Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Are Millennials Unlucky?

Should we bemoan the fate of the millennial generation? Should we feel badly for those who belong to what Derek Thompson calls “the unluckiest generation?”

Anyone who was born after 1982 counts as part of this group for having come of age during the first years of the new millennium.

It was, Thompson says, their misfortune to have entered the workforce at a time of relative economic stagnation. As a result their chances for future success seem to be limited. Thompson cites research that suggests that if you don’t get off to a running start with your career you will probably never make up the gap.

Thompson limits himself to post-World War II generations, but still, the example of the Greatest Generation might provide some hope. It’s better than blaming it on bad luck.

Does the “unluckiest generation” have it any worse than those who had the misfortune to come of working age during the Great Depression? Or is it just more apt to complain?

Thompson tries to soothe our anguished souls by explaining that millennials will still be able to participate in most of aspects of the consumer culture.

In his words:

But in some ways, millennials are also the luckiest.

For one thing, they're living in an age of affordable abundance. Food has never been cheaper as a share of the typical American family budget. The price of apparel is also falling relative to wages. The Internet, while no substitute for gainful employment, has made many things cheaper that used to take extra income to buy--communication, notably, including private information-sharing and professional collaboration. It has made casual retail cheaper (and more convenient). It has also made mass entertainment cheaper, especially music and amateur videos. These commodities have grown cheaper, in part, by replacing and lowering the cost of human work.

That we live in a golden era of cheap essentials and entertainment might register as cold statistical comfort for the millions of unemployed millennials who watch their dreams fade with every passing year.

If this is true, the millennials are an entitled generation. They live at a time when prices are coming down. Thus, they can enjoy their favorite consumer goods on the salaries they are earning at Starbucks.

But, Thompson adds, this entitled generation will have more difficulty buying homes and bringing up families on subsistence level wages.

(Thompson does not mention it, but lower prices are deflationary. When the nation is drowning in debt deflation is not your friend. In fact, the Federal Reserve’s money printing is designed, above all else, to keep deflation at bay. If it succeeds, it will produce inflation. At that point, the entitled generation will discover austerity.)

But, should we really believe that it’s all just bad luck?

The current jobless crisis must have something to do with policies enacted by an administration that most millennials voted for. These young people did not vote for individual initiative; they voted for an entitlement state. They should not blame bad luck for getting what they voted for.

While it is true, as Thompson says, that millennials are the most educated generation in American history, how much of their education fits the job market.

If they all majored in literary criticism and the jobs are in the energy or health care, then there is a mismatch between education and the job market. If they are not interested in doing apprentice programs to learn in-demand technical skills they the problem does not lie in their bad luck.

As it happens millennials are happy to see their poor career prospects as a function of luck. Otherwise, they would have to deal with the fact that their self-esteem has been artificially inflated since childhood and that they have never been taught a work ethic.

Whatever happened to the notion that you can make your own luck?

USA Today reports that hiring managers are discouraged by the conduct of the millennials they are interviewing. It has nothing to do with luck. Young people who are looking for jobs act as though the job market should adapt to them and not vice versa:

Newly minted college graduates soon entering the job market could be facing another hurdle besides high unemployment and a sluggish economy. Hiring managers say many perform poorly—sometimes even bizarrely—in job interviews.

Human resource professionals say they've seen recent college grads text or take calls in interviews, dress inappropriately, use slang or overly casual language, and exhibit other oddball behavior.

… such quirks have become more commonplace the past three years or so, and are displayed by about one in five recent grads. They're prompting recruiters to rule out otherwise qualified candidates for entry-level positions and delay hiring decisions.

HR executive Jaime Fall explains that millennial hires have a poor work ethic:

… Millennials also have been coddled by parents. "It's (a mindset of) 'You're perfect just the way are,' " he says. " 'Do whatever you're comfortable doing.' "

About half of HR executives say most recent grads are not professional their first year on the job, up from 40 percent of executives who had that view in 2012, according to a recent survey by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t just their parents who taught them that they were better than they were and that they should follow their bliss.

Some examples of bad behavior are worth quoting in detail. If you are not of this generation you would never imagine them:

• Taking calls and texting. A male graduate student seeking a managerial position in Avery Dennison's research and development unit took a call on his smartphone about 15 minutes into the interview. The call, which lasted about a minute and wasn't an emergency, ruined his near-certain chance for a job offer, Singel says.

"If he thought that was OK, what else does he think is appropriate?" he says.

• Helicoptering parents. A man in his late 20s brought his father into a 45-minute interview for a material-handling job on an assembly line, says Teri Nichols, owner of a Spherion staffing-agency in Brooksville, Fla. At Cigna, a health insurance provider, the father of a recent grad who received an offer for a sales job, called to negotiate a higher salary, says Paula Welch, a Cigna HR consultant.

