Monthly Archives: April 2014

This is an Artisan Post

Chugging down soulless I-95 during our spring break, my family opted for the all-American lunch stop and pulled into a McDonald’s. McDonald’s, as you might already know, has upgraded itself to a “McCafe” that sells iced mochas, offers free Wi-Fi, and hangs digital touch-screens in the booths. So perhaps I should haven’t been surprised when I ordered the new “Bacon Clubhouse Burger” (Whose clubhouse? Does Ronald McDonald now play golf?) and read on the nattily designed box that the burger inside is on an “artisan roll.”

As a chain fast-food restaurant that serves 25 million customers a day, McDonald’s has got to be the antithesis of artisanal.

“Artisan”—which, of course, ought to be “artisanal” in adjectival form—has its roots in art. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines “artisan” as:

1. A skilled (esp. manual) worker; a mechanic; a craftsman

2. A person who practices or cultivates an art.

McDonald’s is not the first to co-opt “artisan.” Its rival Subway has “sandwich artisans“; Domino’s offers ARTISAN™ pizzas, such as Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggies; Dunkin’ Donuts promoted Artisan Bagels; and Wendy’s sells the Artisan Egg Sandwich. No doubt the fast-food giants are trying to muscle into the higher-priced foodie realm, and sure, the ad copy is enticing. Wendy’s description of its “Artisan Egg Sandwich”: “fresh cracked Grade A Eggs, natural Asiago cheese, freshly cooked applewood smoked bacon or all natural sausage and Hollandaise sauce all atop a honey-wheat artisan muffin toasted to order.”

What does “fresh cracked” eggs even mean? That they are cracked in the restaurant, and not  months ago in a factory 1,000 miles away? Or, better yet, that the egg “atop a honey-wheat artisan muffin” is even an actual egg and not a chemical facsimile?

This copy writing taps into two modern cravings: 1) the desire for “real food,” for reassurance that something quick, cheap, and mass-produced is in the same family as the egg we cracked open on the frying pan last Saturday morning—hence, the “natural,” “all natural,” “freshly cooked,” and “fresh cracked.” 2) the desire for hand-crafted, that real people, not robots, made this sustenance—hence, “toasted to order.”

The gourmet, bespoke, personalized, and designed just-for-you creation is so appealing on this planet of 7 billion people. You are not just a number. You are special. Even your burger roll is artisan.

It also, I think, speaks to the illusion that we living in a friendly, close-knit community, one of artisans and artists and hand-crafted carefully designed things. A standardized transaction replicated millions of times a day is trying to be something more personal, more intimate. McDonald’s may sell 75 burgers a minute, but this one is on an “artisan” roll, not a “factory” roll.

The “artisan” roll wants to matter.

In the recent post on The Witherspoon’s Public Discourse, Daniel Ross Goodman examines philosopher Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s ideas that “human beings possess a God-like creative capacity.” By creating, we are realizing our potential as humans.

A meal that is crafted for us, created by “artisans,” advertises its meaning to us. For better or worse, it encourages us to assume the illusion, for this brief moment, that we are supporting a world of craft and careful creation and human creativity.

Until we finish our meal, and get back on I-95.

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Dishonesty in the Headlines

The New York Times, May 5, 2012
The Height of Corporate Irresponsibility — Anheuser Busch
by Nicholas Kristof
. . . . a particularly egregious example of a company putting greed above conscience. I’m speaking of Anheuser Busch selling hundreds of thousands of gallons of alcohol on the edge of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, knowing that almost all of it will go to illicit drinking on the reservation and feed a devastating alcohol problem there. . . .

The New York Times, July 24, 2012
Philadelphia Church Official Sentenced to 3 to 6 Years in Prison
by Jon Hurdle and Erik Eckholm
PHILADELPHIA — Msgr. William J. Lynn, the first Roman Catholic official in the United States to be convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision, was sentenced to three to six years in prison on Tuesday. “You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong,”. . . .

Inter Press Service, July 27, 2012
Banksters Hijack Microfinance
by Julio Godoy
. . . . new evidence suggests that even microcredit was not protected from the greed that characterizes modern international finance. Two recent studies show that microfinance was simply another profit making scheme for global private finance corporations, such as the Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, and Standard Chartered, who started pouring money into microcredit initiatives. . . .

The New York Times, August 23, 2012
Armstrong Drops Fight Against Doping Charges
by Juliet Macur
After more than a decade of outrunning accusations that he had doped during his celebrated cycling career, Lance Armstrong, one of the best known and most accomplished athletes in recent history, surrendered on Thursday, ending his fight against charges that he used performance-enhancing drugs. . . .

The New York Times, September 28, 2012
Bank of America Settles Suit over Merrill for $2.43 Billion
by Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Susanne Craig
The price being paid by Bank of America for its missteps during the financial crisis rose sharply on Friday as the bank announced a $2.43 billion deal to settle accusations that it misled investors about the acquisition of Merrill Lynch . . . .

