The Imminent Capitalist Reckoning, Ctd

In the heat of writing the last post, there was something I didn’t stress enough. The post shouldn’t have been about making a prediction. Predictions are fun, but not really that useful except to try and make yourself look smart or to accidentally make yourself look dumb. In overemphasizing the prediction, I understressed what should have been the central point, which is that – in a country with key costs rising faster than incomes – people are suffering. People are suffering and increasingly unable to afford the things they need the most. That’s what matters.

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The Imminent Capitalist Reckoning

Have you ever heard of the economist William Baumol? Probably not, because economists are almost always boring and often little more than hacks that rich people invest in to help them save money on taxes. But Baumol appears to be one of the rare economists to stumble upon a genuine insight. One of his ideas is known as Baumol’s cost disease (always name your smart discoveries after yourself), which essentially states that if large capital investments are used to automate the mass production of goods, the price of those goods will fall and the costs of services – i.e., tasks that humans must in large part perform – will rise as a result. Because wages for workers benefiting from increasingly automated, increasingly efficient, mass-production will rise, these workers will be more able and willing to pay higher prices for services. When this happens, prices and wages for service workers will rise. Thus, even though Beethoven’s Fifth remains Beethoven’s Fifth whether it be played in the 18th century or the 23rd, God willing, the players and conductors in the 23rd will be payed much more than the player and conductors were payed in the 18th. And, since the playing of Beethoven’s Fifth can’t be automated the way manufacturing a diaper can be, the cost of the Fifth, relative to the cost of the diaper, will increase.

Put another way, as the ability of capital to mass produce dead objects/goods increases, the relative price of these dead objects will decrease against that which cannot be mass-produced – again, i.e., tasks that humans must in large part perform.

One more try: as people experience income growth and can purchase many goods with less money, they will pay more for things that are less easily automated, aka people-performed work aka services. If you still don’t understand at this point you should probably stop reading and make loud fun of me for being a bad writer and explainer.

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What a Week It Has Been

Most of the time changes happens slowly. It’s only by looking back at a long stretch of time and reflecting that we recognize substantial differences in our reality. However, there are some weeks, like these past two, when so much seems to happen all at once.

After an outrageous and distinctly American act of terrorism, huge momentum has emerged to remove symbols of treachery and hatred from prominent places in the South. The highest court in the land affirmed President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, ensuring millions continued access to affordable healthcare. And, as the best sequel since Godfather Part II, the same court legalized gay marriage nationwide.

Much of what this means for our country and the legacy of President Obama remains to be understood. But, if anything, it should put to rest forever any ideas that his presidency has been a minor one. Quite the opposite is the case. For too long, too many have been quick to think that the president has failed to deliver. He promised change they say, but too much remains the same. This, quite simply, ignores objective reality. It’s one thing to disagree with what he’s done; it’s lunacy to suggest that he hasn’t done much. That has never been more obvious in any week during his presidency as this one.

Yet for all his tangible actions while in office, his greatest achievement is and always will be the fact of his election. He is, and always will be, the first black president this nation has ever known. That fact is inescapable and never more apparent than it was on Friday when he delivered the eulogy for the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney. He spoke as only he could. In his oration, he articulated the astonishing and gut-wrenching flaws of our country, baked into it from the founding. But his words did far more than that. They went above and beyond the filler text politicians and leaders too often mumble to pay lip-service to the “conversation about race.” They were real. They were personal. They spoke to his own experience, to the experience of his audience. They lamented the dead. He made us remember what we too often forget and ignore or never even learned. He helped us decipher a small section of the American story, with tales of the past and present. As one of our greatest once wrote, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Our president has failed in countless ways, but Friday he was there for all of us, carrying the light onward. Leading us with grace and song.

More reactions from James FallowsDavid Remnick, and Greg Howard.

American History

It has been a long time since the last post. Life is busy and routine-oriented. If you’re in you’re in, and if you’re out you’re out. College graduation and a big move have brought me back to a point where I want to be in. That and recent events.

On Wednesday night, nine of our fellow Americans were massacred in a church. A man walked into the church and sat in on a Bible study for about an hour, and then opened fire. He left one woman alive to testify to what he had done. There was also a five-year-old who survived by playing dead. The words he spoke to the woman have been ringing in my eyes ever since I first read them. I will not repeat them here.

