This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on August 6. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
For Bloomberg Opinion, I interviewed Nolan Gray, author of the new book Arbitrary Lines, which advocates abolishing zoning (but not land-use planning) in the U.S. Here are a couple of excerpts:
VP: Is zoning a specifically US phenomenon?
NG: Most developed countries have something resembling zoning. They will say industrial building is not allowed in certain quarters of the city, or certain portions of the metropolitan area are going to be reserved for agriculture. But US zoning is unique in at least two ways. The first is single-family zoning. No other zoning system in the developed world, to my knowledge, demarcates specific areas only for single-family housing.
The second way that US zoning is unique is the complete orientation around the car. It’s often illegal to build an apartment building without a parking garage, or it’s illegal to build a commercial strip without a large parking lot….
VP: You write about the origins of zoning in both New York and Berkeley, California. Can you explain what drove it?
NG: Both reflect the “Baptists and bootleggers” coalition that gets us zoning. The “Baptists and bootleggers” idea is that political coalitions will normally have someone who’s cynically invested in the policy — the bootlegger who supports prohibition because he can make money off of it — and then the Baptist who provides the political movement with moral cover.
Start with the “Baptists.” During the Progressive Era there was this notion that cities and markets are too scary and chaotic. Wouldn’t it be great if we got all the smartest people in the room to come up with a big master plan for what’s going to be allowed on every single lot in our city for the next 50 years? Most modern people look back and think that’s a little crazy. But that was the ethos.
The bootleggers were the landlords who — in the Manhattan context — think, “Way too much office supply is being built in lower Manhattan and it’s lowering the value of my assets.” In the Berkeley case, if you read the zoning promotional materials, one paragraph will say, “We need to adopt zoning so we can keep industry out of residential neighborhoods.” With modern eyes, you read that and think, Yeah, that makes sense. You don’t want an oil refinery next to your house. But then the next paragraph explains what industries they’re concerned about. It’s Chinese laundries. Or dance halls that are bringing African Americans into the neighborhood.
In New York City, shopkeepers on Fifth Avenue were worried about loft manufacturing moving closer to the shopping district. Again, you read that with modern eyes and think, OK, factories. There must have been smoke or noise or vibrations. But the shopkeepers’ specific concern was that poor Jewish factory girls are coming to window-shop along the corridor, and they’re scaring off our elite clientele. Zoning is much more of a social project than it is a good-government process.
VP: You repeatedly make the point that zoning “cannot build a building. It can only ever stop something from being built.” Why is that an important distinction?
NG: When Minneapolis abolished single-family zoning recently, some of the media coverage said that it was banning new single-family homes. But that’s not what they did. They got rid of single-family zoning, which was just a prohibition on apartments. They were getting rid of a prohibition.
In L.A., there are a lot of conversations about getting rid of minimum parking requirements. And people say, “Come on, you’ve got to have somewhere to park.” But getting rid of minimum parking requirements isn’t saying to developers that you’re not allowed to build any more parking. It’s saying that we’re not going to force you to build any parking. We’re not going to mandate things that you wouldn’t otherwise have done. It’s a really important difference.
You can read an ungated version here, courtesy of my WaPo subscription. Our conversation was much longer than what I was able to publish, and, of course, the book goes into further depth. The discussion of Houston, the great American unzoned city, is particularly interesting.
America’s Secret Sauce & the Faux Sophistication of Critique
Speaking of interviews, I highly recommend this conversation between Persuasion founder Yascha Mounk and Eboo Patal, the founder of Interfaith America and the author of We Need to Build: Field Notes For Diverse Democracy. It’s excellent throughout. Patel has a particular appreciation of the success of America’s dynamist approach to religion and how it plays out in the constant evolution of civic associations. I also appreciated the early discussion of the appeal and limitations of the “critique” approach Patal embraced as a college student. “I thought sophistication meant only telling the most negative story possible,” could be the slogan not only of the academic left but of many libertarians and conservatives.
The 21st Century Seems Like Science Fiction…even if it doesn’t look like old science fiction illustrations.
I’ve spent the week interviewing people at synthetic biology startups. I’ve eaten salmon sushi grown from a few cells, with no fish killed and no impurities (parasites, heavy metals, microplastics, whatever). I’ve eaten cream cheese made from whey protein excreted by fungi. You can read more later this year, in a longer article elaborating on the themes in this column from last year. As Greg Benford argued in this 1995 Reason article, ours is the Biological Century: “Beyond 2000, the principal social, moral, and economic issues will probably spring from biology's metaphors and approach, and from its cornucopia of technology. Bio-thinking will inform our world and shape our vision of ourselves.”
The biological advances proceed not just from greater biological understanding, however, but also from advances in computing power and now increasingly in machine learning. Last week brought the news that protein folding is no longer a mystery. The AI company DeepMind, owned by Alphabet (Google’s parent company), announced:
In partnership with EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), we’re now releasing predicted structures for nearly all catalogued proteins known to science, which will expand the AlphaFold DBby over 200x - from nearly 1 million structures to over 200 million structures - with the potential to dramatically increase our understanding of biology.
What will come of this information remains to be seen, but it promises to be big, with implications for medicine, agriculture, and more. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Lisa Jarvis, a former skeptic, wrote (ungated version here):
Since the early 1990s, scientists have been trying to train computers to predict a protein’s structure based on its genetic sequence. AlphaFold had the first taste of success in 2020, when it correctly predicted the structures of a handful of proteins. The next year, DeepMind put on its server about 365,000 proteins.
Now, it’s put the entire universe of proteins up for grabs — in animals, plants, bacteria, fungi and other living things. All 200 million of them.
Much as the gene-editing tool Crispr revolutionized the study of human disease and the design of drugs to target genetic errors, AlphaFold’s feat is fundamentally changing the way new medicines can be invented.
“Anybody who could have thought that machine learning was not yet relevant for drug hunting surely must feel different,” said Jay Bradner, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, the pharma company’s research arm. “I'm on it more than Spotify.” Count me as one of the former skeptics. I hadn’t discounted the possibility that AI might have an impact on the drug industry, but I was weary of the many biotech firms hyping often ill-defined machine-learning capabilities. Companies often claimed that they could use AI to invent a new drug without acknowledging that the starting point — a protein structure — still needed to be worked out by a human. And so far, people have had to first invent drugs for the computer to improve upon them.
Producing the full compendium of proteins is something entirely different — and outside the usual hype cycle. It’s little wonder that executives at biotech and pharma companies are widely adopting AlphaFold’s revelations.
On a more disturbing note, this AI-written letter to Glenn Loury fooled me completely. And I dread having to be on the lookout for AI-written student papers. (If you don’t want to learn, please don’t take my course!)
Envisioning the Future and the Recent Past
I am a huge fan of Jim Pethokoukis and his Substack newsletter, “Faster, Please!” But I’ve spent too much time thinking about glamour to share his enthusiasm for 20th-century visual depictions of the glorious future. They leave out too much—glamour always does!—and those omissions have had some perverse consequences, particularly in urban planning.1 I don’t want to live in the world of The Jetsonsfor the same reasons I don’t want to live in 1965. Plus there’s more to progress than faster transportation and robot maids. Surely our images can do better, including more human-scale views rather than grand visions that abstract away individual experience.
