Fear City, poverty, and CIA spooks

Robin’s Book Report #54
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-Letters to the Editors
-Reading list

What did you read last week? Lemme know!

I enjoy getting replies to my letters, but rest assured: I’ll only reprint them with your permission. So fire away!

Here’s a response to the prison newsletter


For me, prison actually made things worse for my dad. It’s not a solution. It’s actually a costly exacerbation of the initial problem.

If we really wanted to “solve” for crime then we’d be measuring what works and adapting our solutions. For me, prison seems like a great example of how humans don’t want to solve problems, they want to avoid problems. And we also like to punish rather than correct. The fact that we call it dept of corrections is a joke. We’re not correcting problems, we’re punting them down the road. If you’ve ever tried to punish anyone (a child, a dog, let alone an adult) into reforming their behavior then you know how futile it is. That old saying: “The beatings will continue until morale improves!”

The curious thing for me is that it could be far less costly to use the carrot instead of the whip. Imprisonment is insanely expensive and doesn’t effectively reform people. And why should they reform? Because it hurts to be caught? True reformation happens because life will be better if and when we do reform.

Don’t get me wrong tho, I’m not necessarily against imprisonment. I just think that the essential premise was well and good a long time ago, but it’s become an accepted norm in civilization, and things can get wacky when we accept things as normal. They get perverted from their original purpose, which was to reform criminals and deter future criminals. If that was the true function of prison, wouldn’t we be doing things differently?

I think of this quote from a radio show 20 years ago. I think it was KQRS and that host Tom what’s his name. They had an expert on child abusers in the studio and Tom was calling them monsters. The expert said we shouldn’t call them monsters. Tom was like, “That’s what they are. Why not call them what they are?” The expert replied, “If we call them monsters then we’re saying that there’s no hope for them becoming better. And if we treat them that way, does the hurting stop or get worse?” As someone who was abused as a child, that quote has guided me in how I approach people. Do I see them as dynamic beings with the will to become better? Or static, never changing objects…

Reading list

Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein

Set amidst the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, Phillips-Fein renders a picture of how bankers used the crisis as an excuse to smash the state and take over New York City.

By the mid-century, New York City hosted an elaborate system of free hospitals, a free college, affordable public transit, a unionized public sector, and a robust welfare system. This was funded, in part, by the tax revenues of a vast network of industrial businesses spread across the city. Industry needed healthy, competent workers, and the city provided that. But in the 1960s, New York City’s government began borrowing heavily to fund its operations. No one thought it possible that the city would ever run out of money, so the debts were just allowed to roll-over year after year. At City Hall, almost no formal accounting occurred because there was an unwavering faith in the bright future.

Then, in the early 1970s, both industry and whites fled the city. The flight eroded the city’s tax base, and some began to openly wonder if the city would be able to pay its debtors. Bankers, neo-conservatives, and the rising professional business classes seized on the opportunity. They stoked fears of financial collapse by blaming the city’s unions and welfare state. The banks went on strike (refused to lend anymore money to the city without concessions) and won. The city’s welfare state was dismantled, austerity politics was implemented, and chaos ensued.

The events in New York in the 1970s were replicated across the country and then the world. Even recently, German central bankers have used a financial crisis in Greece to enforce austerity, and for almost fifty years the IMF and World Bank have used loan defaults across the global south to see the end of leftist governments. As Phillips-Fein says, “Ever since the 1980s, the embrace of private enterprise as the sole way to fuel social development has helped to justify and legitimate the economic inequality that seems to define our day.”

Financial capital is better equipped to deal with the flows of a global economy, and in the absence of global government that might properly tax global capital flows, financial capital’s power is almost unlimited. Bankers get to make their demands on society, to see the world they want to see: diminished power for workers, less government spending, and favorable treatment of business. It’s the raison d’etre for our unequal economy.

Working by Robert Caro

A terrific book with scenes from the working life of Robert Caro.

Omniscient Gentlemen of The Atlantic” by Maureen Tkacik (The Baffler)

The author wonders: is The Atlantic a CIA propaganda front? At the time, the editor of the magazine was a man whose father was a spook for the CIA in Korea.

“Spook shop or not, The Atlantic’s soothing IV drip of frictionless, borderless, culturally agnostic thought-output plays a useful scrambling role in the context of unmitigated national crisis. A featured Atlantic contributor can be counted on—without interference from any known machinery of coercion—to wax incredulous when the current GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, for example, pleads with the audience at a competing Thought Leader conference to spearhead a manufacturing revival.”

The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real

Thanks to a recent paper in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, we finally have some answers for why Americans work so hard.

by Daniel Luzer

“Protestantism may not make you rich, but it sure makes you unhappy when you’re not rich.”

The Mindfulness Conspiracy

It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism. By Ronald Purser (The Guardian)


Why Corporations Want You to Shut Up and MeditateRon Purser’s new book McMindfulness examines how spiritual practices and self-care became tools for corporate compliance. By Zachary Siegel (The Nation)

I wondered this myself: is mindfulness a detrimentally palliative tool? If corporations are embracing it, likely it is. In a democractic society, there is nothing people in power love more than stasis. Mindfulness, if it helps you accept the current moment, is the opposite of activism, of striving for a better world.

