Links: Gary Johnson for president, housing problems, drugs, the texture of life and love

* “The Libertarians’ Secret Weapon: The third-party candidacy of Gary Johnson might make the most unpredictable election in modern times even weirder.” It’s from The New Yorker so it isn’t like the numerous garbage political articles that pop up around presidential elections.

* “How police unions actually hurt police officers,” an underappreciated point.

* “We’re Building 6 Homes for Every 10 New Households. Where Will People Live?” When you hear people talking about “income inequality” in the national media, what they’re really saying is, “People feel financially squeezed.” That’s because, since the 1970s, we’ve systematically raised the cost of housing for virtually everybody through zoning rules. But that issue is complex enough that you won’t see slogans or bumper stickers around it.

* Drug Prohibition Has Made Policing More Violent: What can be done to curb the excessive and, sometimes, predatory policing that has emerged from the Drug War?

* “Why Trump’s Prosperous Supporters Are Angry, Too,” not the usual, and “inadequate savings” may be surprisingly salient and motivating.

* “Why NYC Rent Is So High (It’s Not Airbnb).”

* Far better than the title makes it sound: “The Philosopher of Feelings: Martha Nussbaum’s far-reaching ideas illuminate the often ignored elements of human life—aging, inequality, and emotion.”

* “Classic Hollywood’s Secret: Studios Wanted Their Stars to Have Abortions,” unusually sad and affecting.

* “How Anti-Growth Sentiment, Reflected in Zoning Laws, Thwarts Equality.”

“All American fiction is young adult fiction: Discuss”

Via Twitter Hollis Robbins offers a prompt: “‘[A]ll American fiction is young-adult fiction.’ Discuss.” Her takeoff is A. O. Scott’s excellent “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” which you should go read; oddly, it does not mention the show Entourage, which may be the best contemporary narrative artifact / fantasy about the perpetual party.*

American fiction tends toward comedy more than “young-adult” because comedy = tragedy – consequences. AIDS fiction is tragic because people die. Most contemporary heterosexual love stories are comedy because the STIs tend to be curable or not that important; people who are diligent with birth control rarely get pregnant. Facing death, starvation, or other privations have always been the adult’s lot, and adults who made sufficiently bad choices regarding resource allocation or politics died. Think of the numerous adults who could have done everything they could to flee the area between Russia and Germany in 1914 and didn’t, or the ones who didn’t after 1918 and before the Holocaust. The example is extreme but it illustrates the principle. Frontier and farm life was relentlessly difficult and perilous.

Today by contrast we live in the a world of second chances. America is a “victim,” although that is the wrong word, of its own success. If you color more or less inside the lines and don’t do anything horrendous, life can be awesome. People with an agreeable and conscientious disposition can experience intense pleasures and avoid serious pain for decades; not everyone takes to this (see for example the works of Michel Houellebecq) but many do. The literary can write essays, the scientists can do science, the philosophers can argue with each other, the business guys have a fecund environment, and the world’s major problems are usually over “there” somewhere, across the oceans. If we ever get around to legalizing drugs we’ll immediately stabilize every country from Mexico to Chile.**

What are the serious challenges that Americans face as a whole? In the larger world there is no real or serious—”serious” being a word associated with adulthood—ideological alternatives to democracy or capitalism. Dictatorships still exist but politics are on the whole progressing instead of regressing, Russia and parts of the Middle East excepted.

One could reframe the question of all American fiction being young adult fiction to: “Why not young adult fiction?” Adults send young people to war to die; adulthood is World War II, us against them, thinking that if we don’t fight them in Saigon we’ll have to fight them in Seattle. Adults brought us Vietnam. Young people brought us rock ‘n’ roll, rap, and EDM. Adults want to be dictators, whether politically or religiously, and the young want to party and snag the girl(s) or guy(s) of their dreams.

