Category Archives: Serious
I’ve got another interview up at Longreads. Here’s a little leftover I couldn’t figure out how to work in:
What kind of issues do you work with in your practice?
Anxiety, depression, a lot of work with addiction—drugs, alcohol, love, sex.
So sexual addiction is a real thing?
Yes it is. People die because of compulsive sexuality. They contract AIDS, they go insane, they destroy their marriages, they spend all their money at strip clubs or on hookers. The definition of addiction is an individual decision about whether you think you’re an addict or not. It just means stuff you’re doing that you don’t want to do and that’s ruining your life. That can be playing online scrabble. Your brain can become addicted to online scrabble. And you’re up all night and losing your job because the chemicals in your brain are dependent on the excitement you get from playing online scrabble. So it’s not about what the behavior is specifically that makes it an addiction or not. It’s the experience of the person with the behavior.
I interviewed my buddy Nic Shaxson for Longreads. Here’s a clip:
Last year Shaxson published a Vanity Fair article, ‘A Tale of Two Londons,’ that described the residents of one of London’s most exclusive addresses—One Hyde Park—and the accounting acrobatics they had performed to get there.
Here’s how it works: If you’re a Russian oil billionaire or a Nigerian bureaucro-baron and you want to hide some of your money from national taxes and local scrutiny, London real estate is a great place to stash it. All you need to do is establish a holding company, park it offshore and get a-buying. Here’s Shaxson:
These buyers use offshore companies for three big and related reasons: tax, secrecy, and “asset protection.” A property owned outright becomes subject to various British taxes, particularly capital-gains and taxes on transfers of ownership. But properties held through offshore companies can often avoid these taxes. According to London lawyers, the big reason for using these structures has been to avoid inheritance taxes. […]
But secrecy, for many, is at least as important: once a foreign investor has avoided British taxes, then offshore secrecy gives him the opportunity to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s tax—or criminal—authorities too. Others use offshore structures for “asset protection”—frequently, to avoid angry creditors. That seems to be the case with a company called Postlake Ltd.—registered on the Isle of Man—which owns a $5.6 million apartment on the fourth floor [of One Hyde Park].
Shaxson argues that this phenomenon has taken over the U.K. real estate market—extortionate penthouses for the ultrarich sitting empty while the rest of us outbid each other for the froth below.
Originally published on The Huffington Post
I didn’t realize that Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise was one of the best books I read last year until about three weeks after I finished it. Why am I still thinking about this book? I would think, riding the bus, going over one of his examples in my head for the twelfth time.
It’s not that I’m so into baseball, or politics, or stock prices, or that I want to get better at predicting them. It’s that Silver’s book is an argument, and a challenge, for how I read stories in the future — and how I write them.
Silver’s core point is this:
Our predictions may be more prone to failure in the era of Big Data. As there is an exponential amount of available information, there is likewise an exponential increase in the number of hypotheses to investigate. For instance, the U.S. government now publishes data on about 45,000 economic statistics. If you want to test for a relationship between all combinations of two pairs of these statistics — is there a causal relationship between the bank prime loan rate and the unemployment rate in Alabama? — that gives you literally one billion hypotheses to test.
But the number of meaningful relationships in the data — those that speak to causality rather than correlation and testify to how the world really works — is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world that there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.
This is not just a problem for Big Data. We’re not just surrounded by more quantitative information, more numbers, than ever before. We’re also surrounded by qualitative data too. From Longreads to UpWorthy, we’re have access to more stories, more characters, more anecdotes, more illustrations and examples than ever before. But just as more numbers don’t inherently produce more truth, more stories don’t inherently provide more lessons necessitating them.
Silver’s book reminded me of one of the worst books I read last year, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.
In his most talked-about chapter, Gladwell profiles superlawyer David Boies, the dude who represented Gore against Bush at the Supreme Court, gay marriage against the Mormons in California.
Boies is dyslexic. It takes him hours to read a legal brief, and he foundered in odd jobs until his mid-20s, when he went to NYU Law School, then worked his way up through government and law firms to become a legal goliath.
Boies’s dyslexia, as Gladwell tells it, is a ‘desirable difficulty’. Being bad at reading volumes of case law made Boies focus on being good at listening and arguing, skills other lawyers neglected. Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, also at the top of his field, also dyslexic, became a great negotiator to compensate for his difficulty reading. Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn grew up dyslexic and found that it made him an outsider, gave him the skill of presenting a persona. He used that skill to blag his way into his first job in finance.
“You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child,” Gladwell ominously concludes, “Or would you?” You can almost hear the music cue: Bum bum BUMMMM.
If all this sounds a bit too easy, that’s because it is. When Gladwell’s book came out, critics (most prominently Christopher F. Chablis in the Wall Street Journal) pointed out that dyslexia is, rather obviously, not a magic formula for success, decidedly not something you would give to your child if you had the choice.
Gladwell says “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.” A dyslexia researcher points out that this claim is based on a survey of 102 entrepreneurs and 37 corporate managers (out of 2,000 people contacted) and that it wasn’t even designed to detect dyslexia, only dyslexia-like traits such as difficulty with spelling.
Gladwell admits that dyslexics are over-represented in the prison population; Chablis, like a high school English teacher, says ‘develop this further’: It’s kinda sorta a major counterpoint to your argument. Gladwell points to a study where people did better on an intelligence test when it was in hard-to-read font (Lesson: difficulty makes you concentrate harder). Chablis says this test was on just 40 people, all Princeton students, and hasn’t been replicated on a larger scale.
