08 December 2010

Looking Down The Street For The Barricades To Go Up

We are all familiar with the adage that says that if you repeat a lie often enough, you will begin to believe it. For some reason, this pops into my mind every time an elected official or one of their appointees starts talking. These folks have become so enveloped in their own special brand of psychosis; they actually assume we are buying in to it as well. And why shouldn’t they believe this? The electorate has given no indication they plan on holding anybody responsible for anything anytime soon. Here are a few examples; I am sure anybody reading this can think of many more.

From the President on down, we are told to vilify Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for endangering lives and embarrassing governments. I guess I am silly. I actually think it is the actions of those same governments that are responsible for endangering lives and embarrassing people. Governments are displaying a criminal and childish philosophy here. In their minds, it was not doing something that was wrong, it was being caught. Now that they have been caught, they want to bully everybody into shutting up about it.

How about elections? I challenge anybody to name one actual issue that has decided an election in the last 5-6 cycles? We are embroiled in a widening war with no definable goals or endgame. Our economy is sputtering along on hopes and wishes. Jingoism and slanderous bashing has replaced reasoned dialogue. The wealth and income gap has virtually destroyed any remaining shards of the American dream. The majority is routinely looted and pillaged by the minority. Racial and ethnic minorities are still crushed under the weight of structural inequality. All of these are issues. But what is on every media personality and candidate’s lips? Who should be allowed to get married? Who should be allowed to build a community center in what location? Shadowy conspiracy theories and wild claims of a holy war…The list unfortunately goes on. Lost in the noise is that issues unresolved, continue to grow.

A growing percentage of the population has thrown themselves under the wheels of various cults of personality. A partial term governor from Alaska absorbs mountains of attention, despite having no real accomplishments. Her daughter is a celebrity for no other reason than she failed to employ effective birth control. Rich heiresses careen across the landscape, dragging all of their followers along on the road to nowhere. Entertainment is redefined to create instant celebrities whose only talent seems to be the ability to be even more obnoxious than the last bunch. People are told to jump and they gleefully do so, landing on the backs of their fellow citizens in the scramble for meaningless junk. Jaded vultures mass-market carnage, disease, and despair across every aspect of our lives, simply to gorge themselves on the ensuing body count. Few even question when the ability to kill or be killed became a necessary aspect of the music industry. Pampered suburban kids argue over who was shot in the latest rap dispute as if that is how the world should turn.

Am I angry? You bet! Does it show yet? None of these things are particularly new. I am most angry because none of it seems to be getting old for a lot of people. The mechanisms change. The targets of inequality change. The lies and the oppression all change their shape and color. I guess I am not happy with those changes. I am holding out hope that there will be an actual change in my lifetime; a fundamental shift in character for the population as a whole. I want so desperately for the idealized aspects of Americanism to be true. I want everyone to be created equal, to have inalienable rights, to be good neighbors, and to prosper. If fear and anger are intertwined, than I guess the fear I have is for what will have to happen before this change occurs.

20 November 2010

Racing Towards What End?

When I focus on the arena of contemporary public discourse and what it says about our society’s apparent trajectory, I am reminded of the endurance races I have participated in. These are longer, 6-48 hour multisport races. The endurance community is relatively small, however these microcosms serve as an allegory for our society and quite frankly, it is not that good.

Longer races follow a pattern that goes something like this. At the start and early in the race, racers help one another out, display courtesy, and are generally a good natured bunch. Any unfriendly, anti-social types are noticeable and isolated. As time and fatigue accrue, the communal displays begin to disappear. Most of the “ugly” incidents that occur between racers happen in between the half way point and the last two hundred yards of the race. This is where the body resorts to survival mode and the mind chooses not to waste any energy on filtering emotions. It is also the place where the competitive gene often kicks in and “crushing all visible opponents” momentarily overrides common sense. Also, physical pain and suffering reach their zenith during this phase of the race. Ms. Manner’s helpful suggestions are drowned out by something much more primordial in nature. With about two hundred yards to go, surviving racers enter the final sprint. The pay-off arrives when massive amounts of endorphins begin to dump into our neural networks and good natured camaraderie is restored at the finish line celebration.

