Friday, June 15, 2012

OMG! sinks to new low in anti-intellectualism: celebs who never graduated from high school

by Marc Jampole

OMG!, Yahoo!’s online celebrity magazine, has commemorated the fact that third-rate actor Mark Wahlberg finally earned his G.E.D. by giving us a list of 11actors and models who never finished high school.   

The photo-story consists of a list that unfolds over 11 web pages (to make it easier for the reader to see all the ads). Each web page tells a celebrity’s “I quit high school” story. 

The tease to the story on Yahoo!’s home page is unethically misleading: “This list shows you don't need a diploma to make millions in show business.”  

The statement and the list itself play a deceptive fraud on readers, many of whom are impressionable teens and pre-teens to whom the celebrity mongers are selling a bill of goods about what constitutes success and value. While we can find celebrities and business titans, and even scientists who have not finished high school or college, they are rare and have become rarer over the last few decades.  Writing “You don’t need a diploma…” has the same ring of truth to it as “It will probably snow in January in Rochester,” while in fact the successful person without a high school diploma is a rarity.     

To drive home the deception in the article, I want to take a look at this odious list of celebs without diplomas from three perspectives:

1.      The list itself: Of the 11 celebs without diplomas, 4 come from families that are quite wealthy and well-connected, part of the 1%. Most people can’t ask mommy who is “in the biz” to call a business associate or pull a favor, so they might be well-served to get the diploma and the additional training that goes with it.
2.      The celeb lists they don’t give: Wikipedia lists 86 television and film actors that went to Yale, 68 who went to Harvard and 118 who went to UCLA.  That’s only three colleges and it only includes film and television.  If I had to bet on either a college graduate or a high school dropout making it in Hollywood or on Broadway, I’d go with the kid with more training, and the numbers agree with me.
3.      The list of non-celebs without high school diplomas: For every person who becomes a famous celebrity, there are thousands who try and fail.  

The article never points out the hard cold facts of economic failure for virtually anyone with no education or certification. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average wage of a high school dropout is less than $20,000 a year. A high school graduate makes on average more than $27,000 a year. Someone with an associate degree makes about $36,000 and someone with a 4-year degree makes almost $47,000 a year on average. Kids with dreams of fame who don’t quite make it can always fall back on their education—but only if they have one.

And many kids have dreams of fame. There are at least a thousand colleges offering degrees in performing arts that graduate students every year, many of whom want to work in show business. Every city has at least one modeling school and we all know how many college teams there are for every major sport.  Even for those with talent and drive, the chance of celebrity success is slight.

The ideological subtext behind the article is an extreme form of anti-intellectualism, the premise that one doesn’t really need an education to succeed.  The news media feeds us this nonsense with some frequency, but the OMG! article is especially obnoxious because it suggests that kids won’t suffer if they drop out of high school and pursue stardom.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Opponents to minimum wage use illogical assumptions and imaginary anecdotes as their arguments

By Marc Jampole

I have rarely received as negative a reaction as when I lambasted Professor Thomas Sowell the other day for, among other things, his opposition to the minimum wage—any minimum wage. The number of negative comments rivaled what I received when I said that no comic book could be a mature work of art, as a novel or poem can.

In the case of the supporters of Marvel: The Avengers, who called me on my overly general statement about comic books, I admitted I went too far in a retraction a few days later.

But all I have to offer anyone who is opposed to a minimum wage is scorn and contempt. 

Their arguments are self-serving and typically built on imaginary anecdotes, as imaginary as Reagan’s welfare queens driving Cadillacs or Santorum’s poor people emotionally crippled by the worst kind of addiction, food stamp dependency.

Let’s start with the imaginary business owner who can’t afford to hire someone to sweep the floors at $7.25 an hour, so he does it himself or the floors stay dirty. For years, whenever anyone proposed raising the minimum wage, critics have painted a grim future of thousands of business owners sweeping floors or living with filth. The floor-sweeping business owner has taken its place as one of the classic figures of right-wing economic mythology.  The first time I heard this metaphor used as the primary argument to oppose the minimum wage was when I was in college making a minimum wage of $1.25 an hour from a part-time job on a Sear’s shipping dock.

My question, then and ever since, is how valuable is the time of the owner if he can afford to sweep the floors him/herself instead of looking at the books, coaching employees, visiting clients or supervising the sales floor, developing growth plans, negotiating with suppliers, serving on boards where he can spread good will about the company in the community, or any of the other high level jobs entailed in running any successful business?   In many businesses such as mine, when a highly ranked employee works an hour, he or she can create dozens and sometimes hundreds of hours of work for other employees. What owner would be foolish enough to waste time sweeping floors instead of creating this additional work?  And aren’t there usually other employees who could sweep those floors, freeing the boss to perform tasks more central to making money?

As to the case of a potential business that depends on a lot of employees but can only make a profit if these employees are paid $4 or $5 an hour—maybe the owner has to take less profit or raise prices; in other words: change the business model.

The idea behind the imaginary owner-sweeper is silly. No well-run business hires additional employees if it hasn’t first figured out how they will make money off of them, unless it’s a relative or a friend and the company is doing very well. 