• Pets in tow. A college senior brought her cat into an interview for a buyer's position at clothing retailer American Eagle. She set the crate-housed cat on the interviewer's desk and periodically played with it. "It hit me like—why would you think that's OK?" says Mark Dillon, the chain's former recruiting director. "She cut herself off before she had a chance."

Monday, April 29, 2013

Newtown or Boston?

Jonathan Tobin has correctly pointed out the stark differences between the national debate that followed the Newtown massacre and the one that has followed the Boston terrorist attack.

In his words:

One crime was committed by a person motivated by no cause or political interest and driven only by personal demons. Another crime was committed by two people whose actions were clearly driven by their religious and political beliefs. Under these circumstances, which of these terrible tragedies do you think would be considered an incident that could only be properly understood as something that ought to spur the nation to specific political actions?

After Newtown, politicians rose up to attack the NRA. After Boston, politicians insisted that the Tsarneav brothers did not represent Islam.

To be fair, it is more likely that an American will suffer from gun violence than from a terrorist attack. More people have been killed through gun violence than have been slaughtered by Islamic terrorists… in America, that is.

So, one does understand why gun violence might appear to be a more pressing political issue.

But, as I have often pointed out, if the politicians really wanted to prevent events like the Newtown massacre, they would pass laws making it easier to commit psychotics to psychiatric facilities involuntarily.

At their best, the politicians are mumbling about providing more mental health care. They are not talking about involuntary commitment… a policy that would help to treat those afflicted with some forms of psychoses and would save many, many lives.

Obviously, these are not serious people.

The hubbub about the NRA also obscures the issue of who is committing the gun violence and where it is being committed. Politicians, especially those of a more progressive stripe refuse to see that Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago has been leading the nation in gun violence. No one mentions that it takes an especially inept and incompetent municipal administration to allow a city to descend into such a state.

The attack on the NRA has been designed to cover up the true causes of American gun violence. Left leaning politicians and media pundits throw up a smoke screen in order to obscure the role that policy decisions have played in Newtown, Aurora and Tucson. They have also deflected attention from the failure of Democratic mayors to impose law and order on local communities.

Tobin emphasizes that the Boston terrorist attack was not the act of a deranged psychotic. It was, he says: “the latest in a long string of terrorist acts motivated by Islamist hatred for the West and America….”

It is also fair to mention that when Muslims commit murder and mayhem in the name of their religion in America, the media and politicians try to ignore it. The Obama administration won’t even call it Islamic terrorism.

If we grant that there is more gun violence than Islamic terrorism in America, when you look beyond our shores, you see that Islam has fostered an enormous amount of terrorism around the world.

Last week, Bill O’Reilly was interviewing the national director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a notably pro-Islamist group.

When Nihad Awad tried to explain that Islam was a religion of peace, O’Reilly interrupted:

You not admitting that radical Islam drives worldwide terrorism puts you in the category where you have no credibility because the facts are the facts. Ninety percent of worldwide terrorism is radical Islam, period. … I don’t know what Islam means to you with all due respect. That’s not the topic.

O’Reilly continued:

I’m telling you that radical Islamists, under the banner of jihad, are causing the most intense terrorism the earth has ever seen and you are denying it. So either you are na├»ve or I mean, you are just way out of touch. Do you not have a television set?

Of course, no one believes that all Muslims are terrorists, but almost all terrorism is being committed by Muslims. And it is being committed in the name of Islam.

Thus, it is incumbent on Muslim leaders to take responsibility and to correct what is wrong. They might follow the example set by the Tsarnaev uncle, Ruslan Tsarni and apologize to the victims of terror.

Uncle Ruslan is not a terrorist. He had renounced his brother’s family when it turned toward radical Islam. Yet, he felt it is duty to apologize on behalf of his family, even though he had no direct responsibility for the attack.

Uncle Ruslan did not share the guilt, but he was correct to say that he shared the shame for actions committed by members of his family and community.

It isn’t too difficult to understand why the politicians are so quick to blame the NRA for actions that have nothing to do with it, but so slow to even imply that Islam had anything to do with what happened at the Boston Marathon.

To state the obvious, there are a lot more Muslims in the world than there are NRA members.  And the Muslims are a lot more dangerous than are the members of the NRA.

In one sense this means that terrorism works. It provokes a fear of Islam, an Islamophobia, if you will. And this tells the terrorists that their actions have succeeded in eliciting respect for their religion.

How many people, after an act of Islamist terrorism rush out to express their great respect for Muslims? How many politicians are doing everything in their power to accommodate Islamic sensibilities? In so doing, they are feeding the beast.

