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    You happy puppet

    Posted by Sean at 14:30, April 5th, 2010

    Authoritarianism is, more’s the pity, an inexhaustibly relevant topic these days. Instead of the unexamined assumption that all government agents have a rightful claim on our respect, Eric has tackled the more general assumption that being under authority is a good in and of itself that we should learn to like:

    What never ceases to fascinate me is the sheer gall of liberals in attributing “authoritarianism” to conservatives and libertarians while pretending that liberals are the authoritarian antithesis. It is one of liberalism’s biggest lies. Like so many of the people who drive around with bumperstickers that say “QUESTION AUTHORITY” — while they really mean to say “QUESTION AUTHORITY SELECTIVELY.”

    A lot of liberals don’t seem to think that sententious moralizing counts as sententious moralizing if you’re not using religion to back it up. I’m not sure where they get that idea, but as Eric says, it’s sheer effrontery and surpassingly annoying.

    Added on 6 April: One of Eric’s commenters (the first in the thread) took issue with his wording:

    Since when have libertarians considered “social shunning” to be “censorship”? Don’t people have a right to decide with whom they will associate?

    I didn’t see Eric use the word censorship there, though Phyllis Chesler did, and he quoted her approvingly. Her point doesn’t seem unreasonable, though—that a lot of leftists (especially university leftists) don’t just want to discredit the opposition by taking its ideas seriously, pulling them apart, and then refuting them; they want to keep it from being heard altogether. That’s a lot more like censorship than unlike it.

    Social shunning is less like censorship than, say, blocking the publication of a book. But your criteria for choosing friendships say something about your character, and it’s not out of bounds to maintain that they say something about your political positions, too, if you’re going to drop friends for their politics. At least when I was a boy, we were taught that it was practically a civic responsibility to assume good faith on the part of your political opponents and to seek out opportunities to get to know people with differing views. If someone shares your values about how to treat people—politeness, respect, consideration—and you otherwise have compatible personalities, I don’t think it speaks well of you if you decide he’s no longer worth breaking bread with because you disagree over politics.


    桜ヶ丘町

    Posted by Sean at 23:10, April 4th, 2010

    Atsushi sent me this picture of the cherry blossoms in full bloom:

    The top of that hill is where my office was the whole time I lived in Tokyo; there are two gay bars along one of the side streets run by a couple who became dear friends of mine. Atsushi and I were first introduced to each other, a scant ten years ago, at one of them. I spent countless working dinners at several of the little restaurants in the neighborhood, where the proprietors would take care of me as if I were family. So it’s a street that has a great deal of meaning for me. Tokyo is a riotously exciting, adventurous place, and I’m an inquisitive person, so I did a great deal of exploring. But of course the moments that are really meaningful are those off-hand ones when you’re with people you value who make you feel that you, in turn, add value to their lives. Many of those moments were on Sakuragaoka (“Cherry-Tree Hill,” fittingly enough) for me.

    Japanese literature is choked with poems about cherry blossoms, but surprisingly few of them are about the fragrance. When they’re in bloom, the visuals are so painfully lovely that they tend to monopolize the attention. This waka by Ki no Tsurayuki is an exception:

    花の香に衣は深くなりにけり木の下陰の風のまにまに

    hana no ka ni/koromo ha fukaku/nari ni keri/ko no shitakage no/kaze no manimani

    The blossoms’ fragrance
    has saturated my robes
    to the very depths
    borne on the breezes stirring
    and stirring beneath the boughs


    He said, “I’m a minister, a big-shot in the state”

    Posted by Sean at 22:23, April 4th, 2010

    I said, “I just can’t believe it—boy, I think it’s great”

    A few days ago, the Unreligious Right posted about this piece, in which Ben Stein grouses that his fellow conservatives don’t respect public servants enough. As usual, UNRR’s comments are worth reading in full. There’s just one key section that I think is worth expanding on:

    When people complain about “bureaucrats,” they don’t mean cops, firefighters, teachers and CIA agents. And for the most part, they are complaining about the system and how the government conducts business, rather than about the individual people involved. Praising government workers as necessary and valuable is every bit as big a gross over-generalization, as is demonizing them.

