Breaking up the U.S.

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

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

Trolling and Taboo

A coup d’état in the collective unconscious

Nausicaa Renner (n+1)

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

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

Merit Schmerit

No child grows up wanting to be a management consultant

by Malcolm Harris (Bookforum)

and

The Fall of the Meritocracy

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

By Sarah Leonard (The New Republic)

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

Meet the CamperForce, Amazon’s Nomadic Retiree Army

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

By Jessica Bruder (Wired)

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

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

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

by Gabriel Winant (Dissent)

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

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

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

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

Crash Course

How Boeing’s Managerial Revolution Created the 737 Max Disaster

By Maureen Tkacik (The New Republic)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Ben Steverman (Bloomberg)

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

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

By Matthew Desmond    (The New York Times)

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

By Clare Malone (538)

I kind of agree?
A Shared Place

Wendell Berry’s lifelong dissent.

By Jedediah Britton-Purdy

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

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

Surprise! Medical bills

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

Agenda
-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

Andre:

“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”

Pete:

“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:

https://twitter.com/EileenAppelbaum/status/1171499409575563265

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.

 

 

The Perverted Worth Ethic

Robin’s Book Report #53
A newsletter by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Agenda
– A special book review of Shane Bauer’s American Prison

Earlier this year, I wrote a review of Shane Bauer’s excellent book American Prison earlier this year. For unknown reasons, the essay was not published. But the issues at hand are important, so I wanted to share with you what I wrote about it. Enjoy:
The Perverted Work Ethic
The investigative journalist Shane Bauer has written a book ostensibly about American for-profit prisons –– it’s called American Prison –– that is really two braided tales of work. The first is a 250-year history of forced penal labor. The second is about working at a contemporary for-profit prison. Both stories will shock the reader; they are thick with pathos, sadism, and bottom-of-the-barrel human depravity, all fueled by the relentless drive for profit.Bauer is an investigative reporter who once spent 14 months locked up in an Iranian prison. His recent book, American Prison, springs from his incredible full-issue exposé for Mother Jones, called “My Four Months As A Private Prison Guard.”

The history of for-profit imprisonment in America begins in the 18th century with indentured servitude. Scores of felons were shipped over from England to the colonies. Planters bought these convicts, whose labor was preferable because they were cheaper than slaves. And if they died, it wasn’t a big deal.

Thomas Jefferson advocated for penal slavery. He believed that it was a profitable, humane alternative to the death penalty. His advocacy and the history of penal slavery sprang from the Protestant idea that crime was the result a deficient work ethic. Bauer notes that this is because, at the time, 90 percent of all convicts were thieves. Laziness created thieves.

Early attempts to put convicts to work emerged in places like Philadelphia. Anyone who wasn’t put to death, was put to work on infrastructure projects like roads, highways, forts, and mines. Commenters like Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, worried that this public show of forced labor was dangerous for the burgeoning capitalist state: it made work look bad. He said that “employing criminals in public labor will render labour of every kind disreputable.” Punishment and forced labor would never be so public again.

The solution was to corral convicts into closed workhouses, known as penitentiaries. Prisoners made nails, shoes, rifles, or whatever new industrialists needed. It was the 1820s and slavery was being outlawed in Northeastern America; penitentiaries filled the new gap in the exploited labor market and were profitable. Bauer explains that this isn’t surprising: “forced labor [is] undeniably productive. An enslaved person in an antebellum cotton field picked around 75 percent more cotton per hour than a free farmer. Similarly, Texas prison farms into the 1960s produced a higher yield than farms worked by free laborers in the surrounding areas.”

As the penitentiary model spread to the South, it facilitated the transition from an agrarian to industrial economy. Especially after the calamity of the Civil War, the South needed something to help it remold its economy. Luckily for owners of capital, they wouldn’t have to stray too far from the forced labor of slavery.

But Southerners would augment and permanently pervert the Northern penal model. The penitentiary was associated with the reformist anti-slavery cause. Advocates for the workhouse thought, in true Protestant fashion, that work lead to eventual emancipation. This rankled many in the South, who believed forced labor needn’t be coupled with eventual freedom. And they were uncomfortable with white convicts doing labor that was previously done exclusively by blacks. So laws that forbid unemployment and over-penalized petty crimes like farm animal theft were invented to target and isolate blacks for incarceration. Southerners modified the ideological foundation of the Protestant prison: it would be all of the work, none of the emancipation. In other words, it would be slavery.

