Gary Silverman

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A greedy, vainglorious serial groom who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women somehow won the hearts and minds of America’s Bible Belt, that supposed bastion of family values, during the Presidential election. Seems even odder when you consider he’s a pathological liar with no charity for the poor, uses the Bible as product placement, and until a recent, and perhaps, expedient conversion, long supported abortion rights.

What’s going on here? Two possibilities:

  1. White Christians in the U.S. have always quietly been about upholding a power structure of racial superiority that favors the skin they’re in, with Trump’s overt bigotry just bringing the nastiness to the surface. I don’t know what Jesus would do, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what Jeff Sessions does.
  2. We’ve transitioned into a post-Christian reality, in which the so-called holy have shed many of their erstwhile values, with policy positions, not prayer, now the center of their faith.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between.

In his latest insightful Financial Times missive about America’s ominous moment, Gary Silverman visits Alabama to investigate the latter prospect, hoping to understand why the majority seem less moral. An excerpt:

My host was Wayne Flynt, an Alabaman who has made the people of the southern US his life’s work. A 76-year-old emeritus professor of history at Auburn University, he has written empathetically about his region in books such as Poor But Proud. A Baptist minister, he still teaches Sunday school at his church and delivered the eulogy at last year’s funeral of his friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I took my place in the book-lined study of Flynt’s redwood house in Auburn, Alabama, to hear his thoughts on the local economy, but the conversation turned to a central mystery of US politics. Trump would not be president without the strong support of the folks Flynt has chronicled — white residents of the Bible Belt, raised in the do-it-yourself religious traditions that distinguish the US from Europe. I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful.

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality. Their faith, he says, has been put in a president who embodies an unholy trinity of materialism, hedonism and narcissism. Trump’s victory, in this sense, is less an expression of the old-time religion than evidence of a move away from it.

“The 2016 election laid out graphically what is in essence the loss of Christian America,” Flynt says, delivering his verdict with a calm assurance that reminded me of Lee’s hero, Atticus Finch, as played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film of her novel.•

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We tend to choose the devil we know.

In this election, Americans opted for the past, something that never quite reappears, voting for a nostalgic vision of postwar labor, when manufacturing provided steady, secure middle-class livings. The problem is, factory jobs aren’t really returning regardless of who’s President since these positions are being rapidly thinned by automation, even when companies reshore their plants, and those positions yet to be assumed by machines aren’t what they used to be, as former unionized slots are now often contracted, temporary, poorly paid and dangerous.

Needless to say, manufacturing is not the future anymore than coal is, and while we dream on these remnants of the Industrialized Age, we fall behind China and others in areas that could provide a decent tomorrow, alternative energies among them. It’s an unforced error by the U.S. that we’ll have to endure.

Excerpts follow from: 1) Gary Silverman’s excellent Financial Times article on the perils of manufacturing work no longer guided by “industrial paternalism,” and 2) Lauren Weber’s eye-opening WSJ report on the disquieting shift to contracted labor.


From Silverman:

Regina Elsea of Chambers County, Alabama, had her work cut out for her. At the age of 20, she was engaged to be married and had bills to pay — for her new car, the home she rented with her fiancé, the toys she liked to buy for her dog Cow and, if all went according to plan, the wedding of her dreams, complete with a $4,000 white dress that fitted just right. So, she took a job in a factory last year.

Elsea had the option because Chambers County has been enjoying a manufacturing revival. A hardscrabble corner of the southern US with 34,000 residents, its economy was hurt badly by the decline of its textile industry early this century. However, local officials offering tax breaks and other aid remade the county into a supply-chain link for South Korean carmakers. New factories arose to provide just-in-time parts for two nearby assembly plants Hyundai in Montgomery, Alabama, and Kia in West Point, Georgia.

As a result, unemployment in Chambers County fell from 19.4 per cent in February 2009 to 5.5 per cent last year. But the conditions Elsea encountered on her highly automated production line were a far cry from the ones that people were dreaming about at the Donald Trump campaign rallies. Elsea found work as a temporary employee — she was paid $8.50 an hour, according to her family — and the work killed her.

On June 18 2016 — a Saturday — a robot that Elsea was overseeing at the Ajin USA auto parts plant in Cusseta, Alabama, stopped moving. She and three colleagues tried to get it going, stepping inside the cage designed to protect workers from the machine, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When the robot restarted abruptly, Elsea was crushed. She died the next day when she was taken off a life-support machine, with her mother, Angel Ogle, at her side. After an investigation, Osha concluded that the accident that killed Elsea was preventable.

“Everybody needs to know what’s going on in those plants,” says Ms Ogle, 43, a housecleaner who once worked for a Korean auto parts maker in Alabama herself. “I have seen too many people get hurt.”

