Friday, November 26, 2010

Review: Griftopia, by Matt Taibbi

I can't believe it. It's even worse than I thought.

In Griftopia, Matt Taibbi takes us through the series of financial disasters of the last decade, presenting them to us as a succession of long cons on the American consuming public, enabled by the government and perpetrated by the finance industry. He bookends the drama by a bit of political analysis, pointing out some basic and comic misunderstandings of the "Tea Party" demonstrators with a dollop of sympathy. They're right that the government is crapping on them. They just don't understand how it works, or who wins. (Writing this now with a family-time turkey hangover, and I'm appreciating Matt's point more than when I read it last week.) He tells us how it's intentionally complex, to obscure what the hell is going on, buried in miles of double negatives and lawyerly fine print, mostly as a justification for separating the rubes from their bucks. In the epilogue he notes how the political campaigns have sifted it down into idiotic narratives that ignore the essential conflict. In between, Matt offers the quasi-philosophical excuses for graft that began to seep up in the Reagan years, walks us through the tech bubble, the recent commodities spike, skims across the health insurance morrass, and spends a good couple chapters on the current real estate mess and its corrolary finance disasters, each given as a different view of the whole enterprise too structural to call a scam, each a different tentacle of some gigantic insensate octopus (his imagery), not much aware of the activities of the rest of it. At least one of the chapters is a reprise of one of his big Rolling Stone pieces, but the format is logical enough.

Most of the criticisms I've seen Matt Taibbi receive from his articles have boiled down to attacks on his style, or hurt feelings. (The multitrillion net grift that he tosses up once or twice is something I've seen disputed, but he's obviously including some lending actions of the federal reserve that's not well-disclosed, and is necessarily estimated, and is used in the text as a synonym for "huge" I think with the appropriate amount of confidence.) Me, I like the colorful language so much (evidence: this-here blog, although both us might go a little heavy on the adjectives) that I worry that it probably soften up my objectivity, although I can see how for normal people, frequent superlative use of words like "collossal" and "insane" and "fuck-ton" may be mistaken for an absence of mathematical precision, and how calling Alan Greenspan "the biggest asshole in the universe" or Rick Santelli a "shameless douchewad" or Lloyd Blankfein a "motherfucker" may worry semantic purists that Matt could be offering a smidgen too much of a personal hit. But keep in mind that attacking the man doesn't necessary mean it's an ad hominem fallacy. Matt's not calling them names in order to discredit their argument. For that, he's offering a couple hundred pages of evidence. What Taibbi is instead doing is examining their behavior and reporting the logical conclusion that they are, according to any useful colloquial understanding, major-league assholes. Sure it's an opinion, but it's supported. And it's a good antidote for the beetle-browed driness, jargon-heavy passion, or Delphic gobbldegook that is the usually accepted tone for the financial discussion, at least when it is directed toward the public. The admonition against strong words can serve as a cover for behavior that is outrageous enough to be worthy of them. Taibbi's technique of generating an emotional connection is useful. And it's worth noting that some the basic humanity in the big-time profit-seeking calculus is so deeply ignored. Call it an incredulous style, but I would likewise avoid calling it a fallacious appeal to incredulity. It's more like a comic act of frantically trying to point out something too large and obvious to easily notice. ("The fucking elephant! Don't you see?") And yeah, even if you want to argue (and I don't really) that Taibbi's a one-eyed journalist, it still puts him among the sparse royalty of that profession. He's not a comedian, but fuck it, he's funny, and the emotional connection he generates is of that vein, the sort that can help you accept uncomfortable little truths.

My objections to Griftopia are small, and run in the territory of praising the book with faint damns. I appreciate the research Taibbi did here, and his willingness to explain and condense things for his readers is bloody useful. But on the other hand, I'm wary of entertaining explanations of boring subjects. My spider-sense occasionally got tingling, got me thinking it's little too like an "edgy" kids' science show or something (a certain glibness that sometimes generates allergy symptoms, even if I don't generally find them to be wrong), and maybe he's missing important subtleties in the service of a greater valid point. The issue is that the grift penetrates deeper into some economic sectors than others, and even there, on some firms and practices more than others. I don't think this is lost exactly, but the chapters are given approximately equal emphasis, and I don't think all of them have purely economic causes, or were generated with the same level of gleeful amorality or outright contempt toward the lower classes.