Some in the South had reservations. In 1820 one commenter noted that “the community should never derive benefit from crime because that makes it directly interested in their continuance and increase.” This prescient observation would go unheeded for almost 200 years.

The idea that a good prison reformed inmates was dead. Writer George Washington Cable in a critical analysis of the prison system in 1885 said that, “the penitentiary whose annual report shows the largest case balance paid into the State’s treasury is the best penitentiary.” If a prison was profitable for the state, it was a good prison. Convict leasing was big business for states. Between 1880 and 1904 a full 10 percent of the Alabama state budget came from convict leasing.

Convicts were leased to private interests who enforced order with sadistic brutality. Anonymous testimony to the National Conference of Charities and Correction explains that “before the war, we owned negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him… But these convicts: we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another.” The profit motive had created a system of labor similar to slavery.

The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad company (TCI) was one of the most brutal leasees. Convicts put to work in their mines regularly contracted dysentery, drank water from polluted streams, and crawled around in dimly-lit caverns. When they died, their bodies were unceremoniously tossed along with the other mine refuse.

 

Leased convicts were a weapon TCI used to assault organized labor. Convicts couldn’t strike and could be pushed harder than free miners. These miners struck in Tennessee in 1890 over dangerous conditions and payment that could only be redeemed at the company store. Then the miners tried to free the leased convicts. It was the clash of two economic systems based on two opposed systems of labor.

 

Convict leasing fell apart only because states discovered they could open their own plantations and put convicts to work themselves. Working conditions at state plantations were so bad that convicts, almost exclusively black men, often tried to remove limbs in order to avoid the fields.

In 1956, convicts were still employed to pick cotton on state plantations. And conditions were still the same or worse than enslaved labor. A judge, in analyzing a plantation run by Terrance Don Hutto in Texas, called it “sub-human,” condemning “use of various forms of torture,” total lack of rehabilitative programs, overcrowding, racial discrimination, abuse of solitary confinement, continuing use of trusty guards, and lack of adequate medical care. Plantations fell out of favor, in the late 1960s, not because they were unconscionable hellscapes, but because profits began to decline.

Don Hutto would go on to found Correction Corporation of America, a private prison management company where Shane Bauer worked in 2014. Bauer explains that there is no other way to figure out what is going inside of these facilities: they are secretive and almost impossible for the public to access their records. After he passes a background check completes a superficial interview, Bauer heads to work at a facility in Winnfield, Louisiana. Instead of creating a persona, Bauer, a well known investigative journalist who frequently writes about prisons for Mother Jones, applies with his real name. It does not matter. The prison is desperate for people who are willing to work for $9 an hour. As one of his coworkers puts it, “someone asked me if we were pretty picky about who we hire. I said, Well I’d love to tell you yes, but we take ‘em six-legged and lazy. We take whatever we can get!”

The prison is chronically understaffed. There are no guards in the towers anymore, and most wings of the prison don’t have enough staff to do the checks of inmates every half-hour. There is essentially no order or schedule at the prison. Corrections officers (COs) send inmates to chow whenever they can: sometimes it’s noon, sometimes it’s three. The hobby shop is now used for storage, and the yard is almost always empty. Prisoners spend their days indoors, stewing and restless. By the end of Bauer’s four months working in the prison, stabbings are frequent. CCA’s paramilitary squad is brought in to randomly pepper-spray and terrorize inmates. It is chaos.

In Winn, the prison continues to run because there are just enough desperate people who will work this dangerous job for what Bauer calls “fast-food wages.” But the prison is so short-staffed that Bauer often works multiple twelve hour shifts in a row without any time off, only getting off enough time to go home, shower, sleep, and return to work.

Bauer grows angry, anxious, and mean working as a CO. A vindictive sadism erupts out of him in an attempt to manage and control prisoners. His own behavior appalls him.

Inmates are no longer being put to work, so private prisons make their money with prisoner guarantees. As Bauer explains, “roughly two-thirds of private prison contracts include ‘occupancy guarantees’ that require states to pay a fee if they cannot provide a certain number of inmates. Under CCA’s contract with Louisiana’s Department of Corrections, Winn was guaranteed to be 96 percent full.” If private prisons make money, it’s because they have sweet contracts that guarantee it. It is essentially a welfare check doled out to CCA.

