Tag Archives: economics

Rethinking Jobs And Business: How Pandemics And Relief Benefits May Change Both

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The world is always changing. That’s the only constant.

Sometimes, it changes more rapidly and chaotically than usual. That tends to happen a lot when major events transpire, such as a once-in-a-generation pandemic that infected millions and shut down entire countries. I hope I don’t have to belabor that to anyone with a news feed for the past year.

At the same time, these kinds of rapid upheavals can get us thinking harder about things we tend not to question. I’m not just talking about how much we take our health, our infrastructure, and our essential workers for granted. I’m referring to bigger concepts about how we approach life, society, and how we structure our lives.

One area that seems to be getting more scrutiny lately is how we approach jobs, work, and careers. I’ve certainly given it more thought, mostly in terms of the impacts of telework and how I used my stimulus check. I suspect many others have contemplated these topics in new ways in wake of recent events.

Now, as the pandemic nears its end, some of those concepts are already manifesting in the real world. One effect, in particular, has been especially jarring in America, mostly for reasons that other industrialized countries may find laughable. It has to do with people not wanting to work for a lousy, unlivable wage.

I know that shouldn’t be such a radical concept, but it is and as a proud American, I find it infuriating. There’s no getting around it. The ages for the average, non-CEO American have been stagnant for decades. It’s an issue that has been festering since long before the pandemic and even before I was born.

Before the pandemic swept in, there was an ongoing debate on whether the minimum wage should be increased to $15 nationally. I won’t get too heavily into the politics and talking points behind it, mostly because it ultimately descends into cycle of speculation and fallacies. I’ll just say that the pandemic has complicated that debate in unexpected ways.

During the height of the pandemic, the economy was basically shut down. Suddenly, millions were out of work and businesses had to shut down. Many still haven’t fully recovered. A big reason why many didn’t starve to death or end up on the streets was because of government relief packages, which included extended unemployment benefits.

While America’s relief package wasn’t nearly as generous as other countries, it was certainly better than nothing. I know plenty of people who genuinely needed that relief to stay afloat in terms of paying bills and feeding their families. It’s also not unreasonable to say that this was a critical measure in terms of preventing the pandemic from getting even worse.

However, this effort revealed something remarkable. According to a study done last year, the unemployment benefits that many workers received was actually better than their previous wages. It wasn’t an insignificant chunk of the work force, either. The benefits were greater for approximately 68 percent of American workers.

What does that say about the wages we’re paying our workers?

Moreover, what does that say about the system in general that workers can make more by not working than they would if they were?

Something about that doesn’t add up, literally and conceptually. I get that this was an unprecedented situation. At the same time, it reveal something about how we see work and workers. It’s something businesses are starting to realize too.

As the country and the world opens up, new job opportunities are arising. That’s good news for those who have been out of work. Unfortunately, those same businesses are having a hard time filling those positions.

The jobs are there.

The workers are there.

They just aren’t gravitating towards one another.

Here’s a brief rundown of the situation, courtesy of NPR. If you haven’t been working or are lucky enough to have kept your job during the pandemic, it should offer some insight and perspective.

NPR: Millions Are Out Of A Job. Yet Some Employers Wonder: Why Can’t I Find Workers?

At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed, businessman Bill Martin has a head-scratching problem: He’s got plenty of jobs but few people willing to take them.

“I keep hearing about all the unemployed people,” Martin says. “I certainly can’t find any of those folks.”

Martin helps run M.A. Industries, a plastics manufacturing company in Peachtree City, Ga. The company makes products used in the medical industry — specifically, in things like coronavirus tests and vaccine manufacturing and development.

But as he struggles to keep up with demand, Martin is finding it almost impossible to find new workers.

As someone who has worked his share of lousy, low-paying jobs, I can’t say I’m surprised by this. Don’t get me wrong. I still feel for the business owners who need workers to keep things going. I just can’t forget how arduous it was, working hard at a job that paid so little and left me so exhausted at the end of the day.

If the alternative is staying home and collecting unemployment, which ultimately pays more, then the choice is easy. That’s especially true for those who have kids or relatives they need to take care of. It’s not that they’re lazy, as some overpaid pundits love pointing out. It’s just that the nature of these jobs aren’t that appealing, especially when the pay is so low.

If anything, this situation has inspired us all to take a step back and look at how we approach work, jobs, careers, and business. When you think about it, it’s a little distressing that we build so much of our lives around work. It’s not just something we do out of obligation and responsibility. Many literally have to work in order to survive.

Is that right?

Is that just?

Is that healthy for society as a whole?

I say this as someone who has been lucky enough to have jobs that I’ve both loved and hated. I know what it’s like to work for a business that you hate. I also know what it’s like to have a job you find genuinely fulfilling. Not everyone is that lucky. In fact, I suspect the vast majority of the population, even in America, never experience that luck.

I get that there are economic reasons why some businesses can’t pay their employees high wages. I’ve worked in fast food restaurants. I know the profit margins aren’t exactly large. I also know that, even when I could make more than minimum wage, it was rarely enough to live on. That’s not even factoring the physical toll some of this work takes.

Despite that toll, there was still an undeniable stigma to those who didn’t work or those who simply avoided low paying jobs. In America, it’s a direct extension of that old protestant work ethic that equates moral worth with a willingness to do backbreaking labor for minimal pay. I’m not saying that work ethic is wrong, but I do think it needs to be re-evaluated.

The pandemic suddenly gave people an option on whether or not they wanted to do these kinds of low-paying jobs. Many understandably opt to just collect unemployment. They may not live luxuriously, but they will live. In some cases, they’re even better off.

It may be a sign of things to come. I already speculated on how the pandemic relief bills could be a precursor to a universal basic income. Now that people have experienced life in which their survival isn’t directly tied to having a low-paying job, I think it’ll be difficult to back.

I also think that’s a good thing. Regardless of how you feel about minimum wages, work ethic, or running a business, I think it’s generally a positive trend that we’re starting to decouple work with the right to survive. I think it’s a trend that has to happen, especially as automation does more and more of the low-skilled labor traditionally done by human workers.

