The incidents of scrap-metal thievery are great enough in number that they make a bona fide trend story, but I’m finding them lacking something, say, a sense of outrage. You can pile up the details all day, and there are scores — the theft of a green plaster statue of Jesus from the outside wall of a church, mistaken for copper; the stripping of a landmark fountain on Belle Isle, a six-figure repair for maybe $200 in scrap; the “NO METAL” signs on houses and commercial buildings around the city; the catalytic-converter gangs that can cut yours from your car without tripping the alarm — but still not get a sense of how bad it is.
A couple weeks ago, I heard an NPR piece on the theft of manhole covers in Philadelphia. A driver can hit an open manhole and do hundreds or thousands of dollars of damage to a car, but a cyclist can do the same thing and die. So you might say I paid close attention to this. The reporter interviewed a spokesman for a trade association of metal recyclers, who, in the tradition of weasel spokesmen everywhere, said scrap buyers bear no responsibility for this trend, and perhaps the cities most affected should work harder to secure the valuable ($20 in scrap, hundreds to replace) items, or maybe replace them with something less valuable, like fiberglas.
This being radio, and public radio at that, I waited in vain for the reporter to ask, “Are you telling me that a buyer has no obligation to raise questions when someone brings in five manhole covers reading ‘City of Philadelphia’ on them? Because I’d really like to get you on the record here.”
The linked story above has no scrap-metal spokesman — maybe he was busy doing a Black Mass or something — but it does mention the usual feeble effort of the city to crack down:
Last year, Detroit tightened its ordinance on scrap sales by requiring all dealers to produce paperwork and a video of all scrap sale transactions. “It has reduced copper theft in the city of Detroit,” said Bettison. “But now many of the scrap thieves go outside the city to sell their stolen metals.”
Well, that’s comforting.
As usual, Jim at Sweet Juniper has a beautifully written piece that captures the agony perfectly;
With China’s voracious demand for raw materials and the shocking increase in value of recyclable metals over the past few years, increased scrapping and theft are no surprise. But in places like Detroit the problem is so vast, fighting it seems almost futile, like those farm workers beating away the locusts in Days of Heaven. Occasionally a scrapper will die cutting a live wire, but six more step forward to take his place.
You see scrappers all the time in their beat-down old cars and trucks filled with metal: aluminum siding, radiators, steel fixtures, copper piping. I often see them inside Detroit’s wide-open and abandoned historic structures. Most artifacts of architectural significance have long been pillaged (for example, the terracotta lions from Lee Plaza that passed through the Ann Arbor antique market before being incorporated into new condo developments in Chicago). But there is still some rusty metal to be ripped away from the walls in most of these buildings. While showing that BBC documentary crew around a few weeks ago, we came across a mini van filled with metal driving around inside the old Fisher Body 21 plant. They are like maggots feeding on wounds; parasites devouring the viscera of this dying city.
We’ve already heard of aluminum docks around our lake place in south-central Michigan being stolen. Are scrappers taking your city apart, too?
No bloggage today — it’s already time to get changed for twice-weekly weight class, which recently went to a new teacher who believes it’s not weightlifting until the bar is sagging, apparently. Kill me now. If an open manhole cover doesn’t kill me first.
brian stouder said on July 24, 2008 at 10:02 am
but I’m finding them lacking something, say, a sense of outrage. You can pile up the details all day….. — but still not get a sense of how bad it is.
echoes a pretty funny article I just finished, about American voters, which concludes with Lewis-Beck says writing the book was a bracing experience for a political junkie. He’s the kind of guy who tries to forecast elections the way fantasy baseball fans try to forecast players’ performances. He writes papers with such titles as “Split-Ticket Voting: The Effects of Cognitive Madisonianism.”
“A lot of people don’t care about politics, okay?” he says. “They just don’t care.” Or they care just enough.
It is a funny piece which concludes (above) with what strikes me as the ring of truth… or maybe it’s just the clang of a cultural scap-metal maggot.
PS – another little excerpt
Some academics criticized “The American Voter” for depicting voters as “fools,” while others suggested the voters were not so much fools as, uh, “cognitive misers.” (Aren’t academic euphemisms the best?) The book spawned all sorts of follow-ups, like a rebuttal called “The Changing American Voter” and a rebuttal to the rebuttal called “The Unchanging American Voter.”
colleen said on July 24, 2008 at 10:10 am
When we were doing some renovation a couple of years ago, we stripped aluminum off the porch…one evening the scrap guys actually waited at the curb while Steve pulled the stuff off….
Dorothy said on July 24, 2008 at 10:30 am
And they didn’t offer to lend a hand, Colleen?! You’d think that would be the least they could do if they’re going to profit from it. Sheesh.
coozledad said on July 24, 2008 at 10:55 am
I remember a conversation I had some years ago with a dickweed who said recycling wasn’t cost effective, and the stuff should just be landfilled. He worked at the EPA, of all places. Instead of asking him where he acquired the fellatory skills to get his job, I reminded him that in the years following WWII, industrialists in the US suggested keeping wartime quotas for mandatory rationing of industrial metals, as well as the construction of new metals recycling facilities, because they knew the US was on track to exhaust its supply of raw materials by mid-century. I asked him if he felt that that situation was somehow improved since 1946.
