February 27, 2005

30 things

With that melodrama out of the way, allow me to further undermine my illusions that this isn't really a blog. Courtesy of a variety of people linked to by New Kid on the Hallway, ten things I've done that you probably haven't.
1. Paddled a canoe in the Arctic Ocean.
2. Testified before a joint session of my state legislature.
3. Skipped a grade.
4. Had sex in my professor's bed, but not with my professor.
5. Dug a snow cave.
6. Packed pomegranates in my lunch in high school.
7. Spontaneously sung She Has a Girlfriend Now (by Reel Big Fish) with three other people on the exact middle step of a tower in a monastery in Ukraine.
8. Worked as a professional bread baker.
9. Slept in a treehouse in a city park.
10. Gotten a vibrator as a birthday present from my aunt.

And ten things I haven't done that you probably have.
1. Gotten stitches. I'm lucky.
2. Broken a bone. Still lucky.
3. Seen any of this year's Best Picture nominees.
4. Been to therapy voluntarily on my own, not counting visiting family members in residential treatment or that time when I was 13 when my parents made me go.
5. Gone without health insurance.
6. Had a membership in a private health club (if the Y doesn't count, which I don't think it does).
7. Eaten pepperoni pizza.
8. Been in a theater production of any sort after elementary school.
9. Changed the color of my hair in any way.
10. Gone without a bra for more than, like, 10 minutes after I got up.

Finally, ten things about me which seem improbable.
1. I used to take aerobics classes. At 6 am.
2. I really like Cheetos.
3. Once in a very great while, I can sing very nice, non-standard harmonies that I make up on the fly.
4. I don't really know how to sharpen knives.
5. I used to teach pottery classes. (Was I qualified? Absolutely not. Were there other options? Not really.)
6. I hate broccoli.
7. I have a stylist. She lives in my hometown, and every time I'm there - even if it's just for three days - I get her to cut my hair. Everyone in my family goes to her now, and she apparently got my dad to let her wax his eyebrows.
8. Despite the giant mess which is my room, I can and do organize the living daylights out of work situations.
9. I read basically all of How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, the "Know Your Ingredients" sections of The Joy of Cooking, and a bunch of other books about keeping house when I was a young adolescent.
10. I have a blog.

February 24, 2005

coming home

Dear California,

I love you. I love going running at Inspiration Point at sunset: I've been doing it at least three times a week for almost two months, and it never gets old. I hope it never does. I don't think it ever could. I can see the Bay to the west and the San Pablo reservoir on the east side of the hills, and the weather is different every time. The first time I went, there were thick bands of cloud that turned fiery colors as the sun went through them, and the Bay and the ocean beyond the gate sparkled. I've been when it's raining and the world feels full of secrets and growing things, and when there's not a cloud in the sky and the sun sets in glory beyond the Golden Gate. Tonight there was a layer of clouds across the whole landward side of the Bay Area, but the sun went down past them as I ran and turned the Bay golden. The hills are green right now, but I know I'll still love them in the summer when they turn golden-brown as the grass dies, and I will still love them as I'm watching the fog creep over the Bay.

I love that it's February and there's a full-blown rose on the arch above the steps, and the magnolias in the back yard are covered in flowers. I love that this summer, there will be the world's most amazing blackberries, and raspberries will cost 89 cents a half pint at the Berkeley Bowl. I love that Tilden Park has coyotes and hawks and baby newts and cows and people with babies and dogs. I love how drivers stop for pedestrians and pedestrians don't jaywalk and people line up in the subway before the train even gets there. I love Telegraph, even if it's commercial and stupid, and I love the gourmet ghetto, even if it's elitist, and I love the Mission, even when it's scary, which is less often than it used to be. I love all three bridges.

I love San Francisco, the city itself. Telegraph Hill is beautiful, because you can see so much, but the whole city and the East Bay are all full of places with beautiful views. Ocean Beach is full of surfers and swimmers and people walking along the beach, and I could sit at Land's End for hours watching the surf come up the rocks and the ships go out to sea and the sun go down past the keyhole rock. I have. I will. I love the city part of the city too. At City Lights, they tell you to have a seat and read whatever you want. The Pride Parade I went to was wild, a carnival of topless dykes on motorcycles and guys in assless leather chaps, firefighters and teachers and the local police and half the city. There's a bar I like at Valencia and Duboce, full of bike messengers and punks. Like every bar I've been to in San Francisco, it serves good beer. I love the city's stupid obsession with internet access, crepes, and sushi. I love that everything's painted light colors. I love how people dress - it's not like the East Coast, where everyone dresses up, but it's also not like the Midwest, where no one does. There are people in fancy clothes and people in sweatpants and lots of people who dress like me, but with better style.

And the East Bay. People in my neighborhood have lemon trees. There's a plum tree at the bottom of the stairs in my house. Everyone drives battered old cars, because the climate allows it. The Monterey Market has the best and cheapest produce I have ever seen in my life. They have things I've never heard of. Every library in Berkeley has a shelf full of books at 25 cents each, and one library will lend you tools, including a 30 pound electric demolition hammer and a piano dolly. The Albatross will lend you a board game to play while you drink your beer. All the houses in the Berkeley hills are different, and each one is surrounded by some perfect, riotous garden.

San Francisco isn't just San Francisco. It's the East Bay and Marin, and most of all it's all the beautiful places around it. Sometimes I think I should live in Bolinas, this tiny town near Point Reyes, so I could go walking and see pelicans circling below me along the side of the bluffs. Sometimes I think I should live in Big Sur. Any weekend that involves breakfast at Zachary's in Santa Cruz and a trip to the central coast is a good weekend. I could move to Big Basin. Or the Sierra. Or northern California, in with the redwoods.

The ocean makes me happier than I have words to express. Whenever I'm sad, I can, eventually, take a bus out to Land's End and sit on the rocks and look at it, and I will be happy again. I can feel it filling me up with its own kind of peace. The Pacific is wilder than the Atlantic. The coast is rockier, and sometimes you can't even get to it - you just stand at the top of the cliff looking at the waves smashing into the cove, and the waterfall coming down to meet it. I could watch the sun set over the Pacific every night and never get tired of it.

I know I have no right to be here. There are too many people here anyway: 35 million and counting. LA is worse, but there are too many people living in northern California too. We're going to wreck this place I love if some of us don't give up on living here. That's not why I'm leaving. I'm leaving because my friends aren't here, because I have promises to keep 3000 miles away, because much as I want to be here - the only place I've ever been where I wanted to live in the place itself - it's not home. Not yet. Maybe some day.

I love you, California. If I come back, will you still be here?

