Archive for the ‘Capitalism’ Category

The Founder

January 31, 2017

the_founder_poster

The Founder, written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, tells the story of the creation of the McDonald’s fast food chain and how it was eventually taken over by Ray Kroc.

The film begins in 1954. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a middle-aged salesman trying to sell five-spindle milkshake mixers to drive-ins, without much luck. One day he receives an order for six mixers from a restaurant in San Bernadino, California. His curiosity piqued by this, Kroc goes to see what this place is like. It turns out to be a burger stand called McDonald’s, owned and operated by the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Frustrated with the hassle of running of a conventional drive-in, the McDonalds have developed a factory-like approach to making hamburgers and fries. Kroc senses a potential gold mine here. He tries to persuade the brothers to let him franchise their business. However, the McDonalds are obsessive perfectionists. They don’t want to franchise because they won’t be able to control the quality of the product.

In the film’s best scene, Kroc manages to win the brothers over by making a patriotic speech. Sounding like a preacher, he says he envisions a day when McDonald’s restaurants will be found from coast to coast, and each place will be an “American church” where families can come together to enjoy good food. This is a striking depiction of the peculiar American tendency to combine hucksterism with idealism. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Kroc’s idealism is shallow. As the McDonald’s chain takes off, Kroc becomes more and more ruthless. “If one of my competitors was drowning, I would put a hose in his mouth,” he says to a shocked Mac McDonald, not long before he manages to wrest ownership of the company away from the brothers.

The Founder tells a tale that is a subtle variation of the Faust story, with Kroc as an evolving Mephistopheles, but which is nonetheless quintessentially American, with its depiction of the conflict between the desire to be principled and the urge to succeed .

Advertisements

In Defense of Cold

September 26, 2016

charles-phoenix-at-fosters-freeze-e1382479951262

The following is from a talk I gave on September 8, 2016 at the Write Club in the Bootleg Theatre in Los Angeles, CA.

Cold is not well appreciated. Cold is usually defined as the absence of heat. But can’t we say that the opposite is true? That heat is the absence of cold?

Cold gives us wonderful things. Cold gives us ice cream. Cold gives us popsicles. Cold gives us slurpees. And what does hot give us? Hot gives us sweaty arm pits. Hot gives us rashes. Hot gives us melting polar ice caps. What good is that?

When you travel, go some place cold. Go to Iceland, Greenland, Siberia, Alaska, the Yukon. Some place where you can’t work up a sweat. You won’t need ice cold drinks. You won’t need ice cubes. You won’t need air conditioning. You won’t have to pack sun screen. You won’t have to worry about having a bikini body. My Viking ancestors never had to worry about getting too hot. For them, every day was chill. The Inuit are the most mellow people in the world. And they have to eat whale blubber.

I hate hot. Many years ago, I had a job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. I only lasted two days on this job. The first day, it was hot. I was in Ventura County, which usually doesn’t get that hot, because it’s right next to the ocean, but they were having freakishly hot weather. It was around one hundred degrees. I walked around all day in the hot sun. I didn’t sell any vacuum cleaners. The next day, it was around one hundred degrees. I walked around in the hot sun. But then, we got a lead. You see, I was working as part of a team. Someone had found someone who was willing to watch a free demo of how the vacuum cleaner worked. So the team leader sent me to this house to do the demo. I knocked on the door, and this tall, bald man with a beard answer answered the door. He looked like an old hippy. He led me into the living room. I set up the display stand showing all the parts of the vacuum cleaner, and then I began assembling the cleaner I would use in the demo. As I was doing this, I noticed that there were people going in and out of the house who didn’t seem to be related to one another in any way. This seemed strange to me. Then I noticed that there was this huge pile of books in the living room. It was AA literature. Then it dawned on me: this was a halfway house. They had sent me to sell a really expensive vacuum cleaner in a halfway house. I had to think about what I should do. I didn’t want to make a scene. If I simply left without doing the demo, they might complain to the company, and I didn’t want to get into any trouble. So I decided I would do the demo really quick, and then leave without doing a sales pitch. Cut my losses. So I asked the old hippy guy where he wanted me to do the demo. He led me to a stairwell. It was in an enclosed space, and it led to the second floor. There was carpeting on the stairs, and the carpeting was filthy. Absolutely filthy. It looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned in years, maybe even decades. So I started cleaning this thing. There was no air conditioning in the house. There was no ventilation in the stairwell, no windows in the stairwell. By the time I was halfway done, my clothes were drenched in sweat. I mean, they were sopping wet. And I was wearing a necktie, which my job required. Nobody was paying any attention to me, except for this one guy who gave me a large bottle of warm gatorade. Which was nice. So it turned out that this hippy guy wasn’t interested in the vacuum cleaner at all. He just wanted someone to clean his stairwell for free. So I packed up my stuff and left. Walked around in the hot sun some more. Did not sell any vacuum cleaners that day.

