Sunday, May 31, 2009

Barbarians At The Gates - Or Not

Hilzoy points to an interesting little piece of opining by Rod Dreher, published in the American Conservative a couple weeks back, discussing the angst over the conservative soul and the possibility that, in pursuing "barbarism" the Right became barbarians themselves.

Dreher's work, while not nearly soul-searching enough, is certainly a good starting point for anyone on the Right who wonders why Conservatists no longer hold the high ground.
The barbarians of the Roman era wandered and marauded aimlessly. We accepted rootlessness as the modern condition. We defended our unrestrained consumer appetites by spiting those who would counsel limits as freedom’s enemies. Despisers of communism, we worshiped capitalism, naïve to its revolutionary power to dissolve bonds we ought to have cherished and things we ought to have conserved. Though we like to think of ourselves as apostles of excellence preaching against the depredations of Hollywood trash and academia’s political correctness, we have reduced ourselves to sneering at the concept of elitism and celebrating ignorance and vulgarity as signs of authenticity.

We cast aside the sense of temperamental modesty, of restraint and of fidelity to honorable traditions that have been conservatism’s philosophical patrimony, and exchanged it for a pot of ideological message.

The language Dreher uses, however, is vague and nebulous to the point that it can be used to defend virtually any "change" in Conservative thinking.
The political catastrophe the Republicans are living through, and the far more consequential cultural catastrophe we’re all enduring, obviously call for fresh political and economic thinking. But even more, they call for a renewal of our moral and spiritual vision.

This sort of general statement is what gave the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition and others with very narrow agendas, and very little in the way of fresh thought beyond their tactical planning, the impetus for their various efforts. Restating these generalisations is no great leap forward; the difficulty - the Devil, if you will - is in the details of how the generalisations are enacted.

Conservatism, defined in the absolute, is more or less a valuation of what is over what might be. It centers on: preservation of what is good in society; respect for tradition and historical legacy; the resistance to change for change's sake; and a certain skepticism toward policy, both public and private, to achieve a given objective. The GOP has stepped very far away from these principles. It no longer values what is unless what is is profitable. It sees nothing in society it finds valuable beyond ever-harder work, the unborn, and the continued health of Wall Street. The traditions it values are trimmed down to Church, self-defense, global power projection coupled with domestic isolationism, and the Puritans' obsession with repression of sex. Tradition has taken a back seat to the excesses of the entrepreneur and the adventurism of the conquistador. And the skepticism that marked earlier conservative thought has been turned into a biased political tool used to dismiss any suggestion the opposition might make; the party's own agenda is greeted with wide-eyed optimism, and any suggestion that there might be flaws in the programme is immediately shouted down.

The modern Conservatist would like the public to forget all that. Conservatism by their statements is eternal and unchanging. What we see now has always been. They would like us to forget that Conservatism once denied women the vote, denied slaves freedom, denied successive waves of immigrants the benefits of entry into a society that they themselves enjoyed as immigrants in their time, etc etc. The school of thought has evolved over time, embracing concepts once considered racically liberal. This is a virtue: had conservatism not evolved the world would not have known the myriad advances that brought us to a modern post-industrial democratic society.

Dreher is right to quote Claes Ryn in dissecting the response of the pundit to the cultural theorist:
I was behaving like the kind of conservative Claes G. Ryn once condemned in a TAC essay, disdaining poets and artists as “flaky” because they are unconcerned with politics and economics. Ryn criticized the failure of contemporary conservatives to grasp that
Traditional civilization is threatened with extinction because pleasing but destructive illusions have become part of the way in which most people view the world and their own lives. The hold on society of those who created and fed these illusions cannot be broken mainly through practical politics.

Ryn goes on:
What is most needed is a reorientation of mind and imagination. The great illusions of our age must be exposed for what they are so that they will start to lose their appeal. This can be done only through art and thought of a different quality.

Again, the nebulous nature of the guidance allows for almost anything from retellings of the Chronicles of Narnia right through a Riefenstahl film festival.

This is an interesting piece, particularly as it comes as one of a wave of articles that question what has happened to US Conservatism and where Conservatives ought to be headed. Most of the others I have read in this vein have covered the essentially anti-intellectual bent the Conservatists and the GOP have adopted over recent years: it does not appear that Dreher has reached that conclusion yet, though he does have an idea of why it would be so.