I am left to wonder if our society has entered the latter arc of our race. The troubling part of this analogy suggests that if the race trajectory mimics our larger society, we will not experience any revival in widespread civility until society's end looms like that of a race’s finish. At that point, we will probably adopt the gallows humor of condemned souls, renounce petty differences for what they are, and await the unknown together. Rest assured that this finish line will not involve endorphin dumps, congratulations, happy photographs, and great food. I wonder if we cannot make the shift back towards a civilized and positively engaged society before oblivion becomes the definite outcome. Like a race, it will take a lot of individual effort. But considering the alternative, we should all be motivated to go the distance.

12 September 2010

Enslaved in the Dominion of Crap

Have you heard of “mission creep,” or “product creep?” Essentially the term “creep" is used to identify a situation that began as one thing, with a stated list of goals or features, and over time has evolved into something very different. The term “creep” can also be used to describe that one relative that shows just a little too much interest in the kid’s table at family reunions, but that will have to be a different post. Today I am commenting on what I am going to label, “crap creep.” I am hoping the post will be mildly more interesting than trying to say that really fast five times in a row.


Essentially, this post is about the ever increasing practice of having products and services turn to crap. I guess a more technical term might be “planned obsolescence” but I am going to call it what it is.

Take for instance the lowly electrical cord. As a kid, I could utilize an old toaster as a mace, happily bashing everything in sight for about four years without worrying about the cord breaking. More recently, I have an early generation iPod whose cord I use to charge my iPhone. The cord has reinforced areas at stress points where it enters the adapters and it looks as good as new after seven years. On the other hand, in the last three years we have burned through six of the cords that actually ship with the phones. They break apart and fray at the ends after about six months of tender use. Likewise with my laptop cord; I pamper this diva to death and I am still on number three in as many years. At $19.99 for the phone cords and $89.00 for the laptop cord, it is not hard to see why things are no longer being built to last.

Services are not any different. We can all relate to the limited time low rates and other shenanigans providers utilize to give the appearance of good service. If you want cable TV without mortgaging the house, you need to commit to a two year agreement, ditto for cell phones. Of course, once you commit, the honeymoon ends and you will be lucky to get basic service delivered as promised, let alone help with any issues. To insure a lack of helpfulness, most companies now require their “customer service” agents to read verbatim from prepared scripts. If that does not solve your issue, they will be happy to read it to you a few dozen more times. For awhile you could “cheat” this system and ask for a supervisor. Supervisors were generally allowed to address your actual questions with relevant answers. Companies moved swiftly to plug that loophole though, so now supervisors will either read to you from another eerily familiar script, or simply hang up on you. There is no downside to this atrocious behavior. The company already knows that even if you are pissed off enough to call back, wade through seventeen automated menus, and get another live person, it is a fact that they will be on a different continent, with no knowledge of your prior calls. Not to worry though, to insure continuity of service, call centers on all continents are armed with exactly the same useless scripts.

All this might just seem like whining until you consider the actual impact of these practices. Landfills are full to overflowing with dilapidated junk polluting the groundwater. This stuff has no other reason for being there other than the scheming wiles of vertical marketers. I mean seriously, how much has the technology in electrical cords changed since the 1950s? Let us not forget the slightly different interface every manufacturer uses to force a new round of chargers and accessories with every gadget purchase.

Poor service is creating its own issues. For one, people are stuck paying for shoddy service. This causes many people to rationally stop paying. That sort of misbehavior elicits an immediate negative hit to one's credit score, (an evil creation that I will address in another post). This degraded score costs one additional fees and charges in virtually anything from insurance to housing. Over time,  a poor credit score and the accompanying higher cost of basic necessities actually reproduce a sick version of forced servitude. This quasi enslavement was last thought to have gone out of style in this neighborhood during the mid 1600s. That was when it's unsustainable nature led to the popularity of actual slavery.

The negative impact does not stop with the hapless consumer either. As companies go through ever increasing convulsions to create the illusion of good service, they eventually lose control of their own creations. The results of that scenario are easily illustrated by the recent “sub-prime” mortgage debacle. Arguably, dishonest service designed around a system meant to trap consumers in hopeless servitude is capable of destroying our society as we know it.

With both of these issues, Americans appear no better at “voting with their wallets” than they are at actually voting in the democratic process. You would think that as the human civilization’s all-time master champion consumers, we would demand a little better from our chosen deities; apparently you would be wrong.

