Can You Love Animals & Still Eat Meat?

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loveable pets

As an unabashed left-winger and animal lover, I often think about how my meat eating habit squares with my politics and morals. How can I eat cows and pigs, but balk at eating dogs and cats? Why do I draw these lines and accept hypocritical assumptions without losing any sleep at night?

It’s a tricky subject with no easy answer. My vegan and vegetarian friends and acquaintances may refrain from eating meat themselves, but they do feed meat to their pet cats and dogs (though I know they would impose a vegetarian diet if they knew their pets could handle it). The main philosophy behind ethical vegetarianism is that one need not impose suffering and death on others so that you may live. I certainly agree with this in most cases, but upon closer examination I realize that it’s not always so simple. It’s one thing to refrain from buying sweatshop manufactured clothing, quite another to assume that plants are fine with dying so that we may live.

The problem with this philosophy is that it assumes that plants do not feel or suffer; that they don’t mind being your dinner the way an animal would; which is completely wrong. Plants have evolved many techniques to avoid being consumed, which include growing thorns and secreting potent poisons that can sicken or kill. Don’t mistake a plant’s inability to scream and run away as an invitation to eat it–plants came into this world long before we did and to this day, continue to struggle and live just as we do.

That said, I do love animals in general and oppose animal cruelty in all its forms. I try my best to be an ethical meat eater, though it is extremely difficult given how embedded the industrial food system is in our society. It has been suggested that the only way I can be truly ethical is to give up meat altogether, but unfortunately my health won’t allow it. Not everyone is built the same, and not everyone will benefit from a meat-free diet, for better or for worse. So if meat-eating cannot be realistically eliminated, what can or should be done?

A. Strictly regulate animal farms and slaughterhouses.

  1. Ban animal overcrowding. This encourages stress and infection among the captive animals, which leads to antibiotic overuse, which we ingest to the detriment of our health. While overcrowding ensures the superficial cheapness of our meat in the grocery store, the costs to our health remain unaccounted for. With the recent explosion of antibiotic resistant infections, perhaps it’s time we realize just how expensive chicken truly is, no matter what the sticker price says.
  2. No feeding recycled dead animals to naturally vegetarian animals. You are what you eat, and this is no different with animals.
  3. Slaughter methods must inflict a quick and humane death, and must be safe for the administering employees. Too often, slaughterhouse employees must endure horrible and unsafe working conditions so we can have cheap meat on the table. Not only is this unacceptable in the moral sense, but for the public’s collective health as well. When slaughterhouse employees are “encouraged” to process animals as quickly as possible, serious injuries and missing body parts are bound to happen.
  4. Revamp animal waste management practices to minimize and mitigate environmental impact and maximize animal health. Shortcuts that save these companies money often cost the public dearly, in the form of irreversible environmental damage and the negative downstream impact on public health.
  5. Animal well being should be a priority. While I’m not advocating the animal equivalent of Club Med, it should have the chance to live well before it meets its end on our dinner table.

B. Diversify animal protein sources

  1. Eat more insects, which require less land, water and feed to produce than traditional food animals like cows, pigs, and chicken. High protein and low fat, insects are a fantastic health food as long as you can get past your cultural bias.
  2. Develop and perfect lab grown meat.
  3. Eat less water and land intensive meat (cows, chickens, pigs) to preserve the environment.

This proposed outline is by no means perfect. It doesn’t address cultural hypocrisy in any way. I understand that cows, pigs and chickens are sentient beings with personalities. I don’t eat enough insects because I’m no good at catching and preparing them, and the curry flavored crickets I bought at the novelty store taste like crap. Our cat and dog need to eat, so I feed them cow, chicken, and fish.

I suppose its’ more accurate to say that I love certain kinds of animals. Still, selective love is no excuse for unnecessary cruelty and sadism (not that cruelty or sadism has ever been necessary). I’ve never loved a cow or a turkey, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever ok to torture and abuse it.

We live in a world where the dead nourish the living. Whether that’s fair or moral, I honestly don’t know.

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21st Century Slavery, American Style

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modern day slavery

Despite what the Constitution says, we never really abolished slavery in America. Currently, a segment of the American population are forced to work for $0.25 or $0.35 an hour, making them effectively cheaper than 3rd world factory workers and illegal immigrants. Housed and fed by taxpayer dollars, this captive workforce is certainly in no danger of starving from starvation wages. Deprived of the rights we like to take for granted, American prisoners have 2 “choices”: work for less than a bag of peanuts, or endure solitary confinement until they see the error of their ways.