The perennial critique of Gladwell is that his conclusions do not offer any new insights, only reformulations of what we already know. This seems unfair. As Silver says, there is only so much truth in the world, only so many insights to be pointed out and illustrated. Most people go their whole lives without coming up with a profound insight into anything. Gladwell can hardly be faulted for pointing out and reformulating the insights we already know.
The more generous critique of David and Goliath is, why didn’t Gladwell tell us all this himself? Why is his chapter, his book, written with this false certitude, these capitalized lessons? Boies’s story would be no less interesting, no less well-told, if it was juxtaposed with the story of one of those dyslexic prisoners. I might have actually enjoyed that chapter more if it was fortified with the contradictions and arguments in the academic literature, with bright orange caveats highlighting the places where Boies’s story is not typical, not indicative of something larger. Lay it on me, Gladwell, I can handle it.
Gladwell is a talented writer, a diligent researcher and interviewer, a monster intellect. If anyone could present the contradictions and paradoxes of the idea of ‘desirable difficulty,’ it’s him. Gladwell is too smart, too curious, too skeptical, to genuinely believe that parents should be giving their kids dyslexia because it is a surefire way to end up a Hollywood produces or a finance CEO.
Hedging against the challenge of ‘more information, same amount of truth,’ says Silver, requires giving predictions and conclusions with confidence intervals. We’re not certain that this hurricane will make landfall in Tampa, but there’s a 60 percent chance. Obama is not a surefire bet to beat Romney, but he has more plausible paths to victory. These statements don’t remove certainty, but they reduce it.
Gladwell’s cardinal sin, to me, is not crediting his readers with enough intelligence to disclose his confidence intervals. Does he really think that the ‘desirable difficulty’ of dyslexia explains 100 percent of Boies’s success? Probably not. If Gladwell is making the argument that dyslexia explains 5 percent of his success, or 20 percent, why not just tell us? It’s as if Gladwell is trying to avoid the unfair criticism of his work — these insights are profound, I swear! — and in doing so steps right into the more compelling criticism. There’s nothing highbrow hates more than middlebrow, and nothing says middlebrow like massaging complicated phenomena into chicken soups for the soul.
In 2012, when Jonah Lehrer was caught fabricating quotes and misrepresenting scientific findings in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Ta-Nehisi Coates, (one of the best working practitioners of journalistic uncertainty — I mean that in a good way) wrote:
Great long-form journalism comes from the author’s irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer’s irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle. In the former fabulism isn’t just wrong because it cheats the reader, it’s wrong because it cheats the writer. Manufactured evidence tends not to satiate an aching curiosity. But it does wonders for those most interested in oraculism.
I’m not implying that Gladwell fabricated anything. His sense of curiosity is palpable in everything he writes, and a major component of what makes his best work so interesting.
But Silver’s book is a justified, albeit indirect, criticism of Gladwell’s approach. Silver is arguing for more curiosity and less certitude, not just for people who predict events, but for those who explain them afterwards.
Ultimately, the fault may be ours. Gladwell is under pressure from publishers, from readers, to write books of big ideas, to deliver conclusions, to expand stories into insights that make us feel like we are reaching them ourselves. Book buyers and magazine readers may not tolerate an investigation into adversity, or creativity, or decision-making that finds them too complicated for capitalized lessons, one that concludes there is nothing to conclude.
But maybe that is changing. In the same way Silver has changed what we expect from political forecasts, maybe next generation’s Malcolm Gladwell will be someone who dips into subjects, guides us through contradictory evidence and leaves us with no certitude, with more questions than when we arrived. I’m ready to read that kind of journalism. I hope someone out there is ready to write it.
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
- U.S. Policy on Dollarisation: A Political Analysis (my favorite)
- Dollarization: Pros and Cons
- Is A Dollarized Hemisphere in the U.S. interest?
- Dollarization, Rest in Peace
Thanks for the interview!
I have an essay in The New Republic about my trip to Zimbabwe last year, and my weird obsession with how expensive everything was there.
One of the things they tell nonfiction writers is ’employ holy shit details’, and in Zimbabwe there is almost no other kind. A lot of insane statistics ended up in the piece, but even more ended up on the cutting room floor. Here are some of them:
- In 2003, Zimbabwe was out of foreign reserves to import paper and ink to print more money, and had to switch to ‘bearer checks’, thin pieces of paper in increasingly outlandish denominations. Banks limited withdrawals, and anti-riot police had to be dispatched to prevent bank run.
- Fleeing the cratering economy, Zimbabweans almost singlehandedly raised retail sales in South Africa by 10 percent between 2006 and 2007. Emigrants in South Africa paid bus drivers 20 percent commission to take envelopes of cash, sacks of groceries, back home.
- In 2007 a government order required shops to reduce the prices on basic goods by 50 percent. Instead of stabilizing the economy, it simply reversed the direction of the arbitrage. People bought milk in Mutare for 33,000 Zimbabwe dollars, drove it across the border to Mozambique and sold it for the equivalent of 350,000 Zimbabwe dollars.
