Why the minimum wage should really be $24/hr

Robin’s Book Report #64
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-new article
-what you’re reading
-reading list

***As always, Please drop me a line with what you have been reading recently. Love to hear from newsletter readers! ***

New Article Alert
Last week, I published an article on the Baffler about start-ups. It was fun to write, mainly because it touched on something I have felt for a long time: that companies like Away, Warby Parker, and Dollar Shave Club told us that they were changing the world, but didn’t seem to change anything.

Founding a start-up, as I mention in the article, is often just research and development that major corporations have outsourced to individuals. My problem is that it privileges the people with canyons of time and money to spend on getting a start-up going, meaning that it is unlikely that anyone but the wealthy will become the owners of billion-dollar brands. That’s how the upper class reproduces itself!
Read my twitter thread about it, including my observation that the majority of my generation’s brain power has gone into making new things out of plastic.

What you’ve been reading
Please drop me a line with what you have been reading recently. Here’s what some reader said last week:

Hi blob! I’m reading The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth Cline. Fascinating book about clothing, fast fashion, the environment, etc. highly recommend.


I just finished The Yellow House by Sarah Broom, a terrific genre-bending memoire that deals with race, class, economics as lived and climate from the point of view of a large extended Afro-American family in New Orleans during the years before and after Katrina. I highly recommend it to you and your readers.

Book Report

This is What Minimum Wage Would Be If It Kept Pace with Productivity

by Dean Baker (CEPR)

Main point:

If the minimum wage did rise in step with productivity growth since 1968 it would be over $24 an hour today

Colossus Wears Tweed

A number of recent books blame the rise of neoliberalism on economists. But the evidence suggests it is still capital that rules.

by Quinn Slobodian (Dissent)

“By putting the burden of historical change on Friedman and his minions, we miss the real storyline.”

” a position that is not seriously entertained by the other three books, but accords well with our world from Davos to Silicon Valley: the proposition that neither politicians nor economists but ‘corporate managers . . . were the true guardians of the public good and the proper stewards of the state.'”
American Factory (Netflix)

dir. by Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar

A GM parts supplier in Ohio is shut down, and in its place a Chinese automotive glass manufacturer, Fuyao, opens. This documentary is about the culture clash between the Chinese management and the U.S. workers, many of whom used to work at the unionized GM plant. The film crew also follows a team of U.S. workers as they visit Fuyao’s Chinese plant. The Chinese workers talk about working 12 hour days, and often through the weekend to meet quotas. Some don’t see their children more than one or two times a year. In a company sponsored talent show in China, a group of young people sing a song about the virtues of lean manufacturing, an ode to the violent managerial upheavals of the last half century. The Americans sing “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People.

The documentary implies that extreme nationalism motivates Chinese workers, and a culture of militant managerialism drives ruthless efficiency, something that can’t translate to the U.S. workplace because the workers here are slow and concerned with safety. The conclusions to take from the film are potentially dangerous. Is autocracy the path to productivity in a globalized world? Have we traded freedom and obesity for industrial power? The conflict between Chinese management and U.S. workers, to me, is not as much of a clash between national identities but a general conflict between management and workers, the same of which could be reproduced in any other U.S. factory. The Chinese owners, in this case, were accustomed to total managerial power, but this isn’t so different from the way that the Koch brothers run their paper plants or the way Amazon runs its warehouses. Surely it says something about the way that Chinese culture has embraced managerial power, but doesn’t say a lot about the U.S. workforce.
Riding for Free in Kansas City

Big cities have shunned free public transit. Now, KC’s free-fares push may provide transit systems across the country with a ‘how-to’ guide.

by Gabrielle Gurley (American Prospect)
Kansas City has implemented free fares for all of its public transit, prompting free-fare questions in other cities. The obvious problem is how to fund it. However, when you compare the contribution of fares to the total operating budget it is clear that the question is not whether the government will pay for public transit, but how much:

Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Metro Transit, where fares generate about $100 million or 22 percent of its budget, has already expressed some skepticism about launching a free-fare program. Boston fares bring in nearly $700 million, or about one-third of the MBTA’s annual budget. But years of poor MBTA service and growing traffic congestion fuel insistent demands for fare-free buses. For the New York MTA, where only the Staten Island Ferry is free, fare revenues make up 50 percent of its operating budget. In the largest metros like New York and Boston, a special fare for low-income residents is more likely to be the route to a more equitable system than free fares for everyone.”

The difference in fare funding between the Twin Cities and NYC is notable; it is a huge difference between 22 percent of the budget and 50 percent. Why does NYC rely so heavily on fares to fund its operations? It’s a wealthy city, why is it not subsidizing its transit more? The New York City subway, for the first 44 years of its existence, kept the fare artificially low, at 5 cents. This was a subsidy that benefited workers and industry; people could cheaply and easily get to work. Now, the high cost of public transit shows an indifference to workers and industry, one that ultimately causes workers (and to some extent, tourists) to shoulder the function of public transit. To me, this implies that the state of New York sees the transit system as an amenity instead of as a public utility, or a tool to reduce carbon emissions, or a device that redistributes locational power.

In NYC, the failure to raise property taxes on real estate surrounding public transit has meant that there isn’t a great way for the city to capture the benefits of transit for property owners, which ends up being a big problem for the system at large. The cost ends up being shouldered by riders.  So, how much should the state subsidize public transit? A little or a lot? Who benefits and who pays for a functioning city?

NY lawmakers propose real estate tax on investors to boost public housing funds

By Denis Slattery (New York Daily News)

Could be good.
Law and the Future of Gig Work in California

by Veena Dubal, Sanjukta Paul (On Labor)

The policy debate about how freelance and contracted work should be regulated has, thankfully, started. Here, some proponents of a law in California try to dispel some objections to the law that cab drivers might have. One concern is over flexibility, and that new regulations might force companies to make their workers work set schedules or wear uniforms. Fortunately, this isn’t true, rigidity in the workplace is something like a historical accident and companies like Uber and Lyft could offer their employees the same amount of flexibility in scheduling while employing them. Plenty of workplaces have flexible, dynamic schedules (oftent to the detriment to employees, but whatever).

Making freelancers into employees will also further worker empowerment, as the authors argue: “employee status will necessarily increase the bargaining power of these workers, putting them in a much better position to negotiate an increase in overall schedule flexibility.

Student debt is over $1.6 trillion and hardly anyone is paying down their loans

by Jeff Cox (CNBC)

College enrollment is down since 2011, something like 11 percent. But this study from Moody’s shows that balance of total student debt (now at $1.3 trillion) has grown in that time, almost 74 percent. Why? No one is paying their debt down.

The amount of balances that are getting paid off is 3 percent, with most balances just not being paid down at all.

Student loan debt problems for the nation are worse, and getting worser.

Financial literacy is bullshit

Robin’s Book Report #63
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Hi everyone,

I’m always interested in what you’ve have been reading, so please respond if you’ve ingested anything good recently. It can be anything too, not just political/economic stuff. In fact, it’d be better if it wasn’t!

