Riots like in Baltimore won’t stop until police treat African-Americans with respect & without violence

There is absolutely no excuse for the riots and the fires in Baltimore. Violence is never the appropriate way to seek redress of grievances in a civil society.

But just because we don’t condone, does not mean that we can’t empathize with the rioters and their concerns. If we want to prevent future violence of the same sort, we have to explore the reasons that motivated so many people suddenly to break loose of the social bonds that restrain all of us most of the time and to burst into rioting.

We know the origin of the Baltimore riots is the death of African-Americans everywhere in the United States at the hands of police, who are quicker to arrest blacks, quicker to use force on them and quicker to draw their gun and fire at them than they are when confronting whites. The death of Freddie Gray from a spinal cord injury while in police custody was the proximate cause of the Baltimore riot, but behind it stand years of rough treatment of African-Americans by the Baltimore police and the crescendo of recent publicity surrounding other African-Americans essentially murdered by police in Ferguson, Tulsa, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Cleveland and elsewhere.

The equation is simple: riots about unfair and brutal treatment of minorities by local police departments will end when local police departments stop treating minorities unfairly and brutally.

As they always do after spontaneous violence flares up in reaction to injustice, the rightwing news media has thrown all its support behind the police while tarring the entire community with blame for the violent actions of what is always a minority of the neighborhood where rioting occurs. Meanwhile, the mainstream news media seek to conflate the rioting with the police brutality that instigated it on the moral and ethical level.

Both may be unacceptable, but two factors make the police actions far worse. For one thing, it is the police actions that constitute the injustice which foments the violence.

More significantly, the violence in the community is unplanned, a spontaneous outbreak of people who have often suffered for decades. As the U.S.  Department of Justice report on Ferguson substantiates, the police violence against African-Americans is often part of a larger, long-term policy of unjust discrimination that includes racial profiling, more frequent arrests, larger fines and prison terms and more frequent applications of violent force. To blame equally the rioters and the police who kill, hurt and hassle people because of their color is to misunderstand the dynamics of racial discrimination in America.

Drones & other automated weapons dehumanize the enemy & make it easier to go to war

It’s so easy to kill an animated figure on a screen in a video game. And then another, and then another, each of them so realistic in their detail that they could almost be human. Pretty soon you’ve knocked off hundreds of imaginary people.

Not so easy, though, for most of us to pull a trigger, knowing that a bullet will rip through someone’s heart and stop their existence. Perhaps we instinctively empathize with the victim and fear for our own lives. Or maybe most of us kill with difficulty because the taboo against killing is so strongly instilled in us, that moral sense that taking the life of another human being is wrong, sinful?

The problem with all advanced military technologies is that they turn war into a video game, and by doing so distance the possessors of the technology from their adversaries. Whether the attack is by conventional bomber, missile, drone or the robot weapons now under development that will make decisions independently of their human masters, the technology turns the enemy into video images. I know that this distancing leads to fewer deaths among the attackers. But remote warfare dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill lots of them without giving it a thought. The bombardier doesn’t see the victims below, or if he can, they look like specks. The operator of the drone is even farther away from his intended victims.

At a distance, distinguishing between terrorists and the innocent is difficult, if not impossible, as the latest admission by President Obama that our drones killed two hostages tragically demonstrates. Keep in mind, this incident is just the latest drone fiasco. As the New York Times reports, every independent investigation of our drone attacks has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. “When operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.

For most of human history, it took a man to kill a man, or perhaps a man to kill 10 men. Soldiers knew full well when they were killing other soldiers and when they were killing civilians, and would often face the full moral force of human society and history when they did the latter.

But now a small group of men can kill 70,000 people with the push of a button, without even considering how many were children and adult noncombatants. I use the number 70,000, because that’s how many people died within hours when the United States dropped a rudimentary atomic bomb on Hiroshima some 70 years ago.

By lowering the cost of battle in human terms, military technology makes it easier for leaders, generals and military industrialists to convince countries to go to war. It makes it easier to propose and implement extreme acts of violence, both from the operational and the moral point of view. Only afterwards, when we read that people we were trying to rescue were killed in our drone attack or that from 150,000 to one million Iraqis died in our war built on lies, only then do we recognize the enormity of our crimes and the bad judgment that went into perpetrating them. Look how it easy was for Obama, who voted against the Iraq War, to get sucked into using drones to target terrorists.

We would have been better off without the invention of bombs and missiles. We would have been better off without the invention of guns. But those genies are out of the bottle. Let’s learn from our mistakes, though, and stop the development of robot weapon systems and stop the use of military drones.

