Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pulling Away
One of the frustrations of my job is that I don’t have nearly as much time to read policy research as I used to. So until a fairly lengthy excerpt appeared in the Gotham Gazette (itself something I don’t read as often as I should) about a week and a half back, I was unaware that James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute had recently released a report on income inequality in New York City. The key finding is that the top 1 percent of City residents now takes 44 percent of total income.

James tracks the historical evolution of this trend, which strongly supports the contention of Paul Krugman and others that we’re in a New Gilded Age in terms of concentration of wealth. Nationally, the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent held steady from about 1950 through 1980 around 10-12 percent, then began a largely uninterrupted ascent to the current level of about 23.5 percent. The reasons why are fairly well known: the explosion of the financial industry, the evisceration of unions in the private sector, the general shift to a knowledge-based economy. He notes how this played out in recent years, implying something very interesting about the growing gap between a collective mindset geared toward an ever-higher standard of living and overall income stagnation:

Today, most experts expect the pace of the nascent recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-09 to remain subdued in large part because of high household debt burdens, stagnant or declining wages, and a bleak job outlook. The recession was triggered by the bursting of the housing bubble and a speculative, excess-prone financial system, but it occurred in an economy with an increasingly shaky foundation characterized by weak job growth, continued export of middle-income jobs and wage growth that failed to keep pace with inflation and the growth in the productivity of labor.

This shaky foundation has a lot to do with the post-1980 hyper-concentration of income. The expansion from 2004 to 2007 was the first in which family incomes and median wages adjusted for inflation did not rise over the cycle to reach the peak of the previous business cycle. Despite economic growth, many Americans never saw their income return to the levels they had reached in 2000. Faced with this, families turned to debt, using credit cards and home equity borrowing to sustain their living standards. The crash of the financial and housing bubbles destroyed trillions of dollars in retirement and college savings that had been accumulated by middle- and low-income Americans, and decimated the value of their homes.

Locally, the concentration of wealth is much worse--cementing New York as the most economically polarized state in the country, and NYC as the most unequal of the 25 largest American cities. I think this concentration must exert a large distorting effect on everything from housing prices to policy choices at the local level, as is the case nationally; to the latter point, James cites the recent book “Winner Take All Politics,” which I’m afraid to read anytime soon, as anything that depressing shouldn’t be consumed in the winter.

Even more depressing is how farfetched it seems to imagine this situation reversing itself. Money hasn’t been this powerful in our politics for more than a hundred years, and my sense is that it will only get worse with the courts having settled for the indefinite future on a very permissive position with respect to campaign finance. This creates a vicious circle; if you’re poor and convinced your vote doesn’t matter, you’re that much less likely to exercise it—even in the unlikely event that there’s a viable candidate championing a platform that might improve your circumstances.

But the problem might go even deeper than that, to the level of culture and discourse. Among the majority of society that isn’t in desperate circumstances, we’ve largely stopped thinking about those who are, much less feeling like our well-being is in any way tied to theirs. A complacency now obtains such that you can’t even make the argument about public space and “shared sacrifice” that reaches the wealthy and powerful instead of solely the middle/working classes without being called a socialist. Hence we see political and economic elites earnestly speaking about bringing government budgets into balance--a fully worthy goal, if one we might wish was held as dear when one’s own party is in power as when the opposition is--not by a real consideration of what tax burden is bearable and appropriate, but by cutting “discretionary spending” (loosely defined as “spending on other people”) at first and middle class entitlements if need be.

Amazingly, what populism exists is aligned with the economic elites against the cultural elites—hence the Tea Party, which is “organic” but not really new. It’s Nixon’s Silent Majority, Reagan’s Reagan Democrats, Bush’s and Rove’s cultural conservatives, taken up a few notches in their rage by the closed circuit informational loop of Fox News. (Though maybe not quite entirely and only that: see Matt Taibbi’s take on the ‘baggers here. Sounds right to me.) One effect of the last forty years of policies that facilitate concentration of wealth has been to delegitimize the labor movement, which admittedly has helped the process along through its own tone-deafness and greed.

