On Red Meat and Mortality

By Matt Swartz

The other evening, I visited a newly-opened grocery store. The marketing and signage made it clear to me from the street that its intention was to compete with Whole Foods. I pulled in hoping that its strategy would be price competition, rather than an escalation in the arms race of foodie esoterica that has recently gotten so obnoxious (“I wanted some gluten-free pine-nut-based energy snacks with acai berries in them, but the only ones I can find have soy isolates in the ingredient list! Thanks, but I can’t buy these. I care too much about my family!”)

On the whole, my expectations were met. The innards of the store were filled with healthy snacks at inflated prices, much like a Whole Foods, but all the important deals are on the outside edges of a grocery store anyway: produce, dairy, bulk dry stuff and meat. These were wholesome and reasonably priced, so much so that I intend to return regularly. But I had an interaction at the butcher’s counter that stayed with me.

At the butcher’s counter, I could see that they were doing everything right. My powers of description aren’t anywhere near equal to the shiny redness and thickness of the steaks, marbled, stacked high, and priced cheaper than I’d expected. On the wall behind the counter, various marketing blurbs were written (did I mention how good ALL of the typefacing on this store’s advertising looked? Painstaking effort had clearly been taken.)

One of the blurbs was styled like this: “ask me about _______ .” “Me” was clearly the butcher, so I asked him the scripted question. He paused for a moment, considering, I suppose, that we were of  similar age, build, social class, and level of grizzeledness, and went off script: “Oh, they have a big speech I’m supposed to give you, but basically it just means we massage the cows before we kill ’em.” We MASSAGE the cows, before we KILL THEM.

I bought two steaks and left, but on the drive home, I realized that in his parting words, I’d found an ace that I could keep (apologies to Kenny Rogers, of course). It is a natural fact that every one of us is going to die, and we don’t know when. Luxury deadens our awareness of this looming fact, in the same way small acts of conscientiousness (Buy grass-fed! Buy organic!) lead us to imagine that we can delay it. But neither change facts. On a day we don’t and can’t plan, we’re going to be led down the chute, and when we get to the bottom of it, whatever massages we’ve had recently will be utterly beside the point.

My drive home took me past what I think is the oldest cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. I looked over the stone fence into the  tree-filled, shadowy resting place of those now, some of them, nearly 200 years dead. Some are marked with crosses, some with obelisks, and a few, signage informs me, aren’t marked at all. Those people ate grass-fed and organic, and I suppose if they’d had health care plans they liked, they would have been able to keep them. But they’re gone and forgotten.

I’m a Christian man; I have hope for the next life, and for that I’m thankful. But what I don’t have, what nobody has, is control over this day or that one. Our mortality is a fact that bears reflection. And when a meat cutter at a yuppie grocery store can spur that reflection, it’s been a good day.

Income vs. jobs: The minimum wage Red Herring

By Andrew Sharp

The guy ringing up your order of fries can’t survive on his minimum wage paycheck. But can anything be done about that? Recent debates about the minimum wage — what it should be and whether there should even be one — have been brought to the forefront by fast food workers demanding their pay be doubled. Well-meaning people take different sides of this argument. The problem is that it’s the wrong argument.

The standard argument generally runs as follows:
Kind-hearted labor advocate: These people can’t live on the money they’re making. They deserve fair pay and the minimum wage needs to be raised to give it to them. People should make enough at their jobs to pay the bills.

Thoughtful capitalist: Raising minimum wage won’t help. Rich business owners will keep their money, and they’ll just raise the prices on all of us to cover the higher wage. Then there will be fewer jobs.
Arrogant capitalist, chiming in: Yeah, and the poor people need to get college degrees or actually get a real job that pays the bills, not a high-schooler’s job. They signed up for that wage, they should just be happy with it or go work somewhere else.

