I wanted to do a series of posts on Facebook of some favorite records. It’s one of those damned trends, and people tag each other and rope each other into participating, at least in theory, or whatever. I went and posted something about how I was surprised nobody had tagged me. I used to have a lot of opinions about music, although nowadays I wonder what any of themwere, or why it mattered. I mean , I still have a lot of opinions – I seem to be setting out on course of writing about music. It is, after all, fun to write about music.
So, it seems clear enough that the rules of the game are not established in any authoritative way, and I can pretty much play however I like. I am choosing ten albums that have been important to me. The first one I’m doing is the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Music of Samuel Barber, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and recorded in May, 1988. It features the pieces Overture to “School for Scandal”, Adagio for Strings, three Essays for Orchestra, and the diabolical Medea’s Dance of Vengence. This was among the very first CDs that I owned. I’m pretty sure I got it from either my parents or from the next door neighbor (whom we were, and still are, close with). I got it because, you know, my name is Samuel Barbour. The guy I’m named after, one Samuel Steele Barbour, who came to Chilicothe, Ohio from West Virginia some time early in the 20th century, is my great-great grandfather.
It was an important CD for me. What is this music about? It’s not like pop music. You can’t sing along with it. There’s a lot going on in the orchestra, and there aren’t a lot of clear repeats. I was 11 or 12 years old when I was listening to this – I also had a disc with the first four Brandenberg concertos that I also liked. The Barber was much different from baroque music. Big, lush, evocative scores. Like in the movies, but more so.
And I’m pretty sure it has something to do with my wanting to be a composer. I consider myself a songwriter, but not a composer really. I played around with the idea in high school, but never really took it seriously. I loved the romantic idea of being a composer, all caught up in the act of creation, but actually doing it was a lot of work, and I was too busy being a teenager to get anything substantial done. More generally, this is why I am not a professional musician. Just not much in the way of self-discipline.
By the time I got this CD, I already knew plenty about classical music. I was enrolled as a viola student in a Suzuki program at the local music conservatory when I was 7. My brother played violin as well. I was never particularly good, but I had a friend who was quite good at violin, and she helped introduce me to a lot of stuff.
Although my musical priorities changed a lot when I got into my late teens, classical music was really important in shaping my expectations of music. Good music is contemplative – it wants you to think about it. It wants you to ask questions, to reflect on your life. Certainly in my early 20s I spent quite a lot of time walking around, listening to music, and thinking. Sometimes, I have stopped playing music in the middle of a song when someone else begins talking, because I believe that talking demonstrates that the person is not thinking about the music, and therefore I ought not waste my time. High romanticism – which sort of goes from Beethoven through Liszt and Wagner, to Mahler, and eventually to Shostakovich and Barber – is fantastic, but not that many people want to sit around and talk about it. When listening for the purposes of discussion, you have to listen to what other people are listening to. And most people don’t just hang around and listen to classical music. You’d think it would be the ultimate hipster music – its obscure, its retro) but hipsters don’t really care for it.
The one particular moment of the disc that really stands out for me is a part of Medea’s Dance of Vengence, in which a propulsive piano rhythm drives the orchestra forth. It sounds remarkably close to the score for the opening credits of Beetlejuice, an early Tim Burton film featuring Michael Keaton and a young Winona Rider. It was a thing that was striking about Barber: his music had a 20th century feel to it, but it was still tonal. In high school I got into Ives, the Second Viennese school, and so on, and got convinced that the only kind of worthwhile music to write was really super intense, atonal stuff with mininal structure. Meanwhile I was also starting to play guitar and learn to think in terms of songs. In retrospect, I can see that putting what that all meant together coherently would take years. I’m pretty sure it was just confusing at the time.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about another album that featured a lot of really great guitar playing that I got really into in my late teens, and then again later in life: Funkadelic’s Maggotbrain.
I tried to write a breathless account of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth the other day, and it totally didn’t work. One of the difficulties of writing about classical music is that descibing the experience of hearing something depends on bridging the gap between your own frame of reference and somebody else’s.
One day I was walking down Divisidaro Street in San Francisco, headed into the Lower Haight for whatever reason, and as I turned left at the intersection, there was an older guy with a boombox blasting “It’s Like That” by Run DMC. He called to me “Hey man, you know what?” I leaned towards him with interest. “If you don’t know this song, you don’t know shit about music!” I smiled and nodded enthusiastically.
