Briefly Noted: Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything — Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

The book is charming and I’m glad I finished, but keep your expectations low. It never proves the assertion in its subtitle and has way too many sections of limited interest about how Seinfeld fared in this time slot or that one or how it competed with forgotten shows (What is Mad About You? again?). Don’t stop reading after the first five pages, which are oddly weak.

seinfeldiaStill, as a case study in creative organization and the risks of not taking risks it’s good. Jerry Seinfeld’s interest in comedy also extends deeply into the past (in college he “wrote a forty-page paper” on comics’ approaches and in his own practice he “tape-recorded his routines, then analyzed them to improve by the next night”). The practice of practice is still underrated. Armstrong writes that when Seinfeld was getting started, “NBC was finishing up its fifth season in first place among the four major networks. It could afford to gamble.” But every non-monopoly organization must gamble: If the last-place network is not doing well, it too must gamble on trying something different if it has already failed at doing the same thing. The worst gamble in virtually every domain except legalized gambling is not gambling.

The NBC line seems like a throwaway, and I wonder if Armstrong did not fully think about its implications and what it means. If she didn’t, that’s okay; neither did the TV executives who wanted to copy Seinfeld’s success without recognizing what went into it:

When [writer] Mehlman went out into the “real world” beyond Seinfeld’s office walls, he found that everyone in television wanted “the next Seinfeld, but they didn’t want to take any of the chances necessary to make such a thing.” They wanted Seinfeld money, but they seemed to resent Seinfeld itself for breaking the rules of television.

Being truly individual is hard. Real gambles are hard. The rhetoric of risk is more attractive than the practice of it. That’s why so many works exhort risk and individuality (like Zero to One) relative to people actually practicing it. I don’t exclude myself from this analysis.

Oh, and one other vital point about organizations: they suffer when their constituent parts seek status more than they do the things they need to do. Larry David eventually left Seinfeld. During the ninth season, “The writers were working most of their waking hours and jostling for power; Seinfeld was writing, producing, and starring; and the main cast members just barely got what they felt they deserved to be paid.” That phrase, “jostling for power” is key. It seems a symptom of organizations past their peak. Facebook tries to minimize office politics. Microsoft brutally encouraged it for many years via its ill-conceived “stack rank” system.

What people do around you matters. Peter Mehlman, Seinfeld’s most important writer apart from Seinfeld himself and Larry David, “moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1989 for a change of scenery,” and “he thought he should take a shot at scriptwriting, since everyone around him was doing it.” There is a propensity to do what everyone around you do does. If you’re in San Francisco you do startups. If you’re caught up among book people you write books. If you’re in L.A. and you write, you write scripts. This implies that you should choose your environment and peer group with greater care than many people (including me) do. People and place exert more influence than we commonly want to imagine. You are not a monad.

Most of the Seinfeld principals justifiably disliked L.A. For Jason Alexander, “In L.A., a veneer of fake niceness covered everything, and it drove him crazy.” By the end of the show, Seinfeld says that he’s “had enough of Los Angeles” and that “I always say that Los Angeles is like Vegas, except the losers stay in town.”

People not intimately familiar Seinfeld should skip Seinfeldia. I wonder if we’ll get a similar treatment for Friends, since, allegedly, Friends is the 20-year-old show that 20-somethings love, according to the possibly bogus trend piece “Is ‘Friends’ Still the Most Popular Show on TV? Why so many 20-somethings want to stream a 20-year-old sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around in a coffee shop.” As with most “What those darn kids are up to these days?” stories, it’s difficult or impossible to gauge its accuracy. Still, the appearance of streaming services “compresses” the historical timeline of TV and movies by making many more shows and movies available easily than was the case.

There are jokes, as you’d expect, like “Larry David was what’s known as a comic’s comic, an acquired taste, ‘which means I sucked,’ he often said.” But being funny, even about a funny show, is hard. That’s why Jerry Seinfeld spends his life studying funny.

Here is a decent interview with Armstrong.

The Voyeur’s Motel — Gay Talese

The real lesson of The Voyeur’s Motel is not how depraved most people are, but rather how boring they are. In the story, Gerald Foos gets his start as a teenage voyeur by watching his aunt Katheryn “for five or six years,” and while she spent much time nude most of that time was spent “at her dressing table arranging her collection of porcelain miniature dolls from Germany, or her valuable collection of thimbles.” Who knew there even was or is such thing as a “valuable collection of thimbles?”

voyeursmotelMost of the people Foos observes over decades in his hotel are little more interesting; the epigraph to The Voyeur’s Motel could be that famous quote from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Except that most of the individuals and couples Foos observes seem not to know enough to even feel desperation. Instead, to the extent they have or show feelings, they seem to be consumed with petty bickering and bullshit. The number who are luminously full seem small.