There are almost an infinite number of reactions to this horror. Many of them have been acted and spoken and written through a variety of mediums and platforms – vigils to protests to quiet prayer and tears – in the past few days from politician and citizen alike. One thing that is often said in times like these (and there have been far too many times like these, unfortunately there will be more) is that there are no words. On its face, this is in some ways a true and reasonable response. Words can do incredibly many things, but they do not have the power to contain the awfulness of such a thing as this. They only contain what the mind can hold. Unfortunately, this is not enough. It is not enough to be speechless in such times. Especially when there are so many words that must be said to rebut the words of the murderer and the murderer himself: racist, appalling, disgusting, repellent, criminal, abominable, killer, murderer, evil, liar, pathetic, narcissist, paranoid, cynical,…, American. The last one may be the most important of all. This was a crime committed against Americans, by an American. The crime took place in the state where the American grew up, a state with the Confederate flag flying over its capital building.

More words: Charles P, Pierce; Ta-Nehisi Coates; and a Vox collection. Last, but not least, Jon Stewart’s brilliant response here.

A Ladder to the Stars

Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest New Yorker. Like most of what he does, it’s more flash than substance and sacrifices most verifiable/technical details in favor of a good narrative. But, also like most of the stuff he does, the narrative is an interesting one and makes a certain amount of sense. As long as we leave the science to someone else.

The subject is social mobility and organized crime. It’s a review of the new book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” by Alice Goffman. Gladwell uses a 40-year-old non-fiction book “A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime” to provide context and counter-narrative. “A Family Business” is the real-life story of The Godfather, with a different ending. Both chronicle a family of Italian immigrants in New York City and their rise to power. Starting small, they start successful businesses and use their large families to pool their strength. Their empires grow through cleverness, trust, and fear, the latter abetted with crime and intimidation. One is true and the other is not. It is at the end however, that the stories diverge. In The Godfather the characters are never able to cast aside their criminal roots. They are never able to join the ranks of legitimate society. The old guards always hold them at arm’s length and the past can never be put in the past. That is the fiction. The truth, told to us in “A Family Business,” is that, once achieving a certain status, successful mobsters were able to direct their descendants down the legitimate corridors of our republic. Academia, business, politics – all were fair game and all were accessible to them. Many of these descendants make up our current prestigious and high-standing families. The new old money if you will.

In contrast, Goffman’s work tells a similar story, albeit one with different subjects and different outcomes. It is the story of black urbanites. Like the big-city immigrants before them, they to sought the trappings of legitimacy. The typical doors were closed to them so they resolved to create new ones. Also like immigrant families they used crime, in their world it was drugs. But, like the best of the immigrants, crime was not an end, but a means. It was a path to legitimacy (Stringer Bell from The Wire). A crooked ladder to the American dream. They held true an idea best articulated by the Japanese saying (that comes to us now from a scene in Mad Men) “A man is whatever room he is in.” The game was to get into the room. And in a rigged game they had to break the rules. However, in the last third of the 20th century our society declared war on its criminals. Many things that were once viewed with a blind or corrupt eye became targets. The so-called crooked ladder of upward mobility was pulled out from under them.

Fascinating narrative no? It’s one of those that sounds so good it’s hard to believe it’s not true. Of course it happened, but a lot of other things happened too.

Remember the Titans, “Based on a True Story,” and the Sometimes-No-BS Wonder of Great Cliches

In lieu of a regular movie review this week, I thought I’d respond to a Deadspin post yesterday about Greg Paspatis, former kicker for T.C. Williams high school under coach Herman Boone. Of course we all remember said high school and said coach from the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans. For those who don’t remember, a quick synopsis, courtesy of IMDb:

It’s 1971 in Alexandria, Virginia and successful high school football coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) has just been deprived of the head coaching job at the newly integrated T.C. Williams High School to make way for equally successful black coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington). Yoast debates pursuing opportunities elsewhere, but when most of his white players vow to sit out the season unless he coaches, he changes his mind and stays on as Boone’s assistant.

Throughout training camp and the season, Boone and Yoast’s black and white players learn to accept each other, to work together, and that football knows no race. As they learn from each other, Boone and Yoast also learn from them and in turn, the whole town learns from the team, the Titans. Thus, they are prepared to pursue the State Championship and to deal with an unthinkable tragedy that threatens to sink their perfect season.

Sounds cheesy, but so does every synopsis. It’s a great movie. Unfortunately for all of us who feel that way, the Deadspin post is not good news. It follows Paspatis’ efforts to tell the truth about the school and Coach Boone. From the article and what else I’ve heard in the years since the movie came out, it’s accurate and damning. It’s a story of a school twice as large as its rivals, which naturally dominated in the premier sport of the time and place: football. Herman Boone is not flattered either. Apparently he wasn’t really a good coach and a jerk and even worse, since the movie, has gone on a bunch of speaking tours designed for self-promotion above all, without regard for facts. Furthermore, the school integrated in 1965, six years before the film claimed it was desegregated. Race relations weren’t much of a problem during that season, or at least not close to as much as the movie claimed. Bottom line: any investigation pretty much tears most of what we love about the movie to shreds.

