Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Proof Malls Aren't Dead Yet

You probably haven't heard about it.

It's not a hot topic of conversation.

But it could represent the beginning of a major shift in conventional American retailing.

Two large companies that, between them, own most of North America's major malls have submitted a bid to purchase ailing teen fashion retailer Aeropostale from bankruptcy.  The two mall operators are Simon Property Group and General Growth Properties.  They've joined with three smaller retail industry players to salvage approximately 230 of the chain's 780 stores.  Ostensibly, those stores to remain open will be the better-performing stores in each of the mall operators' better-performing shopping centers.

How does this impact you and me?  Well, for one thing, it's relatively unprecedented for major landlords like Simon and General Growth to take such a proactive interest in a tenant, such as bidding for the tenant's company in bankruptcy court.  According to retail industry insiders, this move represents a strategic power play by bricks-and-mortar titans to try and fend off some of the ravages of Internet retailing.  If successful, it could provide a pattern for others to follow.

It's not that Aeropostale itself is such a financially important retailer, or beloved brand, or a "too-big-to-fail" employer.  It sells trendy teen fashions, and each of those three words represents volatile concepts that change almost by the day.  If you don't have kids, it's probable you've never shopped in their stores.  And considering the steady drumbeat of store closings and bankruptcies, the demise of yet another brand likely would have little impact beyond the affected employees.

Indeed, even the mall owners bidding for Aeropostale are planning on closing a majority of the chain's locations, which will be painful enough for those being laid-off.  What's symbolic here, however, is the fact that two key operators of most American malls are trying to make a sound financial bet on keeping at least part of their tenancy rosters intact.

After all, teens will still shop for fashions, although perhaps not in the ways they used to, or for the styles they used to, or in the volumes they used to, at the price points they used to.  The folks at Aeropostale will still have to figure out where teen fashions are headed, and how to generate sales.  But Simon and General Growth want to keep the retailer alive long enough to either ride the current down-turn in shopping trends, or at least deflate the Aeropostale balloon gently, over more time than a brutal bankruptcy would allow.  Indeed, their partners in this endeavor include a company that usually makes its money dismantling bankrupt companies and selling the spoils of yet another faded brand for pennies on the dollar.

By breaking Aeropostale's free-fall, most everybody who would be affected has time to recoup, re-strategize, and maybe even make some money.

Of course, mall owners like Simon and General Growth still have their work cut out for themselves, too.  The number of "dead malls" across the United States continues to climb.  Customers continue gravitating towards online shopping.  And people in general seem less interested in spending their time strolling around and shopping; it's not considered an enjoyable pastime anymore.  Even if people want to purchase items from a bricks-and-mortar establishment, malls require a lot of walking, particularly in undesirable parking lots, or among groups of people who likely can't afford much in the mall to begin with.  The concept of "lifestyle centers" has replaced the mall; basically glorified strip-shopping centers, only with textured walkways, better landscaping, and fancier lighting fixtures.  Shoppers can park close to a particular store that they've already targeted as having what they want, and get in and out quickly.

Alternatively, one of the most popular bricks-and-mortar stores these days is aiming to reach beyond retail to help justify their existence.  In another big change that you probably don't know about, Apple Stores is changing its name, dropping the "Stores" part and replacing it with the store's actual location, such as "Apple Union Square" or "Apple Southlake."  Why?  Forbes calculates that the change represents Apple's attempt to shift from concentrating on its stores as places to purchase commodities, to stores as places where their customers can be entertained apart from iPhone upgrades and such.  In other words, Apple wants its stores to be mini-concert venues, or glorified coffee/wine bars, or other attractions that could help ingrain their brand in the mind of consumers.

It's a broadening of the purpose of bricks-and-mortar facilities, from mere retailing to brand-telling.  Consider it marketing on steroids, beyond the product itself.  Actually, considering how many malls have already hosted mini-concerts, celebrity appearances, and local attractions such as cooking shows, taste tests, automobile demonstrations, and the like, perhaps the trendy Apple is merely taking a page out of the mall playbook.

Meanwhile, even if Simon and General Growth only buy time with their purchase of Aeropostale, their intentionality about their offer remains noteworthy.  It represents the degree to which companies that have built their profits on a business model that is losing favor with the public are willing to counteract such a trend with unconventional strategies.  The fact that they're doing so with a teen retailer - not the surest way to profits these days - only makes it more intriguing.

So, no; your world hasn't utterly changed overnight.  Besides, it's still possible that some other suitor could outbid Simon and General Growth for Aeropostale.  Or the bankruptcy court might turn down their plan.  Nothing's guaranteed here.  But the very fact that this plan has been offered is remarkable in and of itself.

The mall experience certainly isn't what it used to be.  But two of America's biggest mall operators are working hard to keep it from going away entirely.  And they're putting their money where they hope their future will be.

Just as long as they don't expect America's teenagers to gush with appreciation!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Weiner Trifecta Not Just Tabloid Fodder

Aww, c'mon!

Anthony Weiner is pulling a three-peat?

At the risk of giving this story more attention than it deserves, let's go ahead and admit the obvious:  Weiner has continued making a name for himself as the king of scintillating sexting.  This time, with the inclusion of his young son in one of the suggestive photos.  Although the presence of his child was almost certainly incidental, and not intentionally lewd.

Still, it was salacious enough for more than one critic to wonder if New York's child protective services should make a visit to the Weiner household and check things out.  But that's probably going a bit overboard.

Suffice it to say that there are problems within the Weiner - Abedin marriage, and now that this famous Democratic couple has now separated, and appears headed for divorce court, we already know the dearest victim in all of this has been - and will be - their child.

And while most of the blame for Weiner's latest sexting scandal has been appropriately heaped on him, the support many of us onlookers used to give Huma seems to be tepid at best this time around.  After all, according to both the texts involved in this latest case, and basic common sense regarding the schedule Huma and her boss, Hillary Clinton, have been keeping, the Weiner - Abedin marriage has been a lonely one, particularly for Weiner.  He's basically been a stay-at-home dad while his wife gallops all over the world at the behest of one of the world's most powerful celebrity couples.  Even Weiner's latest confession to his wife this past weekend, before the tabloid New York Post broke his story, was during a brief time when the pair was alone during one of Hillary's fundraising swings through the Hamptons, on Long Island.

Some have speculated that with the Weiner - Abedin marriage on the rocks, might national security be somehow compromised since Hillary, as a presidential contender, has been receiving top-secret national security briefings, as has Donald Trump, along with the current White House resident, Barak Obama?  What prurient privacies might Hillary have mentioned to Huma, and Huma to her hubby?

However, considering how little the couple apparently has communicated over these past months, has Huma even had an opportunity to whisper national secrets into Weiner's ear while they're lying in bed together, trying not to wake their child?

Meanwhile, what's just as audacious as Weiner's sexting trifecta has been both Donald Trump's sanctimonious outcry over it, as well as the ridicule from Trump's supporters.  As if Trump can lecture anybody about cheating on one's spouse - unless he's doing so as an expert on the subject, and giving proven tips for how to do it.  Trump is also the one who's lusted publicly after his own daughter - how gross is that?  And still, his legions of supporters smirk with adolescent libidinousness, giggling like teenaged boys in a locker room.

So America, let's cut the malarkey here about Weiner's sexual frustrations, and give him and Huma some space.  Marriage is still marriage, after all, and parenting is still parenting, and things look dire for both in this particular family.  Chances are, Huma isn't about to cancel on Hillary and move back in with Weiner to fix whatever's broken, even after however much marital counseling they might pursue together.  If Huma was infatuated with Weiner's rising political star, back in the day, that's been dimmed for quite a while now, and likely wouldn't have brightened anytime soon, even if this third sexting episode hadn't happened.  Instead, for all this time, she's remained supremely devoted to her long-time employer, and Weiner has finally given her a convenient green-light to ditch what she likely considers to be her mistaken choice for spousal material.

Besides, regardless of your political persuasion, it's a fact that Hillary has a good shot of winning the presidency.  And if she does, Huma is looking at spectacular political opportunities for herself in an administration she'd likely have a heavy hand in crafting.  And in politics, divorced spouses somehow fade into the woodwork, and lonely kids still get raised, somehow, no matter how distant their parents are.  After all, in Washington especially, it's not about one's children, but about how much power you can amass for yourself.  Family only matters to the extend that they help broaden one's own political fortunes.

And Weiner's political account is currently bankrupt.

Perhaps instead of Weiner being the one with an insatiable problem with sexual lust, it's Huma's insatiable lust for power that is at least equally responsible for the state of their marriage.  At the very least, the benefit of the doubt has yet to be lavishly bestowed upon her by the court of public opinion, even as we chatter about the blatantly frustrated couple.