Despite this apparent violation of human rights, many everyday Americans remain unmoved and apathetic to the plight of prisoners. Most of them undoubtedly think that prisoners don’t deserve any rights or privileges, and that this is simply just desserts for committing crimes and breaking the law. Of course, this simplistic view glosses over several important factors, such as:

  • the racist justice system that disproportionately incarcerates the black, the brown, and poor
  • the antiquated and punitive drug laws that destroy the lives and futures of non-violent offenders
  • the inconvenient fact that between 2.3% to 5% of all current American prisoners are innocent, which is the inevitable result of police error/corruption, overzealous prosecutors, and institutional inertia

There are other dubious assumptions and values that I won’t be getting into, because I want to focus on the cost of punishment as an institution, and how it negatively affects even the rule-followers and the “non-criminals” among us. I won’t belabor the humanitarian and moral reasons for outlawing prison labor, as I feel they are self evident to those who already believe in basic human dignity. Instead, I want to examine the price we pay for supporting a sociopolitical system that condemns a specific class of its citizens to institutional slavery for private profit.

For argument’s sake, let’s suppose that every prisoner really is guilty, was fairly represented and convicted, and justly sentenced and confined. Should you still be concerned and outraged about their plight as legalized slave labor?

YES–and here are some self-centered, perfectly logical reasons why prison slavery is bad for everyone (except for the companies that stand to profit, of course):

  • Because your tax dollars pay for the employees/slaves’ living expenses (housing, food, medical care, etc.), privately held companies can afford to grossly underpay them. This results in outsized profits, which are funneled to their shareholders and corporate officers. As a member of the hoi polloi and a non-shareholder, you do not get any portion of the profits, despite the fact that your taxes were used by the company to subsidize the cost of their labor and pad their profit margins.
  • As a non-prisoner, you have to pay for your own living expenses (ah, the cost of freedom). Unfortunately, the cost of living has gone up despite the tanking economy. Rent is at an all time high. The grocery bill for a family of 2 will usually range between $350 to $700 for just one month. The electric company also doesn’t accept IOU’s or hugs and kisses in lieu of payment. Given this stark reality, you simply can’t afford to compete with an “employee” who works for $0.25 an hour. And you thought illegal immigrants and 3rd world factory workers were tough competition.
  • Unless the job requires high tech skills and education, they can be done just as efficiently by a prisoner. Call centers for customer service, telemarketing, and vacation reservations are already staffed by American convicts, who can also speak with an American accent (an added bonus for companies who want to avoid negative reactions from xenophobic customers). Merchandise packaging/shipping, food processing, clothing/fabric manufacturing, and fruit picking are also being done by prisoners, who have proven themselves to be even more compliant and desperate than the typical garden variety migrant or sweatshop worker.
  • The police are becoming increasingly brutal and abusive with the people they “serve and protect”. This means that even you, the rule-following non-criminal, can get railroaded by the very system you ostensibly support. This is especially true if you are not rich or connected, which is the situation for the vast majority of Americans regardless of skin color. As no system is perfect, an innocent person is bound to get incarcerated sooner or later, even under the most stringent procedures. And yes, this could be you under the wrong circumstances.

We officially abolished slavery with the 13th amendment in 1865. Corporations were granted personhood and basic human rights in 1886. Currently, corporations are allowed to flout the 13th amendment, while flesh and blood persons continue to be prohibited from doing so. Clearly, not all persons are created equal under the law.

When we permit the enslavement of prisoners, we are dismissing a segment of society in the belief that we are somehow safe from having to live their fate. While this may be true for most Americans (for now), this is no way to organize a society–especially one that fancies itself as the most free and democratic nation in the world (which has not been true for quite some time).

This is not a blanket argument against punishment. I believe, just like most of my fellow citizens, that proper forms of punishment are necessary in maintaining justice and fairness. But given the state of the nation, we have to ask ourselves: why are we so willing to diminish ourselves for the privilege of pushing those below us farther down the ladder?

How Much Should Freedom Cost?

