The Burger Bot horizon

With recent news about fast food workers striking & demonstrating in connection with the general “Fight for $15″ campaign by low wage labor, I thought about a common right-wing response trope aimed at such people: “they’ll just automate it & fire you, so nyah nyah”. As luck would have it, a couple of people on social media obliged in linking what they saw as proving their point — a burger robot, built by the company Momentum Machines. Click on the links for detail,  & I’ll be below throwing cold water on this.

A few things that stick out in coverage of the device I’d like to remark on:

  • Multiple sources each referring to this exact product suggests that this is the only remotely viable one out there, which means thanks to intellectual property law (the company has several patents on it) they can charge a monopoly price on it. Any competitor shows up & if their bot has any similarities to the Momentum Machines bot, they can be sued to death. Due to this, the hypothetical business landscape the anti-labor snark implies would be one where curiously each burger chain is sourcing its equipment from a single company.
  • …and that assumes the company would even be selling it. As the second link — a piece at the food lovers site Serious Eats — shows, their plan sounds more like wanting to compete with McDonald’s instead of going into business with them (they straight up say most fast food burgers suck, & emphasize various custom options pointing toward a more high-end burger experience). Plans can and do change over time, but this isn’t promising for the dreaded Grill Jockey Apocalypse.

Say they change their minds, then what?

  • The timeframe they set at the time of that article was 11 months. That Serious Eats piece is from October 2012, and the company’s own website gives no update on the project as of today. Even then, the machine wasn’t cooking the patty itself yet. They also stated an accuracy of 95 percent in properly constructing the burger — which, note, is the only thing this machine does. Most fast food places that currently exist have a relatively wide variety of options, from chicken sandwiches, nuggets, fish sandwiches, etcetera (famously, Jack In The Box even does tacos). Even the intentionally stripped down Five Guys has fries. Though fast food workers are widely stereotyped as a bunch of surly incompetents (which based on their ubiquity & frequency of people still, y’know, eating at these places looks more a matter of Class Shaming than truth), surely a comparison study could be done.
  • As anyone with an understanding of business & economics knows, swapping people with machines isn’t magic. Hiring workers is a steady, constant transaction — Wage times Hours equals Labor Cost. Replacing those workers with a machine is known as a capital investment, which after the planning stage is a lump cost transaction followed by depreciation as the machine is in service. The company profiled gives an estimate of labor cost savings to the standard fast food restaurant of $135,000 a year… which leaves the obvious question of how much acquisition & installation would cost. Also, maintenance* is an unknown at this point since it hasn’t gone live.
  • There’s a cultural sense to this as well, with human interaction being part of the experience of eating out. As Kevin Carson mentioned in his C4SS piece on the “Fight for $15″ movement, carving that interaction out of food service has been attempted before, & it fell off. The concept of the Automat, as it was called, resides in history books, other than the occasional outlier in urban Japan that tends to be used after the bars close for the novelty of it (and because they’re drunk).

As we can see, the future of Burger Bots making millions of workers obsolete is nowhere near as inevitable as anti-labor critics portray. There is an additional implication such critics make about the market value** of fast food labor I’d like to touch on, that is “anybody can do it, that’s why it’s low pay, shut up”:

Well, you chose not to do it. You had the option to make a cheeseburger yourself & decided, whether due to time constraint or simply valuing the leisure gained by doing otherwise, to go somewhere and exchange money for the service of preparing your meal. To say ones labor is worthless while you LITERALLY eat its product… that sentiment leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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On Social Deniability

Recently the legislature of Indiana passed a bill known as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, which governor Mike Pence has signed. The content of the legislation by the most widely held understanding (by both supporters and its opposition) suggests a state enshrined right of businesses to reject potential customers on the basis of religious disagreement. Naturally, a storm has erupted about this, and I’m driven to provide thought on the matter. Here goes…

As a skeptic of government existing at all, it’s quite natural that if questioned whether government should be able to require upon penalty of force that people broaden their market, my answer would be no. I’m obviously not a fan of those who would turn away business on such ridiculous and spitefully counterproductive (money is money, after all) grounds, and wholeheartedly support efforts at boycotting and otherwise shaming such establishments. This is simply because I prefer a society that frowns upon bigotry in all its forms. I’m for reaction against it short of state action because I do not buy into the Hobbesian case that without a centralized force wielding a club we will all collapse into a heap of Assholery and violence — after all, there’s plenty of that in the world we currently inhabit of states.

