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Soccer and Sushi in Ukraine

Soccer and Sushi in Ukraine

The weekend started off with a disappointment. Although my brother and I had made the necessary reservations in advance, the Ukrainian authorities unceremoniously cancelled our planned trip to Chernobyl. The good news is, once we were over this initial letdown, the weekend could only get better.

I find that emerging economies are the most interesting places to visit, precisely because the rules of order (I would say over-order) we have become used to in the United States and Europe are nonexistant. The first sign of this unorderness for me was the “taxi” from the airport, which was a normal, unmarked car called up by the hostel to pick me up. Unmarked, and ready to drive me 30 minutes to downtown without a seatbelt.

After checking in at the hostel (Marshall is working there for the summer) it was already 11pm so we went across the street to a bar where we ordered beer, pizza and hookah, normal fare for that place. Then, before putting away the menus, I realized that there was an entire menu just for sushi. It seemed odd to me that a pizza, beer and hookah place would serve sushi, but Marshall told me that apparently, the Ukrainians are obsessed with sushi. I would soon find out that “obsessed” is an understatement. There is sushi on every menu in ever restaurant in the city.

While we were sitting outside eating pizza, we were fortunate to witness another incident. Across the street, a SUV was pulled over by a cop car. One cop got out and went to the window and started talking to the driver, a young woman in her 20’s. After a couple minutes of talking, the cop stepped away from the vehicle and looked back at the road, where he flagged down another car. The second car was not speeding–and we know, because we saw several speeders go by in the short time we were there–but it pulled over anyway and stopped a couple parking spaces in front of the first car. Meanwhile, the girl in the first car had gotten out and went to sit in the police car with the other officer. We could clearly see money changing hands from our vantage point. Then, she got out, went back to her car, and drove off. Evidently, the second car was in the process of bribing the cops as well.

Marshall tells me that cops taking bribes is about as normal as it gets in Ukraine. When he was in Odessa, he and his friend were stopped for drinking in public (in reality, for talking English in public) and had handcuffs dangled in front of them before one of the cops took him into an alley to negotiate a bribe of about $30. Such is how justice works in Ukraine.

On Saturday, we walked around the city, covering a good third of the city center. It’s a decently large city, with normal city things (shops, parks, the Dnieper, and churches, lots of churches). The day was largely uneventful, although we did visit the deepest metro station in the world, which took two escalators over at least seven minutes to get to the bottom of, and we met some heavily accented eastern Europeans who said they lived in Hartford, Connecticut.

For lunch, we got traditional Ukrainian food–sushi at Yellow Sea, a restaurant decked out like the Japan stall at Disney World. The exclusively white staff wore ninja headbands and kimonos. The walls were ornamented with Chinese characters. There was, of course, the obligatory water-wall. The waiter poured tea from a 15-inch spout. And when the sushi came, it was on a wooden boat in classic junk style. Surprisingly, the sushi was delicious, and to my delight, the yellow tail was actually fresh. The Ukrainians really like their sushi.

We got back to the hostel late afternoon and we took a siesta. I powered through the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapágos, which was alright, and napped for a bit. Then we met up with a bunch of other hostel goers. There was a girl from California who was teaching English in Kiev. A Polish stoner from Krakow. The hsotel owner, whose name escapes me. An Irish guy and an English guy who just met while travelling over their love of football. And there was Kevin, a Northwestern student we had met the night before and with whom we had shared pizza, hookah and beer.

We started the evening by trying to get a “Taxi,” which I soon found out involved flagging down cars on the street and asking to pay for a ride somewhere. Apparently hitchhiking is not only common in Kiev, it’s the only way to get around reliably. We found that all “Taxis” were such glorified hitches. Our car was driven by an African immigrant who agreed to drive us to our destination for $4. On the way, he had Lady Gaga pumping through the sound system on repeat.

That destination was a bar, “Room 6,” which was in the basement of an old hospital or sanitarium. The bar is unmarked but evidentally enough know its reputation. We had steaks which went for $5 a pop–excellent meat–and had a beer while watching the pregame. (One of the reasons Marshall is there–and why I wanted to visit–was because the EuroCup is happening right now in Ukraine.) The bar is staffed by “nurses” and “doctor” bartenders. One of the specialty shots they do is called the “Straightjacket,” where they put you in a straightjacket and lie you in the lap of a large-breasted nurse who spoons you a drink.