Electric Cars” By Daniel Albert (n+1)

Why can’t we seem to get totally on board with electric cars? Electric cars have existed for more than a century. The issue is more complicated than we’d like to admit:

“Henri Lefebvre rightly labeled the car “l’objet-roi”: the king of all objects. Not only do people spend enormous sums on their automobiles — more than any item save houses, which we treat as appreciable rather than depreciable investments — but producers spend extravagantly to influence consumer choices. At its peak, automobile production and sales accounted for one in six American jobs. Even in their attenuated modern form, these industries account for nearly 8 million jobs in the US — 4.4 percent of private sector employment. Automobiles don’t just move us through space; they reproduce social space, thereby facilitating the reproduction of a capitalist political economy.”

“But why the internal combustion engine and its century of discontents, rather than clean, quiet electricity or powerful steam? In fact, both technologies outsold the internal combustion car in the early days, and skeptics of internal combustion argued (correctly) that it was loud, uncouth, and dangerous. “Who would willingly sit atop an explosion?” asked the American engineer Albert Pope, many decades before the overturned exploding automobile became a fixture of Hollywood chase scenes.”

Albert suggests that maybe we love the complexity of the internal combustion engine, we love the maintenance that it takes. This makes sense me because it is the same reason why some normally reasonable people have guns. They are machines whose complexity is seductive. Eliminating them isn’t just a practical matter, it deals with desire too.

Have We Reached Peak Lyft?After the IPO By Daniel Albert (n+1)

Albert again on why ride-sharing won’t fundamentally change our approach to cars. We want it to, because we’d like to see cars get used less, but once again, if we ignore the social element of car use, we are doomed to repeat ourselves:

“The claims for Peak Car have passed from inference to incantation. Millennials are getting their drivers’ licenses at diminishing rates because they prefer walkable cities to suburban sprawl. Traffic congestion is bad and getting worse. Driving is a mind-numbing chore. Buying a two-ton hunk of metal that sits idle most of the time has become an anachronism in an optimized world of Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and Seamless. Automobile travel by smartphone app is just how digital natives do things! As Swisher puts it, “everything that can be digitized must be digitized.” Big data, AI, autonomous vehicles—all add up to smarter, greener, hipper urban living. What killjoy would claim otherwise?”

“Peak Car offers a compelling story of vast riches and better living. Yet the evidence is thin. The rate at which young people get their licenses has indeed been falling, but the trend began in 1983, when the internet was still a science experiment. Today, the three best-selling vehicles in the US by far are pickup trucks. Most of those trucks are used as personal vehicles, as their pristine empty beds make clear. Whatever madness causes Americans to drive empty-bedded trucks around is not something Uber or Lyft can cure.”

Inside Hushed Museum Hallways, a Rumble Over Pay Grows Louder

Art workers around the country are sharing their salaries and in some cases forming unions to put pressure on their institutions. By Elizabeth A. Harris and Robin Pogrebin (The New York Times)

Glad to see more coverage of the push to unionize museums, though the reporters forgot to cover Local 30’s (my union) recent and successful drive to unionize the MoMA PS1 Visitor Engagement department. That being said, it was Local 30 that unionized art workers at Guggenheim. So we got some coverage!

Don’t know who this following guy is, and I don’t think I would call him as the expert in a story about the art world organizing, but what he says here is right:

“Working in a museum can sometimes seem like a service industry for the wealthy,” said Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “Middle people in museums used to think they were part of the top bracket. Now they’re part of the bottom bracket, or at least don’t have anywhere to go.”

“You have this kind of perfect storm,” he added: “stagnated wages, working within an environment of great wealth inequality, job insecurity.”

Should Millennials Blame Boomers for Economic Woes?

Joseph C. Sternberg’s new book blames the Baby Boomers for Millennials’ economic woes—and lets Reagan off the hook. By Paul W. Gleason (Pacific Standard)

It’s hard to pin down exactly why today’s wage-earners are so angry and/or so fucked. Was it the Boomer’s widespread, cross-political party embrace of free-market ideology? Maybe? But even that accusation is often rife with problems:

“Time after time, Sternberg’s argument “isn’t that the free market has failed, but that Washington has failed to let the free market work as it should.” After a while, Sternberg starts to sound like the guy in your freshman dorm who always insisted that the real free markets (just like real Marxism) still hadn’t been tried.

In its way, the book’s framing of generational conflict reinforces the bleak moral message behind laissez-faire economic theory: Life is a struggle over scarce resources, and in order for you to win, someone else has to lose.”

I’m pretty sure to address wealth inequality of our age, someone does have to lose, though maybe it is better framed as a political question instead of a question of resources.

The Story McKinsey Didn’t Want Written

Tied to the global consulting giant is a massive investment fund. Based on its

reaction to this story, McKinsey likely doesn’t want you reading much about it.

