Republican new order looks a lot like medieval old order…

“…ternarity became the ideology of feudal society; the division into groups was “not on the basis of actions performed, roles played, offices assumed, or services mutually rendered, but rather on the basis of merit.” – Georges Duby

Medieval depiction of The Three Orders: left to right, the Clergy, the Nobility, the Laborer (image courtesy W. W. Norton)

As what the Republicans call the “tax cut” bill and 79% of the public calls the “tax cuts for the rich, nightmares for everyone else” bill moves toward a vote, I’ve been thinking a lot about the French medieval historian Georges Duby.

That’s how I roll, people.

Duby has been on my mind because a couple of years ago I wrote an essay on his masterful examination of the socio-economic structure of medieval Europe, The Three Orders.  I’ve been turning over in my mind one passage in particular from that essay:

What is left for readers is to consider how Duby’s elucidation of that far off time provides insights into our own imaginings of this new millennium.

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Dear Mr. Buffett: about your excess cash problem…

“Warren Buffett has advocated for higher taxes on the rich and a reasonable estate tax. But his company Berkshire Hathaway has used ‘hypothetical amounts’ to ‘pay’ its taxes while actually deferring $77 billion in real taxes.” – Paul Buchheit, Bill Moyers and Company

Warren Buffett with a little of what he has a lot of (image courtesy Wall Street Nation)

This an an open letter of sorts to the richest person in Omaha, Nebraska.

A recent Motley Fool article bemoaned a problem that can best be described as peculiar to one in Mr. Buffett’s  life situation:

As of Sept. 30, Berkshire [Hathaway] (Mr. Buffett’s company) was sitting on more than $109 billion in cash, which represents nearly one-fourth of the company’s entire market cap, and the Oracle of Omaha is undoubtedly feeling the pressure to start putting it to work.

The author of the article, Matthew Frankel, reassures us that he realizes that Mr. Buffett’s problem deserves to be placed in its proper context:

To be clear, having a massive sum of cash is certainly a good problem to have. It’s certainly better than not having enough cash, or having too much debt.

If your response to the above was “Well, duh,” you might be in the 99%.

So here’s an open letter to Warren Buffett, “the Oracle of Omaha,” about ways in which he  might use some, if not all, of that excess cash he has lying around. Continue reading

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Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom… rock music according to Nik Cohn

“Elvis is where pop begins and ends. He’s the great original and even now he’s the image that makes all others seem shoddy, the boss. For once, the fan club spiel is justified: Elvis is King.” – Nik Cohn

Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom by Nik Cohn (image courtesy Goodreads)

One of the books from the 2017 reading list that I have most been looking forward to reading (actually re-reading) is Nik Cohn’s now classic 1970 book on rock music, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. Cohn’s style, which is opinionated, brash, and merciless in his assessments of some of the musicians we think of as both musical and cultural legends (don’t be fooled by the encomium above – he takes plenty of shots at the post-Army movie star and the Vegas period lounge singer Elvis became).

He is, to me, one of the most authentic writers on the subject of rock music that I have ever read. I rate him with Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, and Lester Bangs (some would count Paul Morley in this elite company, but I find him pedantic and self-indulgent). Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom is Cohn’s first book. Written when he was only 23, it is filled with the hubris and certainty of youth, and I suspect Cohn’s strong opinions, especially about his contemporaries, the rock stars who emerged in the 1960’s, have likely moderated – or hardened – over the years.

Still, nearly 50 years later Cohn’s opinions about both the founding figures of rock from the 1950’s – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley – and the great English stars – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Who – almost all of whom he knew, some closely (he was an intimate of Pete Townshend) resonate with a level of both the gravitas of a serious critic and the snarkiness of a kid in the mosh pit that impresses even as it sometimes maddens a knowledgeable reader. He’s as authentic as those he writes about. Continue reading

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Coda: resisting McDonaldization…

“The system is run by the few with the few as the main beneficiaries. Most of the people in the world have no say in these systems and are either not helped or are adversely affected by them.” – George Ritzer

(Read Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

We’re all living in McDonald’s world (image courtesy LinkedIn)

The range of the standardized, bureaucratic system embodied in McDonald’s is now an immense web in which almost every American is enmeshed. The power of McDonaldization is now so great that for many people resisting the roles defined for us by McDonaldized business and institutional models feels, if not impossible, so difficult and time consuming (inefficient and unpredictable, not to mention difficult to calculate and hard to control) as to seem not worth the effort.

