The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Reason Why

by Lael Ewy

We can talk all we want about gun regulations or the right of “innocent” people to defend themselves. We can talk of “safety” and “freedom” and the meaning of the 2nd Amendment. But one deep and undeniable belief runs through almost every aspect of American life: we believe that violence solves problems.

This basic notion is evident from two bums brawling on the street to the upper echelons of foreign policy “deciders.” That we believe this is evident in almost every popular scripted drama on TV and in almost every popular video game on the market. It’s the primary plot point in stories aimed at children and in action movies aimed at adults. We believe this sincerely and deeply. It’s why our cops carry guns, knives, pepper-spray, Tasers, and truncheons. It’s the reason we have home security systems and the reason we have street gangs. It’s how the US has dealt with the vast majority of its foreign policy entanglements over the years and how presidents “secure” their “place in history.”

Our confidence in this idea leads us to wonder why “they” hate us.

After all, we thought that was a problem we solved.

Here’s a clue: “they” hate us because we have perpetrated violence against them. For the better part of a century the guns being pointed at them, the bombs being dropped on them, and the planes bombing them have been made in the USA.

H. Rap Brown was absolutely correct when he said that “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” We reify this idea when CSI, Law & Order, The Profiler, or whatever ostensibly smart police procedural we consume ends in gunplay. We reinforce this idea when John Kerry gets excoriated for solving our problems with Iran peacefully instead of bombing the shit out of them.

We reinforce this idea when police violence is exonerated and when we make heroes out of gangsters. We reinforce this idea with the death penalty.

Westerns, those stories so dear to American mythology, are characterized by the figure of the “lone wolf” gunslinger who will save the town, that his propensity to violence is the only thing that can save the effete townsfolk from the savagery of the lawless cattle rustler and the wild, indigenous Other. It’s no accident that the rise of the US coincides with the ability to manufacture high quality firearms at low cost.

We manifest the belief that violence solves problems when we posit the Revolutionary War as the origin of our nation and not the Constitutional Convention.

As much as well-meaning lawmakers would like to believe that we can reduce mass murders through legislation or technical fixes to mental health care, as much as well-meaning progressives think we can reduce gun violence through the regulation of firearms, they’re fooling themselves. Our problem is cultural, not legal or technological.

Our problem is that we believe, against all evidence but at the core of our beings, that violence will solve our problems rather than compound them infinitely.       

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Dear Fellow White Americans:

We have a racism problem.

I know it’s not popular to say so right now, but as a middle class White guy, I’m calling us on it.

I grew up in a rural area near what is, for Kansas, a large city. My father was an executive, my neighbors and extended family farmers. I went to school with blue collar people and white collar people, the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers, factory workers and accountants.

One thing that was common, though not universal, in the White community, regardless of social class or education, was racism.

Because I am a White male, other Whites found it was OK to be racist around me, to share racist “jokes,” racist stereotypes, and sometimes simple racist invective, assuming I would agree.

To my shame, I did not, do not, often enough disagree.

In the aftermath of an election victory by a person who refused to distance himself from openly racist people, White establishment types on both the Right and the Left have gone out of their way to find other explanations for why so many supported him. The idea that it could be racism would put pundits and reporters in the difficult position of alienating most of their audience, so they repeat the ideas that “this was a change election,” and that Trump’s success was primarily a case of people “voting their pocketbooks.”

Maybe so. But if you’re really actively combating your own inner racism, Donald Trump would turn your stomach. Racism may not be the main reason people voted for him, but it sure didn’t dissuade too many people.

I think racism in White America comes in three not always easily distinguished classes.

The first are the hardcore racists. The active members of this group will be the ones who organize and turn violent. These are the Klan people, though most of them will never join the Klan. They’ll move out of a neighborhood that gets too “ethnic.” They’ll redline a whole community and disown a kid who marries across racial lines.

Statistics on White flight would indicate that hardcore racism is far more common than people admit.

Granted, most White Americans who harbor racist feelings and thoughts don’t think of themselves as racists. They’re of the “some of my best friends are Black” persuasion, and they probably don’t actively hate. But they still will tell you about the “bad” part of town. They bought into the “superpredator” rhetoric of the ‘90s.

This second category of White racists won’t redline a community, but they also won’t stop the bank executive who does. These people will read Charles Murray and note that “he makes some good points.”

