Monthly Archives: January 2012
I’m reading Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of The Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. Burrough quotes a 1962 Nation article about Texas oil millionaires meddling in politics:
He believes his riches were in no way the result of luck but of his own foresight, courage, and initiative–all made possible by the American Way of Life. […]
Although he may never have got as far as high school, he is an authority on textbooks, the tariff and winning football formations, the Constitution, geophysics, currency inflation, and how to get rid of warts.
He is fond of writing letters to office-holders and potential office-holders advising and/or threatening them about the course they should follow. Given half a chance, he will, out of his accumulated wisdom, drop homilies, maxims, aphorisms, texts, proverbs and parables for the benefit of his fellowman, whom he professes to love dearly.
Fifty years later, it’s still true about businessmen, and an increasingly accurate description of politicians themselves.
I just finished Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. It’s basically an attempt to construct a narrative of how human beings went from talking chimpanzees to hunter-gatherers to tribesmen to farmers to workers to us.
It’s surprising to me how little thought I’ve thought about this before. Here’s what I learned from the book:
- The overall arc of human development turns out to be a battle between bureaucratic efficiency and human vice. Humans are driven by our natures to favor our kin, hoard our wealth and protect our security at the expense of others. The most successful early societies, just like the most successful societies now, are the ones that put rules in place to keep people from gaming the system to benefit themselves and their families.
- The earliest manifestation of this principle is ancient China. Being constantly at war with their neighbors forced each little territory to come up with education and military training based on talent rather than family connections. Like March Madness, the best-organized armies defeated the others, consolidated their territory and challenged larger opponents. After about a thousand years of this, China went from being 10,000 small principalities to one totalitarian empire.
- This same process was never able to happen in India, Fukuyama says, because it got religion. At just the time when it could have consolidated, Brahmanism took over and introduced the caste system.
- Since it was basically impossible for people to rise from lower to upper castes, Indian elites never devised a way to promote people through talent or grit. Under Brahmanism, you only rise or fall in caste after you die and are born again. Not only is it unlawful to reach a higher caste in your lifetime, it’s a sin. India never got efficient bureaucracy because the upper castes only drew talent from their own ranks, and based status on birth, not merit.
- In Europe, efficient states developed about 1,500 years after China, and only by imitating the administrative structures of the Catholic Church.
- Priest celibacy, which was only introduced in the 11th century AD, ensured that priests had no children or families to favor with wealth or appointments. So the church had no way of promoting people other than merit. This drove the Catholics to develop sophisticated structures to administer all their tithe-collecting and heaven-selling.
- Since the Catholic Church was basically the world’s first international institution, states started imitating its practices as a way of efficiently collecting taxes and ending disputes between citizens.
- It’s basically an accident that Britain ended up as the first ‘modern’ society, meaning it had a strong state, rule of law and democratic accountability. The parliament was just a leftover institution for the feudal lords to protect their property, but since it was already there, it became a vehicle for the lower gentry and eventually commoners to represent their interests.
- I especially geeked out over the section about Denmark. Fukuyama says Denmark’s highly efficient state is a result of historical accident too. After the Reformation, Denmark was one of the only countries in which Lutheran priests were given the duty of teaching all the commoners to read and write. Smart little villages became efficient little towns, which became a progressive little country.
- We like to think of political development as gradual progress toward a goal like peace or wealth or stability, but what really stands out from the book is how many societies reached high levels of sophistication and development, only to squander them by backsliding into their old habits
- China, for example, after getting all efficient by 200 BC, let nepotism creep back in once the empire was unified and basically sat development out for 1,000 years.
- In the Middle Ages, the Hungarians apparently had their own Magna Carta (Called ‘The Golden Bull’ whuuut) that made their king accountable to his subjects. Great, right? Well, it turns out it gave so much accountability that king had to convince the nobles and gentry to protect the country against outside invaders, and eventually it was taken over by the Byzantines and then the Ottomans.
- The level of corruption in early societies is monumental. The French and the Spanish governments in the 1700s basically operated like organized crime families. They literally sold noblemen the right to collect taxes. So each nobleman got an army together and bayoneted whatever taxes he wanted out of the peasants, while completely avoiding paying taxes himself. One of the reason the British Navy was able to dominate Spanish and French was simply because they had a centralized state that collected taxes, rather than a bunch of Pierre Sopranos.