Now, did I really agree with the guy there on Haight Street that Run DMC was foundational to music as we know it? Well, I agreed with him in spirit, I suppose – I mean, Run DMC is the shit – but on a literal level, no. I’m pretty sure there are people who will go their whole lives without once hearing Run DMC and still live rich, meaningful musical lives. That’s not to take away from the remarkable contributions of Run DMC – they’re great. But music is way bigger than any one person, or group of people, or even whole countries.
All that said, you have not lived until you have heard a world class orchestra perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Felt as real as could be at the time, but now it seems a little ridiculous.
Mahler’s symphonic writing is among the finest ever done – his scores demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral capabilities. I once saw a performance of Mahler’s orchestration of Beethover’s Ninth Symphony at the Kennedy Center in DC, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The entire first half of the concert consisted of Slatkin’s commentary on the extraordinary craftmanship of Mahler’s version of a classic symphonic work. For one thing, the orchestra was much bigger. Instead of two horns, as in Beethoven’s original, Mahler scored for ten. The performance after lecture was epic. Beethoven’s Ninth is sort of the Gold Standard magnum opus – the “Ode to Joy” melody is known throughout the world. It’s big dramatic stuff, and Mahler’s own career as a composer was a continuation of composers with big, dramatic personalities writing big, dramatic pieces of music.
Mahler’s primary career was as an opera conductor. He composed usually during extended summer holidays in the countryside, in a series of huts built specifically for composing in.
The above pictured hut apparently featured separate entrances for Mahler and the maid. The maid would approach the hut on a path hidden from the view of the hut, so that meals could be delivered without the composer being in any way disturbed by arrivals and departures. For Mahler, composing demanded a kind of absolute solitude. He would sit in a room with a piano, a desk, books of poetry and German philosophy, somewhere deep in the woods by a lake. Again, Mahler is a little ridiculous. He produced these symphonies – which, I’m telling you, contain some of the most beautiful music ever set to paper – amidst a kind of bourgeois fantasy of communing alone with nature (with room service! in a three piece suit!).
The conductor that evening with the CSO was Esa-Pekka Salonen, currently principal conductor with the London Philharmonia Orchestra, and formerly music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for seventeen years. I’d never heard of him, myself, but he’s apparently a pretty big deal. Anyways, at the close of the performance, he hopped down from the podium and kind of wandered off stage, holding out his baton as if he was still half-conducting. He did this three times – bowing, pointing out various members of the orchestra for individual recognition, having the whole orchestra on their feet for a bow, and so on. That funny little conducting shuffle, back and forth, three times. Conductors tend to be eccentric white guys, and this guy fit the bill for sure.
I’m not sure if Mahler was necessarily eccentric, or just super intense. I do know he had numerous affairs as an opera conductor, and was generally anxious and domineering. The exact kind of guy the #MeToo movement would conduct a Twitter campaign against (with, you know, good reason). That aside, he was, by nearly all accounts, an insanely great opera conductor. His tenure as music director at Vienna’s Royal Opera (a position for which Mahler, an effectively secular Jew, converted to Catholicism) is legendary. His departure after ten years was due only to rising anti-semitism in Austria (ironic, no?)
Opera was at it’s artistic height at the turn of the 20th century. Orchestras had grown, in part because of the growth of cities and the rise of the middle class over the previous century had produced large audiences with substantial disposable incomes and desire for high culture. But also, musical institutions and technology had advanced considerably from the time of Mozart. Mahler himself attended the Vienna Conservatory (established 1817) as a young man – an opportunity unavailable to earlier composers such as Beethoven and Schubert. His education included a systematic and thorough study of classical music, which is readily evident in his highly polished scores. And by the late nineteenth century, horns, woodwinds, and percussion had all seen considerable advancement. Between university-style education and the industrial manufacture of instruments, orchestras had gone from being highly specialized ensembles in service of aristocracy to standardized groups (with established repetoire) playing before large audiences in public concert halls in virtually every European city (plus several major cities in the Americas, like Buenas Aires and New York). Mahler’s career is in the middle of all that.
