December 16, 2014

Have Millennials been insulated from competition or over-exposed?

Here is a post that tries to account for the blandness and weakness of the Millennial generation by pointing to their insulation from having to struggle for their goals (everybody gets a trophy), and being bombarded with egalitarian propaganda since they were children (everyone is a special little snowflake). Don't look to this generation for the ubermenschen of the future.

Only part of this explanation is correct, though — that they have been insulated from failure, from criticism, from skinned knees. But that doesn't mean they haven't been moved from one arena of mock-competition to another throughout their upbringing, and continued their competitiveness once they're relatively more in control of their lives.

Consider how pervasive it is for small kids to "take part" in a competitive activity, i.e. be shoved into it by sideline parents, whether football for fourth-graders or cheerleading for children. Their parents won't even let them rest on a family holiday like Thanksgiving, hauling them off to run a race instead, however friendly the Turkey Trot competition may be.

Pre-schoolers compete over getting into the "good schools," and high schoolers compete like never before to get into the "good colleges." All that resume-padding bullshit reveals how desperately competitive today's environment is for young people.

Participation rates in high school sports keep rising, and the number of sports keeps expanding. It's a fair cry from the old days, when a handful of natural athletes lettered in baseball, and all the other kids stayed out of the competitive arena.

These days, even geeky engineering activities like a robotics club has to be structured as a team preparing for a series of Lego robotics competitions against teams from other schools. You didn't see that competitive atmosphere among the shop class enthusiasts of the 1950s. The phrase "talk shop" suggests laid-back camaraderie, not intense Us vs. Them teamwork.

Schoolchildren have all sorts of progress charts and behavior charts that accumulate happy stickers for each micro-achievement. It's true that you still get a minimum number for doing nothing at all, but that doesn't keep the top-scorers from earning even more, and does not re-frame the environment as a non-competitive one. Only now, the winners and losers are those with 50 vs. 10 points instead of 40 vs. 0 points.

Just because there's a safety padding at the bottom doesn't mean that kids these days aren't being constantly ranked in one micro-competition after another. It's like mock-competition to prepare for a never-ending competition once they reach the grown-up world. If your parents didn't want to prepare you for such a competitive environment, they wouldn't put you through all the play-fight competitions when you're growing up.

Again, contrast this with the laid-back schools of the '50s, when teachers did not submit regular progress reports to parents with elaborate distributions of tick marks showing their child's measurement on multiple variables. And when parents didn't prepare their kids by making every one of their pastimes a (safety-padded) competition.

When given a little more freedom after childhood, what do the Millennials choose to do for fun? Invent a competition over anything at all, no matter how trivial or gay, and spend your free time checking back in to see where you stand in the rankings. Post your rig, post your stats, post your lifts, your outfit of the day, your coffee of the day, etc etc etc.

Gamerscores and leader boards in video games would have been alien to the arcade scene of the late '70s and early '80s. At most the games kept a list of "high scores," but they were only three characters long and thus effectively anonymous. Anybody trying to broadcast their high score outside of their immediate social circle would have not only been ostracized but beaten up for good measure. Video games back then were generally not player-vs.-player competitions either; if two players could play at the same time, it was usually cooperatively.

Noobs in all domains are hazed way more violently and humiliatingly than they were 50 years ago.

Fishing for compliments (likes, upvotes, re-tweets) from a vast crowd of strangers would have struck the laid-back youngsters of the '70s as appalling. It's not as though they didn't have access to cameras and mass media if they wanted to distribute them. "Who does this chick think she is? Marcia Brady?" And that little dorkmeister who managed to get his letter to the editor printed in no fewer than six local papers across the nation? "Woah dude, next stop — the White House! LOL."

For all the talk about how today's dogmatically PC climate is one of cutting the tall poppy down, the reality is just the opposite. Millennials do not ever speak up to cut down the grade-grubber, the curve-wrecker, and the know-it-all in the classroom. They may tweet a micro-aggression about it after class, but in any way that matters they are utter pussies who fail to enforce the supposed norm of tearing down the elite.

In fact, you have to go way back before the Millennial era to find widespread policing of individuals who threatened camaraderie by acting too big for their britches. High schoolers in the '70s would not have tolerated the constant hand-raiser. "Enough already, you fuckin' NERD!" Nor the over-glorified hall monitor types whose tattle-taling widened the gap, so to speak, between the goody two-shoes and those who got punished for having fun. "Thanks a lot, you fuckin' NARC!"

Even the professional victim activists back in the '50s only sought desegregation, rather than an escalating contest of whose rights had been more violated, and who had "earned" as many victimhood merit badges than who else, as you see among today's SJWs. Rosa Parks didn't make a special stink about being a black woman, only a black person. Any homos in the desegregation movement didn't limp out over how worse off they had it than the mere black heterosexuals.

Thus, it is over- rather than under-exposure to competition that explains why the Millennials are so messed up. When every social interaction their parents and teachers have placed them in has been a contest whose ranking is public knowledge — notwithstanding the fact that it has a safety padded landing for the losers — they fail to experience camaraderie while growing up, and they will remain antagonistic into adulthood. The top-ranked remain poor winners with no real friends and only hangers-on, while the bottom-ranked remain sore losers whose resentfulness alienates the others.

Over-exposure to competition may also explain their tendency to melt down over seemingly trivial trials. If they don't enjoy rest periods, as it were, between episodes of competitiveness, their minds don't get to recover and become stronger. The competitive lobe of their brain becomes fatigued from chronic hyper-extension.

If it were merely a case of having no experience with competition, and facing it for the first time, their reactions would have a heavy coloring of surprise and shock at the novelty of it all, the way a weakling would react when he tried to move a sofa. He would feel inadequate and embarrassed, rather than stressed out and ready to ragequit.

