Friday, October 28, 2011

800 Words: My Generation - Part 1/3: Demotism


VIII. Over-Stimulation

Books I’m Currently Reading:

The Book of Genesis
The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
The Dropsie Avenue Trilogy by Will Eisner
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
The Beats by Harvey Pekar
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Twenty-Five Books that Shaped America by Thomas C Foster
Literature and Western Man by J B Priestly
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun\

These are the books I’ve been reading since I packed away my books for the move into my new apartment. How many will I finish?

Rented Movies From My Six-Month Old Video Americain Account (not counting movies watched on TV, from Redbox or in theaters...a far more lowbrow list I assure you):

The Dekalog: dir. Krysztopf Kieslowski
The Earrings of Madame de...: dir. Max Ophuls
Late Spring: dir. Yasujiro Ozu
Floating Weeds: dir. Yasujiro Ozu
A Story of Floating Weeds: dir. Yasujiro Ozu
Fitzcarraldo: dir. Werner Herzog
French Cancan: dir. Jean Renoir
The River: dir. Jean Renoir
Nashville: dir. Robert Altman (didn’t watch)
Ugetsu: dir. Kenji Mizoguchi (didn’t watch)
Scenes from a Marriage: dir. Ingmar Bergman (didn’t finish)

Currently Running TV Shows I Regularly Follow:

Boardwalk Empire
Mad Men
Parks and Rec
The Office
How I Met Your Mother
Two Broke Girls (only because I have a crush on Kat Dennings)
The Borgias
Game of Thrones
Boss (only one - fantastic - episode in)
Curb Your Enthusiasm
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
American Horror Story
Law & Order SVU
The Big Bang Theory (mostly because my family loves it)
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show
The Simpsons
South Park

The list of current shows I want to see but haven’t started following is nearly as long. I cannot lie, once I tabulated this list, it surprised the hell out of me.

Last 24 Hours of Napster Activity (not counting music I’ve listened to on youtube. for the record, I'm now listening to Joe Zawinul...):

Lully: Roland Les Talens Lyrique conducted by Christophe Russett
Jorge Bolet Plays Favorite Piano Works
Chopin: Etudes Played by Vladimir Ashkenazy
Chopin: Etudes Played by Nelson Freire
Chopin: Etudes Played by Freddy Kempf
Liszt: Harmonies du Soir Played by Nelson Freire
Schumann: Konzertstuck for 4 Horns Played by L’Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
Liszt: Dante Symphony Played by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Liszt: Faust Symphony Played by the Orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire conducted by Ataulfo Argenta
Liszt: Les Preludes Played by the London Philharmonic conducted by Sir Georg Solti
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations played by Stephen Kovacevich

At what point does a high-fallutin’ list like this cease to be bragging and become utterly obsessive? An appreciation for entertainment and culture is healthy, but to build every day of your life around it is an addiction - less damaging than drugs but no less potent.

I have the great luck of a secure job with an exceedingly light work load. In place of work-induced stress, I fill my days with creature comforts. I am a consumer like any other, it happens that the products I like are books, movies, TV, and music - much of which can be obtained in a library, on-demand, DVR’d or from a cheap streaming service. But I’m no less a slave to my luxuries than any other citizen of the 2011 world. The world is built around the ability of people exactly like me to consume. If we couldn’t consume on this level, even for a few months, the entire world would be plunged into a depression far larger even than what occurred in the 1930’s.

IX. The American Dictatorship

Earlier today, my father went on a diatribe about the utter parasitism of the fashion industry. Like me, my father is generally the least fashionable dresser imaginable. Unlike me, he’d prefer to live a frugal existence John Calvin would recognize. But I could not deny the validity of his point: from a purely utilitarian view, there is no discernible point to fashion except to keep its manufacturers in business. There are only so many clothes which one person needs in order to be comfortable. So if clothes cannot be sold for comfort, they must be sold for aesthetics. Buyers must be convinced that their clothes are aesthetically unsatisfactory, and they must be made to feel inadequate unless they have the newest clothes. How’s it done? Advertising, of course.

