Friday, September 07, 2018

on the bezos bill


Senator Sanders so called Bezos bill has caused an interesting backlash. Some liberal economists, like Jared Bernstein, think that the bill will result in unemployment.

In brief, the bill proposes to charge those companies, like Amazon and Walmart, who make a habit of employing workers at such a low wage that they have to depend on foodstamps. Basically, Sanders bill calls this a social cost that the company should shoulder.

Bernstein’s worry is that the workers will be fired, since the company does not want to shoulder that cost. It is an interesting worry, because it depends on the assumption that there is enough slack in the logistical or clerical line that certain workers will be priced out. In other words, X company employs X amount of employees to get a certain task done – stock shelves, load packages onto trucks, etc. But they hire more than they need. Thus, they can fire some without endangering the process by which products are transported, shelved, checked out, etc. However, even if this is so – and in a near full employment situation, this is more plausible than in a less than full employment situation – they are still going to have to pay for the social costs or raise the pay for those employees doing these tasks. They can’t just not do them. So it is not at all clear to me that this argument works. Firstly, at the least slack in demand, these workers will go anyway. Secondly, the incentive to pay workers more, in order to avoid shouldering the government mandated costs, is good for the remaining workers.
Another argument, and frankly, a dumber one, has been presented by Dylan Matthews, at Vox. His argument is pretty much that we rely on big corporations to get the crummy social welfare that we already have. If we do this, who knows but that the corporations will turn against the whole idea of food stamps. As proof of this hitherto unseen altruism lurking in the corporate heart, Matthews adduces Walmart’s contribution to a think tank that leans towards increasing the social welfare net, and he tweets: “Walmart's strong support for food stamps (because it means more poor people can buy food at Walmart) is one of the few non-shit things about America's fucked up political economy, and something that ought to be encouraged rather than assailed.”

A funny thing about that strong support: according to a report in 2014 described on Huffington Post, “59 percent of the Walmart PAC’s contributions to House members who voted on the minimum wage increase went to candidates who opposed the increase, while 95 percent of the Waltons’ contributions went to candidates who opposed the increase.” Now, I know this is takin’ a big leap, but I’d guess, in America’s fucked up political economy, that you could draw a venn diagram of people who support food stamps and those who support restricting food stamps and freezing the level of them and the people who oppose increasing the minimum wage, and you would see a nearly total overlap. We could start with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who is well known for wanting to squeeze out the number of people getting food stamps with various bureaucratic procedures weeding out those on disability.

So my idea is that no, Walmart’s eyes on the prize do not entail going to the mat about food stamps.
Now, to address what these liberals and neo-liberals don’t: the discouragement built into a system in which work gets you food stamps. The number of men who have opted out of employment over the past 20 years is a pretty significant factor in the Heartland. One of the reasons is that wages are low. You can make equal money by using the social welfare net. Charging corporations for using that social welfare net as a labor cost cutter might actually provide incentives for these men, as the wages rise to avoid the charges entailed by the surcharges created by corporate rentseeking.

This is one possibility, at least, and it is more likely than the possibility that Walmart, stung to its philanthropic core by the Bezos bill, will cease supporting food stamps.

There might well be a model or argument out there that makes a more plausible case for the Bezos bill having a downside. But these arguments surely aren’t it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

why grow up?

In etymological circles, there is a hot dispute about the etymology of the Latin word elementum. One theory holds that this is an outgrowth from the Etruscan, and the other theory holds that it is definitely, absolutely and completely not. Things get complex. The Oxford English Dictionary blog has a fascinating discussion (fascinating at least for some people) of where elementum comes from, and why it, rather than abecedarium, took up the space for letter or particle. From this discussion, I only want to point out one Harry Potterish thing, which is that elementary school, which is the name for grammar school in the U.S., could easily have been abecedarium school, with a few tweaks in our philological history.