They pride themselves on the common decency to say “Well, I’m no racist, but” before saying something racist.

On my more generous days, I’d say that this is the most common form of White racism. After November 8, 2016, I’m not so sure.

The third category is the one I’ll put myself in. Generally educated in identifying racism, or maybe even specifically educated in Critical Race Theory, we still haven’t fully confronted the structural racism in the institutions and organizations—mainly academic and non-profit—we pervade.

We’re the sort of folks who can even identify the definition of structural racism on a multiple choice test.

We also have a terrible track record of tokenism, of presiding over the English department with the one Black guy in it, of setting up the Diversity Office that employs half the Black folks on campus and has no real power.

We talk a good game. Sometimes we even publish anti-racist stuff. But our homes, our churches, our inner circles, are all lily-hued oases, free from the anxiety and discomfort diversity might make us feel.

Identity, to some degree, is at issue in all these categories—the ways we identify self from other. It’s stronger in those who frequently feel that identity is at risk. But there’s also a degree of lay tradition: we feel this way because that’s how we were taught to feel by our parents and grandparents, the important people in our lives.

We can move through these categories due to experiences, education, social situation. Even hardcore racists can change.

So there’s hope.

But the rest of us, those of us in the second and third categories listed here, need to stop hiding behind barriers of gentility, academic theory, and social respectability. We need to call it and confront it when we see racism, and when we perpetrate it.

It won’t be comfortable. But real change seldom is.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

In the Spirit of National Unity

Our dear future man who would be king has said that he wants the nation to come together.

I couldn't agree more.

Therefore, in the spirit that Himself proposed that He Alone could solve the nation's problems, I suggest the following should be done the moment He Alone is sworn in:

All undocumented immigrants should descend on the White House for deportation, en masse, and ask that they be driven personally by the president to their respective borders and/or be flown directly home by Him.

All Muslims in America and all Muslims considering coming to America should also arrive, en masse, at the White House on inauguration day prepared for "extreme vetting." Since I'm not sure exactly what all this would entail, I suggest that you wear loose fitting clothing and bring your own rubber gloves and personal lubricants.

Everyone knows that there was an impasse with the president of Mexico as to whether or not they'd pay for the Glorious Wall. While I'm sure He will sort this out, just in case, we should do our civic duty and send wall-building supplies--bricks, mortar, plumblines, trowels, and whatnot--to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC. in time for the inauguration. I'm sure He will know what to do with them.

Also, just to make positively sure that no woman aborts in the 9th month, as seems to worry Himself, all pregnant women should report to the White House on inauguration day so He Alone can make sure they carry to term.

Also? Anyone who has lost a job overseas should report to the White House on inauguration day for immediate reassignment. I'm sure He'll have jobs lined up for them by then.

Since He Alone has said that the minimum wage is too high, all hourly employees should mail to the White House the difference between their wage and at least a penny under the current minimum for immediate redistribution to those who would know better how to spend it. I'm sure He has someone in mind.

To ease the accounting, I suggest small change, preferably nickels and dimes.

I'm sure none of my modest proposals will receive the least amount of criticism, being, as they are, offered in the name of national unity.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Beyond the Industrialization of Rationality

by Lael Ewy

A recent article in National Geographic noted that exposure to the natural world increases human health, reduces stress, and increases critical thinking skills. This is all fine and good; we need more appreciation of the ecosystem on the whole and our local environs in particular. But the major bent of the article was what nature can do for us and how it can make us better able to return to our soulless offices, shallow relationships, and consumerist ways of being. In other words, the article is about how exposure to the natural world can make us better equipped to perform the business of destroying the very natural world that has prepped us to the task.

The article points out a major philosophical problem in the western world, one that floods in from many different streams of thought. Rationalist thought insists on mechanistic explanations and direct means of causation. Using the rationalist ways of thinking that still dominate the sciences and all other “outcomes based” human activity, we insist that all things happen for a reason and that all things that happen therefore must have reasons for being allowed to happen.

Thus a means of inquiry becomes a method of being; a way of doing science drifts into a way of making value judgments about what humans ought to do.

By imposing this rationalistic value judgment on human activity, we lose the idea that anything we do has an inherent value: there always has to be a why, and that why always has to be justified within an interlocking system of causations.