Speaking of the world of statism, within that there is one angle that in the course of discussions about discrimination over the years I’ve come to look at in another light. Take the reactions last time accommodations for an Other group in America were an issue: the fights against racial segregation. Blacks merely existing at some businesses was considered an act of defiance, of civil disobedience, but there was more than the owner to worry about. At the time, if blacks were in a place designated for whites only, then calling the police was available as a remedy to salve their open racism — “yeah, there’s a nigger at my table and he won’t leave!”, and along come the pigs, like it was natural. Cops, as we all know, are employed by local government, which means taxes pay their wages. Which means that the hypothetical gay couple dragged out of a photo studio or black person thrown out of Woolworths is footing the bill for their attackers.

Considering the justified libertarian critiques against being forced to pay for, say, military conquest, at the least isn’t the critique against this at home arguably understandable? I’m not saying you have to agree with it, I’m saying that, to my reading of situation, it isn’t far fetched. I’m still not enamored with the desire to do business with people who hate your very essence for reasons I’ve described before, but it’s there.

As for the talk by backers of such legislation about not wishing to do business with people who violate their beliefs, frankly I question how realistic such a principle even is. It’s 2015, think about the myriad transactions we take part in every day, and ask yourself how many people involved in them would pass your litmus test. Who would you be limited to interacting with if all money from those who disagree with something you care about is dirty? What would we be denying each other? Have these people ever thought it out?

Perhaps if one wished to really walk the walk, they could denounce the heathens, grab a few fellow travelers & go start a commune or something. But for as much as we gripe about society, most of us aren’t that brave. Sometimes we want to eat takeout.

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Have a seat, world…

You have some explaining to do, some things to answer:

-Why, exactly, would Syrian rebels congratulate an unabashed anti-Arab racist & murderer for winning reelection in neighboring Israel?

-re: CIA director John Brennan’s recent remarks about Iran “destabilizing” the middle east: how difficult was it for him to say that without giggling? Furthermore, why is it that the basis for the nuclear talks to begin with — sanctions & threats against Iran under the unfounded assumption that they’re seeking nuclear weapons — is treated in the media as if it is an olive branch rather than a constant promise of violence?

-About Denmark, Russia, & NATO: does anyone not connected to a “defense” contractor really think that missile shield will really work? And for the millionth time, what reason would Iran have to launch missiles at Europe, if the NATO explanation for it is to be believed?

-Since when did the completely justified & basic human decency concept of not being a total dick to traumatized people & the ridiculous concept of Challenging Opinions = Bad become synonyms? Can we no longer tell the difference between disagreements and threats?

-Just how freaking strong is nationalism when people in Britain are saluting a king that’s been dead 500 years?

-The total money wasted on infantile horseshit expressions of privilege such as the one described at this link, how many actual children can that feed? And where are our pitchforks?

-Next time a company comes up with another ass-brained thing like #RaceTogether to shove on their workers, can we see a mass strike please? If not, why not?

-I stumbled across a right-wing Republican blogger using to bash Obama… a Keynesian case for stadium funding via taxes. How does this person remember to breathe?

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In wich I rage about other things

Been deflating lately, busy thinking about my little life as opposed to your usual servings of righteous anarchist anger at the Big World. It’s been awhile since I last shared examples of how my mind works on non-political stuff here, so… enjoy:

 

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Drunken definition thoughts

Political philosophy tests are not only flawed in the sense that they assume everyone can be pigeonholed into a concrete set of views that they MUST hold because of the answers to some questions regardless of their logic behind their answers, but because they are inherently biased by what the author of it thinks of the various views they define. A few days ago out of sheer boredom I messed with one on the site Select Smart, and got results I have screen captured at this link. Click if you care.

