Monday, August 01, 2016

Stockholm Syndrome, Southern-Style

Apparently I've come down with the botanical equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. Yesterday Jeff and I went out driving -- half errand-running, half exploring our new environs -- and at one point, I think in either the town of Stockbridge or Lithonia, we drove down a two-lane road flanked by thick greenery on both sides. As we made our way down that road I thought something felt "off" about it, but I needed a couple of minutes to pin it down: none of that green stuff was kudzu.

So, yeah: it took barely two weeks for me to feel freaked out by the sight of a normal variety of flora not being choked to death by an alien-invader vine.

Friday, July 22, 2016

American Racism: Are Black or White Americans to Blame?

I've been a racial minority, living in America, for the better part of a week now – last Saturday, the movers brought our furniture to mine and Jeff's new apartment in what's pretty obviously the “black part” of town in Decatur, Georgia, one of the many kudzu-infested suburbs of Atlanta. There might be some other white folks living in my giant (couple hundred units) apartment complex, but I have not yet seen them.

So far this week, I've been the only white person making withdrawals from the bank, the only white person eating at the fast-food joint, the only white person gassing up my car, one of a tiny handful of white people shopping at various grocery stores and cheap-marts, and – this is the situation with the greatest potential for negative or even fatal consequences for ordinary American non-cops like me – the only my-skin-color person in eyesight and gunshot range of several not-my-skin-color police officers.

What problems has my racial minority status caused me thus far? None. Everyone's been perfectly friendly and no one, especially not the cops, pays me any particular notice.

Now imagine the same situation with the colors reversed: Jeff and I are a black couple, newly transplanted to the deep South, who recently took up residence in an otherwise all-white community patrolled (of course) by white cops. What happens then?

Were this a stand-up comedy routine rather than a blog post, I could've ended it right there and basked in the audience's knowingly bitter laugh. Because in America you don't have to “imagine” the experiences of black people moving into white neighborhoods and encountering white cops; you only have to remember them. Nor would the fact that my small self radiates harmlessness like a stench keep me safe from a trigger-happy “peace officer” who'd already decided my skin tone made Mirror-Universe Me a threat; as I type this, the victim of the most recent “police shooting of unarmed man with his hands up” incident was a North Miami behavioral therapist talking to an autistic client holding a toy truck. There's no way to keep safe from cops eager to shoot such people; the best you can hope for is that their aim's crappy enough to avoid hitting whichever of your vital organs they seek to destroy.

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but in today's political landscape it is; Donald Trump mentions one American killed by an illegal immigrant drunk driver, and thus concludes all illegal immigrants are deadly threats to the citizenry.

So I'll do the same thing. Given the ever-growing list of anecdotes illustrating the theme “Black Americans mistreated by white Americans, especially when the latter wields a badge,” plus the anecdote “my magnolia-white self surrounded by black Americans hasn't attracted so much as a sideways glance,” this is the only reasonable conclusion: the racial and race-based problems facing America today (or, since its inception) are primarily the fault of white Americans, not black ones. Captain Obvious told me I oughtta point this out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Republican National Convention, Explained

So ... I was offline for a few days, dealing with various moving-related tasks (plus waiting for various utilities to come on in my new apartment), and during that time, I'm pretty sure someone hacked into my computer and replaced my real internet with an Onion-inspired fake news one. That has to be what happened, right? Because even my generally misanthropic self can't believe last night's RNC dumpster fire was a real American major-party political convention.

Nice work, hackers! You almost had me going there for awhile. Granted, fooling someone as exhausted as I was is kind of a low bar to pass, but even so....

Sunday, July 10, 2016

White Girl in the Hood

Well, damn.

The last two years have been very unlucky for my household. First, Jeff (and everyone else in his department) lost the job which was the only reason we moved to overpriced northern Virginia in the first place. And my job didn't pay quite enough to cover all of our expenses here, so after Jeff's unemployment ran out we had to withdraw a couple hundred from savings every month to make ends meet. Then I lost that job last September (and didn't even get unemployment, since it was officially a contractor position). Meanwhile, Jeff's mother died, leaving behind a slew of past-due debt payments and a heavily reverse-mortgaged house; his brother experienced a slew of diabetes-related health problems resulting in the amputation of a leg; Jeff wasted an entire year struggling to short-sell that stupid house because mortgage-holder Wells Fargo kept screwing up the paperwork every time he found a buyer … Jeff and I fortunately managed to keep our health (mostly), but that's close to the only good thing I have to say about these past two years.

