Last month there was a long and mostly stupid discussion about “The Cheapest Generation,” and in the long and mostly stupid discussion someone mentioned delaying having children and that “everyone i know considers the world far too precarious to start a family.” I replied and said that, “By virtually every metric, the world is a much safer, healthier place than it used to be, as Steven Pinker observes in The Better Angels of our Nature. Someone else replied, “Safer? Yes. Healthier? Yes. Stable? No. Between income/job volatility and lack of proper social safety nets (at least in the US), its a dangerous gamble to start a family unless you’re in the right situation.”
I don’t know what “the right situation” is, but I think that person underestimates just how hard most people have worked throughout history and how low their material expectations were—and, by contrast, how high they are now. If you expect two cars, a large house with a room for each child and a spare room too, in a sweet coastal city location like L.A., San Francisco, or Seattle, then yeah, things are tough (though much of that is because of land-use policy, not because of “intrinsic” how prices). If you have lower expectations, however, it’s possible to move to Texas, buy a $140,000 house that maybe isn’t in the world’s best location but is okay, and has room for kids but maybe not tons of extra space, then things aren’t all that expensive. The “right” situation is much cheaper.
Most of the commentariat, however, is looking at NYC / L.A. / Seattle / etc., and wants the “best” schools, and wants a BMW, and interesting vacations to foreign countries, and, and, and… all those things add up. If you radically scale back expectations, a lot of things become more possible. If you realize what people use to expect, your expectations might change too. My grandparents barely escaped the Holocaust and, according to family lore, never really made it to the American middle class. Tales of living in Minneapolis without heat in the winter were and are common.
Along similar lines, Megan McArdle tells this story:
My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26, in the depths of the Great Depression. For six years, he supported a wife on that salary — and no, it’s not because You Used To Be Able To Support A Family On A Grocery Boy’s Wages Until These Republicans Ruined Everything. He and my grandmother moved into a room in his parents’ home, cut a hole through the wall for their stovepipe and set up housekeeping. They got married on Thanksgiving, because that was the only day he could get off. My grandmother spent six years carefully piecing his tiny salary into envelopes — so much for food, for rent, for gasoline for the car he needed to get eight miles into town. And they stayed married for 67 years, until my grandfather’s death in 2004.
“We didn’t have a dramatic increase in unwed childbearing back in the Great Depression,” sociologist Brad Wilcox told me. “That’s in part because we had a very different understanding of family life and sex and marriage back then. That tells us that it’s not just economic. It’s also about culture and law.”
By modern standards that sounds really crappy, but McArdle’s grandparents managed to have kids and be more-or-less okay in material conditions that would strike most contemporary Americans as being at a level of shocking privation. Yet the commenters above mention “income/job volatility” without noting that, in many circumstances, we have very high incomes—we just choose to spend them instead of save them (Note that I’m guilty of this too and am not throwing stones from my own glass house). In an environment of low or zero growth, or highly uneven growth, that may be a tremendous problem, and the problem has individual and political components—and responses.
To return to McArdle, this time in “How to Put the Brakes on Consumers’ Debt:”
[. . .] this is a conflict between what Walter Russell Mead calls the blue social model and the red-state world where Ramsey lives and finds most of his listeners. We can quibble about this or that [. . . ] But what it boils down to is that Olen thinks that rising economic insecurity calls for a massive expansion of the blue social model, while Ramsey thinks it calls for getting more entrepreneurial and adjusting your lifestyle to meet reduced income expectations. How well you think this works is probably closely connected to where you live.
The whole piece is worth reading, but I think the debate between the two gurus McArdle cites is actually about a large-scale public response to current conditions versus how a particular individual or family should respond. Olen is arguing politics; Ramsey is arguing personal. I also think we’re going to see this change: “But for blue-state professionals, that’s something close to suggesting that they should abandon their kids in the street (or have them take out $150,000 in student loans, which is not much better). The social norm is that you send your kid to the best college he or she can get into, by any means necessary,” because for one thing I’m not convinced any school is worth $150,000 in student loans. Maybe one could make that argument for the very, very elite schools, but not many others.
