. . . Economic conditions

. . .

Juliet Clark kindly forwarded this excerpt from Prof. Louis Jordan's recent report on economic conditions in the San Francisco Bay area:

The wrong folks made it in my town --
They finally got in;
And now I can't even muscle up enough money
To buy a shot of gin.
She queries readers: "Anyone for a seven-dollar martini?"

. . .

The Green Balloon: Prosperity is just around the corner, waiting to knock you out and take your wallet and keys.

. . .

It's nice to find out that Lynda Barry is a fellow member of the Class of Jimmy Carter. During that high tide of financial aid, my fancy-pants liberal arts college was pretty much as affordable as Northwest Missouri State. And though the shock of those first encounters with the upper crusts was painful, it was also way too central and complicated an experience to regret.

Not that anyone was waiting for my opinion to resolve its ambiguity. By the time I graduated, a few years of Reaganomics had ensured a shock-free campus whose incoming class seemed split between rich kids who wanted to be the heroes in Animal House and rich kids who wanted to be the bad guys in Animal House.

Which is how it should be, says Nicholas Lemann, who I quote:

I'm more with the American people on this.
mostly 'cause of the patrician tang of that old speakeasy password "the American people": Nicholas Lemann, the American people; the American people, Nicholas Lemann... Nicholas Lemann is the one with the suit.

Lemann is appalled that scholarship kids, in contrast to preppies, are so often intent on selfish ends. But if we drop that nasty pseudo-egalitarian testing crap, how do we decide who should be allowed four years of private school? Simple: we only pick those who have already successfully completed four years of private school!

You should make judgments about people not prospectively based on a score but in real time based on how well they perform the activity for which they are being selected.
Which makes sense as long as you never want anyone to learn anything new. And Plato says you can't really learn anything new anyway, so there you go.

. . .

The life of a weblogger isn't always so idyllic, however:

"today just all around sucks. my sister woke me up this morning to bitch about my lazy, lying housekeeper, who i now want to fire. but, none of the maids in the yellow pages answered the phone. i got stuck behind drivers going 65 in the fast lane, and obsessed about it all the way to work. i got to look at the new clip2 site and see the hundreds of little ways they destroyed stuff i'd spent the last six months getting right. i discover, from an email that just arrived but is 5 days old, that my resume has been harvested by *another* unscrupulous posting site. and to top it all off ...."

. . .

Uneconomical guy that I am, I never all through these decades understood why it is that we have government spokestypes saying stuff about needing to "maintain a high level of unemployment" amongst us governed, unless out of pure meanness. To my clarification leaps the 13th issue of The Baffler with a Little Business Monkey's Guide to Big Business Monkeys called "Atlas Finally Shrugged" by Christian Parenti.

In the late 1960s, large chunks of America had been doing nicely for a long time. Too long. Unemployment was low and social services were high. Those conditions make the prospect of losing your job less scary: if you get fired, you can always find another job; until you find one, there's welfare. (Speaking as a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay area, I can testify that it is yes indeedy pretty nice not to be scared all the time.) Lowered fear increases employee power at the expense of owners, since employees can more easily afford to risk a confrontation.

And so, starting in 1968, employees (especially those in unpleasant or dangerous jobs) started pumping strikes like so many wah-wah pedals, with or without the support of their unions. In 1970, 66 million work days were spent on strikes; between 1967 and 1973, 40% of the work force had been involved in strikes, and had won most of them. Wages went up. Health and safety laws were put into effect and, worse yet, enforced.

What a predicament! 'Cause the costs of wages and safety have to be taken from somewhere. Bosses tried raising prices to keep their own profits going, but with so much power on the worker's side, they couldn't keep inflation of the prices they took in much ahead of the wage inflation they had to shell out. The average company's after-tax profit was cut in half between 1965 and 1974.

From the business owners' point of view, the only solution, painful though it might be, was to induce a recession, a process started off by Paul Volcker ("The standard of living of the average American has to decline") in 1979, and pushed forward with enthusiasm by the Reagan administration. Interest rates were boosted to reduce access to the financial cushion of property investment; taxes were cut; business was deregulated; the safety net of welfare was eliminated; domestic unemployment was bullied upwards -- all to make workers more frightened of the prospect of job loss and to increase owner profits.

What a success story! By 1982, 44% of new contracts included wage freezes or cuts. And nowadays the proposed solution to all employee discontent is to buy stocks, joining in the triumph of the owner -- no one even bothers to dream of the possibility of being successful as a mere worker!