Winn also provides little to no medical care. One inmate that Bauer meets lost his legs to gangrene because the medical staff refused to send him to hospital, an expense that the prison would have to cover.

Everyone in the prison –– guards, prisoners, family members –– knows the problem is under-funding. CCA official’s call it a “cookie-cutter complaint.” And CCA is probably right, it is an often repeated gripe. But that doesn’t mean it’s an any way inaccurate. All the problems with the prison in Winnfield are caused by cost-cutting measures: low wages and high staff turn over, lack of guards, myriad broken equipment, lack of mental health staff, and lack of educational and rehabilitative programs.

The focus on the bottom line is the reason prisons are privately run at all. They are supposed to be saving the state money. But they don’t even do that. Bauer shows that, “private prisons ‘do not save substantially on costs,’ according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice study. What savings do exist are achieved mostly through ‘moderate reductions in staffing patterns, fringe benefits, and other labor-related costs,’ read another DOJ report.” In other words, if private prisons save any money at all, it is by treating their staff as poorly as possible.

We privatize services the state normally performs because we assume that the profit-motive of private enterprise will come up with a better, cheaper solution. So if privatization doesn’t work, if there are problems with private prisons –– which Bauer shows us there undoubtedly is –– then the focus on the bottom-line is the fundamental issue with private prisons.

Neoliberal economists, like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, theorized that all realms of life would better refashioned as businesses. But incarceration is not an enterprise. Imprisonment, when it comes down to it, is an ethical issue. You can’t treat crime like a renewable commodity because, as that citizen noted in the 1820s, it will only create a situation in which someone has a vested interest in the production of crime and in lieu of that, punishment.

We quickly lost sight of why for-profit prisons came into existence in the first place: as a more humane way to reform criminals. Instead, the side effect of the reformation (that is, cheap, forced labor) became the sole reason for prisons to exist. Prisons, if they should exist at all, are a cost of society, not a cash-producing benefit. They are a deficit we run, an invest in the betterment of people.

The tragedy Bauer’s book expertly demonstrates is that America in many ways, has tried and often failed for 200 years to modernize its economy. It has failed to create an economic system that wouldn’t need any exploited labor to function: whether it was the labor of prisoners or desperate people of rural America, willing to work a dangerous job for fast food wages.

Reading list

All Over the MapJared Diamond struggles to understand a connected world. by Daniel Immerwahr

“Rather than ground his pronouncements in the scholarship he’s read, he repeatedly invokes “my own first-hand experiences and those of my long-term friends.” His “friends” tell him that a coup against Chile’s elected leftist President Salvador Allende was “inevitable,” that Japanese teenagers text too much to date, and that U.S. venture capitalism succeeds because it takes bold risks.”

 

Special Journey to Our Bottom Line” by Elizabeth Schambelan (n+1)

Excellent essay on hazing: how it’s torture and how torture has been woven into the history of the United States and the United States military.

The Art of Critique” By Corey Robin (Jacobin)

This article is Corey Robin’s reply to the New York Review of Books review of his book by Mark Lilla. The whole dust-up was prime-time, high-end scholastic brawl.

The question for Corey Robin is, how do we account for right-wing populism. How do we account for it when his thesis is that conservative ideology is a counterrevolutionary defense of power. And do we need to be so angry about it? How will we convert conservatives if we are so angry? Robin seems to believe that conservatives are not stupid, they’re evil. I might agree. Robin also makes the point that conservative thinkers have brilliantly absorbed the energy and tactics of the revolutionary political movements that they then set out to counter. What better expresses Milton Friedman and Friedriech Hayek’s appeals to the liberty and freedom? And what better example, because they are two thinkers that could easily be credited with creating the world we live in with such staggering economic inequality.

How Sovereign Citizens Helped Swindle $1 Billion From the Government They Disavow” By Ashley Powers (New York Times)

Libertarianism is a bad faith argument. It’s not a belief in liberty, but in closing the door to other

Why is work hell?

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Why are our fastest growing companies the worst places to work?