Consider the preceding two paragraphs in light of complaints about smart phones and laptops and the Internet relentlessly distracting us, or Internet dating making us flightier or more demanding of partners or more likely to break up. Maybe smartphone distraction is a big improvement on what on preceded it, on arranging porcelain miniature dolls or thimbles. In 1980 Talese goes into the attic and spies on people staying in the hotel:

As I looked through the slats, I saw mostly unhappy people watching television, complaining about minor physical ailments to one another, making unhappy references to the jobs they had, and constant complaints about money and the lack of it, the usual stuff that people say every day to one another, if they’re married or otherwise in cohabitation, but is never reported upon or thought about much beyond the one-on-one relationship. To me, without the Voyeur’s charged anticipation of erotic activity, it was tedium without end, the kind acted out in a motel room by normal couples every day of the year, for eternity.

The things that people consider to be pleasures are also sometimes odd, as Foos says:

My observations indicate that the majority of vacationers spend their time in misery. They fight about money; where to visit; where to eat; where to stay; all their aggressions are somehow immeasurably increased, and this is the time they discover they are not properly matched [. . .] Vacations produce all the anxieties within mankind to come forward during this time, and to perpetuate the worst of emotions.

That’s been my experience, and I wonder if people do them anyway to say they’ve done them, or imagine the best parts of them. Maybe many of us would be better off if, as Rebecca Shuman suggests, more people took her advice in “Alone, Together: To avoid travel stress and major arguments, more couples should vacation together but fly alone.”

Is it real? Hard to say. Talese notes:

Indeed, over the decades since we met, in 1980, I had noticed various inconsistencies in his story: for instance, the first entries in his Voyeur’s Journal are dated 1966,m but the deed of sale for the Manor House, which I obtained recently from the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, shows that he purchased the place in 1969. And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan.

“Don’t quite scan” may be an understatement. On June 30, Talese actually “disavowed” The Voyeur’s Motel:

Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw.

Still: Talese did see the hotel. He later walked back his disavowal. I’m a great believer in the power of fiction and the power of people to make shit up, but even by that standard making up the shit that Foos writes seems unlikely. I guess it to be more real than not real. It seems likely that no one will know.

Given the volume of material, The Voyeur’s Motel is oddly short. This long New Yorker article gives you much of the content and flavor. Still, do not listen to the negative reviews so far, which have mostly been uselessly negative and/or focused on the perceived ethics of the book; almost all of those articles about mostly about the author’s need to perform signaling and status functions, rather than the book itself.

As with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, people expecting nonstop prurience will be disappointed. In some ways the book can productively be read in conjunction with The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, since Goffman’s book is about the social, public self and Talese’s book is about the private, supposedly unobserved and sexual self. To me and, I suspect, many readers and writers of novels the latter is more interesting and less likely to be foreseen.

The Voyeur’s Motel comes back over and over again to the need to reliever torpor. The first quotes are from the start of the book; around the midpoint we get this:

Ordinary life is boring, [Foos] concluded, not for the first time; no wonder that is always a big market for make believe: staged dramas, films, works of fiction, and also the legalized mayhem inherent in sports…

That most people do not try harder to alleviate boredom is an unsolved problem—perhaps most people don’t perceive boredom as Foos does, or they feel powerless, or both. Foos’ second wife is not immune. After retirement, she “devoted much of her free time to alphabetizing his millions of sports cards.” The sports cards are Foos’ thimbles.

Briefly noted: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley – Antonio Garcia Martinez

Chaos Monkeys is supposed to be refreshingly honest but instead feels slimy; it feels like Martinez is ripping off other people’s good will and earnestness, which is deeply unattractive and raises the urge to altruistically punish. Martinez is aware of it enough to cite it but not enough to surmount it:

Cynicism is the last refuge of the shiftless. I don’t cite this absolutist tendency for the cheap sardonic joke, the asshole hipster who’s too cool for school to believe in anything. No, I cite it because I was as seduced as the next guy sitting there in Pong [the Facebook conference room], perhaps even more.

chaos_monkeysExcept that he is a cynic, he reaches for the sardonic joke, he is the asshole hipster, he grabs the clichés. He has much mud to sling, but he ought to also know the problem with mud as a weapon. What kind of person calls out everyone else for being a poseur and faker? It is odd to read about “a man [who] oozed an off-putting smarminess” in a book about a man who oozed an off-putting smarminess.