For example, like most people, I suspected that speculation played a role in the 2008commodities bubble, but how much of a role? Now, I didn't realize how much was of the disruptive speculation was of a newly legal type, and Matt makes a good case explaining what useful service commoditiy futures have provided since the Depression, and for the role the empowered commodity futures trading commission made in creating a structure so damn fragile and ripe for collapse. It explains why some worries about regional stability made the futures market go so much more flighty and generally fucktarded (not to be so casual about this--it made people go hungry, a worse thing than losing your house) than investors normally make things. But dude, there are very good reasons why "anyone would want to invest in a rise in commodoties prices over time". I don't think in the long term that we can really count on technologies to continually improve yields and so forth, not without a brand new energy source and a revolutionary chemicals infrastructure. The market scare that sparked it--middle east instability sparked by U.S. military actions there--were real, and if there was still any of the shit in Texas, wouldn't have been an issue in the first place. It's a response to oil peaking (and I'd love to see Matt Taibbi on oil, by the way). The spike was caused by the futures overinvestment, but I think it's still governed by gradual resource depletion. I think the inappropriateness of long futures in normally-functioning commodities markets makes sense. Would it be good to be able to short oil on some long-term scale?

There is a later chapter on last year's health care reform, and Taibbi makes the case that, like other corporate actors, Washington sees insurers as among their real constituents, who need to be served more than they need to be legislated against on behalf of us lowly worker bees. He is certainly right to trash the anti-trust exemption enjoyed by the health insurance market, which flies against the public interest, and is, you know, completely inconsistent with the sorts of pluralist models that most people believe apply to our country and economy. It still takes amazing balls to ignore medical or insurance that work cheaply, and after basing parts of your campaign on spelling them out, to then take 'em right off the table before negotiations even start. Matt acknowledges that it's well-impossible to buck the insurers when you're a senator, for those even inclined to, but didn't any politician imagine an ounce of good could be done, that chink in the armor was useful as a price to give 'em something they'd get anyway? Aren't some of them merely misguided compromisers instead of pure sellouts? Isn't it good that at least some people are insured and we have a medical complex that works even if its finances amount to extortion? I am Taibbi's side here, but he offers evidence more than proof. Failing to rescind something evil is perfectly consistent with cluelessness or a broken system, but isn't actively malicious in the way that a financial con can be. And when they get that far in the book, Matt's going to make the commenters at Balloon Juice hate him all over again.

When it gets to auctioning public utilities for short-term budget-balancing, I was similarly educated on the extent of it all, although I'm not sure if I've been convinced that foreign wealth funds are any specific problem here. Makes it seem more like "looting" than anything else. But Matt's at his best going over the stuff he researched so heavily for the Rolling Stone pieces. If the grift is merely good for commodities and health care markets, it's been grrrreat! for the investment banks, who, at the top eschelons, have not failed to garner their cut, even as pensions tank and our governors eye our federal benefits to fight the deficits they suddenly care about. I've read a fair amount about this (much like any reluctantly responsible citizen), and I liked how he added some depth and, really, some perspective to the mortgage racket as it all went down. There are so many details of this game, that it's difficult to organize and prioritize, and I thought as a summary of the chain of fraud it was splendid, and the wrapup (p. 121) was artful. I liked his quip that it's Griftopia for the handful powerful entities working in the priveleged sphere where they can manipulate the economy, while it's the free market for the rest of us. Which is the exact opposite of the message they sell.

[Wrapped this one up in a hurry. Happy holidays, everyone.]

