Millennials: Shaping Our Rough-Hewn Ends

Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks of “A divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”

We live in a time when “rough hewn” means a wasteful economy, climate change on a global scale, whole industries made unprofitable or impractical, and consumers buying things that are bad for them.

But as I read about the choices and preferences of the rising Millennial generation, I can see that some of the hurtful habits my generation have practiced may be on their way out.

I’m stopping short of suggesting that the Millennials are doing all the right things, or that they are wise and noble about everything. And I’m certainly not suggesting that all the country’s problems will be solved by Millennials’ shopping preferences. But it just may be that the generational choices are going to help.

Consider.

CNN’s Money page cites 10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On. Evidently, Millennials don’t like mass market beer. They also spend less on weddings than earlier generations.

Glenn Beck’s The Blaze decries the Millennials’ lack of savings. Typical of the shoddy sort of information you can expect from Beck, the article cites trends that occurred between the ‘60s and ‘80s, before Millennials were even born, and blames them anyway.

Investopedia gets it right, I think, by recognizing that what people do is determined not just by what they want, but also by their circumstances. And the circumstances of Millennials are straitened:

 “Although they have frequently been labeled as materialistic, spoiled and saddled with a sense of entitlement, many millennials feel that they will not be able to achieve material goals like finding their dream job, buying a house or retiring until much later in their lives than their parents did. Paying off student loan debt has become increasingly difficult for many who are struggling with unemployment and low-paying jobs. The recession left over 15% of millennials in their early twenties out of work, many of whom are still struggling to get their feet on the ground. This will hurt them long after they do get work.”

 

The Atlantic looked at Millennials’ finances at length in a series of reports in September, 2014. They find Millennials buy fresh fruit, eat at Chipotle, but don’t drink much soda pop. That is affirmed in MarketWatch in its article, 5 industries that millennials are destroying. The five are autos, cable TV, in-store retail, housing and soda pop. And here’s yet another good take on Millennials and cars, from fastcoexist.com.

 

The three biggest expenses most people encounter in their lives is a house, a college education and a car. Millennials are going for college, but seem to be scaling back on houses and cars.

And that has sparked a big reaction among automakers, casting about for a trigger to stimulate young people to buy cars at something like the rate of older Americans. That’s drawn a lot of special attention, as described in The Atlantic:

 “We have to face the growing reality that today young people don’t seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations,” [Toyota USA President Jim] Lentz said. “Many young people care more about buying the latest smart phone or gaming console than getting their driver’s license.”
 The billion-dollar question for automakers is whether this shift is truly permanent, the result of a baked-in attitude shift among Millennials that will last well into adulthood, or the product of an economy that’s been particularly brutal on the young.”

 

photo: publicdomainpictures.net

 

MTVPress has put out a study saying the shift isn’t permanent — that it doesn’t even exist. Their study insists that Millennials are in fact more enthusiastic about owning cars and driving than older cohorts.

 “Today’s findings establish that 8 in 10 Millennials get around most often by car as opposed to any other form of transportation – a stark contrast to studies in recent years that show driving on the decline among young people. This shift in driving behaviors and attitudes towards automobiles can be attributed to Millennials aging up into car ownership, an improving economy and the fact that more Millennials are able to afford cars now than a few years ago.”

 

Nah! It is evident to me that MTV has done a hack job of research. Saying 8 out of 10 people travel by car is evidence they haven’t taken a representative sample of Americans. (Barely over half the households in New York City own a car, and in many of the largest cities less than 8 in 10 even own a car.) The article doesn’t claim that the sample is representative, and it pretty evidently isn’t. By working with a large share of car enthusiasts, the study inevitably found strong support for driving.

This country and this world face serious environmental challenges that are aggravated by emissions from vehicles. Millions of frivolous miles are driven every year, on top of hundreds of millions of miles of driving that are vital to our economy and our way of life. And there isn’t enough petroleum on the planet to keep it up forever.

If the Millennial generation chooses to turn from private cars in a big way, then I say hooray for them. They have no duty to sustain industries that don’t serve them. But more than that, the Millennials’ choices might make the necessary pivot away from Big Oil a whole lot easier.

 

To another topic, the music industry. It seems pretty basic that if someone has a talent that other people enjoy, they ought to be able to make a living doing it. But it is increasingly difficult for a musician, however talented, to make a living. A handful of pop artists get super rich, but after them the pickings get slim very quickly. There just isn’t enough money in selling recordings anymore to support the band. David Byrne discusses this problem at length here. And here is a first-hand descriptions of the income and outlay of a touring pop group, written by the somewhat grumpy and resentful accordion player for Pomplamoose,

Digital Music News reports that Millennials would rather attend a concert than buy CDs or downloads of the same musician. The concert is the sort of shared experience Millennials appreciate.