But Millennial melt-downs tend to be colored more by fatigue and being "over it," as though the competitive framework is not only familiar to them but has been ever present in their lives, all the way back to being dragged out of the house at six years old to race in a Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving.

This shows up elsewhere in their distant relationship with their parents, even when they grow up in an intact and non-abusive family. By being drafted into so many micro-competitions, and judged by so many different progress charts in childhood, they don't sense how else they could matter to their parents other than by getting good marks in some activity, which they hope will please their parents and make them proud. The most frequent expression of affection from their parents is "awesome job!" — based on their performance in some micro-trial (setting the silverware correctly, not getting any "red lights" from the teacher all week, and so on).

I doubt that the Millennials feel that their parents love them unconditionally, or that their parents are concerned for their welfare just because they're their own flesh and blood, and not because the parent acts like some genetically unrelated coach who wants his little players to win against the other team in the big game of life. That doesn't mean they feel their parents despise them, are callous toward them, or whatever — only that they feel more like their own parents are more like foster parents, albeit foster parents who are thoughtful and kindhearted.

I'm not sure how else to describe it, but it's a strange aspect of Millennials' relationships with their parents — even kids from stable, two-parent families are likely to behave as though their relationship were that of a benevolent patron and a grateful client who just happened to find their way into the household, instead of kin members tied by the special bond of blood.

In any case, whatever has gone wrong in recent decades cannot be the result of declining levels of competition, since they have only escalated. And we should not confuse superficially egalitarian dogma with real-world practices that have turned every social interaction into a status contest, however trivial.

Pairing primitivistic and futuristic sounds in '80s music

When you think of what musical timbre distinguishes a song from the 1980s, the synthesizer springs first to mind. If a pop song these days wants to "give it that '80s vibe," they are undoubtedly going to throw in a synthesizer part.

While the synth did play a central role in the orchestration of the period, it was usually paired with another instrument that sounded more traditional and organic, or at least a vocal delivery that sounded soulful rather than robotic.

This contrast of timbres relieved the song from having only a futuristic, artificial sound texture. The synth suggested the eerie, uncertain future of the modern world and its strange new technologies, while the traditional instrument (or soulful voice) provided a root in more familiar and comforting sounds.

The traditional instrument did not have to belong to the culture that the band came from — a foreign one could equally convey the impression of traditional and organic, as well as creating an exotic atmosphere. Especially within New Wave, the bands tried to strike a balance between the futuristic and the primitivistic.

There are too many examples to cover in a single post, so I'll focus things by only looking at the pairing of synthesizers with the marimba as the traditional, organic instrument.

It has its own melodic line in "Loving the Alien" by David Bowie, and the mixture comes from layering multiple instrumental parts.

A more effective use of contrasting timbres can be heard in the main riff for "Love My Way" by Psychedelic Furs, where the marimba's line hangs uncompleted until the synth chimes in for two slow eerie notes. I'm not sure why this succeeds better than the parallel layering approach — perhaps the shift at the end of a sequence strikes us more as a transformation of the organic into the synthetic.

Similar to one instrument completing the phrase of the other, a call-and-response pattern is used in "Sister of Mercy" by Thompson Twins. Both the marimba and flute-y synth have their own little riffs, and they alternate back-to-back. This is almost as memorable as the Psychedelic Furs approach, but they don't sound as intertwined because each part plays a self-contained phrase, whereas the two parts in "Love My Way" don't stand on their own and only work in combination.

Today when you hear the synth, it's more a descendant from electronic or techno music from the '90s and after, where the sole focus is on the futuristic, artificial, and hi-tech. It lacks any contrast with an organic instrument, and the vocal delivery is sure to be mechanical, robotic, and auto-tuned as well. Unlike the pleasingly surprising mixture of futuristic and primitive from the '80s, these techno-derived synth parts are more like boring gadget porn for music addicts.

We can note a similarity between New Wave songs and Art Deco architecture of the Jazz Age, which also aimed to wed primitive textures and exotic iconography with modernistic design plans and materials. Techno music's analog is more like the World of Tomorrow and Space Age styles of the Midcentury, which were entirely forward-looking and meant to dazzle the audience with hi-tech novelties.

Both New Wave and Art Deco arose from outgoing, rising-crime climates, while techno and the World of Tomorrow arose from cocooning, falling-crime climates. Based on other cases, my hunch is that people in an outgoing social mood prefer high contrast in their culture, as opposed to cocooning people for whom that would be too stimulating, and who therefore prefer lower contrast.

December 14, 2014

Cynicism and sarcasm were Gen X specialties long before the grungey Nineties

Part of the ongoing attempt to make the '90s revival happen (it won't happen) has been to emphasize the tone of cynicism, sarcasm, and irony within youth culture of the time, specifically the grunge / alternative / slacker sub-culture.

Not that there isn't a grain of truth to that picture, but what was new and distinctive of the '90s was that this tone permeated the sub-culture's view of everything — not only was the overhyped cut down to size, so were the things that ought to have been respected, even by the sub-culture's own standards. Fuzzy '60s-era utopianism was met with only a cold raised eyebrow, but so too was any practical and non-ideological attempt to make things better. "Whatever" was the answer to, well, whatever. The tone was more nihilistic and disillusioned than merely ironic.

In contrast to the across-the-board sarcasm of the '90s, teenagers in the '80s reserved their eye-rolling for only what was pretentious. Funny as it may seem, the most visible — and audible — pioneers in this trend were the Valley girls, not proto-hipster wannabes. Some little nerdlinger presumes to ask out one of the cute popular girls: "Oh I'm like so sure!" Some aging hippie teacher tries to work her students up into a burst of cleansing synchronicity: "Ugh, get a job."

