You must go see A Little Night Music at the Huntington Theatre. It is extraordinary.
That is all.
You must go see A Little Night Music at the Huntington Theatre. It is extraordinary.
That is all.
There are many books I could recommend that overlap with the history of the civil-rights movement. J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground remains one of the three or four best books I’ve ever read, focusing on the tragic failure of desegregation in the North. John Lewis’s Walking With The Wind is the civil-rights movement as documented by one of its central participants — a man thrown in jail dozens of times, and on the business end of countless police truncheons. Then there’s Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s somewhat arch but mostly disheartened take on the whimper with which the civil-rights movement ended, and how Richard Nixon exploited white working-class fears to hasten its demise. If you’re looking for some hope that de facto school segregation will end, try Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools In Raleigh. If you wanted to follow the civil-rights movement past the end of the Nixon Administration, you could do worse than to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World And Me — a letter he wrote to his son, in the wake of Eric Garner and and Trayvon Martin, explaining that white society has always fought to control black bodies.
As long as U.S. history is the history of slavery and its aftermath — as long as we remain unable to free ourselves from systemic racism — there will always been a need for these books. C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow is in some ways the granddaddy of these books; it’s the book that Martin Luther King called “the historical Bible of the civil-rights movement.” Even three-quarters of a century after it was written, and even in the light of all those other great works, I think it’s still well worth reading. Its power is in its concision: it was originally delivered as three lectures at the University of Virginia, and it retains that feeling of historical evidence being laid out, methodically and metronomically.
The main take-away is that the South didn’t have to turn to Jim Crow; for a short window between the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870, and the beginning of Jim Crow in earnest around 1900, Southern whites explored the possibility of living in harmony with blacks. Several events conspired to turn the South decisively onto the road to apartheid: Northern liberals lost interest in desegregation and instead sought reconciliation with the South, at the expense of Southern blacks; Southern radicals fought to create sectional discord, which drove Northerners into the arms of moderate but segregationist Southerners; and Teddy Roosevelt carried the white man’s burden to the Philippines, thereby awakening a theory of racial hierarchy (whites near the top, blacks toward the bottom). The point is that it could have gone differently. Woodward implies that, if the South could have been something other than violently racist in the late 19th century, then it could be something other than violently racist in the mid-20th.
None of this is to say that the South was ever a blissful idyll for blacks. As Woodward puts it:
It would certainly be preposterous to leave the impression that any evidence I have submitted indicates a golden age of race relations in the period between Redemption [what Southerners call the end of Reconstruction –SRL] and complete segregation. On the contrary, the evidence of race conflict and violence, brutality and exploitation in this very period is overwhelming. It was, after all, in the ‘eighties and early ‘nineties that lynching attained the most staggering proportions ever reached in the history of that crime.
Woodward shouldn’t, then, be perceived as an apologist for the South. As a historian from the South, however, he dumps some much-needed ice water on Northern pretensions. The North certainly ended slavery and fought official segregation well before the South did, and of course the North’s economy was not based on slavery as directly as the South’s was. All that said, Northern segregation was and remains of the de facto rather than de jure variety. We segregate by our white families’ fleeing to the suburbs and sending their kids to private schools; we thereby leave, e.g., the Boston Public Schools only 13% white.
None of this is to say that Southern segregation wasn’t real and violent and terrifying. Woodward’s book brought out details of legal desegregation that I hadn’t heard of before — e.g., that the Brown v. Board of Education decision, with its command that desegregation proceed with “all deliberate speed”, actually took at least a decade to be carried out. There’s a danger that most of us — certainly including me — carry in our heads a potted history of the civil-rights movement that goes something like this:
It’s really worth adding complexity to this potted history. It’s worth, among many other things, throwing out the “one lone woman on a bus” story; the Rosa Parks incident was the product of a disciplined campaign of organization — and when I say “organization”, I mean “organization” of the sort for which people made fun of Barack Obama when he said he was a “community organizer.” This isn’t just re-learning history for re-learning history’s sake; the “one lone woman” story is part of a pernicious libertarian fantasy about the power of individuals. The civil-rights movement was the product of focused, organized political action, in large part centered on black churches. The decline of the civil-rights movement is the story of that organized movement’s fracturing, as a pacifist wing that sought to continue King’s work ran up against a militant wing (represented by Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and others) that was frustrated by the glacial pace of change. A white working-class backlash (heartbreakingly documented in Common Ground) led us to where we are now: people generally seem to acknowledge that progress toward racial equality has stalled; books like Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration And the Myth of Black Progress make the point that if you count black people in prison correctly, there has been virtually no change in black wealth or black civic involvement. I’m told that Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness makes the point even more forcefully.
