Do all those mixed-race couples on TV count for anything?

Like I’ve discussed a few times on this blog (like here and here), the past couple years have not been America’s proudest in terms of race relations. Regardless of whether you feel the nation’s actual situation has worsened, or rather that greater transparency and awareness are revealing more clearly how bad that situation has always been, one thing is for sure; Americans are feeling a greater level of anxiety around race than they did just a few years ago. A Gallup poll recently found that 35% of respondents worry “a great deal” about race relations in the country, the most since the organization started asking the question 15 years ago.

The great irony here is that even as Americans’ collective anxiety over race has risen, our society’s most vital institution — the nuclear family — is more racially integrated than ever before. A generation ago, about one-in-a hundred babies born in America could be considered multiracial; that number is now about one-in-ten. Not surprisingly, our attitudes about interracial marriage have dramatically changed as well. Back in 1958 just 4% of Americans said they approved of black-white marriage. Today that number is 87%.

But never mind all that for a moment. Let’s talk about something that really matters: TV commercials. Because the way I see it, the number of interracial romances, families and friendships you see on TV says a lot about American attitudes towards race.

I’m not aware of any quantifiable data on this (I’m either too lazy or too unskilled to find it, if it exists), but it seems to me there’s been an explosion of racial diversity in the past few years in commercials as well as print and electronic advertising. A couple years back General Mills sparked conversation with a TV spot for Cheerios that featured a white mom, a black dad, and their adorable biracial kid, a decision which somehow stirred controversy and nearly made racist internet trolls’ heads explode. But since then, there’s been an unusual number of mixed race couples and families in mainstream advertising which have seamlessly blended in to the landscape. Both American Airlines and Amazon, I noticed, recently had promotional images on their websites of black-and-white couples (in the case of the latter, with their biracial kids). Ford ran a commercial for its Escape SUV featuring a pretty black girl with a beaming smile camping with her white boyfriend, accompanied by Rachel Patten’s “This is My Fight Song” in the background. Another ad by JBL features young, attractive joggers, one white and the other black, exchanging subtly flirtatious glances over the subject of tangled headphone wires. For a while USA Today has run a TV commercial of a handsome Indian-looking guy and nerdy-but-cute blonde chatting casually on a park bench. Keep in mind these are just the ads I’ve actually seen and can remember off hand. Needless to say there are many more. None of them alone is earthshaking, but together they say something significant, I would say.

mixed_race_ads_collage

Screenshots from the websites of American Airlines (above) and Amazon (below).

There are subtle changes happening in movies as well that mirror these trends, even at a time when the Oscars has been notoriously criticized for a lack of ethnic diversity in its nominees. Take for example the career arc of Will Smith, who for years has been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Even though he is universally recognized as one of the industry’s hottest sex symbols, it’s telling that for the bulk of Will Smith’s career his films barely acknowledged his sexuality, and even when they did, he was only allowed on-camera romances with non-white actresses. It took until 2015’s otherwise forgettable Focus for him to kiss a white woman in a movie. Don’t get too wrapped up in the travesty of an actor as handsome and charming as Will Smith being needlessly bottled up for all those years. Instead, let us acknowledge the fact that last year, Warner Brothers finally saw it as financially lucrative to expose American moviegoers to two hours of him in love with a smoking hot Margo Robbie.

To be clear, movies or advertising companies or whoever else who put interracial couples front-and-center are not doing so out of some sense of civic duty or expression of high-minded ideals. This is about money. But making money in this case is about recognizing and responding to consumer tastes, and the fact that advertisers are so much more likely to feature mixed-race couples and families than they used to be is undoubtedly the result of painstaking research and careful insight suggesting this strategy now works with the broad American public. Do not for a second think this is an accident; multiple companies are clearly concluding that consumers will react positively to different races of people meshed together in the same ad, movie, or whatever.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical of this trend’s importance and its actual impact on people’s lives. Even I find it curious that pop culture now seems to have a fascination with black women coupled with white men. (Indeed, that’s the set up for many of the TV spots mentioned above.) In that sense, one could be tempted to brush the trend off as just a shallow fad. And even when companies seek to make a statement of multiculturalism in their ads, sometimes they miss the mark badly and their efforts have exactly the opposite effect, as was the case just a few weeks ago when The Gap released an ad showing a white child model awkwardly resting her elbow on her black counterpart.

