Category Archives: Random

Zimbabwe Dollarized. How Does the U.S. Feel About That?

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The rainbow of 20s you get from the ATM in Harare

Here’s a section that got cut from my New Republic story about the use of the US dollar in Zimbabwe

Wait, so a country can just adopt the United States’s currency without our permission?

“The U.S. government has never taken any overt position on dollarization, formal or informal.” This is Benjamin Cohen, a political economy processor at the University of California Santa Barbara, former Fed employee and the author of some articles I’ve been reading to try to understand how one country just gets up one morning and starts using another country’s money.

Ninety percent of the world’s $100 bills, Dr. Cohen says, are in circulation outside of the United States. Dozens of countries are considered  to be “highly dollarized,” meaning more than 30 percent of their money supply is in dollars.

Unlike Zimbabwe, which has formally adopted the dollar, most countries use the U.S. dollar informally, in parallel with the local currency. A few years ago I was in Cambodia for work, and found that the local currency, the riel, was only used for small stuff like meals, transport and entertainment. Anything major—a TV, a plane ticket, an iPhone—prices were quoted and paid in U.S. dollars.

It’s not just Cambodia. These sorts of arrangements are commonplace throughout the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia. People use the local currency, but keep U.S. dollars as a hedge against inflation, like Tea Partiers hoarding gold.

According to Cohen, the United States has no reason to prevent these arrangements. Not only does the U.S. dollar provide a quarry of monetary calm for citizens of inflating nations, the U.S. actually makes money every time our money leaves our borders. “Seniorage,” as the economists call it, is the profit the U.S. earns every time a foreigner ‘buys’ a dollar for a dollar (It costs 6 cents to print a $1 bill. If you print one, then use it to buy something that costs a dollar, you’ve just earned 94 cents profit. That’s seniorage.).

This sounds like it shouldn’t be a real thing, but the US earns $20 billion per year from all those $100 bills held internationally. Not a huge proportion of GDP, but hey, free money, right?

The other upsides are obvious. Every time another country uses our currency, it reinforces the U.S. dollar as world’s preferred international currency, just like every time someone drinks a Coke or eats a Big Mac it reinforces the status of those brands.

Foreign countries using our currency even gives us diplomatic power. Panama, one of the first countries to formally adopt the U.S. dollar, froze in its tracks when the U.S. cut off access to hard currency in the late 1980s to put pressure on Noriega.

The only real downside of foreign countries dollarizing, for the U.S. at least, is that it creates a headache for the Fed. The more countries dollarize, the more the Fed has to take them into account when making monetary policy. A million calculations go into the decision to raise or lower interest rates, and the last thing the Fed needs is to add the interests of Cambodian iPod salesmen into the mix.

One of the more significant downsides is if a dollarized country suddenly reintroduced their domestic currency, it might flood the market with millions of now-unneeded U.S. dollars, reducing the value of all of them. It doesn’t even have to be a whole country. If the dollar was used widely enough, huge purchases of dollars by foreigners could significantly affect its value.

This is why, Cohen says, the U.S. takes a policy of “benign neglect” toward foreign countries that want to formally or informally dollarize. You want to buy a bunch of dollars and give them to your citizens in exchange for your old currency? Fine. You want to encourage your banks to offer accounts denominated in U.S. dollars? Have a blast. The U.S. isn’t going to be particularly helpful in helping you set this up, but they’re not going to stop you either.

Ten countries (East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama and a bunch of small island nations) are formally dollarized, meaning the U.S. dollar is their official currency (most of them have their own coins though).

Zimbabwe is formally dollarized in that all government spending is in U.S. dollars, but it also recognizes the euro, the British pound, the Botswanan pula and the South African rand (why the Mozambican metical got left out, I have no idea). Stores accept payment in whatever currency you have handy, and sometimes give you change in a different currency than you paid.

