Lol, Nothing Matters.

180621151938-melania-trump-zara-jacket-split-exlarge-169

First Lady Melania, while visiting a refugee center in Texas today, wore a jacket with the message ‘I don’t really care. Do you?’ written on its back. This fashion statement is really the culmination of ‘Lol, nothing matters’ type of public discourse. Today, it’s uncool to care. It’s as if the punk culture made it into mainstream and has then been hijacked and wielded by public servants. Those of us who do care – about conduct and norms and just basic human decency – are routinely mocked. That is, attempts of public to be citizens (and not workers/consumers) are mocked and ridiculed. Culturally, the virtuous are those who just shut up and go shopping and do brunch and pretend to ‘stay above’ the mud-wrestling below. Well, only dust floats above the battlefield.

“Lol, nothing matters” is an especially widespread sentiment in Russian community. It’s this strain of cultivated nihilism that we all saw living there, now made its way across the ocean. It’s this attitude that there’s no right and wrong, good and bad, that everyone is corrupt and that you can’t trust anybody. And if this is the case, then why not simply resign from public life? Why not bury yourself in work or pleasure? Which Russian among us hasn’t heard a phrase: A tebe eto nado? (Do you really need this?) from a friend or a colleague, as if the next trip to Italy or to a Michelin restaurant or Bergdorf Goodman will somehow cure that nagging but ungraspable disquietude.

‘Is shopping, and eating, and traveling not life?’ someone would ask. Tolstoy, in his treatise ‘On Life’ called these activities ‘senseless agitation’ – distractions with which we try to fill our lives so as to avoid thinking, to avoid having to define right and wrong, good and bad, and as a result, to avoid caring.

“Tunnelling through mountains, voyaging round the world, electricity, the microscope, the telephone, war, parliament, philanthropy, the strife of parties, universities, learned societies, museums – are not all these life?

All the feverish complicated activity of men with their trade, their wars, their ways of communication, their science, their art, is for the greater part nothing more than the senseless agitation of the crowd struggling on the threshold of life.”

Caring about a matter, in this case a public matter, puts you into an unenviable position of having to defend it from people who refuse to take a stand, as if that refusal gives them some kind of ‘above-it-all’ wisdom. But ‘Lol, nothing matters’ position is a comfortable spot, sort of like a financial talking head who always has an opinion on market but doesn’t have, well, a position, in the market.

But then again, when did Trump or his entire cabinet, ever took a position or held an opinion that lasted for at least a few days? Or when was he ever held accountable by his base for doing a 180? Lol, nothing matters. Suck it libs!

Advertisements

Impunity As a Result of 80s and 90s Pop Culture.

“The wicked flee when no one pursueth.”

Being an adult in the room has not been cool for several decades, since about 1970s, I’d estimate. The last movie about an adult in the room – a sober, responsible government official who defeats the bad guy was probably ‘Jaws’. Since then it’s all been downhill.

The 1980s were the worst offender. “Why do you have to wreck the company?” Charlie Sheen asks Michael Douglass in ‘Wall Street’. “Because it’s wreckable!” he snaps back. And with this, he embodied the spirit that has been haunting us ever since.

In the beloved 1980s teenage comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ we’re asked to sympathize with Ferris – a rebellious but smooth teenager whose quest to skip school is impeded by numerous antagonists: school principal and his nagging sister. It’s a cool, funny movie that I used to enjoy watching. But the more I think about it now (thinking is really a fun killer – you’ve been warned) the more I sympathize with a worry-wart Cameron and Ferris’s older sister, rather than a free-wheeling, fuck-the-rules Ferris. Cameron is actually a much more complex character because he had some semblance of a development arc. Ferris ends up his day in the same way he started it: a spoiled brat never to be held accountable by anyone. This movie, along with a bunch of other classics like Animal House and Caddyshack are 1980s version of ‘move fast and break things’ mindset of a modern day.

Then came the 90s with Goodfellas (still watch it every time it’s on), Glengarry Glenross (Alec Baldwin kills it!), and again, we were asked to relate to and even hold as paragons of a certain postmodernist virtue, characters who break the rules and/or assert power by sheer force or insult. But it is written so well, by such talented writers, and played so brilliantly, that it’s hard to look away. It’s just fun, it’s over-the-top for dramatic effect, why even bother overanalyzing it?

