Fyre Fraud (Hulu) and
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix)
These two documentaries are good tragicomic stories but miss the greater historical context: fraud is inherent to capitalism and most rampant in moments when the culture worships innovation and risk.
I have no doubt you saw or heard about these two movies. They both clumsily explain that millenial’s fear of missing out caused them to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a poorly planned music festival. Millennials cry on a bus. Millennials slash each other’s tents. Millennials record every moment of their lives with their damn video phones. Both documentaries explain what influencers are, and both try and fail to answer a question about how culpable advertisers are in perpetrating scams. They fail because that line of thinking just begs the question: whose fault is it when scams occur? Is it simply buyer beware? If not, how responsible are advertisers to verify their clients’ products? Better yet, how responsible are venture capitalists and financiers in ensuring they are funding a legitimate businesses? Should the government be policing businesses?
Fraud has always been present in America. As Duke Professor Edward Balleisen explains in his recent book about fraud, periods of technological innovation that rely on the use of financial capital are the most fraud filled (that is, our current era). From the frauds of westward expansion to lightning rod salesman of the 1920s to Bernie Madoff, unstable times make people vulnerable to those who promise them what they want most.
The two documentaries focus on the schadenfreude of watching Millennials get scammed, but it was a trans-generational group who got sucked in: the spineless advertisers, the clueless financiers, and Bahamians of all stripes who turned out to work for little pay. All these parties believed that the rich-seeming tech bro Billy McFarlane–who looked and acted like a caffeinated seven year-old–could pull off a music festival in the Bahamas with no prior experience. Some wanted to believe, and some were too desperate to have any choice.
For his entire adult life, Macfarlane found that capital was easy to drum up. He, like Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, raised real, legal capital. As another contemporary fraud, the ”Soho Grifter” Anna Delvey, told a reporter from jail, her fraud wasn’t about just stealing cash, “If I really wanted the money, I would have better and faster ways to get some. Resilience is hard to come by, but not capital.” Macfarlane is comparable to Holmes and Delvey–confirmed frauds–but also to one of his funders, deceased fracking billionaire Aubrey McClendon. The question is why is capital so accessible to people like Billy Macfarlane when we can’t even fund a infrastructure improvements? Fraud is important to pay attention to; it exposes real fundamental flaws in our economic arrangement.
Elwood, Illinois (Pop. 2,200), Has Become a Vital Hub of America’s Consumer Economy. And It’s Hell. by Alexander Sammon (The New Republic)
Elwood, a town 40 minutes south of Chicago, attracted business by allowing itself to become an inland port. Warehouses and distribution centers for Walmart, Amazon, and other quickly populated the area. But these companies were attracted with the typical corporate giveaways. First there were tax breaks, temp labor, and now the local municipality is losing control of its corporate tenants.
Truck traffic alone is a major problem, because the roads aren’t big enough and truck drivers are a less experienced, more desperate lot. A trucker gets stuck on a local road: “It’s gonna be a problem trying to get him out of here,” Buss grumbled. “There’s no training now. Most of these guys don’t know how to back up.”
Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich goes undercover in the mid-2000s to see if she can get a job in white-collar executive America. I enjoyed this book, but it felt strange and disappointing. The book has no culminating action. She never even gets close to finding a white-collar job. She regales us with dark, funny stories of career coaches she employs, networking events and job training seminars that she attends. They all practice some form of victim blaming–she needs to have a positive attitude, she needs to be networking more, the corporate world does not owe her a job–but also make no real attempt to help her find work. The only job she is offered is a temp job selling insurance for AFLAC, which is not really a job. It’s a freelance position with no benefits, or guidance even. The reality is that the white-collar world is more akin to a feudal court than to a factory, and who you know, who you were raised to be, who you genuflect to, is most important. Skills have nothing to do with it.
The Real Legacy of the 1970s by Michael Tomasky
The rampant inflation of the 1970s made us not trustworthy? Interesting theory, though incomplete and not totally believable.
