Bruegelian Dialectic

Deflating the underclass.

Over the last week, one of the Fray’s finest conversations has been on slow burn in our Undercover Economist Fray. Readers responded to Tim Harford’s article on the historical puzzler of our measured rate of inflation with a wealth of thoughtful and informative posts.

Looking at the abundant larder of Peter Bruegel’s “Peasant Wedding,” Harford observes that our distant ancestors had far more to eat than the half ounce of daily potato a modern economist would extrapolate from a backward projection of the inflation rate. Poster GCaldwell points out that a sixteenth century peasant wasn’t necessarily a prole:

Although we now use “peasants” to refer to very poor persons, the term originally referred simply to commoners living in the country. Since, unlike nobles, they could work for a living, they could become wealthy as a result of their labors. Don Quixote, published in the early seventeenth century, begins with a picture of our nobleman hero living in relative poverty, and in Chapter 20 of Part I, he and Sancho attend an opulent wedding feast put on by a peasant called Camacho the Rich.

Though Harford’s article might conflate caste with class, the daily diet of a Dickensian workhouse backs up his claim that the poor had more to eat than we’d otherwise suppose. destor23 finds something suspicious about the entire argument:

While economists might think we’re overestimating inflation, I think that people living and working in the contemporary American economy would probably differ with them on the point. Wage growth in America has been horrible for decades now and it’s been especially bad during the last five or so years. We’ve got record low unemployment but still not tightness in the labor market that is driving wages higher. The notion that we’re richer than we think seems like a bit of trickery that doesn’t jive with the real world.

The award for Best Commentary goes to Arkady’s anecdotal assessment of the inflation rate’s overbreadth:

The inflation rate differs greatly by socio-economic class, and the government makes no attempt to consider this. Coming up with a consumer price index means selecting a “basket of goods” and tracking what happens to the cost of buying that basket over time. But the obvious question is WHOSE basket do you work with. The basket of the average consumer will differ from that of the median consumer, and the basket of someone at the 10th percentile will differ greatly from the basket of someone at the 90th.

I can’t recommend strongly enough that you read the whole post, but I’m recommending it with all of my might. portorchardkid adds to the point with an admirably economical survey of his own economic indicators:

I recall a British saying about gin; Something like, “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tupney.” With the price of a good martini around $5.00 nowadays, THAT’S inflation.

Other informative posts of note include Degsme’s lucid explanation of marginal utility and Gingham_Dog’s discussion of productive innovation.

Arguing for more than an academic exercise, Shrieking_Violet issues a call for political action:

The real issue isn’t inflation, it’s the way changes in the relative value of our wants and needs are slowly turning the fundamental elements of middle class life– home ownership, adequate health care, financial security, and a college education– into luxuries, while items that would once have been unfathomable luxuries become inexpensive and commonplace.

This is the natural outgrowth of the political and economic changes over the past 25 years, which have nearly all been calibrated to systematically hold down wages and reward investment earnings. It has created a fabulous amount of wealth and luxury, and some of this has trickled down to the bottom half of the economy, but there’s a distinct air of Roman decadence to this arrangement– wealth and security for the patricians, bread and circuses for the masses.

If you look only at unemployment, inflation, and the affordability of both basic needs and luxury items, the economy has never been stronger. But the long-term trends are toward a bifurcated society of owners and debtors. […]

I don’t have a magic wand to change this situation, but I respectfully suggest that after 25 years of holding down wages, flattening taxes, and rewarding investment income, it’s high time we let the pendulum swing back the other way for a while.

If you missed the discussion, take a spin through the Undercover Economist Fray. GA6:24am PDT

Friday, June 2, 2006

As summarized by Arkady here, Jacob Weisberg’s article about Al Gore’s post-2000 environmental activism “suggests that Gore can or will do more to educate America about the global warming crisis outside the White House than inside.”

Sure, Gore the “freelance professor” will devote far more time and energy to the global warming question than Gore the president. Sure, Gore the keynote speaker has license to be bolder about the subject than Gore the cautious political campaigner ever could. But that misses the point. Right now Gore is preaching to the choir, and that’s pretty much all he can hope to in his current role.