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accounting costs

Freedom is a nebulous concept, and is often purposely misinterpreted by many vested interested groups. For example, pharmaceutical companies want the “freedom” to charge as much as they want for prescription drugs. Corporations have the same rights as actual human beings, including the right to free speech and the right to make political donations. Monsanto wants the “freedom” to not have to tell consumers about GMOs, because apparently their right to privacy trumps our right to know what we’re eating. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

But what did freedom mean to me? What does freedom mean to most people? Obviously I can’t speak for others, but at least I can speak for myself. I always equated freedom with the ability to make choices, but growing up I was ignorant about how the system we live in constrains the choices we have. I was also unaware of how your position in the social and economic hierarchy can constrict or multiply your viable options–we were taught as children that America was the land of the free, and that was that. Deeper thinking and analysis was discouraged, especially by my family. This isn’t to say that my family was stupid, I assure you they are far from it. Instead, what I got from them was this underlying sense of fear that if you think too hard and ask too many questions, you were going to get punished. Turns out they were right.

Punishment can come in many forms. The most underhanded form of punishment is financial–if you’re not willing to go along just to get along, you could find yourself out in the streets. Your free will regarding your personal morals and ethics could be a liability: it could get you imprisoned (at worst) or have you digging out of trashcans once your savings run out (at best). When you are marked for economic punishment, your skills and work ethic are meaningless. All that matters is that the avenues you use to support yourself are institutionally blocked off, damning you to legalized starvation in the land of the plenty.

When we hear the word punishment, what we often think of is corporal punishment, which is regularly doled out by law enforcement. Not everyone who is arrested or processed by the police are guilty of any crime. In fact, people can get themselves killed if they act in a way that an officer can construe as “resisting orders”.

Most people in the United States are not free, and have never known freedom. I’m not talking about federal and state prisoners, even though America has the largest prison population per capita in the entire world. American’s don’t even have the right to know what’s in their food, if you can believe that. Most employed Americans won’t take earned vacations or days off, because the possibility of losing their jobs in the next round of layoffs is all too real. Speaking your mind and subscribing to politically unorthodox views can get you flagged as a potential terrorist or a conspiracy nut, regardless of actual evidence. And because choice is constrained by money, it follows that most Americans have very little of it, given the state of the economy. Simply put, you can choose only what you can afford. And if the system is set up to make even the simplest of decisions out of your reach, then that’s just too bad.

One of the biggest arguments made against freedom are the “alleged” costs of obtaining and practicing it. I say “alleged” because the structure of the system is what imposes the cost. Our political and economic systems are not unbiased entities; they do not come into being just because–they are clearly made to encourage certain desired outcomes, with built in mechanisms for resisting change. What we consider desirable is up to debate of course, but clearly it is those who own the levers of power who gets to decide what desirable outcomes the system will promote.

Why is freedom so “unaffordable” for the vast majority of Americans? My guess is that it’s simply not profitable (nor is it in their best interests) for the elites to allow the existence of so many viable choices. How profitable would Time Warner Cable or Comcast be if we could really choose our internet and digital TV provider? Most of the people who work for Walmart or Target don’t have other, high paying employment options (and if they did, they most likely wouldn’t be working there). If you have cancer and can’t afford insurance, you can’t just choose to get treatment (you can apply for Medicaid but if you make too much you’re SOL). And if you do have insurance you can only choose what they’re willing to pay for, regardless of whether the treatment will actually help you.

Does this sound like the promised land of freedom? Does it really have to be this way? What would the world look like if freedom was suddenly made affordable to the common man and woman? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can speculate. And if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that the true masters of our world will do everything in their power to make sure we’ll never find out.

Do Most People Really Prefer Slavery To Freedom?

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freedom

I have had some deep conversations with politically active people, both on the left and right end of the political spectrum. The one thing that has stuck out to me is that almost all of them has invariably concluded that the average person is probably not suited to real freedom. At first, I was a bit perplexed, and a bit offended. Isn’t that just a mealymouthed way to rationalize authoritarianism? To be clear, I spoke to a narrow subset of people so obviously these views are far from representative. Still, I sensed weariness in their voices. I could definitely understand that, regardless of their political views. I think that activism can take a toll on the soul, especially if the political losses continue to mount. Trying to convince an apathetic and disgusted public can be quite draining in the spiritual and personal sense.

Much hay has been made of this Harvard study, which shows that too many choices can perplex and turn off most people. But does this truly prove that the majority simply don’t like making choices? Is this an indication that freedom really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

I speak only from my experience, so take what I say with that grain of salt. That said, I do think that the problem isn’t the methodology of the studies, but the assumptions it operates on. For instance, what exactly defines choice? How different do the options have to be to constitute as a true option? If the choices are simply variations of the same, then was it really a choice at all?

