On One Hand

October 30, 2009

Newsflash: Blue Collar People Work Just as Hard as Bankers

Filed under: opinion,social justice — ononehand @ 3:22 am
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Obama’s message of “change” has swept America – Wall Street traders are now society’s welfare collectors, and for the first time in our lives it’s “uncool” to be a member of the investing class. Fivethirtyeight.com creator Nate Silver posted a defense of bankers describing a personal friend of his who worked on Wall Street, but used a pseudonym to save his friend embarrassment.

People used to be ashamed of working at 7-11 or Walgreens, but now its the AIG executives who blush to mention what they do. I admit I get a twisted pleasure out of the role reversal.

It’s not that rich people or their character offends me. I, like most Americans, grew up expecting that someday I’d be in the upper ten percent of earners. I’ve encouraged friends and family to seek better-paying jobs when they got the chance. I admire skyscrapers, symbols of accumulated power and corporatism. I don’t hold anything against successful people, say Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates, for creating things of value and profiting from that.

What embitters me – this is my biggest beef with the upper-classes and economic conservatives – lies in the presumptions their world makes about the rest of us. Or rather, the presumptions that all of us make about the stratification of society. The cultural mythology is that upper middle class and rich people got to where they are because they worked harder than everyone else, or that poor people are poor because they did not work as hard.

It’s more than a presumption – it’s a lie, because I know most people secretly know better.

I’ve had friends who are business majors, marketing majors, business-engineers and law school aspirants. As an undergraduate I had many, many peers who grew up wealthier than I could imagine being. I’ve lived with some as roommates, known some as boyfriends, met many as acquaintances and known others as close friends.

There’s a wink-wink nod-nod paradigm in upper-class youth culture, one that its members never even made secret – that the world is theirs if they want it. They know, and brag, about the power their parents have, and how they’re virtually guaranteed to get a good job unless they’re grossly incompetent. I’ve heard business majors talk about their internships, how they made $25 an hour in a position they didn’t even have to interview for, and all they have to do is type numbers into a spreadsheet a few hours a day and still be paid for full days when they left three hours early. They brag about how much they make for so little work or how easy their lives are. All because their dads knew somebody. All because of their trust funds. All because they grew up with private tutors who cultivated them for Ivy League graduate schools and taught them the language of power.

I know there are moneyed people who do work hard – who spend 14 hours a day in the office, who push themselves to the limit to get the promotion, who use cocaine or adderall just to stay awake and alert enough to get farther ahead in that world. But the fact is that it’s quite motivating to know that every extra mile you run is almost guaranteed to pay off with a truckload of money.

For a low-income person, taking the extra second job often means going from $300 a week to $450 a week in earnings. And when you can either make the lower sum, struggle and eventually have to collect welfare or declare bankruptcy, or alternately, work harder making $450, struggle and still be seen as a “low-class” person all your life, I’m sure you often find yourself wondering why bother avoiding food stamps or bankruptcy.

Lets be honest: you and I who are middle class and above – not even rich, just middle class – we didn’t go to college in the “spirit of hard work.” We went to college to work less hard in life, to ensure that we’ll get a moderate, comfortable salary someday for a moderate, comfortable amount of effort. After that, the only direction we have to go is up. Having a degree guarantees us that we’re worth $25 an hour instead of $9.

Most of us who went to “good colleges” (myself included) got a lot of help from our parents. We knew we could get same degree from a less-expensive college but went to the one we did because, though the only main difference is that it costs more money, it is more reputable so will ultimately put is in a place of privilege. We knew our parents cover what we couldn’t pay for, help with groceries from time to time, buy our books, or if we couldn’t make rent, they’d float us a loan so we don’t have to pawn our stereos.

My parents were slightly stricter about what they’d help with than most at their income level. Their deal was, if you work part time, and get good grades at school, we’ll cover the rest. I worked an average of fifteen hours a week through college. I lived cheap – I always found the lowest rent in town and there were days I ate nothing but a jar of peanut butter – but I never needed any kind of loan. And I never feared eviction or needed the government’s help, because of my parents.

People of the middle class knew, from the time we were children, that all we had to do was make a decent effort to complete the schoolwork put in front of us, and we’d get into a respected school and coast comfortably into white-collar jobs that pay at least the same as what our parents made. We can even comfortably coast a higher income if we choose the right profession. We’ll rarely spend more than 8 hours a day at school or work. We’ll have weekends off. We can still get drunk on Friday and sleep in on Sunday. We’ll never be up till 4am working the night shift – unless that’s our choice. If we save wisely, we’ll live comfortably and have enough money to retire comfortably.

But we’ll still entertain the myth that we “worked hard” to be middle class.