The problem with arguing for a political response is that most individuals can’t do much on their own to change policies. But they can decide to say, “No, I can’t afford that house or vacation or dinner or whatever.” I also suspect that very few individuals have any coherent idea about how public policies work, as Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter shows. My own pet peeve is urban land use controls, since those raise prices by preventing new development, but very few people connect high prices with supply limits. That’s basic econ, but almost no one acknowledges it. If we collectively can’t even understand that, I’m not optimistic about Olen-style political solutions. Those mostly seem to boil down to taking a lot of money and dumping it into systems and institutions that aren’t necessarily working all that well.
Education is one of those systems, and I suspect that a basic idea is taking hold: a lot of higher education has become increasingly exploitive over time, with student loans fueling the binge. There is very little incentive for most institutions to say, “We’re going to forget about a diversity department staff and counseling staff and subsidizing dorms, and we’re just going to provide professors, classrooms, and labs, and you buy the rest, unsubsidized, if you want to.” We’re going to see some non-elite schools go for radical cost reductions, and we’ll see if people go for them. If the price is good enough they might.
In the meantime, lots of people are moving to places like Texas, where land controls are low. On average they’re leaving places like New York and California. For people with medium or low incomes and high material expectations, that totally makes sense. Historically speaking, I think it’s easy to forget high low material expectations were: until recently, houses were shockingly smaller than they are today. In 1975 the median new home was 1,535 square feet, and now it’s 2,169 square feet—even as family size and children-per-woman has been declining.
To return to the original point in the first paragraph of this post, job volatility might not matter so much for someone who decides to live in a 1,535 square foot house instead of a 2,169 square foot house, and that basic dynamic can be extrapolated across a range of purchases. Most of us, however, ask ourselves, “Why not take the Vicuna?” Then we complain when the world doesn’t conform to our material expectations.
Both Huet and Bayle were erudites and spent their lives reading. Huet, who lived into his nineties, had a servant follow him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time. He was deemed the most read person in his day. Let me insist that erudition is important to me. It signals genuine intellectual curiosity. It accompanies an open mind and the desire to probe the ideas of others. Above all, an erudite can be dissatisfied with his own knowledge, and such dissatisfaction is a wonderful shield against Platonicity, the simplifications of the five-minute manager, or the philistinism of the overspecialized scholar. Indeed, scholarship without erudition can lead to disasters.
—Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan, a book that I had erroneously believed I had already “read” through the many references to it made by other books and articles. I turned out to be completely wrong, as the book is still original and almost every page has some unexpected insight; like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I consistently cannot predict the brilliant observations and extensions that come from the unfurling of a basic idea that is simple to understand.
Regarding the quote itself, I would add that it is not only the quantity of reading but the quality that makes erudition; reading a great number of, say, romance novels is unlikely to yield the erudition of reading broadly yet deeply. Reading a few romance novels might be essential to deep thinkers, however, for reasons that I will leave to you, or to commenters, to explain.
I also have defended reading, especially to those who say they somehow do not “have the time,” by pointing out that books often encompass years or decades of a writer’s life and thinking in a volume that can be read in just a few hours; who would not want the wisdom of 20 years distilled into an easily digestible chunk? Yet apparently many people don’t want such a gift, which is widely available for $10 – $15 at bookstores or for less from Amazon or free from many libraries. Satisfaction with your own knowledge is a sign that a mind has become barren without even realizing its own barrenness.
Clublife is a rare example of a book weaker than the originating, (and eponymous) blog. The blog used to be filled with posts containing subtle and sometimes surprising points about bouncers and standard bump-n-grind clubs. The book has some of that, though perhaps less subtle (“I’ve never met anyone who goes to clubs who’s worth a shit” or “They come to these places and toss aside the conventions of a civilized society, doing shit you wouldn’t see them do anywhere but there”) than the source material. Many of the later blog are about blogging instead of bouncing.
The major fringe benefit of being a bouncer appears to be hitting on the women in the clubs, or being hit on by them. If you’re not interested in that—and Rob isn’t—one of the prime reasons to work in that environment goes away. It’s like staffing a restaurant where you don’t like the food. Many people don’t want and aren’t interested in casual sex with strangers. Which is okay, but disliking that activity is naturally going to make clubs seem bizarre and stupid; English departments must seem bizarre and stupid to people who don’t like to read. Regardless of the quality of the experience to someone who enjoys the experience, it’s going to be crap for the wrong sort of person.