Until the Next Crash by Jonathan Levy (n+1)
Levy opens his review of Adam Tooze’s Crashed with a discussion of the deleterious preoccupation of the global economy: liquidity. He writes that “liquidity is a fetish, because for the community as a whole the concept makes no sense. What looks like liquidity to an individual owner of wealth means a decline in the aggregate rate of long-term investment for the macroeconomy—fewer jobs, less wealth, and more wasted human potential.”
The Federal Reserve stepped in, after the 2008 crash and over the past decade, to ensure liquidity with a number of complex policies that reaminmated the American and global economy. Is this new economy based solely on complex tools durable? The fed is like Dr. Frankenstein, animating his monster with brilliant technical wizardry. An undeniably amazing achievement. But the monster is fucked-up and ghastly. You couldn’t confuse it for human. What hath God wrought?
Stuck In A Gilded Age by Jonathan Levy (Dissent)
Industrial productivity ended in the 1970s, and never came back. This is industrial crisis. Levy says that, “by the 1970s, the productivity gains of the Second Industrial Revolution were exhausted. Productivity flagged, contributing to…inflation and the wider sense of industrial malaise. It has not revived—aside for the period 1996–2004—because technological innovation has occurred in the relatively narrow sector of information technology. The narrowness of the Third Industrial Revolution means eight years of solid productivity growth was all this revolution could muster.”
So what happened in America after the 1970s? One thing that is certain is that capitalists stopped doing the only thing that made them capitalists, plugging money back into their businesses. They stopped reinvesting and the rate of investment or investment in capital stock, as it’s also called, dropped. And this trend has only increased since 2000s. Hmm
Levy explains that “the [rate of investment] has been trending steadily downward ever since 1970, and plummeted after 2000. This has continued while, at the same time, entering 2016, U.S. corporations sat on some $1.9 trillion in cash, which they have not yet invested. Gordon does not include the broken state of U.S. investment as a “headwind”—even as so much money sloshes around domestic and global financial markets, inflating asset prices and thereby contributing directly to the growth of wealth and income inequality.”
One simple explanation of inequality is that business have stopped investing in business. Growth, as a goal, leads businesses to hoard cash instead of reinvesting. This leads to the worst of all possible worlds: “The chief economic problem today is not that we do not have enough wealth, but that we do not have the ability to direct it towards the most worthy of human aspirations.”
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
People are crazy for orchids.
Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science (The New York Times)
The Philosopher Redefining Inequality by Nathan Heller (The New Yorker)
Bruno Latour theorized that scientific ideas make the world, scientists don’t discover buried truths. Scientists felt this might be an attack, but Latour actually loves them. He is, as a philosopher, not comfortable saying that gravity exists without the frame of scientific inquiry. His position is similar to that of the pragmatists (William James, John Dewey, etc): ideas are tools. I’m not interested in pure science unfortunately, but I like pragmatism.
In Heller’s profile, he digs into University of Michigan’s Elizabeth Anderson, a professor who named her chair after John Dewey. I don’t know if she calls herself a pragmatist, but her ideas stem from that tradition. She is looking to see how ideas work in the world, not how they are supposed to work. This leads to a rethinking of how inequality comes to exist.
The Neoliberal Optimism Industry (Citations Needed)
Accentuate the Positive by Anthony Gottlieb (NY Review of Books)
Consolation Prizes by Alex Pareene (The Baffler)
There is sector of thinking that posits that things have never been better (so stop complaining!). It is occupied by thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker and Bill Gates. Pinker wrote a book many years ago about why violence has declined and has a new book about why capitalism has raised the standard of living for everyone on the planet. Not to be glib (or repetitive) but why, in that case, does poverty still exist? The rhetorical twist of the optimism industry is a rebuttal to protestors and reformers, and it is an obsequious theory. It’s tailor-made for those in power. In “Consolation Prizes” Pareene explains how we’ve come to believe that the ability to buy consumer goods, alone, makes poverty okay, as opposed to other countries that provide healthcare and education by reducing disposable income.