 “While Millennials don’t believe digital music needs to be paid for, they are happy to pay for concerts and other artist-fan experiences. And they are interested in supporting their favorite artists in ways that make sense to them.”

 

Just what those “ways that make sense” are isn’t clear. But  more live performances in smaller venues before a more appreciative crowd (willing to pay more for tickets) might work out well. It wasn’t enough for Pomplamoose, admittedly. But maybe they just didn’t make the right choices. At any rate, it is encouraging just to think that an industry that is failing in the status quo has some new ideas and a generation of enthusiastic experimenters willing to try them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Syriza!

Congratulations to the people of Greece on the outcome of their recent election. The victory of the leftist Syriza Party certainly doesn’t mean all is well over there now. It may not even mean that Greece is moving in the right direction. Syriza may not govern well.

But the election does mean something.

The United States held an election less than three months ago, and it perhaps didn’t mean anything at all. That’s the view of Convention of States:

 The new, Republican-led Congress convenes [on Jan 6, 2015], and conservatives are hopeful that, as Bob Dylan famously put it, “times, they are a-changin.”
But can we really expect significant shift towards a smaller, less powerful federal government?
The short answer is, “Probably not.”

 

Convention of States is a website dedicated to reforming the nation by substantial changes to the Constitution. I think that is a good idea. But their immediate point here is that the recent national, election isn’t likely to change much – neither affecting their particular issue of interest nor national policies overall. I don’t know of any national news source that expects much progress, in any direction, in the next two years. (No change might be a very good thing if most people were happy with most aspect of our society, our politics and our economy. But they aren’t, and changes are needed.)

There will be lots of action on Capital Hill, but unless a crisis emerges that foced cooperation, the action will be all for the sake of credit-taking and name calling. The Republican House of Representatives will pass dozens or hundreds of bills. But few of them will get through the Republican Senate, and won’t be signed by President Obama if they do. It will all be partisan posturing rather than good public policy.

 

people-celebrating
Greeks celebrating the Syriza victory. (The Guardian)

 

But in Greece, the election really means something. That country is going to go in a very different direction now that Alexis Tspiras and his Syriza Party have won control. And the most important aspect, to me, is that the people got to vote on something very dramatic.

The privilege of voting is a very great basic right IF the voting makes a choice between very real and very different alternatives.

Millennials: What They Want & Why They Can’t Have It

Those who look to the emerging Millennial Generation to fix America’s social and political problems might be cheered by these numbers from the General Social Survey. The table shows that Millennials are inclined toward more spending  for several issues.

 

survey

General Social Survey

 

At the top of the list is Education. Eight-five percent of Millennials are willing to spend more money on education. Two-thirds think there is too little spending on the Environment. The list is ranked from highest to lowest, and bottoms out on Foreign Aid: only 11% of Millennials think more money should be spent assisting other countries. Foreign Aid is the only topic for which a clear majority of Millennials would cut spending.

I don’t assume that every issue can be solved by spending more money. The US already spends much more per person on health care than any other developed nation, and the solution there is better legislation and less unnecessary administration. Halting the rising crime rate can’t be solved with more money because the rising crime rate doesn’t exist. Crime rates nationwide, and in most local jurisdictions across the country, have been going down steadily for years. (Evidence is given here and here.)

Willingness to spend more money on a problem does indicate a serious desire to make things better, though. And that is a good sign.

A closer look at the table of data reveals several things worth considering. Several of the shaded bands contain two lines of results: two different results for separate questions about similar topics. This shows how opinion results differ depending on the wording of the question. Look at the gap between “Assistance to the Poor” (65% favor spending more) and “Welfare” (only 18% favor more spending). Those are two drastically different results from the same (or similar) respondents. The difference is simply that “welfare” is a government program with a reputation for waste and abuse, while “assistance to the poor” feels like a decent and compassionate thing to do.

Lesson: When you read survey results, look carefully at the way the question is worded and think how that might shape the results. If the report doesn’t give you the exact words, be suspicious. Most news reports are scrupulous about reporting the survey’s confidence interval, but negligent about reporting the more important language. (The  data I’m showing are drawn from the General Social Survey and yield 95% confidence that the reported values, plus or minus 1.52%, are correct. This is a smaller interval than you usually see because the GSS has a larger sample than most spot surveys.)

It is worth noting that the Millennials’ 65% support for greater assistance to the poor isn’t unique. Generation X and the Boomers both support more assistance to the poor at similar rates. Ideology makes a greater difference than age. People who are very conservative are less likely to support more assistance to the poor – though 41% of extreme conservatives still do. Among moderates, the age difference is almost nothing: 71% of Millennials and 70% of Boomers. Among extreme liberals, 83% support more assistance to the poor. That is 75% of Boomers and 91% of Millennials.