So that's why I was always mystified by those pro-unemployment squibs in the business news. Since it's aimed square at the owners, business news has to talk about these tactics. But since the owners already know what the tactics are for, business news doesn't have to spell the motivation out.

Also, if the motivation was spelled out all the time, it might start to sound kind of unpleasant.

. . .

Two tales of downtown San Francisco (as told by Juliet Clark)

1996, Montgomery St. BART station 2000, Montgomery St. Wells Fargo bank
Panhandler: "Please help me. I'll work for food."

Tall 30-ish woman dressed in black: "Hmph. Can you code HTML?"

On the back of an ATM receipt:
HTML stands for Hot Meal!

. . .

The Mirror Tableau
All which our ordinary Students, right well perceiving in the Universities how unprofitable these Poetical, Mathematical, and Philosophical Studies are, how little respected, how few Patrons, apply themselves in all haste to those three commodious Professions of Law, Physick, and Computer Science, sharing themselves between them, rejecting these Arts in the mean time, History, Philosophy, Philology, or lightly passing them over, as pleasant toys fitting only table talk, and to furnish them with discourse. They are not so behoveful: he that can tell his money hath Arithmetick enough : he is a true Geometrician, can measure out a good fortune to himself; a perfect Astrologer, that can cast the rise and fall of others, and mark their errant motions to his own use. The best Opticks are to reflect the beams of some great man's favour and grace to shine upon him. He is a good Engineer that alone can make an instrument to get preferment.
-- The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

. . .

"I determined to think no more of America; but to set off the ensuing morning for the village of Oakland, in quest of my dear Sophia."
- John Thelwall, The Peripatetic, 1793

Economic Wisdom
Photo by Juliet Clark

. . .

The Blue Party Candidate

Midway through my much-aided private college education, the Reagan administration started making Academe a gated community. The results were apparent by the time I graduated, but I always figured, well, at least the state university systems are available.

Talking to younger folks, though, I've hit plenty of anecdotal evidence that even state universities are now available only to those lower-class compeers who are willing to assume crippling -- I mean, legs-chainsawed-off crippling -- debt while simultaneously working like a dog and trying to study full-time. And reports like "Losing Ground" and "Unequal Opportunity" provide the stats: college has become an impossible choice for many Americans, no matter how many sacrifices they're willing to make.

But a good deal of the resulting journalistic attention has been focused not on the destruction of upward mobility, but on scolding those middle and upper-middle class parents who aren't sufficiently greasing their childrens' way.

A memory from the Revolution: At Joe's Digital Diner in 1994, surrounded by chatter in which the phrase "power to the people" kept surfacing, I sat next to Sally, a very nice sincere lady who gave me a card that read "Hey Kids Let's Put on a Show": "In fact, wherever it says 'company name' on a form, I always put 'Hey Kids Let's Put On a Show'."

Since it was a revolution, we naturally bitched about work. Her new job was at an all-girl preparatory school which charged eleven thousand dollars a semester. Sally was trying to get the parents to understand the importance of "the new technology" so that they'd pay more for her classes; she planned to show them the QuickTime movies produced by "the city kids" at the Digital Media Center.

"I'll tell them, 'They have access to all this equipment. Do you want your kids to fall behind them?"

Let the answer be yes, I silently prayed.

Meanwhile, even purely vocational-training jobs like computer programming now require a college degree from applicants.

Obviously it's a lot easier to freeze the upper class if the lower class is kept in its place as well. This complete blocking-off of upward mobility helps explain how the complete blocking-off of downward mobility -- which has puzzled me on and off over the years -- has been made possible. You know how it used to be that fortunes and incomes could (given enough tenacity) be lost? But after decades of Golden Parachutes, the subtleties of an Old Boys Club aren't needed: a rich guy can be openly incompetent for years, or even openly criminal, losing vast amounts of money for stockholders and ruining thousands of lives, and still sit on top of the world, dumping.

I can't tell you how depressing all this is. So I can only hope you share my depression without need of description or explanation.

I've never -- not even during my own upwardly-mobile scramble -- felt so trench-stuck in class warfare.

Or class massacre, I guess, 'cause it's not like there's been much fuss being made.

It would be nice to think this state of affairs can't last. But it can, for generations. Henry Adams, who had no trouble predicting the rule of "wealth individualised," couldn't help but assume a socialist backlash would follow. Instead, it sometimes seems to me that we've just been living for decades, barely, off the ever-more-rolled-back leavings of the New Deal and G.I. Bill.

