Mindless Sex Scandal Scorekeeping

What do uber-liberal Jennifer Weiner and right wing nutter Rush Limbaugh have in common? They both revel in their political opposites’ moral failings. More accurately, they both stand and applaud loudly when their political opposites are caught straying far from the sexual straight and narrow.

Weiner in today’s New York Times:

“The double standards employed by some members of the “do as I say, not as I do” Christian right are nothing new. Show me a senator who votes against gay marriage, and, at least in one infamous case, I’ll show you a guy who’s soliciting same-sex encounters in the airport men’s room. (Hello there, Larry Craig!)

Show me another Republican senator who made his name as a “pro-family advocate” and I’ll show you a guy whose phone number showed up in a Washington madam’s little black book. (Howdy, David Vitter!)

Show me the far-right speaker of the House, a man with perfect scores from the National Right to Life Committee and the Christian Coalition, and I’ll show you a guy who, as a high-school wrestling coach, set up a chair in front of the boys’ shower the better to ogle his protégés, and who was eventually jailed as a serial child molester. (Dennis Hastert, come on down!)

We’ve been down this road of duplicity before. The televangelist who prayed, alongside his wife, for the return of traditional morals, admitted to having sex with — and was accused of rape by — a 21-year-old church secretary, and found to have paid her $279,000. The congressman who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act was sexting with his underage male pages.”

4-0. Scoreboard! Nevermind all the wrecked lives left in the wake, our party is winning because theirs is losing.

Like a good Stoic practicing voluntary self deprivation, I listened to Rush Limbaugh during this morning’s commute. He went all Jennifer Weiner on Harvey Weinstein whose “alleged” decades of sexual harassment momentarily give the Republicans the edge in the Sexual Impropriety Olympics. I’m not sure of the actual score because its constantly adjusting for new sordid details from our most public figures on the right and left.

Note to Rush Limbaugh. You can’t constantly discredit the New York Times as a reputable publication and then cherry pick stories that give you a political hard on. Is it trustworthy journalism or not?

Ready for the most amazing insight I have on offer today? Neither political party has a monopoly on virtue. Scorekeeping belittles the victims, mostly less powerful women. Powerful men of all political persuasions are adept at breaking vows and taking advantage of the less powerful. Mindless sex scandal scorekeeping is an especially poignant example of partisanship run amok.

Friday Assorted Links

1. Starbucks is constantly innovating.

2. Excellent pictures of the Tour de France in case you missed it. Even if you followed it, check out the second image.

3. The New York Times is struggling mightily to reinvent itself.

“As one editor put it, ‘The mood at the paper is poisonous in a way I’ve never seen it in the past 15 years.'”

4. The Good Wife, while starring at Peralta Junior High School in Orange, CA, once scored a basket in the opposing team’s hoop. Here’s hoping this makes her feel better.

5. Are helicopter parents ruining summer camp? Sadly, dear readers, this is a rhetorical question. Best not to read if you already have high blood pressure.

6. Raising a truly bilingual child.

On Travel 2

Today, the Good Wife and I have been married for 29 years, 11 months, and 18 days. Fairly confident we’ll make it to three zero, we’re planning a celebration of marital endurance bliss for a week and a half from now. Given assorted responsibilities we can’t shake, we’re temporarily tabling a trip to a Spanish speaking country in favor of a nearby quick hit.

Meaning Portland, Oregon.

Read and/or watch the New York Times depiction of the Rose City and then dig this person’s comment which I’m assigning an “A+”:

“It’s a very pretty video. Please forgive my peeve. Some of us aren’t cheering.

It’s the weirdest feeling to have lived somewhere your whole life and suddenly feel like a stranger. The aggressively smug city in the video is not Portland as many of us know it (or knew–past tense–and loved it). Portland is unrecognizable to me, anymore. Portland was a decided introvert until fairly recently; a dark, foggy haven for privacy-loving people, many of them genuine eccentrics–not the braying and proud ‘Portland Weird’ of now.

The self-satisfied extrovert it has become is due mainly to hype and an internet-fed culture of rootlessness and restlessness (“I can do better!”), spawning quality-o’-life-seeking newcomers looking to reinvent themselves and put their stamp on what too many have regarded as a tabula rasa, ignoring what existed before they arrived to ‘improve’ it.

The noisy eagerness with which new lookalike (mostly white, mostly moneyed) arrivals and discoverers advertise and idealize the city feels like an extension of FB-fed narcissism and now-epidemic attention seeking. “I found it! I discovered it! Look what I did!” Portland makes a great FB post, a great tweet, a great NY Times feature. It reflects well on mememe. Aren’t we all clever for discovering this place? We are curators!

“Authentic” is not a word I’d use to describe Portland now. And I always thought relentless self congratulation was the antithesis of ‘cool.'”

How does one add to that? It’s not just a very thoughtful take-down of the NYT, it’s a trenchant critique of our penchant for superficial travel.