Marshall tells Kevin and me that we will be spared the “Straightjacket,” but we have to do a “Flaming Head” shot instead. They take us to the bar and seat us, and strap a World War II helmet on our heads. They then dab lighter fluid on each helmet, light it on fire, and start blowing whistles. They take three shots–red, white and blue–and successively bang them on our heads to activate the latent carbon, then blow whistles as we shoot them. While one is going down empty, the next is being banged on our flaming heads. Then, when all three are empty, they take a beer keg and bang that on our heads, too. Then they extinguish the flames and the whole bar erupts in applause. The whole ordeal lasted maybe two minutes, but it was memorable…and somewhere, I’m sure, there’s a video. We then went to another bar to watch the game, but it was pretty empty, so we went to the FanZone instead.

There were no games held in Kiev this weekend, but the “FanZone” attempts to give you the game experience. It is in the center of town decked out with jumbotrons, and thousands of spectators gather in drunken tidal pools to cheer on the matches. Ukraine had long since been eliminated. Tonight was Spain vs. France, and it was a boring, boring game. About two hours later, Spain had won 2-0 and the night was still young. Much jubilation and reverie ensued–indeed, the Ukranians are well suited for their drunken reputation. I have never been so impressed by the amount of alcohol that can be dispensed of by a population. I think I ended up getting back to the hostel at 4am, although my phone and only timekeeper had long since died. Some point in the evening, we went to a run-of-the-mill coffee shop and had sushi. The Ukrainians really like their sushi.

In all, it was a perfectly fine experience exploring a new city like Kiev. We could have gone to Chernobyl, which would have been amazing, but I guess it just leaves something for me to do when I go back. I also know now that if I want good sushi, Kiev’s only a short distance away.

June 25, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Immigration Attacked from Both Sides

Immigration Attacked from Both Sides

Ignoring the fact that the decision was extremely political (let’s face it, what presidential decision isn’t?), the move made by the Obama Administration to stop the deportation of children of illegal immigrants is, in Obama’s words, “the right thing to do.”  Today’s decision solves an important problem that needed to be addressed.  Children of illegal immigrants occupy an awkward space between the illegal alien and naturalized citizen: after all, why should a child who committed no crime pay the price?  Critics of amnesty for “DREAM-ers” will say that giving amnesty to children up until the age of 16 will encourage more parents to bring their children here illegally, and give them more time to do so.  Is it true that this act will encourage more illegal immigration?  Probably–it is hard to see how it wouldn’t.  But decriminalizing marijuana might lead to more drug use and that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do either.

The greater problem in this controversy is the continued hatred of immigration in general from the xenophobic right, and the weak economic opposition put forward by the protectionist left.  As with so many things in our politics, the right and the left often find themselves strange bedfellows when it comes to questions of innovation and growth.

To the xenophobes, it cannot be emphasized enough that cliché assertion that we are a nation of immigrants.  Hearing the anti-immigration movement spew the same nonsense as the nativists and Know-Nothings of the past reveals a shameful part of our national discourse: a discourse that in countless ways has been built on oppression and exclusion.  As with all immigrants in our history, this latest wave faces opposition from an entrenched majority that believes they constitute the “real” American, even though the ancestors of these “real” Americans faced the same opposition on the same arguments.  In America, there should be no such thing as a foreigner, and yet, we find ourselves every generation with new definitions of foreign-ness to fall back on.  Since 9/11, our discourse has welcomed a new breed of foreigner, the Islamic fundamentalist, with all his attached stigma: terror, oppression of women, and anti-Christian theology.