Meanwhile over at another Substack newsletter I enjoy, Anton Howes writes about Victorian confidence, quoting an 1859 document arguing for a successor to the Great Exhibition of 1851 (known for the Crystal Palace). It describes the previous eight years:
Looking back for that period in England, we find that several new arts and industries have arisen, and old ones have been extended. Scarcely more than ten years have passed since the submarine telegraphs were unknown; the screw propeller applied to our steam-vessels; the glass-duty removed; the great improvements and advancement in the trade and products of the Staffordshire potteries effected; the manufacture of bricks left free to take such form as may be required; the excise duty on soap got rid of; photography and chromatic printing introduced and perfected as arts; gutta percha and many vegetable oils from our Colonies, such as the Bassia Latifolia and the Cahoun Palm, introduced as new raw materials in commerce; whilst the declared value of our exported manufactures has risen from £65,756,000 in 1851 to £122,155,000 in 1857. Add to the above the fact, that within ten years the resources of our Colonies have been largely developed, and the commercial world has acquired three additional emporia: two on the shores of the Pacific, and one on the great American Lakes, viz., San Francisco, Melbourne, and Chicago, none of which are even named in the edition of Mr M’Culloch’s Dictionary of Geography, published in 1849; also that China and Japan have now been opened to trade with England; and we cannot but come to the conclusion that ten years is a period fully sufficient to justify the Society of Arts in proposing to hold an Exhibition in 1861.
Anton comments: “The contrast to today is marked. It is striking that so many intellectuals — particularly in the UK, but also in the US and elsewhere — believe economic and technological stagnation to now be an unavoidable fact of life. Although I don’t subscribe to the view that we’ve been seeing stagnation, I do think we’re falling far short of our potential. It’s worth imagining what kind of Victorian-style paragraph we can write about our last eight years, and what we would hope to write about the next.”
So here’s are the challenges. You can pick one or try any combination.
Write an updated version of the Victorian paragraph, looking back at 2014.
Write a speculative version of the Victorian paragraph, looking back at today from 2030.
Come up with an inspiring illustration of a possible 2040.
I’ll publish a selection of the best here (you’ll retain rights, of course) as I receive them and will accept entries through September 30. I’ll then award the top two in each category a collection of what Jim would call “Up Wing” books.2 The judging process will depend on how many entries are received, and I reserve the right to award fewer than six prizes. Email them to me at [email protected]
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on July 29. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
My latest Bloomberg Opinion column is explained well in an excellent subhead (contrary to popular assumptions, writers don’t craft the headlines or subheads that appear on their work): “Packaging less stuff for the same price doesn’t fool consumers or economists. But diminishing quality imposes equally maddening extra costs that are almost impossible to measure.” Excerpt:
If a 16-ounce box contracts to 14 ounces and the price stays the same, I asked Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Jonathan Church, how is that recorded? “Price increase,” he said quickly. You just divide the price by 14 instead of 16 and get the price per ounce. Correcting for shrinkflation is straightforward.
New service charges for things that used to be included in the price, from rice at a Thai restaurant to delivery of topsoil, also rarely sneak past the inflation tallies any more than they fool consumers. But a stealthier shrinkflation is plaguing today’s economy: declines in quality rather than quantity. Often intangible, the lost value is difficult to capture in price indexes.
Faced with labor shortages, for example, many hotels have eliminated daily housekeeping. For the same room price, guests get less service. It’s not conceptually different from shrinking a bag of potato chips. But would the consumer price index pick up the change? Probably not, Church said.
This phenomenon, which Doug Johnson aptly dubbed “disqualiflation” in a Facebook comment, is widespread. One example is the four-hour airport security line I chronicled in an earlier Substack post. Another is the barely trained newbie who screws up your sandwich order—a far more common experience today than four years ago. It’s the flip side of a phenomenon I wrote about in The Substance of Style and in economics columns in the early 2000s (see here and here).
During the 2000s and 2010s, inflation was probably overstated because of unmeasured quality increases. Now there’s the opposite phenomenon. Quality reductions have become so pervasive that even today’s scary inflation numbers are almost certainly understated.
Depression feels as foreign and irresistible as the flu.
You may have heard that the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression has been disproved. A typical summary is this one, from a post by a Facebook friend who shall remain nameless:
The pseudoscientific idea that “depression” is a “chemical imbalance in the brain” has been among the most pernicious for the happiness of humans, but among the most convenient for big pharma. “You don't need to rethink your life. Just take this pill.” The same logic behind drug addiction.
Here’s a popularization by the authors of the scientific paper. The study is not about whether the general idea of a chemical imbalance is correct. Nor is it about whether antidepressants work. It is specifically about the theory that “depression is a result of abnormally low or inactive serotonin.” Saying depression isn’t caused by abnormally low serotonin is a long way from saying it’s just the world telling you to rethink your life.
I do not need to rethink my life. I have a wonderful husband, meaningful work, financial security, generally good health. I had a loving family and a happy childhood. But from adolescence onward, I have suffered from bouts of depression. “But I can’t be depressed!” I long thought. I had a happy childhood!
But when this Zoloft commercial originally ran in 2001, I completely identified with the little blob—only I was much more miserable and worthless feeling. And I had already rethought my life. I had quit my job as editor of Reason, driven at least in part by a desire to stop feeling like a failure, and embarked on a career as an independent writer. My career was going well, but my mood was as black as ever.
I did eventually talk with my internist, who diagnosed depression. When she asked whether I ever felt suicidal, I said no, never, but I understand why other people do. She prescribed fluoxetine, aka Prozac, because it was available as a cheap generic. It made me less passionate and gave me weird dreams but allowed me get a rational grip on my depressive cycles. After a number of years, I went off the drug. When my depression returned a few years ago, thankfully not in as intense a form, my doctor prescribed sertraline (aka Zoloft), which is much, much better. It simply makes me feel normal, without the numbing effects of fluoxetine.
Depression feels as foreign and irresistible as the flu. If you think it is mere sadness, you don’t know what you’re talking about. We may not understand why antidepressive medication works, which makes it like many other medications, but I have to wonder at the urge to tell people who suffer from this crippling disease that they should just get their acts together.
Of course, I’m just a single data point. If you want to read some expert reactions, here’s a collection of short responses to the new findings. A couple of examples, from the same institution, University College London, as the review’s co-authors:
Dr Michael Bloomfield, Consultant Psychiatrist and UKRI Principal Clinical Research Fellow, Translational Psychiatry Research Group Head, UCL, said:
“The hypothesis that depression was caused by a chemical imbalance in serotonin was a really important step forward in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, there is a huge of amount of research which tells us that the brain’s serotonin systems plays very important roles in how our brains process different emotions.
“The findings from this umbrella review are really unsurprising. Depression has lots of different symptoms and I don’t think I’ve met any serious scientists or psychiatrists who think that all causes of depression are caused by a simple chemical imbalance in serotonin. What remains possible is that for some people with certain types of depression, that changes in the serotonin system may be contributing to their symptoms. The problem with this review is that it isn’t able to answer that question because it has lumped together depression as if it is a single disorder, which from a biological perspective does not make any sense.
“Many of us know that taking paracetamol [acetaminophen] can be helpful for headaches and I don’t think anyone believes that headaches are caused by not enough paracetamol in the brain. The same logic applies to depression and medicines used to treat depression. There is consistent evidence that antidepressant medicines can be helpful in the treatment of depression and can be life-saving. Antidepressant medicines are one type of treatment alongside other types of treatment like psychotherapy (talking therapy). Patients must have access to evidence-based treatments for depression and anyone taking any treatment for depression who is contemplating stopping treatment should discuss this with their doctor first.”
Prof David Curtis, Honorary Professor, UCL Genetics Institute, said: “This paper does not present any new findings but just reports results which have been published elsewhere and it is certainly not news that depression is not caused by “low serotonin levels”. The notion of depression being due to a “chemical imbalance” is outmoded, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists wrote that this was an over-simplification in a position statement published in 2019. Nor is it the case that SSRI antidepressants increase serotonin levels. Their immediate action is to alter the balance between serotonin concentrations inside and outside neurons but their antidepressant effect is likely due to more complex changes in neuronal functioning which occur later as a consequence of this. It is very clear that people suffering from depressive illness do have some abnormality of brain function, even if we do not yet know what this is, and that antidepressants are effective treatments for severe depression whereas interventions such as exercise and mindfulness are not. It is important that people with severe depression are not discouraged from receiving appropriate treatments, which can make a huge difference to them and those around them.”
