Public art in Chrysler’s Detroit ad

As a big fan of public art, I was particularly impressed with the fragments of public art featured in Chrysler’s “imported from Detroit” Superbowl ad:

There’s a lot to like here. There’s a lot of art deco, and I like art deco. There’s a lot of different kinds of art—murals, sculpture, architecture. And the spot features the sort of public spaces that are being phased out these days (in favor of commercial spaces that are technically only open to customers). The public square is important, and neither the mall nor the parking lot of a strip malls is an adequate substitute.

Anyway, one of the good things about public art on display in public places is that it’s available for use in spots like this. It’s part of our culture.

Would we lose internet service if there were riots?

All the smart folks on twitter have been asking questions along this line. If we had civil unrest, would the government try to cut off our internet access? (I have no doubt that if they tried, they’d succeed. Internet and cell phone providers are regulated companies; they’d roll over in two seconds.)

I think that would be bad.

First of all, it would be unconstitutional. At a minimum, such an action would infringe several first amendment freedoms: speech, press, assembly, and to petition the government.

More important, in a stable democracy like the US, I think internet and cellular service would be at least as much a stabilizing force as it would be a destabilizing force. In the event of civil unrest there would be many powerful voices calling for calm and for non-violence. Shutting off the internet would silence those voices along with the voices of those trying to organize protests.

So, I just sent this note to my congressman, urging him to take steps to protect citizens’ access to telecommunications services:

Prompted by the recent news that the Egyptian government cut off internet and cell phone connectivity for its citizens, it occurred to me that this tool of repression should not be available in the United States.

At a minimum, I urge you to oppose any legislation along the lines of last year’s “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act,” but I think you should go further.

I’d very much like to see legislation that would specifically bar the government from shutting down internet or cellular connectivity for US citizens, and that would bar telecommunication providers from “voluntarily” complying with “requests” from the government that they stop providing connectivity to persons in the US.

Of course, legal solutions only go so far. They would be much strengthened by technological solutions. Cell phones and internet access points can be designed to mesh with other nearby devices. That would make it vastly more difficult for a top-down order to shut down connectivity—hopefully, difficult enough that governments wouldn’t even try.

[Updated 30 January 2011: Here’s a list of ad-hoc meshing protocols that might serve as a basis for making a top-down shutdown impossible.]

Localization—not just for food

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.

The moderately grim truth

Via Dmitry Orlov, I happened upon America: The Grim Truth, which I think is worth reading, even though I disagree with both the forecast and the prescription.

It’s worth reading because I think it’s actually pretty good descriptively—it nails the split between the reality of the current situation and the average American’s perception of it. I am persistently amazed at the things that Americans just accept.

On food:

Much of the beef you eat has been exposed to fecal matter in processing. Your chicken is contaminated with salmonella. Your stock animals and poultry are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics.

On education:

In most countries in the developed world, higher education is either free or heavily subsidized; in the United States, a university degree can set you back over US$100,000. Thus, you enter the working world with a crushing debt. Forget about taking a year off to travel the world and find yourself – you’ve got to start working or watch your credit rating plummet.

On wealth:

America has the illusion of great wealth because there’s a lot of “stuff” around, but who really owns it? In real terms, the average American is poorer than the poorest ghetto dweller in Manila, because at least they have no debts. If they want to pack up and leave, they can; if you want to leave, you can’t, because you’ve got debts to pay.

On freedom:

Why would anyone put up with this? Ask any American and you’ll get the same answer: because America is the freest country on earth. If you believe this, I’ve got some more bad news for you: America is actually among the least free countries on earth. Your piss is tested, your emails and phone calls are monitored, your medical records are gathered, and you are never more than one stray comment away from writhing on the ground with two Taser prongs in your ass.

Even though I agree with just about all of that, I disagree on the prospects for the future.

