Category: Business and Society

Blog author: jballor
Monday, July 24, 2006
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An article in yesterday’s NYT, “Saving the World, One Video Game at a Time,” by Clive Thompson, gives a good overview of the current trend in the video game industry, especially by nonprofits and activist groups, to create “serious games,” a movement which “has some serious brain power behind it. It is a partnership between advocates and nonprofit groups that are searching for new ways to reach young people, and tech-savvy academics keen to explore video games’ educational potential.”

“What everyone’s realizing is that games are really good at illustrating complex situations,” said Suzanne Seggerman, one of the organizers of the third annual Games for Change conference in New York. “And we have so many world conflicts that are at a standstill. Why not try something new?”

One such game is Peacemaker, which is a political simulation based on the current situation in the Middle East. Another is the World Food Programme’s Food Force (which I review here).

Of course, serious simulations are nothing new in the gaming world, and even predate the advent of video media. An argument could be made, for example, that games like Axis & Allies and Risk, while focusing on military aspects, are in some sense serious (albeit limited) teachers about the realities of war policy and foreign affairs. And games like Shadow President, released in the early 1990s, are relatively complex and immersive political simulations.

A typical game of Risk in play. Many game elements such as the board, dice, units and cards are visible. (GNU Free Documentation License)

Related PowerBlog Items:

“Video Games Can Save Lives and More…”, Thursday, June 1, 2006.

“Speaking a Language They Can Understand”, Wednesday, February 15, 2006.

‘Your mind makes it real’, Tuesday, November 22, 2005.

“Vidiocy”, Thursday, August 11, 2005.

“Family Values and Grand Theft Auto”
, Wednesday, July 27, 2005.

“Game Review: Food Force”, Thursday, May 12, 2005.

These kinds of stories make me sick, and they are all too common. In today’s Washington Post, a lengthy article examines the Livestock Compensation Program, which ran from 2002-2003, and cost over $1.2 billion.

In “No Drought Required For Federal Drought Aid,” Gilbert M. Gaul, Dan Morgan and Sarah Cohen report that over half of that money, “$635 million went to ranchers and dairy farmers in areas where there was moderate drought or none at all, according to an analysis of government records by The Washington Post. None of the ranchers were required to prove they suffered an actual loss. The government simply sent each of them a check based on the number of cattle they owned.”

Texas rancher Nico de Boer says, “The livestock program was a joke. We had no losses,” de Boer said. “I don’t know what Congress is thinking sometimes.” On the $40,000 he received, de Boer continues, “If there is money available, you might as well take it. You would be a fool not to.”

But the story doesn’t just stop there. The moral ambiguity of simply taking the money that is offered to you is eventually replaced by the incentives to actively seek out and campaign for more funds, effectively defrauding the government.

Under the original terms of the plan, “a rancher had to be in a county that was suffering from a drought and declared a disaster by the agriculture secretary in 2001 or 2002. More than 2,000 counties had such declarations at the time, including many with only modest dry spells.” But once the pork started flowing out of Washington, everyone wanted to get a spot at the trough.

Increasing pressure from lobbyists and special interests eventually made even the original flimsy requirements too onerous. Speaking of 2002, “There was pressure that year to grow emergency declarations for drought,” recalled Hunt Shipman, a former top USDA official who now works as a lobbyist in Washington.

The results? “Under Congress’s new version of the program in 2003, livestock owners could qualify as a result of any type of weather-related disaster declaration by the secretary of agriculture. Or they could become eligible if their county was included in a presidential disaster declaration. Under the new rules, the time period covered also was extended, to Feb. 20, 2003. One rule remained the same: Livestock owners still did not have to prove a loss.”

And under that new situation, “With the rules relaxed by Congress, federal agriculture officials pushed their local offices to find disasters that would make more livestock owners eligible, records and interviews show. It didn’t matter if it was a cold snap or a storm that was two years old.”

There’s not much else to say, I think, besides recognizing the truth that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10 NIV).

A very, very interesting piece in WSJ this week detailing a study by the Business and Media Institute that looks at how businesspeople are portrayed on television:

The study, titled “Bad Company,” looked at the top 12 TV dramas during May and November in 2005, ranging from crime shows like “CSI” to the goofy “Desperate Housewives.” Out of 39 episodes that featured business-related plots, the study found, 77% advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.

On the various “Law & Order” shows, for instance, almost 50% of felonies — mostly murders — were committed by businessmen. In almost all of the primetime programs, when private-sector protagonists showed up, they were usually doing something unethical, cruel or downright criminal.

All businessmen have greasy hair and wear suspenders. TV tells me so.

Of course, the question is which came first, the chicken or the egg, the negative stereotype of the entrepreneur in the general public, or the stories that largely portray entrepreneurs in a negative light? The study’s author, Dan Gainor:

Over time, he says, plots that ritually make entrepreneurs the bad guys have a pernicious effect: “This becomes part of our collective worldview. We think all businessmen are somehow scummy. We think you had to lie, cheat or murder to get ahead.”

Gainor attributes these portrayals as the result of “a shrinking roster of available villains, in a universe where capitalists, along with aliens and Nazis, are one of the few groups left that it is safe to demonize.”

Poor Jack. Does he ever have a GOOD day?

In other words, cliche. Bad art. Pulp. Uncreative writers. Formulaic problem solving. But ought we be surprised? There is not much on television that we could label the paragon of narrative art (although, there are a few very quality shows, 24 not being one of them…sorry folks, if your show depends on Kiefer Sutherland angrily shouting at least five lines per episode, you’ve hit a wall).