So, the vast majority of us continue to submit ourselves, if not willingly then unresistingly, to McDonaldized systems. From our daily activities of shopping and dining to our most important decisions such as obtaining health care and education, we are, all too often, faced with capitulating to McDonaldization to meet our life needs. We buy our morning coffee from the chain outlet, check and bag our own purchases from a big box store, go to the immediate care facility to get our sprained ankle treated. These behaviors are our first, sometimes our only, options. But most of use realize that such behaviors drain us of our humanity and individuality bit by bit. And we wish there were other possibilities.

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The McDonaldization of pretty much everything…part 5

“The bureaucracy is a dehumanizing place in which to work and by which to be serviced. The main reason we think of McDonaldization as irrational, and ultimately unreasonable, is that it tends to become a dehumanizing system that may become anti-human or even destructive to human beings.” – George Ritzer

(Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

Wall Street bankers discuss the housing market crash rationally (image courtesy Idle Log)

In part 4 of this series I discussed how the tentacles of McDonaldization have spread far beyond the fast food industry and attached themselves to almost every institution of American culture. This implementation of the hyper-rational methods developed by Ray Kroc for the McDonald’s food chain, however, when implemented, tend to foster irrational behavior and results.

As parts 1 and 2 of this series explained, McDonaldization is evolved from bureaucracy, a form of standardization that emphasizes chain of command, efficiency through strict limitation of individual duties and responsibilities, and above all, strict control over all operations. Kroc’s adaptation of this methodology for his hamburger stands distilled the rigidity of bureaucracy into four essential elements George Ritzer calls McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, control. The application of these elements, as explained in part 3 of the series, was wildly successful – financially – and made McDonald’s the envy of first their direct competitors and then of the entire business world. Businesses of all sorts began to apply the McDonald’s methodology to their companies – with varying degrees of success.  Continue reading

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Fats Domino: the big easy from The Big Easy…

“Well, I wouldn’t want to say that I started it (rock ‘n’ roll), but I don’t remember anyone else before me playing that kind of stuff.” – Fats Domino

Fats Domino in 1962 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Antoine Domino, Jr. was perhaps the most relaxed guy ever to be a rock star. Elvis’s pelvic gyrating, Little Richard’s glitzy preening, Chuck Berry’s showy duck walking, Jerry Lee Lewis’s acrobatic piano pounding are all part of the lore and legend of early rock ‘n’ roll.

Fats did none of those things. Instead of engaging in wild activity that energized crowds to frenzy, Fats played his piano and smiled a lot. And he killed his audiences just as effectively as any of the above greats. If the man from the Big Easy could be said to have a shtick, it would be that he himself was the big easy: laid back, relaxed, chill, wonderfully musical in a way that made being musical seem – well, easy.

Domino’s influence on the musicians who came after him was enormous. Paul McCartney has said in interviews that he was trying to write a Fats Domino song when he wrote “Lady Madonna.” Randy Newman has said that almost every song he writes begins as a Fats Domino style New Orleans shuffle.  Continue reading

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The McDonaldization of pretty much everything…part 4

“McDonaldization affects not only the restaurant business, but also, education, work, healthcare, travel, leisure, dieting, politics, the family and virtually every other aspect of life.” – George Ritzer

McDonaldization’s Principles (image courtesy Thalia Torres Sociology Blog)

The success of Ray Kroc’s methodology, named McDonaldization after the restaurant chain Kroc built into the most powerful and successful food service company in the world,  impressed, first McDonald’s competitors, then those in charge of other – not just industries, but other areas of human endeavor.

Wanting to be more efficient – and, hopefully, more effective – is not a bad goal in and of itself. Where this can go awry – and go awry it has – is when – as has happened in proof of Robert Merton’s law of unintended consequences – this principle is applied in cultural situations where its application makes no sense. Those other elements of McDonaldization – predictablility, calculability, and control – also play roles in moves toward efficiency. It is almost impossible – at least in a culture besotted with the ideas (and ideals) of capitalism for these unintended consequences not to occur.

When one enters a McDonald’s restaurant and orders a cheeseburger, a McDonald’s employee has been trained to know exactly how quickly that cheeseburger should be prepared and served and how much to charge the customer. The employee’s sole task becomes repeating the process that produced that cheeseburger and got it into the customer’s hands after getting the customer’s money – again and again and again and again and again.

If this sounds like it would be mind and soul numbing, that’s because it is. But it is also efficient, calculable, predictable, and easy to control. And it has brought McDonald’s enormous success and wealth. Continue reading

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