    He’s responding to this passage from Stein’s article:

    Government employees include cops and firefighters, who do some of the most dangerous, vital work in the society. Government employees include prosecutors and prison guards, who do work that is often extremely difficult and deeply necessary.

    Government employees are the doctors and nurses at VA hospitals. They are the teachers who try to teach our kids. They are the men and women who keep track of our economic and health statistics, without which we cannot measure progress or failure.

    Government employees are the CIA agents who launch drone strikes to kill terrorists and who sometimes get killed. Bureaucrats would include the people of the FBI and it would also include the men and women at the Pentagon who guide our armed forces. These people are the muscle and bone of the nation.

    I’m not a conservative, but to the extent that the much-hyped conservative-libertarian alliance has ever existed, it’s been based on a shared opposition to government overreach; and from that perspective, in any form of it that I’m aware of, Stein’s arguments make no sense.

    All the work Stein mentions is necessary—does anyone think it isn’t?—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it must be done by the government. Just about all of us agree that the military and the police should be run directly by the government because they fall within the job description of protecting free citizens from harm. Firefighting is a grey area. Some places do just fine with voluntary brigades. And otherwise, it’s not clear why these people need to work for the government. Statisticians? Health-care personnel used by vets? Schoolteachers? They all have direct private-sector analogues. One doesn’t have to denigrate the work they do to wonder whether it could be done better if not run by the government. When services are paid for from tax money, it’s functionaries, not the citizens who are end users, whose preferences tend to decide what gets delivered, and effectiveness and efficiency get tossed aside in the bargain. Additionally, government employees create, as Nick Gillespie puts it at Hit and Run, “a permanent lobby for expanded government and higher taxes.” It might be nice if we were able to draw a firm line between necessary and superfluous civil servants, but in reality the latter only have positions to fill because the former shrewdly figured out how to entrench themselves and expand their power base.

    Also, even if we decide that every last agency currently in existence really did need to be public rather than private, we still have a right to ask whether everything it’s doing is justified. It’s one thing, for example, to recognize that law enforcement officers work under dangerous conditions and will sometimes make fatal mistakes in good faith, for which they shouldn’t be punished legally or ostracized socially. It’s another thing entirely to insist that any old incompetent thing a cop or prosecutor does is excusable because he or she is just trying to protect us from the baddies out there. I’m not always fond of Radley Balko’s tone, but click at random on his list of articles and posts at Reason. You have your botched raids by paramilitarized police, you have your prosecutors going unpunished for getting suspects convicted with evidence they faked, you have your assets seized from people who are never charged with a crime. Also, don’t forget about the traffic fines not intended to increase road safety but to fund public operations.

    You don’t have to harbor any animus against The Man to recognize that there’s a terrible danger in encouraging those in the justice system to use the “we’re doing a dangerous job” card to get a free pass on any old error they might make. The power to shoot, arrest, and land people in prison should require more, not less, accountability than other work.

    Ben Stein is welcome to point out that most government employees do the best they can and don’t deserve to be stereotyped as exploitative and shiftless. The flip side, which neither he nor other apologists for big government ever seem to get around to thinking about, is that individual citizens don’t deserve to be viewed by civil servants as fonts of tax revenue who should shut up and do what we’re told by our betters because every intrusive little rule they’re moved to come up with is vital to the social order. If more conservatives are starting to realize that, so much the better for them.


    A case of you

    Posted by Sean at 10:22, March 28th, 2010

    I try not to say nasty things unless I feel I’ve been given no choice, so I can’t claim to be a fan of Ann Coulter’s. Nevertheless, her enemies have a way of proving her points about freedom of speech time and again.

    If you haven’t encountered the story yet, Coulter just did a speaking tour of Canada. Mayhem naturally ensued. Rondi has a few posts up that give a good quick summary.

