The Case Against Apostrophe S

Apostrophe SLast Christmas, my younger sister, Kim, came to visit us. And we got into a big argument. I will admit: I enjoy annoying my sister. She’s like me in the sense of having strong opinions about minor things. But she has never quite figured out how to exploit my weakness. Or maybe it is just because she is a better person than I am. Regardless, our argument was about how to make names that end in the letter “s” possessive.

We agree about the case of a normal noun. For example, “The lilacs’ color was muted due to a lack of water.” It is wrong to put an extra “s” at the end of that “lilacs’.” But Kim doesn’t like sentences like this, “Claudius’ stutter was what allowed him to live long enough to become emperor.” Kim thinks it should be, “Claudius’s stutter was what allowed him to live long enough to become emperor.” Our argument went on for days.

Kim thinks of this as a matter of phonetics. In that sentence, one would say, “Claudiuses stutter…” not “Claudius stutter…” Now on this point, she is mostly correct. But not entirely. The truth is that the second pronunciation is becoming more common. So I think that the language is moving in my direction — toward simplification. But she is right that the vast majority of people add the “es” when they say it. Therefore, she argues, in writing, we should add the “apostrophe s.”

(In point of fact, Kim did not argue this. I had to infer that this was her argument. She seems to take it as a given that I am just being difficult and that her case is self-evident. My first wife — also a very bright woman — did the same thing to me. I hate this. I may be bright, but that doesn’t mean that any given thing will be self-evident to me. I can be brilliantly perspective about one thing and totally clueless about the next.)

My argument is very simple: speaking is speaking; writing is writing; let’s make things as simple as possible. I don’t care if we all decide to put “apostrophe s” at the end of all possessives that end with “s.” I just don’t want to think about. I like clear and simple rules. And the state of grammar is now this:

For normal nouns, do not add “apostrophe s.” For names, you can either add “apostrophe s” or not add it, it is up to the writer and whatever style guide is oppressing her.

Thus, I can live my life with two rules. Or I can live my life with one rule. I choose one.

But let me show you the madness that takes place in Kim’s grammar world. Consider the sentence, “The grass’ color was muted due to a lack of water.” In this case, almost everyone would say, “The grasses color…” So should we write this as, “The grass’s color…”? If we go with Kim’s rule, we really should. But then, we have to analyze every possessive noun that ends in “s” to determine how it sounds. And that is a terrible burden.

Let me admit that Kim’s system is a good and reasonable one. It actually makes more sense than mine. But it is too much work. And if we really want a language that makes sense, we had better start speaking Esperanto. Or rather: ni prefere komencu paroli Esperanton!

Another Skewed “Study” Finds Uber Is Great!

Dean BakerUber has commissioned a new study that purports to show that it provides better service to minorities than the incumbent taxi industry. The test was to have someone order an Uber car in a heavily minority community on their smartphone, and compare the time it takes to get their pickup with the time it takes someone calling for a taxi from an incumbent company. Uber found that its service was markedly faster than the service of the incumbent industry.

Before anyone celebrates over this finding that Uber has eliminated or at least reduced discrimination in taxi service, a bit of thinking is required. To order an Uber car it is necessary to have both a smart phone and a credit card. A substantial portion of the low income and minority populations lack one or the other.

The Uber study effectively asked the question of whether Uber provides better service to a screened portion of the minority community, using a screening mechanism that is likely to weed out the poorer portion of this community. Furthermore, Uber knew of this screening, since it is how their cars are summoned. The incumbent taxi companies in its study did not know of the screening.

If we think that discrimination against minorities is a mixture of race, ethnicity, and class, the Uber study effectively used a screening mechanism that largely eliminated the class aspect of the matter, at least for the Uber drivers. In this context, the result is not very surprising.

CEPR is proposing that Uber finance a study where we compare the amount of time it takes people in minority communities to get an Uber car or a taxi ordered from an incumbent service, where the passenger does not have a credit card and orders over the phone. It will be interesting to see what we find.