The sentence-by-sentence is okay and the content is often interesting. There are details of the ad world I didn’t know about and details about the startup world most people won’t know about. Then there are parts so conceptually and linguistically confused and muddled that I want to take back compliments like “okay” and “interesting:”

This was the major-league, serious shit, take-on-prisoners championship of thee tech entrepreneurship, and if you were going to play, you’d better show up ready to bite the ass off of a bear.

So the sentence moves from sports, to abstraction mixed with the scatological, to warfare, back to sports, to companies, to sports, and then to nonsense. It sort of works as long as you don’t pay too much attention. Chaos Monkeys rewards inattention. But you can’t get away from tone, which wafts through the book like a foul odor from a superficially attractive person. I don’t want to snark at others; I want to know, and Martinez makes snark seem like knowing, which may bedazzle or bamboozle the young or unwary but should put off the people who are building the future, not just manipulating social status symbols.

Like so many stories, the book is also about the madness of coastal real estate markets; in one year Martinez makes a million dollars, which in San Francisco feels justifiably middle-class due to outrageous land-use restrictions that drive up the price of housing and income taxes. I live in New York, which is afflicted with similarly maddening maladies that some subset of voters nonetheless likes.

Sections of the book are inadvertently revealing, which describe problems with the higher education system and the signaling madness that has overtaken it:

it would be my Facebook stock vesting yet to come that would pay for private high schools and Stanford, so Zoë and Noah wouldn’t have to sneak into this country’s elite through the back door from the cattle class, as I had to do.

Ignore even the extraneous “do” at the end of that sentence, as it should’ve been edited out. So much is wrong with that sentence and the mind behind it that my own mind boggles. Let me ignore most of it and I wonder if Zoë and Noah would prefer $300,000 in cash at age 22 rather than private high schools and Stanford. I know I would!

By far the worst part about Chaos Monkeys is that it’s an okay book within which there’s a great book—written perhaps by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s books reward attention. The more attention you give Chaos Monkeys, the more its weaknesses show.

The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships — Neil Strauss

The Truth is poorly named but it’s also amazing and you should read it, preferably in the biblical, imitation-leather edition. Unfortunately, The Truth buries the lede: the weakest, most tedious section by far is the beginning, when Strauss goes to therapy for “sex addiction” (which may not exist, at least for reasonable definitions of “exist”).* Don’t give up. Get past the first third and pay special attention to the rest, where Strauss’s sharp, comedic / absurdist observations strike.

the_truthIn the first section, we learn that there is such a thing as “a CSAT,” that is, “a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist.” The therapists seem at least as mad as the patients, which seems to be a recurring theme in life (you know what they say about psych majors…). The treatment does not work, at least at first. Strauss, seeking answers, gets what appears to be an fMRI, hoping that his brain makes hedonic and novelty-seeking, only to be told that he chooses relationships or the chase. Score one for free will or something like it.

The middle section is about the chase. The chase is about women, yes, but it’s also about finding a way to be. Strauss meets people whose new-age and pseudo-religious or -mystical bullshit is vile. At one moment, meeting a woman who presents herself as a guru, “Common sense tells me to leave; curiosity drives me forward.” That’s the writer coming out. I wish I could say that I always follow common sense. I don’t, for the same reason. Strauss’s Guru attempts “mix spirituality with business” and then says, “Let me know if you have any ET experiences in Peru.”

He doesn’t. He runs.

Unfortunately he runs to a polyamory retreat that’s also infused with spirituality nonsense that should’ve died with the ’70s. That doesn’t work out either:

I look up and see a yoga stud from Kamala’s pod.

“Have you rounded up any more girls?” the orbiter asks him.

Kamala Devi and Shama Helena said polyamory was about loving relationships, not casual sex. But these guys seem more like next-level pickup artists, coming to these conferences with the intention of sucking any available women into their powerful reality.

Understanding things as they are, as opposed to how they “seem,” is rarely easy for anyone, anywhere—which may be one reason we have literature. The supposedly selfless caring for others that Strauss hears about is more like socialism, with its attendant problems: Equality for you and special privileges for me.