    Mark links to a post by Kathy Shaidle on the spooky approbation censorship gets in Canada from (though she doesn’t put it this way) the very people who have the most to lose when speech isn’t free:

    Sadly and inexplicably, Fox News chose radical lesbian activist [<--NB: person who has the most to lose when speech isn’t free—SRK] Susan G. Cole to represent Canada on one segment on the Coulter-In-Canada controversy. Here’s how Cole (who, as a playwright, has sucked on the taxpayer teat for most of her career) characterized my country:

    We don’t have that same political culture here in (Canada). . . . We don’t have a 1st Amendment, we don’t have a religion of free speech. . . . Students sign off on all kinds of agreements as to how they’ll behave on campus, in order to respect diversity, equity, all of the values that Canadians really care about. Those are the things that drive our political culture. Not freedoms, not rugged individualism, not free speech.

    It isn’t that Cole’s characterization is inaccurate. It really is word perfect, actually.

    The problem is, that fact should shame and disgust Canadians. Alas, most of my fellow citizens are either in complete, smug agreement with Cole, or just indifferent.

    Having reached a Certain Age, I shouldn’t be surprised when gay activists blithely support censorship in the name of “tolerance” or “diversity,” but it still dumbfounds me. Because gays and lesbians aren’t a visible minority unless we speak up for ourselves, freedom of expression is directly in our interest. The current way of rigging the game, of course, is to protect what we say and give a good caning to anyone who “disrespects” us and our delicate-flower sensibilities. But giving the government all kinds of power to intrude on people’s lives, under the assumption that your friends will always be wielding it on your enemies, is an exceedingly dangerous precedent to set. There’s a lot more acceptance of homosexuality than there used to be, and I’m obviously very happy about that; but our liberties are still very new historically, and minorities with few friends don’t always fare so well when there’s a social upheaval. We have no way of knowing when the next climate shift or terrorist attack or asteroid is going to hit.

    If we want people to believe that we’re part of society and invested in its future, we can’t be constantly fixated on momentary concerns: someone called someone a fag five minutes ago, someone said the Bible condemns homosexuality in an editorial on the opposite coast yesterday, someone made a joke about sweatpants to a lesbian colleague. I’m not saying none of these things deserve a response, but the proper response is more speech, not a ball gag. I can think of no better way to betray the gay kids who are going to be coming out in fifty or a hundred years from now than to leave them a heritage of petty, snippy, thin-skinned screeching for the censors at every little hint of opposition. Rough-and-tumble debate is the best way to test and sharpen your ideas. When you smugly try to shut it down, the unmistakable implication is that you don’t have nearly as much conviction as you want people to think you have.

    The issue with Coulter wasn’t just a gay thing, of course, but the dynamic is the same. Sensible people look at this crap, and her opponents look whiny and emotionally underdeveloped, while she looks fearless and unbowed under pressure. Great PR move.

    Added later: More great moments in merchandising: Eric reports on that brouhaha over a movie about transsexuals that some activists were trying to get removed from the Tribeca Film Festival:

    According to the festival description, the film has a deliberately campy empowerment theme about transgendered women turning the tables on their attackers (“the violated vixens turn deadly divas”). This, it seems, is intolerable to the prudish pacifist censors (who presumably want transgendered people to be victims):

    That summary alone was enough to prompt many angry comments at the tribecafilm.com Web site. One commenter who gave her name as Marie wrote, “This movie trivializes people dying for being who they are. You need to consider whether you want to be remembered for such transphobic trash.” Another commenter named Margaret B wrote, “I can’t imagine a more offensive film to denigrate and demean a minority group. Please remove this film from your line up.”

    The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has made the same demand of the Tribeca festival. In a statement, the alliance said, “The film, its title and its marketing misrepresent the lives of transgender women and use grotesque, exploitative depictions of violence against transgender women.” The alliance added that Mr. Luna and the festival “have refused to take responsibility for the problematic content and offensive marketing of this film,” and urged its membership to contact the festival and demand that the film be pulled from its schedule.

