Thursday, December 28, 2017

Some thoughts on toys

If the producers of CNN's documentary series are moderately educated baby boomers, then the producers of Netflix's new series The Toys that Made Us are moderately educated Gen-Xers and older Millennials.  Are are predominantly male and without children.
The series focuses on eight toy lines ranging from the enduring (Barbie, Lego, G.I. Joe, Transformers) to the flash in the pan toy lines that are only relevant to hard-core collectors (Masters of the Universe).  Most of the brands were popular during the 1970s and 1980s (Star Wars, Hello Kitty, and the aforementioned Masters of the Universe.)  An OK start, but not enough.  To my mind, a series like this needs to focus on toys with staying power.  Toys that our children will be playing with, or are playing with.  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Teddy bears.  What could be more quintessentially American than a toy named for a U.S. president?  In production since 1903, teddy bears are everywhere, and in all forms.
  • Slinky.  A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing!  Everyone knows it's Slinky.  Whether in metal or plastic, most of us have owned at least one at some point in our lives.
  • Play-Doh.  This staple of preschools has been going strong since the 1950s, and has been produced in a wide range of colors, with all sorts of extruders and molds to fit your imagination.
  • My Little Pony.  These colored plastic horses with butt tats (or "cutie marks") have been a staple of little girls' play since 1982.  The animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic not only kept interest in the toys alive to this day and introduced the Generation 4 design, but expanded the fanbase to include men (bronies.)
  • Silly Putty.  Tan putty in a red egg, it wasn't as versatile as Play-doh, but how many of us picked up transfers from the newspaper with it?
  • Mr. Potato Head.  Another staple of preschooler play, the original iteration made you supply an actual potato.
  • Fisher-Price preschool toys.  From the telephone on a string (the one with the eyes and the mouth) to the colored stacking rings, these are the toys are babies will be gumming on for the next century or so.
  • American Girl.  I hesitate to include this, as it only really caught fire during the mid-1990s.  Originally conceived as the anti-Barbie, the sale of the brand to Mattel meant the Barbification of the brand, with the childlike dolls receiving colored hair extensions and cars in place of the historically accurate schoolbooks and china tea sets.  However, it has all the imaginative potential of Barbie and none of the body image controversy, as the dolls represent children with stocky bodies, and come in a range of facial molds, hair colors and styles (or not) and skin types.  However, while the dolls cause little controversy, the price point certainly has (remember "homeless" Gwen, retailing for $115?)
  • Etch-A-Sketch.  How many of us fiddled with the knobs, trying to get the line where we wanted it to go?

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Reverse Robin-Hooding

As we see the Senate and the House pass a tax bill that every economic analyst agrees is horrible, most of us concede that the American Dream is officially dead.  Businesses that were once staples of our middle class (Sears, Toys R Us) are declaring bankruptcy and shuttering their stores.  Alabama is being investigated by the U.N. for levels of bone-crushing poverty not seen outside most third-world nations.  And about 80% of our nation is struggling to afford just to live.
But not all the news is bad.  After all, the Dow Jones Industrial Average keeps going up, right?  It's got to be better than it was in 2007?
Yeah, not really.  We've had all kinds of explanations for stock increases during flat economic times.  From "stagflation" in the 1970s to our most recent "jobless recovery," we're increasingly measuring economic success by one rubric, and it's the wrong one.  The stock market is not an accurate reflection of our economy's health.
Let's look at what the stock market is.  Businesses need money to operate.  Some of that money comes from revenue.  Most of it, however, comes from loans and equity financing.  Loans are easy enough to understand.  Most of us have borrowed money at some point in our lives.  For equity financing, the company sells off little pieces of its ownership.  Those pieces are called "stock."  Currently, stocks are traded in two markets--The New York Stock Exchange, founded in 1817, and NASDAQ, founded in 1971.  (Fun fact: One of the founders of NASDAQ was Bernie Madoff.  Yes, that Bernie Madoff.)  The owners of stock certificates are owners of the company.  They share in decision making (like voting in a board of directors) and they share in the profits.  These profits, called dividends, are paid out quarterly per share.
So much for Economics 101.  How does this play out in practice?  Let's look at an American corporation.  United Health Care is a company that sells health insurance.  In 2016, according to their annual report, the company earned about $184 million in revenue.  That sounds like a lot, except that their stock sales for that same year were over $132 billion!  Now, if you were United Health Care, who would be your top priority?  Your clients, or your shareholders?
We saw this play out to an even greater extreme in the 1990s and early 2000s, with the "tech bubble."  Companies like Yahoo were selling stocks at high prices without having any saleable product at all.  Stock prices do not necessarily reflect revenue.   They reflect how well a particular stock is selling at a given time. 
Most of the people buying stock are in the "investor class"--their sole interest is in getting the most out of their stocks as possible.  Whether that comes from dividends or from the "buy-low, sell-high" ethos of the market, they want to make money.  And, as companies see a significant portion of their equity tied to stock prices, pleasing shareholders becomes more important than product quality.  So, the only thing that matters is the bottom line.  Whether it's moving plants to countries with lower wages and no regulations, cutting staff, or trimming benefits, companies want to increase revenue to please shareholders.  And, if their employees can no longer afford their products, oh well!  They still have their stocks to bring in money.  Who cares about sales revenue when stock equity makes up a great percentage of overall equity?
But it doesn't last.  As history has shown, we've had depressions, stagflations, recessions, and periods of high unemployment.  Currently, we see the Dow rise while more and more Americans face economic instability.  We cannot keep this up.  Eventually, we will crash again.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Me too--My Eight Word Response

