Cheap Rents, Urban Disorder, and Cultural Vibrancy—Which comes first?

Note—the topic sort of morphed halfway through this. So, sorry.

I’m a native New Yorker. My wife isn’t, but lived all her young adulthood there and is as committed to the idea of New York as any convert. She and I were both in theater there, often at the same theaters but at different times, so we didn’t meet until the 90s, when I moved to Los Angeles.

Often we sigh and say how much we miss New York… and then correct ourselves—we miss New York in the 70s and 80s, not New York now, debilitated as it is from money poisoning. Making a living is for losers—they want to make a killing. Commercial rent is jacked up not by 10% but by 100%, 200%, more, there is no top. And if space remains empty, the political and tax system support that. Once vibrant streets in the West Village are ghost towns, not because of Covid—this is from way before Covid—but because of rents. I suspect, but don’t know, that this is at least partly because landlord families are losing ground to hedge-fund and Wall St landlords who feel zero stake in the life of the city and the culture around them, and only respond, AI-like, to simple numerical metrics.

Corporations—the AI we’ve been living with for centuries… As Cory Doctorow writes in Skynet Ascendant: We humans are the inconvenient gut-flora of the corporation. They aren’t hostile to us. They aren’t sympathetic to us. Just as every human carries a hundred times more non-human cells in her gut than she has in the rest of her body, every corpora­tion is made up of many separate living creatures that it relies upon for its survival, but which are fundamentally interchangeable and disposable for its purposes. Just as you view stray gut-flora that attacks you as a pathogen and fight it off with anti­biotics, corporations attack their human adversaries with an impersonal viciousness that is all the more terrifying for its lack of any emotional heat.

Elon Musk’s stated fear of AI seems ironic in that he is such a corporate creature, and they behave in exactly the way that he describes AI in such apocalyptic terms. But that is exactly what is happening, not only to cities, but most visibly in cities, because cities are were value and capital are most concentrated. Yes, a family that owns a few buildings—like my old landlord and his Greek immigrant family; they started with a diner and ended up owning a few dilapidated buildings in midtown, one of which I lived in for 17 years—would form a corporation which owns the buildings; but that is qualitatively different from a financial corporation whose management decides that the ROI they need to justify their bonuses is waiting in real estate and rental properties rather than boring old equities, bonds, and complex derivatives thereof.

I’m not clear on the difference, but I suspect, as with most things, that it’s a gradual difference, a sliding scale, rather than a nice, simple toggle switch. My old landlord wasn’t a financial corporation with no view of what was in the world except certain select metrics, blind to culture and human life, and chewing through humanity to get the coins in our pockets, then pulling the hair and buttons from its teeth. But he did live in Long Island City among his ethnic and religious counterparts, and I don’t think he cared personally all that much about people like me in Manhattan. So he did that thing that landlords do, which is to send in unlicensed contractors to do horribly destructive work on the building for years and years, in the hopes of either driving us out one by one, or, better yet, provoking a tenant lawsuit, the result of which is that the building would be condemned and … we’d all be driven out, all at once.

So was he better than a hedge fund landlord? I guess better would be Art Stabile, the lefty Catholic who lived down the block, owned the building he lived in, and rented out the apartments to young (Catholic mainly, I believe) international students. He had a stake in the building, the street life, and the world from which he earned his living. I don’t know who owns his building now…

Cities become prey to certain cultures. Los Angeles was for a while a creature of Hollywood. The dreams and desires of those who worked in entertainment were legitimate dreams and desires. Others were… less interesting. Hollywood includes artists and craftspeople, so Los Angeles has always been receptive to artists, though somewhat contemptuous of those who don’t—or, the suspicion is, can’t—sell out.

New York is under the spell of Wall St and has been since perhaps the 80s. But Wall St’s culture itself has changed and dragged the city behind it, helpless in its wake. And information technology has supercharged its ambitions, so that, while years ago, it would have been a chump’s game to invest in rental real estate, because management was complicated and expensive, today, rental real estate is pretty good for a return.

I go back to the first episodes of Planet Money—when it was good, when it was important, before they did inane “brand stories” about Hydrox vs Oreos and “ain’t business grand.” It was called The Giant Pool of Money. Investors used to park money in Treasury bonds, but interest rates were lowered to speed up the economy. This meant the T-bills yielded less. So all those smart guys ‘n’ gals on Wall St (really mostly guys, especially then) turned their Ivy League-honed minds to where else they could invest.

Turns out mortgages were just sitting there. So they proceeded to process them via the alchemy of high finance—tranches, derivatives, derivatives on those derivatives—until a small number of folk made a lot of money and many, many people lost their homes in the Great Recession.

They have no stake in Main St. Just like Tyson (of the Foods), Wall St parties are so much more fun than those annual BBQs they use to keep their staff happy with low pay and decreasing benefits.

After the Depression and WWII, there was, for a brief while, a time when the nation’s culture was egalitarian. All Americans (let’s not get crazy; not Blacks really, and not women, not really) were equal, and your boss could live in your neighborhood. He might have a pool and you might not, but big deal! You were all equal, you were all Americans.