Some readers worried to me that I automatically included responses in my newsletter, which isn’t true. I’ll always ask before including your response. The joy of doing this newsletter is hearing from readers, so if you are feeling compelled, take the dive.

And if you have a friend who might be interested in the newsletter, please forward it along. I’d appreciate it.


Reading list

The Quest to Improve America’s Financial Literacy Is Both a Failure and a Sham

Financial literacy promotion may sound perfectly sensible—who wouldn’t want to teach children and adults the secrets of managing money?—but in the face of recent research it looks increasingly like a faith-based initiative.

by Helaine Olen (Pacific Standard)


Why ‘financial literacy’ is a bunch of hooey – and why the banks promote it

Companies and colleges say that if we all understand our finances, financial crises won’t happen. This is simply untrue

by Helaine Olen (The Guardian)

Financial literacy has risen to prominence as debt burdens skyrocket. It’s not a coincidence. Everyday life has increasingly required the use of more financial products–529 savings plans, 401(k)s, IRAs, credit cards, exotic mortgages, payday loans–all managed by the individual. A pension, conversely, is a benefit managed by a specialist in an institution. Now the individual is solely responsible for mastering the dark arts of finance. We are expected to be a financial experts. But most people aren’t.

Financial literacy is a subtle form of victim blaming, telling people that if they just knew more they wouldn’t be so in debt. First it’s like telling the victims of a defective, exploding automobiles that if only (if only!) our schools taught automotive science many fewer people would have died. If only more Flint, Michigan residents studied water quality, things wouldn’t have gotten so out of hand.

Second, it’s just not true. Debt is too expensive for the majority of people and too many financial products are exploitatively designed. We never had a chance!

The Ultra-Wealthy Who Argue That They Should Be Paying Higher Taxes

In an age of historic disparity, Abigail Disney and the Patriotic Millionaires take on income inequality.

by Sheelah Kolhatkar (The New Yorker)

This article profiles an advocacy group made up of wealthy people who are fighting against inequality, Patriotic Millionaires. Their major contribution, in my estimation, is altering laws. I’m skeptical, of course, but in some ways this should be welcome: first because it is necessary and second because no one has political power like they do. What’s surprising is how long it took for a group like this to emerge, but the article points out that most members are worried that if they don’t do something, there’ll be a violent uprising. Which might be a true, or, if its not true, a useful delusion.

Will they fight for all the right laws? Likely not. But some concern about the distribution of resources by people with political power would be good. As long as the solutions are not widening access to financial products.

It would be even more optimistic to see them in coalition with wise labor unions and other worker-powered advocacy groups.

Revolution on the Installment Plan

The moral hazards of the money diary

by Jessa Crispin (The Baffler)

After a bevy of articles chronicling the spending habits of young people, it’s clear the problem with a money diary is that it always looks bad. In the abstract, every purchase looks frivolous and every advantage is tasteless. But the class war waged through the lurid articles is a waste of time, because records individual spending habits are crude memoirs, not indicative of much beyond a highly specific moment in time.

How Taylor Swift Dragged Private Equity Into Her Fight Over Music Rights

The Carlyle Group, an investor in her catalog, has stepped in to encourage talks between Ms. Swift and Scooter Braun, who now controls her old label.

By Kate Kelly, Joe Coscarelli and Ben Sisario (The New York Times)

Private equity looks at music and sees real estate; instead of land and houses you have songs and artists. The article spotlights the fact that most artists do not own their songs, and everyone below the level of Taylor Swift is denied economic agency. Of course, the music business has been exploitative for at least a century. Until musicians own their music, it will just become another commodity for PE firms to securitize, trade, and profit from.

Make Antitrust Democratic Again!

The response to the next recession should put economic power back in the hands of the people.

By Sanjukta Paul and Sandeep Vaheesan (The Nation)

This reinforces the point I made in my article about antitrust, but good to hear it from experts: “Demanding that antitrust law promote only competition is not a tenable solution. Competition is not categorically good.”

What is the real promise of a democratic antitrust movement? Cooperation between independent contractors and other economically marginalized groups.

Think of the possibilities for cooperation among consumers and smaller players if they were freed from the threat of antitrust. Gig workers, freelancers, and small producers who often experience precarity and poverty could bargain collectively for better contracts, much as if they belonged to a union.

U.S. Farmers Are Being Bled by the Tractor Monopoly

Forcing them to use authorized repair centers hurts rural America.

By Adam Minter (Bloomberg)

Farming has emerged as ground-zero for the Right to Repair movement. Dealers and manufacturers exploit the computerization of farm machinery, installing software that can’t be fixed without authorized technicians. Where farmers once might have tinkered with their own machines, they now have to wait for someone to show up, and hope they have the part. They are the victims of repair monopolies.

In Nebraska, an independent mechanic can replace a John Deere Co. tractor transmission. But if the farmer wants to drive it out of the mechanic’s garage, a Deere technician must be hired for $230, plus $130 per hour, to show up to plug a computer into the tractor to authorize the part

Can the Art World Kick Its Addiction to Flying?

By Kyle Chayka (Frieze)

Flying is pervasive in any sales-intensive industry, the difference with the art world is that flying is glorified even by theorists. The author argues against the veneration of peripatesis. My twitter thread on the issue.

Why We Need a Working-Class Media

What could the political effects be of a media that actually served working-class Americans?

by Carla Murphy (Dissent)

A veteran journalist reflects on what it would take to change the narrative in our culture, something I think about a lot. How do we swivel our focus from wealth, to the stories of people leading and making the changes we want to see?

“We need a view of society and ourselves from the underside of power.”

Is Venture Capital the Hobby of New Gentry?

Robin’s Book Report #62
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-new articles
-a reading list laden with economics issues

New Article Alert
Ever wonder why Target pushes its credit card on shoppers at check-out? Well, in the 1980s, banking became profitable. Other businesses took note. Slowly, over the next 40 years, every business tried (and often succeeded) to reinvent themselves as banks. This is financialization. And the problem is that banks have little need to employees. I wrote about this for the New Republic, check it out.

I wrote a little tweet thread about this, if you’d like to support me that way.


Sarah talking about the Verge expose on yuppie luggage pioneer Away:

“I agree that founders are emotionally broken! You gotta have a pretty big hole inside of you that you are trying to fill to do something so stressful and risky. I hope that we are not building an emotionally broken environment at my startup, though!”


I don’t think it has to be this way. Probably depends partially on how leveraged you are and how strong your ethical core is.

Reading List

This edition is heavy on wonkish economics issues, but it is stuff that is important for the general public to be aware of. So hang on tight!

Gregory Mankiw is Confused About Reselling

Markets are great if they’re for thousand-dollar scalped tickets. Economics textbooks, on the other hand…

By Jack Meserve (Democracy Journal)

Even for a conservative economist, it’s mind boggling how cynical Mankiw is. He once suggested that scalpers played a useful role in the economics of ticket sales, but spent an enormous amount of effort to prevent efforts to lower the price of his required textbook through reselling. It is a good encapsulation of the economic policy over the last half-century: support policy that lowers prices for wealthy people and oppose any effort to reduce income for wealthy people. A lifelong Republican, he recently suggested in the New York Times that because he is abandoning the Republican party, Democrats should listen to a few of his regressive policy suggestions. His party affiliation may have changed, but his policy ideas are exactly the same. His article’s suggestion is basically that the Democrats should become the old Republicans. Once again, mind-boggling logic.