February 23, 2005

the declining value of truth

I've been thinking a lot about the Bush administration's ability to pile up lies and not get caught. All presidents have a bit of it, and Clinton had more than most, but the Bush administration beats the pants off anyone else I've ever read about. Weapons of mass destruction? Compassionate conservatism? All these lies get exposed, of course, so in a sense you could say they're getting caught, but nobody seems to care. I think it's partly a problem of the intellectual value of truth, both in academia and in the popular imagination. Because no matter what people say about the ivory tower, theoretical perspectives eventually get out and affect people's self-conceptions and the way policy gets made.

Here's my theory (in the basic basic version). Back in the day, when the Enlightenment was getting started, Enlightenment philosophers looked around for a basis for morality, and decided that, like truth and thought and being and all sorts of other things they were interested in, morality was universal and followed universal laws. In fact, morality was made up of universal laws, all of which stemmed (said Kant) from the categorical imperative. So, ok. Morality is a universal law. Where does this universal law come from? Really, ultimately, this is the biggest problem with Kant. Why is it this rule instead of some other rule? Who decides? And he and people like him go through a lot of verbal gymnastics about this, but they never really answer it.

Social contract theory is the same kind of thing: Locke goes on and on about natural rights and he and Hobbes tell all these stories about the state of nature and how we came together for mutual protection. The Hipster Monk said it best: "Oh yeah, remember when that happened? That was great. Sheesh. I love fake histories." When your theory of morality is based on a series of events that never actually happened, you're in a bit of trouble. The basic problem is this: why are life, liberty, and property the 'natural' rights? How are they defined? Where do they come from?

Mill and Bentham disagreed, and said that instead, morality was all about the outcome: the greatest good for the greatest number, or the utility, of an action. Which is nice, but there's something intuitively wrong with a theory that says that morality is all about pleasure; they also run into a bit of trouble with minority rights, which Mill at least was very big on. Someone other than me put it this way: if you get enough screaming Romans into the Coliseum, the misery of the Christians they're watching get eaten by lions is going to be outweighed by their pleasure, so feeding the Christians to the lions is the right thing to do.

The basic problem with both systems of morality - the absolute law and the total relativist - is that they don't provide a decent theory of the person. If your moral actions are predetermined by absolute law, you become an automaton, unable to respond to change and circumstance and totally indistinguishable from anyone else; if they are determined only by pleasure, you have no constancy from moment to moment and become unrecognizable as a single individual. Man, I wish I could remember who wrote the article I got this from.

Anyway, the other basic problem with both systems of morality is that they assume that there is a universal and constant truth, and that there is what Nietzsche calls a "pure will-less timeless painless knowing," either of the universal law or the maximum utility. This started to fall apart with people like Kierkegaard writing these little vignettes about Abraham, the modernist writers really did a number on it, and it kind of collapsed on itself, as I see it, under the weight of finding out that that "universal" truth had actually been the truth as the people with power saw it. Nietzsche, in On the Genealogy of Morals, went to the edge of this and looked into the abyss in which truth could not exist; but he didn't jump. That took longer, and it took post-modernism.

Now I'm going to talk about post-modernism, with the disclaimer that I don't really know much about it. I think that puts me in the same boat as most of the people who talk about pomo, though. Maybe even a little better than most. As I understand it, pomo has this basic idea that truth is all perspectival and contingent, that the self basically is fragmented and inconstant, and that we should accept our overlapping and interrelated identities. In terms of thinking about truth, pomo mostly sees it as largely a matter of perspective and function and contingent factors rather than universal.

If truth is perspectival, if it's all really a matter of where you sit and what's useful to say, then having respect for other people's opinions becomes really really important. And I think you can see that: people talk about how what they do or think is no better or worse than anything else: that's just my opinion, they say. It's a sensible, reasonable response to a world where "truth" was and is so often used to justify repression, violence, discrimination. But it also has a lot of problems.

One of those is exemplified by Condoleezza Rice's response to Barbara Boxer's questioning: Rice just kept saying that she was a good person, and claiming that the war in Iraq had been about something that can now be justified rather than about weapons of mass destruction. She, like other members of the Bush administration, says things which are just shy of demonstrably false (e.g. have demonstrably false connotations) and it gets reported with something someone else says but with no evaluation of the truth. Two opposing perspectives is all the media can provide. And, importantly, that's what people see in such arguments: two opposing perspectives, and truth nowhere. Truth is inaccessible, and maybe non-existent.

I don't really blame the Bush administration for this problem, though they're certainly exploiting it. In our adversarial political system, someone would have eventually figured out that this trick worked. The right is milking this for all it's worth: in fact, there was an article on Inside Higher Ed about "The New Repression of the Postmodern Right" that talked about a bill in the Ohio legislature as an expression of radical subjectivity in service of the right. They do invoke absolutes all the time, but in this way that makes it unclear what, exactly, the absolute means. What is freedom? Freedom is whatever the Bush administration defines it as being. There is no knowable history, even for the last four years. Terms have no real meaning. Except, possibly, within the religious right - but that's not what crops up in Bush's usual speeches. He may actually be a religious absolutist, or he may be trying to manipulate the religious right into supporting him: you can't tell. And that, my friends, is post-modern.

I don't know how to address this, really. I like the neo-Aristotelian critique of pomo and the Enlightenment both, but I'm not sure how it applies to a national government with international power. I also have to go to the grocery store.

February 18, 2005

everybody's favorite asshat

Sadly, today we have two people nominated to be everybody's favorite asshat: Larry Summers and John Negroponte. So.

Larry Summers finally released the transcript of his speech about women in science and engineering. A lot of other people, like Bitch, Ph.D. and I'm sure some other academics I can't track down yet, are writing about it with far more personal knowledge of women's situation in academia than I have. So I'm going to confine myself to this: the president of Harvard University can never not be the president of Harvard University, at least in public. If he wanted to kind of shoot the shit about women and science, he should have gotten some people who knew about it together and had a private conversation, like you do; if he wanted to give a speech to people who have invested an enormous amount of time in studying exactly what he's talking about he should have done his goddamn homework and thought about the implications for the university he's supposedly responsible for. Context is absolutely relevant: his bullshit "provocations" are going to make women feel less welcome at Harvard and give the distinct impression that he doesn't give a shit about the fact that fewer women have been offered tenure every year that he's been president. He should no more "just try to think about and offer some hypotheses" on this than Bush should "just try to think about and offer some hypotheses" on the potential benefits of invading Iran while he's addressing Congress.

Also, Summers forgot not only his role, but his audience. There were people in that room (like Nancy Hopkinson) who had spent an enormous amount of time and energy studying this problem, and his remarks ignored all of the work and study they'd done. If much of your audience knows more about this problem than you do, either from personal experience or from academic research, you should probably pick a different topic, or at the very least do your research beforehand so that you're not demonstrating a total ignorance of stuff they know and have published. I mean seriously. This is the president of Harvard University?