    In an important way, this isn’t an effort at censorship, since it doesn’t involve bringing in the state. But it’s still an attempt to keep challenging ideas out of circulation, rather than trusting the audience to be able to weigh them and make up its own mind. Happily, the committee isn’t caving, according to the NYT:

    The Tribeca Film Festival responded in a statement: “The filmmakers provided a copy of this film to GLAAD in February, and for weeks the organization had been supportive to the filmmakers. In fact, GLAAD representatives advised the film’s producer, director and cast on how to describe the film to its core constituency.” The festival added that it “looks forward to the film’s premiere” next month.

    I’m not sure what the problem is. Would the people who are flipping out prefer to see a movie about transsexuals who live in the suburbs, serve on the school board unmolested, and convince the good citizens of the community to fund a new crisis center? When someone tries to beat them up, should a cop show up in five seconds and disable the miscreant with his bare hands, just to show that you should wait for the government to defend you and that weapons are bad? Seriously, if you think a different movie should be made about transsexuals, then why don’t you just make it? Or support it with your ticket-buying power when someone else makes it?


    納税

    Posted by Sean at 12:27, March 27th, 2010

    I loved this from Hit and Run about a push to regulate tax preparers. They sometimes take advantage of people, you see, and nice Mr. Government wants to put a stop to that.

    No, of course, he’s not going to do it by actually making it easier to do your own damned taxes. What do you think this is, a country founded on self-reliance or some other such anarchist balderdash? You’re supposed to call the IRS helpline.

    “It’s always fun to ask public officials with the power to simplify our tax code whether they do their own taxes,” Katherine Mangu-Ward begins, then cites this from the Daily Caller:

    Rep. Xavier Becerra, a top Democrat on the Ways & Means Committee that was holding the hearing, is keeping a watchful eye on those tax preparer services, who he says sometimes fleece unwitting customers. “Americans who could fill out a simple [tax forms] are being charged hundreds of dollars to do what they” could on their own, he said.

    So does Becerra prepare his own taxes?

    “No. I have a tax preparer back home who’s been doing it for me for many years,” he told The Daily Caller. Becerra explains that his finances are more complex — and his tax filings fall under far greater scrutiny — than ordinary Americans who could figure out the forms if they tried. [Don’t you seriously want to reach through the screen and thump people sometimes?—SRK]

    How about the chairman of Ways & Means oversight subcommittee that asked for Shulman to testify Thursday?

    “Oh no, no, no, no, no. I have an accountant that I’ve been using for years,” Rep. John Lewis said. He said he needs to head home this weekend to fill out paperwork for his accountant.

    Lewis’s suggestions is for people who are having a hard time with the forms go to the IRS for help. “Get on the telephone, call an IRS service center or go visit a service center … and have them walk through their filing,” which, he noted, the IRS does for free.

    Of course, as Reason‘s Mangu-Ward points out, the problem is not just that time is money, and “walking through” one’s filing with an IRS representative—strap the rat cage to my face NOW, please!—takes more time than it’s worth it for a lot of people. It’s also that the tax code is so en-pretzel-ated that even IRS employees can often only give it the old college try when you ask them a question.

    But in my experience, it’s not just sticky, ambiguous clauses that get them. Years ago when I moved to Japan, I did my own taxes. (If you’re American and have never lived abroad, you may not know that you have to file a federal return, but you do.) Having received my Japanese income statement for the year—a tiny form with the numbers carefully written in by hand by our bookkeeper and then signed off on with the big, square company chop—I called the help line to ask what I should do with it. Some, but not all, of the information was available online then (1998 or so).

    The guy was nice. I don’t think he was stupid. But it took me forty-five full minutes (on an international call!) to get him to stop telling me to get my company to issue me a W-2.

    “This is a dif-fer-ent coun-try, sir. They don’t have W-2’s. I live in Tokyo. I was hired in Japan. I’m paid in yen. My company is registered in Japan. I can translate the income statement for you, but then you’ll just have to take my word for it that I’m telling you my whole income. Do I have to go to the embassy and get it notarized? I’ll follow the rules. I just don’t know what they are.”

