29 March 2008

Sears, Please Hold

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The tap water in our building has been going downhill lately. It might be because the city has shut the water off a few times lately – and every time it comes back on, the pipes are flush with sediment. Or maybe the building’s own diligent plumbing efforts are the culprit, as 50+ year old piping is replaced – and again, there is more sediment in the water. Buying gallon after gallon of drinking water is not especially efficient, either in terms of price, storage, or use of plastic, so I have been looking into a filter for the kitchen sink. Consumer Reports gave good marks to two affordable, under-the-sink units made by Kenmore, an in-house brand of Sears. I looked, I did some additional investigating, and I decided to buy the Kenmore 2-Stage Drinking Water Filter, Model #38461.

I also wanted to order extra replacement filter cartridges; after all, why pay for shipping twice? Except: not so fast, buster. That information is virtually a trade secret!


Sears has been in the news a lot lately. Chairman Eddie Lampert was profiled in The Economist and the New York Times, and neither painted an overly optimistic view of the business, despite efforts to compare Lampert to investor Warren Buffet. Sears’ profits are down, the company has been criticized for some stove-related product safety issues, and there’s no polite way to put this, but: when was the last time you shopped at Sears?

In my youth, the store was a staple retailer. Appliances came from Sears, and rough-and-tumble clothing came from Sears. Craftsman-brand tools were what we had on hand for any household project, back in the day before “DIY” was a lifestyle rather than just how we did things around the house. Which is why, when Consumer Reports gave the Kenmore water filter a good rating, I thought nothing of trying to order it.


Placing an order for the water filter unit itself was no problem. The Sears.com web site indicated the product was available for shipping, and to complete the process would have been only a few clicks. But as I said, I wanted to order replacement filter cartridges, too. Except: the page for the filter does not provide the part number for the corresponding replacement cartridges. Really – go look for yourself. Even worse, if you search the site for “water filter,” you get more than 50 results, replacement filter cartridges included; but none of them indicates which model water filter they fit. No, not even in the so-called “Specs” section, which provided little information about any of these products.

In the interest of rapid resolution, I clicked on the little link that says “Call for Product Questions,” right above the product information (and shown on the picture here, too). A new window popped up, offering me an immediate call-back by putting in my phone number. I put my number in, and sure enough, within seconds the phone rang. “Cool!,” I thought, a system that works! A nice gentleman named Andrew answered, asked how he could help me, and I told him what I wanted; he said he would transfer me to the parts department, which would be able to answer my question. He said he’d put me on hold, which he did ... and then an automated female voice started asking me questions about which department I needed. At first I thought this was just part of the hold process, but then I realized I’d been transferred into this voice-activated system. I made a selection, the system responded that it would transfer me, and then after a few seconds I got a voice telling me my call could not be completed and I should hang up and try again. What?

I did just that. I went back to the web site call system, put in my number, and within seconds I had Andrew on the phone again. I told him I’d been cut off, repeated what I wanted, and he apologized. He said he’d put me on hold again while he got an actual person in the “Parts” department who could answer my question. A few seconds after that, I had a young woman with a bad, hard-to-hear connection asking me questions. Her first question? My phone number. Her next question? My last name. After that? My address.

How on earth is this relevant to a simple question: what is the matching replacement filter cartridge for the Kenmore 2-Stage Drinking Water Filter, Model #38461?

It isn’t relevant – and there wasn’t an answer. I do hope someone from those mysterious “Quality Assurance” teams goes back to listen to the recording of this call, because it’s a doozy. Eventually, the woman understood that I was trying to find a corresponding part, for which I didn’t have the model number. That it was because I didn’t have the model number, that it was because the model number for the replacement cartridge isn’t listed on the Sears.com filter unit page, that I was calling for help.

She couldn’t help me. Her suggestion? Call a store. Apparently, Sears stores – the actual stores – have a cross-referencing catalog that tells them which parts go with which products. Apparently, Sears.com staff do not have this nifty resource available to them. Just to make sure I understood this scenario properly, I asked the question just that way: the store has information that you don’t have? Yes, she said. The connection was too crappy and her voice too soft for me to tell whether there was a hint of embarrassment in this answer. If not, there should have been.


I called Sears, the store at the Galleria Mall in Poughkeepsie, New York, which I knew I’d be able to visit in short order if I wanted. I got an automated voice that offered me a list of “popular” departments. Which department does a water filter fall under? I had to call three times before I figured out that even though “plumbing” wasn’t one of the menu items automatically listed, the system would respond when I asked. (I had already tried saying “Help,” which got me an “I didn’t understand your request” response. Saying “Customer Service” got me transferred into some broader Sears system that wasn’t specific to the Poughkeepsie store.)

