Links: Books, energy, Ferrante, spying, housing, coffee, dignity and more!

* “The Marriages of Power Couples Reinforce Income Inequality,” which is, along with land-use controls, an incredibly underreported part of contemporary society and income distribution. Incidentally I contribute to the the power-couple problem while am part of the solution to the land-use-control problem.

* “Why Big Oil Should Kill Itself,” and while I don’t see it happening I find the argument interesting.

* Used bookstores are making a comeback. I’m surprised!

* More on Elena Ferrante, the author who seems to be this season’s favorite essay target.

* We may be much further from self-driving cars than is commonly imagined.

* Why ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ Is the Wrong Way to Think About Surveillance.” Are you there to serve the individuals in government, or is government there to serve you?

* “Home is where the cartel is,” on the politics of housing, inequality, and many other topics of interest, and perhaps I’ve been doing it all wrong for quite some time; I wrote a response post.

* What’s happening in coffee, a fascinating and usually detailed three-part post.

* Why bother drug testing workers when doing so accomplishes nothing?

* “Can India modernize its manufacturing economy and supply electricity to its growing population without relying heavily on coal—and quite possibly destroying the global climate?”

* “The Man With 20,000 Books.” Which is, I’m unhappy to report, considerably more than me. Perhaps it’s not the number but how you use them? His primarily concern the history of socialism / communism and judaica, neither of which are topics that interest me.

Why did cities freeze in the 1970s?

Home is where the cartel is” discusses a topic that you’ve seen referenced many times on this blog: “A case can be made that divisive hot-button issues like inequality and immigration ultimately derive from housing dysfunction.” Yet Waldman points out that the prescription many commentators, including this one, want—housing market rationalization—is unlikely to be attractive to the mass of existing owners/voters. The piece is not easily excerpted and should really be read in full before you continue, but here is one important point:

The libertarian “deregulatory” rhetoric by which market urbanists sometimes make their case is counterproductive. Telling people to think of their homes as a commodity upon which market forces should be brought to bear in order to ensure production of housing services at competitive prices is obtuse. People purchase property, rather than renting, largely to gain security and control, to escape the vicissitudes of the market.

In short, in my own discussions I’ve probably been framing the issue in the entirely wrong way if I actually want to persuade most people. Waldman’s is among the most interesting posts I’ve ever read on the topic, and I’ve been mulling it since I read it a couple days ago. I finally realized one of the things that bothered me: Extreme zoning seems to have really gotten started in the ’70s or early ’80s. One reason NYC is still so dense is that people from the seventeenth century up until the ’70s had a fairly easy time replacing existing buildings more or less when they felt like doing so.

One can see physical evidence of the housing freeze in places like Seattle. Both Capitol Hill and the U-District had, for decades, one twenty-something story building each, which were almost landmarks. They were built just before Seattle comprehensively banned most high-rises—a ban that lasted until the 2000s. Had the market been allowed to function normally, single family neighborhoods would’ve gradually transitioned into duplexes or townhouses, or small apartment buildings, and areas with small buildings would’ve gradually seen midrises and high rises grow. But Seattle basically froze the market. So did L.A. and many other locales. In 1970, L.A. was zoned for ten million people. In 2010, when our technology was vastly inferior to the 1970s, it was down to 4.3 million. That is odd and helps explain why L.A. used to be the  land of opportunity and is now the land of exclusion. So do parking requirements, which can increase housing costs in L.A. by as much as a third.

[Note to people who keep emailing me: that thing about technology today being inferior to the ’70s is a joke.]

What changed in urban planning and/or city politics in the ’70s? That to me is a key question and one I can’t really answer. The diffusion of Jane Jacobs’s ideas is one possible answer, but her answer still found fertile political and legal soil. Perhaps the backlash from the Robert Moses of the world was a part of the problem. “S” wonders if it was white flight.

Up until the Petaluma City Plan, growth was (relatively) unconstrained, especially in cities. After Petaluma, it wasn’t. In many parts of what we now think of as high-cost cities, the city feels frozen in time since… the ’70s.

Cities have always had rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, but freezing cities seems to have occurred relatively recently. So has the most vociferous talk of “gentrification.”

I primarily bring this up because if parochial land-use policies were only adopted in the last couple decades, they may be more reversible and less a part of human or political nature than is sometimes assumed. But Waldman’s point about the politics of contemporary land-use controls remains and I don’t know how to overcome the dynamics he points out. Not all problems have solutions.

Jeff Fong has one excellent response and you should read it.

EDIT: Via Twitter, Dan Keshet suggests I read William Fischel’s Zoning Rules, which may answer the questions above. See also “When the Market Built Housing for the Low Income.”  That era was not long ago!

