Surveying the growing body of research
on the earnings premium of attractiveness in the marketplace, University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh makes the case in a new book
(and accompanying New York Times op-ed
) that our homely brothers and sisters should have the same legal protections as racial minorities, women, or the disabled in areas like hiring and housing. To establish and enforce those safeguards, lawmakers would need only to devise some universal scale of beauty (which might be easier
than most assume) and then make slight modifications to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the bylaws of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The tricky part would be convincing the discriminated to come forward and fight for fair treatment. “The financial incentive is obvious,” wrote
Molly Young for New York
, “the social and psychological costs, murkier.” “Say It Loud -- I’m Wack and I’m Proud” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, you know?
One hundred and thirty years ago, in 1881, pols in Chicago addressed the issue of appearance from a different angle entirely. Two aldermen slipped a revision into the city’s municipal code, without any debate from their colleagues on the City Council*, prohibiting
a resident from entering Chicago’s public spaces if he or she was “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person.” The “Ugly Law,” which disability activists still regard as one of the most disgusting restrictions ever conceived, was on the books for nearly a century before local legislators repealed it in 1973, calling it “barbaric” and “a throwback to the dark ages."
Adrienne Phelps Coco, a grad student in the history department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, published a fascinating article
in the Journal of Social History
last fall (Project MUSE access required) that used Chicago's foray into beauty profiling as “a window into the imaginings of disability in the late nineteenth century.” What’d she discover? That the statute, as offensive as it is to our modern sensibilities, can’t be evaluated fairly without considering historical context.
Chicago in the late 1870s was a city in crisis, reeling from the Great Chicago Fire
and the worst national depression
to date. Post-war urbanization was in full swing, too; Chicago’s population more than quadrupled from 1860 to 1880, with new immigrants streaming in to make a wage and their way in the burgeoning metropolis. And the prevailing political environment was decidedly laissez-faire. People were expected to work in the Gilded Age, be they injured Civil War veterans, freak show performers, or mentally ill.
With no safety net in place, jobs tough to secure, and workplace injuries common for those who did, however, some desperate souls started begging on the streets, an extreme vocation that horrified the city’s civic leaders. Though the grotesque legal language seems vague and expansive -- the maimed “shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view” -- Coco surmises that the “Ugly Law” was drawn up only to deter certain disabled beggars from making “an exhibition” of their deformities to secure alms, not as a “blanket indictment of all physically disabled people.” In her book "The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public," Susan Schweik reaches the same conclusion. The council, she argues, “tried to codify a specific etiquette of impairment for the urban zone, a guideline for which constituted decent ways of being a ‘diseased’ or ‘maimed’ or ‘deformed’ Chicagoan.”
The actual penalty for public ugliness was modest, initially consisting of a $1 fee ($22.30 in 2010)**. Historical records show that the ban was rarely, if ever, enforced. Yet it still stands out as a brutal, dehumanizing attack on disabled people who needed support, not restrictions placed on one semi-viable option for subsistence. It also underscores the hostile opinions of the poor shared by those who lived in relative comfort at the time. In a piece for the Tribune
, written just a few days after the new ordinance was signed, the reporter suggests that fining and clearing crippled beggars from the sidewalk “will be a public benefit” because they can be a "shock to the ordinary nerves." Some way to talk about your fellow man.
For more, page through Schweik’s book here
. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless could probably use some of your scratch
, as well.
**In 1905, the City Council raised the fine to $5-$50.
-The Brentmeister General
-Fatty Fatty Toad Boy
-Jimmy the Perv
-Fisher Price man
-A big, lanky, goggle-eyed freak of a son
It's hard to believe that Merchant and Gervais concluded their first "series" run 10 years ago this week. Be sure to check out Todd VanDerWerff's summer reviews
for The A.V. Club.
Whoever drummed up the idea to launch Off The Grid
’s new “writers-in-residence” blog, is one smart cookie. And signing up Alex Kotlowitz as the first contributor was an inspired choice.
