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.”
“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.’”
“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).