I asked for “plumbing,” and the system transferred me. The phone rang, and rang, and rang some more. Eventually, it was answered: by an answering machine that told me that no one was available to help me, but that if I left a message with my name and number, someone would call me back.

No, thanks, Sears. At this point, I’m not sure I would speak with Mr. Lampert if he called me personally. What else is there to say? In its article from 29 January, the Times quoted a memo Lampert wrote in which he said “I remain confident in our ability to ultimately succeed, even if there are steps backward along the way.” If any retail business analysts out there were looking for an example of what he meant by “steps backward,” I think I have an answer for you.

UPDATE: Sears responded to me. Read about that here.

23 March 2008

In My Tribe

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The other day, I hit upon a fundamental organizing flaw in human civilization. It is not religion, or an ongoing series of battles over resources like food or energy, or even territorial disputes and the arbitrary nature of nation-state borders. The problem is an apparently human instinct towards tribalism, which dictates our response to almost every situation, from the basic to the most challenging – and affects all of the elements I mentioned above, and more.

Simultaneously, I realized that this tribalism will bind people together through bad decision-making as much as good: that any given tribe’s sense of self provides the fuel for its self-protective actions, even in the face of changes that might also be considered potential (self-)improvements. Tribes are terrible at realpolitik – to put it mildly – and even worse at recognizing opportunities. Protection of the tribal status quo will always come first, even if that “protection” is itself a kind of long-term suicide.

If these observations on the nature of tribes sound rather simplistic to you – Hutu vs. Tutsi, anyone? the crazy battles both between and within the Sunni and Shia Muslims of Iraq? – then consider some other examples below.


I was listening to a recent episode of This American Life when this concept of tribes, and tribal suicide, started to formulate. “Act Two. The Plan,” from Episode #350: “Human Resources,” is described (in part) as follows: “American cities have gone through a massive wave of gentrification in the last few decades. To some people, it's not a natural ebb and flow of the real estate market, but a plot, by rich, mainly white people, to take over the neighborhoods of poor, mainly black people.” The segment focuses heavily on Washington, DC; shortly after hearing this segment, The Economist ran a small article about new developments in Harlem, while the New York Times ran one about low-income housing in DC.

The segment from This American Life is disturbing, a word that might be an understatement. The idea of a plot, a conspiracy, is problematic – but that is not the worst part. No: worst of all is the apparently self-destructive nature of tribal preservation, presently loudly and clearly: the people – the “poor, mainly black people” – would rather remain poor than risk the change that might come with community improvements.

“Gentrification” is a complicated concept; some would surely argue that it has tribal (read: racist) overtones of its own. And while gentrification has benefits, there can also be corollary problems: when a neighborhood is “gentrified,” housing costs go up, which certainly makes it more difficult for those who cannot afford the new prices. Still, the implicit assumption for those in the This American Life segment is that the negatives of gentrification absolutely outweigh the positives: the assumption seems to be that blacks simply will not be able to participate in the general improvement of their neighborhoods, won’t benefit from the influx of businesses (and jobs) that is usually part of gentrification, and won’t gain anything by a general set of improvements to the area, whether that is a reduction in crime or an increasing in property values. Thus, if they cannot benefit, then gentrification is is simply a plot against them.

I grew up in Washington, DC, during a period when the city was known as the “murder capital.” When parts of the town were so bad that few people I knew (black or white) would even drive through them, let alone visit. When the majority of the city preferred to elect an incompetent mayor subsequently convicted of drug use than ... well, than just about anyone else, because just about anyone else might have been better, but might also have been from a different tribe.

At root, the issue here is one of tribalism: of preferring the misery of one’s own company to the benefit that might come from change brought by others. Even if that change, like the gentrification of neighborhoods, might improve life in a variety of ways.


A segue, for clarity and to head off some sense that there is a tribal undertone to the above. Do not misunderstand me: this is not about race, not about one group of people making poor decisions because they are poor or black. The tribalism I am writing of here affects almost all of us in some way, including those who are wealthy – and white.

To wit: Clinton vs. Obama. What could be more tribal, more viscerally ... ridiculous, than the current fight for the Democratic presidential nomination? A fight filled with irony: not only because of the degree of similarity in the candidates’ positions; not only because by battling each other both candidates make it easier for their Republican opposition; but because Senator Obama has pitched himself as post-racial, in a way that means, really, post-tribal, while Senator Clinton presumed her tribe to be dominant.