One of the things that always surprised me about Zimbabwe was how it just switched to U.S. dollars one day, without any relationship to the U.S. Federal Reserve. It was even under sanctions at the time. Can it just do that?

“It’s totally normal to switch to the U.S. dollar without any relationship to the Fed,” Cohen says. “It doesn’t require an application. Anyone can buy paper money, and anyone can get a dollar bank account. Their own country may restrict those things, but the U.S. doesn’t.”

When Ecuador officially adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000, it carried out a mass currency conversion. The central bank sold their U.S. treasury bonds to the U.S. for cash, brought the cash back to Ecuador and gave Ecuadoreans a window in which to exchange their sucres for U.S. dollars. The U.S. didn’t orchestrate, nor condemn, this process.

Like an introduced species, the U.S. dollar tends to take over an increasingly large percentage of the economy. The only country Cohen knows of that has de-dollarized is Israel, which introduced the U.S. dollar in the late 1970s as a parallel currency, and only managed to get rid of it after a series of economic reforms reinstated confidence in the shekel. Lots of informally dollarized countries, like Argentina, go through waves of increasing, then decreasing dollarization in line with citizens’ confidence in the local currency.

I have no idea what any of this means for Zimbabwe. As I say in the New Republic story, bringing back the Zimbabwe dollar is seen by economists (including the head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) as a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Dr. Cohen’s written a bunch of interesting, easy to read articles on dollarization from the US perspective

 Thanks for the interview!

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How Capitalism Explains Why Processed Food is Bad For You

Originally posted at The Billfold

I make a mean marinara sauce. I sauté onions, garlic and bacon (yes, bacon) for 10 minutes until they sweeten and become crisp, then add a big glass of red wine, a can of chopped tomatoes and generous pinches of salt, basil, oregano and rosemary. Then I leave the room. When I come back two hours later, the sauce is thick, sweet and almost purple. I throw in a handful of fresh basil leaves—done.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my marinara this week because I’ve been reading Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Tricked Us. Company after company, product after product, Moss shows how Big Food formulates products for maximum addictiveness and overeatability. Oreos, Cheetos, Lunchables, Wonder Bread, they’re all the same Iowa corn and Brazilian sugarcane, just liquefied, dyed and processed into different shapes and colors.

The same week I read Moss’s book cataloguing how Big Food is trying to kill us, I read David H. Freedman’s Atlantic cover story about how it’s also going to save us all. According to Freedman, big food companies—the same ones Moss accuses of nutritional euthanasia—are actually de-fatting, de-sugaring and de-salting their products one by one. McDonald’s is using whole-wheat buns, Cargill is selling a fullness-inducing tapioca starch, Stevia is fucking everywhere.

It’s a great article, and Freedman’s butchering of sacred foodie cows (Michael Pollan! Farmer’s markets! Granola!) is both essential and effective. But when it comes to his core argument, that America’s obesity problem is going to be solved by better processed food and bigger corporations, I’m not convinced. That’s not because I think it’s impossible to make a healthier Oreo or Pepsi or Lunchable—it wouldn’t actually be all that hard. Nope, corporations won’t make us healthier because capitalism makes it impossible for them to do so. Bear with me, I’ll explain.

 

1. Scale, Speed and Shelf Life

Let’s say I want to start selling my marinara, and I want to turn it into an industrial food megabrand—another Ragu, Hot Pockets, Lean Cuisine. The first thing I have to do is make it in huge batches and make each of those batches taste the same. No more willy-nilly tossing of spices, no more adding whatever veggies are in the fridge. I need to standardize every single element, from the weight of the onions to the heat under the pot.

To keep costs down, maybe I cut the simmering time in half, use salt instead of hours to make the flavors come out. Moss notes that herbs are up to 10 times more expensive than salt in industrial cooking, so that’s the first no-brainer modification.

