Learning from History before it Repeats

The United States is enjoying a long period of economic prosperity. Of course, that means we’re due for a “market correction,” a wonderful phrase, implying that too much prosperity is a problem that must be avoided.

Nobody knows when economic trouble will arrive or from where it will originate, but we can use the benefit of hindsight to examine recent financial crises in our nation, with the hope of being better prepared for whatever panic comes next. I’ve recently read two insightful books on this subject.

Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is about the collapse of Enron in 2002, due in part to the collapse of the Internet bubble in stock prices. It provides extensive and at times overbearing analysis of the company’s deceitful financial practices, which landed several of its executive in jail. Some of the many lessons you can take from this book are to beware of companies that extend into areas where they have little to no expertise (one of Enron’s many problems was the curious decision of the energy company to launch an online entertainment division), that boast about their stock price like a cocktail party boar, and whose financial reports are deliberately obscure. After Enron’s collapse, some fairly weak regulations on financial disclosures were passed, but we’re now in the process of undoing even these safeguards. When it comes to bankruptcies that rival those of Enron or Worldcomm, the question is not if, but when.

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail” is about the near collapse of the financial system in fall 2008. Unlike the Enron book, there is little attention paid here to the causes of crisis — this time, it was the mortgage bubble that burst — and instead focuses on the effort to mitigate the disaster’s impact. If you believe Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geitner don’t deserve enough credit for their efforts, and believe Dick Fuld was treated unfairly, you’ll definitely enjoy this book. The book depicts a global financial system that is both complex and frighteningly fragile, susceptible to collapse from multiple points, yet also shows a United States government with overwhelming power to influence private markets. Americans take pride in our capitalism, but when faced with financial catastrophe, we’re not afraid of a healthy dose of socialism.

Of the two works, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is the more engaging read despite its often weighty prose, while “Too Big to Fail” moves at a brisker pace, as it covers a much shorter period of time. Reading both may hlep make the next economic crisis seem less shocking.

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Vegan Steak for America?

Sharing an interesting article today on automation and its impact on human labor from Scott Santens. Not sure I agree with the conclusion — decoupling income from work and implementing some form of technology dividend or universal basic income would require a foundational change in the American zeitgeist, and that’s not going to happen without a revolution.

Of course, if we hit something like 25% unemployment that uprising could very well come, but since revolutions by their nature are not to be trusted I’d prefer a less drastic response to the robots as they continue their march to replace human workers. Significantly changing the work week, shortening hours while keeping wages at or preferably higher than their current rates, won’t be easy — it would likely require several presidential cycles — but I can at least imagine the possibility.

Could a universal basic income be implemented in the United States? Sure, but you could also serve steak to vegans for dinner. They might eat if they’re hungry enough, but the meal certainly won’t sit well with them.

Goon Squad

Bigots, racists, and wannabe fascists have lived all across America since the colonial days. I went to school in rural Maine with a few of them, and when I flew out to Chicago for college, I met a few more. I’ve had to work with more than I care to remember. Over the years, I learned the rules of engagement — when they start talking nonsense, let them know they’re full of shit, and walk away. Avoid them if possible, and if not, refuse to indulge their ignorance. Years of evidence has shown that arguing with them is ineffective; the only way they can overcome the absurdity of their beliefs is to throw off their shackles of fear.

There are plenty of Richard Spencers in this country, and will be for a long time to come. But last year’s election gave these thugs political legitimacy. They have the support of a presidential administration, and the voice of a media empire.

Two years ago, if someone had told me Africans benefited from being enslaved, I would have dismissed that person as a lunatic. Today, I’d wonder if he was running for Congress.

We can’t ignore them any more. The goon squad has gained power in the United States, and unless they are defeated and kicked back into the gutter from which they came, we’re in for some troubling times.

On Being Angry

Andra Watkins writes today about the hazardous temptation of online invective:

Long verboten topics of face-to-face conversation have somehow morphed into ‘must shout about online,’ because a screen somehow emboldens us to type things we’d never say to another person’s face. Protracted fury takes a toll on the soul.

