E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class — October 19, 2017

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class

A (presumably British) working man, photographed from the nose down, the image tinged red. The working man is carrying a lunch pail or something similar, and he wears a soiled apron.

This is really an extraordinary book, quite unlike anything I’ve read before. Normally my problem with books written by British historians — here I’m thinking of Hobsbawm and Gellner, both of whose books I recommend without hesitation — is that they meander seemingly at random around the topic. I’m probably wrong about this, and the problem is probably that they optimistically assume I know more than I do. In any case, usually when I read them I imagine an old, doddering, amiable professor standing at the front of the lecture hall, back turned to his class as he stares with some puzzlement at the blackboard silently for a few minutes, until eventually his disorganized eyebrows perk up and he declares loudly to the class, “Yes! Yes, we shall discuss the Napoleonic Wars” in a course about the Blitz.

Thompson’s book has some of that, but it is thoroughly under his control. Whenever he encounters an interesting historical bend in the road, he stops, lays the groundwork, examines that bend, and always returns promptly to the path he was on. The Making of the English Working Class is a monumental work of ornately carved detail and breathtaking scope all at once. It took me a good month to read it, and I’m so glad I did.

I learned a lot. First was probably this outline of the path Thompson planned to draw:

I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. … class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

This helps explain a subsequent observation:

Popular movements in London have often lacked the coherence and stamina which results from the involvement of an entire community in common occupational and social tensions.

That is, it’s much easier to form a class and set it against its antagonists when, for instance, you’re in Sheffield and your neighbors all specialize, as you do, in manufacturing cutlery, than when you’re in a heterogeneous metropolis like London.

But let’s start much earlier, before the Industrial Revolution was even a glimmer in James Hargreaves’s eye. Thompson begins coalescing the threads that eventually became the British working class at least a century earlier, with John Wesley’s creation of the Methodist church. The strictly organized hierarchy of the Methodist church, says Thompson, taught workers a thing or two about organizing groups of people, which they put to good use in the later labor movement. (Thompson mentions “Halévy’s famous thesis that Methodism prevented revolution in England in the 1790s.” I know not of this thesis, though looking in here for the word “Jacobinism” gives an intriguing taste.)

Mid-1700s radicalism centers on a British notion of the “free-born Englishman”, which I gather I’m supposed to know about, because I’m supposed to know about the English 17th century. Turns out I don’t know about the English 17th century, though I’m working on it. What I infer from reading Thompson is that English rhetoric of the 17th century sounds a lot like American rhetoric today: that anyone who wants to invent a new right had best pretend that he’s not inventing this right, but merely recovering it from the ancient rights of his ancestors.

And then the French Revolution came, and with it a new justification for the rights of man — embodied, on the English side of the Channel, in Thomas Paine, and specifically in his Rights Of Man. Thompson says that The Rights Of Man was a very big deal, “establish[ing] a new framework within which Radicalism was confined for nearly 100 years, as clear and as well defined as the constitutionalism which it replaced.”

It’s of course well known that radicalism on the Continent scared the dickens out of the English ruling class; if this isn’t well known to you, Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind is a good treatment of the topic. I was not aware, though (clearly having forgotten my Robin), that Paine himself was so central to the formation of an entire way of thinking. I know as much about Paine as the next American schoolboy: I learned a sentence or two about him, then picked up another from the Hamilton soundtrack. Burke, and then Rights of Man, go on the queue.

Reading a book about the coming of the Industrial Revolution in Britain from the corrupted perspective of an early-21st-century American, steeped as I am in far too much classical economic dogma, I’m tempted to ask: despite the dislocations and the vile urban poverty, isn’t this better for everyone? After all, if filthy 19th-century London was so bad, then why did people choose to leave their villages for it? Certainly the villages must have been even worse, no? This observation, or something like it, must be in Glaeser. And it’s by no means an academic question: how you perceive the London slums will affect how you perceive, say, the favelas, or the Bangladesh factory collapse. I confess that the Glaeser approach to these problems has infected me.

Thompson’s response makes me feel stupid. Yes, the rural areas were even worse than London, but only because the rural areas were emptying out as people moved to the metropolis. That is, there came a point when enough people had emptied out the villages that there was no home to return to. This is a classic collective-action problem: maybe those who’d moved to London would have preferred to have moved back to the country, but by this point their collective behaviors had made that impossible. In general, it seems to be the case that “consider collective action” is a catch-all, completely correct, answer to most naïve libertarian economics.

We’re all so sullied by libertarian economics — well, I can’t speak for you, but I speak for myself — that we tend to view most economic dislocation through the eyes of this degraded libertarian calculus. Glaeser, for instance, repeatedly advocates helping poor people, not poor places. Were it up to Glaeser, I imagine we’d abandon Detroit, and that we would have abandoned New Orleans after Katrina. The humane response to Glaeser seems almost painfully innocent: places have meaning. A city isn’t just a collection of economic transactions bound together by a shopping district; it’s where generations of people lay down roots. The corrupt libertarian ideology seems to treat preservation of the basic social structure of a place as a needless sidebar to economic maximization. When I read Ruskin, I perceived him as hopelessly naïve, standing as he was on the other side of that chasm. On the contrary, it is I who was naïve; Ruskin was watching the destruction of the land and of his society, whereas I’m standing at a vantage point from which all the destruction has been smoothed away.

This historical empathy lets us view the Luddites more sympathetically:

the conventional picture of the Luddism of these years as a blind opposition to machinery as such becomes less and less tenable. What was at issue was the “freedom” of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages, undercutting his rivals, and undermining standards of craftsmanship.

In many ways Thompson’s book is a fleshing-out of Karl Polanyi. The story arc of Polanyi’s book is that every society which has undergone capitalist economic transformation has tried to do something to arrest that change. The point isn’t to stop economic liberalization, but rather to slow it down so that the social structure can keep up. Economics is an important sphere of human life, but it’s not the only such sphere. A good bit of Thompson’s book is expanding on this idea down to fine (and finely rendered) detail in the English context.

Thompson’s style in delivering this detail is to quote exhaustively from primary sources: from the pamphlets of proselytizers like Cobbett and from the petitions of angry assembled workingmen. The result is just overpoweringly persuasive. And then scattered throughout are his absolutely ice-cold daggers into the libertarian orthodoxy, as here when he demolishes the idea that libertarian “freedom” was a natural outcome of the market’s magical powers:

In the weavers’ history we have a paradigm case of the operation of a repressive and exploitive system upon a section of workers without trade union defences. Government not only intervened actively against their political organisations and trade unions; it also inflicted upon the weavers the negative dogma of the freedom of capital as intransigently as it was to do upon the victims of the Irish famine.

The Making of the English Working Class is what happens when a man’s moral outrage is channeled into icy, careful intellectual vengeance — for instance, this:

Finally, it is suggested, with tedious repetition, that the slums, the stinking rivers, the spoliation of nature, and the architectural horrors may all be forgiven because all happened so fast, so haphazardly, under intense population pressure, without premeditation and without prior experience. “It was ignorance rather than avarice that was often the cause of misery.” [citing Hartwell — SRSL] As a matter of fact, it was demonstrably both; and it is by no means evident that the one is a more amiable characteristic than the other. The argument is valid only up to a point — to the point in most great towns, in the 1830s or 1840s, when doctors and sanitary reformers, Benthamites and Chartists, fought repeated battles for improvement against the inertia of property-owners and the demagoguey of “cheap government” rate-payers. By this time the working people were virtually segregated in their stinking enclaves, and the middle-classes demonstrated their real opinions of the industrial towns by getting as far out of them as equestrian transport made convenient.

This same deeply moral man observes that “one writer [Salaman — SRSL] has surveyed the issue [of child labor] with that air of boredom appropriate to the capacious conscience of the Nuclear Age.”

Thompson’s book is an exquisite antidote to the bloodless economic morality that we’ve all become accustomed to. He takes his time mapping out an 18th- and early-19th-century English world that lies so far on the other side of an economic chasm that we’re mostly unaware that it was ever possible:

The classic exploitive relationship of the Industrial Revolution is depersonalised, in the sense that no lingering obligations of mutuality—of paternalism or deference, or of the interests of “the Trade”—are admitted. There is no whisper of the “just” price, or of a wage justified in relation to social or moral sanctions, as opposed to the operation of free market forces.

He takes enough time painting his portrait of pre-Industrial Revolution English life that it becomes just possible to feel historical empathy — to place ourselves in the shoes of those living in an economic and social system vastly different from our own. That historical empathy alone makes this book worth the price of admission.

To get from that side of the industrial chasm to this one, we had to cross over a point where people were fully aware of what they were destroying, and what they were to gain from the destruction. The very soul of man had to be reshaped, so that he viewed himself as an appendage of the machine:

“Our intention,” said one Assistant Commissioner, “is to make the workhouses as like prisons as possible”; and another, “our object … is to establish therein a discipline so severe and repulsive as to make them a terror to the poor and prevent them from entering”.

We left behind a world that operated at a humane tempo rather than a mechanical one:

A whole pattern of family and community life had grown up around the loom-shops; work did not prevent conversation or singing.

Questions about the benefits of economic “liberalization” do still nag at me, though, as when Thompson writes:

Between 1806 and 1817 the number of gig mills in Yorkshire was said to have increased from 5 to 72; the number of shears worked by machinery from 100 to 1,462; and out of 3,378 shearmen no less than 1,170 were out of work while 1,445 were only partly employed.

Their labour was replaced by that of unskilled men and juveniles.

(internal footnote omitted) What were the unskilled men doing before the Industrial Revolution began? Perhaps he answers this question somewhere within this magisterial volume, but I couldn’t find it. Even if the answer is “they were living on poor relief”, that doesn’t undermine Thompson’s (and Polanyi’s) thesis: there were real victims of the Industrial Revolution, and it will not do to hand-wave that an omelet requires breaking some eggs.

The arc of Thompson’s story runs from the intellectual foundations in Methodist 18th-century England, all the way through the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. Along the way, the story drives relentlessly toward the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which is seemingly a pivotal moment in the English labor movement. Perhaps it’s similar to the Pullman strike? I’m afraid I know about as much about American labor history as about English labor history.

Thompson’s book is an astonishing entrée into the history. He places the reader’s mind and heart into that era; it must set the table perfectly for subsequent readings about the time — many of which I’ve queued up. I’d urge you to read it, both as important history and as the work of a historian in absolute control of his art.

Cédric Villani’s Birth of a Theorem is a very terrible book — October 9, 2017

Cédric Villani’s Birth of a Theorem is a very terrible book

Just going to be mercifully brief with this one. The notes at the end of the book say this:

No attempt has been made to expand upon, much less to explain, fine points of mathematical detail, many of which will be unfamiliar even to professional mathematicians.

They also say this:

Whatever else it may be, it is in no way, shape, or form a scientific treatise.

Yet anyone who opens the book will notice quite enormous equations, and proofs (or at least proof outlines) spanning multiple pages. He or she will also notice long transcripts of email exchanges containing — and this must be a first for any book not written by Leslie Lamport or Donald Knuth — lots of un-rendered TeX source code.

I don’t know who the intended audience for this book is. I don’t know who the intended audience for this book could be. Does anyone want to read emails with un-rendered TeX? Mathematical amateurs will get virtually nothing out of this book. Mathematical professionals, as mentioned in the note I quoted, will get very little out of this book. The book itself doesn’t even know who its audience is. It gives brief, mildly fun biographical sketches of brilliant mathematicians, which suggests that maybe the book is intended for non-professionals. But the volume is filled with so much dense mathematics that’s only professionals could read it. Complicated mathematical concepts are used, but then mostly explained many pages after they’re first mentioned.

The book is mostly an exercise for the author, who recently won a Fields Medal, to talk about how clever he is in the guise of just showing “a day in the life” of a professional mathematician. So on page 15, Villani grants us the favor of letting us listen to this conversation with his colleague:

“Violent relaxation, Cédric, is like Landau damping. Except that Landau damping is a perturbative regime and violent relaxation is a highly nonlinear regime.”

These sentences don’t make any sense to me. The author has done nothing to ensure that they’ll make sense to anyone apart from, I suppose, specialists within his particular corner of mathematics.

The book generally is supposed to show the thought process that led the author to prove something about Landau damping, whatever that might be. So it’s got diary entries, emails between him and his colleague, and scenes from the author’s life with his family (including recounting stories he tells his kids). So it feels like a bunch of hastily bolted together snippets that are supposed to form a book. If I had to guess, I would assume that his Fields Medal brought him a lot of press in France (which I’m told honors scholars much more than the United States does), and that his publishers decided to capitalize on it by throwing this out to the world as quickly as possible.

All the paper copies of this book should be pulped, and the hard drives on which the electronic copies exist should be subjected to strong magnets.

How to make moral judgments about others when their will isn’t entirely free — October 7, 2017

How to make moral judgments about others when their will isn’t entirely free

In college, I dated a woman who was, it turned out, quite seriously mentally ill. She had Borderline Personality Disorder, which led to her engaging in reckless sex, spending, etc. She cheated on me. It was awful.

How much does the mental illness — the fact that there’s a label attached to her collection of behaviors — excuse those behaviors? Actually, let’s ignore the actual diagnosis and the actual label. Let’s just take it as given that the underlying understanding of her mind is correct: that it is harder for her to avoid certain risky behaviors than it is for the rest of us. Let’s suppose that she could, if she tried very hard, avoid those risky behaviors, but that it takes a lot more work for her than it does for others. How justified are we in thinking ill of her? How much does the illness excuse?

Or take another, quite different situation which I think shares a lot of similarities with the above. Lots of people live in car-dependent places. Consequently, their daily lives involve their inflicting more damage on the environment than do those who live in denser, more-walkable areas. On the one hand, we may want to pass moral judgment on them: their actions are harmful to all of us, and to our children. On the other, what leads many people to live in car-dependent areas are structural problems, namely that mass transit in this country is poor and that housing in dense, walkable areas is expensive. People could, perhaps, choose to live where their environmental damage is lower, but that choice comes with a cost. In some places (I’m thinking of San Francisco here), the choice is too costly to be reasonable for many people. So they buy a car, live out where the land is cheaper (and where their children can play in the backyard, etc.), and harm the environment more than they would in the city.

The similarity between these two situations is that the more-virtuous choice is costly. In some cases it may be prohibitively costly. The mentally ill person may be aware of the damage he or she is inflicting on others, but the biochemical hurdle may be too high to get over. The person living in the suburbs may be able to move closer to the city, but only by swallowing a majority of her income in rent. Yes, in both cases they’re making a “choice”, but it’s a choice in which their hands are largely forced.

Past some extreme, I think many of us intuitively forgive people who misbehave, when their misbehavior seems to come from forces beyond their control. When we hear that a drug dealer chose that path because his community offered no legitimate paths to earn a decent income, we’re willing to forgive — even though he could, with effort, probably have found a legitimate path out. At some point we acknowledge that the effort exceeds what can reasonably be expected of a human being.

At the same time, our hands are always, to some degree or another, forced. I’m born into my circumstances and you’re born into yours. I’m born with my biochemistry and you’re born with yours. Not all behavior is forgivable. Biochemistry doesn’t excuse everything.

Is there just a threshold above which we implicitly forgive people their trespasses? Certain innate limitations — your society denying you a decent legitimate wage; a mental illness for which you’re heavily medicated; a built environment that makes walkable living unattainable for all but the wealthiest — may forgive a lot of behavior that we’d otherwise frown on.

Another way to look at it is that human behavior isn’t one-dimensional: the choice isn’t between living in the suburbs and living in the city; you can choose to live in the suburbs so long as city life is unattainable, and also fight like hell through your city and state governments to ensure that city life becomes affordable to those of lesser means.

I have no particular conclusion here. It occurs to me that actual moral philosophers, who actually know what they’re talking about, have probably written on this topic in an interesting way. I’d love some pointers.

What we talk about when we talk about schools — October 6, 2017

What we talk about when we talk about schools

Everyone in the United States, I think, takes it for granted that certain towns have better schools than others. Nearly everyone would acknowledge that the better schools come with the wealthier towns. If you’re wealthy enough, you move out to the suburbs, or you send your kids to private schools. And practically everyone knows that the price of admission to the wealthy towns is that you own an expensive home: wealthy suburbs aren’t generally filled with tiny condos.

I’d like to contrast this near-universal understanding with the quite remarkable silence around it in American politics. And I’m not making a substantive point, but rather a point about our rhetoric. I was reminded of this when I was thinking about the parts of Hillary Clinton’s book that were boilerplate political material. Boilerplate is, practically by definition, not substantively interesting, but it’s rhetorically interesting to note what’s allowed to be boilerplate in this country and what’s not.

So Hillary is allowed to say that she’s, essentially, a Methodist girl whose parents taught her the value of hard work. If you riff on this for 200 pages, you get half of her book. American rhetoric is filled with this sort of thing. We love Stand and Deliver-type stories, where the underdog works real hard and eventually comes out on top.

Presidential candidates are supposed to talk about individuals, not about systems. And they’re supposed to talk optimistically. This is why Hillary is allowed to talk about this person or that person whom she met on the campaign trail, but not about the forces at work underneath that everyone knows: she’s allowed to say that she met (making up a thing here) a proud young black woman born into poverty in Harlem who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and is now about to graduate from Georgetown Law, but is not allowed to talk about the children of upper-middle-class parents who managed to get out of Harlem, move to the suburbs, and have a much easier path into Georgetown.

Part of this is, of course, that the country has a deep commitment to local schooling. I saw this when I was growing up in Vermont: the court recognized that wealthier towns had better schools, acknowledged that this was inequitable, and ordered the legislature to do something about it. The result was Act 60, which angered people all over the state: growing up in my wealthy town, I heard it said that we were being penalized for “being willing to spend more on our students” than poorer towns. Willingness to spend is one way to put it; ability to spend would be another.

Point being that there’s a fairly deep consensus in this country that towns should be allowed to control their own schooling, without interference from any higher levels of government. If a presidential candidate advocated that the Department of Education should work to ensure that schools in rural Mississippi are as good as those in suburban New York City, he or she would be quickly laughed out of the race.

In a lot of ways Americans are committed to condemning children based on the sins of their parents. If you can’t afford to buy a home in an expensive suburb, too bad for your kids; they’ll have to make do with the crappy local school whose ceilings are caving in.

The rhetoric may share a lot of background with Americans’ baffling support for repealing the estate tax. Years ago I read a book — probably Unequal Democracy — which noted the consistent, long-running support in the American electorate for getting rid of the estate tax, even though the vast, vast majority of Americans will never be subject to it. This is connected to American optimism: I may not be wealthy enough to be hit by the estate tax now, but one day I will be. Likewise: it sucks that I have to send my kid to the crappy neighborhood public school, but one of these days I’ll be wealthy enough to afford to live in the suburbs or send my kid to private school. In the meantime, let’s not do anything to weaken the link between wealthy towns and good schools.

Another piece of the rhetoric around schooling might have to do with teacher’s unions. Candidates are allowed to attack bad teachers as the center of the problem, because attacking the school-financing system, or attacking children, are off-limits. If you’re a liberal presidential candidate, and you attack the teachers and attack their unions, then maybe you peel off a few conservatives who praise you for your “tough” stand.

None of this engages substantively with any of these points; that’s deliberate. Smarter people than me have made the substantive argument elsewhere. See Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, about the widespread drive to privatize schools; Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, whose central idea is, in short, “It’s the segregation, stupid”; and then-Professor Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke, which advocates for sundering the link between “where the good schools are” and “where wealthy people live”. (I wonder if now-Senator Warren still supports that.) For a take on the morality of sending your kids to private schools even while you know that it would be collectively better for us to all send our kids to public schools, try How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened — October 5, 2017

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened

Just the author's name and the title, basicallyI’ll keep this one relatively brief. I’ll avoid a lot of what you could get by listening to any number of great interviews with Clinton (e.g., Ezra Klein‘s, Longform‘s, or the New Yorker Radio Hour‘s).

Basically I divide the book into two types: there’s the rigorous analytical piece — on why exactly she lost the election, or on how misogyny and sexism work — and then there’s the homespun piece. The homespun piece is what you expect from most political memoirs: my mommy always taught me this, my Methodist faith taught me that, etc. I didn’t get terribly much out of the homespun piece … until I thought about it a bit more. Clearly there is something strong within Secretary Clinton that has kept her in the public eye for 20+ years despite being demonized by the Right at every turn. Is it so far-fetched to believe that, when things get bad — and they’ve been really, really bad for her quite often for decades — she falls back on a deep reserve of fundamental values? I’ve not been tested a millionth as much as Clinton has; I imagine that if I had been so tested, I would spend at least some of my time trying to understand how I’d pulled through. A lot of the answers I would come to would probably sound too clean-cut, but that’s because life is much messier lived forward and much clearer understood backward.

As for the other half of the book — the analytical piece — it alone justifies the price of admission. In 20 years, when we want to understand the madness of the 2016 election and the madness of the Trump presidency, the final 1/3 or so of What Happened will be a vital primary source.

Then there are the “please imagine” bits, like this:

I’ve written about this before but it’s worth saying again: one of the reasons he lost the Governor’s race in 1980 was because I still went by my maiden name. Let that sink in for a moment and please imagine how it felt.

Or this:

We’ve certainly had dark days in our marriage. You know all about them—and please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship.

I did, repeatedly, stop and imagine the constant attack she’s been under for 20 years, and it was horrifying.

Without her going into very much detail about them at all, there are what appear to be changes of heart on policy since the election:

Targeted programs may be more efficient and progressive, and that’s why during the primaries I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued.

That sounds to me exactly right: push for universal programs. I would go further: push for universal programs that are free at point of service, funded by steeply progressive taxes.

Other parts, again echoing what you’d expect from a political memoir, are not believable — like this:

More than anyone else, it was Chelsea who helped me to see that my stance on same-sex marriage was incompatible with my values and the work I had done in the Senate and at the State Department to protect the rights of LGBT people. She impressed upon me that I had to endorse marriage equality if I was truly committed to equal human dignity, and as soon as I left the State Department, I did.

I have a very hard time believing that Clinton had some realization about the incompatibility of two of her principles, which led her — through the pure light of Reason alone, guided by her daughter’s steady hand — to support gay marriage. My cynical mind says that the story is simpler: for a time, the American public wasn’t behind gay marriage, and then it very quickly came to support it. I likewise don’t believe that Obama’s views “evolved”.

What’s strange about her treatment of this issue is that it’s not that hard to frame the cynical reasoning as correct. I can certainly believe that, had Clinton supported gay marriage, she would’ve lost some elections, or would’ve lost some votes in the Senate. You judge politicians, I should hope, by the overall direction of their policy accomplishments; to the extent that gay marriage held other issues back, there’s a fine argument for opposing gay marriage. I find it a little odd that she doesn’t address this policy thought process much at all in her book. Instead it’s what we heard during the campaign: I’ve fought for decades on this and that and the other thing — it’s a steady forward march, driven ever onward by my bedrock principles. Unless I skimmed too quickly, I didn’t catch any instances when Clinton was forced to compromise her bedrock principles in the service of a greater good.

That aside, What Happened is a very, very good book, worth reading if only for the pieces about misogyny and electoral nuts and bolts. It’ll make you sad all over again, and remind you — as though you needed reminding — of the crisis we’re still in.

Cooking tools I couldn’t do without — September 24, 2017

Cooking tools I couldn’t do without

Not only does Steve Read, Steve also Cooks. I get great joy out of these things:

  1. Chef’s knife from Global. The only knives you need are a chef’s knife, a serrated knife (for tomatoes and such), and a paring knife. Don’t bother with knife sets; they are stupid, and mostly low quality. Get a chef’s knife, sharpen it regularly, and rejoice. (If you’re in Boston, get Patti to sharpen your knives when she’s in your neighborhood.)

  2. Boos block. It’s like a cutting board, but larger (quite heavy) and much better. I lovingly maintain this one using “mystery oil”, and make sure to dry it off after using it, ever since I destroyed the first one I owned. The trouble was that it sat next to the sink, and would stew in sink water for hours and days after cooking. Eventually it became so warped that it would wobble on the countertop. So now, after I’m done with this Boos block, I stand it on its edge and wipe down the counter around it. And whenever the board looks like it’s a little dried out, I slather it in oil. It’s stayed in great shape for a year and a half, and I anticipate many more years of use.

  3. Bench scraper. You might not think you would need a specialized device to scrape things off countertops (and off Boos blocks), but it turns out you do. This one is particularly lovely, and maybe too expensive to buy sight unseen (I believe we got it as a wedding gift), but this one is also great, and costs $7.08.

  4. Apron. I didn’t know much of a difference an apron makes (over constantly getting all your clothes dirty, and/or wetting your hands every few minutes). Turns out: quite the difference!

  5. Any pans from All-Clad. I first encountered these ten-odd years ago, when I was living with roommates in a house on U Street in Washington, D.C. One of my roommates (Ed) owned the house, and didn’t enjoy cooking very much, so I had the kitchen basically to myself. The story went that the house had been owned by an airline pilot or some such, who had bought it to live in with the love of his life. They both enjoyed cooking, so the kitchen was especially lovely: beautiful restaurant-grade six-burner stove, and all the All-Clad cookware a man could hope for. But the dream died quickly: the owner’s partner cheated on him; by the time Ed came to look at the house the owner wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible and forget that the whole thing had ever happened. The owner sold it to Ed without an inspection, just to speed the process along. Which all sucks, but … All-Clad cookware!

    We have this sauté pan, or something close to it. I think it may be among the more entry-level All-Clad pans; I think there aren’t as many layers to the metal as in the higher-end All-Clad stuff. One of these days, when I have a ton of money, I’m going to invest in all the high-end stuff, and then just spend my days cooking.

    Basically what makes All-Clad great is the evenness of the heat: neither the pan nor the food ever has burned patches. I think that comes from the complicated combination of metals inside, but I’m not sure. All I know is that cooking with All-Clad made me feel like a culinary genius. And the sauté pan we have is the nicest stove-top piece we own.

  6. Cast iron. We have a Dutch oven and a 12-inch skillet. They’re heavy, and require a bit more care than other cookware (never use soap on them, and always dry them quickly), but they repay the effort: the heat is perfectly even, and these pans will last forever. I fully anticipate that I’ll be passing them on to my grandchildren, who will wonder why the hell they’d use musty old cast iron rather than brainwave cookery.

Health-insurance deductibles and the average American’s assets — July 20, 2017

Health-insurance deductibles and the average American’s assets

Here‘s a little thing about health-insurance deductibles:

In short, the BCRA makes changes to regulations that will cause annual deductibles for individual market health plans to skyrocket — to $13,000. But other regulations set the legal limit on annual out-of-pocket spending to $10,900. This means the BCRA’s health plans could actually violate the law.

If you want to get a sense of how large a $13,000 deductible is, consider this, from the Federal Reserve:

respondents are asked how they would pay for a hypothetical emergency expense that would cost $400. Just over half (54 percent) report that they could fairly easily handle such an expense, paying for it entirely using cash, money currently in their checking/savings account, or on a credit card that they would pay in full at their next statement (collectively referred to here as “cash or its functional equivalent”). The remaining 46 percent indicate that such an expense would be more challenging to handle and that they either could not pay the expense or would borrow or sell something to do so.
[…]
among respondents who would not pay the expense in-full using cash or its functional equivalent, 38 percent would use a credit card that they pay off over time and 31 percent simply could not cover the expense.

So around 1 in 7 Americans couldn’t pay a $400 expense in any way.

(There’s a BankRate survey that seems to ask a similar question, but I couldn’t identify the exact question. The Fed’s question is precisely laid out. And of course it’s a more trustworthy source.)

When people talk about how insurance ought to be only for catastrophic expenses, I hope they realize what ‘catastrophe’ entails for a lot of Americans.