Show, don’t tell: One of the small, pervasive changes that makes news stories seem both patronizing and politicized is the increasingly common practice of inserting judgmental adjectives into otherwise descriptive sentences. Telling readers that a statement is “false” while repeating it may be justified, if intrusive, but in other cases it’s an unnecessary tic.
Gone is the assumption that readers are intelligent people who can draw their own conclusions from a compelling presentation of the facts. Journalists now seem to live in fear that their readers won’t think correctly. Take this sentence from interesting article on the evolution of American Sign Language: “For a portion of the 20th century, many schools for the deaf were more inclined to try to teach their students spoken English, rather than ASL, based on harmful beliefs that signing was inferior to spoken language.” (Emphasis added.)
If you read the article, you are highly unlikely to come to the conclusion that signing is anything less than a full-blown language, not inferior to spoken English. But the article never gives evidence that this incorrect 20th-century belief was harmful. It doesn’t discuss the pluses and minuses of signing, or why one belief was succeeded by another. That’s a different story. In the context of this story, the adjective is unnecessary, distracting, and insulting to the reader’s intelligence.
In a word, chintz:This article from House and Garden (UK) examines “the debt British interior design owes India” and quotes The Fabric of Civilization, which the magazine reviewed earlier this year:
Postrel’s The Fabric of Civilization is a relatively academic analysis made accessible to casual readers. It’s full of amazing anecdotes, too: you will learn, for example, that a 100sqm sail for a Viking ship would take 60 miles of yarn to weave, and took longer to make than the ship itself. Postrel also visits modern textile-production facilities and weaving schools, to understand the technology behind the huge uptick in global availability of fabric.
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on July 23. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
I spent the morning with a young plumber who owns a growing company known for excellent work. He came with his cool camera-snake—a technology plumbers under 40 take for granted—to see why our condo complex’s pipes are backing up. We talked tree roots and hydrojetting, not politics. But my experience with this competent and upwardly mobile entrepreneur, whose fluent English still has a Latin American lilt, gave some recent political discussions additional resonance.
In current polls, he wrote, “Democrats lose among all working class voters by 11 points, but carry the college-educated by 23 points. This is less a class gap than a yawning chasm.” Citing specific issue differences, he concluded, “Strong progressives clearly live in a different world than Hispanic and working class voters.”
Both activist Democrats and Trumpist Republicans tend to equate “working class voters” with older white Rust Belt men, not upwardly mobile, often self-employed Latinos. But in my neck of the woods at least, the latter predominate. And I don’t see them represented in our political options. Trumpists portray them as criminals, welfare leeches, and job stealers, while progressives depict them as victims of racist capitalism. Both reflect zero-sum thinking. Neither rings true.
But, given a choice, increasing numbers of upwardly mobile working-class Latinos, especially men, are opting for the party that respects work, if not workers. That’s bad news for Democrats. It’s also bad for those of us who worry about Trumpism’s threat to American institutions but would rather not see the “racist capitalism” view of the world triumph. Although Teixeira and I have different policy preferences, like him, I’d like to see Democrats wise up.
They don’t even need to leave their progressive bubbles to get insights into the exotically ordinary world of working-class Latinos. They could just read the Los Angeles Times. It’s a liberal paper with a rare commitment to telling their stories as not as symbols but as normal people who speak for themselves. It’s old-fashioned local reporting. Here are samples from today’s edition:
There’s the heart-wrenching story of how Gustavo Flores Álvarez, a Mexican immigrant who owns a cabinet-making business, lost his family’s house to a fire from a homeless encampment on a long-vacant piece of city land nearby.
Álvarez said he thinks the man who built the encampment behind his house sparked the fire while trying to steal power. He had notified the police about the man, who would often get high and play loud music. But nothing happened.
The man has now set up a new camp a short distance down the same pathway, and more fires have occurred, terrifying others on the block. “Do you know how scary it is to get a call that says there is another fire behind your home?” asked Álvarez’s next-door neighbor, Yvonnette Brown. “I constantly live in fear of something happening at the back of my house.” [Emphasis added.]
It’s a sidebar to a long feature on the city’s failed promises to use the land to bring jobs to Watts. Prospective developers couldn’t navigate the barriers. One example:
Seeing 10 acres of vacant land, Craig Furniss’ first thought was, “This is unbelievable. There must be something wrong.”
Finding nothing demonstrably wrong, Furniss and his partner, fresh from success in building the Alameda Trade Center produce market in downtown, took a chance. Partnering with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a jobs and social services nonprofit born out of the 1965 Watts riots, they made a winning bid in 2004 to build food-processing facilities.
The neighborhood never got behind the plan, he said, and the city kept adding demands.
“They just kept layering these things,” he added.
Among those, he recalled, were building setbacks, job-creation targets with penalties for falling short and pre-approval of property transfers.
Then a change in mayoral administrations brought a new planning director and a new requirement: The city wanted a percentage of any profits.
The most productive approach would be to sell the land at market rates and let somebody build whatever seems to make sense for the area—likely some combination of housing and light industry or retail. But why cede control when you can “layer on demands?” So the land stays unused and, thanks to conflicting jurisdictions, unmaintained. If it gets used at all, the property will likely go to provide “interim housing, tiny homes, safe camping or trailers” to replace the encampment. You can see why hard-pressed strivers like Álvarez might find that disillusioning.
Meanwhile, in Boyle Heights, a rich businessman and philanthropist wants to turn a massive now-unoccupied Art Deco Sears distribution center into the “Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center.” The center would offer housing, medical and mental health services, job training, immigration help, and drug treatment to as many as 10,000 currently homeless people.
Boyle Heights is a traditionally working-class neighborhood, the first stop for immigrants going back to Jews in the early 20th century. In recent years, it has gentrified as even households with six-figure incomes have trouble finding places they can afford to buy. That has caused tensions with long-term residents, who are also none-too-fond of the plans for the Sears building. They showed up at a recent meeting to protest the idea. From Andrew J. Campa’s LAT report:
Now, an outsider was telling them that the landmark Sears building, once the pride of the community, would house not hundreds, but thousands, of homeless people.
“It was like a whole bunch of things were said, but nothing made sense,” lifelong Boyle Heights resident Jasmine Flores, 21, said after the meeting. “It seemed very much an unrealistic dream that we were being sold, while real solutions, things that could help people from Boyle Heights, weren’t considered.”
Some felt aggrieved that their community, already reeling from COVID-19 deaths and environmental pollution, was now supposed to “fix” Los Angeles’ massive homelessness crisis.
Others lamented that basic services they’ve demanded from city and county officials — street cleaning, affordable housing and better security — continued to be neglected, while homelessness has taken center stage.
Flores was one of more than 30 people who spoke against the project. She said her family nearly wound up homeless on a few occasions during her childhood, and many in Boyle Heights are still barely making ends meet.
Like several other speakers, she considered it unfair that so many resources would be devoted to a transient community, rather than to residents who have been struggling for years. [Emphasis added.]
The scheme raises all sorts of practical questions, but neighborhood residents are less concerned with financing or architectural plans than with why someone wants to help vagrants rather than financially pressed people who are managing to keep their lives together.2 Why couldn’t someone turn the building into inexpensive housing for working families? Or expensive housing that gives affluent people a place to live without squeezing out existing neighbors? Because it’s too damned hard to develop housing in Los Angeles. Too many people get a veto and there are too many rules and too many delays. As Nolan Gray says in his new book on zoning Arbitrary Lines, “Housing delayed is housing denied.” (Coming soon: my interview with Nolan.)