Islamic terrorism is an effort to force people to respect Islam. People whose culture has failed at modernity and who risk being ignored, become central players in world history by committing acts of terrorism.

If your achievements do not command respect, then you can extort respect by deconstructing the successes of others. 

Islamists continue to perform acts of terrorism because, from their perspective, it’s working.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Is Affirmative Action a Social Injustice?

Can you cure injustice with injustice? If one group has suffered the injustice of discrimination can you cure it by instituting an equal and opposite injustice that favors the group?

If the system is supposedly rigged to favor one group can the problem be solved by rigging the system to favor another group?

If one group systematically outperforms another group does that necessarily mean that the one group has received preferential treatment?

In a just world would the composition of the student body in the best American universities correspond to the composition of the nation as a whole? If it did not, would that mean that the university had discriminated?

It is one thing to say that everyone should be judged by the same standards. But, if some groups consistently outperform others does that count as evidence of discrimination?

Equal opportunity is one thing. Equal outcomes, quite another.

If members of one group are not held to the same standards as members of other groups, aren’t they being told that they are not as good as the others?

Would it not be better to say that they should adopt the habits of the group that does better and learn to work harder and longer?

If we say that a poor score by a child in one group is worth as much as an excellent score by a child from another group, aren’t we telling the disadvantaged child that he can do no better?

Are we preparing him to compete in the real world or are we preparing him to think that every time someone does better than he does the cause must be discrimination?

Nowadays Asian students outperform all other groups in standardized tests. Is that a sign of white privilege?

If high-scoring Asians are more often rejected by major universities because of a quota system, does that represented social injustice?

If a far less qualified candidate for university admissions is accepted over a far more qualified candidate on the basis of skin color, has the more qualified candidate suffered discrimination?

These questions are again before the Supreme Court. Rejected University of Texas at Austin applicant Abigail Fisher has sued the university because it accepted students who were less qualified than she, based primarily on their race.

As always happens, the battle lines have been drawn. Significantly, The Economist, which leans left editorially, has called for the end to the racial discrimination called affirmative action.

The arguments are no exactly new, but, coming from The Economist they are sure to have an impact.

It concludes:

Universities that want to improve their selection procedures by identifying talented people (of any colour or creed) from disadvantaged backgrounds should be encouraged. But selection on the basis of race is neither a fair nor an efficient way of doing so. Affirmative action replaced old injustices with new ones: it divides society rather than unites it. Governments should tackle disadvantage directly, without reference to race. If a school is bad, fix it. If there are barriers to opportunity, remove them. And if Barack Obama’s daughters apply to a university, judge them on their academic prowess, not the colour of their skin.

The magazine also offers a good capsule summary of a complex issue:

Many of these policies were put in place with the best of intentions: to atone for past injustices and ameliorate their legacy. No one can deny that, for example, blacks in America or dalits in India (members of the caste once branded “untouchable”) have suffered grievous wrongs, and continue to suffer discrimination. Favouring members of these groups seems like a quick and effective way of making society fairer.

Most of these groups have made great progress. But establishing how much credit affirmative action can take is hard, when growth also brings progress and some of the good—for example the confidence-boosting effect of creating prominent role models for a benighted group—is intangible. And it is impossible to know how a targeted group would have got on without this special treatment. Malays are three times richer in Singapore, where they do not get preferences, than in next-door Malaysia, where they do. At the same time, the downside of affirmative action has become all too apparent.

Awarding university places to black students with lower test scores than whites sounds reasonable, given the legacy of segregation. But a study found that at some American universities, black applicants who scored 450 points (out of 1,600) worse than Asians on entrance tests were equally likely to win a place. That is neither fair on Asians, nor an incentive to blacks to study in high school. In their book “Mismatch”, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor produce evidence that suggests affirmative action reduces the number of blacks who qualify as lawyers by placing black students in law schools for which they are ill-prepared, causing many to drop out. Had they attended less demanding schools, they might have graduated.

Equal opportunity is surely a good thing. But, if we believe that we need to respect the outcome of a fair competition, then we need to learn to accept the judgment of the marketplace. The Economist suggests: “But one set of injustices does not excuse another.”

The solution to a rigged market is not another rigged market. If you think it is, you are undermining the principle of the free market by asserting, as a matter of policy, that markets are always rigged.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Prison Guards and Prison Guardesses

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does. In today’s America large numbers of prison guards in male-only prisons are female. For the sake of clarity, we’ll call them guardesses.

How’s that one working out?

Here’s the latest scandal from the Baltimore City Detention Center, via Justin Peters:

… the Baltimore City Detention Center… had been effectively taken over by a prison gang called the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF). Recently, 25 people, including 13 prison employees, were indicted for their alleged roles in the BGF's robust drug business and other criminal enterprises.