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld (New York Times) and

At Netflix, Radical Transparency and Blunt Firings Unsettle the Ranks” by Shalini Ramachandran and Joe Flint (Wall Street Journal)

 

One of the mainstays of work life at Enron was an all-staff meeting called the Performance Review Committee. In the meeting, employees were ranked. The lowest-ranked individuals were routinely fired. The PRC caused rampant political maneuvering. Managers sacrificed good but expendable employees to save more valuable members on their team. They ganged up on other factions. This process is colloquially referred to as a “rank and yank” process. At the time, it was celebrated by management consultants like McKinsey and Company and by business schools like Harvard. The PRC was instituted by Jeff Skilling, the head of Enron, a graduate of Harvard Business School and one of the youngest people to make partner at McKinsey and Company. But during the final days of Enron, a external auditor found a toxic work environment, and stratospheric levels of unhappiness. Some suggest it was what brought the company down: employees were more than ready to rat out their colleagues to the Feds.

 

“Rank and yank” is one of the foundational elements of Amazon’s workplace, as revealed by and exposed in the New York Times. Amazon’s office seethes with the same Machiavellian intrigue as Enron. Most employees work 80 hours a week, take no sick days, work nights and weekends, and are granted no maternity leave. Confrontation is encouraged, especially in meetings. Compromise is weakness; it’s a pox that leads to mediocre ideas. There’s a backchannel process in the phone directory in which Amazonians can send secret messages to managers about their directs. Even advertisements for hiring emphasize that you either fit in at Amazon, or you don’t.

 

Why do people at Amazon work so hard? Because they love innovation? Maybe. Working at a growing company like Amazon gives people the chance to dream up big ideas and then implement them quickly. But surely new ideas can arise (and have) in less adversarial circumstances. So why all the pressure? Well, debt is extremely cheap for Amazon and if they don’t take the cheap capital, their competitors will.

 

So what is going on at Amazon? Amazon’s owners are filling up a pool with water. Employees do any number of things with the water. They sell it, make it into ice, and send it to the moon. If the owners stop filling the reservoir, someone else will use the water. So they are now filling the pool and it is getting really full and people are now very into all of Amazon’s various water products and are giving them tons of water. Employees must dig the pool deeper and wider, to find even more new things to do with all this water. Owners have really opened up the spigot now. So everyone better work as much as possible, as much as humanly possible to do something about all this goddamn water coming it. Better come in on the weekend to find a way to use this water! If you don’t use it, it evaporates away. Working like mad is effective, and the more water that gets used, the more water lenders are inspired to give to Amazon. Now it is a big cultural spectacle, these water works, that no one can stop talking about.

 

When capital is rushing in, you best find a way to spend it before it disappears.

 

Netflix is essentially the same workplace. In the WSJ article, workers recall not wanting to comfort a fired, weeping colleague for fear that they would look weak. And anyone can be fired at any moment; management encourages this fear with what they call the ‘keeper test.’ Would you fight to keep your employee on your team? If not, you should fire them. From the WSJ article:

 

“Mr. Hastings’ [the CEO] ring of top executives take the keeper test seriously. At a meeting in late spring of Netflix public-relations executives, one said every day he comes to work he fears he is going to get fired. Karen Barragan, the vice president of publicity for original series, asked how many other people felt that way. A number of hands went up.

“Good, because fear drives you,” Ms. Barragan said, according to people familiar with the meeting.

 

Is Netflix a crazy, anxious workplace because that is the only way to drive growth? Or is Netflix being dosed by a firehose spray of capital? In America, we had tremendous growth in the 1950s and 1960s without a tragicomic shark tank workplace. In fact, job security was expected.

 

Here’s an excerpt from Netflix’s crazy HR manifesto, which is an ode to vague, aspirational language that could be interpreted in any possible way:

 

“Are you courageous? Are you humble? Are you curious and passionate and ask thoughtful questions about the business? Are you able to and open to providing and receiving feedback to be better? Are you scrappy, have grit and willing to roll up your sleeves regardless of your title? Are you a team player? Are you inclusive and self aware?”

 

Why isn’t there an HR Powerpoint that just asks the real questions: Are you willing to work every weekend? Return to work after a week of maternity leave? Alert your bosses to your underperforming coworkers? Rarely see you children? Be glued to your phone?

Venezuela: Next Stop Clusterfuck

Book report #49

Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same” by Justin Fox (Bloomberg)

 

I’ve seen this stick frame condominium in every city I have been to in the past five years. I bet you have too. Here’s why.