All of this make you think that big changes are imminent. When, a decade or so from now, those Millennials become the dominant political bloc in the US, the things they are ging to start happening. Hooray!

Well, not so fast.

First of all, there is the possibility that Millennials, when they are 40, will vote like other 40-year-olds have voted in the past. The strong support they show for education now might give way to equally strong support for something else.

Second, and more importantly, shifts in public opinion  don’t have any direct effect on public or social outcomes in this country. There are manifold reasons why.

Gerrymandering. Congressional districts throughout the country are drawn to advantage one party. Gerrymandering has been around since the nation’s beginning, but it has certainly gotten worse in recent years.

Winner-Take-All Representation. Even apart from gerrymandering, millions of Americans represented at the state and federal level by representatives whose actions are inimical to their opinions. The idea that each state is either “Red” or “Blue” is fiction. America, and every jurisdiction in it, is divided. But the undemocratic political system subsumes individual sentiment into the framework of two-party winners and losers.

The US Senate. Did I say “undemocratic?” Professor Sanford Levinson of UT-Austin Law School has written at length in “Our Undemocratic Constitution,” about how US laws just aren’t democratic. Yes, our laws are functional, and effective at thwarting a takeover by a single autocrat. But they are not democratic. Levinson spends a great deal of his book talking about the perverse balance of the US Senate. Because each state has two senators regardless of population, the voters in one state (Montana) can send a senator to Washington much more easily than voters in in another state (California). The rules of the Senate enable as few as 33 senators to defeat legislation (by defeating cloture), and those 33 senators might come from states that represent only about 18% of the US population.  And, thanks to gerrymandering, those 33 senators representing only 18% of the US population might have been elected by bare majorities of low voter turnouts, meaning they are the chosen representatives of a single-digit share of the people.

The Committee System. Each state legislature and the US Congress have developed elaborate systems of committees to distribute the work of reviewing proposals before they are voted on. This is a reasonable approach to a large burden. But those committees have the power to kill any bill they look at, and this is another way that the will of the people can be (and is) thwarted. What is more, the individual chairman of each committee has tremendous power to set the agenda. Paul Ryan from Wisconsin ought to be simply one member of the 435-member strong House of Representatives. Instead, he is described as the Fourth Most Powerful Person in Government. There’s nothing in the Constitution about committees, but the system we have now cleaves to the Constitution only when and as it wishes.

Minority Influence. In addition to the undemocratic effects within government, the political influence of the public on government doesn’t usually depend on majority opinion. In fact, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that groups representing as little as 10% of the whole will usually get their way. Organization and aggressiveness count for more than tradition or the majority position.

 

So, getting back to the Millennials. I know they can, and I hope they will, exert their dominance in years to come and push the country in a better direction. Let’s be clear, though. They won’t do it simply by holding marginally stronger views about some issues. They’ll have to do it by fixing the structure of American society and governance. They’ll have to reestablish a system that does what the people want within each community, and across the nation.

 

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Here’s a story from CNN about a caring police officer. His name is Deon Joseph, and he patrols one of the worst neighborhoods in Los Angeles:

 “He used to make a lot of arrests, but these days he spends most of his time just talking to people and handing out donated hygiene kits — toothpaste, soap, deodorant, lotion and shaving cream — and fliers that explain how to apply for housing vouchers. He leads self-defense classes for homeless women, events he calls “Ladies’ Night.” He tweets crime prevention tips and offers up anecdotes on Facebook.”

 

good-police-officer
LAPD Officer Deon Joseph (CNN)

 

Here’s a story from Politico and The Week about an unmotivated TSA security officer.

 “Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full, awful display.”

 

And here’s the awful story of the Billings, Montana patrol officer whose dash cam catches him weeping after killing an unarmed man for the second time in his five-year career. Shaun King at dailykos writes:

 “When an officer pulls over a car for a moving violation, they have no idea if the passengers in that car are going to be school teachers, Girl Scouts, or some dudes making a drug run. With that said, Grant Morrison, a police officer in Montana, clearly has an unacceptable and unreasonable level of fear when he pulls people over. Two times, in the past two years, Morrison has pulled over unarmed, nonviolent citizens and, in a fit of fear, shot them both—the most recent resulting in a brutal and unnecessary death.”

 

Given these three data points, any honest person should admit there are some good police officers and some bad ones. Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August there have been many suggestions for what needs to be done. Some say every policeman should wear a body camera. Some say the police need more training. Other says the police need to be demilitarized.

