(Roughly) Daily

“Not every business cycle has a financial crisis. Frequently they do.”*…

 

Your correspondent is headed away on his annual pilgrimage to the land of banked dunes and deep-fried delights.  Regular service will resume on or around August 27.  Vacations can be a time for retrospection.  In that spirit, an invitation to think about the last ten years…

 

2008

 

2008 was a big year: Senator Barack Obama was elected president of the United States,  “Satoshi Nakamoto” published “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” SpaceX became the first private, commercial company to put an object into earth orbit, China wowed the world with its host ceremonies for the Summer Olympic Games…  But of course, 2008 was also the start of the Great Recession…  which was bad.  Really bad:

Total U.S. household net worth dropped by $11.1 trillion in 2008.

The median income for 25-to-34-year-olds in America, $34,000, hasn’t budged since 1977, adjusted for inflation.

Median household wealth collapsed.
2007: $126k
2016: $97k

The number of Americans worried about the economy multiplied nearly sixfold.
2007: 16 percent
2008: 86 percent

In 2016, the median wealth of a family headed by someone born in the 1980s was 34 percent below the level of earlier generations at the same 2007: age.

Mutual funds lost a third of their value: -38 percent.

The market value of all publicly traded companies was cut in half.
October 2007: $63 trillion
March 2009: $28.6 trillion

From 2005 to 2009, the median value of stocks and mutual funds owned by whites dropped by 9 percent.

The median value of holdings for African-Americans dropped by 71 percent (probably because of pressure to sell when prices were low).

Between 2007 and 2013, wages declined for the bottom 70 percent of all workers.

The retirement savings of black families fell by 35 percent from 2007 to 2010.

In a 2016 survey by the Fed, 28 percentof working-age adults said they had no retirement savings whatsoever.

The racial wealth gap, already large, ballooned.
Whites: $171k
Hispanics:  $20.7k
African-Americans: $17.6k

In terms of household wealth, every group suffered — but some more than others.
Hispanics: -66 percent
Asian-Americans: -54 percent
African-Americans: -53 percent
Whites: -16 percent

Consumer credit-card debt at the end of 2017 was over $1 trillion (about 30% higher than in 2008).

Millennials have taken on at least 300 percent more student-loan debt than their parents’ generation.

The unemployed took many more weeks to find work.
May 2008: 7.9
June 2010: 25.2

In a December 2017 poll by YouGov, 38 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t know when they’d be debt-free. 30 percent of respondents thought they’d never be out of debt.

63 percent of Americans say they don’t have enough money in savings to cover a $500 health-care expense.

In 2017, women had nearly 500,000 fewer babies than in 2007, although there were 7 percent more women of prime childbearing age.

The suicide rate rose 4 percent from 1999 to 2010: 4,750 additional deaths.

24 million adult millennials, or 32 percent, still live at home.

79 million Americans live in a “shared household” with at least one extra, nonfamily resident.

More college grads moved in with their parents.
2005: 19 percent
2016: 28 percent

As of 2017, only 34.2 percent of homes have recovered their value from before the recession. (Still below 2008 value.)

From 2000 to 2015, homeownership declined in 90% of all U.S. metropolitan areas.

[source]

Frank Rich explores the lasting impact of that crash:

…the collapse of Lehman Brothers kicked off the Great Recession that proved to be a more lasting existential threat to America than the terrorist attack of seven Septembers earlier. The shadow it would cast is so dark that a decade later, even our current run of ostensible prosperity and peace does not mitigate the one conviction that still unites all Americans: Everything in the country is broken. Not just Washington, which failed to prevent the financial catastrophe and has done little to protect us from the next, but also race relations, health care, education, institutional religion, law enforcement, the physical infrastructure, the news media, the bedrock virtues of civility and community. Nearly everything has turned to crap, it seems, except Peak TV (for those who can afford it)…

Read the full essay: “In 2008, America Stopped Believing in the American Dream.”

Then consider Steve Bannon’s take on the same event:

The legacy of the financial crisis: Donald Trump. The legacy of the financial crisis is Donald J. Trump. And I can give you the specific moment: When they put Lehman in bankruptcy, and the geniuses didn’t understand that it was inextricably linked to the commercial paper market. Hank Paulson, Treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, the head of the Federal Reserve, they went to see Bush three days later. They told him, ‘We need a trillion dollars in cash, and we need it by five o’clock.’”