Friday, November 19, 2010

Unpacking Ayn Rand

It's weird to think about it, but I've been haunting the internet for a long time--about twenty years if we count the time that my then-friend Mang (it got so I didn't see him so much sophomore year, and later I'd heard he pretty much disowned me when he found out I was pledging a fraternity) showed me some tricks with the email, where to ftp a few naughty pictures and local urban legends, and some especially nerdy ways to waste time--it puts me approximately in the Precambrian era of its evolution, just before AOL exploded the place with a diversity of lusers. A minor, sporadic and unnoticed spook I was then (and am now), but it was a long enough stretch for me to have eyeballed a few types, observe them, get bored by them, and still here they fucking are. One of these long-established members of the internet prickarazzi is the Objectivist (close! but this guy's too astute), the serious spouter of Ayn Rand's claptrap, typically a pustule-faced nineteen-year-old Rush fan, but also trending toward those unlovable middle-age stiffs who'd manage to be excitable and passionless at the same time, whatever humor generally veering to the nasty sort, the sorts of people who had unshakable theoretical views of human behavior, and whom you'd pray would never, ever have any kids. (And of course that's not fair, because even here I'm remembering "libertarian" types more clearly than "objectivists." The Randites were narrower and stupider.) Or that's how I grew to picture them anyway, while the characters who later evolved to pick on John Galt (or at a minimum, pick on his prose), enjoyed a mental picture that included a healthy laugh and a charming joi de vivre. In the meat world, most people seem to separate their beliefs from their lives, reserving philosophical passion for the rare times those worlds happen to intersect: it's turned out that either of these groups of people are indistinguishable from my officemates.

I am embarrassed to come back to all this pseudo-philosophy as much as I do. It's sort of like being annoyed as an adult about Dr. Seuss's inaccurate grasp of physics and biology. (An elephant bird? You don't transfer genes by just sitting on an egg! And for that matter how did that tree hold Horton up, Ted? Answer me that one!) I never went so that far down as to believe in "rational self interest," but it's the sort of idea that I associate with those formative times. Being surrounded by other baby engineers was part of it, but our freshman experience was more about playing tennis, computer games, and endless rounds of Asshole, and, hard as this is to believe, never getting laid. To fill out the requisite dormroom bullshitting, I was forced to go online. I don't want to offer the impression that most engineers are so closed-minded, and there remain an abundance of people on the other side of the screen who aren't antisocial kooks, but bright, arrogant and immature? All I'm saying is that I know the type.

I've read far more about Ayn Rand than I've read anything she wrote. And the anecdote doesn't lead up to a review of Atlas Shrugged even now. Still don't have the stomach for that one. No, I'm reading Matt Taibbi's Griftopia (good for a tangential post or two before the review), and it's a kick to read someone introducing Rand and the world of objectivism to newbies with appropriate contempt. It's a critique addressed to an audience insufficiently geeky, or composed of the wrong sort of geek, an audience lucky enough to have never inadvertantly let this crap suffuse anything in their thinking lives before Taibbi told them about it.

Here's Matt, quoting:

Rand's rhetorical strategy was to create the impression of depth through overwhelming verbal quanitity, battering the reader with a relentless barrage of meaningless literary curlicues. Take this bit from Galt's famous speech in Atlas Shrugged:
Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over the act of perceiving it, which is thinking--that the mind is one's only judge of values and one's only guide of action--that reason is an absolute that permits no compromise--that a concession to the irrational invalidates one's consciousness and turns it from teh task of perceiving to the task of faking reality--that the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind--that the acceptance of a mystical invention is a wish for the annihilation of existence and, properly, annihilates one's consciousness.

If you're sane, you skimmed that, and depending on what you're looking for, you might have come away with (a) that an external reality is important and is independent of belief, or (b) some unsettling bullshit about the infallibility of the rational mind. The former seems a reasonable-ish philosophical view, but the latter seems like a disturbing justification for something or other. Taibbi goes on to sum up the whole deal in four bullet points:
  1. Facts are facts: things can be absolutely right or absolutely wrong, as determined by reason.
  2. According to my reasoning, I am absolutely right.
  3. Charity is immoral.
  4. Pay for your own fucking schools.

I love Matt Taibbi.

Once you account for the hyperbole, this is not really so far from the Wikipedia entry (and if Wiki's going to represent anything more thoroughly and charitably than Star Wars, it's Ayn friggin' Rand). I look at the promulgation of "objective reality," and I worry. Why, that's not so much different from my own struggled-at epistemology! The one which I can't get myself to shut the fuck up about. I wouldn't go so far as to call "facts" unassailable, but on the question of whether there is a universe separated from our consciousness by our senses, then I have to agree that there is. I guess it's classified generally as a materialist viewpoint, a label to which Rand felt herself above, to the extent she acknowledged the history of the art at all. But objectivist philosophy seems to fall apart going forward from that. Details of knowing probably matter, but as a bottom line, I contend that knowledge of the world should, as a necessary minimum, not violate evidence. Objective reality taken as the-universe-is-the-universe (of which we are part, and not above) is something I get behind, and have blathered about. Getting down, however, toward such derivative concepts as facts-is-facts and existence-exists, well that now seems confuse subjective and objective realities (and is also conveniently circular), regardless of how the Randies prefer to organize their labels. How, after all, do you judge something a fact?

