Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protests - it's not about inequality

First things first: The Occupy Wall Street protesters are largely correct. There is tremendous economic inequality in the United States (and there is tremendous economic inequality in most countries, although the inequality here is considerably greater than it is in most "developed" countries). Inequality in the United States is significantly more pronounced than it is in many developing countries, actually. Five of the 'stan countries have more income equality than the United States, for example (and if income inequality is that marked here, one has to imagine that wealth disparity is far, far greater).

To be honest, I'm far less concerned with income inequality than I am with poverty reduction for a variety of reasons, but that's not the point I'm trying to get at today, exactly. As far as income inequality itself goes, I think some of it is necessary because, let's face it, that's jut the way the world works. While you have plenty of people of one political persuasion arguing against such vast inequality (with plenty of sound arguments, if normative arguments are your cup of tea), you have plenty of people on the other side arguing against things like progressive tax systems (with plenty of the same sound, normative arguments). What one perceives as "fair", however, is ultimately subjective, and rarely economically feasible.

What I am interested in talking about is something that struck me the other day, and that is the fact that inequality, though it exists at least roughly to the degree that the Occupy Wall Street folks say it does, is absolutely NOT what has driven them into the streets en masse.

Is inequality really that much worse right now than it was, say, five years ago? It has certainly increased, but not that much. Yet, there were no mass "I am the 99%" protests five years ago. I guess some kind of "tipping point" argument could be made, but I wouldn't for one second buy it, at least not as it relates to income disparity. So what has changed?

I have been well aware of the vast disparity in wealth and income in the United States for quite some time, and I have always thought that as long as people's basic needs were being met (and the definition of "basic needs" here is somewhat nebulous) they would remain either blissfully ignorant of that inequality or, as was the case with me, not really care all that much one way or the other. As long as those who have the most economic pull here made sure that people, by and large, were content, then there would be no need to try to equalize ownership of income or wealth. And for the most part, that is the way things have been.

Let me digress slightly here just for a moment. I firmly believe that we can't ask for more than to be happy. If I'm truly happy with my life, I don't really want for anything. I also believe that most of us are more or less psychologically and emotionally healthy people, and psychologically and emotionally healthy people don't generally poke their noses over the fence to see how many toys the neighbor has before deciding whether or not to feel happy. In short, our own happiness rarely has much at all to do with our material wealth relative to those around us (much less some faceless CEO). Oh, there are plenty of exceptions to this, but I think people whose days are won and lost based on how their stacks stack up against the neighbors' are never going to be happy anyway.

Okay, I'm getting way off track here. Bottom line: we don't care that much about inequality, but we do care about being able to be paid a reasonable wage for our jobs, about being able to have a job at all, about not having our houses taken away from us, about our kids being able to go to school, about being able to pay our medical bills, and so on and so forth. Inequality could be one thousand times greater than it is right now, and if the overwhelming majority of Americans didn't have to deal (or at least worry about the potential of having to deal) with such problems, there would be very, very few people out in the streets protesting income inequality.

So what has changed? More and more (and more and more) of us are worrying about how to find a job, and if we have one, how long that job will be there. More and more of us are worrying about what will happen if we or a family member gets sick, and whether or not it will financially ruin us for life. More and more of us are worrying about where we will live if we lose our jobs or have one of those illnesses, once we can't make our mortgage payments and our house (or are cars) are foreclosed on or repossessed. It is that kind of desperation that is driving people into the streets, not the inequality issue.

These protests don't seem like they're necessarily abating. Those who have the power to influence economic policy (whether they be corporations or elected officials) would do well to keep this in mind, and at least tone down the greed and lust for power to a level that will get people back in their houses, watching TV and playing board games with their families, barbecuing on the weekends, and whatever else it is that keeps Americans happy. Because here's the secret: we really don't care that you get fabulously rich off the fruits of our labor, as long as we're not up at night worried about the future.

And while I'm not a massive fan of tipping-point arguments, I think there may one to be made here (albeit using completely arbitrary numbers). If making 500 times more than the average allows you to be obscenely rich and the status quo is maintained, but making 501 times more results in an economic situation that pisses people off to the point at which they are willing to do something about it, maybe that extra increment is not worth it in the end? Food for thought.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Some thoughts after a trip to the movies

I really like movies, and I really have a lot of spare time on my hands, and at $6 for a matinee, I have enough disposable income to go to the cinema as often as I like. This past summer, when I first got into Las Cruces, I actually had the urge to go, but was completely stymied by the absolute lack of anything interesting to see. There seemed to be nothing but stupid superhero movies (which I invariably hate), cartoons, sequels to stuff that sucked to begin with, and half-witted remakes of things that may or may not have been any good the first time around, but almost definitely won't be this time around. I just took a pass all summer, except for 8MM, which I thought was pretty good.