David Freedlander shows what happens when the inmates run the prison:

Female guards smuggled cellphones, marijuana, and prescription drugs to inmates. Gang members ordered hits from inside the jail and dined on salmon and Grey Goose vodka that was smuggled in on their behalf. Corrections officers stood guard for one another so they could have sex with inmates. They warned prisoners of upcoming searches of their cells by unfriendly colleagues. Tavon White, the leader of the Black Guerrilla Family who allegedly impregnated four of the guards and was there waiting for his murder trial to commence, was caught bragging on a wiretap: “This is my jail. You understand that? I’m dead serious. I make every final call in this jail.”

Apparently, the biology of gender differences is at play in highly predictable ways.

Peters writes:

That’s not to say that female guards in men’s prisons have an easy time of it. Women are generally smaller and less strong than men, which can be a problem if you are working in a physically intimidating environment with aggressive men who might want to have sex with you. 

You have to start wondering about the state of the American mind. How did it happen that no one imagined the consequences? How did it happen that no one cared? Couldn't anyone have figured out that alpha males in prison gangs might be inclined to collect a harem of guardesses?

It gets worse. The AP discovered, to its shock, that many of these guardesses had been threatened or intimidated into having sex…  against their will. There’s a word for that, but no one is allowed to use it:

As the AP story reported, “While many [of these sexual encounters] could be considered consensual, incarceration experts and female prison guards say the problem is much more complicated. In some cases, the women reported that they couldn't say no to the inmate out of fear, or were afraid to go to a co-worker out of shame at what had happened.”

American judges and legislators are up in arms about violence against women. And yet, when that violence is part of the job, no one cares. If you do not allow women the opportunity to be part of a prison harem, you are depriving them of equal opportunity. If you, as a matter of policy, put women in a position where they can’t say no to sex you are treating them as unequal.

The depth of the stupidity is difficult to fathom.

Fear not, progressives are hard at work rationalizing this absurd and dangerous policy.

Peters makes a feeble-minded effort in his closing paragraph:

The issue, ultimately, isn’t that female prison guards have no place in men’s prisons. It’s that prisons are terrible places that are often overcrowded and poorly managed, in which the strong will prey on the weak if they are allowed to do so. And that’s unlikely to change no matter who’s on guard.

If the strong naturally prey on the weak, then naturally you would want to give them the opportunity to prey on individuals who are especially weak.

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak examined the issue and arrived at the politically correct answer.

The real problem, Dvorak says, is that there are not enough men who are qualified for the jobs. Maybe I missed it, but do you really believe that the nation is running short of unemployed able-bodied young men?

If the prison system can modify its requirements to give jobs to women who are manifestly unqualified, why can’t it adjust its standards to give more jobs to men who might have the strength to maintain good order and discipline?

If you believe that these guardesses are being preyed on by violent males, well, all you need to do is to change the meaning of words. By its lights, these guardesses, the ones who are threatened and intimidated into having sex with inmates, are… take a deep breath… sexual predators. They have been raping male inmates.

Dvorak quotes a Justice Department report:

 “Among the 39,121 male prison inmates who had been victims of staff sexual misconduct, 69% reported sexual activity with female staff,” according to the 2008-09 Bureau of Justice Statistics study.

It’s even higher in juvenile detention facilities, where 90 percent of the boys who said they were victims of sexual advances by officers said they were approached — and frequently raped — by women.

For the Justice Department, sexual misconduct as a function of a power imbalance. If a teacher has sex with a student, it is assumed that his position of authority deprives her of her ability to say no. If a president has sex with an intern, it is assumed that his position of authority… you know.

Dvorak wants us to see the prison inmates as victims of predatory guardesses.

And where's your empathy? Don't you know, these women are starved for love.  Dvorak explains their plight:

What about the female guards who are targeted by cunning and charismatic inmates? The women who are loveless, lonely and easily seduced? Are they predators or the prey?

When male prison guards are corrupted, the issue is usually money. When it happens to guardesses, it’s about love.

In Dvorak’s words:

There was surely some of that in this Baltimore case. According to the indictment, investigators found an operating manual of sorts used by BGF that detailed “how new BGF recruits are taught to target a specific stereotype of a CO [correctional officer], specifically women with low self-esteem, insecurities and certain physical attributes.”

Once seduced, the women saw themselves as the wives and girlfriends of White and his associates.

Finally, Dvorak concludes that we should continue to have guardesses, because, male guards have also been corrupted:

Female guards aren’t really the problem; incompetent bosses are. If women weren’t there, White and BGF might have been trying to figure out a way to use money and power to corrupt male guards.