- All this time, the government maintained an ‘official’ exchange rate that was orders of magnitude lower than the black market rate. If you wanted to do anything legally—import goods, change money at the banks—you had to use the government rates. ‘I know a guy who worked at a luxury car dealership,’ my friend Colin told me. ‘These generals would come in and say “I’ll buy this car” and he would have to give it to them for the official exchange rate. He was selling cars for $8, $9.’
- Between 2006 and 2009, the government slashed 25 zeroes off the currency. I ask Zimbabweans the prices they last remember at the supermarket and they tell me that a loaf of bread was 22 billion dollars. Which doesn’t actually matter, because you had to be connected to secure one anyway.
- Bank teller wages rose with inflation, and they were partly paid in fuel coupons. They could also ‘burn money’—buy US dollars at the official exchange rate, then sell them at the black market rates. Bank employees were flying to Dubai, buying electronics and coming back to Zimbabwe to sell them on.
- These days, Zimbabwean banks are the opposite of too big to fail, they’re too small to succeed. As of January 2013, the entire banking sector held just $3.8 billion in assets, more than half of which were short-term deposits. While the banks are lending out more than they used to, the loans are riskier, since no one has quite figured out how to run a business profitably here. In March 2010, 2 percent of bank loans didn’t get paid back. By December 2012, it was 14 percent .
- A 2013 survey of 150 store owners in a suburb of Harare found that 47 percent of them were using their own savings to raise capital and 13 percent were using their relatives and friends. Only 3 percent were using the banking system.
- What Zimbabwe has gone through in the last 14 years is maybe the greatest loss of productive capacity and personal wealth in modern history. Per capita GDP fell from $644 in 1990 to $376 in 2011. South Africa’s GDP was 17 times larger than Zimbabwe’s in 1996. It was 58 times larger in 2012.
- Almost 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s government budget goes to government salaries alone.
- In 2009 Zimbabwe still had the highest 15-24-year-old literacy rates in Africa, but the aftershocks of the crisis are set to drag that down. As of 2012, only 67 percent of kids finished school, and only 50 percent made it from primary to secondary school.
- The Zimbabwe stock exchange fell 20 percent after Mugabe’s victory was announced , and some estimates say $800 million in investment has left the country since then.
If you want to get a more full view of what Zimbabwe went through during hyperinflation and the challenges it faces now, here’s some publications that give a fuller picture than I was able to, written by people who know more about economics, about Zimbabwe, than me.
- Here’s the Consultancy Africa Intelligence report, written by Tapiwa Mhute, who I spoke to a few times, on the causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s dollarization.
- Here’s a terrific overview of the path to hyperinflation written, rather randomly, by a graduate student in Japan.
- Here’s a pretty devastating World Bank report on the problems with Zimbabwe’s infrastructure.
- Here’s the report on remittance strategies by families in one neighborhood in Harare.
- Here’s an anthology of articles about the hyperinflation. ‘Negotiating the Zimbabwe–Mozambique Border’ is a complete fucking stunner
- The debate about what ‘really’ saved the Zimbabwean economy is ongoing and, like everything else in Zimbabwe, is totally politicised. Here’s an overview of some of the arguments.
- Here’s an African Development Bank report from 2009, telling Zimbabwe how to fix the crisis. Most of it’s boring technocratic stuff but, like most of these reports, the ‘context’ section gives a great overview of the challenges.
- Here’s the same sort of thing from the IMF and from the World Bank four years later, in 2013. They’re basically giving the same overview I am, only with less Grindr.
- Here’s a Cato Institute (I know, I know) report from 2013: Why Is One of the World’s Least-Free Economies Growing So Fast?
- Here’s Tapiwa Chagonda’s fascinating survey of bank tellers and teachers during hyperinflation.
- Here’s Beyond the Enclave, Godfrey Kanyenze’s searing account of the political factors behind hyperinflation and dollarization.
- And here’s Vince Musewe’s angry, moving columns for The Zimbabwean, giving a more up to date picture of the conditions in Zimbabwe
I mostly worked on the piece in August and September, and I’m sure more reports and statistics have come out since then, so apologies if anything in the story is outdated.
I’m not a journalist, I’m a human rights guy. One thing I’ve realized over the last 18 months, as I’ve spent more and more of my weekday mornings and Sunday nights working on these little longforms, is how dependent journalists are on the generosity and patience of their sources. For this story, I basically cold-called a dozen or so Zimbabwean economists, told them I didn’t know anything about their country or their field and asked if they could, slowly and monosyllabically, walk me through everything they knew.
Amazingly, all of them obliged, and they were super patient with all of my follow ups and hang-on-explain-that-agains. Colin and Lovemore took a risk telling a foreigner about their economic tribulations the last five years, and trusted that I would represent them honestly and wouldn’t publish any details that identified them. Everyone I interviewed, I have nothing to offer them for their time and their trust except my sincere gratitude—and my crushing anxiety that I may have misunderstood or misrepresented them.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be good at this whole journalism thing, or feel like I have the right to be doing it. I tried really hard to fact-check this story, to avoid giving the impression that my experience was definitive. I arrived in Zimbabwe as an outsider, a tourist. No matter how many people I met, no matter how many reports I read or statistics I double-checked, I departed as one. There is a lot of complicated information out there about Zimbabwe, a lot of conflicting narratives. Mine is just one of them.