Those who believe that it will be harder to fight the terrorists without drones are living in a delusional world in which American exceptionalism means we’re the only ones who bother manufacturing military technology. Automated weapons efficiently kill the other side, whether it’s the enemy or us. In a few years, the terrorists will also have military drones, unless we stop their development and sign treaties to make sure no nation works on them.

Of course, we can always develop the next generation of weaponry and continue our militaristic death spiral that started with machine guns, tanks and nerve gas.

Surveys show Americans succumbing to lies of the gun lobby

Charles Blow has written the column I toyed with writing, dreaded writing and avoided writing.

In “Has the NRA won?” Blow analyzes the evidence that the United States has become a nation of gun lovers who incorrectly believe that they’re safer with a gun in the house and in the holster.

Blow tracks the odd phenomenon of rising guns sales after every mass murder. He blames it on a boomerang effect: Mass murders using guns get people talking about gun control, which compels gun-toters to buy more for fear that they won’t be able to when stronger gun laws pass. Not mentioned by Blow, but a similar phenomenon, is the flurry of state legislation that loosen gun regulations after each mass murder.

Like many progressives, I have lately consoled myself with the fact that fewer people than ever own guns in the United States. The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center reports that only 32% of all American households own guns, down from 50% just three decades ago. Since there is about one gun per person in the United States (or 50% of all guns owned privately in the entire world!), that means that those who own guns have more of them.

Thus, for a long time I and others have reasoned that Americans really do want to rid society of the plague of guns, but that craven politicians afraid of the financial clout of the National Rifle Association (NRA) have blocked the passage of laws that make it harder to buy and carry firearms and passed laws that loosen firearm restrictions. The storyline of the bad NRA corrupting politicians to obstruct the will of the people has provided reasonable people with both solace and a large and prominent enemy to battle.

Of course, besides corrupting elected officials, the NRA, helped by the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world, has unleashed a propaganda machine that spouts false information about violent crime increasing and gun ownership making homes and society safer. The little research out there clearly demonstrates that an increase in the number of guns owned in any country increases the number of deaths and injuries from guns. Research also shows that far more people die each year from friendly fire than are saved by pulling out a gun against an attacker or criminal. Note that there haven’t been enough of these surveys done, since Congress passed a law that prevents federal money being used to fund studies on gun violence. What’s out there, however, shows that gun ownership in and of itself makes our streets—and homes—more dangerous places.

The result of this endless barrage of false information and fearmongering is what Charles Blow lays out in his latest column: A new Pew Research Center survey showing more Americans now believe that protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership and a 2014 Gallup poll that says that 63% of all Americans believe that having a gun in the home makes it safer. The second statistic is particularly disturbing because just 15 years ago in 2000, only 35% of those polled thought a home was safer with a gun in it. That Gallup poll also showed that 63% of Americans believe crime is on the rise, even though crime is at a 20-year low. Not many people connect this decrease in crime with the decrease in households with guns, possibly because not many people are aware that crime and household ownership of guns are both down.

If only 32% of households own guns and 63% of Americans think households are safer with guns, does that mean that gun sales are set to expand? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it certainly shows that at this point in time, much of our nation is dedicated to making it easier for people to own and carry guns. Lies have won over truth.

“The N.R.A. appears to be winning this round,” is how Blow ends his disturbing article. I think that’s a very optimistic understatement. I’m thinking the NRA has won not just the round, but the entire game. For the time being, we are a nation that supports private ownership of guns with little if any restrictions, certainly less than we place on those who drive automobiles.

That our support is based on lies may enrage and confuse us, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Americans seem to be ever more susceptible to the big lie, be it the lie that guns keep us safe, the lie that humans are not making the Earth too warm too quickly for our own good, or the lie that lowering taxes on the wealthy is the key to creating new jobs and ending economic inequality. In each case, what the liars propose to make things better actually make them worse for most of us.

New Kansas law picks the pockets of the poor while humiliating them in the process

When Republicans support or pass a law to address a non-problem, they usually have an ulterior motive. Take the slew of recent state laws making it harder to vote. The stated rationale behind these laws is to prevent voter fraud, a complete non-problem since there is virtually no voter fraud perpetrated by individual voters anywhere in the country. The ulterior motive is to make it harder for the poor and minorities to vote.