In my hometown of Anaheim, councilmember Jose Moreno — who fought a lonely fight for years against corruption at City Hall and is the chair of the longtime civil rights group Los Amigos of Orange County — shocked supporters when he asked city staff last week to look into cracking down even further on street vendors, even though Anaheim already has some of the most stringent regulations in Orange County. After mumbling about supporting those micro-entrepreneurs as “a matter of philosophy and the need for people to make a living,” Moreno — who’s a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach — nevertheless said “when they start setting up right in front of restaurants … that’s an affront to our small-business folks, the neighborhood, the community.” [Emphasis added.]
Profe, you’re sounding like a Trumpster.
Street vendors are, of course, themselves small-business folks. And if you think eating from a street vendor is an equivalent experience to sitting down in a restaurant, you don’t understand market segmentation (or chairs).
The theme running through all these stories is simple: Government doesn’t work and it particularly doesn’t work for ordinary people trying to make better lives for themselves. You have to either have money and connections—to have made it already—or you have to be seen as a victim, despite ignoring your responsibilities for yourself and those around you.
Along similar lines (but not from the LAT), Josh Barro puts his finger on an issue much more likely to cost Democrats votes than transgender athletes:
The ambivalence of liberals about whether they even want lower gasoline prices — and the steps the Biden administration has taken to discourage domestic oil production, for example by placing holds on oil and gas lease auctions — reflects the values of the highly educated, disproportionately affluent and educated demographic that dominates the Democratic Party’s staffers and donor base. Many of these people care a lot about carbon emissions and don’t care very much about whether gasoline is cheap, and that’s a real disconnect from lower- and middle-income voters across the ideological spectrum for whom cost of living is of paramount concern.
Unfortunately, this is a harder problem to solve than not saying “Latinx.” The policy concessions progressives would need to make on energy to stop weighing down the party are substantive and important.
A lot of progressives arrive at environmentalism not through cost-benefit analysis but through an essentially moral view that abundance — population growth, more energy, new homes — is itself harmful to the earth. There is an unbridgeable disconnect between that view — the philosophy that underlies the urge for “de-growth” — and the desire of most normal people to have a continually rising standard of living, with large cars and better appliances and air conditioning. And as shortages persist as a major theme in the world economy, this disconnect will become a larger and larger problem.
Upwardly mobile people have a stake in dynamism and abundance. If Democrats offer only stagnation, rationing, and neglect, those voters will turn to the alternative.
DIY plumbing snake/camera for less than $60
If you ignore the political train wrecks, the 21st-century is amazing.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on October 08, 2022 • Comments
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on July 13. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
The term “jet lag” is younger than I am, dating back to roughly 1966. Whoever coined it wasn’t yet talking about flying 11 hours through eight time zones, which is what I did over the weekend. (Having learned my lesson, I altered my original itinerary through Amsterdam and went Heathrow to LAX, which gave me a nice day in London.) And I hadn’t even gotten over my L.A.-to-Europe jet lag when I returned after two weeks. Must be getting old. Older than jet lag…
That’s my sorry excuse for not getting a newsletter out this weekend or even on Monday.
There are two different machines: one to twist silk filaments into strong silk thread and a second one to load those finished threads onto spindles for transport. Here they are in the museum.
While researching The Fabric of Civilization I visited three different museums that feature these machines. Here’s a video I shot at Civico museo setificio Monti in Abbadia Lariana, where the throwing machine dates to 1818, making it relatively recent.
There’s also an excellent museum, the Civico Museo della Seta Abegg, in Garlate, not far from Como on a different finger of the lake that splits at Bellagio.
I went back to Caraglio because I’m going to try writing some children’s books about textile history, starting with one set there. The books would feature fictional child protagonists and stories but historical facts.1 It’s amazing how much you realize you don’t know when you move from nonfiction to fiction and have to flesh out a setting. Even though I’d supposedly done the research, I realized how little I knew about exactly what life was like in these mills. Silk cocoons are harvested in the spring and summer and the filaments need to be reeled off as soon as possible. I knew this when I was writing The Fabric of Civilization—it comes up in discussions of incremental Chinese innovations—but hadn’t thought about the implications for the labor force in Italian mills. The maestre who expertly reeled the filaments were working very intensely but only a few months a year. The mills were a supplement to agricultural labor.
1 I might, however, try a purely nonfiction biography of Agostino Bassi.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on July 22, 2022 • Comments
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on July 5. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
After attending a conference in Utrecht, on Saturday I flew to Italy to do some follow-on textile research. Leaving Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, however, required first standing in a four-hour line, longer any line I’ve seen in my 62+ years of life. Thousands of people, several miles long (I estimate 6 km based on the Pokemon Go count). Staff handed out bottles of water in a couple of places and gave us cookies to keep up our strength. We’d go through a massively long line in one room, only to emerge into another room or outside staging area at least as long. The longest imaginable Disneyland line would equal perhaps one of these segments.
The problem arises from staff shortages in security. It’s been pretty well reported in Europe but aside from Bloomberg (e.g., here and here) and specialty sites (e.g., here and here) the massive delays at this major hub have gotten relatively little attention in the U.S. I got to the airport more than three hours before my flight, naively imagining I’d have time to spare. Instead, I only made my flight to Florence because it was seriously delayed and even so, the doors were closed when I arrived at the gate. As the agents were telling me I couldn’t board, a pilot came out and said to let me on.
My itinerary calls for a return through Schiphol after an overnight stay in Amsterdam. I’m trying to figure out a way to avoid those lines.
Damadian created the world’s first MRI scanner after he realized that cancerous cells would produce different magnetic resonance signals when compared to normal, non-cancerous cells. Prompted by Damadian’s discoveries, Lauterbur developed a way for MRI machines to visualize these cells’ signal differences and produce a clear image of inside a patient’s body. Finally, Mansfield created a technique for MRI scans to be conducted in just seconds, rather than hours, and for the image that the scanners produced to be significantly clearer, and therefore more accurate. Each year, hundreds of millions of MRI scans take place. Thanks to their use, untold millions of lives have been extended or saved.
Mine is one of those lives. In 2007, I was diagnosed with what appeared to be a minor case of breast cancer. The tumor was tiny and it looked like I’d get surgery to cut it out and then possibly radiation treatment. The day before surgery, I went in for an MRI to map the cancer so that acupuncture-like needles could be inserted the next day to guide the surgeon. When I showed up for the surgery, I learned that the MRI had revealed massive amounts of lymphovascular invasion that had been completely undetected on mammograms. The cancer was much more serious than expected. That surgery, which failed to get clean margins, was followed by chemotherapy, more surgery, radiation, and—critically important—the miracle drug Herceptin.
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on June 22. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
I’m headed off to the Breakthrough Institute’s Dialogue 2022 conference, where tomorrow morning I’ll be on a panel discussing Ezra Klein’s idea of “supply side progressivism.” Ezra says he’s been reading The Future and Its Enemies and characterizes himself as what I call a technocrat, which is no doubt correct. But his critique of the problem of getting stuff done is basically correct, and I see some possibilities for a positive coalition with strong dynamist elements.
To see what we’re up against, read this NYT article on a Bay Area woman’s fight to block a 20-unit condo development on a vacant lot. (I live in a 14-unit condo development, built in 1975, so this is essentially an argument that people like the Postrels ruin the neighborhood.) She’s straight out of The Future and Its Enemies, complete with devotion to E.F. Schumacher.
Susan Kirsch is a 78-year-old retired teacher who lives in a small cottage home in Mill Valley, Calif., on a quiet suburban street that looks toward a grassy knoll. A Sierra Club member with a pesticide-free garden, she has an Amnesty International sticker on her front window and a photograph on her refrigerator of herself and hundreds of other people spelling “TAX THE 1%” on a beach.