Automation and the Future of Work—1

by Aaron Benanav

This is an important article about automation. It’s fairly technical, but makes some persuasive arguments about why automation is less important of an issue than pundits make it out to be.

“Automation worry,” let’s call it, recurs throughout the ages, from the Luddites on, always with the same tone:

Automation theory may be described as a spontaneous discourse of capitalist societies, which … reappears in those societies time and again as a way of thinking through their limits. What summons the automation discourse … is a deep anxiety about the functioning of the labour market: there are simply too few jobs for too many people.”


I’m inclined to agree. Fear of automation is historically persistent, and often fails to explain change:

What automation theorists describe as the result of rising technological dynamism is actually the consequence of worsening economic stagnation.”

So another thesis is that, since the 1970s, global manufacturing overcapacity (too many goods seeking too few buyers) explains our current economic status better than increased automation does:

Global manufacturing overcapacity explains why the countries that have succeeded in attaining a high degree of robotization are not those that have seen the worst degree of deindustrialization. In the context of intense global competition, high degrees of robotization have given firms competitive advantages, allowing them to take market share from firms in other countries. Thus Germany, Japan and South Korea have some of the highest levels of robotization; they also have the largest trade surpluses in the world.

The decline in the demand for labour is due not to an unprecedented leap in technological innovation, but to ongoing technical change in an environment of deepening economic stagnation.

So what are we to do?

We should be reaching towards a post-scarcity world, which advanced technologies will certainly help us realize, even if full automation is not achievable—or even desirable.

Impoverished economics? Unpacking the economics Nobel Prize

When the world is facing large systemic crises, why is the economics profession celebrating small technical fixes?

by Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven (Open Democracy)

The most recent Nobel prize in economics indicates that randomized controlled trials are the future of economics, a microscopic focus on symptoms instead of massive structural problems. It is a turn away from sweeping, totalizing theories (read: neoliberalism), a movement to focus on “manageable problems” as the Nobel committee cheered. But humble thinking isn’t exactly atonement for fifty years of disastrous consensus.

What Happens Next Will Amaze You

By Maciej Cegłowski (Idle Words)

(This is the text version of a talk from September 14, 2015, at the FREMTIDENS INTERNET conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Are venture capitalists really just wealthy, private central planners? This presentation compares VC first to landed gentry and then to Poland’s failed central planning of the 1980s.

There’s something very fishy about California capitalism.

Investing has become the genteel occupation of our gentry, like having a country estate used to be in England. It’s a class marker and a socially acceptable way for rich techies to pass their time. Gentlemen investors decide what ideas are worth pursuing, and the people pitching to them tailor their proposals accordingly.

The companies that come out of this are no longer pursuing profit, or even revenue. Instead, the measure of their success is valuation—how much money they’ve convinced people to tell them they’re worth.

We had people like this back in Poland, except instead of venture capitalists we called them central planners. They too were in charge of allocating vast amounts of money that didn’t belong to them.

They too honestly believed they were changing the world, and offered the same kinds of excuses about why our day-to-day life bore no relation to the shiny, beautiful world that was supposed to lie just around the corner.

Even those crusty, old-fashioned companies that still believe in profit are not really behaving like capitalists. Microsoft, Cisco and Apple are making a fortune that just sits offshore. Apple alone has nearly $200 billion in cash that is doing nothing .

We’d be better off if Apple bought every employee a fur coat and Bentley, or even just burned the money in a bonfire. At least that would create some jobs for money shovelers and security guards.

So what kinds of ideas do California central planners think are going to change the world?

Well, right now, they want to build space rockets and make themselves immortal. I wish I was kidding.

One of the main tenets of capitalism is that owners reinvest their profits, which owners basically stopped doing almost 100 years ago. What this means is that we are not experiencing a time of extreme capitalism, but something else. Capitalism had a theory for profits (which a person could no doubt contest) but what are they doing with their profits? Finding the answer is a big political question, because where capital is invested determines what we manifest as a society. Do we work together to figure out where profits get allocated, or continue to leave it up to a small group of wealthy venture capitalists?

Against Economics

by David Graeber (The New York Review of Books)

David Graeber reviews a heterodox book on economics by Robert Skidlesky and finds some extremely fundamental problems with economics scholarship, not least of which is that the field still doesn’t understand how loans are made:

Economists … have spent much of the twentieth century arguing about what actually happens when someone applies for a loan.

The one thing it never seemed to occur to anyone to do was to get a job at a bank, and find out what actually happens when someone asks to borrow money. In 2014 a German economist named Richard Werner did exactly that, and discovered that, in fact, loan officers do not check their existing funds, reserves, or anything else. They simply create money out of thin air, or, as he preferred to put it, “fairy dust.”

Graeber finds Robert Skidelsky’s book to a useful retort about how markets come to be:

Skidelsky is providing us with a worthy extension of a history Karl Polanyi first began to map out in the 1940s: the story of how supposedly self-regulating national markets were the product of careful social engineering.

Another idea Graeber suggests, which I find intoxicating, is that income tax is designed to be intrusive and exasperating. It makes us hate the government and demand a smaller state, when really corporate, wealth, capital gains, and other non-individual taxes could work extremely well.

The Art of Dying

I always said that when my time came I’d want to go fast. But where’s the fun in that?

By Peter Schjeldahl

“I had a moment, while anticipating my diagnosis, of feeling special. But what’s as commonplace as dying? Everybody does it. I also had an instant of fancying that I could drink again. That evanesced in a flash. Fellow-alcoholics know that the beast, though out of mind, survives. My thought was a foul little burp from a cave.”

The Smartest Guys in the Clubhouse

How the McKinsey-fied Astros cheated their way to a championship—and became a parable of American success

By David Roth (The New Republic)

McKinsey & Co. analyzed the Astros and found they could win by cheating.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Mood and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison

I’ve been reading about bipolar disorder, and it was suggested I read this memoir by Kay Redfield Jamison. I had me thinking about how addictive high energy is, in general, and how it seduces people with bipolar disorder to abandon their treatment.

Year End Favorites

Robin’s Book Report #61
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein


-New article
-Your favorites

-My articles this year


-my favorites

-reading list


Hey everyone. I took a small break in the newsletter cycle to work the art fairs in Miami. Just got back to New York last week. My average workday there was 13 1/3 hours and I had one day off. But that’s fine because Miami Beach is basically a single suburban strip mall with a luxury crust of hotels along the beach; there isn’t much to do anyways. The majority of the good food is on the mainland Miami. And while Miami Beach is glitzy and planar, the mainland is depressed. Something I’ve noticed is that the city of Miami is oddly similar to other slowly decaying (but wonderful) US post-industrial port cities I’ve been too. It’s a tropical Milwaukee.

