“Farther Away” by Jonathan Franzen (New Yorker)
In 2010, Jonathan Franzen travelled to the remote island that the novel Robinson Crusoe was set on, to read the book (and see some birds). The essay drifts between his travelogue, bird watching, thinking about the origin of the novel, and reflecting on the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. It is a complex and moving contemplation on suicide. Suicide, he believes, is the final word in an argument, formulated to have the maximum impact. Franzen is also painfully aware of how painfully aware Wallace was about the potential fame-cementing impact a writer’s suicide has. Something of a bitter pill, but seems accurate. Could you imagine Kanye committing suicide for the everlasting fame? I some ways, if his mania went untreated long enough, you can.
Everyone loves cooking shows. Especially when ex-cons are behind the grill.
Cheapest DIY: Custom Nasal Strip (Breathe Right) That Fits You,& Find Your Z-Spot [sic] (Genius Asian)
Dr. Zhang suggests making your own Breathe Right strips with thin strips of credit cards. Don’t have any inactive cards? He explains exactly how to cut up a card that you are still using and have it still work.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
Wonderful non-fiction book about the confrontation of the Hmong people and the American medical system. Fadiman finds a confrontation between the hyper-rational Western medical establishment and the Hmong. The clash grow hot because for the Hmong medicine is religion. Their mysticism is bound to their healing practices. Maybe one of the greatest non-fiction books ever. Fascinating, moving, unsettled, and complicated.
Man in Profile by Thomas Kunkel
Book-length profile of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell was depressed and felt trapped between two worlds. Because he was not going to be buried in New York City he felt alienated. His last project was a potentially sprawling autobiography but he let things distract him. Then he lost his wife. The autobiography goes unfinished. It makes me wonder: Is writer’s block just depression? Is perfectionism depression? What about the projects that grow so large in our minds that we have never done, that feel so real to us. Are they the fertilizer of a mind gone to seed?
“D. J.s, Swim Briefs, $25 Coladas: In Vegas, the Party’s at the Pool” By Courtney Bond (NYTimes)
Fun fun FUN! We love FUN! Great reported essay on Vegas pool parties.
Should the wealthy be relieved from the burden of unending wealth accumulation?
“Message to my haters: You are correct, I’m a Neanderthal” by Alex Nichols (The Outline)
A nice article about 23andMe. My biggest problem with 23andMe is that it can’t really tell you much about yourself, unless you are adopted. It uses correlative metrics, meaning that it compiles (and relies completely on) data that has already been collected (ie other people’s DNA tests). So for the time being, while much of the population hasn’t had their DNA encoded, DNA tests can’t really tell you that much.
“I Don’t Want It At All” by Kim Petras
My pop song of the moment.
UBI is a DRAG
Many people are talking about Universal Basic Income (UBI), the policy that proposes a standardized cash payment to citizens. On gut feeling alone, the idea is seductive, but upon further inspection, it is a quagmire. This is because at its root it is a moral question. Should people receive “something for nothing?” Is a cash portion of the society’s surplus a birthright? If recipients don’t work, what will become of their soul? Will it wither? Will idle hands conduct the devils work? What if the point of work is suffering in hopes of a better tomorrow? Can we respect each other without that common, obligatory suffering? In this way it’s very similar to diet and personal finance. If you don’t suffer for your weight loss, is it really a diet? If you don’t save your money, can you still be a good person? UBI is, at first blush, a purely technocratic proposal. But it is much more than that. The soul of our society is at stake.
So I am going to note and comment on a couple of articles and books I have read recently that touch on UBI, and make a uncommon conclusion.
Who Really Stands to Win From Universal Basic Income? By Nathan Heller (New Yorker)
A strange feature of our time is that there are advocates on both the right and the left for UBI. Socialists on the left want it. Billionaires like Elon Musk advocate for it today. Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman even proposed a right leaning solution in the 1970s, with a negative income tax.
I was excited to read this article because I like Nathan Heller’s writing. But he flailed and struggled to make the article interesting and cohesive. Why?
Something about UBI makes it a difficult topic to cover. It is vacuous. Many different groups are writing books about it for many different reasons, and it is difficult to reconcile their underlying assumptions. Business-minded people want a UBI to ensure consumers have enough money in their pockets to keep spending. Those seeking to eliminate poverty want a UBI to ensure the basic dignity of life. The former assumes a dire need to maintain consumer spending (which makes sense because it accounts for almost 70% of economic activity) and the latter assumes the dire necessity of human rights.