But finally, three weeks ago, came an improvement: Jeff got a job offer in Atlanta, starting July 18. Two weeks ago we drove down there (no flying, of course, not while the TSA still plays mandatory one-way grab-ass with American fliers), rented a hotel room and spent a few days looking for a house to rent. Before our drive I spent a couple of days looking through realty websites and found several nice-looking houses in our price range, but there seemed to be some problem with the website: anytime I'd click on the “more information” button in hopes of finding a rental agent's contact info, I instead received an application form, with mandatory per-person fees and occasionally even demands for credit card information.

Must be some confusion, I figured — I'm getting sent to the “apply to rent this house” page rather than the “express interest in simply looking at the house to determine whether you want to rent it or not” one. Nor was it just that one realty website, either: the same thing happened with Realtor, Trulia and Zillow dot com.

Jeff and I figured we'd have better luck once we actually got down there. After all: when we moved from Connecticut to Virginia four years ago, my Connecticut-based attempts to find Virginia housing also went nowhere; not until we actually got to the area in person did we make any progress. If nothing else, we figured, Jeff and I could surely do an Atlanta-based repeat of our Leesburg experience four summers ago: walk into a realty office, introduce ourselves, present our middle-class bona fides and have a realty agent drive us around to look at possibilities.

Nope. The Atlanta-area agents we spoke to wanted an upfront “broker fee” of anywhere from $400 to $1,500, to help us find a house. So we kept searching on our own, finding properties online, driving out to try getting a feel for various neighborhoods, and found a few houses in neighborhoods we thought nice enough … yet still faced an utterly baffling inability to make contact with an actual human real estate agent with whom to discuss the possibility of seeing the inside of a house.

I called a property management company about some houses on their website, and the man on the phone was extremely friendly and told us that yes, most of the addresses I mentioned were still available for rent – just as soon as Jeff and I paid application fees and submitted to a credit check and gave them a valid credit card number....

I posted an exhausted rant to some friends on Facebook:

You know those frustrating Sisyphus dreams where you keep trying to perform some absurdly simple task, yet fail every time? That is EXACTLY what trying to find a rental house in Atlanta is like. Every place I've ever rented before, I always had to pay an application fee and submit to a credit/criminal background check -- AFTER I'd looked at the property and decided I wanted to rent it. But it is apparently impossible to look at houses in Atlanta unless you pay the application and background-check fees FIRST.

Three days later I posted another Facebook status:

Q: Why did the gods condemn Sisyphus to spend eternity futilely trying to roll a rock uphill?

A: Because condemning him to try finding decent, affordable rental housing in the Greater Metro Atlanta region was too cruel even for THEM.

But finally, after over a week of frustrating aborted attempts, I figured out the problem: Apparently, the New Big Thing in the rental-house market (as opposed to renting apartments) is self-guided tours: rather than have a realty agent show you a house, after using his or her Realtor's master key to unlock the lockbox holding the keys to said house, you tour the house by yourself, using a smartphone app to unlock the lockbox and access the housekeys. But of course, before they'll let you do this, you must go through a complete background credit/criminal check, and offer your credit card number (presumably so they can bill you if they later blame you for any damage in the house). And that also is presumably why evermore realty agents, at least in the greater metro Atlanta area, won't take you to look at houses unless you pay them a hefty broker fee first.

Forget houses, then. We'll focus exclusively on apartments. But finding apartments online wasn't much easier: a standard Google search for “Atlanta apartments” (or “Decatur apartments,” or any other nearby suburbs) mainly shows hyper-luxury high-rise rentals at prices giddy enough to make northern Virginia, or even San Francisco, look downright cheap.

We found a couple decent-looking apartment complexes online, but when we toured the complexes and got the application forms we discovered the advertised price was something of a bait-and-switch: the listed rent itself was in our range, but it didn't include the monthly fee the apartment complex charged for water and sewer, the monthly trash pickup fee, the monthly maintenance fee … add all those unadvertised fees to the rent, and we'd end up paying as much if not more than we pay now in the expensive suburbs of Washington, DC.