It’s hard to feel anything but desperation in the era of Trayvon Martin and the new Jim Crow. I don’t know how Woodward felt when he began writing his Strange Career; did he see himself in the middle of half a century when virulent Southern racism had only become more intransigent? Or did he see that new possibilities were dawning? And did he merely describe what he saw, or did his book contribute — in any small way — toward the revolution that was about to come?
We really feel stuck today. Few people trust the Federal government: many conservatives believe it can only do harm (e.g., Obamacare), and many liberals believe that even its good intentions will be watered down by the power of organized money (e.g., Obamacare). As for local government, Boston’s late Mayor Menino prided himself on being an “urban mechanic” — enacting small changes that maybe would add up, in time, to something big. Big changes, like desegregating Boston public schools whose enrollment fell by 35% between 1970 and 2000 (and whose composition changed from 64% to 13% white), even as the city’s population continues to rise, are implicitly off the table. So are any big public-works projects, even those that would help the poor and working class, after our slog through the Big Dig.
So that leaves off local and Federal government. Where else do we look for the next revolution. Corporations-as-saviors? Hardly. Civil society? Bowling Alone suggests that’s decaying as well. The fight against income inequality might be the spark that we need, but again: individual sparks here and there do not a movement make; we need organization.
All I’m getting at here is that I wonder what Woodward would make of the spot we’re in. Would he see something on the horizon that we don’t? Or would he be as dejected as the rest of us?
I ran into the same Python problem as this fellow. Namely: he’s written a script that dumps lines to stdout, and then runs
my_script.py | head
and gets this:
Traceback (most recent call last): File "/home/slaniel/bin/my_script.py", line 25, in main() File "/home/slaniel/bin/my_script.py", line 22, in main print "".join(["%s %s\n" % (value, key) for key, value in sorted_list]) IOError: [Errno 32] Broken pipe
I.e., Python still has data in the pipe, ready to go to
stdout, but it can’t send it because
head(1) exited. So
SIGPIPE, and Python traps that as an
IOError exception. The solution is straightforward:
from signal import signal, SIGPIPE, SIG_DFL signal(SIGPIPE,SIG_DFL)
This DFL thing is new to me:
This is one of two standard signal handling options; it will simply perform the default function for the signal. For example, on most systems the default action for SIGQUIT is to dump core and exit, while the default action for SIGCHLD is to simply ignore it.
If I’m reading that right, Python replaces the default
SIGPIPE behavior with a thrown exception. To make the signal yield the system default, you need to tell Python explicitly to do that.
SIGPIPE) into internal program behaviors (like exceptions). Is that the idea?
SIGPIPE. So I would prefer not to write
from signal import signal, SIGPIPE, SIG_DFL
import Steve_lib(or your own equivalent) that sets up the expected signal-handling defaults?
The High Cost of Free Parking has changed a lot of minds in its few years on this earth. For a book about a seemingly dry subject, THCOFP‘s effect has been shockingly strong. The premise of the book can be laid out in a few bullets:
Donald Shoup is in many ways like Jane Jacobs. One of the great joys of Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities is that she turns what might be a huge topic — subject to pure moralizing arguments like “What do we want out of cities” — into a number of small, practical, answerable questions. She looks out her window and asks what value sidewalks have. You want sidewalks to be wide enough so that kids can play on them; wide enough that a restaurant can drop a couple tables on them; etc. How about buildings? How tall do you want them to be? Well, we want our neighbors to be engaged with what’s happening on the street; skyscraper apartments can’t do this. And so forth. After she’s wrapped her (and our) brain around low-level details, only then does she scale out and talk about cities generally. And by that point she has a much more concrete object in her head, which it’s much easier to reason about with a minimum of ideological pollution. So it is with Shoup: he hardly spends any time talking about grand issues like global warming; instead he keeps focused on an individual car searching for an individual parking space, asks us why the car is spending so much time cruising, and lands the blame on the fact that parking is free.