Those who go to his movie already agree with him. Those who read his books will already be aware of the issues. At best, he’ll help a very, very small group of people become a bit more engaged and a lot more informed than they otherwise would have been. But the real work is in educating the roughly two hundred fifty million Americans who are entirely disengaged and almost completely ignorant, and he won’t have a chance to reach them.

I’d take a fifteen minutes of cautious and quiet words of warning about the environment from President Gore over fifteen years of bold and insistent evangelizing on the subject from Professor Gore. The former will be vastly more important to the future of the human race, because it has the hope of reaching those who wouldn’t otherwise be reached. Hell, if nothing else, President Gore would be in a position to remove the muzzles from government scientists, bureaucrats, and report-writers, which would be a huge step in the right direction.

Catorce notes the great irony of Gore’s movie tour:

he is promoting science – global warming – that no reasonable person disparages anymore. Where Gore was once out-in-front as “ozone man,” he is now merely correct. So while he was running for President in 1999-2000, Gore’s movie may still have been precient, it is now told-you-so triumphalism…

In retrospect, Gore looks precient on a lot of issues, most notably with regard to Iraq, where he voted for the first war and opposed the newer debacle. But as with global warming, Gore now doesn’t have to convince most people that he was right from the start about Bush’s war – he has to provide solutions…

Therein lies Gore’s challenge. More than any candidate, Gore will be looked to – most especially by the media – to provide solutions to the problems he had the foresight to identify. His answers will be dissected, and no doubt, mutated into whatever “I invented the Internet” statement that suits the right-wing attack machine.

Gore would make a compelling candidate. If nothing else, even a failed primary run would play a key role in battle-testing Hillary Clinton and energizing the Democratic base. But my instinct is that Gore will miss the opportunity because he’d rather be viewed around the world as global warming’s Bono than as an American politician. And maybe as to global warming, the world would be better off that way.

On the issue of “giving Gore credit” for averting environmental disaster, KevClark draws this interesting parallel between Gore and Bush:

If he [Gore] is regarded as a hero, it may well be the first time in human history that a man has been regarded as a hero for preventing a theoretical catastrophe. How much credit has President Bush gotten for the fact that there has not been a major terrorist attack in the US since 9/11? Pretty much no credit, which is the same credit Gore will get, even if he is right.

the_slasher14 reminds us that global warming is our problem collectively, not simply a potential political minefield for Gore:

The reason Gore has soft-pedaled global warming while running for office is no mystery – there is a very high level of ignorance, disinformation and fear on the subject for most working Americans. And the forces of disinformation, having billions of dollars at stake, would spend almost any amount of money to tell any number of lies if he were to make it the centerpiece of a campaign…This is not GORE’S problem. He’s telling the truth as he sees it, and all of the experts who are not on the extractive industry payrolls agree with him. The problem is US. We are either going to find ways to attack global warming without victimizing working people whose jobs presently depend upon it, or our grandchildren will have to live with the consequences.

For those doubtful of a Gore’s electoral chances, take a look at this strange “Affective Encryption Analysis” study conducted by Media Psychology Affiliates, which is predicting with “93% accuracy” that “a landslide victory for former Democratic Vice President Al Gore in the 2008 presidential election. However, should Hillary Clinton gain the Democratic nomination, any potential Republican challenger will win the presidency.” AC6:40pm PDT

Monday, May 29, 2006

Walkers of the San Francisco waterfront may have been brought short by an arresting passage upon the pavement:

Stop in your tracks, you passer-by
Uncover your doubting head.
The working men are on their way
To bury their murdered dead.

Directly adjacent, one finds a memorial to the tragic events of Bloody Thursday—several days of conflict between police and laborers—which culminated in the occupation of an American city by American tanks.

Memorial Day is another such marker—an invitation, delivered in imperative tone, to stop and reflect upon the violent loss of American military men and women across 23 decades of warfare. The memories and observations of Fraysters can be found, intermixed with responses to Fred Kaplan’s recent assessment of China’s menacing mewl, in our War Stories Fray.

One of the most touching stories is Berzerker’s account of the all-too-frequently forgotten service, America’s Merchant Marine:

I attended the Noncommissioned Officers Acadamy in Biloxi, Ms that lasted 4 weeks, including over a Memorial Day weekend. As a class, we went to the VA home in Biloxi. They had several permanant residents there. Outside each mans room was a plaque that identified their Service, Rank, Name, and even battles they fought, or medals they held.