But (see Piketty) that was an anomaly, brought on by a confluence of disasters and FDR. Now we’re back to the status quo ante. And, while other nations still strive to emulate America in the 60s, America is turning its back on that and looking to the 1880s.

I don’t like it. No sir, not one bit.

Charlie Hebdo and the Muhammad cartoons

The new issue of Charlie Hebdo is featuring the same Muhammad cartoons that provoked the terrorist killers five years ago to attack and kill CH staff members and cartoonists. The trial is starting now, so the magazine republished the cartoons. I subscribe to CH (digitally), and I’m trying to download the issue now, but the app isn’t responding. I’d ascribe that to popularity or to interference, but I suspect it’s just an unreliable app… NOTE — it worked. The app responded, and I’m looking at the issue.

So, where do I stand on CH? They should have the right to publish and not be murdered. Just so you know what I think. I suppose I think that, if they were wise, they would do more outreach in schools. Of course, they wouldn’t be allowed to, that would be supporting atheism… It’s only natural that Muslims consider attacks on Islam to be attacks on their bubbe and zayde (or teta and seedo). Many communities do not make the distinction between insulting “the religion” and insulting “the believers.”

There is research that shows that we react to attacks on values that are core to our identity (e.g., gun control) in ways indistinguishable from how we react to physical attacks. See the brilliant podcast You Are Not So Smart, #171.

(And, frankly, if you have to explain a joke or a cartoon that much, it isn’t working… you can blame the audience if you like for not “getting” it, but that doesn’t cut much ice when you’re sweating in front of the bare bricks…)

A good old friend of mine is disturbed that a recent poll (article in CH, article in Le Figaro) shows only 59% of French approve of CH’s publication of the cartoons, and that 18% of Muslims “do not condemn” the murders of the CH staff. My friend bemoans the lack of support for the French concept of laïcité.

As I understand it, laïcité just means that religion shall have no sway over government, which I think has a lot of support. I suspect that this is more, why should Muslims or young people who are sympathetic with them, be OK with a magazine that gratuitously offends a people who (in France) are underdogs and experience discrimination.

(Sidebar—Note the difference between the US idea of Freedom of Religion and the French concept of laïcité. Here in the US, the government cannot establish religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof. In France, religion may not interfere with government! I love that, and I wish we had more of it here—no more political “prayer breakfasts”, things being Under God, and so on. If only that were considered rude and wrong, as it is in France.)

(Sidebar to the Sidebar—Different histories explain this. Our revolution wasn’t explicitly about religion, but many colonists left England because it had an official religion that was not theirs. As soon as the Puritans got here and could exercise their religion freely, they set about docking the ears and noses of Quakers. They weren’t for “freedom of religion” except for their own. In France, the Revolution was against the aristocracy and the church. In the immortal words of Diderot, “The revolution is not over until the last King is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” For the history of this not-really-a-quote, see here.)

(Sidebar3—I wonder, since the French government owns all places of worship, why they permit Saudi petrocrat financing of Wahhabist extreme Islam. I suppose it must all be about the Euros. I have no information about this topic, but this is a blog that, after all, few people will ever see.)

And a lot of French people support the publication of the cartoons for what I would consider the wrong reason, namely that it does offend Muslims — that it “owns” them, to use the modern US phrase. I don’t think the pure, intellectual “freedom of speech” argument especially impresses kids in the banlieues who can’t get a job; and I don’t think it’s what is motivating a lot of the people cheering CH on — they just don’t like Arabs and Africans and enjoy seeing them insulted and humiliated.

I know that CH claims (vociferously!) that they are not aiming at Arab or African individuals but the religion, and they have anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic cartoons (and they must have anti-Protestant cartoons, but none come to mind…). Also, that Islam is a vastly powerful structure with a billion people under its sway. And this is very true. A lot of people who have strong opinions about CH have no idea what they actually publish. If you can read any French at all, I recommend taking a look. It’s quite amazing and very different from what you’d find in the US. If you’re thinking, Oh, isn’t it like Mad Magazine? you’re so, so wrong. There just is no equivalent.

While I am not religious myself, I do identify with Judaism and can feel personally threatened by attacks on the religion I don’t believe in (I do say the prayers on Friday night sometimes, though). But I do love a good “Hasids behaving badly” story when I see it in the Forward… And when CH mocks Judaism, it is more about Israel and circumcision and Hasidim and Haredim, which I agree are good targets for mockery (they’re not me, after all! Well, circumcision, sure, but I don’t have religious feelings about it; I never had a bris). They don’t have nice, bien-pensant Reform or Conservative Jewish congregations in Europe AFAIK, so there’s less of a target there and I am pretty much spared. So I acknowledge that it’s easy for me to support the right to negative speech that isn’t about me.

I love CH, and I love the culture that produces it, but I don’t agree with everything they do. They recently had a piece with several cartoons about how ridiculous it is to target Confederate monuments in the US—complete with what I consider offensive caricatures of black people. Their claim is the monuments are “just” speech. Of course, the speech they embody is saying, You will always be second-class citizens, you will always be under threat, you will never be safe, you will never be equal, we will kill you if we feel like it and we will be backed up by the police and justice system and we will never face punishment, while you must do as we say immediately and without question or we will kill you and get away with it because “we were scared”.