Self-interest could be said to reside at the core of the democratic idea. But what’s especially frustrating is that the self-interest that now seems to motivate public majorities is so narrow! To take one example recently in the news, we don’t want to restrict “gun rights” because we only see our short-term wish to own badass guns under threat, not the idea that ourselves or loved ones could get killed as a direct result of someone else’s untrammeled access to automatic weapons.

(Mayor Bloomberg had a line in his State of the City speech last week about this which I found almost touching: ““There has been a lot of focus in Washington lately about the Constitution. But we must remember that we have a duty to honor and uphold not only the Bill of Rights, but also our Founding Fathers’ common purpose: to ‘establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.’ “As long as we allow dangerous and deranged people to buy guns, the promise of a more perfect union will remain empty for the thousands of Americans who are murdered with guns every year.” Occasionally, tragically, you get a Carolyn McCarthy—or a Gabrielle Giffords—whose life is horribly altered by gun violence. Those are stunning events that make the news. What fills the bulk of the statistics are mostly people we don’t care very much about. )

The list goes on. We don’t want to pay more for “Obamacare” because we don’t see that the problem of the uninsured indirectly costs us (more) money. Many of us don’t even want to see our elected officials vote to raise the federal debt ceiling because the abstract problem of federal debt evidently bothers us more than the disastrous impacts that will be felt if the country goes into friggin’ default.

There’s upside to this—the liberalizing trends in individual rights, seen most recently in the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell and, we might hope, next extending to same-sex marriage. And in the abstract, greater economic autonomy isn’t a bad thing at all; professionally, I try to frame everything I’d like to see in the context of “helping people stand on their own two feet in the labor market.” That means educational attainment, workplace competencies, and (because there’s always some interdependence in complex societies) professional and social networks. The paradox, though, is that we can’t get there without deeper investments in human capital up front. On my worse days, I wonder if it’s not too much to say that we’re en route to “individualizing ourselves to death.”

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Apolitical Assassins
When I was a senior in college, my girlfriend at the time was directing a production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins.” I was tangentially involved in the production, working with some of the performers, so I got to know the show fairly well. It traces the stories of those individuals who attempted to kill American presidents, naturally focusing on Booth and Oswald but devoting attention to killers and would-be killers Leon Czolgosz (McKinley), John Hinckley (Reagan), Charles Guiteau (Garfield), Giuseppe Zangara (FDR), Samuel Byck (Nixon), and Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Ford), each of whom basically gets a song to explain themselves.

“Assassins” is far from Sondheim’s best work, and I’ve somewhat shied away from it in memory because that production was coincident with, and at least arguably related to, some painful things that happened in my life that year. But I’m thinking about it again in the wake of yesterday’s horrific news from Arizona—the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the murder of six innocent people and wounding of fourteen more, including the congresswoman—and the rush to “interpret” the event to fit a storyline already fixed in the mind of the interpreter.

What “Assassins” communicates (and what, I now see, James Fallows wrote online at the Atlantic last night) is that those who attempt to kill political leaders often do so for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the positions of those leaders; it’s their prominence, not their opinions, that renders them targets. There are exceptions, of course: Booth, a loyalist of the Confederacy, murdered President Lincoln after concluding that the president would give blacks the right to vote upon the conclusion of the Civil War. Czolgosz, a revolutionary anarchist, killed McKinley as a political act. But Hinckley, famously imitating “Taxi Driver” character Travis Bickle (himself inspired by the real-life would-be assassin Arthur Bremer, who paralyzed Dixiecrat presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972), was trying to impress Jodie Foster. Fromme and Moore were Charles Manson followers, intent on killing Ford to support the cult leader. Zangara saw no distinction between Herbert Hoover and FDR.