Originally posted at The Billfold
Meet Joanna. She’s a 31-year-old British single mom who earns just above the minimum wage managing a thrift store. She can’t afford to buy enough food for herself and her teenage daughter, so most mornings she watches her daughter eat from the kitchen doorway, drinking a cup of tea with three sugars. She drinks 20 cups of tea, and eats one meal, per day. She’s lost 49 pounds in the last three months.
Britain is in the middle of a food crisis. For the first time since World War II, a significant number of Britons don’t have enough to eat, and an even more significant number can only afford processed junk food, the biscuits and TV dinners that are always cheaper, always more available, than fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
Joanna is one of the people profiled on Great British Budget Menu, a BBC show where celebrity chefs live, cook and shop with families getting by on poverty-level wages and shrinking welfare benefits. The show also profiles a pensioner who eats a boiled egg and half a can of minestrone soup for dinner every night because that’s all his £1.04 (about $1.60) daily food budget will allow.
You know the food crisis is a Thing when there’s a reality show about it. The Great British Budget Menu crescendos with a banquet where the chefs compete to make the best meal for just £1 per person. Joanna is invited to come down and help chop onions.
“Budget Menu” is indicative not only of the kind of country Britain is, but the debate over what kind of country it wants to be.
In the U.S., we take it for granted that government help is not enough to live on, that private charities and philanthropic donations fill the holes in income, housing and health care our welfare system leaves gaping. Disaster relief, meals on wheels, homeless shelters—for us they’re just part of the economic landscape, the extra stitches in our safety net.
But in Britain, the idea of a significant portion of the population being fed, clothed and housed by private charities is genuinely new, at least in the post-war era, and the British haven’t decided how they feel about it. Are privately run social services a scandal of government neglect, or simply a country taking responsibility for its runaway spending?
The debate over Britain’s food crisis has been going on since last year, but has exploded since May, when Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty released a report showing that in 2012, an estimated 500,000 Britons relied on food banks to feed themselves and their families, an increase from just 70,000 three years ago.
Not only that, but food bank use has reportedly tripled just since April of this year, when welfare payments were cut nationwide. The food banks themselves say most of their customers are there because their benefits were cut (“sanctioned” is how the Coalition would like us to put it) or simply delayed due to mistakes in administration.
“Food banks should not replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support,” was the quote from Church Action on Poverty’s chief executive in the press release announcing the report, and most of the initial press coverage was basically, “what he said.”
The Guardian printed a news story followed by a handful of commentaries expressing the kind of shock and “aw hell naw” you would expect from Britain’s leading left-wing paper. The Independent—The Guardian’s slightly less Keith Olbermanny fraternal twin—also covered the story extensively, and published its own case studies of food bank users.
Even The Sun—the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid—ran a sympathetic article and sent a reporter (they have reporters?) to some London food banks to see how they work.
What’s interesting about these—to an American anyway—is how utterly foreign and scandalous the very idea of a food bank is. Every article goes out of its way to describe how food banks work, where the food comes from, how they are funded. Comparisons to WWII breadlines are near-mandatory.
“This is what it looks like when someone else picks the food your family is going to eat,” the BBC ominously intoned in a report last year over B-roll of food bank workers taking cans off shelves. “This is a food bank.”
Even the right-wing papers seemed offended. The Daily Telegraph published an editorial that said, “It is obviously a tragedy–and a scandal–that in an age of unimagined riches, there are still those who go hungry.” But it also made sure to lament that the report “politicized” the issue of hunger by blaming it on the political party that was cutting the welfare.
The inevitable #slatepitches response came from The Spectator—basically a right-wingAtlantic—in a series of articles that investigated Britain’s newly thriving feeding-poor-people sector and concluded, “food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain’s social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that that they haven’t been around for longer.”
But this point—food banks are not a failure of government welfare, they’re a triumph of private generosity—is undermined by how food banks actually work. Food banks in the U.K. don’t simply provide boxes of food to random people who come in off the street. If you want food aid, you have to get referred to the food bank by charity case workers, “Job Centres” or social services agencies—the same people issuing (or cutting) your welfare benefits. Furthermore, you can’t use food banks indefinitely. You get vouchers to last you a specific amount of time, then you go back to relying on your welfare benefits again.
This nuance, however, did not stop British right-wing politicians from taking up the argument.
“Food banks are not part of the welfare system.” That’s Lord Freud, the work and pensions minister, discussing the issue in the House of Lords. “Local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported.”
Two days later, the welfare reform minister, the Bishop of Truro (these names!), responded in an interview with The Independent: “It is a scandal we have any food banks at all in the 21st century,” thus taking us right back to where we started.
Reading these dueling quotes is like sitting in on a debate between Brits over how American they want their country to be. The left and the right don’t disagree about whether food banks are the government admitting that it can’t provide everything its citizens need. They disagree on whether that’s a bad thing.
David Cameron’s Tories got elected on a platform promising to deliver “The Big Society,” a country where people don’t rely on the government to solve their problems, where private charities and “social entrepreneurs” are the ones responsible for improving social conditions. Anyone impressed by that idea would look at the proliferating food banks and go, “Great! What shall we improve next?”
The British left is afraid of a country in which the things the government can’t do become things the government won’t do, a country where hunger and poverty and homelessness become not the government’s problem, but yours and mine. A country, in other words, a lot like America.