It is also clear that, while others such as Nate Silver and Richard Posner have lamented how the Conservatist machinery has shut out anyone but movement conservatist ideologues without delving into the cause, Dreher has a glimpse of why this is so. It takes a movement conservatist mindset to value safety over liberty, personal wealth over civic responsibility, imperial projection over common-sense conservation, and the fiction of the theological bases of the United States over the more sound strength through diversity recognised and celebrated by the Founding Fathers. Only movement conservatist thought could value the economic system over the family they tout as the moral salvation of the nation, or the "ignorance and vulgarity" Dreher denounces over the depth possible from an informed conservatism.

One thing, though, that none of these writers has addressed is the mindset driving the movement. Conservatism, in its purest iteration, is a skeptical, bordering on pessimistic, philosophy: it needs to have the benefit of change proven to it in clear terms before it will consider adopting the new in favor of the old, recognizable and functional. Movement Conservatist thought married all the reaction of classical conservatism with the Panglossian veneer of the "faith based society." All would be rosy, it claimed, and everyone would be happy, if only we didn't do anything those godless liberal demons asked. It opposed on principle anything outside its own tenets and held out a "feel-good" perspective of a nation saved from those "barbarians" Dreher mentions. The naivete involved in this approach is staggering: instead of holding to the old because it was proven effective with known consequences, movement conservatists did so out of doctrine and the promise of a bright sunny future if this were done. In the zeal of the movement, these people forgot that as much ill can be done by adherents to Conservatist doctrine as by followers of any other mindset, and in their willingness to believe in this bright, sunny illusion they actually enabled the likes of Lay, Skilling, Koslowski, Keating and the whole host of others who used Conservatist philosophy for their own self-aggrandisement and counted on the happy imagery the movement used to sell the philosophy to hide their intentions and misdeeds.

The 'blogosphere says much about the Bush maladministration in terms of the outright failures of conservatist policy. However, without the likes of the executives who gamed the philosophy, Bush would never have been able to achieve so much - either in policy-making or in the economic trainwreck that followed. And without the rose-tinted glow the movement conservatists used to light the new breed of right-wing thought, the movers in those worlds would never have been able to do as much damage as they did, nor fool the following as well as it is now known they were able. Without the image of the perfect nation, and the absolute demonisation of the opposition in the terms of those out to destroy every last shred of goodness and decency in the country, movement conservatism would never have been able to achieve as much as it has; conversely, without those illusions, those taking advantage of the movement would never have been able to do so much damage without being stopped. The willingness of the movement to believe its leadership and the fantasy they spun blinded one and all to the real activities behind the scenes. Those actions are being laid bare now, and gradually the thinking segment of the conservative school is waking up to that reality.

Silver, Posner, and their like look around themselves like someone rousing from a dream, seeing an unfamiliar, hostile landscape, and wondering where the calming, pastoral scene s/he remembers has gone. Dreher, for his part, sees the damage done and recognises the work of his own hand in part of the destruction. But none of them seem to have realised yet that the scene they all seem to remember was a projection of the movement, and that it never really existed in the first place outside movement propaganda.

Friday, May 29, 2009


In celebration of Carnival Cruise Line's announcement that they are resuming cruises to Mexico (I saw this on Bay News 9 this morning, but can only find the LA Times article online for the link), here's a shot of Tampa's own Carnival Inspiration.

At the moment she's still docked at the Port of Tampa, but next week she should resume her itinerary.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Less Is Something and More Is Nothing

... OR: WTF is it with hiring managers and the "overqualified" label?

As the US economy continues to circle the drain, an (apparently) increasing number of people are running into the curse of actually being able to do their jobs. There are articles in the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and other publications discussing how skilled professionals are editing their resumes and discussions of their experience and training in order to appear more appropriate for the lower-paying jobs that are increasingly the best opportunities available.

I recall a similar trend, now a decade or so old, when the dot-com bubble burst and it seemed all of Silicon Valley got laid off at once. The same effect was visible at the time: former CIOs were dumbing down their resumes to get LAN admin jobs. This time around, though, the trend seems universal when discussing anyone with more than five years' history in the workplace, regardless of profession.