I got home late that night. I took a shower and went to bed. I set my alarm to wake me up the next morning. My body felt hot, even though the night had cooled off. I didn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. I kept thinking the alarm was about to go off. Thoughts were rushing through my head. Crazy, half-formed thoughts. Finally, the alarm really did go off. I turned it off and went back to bed. I didn’t call in sick. Nobody from the company called me to ask what was going on. I spent most of the next two days flat on m back. I had no energy at all. I just felt exhausted. I lay on the floor, because I found it was cooler there. I was staying with my sister at the time. She was out of town. I was glad of that, because I didn’t want her to see me in the condition I was in. When I felt a little stronger, I took a cold bath. I drank cold water. The cold healed my body. The cold made well again.

So, I salute you, Boreas, god of the cold north wind. Bring your snowstorms, your blizzards, your glaciers. I am your obedient servant.

The Rich and the Poor

March 20, 2016

7670778_orig

One of the curious things about our society is that the rich and the poor often have a lot more contact with one another than any member of the middle class usually has with either group. I will illustrate this point with a couple of anecdotes.

Years ago, I was in desperate need of a job, because my unemployment insurance had run out. I applied at this party rental company for a job at their warehouse. I was hoping to get a clerical job, but instead they offered me a job as a “helper”, meaning I would set up tents and tables and other party equipment at various events, as well as unload trucks at the warehouse. The job only paid minimum wage, but I had no other offers, and I was running out of money. The company catered to private companies, as well as doing events at USC and UCLA, but it also provided supplies for private parties.

One day I was sent out with another employee, who was designated as a “driver”, to deliver supplies to a house in Beverly Hills. Some of the older neighborhoods in Southern California have these wide alleys that you can drive through behind the houses, and this place was in one of those types of neighborhoods. There was a gate in the fence behind the house, and the driver pressed a buzzer to have a house servant open the gate. There was a swimming pool in the backyard. The place wasn’t much bigger than the house I spent most of my middle class childhood in, but in the living room there was a large bronze statue of a naked woman with her arms raised in the air. Anyway, when we first arrived in the back alley, the driver went in first, because he had to get the customer to sign some paperwork before we could bring in the rental items. He told me to wait by the truck, which I did. Shortly after that, a middle-aged woman carrying two bags of groceries came walking by. She stopped and asked me if I could do her a favor. She said that further up the alley was an abandoned couch, and a homeless man who lived in the area would sometimes lie on this couch. This man would sometimes say rude things to her when she walked past. She asked me if I could go up ahead and see if this man was there.

I agreed to do this. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it was just a latent sense of chivalry in me. Anyway, I walked quite a ways up the alley before I finally saw the couch. There was no one there. I turned around, and as I walked back, I found that the woman had followed me part of the way there. I told her that the homeless guy wasn’t at the couch. She seemed relieved and grateful, and she thanked for me for checking for her. I told her it was no problem, and I started walking back to the truck. I suddenly realized at this point that I had actually devoted quite a large chunk of time to this endeavor; I worried that the driver may have come out to find that I was not where I was supposed to be. When I came to the truck, I saw the driver standing there. I was afraid he would be angry at me for wandering away. Instead, he asked me in a mildly curious tone of voice where I had been. When I explained to him as best as I could what had happened, he simply nodded and motioned for me to help him start unloading stuff from the truck. I can only assume that what happened to me was a normal sort of occurrence in this neighborhood.