The next problem is shelf life. Those Lunchables might look all crisp and fresh when you grab them out of the refrigerated aisle, but they sat around at room temperature for at least two months before they got there. Warehouses, wholesalers, truck beds, stockrooms, my marinara is going to need a lot of help not to go bad in all that time. That means preservatives (most of which, according to Moss, are derivatives and modifications of salt), chemicals, coloring agents to save my marinara’s magenta as it trundles across the country.

So now my sauce has been made in huge batches, jarred, shipped and shelved. It’s in the supermarket aisle. I win!

But wait. Thanks to all the preservatives and additives, my marinara tastes like an old sock. I go back to my simmering pot, add a glob of vegetable oil, a dash—OK, a deluge—of high fructose corn syrup, some thickeners and emulsifiers so it has that pasta saucey texture, and it’s ready for the store again.

Before I grew up and started cooking, I thought the pasta sauce I bought at the store was the same as the one I could make on the stove. I was just paying a bit extra so a factory worker somewhere did the chopping, seasoning and simmering for me. This is how our economy is supposed to work, right? I don’t knit my own clothes, I don’t build my own house, I don’t weld my bike together from parts. Why should food be any different?

There’s a scene in Moss’s book where he goes to a Cargill facility and they make him a slice of industrial-scale bread without any salt. The texture, the taste, the color, everything is wrong, Moss says. It tastes like a piece of tin foil.

This scene confused me. When I make bread at home, I use about half a teaspoon of salt for an entire loaf. If you cut the salt out of my homemade bread, yeah, it’s bland and a bit puffier (Alton Brown teaches us that salt counteracts the effectiveness of yeast), but it’s still bread, not some horrifying replicant.

But my bread, the one I spend the better part of a day kneading and proofing, is stale before I can eat about half of it. Wonder Bread, with 27 ingredients, half a teaspoon of sugar and 7 percent of your daily allowance of salt in every slice, lasts on the shelf for two weeks.

Processed food isn’t bad for you because the products—pasta sauce, macaroni and cheese, white bread—are inherently sweet and salty. They are bad for you because they are inherently industrial. Supermarket supply chains are long, slow and and unforgiving. Which means everything you buy at one has to be made in massive batches, perfectly standardized and capable of sitting at room temperature in a glass jar or plastic bag for months on end. If you took that kind of abuse, you’d need chemical assistance too.

 

2. Competition

My marinara sauce is now mass-produced, shelf-stable and OK-tasting. Sure, it’s got some extra salt and sugar, but it’s still one of the healthier brands on the shelves.

The only problem is, no one is buying it. Every other brand of pasta sauce at the supermarket has way more sugar and fat than my sauce, and they taste way better. To get people to switch to my sauce, I’m going to have to add even more sweeteners (sugar) and flavor enhancers (salt).

One of the most tragic sequences in Moss’s book is the story of Kraft in the early 2000s. The company, reeling with power from its huge market share in cereal (Raisin Bran), cookies (Oreos) and packaged pastas (the eponymous mac and cheese), started taking health and nutrition much more seriously. It added extra labels (alongside the miniscule USDA-mandated serving sizes, it listed nutrition facts for the whole package) and stealthily reduced the salt, sugar and fat in its most popular products. It even cut the calories in Oreos and started selling them in 100-calorie packs.

And then Hershey’s invaded. Starting in 2003, the chocolate company launched a line of S’mores cookies that were fatter and sweeter than Kraft’s newly trimmed-down Oreos. Kraft started to lose market share. It had no choice but to retaliate. And that’s how we got Banana Split Cream Oreos, Dairy Queen Blizzard Creme Oreos and Triple Double Oreos. They tasted better than normal Oreos, they had more sugar and fat and, not coincidentally, they sold better. Does Hershey’s even make cookies anymore?

The story of Kraft is one of the reasons I find Freedman’s “How Junk Food Can End Obesity” article so unconvincing. All of the major food companies—from Pepsi and General Mills right down the line to Monsanto—are publicly traded. They’re big, they’re multinational, they’re corporations. This means the only thing that matters to them is profits.