Anyway, on the recommendation of a couple friends, I have been wanting to go see Rise of the Planet of the Apes for a few weeks now (yes, I know it's been out for a good long while already), but for whatever reason, just haven't gone. My inability to make it over to see the movie, which I was sure I wanted to see, was starting to puzzle and annoy even me, so I finally got so irritated with myself today that I just went. I would like to comment on three major takeaways from this experience.

1. I was kind of bothered when I found out that there was a planned American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We Americans are good at a lot of things. We are probably the best in the world at a lot of things. Unfortunately, one of those things is taking great films and TV shows from other countries and turning them into complete garbage. There are about a million examples of this, and the one that immediately comes to mind is the remake of Nueve Reinas, an excellent Argentine crime caper. While the original is extremely clever, funny, and intriguing (and also does an outstanding job at showing how ingenious Argentine thieves can be), the American version is flat, boring, and completely devoid of charm. I imagined that whoever was going to remake The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would dispense with any of the atmosphere that made the original so great and turn it into Hollywood schlock. Well, today I saw the trailer for it, and I have to tell you, it may be the best movie trailer I have ever seen. While I still don't know that my original prediction won't come true, I can at least say my attitude towards the entire thing has turned from complete scorn to eager anticipation. Check out the trailer:

God, that looks killer.

2. The reason I haven't gone to the movies for all this time is because each time I go, people drive me absolutely insane. Tolerance of what I find to be annoying behavior by strangers is something I have worked hard on getting better about, and with a pretty good degree of success. But man, there is nothing like a movie theater to make me wonder how my perception of the world and the appropriate way to behave in it diverges so sharply from some other people's. Today, an older couple sat in front of me. The theater was probably 10% full, tops, but they chose to sit directly in front of me. Maybe I chose a particularly good seat, and they had similar tastes. Whatever. Then, the woman started to talk.

And continued to talk.

Through the entire movie.

For me, remaining mostly quiet during a movie is pretty much obvious rule #1 of cinema-going etiquette. Is there really any other legitimate, objective argument on the subject? I'd like to think that there isn't, but this is just what I'm talking about. When it comes to opinions, I realize that mine is just opinion, but it would seem to me that MOST people would be of a mind that it's polite to be quiet during the movie. Astonishingly, however, I appear to be in the minority with this opinion, and those who hold the strongest opposition views on the subject somehow manage to always sit next to or in front of me. Usually with a big hat on.

And it wasn't bad enough that she just constantly talked. The things she was saying had me consciously making an effort to not slap her in the back of the head. In my mind's eye, I could totally see it happening. I heard at least 40 "Oh my God"s. She also helpfully pointed out many, many obvious on-screen happenings. Upon seeing John Lithgow's lifeless, stiffened body, she observed, "He's dead. Do you see that? He's dead. He died. Oh my God. He's dead. He didn't make it. Do you see? Oh my God." In addition to this, she provided the always appreciated repetition-of-the-dialogue-just-spoken-on-screen-followed-by-laughter-and-the-statement-"That's funny!"

That's why I don't go to the movies that often. Bring on Transformers 18. Give me reasons to stay away.

3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was actually not bad at all. I agree with a lot of critics who have stated that the "human" characters were largely undeveloped, and that the story was a little ridiculous, but there was definitely some kind of allegory there, and I'm trying to puzzle out what it is. There are some obvious candidates for possibilities, and some other ideas that have occurred to me. It doesn't really matter if any of them are right. It was refreshing to see a movie that made me think at all, because lately the local theater has been a wasteland for that sort of thing.

Monday, September 26, 2011

When did this happen?

Today I woke up feeling old. O-L-D old. I'm pretty sure it'll go away by tomorrow, but I got up this morning with a sore neck and generally feeling like I'd been run over by a train which backed up and then ran over me again. And trains don't back up, my friends.