Look at the current American political system. Voting is how the people are allowed to express their will. But when the candidates are beholden to the same economic and political interests and offer almost the same economic and social policies, it’s not really a choice. There are only 2 viable political parties in our winner take all system, and I don’t see how this lack of choice has ensured the happiness and satisfaction of the American public. In fact, a powerful argument can be made that the 2 party system has increased alienation and anger in the general population. Is it really freedom to only be able to choose between 2 parties that serve the same masters? European voters have more political parties to choose from, and they are not unhappier with their political system than Americans in general.

In the United States, the less money you have, the less choices you have. Are poor people markedly happier than their wealthier compatriots, with their lack of choices in housing, jobs, healthcare, transportation, and food? Were women happier back in the good old days, when they had no say over their bodies and had to bring every pregnancy to term, regardless of their health, financial, and social circumstances? Was it good for women to stay in bad marriages just to avoid financial ruin and homelessness? Were gay people that much happier when the only option was to keep that closet door firmly locked? Were married couples that much happier when divorce was either illegal or extremely expensive or difficult to obtain?

I think it’s telling that we’re getting the message that choices make us unhappy, right when the powers that be are taking away our options. Still, I see plenty of powerful evidence that people (overall) are happier with more freedom rather than less. Otherwise, the punishment for rejecting establishment sanctioned options would not be so sadistic, punitive, and severe. If freedom is as bad as the authorities say it is, then they would not fear the existence of other viable choices because people would simply vote with their feet. Of course, those in power know better than to give people a taste of REAL freedom.

So what is freedom, and what makes it so scary to certain segments of society? To the autocratic elites, people making their own choices means that they may choose to pursue their own hopes, goals, and dreams instead of signing away their time and labor to advance establishment interests. For the average Joe or Jane, freedom may mean having to face responsibility over life choices, which can trigger feelings of guilt, doubt, and shame. I believe it is this particular viewpoint that is predisposed to characterizing freedom as something painful that must be avoided.

So the question that must be asked is, why do so many people think that freedom is inherently painful and miserable? My answer is that those who seek to maintain the system have created powerful disincentives to “encourage” people to choose slavery over starvation, which of course is simply coercion by another name. The mechanisms in place are extremely powerful and restrictive, making freedom simply “unaffordable” and nonviable for the common man and woman.

I will explore this idea in depth in the next post.

An Unexpected Roadblock To Regular Content Updates

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studying is hard

When I made the move to France, I assumed that I would have more time to write regularly like I always wanted to. The problem is that I have to learn French and since I’m no spring chicken, the discipline, effort, and time required from me to learn is that much greater.

This is where my age REALLY shows. When it comes to language acquisition, youth really pays off. It is said that the oldest optimal age for learning a new language is between 14 to 17. I will be 39 in August, so it’s pretty obvious that the horses have already left the barn on that one.

My advanced age isn’t my only handicap. As a native English speaker and sometime “survival Spanish” speaker, I have a lot of ingrained habits that are hindering my French education. My way of pronunciation is very direct, which is typical of American English and American Spanish speakers. Because I have been talking this way for almost 4 decades, you can imagine how difficult it is for me to pronounce words in the French way. The r’s in particular have been giving me the most trouble.

So far, adjusting to life in France has been pretty smooth. I love it here, and I can’t see myself leaving unless war breaks out (heaven forbid). Unfortunately, the free time I have is directed to studying French. At this point, I really have very little to show for it as I am barely above baby level.

I’ve made peace with the fact that I will always speak French with a very heavy accent. Anyway, this is still a poor excuse for the content lag. My apologies for trying anybody’s patience.

From The No-Shit Sherlock Files: Parenthood Isn’t For Everybody , And That’s A Good Thing

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happy kids

Given my advancing age (I’m turning 39 in August), people have asked if I am looking to have children as soon as possible. A part of me doesn’t understand this line of questioning, given what these people know about me. Why would they think I’d want children at this stage of my life? It’s true that I’m not getting any younger, but I have so many things I need to cross off my list before I even consider reproducing. I’m not against having kids, but they’re just not a priority–“Benjamin Button” ovaries or not. Still, what is curious about the mild nagging is their strange desire to see me with children. I honestly just don’t get it.

Let me clarify that I love kids. I was once a kid, and I have taken care of kids, so I have nothing against their existence. I believe that society has a collective responsibility in raising children–that means even child-free/unchilded people like me don’t get off scot-free. I’m happy to pay taxes that would support universal healthcare, publicly funded daycare, excellent public schools, and strong public financial support for low income parents (think Sweden and Finland). I am dealing with someone’s child every time I book a hotel, every time I fill a prescription, every time I drive on the road, every time I eat at a restaurant, every time I order a pizza…you get the picture. Today’s kids are tomorrow’s adults, and ensuring that they don’t turn into tomorrow’s fuckups are in everybody’s best interests. Bringing up young people is everyone’s responsibility, as long as you are a part of that society.