Barf me out.

Gag me with a spoon.

Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.

Those teenagers still felt enthusiasm for what truly deserved it — and not just bitchin' camaros, bodacious bods, and totally tubular tunes. Letting your guard down and sharing your life with friends, and belonging to an active social scene, were still earnest and sincere pursuits. This distinguishes the zeitgeist from one of "kill yr idols."

The tone of youth culture in the '80s, then, was fundamentally one of stabilization — letting the air out of the over-inflated, while showing appreciation for what we have taken for granted.

During the '90s, this would devolve into cutting down everyone and everything, reflecting the shift from an outgoing to a cocooning social mood. Now, it was all about the lone individual who was so much more world-weary than every other individual, and too cool to need to belong to a group with others, who would probably not be as stylishly aloof as he was anyways.

Generation X is unfortunately remembered more for their '90s nihilism, when their formative years were just as much a part of the eye-rolling Valley girl '80s.

They themselves remember growing up in the '80s, but the Boomer incumbents who write the official histories in the mass media have emphasized the anti-utopian 'tude of the '90s instead because it serves as a better foil for their own generation's identity as '60s idealists. And the airhead Millennials who drive traffic on BuzzFeed, Upworthy, etc. latch on to the slacker / alterna phase of Gen X because they're obsessed with their own origins as '90s kids, and are incurious about the time before they were being doted on as babies.

But the X-ers were sarcastic way before it was cool.

December 13, 2014

With month-long deals, Black Friday dilutes in intensity but becomes even more egocentric and materialistic

Black Friday, as a one-day-only concentrated spectacle, seems to be winding down. By all indicators — sales figures, advertising hype, live-tweeting the most fucked-up incidents around the country — the day was much more quiet, tame, and boring this year.

If that meant that people had been spending more time with family on Thanksgiving weekend, or had not been so fixated on DEALS, this would have been a welcome change. Instead, shoppers have desecrated "family time" even more by spreading the deal-hunting into Thanksgiving day (AKA Black Friday Eve), or spending more and more time glued to a glowing screen in search of killer deals online.

This marks the passing of yet another holiday ritual from a concentrated and intense manner of celebration (if you can call it that in this case), into a drawn-out and diluted manner. This keeps it from feeling like a memorable experience, and therefore weakens the power of the holiday to bond folks together.

In 2014, there was an entire week or month of Black Friday deals in advance of the day itself, both in stores and online.

It's the same as Christmas songs, decorations, food, etc. going into mass circulation the day after Halloween. Or Thanksgiving decorations and food hitting the shelves at the beginning of October. Or Halloween costumes and candy being put out with the start of the school year.

In each case, the intensity that used to come from celebrating these holidays on a single day — or at most a weekend — has been diluted into a minuscule level of awareness and celebration for a full month ahead of time. By the time the proper day arrives, we're already so habituated to its rituals that there's nothing special left for the holiday itself. It passes without notice, and without missing a beat we're on to the next stream of pre-pre-pre celebration for a holiday that's a month away. We remember nothing of the holiday, and its utterly mundane atmosphere prevents us from bonding more closely with our social circles.

In cocooning times, intensity of rituals is replaced not by moderation but by minimization. Rituals are a group-bonding affair, and connecting with others — especially ones we don't even know, like our distant neighbors or our fellow Christians — strikes cocooners as, well, a little creepy. If we can somehow nominally celebrate those rituals in the most toe-dipping way possible, we won't be overwhelmed by how awkward true social connection feels.

Black Friday was already a disgusting debasement of Thanksgiving rituals, but at least it tried to preserve the manner of concentrated group celebration. Hard to pull off when it's a melee of every shopper for themselves, but it was still common for families to go shopping as a group (perhaps even camp out in line as a group), and to feel the excitement of sharing the same heart-racing experience as the other deal-grabbers, albeit the thrill shared among self-centered looters rather than other-centered worshipers.

The dilution of Black Friday into an entire week or month of deal hunting has done nothing to counteract the self-centeredness and materialism of the holiday's one-day-only period. Someone glued to their screen comparing prices across dozens of websites over several weeks of bargain-hunting, could not be more removed from their family or community. "Can't talk now, busy on Amazon, save some turkey for me later though."

It also exacerbates the trend toward staring down at individual screens before and after the meal, when people used to either be part of a single large conversation or tuned into the same TV show, movie, or football game. "No, I'm not being anti-social — I'm busy bargain-hunting on Amazon," rationalizes the internet junkie to his put-off brothers and sisters.

"But what if I'm not with my family for Thanksgiving? I'm not bothering anyone then." If you're alone for Thanksgiving, or at most with a spouse, it means you don't have any family nearby. Here we see how strongly the transplant phenomenon has driven the trend toward normlessness in urban and suburban areas where migration from outsiders has been heavy.

Without your family members there to give you those annoyed stares, you feel less shame in browsing Amazon all day long, rather than at least try to make the holiday about something other than buying more stuff for yourself, and inflating your ego over the sense of achievement from scoring such an epic deal — "Not gonna lie, I'm actually kind of amazing at hunting for deals online."

I can't believe we've sunken so low that I'm feeling a loss, however qualified and tepid, over the dilution of Black Friday, which was already so corrosive to our traditions. But the holiday has only become further atomized with the retreat into ransacking the shelves of some internet outlet instead.

December 9, 2014

Happiness among natives vs. transplants: A partial solution to the "wealth and happiness" paradox

In an earlier comment, DdR brought up the topic of whether transplants are happier from the higher incomes they enjoy by moving away to work where the grass is greener.