The state of Kansas presents the most recent example of using a non-existent problem to ram through legislation that has as its goal something completely different, and devious. The Republican-dominated state legislature has passed and Republican Governor Sam Brownback has signed a law that limits where people who receive cash assistance can spend their money and also limits how much they can withdraw in any single day.

The new Kansas law prevents those receiving state cash assistance from spending it on alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, lottery tickets, concert tickets, professional or collegiate sporting events, tickets for entertainment events intended for the general public or sexually oriented adult materials. Among the more than 20 types of retail establishments where poor people can’t spend their public assistance money are bail bond companies, movie theatres, swimming pools, jewelry stores and spas.

To this progressive, these holier-than-thou Kansas lawmakers are imposing their value system on the poor living in their state in a particularly humiliating way. They are essentially saying that if you’re poor, you don’t deserve to enjoy your life, nor do you have the ability to make wise decisions about how to spend money. The law prevents the poor from using their welfare to take their kids to a public swimming pool or to sit in the “cheap seats” at a baseball game.

Kansas reserves this moral harshness for the poor. There are no restrictions on fast-food franchise owners, whose businesses are subsidized because their employees receive so little in wages they qualify for state benefits. Fast-food franchise owners can spend their state subsidy on anything they like. There are also only loose restrictions on how businesses spend the funds they get from tax rebates and other state government support. No state auditor inspects a business office to make sure the business didn’t buy expensive luxury furniture, pay themselves too much money or subscribe to non-essential magazines.

I know that conservatives will disagree, averring that we need to treat our poor with “tough love,” instead of incentivizing poverty.

But we don’t even have to get into a discussion of the rights of those who receive cash assistance to evaluate the efficacy of this new law. All we have to do is look at the facts to see that Kansas is addressing a non-problem.  A 2014 federal report showed that less than one percent of all cash assistance in eight states it studied was spent at liquor stores, casinos or strip clubs. In other words, it’s not really a problem. In other words, those receiving cash assistance do not spend it frivolously or on goods and services that offend some people’s sense of morality.

We know what the non-problem is that the new Kansas law is trying to solve. The question is what is the ulterior motive? What are these Republican lawmakers really trying to do?

The answer lies in the payment system, I believe. The poor don’t get a check anymore, they get an ATM/debit card, which is why the state can so confidently ban purchases at particular locations like swimming pools and movie theatres.

It usually costs money to extract cash using an ATM card, an average of $4.35 per transaction nationally, according to The $25 limit per day means that the poor have to keep coming back to get more money, racking up additional transactional fees. The law prohibits a clever and frugal poor person from getting all her or his money at once to save on fees.

It’s worse than you think, because, as Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director at Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group for low-income people, notes, virtually no ATM machine gives out $5 bills, so the real limit is $20. At $4.35 a transaction, that’s a more than 20% fee that the poor have to pay to get access to their cash.

What a windfall for financial institutions!

I think all the other restrictions in the new Kansas law are meant as window-dressing and a diversion from the true purpose of this law—to take from the poor and give to the wealthy, in this case the financial institutions that charge withdrawal fees on those receiving cash assistance. The real reason for the law is not to humiliate the poor, but to divert some of the money earmarked for them to financial institutions.

It’s an interesting twist on the basic Republican economic playbook, which has been to fund massive tax cuts to the wealthy by cutting government spending on everything except the military and the security state apparatus. In this case, the Kansas state government is sanctioning the kind of usury we associate with payday loans and sub-prime used-car loans.

OpEdge’s Marc Jampole & Barry Wallenstein perform their poetry May 21, 7:00 pm, 50 West 13th Street, Manhattan

OpEdge followers living in the New York City area are in for a treat, I write somewhat fat-headedly.

I’m performing my poetry in a feature reading on May 21 at 7:00 pm at the Thirteenth Street Theater, 50 West 13th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan. It’s close to Union Square, so there are a lot of ways to get there.

Reading with me is the wonderful jazz poet Barry Wallenstein. Barry is well-known for his poetry performances with jazz groups. A retired professor of literature and writing at City University of New York (CUNY), he has 8 books and 7 CDs of poetry. Barry founded the journal Poetry in Performance and CUNY’s Poetry Outreach Center, which in 2012 celebrated its 40th anniversary. His “restless vision and nearly flawless ear for phrasing record the muchness of our world with a seductive music and unexpected turns of language,” is how poet Colette Inez aptly describes his work. Prominent jazz bassist Ken Filiano will accompany Barry on the bass.

