Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 10
1. Feed the beast
It seems we’re all frustrated with social media. I don’t need to say anything about fake news, transparently odious as it is, but I think the “filter bubble” effect may be even worse. Jonathan Haidt shares a pessimistic view on civil discourse in the age of Facebook: “So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side, I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again.” The Stratechery podcast went deep into the evolution of finding information on the Internet: from curated websites on Yahoo! to query-driven links on Google to personalized clickbait on Facebook. This topic quickly gets paradoxical when you consider how amazing the Internet is for finding niche content that only you and a thousand other people could appreciate–is the filter bubble just the other side of the solipsistic coin? The discussion of a push/pull distinction helped resolve the paradox for me. My best information-gathering experiences are of the ‘pull’ variety–podcasts and newsletters I subscribe to, Wikipedia pages I trawl, articles from 2009 that answer my question today. But Facebook has redefined information gathering as a ‘push’–we wait at our ‘feeds’ like so many animals at the trough, immobilized for whatever antibiotic-laced slop comes our way. Well beyond political polarization, I think this ‘push’ model (especially as operated by one centralized aggregator) is really damaging for curiosity, intellectual initiative, and independent thinking. Is there any company whose utopian self-image is more disconnected from its dystopian reality than Facebook in the age of News Feed?
p.s. I use this News Feed Eradicator plug-in and you can too! Facebook is much better without it.
2. Get a job, sir
I enjoyed this review of a new book by David Frayne on The Refusal of Work: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work. Frayne reviews the intellectual history of opposition to work; work is oppressive, limiting, dehumanizing, and the shame of not working in a society that valorizes work can be even worse. He also presents ethnographic research on several British people who have deliberately dropped out of full-time jobs. Contemporary interest in this topic seems mostly related to the automation panic, but the reviewer, John Danaher, praises Frayne for divorcing his discussion of anti-work philosophy from technological change: “It may be true that it has more pragmatic appeal in light of technological developments; but the moral and political case for an anti-work politics must be developed on its own.” Danaher points out that even if automation frees us from the economic necessity of work, it’s not clear what that would leave us free to do: “We may find that technology also frees us from much else that we do as well, i.e. from work in the broader, non-economic sense.” My view is that we already have the seeds of post-work in our midst, but we don’t recognize them as such. Academic research; artisanal food, craft, and art production; personal coaching and training services; and semi-professional sports and video gaming foretell the possibilities for meaningful existence after bureaucratically organized work. I should actually read a book about medieval economies before saying this, but my rough idea is that future work will look something like a much richer Middle Ages Europe without the feudalism.
3. Or maybe we’ll just play video games
…That’s one possibility I was forced to consider during this week’s fascinating EconTalk interview with Erik Hurst, an economist at Chicago. Hurst has some papers assessing the decline in male labor force participation over the past 15 years, and particularly showing how the housing boom masked that long-run decline with a short-term surge in construction jobs. One striking statistic was that since 2000, men ages 31-55 without a BA have decreased their annual hours worked by over 10%. A large part of this story is the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs in that same period. One typical response to that fact is to say that 80% of Americans used to work in agriculture, and we successfully transitioned out of that era. But Hurst suggested two grounds for rebuttal. First, there was never as rapid a decline in agricultural jobs as the manufacturing decline in the early 2000s. Second, and I think more troubling in the long run, it’s not clear that the switch from manufacturing to services is as easy for an individual worker as the switch from agriculture to manufacturing once was. In technical terms, the “skill substitutability” may now be much lower. This is a huge opportunity for research (measuring skills and the skill requirements of tasks is hard).
In other research, Hurst links employment, cohabitation, and time-use surveys to figure out what people who aren’t working are up to. 18% of men in their 20s without a BA have not worked in the past year (compared to 8% in 2000). You don’t have to be living in your parents’ basement to predict what they’re up to: weekly time spent on the Internet and video games has doubled for unemployed young men since 2000. Hurst talks about this in a delightfully non-judgemental way that only an economist can: in his framing, video games have gotten really fun so it’s no surprise that the value of leisure time has increased to the point where working, especially at a minimum wage job, is too costly. He draws a parallel to the story of dishwashers, microwaves, and washing machines which made home labor more efficient and allowed dual-earner households to do more market labor; in this case, leisure is apparently more attractive than the market–at least for men.