My favorite summary joke about Ayn Rand (and I've mentioned this before) comes from Matt Ruff's book, Sewer, Gas and Electric (a near-future romp from ten years ago--I thought about re-reading it recently, but I wasn't in the mood to find humor in some of his structural gags). It features a pocket-sized Rand advising characters, and while Ruff mocks her, he does so fondly. He'd been a regular at rec.arts.sf.written, so maybe given that early internet environment, that's not completely surprising. In any case, my favorite quote still makes me laugh for its capsule perfection:
"'Ayn' rhymes with 'sane'?"

"Rhymes with 'mine'."
My observations are that while objectivism looks evidence-based, it carefully limits the allowable evidence and then goes even further and supports its ideas with elaborate and boring fiction. It looks like it pushes a certain logical amorality, but it instead constructs a morality that is whatever the fuck creepy Ayn says it is. I like a focus on the value of inductive reasoning, but it appears to not think very hard about induction, to the point where assertion of "facts" is enough to support their validity. It is a "philosophy" that tells people that they're indeed exceptional and limited by a globe-full of littlebrains, which strikes me as more than a little dangerous. My long-standing impression, never disproven, is that objectivism is to real philosophy like scientology is to real cognitive science. No coincidence it rose to a similar sort of cult.

My general feeling is that as basis of reason, objectivism is comically underripe. I may be philosophically impaired, but I'm smart enough to catch on to what's the kiddie material. Digging around, I found some excellent critiques. Here's popular blogger Incertus worrying about the inevitable hangers-on now that Rand disciple Alan Greenspan, with his copy of The Virtue of Selfishness under his arm, has pretty well fucked the whole place up. It's a good post, but I am hesitant about damning a philosophy just because the resulting movement was comprised of the worst sorts of assholes. That hardly seems exceptional. I also want to be careful about dismissing Rand on the basis of her wretched personal life, or of her turgid writing style (even though it's so very, very tempting to do this; I also want to be careful about confusing Taibbi's felicity for truth, although I admit I'm still riding on some ideas of humor and power). Her scholarship has been accused as, um, lacking, which I take as a serious accusation, although I don't really know if philosophy is enough like physical science to say that violating established thinking requires extraordinary evidence, but the contrarian approach doesn't strike me as a likely road to honest investigation. Here's a guy named Rob Bass dissecting the epistemology, and outlines the appeal and concerns better than I just did. I like this dude--he makes clear and interesting arguments in comfortable modern language, and he appears be coming from a similar direction, uncovering similar questions, as I have been over the last several years. I will try to remember to follow up with his papers. (Does Rob want to rock right now? I was curious enough to do a where-are-they-now search, and both he and Gary Merrill (the guy from the previous link) are in the UNC academic system these days, and good for them. Is the fact that these posts are 1993-vintage Usenet material also revealing of my formative experiences? It's not out of the question.)

I entertain cautious apologies on behalf of Rand because I still haven't made myself read the doorstops, and that fact limits any substantive arguments I might raise against them, even though I find the objections quite convincing. Ordinarily, what with the limited lifespan and all, it'd be sufficient to weed out those bad ideas, but Ayn Rand has somehow managed to be important. I have read that even beyond her cultish band of followers, she grew into a more influential sort of quackery back in the 1950s, the results of which have helped fuck the country over for at least another half-century. You can imagine how people with money and power may have felt to consider that their self-interest was virtuous.