Fischel says that in the 1970s

the growth-control movement was born and spread almost as rapidly as zoning originally did [in the 1910s and 1920s], though its effects were regionally selective. I argue that a combination of modern forces induced this change, but the most important was the 1970s period of inflation, which helped transform housing from a consumer good to an investment and thus gave rise to a political class I have called “homevoters.” (163)

Homevoters ensure that “zoning can go too far and prevent economically desirable increases in density and hinder what many people regard as the desirable mixing of socioeconomic groups within communities” (164).

If you see anyone arguing about what happened in the 1970s without even engaging in Fischel’s ideas, you know they a) aren’t thinking in terms of comparative history, b) don’t understand the history of the period, and c) likely don’t know what they’re talking about.

Guest post: “Brooklyn” is movie of the year, or maybe the decade

This post is by Isaac Seliger; there are some minor spoilers.

Movie buffs know that the end of the year brings Hollywood’s “adult” (not that kind of adult) movie openings. This year Brooklyn fits that slot, and it’s easily the movie of the year if not decade. There’s not a single wasted shot.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who ends up in Brooklyn in 1952: This is not the hipster Brooklyn of today or the “dems” and “dosse” ethnic Brooklyn caricatures Hollywood usually presents. Instead, this Brooklyn is a mashup of hard working immigrant and first-generation Irish and Italians living side by side yet apart from one another. They strive for the American dream but are lashed to the fading memory of a romanticized old country. As the child of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis (Jake never knew his grandparents) who grew up in the 1950s in a not-too-dissimilar neighborhood in Minneapolis, I know these people.

The story swings back and forth from Brooklyn to a seemingly charming Irish village. Or is it charming? People don’t leave charming, happy places. While Eilis longs for the imagined brighter future of America at the start of the film, homesickness fills the middle third. With the film’s resolution, we learn why Eilis can’t go home again and must, as all immigrants/refugees, find a way to build a new home. America’s immigrant nature means that almost every family has an Eilis in their lineage.

Then there is the choice to name the heroine “Eilis,” an unusual Irish girl’s name and the Gaelic form of Elizabeth. Eilis evokes the timeless image of waves of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Brooklyn includes two scenes set in an Ellis-Island-like immigration arrival hall.

Brooklyn is the best movie about the American immigrant experience since Hester Street that I can recall. Hester Street tells a similar story: A young Russian Jewish woman named Gitl follows her husband to the Lower East Side in 1896. Like Eilis, Gitl struggles with the new land, but Hester Street is darker. The Lower East at the turn of 20th Century presented a much more uncertain future for immigrants than Brooklyn in 1952. The U.S. was much smaller and poorer. The fruits of industrialization and mechanization were less certain. And by the 1950s, the overt and virulent anti-immigrant feelings of the 19th Century had largely faded. The early 1950s America was a time of post-World-War-II optimism and economic growth. Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian immigrants are confident of a bright future.

Unlike many modern bloated films, Brooklyn is only 111 minutes long. Casablanca, my vote for best movie of all time, is only 102 minutes. In contrast, The Revenant clocks in at 156 minutes and The Hateful Eight at a butt-numbing 168 minutes. As grant writers, Jake and I can attest that writing shorter is often much harder than writing longer; I assume the same is true of movie making.

Individual stories humanize mass groups. Today’s news often presents Syrian refugees as a faceless horde with potentially ominous motives. In Brooklyn, Eilis places a human face on the overarching immigration theme. She chooses to come to America, rather than being forced, and choice matters. My parents and most of the Syrian refugees today are really just leaves being blown by The Winds of War. America is a big enough country to shelter many, and Brooklyn implicitly shows why and how.

Links: SpaceX lands, where blogging matters, intellectual life, the friendship affair, and more!

* The biggest news of the day, week, and perhaps year: “SpaceX Successfully Lands Rocket After Launch of Satellites Into Orbit.” See also “Reusability: The Key to Making Human Life Multi-Planetary,” from SpaceX itself.

* A place where blogging really matters and bloggers die for their writing. Those of you who doubt the importance of writing, read on! I’ve read it argued that when everything ie permitted nothing matters and that when nothing is permitted everything matters, but I’ve never fully bought that.

* “I Rode the Smart Bike of the Future, and It’s Actually Pretty Smart,” on Vanhawks; see also my last essay on bikes.

* Print books are rising again? I still think publishers need to treat print books more as art objects and less as commodities.

* “Roger Scruton: ‘These left thinkers have destroyed the intellectual life,’” interesting throughout but also overstated; intellectual life has just shifted, away from humanists and to social scientists.