The cause that takes up most of her time, however, is fighting new development and campaigning for the right of suburban cities to have near total control over what gets built in them….
After all, this is a person who once wrote an op-ed that said the removal of five trees in Mill Valley sent “existential messages to our fellow citizens of the world.” Who has fought for two decades to prevent a developer from putting 20 condominiums on a hill at the end of her street.
Ms. Kirsch’s nonprofit, Catalysts for Local Control, opposes just about every law the California legislature puts forward to address the state’s housing and homelessness problem. In Zoom meetings with her members, she describes lawmakers’ intentions in dark terms and drives the message home with graphics that say things like, “Our homes and cities are under attack.”
It might seem kitschy if it weren’t so effective. Susan Kirsch was 60 when she began her fight against the condos down the block. Eighteen years later, the hill remains dirt.
Enclaves and the Problem of “Stakeholder Capitalism”
Stakeholder capitalism implicitly assumes a cultural consensus identical to whatever its advocates believe. It harks back to the mid-20th century, when big US companies enjoyed little competition, mass media marginalized all but a narrow range of political, religious and social views, and hierarchy and security dominated worker expectations. It pretends social media, Slack channels and “bringing your whole self to work” don’t exist.
For a purer version of what stakeholder-oriented management can engender, forget profits and political disagreements. Look at the turmoil roiling all sorts of left-wing nonprofits. In a report in the Intercept, Ryan Grim details why Washington D.C.-based groups have spent the past few years engaged in “knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-management lines.”
Read the whole thing here. Bloomberg allows a limited number of free reads. If you hit the paywall, you can read an ungated version here, thanks to my WaPo subscription, but it doesn’t have the all-important links. (I eventually put my columns on my site, but I have to wait at least 90 days.)
Speaking of Twitter, I highly encourage anyone on it to switch to the chronological feed. Suddenly people you forgot you were following will show up (at least if you follow a lot of people). From Home, click the sparkly icon in the upper right and choose “Switch to latest Tweets.”
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on June 14. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
In between other subjects and more pressing deadlines, I’ve been thinking about purity. Our public discussions have become obsessed with it.
The pandemic has forced us to contend with a new and invisible contaminant, resulting in conflicts about monitoring, safeguarding, and defining purity. Is wearing a mask a vital shield or a violation of individual integrity? Does a vaccine protect against contamination or constitute pollution?
The quest for purity informs cancel culture. It pushes partisans to ever-greater extremes, even when those positions are politically self-defeating. It turns historical heroes /into villains and closes nuclear power plants in the face of climate change. It makes the ideal the enemy of the improved, the perfect the exterminator of the better. If we want to understand our cultural moment, we need to think seriously about purity.
I like and admire Jon Haidt, but I don’t believe this claim. I have lived too long in the land of detox cleanses and Prop. 65 warnings to accept that liberals don’t care about purity, sometimes to an obsessive degree. And I have witnessed too many libertarian disputes about who qualifies as a “real libertarian” to equate laissez-faire attitudes toward sex, drugs, and bioengineering with indifference to purity.
In reminding us of the importance of purity in defining political identity, moral foundations theory points in a useful direction. But anthropology is more useful than psychology in understanding what’s going on. Purity concerns are a human universal. They just take different forms.
What Constitutes Contamination?
Purity is about identifying and eliminating contaminants—anomalies that are sources of danger. The danger may be physical, spiritual, cultural, or moral. To purify is to purge whatever is out of place. It establishes what belongs by banishing what does not. “The quest for purity is pursued by rejection,” writes anthropologist Mary Douglas in her landmark 1966 book Purity and Danger.
Every culture and every person beyond infancy maintains standards separating clean from unclean, safe from hazardous, permitted from forbidden. We police purity when we do laundry, copyedit manuscripts, or recite religious creeds. Vegans observe one system of dietary purity, paleo adherents another. Concepts of purity are among the essential classifications we use to navigate the world.
“Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience,” writes Douglas. Shared purity standards define communities. The rituals, customs, and mores that maintain purity embody communal values and beliefs.
The critical question, then, is not whether we care about purity but what we count as contamination. What characterizes an impurity? How small a trace constitutes pollution? Who decides? In many forms, these are the questions roiling our culture.While many discussions of purity focus on the first question, the second and third are just as important—and not just for environmental regulators measuring effluents in parts per million. The law of diffusion dictates that every vegan dinner contains microscopic traces of dead animals, yet the alternative to ingesting them is starvation. Absolute purity is intolerable. At some level, the pollutant must cease to count. But how do we determine what that level is?
Take the latest Twitter-fueled purity purge and the organizational “dumpster fire” that followed. Dave Weigel, a national political reporter for The Washington Post, retweeted a lame joke: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.” Felicia Sonmez, another national political reporter, tweeted an objection. Weigel apologized and deleted the offending joke. Sonmez then went on a multi-day Twitter campaign complaining about Weigel’s tweet, the Post’s social media policies, and the sometimes-abusive pushback against her tweets. Memos were issued. Statements were made. Weigel was suspended for 30 days without pay. Finally, the Postfired Sonmez.1
You might consider the joke unacceptably sexist and thus an impurity. But you might also deem it minor and dumb, the equivalent of a spot of lint on your clothes, to be flicked away and forgotten. Alternatively, you might consider it an indicator of deeper crimes, a social version of Lady Macbeth’s damn’d spot. Different people would make different judgments about whether Weigel violated the Post’s community-defining purity conventions and, if so, how seriously. Who decides what should be done? Who makes the rules about how best to restore purity?
Who makes the rules?
Here, another aspect of Douglas’s work offers a valuable rubric. In several forms over the course of her career, Douglas developed what she called Grid-Group theory.2 It posits two key dimensions that define the characteristics of social groups. Group is how integrated the members are with each other—how tight the group’s identity is. Grid is how rigid and well defined the rules are for establishing status and power.
The result is a two-by-two matrix. Douglas classified groups with clear identities and rules as “hierarchies” and those with low integration and open status as “individualist.” The rare category of rigid status and low group affiliation she called “isolate.” And then there was the “enclave,” a well-defined community where power and status are always in flux. That’s where things get interesting, and sometimes frightening.
With no official authority, enclaves rely on emotional commitments and strongly held beliefs to maintain community cohesion. As a result, they tend to be subject to bouts of dangerous enthusiasm—literal and metaphorical witch hunts—in which belonging demands conformity to increasingly narrow patterns of thought and behavior. To stay cohesive, enclaves do a lot of banishing and boundary policing.
In an enclave, unleashing charges of impurity is a way to wield or obtain power. In traditional African cultures with enclave structures, Douglas observed, one result was the weaponization of sorcery allegations. “Any young man can plausibly accuse of sorcery a reactionary old incumbent of an office which he himself is qualified to occupy when the senior obstacle has been removed.” But, she warns, “If sorcery beliefs really serve as instruments for self-promotion they also ensure that the ladder of promotion is short and shaky.”
The 21st-century American version of sorcery allegations are charges of racism, sexism, harassment, and similar offenses. Many examples of “cancel culture” occur in enclaves—fan groups, for instance, or loose professional associations. In 2020, the online knitting community was torn apart by what British journalist Gavin Haynes dubbed a “purity spiral,” in which people who thought of themselves as kind-hearted liberals were suddenly ostracized and boycotted for alleged white supremacy.
The knitters in this purity spiral were a classic enclave. They were a tightly bound community (high “group”) without definite lines of authority (low “grid”). Although some knitters might be more influential than others at a given time, that influence was the outcome of choices among equals and could change at any time. Whether calculated or sincere, charges of white supremacy an opportunity to those seeking to enhance their own status—and posed a danger to the already prominent.