28 August 2010

Good Big vs. Bad Big

Anyone who has talked with me, or followed anything I have been saying on Facebook in the last few months, probably knows that I have become interested in James Howard Kunstler. Not an unhealthy sort of interest, but an interest in his viewpoints and how they mesh or define my own thoughts on everything from where I live, to what I eat. One of Kunstler's areas of focus is New Urbanism. One small aspect of this movement is the redesign of public and private space to a human scale. In his opinion, with which I agree, American fascination with automobiles following WWII led the country to invest in an infrastructure based on a vehicular scale. This spawned suburbs, strip malls and endless miles of asphalt freeways and parking lots. Virtually everything, from corporations to cultural centers have followed this philosophy of cookie cutter designs on a large scale. Along the way we forgot how to design our living and community spaces to satisfy the innate sensibilities of human beings, because the automobile plays such a central role in daily life. Kunstler delivers a very sound argument for a return to human scale in virtually all walks of life.

So my question is simply this. "Is big always bad, or can something be big and good?"

I decided to offer up an example of a company that in my opinion is both big and good. Starbucks!

I can almost hear the laughter and exclamations of disbelief as I write that. Most people think of Starbucks as the epitome of corporate homogenization in America. I would venture to guess that after McDonald's, Starbucks is probably most associated with corporate hegemony on a global scale. All of which is a largely undeserved reputation.

Several years ago, a local news publication, with a decidedly counter-culture persuasion, ran an article on Starbucks in Portland. We have dozens of them. The gist of the article was to take the most common complaints about Starbucks and analyze them against the facts. As much a the paper wanted to join in the bashing, they concluded that these urban legends about Starbucks just did not check out. For example. One of the leading complaints was that Starbucks, like all global corporations, kills locally owned "mom and pop" businesses. The article compared the number of locally owned coffee shops in Portland before the first Starbucks opened, with the then current number. They found an increase by several hundred percent. The conclusion was that Starbucks effectively created a market much larger than had previously existed. Plus, Starbucks puts millions of dollars back into the communities it serves in everything from school programs to public works, something most local shops could not afford to do. Systematically the other myths of the evil empire fell apart. Starbucks is criticized for not buying "certified free trade beans." They actually developed their own growing networks, pay similar prices for beans as CFT mandated rates, and work closely with their growers on sustainability issues. Health care? Employees who work 20 hours a week have access to full coverage at highly competitive prices. Wages? Starbucks pays above minimum plus tips. They also offer 401k, tuition reimbursement, management training etc., Again all is available to part time employees. The article reluctantly concluded that Starbucks was not deserving of the hate and scorn it received, (Starbucks were and are routinely vandalized by assorted activists in the Portland area).

(Link to original article: http://wweek.com/story.php?story=5137)


All of this might be interesting, but why do I think Starbucks is more good than bad?

My opinion is based on much more individually scaled factors. I spend a lot of time in a vehicle for work and I have to juggle research and academic work with my paying work schedule. To this end, there is always a table and free WiFi within a block or two of my location. Starbucks has become my defacto office. Plus, exceptionally clean restrooms. I joke that I sometimes leave my own home to go use the bathroom at Starbucks.

Thirsty? Ice water in a large, covered cup is free for the asking, anytime. Tea (iced or hot) has free refills, which is great for those four hour writing sessions. I have NEVER been asked to buy anything as a condition of being in a Starbucks, or pressured to give up a table except at closing time. I cannot say this about local shops which need to turn tables to stay in business. I do not like coffee. Sounds weird, but I never developed the taste. I do need to be awake at strange hours for long periods of time. Starbucks did not ridicule my situation, they just created a supercharged sugar and coffee milkshake they call a Frappacino. I am grateful.

I also respect Starbuck's attempts to blend into their surroundings. Unlike big box retail chains that come with fifty acre parking lots and their own freeway interchange, Starbucks is more a willing tenant than development catalyst. Nobody builds a shopping center because Starbucks indicated they would go into it. The reason that a lot of their shops look like strip mall store fronts is that they are in strip malls. The one that I frequent in Portland's cultural district is a warm, inviting, and cozy little shop nestled into the ground floor of a condo tower. Ditto elsewhere with everything from stonework, dark wood, and fireplaces to overstuffed chairs and terraces blending the shops into local design schemes. As for audio aesthetics, I happen to like their music selections so I enjoy the sound tracks most of the time as well.

The list goes on but you get my point (I hope). Despite this long post on a relatively trivial subject, there is actually a much easier way to make my point. Walk into a Starbucks sometime and sit down for awhile. Then leave and immediately go to a Wal Mart and sit in their "cafe." See what I mean. Good Big vs. Bad Big.

