Thursday, November 08, 2018

Frog's Eye View of the Election

There is a Chinese saying, 井底之蛙, the frog at the bottom of the well. I refers to the narrow view of the sky that a frog has when it sits at the bottom of a well. Anthropologists are like frogs in that they study a village, a school, a lab, or a few families, and try to learn something from knowing their viewpoint in great depth. In that spirit, I have a few observations on the midterm election from my corner of the US, my little well.

All the major media focused on Josh Hawley's victory over Claire McCaskill, which was a major race in the Senate. Now all but one state-wide positions are held by Republicans. The only exception is the post of Auditor, which is held by Nicole Galloway, who was just re-elected. What is very surprising, however, was how narrowly she won. (The table below is from the NY Times.)

This election should not have been close. Here is how the St Louis Post Dispatch, St Louis' only newspaper, editorialized on the race:
State auditor: There is only one qualified candidate on the ballot, Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway. Her performance since becoming auditor in 2015 has been impeccable. Her GOP opponent, Saundra McDowell, has tried hard to distract voters from her own numerous, disqualifying shortcomings, including a years-long track record of unpaid debts and court judgments. Galloway is the only viable choice. Vote for Nicole Galloway.
Granted, the Post Dispatch tends to be liberal and pro-Democratic, but this case seemed pretty uncontroversial. McDowell, the Republican candidate, had won a four-way primary with only 33 percent of the vote, and did not seem to be a strong candidate (see details of her financial problems here). One weakness of Galloway may have been that she had been appointed by the previous Democratic governor when the previous auditor died, so she had not run for the office before, and perhaps did not have name recognition, though she did have an advantage as an incumbent. Plus, Galloway was considered effective, and there were no scandals or problems during her term. My friends here assured me there was no way the Republican McDowell could win, even though a poll in August showed McDowell ahead. They claimed the Republican party was not supporting McDowell.

It is therefore all the more astonishing that she got 44.6% of the statewide vote.


Look at the Hawley-McCaskill race in this light. The Galloway race shows Hawley began the campaign with at least 1,060,000 hard core votes (what the Taiwanese call "iron votes" 鐵票). Missouri is clearly a solidly red state. This is not only clear because all state-wide officials except Galloway are Republicans, and because of the map showing that McCaskill only won in the cities (though note that the cities have much more population than the rural counties, some of which only have a few thousand voters, compared to almost 400,000 in St Louis County. You can see the county by county numbers on the original of this diagram at the NY Times.).

It is also because even when a qualified Democratic candidate runs against a very weak Republican candidate, she can barely win. McCaskill was very popular in certain areas, but the consensus is she lost the race in the rural areas. What the auditor's race shows, however, is that an increasing number of voters in Missouri are "cultural voters," voters who vote for the party that they feel best represents their values, not for a candidate based on qualifications or even on current issues.

This is why Hawley was not hurt by becoming a national joke (as my local liberal newspaper put it) for running an ad claiming he wants to protect people with pre-existing conditions, even though he is one of the state attorney generals suing to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which sets that requirement. If his lawsuit succeeds, it ends the requirement that insurance companies accept clients with pre-exisiting conditions. And this is why he was not hurt by a story uncovered by the Kansas City Star that Hawley had hired consultants on the state payroll to tell him how to run the Attorney General's office. If the vast majority of voters are voting on cultural issues, on resonance with the party, then debating rationally about policies and goals is pretty pointless, even irrational.

Missouri used to be considered a bellwether of national trends, but no more. It is now solidly a Red state, like most of the old Confederacy.





Monday, October 08, 2018

On Bureaucrats and the Government

One of the big differences I have found between Chinese and Taiwanese on the one hand, and Americans on the other, is that Chinese generally look to the government to solve problems, while many, perhaps most, Americans, seem to believe that the government can do nothing right. Of course we have ignoramuses like those who tell congressmen to keep the government's hands off Medicare, but that is only an extreme form of the idea that the government can do nothing right and should "leave us alone." This is an interesting libertarian, almost anarchist position that has deep resonance in the US, especially, of course, in the Republican Party, but not only there. As Mariana Mazzucato points out (see her Freakonomics interview here), that ignores the role of the government in funding most medical research, as well as creating the Internet, and GPS. Elon Musk is widely hailed as an entrepreneur, but few note that he has received $5 billion in government money for his various ventures.

The real scandal is so-called "entrepreneurs" who try to personally profit from government spending. For example, the owner of AccuWeather has been trying to prevent the National Weather Service from releasing weather information to the public. He says his company should not have to compete with the government. Sounds reasonable, except that AccuWeather does not do any data-gathering on its own: it uses government data! It actually wants to profit by repackaging government data. Thankfully, decades of efforts on his part have so far failed. But now, Trump has nominated him to head the National Weather Service, but even in these times, that has been too much for the Senate to stomach, so his appointment has been stuck in the senate, at least so far. But his case does illustrate the danger of corruption with government spending. This corruption would be less likely if we actually valued the governments' services.

