Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Five More Thoughts: Let Them Eat Cake Ed.

Don't we all wish I could shut up about this stuff? If you're tired of sarcastic half-baked economic thoughts, skip to #4. If more suspicious foodie-ism isn't your bag, just go to the last one. If the antics of clueless fathers and husbands bore you too, then I guess I'll review another book eventually. Does anyone remember when these things used to be frivolous?

1. Warmed Over Red Meat
Like most Americans, I've developed a growing animosity toward the financial management of our country. In my case it's tempered by a certain long-term, big-view fatalism, but still, I look at the criminal Madoffs and whining DeSantises compared to my negligible prospects of ever getting out from the immobilizing weight of debt--never mind the prospects of ever getting rich--that a prescribed life of education, family and salary stick you with, and I can understand revolutionary fervor. Then I think about the sickening possibility of actual mob violence, and how the mob, when it has managed to win, has tended to produce mammoth injustices of its own, and I downgrade my smoldering class resentment into patriotic-feeling thoughts about the threat of the mob when the aristocracy gets out of hand, and, short of violence, how great it would be to put these motherfuckers in a position where they have to work to get by like the rest of us.

So I settle on the happier counterfactual where R&D is remunerative and finance is an exhausting niche for overspecialized geeks. Because that would be different, oh yes, the believers in reason would rule the world at last! Unfortunately, and speaking of working for a living, this leads to speculation about what exactly it is I'm producing, and then to the conclusion that I've spent nearly a decade leveraging my limited technical skills to a similar (over-)extent as the banks have with their finite capital reserves and debt obligations, selling the idea that someone down the chain will come through with the intellectual goods, or that my own skills will catch up in time to perform the increasingly unlikely stuff I propose. I suppose financially lucrative R&D would also attract a different kind of scientist, and companies like mine would be filled to the rafters with confident young men with more attitude than talent, and the halls would be thick with power ties and greasy smiles and stress. Even more marketing, in other words, to the eventual exclusion of any product at all. Then I sigh and go back to surfing the net.

2. Manna
One positive thing this finanical mess shows us however is that a gigantic shadow economy based on very little tangible value, can, in fact, exist, at least for awhile. The basic iniquity of this situation isn't that we have a high standard of living based on nothing much, it's that the standard of living is highly unequal within the same system. It doesn't have to be that way, or rather, it wouldn't have to be that way if humans weren't collectively such a bunch of assholes. If it could somehow enter our species' consciousness to do so, we could base an economy on nothing more than telling each other jokes, swapping files, gambling, and blogging. If "productivity" can just grow forever, then that's a logical enough conclusion.

Now, naysayers might argue that someone under that imaginary system would still have to grow the food, maintain the transmission lines, clean up, produce the pictures, and so forth, but the truth is that we have more potential workers than there are jobs needed to generate all the crap that makes us happy. This is true in the United States certainly, where for decades, we have been able to increasingly count on automation, an endless supply of willing menial labor overseas, and plentiful oil energy to make our society go at the pace we enjoy. At some point, we could get out of the "production" mindset entirely, and finally abandon the annoying pretense of distributing wealth by "working for a living," and instead share the sort of effortless ride that the fat cats have been on for generations, without even their ulcers and burgeoning self-importance.

You know, at least for a while.

3.Soylent Green
And hey, we've already solved the challenging half the problem. One thing our--cough-cough--free market economy does pretty well now is distribute the cost of the pesky externalities. Sure there are political ramifications to oil and electronics being produced in regions that live more poorly than us consumers of them. The cost of that delicate diplomacy or that ballsy belligerence (as the case may be) doesn't come out just in the prices, but is also spread out among all of the consumers that benefit from it by other means. (Profits, of course, are another matter.) Similarly, it would be alarming if all the costs of controlling the waste streams were included in the prices of all our favorite products. (Hey, the selenium all leaches downstream, and you can't prove anything.) Can you imagine if the price of invading Iraq went into our gas tank? If the entire cost of cleaning up the shit lagoons went into our hamburger (if, in fact, we thought so far ahead as cleaning up the shit lagoons)? If the entire cost of maintaining the banking sector came only from our retirement savings? If the entire cost of our consumption came from the value of the stuff we produced?

When we hit that fantastic Star Trek apogee of labor-free production worldwide (hey, we'll still have automation), then management of natural and political resources will be the only things left to worry about, and fortunately, that social machinery is already in place. Maybe by then we'll have it pointed the right way.

4. Cake
I had a fourth short rant puttering along when I realize I'd already written it six months ago, right down to citing Doghouse Riley (who you should read in general). While I disagreed with his main point this time around, his complaints about foodie magazine pretensiousness came through loud and clear. We subscribe to a handful of these recipe magazines in Chateau Keifus, which vary in articles from endless filler variations on mashed potatoes to boutique faux-cultural items presented for your envy (I'm convinced that the "busy mom" articles are engineered to be crappier than the "summertime memories of Montalcino" spreads), profiles of unaffordable or unavailable key ingredients, the celebration of a local food culture that never leaves California, or disappears from upstate New York from October to May, to the column on how J. Random Celebrity eats better than you.

And it's reasonable to assume that the pretty people do eat more fashionably than I do: they have more cash, wider travel, and more opportunities to get tired of fine dining. There's a lot going for the skill in preparation, but I suppose you'll never get Mom's meatloaf either. Or something. The foodie-tainment industry has to strike some sort of balance there, but I don't like it when they rub in how hopelessly provincial I am.

5. Spicy Meatballs
While we're on the subject of celebrity food...

"Hey, Keifus, do you know who you look like with your hair pulled back like that?"

"Uh, no."

"Mario Batali!"

"Are you shitting me, dear? The dude is half my height, and at least twice as big around. He wears clogs. Mario Batali? You wound me."

"Well, he does have a beard. And with your hair pulled back..."

"He looks like a giant friggin' pumpkin."

"I don't know what your problem is. I'm giving you a compliment. He cooks great food."

And to be fair, doing something as well as Mario the Red appears to do is sexy. Maybe someday I'll afford to take my wife to one of his restaurants. It'll be payback for years of general relationship cluelessness.

The story might end here, but in the pretend genealogy of housecats I find myself unwillingly Marioed again, and since the children must be the parents of our cats, that leaves me, chillingly, as the grandfather, or "Grandpa Mario," as it works out, thanks to some passing resemblance to the curly proprietor of a famous Japanese-Italian plumbing and pest control firm.

"Mario? Are you kidding me? He dresses like Mickey Mouse."

God, I'm shallow.


artandsoul said...

Nope. I can't tell the difference. I'm hearing some Truth or Consequences music in the background.
Who actually writes here????

twif said...

never trust a skinny chef.

you've also reminded me that i need a haircut again.

Keifus said...

You should see me break bricks, that's all I'm sayin.

Haircut? How old is that picture, anyway?

(As for me, I'm trying to live for the moment. Before much longer, I won't have much choice in the matter.)

Artemesia said...

Mario looks porcine..You look like Shakespeare..Mickey looks like Cyrano.

Keifus said...

Ha! It must be the enorm-- er, scholarly brow.

Mario: I wouldn't shoo him out of the kitchen though.


twif said...

mine? that particular one is about 3 years old (30th b-day vacation). but my hair is back to that state again. or a bit longer.

and of course i can tell the difference. your hair isn't red.