Yet the temptation to withdraw is equally as dangerous. To feel justified outrage, but remain silent, is to cede authority to the unworthy. Fortunately, Andra’s not in any mood to give such ground. His issue (tax policy) may not be intrinsically exciting, but he delivers a powerful argument for why it shouldn’t be ignored. He’s aware that angry voices may rise in response, but he doesn’t care about those consequences:

I’m done placating people for the sake of keeping the peace. I’m through fearing people I haven’t seen in over 30 years. I’m finished being afraid another person won’t ever buy my books, because they probably won’t regardless. 

Station Eleven

Kirsten Raymonde carries a violin and a dog-eared copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in her backpack. She also carries lethal throwing knives on her belt, and uses them to defend herself in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of “Station Eleven.”

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel is usually classified as science fiction, and it did win the Arthur C. Clarke Award because it contains many of the familiar tropes of the genre — a deadly pandemic, the collapse of civilization, a small band of survivors struggling to maintain their humanity as they battle an inhuman foe. But compared to other killer-virus novels, “Station Eleven” contains very little science. There is no epidemiology of the disease, as in Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” or analysis of its transmission, as in Stephen King’s “The Stand.” Only one scene depicts a person suffering from the plague; most characters watch the fall of mankind on television, before the power goes out. Disease is usually a principal character in this genre, but in “Station Eleven,” the virulent virus does most of its work offstage.

Kirsten, the violinist with the deadly knives, is one of three central characters who appears in the opening chapter. She witnesses Arthur Leander, the lead actor of a “King Lear” production in Toronto, collapse with a heart attack on stage, as Jeevan Chaudhary rushes from the audience in a futile attempt to save Arthur. The virus breaks out that evening, and within a few dozen pages and a month of narrative time, the world is largely depopulated.

The novel then leaps forward twenty years, as Kirsten tours the Great Lakes region with the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who perform for small communities of survivors. A few chapters later, the focus turns to Arthur and the years before his death, and soon after the scene shifts to Jeevan’s escape from Toronto as the pandemic strikes. As the novel progresses, the time shifts become more frequent; readers who prefer linear narratives may find the novel disorienting. Almost as disorienting is the recurring juxtaposition of high and low culture — in addition to performing Beethoven and Shakespeare, the members of the Travelling Symphony share stories of favorite “Star Trek” episodes, and the title of the novel comes from a comic book. In the hands of some writers, the combination of so many time shifts and contrasting cultural references could have produced a mess of a narrative. Fortunately, Mandel is a masterful storyteller, and “Station Eleven” never loses focus. The multiple timelines share a theme of redemption: Arthur tries to atone for his failed marriages (he has three ex-wives, a subtle reference to the character he plays to his death), Jeevan seeks fulfillment after a series of self-centered career choices, and Kirsten agonizes over the lives she is forced to take in order to survive.

Mandel also succeeds in her description of life in the post-apocalyptic world. Those who lived before the plague pine not only for electricity and the Internet, but also for trivial pleasures like toiletries and citrus fruit. They struggle in explaining to children born after the pandemic that large metal objects could fly through the air, and it had been possible to have a conversation with someone on the other side of the planet. Any reader who has mourned for a prematurely cancelled television show, or hasn’t been able to convince her niece that computers haven’t been around forever, will be able to identify with Mandel’s characters as they search abandoned homes not only for food and fuel, but also clean towels and magazines.

Towards the end of the novel, the Travelling Symphony visits the Museum of Civilization, established in an airport terminal by another band of survivors. The Museum collects obsolete artifacts — iPhones, motorcycles, televisions — in order to commemorate the technological marvels of the pre-virus world, much as the Travelling Symphony strives to preserve a culture that nearly died along with the pandemic. The characters in “Station Eleven” care more about simply surviving, and this ambition distinguishes Mandel’s novel from contemporary works in the post-apocalyptic genre, which has been overrun by zombies (have zombies ever been the subject of interesting fiction?) and feature characters nearly as barbarous as their undead foes. The characters in “Station Eleven” lack the resources to re-create the world before the collapse, but their fondness for that world inspires them to turn their wasteland into a world fit for humanity.