The heavier and more serious criticism, of course, is that even as our pop culture changes, real life racism, from criminal justice to bank lending, has its roots planted deep in this country’s social soil. We do not, in fact, live in a so-called “post-racial” America. Nonetheless, even as it’s important to be real about our nation’s shortcomings when it comes to race, I think it’s far too easy to be negative and dismissive about how the country is changing, both in terms of demographics and attitudes.

Abdu’l-Baha said of America’s race problem nearly a century ago that “marriage between these two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity” between blacks and whites. That surely isn’t an overnight solution, nor is it a solution all on its own. But reflect on the tenfold increase in the proportion of multiracial kids being born in America, and imagine the effect it’s sure to exert on how we recognize and value eachother over the next one, two, or three generations. The increasing regularity and social acceptance of mixed-race couples and families isn’t just an ancillary story in America’s broader racial narrative. This is about drowning racism in the purest form of human love: that shared between man, woman, and child.

Even as we recognize where we continue to fail as a country, let’s acknowledge the positive. Who we date, marry, and have children with is changing rapidly and for the better. And increasingly, our pop culture suggests our attitudes are changing as well.

Personal reflections on getting fat as a dad

dad_and_son_on_beach

After my wife and I had our first kid a few years ago, I joked that becoming a father was a great way to get out of shape. There are two main reasons for this: 1) most of your free time is gone, so it’s much harder to get to the gym or wherever else you normally get exercise; and 2) you’re getting a lot less sleep at night, which means that you’re more likely to eat like a pig during the day.

I’m not exactly tipping the scales these days, but as I get deeper and deeper into my 30s, staying in shape is becoming noticeably harder. In terms of diet, I probably eat better now than I ever have. I’m far from perfect, but I’m down to about one sugary drink per week, I hardly ever have anything with white flour, and I try not to snack after dinner. And yet, the dress pants that I had the dry cleaner take out for me just a few months ago are once again feeling snug around the waist.

Of course, there’s another reason besides less exercise and less sleep that explains why men struggle to stay in shape as they get older: declining testosterone. Continue reading

When “get rich quick” goes mainstream

A friend of mine from college tries to get me to join his fantasy football league every year. For the past decade or so I’ve declined. I used to do it when I was younger, and enjoyed it when I did, but it was such a time suck that when I went to grad school (and later, got married and had kids) I wisely elected to sit on the sidelines.

This year, for whatever reason, I succumbed to the pressure and joined the league. (I named my team “McNally’s Revenge”, after the alleged ball deflation equipment guy from my beloved New England Patriots). But pretty soon, I realized that fantasy sports has changed a lot over the past decade since I’ve been out of the game. For one, I’m trying to do the whole thing on my iPhone, which I find dizzyingly confusing, which in turn makes me feel dumb and old. But more significantly, the element of money — always lurking in the shadows of fantasy sports, of course — seems to have been shoved to the forefront. Fantasy sports, apparently, is no longer about talking trash to your friends and ripping eachother off with shady player trades — you know, good wholesome fun. Apparently, It’s now about becoming a millionaire overnight.

How else can I make sense of the fact that Boston’s South Station is completely plastered with Draft Kings advertising? These days one-day fantasy sports ads are inescapable, not only in places — both real and virtual — where young, male sports fans congregate, but places as universal and banal as the city train station. The sudden ubiquity of these ads — seriously, I had never heard of this concept a few months ago — should tell you something about the outrageous profitability of the one-day fantasy sports business, and the rapid ascendancy of Fan Duel and Draft Kings in particular, companies that have rocketed to prominence in the past couple of years. Continue reading

The investment world’s obsession with “power” says a lot about our lameness as a society

S&P Capital IQ ad

When I first started working in New York, I would often walk by the NewsCorp headquarters on 6th Avenue on the way to my office and see a huge banner outside for the Fox Business channel. “The Power to Prosper”, the channel’s slogan, was emblazoned in huge letters on the ad along with the serious, stoic faces of the channel’s flagship personalities.

