Daily Office:
Tuesday, 26 October 2010


¶ Having concluded that, when it comes to their own economic self-interest, Tea Party Americans are as deluded as the madwoman of Sunset Boulevard, Chris Lehmann is appalled to find a liberatarian professor at George Mason (where else) who argues that income inequality is “good.” (The Awl)

Americans, having seen the fruits of their productive lives waste away over the past decade in a free-market fantasia, have evidently resorted to the most efficient psychic adjustment on offer. They steadfastly refuse to believe that we live in conditions of dire wealth inequality—while also persisting in the belief that the comparatively level social order of their fond imagining needs to be more equal still. The sheer scale of this fancy calls to mind the epitaph that William Holden delivers for Gloria Swanson’s character in Billy Wilder’s classic study in Hollywood delusion, Sunset Boulevard: “Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.”

Of course, Norma Desmond was packed off to the hoosegow, and in all likelihood the sanitarium, once the cameras panned away. Today’s Americans have to continue indulging their socioeconomic delusions amid savage inequalities that make just about every facet of their own lives worse.


Meet George Mason University’s Bryan D. Caplan, who duly delivers his free-market shibboleth: “It’s probably a good thing that the public underestimates how much wealth inequality there is,” Caplan says with a patronizing air rather unbecoming of a doctrinaire libertarian. After all, he explains, “they tend not to understand the ways that wealth inequality is good.” And how does Caplan possess the magisterial authority to proclaim a crushing paucity of material justice “good”? Well, we’re not sure, exactly—though his homepage autobiography helpfully explains that “It began with Ayn Rand, as it proverbially does.” He does go on to explain that he later came to regard his youthful infatuation with Objectivism and hardline Austrian economic theory as “mistakes.” Still, his selfsame homepage offers a “libertarian purity test” as well as an opportunity to “test your knowledge of the Communist holocausts,” just in case you fear your Pol Pot trivia mastery may be atrophying.


¶ When a trouble-making director brings a Handel opera to China, you can be sure that he won’t leave well-enough alone. That’s why there are censors. Andrew Jacobs reports in the Times.

On Sunday, it was the depiction of a sexually aroused, anatomically correct male donkey and references to capital punishment that nearly derailed an ambitious interpretation of the Handel opera “Semele,” the tragic tale of what happens when a lustful god, a vengeful goddess and an impressionable young maiden are ensnared in a love triangle.

In the end, officials allowed the donkey to remain onstage, but they insisted on a number of last-minute changes that significantly altered the production and left the audience perplexed.

Needless to say, there were plenty of non-Handelian interpolations that had to be toned down.


¶ In a recent study, small businessmen in the Dominican Republic were divided into two groups. The first received accounting instruction. The second group was given a collection of rules of thumb (“write everything down,” and the like). The second group’s performance improved, while the first’s remained flat. This oughtn’t to be a surprise. We don’t want the best advice available; we want the best advice that we can actually use, given our lives as they are. As Barbara Kiviat concludes, it wouldn’t be hard to provide Americans with straightforward guidelines of roughly universal utility. (Felix Salmon)

When I caught up with Greg Fischer to ask what the U.S. consumer-class take-away might be, he was appropriately modest about his findings and hesitated to draw any universal conclusions. I lack such compunction, so let me say that I think this result contains a very important piece of wisdom. People live complicated, busy lives and the learning they are most likely to put to use is that which is simple to remember and implement. In Fischer’s study, some microentrepreneurs received follow-up training at their place of business: an educator stopped by to reinforce concepts and to answer questions. Once this happened, the group that received the formal accounting training applied what they had learned. But unless we want to set up a system in which your high school consumer finance teacher pops back up just in time for your first mortgage, rules of thumb might be the way to go.

And, actually, we already have many them. We just need to dig them out of the dustbin we tossed them into during the free-money euphoria. For example, don’t spend more than 2 1/2 times your annual salary on a house. And don’t take out more student loan debt than you expect to earn in your first year on the job (assuming you have the option). As Jack Bogle once said: ”Your bond position should equal your age. I won’t tell you this is the best investment advice you’ll ever get, but the number of pieces of advice that are worse is infinite.” It’s not terribly complicated to figure out what we need to teach. We just need to jump to it.


¶ We’re appalled to find that anyone doubts the dangers of BPA, especially where children are concenred. At the very least, doubts about its safety ought to preclude its use as a container for foodstuffs. David Melzer and Tamara Galloway file a somewhat querulous opinion piece. (New Scientist)

Despite these arguments, doubts remain about BPA’s safety. BPA is a synthetic chemical not found in nature. It doesn’t just bind to the main oestrogen receptor, but also to poorly understood variants of it, and has an anti-androgen effect. Most reports of low-dose effects have come from animal studies. The focus is now beginning to shift to looking for direct evidence of BPA effects in humans. Our own human epidemiological studies have reported associations with cardiovascular disease, liver enzyme abnormalities and, recently, raised testosterone concentrations in men (Environmental Health Perspective, DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1002367).