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a titanic piece of music. It was the only thing on the program that night. It features only an orchestra – a big one, but not necessarily the biggest. The hall and the stage both seemed full, but not crowded.
One of the things I simply adore about going to concerts with the Chicago Symphony or the Lyric Opera is the quiet of the audience. The audience for Mahler Nine seemed especially attentive. Focused.
The first movement begins with a horn call, because of course it does. It felt to me like sitting alone, looking out the window, on a train ride into the country. The rider sits comfortably, journeying toward death. He engages in rememberences, tender and melancholy. A seasick rhythm in the cellos resemble a kind of disorientation – the steadiness of the steam engine is distorted by fear and trembling – the security of the modern world dissolves into some sinister game. After a brief fit of tympani, the orchestra dwindles down to nothing. The violence subsides almost as quickly as it appeared, and the piece seemingly begins again, hobbling along. And then a call of winds and horns erupts into a fury of tympani and low brass! A duel between a horn and a flute ensues, which, in my notes, I recorded as a fight between a hawk and a sparrow. The hawk wins, but the sparrow is defiant! A soaring clarinet solo follows, and the movement closes quietly. It was a solid half an hour or so at the close of just that first movement. It ended with a brief stillness, a moment of silence before the conductor signaled we could breath again. When people finally coughed and sneezed and shuffled their feet, it was a tangible release of tension.
The second movement is a Landler – an old Austrian country dance tempo in triple meter. It sounds like a fairy dance party in the woods and magical beer or something. There’s a part of me that wonders if Mahler would have been in cosplay, although I kind of doubt it. In any event, we eventually get lost deep in the woods (because of course we do) and after some hobbling, some sneaking, some laughing, we get into some turbulence, and we begin to veer into death march territory before returning to the dance theme. The string writing in parts is labyrithine, full of harmoic feints and shifts, misdirections and melting passages. Like the first movement, the second ends softly, with a nod and a wink.
The third movement, a rondo, is the most rhythmic. It opens as a kind of parade of laughing clarients. But then it cracks open and an ethereal string section emerges. A weightless moment extends into momentum and gradually builds into fury, ending suddenly. The stand-out feature for me here was the E-flat clarient part, a kind of squeaky clown – the part is the most yiddish-feeling in the piece. With possibly the exception of the violins in the opening of the fourth movement.
A schmaltzy melody opens into a counterpoint between the violins and the basses, with multiple octaves of space between them. As simple as it is, it feels very grand, the basses and cellos striding along like a giant while the violins soar high above. The movement shimmers – it is patient and slow and gentle. And it fades and fades and fades, down on out to nothing. It seems to go on forever. Quieter, and quieter, until finally, there is no sound. The conductor held that last, perfectly silent moment for what felt like an eternity. It was a transcendent moment. When Salonen relaxed at last, peels of applause rained down from the gallery to the front row.
At the end of all that, I couldn’t help feeling like I had just been through a mystical experience, or something like it. Like I wanted to embrace every member of the orchestra, the entire staff at the hall, and the audience. It was like we had accompanied Mahler himself into the darkness – laughing, crying, dancing, telling jokes, falling down, and shaking our fists at the heavens. And that ending!
The weird thing about Mahler’s Ninth is that it’s actually his Tenth. He was worried, you see, about dying after writing a Ninth symphony, because of Beethoven having just nine symphonies. So, when he wrote his ninth symphony, he titled it “The Song of the Earth.” But then, of course, he was diagnosed with congenital heart failure, and he wrote the Ninth symphony thinking about the fact that he was about to die, and, not all that long aftewards, died at the age of 50. Although he managed to finish one movement of the Tenth symphony, a gorgeous Adagio, before finally giving up the ghost.
Most people don’t know who Mahler is – outside of the classical world, he’s pretty obscure. Within the world of symphonic music, he’s a giant. It’s weird. And I feel like an appreciation of Mahler only grows with a knowledge of classical music. For someone who doesn’t know or like classical music, a Mahler symphony might be just long and boring. To me, it’s enthralling. I’m excited to hear more!