Despite what I have just stated about the uselessness of what I did at the time, it did jog today some thoughts about political philosophy with the help of my good friend malt liquor, which I will simply present and let say whatever. so here goes:

The easiest thing to say about my views is that I am opposed to the state (that is, the philosophy that considers a declared monopoly of violence necessary to a stable society is my enemy). Also, I am against what we commonly know as capitalism. I have previously noted here the slipperiness of how the commonly thought of alternative to capitalism — that is, socialism — is defined, in attempt to further describe where I’m coming from.  Funny enough, the quiz I took puts me closer to “anarcho-capitalism” than “anarcho-communism” anyway, which says more about how the author of the quiz defines both than how I think.

As I have described before, though I oppose capitalism I am not of the mind that collective economics is good of its own sake — I don’t oppose individual efforts, or even property rights for that matter. Simultaneously, I personally think the concept of anarcho-capitalism is inherently mistaken due to the very nature of capitalism itself. When I hear the term “anarcho capitalist”, I question the understanding of the history of capitalism by whoever is deploying it. I’d even go as far as to say that “anarcho-capitalism” is like saying “vegan BBQ joint”: an absurdity contradicting the point of the latter term.

My respect for individualism doesn’t even come close to letting capitalism off the hook. In fact, brace yourselves for the following: I believe the definition of capitalism as a non-collectivist ideology by its defenders is horseshit. The practiced use of self-interest betrays such with slight thought. Consider how actions by organized labor are universally seen by proponents of capitalism, as an inherent violation to the correct order of things. Well damn, do workers not have interests of their own, or do those of only a few count? It is as if the worth of self interest itself were determined via hierarchy — which, last I checked, anarchy was supposed to oppose in essence. In other words, I reject capitalism for much the same reason many reject, say, Catholicism — an elite to be obeyed by the followers for the sake of the faith makes me barf.

Cobble the above together with how often the highest status economic actors in capitalism benefit from the intervention of the existent state, and it is a puzzle how such is expected to survive in its recognizable form with the subtraction of the guns pointed at us all.

Surely some may be asking now how I envision the economy of a post-state society operating. While I would caution against seeing such vision as a reason to impose a structure, as that would defeat the purpose of anarchy, my… suspicion (I’d rather call it that) would be that most economic activity would for reasons of logic and approachability consist of layers of syndicalist endeavors & lasseiz-faire indie business, due to the non viability of capitalism as we know it without enforced hierarchy and constant subsidy. Wage labor would rather than being a requirement for survival be such a rarity that it’d be a preference of the very few out of intentional decision to not be involved in the planning of a larger scale operation — in other words, you’d practically have to beg people to just Do rather than also Own.

I don’t pretend this is particularly clear still or profound, it is merely what I think, and a lubricated form at that. Do what you will with it… *burp*.

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Buts Everywhere (plus a foot in a mouth)

As virtually everyone knows by now, there was recently an attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in France, leaving several cartoonists dead. The perpetrators were reported to have made remarks suggesting the killings were some form of revenge for the magazine having published drawings of Muhammed.

There’ve been many reactions to this, from the inevitable hashtag (“#JeSuisCharlie”, translates to “I Am Charlie”), the unfortunate random retaliation attacks against French Muslims (as if they had a damn thing to do with it…), criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s content, and  a ridiculous photo op I’m not even going to bother linking to. A couple expressions on this, however, I’d like to observe:

-Among the tropes deployed by editorial cartoonists has been expressions nodding towards the old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword — in this case, generally by depicting various drawing tools pointed at a generic militant as if they were missiles. Sassy Sourstein rightfully touched on the problem with that:

As if Western Civilization’s mighty pens were the only missiles pointed at Muslims. The West is just minding its own enlightened business and these jihad crazies come and assail our absolute greatest right.

