Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘US customs’

American-style catastrophe

Baroness Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London, has warned against new legislation that would make it easier to establish private universities.

Sweeping general legislation might make it easier to set up a really small, innovative, educationally wonderful institution, but it’s much more likely to mean we end up with the American-style catastrophe.

There are all kinds of catastrophes in America, many of them due to inadequate public oversight over the private sector. I’d be on her side if she were using the US as a bogeyman to warn us against conservative tendencies in healthcare, policing, schooling… pretty much anything. Not universities, or, at least, not in such a blanket fashion. It’s not clear, either, whether she is concerned primarily with improving educational opportunities or with national brand management, with a broad array of institutions “damaging the UK’s reputation for higher education”.

I think you would be hard pressed to convince anyone that private universities overall have damaged the US reputation in higher education.

The tragic contradiction of rooting for the underdog

Everyone loves stories of plucky individuals, beaten down by circumstances but working hard to get ahead. Dickens made a career out of them. It’s a noble sentiment, but it’s a terrible basis for public policy, which is unfortunate for the US, which has persistently put that heart-warming story at the centre of its social welfare policies. I was reminded of this recently when reading an article in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel about the push in some American cities — Seattle, in particular — to raise the minimum wage substantially. (The article doesn’t seem to be available online, but a related interview with activist-entrepreneur Nick Hanauer is here.) I am all in favour of these proposals — there’s no better way to help poor people stop being poor than to give them more money — but it’s clearly not going to solve all of society’s problems. In particular, the Spiegel reporter talks to a single mother of two children, working 32 hours a week for Domino’s Pizza, whose apartment is too small for both children, only manages to get enough to eat by taking home leftover pizza, and has to admit shamefacedly that she never can afford to buy her children any sort of gift. It’s wonderful that she will be earning 60 percent more in a few years (unless she loses her job), but the reporter adds in the sort of detail that German reporters inevitably include in reports on US urban misery:

She lives in a suburb of Seattle. Not a good neighbourhood, she says, lots of drugs and crime. Once someone was shot to death in front of her house.

So, maybe the increase in the minimum wage is going to help her and her sons move to a better neighbourhood. But it’s not going to make the neighbourhood better! The only way to reduce the number of people who have someone shot in front of their house is to reduce the number of people who are shot. If all the people earning minimum wage decide to use their raises to move to a better neighbourhood, the rent in the better neighbourhoods will just go up. Their negotiating position for housing will be improved relative to retirees, nonworking poor, students, etc. But the number of sad stories of people who can’t afford to move out of their run-down crime-infested neighbourhood will not change, though possibly the people suffering will be less sympathetic, which might seem like an improvement.

(more…)

Who is Santa?

Do adults struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy?

Growing up in New York, and attending a Jewish primary school, I don’t have a very intimate relationship with Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the story — fat man, presents, chimneys, reindeer — from television, and from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it was more or less of a piece with the tooth fairy, Spiderman, and Mickey Mouse. That is, when you’re 7, you may have a heated discussion over the details of Spiderman’s backstory, and which other characters he knows (he may know Captain America; probably doesn’t know Santa or Mickey Mouse), and what he might do in the future, but that doesn’t mean he’s real, in the sense of inhabiting the same world that we do. Magical beings are something you play make-believe with, tell stories about, act out stories about.

(I remember when I was 3, my brother told me that there used to be a Santa Claus, but he was killed falling off a roof. I guess that did seem plausible to me at the time.)

What I only learned much later that for many (perhaps most?) in the US (and the UK, apparently) Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is a different sort of magical being. Children seem to genuinely believe he exists, and, even more strangely, adults seem to think it important to encourage them in that belief. It’s not just, “Let’s pretend on Christmas that a magical man comes and brings your gifts”, but “No, really. He really does come.” And making significant effort to prevent anyone from revealing the wicked truth. I was reading about a weird spat on American television, about an online article that suggested portraying Santa not as a white man, but as a penguin. The article was criticised on right-wing Fox News, but what I found most interesting was that the television reporter Megyn Kelly apparently began the discussion by announcing “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” She was heavily criticised for prejudging the issue of the skin colour of a fictional character, but she was just following the prescribed line of pretending publicly (whenever children might be listening) that Santa Claus is real. Not “real” in the “let’s pretend” way that the child’s mudpie is really a cake. Really really real.