As long as there has been work, there have been men who have screwed it up. Dirty cops, corrupt bankers, shady businessmen, filthy politicians, molesting dentists. At no point do we say, “Men don’t belong in this field.”

After explaining clearly that women cannot do the job because they cannot command respect and exercise authority, Dvorak reduces it to a question of corruption.

Let’s frame the question somewhat differently. Let’s say that women cannot do the basic training required to be in the infantry or to be Navy SEALS or Army Rangers. If so, then putting women in these jobs will reduce the combat effectiveness of a military unit.

Less effective military units are less likely to win wars. So now, the great minds of major media outlets want to rationalize the policy on the grounds that, after all, men have lost wars too?

Friday, April 26, 2013

To Be or Not To Be a Wife

Among the many causes for the breakdown of American marriage is this: sloppy thinking.

For all their education, for all of their student loan debt, American intellectuals don’t know how to think.

How else to explain the fact that a woman can tell you that she wants to get married but does not want to be a wife.

This has some obvious consequences. If a wife makes it a point of feminist honor to refuse to perform the tasks or to assume the responsibilities that are associated with being a wife, this will certainly not improve the quality of her marriage.

Since women are essential to the division of household labor and the harmonious functioning of a household, a wifeless marriage produces a dysfunctional household. Many people have discovered, to their chagrin, that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Our elite intellectuals have overthought the institution of marriage. Perhaps they thought that they were engaging in an amusing exercise. Perhaps they thought that they could facilitate the revolution if they undermined the basic patriarchal institution. Whatever the reason, they have deconstructed marriage and have assaulted it with rounds of critical theory.

So, more and more couples are foregoing it altogether. After all, if marriage is just a piece of paper, as we were reliably told by the cognoscenti a few decades ago, why bother?

Strangely enough, the only people today who are clamoring to get married are those who belong to the same gender. Some have said that same-sex marriage will save the institution. In fact, it will transform the institution by disassociating it from mating.

Since a same-sex couple cannot become mother and father, they cannot become husband and wife. In what has universally been considered as a marriage, it is perfectly clear who is the husband and who is the wife. In a same-sex marriage, it is perfectly unclear.

When a woman gets married she becomes a wife. Everyone sees her as a wife. Everyone addresses her as a wife. If she zealously abhors the role of wife she should not marry.

Our best thinkers are transforming the institution of marriage. The question is: for better or for worse.

We are reliably informed that women are increasingly unhappy with their marriages. Women initiate most of the divorces in America today. When they divorce, women are less likely to remarry.

Feminists tell us that this affirms the truth of their analysis. Marriage is fatally flawed because it oppresses women.

If marriage is oppressive to women, then married women need to be in a state of permanent rebellion. In place of the old-fashioned cooperative marriage, feminism has produced the modern contentious marriage. When the kitchen becomes a battleground in the culture wars, women lose.

One continues to be impressed by the fact that feminists do not believe that they themselves bear no responsibility for the current state of American marriage.

As the old saying goes: they broke it; they own it.

Yesterday, Vicki Larson made a salient point: husbands and wives are not involved in the same marriage. It’s not so clear what she means by that, but it certainly contains a kernel of truth.

If Larson believes that being a husband and being a wife is not the same thing, one must concur. We ought to extend the notion to the fact that when Jack and Jill engage in carnal relations they are not having the same experience.

The problem with modern marriage, Larson suggests, lies in the fact that married women, aka wives, still do most of the “emotional caretaking."

She quotes from the work of two feminist sociologists:

Typical studies of the household division of labor do not begin to capture all the unpaid caring work -- for friends, extended family, schools, and religious and other community organizations -- that women disproportionately do. Nor do they capture wives' planning, organizing, and structuring of family life.

Larson adds her own commentary:

It's exhausting being the one who always has to be on top of the emotional temperature of a relationship and keep the ties to family and community going. Plus, that kind of work often goes unnoticed or undervalued -- and sometimes even resented -- which, they note, "can lead to marital tension."

One assumes that it is even more exhausting when the woman is working outside of the home.

Does anything change when the couples have contracted what they call an “equal marriage?”

Apparently not:

What about in so-called equal marriages? Nope, the wives still "tended to be the ones who monitored their own and their partners' contributions to their relationships." Even when the imbalance was duly acknowledged, nothing changed, "leading to feelings of resentment and frustration."

Of course, Larson and her experts suggest that this situation can be remedied with increased consciousness. But, didn’t increased consciousness get us into this mess in the first place. When a woman decides that being a wife is akin to being a slave or a concentration camp inmate, doesn’t this influence how she conducts herself in her marriage.

If Larson believes that women who make the kitchen into a battleground are more advanced than men, she must also be suggesting that men need to capitulate.

They can do so by shouldering more of the responsibility as emotional caretakers.