    Now, of course, all I really had to do was to ask one of the longer-serving Americans at the office what he did when he filed his taxes. I subsequently did that. But I was flabbergasted that it was necessary. Maybe it’s my dessicated, schematic, divorced-from-emotion, homosexual-male brain, but I was envisioning an instruction booklet with diagrams of the official statements used in the various countries in which lots of Americans earn income, with guidelines about which number counted as your gross income and how many of the little cells you had to translate. I mean, I knew what my gross income was, and I didn’t mind translating the whole damned form—but it was perfectly obvious that this guy, though assigned to the help line for international filers, had never considered the possibility that other countries don’t issue W-2’s.

    I mean, look, I wish the tax-preparer industry would fall to the ground; there has to be better value the market could get from people who are skilled in both numbers and law. But in the here and now, with the tax code so baffling, it’s not surprising that people are willing to pay them good money in exchange for fewer headaches, less time spent navigating among multiple documents, and an end to that nagging sense that they’ve missed an exemption or something else in their favor.


    利害対立

    Posted by Sean at 17:54, March 26th, 2010

    Are you tired of worrying about what these new “reforms” are going to do to screw over America? Well, you’re in luck, because if you read this post, you can think about how they might screw over our loyal ally Japan.

    You feel better already, right? Consider it a present from me.

    The lead editorial in Wednesday’s Nikkei carried the headline “America’s direction after conclusion of historic health-care reform bill”:

    It’s an event that will surely leave a mark on US history. Sweeping reforms of health care, under consideration for years, have been realized through the leadership of President Obama. Word is that the bill passed by the United States Congress will allocate approximately 85 trillion yen over ten years and decrease the number of people uninsured by 3.2 million.

    On the other hand, there were almost as many votes against as for, with congresspersons, centered around the Republican Party, concerned about the tilt toward “big government.” It boosts taxes levied on the high-income brackets, and it gave rise to splits between left and right, high- and low-income brackets. That will have its effect on economic policy and policies toward Japan as well.

    In order to wipe out the clash of interests between high- and low-income strata, expanding the economy as a whole would be the best thing. It will also be necessary to promote growth in order to achieve real-term containment of the ballooning public-debt burden. The direction the Obama administration is taking will use growth as the driving force, in the next five years doubling exports rather than household consumption, which has taken a beating from the Lehman Shock.

    What’s the Nikkei afraid of? That the US, desperate to come up with money for this venture in egalitarianism, will start leaning on its trading partners to be more open to exports from here than they would otherwise have desired to be based on their own markets.

    In that context, there is the possibility that demands from the US toward its ally Japan will grow more stern. The backblow against Japanese products such as automobiles is forceful. There are also many fronts on which the opening of markets, such as that for agricultural products, is sought. Even if [Washington] continues to show concern for Japan, which has gone to a lot of trouble over the Futenma military facility, it’s also a fact that there’s less willingness to go the extra mile than before.

    Both the US and Japan have painful domestic situations on their hands. When affairs at home aren’t going well, it’s standard political practice, anywhere and everywhere, to draw the attention of the citizenry to foreign relations; however, the possibility cannot be ruled out that that will cause a rift in the US-Japan alliance if pushed too far. And that should be avoided. Not even for Japan will the wounds left on American society by the debate over health-care reform be someone else’s problem.

    Tokyo has little moral ground to claim when it comes to manipulating trading partners for the interests of its own enterprises, but the Nikkei itself is a pretty consistent supporter of free markets, so it seems unfair to wave away its concerns. The Japanese government knows a thing or two about mushrooming health-care entitlements squeezed from a shrinking pool of workers, so it’s no wonder it’s looking eastward and feeling afraid.


    Now don’t you ask yourself/who they are?

    Posted by Sean at 20:06, March 22nd, 2010

    This chivalrous gentleman takes Instapundit to task for comparing the United States Congress to honest, client-serving harlots (via Hit and Run). My favorite line:

    With a prostitute, constituents get what they pay for. Also, if someone goes to a prostitute for sexual intercourse, the prostitute rarely throws in other, less desired services, like taking over General Motors.