A newspaper is traditionally a hierarchy. Editors decide what gets published and who gets promoted. They decide what work is good and when good work justifies overlooking body odor, foul language, or other less-than-desirable personal qualities. They establish rules about what behaviors are off limits, whether accepting gifts from sources or, that favorite movie cliché, sleeping with them. They force writers to omit serial commas.
The internet, especially social media, has upended not just journalism’s business model but its organizational assumptions. Publication has become instantaneous, the line between professional journalism and personal expression blurry. Attention is precious, and journalists are rewarded for attracting traffic to themselves as well as their employers. The “brand called you” that Tom Peters prophesied in 1997 has become essential to surviving as a writer.
That model works for an individual operating independently, or as a gig worker going from job to job. But when infused into an organization, it threatens to turn a hierarchy into an enclave. When that happens, the sorcery charges start flying.
Last October, Anne Applebaum published an article in The Atlantic, appropriately titled “The New Puritans.” It did a good job of chronicling many recent purity spirals and establishing some consistent patterns.
The censoriousness, the shunning, the ritualized apologies, the public sacrifices—these are rather typical behaviors in illiberal societies with rigid cultural codes, enforced by heavy peer pressure. This is a story of moral panic, of cultural institutions policing or purifying themselves in the face of disapproving crowds. The crowds are no longer literal, as they once were in Salem, but rather online mobs, organized via Twitter, Facebook, or sometimes internal company Slack channels.
In response, Adam Gurri of Liberal Currents emphasized the selectiveness of Applebaum’s reporting. Of her roughly dozen sources, he wrote, “nearly all are professors or journalists at institutions like Yale or the New York Times, many quite prominent within those prestigious institutions.” The numbers are small, he maintained, and the people are privileged. Institutions always behave badly. All that has changed is that anyone can now be a publisher. “Between phone cameras, the stored and shareable nature of digital communication, and the Internet, everyone can now put a story out into the public view,” he wrote, and “that dramatically increases the overall odds that a media scandal will originate from within an institution.”
There’s a problem with this analysis. Simply because you possess documentary evidence of something negative about someone in your organization doesn’t mean you will be inclined to share it, even if you would like for the information to become public. Rules and bosses will stop you—if, that is, the organization is a hierarchy and you want to remain within it.
Applebaum’s New Puritans succeed because former hierarchies like The New York Times and Yale University are evolving into enclaves. The path to power and status is ill-defined, and anyone can police the group boundaries. Through allegations of impurity, students and employees who theoretically have little authority can quickly erode the legitimacy of veteran editors and even tenured faculty.
Terrifying for the relatively few individuals targeted, purity purges strike fear more broadly because they lack a stopping point. Zealous or ambitious people can keep shifting and tightening the definition of impurities. Even if the numbers are small, at least for the present, institutional structures have shifted in ways that portend amplifying conflict. And while the consequences for individuals may be severe, the social results could be devastating. Knitters may get along fine after a few purges and schisms, but how can knowledge-seeking organizations like universities and publications do their jobs if their members are afraid to be difficult or different? If they manage to function, will they remain credible?
The good news for those who fear the mob will come for them is that most workplaces are still definite hierarchies with no danger of becoming enclaves. They have clear profit-making missions and clear lines between company speech and personal expression. To keep employees from talking about internal matters, they have nondisclosure agreements and threats of termination.
It’s possible for ordinary people to become subject to enclave-driven social-media attacks, and small business owners, like some in the knitting story, are particularly vulnerable. But in most cases, there’s not enough to be gained. For those in the business of expression, however, the calls will come from inside the house until someone asserts the authority to stop them.
2 The best known version of Grid-Group was developed in her 1983 book with Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture. Reflecting Wildavsky’s concerns as a libertarian-leaning political scientist, that version places more emphasis on ideological or political commitments rather than social structure. Here I draw on Douglas’s more purely anthropological analysis.
I have more to say on purity, as well as many questions I haven’t yet thought hard about. It might make a good subject for a book. What do you think? Here’s some wisdom on the subject, from one of my favorite films.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on July 22, 2022 • Comments
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on June 6. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
Inflation in three signs, all on the Diddy Riese cookie shop in Westwood Village.
I’m on jury duty this week, which makes it difficult to plan my life. I don’t know until 7 p.m. the business day before whether I’ll have to show up. Not too bad for Monday, but it could get old fast. The good news is that L.A. has a “one day, one trial” system, so that when you do report you either get put on a trial or excused completely. The uncertainty reminds me of this article I wrote back in 2014 about the flexibility employers were demanding from part-time workers:
For many part-time workers in the post-crash economy, life has become like endless jury duty. Scheduling software now lets employers constantly optimize who’s working, better balancing labor costs and likely demand. The process demands enormous flexibility from part-time workers, sometimes requiring them to be on call all the time without knowing when they’ll work or how much they’ll earn….
Regardless of economic conditions, the deal between employers and workers has two components: money, including any benefits, and working conditions, including how well hours match worker preferences. The weak job market affects the total value of that package, not the mix between the two parts.
When an employer demands unpredictable work hours, it’s making the deal worse. It can get away with a worse deal because of the bad economy, but what about the mix? If unreliable schedules are so burdensome, why don’t workers switch to jobs with better schedules but lower pay? Why don’t competitors offer such options?
One reason, I argued, was the minimum wage, which limits the ability to offer less money in exchange for fixed schedules.
Now, of course, the economic environment is very different. We’ve gone from a labor surplus to a labor shortage. Everywhere you look, there are signs advertising for new employees. Stores and restaurants are limiting their hours because of staffing shortages. Hotels no longer offer daily maid service (a relief to those of us who sometimes want to work in the room). Service at the local sandwich shop is slower and more likely to screw up your order. Like smaller packages at the same price—aka “shrinkflation”—this diminished quality is a hidden form of inflation. You’re getting less for your money. It’s the flip side of the unmeasured quality improvements that, I’ve often argued, made inflation even lower than official statistics suggested (see this, this, and this).
So here’s the question I don’t know the answer to: Are employers giving part-time workers more predictable schedules? Are they offering more full-time jobs? At lower wages, what do job offers look like these days? I’ve seen countless reports on working from home versus coming to the office, but how is the current labor market affecting people who work in restaurants, bars, stores, and old folks’ homes?
FIRE Expands Beyond the Campus
I’ve been on the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, better known as FIRE, for more than 20 years—as long as it has had a board. It’s a great organization, principled, nonpartisan, and well-managed. Today it announced a major strategic shift and a name change, to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Although FIRE will continue its much-needed work on behalf of freedom of speech, expression, and inquiry on college campuses, it will also work to educate the public on the principles and importance of free speech. As Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s president put it:
“Our defense of freedom of speech and inquiry on campus will remain core to what we do and will grow in the coming years,” said Lukianoff. “But we have come to realize that defending the First Amendment and a culture of free speech off-campus is essential to protecting those values on-campus, just as much as fighting for those values on-campus is essential for preserving them off-campus.”
“We need to remind older Americans that freedom of speech is still a value worth fighting for, and we need to teach younger Americans that everything from scientific progress, to artistic expression, to social justice, peace, and living authentic lives requires the staunch protection of freedom of speech for all.”
For more information and lots of links, check out FIRE’s press release. Politico covered the move here. (The article is too ACLU-obsessed for my taste.)
The move beyond campus is a challenging one, but it’s also a logical extension of the work FIRE has already been doing through its podcast, books, and other educational outreach. Greg’s open letter to Elon Musk about free expression on social media is a good example of the way FIRE can bring its deep knowledge and nuanced approach to bear on speech issues beyond the campus.
From my YouTube Channel
The story of how Muslims first came to Uyghur territory gets a brief mention in The Fabric of Civilization, without any of the current context. I expanded it into this video.