There are many factors that determine the current market for every position, including marketplace conditions, the presence of a union at the company or in the industry and the imputed value of the skill base and experience of the employee (which means that in this society, companies are willing to pay more for senior sales executives than for entry-level welders). All the minimum wage does is to put a floor on the minimum value of all jobs, as a protection of individual workers.

Which brings us to the other imaginary anecdote, another classic: the young kid struggling to get out of poverty who just needs a chance, but can’t get it because the minimum wage prevents anyone from hiring him. There is no doubt that there are any number of desperate people who would work for less than the current minimum wage, including lots of illegal aliens and teenagers. And when a recession hits, their numbers proliferate.

Yes, out of desperation, these people will work for anything. But that doesn’t make it right. The minimum wage is society’s way of saying that every person is entitled to a minimum amount of compensation (and dignity) when they exchange their work for money.

Which brings us to the underlying economic theory behind opponents of the minimum wage, including Professor Sowell, a premise so abstract that the right-wing has yet to create an imaginary person to embody its meaning: the minimum wage distorts the marketplace.

Damn right it does, and that’s a good thing. It’s supposed to distort the market place. Here are some other distortions of the marketplace:

·         Using standard weights and measures
·         Laws concerning the enforcement of contracts
·         Regulations to ensure the safety of food products
·         State certifications before people can practice medicine or law or teach children

In fact, every rule or custom of society distorts the absolute free market. Some distortions are good, such as the use of standard weights and measures. Some are obviously bad, such as prohibition of alcohol in the first part of the 20th century.

Those who oppose something just because it distorts the marketplace don’t really oppose marketplace distortions, just the ones that hurt their interests or the interests of those who pay their salaries. The minimum wage raises the wages not just of minimum-wage employees but of all others, and so distorts by redistributing wealth from business owners to their employees.  When I look at economic realities—for example, the fact that most of the wealthy and near wealthy run, own or manage businesses and the fact that we have seen a widening split between what the wealthy make and own and what everyone else makes and owns—when I see these facts, I’m not so worried about the marketplace distortion that occurs because of the minimum wage. Even though I own a business, I would be delighted to see the marketplace distortion that would result if the minimum wage were raised to $10 or even $15.  

That distortion, by the way, is called economic equity.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Writer’s dream of retirement assumes that no one likes city living

By Marc Jampole

I was going to ignore the silly article by Tom Sightings titled Dreams of the Ideal Retirement Home in the latest U.S. News & World Report, but it hasn’t left the home and news pages of the major Internet news portals since it was first posted last Wednesday. With such media penetration, I feel as if I have to warn readers that the article is little more than propaganda against city life.

Sightings’ musings on retirement resemble all the real estate lists that appear in standard general news stalwarts like US. News, Forbes, Bloomberg News, the Associated Press and Reuters. The underlying ideological point of all these lists is to advocate for a non-urban life style, one dependent on cars and malls and in which the thought of going to a museum or serious play never crosses the mind, because we’re all so busy playing golf and camping out. (See OpEdge on April 11, 2012;  September 23, 2011; and March 9, 2010, for example.)

Sightings doesn’t create a list. Instead his article does a little collective wishing out loud for his readers. His article flits from one retirement idyll to another, including:

·         In the country
·         In a small house with a small yard in a small town (Sightings’ own retirement dream)
·         Beachfront, or at least near the sea
·         Golf communities
·         A home with access to parks
·         University towns (he mentions Newark DE, Athens GA and Tempe AZ).

He completes his musings with a discussion of some non-geographic attributes—age of home, size of home, proximity to an interstate or airport.

Nothing about living in the exciting cities of Manhattan, downtown Chicago or Boston, Washington or Philadelphia, with their museums, live theatre, top musical performances of all types, experimental arts, major libraries and non-chain restaurants and retail establishments.

Nothing about living in the many quaint and bustling neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, Seattle, Atlanta, New Orleans (those that are left) or Milwaukee.

It’s not just city life that the author ignores.  He also ignores those parameters of the decision on “where to live when retired” in which urban life excels, such as:

·         Extensive and dependable mass transit
·         Major healthcare facilities
·         Cultural activities
·         Infrastructure of services and social opportunities for senior citizens

What Sightings does is assume the superiority of the suburbs and rural areas, both when working and in retirement. 

Why this hate of the city? It’s a confluence of two trends, one deeply seated in American history and one a phenomenon originating the post-World War II era. The long-term trend is American distrust of “the other”—the immigrant, the foreigner, those of different color. Cities thrive on diversity, which by its nature forges all “others” into a mosaic of “all of us, each different” (that I personally find beautiful).

The other trend—in operation only since about 1945—is the synched messages of car companies, real estate developers and retail chains about the blandishments of suburban living: buy this new house, depend on cars and shop only in recognizable places that look like what you see everywhere else.

No one can say if Sightings buys into the ideology and doesn’t know that his piece is little more than propaganda against cities. But he does know that he’s fooling the readers about something: The article begins with his pulling weeds and dreaming of retirement, and ends with a collective sigh for all of us (including himself) who will have to get through another weekend of taking care of the yard. But the biography that follows the article mentions that he is already retired. He deceives us by saying in the article that he is dreaming of attaining a condition that he is already in.  The deception is purely rhetorical (as the bio admits the truth), but unnecessary. Sightings could have written the same article without the personalization.