George Packer’s Silicon Valley myopia

It’s ironic that George Packer’s New Yorker article about the tech industry’s supposed political insularity is itself hidden behind a paywall (if this were a New Yorker article, I would cite statistics demonstrating the wealthy demographic served by the magazine and mention a telling detail about the luxury watches advertised within, perhaps with with the cost of the watches as a percentage of median household income used as a comparison). Packer makes a lot of noises about concern for the poor, but genuinely poor people might not be able to afford the magazine and now can’t even read the article about how San Francisco is alluringly pricing them out San Francisco for free.

Perhaps the weakest part of the article comes from references to housing prices, like “the past two years have seen a twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing.” But he doesn’t explain how limited supply in the face of increasing demand raises prices, as Matt Yglesias does in The Rent is Too Damn High or Edward Glaeser does in The Triumph of the City. There is a simple solution deploying century-old technology that can ameliorate San Francisco’s housing crisis.

Both Glaeser and Yglesias correctly observe that many urban jurisdictions prevent housing from being built; as a result, prices rise. But it’s not primarily tech companies or their employees who have driven housing prices in Silicon Valley: it’s residents themselves, and the courts that have given residents and politicians extraordinary powers to block development. That’s why “San Francisco is becoming a city without a middle class,” as Packer says in the article.

My own family was part of that exodus: my parents moved us from northern California to suburban Seattle in 1994 because housing prices were unreasonable and because California was becoming an increasingly bad place for middle-class people. Since then, housing prices have continued to drive most population growth towards places like Seattle, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and many of Texas’s cities, especially because urban development is easier in Sun Belt cities. Seattle, unfortunately, appears to be following in California’s footsteps by restricting the growth of housing stock and thus causing prices to rise.

The housing-price thing is one of my own pet peeves, since so few people connect supply restrictions, demand, and pricing; even Steven Berlin Johnson’s otherwise interesting rebuttal buys into Packer’s economic illiteracy. Beyond the housing issues, Packer writes:

Joshua Cohen, a Stanford political philosopher who also edits Boston Review, described a conversation he had with John Hennessy, the president of Stanford, who has extensive financial and professional tides to Silicon Valley. “He was talking about the incompetent people who are in government,” Cohen recalled. “I said, ‘If you think they’re so incompetent, why don’t you include in a speech you’re making some urging of Stanford students to go into government?’ He thought this was a ridiculous idea.”

Hennessy is more right than Cohen: if the system itself doesn’t work, why would anyone want to join it? Few highly competent people want to be ruled by incompetent people, and in government seniority rules. There’s often no way to make important changes from the bottom and no way to reach the top without going through the intermediate layers. That’s presumably why Hennessy doesn’t urge “Stanford students to go into government.”

In tech startups, if you think your company is doing something stupid and everyone ignores you, or ignores an obvious opportunity, you can leave and start your own startup. If you start your own version of government within the U.S., men with guns will show up to stop you.

Although Hennessy might not put it the way I have in the above paragraphs, such thinking is probably behind his statement (assuming, as I do, that Cohen is expressing it reasonably well). I’m writing this as someone whose business is to deal with various sections of federal and state government. It’s hard to imagine that Packer has this kind of experience; if he did, I doubt he’d have the worldview he does.

Packer does note that government investment in technology and research is partially responsible for the Silicon Valley of today (“The Valley’s libertarianism—which ignores the federal government’s crucial role in in providing research money—is less doctrinal than instinctive”), and that’s an important government contribution. But today, spending on science and medical research occupies about 2% of the federal budget; by contrast, spending on old people in the form of Social Security and Medicare occupies about 30%. Warfare, formally known as “Defense and International Security Assistance,” occupies 19%, and some of that goes to R&D of various kinds.

If federal R&D spending were higher as a proportion of the federal budget, Silicon Valley types would probably be much more pro-government. Note that this is a positive statement more than a normative one—that is, I’m not trying to argue that more money should be allocated to R&D and less to old people, but I do think we’d see a more positive view of government among Silicon Valley-types if we did.