It is not only in Asia that people value the services they get from the government. NPR's Planet Money did two stories on Denmark in 2010 in which they were incredulous that Danes did not mind paying relatively high tax rates; the second program was even titled "Please Tax Me", to along with The Awesomest Economy. Basically, the Danes felt they were getting a good deal: free education, good healthcare system, low crime. Yes, tax rates were high, but they were satisfied with what they got in return. In the US, on the other hand, it is common to treat all taxes as theft; there is even a Wiki page on "tax as theft" in addition to libertarian pages that make the argument (such as this one).

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite writers, and he has a new book on risk. It is called The Fifth Risk because when he interviewed people on what risks they were worried about, he said most could name three or four, but not five, and it is the risks we cannot imagine that are the most dangerous, because we will not be prepared. He shows that the Trump administration, by leaving hundreds of positions in government empty, and by naming unqualified and uninterested or conflicted people in charge of various departments and agencies, makes risks much greater than they were. He was interviewed in NPR's Fresh Air last week.

But at the end of the interview, Terri Gross gave him an open-ended question, asking if his understanding of the bureaucracy had changed in any way from his reporting. He became very animated as he replied:
Oh, my God. So I didn't know what I was going to find when I started knocking on the door of the Energy Department or the Agriculture Department or the Commerce Department. And I turned out having exactly the same experience that political people have when they're appointed to these jobs running these places and have these - some preconception but vague preconception of what the bureaucrats are like.
I expected to be briefed and be - you know, be kind of informed by these people. I did not expect to be inspired by them. The kind of person who is still working in our government despite all the abuse the government takes is a mission-driven person. They're not paid well. They're there 'cause they're interested in the task. The people in the National Weather Service are people who have had a passion for the weather since they were little kids.
 The people in the Department of Energy are scientists who've had a passion for their particular science since they were little kids. Essentially it's - essentially what they are - all these people are firefighters in spirit. And there's something really moving about groups of people who are doing what they're doing not for money but for mission. They have a purpose in life. And it just jumps off the page. I mean, it jumped - it's jumped into my mind dealing with them. And so I came away from it thinking, wow, I can't believe we as a society have treated this slice of our society - these kinds of people, who are really the best among us, as badly as we have.
And, yeah, the structure's screwed up. That's what's screwed up. It's not the people who screwed up. It's screwed up that it takes 106 days on average to hire someone new in the federal government, or that you don't know your budget when you're planning, or that you make a slightest mistake and you become public enemy No. 1. But you do something really great, and no one pays any attention. All that's really screwed up, but that's not their fault. That's our fault. And that's what sort of needs to be fixed because in a way what we're doing is wasting the greatest spirits in our society.
One can't help but wonder whether young people will continue to seek government jobs, or whether the growing wage inequalities and huge salaries earned in finance, plus the constant berating civil servants suffer, will lead many young graduates to choose other careers and thus undermine this hidden strength of American society. In Taiwan, many people still value and respect government jobs. In the US, on the other hand, they are accused of being "swamp creatures." It is difficult to address this problem if Americans do not even realize, or admit, how important the government is for the functioning of a modern civilized society.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Observations on the Kavanaugh Affair and the Musical 'Oklahoma'

These ideas may not be politically correct or popular, but here are three observations about the controversy over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

1) Dr. Christine Blasey Ford said she is completely sure it was Brett Kavanaugh who assaulted her when she was 15. After her testimony, no one doubts she was assaulted. A few have tried to suggest she might be misremembering, with Ed Whelan going so far as to name another classmate as the perpetrator in a tweet. He later deleted the tweets and apologized. Republicans have tried to suggest she is wrong about the perpetrator. Many Democrats and feminists are very angry and upset at any suggestion she might be misremembering. In fact, however, we should all recognize that memory is fallible and plastic. Our memory is not like a hard drive that records information; memory is re-recorded every time we think about it and talk about it, and can easily change gradually over time. There is much research that shows this, and Malcolm Gladwell devoted two episodes of his podcast Revisionist History to this important idea (see here and here). Trauma does not make memory become more seared in one’s mind; as in Brian Williams’ case, a story can evolve over time. Anthropologists write fieldnotes not only to avoid forgetting what they see and learn, but to avoid exaggeration and embellishment that happens naturally with memory.

In trials, witnesses cannot admit they are mostly sure they’ve identified the correct perpetrator; you have to be completely sure. A friend told me that when she said she was 80% sure person number 3 of 4 in a lineup was the criminal, the police told her she had to be 100% sure or they would not proceed with the case, so she said she was 100% sure. Trials force everyone to take positions of extreme certainty. But we are often only 90% percent sure, if we are honest. And we should also recognize that even memories we are sure are accurate could, in fact, have been distorted over time.

