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Friday, September 28, 2012

Ayn Rand, "disciplining the workforce" and positional status

by John MacBeath Watkins

Our Capitol Hill store has surplus copies of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, two of Ayn Rand's books that are usually hard to keep on the shelf. Jamie attributes this to the publicity surrounding Paul Ryan's adherence to her philosophy. Make the connection with right-wing Republicans, and any author will suffer on Capitol Hill (for the benefit of non-Seattlites, I should mention that there is no Capitol on Capitol Hill. There were boomers who wanted the state capitol to be there, but it went to Olympia instead.)

You see, the age where people tend to be most eager to read Rand is the teen years to young adulthood. From Kung Fu Monkey:

"-- There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."
But of course, as we discussed in this post, the Republican Party has become the ungrateful party, wanting to attribute all that is good in the world to the heroic individual, and, as in Mitt Romney's 47 percent comments, showing contempt for those who need any help.

There is an older, deeper strain here. When I was a thin, handsome young grad student, I wrote a test for a political science intro course on which I had a question about something mentioned in their textbook -- a reference in a 1950s Republican document to the role recessions play in "disciplining the workforce." I can't find that document now; like so many things that happened before the internet, it is invisible to casual research. But a student questioned the validity of asking the question, so my professor, Dan Alper, did a statistical analysis of the test, and found that correct answers to that question correlated very closely to high scores on the test as a whole.

In other words, if you didn't recall which party that phrase came from, it was unlikely you understood what the author of the textbook was saying about the differences between the parties.

A big part of this is about positional status. A more equal society tends to produce higher economic growth, as demonstrated at length in Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. But through most of history, inequality has prevailed. It is a curious thing about humanity, that we desire not merely to be equal to our fellows, but to be better. High positional status in a poor society still involves being better in a relative way, even if we are not as objectively wealthy. The answer to the question posed in Acemoglu and Robinson's title is in one sense answered by their distinction between extractive and inclusive institutions, but to explain the preference through most of history for the less successful social model of the extractive society, we probably need to consult Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.

Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to explain the behavior of what we would now call the 1 percenters. He practiced economics as anthropology, explaining the behavior of high-status individuals in his own society through comparisons to societies they considered more "primitive."

And, human nature being what it is, this is still going on. The Washington Monthly's Ryan Cooper recently wrote a brilliant post on Why Employers Like Unemployment. Essentially, his argument is that full employment undermines the bargaining position of the bosses, and when people can easily get a new job, the threat of firing lacks any terror as a threat. Cooper quotes Michal Kalecki:

Indeed, under a regime of permanent full employment, the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a ‘disciplinary measure.’ The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist system.
 When we had full employment in the 1990s, we saw a big increase in productivity. Why? Bosses found that they could not extract more profits by bargaining harder, they had to make more with less, and found that they could. The result was a generally more productive and prosperous society.

But, as Kalecki points out, this did nothing for the status of those at the top.

Framing the matter this way makes sense of the Republican behavior over the past couple years. Steve Benen, when he was blogging for Political Animal at the Washington Monthly, used to marvel at the terrible things Republicans would say about the unemployed, and their resistance to helping the jobless.

If I didn't know better, I might think Republican lawmakers actively dislike -- on a personal level -- those who've lost their jobs in the recession.
One GOP congressman recently compared the unemployed to "hobos." Several Republicans have blocked extended benefits for the unemployed. In the House, GOP lawmakers tried to eliminate a successful jobs program.
But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is taking Republican revulsion for the jobless to new depths.
And, of course, Rick Perry notoriously appeared to threaten grievous bodily harm to the head of the Federal Reserve for, well, doing his job, which is supposed to include achieving full employment. Perry thought it was unpatriotic to do that while a Democrat was president. But of course, he also could say this because his financial backers, like the financial backers of House and Senate Republicans, do not value full employment. At a time when employment is high and inflation is low, the right is constantly harping on fears of inflation, probably to justify not doing anything about unemployment.

The thing is, for the party of the owner class, full employment is a bug, not a feature. I've been a boss. In the '90s, I found it hard to get and keep experienced employees for what I could pay. I hired people with no experience in bookselling and trained them, and had them hired away. I was philosophical about this, because after all, they were doing what I would do, and as a person who believes in markets, I expect people to act in their own interest. Of course, I was nice to my employees, as is my nature, and as a consequence was generally able to keep good folks on staff.