Hell, I'd even consider joining MENSA if they were working to give their poorer brethren and sistren a chance at a better life. But nah, I just checked, and they're still glued to their fucking quizzes.

OK, sorry about the dyspepsia. I'll go back to sticking my head in the sand looking for diamond digestifs tomorrow.

. . .

Astoria, Oregon, 2002

Tools For Genius

- photo by Juliet Clark

. . .

The treasury was full
It's Old News

Business correspondent Daniel Defoe reports in The Anatomy of Exchange Alley; or, A System of Stock-Jobbing: Proving that Scandalous Trade, As It Is Now Carried On, To Be Knavish in Its Private Practice, and Treason in Its Public (1719) (via A Bold Stroke for a Wife, ed. Nancy Copeland):

Is not the whole system of stock-jobbing a science of fraud? and are not all the dealers original thieves and pickpockets? Nay, do they not own it themselves? Have I not heard T.W., B.O., and F.S., a thousand times say they know their employment was a branch of highway robbing, and only differed in two things; first, in degree, viz., that it was ten thousand times worse, more remorseless, more void of humanity, done without necessity, and committed upon fathers, brothers, widows, orphans, and intimate friends; in all which cases, highwaymen, generally touched with remorse, and affected with principles of humanity and generosity, stopped short, and chose to prey upon strangers only. Secondly, in danger, viz., that these rob securely; the other, with the utmost risk that the highwayman run, at the hazard of their lives, being sure to be hanged first or last, whereas these rob only at the hazard of their reputation, which is generally lost before they begin, and of their souls, which trifle is not worth the mentioning. Have not I, I say, heard my broker, Mr. -----, say all this and much more, "That no man was obliged to make good any of their Exchange Alley bargains, unless he pleased, and unless he was in haste to part with his money, which, indeed, I am not"; and have not all the brokers and jobbers, when they have been bitten too hard, said the same thing, and refused to pay?

.... But to leave them a little, and turn our eyes another way, is it not surprising to find new faces among these scandalous people, and persons even too big even for our reproof? Is it possible that stars of another latitude should appear in our hemisphere? Had it been Sims or Bowcher, or gamesters of the drawing-rooms or masquerades, there had been little to be said; or had the groom-porters been transposed to Garraway's and Jonathan's, it had been nothing new; true gamesters being always ready to turn their hand to any play. But to see statesmen turn dealers, and men of honor stoop to the chicanery of jobbing; to see men at the offices in the morning, at the P----- house about noon, at the cabinet at night, and at Exchange Alley in the proper intervals, what new phenomena are these? What fatal things may these shining planets (like the late great light) foretell to the state and to the public; for when statesmen turn jobbers, the state may be jobbed.

It may be true that a treasurer or cash-keeper may be trusted with more money than he is worth, and many times it is so; and if the man be honest, there may be no harm in it: but when a treasurer plays for more money then he is worth, they that trust him run a risk of their money, because, though he may an honest man, he may be undone. I speak of private, not public treasurers.

Indeed, it requires some apology to say such a one may be an honest man; it would be hard to call him an honest man, who plays away any man's money that is not his own. But if it be dishonest to play it away, that is, lose it at play, 't is equally dishonest to play with it, whether it be lost or no; because, in such a case, he that plays for more than he can pay, his master runs the hazard more than himself; nay, his master runs an unequal hazard, for if the money be lost, 't is the master's, if there is gain, 't is the servant's.

What did we win?  

Stock-jobbing is play; a box and dice may be less dangerous, the nature of them are alike a hazard; and if they venture at either what is not their own, the knavery is the same. It is not necessary, any more than it is safe, to mention the persons I may think of in this remark; they who are the men will easily understand me.

In a word, I appeal to all the world, whether a man that is intrusted with other men's money (whether public or private is not the question) ought to be seen in Exchange Alley. Would it not be a sufficient objection to any gentleman or merchant, not to employ any man to keep his cash, or look after his estate, to say of him he plays, he is a gamester, or he is given to gaming and stock-jobbing, which is still worse, gives the same, or a stronger ground of objection in like cases.

Again, are there fewer sharpers and setters in Exchange Alley than at the Groom Porters? Is there less cheating in stock-jobbing than at play? Or, rather, is there not fifty times more? An unentered youth coming to deal in Exchange Alley is immediately surrounded with bites, setters, pointers, and the worst set of cheats, just as a young country gentleman is with bawds, pimps, and spongers, when he first comes to town. It is ten thousand to one, when a forward young tradesman steps out of his shop into Exchange Alley, I say 't is ten thousand to one but he is undone: if you see him once but enter the fatal door, never discount his bills afterwards, never trust him with goods at six months' pay any more.