Lately on FB, there has been a new trend going around.  People, mostly women, have been posting "Me too" as a status if they experienced sexual harassment or assault.  The idea is to draw awareness to the problem and hopefully show that it's incredibly more widespread than most people's comfort levels would like to admit.
However, like all "awareness" campaigns, this one has had a bit of backlash.  First off is "what about teh menz," usually uttered by guys who have never been assaulted, but are pissed off that they're being left out of the spotlight.  The answer to that is easy and straightforward.  If a man has experienced sexual assault, please feel free to post "me too."  You have my utmost sympathy.  No one should ever have to experience sexual abuse. The first person I saw post this statement was a transgendered male.  I'm on your side, guys.
Then there are those who say, "why are women bitching about harmless catcalling and compliments?  Grow up!"  You are putting the "ass" in "assumption."  Most women who post, I'm sorry to say, have experienced far worse than a few catcalls.
But the worst response has got to be the "virtue" response.  The "guess I'm just not pretty enough to rape, huh?" response.  Unfortunately, this comes from women.  The variants on this are "where are my dick pics?" or "if you just (fill in the blank: dressed modestly, stayed out of the frat party/nightclub/bar, didn't drink so much/at all, didn't have that manicure/nose job/breast implants, didn't go to his suite, blah blah or blah), then this never would have happened to you."  A demonstration can be found here.  This is called the "just world" fallacy, and it makes me see every shade of red.  Because the only thing that separates rape victims from those who haven't been raped is bad luck, and nothing more.
I posted "me too," and have written about my experiences.  Like Ms. Bialyk, I decided to develop my mind instead of my looks, finishing college at 19 without ever going near a frat house.  I'm not pretty (there's a reason my FB profile picture hasn't looked like me in years), dress very modestly, and spent several years as a religious fundamentalist.  I even covered my hair.  None of that protected me.  I was at home and stone cold sober, wearing no makeup and plain, cheap clothes.  That didn't protect me either.
When I have the spoons, I usually end up screaming profanity at the person expressing this viewpoint while hoping they never find out for themselves how wrong they are.  But usually I don't.  So I give my basic eight word answer: Long skirt.  Turtleneck sweater.  Covered hair.  Raped anyway.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A playground for the rich

Once again, as the mayoral election draws near, the hand-wringing begins.  Rents in NYC are just too damn high.  Our current mayor has done very little to alleviate this issue.  The "housing lottery" system is a joke, and most units in the lottery are too costly for anyone making less than $60,000 per year.  The solution, for many people, is simple.  "If you can't afford NYC, just leave!"
Challenge accepted.
Let's set the bar for minimum income at $70,000 for a single earner.  On this salary, a basic apartment, transportation, food, clothing, and a few luxuries are attainable.  Anyone who can't meet that threshold has to find a cheaper city to live in.
Great plan.  New York is now a city without waiters.  There are no busing staff to clear your table, nor are there many cooks below the rank of head chef.  There are no housekeepers or custodians.  Certainly no store clerks.  That's going to put a damper on all the hotels, restaurants and stores so crucial to NYC's bustling tourism industry.  Continuing on to the performing arts scene, that would let out most theater staff and box office staff, as well as every performer and member of the crew of every show not on Broadway or at Lincoln Center.  So I guess nobody will want to see a show.
OK, so you don't really need restaurants, theaters or hotels.  And with online shopping, do we really need stores anymore?  Well, let's look at the things people actually need to survive in a city.  There are no new teachers, social workers, firefighters or police officers, and no EMTs period.  No traffic cops or 911 dispatchers.  No nurses below the rank of RN.  And that custodial shortage extends to the places we actually use, including hospitals and schools.  Speaking of schools, we've just gotten rid of all the para-educators who work with disabled students, as well as specialty instructors.  At the collegiate level, getting classes will be even harder because there are no adjunct professors anymore (as in the people who teach the bulk of college classes while scraping by on poverty-level wages).  There are no cabdrivers or maintenance workers.  And I hope that you weren't planning a remodel, because your contractor doesn't have a construction crew anymore.  Your nanny has also quit on you, as has your gardener and cleaning lady.  And if you hired a home health aide for your aging parent, that person has just left the city as well.
Going into the office, all of the financial industry will grind to a halt because the administrative staff has gone.  No receptionists.  No assistants scheduling meetings and drafting contracts.  No bookkeeping staff.  Sure, technology could handle most of it, but does a stockbroker handling billions in trade every week even have the time to manage his own calendar?
In our court system, there would be no legal aid attorneys.  No new hires in the district attorney's office either.  Clerks at every level of government would be gone, from the sanitation department to the DMV.  Gone would be paralegals and legal researchers.  And I hope you don't plan on spending the day in a city park, because the groundskeepers aren't there either.
You can't build a city solely for people of means.  It's the working people who not only keep the city running, but make it what it is.  They not only need a decent home, they deserve it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The other side of the "MRA Narrative"