Rob is the wrong sort of person. Everyone else at the club seems to be working an angle, either sexually (in Rob’s words: “looking for a place to park their genitals for a night”) or by selling drugs. Not working one of those two angles defeats the point of the club experience. I want to encourage Rob to read Camille Paglia, who is so fond of socially sanctioned Dionysian excess.
Rob depicts the business this way at the end of the book:
Taking, after all, is what the nightclub business is all about. It takes and takes and takes, and gives nothing back. The entire thing is a setup. It’s a scam. It’s a great big mound of shit, all painted up in pastels and fluorescents and hosed down with enough cologne and perfume to disguise the stink.
The scatological metaphor is effective—Rob is good and often very good on a sentence-by-sentence level—but he’s only partially right about nightclubs: they do take. But they also give people a place to sleep with or attempt to sleep with strangers. How many men in particular achieve their purpose there is less clear: presumably some do but many don’t. The minute you don’t want that, then a club is “a scam.”
The book eschews the random, disconnected format of a blog and instead uses a memoir narrative that shows Rob getting into the business and going through the lifecycle of a single club. But the narrative seems forced and false, and a Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl-style reprint might’ve been an improvement.
The Rob we see in the book has a long “history of screwing things up for myself,” which is okay, but he seems to hate everything about what he’s doing and to have built a decent shell of bitterness and resentments that may or may not reflect the real person. He especially hates the many “guidos” who populate New York nightlife for whom he “stands on a box and plays zookeeper [with] for eight hours.” His disdain for guidos occurs primarily because disdain for most racial and ethnic groups is now politically incorrect, and for good reason; imagine that every time he uses the word “guido,” he uses the term “black.”
Still, there’s a lot to be said for first-person accounts of unusual, poorly understood market niches. To some extent my father and I are doing that for grant writing and nonprofits in Grant Writing Confidential, but the dearth of lascivious or potentially lascivious detail means that few people who aren’t involved in trying to get the money are going to be interested. There are things to like in Clublife.
The Inner Circle is better than I remember it, and subtler: it uses Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering sex research to explore what happens to a man who isn’t his own man but instead belongs, always, to someone else. The narrator, John Milk, tells the story retrospectively, but, like the butler Stevens from The Remains of the Day, he has learned very little from his experience. In the first lines, Milk says that he doesn’t think he was “ever actually ‘sex shy,’” but he does admit that “I was pretty naive when I first came to him, not to mention hopelessly dull and conventional.”
He ends the novel the same way, only instead of being under the power a great man and guru like Kinsey, he is under the power of his wife—a perhaps more common masters for many colorless men who need direction from some external source. He says initially that “As for sex, I was eager but inexperienced, and shy in the usual way—unsure of myself and just about as uninformed as anyone you could imagine.” At the end he is experienced and informed yet still knows nothing. The ignorance regarding sexuality is enforced by law, custom, and culture at the start of the novel, but ignorance about character and individuality is not, at least for those who care to notice. Milk gets superficially important matters—like the way “all women are every man’s type, under the right circumstances,” but not how he molds himself to the needs of others.
Milk does note, accurately, that “this isn’t about me, this is about Prok”—but it’s about the Prok that Milk experiences. Prok is a stereotypical surrogate father, but he fulfills other roles: to Milk, Prok has a tremendous power:
It was uncanny. The longer we spoke, and it was almost speaking with your inner self or confiding in the family doctor behind closed doors, the more he seemed to know what I was thinking and feeling.
It was probably very canny—Milk just doesn’t realize that he’s in the presence of a charismatic man. And for a young man starved of sexual attention or knowledge, the probable range of basic needs and desires is probably not hard to conceive. Moreover, Milk is predictable as a person, by his own admission—”I always did what was expected”—though the word “was” is sneaky here: who is doing the expecting? What Kinsey, or Prok as the novel calls him, expects is very different from what others expect. Prok expects extensive sexual experience, homosexual and heterosexual, and a level of sexual transparency few people even today are comfortable with. How many porn stars, even, wish for every aspects of their sexual lives to be known? And glamor, as Viginia Postrel argues, partially emerges from intriguing silence.