The ultimate limit of this way of thinking appears when we start to ask questions about prime movers, ultimate causes, the first event in the great chain that leads the universe inevitably to us, at the present moment, contemplating how we got here, thinking about how the universe was gracious enough to lead up to us, a set of beings so smart as to contemplate how it was the universe’s duty to create beings who can think about how they got here.

Only recently, string theory, ideas contemplating multiple universes, and quantum mechanics have begun to dissolve some of these first mover quandaries, but they have yet to devolve into popular thought.

In the lives of those living in the United States, this problem is compounded by puritanism, which underscores the lockstep linearity of rationalism with a very specific goal: eternal salvation. By focusing only on those activities deemed holy, we both assure our places in heaven and avoid the temptations of those things we do for fun, because fun things lead us to inevitable perdition.

But neither science nor puritanism are quite as powerful in our lives as the free market business model. While it is true that organizations like The American Enterprise Institute, backed by laissez-faire billionaires such as Charles and David Koch, have done a lot to promote free market thought in the last 40 years, the ideas go back much farther than that. After all, Charles Dickens was already savagely critiquing the point of view that every human activity must be geared toward the bottom line in the 1840s through works such as “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens’s writing was informed by the conditions of early industrialism, and we’ve gone a long way toward denying those conditions are still with us, primarily by offshoring to other parts of the world the nasty work to be done by people of whom we don’t think much.

But the rationality of industrialism still dominates our new, supposedly more creative, and “knowledge-based” economy. Instead of being part of a literal machine, we use strict schedules, quality assurance measures, and monitoring technologies to make sure people are not goofing off at their desks. The Taylorist factory has given way to the open floor plan office. The 12-hour factory shift has given way to smartphones and laptops that assure constant contact with the people at work.

Pressure on lawmakers by business-backed groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council have turned what was supposed to be a government by, for, and of the people into one dominated by business interests and interested only in maintaining the bottom line. Changes to work rules, taxation, and even the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech have oriented the purpose of American society entirely toward the generation of profit. These changes have devolved social power ever more towards employers and financiers and away from those who actually do the work.

As the National Geographic article implies, all of this has been devastating to our health. Rates of stress-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension have skyrocketed. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality are also on the rise. At this point in history, nearly one in four American women are taking antidepressant medications, as they are asked to do all of the aforementioned work underlining the bottom line, plus clean the house, raise the kids, cook for the family, and put up with sexual harassment, all for 30% less money.

“Helpful” websites abound, full of techniques for busting stress and overcoming the blues, full of advice for simplifying life and streamlining our vanishing personal time. But few of these sites promote such things for their own sake; we meditate and do yoga, journal and run marathons not simply to do them but because doing them makes us better workers, more “highly effective” people,” “better” moms and dads. All of this desperate chilling out and throwing out, pumping up and efficiency creation exists against a backdrop of genuine existential threat: in the United States, in particular, one is only allowed to be fully human when gainfully employed or independently wealthy. Everyone else is sanctioned by legislation, internally displaced, forced to live in squalor, incarcerated. For those deemed “disabled,” a life of poverty and medication awaits. For those able-bodied folks who happen to be un or under employed, benefits are tied to a progression of increasingly demeaning and intrusive tasks and to standards of employability that only exist within the delusional and paranoid thoughts of the legislators who enstated the rules. And for too many there is homelessness, increasingly made illegal by laws ostensibly about “cleaning up” the civic landscape, as if the bodies of the unfortunate were so much misplaced refuse cluttering up the view of yet another Tuscan styled strip mall.

In other words, when our lives are bent entirely toward the cause and effect relationship posited by industrial capitalism that has as its end point greater profits and increased market value, most people suffer. It becomes not just immoral but impossible to think of anything worth doing for its own sake, and those things we do to “recharge” become distractions from our misery: mindless and violent video games, awful blockbuster movies, increasingly sensationalistic television, and any number of mind-numbing substances of varying degrees of legality (and lethality). These latter chemicals, when dispensed by physicians, are purchased through a system that is itself driven by market factors and not person care, no matter how well-intentioned the caregiver may be.

Environmentalists have long argued that industrialized capitalism is unsustainable. At some point, it will deplete the finite resources it relies on for its model of continual growth, if it doesn’t first so poison the ecosystem or so warm the planet that civilization becomes impossible to maintain. But there’s another, deeper reason it can’t go on like this: it demands that people devote themselves to nothing of inherent value; it demands that most of us devote most of our time and all of our usable energy to helping other men hoard wealth.