Even more recently, in The Hangover, one of the villains was a character’s nagging wife, bent on spoiling the guys’ fun. The existence of such a caricature makes it easy for a male character to abandon responsibility when there’s a ‘big bad mommy’-type out there whose sole purpose is to stifle guys’ (and they’re almost always guys) freedom and fun. ‘Big bad mommy’ represents not necessarily a female force, but is a stand in for an overweening government, a ‘big brother’. If you want to write a buddy comedy, but have to adhere to basic screenwriting rules that require you to have an antagonist, such a trope villain (a nagging wife, an obsessive school principal) is the lowest hanging fruit, but it always works. It’s easy to write, easy for an audience to understand, and easy for many to relate to, as in their daily grind they, too, fight their own version of a ‘big bad mommy.’

But who and what’s there to rebel against now? Who is the ‘nagging wife’ in our lives today? A ‘Big bad mommy’ doesn’t run things anymore. Evil clowns from ‘It’, like Stephen Miller, do. But the appeal of rebelliousness didn’t go anywhere. A man has been told that he has to rebel against someone or something, otherwise his life will lack meaning. If, instead of being a feckless high school student, you’re finding yourself to be an adult in the room, to hold all the reigns of power, the game stops being fun because then you are asked for accountability. But, as we learned over the decades of pop-culture message, guys can not be held accountable and should, instead, be praised and even mimicked for their unorthodox way of skirting responsibility.

The late Christopher Hitchens was obsessed with women’s ability to kill a man’s fun. Oh, I used to love Hitch, I thought he was, like, the smartest guy I ever read. (Made me think that if I was 25 today, I’d probably be reading up Jordan Peterson and marveling at his brilliance). Hitch was incredibly skillful with words and precision, and gave his thick sentences double, triple meaning. Now, since I’m in the middle of deconstructing our treasured pop culture icons, I find him to be an example of incredible talent and rare wordsmanship wasted on the service of excusing one’s anti-social behavior by manufacturing an artificial villain.

Of course, a ‘big bad mommy’ prototype does not have to be a literal mother or a wife. It is a gray-suited government official, an SEC bureaucrat, a DMV worker, even a Nurse Ratchet – anyone who makes the proverbial trains run on time, keeps order in an institution. I added Nurse Ratchet on the list because the villain of an iconic Milos Forman’s movie (my favorite movie for a period of time) was a metaphor for totalitarianism, but today we suffer from a different ailment: chaos. We do not live in a world where our dreams of freedom are being stifled by sadistic nurses; we live in a world where the lunatics have overtaken the asylum. Again, I invite you to think of Jack Nicholson’s character – a rebellious man totally devoid of any responsibility. And again, this is the kind of role models we grew up with and internalized. Is there any wonder then that people ‘running’ things (I intentionally put ‘running’ in quotes) prefer to think of themselves as victims yearning to break free? Break free from what? From liberals calling them names?

Hillary was an ultimate stand in for a ‘nagging wife’ type. She was that school principal that could, should she have won, hold at least some of the ‘Ferris Buellers’ accountable. She presented not just political but existential threat to our schoolyard order (or rather lack of it). And this could not be allowed to happen.

So, who should be the villain then, you might ask. Good scripts and good stories are those that, in addition to or rather instead of, external villain, focus on the internal demons of the character. Someone’s fear manifesting as aggression. Someone’s insecurity manifesting as bravado. Someone’s ‘unresolved childhood trauma’ manifesting as cruelty. The dark forces we fight are within us. The bottom line is, no one is really trying to ‘get’ us. “Wicked flee where no one pursueth.” But how do you have fun then, when no one ‘pursueth’ you?

Girl Power

The other day a senior White House official, Kelly Sadler, made a comment about ailing Sen. McCain: “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” Sadler was referring to McCain’s advanced cancer in the context of his opposition and thus a possible ‘no’ vote on a confirmation of another woman of questionable morals, Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for CIA director. One wonders: how can a public official or just any human being display such a lack of basic decency? What is it that has the capacity to make us into such assholes?

A moment of self-reflection brought back the memories of my early days on Wall Street. Back in a heyday, long before the shit hit the fan, there was a feature in the mortgage bonds called ‘prepayment penalty.’ Prepayment risk was one of the several risks of holding a mortgage bond. Still innocent about the ways of Wall Street, I couldn’t initially grasp what exactly was the problem when the borrower pays off the mortgage early. I was quickly disabused of my naivete by a shrewd and seasoned co-worker: that risk meant that a bondholder would have to reinvest that money at a different, probably lower rate. So naturally, the bondholders wanted to get compensated for carrying that risk. Thus Wall Street, he enlightened me, came up with a brilliant solution: prepayment penalty paid by the borrower. With this observation he accomplished two things: he revealed how the real world works, and how still unprepared I was for being a player in that world. As this new piece of info sinked in, I gazed upon the buzzing trading floor in embarrassment at my own inadequacy: these were all killers and I didn’t think like a killer.  This is how you were supposed to think: if a borrower is late on his mortgage – he pays a penalty; if he’s early – he still pays a penalty. You get to write these rules, you get a chicken for dinner every time. It’s almost like these masters of the universe WANTED the unwitting borrower to make a mistake; no, worse – in a cruel twist they also wanted to punish him for a prudent individual conduct. Why? Because this way they collect more fees. Of course, this industry would soon forget how it sought to punish a borrower for his attempt at paying off his debts and would blame the whole thing on him being a shiftless deadbeat. But that reckoning was still years away. At that moment, I was determined to become a killer like them.

