Monthly Archives: February 2005

We have met the enemy and Wal*Mart is us (or something like that)

It’s remarkable how much can go through your head in a really short period of time. (It’s equally remarkable how little can go through some people’s heads in a very long period of time, but I digress.) This morning I got an e-mail from Brian at daedalnexus, and I quickly registered the headline and blurb:

Don’t Blame Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart has not become the world’s largest retailer by putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to shop there.

Here’s what went through my mind, all within the space of about a second and a half:

  • Jeez, here’s some simplistic apologist defending Wal*Mart.
  • Of course nobody forces us, but it’s more complex than that.
  • Dammit, you have to look at the larger economic system.
  • I’m hungry (this one wasn’t so much a thought as it was a vague, lizard-brain kind of awareness).
  • People shop at Wal*Mart because it’s cheaper and cheaper is important when you’ve been squeezed to death and are working for peanuts.
  • Wal*Mart is both cause and effect here.
  • Dammit, this is why people need to read Robert Reich’s The Future of Success.

Verily, I am the king of snap judgments. So then I looked to see who the doofus apologist was, and sumbitch, it’s the aforementioned Robert Reich, and he isn’t making excuses at all. So I ease my attitude back into the holster and read on.

Reich begins by noting the sorts of exploitative behavior we routinely castigate Wal*Mart for: it pays workers an average of less than $10/hour, provides most with no health insurance, keeps out unions, games labor law, “turns main streets into ghost towns by sucking business away from small retailers,” and so on. All of which are fair and damning charges, by the way.

But – you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you? – nobody forces us to buy from Wal*Mart. We do so because they have cheaper prices. (BTW, by “we” I’m referring to Americans generally – I won’t step in one of their stores unless there’s just absolutely no choice, and if it costs me a bit more, that’s a price I’m willing to pay to help preserve the sanctity of my community.) All companies seek to drive cost out of the system, and Reich acknowledges some of the ways in which he himself seeks cheaper alternatives, even when it hurts the kinds of community businesses he values.

The fact is, today’s economy offers us a Faustian bargain: it can give consumers deals largely because it hammers workers and communities.

We can blame big corporations, but we’re mostly making this bargain with ourselves. The easier it is for us to get great deals, the stronger the downward pressure on wages and benefits. Last year, the real wages of hourly workers, who make up about 80 percent of the work force, actually dropped for the first time in more than a decade; hourly workers’ health and pension benefits are in free fall. The easier it is for us to find better professional services, the harder professionals have to hustle to attract and keep clients. The more efficiently we can summon products from anywhere on the globe, the more stress we put on our own communities.

Definitely worth the read.

My issue here isn’t really whether we buy cheaper or pay more to preserve local business, exactly. It’s that Americans don’t seem to have put two and two together yet. When a company talks about driving “cost” out of business, when it talks about “efficiency,” what we seem not to grok is that those are euphemisms. Cost – regardless of how you distribute the pain, that’s another way of saying “salary.” We’re finding ways of paying somebody somewhere less. Cutting their pay. Reducing the income they have to shop at our store or any other. Slashing the money they have to pay for food and shelter and educations for their kids. And once we start bandying about the dreaded “e-word,” efficiency, we might well be talking about getting rid of jobs altogether. Different collections of incredibly wealthy people cause euphemisms to be deployed in different ways.

People can go to Wal*Mart and pay less, and then when they get home sit around and bitch because of the way their employers are squeezing, downsizing, outsourcing. It’s like they’re sitting in the backyard complaining to a fox that somebody has been raiding the henhouse at night and they can’t for the life of them figure out who.

Reich sees a moderate, middle road between the two warring camps – “those who want the best consumer deals, and those who want to preserve jobs and communities much as they are” – and offers a variety of possible policy solutions that would address these issues in a realistic fashion. But, as he says, “as a nation we aren’t even having this sort of discussion.”

There are a lot of discussions we aren’t having as a nation. In some cases we’re too lazy, and in other cases perhaps we’ve been suckered into believing that certain types of discussions are inherently undemocratic. Lately I’ve had people suggest to me that the rights of companies to be free from “government interference” are more important than the kinds of personal civil liberties that once caused patriotic men to wax philosophical about “inalienable rights.” I can’t swear that this is what these folks meant to say – not everybody thinks deeply about their beliefs, I’ve learned, and prefabricated catchphrases often substitute for ideas in the lives of simple people – but regardless, it is precisely what they said.