And in a profile of courage, President Bush says, “Not my problem. You gotta go to Capitol Hill.” They go up to Capitol Hill, they put everybody in a room. They make them all put their BlackBerrys outside, and they walk in, and Bernanke, who’s not an alarmist, says, “If we don’t have a trillion dollars by today, the American financial system will melt down in 72 hours. The world financial system will melt down in two weeks, and there will be global anarchy.”

And by the way, this was completely brought on by the elites of the country and Wall Street. When I got to Harvard Business School in 1983, a bunch of professors were coming up with a radical idea that’s had a horrible negative consequence on this country and to the fabric of our society: the maximization of shareholder value; this was preached as High Church theology. The whole thing of the financialization of Wall Street, of looking at people as pure commodities and of outsourcing and globalization, came from the business schools and the financial community that had these radical ideas, and nobody kept them in check…

I think you’re starting to see the deindustrialization of the country. We stopped investing in the country. Domestic investment’s all going over to China. We deindustrialized Western Europe. Brexit and 2016 are inextricably linked, okay?

Workers know this. It’s the labor vote in the midland counties that drove Brexit. This is what’s so obvious the Democratic Party misses. Donald Trump’s president because of working-class Democrats. The Trump movement is made up of people like my father, the Marty Bannons. My whole household was working-class Democrats. These are adamant Trump supporters because they understand Trump supports working-class people…

While the prescribed remedies may be wildly different as between the progressive writer and the Nativist provocateur, the diagnosis is eerily similar.  Read Bannon’s interview in full at “Steve Bannon on How 2008 Planted the Seed for the Trump Presidency.”

More perspectives on 2008 at “Ten Years After the Crash, We Are Still Living in the World It Brutally Remade.”

And lest we think too parochially, consider this argument that the Georgian War (Russia’s engagement in Georgia) in 2008 was (another) product of the same currents that yielded the financial crisis: “The Turning Point of 2008“… which, in turn, helped spur the growth of Russia’s use of criminal hackers: “It’s our time to serve the Motherland.”

Kenneth Arrow

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As we make our way down memory lane, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that George Orwell’s allegory, Animal Farm– A Fairy Story, was published.  (The U.S. edition, published in 1946, dropped the sub-title.)   While it has never disappeared from conversation about politics and governance, Animal Farm is enjoying a renaissance in these increasingly Nativist times.  But while Orwell rings only too relevant these days, we might do well to keep in mind his friendly competitor (and one-time school master), Aldous Huxley, and Huxley’s Brave New World:

In his classic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote of the difference between George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s visions of fascism.

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information,” wrote Postman. “Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

More at “Amusing Ourselves to Trump.”

For a nifty cartoon version of the Orwell-Huxley distinction, see here.

And for a further exploration of this modern day Scylla and Charybdis, see “Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

220px-Animal_Farm_-_1st_edition

First edition cover

source

 

“A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”*…

 

bookstore-slide-2MCD-jumbo source

It was in Athens in the 4th Century BC that a man named Zeno walked into a bookshop. He had been a successful merchant, but suffered a terrible shipwreck on a journey out of Phoenicia, losing a priceless cargo of the world’s finest dye. He was 30 years old and facing financial ruin, but this catastrophe stirred his soul to find something new, though he didn’t quite know what.

One day, immersed in browsing a bookstore collection, many volumes of which have been lost to history forever, Zeno heard the bookseller reading out loud a passage from a book by Xenophon about Socrates. It was like nothing he had ever heard before. With some trepidation, he approached the owner and asked, “Where can I find a man like that?” and in so doing, began a philosophical journey that would literally change the history of the world. That book recommendation led to the founding of Stoicism and then, to the brilliant works of SenecaEpictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — which, not lost to history, are beginning to find a new life on bookshelves today. From those heirs to Zeno’s bookshop conversion, there is a straight line to many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and even to the Founding Fathers of America.

All from a chance encounter in a bookshop.

It would be an understatement to say that great things begin in bookstores, and that countless lives have been changed inside them…

 

Why spend time amongst the shelves? “Good Things Happen in Book Stores.”

* Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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As we browse in bliss, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Jonson; he died on this date in 1637.  A poet, actor, literary critic, and playwright (he popularized the comedy of humours), he is best remembered for his satirical plays Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone, or The Fox (c. 1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614), and for his lyric and epigrammatic poetry.