There is this comment, which is somewhat myopic and somewhat accurate:

Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value

Regarding “larger issues of justice and fairness,” 300 years ago people who couldn’t work starved to death, median life expectancy was low, and numerous infants died of now-preventable diseases. Until the Industrial Revolution, starvation was a reasonably common and regular occurrence. Today, no industrialized countries have mass starvation, and that’s largely because of the technological and scientific progress that enables the social and monetary surpluses to provide important safety nets that Packer now takes for granted. “Political problems” are still real and still important, but so is a sense of progress that has enabled society, collectively, to worry much more “about issues of justice and fairness,” instead of working continually on farms. Technology actually has a lot “to say about large issues of justice and fairness,” because technology has given us the leisure to think about those issues and the wealth with which to address them.

In addition, Packer is mixing up questions about “fairness,” but, as as Roy Baumeister writes:

Fairness is important in all human social relations, whether large or small. But there are two different kinds of fairness. Experts call these equity and equality. Equality means treating everyone the same (obviously). Equity means giving out rewards in proportion to what each person contributed. Under equity, the person who contributes more or better work gets a proportionately bigger share of the reward (97).

Packer is focusing on equality, as he does throughout the article, but equity is important too, and New Yorker and New York Times articles almost always ignore this in discussions of “justice and fairness.” Fairness has to balance how rewards accrue to those who have made outsized contributions versus those who haven’t. That Packer doesn’t even acknowledge this distinction tells us a lot about the political glasses that color his world outlook but very little about how to think about the trade-offs involved with equality versus equity. There is a reasonable argument to be made about how governments should take more from major economic winners and give that to those who aren’t producing much of economic value, but Packer doesn’t even acknowledge these issues.

Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) — Wendy Plump

Vow is about adultery, and two people married to each other who both routinely commit it, and yet the most obvious question isn’t addressed until page 245 of 258:

People have asked me why Bill and I didn’t just have an open marriage. The answer is simple. We didn’t want an open marriage. If an open marriage is the route both spouses choose to go, that is one choice. It’s very cosmopolitan. I know a local couple who tried this for years, and it worked out to some degree. They had a lax attitude toward sleeping around. [. . .] But the idea doesn’t have much appeal to me. If we were able to do it, we would all do it. Almost no one I know could do it.

For a practice that “doesn’t have much appeal to me,” Plump sure did a lot of it; most people who don’t like Pilates don’t keep going to the classes. She effectively had an open marriage without labeling it as such, or getting the benefits, like hot threesomes. Not addressing the open marriage until the end is bizarre. Plumps and her husband appear to like the drama of lies more than the simplicity of truth.

A book like Never the Face (my essay about it is at the link) is about fundamentally more honest people: on its fifth page, David says to the narrator of his wife Maria, “She knows about it, and she’s okay with it.” The paragraph breaks: “What?“, the narrator thinks. Then: “For the next two days, my mind argued with itself.” Even if the narrator can’t conceptualize or accept the possibility of uncommon arrangements, her partner can. That’s what Plump and her husband are missing. Instead they get recriminations, and the problem of simultaneously wanting the other person to be monogamous while they don’t have to be. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch, and so is hypocrisy.

The overall effect yields the strangeness of art, from the level of the sentence to the level of the whole, which is why I feel compelled to write about Vow amid other projects and other purposes.

Still, Vow is spectacularly well written and yet spectacularly frustrating, because the simple, obvious solution to the problems between Plump and her husband is simply off the negotiating table. They don’t even try events like this one, slightly NSFW, described in Time Out New York.

Plump says that “I assume Bill approached the altar with every intention of doing the right thing. Don’t we all? I’m not sure that I did. Even as I took my vows, I was aware of some mocking little voice in my head, particularly when I got to that part about forsaking all others” (120). Then. . . don’t get married? Again, it’s the obvious solution to a book that’s about looking at the obvious and then doing something else.