I’m going to present the complete gamut of my poetry styles, including some political, love, surrealistic and abstractly musical poems. But I will focus on my theatrical poems: little operas or stories in poetry told from the point of view of one or more different characters. I’ll read poems from my book “Music from Words” and some newer work.  Imbuing all my work is a pervasive musicality created by irregular meters and lines, word play, assonance and alliteration. My favorite description of my poetry is from Michael Wurster in Small Press Review: “Jampole is absolutely unique in the way he expresses his material, especially with regard to sound, meter and rhythm.”

So you’re going to see more than just a couple of guys reading their poems. You’re going to experience poetry as music and theatre.

If you have any interest in poetry or if you just want to support my OpEdge column, I urge you to attend and bring your friends. The admission fee is $10, with all proceeds going to Jewish Currents magazine, which is sponsoring the event.

A copy of the flyer is below (click for larger image). Share it with friends. Print and hang in a prominent place. Spread the word. And be there—or be square.

Jampole Wallenstein Poetry Flyer

Hillary will win in November unless Americans want to end Social Security, Medicare & aid to public schools

Now the media attacks on Hillary will begin in earnest, if for no other reason than there is nothing much else to say about the campaign to become the 2016 Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Hillary has name recognition, a distinguished record, high scores for likeability and big donors. The current president is on her side. She has no heavyweight competition and a lead in the polls unparalleled for a non-incumbent in the history of American elections. She has pretty much shut down the competition early, just as Bush II did in 2000.

But there are still papers to print, broadcast space to fill, Internet pages to launch. The mainstream media has to pretend that it is covering the Democratic side, even though as in 2010 and 2014—the off-year elections that gave Republicans a gerrymandered dominance in Congressional districts for years—the media will give much wider coverage to the differences between conservative Republicans like Jeb Bush and rightwing loonies like Ted Cruz than they will to the differences between Democratic centrists and progressives. It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the mainstream media favors coverage of Republicans and twists issues rightward. Their owners, after all, tend to be conservative rich folk.

Early returns suggest the following as the main themes the media will use to cover Hillary Clinton’s inevitable march to the Democratic nomination:

  • Scrounge up old scandals or fabricate new ones.
  • Try to make it appear as if Hillary is a stolid, uninspiring or wonkish speaker, which is a standard accusation that Republicans have made against all of the recent Democratic candidates for president, including Dukakis, Gore, Kerry and even Clinton—everyone but Barack Obama. Him they called a rock star! In retrospect, I wonder if the Republicans were just too racist to admit that an African-American could be smart enough to be boring.
  • Exaggerate the differences between Hillary and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
  • Focus on the past peccadilloes of Bill Clinton or wonder whether he is being intrusive or a distraction on the campaign trail.
  • Isolate poorly worded statements for signals that Hillary really doesn’t care about the poor, but is just another “rich bitch.”
  • Speculate on whether America is ready for a woman president, and whether Hillary is putting too much or too little emphasis on her gender.

The mainstream media will leave it to Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the National Rifle Association and the Republican candidates to paint Hillary as an America-hating, male-emasculating atheist socialist who wants to destroy the economy, although the mainstream will cover the Republican candidates smearing Hillary with various crimes and misdemeanors.

Note that none of these story ideas focus on the issues. Focusing on the issues would show the stark differences between Democrats and Republicans and help swing the vote to Hillary Clinton.

Paul Krugman made the case for voting the Democratic party line in The New York Times by listing the various critical issues on which all Democrats and all Republicans seem to disagree: Virtually all Democrats want to maintain and grow Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, preserve the Affordable Care Act (ACA), raise taxes on the wealthy, preserve the 2010 financial reforms and respond to global warming (which Krugman politely calls “climate change”). Virtually all Republicans want to cut social insurance programs, destroy the ACA, lower taxes on the wealthy, deregulate financial markets and block any attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

No progressives in their right mind will make the mistake many made in 2000 and vote for a third-party candidate or stay home from the polls. We see what happened when votes for Ralph Nader allowed Bush II to sneak into office and bring us the botched responses to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, a shameful torture gulag, lower taxes on the wealthy, a booming deficit and a financial crisis. The differences between Hillary Clinton and the least rightwing Republican contender Jeb Bush are far greater than the differences between Gore and what Bush II was mouthing in 2000.

Those who follow the news know the stakes are high—a Republican Senate, House and presidency could bring severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, public education and other important programs for the poor and middle class, all to finance more tax breaks for the wealthy. The similarities of the Democrats on these core domestic issues will moderate the tone of any debate between Hillary and other candidates. And even if there is a spirited campaign battle pitting Hillary against an attractive progressive candidate, most Democrats will fall into line and vote for Hillary in the fall.