I’ve got another suggestion. Let’s only assign the duties of a police officer to individuals who have the aptitude to do a police officer’s job. If “To Protect and Serve” is the police department’s motto, let’s hire people who value life and property. It is an idea that was best expressed by Dorothy L. Sayers decades ago in an essay called ‘Why Work?”:

 “At present we have no clear grasp of the principle that every man should do the work for which he is fitted by nature. The employer is obsessed by the notion that he must find cheap labor, and the workers by the notion that the best-paid job is the job for him. Only feebly, inadequately and spasmodically do we ever attempt to tackle the problem from the other end and inquire: What type of worker is suited to this type of work?”

 

I think this is brilliant. The way things work now, only a minority of all employed or self-employed people do something they love. By a pretty broad definition of “workplace engagement”, Gallup finds that only 30% of workers in the US are engaged in their work. And this makes Americans exceptional:  worldwide only 13% of employed people are similarly engaged in their work. Most people do the job for money, period. As a consequence they don’t do their job any better than necessary.

What if every auto mechanic loved spending time under the hood? What if every teacher just couldn’t get enough interaction with young minds? What if the only people who sewed clothing or made shoes were artists, not wage slaves rushing to meet quotas?

Answer: happier workers and more satisfied customers. And, admittedly, higher prices. But higher prices for drastically better products and services.

What if the jobs that wear people down and dehumanize them just weren’t done? No meat packers. No warehouse picker-packers. No garbage collectors. (In Thomas More’s Utopia, the terrible jobs were performed by slaves. But I say there shouldn’t be such jobs.)

The work still needs to be done by someone — just not in the circumstances that make the job onerous. Instead, work could be redesigned so as to be more edifying, less rushed and less stultifying. Some necessary tasks would have to be redesigned. Every house would handle its own garbage. and wouldn’t that send recycling  and composting through the roof and put household waste through the floor.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t work hard, nor that extra effort shouldn’t be rewarded. I believe those things firmly. I’m not talking about a mandated minimum wage for junk jobs. I’m talking about a wholesale purge of jobs that aren’t worth a living wage.

Back to the police: I suggest there should only be as many police officers in any jurisdiction as there are individuals who are fitted to the job.  (Yes, of course, every police department in American has strict selection criteria. I know that. But I also know that those criteria are adjusted to reflect the type of applicants the department gets, and that those departments hire as many people as they need to fill their roster. If they cared about maintaining only the strictest caliber of officer more than about quantity, they’d get a different sort of person altogether.) Many cities would have fewer men and women in uniform. But more of the people in uniform would be Deon Joseph and fewer of them Grant Morrison.

 

 

“The Pope is Wrong” is Wrong

Imagine a basketball coach explaining the game to a group of young students. Summarizing the rules, the coach might say, “You can’t move both your feet without dribbling the ball.” Now imagine one eager student declaring, “Yes I can! Watch me!,” then proceeding to walk around the gym while holding the ball in his hands.

It is obvious that the student has made a mistake. He has interpreted the instructor’s use of the word “can’t” to mean “You are incapable” rather than “The rules of the game forbid.” True, the coach didn’t stipulate, “While playing the game of basketball according to the rules, you can’t move both your feet without dribbling the ball.” But he’s the coach, and almost everything the coach says pertains to playing the game of basketball according to the rules. The student’s precocious rebuttal begins to look silly.

It seems to me that several writers recently have made the same error in their criticisms of Pope Francis. On Friday, while traveling to the Philippines, the Pope held an airborne press conference. Among his several comments, he said, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” he said. “There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”

 

pope-francis
Pope Francis

 

Several news and opinion writers responded, declaring the Pope wrong. One was Heidi Schlumpf, writing for CNN:

 I think most American Catholics agree that while blasphemy — offensive speech against God or religion — is not particularly nice, it does not follow that it can or should be regulated or outlawed. In the United States, the Supreme Court outlawed blasphemy laws in 1952.

Another, quite vicious, response comes from Raw Story:

Even here we have the pope calling for a general stifling, with violence, of criticisms of all religions. But he, being the pope, just by existing is declaring that some religions are false religions. So why on earth should the rest of us be restrained from pointing out the same of his religion and other religions? It makes no sense at all.

Raw Story asks, “[W]hy on earth should the rest of us be restrained..?” Schlumpf declares, “[I]t does not follow that it can or should be regulated or outlawed.”

They are both making wrong assumptions, like the kid with the basketball. Two wrong assumptions, in fact. They suppose the pope’s comments are addressed to them or intended to affect them. But the pope’s comments are aimed at believers, as nearly all his words of advice are. Like the coach who assumes his listeners want to play basketball well, the pope assumes people want to live like Christ. If not, why ask the pope anything?

The critics again err by assuming the pope wants stiffer laws against free speech. They assume that if he wants something to happen, he wants big government to shove it down our throats.

But Pope Francis operates within different communities – the Christian faith generally and the Catholic Church in particular – that also influence people’s behavior. Religious affiliation is voluntary, but nevertheless powerful and important.