A few months ago I walked into a Whole Foods less than an hour before closing time, maybe 9:30ish. We were in the suburbs and it was cold, so there were not many people there besides the folks stocking shelves. I recall walking into the produce section and thinking “How do they make it look so perfect?” An appalling abundance lay there before me, everything neatly – and fully – stocked. Diverse leafy green, organic horseradish, apples that looked like they had just been picked off a tree in the Garden of Eden or something. It felt a little ridiculous. There are plenty of people who could probably benefit from all those fruits and vegetables, the choice meats, and so on. Plenty of people not 25 miles from that Whole Foods. It makes me think grocery stores perform abundance for us, besides being a distributor of sustenance. Americans waste a huge amount of food – and I think that the role of grocery stores and restaurants and so on as the provider of the illusion of material abundance – they are a voice that says “Do not be afraid, we have delicious imported organic cheese, fresh baked heritage grain sour dough bread, smoked wild caught lake trout, and bottle of Chilean zinfandel for you and your loved ones. Enjoy and be happy.”
Keeping that illusion going all the time is expensive, although I don’t think most people understand it that way. In general I think most people resist definitions of ordinary life that may interfere with how they go about daily living. For example: I think cutting fossil fuel utilization is an important goal, but not so much that I’ll stop driving when I need to, which is daily, and amounts to roughly 350-400 miles a week. Its just how it is. Do I feel guilty about it? No. I’m doing the best I can. I think that’s what most people are doing.
President Donald Trump is persuasive because he is an authentically average American white man. He drinks diet soda, eats McDonalds, and watches Fox News. Just like your average old white dude. And he likes to get all worked up and yell at the people on the news, except, unlike the average white guy, Donald Trump can call in and actually talk to the people on TV. And now that he’s President, he even gets to set the agenda.
One of the best descriptions I ever heard of Donald Trump was that he is the poor person’s idea of a rich man. I think on his popular television show, he played the average person’s idea of a boss. He’s a domineering asshole, duplicitous and cruel. He never admits he’s wrong, never admits defeat. Are real bosses terrible people? I don’t think so. But the appeal of the fantasy of a terrible boss is the idea of having consequences apply to everyone except oneself. Of being allowed to be as critical as one likes while simultaneously being above reproach.
Just so, I think Donald Trump was a successful Presidential candidate because he can play the role of what the average person thinks of as a politician: a callous, cynical, and thoroughly corrupt government operative. Its easy to believe politicians are crooks because its easy to imagine oneself being crooked. As a person who has felt plenty of humiliation and shame, I can tell you how easy it is to construct a revenge fantasy. Real authority, however, comes with responibility.
Donald Trump is really good at portraying the guy your average older white guy thinks of when he thinks about authority. Blogger Damon Young has written about how Donald Trump exemplifies the phenomenon of American white supremacy in the way that he claims every success and disavows every failure, and insists on the narrative no matter what. Facts don’t matter, reason doesn’t matter, and so on. This world belongs to grumpy old racist assholes, and the rest of us are just living in it.
And it turns out this vision of America is appealling enough for…well, for enough people that Donald Trump got elected President. And that he’s fucking terrible at being President is not merely a hilarious circumstance but, I think, a central feature of the Trump administration. Remember Cliff Claven, the lovable idiot hanging at the elbow of (symbolic everyman) Norm (get it? he’s an average guy) at the bar in Cheers? He’s a mail carrier, and he symbolizes the government. He’s consistently inept, oblivious to others, emotionally unstable, intolerant, and narrow. The Trump administration is, in its way, a representation of how the average American views the government – as inept, oblivious, inefficient, etc, etc. Its a government you can love to hate. The protesters have something to get angry about, the libertarians have a talking point about government inefficiency, and conservatives have a reason to go on diminshing the power of the Federal government.
The Republican Party, by running a shit show, are doing just what they ought to: advancing the idea of the minimal state.
There’s so much to say here I think, but I just want to touch on one thing: the vote on legislation regarding DACA and the Dreamers this past week is a good reflection of how Republicans are succeeding politically. Americans don’t want to expand the political franchise to people who have been exploited for the last 30 years, but they don’t want to actually admit it, so instead there’s just a lack of decision. The status quo holds and everyone can feel good about it (except, you know, all those undocumented folks who have to go on living without the provision of law or public services).