First of all, the current situation is still an improvement over most of US history. Through our whole first century and a half, the average American lived a life just as dangerous, just as precarious, and just as vulnerable as the one described above. And if the average American didn’t owe just as much money, it was only because he didn’t have access to that much credit.

My point is not that things are okay now, but rather that the fact that things got better serves as an existence proof that getting better is something that can happen.

Second, although the situation in the US is very bad for someone who has gotten caught in the wage-slave/debt-slave trap, it remains possible in the US to opt out. It’s actually pretty easy, as long as you avoid debt. And avoiding debt is pretty easy: just don’t let yourself be sucked into the consumer lifestyle. There’s an awful lot of crap for sale—don’t buy it. There are plenty of big houses for sale—don’t buy one. You can live in a bigger, nicer apartment if you’re willing to live an hour’s drive from where you work—but if you live where you can walk to work, you don’t have to buy a car. With the money you save, join the rentier class.

I think we ought to change things, and I think it would be great if we could get the government to set rules that would encourage those changes—require uncontaminated food, prohibit predatory lending, protect workers from abuse, etc. But individuals can actually make those changes in their own lives without needing the government to act.

So I don’t see a need to flee the country. But that doesn’t mean that I think things are okay—which is why I think that’s a post worth reading.

On the ethics of submitting to airport security

I don’t want to say that I’m never going to fly again. I’d fly—if it were necessary to hurry to the bedside of a sick relative or to rescue someone. I might, just possibly, fly in order to take the vacation of a lifetime. But routine flying? I’m done with it. I’m simply no longer willing to participate in the system.

Megan McArdle hits almost the right note in this piece in the Atlantic: Dear Airline, I’m Leaving You. She seems to get the ethical aspect of being a willing participant in an immoral system, although she plays it for laughs.

Through most of the past decade, I flew on business a couple times a year. I got to watch as airport security became more and more a kind of shamanistic ritual better suited to deflecting blame in case of a terrorist incident than actually preventing one.

It always annoyed me—the pointlessness, more than the actual inconvenience. But even more than that, the fact that I submitted to it was a blow to my self-image. I take security seriously—all those business trips were for my work on Bluetooth security. As a person who takes security seriously, I really hated my role in the mock security at airports. Each time I submitted to it, simply because it was the only way to get where I needed to go, I thought less of myself.

I also worry about the TSA agents. Where I was only playing a brief role in the security theater, they were doing it as a career. How soul-destroying must it be when your whole career is performing pointless acts of mock security?

And spending your working life doing mock security is nothing compared to what those poor TSA guys and girls are doing now. Spending your days staring through the clothing of the traveling public? Getting paid to grope a steady stream of tourists and business people? No one with good moral character could do the work—which means that any such people will be quickly driven out of the job. Soon the only TSA agents left behind will be degenerates who don’t understand why what they’re doing is wrong.

And that is what I refuse to participate in. It’s not that I worry about people seeing me naked, nor about someone touching me inappropriately. It’s that the whole system is wrong. It mandates behavior that is uncivilized, unethical, harmful to everyone involved.

If I fly again, it will be because I’m doing something so important that it outweighs the harm of participating in the degrading system of mock security our society has foolishly bought into. That’s a pretty high standard.

[Update: After posting this I discovered TSA Enhanced Pat Downs : The Screeners Point Of View, which shows pretty clearly that many of the screeners know what they’re doing is wrong.]

Missing the point on immigration

I live in a nicely cosmopolitan little apartment complex. It’s one of the cheaper places to live in town, so we get a nice mix: single people, young couples, seniors, working-class folks, grad students. Those last two categories in particular add a good bit of racial diversity—African Americans, South Asians, East Asians. It makes for a nice place to live.

Because I like living in places like this, I find myself conflicted on the topic of  immigration.

The largest motivation for opposing immigration (setting aside the wrong-headed opposition that springs from racism) is economic—but most of the people trying to make the economic argument get it wrong. Or maybe they just state it poorly.