You know what I think about Confederate monuments? I think melt them into slag right there on their plinths. But, yes! I acknowledge that’s not a pure, principled, “all speech must be sacrosanct and left to express its message loudly forever” ideal. I prefer Germany’s approach that decided that pro-Nazi speech (in the form of monuments, among other things) should be removed. They made a national decision that certain speech was bad and had no place in a modern Germany. I’m perfectly OK with that.

I think Freedom of Speech and Freedom from Fear are in conflict much of the time. I understand that Congress cannot infringe FoS, but can’t do jack-shit about FfF, which is a “freedom” made up by FDR.

I know that fans of Confederate monuments claim that the “speech” they represent is something anodyne about pride, valor, respect… just like the Confederate flag is about sweet tea and magnolia blossoms. I am reminded of something a school friend’s older brother used to do: he’d swing his fist at his kid brother’s head and, at the last second, stop and coolly brush his hair back. So, induce fear and then claim deniability. He wasn’t going to hit him! (he just wanted to see him flinch…) This is cousin to the Schrödinger’s Douchebag phenomenon.

Anyway, I haven’t got a nice, tidy wrap-up. I approve of freedom of speech, including speech that intends to contradict or criticize someone else’s speech. And—just so it’s explicit—I’m against murder. I know! Brave stand.

Pedestrian Access to the 110 Freeway?

Wouldn’t you like to take a relaxing stroll along the oldest freeway in the world? It’s not the busiest freeway – that would be the 405 – but it’s still three or four lanes of hurtling steel. Along the east edge of the southbound side of this old freeway is a path for pedestrians, between the junction to the 5E and Amador Street. Every time I drive past, I wonder who it is intended for. I’ve never seen anyone on it.

Is, or was, the City of Los Angeles so concerned for pedestrians that it provided this odd little walkway to get across the LA River? If you need to cross the river on foot, you could always go to North Broadway, and cross there on a handsome, well-maintained, sidewalk.

I grew up a New York pedestrian; I first crossed the street unsupervised in 1960 at the age of 4 – I wandered off while all the adults were arguing about who was late and who was being a nudge. By the time they noticed that I was gone, I had already wandered into traffic on West End Avenue. They all came pouring out onto 72nd Street screaming my name. Someone shouted, “there he is!” and ran after me and scooped me up. It was very gratifying and exciting.

In the 60s and 70s, New York streets were dicey, and I developed street instincts, like 360-degree awareness, crazy-person avoidance, youth-looking-for-a-fight detection, and continual monitoring for escape routes.

This last skill would make me avoid this walkway along the 110, because there’s no way to run if two rival gangs approach each other in a deadly standoff. At least on the Broadway bridge, you could run perpendicularly into traffic, and take your chances with the trucks.

I’ve been commuting from West LA to Pasadena for five months ten years now (and for an additional eleven months about two years ago), and I’ve become obsessed with these strange, ramshackle staircases that go down to the freeway, snaking through the brush. Some of them, like the one on Solano Avenue, seem to serve the purpose of allowing pedestrian traffic to cross the freeway. There’s a school nearby, and it makes sense to let the students who live just 150 feet across the freeway walk across. Google Maps seems to think you can do that, but when I look at the satellite view, I don’t see a path. When I drive past, I get a glimpse of a railed-off walkway… I’ll just have to go there and take a look.

Google maps' directions for walking across 110 at Solano Ave
Google maps’ directions for walking across 110 at Solano Ave

I see how you can walk to Amador St, which crosses above the northbound side of the 110, and then under the southbound side. But where’s the fun in simply walking along an ordinary street, when you can walk on a barely used, falling apart, dangerous narrow path that is separated from speeding traffic by a chainlink fence? And that’s probably populated by fringe elements of society?

Maybe I could even do it with a nice camera around my neck? Hmmmm… That’s so smart!

As far as I can tell there are four ways to get onto this mysterious walkway (click on thumbnails for full-sized pictures):

  • Solano Ave Amador entrance to 110 walkway
    Solano Ave Amador entrance to 110 walkway

    The entrance on Amador Street (see pic) – that one looks the best maintained, and like it might actually be intended for use. The entrance to the ramp is visible in the satellite view; you’d climb the ramp, then switch back, then you’re right on the freeway.

  • Closed on-ramp to 110 and path from school to 110 walkway
    Closed on-ramp to 110 and path from school to 110 walkway

    The staircase rising from Solano Avenue (red arrow), near the elementary school, right by a blocked-off on-ramp (green arrow) which went from a city street into the fast lane in the space of about 20 feet; it must have been a bloodbath until they fenced it off.