It’s true. Some people are lazy and don’t like to work. Some people are just so driven and incapable of not working. Both still deserve to live without needed a job to keep them from starving to death or losing their home. As bad as this pandemic has been, I sincerely hopes it inspires us to rethink how we structure our society. There is a better way of doing things. We should always strive to do things better. Sometimes, that means rethinking everything we’ve come to believe about work, business, and life in general.

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Filed under Current Events, health, human nature, politics

Would You Shop At A Store Run Entirely By Robots?

Will Smart Machines Kill Jobs or Create Better Ones? - The Washington Post

Recall the last time you went to the store. It doesn’t matter if it was your corner grocery store or some big box department store. All that matters is you went there to do some basic shopping, as we all end up having to do at some point. With that in mind, try and remember how many store clerks you saw.

Maybe some were working at cash registers.

Maybe some were stocking shelves.

Maybe some were sweeping floors or cleaning up messes.

The chances are you saw at least several. I remember seeing at least three the last time I went to a grocery store. That’s fairly typical. I know I used to see more before the days of self check-out lines, but I always saw people working at these stores, diligently doing the things necessary to keep it running.

For most of us, that’s a mundane sight. For every store we go to, we expect there to be human beings working there to keep it going. It’s part of the infrastructure that keeps these stores stocked. On top of that, seeing other human beings contributing gives us a sense of comfort in that this place is being run by real people with real faces.

Now, try and imagine a store that has no people working at it. You walk in the door and you never see another human being carrying out the various operations we expect of a functioning store. All that is now done by machines and robots. They’re the ones who stock the shelves, handle your money, and clean the messes.

Does that change the experience?

Does that make you more or less inclined to shop at that store?

These are relevant questions because, as I’ve noted before, robots and artificial intelligence are advancing rapidly. Automation is an ongoing trend that promises to have major economic ramifications. Some of those ramifications are already here. It’s one of the reason coal mining jobs will never be as prevalent as they once were.

Other ramifications haven’t arrived yet, but they will eventually come. The technology is there. The incentives are there. It’s just a matter of investing, refinement, and scale. Eventually, it will reach retail work, a sector that employs nearly 10 million people. That will have a major economic impact for large swaths of people.

Unlike other forms of automation, though, it’ll be a lot more visible.

Most of us never set foot in a factory where cars are made, much of which is done by robots. Most will never set foot in an Amazon or Walmart warehouse, which already use robots at a significant scale. The impact of just how much work is done by robots these days is not visible to most ordinary people.

That will not be the case with stores and retail work. Like I said, we all have to get out and shop every now and then. Even though online retail has become more prevalent, people still go to traditional brick and mortar stores. Even as online retail improves, that’s not likely to change.

However, how much will that experience change once robots start doing the jobs that humans have done for centuries?

How will that change the experience?

Will you, as a consumer, shop at a store that had no humans working there most of the time?

If you think this isn’t that far off, think again. Below is a video from an AI channel on YouTube that shows a robot using a bar code scanner for the first time. The process is a bit cumbersome, but the robot is able to handle it. It is able to receive instructions. Given the nature of how robots improve and refine their programming, it’s not unreasonable to assume that future robots will be able to carry out retail tasks more efficiently than any human worker.

It may not happen all at once. You probably won’t just walk into a store one day and notice that everyone was replaced by a robot. Like self check-out, it’ll likely happen gradually. Once it gets to a certain point, though, it’ll become mainstream very quickly. The incentives are just too strong.

You don’t need to be an economist to see those incentives. Robots don’t need to be paid. They don’t slack off on the job. They don’t get sick or tired. In theory, they could keep a store open 24/7 without ever paying overtime. For big box retailers like Walmart, the potential profits are just too large to ignore.

It won’t stop at stores, either. Restaurants will likely undergo a similar process. There are already working robots that can cook meals from scratch. Once they get refined and scaled, then it’s also likely you’ll one day eat at a restaurant entirely run by robots.

Would you be willing to eat at such a place?

Your answer will probably be similar to the one I asked earlier about whether you’d shop at a store run entirely by robots. Personally, I don’t think I’m ready to shop at a place that had no humans working in it, if only because robots sometimes break down. However, within my lifetime, it may get to a point where stores and restaurants run by humans become the exception rather than the norm.

Are we ready for that future?

I don’t know, but it’ll come whether we’re ready for it or not.

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Filed under futurism, robots, technology

Why Amazon Accepting Bitcoin Would Be A Game Changer (And Why They Might NOT Do It)

Jeff Bezos Directs Amazon to Accept Bitcoin and Other Popular  Cryptocurrencies: Report – Bitcoin News

In all the years I’ve been browsing the internet, I’ve never seen something so divisive or so disruptive as cryptocurrencies. Yes, that includes both video games and internet porn. Crypto’s impact has been that profound. That impact is likely to continue in unexpected ways for years to come.

However, there is still plenty of uncertainty and confusion surrounding cryptocurrencies. I recently had dinner with my parents and my mother asked me to explain it to her. I tried. I’m pretty sure I failed. I tried to simply frame it as digital money, but that didn’t even come close to explaining what cryptocurrency is, how it works, and why it has become such a huge industry.

There are far smarter people than me who can explain what cryptocurrencies are and how they work. This video here does a decent job of explaining it to beginners who aren’t particularly tech savvy.

While I’ve been following the rise, fall, revival, and growth of cryptocurrencies for years, I didn’t actually buy any until very recently. I even wrote about my experience, which ended up being somewhat mundane. It was no different than using an ATM.

That’s somewhat illustrative of where cryptocurrencies are right now. Buying currencies like Bitcoin has never been easier. You can download any number of wallets for free on your phone. If you don’t want to link your bank account to it, then finding an ATM like I did is very easy.

If you have any spare change lying around, you can turn it into Bitcoin. That’s where we’re at now with cryptocurrencies.

The harder part at the moment is actually spending Bitcoins. While you can find numerous online merchants who take Bitcoins, you can’t exactly use them to pay your bills, buy your groceries, or just purchase something on a whim. That’s one of the biggest barriers to cryptocurrencies in general. Using it is more cumbersome than regular cash. That’s why most see Bitcoin as an investment asset rather than a usable currency.

That could change very soon, however. The reason for that change could come from the largest retail entity on this planet, Amazon. If ever there was a company that could completely change the way we see and use cryptocurrencies, it’s this one. It may ultimately make Jeff Bezos even richer than he already is, but let’s table that concern for a moment.