Later, things do not improve for Strauss: “This is truly the blackest day of my life: I’ve been kicked out of an orgy for eating popcorn.” He’s eating popcorn because he can’t fake bogosity at the level necessary for that world.

So he tries another (there are more worlds out there than most of us know). His next stop involves something like conventional swingers, if that phrase isn’t an oxymoron, at a club or party called Bliss. Towards the height of his first experience, he writes that “I would’ve paid every penny in the bank for this experience ten years ago—If I’d known it was even possible.” Many things are possible, but the mind holds us back; the same theme in a different context plays out repeatedly in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. For Strauss, that moment is “the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever experienced.”

Then he passes out. He’s taken too much GHB.

So, in short, Strauss attends an orgy that should be everything he’s ever wanted, but he takes drugs he shouldn’t and doesn’t have the sex he should, or that he thinks he wants. While there, he meets a woman who seems mostly like a groupie but who also demands monogamy and yet goes to an orgy, chiefly because her “friend” is there (that people are not internally consistent or even interested in internal consistency could be a shadow theme of The Truth—or maybe it’s just been written by an “ambivalent,” as Strauss is, or is termed).

He goes to another and decides he is “determined not to wreck this orgy like all the others.” I won’t speak to what happens, but one does get the sense that Strauss is well attuned to self-criticism and understanding how others will see him.

Wanting to be a swinger or polyamorous person can make internal, logical, and consistent sense; one cannot say the same for what comes next, when Strauss, on his own, sticks three straight women in the same domicile and attempts to date all of them, simultaneously, while living with them. The preceding sentence’s length and complexity is deliberately designed to evoke the complexity of Strauss’s arrangement.

In sports there is a term called “unforced errors,” which occur when a player does something transparently wrong that is not caused by the opponent or some other outside force. What Strauss attempts is an unforced error and one that ought to be easily foreseen. But one might attribute this to that previous mentioned issue between common sense and curiosity. The three women more or less come to Strauss, in his telling. Mastering “the game” has evidently done things for him.

In The Truth Strauss ultimately assigns the genesis of his adult relationship habits to his upbringing. In his case maybe that’s true, but I’m reluctant to assume a casual relationship between upbringing and adult life: how many people who had childhoods similar to his grew up to be functional adults? Since at least the time of Freud it’s been popular to ascribe adult personality traits to childhood, but I’m not convinced those are robustly supported and that they’re more than just-so stories we tell ourselves to make sense of a deeply chaotic, multi-faceted world.

Psychiatry and psychology in particular are deeply troubled fields because we don’t have good models for the brain. In those domains it may be obvious when someone is too dysfunctional to live independently, but the supposed treatments and models are derived from poor or nonexistent premises. Imagine trying to start a car and discovering that one third of the time it starts, one third it doesn’t nothing, and another third of the time the engine dies. That’s close to the current state of real knowledge about psychiatry and psychology.

We tell ourselves stories, which is great—in some ways I am a professional storyteller—but we use science to figure out what’s reliably and consistently true, and the childhood traumas leading to adult reenactments does not appear to be reliably and consistently true. Perhaps the stories Strauss tells himself now allow him to live in a particular and better way, and in that sense they’re functional. But they may not be causal.

On page 10 of The Truth Strauss writes of his then-girlfriend and now-wife, “She is reliving her mother’s relationship with her cheating father. I am reliving my father’s secret sex life. We are repeating a pattern handed down by generations of lying, cheating assholes and the poor fools who trust them.” They specifically seem to be repeating generational trauma. The idea that we repeat our childhood experiences has been commonplace since Freud, but is it true? Do we really have any evidence of it, or, again, are we just telling ourselves stories? Pop culture loves Freudian ideas. I’m not so sure that the psychosexual narrative Strauss constructs is more real than one that accepts the null hypothesis.

By the end Strauss is married. I wonder how Strauss’s marriage will hold up over time. I wouldn’t bet on “well” without favorable odds. Many beliefs that feel firm at a given moment turn out to be provisional in the fullness of time. It’s striking that Strauss never, so far as I know, mentions his age or the age of his lover, Ingrid.

For all of his problems, I can’t imagine most guys doing what Strauss has done or accomplishing what Strauss has accomplished. For all the psychic trauma in his childhood, the outcome is impressive.