2) Brett Kavanaugh was a minor (17 years of age) at the time of the assault. He should have known better, but in the US, we usually treat mistakes by minors as less serious than those of adults. In this case, the #MeToo movement makes us more sensitive to his alleged crime. His denials, however, make this line of defense impossible. He cannot claim he was young and foolish at the same time that he claims to be sure it did not happen. There is also, of course, the fact that indiscretions of a minor are more likely to be overlooked if your family is white and rich; poor and minority kids are regularly put in juvie or given a police record if they are caught drinking or using marijuana.

3) In some cultures, lying about embarrassing things is expected and accepted. Not so in the US. Honorable people, people with character, should be honest. For Americans, it is better to be honest and seek forgiveness than to lie. In the case of Watergate, it is not clear at what point Nixon was involved with the dirty tricks and the cover-up, but it is often argued that Nixon’s biggest mistake was lying about the break-in and leading the cover-up, not the break-in itself. And in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it was Clinton’s lying that led to his impeachment, not the affair.

Kavanaugh has clearly been untruthful. He has dissembled about his work in the Bush administration, about his drinking, and even about the meanings of “boof”  and “devil’s triangle”. Many commentators have made the point that he is lying (see SlateCurrent AffairsEsquire), and a sociologist who studies class in American argues that people like Kavanaugh, who go to private prep schools and Ivy League universities, are told they are special so come to believe that rules and laws do not apply to them, and that they are lying for the greater good of the nation (see here).

Today, on the Monday after the Thursday testimony, it is not clear how the wind will blow and what will happen (it will seem overdetermined once we know the outcome). It will be interesting to see if the gradual realization that Kavanaugh has lied about so many things begins to spread an makes it impossible for Republicans to force through his confirmation. It is hard to say whether public opinion about lying is enough to overcome the raw will to power--expressed here as determination to confirm Kavanaugh--of the Republican leadership.

This weekend, my wife and I went to see the musical Oklahoma. In part it was for nostalgic reasons; I had played a part in our high school production. I thought I knew the show well, but given the #MeToo Movement and Kavanaugh Hearings, the show takes on new meanings and was actually uncomfortable to watch at times (though the acting and singing was great). Ado Annie, who sings “I’m Just a Girl That Can’t Say No” basically admits to being seduced by every man she’s with. (She literally says she loves whoever she’s with.) And Ali Hakim, the “Persian” peddler, is a sexually predatory character who in the end is forced to marry Bertie (with the heinous laugh) because her dad discovered them in the hayloft. (And don’t get me started on the anti-Semitic or even pseudo-Italian overtones of the character of Ali Hakim. Even though the subplot of Oklahoma supposedly centers on whether Ado Annie will marry the peddler or Will Parker, there is no doubt in the audience’s mind that she will pick Will; even though he is so dumb he cannot add, or keep himself from spending money, he’s white, and Ali Hakim is not.)

And then there is the lead, Curly, who goes into the smokehouse, where the hired hand Jud Fry lives, and bullies him by suggesting Jud might hang himself, and then sings about how great his funeral would be. He even calls Jud a rat living in a hovel. When we performed the play in high school, I thought of Jud as a bit socially awkward, a guy who did not know how to woo a girl. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, because in several scenes he accuses others of thinking they are better than him. I thought he was overreacting, and I did not have much sympathy for him when at the end of the story he became enraged like a psychopath because Laurie did not marry him but chose to marry Curly instead. Now seeing the story again, I see Curly acting like a bully, taunting Jud in his home, humiliating him by outbidding Jud for Laurie’s hamper in the auction, and speaking badly of Jud when he is not there. Jud was right; Curly did think he was better than Jud. And Curly was a bully; he wanted Jud to stay in his place, at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Maybe our country has changed since I was in high school, and it is time to retire Oklahoma from the cannon of “frequently produced musical classics.” And I wonder if the revelations about high school drinking and partying change parents’ and teenagers’ ideas of appropriate teen behavior. In my high school days, I resented being considered a “nerd” for not drinking; as far as I was concerned, my classmates’ drunkedness made no sense and took away from the fun of watching high school basketball games. Some of the “popular” kids were a bit like Curly, and like Kavanaugh and his friends. I remember boys making “slut jokes” about a pretty cheerleader (which I realize now were done more to impress male friends than they were about the cheerleader). Some of Kavanaugh’s testimony brings back bad memories of high school. So it is also with a bit of surprise and schadenfreude that I look at these pigeons coming home to roost.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

On Cultural Appropriation

Ever since I first heard about "cultural appropriation," I've had a skeptical, eye-rolling kind of reaction to the term. As an anthropologist, I recognize that all of culture is borrowed from other places, and the notion that some cultural practice or object "belongs" to one "people" makes me uncomfortable. One of the more famous articles in anthropology, "Body Rituals Among the Nacirema" by Horace Miner (1956) points to the foreign origins of many daily customs.

