Links: Libraries, writers, “Turned Down For What?”, parody, masculinity, feminism, and more

* “How to Keep A Library Of (Physical) Books;” I am going to write a post about the new bookshelves.

* Median incomes for writers, which in Britain “last year was just £11,000.” Interestingly, almost everyone I know has overestimated the amount of money I’ve made from Asking Anna.

* “Turned Down for What?, explained, which even I thought obvious, perhaps thanks to all that literary training.

* “How will we know if the ACA is working?” Or: Questions that are rarely asked.

* “Platform Monopolies:”

The author of the NY Times piece tells the story of Vincent Zandri, an author of mystery and suspense novels, who has moved all of his publishing activities over to Amazon’s platform and is enjoying the benefits of doing that.

This could easily have been the story of the journalist who moves her writing from The Wall Street Journal to her own blog, or the story of the filmmaker who moves from the Hollywood studio system to Kickstarter and VHX. It could be the story of the band that leaves their record label and does direct deals with SoundCloud and Spotify. It could be the story of the yellow cab driver who moves his driving business to Uber or Sidecar.

The story of Vincent Zandri is the story of our times.

* Sam Altman on Net Neutrality.

* “How To Make A Hit Pop Song, Pt. 1,” or “You look sexy when you do that.” Amazingly accurate.

* “A critique of Ian Ironwood’s The Manosphere: A New Hope For Masculinity,” which also shows the positive potential of often-stupid Amazon reviews. It is missing direct quotes from the book, however.

* Related to the above, “Not Every Man Can Handle A Beautiful Woman;” as a reminder, linking does not imply agreement or endorsement. Also relevant: “Men are where women were 30 years ago,” which is true but not in the way the writer imagines.

Politics and pernicious expectations

Last month there was a long and mostly stupid discussion about “The Cheapest Generation,” and in the long and mostly stupid discussion someone mentioned delaying having children and that “everyone i know considers the world far too precarious to start a family.” I replied and said that, “By virtually every metric, the world is a much safer, healthier place than it used to be, as Steven Pinker observes in The Better Angels of our Nature. Someone else replied, “Safer? Yes. Healthier? Yes. Stable? No. Between income/job volatility and lack of proper social safety nets (at least in the US), its a dangerous gamble to start a family unless you’re in the right situation.”

I don’t know what “the right situation” is, but I think that person underestimates just how hard most people have worked throughout history and how low their material expectations were—and, by contrast, how high they are now. If you expect two cars, a large house with a room for each child and a spare room too, in a sweet coastal city location like L.A., San Francisco, or Seattle, then yeah, things are tough (though much of that is because of land-use policy, not because of “intrinsic” how prices). If you have lower expectations, however, it’s possible to move to Texas, buy a $140,000 house that maybe isn’t in the world’s best location but is okay, and has room for kids but maybe not tons of extra space, then things aren’t all that expensive. The “right” situation is much cheaper.

Most of the commentariat, however, is looking at NYC / L.A. / Seattle / etc., and wants the “best” schools, and wants a BMW, and interesting vacations to foreign countries, and, and, and… all those things add up. If you radically scale back expectations, a lot of things become more possible. If you realize what people use to expect, your expectations might change too. My grandparents barely escaped the Holocaust and, according to family lore, never really made it to the American middle class. Tales of living in Minneapolis without heat in the winter were and are common.

Along similar lines, Megan McArdle tells this story:

My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26, in the depths of the Great Depression. For six years, he supported a wife on that salary — and no, it’s not because You Used To Be Able To Support A Family On A Grocery Boy’s Wages Until These Republicans Ruined Everything. He and my grandmother moved into a room in his parents’ home, cut a hole through the wall for their stovepipe and set up housekeeping. They got married on Thanksgiving, because that was the only day he could get off. My grandmother spent six years carefully piecing his tiny salary into envelopes — so much for food, for rent, for gasoline for the car he needed to get eight miles into town. And they stayed married for 67 years, until my grandfather’s death in 2004.

“We didn’t have a dramatic increase in unwed childbearing back in the Great Depression,” sociologist Brad Wilcox told me. “That’s in part because we had a very different understanding of family life and sex and marriage back then. That tells us that it’s not just economic. It’s also about culture and law.”