Other classmates were swarming to rooms that had obvious MoH’s or famous battles like Normandy or Guadacanal. Those rooms were full with my fellow classmates.

I looked around and saw a room nobody was going to. The service and rank was unfamiliar to me. USMS BMCS. He also had a “Mariners medal” and 19 combat bars. His “theater” was the North Atlantic.

I went in and talked to the man in the bed. Turns out he was in the Merchant Marine. This man had 19 ships torpedo’d out from under him in the North Atlantic during WWII.

What bravery.

Many people don’t know it, but the Merchant Marine had the highest casualty rate of all the services. More than the Marines. More than the Army. More than the regular Navy. They had a 1 in 26 chance in being a casualty. The Marines were next, with a 1 in 34 chance.

And with all this, it took 43 YEARS of court battles to get the WWII merchant men VA status.

“Shorting” our vets is nothing new.

A veteran of World War II, grandpa_moses, shares his nostalgic dread at the unexpected achievements built upon his generation’s sacrifice:

I’ve lived a long, long time. I’ve been there and done that, traveling everywhere worth going to or doing anything worth doing. I’ve tried just about everything outside of charming snakes, taming tigers and organizing orgies and chawing a cud of Sparkplug.

I even got caught-up in a war once. That opened my eyes, or so I thought. After the humiliating defeat that Japan and Germany suffered in 1945 I really had dreams of a time when people, no matter how aggressive they were, would realize that war was just not the way to garner your wants.

Now, years and years later, I realize I erred. We’ve had several wars, or police actions, or whatevers since that time, most of which were, according to the propaganda of the era, to contain communism and preserve liberty. I guess everybody has to get into the act sooner, or later, so we now have become an aggressor ourselves in the truest sense of the word under a guise of spreading democracy to a society who actually isn’t interested in practicing democracy. […] We’re trying to drive a square peg (democracy) into a round hole. No more containing communism. We wore that “battle cry” out.

I wonder sometimes if it ever occurs to anyone that we could eventually lose a war and become the vanquished and suffer a humiliating defeat. Evidently it doesn’t occur to very many folks, anyway, but it does to me. And what could be worse than being defeated from within because we’re too complacent to tackle the issues that prevail under this administration’s agenda? Overwhelmed by a superior force from within or from without, losing is losing.

Gullible me.

Jack-D offers a short but moving meditation on the planting of roots, perhaps a redemption of the soil to which we entrust our fallen:

Around here, and maybe other places as well, Memorial Day marks the last possibility of a frost and it’s, therefore, the weekend that vegetable gardeners get serious about putting in the tomatoes, beans, peppers and such. I kind of like the marriage of remembrance of loss with the optimism in growth that putting in the vegetables represents. It’s not so much that what people died for was or was not in vain; it’s more that, regardless, life will assert itself. One can only hope that one day that assertion will be in the absence of war and violence. One knows not to hold one’s breath but one hopes nevertheless. Planting a tomato plant reinforces hope. I think those we’ve lost would approve.

For the historically minded, Titan_Arum juxtaposes bygone speeches—illustrating the consistency of American debate through a century of dizzying change:

[Fray Editor] Geoff left us with an inspiring speech on the glory and sacrifice for a higher purpose that was—in the speaker’s mind—the Civil War. Reading the speech, we learn that the ‘race problem’ was eradicated by 1905 (the date of the speech), the blue and grey were able to put aside their differences to beat up on Cuba. We also learn that the Spanish-American war was a good thing.

I’d like to juxtapose that speech with this one by Maj. Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler (USMC Ret.). Gen. Butler’s speech begins, “War is a racket. It always has been,” and ends, “To hell with war.” In between, Gen. Butler skewers those who do not fight, but cheerlead the war as their companies make thousands upon thousands of dollars. He also tells what must be done to stop war—stop the war profiteers.

Which speaker is remembering the spirit of the actual people who went to war? I’d say the second one clearly understand that those that boast of the glory of war are rarely those that fight, die and pay in any war. I’d also say that Gen. Butler was in a better position to speak on the subject.

The first speech seems to glorify war and rewrite history to justify the U.S. imperialism seen in the Spanish-American war and it’s aftermath, the Philippine Occupation.