These individuals general bore animus against “the government” in general, but in most cases had no specific grievance against their targets, which mostly seem to have been chosen for convenience. I think this was the case in this instance. The suspect in custody had made internet videos showing a conspiratorial mindset and had been in trouble both with the police and a community college from which he was kicked out. He seems to share the typical antisocial profile and swung between extreme viewpoints (note the Sarah Palin staffer, understandably defensive given that her boss figuratively put Rep. Giffords in the crosshairs, but inexcusably accusatory in suggesting that the shooter was “left wing and very liberal”).

This isn’t to totally excuse the very ugly political culture of our times, or the general contempt for government that at the least sits as background and context for expressions of that contempt. It’s one piece of this story, as is the easy availability of automatic weapons and the difficulty in diagnosing and treating mental instability. But, unsympathetic as I am to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, the truth is that they have millions upon millions of listeners and supporters who don’t go out and shoot up public gatherings—and there’s no indication that this shooter had any affinity for them, or for the Tea Party. It seems that what we have here is a deeply unwell individual who saw an opportunity to momentarily impose himself on the consciousness of the world, and did so with tragic consequences. Unless and until information arises to the contrary, it’s irresponsible and ugly to put his horrifying act in a larger political context, and in some sense doing so reinforces the very problem it ostensibly is working against.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Print the Myth
So the last book I read in 2010 was something I ran across totally by chance in the Barnes & Noble on Court Street in Brooklyn on December 29, after a meeting in their cafe. I was looking for Kristin Hersh's memoir and instead found a history of Husker Du by a Tennessee-based writer named Andrew Earles. When Annie saw it, she commented that it resembled a textbook; this is true, and in price as well as presentation (a hardback with a solid cover rather than a book jacket). It seemed unreal to me; there's a "What Would Husker Du?" bumper sticker inside the front cover, which itself is a great live pic of the band early in their run. In fact, I wasn't totally sure it had objective existence; it's the sort of thing I'd stumble across in a dream and bemoan the loss of upon waking.

But I'm looking at it on my shelf right now, so at worst it's an unusually persistent delusion. After purchasing the book Tuesday night, I finished its roughly 300 pages in about 30 hours despite the usual and proportionate activities of sleep, work, exercise, eating, and so on. Its considerable faults notwithstanding, I really enjoyed it--the substance of a book about my favorite band ever as well as the fact of its existence.

Earles is a year younger than me, and had even less experience of the Huskers during their existence than I did. I saw the band in early 1987 at a show at Temple University my best friend's older brother helped organize; it was the first real show I ever went to, and seeing Bob Mould and Grant Hart sitting in the stairwell was probably our equivalent of a devout Christian's vision of the Virgin. They played "Warehouse: Songs and Stories," which turned out to be their final album, almost straight through; it occurred to me at one point that they might be lip-synching, though if memory serves at one point they interrupted the run of songs with "What's Going On," which is not on Warehouse. I had a great time even though my back hurt from standing by the stage; the first opener was the Electric Love Muffin, my favorite band ever to come out of Philadelphia.

There's a ton of great information in the book I hadn't previously known, from the fact that Bob's guitar was an Ibanez knockoff rather than a real Gibson Flying V as always stated, to the story of Greg Norton's post-Huskers career as a restauranteur, the basic fact of which I knew but not the full story, which I found quite moving; it's great that the guy whose contributions were always underrated, and who personally seemed by far the most relatable and flat-out likable of the three, made a fulfilling and successful life for himself away from any spotlight. Earles tells that story, as well as Grant's more tumultuous post-Huskers road, with clear and appropriate warmth. He also gamely attempts to present the Huskers as not just a great band in their own right but true institution-builders in terms of the post-punk touring circuit and living a DIY ("Do It Yourself") aesthetic in everything from management to PR to recording and distribution.

That said, the book had its problems: the editing was pretty sloppy in both content--I think some whole paragraphs were repeated in different chapters--and theme; as Earles tells it, the band repeatedly "gives a final kissoff to hardcore," which you can really only do once. Having read a couple interviews with Earles this weekend after finishing the book, it sounds like he was largely on his own with this project, so it's probably fair to attribute these flaws to his own DIY process as well as rookie mistakes.