The articles all discuss editing one's resume or CV to minimise the appearance of experience and qualifications. More than a few sections, and several comments, discuss removing some dates and some durations to combat ageism as well.
Too much of a good thing is wonderful, said Mae West. But that's not how hiring managers see it. Relevant work experience, advanced degrees and credentials - while prerequisites for many finance jobs - can disqualify as well as qualify. If a candidate previously held a role at a higher level than the one she's seeking, or her education or certifications exceed a position's stated requirements, she's unlikely to pass the initial software-driven screen most employers apply before even looking at an incoming résumé.

Moreover, many employers blithely use the word "overqualified" as a barely concealed synonym for "too old." That's the evident meaning when a hiring manager or HR person says an opening is "too junior for you," when you know it pays four times what you made in your last job. (This happened to me a few times.)

Personally, this sort of rescaling one's experience seems at once dishonest and pointless. Dishonest in that if one is prepared to discount one's own experience and effort to achieve what one has achieved then the situations employers fear are more likely to be manifested than if one is honest about one's history and willing to take a perceived step backward. Pointless, in turn, in that so many of the current review processes require listing years of experience with particular tools or procedures as part of the screening process, and so many are willing to follow up with reference checks and other screening methods, that simplifying one's resume without conveniently "forgetting" about what one edits out will only exacerbate the hiring body's concerns - and may well show up the potential dishonesty in the resume by inadvertently referring to information edited out of the documents.

I'm also more than a little disappointed in the presumption that overqualification is a valid cause for disqualification. Unless there is a serious miscommunication between the candidate and the hiring/screening party at the outset, then the disparity between the job requirements and the offered experience and skill set is a known quantity well in advance of the point where overqualification even gets suggested. If it isn't an issue for the candidate by then, then it shouldn't be for the interviewer.

At the same time, there is the problem that one needs a paycheck in this society. And the discussions with recruiters and hiring managers on the subject tell a no-win tale:
In the past eight months, Jamaica Eilbes, an information-technology recruiter for Milwaukee employment agency Manpower, has had to weed out more overqualified résumés than usual from the stacks that cross her desk each day. "I'd never feel comfortable putting a really high-level candidate into a lower level position," says Ms. Eilbes, who recruits for Manpower and other clients. "We don't want to take you on if we think you are going to jump ship."

But in recent months, Ms. Eilbes has seen more master's and doctoral degrees at the bottom of résumés instead of at the top. She's also seen candidates omitting or trimming job descriptions that showed they had substantial years of work experience. Résumés on which job descriptions taper off as they progress down the page raise Ms. Eilbes's suspicions. "How do I know I can trust them later down the road if there's something on their résumé they decided to take off so they could have a better chance at getting that job?" she says.

And then there's this gem:
In some cases, job seekers are being told by hiring agencies to tone down their résumés if they want to get hired. When Bridget Lee, 29, moved to New York from Shanghai eight months ago and put her application in at three temporary agencies, she was told to play down her work experience before they would send her résumé to potential clients. The temp-agency version of her résumé changed titles like "manager" and "freelance trend researcher" to "staff" and "office support" and omitted entirely her title as partner of a small marketing agency. "It's been a lesson for how I present myself," Ms. Lee says.

So if you're overqualified, you'll be bored and unlikely to stay in the position. But if you edit your docs to sound less overqualified, then you're lying to the hiring party and can't be trusted. Oh, and by the way that distrust comes from your doing what we told you to do, or from our doing it ourselves on your behalf.

For me, though, the single most infuriating perspective on the matter comes from the Atlantic's own Daniel Indiviglio:
This is alarming news for the U.S. economy. If job seekers are accepting positions at lower levels than their experience should dictate, then their talent and experience is not being fully utilized. That, in turn, means economic growth will be stunted. For growth to be maximized, all workers should be making full use of their capabilities.

How much will this harm growth? It depends on how long it takes for the economy to begin to expand at a rapid pace. Once employment returns to the 95% threshold, these job seekers can begin trading up and returning to positions for which their experience is more suited. That is, of course, if their résumé is not tarnished permanently by spending several years in a position that is a step back on their career path.