The Truth is the sort of book I can’t imagine being made, in any sort of honest way, into a movie. Oddly, perhaps, I can imagine The Game being made into a reasonably honest movie and am somewhat surprised that it hasn’t been.

The final truth about relationships is that there is no final, universal truth about relationships. We make things up as we go along and universal experiences aren’t universal. It’s not a real sexy truth. It also doesn’t require a book to say. Instead, we tell all our stories about relationships in the book of life and the stories we draw from it.**

Let us return to the beginning of The Truth again. Strauss starts by saying he is “the king of ambivalence.” He wants what he can’t have or doesn’t have at that moment. This is not good and is perhaps generalizable:

Most married people I know don’t seem to be any happier. One day Orlando Bloom, an actor I’d written a Rolling Stone article about, came over to visit. At the time he was married to one of the world’s most successful and beautiful women, Victoria’s Secret supermodel Miranda Kerr [. . .] And one of the first things out of his mouth? “I don’t know if marriage is worth it. I don’t know why anyone does it. I mean, I want romance and I want to be with someone, but I just don’t think it works.”

My other married friends haven’t fared much better.

Yet he does it anyway. To his credit, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity does eventually get name-checked, since Perel has done unusual work in questioning our usual arrangements. Still. On the first page Strauss considers a woman and writes a sentence that could be an alternate title: “Not my type, but I would.” The book processes his motion from “but I would” to “but I won’t,” even if she is his type (and it seems that most women are).

* Psychiatry and psychology in general aren’t in good epistemological shape. There is no good functional, reproducible model of the brain. Both fields may essentially be wielding beads and rattles rather than science and be closer to shamanism than medicine.

** This is a post I’ve meant to write for a long time, but it hasn’t been an easy write.

“The Making of Atomic Bomb” and “Dark Sun” — Richard Rhodes

Both books are still excellent, too excellent to really describe in detail, and they’re good in part because they combine so many facets: studies of human character; histories of science; general histories; explorations of where good ideas come from; descriptions of how an individual is only as strong as the network in which he’s embedded.

atomic_bombRhodes has many excellent sentences of his own and picks out many excellent sentences from others, like this, from Stanislaw Ulam: “I used to say that any two points in Los Angeles were at least an hour’s drive apart.” Something about LA generates pithy derision; I think Joan Didion called it 84 suburbs in search of a city. There are, today, finally some cities, like downtown and Santa Monica. There is finally some underground rail, since the city long ago reach the car apocalypse. The number of cars makes traffic worse is some super-linear sense, just as the number of free neutrons around fissile material changes energetic reactions in a super-linear sense, and L.A.’s traffic nightmare will likely never get better. It’s a city that explains what not to do.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb begins with a strange man whose name has largely been lost to history stepping off a curb (or, in British, “kerb”) in London during the 1930s, when the next World War had become obvious to those wise enough to keep their heads from the sand of appeasement. The chapter is smartly structured: the bit I’ve just given occurs at the very start. Then we get background on the man, Leo Szilard. Then we come back to the moment, when, in Szilard’s quoted words:

As the light changed to green and I crossed the street. . . it . . . suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.

As we now know, Szilard, in conjunction with many others, found not just one element but many. Understanding the drama takes 800 pages. But the extraordinary scale of the thing occurs through numerous individuals. Perhaps most surprising is the humanity of the scientists, virtually all of whom were very much aware of the horror of what they were doing. But the enactment of the bomb occurred during a war whose horror still cannot be comprehended. Hence the books that continue to pour forth on it.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun overlap to some extent, as they must: the hydrogen bomb, or “Super,” as it was known, was conceived in earnest around 1942, and the theoretical physicist Edward Teller spent the last years of World War II pursing it, especially as the fission bomb moved away from theoretical physics and towards engineering. He’s a prominent but not overwhelming presence in The Making of the Atomic Bomb but the presence in Dark Sun. But his justifiable hatred of Communism may have led him to realize that fighting against Communism could destroy humanity as a whole. “Better dead than red” is wrong.

Rhodes has moments of poetry or madness: “But from the pre-anthropic darkness where ideas abide in nonexistence until minds imagine them into light, the new bomb emerged already chased with the technocratic euphemism of Art Deco slang: the Super, they named it” goes one sentence (it helps that Rhodes’ scientists are themselves often highly literate). Perhaps the description is overly florid and grandiose, but somehow it fits with the darkness of the project and is probably as good a description of an impossible task: describing where ideas come from and how scientists and artists work, or how human creativity works more generally.