John Negroponte. Now I'm sure we'll get honest intelligence with not terribly brutal methods. I seriously am not sure I can think of a worse person for this job. This part of the post is going to be updated later with some kind of actual information. For now, I'm going to go bang my head against a brick wall, because it feels better than reading the newspaper.

1. http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=505218, via http://slate.msn.com/id/2112799/.

February 17, 2005

not everything I do is a feminist act

Yes, let's talk about false consciousness. I find myself getting really annoyed with a lot of what passes for empowering women1 these days. Echidne recently wrote a post over at Alas about Elle magazine. Now, I have never read Elle, but I read women's magazines occasionally, like when someone else buys them and leaves them around. Mostly Cosmo, which is a lot trashier than Elle, frankly, and therefore somewhat more fun.

They all have this particular attitude, which is something I see a lot in Third Wave feminism: anything a woman does and enjoys doing is a feminist act. Thus, it can be empowering and somehow feminist to buy fancy shoes, wear makeup, get cosmetic surgery, pose for Playboy, write for Cosmo, sleep around, not have sex until marriage, wear a corset, whatever.2 I think this is really silly, and I also think it lets a lot of people off the hook: instead of having to look at themselves and their lives and actually figure out what their actions mean in a political context, they get to write off their actions as feminist because they are women.

There's a certain truth to this, which is that feminism shouldn't require women to give up their self-presentation: women shouldn't have to dress like men to be taken seriously. That requirement in itself is anti-feminist, because it takes men as the norm. But when I look at appearance culture, for example, I see a lot of requirements that are reasonable for men and restrictive and time-consuming for women. I also see a lot of women enforcing those requirements, and that is also not a feminist act. It's possible that there are people who are writing for Cosmo or posing for Playboy who are feminists and can argue that they're working to change the system from within. I have nothing against people who work within the system, but I think they'd better have a really clear sense of exactly what their plan is, because it's really really easy to get sucked in to the value systems you're trying to fight. Plus you have to weigh whether the feminist subversion you're doing is stronger than the anti-feminist reinforcement you're lending your name too: I don't know, but I think it's a calculation people have to make.

You know, all these cultural standards are really powerful, and maybe the reason people enjoy meeting them is not that it's genuinely empowering and subversive to do so, but because you get a lot of praise for it. I get about a bazillion times more compliments on my appearance when I'm all femmed out than when I'm wearing my usual clothes, even when I think I look great. That's nice in its own way - I like the ego boost - but I wouldn't say it's feminist.

The other important thing is that not everything any given person does has to be empowering or feminist. Sometimes, I put on my girly clothes because I actually feel girly; other times, I just want a little praise, or I don't want to make a stir at whatever event I'm going to. Everyone has vices and weaknesses and things they just plain like, regardless of the sociopolitical context, and I think we'd all be better off if we agreed to look at our lives as a whole. Then we wouldn't have to say, 3-inch heels are feminist! Just like everything else women do! Because we'd actually be feminists, and empowered.

1. Not feminism. Oh no. That's too scary.
2. Not that any of those actions is necessarily bad, in and of itself. At all.

I won!

I got an award! From Media Girl, for my post about Valentine's Day.

Good for me. All three people who read my blog can now go look at the list of winners.

February 16, 2005


Flea writes, in the middle of a long post about her son being in the hospital:

I managed to weasel a styrofoam cup of harsh, boiled coffee from one of the nurses. It was oily and black and tasted like hate, but I was glad to have it.

I've never had a kid in the hospital (never had a kid, either) but I've had that cup of coffee. It was oily and black and tasted like hate, and I had just sent four kids home in the middle of a trip after they threw four separate tantrums. The rest of our students were running around hitting each other over the head. It was noon; I had been up for 6 hours; I had had no food of any kind.

I still think of the woman who brought me that cup of coffee with utter gratitude.

is this the future?

There's a New York Times article right now about robot soldiers (registration required; free til next week). Apparently there are a couple of versions already out there clearing bombs in Iraq, and there are going to be more, including one with guns that's heading for Baghdad (under control of a soldier with a laptop) in the relatively near future.

This kind of thing freaks me out. I've read a couple of sci-fi books lately where one premise is that the culture involved rejected long-distance weapons at some point in their history because it was going to wreck their society.1 One society rejects distance weapons because they had disastrous wars using mental weapons, and the other won't use bows and arrows for anything but hunting because they live on a sort of vast steppe where running away is too easy, so honor is all about facing your enemies with a sword. I look at the history of wars, and you know, it mostly doesn't seem to be like that. People have always been all about using whatever advantage they can get and killing as many people as possible. Certainly no one swore off distance weapons or explosives because it was cheating, and war back in the day of knights in shining armor was all about putting the peasants out front to get cut to pieces so the aristocracy wouldn't get too many of its own killed.

Not a lot of honor in that long and sordid history. But it does seem like there have usually been lines people aren't willing to cross, whether for fear of hurting their own interests or because of honor, and with that, there have always been people willing to cross those lines. The biggest one, recently, is the idea that there's a significant moral difference between conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Nerve gas is no longer in use, except occasionally by people like Saddam Hussein; nuclear weapons have been used twice, and only twice. We rely on the existence of certain rules for combat: the Geneva Conventions, not attacking civilians, whatever. It's the same thing as trying to live with other people: you know that lots of people could beat you up and steal your money, but you count on the fact that most people won't do that.

I think the same thing happens in war. We won't target children. We won't use chemical weapons. People break those rules, but basically we rely on them. And I think those rules require a certain responsibility for our actions. The closer you are to the evil you're doing, the harder it is to do it. So in the Civil War, people didn't aim or didn't shoot, because they could see the people they were going to kill. If you're dropping a bomb, you don't see that. Having a conscience depends on that direct relationship to your actions.

Robot soldiers are even worse. They will allow us to go further and further away from what we're doing, to program soldiers to kill and then not see the consequences. I'm not a pacifist, really, but I think people should be able to look at their actions and own them: the further we get from that the worse war (and everything) becomes.

All this is quite aside from how completely silly it's going to be if robot armies start taking each other on. Then it'll be just like Magic the Gathering or Warhammer. "My Salamander Hunting Pack can beat up your Daemon Prince!" Except, you know, real. And paid for by my tax dollars.

If that's really what they want, I have an old deck of Magic cards they can have. It's not very good, but it'll get them started. Even better, it won't kill anyone.

1. The Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jaran and its sequels by Kate Elliott. Jaran is awesome, and some of the Darkover books are pretty good too. The Shattered Chain is total adolescent wish-fulfillment for a certain kind of person.