(No local shops were harmed in the development of my opinion. I still thinks Floyd's has the best Mexican Hot Chocolate bar non!)

23 August 2010

School is back in session.

Fall, 2010 term is off and running here at WSUV. This is sort of my "Super Senior" or "Victory Lap" term. I passed on graduating last Spring in order to polish off a few post grad requirements at undergrad tuition rates...I will be starting my Masters (Education) program in the Spring or Summer, depending on the program I select. (Currently weighing WSUV against Lewis & Clark University).

Issues I will be commenting on here in the near future: The ongoing Islamaphobic convulsion which is gripping America, immigration issues, Starbucks (Not everything has to be so heavy), credit/finances, New Urbanism/quality of life, and any other targets of opportunity that present themselves.

If YOU have a topic or question you want to discuss, e-mail me at pfield@wsu.edu. I'm always looking for new themes.

Thanks for stopping by.

14 August 2010

Reviving the blog

So obviously I was emotional about the Haiti disaster and had to vent. Real life and a lot of other demands on my attention pretty much stalled the blog project. That and my realization that I am the only one reading what I wrote...Here goes round two. On the off chance you are reading this, thanks for being a mob of one. Stay tuned for a whole lot of opinionating and do not hesitate to jump in with your own!

29 January 2010

The Look of Recognition

I am often struck by the look of dawning recognition on someone’s face as they truly question their political ideology for the first time. Sadly, it has become common, within American political discourse, to simply identify with one political party or the other. This is no accident. The emergence of "Red State/Blue State" identifiers was a carefully calculated strategy to offer up the false notion that there are only two choices one can make. Furthermore, it is implied that your choice signals your acceptance of the paty line on all issues henceforth. It is disturbing how quickly people surrendered proxy rights to people they do not even understand.

Once color descriptors entered common use in media outlets, people actually began to fashion their ideological statements to include them. How often have we heard someone apologize for being from a "Red" state while quickly assuring their listeners their own ideology is "Blue?" Or have we listened to the lament of someone who is outwardly "Red," but through geographical misfortune found they were living in a "Blue" state? (Consider timing when making this claim. Imagine the reaction one would have received, had they declared themselves "Red" in 1921 or1952). People are conditioned to identify without asking a lot of pesky questions. Somewhere deep in many people’s minds, they are vaguely aware of being told that Red equals Republican and Blue equals Democrat, but most are at a loss to explain what those names actually mean. At least not without slipping into carefully crafted clich├ęs that have become the designated battle cries for these respective factions.

Truthfully, regardless of the political party in power, very little seems to change. It is this realization that generally leads to that look of recognition I am writing about. I suspect we would see this same look on a person's face who spends his weekly paycheck at the carnival, only to discover that the ball they have been lobbing is bigger than than the hoop it is supposed to fit through. One does not even have to dig deep, become a political wag, or otherwise engage in much effort to know why things never change. It is fairly well accepted that all Presidents beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and ending with Richard Nixon were subscribers to the Liberal Consensus point-of-view. Simply put, they felt that the government was a force for good in people’s lives and had an obligation to provide a slate of social programs. Generally speaking, this ideology was dominant in all federal policies during this time period. Since Richard Nixon (including many of his policies), right up to and including Barrack Obama, the overriding political environment has been one of the New Conservatism. In broad terms, this ideology favors business over government and  touts personal responsibility over social programs. Ronald Reagan is considered the epitome of a New Conservative. Any policy proposals which fall very far outside of these overarching ideologies generally fail to garner any support.

If it seems like nothing ever changes, even when the need for change is obvious, it is because we the electorate have become complacent. We allow the idea that there are only two parties to remain an accepted school of thought, despite the many choices that actually exist. We barely bother to exercise our electoral responsibilities and almost never hold an elected official accountable. We have bought into the fantasy that whispers to us that we are represented, without ever stopping to ask what that really means. We are no longer represented because we chose to let someone else decide the definition of representation. Voter turnout has not exceeded 60% of total registered voters in a presidential election since 1968 (Nixon). Even the president who is elected only has the support of about 30% of registered voters, even less of the overall population when you include those not registered for various reasons. If you consider the number of voters who vote “the slate” (blindly vote for their own party ticket without questioning why), informed choice deteriorates further. The growing segment of "one issue" voters erodes almost all remaining thought from the process. We are lulled to sleep by bubble economies and a desire to get our slice of the American dream. Like someone addicted to opiates, we chase that illusive first-time high, with no hope of ever catching it. Sooner or later, we all have to sober up and focus on reality. When that moment comes for you, try to be looking in the mirror. You will see the look I am describing.

