Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fill in the blank: Americans are living in the land of the____. My answer: guns

What comes first to mind when you think of the United States?

High standard of living? Beacon of representational democracy? The melting pot? Consumer society?  Fast food and blockbuster movies?

Land of the free? Home of the brave?

Not me.

When I think of the United States, the first image that comes to my mind is a gun.

We are a society awash in weaponry with an economy in large part based on weaponry.

Let’s start with the fact that we sell three quarters of all the arms exported around the world. That means of every dollar’s worth of bombs, tanks, jet fighters, ammo and machine guns sold around the world, 75 cents of it goes to a U.S. company. 

Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, the Congo and Israel are among the many countries receiving arms from the Unites States, often purchased with funds borrowed from the U.S. government.

It’s a good thing the mainstream media doesn’t give much attention to the harm that’s done from the guns we sell abroad. Based on the space given in the media recently to condemning Russia for giving or selling to Ukraine rebels a rocket that the rebels used to down a commercial jetliner, coverage of the people killed with U.S. weaponry would crowd out all other news every day of the week.

At more than $660 billion a year, we dedicate more money to military spending than the next nine largest military spenders combined. We spend more than three times as much as number two on the list, China, even though the population of China is more than four times what ours is.  Let’s do the math: The autocratic Chinese spend about $139 per person per year on their military. The United States spends about $2,032 per person.  (I’m using 2013 figures from the Stockholm International Peace Institute, which I first found in a Wikipedia article).

The United States thus bears the major responsibility for the flood of weapons that help national and regional problems turn violent all over the world.

The violence doesn’t stop at our borders. Our militarism abroad runs parallel to our dedication to guns at home. The United States has the largest number of privately held guns per capita of any nation, almost one per person. Just as with military spending and weapons exports, our private ownership of guns far surpasses that of any other country in the world. We have 97 private guns per 100 people; no other nation has as many as 60 guns per 100 people.

More guns lead to more deaths and injuries from gunfire in the United States than in any other industrialized countries. Only countries at war see more of their people killed and injured by guns than the United States does.

It seems as if we worship guns and gun ownership. State legislatures and dubious court decisions have loosened gun control laws over the past two decades. After every bloody mass murder, more states pass laws to make it easier to own and carry a gun than toughen gun laws. Every week, the media covers protests of gun owners who think their rights have been squeezed or want to assert new rights to tote guns: sometimes they march into a fast food joint, sometimes on a university campus.  Very few politicians—and virtually none in the South—will come out against gun control for fear that the gun lobby will pour money into the opponent’s campaign.

The funny thing is, our reverence for the weapon both inside and outside the boundaries of our country plays to a stridently vocal minority. Only about 40% of the population has a gun in the home. Many surveys show that the number of gun owners is falling—but that each owner has more guns in his or her possession.  Our gun sales abroad primarily benefit the gun-makers, who are delighted to get the subsidies that U.S. loans to support arms sales represent.

What we have then is a society dedicated to guns and an economy in which making and selling guns play an outsized role.   Instead of singing “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we might more accurately end the “Star Spangled Banner” with “the land of the gun…and the home of the gun sale.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A TV commercial subtly suggests cannibalism, another makes fun of those with disabilities

By Marc Jampole

Two commercials currently on TV are making me—and probably most other viewers—squirm with discomfort. Both are meant to be funny, but once explained, the logic behind the humor may turn stomachs.

The first is a spot for Lay’s potato chips that opens with an animated version of the classic Mr. Potato toy getting home from work. He can’t find his wife anywhere. He hear a strange crackle and then another. He follows the sounds until he sees his wife hiding in a room with a bag of Lay’s potato chips, munching away. She is suitably embarrassed at what amounts to an act of cannibalism, but the commercial explains that the chips are so delicious that they are irresistible. The last shot shows Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head snacking on the chips, both with a look of mischievous glee on their face—they know they are doing a naughty thing, but it just doesn’t matter.

The scene is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece, “Weekend,” at the end of which the main female character sucks on a bone from a stew prepared by the revolutionary who has forcibly made her his concubine. “What is it we’re eating?” she asks, to which the punky gangster answers, “Your husband.” She has the last line of the movie: “Not bad…” and then keeps gnawing on the bone.

Eating another being of your own species is generally considered to be an abomination. Although the Potato Heads are not humans, they are stand-ins for humans with human emotions and aspirations, just like the various mice, ducks, rabbits, dogs, foxes, lions and other animals we have anthropomorphized since the beginning of recorded history. From Aesop and Wu Cheng’en to Orwell and Disney, authors have frequently used animals as stand-ins for humans in fairy tales, satires and children’s literature.

So when Mrs. Potato Head eats a potato, it’s an overt representation of cannibalism—humans eating other humans. 

The advertiser is trying to make fun of transgression, to diminish the guilt that many on a diet or watching their weight might feel in eating potato chips, which after all, are nutritionally worthless.  But behind the jokiness of a potato eating a potato chip stands more than the idea that it’s okay for humans to eat them. The implication in having a potato playing at human eating other potatoes is that we are allowed to do anything transgressive, even cannibalism—everything is okay, as long as it leads to our own pleasure.  The end-game of such thinking is that our sole moral compass should be our own desires.

Thus the Lay’s Potato Head commercial expresses an extreme form of the politics of selfishness, the Reaganistic dictate that everyone should be allowed to pursue his or her own best interests without the constraint of society. Like the image of the vampire living on the blood of humans or of the “Purge” series of movies in which people are allowed any violent action one night a year, the Potato Head family eating other potatoes that have first been dried, processed, bathed in chemicals, extruded and baked symbolizes and justifies what the 1% continues to do to the rest of the population.  