February 15, 2005

I need a mentor

The other day I went to the library to look at the US News & World Report rankings of grad schools. I'm seriously considering going to grad school in 2006, or possibly 2007, but the only people I've told are two of my closest friends and the woman at the reference desk in the library. I looked at it for a while, and then looked through the Peterson's guide, and thought, this is not useful.

I don't need a reference book. I need a mentor. I need someone who's older than I am, who understands my situation (where I'm coming from, how I approach decisions, my academic interests, the rest of my life) or at least thinks kind of similarly to me, who has more perspective than I do, and who is in a position to give me decent advice about what I should do. I don't know anyone like that. My parents kind of know my deal, but they so clearly have their own ideas of what my life should be like that I don't trust their advice; they also really don't understand me that well, which is fine. My friends are basically all my age, and have no clear perspective on this stage of decision-making because they're in the middle of it; on the other hand, they understand me pretty freakin' well. My professors are 3000 miles away, and they all obviously chose academia; the two I'm closest to might be able to help me think about what I want, but the one who probably seriously considered a non-academic life seems more like a peer than a mentor. My boss has never really considered going to grad school, and what he wants out of his life is totally different from what I want. I'm living with my grandmother, but if there was ever anyone whose advice I shouldn't take, it's her.

How do you find a mentor? How do you approximate one? I've tentatively decided that by the fall of 2006 I'll not only have a long-term plan, but be in the first stages of getting it done (i.e. going to grad school, or enrolled in a teacher certification program, or hired by some company or organization where I'd like to work for at least a couple of years). But I desperately need perspective outside myself on what grad school in the humanities-oriented social sciences is actually like, and what it feels like to be a professor, and so on. Whether the thing I would want to study is even an option in the field I think I'm interested in. What my alternatives are. Academic blogs are my distractor of choice lately, but they only tell me so much.

about love

Kameron is writing about love again. It's funny, she talks about the people you'd walk through fire with, the people you look at and think, I know there are so many things wrong with you. But I will love you forever.

I think there's something strange about me, because I feel that way about four people, maybe five. There's one on his way to being there, and a couple more who are sort of more distant. I've gotten it on with precisely one of them - my ex - and intend to get it on with precisely none of them in the future. But I love these people. When she writes

You better get giddy. You better be thinking about them when you go to sleep at night, when you get up in the morning; you better be thinking of them in the middle of the night, shit, when you can't sleep. You better be wondering about what they'd have to say about your day, about that bizarre person you bumped into on the train. You better know when you see the absolute perfect thing for them. You'd better want nothing more than to move heaven and earth to hang out with them.

I think about my friends on the East Coast. They don't make my blood boil, but I don't ever really want to live apart from them. I want to raise kids with them, in a loose, extended-family sort of way. No one knows me better than they do - certainly not my biological family or the people I've considered sleeping with lately. I see things and I think, oh man, when can I talk to Hipster Monk about that? I call the Ex from the grocery store to tell him about the produce 3000 miles away, because I know he'll be interested.

And the more distant people? One of them got stupid drunk the last time I saw him, and his boyfriend and I walked him home, stopping every so often to let him throw up in the bushes. He almost never drinks, and I've never seen him that drunk, so it was interesting. Taking care of him I thought a lot about love, and how much I love him, and how I hadn't seen him in a year but there's this part of me that goes with him when he's in Europe or that midwestern I state or wherever. Because love is funny. Love is about what you feel when the person you love is being a moron as much as it is about how awesome they are. It's about affinity, and excitement, and what makes you both laugh, but it's about way more than that. I don't really know what it's about.

I've felt that blood-boiling insanity for a couple of people - one in high school, one in college, a few more people who were just overwhelmingly attractive - and I have to tell you, I'm not impressed. I don't really like any of the people I've felt it for anymore. I actually saw one of them recently, for the first time in three years. He's much the same. He's still a jerk. His life was and remains a mess partly because he can't make promises to people and keep them. He made me so crazy then: whenever I was around him, it was like this switch flipped and my body felt totally different; when he left, it was like I imagine withdrawal is. I don't feel like that about him anymore, and thank goodness for that.

The way I love my friends feels more real than that. The crazy-making attraction feels so sudden and disconnected from everything else that I suspect it of being just physical. Some kind of pheromone trip. I know loving someone you're sleeping with (or want to sleep with) is different from loving someone you'll never sleep with, but I don't know how. I suspect they're less different than usual for me: the Ex and I are really close, and while for me it feels a lot like my other friendships, it's a little different for him, I think. I think it's partly because my serious friendships are a little romantic, a little exclusive, a little intense. We're still friends in large part because I refused to believe that the end of our relationship meant we had to stop loving each other. It's different now, but not that different.

People have said to me that friendships, even ones that seem really serious, shift and move and go away. People leave. People's priorities change: they care more about their partners than about their friends. That doesn't make sense when I think about how I feel, or what I need. I miss my friends; I need my friends. Whether I'm dating someone or not doesn't change that. Bitch, Ph.D. has been writing about her open marriage and her boyfriend, and the way she writes about those relationships makes me think that maybe these long-standing, unconventional ways of loving more than one person can work. Lately I've been thinking that I might actually be able to do non-monogamy, if a good situation ever came up; and part of that is because I feel so strongly that I love my friends, but I can have more than one of them. Who knows. We'll see. I'm young yet.

good bad stupid

Finally finding my good tamari, after I thought my grandmother had nearly used it up and somehow accelerated its aging so that the label was all faded and dusty. It was in the refrigerator, where I'd put it.

I still can't find the brown sugar. Where does she put most of a pound of dark brown sugar if it's not in the refrigerator, the cupboard, the cooler, or with the big jars of grains?

The measuring cups at IKEA. Not only are they round on the bottom - a stupid design, but the kind of thing stores like IKEA do - but they are half in metric and half in US measurements. Thus, the set is 1/2 cup, 100 mL, 50 mL, and 1 tablespoon. Totally useless. I know they're not an American company, but they could have a set that's consistently in one unit of measurement. At least then I'd know what the problem was.

February 14, 2005

semi-voluntary poverty

I'm an outdoor educator. This means I have a really awesome job, that I spend most of my time playing in the woods, that I get to be part of someone's life-changing experience pretty much every week, that I go to professional development trainings on whitewater canoeing. It also means I'm poor.

I make less than minimum wage. I also get no benefits of any kind, including unemployment, because I am a per diem employee and my wages are regulated under the same laws that regulate camp counselors. I get a sort of grim amusement out of reading articles about labor laws and people who are underpaid. Sometime last year, the New York Times ran an article about hot dog cart companies that don't follow labor laws. One of the enforcement agents said, "No one should have to work from sun-up to sun-down for $65 a day." Guess what? That was my per diem rate last year,1 except that I work round the clock. There was an article about grad student unions in the US News I was looking through today, and a UPenn student organizer said you can't live on $15,000/year in Philadelphia. That's about half again as much as I make, and I live in Philadelphia. Last year I think I cleared the poverty line, but by maybe two thousand dollars at the absolute most. My job expects me to spend two or three months every year going to unpaid training. This year, things have improved: we'll get a stipend between $100 and $300, depending on which trainings they decide to offer, for nearly a month of more or less mandatory training. There's a bumper sticker I like, somewhat bitterly, that says, "I work 40 hours a week to be poor." More, actually, in my case.