Those of us currently looking for work aren't really all that concerned about how fast we can spring back: we're worried about making ends meet now. And we'd much rather be underutilized than unutilized, since as long as we can work, economic growth, however stunted, will still be greater for the US and for ourselves than if we all sit on our duffs (waiting for the job we aren't overqualified for) drawing unemployment and starving to death.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Notes On Car Shopping

When you're looking for a convertible, and planning to pay with cash, please remember that open air and paper money don't mix.

Just sayin'.

The Gas Tax Will Encourage Us To Do What?

I'm a cheerful proponent of public policy as behaviour modifier. You don't want people to drink to excess? Limit when the bars are open, where alcohol can be obtained, tax the beverage and crack down on DUIs. You want people to take public transportation? Put more buses/trains into service, cut the rates - and stop building garages and parking lots and raise the rates on the ones already in use. We may be uncomfortable with the shifts at first, but chances are efforts like this to modify how the citizenry handles undesirable behaviour will be successful in the long run.

However, public policy to change behaviour needs to be presented with rational goals which can actually be met without incurring more hardship than benefit. This is why the proposed gas tax, which I otherwise support, raises my hackles when its proponents talk about such things as "downsizing commutes" as if in the current economic situation downsizing one's commute were a viable option without other horrific impacts.

To be sure, Ryan Avent makes many good points about how energy demand brought us to this nasty place. And most certainly I agree with almost all his points about how we got here and how we can get back out again. But expecting the overextended commuter to relocate closer to work or find work closer to home, when the real estate market is in shambles and there are seemingly ten layoffs for every new hire, is remarkably shortsighted and ignores the hardships the consumer now faces even as it touts this idea as a solution to those hardships.

When The Daily Dish picked up this particular facet of the argument - that the gas tax might be worth reconsidering - I fired this off:

In this case, I must take issue with one point that keeps cropping up in the energy consumption debate: the idea that citizens of any country, particularly the US, can manage their commutes as described.

The Right's argument, that each citizen has the right to drive his/her H2 Hummer 100 miles each way to work if s/he feels like it, fails to distinguish affluence from waste. By elevating choice over practicality this argument panders to the same culture of decadent excess that other segments of Conservatist thinking denounce, and the philosophical disconnect seems invisible to the Conservatist theorists. Pop culture, when thinking of wealth, celebrates Larry Ellison and Donald Trump over Warren Buffett and Sam Walton, and made much of Lay, Skilling et al when Enron was in vogue. While FORBES may take notice of the distinction, the American Right as a movement does not, and pop Rightspeak continues to confuse excess with success.

The Left's argument seems to break down to some basic concepts. First, frugality is a virtue that ought to be encouraged. Second, wasteful habits can be successfully discouraged through public policy. Third, adjusting one's lifestyle in such drastic terms as shrinking one's commute is actually manageable in the short term. The first item is easily defended: the second, while less so, is still defensible. It's the third concept that really irks.

The current economic conditions in the US are savage: mushrooming unemployment, successive waves of commercial contractions, diminishing opportunity. Those of us left without employment by the recent turmoil are faced with difficult choices, and one of those is whether to remain in a given job market or relocate to better areas. Any commute in those circumstances is acceptable to the jobseeker. Conversely, however, employers are presented with a massive range of applicants for ever fewer openings, yet steadfastly holding on to the illusion that a given candidate from outside the immediate market is a risk due to the relocation or commute effort.

Were this any other economic crisis mobility wouldn't be such an issue. But as this one first exhibited as a real estate collapse, relocation for employment is a double-edged sword. Anyone lucky enough to be secure in his/her housing faces potentially catastrophic loss if s/he sells, and is forced to factor unemployment into that equation; this ugly arithmetic has to be weighed against the benefit of opportunity elsewhere. Anyone paying a substantial mortgage who becomes part of the newly unemployed faces foreclosure as a very real possibility if s/he remains in the local market and short sale at best if s/he moves. Anyone renting faces possible eviction and increased difficulty finding new housing in any market. In each case, prospective employers are increasingly disinclined to entertain candidacy from anyone not immediately available and within a very narrowly defined geographical radius.

Against this backdrop we have the argument that "downsizing commutes" is not only a worthwhile endeavour in the abstract but an achievable end of US energy policy within the next few years.