There’s much more material to be found in our War Stories Fray. Please feel welcome to join the discussion. GA1:00am PDT

Friday, May 26, 2006

Despite Slate’s generous week-long tribute to pulp fiction, from Terry Castle’s discovery of an erotic lesbian thriller to Christopher Benfey’s discussion of Edgar Allan Poe’s lasting influence, many fraysters were left seeking some basic clarity on “pulp” as a literary genre, with Jaque and PulpsGuy making their own enterprising efforts to fill in the lacunae with links to a Wikipedia entry and this reference site.

Typical was sfdoddsy’s complaint:

I couldn’t help noticing that in the many articles so far under the aegis of ‘pulp fiction’, there has been very little discussion of any actual books that most people would place under the moniker.

A James M Cain mention today, Parker yesterday, but the rest seem to be attempting to shoehorn regular lit into the pulping machine, as exemplified by the pulp covers for The Iliad and the attempt to classify Tobacco Road as pulp simply because it came out in paperback.

BronxBoy answers the call for a canon with this list, followed by some professorly commentary on pulp fiction as

… the logical conclusion to the post WW1 pessimism in novels by Farrell, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos that were a direct result of the 1st wars shattering of any illusions that society was moving toward a more “utopian” platform.

With [Raymond] Chandler and [Dashiell] Hammett social mores and moral clarity in society are in great upheaval and distress. Into this vortex moves “Gray Knights” of justice (Marlowe; Spade; The Continental OP)…seeking not truth or enlightenment but control over a world blinded by its own misguided light of right and wrong

anyway…great stories, terrific writing and truly a part of the canon of American Literature.

Ted_Burke makes an even grander claim for “pulp fiction and its film noir offshoot” as “the nearest thing America has produced as truly self contained as Tragedy.” Read his mini-treatise here. itchybrother makes his case for classifying Gustave Flaubert’s Salombo as a 19th-century antecedent to pulp. lump516 thinksMadame Bovary should be included, too.

Attributing the demise of pulp to what she calls the “English major syndrome,” oldie asks

why is most of the cheap fiction stuff written today so stilted and boring? Yes, for the most part, today’s stuff is better edited, the sentences are more carefully worked over, but the pure joy of telling the story, of spinning the yarn, just isn’t there…My off the cuff explanation: the cookie cutter approach to good writing taught in most writing classes ruins spontaneity and fun.

Happy Memorial Day Weekend to all! My compatriot Geoff has invited anyone with relevant thoughts on this holiday to contribute them to War Stories. AC5:32pm PDT

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Fraywatch feature generally focuses on a single issue of debate from Slate’s reader feedback forum, the Fray. But our boards are trod by a teeming community of smart, thoughtful, and articulate readers, with as much to say to one another as to the authors of our front page. In today’s digitized world, thousands of people find themselves chained to a computer for a big chunk of the day. It’s a matter of some pride to Slate that so many of the best and the brightest choose to invest their surplus screen time with us.

Many of our communities are oriented around a single intellectual passion, such as the learned litterateurs of the Poems Fray or the erudite exegetes of the Faith-Based Fray. Other Frays, like Dear Prudence or Blorple Falls, serve as a gathering place for light-hearted entertainment and banter. I’ve been here for years, and I still can’t accurately describe the appeal of the Best of the Fray—whose only consistent feature through years of reinvention has been a collection of fearsomely intelligent and analytical minds. And, like any Web site open to the public, we have our share of chummers and trolls. If the devil’s looking to punish Walter Annenberg for his crimes, he might consider appointing him to monitor Ballot Box, otherwise known to its editors as “Bedlam’s Listserv.”

Blogs:  Many groundbreaking blogs (most notably BTC News and Instapundit) found their start among users of the Fray. They might not have invented the medium—but Rembrandt didn’t have to invent paint to change the face of art.

Readers of Fraywatch might be especially interested in one new blog from Ender, an invariably innovative Frayster: Best of the Fray (Self-effacing, with nuggets). It already serves as a digest of noteworthy and idiosyncratic posts Slate can’t highlight. (If only space and time allowed!) Its author’s statement of purpose suggests how we might better integrate our insightful part-time contributors—quite deserving of wider readership—with the wider “blogosphere.” I’ve got the site bookmarked. You should consider it, too.

Fiction: To complement Slate’s serialized novel, The Unbinding, Fraysters have begun their own work of collaborative fiction, thanks to the initiative of rundeep:

“What do you mean; you don’t have a hit counter?” I asked, adjusting my wireless headset. “If I am not much mistaken, you called me and asked if my company would advertise with you.” I paused to allow the point to sink in. There was no sound other than a soft click I imagined being produced by cleaning one’s fingernails. This irritated me, and I was already irritated. I was bored and the market had not been very productive so far, at least according to the feed playing in the corner of my monitor. “We are not the local drug store or a retail bank, ma’am. I don’t sell lollipops or mortgages to the depressed or children’s shoes. I represent a financial powerhouse which deals only with accredited investors. You know what I mean by accredited: the cream of the crop, the wealthy, the sophisticated, the discriminating. The kind who don’t troll the web looking for investment opportunities. ”

An amateur author would be hard-pressed to find a better workshop for constructive criticism than our Fray. This advice to an author, from DawnCoyote, stands out as a masterpiece in its genre—a testament to what supportive writing can be.

Reporting: It’s a simple fact—with thousands of writing readers scattered throughout the world, Fraysters are an excellent source of firsthand information. For a supplement to June Thomastheater review of Stuff Happens, check out this entry from august:

Although Stuff Happens is an ensemble piece, it is not (as June Thomas’s review implied) mere reportage. It’s true that many of the famous folk on display are mere caricatures of themselves, but even caricatures can ask pointed questions. The setting of the play is indeed the build-up to war, but the drama comes in the figure of Powell.

In Dear Prudence, eutie authors a critical takedown of the latest hype on American obesity:

There are a dozens medical studies pretty much proving that most of the conventional wisdom about obesity is myth and that much of one’s tendency to gain weight is hereditary.

If you can’t afford a subscription to the New York Review of Books, you could do far worse than Fritz_Gerlich’s sterling reportage of Puttin’ on the Frick.

Anyone looking to kill time over this long weekend—without killing brain cells—should pick your poison and spend some time getting to know the Fray. GA2:00am PDT

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Jody Rosen’s Larry Hurtado’s “Ungodly Errors” discusses scholarly gripes with The Da Vinci Code. Many were quick to point out that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction, not a statement of historical fact. This distinction notwithstanding, Brian13 argues for an ethics of historical fiction writing:

The point is that fiction books are always laced throughout with facts that the author relies upon. They ask the reader to grasp onto these facts in order for the story to work. The problem with Brown’s book is that he argues for a “fact” understanding in places where “fiction” is really a better description and then does not endeavor to make it clear to the reader that he is in the fictional realm at this point. The reader may not know where one leaves off and the other begins and Brown doesn’t seem the need to be intellectually honest about it…Writing fiction does not absolve the writer of historical responsibility. I don’t know about you, reader, but when I pick up a work of historical fiction, such as Roots or Hawaii or The Agony and the Ecstasy, I first check out the reviews of historians to see if the fictional account in the work interferes with the historical content. If that is the test, Brown failed miserably, and it is not exculpating here to say, “Well, it is fiction.”

Whether or not the Bible can be deemed “historical content” is, of course, itself open to debate, as MK points out that “those most opposed to The Code’s FICTIONAL interpretation of history are not (for the most part) defending empirically-derived facts but are (for the most part) defending their own beliefs in a mystical story that has been continually re-told over many centuries.”

For BoredWithCritics, what is truly subversive about the movie is not so much its historical claims as its ability to “stimulate conversation and free thinking and questioning of truths that have been taught to generations. If this generation begins to question and discuss and try to find their own answers, then how can the Catholic Church remain in control?”

Ripley discusses the perils of learning history from movies. Finally, a scriptural lesson from realdancerMN, who says listen oh ye of little faith:

Many pieces of fiction go mostly unnoticed in religious of philosophical circles. Why is this any different? Does it matter if Jesus is seen as a divine prophet or a mortal man of faith? His impact on society is no less for it. Speculation of this nature has been abundant for centuries. It has not lessened the beliefs of the faithful. Remember the quote from Matt 17:20 “And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” You had all better study the bible if you feel your faith in the divinity of Christ is under attack.

For Dan Brown’s take on how much of this novel is true, visit his official Web site here. AC3:33pm PDT