But that’s not the story I really want to tell. Here’s the story I actually want to tell you. Most of the people who worked in the warehouse were from either Mexico or El Salvador or Honduras. Most of them spoke only a limited amount of English, and some of them spoke barely any English at all. However, there was this one guy who was from Belize. He was so unique in this respect, that the other workers would sometimes call him “Belize”. (I can’t remember his name, so I will call him Belize as well.) As you would expect from someone from a former British colony, he spoke fluent English. His job was maintaining and setting up gas grilles. The company would sometimes send me out on assignments with him as his helper. I would basically be an extra set of hands for him in case he needed them. I liked talking to him, partly because we had similarly critical views of the way the company was run, and partly because he always seemed wound up in a way that I found vaguely amusing. He was always complaining that the company was making unreasonable demands on him and making him work long hours and so on. He once told me that he had a wife and daughter in Belize. He hadn’t seen them in a long time, because he had to work so much in order to support them.

One day the company sent him and me out on an assignment in Bel Air. A couple of grilles had to be hooked up for a private party there. It was fairly late in the day, and Belize immediately began grumbling that it was going to take a long time to drive out there and back in rush hour traffic. (The warehouse was in Inglewood, near the airport.) He pointed out that the event wasn’t scheduled for a couple more days, so he couldn’t understand why he had to hook up the grilles right now. The management would not be moved, however, so off we went.

When we arrived at the address, we found a long concrete wall facing the street, with a gate in the middle of it. Belize and I got out of the truck, and we went to the gate, where Belize spoke to someone through an intercom. After a moment, the gate opened up, and we walked in. There were trees in front of us, and the driveway curved to the left. I couldn’t see any house. Belize and I walked along the driveway, and we came to a large shed. There was a man there who was apparently the person who had spoken to Belize on the intercom. He told us that a vehicle would come to take us to the house. After a few minutes a large golf cart came, and Belize and I climbed in the back. The cart took off down the driveway. We suddenly came out of the trees, and there was in front of us this vast lawn, on the other side of which was a building that looked like a palace. The driveway skirted along the right-side of this expanse and went past the house. The cart stopped when we arrived at the back, and Belize and I got out. We walked up this brick path until we arrived at the back porch. It was semi-circular, and about about half the width of a football field. There were enormous glass doors on the mansion that opened out onto it. One the other side of the porch, a steep hill, with a staircase in the middle of it, sloped down about 300 yards. At the bottom of the hill was a large rectangular swimming pool, at one end of which was a semi-circular portico, supported by Roman-style columns. Inbetween the columns were marble statues. Workmen were in the process of covering the pool with a temporary dance floor.

One of the glass doors opened up, and a man came walking out. He had an air of authority about him. He was dressed in a blue pastel dress shirt, a blue pastel necktie, and blue pastel dress pants. He came up to Belize and me, and when he spoke to us, I immediately detected a French accent. My thought at the time was “Oh boy, this guy is going to be an asshole.” Yet he turned out to be pretty reasonable. He told us what had to be done, and he said that if we needed anything we should just ask him. Belize then set to work. There were two grilles that needed be hooked up, one on either side of the porch. Belize did the first one without any problem, but he had trouble getting the second grille to work. The man in blue pastel was patient with us and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Belize eventually figured out what the problem was, and he got the grille working. The man in blue pastel shook our hands and warmly thanked the both of us (although I really hadn’t done much). He then called to have the cart come to pick us up. Belize and I walked back to the driveway.

When we got back to the truck, and we had climbed in the cab, Belize suddenly realized that he had forgotten to get some paperwork signed. He told me to wait in the truck while he went back. It so happened that only a few hundred feet up the road some workmen were chopping down a large tree. A long flat bed truck pulled up, presumably they were going to load the felled tree onto it. One of the workmen came over and through the driver’s side window told me they needed to position the truck along the side of the road and our vehicle was in the way. He asked me if I could back it up. I explained to him that company did not allow me to drive the truck, because I wasn’t designated as a “driver”. I then told him the driver had gone inside and he would be out in a few minutes and that he would be more than willing to move the truck. I expected this person to be sympathetic to my situation, since he must have known that companies usually have strict rules about the handling of vehicles. To my surprise, he got angry. He demanded that I move the truck. I once again explained to him that I was not allowed to drive the truck, and I once again explained to him that the driver would be out in a few minutes and he would move the truck. This just seemed to make him more angry. The two of us shouted at each other for I don’t know how long. Another workmen came up and began shouting along with the first guy. They eventually seemed to get tired of this, and they walked back over to the flat bed, where they conferred with some other people. While this was going on, Belize came back out, hopped in the cab, and threw the paperwork down beside him. He started up the truck and pulled away from the curb. He was completely unaware of what had just happened. I thought I should tell him, so I did. I assumed he would be impressed that I had refused to cave in to those guys, but instead he just seemed to get angry. “You should never drive the truck,” he said to me in a harangueing tone of voice, even though I had just made it clear that I knew better than to do any such thing. He then went on about how if I had damaged the truck while moving it, he would have been liable for it. Which seemed to me be completely unnecessary.

