always exchanged pleasant greetings, and whom you assumed you would have ample opportunity to get to know better. It’s also kind of like practically everyone else in my neighborhood inattentively pitched burning trash into his yard until he died of smoke inhalation. That assessment might suggest to you that I’m in the anger phase.

I don’t think I’m going to go through all the stages of the Kubler-Ross model. I’m at a stage of my life wherein I can’t imagine myself entertaining all five of those responses to any personal loss of tragedy, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the closure of a media store in which I wish I’d had the chance to spend more time. There are only two alternatives for me right now, and I kind of like it that way. That which I cannot accept makes me angry, and I’ll remain angry as long as my spirit will allow. I have too strong an ideological commitment to the notion of remaining vigilantly aware of what I consider to be wrong to ever allow myself the indulgence of denial. I’m too proud and solitary to see the appeal of bargaining. And depression… well sure, most things can depress me, but that and anger are almost never mutually exclusive.

I’m going to stay angry about this until people seem to widely understand what we’re losing, and how culpable they are for it. Every literate person with an e-book reader is complicit in the murder both of small bookstores and the big-box retailers like the dearly departed Borders. I am and will remain angry at everyone whose obsession with the latest gadgets and status symbols overrides their perception of benefit in having community spaces where people who appreciate the same things can appreciate them in kind, and where people can actively discover new ideas.

I’m terrified that someday there won’t be anywhere left for me to go to leaf through the pages of a book with an interesting title, attractive cover, and appropriate thickness, or to run my finger over a chosen shelf to find a topic at random. Why does no one else seem angry about this? Why is there no public sense that gaining in convenience can bring about the loss of something else that’s equally or more desirable?

I’m losing a neighbor that I really wanted to know better, for love of the few splendid memories we have. He’s been killed now by so many misguided hands, and wounded in so many places. Most everywhere I’ve travelled there’s been a Borders bookstore, and now it will be torn from the entire landscape of the country, wounded in every place by people who wield their e-book readers like knives concealed in cowardice beneath the robes they wear for a ceremony of shallow literacy.

I cannot accept plots to murder the printed word in sacred space, so I mourn in anger against these conspirators.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Follow Us Online, Whoever We Are

This weekend saw the annual arrival of the Italian Festival on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo. I strolled among the crowd on Saturday, exploring the three blocks or so that were closed to traffic and filled with vendors. Not having any money to spend on carnival food or games or anything else that such an event has to offer, I attended for the sake of enjoying exposure to the crowd and whatever other free entertainment there was to offer, such as a stage set up for music at the far end of the festival. In that respect, I actually came away feeling relatively satisfied.

After I took one pass of the event, I stopped to sit on the concrete windowsill of a building just beside the music tent. A band was playing when I arrived in their vicinity, and my ears gradually perked up to the sound. I listened passively to the end of one song, heard the singer talk to the crowd for a moment and realized I was enjoying the music, so much so that when the last song of the set began after that, I drifted closer, leaning on the railings separating the venue from the sidewalk, so that I could look keenly on the performance, tap my foot, and generally show some appreciation for the enjoyment they were offering me.

The singer took a long time talking to the crowd afterward, and I was interested to know who on Earth I had been listening to, so I could keep watch for them in other contexts. The companion I had been walking with, who has a little money, even expressed interest in purchasing a CD. Festival audio has a tendency to be imperfect and temperamental, so admittedly I couldn’t keep up with every word. In spite of that, I did hear the suggestions from the singer than the crowd like them on Facebook, the invitations to follow them on Twitter, the statement that they could be found on YouTube, where they upload a new video most every week. I heard a lot of earnest requests for online attention from their fans and would-be fans. What I didn’t hear was the band’s name. I’m sure they said it, but not all that clearly, and seemingly not more than once. The opportunities to repeat it were never exploited during the long listing of media in which we could follow the band.