 

Neoliberalism or Death: The U.S. Economic War Against Venezuela (Intercepted)

 

Venezuela is in a rough spot now: poverty, inflation, civil unrest, and a crumbling healthcare system. But is their society collapsing because of Nicolas Maduro’s poor governing or because of two years of economic sanctions by the United States? Both. However, experts decry the sanctions as a force that directly provoked the humanitarian disaster. So why does the US have any interest in Venezuela? Because we love to spread peace and democracy? In Latin America no less? Elliot fucking Abrams–noted war criminal who snuck munitions and drugs into Nicaragua to fund the Contras under the guise of aid–was just appointed by Trump as special envoy to Venezuela. Are we on a mid-century Latin America coup d’etat reunion tour? Hmm, what possibly could be going on? Does Venezuela’s gigantic well of oil have anything to do with it? This is an actual quote from John Bolton about the United States intentions behind regime change in Venezuela with a fun call-back to the “Axis of Evil”:

 

“I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here. You know Venezuela is one of the three countries I call the troika of tyranny. It’ll make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

 

LOL!

 

The Old And Mysterious Practice Of Eating Dirt, Revealed” By Linda Chen (NPR)

 

Why wouldn’t dirt have nutrients? The story of kaolin, the white dirt of Georgia.

 

Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation by Liza Featherstone

 

This is Liza Featherstone’s recent, semi-provocative book. In it she explains that focus groups were originally a tool invented in the 1920s in Vienna to help birth social democracy in Europe. Focus groups unearthed what the masses wanted. But as soon as focus groups became prominent, elites lashed out against them. Yielding to popular opinion always challenges the status of those in power. Those who rail against them today–-TED-talk pundits, Silicon Valley billionaires, and corporate apologists like Malcolm Gladwell–-are really fomenting an anti-democratic elitism that would rather suppress mass political power than ever listen to it. As Featherstone says at the end of her book, “hatred of the focus group is the populism of fools, because it’s really a kind of elitism.”

 

Maybe you are suspicious of focus groups. Featherstone understands the implicit bias that many have about them. She wants to suggest that this idea was planted by elitist, anti-democratic crusaders.

 

The book shows that elites hate focus groups. (This chapter is useful.) They routinely subvert or don’t heed the results, like in the case of the Ford Edsel: the design of the car was supposed to be tested with consumers, but executives refused. Yet when the car flopped, as Featherstone notes, Ford blamed the failure on consumers. They don’t know what they want! Focus groups are the perfect corporate pariah.

 

Focus groups expose the will of the people, which is often contrary to the elites’. She cites Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk called “Abolish the Focus Group” or something like that. Gladwell is a documented corporate apologist (see next item). People like Gladwell want to push the idea that they masses know nothing, and need a benevolent overlord to guide them. But they’re wrong, listening to people is effective. Now we just need to find a way for consultation to play a role in creating policy. Political operatives may use focus groups to find issues that drive people to the polls, but Featherstone points out that public policy almost never reflects the sentiments emanating from political focus groups. If government could be retooled to use consultation for more than just electioneering and signalling, it might be a good thing.

 

Malcolm Gladwell Unmasked: A Look Into the Life & Work of America’s Most Successful Propagandist  by Yasha Levine (S.H.A.M.E.)

 

In college, Malcolm was a young Republican Reagan enthusiast who received his journalism training from an institute that was funded by a Big Tobacco PR firm. Is it any surprise that in his popular book The Tipping Point he argued that tobacco was used heavily by teens not because tobacco companies explicitly targeted teens, but because smoking is cool, and teens just can’t help wanting to cool? I want to be cool! Get me a pack of those damn cigarettes.

 

I’ve always been suspicious of Gladwell’s faith in the meritocracy and the palliative nature of data. He almost always uses data to argue that institutional biases don’t exist. That Enron didn’t fail because of greed, but because they hired the wrong people and put them on the wrong teams. Or that there’s no difference between a rich and poor person with the same IQ. Just because the rich person succeeds, Gladwell would love to show, doesn’t say anything about class.

 

Even Gladwell’s most recent article in the New Yorker was a real head-scratcher. He argued that maybe pot legalization wasn’t a good thing. Here, he uses a reactionary mode that confuses a lot of people into thinking that he is liberal or Left-leaning or something. But his reactionary stance (“contrarian” as he would say) is the definition of conservative thinking. Gladwell wants to defend the current power structure, the winners of our world, with zany sets of obscure data.