The budget vote that passed prior to the failure of immigration reform is a further example of how the status quo is affirmed – deficits will be allowed to rise (so that nobody has to make cuts in government spending that might rock the boat while simultaneously cutting taxes) and public services extended for the time being to Democratic constituencies. Democrats will have a harder time firing people up in the fall to vote against Republicans. And I think the status quo is likely to hold in this falls elections.
At about 1 o’clock this morning the Senate voted to pass the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” a sprawling piece of legislation that, when finally passed and signed into law, will fundamentally reshape the American economy. It is properly a big fucking deal, and I want to write out a few thoughts I have about it.
There’s a lot of fear and loathing in my left-leaning Facebook feed right now, and I think its a waste of energy. This bill is what the Republican party has been talking about for a long time. Yes, its a trainwreck, hastily written, poorly thought out. That’s because the Republican party is not especially good at thinking and discussing. They’re a party of feelings, man. The whole “thoughtful party of principles” blahblah is a facade. They’re not, they never were. There are individual thoughtful conservatives, yes, but the voter base is an emotionally reactive bunch. What they want is to feel like they’ve gotten even with liberals for the 20th century, and this is a major victory in that fight. If they can end civil rights and the welfare state, they’ll have done what they set out to do, although its not clear to me that their sense of justice will be satiated by it. At any rate, the important thing here is that, as bad as this bill is – and we won’t know how bad it really is for another decade at least – and as radical as it is, it doesn’t do any good to be upset about it. Furthermore, it is really important not to resent wealthy people over this bill. They may become more wealthy, particularly in relative terms, but they’ll also be increasingly isolated by this development. Achievement will cease to mean anything for the rich – they’ll just be rich, the end. People want to be recognized for being good because they really are – when you’re super wealthy, that becomes nearly impossible. Do people like you because of you, or because of money? In short: anger, resentment, outrage, fear, etc., etc. – these should be resisted as much as possible. Yes, lots of people will lose their health coverage. People will die, and suffering will be amplified throughout the country. Yes, it will have a great deal to do with this legislation. And no, there is not much you can do about it, even in the medium term, because in order to reverse the changes wrought by this bill you’d have to raise taxes and that’s nearly impossible. We can’t go back. We must go forward.
The nature of the Federal government is in flux. For a long time now, the Federal government fit the description of “an insurance company with an army.” Sure, it had a bunch of other important functions too, but in terms of the economy, it is mostly a provider of insurance, pensions, and military services. As that changes, I think there are a couple of things that will begin to play out: one is how people get welfare services. My current prediction is that people will be increasingly dependent upon their employer for benefits, and that will introduce a new kind of social conservatism. Basically, a company will look for whatever reason they can find to screw you out of benefits, a paradigm that will negatively effect marginalized populations. The second part is potentially more interesting: as the Federal government’s power wanes, American military dominance may come up for questioning. I think its fair to say that the most likely source of this will be China, which is a rising power very interested in flexing their newly acquired muscles. How that will play out is anyone’s guess, but it could bring profound changes to the US.
The next recession, whenever it comes, and it will come sooner or later, is going to be ugly. People will fall and the safety net won’t be there. There will be a lot of “how could this happen?” Endemic, widespread poverty is scary and it might last a long, long time. Which is basically where my head is right now. When the shit hits the fan, then what? I expect it to be fucking terrifying. Hence, the need for calm. I’m not really sure there will be a way to preserve a middle-class existance in the future. If that’s the case, its very difficult to see what that looks like in practice.
Thinking about how politics might proceed in the meanwhile, I think the socialist left will become increasingly influential in the Democratic party. Politics will be become much more internally focused, and debates will revolve around minor changes to working conditions. International considerations will largely disappear. We’ll become more like the rest of the world, and the world will be increasingly ruled by unaccountable capitalists.
I feel I often read something about how this or that situation is unsustainable, or untenable, or that “something’s gotta give.” There’s some phenomenon identified as wrong, and someone looks for it to result in some terrible outcome. As a general rule, I find this kind of thinking unbearably disappointing.
I’m thinking about this just now because I noticed an article on the Jacobin website about the unsustainability of the rise in student debt. And the basic point does seem sound – the sheer quantity of debt cannot go on growing in the way it has over the past 30 years. But what can we take from that? If the growth of student debt is unsustainable, then what? Well, maybe higher education needs to be more adequately subsidized. But I kind of doubt that’s what will happen. Probably there will simply be fewer students, fewer colleges and universites, and so on. And also, a bunch of people will go on carrying very large debts into the indeterminate future. Student debt has become a way for the financial system to capture returns to human capital. Income generated by high quality labor inputs (i.e. people with graduate degrees capable of working very hard at very difficult things) goes to financial institutions in exchange for the development of the very same labor inputs.