In fact, this time around, might it be that people are starting to feel just a little bit sorry for Weiner?  Not that any of it really, truly is any of our business.  But at the same time, when you're making your living in the public eye - Weiner had been working as a political "expert" for a New York City cable television show - the things you do generally become public because, well, the public is, in essence, paying your salary.  And Huma is employed by somebody earnestly seeking The Highest Office In The Land.  These kind of things qualify as public-interest stories, even if they involve deeply private problems.

And we love gushing over the deep, private problems of other people.  At least my wife doesn't run around the world and leave me alone with our kid like Huma does.  At least my husband doesn't sext - or at least, he'd better not!  And if our spouses actually do these things we fault in the Weiner - Abedin marriage, at least we're not supposed to be setting a better example of morality and perseverance for our society because of our prominence in it.  They're supposed to be the role models, not us.

Funny how, whichever family gets into the White House this fall, the salacious details of either the Trump clan or the Clinton marriage will at least rival, if not obliterate, what Weiner has done.  Three times, at least.

We Americans often complain about the moral quality of the leadership we keep voting into office.  It seems like people with low morality are the type of politicians we like.

Come to think of it, maybe Weiner still has some sort of future in politics after all.  Especially in New York City, which has given us both Senator Clinton and Donald Trump.

Shouldn't Huma think twice about ditching him right now?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Our Schools' Tenement Complex?

Behold:  The suburban apartment complex.

Pick a suburban city; any suburban city in America.  The apartment complexes build in them starting in the 1970's tend to all look alike, whether you're outside Columbus, Ohio, or Fort Worth, Texas.

They may have different exterior touches, such as white siding in the Midwest, or stucco in the Southwest, but look at the floorplans, and the layout of each cluster of apartment buildings.  After a while, you can tell they're all pretty much the same, can't you?

One or two bedrooms, at least one bathroom, a tiny kitchen, a narrow balcony, maybe some meandering pathways leading to and from some parking lots and the outdoor swimming pool.  Ideal for young single adults, maybe young marrieds, maybe even some young families, with infants and toddlers who don't each need their own bedrooms yet, or a fenced backyard.

Back in the day, these apartments represented the basic rung on America's housing ladder.  Maybe an apartment for the college student who didn't like dorm life.  After college, an apartment for the swinging single until marriage, and after marriage, maybe until the first child or two.  Then the starter home, then the bigger move-up house, and then maybe even bigger and more expensive housing, depending on how far up the corporate ladder one was reaching.

And apartment complexes fit fairly well into this paradigm, providing adequate housing for people who didn't need much space and weren't planning on living there long.  Or raising a family there.  These complexes were built with laundry facilities and the requisite pool, but little else to suggest community or provide easy access to essentials like groceries.  Day care was some older divorced woman on the ground floor who only worked part-time, and could look after a couple of kids if young parents were stuck without their normal sitter.  Food, fun, work, dry cleaning, school, and everything else was accessible by car, after a drive around the complex and out the main entryway.

In that regard, apartment complexes are like the self-contained cul-de-sacs and subdivisions that have helped make the rest of suburbia inhospitable to the types of quick neighborhood trips city dwellers take for granted.  Although most of us have become used to climbing into our cars to get anything - the mail, fast food, designer coffee - the old city apartments, usually built atop shops, banks, and restaurants, were a lot more convenient.

But it didn't matter, back when developers built these ubiquitous apartment complexes.  Most apartment renters didn't have kids, and running errands in the car was a good excuse to get out of the lonely confines of their little leased rooms.

And while many singles still live in these suburban apartment complexes today, something unexpected happened on the way to this 21st Century.  The starter home that used to be the affordable launchpad for young American families has become unaffordable for many of today's under-employed or unemployed families - particularly those who live in or near large cities.  Besides, modern breadwinners who may have the shortest of criminal records, or maybe lacking proper immigration documents, settle for low-wage jobs that don't pay enough to even rent a small house.  Increasingly, families are being started - and they're staying, and growing - in apartment complexes.

And, in apartments not designed for families.  At least, not families with two or three kids, and maybe grandma from the Old Country.  They're not designed to function as neighborhoods; with basic services within easy reach.  Remember, originally, they were designed to serve as "crash pads" as their single renters worked, partied, dined, and socialized elsewhere.  Kitchens are small, with cheap, diminutive appliances ill-suited for serving many family members on a daily basis.  Compared with a mud hut in Africa or a reed lean-to in Papua-New Guinea, these apartments may be superior, but in terms of our Western standards for long-term accommodations, they become barely appropriate for the conventional family.

So what?  If you can't get a good job with a good salary, you have to be grateful for whatever housing you can find, right?  Who cares if it's an apartment or a starter home?

Economically speaking, it may not be a big deal.  At least in terms of people having access to what they can afford.  But this scenario with the apartment complexes may be creating some other problems that could end up costing the rest of us in the long run.

For example, take schooling, education, and the facilities for which school districts are required to plan.  Here in Arlington, Texas, between Fort Worth and Dallas, our school district is currently constructing some new elementary schools in long-established, aging neighborhoods.  They're not replacing older, outdated schools.  They're being built in addition to schools that already exist, buildings that were constructed back when the original development of these neighborhoods was under way.

Today, these areas are generally low-income, with property values that are low, which means that the housing is not exactly what the average American would describe as desirable.  Nevertheless, apparently, a lot of people are populating these neighborhoods, because this housing is the best they can afford.

The problem is that far more families are moving into these neighborhoods in numbers greater than what city planners originally intended.  Many are Hispanic, and Hispanics tend to have more children than Anglos.  Hispanics also tend to invite in-laws and grandparents to live with them, populating bedrooms with more people than this housing stock was expected to shelter.  The result?  Even though the neighborhood shouldn't need any more schools, all of these new families, crammed as they are into the old housing stock, are sending an unprecedented number of children to public school.

And the surprised school district has to make room for them.

I'm not particularly complaining, since I'm glad that these parents want their children to have an education.  Yet I'm guessing this is a big secret story that school districts can't publicize for fear of stoking racial tension, particularly here in Texas, with illegal immigration such a hot-button topic.  So our local school district here in Arlington is quietly building at least two new elementary schools that I know of in two different neighborhoods that have long been built-out.

One of the new schools is merely a block away from another, existing elementary.  It's being constructed on some former athletic fields servicing the neighborhood junior high school.  The other elementary school is being built smack-dab in the middle of several aging apartment complexes in the northern part of town.  Both of these neighborhoods are well-established with housing units that were never expensive or well-built to begin with; they've always been affordable, and even now even more so, since they're no longer new, or even new-ish, or trendy, or "desirable."

Meanwhile, in the older parts of Arlington that are more desirable, with better supplies of higher-priced single-family homes, the elementary schools in those areas are going begging for students, since much of the population is older, without younger children.

Fortunately, here in Arlington, we enjoy a relatively robust economy with lots of taxes generated by attractions other cities would love to have.  We have a Major League Baseball stadium and a National Football League stadium, plus a Six Flags theme park and a General Motors assembly plant that has never stopped expanding since it opened in 1954.  Our school district has been able to bundle these new construction projects in with other bond packages for voters to approve in a fairly innocuous fashion.

Over in a more affluent exurb of Dallas, however, the story is quite different.  The city of Frisco is one of the fastest-growing communities in America, and boasts a significantly higher standard of living than many Americans enjoy, with housing values much higher than most of Arlington's residential property.  They're new homes, built with the latest features, surrounded by perfectly-manicured parks, glassy office buildings, and lavishly-appointed shopping centers brimming with luxury retailers and those designer coffee establishments and wine bars so many people consider essential to their existence.

But despite all this appearance of wealth, the voters in Frisco's school district boundaries last weekend refused to approve a property tax hike.  In a city that prides itself in providing a high-quality public school system to appease parents with high expectations, denying a school tax hike has been something of a newsmaker in these parts.

It's one thing for residents of established cities to oppose higher taxes, but even here in Arlington, when the funding package that included these two new elementary schools was hotly contested, the funding request was eventually approved with the notion that only dying districts don't need more money.  And Frisco - of all the school districts in the United States - is definitely not dying.

The main reason voters gave for opposing the Frisco school tax increase involved concerns that their district has been wasting its already-lavish budget.  Voters publicly are saying that their district needs to cut down on some of its frills and re-prioritize its spending habits.  Yet in one corner of the Frisco school district - in an area outside of the actual city of Frisco - new apartment complexes are being built.  Lots of them.  And while the Frisco planning office has no control over them, many Frisco taxpayers are responsible for schooling the kids who are and will be living in these apartments.

And let's be frank; a lot of the kids who live even in brand-new apartment complexes here in Texas aren't white.  Okay?  See where I'm going with that?

Might Frisco voters - most of whom are white - have already gone there?

In theory, apartment renters fund the property taxes on their apartment with every rental payment they make.  So, in theory, all renters in these apartment complexes are paying the appropriate school taxes for Frisco, whether they've got kids or not.  And whether those kids will go to public school in Frisco or not.  Maybe some of those kids will be homeschooled, or attend a private school.