American exceptionalism is a religion with these idiots.
nancy said on July 24, 2008 at 11:12 am
If “fellatory” isn’t a word, it should be. And “fellatory skills” should be a line on a lot of resumés.
coozledad said on July 24, 2008 at 11:17 am
My wife always says “Fellatio” sounds like a character from Shakespeare, as in “Come gentle Fellatio, and dismount from your snow-white goodly steed.”
Catherine said on July 24, 2008 at 11:18 am
The scrap guys system in my city is: We leave whatever on the curb (an awning, a toilet, a wrought iron gate). They telepathically know that it’s there and pick it up within 4 hours. I generally like this system, but I don’t know how I’d feel if they were hovering, or if the city infrastructure was in jeopardy.
moe99 said on July 24, 2008 at 11:35 am
Alan will get a kick out of this. I was reading a New Yorker article when I was 14 or 15 and it mentioned cunnilingus and fellatio. I asked my dad, the doctor, who was reading in the study with me what those words meant and he replied, “Dear, I just don’t know.” I’m sure it hit him for a loop coming from his oldest daughter.
Several years earlier our dog went into heat while we were on vacation and we had come back from the vet’s unawares and within minutes there were numerous suitors lined up in the front yard taking their turns. I was in the kitchen with my mother looking out the front window, and turned to her in disgust, “I’m sure glad humans don’t do that.” Again, I was met with silence. Ah those teaching moments go by too fast.
nancy said on July 24, 2008 at 11:42 am
“thirtysomething” wasn’t big on laughs, but there was one episode that had a great moment like that. The father, Elliot, had just finished telling his son that it was perfectly normal to be interested in sex, and if he had any questions — any at all — just come to dad, and he would answer them all, and never, ever lie.
The kid: “OK.”
Dad turns to leave. Kid: “Dad?”
“That’s the year the Mets won the World Series.”
MichaelG said on July 24, 2008 at 12:23 pm
The metal thieves/scavengers are a big problem here too. A little responsibility on the part of the scrap yards would do wonders as Nance noted. You can bet the yards are cheating hell out of the scavengers. Wonderfulness breeds wonderfulness.
The Governator is threatening to cut my salary to $6.55 an hour next week. That’ll almost cover my wine and cigar bills. I may have to learn some of C’dad’s survival skills. Or maybe go into the metal scavenging bidness.
Julie Robinson said on July 24, 2008 at 1:10 pm
When we were cleaning out my mom’s flooded basement, the scavengers took all her damaged appliances except the refrigerator. Since we were going to have to pay $25 each for the landfill folks to pick them up, we thought it was a great deal. But it upset Mom that they were picking through her trash.
Now I have a better understanding of how she felt. When I opened my suitcase last night, there was a note from our friends at the TSA that my suitcase had been chosen for a random search blah blah homeland security blah blah blah.
And everything in the suitcase was in a different place. Ew, ew, ew.
beb said on July 24, 2008 at 1:13 pm
Does anal-retentive qualify as a “fellatory skill” on my resume?
moe99 said on July 24, 2008 at 1:15 pm
ok, another good website today. This one is a map of those involved in crimes in the current WH:
beb said on July 24, 2008 at 1:23 pm
Isn’t fellatio mentioned in a song in “Hair?” I recall a chorus that goes: “…father, why do all these words sound so nasty/ Masturbation can be fun/ join the holy orgy, karma sutra every one.”
Stealing manhole covers has got to be a challenge. That’s a lot of metal to pull off the ground. Meanwhile in Flint the police are ticketing boys and men for wearing gangsta style droopy pants. They say its a decency issue. However from where I sit it looks like another war on young black men. Another excuse to put them behind bars.
Danny said on July 24, 2008 at 1:45 pm
A couple of years ago, they were stealing brass vases in cemetaries here in San Diego. Here is the original story.
They caught the culprits.
Quiz question: Why are manhole covers round?
Dexter said on July 24, 2008 at 1:55 pm
Oh boy, what a great topic! I live with this bullshit, right next door. The neighbor’s son got out of prison and commandeered the huge garage and driveway for his tear-down area. He has a beat-up pick-up truck and he hauls in several loads of junk every day. Then the cacophony begins.
The tailgate slams open and stuff is unloaded. Then comes the banging and the loose metal is separated, then the loud drills removing bolts & screws, then the loudest goddam power saw comes in…unbelievable NOISE! Later the stuff is LOUDLY loaded back up and the truck roars to life…no muffler, natch.
Later he comes back with more crap, moves away the crap from the last load into a pile and repeats the process. All day long, into the night…sometimes he’s there until 12:30 A.M.
Complain? Ha! The renter in the house (the owner lives one house away) makes a big fire in a barrel three times a week in a no-trash-burn city. The catch is the new mayor allows fires for fun, and he burns away…but he burns his filthy garbage and dog shit and who knows what…so I know a complaint about noise from the junk scavenger would be laughed at.