So I reacted with the same "eye roll" when I read Amy Qin's NY Times article about the American controversy caused by a high school girl in Utah who wore a qipao 旗袍 (a dress usually known in English by it's Cantonese name cheung sam 長衫) to her prom. Qin's article does an excellent job of showing how problematic the notion of "cultural appropriation" is for the qipao, since it is not originally Chinese but Manchu, and only took its current tight-fitting form in the 1920s. Most interesting was that Chinese living in Asia thought it was positive that a "Chinese" style was viewed as beautiful and popular in the US, and could not understand what the objections were.

The question of cultural appropriation has been debated for a long time (see for example here). Some feel very strongly that it is a form of theft, or they object to politically powerful groups using styles of weaker groups. Of course, it is problematic when these styles are worn as costumes, in ways that could be viewed as mockery (like at Halloween or Carnival). But it seems very different when people wear a style because they think it is beautiful.

I think the specifics of each case need to be examined to see whether it is a case of appropriation or appreciation, though I generally do not accept that any culture "owns" culture. Today's NPR Morning Edition had an interesting example. The singer Angélique Kidjo from Benin has just released an album that is entirely a cover of all the songs on the Talking Heads' album Once in a Lifetime. She commented on how when she was in Paris in 1983 and first heard Once in a Lifetime, she knew right away that it was African music, though her friends did not realize it and even argued it could not be. She says of cultural appropriation:
I always say, when you are inspired by a music, and you acknowledge that source of inspiration, it is cultural expansion. But when you deliberately take somebody's music and put your name on it, it's not even cultural appropriation, it's stealing — period. Cultural appropriation doesn't exist.
The Talking Heads, when they released this album, in the press release they acknowledge the fact they were listening to Fela [Kuti] when they did this album. They were reading the book [African Rhythms and African Sensibility] of [John Miller] Chernoff, and they tell people, "You want to understand our album? Listen to Fela and read the book."
I also feel like cultural appropriation does not exist. But that does not mean I'm comfortable wearing any kind of "ethnic" clothes. Shanghai Tang has been a luxury fashion house that opened in Hong Kong in 1994. They have created a "Chinese chic" style, intended to celebrate and modernize Chinese fashions. I have always admired their elegant mandarin-collar suits, and my wife has worn their clothes. But I have never felt like wearing one of their suits (and not only because they are extremely expensive!).  As a white guy who speaks Chinese, I feel like wearing a mandarin collar suit would be a bit too much, like saying I was trying to pass as Chinese, or to be Chinese. It is true, of course, that when I was doing fieldwork, I did all I could to fit in and "pass." But that only involved shaving my mustache and buying local versions of Western clothes, not something as Asian as a mandarin collar suit. Going around Hong Kong dressed in a sort of chic "national suit" seemed a bit over the top. Maybe if I had more panache I could pull it off. And if others with panache blaze a trail, perhaps I'll follow.

I have worn a mian-ao 棉襖, the padded cotton jacket that is arguably more "Chinese" than a Shanghai Tang suit is. Mian-ao are warm and very comfortable. I have a thick one with a silky exterior, and a thin one of rough cotton from Silk Alley in Beijing. When I lived in Hong Kong, I learned to avoid wearing them outside the house, or people would comment on it and laugh a bit. The cotton padded one is actually kind of old fashioned; it is something grandpas seem to wear. The lighter one from Silk Alley was more trendy, but it was still seen as odd or somehow incongruous on a white guy. You could say I did not have the courage to wear it. After all, the clothes you wear are a statement about yourself (whether you realize it or not). I don't like my clothes to be flashy; I just want them to make me fit in.

So it was not because I was worried about "cultural appropriation" that I did not wear a mian-ao or mandarin-collar suit, but because because of what I thought others might think I was trying to say.

Mainland Chinese tourists in kimonos at Sensō-ji shrine.
Cultural appropriation was not a worry for the Chinese tourists in Tokyo, Japan, who dressed in kimonos for photos at the Sensō-ji temple at Asakusa. The kimonos are clearly cheap imitations of the beautiful kimonos that you can occasionally see Japanese women wearing. Initially it struck me as odd that Chinese tourists would want to dress like this and take photos. But the more I have thought about it, the more I see this is a good sign. Despite all the nationalistic fervor being whipped up by the mainland government against Japan, and despite national antagonism on both sides, these women were willing to pay money to put themselves not just in Japanese people's shoes, but in their clothes, at least for an hour or so. One can only hope that this kind of cross dressing leads to at least a little cross-cultural understanding.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The ambiguity of discrimination