This isn’t a normative description or a moral judgment, it’s just a factual description of their corporate form. In a dilemma between earning more profit and protecting public health, profit will win.  In a dilemma between earning more profit and anything, profit will win. Again, not a judgment, just a description.

Freedman profiles the Carl’s Jr. Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich, a not-fried, not-sugared, not-terrible-for-you sandwich sharing menu space with fries and sodas. With the right marketing, the right “Would you like to try” push from employees, America might just start eating it. And, Freedman argues, just might get a little slimmer, a little healthier.

That’s a nice scenario, and it might even happen, and yay if it does. But Freedman doesn’t walk us through the scenario where Wendy’s or Burger King launches a similar fish burger, one that’s fried, that’s salted and sugared, that has triple the tartar sauce. That because of all these differences (and this is the killing stroke) tastes better. What can Carl’s Jr. do except retaliate in kind?

Two years ago, the New Yorker ran a feature detailing how Pepsi (and its subsidiary, Frito-Lay) were launching a “we’re healthy now” makeover. Less sugar and salt, more vitamins and whole grains. They even hired a guy from the World Health Organization to implement his own science-backed health standards right through the soda-and-potato-chips family.

And then, like Kraft before it, Pepsi buckled. The minute U.S. sales fell to third place (after Coke and—the horror—Diet Coke), Pepsi launched an all-hands-on-deck marketing campaign to go back to selling its old sugar-water staple.

Two years after the healthy makeover, Pepsi’s CEO told shareholders, “We refocused our efforts on our key global brands and categories in our most important developed markets to drive profitable growth,” annual report-ese for, “we marketed the shit out of our unhealthiest products.” Pepsi traded the guy from the WHO for Beyonce. The stock soared.

And that’s how it goes. Processed food companies are like drug addicts, promising “next time it’ll be different, watch!’ when they’re euphoric on market share and rising stock prices. As soon as they crash back down, they’re right back to their old habits. Cheap sugar, loud marketing, bogus health claims.

This is why Moss’s book and, in a different way, Freedman’s article are so depressing. Companies aren’t evil, they’re not greedy, they’re not pernicious. They’re just companies. As Moss points out, they’re as addicted to shitty food as we are.

Freedman’s right that just because a food is “processed” doesn’t necessarily mean its bad for you. And just because something is organic or local or homemade or “natural” doesn’t mean its good for you. But I can’t help but notice that a Starbucks muffin has 500 calories and that the one I make at home has 140. Ragu, the number one pasta sauce in America, has almost nine teaspoons of sugar, more than a day’s recommended amount of salt and as much fat as a milkshake in each jar.

Freedman would probably point out that my marinara sauce is not particularly healthy (wine and bacon, after all, are just foodie forms of salt, sugar and fat) and, serving for serving, must be more expensive than $2-per-jar Ragu. He might argue that in a few years, Ragu or General Foods or Kraft will offer a pasta sauce that’s nutritionally identical to mine, and that I’d be an asshole and a snob not to buy it. And he might be right.

But for now, neither of us can escape the reality that food, like everything else we buy, is designed to be cheap to make, to last forever and to taste better than the next product down the shelf. And also like everything else, after you buy it, you’re on your own.

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John Steinbeck, Ted Kaczynski and the Appeal of Nostalgia

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I disagree with basically everything in this essay, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’ve recently been reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. [...]

Here are the four premises with which he begins the book:

1. Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.
2. Only the collapse of modern technological civilization can avert disaster.
3. The political left is technological society’s first line of defense against revolution.
4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society

Kaczynski’s prose is sparse, and his arguments logical and unsentimental, as you might expect from a former mathematics professor with a degree from Harvard. I have a tendency toward sentimentality around these issues, so I appreciate his discipline. I’m about a third of the way through the book at the moment, and the way that the four arguments are being filled out is worryingly convincing.