In far too many cases, we aren’t having conversations simply because we aren’t smart enough. Some day I’ll continue down this road by referring to the writing of two landmark 20th Century thinkers, Walter Lippman and John Dewey, both of whom noted the difficulties of decision-making in a society where people couldn’t possibly understand the complexities of the issues weighing on their lives. For now, I’ll simply observe that I’d be happy if I saw some indication that the public wanted to understand those issues….

Poetry day at the pit

The muse hasn’t abandoned me entirely.


Breach – 
tree-spined, arcing down the Four Mile,
north, toward the river.

dis   /

snowfall from swerving ridgeline
hill from hollow
moon from fractured day
limping home on splints of headlight

Kitchen light
imp of wick and tallow
warms the plane and groove of
hand-tooled oak.

Our grandfathers are here, 
quiet as cornbread, completed by the near
silence of supper,
		forks clinking at a plate of
ham and black-eyed peas

death and taxes and 
tomorrow morning,

not much else.

The air is empty of all but wind
	the weeds at midwinter.

There is nothing here for a million years
a quiet turning of the wheel
and nothing to notice the nothingness.

This woman I have always known,
in from her tramp through the woods
knocks the last clump of daylight from her boots

sets them inside the kitchen door....

False positives are failures, too

bruce_schneier is dead on today:

The TSA likes to measure its success by looking at the forbidden items they have prevented from being carried onto aircraft, but that’s wrong. Every time the TSA takes a pocketknife from an innocent person, that’s a security failure. It’s a false alarm. The system has prevented access where no prevention was required.

Right. And some of you know how mad I’ve been about this issue for some time. Let’s crank up the wayback machine – three items from 2002 here….

For a good time, call Vivienne*

[Thx to ultimate_seeker for passing this item on.]

Cell companies ready to roll out new virtual girlfriend on 3G networks

Men, are you tired of the time, trouble and expense of having a girlfriend? Irritated by the difficulty of finding a new one?

Eberhard Schöneburg, the chief executive of the software maker Artificial Life Inc. of Hong Kong, may have found the answer: a virtual girlfriend named Vivienne who goes wherever you go.


She may sound like a mixed blessing, decidedly high maintenance and perhaps the last resort of losers. But she is nonetheless a concept that cellphone system operators and handset manufacturers are starting to embrace.

Vivienne, the product of computerized voice synthesis, streaming video and text messages, is meant not only to bring business to Artificial Life (she will be available for a monthly fee of $6, not including the airtime costs paid to cellphone operators or the price of virtual chocolates and flowers). But she is also meant to be a lure for the new, higher-tech, third generation, or 3G, cellphones.

It’s times like this I really sympathize with sf writers, because let’s face it, folks, our science has outrun our fiction…..

Mojo City News on the BTK case

Sources close to the Mojo City News actually live in Wichita, so they’re pretty happy to have BTK off the streets – if in fact Dennis Rader is BTK. (latest CNN story)

Cody Barstow of MCN has been critical of the way in which the authorities have withheld information throughout this investigation, and has a new analysis in the wake of the arrest.

Silence does not work. In fact, if you get past the relief-frenzy of the capture … the citizens of Wichita have no real reason to believe they have the real killer until the cops and politicos tell the people why they think they have him.

Based on what we’re being told, they seem pretty certain they have their boy, but the fact that some locally remain suspicious tells you a lot about the failure of the investigators to build goodwill with their public…

Read the MCN commentary…

Not Machiavelli, but Robespierre?

Dr. Jim Booth – aka sirpaulsbuddy – thinks I may be off in my earlier suggestion that the Dems need to get themselves a Machiavelli. In his view, what is called for is instead a Robespierre, an uncompromising flamethrower of civic virtue.

Maybe. Perhaps it depends on how much credit you give the public. I’ve been cynical of late (and by “of late,” I mean “since I was born”) and can’t help thinking that Karl Rove would slather Robepierre’s balls in sausage gravy and helicopter-drop him naked in the heart of wolf country. Robespierre was big on virtue, but does the American public even have the organs required to recognize virtue when it sees it?

I’ve been wrong before, and may be wrong now. In any case, Booth’s take is well worth thinking about.

Breaking Celebrex, Bextra and Vioxx scandal – if you die, these are the people to sue

[Thx to Cody Barstow of Mojo City News for pointing this out.]