If these associations turn out to be causal, then BPA may be anything but inert at everyday exposure levels. However, while epidemiological studies are excellent at identifying things worth investigating, hard proof can only come from a controlled experiment. In 2009, the US National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences set out a $30 million research programme to look into the effects of BPA. Most of this effort has been concentrated on lab studies. We believe this will not be enough, and that human studies are also required to settle the argument.


¶ The blogging world came to standstill yesterday, when it was revealed that Alex Balk, one of the founders of The Awl, never gives interviews. (It was not mentioned whether or not he has ever been asked.) The reason, it turns out, is national security.

 It is hard to believe of someone who is so chronically depressed, bent on self-destruction, and quick to dismiss the work of others while nursing staggering insecurities of his own, but it’s true: I think I am super-fucking awesome. And this is NOW, when all I do is write on my own website. Can you IMAGINE how insufferable I’d be if I saw my name attached to a quote as some sort of expert? Do you have any idea how impossible it would be to deal with me if I somehow managed to watch myself OPINING ON TV? There would not be a flatscreen big enough to hold my giant, beautiful head! I am a raving egomaniac, and the only saving grace on that score is that I know exactly how susceptible I am to flattery and my own self-promoting ways. My staying away from the press is much like Bruce Banner trying to remain calm; terrible things will happen if I don’t.


¶ In what amounts to a chapbook primer, Robert Reich explains the character difference between Republicans and Democrats — and why a sense of hopefulness is essential to the latters’ advance.

Why are Democratic presidents so much more easily intimidated by the “move to the center” rhetoric after midterm losses than Republican presidents?

Because Democrats think in terms of programs, policies, and particular pieces of legislation. It’s easy to reverse course by compromising more and giving up on legislative goals. Bill Clinton never mentioned the words “health care reform” after the 1994 midterms.

Republicans think in terms of simple ideas, themes, and movements. It’s far harder to reverse course on these (look what happened to the first George Bush when he raised taxes), and easier to keep them alive: Republican presidents just continue looking for opportunities to implement them.

Republicans are also more disciplined (ask yourself which party attracts authoritarian personalities and which attracts anti-authoritarians). This makes it easier for them to stay the course. Their base continues to organize and fulminate even after midterm defeats. Democrats, on the other hand, are less organized. Electoral defeats tend to fracture and dissipate whatever organization they have.

Republicans are cynical about politics from the jump. Political cynicism fuels them. Democrats are idealistic about politics. When they become cynical they tend to drop out.


¶ At Brainiac, Josh Rothman gives Helen Vendler’s annotation of 150 Emily Dickinson poems top marks, adding that “ the graduate seminars I took with Vendler were among the best intellectual experiences of my life” — something that we’ve heard before. Vendler is truly one of the great teachers, and Dickinson is, at least on some days, our best poet.

What’s the best thing about Dickinson’s writing? For Vendler, it’s the mix of surprise and concision – the way that Dickinson can take an old theme and see it, vividly and instantly, in a new way. Dickinson’s poems are about the usual subjects (death, the soul, the meaning of life), but those subjects are often re-imagined suddenly, sometimes even in the first line of a poem, like “Because I could not stop for Death– / He kindly stopped for me.” Renunciation, Vendler writes, is another of Dickinson’s themes, and “a longstanding religious concept. But on her page, it is ‘the putting out of Eyes / Just Sunrise —’.”


¶ We’re beginning to hope that Nicholas Carr’s book about the anxiety of connectivity will encourage people to use the Internet with greater self-awareness — and less hand-waving about how its cascades of information are dulling our thought processes. Emily St John Mandel has made a first small step. (The Millions)

In search of greater productivity, I downloaded an ingenious application a few months back. (Note: I am not being paid to remark on its ingeniousness.) It’s called Freedom, and it turns off the Internet for however many minutes you specify, up to eight hours. It costs ten dollars. Turning the Internet back on once you’ve launched the program requires restarting your computer, which is both such a colossal hassle (ask me how many Word documents I have open at the moment) and such an admission of weakness (what, you couldn’t go 120 minutes without checking your email?) that I’ve never done it.

At first when I turned off the Internet, I would automatically drift into Twitter or Gmail or CNN anyway. The familiar pattern: I would be working and then I would switch tasks almost without realizing what I was doing and find myself staring at a browser window or at Tweetdeck. It would take a moment to remember that I was actually offline.

I’ve been trying to retrain myself. A few months after downloading Freedom, I’ve noticed a change. I’m much more productive than I was a few months ago. I can write for longer periods now, uninterrupted. Sometimes even when I’m not running the application, when the bright lights of the Internet are available at my fingertips.

But we deploy many tricks and trucs to recreate a deliberative climate suitable for reading and writing. Many of them involve simply assigning different types of tasks to different rooms. On our last computer upgrade, we held on to the old machine, and use it for housework (Quicken, Dymo label-making, recipes and so forth; we’re also still using FrontPage on it.) No matter how obsessive the Internet has been for us, it has never doled out the jittery empty-calorie high that we remember from television.

Have a Look

¶ Very, very salty advice to President Obama and to Democrats. All it needs is a bit of backup rhythm. Gaga! (3 Quarks Daily)

¶ Ezra Klein shares a Britannica page: why it takes two cents to make one. (Washington Post; via The Morning News)