I’ve been reading a lot of this kind of long-term, comparative history lately, and I’m constantly struck by the degree to which every generation thinks that the world as they found it has always been that way. Societies in the Middle Ages died defending status quos that were sometimes just 30 years old. In our own lifetimes, we constantly forget that the entire concept of a nation-state is less than 200 years old, and the borders of most existing countries have been significantly edited just in the last century.
Sometimes, in the midst of a culture obsessed with where we’re going, it’s nice to look back at where we’ve been.
I left America in 2005. I don’t know when I started telling people that I would never move back, but about two or three years ago, I realized that I meant it.
You know all that shit you hear about Europeans being indolent socialist sponges? It’s fucking Bible true. Europeans work fewer hours every week and get more vacation every year. They are harder to fire, so when their bosses ask them to do unreasonable shit like work on a weekend, they say ‘no’ and the conversation ends.
For a foreigner, integration means becoming just like them. If I ever move back to the States, I would have to find a job where I was paid a wage in exchange for my labor, rather than just my presence. Even if I wanted to move back, I’d be homeless in a matter of weeks.
Biking in Berlin isn’t as Cadillac-smooth as it was in Copenhagen, but it’s fundamentally a safe, feasible way to get where I need to be. On the days when it’s not possible to bike (snow drift, flat tire, urban riot), a comprehensive public transport system takes me within walking distance.
This means I haven’t sat in a traffic jam or looked for a parking space since Star Wars Episode III was in theaters. The parts of my brain that managed those things are now devoted exclusively to cheese and wine pairings.
Again, the stereotypes about European food are all actually facts. It fucking is better here. Europe has bakeries like America has Starbuckses. The coffee is blacker, the fruit is fruitier and all the scientists are too busy eating to genetically modify anything.
People think food service is slow and rude in Europe. This is incorrect. The meals are just so good, the waiters are reluctant to give them away.
I don’t think any country has successfully divorced health from income, but at least it’s less blatant here than in the US. When I inevitably get hit by a bus, I’ll get repaired, I won’t get an invoice.
Americans bitching about socialized medicine is like starving African kids bitching about the new Facebook layout. After seven years in three European countries, I wish bureaucrats would find more of my life to socialize.
Being a foreigner is awesome. When I do something a few standard deviations weirder than the median, people go ‘he’s weird because he’s foreign’ rather than ‘he’s weird because he’s an asshole’. Being treated this way isn’t a privilege I’m going to give up just so I can go back to speaking the same language as everyone else.
Guantanamo, drone strikes, enhanced interrogation, too big to fail, more with less, flavored milk, the TSA, the filibuster, the Bush tax cuts, the death penalty, Sarah Fucking Palin, bankruptcy reform, wardrobe malfunction, Twilight–this isn’t a culture that represents my values.
I’m not actually making the argument that Europe is better than the US. A lot of people prefer driving to walking, libertarianism to a nanny state and getting rich to paying taxes. That’s totally fine. But at this point, it’s totally not me.
I’ve lived in Sydney, London, Copenhagen and now Berlin, and none of them are perfect. I don’t want to stay here forever. I don’t want to not want to move home. I just know that, on every dimension I care about, living in the States would mean a sacrifice I’m not willing to make.
Part of me will always be ready buy a one-way ticket back to America. I just have to make sure America’s ready to have me too.
The gym has been packed this week.
‘Is this the effect of everybody making New Year’s Resolutions?’ I asked my friend the avid gymmer
‘Yep, happens every January,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, they’ll all be gone by Groundhog Day.’
I know I shouldn’t take micro-phenomena and turn them into metaphors, but I’m finding it difficult not to see something poignant and sad and human in a mass of people simultaneously signing up for the gym and then, three weeks later, simultaneously abandoning it. We all want to leave our current habits for sunnier, healthier ones, but we inevitably get pulled back home.