 

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenriech

 

When Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was unhappy to find that it was an under-researched type of cancer than may have been accelerated by certain pharmaceuticals typically prescribed to women. But when she mentioned her findings in support groups, she was met with hostility. She wasn’t looking on the bright-side. Positivity was required for faster remediation. Ehrenreich started to see enforced positivity everywhere in American culture. If your business failed, or you had trouble dating, or you couldn’t find that favorite sweater, the cause is almost always a wealth of negativity and dearth of positive thinking. Ehrenreich tells us this is holding us back. As someone who can be negative from time to time, I have to agree with her. It is useful to be critical. Of course, too much negativity is annoying; but so is too much positivity. There are things that are need, nay require, criticism. You cannot always make the best of bad situation.

 

Rendezvous with Oblivion by Thomas Frank

 

This essay collection is something like a follow up to Frank’s Listen, Liberal, which was a book that bemoaned the Democrats’ abandonment of the masses in favor of the professional class. He’s a deft, facile writer (e.g. On libertarianism today: “Attend a few tea party rallies around the country and you’ll inevitably be passed a platter of novelist Ayn Rand’s spiciest hors d’oeuvres.”) He analyzes McMansions, reports on a fast-food workers strike in the South, takes apart Team of Rivals (and Spielberg’s Lincoln), and profiles the late Andrew Breitbart.

 

Uninstalling Hayek” by Corey Robin (Boston Review)

 

It has been Friedrich Hayek, the Viennese economist and philosopher, who has come to dominate our political, economic, and, as Robin argues, moral thought. Hayek believed that the freedom in the market allow humans to express their ethics and morals better than any system where the state influences prices (and thus, morality). But the neoliberal/libertarian order has left us with drastic inequality. So maybe the market fundamentalism, and the moral order it implies, need to be ejected.

 

This essay is a response to an article also published in the Boston Review by three economists who argue that economics is not just neoliberalism. But it’s too wonkish, and the changes they suggest are maddeningly incremental (and 40 years too late). Staggering wealth will not be solved by some policy tinkering or unleashing the “power of incentives,” as they say. It will require a brand-new vision of the future, something optimistic, popular, and clear. I’m not sure if economists are up to the task. Robin’s response is diplomatic and brilliant, likely because he is a political scientist and not an economist.

 

Paper Boys: Inside The Dark, Labyrinthine, and Extremely Lucrative World of Consumer Debt Collection by Jake Halpern (NYT Magazine)

 

How much is a spreadsheet worth?

 

Other People’s Blood” by Tim Barker (n+1)

 

This article is about what is called the ‘Volcker shock,’ which was a dramatic limitation of the money supply in the 1980s. The shock caused banks to raise interest rates, which curbed inflation and almost permanently raised unemployment. Barker explains why unemployment stayed perpetually high after the Volcker shock:

 

“As late as 1986, unemployment was still 6.6 percent, the Reagan boom notwithstanding. This was the practical embodiment of Milton Friedman’s idea that there was a natural rate of unemployment, and attempts to go below it would always cause inflation. The logic here is plain: there need to be millions of unemployed workers for the economy to work as it should.”

 

Friedman said there had to be some amount of unemployment, so workers don’t drive wages up too high and thus cause prices to inflate. And everyone bought into this idea. It is a theoretical construct that is caustically anti-worker, but as Barker shows, no one questions this idea anymore. Economists and politicians on the right and left agree: to stop inflation, workers must be disenfranchised. This is obviously unpopular, but it happens because central bankers like Volcker are insulated from domestic democratic politics.

 

By causing interest rates to rise, Volcker’s policies also fueled the power of finance, and caused the financialization of the economy.

 

“Volcker also helped to bring about the orgy of financialization that has driven the American economy since the early 1980s. As sociologist Greta Krippner shows in her invaluable Capitalizing on Crisis, the high interest rates of the 1980s ‘created punishing conditions for productive investment and drew economic activity inexorably toward finance.’”

 

Barker continues,

 

“The irony is that Volcker played a significant role in bringing about the situation he laments. ‘There is no force on earth,’ he writes today, ‘that can stand up effectively, year after year, against the thousands of individuals and hundreds of millions of dollars in the Washington swamp aimed at influencing the legislative and electoral process.’ If there was ever such a force, it was the labor movement which Volcker helped destroy.”

 

Did Volcker need to sacrifice the American worker to appease the god of inflation? Barker challenges orthodoxy by suggesting there were other means of dealing with the problem, like the use of wage controls (which I think might apply to C-suite pay as well).

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)

and

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)

and

Accentuate the Positive by Anthony Gottlieb (NY Review of Books)

and

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?

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.

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
and
-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!