If there's more evidence needed of objectivism as philosophical juvenilia, then there's always the fact that so many of those college kids grew out of it. I mentioned Rush, but Neal Peart never claimed inspiration deeper than a damned short story, hasn't gone down that road in his lyrics since he was 23 or so, and even back then he wrote about relationships, youthfulness, fantasy books, anti-authoritarianism, and balancing logic with compassion as much as he wrote about anything else. It's good to grow up: one thing you realize is that there's nothing wrong with empathy, that the world outside your experience is every bit as valid as the one between your ears. I can see the appeal of allegedly objective realith and intellectual isolation, especially when you're young and bright and dorky--lots of engineers are also capable--at least they were before colleges capitalized so heavily on the game--and anyone fucking around on the message boards before ca. 1990 had an independent streak--so maybe it's reasonable that my proxy bullshitting sessions were biased this way. But the most damning thing about objectivism is that objective reality has pretty well proven Ayn Rand's philosophy to be a collossal disaster, isn't that right Mr. Greenspan? Can we let the damn thing go now?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach

There is a premise underlying Packing for Mars, and best to address it before moving on. The idea for the book is that sending human beings into space is a fundamentally absurd, which is true. I don't, however, think that this enterprise is without intellectual merit, engineering challenge, and even if it limited itself at the beginning to the blue-eyed and ball-sacked variety, sheer American moxie. It doesn't really seem fair to go straight for the poops jokes, but she's right that the unintentional funniness of people who make it a poop business really needs to be acknowledged. Roach seems sharp enough--she handles pretty well stuff the scientific stuff she professes to have recently learned (the fact that she had no rough working knowledge of free-fall and orbits and so forth before writing the book, however, does bother me)--but she's not a NASA fangirl. And maybe it's just as well, there are enough stories about spaceflight that fit the required notes of geeky love. Roach is writing a secret history, an open secret history, and not forgetting just how weird it is for every human behavior and function to be engineered. Fortunately for this reader, I am by no means too mature to fail to appreciate personality quirks and crap jokes, and I'm also curious and respectful of the effort to make the ludicrous enterprise work--how does a space toilet work ("separation" is indeed an issue in zero g), how is nausea addressed, is it scary up there, does everyone get along, and if any astronauts endured some historic moments with a legful of piss thanks to a badly fitting urine collection device (condoms, not catheters), then you bet I want to know about it. Or look at it another way, here are hundreds of serious researchers and workers in the space program, each with a headful of inside jokes longing to be told. And finally here's some appreciation.

It helps that Roach writes it well, balances a seriousness of subject, good journalism, with a comic tone. She's a good enough sport to do it, for the sake of the story or for the entertainment potential. She digs in and finds the details, and is not very shy about interviewing anyone, and wants to see everything. I've been stalling on the review because I think of anything better to say than it's like a book-length episode of Dirty Jobs, a different voice and a different medium than Mike Rowe's thing, but about as well done. It's humor without insult, it manages that rare combination of being good-natured, informative and funny. Roach has been doing it longer, but I doubt anyone's copying anyone. I suppose it's nice that the world managed to let two of these types succeed.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Review: It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

It Can't Happen Here, published in 1935, is a famous book. It retains a cultural cachet (in way that political predictions do, but scientific predictions don't) for its contemporary awareness, for having been accurately cognizant of fascism when it was not politically nescessary in this country to be so, and for anticipating some of its expansionist aims. It is, as the title suggests, the development of an American version of the movement, developed shamelessly from our own national myths, and opposed (or not opposed) by various liberal cultural or philosophical elements. Having cultivated this sort of cynicsm for a couple of years, I was expecting to find some connection to this book, at least as a warning against the self-proclaimed authorities. And, so, how to put this exactly? It has a couple of moments, but I don't think it was a great work, maybe not even an especially good one.