This got to me to thinking about how social networking technology is impeding our concepts of good advertising and effective self-promotion. It strikes me as ironic that Facebook and the like has made most users obsessively interested in self-promotion, but only in the basest sense of the word, and the sense in which it takes remarkably little effort. For people like the singer for this band, the idea of promotion has been transferred almost entirely to the consumer. It’s rarely thought to be the job of the person seeking promotion to provide incentives for attention or to actively court a following. It is thought to be enough to simply invite that attention and that participation, and then to wait for it to serve the ends of promotion on its own.

The goal is to make things go viral, and to do that, all you have to do is pass the contagion on to one person who’s going to communicate it to a highly public environment. The job of the promoter, the agent, and the public relations man is increasingly being passed along to just a bunch of nameless observers. That can be enormously effective. You don’t have to pay anyone, and sometimes you get lucky. But that’s really all it is: luck. You’re much better off reaching for exposure through hard work. It seemed clear to me that the band I stumbled upon was working hard at their music. That will definitely get them some attention, but in this situation, they lost the opportunity to secure two long-term fans because they took it for granted that promotion occurs passively, and that once they’ve put out their product, it should sell itself, with the audience doing the legwork of promotion. But it’s not enough to show us that you’re good, you have to tell us where you come from, where you’re going, why you care, and above all else, who the hell you are.

I get the impression from the observation of this anonymous band and other relevant situations that an awful lot of people are coming to think of traditional advertising as being dead, of professional public relations people as being redundant. But that’s not so, and if it is, it shouldn’t be. Sure, the members of the audience who like you may carry you on to their friends, but skillful self-promotion can obtain the same from those who haven’t yet decided that they like you.

Friday, July 15, 2011

California: Teaching Discrimination Through Good Intentions

Shortly after I heard about the new California law mandating the teaching of gay and lesbian contributions to history, I heard that it had passed largely along party lines, and then it was pointed out that many Republicans objected to the bill on the grounds that it required the teaching of subject matter that “many parents may disapprove of.” Really? That was the primary argument against it? The opposition didn’t discuss the bill’s possible effects on the quality of education? No one objected to it on the grounds that it cheapens the presentation of history, or that it ridiculously supplants existing laws against discrimination in textbooks and teaching? No one thought to consider how the law would be enforced, and argue against it on the basis that it might make the writing and publication of decent textbooks substantially harder by cluttering them with absurdly irrelevant content? The major argument against a law mandating that educators reference the sexual orientation of contributors to history and that they leverage in such persons where such contributions are not evident or sexual orientation is not known was that it might make some people uncomfortable?

After signing the bill into law, Governor Jerry Brown remarked that “history should be honest.” Well, no kidding. I heartily agree, and so I’m genuinely curious as to whether Governor Brown really believes that the best way to make history honest is to impose artificial requirements onto what must be taught in any given subject. You see, in my view, whether the cause is noble or not, mandating a specific narrative in history is not honest education, it’s propaganda. By contrast, laws preventing discrimination in education, like the one that has just been overturned, are better positioned to promote honest education, because far from imposing a narrative on history, they work to prevent any such imposition. I’m an extremely liberal guy, but I don’t think it’s any more beneficial to skew the presentation of history in favor of my worldview than it is to skew it in the opposite direction. There are two roughly equivalent ways of limiting children’s understanding of history: You can gloss over aspects of it that don’t fit the rhetorical narrative you want to convey, or you can wedge in elements that do, regardless of their actual significance, historical relevance, or unbiased truth.

The unfortunate truth about American history is that property-owning, married white guys have always held a hell of a lot of power. As a consequence, though, they’ve done a lot of great stuff. That shouldn’t be grounds for blacks children, gay children, poor children, or girls to conclude that their role in history yet to be written won’t be just as significant, but I think there are better ways to convey that belief than by making such efforts to demonstrate the role of people like them in history that they impair their understanding of the progress that society has made.

