Sunday, July 29, 2012

Some Lies Are More Equal Than Others

Another tempest in a tiny, tiny teacup. In the past 18 hours (it's 4 pm on the East Coast), a fake Bill Keller op-ed has made the rounds. Within a few hours it was exposed as fake. The real giveaway was that it was better than any actual Bill Keller writing. The first I heard of the Bill Keller op-ed was as a fraud this morning, so it never even got to me as possibly genuine. I feel I missed out.

As for The New York Times and 'truth'. It's no coincidence that the traditional media trumpeted by the Times and by Glenn Greenwald's soon-to-be colleague at The Guardian are so much more expensive. The sheer cost of print or television serves as a gate-keeping device to keep out us proles who haven't gone through the brain-washing at the Columbia School of Journalism or the Kennedy School of Government.

Consider the largely-forgotten epitome of Times fraud — Judith Miller. People were pointing out her lies and fabrications about the Middle East, especially about Israel and Palestine, for nearly 20 years before she was finally ditched by the paper and editors that loved her.

The traditional media is just upset that the frauds being swallowed now aren't always theirs. Or worse — that the frauds exposed are theirs. John Burns, Bill Keller, Thomas Friedman, Walter Isaacson, and their ilk hate being caught out in lies. It's embarrassing when they go to the parties in the Hamptons or on Martha's Vineyard thrown by the people who paid for the lying.

More in the Lifestyles of the Wealth Supremacists

There's been a recent tempest (a very small one) over suggestions that New York City develop "micro-apartments" — very small apartments catering to people who want to live in the big city at low cost. NYC mayor (emperor) Michael Bloomberg supports this proposal. There's been speculation over the real reason for his support, given that he owns five or six palaces around and about (a couple of adjacent townhouses in Manhattan, a place in Westchester County, his shorefront mansion in Bermuda,  a mansion in London, and a place in Colorado, I think).

The economics behind developing smaller spaces is solid. But there is another rationale behind Bloomberg's push for microflats, one based on his conviction that the wealthier are just better.

There is an obvious way to provide more space for more people — build up. It wouldn't take a city of endless high-rises, the fifty-story, engineer-designed monstrosities that developers love. Going from 3 or 4 story standards to 5 or 6 would provide an enormous increase in space while still keeping many neighborhoods "cozy." But it costs more to go higher than it does to subdivide smaller.

More important, developers think in terms of dollars per square foot, and in their view, they are entitled to a minimum rent for a unit, based on its size. It can be a roach-ridden, bed bug-infested, rundown as you like. Square footage means money. And Bloomberg is a real-estate Keynesian (to adapt Paul Krugman's "military Keynesian" expression for right-wingers who endorse big government for military purposes). Bloomberg is a strong believer in government intervention to keep real-estate prices ridiculous.

Floor area is the most 'objective' (watch as real estate agents come up with an argument for why that 300 square foot hole is really 500 square feel) and tangible factor in valuing living spaces. A quick coat of paint, a cleaning, and air freshener and most people will over look the real problems in a 5 minute look at a place. (And most New York landlords will still gripe about doing even a minimal cleaning.) Smaller size is the most cheapest way to cram low-budget proles into otherwise pricey neighborhoods.

That brings us to part 2 of Bloomberg's thinking. He and his rich buddies will play loco parentis for us, but they sure as hell aren't going to have anybody telling them what to do. They want they're Manhattan MacMansions. But they still need their servants. But living costs are soaring and rippling outwards, so that places 50 or 60 miles from New York are seeing prices typical for Brooklyn (and Brooklyn sees Manhattan prices).

How are Bloomberg-style wealth supremacists to keep their servants within reasonable distance so they can get to servitude on time? Have to get those living costs down in town. And, as noted in part 1, the best way to do that is smaller area. Bloomberg and Co. do want Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn — maybe) to be a gated community for Wall Street, but the last thing they want to do is anything resembling work — laundry, cleaning, cooking. They need their servants close enough so that they can be at hand at a moments notice (since, for now, the days when servants lived on-site, in the mansion, are still gone by — for now).

Monday, July 9, 2012

Wealth Supremacists

A story is making the rounds of a particularly snotty-nosed Romney donor throwing her weight around in the Hamptons during the Mitt Romney fundraising this past weekend of July 7th (which happened also be one of the hottest on record in the US). Arriving at the gate to the estate, according to the Times, this woman "yelled to an aide to Mitt Romney. 'Is there a V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.' " No doubt all the other millionaires and billionaires attending appreciated her distinction.

This election is highlighting the full commitment of many Americans (almost all of the super-rich and, I suspect, a majority of everyone else) to the divine rights (plural) of wealth. This is the firm conviction of Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, and of course, Mitt Romney. But it is also an article of faith among many Democrats, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 

The picture is complicated, but it is coherent and explains the social and economic development of the US over the past 35 years. It explains why even many poor Americans vote to deprive themselves and further enrich the wealthy. It explains the cult of testing in public schools, coupled with the vilification of teachers by people who send their own kids to private schools. It explains a criminal justice system that allows the systematic crimes of wealth to go unpunished while sending poor law-breakers to prison for years for even the most minor offenses. It explains why Obama, with an easy line of attack against Romney, instead pussy-foots about. 

A wide array of public figures endorse wealth supremacism. And many more quietly endorse it while publicly paying lip-service to issues of justice. These quiet idolaters of wealth include people like Bill Keller, former Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times and son of Chevron CEO George Keller. They include Thomas Friedman, himself a billionaire by marriage. Numerous corporate executives, sports figures, and Hollywood stars are also among this number. Again, they may say all the right things, but actually doing something to counteract the trend is beyond their imagining.

The cult of wealth, the divine rights of wealth, are reinforced in popular entertainment, in schooling (both grade school and so-called "higher-education", in the criminal justice system, in housing — everywhere. Crucially, the notion of superiority the wealthy embrace today is not accompanied by notions of noblesse oblige endorsed by past aristocrats. I'll explore this further in forthcoming posts. 

To begin:

The first and most important of the divine rights of wealth is the right to wealth itself. Why do the rich have a right to wealth? Well, they are superior to the rest of us. They merit wealth. Why do they merit wealth? They are better — harder working, more intelligent, more honest, more virtuous. 

This view was expressly endorsed by Harvard economists and Romney adviser Gregory Mankiw in a 2009 blog post entitled "The Least Surprising Correlation of All Time:" 

"Smart parents make more money and
pass those good genes on to their offspring."

This is the crux of the position held by an enormous percentage of the wealthy and by, as I said I suspect, most Americans. 

In this simple statement we see a confluence of several seemingly disparate strains of thought. In this statement are elements of the reductionist thinking that plagues psychology (especially evolutionary psychology) today. We see also the tacit assumptions of virtue attached to wealth. We see elements of what is called "meritocracy." And we see the air of superiority embraced by those who are better off.

To all this and more, I will return soon.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Smell of the Book

Terrific lecture by Matija Strlic at University College London's Centre for Sustainable Heritage.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

So I said I am Ezra