As time went on I noticed that this “power” theme is pretty ubiquitous in the investment world. Not coincidentally, CNBC, Fox Business’s chief rival, has a show called “Power Lunch” that also features recurring segments called “Power Pitch”, “Power Summit”, and “Power Summit”. For about a month my train was covered in ads for something called S&P Capital IQ, a research and analytics product for investors whose marketing tag lines were similarly power-centric. “The power to globalize your capital”, along with the image of an expressionless woman’s face, hovered over me one afternoon as I sleepily rumbled home from work. Never before has diversifying one’s investment portfolio felt so much like Game of Thrones.

What’s going on here? I would guess some of it would be that providers of market information and intelligence — and I use those terms extremely loosely in the case of CNBC and Fox Business — have figured out that investors want to feel in control. That especially applies to the “retail” investor, typically middle-aged viewers busy with their own jobs but who actively manage their investments on the side, and who imagine that listening to so-called experts on financial TV will help them outperform the stock market. Considering the notoriously fickle and unpredictable nature of financial markets, I don’t blame anyone for gravitating towards the notion of control. Of course, that control is mostly an illusion; the evidence suggests that even hedge funds, armed with immense intellectual firepower, experience, and guts, still have trouble consistently beating the market.

But the other thing this obsession with power in investing might be reflective of is our society’s hyper-competitive, winning-obsessed culture. I feel old bringing up things like this — get off my lawn, by the way — but I just can’t resist.

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The problem with freedom

Gender and society satire from the 1890s

A satirical cartoon on gender roles in society from the 1890s

In the 1920s, tobacco companies sought to increase the number of women smokers. So for the Easter Sunday parade of 1929, a group of public relations and marketing experts hatched a brilliant plan on their behalf. They paid a group of young, attractive, fashionably-dressed women to march in the parade and, in unison, light up cigarettes. The women proudly exclaimed to the parade goers that they were smoking “torches of freedom“. Photos and stories of the women circulated wildly. Almost overnight, smoking had become a symbol of female independence and liberty.

I learned about this historical event years ago when I was in grad school. But it recently came to mind once again, amid the debate about freedom of expression following the attack on a French satirical newspaper earlier this month.

Rightfully, following that event there has been an outpouring of sentiment in favor of free speech and in defiance of terror and intimidation. I won’t get into my own thoughts on the specifics of this event, or some or the more controversial details — namely, the arrest by French authorities of dozens of individuals for hate speech following the free speech demonstrations, or the allegedly hypocritical policies of some of the demonstrating world leaders — subjects which have been covered ad nauseum already. (A good approximation of how I feel on these subjects is here.)

On the other hand, what I haven’t seen to this point, and what I personally am yearning for, is an intelligent discussion about not only our legal rights as citizens, but what it truly means to be “free” as a human being. And I think this is a discourse that religion, and especially the Baha’i Faith, can help move forward in a big way.

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The Entourage theory of financial management

Entourage

Am I the only one that misses Entourage? The former HBO series, which closed shop a few years ago after eight seasons, was my escape from the drudgery and boredom of responsible living. Yes, Entourage was over the top, to put it mildly, but so is pretty much everything else on TV. It was at times just plain dumb (the series finale was a hasty tying of years’ worth of plot loose ends), but the show had a lightheartedness and carefree vibe that’s been missing from television ever since.

At the heart of what made Entourage work, of course, was the character of Vincent Chase, loosely based on Mark Wahlberg’s early career (when he was still Markie Mark and doing stuff like this, which some of us refuse to forget). Vince’s is the happy-go-extremely-lucky story we all love to root for: Poor kid from a blue collar town makes it big, achieves fame and fortune, and lives life in the fast lane while never forgetting his true friends or where he came from.

At this point you may be thinking, What does this have to do with finance? I’m glad you asked. (Let’s pretend you asked.) On many occasions in Vince’s fictional life, when he is warned about the imminent possibility of losing it all — by his accountant, his agent, his manager, whoever — he utters some version of the following statement:

What’s the big deal? If I lose all my money I can always go back to Queens. I was happy before when I had nothing. If I have to go back to that, so what?

This is the part in the blog post where I remind myself that Vincent Chase is not a real person (oh yeah). But a part of Vincent Chase lives inside all of us. That’s because we all, in various ways and to varying degrees, practice what I call the “Vincent Chase theory of financial management”. That is, we are all on occasion tempted to “stretch” our money, saving a little less than we probably should towards getting that bigger house, that nicer car, that more glamorous vacation, etc. After all, when times are good and the money’s flowing, why not? We can always go back to the more modest lifestyle we were perfectly happy with before, if the twists and turns of life force us in that direction.