Now, there is an economic argument, a weak one, against immigration, which the now-infamous Neil Munro heckled Obama with: “What about American workers who are unemployed while you employ foreigners?”  The first, easy response to this argument is that these children aren’t foreigners in anything but name.  If anything, a whole new generation of Americans has just been re-born in their own land.  But the second, economic response is that immigrants aren’t taking American jobs.  There are generally two kinds of immigrants: skilled immigrants who move to the US for a job (and thus are no different than economic migrants who move from state to state for a new job), and unskilled immigrants who come to the US in search of opportunity, safety, asylum or freedom.  Skilled immigrants are certainly not taking American jobs, and in many cases are the only qualified people to do those jobs.  One of my coworkers recently went through a 8 month visa approval process to move to the US to do his own job, and part of the process involved having to prove that he was the only one who could do his job (and not an American).  The logic is overwhelmingly bad.  If we could find someone else to do his job, we would have–it’s obviously cheaper and more efficient to hire someone in the same city and get them to work right away.  Skilled immigrants come to the US to fill holes in our labor market, which are holes created by our own protectionist policies and market inefficiencies–hardly an immigrant’s fault.

Unskilled immigrants, on the other hand, are a different story.  While it is true that immigrants who come to the US with no experience or no existing connections may very well be taking jobs that could be worked by Americans, the fact is that immigrants are often willing to work at a much lower wage than Americans, and undocumented immigrants of course are often willing to work at less than the legal minimum wage.  So a protectionist’s immediate response should not be to limit immigration, but to ask how Americans can compete for jobs in their own country, which of course entails repealing said minimum wage and let people work for the value of their work and not an inflated value that bars Americans from greater employment.  But that issue aside, the fact is that immigrants face natural barriers to employment (language, culture, experience) that native Americans do not face, and if employers are willing and able to legally employ these immigrants instead of Americans, that is, again, a problem with Americans: we lack, on the whole, a range of skills that we are either unwilling or unable to do.  Immigrants have no such prejudices.

Now, it is also the case that many immigrants cannot find employment in the workforce, which is why so many immigrants make a living for themselves by catering to other immigrants, creating new companies and new jobs.  These jobs benefit not just the largely new immigrant workforce (for instance, in Chinese restaurants), but provide a host of goods and services that Americans can buy at low prices–once again bringing the benefit of free markets to laborer and consumer alike.  Are these immigrants taking American jobs?  No, of course not.  If anything, they are creating new American jobs and Fortune 500 companies.  There is also a question of locale.  The idea that an immigrant busboy in Houston is stealing the job of a factory worker in Detroit is ludicrous, as are most ideas emanating from the protectionist left and xenophobic right.

Finally, Obama isn’t employing any foreigners while “Americans are unemployed.”  The whole free-markets thing makes it difficult for Obama to favor one worker over another.  The fact is that Americans are employing immigrants above Americans, and that should tell you just how valuable immigrants are to the economy, as a necessary population to supply needed skills and create innovation.  And if there need be any more proof, look to the people who are trying to build a ship off the coast of San Francisco in order to attract immigrants to our shores to start jobs, while trying to get around outdated immigration policies that threaten to stagnate our economy.

June 15, 20121 commentRead More
The Economics of Pride

The Economics of Pride

I had an interesting conversation today.  I was waiting for a friend to meet me in Wrigleyville, and not wanting to pay for a seat in a restaurant I sat down outside on a public ledge next to the sidewalk and started to answer some work emails.  I struck up a conversation with a man who was also taking a free respite from standing and asked him how he was doing, where he was from, etc etc.  I assumed–correctly, as it turned out–that he was one of the many beggars who hang around Wrigleyville at night asking for money.  He did ask me if I could “help him out” about 1/3 of the way into our conversation, but other than this brief interlude we had a pleasant interchange, mostly consisting of small talk about origins and the weather.

I did, however–and this was to confirm my suspicions about his circumstance, but also out of curiosity–ask him what he did for a living, and he told me that he drives a forklift and works in warehousing.  “But I got laid off this year,” he said, and proceeded to tell me about his layoff and how he has been out of work for a year.  This started a conversation about the economy, how it’s bad for a lot of people, and I’m sure he’ll be able to find work soon.  Then he said something interesting, but first background:

I had recently had a conversation with a friend about minimum wage, one of my favorite thought experiments in humanitarian socialism and economic progress.  I believe, like many economists and social theorists, that the benefits of minimum wage are not justified by the economic cost; that is to say, minimum wage creates a barrier to employment by people whose skill sets are unemployable at that high a wage.  Yes–for some (un)skill sets and abilities, minimum wage is too high, and employers will rather outsource those jobs to foreign countries at those skills’ worth than pay too much for them here at home.  The result is people who can’t get jobs because no one will pay them as high as minimum wage to work for them.  I think that in a free market of labor with freedom of contract and competition, all jobs have a price.  Employers may like to pay workers less and less, but if they do that they will lose those workers to competitors at some price point where their added value to the company outweighs their compensation.  It is the same reason employers pay people more and more for better and harder work–because they acknowledge and require better skills at higher levels.  Certainly most people with good paying jobs are not having their wages reduced to the minimum wage level arbitrarily, so why would employers of people currently at minimum wage reduce wages lower than the worth of those jobs without a legal barrier?  Anyway, the economic argument against minimum wage is sound and is worth reading, but it is besides the point.

The obvious counter argument to this economic reasoning, however, is the belief that a minimum wage is necessary for sustenance and it is inhuman to underpay people for jobs.  This belief is supported by a belief in social welfare and the idea that with a job, one should have a base level of security.  Both arguments are good, but I obviously lean to the side of helping the economy as an engine for individual growth.  It doesn’t matter, because no politician could or would get rid of minimum wage because it’s a fairly established policy and would be deeply unpopular to overturn.

This discussion I had with a friend about minimum wage ended up coming to a proposed thought experiment where I had no money and was put on the street with no friends or family to support me.  The proposed “zero start” idea was created to challenge me to think about what I would do in this situation, a situation that I (or most people) have never been in.  My answer, at the time, was I would walk into every McDonald’s I could find once a day asking for a job.  Since Maslow’s hierarchy requires that I have an income, McDonald’s–a notoriously low-paying and low-satisfaction employer–would be a good place to start.  I would definitely beg, but I would beg for a fishing pole, not a fish.

Back to my conversation with John, the man I met on the street, whose employment status was known but whose homelessness status was not (I never asked).  He told me, unprompted, that “I could go get a job at McDonald’s but who wants to work at McDonald’s?”  I found that interesting.  Here I am, two weeks ago thinking about the first thing I would do as a desperate, homeless and jobless individual, thinking that in my desperation I would beg for a job at McDonald’s until I got one, and here John is telling me that, despite his joblessness he would not get a job at McDonald’s.  Who wants to, after all?

My first thought was, how desperate is John?  I would assume that his level of desperation is not yet at the point where he is seeking every available job possible.  After all, if you are truly desperate, then you have to take what you can get, right?  Doesn’t this make basic, logical sense–survival is the most important thing?

But if John is not desperate, and can easily get a job somewhere if he wanted, why is he begging on the street?  What is his game?  Without a job, is he really making enough money begging to support himself?  Does he want to be a beggar, and is this a better option in his mind than working at McDonald’s?

Clearly John is someone well spoken, with a skill set and a very personable demeanor, who doesn’t want a particular job, so instead of working somewhere he doesn’t want to work (which is certainly his choice), he is on the street begging for money.  This made me think of several things.

One, is Pride an economic factor?  Is there some model that accounts for peoples’ unwillingness to take jobs that they can take, but are too proud to take?  There must be, because I know friends I graduated with who could take a job at any retail store or restaurant, but refuse to do so because their college degrees render such jobs beneath them, in their opinion.  There is also the argument that “If I take a job like that, someone else will be out of a job who really needs it,” which is sort of hypocritical and assumes that people desperately seek any job offered to them, which is exactly what they refuse to do (pride, pride, pride).  Also, jobs are not zero-sum: the more people in jobs, the better for the economy, and the more jobs that are created.  If anything, they should be saying “With my education and skills, I will do exceptional work at a job like that, and make my employer enough money that they can hire someone else.”

Two, is John somehow violating a fundamental principle by choosing not to work?  It is his choice not to work, of course, just like it is my friends’ choice not to take a work at the Gap.  He clearly is taking care of himself and is still eating properly, shaving and brushing his teeth (this I all observed).  So are my friends.  He probably has some savings to make his situation not desperate–so do my friends.  What makes him different?  The fact that he is begging on the street.