Still, the novel’s main theme keeps circling back to Milk and his lack of autonomy. If you want to be your own dog you should be your own dog; if you want to be someone else’s dog, you should do so. And there’s nothing wrong with or dishonorable about being someone else’s dog: fitting into a hierarchical organization and making the unit stronger than the sum of its parts is rarely lionized in our highly individualistic society but is still a valuable skill. Milk’s problem, as a person and as a narrator, is that he belongs to and is an extension of Kinsey, but Iris doesn’t want him to be: she wants him to be an extension of herself, and devoted to her above all. Yet she knew or should have known, before she married, that Milk was Kinsey’s first, and given the group’s proclivities towards group sex, she would end up being Kinsey’s. She is, on some level, however little she wants to be by the end of the novel, and regardless of the way she ultimately rejects Kinsey.
Iris pulls Milk away from Kinsey, though it’s not complete: Milk reminds us, as fictional characters often do, that “in life, as distinct from fiction, things don’t always tie up so neatly.” Still, the battle of the novel is the battle, between Kinsey and Iris, for Milk. I see what Kinsey sees in Milk but don’t see what Iris sees. Milk never really has anything he wants, apart from appeasing Prok or Iris. The obvious question arises: how many of us are Milks, and how many are Proks? Milk narrates; most of us probably don’t stand up. Maybe we’re better off that way.
The Inner Circle is a little flatter, a little less tense than I remember: knowing the outcome is an inherent problem in historical fiction. Yet it is still compelling. Many of Milk’s misconceptions, about great men and other matters, are still common today—like when he mentions that he’d “been awkward with girls, terrified of them—I’d placed them on a pedestal and never saw them as sexual beings just like me, who had the same needs and desires as I.” Plenty of men need to overcome the same issues; the Internet is filled with their complaints. Maybe those complaints will exist as long as people are people; at the very least, I expect that the Milks of the world, blind to their places, will.
“Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.”
—Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
EDIT: Another brilliant observation:
art implies a kind of freedom, the freedom of choice, of possibility, of the individual imagination. Which is why dictators—and large corporations—tend not to like art and artists, except those of a highly predictable and malleable sort.
* Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Another Job? There is a lot of blah-blah-blah in this article, because the real answer is something kind, like “They’re acculturated to academia,” or something less kind but equivalent, like “Despite advanced degrees, they’re stupid.”
* The Art of Translation: William Weaver, who translated The Name of the Rose.
* “Why the Marriage Plot Need Never Get Old” (unlikely).
* “Simple answers to the questions that get asked about every new technology,” in comic form.
* Related to link one: “Death of a Professor: An 83-year-old French instructor’s undignified death became a cause célèbre for exploited academics. But what really happened to Margaret Mary Vojtko?” Side note: this is an extreme example showing why it’s not a great idea to start a humanities grad program.
Last week’s New York Times has a somewhat dumb article by Thomas Chatterton Williams called “How Hipsters Ruined Paris,” which describes how Paris is changing:
Today, the neighborhood has been rechristened “South Pigalle” or, in a disheartening aping of New York, SoPi. Organic grocers, tasteful bistros and an influx of upscale American cocktail bars are quietly displacing the pharmacies, dry cleaners and scores of seedy bar à hôtesses that for decades have defined the neighborhood.
Elsewhere, the usual complaints appear: “Our neighborhood, though safe and well on its way to gentrification…” But demand to live in Paris is rising while the supply of housing remains constant, or close to constant—which means prices rise, and richer people move into once-poorer neighborhoods, and bring with them their predilections for high-end coffee and fancy bars and all the similar stuff I and my ilk like. If you want more diverse neighborhoods, you have to get lower rents, and the only effective way to accomplish that is through taller buildings—which, quelle horreur, destroy the character of the neighborhood!
Matt Yglesias wrote about this basic problem in The Rent is Too Damn High, which continues to go unread and uncited by people writing about neighborhoods, whose work would be improved by knowledge.