¶ John Lanchester’s “Money Talks,” appearing in this week’s New Yorker, could have been written (perhaps a trifle overwritten) by our Editor, who is forever haranguing his readers to sit up, pay heed, and learn how the world really turns. Lanchester’s argument is all the more urgent for concerning money, not culture. For fifty years, sophisticated discussion of the dismal science been abandoned to traders with a stake in it. If this high-minded dereliction was intended to starve finance of life-sustaining attention, it failed more than dismally.
The language of money is a powerful tool, and it is also a tool of power. Incomprehension is a form of consent. If we allow ourselves not to understand this language, we are signing off on the way the world works today—in particular, we are signing off on the prospect of an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else, a world in which everything about your life is determined by the accident of who your parents are. Those of us who are interested in stopping that from happening need to learn how to measure the level of the Nile for ourselves.
When you read the piece, you’ll see how the Nile flows into it.
¶ What makes human people so special in America? They’re the ones who pay most of the taxes. Corporate people pay much less. Our current regulatory scheme, flourishing under right-wing nurture, favors the dispensation in many ways, most currently in the vogue for “inversion,” whereby an American company buys a foreign one but claims that it was the other way round, so that profits not generated in the US are not taxed. (I remember when, four or five years ago, Chinese firms launched a vogue for these transactions, not for tax purposes but in order to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Global Boulevard is a two-way street.) Paul Krugman takes a crack at inversion in his column in today’s Times.
The most important thing to understand about inversion is that it does not in any meaningful sense involve American business “moving overseas.” Consider the case of Walgreen, the giant drugstore chain that, according to multiple reports, is on the verge of making itself legally Swiss. If the plan goes through, nothing about the business will change; your local pharmacy won’t close and reopen in Zurich. It will be a purely paper transaction — but it will deprive the U.S. government of several billion dollars in revenue that you, the taxpayer, will have to make up one way or another.
Does this mean President Obama is wrong to describe companies engaging in inversion as “corporate deserters”? Not really — they’re shirking their civic duty, and it doesn’t matter whether they literally move abroad or not. But apologists for inversion, who tend to claim that high taxes are driving businesses out of America, are indeed talking nonsense. These businesses aren’t moving production or jobs overseas — and they’re still earning their profits right here in the U.S.A. All they’re doing is dodging taxes on those profits.
And Congress could crack down on this tax dodge — it’s already illegal for a company to claim that its legal domicile is someplace where it has little real business, and tightening the criteria for declaring a company non-American could block many of the inversions now taking place. So is there any reason not to stop this gratuitous loss of revenue? No.
We think that official tolerance of inversion is the strongest evidence to date that American government is depraved.
At Smart Set, Willard Spiegelman meditates on the importance of quiet in museums. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, he encountered it memorably last fall at the installation of Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters.) His advice: don’t wait for noisy gawkers to go away. Just stand still and firm; the racket will recede on its own, as you radiate the quiet.
Every so often a miracle occurs. The crowds vanish. Perhaps no one is around to begin with as was the case for me in Philadelphia. Or perhaps something marvelous so transports the viewer that he can forget the crowds, noisy or inconvenient though they may be. At New York’s Frick Collection last winter, I waited for a spot to open and I just planted myself in front of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, on loan from the Netherlands, until I had looked my fill. I made myself ignore my noisy, jostling neighbors. The thrill of slow looking has also happened when I come to an art exhibition that changes my mind about an artist I never knew well: Kandinsky; Arshile Gorky, most recently. Or that opens my eyes to an artist of whom I have previously known nothing at all: Howard Hodgkin, for example, first in Fort Worth and then at the Metropolitan Museum; L. S. Lowry, at Tate Britain last summer. A world opens itself up and invites you in. The surroundings melt and it’s just you and the pictures. These things happen. Keats described the experience as feeling that a new planet has swum into your ken. He was thinking of literature — in his case George Chapman’s translations of Homer — but the analogy obtains.
¶ In today’s Dealbook, Steven Davidoff Solomon notes that huge business combines have roared back into existence notwithstanding the anti-trust legislation that was designed to stifle them at birth. This has happened because the new megafirms are not nearly as interested in eliminating competition as their Gilded Age predecessors were. What the new behemoths crave is not monopoly but political power — the negative political power to retain their freedom to do as they wish.