The other problem, which wasn't at all Earles' fault, is the absence of Bob Mould's voice. He asked all three for their participation in the project; Grant and Greg agreed, but Bob (whose autobiography is due this year) politely declined. While it's way too much to say that Bob "was" Husker Du--Grant carried an almost equal share of the songwriting load, and all three were huge contributors to the band's sound--if the story you're looking to tell is how the band built its business model as well as its sound, the absence of Bob's perspective is going to be felt. Grant himself acknowledges Bob's leadership on the business side as well as his victories in the band's various internal power struggles.

Maybe this is a bigger deal for me than it would be for others because I'm a Bob Mould guy; in the now 23 years since Husker Du disbanded, I've purchased almost every piece of music Bob has made, through solo work and Sugar, and seen him play in different formats probably eight to ten times. While Grant wrote and sang a number of my favorite Husker Du songs (It's Not Funny Anymore, Pink Has Turned to Blue, Terms of Psychic Warfare, Back From Somewhere), I own none of his post-Husker Du work and haven't seen him play.

I'd still strongly recommend the book, both for its own merits and because Earles gets at what I consider the essential truth about this amazing band: the point is what they did on record and in performance, not their personal drama or excesses. (Many of which, by the way, I think can be chalked up to the convergence of a few home truths: young men are often jerks, artists are often jerks, and when you've got artistic young men working nonstop and living in close quarters for about a decade, tensions are inevitable.) He's appropriately expansive in considering their impact and legacy, though there is one point about their work I think he didn't get quite right. In my view, Husker Du never so much "moved past" pop-punk, hardcore, psychedelia or whatever other genre you care to name, the way Earles suggests they did, as mastered them, incorporated them into an ever-growing sonic palette, and then went off in search of new realms to conquer. At the end, they were playing music from the entirety of their career, and killing every song. The sound kept getting better, but they never really slowed down much, literally or figuratively.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

My Year in Books
The other day I made a list of everything I read in 2010, as best I could remember; this is something I often do toward the end of December, and I can usually come up with about two-thirds of the list on my own before going back to threads on or email with friends to fill in the rest. (Of course, the ones I remember without any prompt are usually the best of the bunch.) What surprised me was how heavily I turned toward the novels in 2010, maybe as a result of having a big-boy job for the first time in about five years and just wanting/needing escape from that (or, for a less psychological explanation, because I was reading a fair amount of policy non-fiction--well, hopefully non-fiction--on a more or less everyday basis, so that's where I found the balance).

The list below includes only titles I finished; as usual, there were at least a handful I started and abandoned, whether because of boredom or a sense that I'd gotten what I was going to get out of them. A few, including relatively heavy non-fiction titles like Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (which I barely started) and Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles (which I got more than halfway through and found totally brilliant), I hope to get back to. This is in rough but not perfect chronological order.

Gun With Occasional Music (Jonathan Lethem)
Under the Dome (Stephen King)
The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
Shadow Country (Peter Matthiessen)
The Savage Detectives (Roberto Belano)
The Brooklyn Follies (Paul Auster)
The Bullpen Gospels (Dirk Hayhurst)
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
Anathem (Neal Stephenson)
The Passage (Justin Cronin)
Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris)
A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell)
You Don't Love Me Yet (Lethem)
The Virgin Suicides (Geoffrey Eugenidies)
Netherland (Joseph O'Neill)
Tokyo Year Zero (David Peace)
The Night Gardener (George Pelecanos)
An Artist of the Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Motherless Brooklyn (Lethem)
The Ministry of Special Cases (Nathan Englander)
The Four Fingers of Death (Rick Moody)
Solar (Ian McEwan)
The Clinton Tapes (Taylor Branch)
Husker Du: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock (Andrew Earles)

(I just went on the Brooklyn Library site to see if there were other titles I've forgotten. Unfortunately, unless you tell them to do so, they only preserve your past selections when there's a fine attached. I evidently owe them $7.50 for various failures to return or renew over the last several years. So be it...)

