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.



McKinsey and Co: The Anarchist Austerity Cult

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

-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.

Fyre docs: A report on an over-caffeinated seven year old

Book report

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.

Why is UBI such a tedious topic?


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.

Jonathan Gold gone too soon

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Robin’s Book Report #39
A culture and economics reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-Jonathan Gold
-Working less to increases productivity
-Frankenstein’s monster at the art show


What I am reading

Jonathan Gold, Food Critic Who Celebrated L.A.’s Cornucopia, Dies at 57 by Pete Wells (New York Times)
I found Jonathan Gold’s writing in 2011, while I was trying to get a better handle on Korean food. He has a long list of dishes to try in L.A.’s Koreatown. He was a wonderful writer and I was shocked to see that he had died last Saturday. Too soon.

The Four Day Work Week is Good For Business by Adele Peters (Fast Company) +
5-Hour Work Day Increases Productivity (Business Insider)

Having every worker in every industry work an eight-hour day, five days a week doesn’t make sense. How could every single industry require the same amount of labor. Here’s a solution: 15-hour work week should be mandatory (pay remains equivalent to 40 hour workweek), with some sectors working less of course!

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Reboot Starring an African-American Buffy Is on Its Way (Vulture)

If you ever watched Buffy, you’ll know that this reboot makes a lot of sense. A new slayer is activated every time the last one dies, so the show is ripe for rebooting (not that ripeness has ever stopped the reboot i.e. Spiderman).

An Artist Remakes a Film Classic — With Frankenstein’s Monster By MH Miller (T Magazine)

The video discussed in this article, “The Perfect Monster”, is currently on view at David Zwirner on 19th street. It is a shot-for-shot remake of a Jørgen Leth video, “The Perfect Human,” from 1967. But instead of focusing on young man, Da Corte’s video’s character is Boris Karloff and Frankenstein. The artist stars as both characters, in goofy and terrible prosthesis. Da Corte delivers wonderful and inventive set-design. The colors and textures are fun and joyous. There are dollar store brooms and lunch meat placed on the back of Frankenstein’s neck. I fell in love the first moment I saw it. If you get a chance to check it out, please let me know what you think. If you don’t live in NYC you can check out bits of the video here, though I would discourage watching it if you can because Alex Da Corte is not well spoken in the interview.

-“The Talent Myth” by Malcolm Gladwell (The New Yorker)

Was Enron wrong to nurture their best and brightest? I’m not a Gladwell fan, but this article strikes the closest to the heart of why Enron was such a fascinating disaster to me. Maybe it isn’t individuals who make big group projects work, but instead how the group works together.

Continue reading “Jonathan Gold gone too soon”

Will Meditation Destroy Business?

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Robin’s Book Report #37
A culture and economics reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Happy July, everyone. I wrote two articles last week for other publications, one about a Jamaican restaurant in Park Slope and one about painter Patrick Brennan. Follow me on Twitter to stay up with what I am doing. Also, please let me know what you have been reading or watching on TV by responding to this email!

In this issue:

  • Is it okay to eat roadkill?
  • Why don’t executives get prosecuted for financial crimes?
  • Is meditation bad for business?
  • Is the “gig economy” not interesting?
Book report

-“Travels in Georgia” by John McPhee

1973 Profile of biologist/ecologist Carol Ruckdeschel. McPhee travels around Georgia with his subject and joins her in eating fresh roadkill. They eat muskrat, snake, raccoon, opossum etc. Another thing I learned: opossums are one of the oldest animals because they are adaptable and will eat anything, just like humans.

-“Who was Milton Friedman?” By Paul Krugman (The New York Review of Books)

A brilliant, measured economist; a deranged public intellectual.

-“Hills of Zion” by H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken rarely left his hometown of Baltimore. But, on the occasion of the Scopes Monkey trial, he ventured out in the “Bible Belt” (a term he coined), a region he spent much of his life loathing but never visiting. This narrative has little to do with the trial. It reads like a Southern fever-dream.

The Chickenshit Club: Why The Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives by Jesse Eisinger

Eisinger claims that settlement culture ruins our justice system. Strangely, settlements validate their critics on both sides: corporations can say they’re attacked, and the public sees big business paying off the government.

-”The Hardest Job in the World” by John Dickerson (The Atlantic)

Is the presidency just a clustefuck of a job?

-”The Death Of A Once Great City: The Fall of New York and the Urban Crisis of Affluence” by Kevin Baker (Harper)

Stupid article. The author has a problem with a couple of things about New York: the empty storefronts in his neighborhood, chain banks, the tax breaks for the wealthy, the loss of mom-and-pop stores. He’s right that this stuff exists but the problem is that the affordability issue was better addressed in  Michael Greenberg’s article in the New York Review of Books (Baker refers to this piece multiple times).

What seems to be at odds is that the New York City that Baker moved in to, in the 1970s, doesn’t exist anymore. Well, that’s true. But it is categorically true (i.e. things always change). It’s not worth Harper’s paper and ink. What I feel most annoyed by is that I love living in New York and don’t want to be told by some old guy that it is a city in decline, when I know it isn’t.

The other problem is that housing isn’t affordable anywhere, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. New York may be having a crisis of affluence, but it isn’t just New York City’s crisis of affluence, but all American cities. Any city that has rampant luxury condominiums is likely suffering.

