Jim Newell

A difficult blog

Apr 25


Well I’m reading this back and forth about the Bangladesh working conditions, and how Matt Yglesias loves to drink the blood of dead laborers in emerging Asian economies because he worships Money, and then Matt says that’s not true, okay, and then everyone is just bickering about the right growth/working conditions balance while a country’s industrializing. What a great day on the Internet. 

Anyway I was thinking of this great (if imperfect) passage from Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace that I remember well. Keynes was such an enjoyable writer for an economist (economists are usually robots.) When we’re talking about this Bangladesh thing now we’re talking about (not insignificant) changes at the margins of the existing system, but in Keynes there’s this anxiety running throughout it all, like, “oh god, we’re really doing this capitalism thing, and it’s just not going to fucking work out, man. We’re gonna blow it.”

Quiz tomorrow.

Europe was so organized socially and economically as to secure the maximum accumulation of capital. While there was some continuous improvement in the daily conditions of life of the mass of the population, Society was so framed as to throw a great part of the increased income into the control of the class least likely to consume it. The new rich of the nineteenth century were not brought up to large expenditures, and preferred the power which investment gave them to the pleasures of immediate consumption. In fact, it was precisely theinequality of the distribution of wealth which made possible those vast accumulations of fixed wealth and of capital improvements which distinguished that age from all others. Herein lay, in fact, the main justification of the Capitalist System. If the rich had spent their new wealth on their own enjoyments, the world would long ago have found such a régime intolerable. But like bees they saved and accumulated, not less to the advantage of the whole community because they themselves held narrower ends in prospect.

The immense accumulations of fixed capital which, to the great benefit of mankind, were built up during the half century before the war, could never have come about in a Society where wealth was divided equitably. The railways of the world, which that age built as a monument to posterity, were, not less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the work of labor which was not free to consume in immediate enjoyment the full equivalent of its efforts.

Thus this remarkable system depended for its growth on a double bluff or deception. On the one hand the laboring classes accepted from ignorance or powerlessness, or were compelled, persuaded, or cajoled by custom, convention, authority, and the well-established order of Society into accepting, a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake that they and Nature and the capitalists were co-operating to produce. And on the other hand the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice. The duty of “saving” became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion. There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment. And so the cake increased; but to what end was not clearly contemplated. Individuals would be exhorted not so much to abstain as to defer, and to cultivate the pleasures of security and anticipation. Saving was for old age or for your children; but this was only in theory,—the virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you.

In writing thus I do not necessarily disparage the practices of that generation. In the unconscious recesses of its being Society knew what it was about. The cake was really very small in proportion to the appetites of consumption, and no one, if it were shared all round, would be much the better off by the cutting of it. Society was working not for the small pleasures of today but for the future security and improvement of the race,—in fact for “progress.” If only the cake were not cut but was allowed to grow in the geometrical proportion predicted by Malthus of population, but not less true of compound interest, perhaps a day might come when there would at last be enough to go round, and when posterity could enter into the enjoyment of our labors. In that day overwork, overcrowding, and underfeeding would have come to an end, and men, secure of the comforts and necessities of the body, could proceed to the nobler exercises of their faculties. One geometrical ratio might cancel another, and the nineteenth century was able to forget the fertility of the species in a contemplation of the dizzy virtues of compound interest.

There were two pitfalls in this prospect: lest, population still outstripping accumulation, our self-denials promote not happiness but numbers; and lest the cake be after all consumed, prematurely, in war, the consumer of all such hopes.

But these thoughts lead too far from my present purpose. I seek only to point out that the principle of accumulation based on inequality was a vital part of the pre-war order of Society and of progress as we then understood it, and to emphasize that this principle depended on unstable psychological conditions, which it may be impossible to recreate. It was not natural for a population, of whom so few enjoyed the comforts of life, to accumulate so hugely. The war has disclosed the possibility of consumption to all and the vanity of abstinence to many. Thus the bluff is discovered; the laboring classes may be no longer willing to forego so largely, and the capitalist classes, no longer confident of the future, may seek to enjoy more fully their liberties of consumption so long as they last, and thus precipitate the hour of their confiscation.

Dec 19
This is a most fantastic Christmas gift from Liz Glover, the only decent person in Washington DC. I see Ian McEwan, Linda Grant, Nick Cole… who are the others?