For his second post
, the decorated writer (and now film producer
) decided to visit a pawnshop on the city’s West Side. Like dollar stores
and other businesses that service people “skimming along the margins,” pawn brokers have made a killing since the economy tanked; spurred by a spike in gold prices and the hollowing out of people’s savings accounts, the nation’s three publicly-listed pawnshop companies -- Cash America International, EZCorp, and First Cash Financial Services -- have outperformed
virtually every other business in the financial services sector over the past three years. Flush with cash, Smart Money
reports that those chain merchants are “going Disney
,” deploying clean-cut employees, investing in new technology, and expanding into suburban markets in an effort to bring in more (or once) affluent customers. Independent operators like the 58-year old shop Kotlowitz visited, which still make up the bulk of the industry, have been forced to follow suit. “In good times,” he writes, “you walk into the pawnshop, people are lined up desperate for just a little cash, and you realize the fiction of the American dream. In bad times, like today, you get a glimpse of what could be around the corner for the rest of us.”
Reading the post, I realized I didn’t know the first thing about the mechanics of pawnshops, context Kotlowitz glossed over, perhaps assuming that most of his readers aren’t idiots like me. It turns out that pawning can be a really nasty racket.
Here’s how it works: Customer A has poor credit (and thus no access to commercial banks) and needs some quick cash. He grabs one of his prized possessions and brings it into the shop. The broker assesses the value of the object (in our imaginary case, $400) and offers Customer A a short-term loan, generally for 30 days and totalling one-quarter to one-third of the item’s resale value ($100), with the keepsake serving as collateral. Customer A goes on his merry way. At any point during the next month, Customer A can pay back the loan (plus interest) and recoup his valuable. If one month elapses and Customer A doesn’t return, he’s given a 30-day grace period to pay up. If he doesn’t show by Day 61, the pawnshop takes ownership of the “collateral” and the broker is free to sell that merchandise, usually at 50 percent of the item’s retail price ($200). When you walk by a pawn shop, it’s those “foreclosed goods” you see hanging in the window.
Cash America’s CEO estimates
that roughly three in 10 of the company’s lendees pocket the loan for good. That means pawnshops make up a small portion of their profits on the difference between what they loaned out in capital and the sticker price for the saleable wares they now own ($100, in the case of negligent Customer A). The rest they collect on interest and fees. And it’s definitely not cheap for those customers who actually make good on their financial promise; though pawnshops are regulated at the state level and thus fees vary by geography, some of the nation’s 13,000 storefronts charge borrowers upwards
of 25 percent, equivalent to a 300 percent annual percentage rate. (In Illinois, there’s a 20 percent cap
Data on pawnshop-induced debt is difficult to come by. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has actually been ordered to conduct a study on folks who use “exchange facilitators” for personal or family purposes in hopes of better understanding the impact of these firms on consumer credit. That’s encouraging. Pawning doesn’t seem nearly as pernicious as payday lending, but it’s no walk in the park, either. Unless you’re a Pawn Star
, that is.
This year, we’re supposed to pity the youngsters in Illinois with the most gorgeous livestock. Because our state’s finances are such a mess, the kids who win Best in Show at the Illinois State Fair are slated
to receive smaller-than-normal cash prizes when they auction off the family bovine in the “Sale of Champions.” That’s money that can go a long way for the small-town middle- and high-schoolers who drag their beloved animals to Springfield each August.
It’d be nice if Illinois could make good on its financial obligations, but let’s not discount the additional perks that an attractive heifer can deliver. For starters, those teens will certainly be the coolest cats at the MC Hammer and Boyz II Men show
tomorrow night. They’ll also take home a shiny blue ribbon, one of the most respected, if not random, awards one can receive.
Blue ribbons have come to symbolize things of the highest quality. It's what one earns when he or she has the healthiest hog, the most innovative science project, or the best tasting beer. The U.S. Department of Education bestows a blue ribbon award on high-achieving schools and lawmakers establish blue ribbon commissions when they are forced to deal with problems that lack a simple solution. A simple piece of azure cloth, in other words, is the principal trophy of modern life, which is pretty odd when you stop to think about it.