Yet with Arlington as an example, it's hard also to begrudge Frisco voters their concerns about apartment kids.  Not because those kids may not be white, or smart, or anything else.  Once again, it's a matter of economics.  But it can look awfully prejudiced.

Think about it:  Single-family housing dumps far fewer kids into a school district than high-density apartment complexes do.  And the taxes renters pay as a portion of their rent are only equivalent to the value of that apartment if it were sold individually on the open market - and most apartments are worth far less as a housing unit than any single-family home.

Many suburbs across the country purposely limit the base size of single-family homes and the number of apartment units a developer can build in their municipality.  Economically, cities have to budget for police and fire departments, and such budgeting is based on the number of people living in town - and what they're paying to live there!  And for most places, that calculation is based on property values.

Of course, polite people can't talk about this in public without being branded "hateful" or "racist."  Yet in the interest of poor families, isn't this something that we should be talking about?  Is the apparent transformation of the lowly suburban apartment complex from a glorified singles dormitory to poor family tenements something our society can afford to underwrite?  What is keeping these families from being able to afford the types of incremental housing we used to easily associate with American family life?  Does this new wrinkle in the fabric of American family life help prove that things aren't as good as they used to be for the rest of us, either?  Do these new concentrations of comparatively poor people also indicate, for example, that crime levels may be increasing in neighborhoods that used to be relatively safe?

Not that non-whites generate more crime.  But poorer people tend to.

America's tenements of old were mostly torn down after civic-minded activists began publicly decrying them.  Granted, even our old apartment complexes today were built according to far better zoning laws and building guidelines than those rickety urban slum habitations.  But has a new underclass of American resident - legal or not - moved into housing we presumed was occupied mostly by transitory singles?  Are dated assumptions about our country's housing stock being undermined and skewed by a subtle new reality?

I don't have answers to these questions.  And I don't know if there's anything particularly evil, undemocratic, or immoral with families taking over America's former bastion of the footloose-and-fancy-free set.  Is this a trend that will pass - eventually?  Or is this an indication of an economic decline in our society?

Then again, they say a lot of Millennials today aren't even living in apartments; they're camped-out in their parents' basement.  Do they really want to live there, or is the basement-dwelling Millennial an even darker portrait of America's housing situation?

I don't know - most houses here in Texas don't have a basement.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Elegy for My Cyclist Uncle Wyman

Wyman Black in Sedgwick, Maine, summer of 1959

On this date in 1959, my only uncle died.

I never met him, since I wasn't born until the late 1960's.

He was killed on a rural road in beautiful coastal Maine, on the Blue Hill Peninsula, as his motorcycle rounded a curve and lost traction on some gravel.  His bike crashed into the shrubs, trees, and brush lining the narrow roadway.  He wasn't wearing a helmet.

His name was Wyman Black, and he was my mother's younger - and only - brother.  Her only sibling, in fact.  He would be 74 now; retired, ostensibly, with who knows what kind of family.

Or maybe not.  Maybe he would have died earlier from some other tragic turn of events.  Who knows?  Maybe he would have gone into the military and been killed in Vietnam, for instance.  The guessing games about what he might have become turn pointless pretty quickly.  He died when he did, and speculating about all the "what if's" is a hollow exercise at best.

When I was born, Mom and Dad gave me his first name as my middle name.  For a while, when I was younger, and the thought that one day I'd get married and have kids was still within the realm of possibility (pity the poor wife, though, whomever that would have been!), I imagined I'd repeat the honor with my firstborn son.  If I had one.

Again, the supposing could have gone in how many different directions!  What if we'd only had girls?

Wymanette?  Wymanella?  Wymanene?

My uncle died doing something he truly enjoyed - riding a motorcycle.  How many people get to die while doing something they truly enjoy?  Granted, my uncle probably was fully aware that he was crashing, and the pain he likely felt just before he died almost certainly wasn't enjoyable at all.  But his death was relatively quick, and as utterly lovely as summer days usually are in Maine, transitioning from there to Heaven must have been a version of going "from glory to glory," as the saying goes!

Plus, my Uncle Wyman died being well-loved by his family, and well-liked by everybody who knew him in their tight-knit community on the peninsula.  How many people die without enemies, or people who can't stand them?  Lol... I'm not sure I can claim to not know people who can't stand being around me!

He died without any baggage.  He was a professing Christ-follower, so when his life ceased here on Earth, it resumed in perfect fullness in Heaven.  His family was not wealthy by any stretch of the Western imagination, but my Mom, my uncle, their parents, and their grandparents never knew starvation or homelessness.  They had to share a lot, and make do with bare minimums, and learn how to find the brighter side of many dark circumstances, but all things considered, theirs was a remarkably functional and nurturing family, considering all they had to do without.

The motorcycle my uncle crashed wasn't his personal property; it belonged to a friend of his.  I'm not sure how that all worked out insurance-wise, in the aftermath of reclaiming a vehicle on which somebody else has died.  For her part, Mom made sure that my brother and I knew full-well that we were never to ride a motorcycle, at least while she is alive.

I've never asked my brother if he's ever ridden a motorcycle.  Actually, he's into planes and helicopters, but those are far safer vehicles than motorcycles.  I've never ridden a motorcycle, but not just because of how my uncle died.  Frankly, I'm not all that excited about putting my keister on a leather pillow just above a gasoline-powered engine.  The optics of the many ways such a juxtaposition - of fleshy anatomy and internal combustion components - could go awry seem unworthy of whatever pleasures one derives from cycling.

Would my uncle have survived his accident if he was wearing a helmet?  Again, that's a tough question to answer, since nobody saw the wreck, or how his body reacted to it.  Besides, were motorcycle helmets back then as well-engineered as they are today?  And maybe it wasn't his damaged brain that killed him, but a damaged spinal cord, or some other internal organ.  No autopsy was performed, since no foul play was involved.

For what it's worth, however, I suspect that wearing a helmet helps give motorcyclists an important measure of safety, and whenever I see a motorcyclist not wearing one, I think about my uncle, and let some of those "what if's" waft through my brain.

But that's not all I do whenever I'm driving about, and see motorcyclists on city streets or a freeway.  I also tend to take extra care and give them lots of space.

After all, the person riding it may be somebody else's uncle or aunt.

It's kinda my own little memorial to my late Uncle Wyman.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

What's Wrong With Banning Burkinis

If you didn't know my late aunt, Helena, you missed out on one of Brooklyn's originals.

She lived for 83 of her 88 years in three different apartments that were all within one block of each other in Brooklyn's blue-collar Sunset Park neighborhood.  She survived several bumpy cultural transitions as her beloved Sunset Park churned from European immigrant - Scandinavians, Irish, Poles - to immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to, now, many more immigrants from China.

New York City's cultural neighborhoods can make outsiders feel like they're in another country.  Even blacks, for example, used to be an exceedingly rare sight across most of Sunset Park.  And when transitions take place, as one majority ethnicity moves out, and another one moves in, the adjustments made by the folks who stay through the transition can be daunting.

As Sunset Park changed so drastically over the years and many of the neighborhood's shops and stores shuttered for good, my aunt would take the bus down to a far more affluent district called Bay Ridge, where she could get the types of fresh produce, stylish clothing, and secure banking services that were lacking in Sunset Park.  Bay Ridge used to be virtually exclusively white, even into the 1990's, while most of the rest of New York City was reeling from white flight.  Its clannish ethnic makeup - consisting mostly of more affluent Jews, Greeks, Norwegians, Swedes, and Italians - combined with its better housing stock and easier access to a major subway line, helped keep Bay Ridge stable, even as places like Sunset Park languished.

Now, before I get myself into deep trouble, I'm not saying that the prevalence of white people means that a neighborhood isn't languishing.  It's more a matter of economics, at least in Brooklyn, because economics is a barometer of crime and other livability factors.  If most people in a particular neighborhood have lower-wage jobs, or no jobs at all, when times get tough, under-employment and unemployment have ways of driving out the people who can afford to get out.  And that's what happened in Sunset Park... but not nearly as much in Bay Ridge.  In fact, a lot of Sunset Park's more affluent residents "fled" to Bay Ridge as Sunset Park succumbed to the ravages of urban blight.

All that to say this:  That when it comes to distinctives, there are both cultural and economic factors that give any neighborhood its character.  And when you cross the freeway into Bay Ridge, you feel like you're in yet another world.  Compared to Sunset Park, Bay Ridge is clean, with tidy streets, well-maintained homes and apartment buildings, nicely-landscaped yards, and little litter floating about.

And the racism thing?  When I lived in Brooklyn after college, I believe I would swear in a court of law that there were more black people in Bay Ridge than in Sunset Park.  It's simply a nicer place to live, no matter your skin color, as long as you could afford the rent.

