Idiocracy, American style

Coming back to our conversation in January about the lack of respect and consideration afforded to academic types — this very thoughtful analysis of a problematic Forbes published blog post demonstrates exactly why we have to change our attitudes about the “knowledge creators” in our society.

Yes, I know that’s a silly sounding play on the popular term “job creators”, but we place so much emphasis on corporations, making money, and supporting anti-intellectual values in the US that in the face of strong evidence people resort to logical fallacies to sway the masses. Unfortunately, logical fallacies are persuasive and compelling to people who don’t know any better. And a double dose of unfortunate circumstances is that the ‘knowledge creators’ (i.e., academics, researchers, and scientists) are viewed suspiciously in modern American society — like we’re trying to pull one over on the people with our wacky liberal agendas and complex analyses.

Welcome to Idiocracy — American style!

Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

CATEGORY: ClimateOn February 13, James M. Taylor of The Heartland Institute published a deceptive and dishonest blog post at Forbes in which he falsely claimed that a new study rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus about the human causes of climate disruption. On February 20, Taylor dedicated a second Forbes blog to the same study, and instead of admitting his factual errors and correcting his original post, he chose to attack both his critics and the study’s authors. However, his second post was filled with yet more false claims that demonstrate yet again Taylor’s habit of deception and dishonesty.

Taylor attacks a straw man

According to Taylor, climate disruption realists (those who accept the reality that human activity is the dominant driver of climate disruption) supposedly feel that “only atmospheric scientists are qualified” to comment on climate disruption and that geoscientists and engineers are not qualified. While having an understanding of atmospheric…

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Poor tippers aren’t the problem, it’s our 3rd world economy

PoorTippersArticleAre the poor tippers really the problem for food service employees?  A Facebook friend posted this article on his newsfeed today and while I empathize, have worked in food service, and wondered about this lady’s “skills” as a server, I think this very common sentiment is completely misplaced.  Instead of complaining about the poor tippers, we should complain that any employee is paid below the minimum wage (and yes, the minimum wage is a joke, but that’s an entirely different can of worms).

A “tip”, by definition is, “something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service”.  Tipping in the US — especially in the food service industry — is clearly not really voluntary, we are obligated to leave a tip for the employee because I think most of us understand they’re not properly paid.  By modern social obligation in the US, the customer’s cost of dinner is really 20% higher than the price posted on the menu because we have to pay the wages for the food/ drink service employees.  But what does the tip mean — is it just a ‘free market’ evaluation of the server’s performance? Not really — it’s also an evaluation of the quality of the food, the ambiance, the mood of the diner(s), etc.  Yet, the food industry has managed to keep this little loophole in labor law to legally define people in food service or ANY industry receiving more than $30 per month of their wages in tips as having a minimum wage at or below $3 per hour (for good background information on the history of this, check out Wiser Waitress).

The result is that the food industry have consistently the lowest wages and the highest levels of job insecurity in the US, yet they are the fastest growing sector in the US with about 70% of new low wage jobs in food service.  The irony is that the food industry demonstrates a genuinely third world approach to employment and work because, as last year’s (2012) National Labor Employment Project reports, the industry is marked by many of the large corporations in the industry posting record profits while the workers see the purchasing power of their wages diminishing.  Certainly, the report goes beyond just servers; however, the theme in the industry is clear — workers quality of life doesn’t really matter.

While servers are in the most volatile position in this third world economy that Americans are building where the rich and the “corporate people” are boasting record profits while average people are getting poorer with each passing year as our wages in the last decade have stagnated at a level higher than during the Great Depression.  Oh, and let’s not forget that the overwhelming majority of food service employees in the US get no paid sick days and the irony is that the Center for Disease Control estimates that because people go to work sick an average of 5 million people get the flu alone each year because of workplace policies regarding sick days.  Great — we support a third world economy AND it’s likely to get us sick because those who can least afford not getting paid are serving us our poncy meals out.

Yet, why do Americans continue to ask the wrong questions or make the wrong critiques?  Well, in this case we can relate to this young woman — either because we ask if she’s a crap server/ works in a crap restaurant or because we’ve been there and empathize greatly (especially in a college town).  When we focus the conversation on the bad tippers, we’re conceding that the corporate interests supporting paying people under $3 an hour are OK. I’m not saying “don’t tip” in the US for obvious reasons; however, instead of being embarrassed at not tipping enough, we should be angry that a large segment of our workers are abused workers.  I get her frustration because there have been many a shitty business night (e.g., Mondays or Tuesdays) where I went to work and was the only server on duty and made like $20 because we only had two tables the whole night.  Why should the employer be allowed to schedule me to spend 5 hours of my time for functionally no wage? They don’t do that with the back of the house. The owner certainly takes their money — but they do it on the backs of the serving and bartending staff.