Adulthood is associated with boredom, stagnation, suburbs, and death. Responsibility is for someone else, if possible, and those who voluntarily assume responsibility rarely seem to be rewarded for it in the ways that really count (I will be deliberately ambiguous on what those ways are). Gender politics and incentives in the U.S. and arguably Western Europe are more screwed up than many of us would want to admit, and in ways that current chat among the clerisy and intellectual class do not reflect or discuss. If adulthood means responsibility, steady jobs, and intense fidelity, then we’ve been dis-incentivizing it for decades, though we rarely want to confront that.

Many people are so wealthy and safe that they are bored. In the absence of real threats they invent fake ones (vaccines) or worry disproportionately about extremely unlikely events (kidnapping). Being a steady person in a steady (seeming) world is often thus perceived as being dull. In contemporary dating, does the stolid guy or girl win, or does hot funny and unreliable guy or girl win?

A lot of guys have read the tea leaves: divorce can be a dangerous gamble while marriage offers few relationship rewards that can’t be achieved without involving the legal establishment or the state more generally. A shockingly large number of women are willing to bear the children of men they aren’t married to: 40.7%$ of births now occur to unmarried women, and that number has been rising for decades.

Why take on responsibility when no one punishes you for evading it and arguably active irresponsibility is rewarded in many ways, while safety nets exist to catch those who are hurt by the consequences of their actions? That’s our world, and it’s often the world of young adulthood; in fiction we can give ourselves monsters to fight and true enduring love that lasts forever, doesn’t have bad breath in the morning, and doesn’t get bored of us in four years. Young adult fiction gives us the structure lacking in the rest of our lives.

Moreover, there has always been something childlike in the greatest scientists and artists. Children feel unconstrained by boundaries, and as they grow older they feel boundaries more and more acutely. I’m not about to argue that no one should have boundaries, but I am going to argue that retaining an adult version of the curiosity children have and the freedom they have is useful today and in many cases has always been useful.

The world has gotten so efficient that vast pools of money are available for venture capitalists to fund the future and tech guys to build or make it. The biggest “problem” may be that so many of us want to watch TV instead of writing code, but that may be a totally bunk argument because consumption has probably always been more common and easier than production.

In this world fiction should tend towards comedy, not the seriousness too typically associated with Literature.

If American fiction is young adult fiction, that may be a sign of progress.***


* Another show, Californication, mines similar themes but with (even weaker) plots and total implausibility. Here is an essay disagreeing with Scott: Adulthood Isn’t Dead.

** Breaking Bad and innumerable crime novels would have no driving impetus without drug prohibition. The entire crime sector would be drastically smaller almost overnight were we to legalize drugs and prostitution. That would be a huge win for society but harmful to fiction writers.

*** Usually I eschew polemics but today I make an exception.

Links: IPOs and life, feminism and its discontents, The Harry Quebert Affair, Murder, and More

* “The IPO is dying. Marc Andreessen explains why” is about much more than its headline implies, and there are too many good excerpts to pick one. Highly recommended.

* “Feminism and Its Discontents;” see also my earlier post on the subject.

* “Francophone Hit, American Letdown:” on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. I’m curious enough to get a copy.

* “A SWAT team blew a hole in my 2-year-old son:” “Every morning, I have to face the reality that my son is fighting for his life. It’s not clear whether he’ll live or die. All of this to find a small amount of drugs?” Call this part of the unmeasured cost of drug prohibition.

* “The American Dream is Every Man’s Nightmare” (maybe).

* “Intelligent life is just getting started,” from biologist Nathan Taylor.

* Announcements of the novel’s death from 1902 to the present.

* “How Denver Is Becoming the Most Advanced Transit City in the West.”

* “America’s Public Sector Union Dilemma: There is much less competition in the public sector than the private sector, and that has made all the difference.” The part about low labor mobility is especially striking.