As an American watching this from northern Europe (the two cities I’ve lived in, Copenhagen and Berlin, have just one food bank each), I don’t know which side I’m rooting for. Part of me is proud of the philanthropy culture of the U.S., and I sometimes find myself bragging about how Americans volunteer, how we wear bracelets to cure cancer and run marathons to house the homeless.
But then I wonder if all this generosity is just a reaction to the stinginess of our government, a way of coping with complicity in watching our fellow citizens freeze and starve. If FEMA had its shit together, I wouldn’t have to give money to The Red Cross. Is the fickleness, the fragility of charity really something we want to export?
I don’t know when America had this debate, if we did at all. If Britain really wants to trade in welfare rolls for Rockefellers, they can’t say they didn’t know what it would look like on the other side.
At the end of The Great British Budget Menu, Joanna’s celebrity chef gives her a box full of food and a recipe for chicken and coleslaw that cost nearly double her daily food budget. Just before the competition begins, Joanna triumphantly announces that she’s already started resolving her own personal food crisis: She’s reduced the amount of sugar in her tea to just one spoonful.
Buried in a stack of boring institutional documents, I came across some paragraphs that could have been printed in The Economist:
The nature of conflicts has changed markedly in the late part of the twentieth century. The state-against-state model is becoming the exception: of the 56 major armed conflicts registered in the decade 1990-20005, only three were of an interstate nature; all others were internal conflicts, even though in 14 of them foreign troops were engaged on one or the other side. Moreover, while the first half of the century was dominated by warfare between rich states, most contemporary conflicts take place overwhelmingly in the world’s poorer countries, with Africa and Asia accounting for the greatest number of internal conflicts in the past decade.
Civil wars and conflicts are indeed a major cause of development failure in the developing world, a point that is increasingly being emphasised by aid donors and international agencies. Easily tradable natural resources -particularly minerals- can be used to finance warring parties, instead of nurturing development, and “development efforts are not only halted or damaged, but actively targeted and undermined”.
Technology has always been used to renovate and diversify the array of weapons and other means of violence used in conflicts. Arms-rich conflict areas and state disruption fuel the dissemination of weapons of all kinds, and the deadly violence of conflicts appears to have escalated with technology. However, the spread of small arms is also having devastating effects in disputes over land and pastoral issues, even within countries that are not considered to be in conflict.
Internal conflicts, be they of an ethnic or revolutionary nature, or associated with a failure of the state or disruptive changes in regime, emerge where politically organized groups, national, ethnic or other minorities, or warlords and other violent elements in society, rebel against governments, often also fighting among themselves. This pattern of conflict makes it increasingly difficult to identify who are the protagonists, and which are the lines of authority through which to seek to mediate and put an end to the conflict.
In this new environment it becomes difficult to distinguish combatants from civilians. Combatants are no longer uniformed soldiers under state control. Nor are the combatants the main victims of conflicts: peaceful citizens -women, children, and the elderly- become the major target (possibly 90% of the victims) of the warring parties.
In addition to those killed or wounded, up-rooted populations run to millions – about 22 million in 150 countries by the end of 2001, including refugees and asylum seekers outside their home country, as well as returnees and others.
The international mechanisms that had been developed to control, prevent and resolve conflicts were created to deal with the conventional state-state model of conflict: they have great difficulties in adjusting to the new patterns of collective violence, which mostly takes place within a sovereign territory, with the responsibility of the government being sometimes unclear. At the same time, however, many of the current conflicts have significant regional and international dimensions and implications. Even though the’zone of turmoil’ is largely located in developing countries, the industrialized ones are not entirely insulated.
The distinction between intra-state and inter-state wars is therefore no longer straightforward. Most wars occurring within a single state tend to transcend its boundaries – affecting neighbouring countries, or with some external or transnational parties located far away from the site of the struggle. Negative spillovers to neighbouring nations result from collateral damage from nearby battles, severance of input supply lines, disruptions to trade, heightened risk perceptions by would-be investors, and resources spent to assist refugees.
In most cases, people flee across immediate borders, sometimes destabilizing entire regions, leading to further conflict and more refugees. Accelerated flows of refugees and asylum seekers, escalating costs of international or regional peace-restoration and maintenance efforts, international terrorism and destabilisation of the global economy affect all nations, rich or poor, close to or far away from the war scene.
As Tyler Cowen would say, ‘interesting throughout!’
It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.
And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.
Paul Miller, writer and lifelong techie, went a year without using the internet. No e-mail, no Facebook, no Google Maps, no Expedia, nothing.
And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.
[…] As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
It’s funny the kneejerk admiration we have for people who voluntarily opt out of technology we’ve had for less than two decades. Miller got regular fan mail from admirers, an outpouring of ‘good for you’ sentiments in his PO box every week. When I first read his ‘Goodbye Internet’ post a year ago, I remember my reaction being ‘good for this dude!’
We have this weird conventional wisdom that the internet (by which we usually mean its more superficial representatives: Facebook, Buzzfeed, LOLCats) is a burden, a cacophony, the sirens enticing Ulysses toward destruction with a beautiful song.
Whenever anyone complains about the internet–the constant distractions, the oppressive connectivity, the instant gratification–I wonder to what degree they’re engaging in a kind of poorly aimed nostalgia. I remember the pre-internet era like this too, a time when friendships were stronger, books were shorter, concentration was easier.