* NYU does the right thing, to my surprise.

* “I’m Having a Friendship Affair,” which is longer and weirder than the title suggests.

* Star Wars and decadence. I didn’t see the movie and find its success depressing, in part for the reasons Douthat states.

* “Seattle shows San Francisco and New York how to fix the housing crisis;” the article verges on the obvious but I’m posting it anyway.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory — John Seabrook

You know The Song Machine is going to be good from the fourth page, in this close reading of the song “Right Round:”

The nation was near the bottom of its worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, but you wouldn’t know it from “Right Round.” Like a lot of CHR [Commercial Hit Radio] songs, it takes place in “da club,” where Pitbull oils his way around the floor, calling women “Dahling” and remarking on their shapely behinds. The club is both an earthly paradise where all sensual pleasures and the arena in which achievement is measured: the place where you prove your manhood.

The_Song_MachineThe understatment from the “Social realism” sentence is enough to express skepticism but not so much as to be overbearing. Seabrook is good at, over and over again, hitting the right description and the right tone. He notices much and picks the right things to make readers notice along with him; his restatement of the place of da club makes da club seem ridiculous, but in a way that’s easy to forget in the context of the fantasy of a song. Seabrook pierces that fantasy like a finger through a bubble, yet the image of the club as paradise remains, and it remains enough to enchant millions of people into clubs every weekend. I’m not a routine clubgoer and to my eyes da club seems to not be a place of great happiness to most people, most of the time, unless they’re made artificially happy—as Seabrook says of the songs his son likes, which seems both a short and a long way from the “soulful ballads played by the singer-songwriter” he listened to:

The music reminded me a little of the bubblegum pop of my preteen years, but it was vodka-flavored and laced with MDMA; it doesn’t taste like “Sugar, Sugar.” It is teen pop for adults.

I don’t care much about pop music and yet this book made the subject fascinating. Comparisons between Seabrook and John McPhee, another master of making many topics mesmerizing, are apt. Though I may not care especially about pop, I hear it and sometimes like it and know how universal it is. A few times in discussions with students, alcohol’s effects on characters in novels and stories have arisen, and I sometimes write on the board, “Blame it on the a- a- a- a- alcohol:” Most students know, immediately, the reference, and laugh.

Seabrook is also aware that hit makers exist yet mostly aren’t known:

Who are the hit makers? They are enormously influential culture shapers—the Spielbergs and Lucases of our national headphones—and yet they are mostly anonymous. Directors of films are public figures, but the people behind pop songs remain in the shadows, taking aliases, by necessity if not choice, in order to preserve the illusion that the singer is the author of the song.

The Song Machine seeks to change that, but Seabrook also fingers an important reason why hitmakers stay away: the “illusion” that must be preserved, insofar as possible, or at least not have attention drawn to it. We seem to want the illusion, or, more likely to not care how the song is made: only that the sound is good, regardless of whose hands and ears it passes through before it gets to us.

I’m probably just too old to be the target audience for most pop music, and even when I was in pop’s demographic sweet spot I found much of it annoying—not out of allegiance to weirder and more interesting music, but because I’m not that musically driven a person. To me, most music boils down to, “I’m romantically desirable” or “You done me wrong” or “I’m better than my romantic rival,” or some combination thereof. They’re sentiments I of course agree with—we all do, which is why it’s pop—but at some point I’d prefer a wider array of ideas, sentiments, or emotions. Yet that wider array isn’t easily expressed in three-minute intervals. These views are pretty weakly held, but they are mine, for now at least, and apparently almost no one listens to the lyrics and wonders what they might mean. The market for people who want lyrics that might make sense is small, though maybe larger than the market for contemporary poetry.

There are many fascinating details in The Song Machine. The three-woman group TLC rejected the famous Britney Spears song “Hit Me Baby (. . . One More Time).” Oops. Spears captured the zeitgeist for years and in some ways still has it. Her image was in many ways a lie but in a few ways real: she knew that a video that portrays her as a sexy schoolgirl checking out “hot guys” was wiser than what an industry veteran proposed. Still, that’s a rare example of the amateurs winning over the professionals; one subtext of the book is that, most of the time, professionals win: that’s why they’re pros.

Spears, by the way, later rejected the song “Umbrella,” which launched Rihanna’s career. Why? “In trying to fathom how Britney could have rejected ‘Umbrella,’ Tricky notes drily that ‘her personal life was . . . a little out of control’ at the time.” She may never have heard the song.