Fortunately, the General Social Survey asks a question about how happy you are in general. I've also created a GSS variable for transplant status at the regional level, which looks for a mismatch between where the respondent was living at age 16 and where they're living now. It uses the Census regions (Pacific, New England, East South Central, etc.). So transplant here doesn't mean you moved from the suburbs of your upbringing to the nearest city, but moving across entire regions. I'll be restricting the focus to whites only, to remove race as a muddying factor in the analysis.

A simple comparison between natives and transplants shows that their happiness levels are indistinguishable: 35% of natives and 36% of transplants are "very happy," while 10% of both natives and transplants are "not too happy" (the rest being "pretty happy").

That is despite the transplants being more educated (33% hold a college degree, vs. 20% of natives), and earning a higher average income ($58K in current dollars, vs. $47K for natives). Any boost to happiness from being upwardly mobile is apparently cancelled out by not belonging to the broader culture of the place where you live.

The picture gets more interesting when we look separately at natives and transplants, and see how upward mobility affects happiness within each group. You can be upwardly mobile without leaving your regional culture, or leaving it behind may be part and parcel of your upward mobility.

The graph below shows how education affects happiness for natives and transplants separately. More education gives only a minuscule boost to happiness, and natives and transplants are indistinguishable — not only how tiny the boost is across education levels (same slope), but also in how happy they are within each education class (same height).

OK, education may not make you happier, but who would doubt the power of money to buy happiness — at least somewhat? The next graph shows how income levels affect happiness, for natives and transplants separately.

Natives and transplants are now only indistinguishable at low and medium levels of income. The lines more or less overlap, whether you earn next to nothing or $100,000. But notice what happens when we compare upper-middle and upper levels of income — natives pull away from transplants in happiness, and the gap appears to only grow and grow.

The transplant line is relatively flatter, whereas the native line has a much steeper slope. Transplants are more or less equally happy (or unhappy), while natives range from kind-of happy to very happy, depending on their income.

This finding provides a partial solution to the paradox of greater income not bringing in that much more happiness. People who earn more are happier, but it's been known that this curve flattens out with higher and higher income. Each jump up the income brackets buys you less and less additional happiness. The econ, psych, and sociology lit has tried to uncover why this is, though usually without focusing on how the big-earners get their money. Like, did they have to leave behind their connections to people and place of the environment that they grew up in?

But perhaps more income does get you the same boost in happiness — that certainly shows up among natives, whose line in the income-happiness graph doesn't flatten out. But only so many upwardly mobile high-earners are going to be drawn from the nearby region. For those who move away in search of higher-status jobs and bigger incomes, upward mobility requires sacrificing other sources of happiness such as roots in family and community, and these losses offset the gains from higher income. The net effect for transplants is a diminishing marginal return of income on happiness (a rising line that flattens out).

In future posts, I'll dig into what those losses are (I speculated it has to do with family and community, but we need to investigate).

For now, though, the upshot is that the best of all possible worlds is to be a high-earner without moving away from the general region where you grew up. But if you're only going to be earning a low or medium-level income, you might as well stay put. You'll be just as happy, plus you won't have to pay all the costs of moving and adapting — not just financial costs but social and cultural costs, too. You'll have a support network already in place.

Happiness is an individual measure, as opposed to social measures like corrosion of community, disintegration of norms, pidginization of language, and so on. I think the most important objections to the transplant phenomenon are social. But this investigation shows that even at the me-first level of happiness, it doesn't pay to leave behind your roots in search of greener pastures.

GSS variables: happy, regtrans (created from region and reg16), educ, realrinc, race

"Debt up to my eyeballs" — the growth of a telling phrase

You may remember that commercial from Lending Tree, where the suburban father shows off the upper middle-class wonders that he enjoys — large house, riding lawnmower, country club membership — and asks how does he afford it. "I'm in debt up to my eyeballs," he confesses warmly, sounding like he's cracked and about to go on a calm shooting spree around the office.

That attitude of self-aware yet dismissive humor toward debt came way before the humbling Great Recession, back during the housing bubble. Even during that heady euphoria, the typical Boomer realized how illusory much of their status symbols were.

Could it be found, then, farther back still, say during the Clinton years when every Boomer styled themselves as a wise investor in the stock market just because they bought a subscription to Money magazine?

The graph below shows the prevalence of the phrase in Google's digitized print media library (Ngram). It doesn't matter whether the phrase was "my" eyeballs or "our" eyeballs.

Surprisingly, the phrase goes all the way back to the origins of the current debt bubble, taking incipient form in the '70s and exploding from the '80s until today. That makes them part of the status-striving and inequality cycle.

I thought it would've come some time later, after the naivete toward credit cards had worn off and consumers sobered up to the reality of compound interest. But nope, the Me Generation took the glib, joking tone right from the beginning. They knew what they were getting into, but waved away the consequences. "Fake it till you make it," but since you never really make it, keep on faking it.

This tone showed up elsewhere in popular coined phrases during the '80s. "We'll just charge it!" Oh, OK, nothing to worry about then. Money just grows on trees. And the synecdoche slang of referring to credit cards affectionately as "plastic," e.g., "Don't worry, honey, I'm sure they'll take plastic."

The unapolegetically open tone that the Me Generation has taken toward their status symbols being financed by debt rather than their own achievement reveals the relative balance of forces at work in their minds. Are they so competitive because they want to WIN WIN WIN at their "career" (job), or so they can finance a separate but related contest over conspicuous consumption?

It looks like the latter, otherwise taking on so much debt to purchase the status symbols — and especially being so open about the money coming from creditors rather than their own bank account — would have struck them as a failure, an embarrassment. Something they would have tried to cover up.

But if the primary goal is to compete in the game of conspicuous consumption, who cares where the money came from? "It's not as though the NFL players buy their own equipment," you can hear a Boomer rationalizing. "Worthier borrowers get bigger loans, so my millions in debt prove I'm better than you, with your measly little thousands in debt."