But, here’s the problem. These same serious thinkers believe that men are reptilian creatures who are congenitally incapable of caring for anyone emotionally, beginning with themselves.

I will tell you another secret. Any man who dares to take on the role of emotional caretaker will be greeted with a wave of feminine contempt whose sting will be felt for a long time to come.

Women might have been taught by feminism to resent their roles within marriage, but most of them, given the choice would prefer to keep the emotional caretaking in the hands of the person who is most capable and most competent of doing it. That would be: the wife. 

If women are better at it, that does not make it demeaning. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sexism at The New York Times

Yesterday Politico ran a hit piece on New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. It felt like a band of Times staffers had conspired to have her replaced by their preferred candidate, Times managing editor Dean Baquet.

While many Timespersons believe that their paper is still putting out a good news product, they are in despair at what they see as Abramson’s poor leadership and inept management skills.

Dylan Byers wrote in Politico:

In recent months, Abramson has become a source of widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom. More than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity, described her as stubborn and condescending, saying they found her difficult to work with. If Baquet had burst out of the office in a huff, many said, it was likely because Abramson had been unreasonable.

“Every editor has a story about how she’s blown up in a meeting,” one reporter said. “Jill can be impossible,” said another staffer.

Just a year and a half into her tenure as executive editor, Abramson is already on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom. Staffers commend her skills and her experience but question whether she has the temperament to lead the paper. At times, they say, her attitude toward editors and reporters leaves everyone feeling demoralized; on other occasions, she can seem disengaged or uncaring.

Of course, the news business is in serious trouble. Many who work for the Times worry about their future. The company does make money, but more and more journalists and editors are leaving the paper. Staffers naturally fear that their ship is sinking. Naturally, they blame the captain, in this case the leader of the news division.

Politico described the situation:

Caricature or portrait, such feelings are starting to drain morale in a newsroom that is already anxious about the changing nature of the media industry and scarred by the recent round of buyouts, which saw the departure or reassignment of many high-level editors. To add insult to injury, Abramson has been notably absent — or “AWOL,” as several staffers put it — at key periods when the Times required leadership.

“The Times is leaderless right now,” one staffer said. “Jill is very, very unpopular.”

I am hardly in a position to tell you whether this portrait of Abramson is fair. If it is, it shows an executive who does not know how to lead or to manage.  It suggests that Abramson is so insecure in her position that she feels that she can only maintain her authority by putting down everyone else.

If Politico is right, Abramson is going through the motions, pretending to be in charge, without knowing how to lead.

Staff members feel like passengers on a ship that is listing or even sinking. Under the circumstances they need a captain who is in control of his or her emotions. They want a steady hand at the wheel, not someone who is working through her difficulties assuming her position.

I do not know if the description is accurate, but I have not seen any reports suggesting that it misrepresents the Abramson temperament or attitude.

If the staff is demoralized and if no one wants to deal with a mercurial executive editor, the fault lies with Abramson.

On the other hand, it be the case that the Times, as a business has been floundering for reasons that have more to do with the leadership exercised by Chairman Arthur Sulzberger. If he hired the wrong executive editor, the responsibility lies with him.

No one is surprised to read that the feministocracy has rushed to defend Abramson. As is its wont, it has denounced Politico for sexism. For the record, Politico is anything but a right wing site.

Jessica Bennett at Jezebel asks a question she thinks is profound: if Jill had been named Joe would anyone be saying all of those nasty things about her. It’s what passes for thought among feminists.

Next thing you know, she will report Dylan Byers to the thought police.

It is worth noting Politico compared the Abramson leadership style to that of former Times Executive Editor, Howell Raines. It pointed out that Abramson was as bad a leader as Raines.

It seems superfluous to mention it, but the argument—if Jill were Joe—is empty. Since it’s a counterfactual, you cannot refute it with objective evidence. Besides, if Jill had been Joe she would not be Jill.

As long as men and women are different they will have different leadership styles. They will have different strengths and weaknesses. Some women leaders make their womanhood an advantage. Some act as though they were imitation men. What matters is how well the company runs. Nothing about a leader's personality should detract from the task at hand.

Bennett does not seem to understand that the issue is not what people are saying about Abramson, but how well she is doing her job.

Worse yet, we are talking about the New York Times. Unless you believe that Politico made it all up, more than a few Times staff members are so disappointed about Abramson that they bad mouthed her to another news organization.

Clearly, their behavior entailed risk. Do you honestly believe that they took the risk because they were sexists?

Are the people who work at the Times are Tea Party conservatives or even Republicans? Is the New York Times a bastion of patriarchal privilege? If the liberal progressives who work at the Times are as sexist as Bennett thinks they are, what does that tell us about the Times?