This isn’t just me speculating. There was a recent rumor among the business world that Amazon was looking to start accepting Bitcoins as a payment method. While Amazon ultimately shot down that rumor, they did not say they would never accept Bitcoins.

In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s only a matter of time before Amazon starts accepting cryptocurrencies in some capacity. There’s just too much money to be made from doing so and Amazon, like all big businesses, is always looking to grow. This would be one way of doing that and it’s impossible to overstate the larger impact that would have.

For one, it would send shockwaves through all currency markets, crypto and otherwise, more so than a million tweets by Elon Musk. Suddenly, this asset isn’t just an investment vehicle anymore. It’s a form of money with an actual use.

Amazon is already the biggest retailer in the world. It’s also becoming one of the largest grocery chains. It still has some competition, mostly through companies like Walmart. None of them accept Bitcoin yet, but you can be reasonably certain that as soon as one of them takes that leap, the others will follow.

Beyond just being a novel payment method, Amazon accepting Bitcoins could have a far broader change. One of the main driving forces behind the development of cryptocurrencies is that this is money that has no boarders. It doesn’t matter where you are in this world. You could be in America, China, or the middle of Africa. So long as you have an internet connection, you can access this currency.

For companies like Amazon, that means accessing a customer base that has been traditionally inaccessible. There are over a billion people in this world who have no bank accounts. In some parts of the world, their currency just isn’t usable for companies like Amazon. Converting them to other currencies is already a hassle. Bitcoin could change that.

By accepting Bitcoin, Amazon and other retailers like it have the potential to the entire world in ways that weren’t possible until recently. If they’re going to keep growing, they need those customers and, like it or not, these people need Amazon. Opening more people up to an accessible market can only help get goods to people who need them.

All that being said, I can also understand why Amazon and other large retailers might resist accepting cryptocurrencies. Beyond them just being too loosely regulated, their volatile nature could be a problem for large retailers.

I can attest to that volatility personally. When I bought my first Bitcoins, the price was around $35,000. Then, it shot up to over $60,000 for a while. A few months later, it crashed to the point where it was worth less than my initial investment. It eventually recovered, but that’s a lot of instability for a currency.

That’s something I’m sure Amazon is aware of. By taking Bitcoins as payments, they’re also accepting its wild volatility. All those Bitcoins that paid for all those goods could be worth a thousand dollars one day and worth a fraction of that the next. Even if Bitcoin represents only a small portion of payment, that’s sure to create some anxiety among investors.

Given the current state of the economy and the world, as a whole, I understand why Amazon would hold off on diving into cryptocurrencies. For a large, publicly traded company, anything that makes the stock price or the overall value of its assets less certain might just be too much to handle for now.

It may not happen this year. It may not even happen next year. However, I’m not among those who think all cryptocurrencies are a scam, a scheme, or a fad. These aren’t Pokémon cards or Beanie Babies. This is a valuable tool for the digital world that has the potential to open up exchange with everyone, regardless of where they live.

That tool still needs refinements. Bitcoin certainly has its flaws. That’s beyond dispute. Amazon is aware of those flaws, as well. As they are refined, currencies like Bitcoin will gain more acceptance. Amazon and other big retailers will be part of that process. When that day finally comes, expect a whole new world to emerge. I don’t claim to know what kind of world that’ll be, but I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

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Filed under Bitcoin, Current Events, futurism, technology

A Note To Investors/Enthusiasts Of Dogecoin

We live in a strange time. I know you could say that about almost any point in history, but let’s face it. The past year has been more eventful than most. The past few months have been even more eventful if you’re an investor or follow economic news. We recently learned that a multi-billion dollar hedge fund is no match for a bunch of shit-posters on Reddit.

I’m not gonna lie. That story still puts a smile on my face. Last year sucked, but when a bunch of shit-posters on Reddit tank a predatory hedge fund, the world is an objectively better place.

As much fun as that is, there are some other stories related to investing that are worth noting. On top of the craziness caused by r/WallStreetBets, it has been just as chaotic for investors of cryptocurrencies. When the financial world is in chaos, cryptocurrencies that thumb their nose at old economic institutions tend to thrive.

Now, full disclosure, I do own Bitcoins. That’s the only cryptocurrency I own and I don’t own much. I’m not a bold investor. I buy index funds and ETFs. I would not fit in on r/WallStreetBets, nor would I be a good evangelist for Bitcoin.

For that same reason, I’d like to send a special note to those currently caught up in the Dogecoin craze. If you don’t know what Dogecoin is, then that’s understandable. It is a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, but it’s unique in a few very particular ways.

Most notably, Dogecoin is often treated as a joke. That’s because it started off as one.

That’s not my opinion. That’s literally part of its origin. Its creators, Billy Markus and Jackson Palmer, were legitimately surprised when people started using it. I guess they didn’t get the joke.

That doesn’t mean Dogecoin has absolutely nothing going for it. It is a functioning cryptocurrency that uses some of the same technology as Bitcoin. Its most notable difference is that, unlike Bitcoin, there’s no limit to how many Dogecoins can be mined. Whereas Bitcoin can only ever have 21 million, Dogecoins can be mined indefinitely.

It may seem like a small difference, but that difference matters if you understand the basics of scarcity in economics. Most people understand it on some levels. If you can make an infinite amount of something, then it’s not going to have much value. If something is incredibly finite and difficult to obtain, like gold or Bitcoins, it’s going to have more value.

It’s that concept that I’d like to convey to those cheering on Dogecoin. Thanks to the recent upheavals from r/WallStreetBets, Dogecoin has been surging more than most currencies and even people like Elon Musk are cheering it on.

That’s not unusual. Sometimes, certain assets get propped up for a brief period. That has happened a lot with cryptocurrencies over the past decade. However, with Dogecoin, it’s a lot more style than substance.

Whereas Bitcoin gains value as it becomes more accepted in various sectors of the economy, Dogecoin gains value because people are just cheering it on. One has long-term sustainability. The other ends as soon as people get bored or find something else to cheer on.

Today, it’s Dogecoin.

Tomorrow, it could be JackCoin, a cryptocurrency made exclusively for people named Jack.

Is that the dumbest idea in the history of finance? I don’t know, but entire economies have gone bust for dumb things before.

