What I've been reading, featuring the abolition of billionaires; music's #MeToo; and "Die, My Love" by Ariana Harwicz

Richard: “You’re still basically a billionaire.”
Russ: “Not if you round down! If you round down, I have zero billion!”
Silicon Valley (2014)

  • Noticed a funny dichotomy on the frontpage of the international edition of the Feb. 8 New York Times (pdf): two above-the-fold headlines on opposite sides: “It’s high time we abolish billionaires” on the left and “Trump casts socialists as Americans’ new threat” on the right. In between is an article about a growing trend of labor protests in the country with the second-most billionaires.

    • The content of the abolition article is pretty simplistic. Its author Farhad Manjoo is a veteran tech journalist, which is appropriate enough given his proximity to Silicon Valley tycoons, but the tech-centricity of the column maybe blunts the generality of the titular argument. In order, the industries that produce the most billionaires are finance, fashion and retail, real estate, manufacturing, and then tech. The part questioning the hypocrisy of tolerating “good” billionaires such as Tom Steyer—who “ticks every liberal box”—is interesting though. Vox had a more precise article on that topic in the context of the annual Gates letter’s recent publication. I disagree with its central argument.

    • Nick Gillespie, editor at large for Reason magazine, responds in a blog post titled “Should Paul McCartney and Other Billionaires Be 'Abolished'?” although the URL says simply “destroy-all-billionaires”, which recalls the Silicon Valley scene embedded above.

      The ‘economic’ arguments aren’t really worth addressing (the poor have washing machines), but most of all, I’m tired of libertarians only invoking the suffering of “the wretched of the earth” and “especially in the developing world” when convenient then ignoring their welfare in the moral calculus of anything else. Gillespie does it twice in that column when he considers the general improvement in living standards over time to be a convincing argument for no change. I know I already took issue with this recently, but it really does keep coming up.

    • I found Business Insider’s offering to be better delineated than the Times column and much closer to definitive. They’ve been surprisingly strong on the topic as part of their series, “Better Capitalism”.

      I think it’s interesting to think of how distinct this “millennial socialism” (The Economist’s term) seems to be from Occupy Wall Street. When I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity” last term, its repeated references to Occupy felt dated, like unfortunate relics from his beginning to write it at a time when many expected it to have more staying power than it proved to have. I was living in downtown Manhattan attending a business school at the peak of the movement, but still regularly forget it even happened. Other than the language of percentiles, it seems it hasn’t had much of a legacy.

      I’m finding other explanations for the generational shift to be unconvincing: The Economist repeatedly frames it as ignorance of the Cold War, others chalk it up to the leadership of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have some other ideas—for example, I think it’s the inevitable conclusion as soon as you’re convinced that people shouldn’t die of poorness or that the prevailing variant of capitalism caused irrevocable climate change and provides no way out. Does it then follow that the incredible but less direct threat of climate change is more influential than the financial crisis in shaping this generation’s politics? Or if not climate change, then what?

    • Some of the most specific progressive policy prescriptions I’ve seen from economists at prominent American universities (Profs. Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrik, and Gabriel Zucman). Headline: “Economics after Neoliberalism”, a set of essays published in the Boston Review introducing their project, Economists for Inclusive Prosperity, self-described as “a network of academic economists committed to an inclusive economy and society.” I can’t say I really understand what this institution is.

    • And from Nature, the super-rich and climate change:

Calculating the emissions from 0.54% of the wealthiest of the global population, according to our estimates, results in cumulative emissions equivalent to 13.6% of total lifestyle-related carbon emissions. In comparison, the world’s poorest 50% are responsible for about 10% of lifestyle consumption emissions.

“Every couple of months, something happens where, like, a dude in my periphery will make a very visible misstep, or say something inappropriate and you have to feel comfortable calling people out. Always. If someone really means a lot to you, you should be able to explain to them that they fucked up. And I’ve found that apologies are so easy, and [they're] always well received. Not enough people apologize.”