Other myriad and conflicting reasons for UBI from the article: Automation will eliminate jobs. It could eradicate poverty. There’s too much surplus capital. The gig economy corroded the possibility of labor unions. A monthly check could allow the government to eliminate welfare. Cuts down on paperwork. The wealthy are free to grow wealthier, knowing that the poor have cash. Success is random. A rising floor of income lifts all, uh, boats. The reasons for UBI are all over the place.
Most importantly, discussions surrounding UBI spring from a larger problem, which is wealth inequality. Poverty is problematic for everyone. But poverty is relative. UBI doesn’t automatically solve inequality, and is thus something of a dead-end.
Stockton, California is likely to be the most watched UBI test in America. Residents will get $500 a month, unconditionally. This experiment is an example of the UBI-as-replacement-for-social-services, in which a government or municipality issues cash instead of specific benefits, like Medicare or SNAP (food stamps). Unfortunately, for UBI to work, recipients will need to have benefits in addition to cash payment, because if they don’t, insurance premiums could just increase and suck the cash away.
What’s crazy about this test is how little money they are playing with. How much will $500 a month change human behavior?
What If The Government Gave Everyone a Paycheck? By Robert Reich (New York Times Book Review)
Robert Reich, in a review of two books on UBI, says what I was thinking: UBI is problematic because it doesn’t solve inequality. People still have to pay all their own bills, and most people won’t inherit much wealth. The most important issue of our time is the necessity of redistributing wealth. Reich says:
“A core challenge in the future will be how to redistribute money from the ever richer owners of the robots and related technologies to the rest of us, who are otherwise likely to become poorer and less secure. This is not just an economic challenge but also a political one. As we know from recent history, vast fortunes translate directly into political power, and such power effectively resists redistribution. Sadly, neither of these authors discusses how to deal with this paradox.”
Bull Shit Jobs by David Graeber
David Graeber, an anthropologist from the London School of Economics, examines jobs that those who hold them describe as pointless, unnecessary, and wasteful. A survey he cites suggests that 30% of people find their own jobs to be, in his formulation, bullshit. The main question becomes, if capitalism claims to be so efficient, why are there any bullshit jobs at all?
Another question is: Isn’t it strange that it is so demoralizing to work a job where you do nothing? Homo economicus should be happy as a clam to do nothing for something. The answer is not clear.
What I realized towards the end of Graeber’s book was that we already have a form of UBI, it’s the salaries from bullshit jobs. People need to have money, and there is no great way to give it to them other than having them “work” for it. The really important implication from this is that we live in a world that is not really capitalist, because–as we are often assured–no capitalist would ever create an unnecessary job.
But everyone has worked unnecessary jobs. I worked in the University’s kitchen in college. There was often a list of stuff to do. But some days there wasn’t. On those days, I would hide in the salad cooler and eat apples and salami. For four to six hours. And then I would leave. It wasn’t a job as much as much as it was a really lame, tedious, and heavily conditional scholarship.
The kitchen job was clearly bullshit because it was welfare disguised as work. Some jobs are simply symbolic, like a chief executive’s slew of vice-presidents. Or are in place to fix a problem that was caused by another job.
A reason we don’t object to pointless work is that we believe that work is an end in itself, that it has value just being work. Work symbolizes our commitment to the future existence of our society. It is the sacrifice we make to show others that we want to be part of the group. This is why the more you like your jobs, the less society feels like you are sacrificing. Which might be why teachers, nurses, journalists, and artists are paid so terribly. The more tedious and boring and stressful and awful it is, the more obviously a person is buying into the collective system that requires a 40 hour a week (or more) tribute (which might be why a lot of people with well paying jobs loudly proclaim their jobs to be “so stressful,” they need everyone to know they’re earning their salary and thus place in society). If a person likes their job, they are not contributing to the idea that a person must work in order to be considered a member of society.
But the idea that work is valuable in itself is outdated. It began with the Calvinists, or maybe a little before, and created the ideological basis for capitalism. It destabilized the power of feudal lords, and suggested the surplus created by hard work could be put to use creating a brighter future. Work (suffer) today for payment (heaven) tomorrow. However, the profits from running a business, the surplus, are plugged into all kinds of useless things, like inflating the housing market or creating wasteful products that are designed to be obsolete as quickly as possible. So maybe work is pointless.