Last week I stopped briefly at the supermarket to pick up a few items. When I was done, I approached the checkout counters from the far end of the supermarket, passing stations 17, 16, and 15 that were closed. In most American supermarkets, each checkout counter is really in a lane, flanked on both sides by "impulse purchases" like candy and tabloid newspapers and scandal magazines. The checkout lanes have tunnels of about 5 meters before the conveyor belt actually begins. I saw that stations 14 and 13 both had their lights on, meaning they were open, and as I came up to 14, I looked down the tunnel and saw the cashier handing the customer the receipt, so I knew I could enter and immediately get checked out. As I turned down the lane for counter 14 and got ready to put my few items from my cart onto the conveyor belt, I heard a voice from the other side of the tunnel (in lane 13) say, "I can also take you over here." I looked up and saw the head of a blond woman speaking to me; she was the cashier from lane 13, walking in her "tunnel", perhaps re-arranging the candy on the shelves. Since there was no one in front of me, and especially since my cashier in lane 14 was African-American, I was not about to switch lanes. That would have required backing up and going around the candy and magazine racks to enter her lane. My daughter had just emailed me two days earlier with a story in the NY Times about the rules readers "of color" follow to avoid being harassed by security or store attendants, rules like "don't throw away your receipt before you leave a shopping center," "put your American Express Platinum Card next to your driver's license so a police officer will see it when they ask for an ID" and "do not wear a large purse or many layers of clothes when you walk into a store." So I was not about to switch lanes. I just started putting my items on the conveyor belt. After I had put my items on the conveyor belt and walked up to the cashier, the cashier from lane 13 said to my cashier, "They never see you when you're old."

I was stunned. She thought I was discriminating against her for being "old." I had barely seen her face, did not know her age or think of her as "old," and was not thinking about that at all. I was concerned about not appearing to discriminate against an African American, but more importantly, I just took the first empty lane! I was mostly trying to save time. The cashier in lane 13 apparently did not realize that I could not actually see that her lane was empty as I approached the checkout counters; because of the "tunnels" of impulse items, I could only see each lane as I came up to it. I had taken the first empty lane.
In this photo, I returned to the scene days later. Lane 14 is not open this day, but you can see that one cannot see the cashier over the displays.
From my point of view, it is clear I was not discriminating against an old person, but maybe other people do discriminate. And this is what makes claims of discrimination so difficult to prove. I can easily dismiss this instance, but I cannot say that it never happens. Indeed, I suspect that the cashier in lane 13 has probably experienced some discrimination, which led her to impute discrimination in me. It would be easy for me to accuse her of being oversensitive, or of imagining things. But that would be missing the point. People who do not experience discriminatory treatment can easily dismiss it, and not admit even when it really does happen.

I sheepishly told my cashier, "I just took the first empty line." She just smiled.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Insurance Magic and Medical Mess

We received a statement from our insurance company today that is astonishing. For a regular diagnostic test (don't remember what it was, but it is part of an annual physical), the company doing the diagnostics charged $1,149.22. Seems kind of expensive.

The crazy part is below:


Somehow, Blue Cross Blue Shield was able to "negotiate" a $1,067.80 discount! The insurance company only had to pay $81.42, and we did not need to pay anything.  I wish I had that kind of power; that is a 93% discount, meaning I could buy a $75K Alfa Romeo for just $5,313.

How is this type of "discount" even possible? It should be criminal to charge the full price, given the steep discount possible.

Note also that the services were provided on January 22nd, but the insurance company did not pay until April 10th, roughly 80 days later. The delay in payment raises costs for the provider. And it suggests this case had to go through a lot of people's hands before it was decided, and all that effort costs money too. The overhead is all cost that is not working on health. And the "negotiation" of the discount is also an additional cost.

When my mother fell and broke her hip in Sicily ten years ago, she had a hip replacement in a small hospital. We were lucky that the surgeon there was a professor at the University of Catania, so she received excellent care. But what was most notable was that the hospital did not have an accounting department. We did not have to pay anything! We could say that the hospital reduced costs by eliminating the accountants. Unfortunately, that is probably not a sustainable solution either, but it certainly seems like a lot of human effort is being wasted in bill tracking and negotiating "discounts." Without all these accountants, the prices could probably be lower for everyone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Guns and Culture


There are few things as puzzling to foreigners as American “gun culture.” Indeed, it is hard for many Americans to understand each other on this issue as well. A recent article by Chad Huddleston in Sapiens.org (an online magazine of anthropology) does something that in our polarized environment is actually courageous: it tries to present “preppers,” those people who try to prepare for natural disasters and calamities, in a sympathetic light. This is of course what all anthropologists do: we examine misunderstood people and customs, and show how they make sense, at least to the natives. Huddleston is also interested in media portrayals, and discusses how the term “survivalists” came to be viewed negatively so the new term “preppers” emerged. Huddleston’s article notes how ordinary most members of the prepper community are, and how helpful they can be in emergencies. The extreme forms of prepping, like building bunkers, are rare—in fact there are none in his group in southern Illinois.
  