Of course, I'm not selling hot dogs. I'm doing something I love. It's also not like I don't have other options: I could probably make more temping half-time in California than I do at my outdoor ed job. I could do something like the New York Teaching Fellows Program.2 I could go back to school. My whining is the whining of a college-educated kid with plenty of other opportunities, and I know that. It's also not like the organization I work for is making a huge profit off my work.3 They're kind of broke too. And outdoor ed norms are to pay poorly and expect people to be more or less homeless: live in a staff house that makes me miserable, live in a truck, whatever. That's how their budget is laid out, and the courses are still way too expensive for any of my students to even consider if they had to pay full fee. The extra from my work, the value I'm not getting paid for, goes to my students.

I've heard a lot of arguments about gentrification, which is rampant in Philadelphia, and I've heard a lot of people say vaguely nasty things about white lefties who kind of slum it for a couple years after college by working for non-profits and saying that they're poor. It's true that some people seem to take the fact that they work for a non-profit for less than they could get at a corporate enterprise as evidence that they're saints, and it's also true that some of those people are actually making a reasonable living and are complaining because they come from wealthier backgrounds. But I've worked for a lot of non-profits, and let me tell you, most of those white college-educated lefties are not getting paid much. They're usually getting paid more than I am, but the organizations they work for would be in trouble without people to run the office, write the grants, teach the after-school classes, and recruit the volunteers for substantially less than their skills are worth on an open market. Non-profit funding gets stretched and stretched and stretched, and much as it's true that my organization would do better with more staff stability, it would cost them money they don't have.

But I keep coming back to the fact that I'm living in Philadelphia, not Colorado or California. I'm giving up a lot of the options for natural beauty and playing in the mountains so that I can have some kind of normal life and be near my friends. And I'm busting my ass for my job: when I'm working, I'm working. I am doing nothing else. It's really important to me to eat well, but if my students have a crisis one morning, I deal with that. I don't have breakfast. I sleep six hours a night so I can keep track of them while they're awake and make plans for the next day with my co-instructor. I spend more than half and sometimes all of any given month away from home, I give up the opportunity to take martial arts classes or Spanish or pottery or just have a weekly discussion group, because I cannot say that I'll be somewhere once a week. I haven't tried to have a love life with this job, but there's a reason for that. I have some kind of a normal life, but not really.

So I'm putting a lot in, and even if the organization is broke, they could make it a priority for us to get paid a reasonable amount. The outdoor ed programs in other cities pay more, and frankly, one of the reasons I came back this year was that my Philadelphia Boss promised me they'd be paying us what people get for this work in Boston and New York. They're not. We're also not getting paid enough for training to cover my rent, which Philadelphia Boss also promised.4 Tomorrow I'm going to talk to the Director about training, the stipend, and whether I'm willing to work a month straight with one or two days off, and I have to think about how I want to frame it. I want her to pay me more, and I think one place where I have leverage is in being willing to stick around if I get paid more.

But I'm not convinced I do want to stick around, because I'm going to have to have this conversation every three months forever; I've been thinking that I want more stability in my life anyway, and thinking that this coming year might therefore be the end of it. I might leave Philadelphia next September and spend the fall working with adjudicated youth and the winter skiing, and apply for grad school or a teacher cert program for fall 2006. My job is kind of not going anywhere: I can stay and be a lead instructor for a few years, but I suspect that two years of doing this particular job full-time will be more than enough, and I'll stop learning from it and therefore stop wanting to do it. Then I can either look for instructing gigs that will teach me more - either technical skills in some other part of the country, or teaching skills working with a different kind of program - or start thinking about transferring to administrative work, which, maybe. But at some point, no matter what, I'd have to go work for other programs and see other models. I don't want to tell the Director I'll stick around for a long time, and then not do it. On the other hand, I might come back next spring if they take care of me, or stay for the fall, but I sure won't do either of those things if they don't.

The truth is I hate being poor. I hate it in a lot of ways, from being dependent on my parents for health insurance to not being able to buy new clothes when I put holes in my jeans, and what I hate most is that it makes me think and talk about money all the time, and that makes me feel like I'm greedy and materialistic. It makes me resent my organization. I need to leave before I start really resenting them, because busting your ass for something you resent is no good at all, and it will mess up my teaching.

1. Small raise this year. Woohoo.
2. Except please, not in New York. I am apparently one of two people in the entire world who never ever wants to live there. It feels like too many rats in too small a cage, and I worry that I would have babies and chew their heads off. Or perhaps not have babies and just chew my own fingers off.
3. When my boss told me that he came in $20,000 under budget last year, I wanted to scream. But I also know that our national organization is broke and the local isn't that flush.
4. Philadelphia Boss apparently desperately wants these things to happen, and promises them because he thinks they're important. He's great. But he also needs to stop promising me things that he wants to be true and are nevertheless not certain, because it makes me not believe him.

sex for roses

I hate Valentine's Day, but not as much as I should. It makes my sister completely miserable, because it's another reminder that she's single and makes her feel undesirable and sort of failed. She cares a lot more about cultural norms than I do. She's also had a less satisfying romantic life than I have, though not because mine is superlative.1

I've never spent Valentine's Day with someone I was dating. The one year I was dating someone on February 14, my little brother's bar mitzvah was that weekend. Bar mitzvot have to be scheduled nearly a year in advance, so when my mother asked how I felt about the second weekend in February I couldn't think of any problems. My euphemism2 was sort of disappointed: he's a bit more of a romantic than I am, and I think he wanted to actually do romantic things on Valentine's Day. I was perfectly happy to go out to fancy-dress dinner with him the next weekend, and in fact probably happier about it than I would have been if we'd gone on the 14th itself.

My dislike for Valentine's Day falls into two major categories: the political and cultural criticism category, strongly informed by my feminism; and a certain bemusement towards the actual practices by which people observe it. Flowers? Well, roses are nice, but I don't really care about them. Plus, what little energy I put to thinking about flowers focuses on wishing I could afford them regularly. Chocolates? I like chocolate, but chocolates are usually not too interesting. I'd rather have a bar of really good plain dark chocolate. Cards? I made a couple of nice valentines (one has a sort of artsy green butterfly; the other has red polka-dot trim and a purple heart and little blue spangles and a red fishnet wrapping), and I really enjoyed the process of making them. But I also made really pretty New Year's presents for my friends, and enjoyed that just as much. I like strawberries, but they're not any good right now; I don't eat steak or oysters. Even the whole needing to have a date thing is sliding off me right now, because I don't really mind being single.3 The only thing I really like that's associated with Valentine's Day is champagne. Man oh man do I like champagne. But since I can't afford it, and neither can most of the people I know, it's not really an issue. So I just sit there and look at the circus and go, huh.