    Prostitutes also, in every account of their working lives I’ve seen, say that a lot of their job consists of listening to johns who just want to talk about what’s weighing on their minds. Haven’t seen a lot of that from Congress lately.


    Skim the cream/And fill the brim

    Posted by Sean at 09:32, March 22nd, 2010

    I’m not sure why everyone is all up in arms over this ObamaCare thing. I lived in Japan, which has social insurance, for a decade, and let me tell you, it works great.

    There’s always America to piggyback on.

    It has a freer market—not free, heaven knows, but freer—and it has a tradition of risk-taking and death-defiance, so you get more clinical trials of chancy new ideas for pharmaceuticals and devices there. America’s less controlled system also means there are more post-doc programs and publications and stuff to help Japanese doctors enhance their practice. And I think we can all agree that socialized medicine, because it humane, and never happen.

    So really, countrymen, there’s nothing to worry about. We’ll just let America do all the vulgar, pushy, hazardous dirty work, then we can enjoy the benefits while smirking about their delusions of immortality as we always have. It’s kind of like the way mafia dons in the movies never have to leave their tomato garden or openly talk about cinder blocks even when someone’s gotta be whacked, see? As long as America’s still got a health-care system that’s on speaking terms with capitalism, we’re golden, just golden.


    Health and welfare

    Posted by Sean at 23:01, March 21st, 2010

    Good news: Both my father and my little brother were born on 21 March, and I was able to go to my hometown for their celebration lunch today. Happy birthday again, guys.

    Bad news: That stupid, pork-packed, bureaucracy-inflating health-care bill is looking likely to pass. I was able to spend most of the day distracted by wine and birthday cake rather than checking CNN.com every five minutes…which is probably just as well, since there’ll be plenty of time to get worked into a froth of rage over the damned thing once its provisions start poisoning our lives.

    Good news: James Randi, the magician and rationalist debunker of all manner of delusions, has come out on the blog attached to his website. I hadn’t particularly thought about it one way or another, though I did enjoy some of the bitchier passages in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. Comments are almost all of the “We’re glad you told us, but don’t expect anyone to make a big deal of it” variety, which is great. The man is in his eighties, so he came of age when there was none of the infrastructure that those of us who came out in the last twenty years have had to draw on.

    Bad news: Barney Frank thinks a Tea Party protester called him a faggot; so does someone from Talking Points Memo. I agree with Frank that denigrating him for being gay is unfair; he’s repeatedly demonstrated that he’s a total ninny in ways that have nothing to do with sexuality. But I also agree with Eric: there’s plenty of reason to wonder whether people heard what they think they heard. Faggot is a short, sharp word that any number of noises at a lively protest might sound like. Hell, “Barney, you faggot!” might not sound all that dissimilar from “Barney [pause for breath] Frank!” if there were plenty of background noise. As Eric says:

    This is not to accuse Brian Beutler of lying, because he might be accurately repeating what he heard, but that does not shed any light on whether the old white guy was with the Tea Party movement or whether he was some sort of Fred Phelps style agent provocateur. The only way to know what was said and who he was would be to see some video, and considering the omnipresence of cameras these days, it would not surprise me if the footage of Barney Frank leaving his office turns up.

    And if we assume that this happened, how on earth is that an indictment of the thousands of decent, ordinary Americans who showed up to protest Obamacare? Is it fair to call them Ku Klux Klanners and bigoted homophobes on the basis of a report that someone said something? Does anyone realize how easy it would be for anyone to just show up and yell “FAGGOT”? On what basis can an assumption be automatically made that this person was a Tea Partier?

    Right. How much can we generalize from this, even if it turns out to be true? Given Frank’s history of capitalizing on any excuse to feel put upon, it seems wise to reserve judgment.