And housing costs in Bay Ridge are cheaper the closer you get to Sunset Park.  Makes sense, right?  So, back in the 1990's, when white people began transitioning out of northern Bay Ridge, the rents were attractive enough that a new ethnicity began to move in, quite to the surprise of many Brooklynnites.

Because they weren't black, or Chinese, or Puerto-Rican, or purple-polka-dots.

They were... Muslims.

Not exactly an obvious group to move into Bay Ridge, considering the neighborhood's established Jewish population.  Nevertheless, almost overnight, it seemed as though bearded Muslim men, and women dressed in burkas, were strolling around Leif Ericson Park, Bay Ridge Avenue, and the historic Alpine cinema.

For her part, Helena was most taken aback when she discovered groups of burka-clad women shopping along 86th Street, in the heart of Bay Ridge's bustling commercial district.

This was back before 9/11, remember, so it wasn't a fear of Muslims that had people like my aunt concerned.  It was the blatant sexism represented in the ability of men to wear pretty much whatever they wanted, while their womenfolk had to confine themselves to the bulky, dark burka.  In parts of America that are car-centric, and people don't walk as much as New Yorkers do, the visual impact of how various cultures present themselves in person on the streets may be immaterial.  Yet in New York, the way people dress makes a statement about who you are (or who you think you are) even if you're strolling down the block to where you parked your car.

My aunt considered herself to be an independent woman.  And she admired other independent women.  She voted for Hillary Clinton as New York State senator simply because Hillary is an accomplished woman, even though Helena, personally, couldn't stand her.

And yes, Helena had some racist tendencies, as we all do.  Yet they didn't control her, or drive her behavior, like they do other people.  Helena befriended the Puerto Rican and Dominican women who ran the beauty parlor at the end of her block.  Partly because they were enterprising women, and partly because theirs was just about the only reputable beauty parlor around.  Two of Helena's best friends in the neighborhood were Chinese and Indian nurses.  And when an independent-minded black woman applied to purchase a co-op apartment in Helena's building, Helena was pleased it was a woman being their first black homeowner, instead of a man.

Okay, so Helena was complicated.  But then again, aren't most of us?

But when she saw those burka-clad women on 86th Street in Bay Ridge, Helena was not pleased.  At all.

As she'd walk behind them, Helena would hiss just loud enough for them to hear her:  "Take that off!"

And she was serious.  "Take that off," Helena would impertinently insist.  "No man can make you wear that!"

You see - it wasn't the cultural thing of which Helena disapproved.  It was the fact that Muslim men say their women need to wear something like the burka so that they can remain religiously pure.  It was the men telling the women what to wear.  No man ever told Helena what to wear.  And certainly not for any religious purpose!

For their part, those Muslim women probably figured Helena was one of those New York nuts everybody's been warned about.  It's doubtful many of them ever took her seriously, or re-considered their loyalty to the burka.  If they had, and Helena learned about it, I'm sure she would have been ecstatic.

As it was, Helena herself took some perverse pleasure in making those Muslim women aware that at least one New York female did not approve of the subservience to male domination represented by the burka.

"Helena, you're gonna get shot," I'd warn her.  And frankly, I don't know how often she did that.  Besides, considering how noisy 86th Street can get on a busy Saturday, how many of those Muslim women actually heard her anyway?

Still, when I heard today that France's ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for the burkini to be banned in his country, the first thing I thought of was Helena, and what she hissed at those Muslim women in Bay Ridge.

But I don't think legally requiring Muslim women to abandon their religious garb is right, whether it's a burkini so Muslim women can swim in public, or a burka, or a similar garment.

Religious freedoms are an important component of a civil society that values human rights.  After all, the right to believe in the deity of one's choice represents an expression of not just the freedom of religion, but the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly; all conveniently collected for Americans by the Founding Fathers in the first article of our Bill of Rights.

And when it comes to burkas and other religious apparel, it could be argued that the Fourth Amendment, regarding a prohibition of unwarranted governmental searches and seizures, could come into play as well.

Of course, America isn't France (and for that, aren't we Americans truly grateful?), but when it comes to human rights, the same basic argument applies:  While many of us may consider certain religious garments to be indicative of male oppression of females, as long as the females tolerate the "optics" of oppression - however begrudgingly - should we be passing laws to stop it?

Sarkozy's stance is an increasingly popular one in overwhelmingly secular France, where a beach brawl earlier this month involving Muslims prompted three French cities to outlaw burkinis, believing the obviously religious garment is offensive to French citizens who object to the garment's implications.  Of course, the French have been understandably touchy recently when it comes to anything Islamic, considering the number of catastrophic terroristic attacks in their country perpetrated by Islamic militants.  But is banning an item of religious dress a proactive long-term solution?

In 2011, the French banned any facial covering that obscures most of one's face, a law aimed directly at burkas featuring veils that allowed only slits in their fabric so their wearers could see out of them.  French lawmakers tried to make their legislation non-religious, applying it to any garment that would cover any person's face if worn in public.  Ostensibly, the law would make it harder for bank robbers, for example, who might slip on a mask to avoid detection during their crime.  However, the French law has loopholes for popular carnivals, which pretty much voids the whole religious freedom thing, since many traditional European carnivals are religious in nature.

Besides, making it a law for Muslim women to not wear particular items of clothing doesn't change the mindset of the wearer, or of the person enforcing the religious rule.  All it does is harden hearts and create more conflict, when the whole point should be trying to educate women that in a free society, you shouldn't be ostracized (or killed) simply because you don't want to wear an article of clothing that is uncomfortable, bulky, or designed to "protect" one gender at the other gender's expense.

Indeed, if Muslim men are so lustful that they can't look at any other woman without thinking immoral thoughts, then who's the true weakling in Islam?  And maybe that's why some Muslim women wear their religion's prudish clothing - as a reminder to men that women aren't as weak a sex as their religion presumes!

Looking at it from that perspective, I wonder if my aunt Helena would have stopped hissing at Brooklyn's burka-clad women.  Maybe Helena could have instead complimented them on being brave enough to wear clothing we Westerners consider ridiculous so that their lust-prone men could be more faithful to their faith.

Helena was also a Sunday School teacher in evangelical churches for most of her life.  Perhaps she could have even gone further, inviting these burka-clad women to consider Jesus Christ, the One who died to free God's followers from religious legalism and petty rules that have nothing to do with our eternal destiny.

Meanwhile, the freedom we have to share our religious beliefs could be in jeopardy if we start cropping away other religious freedoms we all should enjoy (or merely tolerate).  Shucks, let's let the burka and the burkini openly represent to Muslims two distinct patterns of slavish devotion to rules that cannot change our hearts and make us right with our deity.

And let those of us who have found freedom in Christ be able to share His truth freely with them - and others.

My dearly-departed aunt Helena wouldn't have considered herself a street preacher.

But in a way, she kinda was.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Uber-Future: Bravely Driverless?

Driverless cars.

I still don't think they're really gonna happen.  At least, not to the extent enthusiastic proponents of the concept hope it will.

But with Uber's announcement yesterday that the popular ride service will begin deploying self-driving cars within the next few weeks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a driverless future certainly seems more possible than ever before.*

Lately, automobile manufacturers have been steadily increasing their funding and manpower for driverless technologies.  Ride service companies like Uber and Lyft have been partnering with other technology companies to develop not only new systems for deploying driverless cars, but also making conventional car ownership obsolete.

Yes, you read me correctly.  Car ownership could become reserved for a few fleet companies.  In the brave new world envisioned by our techno-geeks, people won't own cars; we'll simply summon up a vehicular pod electronically, ride it to our destination, and then repeat the process when we're ready to take another trip.  In the meantime, the pod we've just used will be electronically dispatched to somebody else, over and over again, throughout the day.

In the fullness of such a scenario, car garages across suburbia will become obsolete as well; cars won't be parked at our homes overnight, unless we specifically arrange it with the fleet services company that will actually own the vehicular pod.  Of course, many suburban garages have already become de-facto storage areas anyway, so maybe the impact of this change will be minimal.

Then there's the aspect of aesthetics.  For example, the constant hiring-out of these vehicular pods means that the condition of the car when it arrives could be suspect.  When was the car last cleaned?  What did your car's last riders do inside of it?  If you're wanting to take a client or a boss out for lunch, for example, will you be embarrassed if the last rider was a messy person who left their garbage in it?  After a while, driverless cars will, in essence, become an extension of mass transit, and if you're familiar with city buses and subways, you know how pleasant those can be.

By that point in time, of course, our society will be stuck with driverless cars, and we'll have to make do with them.  The truly optimistic rationalize that fleet service companies would have to strive for customer satisfaction to stay in business, as in any capitalistic enterprise.  But have you hailed a New York City cab lately?  When the entire industry has low standards, it's hard to make aesthetics like cleanliness a profit motive.