The one thing about this feeling is that I really hate it when people assume that the way to make me happy on Valentine's Day is to give me culturally approved signifiers. Come on, now. There are lots of reasons to give people presents, but two of the primary ones are to give people things they will actually like, and to impress them by showing them how well you understand them and how thoughtful you are. But you know, it takes no creativity or thought whatsoever to get someone a dozen roses for Valentine's Day. And if that's what you get me, I will not be precisely annoyed - it's a nice gesture, after all, and it's kind of ungracious to be annoyed when someone gets you pretty flowers - but I will not be nearly as impressed as I would have been if you'd glued interesting pictures to a piece of cardboard and made me a card. Or written me a note about why you like me. Or made me a cd of songs I don't know but would like. Or baked me cookies. Or bought me warm socks or a bar of dark chocolate. All of those are things that are personal. All the standard stuff is just a way to express generic affection without bothering to learn anything about the person you claim to care about.

That kind of substitution of the generic for the personal is one of my big political problems with Valentine's Day. Another is the way all the approved actions are so strongly gendered, with women cast as the people who want reassurance, love, and romance, and men cast as the ones who provide it (by spending money, of course). Professor B links to a favorable article about online dating,4 which mentions that women are more sexually adventurous and men are more emotionally open online. I don't know why they're so surprised. The internet cuts people out of their usual social contexts, which can be scary, but can also free them from the kind of social coercion that makes men pretend to be emotionally dead and women pretend they're not interested in sex.

Valentine's Day is all about keeping all those roles in place. Women provide sex and want romance and money; men provide romance and money and want sex. Eew. I hate thinking of my relationships, romantic or not, in that transactional mode. The relational part of being human is really strong, and really wonderful, and I think it cheapens and sours it to talk about it like it's a widget exchange. Not to mention the way these enforced gender roles damage women, damage men, contribute to sexual violence, and completely fuck over anyone who's not straight.

One consequence of the heteronormativity of everything is that shows like the L Word (a guilty pleasure if ever I had one) usually make the characters take recognizably masculine and feminine roles, even when there's not a butch woman among them. There was this one episode in the ongoing struggles of the central couple to find an appropriate sperm donor in which they considered a threesome with some guy who was hitting on them.5 After it failed, Bette - the bigshot curator who's always really busy with work - asked Tina - her partner, who would have been the one getting pregnant - if Tina had been attracted to the guy. There was never any question of whether Bette would be attracted to him: after all, only the person in the "woman" role can possibly be attracted to a guy, even when there aren't any butch/femme dynamics going on. I'm betting that if they'd had a Valentine's Day episode (which, because of scheduling, they didn't) Bette would have bought Tina flowers and taken her out for dinner. These shows slot their characters into gender roles because without them, they don't know how to tell the story. There's no spot for the generic cultural signifiers, because those signifiers are totally dependent on gender for their meaning.

Come on, people. Live a little.

1. If you know a nice boy in the Boston area who wants to date a lovely, intelligent, practical, somewhat insecure, and totally inexperienced college junior, please let me know. But he has to be nice. And, you know, appropriate.
2. That's what I called him for a long time. I still dislike all the actual options.
3. Or, you know, whatever.
4. Which I have never tried and probably will never try, despite the minor kick I get out of writing profiles.
5. What a terrible idea. Unprotected sex with a complete stranger can have all sorts of nasty consequences, even aside from the ethics of specifically trying to conceive a kid with someone who may not want one.

February 7, 2005

miscellaneous fauna

During my run yesterday, I saw cows. Cows! In a public park in Berkeley. I came around a corner in the trail and there they were, lots of them, just kind of hanging out, eating and chewing and looking at the scenery. There were a few calves, including one who nursed while I was there. It was great.

On Saturday, a raccoon ran across the street in front of me.

And a week or two ago, there were newts out on the trail where I run. It had been raining, and they were crawling everywhere. Apparently it's newt breeding season here. One of the park roads is closed for it. They're beautiful and kind of astonishing: burgundy above and burnt ochre underneath, and when you pick them up to move them off the road they feel dense and muscular and a little slimy from the rain.

There is also the ever-present Pongo, my grandmother's dog, who is a prince among dogs. My mother is his fairy dogmother. She rescued him and brought him to California.

safety questions

I've had a number of conversations with my parents that start out with me telling them about my exciting ideas for cool things to do, and end up with them telling me to be careful, usually by taking someone else with me. The most recent was today, about going up to Yosemite Valley; the most memorable is something I'll probably never forgive my dad for saying. I was talking about hiking one of the long trails - the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail - and he said, "I'm sorry, but there has to be a male on that trip." They're mostly not worried that I'll twist an ankle and not be able to call for help for a couple of days; instead, they worry that I'll be attacked, raped, and murdered. One of my grandmothers has the same worries: she insisted on lending me her cellphone when I drove from Chicago to Philadelphia alone, and regularly sends me those stupid forwarded emails with new schemes that kidnappers, carjackers, rapists, or whatever supposedly use.

So let's put aside the fact that I'm a lot less likely to need protection from lascivious or violent humans on one of those trails than in my daily life. Let's put aside the fact that any help I'd need from another person would almost certainly be some kind of medical care, and in that case I'd want someone with a cellphone, emergency medical training, or ideally both. Let's also put aside the fact that I have pretty darn good wilderness medical training myself, and am at least as likely to be doing the helping as to need the help. Instead, let's talk about women and safety.

There are a lot of supposedly basic precautions I don't take. I don't feel I need a partner to go backpacking, although I don't often go alone because it's so much more fun to go with someone. I walk home alone at night, sometimes in sketchy or unfamiliar neighborhoods, sometimes when I've had a fair amount to drink. I take the subway or the bus instead of a cab, because I don't have money. I took a ride up to my snow skills training from some guy I'd met once, and I'd take a ride from people I'd never met if I knew them through some context, like as friends of someone I'd once met. Tonight I went running: there was plenty of light when I started and I had originally planned to do a short run and be back before dark, but I really wanted that long run. So it was almost fully night in a public park and there I was alone, doing some stretches next to my car.