The puzzling (read: worrying) thing about the whole situation is that I haven't really exerted myself physically. Just the normal kind of running and gym stuff. I guess I didn't get a whole lot of sleep over the weekend, which I hadn't thought of until now. That makes me feel kind of better, that there may at least be some exacerbating circumstances and it's not just that life has now managed to beat my ass, at least temporarily. I'm going to go ahead and say no, I'm not willing to give in yet, but this is at least a scare.

I scheduled my Oral Assessment for the Department of State today. It will be December 2. So look out.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Odds and ends, odds and ends...

...lost time is not found again!

A little more than a year and a half ago (and my, how time does fly) I was at the culminating four day Field Training Exercise (FTX) at Basic Combat Training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Pretty much everyone in the platoon (the company, the battalion?) had been dreading it, because it was extremely cold and we knew we'd be sleeping in tents and doing some kind of BS all day, every day. We got the living crap smoked out of us the first night, in the sand, so that was a rocky start. Even before we got there, I was dreading it, and I was pretty sure the four days would never end.

As it happened, the four days went by pretty quickly, and when we finished, I thought, "Wow, I thought this day would never get here, and here I am, at the end of FTX." My immediate next thought was this: I'm going to die someday. Someday, I will be thinking, "Wow, I thought this day would never get here, and here I am, at the end of my life."

It was kind of an unsettling feeling.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My thoughts on the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Let me preface this by saying I'm not a homophobe, never have been, and never will be. I know plenty of gay people who are absolutely wonderful, and I know plenty of gay people who I'd rather not be around. I would say the ratio of good gays to bad gays in my life roughly approximates the ratio of good straights to bad straights. To be honest with you, I couldn't care less about a person's sexual orientation. Maybe being gay is a big part of who you are. Great. I don't care. Maybe being straight is a big part of you you are. Fantastic. Really not interested in your sex life, at all.

With that being said...

On a practical level, I personally didn't have much of a problem with Don't Ask, Don't Tell at the beginning. I just figured that since gays weren't necessarily barred from serving (and believe you me, I have a pretty accurate gaydar and I know damn well I've run across more than a few in my two years in the military) then if a man or a woman was that interested in serving the United States of America in its military, either that desire to serve trumped coming out or it didn't. If you're that patriotic and gung ho about being a soldier, maybe it shouldn't be so difficult to keep your sexuality a little extra private. But after about 30 seconds of considering that, I realized it was complete BS. The philosophical me has a pretty big problem with treating gays like second class citizens, especially if they are willing to fight and die in our nation's military. Why should straight soldiers be able to carry on ad nauseum about their sexual exploits, yet gays are compelled to keep everything about that part of their lives to themselves, or risk being discharged? Being a thinking, reasoning person, I just can't abide it.

So, philosophically I think it's a good thing that gays can now openly serve. What are the practical implications, though?

As with anything, I think it's kind of hard to tell, but here's my best guess:

Most gay people I know aren't all that flamboyant, are very respectful of others' boundaries, and are private about their sex lives. I would say most are pretty much like straight people in this regard (as with just about everything else aside from having sex with partners whose genitalia match their own). There is, however, that gay stereotype that we all know and love, and stereotypes don't just fall out of the sky. I have certainly run across my fair share of absolutely flaming homosexuals.

Most soldiers I know aren't all that macho and brutish, are thinking and reasoning people, and are more or less willing to live and let live. I would say that most are pretty much like civilians in this regard (as with just about everything else aside from having being shot at as part of their job descriptions). There is, however, that soldier stereotype that we all know and love, and stereotypes don't just fall out of the sky. I have certainly run across my fair share of absolutely moronic soldiers.

For a little while, those stereotypical soldiers and those stereotypical gays are going to have a go at each other, and I predict that there will be isolated and tragic incidents. I think it's almost unavoidable, as some gays (probably the ones that most other gays can't stand to be around) will find the temptation to prove all their critics right irresistible, and some soldiers (probably the more bi-curious ones) will find the temptation to prove they're not gay by stomping a queer irresistible. It's obvious who will be in the wrong in these cases (and lord, do I hope I'm wrong about them), but those situations could be avoided if people were smart about things.

In the long run, however, I can't imagine there will be a massive flock of gays hanging around military recruiters' offices, and I suspect that the percentage of gay soldiers in the military will be for all intents and purposes similar to what it was before Don't Ask, Don't Tell ended. This means that if there is a gay soldier in the shower with you now, he was probably there with you before, and it's unlikely he was looking at your junk with any more curiosity than the straight dude on the other side of you then or now, so chill out about it.