That was the credit I got for doing my job right.

Fired!

January 20, 2016

this_is_theMovieNight_original

The following is a talk that I gave for the Write Club at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles.

Getting fired has a stigma attached to it, and I think this is wrong. After all, when you are fired, what does it mean? It means you didn’t fit in at the corporation you were working for. And what is a corporation? It is a machine. It certainly isn’t a person. It exists merely to create value for shareholders. It exists for no other reason. And you are a cog in that machine. When you are fired, it shows that you are not a cog, but rather a unique individual, and therefore incompatible with the system.

It is better to be fired than it is to quit. When you quit, you are doing your boss’s job for him. Why should you? You’re not getting paid to do his job, are you? No, make the bastard fire you. Make him earn his pay. He gets paid to make you earn your pay, so make him earn his pay. Give him some reason to fire you. I don’t know, trim your toenails at your desk. Scratch your ass at the water cooler. Chew with your mouth open.

But whatever you do, don’t get fired for some grubby, venal reason. When I was working at Coca-Cola, they had this contest, in which one of the prizes was this retro Coca-Cola vending machine that you could have in your living room. A guy I worked with was doing the paperwork for this contest. He arranged things so that one of these machines was delivered to a friend of his, who hadn’t taken part in the contest. When the company figured out what he did, they fired him immediately. A couple of security guards escorted him out of the building. They didn’t even let clean out his desk. They wanted him off the property immediately. So, he sacrificed his job so a friend of his could have a Coca-Cola vending machine in his living room. Oh, please.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people go out of their way to get fired, but weren’t. This doesn’t seem right to me. To me, that is sort of like coitus interruptus. The climax was never reached. Years ago, I had a temp job working in a warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. I was doing inventory with some other guys. It was a Lowe’s warehouse. We were going through some boxes, and I found this box with gold-plated toothbrushes in it. This struck me as the most pretentious yuppie thing I had ever seen in my life. I started laughing, and I pointed it out to the guys I was working with. “Hey, look at this,” I said. “Gold-plated toothbrushes.” I thought they would find it funny just like me. But that’s not what happened. Instead, their eyes lit up. They threw themselves upon the box, and they began grabbing fistfuls of toothbrushes and stuffing them inside their shirts and pants. Well, it was Friday, and at the end of the day, we had to go to the personnel office to have our time cards signed. So, all these guys go into the office with toothbrushes stuffed inside their shirts and pants. This one guy had so many toothbrushes stuffed inside his pants, that he was walking like this. (Imitate walk stiff-legged walk.) And there was this one manager there who kept staring intently at this guy. He looked as though he was about to say something. And I was thinking, “Oh God, this is my fate in life, to be arrested for stealing toothbrushes in Edison, New Jersey.” We were in that office for what seemed to me to be an eternity, as one of the managers signed our time cards. And during that whole time, this one manager kept staring at that guy. And when the guy had gotten his time card signed and turned to walk out, I thought, “Oh boy, this is it.” The manager watched him go out the door, and he didn’t say anything. And although I’m glad that manager didn’t say anything, I have to admit that I actually felt a little disappointed. There was no completion to this story, no dramatic confrontation. I found it aesthetically unsatisfying.

When I was working at Coca-Cola, I was in the human resources department. Now, working in human resources is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. You’re supposed to make the employees feel that the company cares about them, but at the same time, you’re supposed to make it clear to these same employees that the company doesn’t really care about them. It’s a very nuanced message that you’re sending to people. But when you fire someone, the nuance is gone. The pretense is over. The company really doesn’t care about this person, and it doesn’t care about you either.