If only that were the case. Imagine how calm the world would be if bad drawings were the extent of belligerence. BTW: France does just fine assailing that right itself

A particular artist, Eli Valley, in his drawn response suggests being genuinely fearful not only of being killed if he drew Muhammed (wait, wasn’t Muhammed a character on South Park for years? Trey Parker & Matt Stone are still alive last I checked), but that people will excuse his murder. Now, some critics have been harsher than others, but I haven’t seen anything remotely approaching a pre-emptive Samuel L Jackson in A Time To Kill declaration. Just to put it out there, though I feel like it’s silly to have to, I don’t take context as a justification: killing people for drawings is nuts regardless of who is doing the drawing or the killing.

Check out how Eli portrays his fear, as noting a terrible act with “but” to downplay it. He asks why that isn’t the case for other things… but alas, it actually is, and regularly:

“…but she shouldn’t have led him on like that”
“…but the alternative is more crime”
“…but it’s necessary to keep us safe”

The justification is all around us already, so what was intended as a reducio ad absurdum is instead the status quo.

-Speaking of But Security, Will Wilkinson at The Economist caught a rather curious deployment of such by… guess who?

“You’ve got to secure your country […] I think our border is a danger to attack, as well as our student visa programme. Several of the attackers on 9/11 were here on student visas they had overstayed. I haven’t seen any Christians or Jews dragging Muslims through the streets, but I have seen the opposite”

Guliani? Steve King? Nope, alleged “libertarian” leaning blatantly obvious 2016 presidential candidate Rand Paul. This is a humongous smear job against the global Muslim population, as if they are all to be assumed extremists unless they first prove they aren’t to The Proper Authorities — and it’s part of an appeal to the mainstream of his party! What does that say about them that a way to signal being non-fringe is to go Full Metal Xenophobe?

As for Paul’s ending remark, he proves himself as adept at erasing context as the aforementioned cartoonists: the major conflicts of the world aren’t about religion, but resources*, and when a Hellfire missile lands there’s not much left to drag.

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The Finest Whine of Swine

Wow:

In the wake of the murder of two New York City police officers and a national debate about policing, the National Fraternal Order of Police is asking for the Congressional hate crimes statute to be expanded to include crimes against police officers. The union has more than 300,000 members.

Violence against police officers that’s motivated by anti-police bias should be prosecuted as a hate crime, the nation’s largest police union is arguing in a letter to President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders this week.

Cops have been through so much throughout history.  Recall the centuries of trade in cops stolen from their native Donutistan, forced by their captors to beat people in a strange land. Or how millions of police officers were sent to the gas chambers in the Copocaust. Why, it wasn’t that long ago merely being a cop was considered a psychological problem in the DSM-IV, and police officers were routinely sterilized against their will for the crime of wearing a badge and uniform & claiming the power to initiate force & seize property on behalf of the state. Even nowadays people wearing nametags while eating pastries have to be on high alert for confused, hateful people who will assault them due to mistaking them for a cop!

Actually, no. This is absurd for the same reason that asking why there isn’t a White History Month draws a side-eye.

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The Banality of Blue

After the killing of two cops in New York City, which the police loudly blamed to anyone that would listen on the demonstrations threatening to turn into a nationwide movement of sorts against the tendency of cops to assault & kill unarmed civilians and get away with it, the NYPD via their police unions took up a work slowdown. Their bluster about the dangers of their job and its alleged necessity lest Chaos Reigns And The Streets Flood With Blood aside, what has been the actual result? Plummeting enforcement against such FIENDISH offenses as… Parking violations, public drinking, and drug possession by people not bothering anybody.

Note that this was reported in the NY Post, which is generally known for right-wing sensationalism. I don’t think this makes the point they expected…

The Post obtained the numbers hours after revealing that cops were turning a blind eye to some minor crimes and making arrests only “when they have to” since the execution-style shootings of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

Police sources said Monday that safety concerns were the main reason for the dropoff in police activity, but added that some cops were mounting an undeclared slowdown in protest of de Blasio’s response to the non-indictment in the police chokehold death of Eric Garner.