Things will shake out, cooler heads will prevail, and in the long run (despite the macho culture), this is going to be a non-issue in the military, and our society as a whole will have taken a quiet, but important, step forward.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Second time's a charm?

This morning, as I suspected I would based on the intelligence I'd been able to gather, I got an e-mail letting me know my results letter from the State Department's Qualification Evaluation Panel was ready to be downloaded.

Okay, let me stop here to explain something. I don't get nervous. When I was younger, I got nervous all the time. For whatever reason, though, a while back I just got over it. The first few times this came up in conversation with others, I realized how ridiculous it sounded when I told people. I'll admit that if I weren't me, I wouldn't believe myself, but facts are facts, ma'am. Anyway, I started to think about why that might be, and this is the conclusion that I reached (it's not a particularly profound conclusion): I'm really just not that afraid of death, and the chances of someone immolating me are so slim that it's not worth worrying about. So when I start to think about any situation and the worst possible outcome, anything short of immolation is not worth worrying about either. If something "bad" happens, I'll fix it or get through it, or whatever. The bottom line is that in a lot of situations in which other people would get butterflies in their stomachs, or sweaty palms, or a racing pulse, I don't. Simple as that. Someone points a flamethrower at me, all that might change.

When I saw the e-mail today, though, I got nervous.

It was really strange. My pulse immediately quickened and I felt flush. My breathing became shallow, and the world around me seemed to darken a bit. It really took me aback, and I tried to remember the last time this happened to me. And then I remembered. It was the last time I got one of these e-mails, in June of 2008.

I actually wouldn't click on the link to access the letter until I'd settled down enough to satisfy my pride. Click, click, username, password, slight pause, "Congratulations! Based on a comprehensive review of your candidate file, you have been selected to participate in the next step of the Foreign Service Officer selection process, the Oral Assessment," adrenaline dump.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy about the news, but I'd also be lying if I told you I took it for granted that I'd get an invitation. I thought it was pretty likely, since I got the invitation three years ago and I've packed quite a bit of living and experience into those three years (not to mention a DoD Top Secret clearance). But if there's anything the entire Foreign Service process taught me the first time around, it is that I can't take anything for granted. I thought I had everything sewn up way back then when I passed the Oral Assessment, and we all know how that turned out. So, I am happy that lightning is striking twice as far as the invitation goes, but I know there's still a long road ahead of me. But, if I passed it once, I can pass it again. I´ll prepare a little more this time around, go in a little more relaxed, and hopefully prove once again that I'm an excellent candidate.

Anyway, that's my big news for the day. That, and I went to the gym for the first time since early July. Which was also good.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Since last we spoke...

...not a whole hell of a lot has happened.

I transferred from my excruciatingly boring National Guard assignment doing surveillance to a much, much more interesting and fun National Guard assignment as a criminal analyst. I actually work about 20% more hours, but beyond that, life is sooooo much better than it was before. Actually, the 20% longer workweek is not really much of an issue, since I really enjoy what I do, and love my co-workers. It's actually a pleasure to go into the office Monday through Friday, and I am learning a lot and feel like I'm actually accomplishing something, so that's great.

I continue to read a lot. Last month I read 9 books on Rwanda, and though I've slowed down the pace considerably in September, I'm continuing to turn the pages. I've got another book or two to go on Rwanda, and then I'll move on to the Congo. I always suspected that Africa was a fascinating place (and, let's be honest, most places are fascinating if you have a sufficiently curious nature), but I've really gotten wrapped up in it. It's nice to learn things that are completely new to me. I feel smarter and smarter every day.

Since I absolutely suck at this blogging thing, I feel like I should pace myself a bit, so I'm about to wrap this up. I have signed up for a couple upcoming races (a 5-miler in Sunland Park next Sunday and then a 10K at the end of October). There's only so much prep-time available for the 5-miler, so I'm not really sweating that one too much. I'm setting a not-so-ambitious goal of a 37 minute finish time for that one. I am, however, going to start an honest to god six-week training program for the 10K, which is something I have never done in my life. I've run a couple 10Ks, but never actually trained for one, so to speak. I'll probably use that as some kind of motivation to blog. You know, tracking my progress and all.

Hopefully, the act of putting pen to paper (or putting my fingers to the keys, as it were) regarding the training will lead to writing here about other things too, though I am highly skeptical.