  • Solano Ave stairway, other entrance to 110 walkway
    Solano Ave stairway, other entrance to 110 walkway

    The extremely weird staircase (see pic) which goes down to the fast lane of the 110N, just before the tunnel south of the exit to the 5N; why is there a staircase there? Has ANYONE ever used it? There is room for a single car to park out of traffic, so somebody had some kind of plan… Maybe, just maybe, if you broke down right exactly there it would allow you to flee; but if you broke down even 20 feet away, I don’t see how it would help. I would love to know the chain of reasoning that led to its construction; someone had to allot money for this thing.

  • Spiral staircase entrance to 110 walkway
    Spiral staircase entrance to 110 walkway

    Finally, the last entrance I can see is if you get on North Figueroa Street, where it crosses the Los Angeles River, walk south along the east side of the road, then turn sharply left along the ramp going from the 110N to the 5N (you have to turn left; your only alternative is to dive into oncoming traffic); keep walking, and then where the ramp meets up with the 110N, there is a spiral staircase climbing up to the walkway along the 110S. NOTE: None of that is true anymore. The old bridge was demolished and the ramp from N Fig to the off-ramp from the 110 is just gone. From what I can see, the only way to get on the spiral staircase is to get to the walkway at Solano or Amador, then walk along the southbound 110 until you get to the top of the staircase. As far as I can tell, the bottom of the staircase goes exactly nowhere now. Well, there is a walkway a few hundred yards along the ramp to the 5, ending in a tiny landing or plaza which, amazingly, is not a homeless encampment.

Please note that all of this can be considered more or less dangerous and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

That said, I can’t wait to try it.

Making a kinder, less violent society

There’s an interesting piece on Lifehacker about defunding the police. In brief — there’s nothing the police do that can’t be done better by social workers and EMTs. The writer, Rachel Fairbank, says, what if your car is stolen, and when the thief is caught, turns out they’re a drug addict? Treatment! Well, yes, I agree completely… but caught by who? And what if they’re not a drug addict, but just enjoy the thrill of thievery, have poor impulse control, and are kind of sociopaths? The writer, in the comments, sounded impatient with these petty cavils.

The myopia of the piece is the assumption that all crime is driven by victimhood of some kind, instead of just some crime (she doesn’t address white-collar crime; doubt she would say they are victims). While I’m not an expert on the USSR, I believe the premise there was there could be no crime because nobody was a victim of the class system, so if there were anything that looked like a crime, it had to be mental illness and they were incarcerated in (what we heard were) horrific asylums. Or, of course, they were exiled along with dissidents, to Siberia.

I think there is a reluctance, not just in this piece, but in others on the topic, to acknowledge any situation whatsoever in which an armed peacekeeping force would be needed, because it’s like leaving the door ajar — you give an inch, they take a mile. And any talk of “reform” is mocked because “reform” tends to go nowhere, due to police unions and the fear of the white power elite of losing their armed guards, the police. There is also a sort of understanding that the only people who call the police are like that lady in Central Park, just trying to punish a black man. The author says, and repeats in the comments, that since there are some people who aren’t comfortable calling the police, there shouldn’t be police.

So, rhetoric is being slung. Maybe it’s helpful, if it leads to meaningful change. But if anyone is interested in meaningfully changing the criminal justice system — as in demilitarization (among other things, the elimination of that military program that gives surplus gear to police); the absolute end of the War on Drugs (which would weaken the heavily armed cartels one of the excuses police dep’ts give for needing military-grade weaponry); and (my suggestion) getting rid of “partners”, rather assign teams at random, along with a third party who is an independent recorder (with a 360° camera on a staff in addition to body cams) and a psychiatric social worker — I haven’t read any in the popular press.

Note — that last suggestion could be effected with gig-economy technology — assembling a team on the fly from several independent sources.

Another angle that is not discussed much, but would contribute to making society better for all and reducing the toll of poverty and, arguably, the level of violence, is a harm reduction and fault tolerance philosophy in legislation. There are many programs for helping the poor, but they seem to be as hard as possible to invoke, as if, sure, we’ll help, but we’ll make it easy to get wrong and full of draconian rules. This contributes to the constant chaos in the lives of the bottom 30% or so. The whole philosophy of setting up administration so that if you’re 5 minutes late for an appointment, you lose your benefits is hostile and sadistic.


CV19

Everyone has had the flu and knows that while it’s unpleasant they got over it. (The people who died don’t have an opinion.) It’s hard if you don’t respect math to understand that the big difference is that if you have the flu (see the vox.com explainer at https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2020/3/18/21184992/coronavirus-covid-19-flu-comparison-chart) you’ll maybe infect one person. With CV19, you would infect over 2 people.
So, the math-naive mind thinks, twice as many people get infected. Big Deal! It’s all Political! No, because you don’t multiply by two, two is the EXPONENT. You square the number. It isn’t 10,000 (doing nothing), and it isn’t 20,000. It could be 100,000,000 (doing nothing). Taking steps such as social distancing and universal testing, you can make a big dent in that, but it’s still terrible. But in America, both of those are hampered. Social distancing, because Freedom™ and Devin Nunes telling people to go to a “pub” (really? a pub? is he English?).