Oh, where does he get his junk from? I have no idea, but I guess the answer is anywhere he can lay his grubby filthy prison hands on it. He even pisses off the firebug renter, who calls the scavenger and his li’l buddy, of course…Sanford & Son. Oh shit…here comes that fucking truck again! AHRRRRGGGGGHHHH ! !
Dexter said on July 24, 2008 at 2:01 pm
Best line about scavenging came from Bubs in The Wire, when he told his junkie-protege to help him balance a sheered off light pole on his cart .
“There’s a benjamin there in that pole!”
del said on July 24, 2008 at 2:07 pm
It is only fitting that moe99’s diagram showing all roads leading to Alberto Gonzales follows reference to fellatory skills on one’s resume. I figured he was a loyal synchophant when I heard W would refer to him as “Judge” in the early days.
Julie Robinson said on July 24, 2008 at 2:19 pm
Where my sister lives (Lake Worth, Florida) is a bit like a third-world country. And not just because government services like mail and electricity are hit and miss. Her otherwise nice new apartment complex rents out garages to tenants, but most use them for running off-the-books businesses. Across from her are two repair/chop shops, one mattress sales place, and a couple of day labor type yard work places. The auto repairs go on at all hours, often with loud music and cursing, 20 feet from the bedroom windows. Apparently it’s legal because the area is unincorporated but I sure wouldn’t rent there.
Mindy said on July 24, 2008 at 2:23 pm
Scrap yards around here aren’t allowed to accept beer kegs any more, so sez the paper. People were happily selling kegs for scrap after the party because they could get much more for them than the liquor store required for deposit.
Duchess said on July 24, 2008 at 4:00 pm
It’s a big problem in the UK where thieves steal the lead flashing from the church roofs.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on July 24, 2008 at 4:09 pm
Manhole covers are round because it’s the one shape a slightly larger form can’t go through the smaller one. As for scrap recyclers, have you ever been to one of these places? Not to try to elevate the verbiage, but they aren’t even remotely fellatory, more Dante-esque. The furnace at the heart of the business that renders all into anonymous slag or bar, and the seemingly endless piles of furtive debris where scarred and glowering figures scurry just behind you while you wait at the “counter” for the manager/owner, who is never there.
“Whose Lexus is that out by the rusted Toyota pickup?” “Oh, Nate left it here and went on a run with one of the guys.” “So i can just wait here until Nate gets back?” “Ummm . . . . he doesn’t always come back. I wouldn’t do that if i were you.”
Five salvage yards with metal recycling in our area, and they’re as alike as Starbucks only more so. Getting them to glean info from their suppliers will be like getting pawnbrokers to verify ID before leaving the shop . . . that’s a joke, ah say joke, son.
Danny said on July 24, 2008 at 4:37 pm
Jeff, good. He wins.
Dexter said on July 24, 2008 at 4:40 pm
The accompanying story in nancy’s text said aluminum is going for seventy-five cents now. The only time I ever sold aluminum was when I saved my beer cans. I had five full fifty-five gallon drums full of crushed cans. I drove them to the Defiance recycling station and I got eleven dollars. I figured why bother?
I drank like a fish and it still took me seventeen forevers to get all those cans.
A man who I knew all my life from my old hometown “broke bad” early in life. He used to steal everything he could to supplement his weed-dealing business. When he stole copper wire from beside the RR track, he did time at Pendleton Reformatory, his second home.
Yep, I used to walk along the RRtracks with a shotgun and hunt rabbits as a young boy. Now the dicks catch you so much as cutting across the tracks or walking along the rails, they arrest you, fine you, and the deal is you have to go to Toledo for a series of lectures on RR safety, and the classes are not free, and they are not cheap. It will end up costing several hundred dollars if they catch you.
Kath said on July 24, 2008 at 4:45 pm
My brother lives in Chicago. The scrappers are very agressive there. He left some giant piece of metal equipment that weighed well over a ton in his driveway. My sister-in-law went to the grocery store. When she came back less than an hour later it was gone.
Once when he was up on the roof fixing some loose shingles, someone stole his aluminum ladder. He had to slide down the downspout.
Dexter said on July 24, 2008 at 4:53 pm
Jeff, I see you know your salvage yards! Those guys…see, I have driven many old cars to their demise; I wrote here before how I have owned over one hundred cars , and that was no exaggeration. I buy them cheap and drive them until they break down and I have them towed to the salvage yard.
“How much ya wunt fer it?”
“Oh, I don’t know”, I say, hoping to get two hundred dollars, “how much ya give me for it?”
[piping up from a cluttered sawhorse bench enters one of the workers]–“Why-ownt ye geeve ‘im twailve?”
No sound, I am ignored for as much as five minutes.
“Well let’s go look at it..where is it?”
“It’s right there.”
“Ya got the title?”
“Is a hundred all right?”