Every industry now has its own Washington-based nonprofit to push its agenda. For wireless it is CTIA, and for cable it is the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. There is even an e-cigarettes group called the Electronic Cigarette Industry Group. The new megacorporations, simply by virtue of their size, can use these organizations to lobby for significant change. And with the political-spending rights given to them by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision, these corporations are even more powerful. They are able to steer large sums to preferred candidates. Though they have yet to flex that muscle to the extent that they might, the fear that they could do so is enough to give these companies significant political power with politicians.
This accretion of power is manifestly undesirable — is it not? Solomon is right (if unrealistic) to call for a legislative overhaul.
We try to learn something every day. This is easiest when we turn our attention to economics, a field of almost immeasurable ignorance for us. Today, we discovered Karl Polanyi, author of The Great Transformation and the subject of a new book by Fred Block and Margaret Somers. Block and Somers were interviewed by Henry Farrell at the Washington Post. (via 3 Quarks Daily)
HF - How do those ideas help us understand the vexing economic problems we still face today?
FB & MS – By putting government and politics into the center of economic analysis, Polanyi makes it clear that today’s vexing economic problems are almost entirely political problems. This can effectively change the terms of modern political debate: Both left and right today focus on “deregulation”—for the right it is a rallying cry against the impediments of government; for the left it is the scourge behind our current economic inequities. While they differ dramatically on its desirability, both positions assume the possibility of a “non-regulated” or “non-political” market. Taking Polanyi seriously means rejecting the illusion of a “deregulated” economy. What happened in the name of “deregulation” has actually been “reregulation,” this time by rules and policies that are radically different from those of the New Deal and Great Society decades. Although compromised by racism, those older regulations laid the groundwork for greater equality and a flourishing middle class. Government continues to regulate, but instead of acting to protect workers, consumers, and citizens, it devised new policies aimed to help giant corporate and financial institutions maximize their returns through revised anti-trust laws, seemingly bottomless bank bailouts, and increased impediments to unionization.
The implications for political discourse are critically important: If regulations are always necessary components of markets, we must not discuss regulation versus deregulation but rather what kinds of regulations we prefer: Those designed to benefit wealth and capital? Or those that benefit the public and common good? Similarly, since the rights or lack of rights that employees have at the workplace are always defined by the legal system, we must not ask whether the law should organize the labor market but rather what kinds of rules and rights should be entailed in these laws—those that recognize that it is the skills and talents of employees that make firms productive, or those that rig the game in favor of employers and private profits?
This puts a new name to a few ideas that we happen to endorse, and makes them clearer, too.
¶ At Pacific Standard, Casy Cep reviews her correspondence with Daniel Bloom, an American gadfly currently living in Taiwan. The object of their correspondence, as yet not absolutely resolved, was to demonstrate that the publicity story that accompanied the English translation of Min Kamp — that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic autobiography was so popular that all discussion of it in the Norwegian workplace had to be prohibited in order to get anything done — was, to put it mildly, an exaggeration, tipping into patent untruth, that ought never to have been reprinted by reputable newspapers and magazines. In the course of her piece, however, Cep repeats another unfounded myth, all the more meretricious for being about the book itself.
And what did it matter? I’d long decided Bloom was a more interesting story than Knausgaard, whose own work documented every inch of his own life.
Knausgaard is in fact far too good a writer to waste his time on such a documentary project. We don’t understand why it is so fashionable to deny — as the author himself seems inclined to do — Knausgaard’s artistry.
¶ At TLS, Sarah Graham (currently at work on a book about Salinger’s short fiction) reviews Laurence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel, and Buell’s approach to that dream, which carefully avoids the selection of one great American novel, sounds both comprehensive and intriguing. According to Graham, Buell sorts novels into four headings, or “scripts”:
- Novels “made classic by retelling,” such as those concerned with the “ordeals of immigrant transplantation,” ranging from The Scarlet Letter through The Holder of the World.
- “Up From” Novels. The great novels written to this template are extremely ironic about success. The Great Gatsby, late Roth.
- Novels that “romance the divides” — between groups and races. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Beloved
- Meganovels, in which a cast of characters collaborates on a massive project. Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow.