Looking for apartments on standard realty sites wasn't much easier – I'd call about certain apartments listed as “available,” only to learn they wouldn't have any vacancies until September or whenever.

Then Jeff suggested we pick up an apartment guide. In northern Virginia, and also in Connecticut, the lobbies of most supermarkets and big-box stores have stands offering various free advertising newspapers and magazines, including guides to apartment-complex rentals in the area.

So we drove to a nearby Walmart, and Jeff pulled up to the front of the store while I dashed out, hurried into the lobby, scanned the offerings of free newspapers and local-tourism pamphlets and determined that no rental guides were among them. Drove to the nearest supermarket and did the same thing – Jeff pulled up front, I scanned the options in the store lobby, and this time, hooray! I saw a stand dedicated to something called “Atlanta Apartments” magazine! Reached out to grab a copy, and my fingertips hit the shiny plastic backstand illustrated with a picture of the magazine's front page-- Kroger stores do indeed offer apartment guides in their lobbies, but this particular Kroger had run out.

Luckily, I did succeed in finding an actual copy of the magazine at the second or third store we tried. Then back to our hotel room, to go online and research various complexes in the magazine.

Some were far more expensive than we wanted to (or could) pay. Others had no vacancies in the size we need. Still more looked promising in the magazine, except when I checked their websites I learned they were income-restricted “affordable” housing, and Jeff makes too much money to qualify unless we have multiple kids first.

But finally, we found what looked like a nice place, in a large apartment complex in Decatur. Straight rent with no additional fees for water, sewer and trash pickup. The apartment would be vacant on July 1, but the complex would need a few days to paint and clean it before we could do the walk-through and get the keys.

We were the only white people in the property management office, but we've both grown up and spent most of our lives living and shopping in integrated neighborhoods, so we're used to being the local minority even if it hasn't really come up in the four years we've lived in this particular part of northern Virginia.

Toured the model apartment – looked nice. In our price range, large enough for our needs, and with ample storage too. We filled out the applications and credit-check forms (and paid the non-refundable fees), and the property manager told us it would take a few days for the background checks to be completed.

Next morning we checked out of our hotel room and drove back to northern Virginia, to start the exhausting process of packing for a move. A couple days later, the complex told us we'd passed the background check and could do the walk-through and get the keys anytime after noon on July 8.

As usual for us, moving would be a two-step process: first we drive down there with a one-way U-Haul rental plus one car, both crammed full of stuff (mainly boxes of our books and various odds and ends); then, we return to the old place and hire a moving company to move the big furniture plus other heavy things.

On Wednesday, July 6, we rented the truck and loaded it with help from some friends. Next day, Jeff drove the truck and I drove his car to a hotel in South Carolina, about three hours away from Decatur. Friday morning we left the hotel and made it to the apartment complex's rental office a few minutes before noon. 

Side note – when we'd filled out the application the week before, I'd noticed an odd disclaimer at the top of the first page: something about how in order to live here you must have a minimum income at least three times the monthly rent, and furthermore, for multiple adult renters the combined income cannot be counted except for married couples.

In other words: if you're a low-income single who can only afford a monthly rent of $500, and you have a single friend who also can only afford $500, the two of you may not team up and rent a $950 apartment together unless you get married; the only way two or more unmarried people can rent that place is if at least one of them makes enough to swing the rent alone.

Jeff wondered if we'd have to show them a copy of our marriage certificate. After all, we have different last names and don't even wear rings, so that certificate is the only proof that we are indeed legally hitched. But it turned out to be a non-issue, because Jeff's upcoming salary alone is enough to swing the rent (though my current pittance of a freelance income most assuredly is not).

Thus, on Friday we got there to discover that the lease is in Jeff's name only; I am listed as a “resident,” but my signature is not required or even wanted on any of the official paperwork.

So while Jeff sat in the rental office perusing the documents, I went out to move the car to a new spot in front of our new apartment. On my way there I met a friendly man – maybe my age, maybe ten years older or younger – who introduced himself as one of the apartment complex's maintenance men, welcomed me to my new home, and then said “This IS the hood, you know. There have been break-ins. Make sure you get an alarm system.”