The life and death of Regina Elsea points to a national predicament as President Trump seeks to “make America great again” by increasing industrial employment. With automation on the rise and unionisation on the decline, manufacturing jobs no longer guarantee a secure middle-class life as they often did in the past. Much of the new work is low paid and temporary. Staffing agencies sometimes supply factories with workers who have little training or experience — and who can quickly find themselves in harm’s way.•


From Weber:

No one in the airline industry comes close to Virgin America Inc. on a measurement of efficiency called revenue per employee. That’s because baggage delivery, heavy maintenance, reservations, catering and many other jobs aren’t done by employees. Virgin America uses contractors.

“We will outsource every job that we can that is not customer-facing,” David Cush, the airline’s chief executive, told investors last March. In April, he helped sell Virgin America to Alaska Air Group Inc. for $2.6 billion, more than double its value in late 2014. He left when the takeover was completed in December.

Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry. …

The shift is radically altering what it means to be a company and a worker. More flexibility for companies to shrink the size of their employee base, pay and benefits means less job security for workers. Rising from the mailroom to a corner office is harder now that outsourced jobs are no longer part of the workforce from which star performers are promoted.

For companies, the biggest allure of replacing employees with contract workers is more control over costs. Contractors help businesses keep their full-time, in-house staffing lean and flexible enough to adapt to new ideas or changes in demand.

For workers, the changes often lead to lower pay and make it surprisingly hard to answer the simple question “Where do you work?” Some economists say the parallel workforce created by the rise of contracting is helping to fuel income inequality between people who do the same jobs.•

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The media was flawed, Facebook irresponsible, the FBI reckless and Russia devious, but it’s still the American people mostly to blame for electing as President an unqualified, bigoted sociopath, thereby creating the single biggest threat in more than half a century to our liberty (an admittedly unevenly distributed good throughout our history). It was an unforced error, a self-lacerating act, and we will pay for it dearly, not just for four years but for decades.

Unburdened by shame and unhampered by facts, Donald Trump is at best a robber baron and at worst an American Mussolini. If the former unfolds, we’ll be dining on little more than bread and Kardashians. Should the latter become reality, we’ll have retroactively lost World War II and the Cold War.

Wondering how nearly 63 million citizens could have behaved boneheaded enough to make Brexit seem a bad hair day, Gary Silverman of the Financial Times interviewed Michael Lewis about his new book, The Undoing Project, which analyzes the work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and may help explain our Election Day massacre.

Lewis believes the human desire for exaggerated stories over cool statistics is in part responsible for the political ascent of the Simon Cowell-ish strongman, though the author, an admittedly wonderful writer, has sometimes himself been known to err on the side of narrative.

An excerpt:

The two psychologists are known for their work on “heuristics”, mental shortcuts that enable people to process all the information coming our way but can cause us to make mistakes. They are the cognitive equivalents of optical illusions — tricks played by the mind rather than by the eye.

A classic case involves what the psychologists dubbed “anchoring”. People given five seconds to estimate the product of 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1 will provide far higher numbers than those asked to multiply 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8 in the same time period. Seeing the bigger numbers first skews their thinking. A similar result is obtained if subjects are asked whether Mahatma Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died or 35. People in the first group will provide a higher estimate of his age at death.

To Lewis, Trump has been dropping anchors like a battleship commander. After the election, for instance, Trump not only alleged that his opponent Hillary Clinton had received illegal votes, but that she had received “millions” of them. He offered no proof, but he used a big number. Putting all those zeroes in people’s heads can pay off later on, Lewis says, in much the same way as a lawyer seeking astronomical damages in a lawsuit can expect a larger pay-off than a litigant taking a more measured approach at the outset. “Trump anchors everything in this crazy number. He will always say the crazy number because the negotiation happens around the crazy number.”

Trump’s frequent use of violent imagery takes advantage of what is known as the “availability” heuristic. People make decisions based on memories. But more vivid information — the name of a celebrity, for example, as opposed to that of another person — is easier to recall, giving it greater weight in decision-making. When Trump speaks of gruesome Isis executions or murders committed by undocumented immigrants, he is providing voters with more memorable information than dry facts and figures. 

“A vivid story about something an illegal immigrant did is going to have much more of an effect than statistics about illegal immigrants and crime,” Lewis says. “People don’t want the right answers. They want a story. They don’t think in statistical terms.”•

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Gary Silverman’s excellent Financial Times article includes passages about repossessed monkeys and Ukrainian trophy wives, as all good stories about the odious Trump campaign must.

The piece is about the corrosive candidate’s political point man in Vegas, his billionaire business partner Phil Ruffin, who would be a wonderfully entertaining Horatio Alger figure if he wasn’t working his damndest to elect an American Mussolini. A “Cadillac-and-redhead man” is how the journalist describes his subject, who in the ’50s repossessed a surly simian for a Texas department store and in the Aughts acquired a second wife, an Eastern European beauty queen 46 years his junior.

Ruffin hated the monkey and loves his bride but lacks any kind of passion for politics. He promised his buddy he’d back him, however, and a deal’s a deal.