The hardest work I’ve ever done in my life was canvassing door to door with the Service Employees Union, alongside low-income people who said it was the easiest job they’d ever had. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I was personally invested in being a part of history, and winning the election, but beyond that, it was thankless; people aren’t wowed by you saying you were a canvasser, it doesn’t set you up for a solid career, it’s temporary, and people I saw in the field cussed at me and slammed doors in my face.

The easiest work I’ve ever done was writing for a local newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 – a job I could be proud of. The internship was unpaid, and I spent a lot of hours and plowed through a lot of beginner’s anxiety, true. But it was easy because I knew that every word I typed was going to be read by thousands of people. Knowing your work is meaningful is a huge motivator. I didn’t have to apply for the internship – my school made a phone call and scooted me in just because I was a Journalism major there.

Flipping burgers at McDonals, being in doubt that you’ll ever move beyond that, is not so rewarding. I’ve worked in fast food before. It’s a lot harder to stay on task, and it’s a lot harder to live on such a meager wage. Your aspiration: become manager? Maybe, but there are seven people at your level and only one can get that job. You dread going to work each day, and never feel proud to be there. I can only imagine still doing that at the age of 23 – working 40 hours a week with no benefits and irregular shifts that absolutely suck, thinking, if I were more wealthy I’d be binge drinking on weekends – where did my youth go? Other people get to enjoy their 20s. The young white teenager who works at Wendys knows he’s moving on, but the unspoken knowledge is that his coworkers still working there at age 40 aren’t going anywhere.

I know that many low-income people work hard. Mearly showing up to work under such depressing circumstances is hard. The education system fails them – it’s all aimed at the college-bound student, but doesn’t always teach you simple things like the necessity of savings accounts and how to write a resume. It doesn’t teach you the language of power. It doesn’t feed you anti-depression pills when you get discouraged the way the rich kids get those things. It doesn’t teach you hope and the art of self-promotion.

In other ways poor people fail simply because they aren’t part of the networking chummy I-worked-with-your-father culture that lands you good jobs. We know there’s a such thing as class prejudice, we assume upper-class people are genetically more intelligent, we assume having money says good things about you (why do we expect people to wear nice clothes to an interview?) and knowing somebody comes from a wealthy background means they have to do just a little less to prove themselves.

That’s my beef with the “Country Club Republican,” full of people who genuinely believe their big homes or fancy cars are true status symbols; an attitude that is even harder for me to cope with than those of socially-conservative Evangelicals. I truly honor the capitalistic idea that if you have something people want, and they’re willing to pay it, you’re entitled to your earnings. And I’m open to pragmatic arguments about the impact of the corporate tax rates, or working the tax code so that the carrots and sticks are in the right place to make it run smoothly. Hell, I’m even open to corporate bailouts if they’re necessary to avoid major economic collapse.

But do I beleive the upper class is a bastion of brilliant talent? Are they born with outrageous IQs or gifts indispensible to our world? Do they glow like rising suns, successful because of outstanding character, sweat and tears? Do they really back up the sense of superiority and giftedness I sense coming from that direction?

Not in your life.

October 21, 2009

How Life Transforms the Earth: Evolution on a Global Scale

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 12:59 pm
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I started thinking about this when I read an MSNBC article, cited below, about the way the evolution of blooming plants allowed the Amazon Rainforest to expand significantly in size because their leaves give off more humidity than other plants. The concept that scientists touched on is much broader than the vasculation of angiosperms – that living things change climate, and that evolution sparks changes that continuously expand the biosphere by creating a reciprocal relationship between organisms and their environment.

Most of us are familiar with the concepts that drive evolution and adaptability – that species with traits or features that allow them to thrive do thrive, populating the landscape, while species with traits that are not as well-adapted remain rare or go extinct. That’s why almost all the organisms we see in the wild are tough and well-adapted evolutionary “winners,” and while species come and go, life itself is nearly impossible to kill off.

But equally importantly, life has a tendency to bring other life with it; a successful new species creates a food source and shelter for other species to evolve or move in. Over billions of years, the net effect of this has been to expand the biosphere to cover the entire planet with increasing numbers of living things.

In the beginning of life on Earth, a few single-celled organisms stuck to the gentle shores of balmy, salty seas, while the rest of the planet was as barren and desolate as Mars or the Moon. The oceans filled with microorganisms first, aided by the mobility that sea currents provide but still few and far between. Early photosynthetic bacteria began to colonize into Stromatolites, forming grainy pillows of mud and sediment that dotted tropical coastal areas and are still visible today in some places, both in active growth and ancient fossils.


Left: Stromatolytes. Right: Red moss, a primitive, rootless plant that requires humid conditions.

When plants adapted ways of storing water or sucking it out of damp soil, significant numbers of species were able to move out of semi-submerged swamps and live on hills and plains. Early plants stayed within a few miles of the coast, places that are now known as marshes, cloud forests and coastal rainforest. But over time a few pioneers crept out onto continental interiors, and gradually evolved to larger sizes, for the first time making visual impact on the landscape on a global scale.