No More Work by James Livingston
Livingston, a professor of history at Rutgers, has a radical idea: we need to decouple work from our value as human beings. This need arises from the fact that, in economic terms, we haven’t needed to employ more people to increase productivity, for almost 100 years now. This analysis is supported by the fact that, while both the left and right encourage full employment, wages have not risen in almost 50 years. Is this because people are worth less? Or is it because our work has little to do with the attempt to produce enough goods for everyone (which we haven’t had a problem with for 100 years) or with the attempt to equally distribute these goods to everyone. Pay is, essentially, a political token that we trade in order to control our lives. And if pay isn’t to reward increased productivity, if productivity has been resolved as a problem, pay ought to be linked to our value as citizens in a democracy, meaning distributed equally. This is a good argument for a UBI.
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Book Review–Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation
I recently came across a few online articles that offered great advice for aspiring journalists. I’ll share five of them with you here:
- Top journalists reveal the best reporting advice they have received (Columbia Journalism Review)
Lots and lots of great stuff here. The best is the last piece of advice from Gay Telese:
“Shortly after I became a reporter at The New York Times, at 24, in the autumn of 1956, a venerated old-timer on the staff named Peter Kihss told me one day: ‘Young man, stay off the telephone. Show up in person. No matter how inconvenient it may be, always meet face-to-face with the person or people you’re interviewing. Stay off the phone. Show up. Look people in the eye. Observe everything first-hand. Be there!’ That advice was received more than 60 years ago, and I’ve followed it ever since.
I’m now 85. I am still a working reporter; and although most of my reportorial work these days appears in the form of books or magazine articles, it is always observed first-hand and is storytelling in form, with lots of descriptive scenes and dialogue whenever possible. I sometimes refer to my method as the ‘Art of Hanging Out.’ Once, in order to write a profile about a Chinese female soccer player, I flew to Beijing and spent five weeks researching her story while traveling with her team. On another occasion, I followed a Russian opera singer on tour from Moscow to Buenos Aires to Barcelona and finally to her performance on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. When I was a young reporter, the telephone was the ‘new technology.’ Now, as I watch the new generation of journalists focusing all day on their laptops, and on their smartphones, pursuing stories diligently with their eyes and heads bent downward, I’m tempted to recall the words of the late Peter Kihss. ‘Stay off the phone. Look up. Observe things first hand. Be there!’”
- This is my best advice to young journalists by Ezra Klein (Vox)
One of Klein’s best tips: take opportunity over prestige. Work when you can instead of waiting for the perfect pitch to be picked up by the perfect publication.
- My big break in journalism: top tips from the writers who’ve made it by Jack Ougthon (The Guardian)
I liked this advice here:
“Become an expert in something, or even two things, and you should be able to find a niche, even if it’s a small one. “Spec reps” [specialist reporters] are harder to replace than generalists, and a specialist can get better with age and experience.
Good journalism is when readers feel or even say to themselves: ‘I’m glad I read that.’ The most brilliant story is wasted if nobody gets past the first paragraph. Or, worse, thinks you’ve wasted their time.”
Expertise is recession proof.
- J-School Confidential by Michael Lewis (New Republic)
It might not be necessary to go to J-School, from famous author (and journalist) Michael Lewis.
- Ten pieces of advice for aspiring journalists from Pat Smith by Heather Bryant
Investigative journalist Pat Smith on the sociological realities of being a journalist in the world:
This is not the career for people wanting to be popular. If you want to be popular, open an ice cream store. This is about being fair and accurate and making our communities better.
Reminds me of Janet Malcolm’s opening line of The Journalist and The Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
- “Cynthia Nixon and the Age of Inexperience” by Frank Bruni (NYTimes)
Frank Bruni, through an interrogation of Cynthia Nixon’s bid for governor of New York, analyses why people like Nixon or Donald Trump, are encouraged to apply for jobs that they aren’t qualified for. I appreciate his analysis of the situation. There is something going on here that goes deeper than a general mistrust of elites or the processes of government.
We live in a time when all knowledge feels like it is up for question, where superstition mingles freely with facts. So who do we turn to in order to parse out the two? Experts, of course.
- “Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father” by Ian Frazier (The Atlantic)
- Icarus (Netflix)
- Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
Most people reading this newsletter will have heard of this six-part documentary by now. It is concerned with the social and legal battles of a religious group that moved to the Oregonian wilderness in the 1980’s. Many of the factual revelations (e.g., the construction projects undertaken by the group) are almost too grand to believe. So are the more sinister acts.