(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘culture

“Poverty is the worst form of violence”*…

Two economic historians, Peter A. Coclanis and Louis M. Kyriakoudes, on why about 20% of counties in the U.S. South are marked by “persistent poverty”…

For a brief moment in the summer of 2023, the surprise No. 1 song “Rich Men North of Richmond” focused the country’s attention on a region that often gets overlooked in discussions of the U.S. economy. Although the U.S. media sometimes pays attention to the rural South — often concentrating on guns, religion and opioid overdoses — it has too often neglected the broad scope and root causes of the region’s current problems.

As economic historians based in North Carolina and Tennessee, we want a fuller version of the story to be told. Various parts of the rural South are struggling, but here we want to focus on the forlorn areas that the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers to as “rural manufacturing counties” — places where manufacturing is, or traditionally was, the main economic activity.

You can find such counties in every Southern state, although they were historically clustered in Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee. And they are suffering terribly.

First, let’s back up. One might be tempted to ask: Are things really that bad? Hasn’t the Sun Belt been booming? But in fact, by a range of economic indicators — personal income per capita and the proportion of the population living in poverty, for starters – large parts of the South, and particularly the rural South, are struggling.

Gross domestic product per capita in the region has been stuck at about 90% of the national average for decades, with average income even lower in rural areas. About 1 in 5 counties in the South is marked by “persistent poverty” — a poverty rate that has stayed above 20% for three decades running. Indeed, fully 80% of all persistently poor counties in the U.S. are in the South.

Persistent poverty is, of course, linked to a host of other problems. The South’s rural counties are marked by low levels of educational attainment, measured both by high school and college graduation rates. Meanwhile, labor-force participation rates in the South are far lower than in the nation as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, these issues stifle economic growth.

Meanwhile, financial institutions have fled the region: The South as a whole lost 62% of its banks between 1980 and 2020, with the decline sharpest in rural areas. At the same time, local hospitals and medical facilities have been shuttering, while funding for everything from emergency services to wellness programs has been cut.

Relatedly, the rural South is ground zero for poor health in the U.S., with life expectancy far lower than the national average. So-called “deaths of despair” such as suicides and accidental overdoses are common, and rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke are high – much higher than in rural areas in other parts of the U.S. and in the U.S. as a whole

Although some people think that these areas have forever been in crisis, this isn’t the case. While the South’s agricultural sector had fallen into long-term decline in the decades following the Civil War — essentially collapsing by the Great Depression — the onset of World War II led to an impressive economic growth spurt.

War-related jobs opening up in urban areas pulled labor out of rural areas, leading to a long-delayed push to mechanize agriculture. Workers rendered redundant by such technology came to constitute a large pool of cheap labor that industrialists seized upon to deploy in low-wage processing and assembly operations, generally in rural areas and small towns.

Such operations surged between 1945 and the early 1980s, playing a huge role in the region’s economic rise. However humble they may have been, in the South — as in China since the late 1970s — the shift out of a backward agricultural sector into low-wage, low-skill manufacturing was an opportunity for significant productivity and efficiency gains.

This helped the South steadily catch up to national norms in terms of per-capita income: to 75% by 1950, 80% by the mid-1960s, over 85% by 1970, and to almost 90% by the early 1980s…

By the early 1980s, however, the gains made possible by the shift out of agriculture began to play themselves out. The growth of the rural manufacturing sector slowed, and the South’s convergence upon national per capita income norms stopped, remaining stuck at about 90% from then on.

Two factors were largely responsible: new technologies, which reduced the number of workers needed in manufacturing, and globalization, which greatly increased competition. This latter point became increasingly important, since the South, a low-cost manufacturing region in the U.S., is a high-cost manufacturing region when compared to, say, Mexico.

Like Mike Campbell’s bankruptcy in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” the rural South’s collapse came gradually, then suddenly: gradually during the 1980s and 1990s, and suddenly after China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in December 2001…

A sobering read: “Poor men south of Richmond? Why much of the rural South is in economic crisis.”

* Mahatma Gandhi


As we dive into the dynamics of development, we might recall that it was on this date in 1718 that the famous pirate Edward Teach– better known as Blackbeard– was killed off the coast of North Carolina.

Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, is killed off North Carolina’s Outer Banks during a bloody battle with a British navy force sent from Virginia.