In France, the terms are ecole primaire and ecole elementaire – I think the latter is gaining currency due to the occupation of France of an American version of English. And the first cycle begins with CP. That first cycle began two days ago, and swallowed Adam.
Sob.
Of course, children grow up. But this fact – like the fact that the sun will grow cold someday, that the universe will ultimately shrink to a dot of nothingness, that all men are mortal, that the sea is indifferent to the drowning man – is a fact for the head, not the heart. The heart’s fact is that inexplicably, it is the end of the vacation, and the end of pre-school, and here our boy is, lined up with the others, marching off to a classroom to learn all the things that one learns, growing up. The French system is all about parents on the outside. For the first day – the rentrée – parents were allowed, as a special treat, to penetrate the building with their kids. It was an oddly reassuring experience, because the principle of the school took the opportunity to scold us. It made me feel young. The message was: don’t bring your kid to school late! And it put such fear into us that it took us two days to have a bit of a crisis, looking up and seeing it is 8:27 and we had to get Adam there in three minutes. Luckily, the school is only one minute, or one block, away.
On the plus side, there is the reading the writing the rithmatic the sports the social life – on the down side is – where is our baby?
I imagine that this is a universal cry, shared by frogs and bower birds as well as human beings. Adam was primed, however, for his first day. He’s got his sac à dos, his pencils, his cahier (the means of communication between parent and teacher and school in general, an ingenious bureaucratic tool that goes against the Barbaric Yawp of the American anarchy, where the most we have our report cards and notes home from the teacher that we conveniently drop in the bushes on the way home). I’ve been thinking about what comes after Adam learns to read French – do I give him lessons in reading English? Will that be hard? Too hard?
I cannot remember my first day in a real school. I do remember that I liked school, and found that I had a rapport with teachers. I felt like they liked me. On the other hand, I never had that experience that I think is common for people like me, the ones seemingly designed for the classroom: the feeling of having a model in one teacher or another. I never felt like I wanted to be like my teachers. I never felt like I wanted to be a teacher. I think I wanted to be an explorer. Or the president, or a baseball player. And as time moved on, I wanted to be an unhappy, alienated artist living in an expressionistic city landscape, frequenting taverns. But teacher – no. Now, when it is way to late in life’s sweet bitter mystery, I think maybe I shoulda been a teacher. At an abecedarium.
Too late. Too late.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

THE AGE OF HYPERLITERACY

NOBODY READS ANYMORE
I was truly psyched, this morning, that the angry internet mob forced David Remnick to disinvite Steve Fascist from the New Yorker's ideas party.
And I'm going to use this as a plug for my essay on the Books and Film Globe site, since it is relevant.
What I was trying to argue didn't have a snappy label. Now I've come up with one: hyperliteracy.
The thing one reads, over and over, is that "nobody reads anymore." N+1, a supposedly lefty site, just featured an editorial that went over the ground with a special hauteur, like the Marquis complaining about the gardner:
"Gone are the happy days when we dialed up to submit a comment to Salon.com, only to be abused by Glenn Greenwald or destroyed — respectfully — by the academics at Crooked Timber. Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere… Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context… Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless. On social media, criticism once confined to the comments now comes as free-range abuse directed at other readers. Readers can address all parties instantaneously — writers, editors, publishers, and the world. And so writers who publish online peer into the fishbowl of readerly reception. Drop in some flakes and watch the fish swarm.”"
The idea that nobody reads is contiguous with, and overlaps, the idea that everybody is out there in a meanspirited twitter mob, shaming and destroying freedom of speech left and right.
Myself, I'm for the mob. But even if I wasn't for the mob, I would do a little more thinking about this idea of the writer on one side and the readerly swarm on the other side. Like, where does that idea come from?
Here I'm gonna quote my piece:
"The N+1 article is balanced on a division between the writer and the reader – as if we were still in a space where this division was socially absolute. But that has long been swept away. Rather than fishes swarming, readerly reception is now transformed, almost instantly, into writerly reception. It is as if the dull kids in the back of the classroom, the ones who passed around notes, are now in the front of the classroom, writing on twitter. Which is just another form of classroom note. And the authors are not amused. Like teachers, they suspect that the amusement those notes are causing is distracting from the very important lessons being drawn on the blackboard.
The writerly revolution has still not been fully comprehended, I think. Literacy, until recently, has been thought of as largely passive. In the early modern period, learning to read did not necessarily entail learning to write: women, for instance, who formed even then the most ardent corps of readers, were often not instructed in writing. But both functions became one in the great literacy campaigns of the nineteenth century. Still, just as math beyond primitive algebra were taught to the masses and immediately forgotten by most of the masses, who had no practical use for them, the tools of writing were often used rarely after high school.
All of this has changed in a historical instance. The child who doesn’t know how to use the keyboard on the cell phone is now a rarity. Writing on the popular level has caught up with reading. Twitter is a fascinating place to watch the collision between an older form of literacy and a newer one. Far from being the “cesspit” that older media peeps – and the cranky formerly hip denizens of N+1 – like to despise, it is creating its own vocabulary, its audio-visual forms, its links, its infradig references. It is the old story of the modern: make it new."
We passed a threshhold we don't recognize. Barthes's death of the author entailed, necessarily, the death of the reader, because these were functions in a system of literacy that depended on a relatively small number of people having access to both sides of the literate paradigm. Now, everybody is on both of those sides. The readerly swarms are writerly swarms - they comment and gloss with no sense that they are violating some hierarchy. Far from being the end of reading, this is what hyperliteracy looks like, the crown on a state sponsored effort that has spanned two centuries. The tools of the old penmen have been given to us all. And we should fucking use them.
 

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