Kingsnorth’s (and Kaczynski’s) argument is basically that the human species is destroying the planet, and that we as individuals may be powerless to stop it, but we’re obligated not to participate in it.

This is the progress trap. Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.

Spencer Wells takes up the story in his book Pandora’s Seed, a revisionist history of the development of agriculture. The story we were all taught at school—or I was, anyway—is that humans “developed” or “invented” agriculture, because they were clever enough to see that it would form the basis of a better way of living than hunting and gathering. [...]

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller—and thus, by implication, healthier—than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since—including the present day. This collapse in individual well-being was likely due to the fact that settled agricultural life is physically harder and more disease-ridden than the life of a shifting hunter-gatherer community.

So much for progress. But why in this case, Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into a progress trap.

We have been falling into them ever since.

I have such a kneejerk rejection of these kinds of arguments it’s practically an allergy. I happened to read Kingsnorth’s essay the same week I was read John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley‘, his road-trip diary from 1962, and this passage suddenly got relevant.

It is life at a peak of some kind of civilization. The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands.[...]

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, that that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance.

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us.

The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.

I see Steinbeck as an example that even in the ‘Golden Era’ our current technophobes harken back to, critics at the time were harkening back even further. I want to snark that 10,000 years ago there was probably a middle-aged nomad complaining that things were better 10,030 years ago.

But Kingsnorth and his essay are smarter than that.

A scythe is an old tool, but it has changed through its millennia of existence, changed and adapted as surely as have the humans who wield it and the grasses it is designed to mow. Like a microchip or a combustion engine, it is a technology that has allowed us to manipulate and control our environment, and to accelerate the rate of that manipulation and control. A scythe, too, is a progress trap. But it is limited enough in its speed and application to allow that control to be exercised in a way that is understandable by, and accountable to, individual human beings. It is a compromise we can control, as much as we can ever control anything; a stage on the journey we can still understand.

There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

Kingsnorth uses these observations as an excuse to withdraw, live off the soil, mow the grass with a scythe, unplug. For him, that’s living at a human scale.

But for other people, maybe living at human scale is spending more time plugged in. Maybe it’s making music and sharing it with your friends, maybe it’s using social media to organize events to meet your neighbors, maybe it’s (ahem) writing essays in magazines about the stuff you read and the stuff you think.

I’m not calling Kingsnorth a hypocrite. If he wants to go off-grid, escape the progress trap, if that makes him happy, he should. But I don’t think his premises, or even his doomsday ‘the planet is dying!’ prediction means we all should. This is the world we’ve got. Whether we got here through progress or a ‘progress trap’, here we are.

Steinbeck’s diary describes getting lost over and over again, and how most locals are terrible at giving directions. After awhile, he says, he doesn’t even ask how he should get where he’s going, he just asks them to tell him where he is.

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The First Page of Don Delillo’s ‘Cosmopolis’

When I used to work at the Seattle Times, I hung out a bit with the book reviews editor. I asked her once how she decided among the dozens of books she received every week, which ones to review.

‘Read the first page,’ she said. ‘If you want to keep reading, do.’

This has given me a weird compulsion to read first pages of novels whenever I’m in bookstores. Yesterday I spent about an hour in Foyles in London doing this, and the best one I found was Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis:

Hella wanna read the whole thing now!

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Antidepressants, Cialis and Dating: How We’ve Outsourced Our Lives to Corporations

After I posted this article on Facebook (‘Probably the best thing I’ve ever read on depression and the pharmaceutical industry’), an American friend wrote me:

Basically, I stopped being able to ‘squeeze one out’ without a lot of work about a month after I started taking [antidepressants] at age 15. I remember noticing a marked difference, and I told my doctor about it. She said ‘you are awfully young to be making those kind of observations’ and that’s all that came of that conversation.