After all, the lowest common denominator is what's driving the driverless car theory.  The lowest common denominator being minimal risk of traffic fatalities, since (at least in theory) technology can operate a motor vehicle more safely than a human can.  The lowest common denominator also, ostensibly, involves lower costs for consumers, since hiring a vehicular pod on an as-needed basis is supposed to be cheaper in the long run than today's conventional ownership and leasing options.

Perhaps all this really is true.  But if it is, that truth likely is mostly relevant in a perfect world.  It would be a perfect world in which riders - particularly people who don't own a vehicle, and aren't compelled to take responsibility for what it looks/smells like when they exit it - actually do leave it in a good condition for the next riders.  It would be a perfect world in which technology doesn't have glitches that won't leave a vehicular pod stranded in a part of town you didn't want to go through in the first place, but was the straightest route calculated by the on-board computer to your destination.  It would be a perfect world in which you didn't change your mind - or learn about an unavoidable change in your schedule - during your ride, and have to figure out how to get your vehicular pod to now transport you to a completely different part of town.

Of course, all of this is non-constructive nay-saying, isn't it?  I need to be positive and look at the bright side.  Technology is our future, it is our savior, it will save us from drudgery and all of the tasks we don't want to do. 

Yet, slowly but surely, technology is actually eliminating jobs that people used to count on to earn a living.  Those jobs may have been tedious, dangerous, undesirable, boring, low-skill, and poorly-paid, but they were jobs that somebody did because they needed the money.  Jobs like the telephone operator and receptionist.  Elevator engineer.  Even housekeeper - now that vacuums are automated, at least.

Granted, a lot of obsolete jobs are obsolete because most people got tired of waiting on other people to do them.  And even when it comes to driving a car, a lot of us don't particularly enjoy the literal task of driving anymore.  There's too much traffic, too many distractions, and other drivers are simply too rude and incompetent, right?  Plus, at least with rush-hour driving, you get the same people going the same direction the same way at the same time, five days a week.  Surely that could be simplified, right?

Then, too, building contractors and owners need to budget huge amounts of money for parking lots and garages for employees and customers.  With the proliferation of driverless cars, those parking areas could be re-developed into more profitable real estate.  Even back in the Dark Ages, when I was in architecture school, I remember hearing lectures on designing parking garages to be cheaply re-purposed when driverless cars take over.

Indeed, this has been in the planning stages for years.  I suspect that even in public schools, the mantra of going driverless has been ingrained in succeeding generations of kids to the point where today, cars hold far less fascination for young people than they used to.  When I was a kid, it seemed that almost all the boys and a lot of the girls fantasized about the type of vehicle they wanted.  Car manufacturers advertised performance, and sports cars like the Trans Am, Camaro, Mustang, and GTO were exceedingly popular.

Yet today, none of my nephews nor my niece really are excited about vehicles.  Neither are my next-door neighbor's kids.  Not that these kids represent the sum total of how today's youth view cars, but even current car-buying data seems to corroborate the lackluster interest among modern young people towards car ownership.  Cars are widely perceived as a necessary evil, a mere tool; not a source of independence, pride, or self-identity.

Sports cars are no longer popular.  It's all about luxury, or utility.  Coincidence?  Or is it that with vehicular pods, sports performance is irrelevant, since a computer will be plotting your every move in conjunction with the computers in other vehicular pods?  Luxury and utility will still matter, but only because they can exist apart from nasty, ecologically-unfriendly evils like speed and performance.

I've been surprised to read automotive journalists who've made their living - up until now, anyway - raving about how well vehicles perform.  A lot of them are embracing driverless technology like it's merely an iPhone upgrade or a bigger digital TV.  But this is a big change, folks.  And it will begin with performance - a lot less performance.  With vehicular pods and driverless technology, performance will be tuned-down to whatever is necessary to plod along a freeway at posted speeds.  Safety will be excruciating.  But even then, listen to the most excited technology gurus, and they'll tell you that we won't need to build many more freeways, since traffic congestion would be better managed with driverless cars.  The technology would slow you down and make you wait, or putter along at two miles per hour, whether you want to or not.

Hey, that's basically what a traffic accident or gridlock does now anyway, right?  What difference does it make whether it's rush-hour traffic or a computer dictating how long your commute takes?  Either way, how many drivers are actually "in control" anymore? 

Ahh... and now we hit upon the true purpose behind driverless cars, don't we?  It's not about safety and economy as much as it is control, isn't it?  Listen to the techno-geeks long enough, and eventually, you'll hear them say something about needing to change America's driving habits and conforming us into a more ecologically-friendly pattern of conservation and civic conformity.  And driverless cars would be a good way of better-controlling our society, since cars currently dominate our culture so strongly.

Who'd have thought Uber was related to Big Brother?

Hey, maybe removing the personal responsibility of car ownership would make life less stressful for us.  Maybe having the chance to sit back, with an overpriced designer caffeinated beverage, while your automated vehicular pod plods through your commute will make your workday that much more enjoyable.  That is, of course, if you still have a job, after all of this technology keeps rolling out.

Because after a while, technology isn't just about making life better, but also - often concurrently - taking livelihoods away, isn't it?  At some point, isn't technology's elimination of jobs going to catch up with us?  How many workers today are being successfully transitioned from basic labor to high-skill Silicon Valley professions?  And how quickly will automation soon transform the tech landscape, as lower-level support jobs are transitioned to computers and algorithms?

Critics have claimed for a couple of decades that our incessant drive for technological innovation could actually economically impoverish our society to the point where hardly anybody will be able to afford all of the technology we're creating for ourselves.  It's the difference between wisdom and intelligence - and not artificial intelligence!  We should use wisdom to decide what technologies will actually benefit our society long-term and broadly-viewed, not simply developing technology because we have the intelligence (and venture capital) to create it.

So, is that what we're doing with driverless technology?

Meanwhile, ready or not, this particular concept will soon throttle-up for Uber.  But even then, Pennsylvania state law requires that a motorized vehicle be manned by a humanoid!  So each "driverless" Uber car will have somebody slouched, stand-by, at the controls, which for a while at least, will void any cost-savings aspect of the project.

Yet state laws are only the beginning of our society's bureaucratic red tape when it comes to fully unleashing driverless technology across America.  There are insurance regulations, liability concerns, and local municipal traffic laws to be considered.  Privacy rights are also at play, since virtually every move a driverless car takes will be well-documented by each vehicle's technology.  And, thanks to America's well-established penchant for individuality and independence, there likely will be many taxpayers and voters who don't want to adopt all of the new protocols and behavior patterns that driverless technology will demand from us.

Proponents of this brave new world will scoff that we simply don't like change.

But that won't be entirely true.  Most of us will gladly accept change... that's for the better!  At this point, however, driverless technology seems nicer in theory than in reality.

Even as its reality creeps ever closer sometime soon in Pittsburgh.

*Update Thursday, August 25, 2016:  Sorry, Pittsburgh:  Singapore beat you to it.  Driverless taxis made their debut there today.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Why Aleppo's Little Omran Matters

Omran Daqneesh, age 5, from a video by Mahmoud Raslan

It's a fact:  99 percent of everybody on our planet doesn't understand what's going on in Syria these days.

And that's probably a conservative estimate.  It could be as high as 100 percent.  But let's assume that there are at least a few international policy experts, diplomats, government officials, military strategists, relief workers, and Syrians themselves who can at least partly explain what's happening in places like Aleppo.

Aleppo, Syria, is the hometown of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, whose image has captured the world's attention.  In a video taken by Mahmoud Raslan outside a hospital in Aleppo - a hospital that goes by the code name "M10" for security reasons - we are reminded yet again of the horrors of war, and the indiscriminate ways violence of the most brutal sorts can impact innocent little children.

After all, little Omran isn't out killing others.  He's no terrorist or front-line patriot or whatever passes for a "good guy" in Syria's sprawling war.  He was in his home when it was bombed.  He was likely asleep.  From the expression on his face, presumably one of utter shock and bewilderment, it's easy to imagine him trying to figure out what had just happened, and where he was now.  His family would arrive soon; they were waiting for his mother to be pulled from their home's rubble before the rest of them came to the hospital.

The chaos of yet another night in Aleppo seems foreign to us.  How does a kid like this end up in an ambulance looking like that without a frantic parent alongside?  Fortunately, his wound wasn't serious; little Omran was cleaned up, patched up, and sent away with no medical complications.  But his mental and emotional complications?  They're probably beginning to kick in, even now, as I type this, and as you read it.

Yet another victim in Aleppo.  Wounded for what reason?  I don't know.  And the chances are almost complete that you don't know, either.  Little Omran doesn't know, and probably few members of his family even know where to begin with the true reason for what they're enduring.