No matter what the product, it must be sold. If it weren’t, millions of people would lose their jobs. Therefore, there must be an arm of society whose job it is to make us feel as though we cannot live without what any business produces. If we were not continually made to feel as though we were lacking basic necessities, we would cease to buy. There begins the foundation of our identity: the richer we become, the more we buy. The more we buy, the more impoverished we feel. The more impoverished we feel, the more we feel the need to buy. The more we buy, the closer we draw to actual poverty.

What could the end result of this be but a mountain of debt? Our generation faces two great debt problems - one smaller , one larger. The small one is the $16 trillion deficit. Yes, the National Debt, now larger than the US’s GDP, is the smaller problem. If we raise taxes on the wealthy through the roof, cut defense spending through the floor and privatize industries that should never be privatized (roads, social security), America could pay the national debt in no time and be able to begin the cycle anew.

The larger problem is personal debt. A plurality of Americans ran hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit with money they don’t have. They then must pay the debts off with money and assets they don’t have. The banks know that these people have no money to pay interest on their loans (let alone the principle) so if banks loaned these people the money they lack, the banks would never see the money again. Perhaps some individuals can find their way out of this predicament with a mixture of hard work, good luck, and superhuman fortitude (I know a few who have quite admirably done exactly that). But there are only a few ways to solve this problem en masse:

1. Borrow still more money from other countries to loan the American people money to pay their private debts.
2. Further tax those who did not overspend to pay the debts of those who did.

Even the most (newly) prudent among American debtors will not be able to pay off their debts over the course of an entire lifetime. In either case, the US government will have find a way to pay approximately $50 trillion to rid the country of all private and public debts. Here's that figure again: $50 trillion, and growing.

The Dictatorship of America is spending. Debt is its secret police, advertising its propaganda ministry, and fashion (in a much broader sense than clothes) its gulag.

X. Jarndyce and Jarndyce

And the maintenance of civilization as we know it depends further on the places which provide employment growing larger and larger. If they do not, someone else will, and might eliminate them. In a perfect world, this would allow for perfect competition. In a properly regulated world, this would allow for imperfect competition. But when the survival of America’s finances is contingent on the big banks merging into only four separate entities (Citigroup: $1.194 trillion in total assets, Wells Fargo: $1.258 trillion, Bank of America: $2.264 trillion, JPMorgan Chase: $2.289 trillion) something must have gone extraordinarily wrong.

I can’t point to a single thing that caused the crisis. Don’t pretend you can either. The crisis caused by the sub-prime housing bubble could have been caused by a dozen different bubbles. Why didn’t the bursting of Tech Bubble cause a depression? Why hasn’t the Student Loan bubble burst yet? What would happen if it did?

No, the problem is far more general. I have no idea what it is, but surely the unchecked size of institutions themselves has something to do with it: banks, corporations (General Electric: $795 billion in assets), hospitals (New York-Presbyterian Hospital - 2,236 beds), and universities (University System of Ohio: 478,000 students) are each a turgid behemoth whose weight grows more unsustainably large with each passing month. Make no mistake, every one of these industries is a bubble in itself - containing dozens of weak spots that could cause them to burst at any point and take the well-being of millions with them.

There is only one organization capable of breaking them up, and that is the US Government. But the US Government is the largest behemoth of all - incapable of action without passing through hundreds of pages of improbable legal hurdles. Without an army of expert consultants and lobbyists to negotiate all the hurdles, government action would be impossible. And the very reason for the existence of these expert consultants and lobbyists is to help ensure that government action against their interests is impossible. And so they advocate for even larger hurdles so that special interests may do what they like without public interference, and so the assistance of consultants becomes still more necessary.


  1. I'm finding this series fascinating.

    I'm especially interested in your opinion toward fashion, as you are a person who greatly appreciates the value in cultural production more generally (i.e. in classical music, TV, etc etc). Do you feel fashion has less cultural value than these other creative industries?

    Interested in hearing more on this point.

  2. This is stuff I'm going to address more fully in Part II. The short answer is that fashion in the sense of clothing absolutely has as much cultural value as other pursuits. But fashion in the more global sense is a toxic pursuit. But cultural value is a very difficult thing to define. So I'm going to have to put off a substantial answer for the actual text.

    I feel guilty putting it off because it was the article you shared from New York Magazine on GR which first gave me the idea for this series. In any event, it will be addressed.