Of course this should be obvious. We see videos of Soviet-era breadlines, and we pin the blame on a price system that wasn’t allowed to work; we never turn the lens back on ourselves and ask what harm we’re doing by assuming that a scarce resource should be free. Others have probably pointed this out in the past; this sort of thing probably occurred to Lewis Mumford, but Mumford was a genius who was a few decades ahead of his time. It took Donald Shoup to really bring this issue into the public mind in a real way. Now I hope people will actually put his ideas into action.
Marco Arment, of Instapaper and Tumblr and coffee-geekery (his app company is called Full City) and much general lovableness fame, introduced a web-tracker-blocking app for iOS 9 the other day. It was called Peace. A day later he wrote a blog post agonizing over some of the trackers he was blocking. Today he straight-up removed the app from the store.
I can’t speak to his motivations, but it seems like he’s agonizing over the decision to treat all web trackers as identical and block all of them. I surmise that he got some push-back from various content networks that believe they’re the good guys. And I don’t doubt that not all trackers are created equal. But this withdrawal says something a lot more worrying to me: that people are having a hard time choosing the end-user over the advertiser.
I’ve never understood the ad-supported web. I don’t understand how anyone makes any money off of web ads, when virtually no one I know clicks on ads. Yet I’m told that one of the first things they teach you, upon your being hired at Google, is that you are not the user: there are lots of people who just spend all day clicking on ads. Somehow an entire economy is based on this.
Fundamentally that economy is for the advertisers; it’s not for you and me. As the aphorism goes, “If you get something for free, you are not the customer; you’re the product.” All those ads being served up to you are you being sold to someone else. And of course no one wants to see ads on their screens; this is obvious. Ads are a thing that we’re told we need to suffer through in order to enjoy the free web. (If I never click on an ad, am I stealing? What if I click on an ad but never buy the advertised product?)
No wonder, then, that people install ad blockers and tracking-blockers like Peace. Yet Marco seems to worry that he’s taking money out of the hands of innocents. I don’t see the moral concern here: he has a choice between doing the end-users’ bidding and doing the advertisers’ bidding. I thought he knew that he was choosing to do the end-users’ bidding.
What worries me more is that there will always be a temptation to take money with both hands. Search Google News for an article titled “Google, Microsoft and Amazon pay to get around ad blocking tool”, or check out my cached copy. Sure, you can earn money from users paying you, but you can earn even more money if you have the users pay you and you take some money from the advertisers. Sort of like the New York Times: I happily pay them $15 a month, almost as a charitable contribution, because I view them as a social good, yet they still serve me ads. I want the Times‘s loyalty to be entirely directed at me, just as I want Marco and the AdBlock people to be indivisibly on my side. Is that too much to ask?
Depending upon how you look at it, it’s either fortunate or disheartening that we have, broadly, two wildly opposed business models: the Apple model, which is “pay us money and we’ll make something you love”; and the Google model, which is, “pay us nothing and we’ll give you a beautiful product while spamming you and making our money from garbage peddlers.” (Merlin Mann put it better in less than 140 characters.) I understand how the Google model spreads to pay for the web, of course: a new startup wants to build its user base quickly, so it offers its product for free. Ideally, to my mind, a company that has established itself and gained that user base would then stop the ads and ask its users to pay. It hasn’t happened yet, and it may never happen, and I can see why it wouldn’t happen, but still: a man can dream.
(How much would you be willing to pay for the full suite of Google services? How much is it worth to you, every month, to get Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Docs? That’s never a choice you’ll ever have to make, of course: if Google ever put its search engine behind a paywall, you’d make do and switch to Bing; you’d use the inferior-but-I’m-told-improving Apple Maps; you’d use Yahoo Mail, which I guess is a thing that still exists; you’d use whatever the Microsoft cloud office suite is called. But if I measured the actual value that instant search, instant travel-planning, high-quality email, and cloud documents add to my life, it couldn’t possibly be less than $200 a month.)
Sites are now blocking you from using them until you disable your content blockers. I noticed this the other day when I tried to watch the first episode of the new Stephen Colbert late show; I had to disable either AdBlock Plus or Ghostery for that specific site to make it work. This is all turning very silly.
Since I know how corrupting the ad-supported business model is, I try my damnedest to pay for things that are important to me. John Oliver’s show is worth at least $15 a month to me, so I happily pay for HBO Now. I pay for the New York Times, and I’d gladly pay for the Boston Globe if the site didn’t do everything in its power to prevent me from giving them money. I listen to a ton of podcasts, and my life would be appreciably worse without This American Life or Radiolab, so I donate $20 a month to the former and $15 a month to WNYC. It’s possible I’m overpaying. But it’s also likely that a lot of people don’t/can’t pay for these things, so I like to think that I’m paying for a few people who can’t afford it.