Is it unfair? Sure. But people who take on student loans do so of their own accord. Ultimately what will probably happen will be fewer people will be capable of carrying those loans, and fewer people will develop those sorts of high level skills. But here’s the odd bit: it seems to me that that peculiar outcome is maybe nearer to what society, in a broader sense, wants. Its hard to discern, of course. But that’s my intuition.
Prepared Remarks for the Roosevelt Alumni Panel discussion of Economic Justice session at the American Dream Reconsidered Conference, Roosevelt University, 12th September 2017. (See video of the whole panel here.)
It is said that the essence of the American Dream is the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. Leaders on both sides of our partisan political divide have endorsed this view. It is simple, straightforward, and yet utterly ambiguous. In more than a decade working in restaurants I knew many who certainly worked very hard, and at least appeared to play by the rules – and yet seemed left behind by the economy. Many Americans find themselves stuck, year after year, on the margin between prosperity and poverty.
On the one hand, you might say the American Dream is economic justice. On the other, economic justice seems to be little more than a dream in the United States. The recent work on income inequality by the MIT trained economist Thomas Piketty, indeed, appears to confirm the view that, once upon a time, economic growth benefitted a broad majority of those living in industrialized countries. Income growth occurred across a broad spectrum of society, a trend that has reversed in more recent history, as gains in nation income have gone increasingly to the top. For some, the three decades following the Second World War brought unprecedented prosperity. For others, the developments of those years possessed a nightmarish quality, as economic growth disturbed traditional social structures. Near the end of that period the Harvard political philosopher John Rawls published his landmark work, A Theory of Justice, an ideological apotheosis of sorts. In the years since, it is the response to Rawlsian liberalism, libertarianism, which has come to dominate the discourse on justice, economic and otherwise.
Libertarian thought emphasizes the priority of the individual and individual rights over society. In the libertarian formulation, economic justice is considered a subjective matter. The institutions of private property, contract law, and free enterprise are considered sacrosanct – the role of government is merely to facilitate institutions of free market enterprise, which is proclaimed the greatest benefactor of society at large.
Of course, there have been many responses to the libertarian challenge, but I wish to focus here on the work of economist Amartya Sen and political philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Together they have advanced what they have called “the capability approach” to social justice. The starting point of the approach emerges from Sen’s critique of Rawls. Sen contrasts the transcendental framework of Rawlsian justice with the comparative approach taken by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He points out two fundamental weaknesses in the Rawlsian conception – the impossibility of working out a functional model of social justice applicable in a world of more than one social frame (let alone the vast diversity confronting any theorist of justice); and that the Rawlsian focus on human rights and the priority of liberty, part of the core of the liberal tradition in which Rawls operates, leads to the prioritization of negative rights and prohibitions on activities rather than prescriptions for the mitigation of existing injustices. In the interest of moving towards a more just world, Sen suggest various categories of human capability which we might use to consider and compare existing social and economic conditions. Nussbaum further develops Sen’s idea of human capability, providing a tentative list including: Life; Bodily Health; Bodily Integrity; Senses, Imagination, and Thought; Emotions; Practical Reason; Affiliation; Other Species; Play; and Control Over One’s Environment.
In her account of the capability approach, Nussbaum notes that Sen, while having clearly advanced the capability approach through his role in authoring and advocating for the United Nations’ Human Development Report, among many other works, has not explicitly endorsed it as a methodology for advancing social or economic justice. Responding to this tension in the capability approach, Nussbaum writes that “social justice has always been a profoundly normative concept, and its role is typically critical.”
For me, this is a satisfying response to the aggressive individualism of libertarian thought. The United States’ founding document is the Constitution, which establishes a Federal representative democracy to furnish the supreme law of the land, and of the American people. Any ideal conception of justice, economic or otherwise, cannot be characterized as American without being faithful to the language of our Constitution. Libertarianism, in its emphasis on individual rights, tends to minimize the role of democratic rule. The capability approach, in my view, rectifies this bias by placing justice in its proper role as the critical faculty within the democratic process.