And so it was that I was eventually fired from Coca-Cola. It didn’t happen all at once. I was told that my services would no longer be required after the end of the year. They said that I was being “laid off”. Over the next several months, they gave me less and less to do. At the end, they gave me a going away party. None of my bosses attended. I got a cake and a nice severance package. I didn’t feel like looking for another job, so I went back to school, finished my art degree, then I came back to LA, met some really cool people, and now I’m doing shows like this. So, getting fired is not the end of the world, it is a beginning.

99 Homes

October 12, 2015

99_Homes_Movie_Poster

I’m not proud of this, but I played a (small) role in the meltdown of the real estate market in 2008. I worked for a few months for the infamous Countrywide Home Loans. It was clerical work, but nonetheless I was a cog in the machine. I remember during one of the training sessions, one of the top executives of the company came to speak to the group of new hires I was in. She told us that the company’s income came entirely from late payment fees on mortgages. (I will never forget the expression of glee on this woman’s face as she told this to us.) Perhaps I was in a state of denial, but it wasn’t until after I left the company that I began to put two and two together. If all their income came from late payment fees, then they had to be luring people into getting mortgages they couldn’t really afford. Such a business model couldn’t be sustainable, and I suspect the top executives of the company knew this. However, when the collapse inevitably came, they all got golden parachutes, and everyone else got the shaft.

99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani, from a script by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, is set shortly after the collapse of the real estate market. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker whose house is foreclosed upon by real estate agent, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Nash is forced to move into a motel room along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his son (Noah Lomax). By chance, Nash, who is desperate for work, winds up doing a maintenance job for Carver. Carver takes a liking to him, and offers him a permanent job. Nash is hesitant at first, but the money that Carver offers him is irresistible. Carver soon has Nash carrying out evictions for him. When Nash’s family finds what he is doing, they become upset with him. Nash’s job also increasingly puts him in situations that are morally and legally tenuous.

99 Homes is a condemnation of the moral values of our society: its tendency to value money over people, its tendency to rationalize greed and parasitism. In the film’s most powerful scene, Carver justifies what he does to Nash. He tells Nash that after the collapse of the real estate market, he found that there was more money to be made doing evictions than in selling houses. Carver’s seemingly rational arguments expose the ruthless cynicism of our economic system, a cynicism that Carver has embraced in order to get ahead. In some ways, 99 Homes reminds one of last year’s Nightcrawler, but in a way 99 Homes is more subtly disturbing. Whereas the main character in Nightcrawler is depicted as a sociopath, one gets the feeling that Carver was at one time a decent person, but he has been corrupted by the system he works in.

This film benefits from strong performances. Michael Shannon is brilliant as Carver. 99 Homes is one of the best films of the year.

The Rise of Donald Trump

August 24, 2015

AP_294938362751

I had hoped that Trump’s support consisted entirely of old white people. However, looking at photos of his recent rally in Mobile, Alabama; I was dismayed to see a lot of young people, although they were all white. (I did see one black guy in one of the photos, although he may have been doing security. Either way, he didn’t look terribly enthusiastic.) Trump’s message seems to resonate with people from all walks of (white) life.

I recently watched the documentary, Trump: What’s the Dearl?, which was made in the early 1990’s. It was never realease at the time, because Trump sued the filmmakers. (Trump has a thing for suing people. He once sued an architecture critic who panned one of his buildings.) It has recently been made available online. The film only follows Trump’s career up until the early 1990’s, after he filed for bankruptcy due to the failure of one of his Atlantic City casinos. It is nevertheless a revealing account of Trump’s early career.

Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was a wealthy Brooklyn real estate developer. When Trump set out to break into the real estate business in the 1970’s, the then mayor of New York, Abraham Beame, happened to be a childhood friend of Fred Trump. Beame used his influence to arrange Trump’s first big real estate purchase. Later, when Trump bought the Commodore Hotel, Beame arranged to give him a huge tax break. Trump’s whole career was made possible by the fact that he happened to have a wealthy father who was politically well-connected.

His business model apparently consists of borrowing a lot of money while doing things on the cheap. When he tore down the old Bonwit Teller building, to make way for his Trump Tower, he hired an inexperienced firm that used undocumented Polish immigrants as workers.(I guess Trump only objects to immigrants when they happen to be Mexican.) They were not given protective equipment, even though they had to remove asbestos. This approach usually works well for Trump, but it sometimes gets him into trouble. During the 1980’s, he borrowed so much money to buy up real estate in Atlantic City that the revenues from his casinos were not enough to keep with his debt payments. With his characteristic crassness, Trump tried to blame three managers of his casino, who had recently died in a helicopter crash, for its failure.

