Daily Archives: 04 Jan 2015

Some Disturbing Media Numbers for 2014

Hannah Groch-BegleyHannah Groch-Begley put together some interesting statistics from Media Matters, The Media in 2014 by the Numbers. None of it is shocking, but it is all disturbing.

She started the article with what is perhaps the most surprising statistic: none of the top editors at the ten biggest newspapers are women. That statistic wouldn’t be surprising if we were talking about almost any other industry. But women are extremely well represented in writing. I have always taken this to indicate that women are naturally better writers. That’s certainly been my experience. I had to work very hard to write as well as most of my female friends who didn’t ever work on it. Regardless, if you look at technical writers, there are more women than men. On the other hand, in Hollywood, where I assume the money is better and the prestige is more, there are more men. Regardless, I would think the new business would do better. But of course not! Silly me to be the least bit optimistic.

There is a pair of statistics that I’ve seen before that I’m not sure is as meaningful as it seems:

Ebola Coverage 2014 - Media Matters

The truth of the matter is that the Ebola freak out seems to have just corresponded to the interests of the Republican Party. And I doubt it mattered anyway. I don’t think that Democratic voters stayed home because they felt that the administration was doing a bad job with it. What I think is a bigger issue is that if a Republican had been in the White House, Ebola would have received perhaps a quarter of the coverage. Fox News would have covered it in a completely reasonable way and the other news stations would have followed suit. In fact, there would have been a huge backlash against anyone who didn’t. They would have rightly been criticized for fomenting fear. But when a Democrat is in the White House, nothing is off the table. We should be very concerned that the mainstream media allow the Overton Window to be set by conservative media.

A couple of statistics that really struck me had to do with experts. First, only 3% of economic segments in the first half of 2014 featured an economist. Now, when you consider the state of the economics profession, maybe that isn’t so bad. I suspect that a good deal of that 3% was made up with Arthur Laffer. Just the same, it shows the media really aren’t interested in expertise — they figure economics is simple and everyone has valid opinions on it. They just want some politician on the two arbitrary “sides” of the issue and that’s that.

The other statistic is of much greater concern: on education segments during 2014, only 9% included educators. As with the economist, the media seem to think that teaching is simple. Why talk to teachers about education? After all, everybody knows that teachers just care about working as little as possible and taking home those big ol’ pay checks! Am I right?! But unlike economists who are to a large extent incompetent apologists for the power elite, teachers actually do know something about education. But the power elite would prefer to leave them out of the conversation. And the mainstream media are more than willing to oblige.

There are are lot more factoids in the article. The ones that I mentioned are just the ones that stood out to me. But there is much of interest. I suspect that next year, Media Matters will be able to write the same article with a minimum of editing.

Comets and the Thrill of Freezing in the Dark

Terry LovejoyAs I get older, I find that my interests turn more and more to “fun” things like astronomy. When I was younger, I wasn’t as interested in it. But being submerged in politics all the time, it’s very relaxing to read about stuff where facts actually matter. Indeed, my interest has been so much increased that I’m doing some work on a pulsar model I published (pdf) 25 years ago. I think I made some errors and I have an idea for improving the overall model. (For the record, I always think I made some errors in everything I’ve published.) Regardless, I’m not doing it for any reason other than that it is fun.

Speaking of people doing astronomy just for fun, meet Terry Lovejoy. He is part of a long line of great amateur astronomers who have made important contributions to the science. In fact, it often seems to me that we ought to hold amateur endeavors in higher regard than professional ones. I mean, amateurs aren’t even being paid. But it does highlight the great lie of economics that everything is about financial incentives. Oh, there the politics come back in! Let’s get back to the pure joy of scientific discovery.

Last August, Lovejoy discovered his fifth comet: C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). I find comets fascinating. Their likely importance in the delivery of water and even organic matter to the planets makes my mind marvel. At the same time, the idea that one of these buggers could slam into the earth and kill us all has a wonderful horror movie appeal. And I’m very pleased that people like Lovejoy are out there discovering comets when they are barely visible at magnitude 15. Polaris has a magnitude of 2, and nothing with a magnitude of 7 or more is visible with the naked eye. At its brightest, C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) will have a magnitude between 4 and 5. That will be in two weeks.