To reiterate: I'm not dismissing the well established tendency of the Silent and Boomer generations to want to win at any costs in the career world, so that they can brag about their career (job) on its own, regardless of what particular status items their salaries and debt have afforded them. I'm suggesting that the over-arching concern of theirs is the zero-sum status game of conspicuous consumption, whether that takes the form of blue-state liberal battles or red-state pseudo-conservative ones — Prius vs. Hummer, over-priced walking staff vs. over-priced fly fishing rod, thousands toward Apple products vs. thousands toward a home theater set-up, etc.


It's worth noting in the generational context that the main form of debt that Gen X and Millennials are saddled with is exorbitant student loans. Those are not part of a conspicuous consumption game, but immaterial status contests based on knowledge, coolness, and leisure. See this earlier post on the generational structure of status contests.

Are you college-educated or not? What tier did you get into? Within your tier, did you hang out in this type of environment or that one? What did you major in? That's as close to the contest over career accomplishments that X-ers and Millennials engage in.

Plus, the Silent / Boomer incumbents have rigged the economy so that a $40,000 certificate from a degree mill has become a requirement for even crappy jobs. That makes the student loan more a matter of merely making a living, and not an instrument of superfluous spending like credit cards, home loans, car loans, and the like.

Student loans are taken out by naive half-children who are promised that it'll be worth it when they go job-hunting later in life. At the beginning of the debt bubble, credit cards etc. were taken out by knowing 20 and 30-somethings who cynically used them to acquire more status symbols right now rather than delay gratification until they could afford it.

The Silent / Boomer conspiracy to take over the government has also made sure that the upstart generations cannot discharge their typical form of debt (student loans) through bankruptcy, unlike the Silents and Boomers who have thrown off the burden of their typical form of debt (credit cards, mortgages) with the stroke of a pen. This difference in which categories of debt can be cut loose has served to widen inequality between the generations, and can only be corrected with the death of the Me Generation or their removal from government.

December 2, 2014

Marriage and divorce trends: More broken homes, more marriages as status-striving tag teams

One of those "debunking" type articles at the NYT discusses the decline in divorce rates among marriages that began in the 1990s or 2000s, compared to those that began in the '70s and '80s. Back in the '80s, there was widespread anxiety about how common divorce had become, but since then it's actually become less common.

So, nothing to worry about then? Not exactly.

It may surprise readers of the NYT, or nerdy consumers of pop-quant articles in general, but marriage is supposed to produce children, who are to be raised by the parents. The integrity of the spousal relationship is not really that important -- sure, falling divorce rates among childless spouses makes society and its institutions look a little less flaky, but childless couples are not being put to much of a test (have kids and find out why). When a group is not being tested, we cannot infer much about what they're like. Who's more athletic and who's less athletic -- you need to run them through an obstacle course to find out.

To reiterate an earlier post as a reminder, children growing up without both parents in the home has become an increasingly common phenomenon, starting with those born circa 1960, whose parents would have divorced sometime in the '70s. This has continued at least through those born circa 1990, although unfortunately we won't have the data in on later cohorts for awhile.

The timing of the trend, starting around the mid-'70s and continuing steadily upward after that, links it to the status-striving and inequality cycle. Parents who put their individual happiness above the integrity of their own family -- including the welfare of those helpless little things known as children -- is a clear sign of the Me Generation's break from norms of social accommodation and toward socially laissez-faire norms.

The NYT author devotes a whole clause (not even a full sentence) to the broken homes phenomenon at the very end of the article, even though that's what worries most folks about divorce -- its effects on children. The commenters were more likely to bring the topic up, not to point out how absent it had been from the article, but simply because normal people associate marriage with children, and don't need to be prompted to bring up family dynamics in the context of marriage and divorce.

What is keeping today's marriages together, then? The article reviews several factors, all of which stem from the status-striving behavior of the spouses -- late marriage (gotta establish your career first), birth control (kids get in the way of your career), and modern dual-earner households (two incomes are better than one).

The article also mentions that the falling divorce rates are mostly concentrated among married couples higher up on the class pyramid, while lower status couples are just about as likely to divorce as they were at the peak divorce rate circa 1980. That follows from the status-striving explanation -- upwardly mobile strivers are the ones who marry late, rely on birth control, have fewer / no children, and form dual-breadwinner households.

Perhaps the most direct explanation of why upwardly mobile strivers stick out their bumpy marriages comes from a crass transplant to DC (where else?), in the comments. She's the wife:

Sometimes the downs are so severe and so prolonged that I want to pack my bags and run away. I don't - partly due to my own maturity, partly due to an intensely stubborn unwillingness to fail - but also because we can't afford to live apart without sacrificing everything we've worked for. Together, we do OK but apart, neither one of us makes enough money to live the way we do. I often wonder what would happen if we hit the lottery jackpot during one of the down periods.

A sympathetic follow-up to that comment:

In cities like New York and San Francisco, where a two-bedroom apartment can easily cost $4,000/month and a beer is often $6, even a couple making $200,000/year would face a dramatic change in their living standards if they spit up.

Now it all comes out: marriage for the striver class is primarily a cynical business arrangement calculated to maximize the individual's standard of living. For those components that are private goods, the striver doesn't need marriage -- he can squander his own dough on an expensive personal gadget, and she can rack up her own debt on expensive shoes and handbags.

But then there are the collective goods and services where economies of scale can be exploited. The people you're trying to impress don't really mind if your house or apartment is occupied solely by you, or you plus your spouse (plus any kids you may have). So why not cohabit and then marry someone who can double the amount going to rent or the mortgage? If you're swimming in old money, you don't need to lower yourself to marriage to accomplish this, but if you're a striver, you're going to have to pool resources with a housemate (as a bonus, a housemate who you occasionally have sex with).