We can trace the lineage of this strange tradition back to the French Monarchy
, but it wasn’t really popularized until 19th century transatlantic shipping companies created an unofficial prize -- the Blue Riband
-- for the fastest passenger liner to cross the Atlantic Ocean. From the onset, it was clear the entire enterprise was a blatant publicity stunt; the businessmen who developed the idea didn’t establish a sanctioning body for the Riband, leading to early discrepancies about which firms actually clocked the best time. Still, ship owners and politicians figured that the prestige of the cobalt pennant would attract status-seeking passengers, so they invested considerable resources into building the quickest and largest vessels they could. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, winner in 1898, burned
roughly 22 tons of coal
per hour of service on its six-day journey.
Hoping to lend more credibility to the contest, a British MP (and shipping magnate) named Sir Harold Keates Hales commissioned the design of a trophy in 1935 that the record-holder could display back home. The end product is ghastly
, a four-foot mess of silver and gilt (see above). That hasn’t stopped a few ambitious yachting enthusiasts from trying to best the time set by the USS United States in 1952, the fastest ocean liner to set sail before commercial airlines made the technology obsolete. In 1990, Hoverspeed Great Britain clipped two hours off the existing record using a 242-foot engine-driven catamaran
, but attorneys for United States Lines (which owned the USS United States) dismissed
the powerboat’s achievement because it did not meet “restrictions outlined by Hales in the trophy's deed of trust.” Two years prior to that, Richard Branson crossed the Atlantic at roughly the same speed in a 72-foot racing craft, and he met equal resistance from the Americans. “To say (the award) has only to do with passenger liners, the billionaire told Time
, “is a lot of codswallop."
If you want to see the Hales Trophy in the flesh, head to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's museum
in Kings Point, New York. Though if you're that close to New York City, it'd be easy to find other activities that would be more fulfilling.
In Mentor, Minnesota, a town from which a portion of my family hails
, there stands a white cottage. It’s tucked away on the tree-lined shores of Maple Lake
, connected to the highway that runs through town by just a slim, winding road. And for years, it housed the area’s most unlikely and infamous resident, Texas-bred Bascom Giles
From 1938 through the mid-1950s, Giles was elected eight times to lead the Texas General Land Office, a powerful agency with the sole responsibility
of managing the public domain. For most of his tenure, the entrepreneurial Democrat and Grand Master
mason served with distinction. Texans were not surprised, then, when Giles wrote and lobbied for an amendment to the state constitution that promised to authorize $100 million in public bonds ($800 million today) to buy land that would be resold to returning war veterans at low interest rates (3 percent) and with a marginal down payment (5 percent). The plan seemed both patriotic and beneficial to the state’s growing economy, and voters approved the measure in 1946 by a wide margin.
Their trust in Giles and his colleagues in Austin was misguided. The big pot of money set aside for the GI program attracted the attention of grafters, who in turn convinced officials inside Gov. Allan Shivers’ administration that there was cash to be made off hoopleheads returning from war. Some despicable predatory behavior ensued
Soon, land promoters and dishonest public servants were waxing fat at the expense of the veterans and the taxpayers, with an ingenious racket. The racketeers 1) got options on land at market prices, 2) duped veterans into signing the necessary papers, 3) with the aid of crooked officials, got the land appraised at several times its actual worth, 4) put on pressure to get state loans on it, in the names of the bamboozled veterans, and 5) pocketed the profits made in the jacked-up prices for the land.The Veterans Land Board, composed of Giles, Governor Allan Shivers and Attorney General John Ben Shepperd, eased the way by hastening its approval of the hot transactions, often acted so expeditiously that the promoters were able to pick up the options with the state's money. The fact that Shivers and Shepperd rarely attended board meetings undoubtedly helped Giles work out his plan. Usually the ex-servicemen had no idea what they were signing. Many thought the papers were some sort of application for a cash bonus.
An estimated $10 million in state money was siphoned off to thieves before a cub reporter named Ken Towery, working on his first real story for the tiny Cuero Record
, unraveled the entire scheme. Towery received a tip that several prominent businessmen in his county were entertaining black and Mexican laborers at a private bottle club, a curious occurrence in the segregated south. “Down in this country,” he later told Time
, “white people just don't set up big parties for colored field hands.” The reporter subsequently interviewed dozens of vets and figured out that land owners were rounding up former troops, some of them functionally illiterate, and tricking them into “applying” for land grants without their knowledge. Towery published his explosive findings on November 14, 1954, which set off an intensive statewide probe the following year, resulting in 20 indictments in nine different counties. The “Veterans Land Board scandal” rocked the state; Giles was convicted on charges of bribery, theft, and conspiracy and served three years in Texas lock-up, the highest-ranking pol to go down in the case. His boss, weakened by the scandal, did not seek a fourth term in 1956.