“When they have to”. That line strikes at the heart of the common defense of the police, that they are in place to maintain basic order. One would think based on how crime tends to be covered in the media, especially by TV news, that the majority of a police officer’s day is spent apprehending and deterring the violent, fighting murderers, rapists & muggers. Instead they show themselves to mostly be hall monitors with guns and uniforms.

About those safety concerns, it should be noted that the killings of Ramos & Liu are the first of on-duty NYPD officers in the past three years. Meanwhile, police brutality has been an issue long before then, as well as rampant racial profiling in the case of New York’s “Stop and Frisk”. Realistically, if that shooting were the result of anti-cop sentiment, wouldn’t those numbers be much higher already? I’d think if police were truly as under siege as they claimed, cops in many cities across the country would practically have to patrol in their own specialized Popemobiles.

Nope, it’s just about power, about maintaining obedience and shutting down any questioning no matter how mild. Which makes the NYPD’s slowdown an epic backfire.

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Defending Chris. Kind of. Somewhat.

When it comes to comedy & social context, there’s basically three approaches:

-Try to write it out as irrelevant, which limits your range of content.
-Pretend it’s already irrelevant, which limits the effectiveness of your content.
-Grab it by the horns, which while risky also potentially opens up big rewards.

Many legends of comedy (for example George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Dave Chappelle) are known for having picked that 3rd approach. Chris Rock is one that has done so and also been successful, particularly in skewering racial politics at times in his standup shows. I’ve been a longtime fan of his*. Well, over at Salon, Mychal Denzel Smith points at a well known bit of his — the “black people vs niggas” segment of his 1996 HBO special “Bring the Pain” — and calls it way more than Not Funny in his opinion:

The joke here being that there is a subset of black people that are gleefully uneducated, take pride in their criminal activities, and serve as the clumsy sidekick in black America’s plan for liberation. If it weren’t for them, the n–gers, we’d all be free. […] Of course, the substance of what Rock said wasn’t new. It hewed to the same line of respectability politics that had been a part of black political life since the days of Reconstruction. Even W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most important sociologist in all of American history, posited a theory for black liberation that rested on the idea that 90 percent of black people ain’t shit and could only be saved by the “talented tenth.” He later abandoned that idea, but it got stuck in our collective imagination nonetheless.

He brings this up in the context of former NBA star Charles Barkley saying (with no jest at all) that black people have other black people to blame for lack of success, Mychal claiming that Chris Rock is getting a pass for having in his mind said the same thing.

First of all, I actually remember Chris himself saying that a part of the reaction he got for that routine, apparently from people who thought it justified their racism, made him drop it entirely. It’s not like he has the power to decide how people interpret his material, and some will read whatever they want to into anything simply to reinforce what they already believe. If people were prejudiced against blacks after hearing Chris, it’s because they were prejudiced before.

Speaking of racism, observations of structural racism have as well been mined for material over the years. Take Chris’ observation about the War on Drugs, for example: that it’s largely because of where the good drugs come from & the skin tones of those who would benefit from their open sale. He has punctuated this in another of his stand up shows with the line “could you imagine how ILLEGAL a pack of cigarettes would be if Phillip Morris had been started by a bunch of Jheri curled niggas from Mississippi?”. Does that sound like someone who thinks what Barkley said is spot on?

Exaggeration is often a tool of comedy, particularly to emphasize a point. To me, the point of the bit wasn’t the “talented tenth” from W.E.B. DuBois that is invoked in Mychal Smith’s critique, as that would’ve required Chris to have claimed effectively that most blacks are the “niggas” he spoke of. Rather, it was of a piece with how people within a cultural circle can talk to others within it in ways that outsiders can’t get away with, and a certain frustration with a few habits that do appear at times. To my understanding, much of what was lamented there via comedy and at times discussed more seriously actually stems from learned responses to systemic racism to begin with. Consider the attitude towards education he mentioned: there’s a still fresh legacy of intelligent blacks being seen as a threat, to be stomped on for the safety of the status quo. Combine that with the economic struggles that young blacks in many areas grow up seeing regardless of the efforts of those around them, borne of residential segregation, the fallout from the police state routinely singling out minorities, and the whipsaw effect of capitalism on already disadvantaged populations: some people will inevitably conclude Screw It. Incentives matter.