The preppers appeal to an ethos I actually understand, that is the idea of being prepared and able to live off the land. In a sense, it is the legacy of the “frontier myth,” and the ethos promoted by Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. I remember as a 10 year old trying to learn to walk “Indian style”, with one foot in front of the other (and not in two parallel tracks), to make less noise and leave fewer traces, and being interested in learning about edible plants. In my 20s, I bought a copy of the US Army Survival Manual, just out of interest, for general knowledge. (You can see a copy of one such manual here. Interestingly, this is from a website called www.prepers.info and the cover page has an anti-state message “Reprinted as NOT permitted by U.S. Department of the Army, but by we the citizenry who paid for it.” I suppose there is an interesting and possibly valid copyright issue here, but note the kooky anti-state rhetoric of preppers, too, something Huddleston downplays.)

March For Our Lives protesters in STL 24 March 2018
The preppers article also made me reflect on the fact that many gun owners, indeed most, are very careful and responsible with their weapons. It is really a minority that insist on being able to carry them all the time. There really should be a way to find a reasonable compromise between the extreme of anyone being able to buy and carry a gun (which is the “pro-gun” NRA position) and a complete ban on guns (which is not the gun control position, but the NRA straw man).

As a result of the Parkland shooting (BTW, shouldn’t it be called a massacre when 17 people are killed? The 1929 Saint Valentine’s DayMassacre only involved 7 deaths), many young people have taken the lead in demanding gun control. A number of proposals have been discussed, including
  • Ban on sales to people under 21 years of age (like for sale of alcohol)
  • Ban on assault rifles
  • Ban on “bump stocks” and other means of converting rifles to automatic
  • Ban on large magazines (which hold many bullets)
  • Stricter background checks on gun purchasers.

 Missouri is definitely a gun state. Our current governor became somewhat famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for a campaign ad in which he shoots a machine gun for nearly the entire 30 second ad. (See Time magazine’s report here and this sarcastic take from The Verge)  He won. A Democrat who ran for senate had to defend himself against the typical Republican charge that Democrats want to take away people’s guns by running an ad showing him assemble a machine gun blindfolded, while saying he just wants more effective background checks. The Washington Post said it was the best political ad as of September 15, 2016.  He lost. 

March For Our Lives, STL 24 March 2018
It seems hard to understand why some sort of compromise is so difficult. Sure, some extremists argue that citizens should be allowed to own any weapon they want, but it is not legal to own a bazooka or tank, so there are some limits. Once we agree on that, the question is only what those limits should be.

I remember apologists for authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and in Taiwan used to argue that Western-style democracy caused polarization and caused dissent. I have never been convinced of this; authoritarian regimes just suppress the dissent, along with valuable alternative points of view. At some point, those dissident views will explode. On the other hand, it does seem that in some cases, especially recently, Americans are extremely polarized on certain issues like gun control. I think the problem is not democracy, but the “special interests” that muddy the issue, at least temporarily. In the long run, these issues get resolved.

Indeed, the US has been able to resolve most of these kinds of issues. When the founders debated whether to select representatives based on population or by state, they compromised by having a House of Representatives with members representing districts of similar population, and two senators for each state in the Senate. It may not be the most elegant solution, but it works. Only on slavery were Americans never able to compromise, at great cost.

The NRA actually promotes safe gun use, and it seems to me that many and perhaps most responsible gun owners could agree to the Parkland students’ proposals, but the NRA is vehemently opposed. Many commentators have noted that the NRA has changed over the past 50 years from being an association of gun owners to a lobby group for gun manufacturers (see here and here). The NRA has expanded the meaning of the 2nd Amendment well beyond what people understood it to mean in the 1950s (see here). The percentage of Americans who own guns has been declining, as has the number of hunters. This is in part due to increasing urbanization. At the same time, largely it seems with the encouragement of gun manufacturers, an increasing percentage of gun owners now own multiple weapons (66 percent, I have read). The gun manufacturers need to encourage increased use and purchases of guns to stay in business. The gun manufacturers made a lot of money after Obama was elected in 2008 because people rushed out to buy weapons due to the fear that he was going to restrict gun sales. That did not happen. And no regulations were passed even after Sandy Hook, where a shooter killed 20 children and 6 adults. When Trump won, there was no comparable rush to buy weapons. As a result, one manufacturer has just gone bankrupt

The problem is not democracy itself, but how the NRA, with the support of gun manufacturers, has been able to frame any talk of gun control as an infringement of liberty and the right to own a gun. Even now, the students are attacked for wanting to take away people’s guns. Alvin Chang on Vox pointed out that Fox News downplayed news of the march and framed it as a “March Against Guns.” Even though the activists clearly did not argue to ban guns but for specific gun control measures, Fox News portrayed “this as a much larger war, waged by liberals and the media, to take away people’s guns. It is, again, leaning into the fractures of this country and triggering the anxieties of its viewers.” Since Fox News is the main source of news for 19 percent of 2016 voters, it shapes reality for a huge proportion of the public.