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Do we really have to keep buying useless junk to keep the economy going?

Warning: This one is nerdier than normal*.

This blog’s last post, “The happiness scam”, got an unusual amount of attention. I think the issues of materialism, consumerism, and greed and their toxic effects on our wellbeing must resonate with readers. If so, that’s something that needs to be celebrated. We may have a long way to go, but the spark of discussion seems to have been lit.

One of the most common responses I tend to receive after writing a post like that is: Isn’t our whole economy based on consumerism? Won’t the whole thing collapse like a house of cards if we all stop buying useless junk?

I’ve kinda broached this topic before, but I think it’s time it deserves it’s own post. Somehow it became a popular meme, especially within my generation, that the American economy (or maybe even the whole modern-day global economy? I dunno) is based on nothing of substance, and that rampant spending is the only thing holding up a giant economic pyramid scheme. But this is (mostly) wrong.
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The happiness scam

Rainn Wilson, the comedic actor best know as “Dwight” from The Office, delivered a brilliant commencement speech to the graduating class at USC a couple of months ago. For those who aren’t aware, Wilson is one of the world’s best-known Baha’is, and has never been shy about broaching the topic of spirituality, especially with young people. Here he was at his best.

The topic of the speech was, more or less, how simply “pursuing happiness” can leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied, and how an attitude of selflessness can bring us a deeper feeling of fulfillment. Here’s an excerpt (a long one, but worth reading in its entirety):

Happiness is so fleeting. It’s like an amusement park ride. It’s like cotton candy. I mean, it looks so amazing: It’s delightful and fluffy and pink and you joyously eat it and then almost immediately regret your decision. Your fingers are sticky the rest of the day, and you’re undergoing an almost immediate insulin crash from the half pound of sugar that you just sucked down. You’re hungry again almost immediately and you begin the chase again for ingestible happiness right away. Happiness in our contemporary culture is something to be chased, something that’s just around the corner, something outside of ourselves. There’s a kind of a “if then” proposition about happiness. For instance: “If I get a job at a top law firm then I will be happy.” “If I get married to the perfect man or woman then I will be happy.” “If I can become more popular then I will he happy…” etc. It’s the whole point of commercialism, too, and materialism. If you buy this car, eat this cheeseburger, wear these jeans, use these headphones, then you will be happy. And you know what? Buy the jeans, eat the cheeseburger, the result is never happiness. Joy or contentment. It’s always the same. We’re never satisfied. It never meets our needs fulfills our standards. We’re left empty, wanting something more. It’s cotton candy. Fleeting, sticky, unsatisfying….

Volunteering, helping, showing kindness, sacrificing your time and energy, giving selflessly, these are the things that will give you the greatest human flourishing. And what a strange dichotomy in this “me me me” culture we live in. Focus on yourself: you’ll find only misery, grasping, depression, emptiness, dissatisfaction. Focus on helping others: joy, contentment, gratitude, happiness… So go forth young men and women spiritual beings all, with your pieces of paper, your souls and your hearts, go forth and undertake our new national motto, “life liberty and the pursuit of service”, and your lives will be the richer for it.

This is potentially tricky territory — I mean, the speaker is basically telling young people at one of the happiest moments of their lives not to strive to be happy — and I truly admire his courage. But the main message here should not be controversial. That’s because, as pointed out in the speech, science actually confirms that acts of selflessness tend to lead to greater happiness. (Nevermind that it represents a core teaching of nearly every religion.) And yet, from my perspective the fact that selflessness, rather than selfishness, is more likely to lead to fulfillment and life satisfaction gets a shamelessly low level of attention in the modern discourse. Instead, we are hit with a steady stream of messages preaching the opposite, including the semi-sarcastic-yet-inescapably-depressing image below, which I captured at our local mall food court:

Spiritual enlightenment was never so easy nor delicious

In the same tradition as the religious faiths founded before it, the Baha’i Faith in countless passages warns us not to rely on the material world for fulfillment. One of my favorite passages written by Baha’u’llah is this one (which I’ve shared before), which compares the world itself to a desert mirage:

The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality… Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion.