Eclipsing Christopher Marlowe, Jonson is generally regarded as the second most important English playwright during the reigns of Elizabeth I of James VI and I (after Shakespeare, with whom Jonson had a professional rivalry, but on whose death Jonson wrote “He was not of an age, but for all time”).  Indeed, while Shakespeare’s impact continues apace to this day, Jonson’s impact was arguably even bigger in the relatively-more immediate timeframe: he had broad and deep influence on the playwrights and the poets of the Jacobean era (1603–1625) and of the Caroline era (1625–1642).

220px-Benjamin_Jonson_by_Abraham_van_Blyenberch source

 

Written by LW

August 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Interpretation reached such proportions that the real vanished”*…

 

Acid in movies

Just one of the wonderful GIF’s and YouTube clips collected by author Dennis Cooper at “Some films (1966 – 1974) that either faked ingesting LSD or did.”

* Erich Auerbach

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As we mind the drop, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” opened in the Catskills in New York State.  The organizers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair– or Woodstock, as it is remembered– had hoped to sell 50,000 tickets; but by the week before the event, had moved 186,000.  A last-minute change of venue presented them with a hard choice: hastily erect more/stronger fences and install additional security on the new site (the now-famous Yasgur’s Farm) or offer the event for free.  The night before the event, with attendees already arriving in huge numbers, the promoters cut the fence.  Ultimately an estimated 400,000 people enjoyed a (somewhat rainy) weekend of performances from 32 acts.  It was, as Rolling Stone opined, a defining moment in Rock and Roll… and one at which scores and scores of trips were taken.

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Written by LW

August 15, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge”*…

 

smiling_baby_10-1024x576

If you construct a Lego model of the University of London’s Senate House – the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the Lego blocks themselves remain unchanged. Take apart the structure, reassemble the blocks in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, and the shape, weight and colour of the blocks stay the same.

This approach, applied to the world at large, is known as atomism. It holds that everything in nature is made up of tiny, immutable parts. What we perceive as change and flux are just cogs turning in the machine of the Universe – a huge but ultimately comprehensible mechanism that is governed by universal laws and composed of smaller units. Trying to identify these units has been the focus of science and technology for centuries. Lab experiments pick out the constituents of systems and processes; factories assemble goods from parts composed of even smaller parts; and the Standard Model tells us about the fundamental entities of modern physics.

But when phenomena don’t conform to this compositional model, we find them hard to understand. Take something as simple as a smiling baby: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain a baby’s beaming smile by looking at the behaviour of the constituent atoms of the child in question, let alone in terms of its subatomic particles such as gluons, neutrinos and electrons. It would be better to resort to developmental psychology, or even a narrative account (‘The father smiled at the baby, and the baby smiled back’). Perhaps a kind of fundamental transformation has occurred, producing some new feature or object that can’t be reduced to its parts.

The notion of emergence can help us to see what’s going on here. While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex…

Does everything in the world boil down to basic units – or can emergence explain how distinctive new things arise?  Paul Humphreys helps us understand at “Out of nowhere.”

[Image above: source]

* Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

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As we forage for the fundamental, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Ernest Everett Just; he was born on this date in 1883.  A pioneering biologist, academic, and science writer, he contributed mightily to the understanding of cell division, the fertilization of egg cells, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells, and the effect of ultra violet rays on egg cells.

An African-American, he had limited academic prospects on his graduation from Dartmouth, but was able to land a teaching spot at Howard University.  Just met  Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass.  In 1909 Lillie invited Just to spend first one, then several summers at Woods Hole, where Just pioneered the study of whole cells under normal conditions (rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting).  In 1915, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the NAACP.

But outside MBL, Just experienced discrimination.  Seeking more opportunity, he spent most of the 1930s in various European universities– until the outbreak of WW II hostilities caused him to return to the U.S. in late 1940.  He died of pancreatic cancer the next year.

Ernest_Everett_Just source

 

Written by LW

August 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked.”*…

 

ostrich denial

We are all in denial, some of the time at least. Part of being human, and living in a society with other humans, is finding clever ways to express – and conceal – our feelings. From the most sophisticated diplomatic language to the baldest lie, humans find ways to deceive. Deceptions are not necessarily malign; at some level they are vital if humans are to live together with civility. As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.”

Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.