An excerpt:

A wiry, wily Wichita, Kansas, native who was 147 pounds when he was winning titles as a high school wrestler, Mr Ruffin is the stylistic opposite of his brash buddy from New York. He wears wire-rim glasses. His thinning hair, dyed a deep orange, falls haphazardly across his scalp, unlike Mr Trump’s structured coiffure.

They are the kind of Americans who inspired historian Walter McDougall’s description of the US as a nation of “hustlers”, by which he meant “builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organisers (and) engineers” as well as “self-promoters, scofflaws, occasional frauds and peripatetic self-reinventors”.

Both trace their family histories in the US to the frontier. Mr Trump is the grandson of a German immigrant who took part in the Alaska gold rush before settling in New York. Mr Ruffin’s paternal grandfather left Lebanon for Oklahoma, where Mr Ruffin’s father recalled witnessing the 1924 gunfight that took the life of Bill Tilghman, the legendary gunslinger and marshal of Dodge City, Kansas.

Neither Mr Trump nor Mr Ruffin has created a smartphone app or commanded an enterprise of the complexity of a General Electric, a Goldman Sachs or a Google. They are wheelers and dealers in real estate, hotels, casinos and whatever else comes their way. Theirs is a milieu where money is made by seizing moments, squeezing contractors, battling creditors, and “pushing and pushing and pushing,” as Mr Trump put it in The Art of the Deal, his 1987 book.

“We negotiate all the time,” says Mr Ruffin. “We negotiate something every week.”•

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Some still eat McDonald’s and Kraft Singles and Lunchables and other suspicious-looking pseudo-edibles, but thankfully far fewer are stepping up to those plates. Big Food in America has repeatedly chosen taste over nutrition, a decision which paid off handsomely for a good while, but that mindset has come back to bite the industry. While the corporations have not changed, consumer choices have. It’s probably, in part, consequence of the ceaseless food porn and tiresome celebrity chefs which inundate us. Those screaming, skilleting idiots may have served a purpose after all. From Gary Silverman at the Financial Times:

Andy Warhol knew what he was doing. In the early 1960s, when he was looking to create a stir in the world of modern art, he fixed on an image as familiar to his audience as the Pietà was to Michelangelo’s — the Campbell’s soup can. It was both a consumer good and an icon of the age. Red and white, like the wine and bread of the sacraments Warhol knew from church, it promised comfort for the user once its condensed contents were mixed with water, heated and served.

But Warhol’s old models are now facing misfortune. The signature offering of Campbell Soup Company of Camden, New Jersey, founded in 1869, is falling out of favour with consumers in the US. Campbell’s condensed soup is no longer the stuff of modern art; it is becoming a symbol of days gone by, when Americans could be counted on to stock their pantries with the processed food brands advertised relentlessly on the three big television networks.

Today, a revolution is under way in US supermarkets. A more health-conscious millennial generation is forsaking the convenience food of their baby-boomer parents for fresher, more natural fare and proteins of various sorts. Burgeoning immigrant populations are stoking demand for different types of provisions. Beleaguered consumers are buying lower-cost store brands at bare-bones retailers, or cooking less and eating out more so they can work longer hours.

The result is that even as the US economy has recovered, some of the country’s best-known food companies — and some of their most enduring brands — have been suffering. Sales of Campbell’s condensed soup slipped 3 per cent year on year during its last six months of reported results. During the most recent quarter, North American revenues for Kellogg’s cereals and other morning foods fell 7.7 per cent, while Kraft Foods, the North American grocery business of the old consumer giant, reported a 6.6 per cent sales decline for meals and desserts, including its macaroni and cheese in a box.

So tumultuous are the culinary times that some of history’s most successful marketing organisations are admitting that they have lost touch with the people who buy their products. John Cahill, chairman and chief executive of Kraft, might as well have been speaking for the industry when he issued an extraordinary mea culpa this year as he cleaned his corporate house, saying goodbye to senior executives including his chief financial officer and adding a new “vice-president of growth initiatives”.

“It’s clear that our world has changed and our consumers have changed,” Mr Cahill said. “But our company has not changed enough.”•

 

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A good way to guard against an epidemic in America would be to extend the Affordable Care Act to all citizens, to make it truly universal. But Ebola has flipped the script at the midterm elections, with government-hating Republicans who fought Obamacare and planned to use it as a rallying cry despite its early successes, now decrying the government’s lack of intervention. From Gary Silverman at the Financial Times:

“Republicans are suddenly asking very Democratic questions about what federal government can do to improve public health. Bloomberg News even reported that members of the appropriations committees in the Republican House and Democratic Senate are working on ways to throw more money at the problem. This would be done by increasing anti-Ebola spending in a bill aimed at keeping the government operating after December 11.

Yet the newfound Republican faith in the federal solutions has been accompanied by a hardening of hearts when it comes to the man behind Obamacare.

Conservatives are seizing on the spread of Ebola as evidence of the president’s unreliability – linking it to the advances of Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, management deficiencies at the Secret Service and the arrival of illegal immigrants from Mexico.”

 

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