The best of these? Under the Dome (Stephen King getting back to what he does best--the plot-driven epic), Shadow Country (superb historical fiction set in a place and time--Florida at the turn of the last century--I had little knowledge of, with epic themes and very strong characterizations), The Savage Detectives (the book "On the Road" could have been, if Kerouac were a much better writer, a less self-involved person, and a true connoisseur of literature), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell is, basically, God), and Solar (an effective fusion of McEwan's misanthropy, e.g. Amsterdam, and tenderness, e.g. Saturday). The ones I enjoyed least were probably "Then We Came to the End," which was replete with unlikable characters and wasn't remotely as funny as the author evidently thought it was, and "Let the Great World Spin," which was the literary equivalent of listening to U2 at their most self-important--there's something to it, but you just can't get past the self-satisfaction and just enjoy the damn thing.

The last two books here are, of course, non-fiction. Taylor Branch is one of my heroes: his three-volume civil rights history, "America in the King Years," is up there with Caro's "The Power Broker," DeParle's "American Dream" and Ben Cramer's "What it Takes" as the best social/political history I've ever read. He knew Bill Clinton when they were both young activists in the late '60s and early '70s, though they lost touch after working on the McGovern campaign together in 1972. Twenty years later, Clinton reached out to ask Branch to be his secret White House diarist through the vehicle of taped conversations about then current events. During his eight years in office, they met about 80 times; Clinton kept the tapes, but Branch made a second set of recordings while driving back to his home in Baltimore after their discussions to capture their content. Those tapes are the basis for this book (evidently the originals informed Clinton's own memoir, which I now kind of want to read).

To read Branch's book as an attempt at the history of the Clinton presidency entirely misses the point. All that's here is what Clinton said on the tapes, distilled through Branch's own memory. Their friendship shadows the material as well: Branch tries to balance that role with his duty to history as he sees it in the role of interlocutor, and steers away from (or at least rarely writes about here) the Lewinsky scandal and related matters. If you're interested in the Balkan wars, battles over the federal budget, and efforts to make Mideast peace, you'll get much more out of this than if your primary lens to view the '90s has to do with White House sexcapades. It's clear that Branch and Clinton themselves see those subjects as more historically significant; it's a perspective I sympathize with and share, but of course Clinton's personal failings limited his effectiveness as a political leader--a truth the president himself acknowledges.

What comes across above all else are, one, Clinton's political brilliance, and two, just how fucking hard the presidential job is. I was repeatedly struck by the similarities between the challenges he faced more than ten years ago and what Obama has been grappling with since he took office: the nihilism of the Republicans, the refusal of the liberals to fully engage with reality, the stunning vapidity of the media. Honestly, the Branch book is a depressing read in this light, because you get the sense both that the problems are far more intractable--the Republicans more vicious, the Democrats more feckless, the media more polarized and sensationalistic, the deficits staggeringly larger--and that Obama, for all his fine qualities, isn't close to the political animal that Clinton was and is. Of course, he also thankfully lacks Clinton's outsized appetites and weaknesses--which certainly contributed to Gore's "loss" in the 2000 election and many of our subsequent problems--and it's hard to imagine Obama endlessly complaining about his unfair treatment at the hands of the media the way Clinton did to Branch. (To be fair, he probably has much less grounds for complaint; I think the mainstream press really did dislike Clinton, where Obama's problems with them have to do not with their take of him so much as the incentives toward sensationalism and conflict. During the very productive lame-duck session of Congress I was consistently amazed and annoyed by how everything was presented as "a potential win (or loss) for the president"--as if that mattered more than the effects of ending DADT, or ratifying New START, or passing the DREAM Act.)

I have a whole thing on the Husker Du book too but will post that later, or tomorrow. Beats writing about football...