McKinsey and Co: The Anarchist Austerity Cult

Robin’s Book Report #51
by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Agenda
-recent writing
-my round-up about McKinsey and Company, the transnational management consulting firm

I recently wrote for the Baffler about Bill de Blasio’s failure to address the housing crisis in New York. He claims to be the candidate for “working people,” but it’s not really true. The housing crisis is working people’s largest problem, and depending on how you look at it, he either did nothing or made it worse.

Unfortunately for me, de Blasio’s campaign is so doomed I’m not sure anyone cares to read a critical take-down of the dunderhead. However, it’s an important article because it says a lot about why Democrats often posture as defender of the working class but flail once in office. They employ regressive market mechanisms to solve problems instead of considering alternatives. De Blasio continued to use Bloomberg’s housing mechanisms, which are really just expensivization techniques. He demonstrates a disgraceful lack of imagination. Enjoy!

McKinsey and Company is an anarchic cult out to extract the wealth of nations

McKinsey and Company, as you may know, is the transnational, ultra high-end management consulting firm, founded about a hundred years. I wrote about them a little bit in a review of Louis Hyman’s Temp earlier this year. McKinsey is not a publicly traded company; it’s a partnership. This means they are free to be completely secretive. McKinsey is not unlike Skull and Bones or other secret societies; former members are proud to have belonged and loathe to reveal information about inner workings. To be made a partner (of which there are now thousands) at McKinsey is to be given a boat of money and a golden ticket to the executive class. Many make partner and move on after a few years.

McKinsey is an advisor to a large majority of the biggest corporations, governments, and NGOs in the world. Management, executives, and people in power love to hire McKinsey: it’s a signal that greater efficiency and larger profits lie just beyond the horizon.

But there are some structural deficiencies with McKinsey that are worrisome. As they expand across the globe, spreading the gospel of austerity, they have run out of stand-up clients to work for and have extended themselves into some unsavory relationships. This has revealed that at their core, the consultancy is an amoral, anarchic organization just as likely to aid legitimate groups as they are criminals. And they’ll always push for what the best for those in power (who, of course, hired them), which is austerity. Today I am reviewing some material that reveals why McKinsey is an anarchic cult out to extract the wealth of nations.

McKinsey & Company: Capital’s Willing Executioners

An insider’s perspective on how the world’s most elite consulting firm spreads the gospel of capitalist by Anonymous (Current Affairs)

Not a great article but does highlight the structural flaws of McKinsey, namely, it has no structure:

“McKinsey’s governing model, when compared to other firms of its size and age, is anarchy. The Managing Director (CEO equivalent) has surprisingly little ability to control who the firm serves (said a partner about the Managing Director, “you are definitely not in charge”). McKinsey remains the world’s largest partnership, and partners rule. The general rule of thumb is that if a partner can staff a team, the firm will do the work.”

This is something that is disturbing about capitalism: that unregulated, it is highly amoral. You can’t predict whether McKinsey will be good or bad for the world because you can’t necessarily predict how people will act inside the firm.

The firm is pervasive, global, and influential:

“McKinsey serves more than 2,000 institutions, including 90 of the top 100 corporations worldwide. It has acted as a catalyst and accelerant to every trend in the world economy: firm consolidation, the rise of advertising, runaway executive compensation, globalization, automation, and corporate restructuring and strategy.”

The firm claims to be ethical, but it doesn’t work in all directions:

“The closest value is a commitment to “observe high ethical standards,” but I only ever saw this applied to the treatment of clients: don’t lie to them, don’t fudge your expenses, etc. If McKinsey had values that considered the human impact of its work and attempted to honor Sneader’s pledge, it would need to pull out of engagements all over the world.”

Why would consultants go into a room and present a Powerpoint that didn’t argue the powerful people who hired McKinsey shouldn’t get more money? Austerity always sounds good to those who hire McKinsey, whether they are business owners who free up capital by firing a bunch of employees or governments who free up capital by cutting social services.