Denialism is an expansion, an intensification, of denial. At root, denial and denialism are simply a subset of the many ways humans have developed to use language to deceive others and themselves. Denial can be as simple as refusing to accept that someone else is speaking truthfully. Denial can be as unfathomable as the multiple ways we avoid acknowledging our weaknesses and secret desires.

Denialism is more than just another manifestation of the humdrum intricacies of our deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment. Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth…

Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly. But we need to start preparing for that eventuality, because denialism is starting to break down – and not in a good way…

From vaccines to climate change to genocide, a new age of denialism is upon us. Why have we failed to understand it?  Keith Kahn-Harris on “Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth.”

* Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

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As we fight to face up, we might send epistemologically-ambitious birthday greetings to William Isaac Thomas; he was born on this date in 1863.  A pioneering sociologist, he formulated a fundamental principle of sociology, now known as the Thomas theorem:  simply put, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Portrait_of_William_Isaac_Thomas source

 

Written by LW

August 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears”*…

 

city of the future

Concept for Babel IID. The line drawing to the left shows the Empire State building for scale. Arcology, Paolo Soleri, 1969.

 

For centuries, architects and urban planners have mixed the mundane with the fantastical as they imagined the cities of the future. While some ideas toyed with the building blocks, others reflected a desire to fundamentally reshape urban life — and to solve some of society’s most pressing problems. Their plans were a mix of ambition, realism, fantasy, and folly — but were the resulting ideas visionary, or just dreams of worlds that could never feasibly be built?…

From Christopher Wren and his plan for London after the Great Fire of 1666 to Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri, a consideration of visionary urban planning: could fantastical plans for the cities of tomorrow solve the real problems of urban life? Consider the case at “Architects of the Future.”

For a treatment of urban history from a different perspective, see “The cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live.” See also “Science Fiction Cities: How our future visions influence the cities we build.”

Then, for an alternative to the top-down, utopian approach to urban planning, read Jane Jacobs.

* Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

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As we contemplate community, we might spare a thought for Hendrik Petrus Berlage; he died on this date in 1934. The “Father of Modern architecture” in the Netherlands, Berage was deeply influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.  But he was probably most impactful in his influence on most Dutch architectural groups of the 1920s, including the Traditionaliststhe Amsterdam SchoolDe Stijl and the New Objectivists.

220px-Berlage source

 

Written by LW

August 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A graceful taunt is worth a thousand insults”*…

 

cards

Bumblepuppist

Definition – a bad whist player

Every so often you need a specific insult, and bumblepuppist is about as specific as they get. We will grant you that the game of whist is not as popular as it once was, having been edged out by newfangled card games such as euchre and canasta, but once upon a time whist was the most deucedly popular card game in the land. This ranks pretty high on the list of words which are likely inapplicable in your life, but imagine how excited you will be if you do meet someone who not only plays whist, but is bad at it, and you have the appropriate descriptor.

Bumblepuppist is also sometimes rendered as bumblepupper, and the word for “whist played poorly or without regard for rules” is bumblepuppy (from bumble and puppy).

“Bumblepuppy,” as defined by a renowned authority upon whist, is a game played by people who imagine that they are playing whist, but who in reality know nothing of that intricate game.
— The New York Times, 1 Jul. 1883

Just one in a collection of put-downs bigger than the sum of their parts: “8 Insults Made Up of a Noun and a Verb.”

* Louis Nizer

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As we test the limits of civility, we might send fascinating birthday greetings to Fernando Arrabal Terán; he was born on this date in 1932.  A playwright, screenwriter, film director, novelist, and poet, the New York Times’ Mel Gussow has called him the last survivor among the “three avatars of modernism.”  In 1962, Arrabal co-founded the Panic Movement with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor, inspired by the god Pan.  In 1990 he was elected Transcendent Satrap of The Collège de ‘Pataphysique, a “society committed to learned and inutilious research” (“inutilious” = “useless”).  Forty other Transcendent Satraps have been elected over the past half-century, including Marcel Duchamp, Eugène Ionesco, Man Ray, Boris Vian, Dario Fo, Umberto Eco, and Jean Baudrillard.  Arrabal spent three years as a member of André Breton’s surrealist group and was a friend of Andy Warhol and Tristan Tzara.  A chess fanatic (a passion he shared with Duchamp), Arrabal wrote a chess column for the French weekly L’Express for over thirty years.

200px-Fernando_Arrabal,_2012 source

 

Written by LW

August 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

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