But suppose part of your psychic reward for being a boss is being bossy? It always struck me that the need to show people who's boss was a sign of insecurity, but many people are insecure, and many if not most are more ardent in their desire for status than I am.

For those most ardent in the pursuit of status, it is not enough to be successful and to have all your needs met. There must be people below you, and they must be made to acknowledge that they are below you. They must fear devastating consequences for crossing you. If they can simply quit because you're an asshole, that takes a lot of fun out of humiliating them.

But you have to have some justification for a social structure that moves so much of society's wealth and status to the top. In the Gilded Age, the justification was social Darwinism. In fascist states, "class war," that is, people at the bottom wanting more money and status, was a crime against nature, because class was biologically determined, and if your father was a laborer, that was all you were suited to.

In our new Gilded Age, Ayn Rand's philosophy, to the extent that it is social Darwinism without the bogus biology, has taken on this role. It is no surprise that a man like Paul Ryan is admired within his party, and espouses the virtue of selfishness, when his entire party has come increasingly to serve the 1 percenters. Ryan may talk about "job creators" and wealth creation, but he is really all about positional status and how wealth is distributed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Splash! The launch and first sail (Building Meerkat, a very small catboat)

Meerkat floats!

And, in fact, does not leak. I splashed the boat this evening, even though I didn't have the rub rails on yet.

I didn't think to get a photograph of the boat taken with the sail up, but here's me sailing it, seen in silhouette so that you can't see how wide my grin is.

Joby, the postmistress of Burton, offered to help me with the launch, which is a good thing because there were a lot of bushes and boughs in the way getting Meerkat out of the back yard. So, gent that I am, I took her with me on Meerkat's maiden voyage, which she enjoyed.

I've learned a few things, like that the El Toro sail I've got really doesn't like being loose footed, so I've got to get the El Toro boom back to working. The boat's a little long for carrying on my back, so I think I'll fix her up with some sort of wheels for launching.

More posts on this topic:

Monday, September 24, 2012

Publishing in the twilight of the printed word: Electronic book burning

by John MacBeath Watkins

We've discussed the Orwellian way that Amazon chose to remove illicit copies of 1984 it had sold by mistake in this post. Now Jonah Lehrer's discredited book, Imagine, has received similar treatment, reminding us of how easily the electronic word is burned.

Now, I can appreciate as much as the next man (or better!) how much Imagine deserved to be recalled. Nor is it at all uncommon for a publisher to pulp copies of a book that turns out to be in some way fraudulent. Maria Konnikova's article in The Atlantic gives some pretty good examples:

1999, to take one example, was a particularly impressive year. In September, Grove/Atlantic junked 7,500 just-printed copies of James Mackay's I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones after "an absolutely scathing indictment" of plagiarism (apparently, Grove/Atlantic hadn't cared to investigate the fact that only a year prior, John Wiley & Sons had to withdraw Mackay's biography of Alexander Graham Bell and pulp all remaining copies, for the very same reason). That October, St. Martin's Press withdrew J. J. Hatfield's biography of George W. Bush, after information surfaced that the author was a convicted felon. And earlier in the year, multiple publishers recalled Binjamin Wilkomirski's Holocaust memoir, Fragments, after a Swiss historian's report showed that the author was actually named Bruno D√∂ssekker—and that he'd never lived through the Holocaust in the first place, but was instead safely and comfortably ensconced in Switzerland for the war's duration.
So we'll not cry for you, Jonah Lehrer. But as Konnikava points out, what's appalling here is not that Jonah Lehrer's tissue of lies is no longer available anywhere as an ebook, it is the ease with which it was erased from the face of the culture.

Normally, I would bloviate (or blogulate) at length about this, but Konnikova has done such a nice job, I'm just using my little platform to encourage you to read her article as linked above, and contemplate a world where the very existence of a book can end with a key stroke.

When the Catholic Church was trying to make sure that no Bibles were published in any language the common people could read, an English bishop tried to eliminate William Tyndale's translation by buying up all the copies and burning them. Tyndale, having experienced a windfall from this sale, used the money to publish a new version with some corrections he had wanted to make.

Could that have happened with an ebook?

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Twice Sold Tales to open in Ballard

by John MacBeath Watkins

Twice Sold Tales will open a Ballard branch in conjunction with Bauhaus Coffee some time in December or January.