The dubious effectiveness of D.A.R.E. and problems in nonprofits

The researchers even found a small ‘boomerang’ effect on suburban students; that is, suburban students who went through the D.A.R.E. program were more likely to gravitate toward drugs than their control group peers. The researchers offered a number of theories for this unexpected and unintended consequence, with the most plausible scenario emerging that suburban children were less knowledgable about drug use and drug paraphernalia going into the program and therefore could be unintentionally recruited into drug use by the information provided by the D.A.R.E. officers. In this view, a drug prevention education program became a drug use education program, with very unappealing implications.

That’s from Ken Stern’s With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give, which is worth reading though shallow in some places. D.A.R.E. and similar programs also completely ignore why people like drugs (and sex) in the first place: because they’re fun.

That’s obvious to pretty much everyone who has tried them. If they weren’t fun, people wouldn’t do them and they wouldn’t go from recreation to problems. When people get old enough to try drugs and sex for themselves, they discover that the many terrible consequences warned of by D.A.R.E. officers don’t actually manifest themselves in most cases. Pot isn’t a gateway drug: most people who smoke it don’t go on to become heroin addicts (though many do go on to become college professors, as I discovered by talking to mine).

Yet there are real dangers in drugs and sex, and by lumping in the non-dangerous aspects with the dangerous aspects, programs like D.A.R.E. fail to draw the distinctions necessary to discern the dangers. Such programs also encourage lying more generally. I have written before about my own participation in the drug-fear-mongering-industrial complex:

There’s a wide and funny drift of self-knowing hypocrisy in these essays [from Sugar in my Bowl], many of which feel like the writer is talking to their younger selves, as when Ariel Levy says: “I smoked pot when I was twelve. I dropped acid when I was thirteen. Losing my virginity was the next logical step. It’s not like these things were necessarily fun. Well, the pot, actually, was great—unless you are reading this and you are twelve, in which case it was awful.” This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

So far as I know, we both turned out reasonably okay. So why not admit, unabashedly, “the pot, actually was great,” and leave the qualification out?

Greenhook_Ginsmith_GinDrugs can, in fact, be dangerous, and drug prohibition makes them more so by guaranteeing that you can’t really trust the quality of the drugs in the same way you can trust, say, the quality of gin (like the delicious Greenhook Ginsmith gin depicted in the photo on the right). If we could buy drugs like we can buy gin, condoms, or the other finer things in life, they wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous.

One other note: I’m somewhat skeptical that suburban kids lack knowledge about drug paraphernalia (although maybe this was more true prior to the age of the Internet). Have you seen the people who are usually knowledgable about drug paraphernalia? On the whole they do not strike me as a tremendously knowledgable, imaginative group in general. While there are obviously some exceptions, most are not exactly National Merit finalists, and if they can figure out how to construct a water bong, so can a reasonably bright AP Physics student, with or without his D.A.R.E. officer.

Hypocrisy as enabled by wealth: a lesson from Daniel Okrent’s Last Call

In Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, he writes: “As businesses came apart, as banks folded, as massive unemployment and homelessness scoured the cities and much of the countryside, any remaining ability to enforce Prohibition evaporate.”

One can extract a larger point from this passage relating the Great Depression’s effects on Prohibition: hypocrisy regarding victimless crimes is a luxury good. It can be indulged when a society has sufficient wealth that it can afford to be hypocritical, signaling that its members want to be perceived as virtuous even when many of them as individuals would prefer to indulge in alcohol, other drugs, or sex-for-money. The same basic dynamic is playing out in California with weed: the state is broke; willing buyers buy from willing sellers; the cost of enforcement and imprisonment is pointless; and the tax revenue increases the temptations of legalization.

The Economist has recently reported on this dynamic regarding California: “Another big topic in a state with a $19 billion budget hole is the fiscal impact of legalisation. Some studies have estimated savings of nearly $1.9 billion as people are no longer arrested and imprisoned because of marijuana.”

Societies can afford to become more hypocritical as they become wealthier. But when we have to confront the trade-offs that pointless policing of personal behavior entails, the costs of various kinds of prohibition become relatively higher and no longer look as appealing as they once did. Drug prohibition is a salient example.

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