Again, I’m not an investment expert. I’m not giving investment advice to anyone. However, to those thinking about getting in on the Dogecoin craze, I offer one important message.

You can win with style over substance in a lot of things, but not when it comes to money. At some point, a product has to demonstrate its value. You can only prop it up for so long before basic economic forces take over. It’s not fair and it’s not rational, but that’s how economics work.

Dogecoin will find that out at some point. Investors may have to find out the hard way.

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Filed under Bitcoin, Current Events, rants

Why We Should Treat Our Data As (Valuable) Property

Many years ago, I created my first email address before logging into the internet. It was a simple AOL account. I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think I was creating anything valuable. At the time, the internet was limited to slow, clunky dial-up that had little to offer in terms of content. I doubt anyone saw what they were doing as creating something of great value.

I still have that email address today in case you’re wondering. I still regularly use it. I imagine a lot of people have an email address they created years ago for one of those early internet companies that used to dominate a very different digital world. They may not even see that address or those early internet experiences as valuable.

Times have changed and not just in terms of pandemics. In fact, times tends to change more rapidly in the digital world than it does in the real world. The data we created on the internet, even in those early days, became much more valuable over time. It served as the foundation on which multi-billion dollar companies were built.

As a result, the data an individual user imparts onto the internet has a great deal of value. You could even argue that the cumulative data of large volumes of internet users is among the most valuable data in the world.

Politicians, police, the military, big businesses, advertising agencies, marketing experts, economists, doctors, and researchers all have use for this data. Many go to great lengths to get it, sometimes through questionable means.

The growing value of this data raises some important questions.

Who exactly owns this data?

How do we go about treating it from a legal, fiscal, and logistical standpoint?

Is this data a form of tangible property, like land, money, or labor?

Is this something we can exchange, trade, or lease?

What is someone’s recourse if they want certain aspects of their data removed, changed, or deleted?

These are all difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s getting to a point where ownership of data was an issue among candidates running for President of the United States. Chances are, as our collective data becomes more vital for major industries, the issue will only grow in importance.

At the moment, it’s difficult to determine how this issue will evolve. In the same way I had no idea how valuable that first email address would be, nobody can possibly know how the internet, society, the economy, and institutions who rely on that data will evolve. The best solution in the near term might not be the same as the best solution in the long term.

Personally, I believe that our data, which includes our email addresses, browsing habits, purchasing habits, and social media posts, should be treated as personal property. Like money, jewels, or land, it has tangible value. We should treat it as such and so should the companies that rely on it.

However, I also understand that there are complications associated with this approach. Unlike money, data isn’t something you can hold in your hand. You can’t easily hand it over to another person, nor can you claim complete ownership of it. To some extent, the data you create on the internet was done with the assistance of the sites you use and your internet service provider.

Those companies could claim some level of ownership of your data. It might even be written in the fine print of those user agreements that nobody ever reads. It’s hard to entirely argue against such a claim. After all, we couldn’t create any of this data without the aid of companies like Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, these companies couldn’t function, let alone profit, without our data.

It’s a difficult question to resolve. It only gets more difficult when you consider laws like the “right to be forgotten.” Many joke that the internet never forgets, but it’s no laughing matter. Peoples’ lives can be ruined, sometimes through no fault of their own. Peoples’ private photos have been hacked and shared without their permission.

In that case, your data does not at all function like property. Even if it’s yours, you can’t always control it or what someone else does with it. You can try to take control of it, but it won’t always work. Even data that was hacked and distributed illegally is still out there and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Despite those complications, I still believe that our data is still the individual’s property to some extent, regardless of what the user agreements of tech companies claim. Those companies provide the tools, but we’re the ones who use them to build something. In the same way a company that makes hammers doesn’t own the buildings they’re used to make, these companies act as the catalyst and not the byproduct.

Protecting our data, both from theft and from exploitation, is every bit as critical as protecting our homes. An intruder into our homes can do a lot of damage. In our increasingly connected world, a nefarious hacker or an unscrupulous tech company can do plenty of damage as well.

However, there’s one more critical reason why I believe individuals need to take ownership of their data. It has less to do with legal jargon and more to do with trends in technology. At some point, we will interact with the internet in ways more intimate than a keyboard and mouse. The technology behind a brain/computer interface is still in its infancy, but it exists and not just on paper.

Between companies like Neuralink and the increasing popularity of augmented reality, the way we interact with technology is bound to get more intimate/invasive. Clicks and link sharing are valuable today. Tomorrow, it could be complex thoughts and feelings. Whoever owns that stands to have a more comprehensive knowledge of the user.

I know it’s common refrain to say that knowledge is power, but when the knowledge goes beyond just our browsing and shopping habits, it’s not an unreasonable statement. As we build more and more of our lives around digital activities, our identities will become more tied to that data. No matter how large or small that portion might be, we’ll want to own it as much as we can.

It only gets more critical if we get to a point where we can fully digitize our minds, as envisioned in shows like “Altered Carbon.” At some point, our bodies are going to break down. We cannot preserve it indefinitely for the same reason we can’t preserve a piece of pizza indefinitely. However, the data that makes up our minds could be salvaged, but that opens the door to many more implications.

While that kind of technology is a long way off, I worry that if we don’t take ownership of our data today, then it’ll only get harder to do so in the future. Even before the internet, information about who we are and what we do was valuable.

This information forms a big part of our identity. If we don’t own that, then what’s to stop someone else from owning us and exploiting that to the utmost? It’s a question that has mostly distressing answers. I still don’t know how we go about staking our claim on our data, but it’s an issue worth confronting. The longerwe put it off, the harder it will get.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, Current Events, futurism, Neuralink, politics, technology

Doing The Right Thing: Results Vs. Motivations

Recall, for a moment, an instance where you were faced with a difficult choice. You had a pretty good idea of what choices were right and what choices were wrong, but could not be completely certain. What choice did you make and why did you make it? What motivated you to do what you did? What were the results?

We’ve all been in situations like that at some point in our lives. Most of the time, it’s mundane. It effects only us and those in our immediate surroundings. In those instances, motivations tends to be basic. You make a decision you feel works best and you deal with whatever consequences that occur. However, when it comes to larger decisions by people in powerful positions, it tends to get more complicated.