—Dean Baker
Uber Provides Good Service to Minorities with Smart Phones and Credit Cards

The Dismal Science of Conservative Apologetics

Thomas CarlyleThomas Carlyle was a Scottish writer and thinker during the 19th century. He was clearly a brilliant and insightful man. But he was stuck in his Romantic thinking. It is not at all surprising that the Nazis found him most compelling. In On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, he argued that history is just the story of what great men did. I’ve always found this a particularly simplistic take on the world. Did Carlyle really not see in his own time what is clear enough today — that powerful people are usually straightjacketed by their power? That power itself is mostly a illusion that quickly dissipates if it is exercised?

But what’s most interesting about Carlyle is that he coined the phrase “dismal science” to describe economics, “Not a ‘gay science’ [eg, verse writing], I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.” The man could write, there is no doubt about that. But that sentence comes from a curious essay that he wrote in 1849, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” In it, he argued in favor of slavery. And like a good conservatives — always roughly a generation behind his times — this came 16 years after Parliament outlawed slavery.

Now, there is something to what Carlyle had to say. He was highlighting the fact that there was a certain hypocrisy about the end of slavery. For one thing, most people living in England at that time were not doing well. People lived horrible lives despite the fact that they were nominally free. Child mortality at that time in Manchester was 50% for working families. What’s more, the people so interested in freeing the slaves didn’t seem too concerned that former slave areas were (just like in the American south later) recreating a kind of slavery by another name.

None of this means that Carlyle was a good guy. He believed in slavery. He was a total racist who thought that blacks would not work unless they were forced to. And going right along with his theory of history, he thought that they could do no better than be working under the “care” of rich white men. All of this brought about what seems to have been an inevitable break in Carlyle’s friendship with John Stuart Mill, who was rather famous for his abolitionist (as well as many other liberal) beliefs. Mill soon after published his own essay in response, “The Negro Question.”

There was certainly a big difference between them in terms of philosophy. But I think their disagreement speaks to the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative worldview. Carlyle was right that it is hypocritical to care about slavery but not the conditions of the poor generally. But that was only an issue for someone like Carlyle himself who didn’t care about the poor. Mill certainly did care about the poor and did various things to try to improve their lot. So ultimately, Carlyle’s argument is only that conservatives shouldn’t care about slavery because they don’t care about people generally.

I don’t find economics to be a dismal science. (In fact, I don’t find it to be a science at all, but that’s a different matter.) What I do find dismal about it is the fact that people use it as an excuse to push policy that they want for different reasons. And as a result, we end up with a lot of economics that might be very interesting and insightful, but which is absolutely wrong in the real world. If Carlyle were around today, I’m sure he could find lots of economists who would provide him with lots of theories to explain why his antidemocratic and classist theories weren’t just the result of his own bigotry and selfishness, but rather necessary due to the laws of economics. And that is indeed dismal.

Working Mothers the “Support” We Give

Laura BrowderI am not one of these guys who thinks that if I survived childhood then kids today don’t need bicycle helmets. Just the same, it does seem to me that we have become over-protective. That’s especially true when it comes to nebulous threats. Do people really think that huge numbers of strangers are lurking in the shadows just waiting to abduct their children? The vast majority of the cases are child custody battles. So the over-concern of people about their children’s safety in this regard indicates that as a society, we are highly narcissistic. And often, this is used to abuse children and parents alike.

Take, for example, the case of Laura Browder. She is a Houston single mother and college student. She got a suddenly announced job interview. So she wasn’t able to get a babysitter for her two children — 6 year old daughter and 2 year old son. So she took them to the food court at the mall, where her interview was. She got them some food from McDonald’s, and proceeded with her interview — where she was 30 feet away. Well, someone apparently thought the children were crying, and so called the police. The children were taken into protective custody and Browder was arrested.

It all worked out in the end. Browder got out of jail and quickly got her kids back. I don’t know at this time whether the charges are dropped or whether they will be. Browder did get the job, but after all that, who knows? Job offers are rescinded all the time. But what does this say about our society that this is the way we “help” young single mothers who are trying to make something of their lives? We don’t go and check on the children and help out as we may. You know: it doesn’t take a village; it takes a police department.