When the pope says, “You can’t…” he means you can’t do something and conform to the image of Christ.  He’s saying nothing about what government ought to do.

Edmund Burke, the great 18th century philosopher and political theorist, would agree with Francis that there are limits to free speech, and agree with him again that self-regulation is the preferred way to impose those limits. Communitarians, too, espouse shared values rather than either big government laws or brazen individualism (as exemplified by both the French cartoonists and the terrorists who killed them). Burke said, “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

Burke’s goal in all his writings was civil liberty and individual rights, as Pope Francis’ goals are Christ-like goodness. So when the “great minds” of today elevate the right to blaspheme, tear down, and offend to the top priority, I am driven back to Burke for a second helping:

 “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.”

And for good measure, a second helping of the Christian message:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

 

If Christian self-restraint such as the pope calls for were more widely practiced, what would be the result? Both less offense given and less offense taken. If Burkean “soundness and sobriety” were more widely practiced, what would be the result? Less government imposed because less government would be needed.

Sounds good to me.

These People Are Crazy!

 

Today I’ve read several new items stating that inventors have created invisibility.

Here’s a link to one of those stories.

Here’s another, with video.

a-guys-hand

Invisibility? Hardly.

 

What’s my problem? I’ll tell you. My problem is that this “invention” makes the person using the machine not able to see the object. Invisibility is when someone else can’t see the thing.

Really, this device is a set up for a Monty Python comedy sketch: If we can just get the enemy on a battlefield (or the guards outside a bank) to look into this machine for about an hour (while plugging their ears), we can accomplish a brilliant maneuver. Presuming the enemy won’t cooperate, we can look into the machine ourselves!

 

ostrich-head-in-sand
Invisibility!

 

 

I’m not disputing that the device described here does something neat. Bending light is a neat trick. It was neat when Isaac Newton did his experiments with prisms back in the 1600s. But the CNN headline accompanying this story declares “Experts invent invisibility cloak.” 

That clearly is not the case. Much that passes for dazzling innovation to the “swallow anything” American public really isn’t.  Genuine innovation is a wonderful thing. An innovative society needs a population that knows the difference.

About three hours after I posted the preceding, I read that “Within 10 year, rooms could be wired so that appliances . . . pull power from a central charging base” without the need for wires. This was in a Time magazine article about new inventions. The problem is, wireless, radiant power was developed a century ago. Here are Nicola Tesla’s incomplete notes showing (partly) how he did it.

An here’s a photograph of what it looked like:

Tesla in his laboratory demonstrating wireless electric current.

 

If the company cited in the Time article can develop a product that charges i-phones and tablets wirelessly, then good luck to them. All I’m saying is that the science and tech media ought to do a better job of knowing what is and is not a new invention.

 

 

 

So. Very. Wrong.

This post is about being wrong. We live in a world where lots of people hold fiercely to very wrong opinions and ideas. Their wrongness often hurts others, as well as themselves and society at large. I recently learned something about being wrong, by being very wrong myself.

The 1954 MGM musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, has been a favorite of my family for years. My four daughters love it. The story is about how Milly (Jane Powell) civilizes a pack of “slummocky backwoodsmen” and makes them fit to call upon young ladies. The men begin uniformly brutish and grungy, but Milly coaxes a handsome and charming young swain out of each of them. Yes, the story is politically incorrect. (“The film has been criticized by feminists for its favorable depiction of abduction and kidnapping. It has been described as an “incredibly sexist, misogynist” film which ‘romanticizes gender oppression.’”) But maybe the female characters in the story are allowed to decide who they’ll fall in love with. Anyway, the Johnny Mercer songs are great.

 

 

Seven brides and seven brothers make seven singin’, dancin’, and spoonin’ couples. The movie has some several noteworthy actors in addition to headliners Jane Powell and Howard Keel. The bride, Dorcas, is played by Julie Newmar, who later became Catwoman in the campy 1960s Batman TV series. She’s a good dancer but had the ill luck to be paired with the handsome brother, Benjamin, who couldn’t dance at all. The brother Gideon (Russ Tamblin), later played Riff in West Side Story, and was cast for his athletic dancing. Another of the brothers turns up in Oklahoma as the cowboy who gets a three-day bellyache from Ado Annie’s sweet potater pie.

But the cast isn’t uniformly strong. MGM was making the musical Brigadoon at the same time as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Because they considered Brigadoon a bigger production, MGM gave it most of the studio’s top talent. The cast of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was rounded out with a few actors with somewhat limited scope. Benjamin, as I noted, isn’t a dancer and stays on the sideline in all the dances.