“The proggers got away with murder, artistically speaking. And then, like justice, came the Ramones.” – “The Whitest Music Ever” by James Parker, The Atlantic Sept. 2017
I want to write a little bit about the article I quote above, and I want to start at the very end of the piece. The final two sentences are quoted above. I want to point out that this is the standard history of punk: once upon a time, rock n roll was stale and boring; all the bands played noodley garbage and then the Ramones released their debut album in 1976 and changed everything. I’m not really interested in whether or not this story is true – it’s a narrative I’ve heard before and can recognize as common to a particular cultural subset with which I am familiar.
The article from which I am quoting is technically a book review. Political reporter Dave Weigel recently published a book about Prog Rock, apparently because he likes it. And the author of the piece does not share Weigel’s enthusiasm. My suspicion is that the author indentifies with the punk ethos and therefore subscribes to a narrative where Prog represents an elitist rock n’ roll establishment to rebel against. It seems equally likely that the editor recognized in the article something for people to get worked up about as only people do about articles posted on Facebook. Some people will defend Prog rock as important cultural subgenre, and other’s will celebrate the author’s scorn for it. What attracted me to the piece was the line – used as a pull quote – about the Ramones, because I like the Ramones. The other thing I liked about the article is that it pointed out how Prog rock really went out of style at the end of the 1970s when record sales began to deline (11% in the US, and 20% in the UK in 1979) and labels stopped funding extravagent tours for the Prog groups. It’s an interesting statistic.
The thing about talking about music in the US is that it often revolves bands who make records, the success of which are based primarily on the sales of those records. The Ramones, for example, are unusually famous for the amount of records they sold. The Beatles are famous because they sold a lot of records. They did lots of other things too, but the most important thing was selling millions of records. Fleetwood Mac is a famous rock n roll band. Why? Because their album Rumors sold forty million copies. Peter Gabriel made all kinds of great Prog rock with Genesis in the 1970s, but nobody cares, because in the 1980s Phil Collins would sell way more records fronting the band than old Pete ever did.
Alright, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But the point is that what ultimately is at stake in the world of recording artists is record sales – and therefore it’s never really about the product. It’s about the consumer. Who’s buying all those records? Mostly young white people, especially in the 1970s. If you want to sell big time quantities of records, you’ve got to appeal to those young white people. Hence, most sucessful bands were also white. Not necessarily because they were better, but because that’s what most consumers wanted. Prog rock bands and fans alike are overwhelmingly white, although so are punk’s.
There’s a whole universe of music beyond Prog rock. Beyond rock. You could spend your whole life listening to beautiful music and never hear rock once, and you wouldn’t be any the worse for it. What matters about music is what brings an audience together to experience it.
It’s not to say that I haven’t been writing, you see, just not publishing much on the blog lately, but summer has been a kind of vacation. I want to try and write about something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s more like an anti-idea having to do with things that sometimes aren’t said but can be spoken of. Here’s an example: there are people for whom the New Deal legislation promoted by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1930s is a great disaster, to be repealed at all costs. What they want is not-the New Deal. Here’s a different example: one child takes another’s toy; the child who’s toy was taken will likely desire not so much to have his toy replaced, but rather to see the other child not-have the toy, for the toy to be taken from the taker, so that they too will know how it feels to have something taken by force, thus restoring equality between the two. It’s a kind of justice-as-equilibrium thinking – I hit you, you hit me, and we’re even. I rob you of some amount, you rob me of a similar amount, we’re even. Equality restored. The New Deal and the War brought the US into a new and different era, and changed society. There are parts of society that would like to return to the way it was, for whatever reason.
Populism is sometimes a kind of not-the establishment, or can be perceived that way. What do Trump voters want? Not-Obama. They want Obama in reverse. I often think of conservatives as fundamentally against whatever historical development happens to offend them, although conservatism is richer and more complex than that. Libertarians, I find, seem to be driven by a desire for not-the Government, and especially not-the Federal government. Sometimes there’ll be some nonsense about markets, but mostly it’s important to get government out of as much of the private economy as is possible, or maybe practicable.