On 7 January, the comet will make its closest approach to us — about 40 million miles away. But it won’t be at its brightest then. It will be brighter when it gets closer to the sun. But right now, you ought to be able to see it — just barely. Of course, you won’t be able to see it where I live. My neighborhood is swimming in light. It really is an abomination. But I’m going to take a long walk tonight and see if I can get far enough away to see it with some binoculars.

Finding it should not be hard. It is swinging by Orion. Right now it is at just below and to the right of his right foot. Here’s a star chart from Sky and Telescope:

C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) Path - Sky and Telescope

But I should warn you: going out to see a comet is like going to see a rock concert — better in theory than in practice. Watching a DVD of a concert is generally much more fun with far better sound and not standing on a concrete floor being trampled by people pretending that they know the song based on the first three notes. I’ve seen a few comets in my day, including the stupendously disappointing 1986 appearance of Halley’s Comet. My main memory of all comet sightings is that of being cold.

Be that as it may, it is important to suffer the discomfort and disappointment of great events. And the chance to see C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) is more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is a once in a hundred lifetimes experience, since this comet doesn’t visit very often — just once every ten thousand years or so. So be a good neighbor: run outside, look up at Orion, and wave hello to C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). That way, when your grandchildren ask you what it was like to see the comet, you can say, “All I remember is that I was cold.”

Or you could cheat and watch this video from 29 December:

But it isn’t the same. I’m not even chilly.

Owning Pays Far Too Well

Fast FoodIt is Sunday, and so Thomas Frank has an article that is well worth reading, Chain Restaurants Are Killing Us: Billionaire Bankers, Minimum-Wage Toilers and the Nasty Truth About Fast-Food Nation. He focused on workers and the corporate elite because none of the franchise owners would talk to him. But he asked, “I wonder how many chain-store bosses can truthfully say they make an ‘honest living.'” I think I have a little insight into that.

Do franchise owners work hard? In my experience, yes. But they don’t work harder than their employees. They will, of course, sometimes get behind the counter or in the kitchen and kick a little ass — like they are the best workers around. But this kind of work represents the exception: maybe a couple of hours a week at most. Their primary function is as “manager.” I put the scare quotes on there because the truth of the matter is that the corporations don’t allow much in terms of management. The franchises are meant to be idiot proof — and that is as true for the worker at the register as it is for the owner managing the place. And this is generally only at the start of the franchise. The whole idea is for the owner to leave the whole thing to others who are less well paid.

The main thing is that the franchise owners get paid far more for whatever it is that they do. Of course, the idea in a capitalism is that people ought to be paid just for owning something. I’m not against this idea in theory. In practice, in the United States, it’s a travesty. It is why we hear this lie about the entrepreneur — the woman who “took a chance.” But that’s not what I consider an entrepreneur. This definition of entrepreneur just highlights the fact that business success is mostly a matter of luck. Borrow a bunch of money, start a business, go bankrupt. Repeat that process until you don’t go bankrupt. I’m all for bankruptcy laws — and I think it should be a lot easier for individuals to go bankrupt — but there is no denying that it is a form of socialism. In fact, for the right class of people, business is all about socialism: using the common resources to help you make it big.

So what we really see in the comparison of franchise owners versus franchise workers is which ones have the opportunities to buy a franchise. Is it the case that a minimum wage worker would ever make enough money that she too could take the risk and buy a McDonald’s franchise with $750,000 in non-borrowed cash? Where is the equality of opportunity there? So of course this isn’t about the brave entrepreneur who is willing to take risks. Everyone takes risks every day. I love this quote from Melissa Harris-Perry:

What is riskier than living poor in America? Seriously! What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I am sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No. There is a huge safety net that whenever you fail will catch you and catch you and catch you! Being poor is what is risky!

I come back to this idea again and again that conservatives (and many “liberals”) are deluded in thinking that if outcomes are dictated by the “free” market, they are “natural” — and therefore correct. The truth is that there aren’t any markets that are free. Markets themselves are communal constructs. The idea that I’ve been grappling with the last couple of year is how it makes any kind of sense that the nature of a society should dictate the rewards. For example, before movies, actors had to work every day — often multiple performances per day. The most successful ones became rich. But they were nowhere near as rich as the most successful actors today who might only work a month out of the year. The difference has nothing to do with the actor; it is entirely due to the technology that the actors had no part in creating. The same thing can be said about every other industry. Just look at the effects container ships have had on the narrowing of manufacturing industries.