Testing… I have a belief. This is my belief. Pharma companies could have come up with testing kits very fast and we could all be tested (or better, have been tested) right away. But PE firms and hedge funds and investment managers who control pharma companies expect massive returns. And until they can make a kit for $8 and sell it for at least $8000, they’re not going to permit the manufacture. Why should they take a loss? A “loss” being defined as accepting <1000x profit margin. Also, as we learned from the Story of  Sen Burr (R-who cares), the heads of the government knew the seriousness early. When Democrats said it was bad, it was decried as a hoax, even as the  Republicans were selling their stocks in hotels and buying up stocks in facemasks.

A crash serves those with large cash reserves. Remember in 2016, DJT said that the housing crash was a great opportunity? Well, this is a great opportunity too. What’s a “crisis” for you and me is just a “fire sale” for PE firms. So it’s actually in their interest to foment crises.

Wasn’t there a movie trope of the villain being an arms dealer who wants to stoke conflict so as to sell more weapons? It’s like that.

Evil is not different in kind from regular behavior. It can just be different in scale. Exponential instead of arithmetical.

Response to Helen Andrews

Who Will Defend the American Family? was the title in print. Online it is, Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?

I am not an editor… well, not a newspaper editor. I am a technical editor. One of my jobs is to read articles intended for academic journals and tell the authors how they might be improved. While I am not expert in their various fields, I can tell them, as a well-read layman, if something does not make sense to me. I then ask, is this intentional? Would you prefer if it did make sense to a reader like me, or is it fine as it is for its intended audience? If the former, we try to rephrase it. If the latter, I go home early, modest middle-class paycheck in hand.

[Full disclosure: I did work at the NYTimes one summer, as what they referred to then as a copyboy. I wasn’t interested in journalism, particularly, but loved being behind the scenes at a vastly complicated and prestigious enterprise. I work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory now (a NASA center), and get the same kind of kick being backstage where they make space miracles.]

I don’t know if that is what New York Times Op-Ed editors do. Maybe they identify some thought leader or pundit or VIP, and tell them, You’re an important person, we’d like to include you on our broadsheet. Here’s X column inches, do with them what you will. Fill ‘er up! Maybe a copyeditor goes over it for typos and simple grammatical errors. This is what we at JPL call a low level of edit (LoE; we love our acronyms at JPL). At a higher LoE, the editor might shoot an email to the author, call them on the phone, or meet them in person for a latté or a Chardonnay (this is, after all, the tony New York Times). They might say something like, Love the piece! Really tight and punchy. (You should always start by praising something.) Then they might ask, In the third graf (I believe this is newspaper slang for “paragraph”; jocular misspelling was popular in the 20s — see “oll korrect” for OK), you make a statement that I didn’t understand. Could you unpack it for me?

Or the editor, at a very high LoE indeed, might say, can you sum up your point for me in a single sentence? If you can, maybe that text ought to be included in the article. If you can’t, maybe we should give you another week or so to think about it. I’m sure we can, in the meanwhile, find a polite conservative to defend us against charges that we don’t feature any conservatives. (Yes, that will help, undoubtedly. Always does.)

No, I don’t know what a New York Times Op-Ed editor does. But if I were editor, I would have asked Ms. Andrews (odd honorific, given the content; wouldn’t she prefer Mrs. or Miss?) the following questions:

In the fifth graf (or would a real newspaperperson say “graf 5”? Don’t know… Have to watch “The Front Page” again), you say, “Dissenters from the feminist line are more likely to be motivated by a libertarian commitment to equal treatment of the sexes than a socially conservative commitment to gender roles as an affirmative good.” Could you clarify for me how a libertarian commitment to equal treatment of the sexes manifests itself? If it is what it sounds like, it means nobody actually has to treat women equally unless they damn well feel like it. So, in other words, status quo 50s. Or am I missing something? Do you feel that at some point, we did not have the liberty to treat the sexes equally? Can you give me a for-instance?

In the sixth graf, you write, “She believed she was protecting women from having a feminist agenda they did not agree with imposed on them against their will.” Helen (may I call you Helen? Oh, okay, Mrs. Andrews then)… Mrs. Andrews, I think our readers would benefit from some clarification here. What would be the mechanism for this agenda to be imposed on them? Would they not be allowed to be a girly-girl? Is some leftist, feminist version of the muhtasib (Saudi morality police) going to tell them to wear jean overalls and wipe off their makeup? Or are they prevented from being a housewife and homemaker and forced to work in the factories, side-by-side with leering men? I’m just not clear on the mechanism of this agenda imposition. Pls clarify.

In the seventh graf, you state, “By making it easier for women to pursue success in the workplace, we have made it harder for them to do anything else.” Again, I understand your statement, but it raises the question (not “begs the question”; remember, I’m playing the role of a New York Times editor here, and I would know to avoid that error), I say, it raises the question of how exactly have we made it harder? What is the mechanism?

[Don’t mean to be coy… it may indeed be harder for women to avoid the workplace now than when America Was Supposedly Great Before. I’ll get to that. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the same reason that people (men included!) work more than one job. Second hint: Stagnant wages! It’s because of Wall St! Oh, dear… I blurted it out. See, all that “shareholder value” sucks capital away from serving other stakeholders like labor, the community, and customers.]