At the age of six, I used to walk a mile home from school with my friend George. So there were two (working) mothers who would now no doubt get arrested. Both of us could have had the excellent experience of being raised by literally dozens of foster parents. We seem to now live in a society that cares enough about the safety of children to punish both the children and their parents. But it doesn’t care enough to make their lives better. We can’t spend money on things like universal daycare. But we certainly have unlimited funds for policing and jailcare!

I see this all as the Ann Romney syndrome. Rich mothers are to be applauded for the “tough” choice of staying home and being intimately involved with their children’s lives. But poor mothers must be made to work — and in Laura Browder’s case, also go to college because she doesn’t want to be stuck in her current situation for the rest of her life. It would somehow be wrong to provide poor mothers with the same resources as rich mothers, even though the ultimate result is that rich children have far better lives than poor children.

Meritocracy, my ass!

Morning Music: Bonanza

BonanzaThere is something very special about television theme songs. It wasn’t until I started doing these Morning Music posts that I realized just how often it is these songs that go over and over in my head. But it is hardly surprising. Even a really big hit will only be played so much over a short period of time. But you may hear a theme song for years. And when I was a kid, we actually watched reruns, because there really wasn’t anything else on.

So today I bring you the song that has been oppressing me all day long: the theme to Bonanza. When I was a kid, I didn’t much like westerns. In fact, it wasn’t until my early teens when I saw A Fistful of Dollars that I realized that westerns could be really cool. Most westerns I had seen up to that time had been too “clean.” I didn’t like that and I still don’t. But there was a reason that I liked Bonanza: Hoss, played by Bonanza — the Sergeant Schultz of the old west. (I mean as the genial fat guy archetype.)

The Bonanza theme was written by the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Actually, although they were both composers, when working together, Livingston wrote the music. And Evans wrote the lyrics. You can hear some of those lyrics in a cut version from the pilot of the show and from Buddy Morrow’s recording of it. But let’s listen to Johnny Cash do his version with a different set of lyrics:

Anniversary Post: 2011 Norway Terrorist Attacks

Anders Behring BreivikOn this day four years ago, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people (mostly children) in two separate attacks in Norway. Needless to say, these were not terrorism. Need proof? Look at the photo on the left. Do you see a beard? Does he look like he might be from the Middle East? What about eastern looking clothes? No. You don’t see any of that at all. For God’s sake, he’s blond. He is clearly not a terrorist and his acts were clearly not terrorism.

Slightly before the attacks, he sent out a thousand copies of his 1,518-page compendium, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. In it, he explained — largely using the words of other far right ideologues — his positions on various matters, especially his hatred of Muslims and liberals writ large, his support of nationalism and patriarchy, and above all, his support for a Christian Europe. But it wasn’t the political document of a terrorist Christian. It was just some stuff he had found on the internet. It’s just the kind of thing that happens to men with light hair and blue eyes.

At 3:25 pm local time, Breivik detonated a car bomb in central Oslo. It killed 8 people. But it wasn’t a terrorist act. It was just a crazy guy. That’s just what happens to men with blond hair and blue eyes. It was the same thing with another man with light hair and blue eyes: Timothy McVeigh. They both used the same kinds of bombs. But it wasn’t terrorism in either case. They were just lone wolves — bad guys doing bad things — not indicative of any larger narrative.

After detonating his bomb, Anders Behring Breivik — dressed as a police officer — made his way to a summer camp organized by the Labour Party on the island of Utøya. There were approximate 600 teenagers there. And it is terrible that he killed 69 people there — mostly teens. But despite the fact that he had compiled a 1,518-page document talking about his political motivations, these murders were not terrorism. You see, he isn’t a Muslim. So it was not terrorism.

It’s clear that Breivik is mentally ill. And that’s another reason why we know his crimes were not terrorism. Because we know that the Muslim murderers in the US and Canada have all been in a blind rage because of Islam. They weren’t mentally ill. And even if they were, they had the telltale signs of being a terrorist. Note the complete lack of light hair and eyes. And in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, he had blond hair and blue eye and he was a Christian. His murders don’t mean anything outside of the narrative of a crazy guy doing bad things. Let’s just forget the whole thing.

We mark this day four years go and all the senseless deaths at the hand of this entirely typical terrorist.