Another article comes to mind as I write this, this one from The Guardian, warning against a newfound interest in the western world in ancient, eastern meditative practices. Mindfulness, the article warned, is not always pleasant. It doesn’t always calm you down or chill you out. Bottom line, it’s not for everybody, so don’t throw out that bottle of Paxil quite yet.

But, of course, calming you down or chilling you out is not the point of mindfulness meditation; mindfulness is. If you’re looking to it to do those other things so that you can be a better worker, more well-adjusted to a crappy system, you’re doing it wrong. We have become so devoted to using such tools to become better worker bees that we have forgotten about the hard (and sometimes unpleasant) work we need to do to become better people. We have lost sight of becoming —and maybe even lost the ability to become—fully engaged in those things we do as fulfilling activities in and of themselves, of entering those places where judgments about being “better” employees or even “better” people tend to fall away.


Meditate for the sake of meditation.

Work for the sake of work.

Create for the sake of art.

Rationalize for the sake of clarity.

All else falls unto the worship of false gods.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Latent Heat of Victimization

by Lael Ewy

At first, it would seem odd that a nation bent on social climbing, personal betterment, and the acquisition of wealth would also be so enamored of victimization.

On further reflection, though, it makes sense: if we gear everything for competition, we have to have something to do with all the losers. And, more important, the losers have to have some type of identity other than “loser,” which is, in the United States, a much worse label than “died trying,” or even “cheated his way to the top.”

In some cases, the victim identity can be a way of bringing attention to real social inequities: those exposing racism, sexism, and rape culture have all successfully “played the victim card” in order to help the rest of us see the real problem for what it is. For some people who are victimized by their social conditions, publicizing victimization brings unexpected social power, such as in the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year old lynched in 1955. Till's mother insisted that his body be publicly displayed in order to show the brutality of the crime perpetrated against him, helping to further the cause of the Civil Rights movement of the time.

Inevitably, this necessary demonstration of social evil creates backlash among those on the wrong side of history via claims that it's not as bad as the victims say (“They were happier when they were slaves.”), that those pressing their social cause are undeserving (“They're faking,” or “They're gaming the system.”), that they had it coming anyway (“If you dress like that, you're asking for it.”), or that they are, themselves, the victimizers (“Feminazis.”).

The advantages of victimhood are, while powerful, by nature also limited: once the victim identity has been publicly acknowledged and attention to the cause secured, incremental court decisions or legislative changes are made, and then those in power, satisfied that they have “fixed it” go on doing their thing, which is staying in power. This, then, marks the end of the social power of victimhood and where the limitations of the individual power of victimhood become apparent. The victim, by using that term in order to gain power, finds that she only has power within that frame and can never again step beyond it and back into full, human identity. The disabled person may be able to press her case for a reasonable accommodation using the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, but that does not guarantee access to executive positions, marriage partners, or academic appointments,

Both despite and because of the advent of things like Affirmative Action and the ADA, the power structure goes out of its way to increase the barriers to moving forward and moving up. “We've given you what you want,” the powerful seem to say, “now shut up and go away.” Understanding this attitude is key to understanding the sources of institutional discrimination and how oppression becomes structural. By setting up structural barriers, those in power protect themselves and those like them. As demographics shift, you'll see (and probably have already seen) the traditional, white, male power structure become ever stronger, the reins of power ever more difficult to take in hand for those who haven't proven their loyalty to the status quo.

Reverse victimization plays into the ways the powerful stay in power. Donald Trump insist that those whom he insulted apologize to him; white students claim “reverse discrimination” when they don't get into the college they want to get into; whole political movements rise to power on the idea that we need to “take America back” from the teeming mob who stole it from them. Those who play this game often fail to realize its limitations, that they, too, will be duped by the truly powerful people who help them promote their sense of victimization. The poor and middle class white people riding Trumpist and Tea Party politics will, if history is any indication, be no better off or even lose ground under the leadership they promote. This is just fine with those who stand to gain from such sentiments among the hoi polloi: after all, the Tea Party backers won't be “losers”; they'll be the perpetual victims of black people, brown people, and inner-city “welfare cheats,” perpetually able to be called upon to add “populist” credibility to what are essentially authoritarian political figures.