The best part of the working the fair is that you get to walk through the convention center at seven in the morning before the fair is open and before almost anyone else is in the building. You can stop to look at a rare Philip Guston painting or Rachel Harrison sculpture you’ve never seen before and get very, very close.
New article alert:

This May I went to the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival. I was totally ignorant of what it was and why it was, but I sensed there would be some obnoxious business boosterism to witness. Turns out, these media festivals (like the Atlantic’s Aspen Ideas Festival, or the New Yorker Festival or CNN’s Names not Numbers) are big business. I found a researcher who studied these events and wrote about her study for Pressland. The festivals essentially sell access to sources for audience members. That is, they are primarily networking events with a side of journalism.

My articles this year
This year was my first full year freelance writing, and I tweeted out my favorite articles here. Excited for next year.

Your Favorites for the Year

I asked a number of regular readers what their favorite book of the year was and, happily, got an eclectic list.

Alice: Favorite from this year was A Disappearance in Damascus, by Deborah Campbell.

Sue: Right now I’m reading The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, revised and translated by Ken Liu.  I’m only a little more than half-way through it, but I think I like it a lot. Anyhow, it’s different from what I usually read.  So is The View from Flyover Country, by Sarah Kendzior (I mean, also not finished, also different, and I like it).

Sarah: If you like sci fi/genre fic, I recommend The Expanse—super fun! I spent a ton of the year reading that.

Also loved The Body Keeps the Score about trauma and the nervous system.

Oliver: The Metaphysical Club – Not news to you! I didn’t really know what pragmatism was until I read this. Really absorbing intro to the first pragmatist thinkers and the historical circumstances that conditioned their thought.  Reading it I had the rare experience of having my worldview actually altered. Especially by the encounter with John Dewey.

Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard – A kind of terrifyingly perfect novel shaped like a mobius strip. I don’t think I’ve felt so reproached by a work of fiction. But it’s also just sad and beautiful.

Berlin Alexanderplatz  by Alfred Döblin Outrageous and bleak sound collage from Weimar Germany.

Honorable mention is not a book but an essay, “Special Journey to Our Bottom Lineby Elizabeth Schambelan (published in n+1), of which I know you’re aware!

(Rob: I liked The Metaphysical Club too, especially the part about Dewey encountering the Pullman strike in 1894 on the way to his job at the University of Chicago. And the Schambelan essay was good too, a breathtaking amount of research on a subject that came from way left field.)

David: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Definitely my favorite. I read a lot of older books this year that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Very few new books. Of the new ones, Nickel Boys was at the top of the list—but also probably top of the list regardless

Matt: The Birth Partner (5th ed.) by Penny Simkin (with Katie Rohs), which advertises itself as “a complete guide to childbirth for dads, partners, doulas, and other labor companions,” is by far the most useful book I have ever read and a favorite of the year not just for its practicality but also for the nice, clear, easy writing style. There are some pleasant hand-drawn illustrations as well as bullet-pointed lists, gridded charts, and multi-paged sections highlighted with a dark orange background for quick reference––all design features geared toward high didacticism. One interesting feature of the 5th edition is the switch to gender-neutral language, which reflects our society’s broadening acceptance of multiple family configurations. Thus the authors refer to a “pregnant parent” or “birthing person” rather than “pregnant woman” or “mother.”
Adam: I think the best book I read this year was Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, about John Paul Vann and the Vietnam War. I couldn’t put it down. This may mean I’m turning into an old man.

Marguerite: Conversations with Friends and Normal People by Sally Rooney. I had trouble remembering what I read this year because not a lot of it stood out (except for the books that were either really hard or really bad). I guess I don’t read a lot of “fun” books like these, and it was thoroughly enjoyable to blast through each of them in a few days––something I realized don’t do often.

Lucas: In a world where we’re paralyzed by fear around current events… the classic Hero of a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell is a reminder that there are no new stories under the sun. Regardless of age, language, creed, or identity, we are always living the same chapters of the same journey. And we’re being carried by a deep, unifying, worldwide, subconscious current underneath the veneer of our demographic differences.

Michelle: Definitely Robert Caro’s Working. By a long mile.

Peg: My favorite is Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. It’s very cleverly written, something you pointed out to me––the first part of it can become hard to read, unless you understand it as a reflection of the youth it describes.


Dillard is only about 5 years older than I, and as a white person growing up in a city, she had some childhood experiences similar to mine.

(Rob: I agree. The first page of the book is an Olympian feat of writing.)

Guy: My dad’s book, Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human and Brought Our World to the Brink (2015), is really quite good. (His name is Richard L. Currier)

Pushing Ice (2005) by Alastair Reynolds is both superior hard science fiction and a great yarn

I think Caroline Alexander’s recent (2015) translation of the Iliad is a masterwork that should become the standard
My Favorites

I’ve already written about many of these, so I’ll include just a short note about each one. But these are things I would recommend to anyone.



A nonfiction story about a beekeeper in rural Macedonia that most documentarians and writers would kill for. I know I would!

Book Review

Not Enough Deliliahs

by Andrew O’Hagan (London Review of Books)

Hilarious. “She went at her Cobb salad like a demon.”


Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

by Kim Phillips-Fein (Norton)

By examining what happened to New York City in the late 1970s, Phillips-Fein is able to explain everything about what went wrong with the US.


The Wire Season 4 (HBO)

A season of television primarily about children, sweetness cut with brutality. I also really enjoyed Wu-tang: An American Saga this year.


Is Poverty Necessary?

An Idea That Won’t Go Away

by Marilynne Robinson

A wandering, complicated, and heterodox take on the vexing issue of poverty. A great work of economics that you really can’t imagine a contemporary, professional economist ever writing.

Reported Feature

Crash Course

How Boeing’s Managerial Revolution Created the 737 Max Disaster

by Maureen Tkacik (The New Republic)

This article argues it wasn’t inexperienced pilots that caused the 737 MAX crashes, but a cynical managerial desire to suck as much money out of Boeing as possible, even if it meant that their planes were less safe.
Reading List

The 50 Best Nonfiction Books of the Past 25 Years

Slate’s books team selects the definitive works of reporting, memoir, and argument of the past quarter-century.

By Dan Kois and Laura Miller

Pretty good list.

How the Teamsters pension disappeared more quickly under Wall Street than the mob

By Elliot Blair Smith (MarketWatch)

For anyone who watched The Irishman, and wondered with happened to Jimmy Hoffa’s pension fund, this is the article for you.

Emotional baggage

Away’s founders sold a vision of travel and inclusion, but former employees say it masked a toxic work environment

By Zoe Schiffer

Very stressful read. My first thought was that many people venerate start-ups, but they are often terrible places to work. Trying to break into a market requires tremendous effort and capital, and often the only way to do this is to work like crazy. They are people trying to squeeze two pennies out of one. Maybe some people want to do this, but for most people, it is a waste. The founder of Reddit once said that founders are “emotionally broken people,” and I would say that this could easily be applied to the founders of Away. Bad people in a bad situation.