So this is the conclusion I came to, and please tell me if I’m wrong.  He’s not begging on the street because he needs to be, he’s begging because he wants to be.  I have a problem with this.  I have always had a problem with begging on the street, mostly because of the uncertainty of the beggar’s circumstances, and the belief that donating to homeless shelters and jobless centers is a lot more effective of an investment in homelessness and joblessness.  John has taken the lowest job on the totem pole–something that isn’t really even a job–and turned it into a job with two tiers: those who choose to work at that job, and those who have no choice.  What about the people who can’t get a job anywhere, and have to beg? What about truly destitute people with no options?  What is left for them?

It seems that in the economy, even beggars are competing with each other.  And beggars like John, because of pride, are preventing people from taking a job like that who actually need it.  The cycle continues, even down to the lowest rung on the ladder.

September 1, 20102 commentsRead More
Mongolian Economics

Mongolian Economics

So being in Mongolia has been a bit of an affirmation of Friedman economics for me, not that I had such a problem with them before but Mongolia takes the models to such an extreme that it provides a willing test subject and performs very well.

We pulled into Ulaanbaatar (UB) by train at about 6 in the morning and we got off with a bunch of Mongolians from the north (we were the only car coming from Russia, read: Westerners), who all got off with various barrels and boxes and other goods they were presumably bringing to market. UB is a giant, sprawling city that has literally grown out of nowhere since independence in 1990. The Soviets built some housing and some government buildings, but post-1990 the city has been a conglomeration of impromptu homes from immigrants from the countryside. Our guide, Ganz, met us at the train station and we right away got something to eat and then started our 5-hour drive to the south desert to spend the night in a yurt with a nomad family. Ganz explains to us that the city has doubled in population in the last 10 years, and in the next 10 will double again. More interestingly, he says that 10 years ago there was no word in Mongolia for “traffic jam”–in other words, the growth of the conglomeration has outpaced the construction of infrastructure. We leave the city and less than 10 minutes outside of it there is an open steppe…literally miles and miles of empty land with an occasional yurt and herds of sheep, goat, cows, horses, and even camels, every once in a while. The massiveness of the land compared to habitation is hard to describe. In a 5 hour drive from the biggest city in Mongolia, we passed 2 villages on the road (there’s only one paved road from the city south), and saw maybe 5 people apart from that. In a country of 3 million people, 1.5 million live in UB and the rest in a countryside stretching 600,000 square miles—thats 2 people per square mile. So you can imagine how empty most of the land is.

When we’re in the car during the 5 hour trip, I start asking Ganz about the land, how people buy land, what the role of the government/taxation is, etc. Of course I’m thinking summer home/real estate. He told me that no one owns any of the land, except in UB where you have to have permits to build. I asked him if I could build a fence anywhere I wanted on the land, and call it my own, and he said theoretically I could, but no one does that. Why not? Well, 30% of Mongolians still are nomadic herders, and move 4 times year with the seasons to herd their flocks and provide meat, dairy, skins, etc for their needs and sell to others. The economy of Mongolia in 1920 was 95% herding and 5% other (manufacturing, etc), but the Soviets, to their credit, started a centralized system of education, governance, and industrialization which led to 30% of herders today, and within 10 years probably 15% of Mongolians will be herders. To encourage the “Traditional” Mongolian lifestyle, the government subsidizes herding, essentially, by not requiring the nomads to pay taxes. As a result, a fair number of herders still exist, but they still, if they can, go to UB or another city and pitch their yurts on the outskirts looking for jobs. You can see in UB, the further outside the center you go, the higher the ratio of temporary (yurt) housing to permanent housing, as it is apparent that the city is a very new, very fast growing, conglomeration as people move in from the countryside to find jobs.

So I had a couple questions for Ganz, some of which he answered and some of which he didn’t. First, I wanted to know how much land cost in Mongolia, and his answer suggested that it didn’t cost anything, but you have to pay taxes if you have permanent claim to any land. I figured that in a place where land was a nearly unlimited resource, it essentially had no value, and no one felt that they owned any land except in places, like UB, where land was in competition. In other words, within the same country you can see the extremes of land ownership and value (the city) contrasted with the extremes of non-land ownership and value (the countryside), based on the same basic economic principle. Foreigners can go to Mongolia and pay the government $50/year per hectare to “own” land–although the government only allows “leases” for foreigners. The government thus extracts revenue on the valueless land (is this right?) through taxation. So that was interesting.