Very Smart Writing on Teens

There should be a literary award for the author who writes most intelligently about teens. The person who best rejects mindless stereotypes and embraces their humanity. My nomination for this year, Rachel Cusk, author of a New York Times Magazine essay titled, “The Mother of all Problems: On Raising Teenagers“.

My favorite paragraphs:

But now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. Invisibility has at least the advantage of enabling eavesdropping: I listen to them talk, gleaning knowledge of their world. They talk with striking frequency about adults, about the people they now encounter in shops and on buses, the people who serve them in cafes or sell them things. They talk, less mystified, about their teachers. They talk about their grandparents and aunts and uncles. They talk about their fathers, usually with an experimental air of equality, as if they were trying on a pair of shoes that were slightly too big for them. But most of all they talk about their mothers. Their mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When the girls go home, they leave a scene of devastation behind them. The kitchen is strewn with dirty plates and half-eaten food and empty wrappers; the bathroom is a swamp of wet towels, capsized bottles, crumpled tissues smeared with makeup. The smell of nail varnish upstairs is so strong it could knock out a horse. I tidy up, slowly. I open the windows.

Six months later, my younger daughter, I notice, has changed. She has refined her group of friends. There are fewer of them, and the ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicized: At dinner, she talks about feminism, politics, ethics. My older daughter has already made this transition, and so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now, it is about the French head-scarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it’s like having dinner on the set of “Crossfire.” I become aware of their verbal dexterity, their information, the speed of their thought processes. Sometimes I interject, and more often than not am shot down. This, in my own teenage years, would not have been tolerated, yet I find it easy to tolerate. They’re like a pair of terriers with a stick: they’ve got their teeth into the world and its ways. Their energy, their passion, their ferocity — I regard these as the proper attributes of youth. Yet inevitably the argument overheats; one of them storms away from the table in tears, and I have to go and talk her into coming back.

Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. It would be far too easy to gibe at the skin-depth of their feminism. Besides, I don’t see that anything has fundamentally changed in the contract between me and them. For the first time, I am glad of the flaws in our family life, though at times I have suffered bitterly over them, seeing in other people’s impeccable domestic lives a vision of stability and happiness I have absolutely failed to attain. But in this new territory, we perhaps have less to lose: no image is being defiled, no standard of perfection compromised. The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.

Life After Work

As is often the case, I’m confused. One day last week Ron Lieber, a Times blogger, summarized research from The Journal of Consumer Research that finds older people often draw as much happiness from ordinary experiences—like a library visit or an afternoon spent gardening—as they do from extraordinary ones. Then, on the same day, with stories of extended trips to exotic locations, the Times David Wallis’s published a contradictory article titled, “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their Possessions and Hit the Road”.

Wallis writes that between 1993 and 2012, the percentage of retirees traveling abroad rose to 13 percent from 9.7 percent and about 360,000 Americans received Social Security benefits at foreign addresses in 2013, about 48 percent more than 10 years earlier. Wallis illustrates this trend through examples of people like Lynne Martin, 73, a retired publicist and the author of “Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World”:

Three years ago, Martin and her husband sold their three-bedroom house in Paso Robles, Calif., gave away most of their possessions, found a home for their Jack Russell terrier, Sparky, and now live in short-term vacation rentals they usually find through HomeAway.com. The Martins have not tapped their savings during their travels, alternating visits to expensive cities like London with more reasonable destinations like Lisbon. “We simply traded the money we were spending for overhead on a house and garden in California for a life in much smaller but comfortable HomeAway rentals in more interesting places,” Ms. Martin said by email from Paris.

Another couple in the late 60s sold their house, bought a Recreational Vehicle, and started volunteering full time for two nonprofits. So far, they’ve repaired damaged homes in 28 different states.

One of the older vagabonds, or Wallis’s term is better, itinerant baby boomers (IBB), said, “I used to dream about all the places I would go as soon as I was old enough to get away. But then. . . life happened.” That’s probably the key variable, whether older people have pent-up wanderlust.

Wallis explains that many IBB’s are traveling on the cheap, volunteering for nonprofits and organic farms in exchange for room and board or finding free places to stay through Couchsurfing.org which puts its membership of people 50 and older at about 250,000. Given the manner in which most retirees are traveling, maybe the two pieces aren’t completely antithetical after all.

The common thread is that retirees are choosing experiences over material possessions. Listen carefully everyone under 50 and you’ll hear the collective, “Ah shit, why did we accumulate all this crap?!” Personal finance researchers tell us one-third of seniors have nothing saved for retirement. It’s a good thing ordinary experiences prove so fulfilling in later life.

Both pieces were short so an important subtopic was left out, just how similarly retired partners think about how to spend the last chapters of their shared lives. I know many couples think differently about their idealized post-work lives. What to do when one person wants to see the world, and the other, the backyard?