Please subscribe to my YouTube channel and if there are topics you’d like to see future videos on, let me know in the comments. (For now, I’m limiting myself to videos related to The Fabric of Civilization.)
Posted by Virginia Postrel on June 26, 2022 • Comments
Virginia Postrel has forged one of the more intriguing careers in journalism and letters. Once the editor of Reason magazine, she gave the ideals of libertarianism an inventive, modern twist in her book The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (1998).
That book, an instant classic, argues that politics is not a battle between right and left, red and blue, or even corporate and government orientation. It is really a battle between dynamism and stasism. Dynamists are optimistic, open, inventive, eager to embrace the tumult that has become the way of the world. Stasists are more pessimistic, fearful of tumult, and willing to go to great lengths to bridle the forces of change.
How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare … that “we’re scared of the future” and [decry] technology as “a killing thing”? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? The dynamism-stasism battle cuts across all other divides in modern life. Democrats and Republicans each contain lots of stasists, from crony capitalists to public-sector unionists to evangelicals fearful of modern inquiry and freedoms. Almost by definition, stasists are declinists and can only prevail by thwarting progress. Dynamists, on the other hand, can be found (not always) in Silicon Valley, bustling cities, science, new media, the arts, and the battle for human rights.
Postrel could have spent her whole career elaborating on the dynamism/stasism theme … but that would not be very dynamist, would it? So she has, dynamically, explored other topics. In The Substance of Style: : How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (2003), Postrel argues that style is about superficial surface appearances; it is integral to the social, cultural, and economic value of things. Likewise, in The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion (2013), Postrel argues that glamour reveals something essential about the ways people present themselves to the world. Talk about the weaving together of form and function: Her latest book is called The Fabric of the World: How Textiles Made Civilization.
Now a columnist for Bloomberg and a regular commenter on social media, Postrel lives in Los Angeles.
Charlie Euchner: I always appreciate a writer who offers a powerful new lens for exploring complex issues. So I admire writers like A.O. Hirschman (Exit, Voice, and Loyalty), James Carse (Finite and Infinite Games), Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken), E.E. Schattschneider (The Semisovereign People), and Eric Berne (The Games People Play).
That’s what you did in The Future and Its Enemies, with your distinction between dynamists and stasists. You obviously strive for making things as simple as possible, while respecting the complexity of your subjects. Do you have a process for honing your subjects and ideas to their essence. How do you do it?
Virginia Postrel: What I call intellectual infrastructure often comes about unintentionally, as I collect examples that interest me without trying to fit them into a particular pattern. At some point, I start to see commonalities and dichotomies and a pattern emerges. I then test and refine it. Sometimes this is a gradual process and sometimes I have an epiphany and everything just clicks into place.
The stasis-dynamism dichotomy in The Future and Its Enemies evolved from earlier work I’d done on green ideology, where I was struck by the idealization of stasis. That led me to think about its alternative, as well as to see other manifestations of stasis as an ideal. When I was working on The Power of Glamour, on the other hand, I had an a-ha moment when I realized the parallels between glamour and humor. That epiphany made it possible to actually define what type of phenomenon glamour is.
CE: How did you come to write The Substance of Style and The Power of Glamour? Both deal with finding the value in topics that people often dismiss. Why did these topics (and for that matter, your current work on fabric) call out to you?
VP: I’m attracted to topics that are important but overlooked. I’m easily bored and put a high premium on new material and original thought. If everybody already knows something, why bother to repeat it?
In the case of The Substance of Style, I began to notice the rising importance of aesthetics as a source of economic value while I was researching The Future and Its Enemies. The idea for the book started with the trend, but then it forced me to think about why aesthetics is valuable to people, which led me to delve into aesthetics as a source both of pleasure and of meanings beyond the status competition that has always been the go-to explanation for economists and many other social scientists.
I never would have expected to write about glamour, since I tend to be interested in the kinds of details glamour hides. But Joe Rosa, who was a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, asked me to write the introductory essay for a catalog accompanying an exhibition on glamour in architecture, industrial design, and fashion. Once I took that on, I realized how pervasive, interesting, and poorly understood glamour is. Several years later I embarked on a book to understand it.
CE: Writing about abstract or complex subjects can be hard, even for the most skilled writers. Your work is strong on every level–sentence, paragraph, section, and whole piece. What secrets do you have for that? How do you “block” the issues at different levels of writing to stay clear and on track, saying the right thing at the right time?
When I was a young writer at Inc. magazine, my editor used to write “weak and vague” in the margins of our articles. It drove our small team crazy, because everything was clear to us and, of course, “weak and vague” is itself a vague critique that didn’t tell us what to do, only what the problem was. Responding to that criticism over and over again forced me to learn about how to be specific. My training there and earlier at The Wall Street Journal taught me that general statements need specific examples, not only as support but to give the audience something to picture.
Even people who like patterns and abstractions are still sensory, story-telling creatures who find arguments easier to follow if you give them specifics that hold their attention. Thinking of examples can also force you to clarify your thinking: Does your pattern really work? What are the exceptions and complexities? Are there examples that contradict it?
As editor of Reason in the 1990s and a New York Times economics columnist in the 2000s, I often had to explain—or help other people explain—complicated technical material. My rule of thumb was: the more complicated the material, the simpler the sentences. Subject-verb-object. If this, then that. Break it into small pieces. The harder it is to understand, the easier it should be to read. I create categories to organize my own thinking, as well as to give readers intellectual infrastructure they can apply elsewhere. I put a lot of thought into how I structure my books, which is tricky because I’m not a narrative writer. That can require some difficult tradeoffs. The Power of Glamour had to build a theory before it could apply it, which meant that some of the most interesting chapters—on history—come later in the book.
For The Fabric of Civilization, I quickly realized that the obvious structures—chronology and type of fiber—wouldn’t work. A chronological account would be a library, not a book, and separating cotton from silk from wool from synthetics wouldn’t highlight interesting parallel themes. So I’m using a combination of stages of production and themes. The first chapter, for instance, is about fiber and also about how humans alter nature. (There’s no such thing as a “natural fiber.”) The second is on spinning and work, the third on weaving and code, and so on. This structure allows me to span different textiles, different time periods, and different places, while also highlighting important themes in human history and culture.
CE: When you were developing as a writer, did you model yourself off another writer? And as a critical thinker/analyst, were there writers or thinkers who also modeled the way to break down problems and construct responses?
VP: I didn’t consciously model myself on another writer, although I was certainly influenced by The Wall Street Journal’s style. I read its features growing up and it was the first place I worked in journalism. But unlike the WSJ or most other journalistic writing, I’m prone to piling up series and using appositives. I like to multiple versions of the same thing, a tendency I credit to the influence of the Hebrew Bible via my mother reciting Psalms—and explaining the metaphors and structures—to me when I was very young.
Although my writing doesn’t resemble his, I got good advice from the legal scholar Richard Epstein when I embarked on my first book. He warned me against trying to research everything in advance. “Divide the book into three parts,” he said. “Then divide the first part into three parts. Then start on the first of those three parts.”
CE: In an age filled with so much propaganda and misinformation, arguing as blood sport, what do you think is the best approach for writers on current issues? It seems to me that you have taken a one-two punch. First, you concentrate on your own projects and refuse to get distracted. Second, while you speak out, you consciously refuse to get involved in the cycle of outrage and response. Is that right? How can you describe the writer’s role in society in such a crazy time?
VP: Know thyself. Know what you care about and what you bring to the public discussion. My strengths don’t lie in quick takes. And although I do reporting, I’m also not first and foremost a reporter. Other people are better at these things. I’m good at big-picture thinking, providing historical context, and noticing what’s being overlooked. In my short-term column writing I try to concentrate on those things.