The movie spawns trivia almost irresistibly. One is drawn to conjecture which brother is the best dancer, which bride is the best singer, and which couple is best overall. We weren’t the only people attracted to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers minutia. Here and here and here and here and here are sites dedicated to the same sort of reveling-in-detail that my family engaged in.

We developed a particular mythology about the green-shirted brother, who, for the moment, we’ll call, “Dan.” He speaks relatively few lines. He seems often to be out of the frame during conversations. There’s a whole scene in which his character stands behind a wooden staircase with his face obscured. What a loser! Ha Ha Ha!

Our confusion began with this early scene, where oldest brother Adam brings his new wife Milly to the pioneer homestead he shares with six brothers. Adam introduces two brothers at a time: “My brothers, Ephraim and Daniel,” To clarify, Millie asks, “Which one is Ephraim, and which is Daniel?” And the two answer, “Me.”

 

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Milly meets Ephraim and Dan.

 

A moment later, everyone gathers inside the dirty farmhouse, which Adam explains won’t be so dirty now that Milly’s here. Adam recaps the names, explaining the alphabetical and Biblical origin of each. But the brothers are gathered all around in disorder and Adam gestures imprecisely as he rattles off the names.

 

Howard-keel-and-actors
Adam introduces his brothers.

 

A reasonable person could easily suppose, given the evidence so far, that the clean-shaven brother in the white shirt is Daniel, while Ephraim is the mustachioed brother in the peach-colored shirt.

 

 

Well, to fast-forward through the story, the brothers shape up and eventually woo and win their brides’ affections. By the next Spring everybody is happy and in love. Here’s Dan and his special girl, Liza.

 

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“Dan” dancing with Liza.

 

Then, a few moments later , while all the others are enjoying the Spring sunshine with their best girl, Dan bursts onto the scene and shouts, “Frank, Dan, Ben, Caleb, Everybody! Milly’s having her baby!”

 

shouting
“Milly’s having her baby!”

 

But we explained that as a mistake of continuity that movie buffs are fond of spotting. The fact that the man we thought was Dan shouts the name “Dan” was just further evidence of our expertise and the character’s clownishness. It never occurred to us that it might be evidence that the character was not “Dan.”

Then one evening as we sat rehashing the lore we’d invented it occurred to ask what other roles the “Dan” actor had ever done. We looked online and for the first time we saw the name of Dan associated with the actor Marc Platt, who played the brother we called Ephraim. The actor Jacques d’Amboise (clearly the green-shirt brother) was listed on imdb as the character of Ephraim. Even then, at that 11th hour we had the hubris, the temerity to suspect imdb of mixing the names. But our convictions were crumbling and before that evening was over we conceded to ourselves and each other that we’d been wrong all along.

Finally, for the first time, the order of the brothers made sense in the final, shotgun wedding scene, where the preachers asks, “Do you Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank and Gideon, take Dorcas, Ruth, Martha, Liza, Sarah and Alice to be your lawful wedded wives?”

 

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Seven brides for seven brothers
(All images are from MGM .)

 

It turns out that all our reasons for deriding the green-shirted brother were misinformed. Ephraim is only out of frame in the TV format. In the wider cinemascope frame he’s always in the wide shots. Ephraim’s character speaks relatively little in the movie because the actor Jacques d’Amboise was shy. And the man standing behind the staircase was a stand-in on a day when Jacques d’Amboise was busy dancing with the New York Ballet and wasn’t available for filming.

 

The Daniel/Ephraim imbroglio has been a revelation to me. I’ve been wrong many times in my life, but I’ve never been so wrong about anything I’d studied so much.

If I can be wrong about a story I’d watched repeatedly – how can we trust an eyewitness to a crime who only saw the event once? If I can watch the scenes in comfort and leisure and still be wrong, how trustworthy is the memory of a witness who saw the event under stress? If I could miss the evidence while focused on a 36” television screen, how likely is an eyewitness to be looking in the right direction to see the critical event? (A couple of years ago, I was standing on a street corner when an SUV ran a red light and crashed with a car. The impact happened only 40 feet from me, but I didn’t see the impact at all and only look around in time to step out of the way as the SUV careened past me and smashed into the  street corner office building.)

This episode tells me that I’m capable of the worst intellectual errors. I am capable of misinterpreting obvious facts, of spinning clear evidence to its opposite meaning, and of disbelieving authoritative sources.

I know a lot of people do this routinely. Some even get paid to do it. But I don’t want to be one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re Not Lying, You’re Not Trying

Telling the truth as plainly as possible is the pinnacle of eloquence. Hyperbole has its place in fictional narrative, but when one runs up against Poe’s Law it’s best to say what you mean and nothing more or other than what you mean. But there is another school of thought. Some people seem to believe that if one thing is true, you should say something different than that. For them, important things ought to be lied about. Their pet medium is the chain email.