Sinclair Lewis (I learn) made his living, and eventually garnered a Nobel prize, for chronicling the middle class American angst of his pre-Depression day. This puts him as his generation's Franzen maybe, or Updike, or any of that stable of writers that I've neither read, nor can get myself to notice outside of their tedious "great writer" acclaim, which for me anyway, doesn't add up to an optimum set of associations, but still hardly enough to condemn. In any case, It Can't Happen Here is considered one of Lewis's late novels, published after his prime, and no doubt it got some penetration based on the famous name. The blurbs stress "important" and damn the reading with a faint "almost-as-good" praise when compared to his earlier works. Failing an easy connection to himself, you might be tempted to compare this novel with those of other authors who've also been astute and lonely critics of power, something like The Quiet American, but it doesn't hold as well as a character or a political study. As well as being observant, Graham Greene's will also go down as being an objectively good novel (to the extent that these things can be considered objective of course). Not to say it's awful--It Can't Happen Here has an impressive comic start, taking the gimlet to a couple Rotarian speakers—from the military and the DAR—but it doesn't decide well where it wants to be. The humor and the cuts don't keep up past the first 30 pages or so, and after that, the reader can look forward to only two or three episodes later in the novel that remind us that there was ever a satirical intent. The book makes a sorry bridge between the wit of Mark Twain and the bitter satire of Vonnegut or Heller. To my mind, It Can't Happen Here is closer in spirit to any number of late-model counterfactuals, and if AH writers like S.M. Stirling or Harry Turtledove might include more armchair generalism and less couched liberalism; more heroic violence and less subversive penmanship, the literary depths are similarly plumbed as by those more niche-oriented authors. Not necessarily a bad read, but it ain't indispensible.

Here's the basic problem: it's not enough to say it can happen here, what made it happen here? There's only a smidgen of this, in the brief satirical opening and in the description of the growing appeal of president Buzz Windrip, but mostly what we get is mechanism, a sequence of events, a lot more what and not much why. Even there, the sections where external drama is given to unfold (outside of the protagonist's, Doremus Jessup's, point of view) are told in summary form, a lot of this-happened-and-then-that-happened, and the higherups don't develop into particularly understandable characters. These parts are like reading an outline of a novel instead of the book itself, breaking the cardinal rule of showing instead of telling. What's in the national (or hey, human) character that leaves us open to dictators? We don't get a good deal of the psychological landscape that let Windrip-mania take root, other than what's revealed through a few meetings and dismissive opinons of Jessup, who is standing in as an obvious proxy for the author. Jessup is the only real point-of-view character we get, the only head we get too far inside, and he's likeable enough, coming together as a gentle critique of the American liberal, drawn by circumstances into radicalism.

Lewis was a writer, and his wife a journalist. Making heroes and martyrs out of writers and journalists (Doremus was an newspaper editor, and the plot revolves around his criticism of, punishment by, and resistance to the fascists; team Jessup worked against the "Corporate State" by printing and distributing pamphlets) may be drawing on autobiographical fantasies. We all like to think we'd be the ones to stand up to tyranny, and those of us with a wordy inclination like to think that we see the world clearer than others, and that anything we write matters. If we switch to a contemporary context, it's hard not to see Doremus as a blogger. I spent an inordinate time (supported by Lewis of course, and I bookmarked a bunch of well-written paragraphs that maybe I'll remember to throw at people who annoy me later, but which don't seem terribly relevant for the purposes of a review) wondering just what his political philosophy was. He identifies as liberal, but he starts out with a healthy (in that downplayed upstate Yankee way) wisdom about authority and politics and general. In a few occasions, Doremus defends middle-class intellectualism (we're not the same as the proletariat, he thinks, and that's okay), and finds both common ground and ultimate differences with the radical leftists of the 1930s brand. His viewpoint solidifies a bit in opposition to the Corpos, and maybe Lewis is offering a lesson that we resist to a degree that's appropriate to the political environment, mildly cynical in civil times, and bravely defiant in violent ones, a revolutionary that (somehow!) resists the formation of alternate tyrannies. This moderation moves from a weakness to, as Jessup's role solidifies, something definitive of the American version (evidently similar to the writer's own views), perhaps giving in to some myths of national character after everything. Pinning a philosophy on Corpoism is harder, and after some reading (particularly as he opens a succession of chapters with excerpts from Windrip's intentionally risible Mein Kampf knockoff), it's obvious that the actual version is vacuous. Some egalitarian-seeming or even Socialist measures are offered to the public, in a way that doesn't offend power interest too much, which I might have taken differently if Jessup didn't take a moment to pick it apart. It's funny how a fascist takeover is fronted by language of freedom and liberty.