Immediately after, you aver (important not to repeat words, but hard when you have to keep asking the same question over and over), “Pressing the brake on the trends set in motion by the feminist revolution would leave women more free to follow a diversity of paths.” Again, you claim that a given cause has a particular effect, but the mechanism by which that cause leads to that effect is murky, at least to me. Can you explain?

In the 11th graf, you get, I think, to your point: “When mothers started entering paid employment in large numbers in the 1970s, it led to a bidding war over middle-class amenities that left everyone paying more for the privilege of being no better off than before. In the prior graf you have cited houses, education, and healthcare as those amenities that have gone up in price. Is that what you mean? Really? That women in the workforce has made healthcare and houses and a college degree more expensive? Is it because working women buy second houses? Do they need more college education? Do they get sick more, thus raising the demand and driving up prices?

See, I thought healthcare got more expensive because of Wall St guiding investors to publicly-owned hospitals and insurance companies, thus demanding higher profits. I thought the culture among executives (male, mostly) was to outdo their brethren by demanding higher compensation and competing for fickle investor dollars.

I thought housing got more expensive because Treasury notes stopped delivering returns that were satisfying to investors, so they had to look for other investments and came upon mortgages. This led banks to issue vastly more, and increasingly dubious, mortgages to fill that crying need, which led to a housing shortage which led to higher prices and a bubble.

Education… I don’t know. Maybe if women stopped demanding education, colleges would charge less? Honestly, I’m not an economist. If only there were a Nobel-prize winning economist around who could explain this!

In the next graf (I can’t keep counting them for gods sake. You do some work for a change.), you claim, “In the bottom tier, marriage is disappearing as lower-income women have too few men with solid jobs to choose from and as the growing number of men without regular work…” You seem to be hinting, without stating it explicitly, that there are so many jobs to go around, and if a woman takes a job, she is taking it from a man and then she won’t be able to find a husband who out-earns her. What’s funny (funny strange, not funny ha-ha) is that conservatives make the argument that technology will lead inexorably to more jobs. So, robots in the workplace good, but women bad?

More to come… I need a break, and it’s a long article. Not only that, but I’m at a disadvantage — in my family, all the women worked, back to my grandmother. She was an actress, so some of you might quibble with the word “work,” but trust me, it’s strenuous. She was also quite the breadwinner. I don’t have my grandparents’ books, but both she and my grandfather (whom I never met; he died in ’44 while she lived 35 more years) made a pretty good living in German show-business, until the Nazis (and, TBH, talking pictures) put a definite crimp in their employability and they chose to come to Hollywood over being gassed, shot, burned, and shoveled into a mass grave by a leader who just wanted to make Germany great again. Also, the climate in Los Angeles was sunnier than in Berlin.

My mother’s mother was a homemaker and did not work at a job, unless you count being beaten by a drunk husband as “work”, and then dying from a hemorrhage during pregnancy. Such an enviable, easy life to be a homemaker and housewife!

My sister worked (retired now) and my mother worked (as an actress, so that “is acting work” question lingers) and my wife works.

In progress:

What is preventing a woman who wants to be a homemaker and a housewife from fulfilling her destiny? Can she not find a husband who has a job? In this economy with such low unemployment? Money’s tight? Well, then do without frills like data. Get a landline but no internet or cable. Eschew cell phones. That will save you 100s of dollars every month. Your husband can work, no doubt at a job where he wears overalls (but no shirt), and his muscular torso can be limned against the setting sun as he heroically contracts cancer from working without safeguards, like a Real Man™.

I mean, nobody is stopping you.

Open Letter to Sam Harris

Sam, I’m having a problem with your otherwise wonderful and excellent app, Waking Up. It’s that when I’m on Twitter and I see these frankly rather silly arguments between you and various Muslims, the animosity and playground jabs stay in my mind and make it hard to focus on the contents of my consciousness.

So, a couple of suggestions: first, if you’re going to be a meditation guide, then maybe lay off the arguing-with-Muslims side business. You have to know (being smart) that that goes nowhere. All you’re accomplishing is being a source of energy for genuine Islamophobes. But (you might respond, were we at a coffee shop drinking élitist lattés) what about the conversation? What about the marketplace of ideas? And I would respond… oh, Sam. You’re smarter, harder working, and probably more athletic than I am, you should know that is a crock. When conversations happen about topics not linked to identity, people might be persuaded. When they are linked to identity, though, the words are reduced to a background hum, wayyy drowned out by identity signals. (You should listen to David McRaney’s podcast, You Are Not So Smart; he goes into this stuff in detail.)