I've only been hassled twice, once at 11 am on my way to the train station three and a half years ago, when a guy riding by on his bike grabbed my breast, and an evening that same summer when I was waiting for the bus in a neighborhood I didn't know and ended up waiting for about half an hour. Someone who seemed to think I was a prostitute came up to me and kind of mumbled at me in a language I didn't understand, and someone else drove by and offered me a ride and then came back to repeat his offer after I refused, which frankly kind of scared me. It was my first time living in a major city, and I don't think I knew the kinds of tricks I know now about how to walk so you look confident and aware of your surroundings, even when you feel like shit.

Not looking vulnerable only does so much good, though, especially since I'm small and female and that makes me look vulnerable even when I'm walking assertively. The worst part is that I can never tell which fears are rational and which aren't. Is it reasonable to go for a run at night in a city? Is it reasonable to have four beers at a bar and then walk home by myself, because my friends want to stay longer and I'm tired? What's reasonable? The woman at the temp job I'm doing tomorrow said they'd pay for a cab on Tuesday, because they want me to work til 9 pm. That's nice, but of course I take bigger risks than a bus ride in a posh SF neighborhood all the time.

And the real question: what's the alternative? I could decide not to run, but I really want to run; tonight, I really wanted 6 miles instead of 4. I also like (by which I mean love and need for my own sanity) to be out in pretty places by myself: should I give that up? I could take cabs back from all my social events, but then I couldn't afford to go to social events. I could make my friends walk me home from the bar - something they'd probably do, if I asked - but I'd feel like a burden. I could stop drinking except at home and at friends' houses where I can spend the night. I could always drive my own vehicle. Not walking alone at night was kind of reasonable in Des Moines, where everyone drives everywhere, but try doing that in a major city. Basically, I could spend a lot more money and fuck up my life to deal with a relatively minor risk, because most people who attack women are people those women know. Not to mention the fucking highway, which is way more dangerous than Yosemite Valley and all three trails combined.

The really ridiculous thing is that all these nonspecific fears don't actually help me - or anyone - stay safe. They don't help me make good decisions, because I need or want to do so many "unsafe" things. They don't help me respond to bad situations. They don't address the bad situations I'm actually likely to encounter. They just give me a big pile of guilt and worry to take the edge off my joy in my life and my independence. Thanks, culture, and fuck you too.

February 6, 2005

the worst that can happen

Bitch, Ph.D.'s post about fearing American fascism echoes a lot of my own fears. The word fascist has been so diluted that Michael Ignatieff of the NYT recently said that the people who are disrupting elections in Iraq are fascists. They're not. Fascism is a particular political ideology. The left has been pretty free with the cries of "fascist!", and in some ways we're now paying the price. Because this isn't fascism, right here. Bush is not a fascist, at least not publically. But his ideology does echo fascism in significant ways.

Fundamentally, fascism is an ideology of the nation. It has no founding texts, really, but back when it was a respectable political ideology it had ties to the futurists. Fascism reveres the nation, but only as an idealized history full of cultural signifiers like traditional dress and food, heroic ancestors, and, of course, traditional family structure. The futurism shows up in the cult of violence and progress. There's an incredible passage in The Futurist Manifesto: "We will glorify war�the world�s only hygiene�militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman."1 That's the cult of violence, right there, and the rest of it is much the same. For the fascists, war offered a proving ground, a place to find meaning. It also engaged the whole state apparatus and provided a useful symbiosis between corporate and social; and it made people stay in their social roles. While fascism was once a respectable political ideology, the seeds of its downfall were within itself: it is necessarily violent, repressive, and exploitative of national tradition.

The summary of traits at Bitch, Ph.D., is right on. David Neiwert of Orcinus has a lot more about the creep of fascism in this country; he also argues that gays are the new Jews, which seems terrifyingly plausible.

An American fascism would look different from Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, Franco's Spain. But it would share those basic traits. I think a lot about the worst that could happen, and what I would have to do in that situation. What we would all have to do. It wouldn't be pretty.

1. F.T. Marinetti, reprinted at http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/manifesto.html. I was shocked that I found it online. Considering it's The Futurist Manifesto, maybe I shouldn't be.

February 5, 2005

justly married

About the only thing that makes me feel politically hopeful these days is same-sex marriage. I know 11 states passed amendments to their constitutions banning it; but when I was a high school gay rights activist, not so long ago, it was unimaginable. Now Massachusetts actually has same-sex marriage, Vermont has civil unions, and a bunch of other states are in various stages of getting there. There's a map here that describes what's going on in each state, and Freedom to Marry usually has the latest news, good and bad. The latest news is big news, too: a New York state judge just ruled that same-sex couples must get marriage licenses. Her ruling explicitly links these changes in the meaning of marriage to older changes, like allowing interracial marriage and banning marital rape. People are talking about a backlash, of course, but I think this is great news. There may be no same-sex marriage in my flyover state for a long time (though an amendment banning it failed), but this is the one issue where we're winning. Ampersand, as usual, has a thoughtful discussion, and some links to other discussions.

No really, we are winning. I really believe it. Homophobia will still be there, but on this issue we will win.

What strikes me about this, though, is that it all makes me ridiculously happy. Really, really personally happy. When San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Derek Powazek posted a really beautiful series of photos called Justly Married. I remember sitting in my house in Philadelphia with my housemates and looking at all of them, and at the photos of Phyllis Martin and Del Lyon (and again, right after they got married) and crying. It still gets me choked up to see that second picture, the one where they're old and hugging and the two famous women who are watching the ceremony are crying in the background. And the ones at Justly Married, well, none of them makes me cry individually. But the whole series? The guy in the kilt who looks like he's screaming with joy? The guy who's sticking his tongue out and smiling and holding hands with his much older husband? The woman in the leather jacket and purple sunglasses who looks like she's about to cry? The middle-aged women under the umbrella? Oh god. I don't understand people who can see these pictures and not be moved.

They make me happy and they make me cry and I am so glad that soon there will be more. Thank you, Judge Ling-Cohan.

February 4, 2005

taking it personally, redux

The awesome Bitch, Ph.D. has written her last two posts about how totally awful the State of the Union speech made her feel. It reminds me of what I said about taking it personally. All this stuff affects us. It affects our lives. It affects our chances of going bankrupt, having major health problems, getting hassled in public, being able to raise our kids in a safe world, having wilderness near us, getting drafted. Bush's presidency makes it harder for me - me personally - to get a job, because everything I want to work for is getting its funding cut. And if things get really bad, it will be our lives that we have to put on the line. Even worse, I don't feel like I have any control over any of those things.

I'm not surprised that she feels like shit. Some days I'm surprised any of us actually function.

February 2, 2005

beer and Social Security

I just watched the State of the Union with a pretty decent amount of Lagunitas IPA and some friends of a friend. There's a lot on my mind, but the biggest thing is this: you want to talk about Social Security? OK, let's talk about Social Security.