To be fair, Mychal does acknowledge how those responses can actually work out to benefit others at times:

The real “dirty, dark secret” is this: the n–gers helped us survive. It’s all of those welfare queens, dope-dealing cousins, liquor store-robbing uncles, cable-stealing aunties, drunk granddads, and fast-tailed grannies who have made any of our relative success possible. It was those dope-dealing cousins who were able to buy someone’s kids’ school supplies. It was a good-for-nothing-drunk-of-an-uncle who fixed cars that helped folks get to work. It was an aunt who had five kids out of wedlock who did someone’s hair and made alterations on their suit for a job interview.

To an extent he’s got a point. Nobody is perfect, it’s silly to expect perfection, and sometimes people just make what they can out of a bad hand. Hell, look at the Williams sisters! While they were practicing tennis early on in Compton, who helped keep them safe? Some dudes with blue rags hanging out of their in all likelihood sagging pants.

Observations about ones own group are commonplace in standup comedy these days: Black comedians about black people, Jewish comedians about fellow Jewish folk, Latino comedians about Latinos, etc… I even recall seeing a tour film of comedians from the Middle East that made such self culture referential jokes. The idea that there’s something inherently bad about doing so… I don’t get it.

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The diagnosis is capitalism

Several years into the post Capital Paradox era, laments of the “recovery” that ain’t continue. In one example, Matt O’Brien at the Washington Post notes where the Federal Reserve has put interest rates, asks “what gives?” — and comes close to a moment of clarity:

What does it mean that the economy “needs” low rates — indeed, negative once you account for inflation — to get to full employment? That shouldn’t happen in a world, like our own, where investments have positive returns. Companies should always want to invest, hiring workers in the process.

Well, the answer is one part psychology and another part supply and demand. People, you see, just might be too scared to invest in anything that doesn’t look super-safe, unless there’s a bubble that looks super-profitable.

But this isn’t just a mental problem. Real rates might also be negative, because there’s more supply of lendable funds but less demand for investment. Or, in English, there’s more money chasing fewer opportunities. (emphasis mine)

In the sense that Matt is describing, control of interest by the central bank essentially functions as a system-wide business subsidy, the point being to make investments more beneficial than they otherwise would’ve been. Without such manipulation, tons of decisions that went one way would have gone the other. The assumption built into this policy, reflected in Matt’s confusion, is that the encouragement of more opportunities leads them to self-perpetuate — investment endlessly begats more investment.

If at this point you’re asking “waitaminute, if they do lead to more investment then why does it have to be nudged to begin with?”, congratulations, you’re a fellow Crank. Reasonable reinvestment is a no brainer, all else being equal, so if reinvestment broadly stalls without steroids then a large chunk of the investments prior are basically bubble chasing & short-sighted boondogglery, a.k.a. malinvestment. The bubbles bursting & outlandish projects being mothballed en masse are what correction to the mean looks like.

Beyond just the actions of the Fed, there have all along been additional incentives provided by the state for investment as well, many of which are so common for so long they’re barely thought of or talked about anymore: various subsidies in the tax code, direct favors to politically connected industry (including resource theft), the monopoly grant that is IP law enshrining huge markups in even relatively simple consumer goods, etcetera. Taken as a whole, the rampant political favoritism to capital, while hampering most of the population in the name of false enrichment, has served as a training program of sorts as well, in that the height of big business has been bred to expect profit to be as easy as falling out of bed. The “need” of negative interest rates is because the system constructed cannot look to natural consumption patterns for survival, due to the wealth concentration that Matt is able to notice. When only a few people have the money to even bother, next to a wide swath of debt craters, of course opportunities shrink!

Reliance on behemoths built on our backs is what got us to this point. Sure, more bubbles can be created, but that is by definition short-term. The condition of the economy is less like having the flu & more along the lines of extreme hypertension with several blocked arteries — the lifeblood isn’t flowing like it needs to. Unfortunately, the ruling class would rather see the patient die than have that happen.

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