For us to look to something bigger than the world around us is not an unnatural act or suppressing our natural selves. The human being’s true nature, Baha’u’llah teaches, is more noble than that. In the same passage as the one above, He compares the childish obsession with our material lives with a fallen bird:

Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust.

Why is this so difficult for us to learn? How come we feel compelled to chase after things that are so ineffective in delivering real happiness? It’s universally acknowledged that true happiness can’t easily be achieved with material things. And yet, we still keep reaching for the cotton candy.

Standing up to the media boogeyman

I’m about halfway through through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which is more or less about how the human brain tends to think sometimes in quick, reactive ways, and other times in deliberate, calculated ways. Kahneman basically summarizes decades of research into how the human mind makes decisions, much of which he himself had a hand in.

One of the more interesting passages from the book is about how the human brain handles fear and risk. The thoughtful, rational aspect of our thinking — what the author abbreviates as “Type II” — can, actuary-style, do all the calculations necessary to estimate the true level of danger that something presents, as well as comparing the probability and severity of different possibilities side-by-side. But when confronted by real-life dangers, we humans don’t commonly tend to think like this. In reality, risks are assessed and our fears governed by our reactive, intuitive “Type I” brain, which tends to overweight the danger from things that are “available”, or in other words visible, easily conceptualized, and at the forefront of our attention.

This makes a lot of sense, given the inordinate amount of attention that we tend to pay on smaller risks that connect more easily to our emotions. I suppose the textbook example would be how we tend to fear plane crashes much more than car crashes, even though the former are much rarer and much less likely to kill us. But we could come up with countless other examples, I’m sure.

The fact that human beings are irrationally fearful of certain relatively benign things over much more dangerous ones is bad enough. Think, for instance, of our society’s obsession with the risk of terrorism, which has killed roughly 3,000 Americans this century, in comparison to our comparatively lukewarm reaction to drunk driving, which kills about 10,000 every year.

But this particular glitch in the way we think becomes much worse when it’s mixed with human selfishness and opportunism. One of the most memorable and funniest recent examples of this was a commercial for a home security system that aired a few years ago. In it, a single woman meets a seemingly nice man at a party, only for that man to break down her door minutes later in an apparent attempt to assault her. Her alarm system blares, and the would be assailant is scared away (phew!). I’m not sure which is funnier: the Saturday Night Live spoof, or the real thing.

Sometimes, the urge to profit from natural human fears is even more nefarious. The existence of fear in whatever form can mean an opportunity for political influence, simply by cultivating and directing these fears towards an intended goal. Again, I could probably list tons of examples here, but I prefer to leave it to the reader’s own imagination (as well as the comments section).

As is the case for so many other things, here I wonder if this problem has always been with us, and I just tend to notice more as I get older. Maybe, but that shouldn’t be cause for us to accept the status quo. Let’s put it this way: When voters feel the urgency to ban shariah law in their state in fear of an Islamic caliphate taking over Oklahoma, something has gone horribly wrong. (And I’m sure both of Oklahoma’s Muslims would agree.)

The power of the media to skew our sense of risk — whether motivated simply by the profit motive or by some deeper political goal — is described by Kahneman in the framework of the “availability cascade”. He writes:

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by “availability entrepreneurs,”, individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fears and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a “heinous cover-up”. The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

How far the current state of affairs seems to be from Shoghi Effendi’s vision of a free but morally responsible press that will “cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples.” It’s not just human irrationality that is at issue here. The problem is also, in Kahneman’s words, the “availability entrepreneurs”, those who’ve discovered all the right buttons to push to translate fear into power, and seem to have no qualms about pushing them.

 

On The Wolf of Wall Street and the subtle glorification of greed

wolf_of_wall_street_belfort_with_flag

Martin Scorcese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, about the famously decadent financial scam artist Jordan Belfort, is getting plenty of attention these days. But so is an op-ed by Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of Belfort’s former colleagues, who recently came out against what she sees as the film’s glorification of greed and recklessness. She writes:

You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

And yet you’re glorifying it… Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.

I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street on New Year’s Day. As for whether or not the film glamorizes the famous greed and excess of Belfort and Stratton Oakmont… well, there is a lot of grey area here, much of it by design.

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