By modern standards that sounds really crappy, but McArdle’s grandparents managed to have kids and be more-or-less okay in material conditions that would strike most contemporary Americans as being at a level of shocking privation. Yet the commenters above mention “income/job volatility” without noting that, in many circumstances, we have very high incomes—we just choose to spend them instead of save them (Note that I’m guilty of this too and am not throwing stones from my own glass house). In an environment of low or zero growth, or highly uneven growth, that may be a tremendous problem, and the problem has individual and political components—and responses.

To return to McArdle, this time in “How to Put the Brakes on Consumers’ Debt:”

[. . .] this is a conflict between what Walter Russell Mead calls the blue social model and the red-state world where Ramsey lives and finds most of his listeners. We can quibble about this or that [. . . ] But what it boils down to is that Olen thinks that rising economic insecurity calls for a massive expansion of the blue social model, while Ramsey thinks it calls for getting more entrepreneurial and adjusting your lifestyle to meet reduced income expectations. How well you think this works is probably closely connected to where you live.

(Emphasis added)

The whole piece is worth reading, but I think the debate between the two gurus McArdle cites is actually about a large-scale public response to current conditions versus how a particular individual or family should respond. Olen is arguing politics; Ramsey is arguing personal. I also think we’re going to see this change: “But for blue-state professionals, that’s something close to suggesting that they should abandon their kids in the street (or have them take out $150,000 in student loans, which is not much better). The social norm is that you send your kid to the best college he or she can get into, by any means necessary,” because for one thing I’m not convinced any school is worth $150,000 in student loans. Maybe one could make that argument for the very, very elite schools, but not many others.

The problem with arguing for a political response is that most individuals can’t do much on their own to change policies. But they can decide to say, “No, I can’t afford that house or vacation or dinner or whatever.” I also suspect that very few individuals have any coherent idea about how public policies work, as Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter shows. My own pet peeve is urban land use controls, since those raise prices by preventing new development, but very few people connect high prices with supply limits. That’s basic econ, but almost no one acknowledges it. If we collectively can’t even understand that, I’m not optimistic about Olen-style political solutions. Those mostly seem to boil down to taking a lot of money and dumping it into systems and institutions that aren’t necessarily working all that well.

Education is one of those systems, and I suspect that a basic idea is taking hold: a lot of higher education has become increasingly exploitive over time, with student loans fueling the binge. There is very little incentive for most institutions to say, “We’re going to forget about a diversity department staff and counseling staff and subsidizing dorms, and we’re just going to provide professors, classrooms, and labs, and you buy the rest, unsubsidized, if you want to.” We’re going to see some non-elite schools go for radical cost reductions, and we’ll see if people go for them. If the price is good enough they might.

In the meantime, lots of people are moving to places like Texas, where land controls are low. On average they’re leaving places like New York and California. For people with medium or low incomes and high material expectations, that totally makes sense. Historically speaking, I think it’s easy to forget high low material expectations were: until recently, houses were shockingly smaller than they are today. In 1975 the median new home was 1,535 square feet, and now it’s 2,169 square feet—even as family size and children-per-woman has been declining.

To return to the original point in the first paragraph of this post, job volatility might not matter so much for someone who decides to live in a 1,535 square foot house instead of a 2,169 square foot house, and that basic dynamic can be extrapolated across a range of purchases. Most of us, however, ask ourselves, “Why not take the Vicuna?” Then we complain when the world doesn’t conform to our material expectations.

The Secret Currency of Love — Hilary Black

A Time magazine interview called “The Truth About Women, Money and Relationships” with Hilary Black, the editor of The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships inspired me to buy the deceptively titled book, which has little if any truth in it and no useful financial advice save that it’s not a bad idea to play defensively with one’s cash, lest it come to affect other aspects of one’s life. As Terry Teachout recently quoted from Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Black solicited essays about money from a bunch of women and published the results, which are less than the sum of their parts. The confessional tone man adopt often seems forced, as one’s partner might after having paid for an hour or two of time, and the reductive nature of the problems—am I selling out? If so, should I? And why is it so nice to sell out?—grates by halfway through; you’re better off reading the interview and skipping the book, thus avoiding the trap I fell into. Black says, “One thing I noticed over the many years I worked at More was that although people often wrote about divorce and Botox and sex, they didn’t really talk about money in a way that was as profound or exploratory.” That’s still true. To read profound and exploratory discussions about money, try Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. Or, hell, try Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Martin Amis’ Money, which tell you more about the issue through fiction than The Secret Currency of Love does through superficial fact.