Then he writes a check for a hundred and it’s over. Only one time did I ever get $200…for an old Ford Crown Vic. I only got $90 for a Mercury Lynx.
brian stouder said on July 24, 2008 at 4:55 pm
Dexter – I was amazed when aluminum went north of 50 cents; 60 cents was almost unbelievable….and now north of 70 cents, I can get $12-15 dollars for a garbage bag full of smashed cans, just from our own use (plus the ones people at work throw into my box)
My brother, who is now a Buckeye, is also a longtime Norfolk Southern employee, and he gives safety lectures at schools and so forth (and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was at the Toledo lectures you mention). I pointed out to him an egregious scene in “Cars” where one of the characters (I think the semi truck with Cliffy Claven’s voice) races to beat a train at a crossing!! – which presumeably undoes some of the work he does on safety awareness.
But indeed, fooling around on railroad right-of-ways is not a good thing. Leaving aside the personal safety of the interlopers, a person with bad intentions can do all sorts of things
edit: an interesting link… http://www.universalwrecking.com/Sections-read-33.html
Dexter said on July 24, 2008 at 6:30 pm
Yes, Brian, they treat RR trespassers similarly to drunk drivers.
Here, drunks who get busted must attend a regional “school” for either intensive or light education.
Come to think of it, I haven’t seen the dicks near the tracks lately.
After a $6 million settlement the RR paid out when a drunk crossed against a signal on foot and lost an arm, they were thick.
whitebeard said on July 24, 2008 at 7:03 pm
A chap came by and asked my wife if she had any scrap metal and she made a a giant heap for him and he cherry-picked the good stuff and left the rest. Suffice to say, when he resurfaced a few months later, we told him we promised it all to someone else.
But the worst fat, ass-crease-revealing slob was the gutter man who put on a new front gutter and when he asked if we wanted him to haul away the old gutter (copper, no less) we said no, leave it for us, we will find a use for it.
Lo and behold, when he and his young daughter left, they had taken the old copper gutter from the front, picked out pieces of copper from that previously mentioned giant heap, and then, believe it or not, Ripley, ripped out a flattened copper gutter from the grass that was directing rainwater away from the basement wall at the back.
I called two scrap yards, asked how much that many feet of old copper gutter was worth, called his home-based business and told his wife how he took the copper when we told him to leave it for us.
When she said he probably took it for gas money because he doesn’t make much money from seamless-gutter jobs, I blew up, and said that when the homeowner says leave the copper, taking it is stealing and ripping it out of the ground at the back of the house is even worse. And what kind of example was he giving to his 14-year-old daughter who was helping him steal.
She asked how much should she put on the check she was going to mail me that afternoon before he got home. I also bet he didn’t get his nightly nookie at the end of his hard-working day.
coozledad said on July 24, 2008 at 7:13 pm
I know what you mean about Dante’s inferno, Dexter. I had to go to a local metal fabricating shop last week to get a section of steel pipe.
It was a hundred degrees outside, and inside this forty foot tall old hangar they were just moving the heat around with giant circa 1950’s fans. There was only one guy there who could hear anymore, and he went to fetch the boss, who despite obviously suffering from a bad back, was lugging around something that looked like a steering box from a tractor-trailer. He could have been 75-79 years old easily.
Everything in the place was covered with soot and oil, but they had just about every piece of metalworking equipment you could think of. They could probably build a car nearly from scratch there.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on July 24, 2008 at 7:15 pm
Didn’t see manhole covers on the list at that link . . . say, what’s this “nightly nookie”? Must be something to do with seamless gutter work.
Railroads are scared to death that the scavengers will start in on their ill-tended, loosely patrolled, still viable track. They want to scare people to day-uth before spikes and rails and gates start vanishing.
So the roaches head to churches, which often aren’t occupied weeknights (or weekdays) and have their HVAC units out back or up on a one story flat roof. Food pantries and day care and Sunday services are getting interrupted all the time around here by having their cooling units stripped, and the fence installation guys are really coming out the winners, as churches try to secure and block the access to their $12 of copper that’s costing them $3,000 to replace, and some of those are “Faith Pilgrimage Tabernacle of God – Living Hope, Bishop E.E. “Doc” Smith, Evangelist” type churches that haven’t had insurance since Ararat, so they just swelter this month.
whitebeard said on July 24, 2008 at 7:38 pm
The question about “nightly nookie” Jeff reminds me about what a “morner” is and the answer is that it is like a nooner, only sooner.
Of course that reminds me of a conversation with a young female acquaintance who said that she would not be going to lunch because she had a cold and could not drink any alcohol.
When I mentioned that you didn’t have to have a drink at lunch to have a fun time, she said if anybody else said that she might be offended, but when I said it she didn’t mind, because I had no ultererior motive in my words. That is when the conversation turned to “nooners” and “morners.”
Lordy, she must have thought I was the original 39-year-old virgin.
nancy said on July 24, 2008 at 7:55 pm
Now see, this conversation is getting interesting late in the day.
I hadn’t even thought of the railroad’s risk, Jeff, but you’re right — they’re hugely exposed and vulnerable, and if that starts happening, we’re really in a pickle.