Taken together the books are in many respects epics: they explain the nature and structure of society to the society’s members; they explain how and why things came to be; they are enormous in scope yet psychologically attuned to individuals (especially Teller); they concern the fate of the world itself. They are also histories of the 20th Century, histories of science, “how-tos” for science, and much more. The genre-bending is part of what makes them great.

People can believe in madness for surprisingly long periods of time:

I’m re-reading Zero to One, and one of its early points has surprising salience to politics right now. Collective madness is one of the book’s themes; Thiel notes that “Dot-com mania was intense but short—18 months of insanity from September 1998 to March 2000.” During that time, Thiel says he knew a “40-something rad student” who “was running six difference companies in 1999.” Yet:

Usually, it’s considered weird to be a 4o-year-old graduate student. Usually, it’s considered insane to start a half-dozen companies at once. But in the late ’90s, people could believe that was a winning combination.

That chapter, “Party Like It’s 1999,” starts with a quote from Nietzche: “Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” Is it so rare in individuals? I see people doing insane-seeming things all the time. Going to grad school in the humanities is one (I did that, by the way, although I at least had a well-developed backup plan). Continuing to date transparently bad people is another.  Imagining the world to be a fundamentally stable place is a third, though one that has less immediate interpersonal relevance.

Still, the problem of collective insanity is a real one with lots of historical precedence. Hugo Chavez was originally elected fairly in Venezuela. Putin was originally elected fairly in Russia. Erdoğan was originally elected Prime Minister of Turkey fairly. In all three cases, the people spoke… wrongly. Horribly wrongly, and in ways that were at least somewhat clear at the time. Much as I hate to violate Godwin’s Law, the National Socialists were originally elected, or at least gained legitimate parliamentary seats. Mythologically, vampires must be invited into the home. The greatest danger is not the thing that should transparently be resisted. The greatest danger is the thing blithely accepted to the inner circle.

The U.S. has historically eschewed demagogues. Charles Lindergh never became president. Neither did Huey Long. The closest we’ve gotten in recent memory is Richard Nixon. The U.S. has historically eschewed outright incompetents too. But madness in groups, parties, and nations can persist for surprisingly long periods of time. It can be weirdly persistent, especially because, as Thiel argues implicitly throughout Zero to One, it’s very hard to really think for yourself. I’m not sure I do it well. There is a kind of Dunning-Kruger Effect for thinking for yourself.

That’s the context for why thinking people are scared about Trump as president. He’s manifestly unfit and unqualified, and yet it’s not uncommon for people to elect demagogic incompetents. Andrew Sullivan thinks we’ve never been as good a breeding ground for tyranny as we are now. That’s overstating the case—the 1930s were far more dangerous—but the argument itself is a reasonable one, and that itself is scary. We may be collectively partying like it’s 1999, and not in a good way.

I don’t write this from a partisan perspective or out of partisan animus. This blog rarely deal with direct political issues (though it often touches meta-politics). I’m politically disaffected; neither major party represents me or has the right ideas to move the country forward. Yet the recurrence of collective madness in history scares me. It should scare you too. The next American presidential election should, one hopes, deal such a terrific blow to the forces of madness that have taken over one party in particular that it is forced to re-constitute itself in the next four years.

Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals — John Lefevre

Masters of one medium, like Twitter, aren’t necessarily masters of another medium, like the 80,000-word memoir. They can be but don’t have to be. Lefevre mastered Twitter, but his long-form game is not as strong. That being said I did laugh when reading Straight To Hell; I feel like I couldn’t drink anywhere near the amount Lefevre does, or take anywhere near the amount of drugs. I don’t imagine I’d want to be friends with him. As he puts his life philosophy, “As we see it, if you’re dumb enough to get caught cheating, you probably don’t belong on Wall Street.”* That sounds like a sentence from a Bernie Sanders rally. It isn’t.

Straight_To_HellLeFevre writes, “From my experience, the rich and unscrupulous tend to make for entertaining company.” Speaking of political connections, he could be talking about Donald Trump, which is part of the reason he makes a popular, evil presidential candidates (and I don’t use the word “evil” lightly, but he is evil: the evil of pure id, untempered by knowledge or self-awareness). Straight to Hell has more political resonances than it should, and that may help explain its popularity, as it works on readers’ subconscious.