Second, here’s the true thing behind what I call the Jihadi Problem. It’s not about Islam (go a couple of paragraphs down to find out what it is about) – Islam is tremendously varied in many dimensions; you have your whirling dervishes, your Sufi mystics, your sophisticated urbane atheists who only do the occasional prayers to keep their moms from crying, your rustic peasants for whom Islam provides lifecycle rituals and structure for their community. You have your American Black Muslims getting away from the slavemasters’ religion, your hippie and hipster Muslims for whom the appeal is that nobody else in their circle does it, and they can lord it over them as some kind of expert. And of course your Indian Muslims, living as a minority and watching their step around emboldened and occasionally murderous nationalist Hindus. Many, many more…

The problem is not Indonesian fishermen or community organizers in Harlem. The problem is not even Iranian Shias (though they do have the neuroses of anyone with a glorious imperialist past, hankering for past glory and needing to blame others for its loss). The problem is the Gulf Sunni royal families, using their petrodollars to fund Wahhabi imams throughout the world, to advance their ideology fueled by imperial golden-agism and rich-guy perverted sociopathy.

Islam’s collection of texts is not that different from any other shelf of sacred texts. Remember The Bible Code? Very silly book about how you could do a sort of cryptographic treatment of the Hebrew Bible and extract prophesy. Some mathematician showed you could the same thing with Moby Dick, or indeed any big-enough book. The night sky will show you whatever you want, as will a Tarot spread. Randomness contains all stories if it features a sufficient number of items.

The funders of Wahhabism are propagating a particular story drawn from Islam’s texts to promote a bellicose, murderous, death-relishing machismo, which is highly appealing to shiftless, underemployed young men (and the ambitious young women who love them) and frustrated engineers. What good does this do? I think it is a power fantasy for the Gulf petrocrats. They get no material benefit. They’re not past wanting things, but they have every material thing imaginable, including sex and power. All that’s left is the perverted desire to make everyone pay for their not having the one thing they can’t have – an Arab Empire, from Morocco through Malaysia, bowing toward them. Just like any good supervillain, they Want to Rule the World. I’m sure they even pet their kitten as they fantasize about 9/11.

What can be done about it? The elimination of oil would return the Gulf Arab states to depending on colorful local costumes and pearl divers for tourist Euros. Gulf Arab attempts to move beyond the inevitable (but distant) end of oil seem (ironically) ham-handed to me. Buying a Louvre and a Guggenheim? Buying American universities? Dubai and real estate? Have you been there? It’s horrible! It’s quite pathetic, for a people who invented algebra.

So, aside from eliminating oil or reducing its price to a point where the petrocrats have to spend their time governing or something productive instead of fomenting apocalyptic mayhem, what can you do?

Eliminate US support for them. But that would mean finding something to replace all those fighter plane jobs lost.

Maybe it could be strengthening Iran carefully, in such a way as to enhance democracy there and weaken theocracy. I think Obama was trying to do that.

I don’t know! You’ve got a podcast, maybe invite some guests who can address this, instead of whining about how college kids yell at them for saying Islam is so wicked. My eye-rolling muscles are so sore…

Anyway, thanks for the great meditation app. I doubt I could have strung these thoughts together before I started using it! So, see? This letter is all your fault.

Thanks for the app, Peter Basch

Racism and anti-Semitism vs. personal animus and prejudice

There is a national conversation about racism – what it is, is it different from prejudice, or personal animus against a group. The whole “some of my best friends” trope is based on the rejection of the accusation of personal animus, when the problem might not be that at all. You might – well, not be blind to color or gender or gender expression, because nobody is – but, all in all, a pretty good person and get along perfectly well with all kinds of people; but you might defend systems and policies that oppress people differentially by color, gender, gender expression, ethnicity, language, or other criteria. And that might be painful to confront, because while you may be a good person, and good to others, you might be benefiting from and supporting a system that is not.

We could use a similar approach to anti-Semitism. You may have many good, Jewish friends. They might agree with you on a range of opinions, from which TV you like to which politicians you support. But, as Rep Omar has discovered, if you play into anti-Semitic tropes – of which there are quite a few – you may be supporting an anti-Semitic mindset even if you are not the least bit anti-Semitic yourself.

Here’s one: Jews are particularly good with, or care about, money. Or Jews’ loyalty is suspect – they are “rootless cosmopolitans,” or “globalists,” or “care more about Israel than…” something. It might not be a blood libel (killing Christian children and using their blood in sacraments, for instance), and it might not be casually insulting or stereotyping, like Jewish women are (somehow) both frigid and licentious.

How do we distinguish a legitimate criticism from anti-Semitism? Take a recent example: of all the countries that lobby the US government for favorable treatment, if you single out Israel, that’s anti-Semitism. South Korea, for instance, spends more on lobbying Congress than Israel does. There may be good arguments for banning all foreign government lobbying. It might be tricky, given that lobbying is political speech, but it would be an interesting conversation.

Saying that Israel should be eliminated is anti-Semitic, unless you say all states formed under certain conditions, e.g., by colonizing countries, should be rethought. Should Saudi Arabia return to being Arabia? What about a nice country, like Canada, that is a settler colony? That would be an interesting conversation. But when it is only about Israel, that is anti-Semitic.

But here’s an important point. Just as with racism, supporting an anti-Semitic argument does not mean you hate Jews (necessarily). It might just mean you have absorbed biases and opinions, and they feel right, even though your friends and family and colleagues might be Jewish and you might really like them.