And it’s a happy message, too!  We don’t get the sense that it’s a “dog-eat-dog world in which you have to eat or be eaten.” No, Lay’s presents the gentle Reagan version: you can do anything you like to fill your selfish desires (no matter whom it hurts).

The kooky image of potatoes as cannibals may be funny, but I can’t imagine anyone is laughing at the Direct TV series of commercials that present human beings as string puppets who trip over furniture and get caught in ceiling fans.

To sell the fact that Direct TV—a satellite television service—can operate without wires, these commercials start by depicting a normal-looking character complaining about wires in the entertainment system or expressing delight that he has Direct TV and therefore can go wireless. At this point in the several versions of the spot I have seen, we are introduced to another member of the family who is a string puppet. As the normal character stammers about how wireless is okay for people but not when it comes to TV, the string puppet bounces around, hands and fingers flapping, shoulders hunching together and legs and knees dangling, until it trips or gets hung up in the fan or something that is supposed to be funny happens. But it’s only funny if one enjoys the cruel humor of slapstick and if one forgets that the stringed puppet is supposed to be part of the family—in other words a real human being with a challenging disability.

Direct TV has a long history of commercials that make fun of its audience, such as the idiot who fails to inherit a mansion, yacht and major stock portfolio but cries for glee because his rich deceased relative has willed him the Direct TV package. But the string people in these new Direct TV spots are not buffoons, not stupid, not venial, not pompous or supercilious. No, the trait that the spot exploits for humor is that they are disabled.

The commercial tries to extract humor out of mocking people with disabilities. No wonder everyone with whom I have watched this spot has turned away with a disgusted expression.

Nothing connects these two commercials except the bad taste which led to their conception and broadcast.  The Direct TV commercial has no political or social subtext to it—it’s a juvenile effort to make a joke at the expense of people with physical challenges. The Mr. Potato Head cannibalism commercial, however, seems to offer a fable about the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, or in this case—those who eat and those who are eaten. The fabulist is interested in selling products and making consumers feel good about the process of consumption, even when it is transgressive.  Some may call it an overturning of traditional morality. I call it business as usual in a post-industrial consumer society. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

George Mason professor tries to play Washington Generals to Thomas Piketty’s Harlem Globetrotters

By Marc Jampole

Another transparently deceptive article on wealth inequality by George Mason economics professor Tyler Cowen has me wondering if Cowen has decided to play Washington Generals to Thomas Piketty’s Harlem Globetrotters.

The Harlem Globetrotters is an exhibition basketball team known for its entertaining feats of dribbling, passing and scoring, often to a catchy version of the 1920’s jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The Globetrotters have rarely lost, thanks to the fact that they usually play the Washington Generals, an exhibition team put together for the sole purpose of serving the Globetrotters’ on-court foil.

Over the past several months, Cowen has published a number of articles that have tried to refute the main premise of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which is that inequality of wealth and income is growing in the world. His obviously fallacious reasoning makes me wonder if Cowen decided to play Washington General as his contribution to disseminating Piketty’s important theories. Just as the Generals’ weak defense have allowed such stars as Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal to wow spectators, so Cowen’s weak and typically devious arguments have made Piketty look good (as if the spot-on and factually-scrupulous Piketty needed any help!) 

First Cowen made a feeble attempt in Foreign Affairs to prove that wealth doesn’t tend to concentrate.  Instead of looking at the class of the wealthy, Cowen zeroed in on wealthy individuals, pointing out that old fortunes like the Rockefellers and the Astors get diluted over time. If he had instead looked at the wealthy as a class, Cowen would see that Piketty is right to conclude that inequality has increased because the numbers say it.  Call this flaw in reasoning a failure to think in terms of class.  

Cowen is at it again in a Sunday New York Times business article in which he claims that even though inequality is rising in many countries, it is easing globally. Cowen presents no statistics to prove the point, but gives a bunch of reasons why it must be true. Most of his reasons turn out to be trends that do act against greater inequality, but do not change the overall flow of wealth away from the poor and middle class and to the wealthy.  Yes, Cowen is right to say that international trade has improved the standard of living in developing countries, but the fact that there are more middle class people in China and fewer in the United States does not address the question of whether inequality is growing or not. 

In Capital in the 21st Century, Piketty provides statistics that demonstrate that the wealthiest are grabbing a greater share of the wealth and income pie than they used to in every single country of the world.  The most extreme difference in wealth and income between the top one percent and everyone else is currently in the United States. So the fact that there has been some movement up the economic ladder for some people in some non-western countries does not mitigate the overall picture of growing inequality in the world.

Cowen makes the same logical flaw in his New York Times piece as he does in the Foreign Affairs article: instead of looking at the totality of the statistics he looks at individual subsets from which he draws a generalized conclusion. In a metaphorical sense, Cowen’s reasoning is similar to a 2-3 zone defense with slow guards, which makes a basketball team vulnerable to both the three-point shot and drives to the basket. In other words, the careful reader or anyone who has read Piketty’s book observes Cowen trip himself up with his own words.

But the mainstream media loves deceptive arguments and outrageous statements if they support the free market or advocate against higher taxes. That explains why his mostly nonsense articles have found favor in The New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Newsweek, Wilson Quarterly, Foreign Affairs and New York Times.  In fact, three years ago Business Week declared Cowen to be “America’s hottest economist.” That’s kind of like the newsletter of the corporation that owns the Washington Generals declaring the team the “best professional basketball team” of the century.

Except, of course, for all the others.