If they know what’s at stake, they will have no choice. Despite Hillary’s hawkishness on foreign policy and connections to Wall Street money, she still supports traditional Democratic positions on economic and social issues.

That’s why the key for a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016 is not so much to articulate the centrist Democratic line she espouses but to remind voters of the rightwing economic ideology that drives the current Republican Party.

Indiana pious pizza purveyors latest example of the rightwing touting bogus victims

A coordinated rightwing effort raises $840,000 for a pizza joint in a small town in Indiana through crowd-sourcing when the pizza place supposedly closed down in the face of an avalanche of threats after the owners told local news media that it wouldn’t cater a same-sex wedding.

Doesn’t it smell a little cheesy? And not the fresh buffalo mozzarella you sometimes get in upscale enotecas in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.? No, this is definitely a phony processed cheese product that’s stayed in the back of the fridge far too long that we’re whiffing here.

Let’s start with the question unasked so far by any of the horde of pundits who have commented on Memory Pizza’s venture into social significance: Who serves pizza at a wedding? A Bar Mitzvah or Sweet Sixteen party—sure! But a wedding?

My guess is that the local TV news reporter who first covered Memory Pizza’s intolerant attitude towards those different from them had spent the day asking multiple business owners whether they wouldn’t provide services to an LGBT wedding and went into Memory’s Pizza out of desperation. Or maybe Memory faxed out a news release about the superficially religious stance its owners were taking. In either case, Memory’s closed down after dozens of negative reviews on Yelp and what the owner says were a bunch of threatening messages. No pickets at Memory’s doors, no rocks through its windows. Just condemnation over social media. That certainly shows the courage of one’s convictions—unless the owner knew that someone at Glenn Beck’s media empire was going to stoke the fires of rightwing indignation at a crowd-sourcing site.

It’s perhaps the first entirely virtual cause célèbre ever; Internet spread the original local TV story. Online expressions of ire were enough to intimidate the pious pizza purveyors, who were supposedly rescued from financial ruin by online ad hoc charitable contributions.

But at the heart of it all is the small fact that very few people if anyone would order pizza for a wedding banquet, so the effect of the new law on Memory’s ability to assert their so-called religious freedom was theoretical. Note, too, that the handful of other small businesses who have said they would refuse service to gays have not run into difficulties.

Does it sound familiar, all this hullaballoo about a rightwing cause célèbre who turns out to be a little bogus?

Let’s start with Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, AKA Joe the Plumber, who took on Barack Obama at an Obama rally during the 2008 presidential campaign because Obama wanted to raise taxes on people making more than $250,000. As it turned out, Joe the Plumber wasn’t even registered as a plumber in his home state and made about $40,000 a year. The McCain campaign and rightwing Republicans touted Joe as an example of the average Joe and Jane being crushed by Obama’s tax proposals, but in fact this particular Joe would have been helped by Obama’s plans.

Just as federal subsidies help two of the three individuals in whose name the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) filed King v. Burwell, which seeks to overturn federal subsidies to individuals who buy insurance on the federal healthcare exchange because there is no state exchange in their states; the third plaintiff, by the way, qualifies for Medicare. In other words, CEI filed a lawsuit in the name of three victims who were not victimized in the slightest.

A variation of the phony victim of what the rightwing considers to be pernicious Socialist-like programs of the left-leaning center is the phony perpetrator from whom the right insists on protecting all of us. That’s certainly the case with the dozens of voting restrictions passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures over the past eight years. All have as their stated purpose protecting American society from fraudulent voting, a problem that statistically speaking does not exist. By statistically speaking, I mean that there are less than a handful of cases of suspected fraud by individual voters at the polls among the hundreds of millions of people to vote over the past 30 or so years.

Just as the Bush II administration manufactured reasons to go to war in Iraq when there were none, so does the rightwing routinely manufacture victims, villains and heroes when none exist, all in the name of justifying duplicitous positions: laws that say they protect religious rights but really discriminate against gays or take rights from women; laws that say they protect us from voter fraud but really serve to make it harder for millions to vote; and policies they say will lead to growth and prosperity but only for those already rich and connected.

What do Pet Rocks and handbags made from frog and anaconda skin have in common?

Would you pay $17.23 for a smooth gray-colored stone that could fit in your hand, something you could find at almost any municipal park for free? That’s the equivalent value in today’s money of what people paid for Pet Rocks in 1975. Of course, it came with a 32 page manual full of puns and jokes about the rock.