The McKinsey Way to Save an IslandWhy is a bankrupt Puerto Rico spending more than a billion dollars on expert advice? By Andrew Rice With Luis Valentin Ortiz (New York)

McKinsey’s secretive internal hedge fund bought Puerto Rican government debt, and now its consultants are on the ground trying to find ways for the government to pay back it’s debtors with financial austerity, essentially trading public services for debt repayment. Is Mckinsey engaging in high level bankruptcy fraud? They are essentially running the Puerto Rican government:

“With consultants taking on more and more responsibility, McKinsey has virtually become a shadow agency of the government, and a powerful one at that — feeding a colonialist dynamic that PROMESA was supposedly designed to avoid. In January, a federal official familiar with McKinsey’s work in Puerto Rico told me: ‘They’re doing everything. If McKinsey leaves, the board essentially ceases to operate.’”

McKinsey is a secretive group that is out to suck the wealth out of businesses and countries:

Already the island is an object lesson in what happens when the logic of capitalism overtakes the structure of government. It is an article of faith at McKinsey that the same management theory that makes businesses run more profitably can be applied to further the public interest.”

Governments can’t be run like businesses, often because the government can’t really dissolve like corporations might. Governments have responsibilities to people regardless of profit, or any other kind of bottom-line analysis.

How McKinsey Has Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments” By Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe (New York Times)

Once again, as McKinsey has expanded globally, they have run into problems.

“In Ukraine, McKinsey and Paul Manafort — President Trump’s campaign chairman, later convicted of financial fraud — were paid by the same oligarch to help burnish the image of a disgraced presidential candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovych, recasting him as a reformer.”

The implication of all this is that in absence of global governance, we essentially have McKinsey:

“While the United States pulls back from international cooperation and adopts a more nationalist stance, major companies like McKinsey are pursuing business in countries with little regard for human rights — sometimes advancing, rather than curbing, the contentious tactics of America’s biggest rivals.”

Reporting on McKinseyHow We’ve Reported on the Secrets and Power of McKinsey & Company by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe (New York Times)

McKinsey likely encouraged or simply fueled the opioid crisis:

“That point was driven home in startling fashion when we recently reported that the Massachusetts attorney general had accused McKinsey of fanning the flames of the opioid epidemic. In legal papers, the attorney general alleged that McKinsey had instructed the maker of a powerful opioid on how to ‘turbocharge sales’ of the drug, how to counter efforts by drug enforcement agents to reduce opioid use and how to ‘counter the emotional messages from mothers with teenagers that overdosed’ on the drug.”

The Country That Exiled McKinsey” A dubious project raises serious questions about the world’s most prestigious consulting firm and its work for corruption-plagued regimes.

by Ian MacDougall, ProPublica, and Anand Tumurtogoo (Propublica)

McKinsey entered into a consulting relationship for infrastructure contracts, to build railways to transport minerals out of Mongolia, that were shared by a company owned by the government official who brokered the deal:

“But as the Cold War’s end opened new markets worldwide, McKinsey reoriented its priorities toward aggressive expansion. Between 1989 and 2019, the firm vastly enlarged its global footprint, from offices in 44 cities across 23 countries to offices in more than 130 cities spread across 66 countries today. McKinsey reported $10 billion in revenues last year.”

“To sustain that kind of growth, McKinsey had to push into less familiar territory, like Mongolia, and into sectors, like government contracting, that the firm had traditionally eschewed. Government contracts often require more disclosure, bring more scrutiny, and are subject to more rules than corporate ones. ‘McKinsey has grown to the point that it is taking on work that prior incarnations of the firm would have turned down due to the political risk involved,’ a former McKinsey consultant wrote in an anonymous recent essay in the magazine Current Affairs.”

Foucault suggested that the term for our current economic arrangement is anarcho-capitalism (he said this in 1978 but it’s still applicable). McKinsey and Company, in many ways is the model of this idea. Secret, unstructured, influential, powerful, and pervasive, they are in some ways a catalyst and some ways a menace.

Jonathan Franzen contemplates suicide

Book report
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.