That said, of course parents have a much larger share of the responsibility compared to unchilded folks like me. I’m not the one who has to change the diapers, I won’t be the one to get up in the middle of the night to calm a baby down, and I’m not the one who has to change or cancel vacation plans because the children are too unruly. Still, I’m quite sure that parenthood brings many joys and rewards that I may never experience, which is fine by me. Curiously, many parents aren’t fine with my “deprivation”–they insist that I need to experience what they experience, which really bothers me.

So what’s behind the hard sell? Why can’t they accept that I’m ok with not having kids? Why do they insist that I need to experience some higher level of happiness that only they understand? When parents hector others into having children, they need to understand that they make themselves look really really really really bad. Like the people they’re really trying to convince is themselves. It’s not a good look. It seems as if their happiness cannot exist unless they make sure that everyone else within striking distance can witness it.

I’m not one of those “proudly child-free” people, simply because not having kids is something that I’m neither proud nor ashamed of. But I do understand why the pushback is there. The constant pressure to reproduce (the constant pressure for anything, really) can be truly irritating. However, I don’t agree with their insistence that their lives are richer and more fulfilling because they don’t have kids. To me, it’s just like parents saying that their lives are richer and more fulfilling because they have kids.

What needs to be acknowledged is that parents and child-free people need each other. All this passive aggressive bullshit, “who has a better life” crap just needs to stop. Parents should be glad that some people choose to forgo reproducing, which frees up more available resources and opportunities for their offspring and reduces environmental waste and pressure. Non-parents should be glad that someone took the time and energy to produce the next generation of scientists, doctors, artists, morticians, sanitation workers, and teachers. The relationship between parents and non-parents should be a win-win proposition, not some sick “happiness and fulfillment” competition.

Children can be a blessing or a curse. For better or for worse, all of us–parents and the unchilded alike–will always have a stake in raising the next generation.

The Limits Of Shame As Effective Social Control

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Shame

I was a handful for my mother growing up. Many parents struggle to teach and discipline their children, and mine were no different. Parenting struggles aside, I was an especially difficult child because I seemingly lacked the capacity to feel shame. For traditional Asian parents, this was a strange and frustrating situation.

To be clear, I do have the capacity to feel shame, and have felt it on a few occasions. For example, I felt a sense of deep shame 2 months ago when my 13 year old nephew narrowly beat my high score on Fruit Ninja. All kidding aside, I understand that shame is a necessary feeling from time to time–what my family did not understand was why my capacity to feel it was so much lower than almost everybody else they knew. This meant that shame as discipline would not be effective on someone like me, for better or for worse. Since I was near impervious to social embarrassment, my mother had to resort to mild physical violence (mild because I got hit, but never got physically injured) to get me in line. That said, all it did was instill feelings of resentment and inspire plans for retaliation, which I know was never the intention–the goal was to convince me of my place, which obviously didn’t take. It triggered a cycle of ever rising transgressions, that led to escalating physical punishment, until I just got too big to hit. Looking back, I admit that I was an insufferable punk–but I had good reasons to be, I swear 😉 ! I rightly saw the shame bullshit for what it was: an attempt for authorities to get you to do what they want without having to come up with actual reasons, or because they didn’t want to exert the effort of beating you into compliance. It wasn’t about right or wrong, it was about upholding the status quo regardless of fairness or lack thereof.

For more socially minded personalities, the punishment of social ostracism and shame is enough to get them in line, morality be damned. I somewhat understand this on an evolutionary perspective, because human beings are social animals who are extremely interdependent on each other for survival and prosperity. When your survival prospects are threatened, principles and virtue can seem like superfluous luxuries. Most people will follow authority by default if they think it’s the only way to ensure their survival–so if someone buckles down under the threat of shame or ostracism, it’s simply because it was historically a life or death situation. Social death often resulted in physical death, since being cast out on your own meant starvation, death from predation, and an early end from violence or loneliness. Today, the physical consequences of shame are nowhere near as severe, and it’s not a life or death issue (at least most of the time in developed countries). Despite this progress, it can still invoke crippling feelings of anxiety and despair in many people, just like it used to for their ancestors.