My last food service job was working at a cute little Tapas restaurant where I made pretty good tips (I made more in tips for fewer hours than working as an adjunct college instructor while finishing my dissertation… lovely) and there was a great German couple who came in one night.  They were friendly, chatty, enjoyed the food and drink, thanked me for my great service, and left me a 10% tip.  My first reaction?  Honestly — ‘What the fuck?’ and then I remembered — servers are actually paid in Europe and a 10% tip is an EXCELLENT tip.  So, what could I do — it wasn’t their fault Americans don’t believe employees are worth paying a wage.  If the cost of food and drink needs to be 20% higher in order to pay at least a decent wage to our food service employees, that’s what we should support so that a tip is a voluntary and not a social obligation.  Instead of supporting a third world economy, Americans need to hold all businesses to account for their labor practices.

And no — it’s not taking money away from the ‘job creators’ — it’s ensuring we stop our slide to becoming the richest third world country in the world… GO USA!

Isn’t it time that we put human values over corporate values? I think our business schools need to revisit their fundamental philosophies, and people need to start making sensible decisions for the good of humanity, not profits.

Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

Part Four of a series

Industrial climate disruption – the disruption of the global climate as a result of human activity, especially our industrial consumption of fossil fuels – is more or less settled scientific fact. In order for industrial climate disruption to be incorrect, over a century of well-established science would have to be overturned. In addition, the operational principles of innumerable technologies derived from that well-established science would also have to be rethought. Some of the technologies that are derived from the same sciences that are responsible for the scientific certainty about industrial climate disruption include semiconductors, CCD-based cameras, microwave ovens, chlorophyll-measuring satellite cameras, nuclear energy, every model of thermal radiation ever performed, LED and fluorescent lighting, lasers, and nearly every modern communications system, just for starters.

While industrial climate disruption presents a clear threat to the libertarian values identified by the Iyer et al study discussed in

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Having a well-deserved slice of ‘told ya so’

Last month, I suggested that Papa Johns was a corporate whore whose politicizing business was not a sound business strategy. I do find smug pie delicious. Not surprisingly, the favorability rating of the company among ‘casual diners’ has dropped by a little over 30 points since the company’s founder decided to double down on politicizing pizza.

Papa John’s isn’t the only company whose seen its reputation tarnished by using their restaurants as political tools — Denny’s “Obamacare surcharge” prompted a quick drop and apology by their CEO and Applebee’s favorability rating dropped by 25% when a New York area franchise owner appeared on Fixed News saying that he wasn’t going to expand because of the new health regulations.

You see, what the brain trust that exists here seems not to have realized is that they’re in a saturated market. If they adopt bad corporate practices, make stands on issues that are not just highly controversial but also ethically questionable, and frankly are just reactionary asses people can go elsewhere. If not Papa John’s then Pizza Hut, Domino’s, or any of the bajillion other pizza places in the US. If not Denny’s then Perkins or one of the bajillion local diners. If not Applebee’s then Chili’s, Ruby Tuesdays, TGI Friday’s or any of the bajillion generic restaurants.  Wal-Mart gets away with being corporate whores because they have the market cornered on cheap crap that people need (or think they need). There aren’t that many alternatives, especially in a hard economy.

At its heart, public relations is about relationship building and relationship management. These company’s CEO’s forgot that what makes a business successful — especially in a market with a lot of competition — is that it doesn’t violate public expectations. It’s not that these individuals opposed Obamacare, it’s that their motives and tactics were so transparent, elitist, and frankly ridiculous.

Americans may not be the wisest of consumers, but we do live in a new world — social media creates can both help and hurt an organization’s reputation in ways that haven’t happened since most businesses were local and word of mouth mattered. This means that companies have to go back to a ‘local’ way of managing their reputations — thinking about what people in their community would say (that is if they didn’t live in a castle surrounded by a moat) if they used their company as a social or political bludgeon and in a way that hurts their employees and/or their community.

The first one to do anything loses…

Can you guess the context for the title?…………………Bureaucracy!

I recently found a quotation that summarizes the relationship between people and bureaucracy beautifully:

“Some third person decides your fate: this is the whole essence of bureaucracy.” ―  Alexandra Kollontai, La Oposición Obrera

Just by way of contextualizing Kollontai’s comments, she was a Marxist feminist who worked for and won significant advances in women’s rights in the newly formed Soviet Union.  Oh no, now I’ve gone and done it — I’ve identified the work of not just a woman but a Marxist feminist as a way to critique bureaucracy. That’s practically an abomination in the United States, but let’s get beyond the dogma for a few moments to realize that most of us have been hosed by some kind of bureaucrat. When most people think of bureaucracy, they think of the public sector and we know it’s easy to demonize the annoyances we have with government bureaucracies.  In fact, both the typical critiques and defenses of bureaucracy are always framed in terms of this false separation of the public and private sector.  Yet, these very boring and traditionally politicized debates about whether government is good or bad (yawn) really miss the underlying nature of bureaucracy — it is an organizational tool meant to separate work and accountability.

Bureaucracies can exist in any type of organization from public to private to nonprofit/ nongovernmental.