We spent the afternoon and night with the nomad family, who spoke no English but Ganz translated. One of them asked at what age in the US do we learn how to ride horses, which I found amusing–horses, to Mongolians, are like cars in the US, it’s a right of passage to be a good rider. The kids in the countryside start riding at age 5. The business of this nomad family was herding, like all other nomads, although, as Ganz explained, they are more successful than most. They have an above-average number of animals (2 or 3 hundred) and sell surplus meat, dairy and wool, making money to buy provisions, more animals, and a cool satelite TV hookup in their yurt which gets 18 channels. They have 3 children, 2 of whom talked to us about wanting to move to the city when they finish school and get a job in UB…their parents support them. The only reasons the parents haven’t done it is because they have no skill set outside of herding that they could sell in a labor market, like many of the unskilled laborers who go to UB every year to find jobs. This family also supplements their income from hosting tourists like us. So for herders, they have an above-average income. What I found interesting was that their “lifestyle”–which you could really call a job–existed, as Ganz said, for them and for their own. They did not have ambitions toward stable production, or a desire to make five times as much money staying in one place, settling down and doing a western ranching model. I asked Ganz why, and didn’t get a straightforward answer, but my guess is that with the government subsidizing nomadic herding, there’s no reason for people to do anything to cover expenses aside from their basic needs. The greater needs of the economy aren’t being met.

Which brings me to my ultimate surprise: In this country of 5 million animals for 3 million people, 70% of meat is imported! That tells you that Mongolia isn’t producing at the capacity it should, and it has ultimately to do with the unwillingness of people with a herding skillset to setlle down in a production-oriented industry like ranching. Why is this? Ganz told me that some farmers, in particular, have started to adopt western crop models and have been increasing their yields and their wealth–clearly the stationary farming model is more productive. Why haven’t herders realized the stationary herding (ranching) model? Certainly, if I told my ranching friend in Montana that he could move his ranch to Mongolia for one tenth of the price, hire ten times as many herders and quadruple his profits, he would jump at that opportunity. Why hasn’t a clever nomad decided to undertake such a ranching model? And spare me the romance of the noble nomad, loving the culture of the herd and embracing glorious Mongolian culture. Clearly most herders or their children, when given a choice, choose to move to UB and get a job.

I haven’t figured out the answer yet, but Ganz speculated that eventually there will be ranches and the herding model will stabilize. It helped, he said, that two years ago there was a giant animal blight and 20% of animals in Mongolia died–he said it was a tragedy, but ultimately proved that nomadic herding is unsustainable and helped to move people to establish sustainable careers. Ganz is a bit right wing, and has his own tourism business with 8 employees and makes, by his estimation, a middle class wage. His parents were nomads, but he went to the city after school and learned English, eventually becoming a tour guide. He’s quite the Reaganite as well, which is humorous. His Uncle makes and sells ornate jewelry and is pretty good at it.

When we came back to UB, we discovered the raw growth of the city–how traffic laws aren’t enforced because no one understands them, how the biggest building in UB is still empty because they built it crooked and couldn’t install an elevator, how everything is either Soviet-era ugly or under construction, but there’s a beauty to the city in its spontaneity.

Ganz estimates that by 2020, only 5% of Mongolians will be nomadic herders, a complete reversal from 100 years ago. This, I believe, is the ultimate affirmation of the idea that efficiency in the economy will be reached despite the attempt to subsidize a different economy, because people ultimately adapt and move toward different industries. I guess the biggest mystery to me, right now, is why these “unskilled” nomads don’t adapt herding to a sedentary model, where they can still herd but can make five times as much money doing so. Perhaps, when the romance of moving to the big city subsides, many former herders will take their education and go back to the countryside, creating a new “traditional” ranching economy that is more efficient and will ultimately bring more wealth to themselves and the economy.

These are not coherent thoughts but just my rants and musings. Anyway, what do you think?

July 1, 20101 commentRead More
To be Wealthy is No Longer Cool

To be Wealthy is No Longer Cool

A common theme has arisen in this campaign, not necessarily more so than any other political campaign:  to what extent does a candidate’s wealth mean he’s “out of touch” or “elitist,” and in what way can the opposing camp use a candidate’s wealth against him?