Bauhaus has leased the former Epilogue Books space at 20th and Market for a new location, and will sublease the part of the location  with an entrance on 20th to Twice Sold Tales. The bookstore will be accessible through the coffee shop as well.

I will be moving the Vashon Island store to this new location, and this will enable me to have an open shop again. Since leaving the University district about a year and a half ago, I've been selling on-line only.

This will again enable me to display our pteranodon sculpture. It is quite likely that Meerkat, the very small catboat I've been building, will be on display there as well, making Twice Sold Tales the only business in Ballard decorated with a boat that actually gets used. I don't think it will be practical to have cats, though, because we'll have walk-through to a business that serves food.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The politics of a more grateful nation

by John MacBeath Watkins

I dined with some Quaker friends tonight, and we didn't all arrive at the table at once, which caused us to miss the blessing. I pointed out that if there is a God, he knows we're grateful, because he's omniscient. The blessing is, of course, for the people who say it.

This got me thinking about the positive effects of gratitude, and the way the American zeitgeist may be changing from a nation that started worshiping greed in the 1980s into a more grateful (and therefore happier) nation. The example at hand is the way voters reacted to the competing messages of the two political conventions.

The polls are in, and I confess myself a bit surprised to learn that the Republican convention did not produce a bounce for Mitt Romney, and the Democratic convention produced one for Barack Obama.

To me, that's surprising, because one would expect voters to already know Obama, and for many, the Republican convention was an introduction to Romney.

Now, it could be something as simple as the fact that when people are exposed to the actual Obama and he doesn't turn out to be the monster portrayed in the Republican ads, they recall why they like him. But given the fact that modern political conventions are really just very long adverts for the parties, I have to think there's a difference in the messages that's making the difference.

I believe that difference is gratitude. My cousin, Phil Watkins, is a psychology professor at Eastern Washington University who researches the effect of gratitude on people.

It turns out that gratitude can have a powerful, positive effect. Here's a quote from a Psychology Today article Phil was interviewed for:
"The most important blessings are the ones that are most consistent," such as family, health and home, says Philip Watkins, an Eastern Washington University psychologist. "And those are the ones we take for granted." Grateful reflection helps you pick out and savor the good in life, even if the good isn't flashy.

What's more, gratitude turns your attention to what you do have instead of what you don't, Watkins suggests. Consistently ungrateful people tend to think that material goods, such as a big-screen TV, or winning the lottery will make them happy. On the other hand, people who recognize the blessings they have tend to think they'll get happiness from things like fulfilling relationships—which, research shows, are the real sources of satisfaction. Because grateful people don't fixate on money or material goods, they may cut back on envy and nagging comparisons with the Joneses.
The Republican's "We built it" theme sounded good to them, but it left the public unmoved. The idea was that Democrats were trying to take away credit from the "job creators" and such for their success.

Democratic speaker after speaker at their convention talked, instead, about all the people who had helped them. People listening to Michelle Obama talk about the sacrifices her father made to send her to college were moved by that. Voters listening to Republicans talking as if they owed nothing to anyone were not moved by that.

As Phil's research shows, gratitude can help people focus on what they have instead of what they don't have, which is a pretty good strategy for the incumbent party in a period of high unemployment. And anything that helps people deal with trauma is a good message as well. From the same Psychology Today article:
Gratitude may chase away thoughts far worse than a desire for a big-screen TV. Traumatic memories fade into the background for people who regularly feel grateful, Watkins's experiments show. Troublesome thoughts pop up less frequently and with less intensity, which suggests that gratitude may enhance emotional healing. Thankfulness helps the brain fully process events, Watkins speculates. Grateful people achieve closure by making sense of negative events so that they mesh with a generally positive outlook.

Through the past year, Republicans have framed any desire to see less inequality in our society as "envy," a rather peculiar notion unless, of course, you are well-off and ungrateful. The focus of the convention may have just been strategy -- the challenger wants people to feel dissatisfied with the status quo, not help them adjust to it -- but the framing of calls for less inequality as envy speaks of a deeper mind set.

So my question is, has the Republican Party made itself the party of the ungrateful only as a strategy for this particular presidential race, or is this going to be an ongoing philosophy? If it's the latter, the party may be facing some hard times, because outcome of the conventions shows that this doesn't resonate the way that the Democrats' message of gratitude and giving back does.