I wish there weren’t this natural tension between what readers want and how writers make money; I wish that charging people money for consuming goods and services weren’t considered a bold business idea. But for now there is such a tension, and people largely don’t pay. I’m going to continue using ad-blocking software, and I’m going to hope that more software developers realize where their allegiances should lie.
There ought to be a term for the sort of book that starts from a simple concept and completely shakes the cobwebs loose from your brain. The most recent two books by Francis Fukuyama are in that category for me — and shame on me for reviewing neither of them yet. 
Galbraith’s idea is simple, yet profound: economics arose in an era when humanity had just barely emerged from the problem of scarcity, and it bears the expected scars. From the beginning of time until about 1800, humanity’s main problem was ensuring sufficient supply — getting enough food in enough mouths. Now we’ve arrived at an era when exactly the reverse is the problem: we have insufficient demand. The whole problem of depressions is a problem of insufficient aggregate demand.
Depressions are one particularly bad manifestation of the problem of insufficient demand. There are more trivial ones: it was either in Chandler’s The Visible Hand or Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis that the author mentions the birth of breakfast cereals purely as a way to clear out inventories of unsold grain. Much of economic history since the mid-19th century has been the history of getting us to buy things that we don’t need.
Galbraith argues that economics still hasn’t caught up with this new world. Economics is obsessed with production, and with producing things more efficiently. Why the obsession with efficiency? Because when the main problem in life is scarcity, we’re very concerned that we produce everything with the minimum of wasted resources. What if, instead, we realize that much of what we produce is unnecessary? This is not in any way controversial; an economy has reached the apex of its sophistication when it develops an entire industry devoted to, literally, shoving more food down our throats than we need. (See Marion Nestle: food availability, measured as food produced within the United States, minus food exported, plus food imported, minus food waste, grew from 3200 calories per person in 1980 to 3900 in 2011. And we weren’t starving in 1980.)
Contrast this situation with the decline in public services:
The competition is especially unequal for new products and services. Every corner of the public psyche is canvassed by some of the nation’s most talented citizens to see if the desire for more merchantable product can be cultivated. No similar process operates on behalf of the nonmerchantable services of the state. Indeed, while we take the cultivation of new private wants for granted, we would be measurably shocked to see it applied to public services. The scientist or engineer or advertising man who devotes himself to developing a new carburetor, cleanser or depilatory for which the public recognize no need and will feel none until an advertising campaign arouses it, is one of the valued members of our society. A politician or a public servant who sees need for a new public service may be called a wastrel. Few public offenses are more reprehensible.
Then there are those products that derive some or all of their value, not from their intrinsic merit, but from the fact that others also own them. My fancy car derives some of its value from the fact that it’s larger than all my neighbors’ cars. A university education has some intrinsic value, but it seems clear that a college degree would lose much of its value if everyone had one. Or rather, at that point the fight would move to a higher level: now having an MIT degree, or a graduate degree, would set you apart from the pack. The supply of the product, in other words, creates its own demand. To use the term of art: many of the goods that we produce are “positional.”
Between positional goods, and products that we don’t need, much of what we produce is simply unnecessary. Deciding what to do with this observation is the central question in The Affluent Society.
Obviously we can argue over these central contentions. Not least, there’s the empirical question of how much of our economy is worthless. Is my iPhone worthless? Is the Internet worthless? We don’t have to believe that all of the supply side is worthless to agree that much of economics takes as its starting point the scarcity of supply in the face of unlimited demands. That’s simply not the problem that the industrial world faces anymore.
Galbraith notes also that economics is based on a blinkered view of human agency, according to which my own free will leads me to choose a larger car and 700 more calories rather than better subways and public schools. It seems obvious that that’s wrong: my “free will” here is dictated in no small part by advertising. Again, we don’t need to believe that advertising completely controls us to believe that economics as a profession has the wrong idea about how to judge what people want. It’s not as simple as a naïve “revealed preference” story would have it: if I choose to buy a larger car, and I also choose to vote for lower property taxes, and if in consequence the public schools in my town suffer, it’s not possible to read directly off this that I prefer cars to schools.