At the high end, doubling the budget will have diminishing marginal returns for how impressive the purchase is -- a Manhattan penthouse that costs $20 million vs. $10 million. Strivers can't aim that high, though. They're thinking more like going from a $250K house to a $500K house, or making the jump from a $500K house to a million-dollar house. Those gains are dramatic, and you get more than you pay for. Double your budget, but enjoy ten times the status boost.

There is also a quantum leap effect, where pooling resources allows you to clear a threshold of visibility and respectability. A single striver can't clear the threshold for owning a half-million-dollar house, but two strivers pooling resources could. A single striver can't afford the upscale refrigerator or the Viking range stove or the fully equipped home theater system, but two teaming up together could.

True, the individual could afford a quarter-million-dollar house, an older model refrigerator and stove, a 30-inch TV without audiophile surround sound or rows of club chairs, but c'mon, who's going to be impressed by that stuff? That individual is not merely less visible or respectable in the status contest, they are invisible and pitiful. Pooling resources allows two invisible and pitiful individuals to form a household that clears the threshold of visibility and respectability (plus that occasional roll in the hay).

What other "club goods" fall under this pattern? Those are goods and services that are excludable (the household excludes those outside of the household from enjoying them), but are not rivalrous among those using them within the household (one spouse's use doesn't really subtract from the other spouse's use).

For goods, there's the residential building itself and its real estate location, landscaping and architecture outside the house (fence, porch, patio, deck, yard, trees, bushes, flowers, etc.), the large kitchen appliances, dining room furniture, living room furniture, the TV, bathroom furnishings (sink, vanity, toilet, shower / bathtub), bedroom furnishings (bed, dresser, walk-in closet -- husband doesn't own enough clothes to rival his wife's use of that space), and on and on.

For services, there's the bills for housekeeping and cleaning (wife works too much), the bills for yard maintenance and home repairs (husband works too much), child care if they have kids (wife works), goods and services they provide to their kids, utilities, and media access (cable, internet, maybe a phone line).

Other infrequent luxury goods and services include the wedding, hosting parties, travel and vacations. Pooling resources allows a quantum leap here as well. The wedding is way more awesome than your friends' weddings. A couple can successfully host a party through division of labor vs. an individual being overwhelmed and unable to pull it off. And a couple can share a cab ride to the airport, perhaps get a couple's discount on the plane tickets, share a room, share cab rides at the vacation site, and so on and so forth.

Married people also get tax benefits, but those are on the back of the minds of most strivers. They're mostly thinking about all the awesome new stuff they can own and experience, not a somewhat lower amount to enter on their tax return once a year.

Marriages are as fragile as ever among the lower majority of society, while it has become more stable among the elites mostly because they're desperate to climb the status pyramid, realize that it's easier / possible at all to do this by pooling resources, and fear the loss of material and immaterial standard of living if they were to divorce and give up their tag team / power couple benefits.

Meanwhile, parents are only more and more likely to break up a family, and let their offspring fend for themselves in the aftermath.

Analysts, especially if they're pseudo-cons or quasi-libertarians, have fooled themselves into fixating on marital stability per se, isolating it apart from the larger gestalt of which it is a piece, and ignoring the purpose of marriage, which is creating a family. When they zoom in on the divorce rate by itself, they see only reasons to be sanguine about recent trends and near-term prospects. But anyone who sees the bigger picture has plenty to be worried about.

December 1, 2014

Star Wars: The cosplay fanfic sequel

If George Lucas raped your childhood, then J.J. Abrams is going to make sure you get a happy ending. See for yourself in the new trailer for next year's re-launch of the franchise.

Look, it's the original style of stormtrooper armor! Look, it's some kind of speeder bike! Look, a close-up shot inside the cockpit of an x-wing! Holy shit bro, the millennium falcon! And the original John Williams theme! Plus, no five year-old actor, no CGI rabbit, and no midichlorian meter? Well, who's gonna be camping in line one year ahead of release night? — this guy!

Yeah, it doesn't look like the third trilogy is going to be a great big middle finger to the fans or audiences with half a brain, the way that the second trilogy was. This time a stubborn idiot who thinks he's clever won't be directing them into oblivion. But we're still just getting an overly enthusiastic fanboy who's going to make it all about fan service, devoid of plot, character, or visual style.

Hey, he made everyone forget about those awful Star Trek: The Next Generation movies from the '90s. Not by making anything new, but by making reference after reference to the stuff that everyone already likes, or would like if they haven't seen it.

You can't "do Wrath of Khan again," or "do Star Wars again," because the zeitgeist has changed so much. The result is placing contemporary actors with contemporary attitudes in a great big cosplay re-enactment of the original movies, all shot with contemporary camera work, and presented after contemporary editing.

Star Trek now stars a gay Latino Millennial as Spock, the tone is constant frenzy, and the camera is hyperactive. Star Wars is going to star a negro Millennial (hopefully not also gay), the tone looks to be constant frenzy, and the camera hyperactive. Updating the classics for our times, or overly indulgent LARP session?

It's not a nostalgic re-enactment either, as the Millennials grew up long after Star Trek and Star Wars exploded as pop culture phenomena. Non-whites, let alone queer ones, couldn't have cared less about them. A nostalgic re-enactment would star straight, white Gen X-ers. Multicultural Millennials are just going to make it come off as a cargo cult performance.

I am glad that part of this cargo cult approach involves shooting on film and using practical effects (although still tons of CGI, judging from the trailer). If the superior technology doesn't get preserved, it could be lost for good.