I’m not implying that there haven’t been enormous contributions to history from gays and lesbians, or any number of other minorities. Certainly there have been, but presenting a particular kind of agent of history should never take precedence over simply presenting history as we understand it to have happened. The sexual orientation of a particular historical personality is usually not relevant unless, say, their historical contribution is in the area of gay rights. The sexual orientations of many historical figures are simply not known. Will California teachers and textbooks now be expected to go out of their way to assert that this long-dead person or that might possibly have been gay, or will they have to search all the back pages of history to find those who we know were? There is plenty of speculation that Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare were gay, but there is no way to retroactively prove that assertion, and besides, it doesn’t really matter.

In light of that, this new law is in danger of having the opposite of its intended effect. Specifically delineating the contribution of gays and lesbians – as if they stand in contrast to normal people – only serves to solidify the impression that they are a separate class of people, with their own culture and history, which the government must officially force into the existing narrative. But within a narrative that prohibits exclusion of any class of people without decreeing that they must be represented regardless of the extent or clarity of their contribution, it doesn’t matter whether a person was gay or straight if he signed the Magna Carta or fought in the Civil War, it just matters that he contributed to history. If we avoid discrimination, rather than teaching to it we can present historical figures simply as people, not as sub-classes thereof. And then any child in the classroom, whether gay or straight, white or black, can believe that he or she too might play a similarly powerful role in history, because he or she is just as human as they were.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why I'm Not Mad at Netflix

My initial reaction to the news of a sixty percent rate hike by Netflix was to be just as pissed off as so many of their other customers have shown themselves to be. Considering that prices increased slightly just a couple of months ago, spurring me to reduce my plan back from two DVDs at a time to one, the idea that the new prices were already set to more than double proved really frustrating, even if the original cost was an almost too-good-to-be-true value for the quantity of entertainment it offered. But long after Google, Yahoo!, and a conversation with a friend had all broken the news to me, I got the e-mail from Netflix, and I ended up actually being rather happy with the company. It’s not so simple as them just raising prices; they’ve actually done something I’d been wishing they would do for ages.

The message cut right to the chase:
“We are separating unlimited DVDs by mail and unlimited streaming into two separate plans to better reflect the costs of each. Now our members have a choice: a streaming only plan, a DVD only plan, or both.”

Finally! Granted, it’s still a substantial increase overall, but it is nice to know that when I change to one of the new plans, I will only be paying for a service that I’m particularly keen to use. It is, however, not lost on me that this move on their part is another in an ongoing series of efforts to push people towards online streaming only. I’ll be dropping that part of my plan.

I have a personal appreciation for delayed gratification that seems all too rare in others. I like to decide on what will be the next film I’ll be watching, and then to wait a two or three days to receive it. I like the regularity, and sometimes take it almost as a ritual. I use the online streaming feature occasionally, but I consciously try to avoid it when it comes to the viewing of films that I have listed on my queue, attach some significance to, and am truly looking forward to watching. I don’t like the idea of having everything I want immediately available to me at the touch of a button. It causes those things to lose a sense of significance, even a sense of reality.

I much prefer to slip a compact disc out of an envelope, set it into its slot and watch it feed into the DVD player before the screen comes to life and the film asks me to sit and engage with it for a couple of hours. Having a physical copy of the disc delivered to my home gives me the sense that when I collect the mail on a given day, and there’s a red envelope there, it’s movie night, that there’s something that’s asking me to give it my attention, rather than the other way around. And when the film comes to an end, the DVD keeps whirring, inviting me to learn more about the production and what was cut from the story, if I think it’s worthwhile. I don’t have that option and I usually don’t feel that sense of connection when I stream video, an act that usual comes of the passive experience of just feeling like watching something, not the acute awareness that there’s something to be observed.