The openings of two essays might help convey the genteel banality, which smother, like wrapper over an eggroll, the insight that genuinely exists in sections of The Secret Currency of Love:

I didn’t have a regular cleaning lady until I was thirty-seven years old. I would have loved to be free of the daily drudgery of sweeping, dusting, and the Saturday scrubbing of the toilet, but paying another person to clean up my mess felt wrong. Overindulgent. Spoiled. Excessively first world.

(Ah, the joys of wealth: worrying about how one’s wealth functions on a symbolic level more than on a practical level. Is the overly examined life really worth living?)

Some women wake up at forty-five and realize they forgot to have children. I realized I forgot to make money.
I’ve never given much though to personal finance. Truth be told, it hasn’t been a serious problem: I’m grateful I’ve never had to worry about having enough or finding a place to sleep. Nor has money ever been a major goal, accomplishment, or dirty secret: I did not get an M.B.A. or go public with a company, and I don’t worry about having to hide my wealth for fear of attracting the wrong friends.

Another woman opens with a generic-seeming description of a playdate for a son at a new school, only to find that the friend’s family is loaded to the point of Google-level wealth. And it’s hard to care about another fish out of water story, or another story about the tortures of picking between money and love. Although each essay is well-written in a way that lets the seams show, many authors tell tales of financial deprivation by way of their profession, since writers are not as a rule remunerated highly. Consequently, I begin to suspect a sample bias problem: writers are, tautologically, better at writing than most people; the editor needs writers to fill a book about money; therefore, the nature of the people who offer their services affects the content even more than usual. Writers are often conflicted about commerce and thus are more likely to feel the schism when others would simply take the money—or not. And many of the contributors have absorbed the idea that writing in an unheated garret is romantic and that money is corrupting, which makes their relationships to money more tortured that those relationships perhaps need to be.

This essay’s tone is critical, and perhaps overly so, since The Secret Currency of Love is nonetheless instructive in showing that many people, even the wannabe bohemians, have more uncertainty about how income shapes us than they might admit under other circumstances. It would be nice to have enough money to live above it, like someone who has taken their company public or someone who has inherited enough not worry, but even that is fraught with intellectual and perhaps corrupting peril.

There are clever bits, which come chiefly at the beginning, when the repetitiveness of the problems suffered hasn’t yet drawn one’s attention to where the next essay starts rather than where this one is going, as when Abby Ellin writes:

In other words, I live life on my own terms.
The only problem with this lifestyle is that “freedom” is generally just another word for “nothing left to deposit.”

In which case, are you really free? I get the sense that one is paging Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. More recently than Woolf, Philip Greenspun dealt with the same issue in his unfair but still fascinating essay “Women in Science:”

In the personal domain, young people are very different from old people. If you interview old people and ask “What are the greatest sources of satisfaction and happiness in your life?” almost always the answer “my children” comes back. At the age when people are choosing careers, the idea of having children is often unappealing and certainly few have the idea that one should choose a “kid-friendly” career. Old people, on average, also have higher income requirements than young people. A youngster is happy to backpack around the globe, stay in youth hostels for $20 per night, and sleep in a tent. Most oldsters become devoted to their creature comforts and get cranky in anything less than $200 per night private hotel room. Young people don’t mind one $400 per month room in a dingy 4BR apartment shared with three or four other young people; most oldsters need their own apartment or house (edging up towards $1 million in America’s nicer neighborhoods).

The long blockquote might seem irrelevant, but because of the age of the contributors to The Secret Currency of Love, I suspect that their choices in career and other terms have come to seem less sagacious in retrospect than they were at the time such choices were made. Hence the fear of penury, the desire for a family, and the fact that, as Greenspun says elsewhere, “Any resource that is scarce, such as real estate, is snapped up by society’s economic winners.” Writers are seldom among that group.

Alas: I suspect that reading Greenspun’s essay along with a regular dose of The Atlantic would be more instructive and insightful regarding money, as well as innumerable other subjects,than The Secret Currency of Love. Don’t be fooled by an alluring topic—underneath its cosmetic marketing, the book is fundamentally shallow.

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