And that night, after we'd spent an exhausting day carrying heavy box after heavy box up a flight of stairs in sweltering 95+ degree heat, Jeff pointed out that the doorknob and deadbolt on our front door had both been plated. “That means that door was broken down at some point.”

And then, while moving a small bookcase into position in our new living room, I saw and Jeff killed a bug which we both suspect was a cockroach. (We had not yet carried a single particle of food into that dwelling.)

Granted I am a pessimist by nature, but: I have the sinking suspicion this does not bode well for our living arrangements, these next twelve months.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Everything Old Is New Again

Everything old becomes new again: I can just barely remember when my parents drove a car equipped only with an AM radio, which of course lost its signal anytime we drove under an overpass. I can even remember how impressed I was -- in that intense way single-digit-age kids have -- the first time my parents upgraded to a car with FM stereo.

This week, driving from northern Virginia to northern Georgia (Atlanta, to be specific), I drove Jeff's new car equipped with high-tech zillion-channels satellite radio -- which lost its signal roughly half the times I drove under an overpass. Or under trees with leaves thick enough and close enough to cast shade on my car. And occasionally in open country for no discernible reason at all.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Universal Basic Income: The Economist Drops the Logic Ball

The June 4 issue of The Economist has an article about universal basic income proposals, calling it "Basically flawed" and warning that "Proponents of a basic income underestimate how disruptive it would be." The article does make some good points in need of addressing, but also includes a paragraph of such bafflingly obvious bias, I'm amazed the editorial department let it through.

I generally like The Economist, and can respect its arguments even if I disagree with its opinions (that my household actually pays for a subscription is proof enough of that), and the editorial does raise some valid concerns regarding any guaranteed basic income proposal — particularly the inherent cost of giving money to all adult citizens, plus the fear that certain welfare recipients enrolled in a variety of different safety-net programs might actually wind up poorer, if all of their current benefits were entirely replaced by a single, lower check.

The piece starts off with a thumbnail explanation of why and how basic income proposals are even an issue:
WORK is one of society’s most important institutions. It is the main mechanism through which spending power is allocated. It provides people with meaning, structure and identity. Yet work is a less generous, and less certain, provider of these benefits than it once was. Since 2000 economic growth across the rich world has failed to generate decent pay increases for most workers. Now there is growing fear of a more fundamental threat to the world of work: the possibility that new technologies, from machine learning to driverless cars, will cause havoc to employment.
The piece goes on to discuss the then-upcoming Swiss voter referendum on a basic income (which failed), discusses the high cost such a program would have in America, and also points out that certain current welfare recipients might actually end up poorer if all their current benefits were replaced by a single low guaranteed check.

But after these and other sensible-sounding pro-and-con arguments, the article falls into this:
A universal basic income would also destroy the conditionality on which modern welfare states are built. During an experiment with a basic-income-like programme in Manitoba, Canada, most people continued to work. But over time, the stigma against leaving the workforce would surely erode: large segments of society could drift into an alienated idleness. Tensions between those who continue to work and pay taxes and those opting out weaken the current system; under a basic income, they could rip the welfare state apart.
Translation: when a guaranteed basic income was actually tried, it did not result in the mass workforce defections its opponents fear ... but surely, that's bound to change. The same logic is often used by still-fervent drug warriors who insist that the war on drugs is a good and necessary thing because if intoxicants other than alcohol were legal, society would collapse because everyone would just sit around getting stoned all day: “When Portugal experimented with decriminalizing drugs, most people continued to not-become drug addicts. But over time, the stigma against being an addict would surely erode: large segments of society could drift into chemically induced bliss.”

Anything could lead to various bad outcomes, and any bad outcome might conceivably happen. But the fact that it might isn't evidence that it will, and I'm disappointed that The Economist resorted to such shoddy reasoning. “A universal basic income scheme went well in Manitoba, but it's bound to go bad eventually” is not evidence or even a supporting anecdote; that's just pure bias speaking. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Some Trump Delegates, I Assume, Are Good People

A Trump delegate from Maryland was arrested on a variety of charges including the creation and possession of child pornography.

No surprise there. To paraphrase a self-described great man: When America sends its people to Trump rallies, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
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