…Why is music’s #metoo moment so far behind that of fashion and film?

“A thought—it’s pretty sinister—but Harvey Weinstein, for example, he targeted women who would then become famous. But band-dude culture, a lot of the time it’s targeting a fan from, say, Wisconsin, that’s super young, someone you can sort of gaslight into believing it’s not abuse or who might be such a big fan that it’s not that hard for you to get them to shut up… that fan is so isolated.

“If 15 supermodels come out and say 'fuck that guy', people are more inclined to listen to them than if it’s a young girl from butt-fuck-nowhere, being like, ‘Hey, this one thing made me feel uncomfortable’ as the musician just moves on to play a gig in the next town.”

It has by the fall of 2018 become commonplace to describe the 499 known victims of Larry Nassar as “breaking their silence,” though in fact they were never, as a group, particularly silent. Over the course of at least 20 years of consistent abuse, women and girls reported to every proximate authority. They told their parents. They told gymnastics coaches, running coaches, softball coaches. They told Michigan State University police and Meridian Township police. They told physicians and psychologists. They told university administrators. They told, repeatedly, USA Gymnastics. They told one another. Athletes were interviewed, reports were written up, charges recommended. The story of Larry Nassar is not a story of silence. The story of Larry Nassar is that of an edifice of trust so resilient, so impermeable to common sense, that it endured for decades against the allegations of so many women.

Today’s familiar figure, enormously self-controlled, morally towering, and powerfully eloquent—the man who would ultimately drive South Africa’s peaceful transition to full democracy—was largely shaped during his decades of confinement. Those qualities were forged, deepened, or revealed during years of hard labor and deprivation of many basic human needs, such as a warm blanket and a mattress. During his first several years behind bars on Robben Island, where he would remain until he was transferred in 1982, Mandela was assigned a so-called D Grade, the lowest classification of South African prisoner, with fewer rights and more restrictions than even the most violent criminals. He and his codefendants in the trial that had resulted in his life sentence were regularly subjected to humiliating anal searches in front of other inmates.

…These were conditions that seemed designed to break ordinary men, but Mandela drew lessons from them. And even as he absorbed innumerable vicious personal blows, he somehow grew stronger.

…This is the picture that emerges with remarkable force from The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, which draws on hundreds of letters to loved ones, friends, and, in surprising numbers, to the authorities who confined him… They reveal a man who grew wiser and more resourceful behind bars, who developed a monk-like self-awareness and stoic discipline, and who became both more strategically astute and increasingly generous of spirit toward others, including, ultimately, the men who presided over the country’s morally repugnant government.

  • “Die, My Love” by Ariana Harwicz, book #5 in our college book club (h/t Charlotte)

    • Sam read half of this in its original Spanish. With hateful writing this vivid, I wonder what I missed out on, especially after reading this article on the art of translation.

    • Not a lot of action takes place in this short book (124 pages in my copy), but it still felt cinematic throughout—a lot of disorientation, mid-paragraph time skips, abrupt metamorphizing into natural imagery, implicit perspective changes, and no names. I said that if I were a theater actor, this would be great material—I found myself having fun just reading some passages out loud while reading—and Meredith mentioned Harwicz was previously a screenwriter.

    • I think we spent two hours talking about this one and it was probably the book that had the most diversity in responses. For example, I did not have the sympathetic and feminist reading of the violently misanthropic main character that others did.

    • Instead, I kept thinking of “No Children” by The Mountain Goats (embedded below) throughout, which has the most spiteful and singable lyrics over catchy and folksy acoustic strumming:

And I hope when you think of me years down the line
You can't find one good thing to say
And I'd hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You'd stay the hell out of my way

I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand

And I hope you die
I hope we both die

  • Rep. Ilhan Omar was right, obviously

  • Watch a single cell become an organism in a six-minute time lapse (h/t Tim):