The bottom line to all of this is that capitalism is not a just way to allocate resources. And even if it were, those with the most resources would use them to tilt the playing field in their favor. Instead of the government molding capitalism to work better, it has been molded to work worse. There are programs to mitigate the worst poverty, because the power elite know that starving children with bare feet begging in the streets causes a backlash that they can’t control. But other than this, the government mostly works to take money from the poor and give it to the rich. And the richer one is, the bigger the handouts.

Afterword

If you click over to the Melissa Harris-Perry video, you will hear Monica Mehta claim that 5% of the people pay 40% of the taxes. I’m pretty sure that would be 40% of the federal income taxes — a common conservative deception. But regardless, the number means nothing, given that the 5% makes a whole lot more than 5% of the income. People like Mehta disgust me.


See also: I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid

The Power of the Skills Gap Myth

Toni GilpinOne of the things you’ll see repeated often is the 600,000 skilled jobs in manufacturing that are going begging because we can’t find the right workers to fill them. And that figure comes from a National Association of Manufacturers report from a few years back. It’s based on the fact that when they surveyed manufacturing employers, about 5% of them indicated that they couldn’t find the workers they wanted to fill jobs in their plants. And so from that, the report extrapolated to declare that there were 600,000 jobs that were going begging.

The reality, though, is that when economists and academics have looked at the actual job market data they find that to be simply not true. Studies from Illinois, from the Wharton School in Pennsylvania, from Wisconsin, have found that this is simply a oft repeated meme that doesn’t have much basis in reality. If there were this terrific lack of skilled workers in manufacturing, we would expect to see wage increases for those workers — we would expect to see rising wages. When there’s a shortage of something, we expect to see prices go up. We would expect the value of that particular item to increase. In fact, however, wage rates for skilled workers have remained stable or have declined through this recession. So that’s a real problem in terms of the fact that it seems to defy market realities.

The CEOs and manufacturing executives who are promoting the notion of a skills gap — and that has become generally accepted, I’m afraid — find it very convenient because it helps in the general effort to devalue the cost of labor. It also allows them to offload the kind of on-the-job training they used to provide themselves onto the public. We’re seeing workers themselves absorb the costs of retraining — desperately trying to reequip themselves with the skills that are supposedly needed for jobs that really aren’t there. We’re seeing community colleges strapped for funds that are trying to figure out which are the best training programs they can offer. It’s very handy for business executives because it allows them the luxury of keeping wages low while also not having to offer the kind of training that they used to offer themselves in their own plants. So this serves them quite well and also helps to tap down workers who are looking to increase their own wages.

—Toni Gilpin
Interview of CounterSpin

André Masson

André MassonOn this day in 1896, the great painter André Masson was born. It is hard to classify him, which is what makes him so great. The clearest aspect of his painting is surrealism, especially that of Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. But I also see Paul Klee and M C Escher. At least, that’s what I see in his mature work in the 1930s and 1940s. His earlier work is experimental with a lot of automatic drawing, which probably is why he became a major influence of the abstract expressionists much later. I like to think that he was laying the groundwork for his later work — the way that the last dream of the night combines elements of the earlier, simpler dreams.

When the Nazis took over France, they did not like Masson’s work. But really: whose work did the Nazis like? They considered it “degenerate.” So he managed to escape from France and make it to the United States. When people from the customs department found some of his art work that he had smuggled with him, it was pronounced pornographic and destroyed. I know that some people have a real problem with my attitude, but there is really something that connects Germany and the United States. And it ain’t good. They (We!) are a parochial people. And while I’ll allow that Germany is much improved since the Nazis, the United States has regressed in many ways since the New Deal.

In 1938, having seen the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the general rise of fascism throughout Europe, Masson painted In the Tower of Sleep. It is simultaneously horrific and transcendent. He wrote of the central figure whose skin has been flayed off that it came from having seen while fighting in World War I “a figure lying in a trench with his head split open…” I think it’s a masterpiece that better renders the time and place than anything I’ve ever seen:

In the Tower of Sleep - Andre Masson

Happy birthday André Masson!