What we do know, however, is that what's taking place in Syria is a brutal battle between factions of Islam.  We do know that different foreign governments around the world have tried to intervene.  We do know that most of this intervention has been woefully counter-productive.  We don't have a clear understanding of who's fighting for what, or why.  We don't know what it will take to make any sort of cease-fire hold while a longer-term peace can be constructed.

Still, it's easy to suspect that the tensions and viewpoints fueling Syria's current bloodbath have been brewing for longer than a few years, or even a few generations.  It's easy to suspect that most popular iterations of Islamic teaching across the Middle East are bathed with scalding rhetoric of epic religious proportions.  It's easy to suspect that the hundreds of thousands of refugees who've fled Syria have their secret allegiances, even if they're too scared to stay home and work for peace in their families, their neighborhoods, their cities, and their country.

Indeed, as Syrian refugees have swamped many European countries for over a year now, many white, non-Muslim Europeans who used to consider themselves so tolerant and welcoming are growing weary of playing host to them.  Depending on the news source, whether it's more mainstream or left-wing, or right-wing, anecdotal stories of increasing crime perpetrated by displaced Syrians, and decreasing sanitation standards at Syrian camps, are putting political pressure on government officials to figure out ways to send the Syrians home.

Even some Syrians themselves have begun to grumble about their new status in life.  Apparently, it's not enough that they're safe from the incessant bombardment in their homeland; different media reports paint a picture of refugees as at least bored, if not frustrated that their hosts aren't even more accommodating.  Then there are initial assessments by various government agencies that don't look promising for the ability of many Syrians to find suitable employment in Europe.  There are questions about whether the educational standards back in Syria are compatible with Europe's.  Then there's the question of long-term accommodations.  Housing is quite expensive in Europe; it's one thing to find a cheap apartment here or there, but housing for hundreds of thousands of families?

"Send them back," a few Europeans have begun saying.  And frankly, might that be the best thing?  Not because the refugees will be re-entering a war zone, but because none of the rest of us seem to understand what's going on over there.

Refugee parents fled Syria so their own children wouldn't end up like Omran... or worse; dead.  Yet might this be a case of the people being fought over needing to take their own stand for their country?  Instead of running?

Indigenous people groups the world over tend to complain when Western governments "meddle" in their home country affairs.  Yet to be fair, isn't our meddling often at least an overture of concern and compassion for the oppressed?  Sometimes it's easier for onlookers from abroad to see what's happening and provide support to the side which best represents the good of the country as a whole.  It's not always perfect, or well-timed.  And when strategic natural resources are concerned, we Westerners can get a bit greedy.  Yet overall, since we tend to value democracy and capitalism as the most effective processes for civil rights, our advocacy in other countries, while perhaps unwanted by some, isn't malicious at its core.

Look at South Korea or Japan; two countries that have flourished amazingly well after American intervention in their political affairs.

Then there's the Middle East.  Boy, howdy:  Talk about your quagmires.  Talk about your intransigent belligerence.  Talk about your holy wars and vitriolic religious rhetoric.  Isn't it interesting that with so many refugees from Syria - and other Muslim-majority countries - wanting to flee their homeland, almost all of them head directly for Europe, instead of other Muslim-majority countries?  True, Turkey has a lot of Syrian refugees, but Turkey is considered by many to be Europe's turnstile, as Muslims leave the Middle East with their eyes set on European or American prosperity and peace.

Meanwhile, where's the open embrace by such fabulously wealthy Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and the glittering Persian Gulf states?  Why aren't the Middle East's oil barons eager to demonstrate the best of Islamic faith by welcoming into their lucrative embrace the tempest-tossed huddled masses from Syria?  So it's okay to accuse the West of meddling when you're secretly funneling guns and money to your favorite Muslim factions in Aleppo and elsewhere?

Maybe this little diatribe here does little more than express my own lack of understanding regarding Syria's current turmoil.  But even that possibility proves my point, doesn't it?  Most Westerners want to help, at least in theory.  We hate suffering, we hate seeing photographs of kids like little Omran.  Shucks, this photo is powerful BECAUSE we don't want things like this happening to children like him.  If we had no compassion, this photo would be worthless.

For her part, ABC News correspondent Sophie McNeill has taken a sanctimonious stance when it comes to the West and Syria.  On her Twitter feed, she promotes the defiant hash-tag, #wecantsaywedidntknow, insinuating that the five billion of us whom she suspects of merely dismissing Omran's image are turning a blind eye to Syria.  She posts that she wants "the world to act," as if the entire world would act in unison, in accord, with the same objective in mind, when it comes to Syria.  Or anything else, actually.

Hey lady:  Here's a tip.  Don't patronize us.  You may be on the ground in Aleppo, but can you explain what's going on over there?  According to your Twitter feed, you just want the violence to stop.  Well, guess what:  Most of us do, too.  That's not news.  Yet the violence exists because something - likely, many things - provoked it.

Brokering a peace strategy in places like Syria requires a deep working knowledge of what has led us to this photograph of little Omran.  Ninety-nine percent of us don't have that working knowledge, and we suspect you're one of us.

Nevertheless, just because we don't understand what caused it doesn't mean we don't care.

Update August 19, 2016:  A friend of mine with close ties to Aleppo has suggested we consider something called "Apocalyptic Islam" as the reason for why we Westerners are confounded by Syria, and Muslim-centric violence in general.  Never heard of Apocalyptic Islam?  Neither had I.  But this piece by the National Review helps explain a lot. 

From Joel Rosenberg's article:
"There is a dramatic shift underway in the Muslim world. The most serious threat we face in the Middle East and North Africa is no longer radical Islam but apocalyptic Islam. We face not just one but two regional regimes whose rulers are driven not merely by violent political ideology, or by extremist theology, but by apocalyptic, genocidal eschatology, or End Times theology. The first is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The second is the Islamic State, or ISIS. The leaders of the former are Shia. The latter are Sunni. Both believe that we are living in the End of Days as predicted in their ancient prophecies. Both believe that any moment now their messiah, the Mahdi, will be revealed on Earth as he establishes his global Islamic kingdom and impose sharia law. Both believe that Jesus will return not as the Savior or Son of God but as a lieutenant to the Mahdi, and that he will force non-Muslims to convert or die. What’s more, both believe that the Mahdi will come only when the world is engulfed in chaos and carnage."

Update August 26, 2016:  Regarding Apocalyptic Islam, in which civilian casualties are actually crucial to the cause, consider this excerpt from a compelling article on the crisis in today's New York Times:

"Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather than the local population, they have little incentive to protect civilians. In fact, this dynamic turns the local population into a potential threat rather than a necessary resource.  The incentives push them to “utilize collective violence and terror to shape the behaviors of the population,” the researchers found. The images we see of dead mothers and children may not represent helpless bystanders but deliberate targets, killed not out of madness or cruelty but coldly rational calculation.  Severe, indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring little near-term risks and substantial benefits: disrupting the enemy’s control or local support, pacifying potential threats, plundering resources and others.  Pro-government forces have conducted by far the most attacks against civilians, but opposition fighters have led some as well. Among the insurgents, individual groups that refuse to attack civilians end up at a disadvantage compared with the groups that will."  - Max Fisher


Friday, August 12, 2016

Deep-Frying Fast-Food's Wage Hike

"Bless his lil' heart."

Say it with a Southern accent and a sugary lilt, and look at a photo of Bernie Sanders when you do.

Bless his heart.  He's given it away to Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Party whose e-mails indicate its leadership can't stand him.  But he's still a Socialist at heart, something liberals are split over endorsing.

Take the Facebook post by Sanders this morning, in which he calls for a raise in the minimum wage:

"Fast food CEOs make 1,203 times more than their average worker, but they refuse to pay their workers a living wage.  It's time to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour."

And then there's a graphic with lots of little red icons (figures they'd be red, huh?) to drive home what 1,203 of something looks like.

Raising the minimum wage has been a plank in the liberal platform for several years now.  And the rationale, at first blush (blushes are also red; go figure), seems legit:  all these people working front-counter, front-line jobs, facing the public every day, having to work under hot conditions with greasy foods, all for a fraction of what folks earn in the executive suite.  It's not fair.  They're both people putting in 8-hour days.  Who says the executive is working harder in his air-conditioned board room than the guy cleaning up the vomit some kid spewed all over a table after eating too much processed chicken fat?

Except take that argument any further, and you start sounding jealous.  What do executives do that merits so much more pay per hour than the grunt workers at the opposite end of the pay scale?  Well, frankly, I don't know.  I've often wondered why some of the people who make as much as they do figure they're worth as much as they make.  A lot of highly-paid people aren't earning their pay; their resume just happens to click all the right boxes on a corporate pay algorithm.  The idea is that the people who aren't really earning their keep eventually get fired, but that doesn't always happen, of course.

For years, economists have argued the merits of the corporate salary mentality, but basically, it's generally believed that because corporate workers tend to think more, take more risks, and assume what's believed to be a greater liability for the company, then they're worth more than whatever the minimum wage happens to be.