Other than that, I have zero interest in seeing the new sequels. It's too late to re-launch Star Wars — and was already too late by the '90s. It would have been neat to see a Star Wars movie in the late '80s or very early '90s, before the zeitgeist shifted so far away from what developed during the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

We got a third Indiana Jones movie in '89, and it wasn't that bad — palpably more self-aware and winking at the audience (watch it again and see how many jokes are blatant asides to the audience), but still a solid Indiana Jones movie.* I didn't bother seeing the fourth movie in the 2000s because I knew it would suck based on the Star Wars prequels sucking, and hearing everyone say so when it came out.

Star Wars missed the window to follow up on a classic from the late '70s / early '80s, and should have stopped before the prequels got made. There's even less reason for these new sequels to get made, other than cashing in on a surefire opening weekend with a sequel to the most popular movie out there.

* Some other sequels worth noting from the late '80s / early '90s, which lagged quite a bit behind the original, which took on a noticeably more self-aware or winking tone, but which were still decent movies:

Back to the Future II and III ('89 and '90, original '85)
Christmas Vacation ('89, original '83)
Ghostbusters II ('89, original '84)
Gremlins 2 ('90, original '84)
The Exorcist III ('90, original '73)

November 26, 2014

Immigration policy — for cheap labor or cultural replacement?

In the search to track down the traitors who are selling out our country to hordes of foreigners, conservatives can mislead themselves into targeting primarily "cultural Marxists" — those who loathe Western, white, male, hetero culture, and want to replace it with something superior based on its opposites.

Not that that crowd isn't on board with amnesty and immigration, of course they are. But a bunch of limp-dick intellectuals in San Francisco don't have the wealth, power, and influence to control political and economic activity at the highest level. They only serve the powerful by providing an intellectual basis for the policies that were going to take place anyway, to make them sound like a logical necessity rather than a naked power play.

Culture-war conservatives should sober up by looking at the twin policy of immigration — off-shoring, especially of labor but also of tax status. It isn't only hordes of foreigners flooding in, but boatloads of jobs setting sail for far-flung dirt-floor countries. If immigration policy were primarily about replacing the native population with a foreign population more to the liking of the powerful, then why not bring all those beneficiaries of off-shoring right here to the USA?

The answer is that sometimes it's cheaper for their employers to bring the foreigners here, and sometimes cheaper to keep them where they are over there. A contractor who hires dry-wall workers cannot off-shore those jobs to Mexico, India, or China, because the dry-wall work must be done right here. Same with strawberry pickers, meat packers, fast food workers, lawn cutters, and leaf blowers.

But if the work can be done at a distance, the employers are happy to send the work overseas without the whole troublesome business of importing foreign workers to America (like having to pay them based more on the American vs. Indian cost of living). Answering phone calls to customer service and writing computer code naturally lend themselves to distance work. So does manufacturing, as long as shipping the goods here isn't too expensive (shipped in bulk, protected and organized efficiently through modern containerization). This includes industrial products, consumer electronics, and pharmaceutical drugs.

While the cultural replacement view cannot account for such a dramatic split between the twin policies of immigration and off-shoring, it follows straightforwardly from the cheap labor view that we normally associate with leftist or liberal criticism of immigration (such as it is).

There are other clear signs that the powerful don't care that much about replacing the native culture with a foreign one. Why aren't schoolchildren compelled to be bilingual in one of the languages of our new neighbors or trading partners from Central America, China, and India? Foreign language classes are a total joke, are only required for a couple years, and students are not tested for proficiency at all. School boards would eliminate French and German in favor of Cantonese and Hindi. The powerful may want us to be more sensitive and aware of foreign cultures, but not to actually become a foreign culture, which would require a lingua franca.

Deserting the battle over cheap labor, immigration, and off-shoring in this second Gilded Age of ours will earn conservatives a one-way ticket to irrelevance and impotence in the broader culture. So how can they present their criticism in a distinctly conservative rather than leftist way?

I think the main difference is that leftists only blame the shareholders and managers of Big Business for cheap labor policies. As the agents of bullying the government into opening the gates, they certainly deserve a good deal of the blame.

But what about ordinary consumers who clamor for ever cheaper products and services — and the hell if it means that the companies they buy from will employ workers from dirt-floor countries, whether bringing them here or sending the work over there? It's not as though the bulk of the American middle and lower classes would even consider, let alone carry out a boycott of companies that provide cheap junk made by careless foreigners.

"Hey, it's cheap, isn't it? It does the basic thing it's supposed to do, doesn't it? Then who cares if Chinese or Indians or Mexicans had to make it. Now I can buy ten times as much junk. If Americans made it, I could only afford one-tenth of the junk pile that I currently enjoy."

Middle-class callousness toward the consequences of their everyday purchases of goods and services on the demand side is almost as responsible for the cheap labor policies as Big Business greed is on the supply side. Not to mention the phenomenon of middle-class individuals employing cheap foreign labor as lawn cutters, dry-wallers, and babysitters in their own homes. That's not the outcome of a corporate board meeting on Wall Street.

The conservative response in the battle over cheap labor will not target only the wealthy in a class war, but try to humble the middle and lower classes as well, and hold them accountable for their callous preferences that have provided the fuel for the greed of Big Business.

Now, blaming everyone instead of a small easy target may seem like a losing strategy, but as long as it's based on humility and redemption, it can catch on at the grassroots level. An ordinary individual or family cannot meet with a politician the way that a corporate lobbyist can, but they can passively change their consumer practices and actively boycott companies that go against those wishes. "Boycott Chinese junk" would go a long way toward returning that work to American soil.