Around the Christmas season in 1975, the Pet Rock first became a media sensation, covered in newspapers and TV news shows all over the country, and then a marketing fad as 1.5 million people plunked down $3.95 (plus tax, I assume) to buy one—for what purpose remains a mystery. Gag gifts? Funny party favors? Conversation starters? Because neighbors bought one for their grandchild? Unlike their later incarnation in virtual pets, which needed to be “fed” and “cleaned” on a regular basis, the Pet Rock did nothing and demanded no interaction. It just sat there, looking smooth.

Pet Rocks are in the news again—briefly—because their creator, a formerly ne’er-do-well advertising writer named Gary Dahl, has died.

The Pet Rock came out during a time of abundance when we had an historically large middle class and the smallest gap between the wealthy and the poor in terms of wealth and income in American history.  In 1975, someone making the federal minimum wage of $2.10 would have to work 1.88 hours to buy one, net of all taxes. The Pet Rock still sells today, but inflation has driven the cost for one up to $19.95, which means that net of taxes, it takes someone earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 about 2.75 hours to pay for one. Interestingly enough, someone earning the median household income in both 1975 and today would both work about 47.5 minutes to pay for a Pet Rock, again net of taxes. (The median is the point at which half the population is higher and half lower.)

If someone ran me through a word association test and mentioned the Pet Rock, the words that might come to mind are useless, frivolous, wasteful, stupid. It represents the frothy extreme of American consumerism—something you can find anywhere for free and yet you buy it. The Pet Rock takes to an absurd extreme the branding strategy by which you slap a catchy or famous name onto a cheap product and jack up the price. The messages behind the name supposedly imbue the product with greater worth—at least to unsavvy consumers, a category that seems to include many of us. In the case of the Pet Rock, the entire value is in the brand name, except for those who use their Pet Rocks for door stops or to keep their papers from flying around when the window is opened.

Coincidentally, the same day the news media reported the death of Mr. Pet Rock, it also told us that Carlos Falchi, a designer of exotic handbags, also met his demise. Falchi first made his name in the 1970’s and 1980’s selling exotic handbags patched together from the bits of skins of wild animals—the list of his raw material in the New York Times obituary includes pieces of alligators, anacondas, anteaters, buffalo, caiman, crocodiles and frogs, among others. Falchi handbags sell for thousands of dollars at upscale department stores, but you can get cheaper versions from $20 to $300 on the Home Shopping Network or at Target.

The question of how a $30 bag differs from the $5,000 bag involves a lot of variables, including materials. One Amazon seller is currently offering a bag for $16.95 made of nylon and faux snakeskin; another has one of the same material for $89.99. Meanwhile, Nieman Marcus is selling a bag made of python and leather for $1,155.  Most women and many men think they need handbags, and Falchi has a version for everyone, no matter how much money they earn. In fact, once you buy into the ideology of branding, buying a Falchi for around $20 is an enormous value, because you’re toting what the rich folk tote.

The brand-name fashion item thus becomes a social leveler of a peculiar sorts—it doesn’t level economic or social differences, just brand buying patterns. Mick Jagger, Miles Davis and Andy Warhol carried Falchi bags and so can the working Jane or Joe watching the Shopping Network. Celebrity worship, which usually involves a preoccupation with what a celebrity buys and uses,  serves as a means to lessen the perceived difference between rich and poor, thus helping to preserve social order.

But whatever price one pays for a Falchi, it costs more than it would without the fame of the Falchi name, without the back story of his creating custom hand-sewn bags for cool people. I don’t know it for a fact, but I’m extremely confident that the brand value of the Falchi name and myth adds much more to the cost of the expensive bags than the entire price of the Pet Rock.  I’m also confident that the cost to make the cheap bags is about the same as the cost to find and package the Pet Rock, and that both represent a small fraction of the sales price.

Thus Gary Dahl and the Carlos Falchi ( at least the one who expanded beyond making bags by himself for a handful of customers) were running the same exact scam, but on different audiences. Dahl went for the mass market and Falchi went for the wealthy, but both used the name to jack up the price beyond the value of the materials and labor needed to assemble the product. One could argue that the added value consisted of creativity, in the case of Dahl, his humor, and in the case of Falchi, his designs and selection of materials. But by the time the products rolled out in department stores, all this value had been reduced to the exhortation of a name: buy the smooth gray stone rock because of the name; buy the bag because of the name.