Everyone hates open offices. Here’s why they still exist By Katharine Schwab (Fast Company)
Open offices are a way to indicate a company’s value to venture capitalists and talent. The goal is “not to improve productivity and collaboration, but to signal that the company [is] doing something interesting.”
Cubicles and offices are expensive, which apparently matters more that helping people get things done.
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.
|This is a copy of my newsletter, that comes out Tuesdays. Sign up here
Book Review–Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation
“How To Tell a Story” by Mark Twain
Humor is notoriously hard to comment on. (For good reason: good humor works on a subtextual and unconscious level, which means that it’s too complicated to explain. Like the bottom of the ocean, the workings of the unconscious are largely unexamined. We embrace and ingest comedy, but still hold it suspect. It’s why comedy doesn’t win Oscars.) In this short article, Twain tries to parse the difference between a funny story and a humorous one. Twain finds the latter to be estimable and uniquely American. Instead of winding up for the punchline, the humorous story is told dead-pan, and is often funnier because the narrator seems to be unaware of how funny it is.
“Playing Doc’s Games-II” by William Finnegan
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
In the mid-1980s, William Finnegan, an avid surfer since childhood, lived in San Francisco. There, in a city where most residents think there is no surf culture, Finnegan fell in with a surfing zealot. This fanatic, Dr. Mark Renneker, is the subject of Finnegan’s 1992 profile in The New Yorker. Renneker is a complicated figure because of his religious and crazed devotion to surfing in a city with unforgiving (often quite cold) surf. In many ways, this profile covers Finnegan’s development of a connoisseurship, a complicated love of waves. The irony is that he comes to write about surfing for the first time at the same moment that he was finally becoming serious about something else (journalism). The complexity of this work is grounded in how terrifying and brutal surfing can be, how often surfers will inspect the surf and decide stay to ashore, fearing that it exceeds their limits, but day after day, returning to the sea, like a gambler to a casino, hoping to find that one great wave.
Upon hearing that Finnegan was giving a talk at Hunter College, I looked him up and found the previously mentioned profile. It was this talk that inspired me to read Barbarian Days, a book that I was previously not interested in. At the talk, I asked him a question about the New Yorker profile. I wondered if writing about surfing, something he claimed to have never written about, betrayed anything about this hobby. (This is cliché question, to wonder if putting something down in words betrays the essential and assumed unknowability of lived experience, but he suggested as much in the profile, so I felt compelled to ask.) Was anything lost in the process of recording the experience? Did surfing change after writing so earnestly about it? (He often refers to waves as “lumpy,” indicating, to me at least, that surfing a wave is texturally something I can barely approach imagining.) Something had changed, he said: it was the time in his life when he became a full-time writer. While writing the book, he imagined the part of his life in which he gets to San Francisco (where it would overlap with “Playing Doc’s Games”) that the tone would change. That it would be a postlapsarian shift. But his agent knew better, and the tone remained even throughout the book. The content of the 1992 profile was re-engineered. What was betrayed, he said, was the subject of his surfing life in San Francisco, Dr. Mark Renneker. He hated the profile.
Not as good as season one. This is a problem for a lot of shows that give up direction and writing to outsiders. They become caricatures of themselves. The first season had great, nuanced direction and writing, but the second season has more stereotypes, which is unnecessary. We get enough stereotype humor on social media.
I don’t know why people thought this was a solid action movie. It didn’t make sense, and I didn’t care about any of the characters. It was boring. Paul Dano played a pathetic twerp again. And BTW, all that prosthesis Joseph Gordon-Levitt wore made him look nothing like young Bruce Willis. He just looked like someone couldn’t emote because his face was glued together.
It really bothers me that people think it is okay to say a movie is good just because they had low expectations for it, in this case, because it was an off-brand action movie. There is no excuse for a movie being boring or not making any sense.
After watching two videos like this, I started crying a little. Normal? Not normal? I don’t know.
The series of Chevy “real people” commercials reek so badly with pathos, I was happy to discover these amazing parodies.
This was compelling enough to keep me glued to the computer for an entire hour. I like Adam Smith, for the same reasons that I like David Hume. Learn more about Adam Smith!