Saturday, October 29, 2011

On the Web

Jeanine, Cedar, and I have an ongoing discussion about the relative virtues of paper and the internet. Although I spend a lot of time online and relish its revolutionary aspects as much as the next guy—I now have a blog, and I couldn't live without gchat, to say nothing of or streaming cross country skiing races—I tend to argue the Luddites' position most of the time: the internet is full of cranks; it's ruined all of our attention spans and contributed to the crisis in reading and writing skills on campus (the Atlantic Monthly reported that even professors now admit to having trouble finishing whole books); it's exacerbated the trend of Americans seeking solace only in their particular political communities, which has further polarized our politics; and it's led people to expect good writing and content for free and thus put quality newspapers and magazines on life support. But actually, my main beef against the online, as Janine's mom (not Jeanine's mom) calls it, is strictly personal: I find reading paper much more relaxing than reading online, especially when the latter involves cluttered screens with lots of ads, etc., which my brain equates with watching an action movie. Yes, I know the Ipad and Kindle complicate this debate, but books still smell better and magazines are still easier to read in bed.

So all this said, last night, grumpy that I got some sort of ankle bone bruise racing hard last weekend, and therefore deprived of the exercise-induced chemicals to which my body is addicted, and not especially thrilled with the prospect of editing my Minnesota-in-the-1930s book, grading, or writing more letters of recommendation, I yielded to an old-fashioned start-clicking-and-see-where-it-takes-you session. After brushing up on Lithuania's and China's prospects for the upcoming world cup (at least the Americans can still beat the Chinese at XC), I began with Cedar's blog: check it out whenever you want interesting discussion about science, the history of science, and teaching science. And for that matter, turn to Rachel's blog for everything education and education policy. Cedar's always plugging givemesomethingtoread, which led me to a great article on the personalities of octopuses. But of course, inevitably, the economic historian in me came out, and before long I was reading about one of the mother of all questions facing our democracy: the incredible growth in inequality in the United States since the 1970s. We are all swimming in data on this question (liberals suffer sometimes from actually believing in and seeking out data), but I found an amazing primer by a sociologist on the economics of the "1 percent" we are hearing so much about. This article also reviews the amazing data on Americans asked to guess the wealth distribution in the United States—and to propose their ideal wealth distribution (the latter findings must give conservative activists the cold sweats). Somehow this article led to me a column by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post that contains a wonderful few sentences. President Obama could do a lot worse than restating these words by Robinson over and over during 2012:

"We’re not characters in one of those lumbering, interminable, nonsensical Ayn Rand novels. We believe in individual initiative and the free market, but we also believe that nationhood necessarily involves a commitment to our fellow citizens, an acknowledgment that we’re engaged in a common enterprise. We believe that opportunity should be more than just an empty word."

Yet Robinson also makes a mistake with which I'm obsessed. He offers two main reasons for why we should reduce inequality: 1) the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy, who have too much power; and 2) "the real issue is what kind of nation we want to be." Yup. But exhortations about fairness and the American Dream only go so far when 90 percent plus consider themselves middle class and don't want taxes on the rich because of the "lottery effect"—they assume that one day they will reap a windfall. Missing from Robinson's analysis is a simple, Keynesian-inspired, and accurate point that Democrats have completely abandoned in the past generation: because the lower and middle classes spends a higher percentage of their income than the upper classes, reduced inequality is good for all of us, and the rich will almost make back in higher profits what they give up from higher taxes. It's about the macroeconomy, stupid, not fairness. People shop. For God's sake, would someone important on K street please get this simple idea through his or her thick skull?

By way of an Oktoberfest update, the powers that be replied to my complaints. They wrote (with my comments in brackets):

I regret that we cannot offer refunds for the event. I would like to comment that the service was quite good from the waitresses, and did not begin to expand their services until it became clear they were being badgered by our guests to serve them, with or without VIP wristbands. [Um, my friends and I don't badger. Not my fault.] We will correct this for next year, allowing waitress service only within a dedicated VIP section. As far as your other concerns, we decided against a strictly VIP section so that a community feeling would be had by all. Hence no designated area. [1) If we wanted community with the masses, we would not have signed up for VIP tickets. 2) The webpage clearly promised us a "VIP tent." This last bit is grounds for a lawsuit ...] I will admit, the bathroom situation was not being handled correctly by out volunteers. However, this was never pointed out to me at the event or i would have handled it directly then. As for a $17 refund, the mugs alone cost the event nearly $10 each. [Might want to seek out a new glass vendor, dude.] We have donated all of our remaining proceeds from the event to charity, and are currently not giving refunds. I'm sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you.

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