Wednesday Assorted Links

1. I wouldn’t normally be drawn to an essay titled The Gift of Menopause, but the Times’s preamble drew me in. So glad. Brilliant. Exquisitely written.

2. The Difference Between Being Broke and Being Poor.

3. The Fight for Iowa’s White Working-Class Soul. Is that DJ Byrnes’s future?

4. The Highest Court in the Land. For Richie. Who would dominate.

5A. The specious claims of the “wellness industrial complex” continued. Worshipping the False Idols of Wellness. 5B. Wellness Brands Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP Wage War on Science.

6. Flat Cokes, Relay Running, and 500 Pages of Notes: A Professor Prepares to Break a Guinness World Record for Longest Lesson. I will not be attending.

Summer Reading and Thinking

What I’m reading. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. What happens to a place when a majority of people work for an automaker that closes shop? When people used to earn $28/hour with some overtime and now make somewhere between $0 and $16/hour. Here’s a part of the answer:

     “In the shadows of town, hundreds of teenagers are becoming victims of a domino effect. These are kids whose parents used to scrape by on jobs at Burger King or Target or the Gas Mart. Now their parents are competing with the unemployed autoworkers who used to look down on these jobs but now are grasping at any job they can find. So, as middle-class families have been tumbling downhill, working-class families have been tumbling into poverty. And as this down-into-poverty domino effect happens, some parents are turning to drinking or drugs. Some are leaving their kids behind while they go looking for work out of town. Some are just unable to keep up the rent. So with a parent or on their own, a growing crop of teenagers is surfing the couches at  friends’ and relatives’ places—or spending nights in out-of–the-way spots in cars or on the street.”

Robert Putnam on Janesville,

“Reflecting on the state of the white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy focuses on cultural decay and the individual, whereas Amy Goldstein’s Janesville emphasizes economic collapse and the community.  To understand how we have gotten to America’s current malaise, both are essential reading.”

On deck. In the hole.

Shifting to thinking, I’m thinking about how artists talk about becoming artists and the implications of that for parents, teachers, and coaches. How do parents, teachers, and coaches cultivate true artistry or other specialized forms of expertise in young people? Specialized expertise that might enable them to independently make a living in the new economy. My thoughts are still in the subconscious primordial ooze phase, but I trust they’ll settle in some sort of coherent pattern sometime soon.

In short, here’s what I don’t hear artists say, “I took this really great class in school.” Instead, musicians for example, almost always say, “My parents were always playing the coolest music.” The word I keep returning to is “milieu” or social environment. In this data obsessed age, we’re utterly lacking in sophistication when it comes to the cumulative effective of the environments young people inhabit. Granted, formal schooling, think Juilliard for example, can contribute to artistic excellence, but meaningful learning is mostly the result of osmosis outside of school.

How do some families, in the way they live day-to-day, foster specialized expertise in children almost by accident, whether in the arts, academics, cooking, design, computers, or athletics? What can educators learn from those families to reinvent formal academic settings? What might “osmosis-based” schools look like? Schools where students watch adults actively engaged in learning and get seriously caught up in the fun.

 

Is There A Way To Climb Out Of This?

As in inveterate eavesdropper, I enjoy “Dear Abby” type columns. Presently, I like Slate.com’s “Dear Helaine” who answers personal finance questions.

Today’s “Dear Helaine” letter stopped me in my tracks because it succinctly and powerfully captures so many citizens’ dire reality.

 Helaine,

I am 41 years old and have not come into any windfalls of money, nor is there any hope I will. My financial situation is as follows: I make $15 an hour plus tips, and my paycheck is usually about $1,300 every two weeks after taxes. My rent and utilities take up about half of this income. My husband is unable to work because of a disability that is not disabling enough to qualify for Social Security. Our children are 22, 19, and 16. We have been living in a cycle of poverty pretty much for the past 23 years. And yes, we’ve been hit with student loans and medical bills that just don’t get paid—my husband is $30,000 in default. My older kids are working in low-wage jobs, $10 to $12 an hour, but as of now are not contributing to household expenses because I want them to build a life outside of the money-sucking hole of my reality. So, yeah, it’s dire. What kind of financial planning helps people get out of poverty? I am moderately intelligent and a really hard worker. I’m also kind of giving up. Most of the time, I would rather spend $8 on a pack of PBR than plan for retirement or emergency funds. My financial life is an emergency. Is there a way to climb out of this?

As I read it, I thought of Conservative Republicans’ knee-jerk response to poverty, people are lazy. I trust that this woman is telling the truth when she says she’s a “really hard worker”.

I purposely didn’t read Helaine’s response because I wanted to think about it independently. And I wanted to know what you think.

Two initial observations.

• student loans and minimum wage jobs, will their young adult children get college degrees, will those degrees provide them with any kind of competitive edge ?

• the husband is a “net loss”, spending, but not earning, can he do anything to generate some income?

It’s very easy to understand how the author, and the legions in her situation, would simply say “fuck it”, I’m going to enjoy today a little bit because tomorrow is looking real bleak.

I’m going to go back now and read Helaine’s reply. Mine would take a long time to write because there is no easy answer or quick fix to the family’s predicament. Of course the same is true of poverty writ large.

Final thought. Will this woman, her husband, and the 19 and 22 year olds vote? If so, for whom? They, and the legions like them, could determine the election.

[Can’t decide whether to give Olen an “A” or “A-“. Either way, a caring and thoughtful reply.]