It turns out that it takes only one tribe to create a dispute; in this case, it is that of Senator Hillary Clinton. The issue? The Clinton tribe is itself predicated on an earlier, long-standing dispute of its own: the us vs. them / left vs. right battles of the previous decade (and century). Senator Clinton desperately needs to rehash these fights – and win them – in order to validate her own sense of self. Losing to Obama does not mean just losing the chance to run for president. It means losing the opportunity to prove that her tribe, the Clinton tribe, was right: right throughout the entire term of her husband’s presidency, right during the time when they were being investigated for Whitewater and TravelGate and everything else, right when they defended Bill for having oral sex with an intern, right even when Bill was enduring impeachment proceedings. More than anything else – even more than her not-insignificant need for power – Clinton’s desperate desire for the presidency of the United States is based in this ancient dispute.

And it is why Senator Clinton cannot stand it when Senator Obama talks broadly about the idea that Americans of differing views might actually get along with each other. Where is the tribal fun in all that? Ari Berman, in an article from a recent issue of The Nation on the smear campaign against Senator Obama, included the following: “‘No one knows if it's the Clintons, a rogue agent or a Rove agent,’ says Congressman Steve Cohen, a Jewish Obama backer who represents a largely black district in Memphis.” As Berman details, there are many forces – tribes – lined up to attack Senator Obama, and as we know when it comes to tribal politics: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.


What I find of equal interest – and equally saddening – is the apparent inevitability of tribalism, even in the face of an intellectualism that might otherwise seem poised to overcome it. My last example involves something much more personal: my own tribe. I belong to a synagogue, a Conservative-movement synagogue with a liberal, New York feel to it. Let’s put it this way: a synagogue liberal enough that a couple of years ago our rabbi talked about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan on Yom Kippur, rather than about Israel.

Still, even in this intellectually liberal environment, the default reference point for global tragedy tends to revolve around Israel. Services include prayers explicitly for the United States and for Israel, but not for the success of the United Nations, or peacekeeping missions in Darfur, or for the hope and expectation that conflicts everywhere will be resolved, or for other nations (or American states) where terrible things might be happening at that moment. As Americans, praying for the United States might be fine on its own. As Americans, praying for the state of Israel seems downright odd, and frankly, simplistic. Purely tribal.

Consider: Most American Jews have something in common with any random non-Jewish American walking down the street, something that puts the Americans, together, on a different plane from most Israeli Jews: the average American has never served in the military – fewer than 1 in 10 of us have, according to Foreign Policy – whereas Israel has compulsory military service. While many Americans (Jews presumably included) shudder and complain about Islamic nations where Sharia law is followed, we seem to ignore or forget that as much as Israel has a secular government, it also has portions of society controlled – with government backing – by the extremists of Judaism.

It is a sad thing to say, but here is one of the biggest problems of the tribalism of American Jewry: we fetishize Israel. New Yorkers have a parade to celebrate Israel, use Israel (and both implicit and explicit accusations of anti-Semitism) as a focal point for global political analyses, and share vivid, internet-driven information about our oppression, real and imagined.

Will American Jews support raising money to help the victims of Darfur? Maybe. But a couple of years ago, the New York newspaper The Jewish Week surveyed readers about support for rebuilding the homes and businesses of Israeli Arabs, following Israel’s failed war against Hezbollah.

Israeli Arabs – citizens of Israel, no less than the citizens of New Jersey are fellow Americans next to the citizens of New York – and still, if you have read this far, you can probably guess the results of the survey by now.

In the voting, tribalism won out. So much for citizenship – and so much for a civilized society.

16 March 2008

Reverential Outrage

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Back in the confusing days following September 11, 2001, a lot happened and much was said, including this:

“God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve...” “... I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Can you guess who said this outrageous bit of nonsense? If you answered – given the current news hysteria – that it was Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor to Senator Barack Obama, you would be totally wrong. The statement above was made by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, on Thursday, September 13, 2001, on an appearance on Pat Robertson’s show “700 Club.” (The full transcript is available here via Common Dreams; Falwell, and Robertson, were also quoted extensively in The Washington Post here, and many other places, including Beliefnet here.)

Hysteria is a good word for what has happened in the last few days, as Senator Obama has been called upon repeatedly to reject statements made by Wright, his long-time pastor, about the September 11th attacks, and about American foreign and domestic policy. Wright was quoted as saying things like “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards,” and “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” (Both quotes taken from the New York Times here. See Agence France Press reports too.)