Now that I’m much older, I’m a bit more ambivalent about shame. I was much more reactionary in my salad days and was strictly anti-shame. I’m certainly not pro-shame now, but I do see its usefulness from time to time. With age comes nuance, and in time I came to realize that my seeming immunity to shame was simply a misunderstanding–my family’s values are very different from mine, and they had attempted to shame me using values I never even believed in. For society to successfully shame a member, that member must buy into the values that society upholds. Unfortunately for my parents, the values I adopted are very different from theirs–hence the fruitless attempts to “embarrass me” into line.

I’m not so gung-ho anti-social control these days, because a civilization with good values should have non-violent means of convincing its members to act accordingly. Obviously, I’m still against “conditioning and manipulating” to fraudulently obtain compliance, just as much as I am against using violence to enforce obedience. That said, there’s nothing wrong with creating a non-violent, transparent, and democratic method of social control to uphold proper social values such as fairness, compassion, opportunity, empathy, knowledge, and shared prosperity. It is then that shame can be employed in a proper and productive context.

Perhaps shame can be positive if it can inspire REAL virtuous behavior. In my fantasy world, Hillary Clinton would be ashamed about her role in pushing the Iraq invasion and as a result, relaunches herself as a true peace/anti-imperialist candidate. Dick Cheney would deeply regret the CIA torture program, and decides to turn over a new leaf by working to abolish torture and close Guantanamo Bay for good. Barack Obama would respond by ending the drone assassination program immediately, and decides to disobey his corporate patrons by pledging to block the TPP and TTIP. The chain reaction of shame spreads into both houses of Congress, who immediately reverse all the social program cuts that was passed in the last budget. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts immediately resign, allowing the nomination of actual progressive judges.

But alas, shame would probably have the same impact on them as it did on me, which was negligible at best (and that’s being generous). The power of shame begins and ends with the mind–whether it’s freedom from guilt or life imprisonment by remorse, the choice is ultimately up to us.

Bait & Switch: Organized Labor Sells Out L.A. Workers To Pass Minimum Wage Law

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bait and switch

When it was announced that L.A. City Council approved a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour, I was extremely elated. Despite the fact that the city was known as one of the most politically liberal in the United States, it was also one of the most feudalistic and unequal in the nation in terms of economic mobility and asset acquisition for its citizens. Though $15 an hour was much better than the current minimum wage, it was still a far cry from a living wage if you wanted to live in the City of Angels. That said, a long overdue wage increase is always welcome, even if it’s not enough.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the much ballyhooed increase was simply political window dressing. After reading the fine print, it’s easy to see why unions are dying a much deserved death in America–and I don’t say that lightly, as someone who is a union supporter and former union member (I left the union after leaving the profession). Even though I am no longer living in the U.S., I still root for any positive change over there simply for the love of country. But it seems that my hope was profoundly misplaced.

The wage hike won’t be in effect until 2020 (!!!!!!), which is worse than useless to those who are struggling to pay bills now. The landlord and the utility company won’t wait until 2020, and neither will the health insurance and overdue student loan payments. In addition, the ordinance includes numerous loopholes that exempt small businesses, tipped employees and other workers.

The “other workers” it turns out, are unionized workers. Which begs the question–if unions won’t raise member wages and benefits, what are they for? Unions are supposed to fight for a better standard of living for their members, right? Well, it turns out that fighting for employee rights are hopelessly old fashioned in today’s political and economic environment. WSWS.org spells out the new bizarro union logic better than I can:

…Rusty Hicks, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) made a direct appeal for a waiver that would allow companies to hire unionized workers at a lower wage than the mandated one.

“With a collective bargaining agreement, a business owner and the employees negotiate an agreement that works for them both. The agreement allows each party to prioritize what is important to them,” Hicks said a week after the City Council vote. “This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing.”

The fact that Hicks cynically presents the imposition of sub-minimum wages as some sort of democratic freedom only underscores what the trade union apparatus means by “collective bargaining rights.” Far from speaking for the “employees,” the unions bargain to protect the business interests of the executives who run them—at the direct expense of the workers they falsely claim to represent.

Without a hint of irony, Hicks goes on to declare that:

“We are one step closer to making history in Los Angeles by adopting a comprehensive minimum wage policy that will change the lives of hundreds of thousands of hard-working Angelenos. The City Council’s action today creates a path for workers to succeed and gives our economy the boost it needs to grow.

How is a waiver exemption freezing union worker pay at sub-minimum levels supposed to change employee lives for the better? How exactly does this create a path for growth and success?