Consciously and unconsciously, I’ve also arranged my life to accommodate what you could flatteringly call my integrity and unflatteringly call my diva qualities. I’m pretty stubborn about what I will and won’t do, and I won’t take a journalism job I can’t quit. Having no kids and a husband who’s much the same way makes that easier.
While I understand the market forces that push writers to feed outrage in order to get traffic, I also feel a civic responsibility to keep my cool, not to attribute motives to people that they wouldn’t themselves recognize, and to think about what might actually persuade people who disagree with me. I don’t always live up to those standards—we all get outraged sometimes—but the older I get and the more history I read, the easier it is to do.
It also helps that, unlike many, perhaps most, female writers, I have never felt either market pressure nor a personal desire to write about my personal experiences and emotions. What interests me is learning and writing about the world.
I appreciate Charlie’s interest in my work and his permission to reprint the interview.
Who exactly is that “historian”? And what on earth is a “Jew’s-box”?
A colleague who’s listening to the audio version of The Fabric of Civilization, recently asked me about the sources. It’s a common question. Listeners are sometimes downright irritated by the book’s description of sources in general terms, e.g., “a historian,” and I can’t blame them. The strategy of avoiding sea of names works fine for the written version, since you can flip back to the copious end notes. (The Substance of Style does something similar, while my other two books have names, names, names.) But if you’re using the audio version, you’re out of luck. Fortunately, there’s a solution. The references for The Fabric of Civilization are online here—a handy solution not just for audio book readers but for anyone who wants an easily searchable bibliography.
Several people have asked what Adam Smith meant by a “Jew’s-box” in the passage on “trinkets of dubious utility” quoted in my article on pocket globes and the related Substack discussion. It isn’t a religious artifact but a piece of capital equipment: the combination carrying and display case used by peddlers, many of whom were Jews. Here are some photos of a figure in the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Museum that illustrate what one would have looked like.
I’m currently listening to the fascinating, short book The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Mattersby Megan Walsh. The audio book is fine, but I would recommend the print version instead, so you can see the names. Here’s an interview she did with Paul French, a writer, business consultant, and all-round very smart guy based in Shanghai. I met him on a visit back in 2010, when I was researching the many versions of Shanghai glamour.
Again, please pose questions in the comments on Substack. I also appreciate feedback on what you’d like to see more of in this newsletter.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on June 26, 2022 • Comments
It’s early evening, and the woman in red looks like she’s heading home after a day in the market of San Juan La Laguna, a town on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. She is wearing a traditional ensemble, or traje—except for the smartphone tucked into her tightly cinched faja, a wide, handwoven sash. Drawn by the contrast between old and new, I ask a Guatemalan friend to ask if I can take her photo. Something gets lost in translation. Happy to cooperate, she removes the phone and hides it behind her back. No, please tell her I want the phone in the picture. She proudly poses with it in her left hand. Still not part of the outfit. Oh well.
Although it includes the essential components that mark her as a Maya, the woman’s traje isn’t as traditional as it initially appears. Her top is not a handwoven cotton huipil but a factory-made blouse, probably polyester, adorned with machine embroidery and rhinestones—less expensive and more practical for everyday wear than the heavy cotton rectangles woven on a backstrap loom and sewn together. Her skirt, or corte, is the critical component of the outfit; the Guatemalan idiom “Lleva corte,” or “she wears a [traditional] skirt,” means a woman is indigenous. Yardage wrapped around the body and secured by the faja, hers looks like it came off a traditional floor loom—a technology introduced by the Spanish—but the red and navy plaid reflects fashion rather than custom. Her outfit is as up-to-date as her nail polish and cell phone. Yet it is still indisputably Maya.
In the well-established romantic narrative, material progress represents a devil’s bargain: shoes, running water, and vaccines at the cost of beauty, identity, and meaning; uniqueness replaced by homogenized global culture. Maya trajes illustrate a different—and likely more common—pattern. Left to their own devices, consumers rarely treat tradition and modernity as all-or-nothing choices. They find ways to maintain their inherited identities, including the material manifestations that signify belonging, while satisfying the desire for novelty and self-expression.
Contrary to the nostalgic vision of timeless peasant customs, Guatemalan textiles have always been dynamic. Many huipiles incorporate colorful designs in supplementary weft brocade, some geometric, others featuring stylized animals, plants, and people. The bright threads to make the designs initially came from Chinese silk floss—“There are five generations of Chinese in Guatemala,” notes textile collector Raymond Senuk—and, when World War II interrupted the supply, weavers adopted shiny mercerized cotton.
Picked out row by row with fingers or a pointed stick similar to a knitting needle, the patterns range from ancient Maya imagery to contemporary innovations. At a shop in Antigua that sells secondhand huipiles, I bought one featuring rows of donkeys, rabbits, scorpions, roosters, quetzals (the national bird), baskets, spiders, humans, and, clinching the sale, helicopters! When magazines began printing cross-stitch patterns in the nineteenth century, Maya weavers adapted the designs, inventing a new form of brocade, known as de marcador, in which the supplementary threads wrap around the warp so that both sides of the fabric are identical.
Without giving up backstrap weaving, indigenous people also embraced European floor looms, using them to produce fabric for skirts, aprons, and trousers. Probably inspired by Asian fabrics, they developed a new tradition of dyeing called jaspe. Better known elsewhere as ikat, jaspe is a complicated tie-dye technique in which undyed threads are tied to block out a pattern that appears when the cloth is woven. (You can identify ikat by the slightly blurred appearance of the figures.) In addition, today’s floor-loom cloth frequently incorporates metallic threads made of coated polyester film.
Far from a dying art, says Senuk, “weaving is fine in Guatemala. But it’s changing, really dramatically. In the last twenty years, dramatic things have happened.” Until a few decades ago, you could easily identify a Maya woman’s village simply by looking at her clothes. Although each weaver created her own patterns, they worked within well-defined rules of construction, background colors, and decorative designs. A huipil from San Juan La Laguna would feature twenty-four embroidered squares, arranged as four rows of six, below a yoke decorated with zigzags, all on a red striped background comprising two woven pieces. The accompanying corte would be black and white.
In the northern highlands village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, by contrast, a huipil would be sewn from three panels, woven with alternating red and white stripes. The center section would have geometric patterns brocaded in supplementary weft, with a yoke adorned with store-bought rickrack. The stripes could be larger or smaller and the brocade designs could vary, sometimes spreading to the other panels. But to a knowledgeable observer the blouse would clearly declare that its wearer hailed from Todos Santos. Every village had its own distinctive combination of elements.
By the 1990s, things began to change, as women started to buy and sell clothes in local markets rather than making everything themselves. “I would see a woman in the market that I would know was from San Antonio Aguas Calientes and she would be wearing a huipil from the Alta Verapaz, from Cobán, and I would say, ‘Porque?’” recalls Senuk. “And she would say, ‘Because I like it.’” Picking and choosing from other villages’ trajes evolved into new “pan-Maya” fashions that weren’t specific to any particular place.
Around the turn of the century, Maya women invented the novel style that captured my attention on the street in San Juan La Laguna: the monochrome outfit, with huipil, sash, and skirt—and sometimes apron, hair band, and shoes—all in coordinated colors. “What you did was you now got a base color—say, turquoise,” explains Senuk. “You now went and got a turquoise huipil that was machine embroidered with related colors. The skirt was an ikat skirt but with turquoise bands in it. And the belt was a Totonicapán-style woven belt but turquoise. Now you were either turquoise, pink, café, purple—and all these things were possible choices. And they had no village significance at all.” Monochrome fashion makes it easy to produce a striking outfit that is simultaneously Maya and Instagrammable: #chicasdecorte.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on June 26, 2022 • Comments