[Addendum: Reuters just reported on the Times' quarterly revenue:

New York Times Co reported a decline in quarterly revenue as the newspaper publisher continues to struggle with weak advertising sales.

The 11.2 percent drop in advertising revenue in the first quarter underscores the pressure that the New York Times faces to increase its subscription revenue, especially for its digital products.]

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What's Wrong with Mad Men?

Do you still care about Don Draper?

You know… the super-gifted ad man with the identity crisis.

So far on this season’s Mad Men, Draper’s identity crisis has faded into the background and he seems to have lost his ad man’s touch.

He is running a very successful firm, but his last pitch for Heinz ketchup fell flat. Come to think of it, when was the last time that Draper produced a great ad concept?

Is Don Draper still Don Draper? If not, why should we care?

Famed television writer and producer Ken Levine says that something is gone wrong with this season’s Mad Men.

In the world of television writing and producing Levine has some serious credits. He has won Emmy awards. He worked on:  MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, and DHARMA & GREG. He co-created Almost Perfect.

Levine has long been a fan of Mad Men. So have I. But this season the show is leaving him cold. Ditto for me.

If I had to explain how the show went wrong, I would say that Matthew Wiener has tried to make it a portrait of America in the late ‘60s. He is trying to render a culture in flux.

Unfortunately, television shows are not social commentary. They tell stories. If they do it well, great. If they fail to interest you in their story, you are going to tune out.  

A good story engages you. But, Levine points out, you cannot be engaged unless you care about the characters. If they are too one-sided, too close to caricature, you cease to be interested in what they are doing and what will happen to them. If characters are one-dimensional, it doesn’t matter if they get away with it or if they  get caught in the act.

In Levine’s words:

When I’m creating a show my first rule is that I’ve got to love my characters. They may be flawed – they should be flawed – but ultimately I love them and care about them. And hopefully, I can convey that to the audience and they’ll love them too.

Again, the characters don’t have to be particularly loveable. Sweet and earnest and always-doing-the-right-thing is also boring. The best characters are complex. They may have internal battles between good and evil. They may be scoundrels but deliciously so. Or they can’t get out of their own way. Or life’s dealt them a bad hand. 

To Levine the characters on Lena Dunham’s Girls suffer from the same problem. They have ceased being interesting. No one cares any more. People have stopped watching.

In his words:

Season one those girls were quirky and self-centered but sort of fun. And they liked each other. By season two I wanted to slap all of them. And they wanted to slap each other. The end result is ratings for year two have plummeted. 

Full disclosure: I did not care about the characters during the first season either. In fact, I posted about it at the time. It’s one thing to portray people leading boring lives; it’s quite another to make them boring to the point where you don’t care what happens to them.

In the second season of Girls, the lead characters continued to be boring. They interacted less and less with each other. The plot line became incoherent.

When it comes to Mad Men, Levine asks why anyone should still care about the main characters.

We used to care about Don Draper, Levine wrote:

He was a man of mystery, trying to overcome a dark past, flailing, always feeling out of sync, endlessly searching for who he is and what will make him happy. And it helps that a great actor (Jon Hamm) plays him.  He could be infuriating but he was always fascinating.

So for years we felt for Don, even looked the other way when he did dishonorable things like cheat on his wife with every woman other than Bella Abzug. The hope was always that he’d figure it out, finally be comfortable in his own skin, and that all of his good qualities would rise to the surface and he’d become a better father, husband, employer, and stop wearing hats already in 1968. And if he slipped up a little, well – he’s only human and we’ve come to expect that. Betty is trying to throw Hansel & Gretel in an oven, she’s a lost cause. But there was still hope for Don.

This season, things have changed:

Now he has a loving wife, a wildly successful career, and he has become television’s biggest prick. It’s not enough he’s cheating on Megan, but he’s doing it with another woman in his building and he’s all buddy-buddy with her husband. They socialize together. He invites the guy to the office. What a fucking asshole! Meanwhile, he tries to destroy his wife’s dreams simply because they inconvenience him. He never talks to his children, even on Christmas. And he’s a cold distant boss to all his employees while still demanding total loyalty from them.

Why should I care anymore about this miserable soul?  Because he gets to his front door, slumps down to the ground, and feels sad?  At one time there were glimmers of humanity, moments when he would exhibit surprising kindness.

With apologies for Levine’s salty language, consider Draper’s affair with his neighbor’s wife.

First, nothing about Megan suggests that her husband would naturally be seeking to have an affair. Of course, it happens in real life, but in a story, the affair has to make dramatic sense. It’s not enough for the story to say that Draper is a sexaholic womanizer.