I hardly need to rebut arrogant capitalist; his argument is snide and flimsy (especially because I made it a straw man). But the other ideas are worth careful thought.
Many of those who argue against raising the minimum wage insinuate — or say outright — that there shouldn’t be a minimum wage at all, because then the free market could have full reign as God intended and there would be plenty of jobs for all.

Presumably, we could then all go back to a happier day when everyone had a job at whatever rate the rich people felt like paying, and lived in squalid shacks without health care or enough food or heat in the winter.

In those golden days, when the free market reigned with an iron hand, its serfs often lived and died in squalid conditions. Ask your grandfather, if he’s still around, how he liked breathing coal dust for a living in Appalachian mines. He died at 39, you say? Well, at least it’s a mercy that the family has been able to make a new life on the inheritance he passed down, since he received a fair reward for his hard work. What’s that? Penniless? Oh.

Therein is the flaw, of course. Rather than argue about whether the minimum wage will fix anything, why are we not questioning rich business owners who refuse to cut into their profits for fair employee benefit, but instead choose to pass the costs along to the customers? Of course it’s legal — and good capitalism — but does being legal make it good? The relationship between law and justice is often only a casual one.

While we argue over whether the minimum wage will work, we often ignore the deeper issue of whether free market capitalism, as touted by many of its proponents, is really a good thing. At this point in the discussion, some people will start to get very upset. Their faces flush. They breathe faster. They howl, “BUT THAT WON’T WORK PEOPLE ARE GREEDY AND SELFISH CAPITALISM IS THE BEST WAY CONSIDERING HUMAN NATURE ADAM SMITH HARD-EARNED GAINS NO WELFARE STATE YOU CAN’T FORCE PEOPLE TO BE GENEROUS” and so on.

Sure, maybe unchecked capitalism works, for some people. But again, is it good? If we let people compete savagely with greed and selfishness, with only the fit surviving, we may indeed end up creating vast wealth. But will we end up with a prosperous, happy society? Minimum wage is not a fix, in such a system. Rather, it is a sad symptom of greed.

While I can’t answer these profound questions that people have been wrestling with for centuries — this is an opinion column, not a philosophical breakthrough — I would like to make two simple suggestions. (And no, for those who have been getting worked up, it’s not to get rid of capitalism.) One suggestion is that we no longer assume that business owners who hog all the wealth they can get are somehow virtuous, achievers of the American dream, if they got there by screwing their workers. That kind of behavior should be a shame, spoken of in hushed tones, rather than lauded as success.

And two, I submit that a minimum wage is a good check on greed. If we raise it back up to 1970 levels, adjusting for inflation, and as a result we all have to pony up a few more pence for a hamburger, I don’t think it will kill us. Although the hamburger might.

The Back Page: Smoke, Mirrors and Satan®

By Matt Swartz

SmokeI got a child’s-eye view of an interesting period in evangelical history; I witnessed the passing of the Fear Baton. It was never announced clearly in a way that made sense to a 12-year-old, but one year, it seemed, we were supposed to be afraid of world Communism, and the next year, we were supposed to be afraid of a Floridian performance artist named Brian Warner.

He made gothic rock music under the nom de plume Marilyn Manson, and there seemed to be a consensus among my church’s adults that if any of us tweens were to hear any of it, we’d be instantly smitten and permanently seduced by the satanic imagery he employed.

The antics that occurred at his concerts were discussed in hushed tones, which piqued our interest precisely because they were forbidden. Rare was the youngster in my hometown that had any interest whatsoever in that particular genre, but Rock ‘n’ Roll has always had a symbiotic relationship with the idea of danger, and no better marketing for Manson’s music could have been imagined than the sound of the people who exercised daily power over our lives saying his name in fear-inflected tones.

The thrumming of the moral panic machine spread, over the course of three or four years, from the parents to the children. Soon, we were spreading apocryphal stories about this man’s background, proclivities, and, in fact, anatomy.