NY Times: 10 Voters on Panel Backing Pain Pills Had Industry Ties

Ten of the 32 government drug advisers who last week endorsed continued marketing of the huge-selling pain pills Celebrex, Bextra and Vioxx have consulted in recent years for the drugs’ makers, according to disclosures in medical journals and other public records.

If the 10 advisers had not cast their votes, the committee would have voted 12 to 8 that Bextra should be withdrawn and 14 to 8 that Vioxx should not return to the market. The 10 advisers with company ties voted 9 to 1 to keep Bextra on the market and 9 to 1 for Vioxx’s return.

Barstow’s comment: “Most times, government corruption is merely someone lining their pockets or some silly sex scandal. It’s merely laughable. But when it reaches these dimensions, it’s not only deadly, but shameful.”

To which I’d reply that it’s beyond shameful, it’s potentially criminal. Regulatory agency co-option, or “capture,” is nothing new, but this little display is brazen in ways that would make a pimp blush. I hope this situation blows up and takes a few dozen regulators and drug company execs down in the process.

Oh, and by the way, if the Bush administration and Congressional leaders get their way, potential victims of these drugs will be allowed to sue the companies for roughly enough money to cover cab fare to the courthouse. It’s times like this that I dearly hope there’s a Hell…..

Some advice for the DNC

Nicked from the letters section at Romenesko:

From JEROME WEEKS, Dallas Morning News: Given the recent back-and-forth in these letters about insider access and political manipulation — including William E. Jackson, Jr’s posting about the Judith Miller/Ahmad Chalabi resurrection — interested reporters should pick up the March 10 issue of The New York Review of Books — for the letters page (not available online). Mark Danner, journalism prof at Bard and Berkeley,writes about ‘How Bush Really Won’ and notes what happened with the coverage of Bush’s first campaign ads, which stirred up a furor over the use of World Trade Center footage of a dead fireman.

Prof. Danner writes: “Indeed, the controversy was so serious, according to the Times, that it had ‘complicated efforts by Republicans to seize the
initiative after months in which Mr. Bush has often been on the defensive.'” And Newsweek reported much the same thing, with “campaign officials on the defensive.”

But seven months later, after the election, Newsweek published a very different “inside account,” based on exclusive access to the campaigns, a story which it had agreed to embargo until after the voting. In this version, two Bush strategists “were ecstatic. At a strategy meeting the next day — the same morning the Times headline appeared — they joked about how they could fan the flames…. [The controversy] meant lots of ‘free media’; the ads were shown over and over again on news shows . . . The ‘visual’ of the rubble at the World Trade Center was a powerful reminder of … Bush’s finest [hour]…. What’s more, the story eclipsed some grim economic news…. ‘Unfortunately, we’ve been talking about 9/11 and our ads for five days,'” one of the strategists “deadpanned at a senior staff meeting. ‘We’re going to try to pivot back to the economy as soon as we can.’

“There were chuckles all around.”

Folks, they’re laughing at us.

This sounds about right, and this is what ought to bother everyone associated with the Loyal Opposition. You got punked. If you’ll forgive me putting it so indelicately, you need to start wearing lipstick because Karl Rove likes his bitches to look nice.

Never mind whether the Democratic party needs to find ways of talking about values or should insist on the secular democracy explicitly intended by the Framers. Never mind whether Dean represents the right ideological face of the party. Yadda yadda yadda. Dubya won because Rove is smarter than the people who ran things for Kerry (hint #1 – Kerry entrusting key elements of his campaign to people best known for their losing streaks? Hello – McFly?). The GOP didn’t win on message – sure, values was a component, but let’s not confuse related factors for primary causes. They won because they were better strategically. They were sneaky, clever, and evil. They believe in Mill, not Kant (if you don’t get the reference go look it up).

And the one guy the Dems have that we know to be smart enough and evil enough to whip the GOP at this game – James Carville – sat it out, far as we can tell. Maybe he didn’t want Kerry to win because he’s angling to back Hillary in 2k8 or something. Who the hell knows what happens in the head of a man who was born very smart and very very mean, and then hooked up with Mary Matalin. Jesus, that’s only marginally better than marrying Anne Coulter. It’s like starting with the world’s brightest pit bull, then flogging it every day and feeding it human flesh. I like James Carville – not, you know, that I’d want him in my house or anything, but from a distance – and had he been in the cockpit of the Kerry 2004 machine we might well have had a different outcome. Even if Bush had won, we’d at least have had a more entertaining variety of political theater to enjoy.