Another detail, this time about Asia, from the chapter on K-pop:

In a classic example of ‘soft power,’ Korean cultural exports erased South Korea’s regional reputation as an unsophisticated emerging industrial nation and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life. Thanks to Winter Sonata middle-aged Japanese women now swoon over Korean men, while complaining about the ‘grass-eating—that is, lacking in virility—males of Japan. Korean ancestry used to be a stigma in Japan; now it’s trendy.

I’ll leave this without comment, beyond this post.

Many, many parts of The Song Machine reminded me of Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over; the latter book is about topics far removed from pop music, but in many respects The Song Machine can be seen as a specific application of the general principles Cowen describes. For example, Seabrook writes, “Whole subcultures of musical professionals—engineers, arrangers, session musicians—are disappearing, unable to compete with the software that automates their work.” Yet those who can work effectively with software, like Denniz PoP, Max Martin, and Dr. Luke, can still make enormous amounts of money and have influence that is in some ways vaster and longer term than virtually any musician who came before them. At the same time, though, it is hard to say what many modern artists stand for, apart from the party:

On sheer vocal ability, the new artists fell short of the pop divas of the early ’90s—Whitney, Mariah, Celine. And who are these artists? Britney? Kelly? Rihanna? Katy? Kesha? What do they stand for as artists? Their insights into the human condition extend no further than the walls of the vocal booth. And who really writes their songs?

The Song Machine answers that last question. As for “sheer vocal ability,” that doesn’t matter as much in a Pro Tools and social media age (though it still matters somewhat: Rihanna is initially feared to be too “pitchy” to make it as a singer). The social media age may not seem to affect the need to have a great voice, but social media means that lifestyles, persona, and image are relatively more important than they once were and, in many respects, harder to control. Being “harder to control” and of great importance means that stardom selects for the ability to control persona and image. The selection filters change.

Consider, for example, Rihanna being beaten by her ex-boyfriend is in The Pop Machine a crisis of investment: Rihanna had already had millions of dollars and much valuable, irreplaceable time and attention put into her. Being hit by her boyfriend threatened to undo that (the reaction of her fans may also say something important about the influence of contemporary “feminism,” although what that may be I’ll leave to the reader).

But back to Average is Over: Seabrook recounts briefly how much technology influences the music industry when he writes that in the 80s and 90s “Other song-making machines arrived—Roland and Prophet polyphonic synths, the Linn drum machine, Fairlight and Synclavier samplers. The ‘MIDI’ interface between a keyboard and the computer . . .” We are our technologies, in all domains, even music, fantasies of purity and authenticity aside. And while we have the technologies they are not easy to use:

In 1997, Denniz [PoP] told a reporter, “It’s easy to say producing this music is equal to pushing a button in the studio. But that’s like saying writing a novel is a simple push of a button on your typewriter.” Denniz liked to say that no matter how technically adept you were at programming, sometimes you just had to “let art win.”

Letting art win is hard and sometimes unknowable. Much later in the book, Seabrook hears an early cut of a song and thinks it garbage, though he is too polite to say. It turns out to be Katy Perry’s song “Roar,” which goes on to be a number one. I’m oddly glad Seabrook doesn’t like it—I’ve heard it too many times and still find it insanely annoying—but its sheer popularity remains.

The Song Machine is best read with Spotify open.

I finished it, turned it around, and re-read it.

Links: Bookstores, cars, the online economy, sexual economics, humanities, and more!

* Waterstone’s, the U.K.’s biggest bookstore, is thriving. What could Barnes & Noble learn from it? A lot, evidently.

* “You can have millions of views on YouTube and still be broke.” People often have misconceptions about my finances. 99% of my income comes from consulting or teaching, and even within that split 80% or more comes from consulting. The so-called “new economy” is still, frequently, a brutal place to actually make actual money.

* “Millennials Don’t Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can’t Figure Out Why: Driving numbers are down for younger people and the auto industry hasn’t found a way to respond. It’s because they don’t understand why millennials could possibly not want to drive.” This describes me but not, interestingly, my siblings.

* “Drunk with Power: What was Prohibition really about?” See also my post on Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

* I’m not a mathematician yet this report on the ABC Conjecture and a workshop on it fascinates.

* “Why won’t guys grow up? Sexual economics.”

* “Rise of the humanities: Professors worry about the ‘crisis in the humanities’. But more people than ever, especially women, are studying them.” Except Mandler should look in the graphs that are part of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, which show the number of humanities majors as being essentially flat. He does note, “[R]elative to business, both the sciences and the humanities have fallen behind since 1971, and the sciences much further.” But the humanities haven’t grown, and they haven’t grown intellectually. The job market for humanities PhDs is terrible, and there have been no real “public” humanists since Harold Bloom. Today the public intellectuals are almost all Edge.org-type social scientists and scientists. Think Steven Pinker.