Those complications have become a lot more visible in recent years, due to the internet and social media. Now, if you’re a rich celebrity or in a position of power, your choices are always scrutinized. Doing the right thing is not just a matter of morality anymore. It’s an added complication for public relations and advertising.

People will do the right thing because it’s good for their image.

People will do the right thing because it’s for a cause they believe in.

People will do the right thing because they’re being pressured, criticized, or condemned.

Whatever the case, the decision is usually the same. Even the moral components of the decision are the same. It’s just the motivation that’s different.

With that in mind, and given the dynamics I just described, I have one more question to add to this issue.

When it comes to doing the right thing, how much or how little do motivations actually matter?

It’s a relevant question in a connected world where it’s painfully easy to overreact. Recently, I speculated on the reactions to the recent news that the Washington Redskins were changing their controversial nickname. It didn’t take long for those speculations to become real.

Less than a day after this announcement was made, people were already saying that it was too late. Even if it was the right thing to do and was the desired result that advocates had fought for, it’s somehow not enough. They’ll point out that the only reason the name was changed was because major sponsors pressured it.

That point is probably valid. If the franchise stood to lose a great deal of money over clinging to its old nickname, even if they sincerely believed it wasn’t offensive, the economic pressures were just too great. When it comes to impassioned pleas versus financial pressure, money usually wins out.

It’s unfortunate, but that’s the world we live in. Money talks louder than outrage. It always has. It always will. No matter how much we resent that, that’s not something we can change right now. Regardless of how you might feel about that system, the question remains.

Does it truly matter? Advocates got their wish. The name of the team is changing. It might not be changing for the reasons they want, but it is changing. Isn’t that enough?

Do the results matter more than the motivations? We can never see, touch, feel, or measure someone’s motivations. We can only ever experience the results. One is tangible. The other is not. Which matters more to you?

I think it’s a relevant question because those continue to complain, protest, and whine about the team are only doing a disservice to their cause and future causes like it. They’re setting it up so that, no matter what their opponents do, there’s no way they can ever appease them.

If they don’t change the name, they inspire more outrage and criticism.

If they do change the name, they’re still subject to outrage and criticism because they didn’t do it soon enough or for the right reasons.

How is that fair? How is that even logical? If anything, that kind of approach only gives everyone a good excuse to never engage with opponents. They know there’s nothing they can do to placate them, so what’s the point? Short of getting in a time machine and undoing history, there’s literally nothing they can do.

Either results matter or they don’t. It’s as simple as that. If you’re not happy with the results, then you’ll never be happy with anything.

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The (Uncertain) Future Of Movie Theaters

Many of us have fond memories of going to the movies. Whether it’s the first time you saw “Jurassic Park” and “Avengers” or the first time you got frisky with your significant other on a date, the movie-going experience has always had a certain charm to it. They’re such an indelible part of modern popular culture that it’s hard to envision modern life without them.

Then, a global pandemic hit and suddenly, we have to envision a lot of things we’ve never contemplated before. That includes the place movie theaters have in our culture and society.

Now, I’m not among the doomsayers claiming that movie theaters are doomed, although I can’t fault anyone for thinking that. The news surrounding the movie industry has been grim on an unprecedented level. As someone who often organizes his summer around which movies to see and when, it’s undeniably dire on so many levels.

However, I feel like there’s room for something better to come out of this for theaters. There’s just too much uncertainty to surmise what it is at the moment. I don’t feel that qualified to speculate. Many people much smarter than me already have. I’m bringing this up now because last weekend gave me a taste of what that future might entail.

For me, that future involves a lot less nights when I go to the movies and more nights of me renting a movie at home. That’s what I attempted last weekend. Specifically, I rented the movie “Bloodshot” on Saturday night. While the movie wasn’t exactly a huge blockbuster when it came out, I was still curious about it. Being a fan of comic book movies in general, I wanted to give it a chance.

I’m glad I did. I enjoyed the movie and not just because it was better than the reviews claimed. I enjoyed it because I got to craft my own movie-going experience. I ordered some pizza, bought a six-pack of beer, and had some skittles on the side. I basically created my own mini-movie theater in my living room and I had a genuinely pleasant time.

It also helped that it was much cheaper than going to a theater. To rent Bloodshot,” I only paid $6. That’s half the price of a regular movie ticket on a weekend. The price of pizza and snacks was considerably less, as well. I probably saved money by just renting the movie and, given the state of the pandemic-hit economy, I imagine there are many more people out there looking to save where they can.

It has me re-thinking how I’ll see movies, even after theaters open up again. My experience with Bloodshot” has me re-considering which movies I’ll see in theaters and which I’ll rent. I’ll still see big blockbuster movies like “Black Widow” and “New Mutants” in the theaters, but I’m going to be less inclined to see other movies in that setting. I just can’t justify the cost at this point.

That situation could change. I suspect that movie theaters will have to adapt their place in the movie/media complex. I don’t think it can survive solely on the success of big budget blockbusters. I also don’t think that’s good for the industry because it makes movies that bomb much more damaging to studios and theaters, alike. That means less risks, less innovation, and more generic movies made solely to turn a profit.

As much as I love those kinds of movies, there has to be room for innovative movies like “The Blair Witch Project” or “Clerks.” There also has to be a place for the bigger budget movies that Netflix has released. If you need proof of how good those movies can be, check out “Extraction.” It’s a movie that could’ve been another generic action movie in theaters, but works even better as a streaming exclusive.

In the same way Netflix is getting into the big budget movie business, some theaters are expanding beyond movies. Last year, the theater I live nearby played the Super Bowl and several major pay-per-view fights. Only a handful of other theaters did the same. I have a feeling more and more theaters will opt for something like that, if only to get more foot traffic.

The challenge is balancing all these dynamics in a world where people are less inclined to go to theaters and pay bloated ticket prices. I believe there is a way to do that. It’s just not clear what that is. I think there will still be movie theaters in a post-pandemic economy. They just won’t look or operate like they did in 2019.

It’s exciting, but distressing.

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Filed under Current Events, movies, superhero movies

Mia Kalifa, The Porn Industry, And Why Her (Lack Of) Earnings Matter

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Imagine that you’re young, low on money, and in need of a quick buck. You do a few side-gigs, like drive a taxi or do some yard work. You make some money up front. You’re grateful for it. You wish you didn’t have to do it, but you still did and you’re ready to move forward with your life.