The culture of right-wing victimization has not yet, like the left, begun to move past the language of victimization and into the language of survivorship. Survivors of sexual assault, for example, have begun to harness this new power in order to be seen as credible brokers in dismantling rape culture on college campuses and in communicating a deeper understanding of how to end rape culture on the whole. The #blacklivesmatter movement has received criticism for its directness and for not being the squeaky-clean thing that white folks want it to be. That arises from #blacklivesmatter being made up of people who refuse to play the victim in the first place: the movement gets criticized because it's no longer possible to ignore. The white power structure had become comfortable with the image of the black victim—of poverty, racism, and overall downtroddenness. As long as there were black victims, whites could take comfort in a kind of well-meaning but entirely patronizing sympathy, to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. as a fallen national hero, to declare a black history month, and to mention Kwanzaa in defense of a “happy holidays” greeting. This is the same mentality that promotes the idea of the “Magical Negro” (noted by Spike Lee in regards to such characters as Bagger Vance) and safe sidekicks such as Danny Glover's character in the Lethal Weapon franchise. This safe view is distinctly challenged by the idea that black people are also allowed to be, you know, people.

In the mental health field, the antipsychiatry movement of the '60s and '70s transformed into the “consumer” movement of the '80s and '90s and into an “illness” movement of the '90s and '00s. The idea was that by identifying as “the mentally ill,” as victims of a blameless disease, suffering people would gain access to treatment, decent housing, and disability benefits. The “it's better than being on the streets” mentality has grown to embrace an acceptance of psychiatric incarceration, anathema to early activists.

The real danger looming in all this is that if people move beyond victimization and into survivorship, they might become assimilated into a culture that they don't recognize, and that people may lose their identity in the process. Can a black American be both an American and black when one of the defining features of American culture is structural racism? This is the field upon which Barack Obama has played out his political career, and the deep contradictions it creates can be seen in the deep contradictions of his administration: successfully bailing out some of the least deserving parts of the power structure, such as Wall Street and General Motors, while simultaneously challenging that power structure in the realm of gay rights. President Obama ground his entire political machine into dust in order to pass the Affordable Care Act, an immensely compromised attempt to expand access to health care that also carefully maintained the least deserving part of it: the profits of private insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies.

A fuller understanding of how power works in the US is in order, one that goes beyond the simple mechanisms of victim and perpetrator, loser and winner. Kimberl├ę Crenshaw's ideas about intersectionality move toward this, and may prove vital in understanding how power works in a nation in which there is no official, hereditary class structure. We are far from the point at which we can make such ideas meme-worthy, though, and you'd be hard-pressed to hear them discussed in a seven-minute spot on NPR, much less a two-and-a-half minute piece on the CBS Evening News.

Our next step, then, is not to create another reactionary political uprising, but to foment a genuine social movement that can articulate a vision of a future of both genuine equality and robust cultural diversity.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Gun Violence from a Trauma-Informed Perspective

by Lael Ewy

In what ways does a trauma-informed, harm-reduction approach make sense in challenging the prevalence of gun violence?

Let's make the assumption that the presence of a gun and the beliefs associated with that gun are important to the gun owner. This is a pretty safe assumption given the outsized emotions that even low-level discussions of gun violence elicit. The trauma-informed perspective would lead us to see these beliefs and emotions as linked to a sense of safety for the gun owner, that while guns themselves are dangerous, the safety they provide outweighs the danger.

By this perspective, any statistical, regulatory, or traditionally argumentative approaches to addressing gun violence are destined to fail.

Only by looking behind the gun to whatever need is being met by the presence of the gun can we begin to address what's really going on. We need to take the emphasis off the sacred object itself and onto the felt sense it satisfies or worldview it completes.

Let's go back to the sense of safety. If, as is often noted by gun-rights activists, a gun makes them feel “safer,” and they feel they need that gun wherever they go, the obvious conclusion is that they feel unsafe most of the time, indeed, that the world itself is not merely unsafe at this time but fundamentally an unsafe place. For these people, for some reason or another, threats loom around every corner, and the most likely target for those threats is the individual.

If so, then banning guns will be just about as effective as banning drugs has been: people will get them anyway. The drugs are meeting a need that the person feels she cannot meet any other way, and so also with the gun.