Just as we are asking people to examine their privilege and examine how they might be supporting systems and policies that oppress the poor or women or brown people or other “others,” we should ask people to check why they hold onto certain opinions – is it a general opinion that covers all people, or are they focusing in on Jews because… Well, because they’ve never given much thought to how their position might apply to many other people and nations.

PS: Interesting how stereotypes are deployed in a favorable way, too. Jews may not like to be portrayed as stingy, but they don’t mind being thought of as good at business. They may not like being portrayed as physically weak, but they seem to enjoy the image of not being able to fix things. So it does get even more complicated.

The Land of Steady Habits and Mary Poppins Returns: Two Terrible Movies

Oh, boy. I have to take a pill. Just sat through The Land of Steady Habits and Mary Poppins Returns. Two terrible movies about upper middle-class white men who can’t keep their paperwork straight and can’t pay their mortgages but whose real estate is rescued at the last minute by a deus ex machina.

No, seriously, it’s the same movie. One is a machine-tooled case-hardened  Whimsy™ delivery system, engineered to provide maximum return to shareholders with minimum risk, the other is a sloppy, badly acted, badly written, banal bag of boring. In fact, Ben Mendelsohn is so incredibly bad that, though I have been long reconciled to my acting career never having taken off, now I’m bitter because I’m so much better than him.

Ben Mendelsohn does a thing with his mouth… He is so determined not to be too expressive (because, you know, the camera is right there) that I think he had his mouth botoxed. It is eerily inexpressive. I mean, try to talk without any mouth tension. It’s hard! He manages. It’s like he’s some kind of CGI doll. He’s a live, human actor, but he’s in the uncanny valley.

And poor Lin-Manuel Miranda. He must have dimple cramps. To be fair to him, there was no character written, he’s just a walking wink, so I can hardly blame him for the non-performance.

And the idea of making the banker the villain, in a weirdly Great Recession of 2008 plot where they profit from foreclosures, is so completely and purely cynical on Disney’s part… If corporations are legal persons, this movie was written, scored, shot and acted by one.

Don’t worry about my sharing these DVDs. I shredded them.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a Guarded Appreciation

If you grew up in a white, middle-class family in the 50s and 60s, you probably had some gorgeous children’s storybooks with beautifully rendered “color plates”. If the books were a certain vintage, they’d have translucent pages to protect the color illustrations. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is very explicitly a take on these books, not a take on the actual history of American expansion westward.

These books could have been fairy tales (as they were in my case) or they could have been historical fiction. Maybe tales of the sea, or of the Wild West, or of the African or Indian jungle, or of exotic “Oriental” places… Whichever they were, they were tales of white dominance over the Other. Not to say that the enemy couldn’t be white also and often was. Foreign white, but white. Or maybe morally Other – those who play by different, worse, rules. While there may have been some diversity among the villains, there was none among the heroes.

And if those books were a wonderful part of your childhood, you might appreciate seeing those stories rendered through a cynical adult lens. This is what Los Bros Coen have brought us with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The actual history of the conquest of the West, filtered through vintage storybooks, filtered again through a nihilistic artistic imagination. What is emphasized in this reimagining is meaningless death, poisonous betrayal, victory and defeat through sheer dumb luck, good intentions defeated or, worse, irrelevant…

Some of it is funny, some of it is horrible. All of it is gorgeous, in the mold of those old color plates, as shot by the amazing cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Even if you have no patience for another take on the comfortable childhood myths of the Whites, you could turn the sound down and let this play on your 4k screen, and your mind will be blown by the beauty and detail and artistry. The scenery, in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska (and, I suppose, processed in New York, because the NY Dept of Film and TV gets a credit at the end), is heart-rendingly beautiful.

It’s telling that Delbonnel also shot films for Julie Taymor and Tim Burton, who also take childhood characters such as Alice, and give them a sort-of grownup (or at least older adolescent) slant.

I was reminded of other takes of childhood stories seen from an adult angle, either made cynical or sexed up or violenced up to a degree not acceptable in those old books. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for instance, is a parade of these (often secondary) characters, such as Mina Harker (from Dracula), to Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, to Mycroft Holmes. Another parallel is Warren Ellis’s and John Cassaday’s Planetary, which puts pulp and comic characters through the mangle and mashes them all together into a new comic “universe”. On TV we have the vogue of fairytale series, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. In other words, this is a Thing.

Let it be said that, from the point of view of diversity, this movie is a complete disappointment. I suppose you have Methodists and Episcopalians (in The Gal Who Got Rattled). But the first filter mentioned above, taking the actual history of American expansion and filtering it through a 20th century children’s book mentality, got rid of the blacks, Jews, Asians, and even many Hispanos. Native Americans are purely wordless threats. Though in this movie, they are rendered far more archeologically correctly, as opposed to, say, Winnetou, who was a crazy mashup of native Americans, with Cherokee headresses, Inuit totem poles, and Sioux tipis.

Anyone who is just dead tired of more White Folk Foundational Mythology, will likely find this movie simply irritating. For them, I suggest turning the sound down and just enjoying the gorgeous images.