My dad grew up in Northern Virginia and his former high school remains a rival of T.C. Williams. He loved the movie, despite being aware of some of its distortions. He was also really nice to not crush my childhood idolatry of the movie in too bad a way. Perhaps I’m too biased, but I submit to you that it’s possible to love the movie as separate from what really happened. Like almost everything in this world, it was a tremendously flawed project, but one that we can still appreciate.

Call me a sap, but I don’t understand how you could go into the movie on a normal day and fail to be moved on the way out. Especially if you’re a sports fan. It’s one of those experiences that makes you glad you learned all the sentimental cliches once upon a time. They are useful sometimes after all. Perhaps our love/hate relationship with cliches comes from a simultaneous acknowledgement of the fact that many of them articulate the way we want things to be, while reminding us of their impossibility, shallowness, and often banality. Of course it’s cliche to say “this movie shows us all humans are more alike than different” and “racial divides crumble when confronted with the power of the human spirit” and “humans are incredible when they come together.” But why does the fact that they’re often said take away their meaning? Aren’t they deep truths we should aspire to experience, prove true, and depict in art? Even more importantly, don’t stories exist to expose such truths that are too hard to see in the grind and messiness of everyday life?

Over time our cliches have been cheapened with Budweiser ads and political slogans and consolatory bromides and so much more, but we shouldn’t forsake them because they’ve been misused. Instead we should hold onto them that much tighter so they never lose their real purpose, because if all of them turn out to be lies then I don’t think anything’s true. We should always be skeptical when they appear but never abandon hope that this time we may be seeing the real thing. It’s so easy to be cynical because it’s so often justified, but this sometimes lets us off the hook. What’s much harder is to find the good in things and live by it. No wonder we avoid that search and censor those questions with snideness or choose to withdraw to avoid further pain. Maybe if we choose to embrace the messages of this movie (a movie not without the heartbreaks and irreconcilable tragedies of real life) we can make it mean something real. Of course it’s imperfect, spoiler alert: everything is. I’m glad Greg Paspatis is telling the real truth about T.C. and Boone because they shouldn’t get the credit for this. But that doesn’t mean that everything depicted in the movie is a lie.

The biggest flaw of the movie (apart from the fact that the actors are obviously not in high school, Boone’s wife has a horrible Southern accent, and that last TD run featured some absurd blocking from a skinny QB) is that it claimed to be “based on a true story” and that true story occurred in Alexandria, VA cerca 1971. It didn’t. But I think it is a true story of a different sort, one that’s been told and told and forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again, all over the world throughout all of time. Let’s take this chance to remember it.

Just Don’t Look

It can be tough to condemn things nowadays. While it’s important to criticize when called for, sometimes the attention that follows is greater than it would have been otherwise. People may think something is bad because of criticism, but it was because of the criticism that they took note of it in the first place. Calling something out gives it a certain status, when otherwise it may have disappeared or been far less impactful. It’s like playing a game where the object is to not think about an elephant. Without the framing you win, but as soon as you tell someone not to think about an elephant they’re thinking about it. It seems Republicans campaigning against Obamacare have found this out the hard way. A Brookings Institution researcher gives us some data:

His analysis, which he detailed in a blog post, compared states’ per-capita ad spending with their enrollment rates, and found that it was often the case that the more money spent on anti-ACA ads, the more Americans signed up for coverage—a trend made more impressive by the fact that, in the run-up to this fall’s midterm elections, the advertising budget of the ACA’s opponents was about 15 times the size of that of the law’s supporters.

Why?

“The first one is that with the negative ads, citizens’ awareness about this subsidized service increases, and the more ads they see, the more they know that such a service exists. … The other theory is that citizens who were exposed to an overwhelming number of ads about Obamacare are more likely to believe that this service is going to be repealed by the Congress in the near future … [so] he or she will have a higher willingness to go and take advantage of this one-time opportunity before it goes away.”

This connects with some of the problems I was discussing yesterday with new media models. Most sites sell ads based on visitors, so merely by looking at the site you’re contributing, even if you’re looking at to write about how it’s problematic. Publishing a post critical of those sites also gives them more attention. It’s a catch-22 that’s tough to resolve.