Population density

The most important reason that the United States is an attractive place to live is the low population density. This was true from the beginning of European settlement. There was enough land that anyone could be a landowner. The low population meant fewer workers, which kept wages high and working conditions good. Natural resources were abundant, meaning everyone could have and use more timber, more water, more grain, and (especially over the past couple of generations) more coal, oil, and natural gas.

There is high population density in cities, and that’s the best way to arrange things: If most people live in an urban environment, it preserves the maximum amount of land for crops, timber, pasture, natural areas, and so on. Sprawling the people out in subdivisions and exurbs wastes a lot of land. But however you arrange the living and working spaces: the more people you have, the smaller the average person’s share is going to be.

Economists dismiss this argument, on the grounds that people are productive: Each new person produces more than enough to be self-supporting, so each new person can potentially raise everyone’s standard of living. That’s not wrong exactly, but it’s largely a self-serving argument. The monied interests benefit from an influx of new workers, because a larger labor force holds down wages. At the same time, the monied interests don’t suffer as their pro-rata share of nature’s bounty declines, because they don’t settle for a pro-rata share; they buy as much as they want, leaving that much less for the rest of us.

Many people understand this at some level, but view it in pieces rather than as a whole. If they’re workers, they object to other workers willing to work for lower pay. If they’re business owners, they claim that there are “certain jobs” that Americans just won’t do. (A falsehood: it would be easy to find Americans to do any job, if it were a full-time salaried position with health insurance, a pension, and education benefits—just like every job I ever had as an adult.) Others point to the increased demand on social structures when “different” people arrive—people with bigger families (more children to be educated) or people who speak a different language (public safety information needs to be translated). At this level, the pro-business argument is correct: immigrants are productive and the taxes they pay easily cover the costs of the services that they use. But they still increase the population density—and that means dividing all the resources of the country among more people.

It’s an economic issue, a quality-of-life issue, and particularly an environmental issue: there are many things that are only environmentally harmful if the demand for inputs exceed the local environment’s capability to provide them, or if the outputs produced exceed the local environment’s capability to handle them.

So: I’m not against immigration; I’m against population growth. In the context of a stable population, I’d like as much immigration as possible, because I enjoy a cosmopolitan community.

Where the anti-immigrant argument turns really wrong, is when it comes to strategies and tactics of handling a population that includes some immigrants.

Police state

If you’re going to allow people to visit, whether for tourism, cultural exchange, as guest workers, or whatever, some number of those people are going to stay here. They’ll stay for all kinds of reasons—for economic opportunity, for freedom, because they fall in love with someone who lives here, or just because they like the place they’re visiting.

If the number who stay are the number you want to stay, then everything’s fine. But if it’s more than you want, there’s no way to reduce the excess without turning the country into a police state.

I don’t want to live in a police state. I don’t want police to ask me for my papers. It’s annoying. It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional. (Well, it’s constitutional for the police to ask, but it’s unconstitutional for them to do anything if I don’t present my papers. Note that the Supreme Court seems inclined to disagree with me on this point.)

For one thing, there’s no obligation for a citizen to even have papers. Almost everyone does, because a drivers license counts and it’s so handy to be able to drive, but it’s not required. It’d be pretty tough to get along without a social security number, but you can have a number without having an identity document. (Early social security cards—I still have mine—had no security features at all: just a name and number printed on card stock.)

Since the mid-1980s, employers have been insisting on seeing identity documents, because otherwise they can face penalties if they hire illegal immigrants—an early example of exactly what I’m unhappy about.

Even if you have papers, even if you keep them sufficiently in order that you can present them to an employer when you start a new job or a bank when you want to open a new account, there’s still no obligation to keep them on hand to show to the police.

Still, objecting to being asked to show papers is really just a personal quirk. The real harm comes from having people here who can’t safely use ordinary public institutions. Communities where people are afraid of being arrested or deported are inevitably bad communities.