The New York Times, November 2, 2012
Hyundai and Kia Acknowledge Overstating the Gas Mileage of Vehicles
by Bill Vlasic
DETROIT — The South Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia built their brands around the idea that their cars got better gas mileage than competitors, promoting that fact in ads that often took swipes at less efficient rivals.
But on Friday, the companies admitted that they had overstated the fuel economy of 900,000 vehicles sold in the United States over the last two years — about one-third of the vehicles they sold during that period. . . .

The New York Times, February 1, 2013
Students Disciplined in Harvard Scandal
by Richard Pérez-Peña
Harvard has forced dozens of students to leave in its largest cheating scandal in memory, the university made clear in summing up the affair on Friday. . . .

The New York Times, June 11, 2013
Insurers Inflating Books, New York Regulator Says
by Mary Williams Walsh
. . . Insurers’ use of the secretive transactions has become widespread . . . These complex private deals allow the companies to describe themselves as richer and stronger than they otherwise could in their communications with regulators, stockholders, the ratings agencies and customers, who often rely on ratings to buy insurance. . . .

The New York Times, November 21, 2013
A Trading Tactic Is Foiled, and Banks Cry Foul
by Floyd Norris
. . . . Earlier this year, we learned about Apple’s disappearing subsidiary, an extremely profitable one that had no employees and — for tax purposes — was located nowhere. Under United States tax law, it was based in Ireland. Under Irish law, it was based in the United States. So it paid taxes to no one . . . .

The New York Times, January 25, 2014
Doctors Abusing Medicare Face Fines and Expulsion
by Robert Pear
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is cracking down on doctors who repeatedly overcharge Medicare patients . . . “recalcitrant providers” would face civil fines and could be expelled from Medicare and other federal health programs . . . Federal officials estimate that 10 percent of payments in the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program are improper. . . .

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Usually I eat lunch at my desk and read The New York Times or other media about what is going on that day. I started noticing the frequency of stories about major companies, renowned universities, honored professions, and religious leaders not only tolerating various kinds of dishonesty, but deliberately engaging in corruption and deception. This was not restricted to the exaggerations of advertising and marketing, or to morally dubious practices, but to clearly illegal behavior: fraud, bribery, rigging of prices and interest rates, phony audit reports, and cheating on tests. “My word is my bond,” business “done with a handshake,” and “honor codes” are not even the rhetoric of the day, much less the reality. Apparently the fines and penalties that are handed out for such behavior are often seen as “the cost of doing business.”

There is always a strong temptation to think that “the new generation” is not up to the standards of the past. Earlier periods had plenty of cheating and dishonesty. There is a reason the late nineteenth century is often characterized as time of the “robber barons.”

What concerns me, however, is not the cheating of selfish individuals, but rather the apparent organizational cultures that seem to take such behaviors as perhaps regrettable, but “the way of the world.” In turn, these organizational cultures seem to reflect a change in the broader culture. It is difficult to develop convincing measure of such changes over time, but the relevant question is not simply whether dishonesty is greater than in the past, but rather what are the consequences of such deceitfulness. The financial crisis of 2007-2009 was in part due to the deceptive practices of banks, the “look the other way” attitude of regulators, and “eat, drink, and be merry” self-deceptions of many consumers.

What new economic, social and political disasters are ahead if we tolerate in ourselves, our colleagues, and our officials, the levels of dishonesty that have become all too familiar in the last decade?

Murray Milner Jr. is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His newest book, Elites: A General Model, will be published in November by Polity Press.


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Portrait of America’s Young Adults: Wary but Optimistic

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 55% of Millennials have posted a selfie on a social media site, compared with 24 percent of Gen Xers; 9 percent of Boomers; and 4 percent of the Silent Generation.

Generational snapshots sometimes confound us in the ways actual photographs do. The players in a team photo taken right after losing to their perennial cross-town rival are inexplicably smiling. Why? Well, it turns out they barely lost to a team from whom they’d expected a thorough trouncing.

A similar mystery arises from the recent survey of the Millennial generation, the cohort of young American adults who today range in age from 18 to 33. According to the Pew Research Center’s report, “Millennials in Adulthood,” these Millennials are relatively detached from religious and political institutions, are dealing with greater economic challenges (high levels of student debt, unemployment, and stagnant wages), are less inclined to rush into marriage, and are more prone to distrust other people than were the young adults of the three preceding generations.

YPEW social trends graph: Millennials Upbeat about Their Financial Futureet for all those indicators suggesting a fundamental wariness toward the world, the Millennials are curiously optimistic about their future, more so than the members of the three previous generations of Americans, the Baby Boom, Generation  X, and the Silent Generation.