Consequently, on some level Vow is one long yowl of cognitive dissonance and “I want.” Plump cheats, basically, because she feels like it: “So I was thrown off balance when I first met Tommy and felt an attraction so compelling I no longer cared that I was married” (8). That’s it, and at bottom it’s the reason most cheaters cheat. In Plump’s universe, feelings trump emotion; I’m not sure about the extent we should extrapolate her comments to all women, or all people, but there’s definitely a temptation to do so, though I’m going to refrain.

At one moment Plump writes:

I have tried many times to deconstruct allure. It is the least romantic of tasks, but it is marginally useful, if only to prove a point. When you take attraction apart, when you look back on what developed and how, you find that it is a physical impulse for about eight seconds before it moves on to something bigger. (50)

Many people, mostly guys, have worked to take attraction apart and to learn how to build it up. Neil Strauss is the most famous, but many others, like Roosh, have also field-tested what works in attraction, in allure. Women are now also producing their own material on overt allure. Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing Strauss, Roosh, or the linked Female Pickup Artists, but I am saying that they are attempting, through observation, trial, error, and research, to develop methods for attracting women or men—in other words, “to deconstruct allure.” Chances are that the peculiar alchemy involved in attraction will never be completely standardized, but pretending that there’s no way to “deconstruct allure” is just pointless and incorrect romantic mystification.

Plump says that “Immediately on standing next to Steven I felt a frisson snapping between us. Some neuron in my brain knocked itself loose and began rapping on my awareness, saying, Yo, are you still in there? Pay attention. You’re doing it again.” Chances are good that Steven was doing something, consciously or unconsciously, to make that attraction happen. Maybe he was just really hot. But maybe he’d begun systematically learning about what to do around women. Plenty of guys do.

Why does she sleep with these guys instead of some other guys? She doesn’t really say. What do they do? How do they behave? It’s lost to Plump, who isn’t asking why she likes what she likes: she’s just liking it. It’s the triumph of feeling and the reason so many guys, and some number of women, read The Game.

There’s also a lot of “I” in Vow: a lot of “I loved not only the way I felt with Steven, I loved who he was with me, as well.” There’s not a lot of thinking about what other people are thinking or feeling. That may explain the quality of Plump’s marriage, which demands “we” and “you” as much or more than “I.”

One also wonders why her husband, Bill, can’t or chooses not to understand presumed shifts in his relationship with his wife: “Sex with Bill became unwanted by comparison, through no fault of his. It changes utterly from an act of love and passion to an act of crushing obligation” (41). Perhaps she shouldn’t be married, then? Perhaps he should recognize what’s going on and leave? The obvious questions pile up, and Plump is telling us that she has no answers. Maybe there are none. There are only contradictions. She says that “Through it all, again, I was certain of one thing. I did not want our marriage to end. I was crushed but not finished.” For someone who doesn’t want her marriage to end, Plump behaves in strange ways.

Some niggling intellectual points bother; Plump, for example, must not have read much evolutionary biology: she writes that “They [friends] think I must have been aware that Bill was having an affair, as if suspicion were linked to some primal instinct we all have. I have no idea what imperative suspicion would serve Neanderthals such that it would repeat upward through the species to find its expression in us” (4). Leaving aside the question of mistaking Neanderthals for a major modern human ancestor, I can very easily imagine “what imperative suspicion would serve:” for men, suspicion is one way of ascertaining paternity. If you check a woman’s fidelity, her offspring are more likely to be yours. For women, jealousy is a form of resource guarding: if you want your mate’s resource capacity to be primarily devoted to you, and not to the hussy a few huts over, you want to make sure he’s not knocking her up (The Evolution Biology of Human Female Sexuality discusses these issues and empirical findings around them).