I love reading feminist articles.  However, the comment section is usually something to be avoided for the sake of my blood pressure.  Usually, the comments are from men telling the same story--evil, castrating feminist bitches take a man who gives them everything for a ride, then after a few years walk out with the kids and the house.  I've heard this story so often that I call it the "MRA Narrative."  And it's bad for my blood pressure because I lived it.
When I was 24 years old, I married Mr. X, who was 55 at the time.  Now, I know where this is going.  Hot babe snaps up old guy with a fat wallet.  Well, not really.  For years, I was the girl who couldn't get a date.  I'm socially awkward and not very pretty, and so I was the one being "friendzoned."  Also, in college, I was always too young.  I was 17 my freshman year (which made me "jail bait" in California) and 19 when I graduated (which meant I couldn't go anyplace that served alcohol).  I turned 20, and for a short time, started attracting male attention.  It didn't last very long.  I joined a fundamentalist group on the promise of family, community, and, most of all, acceptance.  Add in that in 2003-2005, it was obvious to me that our economy was built on a house of cards.  So I wanted that package.  A spouse, a job, and definitely children.
It was in this context that I met Mr. X.  After moving to Brooklyn, I heard about the occasional BT that someone wanted to set me up with.  Somehow those guys never materialized.  So I moved into the world of "older singles"-- and I mean older.  As in some of them had kids my age.  It became obvious that these men were the only ones who would ever date me.  The men I dated ranged in age from 40-62.  I was all of 24.  I knew even then that I had two things going for me.  One, I was young enough to bear children (although "young" didn't mean "attractive").  Two, I was the novelty act.  Within six months, I would be just one of the crowd, and forgotten.  So I married Mr. X.  He made a comfortable living, fed stray cats, gave people rides, and gave me a job.  And I didn't exactly have a lot of other options.
Within two months, I was pregnant, and our first child was born a month before our first anniversary.  In the early weeks, he was an attentive father to our daughter, but soon became unavailable.  When we moved into our newly renovated house, I had to set everything up while taking care of a five-month-old, including assembling a computer desk.  The only "help" I received came from neighborhood children.  One of the schools offered me a teaching job.  Mr. X convinced me not to take it.  Over time, my place in the household shifted.  I was there to serve him, bear his children, and provide sex on demand.  When our second daughter was born, I came home from the hospital two days before Rosh Hashanah. As tired as I was, and with a newborn and a toddler to care for, I had to set up the bassinet, unpack baby clothes, and still prepare all the holiday meals with no assistance.  His one concession to my condition was not inviting guests that year.  After that, I decided no more children, but Mr. X didn't want me on birth control.  I snuck myself onto an IUD because I knew he couldn't fool with it.  After five years, the narrative shifted from "I will care for you so you never have to work" to "I have to take care of you because you aren't capable of working."  After six years, he told me that a wife was "a cook in the kitchen, a laundress in the laundry room, and a whore in the bedroom."  After seven years, he began sexually assaulting me and punching walls.  I walked out and filed a restraining order.  He violated it numerous times.  All the time, he insisted that he had "treated me like a queen."
Now we come to the divorce.  This is the part where I get "his" kids, his house and his money, right?  I don't think so.  Despite an indicated report from Children's Services that he would get drunk and pass out while the children were in his care, he got ten days of visitation per month, half their school vacations, and half the holidays.  He kept the house and the business.  And, because he worked for cash, there was no way to establish his real income.  I got three years of alimony, child support, and a $20,000 settlement that has never materialized.  Hardly taken to the cleaners.
So, please keep in mind that for every story about the "evil feminist," there is a real live woman who may have been through hell.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

