An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

July 21, 2010

Web Game: Build-a-Deficit

Filed under: Government and Policy — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 9:16 am

This is a fun little web game, if you are as embarrassingly dorky as I am. You get a list of big-ticket items on the federal budget, and you’re supposed to trim the national debt down to a target of 60% by adjusting spending up and down. Personally, it confirmed most of my biases: I cut the military budget & upped corporate and high-income taxes, and then had so much cash I came in 5% under the target and could afford to up most every welfare program in sight (let’s just say letting the Bush tax cuts expire is practically a cheat code). Try it yourself:

Budget Simulator | Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.


July 15, 2010

Trans Job Discrimination: Now With Numbers!

Two trans members of Make the Road/New York’s LGBTQ Justice Program were turned down for fast-food jobs in 2008, six years after the city banned gender identity based job discrimination. Which is hardly news, in and of itself–job discrimination against transgender, transsexual and gender-nonconforming people is tremendously common, and looking at the statistics for POC or women, it’s not hard to figure out that simply outlawing employment discrimination doesn’t end it.

But anything resembling hard facts about anti-trans discrimination are hard to come by. When their members got passed over for jobs, Make the Road decided to work on that. The end result is this recent 22 page report, aptly titled Transgender Need Not Apply, which details their DIY trial of a sociological technique–matched pair studies–to get some numbers to show the rational-fetishist crowd. You can guess how that turned out.

How it Worked

They picked two pairs of their members who were similar in as many ways as they could control for–one team was composed of Asian-American women in their late 20′s, the other of white men in their mid 20′s. The experimental difference was that one member of each pair was cis and the other was trans, and the the trans applicants disclosed their status on applications and in interviews.  They were outfitted with made-up resumes that gave them similar backgrounds and experience, with a slight advantage to the trans team members. And they underwent serious training to match their demeanors and interview behavior as much as possible.

The pairs then set out to apply for jobs at high-end retail stores–J. Crew, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Brookstone, etc. 24 different stores in all, for a total of 42 applications for each experimental group.* The cis testers got 14 job offers. The trans testers got 2. The way the numbers shake out, that totals to a discrimination rate of 42% against trans applicants, which is, well, pretty freaking high as discrimination stats go. How does 14:2 equal only 42%? The employers were saved some by that fact that many stores didn’t offer anyone a job, and a single store (the Virgin Megastore) picked the trans applicant over their cis counterpart. Once.

What Does it All Mean?

In their report, MtR were careful to point out that their study is too small to tease out intersectional discriminations, which they assure us they’ d like to do in a larger study that could measure the degree to which race and class factors interact with transphobic discrimination (I’d put my money on ‘multiplicatively’ or ‘exponentially,’ if anyone at the Radical Scientist Gambling Parlor were dumb enough to take the other side of that bet)

Personally, I’d be curious to see how trans men fare vs trans women, as there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that transmisogyny (that is, the particular cocktail of misogyny and transphobia aimed at trans women & other male-assigned trans people) is a huge, huge magnet for job discrimination, even compared to the transphobia-served-neat (and often with a chaser of male passing privilege)** faced by trans men. Unfortunately, with only 2 freaking job offers going to the trans testers, this particular study isn’t going to help there. You can’t study intra-community differences in hiring until someone hires some more freaking trans people. Like, a statistically significant number of trans people. Sheesh. We may be waiting a while for that one.

Thanks to Questioning Transphobia for picking up this story before me.

*Note that an experimental group is made up of the all subjects sharing a variable. So, the two cis testers are one experimental group and the trans testers are the other. Meanwhile, we also have two teams, one of a trans woman and a cis woman, and another with a trans guy and a cis guy. I know it’s a mess, but obviously, it matters how you divvy up the data.

**No more liquor metaphors, I promise. Not till we get farther into the weekend, at least.


June 13, 2010

The Biofuel Bubble: Looking Ahead to Our Next Economic Disaster

Biofuels and alternative energy are, broadly speaking, one of my professional interests as well as a political hobbyhorse. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but I try to keep up with the news, and at times I’ve made my living working on the biology side of some research projects. What I’m saying here is, don’t take me too seriously. This is just my opinion, as Some Guy on the Internet.