Believed to be a native of England, Edward Teach likely began his pirating career in 1713, when he became a crewman aboard a Caribbean sloop commanded by pirate Benjamin Hornigold. In 1717, after Hornigold accepted an offer of general amnesty by the British crown and retired as a pirate, Teach took over a captured 26-gun French merchantman, increased its armament to 40 guns, and renamed it the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

During the next six months, the Queen Anne’s Revenge served as the flagship of a pirate fleet featuring up to four vessels and more than 200 men. Teach became the most infamous pirate of his day, winning the popular name of Blackbeard for his long, dark beard, which he was said to light on fire during battles to intimidate his enemies. Blackbeard’s pirate forces terrorized the Caribbean and the southern coast of North America and were notorious for their cruelty.

In May 1718, the Queen Anne’s Revenge and another vessel were shipwrecked, forcing Blackbeard to desert a third ship and most of his men because of a lack of supplies. With the single remaining ship, Blackbeard sailed to Bath in North Carolina and met with Governor Charles Eden. Eden agreed to pardon Blackbeard in exchange for a share of his sizable booty.

At the request of North Carolina planters, Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia dispatched a British naval force under Lieutenant Robert Maynard to North Carolina to deal with Blackbeard. On November 22, Blackbeard’s forces were defeated and he was killed in a bloody battle of Ocracoke Island. Legend has it that Blackbeard, who captured more than 30 ships in his brief pirating career, received five musket-ball wounds and 20 sword lacerations before dying…

Blackbeard, as pictured in Charles Johnson‘s A General History of the Pyrates. (source)

“Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject, nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling”*…

Beethoven at 30 (1800)

The estimable Ted Gioia is exploring the possibility that we are at the cusp of a major change in the zeitgeist– the beginning of a new age of Romanticism…

I made a flippant remark a few months ago. It was almost a joke.

But then I started taking it seriously.

I said that technocracy had grown so oppressive and manipulative it would spur a backlash. And that our rebellion might resemble the Romanticist movement of the early 1800s.

We need a new Romanticism, I quipped. And we will probably get one.

A new Romanticism? Could that really happen? That seems so unlikely.

Even I didn’t take this seriously (at first). I was just joking. But during the subsequent weeks and months, I kept thinking about my half-serious claim.

I realized that, the more I looked at what happened circa 1800, the more it reminded me of our current malaise.

  • Rationalist and algorithmic models were dominating every sphere of life at that midpoint in the Industrial Revolution—and people started resisting the forces of progress.
  • Companies grew more powerful, promising productivity and prosperity. But Blake called them “dark Satanic mills” and Luddites started burning down factories—a drastic and futile step, almost the equivalent of throwing away your smartphone.
  • Even as science and technology produced amazing results, dysfunctional behaviors sprang up everywhere. The pathbreaking literary works from the late 1700s reveal the dark side of the pervasive techno-optimism—Goethe’s novel about Werther’s suicide, the Marquis de Sade’s nasty stories, and all those gloomy Gothic novels. What happened to the Enlightenment?
  • As the new century dawned, the creative class (as we would call it today) increasingly attacked rationalist currents that had somehow morphed into violent, intrusive forces in their lives—an 180 degree shift in the culture. For Blake and others, the name Newton became a term of abuse.
  • Artists, especially poets and musicians, took the lead in this revolt. They celebrated human feeling and emotional attachments—embracing them as more trustworthy, more flexible, more desirable than technology, profits, and cold calculation.

That’s the world, circa 1800.

The new paradigm shocked Europe when it started to spread. Cultural elites had just assumed that science and reason would control everything in the future. But that wasn’t how it played out.

Resemblances with the current moment are not hard to see.

These considerations led me, about nine months ago, to conduct a deep dive into the history of the Romanticist movement. I wanted to see what the historical evidence told me.

I’m now structuring my research in chronological order—that’s a method I often use in addressing big topics.

I make no great promises for what I share below. These are just notes on what happened in Western culture from 1800 to 1804—listed year-by-year.

Sharing these is part of my process. I expect this will generate useful feedback, and guide me on the next phase of this project…

Because music is always my entry point into cultural changes, it plays a key role here in how I analyze past (and present) events. I firmly believe that music is an early indicator of social change. The notes below are offered as evidence in support of that view…

[There follows a fascinating– and compelling– account of those five years, featuring Napoleon, Haydn, Beethoven, Woodsworth, Coleridge, Herder, Schelling, the Marquis de Sade, Novalis, Ann Radcliffe, and others]

… Beethoven turns against Napoleon—and this is emblematic of the aesthetic reversal sweeping through Europe. Not long ago, Beethoven and other artists looked to French rationalism as a harbinger of a new age of freedom and individual flourishing. But this entire progress-obsessed ideology is unraveling.