Whatever happened in the lives of gun activists, from assault to combat, from the presence of Mexicans to the election of a black president, makes them feel that an existential threat is ever-present, and that so they must be ever vigilant.

How much of this rises to the level of actual trauma or whether it's simply due to the overactive imaginations of otherwise high-strung people is immaterial; again, you can't argue someone out of a feeling of existential threat. But we can begin to help people address why they feel so constantly scared.

Unfortunately, it will require us recognizing and listening, without judgment, to perspectives that are often very difficult to hear.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

On the Market as an Expression of Cultural Value

--Lael Ewy

Another way of thinking about money is as an expression of what we find valuable. We invest, in the form of wages and spending, in those things we care about, and we ignore or divest from those we don't.

In this respect, certain parts of our economy, such as energy, real-estate, technology, and money itself (in the form of finance), would seem to track fairly well with our expressed values. These industries are generally fairly robust and salaries within them fairly high.

But for a nation that claims to be all about “family values,” we fall very short, if measured in how we spend. While public schools are large parts of most state budgets, they pale in comparison to what we collectively spend on entertainment, and compared to entertainers, teachers are poorly paid. The elderly and preschool-age children are taken care of by some of the lowest-paid workers there are, when that work is paid. For the most part, it isn't, being taken on by parents or grandparents, as even the relatively low wages of childcare are still too high for most of us to pay out of pocket.

We're happy to pay entertainers exorbitant salaries for mediocre work, yet we expect artists who have spent years perfecting their craft to work for free.

Except for the few of us who can afford to keep domestic workers—many of whom are undocumented and paid under the table anyway—most work that goes into maintaining a household goes unpaid.

Jobs tied to maintaining history and culture are also below industry standard or volunteer, as is almost all work involving the very poor. These sectors are dominated by non-profit NGOs, often chosen to supplant what was once done by well-compensated government employees as local and state governments have shifted ideologically Right.

So for a nation that, at every campaign stop, is touted as being “great,” and as a nation that gets collectively teary when we talk about the importance of family and our national heritage, we do a terrible job of actually compensating the people who keep us culturally afloat and domestically stable. The work of the tens of millions of Americans whose time and energy is invested in creating culture and maintaining families is, in a very literal sense, considered worthless.

This isn't merely an issue of putting our money where our mouths are; this is the way the market, rather than being some natural force, is actually a truth-teller, revealing our real values—and those values are rotten. If we merely follow the money, we can easily see that we value management culture over labor, for example, because the power structure that helps set wages is created by that power structure itself, and it's never going to invert its relative value by paying itself less than those who actually get things done.

We value work outside the home more than we value work inside the home because the people who decide where the money goes work outside the home. We value entertainment over education, sensation over art, because the former are welcome distractions that meet an immediate need, and the latter require reflection and thought, our energy and our active participation. We value entertainment over art because the former reinforces the power structures and the latter is a threat. And so the decision-makers invest in bread and circuses instead of philosophical symposia, give the latest summer blockbuster a fifty-million dollar marketing budget and the public library's summer reading series a shoestring.

The notion that the market is, in these cases, merely giving people what they want ignores the role that the existing power structure plays in deciding what's even available to be had. Try buying a simple, double-sided razor blade, for example. You'll find a gajillion different high-dollar multi-bladed disposables, but that simple, double-sided blade has now become a “specialty item,” even though it costs a fraction of a penny to make and uses many fewer resources. And advertising is, after all, not merely informational; it's social engineering on a grand scale, and we've long ago stopped even asking questions about how it forms our idea of “what people want.” Try asking a class full of literature students what local plays they've seen, for example, and listen to the crickets chirp. Now try asking the same class about the latest Star Wars movie.

The same phenomenon explains why celebrity chefs make millions and the local soup kitchen is staffed entirely by volunteers.

The “we're just giving people what they want” line also ignores the trillions of dollars the ├╝ber-rich keep for themselves and the implicit messages their spending decisions give to everybody else: a big house for an individual is more important than modest houses for the homeless; owning a huge SUV you can barely park or a flashy self-driving electric car is better than having decent public transportation; boutique private space flights are more important than a living wage.

Rather than being slaves to the whims of ordinary folks, the market is an expression of how power plays out within a society, an expression that creates its own set of standing waves, pushing the social order hither and yon. You may or may not be staying afloat, but unless we little folk start paddling hard in a very different and more just direction, we're all just along for the ride.