It was after his release that Giles moved up north, presumably for a fresh start in a town that knew little about his Lone Star improprieties. He never served in public office again and was eventually killed in an auto accident in Florida. Towery came away from the affair with a Pulitzer Prize for local affairs reporting. Not bad for your first journalism assignment.
There’s more on the scandal here
. And here’s a recent (infuriating) example
of predatory lenders taking advantage of American service members and their families, shenanigans that Holly Petraeus will try to prevent
if and when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ever gets off the ground.
I’ve been a bad blogger this month, friends.
It’s not my fault entirely; a wiring problem in our new apartment, along with Comcast’s horrific customer service, has left us without Internet access at home for the past 10 days. Still, I must own up to my failure. The space has been darker than I prefer for a few weeks now, with flawed time management, writer’s block, and tumbles down several research rabbit holes to blame. That trend will continue for a few more days at least, until I get back from my fam’s annual trip to northwest Minnesota. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), they don’t outfit 105-year-old, family-owned cabins (see above) with the latest in computer technology.
While I’m gone, be sure to check out these blogs I love to read. They aren’t formally
guestbloggers for my site, mostly because they are more successful at this than I am, but let’s treat them as such:Microkhan
: Brendan Koerner’s off-beat site is all that the Internet can and should be. (His longform writing is pretty damn awesome, too.)The 312
: Home of Whet Moser, Chicago-based Internet polymath. He was named
's best local blogger of 2011, an award that was richly deserved. Tuned In
: James Poniewozik takes almost every thought that's swirling around in my head about television and translates them into concise essays.The Run of Play
: Get ready for the start of football season (the global, not national game) with the help of Grantland’s newest contributor
and his friends. Off The Records
and Straight Grallin
: I turn to these H-F alums for all of my soul, rap, and journalism needs. You should too.
See y’all next week.
The debt deal Congress struck over the weekend wasn’t the only time-consuming legislative project lawmakers have focused on at the expense
of job creation. For months, congressmen in the capital “debated
” the merits of a major patent reform bill, one that led to a “byzantine war between powerful interests,” according to the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter. Our Constitution gives Congress the power to issue patents, whose purpose is to encourage the development of new and productive ideas. Carter’s reporting shows that the latest melee on the Hill did little to clarify or improve existing intellectual property law. Instead, it provided lawmakers a justification to hold meetings and accept donations from tech giants, drug companies, and major banks. It was a massive, if profitable, distraction.
If the nation’s first patent statute was still the law of the land, this process would have looked considerably different. On the books for just three years, from 1790 to 1793, initial applicants were required
to file a petition with the U.S. Secretary of State (who at the time was Thomas Jefferson). Along with the Secretary of War and the U.S. Attorney General, the cabinet member evaluated each application to determine whether or not the discovery was “sufficiently useful and important.” If approved, the patent holder would receive exclusive rights for 14 years.
Jefferson and his fellow “Commissioners for the Promotion of the Useful Arts,” who were a little tied up running a brand new country, granted just three patents during their first year on the job. The original awardee
was a man named Samuel Hopkins, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who claimed to have perfected
a new and improved technique for manufacturing potash
, a substance (derived from the ashes of hardwood trees) that served as a crucial ingredient in soap, glass, and gunpowder. Hopkins speculated that potash producers could boost yields by burning the raw tree ash in a furnace before dissolving and boiling the plant product in water. With patent in hand, Hopkins staked his financial future on a licensing scheme, asking asheries in forest-rich New England for a $50 down payment (roughly $650 today) in exchange for a five-year furnace contract.