It’s somehow fitting that music takes the lead role in deconstructing a tyrannical rationalism, and proposing a more human alternative.

Could that happen again?

  • Imagine a growing sense that algorithmic and mechanistic thinking has become too oppressive.
  • Imagine if people started resisting technology as a malicious form of control, and not a pathway to liberation, empowerment, and human flourishing—soul-nurturing riches that must come from someplace deeper.
  • Imagine a revolt against STEM’s dominance and dictatorship over all other fields?
  • Imagine people deciding that the good life starts with NOT learning how to code.

If that happened now, wouldn’t music stand out as the pathway? What could possibly be more opposed to brutal rationalism running out of control than a song?

But what does that kind of music sound like? In 1800, it was Beethoven. And today?…

Why it may be 1800 all over again: “Notes Toward a New Romanticism,” from @tedgioia in his terrific newsletter, The Honest Broker.

* Charles Baudelaire


As we review vibes on the verge, we might send rational birthday greetings to an avatar of the Enlightenment against which the Romantics rebelled, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born on this date in 1694.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 21, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Those of us who read because we love it more than anything, feel about bookstores the way some people feel about jewelers”*…

Your correspondent is certainly among that number; bookstores– and libraries– are at the center of my mental map of civilization. So imagine my surprise when Alex Leslie delivered data demoting book shops in the literary hierarchy…

A lot of ink has been spilled over the decline of the dedicated bookstore – stores dedicated “just” or primarily to selling books – amid the rise of online retailers and e-readers in the 21st century. Yet dedicated bookstores were often not the main source of books in the U.S. historically. In fact, that market role was highly contested over the last two centuries.

In the early 20th century, a consumer could buy books from many different types of retailer. The specific focus, stock, clientele, and consumer experience of these different retailer types varied significantly and did much to shape the relationship between consumers (or readers) and books. In this richly varied market, the dedicated bookstore was outplayed on multiple fronts…

[Leslie brings the receipts…]

… Perhaps the most striking aspect of their position in the book retail market is how unstriking it is. Dedicated Bookstores represented a significant 7.5% of Lippincott’s revenue, yet they trailed behind News companies and Department Stores (Fig. 1). They carried less purchasing power at the individual level, where they fell in the middle of the pack behind less-common yet higher-volume retailer types like Foreign, Medical, and even Religious (Fig. 2). And while Bookstores were easily the second-most-common retailer of books, only 9% bought directly from Lippincott’s—meaning that they weren’t especially consistent either (Fig. 3).

Dedicated Bookstores were a major player in the book ecosystem, but they did not define it. They competed in a tight market where other retailer types beat them on affordability, breadth of location, specialized subject matter, and high-margin editions. In this context, dedicated Bookstores could all too easily become jacks of all trades and masters of none. A majority of Americans got their books from other retailers, and this was not entirely due to a lack of dedicated Bookstores in many towns: it also stemmed from a lack in dedicated Bookstores’ business model, a lack which continued to plague them into the 21st century even as they became more ubiquitous. For all our platitudes about the power of books writ large or reading as a single hobby, books seem to be less of a unifying force in their own right than the subjects they concern or the experiences they complement…

Still, I love them: “The Dedicated Bookstore Predicament,” from @azleslie.

* Anna Quindlen


As we browse, we might spare a thought for Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (known in English as Leo Tolstoy); he died on this date in 1910. A writer whose works adorn most bookstores, he is considered one of the greatest authors of all time. (He received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906 and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909, but never won. After one slight, August Strindberg and dozens of other authors and artists issued a proclamation shaming the Nobel Committee.)

Tolstoy is best known for War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878), widely regarded as pinnacles of realistic fiction. In the late 1870s, after a profound moral crisis, followed by what he regarded as an equally profound spiritual awakening, he became a fervent Christian anarchist and pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), had a profound impact on such pivotal 20th-century figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ludwig Wittgenstein.