A couple of odds and ends. Increasingly, I'm looking, when possible, for personal figures to help place novels in time. Jessup's daughter Sissy (who seems like a great kid even though she was stuck with awkward dialogue) was born in 1917, the same year as my grandmother. In 2010, she'd have had a full life behind her, which feels like a strange and sad perspective. Also in 2010, we're living in the wake of a banking, um, crisis, sufficient to generate some real antipathy for the industry. In 1935, a complaint against "bankers" was often veiled anti-semitism, and Lewis certainly intended this to be an element of the Corpoist rhetoric. Is that the case today? It never before crossed my mind to make a connection like this when I get mad at the current financial industry. I wrote in my last post "the Democrats didn't exactly give the lenders a hard time." I was going to write "didn't exactly chase the lenders from the temple" but suddenly sensitized, I didn't want to go there. I guess I'll have to be careful to be precise about those sorts of things.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Five More Thoughts: Air Travel, Yet Again

1. End of the line, pal.
Flying is, as I've mentioned in some other mostly-forgotten post, it's own little universe, an ariport culture that exists outside of normal cultures, with its own bizarre and superstitious rituals, from the security screening to the demo of the oxygen masks (in the sixty-odd years of passenger jets, has anyone ever used these things?), and all the aggressively imported Americana only makes the experience more like a high-stress, undignified, and well-liquored Disneyland. I realize that we can look to the history of air travel for this, but for whatever the origin, it remains a special niche. People are less unwilling to admit they fear flying than other things. I think the usual aviophobia, at least mine, is not so much a fear as it is an anxiety. I don't worry that the thing's going to crash—the odds are with me there; I don't honestly think that it will—but rather it's that exclusion from the normal world, floating in such an otherwise unsurvivable place with so little control over the situation, that makes want to claw at the walls. It's the helplessness which the whole flying experience amplifies. We're herded through velvet ropes and crammed into narrow seats, paraded, penned, and locked in. It reduces humans to farm animals, and under the circumstances, it's no wonder the caged-sheep anxieties tend to leak out. You could forgive Juan Williams, if you could believe that he actually felt bad about it.

That special slow panic of flight is common enough that it's a well-used target for fear. Not just for terrorists, although they sure judged Americans right on that one, but also for those Americans for whom it's convenient to ramp up insecurity of the masses from time to time. And on that note, I want to place a special shoutout to whoever the fuck "leaked" the reveal of a cargo bomb plot, shipped from the country in whose affairs our leaders desperately need some fig-leaf of justification, not to mention something to ratchet up worries on election day. Plot foiled! Security works, but stay scared! USA! Fuck you.

Captive and herded, we go along, and no one is shy to push on those sensitive spots. And so here's one thing I don't understand...why don’t they advertise at us more?

2. Flying creative class
Speaking of which, I sat next to a woman on one leg of the trip (they'd nicely moved me away from the 400-ish-pound fellow who was originally next to me, which was awkward socially, but conceded to be in both our interests) who had ripped out a few pages of a recent Advertising Age. It's an industry rag best I can tell, and as I peeked (I'm not a good conversationalist when I'm flying, or otherwise, glazed looks being more my specialty), was carefully underlining names and important-looking trend statements. Maybe it was a job interview or something. I'm not a fan of being subjected so constantly to marketing, or of the way it influences our society, but I can understand why people consider it to be a valuable service. I consider the role of advertising people to be somewhat overvalued (not surprising considering that folks who are good at promotion will also advertise themselves), but it's not in financial captain territory, and they do still have to work.

Anyway, what amused me was that every headline on those pages was like an assurance of their specialness. "Creativity corner." "Whither the creatives?" Don't they sell stuff that other people create? It's like they're overcompensating for those nagging doubts.

In my industry, the word "innovative" is tossed around with similar abandon. Although not usually as a noun.

3. How I book a flight.
Some of my caged-animal instincts are to resort to borderline OCD behaviors, repeating a script that kept the misery in check last time (even though it didn't). When I get on a plane, one of those nonsense rules requires me to buy some new reading material at the airport. This is wise when you're planning a for a full day of plane travel anyway, adn the trick is to get something far removed from the situation, nothing that's going to angry up the blood too much. This meant that I didn't take Mr. Lewis out of my bag to finish reading about an American-style fascist takeover, but I managed to let the written word ruin my election week just the same.