    She might even consider giving up red meat/Man, you’re gonna look back to when your life was so sweet

    Posted by Sean at 00:41, March 17th, 2010

    So, see, it’s like, I’ve already got the distinguished grey coming in at the temples at a comfortable clip for a 38-year-old, and then along come people like these, apparently doing their best to ensure that the stresses of modern life make me a complete flippin’ silverdaddy by the time I turn 40 (via Hit and Run).

    WTF is a flexitarian?

    Josh Ankerberg, a 26-year-old who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., started getting food stamps a year ago as an AmeriCorps volunteer, a group that has long had special dispensation to qualify for them, and he has continued using them while he job hunts. He uses his $200 in monthly benefits at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and a local farmer’s market to maintain his self-described healthy flexitarian [<--WTF?!–SRK] diet, and notes that two of his roommates — a graduate student in poetry and an underemployed cook, both in their 20s — also started getting food stamps in the past two months, as have other friends and acquaintances.

    I can’t bear to go to the Urban Dictionary and look it up, because I just know it’s going to turn out to mean “vegetarian but with the maneuvering room to eat meat as long as it’s not a majority protein source” or “vegetarian unless you’re trapped in a not-yet-gentrified Billyburg industrial building and only have access to locusts” or some other such nonsense that lets you have both your burgers and your sanctimony.

    Now, of course, that’s not the real story of the Salon.com piece. The real story is that underemployed graduates of hoity-toity colleges are now, often, eligible for food stamps, and they’re using them to dine after the fashion of Alice Waters: on organic, local, artisanal, small-batch, expensive foodstuffs. Vegetarianism is not the only thing they’re flexible about:

    In the John Waters-esque sector of northwest Baltimore — equal parts kitschy, sketchy, artsy and weird — Gerry Mak and Sarah Magida sauntered through a small ethnic market stocked with Japanese eggplant, mint chutney and fresh turmeric. After gathering ingredients for that evening’s dinner, they walked to the cash register and awaited their moments of truth.

    “I have $80 bucks left!” Magida said. “I’m so happy!”

    “I have $12,” Mak said with a frown.

    The two friends weren’t tabulating the cash in their wallets but what remained of the monthly allotment on their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program debit cards, the official new term for what are still known colloquially as food stamps.

    Is it my imagination, or does the reporter leave the distinct impression that these people are both (1) on food stamps and (2) not planning their budget? You know, you walk up to the register at the grocery store and swipe your card, and then you sorta find out you have “$80 bucks” (yay!) or $12 (how’d that happen?!), and you just take it as it comes.

    Perhaps that’s a misrepresentation. But Michael Moynihan notes that the beneficiaries of public largess profiled show little concern for the fact that they’re living on money provided by the labor of other people. (The shame they feel at being on the dole reads as more a status thing than a morally-against-parasitism thing.)

    My father is a steelworker who spent a good chunk of the ’80s laid off, and my degree is in comparative literature, so I am not without sympathy for people who find themselves thrust into dire financial straits or who didn’t choose the college courses that were the most obvious sources of marketable skills. But if you’re going to get all smug about how “creative” you are, how about learning to concoct delicious, nourishing, satisfying meals from the inexpensive ingredients truly frugal people use? Supermarket produce and packaged goods aren’t the easiest ingredients to spin into gold, it’s true, but with all that time to spend on cooking, you have the maneuvering room to exercise a little imagination.

    Added on 17 March: Thanks to Eric for the link and for an apt summation of this whole thing: “God, people suck.

    If I were smart, I probably would have left it at that, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I had to go and look up flexitarian. It’s just as I’d feared:

    Flexitarianism is a semi-vegetarian diet focusing on vegetarian food with occasional meat consumption. A self-described flexitarian seeks to decrease meat consumption without eliminating it entirely from his or her diet. There are no guidelines for how much or how little meat one must eat before being classified a flexitarian. Flexitarianism is distinguished from pescetarianism (i.e., one who eats only fish in addition to vegetarian foods), as well as pollotarianism (i.e., one who eats only poultry in addition to vegetarian foods).

    So it’s sort of like a gustatory unitarianism: you get to feel noble and spiritual without having to cramp your style by following a lot of tiresome absolute rules.