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.

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.

4 – 8 – 15 – 16 – 23 – 42

After a three-month hiatus, Ana Spoke has resumed posting to her blog today. Explaining she “was too busy getting married and starting my new job” to blog, Ana never did lose her literary ambition, although she struggled mightily to get back into her writing.

The difficulty Ana faced in re-starting speaks powerfully to a dilemma that’s been coming for some time. About five years ago, I was writing sporadically in this blog, and wasn’t happy with what I was posting. I had read from several bloggers that the key was to make a committment of some fashion — number of posts per week, word count, completing a story each month, whatever — and stick to it. Many suggested that posting each day was the key, and for whatever reason that committment was the most appealing to me. Not sure of the exact date, although I do know it was the day after my younger son’s bar mitzvah (I could look it up, as if that mattered) — I told myself I was going to post something, every day, in this blog, starting that day until… whenever.

I’m now wondering if whenever’s day has finally come.

At times, the show’s title perfectly described its audience

It’s not that the thrill is gone; I still love writing, and blogging, as much as ever. But this daily obligation has me feeling like Desmond Hume from the television show “Lost”, tasked with entering six numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42) into a computer terminal every 108 minutes (I’ll save you the work — the six numbers add up to 108). Desmond was told this sequence of numbers had a supernatural power, and entering those numbers was the only way to prevent a catastrophic event. “Lost” was a cult phenomenon in its day, and its fans spent a good deal of time and energy speculating on some of the show’s recurring motifs, particularly those six numbers (hey guys, astrology has 12 houses and 9 planets — guess what number you get when they’re multiplied!). Posting on online message boards, speaking at conventions, and giving interviews to fawning entertainment writers, the show’s writers would frequently drop hints at the numbers’ significance, but after the show ended in 2010, they admitted most of show’s motifs had no hidden meaning. Those numbers had been chosen pretty much at random, and served as nothing more than a useful plot device, what the detective novelists would call a red herring. In other words, Desmond had been entering those numbers for absolutely no reason.

The decision to post every day was the right call five years ago, as I don’t think I could have produced as much as I have if I didn’t have that disciplined motivation. But there’s been too many obligatory posts the past several weeks, and I don’t see the value in keeping the streak going any longer. My Christian readers will likely say that I’ve made an idol out of my daily obligation — and they’re likely to be correct.

But as I contemplate stepping away, I think of Ana’s struggle to resume writing. Let’s say tomorrow, Wednesday, I decide not to post. What’s going to motivate me to post on Thursday? Or any other day this week? Next week? The rest of the month?

If you’ve managed to wade through the preceding 500+ words, I’m now asking a favor. What advice do you have for blogging consistently, but not daily? What tactics do you employ to keep posting regularly? I don’t want to be like poor Desmond any longer, but right now I’m at a loss in my search for a different way of being diligent.

The Passive/Aggressive Despot

Mark Aldrich, The Gad About Town, posts regular updates on journalists imprisoned for simply doing their job, such as the Egyptian photojournalist Shawkan. His post today focuses on the United States, and the Donald Trump administration’s attacks on media credibility. I find a lot of wisdom in the following excerpt:

Autocrats in our current era will not march into newspaper offices and destroy printing presses, as they did once upon a time; they will simply shame and harass them into silence. They will cajole their credulous supporters into not believing credible evidence and into a resistance of critical independent thinking.

I’d like to expand on Mark’s analysis with the following two comments:

  • Comparisons of Trump to notorious dictators of the past are an ineffective distraction. Journalists in America aren’t going to be arrested (unless they choose to investigate a riot), but they will be subject to a sustained passive/aggressive attack from the President. No direct accusations, but rather a continuous series of suggestions; no call to action, but should some lunatic decide to take the law into his own hands… well, the President never told him to do it, and besides, the victims had it coming to them anyway. Mark doesn’t compare Trump to Hitler, Saddam, or Stalin (the comparison to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is made to demonstrate parallel tactics), which is wise, for Trump’s brand of maniacal despotism is unique, and needs to be called out and combated on its own terms.
  • Expressing outrage at Trump’s behavior is a waste of time and energy, and I’m glad to see Mark’s post is free of self-righteous indignation. Anger will never get Trump to admit he is wrong, as maniacs are by definition incapable of the self-reflection required to acknowledge error. And while outrage might persuade some of his supporters, a core group will continue to believe in “alternative facts,” no matter how vehemently we present the truth. I also believe Trump and his supporters welcome the outrage, seeing it as yet another distraction from his more nefarious policies, such as his increasing friendship with Vladimir Putin. We can, and must, fight every lie with the truth, every false assumption with logic, every attempt to circumvent the law with all our available resources; outrage does nothing to help in any of these fights.

The current regime is less than a month old, and it’s proving to be just as mendacious as we’d feared. We have not only to chose which battles to fight, but also must take care in how we chose to wage those battles.

Super Boor

Super Bowl LI will be played this evening; kickoff should occur some time after the singing of the third or fourth patriotic anthem, the broadcast of a couple dozen overproduced commercials, and the 30 men and 20 minutes required to flip the damn coin. The game represents America at its boorish best — even our most sports-adverse citizens cannot ignore the event, while the rest of the world tolerates our obsession like a kindly yet overbearing relative visiting for the holidays.

I wanted to begin today by reblogging a post about the game that makes no actual mention of American football. Agnes Wright is ready for the halftime show, and shares some recipes for what has become an American tradition.

Clicking a link to the future

Interesting post from Fargus Larbis today about the future of retail merchants. It’s not looking good for brick-and-mortar stores, as online retailers are competing with and often beating them on price, delivery, and service. I’m anxious for the retail professionals who staff and manage these stores; some can perhaps find employment with online retailers, but the trend with both virtualization and automation is for fewer employees. And if people don’t work, they won’t have money to feed into an economy that’s increasingly being driven by consumerism. And if the consumer market dries up… I don’t want to think about what comes next.

The fate of conventional retail stores reminds me of my father,  who worked in retail most of his professional life. He was a department store manager for several years, until one day I came home from grammar school to see him sitting in front of a typewriter at the dining room table. This was highly unusual, so I asked why he was home.

“I quit my job today.” There was neither pleasure nor apprehension in his reply. “I’m writing my resume.” Later that evening, I asked my mother about the meaning of resume, as the word was entirely new to me. Immediately afterwards, my father would respond to questions about why he quit with clipped monosyllables, laced with a tone that invited no follow-up queries. A few years later, as his former employer’s immanent bankruptcy made the news, he finally gave me the full explanation. “The company’s profit margin had been falling for years, and they went and built a high-rise corporate tower in New York.” That building was featured in each story about the bankruptcy. “Upper management was in complete denial, but it was obvious to me that I had to get out when I did.”

Our family struggled for a couple years after my father left that job. He eventually opened a franchise for a national electronics retailer in the rural town where he was born; for years in the mid to late 1970s, his store was the only place in a fifty-mile radius where consumers could purchase electronic and computing devices. He was the first retailer in the area to sell an electronic calculator, a primitive device by today’s standards — it could only perform simple arithmetic, had no memory, and was as large as some of today’s notebook computers — but was such a novelty in our area that people would drive in from miles away just to say this amazing device. It was so popular that he kept it in a safe overnight, to prevent burglary.

My father made a good career for himself in retail, and provided valuable commodities to our small town. There will be fewer stories like my father’s in the years to come (he left the industry entirely in the early 1990s, when he saw the potential for online retailers), and while I hope the tales that replace his will end just as well, I fear we’re in for a good deal of social disruption in the coming years.