Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Two Sizes Too Small

When I was a kid, my dad, a physician, was always on call on Christmas. Being Jewish, he would trade Christmas for Yom Kippur or some other day that his non-Jewish colleagues didn't mind working.

In those days, most everything was closed on Christmas, except movie theaters and Chinese restaurants—traditional Jewish Christmas Day haunts. Recently, however, there's been a much-publicized trend towards keeping some stores open on the holidays: last month, for example, some large retailers opened earlier on Thanksgiving than in any previous year. A small employee revolt ensued, but  retailers reasonably pointed out that their customers demanded early access to Black Friday sales.

The battle hasn't ended at Thanksgiving. In an effort to bolster end-of-year sales, McDonald's has urged its franchisees to keep their restaurants open on Christmas. (For their part, the franchisees complain that the kids who tend to make up their workforce don't much mind missing Thanksgiving with the family but are unwilling to skip out on Christmas.) And McDonald's is hardly the only restaurant chain remaining open on Christmas.

By and large, the folks serve your food and run your credit card are hourly, non-exempt employees. They are at the bottom of the corporate food chain, and they have little say over which hours and days they are required to work. What's more, in California, at least, employers are not required to pay their employees extra for working on a holiday. Decide to spend Christmas Day with your family, and you may spend New Year's looking for another job.

How then do we balance the demands of consumers and employees? Surely a business owner should be able to decide if it makes commercial sense to remain open on major holidays. And, of course, a lot of people, not just hourly retail employees, have to work on the days the rest of us are spending with family: municipal workers, physicians, caterers, and so forth. There's no fundamental right to skip work on December 25th—if there were, my dad wouldn't have had any opportunity to switch on-call days.

I propose we let consumers decide. It is consumers that have driven holiday openings in the first place, but we're talking about a relatively small number of opportunistic buyers. Let's give the larger American shopping public a say, by providing them with the maximum amount of information about how each vendor treats its workers. Just as restaurant chains (in California, at least) have to post nutritional information at the point of purchase, let's require retail chains to publish their employment practices in summary form.

What an employment practices disclosure might look like
Why? Because right now we're only hearing from that small segment of shoppers who cannot wait until the day after a holiday to hit the mall. Making employment practices available at the point of purchase offers the rest of us a chance to vote with our wallets all year around. All else being equal, I'd choose a vendor that treats its employees well over one that does not—wouldn't you? As things stand, such employers have no way to benefit directly from their generosity. By giving us the opportunity to recognize them for their good behavior, we can offer employee-friendly retailers a way to stand out from the competition.

Early studies on the publication of nutrition data at the point of purchase suggest that additional information influences consumer behavior. If such changes in behavior do indeed reward generous employers, we will have taken the first steps towards creating a virtuous cycle in which competition among store owners leads to a general improvement in employment practices over time. That's a change for which we could all be thankful.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Das neue jüdische Ghetto

Much has been made of the lack of European support for Israel in the recent UN vote granting observer status to the Palestinian Authority. In reality, though, the UN decision is utterly uninteresting, handing the Palestinians a symbolic trophy that was theirs for the asking at any time over the past several decades.

Equally unsurprising, but certainly more disturbing, is the European reaction to Israel's measured response to the Palestinian move. Israel recently approved plans to build about 3000 housing units in the area connecting the capital with the upscale bedroom community of Ma'aleh Adumim. The planned construction site, quaintly dubbed “E1” by diplomats and bureaucrats, comprises less than 5 square miles. That's equal to about 10% of the size of Florida's Disneyworld, or around 50% larger than the San Diego Zoo.

Ma'aleh Adumim will become part of Israel in any negotiated solution; of this, there is no doubt. The status of Jerusalem itself, of course, is a matter of intense debate, but there is no possibility of turning Ma'aleh Adumim into an island in the middle of a future Palestinian state—a corridor connecting the suburb to French Hill, Pisgat Za'ev and the rest of Jewish Jerusalem is a given.

And yet, rather than acknowledging the relatively bland way in which Israel has responded to the Palestinian's abrogation of their previously undertaken obligations, Europe has reacted with dismay.  This false outrage aligns seamlessly with the continuum of appeasement and anti-Semitism that has characterized continental politics since time immemorial. But never has the hypocrisy of European diplomacy been more exposed than in the events of this week.

The UN initiative was a unilateral Palestinian maneuver to avoid sitting at the negotiating table with Israel. And yet, with the shining exception of the Czech Republic, no European nation supported Israel in the the vote on the floor. This, in spite of Europe's routine criticism of any Israeli action they view as unilateral; in spite of Europe's repeated support for negotiation as the path to peace in the Middle East; in spite of Europe's enthusiastic endorsement of the Oslo process, stabbed to death on the floor of the General Assembly with a knife bearing Europe's bloody fingerprints.