By Michelle Celarier (Institutional Investor)

Somewhat of a slog towards the end, but the point is this: McKinsey’s internal hedge fund is invested in companies whose bankruptcies it has supervised. Meaning, it has potentially been in charge of a process that decides which investors get paid back, how, and when. It’s a judicial, that is, adversarial process that McKinsey is on both sides of. Even if they didn’t intentionally set out to commit fraud, it shows the danger in a firm so large, so wealthy, and so directly involved with so many different organizations.

Polanyi In Our TimesWhat the Austro-Hungarian economic theorist tells us about the upheavals of our age. By Nikil Saval (The Nation)

A reconsideration of the mid-century economist who tragically envisioned the socialist economy as inevitable, however:

“While socialists are usually the ones charged with being irresponsible dreamers, Polanyi wanted to show that it was economic liberals who were in fact dedicated to an implausible utopia. An unchecked market was anything but natural. Left to function on its own, it destroys human beings and the planet along with it.

The Great Transformation [Polyani’s defining book] offers a remarkable amount of insight into how [the market] helped commoditize those parts of human culture that should have remained outside the jurisdiction of the market—in particular, land, labor, and money. Subject to the logic of the market, instead of how the use of these social goods might benefit or harm society, land, labor, and money are transformed into what Polanyi calls “fictitious commodities.”

The Very Small World of VCThe people who bet big on disruptive technologies have a lot in common. By Avi Asher-Schapiro (The New Republic)

“From its earliest days, venture capital mirrored, and amplified, the core structural dynamics in the American economy: What often counts most is who you know, and who your parents are.

“Who wins—and who loses—in a society that adopts the American approach to financing revolutionary changes? What are the consequences when the financial engines of innovation are so far insulated from democratic forces?”

Our Invisible Poor” By Dwight Macdonald (The New Yorker)

An interestingly dated little tidbit from 1963:

“That in the last half century the rich have kept their riches and the poor their poverty is indeed a scandal. But it is theoretically possible, assuming enough general increase in wealth, that the relatively poor might by now have achieved a decent standard of living, no matter how inferior to that of the rich. As the books under consideration show, however, this theoretical possibility has not been realized. Inequality of wealth is not necessarily a major social problem per se. Poverty is.”

“The late French philosopher Charles Pguy remarks, in his classic essay on poverty, “The duty of tearing the destitute from their destitution and the duty of distributing goods equitably are not of the same order. The first is an urgent duty, the second is a duty of convenience. . . . When all men are provided with the necessities what do we care about the distribution of luxury?” What indeed? Envy and emulation are the motives—and not very good ones—for the equalization of wealth. The problem of poverty goes much deeper.”

He’s probably wrong about this because wealth constitutes political and social power. And besides,  what is luxury? Is it wealth, savings, health, or some combination? Without affordable access to healthcare, affordable housing, and childcare, income is something of a joke. And if time is a luxury, then surely we are all more poor.

Our current situation shows that Macdonald is wrong, both inequality and poverty are problems. Though, as I said up top, inequality is more of a political problem. If money is power, then economics is politics for technocrats. Maybe fully automated luxury communism is that response that would satisfy a win-win minded critic like Macdonald, but I don’t feel like we are even close to that.

Privatizing PovertyHow the poor became an alien population by Kim Phillips-Fein (The Baffler)

More to what I said above, the labor market (and by extension, incomes) is insufficient to define poverty, when plenty of people can work and still be extremely poor:

“It is true that the decimation of the American welfare state has helped to create a tremendous pool of people living on remarkably low incomes, who may be only tangentially connected to the labor market. They apply for jobs but don’t get them; they flirt with eviction and homelessness; they struggle to raise children without a steady income, a prerequisite for any material or psychic stability. On the other hand, there are also many extremely poor people whose poverty is primarily the result of their declining conditions of employment: their work simply does not pay them enough to live on. Instead of drawing a bright line between these two populations, our economic order has ensured in many cases that this group overlaps with those who are outside of the market altogether. Neither status is hard-and-fast; members move indistinguishably from one group to the other, casualties of the tremendous rise in economic inequality of recent years.”

Labor’s Last Hope?” By Benjamin M. Friedman (The New York Review Books)

If pension funds took activist positions on the companies they invested in, could they protect the workers that they exist to serve? It’s a provocative idea, because labor in the last thirty years or so has receiving less and less of the national income and thus waning in strength:

“The issue that had obsessed theorists during the nineteenth century—the division of the fruits of economic production between people who do the work and those who own the capital that the workers use—was of little interest, since the division never seemed to change much. In the mid-1950s, 63 percent of all income generated by American business was paid out to labor and 37 percent to capital. In the mid-1990s the split was 62 percent versus 38 percent.

The last few decades have been different. On average over the past five years, wages, benefits, and other returns from working have garnered only 57 percent of what American business has produced. The other 43 percent has accrued to business owners, mostly including corporations and their shareholders. The change from two decades ago may seem small, but 5 percent of the nation’s total business income is well over $500 billion.“

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.”




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).