This was evident early on in the Democratic race when the candidates were asked if they sent their kids to public or private schools.  Chris Dodd and Barack Obama ended up getting into an argument over whether or not Dodd’s children’s education was sufficiently “common” enough–and it turned into a competition over who was the poorest.  Dodd tried to convince the audience that he’s not doing so well.  “You’re doing all right, Chris,” was Obama’s reply.  It was surprising to me that suddenly, being wealthy in America is big problem.  At least when it comes to politicians.

What is ironic, of course, is the last president we had who was not “elite” when he entered office and just as “common” when he left it was Truman–that’s 60 years of presidential candidates, all of whom try to portray themselves as fundamentally “common” to appeal to everyday voters.  It is easy to see why candidates do it.  Most voters are middle class, and to appeal to these voters it is important to come across as being one of the bunch.  But what is upsetting is how many people buy into the dialog that wealth is a stigma in public life.

The noble public servant, it is said, should be willing to work for no pay.  It is hard to be a noble servant, therefore, if one does not have any money.  Some people believe public servants should receive more pay.  But if they are paid well, they are accused of self indulgence and elitism.

No wonder only people with money end up becoming politicians these days!  The barrier to entry is so high, it requires so much experience in business, finance, law, the military, and networking, that the people who end up at the top can’t be very “common” anymore.  The belief of Thomas Jefferson was that any man could become president, no matter how “common.”  But, then again, Jefferson believed that “commoners” were a) Male, b) Landowners and c) White, so I don’t know how well that analogy works.

Here’s the problem.  In this withering economy, people are getting poorer.  They naturally want to relate to the candidates.  But being wealthy in America, assuming the wealth is earned, not inherited, means that one is successful to some degree.  A wealthy person is a competent person, a smart person, a sociable and wise person.  Why wouldn’t people want that person in the White House?

I just don’t buy that Obama, who just paid off his college loans and has been fortunate enough to be blessed with a bestselling book and a meteoric career, should be chastised for being too wealthy.  Isn’t that what the American Dream is about?  The immigrant with ten cents in his pocket doesn’t land on the shores of America to become the most common person in all the land.  The streets to that immigrant are not paved with guns and religion, but are paved with arugula and gold!

And then we look at McCain, who himself is no wealthy man, but happened to have married a very wealthy woman.  How can we hold that against him?  I smell hypocrisy from the Obama campaign, who criticized their opponents for vetting Michelle, yet feel free to harpoon McCain’s “Wealth” as if he had anything to do with making it.

The way I see it, a candidate’s finances should not be any of the public’s business.  But if they are, they should be treated with admiration, not disgust.  It is not Obama or McCain’s fault that they want to do better for their families, and they shouldn’t be criticized for wanting to do better for yours.

August 22, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
The Slippery Slope

The Slippery Slope

The most disturbing story to come out of the news of late has not been the Michael Pfelger videos (although, unlike Wright, he has managed to issue a somewhat sincere apology).  Lost in the Politico’s election analysis and the media’s echo chamber has been a little-noticed story about Dunkin’ Donuts, who just pulled an ad from the air which included Rachel Ray wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabic scarf.

Facing severe criticism that the wearing of the scarf was symbolic support for Islamic terrorism, Dunkin’ Donuts, as the BBC reports, issued a statement that the scarf was not intended to offend and that “given the possibility of misperception the commercial was no longer being used.”

What misperception?  The wearing of a traditional dress, cultural dress, is somehow a support of Islamic extremism?  Conservative bloggers have pointed out, correctly, that the scarf was worn by Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian liberation movement until his death in 2004, and is routinely worn by Islamic extremists and Palestinian nationalists.

True.  But the scarf is also worn by millions of Arabs, and non-Arabs, around the world, and an overwhelming majority of them would rather not perform extreme and violent acts of terror, thank you very much.  Most people who wear the keffiyeh are not extremists, and are certainly not terrorists (and I’m sure Rachel Ray would agree).

Not only do Arabs wear the keffiyeh, but Urban Outfitters sold the scarves until January 2007, when, responding to public pressure, they pulled it from the shelves.  In their statement:  “We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.”

What’s next?  The pulling of Middle East products off store shelves?  The sacking of Arab journalists?