 

The Whole Shabang: Chips So Good You’ll Have To Go To Jail To Get Them (NBC)

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.

 

Economic Inequality with Mark Greif (RSA)

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.

Why is UBI such a tedious topic?

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 Rolls out Universal Income Experiment (SF Curbed)

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.

What The Times Magazine Got Wrong About Climate Change

Robin’s Book Report #42
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Agenda
-New Writing
-Book Report

Can brand-new condos increase racial segregation? I wrote about a recently dismissed lawsuit that wanted the city to analyze how racial minorities are affected by new housing developments. Most articles, about this case, got many of the details wrong, so read my article for a better take.

I also wrote a very short article about a self-taught metal-worker and web-designer who sells grills out of junkyard in Brooklyn. I hope I can do a longer profile of him one day.

Please drop me a line to let me know what you are reading, and what you like in the newsletter!

Book report

Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not “Human Nature”” By Naomi Klein (The Intercept)

Consider this a timely follow up of my newsletter about ultra-responsibility. Naomi Klein responds to the conclusion of the New York Times Magazine story about how climate change was almost dealt with in the late 1980s. The Times Magazine article concludes by suggesting it is a fundamental, unchangeable flaw in human nature that fails to deal with big, abstract problems like global warming. Klein finds this to be an inadequate summation. She thinks the failure to halt carbon emissions is not a problem of human nature, but of our screwed up social contract that is now presupposes self-interest and the primacy of corporate profits.

I agree with her. The conclusion of the Times Magazine story represents a failure of imagination. We are captives of the dark, Hobbesian fatalism that is inherent in neo-liberal thought (that each individual is responsible to no one, and thus there’s nothing to be done about Big Problems). But when we change our minds, we change the world. As Nina Simone said in her addendum to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”:

“One day I thought I could fly

I woke up and thought I could fly

I’d look down at the sea

and I wouldn’t know myself

I’d have new hands

I’d have new feet

I’d have new vision

My eyes would be open a little better

Bible says

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”

I consider this a tract on the possibility of change and how unknowable the future is. The future is defined less by events and peoples than it is by the ideas that influence them. Surely humans failed to deal with carbon emissions, but was it an inevitable moral flaw? Are we doomed to burn for our sins? What does the future hold? Maybe something else.

How Tech Billionaires Hack Their Taxes With a Philanthropic Loophole (NYT) and Why did Elon Musk stash a quarter-billion dollars of Tesla stock in a non-profit back in 2016? (The Outline)

The founder of GoPro stashed half of his IPO windfall in a charity called “Silicon Valley Community Foundation.” It’s an opaque organization, and it’s not apparent whether the money was ever distributed to charity. In the second article, the author looked into whether Elon Musk had used the charity loophole to stash cash from his Tesla IPO and–surprise!–he did.

How music has responded to a decade of economic inequality” By Scott Timberg (Vox)

Musicians of today (the last ten years) fail to deliver the social critique that other generations of musicians did.

The Price of Shares” by Rob Horning (Even Magazine)

A museum in Indianapolis turned itself into what is essentially a quirky a food hall. They now, as vague and trendy business-types would have it, offer “experiences.” You can taste craft coffee, glug micro-brews, go mini-golfing, and–most importantly–touch the art. The author of this essay, Rob Horning, thinks that this has something to do with social media. But there’s nothing persuasive in this article suggesting that it does, beyond the very tired idea that phone’s get between us and art, mediating our experience. But all kinds of things mediate our experiences, far beyond phones. Untamed thoughts can easily come between you and an art experience. Hormones can also get in the way of “pure” experience. I remember asking my friend Andy in high school, who had just taken a date to see the movie Van Helsing, how the movie was. He was like “I have no idea.”

The real problem is that museums cannot survive as a repository of historical objects if people cannot decipher their meaning. If regular museum-goers are not well-versed in art history, a non-experiential approach (with art plunked on the walls and plopped on the floor) leaves them cold, like a book written in a language you don’t know. Sure, it would be great to read The Odyssey in the original Greek, but maybe English or YouTube will have to do.