According to WSWS.org’s Marc Wells, that “path to success” is indeed a reality, at least for trade union bureaucrats like Hicks (who are also technically employees, and privileged ones at that), “who see the possibility of an influx of tens of thousands of new dues-paying members.”

This nauseating development is nothing new, as unions struggle to increase declining membership and political relevancy:

Facing an increasing number of states that have adopted Republican “Right-to-Work” laws, which make union membership and dues payment optional in unionized workplaces, the “growth strategy” of the AFL-CIO is to demonstrate their value to employers as the enforcer of speedups, labor discipline and poverty wages.

…In city after city, minimum wage laws have included union exemptions. The pro-business US Chamber of Commerce published an extraordinary report last year, “Labor’s Minimum Wage Exemptions: Unions as the ‘Low-Cost’ Options” which provided details about many of these ordinances.

The so-called “escape clause,” the document says, “is often designed to encourage unionization by making a labor union the potential ‘low-cost’ alternative to new wage mandates, and it raises serious questions about whom these minimum wage laws are actually intended to benefit.”

Adopting a cautionary tone, the Chamber of Commerce complains that these campaigns are essentially Trojan Horses for unions to gain a foothold among employers, and warns “the business community, the media, and the public to more closely examine the content of proposed minimum wage laws and the true impetus behind their passage,” as “it would be wise to read the fine prints.”

There are numerous examples of such waivers.

In Los Angeles, the hotel union, UNITE HERE Local 11, was able to increase its membership more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2013, thanks to a waiver the city included in a minimum wage increase for hotel workers. Proportionally, Local 11’s revenue jumped almost 70 percent. Last year’s hotels contract also included a similar waiver clause, in fact a confirmation of it from previous agreements and ordinances.

San Francisco—the most expensive city in California—provides a similar case. In 2003, collective bargaining waiver language was approved by the city. Consequently, UNITE HERE Local 2 saw membership grow from 8,000 to 14,000 in the following 10 years.

Last November, the Minimum Wage Act of 2014, a ballot initiative sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, raised the rate to $15 for all employers by 2018. The waiver language was left in place, giving businesses a way to opt out, provided they unionize their workplaces.

The list in California is long: in Long Beach, Measure N, a living wage ballot measure was passed in November 2012 pertaining to hotel workers. The measure contained not only a waiver on minimum wage, but also on other living cost increases and paid sick leave.

In Oakland a minimum wage ballot initiative passed in 2014, which includes a waiver on any and all terms of the measure. Likewise, San Jose also approved its own minimum wage ballot measure in 2012, which contains a union escape clause. In Richmond similar ordinances were passed, including last year, all of which contained union-sponsored exemptions.

California is not an exception. In 2014, Milwaukee County adopted a minimum wage ordinance after a county board overrode County Executive Chris Abele’s veto. Abele’s statement correctly pointed to the collusion and partnership between unions and employers, saying, “This means that an employer would not have to actually pay this higher wage to its employees, if that employer collects union member fees from its employees.”

Sadly, union bureaucrats are only too happy to be co-opted by big business in return for personal economic and political benefits–which to be fair, isn’t surprising at all. Most Americans are generally concerned with “just getting theirs”, no more no less–which is expected given the current political climate. Too afraid of losing what little they have left, they suppose that just keeping what you already have at the expense of your neighbor is better than nothing. The idea that any system other than zero sum could possibly exist is rarely ever entertained, and when it does enter the consciousness it is usually dismissed as a hopeless utopian fantasy.

This latest development added one more confirmation to my decision to throw up my hands and leave. This isn’t to say that France is perfect–no country could ever be perfect, and I wouldn’t be naive enough to expect it. I certainly don’t agree with France’s position on Russia and the Middle East (especially Syria). But the one thing I have found is that the people here (so far) have refused to lower their expectations of a reasonable life. Of course, I can’t say how the French will change in the coming years, but it’s all too clear that my former countrymen no longer have the burden of lowered expectations to hold on to.

An Examination Of America’s Work Fetish

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Hard-Work

In the United States (my former home), the work ethic is sacrosanct. This dovetails nicely with the traditional Chinese values I grew up with, which marked sloth and leisure as a grave sin. Unfortunately for me, I was predisposed to laziness (I prefer to call it efficiency for ego stroking purposes). My father once said, veins throbbing, that I was by far the laziest of his 8 children. He jokingly remarked that my recent move to the south of France confirmed his assessment.