(more…)

On foot and cycle in Berkeley and Oxford

Big-ChanningMLK3

Berkeley bicycle boulevard.

628x471

Wide Berkeley sidewalk.

I’ve just returned from my sabbatical in Berkeley, and while I’ve written some harsh criticism of life in the US when it unfortunately intersects with the medical system, as long as you can stay healthy there are some conspicuous advantages to life in Berkeley. Particularly if you walk or ride a bicycle.

Some of it is no one’s fault: There’s obviously more space in Berkeley for wide sidewalks, and the crush of tourists on a few major boulevards, particularly in summer, is peculiar to Oxford. On the other hand, Oxford city council chooses to allow merchants to block half of the narrow pavement with advertising signs. Still, with the narrow, often one-way streets, Oxford is no paradise for drivers either.

And maybe that’s part of the reason why Oxford drivers are, there’s no way to prettify this, hateful toward non-drivers. (Presumably toward other drivers as well, but I haven’t had that experience.) Not all of them, of course, and not all the time, but enough to make cycling something I avoid when I have time to walk, and makes me feel on edge much of the time even when I’m walking. Berkeley drivers are sometimes thoughtless, of course, but the threatening incidents of recklessness still seem less frequent in Berkeley than the incidents of active aggression and rage in Oxford.

Cycle lanes are occasional and intermittent, and the average Oxford driver considers “cycle lane” to be just a fancy word for “free parking”. We don’t have as much of a problem with restaurants or constructions sites parking their dumpsters on the cycle lanes as they apparently have in Belfast, but here’s a cheeky comment on their difficulties.

I suspect that the better conditions in Berkeley are a good example of the civilising influence of the law. California law requires that drivers stop for pedestrians in any crosswalk, whether or not it is marked. And they do. Nearly always, except on high-speed highway-like urban roads, and even there if you make yourself conspicuous you’ll usually get someone to stop pretty quickly. This gets people into the habit of paying attention to slower travellers using the road, and frequently they’ll stop even when they are not required to, for instance, for pedestrians crossing in the middle of a block, or for cyclists on a cross-street.

In Oxford, as in all of England (I have been informed), cars are required to stop only at elaborately constructed official zebra-striped crosswalks with huge flashing lights overhead. Because of the elaborate construction these are rare, and even so are often ignored. And I can certainly count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in five years that any driver has stopped to let me cross the street as a pedestrian when it was not strictly required by law. It didn’t matter if it was snowing or pouring rain and I was out walking with a small child. In Berkeley I was more likely to be embarrassed by a car stopping for me to cross when I was merely loitering near to the crosswalk.

Maximum utility

Back when I first arrived in Oxford I remarked on the peculiar repurposing of utility bills as the indispensable proof of address. That is, the banks were enjoined by law from opening an account without proof of address (except Lloyds, which didn’t care for some reason, and so won our custom and our loyalty — until they lost the latter by refusing to consider us for a mortgage on account of my irresponsible decision to be a foreigner), and they seemed to consider proof of address to be equivalent to providing a utility bill. This seems strange for many reasons. First, utility companies are private entities that have designed their bills for, well, billing purposes, not as secure identity cards. The security measures on my water bill are pretty negligible. They have made no effort to check whether the person residing at this address is the same person who is paying the bill, or that either of them has the name on their records. Second, not every legitimate resident has utility bills. In particular, people who have just moved house don’t have utility bills for quite some time.

This requirement is usually attributed to a money-laundering statute. Is there a money-laundering scam that depends on faking a residential address? By criminals who are incapable of faking the address on a water bill? But who would be able to fake a lease, letter from an employer, or any other means of proving identity?
(more…)

Tag Cloud