* Something I hadn’t considered:

So, you know, our moral intuitions and indeed our laws today are that you shouldn’t discriminate against someone because of their race, because of their gender, their sexual preference or other issues. But for odd reasons, it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against someone because they were born somewhere else. You can, in fact, put up walls and machine guns and prevent someone from moving simply for the reason that they were born somewhere else.

The Right Stuff — Tom Wolfe

How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe” inspired me to re-read The Right Stuff, which is still excellent today and still worth dropping everything to read, today. In the foreward to my edition Wolfe writes that “This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity.” That “ordinary curiosity,” however, didn’t have ordinary results. He notices things that others don’t; few people noticed the possibility for the “Serious treatment of the drama and psychology of this new pursuit, flying high-performance aircraft in battle…” How many people don’t notice fields that today call for serious treatment yet don’t get them?

the_right_StuffIn the book Wolfe recounts, numerous times, the square footage of houses, and, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, what that square footage means. For one test-pilot couple—the wife essentially assumes her husband’s position in this world—an 1,100 square-foot-house is made bigger by the way the couple “designed it themselves.” The story is often about men who feel they are doing it themselves, though they aren’t: they’re part of a vast human network, and they’re made the figureheads of the network. The Right Stuff can be read well with Kelly: More than My Share of It All, since Kelly is about the engineer and engineering behind the flying machine and The Right Stuff is about the pilots and the lives of those strapped into the nose. Wolfe is a much better writer—there’s no way to ignore that—but while the perspectives differ the romance remains. Wolfe is fond of denigrating technocrats, or having his characters denigrate them—he does, repeatedly, in A Man in Full, for example—but that denigration may spring from the steady elevation of technocrats. Lewis notes as much:

The world needed them to be heroic pilots, and so they played the part, but no one (except for one American writer) thought to look more deeply into the matter. No one noticed the best story. Process had replaced courage. Engineers had replaced warriors. A great romantic way of life, a chivalric code, had been trampled by modernity. Not for the first time! (As Wolfe might write.) It’s the story of the American South in the 20th century—or at least the story a lot of white southern men told themselves.

Was there ever a real chivalric code? I’d guess not: a chivalric code is most useful as a way of waving one’s hand in one direction while the other hand picks a pocket or preps itself for a punch. But hierarchy! That exists and probably always will. Wolfe is towards the top of the hierarchy of writers: he notes, in an almost throwaway moment, how flying does things to “the gyroscope of the soul.” He writes, from the fighter pilots’s perspective, how in flying test craft the very top steadily leave others behind. And, moreover, the test works because it works on belief in masculinity itself:

Why, it seemed to be nothing less than manhood itself. Naturally, this was never mentioned, either. Yet there it was. Manliness, manhood, manly courage . . . there was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff, no matter what a sophisticated and rational age one might think he lived in.

The romance and death are linked. Wolfe notes that “More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes.” But death in airplanes is news; death in cars is distressingly prosaic. Today, countless billions are spent fighting statistically unlikely terrorism—the snapping hand—while the other hand—the punch hand—is increasing the likely number of people who’ll die on the road. Romance seizes attention and attention is today the scarcest resource in existence. Wolfe gets that, I think, and got it long before most of the rest of us.

Wolfe is unafraid, too, to be enthusiastic:

My God!—to be part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties!—even to be on the ground and hear one of those incredible explosions from 35,000 feet somewhere up there in the blue over the desert and know that some True Brother had commenced his rocket launch . . . in the X-1, the X-1A, the X-2, the D-558–1, the horrible XF-92A, the beautiful D-558–2 . . .

The sentence rambles on, itself feeling rocketlike. Edwards then is like Silicon Valley today. The center of the world may shift at times, but the keen listeners and seers attend not to where it’s been, but where it’s going. A pity that short-sighted noisy NIMBYs have made it nearly impossible for normal people to visit the center of the universe. Instead, that center has to spawn extra branches in Seattle, Austin, and even New York—New York!—New York is now cheaper than San Francisco. It’s a madness Wolfe would get, with his attention to housing and the status implied by housing.

One more moment from The Right Stuff. Wolfe writes:

To fighter jocks it was bad enough to have doctors of any sort as your final judges. To find psychologists and psychiatrists positioned above you in this manner was irritating in the extreme. Military pilots, almost to a man, perceived psychiatry as a pseudo-science. They regarded the military psychiatrist as the modern and unusually bat-brained version of the chaplain.

The fighter jocks were and are right. Maybe romance isn’t dead.

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