The electorate is beginning to understand that it is fortunate to HAVE a commute at all, and that making changes to it are beyond difficult: with the house worth too little to merit selling or the rental deposit too high to forfeit, and credit too tight to consider replacing the daily driver without angst, reengineering a commute on one's own makes little sense. For those without, employment is increasingly something to be found elsewhere: if that "elsewhere" is within an acceptable driving distance then it saves the personal disaster that moving has become in the current conditions.

For those still working, making ends meet with what they already have has become the order of the day: drastic changes are out of the question, and "downsizing" one's commute equates to either risking one's income in the ever-harsher job market or destroying one's net worth with a classically ill-timed residential move. For the unemployed, the net worth hit is a given at this point: the difficulty lies in convincing a prospective employer of that. Neither side is in any position to alter commute habits substantially without far more severe consequences.

I am tired of seeing US auto manufacturers obstruct energy efficiency in the name of short term profit. I am tired of civic bodies consistently failing to address public transport in a meaningful way. And I wholeheartedly support any practical means of encouraging energy efficiency. But suggesting that one's commute is a manageable part of that equation when housing values continue to gyrate and new employment opportunities are dwindling is ludicrous.

H/T Andrew Sullivan.

Amazing What One Word Can Do

Sam Shulman at The Weekly Standard has an interesting little rant about how Same Sex Marriage advocates are hijacking "romantic marriage" to advance their cause, and how marriage as an institution is really all about extended families, fertility and controlling protecting women.

As Mustang Bobby says over at Bark Bark Woof Woof, Wow. Just wow.

For me, Shulman's money quote is this:
When, in spite of current enthusiasm, gay marriage turns out to disappoint or bore the couples now so eager for its creation, its failure will be utterly irrelevant for gay people.

Given that Shulman also says this:
The entity known as “gay marriage” only aspires to replicate a very limited, very modern, and very culture-bound version of marriage. Gay advocates... are replicating what we might call the “romantic marriage,” a kind of marriage that is chosen, determined, and defined by the couple that enters into it. Romantic marriage is now dominant in the West and is becoming slightly more frequent in other parts of the world.

... the chief issue he seems to have is that marriage for love - gay or straight - is a fad, foisted on us by the Romantic movement, and destructive of civilisation in the long run. The fun I have is what happens to the first quote if "gay" is removed from the line:

"When, in spite of current enthusiasm, marriage turns out to disappoint or bore the couples now so eager for its creation, its failure will be utterly irrelevant for people."

Read like that, it's much clearer how divorce became so prevalent in our society: if "romantic marriage" has failed, and those who entered into it have become disappointed or bored, naturally terminating the disappointing or boring endeavour becomes more attractive.

Yet somehow, despite an easy progression from society's boredom with "romantic marriage" to the current divorce statistics as a measure for how transient "traditional marriage" has become, it's not "romantic marriage" that is the problem for Shulman, it's that Teh Gay is trying to own the concept - when in his reality marriage is really all about The Clan, The Sex, The Ownership and The Babies and Love and Romance have nothing to do with it. That one word - "Gay" - has become so powerful to Shulman that it can rewrite all of the history of modern marriage, overwrite Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte, Shaw et al, and totally dismiss the simple fact that "romantic marriage" is far more a construct of the straight world than the gay one and that LGBT folks just want a piece of what hets have had a monopoly on for the last three hundred years at least.

Just one word. That's all it takes.

Wow. Just wow.

UPDATE: MJWS at The Reaction brings up this little gem to rebut Shulman.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On The Economy

... and where I've been that I haven't been blogging.

As some of you may know, I'm currently "between jobs." I'm learning that means "laid off by a shrinking company, and competing with countless others just like me for the remaining scraps." For me, the econom y hasn't so much experienced a recession as outright imploded.

Tampa Bay was never a great leader in the technology sector, where I'm most at home. But now, with real estate and tourism (two of the largest moneymakers here) essentially gone, and finance (a third) in disarray, not only is there next to no opportunity but the resources necessary for independent VC-funded enterprises are mostly gone as well. In turn, the historically low compensation rates here make effective competition for employment elsewhere difficult: as one recruiter mentioned to me, it's difficult to present a candidate for a position that pays double that candidate's last one regardless of how well that person's skills match the vacancy.