Graham concludes that Moby-Dick is “the most likely contender” for Great American Novel — a book that we find pervasively rubbishy and steeply unreadable, unquestionably the worst book on any syllabus. (via 3 Quarks Daily)
¶ At Prospect, Jim Holt reviews a couple of books that diverge on what the self is while agreeing that it does exist. (via 3 Quarks Daily)
If the spectrum of selfhood begins with the roundworm, surely it ends with Proust—whose own oversubtle explorations of memory and the self are sadly neglected in these two otherwise estimable books. Moving from Barry Dainton’s philosophical conception of the self—pure, pristine potential—to the endlessly variegated empirical self traced by Jennifer Ouellette, I was reminded of Proust’s description (near the beginning of The Guermantes Way) of what it’s like to wake up out of a leaden slumber. At first, there’s just a glimmer of undefined consciousness; you’re not even a person. Then gradually, in a sort of resurrection, you recover your thoughts, your memories, your personality; you become you again. Proust’s narrator likens the awakening process to finding a lost object. What baffles him is how, “among the millions of human beings one might be,” he unerringly manages to lay his hands on the very self he was the day before. Puzzling as the self is, that might be one puzzle too many.
We feel that there is something very “modern” about the quest for the self — something that we have moved beyond, in our attempt to grasp the civil.
¶ We don’t spend a lot of time on gee-whiz prognostications of the wonders of tomorrow, but we are nonetheless very impressed by the quality of Dan McLaughlin’s thoughtfulness on the subject of driverless cars. We don’t expect to see driverless cars on mainstream roads anytime soon, but, hey, we were surprised by the first same-sex marriage wave, and automated vehicles do seem, somehow, inevitable. McLaughlin sees upsides, for the most part, but there are a few downsides, too: army recruits could not be counted on for driving skills; today’s “used car” will probably never find a correlative among more complicated machines; and driving will be much less private and solitary. One item stuck out for us:
11. Destroying Taxi and Driving Jobs: Driving provides a lot of jobs, mostly jobs held by men, and in the case of urban taxi and limo drivers, many of them immigrants—cab drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers. Those jobs can be hazardous: one Labor Department study in the 1990s, examining the nation’s population of 3 million truck drivers and 200,000 cab drivers at the time, concluded:
From 1992-95, truckdriving had the most fatalities of all occupations, accounting for 12 percent of all worker deaths. About two-thirds of the fatally injured truckers were involved in highway crashes. Truckdrivers also had more nonfatal injuries (over 151,000) than workers in any other occupation in 1995…Cabdrivers had the highest homicide rate—32 homicides per 100,000—among the occupations most affected by deadly violence. This rate is four times more than that of police officers (emphasis added).
Driverless cars and trucks won’t eliminate these jobs entirely, particularly jobs of deliverymen who will still need to bring groceries, the U.S. mail, and UPS and FedEx packages to your doorstep. But they will undoubtedly reduce employment, especially among cab drivers, and reduce the hazards of those jobs (and the higher pay that comes with taking those risks). Along those lines, eliminating the need to constrain trucking by the limits of human endurance promises the potential for a faster network of distribution of goods.
That provides both a risk and an opportunity for a business like Uber, which is already trying to disrupt the taxi paradigm. The risk is that driverless cabs, like the Zipcar and CitiBike programs, will become widely available (and no longer constrained by the taxi-medallion monopoly), while Uber’s potential pool of on-demand drivers shrinks. The opportunity is that someone still needs to provide the supply of on-demand vehicles.
Both of these issues — trucks and taxis — remind us of the special case presented by Manhattan Island, unmatched by any other American city. For the time being, we’ll keep our two cents to ourselves. (The Federalist; via The Morning News)
At The Smart Set, Morgan Meis writes about an exhibition of photographs, American Cool, at the National Gallery, and explores the contradiction at the heart of cool, which always seems to mask a determination not to be hurt again. (That’s what distinguishes it from, say, the elegant unflappability of Cary Grant.) At the end, Meis speculates on the the term that will take the place of “cool” in this century.
The death of cool is, in the end, an ambivalent sign. It could be the result of a greater general social health, a purging of the fear that led to coolness in the first place. But it could just as easily be a transformation of fear. The death of cool could be the sign that we have learned new ways to hide our anxieties, ways that are not yet apparent, not yet obvious and nameable. We’ll need a Lester Young of the 21st century to invent a new word for whatever it is we do to hide our fears today. In 2014, we haven’t yet met that person. We’re still lingering on the vapors of the last few cigarettes smoked by the aging cool cats of the previous century.
But we disagree. “Friendly” is the new cool.