But I digress. The issue here is that whatever message the Dems want to back and whatever candidate their dumbass nominating machine cranks out in 2008, the critically important factor – perhaps the most important factor – is who’s going to be in charge of yanking the puppet strings. Who’s the man or woman behind the curtain? Where’s your Machiavelli?

If Campaign 2008 pits a GOP strategist along the lines of a Karl Rove against a Dem field marshall who’s neither as smart or as evil, it won’t matter if the Democrats are running the next JFK against a hyena on a murder spree. If we have learned anything from experience, it’s that winning the White House in the 21st Century has zero to do with substance.

Interview with HST’s son

Son says Hunter Thompson may have just decided it was time

He considers his father “a patriot in the truest sense of the word,” someone who believed deeply in civil rights and democracy but was appalled by the nation’s failure to live up to its ideals.

“Part of the power of his writing is his disgust with the gap between the ideal and the reality of our society and our government,” his son said.

As sirpaulsbuddy once told me, “intelligence is a curse.”

Stupid Bugs

Disclaimer: I was a huge Charlotte Hornets fan and Shinn & Woolridge can go directly to hell.

That said, I’m having a hell of a time trying to figure out what these morons are trying to accomplish here at the trade deadline. Baron Davis for Dale Davis and Speedy Claxton? Ummm, okay. Glenn Robinson? I guess that’s a money move, right? But why bother – there’s no chance of anybody decent wanting their money in the offseason.

Maybe they’re just ramping up to become a full-on discount operation. In any event, every time something bad happens to Shinnridge I laugh a little harder….

Final hockey thoughts

I’ve held my tongue on this NHL debacle, but now that the corpse of the 2004-2005 season has finally stopped sitting up in the coffin to insist that it’s still alive, I wanted to offer a couple comments.

First, I’m not sure I’ll lose any sleep over the players and owners and all the money they’re flushing. There’s plenty of blame on both sides, and others have done a far better job than I can articulating the specifics. However, there’s one group of folks I feel very bad for.

It’s amazing how when the rich and powerful go to war it’s always the peasants who take the worst beating, isn’t it? The guy who delivers the beer to the cheap seats, the woman serving up the nachos between periods, the kid working the parking lot – they’re all losing money that they need. Not working and losing a few hundred thousand or a few million isn’t an option for them. I feel for the people who run sports bars – and the waiters, cooks, and bartenders there who are seeing a lot fewer profitable hours as a result of the stupidity and greed of a bunch of millionaires. Sports stores losing money on merchandise sales, too. The ripple effect runs to the edge of the pond and back again, hurting those worst who can afford it the least.

Second, I note on that the league is planning rules changes designed to make the sport watchable again. Hallelujah. Of course, if the idiots had listened to the people who have been complaining about these very issues ever since the goddamned Devils perfected the left-wing lock, or whatever they were calling their brand of rugby-on-ice back then, we might not have arrived where we are now re: the leagues financial problems, huh?

As much as I’d like to see certain folks lose their asses and wind up panhandling for change on the corner of Speer Blvd. and Colfax, my concern for the well-being of the workers who depend on the sport for much-needed income leads me to sincerely hope that next year the league can get back on the ice with a better game.

A rising tide lifts all boats, right?

Interesting interview with a progressive evangelical

Interesting SF Gate interview today with Jim Wallis on “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”

Jim Wallis, a left-wing evangelical Christian who believes Democrats need to affirm the role of faith in shaping public policy…argues that conservative Republicans have taken control of the discussion about religion and morality in this country and have used hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage to divide the electorate. Now, he says, Democrats need to get back into the conversation…


I’m meeting evangelicals who believe in the centrality of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible but don’t want Jerry Falwell speaking for them. I’m meeting Catholics who don’t want to be represented by right-wing bishops who instruct them to only vote on one issue (abortion) and ignore the whole rest of Catholic social teaching. There are mainline Protestants who feel like they’ve been left out of the conversation and disrespected, and people at black churches who feel like this has been pretty much a white conversation.

While I’m still dumb enough to think that the framers of the Constitution meant what they damned well said on the subject of religion and government, I’m also a realist, and Wallis’ approach strikes me as lot more tolerable than the alternative….

[THX to Brian Angliss of Daedalnexus for passing this along.]

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