-”Staying the Invisible Hand” by Jeff Madrick (New York Review of Books)

Is free trade really that necessary for developing countries? The author says: “There is nothing in the historical record to suggest developing countries need low or zero barriers to advanced economies in order to benefit greatly from globalization.” I think free trade is a myth

Hey Boss, You Don’t Want Your Employees to Meditate” by Kathleen D. Vohs and Andrew C. Hafenbrack (New York Times)

A bunch of joy-killing researchers at the University of Minnesota Carson School of Management have found that employees that meditate at work are less motivated. The danger in meditation is that it causes you to be happy with your life and work as it is, instead of pushing for an unknown future. This makes you wonder, if meditation makes your job seem pointless, maybe your job is bullshit?

In this same section of the newspaper was a profile of the CEO of Salesforce who has his employees meditate. A little bit of information dissonance?

Maybe the Gig Economy Isn’t Reshaping Work After All” By Ben Casselman (New York Times

The so-called “gig economy” accounts for under 10% of the economy; most employees still on W2. I am starting to think the gig economy is a bright shiny object that had captured our imagination, but isn’t an economically significant trend/issue.

Is Tom Brady Trying to Kill You?

This is a copy of my newsletter, sent out every Tuesday:


Book Report #36
A culture and economics reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein
This email:
-Cortés was maybe evil, maybe boring
-Tom Brady is crazy
-Legion is a good TV show
-Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories
-Joyce Carol Oates on George Bellows 

On to the report:

The Curse of Cortés by Alvaro Enrique (The New York Review of Books)

Why not rewrite the history of the Spanish-Aztec war, the conflict that preceded the largest genocide in recorded history? No objections? Great. “I myself ‘love to hate Cortés,'” says the author. But how bad was Cortés? Was Cortés that powerful, or was he just a wayward Spanish accountant? Was Montezuma just vulnerable because he was in a political crisis (not a superstitious man, or one who thought the Spanish were invincible)? Was the claim of rampant Aztec cannibalism just a way to generate new slaves? How do we counter the conqueror narrative? I love revisionist history.

Tom Brady is Trying to Kill You” by Meagan Day (Jacobin)

“Brady is obsessed with hydration. “Sometimes, I think I’m the most hydrated person in the world,” he says. But that can’t be true, because the most hydrated people in the world die of hyponatremia.”

Giant Pool of Money” (NPR and This American Life)

The giant pool of money is the total amount that can be invested in the world, at any given moment. Its fiendish desire for growth caused the great recession. This episode of This American Life explains, through stories, how the housing bubble came about. Even after reading about the 2008 collapse many times, I still found this episode to be enlightening.

There’s no doubt the giant pool of money still exists. What will it inject itself into next?

Brooke Masters on the Martha Stewart Pardon (FT)

Is the pardon of Martha Stewart a rebuke of free market ideology? Obviously it is. People won’t play fair if they know that they might just get pardoned. And if markets aren’t fair, people won’t use them. Rules are crucial to effective markets.

Sauce boy” Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories (Adult Swim)Is this just a parody of Italian gangster movies or is it a parody of parodies of Italian Gangster movies?

Legion, Season 2 (FX)
Legion takes style seriously. Lighting, set design, and sound design are pushed to formal limits. The lighting is especially wonderful and challenging. Figures are often primarily obscured, only a sliver of face illuminated. Blinking or intermittent lights are somehow not distracting. Red, blue, and green washes focus the show while simultaneously driving and smoothing the changes, like a professional racer driving stick. The second season of the show is no less inventive than the first. The Jon Hamm narrated Radiolab-ish interludes are lame and not interesting, which expresses the limits of style (they are really really bad). Much like in Noah Hawley’s other TV show, Fargo, the series is only good when it limits itself to the fundamentals and doesn’t try to be intelligent by having characters make big philosophical pronouncements. The most profound elements of Legion are the lighting, sound design, and set design, and they should stick to that.

-George Bellows: American Artist by Joyce Carol Oates

I picked up this book at a store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not really having read anything about Bellows or by Carol Oates. She finds Bellows, who is best known for his paintings of illegal boxing matches, to be ripe for comparison with another paradigm of American art: Walt Whitman. His painting taps into the same pulsing vulgarity of life in New York, the rawness of what was arguably a third world country for much of his life. His painting Forty-Two Kids exemplifies this spirit, depicting young men, naked, and joyous, swimming in the polluted East River of the 1920s. Carol Oates mediation on this painting is a highlight of the book.

What have you been reading? Let me know!

Do Americans sympathize with the poor?

This is a copy of my newsletter that I send out every other Tuesday.
Three questions #35
Eclectic cultural artifacts and the questions they raise
A newsletter of culture and economics
Americans sympathize with the poor, so why is it assumed we don’t?
Some ideas are too large to contend with. One seems to be that Americans hate the poor. The attacks on Medicare/Medicaid, the Clinton-era diminutions of welfare, the attempts to privatize social security. The problem with this story is that Americans resolutely support programs that help the poor, it just seems like politicians don’t. Meagan Day reviews Spencer Piston’s Class Attitudes in America, a book that makes this case. Piston is a political scientist, who examined extensive polling data, only to find that most Americans are willing to give money to the poor, and to tax the rich.
In Adam Davidson’s TED talk, he explores this same idea, and why it gives him hope for the future.
What makes a story funny?

“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.

How does a connoisseur develop their taste? Accidentally? By force of will? And after all this development, this exploration of nuance, is something betrayed by writing it down?

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @robinsreport

Five Things to Watch

  • High Maintenance, Season 2 (HBO)

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.

  • Looper (Movie)

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!