Where am I going with this? Once I learned about this clever mechanism I didn’t feel outraged. It didn’t cause any internal conflict. What it produced instead was a self-satisfied chuckle, a realization that I was on the other, winning, side of this trade. It felt like an initiation into a special club. That it was I who, directly or indirectly, stood to benefit from all those poor schmucks who played by the rules written by ‘us’. Yes, at that point I have considered myself to belong to ‘Us’, the winners. I mean I was smart and worked 14-hour days and took plenty of abuse to get there, so, surely, I deserved it. In a set up like this it was just a matter of time before a disparaging word or a caustic comment towards the losers would slip off the tip of my tongue. I became a good cog.

Women like Kelly Sadler – also a good, loyal cog, blond and pretty and useful to the regime in many capacities, are often predisposed to not understand a toxic dynamic happening before her eyes, because her current status and a future lobbying career depend on not understanding it. She can smell that power the way I could smell that money.

The moment of initiation into a special exclusive club is the moment you lose your internal moral compass. Grateful of the rare privilege you want to prove being worthy of the membership. In the company of powerful men the misfortunes of the distant others is an odd topic to bring up. At best it will create suspicion about you having the right qualifications, about you having an understanding of the mission at hand. At worse, you’ll risk expulsion. Smart club administrators seek to invite new members from humble origins, minorities, women. They know those will be the best, most ruthless and most dedicated defenders of the club’s mission. The sense of belonging, of a need to belong, will trump the sense of right and wrong in most people most of the time. And indeed, throughout the history, women, especially white, privileged women, have been the loyal foot soldiers and defenders of the worst atrocities.

Kelly Sadler’s comment, put in that context, is a logical and totally predictable occurrence. She wasn’t thinking about McCain, or his family or even about how this will sound, should it ever come out, to an outside public. All she did was channel what everyone in that room was thinking. Judging by those standards she’s proved worthy of the membership.

Cross-Country Move

Sooner or later a time comes in a life of an East Coast dweller when she contemplates a move West. After nearly twenty years in New York that time has come for me. I will avoid writing an almost obligatory ‘Goodbye to All That’ NYC-to-LA type essay, as everything has been said before me and I will not add anything new to the topic.

A road trip was not our first choice, but we couldn’t find an RV company that rents one-way and I didn’t want to fly with the cat (and other items that could not be brought on the plane or flushed down the toilet). A trip like this is something that people do in their 20s. But since I’ve never done it then, perhaps, now was the chance. After solving multiple logistical puzzles, we sent our two sedans West on a trailer and rented an SUV so we could fit a few things and a Kitty’s litter box in the back. Crossed this off my bucket list.

The whole trip took 4 days and 3 nights. Day 1: PA, OH, IN. Day 2: IL, MO, OK. Day 3: TX, NM, AZ. Day 4: CA.

Continue reading

A Deconstruction of a Typical WSJ Article

“The bullshit piled up so high in Vietnam you needed wings to stay above it.” Apocalypse Now

I’m travelling, so at breakfast at the hotel I picked up a recent copy of Wall Street Journal.

The beauty of not reading WSJ regularly is that your bullshit radar, weaned off of daily exposure to it,  regains its sensitivity. You open a ‘Markets’ section and bullshit jumps at you, offending all your senses.

I see a headline: “Another Danger of Rising Wages” by Justin Lahart. (The online version says “The Other Risk from Rising Wages.”)

If you don’t have access, no worries: I’ll be dissecting almost every sentence in the article.

The author’s major lament is that in current tight labor market the wages might rise, although he’s not sure whether or not this will lead to inflation. Today, he’s more worried about tight labor market leading to lower stock prices. Notice how right out of the gate, in a typical WSJ fashion, more concern is given to investors and markets than the wage schmucks. “A Danger” of rising wages. God forbid.

But there are ways to deal with this danger.

“One way wages could rise without inflation running hotter is if productivity picks up. This would be a good thing.” Good thing for who? He explains: “the more productive the economy is, the better off everybody can be.” Translation: If before you worked 10 hours a day for $11/hour, then if you now work 12 hours a day for the same $11/hour – you’re better off. See, it’s good for you to work more hours.