I’m the opposite of the IBB who dreamed about all the places to go. I’ve been very, very fortunate to travel and live all over the U.S. and on three different continents. Don’t tell the Good Wife, but I’m content to walk, swim, run, cycle, and drive throughout our hood, our state, and the Western United States and Canada. She wants to travel to Spanish speaking countries so I should probably renew my passport. I will take one or two or three long distance trips for the team. But I’d be just as content taking the labradude for a walk in the woods.

 

 

 

 

 

Think Globally, Yeah Right

I predicted this story about Ethiopia becoming the next China nearly twenty years ago after living there, traveling in other sub-Saharan African countries, and becoming a student of globalization.*

Long story short, the outsourced manufacturing race to the bottom has entered it’s final stage. China’s average manufacturing wage is 3,469 yuan ($560) per month. Pay at Ethiopia’s Huajian shoe factory (18 miles outside of Addis Ababa) ranges from the basic after-tax minimum of $30 a month to about twice that for supervisors.

A paragraph to ponder:

Huajian’s 3,500 workers in Ethiopia produced 2 million pairs of shoes last year. Located in one of the country’s first government-supported industrial zones, the factory began operating in January 2012, only three months after Zhang decided to invest. It became profitable in its first year and now earns $100,000 to $200,000 a month, he said, calling it an insufficient return that will rise as workers become better trained.

Meanwhile, last week, George Mason economist and blogger extraordinaire, Tyler Cowen, wrote in the New York Times about income inequality. The title is the thesis, “Income Inequality is Not Rising Globally. It’s Falling.

Here’s the gist of Cowen’s argument:

We have evolved a political debate where essentially nationalistic concerns have been hiding behind the gentler cloak of egalitarianism. To clear up this confusion, one recommendation would be to preface all discussions of inequality with a reminder that global inequality has been falling and that, in this regard, the world is headed in a fundamentally better direction.

The message from groups like Occupy Wall Street has been that inequality is up and that capitalism is failing us. A more correct and nuanced message is this: Although significant economic problems remain, we have been living in equalizing times for the world — a change that has been largely for the good. That may not make for convincing sloganeering, but it’s the truth.

A common view is that high and rising inequality within nations brings political trouble, maybe through violence or even revolution. So one might argue that a nationalistic perspective is important. But it’s hardly obvious that such predictions of political turmoil are true, especially for aging societies like the United States that are showing falling rates of crime.

I’m positively predisposed to counter-intuitive thinking, but Cowen was hopelessly naive if he thought his NYT readers might concede even some aspects of his argument.

Here’s the comment Cowen’s readers most liked:

You’ve Got to be Kidding

This article is a classic example of a divide and conquer strategy. The gist is that less educated and skilled people in countries like the U.S are suffering but those in other countries are gaining. Hence, the world is equalizing. So, if you complain about the U.S., you are essentially wishing harm on others. In reality, what the “miracle” of capitalism has done is what it always does — it enriches owners of capital and exploits labor. Developing countries are, of course, better off; they started from nothing, and so anything is an improvement. So production is moved to places where people are desperate, and profits rise because of poor wages, no attention to work place safety, no regard for environmental concerns, etc. Yet, we are to celebrate because the workers in the poor countries are no longer earning zero. This logic then absolves companies from any criticism about the horrendous working conditions. After all, global inequality is falling!

The author also glides over the fact that people live in particular societies and their own inequality is most important. It matters for the distribution of political power (Citizens United, anyone?), for health (see, e.g., studies by Richard Wilkinson), for education, for housing and for a host of other things.

Finally, the author predictably criticizes redistribution (what, not unions?) But the real issue is changing the rules of the game so things aren’t rigged for elites. If so, redistribution will be less needed.

The other most highly rated reader responses were similarly critical. Taken together, they illustrate people’s unwillingness to compare themselves to foreign people in distant places. It’s no surprise that economically secure professionals like Cowen and myself choose cosmopolitanism, but for anyone else who lacks economic security, its a luxury they can’t afford.

It’s the same reason the well-to-do, who can afford higher prices elsewhere, brandish “I Don’t Shop at Walmart” bumper stickers. Cowen embraces cosmopolitanism because his university and book publishers and blog sponsors pay him handsomely; and his university provides his health care; and, like me, he has extraordinary job protections as a tenured professor; and he travels the world doing research, lecturing, and teaching.

I don’t begrudge him his professional success, but for him to assume others will embrace cosmopolitanism based upon his logic suggests he’s woefully out-of-touch with those that are struggling to get by.

Cowen might respond to that criticism by insisting that it’s in everyone’s best interests to think more globally, and I’d agree, but it’s going to take far more than abstract New York Times essays to get people to think beyond their household, community, state, and nation.

imgres * Rest assured, normally my predictive skills are nothing special. For example, I was sure Jay-Z and Beyonce would live happily ever after.

Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.