I’m not talking about spam. Of course I’ve got a spam filter that wipes the Nigerian princes and discount pharmaceuticals from my inbox. And I’m not talking about Ponzi scheme letters where money is raised for bogus good causes. Those have been around a long time: this Slate article does a nice job telling the long history of fundraising pyramids.

Rather, I’m talking about gratuitous, mass email messages that typically contain information about some recent event or some American institution and purpose mainly to provoke patriotic pride and inspiration (or alternatively, indignation at others who aren’t as patriotic as the sender and the reader.) I’m willing to feel inspired and patriotic, and pretty often I share the sentiment of the sender. But also pretty often I part ways with them when they part ways with the truth.

Chain emails come to me from older men and women I’ve known all my life. They’ve never  told a lie that I know of. They are not invasive or demanding people, either. I get chain emails from an elderly aunt who apologized to me for the inconvenience of may having to attend my uncle’s funeral n the middle of the week. I think she sends those chain email messages because she thinks I like reading them. If I point out the mendaciousness in the letters to the people who send them to me, as I do from time to time, they either say they hadn’t read the message carefully or else they think I’m funny.

The big issue about chain emails is not the people who pass them along. The big issue is the people who start those letters; who actually write the nonsense. It is nearly impossible to trace chain emails back to their source. Few of them are signed (though many are falsely ascribed to a celebrity). So we don’t know, in most cases, who starts them. But we can know, from the evidence, that they are liars. They can’t be honestly mistaken, because chain emails usually contain arcane and specific details that must have been looked up. But they also have information that the writer must know is false because he or she made it up!

Twice recently I’ve gotten an email concerning the honor guard at Arlington National Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This message typically combines accurate but tedious details (The guards must be at least 5’ 10” tall. While patrolling the guards take 21 steps in one direction, then pause 21 seconds before proceeding. They walk with a special stride so that their head does not bob up and down.) with monumental crap (The guards promise never to swear or drink beer for the rest of their lives. During their first six months on duty, they do not speak to anyone).

It ain’t so, Joe! Here’s the snopes.com report that debunks it. And here’s another from about.com. And this is what I find inexplicable. Someone evidently thinks the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a nice thing. They want Americans to know about it and to enjoy it and be proud of it just as he or she presumably is. Why, then, do they lie?

 

Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. – Romans 14:16

 

In the interest of open-mindedness, let me employ the technique about a couple of thing I care about:

First, let me tell you about my wife: My wife is generous, hard-working, clever, pretty and magnanimous. (All of this is true. But there’s more!) My wife also provides the voice for the character Elsa in the movie Frozen and owns the Green Bay Packers.

Purdue University, where I work, is a public land grant university in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue has 12 colleges and awards nearly 200 different degrees. Nearly 40-thousand students attend Purdue, including about 10-thousand graduate students. Purdue is a top-10 engineering school according to US News & World Report, and has the largest number of international undergraduates on any campus in the US. (Here we go again!) A Purdue education is so formative that Indiana leads the nation in educational attainment and has the highest average income of any state.

Nope. That didn’t do a thing for me. I just don’t get the motivation. Especially considering that the lies are so very easy to discredit. I’ve never yet gotten a chain email message for which refudiating evidence wasn’t already online when I got the message. In fact, snopes.com is so good at debunking them that its been suggested (facetiously) that they write the false messages to begin with!

I’m aware, of course, that those messages come overwhelming from right-wing sources. But that by itself isn’t an explanation. A Washington Post article from 2011 provides the best background detail about chain emails of anything I’ve found:

 “Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush’s first press secretary, points out that conservatives traditionally mistrust mainstream news. E-mail is another way for them to put out their own messages, countering the perceived biases of traditional media sources, he says. “If you believe the liberal media is covering up,” Fleischer explains, then you might be more susceptible to believe and pass on an outrageous e-mail.”

What this suggests is that the conservative citizen despairs of hearing the truth from any public source, and resolves that if he’s got to hear lies, he’ll at least hear lies of his own choosing. He remembers Walter Cronkite, but today its Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly unless you go into business for yourself.

It is not a new development. Thomas Jefferson said, in the early 1800s,  “I deplore . . . the putrid state into which the newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity and mendacious spirit of those who write them . . . These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste.”

Jefferson, when he wrote this, was old and tired of public life. To those who are still young and believe in the future, I would urge some optimistic effort to revive a hunger for truth.

 

Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale

Is not so brisk a brew as ale:

Out of a stem that scored the hand

I wrung it in a weary land.

But take it: if the smack is sour,

The better for the embittered hour;

It should do good to heart and head

When your soul is in my soul’s stead;

And I will friend you, if I may,

In the dark and cloudy day.

