Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Snow Drought of 2011, And Other Matters

Riffing off of my most recent post, I wanted to point out something that is being covered only tangentally by the American mainstream media, namely, the snow drought that has gripped large portions of the Northern Hemisphere over the last few months. I am now in Southern California, after driving down from Portland yesterday. From Portland through the Siskiyous, and on down through the San Gabriels into Southern California, I saw snow only once – a pathetic scattering of a few light patches maybe an inch thick in shadowed places near Ashland and Medford. (Of course, there was also a bit of snow - but not much - on some mountain peaks higher than 4000 feet.)

CBS News reports that much of the United States is experiencing a lack of snow and unusually warm temperatures. And the snow drought has affected Europe, according to stories from Finland and Austria. Meanwhile, the Global South is suffering from record rainfall and heat waves. Climate change is in the air. That's anthropogenicman-made – climate change. Let's stop kidding ourselves. Yet climate change is not yet part of the adult conversation of many Americans and other inhabitants of the Global North, addicted as they are to their consumerist lifestyles.

Speaking of consumerism, it seems that the Nike Corporation, in concert with marketing experts, have created a very potent combination of basketball shoes and advertising capable of turning millions of Americans into raving idiots. The psychopharmacology of this shoe/advertising combination hasn't been fully documented, but Nike has been able to induce rioting in several American cities over the release of their doofus shoes. Nike officials issued nuanced statements of public regret concerning the riots, yet privately, they were probably quite pleased – as the executives of Wal-Mart must have been pleased by the effectiveness of advertising powerful enough to induce crowds to trample one of their employees to death a couple of years ago.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Yuletide Rumination

It's that time of year again, isn't it? (For some retail store chains it's been that time of year since before Halloween.) And along with this time of year there are many people who are torn between celebrating, ignoring or denouncing the Christmas season.

As for me, being a Christian, and someone who has for several years had a love affair with ritual and ceremony, I enjoy the thought of having a special season, culminating in a special day, to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Note, however, that I did not say that I enjoy the thought of shoving that particular celebration down the throats of any who disagree with me. To those outside the orbit of Christianity, I can only hope that my life may persuade you to think about things you would not ordinarily consider. On the other hand, there are those who claim to be solidly inside the orbit of the Faith who oppose Christmas because it's supposed to have evolved from pagan holidays, and because we don't see Christmas celebrated by the apostles in the book of Acts, yadda yadda. To such people, whether they be Plymouth brethren, Jehovah's Witnesses, subbotniks (субботники), or others, I have a deal to offer you. If you promise not to rain on my parade, I promise that I won't insult you by wishing you Merry Christmas (or Happy Birthday, for that matter).

I have to admit, however, that lately I can't really get into Christmas. Partly it's because for the last few years, I haven't been able to attend church on Christmas due to visits to relatives. But increasingly it's because in this country, the Christmas season has been so thoroughly corrupted to serve the interests of capitalism. Every aspect of the season – even those aspects that were once baldly religious – has been converted into a Pavlovian goad to make people buy stuff. (Just this week I was at Trader Joe's and on the way into the store, I heard a non-stop stream of pop-soft rock arrangements of religious carols and other seasonal music being broadcast into the parking lot, thanks to the outdoor intercom system.)

Christmas has become the complement of the 4th of July in a certain way. Independence Day is supposed to be a celebration of freedom, yet “freedom” in this country has been redefined by corporate interests into a justification of addictive behavior. Christmas on the other hand is a commercially broadcast appeal to go out and act like an addict. For those who don't choose to live like addicts, Christmas has become a dangerous time of year. Just try bicycle commuting on a daily basis any time between Thanksgiving and New Years and you will see just how dangerous, as you find your life being threatened by tantrum-throwing consumatron beasts in big SUV's. (How many people will be trampled to death or pepper-sprayed at stores betweeen now and New Year's?)

The pushers who run our society have succeeded in turning Christmas into a rather strange season. And this particular Christmas promises to be very strange indeed, as the consequences of our addictive behavior increasingly catch up to us. One of those consequences is the weather. Around here in the Portland metro area, it has been very unsettling – not in a violently demonstrative way, but in a quietly creepy, unsettling way.

For one thing, there has been almost no precipitation this month. According to the Weather Underground site, average precipitation for December should be 4.32 inches. We have received less than two tenths of an inch so far. Not one flake of snow has fallen in the Portland metro area since October. Daytime high temperatures have been exceeding historical averages – not drastically, but by enough to cause concern for those who should be paying attention. I can't predict the future, but I suspect that this may turn out to be a very dry winter. A dry winter may mean a hot summer, and an extreme fire danger, which is not typical for this area. There is a lot to burn here. We may also be introduced to something else that is not typical to this area, namely, drought.

Even with this year's La Niña weather, global average temperatures are beginning to move into dangerous, potentially irreversible territory. Atmospheric CO2 levels are now at 390.31 parts per million. Our addiction is destroying our climate, yet like many dysfunctional families whose members are addicts, our society is unwilling to talk frankly about the consequences of our addiction. This week, as I walked through my neighborhood, I was treated to a sight that I haven't seen since I lived in Southern California – houses decorated with Yuletide lights, Santa Clauses, and fake icicles – and not a speck of snow on the ground. It would be most ironic to find that some of the residents in those homes were listening to Bing Crosby singing about his dreams. This year I think I'll buy myself a weather thermometer for Christmas.