The idea of the not-thing or not-idea is a bad photocopy of a confused summary of the book The Rhetoric of Reaction by Albert Hirschman. In that book it is postulated that there are three basic reactionary theses: perversity, jeopardy, and futility. Perversity argues that whatever it is against will produce the opposite of what it is supposed to. “Government welfare programs create poverty.” Jeopardy argues for or against a course of action by emphasizing the risks to some previously obtained advantage or asset. “If we don’t legalize gambling, how will we pay for public services?” Futility argues that some particular historical episode had no effect, because whatever happened would have happened anyways. For example, one might argue that racism in America would have disappeared without the help of the Civil Rights movement. Reactionary rhetoric is a kind of thinking, and Hirschman generalizes it in a way that makes it possible to notice in a huge number of places, or at least that’s how it was for me. Hirschman is a delightful writer – his The Passions and the Interests is great.
Well I am, at least for the moment, back on the grad school train. Which is to say I’m working out a plan to apply to PhD programs in economics for fall 2018. I’ve had a longstanding ambivalence about grad school, but I do have a book coming out this month, and my co-author urged me strongly to take advantage of the moment and apply to schools. My father has long advocated for me to try for a PhD as well, and so I’ve begun the process. I have to take the GRE sometime this fall, and figure out where I want to apply and so on. Already I feel doubtful.
There are two major reasons why I won’t go to a PhD program. The first is that I have not taken real analysis (whatever that is). My math is not strong – it’s, you know, halfway decent, but Markov chains and Euler functions are quite beyond me. In any event, I’d have to find a way to do another couple years of math classes (with what time? with what money?) to get myself through real analysis, but since I’m trying to do this now, it’s not a possibility. The irony, of course, is that you don’t even really need real analysis to do good economics, it’s just a filter that economics programs use to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The second reason is because my partner is a committed farmer. Going to graduate school means being separated from my family. Which is why the only way I can go at all is if the program is just right. If they give me money to go and the program means I can get a better paying job when I’m done.
The flipside of this is, of course, doing a PhD is very compelling for me. I enjoy research and writing, and being back at school would mean more of both of those things. And, more generally, it would mean being around a university again. Although ultimately what I really want is to be on the other side of that salary and benefits package divide. It feels just out of reach for me.
So, basically, I’m going to apply to graduate school, but I’m assuming I won’t get in, or at least won’t get the kind of opportunity I’d need to rationalize leaving my current situation. But once that’s done, I’ll be able to put this whole thing to bed.
I figure Christmas this year will look a lot like Christmas last year. And next year, for that matter. The first Christmas that feels different, that’s the Christmas you remember. The question I want to ask is: how many Christmases after passing the bill currently being debated in the Senate – the Better Health Care Act? – until the United States starts feeling different?
I’ve read a couple of analyses on the legislation – my impression is that it changes Obamacare some, cuts Medicaid alot, and cuts taxes. A lot. Mostly for wealthy people. It’s an outrageous, unpopular bill, and it’s probably going to pass and become law.
The United States will see increased income and wealth inequality, or at least I think that’s the most likely scenario. But more importantly, I think the next four years will see the Federal government diminished considerably. The Republicans in Congress have spoken of wanting to put together a major tax reform, and who can say how terrible that will be.
It occurs to me that there are two sides to the political pressure on the Federal government – there’s the desire for the states and individuals for greater independence manifesting in the form of austerity/pro-business policy on the one hand but there’s also, I think, globalized capitalism as well. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other states have produced a wealthy elite in the last couple of decades, and the US is becoming more like them.
And maybe capitalism can subvert patriarchal nation-states and that’s not such a bad idea, or maybe it just replaces the patriarchy. That’s no progress at all.
In any event, I worry that reality is going become unglued for people in the future: the world will change faster than they can deal with, and they’ll get stuck and slowly lose their minds. The health care bill will ultimately take health care away from millions of people. I suppose eventually charity will take the place of some of the social services provided by government.
But here’s what I’m waiting for: some summer it’s going to get really hot in Texas, and it will get ugly, because there won’t be adequate social services. There will be a hospital, maybe, in the country, overwhelmed by cases of heatstroke and dehydration, to set off a riot when supplies run out. Maybe it will happen and it won’t make the news – maybe it will be kept out. Who knows?