 

 

World Incomes & Our Economic Future

Paul Krugman is a great thinker and an important voice in current affairs. Krugman’s twice-weekly op-ed in the New York Times makes an important contribution to the discourse on economic and political affairs. His daily blog covers the same issues, adding Krugman’s personal enthusiasm for indie music, cats, and public transportation.

Krugman is a political liberal and a Keynesian economist, which means he believes government should act to boost economic activity when unemployment is high or growth is sluggish. In addition, he’s a clear and honest thinker, and he’s really good at explaining things. And, despite the trumped-up accusations of mean-spiritedness that come at him from some critics on the right, Krugman is a generous guy who likes to give credit to others. I especially enjoy how Krugman and Berkeley economist Brad DeLong play off of each other.

Krugman’s latest post focuses on a paper from World Bank economists Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic. Had Krugman not written his critique of the paper, I’d not have noticed it. But there is stuff here worth noticing.

The story is encapsulated in this chart, showing how incomes changed for people all over the world. Each dot represents five percent of the world’s people. The horizontal axis in the chart is income. The left side of the chart represents the very poorest people in the world. The right side represents the richest. The up-and-down axis of the chart shows change in income from 1988 to 2008 – roughly from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the beginning of the worldwide financial crisis.

 

milanovic-1
Lakner-Milanovic

What does the chart mean? The dot furthest to the right is high, signaling rapid growth of income for the wealthiest people in the world. The big bulge in the middle of the chart (between the 50th  and 60th percentiles) means that people who were in the middle of the pack gained a lot during those 20 years. And remember that we’re looking at the world’s – not just America’s – incomes. Who were those big gainers?

 “China is the region with the strongest growth, average incomes tripling between 1988 and 2008. It is followed by Russia/Central Asia/SE Europe and other Asia. The mature economies and India have grown at a very similar rate, in both cases superior to the world average. Latin America has grown at a (marginally) lower rate than the global average. Sub-Saharan Africa almost did not grow at all between 1993 and 2008.”

The worst place to be on the chart is the first dot on the left: the poorest to begin with and improving very little. These are the desperately poor of Haiti and Africa. Another place you wouldn’t want to be, though, is between the 80th and 90th percentiles. They started out high, but they gained less than anyone else. And who is that? The ordinary citizens of the US and western Europe!

The next chart — labeled Table 5 — lists the winners by country. Remember we’re looking here at 10% chunks of each nation. The biggest growth is “El Salvdor-1”, meaning the people who were already the top 10% of El Salvador’s population gained the most of any chunk of any nation.

The “rich get richer” principle appears to hold true most of the time here, with the top of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Ireland and the UK all gaining. The big exception is China where the the greatest gains were enjoyed by those who started at the bottom of China’s distribution (“China-urban-10.”)

milanovic-2
Lakner-Milanovic

 

Why doesn’t the US appear in this chart? Because  none of our deciles rank in the top 20 or bottom 20. American workers are part of that poor-performing group in the 80-90 range of the first chart. But the US 80th to 90th percentile group is not the same as the worldwide 80th to 90th percentile.

America’s richest have vastly outstripped everyone else, but they don’t seem in this chart to have very exceptional growth. that is because, once again, the chart depicts 5% chunks of people. At the extreme right of the chart the dot indicates the top 1% of the world’s people. But the out-of-control growth of the wealthy isn’t shared by the 1%. It is concentrated among a much smaller number of people, so looking at a whole 1% gives you a diluted effect.

Krugman’s comments remind us that stagnation over long periods can lead to upheaval. At present, Greece is the country at the point of the spear. But any of those countries in the 80-90 trough is apt to have problems.

Remember, this is the second time we’ve had a global financial crisis followed by a prolonged worldwide slump. . . And the eventual result was to deliver power into the hands of people who were, shall we say, not very nice.

I’m not suggesting that we’re on the verge of fully replaying the 1930s. But I would argue that political and opinion leaders need to face up to the reality that our current global setup isn’t working for everyone. It’s great for the elite and has done a lot of good for emerging nations, but that valley of despond is very real. And bad things will happen if we don’t do something about it.

I would add one further thought. It is true that the economic interests of the ordinary American get pushed aside when the very wealthy demand attention. But I think the ordinary American also fails to make his own case. This is because each person is a consumer as well as a worker. And it seems to me that most Americans think of their own self-interest mainly in terms of consuming. They jump at the chance to buy cheaper clothing and appliances, even it if means the very dire loss of good jobs for themselves and all their neighbors.

On balance, global free trade works out to be a very bad thing for many millions of individual American workers, and a very good thing for the people who took their jobs (see the chart again).  It isn’t surprising that corporate heads  and even economists insist that free trade is a good thing. It is surprising that many of those  ordinary American are so easily diverted from their own best interests.