But let's get a couple of things straight: Social Security is one of the great triumphs of American government. It used to be that being old meant being poor and homeless because you couldn't work any more, unless you were lucky enough to have kids who could support you or lots of money saved up. And when bad things happened to the economy, as they tend to do periodically, those kids couldn't both support you and feed their own kids, or themselves. The same thing happened if you got hurt and couldn't work: your choices were to starve or to seriously burden your (probably already burdened) family. Social Security fixed that, because it guaranteed that anyone who finds himself or herself old or injured - conditions which can affect any of us - would not starve. It's not a lot of money, but it's the difference between poverty and starvation. That's a big fucking difference. Social Security is awesome.

At a party at my grandmother's, one of her upper-middle-class friends was insisting that Social Security is just not enough to live on and doesn't make a big difference for people. Now, it's true that $955 a month1 doesn't go that far in San Francisco. But in Des Moines, you can probably live on it. And even if you can't just live on your Social Security, it makes a big difference. Lord knows $955 a month would make a big difference in my life. In fact, it's not that different from what I make now, and retirees have Medicare so they don't have to worry about health insurance. People who argue that it's a meaningless amount are just completely ignoring most people's lives.

Also, it's a good thing that rich people get benefits too. Yeah, payroll taxes are regressive; the fact that you don't pay Social Security taxes on income over $76,000 means that I pay a larger percentage of my income in Social Security taxes than someone who makes ten times as much as I do. It's kind of a bummer. But the fact that everyone gets Social Security means that everyone feels invested in its continued existence. Anyone who's watched American politics in the last fifteen years (and probably before that, but I wasn't paying attention) knows that it's really freakin' easy to throw around poor people's lives and safety nets. Because Social Security pays a meaningful amount - because for most people, that $955 makes a big difference - the middle and upper classes really care about it's continued existence. For more evidence of why this works, check out the home mortgage interest tax deduction, which is another politically untouchable program that benefits (in this case primarily) middle and upper class families. Middle and upper class families are a much more politically important constituency than poor families; even though the money means less to them, it keeps them invested. It keeps them caring about Social Security. It makes Social Security the third rail of American politics.

I have a particular interest in this because I've done some comparative study of welfare states. The Netherlands has particularly successful social programs, and one of the reasons they're so successful is that everyone gets benefits. Everyone has a stake. Means-testing makes sense, theoretically, but in reality it often undermines over-all social commitment to particular programs. It lets wealthy and middle-class people see beneficiaries of social programs as somehow different from them. This is bad for social unity, for the longevity of the program, and for the actual policies. To quote a paper I wrote in 2003, "Wealthy and middle class people tend to get programs that address their own felt needs; poor people get programs that wealthy and middle class people think will help them, which tend to be punitive, ineffective, and stigmatizing." Programs which serve everyone, rich or poor, avoid this dichotomy. If you feel like knowing more about this, you can read The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, a comparative analysis of the US, Germany, and the Netherlands,2 or The Hidden Welfare State: Tax Expenditures and Social Policy in the United States3. Or ask me. Back on track:

Bush's plan is basically a windfall for the financial industry. Social Security is one of the most efficient government programs ever, partly because it's pretty damn simple. Its overhead costs are around 1%4 for a pretty good reason: the SSA only invests in US treasury bonds, which don't make that much but have essentially zero risk and don't need a lot of decision-making. Active financial management costs a lot more: you're paying someone to spend time doing research for you, to have trade memberships, to explain your options to you, to make transactions for you. The financial industry would love to get its cut of the $1,366 billion the Social Security trust fund had in 2003, or the $3,585 billion it's projected to have in 2012.5 Sadly, that cut comes at the expense of our security. Active management is basically always riskier (you're making judgment calls, rather than just investing in the safest option), and it takes a big cut out of the available money for Social Security. Also, Social Security's very size helps it be efficient. National health insurance would also have that advantage.

Fourth, the money you put into Social Security is not money you're saving. You don't have a personal account at the Social Security office. Social Security is a giant fund that all workers and their employers pay into. Your employer contributes the same amount you do, and the government uses that tax and their formula (which is related to how much you've paid in) to provide you with benefits. It's called a social insurance scheme for good reason: there's a large pool of people putting in money, and you get benefits when you end up in particular situations. Is the money you give your health insurance company yours? No. But it funds the benefits you get from them if particular things happen. The same is true of Social Security. Bush wants to make us all individually responsible for our old age, our health care costs, everything, by making us save money for them individually. The fact is, though, that insurance schemes work because they spread the risk around. For every person who needs a lot of money from Social Security or a health insurance company, there's someone else who doesn't. And you don't know which person you're going to be. If you're tied to your individual account, the catastrophes and unexpected twists of life hurt you a lot more. If instead you give up some of your money to the social insurance plan, you end up with a lot more security.

Yes, Social Security was designed for an era when people died younger. But that's easy enough to fix: raise the retirement age. Most people these days can work past 65. Or make people contribute more. It does not require a fundamental retooling of an incredibly successful system. Paul Krugman's columns6 have elegant explanations of this, as well as of many other things.

Remember that part about your employer putting money in? Bush's plan for Social Security, like his plan for Health Savings Accounts, basically absolves employers - who usually have an awful lot more power than their individual employees - of responsibility for the maintenance of society. I don't have much to say about this, except that it's of a piece with his general plan to keep rich people from doing their fair share. If he's successful enough with this, he will manage to destroy much of what's still good about this country. And really, that's what his Social Security plan is about. That's what creating accounts that you can pass on to your children means. Time was when inherited wealth was treated by the tax code as something slightly shameful, like capital gains. The tax code always favors something, and it used to favor work; Bush is trying to change it to favor wealth, to favor privilege, to favor inheritance and investment over labor. That's dangerous. It pulls this country towards a wider split between rich and poor, and towards a government that reflects that split. And as the middle class disappears, so does the vision of this country as egalitarian, meritocratic, and self-governing. However deluded that vision is, like the ideals of civil liberties, it acts as a philosophical check on bad policy. I don't really want to live in a US without that check.

1. The amount the average retiree receives in Social Security benefits.
2. by Robert E. Goodin, Bruce Headey, Ruud Muffels, and Henk-Jan Dirven. Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN: 0521596394 (paperback). It's the kind of quantitative political science that makes me like quantitative political science: thoughtful, clear, accessible, and honest about its own assumptions and limits.
3. by Christopher Howard. Princeton University Press, 1999. ISBN: 069100529X (paperback). I honestly don't really remember this book, but I wrote a paper about social welfare policies which cited it extensively in the passages about this kind of differential, and the summary makes it sound useful.
4. http://californiaaggie.ucdavis.edu/article/?id=7266.
5. http://research.aarp.org/econ/dd86_oasdi.html.
6. Available at the Paul Krugman Archive or from the New York Times.