Some of this is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that before the internet I was fifteen years old. The processing power of my desktop computer is not the only thing that has changed since then. Going to college, getting a job, moving to other countries, these things affect friendships, reading habits, ability to concentrate just as much as the internet does.
I wonder how many of the people congratulating Miller on leaving the internet are old enough to have had lives without it.
By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.
A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.
It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.
It’s like the Malthusian trap works at the level of the individual. Something changes in your life and you find new habits, new energy. You think you’re riding an incline, productivity and happiness increasing upward toward some new you. But then, your personality and your habits and your vices adjust. The incline plateaus, and before you know it, you’re staring at same monsters you thought you had turned away from.
This week is the two-year anniversary of my arrival in Berlin. This is the fourth time I’ve moved to a new country, and every time, the same thing happens. The first few weeks I explore, I meet new people, I take in the new stuff and jettison the old. The first three months go by like a year, all the novelty and adjustment stretching each day into an accomplishment. Then it all speeds up. Six months go by, a year, and I look around and I find myself in the same life I had in the last country.
This isn’t actually so bad. I rather like my life, and I’ve been able to build social groups (thanks Facebook!), stay in touch with old friends (thanks Skype!) and entertain myself (thanks Grindr!) in places I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t constantly feel like a new me was just one more country away.
But still, Miller’s experience and mine make me wonder if we think about self-improvement the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about changing where we live or what we do or how much we internet. Maybe it’s about changing how we respond to what’s already around us.
Or maybe we’re proof that it doesn’t actually matter. Even the most profound changes in your external circumstances will only result in short-term changes before you adjust and invite the old you to return. Maybe that fifteen year old kid, the one with the lifelong friends, the stack of books books completed and absorbed, he’s still here, no matter how emphatically adulthood tries to ostracize him.
Strangely, I find all this somewhat comforting. If that kid isn’t going to make an exit anytime soon, maybe I still have time for a few more.
The program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, […] set up two years before the Final Solution: Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas’ others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate.
Questioned after the war, each one of those people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession. The doctor didn’t kill anyone, either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors.
The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job — and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty?
[…] Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair.
That’s from Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones‘.
Reading the novel’s first few pages (all of the above appears before, like, page 10. This book is Not. Fucking. Around.), I keep wondering if the post-WWII generation is the first in history to live with this understanding, that they might have acted monstrously if they were born in different circumstances.
I don’t know how previous generations and civilizations looked upon their history, but I doubt it was with as much guilt and apology as we do. From colonialism to slavery to segregation to 1980s shoulderpads, everything I’ve learned about history combines to form a sort of collective cringe.
I wonder if this began with the struggle to teach Nazism to the people who had survived it, fought against it, participated in it. When I learned about Hitler’s Germany, it was always with an acknowledgement that it could have been me on either end of the rifle or the gas chamber. I was asked to empathize not only with the victims, but with the perpetrators, in a way I wasn’t with other historical episodes.
Maybe it’s because the history is so proximate. Maybe it’s because the people committing the crimes, and dying of them, look like our friends, dress like our grandparents, write and talk like our movies. Maybe it’s because a whole society was at fault. Maybe you learn about the moral capsize of an entire civilization, and you just naturally put yourself inside it.
I have no idea if this is genuinely new to the time or place in which I grew up. I don’t know if French schoolchildren in the early 1900s were asked to imagine themselves committing atrocities during the Napoleonic wars. I don’t know if Spanish kids were told that it might have been them branding apostates during the Inquisition.
But I’m glad to be reading Littell, I’m glad we look at our histories this way. Honesty beats triumphalism, I hope. I wonder how it changes the way we think. I don’t know if it makes us guilty, but I certainly hope it makes us careful.
Originally posted on The Huffington Post
A telling paragraph in Michael Lewis’s review of ‘Why I Left Goldman Sachs’:
The author recounts how he spent most of the six months leading up to last March working at Goldman by day while writing up his deeply felt grievances against Goldman by night. When he finished he had a 1,500-word counterblast but no place to put it: he e-mailed it to the general address for blind submissions to the Times op-ed page. He heard nothing for a month, and so finally dug out the e-mail addresses of four Times editors, and sent his piece to all of them. The next morning the Times got in touch with him.
It’s great that ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs‘ eventually got noticed and published, but I can’t help thinking about all the other pieces submitted to that blind submissions address that weren’t.
A lot of people are sitting on fascinating stories about the places where they work, where they live, what’s happening in their lives. This is what journalists, what journalism, is supposed to be concerned with. But sometimes it seems like newspapers are only interested in great stories when their own reporters get to tell them.
Earlier today I read this New Yorker article about ‘slow journalism’, the kind produced by reporters who are embedded, walking a beat, just hanging out until something happens so fascinating the rest of the world needs to know about it. Newspapers don’t have the money for foreign bureaus anymore, the article laments, so now reporters have to parachute into financial reform, scientific debates, economic indicators, write it up and whoosh on to the next one.
In Beijing, the joke among hacks is that, after the drive in from the airport, you are ready to write a column; after a month, you feel the stirrings of an idea-book; but after a year, you struggle to write anything at all, because you’ve finally discovered just how much you don’t know.
That’s probably true, and probably sad. But I wonder if what it really means is that, in a world where anyone can write a blog post or take a photo or make a documentary, we need reporters less than we need harvesters.