It may not be entirely fair, but it's the way Wall Street says business should be done, and in the grand scheme of things, it is a lot harder to find people qualified to fill ever-increasing-complexity jobs in the corporate office than it is in the rote, minimal-skill jobs on the front lines of a fast-food restaurant's kitchen.  So according to capitalism's metrics, the easier the job is to fill, and the more basic its required skill set is, then the pay scale is reduced to reflect those realities.

What does that mean?  It means, frankly, that not every job, even in a large corporation, is going to pay what we consider to be a "living wage."  Each job should have a pay rate relative to that job's worth to the enterprise, and a lot of jobs are worth less to an organization like a fast-food company than the jobs in its corporate suite.  It may look punitive as far as entry-level workers are concerned, but there are advantages.  Lower pay at the bottom can encourage entry-level employees to work harder and move up the pay scale.  It encourages people to pursue a post-high-school education, whether it's with technical training or a graduate degree.  All of this extra brain-power can be useful as one rises up the chain of command.  And workers who bring more to the table, as they say, expect to be compensated accordingly.  

Being a counter clerk at a fast-food restaurant, meanwhile, is but one step on that corporate ladder.  It's not a job designed to earn its holder a lot of money.  Sure, it's hard work, but it's not specialized work.  So why should a fast-food company act as though it is?

Of course, the big paychecks taken home by these fast-food chain executives do look a bit silly.  All that money for peddling a bunch of meat scraps boiled in grease?  How much of a fast-food company's profits is due to the way its finance people structure its debts and run its accounting department, and how much is due to the quality of food service at the point of delivery, in neighborhoods across America?  Could these fast-food chains pay its front-line workers more and still be profitable?  Probably.  But with capitalism the way it is, those front-line workers are still looking at the base-line reality of their jobs:  Just about anybody can do them, fresh off the street.  Any job like that simply isn't going to command a big salary.

It's this reality that makes insinuations like Sanders' spurious.  We can't simply compare a CEO's wages with those of a counter clerk, side-by-side.  In fact, it could be argued that fast-food companies are being charitable by still providing human clerks in their restaurants.  The technology already exists to eliminate most fast-food restaurant positions and make them self-service.  And considering the glum attitude of many fast-food workers, customers would probably prefer the change.

If fast-food companies were concerned about quality, and customer retention, paying their counter employees better might be a smart move, simply to acknowledge that business is won and lost not just in the board room, but in each restaurant the company owns or franchises.  Better-paid counter staff should translate into marginally-happier workers, which in theory, should help drive sales by keeping customers happy.  As it is, most people who patronize fast-fool establishments do so more out of reluctance and a busy schedule, rather than anticipation. 

But a "living wage?"  Rewarding good employees with a couple of dollars more per hour probably won't raise the overall pay scale to whatever qualifies as "living wage" these days.  And that's because these counter jobs simply aren't jobs designed to provide for a family, let alone provide financial security to a single person.  They're jobs put out onto the job market for anybody to fill, and their pay rate is take-it-or-leave-it.

Just because a lot of fast-food employees actually work these jobs and try to make a living for their families off of the pay, that doesn't mean these should be living wage jobs.  Just because a lot of Americans these days don't have the educational attainment or pristine background that could get them a better-paying job, that doesn't mean fast-food companies should be held liable for fixing that dilemma.

What about other jobs that have failed to pay a living wage?  What about all the family farms that have gone defunct over the years as the cost of raising a family has far exceeded agricultural revenue?  Granted, we Americans currently pay huge farm subsidies, ostensibly to keep our country's farms afloat, but judging by the bloated corporate agricultural industry that's evolved in the wake of the family farm's demise, don't you suspect our tax dollars are sliding right into Big Ag's pockets?

One of the favored arguments for raising the minimum wage for restaurant workers involves the fact that many minimum-wage earners end up depending on taxpayer-funded government programs to make ends meet.  Raise the minimum wage, this logic says, and we'll reduce the amount of money taxpayers have to spend on supplementing these low wages.

Yet here again, if people are having families and otherwise assuming financial obligations they can't afford, the fix is not to get other people to fund the wage shortfall.  There's this uncomfortable and politically-incorrect concept called "personal responsibility" that's supposed to kick into gear, and propel people to do what should be done within their personal sphere of accountability to get the bills paid.  And to plan ahead just a little when it comes to big-ticket items.  Like kids, for example...

Okay, let's talk turkey:  Might this mean not engaging in teenage sex, or being a baby mommy/daddy?  Probably.  Might that mean staying in high school until you graduate?  Yes.  Might that mean not getting hooked on drugs or alcohol?  Might that mean not acquiring the latest smartphones or rims or fashionable clothing?

Actually, the fact that so many Americans seem to be only qualified for fast-food employment represents a far broader problem within our society than simply wages.  But what would raising the fast-food minimum wage fix?  Where's the money going to come from?  Do you think it's going to come from the CEO's pay package?  Or from your own pocket, the next time you hit the drive-thru?  And how many of us think what we're already paying for tepid meat on a stale roll is too much?

So Bernie, bless your lil' heart.  And all y'all who feel for the poor folk who slave away for a pittance in fast-food restaurants:  Bless y'all's lil' hearts, too.  Because on the one hand, we all know it's unpleasant work at best, and a lot of those workers have big bills to pay.

But if you liberals all thought about it, if Michele Obama had her way, America's fast-food industry would be wiped off of the economic and dietary map.  Hardly anything served by any fast-food chain is healthy in any way, shape or form.  In a sense, if wages went up, which would drive prices up, and Americans stopped eating fast-food, we'd all be better off.

Except the folks who still can only find work at their local McDonald's.

Hey, you really wanna upsize that order?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Trump's Ends Don't Justify His Meanness

Okay.  Remind me again why we evangelicals are supposed to vote for Donald Trump.

Many evangelicals have already decided they can't vote for somebody as acrimonious as the GOP's unlikely standard-bearer.  Yet many more appear resigned to support The Donald simply because he's not Hillary Clinton.

After all, we can't have a habitual liar in the White House, can we?  The fact that both Hillary and Trump tell all sorts of wild falsehoods notwithstanding, of course.

We can't have a pro-choice person in the White House, can we?  The fact that Trump used to be pro-choice, has only paid token lip service to pro-life voters, and has voiced support for nominating his pro-choice sister to the Supreme Court notwithstanding, of course.

And speaking of SCOTUS, we can't have four more years of Democrats appointing justices to the big bench, can we?  The fact that none of the people Trump has already mentioned as his nominee picks are shoe-ins for Senate confirmation notwithstanding, of course.

Frankly, Trump's SCOTUS nominee list, stocked with conventional right-wing resumes, appears to be the last thread of hope for conservative Republicans who can't bring themselves to abandon the party that apparently has abandoned its traditional moralistic heritage.  Trump has intentionally scorned conventionalism in a caustic hubris his fans want to interpret as mere political incorrectness.  Yet at what point should evangelicals be deciding that no matter how bad Hillary is, the ends still don't justify the means?

It can be argued that Trump really didn't mean to imply that gun owners should plot to assassinate Hillary Clinton if she wins and tries to gut the Second Amendment.  It can be argued that Trump was only joking when he strategically mocked a handicapped journalist, or repeatedly insulted Jeb Bush, or Tweeted vindictively about Ted Cruz's wife.  It can be argued that Trump was merely milking the PR machine when he lambasted the parents of a slain Muslim soldier.  It can be argued that Trump's salacious comments about his own daughter were taken out of context.  It can be argued that Trump didn't mean to imply that America shouldn't protect our freedom of religion when he called for banning refugees of a particular religion from our country.

Yet at what point should evangelicals admit that no matter how bad Hillary is, Trump's ends still don't justify his mean-spiritedness?

In Trumps' latest outrageous sound bite, he accuses President Obama of being the "founder" of ISIS.  Today, on a conservative talk show, he refused to back down from that claim when host Hugh Hewitt pressed him on it.  Finally, Trump appeared to concede that he should have said that Obama's failed policies as president allowed the creation of ISIS to take place, something which which most conservatives and even many liberals would at least begrudgingly agree.  But why wouldn't Trump admit that he used false hyperbole and basically accuse the president of treason?

Because of the media, an institution he otherwise claims to loathe!

"[The media] do talk about my language, right?" he asked Hewitt triumphantly, pointing out how his egregiously inflammatory wording captures the media's attention and, thereby, the attention of the world.  It's a phenomenon that's been recognized before in Trump's campaign, and a tactic that he's manipulated to his personal advantage during most of his public life.

In other words, Trump intentionally deploys reckless speech because he values the media exposure more than he values his personal integrity, or the personal integrity of the people about whom he's talking.