  • Crimes will go unreported, which will result in more crime—and more violence, as people who lack access to the courts have to resort to self-help to settle their disputes.
  • Sick people won’t seek medical care, producing pockets of disease.
  • Pernicious institutions like check-cashing stores and pay-day lenders thrive where people can’t open bank accounts.

I don’t want to live in a town where there are people who don’t feel safe talking to the police when they get robbed or the department of labor when they get cheated by an employer or the bureau of weights and measures when they get cheated by a merchant. I don’t want to live in a town where lots of drivers don’t have insurance because they don’t have a license because they don’t have the right kind of visa. I don’t want to live in a town where some people have to work for cash because there’s no legal way for them to pay taxes.

As I say, I’m of two minds. I want to keep the low population density we enjoy in the US—it’s a key factor in our high standard of living. At the same time, I enjoy living in a diverse community. But it’s impossible to have it both ways: If you allow foreigners into the country, some of them will stay, and any effort to remove them produces problems that are much worse than the small hit that any one immigrant produces to our standard of living. And yet, in the aggregate, the hit on our standard of living is significant.

In the end I come down squarely against measures like the recently passed law in Arizona—it will do a lot more harm than good. I’m generally in favor of efforts to control the border, to make it tougher for people to sneak into the country, but that’s no panacea—not unless you use control of the border to hold the number of temporary visitors below the number of permanent residents that you’d be willing to accept. I’m not sure there is a solution, except for the rest of the world to become as nice a place to live as the US, and thereby produce a balance between immigration and emigration.

Daniel Akst on thrift, sexiness, and Jack Benny

In his article Saving Yourself [Note: article is now behind a paywall] Daniel Akst buries at the end a particularly good statement of the central point I try to make in my personal finance writing:

Thrift is thus a way to redeem yourself not just from the unsexy bondage of indebtedness but also from subjugation to people and efforts that are meaningless to you, or worse. Debt means staying in a pointless job, failing to support needy people or worthwhile causes, accepting the strings that come with dependence, and gritting your teeth when your boss asks you to do something unethical instead of saying “drop dead”. Ultimately, thrift delivers not just freedom but salvation—which makes it a bargain even Jack Benny could love.

To get there, though, he takes you on a wonderful journey through the American history of thrift, from Jack Benny to the Puritans and back again, with a couple of side trips to Sexyland.

How they teach freedom at Centennial High

 

How they teach freedom at Centennial High, originally uploaded by bradipo.

I don’t walk around Centennial Park as often as I might. I’m a lot more likely to walk around Kaufman Lake, or just walk to downtown Champaign or to campus—places I can do something (like go to the library). Centennial park is nice, though, and whenever I do walk there, I make a mental note to do it more often.

The one downside to the walk is going past Centennial High School. It is, as near as I can tell, a perfectly good high school—I don’t really have any visibility into that. My perception of the place is based almost entirely on the signs posted at the entrance to the parking lot that I have to walk past whenever I go that way.

So, there’s the “private parking” sign and the “smoke-free environment” sign—both fine. The “guests must register” sign bugs me only a little. But then there’s the “Search of Vehicle” sign, claiming that just entering the parking lot amounts to consenting to have your vehicle searched, and the “video camera in use” sign which says that just entering school district property amounts to consenting to have your image captured in “video, digital or other such format as may be appropriate.”  I’m not fine with those.

I not entirely sure why it bugs me as much as it does. I never drive there, so I can pretty much ignore the “search of vehicle.” I don’t know if the video cameras are aimed at the sidewalk or not, but my actions on the sidewalk are public anyway—anybody could be taking my picture, not just the school district. And yet, it does bug me.

Probably the biggest reason is that I hate the example it provides to the students. Three or four years of walking past those signs every day—and experiencing what they really mean in practice—no doubt desensitizes students to what it means to be free. I hate the idea that a whole generation of students is growing up thinking that this is acceptable behavior, or at any rate that tolerating it is just something that people have to put up with.