Museums are bringing in other activities and it has little to do with Instagram. The Walker Art Center had artist designed mini-golf when I was in high school. I don’t know of another period in history when art was consumed “better” than any other time. Were museums better in the 1950s, the heyday of Abstract Expressionism? Did artist have more consequence in the culture? Or even simply make more money? Art vitality has to do with audiences fluency with it’s lexicon, and the creators of art desire to engage and connect with the audience.

Financial world doomed to repeat bad behaviour (FT)

Since the reign of Napoleon, fraud in finance remains the same:

“In 1814, Charles de Berenger colluded with Sir Thomas Cochrane and six others to accumulate a large position in UK gilts before he appeared in Dover disguised as a Bourbon officer and reported that Napoleon had been killed, sending a letter to the Admiralty in London to that effect and staging a parade across London Bridge to proclaim an allied victory. UK government bonds rose on the news and they then sold their holdings for a profit.

Some 199 years later, the US Securities and Exchange Commission alleged that a fabricated Twitter account was used to spread false and negative news about Audience, a technology company, and Sarepta Therapeutics, a biotech company.”

How the bottom half bolsters U.S. economy (Reuters)

The bottom half of the economy’s debt fuels the economy at large. It’s their mortgage, medical and car debt. Debt is useful, but it’s also spackling tool to smooth over the transition from a nation with savings, to a nation that is completely impoverished.

From the article:

“In the past, rising incomes of the upper 40 percent of earners have driven most of the consumption growth, but since 2016 consumer spending has been primarily fueled by a run-down in savings, mainly by the bottom 60 percent of earners, according to Oxford Economics.”a

Adam Curtis Predicts the Future

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Robin’s Book Report #38
A culture and economics reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Agenda

-Letters from you
-Book Report

Note:

I received many responses to last week’s letter. I am going to include reader’s thoughts about the last letter (which you can read here) in this issue, and do a separate email next week, with a list of what other readers are reading/watching/seeing. Please reply to this email with what you have been ingesting.

Letters:

Pete, agreeing that NYC is not the only city to be suffering a crisis of affluence:

“A few years ago, the vacancy rate of rental places in Zurich was around *0.3%*, and rents were rising. Case in point: 8 years ago, when H and I left our previous 2-person apartment because the neighborhood was going through a paroxysm of renovation including the impending renovation, of our building, we hosted visiting hours for potential new renters, and had more than 100 visits in 2 hours — people were lined up in the corridor and stairway waiting to get in — many of them families of 4, 5, or 6 persons; several people tried to bribe us to help them rent the place. That’s a sign of sickness in the housing market.”

Peg, who enjoyed Kevin Baker’s Harper’s article (whereas I did not):

“I don’t think Kevin Baker is stupid, but rather nostalgic for a time when New York was more middle class. He bemoans the loss of small businesses and the social fabric that they have been part of, things that make a big city more homey and distinctive.
  Baker’s article was full of information, and in that respect was so interesting to read. The ins and outs of the notion of rent stabilization, how it is supposed to work, and how it’s been manipulated, were fascinating (and awful at the same time). Thanks for linking to it.”
Book report

“Elon Musk’s Fall From Grace”  by Andrew Elrod (Boston Review)

This article is about how Elon Musk is funding his dream on the backs of the American taxpayers. The tax-breaks for electric cars have subsidized his enterprise with multiple billions of dollars. Why do we continue to provide welfare for delusional billionaires, but not regular people? This makes no sense. Great article.

I am beginning to think our culture is enamored with tech companies only because, as capital-seeking hounds, they are the only ones selling an optimistic vision of the future. In recent decades, politicians have failed to present any comparable visions. So into this vacuum has rushed private wealth, and corporate interests. The corporate wealth that Robert Reich warned about at the end of his term as Secretary of Labor in the 1990s has come to pass.

“Why Do We Care So Much About Privacy” by Louis Menand (The New Yorker)

The definition of privacy is fluid and ever changing, so why and how do we care about it?