I am opposed to expansion of the settlements, and I favor a two-state solution. But we must never confuse pragmatism and morality. Jews are entitled to live anywhere in the world they desire, including the areas that will form the future Palestinian state—and certainly in areas that will not. Europe's insistence, only 67 years after the liberation of the camps and the ghettos, that Jews remain on their designated side of the wall is a dark reminder of why Israel remains the best assurance of Jewish survival in a dangerous and cynical world.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

God and Country

I believe that to really understand our country you have to look at the contradictions it embodies.

In America, the most popular, and arguably most athletic sport in the world is regarded as boring, while the slowest-moving competition since chess is so broadly cherished it's called “the national pastime”. Americans respond with outrage to the killing of whales, and yet only recently halted executions of juveniles and the mentally disabled. America is a place where love and marriage are still idealized—unless the lovers are of the same gender; a place where “freedom” and “justice” are considered universally shared values, and yet each year nearly one million citizens are jailed for marijuana-related offenses.

Mars: no sign of Jesus so far.
 Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.
And, yes, America is simultaneously the world leader in science and technology and one of the most religious nations on Earth. We're like adults who still believe in Santa Claus: we ought to know better, but we can't let go of the fairy tales that made us feel good as children. While no harder to understand, perhaps, than the soccer/baseball paradox, the tension between Americans' religious beliefs and their devotion to technology is much more significant, a symbol of our immaturity.

Does that matter? Well, Santa is only an issue for the guy who's disappointed by the lack of gifts on Christmas morning. But American religion goes well beyond the requirements it lays on the believer. American Christianity, as embodied by the religious right, demands the fealty of its followers, the conversion of its skeptics, and the defeat of its opponents. It insinuates its mythical God—Our Father, Allah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—into all of our lives through the political process.

The resulting situation not only represents a defeat of reason; it is also a failure of democracy. In fact, it's the same failure we are seeing today in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has, utterly predictably, taken control in the wake of that country's “democratic” revolution. As the twentieth President of the United States, James Garfield, observed, “the people are responsible for the character of their [government]. If [it] be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption.”

No doubt. I'll touch on “recklessness and corruption” in a later post, but what happens to a democracy when “the people tolerate ignorance”? What if they indeed demand ignorance, as is now the case, as we litmus-test each candidate according to their belief in a supernatural being who responds to prayer and interferes in the natural course of events? What happens then?
Sally Ride: American Hero. Lesbian.
Courtesy NASA.

What happens then, I'd argue, is what we're now experiencing: a country teetering between twenty-first century leadership and medieval oppression, between groundbreaking science and heartbreaking injustice. A country in which an inspiring leader like Sally Ride has to spend her life hiding her love for her partner of 27 years, who is herself in turn denied Dr. Ride's death benefits due to an archaic and religiously-mandated definition of marriage.

I know what you're thinking: American history has been a steady march towards liberalism. In just over two centuries we moved from institutionalized slavery of African-Americans to electing one as president; from the total subordination of women to their emergence as a powerful bloc represented by successful leaders in business, academia, and politics. And you're right. But while this long view of history certainly leaves me with hope, it is a hope tinged with the impatience of mortality.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


[W]hat sort of dejection is this, that leaves one the strength to write, and write, and write? If you can write about the wreckage the wreckage is not complete. You are intact. Here is a rule: the despairing writer is never the most despairing person in the world.
  —Leon Wieseltier 
The story of other people's ennui is rarely uplifting or particularly interesting, so I'm going to try to keep this short. Still, I do have to say something, finally.

I'm in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. I've been wandering there, more or less aimlessly, since losing my brother last fall. I'm looking for a way out—which is an improvement—but I'm not there yet. My next turn may reveal an exit, or may lead me down yet another wretched, darkened corridor.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world stubbornly continues to exist. I once had a traffic school instructor, an off-duty cop, tell me that for lost drivers the rules of the road simply cease to be relevant. They'll stop suddenly, cut you off, run stop lights, always with the same excuse: I didn't mean to, officer, but you see, I'm lost.

As if that matters to the guy pinned under your rear tire.

Depression, like so many other psychopathologies, is relentlessly, insufferably selfish. So for the unanswered email, the un-RSVP'd invitations, the missed appointments, the unreturned messages—both past and future: I'm sorry. For the short temper, the disinterested responses, the refusals to participate: I'm sorry. Above all, though, for failing to make the most of my life these past several months, even in the wake of such a cruel lesson in life's fragility, I'm truly and deeply sorry.

I didn't plan it that way. But you see, I'm lost.