Thousands of people live in fascinating places, are experts in their fields, work in fucked-up and hilarious institutions. Many of these people can tell you their story, and why it matters, better than a reporter ever could.
I’m sure the New York Times gets all kinds of cranks sending them op-eds from curtained rooms, but I’m sure they also get thousands of stories that are one editor away from fascinating, thousands of people who can’t tell a new story every week but have one great one they’re struggling to tell.
Newspapers are supposed to teach us what’s true in the world. Sometimes a professional reporter is the best person to do that. Sometimes not. I hope that, as journalism becomes whatever it’s becoming, it finds time not just to tell us stories, but to find them.
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.
In this dialogue between Ta-Nehisi Coates (take away all the guns!) and Jeffrey Goldberg (give everybody a gun!), much of the argument hinges on this hypothetical:
let me ask the Augustinian question: Let’s say you’re in the mall with me, or another friend, and a psychopathic shooter is approaching us, AR-15 in hand. In this situation, my life is at stake, as well as yours. I’ll ask the question again: Would you want a gun in hand to help keep us alive, and to keep the strangers around you — each one a human being created in the image of God (I know you lean atheist, but you get my point) — alive as well?
We’ll get to the other questions later, but this is important: In the situation I just described above, would you rather have a gun, or rather not?
I know NRA types think that when you say ‘I would rather have a gun’ in this scenario, they’ve won the argument. But I don’t think they actually know what argument they’re making.
It’s a bit like someone asking you ‘If you were to stumble upon a black cobra, would you rather have a mongoose with you, or not?’
I would like to have a mongoose with me in that situation (and many others, obviously). But what is that an argument for? That I should own a mongoose? That everyone should?
Personally, I would rather live in a society that minimizes black cobra attacks than one where I am required to take care of a vicious rodent to survive. Just seems more efficient that way.
I can’t think of other political arguments where an extreme, once-per-lifetime scenario is used to justify everyday behavior. ‘If an air conditioning unit fell out of a sixth-floor window and was hurtling toward you, would you rather have a steel parasol, or not?’
If I was in the mall and a dude was marching toward me with an AK-47, sure, I might want one of my own. But so what? If he was driving toward me in a tank, I might want one of my own. If he was flying toward me in an F-16 I’d probably want one of those too. These scenarios all equally irrelevant. The real question is, do I want a lethal object in my home, in my bedroom, on my hip every single day on the off chance that such a situation might occur?
We’re all used to this argument in America because the NRA talks loud and carries a big stick. But the ‘more guns’ people aren’t interested in keeping you safe, they just want to feed the cobras.
So I saw this dude perform the other night:
His songs have no verse-chorus-verse structure, barely a melody, and his only accompaniment was a guy on a sampler and a guy on a real live violin. It’s like a hipster perfect storm.
And sure enough, the audience was feloniously on-trend. Unisex jeans, chunky glasses, scraggly beards: As the venue filled up, I swear it started to smell like a thrift store.
I know I’m supposed to hate these people or whatever, but you know what? Everyone looked great. Lots of dudes and ladies look superlovely in skinny jeans! If you’re a bit of a bigger guy, a beard, a ski cap and flannel works for you. Sure, everyone looked sort of glazed over, but it was Monday! They’ve been at work all day!
I want to know if early ’00s hipster culture is unique in being defined by all of its members hating each other. In the 1950s, was there a guy with a pompadour and a cigarette pack rolled up in his sleeve, sitting on the hood of a Thunderbird going ‘what’s the deal with these fucking greasers’?
I think if you’re gonna choose an aesthetic to define your generation, we’ve done pretty well. Hipster culture is characterized by striving for authenticity, rejecting corporate values and searching for meaning in life and work. We’re more responsible than the hippies of the 1970s, less amoral than the yuppies of the 1980s and more distinct than whatever the fuck Generation X was. Every generation duplicates and broadcasts a set of values to those previous, and we’ve chosen diversity, sensitivity and irony. It could be worse!
So I spent most of the show silently admiring how great everybody looked, and hoped they were as appealing and fastidious on the inside. I’m sure they were all looking at me going ‘what’s the deal with this fucking hipster?’
The idea that talent isn’t inborn, that you have to practice something constantly and deliberately for 10,000 hours before you master it, makes intuitive sense. It’s especially appealing for the arts. Mozart wasn’t a prodigy, the theory goes, he just crammed in 10,000 hours of practice before his 19th birthday. Nearly every filmmaker, artist and writer talks about having a passion for their medium astonishingly early in life (M. Night Shyamalan and PT Anderson, for example, were both making movies when they were still eating peanut butter out of the jar).
Again, this makes sense. The arts have technical and craft-like aspects, and you gotta master the tools before you use them to make something that’s never existed before.
But I’m interested in what happens after you’ve done your 10,000 hours, and you keep practicing. Why do artists peak and decline?
I can see how physical or technical skills (sports, surgery) would continue to develop until they are hindered by the body’s decreasing ability to put them to use. Michael Jordan may have decades more skill than LeBron James, but the 49-year-old body simply won’t collaborate with the brain the same way as a 27-year-old’s will.
But creativity is different. You don’t need physical skill to be a writer, painter, composer or singer. So why do so many of our best examples of the 10,000 hour rule show such marked decline in the quality of their output as they get older?