“And there is some hope that productivity growth, which has been woefully weak, kicks in as companies step up capital spending to combat rising labor costs.” Think about this for a moment: the productivity will grow, this guy argues, if companies spend money NOT on labor costs, but on COMBATING labor costs. Spend cash on devising remedies that make workers work harder for less and you won’t have to spend cash on wages!! Watch and learn, MBAs.

But there’s a problem with this approach though. You see, he then points out, “The problem is that investment in productivity won’t translate into productivity gains for a while.” Aawww! 😦 There’s a time-lapse between implementing those remedies and workers working harder.

“The other way wages can rise without inflation picking up is if companies eat their rising labor costs (wait, is there a remote possibility of redemption here? KG) – a scenario investors probably wouldn’t like.” (Oh, nevermind. Let’s not forget about the investors. KG). “Profit margins are near historic highs and are expected to go higher as a result of the tax cut, but more of that money than investors expect could be going to paychecks instead of earnings.” (OMG! The Horror! The Horror!)

“That wouldn’t be surprising. Inflation has been so low for so long, (btw, does this casual confession mean that WSJ will now rescind a decade of hysterical articles about the lurking inflation? KG) consumers have become conditioned to it, making it harder for companies to raise prices without losing customers.” Being a company is hard. Fucking workers demand a higher salary, fucking consumers are a bunch of flaky brats. Hey, maybe you should close up shop then? Oh, I forgot: Your fucking profit margins are near historic highs and are expected to go higher.

He concludes: “This might work out fine for everyone if low inflation kept the Fed from tightening aggressively. But with wages rising, the Fed will at least keep to its current path of rate increases. The result would be lower profit margins and higher rates – not exactly the stuff of investor dreams.” Yes, the investors dreams – that sacred ideal on which a civic society is built.

This mindset is so emblematic of our skewed priorities: We are asked to serve the market. We are the cogs and ‘the Market’ and ‘the Investor’ are supreme beings whose interests are more important that a working stiff’s to the point where companies are willing to spend money to PREVENT the working stiff from getting a decent wage.

 

 

Eagles Win

It was heart, not brains that fueled massive celebrations last night in Philly after Eagles win. It was the same kind of heart that makes people go to Times Square on NYE at freezing temperatures.  Perhaps it was the same kind of irrationality that made people pull the lever for Trump. It defies rational analysis. People climbed poles that have been greased and turned over cars. Why? If you asked them they would holler ecstatically and incoherently in your face but would not give you an answer. Any verbal means of expression would feel awfully inadequate under that unique circumstance.

Eric Hoffer in his book ‘The True Believer’ dissects the above sentiment to its basic elements. Human irrationality and passions are a phenomenon with a much bigger political and social implications than we, especially on the left, are willing to assign to it. He points out many culprits, but central of them all is the desire to belong to a cause, often combined with the lack of other channels of expression for one’s personal passions.

To express oneself with words, the kind of words that will telegraph one’s personal sentiments with 100% precision is a skill that takes time to learn and practice. It would be a big ask of a rough-and-tumble, starved for victory blue collar Philly crowd. It is this inability to express oneself that manifests itself in physical form during significant political or social events.

I saw the amount of pent up energy being released yesterday that would put to shame any other march or celebration that I’ve seen before, and I’ve seen a lot. Obama victory in 2008 comes close, and I still remember and relish that magic and camaraderie in the air, but it does not come nowhere near to a high-octane, visceral, shambolic riot (“a Russian riot – senseless and ruthless”) of a first ever Super Bowl win.

If I had to pick one defining characteristic to describe a sports fan whose drought has been broken? A lack of irony. A lack of irony expressed in the irrational. I like that. It’s pure art. A good piece of art lacks irony. To be ironic is to be unsure about the resulting effect on the audience, thus deploying irony as a shield against a possible misunderstanding. Why should I then take such an artist or an author or a person at his word?

Those riff-raff on the streets last night, climbing greased poles, turning cars and eating horse manure? Oh, there was zero irony there. It was beautiful. It was like winning WWII. It was beautiful because it was driven by heart and defied any classification and any explanation. I watched the spectacle from my apartment trying to find appropriate words. It was a tall order, even though I spent years perfecting my writing skills – a pastime that teaches you descriptive rigor, which in turn teaches you things about yourself. (One of the side effects of this process was the realization that I dislike Russian rock music. Because, you guessed it, it’s ironic.) But I digress. To ask that euphoric mob ‘how do you feel’ would be to insult them. That would be asking them to use a medium of expression that lacks adequate conducive qualities.

Mining that irrationality of the crowd is a skill currently perfected by hucksters. It is used to sell us stuff and make us vote for conmen. Can Democrats relearn to harness those forces for the common good next November?