For the last two years, I’ve lost the desire for sex. I can’t remember the last time I was ‘in the mood’ and my dating has come from loneliness and feeling like I should more than from sexual chemistry. [...]

Then, I went on a date with a guy with whom I ended up being totally incompatible, but somehow we got talking about antidepressants. (I feel like the question ‘so what pills are you on?’ isn’t entirely unheard of in Seattle) turns out he experienced the same thing with the loss of sexual appetite. Fucked up a bunch of his relationships. Now he’s on some kind of cocktail to mitigate that and takes Cialis when he needs to be in the mood. [...]

The next morning I talked myself down. It’s not that bad, I’m just reading into it too much, etc. Never mind the the last guy I dated (whom I still have feelings for) was depressed and started taking pills while we were dating. Turns out he wasn’t ever in the mood for sex and didn’t really feel like doing anything other than work and gardening at his house in Federal Way. So that didn’t work because he couldn’t be bothered.

Then, the guy I’ve been seeing for the last few weeks calls today. We were supposed to have a date tonight and I call him at 8 or so. Turns out he is in a clinical trial for one of those pills listed in the article, so he gets them for free, plus free healthcare while he is on the trial, which was a big factor for him when he decided to participate. (he’s a ‘permanent’ contractor with the pharmaceutical company he works for, which means he’s an employee who they don’t have to provide health insurance to. Oh the irony) he was feeling depressed this weekend and so he and his doctor decided to up his dose, and now he’s sleepy and all he wants to do is sleep. So much for the date.

Reading stuff like this, I can’t help but wonder when this century will get its shit together and begin the work of clawing back some of the pieces of our lives we’ve outsourced to the private sector.

Since World War II, we’ve given companies responsibility for an ever-widening pie slice of our lives, from our wars (Blackwater) to our food (Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart) to our social lives (‘thanks for the poke, Mom!’). Meanwhile, as employees of these same corporations, we get ever-fewer collective bargaining rights, labor law protections and access to redress. And furtherly meanwhile, our politicians are being funded by the same entities they’re supposed to be building fences around. This courtroom is out of order, dammit.

I’m sure we’re all generally glad that we went the private-sector route instead of the empty-grocery-shelves way of the planned economy. But did we have to give the companies everything?

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Moral Metronomes

I like, but don’t love, this song:

The reason I listen to it dozens of times a week is that the hand-clapping is at the perfect pace for sprints when I’m jogging. No matter how fatigued, sore, stiff or not-in-the-mood I am, if I time my strides to the beat of this song, I can get a good 2.5-minute sprint in.

There are a number of other songs that have this same effect (including, surprisingly enough, this one). Regardless of what stage of my run I’m at, I can always find the motivation to sprint whenever they come up on shuffle.

I made a playlist of all my jogging metronomes to listen to during my leg of the DHL Run this year, and managed to blast through the 5k in 20:34.  I can’t be sure, but I’m convinced this is significantly better than I could have run it if I wasn’t listening to music, or listening to something that didn’t push me to a pace just a little faster than comfortable.

I wonder how much of a metaphor for human behavior this is. You know those songs you know the words to, but only if you’re listening to them? If ‘Umbrella’ comes on the radio, you can sing along to every word, but if you asked you right now what the first line of that song is, you’d have no clue. I have a feeling there’s a lot of things we know, but only if the right music is playing.

I think religion, for example, works as a kind of moral metronome. Every decision you have to make, from the profound (should you leave your husband?) to the banal (Should you take the last croissant at Friday breakfast?), there’s a beat to step to. Maybe it’s not the morality of religious rules that gives them their strength, but their ubiquity. No matter what activity you’re performing, you can find a moral pace just a little better than you could be otherwise.

It’s not just religious rules, of course. All ideologies tend toward ubiquity. This is why there’s such a wide range of behaviors associated with things like veganism, or being really into punk music. There’s no reason your eating habits or musical taste have to affect the way you dress or decorate your house, but they do. Once you’ve found a paradigm for one aspect of your life, it’s natural to sync everything else to it.