All Galbraith is after is a little balance between public and private goods. Even without any change in balance, the need for public goods is likely to increase in lockstep with demand for private goods: all those extra cars need parking spaces; all that extra wealth needs police officers to secure it; all that extra food needs reliable roads to carry it to market. Yet we as a society have not chosen to increase our spending on public goods, so we end up in what Galbraith famously called “an atmosphere of private opulence and public squalor.” Indeed, we end up with public squalor because of our private affluence. The situation today remains sadly unchanged from when Galbraith first described it more than half a century ago.
We can follow where Galbraith is going here and ask simply: what is the point of all this economic production? Why bother producing more? Is it so that we can produce and consume more and larger televisions? Eat more breakfast cereal every morning? To John Maynard Keynes, one answer was that economic growth would free us to be more fully human: we’d have time to learn, and think, and create, and play outside in beautiful parks, and swim in clean water, and live long lives, and develop meaningful friendships. After taxes, Americans are six times as wealthy as we were when John F. Kennedy was president, yet can we say that economic growth has made us better people? We’ve chosen to convert those gains in economic production into a greater supply of possessions rather than a better society or more leisure. Galbraith would say that the root of this failure is deeply rooted in the way we’ve thought about economics since the time of Adam Smith.
It takes a mind like Galbraith’s to chase down this problem. Another mind, in some ways similar, whom I’ve likewise been derelict in reviewing, is Lewis Mumford; his The City In History reoriented the whole way that I think about why cities matter. If asked what the point of cities is, most of us would probably define them as centers of commerce and industry: San Francisco is the city of software; Boston is the city of universities; New York is the city of theatre and finance. We might go a step further and say that that concentration of people is the wellspring of greatness: put people near one another and watch as they create beautiful things together. Mumford goes well beyond that: the city, he says, is where humanity can fully flower; the city exists for the enlargement of mankind itself. He imparts an inspiring moral greatness to cities. I maybe take some of the piss from this if I tell you that Mumford thinks it’s all been downhill since Ancient Greece.
Like Mumford, Galbraith sees modern economies as distracted from the goal of ennobling man. Again because of the focus on increasing GDP and using resources most efficiently, Galbraith notes that finance is very good at directing material goods to where they can be optimally used, but not nearly so good at increasing human capital. An economic system geared at the betterment of humans would look a lot different than one aimed at the betterment of SUVs.
This goes quite deep, I think. First, what’s the point of improving “human capital” if the point isn’t to just produce more stuff in the next generation? We usually think of human capital as something that universities provide, and that poor neighborhoods lack. A liberal education can expand our minds, but we’re often in the trap of thinking that human capital is like real capital: it’s an investment on which we spend a lot up front, from which we then draw over many years. Do we want human capital that allows us to appreciate great literature? Or do we only care about the kind of human capital that slots us each nicely into the machine?
Our most fervent hope is that our kids will live a better life than we do. Do we only want them to be wealthier than we are? Or do we also want them to be smarter, more generous, more curious, happier, more creative, better companions? I’m sure we’d say that we want all these things. But there’s a danger that our preoccupation with production, which springs from some of our most unquestioned intellectual roots, will lead us to define our children’s success in only the most vulgar terms.
Of course, many of us are born with little and die with less. Our obsession with maximizing production has led us to believe that the only solution to widespread poverty is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Another answer is to produce less unnecessary crap and share some of the bounty with our neighbors. Rather than guarantee a larger car to everyone, we’d each take a smaller but perfectly lovely automobile and instead insure that our neighbors get decent health care. First we need to stop thinking about production and start thinking about distribution.
From both Mumford and Galbraith, there’s a real urgency coupled with great clarity about where the problems lie. You can see the outlines of a moral revolution in both of their visions.
 — Short version of Fukuyama: humans will always tend to favor their kin more than they favor others; the evolution of human government has been the evolution away from government that favors kin, which Fukuyama calls “patrimonialism”, to government by impartial rulers chosen on the basis of merit. The danger is always that government will revert to the less-impartial form, which Fukuyama refers to by the wholly infelicitous term “repatrimonialization.” (In keeping with “i18n” and “l10n”, perhaps we ought to refer to this as “r19n.”) Human self-government is essentially the unending struggle to break free of the bonds of kin favoritism and arrive at the kind of government that China had mastered a millennium or two before Christ.