There is a certain similarity to these statements, a thematic connection driven by the apparent belief – on the part of Falwell and Wright – that the attacks against the United States were part of some divine plan for retributive justice. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the details, the underlying message is hard to miss: that we have been attacked because god believes we have acted immorally. Depending on one’s perspective, you might be inclined to agree with Falwell, or with Wright; both pairs of statements lean towards the absurd. Of course, Wright’s comments might be attracting more attention now because elements of them are harder to dismiss: we have supported Israeli oppression against the Palestinians, and we did for many years support the oppressive and racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. (And while I’m not black, I can understand intellectually the sense of rage at aspects of American society that feel threatening and oppressive to black Americans, particularly young men.)

There are also differences – and significant double standards – in play. In 2001, no one required President George W. Bush to “reject” or “denounce” Falwell for his outrageous statements. Although the same Washington Post article notes that a “White House official called the remarks ‘inappropriate’ and added, ‘The president does not share those views’,” there was no effort to push beyond this simple statement. Robertson was not driven off the air, Falwell was not forced to retire, and while one might argue that god got his / her own back against Falwell, neither did anyone demand the en masse renunciation of their views by their many followers and parishioners. Indeed, some people continue to believe that much of what Falwell said had more than a little truth to it: for example, see this review of God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith, by Steven J. Keillor.

Which makes one wonder why it is different this time around, for Wright and Obama. Obama rejected his pastor’s statements, in clear and unmistakable language – terms much stronger than Bush used for Falwell – saying that they are “inflammatory and appalling,” and that he “reject[s] outright the statements by Rev. Wright.” (He did the same with Louis Farrakhan, very publicly, during a televised debate.) Yet the news cycle continues, with story after story after story to remind audiences that Obama’s pastor said something we should take note of – and draw scrutiny to whether Obama has done enough to distanced himself from it all. Bloggers, like this one, raise similar questions. (Via.) True: Falwell was not Bush’s pastor the way Wright has been Obama’s. But Falwell and Robertson were crucial to rallying the religious right in support of Bush’s candidacy, and wielded greater influence in electing Bush than Wright will ever have by supporting Obama.

There are likely many unpleasant things said by many clergy across the country, statements that others might find offensive depending upon their own personal, religious, and political views. Nor do people necessarily and implicitly support every argument that their clergy puts forward, even as they continue to attend that person’s religious services. (For a good essay about this in a Jewish context, read M.J. Rosenberg, here; via The Nation.) It is important to know whether candidates for president of the United States agree with statements made by their clergy, and to make an effort to assimilate those perspectives into our broader understanding of the candidate. However, we should also be cautious about the application of a double standard, of demanding more – more renunciation, and more soothing words – from one candidate just because we find unnerving speeches that touch directly upon the racism that continues to be a plague on our nation.

10 March 2008

Kristolize That Thought

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I love writing – and one reason is for the challenge of engaging with an issue without necessarily disclosing my own beliefs too much. (Although I often do). The semi-cryptic, wholly clear but hard to interpret, quickly dashed-off lines often feel the best in the process of writing; whether they have a healthy life beyond that is more difficult to determine.

This is all very much on my mind after reading William Kristol’s rather amusing column in today’s New York Times, “McCain’s Daunting Task,” about the opportunities that await their pursuit by Senator John McCain in his campaign for the presidency. Kristol’s piece contains lines such as:

“George Bush [approval rating] looks likely to remain stuck in the 30s. Factor in the prospect of a recession (the bad housing and job market reports at the end of last week were politically chilling) and the fact that a large majority already thinks the country’s going in the wrong direction.”

Hmmm. In framing the observation as he has, it seems like Kristol is implicitly disagreeing: quietly asserting that, in fact, the country is not going in the wrong direction. And yet...

“If any Republican can defend conservative principles and policies, at once acknowledging Bush’s failures while pivoting to present his own biography and agenda to the voters, McCain can.”

Wait – Bush has had failures? Now I’m confused! I would really like to see Kristol articulate these failures publicly, in the Times or elsewhere, in a clear and open fashion. The last time I checked, the GOP (Kristol included) seemed hell-bent on denying there were any problems with the Bush administration, and generally seemed most anxious to sweep it all quietly under the rug. The crumbs of history.

However, if Kristol’s opinion about the capability deficient Bush administration is hard to put one’s finger on, it only gets murkier with this doozy:

“He [McCain] could persuade the most impressive conservative in American public life, Clarence Thomas, to join the ticket.”

Well I’ll be! Justice Clarence Thomas is the most impressive conservative in American public life the way that Chauncey Gardiner was an important businessman and political analyst. Thomas, it should be noted, says almost nothing from the bench. He asks few questions of those before the Court. He authors few opinions of his own, concurring or otherwise.

But the value of this whole column suddenly becomes quite clear: Kristol is giving us important insight into the state of the GOP these days. For apparently, in Kristol’s mind, the definition of an impressive conservative is one who says little, asks few questions, and – when push comes to shove – does even less.