Alan and his staff have a monthly lunch outing, and one day last summer they went to a Thai place that was operating with open doors and fans, having lost their a/c unit to scrappers. Around the D, you see rooflines reinforced with razor wire for just that reason.
Jim @ Sweet Juniper gets a little liberal guilt over the scrappers’ starving children low in his blog entry, but I have zero sympathy. Infrastructure in this country is in bad enough shape without these idiots taking it apart piece by piece.
whitebeard said on July 24, 2008 at 8:33 pm
If the railroad track wasn’t so damned heavy, a lot more of it would be disappearing, but today’s standard 60-foot length of rail weighs 2,600 pounds and needs a lot of cutting to fit in the back of a pickup truck (and would probably be much too heavy for the truck’s springs).
Even the old standard of 39 feet to fit in a 40-foot-long gondola car for seldom-used branch lines weighed 1,690 pounds. Has anyone seen the old movies of a dozen or more Chinese laborers struggling to lift a single piece of rail to fit it into place on the wooden ties. A dedicated scrapper would need a lot of friends.
Since the 1950s, says Wikipedia, much of the main line trackwork is continuously welded rail, also known as ribbon rail, for smoother riding. Try slicing that, you evil scrappers hiding under boulders committing fellatio like the smarmy snakes you are.
brian stouder said on July 24, 2008 at 9:45 pm
Well, just before the Civil War, when Baltimore was our own “Sunni Triangle”, full of morons who would burn trestles, sabotage the rails, cut telegraph lines and fool with switches – they (the railroads) created their own Blackwater-style private security firms.
Allan Pinkerton was working for the railroads (essentially a counter-insurgency campaign against the folks who were fooling with the railways) when they got wind of the plot to murder the president-elect (as he switched trains in Baltimore), and foiled it.
By way of saying, fooling with the railroads is an old idea, and the railroads never fool around in their response.
And as a digression, a year ago the Logansport newspaper ran a fascinating article about a major trainwreck that happened in tiny Walton, Indiana (about 9 miles away from Logansport) in the late 1940’s. Two boys placed an obstruction on the tracks (a reel of fence wire, or some such), and then waited to see what would happen. A speedy passenger train struck it and derailed, killing some number of people (six or eight), and injuring many more.
The hook in the story was that the kids were never charged or prosecuted; some sort of deal was made (I seem to recall that their parents were well respected or local muckety-mucks, or some such), and they weren’t named in the modern article, either(!!) – since the (presumeably remorseful) old men still live in the area.
Seriously, the same act in 2008 would instantly trigger the question “was this an act of terrorism?”, and might get one a ticket to Gitmo
edit: I got this far in Google; looks like the trainwreck was in January 1947, and killed 4
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on July 24, 2008 at 10:33 pm
Hey, if you’ve seen the ads for the upcoming movie with Kevin Costner and Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci, called (i think) “Swing Vote,” you have seen all i’ve seen about the movie, but the sense of the story from the clips makes me think of this Gene Weingarten story, another much-more-Pulitzer worthy story that likely is the real basis for his prize this year (with all due respect to Joshua Bell) — and i post the opening to see if anyone else has had the thought that they may owe a credit (or royalty) to His Geneness:
NONE OF THE ABOVE — Washington Post Magazine
You want to know why Ted Prus doesn’t vote? Well, he wants to know why anybody would
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page W14
[sorry, i can’t find a link, this is from a .txt file i made out of admiration for the craft of the original piece]
[webmaster’s note: Here’s Gene’s entire 2004 piece on the WP site.]
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on July 24, 2008 at 11:09 pm
Three chunks of the story —
The president’s job for the day was to deliver a speech on health care, a subject on which Ted might well have taken an interest. Ted is 37 and makes $15 an hour, unless it rains, in which case he makes nothing. His main experience with health care is not having it — a situation that, despite his youth appearance, is not exactly irrelevant. Twice in the last few
years, Ted had seizures that left him unconscious. Once, it happened on the banks of a river he was fishing; had his best friend, Brian, not been there to drag him out of the water, he likely would have drowned. Ted could barely scrape together the $400 a doctor charged him to tell him that she didn’t
know what was wrong with him and that he’d have to see a specialist. The specialist was out of the question, financially, so Ted just keeps his fingers crossed and worries about those frequent headaches.
Ted also has no dental insurance. This, too, is not irrelevant. A few years ago, when a balky molar began to bark, Ted did not see a dentist. Instead, he says, he sat in his kitchen, loosened the tooth with a pocket knife and then yanked it out with pliers from his tackle box.
The presidential appearance had been all over the news in Muskegon for more than a week, but Ted hadn’t heard about it until the day before, and only because someone told him. He doesn’t read the papers much, except for NASCAR results and sometimes the classifieds. On TV, for information, he watches
the Weather Channel or the farm reports.
It was a nice day. As Ted wielded his hammer, something amazing happened, something that a hack writer — an abuser of cliches searching for a perfect moment soaked in irony and pregnant with meaning — would not dare make up. Air Force One roared directly overhead.