To wish the Republicans well, I would have to hope that the ungrateful party on display at Tampa was a reflection of Mitt Romney's world view, not of the average Republican's. Should Romney lose, such an influence would be easy to shake off. If the ungratefulness is an identity the party base has taken on, that's much worse news for the party and, in my opinion, the nation, which does best with two parties that both function well enough to tackle the nation's problems.

Could we be leaving behind the era of "greed is good" and entering one of "gratitude is great?" If the zeitgeist is changing in that direction, I think it will help the country pull together to solve its problems.

Meerkat: Now black by popular demand! (building Meerkat, a very small catboat)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, I've got black paint on the outside of the boat now, so she's nice and shiny and the shape is easy to appreciate.

Still a way to go yet. Paint the mast, make the boom, finish painting the interior, paint and install the rub rails.. Maybe in a week I can launch.

More posts on this topic:

Friday, September 7, 2012

Master and serf, and political coventions

By John MacBeath Watkins

I confess, I didn't watch all that much of the conventions. We haven't had a brokered convention in eons, so it's just a big show, an extended ad. But they do tell us something.

The Republican convention showcased Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, two men born to prominent families who claim they are all about equality of opportunity, and accuse their opponents of being about equality of outcomes. The "We Built It" theme, aside from being based on a lie, was about the myth of the self-made man born in a log cabin he built himself.

The Democratic convention never seemed to have a central slogan -- I'm sorry, "Forward" is a direction, not a slogan -- but it seemed its thrust was that we all had some help along the way.

The irony is that the Democrats were showcasing men who were not born to prominent families. Joe Biden's father was a used car salesman. Barack Obama's father was, as the social workers say, absent. These men's families strove to give them a good education, and they worked hard to take advantage of it.

But Joe Biden and Barack Obama, who have far better claim to be self-made men, seem to be very aware of the help they got along the way. Maybe they could actually see people making sacrifices on their behalf.

But Romney and Ryan got help along the way, as well. They worked hard and made the best of it, but they now seem determined to tell people that you shouldn't expect help, except from family members who can well afford it.

A wise old former smuggler who spent plenty of time dealing with duplicitous people once told me that you had to watch the silent movie, because you can't trust what people say. Biden and Obama act as though they want others to have the opportunities they had.

Perhaps Romney and Ryan are acting the same way. If your father was the CEO of a large corporations, sell some of the stock he gave you to finance your college education. If not, don't expect any help from anyone.

Ryan had it tougher. His family made its money in part from a contracting business that helped build the Interstate Highway System, a federal infrastructure program of the sort Ryan now claims the government should not be involved in. But his father died when he was 16, and Social Security paid him survival benefits which he didn't have to spend on, you know, surviving, so he wisely saved it up to spend on his education. He's worked for the federal government he now seems to despise since he graduated from college.

Both men could have blown it. They could have spent the money they received, whether from a gift of stocks or from Social Security, on fast cars, fast women, and drugs. They could have flunked out of school. They didn't, and good for them. But neither was born in a log cabin he built and worked his way through school digging ditches.  Both had help.

Romney thinks it's fine if people have the kind of help he did -- a rich father. What he objects to is that they might have the kind of help he didn't have -- financial aid such as Pell grants or work/study. He seems to object to any aid that comes as a collective act of the community, rather than the act of a family member. This ties in with the Republican insistence that President Obama's achievements are somehow illegitimate, that he is in some way the "affirmative action" candidate.

Of course, over the years many people have been admitted to top-rank colleges without top grades. They are called legacies -- if a parent, say, George H.W. Bush, attends a college such as Yale and does well in life, his son, George W. Bush, can be admitted (in his case to the Yale MBA program) when less prestigious schools (University of Texas at Austin law school) have turned them down. Such admissions are based on the fact that their family connections and wealth are likely to make them successful in any case, and they will then donate money to help keep the alma mater going.

And that sort of affirmative action has been fine with the Mitt Romneys and the Paul Ryans of the world, and anyone criticizing such benefits is accused of envy (in fact, that's the word Ayn Rand used to describe anyone who favored an inheritance tax.) Because it's all right to benefit from being born well, but to benefit from any effort to make up for being born to a less fortunate situation in life is illegitimate.

In part, I see this as a defensiveness about maintaining the fortunate situation. After all, it is not so easy to stay in the upper crust. Through much of European history, there was downward mobility for much of the nobility -- only one son could inherit the title, and the children of noble houses tended to survive childhood more often than the children of peasant or serf families. My great grandmother bore a great name, MacBeath, the name of an ancient Scottish king who was slandered by some English hack, the name of the hereditary physicians of the Lord of the Isles, but her father was a poor man from a fishing and crofting village that no longer appears on maps, and she herself was a maid who married well--she married the gardener.