This is symbolic of a much larger undercurrent of American Islamophobia that has swept the United States (and much of Europe) since before September 11.  Indicators of this movement have been rampant: Brigitte Bardot’s incendiary anti-Muslim comments that recently got her fined, riots in the streets of Paris, the Danish cartoon fiasco and of course, conservative commentators’ incessant ranting about the “Muslim problem.”  Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are especially to blame.

Of course, now that Barack Obama, a black man with the middle name Hussein, is running for president, the ugliest of the hatred of Muslims in America has come out in full force.  In all the talk about racism in this Democratic primary season, the mainstream commentary has forgotten about the real issue of race in this election—not whether Obama is “too black” to be President, but whether or not he is a Muslim.

It was Barack Hussein Obama’s connection to Islam—through his father—that led to the Fox report, later proved to be false, that Obama had attended a radical Islamic school as a schoolboy in Indonesia.  It was this false religiosity that led to the famous “Madrassa Hoax” email, which circulated the internet widely in the early months of the primary and has since emerged again.  The email implored Americans “Let us all remain alert concerning Obama’s expected presidential candidacy,” and that “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level – through the President of the United States, one of their own!”

Remember Hillary Clinton’s famous “3AM” ad, in which she asked who would best be able to answer a 3AM phone call to the White House in the midst of a catastrophe?  Orlando Patterson wrote for the New York Times that the ad played on subtle racism and the classic white fear of “the outsider within”—the criminal black man infiltrating the safe neighborhood:  “The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.”  However, the more subtle sub-message, the one that did not have to be stated, was the fact that “Something is happening in the world,” and the terrorists behind that “something”—well, you get the picture.  The very idea that a Muslim—a guy who shares a name with the late Iraqi dictator—could be the one answering that call in the White House came across clear enough.  Clinton’s margin of victory in Ohio, much larger than the pre-election polls, suggest that late-deciding voters broke for her, and whether the subtlety of the “3AM” ad had something to do with this final push will never be known for sure.

A Pew poll taken in late March found that one in ten Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim.  The number is telling in part because 10% of Democrats—most of whom already were Clinton supporters—believed this fact, and because 8% of Independents—a group who Obama needs to depend on to win the election in November—believes it as well.  Furthermore, a whopping 19% of rural voters—that’s one in five—believed this to be true.

The fact that the son of a Muslim Kenyan joined a radical black Chicago church, and then stayed in that church for 20 years, does not help diminish the rumor that he is a Muslim.  America is familiar with images of radical black Muslims like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, and should now be equally familiar with Jeremiah Wright’s praise of Farrakhan.  The tendency to equate Islam with radicalism of course has been swollen since 9/11.  But the underlying assumption is that it is Islam that implies radicalism—not blackness.  The fear of Islam “penetrating” American society cannot be understated.

It is disturbing that I have received these emails about “Barack Hussein Obama” being a “secret muslim” who “joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.”  These claims are not only outright false, but they force Obama to sink to the level of divisiveness by having to respond.  “No, I’m not a Muslim!” he has had to say, as if being a Muslim were somehow like being a bunny eater.  Such stringent, politicized denial only reinforces the claims, not diminishes them.  It reminds me of the high schooler who insists “I’m not gay!” when he is hit with the G-word in a routine downsizing of his character by his peers.  (Harry Truman, when we was running for a judicial seat in Missouri, was rumored to be Jewish due to his close ties with a Jewish childhood friend and business partner.  “I’m not Jewish,” he is reported to have said, “and if I was, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.”)

This is a major problem, and one that shows no sign of letting up.  Let the keffiyeh remind us that hatred of Muslims has increased in recent years.  How would America respond if, tomorrow, a skullcap-toting news anchor stepped down because “given the possibility of misperception Mr. ____ will no longer be working with us,” because, after all, “we don’t want anyone to think that we work with Jews.”  It’s unacceptable.

Milton Friedman wrote that in the long run, the free market will work against discrimination.  It’s in the best interest of industry economically, he said, for employers to seek the most qualified people regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.  However, the free market in this case has spoken in another direction:  “Don’t sell this item because people associate it with terrorism, and thus we will lose business if we keep it on the shelves”–this might be good business, but morally it stinks of bigotry.  The underlining assumption is fed, not starved, and thus the evil wheel of bigotry continues to turn, turn, turn.

June 3, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More