Ted didn’t even look up. Because, when it comes to politics, as Ted will tell you himself, he just doesn’t give a rat’s ass.
* * *
And yet, since 1960, voting rates have been steadily declining.
Political scientists point to several reasons, among them the ascendancy of negative campaigning, which tends to sour voters on the candidates and on politics in general. Some cite the fact that, in the era of cable TV, we have too many choices of where we obtain our information, making it easier to ignore politics in favor of entertainment. Actually, politics used to
provide entertainment; historians have observed that in other eras, people felt about their parties much as they do, today, about their sports teams. Turn-of-the-century urban political clubs sponsored neighborhood athletic teams, and their meeting houses served as social clubs. That sort of generations-long loyalty and blind partisan devotion is gone, even among the politically astute. Involvement in all civic areas has declined.
Most political experts see low voter turnout as a problem to be fixed.
Earnest citizen-advocacy literature — the sort of things passed out at
polling places and party headquarters — makes the passionate argument that every vote counts. Those documents tend to include long, familiar lists of important matters decided by one vote (Thomas Jefferson wins the presidency; Texas enters the Union; France becomes a republic). Unfortunately, such
examples, while well-intentioned, are bogus. All of the “elections” cited are not popular votes but votes within legislatures, where one-vote majorities are not only commonplace but typically are illusory — the deliberate result of leadership compromises on issues.
Every vote, to be impolitic, does not count and never has. In America, no presidential election, no gubernatorial election, no U.S. senatorial election has ever been decided by a single vote at the polls.
All of this raises a valid, if impertinent question: When it comes to voting or not voting, why should any individual give a rat’s ass?
One of the more intriguing books about nonvoting, To Vote or Not to Vote, actually begins by wondering why anyone votes at all. Author Andre Blais tries to answer this question by applying the modern economist’s favorite scientific model, the Rational Choice Theory. Rational Choice analyzes human decision-making based on a fairly simple mathematical cost-benefit ratio. Blais, who is a Rational Choice acolyte, winds up basically throwing up his hands. The costs of voting (registering, going to the polls, waiting in line, etc.) so outweigh any palpable benefits (no vote is ever likely to directly influence anything) that the model essentially falls apart.
Can it be that those who don’t vote are the most rational among us? If a single vote is without influence, isn’t casting one illogical?
Mathematically speaking, sure. Even in Florida, even in 2000, the breathtakingly narrow margin in the official vote tally was hundreds of times larger than one person’s vote.
But there is something profoundly unsettling about the idea that voting is, basically, senseless. That may be because mathematical logic is not the only type of rigorous reasoning. Moral and political philosophers have spent centuries mulling civic duties and obligations. Perhaps that’s the place to
look for guidance, because deciding whether to vote is not so much a
question of math as a matter of morals.
Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher, lived in an era of monarchy; his works never directly addressed the issue of voting. But he addressed, at great length, issues of moral responsibility. In his treatise on the Categorical Imperative, Kant concluded that all human actions, if moral, must be taken not to achieve what is best for you, or even to accomplish a particular result you desire. The moral act, he said, is the one which, if universalized, would result in the greatest good. In other words, in a given situation, minor or momentous, the moral person acts the
way he would want everyone to act if they were faced with a similar choice.
What would happen if, literally, not a single person voted? Jefferson’s Grand Experiment ends in ignominy. Anarchy reigns. Regional warlords rise to power in a return to a feudal state. There are medieval codes of honor, indentured servitude, after-dinner floggings.
Hence, Kant would argue, the only moral choice is to vote.
Implicitly, we understand this. In a totalitarian state, voting is a distant dream; in a democracy, it is a civic obligation. But that still leaves the United States with low voter turnout, for which we have no ready explanation.
All we have are more questions: Since nonvoters tend to be less politically knowledgeable than voters — all polls confirm this — might it not be worse if these particular people cast an ignorant ballot? Who needs them?
And: If voting is a matter of morals, and America practically leads the world in nonvoting, are we an amoral country? Is something else in play?
To help find the answers, we decided to talk to a typical nonvoter. Unfortunately, since half of America doesn’t vote, it’s no more possible to find a “typical” nonvoter than it would be to find a “typical” woman. So, instead, this is what we did:
We asked The Washington Post pollsters to generate a list of people who, when telephoned in the last few months for their political views, had identified themselves as nonvoters. This was basically a list of discarded calls; no one conducting political preference polls particularly cares what nonvoters think. We did.
We took a list of 90-odd names, eliminated those people who were not from battleground states (we wanted people with resonant nonvotes) and then started telephoning. To eliminate any bias in our choice, we decided to profile the very first person who agreed. The first name on the list, as it happens, was Ted Prus. Here is how the call went:
“Hi. This is The Washington Post. Are you registered to vote?”
“Are you planning on voting?”
“We’d like to write a long story about you. Would you be interested? It would make you famous.”
“You mean a famous idiot?”
“Actually, we’re not sure. There’s no guarantee one way or the other.”