4. When your identity is anti-identity-politics
If you love self-destructive internecine left-wing conflict, I’ve got you covered. Probably this week’s most talked-about essay was Mark Lilla arguing, in the Times, that we should abandon identity politics and move to a post-identity liberalism. That rather than appealing to African-American, Latino, LGBT, and women voters, we should appeal to common American identity. Most people on the left disagreed. Jim Sleeper, who wrote a book twenty years ago arguing a similar point, says Lilla gets the symptoms right but misses the cause, which is capitalism: people “retreat from the public sphere into defensive camps of color and gender when public life is being deranged by casino-like financing, predatory lending, and intrusive, degrading marketing.” Katherine Franke goes much further and says Lilla represents the “liberalism of white supremacy. It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction.” Bree Newsome sent the defining tweet of the episode: “Framing “identity politics” as an idea that takes focus away from “working people” is basically saying let’s ignore racism & sexism.” I think that’s an uncharitable exaggeration, but it’s a very good tweet. And in her subsequent tweets, Newsome is right on the money, arguing that “racism and sexism are inextricably tied to economic issues.” My view on the issue, best approximated by Matthew Yglesias, is that we liberals can and should make both appeals. We’ve gotten pretty good at calling out discrimination. We haven’t figured out how to articulate economic populism, which is why populists are getting jumpy and casting blame. But it’s counterproductive to blame our allies on the liberal side.
Somewhat related, I strongly recommend this interview with the intimidatingly brilliant Teju Cole. He hits on many points of art, literature, and music that I only wish could be the typical substance of this newsletter (go for the James Baldwin discussion alone), but also touches on identity politics and political correctness. Discussing the Yale Halloween uproar in particular, he articulates the familiar point that it wasn’t really about Halloween costumes in the best terms I’ve seen: “Remember, Al Capone was done on tax evasion. This is the civil rights equivalent of that. You’re gonna look for those particular forms of disrespect that allow you to kick down the door, and then talk about the wider issue.”
5. Who you gonna call
Speaking of a populist message, I believe antitrust policy needs to be dusted off and returned to its place at the center of progressive politics. “Today, two-thirds of the 900 industries tracked by The Economist feature heavier concentration at the top than they did in 1997. The global economy is in the middle of a merger wave big enough to make 2015 the biggest year in history for corporate consolidation.” I took my mind off TrumpWorld and found some inspiration in these two articles about a nascent antitrust movement: this history of Washington’s modern apathy toward and enablement of corporate concentration, and this profile of Barry Lynn, little-known antitrust crusader in the background of Elizabeth Warren and Zephyr Teachout’s leadership on the issue. Net neutrality is the movement’s only real victory in recent years, and there are likely to be many more setbacks under President Trump. I’m planning to read Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox, which remains the dominant framework for those who still pay attention to the issue. Bork argued that the sole goal of antitrust policy should be consumer welfare, which is often best served by vertical consolidation. I plan to write more about why I disagree on both counts.
6. On Zadie
Finally, I’ll leave you with the unending wisdom of Zadie Smith.
On the risks of “too much” multiculturalism:
“My husband is from Northern Ireland, which is a completely racially homogeneous place, and was for hundreds of years, and they still managed to find the difference between which way you faced an altar, and then kill each other for at least 600 of those years. I don’t accept the initial premise. Do you see what I mean?”
On what is interesting about Trump, novelistically:
“What I find so painful is the idea of children competing for the affection of a narcissist, whose affection they will never receive. That seems to me just excruciating. That’s what boggles my mind: Reading interviews with them where they boast about who gets to call him in his office more regularly or who saw him more than four times during their childhood. It’s so sad, that part. It’s slightly unbearable. Also because if the children don’t correct the narcissist, he goes to his grave never knowing. I think that’s the kind of man he is, right? He’ll never know.”
On cultural appropriation:
I’m almost never accused of cultural appropriation—why not? Because I’m brown and Bengalis are brown and so it’s all the same to white people? It’s interesting. It’s a kind of fake piety. I do resent the idea of being portrayed as such a vulnerable human that if you involved yourself in any aspect of my “culture” I will crumble at the idea of you borrowing it from me.
On the literary value of having children:
I was at a book festival and a writer of my own age, who will remain nameless, sat opposite me and said, “God you’re having a kid huh?” It was a man. He said, “I guess you’re going to lose a lot of time and you must be worried about falling behind.” I was about seven months pregnant, and I just had a sudden inspiration. I said, “Yeah I guess so” and then, “You must be worried about just a complete lack of human experience that you’re now going to be 40 and then 50.”