Last week I read a couple reviews of Tom Wolfe’s new book, ‘Back to Blood’:
Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status. His own prose is monotonous in the same way. It confuses the depiction of strength with the energy of verisimilitude.
Wolfe is 81, and an absolute skyscraper in the world of journalism. He invented, or at least perfected, the art of longform feature reporting, and every month GQ and Vanity Fair print ripples of his voice and perspective. Yet as he’s gotten older, his output has (OK, arguably) become repetitive and extravagant, less a man examining the world around him than a man staring at his own infinite reflection in a bathroom mirror.
This week I’ve also been listening to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ basically on repeat, since it just got rereleased. It’s self-evidently the best thing ever, and Simon has (again, arguably) never made anything that holds up so well since.
Across the creative spectrum, artists generally produce works of decreasing interest as they get older. From Bob Dylan to Clint Eastwood to Claude Monet, artistic output tends to peak—sometimes early, sometimes late—then steadily decline. It’s as if, like an aging body, an aging brain no longer has the strength to throw as many spears through the fog.
I wonder if creativity, perhaps distinctly from sports or technical skills, is a kind of multiplication. It only manifests when talent breeds with inspiration, desire for risk, engagement with the outside world. Maybe it’s not the talent that diminishes, but the appetite for novelty.
Or maybe it doesn’t diminish at all. Maybe Tom Wolfe and Paul Simon are actually producing better and better work, they’re just becoming increasingly nuanced and complex as their talent develops, and are no longer embraced by the ‘tl;dr’ heathen mainstream. Their best years weren’t a creative peak so much as an extended overlap with the tastes and desires of the masses, and now they’ve diverged.
Or maybe—I hate this option—aging simply wears out the mind as profoundly as it does the body. The brain becomes so unmalleable as it ages that it can’t make intellectual jump shots anymore. Tom Wolfe today is unable to write a great novel just like Sandy Koufax is unable to pitch a no-hitter. The brain and the body are both exhausted, just one is more visible than the other.
Or maybe I’m full of shit! And thousands of works have come screaming forth from their creators’ autumnal decades, I just haven’t noticed. Maybe Mozart and Cobain and Hendrix, had they lived, would have produced peak after peak, their talent aging like Italian cheese.
Like all broad human phenomena, though, I’m firstly interested in how it applies to me. I don’t think I’ve done anything for 10,000 hours, much less 20,000. I’d better get started! As my body begins its earthward descent, I want to make sure I reach a few highs in case it takes my brain with it.
Like a chess game, we play out the initial, routine moves like a sort of ritual (‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘How was your weekend?’) until we get somewhere neither of us has been before. Then we start paying attention.
Yet small talk is weirdly important. Most of your best friends began as people with whom you made inane, obligatory chitchat (‘So, how do you know Steve?’) in a bar, a classroom or a workplace somewhere. It’s like our entire species has decided, hivelike, that before we ask about things we like hearing, or talk about things we like saying, we want to make sure you’re capable of engaging in content-free pleasantries for at least 2 minutes.
I’m fascinated by how this differs across cultures. As anyone who has ever traveled, lived abroad or hosted an exchange student knows, chit-chat is as culturally loaded as manners, dating, sex or food. Some cultures talk to each other everywhere. Riding the bus, waiting in line, sitting in a cafe—everything’s an opportunity to engage with the people around you.
In other countries, starting a conversation with someone you don’t know is an event that provokes stunned silence and stricken glares. The fuck, their tone of voice says as they answer monosyllabically, is this dude talking to me for?
I grew up in America, which is somewhere between these extremes, and I’ve now experienced small talk in London (chatty but aloof), Berlin (chatty when drunk or homosexual) and Copenhagen (excuse me, do I know you?).
It’s not like these countries are genetically distinct from each other. Sometime growing up, someone taught you when to engage with people around you and, if necessary, how to continue upward into actually knowing them.
It’s interesting that, with all of the talk (OK maybe just TED talks) about ‘gross national happiness‘ and how countries should contribute to the overall well-being of their citizens, how little attention small talk receives as a public policy issue.
A population that is systematically equipped to engage new people and form sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships will be happier, healthier and more productive than one without. Social support reduces stress, increases lifespan and seems to prevent everything from nervous breakdowns to cancer. Not having friends is as bad for you as smoking.
And it all comes down to small talk. The better you are at performing these introductory catechisms (‘what neighborhood do you live in?’), the more efficient you are at identifying potential friends and, ultimately, obtaining social support.
Small talk isn’t any more complicated than touch-typing, or long division, or anything else you learned in middle school. You take turns, you listen closely, you stay on topic. Like most forms of human interaction, once you look at it closely, it’s formulaic enough that it can be learned—and taught.
So why don’t countries deliberately promote conversation skills? I’m legitimately curious about this. If schools teach financial literacy and cultural literacy, why don’t they teach social literacy? Making conversation, like sending a resume or acing a job interview, is something everyone should know how to do.
Happy populations don’t just happen. Our countries taught us to add and subtract, collect and analyze, read and think. Maybe it’s time they taught us to meet each other.
Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.
Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.
This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.
Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.
Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.
As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:
First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.
First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.
‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’
It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.
Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.
He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.
And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.
The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.
For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.
Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.
Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal: You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.
The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.
At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.
These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.
There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.
Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.
Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.
Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.
Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.
Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
There’s also the prison rape video.
Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.
I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.
I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.
Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.
Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.