CNN's "The Nineties" buries our gays

As someone fascinated by history, I got really into CNN's decade series.  I saw "The Sixties," "The Seventies," and "The Eighties," and looked forward to "The Nineties," if for no other reason than it was the first decade I could really remember.  The Soviet government fell when I was on winter break in fifth grade.  I saw the troops marching off to Iraq to battle Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Shield, and we had yellow ribbons in our classroom to support the troops.  I was glued to Law & Order and identified with Daria.  I was in ninth grade when the Alfred P. Murrah building was bombed and O.J. Simpson was acquitted.  I remember Waco, Bosnia, and Rwanda on the news.  My first year of college (don't try to do the math, it won't work), Bill Clinton was impeached.  I voted for the first time in the Democratic primary that nominated Al Gore.  And, yes, I probably danced the Macarena about a hundred times during the summer of 1996.
Which is why I found "The Nineties" so disappointing, mostly for what it left out.  Specifically, our country's extremely dynamic relationship with the gay community.  It was a time of great progress, but also a time of violence and hate crimes driven by homophobia.
By the early 1990s, the status of gays in America was changing.  People felt more comfortable "coming out," and no longer was AIDS the grisly threat it had been.  1994's pop psychology book Reviving Ophelia featured at least one lesbian teenager coming to terms with her identity.  Gay Americans were fighting in court for legal recognition of their partnerships and custody of their children.  Gay characters were shown in media, and the musical RENT featured a gay man, a lesbian, a bisexual woman, and Angel, whose identity (transgender or genderqueer) is still being debated by fans.  And Angel and Collins (the gay man) had the most loving, stable relationship of all the characters!  By the end of the decade, a few states had legalized same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships.
Unfortunately, progress is never linear.  Two well-publicized murders occurred during the 1990s in America's heartland.  Brandon Teena, a transgender man, was killed in 1993.  And, of course, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in a hate crime in 1998 because he was gay.
None of this gets even a nod.  Sure, the television episode mentions Ellen DeGeneres coming out, and the show Will and Grace.  But nothing else gets a nod.  The episode on civil rights focuses on the O.J. Simpson trial (which wasn't really about civil rights) but neglects to mention Matthew Shepard.  Nothing was mentioned about the changing legal or cultural status of the gay community.  However, it was one of the features of the decade that I remember the most vividly.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Charlottesville and the government we deserve

Like so many Americans, I was horrified at the events that unfolded in Charlottesville over the weekend.  Less than a century after World War II, Nazi flags are flying in the United States.  A woman was killed by a white supremacist for the simple crime of disagreeing with him.
How did we get here?
After the end of Reconstruction, the Republican Party rallied around pro-business sentiments likely to be popular with the moneyed capitalists of the Northeast.  This was the world of the "Robber Barons," and they created a tale of two Americas.  Except that when the conditions of the working poor became impossible to ignore, they had to offer a token support of Progressivist ideas, or they would find themselves in homemade guillotines.  Through a confluence of events that we had little control over, including a world war that wiped out most of the world's infrastructure while leaving ours intact, and fifteen years of austerity driving demand for new goods, the United States enjoyed a couple of decades of prosperity.  The problem is that you can't run a country on rhetoric alone, and this was also a time when we were paranoid.  So instead of spreading the wealth, Eisenhower-style, we poured all our energies into an unwinnable war.  Enter Richard Nixon, who was about as far from Eisenhower as you could get.  This brought the economy into a slow slide starting in the 1970s.  However, the GOP can't just openly say, "give to the rich and screw the poor."  Look how well that "47%" remark worked for Mitt Romney.  So instead, the GOP played a long game of distraction.  It's not OUR fault that there are no jobs, rents are rising and healthcare and college are practically inaccessible.  Look over there!  It's those darn Millennials, with their lattes and avocado toast!  Or those baby boomers, who won't retire and are hoarding all the plum jobs!  Or the "welfare queens," those evil people with dark skin and funny accents who mooch off the government, steal jobs, and live likes royalty while you scrape by!  And we can't fund social programs, because if we cut military spending, all those bad people overseas who don't accept Jesus Christ and their lord and savior will bomb us back to the stone age and indoctrinate our children to hate Christmas!  And we CAN'T HAVE THAT!
Well, look where that thinking has gotten us.  A president with no political experience who is a genius at the art of the distraction, a Boy Scout jamboree straight out of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and now a KKK/Nazi rally in Virginia, complete with torches.
However, I don't really blame the GOP for this.  They may have profited from hatred, but they didn't create it.  Hatred and fear have been there since before the settlers at Jamestown.  I blame the James Andrew Fields, Jr.'s and Cole Whites.  The Peter Cvjetanovics.  I blame every person who thought that marching in a city with a torch in one hand and a swastika in the other was a good idea.  And every person who chose not to condemn them (including you, Mr. President!)  Because, yes, you are that angry racist.  And since you keep talking about how your guy won the election, you have to figure out how to clean up the board without throwing the game away.