TED IS IN HIS TRUCK, and I am following in my rental car. We are driving to a restaurant of his choosing for a dinner on The Washington Post; price is no object. Muskegon is not renowned as a mecca of haute cuisine, but the Sardine Room does offer a robust $26 filet mignon, and for $49.99 you can get two lobster tails at Dockers Waterfront Cafe. Ted, however, has chosen Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que.
Ted’s preferences are simple. He drinks Bud Light because he likes it; the importeds cost too much and taste skunky to him, anyway. He smokes Basics, which are generic cigarettes that don’t jack up their price for fancy packaging or slick ad campaigns. He likes the Steve Miller Band because he can make out the damn words. He can do fancy, decorative stonemasonry — fireplaces and things like that — but it’s a painstaking process, and he’s impatient, so he prefers flatwork, which means pouring garages and sidewalks.
With Ted in the cab is Kim Miller, the woman with whom he has been living for nine years but whom he never married because neither of them sees any good reason to jump through that hoop. Between them is their 6-year-old son,
Slate, who got his name because it’s unconventional and Ted wants his boy to be his own man, and because it’s a construction material Ted respects for its hardness, and Ted wants his boy to grow up strong.
The truck pulls into the restaurant parking lot, then jerks to a stop. Ted bounces out of the cab and nods sourly toward the restaurant entrance, around which a few parties of three and four congregate. “Sorry,” he explains, “I don’t wait in lines.”
* * *
“Here’s another nonvoter!” This is how Ted’s friend, Troy Ropp, announces his arrival. Troy is 37, with flaming red hair and a backwoods beard. Troy used to work at a Herman Miller furniture factory, but he rose so far he got a semi-management position, and he found it too distasteful to boss people around. So he runs his own tree service now.
I ask him about the election. Troy thinks President Bush made a bad mistake going into Iraq the way he did. There were other ways of solving the Saddam Hussein problem, he says. “They could have took Saddam out with a 50-caliber at 500 yards.” Nods all around. A brief discussion of firearms ensues.
Troy seems to have given the issues of the day more thought than either Ted or Kim. It occurs to me that what we have here might be a statistical anomaly — a well-informed nonvoter. I press him on why he’s not voting.
“Because I don’t think my vote will matter.” Plus, he says, politicians are all alike. “Bush is just like . . . ” Troy pauses.
” . . . like that guy he’s running against.”
“You mean Kerry?”
I look at him, he looks at me. He laughs.
“I would have thought of it if you’d gave me a little time.”
Dexter said on July 25, 2008 at 12:02 am
coozledad, I worked in a place that was like Hell. It was an aluminum foundry. I was the lab tech ; I analyzed the metal content of the holding pots . The holding pots were accessible to the molders for dipping in their ladles and pouring the metal into their molds. The holding pots were filled from the giant reverb furnaces via an overhead track. The metal pushers filled up the carriers at the reverbs and manually pushed the carriers via the track and manually dumped them into the holding pots.
OK. Part of my job was to gather sample discs , using a tiny ladle and a hamburger-press sized mold. I checked all the pots sporadically.
One Saturday I was working at the pots and I got thirsty, and walked off to the Coke machine. I heard a helluva noise.
My work station was covered in molten aluminum! My charts, my tiny ladle, the little mold…all of it. Right where I had been standing three minutes prior.
I quit . A metal traveller-pot had broken the track. I would have probably been killed. I really did quit.
caliban said on July 25, 2008 at 7:14 am
When you ride a bike instead of driving, it’s amazing what sorts of mayhem occur fairly regularly. We generally leave the car parked until it’s time to make the 211 mile trek to see them Dawgs kick somebody’s ass in Athens. I do the groceries by bike with my surplus Norvegian Army backpack that I got for $19.95 online from Quartermaster, that specializes in tactical underwear and killing tools.
A missing manhole cover, say one of the fine products from Neenah Foundry (and I know, because I specify them for construction projects), is not quite deadly but very problematic for bikers. I imagine it could be a matter of life and death if I hit one of those open storm drains or sewers when I’m riding my Triumph. It leaks oil but goes fast, and I’m thinking of ditching it for a Vincent if I can find one. (Good enough for Richard Thompson, good enough for me, and Brit bikes rule, Harley’s not withstandin’.)
But anyway, what sort of world, exactly, are we living in when people feel the need to rob manhole covers for scrap value? Did the apocalypse come without a bang and such a sigh we didn’t notice? No joke. Mad Max? William Gibson world? Stainless Steel Rat? How did things come to such a sorry state while Democracy was being outsourced by force?
We’ve got a government that says that CO2 is several things beyond simple elemental atoms and covalent bonds. Now that’s creationism at a whole new level. And manhole covers are currency. Not a pretty picture.
Jeff is right about non-voters, I suppose, but I’m more worried about idiots that have that franchise. One thing to think about Kerry. What dredged up the intense hatred that produced the feloniously fabricated, basically moronic Short-boat slander (that was bought hook, line and sinker after Fox ran it 24/7)? BCCI investigation that exposed Great Communicator as greater Constitutional criminal.