So when someone like Mitt Romney is born on third base and wants people to think he hit a triple, and doesn't want too much competition from those who haven't even had an at-bat, I understand the insecurity. Maybe he's not even worried he'll be thrown out trying to steal home, maybe he just wants to give third base to his sons (he has five.) But you can't be the hereditary executives of Bain. Even Ford doesn't work that way anymore.

What we're seeing played out here is the tension we see in our education system. In the abstract, we might want every child to have an equal chance, but parents want their child to have a better chance. That's why the cost of housing near good schools gets bid up. In essence, the conservatives in our society represent the private ambitions of parents, and liberals represent the public conscience of parents. That's why people well situated to realize the private ambitions they harbor for their children -- the white and the wealthy, those with the cultural and financial advantages -- are more represented in the party of Mitt Romney. That's why the people less well situated -- the less well-off and the minorities who have been excluded in the past -- gravitate to the liberal side.

Throughout the history of mankind, private ambitions have reigned supreme, and parents have passed down wealth and power as well as they could. It is the basis for class distinctions, for nobility and kings, for lords, peasants, and serfs. And throughout history, this did not produce great wealth, only great concentrations of wealth. The magic of the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing Industrial Revolution was that knowledge and opportunity were spread more widely, and when more people had opportunity, they created more wealth.

But that vision of how humanity should organize itself has always been at war with the instinct to get what we can and pass it on to our offspring. In human society, wealth is not always absolute, it is in many was positional. Absolute wealth of the sort created by equality of opportunity is transformational in its way, producing a society with less disease and longer life spans, but the zero-sum game of who shall be the master and who the serf still remains. It is a battle of the fore brain and the hind brain.

But the important thing to remember in this conflict is that only one of these ways of doing things is a zero-sum game. We cannot all be kings, but we can most of us be middle class.The Republican insistence that any effort to produce a more equal society is class warfare is all about maintaining class distinctions. They see breaking down the barriers of class as warfare against the privileged positions of those who, at least, finance the party. That is why the membership of their party is so overwhelmingly white. Whites long maintained a privileged position in our society, and some of them resent the loss of privilege.

G.W.F. Hegel, now remembered primarily for the inspiration his work gave to Karl Marx, believed that the master-slave dialectic had been at last resolved, and history -- the story of that conflict -- ended on the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1806, with Napoleon's defeat of the Prussian nobility in the Battle of Jena. He thought that this represented the triumph of the ideas of liberty and equality represented by the French Revolution.

But the Battle of Jena rages on, a battle between liberalism and tradition, between the Enlightenment and tradition. No matter how much wealth liberalism can create, the desire to re-establish or defend the master-serf relationship will be at war with it. It is a war between the generosity of reason and the selfishness of desire, between a philosophy that can make us all richer and a custom that can make some richer than others.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Building Meerkat, a very small catboat, nearing the end!

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, I've taken some time out of boatbuilding and blogging to buy a lot of books and catalog my little heart out to try and make the money back, but at last, I've got some time to work on the boat. As a consequence, I've installed the foredeck and the after deck, nearly finished the rudder, with pintles and gudgeons, I've got the centerboard case about ready to install, I've shaped the centerboard and added weight to it (6 oz. should be enough to keep it down, I hope) and the access plates for the air chambers are installed.

The centerboard has a high-aspect part to it, but plenty of wood in the case so that it will have some strength for when (not if) I run aground. The line you can barely see is where the bottom of the case intersects it when the board is down. A daggerboard would have been simpler and lighter, but I want to be able to sail right onto a beach.

The after part of the centerboard case has to fit under the thwart, which in part dictates the key-like shape of the centerboard. I made the sides of the case with 4 mm okume, which is why I had to add a piece of half-inch cedar to hold the pin the board pivots on.

I'm building a boat only a little more than half as long as Black Swan, and sometimes the parts feel toylike, they are so small.

I've glued the two halves of the case together, and drilled the holes for the screws that will affix the bed logs to the keelson, so not a lot of work left to do on that part. I've still got to seal the board with thinned epoxy and paint it.

Not sure I'll have this ready for the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, but I'd like to.

More posts on this topic: