Friday, October 23, 2015

Identity Shopping at the Race-Gender-Class Buffet

Current events followers with long memories (possibly a rarity anymore) might remember the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race, when incumbent Republican Scott Brown lambasted Elizabeth Warren as a liar and opportunist for claiming to have Native American heritage. Brown, speaking through proxies, even called Warren a "liar," painfully direct language once common in political races, now very rare. Brown based this characterization entirely on Warren’s visibly fair hair and skin.

The liberal-minded outrage at Brown’s narrow, nigh-bigoted attacks largely disappeared three years later when Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP chapter president, got outed as secretly white. Photos of an unmistakably white teenaged Dolezal circulated on social media, stirring another Facebook-driven moral panic that reached national levels before another mass shooting returned her to anonymity. Her tone-deaf Today Show interview generated indignation over her attempt to pick her racial identity.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, left, and disgraced NAACP maven Rachel Dolezal.
Can you tell someone's race by their skin tone? Umm, depends who's asking, apparently.

The source in both cases? Parents. Warren declared that her parents told her she had Native American heritage, and she had no reason to disbelieve. Dolezal’s parents floated the damning photographs that elevated her from regional gadfly to nationwide notoriety. Though the cases had virtually opposite consequences— individuals either can or cannot self-identify with the racial heritage they readily embrace— both share the belief that one’s parents dictate one’s race.

I remembered this strange duality this week when a Huffington Post article entitled “What's a Skoliosexual?” crossed my desk. The title suggests fetish-like attraction to congenital back problems. But the article enumerates a dozen sexual identities that don’t slot neatly into the straight-vs-LGBT spectrum we’ve accepted for the last two decades. This includes such doozies as “Lithromantic,” “Graysexual,” “Queerplatonic,” and “Zucchini.” As though you weren’t risking insulting enough categories already.

Some categories from this article are familiar. I first encountered the term “pansexual” in a biography of actor Alan Cummings, who doesn’t create divisions in his romantic entanglements. But what, precisely, is the difference between “pansexual,” “polysexual,” and plain old bisexual? This creation of new categories obscures more than it clarifies, largely because adherents to these various groups pick their affiliation, and according to this article, may pick more than one.

Marxist writer Mick Hume makes an interesting point that I’d not previously considered. In today’s shifting landscape of identity politics, a theory of group identification and collective responsibility, having somebody like Rachel Dolezal horn in on our group undermines meaningful cohesion. If we get identity, and political agency, from group membership, we must guard our borders assiduously. That’s why I can’t pick my race, class, biological sex, or nationality.

This leaves only one internal identity marker over which I exercise any control whatsoever: my sexual identity. Only I can determine whether I’m attracted to men, women, or some subjective ratio. Only I can ascertain whether my psychological gender corresponds with my genitals. Though there’s some, very incomplete, evidence of neurological basis for sexuality, nobody knows whether that’s inborn or epigenetic. The evidence can only be shown upon autopsy.

Consider Caitlyn Jenner. The former Bruce apparently decided, at an age when many men are gearing down to spend their Golden Years spoiling their grandchildren, that she’d secretly always been a woman, inside, where it counts. She concedes she’s still sexually attracted to women. There’s no evidence Bruce ever frequented drag clubs, had ambiguous tendencies, or wore a dress before 2014. And Caitlyn has no pending plans for genital reassignment.

Caitlyn Jenner, accepting one of many recent accolades. Sorry, Caitlyn, but most transsexuals
don't get glamour shoots, reality shows, and awards; too many get rejected by their families and
become homeless.

My ability to pick my sexual identity, but absolutely no other internal identity markers, is especially problematic from a scientific perspective. Anthropologists like Richard J. Perry write the word “race” in scare quotes anymore, because there’s no empirical evidence of consistent genetic markers for racial characteristics. “Race” consists entirely of how others treat us. As cultural guardians harden lines of racial identity (unless a Republican asks), science has softened them.

The Washington Post admits we don't know how many Americans identify as transgender. Until recently, “trannies” and “queers” had no serious demographic standing. The popularity of web programs like TransParent, and Caitlyn Jenner’s public visibility, certainly make the incidence of transgendered persons seem more ubiquitous. As identity activists make other social divisions more intractable, giving us fewer choices, having a malleable sexual identity certainly seems tempting.

I’ve struggled with this for several months. After that struggle, I literally can determine no difference between Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, except how people treat them. While liberal activists soften gender divisions, they’ve rigidified other splits. They’ve created categories only individuals can subjectively identify, while trapping people in other external categories. No wonder it feels like people don’t talk to one another anymore. Increasingly, we can’t.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dissecting the Clinton Decade For Fun and Profit

Gil Troy, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s

Bill and Hillary Clinton at a 1993 inaugural ball

I find it refreshing that historian Gil Troy doesn’t conceal personal positions behind mealy-mouthed bipartisanship attempts. Around this book’s one-quarter mark, he writes: “Clinton’s alluring idealism, passion for people, and atomic smarts mixed unstably with a hard-edged will to power, a puppy-dog neediness, and a super-human buoyancy--during a time of cultural, technological, and economic upheaval.” This perfectly encapsulates Troy’s attempt to do everything at once, with predictably chaotic results.

Gil Troy, whose published bibliography includes multiple collaborations with the progressive historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., proposes with this book to create an overview of the entire 1990s, with Bill Clinton as emblem of the era. Like Reagan in the 1980s or FDR in the 1930s, Clinton’s name is so linked with his American decade that we cannot explain one without another. Troy proposes to examine person and time together.

His success seems, at best, mixed. In early chapters, before Clinton’s campaign and presidency, his emphasis lies on a synoptic overview of the spotlighted years. Once Bill entered national affairs, however, Troy’s focus shifts to personality. On occasion, he resembles the “gotcha” journalists he mocks and deplores within his text. Though Troy putatively approaches his subject with historians’ dispassion, I find myself wondering what subtextual purpose he’s really pursuing.

Troy lards his exposition, at seemingly random intervals, with weasel words and personal imprecations: Bill had not dodged, but “slithered past the draft.” Troy characterizes Clinton’s administration as “campaign kids” versus “professional grown-ups.” Or he repeats talk radio ad hominem attacks, often without endnote citations: Hillary’s leadership in Health Care Reform and other issues struck Americans as “Byzantine and Stalinist.” Troy comes across as a moralizing jerk.

Gil Troy
But weirdly, Troy also exempts Clinton from his most cutting contemporary criticism. From the very prologue, Troy emphasizes Clinton's success injecting centrist morality into conventional Democratic politics; yet he wholly writes out Clinton's critics from the moral Left, like Reverend Jim Wallis or Rabbi Michael Lerner. The latter contributed heavily to Hillary's “Politics of Meaning” speech, which Troy acknowledges as her biggest early misstep, and found himself exiled for it.

In fairness, Rabbi Lerner himself kept mum about such issues for over a decade. If Troy wants to examine a particular decade, citing sources not written until 2006 might arguably seem reasonable. But Reverend Wallis had no such compunctions. He openly criticized President Clinton as early as 1995. He certainly had audience enough to receive and repeat his criticisms. Why then doesn’t he merit precious column inches?

This complex “what to leave in, what to leave out” issue persistently confounds Troy’s narrative. Early on, Troy declares his intent to focus on preponderantly domestic issues. Foreign policy, while perhaps interesting, lies too far afield for our purposes. But then Troy offers only hat-tip acknowledgments of the Defense of Marriage Act and the Glass-Steagall Act repeal, the two pieces of domestic policy that debatably most defined Clinton’s lingering legacy.

Policy little interests Troy; he’d rather talk personalities. George Stephanopolous; Zoe Baird; Ken Starr; Vince Foster. That’s saying nothing of more rabble-rousing personalities, like Rush Limbaugh, whose popularity peaked during Clinton’s first term. Troy busily name-checks every personnel misstep and media gadfly, while spending little time on actual Clinton accomplishments, that I felt less like I’d read a comprehensive history, more like I’d dived into a morass of tabloid journalism redux.

Meanwhile, the decade itself gets some sporadic treatment. Remember, the 1990s saw tech-stock CEOs getting rock-star treatment, appearing on Rolling Stone covers, speaking to applauding stadium crowds, making millions on stock offerings that actually produced nothing. With the Cold War over, American attention spans wavered on countless brightly colored do-funnies and financial mousetraps. Troy mentions some, but lingers on not one long enough for true comprehension.

Full disclosure: I’m no Clinton loyalist. During the 1990s, I voted Republican, but converted to liberalism after 9/11. Since then, I’ve drifted toward Distributism, a Third Way political-economic theory based on moral precepts. Bill Clinton’s willingness to appease his opponents (cf. Ian Haney López or Barry Glassner) strike me, then as now, as craven. And anyone expecting anything different from Mrs. Clinton seems incredibly naïve.

That said, Troy’s low-tension, milquetoast synopsis will satisfy neither inveterate Clinton haters nor died-in-the-wool True Believers. He surveys the decade with great breadth but little depth, often stumbling into the very traps he contends doomed Clinton’s contemporaries. I simply learned more reading Conason and Lyons’ The Hunting of the President. Too flimsy for readers my age, too superficial for younger readers, this book just drifts.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Alex Kava's Dark Night of the Writer's Soul

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 59
Alex Kava, One False Move

Mystery novelist Andrew Kane has created national bestselling potboilers by working hand-in-glove with Omaha police and top-ranked attorneys. His stories of humanity’s depraved depths have received praise for their gritty realism, psychological insight, and taut pacing. But Andrew feels he’s grown stale. So he reserves a cabin at Platte River State Park, planning to re-evaluate his writing. He cannot know a released convict with dark ambitions is hiding out nearby.

One needn’t employ complex Freudian analysis to recognize that Andrew Kane represents popular Omaha novelist Alex Kava’s introspective turn. Just four years into a popular thriller-writing career, Kava, who initially chose a gender-neutral pseudonym to break into publishing (her real name is Sharon), felt trapped by the industry’s demands for reliable sales bait. This, her first freestanding novel, represents both a marked rebellion, and a return to her genre’s roots.

Jared Barnett should be awaiting execution. A crooked lawyer and coerced testimony have gotten him sprung, returning him to streets unprepared for him. Charming, intelligent, and narcissistic, Jared has remarkable influence over many people, including his grifter sister Melanie Starks and her teenage son Charlie. When Jared begins making demands upon his terrified sister, she finds herself making horrible justifications. Like for taking a gentle, defenseless novelist hostage.

Kava’s story draws heavily upon her Nebraska heritage. Not only in its physical locations—the park where Andrew Kane retreats is very real, as is the bank Jared and Melanie rob, and the winding route they follow, fleeing police, across the state, captive Andrew in tow—but also its cultural references. Considering Jared’s affable, murderous inclinations, is it surprising his sister’s named Starks? As in Starkweather?

Alex Kava
Indeed, one could make a drinking game of spotting Nebraska references in Kava’s story. Besides Charles Starkweather, observant readers will recognize bank robber Duane Earl Pope, and the notorious Beatrice Six case. Her afterword cites two bank robberies in Lincoln and Norfolk, Nebraska, during her early writing career. Even the open-road, fugitive motif, familiar from Springsteen’s Nebraska album and Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands, are quintessentially Plains-based.

Deeper themes emerge, however, in the repeated, sometimes lengthy conversations between Andrew Kane and Jared Barnett. The actual criminal, a confessed murderer whose relative liberty stems from his ability to game the system, offers criticism and pointers to the guy whose job it is to invent fictional crimes that feel realistic but have drama. Actual crime may be charming and destructive, but it proves itself remarkably banal.

Jared’s power over his sister and nephew is itself remarkable. Raised amid violence and neglect, Jared and Melanie never had a chance. But where Melanie pursues nickel-and-dime crime because it’s all she knows, Jared embraces the lifestyle of violence. And Melanie’s son Charlie, still not formally an adult, commits crimes because he doesn’t understand why it’s wrong. (Though Melanie mentions Charlie’s father, a history between Jared and Melanie is implied.)

I first read this novel over a decade ago, when it first came out, and was mildly impressed, though it didn’t strike me as revolutionary. However, rereading it now, after discovering anthropologist Richard J. Perry and addictionist Gabor Maté, I realize how profound Kava’s insights into human behavior actually are. Her writings predate the revolution in epigenetic sciences, but accurately reflect current beliefs about how environment shapes human nature.

Humans aren’t born evil, or good. Epigenetic force all around shape us, forces that mold and warp not only our bodies, but also our brain structures. Scratch an alcoholic, philanderer, or gambling addict, and below the surface, you’ll discover some form of abuse that shaped a person’s early life. Adaptations that kept that child safe and sane become destructive in adulthood. Childhood nurturance or violence manifests itself in surprising ways.

Jared Barnett receives his childhood abuse, accepts it, and doubles down. Melanie Starks resists. And Charlie Starks sees that his uncle’s charm—which masks an innate passivity to influence—looks easier than his mother’s struggle. The Barnett-Starks family represents a battle between free will and determinism. Thrust into this battle, Andrew Kane represents the stories we tell ourselves, attempting to justify whatever choice we make.

On its surface, Kava’s novel mixes an open-road fugitive drama, the kind of story mystery readers have seen repeatedly, with the same quality of authorial self-examination we’ve encountered recently in Stephen King and James Patterson. Deeper down, though, Kava questions what makes us really human. Those questions aren’t necessarily obvious, possibly even to Kava herself. However, once spotted, those questions seize our throats, and don’t let us go easily.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Dark Side of Life in the Holy Land

Naomi Ragen, The Devil in Jerusalem: a Novel Inspired by True Events

When EMTs rush a comatose child into a Jerusalem hospital, doctors seek his mother, until they realize: she’s in another room, saying prayers over another tragically injured child. Youthful, pious Daniella Goodman, an American heiress living on a religious commune, cannot explain her children’s injuries. Her kids refuse to be separated from her. Hardened detectives find Rebbetzen Goodman a revolting case, but nobody can unlock her wall of silence.

American readers might immediately recognize the core of Israeli author Naomi Ragen’s latest novel. Witnessing Mrs. Goodman recite psalms over her wounded children, and stand on religious ceremony with police, we know we’ve seen similar stories with survivors of reactionary religious groups. Headlines about deceased Christian Scientist children come to mind—but, ultimately, explain little. The longer Ragen’s story continues, the less predictable it becomes.

Ragen proceeds along two parallel tracks. In the first, a strict police procedural, Detective Bina Tzedek gets drafted into the effort to unlock Goodman’s story. Police officials believe Bina, a wife and mother herself, will elicit Goodman’s sympathy and dislodge whatever mental block keeps the story from unfolding. But the longer the investigation continues, the more hardened Bina finds herself becoming: Goodman, she believes, is completely inhuman.

Meanwhile, Ragen also unfolds Daniella Goodman’s story in flashback. Raised among largely assimilated American Jews, Daniella and her husband find their identity by immersing themselves in religion. Their personal faith melds Chabad, Kabbalah, Hasidism, and other influences into a fundamentalist pan-Hebraic goulash, culminating in their relocation to Israel. The collision between their pious expectations and Israel’s largely secularized reality, however, leaves her open to greedy religious predators.

Naomi Ragen
The tension between Ragen’s two stories, a straight-up police thriller and a more literary exploration of modern discontent, will please some readers, alienate others. Some audiences might prefer Ragen pick one genre and stick with it. I’m not among such audiences, though they have my sympathy: the movement between Ragen’s parallel tracks is sometimes wrenching. She demands readers unmoored from conventional marketing categories to really appreciate her accomplishments here.

This tension highlights, however, Ragen’s ultimate message. The Goodmans have highly romantic expectations regarding Israel and the prophesied return to Zion, or Aliyah. Influenced by dead European Talmudists and living American summer camp counselors, the Goodmans expect a Biblical welcome, open arms and a life of unstinting holiness. This despite their sketchy command of Hebrew, limited job skills, and frustrating propensity to procreate despite mounting costs.

In Israel itself, they discover a wholly modern, largely Westernized society, deaf to their piety. The kind of society where everyone needs paying work, where religious pilgrims must make compromise with secular citizenry, and where jaded cops speak with CSI brusqueness. Shlomie Goodman discovers married men cannot study holy books full-time in Israel; Daniella discovers she’ll get no help raising copious children. (Are religious Jews forbidden from using contraception? #AskingForAFriend)

Meanwhile, in brief glimpses, a third reality emerges. Though too scarce to constitute another parallel storyline, Ragen permits us snapshots of somebody manipulating events through cunning and patience. As with common Thomas Harris villains, we know this somebody exists, but gain such slow, dribbling insights that, following each encounter, we know less than we did before. Daniella’s disillusionment, and her children’s pain, serve a shadowy figure’s personal, sanctimonious ends.

For us, as for the Goodmans, this collision between expectation and reality forbids resting comfortably on whatever came before. Though Ragen’s prose isn’t exactly a nail-biter, her narrative enacts the old truism that the only constant is change. Whenever we think we’ve mastered her story, and can predict what comes next, circumstances reveal that our expectations failed to account for something. Facts always exist, even if we couldn’t see them.

If anything, Ragen’s more conventional mystery chapters provide a much-needed seventh inning stretch from her intensely grim literary chapters. The Goodmans’ disappointment unspools before us with almost Anna Karenina-ish remorselessness. As their choices become circumscribed, their future bleak, it becomes easy to understand why they’d accept obedience and suffering, as acceptable trade-off to recover some prospect of comfort and control. The mystery intrudes because we, like they, need a break.

Not everyone will enjoy this novel equally. Ragen’s juxtaposition of styles, and her dark themes, forbid half-brained reading. She basically dares us to rebel against her storytelling. Yet smart, engaged readers will find plenty to challenge their preconceptions and upend their comfortable illusions. Audiences willing to invest their patience and thought will find this a rewarding book, one which lingers ruthlessly long after we close the final cover.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Inside the Business Übermensch Brain

Steve Tobak, Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur

My first clue that Steve Tobak would raise my hackles came in the preface, when he proclaims, with typical managerial humility: "Entrepreneurialism is broken, and I'm going to fix it." Not through the hard work of, say, creating entrepreneurial training programs, trade guilds, or other mutuality networks. No, he’ll fix it through this book. He basically makes that messianic proclamation, offers you this gospel, and demands your fidelity.

Reading management consultant Tobak’s first book, I kept recalling sociologist Duncan J. Watts. Employed by Microsoft Research, Watts discusses the common flaws in social reasoning: we use retrospective analysis on recent successes, thinking we’ll anticipate the next, but merely predict the past. We assume, despite all evidence, that large groups behave essentially like individuals. We treat the specific as universal. We “explain” things in ways that merely describe.

Throughout this book, Tobak repeatedly makes assertions that seem reasonable, if you’re unfamiliar with his topics. He claims Americans suffer a catastrophic lack of entrepreneurial drive, vulnerability to groupthink, and other problems. I have no qualm there. Matt Taibbi and Michael Lewis describe how financial operators imploded America’s economy with lemming-like thinking, and may do so again. If Tobak stopped there, I’d like him plenty.

However, as Tobak continues speaking, problems arise. We start noticing he builds long, complicated arguments on few, or no, cited sources. He lets anecdote substitute for evidence. His hasty generalizations and emotive language lump people into categories so broad, he’s plainly talking about people he’s never spoken to. Sometimes his language treads perilously close to fascism, as when pitting business leaders against “zombie bureaucrats” and the “devolved” masses.

Tobak, like men of means throughout time, believes today infinitely worse than his heyday. He doesn’t even disguise this attitude, writing: "We are becoming more entitled and less empathetic, more disassociated and less organized, more anarchistic and less civilized, more impulsive and less thoughtful, more distracted and less focused. And we are losing our ability to discern fact from fiction, truth from lies, and real insights from complete bullshit."

Maybe so, it’s plausible. But Tobak’s principal source? The movie Idiocracy. Funny how nobody watching that virtually straight-to-DVD mishmash of hipster self-superiority and sloppy biology ever thinks themselves on the story’s wrong side. Tobak then tumbles headlong into an evolutionary biology discursion both factually wrong (see Richard J. Perry or Gabor Maté, actual scientists) and borderline eugenicist in its disdain for difference.

I figured, hell, everyone biffs once. But Tobak proceeds directly into an encomium for Ayn Rand, objectivist philosopher and author of the novel Atlas Shrugged. Rich people love citing Rand to justify why their success proves their moral superiority. Rand divides humanity into wealthy übermenschen, and the great rabble, whom the wealthy rightly treat as interchangeable parts. Rand doesn’t support capitalism, so much as technocratic feudalism. Joshua Holland notes Rand’s iconic hero, John Galt, satisfies every DSM-IV diagnostic criterion for clinical psychopathy.

Though I kept reading, everything Tobak said sounded leaden. Again, as with Idiocracy, no Rand believer ever suspects they’ve backed the losing side. Using language pilfered from the Tea Party (what happened to not following, Steve?) Tobak calls today “a Randian nightmare,” an opinion not particularly shared by anybody outside Rand’s camp. Indeed, Rand’s sometime deputy, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, hand-wrote the policies which hastened the financial services collapse of 2008.

Therein lies Tobak’s greatest problem. He acknowledges surviving the 2000 dotcom bubble, and gives vague hat-tips to the 2008 financial services meltdown, but doesn’t let these experiences change him. He somehow occupies a fortress, unaffected by the lessons of the last fifteen years. He praises rich men (and they’re mostly indeed men), mocks anyone whose values can’t be measured fiscally, and promises to, somehow, elevate you to his wealthy Lehman-proof pantheon.

Clearly, like many management consultants, Tobak's greatest product is himself. Of twenty-four chapters in this book, eighteen feature a lengthy first-person anecdote in the first three pages. Most of those other six have one later, if you keep reading. Such self-infatuation conveys the unspoken message: be like me. To enjoy Steve Tobak-like success, we need only employ Steve Tobak-like strategies. Or, ahem, employ Steve Tobak.

I’ve checked Steve Tobak’s online presence in composing this review. I’ve observed how Tobak greets disagreement with name-calling, personal abuse, and moving the goalposts. He’ll probably answer me similarly, since he clearly believes he possesses unique insights, and doubters are mere idiocrats. I’ll accept such abuse. But I cannot permit such blatant, anachronistic mythmaking to go unchallenged in today’s economy.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Why I Oppose the $15 Minimum Wage

I recently disputed the claim that we should freeze minimum wages artificially low because some people get paid badly. The idea that, because America underpays its soldiers, we should also underpay our laborers, offends me, because it normalizes the devaluation of human beings. But I recently spoke with friends about the proposed $15 national minimum wage hike, which got me thinking: will doubling America’s enforced wage floor really fix anything? What problem really needs fixed?

The calls for such a steep increase in the minimum wage come primarily from three cities: New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Not coincidentally, these are three of America’s most expensive cities to live in, a standing becoming more pronounced as financial services and tech development pool more money in select hands. However, anyone who’s visited these cities knows that food, clothing, and luxuries aren’t more expensive than other cities; frequently, they’re cheaper than elsewhere.

Rather, this higher cost of living is driven entirely by rent. A recent article about how concentrations of wealth have priced service providers out of San Francisco’s land market addresses not only the disappearance of routine commercial service providers from an iconic American city, but the flippant prejudices of well-heeled, mostly male, tech professionals. Those who don’t find themselves squeezed because laundromats, auto shops, and other services close, disdain those who do find themselves squeezed.

Consider the principal cities where $15 demands exist. New York is built mostly on islands; 8 million people live in only twenty-five square miles on Manhattan. Chicago is built on reclaimed swampland which still requires periodic drainage. San Francisco is a peninsula. All are circumscribed in available land area. Flat, buildable land will always exist at a premium. Expansion projects, like Battery Park City, have limited potential, but only at great fiscal and human expense.

Meanwhile, cities with vast potential for either outward growth, or what Brown et al. call “backfill,” languish. New growth around cities like Omaha and Kansas City continues along the Eisenhower-era “suburban sprawl” model that young, upwardly mobile professionals now disdain. Eastern Rust-Belt cities like Cleveland and Detroit, with massive potential for physical renovation, remain substantially untouched, even with rock-bottom land values and untapped labor pools. In essence, supply and demand aren’t stabilizing like they should.

We’re witnessing, in essence, the visible limitations of libertarian capitalism. Just as the dot-com and housing bubbles of the last fifteen years created lemming-like commodity rushes, jacking prices artificially high and hastening their collapse, the current concentration of highly skilled work in very limited geographical markets has warped other relevant market values. We’ve systematically overvalued land while undervaluing work. The problem began long before wages stagnated, and flooding the market with money won’t solve it.

This supply-demand graph, familiar from
economics textbooks, demonstrably applies
only to commodities free to float. Human
labor is not one such commodity. Neither
is rent.
Catholic economist John C. Médaille describes what he calls “the fictitious commodities”: labor, land, and money. These commodities, often graphed according to the supply-demand arc we remember from high-school economics classes, seldom behave according to such simple motivations. Wages in places like Manhattan aren’t low because cheap hamburgers aren’t in demand; in many cases, they don’t even reflect over-educated but underemployed workers’ skill sets. They’re low because prices don’t float. The supply-demand arc doesn’t apply.

People move to large, crowded cities because they want work. It’s that simple. The disappearance of good-paying blue-collar jobs in America, from manufacturing to family farming and beyond, creates pressure for people to relocate where they perceive jobs happening. Just as the Enclosure Movement in 18th Century Britain led to massive growth in cities like London and Birmingham, the disappearance of upwardly mobile industrial jobs and concentration of college-educated employment drives American city growth today.

Worse, as some workers chase jobs to large cities, others choose to stay put. Where I live, in the Great Plains, even many skilled professionals like plumbers and accountants, don’t receive $15 an hour, because they don’t need it. Many people like low living prices and the attendant lack of pressure to overwork, thus proving Médaille’s claim that money and labor aren’t floating commodities. Doubling the wage floor in low-demand locations would torpedo regional economies.

Transfusing money into overextended markets will temporarily alleviate such pressures. However, over the long haul, just as TARP payments didn’t stop reckless bank behavior, boosted wages won’t solve the innate disequilibrium when too many people want too few houses. We’re witnessing a problem, not of market allocation, but of simple hoarding. Lopsided job distribution in specific cities creates inefficient markets. If people could get good jobs in Ohio, others wouldn’t need wage hikes in California.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Teenage Spy Guild of the Mediterranean Coast

Ally Carter, Embassy Row #1: All Fall Down

Young Grace insists she witnessed her mother’s murder. Daughter of a Special Forces veteran and granddaughter of America’s esteemed ambassador to Adria, Grace knows something about keeping secrets; but her willful streak won’t let her keep quiet. When she moves into her grandfather’s embassy, she expects a life of diplomatic glad-handing and general boredom. Then, across a crowded palace, she spots the man who murdered her mother.

Grace insists she knows her mother’s murderer with such dedicated assurance, we know that by book’s end, she’ll either be spectacularly vindicated or have her entire universe turned upside down. Ally Carter, a generous author, attempts both. Having written two prior series featuring teenaged spy heroines, Carter turns her seasoned aplomb to true world affairs. Unfortunately, even part-time news followers will quickly spot serious problems with Carter’s universe.

Ancient, dynamic Valancia, capital of Adria, overlooks the Mediterranean shoreline, hosting many glamorous embassies in Renaissance-era manors. Carter’s description combines elements of Monaco, Dubrovnik, and Istanbul with fanciful imaginings of European splendor. This includes, apparently, remarkably modest land values, since embassies, not jet-setting millionaires, control Valancia’s prestigious waterfront properties. Also, nobody apparently pushes mops or waits tables. Carter creates a world of relentless, polished spy movie spectacle, and nothing else.

Into this world, Grace inserts herself, among children of Earth’s most influential embassies. Youth from the local International School flit among social circles with apparent abandon; ambassadors’ children apparently wed and start families, while functionally stateless teenagers weave continual soap-operatic social webs. This suggests a remarkably settled diplomatic corps. Grace’s grandfather says he’s spent twenty-five years in Adria. I don’t buy it; I’ve read In the Garden of Beasts.

Ally Carter
But Grace remains undaunted, both by diplomatic prestige and monied splendor. She vaults walls into neighboring embassies, functionally invading other countries. She pulls James Bond surveillance in crowded Byzantine-era streets. She moves from begowned diplomatic receptions to arguments in rain-soaked streets with ease that makes Kate Beckinsale look flustered. One starts to suspect somebody’s keeping things both feasible and dramatic for her.

Then there’s Grace’s absolute certainty. She knows, undeniably knows, she witnessed the Scarred Man assassinate her mother, the ambassador’s daughter. The complete lack of physical evidence—the absence of the bullet wound, the lack of accelerant from the bomb—does nothing to persuade Grace that this assassination couldn’t possibly have happened. Her dogged persistence, admirable in early chapters, gets wearing. But YA readers know, adult uselessness is a foregone conclusion.

This theme, admittedly, has become my Achilles’ heel recently. Adult uselessness has become so ubiquitous, it’s become the marketing segment’s signature move. Most recent YA novels commence with the understanding that children, unburdened by knowledge or predisposition, see truths adults willingly ignore. Sometimes this works: Katniss Everdeen challenges corrupt demagogues because she has no insider standing, no bills to pay. But sometimes, age and experience know things.

Surrounded by more embassies than any city outside the Hague, Grace nevertheless kicks doors, conducts espionage, and gathers guerilla evidence. Her grandfather attempts to teach her diplomacy; she defies him, in ways subtle and coarse. She clearly believes, and convinces fellow ambassadors’ kids, that world problems get better if diplomats stop acting diplomatically and practice teenagers’ unbridled honesty. Anyone who’s argued politics with college freshmen knows how that works.

Instead, Grace rampages through Valancia, aided by a cadre of fellows too young to drive. Sometimes she’s stymied and learns to behave discreetly; more often, her headstrong ways yield bountiful rewards. Grace resembles the kind of teenager who breaks others’ things because she doesn’t know what stuff costs. She yells, screams, threatens, engages in psychological blackmail, and by such degrees ekes out victory. That, frustratingly, seems to be our moral.

Carter assembles this novel from stereotypes salvaged from John le Carré novels, Pretty Little Liars episodes, and James Bond movies. Everything happens because it’s supposed to. Heroines like Grace deserve a sidekick, so Carter gives her one. Carter gives Grace a chaste but adversarial romance with the Russian ambassador’s son. Carter gives Grace friends willing to risk sedition and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to get in with the in crowd.

In early chapters, Grace had my sympathy. I believed her conspiracy theory, because I’ve read YA, and I accept the genre’s premises. But as she shows profound inability to learn her world’s ways—and Carter shows profound unfamiliarity with America’s foreign service apparatus—my patience wore thin. Okay, the conclusion isn’t a complete rout; Carter saves something for the next novel. But by then, I’d already stopped caring.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Death of the Man With a Thousand Faces

Allen Eskens, The Guise of Another

A fluke accident kills James Putnam on a midnight Minneapolis byway, everything seems normal. Putnam lived quietly, made no waves, and vanished as noiselessly as he lived. Except a crooked trial lawyer discovers that the deceased isn’t James Putnam. Now disgraced detective Alexander Rupert, busted to Frauds Division, has a genuine mystery to unravel. And fake James Putnam’s lies may only represent the merest shadow of the real horror.

Allen Eskens’ second novel provides an interesting dualism. His concept, about the ways everybody assumes false identities, brims with potential. As Detective Rupert investigates fake Putnam, he also struggles with his own pending corruption investigation. He confronts his possibly unfaithful wife. His wife strives to appear rich, and failing that, strives to act single. Distraught, Rupert vanishes into fake Putnam’s mysterious girlfriend, who appears strangely un-bereaved.

But while Eskens proffers this interesting theme, he writes in very prosaic, declarative tones. Nearly every scene of dialog involves two people in a room. Virtually all exposition comes in blocks, many of which take up entire chapters (which are very short, averaging barely four pages). Eskins describes Rupert’s discovery of his wife’s likely infidelity in the same blunt tones as a witness in a prior chapter describing a fifteen-year-old crime.

This creates tension between Eskens’ smart, rich themes, and his leaden storytelling. Eskens’ press bio says he’s enjoyed a twenty-year defense attorney career, which probably explains plenty. Lawyers strive to excise ambiguity and subjectivity from language, creating something everyone can agree upon as clearly defined, the dialect known as “legal-ese.” In this novel, as in business contracts, all meaning exists, immune from debate, right at the surface.

Allen Eskens
Not that that’s always bad. This actually serves the subplot regarding Rupert’s pending corruption investigation. Thought caught in an overly broad dragnet, Rupert must nevertheless prove his innocence versus his blatantly corrupt ex-partner. Rupert’s brother Max, a senior detective, coaches Rupert in answering questions in ways that crafty lawyers cannot entrap him later. It forces Rupert into domains of honesty that make him deeply uncomfortable.

But elsewhere, this law-minded approach doesn’t work equally well. Eskens describes a world divided into camps of good and evil. Rupert, a Medal of Valor winner before his disgrace, is undeniably good. Eskens pits him against a ruthless assassin, Drago Basta, who is undeniably bad. Not only does Eskens describe Drago’s ruthless glee in violence, and his first-resort reliance on killing, he explicitly describes Drago as having “no soul.”

Even excepting the theological implications of such nonsense, this Manichean gulf rings hollow. As Eskens unspools Drago’s personal history, I felt remarkable sympathy. Born amid violence, he survived by wits, grit, and refusal to let fear rule him. But after the war ended, the tools that kept him alive proved maladaptive to peacetime. In another novel, possibly by William Morrell, Drago would’ve been the protagonist, or a worthy antihero anyway.

Sadly, this represents Eskens’ entire approach. His story occupies entirely black-and-white ethical space, exemplified by characters’ names. The brother Rupert considers the ultimate barometer of goodness and order is named Max. As James Putnam’s wall of lies collapses, the investigation turns to someone named Jericho Pope. (Men with JP initials are weirdly common.) And Rupert battles Drago Basta, whose name is an obvious cognate for “Dragon Bastard.”

I wanted to like this book. I persevered through Eskens’ laboured prose, perforated with chapters so short you could practically see the camera cuts and crossfades, because I found his premise interesting. I wanted to see how he’d continue unpacking his themes of dishonesty, false faces, and the gap between who we want to be and how others receive us. Eskens’ ideas are, without qualification, quite good.

But his writing is a blunt instrument. He doesn’t tease out the implications of his themes, leading his audience on a journey; he declares the discoveries and their points. At times, as with Drago Basta’s morally ambiguous backstory, Eskens’ attempts to steer our perceptions (“he felt the last trace of his soul leave his body”) made me balk. I wanted to scream: that’s not what your story actually says!

Perhaps this book works for audiences who prefer to exclude ambiguity. Perhaps some readers like being told what to think. But Eskens’ committed core audience reads mysteries and thrillers regularly, and would, I believe, prefer authors who take them on a journey. This is less like exploring Eskens’ world, more like a theme park attraction, everything prescreened and controlled. I reached the end, put the book down, and merely shrugged.