These obviously aren’t absolute, and the anthropological literature is filled with alloparenting, group sex, and other arrangements, but the basic utility of jealousy as an adaptation remains. Plump does note that her husband’s child with another woman “moved us into a whole new circle of deceit, into that tortured fraternity of women and men [ . . .] who are heaved by their loving spouses into the dirtiest of vortices—women who find out their husbands have fathered children elsewhere; men who find out their children are not biologically their own” (31). Right. It’s the “dirtiest of vortices” because of the tremendous resources invested in children. To have someone who is supposed to be investing your children investing in someone else’s is the cruel problem that jealousy is there, in part, to address.

I’m keeping Vow, though it’s the sort I would normally sell.

Links: John le Carre, the writer’s temperament, condoms, slut shaming, desire, transport, and more!

* John le Carre’s complete works discussed; I am most of the way through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and am amazed at how good it is, and how taunt even repeated stories feel. I have started and sometimes completed le Carre’s novels from the last fifteen years but seldom liked them, even when I wanted to. There may be a fuller post here.

* David Brooks: “Engaged or detached?” “Writers who are at the classic engaged position believe that social change is usually initiated by political parties [. . .] the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. [. . . ] She fears the team mentality will blinker her views.” Read the whole thing because the context is important, but as a writer I lean heavily towards the “detached” point of view.

* How ‘Slut Shaming’ Has Been Written Into School Dress Codes Across The Country, which should be obvious yet isn’t.

* “Why still so few use condoms;” spoiler: because it doesn’t feel as good.

* “What do you desire?, possibly NSFW.

* “Nobody Walks in L.A.: The Rise of Cars and the Monorails That Never Were” but should have been. L.A., Seattle, and other places have begun to recognize the obvious about the limits of car-based transport.

* “Who Killed The Deep Space Climate Observatory?” This story, along with pathetic “Superconducting Super Collider” debacle, is the sort of thing that, if the U.S. really does take an intellectual and cultural backseat to the rest of the world, will be cited by future historians as examples of how the U.S. turned away from the very traits and behaviors that made it successful in the first place. “Who Killed the Deep Space Climate Observatory?” is also an example of how the real news is very seldom the news you read in the headlines.

* “Documentary ‘Aroused’ explores what makes women turn to porn careers.”

* “[A]rtists and writers love to cast gigantic stores as misbegotten cathedrals.” I’m guilty.

* Frank Bruni on Amanda Knox and pervasive sexual double standards, with the somewhat stupid title “Sexism and the Single Murderess.”

* Why many streets are ridiculously wide.

* The role of a dictionary. People (most often students) often refer to me as a walking dictionary and say that I must not need one, and I usually say the opposite: I often use dictionaries, and in my experience most people who work with words do.

The past is no fun and self-publishing is the worst: Ted Heller and solipsism

Those of you who are thinking about publishing your own books or already have—and I know you’re out there—should read Ted Heller’s “The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst” for a couple reasons, the most important being that it highlights the way self-publishing is probably not a path to fame and fortune for most of us. But Heller should also highlight that, for most of us, conventional publishing wasn’t a path to fame and fortune either.

He writes that he conventionally published three books between 2001 and 2011, then found that he couldn’t get a publisher for his fourth, West of Babylon. If he’d begun publishing in 1991 and had the same experience in 2001, that would’ve been it: self-publishing didn’t exist in a practical form, and now it does, which means his book at least has a chance.

It’s also clear that Heller is doing it wrong. He writes about sending review copies to newspapers and magazines (“I do everything I possibly can in about four or five paragraphs to inspire interest in whomever the email is sent to”), but that’s like me wanting to become a gigolo for female clients: the world just doesn’t work that way. Me wanting the world to work that way isn’t going to make the world work that way either. Newspapers and magazines barely review conventionally published books any more, and self-published books are explicitly forbidden by most of them; to the extent newspapers and magazines write about such books, it’s after they’ve become best-sellers (like 50 Shades of Grey).

Heller appears to have few personal connections with anyone at newspapers or magazines (“When I finally found contact information for someone at the show I’d been on, they did email me back [. . .] to politely tell me that they would not be having me back onto their show”), which means he’s wasting his time by sending out random P.R. e-mails. I know this. Why doesn’t he?