And evangelicals are OK with that?  How can we trust that somebody like Trump is going to follow-through on whatever he's promising to whomever he's talking when he makes his promises?  If he says whatever he wants because he knows his audience wants to hear it, whether he actually believes it or embraces it himself, what's the point?

You want to place your trust and hope in somebody like that?

"The ends justify the means" is not a Biblical concept.  It's not a moral concept.  It may be a reliable concept in terms of it being a habitual practice by people like Trump - and Hillary, for that matter - but it's no reason to place any confidence in people like Trump or Hillary to actually do the right thing once they get whatever they're aiming to acquire.

In fact, it says as much negative things about the people who willingly support people like Trump and Hillary as it does Trump and Hillary.  It says their supporters don't really care about what you say, or how you say it, as long as it sounds like what they want to hear.  Regardless of whether it's something that's true, edifying, helpful, productive, effective, or not.

Actually, the fact that people like Hillary and Trump have gotten this far in the presidential race says a lot of bad things about the voters of our country.  But it's not too late.  We don't have to commit America's Oval Office for the next four years to somebody like Hillary or Trump.  Not that any of the third party candidates are perfect, either.  But I'm voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson because unlike Trump and Hillary, Johnson seems the least eager to prostitute his integrity just to win an election.

No, Johnson is not pro-life.  But how can any evangelical say with certainty that Trump is?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Sin by Any Other Name is Still Sin

How do you rate?

Or perhaps, I should ask;  do you rate?

Do you rate sins?  Most of us do, don't we?  We rank sins in order of heinousness, or depth of impact on others, or on how badly they must anger God.

We presume that some sins are worse than others.  But are they?  Is homosexuality, for example, worse than heterosexual adultery?

Sins may have different consequences.  And some sins may be more taboo than others.  Some religious people point to the lists of sins in the Old Testament that God said should be punished by death, and figure that those represent a whole different level of human depravity than, say, running a red light or littering.

By the way, those sins punishable by death in the Old Testament?  They include heterosexual adultery, and homosexual adultery.  In fact, any sexual thought, desire, or activity apart from a man and woman united in holy matrimony is a sin, and is adultery.  Sex with an animal is adultery, which God decreed was punishable by death.

And bratty kids?  Guess what - being disobedient to one's parents was grounds for death, too.  For all you parents out there who are exasperated by your incorrigible children, or think your kids' misbehavior is somehow cute or normal, guess what:  In Old Testament times, you could have had your kids killed for not obeying you.  Or even for being a glutton, or drunkard.

Freaky, huh?  Don't hear those sermons in church often, do you?  Shucks, even pastors whose daughters are sexually rebellious could have had them killed.

(This death list includes breaking the Sabbath - how many of us do that regularly?  It also includes lying about one's virginity, being a male refusing to be circumcised, certain instances of perjury, and failing to contain one's dangerous animal so that it kills somebody.)

Now what does your sliding scale of sin look like?

Yet we protest:  "Oh, lots of pastors' kids act up.  It's no big deal."

"My children misbehave all the time.  I did too, when I was a kid.  It's normal; it's part of growing up."

"Yeah, that bestiality stuff is too weird," many more moralists would agree.  "It should be punishable by death.  And so should homosexuality.  I know that's a politically-incorrect thing to say, but I think homosexuality is just perverse."

But think about it:  All sin is perversion to God, isn't it?  Not just the sins you may think are perverse.  Every culture and people group on the planet sort out the behaviors that the majority of its people think are tolerable and intolerable.  We craft codes of law based on activities we're willing to tolerate, and activities we consider to be harmful to ourselves and our community.  And the fewer people there are who participate in those activities, oddly enough (!), the more heinous we tend to consider those activities.  After all, there aren't a lot of people to defend them.  Over time, we tend to normalize common sins, and make uncommon sins taboo.

And we think God does the same thing.

But He doesn't.  If your God has a hierarchy of sin, then your god isn't the God of the Bible.  Sin is so much a part of what humanity is, we don't really understand how pervasive it is.  And we fail to fully appreciate the  astounding significance of why Christ had to die for the guilt of our sins.

Meanwhile, even though we have a pretty good understanding of how bad sin is in general, we go about life constructing for ourselves and our society a framework of sins that usually assuages our consciences and pigeonholes our morality on a basis of human performance, not divine expectations.  We look about ourselves, laterally, across the spectrum of people we know or learn about in the media.  We figure we're not as bad as that person, or maybe not as good as another person.  Yet most of us manage to find a false solace in the goodness we present to our family, friends, and pastor.

But God knows all along.  He knows all about us.  He knows that while our pastor can't kill us for having sex with somebody to whom we're not married, that's the same atrocity - in His perfect accounting of our behavior - as it is for two people of the same gender to have sex with each other.

Obviously, this is not a perspective that is widespread within evangelicalism.  Churched voters, for example, tend to believe that abortion is a worse sin than, say, treason, or making fun of handicapped people.  Yes, it's Biblical to hold leaders to a higher standard, but the sins leaders commit are all still equal in God's eyes.  Yes, it's Biblical to have civic laws which differentiate behaviors, and it's not unBiblical to assign different punishments to different crimes, even though the sins we commit are all still equal in God's eyes.

It certainly seems to make sense to us that some sins are worse than others, but that's because we humanoids like creating hierarchies so we know where we fit within a society.

Interestingly enough, a popular blogger who claims to be a born-again Christ-follower has broached the topic of homosexuality with this perspective in mind.  Matt Moore lives in New Orleans and is a repentant homosexual who is transitioning, but not in the way gay activists would like him to.  Moore is transitioning from a same-sex lifestyle to a hetero-sex lifestyle.  And the process has gotten him wondering:  Are all of these sexual labels actually helpful to him, and the rest of us?

In other words, we have these terms like homosexual, heterosexual, gay, straight, and we generally think people are either one or the other.  Yet Moore recently asked in his blog if we're not over-emphasizing sexual differentiation at the expense of God's purpose for sex:

"I refuse to [identify] as homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual or asexual or any-other-kind-of-sexual," declares Moore.  "Many of my Christian brothers and sisters don’t understand this... Sure, it takes a lot less time to say, “I am gay,” than it does to say, “I am a fallen human being who is riddled with sin and who experiences all kinds of inclinations that seek to entice me away from God’s good design, including a sinful sexual attraction toward the same gender.”

Moore's solution?  He wonders if perpetuating specific terminology for various types of sexual sins can actually help create an identity within those sins which participants in those sins can then adopt for themselves.

After all, it's when we adopt a particular sin identity that we make it that much harder for ourselves to repent of it and move away from it.  When we're an employee at a particular job for a while, and we separate ourselves from that job (whether by retiring or being terminated) it's often a struggle to move past that former identity as that company's employee.  When we lose a spouse, like my Mom recently did, it takes a long time to readjust to being a widow or widower.  When kids leave the house for college, the empty-nest syndrome has become a time of angst as parents struggle with their new identities.  When people participate in a lifestyle of sexual sin and develop an identity with that lifestyle, it complicates things when the Holy Spirit convicts them of that particular sin, and they seek to repent of it.

See what I mean?  See what Moore means?

"I don’t want to operate in a mentality in which my sexual desires have identity-shaping power in my life," reasons Moore.  "I am primarily the righteousness of God in Christ—not my jacked up sexuality."

Then Moore says something I've never considered before:

"I don’t believe the content or implications of the Scriptures support the idea that each person has a fixed, immutable set of sexual desires that they are born with.  The Bible speaks about homosexual and heterosexual behavior and the desires that drive those activities, but it never implies that some people are heterosexual and some people are homosexual."

Which, if you think about it, neatly erases the whole nature vs. nurture thing.  Are some people born gay?  No.  Are others born straight?  No.  We're born with a sexual nature that can be perverted through inappropriate sex with people of another gender or the same gender.

Moore sounds pretty convincing:

"I believe the Bible teaches that 1) we all possess a sexuality, and 2) that sexuality has been distorted by sin.  If we are going to claim any sexual orientation, it needs to be our orientation to sin.  We are all inclined to dishonor God by abusing our bodies in unlawful activities. Whether the object of our desire is a male or a female or an inflatable pool raft (saw that one on the news!), we are all fallen people with broken sexualities."

And guess what?  Whether you currently identify as a heterosexual or a homosexual, your sexuality is broken in some form or fashion.  It may be "normal" for a man to lust after a woman who is not his wife, but that's an example of broken sexuality, no matter how normal it may be in our culture.

What's taboo, however, is when a man lusts after another man.  But that's still an example of broken sexuality; just as broken as "hetero" lust is.  We simply accept one as being more common than another.  But God doesn't accept any of it.

Normative sin is still sin.  Taboo sin is still sin.

That's why God's grace is so much more powerful than we can ever hope it to be.

Praise be to Jesus Christ, and to His holy Father, through the power at work in us by the Holy Spirit!