I must bring this short meditation to a close. I will shortly be driving down to So. Cal., and I have a few things to do yet. My MP3 player is loaded full of interesting stuff that I haven't yet heard. One thing I have is a LibriVox recording of The Slavery Of Our Times by Leo Tolstoy. It promises to be good listening for those who don't want to be addicts. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Capitalists and Cheapskates on Craigslist

In these days of economic turmoil, in which large employers are abandoning any sort of commitment to the well-being of their employees, it is not surprising that many people are considering self-employment. Self-employment is attractive for a couple of reasons. First, a savvy entrepreneur can become independent of fickle, unreliable employers. A successful small businessman or businesswoman can therefore earn a living while being free from the fear of “downsizing.” Second, self-employment is “controllable,” at least on paper. That is, there need not be some external agent such as as boss forcing the self-employed person to work like a dog for sixty or seventy hours a week, while barely earning a living wage. In principle, the self-employed person should be able to set his or her own hours in order to live a manageable life.

The ability to form and use networks is a key for the self-employed. Not very long ago, such networks were built out of relationships – between service providers and satisfied customers, between service providers and trusted suppliers, between friendly fellow practitioners. Such networks were, in a sense, “owned” by all the users thereof. Now, such networks have largely become electronic. Everyone advertises and talks to each other on line these days.

It is instructive to trace the migration of relationship-building from the physical world to the cyber-world. There are several good examples of this from recent history. One such example is Craigslist, which started out simply as one means out of many by which a collection of friends with similar interests networked with each other. (See Craigslist from Wikipedia.) Craig Newmark's e-mailed list of things of interest to him expanded beyond his circle of friends as friends talked with other friends, and soon his list was a big, popular thing with the potential to make a lot of money for its owner.

For things that have no monetary value, or for the sort of “garage sale” things that people sell or trade, Craigslist still has value in connecting ordinary people with ordinary people. But while in its earlier days, Craigslist was a good way for small-scale entrepreneurs to connect with each other, it no longer seems very useful to the self-employed.

The problem is the capture of Craigslist and other on-line venues originally created for ordinary people to connect with each other. Nowadays, most of the people who advertise for jobs or offer services on Craigslist seem to be large corporations, or are start-ups backed by lots of venture capital from heavyweight “investors” looking to corner the market for some service. Thus many of the things that could at one time be done by ordinary people in order to get by without a regular job have now become commodities meted out to the public via growth capitalists. Those who are trying to escape from being turned into commodities are discovering that even self-employment is now being commodified.

There are many signs of this commodification. Are you smart? Did your education give you a solid background in mathematics? Now that your office job has dried up, you may be thinking, “Hey, I could tutor high school kids in math!” But beware of trying to drum up business via Craigslist. Tutor Doctor, Complete College Prep, and a host of other big, multi-state services will eat you for lunch if you try to set up as an independent tutor. Of course, you could always surrender and go to work for one of these outfits. They typically charge around $45 an hour for tutoring – but they will pay you around $20.

Let's say that tutoring isn't your thing, but you have a strong back, work hard and like cleaning houses. I know people who put themselves through college by cleaning houses, and they worked as independent small businesspersons. They couldn't do it today – not with people like The Cleaning Authority, who have massive advertising budgets and massive budgets for placating the legal system. Do you like kids? Want to be a nanny? Beware, because there are venture capitalists trying to capture the nanny market as well. In fact, at least one firm which has advertised on Craigslist offers to meet all your domestic needs – housecleaning, tutoring and nanny services – all from one provider. How convenient.

The commodification of things which used to fall under the category of self-employment has led to other harmful outcomes. Those who do domestic work or tutoring for these firms must increasingly submit to onerous and invasive background checks and must provide extensive references, often for jobs that don't pay more than $12 an hour. (A lot can be said about the burgeoning “background check” industry, by the way. More on that in another post.) This has emboldened private parties looking for services to ask for the most outrageous things while offering the most outrageously cheapskate compensation. Just this past week I read an ad posted by someone in Lake Oswego (a rapidly evaporating enclave of people who once thought they were rich) asking for a tutor to provide after school instruction and supervision to a couple of kids. The prospective tutor was to provide an extensive list of references for this most important job – in exchange for $5 an hour plus gas money!

The commodification of self-employment has emboldened some people who are as yet untouched by our ongoing economic collapse to try to use their fellow men and women as slave labor. These people are wanna-be capitalists who think they can get something for nothing from their fellows just because times are hard. So they post ads on Craigslist for “nannies” and “tutors” who must provide multiple references and submit to a background check and fingerprinting in exchange for chump change, or for nothing more than “free room and board.”

Self-employment is a valuable and viable means of coping with hard times. But I think that those who want to make a successful go at it will need to re-learn the art of building networks of relationship outside of the Internet. Networks of personal relationships cannot be easily co-opted by capitalists and cheapskates.