Eyes Wide Shut directed by Stanley Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut is a movie based on the 19th century Viennese novel called Dream Story. And it does indeed drag along like a fever. Kubrick died three months before it came out and it is almost too clumsy and rough around the edges for most to considered it a 100% Stanley Kubrick film. While he technically turned in his final cut to the studio, he was notorious for re-cutting up until the release, sometimes after early screenings. Eyes Wide Shut gets extraordinarily boring at times (which people also said about 2001: A Space Odyssey, q.v. this New Yorker article). The heartbeat of the movie often slows down to a dangerously low rhythm. This makes sense in light of his untimely death: maybe Kubrick was enamored with the hermetically sealed stillness in editing, but would have changed his mind after seeing it in application. There is no way to say. What you can say, is that the elements of the movie are brilliant and haunting, and other elements are confusing and clunky. I often found myself wondering if Eyes Wide Shut was the worst movie I had ever seen, or one of the better ones. Once again, hard to say.

Certainly The End of Something or Other, One Would Sort Of Have To Think” by David Foster Wallace (The Observer)

David Foster Wallace’s take on John Updike’s late career novel–Towards The End of Time. He tackles the major issue with Updike: most people can’t stand the guy. What I found interesting, was to think about how Updike was once refreshing, in the era of sexual liberation, and is now tedious. Attitudes can change quickly in a few short decades.

“Been Down So Long It Looks Like Debt to Me” by M.H. Miller (The Baffler)

This is the story of a family in debt. It went semi-viral on the internet last week. I am not diminishing the importance of the tale to say that I am familiar with and exhausted by it. How many times will we have to read this type of story before something changes?

“In Conversation with Adam Curtis, Part 1” interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist (e-flux)

This is Adam Curtis, the British documentary filmmaker, in an interview in 2004:

“I think the mood of the moment has to do with a sense that if you’re going to the woods on your own, it’s scary, and you feel weak. But if you go with your friends, it’s fun. A lot of politics hasn’t understood this. And the trouble with it is that it actually leaves a gap for the return of totalitarian politicians—and I mean in America, more than here in the UK. Someone pointed out the other day that the Republican Party is still captive to the oil industry, while the Democratic Party, even under Obama, is totally captive to Wall Street. So there is this great gap for a politician to come in and start talking about how people are afraid and need to come together and protect themselves.” [my emphasis]

Interesting, thoroughly prescient comment.

Let me know what you’ve been reading!

Five pieces of advice for aspiring journalists

I recently came across a few online articles that offered great advice for aspiring journalists. I’ll share five of them with you here:

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!’”

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.

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.”

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary

Expertise is recession proof.

It might not be necessary to go to J-School, from famous author (and journalist) Michael Lewis.

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.”

Five Things to Read/Watch Right Now

 
There is law in Watts; it’s just not the law that is written down by the government. “Fundamentally, gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause,” the author says.

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.

I re-read this classic piece out loud the other night to Marguerite, just for fun. It is wonderful writing that has a sneaky way of invoking the chaos of home life with young children. Sample: “Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you have nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.”
Japanese armor, glassware, and spoons (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
This documentary is about the whistle-blower who alerted the world to the Russian doping program. It was good, but not as good as the next documentary.

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.

 

This is one of the best-made movies I have seen in a long time, especially because it goes to great lengths to report multiple sides of the issue without prioritizing one over the other. The followers of the religion are portrayed sympathetically, and when one of the followers (in a present-day interview) gets choked up talking about his former leader, I believe him. It reminds me of the Tony Robbins documentary. I watched it, and while I knew that it was essentially a feature-length commercial for the motivational speaker, I felt that he did have some worthwhile insights into life and that he did truly help people. While the Rajneeshees of Wild Wild Country went off the rails, I am wondering if, had they not, would the Raineeshees just be considered a religion instead of a cult? We all know that “cult” is just a pejorative term for a “religion.” The movie leaves open a good question: what is the proper response to bigotry? Is it relying on the tenants of free-market capitalism? Jurisprudence? Chemical warfare? Murder?
What have you been reading or watching this week? Let me know!