Draper becomes even less sympathetic for having an affair with the wife of a sympathetic character, a man who is supposedly his friend, heart surgeon Arnold Rosen. It's one thing to cover your neighbor's wife. It's a special form of depravity to maintain a friendship with her husband.

Some critics have noticed that Draper is in awe of Dr. Rosen. If so, why does he invite the man to drop by his office to give him a freebie? It’s not a sign of respect; it’s insulting.

Would it have been too much trouble for Draper to bring one of the cameras home with him and offer it more graciously?

Am I the only one to notice that there is very little erotic tension between Draper and Silvia. If they are not that into each other, why should anyone else care?

Extramarital affairs can do many things for a story. They can raise the issue of whether or not the adulterous lovers will fall in love and divorce their spouses. They can raise the suspense over whether or not they get caught. They can lead to a place where the contrite adulterers try to salvage their damaged marriages.

When it comes to Don Draper and Silvia, do you really care about how the story resolves itself?

That is Levine’s point: when you don’t like the characters, even a little, you will remain indifferent to what happens to them.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Dove Beauty Challenge

The Dove marketing team has come up with a great concept: “You are more beautiful than you think.”

Dove took a group of women and led them, one-by-one into a large empty loft. For reasons that escape me they were not told why they were there. Walking across the loft they saw a man with his back turned to them, sitting in front of an easel.

After they sat down, out of the man’s line of sight, he started asking them questions about their appearance. Within a few minutes most of the participants understood what was happening.

It is not clear that they understood that the artist was an FBI-trained sketch artist whose drawings are most often used to apprehend miscreants.

Next, the Dove marketers introduced each of these subjects to a stranger. They told the stranger to attempt to make a positive connection with the subject. Then, it brought the strangers into the same empty loft and had them describe the appearance of the subjects they had just met.

The result was somewhat surprising. The pictures based on the descriptions offered by the strangers looked more like the subjects than did the pictures that were drawn to descriptions offered by the subjects themselves.

This suggests that a stranger who barely knows you can conjure your image more accurately than can you yourself.

More than that, the video went viral because the portraits drawn according to the stranger’s recollection made the women look much more beautiful.

One might conclude that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but Dove wants us to think that women do not know how beautiful they are.

Apparently, this will cause them to buy more Dove skin care products.

For your edification, here's the long version of the video:

There are so many problems with this experiment that one does not know where to start.

The first, most obvious and most overlooked is this simple fact: you NEVER see your face directly. Other people can look at your face directly; you can’t.

You can see your face in a mirror and you can see your photographic image. Thus, the image the subjects were describing was, at best, a reflection.

You will think that it doesn’t matter. You will think that it’s a distinction without a difference. It’s more likely that it does matter.

Second, it is vain and narcissistic to extol the beauty of your mirror image. It is worse to do so to a stranger.

The situation contains a number of subjective and ethical components. It is neither neutral nor objective. 

If the subjects understood that they were being drawn by a police sketch artist, they might unconsciously have thought that it would be better if they had not been easily recognizable.

Fourth, the strangers who described each woman had only met the women briefly and were instructed to develop a warm rapport with the woman. Thus, the strangers were being instructed to provide a flattering portrait. They did their jobs.

The strangers were not all women. There was at least one man in the group. Obviously, the way a man sees a woman’s beauty is not at all the same as the way a woman sees a woman’s beauty.

If a man loves a woman he will be more likely to appreciate her beauty. If he does not love her, he will see her differently.

Similarly, if you are describing someone you like or have been told to like you will paint a more flattering picture.

Those are just the most obvious problems. They do not concern these women’s true feelings about their looks, but how likely they are to describe themselves in flattering terms to a police sketch artist with cameras running.

Less obvious is the fact that some segments of the population have been warring against society’s conception of female beauty for decades now. Remember Naomi Wolf’s book, The Beauty Myth?

In some circles there is a slight stigma against women attaching too much value to physical beauty. If men are not judged by their beauty, then why should women?

Do these cultural factors influence the way women describe their appearance?

The study, unscientific as it is, shows women indulging in some serious self-criticism. As a rule people who are highly self-critical are depressive.

Why are people so self-critical? Perhaps because they learn it in school. Colleges and universities place a special premium on critical thinking.

If you are taught to find the flaws and faults in everything you see, then you are probably going to apply your skill to yourself.

Also, describing your appearance is likely to make you self-conscious. When you feel self-conscious you will feel mildly embarrassed. This, in itself, will cause you to want to hide or to disguise your appearance.

Finally, why do we naturally assume that the women in question are telling us their real feelings? Why do we assume that they really think poorly of their own appearance? We do better to assume that cultural attitudes and expectations, whether they pertain to the specific situation or to the culture in general exercise a strong influence on how they will admit to seeing themselves.