It was only recently in the timeline of life that an observer from space would see continents turn green with forests and grasslands. Deserts were quite barren until plants developed advanced strategies for storing water, allowing rocky, sandy places like the Mojave Desert to become littered with cactus and Joshua trees, dry grasses and woody shrubs with massive underground root systems. The establishment of consistent greenery, even if not as lush as a forest, allowed herbivores to move in, followed by predatory species, fungi, bacteria and other scavengers.

If you look at the kinds of plants that exist in Earth’s most difficult environments, you find that they are dominated by angiosperms – blooming plants – which emerged during the time of the dinosaurs and are recent introductions to Earth’s biosphere. It is hard to imagine ferns and cycads – Earth’s early plants with weak root systems and a strong preference for humid climates – growing comfortably in the desert or the arctic. Grass, a type of angiosperm and very recent development in the plant kingdom, was absent until about the time that dinosaurs went extinct, and now dominates semi-arid and arid areas. Before 65 million years ago, landscapes now covered in grass would be filled, instead, with caked dirt and only occasional greenery.

Grass changed the environment not only by introducing a food source for animals, but by taming it with extensive root systems. Grass has a dramatic, Earth-changing effect of controlling erosion, turning sand dunes into hills and muddy river banks into pastures. Dead grass decays and fertilizes sandy soil with water-absorbent organic material, which makes the land fertile. The systemic change of the landscape allows other drought-tolerant trees to begin growing, benefiting even some of the species that are less well-acclimated to the landscapes grass species take over.


Left: Grass taming a sandy area. Right: Grass dominating a semi-arid climate

Other angiosperms formed symbiotic relationships with bacteria in their roots to turn Nitrogen in the air into usable fertilizer. This is known to help other surrounding plants thrive, and has been used by farmers to benefit crops. The concept of crop rotation takes advantage of one species’ assistance of another, using nitrogen-fixing plants like alfalfa or clover to enrich soil for grass crops like wheat or corn.

A recent study has shown that blooming plants also humidified entire regions to make continental rainforests possible. Angiosperms, with advanced root and circulatory systems, are so good at finding water and pumping it into themselves that evaporation from their leaves humidified the air and generated new rains. Those rains invited millions of species to move in. Ferns have about a fifth of the leaf veins that blooming plants like ficus trees and avocados have, so weren’t able to humidify the air in the same way. But when ferns adapted the ability to grow in shady places beneath trees or cling to rainforest tree trunks themselves, they benefited greatly from the expanding biosphere, and developed their own ways to contribute to it. Again, it was a new evolutionary development that allowed places like the Amazon Rainforest to cover half a continent with green.


Clouds form over the Amazon Rainforest. Water evaporates from tree leaves, facilitating
cloud formation, at a faster rate than even the warm ocean does.

Even what we see as “primitive” kinds of species continue to evolve. Mosses don’t have roots or the ability to store water, but by developing the ability to survive freezing, they were able to begin growing on mountain tops and arctic tundra between rocks and logs, provided the area is moist with melting snow. Moss is known to be a pioneer species itself since it does not need soil, but produces soil when it dies and decays, allowing other plants to grow.

The way a species can make room for other species to thrive – as well as our understanding of it – is increasingly complex. Also increasing is the hostility of environments that diverse ecosystems cover with life. There is life beneath the ice in Antarctic, in abandoned nuclear reactors, and covering undersea volcanic vents. Animal species have long been learning to thrive in human environments, turning urban parks and sewers into thriving ecosystems.

If we see human beings as part of this system, greenhouses and irrigated farms are examples of one life form improving things for another. When there’s snow on the ground outside, the potted plants in my bedroom are certainly glad to have their human-built, adapted environment. Sure, ecology leaves room for the idea that one species can royally screw up an ecosystem for many others – even driving itself to extinction by overpopulating itself or overtaxing its food source – and doesn’t suggest that every species’ impact on the environment is “good.” (Evolution doesn’t see things in terms of “good” or “bad,” just working and not working.)

But humans are part of the principle nonetheless; we bring water to deserts and pass through tunnels blasted through solid rock. If we are able to seed Earth’s life on artificial space stations, the moon, or even other planets, isn’t this, too, an example of Earthly life facilitating its own expansion and filling inhospitable areas?

Expansion and adaptation will continue with or without human influence. It is easy to predict that evolutionary trends that have led to today’s green planet will only continue into the future. If a complex plant evolved to grow in ice or snow, it would turn huge tracts of arctic land into shrubland. As more desert species evolve, a landscape that gets only five inches of rain a year doesn’t seem so dry. Maybe the brown areas on the Earth we see in satellite images will be filled with shades of green in 50 million years.