I have to admit that the appeal of Trump escapes me. He lacks charm, and he actually strikes me as being a dull person. Yet so many people in the media seem to want to regard him as an interesting person. Trump is an invention of the media, and they must take responsibility for the harm he is currently doing.

Foxcatcher

February 18, 2015

Foxcatcher_First_Teaser_Poster

Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, from a screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, is loosely based on real events. In a way, this film is similar to Winter’s Sleep, in that it portrays how wealth creates distances between people, although it is structurally quite different.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic Gold Medal wrestler who is just barely scraping by financially. John du Pont (Steve Carell), an heir of the du Pont fortune, offers Schultz a job coaching a wrestling team that will train on the grounds of his family estate. As time goes by, however, Schultz realizes that du Pont actually wants to replace him with his more charismatic brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo).

Du Pont is depicted as emotionally stunted and prone to self-delusion. It becomes clear that he is using the team both to promote himself and to fulfill his own fantasies about being an athlete. Both Mark and Dave Schultz work for him only because of the generous pay and state-of-the-art facilities he can afford to give them. In one scene, du Pont tells Mark that his only friend when he was growing up was the son of his mother’s chauffeur. He eventually found out that his mother was paying him to be his friend. Du Pont’s relationships with other people are all basically about money.

A sense of growing uneasiness pervades this film. Du Pont’s delusions of grandeur are combined with a hidden resentment of Mark and Dave. He envies them not just for their athletic ability, but also because they are situated in the real world in a way that he can never be. Their relationships with other people are not all defined by money. The film’s tragic climax is shocking, but at the same time oddly unsurprising. Foxcatcher is an examination of the subtly corrupting power of money.

The Supremes

December 15, 2014

670px-supreme_court_us_2010

In a recent case, Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, the Supreme Court ruled that a company doesn’t always have to pay its workers.

Employees at Amazon are required to be screened before they can leave at the end of the day. This is so they can’t steal merchandise. The wait time to be screened can last up to twenty-five minutes. The workers are not paid for this time. Some workers sued to have this changed. (They sued Integrity Staffing Solutions, which supplies Amazon with workers.)

The court ruled against the workers, 9-0. That’s right, the liberal justices, including the recently beatified Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined this decision. The opinion was written by Clarence Thomas. Thomas explained that the workers were not eligible to be paid, because the screenings were not “integral” to their work. Of course, if an employee refuses to submit to the screening, he will be fired, and so he will not be able to work for the company any more. So, in that sense, the screening is integral to his work, and he should be paid for it. What’s more, it’s an imposition on his time, which is reason enough that he should be paid for it.

George Orwell once pointed out that coal miners don’t get paid for the time they spend walking to their work stations, even though they may walk as much as a mile underground to get to them. Years ago, I had a job working for a restaurant. I remember that the cooks were not paid for the time they spent getting into and out of their uniforms. The owner was always bitching and moaning that the cooks were clocking in before they put their uniforms on. He was always threatening to fire people for it.

Addicting Info has tried to put an optimistic spin on the ruling. The article cites one sentence in Thomas’s opinion: “These arguments are properly presented to the employer at the bargaining table … not to a court in an FLSA claim.” The author argues:

    Clarence Thomas just put into a court decision that workplace issues involving compensated time must be handled in negotiations, the cornerstone of collective bargaining and unions, and not the courts. By blocking the courts, but with FLSA itself upheld This also means that companies can no longer fail to engage in negotiations, relying upon the courts to handle such matters – the Supreme Court just ordered them to the bargaining table. Tactics to block unionizing now can, and will be considered unconstitutional per this decision.

I think that this is reading a lot more into the decision than is really there. I suspect that if pressed on the matter, Thomas will deny that this is what he intended. This, after all, is a man who supported the Hobby Lobby ruling.

The ruling class is determined to nickel and dime us to death.