To clarify, I respect the value of work. I have worked hard sporadically in the past for goals and values I believed in, and took pride in its accomplishment. That said, I never valued work for the sake of work. After all, whatever work was being done had to mean something, otherwise it was just busy work. One also had to ask who benefited from the hard work–most hard work these days have been hijacked to benefit the economic elites, so exhorting people to work hard is simply a means of legitimizing exploitation. Work in it of itself is not an intrinsic good, which is something I believe not enough people understand.

What is work, exactly? Does it have to be paid? Is it anything you do that you exert effort in? Does it have to do with continuing something you hate out of duty? If you enjoy it, is it still work? Is some measure of suffering necessary to legitimize the activity as work?

In the U.S., people on welfare are demonized as lazy and shiftless, who are completely deserving of their circumstance. The lack of employment is considered a character defect, which should be eradicated by social spending cuts and punitive government measures. Perhaps the threat of homelessness and starvation would extinguish the alleged slothful tendencies of the underclass.

Alas, the problem with work is that it is not always available to those who want it, no matter how low they aim. Nor is it something everyone can do–if one becomes incapacitated or ill for any reason, work is an impossibility. It goes without saying that working hard without being able to pay for basic subsistence is no better than unemployment (it’s actually worse, by many measures).

Perhaps the real issue is that American culture fetishizes the idea of work. This is not unsubstantiated snark–according to CNN, record numbers of Americans are forfeiting paid time off in an effort to prove their dedication to their work:

Productivity and stress management trainer and coach Joe Robinson says the issue is driven by a number of factors.

“One, workers are afraid to take their vacations in the layoff era,” Robinson said. “It might mark them as less ‘committed’ than coworkers.

“It’s called defensive overworking. They work long hours and skip vacations to insulate themselves from cutbacks.”

According to Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, 28% of workers surveyed said they’ve declined to take earned days off in order to illustrate their dedication to the job.

“They say, ‘I don’t want to be seen as a slacker,’ ” Dow said. ” ‘I want to be seen as someone who is really dedicated.’

“But it does them no good whatsoever. People who take more time off tend to get more raises and promotions.”

“It’s futile,” Robinson agreed. “People who don’t take their vacations get laid off just like everyone else.”                         Chuck Thompson, CNN

Another consideration is the prospect of an increased workload after coming back from vacation. It’s common for the remaining staff to do the work of several laid off employees:

Work force cutbacks and “device addiction” are other factors.

“Lean staffing, with more and more people doing the jobs of several people, makes it hard to escape,” Robinson said. “They’re not taking vacations because they have too much work.”

“About 40% (of workers surveyed) say they’re afraid of all the work they’re going to get to when they get back from vacation,” Dow said. “Work pileup scares the hell out of them.”

“Another big reason people aren’t taking their time is that they are caught up in ‘busyness’ and device addiction,” Robinson said. “Finally, many people are so caught up in the performance identity, worth based on what they get done, they feel guilty when they step back.”   Chuck Thompson, CNN

It’s worth noting that the CNN report is describing people who work themselves to the bone for someone else, and not people who are working for themselves. Apparently, employees must treat their employment status as a privilege that can be taken away at a moment’s notice, and must be willing to show their gratefulness by working more for less pay. Which begs the question, isn’t work supposed to be about earning your keep? How did work become a privilege of the “fortunate”, and how did we let this happen?

Viva La France!

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Viva la France

I just landed in France over the weekend, and I am very pleased that it was everything I expected it to be–and more. I only stayed in Paris for one day and now I understand why so many people have fallen in love with the city.

Currently, I am in the south of France, which is wine and foie gras country. I will be settling for good in the south of France, but for now I have some exploring and traveling to do. I also have to learn French from ground zero. It doesn’t help that I’m starting a new language at the ripe old age of 38 (the ideal age is around or before 14 years of age). Still I’m not worried.

What I am worried about though, is my content output speed. I’m supposed to be picking up the speed, not slowing down. That said, rushing content publication isn’t in anybody’s best interest so my apologies for publishing another boring update post.

France is now my new home. It’s not perfect, but I’m absolutely in love with the place. I have so much to see, and now that I’m in Europe I can finally visit Berlin, Santorini, Geneva, Vienna, Iceland, Venice, Florence, Ireland, London, Scotland, Norway, and Sweden. Beijing, St Petersburg, Shanghai, and Moscow are also on the list but I worry that my American citizenship may cause delays in my travel visa application.

I consider myself to be very fortunate, and I plan on making the best of this opportunity to see the world.

Many thanks for your continued patience.