At present, my job search is spanning the entire Atlantic seaboard. The best responses, in fact, have until the last week or so come from the Carolinas and the Northeast. I'm averaging 25-70 resumes a day, so far with just a handful of phone calls, and just four in-person interviews to date.

To add insult to injury, I'm learning just how false the impressions of Floridian economical living are. While researching residences elsewhere I found a lovely loft-style flat in a Northeastern state. This unit, marginally larger than my own and not substantially less expensive, is assessed roughly the same property taxes as my place - and mine is assessed half the usual value because of its particular status. The inevitable conclusion is that the tax rates in Florida are substantially higher than their equivalent in states denounced for their "high taxes." It's high time that those assumptions were revisited - and quite possibly refuted generally as my specific example leads me to think likely.

About The New Star Trek Film

Paramount has shown me more than once already that they have no feeling for story continuity throughout ST. The new film merely carries on that unfeeling attitude.

Make no mistake: I thought it was a marvelous piece of cinema. The modelmakers should all be fired and that ugly excuse for NCC-1701 should be retired as soon as possible, but the film was very well done.


The problem with each iteration of ST is that it is irredeemably a product of its time and the aspirations thereof. TOS was a truly 1960s creation: civil rights, the rights of women and minorities, and the questionable merits of war were all primary plot themes and drivers for the characters. The original 2 films drew on this as well with more than a little success. TNG was a product of the 1980s; plagues, epidemics, economics, rearrangements in the political sphere, unexpected upheavals and exploration of diverse cultural relationships and alien sexualities were the general replacements for the original emphases. It was, for example, much more interesting to have a ship's counselor (and a woman at that), and much less interesting to have a woman chief medical officer, in 1987 than it would have been in 1966. A Klingon security officer, though innovative, was perhaps predictable given Klingon militarism. ST6:TUC was an exploration of a post-cold-war galaxy only possible after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The list goes on.

With this new film, though, any chance of maintaining the continuity of the other series iterations and the prior films is now shot straight to hell.

To make matters worse, the technologies portrayed are equally disappointing. Not in their use on screen, which is actually very powerful, but in their application to a world not far removed from ST:FC and ENT when TNG onward did not exhibit such things. I will freely admit that neither real-world tech nor cinematography had progressed far enough to display any of that when the earlier versions were made, but that's not really the point. The Enterprise of TOS wasn't as technologically advanced - or designed to be as technologically advanced - as the Enterprise of the new film. The new film strikes me as The Matrix overlayed with ST symbols than a true original work standing on its own merits and on the shoulders of its ST predecessors.

The chief criticisms I have read of the film also conveniently forget one thing: TOS was a sixties creation at its core. The endearing womanizer Kirk, the irascible country-doc McCoy, and all the others were only truly possible in the time when the series was written: the seat-of-the-pants solutions that crew created are simply not possible in the more politically and culturally aware noughties: were this a completely new creature following ST ethics the characters would have been at least substantially different. By revisiting the sixties icons, without deeper analysis or more depth to the characters, what results is something of a might-have-been for characters who, for all their merits, are showing their age when viewed out of their context just as surely as Shakespeare's leading ladies so often do when viewed by a modern audience without an understanding of Elizabethan England. Paramount's pathetic attempt to cure these ills with snazzy special effects and a (dismally) redesigned ship only shows how lacking these characters are when transplanted from their native time to today.

I cannot fault the actors: the interpretations are remarkably true to the original characters, and give us a glimpse of what their younger years might have looked like without compromising the personas created forty years ago. But the studio should be ashamed for this poorly thought out tale. I cannot expect that they feel anything of the sort, since repeatedly they have shown as much feeling for a consistent storyline for ST as a vegan does for steak tartare. The less said about the Dominion War, the Cardassian War, the Suleiban and the Xindi, the better, in my opinion, and turning a genius on the inexplicably-human Alpha Centauri world into a drunken Terran in ST:FC was shockingly wrong no matter how well played. The new film carries on the studio's tradition of mythos-specific Alzheimer's when it comes to the franchise. And while I'm sure it will fill the seats, for those of us who watched ST looking for a better future, this surprisingly dark tale as the latest installation of the ST franchise is a severe disappointment.