It’s Not Conspiracy, It’s Politics

Robin’s Book Report #60
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-best of?
-new article
-reading list

Best of the year

I’m compiling my year-end best of list, do you have one book/article you loved this year? Let me know and I will include it in my December issue.

Reading list

The Obamanauts

What is the defining achievement of Barack Obama?

Corey Robin (Dissent)

Corey Robin reads the memoirs of Obama administration. What he finds is a bizarre set of similarities.

The Family (Netflix)

This documentary is about a semi-secretive Christian group sometimes called the Family who has successfully worked to influence politics, namely by hosting the National Prayer Breakfast. However, the documentaryxs portrayal of the group as a conspiracy misunderstands how politics works. While the Family is likely doing some illegal work overseas, the Family is engaged in a deliberate, collective effort to change politics, something the left could benefit from itself. What I worry about is that we’ve gotten to the point were any collaborative effort to affect politics seems like a conspiracy.

“Population of One: Living Alone in an Abandoned Ghost Town” (Vice)

I met Eileen when I lived in Milwaukee through her younger sister, who I was roommates with. She was one of those people who immediately treated me like we were close friends. When I left Milwaukee, and then the Midwest entirely, I figured I would meet plenty of other resourceful and kind people like Eileen. I was kind-of wrong! Of course, now she lives in a ghost town in Utah.

“Then WeCame to the EndWeWork’s contradictions by Matthew Zeitlin (n+1)

As we speak, WeWork implodes. For skeptics like me, this always felt like an inevitability. They were a glorified real estate brokerage service, so why/how did they expand so quickly? Short answer: because Saudi Arabia needed a place to launder their oil money. This is a really great article about why WeWork (and other companies like Uber) exist:

“Looking backwards through the telescope, the mega-funding for app-based taxi-cab dispatchers and beer-distributing office subleasers makes more sense as a case of savvy operators creating landing zones for massive flows of cash.”

“If Saudi Arabia wanted to more fully enmesh itself into the global economy, then it had to sign up for the pseudo new-age bullshit on offer from some of its largest companies.”

“And if WeWork is what happens when capital is in the hands of resource-rich autocracies, futurist telecom executives, and cash-rich mature companies, perhaps it can serve as a launching point for thinking about how capital would behave differently under the aegis of democratic control.”

Bee Bread” by Josh Evans (Nordic Food Lab)

I’m curious to try bee bread, the fermented concoction of pollen and honey and/nectar. Anyone got the hook up?

When the Dream of Owning a Home Became a Nightmare”

A federal program to encourage black homeownership in the 1970s ended in a flood of foreclosures.

By Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor (The New York Times)

The programs designed to boost home ownership for black Americans became a tool to further the oppression of blacks. Expanding lending is not always an answer, and often becomes a problem. Reminds me of microloans, something that is similarly problematic, sucking people into the debt cycle who weren’t previously part of it.

Here’s an interview with the author.

Breaking up the U.S.

Robin’s Book Report #59
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-reading list: trolls, mobile retirees, and the meritocracy

Trolling and Taboo

A coup d’état in the collective unconscious

Nausicaa Renner (n+1)

An essay about the author’s Trump-loving father, an internet troll.

Her conclusion seems like the rightest thing written about the alt-right, which is that, “the trolls couldn’t face the fact that power was on their side

Merit Schmerit

No child grows up wanting to be a management consultant

by Malcolm Harris (Bookforum)


The Fall of the Meritocracy

Ultra-educated, highly paid, overworked elites are not partners in the struggle to reform an unequal system.

By Sarah Leonard (The New Republic)

Two good critical reviews of a book that speciously argues that the wealthy super-achievers are just as oppressed by the requirement of modern-day work. They have to work 80-hour weeks! Unfortunately, while hedge-funders, lawyers, and financiers work a ton, they are over-compensated for their work, and therein lies the problem.

Meet the CamperForce, Amazon’s Nomadic Retiree Army

Inside the grueling, rootless lives of the RV dwellers who are spending their golden years working in the e-tail behemoth’s warehouses.

By Jessica Bruder (Wired)

Retirees are roaming the country in RVs, which seems like a contemporary manifestation of what Marx called the “industrial reserve army.” Maybe we’d call this the retiree reserve army, highly mobile and economically precarious enough to dilute local workforces:

Since it began, Camper­Force has enabled Amazon to fill thousands of seasonal warehouse positions. The company is notoriously tight-lipped, but when I asked a Camper­Force recruiter in Arizona about the size of the program, she estimated that it encompassed some 2,000 workers. That was back in 2014. And newer anecdotal reports suggest the demand for Camper­Force jobs has continued to grow. “We can really look back at the last couple years and see how applications have come in earlier and more often,” said Calmes, the Camper­Force representative, during a recruiting seminar in May. “Response this year has been just really overwhelming.””
Hurrah for the Time Man!

The labor historians of the 1960s were born into the culture of unity forged in the working-class movement’s classical phase, between 1890 and 1945. In one form or another, they told the story of this era, not realizing how radically it might come undone.

by Gabriel Winant (Dissent)

Could labor history be making a comeback? It may have waned in the last handful of decades––possibly because many thought class politics was over––but recent history suggests it is once again relevant:

If the end of industrial employment [in the 1970s] and the collapse of the social democratic state mean that the hour of the proletariat has passed, then we should expect labor history to be exhausted as a field of inquiry—and we might also have to give up looking for points around which exploited people might build power collectively. If, on the other hand, the working class is constantly undergoing recomposition and taking new and heterogeneous forms, then it makes little sense to equate the defeat of the New Deal with the end of class politics.

Important to consider how labor history could be improved in its resurgence:

While many figures in labor history had also played important roles within African-American history, even slavery had not fallen within the field’s self-assigned historical territory—a quite astonishing fact given that slavery was, of course, a labor regime.

Crash Course

How Boeing’s Managerial Revolution Created the 737 Max Disaster

By Maureen Tkacik (The New Republic)

One of the best articles I have read this year. From the intro:

A long and proud “safety culture” was rapidly being replaced, he argued, with “a culture of financial bullshit, a culture of groupthink.

Examining the media fall-out after the pair of 737 MAX crashes:

What had been a tidy fable about good and greed, up there with OxyContin and the Ford Pinto, one of the simplest ever told about the perils of following orders from investor-managers, was gradually dissolving into incoherence and uncertainty.

Neoliberalism is often victim blaming––for debt, drug use, unemployment, failure to launch, wages, sexism, racism, lost opportunities––this is really just an extreme case. Who could be more easily blamed other than the individual pilots in the cockpit? But it was systematic moves by private equity to cut costs at the expense of safety, to extract as money cash out of Boeing as theoretically possible.

So Boeing skimped on the design for the 737 MAX and came up with a faulty fix to compensate. Its like designing a child’s toy that easily catches fire and instead of scrapping the toy, producers just loaded it with a highly carcinogenic fire retardants.

The Wealth Detective Who Finds the Hidden Money of the Super Rich

Thirty-two-year-old French economist Gabriel Zucman scours spreadsheets to find secret offshore accounts.