Bill Clinton was in St Louis last week as part of a speaker's series (not a political event), and a friend gave us tickets to go hear him speak. The one issue he became really excited about, quite emotional, was gun control. He even joked, “You can tell I don’t care about this issue.” He noted that it is not the money that the NRA gives to politicians that matters, it is the fact that they deliver thousands of votes. NRA members will vote on this single issue. They are perhaps only 20 percent of voters, but they are a reliable block. Clinton asked the audience: “Are you willing to vote on just this issue?”

He also made a point of saying that guns are not a cultural issue but a public safety issue. At first I did not understand why that was important to him. It seems he thinks that if it is a cultural issue, then because of relativism, we just have to accept and respect “gun culture.” For example, if a group of people want to use peyote or to butcher a goat as part of a religious ceremony, we might agree to allow that as part of their culture. But we would not allow people to shoot guns into the air in celebration since the bullets can land on people and hurt them. This is an interesting point, but it is not an anthropological understanding of culture. It is very clear that guns have potent cultural meanings for many Americans, so it is indeed a cultural issue, from an anthropological point of view.

To be clear, Clinton was not advocating confiscating all guns, and specifically said that in remote rural areas, many people understandably feel they need a gun for their self-defense. He was only supporting the kinds of measures proposed by the Parkland students. This is also interesting, because it is true that some people feel more safe and secure knowing they have a gun. In reality, because the gun has to be locked away and unloaded, there are only some situations in which a gun could protect its owner. And of course, it is well documented that many guns end up being used in the heat of an arguments and in suicides, so may actually be making people less safe. But this powerful cultural view of guns as providing safety is not something that is going to change in my lifetime. And I myself feel safer in my house knowing I have a security system, even though I don’t think it really works. I have a front door that is nearly entirely made of glass, so it would be easy to “break in” and by the time the alarm company called me and determined it was an emergency and sent the police, I would certainly be either dead or a hostage. Nevertheless, having the alarm somehow makes me feel safe. Irrational, but emotionally true. Guns are probably the same: they make owners feel safe, even though they don’t actually make people safe. We have all seen enough movies where the guns save the hero that we come to believe it, regardless of the statistics. Just like we believe the home security system ads.

It is significant that everyone is finally talking about gun control. It will be interesting to see whether the movement can sustain itself, and whether some sort of compromise is possible. Extremists on either end of the debate will always object, but there should be a middle ground that well over half of Americans can agree on.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

AT&T and Kafkaesque Bureaucracy

Almost ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about my difficulties in getting AT&T to stop sending me a bill for $0 (yes, zero dollars). Incredibly, AT&T is still sending the bills to my old office. I have occasionally tried to stop them, but each time I hit a dead end and gave up. Yesterday, one of the recent letters was forwarded to me, so I decided to make another effort to stop the bills. I ended up spending an hour and a half in chats with 4 different people, AND THE PROBLEM IS STILL NOT SOLVED!!!

I don't know what is crazier: that AT&T cannot stop wasting $1.15 per month to mail me a bill for $0, or that I wasted an hour and a half of my life trying to get them to stop.


A brief summary of the old story: in the old days (1980s and '90s), before Skype and before cell phones, we used to use a "calling card" to make phone calls from public phones. Instead of having to deposit a lot of change, we called a toll-free 800 number, then put in our card number and a PIN, and then dialed the number we wished to call. Every month, we got a bill in the mail, and paid by check. (I know, it sounds very archaic.) We had a Sprint card, and then for some reason we switched to AT&T. We did not use this card to call from Hong Kong, because long-distance charges from Hong Kong were always much cheaper than from the US. But when we were in the US, this was the only way for us to use public phones to call other US numbers.

Once cell phones were available, in about 2004, we got a "pay as you go" SIM card for our phone that allowed us to call and receive US calls. We had no monthly bill; we paid $1.00 per day that we used it, and $0.10 per minute. We paid in advance, and our calls charge were deducted from our account. It was great, and we kept that phone number until we moved back to the US. That plan was originally from a company called Cingular, which was later bought out by AT&T. But this SIM card never was linked to the calling card (this is an important detail for below).