In a related story, I skipped German class this week on account of not-feeling-like it. I may even have eaten something I’m allergic to on purpose, just so I’d have an excuse to go home and sink into the couch. I’m sure foreign-language teachers are sitting in a break room somewhere, having the same conversation.
I wonder if we’d all be nicer if we remembered that everyone we meet is trying really hard to be a better version of themselves.
I want to root for these snowboarders trying to get their peers to drink water instead of Gatorade or Red Bull, I really do. I just can’t shake the feeling that their effort, and the broader movement to get people to cook, garden and eat ‘real food’, are doomed.
OK, here’s my logic:
The foundation of the modern economy is the idea of ‘value added’: You’re willing to pay more for a completed product than you are for its component parts. I buy a car from Volkswagen because I lack the skills and equipment to make one myself. They buy metal, rubber and grease, then rent some humans 8 hours at a time to put them together. They make profit by asking me to pay more for the completed car than they paid buying the materials and renting the humans. I know this is how they make profit, they know I know, the world goes around and around.
Food companies are no different than auto companies. They buy a bunch of raw materials, put them together and sell you a product for more than they paid. No big woop.
As opposed to cars, though, the raw materials that go into food products are readily available. The tomatoes, olives and basil sit in the grocery store 10 feet away from a shelf stocked with canned pasta sauce. I can buy a loaf of bread in a plastic bag or I can get some yeast and flour and go home and make one.
In this context, food companies can only make profit in two ways:
The first option is offering their customers convenience. A loaf of bread costs more than yeast and flour, but it saves you three hours of mixing, kneading and loitering around waiting for it to rise. You’re willing to pay extra for this because it saves you time.
The second option is offering their customers unique products that basically can’t be homemade or created in small batches. Coca-Cola, for example, big-ups its ‘secret formula’. You could make cookies or fudge at home, but you couldn’t make a Butterfinger. Pop-Tarts, whatever the fuck those actually are, are the offspring of a conveyor belt, not an oven.
For food companies, all the profit is in the processing. And the more processed something is, the more money the company makes.
Check out the top 10 food brands in America:
- ConAgra Foods
- Dean Foods
- Sara Lee Corp.
- Smithﬁeld Foods
These companies aren’t getting rich selling foods straight off the tree or out of the ground. They’re successful because they’ve engineered products consumers are willing to pay a premium for.
Look at this graphic on ConAgra’s homepage:
What the fuck are these products?! SmartPop? Café Steamers?! Every capitalized word on these packages is designed to remind you that all the work has already been done. Don’t lift a finger! It’s already Reddi!
Tyson’s homepage is even more ghastly. Check out the righthand bar:
Grilled and Ready! Heat and Eat! Don’t get up, we’ve got this!
Every time a consumer reaches for an ingredient rather than a package, the food companies lose profit. This is why Big Food fights every effort to reform the food system. From better labelling laws to promoting farmers’ markets to getting snowboarders to drink more water, it’s all the beginning of consumers telling food companies: What do I need you for?
A safer, healthier and more organic food culture doesn’t mean you won’t buy food from these companies anymore. It means you’ll buy less profitable food. That’s what they’re scared of.
These companies can either fight the reform of the food system or try to make money off of it. The food industry already offers a million products labeled ‘light’, ‘low-fat’, ‘no carb’, ‘natural’, ‘heart-healthy’ and so on. All of these terms are complete nonsense, and just represent a way for the food companies to even further process raw materials and charge you a premium. You could probably make cream cheese at home if you really tried, but you definitely couldn’t make Lite cream cheese.
So even if the companies above sign on to the sustainable-food movement, their profit-maximizing natures dictate that they still have to offer us convenience or unique products, the things that got us into this mess in the first place. As long as the cost-benefit analysis favors processing over simplicity, they have no incentive to offer healthy products. And we have no incentive to buy raw materials ourselves.
One of my favorite activities when I lived in Denmark was doing gymnastics. The high bar, the rings, the floor, it was a blast.
Since I moved to Berlin, I haven’t been able to find a place with proper gymnastics equipment. Instead I’ve been going to the gym a few times a week–the power of homosexuality compels you!–but it feels like an obligation, not a hobby.