By Ben Steverman (Bloomberg)

Profile of Zucman, who has a book coming out that I am excited to read:

The actual effect of lower taxes on the rich, he argues, isn’t to stimulate the economy but to further enrich the rich and further incentivize greed. In his analysis, when the wealthy get tax breaks, they focus less on reinvesting in businesses and more on hiring lobbyists, making campaign donations, and pursuing acquisitions that eliminate competitors.
In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.

By Matthew Desmond    (The New York Times)

I used to think that slavery in the United States was a remnant of fuedal times. But this isn’t accurate. Plantations kept rigorous financial records, tracked output carefully, and traded assets like any contemporary business would. Brutality wasn’t just the result of racial animus, but the urgent need to quickly create commodity markets in a fledgling economy. Brutality was the shortest most cost efficient path. Same goes, to a less physically violent degree, for Uber. Only the exploitation of struggling workers could have made their business possible. It’s hard to imagine tremendous growth without some kind of violence.
Political Confessional: The Man Who Thinks The U.S. Is Better Off As A Bunch Of Separate Countries

By Clare Malone (538)

I kind of agree?
A Shared Place

Wendell Berry’s lifelong dissent.

By Jedediah Britton-Purdy

Great review of Wendell Berry’s work. Important time to reflect on Berry’s radical politics, politics that don’t totally square with any particular movement, except maybe agrarian populism of the late 19th century.

I loved the line where Britton-Purdy observes that “a contrarian is least essential when his dogged dissent becomes an era’s lazy common sense.”

Surprise! Medical bills

Robin’s Book Report #58
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-new articles
-what you’ve been reading
-what i’ve been reading

Please email me with what you have been reading or watching.

What You’ve Been Reading


“Thanks Rob – diggin the KS report as always. Been meaning to chime in and say so for about a year now. I attribute my lack of input to ‘millennial burnout’, seriously. Anyway, keep ’em coming!

Books I recommend:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Afterglow: A Dog Memoir by Eileen Myles

There There by Tommy Orange

Books I don’t recommend:

10:04 by Ben Lerner

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon”


“Funny you should mention sociopaths in the boardroom, because I’ve just

read two books about sociopaths, one okay and one quite good.  The “okay”

one is Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test”, which is almost light enough to

float, though it has its good pages.  It’s not a dishonest book, but it’s

(correctly) billed as humor.

The *good* one is Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door”, which

originates in her psychotherapy practice and teaching.  It’s smart,

insightful and thoughtful, and along with some anonymized true histories,

has concrete advice for what to do in the face of sociopathic behavior.”

Reading List
Private Equity Tries to Protect Another Profit Center

Congress must step in to protect insured patients from unfair and unexpected medical charges.

By Eileen Appelbaum & Rosemary Batt (CEPR blog)

Surprise medical billing is a national problem that appears to be fueled by private-equity firms. These firms encourage the fracturing of the medical profession and the mind-boggling inefficiencies that drive profits, for them. An example of surprise medical bill is one you get for thousands of dollars because you went to an in-network hospital and (surprise!) were treated by an out-of-network specialist. Of course, no one mentioned this doctor wouldn’t be covered. Private equity thrives on the confusing, complicated systems of medical billing. More evidence for a singularly managed healthcare system.

Worse, private-equity is muddying the waters by surreptitiously promoting the idea that it is doctors versus insurance companies:

The debate over surprise medical bills has been framed as doctors who only want to be paid for their lifesaving services and insurance companies that don’t want to pay them fairly. Viewed that way, it’s a debate that insurance companies are sure to lose. But these are not the true protagonists. Private equity firms are buying up specialty doctors’ practices at an alarming rate because surprise medical bills allow them to extract high payments for medical care from patients and/or insurance companies. It’s private equity whose interests are opposed to those of insurance companies. And insurance companies which, in defending themselves against exorbitant payments to these doctors, are also acting to hold down health care costs and health insurance premiums for consumers

Read this excellent twitter thread for a pared down version of the article:


Advocates who support Medicare for All must not only take on insurance companies, but also private equity and their surprise billing — and support changes now that will make reform easier in the future
The Big Business of Scavenging in Postindustrial America

The U.S. produces more garbage than any other nation in the world per capita. Here’s how scrappers are turning that waste into a $32 billion business.

By Jake Halpern

A thrifty guy with a kid named Peanut Butter. How could you not love this story?
Flacks and Figures

Pundits and journalists should reveal their wealth

by Corey Atad (The Baffler)

Unlike like other aspects that might be obvious to viewers and readers, a journalist’s wealth is discreet. Their hostility to certain political projects (like Anderson Cooper’s skepticism of wealth taxes) might be more questionable if they were forced to make the unseen visible. Excellent essay.
Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns

What if the banking, asset-management, and insurance industries moved away from fossil fuels?

By Bill McKibben

Banks are funding carbon extraction industries at an alarming rate. If they did the opposite, they could change the world:

“In the three years since the end of the Paris climate talks, Chase has reportedly committed a hundred and ninety-six billion dollars in financing for the fossil-fuel industry, much of it to fund extreme new ventures: ultra-deep-sea drilling, Arctic oil extraction, and so on. In each of those years, ExxonMobil, by contrast, spent less than three billion dollars on exploration, research, and development. A hundred and ninety-six billion dollars is larger than the market value of BP; it dwarfs that of the coal companies or the frackers. By this measure, Jamie Dimon, the C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, is an oil, coal, and gas baron almost without peer.
Progressive Boomers Are Making It Impossible For Cities To Fix The Housing Crisis

Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects.

By Michael Hobbes (Huffpost)

This article is mainly about the contentious town hall style meetings that often erupt into chaos over proposed development. The alternatives to these meetings at the end are interesting.

I have to admit I believe now that opposing development is a losing strategy. Really just an example of wealth inequality playing out on a local level: neighborhoods with more wealth are able to successfully resist development and keep their home prices high, while poor neighborhoods get upzoned and developed. In New York, it is very obvious. Many years ago, residents of the wealthy neighborhood of Cobble Hill resisted the upzoning of an old hospital site and their Councilperson Brad Lander supported their opposition, saying something like “The people don’t want it.” Now he wants to upzone Gowanus, another part of his district, rejecting that neighborhood’s opposition as being the enemy of progress. Poor neighborhoods like East New York opposed their upzoning a few years ago and lost the battle.

In my experience, every neighborhood resists development. The difference is that some are able to muster up the resources to make successful legal challenges. What we need is development across cities, not just centered on poor or transitioning neighborhoods. This is the egalitarian response to what cities demonstrably need: more housing.



Why We Should Stop Tearing Down Boring Building

** Robin’s Book Report #57
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

What you’ve been reading

Michelle on what she’s been reading:

Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a novel about using drugs to stay asleep. It was very boring and extremely anxiety-inducing at the same time. I was reading it before bed and it was giving me insomnia. Now reading The Yellow House, the memoir by Sarah Broom that is getting a lot of good attention. It’s set in New Orleans, in a neighborhood very close to where I lived as a young child, so what’s not to like? Also read a good science book called Crisis in the Red Zone. You may have heard of that. [Inside joke; the author is married to her]


I just cracked open City of Quartz. It’s been great so far. I’m also reading a steady stream of sci-fi, as always. Right now it’s Connie Willis’ The Doomsday book.