Perhaps scientists will someday be able to use this concept to determine how long life has existed on a planet as humans begin to explore space. A planet that seems hospitable but only has life forms growing in specific areas is new, and a planet utterly covered in organisms has been experiencing the processes of life for billions and billions of years. Either way, it is obvious that this planet is experiencing somewhat of an unlimited expansion of its own, and that the natural world has its own way of unconsciously creating and organizing itself towards growth.

October 14, 2009

GOP history is Highlighted by Things that Republicans Now Hate, says GOP.com

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:39 pm
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The Republican Party’s new website, GOP.com, has made a long list of Republican accomplishments beginning in 1860 with building the railroads and freeing the slaves. It seems that the GOP has a tawdry past of being overrun by liberal agendas, including major public works projects, electing diverse people to public office, embracing diversity and launching civil rights reforms, which are today all liberal policy points. GOP accomplishments include:

Establishing the Trans Continental Railroad, though it is Barack Obama who currently wants to launch an interstate high-speed rail system, and Republicans routinely oppose funding public transportation.

Passing the Land-Grant College Act to build a nationwide system of affordable public universities, which began the Republican Party’s long love-affair with er, resentment of uh, lets say mixed feelings about academia.

Electing the first Mexican-born governor in California; (well, Republicans now want to restrict immigration, but, you know.)

Passing the 14th Amendment; “The original purpose of the 14th Amendment was to defend African-Americans from their Democrat oppressors in the post-Civil War South” says GOP.com. See, they started it.

Beginning Affirmative Action by starting the first African-American university, Howard University; (but don’t Republicans oppose Affirmative Action?)

Passing the 15th Amendment so that African-Americans could vote; “The 15th Amendment was ratified the following year, but using intimidation, poll taxes, registration fraud, and literacy tests, Democrats prevented most African-Americans from voting for nearly a century.” Damn, who knew Obama’s party hated “African-Americans” so much? (By the way, Michael Steele, it’s OK to say “black.”)

Opposing racial segregation in schools; (henceforth the GOP shall be renaming itself ACORN!)

Banning the Ku Klux Klan; (we know that today’s white supremacists voted for Obama in 2008).

Founding Yellowstone National Park; (Republicans now oppose the establishment of new federal protected areas…)

Giving Women the Right to Vote (but opposing their right to control their bodies).

Electing the first women mayors (Republicans for Hillary Clinton!)

Appointed the first Jewish person to cabinet secretary. Most Jewish Americans are Republicans, right? Oh wait…

Granted American Indians U.S. Citizenship.

Elected the first Asian-American senator in Hawaii. (Republicans love the idea of increasing diversity in public office, which is why they go out of their way to support members of minority groups…)

Called to end racial segregation in the military; (But still opposes gays in the military).

Established the Federal Highway System; (funded by a 91% peak income tax rate, I might add!)

Ended segregation in schools; “Republicans were unfazed by the many Democrats, including John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who criticized President Eisenhower for the action he took to uphold civil rights” says GOP.com. That’s right, it was Eisenhower and not Kennedy who ch

At this point, it devolves into the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, Welfare Reform (er– I thought Bill Clinton was a Democrat), Operation Enduring Freedom (the Afghan war) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (getting progressively more unpopular now…).

Now if there’s one thing it seems the Republican Party has done consistently, year to year, throughout this list, it’s to oppose whatever the South wants. Which is ironic, since the South is now the core of the party and the only place it did not lose electoral votes and house seats in the 2008 election.

But anyway.

Methinks you have something of an identity crisis when everything you highlight about your past is, ironically, everything you vehemently oppose in our current political climate.

But it’s nice to see that the GOP agrees that everything great and lasting in American history are the very things that liberals are gung-ho about. Maybe a reconciliation is afoot?

Anyway. I encourage you to check out the Republican list yourself, at GOP.COM

Now I’m genuinely confused. When I celebrate these progressive moments in U.S. history as being what it’s all about to be proud as an American, I’m told that this is a revisionist history, or at least a strong liberal slant on history. I’m told that “multiculturalism” is not just a sentiment geared towards respect, but an insidious political agenda that might fit with my values but doesn’t fit with Middle America (whatever that is). Now Michael Steele has put it on the GOP webpage as the main thrust of the Republican party? Inasmuch as this is a “culture war,” they’ve sided with liberal culture.

I’m glad, of course, that they’re turning out to value this, but I doubt that this signifies as any sort of cultural shift in the party, but is rather an attempt to seem more moderate (or to appeal to people of color, who are growing in numbers in the U.S.) If I thought that any of this sentiment was heartfelt (and if they took out the anti-Democrat vitriol when Democrats are now nearly universally on board with civil rights; Republicans, however, are not) then I would certainly celebrate.

October 6, 2009

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