“You are a citizen, and citizenship carries responsibilities”*…

Back in the mid-90s, your correspondent was interviewed for an article in Wired in which I was asked for an opinion on the future of nationalism. My answer (TLDR: “citizens” were becoming “consumers”) was rooted in observations of a dynamic afoot across several domains– that as the logic of the market colonized more and more civic and social spaces, more relationships were becoming “consumer-vendor”- like: students becoming consumers of (especially higher) education, patients becoming consumers of healthcare, even “worshippers” becoming consumers (of some) religions… but especially citizens becoming consumers of their governments.

Though I was only pointing out what I saw (and certainly not suggesting nor endorsing the shifts), I got a deluge of responses, pretty evenly divided between assertions that I couldn’t be more wrong and accusations that I was preaching dangerous, even seditious, change.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and here we are. As Kai Brach reports in his wonderful newsletter, Dense Discovery

We are living deep inside the ‘Consumer Story’, a foundational story of humans as inherently self-interested and competitive. It’s a story that has shaped not just individual behaviour but organisational design, economic theory, the role of government, morality – all of culture and society.

This is according to author and citizen advocate Jon Alexander. As he outlines in his book Citizens and his talks, he believes it’s time to change the Consumer Story into a ‘Citizen Story’ to take control of our collective agency and transform our communities, our institutions and our politics.

In two articles for the BBC and Psyche, Alexander and co-author Ariane Conrad argue that in today’s prevalent Consumer Story, self-reliance has become an extreme sport, leading us to pursue only our own self-interest.

We define ourselves through competition. Along the way, our choices represent our power, our creativity, our identity – they make us who we are. Every organisation and institution, from businesses to charities to government, exists to offer these choices. All are reduced to providers of products and services…

We have such pervasive inequality that it threatens the safety of everyone (even the wealthiest), while the story says that our primary responsibility is to compete to hoard more. We have ecological breakdown, while the story insists that our identity and status rely upon ever-increasing consumption. We have an epidemic of loneliness and mental health challenges, yet the story tells us we stand alone.

Every single day, we’re bombarded with messages that condition us to think of ourselves as consumers: independent and self-contained individuals rather than interdependent social beings. … When a local council has a ‘customer service hotline’, or a political campaign is interested only in harvesting clicks, it’s pushing us deeper into the Consumer Story.

The BBC article lists a range of examples of communities and organisations that move the Citizen Story forward, while the Psyche piece offers a list of practical steps/considerations that help us “step up and step in.”…

Are you a “subject,” a “consumer”… or a “citizen”? Becoming the citizens we need to be, from @kaib@mastodin.au.

Paul Collier


As we rethink our relationships, we might note that it was on this date in 1955 that a leading advocate for policies that greased the shift from citizen to consumer, The National Review, published its first issue. Founded by William F. Buckley Jr., the magazine has played a significant role in the development of conservatism in the United States, helping to define its boundaries and promoting fusionism; it remains a leading voice on (and of) the American right. 


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 19, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once”*…

Our lives are spread across range of ways that we spend our time. A newly-published study tracks time-use around the world…

How do you spend each day? Researchers sought answers to that basic question from people of various ages living around the world. They report that on an average day, people spend more than a third of their time focused on matters of health, happiness and keeping up appearances.

“We found that the single largest chunk of time is really focused on humans ourselves, a little more than 9 hours,” explained study author Eric Galbraith, of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “Most of this—about 6.5 hours—is doing things that we enjoy, like hanging out, watching TV, socializing and doing sports,” he said. Reading and gaming also fall within this rubric.

The other 2.5 hours (out of the 9) are spent on hygiene, grooming and taking care of our own health and that of our kids, said Galbraith, a professor in the department of earth and planetary sciences.

Sleep and bedrest occupy the next largest chunk of time: more than 9 hours on average. That sounds like a lot of shut-eye, but Galbraith stressed this number reflects the average across the full age span, so it includes kids who might sleep up to 11 hours a day. “It also includes time in bed and not sleeping, which can be as much as one hour per day,” he said…

The remaining minutes? They seem to go toward getting organized, moving about or producing, creating and maintaining things and spaces…

For more findings and background on the methodology: “Sleep, cleaning, fun: Research reveals the average human’s day worldwide,” in @physorg_com.

* Albert Einstein


As we contemplate chronology, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that the Swedish game design house Mojang Studios released the first full version of Minecraft. A sandbox game created  by Markus “Notch” Persson, it has become the best-selling video game in history, with over 300 million copies sold– and countless hours consumed…


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