So first of all, I think we need to keep things in perspective: this is not a rash of negative portrayals in deeply profound pieces of art. Most of these portrayals (at least the ones I am familiar with) are strawmen, paper tigers; in a word, silliness.

But a dangerous silliness. For on the other hand, we have to understand that television is influential, and even if the chicken did come before the egg, the egg will create another chicken. There are not a whole lot of people who readily recognize how silly this sterotype is, especially since it shows up so often.

So how does one stem the tide? What resources exist to bring this silliness to light, to help right this stereotype of business? Click here for one (slightly self-promoting) answer. Tell your friends!

Every morning I make a point checking out euobserver.com for unintentionally hilarious news about the workings of the EU bureaucracy.

Yesterday there was this article about an internship program with a twist. Instead of students coming to Brussels, this one is designed for 350 EU senior officials to spend time with small- and medium-sized businesses in member states.

“We don’t need an ivory tower policy,” commented Mr Verheugen, suggesting that by acquiring such a “hands-on experience” in SMEs, the commission’s administrators will understand their problems better and become their “ambassadors.” [….]

Its secretary-general Hans-Werner Muller has welcomed the new initiative, arguing that visiting officials will be able to see for themselves “how the small size of micro-businesses makes them more vulnerable to excessive, unnecessary or over-complex legislation.”

“We hope they take this message back to Brussels,” added Mr Muller.

It may very well be a good idea but I’d suggest something more radical to help the business climate in Europe – cutting the number of senior officials in Brussels permanently. Less officials could mean less regulations and more economic growth for those trying to make an honest living on the Old Continent. Surely these apparatchiks must have some marketable skills….

Nipsey Russell (1918-2005)

I was flipping stations tonight and passed the Game Show Network, which was showing reruns of Match Game ’74. Nipsey Russell, the so-called “Poet Laureate of Television,” began the show with this poem for prosperity:

To slow down this recession,

and make this economy thrive,

give us our social security now,

we’ll go to work when we’re sixty-five.

Dr. Mart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia, discusses the relevance for the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus for Europe today. “The message of Centesimus Annus is not a message of left or right. It is a universal message of hope. We can see these same ideas in most groups working on the future of Europe. The only problem is in finding political leaders ready to implement them in reality,” he writes.

Read Dr. Mart Laar’s full commentary here.

Read about Racine, Wisconsin in the New York Times, “On Lake Michigan, a Global Village,” by Steve Lohr. Gary Becker is mayor of Racine, and according to the article, “Racine’s future, Mr. Becker believes, lies in forging stronger links with the regional economy and global markets. Reinvention can be unnerving, he acknowledges, but he says it is his hometown’s best shot at prosperity and progress.”

“In the past, Racine was a self-contained economy,” Becker said. “But that is not an option anymore.” A key observation is that “in a world where new technologies can quickly upend an industry and China and India loom large on the economic horizon, nobody knows exactly which businesses and skills will prove to be winners.” That’s one reason that government programs to promote specific types of research as the “next big thing” are ill-advised.

The current and previous administrations of the state of Michigan, for example, have decided that life sciences, alternative energy, advanced automotive, manufacturing and materials, and homeland security and defense are “the four competitive-edge technologies” that should receive government subsidy.

The NYT article highlights the work of Olatoye Baiyewu, a Nigerian immigrant who “runs a program to train young, inner-city men as apprentices to electricians, plumbers, carpenters and cement masons.”

A host of Christian and secular commentators have trumpeted the similarities between Superman and Jesus Christ in light of the forthcoming movie, Superman Returns.

Many Christians embraced the Superman hero when a trailer for the new movie was released using the words of Superman’s father Jor-El, voiced by Marlon Brando: “Even though you’ve been raised as a human being you’re not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I sent them you… my only son.”

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I point instead to the fundamental differences between the two. I am concerned that Christians are being unwittingly exploited by Hollywood spin doctors: “Christians risk undermining our own influence when we simply latch on to the pop icon of the moment in undiscerning and uncritical ways.”

In an interview with CT Movies this week, Superman Returns director Bryan Singer acknowledges the intentionality of the spiritual allegories for Superman, “Christ being a natural one, because Superman’s a savior. And even more so in my film, because he’s gone for a period of time, and then he returns. For me to say that those messianic images don’t exist in the movie would be absurd.”

Read the full commentary here (cross-posted to Blogcritics.org).

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, June 22, 2006
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“I’m not in any way a violent person, but I enjoy getting out there and fighting when I can.”

–Blake Cater, 22, of Burlington, NC, who videotapes backyard fights with his friends and broadcasts them on the web.

More on Cater and the amateur fighting video phenomenon from today’s Washington Post, “On the Web, Punch and Click,” by Paul Farhi.

Also check out a related commentary of mine, “Our Slap-Happy Slide into Techno-Violence,” in which I argue, “The market must be supported and bounded by moral norms, guides for appropriate conduct and behavior. Where the market brings people into contact and relationship, it will also reflect the disruption of sin in the human community. So when the culture supports and promotes violence, it should be no surprise that the market efficiently distributes products that reflect this corruption. The two mutually reinforce one another, sending things into a degenerating spiral of violence.”

Blog author: jspalink
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
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“Be fruitful and multiply,” the Book of Genesis commands. Unfortunately, many modern nations are on the opposite track. Once worried about a phony “population bomb,” countries as diverse as Russia and South Korea are now wondering if they will shrink into irrelevance. Kevin Schmiesing looks at the cultural, religious and economic forces that produce healthy, hopeful societies.

Read Kevin’s commentary here.