Still, LeFevre’s company is often entertaining, and the best one can say about his scruples is that he makes public what many would like to be private. The speaker of unpleasant truths has a kind of honor. The book is his unpleasant truths, though it is often about the unpleasant truths he dodged (“Now I know for sure, this deal is never going to work. But I still don’t want to be the one who gets blamed for killing it.”) Machiavelli has a vital role in history for a reason.

Even for people like me, who don’t see money as evil, LeFevre will make them want to see money as evil. (Consider how Sylvia Nasar puts it in Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius: “Historically, money had been seen as powerful, desirable, very likely evil, and mysterious, like natural calamities or epidemics.”) Money can be earned in ways that tend to benefit humanity or, in LeFevre’s world, in ways that tend to be about rent seeking and stealing pieces of the pie, rather than earning them, or expanding the size of the pie. Finance here looks like the latter part. That being said one doesn’t and maybe can’t know whether LeFevre’s book is representative, any more than a movie like Bad Teacher is representative of the teaching industry.

Straight To Hell is a memoir about signaling. The finance world presented in it has descended to an almost-pure signaling hell, in which there is no content, only surface. Hence the ceaseless references to luxury brands and luxury-brand schools. The two have become synonymous, however much humanities-department Marxists may want to deny it. There is a weird kinship between high school memoirs or novels and Straight To Hell. American high schools are painful because there is no content to shape form. Lefevre’s finance world is similar. In it, seniority beats skill (count the number of times the word “senior” appears). Many American high schools are so bad because there is no financially viable way to start an alternative high school that can siphon off smarter students and parents. Banks, in Straight To Hell, operate the same way. If contemporary investment banks operate anything like the way Lefevre depicts them operating, then “fin tech” (or “financial technology companies and products,” to use a phrase du jour) should be a ripe opportunity for startups, because the banks, and their personnel and culture, are so internally fucked up that smart startups ought to be able to eat them.

Unless, of course, regulatory and other barriers kill startups before the startups can really succeed. Still, anyone investing in financial companies should read Straight to Hell. It ought to give them courage, if it’s accurate. I can’t really judge whether it is. I’m too far from the industry. It seems unlikely, but unlikely things turn out to be true all the time. It seemed unlikely that the U.S. government would massively spy on virtually all of its citizens, but Snowden showed that it does. It seemed unlikely that an electric car startup could succeed, but Tesla showed that it can. I won’t discount Straight to Hell without trying to triangulate its portrayals. Still, if it is to be believed then many bankers are redistributing money to escorts and drug dealers. Not that I’m opposed, necessarily, to either group, but it is interesting given recent noise about financial inequality to see money flow from the rich to middle-skill service providers (though the book is not conceptualized or framed in that way; still, often the most interesting parts of a book are those that are unintended).

One could write an interesting piece comparing temperaments in Houellebecq and LeFevre. One could also write an interesting piece comparing Thiel in Zero to One and LeFevre. As Thiel notes, in a discussion about why startups (and other companies) must incentivize their employees with stock and other methods that align incentives:

Cash is attractive. It offers pure optionality: once you get your paycheck, you can do anything you want with it. [. . .] A cash bonus is slightly better than a cash salary—at least it’s contingent on a job well done. But even so-called incentive pay encourages short-term thinking and value grabbing. Any kind of cash is more about the present than the future.

zero to oneStraight to Hell can be seen as a document about “value grabbing” and about living in the hedonistic present. The value grabbing is not purely financial, either: It’s also sexual. The team lives or dies by the current roadshow. Slickness rules. One could also compare Straight to Hell and Zero to One in terms of humor versus earnestness. Zero to One has its moments of humor (think of the brief section comparing hipsters to the Unabomber, or the part about Richard Branson and the naked windsurfing model) but the preponderance of the book is about how to make serious, real improvements in the quality of life for all humans. Straight to Hell is about getting a bonus and getting your dick wet (concern over women’s pleasure is mostly absent, or I’d add something appropriate for women as well). There is nothing intrinsically wrong about either and indeed both have concerned me greatly at various points, but there is something distinctly sublunar about the relentlessness of those concerns, and the way one never looks up from the bonus or the girl or the meal.

Is it a satire? Is the joke on me because I don’t get it? There is much like, “There’s no justice in this world—a valuable lesson to learn at a young age, especially if you want to end up on Wall Street.” Is it bravado, trolling, or truth? After many words I still don’t know.

* If they’ll cheat someone else, they’ll cheat you when they get a chance.


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