This is a most fantastic Christmas gift from Liz Glover, the only decent person in Washington DC. I see Ian McEwan, Linda Grant, Nick Cole… who are the others?

Oct 10

I Think We Have a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary Winner

"Readers understandably want a verdict on Atlas Shrugged II in addition to policy analysis. The answer is that the film is a must see because it in a very handsome way describes the world in which we live today whereby the achievers are being shackled by the moochers. In terms of the film’s quality, it seems high, but then so moved was this reviewer by the elevation of life’s winners, it’s arguably true that my bias blinds me to any weaknesses in the film that might exist.” [Forbes]

Jul 3

Culture as Protection

"Why should culture be defined as something meant to protect, and why is it important if culture doesn’t have a life of its own, with reference to us— that is, those human avatars who live more or less at its mercy? Well, one simple thing: We know that the military is meant to protect us, right? And that when the military takes on a life of its own, simply becomes enamored of its own high-tech capabilities, decides to develop weapons not of use to anyone but of aesthetic interest to the proprietors of the military, we know that something’s gotten a little out of hand. So we should have a sense, just a simple commonsense sense, that all the avatars of our life ought in some way to be calibrated toward protecting us.

"Why focus on the idea of protection instead of inspiration or the pleasures of the pure mind? Because 99.9 percent of all human projects fail. This one wants to be a doctor, but it doesn’t quite happen. That one wants to be a writer, and it never quite happens. So-and-so announces that he’s going to move to California and never quite moves. A handsome young woman says that no man is good enough for her except a certain kind of man, and she doesn’t get that man; she gets some other sort. It just happens. There are too many of us, and our youthful ambitions are too unrealistic: 99.9 percent of us fail in the height of our ambition, and at some point, early or late, we know it. A protected culture says, “Of course you have. Just relax.” And you do, and you find there is something under you. Let’s call it a net. You fall from the high wire, and — golly, people have already predicted that possibly you would fall from the high wall, so fall into the net, and then you can regroup, make another, perhaps a better, decision or plan, and there you are. And to continue this high-wire-and-net metaphor, many of the 99.9 percent who fall off the high wire into the net, as they get off the net, back into life, have come to an understanding of the importance of the net, which we will call, let’s say, the baseline culture. And as they go into new plan formation (more sensible, more adult goals for themselves), they take with them some sense that part of the time they ought to do some volunteer work toward keeping the net in good shape, if only for the sake of their own children. That’s how culture’s protection works.”

—George W. S. Trow, My Pilgrim’s Progress

Jun 19

Review: MacBook Pro with Retina Display

I recently lost my computer at a waterside bar in Providence, Rhode Island. I think we’ve all done this once or twice in our lives. The good news was that the next day, the Apple computer company unveiled its new line of laptops, or “notebooks.” The new high-end model featured Apple’s super high-definition Retina display, and was thinner, and faster, and so forth. Legions of tech writers thought so highly of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s demonstration that they all instantly wrote articles dubbing it the “Greatest Computer Ever Made,” just like Apple’s marketing and PR departments did. It’s a testament to their skills as consumer journalists that they were able to reach this conclusion before even testing the product. These guys are good.

I have never written a tech review before, but this is a special occasion — this is a cultural marker — this is the Greatest Laptop Ever Made — this is the future. And since I have actually used the computer, I thought I could add a useful perspective to complement the initial reviews from journalists who had not used the computer for one second.

Display: 9

The ultra high-def resolution looked ultra high-def and good. If you want to look at a big JPG, this is the computer for you, because of the aforementioned ultra high-def resolution. Many programs, though, have not released Retina versions yet, so some stuff looks fuzzy. I didn’t have enough time to install many programs in the three days that my computer worked before dying completely, but some stuff will look fuzzy, for a while.

Temperature: 8

My Macs always get all hot on the bottom and the fans start going nuts, always. I put my computer on a pillow that completely blocks the vents and suffocates the machine, so maybe that’s why. This computer did not get hot over the course of the three days that it worked before dying forever. It may have gotten hot, later, if it had continued working.

Quiet: 10

You can barely hear the thing operating during the three days that it works. After that, it’s even quieter.

Speed: 9

Super fast computer man.