Heller doesn’t have a blog, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t say that he scraped the e-mails of everyone he’s ever corresponded with and sent a quick e-mail blast about his book. He apparently hasn’t been collecting the e-mail addresses of his readers. The price for West of Babylon —$8—is too high. It should be $3 – $5. The book sounds at best mildly appealing. Though the topic–has-been, 60-year-old rockers—makes me want to look elsewhere, it could be pulled off. Still, based on the description, I wonder: what’s at stake? Do I care about whether these guys can “pull the tour off?”

The Salon piece also makes Heller sounds like. . . I’m look for a euphemism but none come to mind. . . an asshole:

If there is one positive thing about this self-publishing business it is this: You separate the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances. Who is willing to lend a hand and who cannot wait to abandon you? Who will nudge someone they know and get your book to them and who just won’t even acknowledge your desperation or is laughing at you behind your back? Some people have been remarkable, others’ names are now forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.

Look, if your friend doesn’t like your book, it doesn’t mean shit, other than that your friend doesn’t like your book. I’m neutral towards 60% of the books I read, actively dislike 30%, and find 10% magical. Playing the straight odds, when a friend publishes a book, there’s a 90% shot that I’ll be neutral towards or dislike their book. The probability of me liking their book is probably lower, because the vast majority of books I read are books I choose.

When I start self-publishing, I doubt all my friends will like what I write. Which is okay. Having cancer and seeing who supports you and who doesn’t separates “the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances.” Publishing a book that you friends don’t love is hardly a reason to be “forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.”

Let’s examine the upside for a moment. Heller has a real chance to get his book in front of readers, which he wouldn’t have had ten years ago. He’s playing a game with low odds of success. Thousands of other writers, and maybe hundreds of thousands, are in the same game. But he’s living in a time when it’s possible to get in the game, and that itself is still something to celebrate.

EDIT: I should add that, based on what I’ve read, most writers at most major publishing houses get very little real marketing / PR help. The ones who do are the lucky exceptions. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it sink to the bottom is normal. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it turn into a cruise ship is not.

The importance of signaling and Kickstarter: It’s not just the money

Movie star Zach Braff raised two million dollars on Kickstarter, and in the process a bunch of people on the Internet (and some who should know better) wrote critical commentary—this Reddit post is a decent summary of the slightly angry “Why is a rich celebrity seeking other people’s money?” point of view. Some people also used the Kickstarter to write reasonable, illuminating commentary, as Dan Lewis did in “Zach Braff, Amanda Palmer, and the New 90-9-1 Rule: The Indifferent, the Haters, and the Ones who Love You.

But, for the most part, one important and subtle factor about Kickstarter got lost: Kickstarter functions as an easy-to-use signaling mechanism. Lots of people on Internet forums and real life say, “I want to see Garden State II or Season 3 of popular TV show X” or whatever. But the cliché is true: talk is cheap, and lots of people will say lots of things when they have nothing at stake.

Kickstarter, however, lets people put their money where their mouths are: instead of saying, “I want to see or read X,” they can say, “I want to see or read X so bad that I’m willing to pay $10 to make it happen.” That $10 is much louder than 10,000 posts. The money is important in and of itself, yes, but it also demonstrates that your fans care enough to give the creator something valuable.

Although I didn’t especially care for Garden State when I saw it in college, I can see why it appeals. My favorite movies are definitely worth way more to me than the relatively small amount of money I paid to see them. (Or, as economists would say in their racy, lascivious language, my consumer surplus is high, while it was pretty low for a movie like Spring Breakers and outright negative for awful movies.) How much is a movie like Blade Runner or the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang worth to me? I don’t know, but if the team behind a movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wanted to make another movie and tried Kickstarter, I’d give them some money (in Lewis’s term, I’m somewhere in the 9% of people interested but not super-fans; maybe I’m in the 12th to 15th percentile).

We’re still in the infancy of crowd-source funding, and it’s possible that we’ll see crowd-source funding morph towards being seen as an important signal too, and this blog post is a step in that direction.

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