Reading List

“** Ex-Corporate Lawyer’s Idea: Rein In ‘Sociopaths’ in the Boardroom (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/29/business/dealbook/corporate-governance-reform-ethics.html?searchResultPosition=1)

By Andrew Ross Sorkin (Dealbook)

James Gamble, a corporate lawyer, thinks the problem with corporations is the “maximize” rule, which is a vague law that compels corporations to maximize shareholder value above all else. He theorizes that the rule causes corporations to act like sociopaths. In some ways this is true: focusing on stock price has excused environmental degradation, union busting, outsourcing, wage suppression, other assorted malfeasance.

Gamble’s solution is to add more legal rules, to make corporations more accountable to groups like neighboring communities and employees. But the reason why the “maximize” rule is so pervasive is that it is tied to a definable number, the impact on workers and neighbors is less definable. Adding more rules to the legal responsibility would likely obscure the real problem: that corporations are way too consequential in our political system.

But Gamble wrote an essay explaining himself, so let’s look at that:

“** The Most Important Problem in the World (https://medium.com/@jgg4553542/the-most-important-problem-in-the-world-ad22ade0ccfe)

by James Gamble

Here he is on why “maximize” is bad:

“The “maximize rule” does its damage in two ways. Corporate entities are direct actors in the world. A decision to build a factory in a place with weak environmental laws, low wages and poor worker protection matters. Preferring share buybacks to increased wages or lower prices matters. Lobbying for taxpayer subsidies that transfer wealth from poor to rich matters. They contribute to the problems listed in paragraph one in obvious ways. More damaging: the maximize rule infects real people with tragic faith in the magic of markets.”

Good diagnosis of the problem.

“The tragedy is that markets have for a great many people taken on the power to transform selfishness into a virtue. If everyone acts in her rational self-interest, the market scripture goes, an invisible hand will cause the sum total of selfish acts to serve the common good. Faith in the invisible hand is the seed from which the maximize rule springs.”

Of course, he’s right about all this. Faith in the ability of the markets to deliver justice was the reasoning behind the maximize rule in the first place; a wildly misplaced faith.

But Gamble has the problem that a lot of people enmeshed in the corporate world have, they can’t see beyond the four walls of the world built to facilitate and enrich corporations. He can see the problem but not the solution. Campaign finance reform, higher corporate taxes, well-funded regulatory apparatus, strong labor movement, the diminution of corporate megaliths, all would go much further to curtailing the damage of corporate power than new, formless legal stipulations.

“** Progressive Policies May Hurt the Stock Market. That’s Not a Bad Thing (https://truthout.org/articles/progressive-policies-may-hurt-the-stock-market-thats-not-a-bad-thing/)

By Dean Baker (Truthout)

It is important to remember that the stock market is not the economy. The health of the stock market matters most for people invested in it, and most prominently for people with assets. People in power care about the stock market because they have assets. Swiveling our attention away from the stock market and to something like, say, unemployment might help us assess our policies better. Returns on capital alone is a huge problem (Thomas Piketty suggested in Capital that it is one of the primary economic problems of our time) because it concentrates wealth. And if reigning in returns on assets is important, to fully democratize economic power, this will necessarily hurt the stock market.

“** The Economist Who Believes the Government Should Just Print More Money (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-economist-who-believes-the-government-should-just-print-more-money)

The Bernie Sanders adviser Stephanie Kelton argues that “How will we pay for it?” shouldn’t be a central question in American politics.

By Zach Helfand (The New Yorker)

This is a mini-profile of Stephanie Kelton, the brightest face of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). After reading it, I understand why Bernie Sanders doesn’t endorse MMT. It’s not the silver bullet to a more just world, it’s simply something to get us out of the austerity swamps we find ourselves in. MMT, at this moment, rests on a jobs guarantee to manage the economy, instead of Federal Reserve interest rate hikes. Maybe that’d work, I don’t know. But it’s not terribly imaginative, in the grand scheme of things; it’s only a minor policy tweek when what is needed is a major overhaul of how our society is put together. But maybe MMT could be used to justify Green New Deal spending, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

“** Vernacular Modernism (https://nplusonemag.com/issue-34/reviews/vernacular-modernism/)
” Good buildings are adaptable by Thomas de Monchaux (n+1)

I liked this article about boxy, quotidien, modernist buildings (like suburban libraries and other municipal buildings). I especially enjoyed the idea that these ordinary buildings serve a function and should not be torn down. Demolition is easier to get financing for, but is incredibly wasteful. The majority of a building’s carbon cost is in the construction, not upkeep, HVAC, and maintenance.

But my friend Michael is an architect, so I asked him his thoughts. He came back with an interesting answer:

“Thanks for putting me on to this author! It’s a great topic.

The retrofit and preservation agenda I agree with, but I think his label vernacular modernism is a stretch. I know what he’s getting at, especially in the Midwest, where buildings really start to look the same in midsized cities, but the term idealizes building style and culture in the US from the ‘30’s to ‘80’s.

For me, for something to be vernacular, it would have to be more pervasive, say like the town house/brownstone fabric of brooklyn – it is everywhere you look, and this is because of a confluence of economic factors (replacing most environmental/ecological factors) and cultural factors that made it the accepted best building typology in an area of a sustained period of time. Or the Robert Moses style brick project housing that spread like wildfire across the country because it was brutally economical, with no regard for climate or cultural regional variations. Unfortunately these were built with poor considerations for light and volume, and subsequently no one cares about them, and they are falling apart.

The cases that he illustrates are high design, expensive, and should definitely be preserved and repurposed, but they were exceptional, not really the norm, and well thought out enough that they will always be what they were designed to be. I mean, what are you going to repurpose a library into? What else could an office tower be? These are culturally significant buildings that were designed to stand the test of time.

One of the more pervasive vernaculars that I think is versatile enough adaptable is the industrial typology which you see everywhere across the country, now often as ruin. These are robust structures, a lot of them high quality construction, that have huge volumes that could be repurposed uplifting as residences, office spaces, or new manufacturing zones.”

Thanks Michael.

Robert Moses and The Market As God

Robin’s Book Report #56
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-new writing
-reading list

New Article Alert

A new Wegmans is being plopped down in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and I went out to talk to the NYCHA residents in the area about how the new fancy grocery store may or may not help them. It’s my first big feature, and first article for Gothamist. Give it a read.


My article about Bill de Blasio’s failure to imagine a new way to develop low income housing without enriching private developers and supercharging gentrification was recently translated into Spanish. I can’t read Spanish, so I remain blissfully unaware of the quality of the translation. Though they misplaced the hyphen in my name, which is not a good sign.


Reading list

Is Poverty Necessary?” by Marilynne Robinson (Harper’s)

Great essay. It stays to true to the titular question, which is not an easy task because it is an incredibly complex question. The question about why poverty still exists sprawls across the regions of not only economics and politics, but philosophy, anthropology, any other number of fields.