For example, several years ago I was trying to do research with an indigenous rights group and the structures of their organization were used to direct me from person-to-person and phone call-to-phone call. What I found out later was that because I was white, they were very nervous about letting me do any interviews with the members of the movement, but they were hesitant to actually say that. Now, in a historical context I can understand that, but it’s still a racist conclusion not based on the evaluation of me or my project. Yet, the organizational structure that was used in order to communicate the non-decision decision — bureaucracy. Ok… so nonprofit bureaucracy… CHECK.

Private organizations might have some of the most infuriating bureaucracies ever. We had Verizon Fios at an apartment and loved the fiber optic cable and internet — it was great. Then we moved to a house where we couldn’t get the Fios because it wasn’t available. We set up the new account, shifted our contract to a different provider but still using the Verizon packaging because we had the two-year contract. No problem, right? Yeah, until they charged us for early termination plus messed up a few other things. Here’s where the true bureaucratic craziness comes in — I spent 5 hours on a Saturday being passed from person-to-person, each claiming that it wasn’t their department, so by the time that I had spoken with several departments two and three times, each trying to scapegoat someone else, I lost my mind, used my sailor language, spoke to a manager and we finally got things straightened out — or so I thought. Three months later, while I was out of the country the television service was cut off and because it was in my name, I had to deal with it — my husband could not. After about an hour of sorting things out on the phone at international cell phone rates (yes, from Verizon as well), I just paid the whole bill only to be issued a full refund within 3 weeks.  Ok…so private sector bureacracy… CHECK

And, then there’s the obvious governmental bureaucracy (and no, this time, I’m not going to use an American example… there are too many fun ones here, but I’ll vary). The citizens of the UK, pissed off with the economy, Gordon Brown (and his unfortunate microphone gaffe), and the Labour party splits their votes between the Tories, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats (who as far as I can make out are the party that promises the world but seldom has the power to deliver).  Absent a clear majority, a coalition had to be formed and the Liberal Democrats decide to back a Tory government. And without a clear citizen mandate, they do as most conservatives do — move forward with the fervent conviction in their ideology behaving as though they have a mandate from the people.  So, now in the UK the bureaucracy’s response to a factory worker whose hand had been severed in an accident trying to get public assistance? You still have one hand, you can work in your career field. Then there’s immigration — an even bigger clusterfuck. Again,  absent a strong mandate, they rush 1,001 (no, not literally) rule changes about immigration through to be implemented in mid-July screwing up the system so long that the first of September a lot of those new rules had to be changed in order to even get international students into the country. For the rest of us awaiting news, it pushes our applications back months only to find that the rule changes have taken what was described in June as an easily supported application for settlement to a rejection but because they took so long, it screws up other avenues for visas in the short-term. Ok, so public sector bureaucracy… CHECK

So, let’s come back to the Marxist feminist’s critique of bureaucracies — third persons making choices for others (and often screwing up our lives). Now, when well used, these kinds of rule systems can be helpful. For example, even within Kollontai’s work, she wasn’t advocating doing away with the government bureaucracies that discriminated against women — her argument was that the bureaucracy must make better decisions for the people it governed.

In fact, that is a fair response to all bureaucracies — their existence isn’t the problem, their use to scapegoat owning uncomfortable decisions, to fleece consumers out of money, or to mess with peoples’ life plans (among so many other effects) are the problem. Too often, we see people in positions of authority in bureaucracy who have lost their humanity,  their minds, or just a basic grasp on reality that rules are necessary to keep things in society and life ordered but people cannot and should not use rules (or rule changes) to fail to do their job CORRECTLY.

It was not appropriate to use a bureaucracy to justify a racist argument against granting me research access just because it was more convenient compared to telling me that because I was white I wasn’t being granted access (later confirmed in a face-to-face). It isn’t appropriate to use an organization’s structure to hurt their consumers service or financially. And it’s certainly not appropriate to screw up existing (and probably already bureaucratically challenged) policies with even less clear and less sensible policies.

Like with most other Marxist critiques of capitalism and bourgeois problems, the critique is spot on. The challenge comes in what people can do about it, which is often the failing of Marxist critique — identifies the problems but doesn’t pose nearly as many solutions. With regard to nonprofits and private companies our recourse is often a bit limited because we can only indirectly affect them — unless enough people are pissed off like we saw with the mass campaign against Glenn Beck on Fox directed at threatening his advertisers with the loss of business.  Absent that, we can at least most affect government bureaucracies through the elections process.

Yet, that doesn’t even address the more fundamental challenge of bureaucracies — even when change is brought about, later bureaucracies can come in and fuck it all up (e.g., Stalin’s removal of many of the protections gained for women initially after the revolution in the USSR or Congressional removal of the protections of the Glass-Steagall  act protecting the economy from the financial industry–thanks to the GOP Congress and lack of advocacy from the Clinton administration).  Bureaucracy is necessary but it must be managed. It cannot be left to the lazy, unmotivated, and self-serving people that often self-select into these types of positions — protected from owning responsibility.

In the end — we should all become hyperactors — choosing to construct a new reality of bureaucracy.

If you build it, they will come! 🙂