If it be thus dangerous to the mean, what is it to the great? I see only this difference, that in the first the danger is private, in the latter public.

. . .

Bumper sticker*


* "Might" is more reasonable than "would," but then it wouldn't be a bumper sticker.

. . .

"Well, guys, we've got to choose"

So asserts the most irritating stop on my regular weblog rounds.

The choices we're offered are a) a government that wastes its time trying to prop up lazy loser crybabies, or b) a government that stands firmly behind responsible highly-cultured hard-working individualists with rich daddies.

Well, guy, you missed one.

At over 900 pages, Rich Democracies is a brick worthy of laying upside your head, but Harold Wilensky's conclusions are easy enough to summarize:

There are a number of services that operate more smoothly (if never as smoothly as we'd like) when not held hostage to profit-making. Education, health care, mass transit, law enforcement, and the military come to mind. And those services benefit all classes.

Or they can, when the government tends to anything other than petulance and greed.

Why, I remember a time in America when even the upper-middle-class attended public schools. Nowadays, working couples scramble to top their mortgages and auto loans with high school tuition fees, and have to hope the children will be capable of scrambling for their own crippling debts once they reach college age.

I'm not sure why they didn't teach you this at Princeton.

I can guess, though.

. . .

Fair to Middling

"So what if they have millions inherited from the profits of manufacturing or something? It's the freaking American dream, right?"
- Peevish
American dreams differ. Mine was to become middle class rather than to produce the Bush girls as great-great-grandchildren.

With government assistance I achieved my American dream. And it's wonderful, it's everything I hoped for. I'm sorry that home ownership is no longer a given, but still —I eat good food, I drink OK wine, I have a nice library, I share one pet....

I can even very occasionally afford to visit where rich people go. And, you know, they don't seem to be getting seven thousand times more pleasure than me. At best, three or four times as much. But mostly they seem desperate, sullen, or stupid-drunk, and I can manage all those on my income.

More fortune than fills a champagne glass is a waste. After all, what can rich people do that middle-class people can't do, except influence the government? And who wants to do that? We're supposed to hate politicians, aren't we?

Leaving our dreams' relative merits aside as a matter of taste, more people achieved my American dream with progressive taxes than achieved Ronald Reagan's American dream without them, whereas, so far as I can tell, my American dream never interfered with his. The kind of rich kids who fund good stuff didn't stop funding good stuff during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when their taxes were highest. The kind of rich kids who push for elimination of progressive taxes are instead, logically enough, the kind of rich kids who want to retain as much property as possible. No one incapable of generosity with two hundred million dollars suddenly becomes generous with two hundred and fifty.

+ + +

What interests me in the quoted weblog entry, probably tossed off (as advertised) in a peevish moment, is how thoroughly Reaganesque class-war rhetoric has pervaded even non-Republican discourse. A few more examples:

"... taxing someone just because they didn't spend everything they made while they were alive..."
Who is this "someone" who is no longer alive?
"... not all people who inherit wealth are unworthy..."
Here we see the assumption that a tax is some kind of moral judgment. Bad rich people don't get charged extra for badness (although bad poor people certainly do, courtesy of sin taxes), and I don't say they should be. The government needs money and rich people have money and that's all there is to it. If they don't like their country enough to support it, let 'em move to Russia. When I make more money, I pay more taxes and I don't kick; if I can't maintain the land I've inherited, well, there are plenty of other people who can't maintain the land they've got right now. Small family farms aren't going to be saved by increased concentration of wealth and fewer federal services any more than the cattle industry is going to be saved by fewer inspections.
"... what about the guy... who spends 20% or more of his annual income on charitable concerns?"
Nice guy unbelievably nice guy, especially if the "charities" aren't run by Pat Robertson but charitable donations were deductible even in the highest brackets of the progressive tax, so I'd say he's taken care of.

+ + +

I have no problem with Reagan's portrait on currency. His historical role is pretty similar to Andrew Jackson's. But by rights shouldn't he be restricted to denominations of $1,000,000 and up?

. . .

Hoist with my own rope-a-dope

You know, I saw that fight on TV when I was a teenager, and in my teenage eyes Ali was definitely losing. Then he got lucky. Then he got interviewed. And if you're a clever guy you can explain getting lucky more easily than you can invent a way to win.

That's what you call a life lesson.

. . .

Un coup de dés

For the first time in thirty years I live in a neighborhood nobody calls "dicey," so it makes perfect sense that we've been burgled twice.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.