The novel is not perfect — Mandel’s allusions to “King Lear” are a bit heavy-handed at times, and her principal antagonist, a religious zealot known as the Prophet, seems more fanatical than truly menacing. But these minor flaws do not significantly detract from her achievement. Much as Kirsten never feels at home in her brutish world, “Station Eleven” does not wear the label of science fiction well, because Mandel’s novel rises about the conventions of its genre, and deserves to be compared not to “I Am Legend” or “The Stand,” but rather to Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” another novel more concerned about humanity’s reaction to disease than the disease itself.

It Already Feels Like Four Years

As the Presidential election in the United States approached last year, I wrote about a possible Trump victory and attempted to think of reasons why it could possibly work well. I had a lot of fun with that post, because like most people in this country, I didn’t think it would come to pass. A year after we’ve been proven wrong, I want to revisit that jocular entry, and see if it was in any way prescient.

The reasons I gave for hope in a Trump presidency were:

  • He’s an outsider. Trump hasn’t been afraid to rattle cages, even among member of his own party. But all his tough talk hasn’t lead to any change in the status quo. Washington seems more, not less, dysfunctional since he’s taken office.
  • He is distrusted by both major political parties. How naive was that statement? The Republican party has decided to take advantage of Trump’s surprise win, and attempted, with very little success, to pass their legislative agenda. From time to time, a GOP congressman will raise objections to Trump’s leadership, but most quickly capitulate in response to a presidential tweet. Any hope that the Republicans would attempt to rein in Trump simply has to be abandoned.
  • He doesn’t care what people think. That’s the definition of a sociopath. Nothing that Trump has done as president has provided any evidence that he can ever overcome his narcissism.

In short, President Trump has been as awful as any of us feared, and we’re likely to have three more years of incoherence and incompetence. A Republican House would never impeach him, no matter what comes out of the investigations of Russian election interference, and should Democrats take control of the House next year and pass articles of impeachment, there aren’t 67 Senators who would vote to remove him from office. This isn’t Armageddon — there is still much that is great about our nation — but anyone looking for progress in America had best look somewhere other than Washington until 2021.

Friday Fictioneers: Sentries


Collected from the manor’s numerous rooms, the odd collection of furnishings (vases? ash trays? spitoons?), some dusted for the first time in decades, is assembled on the marble-topped desk. The window behind them looks onto the front yard, and as they lie waiting to be shrink-wrapped and stored in packing crates, they seem to serve as sentries, guarding the manor’s vacant interior against the outside world.

Rochelle Wisof-Fields is the host of Friday Fictinoneers, where the objective is to write a complete story in 100 words or less in response to a photograph. I encourage you to learn more about Friday Fictioneers.

A Change of Plans

When I began drafting chapter 9 of Gray Metal Faces, I had planned to revise chapters 8 (drafted in April this year) and 9 for this year’s NaNoWriMo. But soon after completing that final chapter, I decided to take my writing in a different direction this November.

Last year’s NaNoWriMo (during which I revised chapters 6 and 7) was very rewarding, as it demonstrated I had the drive, dedication, and discipline to undertake an enormous project, and complete it successfully. However, the experience also left me completely drained, and I knew a similar effort this year would be equally as exhausting. And in the past month, I’ve started several other writing projects, all of which would need to be put on hold as I fought my way through the revision. Chapters 8 and 9 will be revised — I’ve spent too much time on this novel, and it’s too close to being ready for an agent or editor’s review, for me to abandon the project. But there’s a time for all things, and now is not the time for this effort.

So while it’s NoNaNoWriMo this year, there will be time for other activities, such as a return to daily blogging on this site. And I’ll begin today with a reblog from Andra Watkins, who shares some exciting plans for her own writing career.