I use the streaming feature from time to time, but it’s usually just because I don’t have any entertainment to accompany my dinner, so I put on a random episode of Mythbusters, or because I particularly need stress relief at the end of the night, and find it with an old Mystery Science Theater 3000 feature. But in these sorts of cases, I freely admit that my choice of entertainment comes from a sense of entitlement that I’d rather not have. I want something, but I don’t think it’s important enough to wait for.

I’d rather wait. So I’m actually quite happy that Netflix is raising its prices. If I only want one movie at a time, I can actually be saving two dollars. And if I want a constant supply of entertainment and documentary education, I can pay a couple dollars more for two DVDs at a time, but still be saving over the option to keeping a service I don’t much use, really don’t want, and have always felt I was paying for unnecessarily.

It’s still a much higher price for the individual service, no doubt, but at least Netflix is finally giving me what I want for now. I worry, however, that the ploy will work and that when pressed by higher prices, customers will opt for convenience over quality. I worry that eventually Netflix will drop DVDs altogether, and then I’ll always be able to have what I want when I want it. I can’t think of anything I’d want less than that.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Class Warfare Brand

One of the things that bother me most about American politics and the news media is that conservative forces always seem to be controlling the narrative. As bad as Republicans tend to be at policy, compassion, moderation, and common sense, you’ve got to admit that they’re great at branding. Terminology and concepts that should have equal weight on either side of an issue have a tendency to become tethered to purely conservative ideologies. The phrase “class warfare” is a terrific example of this, and it tends to come up every time policy debates turn toward exploration of the possibility of raising the marginal tax rate on the top one percent of income earners, or of eliminating tax breaks on things like corporate jets. Somehow, that same term doesn’t gain as much popular traction when certain politicians stonewall efforts to extend unemployment benefits, or when unions are stripped of their collective bargaining powers. “Class warfare,” we are evidently meant to conclude, can only be conducted by the poor against the rich, never the other way around.

Thus we have Rush Limbaugh responding to the president’s mention of those tax breaks on corporate jet owners by calling it “dangerous!” and “full-fledged demagoguery!” and claiming that Obama’s “aim is for one group of Americans to hate and despise another!”

How can the effort at narrowing the gap between rich and poor be class warfare if decades of efforts at widening that gap weren’t? What could the president possibly be doing here to make one group of Americans despise another? He’s not changing the landscape of class distinctions in America; he’s just bringing attention to some of its features. If Limbaugh’s concern is that hatred will arise from nothing other than more information, there’s probably something wrong with the reality that is being described. If anything is going to breed hatred and despisal by one group against another, it’s not going to be successful efforts to make the rich take up a fair share of the tax burden. Rather, what will breed hatred is being witness to rich people repelling those efforts and holding fast to the most inequitable elements of American society.

Warfare, you see, is something that happens between two different nations or groups of people. If anyone wants to breed hatred and promote class warfare, it’s people like Rush Limbaugh who seem hell-bent on making the differences between the two groups of people in the United States as stark as possible – one group owning everything, the other nothing. So it is outrageous that he is able to throw those pejorative terms entirely onto the other side of the issue and paint multi-millionaires as the sole victims of unprovoked class warfare.

How are Republicans able to get away with this at every mention of labor policy or class inequality when the claim is so patently absurd? Skillful branding and manipulation of language can go a long way towards making simple acts of conscience appear to be villainous and persecutory. Does the Democratic Party have no public relations people whatsoever, no one who can introduce vivid and effective language on the right side of a topic before it is co-opted by the political right? How awful they must be at PR by comparison when they can’t even use it to promote the truth or the action that better advances the public good, while their opponents can paint lead to look like gold and then sell it to a desperately impoverished metallurgist.