And now on to that opinion. I’m going to put on my Unprovable Prediction hat, and spin out some thoughts that started in a recent conversation with a friend.

I think worldwide, and in the US especially, there will eventually be a market boom-and-bust centering around renewable energy sources. Let me explain.

First, demand will only keep growing, for any number of reasons. I know environmentalists have been going on about peak oil since the 70′s, but it is bound to happen sooner or later. Note that doesn’t mean we’ll wake up one day to find the wells all dry. Just that we’ve drilled the most convenient wells first, and the price of oil will go up as the petroleum industry has to move on to lower grade wells, in less convenient places (ahem, Gulf of Mexico, ahem), at greater cost. As that happens, technologies (say, biodiesel, solar electricity or biojet (jet fuel)) which were a little too expensive before to be competitive will find themselves in a much more appealing place.

Moreover, many of those technologies are expensive for ‘fixable’ reasons–there’s room for more R&D to make them cheaper or more efficient (e.g. solar panels have recently taken a sudden leap forward), they haven’t had the chance to get good economies-of-scale going (look at the price on electric cars). Oil and coal companies have benefited disproportionately from having the living shit subsidized out of them, but that could change. Not that I expect the US will stop kissing oil company ass any time soon, but if Monsanto or the Iowa Corn Growers Association decide they want to be move into the energy market, they may get the way paved for them.

And there is demand. Huge demand, for anything cheaper, anything ‘greener,’ anything that could give America a new economic edge. Maybe not the biggest force in the economy, but not something I’d dismiss lightly. A couple years ago, I toured a biodiesel manufacturing plant in rural Georgia. Every day, they turned thousands of gallons of sub-food-grade chicken fat into diesel fuel and glycerine. I asked if there was much of a market out there, where they sold their product. The VP showing us around just chuckled his gool ol’ boy chuckle and said they didn’t even have a sales staff, they had so much demand each batch was sold in advance. They had just started working on a bigger facility to increase their production many times over, in the hopes of keeping up.

So where does the bust come in? Well, frankly, hopes are too high, and there’s no way of knowing what will work out. If we leave the market to sort it out, the market will do the same thing it did with the internet during the dot-com bubble–realize that a relatively new, smallish industry is growing much faster than the rest of the economy, decide it’s the Wave of the Future, and shit itself with glee. The problem with the dot-com bubble wasn’t that the internet wasn’t going anywhere (you’re reading this now, aren’t you?) it was that is was incredibly hard to guess in advance how the internet would fit in to people’s lives, and investors sort of knew that.  But rather than sit back and try to figure it out, they looked at the huge returns from a handful of successful start-ups and decided it was a good idea to deliver dump trucks full of cash to every comp-sci dropout with a witty-sounding web address, on the assumption that a few good bets would balance out their losses.

Renewable energy technologies have a similar problem. We don’t know yet how much better any given scheme can get. And expectations are often too high; when I talk to non-scientists, including some really smart people about this issue, I hear a lot of variations on ‘Ok, so which one will it be? When the oil runs out, will we switch to ethanol? Will everything be solar powered? Who’s gonna win?’

The answer is, no one technology will replace the oil industry, ever. There’s no magic bullet. If oil and coal go way up in price, if consumers even ever start having to pay the full price of the mess they make, we’re not just going to swap one energy source for another and go on like nothing happened. It’ll take a piecemeal approach, using solar where it’s sunny, wind where it’s windy, finding myriad different ways to turn whatever spare biomass a region has on hand into power. Some ideas will fail–if it doesn’t get better soon, it may be time to disappoint the corn industry and shove non-cellulosic ethanol production off the roster, never mind that it’s supposed to be one of the Biggest New Things.

And, in the event of any real attempt to slow climate change, stop using oil or build a ‘sustainable’ economy, we’re going to have to make some cutbacks. Switching to smaller homes, biking more than driving, and buying less shit would all go much farther than everyone rushing out to get a new hybrid. But contemporary capitalism is predicated on endless, ever expanding consumer spending. And when it becomes obvious that there’s no way to solve our energy problems just by buying more or different stuff, the US stock market is going to have a very, very bad day.