Best clip:

This prompts a question that we ask with some urgency now. To quote Henry George: “Why, in spite of increases in productive power, do wages tend to a minimum which will give but a bare living?” I believe the short answer would be: because they can, neither ethics nor law intervening.

Trust me, she doesn’t settle for the short answer. This essay will allow you to see the issue of poverty anew. Restricted access online, but I’ll scan the issue and send you a PDF if you’re interested.

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade Was a Robert Moses Head Fake

By Thomas J. Campanella (Intelligencer)

The dramatic, tricky, tactical side of Robert Moses:

In all likelihood, Moses ordered the Hicks Street survey simply to provoke the Heights, fanning its worst-case fears so that almost any alternative would be embraced by relieved and grateful residents.

Apologias Halfway House

by Jacob Shell (n+1)

Jacob Shell visits three exhibitions dedicated to Robert Moses (in 2007) and finds that while all the shows try to rehab Moses’ imagine, they neglect a major aspect of Moses’ program: that he was trying to design a city that would retain it’s industrial backbone. He built public housing so factory workers would have a decent, affordable place to live, highways to move goods in, around, and out of the city, hospitals to keep workers healthy, and schools to educate them. What we forget is that the city (New York City, but most U.S. cities actually) bowed before the altar of Fordist manufacturing. This obviously makes no sense to a contemporary denizen of New York. The highways seem to be ugly streaks across perfectly good real estate! Our urban new religion is real estate, and to a smaller degree, retail.

Anyhow, Moses failed to retain New York’s industrial economy, and that spine dissolved between the fingers of city leaders in the late 1960s. But thinking about Moses in this way makes his authoritarian interventions make a little more sense, like the radical transformation of Taiwan in the last half of the 20th century, or even China for that matter.

The Market as God”

Living in the new dispensation

By Harvey Cox (The Atlantic)

Cox, a theological scholar at Harvard, had a realization in 1999 (when this article was written). The business pages of the newspaper professed a new, complicated, almost totally realized faith: the market.

Alan Greenspan vindicated this tempered faith in testimony before Congress last October. A leading hedge fund had just lost billions of dollars, shaking market confidence and precipitating calls for new federal regulation. Greenspan, usually Delphic in his comments, was decisive. He believed that regulation would only impede these markets, and that they should continue to be self-regulated. True faith, Saint Paul tells us, is the evidence of things unseen.

I, of course, agree wholeheartedly: it is the true faith!

Soon I began to marvel at just how comprehensive the business theology is. There were even sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and what theologians call an “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.” My curiosity was piqued. I began cataloguing these strangely familiar doctrines, and I saw that in fact there lies embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematized for a whole new Summa to take shape.

We see the eschatology of the market prophets play out almost daily. Dark seers take to the New York Times to warn of an oncoming recession. But read the column and what do they know? A decline in the price of pork bellies indicates a slow-down in Rust Belt consumer spending? Maybe they’re right, but they’ve definitely been wrong.

As I tried to follow the arguments and explanations of the economist-theologians who justify The Market’s ways to men, I spotted the same dialectics I have grown fond of in the many years I have pondered the Thomists, the Calvinists, and the various schools of modern religious thought.

A sort-of Marxist conclusion:

The willed-but-not-yet-achieved omnipotence of The Market means that there is no conceivable limit to its inexorable ability to convert creation into commodities.

A Somewhat Disgusting Morbidity

Robin’s Book Report #55
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-This week I talk about why we shouldn’t worship thrift

-Hit me up with what you have been reading!

A somewhat disgusting morbidity
I enjoy almost all elements of personal money management: saving money, spending it shrewdly, getting credit cards for the points, setting up different savings accounts, finding free stuff on the street, and other absurdities. Most importantly, I love to grocery shop. If I get a sweet deal on ground beef, it’s a great day. As many of you know, I’m a member of not one, but two different discount grocery stores. I keep a spreadsheet on the unit prices of items that are sold at both stores, in order to get the best price. It’s crazy, but it’s fun! On slow days, I’ll go for a walk and invariably end up at a grocery store, wandering the aisles, checking prices.I also love saving money. When I was 18, I saved $12,000 in a year working at a diner. When most people would have been blowing their money on food and clothes and vacations and drugs, I was living like I was broke. I stashed my tips in a shoe box that I would take to the bank every week and deposit. It just made me happy to think of all that money piling up. Anal-rententive? I don’t know! (I lost it all in a two month period the following year.)

My lifelong attentive money management, lust for deals, and love of saving used to seem like something of a virtue. It meant I was better equipped for the world than other people. But now, I regard it as just another predilection like bird-watching, sado-masichism, or knitting.

That is, some people are freaks: they are cursed (or blessed) with a money fixation. The early 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes thought this desire to make money above all else was “a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.” I agree!

The desire to make a bunch of money––in the stock market, in real estate, in tech, in some other profitable sector––isn’t in everyone. But should this mean that the rest of society, with their unprofitable proclivities, are worthless?

The cruel reality is that we venerate the wealth in America because without a sturdy social safety net, you have to have wealth to do more than survive. Unfortunately, being wealthy is largely a lottery in which some people are born holding better odds. Sometimes wealth comes as a result of hard work, but sometimes it’s inherited with no effort at all. Worse, hard work is often not enough to ensure reward. Frugality is often sold as a path to riches, but it’s really not. Frugality is just a hobby, not a virtue. Recent stories about the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement are really myths that allow our culture to dismiss the poor as simply irresponsible spenders.

Being frugal is for the richThe Frugalwoods made a name for themselves teaching millennials how to save money. Trouble is, you have to start with a lot of it. By Miles Howard

The Frugalwoods are an “inspirational” family that had tremendous advantages and tremendous incomes before they “retired” early to rural America. But it’s not about the facts, it’s their story that is insidious:

“These Millennials [the Frugalwoods] are telling an older generation of elite Americans — the very people whose policies and financial decisions kneecapped the economy — what they want to hear: that everything is more or less okay, and young people just need to be more thoughtful about their money.”

The poor are often incredibly thrifty, but it only carries them so far.

So with that in mind I want to review Keynes’ 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in which he (correctly) theorizes that productivity gains (and wealth created by the miracle of compound interest) after 1940 will make it possible for wealth to be completely automated. The first challenge will be wealth’s distribution, and the next to figure out how to value our lives and occupy our time when the senseless accumulation of money isn’t the goal. Here are some important, choice passages.

Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” by John Maynard Keynes 1930 [all bold letters are my emphasis]

“[F]or the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”

Keynes thought we would one day be at least partially free of the orbit of money. It is the opposite of what the Chicago school economists taught: that we should never be free of economic concerns, that we should aspire to make all of life subject to economic concerns.

“There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth – unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe to-day into the true character of this “purposiveness” with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment. The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.

Lastly, Keynes imagined that in this new future economists (and business people) would be much less important:

But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists-like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”

So, that is, fuck the job creators!