Hopkins' price, it turned out, was way too high to attract serious investors. As David Maxey wrote in his 1998 report on the subject, not-so-subtly titled “A Study of Failure
,” “the cost to licensees far outweighed the increased yield … especially when a much cheaper, noninfringing alternative for producing potash was within easy reach.” Hopkins couldn’t dump his own resources into an advertising blitz either, because making a major financial commitment to an unproven venture could have been construed as gambling, behavior that was inconsistent with the values of the Religious Society of Friends
. Financial ruin inevitably followed. Here’s an excerpt from the minutes of one monthly church meeting in 1802, which Maxey dug out of the archives:
"Samuel Hopkins, who has been some years removed from us with his Family to Rahway, hath been treated with by the Overseers on account of having, by entering into Engagements beyond his Ability to manage, failed to fulfill his Contracts, and pay his just Debts, whereby Reproach hath been brought on the Profession of Truth which he hath made. At our last Sitting, . . . Samuel came forward and asked the aid of his Friends, and the Meeting verbally named a Committee to hear his Request in company with the Overseers. With their united Consent he now offers a paper acknowledging that by leaving a Business in which he had been instructed, and for want of Patience too speedily embracing another Employment which though appearing more eligible, had led him into a Train of Difficulties and Embarrassments, and prevented his doing Justice to his Creditors, whereby he had been brought into deep and exercising Conflicts on these Accounts.
America’s first patent holder, in other words, was a massive failure. And we have the nation’s third president to blame.
Scarfing down rotting flesh is no way to endear oneself to neighbors, but it’s the delicacy of choice for Old World vultures
, the bald scavenging birds that for centuries have circled the skies above Africa and Asia in search of animal carcasses. Putrid meat is a viable food source for this particular breed of avifauna, whose corrosive stomach acids break down toxins that make competitors retch. And their grimy rummaging eliminates from towns and villages waste that can cause deadly diseases like tuberculosis, brucellosis, and foot-and-mouth. Vultures are indispensable, albeit foul, health care providers.
That’s what makes the population’s precipitous decline in India so alarming. Once a constant presence on the subcontinent, almost 50 million birds have perished in the last 15 years, leaving less than 60,000 free in the wild, according to Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. These deaths were completely preventable, too. After years of confusion, a microbiologist from Washington State University identified
a mild painkiller called diclofenac as the cause. Indian farmers, it turns out, started giving cows a generic version of the medicine in mass to ease pain from swollen udders and hoofs, not realizing that the substance, when ingested by vultures, induced kidney failure. Some scientists now consider the species “functionally extinct,” and the death spiral has drawn comparisons to the American Passenger Pigeon, which was carelessly wiped out
in the 19th century by over-aggressive hunters. Without birds to dispose of the remains, cow cadavers now dot swaths of the Indian landscape, attracting rabid, nasty canines.
Government officials and conservationists have launched multiple ventures to save the vultures, including banning
the use of diclofenac in animals, which is reducing contamination, though not as quickly as originally hoped. This year, 10 chicks were also bred in captivity
as part of a government-initiated recovery plan, which the RSPB regards as “exciting news.” Yet that strategy is not guaranteed to replenish the genus, as Meera Subramanian outlines
in her excellent article on the topic for the Virginia Quarterly Review
: Breeding vultures in captivity is a tentative experiment, and basic biology is against the scientists’ chances for success. Of the thirty-two vultures I watched in the white-backed aviary, there were only twelve established pairs. They build nests for six weeks before the mother lays a single egg. Together, the parents keep it warm during two months of incubation, and, if the egg hatches successfully, keep the young fed for another four nest-bound months before the inaugural flight of a fledgling bird. It will take the offspring five years to sexually mature. The process is slow and yields minimal results; only seventeen vultures have been bred successfully at Pinjore in the last three years, not even enough to make a dent in the population’s continued rate of decline. [...]Even if the breeding is successful, if BNHS can raise the funds—more each year—and find the biologists willing to do the unpraised work, even if vultures accept their new confines, what then? There is no hope for the ultimate stage of a captive breeding program—release—unless diclofenac is completely removed from the environment. Each year, there will be more vultures to care for, and the ark will need to expand, and yet the floodwaters continue to rise each time a farmer pricks the rump of an ailing cow with a shot of diclofenac.
For more on “the most rapid population collapse of any animal in recorded history,” page through this 2007 report
*Hindus won’t consume the meat, Muslims only will if the animal is killed according to halal traditions, and Parsis
lay out the dead bodies for a ritual known as a “sky burial.”