It's bad enough that half the airports I find myself in offer a forced reintroduction to CNN. Maybe it was only because the great game was afoot, but as I bellied up to the bar for lunch, I found the channel about as aggressively stupid as FOX News was ten years ago. (I concede that it's possible that my allergies have become more acute. I snarl at NPR these days too.) But on Thursday I picked up a presumably anodyne New York Times, not really expecting the Gray Lady to play up the election day gloat as much as everyone else. I mean, you'd think the revolutionary conservative takeover of our politics might have come with some context (or consequence!) of this story comprising about the past 30 years of boilerplate, but somehow the Tea Party has made it all wide-eyed and new.

Reading the convenient summary section that the Times provided yesterday, I see they've already predicted that any government activity of which I might approve --or at least may have been naively hopeful about--is already consigned gleefully to the block. John Boehner is already getting juiced about reviving Bush's tax cuts and balancing the budget (and it's as laughable as it sounds, but to point out the poorly-camouflaged obvious, "balancing the budget" is cover for abolishing Medicare and Social Security, which they are reluctant to admit to their base, but are happy to balance on behalf of my generation), giddy about crippling NOAA and other science and technology programs that produce unwanted facts (it is not clear yet whether they will outlaw evolution), and is sharpening his sword to eviscerate the two or three good things that came out of Obama's insurance booster program (in America, the average health picture may be among the lowest in the first world, but at least it's twice the cost!) The Times informed me that Wall Street (wherein bonuses grow apace) and other carefully protected "free traders" are pleased with the Republicans ascendance, not evidently much concerned about their candidates' complaints about the financial bailout, which, by the way, was also getting to be getting a little more sugar from the Fed. That business-Republicans item may well be the usual lazy journalist stereotyping, since after all, the Democrats didn't exactly give the lenders a hard time.

Look, I don't retain much faith in the integrity of the system, but given that I am stuck here, I do have to say that I find it precious that our oligarchs feel so uninhibited about taking that extra step from selfishness into assholery. I mean, we may lose hope in the ability to change the world, but couldn't we at least deign to work with evidence-based outcomes? (he asked rhetorically). In the rest of the civilized world, at least they get fucking health insurance to go with their institutional graft. I suppose I shouldn't be this upset by the Republican takeover, and I suppose it comes down only to a matter of style. We've lost one set of leaders that hems and hedges our way into the abyss, and replaced it with the one that marches triumphantly in. I'm not a big fan of parades.

4. Anti-anxiety.
My brother concurs with taking a Xanax on the plane, but this violates other OCD scripts of mine. He also has a system of smuggled nippers that he suggested I take, bagging them carefully within the legal fright-limit as if they were deadly toothpastes, and I refused these too. I never used to buy booze on the plane because I never had cash, and I don't at this point because it became something I don't do. If that makes sense. In the airports, however, I don't usually waste the opportunity to load up if the boss isn't around. Why yes, please, I'll have that second pint with my mayonnaise-smothered grease-fries. A third? I might just have time.

Obviously you don't want to risk getting airsick, but on a long flight, a good buzz makes perfect sense. Not just for the point of relaxing you. The three or four times you get up to pee is a good opportunity to stretch your legs, and it gives you something to do. That much stasis, and feeling yourself slowly growing sober (controlling your boozy odors, beginning to taste that godawful lunch again, slowly regaining focus) is almost interesting. Sobering up becomes an activity.

5. There ought to be a law!
Or let's just say it'd be a small and inarguable step in world decency if airlines would agree to generous standards for carrying musical instruments on board. The Senate was debating as recently as August on the FAA reauthorization bill, and there was a petition to include such language in it (here, if you are given to signing such things), asking that regs be standardized so that people carrying instruments could at least more easily plan.

I didn't have any chance for a conversation with the guy, but I did spot one mandolin case in the airport. These aren't difficult to fit in the overhead bin, but one argument with a flight attendant a couple years ago discouraged me from taking mine with me again. Guitar players have it worse, but there is no reason not to allow those things up on top at the expense of one or two of J. Random Traveler's obscenely large carry-on bags. Obviously other instruments are less negotiable, but how can you not encourage erring on the side of preservation? You don't really want 'em bouncing around in the baggage hold if you can help it.