What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Work email.
  2. The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans by Neal Gabler. Highly recommended. Gabler, a well educated widely published author, explains how he became one of the 47% of Americans who could not cover an unexpected $400 expense. A clear, compelling story, courageously told.
  3. All the Sad, Broke, Literary Men by Helaine Olin. This genre, the take-down of a person others admire, is on the rise. Which is unfortunate. It’s sad Olin can’t muster up any empathy for Gabler. Helaine, if you don’t have anything nice to say, . . .
  4. My wife’s emotions.
  5. The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese. I’m about to share the tagline. Then you’re going to click on this link. In fact, it will probably be the only link you open. Why, because deep down you’re a voyeur too. Tagline, “Gerald Foos bought a hotel in order to watch his guests have sex. He saw a lot more than that.” Told you.
  6. The Secret History of Tiger Woods by Wright Thompson. Thompson deserves a Pulitzer for making me feel some empathy for TWoods.
  7. Thinking Beyond Money in Retirement by John Wasik. Nice insights.
  8. Work email.

Postscript: A reader texted in:

Read your blog post. I read that $400, 47% article earlier this week and thought it was pretty interesting. Buuuut even though one of my top 3 pet peeves is probably people gleefully and lazily taking other people down on the Internet without any effort toward critical empathy, I actually very much agreed with Helaine Olin’s article. She was a little callous up top, but I thought the article itself was pretty balanced – she commended his bravery for talking about something that is difficult to talk about (but it helped made less difficult when people step up to the plate and tell their stories, like he did) and gave him credit when she agreed with some of his other points but I also very much agree that his article was lacking in other ways and it was worthwhile of her to call him out in it. (Seriously, I couldn’t get over the emptying of the retirement fund for the daughter’s wedding.)

Okay, the “reader” was actually my eldest hija. I told her I stopped reading Olin’s article too early. Sorry Helaine for my knee-jerk rejection of your essay. Best part of this? It’s on record that eldest hija doesn’t support fathers’ paying for daughters’ weddings!!! Yes!!!

Understanding Trumpism

Think about the 2016 U.S. presidential election in the context of renowned Sinologist Orville Schell’s analysis of modern China in this recent essay. Some excerpts:

This confidence in the strength of the China model—and the supposed weakness of its Western competitors—has reshaped the way Beijing relates to the world. Its new confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an increasingly unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in its maritime disputes in the South and East China seas.

Couldn’t one say about the U.S., “Its longstanding confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in it disputes in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.”

Obama has been far more restrained than his predecessors when it comes to conventional warfare, but we can’t bury our heads in the sand when it comes to his unprecedented, unyielding, aggressive use of drones.

Schell adds:

One clear message of this turbulent week is how interconnected everything actually has become in our 21st-century world. Financial markets, trade flows, pandemics and climate change all ineluctably tie us together.

This irrefutable insight is lost on Trump’s followers mired in 20th century notions of politics as a zero-sum game that we’re predestined to win as the world’s sole economic, political, and military superpower. Trumpism rests upon notions of American Exceptionalism mixed with nostalgia for the past when the relative economic, political, and military strength of the U.S. was undeniably greater than it is today; as well as competition between nations at the expense of cooperation; and scapegoating the newest citizens for pernicious public policy challenges that preceded their arrival.

Schell again:

Of late, China has been acting in an ever more unilateral way, perhaps at last enjoying the prerogatives of its long-sought wealth and power. Mao imagined a China rooted in the idea of “self-reliance,” zili gengsheng. The most encouraging news out of this week would be for Mr. Xi and his comrades to recognize that China can no longer be such an island—that China cannot succeed in isolation, much less by antagonizing most of its neighbors and the U.S.

As large, dynamic and successful as China has become, it still exists in a global context—and remains vulnerable to myriad forces beyond the party’s control. It must take the chip off its shoulder, recognize that it is already a great power and begin to put its people, its Pacific neighbors and the U.S. at ease. Any truly great nation must learn that the art of compromise lies at the heart of diplomacy, that it is almost always better to negotiate before resorting to war and that compromise is neither a sign of weakness nor surrender.

If the alarms over the past few months presage such a revelation in Beijing, it would not only enhance China’s stability but its soft power and historic quest for global respect. Given Mr. Xi’s track record, one dare not be too optimistic.

Is any U.S. intellectual in position to lecture China’s leadership about soft power and global respect? “Make America great again,” trumpets Trumpism, meaning less compromising, less diplomacy, more unilateralism.

Trumpism thrives on the insecurities of a people who feel their world dominance slipping. Ahistorical to the core, it has no patience for the complexities of public policy, environmental degradation, or globalization. It assumes people aren’t smart enough for the complexities of 21st century life. It advocates sloganeerism, brashness, and business principles as panaceas for problems real and imagined. It asks no questions, listens only for openings to speak, and never admits fault.

Eventually, enough people will see it for what it is, and reject it.

Sentence to Ponder

From an article on Jeb Bush’s taxes in today’s WSJ.

“The average rate for middle-income households was projected to be 12% in 2013, the latest available data.”

The top 1% of earners, who do 99% of the complaining about tax rates, pays an average of 33%.

What percentage of people in developed countries would sign on to pay 12%? Trick question. Somewhat less than all because some (many?) would not want to accept the trade-offs of minimal taxes including worsening infrastructure, expensive health care, and tens of million in poverty.