But people still buy that crap and if they don’t, aholes like Ken Blackwell make sure their votes never get counted. This election, they will come out of the woodwork.
You know, the minimal, woefully uncritical coverage of McCain’s reinvention of the surge is hilarious, but it’s not funny. Surge didn’t do dick. First Sadr called off the dogs. Second, Iraq became an unseemly network of racially cleansed neighborhoods separated by US-built walls (while millions became emigres). Then, there was the Awakening, which, when you get right to it, was handing over palletfuls of cash to tribal leaders to cease being members of the fabricated Al Qaida in Iraq. Then there was the ‘surge’, which was supposed to buy time for forming some sort of Iraqi governmental consensus. That hasn’t happened. The only thing Iraqis agree on is that they want America gone.
John said on July 25, 2008 at 7:57 am
Jeff provided the answer to why manholes are round. The reason why manhole covers are round is because manholes are too.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on July 25, 2008 at 8:29 am
Gene’s piece on Ted was about (IMO) how non-voters are really a part of the election, and was the first/only piece i’ve read to try to take them seriously and figure out what was de-motivating them to not-vote, thereby shaping the final result of the election.
Ted non-voters, his age and younger, are the ongoing Holy Grail (or Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch) of the Democratic Party — “this time, we’re going to get them feeling like they can really make a difference and they’ll come to the polls and vote for #$%^!!!!!!!”
But they don’t. And 200,000 Berliners aside (mmmm, doughnuts), i don’t think they will this time, either. Racism, that’s a factor (both ways); and the kind of cognitive disenfranchisement that Weinberger was trying to get at — but i was wanting to say about non-voters only that they are casting a vote, but not enough people are listening to what it’s saying, maybe because you have to listen real close.
I don’t think we’d have a nirvana with 96% voting rates, but the size and type and motivations (or lack thereof) of non-voting populations is worth more attention.
caliban said on July 25, 2008 at 9:24 am
Have y’all had the pleasure of visiting Cocktail Party Physics?
I took Latin and Greek, German and Russian, and have grown to an overripe upper middle age sorry that science other than biology completely escaped me, as did any sort of math that didn’t involve Archimides and the 2,3,4 rule that rules carpentry. I rue the lacunae in my education, but I guess the more you are educated, the less you know.
My knowledge of physics is limited to a nebulous understanding of the fascinating phenomenon (and isn’t alliteration without repeating consonants something to consider, and does it exist outside of English, where ghoti spells fish?) of red shift. As I understand it, this proves that all matter is moving away from some central point (Bang!) and accelerates as it moves away. If E equals MC squared, doesn’t that mean that matter must reach a point where it goes so fast it all becomes energy? That would be intelligent design, I’d say, and maybe the point of Kurt Vonnegut, other than that love may fail but courtesy will prevail.
Anyway, Cocktail Party Physics is a wonderful contribution to the internets Al Gore invented after John Kerry didn’t really get wounded pulling him out of the Mekong, and some of you might enjoy it.
And Jeff, Berliners are more like crullers, or even Napoleons, than doughnuts.
Re voting: Part pf the problem is the intensely ignorant that vote religiously and the informed that give the fundamental right a pass.
alex said on July 25, 2008 at 9:30 am
Never thought I’d ‘fess up to this but scrap metal pays a lot of the bills in my house. We come by it honestly, however. My hubby’s a steel erector and his clients typically let him salvage the scrap — that is if people haven’t scavenged the construction site first.
Sometimes the scrap is so good it’s worth keeping. For instance, I have the most fabulous above-ground garden/flower box in canary yellow. People ask if it’s some cool new thing they’re selling at Home Depot or someplace. Nope, I tell them, it’s custom made. From the fascia of a Shell gas station canopy.
Have had some of my own musings lately on people who don’t vote. This is purely anecdotal and unscientific, but it has been my observation that the nonvoters of my acquaintance, when they say they’ve got to get home to watch the news, are referring to Entertainment Tonight. They get hot under the collar when conversation rolls around to politics — not because they necessarily disagree with anything being said but rather because they’re uninformed and such discussions make them uncomfortable. While I’m amazed if not outraged that they remain ignorant of the issues of the day, they likewise are annoyed with me because I don’t share their vast knowledge of the culture of celebrity or grave concern for what’s happening to Madonna’s marriage, etc.
In short, these are people who rely on the rest of us to make decisions for them and seem to think that the herd always knows best. For them, life is a fashion statement.
brian stouder said on July 25, 2008 at 9:51 am
For them, life is a fashion statement.
and indeed, for many voting (in a particular way) is a fashion statement, and/or a cultural talisman.
I have chuckled more than once over the radio lip-flappers (national and local) dogging Senator Obama as an empty suit, lost without a teleprompter….while they never hesitate to instantly begin genuflecting in the direction of the Great and Saintly Ronald Reagan!
Our local lip flapper (and onetime on-air partner of the Proprietress) ventured to say that making great speeches ain’t part of the job description of President of the United States…!
(I called and got through, and pushed him into retreat on that one, just by invoking Saint Ronnie…and then it was time for a commercial!!)