All right, so once again the conservative wing has established the narrative and decided the course of the conversation. This is where it’s time to become proactive and change what it is they’re saying, so they look like the manipulative misers they are, rather than noble martyrs. Glenn Beck has described the corporate jet tax conversation as “unprecedented class warfare!” I would like to see someone respond, “You’re goddamn right it is!” It’s a war we’re engaged in, and you know what? That has great potential to be a good thing in the mind of the public. My dictionary shows that “war” can be defined as “a sustained effort to deal with or end a particular unpleasant or undesirable situation or condition.” How about we put the bitter, self-serving complaints of the right in that context? That would be good branding, and then Beck and Limbaugh would be decrying an unprecedented effort to deal with the unpleasant condition of a broadening gulf between rich and poor, the undesirable situation whereby the rich are given every effort to deepen and extend their wealth, while the poor struggle fruitlessly to find work and keep in their homes.

Being more of the latter class myself, I am afraid I can’t bring myself to be so nuanced, though, in response to the rest of Glenn Beck’s comments about the president’s discussion of corporate jet tax breaks, so don’t read on if you’re offended by strong language. Beck has said that it shows Obama’s “sheer, unadulterated disgust for the wealthy, the successful and anyone who’s ever tried to do anything with their life here in America”

Fuck you, Glenn Beck! How dare you indict anyone else for not inhabiting the same deluded fantasy-land that you’ve built with your $65 million personal wealth? As someone who’s trying desperately to do something with my life here in America and finding that my constant, crushing poverty adds more than a few layers of difficulty to my struggle, I powerfully resent the implication that an effort to get the most obscenely rich members of our society to give back something substantial constitutes a punishment of the ambitious. Your greed and that of those like you is what punishes my ambition, and what’s more, it makes my own personal promotion of class warfare seem ever so justified. Fuck you, Glenn Beck, if you think your success is a testament purely to your hard work and that the poverty of 36 million Americans is underpinned by laziness, and if they all just stepped up their efforts, they could have an eventually-disgraced television show and earnings of up to $11 million a year. Fuck you and your brand of class warfare.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cash Only

The front page of Yahoo! grabbed my attention with a story titled “10 Reasons I’m Cancelling My Credit Cards,” a story which I was uncommonly thrilled to see. It’s not often that a piece featured on Yahoo! makes me applaud the author, especially when it is drawn from the personal finance section, but this is rare example of meaningful, forward-thinking advice being offered in a mainstream outlet, despite being against the so-called common wisdom.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Socializing Online Without Wanting To

In last week’s New Yorker, there was an article about online dating, exploring its origins, its multiple iterations, and its widespread relevance in the modern world. The author, Nick Paumgarten, points out that “For many people in their twenties, accustomed to conducting much of their social life online, it is no less natural a way to hook up than the church social or the night-club-bathroom line.” This is certainly true to my experience. I see nothing unusual, shameful, or frightening about meeting a person through online communication, and I can perceive some definite advantages to online dating. But at the same time, I despise an excessive reliance on the internet for social exploration and interaction. I do not have a Facebook or Twitter account, and I steadfastly refuse to get drawn into any such trend, even though it is increasingly clear that the virtual ubiquity of these sites threatens to put me at a distinct disadvantage in some contexts.

Not that any external factors are necessary to put me at such a disadvantage. I’m just no damn good at meeting, interacting with, and relating to most other people. That may seem like the sort of characteristic that ought to push a person straight towards social networking technology, but I think that my resistance to it and my own social impediments are both grounded in similar aspects of my personality. I have high standards for my personal relationships and for the sort of people I interact with. I do not seek out casual acquaintanceships, and the fact that I desire a strong element of earnestness and commitment in even the most basic friendships evidently makes me intimidating at the outset of any social interaction. It probably goes a long way towards explaining why people who are purportedly very fond of me and very interested in me never seem to call me on the telephone, even when they themselves bring up the subject of further contact. I think I appear inaccessible, and that that makes people uncertain of how to reach out to me and secure my interest when we are not meeting in passing. And when we are not, the difficulty is that one or both of us must put forth some serious effort at making a connection. Not so with online communication or text messaging.