¶ In an LRB blog entry, Ian Penman writes endearingly about the late filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s passion for football, and how it worked its way into The Marriage of Maria Braun.
When it came to mind this week, I had to consult an old filmography to clarify its baldly melodramatic plot. I could recall nothing concrete about it whatsoever – except for one small crucial detail. In the climactic scene, the soundtrack is provided by a radio broadcast of an excitedly jabbering football commentator. If you were German, it would have been obvious which commentary, which game, and why Fassbinder chose it.
We’ve already called the Video Room.
¶ At The Millions, Tom Nissley rounds up a very mixed bag of books that cover, in one way or another, the intersection of summer and revolution — or at least the search for something different. You’ve probably read more than a few of them, and it’s always sweet to see what other people have to say about books you’ve liked — so long as they’ve liked them, too.
Saturday Night by Susan Orlean (1990) Orlean’s first book, a traveling celebration of the ways Americans spend their traditional night of leisure — dancing, cruising, dining out, staying in — follows no particular season, but it’s an ideal match for July, the Saturday night of months, when you are just far enough into summer to enjoy it without a care for the inevitable approach of fall.
“The Saturday night of months” — we’re going to remember that one.
¶ And now, here’s David Brooks taking up the “B Company.” A fad? A fad that sticks?
This creative process is furthest along, I’d say, in the world of B corporations. There are many people today who are disillusioned both with the world of traditional charity and traditional capitalism. Many charities have been warmheartedly but wastefully throwing money at problems, without good management or market discipline. Capitalists have been obsessed with the short-term maximization of shareholder return without much concern for long-term prosperity or other stakeholders.
B corporations are a way to transcend the contradictions between the ineffective parts of the social sector and myopic capitalism. Kyle Westaway, a lawyer in this field and the author of the forthcoming “Profit & Purpose,” notes that benefit corporation legal structures have been established in 22 states over the last four years. The 300 or so companies that have registered in this way, like Patagonia or Method, can’t be sued if they fail to maximize profits in order to focus on other concerns. They are seeking to reinvent both capitalism and do-gooder-ism, and living in the contradiction between these traditions.
¶ We’ve come across this story before, but it has been a while since the last one, so our capacity for seething is fully refreshed. “Losing Sparta: The Bitter Truth Behind the Gospel of Productivity,” Esther Kaplan’s account of the closing of a productive, profitable plant in Tennessee has us boiling with rage. (We’ll think twice about buying anything bearing the Philips label.) To give the tale a wicked twist, Kaplan surmises that the shuttering and offshoring made no business sense. (Virginia Quarterly Review; via The Rumpus)
A 2012 study by Michael E. Porter and Jan W. Rivkin of Harvard Business School, based on interviews with 1,767 executives involved in location decisions over the previous year, confirms Bronfenbrenner’s view. Porter and Rivkin found that “rigorous processes for location choices” are “far from universal” and that such decision-making processes “have lagged behind those for virtually all other major investment decisions.” They found that companies often underestimate the hidden costs of offshoring, overlook the advantages of a US location and “fall prey to biases that work against the U.S.”
Combined, this research hints at a radical idea: that offshoring has simply become a reflex. And if that’s true, all the lean manufacturing and just-in-time production and automation and retraining and two-tier pay scales in the world won’t be enough to save American production jobs.
¶ On today’s Op-Ed page, Paul Horwitz looks behind the Hobby Lobby decision to find three fault lines that have opened up in American life, creating chasms that might well be unbridgeable:
- Traditional consensus on the importance of accommodating religious freedom has collapsed.
- Same-sex marriage has brought to an end the long-standing cease-fire on disagreements about the role of religion in marriage.
- The marketplace is no longer the ideologically free zone that it used to be.
We see a fantastic irony in the third point: free markets in everything have reduced religions to values with market currency.
A country that cannot even agree on the idea of religious accommodation, let alone on what terms, is unlikely to agree on what to do next. A country in which many states cannot manage to pass basic anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation is one whose culture wars may be beyond the point of compromise. And a nation whose marketplace itself is viewed, for better or worse, as a place to fight both those battles rather than to escape from them is still less likely to find surcease from struggle.