June 1, 2010

The Baffler Rides Again

Filed under: media and pop culture — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 1:40 am

I started reading The Baffler magazine when I was in middle school. It took all my directionless, smug youthful cynicism and molded it into the carefully honed cynicism I carry with me to this day. Their unique mode of business culture criticism taught me to think clearly about when and where capitalism played into my own adolescent longing for subcultural authenticity. To admire the activist efforts of generations past, as well as their baroque snarkiness. But more than anything else, that magazine probably saved me from the lifelong humiliation of having had a full-blown, Ayn-Rand-reading  libertarian phase–I was the exact sort of too smart for my own good, but not smart enough to realize my flaws, brat who falls for that sort of thing for, oh, 2-50 years.

And, well, 14 year old me thought the whole catching the NY Times printing fake ‘grunge’ slang thing was pretty funny.

Of course, after the building that housed the Baffler’s office burned in 2001, the magazine was put on a wobbly hiatus  (I actually only recently discovered they’d published atall after the fire), which seemed likely to last–it seemed fitting to me that the magazine’s coma began just after the dot-com bubble burst. I remember thinking ‘Well, what would they write about now, anyway?’

Plenty, as it turns out. They’re back in semi-annual business, they have some full articles online, a blog full of fucking novella-length goodies (including some worthwhile reprints), and they’re selling subscriptions. Go do it. I will.


May 16, 2010

In Which I Wax Unecessarily Nostalgic, or Something

Filed under: Government and Policy — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 7:42 pm

Not too long ago, I finished Thomas Frank’s The Wreaking Crew. (It’s excellent. Read it. Seriously) There’s one passage, barely a footnote, that’s gotten stuck between my teeth, so to speak.

Frank spends most of the book weaving together the history of 20th century conservatism in the US (especially from Reagan on) and the concurrent history of DC as a city–from the boom years of the New Deal to the current creeping mansionization of the suburbs. At one point, he describes his first reaction to the boxy, cookie-cutter houses that popped up by the blockfull in the 30′s and 40′s. As a college student/punk  in the 80′s, his first glimpse of all that uniformity could basically be summed up with ‘Fuck this, get me out of here.’

But now, as a middle aged adult living in a much more stratified, quantitatively shittier America, he says he sees things quite differently.  Those neighborhoods were full of affordable housing, just big enough for a family to have a little yard, some on-street parking and two stories to themselves. They were built on grids, within walking distance of  Metro lines, schools and grocery stores. They were priced so that a family could afford them on a single modest bureaucrat’s income,  and 50, 70 years later they’re still standing.

Sure, the houses are architecturally uninspired. But the barely-middle-class American dream they were meant to fulfill isn’t even an option anymore.  Real wages are falling. Housing prices are going up. Job security is vanishing at an uncomfortable pace.And slowly, those neighborhoods full of ticky-tacky faux-federalist houses are disappearing, as developers buy up the lots to know them down by the fistful, putting one huge, spit-and-drywall ‘luxury home’ where two or three brick cubes had been.

As an adult, Franks basically says he finds boring-but-comfortable an acceptable dilemma. Given at least the option of a decent-paying, limited hours  day job, people can find their own meaning in life. They can have friends, family, hobbies. They can paint their ugly little houses bright colors, throw up a front porch,  and plant gardens where the postage stamp lawn used to be.

I just graduated with what the Department of Labor assures me is a useful degree in a field I love. But looking at the options I have, it’s been hell explaining to my Baby Boomer parents that I just don’t have the same choices they did. There’s no guarantee I’ll be ok so long as I don’t fuck things up royally (which they both did, one by being an alcoholic douchebag,  and the other by going into an industry that’s been slowly dying since the Reagan administration). I may not make more money, or be more happy than my parents were.I  will almost definitely be less secure than my grandparents were. And we didn’t even get better looking houses out of the bargain.


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