02 March 2008

The Sin of Omission

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The proposals presented by both Senator Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to reform America’s health care insurance systems – in order to guarantee quality and affordability – are misleading, inadequate, and probably unworkable. They may be the best Americans can expect , but that still is not good enough. The bottom line: neither candidate is willing to define publicly what affordable means, and for whom. Both candidates have wasted thousands of words on the issue, but neither of them provides an estimated, projected cost for insurance per person (or family) per month, based on their plan. To state the obvious: that makes it difficult to judge whether these programs would, if enacted, be affordable – even though affordability is claimed as a hallmark by each candidate.

When Hillary Clinton says her plan is about “Improving Quality for All and Achieving at least $120 Billion Per Year in Savings Nationwide,” or Obama addresses the “$2 trillion” spent on medical care and notes that “Prescription drug errors alone cost the nation more than $100 billion every year,” well ... these numbers may be right, but I suspect they are essentially irrelevant to most people. To the extent that Americans budget at all, they surely do not do so in years, or in a manner that takes into account the GDP of the United States, how much health care costs in total across the country, or even whether interest rates will rise or fall a half-point in the next quarter. Most people budget in weekly or monthly increments, while even sophisticated people have a hard time understanding what $2 trillion really means in practical terms. Much as with Social Security, health care is both an emotional and practical issue; the practical component is about what kind of information people understand. What most citizens want to know is: what’s it gonna me cost each month?

Health care, you will recall, is supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s issue, the big one on which all of her I-care-about-people attitude, and her I-have-experience message points, were supposed to converge. Still, a review of the Clinton health care plan – on her web site, here, and in a downloadable PDF – reveals a distinct lack of specifics, especially where costs for the average family are concerned. Right now, I’m paying about $4,800 per year – $400 per month – to insure myself and my child. Will Clinton’s plan raise or lower my insurance premiums, and if so, by how much? The best we get from Clinton is an unspecific quote from someone else’s research: “The Business Roundtable estimated $2,200 in national health savings for the typical family,” based on making some of the changes Clinton proposes. This is buried on page 11 of the PDF of her plan, and it is not exactly a comforting or promising statistic.

Despite Clinton’s complaints that Obama has been weak on specifics, his plan is clearer than hers, and the Obama campaign has put together a separate document of Frequently Asked Questions which seems to recognize the complexity of the issue in a way that the Clinton camp misses. However, the best we get from Obama is this: “Through partnerships among federal and state governments, employers, providers and individuals, the Obama plan will save a typical American family up to $2,500 every year on medical expenditures...” (The Obama plan PDF, page 2.) Again, this seems better than the Clinton plan, not only because it’s $300 more, but because it comes on page 2 (and is repeated several times) rather than being buried on page 11, amidst many of Clinton’s other hifalutin’ statistics. Read the sentence again, though, and there is still a lack of clarity in its intent: it will save on medical expenditures, but does not say whether that includes health insurance premiums, nor does it explicitly say what the premiums would be, per person or per family per month.

In a ridiculous column in the New York Times a few weeks ago, Paul Krugman sided with Hillary Clinton’s plan because “the difference between the plans could well be the difference between achieving universal health coverage — a key progressive goal — and falling far short.” He then quotes a study by an economist who specializes in this area, and writes “Over all, the Obama-type plan would cost $4,400 per newly insured person, the Clinton-type plan only $2,700.” That does sound like a big difference. But notice that phrase “newly insured”? Krugman wrote it but does not explain it. By implication it seems to mean that those of us already with insurance – and paying more than $4,400 or $2,700 – won’t see much discount. In effect, our higher existing premiums will be subsidizing the costs of the cheaper plans. Excuse me, but: how is this better?

Largely unmentioned in all of this is the political reality of legislation in the United States. The Clinton and Obama plans read like pie-in-the-sky wonkery, as if an 11 year old was writing about his legislative intentions. So much here is dependent on Congress that it is almost hard to take it seriously as a campaign issue. Presidents, even power-abusing ones like George W. Bush, still have limitations.

If the candidates – either of them – want to win on this issue, they need to talk specifics. Clinton and Obama should stop quoting outside experts, and instead put better numbers to their health care plans. Tell me, now, what you project my insurance premiums will be, per person for a family of three, for the first year your plan rolls into action. Tell me, now, what your plans will cover, specifically, and what my out-of-pocket deductible will be. Come up with a number and stick to it. Commit yourself to it. Campaign on it. And then let the rest of us – the voters – decide whether these plans are actually “affordable,” according to our family budgets, not yours.