Pew doesn’t offer explanations for this seeming disconnect, though it does conjecture that the racial diversity of the Millennials—the most racially diverse generation in American history, thanks largely to the influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants–has something to do with their lack of social trust.  (“A 2007 Pew Research Center analysis found that minorities and low-income adults had lower levels of social trust than other groups,” the report notes.)

Pew also speculatates that the social and political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s made the Boomers as young adults more pessimistic about the future than today’s Millennials are. If so, it’s interesting to note that economic insecurity may be less troubling to young adults than those other kinds of instability.

Still, apart from the absence of that negative factor, where does the striking optimism of the Millennials come from? Why are they more optimistic than the Silent Generation that came before the Boomers and also more optimistic than the Gen Xers who came after the Boomers?

Two possible answers: first, the very factor possibly contributing to low levels of social trust—namely, the fact that many of the Millennials are immigrants, or the sons and daughters of immigrants—may account for their resilient optimism. To these young Americans, the future still looks brighter than it did in the countries they or their parents came from. They cling to the American Dream more easily than do those Americans who have seen the dream gradually lose its promise.

The other possibility: young Americans are optimistic because they derive support and solace not from traditional institutions like churches and neighborhoods but from the virtual worlds they frequent and even at times seem to inhabit. (“They have taken the lead,” Pew notes, “in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era—the internet, mobile technology, social media—to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups.  They are ‘digital natives’—the only generation for which these new technologies are not something they’ve had to adapt to. Not surprisingly, they are the most avid users.”) While digital communities may be “weak,” in terms of levels of commitment and affiliation, they represent worlds of seemingly limitless possibility, including the entrepreneurial possibilities associated with the new, and particularly social, media.

Can such optimism endure?  Only the next generational snapshot will tell.

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Measuring Virtue in the Audit Society

Can virtue be measured? That was the question before a conference held at Oriel College, Oxford in January sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values of the University of Birmingham. I didn’t attend, but the nearly 40 papers delivered at the conference are available online at the Centre’s website. Reading through some of the papers and the paper abstracts I was struck by two things. First, while some of the presenters raised basic philosophical questions about the very idea of measuring virtue, many of the presenters, after a caveat or two about complexity, confidently said “yes,” virtue or character can be scientifically measured.


A new phrenology?

A new phrenology? (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Second, I was struck by how little they agreed on how to do it, which one might have expected to undermine their confidence. Granted, the various speakers were not all addressing the same aspect of the elephant—some were concerned with measuring only a single virtue, some were asking about measuring character education programs, some offered instruments to measure how individuals view moral concepts, and so on—yet everyone seemed to have his or her favorite method or construct,  and virtually no two were the same. The empirical assessment of virtue/ethics/character seems to a thriving industry.  So far, though, it has produced no strong consensus of thought.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the conference was the very question of measuring virtue. Who is asking this question and why now? Certainly one demand for measurement is coming from the new science of morality that is going great guns in psychology, neuroscience, and other fields. More generally, though, and feeding the science, are the imperatives of the “audit society” and the multiplication, over the past few decades, of formal “checking up” systems that were created in the name of accountability. These systems have spread far and wide, from government to education to medicine and beyond, and they require measurable indicators that are verifiable.

Michael Power, author of The Audit Society (1997), defines in an earlier paper a key aspect of verifiability: “that attribute of information which allows qualified individuals working independently of one another to develop essentially similar measures or conclusions from an examination of the same evidence, data or records….” This normally quantitative attribute is one thing in the context of a financial audit, where money is the medium, or quality assurance of, say, light bulbs, where readily visible criteria of success or failure exist and preexist the audit process. In these contexts, auditing and certifying are a secondary monitoring of compliance or performance.

However, it is quite another matter in contexts where the performance of doctors or teachers or professors is at issue. In these complex contexts—and this has implications for something as qualitative, relational, and holistic as virtue—activities that are not easy to quantify must first be “made auditable” by finding some feature of them to measure or rate. While this need not be a bad thing—it might, for instance, force professionals to think seriously about their goals—it can take on a life of its own.

The very act of creating measures and benchmarks and rating scales can badly distort the nature of the thing being audited, throwing off all sorts of unintended consequences. Far from a merely derived and neutral activity, auditing and performance measurement can construct a system of knowledge and then re-shape the organizational environment to make that system successful. More germane to virtue is the distinct possibility that because the disposition itself is not readily amenable to verifiable, non-subjective measurement, what will be quantified is simply some aspect that is easy to count, often a crude and not very meaningful aspect at that. This aspect, because verifiable and thus more tractable and “real,” then gets confused with the thing itself. Virtue becomes, as one of the speakers at the Oxford conference argued, “what virtue tests test.”

I recently heard a social scientist argue that when it comes to measuring morality any measure is better than none, an at-least-we’re-counting-something view which Power also observes in his research. But surely, in light of the dynamics of real-world assessment practices, such a facile view is deeply mistaken. Only a very good measure is better than none.


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