Time and Google later clarified for me that many of these stories were urban legends that had been transposed slightly from older rock stars and (and previous moral panic focii), while others of them were true. But for us, they were all true; true enough to be at once repulsive and fascinating. We were horrified, and our horror heightened yearly or biennially, when he came to our region to play a 2,300-seat venue. Presumably he sold out. There were prayer vigils outside, he was mentioned out over pulpits, his name said in anger; in short, his provocations were successful.

But it was never explained to any of us young ones what his defilements of Christian iconography were actually supposed to mean. We attached no positive superstitious meaning to objects. If anyone had suggested to us that crosses were magical, we would have laughed them off, but somehow we felt, and were encouraged in feeling, that something powerful and evil was being called up from hell by his upside-down neon crosses.

Theologically, it was a case of good teaching, incompletely internalized; we knew that God was sovereign and that witchcraft was doomed, but we didn’t believe that it was doomed quite yet, and we feared it being spread among us through popular (if hookless) music.
Eventually, the star’s light began to dim; he bored of music, and the Church bored of him, and he lost his ability to perform the rock and roll alchemist’s trick that The Clash once called “turning rebellion into money.” And we grew up, and our parents calmed down, and all was well, more or less, but still I wonder about the amount of energy that was wasted.

Young me could name two Marilyn Manson albums, and maybe five songs, but only one historic church council, and probably only one of the five Solas of the Reformation. I do not fault my elders, for they were doing their best to safeguard the kids in their care from what truly was some sinister and morally corrosive entertainment. But I am left with the impression that some energy was misused, some opportunities wasted.

(No Longer) Scammed in the Bathroom

By Matt Swartz

Very little of the money I spend to fill my refrigerator goes to waste. If I spend an extra dollar here or there buying products with fewer (and more easily pronounceable) ingredients, I’m happy to do it. If anything spoils before I get to it, inevitably it will have been a vegetable, and those are cheap.

The same principle holds true in my closet (or, more accurately my laundry basket, where clothing stays after I wash it and before I toss it on my floor). Now that I’m over 25, I’ve stopped buying shirts with writing or graphics on them, and that’s helped me spend a good deal less. If anyone misses reading my shirts, they’ve been kind enough not to say so. More probably they, like me, enjoy having one less bit of pointless text in their lives. Two pairs of jeans is enough, dress clothing is needed rarely enough that there’s no point in having two sets, and everything else is purchasable in bulk.

Add in the living room where I split basic cable three ways, and the (hypothetical) garage, where I park a car that I expect to turn the odometer over on one or two more times, and my house is a veritable fortress of thrift.

And for a long time, that was the end of my thrift, until recently I was felled financially by the porcelain room. For it is there where the marketers do their worst work. Dentists only recommend a pea-sized spot of toothpaste, but those horrible commercials show it covering the whole brush.

Until recently, I shelled out for another preposterous paste called “shaving-cream.” I guess the idea was that I could scrape the hairs off my face more efficiently if I couldn’t see any of them? I always went too fast and cut myself, which hasn’t happened once since I stopped using it; the steam from a hot shower softens the skin enough, as it turns out.

Similarly, I discovered an old product that dates back to the years before body wash commercials. It cleans the skin at a much lower cost-per-application. This old home remedy, called “soap” is still used widely for cleaning hands, but it works for the whole body as well. It’s basically body wash without the water added. And thank goodness! I just happen to be using the soap in a place where there’s lots of water, and this water, unlike the first ingredient in the body wash, I’m buying wholesale and in bulk.

If my aftershave bottle gets low, I refill it with rubbing alcohol or liquor, both of which are much cheaper, and the Old Spice has more than enough smell to go around, even when diluted. Add in the bar shampoo I bought a year ago (same principle as the soap, and that $10 has lasted for a year of regular use), and I’m starting to get a handle on the thing. I estimate that doing the opposite of what I see on TV means that I now send only half as much money swirling down the drain as I once did. Now, if I can just find a way to trim the weekend budget…