Now, imagine that same work you did ended up making someone else a boatload of money that continues to flow in, even though you’ve long since finished your part. Maybe while mowing the lawn, you discovered a priceless artifact under a tree stump. Maybe while driving a taxi, your car became the site of an infamous crime. Anyone with a white 1993 Ford Bronco SUV can attest to that.

With those ideas in mind, let’s talk about Mia Kalifa. If you don’t know who that is, just ask any straight man with an internet connection and a suspiciously large supply of tissue boxes. You might not get an honest answer, but rest assured, she’s a known public figure and not just because she has over 15 million followers on Instagram.

One of the reasons why she has so many.

She’s worth talking about, but not because she’s a former porn star who still garners a great deal of popularity, despite having not worked in the industry for years. Recently, she made the news after revealing that, even though she was one of the most popular porn stars in the world for a time, she made a total of $12,000 for her entire career.

For someone who was that successful in an industry that’s already exceedingly crowded by an abundance of content, that just doesn’t seem to add up. Most working people make more than $12,000 in a year, even if they’re paid minimum wage. They even get to keep their clothes on. What’s going on here?

There is a context to that story. By her own admission, she was in the industry for about three months. She only got paid a flat rate of about $1,000 for each scene she did and, given how few she ended up doing, it’s still more than minimum wage. She basically made $12,000 for approximately two weeks of work. Ignoring, for the moment, that the work involved making porn, it’s not a terrible rate.

However, what stands out most about her story is that she continues to generate money for the companies that initially paid her. To this day, those scenes she shot still generate traffic for popular sites like PornHub and that traffic still makes its parent company, MindGeek, some additional profit.

Most people don’t know, or want to know for that matter, that the most popular porn sites and studios are owned by MindGeek. Think of any site your significant other won’t admit to visiting. Chances are, they own it. They’re basically the Amazon of porn. They’re so big that there really isn’t a close second.

It’s because they’re so big that Ms. Kalifa’s story isn’t unique. Most people who enter the porn industry, be they male or female, have to go through MindGeek in some form or another. They’re basically a monopoly and because of that, they can get away with shady practices, such as underpaying workers or short-changing them with fine print.

Listed above are sites few will admit to knowing.

Most porn performers, including Ms. Kalifa, only get paid a flat rate per scene. They basically function as independent contractors, which means they’re not salaried employees who get benefits. They’re basically Uber drivers, but with sex. Unlike Uber drivers, though, the top performers can actually make a lot more, but they’re the exception and not the norm. Most performers are in Ms. Kalifa’s situation.

It’s not a situation unique to porn. Other elements of the entertainment industry have used similar practices for years. The music industry has plenty of examples of successful artists who sell millions of albums, but still go bankrupt because most of that money went to the companies they worked for rather than the artists themselves.

It even happens in the comic book industry. Few individuals have created and drawn more iconic character than Jack Kirby, but because he was a work-for-hire, he didn’t technically own his creations. The companies he worked for, both Marvel and DC Comics, owned them. As a result of this, there were some lengthy legal battles with Kirby’s estate. Not surprisingly, the companies won.

Think of any industry that involves performing or creating some kind of art. There’s a good chance that there are cases where someone creates something that becomes successful, but the creators themselves don’t profit from it. Only the companies profit.

Again, there’s a context to that. In industries like music, the top one percent of performers earn over three-quarters of the revenue. Most creative endeavors fail to turn a profit. As someone trying hard to break into the publishing industry, I can attest to how common failure and rejection are. These industries, as shady as their practices might be, need to make a profit and that often requires enduring many losses.

That’s exactly why Mia Kalifa’s story matters. It doesn’t just shed light on the less glamorous aspects of the porn industry. It highlights how the actual people behind popular media don’t reap as much of the benefits as we think. For porn stars, current and former, that’s made even harder by the stigma and taboos surrounding the industry. Ms. Kalifa endured those unpleasant elements more than most.

It’s a system that’s only getting worse. There was a time when porn stars could make considerably more money and even earn some residual income from the booming DVD market. Thanks to the advent of streaming media and excessive piracy, that’s no longer the case. It’s why many porn stars are turning to escorting or licensing products.

Given the dirty nature of the business, few politicians or advocates will loudly proclaim they want to help the people in the porn industry. The last few years have been very difficult for anyone in the sex industry. Laws are making sex work more restrictive and more dangerous to everyone involved. Performers will end up with the stigma, but the companies will get most of the profits.

To some extent, what happened to Mia Kalifa’s career is a microcosm of what’s happening to entertainment in general. We’re currently in an era where big companies are acquiring as much intellectual property as possible. Companies, be they major movie studios or porn producers, have a vested interest in controlling the content at the cost of the performers.

Since so few entertainment products turn a profit, these companies have too much incentive to short-change performers and creators. There’s no law that requires companies to give performers a small percentage of future earnings. There’s no law that stops them from exploiting the content created by performers, even if those same performers don’t want to be associated with the work anymore.

Given the money and influence of these companies, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. However, Mia Kalifa did us all a service by making people aware of this very flawed system. The fact that she did this while fully clothed and being brutally honest in a world that lives in alternative facts might be her best performance to date.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, human nature, media issues, outrage culture, political correctness, prostitution, sex in media, sex in society, women's issues

Why I Believe In Climate Change, But Doubt Environmentalists

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There aren’t a lot of hot button issues that genuinely affect everyone. The environment is one of those issues. We all live in it. We’re all impacted by it. Whenever it changes significantly, we all feel it. That’s why, regardless of your politics or personal leanings, we should take environmental issues seriously.

Given that preface, I’d like to make my own sentiments clear. The environment, like other sensitive topics I’ve discussed, is prone to all sorts of secondary agendas. Some who claim to take environmental issues seriously often do so because it serves their interest in other, often indirect ways. In the interest of transparency, this is where I stand on the environment.

I do believe that climate change is real, human activity is contributing to it, and we should pursue policies to improve the environment and promote cleaner industry.

However, I don’t entirely trust the rhetoric, sincerity, and positions of those who identify as environmentalists.