¶ What lovely news: a parade of over a hundred thousand people sweeping down Istanbul’s Istiklal Cadessi in celebration of gay pride. Istiklal runs from a height above the Golden Horn to Taksim Square, which was blocked off by police with water cannons. It is a pedestrian boulevard, lined with the revived relics of the neighborhood’s cosmopolitan past, as the center of European life in the Turkish capital. It is old and a little shabby, and the perfect place for such a manifestation to begin. (Aydınlık Daily; via Joe.My.God)
Community members, as well their families and loved ones participated in the parade, chanting for the freedom for same-sex marriage and against homophobia. They carried banners that said, “Unconditional Love is Possible.”
Most attendees appeared in the parade in glamorous costumes adorned with the colours of the international flag of the community. The crowd shouted slogans against fascism and capitalism, as well, saying ‘Be gone AKP!’ and ‘Legs up Against Fascism!’ and ‘Down with all the shopping centers!’
The United Kingdom Consulate displayed the LGBT flag on its building near Istiklal Avenue. The US consul, Charles Hunter, also expressed his support for the community: “I am also gay and here I am in the pride parade of the LGBT people.”
¶ James Risen has fired another volley against our shambolic mismanagement national security. It now appears that an official investigation into outside contractor Blackwater’s derelictions in Iraq was put to an end by a death threat.
The next day, the two men met with Daniel Carroll, Blackwater’s project manager in Iraq, to discuss the investigation, including a complaint over food quality and sanitary conditions at a cafeteria in Blackwater’s compound. Mr. Carroll barked that Mr. Richter could not tell him what to do about his cafeteria, Mr. Richter’s report said. The Blackwater official went on to threaten the agent and say he would not face any consequences, according to Mr. Richter’s later account.
Mr. Carroll said “that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit.
“Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,” Mr. Richter stated in his memo. “I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.”
He added that he was especially alarmed because Mr. Carroll was Blackwater’s leader in Iraq, and “organizations take on the attitudes and mannerisms of their leader.”
¶ Henry Petroski’s Op-Ed piece in today’s Times, “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To,” focuses on perhaps the most worrisome failure of American government, the uselessness of its oversight of housing and road safety.
As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise. A roof or road that does not meet agreed-upon standards needs to be redone, at the irresponsible party’s expense.
Such challenges will naturally lead to delays and legal proceedings, but this is the price for getting things done right. In time, doing it right the first time will once again become wise and standard business practice, and we can look forward to infrastructure that looks good, works well and lasts.
Without such a commitment, the American future is lost.
¶ At The New Yorker, Alex Ross deplores Peter Gelb’s handling of the Klinghoffer broadcast, and questions the director’s achievements so far. Ross calls attention to hints of mortality at the Met that we can only pray a complacent board will not fail to see. (via ArtsJournal)
Especially disheartening is the fatalistic tone that Gelb has struck in discussing the Met’s biggest crisis, “Klinghoffer” notwithstanding: the ongoing negotiations with the sixteen unions that represent the Met’s great beehive of performers and workers. Gelb has said that expenses have become ruinous and that employees must accept cuts. The unions have responded by blaming Gelb for rising expenses and diminishing receipts. The underlying financial situation is difficult for an outsider to assess, and Gelb may have valid points to make. But he loses credibility when he blames wider cultural trends for the Met’s particular problems: “There aren’t enough new audience members replacing the older ones who are dying off. It’s no secret that the frequency of operagoing in the U.S. is decreasing.” Such actuarial language is unworthy of the leader of one of the world’s largest arts institutions. Incidentally, Gelb has revealed that seventy-five per cent of the Live in HD audience is sixty-five or older. “Those are people who are so old that they can’t go the Met, to the theatre, anymore,” he has said. This, apparently, is the same audience that would have become bloodthirsty after a viewing of “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
¶ At 3 Quarks Daily, Misha Lepetic makes a mildly jaw-dropping proposal: What if we accepted the fact that the world of recorded pop music has come and somehow gone, and learned once again how to read music and play instruments? The idea is embedded in a recent project by Beck.
However, there is another, more generous provocation that was offered by Beck in 2012. Beck, conjunction with McSweeney’s, released a new album, except he didn’t record a single note. Instead, he released 20 songs as sheet music, and invited everyone to create their own interpretation. You can view the results at Song Reader, the site set up to collect all these contributions. This may seem precious and retro, the kind of winking irony that would be at home in a snooty Williamsburg coffee shop. But this gesture is not dissimilar to the kind of “instruction art” that was refined by John Cage and Sol LeWitt, where the fundamental idea is that people can – and should – create the work for themselves.