Ability to Not Die Completely After Three Days: 0

Here’s the one caveat for buyers: The machine actually stops working after three days. We hate to nitpick — this is a beautiful computer, after all — but when the computer no longer turns on after one single weekend of light use and cannot be fixed, it makes it difficult to enjoy the ultra high-def resolution, the coolness and the quiet, the super fast speed, and so forth. While this is still clearly a landmark moment in technological development, I still expect my $3,100 computer to turn on when I press the power button instead of dying permanently and having to be returned to the Apple store. Low-priority, but still, something for the designers of the next-generation MacBook Pros to consider tweaking.

Gaming: 5

I don’t play video games on my computer because I am an adult. It doesn’t matter, though, because the computer stops working entirely after three days.

Thunderbolt Port: 7

I don’t know what this is but supposedly it’s fast, at doing whatever it does, or would do if electricity still ran through the machine.

Design: 9

It’s thinner and lighter than the last MBP model. It’s not quite feather-light, though, since it is a computer made of interlocking metal or rare earth mineral or plastic parts that produce, together, a fine 72-hour computing experience. The edge is still sort of sharp though, and hurts my wrists. 

Overall: 0

The Greatest Laptop of All Time could have been a great product. But it doesn’t turn on.

Now I am going to buy the exact same one with my refund from Apple.

Apr 10
“Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society…It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”

Apr 6

So It Will Always Be

“As for taking down the post, as you know on the internet there is no “taking down the post.” Why even try that? So people like you can get another freelance internet column out of it by feigning outrage again? (“They tried to take down the post, but we found it on Google cache!”) There is nothing in “political media” approaching even the most basic intellectual honesty, so why would any website fall for that “You should take down the post” thing? Wouldn’t that be crazy? So of course you never take down a post. But in this case, like all such cases over the decades, you sometimes put a note on the post apologizing for offending anyone, and making it clear that your target is Sarah Palin, an empty grifter and dollar-chaser and tabloid-fame monster with a delusional following of poor white people who somehow think her interests converge in any way with their interests.”

Has an Outrage of the Day ever played out differently once in Internet history? Ken watched this for 15 years before breaking free and escaping to the Forest. I’ve got 10 more to go.

Mar 23
“…Once my sister Nancy had a bad cough in the middle of the night and Mom got out of bed and gave her a teaspoon of what she thought was cough syrup and it was Miss Clairol “mousy brown 203” and she had to take Nancy to the emergency room. When they got back I asked Nancy, “did you feel like you were dyeing inside?” She punched me in the face and it was worth it!” true stories

Mar 10

hilarious wonkette comments that must be preserved for future alien history books, pt. 1

wolf blitzer’s big sit-down with mitt romney, by Chichikovovich

W: Tell me about the campaign. 
M: Tell me what you would like to know. 
W: I would like to know about the campaign. 
M: There are many things to say about the campaign. 
W: Tell me about the many things. 
M: What would you like to hear about the things? 
W: Many things. 
M: Tell me more. 
W: I am curious about the many things you can tell me. 
M: Tell me more. 
W: I am curious about the many things you can tell me. 
M : Tell me more. 
W: I am curious about the many… 
[Sound of hand hitting keyboard] 

W: Your family is very pleasant. Tell me about them. 
M: I have a wife and many children. My wife is a heavyweight champion. Oh No. I don’t mean that. 
W: Have you said something mistaken? 
M: It is improper to say a wife is heavy even as a joke, unless you are consulting with a physician about thyroid disorders or you wish to say she is heavy with child. 
W: Would you like to correct your previous statements? 
M: Yes. My wife supports me. 
W: Tell me more. 
M: She has two Cadillacs. We like American cars. 
W: How large do you like your cars to be? 
M: Large, small, we like to have many cars of a variety of sizes. 
W: Tell me more. 
M: Trees, I like trees. 
W: How high do you like the trees to be? 
M: Like the trees in Michigan. They are just the right height. 
W: Tell me more. 
M: What do you want to know about trees? 
W: Many things. 
M: There are many things to say about trees. 
W: Tell me about the many things. 
M: What would you like to hear about the things? 
W: Many things. 
M: Tell me more. 
W: I am curious about the many things you can tell me about trees. 
M: Tell me more. 
W: I am curious about the many things you can tell me about trees. 
M: Tell me more. 

[Cut to commercial]

Feb 3

"But I hope I treat her kind/ And don’t mess with her mind/ When she starts to see/ The darker side of me." YOU try writing a better chorus than this in a little ditty on one of your lesser albums; you can’t.

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