I finally found a weekly gymnastics team here in Berlin, so tonight I attended for the first time by to see what kind of shape I’m in after trading in my unitard for trackpants seven months ago.
Apocalypse. I can’t do any of the shit I used to love doing, including handsprings and front flips, which were basically the only thing I achieved in my 20s. During my downtime every moving part of my body seems to have become a coal-fired little pain factory.
The surprising thing is, despite how monotonous and horrifying it is, I’ve actually been pretty diligent about going to the gym since I moved here. It’s literally next to my work, and lifting iron bars up and down, it turns out, is a pretty decent way to de-spreadsheet on your lunch break.
I thought at least some of my new gym muscles would come in handy when I started doing gymnastics again. Weight, motion, it’s all the same thing, right?
No, punk, my body replies in aches and weakness. You’re gonna start from the scratch I give you.
This just confirms everything I hated about the gym in the first place. Working out doesn’t make you good at anything, it just makes you better at working out. If sports were kitchen utensils, the gym would be an apple corer. It performs precisely one function–one for which other utensils easily suffice, I might add–and it doesn’t take skill or finess to use, only force.
I realize this is a preference, not a principle. In a society where no one ever forces us to get up and move around, all exercise is equally arbitrary. In my experience, the gym is the only kind that feels that way.
Yeah I’m not gonna bother reading anything about Rick Santorum. I’m sure he has unacceptable opinions on any number of important policy issues. I’m sure that the media will reveal hypocrisy between these opinions and his personal conduct. I’m sure there are skeletons in his closet waiting to be illuminated by the reporters and paraded on a stick by the bloggers.
But really, what’s the fucking point? He’s not going to win the nomination, nor the presidency. It’s only been five weeks since Herman Cain quit the primaries, and I’m already thinking that all those minutes I spent gathering news and opinion about him could have been spent reading a short story, or learning German, or shitting into my cupped hand and throwing it at my neighbors.
Looking back on this election in five years, whatever its outcome, I don’t see myself saying ‘Drat, I wish I had spent more time gathering information about the personality, achievements and thoughts of Richard John Santorum.’ Maybe I don’t have better things to do, but I do have other things to do.
I reorganized my bookmarks today. Four years of promiscuous ctrl+d-ing has left me with an disheveled list of names and urls, most of which I seldom read anymore or don’t remember ever liking.
As I sorted them into categories, I found the experience a bit depressing. Every publication, website and blog is a source of information. When you’re deleting them, you’re essentially saying ‘I can’t be bothered to hear what they want to tell me.’
Even more depressing is confronting what you actually use each of your bookmarks for. The internet has an essentially unlimited capacity to tell you the same thing over and over. News blogs recapitulate the same information. Entertainment blogs ‘analyse’ the same press releases.
Looking at your history and curating a list of your favorite information sources is essentially a blueprint for the kind of person you are. Do you want a brief, snarky take on American politics? Feminist analysis of celebrity gossip? Gay album reviews?
Lately I’ve been feeling like unlimited reading options has turned literature into music. If it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, I want to listen to Low Roar or Portishead. If I’m about to go out dancing, I want to listen to Rye Rye or The Avalanches.
In the same way, early in the morning I want to read a website that gives me sober, straightforward news, something Reutersy. At work I want something I can read, digest and forget in about 15 minutes. On weeknights I want a site that tells me something I didn’t know before or shows me something I knew in a new way.
This concept isn’t anything new, obviously. The written word, from newspapers to magazines to novels, have always set a particular tone, and we always choose to read something that reflect ourselves back at us.
What I’ve been struck by lately, though, is that I also have moods for content. I want to read an article about how stupid libertarians are. Or I want a minority to tell me that they’re empowered. Or I want to read a blog where someone tells me that my favorite TV shows are their favorites too.
The internet allows us to cultivate not only the facts we get and the conclusions we draw, but our emotional reactions too. What ever I feel like feeling–confirmation, outrage, optimism, apocalypse–I can access it instantly.
In the end, I just sorted my favorites into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’. The sites contained in both of them give me information. But one group plays me something I haven’t heard before, and the other just repeats the same old melody.