Back to the present: I have called the 1-888 toll free number in the past and know that the first step is that one has to input one's phone number or 16-digit number that I don't have, so I tried by going to the www.att.com/customerservice website, as directed by the bill. Very soon, a chat window appeared, so I decided to reply to Laura, and tell her I'm trying to stop the $0 bills. She transfers me to the billing department, where I speak to Charles. (I'm using their "real" names because it seems they are all in the Philippines and are not using their real names anyway. AT&T has a nifty feature where I was able to get a transcript of my chats.)

Charles asks me all sorts of questions, I repeat what I'm trying to do, I wait for a while, then he asks me for my phone number in case we get disconnected. I think, how nice, so I give it to him.

Charles : Thank you.
Charles : Do you have wireless services?
Me : Yes
Charles : Thanks for confirming.
Charles : Let me connect you to our wireless department to check this for you.
Annabelle : Hello! My name is Annabelle. I hope you are having a great day! How may I help you today?                                                 
So, when he asks if I have wireless services, I do not understand that he means "Are you getting wireless services from AT&T?" In fact, I am not. But basically, he did not know what to do, so he dumped me onto Annabelle! And I told her so.

Me : Can you read the chat history or should I start over?
Annabelle : Please allow me to review the items you raised to save time.
Me : Frankly, I think Charles just dumped my case on to you, as it has nothing to do with wireless...
Annabelle : Yes.
Annabelle : You are not in the US right now, correct?
As you can see, I had to start over, explaining that I am indeed in the USA....
She then tells me to call a phone number for the GoPhone department, even though I assure her it has nothing to do with phones.

Annabelle : As I check one of our specialist this is being handled by our GoPhone department, so you may directly contact them so that you can be further assisted with this, okay?
Annabelle : I can provide you their direct contact information.
Me : But this has nothing to do with our GoPhone account. It was for a calling card.
Annabelle : Yes, they are the one who handles calling cards as well.
Me : OK, how do I contact them?
Annabelle : Let me provide you their direct contact information.
Annabelle : It is 1-800-901-9878.
Annabelle : Just contact them directly so that the bill will be stopped from sending you.
Me : OK, I'll try

As I feared, the number was of no use; I do not have the numbers they want for me to move forward with the call. The voicemail just hung up on me.

I was livid. Fortunately, an AT&T survey popped up, so I gave them all zeros.

To my surprise, another window popped up, saying they were going to upgrade the case, asking if I was willing. So, of course I agreed. Now I was talking to Medwin B. Interestingly also was very confused about calling cards; I had to describe the whole process to him, and explain that it was not a prepaid calling card.

Medwin B : Joseph, is the calling card re-loadable once you already consumed the minutes do you get a chance to reload it?
Medwin B : Or is it disposable calling card?
Me : No; we got a bill. It is not disposable either.
Me : We are talking about a product that is dead for more than 10 years. I've been trying to stop these bills for $0 for over 10 years
Medwin B : Do you still have the phone number associated with that account?
Me : It was not associated with an account because we lived in Hong Kong at the time.
Me : Sorry, I mean it was not associated with a phone number because....
Me : We got bills in the mail, based on usage, and paid by check. The bills just keep coming, charging $0, even though we have not been using it for over 10 years.
Medwin B : I appreciate all the information and I am digging deeper here to help you. May I know how do you place a call using that calling card?
Me : :) I feel really old, talking about ancient technology. I called an AT&T 800 number, keyed in the code on the card plus a PIN, then the desired phone number.

Then he asked if I could send him a scan of the bill, and I said I could. Here is his text:
Medwin B : You can scan it and send an email to including your request to Foundation@att.com.
Medwin B : Or you can also call 800-591-9663 .
Medwin B : That is the best option I am seeing here after digging deeper to my resources here.                                                 
I did both. To my great frustration, it turns out both the email address and the phone number are for AT&T's charitable foundation. I got an auto reply email that began:
Thank you for contacting the AT&T Foundation.  Our funding priority is our Aspire Program.  We are committed to supporting organizations implementing verifiable, evidenced-based interventions focused on improving high school retention rates and preparing students – especially those most at-risk – for college or career. 
He, like Annabelle, and Charles, just dumped me. My case was probably lowering their performance on their metrics. I'm insulted that they pushed me off so easily; I feel like a fool for falling for what is obviously not relevant. What is annoying is that AT&T has all sorts of features, like the survey and the chat function, and the record of the chat, that are designed to provide good service, but they don't have PEOPLE who can navigate their system properly to solve a problem.

I am not entirely altruistic in trying to get AT&T to stop, so they save the wasted postage; in the back of my mind, I'm worried AT&T will start charging me for my non-existent card, and then I'll have bill collectors chasing me. I'm totally at a loss as to how to stop this. It is a both funny and frightening example of Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

I wonder if I switched my cell phone plan to AT&T whether they would be able to resolve this. I don't dare try.