I know that sounds like someone trying to have their cake and eat it too, but there is a context here. It’s one that I’ve developed over a number of years, some of which I’ve been on the side hardcore environmentalists. As I’ve gotten older, however, I see more and more complications with this issue and not just in terms of the absurd conspiracy theories it attracts.

While I know this will put me at odds certain parts of the political spectrum, I generally accept that the existing science surrounding climate change. The Earth is getting warmer and human activity is a major cause. There have been real, tangible impacts attributed to climate change and I believe those links are real.

The point where I often deviate from environmentalists is when issues of feasible solutions emerge. I’m happy to support efforts that raise awareness and educates the public on the existential dangers of climate change. However, just sounding the alarm is only half the battle. The other half involves doing something about it and this is where environmentalists have a problem.

It’s not that they outright avoid talking about solutions, which sets them apart from other agenda-driven politics. Some of their solutions do have merit and some are even making headway into the economy. However, there’s an over-arching theme of those solutions that leads me to question just how much the environment actually matters to certain environmentalists.

Talk to any self-identified environmentalist and, usually after they’re done talking about melted ice caps and dying polar bears, they’ll single out greedy corporations as the enemy. They tend to lump oil companies, coal producers, and any corporation that doesn’t sound eco-friendly as part of some international consortium of billionaires intent on maintaining their pollution-loving ways for the sake of profit.

Now, I don’t like defending big corporations, especially when their track record in protecting the environment has plenty of room for improvement. At the same time, I have a hard time believing that the solution to such an enormous problem involves battling big, industrial polluters as though it were an episode of “Captain Planet.”

As much as I love cheesy cartoons in the 1990s, the problems of the real world are far more complicated. Environmentalists, like many other vocal politically-driven groups, try to simplify the issue. Through their protests and the rhetoric surrounding it, they give the impression that to save the world, they need only defeat the evil polluters.

This is where I don’t just question the veracity of environmentalists. I genuinely doubt that the environment is their primary concern. If it were, then protesting polluters would only be a small part of their efforts. If they’re serious about making the world cleaner and more efficient, they would dedicate more time and energy into improving clean energy technology, which itself is prone to corporate greed.

This disconnect is most apparent whenever the topic of nuclear power comes up. Unlike other green energy technologies, nuclear energy is a mature technology that has been providing energy for decades. Compared to other forms of energy, it has very low emissions, but provides abundant energy, regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

Despite those benefits, the same environmentalists who favor shutting down coal power plants won’t support the construction or further refinement of nuclear power planets. They’ll even outright oppose it and for reasons every bit as irrational as those championed by climate change deniers.

While there are legitimate disadvantages to utilizing nuclear power, I rarely hear environmentalists promote efforts to mitigate those issues. They won’t champion the development of advanced nuclear power, including versions that produce far less waste and are less prone to meltdowns. Many won’t even concede it as an option.

This is akin to anti-abortion advocates who support making abortion illegal in all cases, but also oppose contraception, despite the fact it significantly reduces abortions. It also parallels other environmentalists who protest the usage of genetically modified foods, but overlook the distressing fact that billions would starve without this technology.

It’s not just a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. It’s environmentalists favoring a particular narrative over actual solutions to the problems they protest. As I’ve noted before, people like to believe that they’re the heroes of their own story. When they take a particular position, they see themselves as the underdogs in an epic struggle against good and evil.

While that makes for great superhero comics and Tolkien novels, it rarely aligns with reality. Environmentalists think they’re protesting a greedy corporation run by an army of Lex Luthors who enjoy bathing in the tears of starving orphans, but the truth is more complicated and more mundane.

A key part of that truth that environmentalists tend to overlook is the fact that, no matter how greedy or evil a corporation may be, they have a vested interest in the world remaining intact. Corporations, be they greedy or virtuous, are driven to make profits. They can’t make profits, nor enjoy the fruits of their wealth, in a world where the planet is a toxic wasteland.

That’s why even oil companies, the boogeyman of many environmentalists, are actively researching more environmentally friendly products. It’s also why oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, which has harmed the environment in ways beyond pollution, is also investing in a post-oil economy.

It’s very likely that the advances in green energy that will improve the environment won’t come from some dedicated environmentalist who protests outside of coal plants. Chances are it will be some greedy, profit-seeking business person trying to make money in a world where the demand for energy is rapidly increasing.

Beyond just generating energy, those same greedy billionaires have just as much incentive to create clean, lush landscapes that attract other billionaires and customers. In general, people don’t like being in polluted communities. Aside from the illness and misery it generates, it also means there are fewer people buying goods and producing for the economy. Even the most devious billionaire is hurt by that.

The incentives for improving the environment are already there. That’s not to say there aren’t some who are truly malicious in how they treat the environment, but in terms of an investment that helps greedy people get richer, it’s one of the worst investments anyone can make and not just because of the bad PR it generates.

Environmentalists will gladly single out those exceedingly malicious corporations, but ignore the bigger picture. They, ironically, don’t see the forest from the trees when it comes to action that genuinely improves the environment. They cling to that epic war raging in their minds of them battling evil corporations that are out to destroy the planet, as though that would somehow benefit any business.

I get the appeal of wanting to feel like a hero in an epic struggle. My love of superhero comics should be proof enough of that. However, when that same struggle both ignores and undermines real solutions that could alleviate a serious issue, then it’s hard to take environmentalist rhetoric seriously.

There’s having genuine concern for the environment and then there’s just being against greedy corporations. Those who are unable to discern between the two can call themselves a lot of things, but they certainly aren’t helping the environment.

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“King of the Hill” Vs. “F is for Family” And The Evolution/Disillusion Of The American Dream

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What happened to the American Dream? That’s a question more and more people are asking these days. It’s a question people have been asking in some form or another for decades. Even if you’re not American, it’s relevant because as politics and economics become more global, there’s a sense that a great many people are being left behind. More recently, it feels like that trend is accelerating.

Since I’m not a political scientist or an economist, I’m not qualified to break down all the factors behind these trends. However, given my age and relative experiences, I’ve witnessed many of the changes and upheavals that have shaped the current state of affairs. Over that period, I’ve even seen those changes reflected in two iconic animated TV shows from two disparate eras.