The debate over religion vs. atheism often just compares monstrosities. Mao was worse than Constantine! The Inquisition out-horrors the Holocaust! But these discussions always ignore the tiny decisions people make every day to the rhythm of their religion or their ideology.  Maybe it’s not the big ugly things that matter, it’s the itty bitty pretty ones.

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Norway Timelapse

10 pm

midnight 

4 am

6 am

Ridiculous.

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Hand Over Fist

So I’m eight months into my first NGO fundraising job. I’m enjoying it, but the translation of genuine human need into effective marketing sometimes makes me feel cynical and complicit.

We were having a discussion the other day how to best communicate our issue in few words and strong images. We’re trying to strike a balance between enticing people to donate and ensuring that we aren’t manipulating them or blowing our issue out of proportion.

Convincing people to support your organization isn’t the same as selling them a bicycle or a spatula. There are actual human beings at the receiving end of the work we do, and I think that gives us an obligation for truth, sobriety and maturity in our communications that we don’t share with conventional marketers.

And then there’s Unicef:

You can imagine some bespectacled 30-something at a consulting firm (in fucking Brooklyn, undoubtedly) going, ‘You! Get me a picture of the cutest, saddest African baby alive! … And you! What’s the most tragic five words you can imagine? I want ‘em in all caps!’

I’m not offended or disappointed by this, exactly. Unicef’s a great organization, and if we all spent 200 bucks a year supporting them instead of updating our iPods or whatever, the world would probably be a better place. It’s just funny, in an inevitable sort of way, how marketing turns everything it touches into camp.

Or in other words, don’t hate the player, hate the game. Unicef is officially a ‘competitor’, so I clearly need to rise to this standard. Is that baby available for a photo shoot in Berlin? I’ll contact his agent.

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Berlin Sunrises Have Been Hella Pornographic Lately

 

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The Selling of The President 2012

So I’m reading The Selling of the President 1968, and there’s a few fascinating chapters on Nixon’s TV ads:

According to the book, the campaign basically never used moving images in their TV spots. It was all just photo stills with Nixon’s voiceover.

It’s like seeing some paleolithic fossil of what would become PowerPoint.

The campaign staffer in charge of creating these ads is a ‘McCarthy Democrat’, whatever that is, and openly talks shit about his own work:

‘We try to create an atmosphere through our selection of pictures [...] The problem we’ve had, in most cases, is Nixon himself. He says such incredible pap. In fact, the radicalness of this approach is in the fact of creating an image without actually saying anything. The worlds are given meaning by the impressions created by the stills.

Keep in mind, this quote about the commercials is by the guy who is in charge of making them. It makes them somehow even more dystopian.

‘Nixon has not only developed the use of the platitude, he’s raised it to an art form. It’s mashed potatoes. It appeals to the lowest common denominator in American taste. [...] The commercials are successful because people are able to relate them to their own delightful misconceptions of themselves and their country.

‘Have you noticed? The same faces reappear in different spots. The same pictures are used again and again. They become symbols, recurring like notes in an orchestrated piece. The Alabama sharecropper with the vacant stare, the vigorious young steelworker, the grinning soldier.

‘And the rosier the sunset, the more wholesome the smiling face, the more it conforms to their false vision of what they are and what their country is.’

Forty-three years later, what’s most striking about these is that, the political cliches haven’t changed at all.

American primary political imagery is still all nuclear families and fucking amber waves of grain. American jobs are exclusively factory workers, farmers, and firemen. No one in American political discourse sits in front of a computer all day.

The images we use to demonstrate America’s greatness haven’t matured since the invention of television. Two-parent families, securely employed factory workers and family farmers make up a fraction of our population, but a majority of our political fodder.

These images were already out of date in 1968. The technologies we use to deliver them may have developed, but the Alabama sharecropper is still staring, from his unreality into ours.

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