15 January 2010

A Shining Counter-Example

     So after blasting the American collective yesterday, I felt it only fair to provide a counter example to the self-serving nature of Haitian aid that I was attacking.

Today's local paper carried the sad news of a young woman who lost her life in the Haitian earthquake. She died doing what many more of us should have done, attempting to produce positive change BEFORE calamity struck. Do not be confused, I count myself among those who could do more. Sadly people who follow Molly's path in life are all to often labeled as "idealists."

It would be refreshing if actions like Molly's were as commonplace to Americans as the week long campouts in front of department stores while people wait for the latest video games and electronic gadgets to go on sale.

Here is a person who could not have done any more. May she get EVERYTHING she deseves.

Link to her blog:

http://mollyinhaiti.blogspot.com/

Link to Original News Story:

http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/01/memorial_for_molly_hightower_h.html

14 January 2010

Haiti and the Politics of Feeling Good

I suppose the devastating earthquake in Haiti this week is being seen as a great opportunity for Americans to feel good about themselves. One look at the rapid birth of aid hot lines, text donations, and humanitarian efforts being organized should normally make anyone proud. Of course, in the rush to feel good, we ignore a few unpleasant truths.

Haiti of course was once known to Europeans as Hispaniola. By 1495 C.E most knew it was part of a previously unknown continental land mass. The exception was Columbus who stubbornly insisted he had landed somewhere closer to India. Indigenous Taino peoples declined in population by about 90% during the first decade of Spanish Colonization as a result of the familiar combination of warfare, disease, and overwork. Because of the resulting lack of indigenous workers and the labor intensive needs of sugar plantations, Africans were imported as slaves from about 1508 C.E. Like much of Latin America, modern Haitians are a result of transculturation between Spanish, African, and Indigenous people. Haiti was the site of the only successful African slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere between 1791 C.E. and 1804 C.E. Despite obtaining self-rule from their French colonizers over sixty years before the abolition of slavery in the United States Haiti was unable to capitalize on their lead. Haiti was and is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Haiti has a population of just over nine million people and a per capita income of $1300. Annual foreign aid since 2004 lurks around $1 billion, with the U.S. providing about $230 million (2005-2006). Haitian exports total less than $500 million; imports are $1.5 billion (over 35% from the U.S). The majority of Haiti is mired in small-scale agricultural subsistence practices. Clearly Haiti is not self-sufficient domestically nor do they play any significant role in the world economy.

Now that an earthquake has killed tens of thousands and destroyed what little infrastructure existed, countries, including the U.S. are clamoring to hold press conferences pledging aid. The Obama administration pledged an initial $100 million which equals about 43% of our total annual Haitian aid package prior to the catastrophe. The American public enthusiastically texts their ten-dollar donations and makes sure everyone knows it. Celebrities hold hourly press conferences to display their generosity. Amidst pictures of death and misery, we proudly display images of the privileged few U.S. citizens we rescued from the chaos.

In case it is not self-evident, my question is where were we last week, last year, or for the last century and a half? Without argument, an investment in Haitian infrastructure and economy before this catastrophe would have possibly averted the staggering death toll and made much more sense on a humanitarian level. For you adherents to Rational Choice Theory, a more timely investment in Haiti would have also made better economic sense. Strengthening ones partners in a global economy generally has positive economic results at home. Especially when significant investment in Haiti could have been made for a pittance when compared to recent expenditures U.S taxpayers made to rescue failed business models from themselves. However in reality, once Haiti outlived its use as an economic colony, industrialized nations lost interest. Since it is not what most people consider a Caribbean paradise, tourists largely ignore Haiti as well. The sad result was that until 1:53 pm PST on 12 January 2010, most people in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world politely ignored Haiti; ignored the abject poverty; ignored the abysmally high AIDS/HIV and mortality rates; ignored the lawless squalor and ignored our responsibility as world citizens.

Haitians today are direct descendants of those who were originally brought there in chains. They were used for economic gain and when they outlived their use, they were forgotten and left to flounder. Sadly nature chose to remind the world that Haiti is still there. This is not a proud public relations moment for Americans, or anyone else. This is a sad reminder of our failure to live up to the ideals we constantly espouse.