Carving Up the Golden State

July 17, 2014

drapermap-thumb-600x680-68007

Every few years, somebody comes up with a proposal to break up California into smaller states. (Usually, by some conservative who thinks the state government is “too liberal”). These proposals have always never gone anywhere, no doubt because most Californians are pretty much satisfied with the state the way it is. Now, however, a Silicon Valley billionaire named Tim Draper says he has collected more than enough signatures to put on the ballot a plan to divide up California into six states.

Draper has given these proposed states such imaginative names as “Central California”, “South California”, “West California”, and “North California”. Another state will be called “Silicon Valley”. (That’s right, it will be named after a branding gimmick.) And another state will be named “Jefferson” (after a slave owner who never set foot in California). According to SF Gate: “…Draper spent $1.3 million and hired the signature-gathering firm Arno Political Consultants, which paid collectors as much as $3 per signature.” Draper claims that California as currently exists is “ungovernable”. (If California were truly ungovernable, it would resemble Somalia.) In fact, if this plan were put into effect, it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. Among other things, responsibility for the state’s enormous water system would have to be divided up between six different governments. (Just think of the potential for lawsuits here.)

I once had a job verifying signatures for a company that did ballot petitions. I was struck by the huge number of redundant signatures I would find. Certain people would sign the same petitions over and over again. This suggested to me that these people weren’t really paying that close attention to what they were signing. This confirmed to me a suspicion I had always had: you can put almost anything on the ballot if you’re willing to spend enough money and hire enough collectors. “Direct democracy”, the rationale behind having ballot initiatives, is a highly problematic concept in a society in which there is an enormous disparity in wealth.

Even if this initiative passes, the plan would have to be approved by Congress, which is not likely to happen. However, this provides us with an illuminating example of how a billionaire can wast people’s time.

Religion is a Business

July 2, 2014

Pope Francis

Now that the Supreme Court has decided that business owners have a right to impose their religious beliefs on their employees, I think this is an appropriate time to remind people that religion itself is a business, a point I made in a previous post:

    Sun Myung Moon was one of the greatest entrepreneurial geniuses of the twentieth century. Like L. Ron Hubbard, he grasped the essential truth that religion is a business. You promise salvation to people, and they pay you money for it. (Salvation is a special kind of commodity. Although it has no form or substance, it is nonetheless fungible.)

No one should know this better than Pope Francis. Salon recently posted an article by Anna Marsh about the pontiff. In it, Marsh destroys the Pope’s reputation as a populist. She writes:

    While the pope transmits a populist vibe—particularly about the economy— he is an old-school conservative who, despite his great PR, maintains nearly all of the socialpolicies of his predecessors and keeps up a hardline Vatican “cabinet.” He has done virtually nothing to change the policies of the church to match his more compassionate rhetoric. People excuse the pope, claiming that he doesn’t have much power to make changes, but this simply isn’t true. Further, it is ludicrous to suggest that a man who denies comprehensive reproductive health care (including all forms of birth control including condoms and abortion) and comprehensive family planning is a man who cares about the poor of this world.

Marsh tells us that the Pope’s populist rhetoric has a venal motive:

    According to The Economist, “The American church may account for as much as 60 percent of the global institution’s wealth. Little surprise, then, that it is the biggest contributor to head office (ahead of Germany, Italy and France). Everything from renovations to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to the Pontifical Gregorian University, the church’s version of West Point, is largely paid for with American money.” The National Catholic Reporter points out that American Catholics put more than $150 million a week into the collection plate, totaling $8 billion annually. Even if, as they assert, ninety percent of those donations never leave their parish, that means that about $800 million a year donated by American Catholics is being used to fund the Catholic Church around the world.

    Forbes points out that U.S. Catholics are responsible for almost a third of the charitable contributions that directly fund the Holy See, contributions that were down from $82 million in 2009 to 70 million in 2011. This time period overlaps the decline in Pope Benedict’s favorable numbers among U.S. Catholics and is widely attributed to Benedict’s lack of PR finesse, handling of the church’s sexual abuse scandal, and launching of an investigation into the practices of the American nuns.

The Vatican hired a PR man named Greg Burke to help them with this problem. Burke used to work for Fox News, and he is a member of the reactionary Opus Dei. It is apparently Burke who has largely engineered the new pope’s reputation as a populist. A lot of people have apparently fallen for this, but I wonder how long Francis will be able to continue this charade.