One is “King of the Hill,” a colorful slice of the late 90s/early 2000s cultural zeitgeist. The other is “F is for Family,” a show that, despite taking place in the 1970s, heaps plenty of scathing criticism on current American ideals. I’ve written about both shows before, citing the former as a lesson in work ethic and the latter as a perfect satire for its time. I also consider myself a fan of both shows.

Combined

On their own, they each have their own sense of style, story, and overall humor. They’re both entertaining and endearing in their own unique way. When placed side-by-side, though, they reflect an even greater message that goes beyond the themes of either shows. That message can be summed up with one harsh realization.

The American Dream isn’t just failing. Those who pursue it are being punished.

I know it sounds bleak, if not fatalistic. It’s certainly not a message that “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” ever state overtly. However, when placed in the context of their time and their over-arching themes, the overarching themes are clear, if not unavoidable.

In terms of ideals, Hank Hill and Frank Murphy have a lot in common. They’re both hard-working American men who see themselves as embodiments of American values. They take pride in their roles and responsibilities as husbands, fathers, and providers. They’re active in shaping the identity of their community. They both have an idealized vision of what the American Dream entails.

Some of those similarities extend to their family and how they impact the structure of the show. Many plots in “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” revolve around Hank and Frank reacting to events that happen within their family. They have wives that seek their own path and kids who rarely appreciate the work they do. Much of the comedy in each show emerges from these conflicts.

The face of many such conflicts.

Things really start to differ when the bigger picture of their respective worlds comes in. Whereas “King of the Hill” reflects a more optimistic view of the world that was more prevalent in the late 1990s, “F is for Family” paints a more dire picture. In Frank’s world, American ideals are failing and he’s struggling just to keep that vision alive.

In just three seasons, Frank has lost his job, struggled to provide for his family, and had his dreams derailed again when his wife gets pregnant. While his temper and his penchant for threatening to put people through walls don’t help, many of the factors that put him in such situations aren’t his fault. In fact, his tendency to do things the right way, as Hank often does, often work against him.

This isn’t even Frank’s worst day.

Within this dynamic, “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” diverge in a critical way that speaks to the larger issues surrounding the American Dream. In the world of “King of the Hill,” doing the right thing and following American values are rewarded. It’s one of the show’s most common themes over the course of 13 seasons.

In this world, working hard at a blue collar job is fulfilling, respectable, and rewarding.

In this world, a man can support his family with a job that involves selling propane and propane accessories.

In this world, people who take short-cuts or try to avoid hard work ultimately fail.

In this world, a man who marries the woman he impregnates is rewarded with respect, support, and admiration.

Simply put, adhering to principles of hard work, high morals, and personal responsibility will help someone achieve the American dream. Hank Hill, with his quaint suburban house and supportive community, is the personification of these principles. It’s not always easy for him, given his influences, but that only makes his adherence to those principles more respectable.

This is virtuous system is not present in “F is for Family.” If anything, it’s turned upside down. Frank Murphy followed those principles as closely as Hank. He put his personal goals on hold when his wife got pregnant. He served his country dutifully when he got drafted. He works hard and provides, despite having a slob for a boss. However, his efforts go unrewarded. If anything, they’re punished.

In Frank Murphy’s world, a hard-working man can save the company he works for, but still get fired.

In Frank Murphy’s world, marrying your pregnant girlfriend instead of following your dreams will only get you ungrateful kids, a miserable wife, and an unfulfilling job.

In Frank Murphy’s world, people who eschew hard work and behave irresponsibility are rewarded with cocaine-fueled parties and trophy wives.

In Frank Murphy’s world, a corporation can steal your idea and make millions off it while you don’t even get credit.

The system is harsh, unfair, and completely unconcerned with who adheres to American ideals. The only thing that ever seems to matter is dumb luck and already having significant wealth or privilege. Sadly, this is a lot more consistent with the current state of affairs where the rich and powerful exact immense influence, creating a system that benefits those at the top while straining everyone else.

Frank yelling on behalf of America.

This unfair system even extends beyond the political and economic sphere. In “F is for Family,” there are multiple characters who seem to succeed, no matter how little they work or how unmotivated they are. It’s not unlike those who flaunt their lavish lifestyles on Instagram, which is often fueled by inherited wealth that they did not work for or earn.

That kind of system wouldn’t just leave Hank Hill aghast. It would completely undermine his world, his identity, and his ethics. Whether he would resort to putting people through walls instead of just kicking asses is difficult to determine, but the bigger picture is clear. The American Dream in his world is intact whereas its reversing course in “F is for Family.”

To some extent, this reversal is consistent with how the world has been trending since the late 1990s and early 2000s. People have become increasingly cynical and trust in institutions is declining. Thanks to the media and the internet, it’s getting harder to hide the harsh realities of a world where just doing the right thing isn’t enough anymore. Despite taking place before the internet, “F is for Family” perfectly reflects this reality.

The face of that harsh reality.

It creates a dynamic that’s bound to create more Frank Murphys and fewer Hank Hills. People are told that the American dream is still in their grasp. They just have to be like Hank, playing by the rules, working hard, and not taking shortcuts. Those who buy into that dream aren’t just let down. They’re outright punished.

Frank didn’t become a profanity-spewing rageaholic overnight. As perfectly depicted in the show’s opening credits, the various machinations of this unfair system just kept hitting him and no matter how hard he worked or how much he sacrificed, he never got closer to the American Dream. If anything, it just kept getting farther away.

Both “F is for Family” and “King of the Hill” have plenty to offer in terms of insights. Their respective worlds may take place in an animated world where former presidents and future serial killers can show up, but such exaggerated dynamics help each show convey a certain message that fit perfectly within the context of a certain time.

The idealism in “King of the Hill” and the satirical deconstruction in “F is for Family” paint conflicting pictures of the American Dream. Both still glorify it as an ideal, but each present a different understanding of how it plays out. Within the comedy, there are genuine, relevant messages worth considering.

For many people in the real, non-animated world, the American Dream still matters. Many still work as hard and as passionately as Hank Hill and Frank Murphy. It’s hard enough when those efforts go unrewarded, but when doing the right thing becomes a liability, it’s hard to call it a dream.

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Filed under Current Events, F is for Family, human nature, King of the Hill, philosophy, political correctness, psychology, television