The leftist response to cheap labor, aimed only at the very top of society, is ultimately more hopeless. It relies on corporate containment policies at the very highest levels of government, or else violent disruption of the shareholders and managers' lives. During the last peak in inequality circa 1920, we saw armed strikers shooting it out against paramilitary armies, as well as anarchists lobbing bombs on Wall Street and assassinating politicians.

During the Great Compression, when inequality reversed and economic and political life became more stable, there were definitely large-scale regulatory programs by the government to rein in the greed and manipulation of Big Business, not to mention much higher income tax rates than we have seen since the '80s. That is the slice of Midcentury life that leftists and liberals can warm up to.

What they don't see is the grassroots change in preferences toward solidifying the culture through excluding foreigners and not buying stuff made in the third world, even if it meant more expensive products and services.

By the Midcentury, the days of hiring cheap servants recently arrived from Ireland, or cheap steel mill workers fresh off the boat from Poland, were long gone. As detailed in this profile from Fortune magazine in 1955, even elite executives chose to live in more modest houses and to employ fewer or no servants, compared to the decadent ways of the early 20th century — then still in living memory.

Middle-class preferences began to take account of the socially corrosive consequences of acquiring as much stuff for as cheaply as possible. And they came to view such pursuits as debasing to the individual. Those who still tried to cling to the old ways, a la Pottersville from It's a Wonderful Life and Norma Desmond's palazzo from Sunset Boulevard, were subjected to shaming in popular culture.

Liberals only see others as selfish, while conservatives see it as part of the human tendency toward sin. Emphasizing this difference will keep the battle over cheap labor from descending into class war against the rich.

November 22, 2014

Wannabes and absentees: Do it yourself and Pay someone else

During the shift toward status-striving of the past 30-odd years, there have been two huge changes in the way that services are performed. One is to Do It Yourself, the other is to Pay Someone Else. At the level of outsourcing vs. doing something in-house, these two are opposites, so there must be a unifying common theme at a higher level. That's where the link to status-striving lies.

Where have people increasingly opted for the DIY "solution"?

Home improvement — beyond simple maintenance and repairs, homeowners now remodel and build additions. They are also inclined to build their own furniture and fashion their own small decorations.

Specialty mechanics and electronics — modding your car, modding your computer or video game console or phone (perhaps tinkering with the hardware, but usually futzing around with software settings). "Developing" your own digital image captures (hours of dicking around in Photoshop), repairing your own intricate camera and lenses ("a little WD-40 ought to silence that squeaking..."), and photographing something complicated and important. Putting together a full mechanics' workshop in the garage.

Health — except for major trauma, diagnosing and treating malaise or illness is now done through researching a bit online, then drawing up a list of the right mix of foods, vitamins, supplements, and pills. Faddish psychobabble therapies can be added if the pain is mostly emotional.

These services require years of acquired knowledge, experience, and skills, not to mention tools and materials that are relatively expensive, hard to find, and difficult to understand and use. They are done — or used to be done — by artisans and professionals, and confer status on the DIY-ers.

What about the trend toward Pay Someone Else?

Child-rearing — daycare workers, nannies, school teachers (substitute mothers), and coaches and tutors of varying specialties (substitute fathers) now perform most of the day-to-day and face-to-face activities of raising children. That's in addition to parking your kids in front of a glowing media screen, an even more flagrant form of outsourcing your parenting duties.

Meal cooking — hardly anyone makes home-cooked meals anymore, which come instead from fast food chains, microwave meals, and already prepared meals / hot bar items at the supermarket.

Housekeeping and yard work — women who sweep, vacuum, clean counters, and scrub toilets and showers, as well as men who ride lawnmowers and aim leafblowers.

These services are unskilled and require the use of tools and materials that are cheap, plentiful, and simple to use. Their main input is labor (time and effort), so they would subtract status if the Pay-Someone-Elsers were to do it themselves.

The psychology is easy to understand. Status-strivers want to do the professional work themselves, to reap the benefits of branding themselves as artisans. They shed the status deadweight of unskilled work through outsourcing, even if it means neglecting their familial duties.

There are far broader implications for the economy, though, not just changes in how annoyingly grandiose and shamefully neglectful your fellow neighbors, co-workers, and citizens have become.

The DIY movement has wiped out the number of man-hours that could have been done by true artisans and skilled workers, and lowered the asking price of the labor they can still sell to customers, who now expect dirt-cheap services since "I could always just do it myself, y'know." If the service proves too complicated to DIY, the customer will just opt for replacement rather than repair (fueling planned obsolescence). That eliminates the once common fix-it shops as a way of making a living.

The Pay Someone Else movement has swollen the number of man-hours going into unskilled labor, which is already low-paying, offering little to no benefits, temporary / high-turnover, and uncertain job security.

The outcome is widening inequality, as skilled jobs are replaced by unskilled. We usually associate that with heartless managers of large companies decomposing a skilled task into separate rote tasks through mechanization. But here we see just how deep the rot goes — even ordinary individual consumers are such self-regarding skinflints that skilled tradesmen must debase themselves into unskilled laborers in order to satisfy the status-enhancing lifestyles of today's middle class.

Sure, skilled artisans can still find work with the top-top-top level elite, whose budgets are unlimited and who are more inclined toward conspicuous leisure. But that's not a large market. It was the middle class market for skilled services that used to support an electronics repair shop, photography studio, and carpenter's workshop.

Unlike the decadent and parasitic elite, the middle class actually produces for a living, and can't indulge so much in conspicuous leisure. So, conspicuous consumption it is. Middle-class folks have never been more profligate with their disposable income, loans, and credit — yet they would take it as a personal defeat to have to hire a carpenter to remodel their cabinets. All that status item spending has drained the portion of their income that could have gone toward skilled services and production.

After all, why by one good pair of shoes made by skilled Americans when you can buy five pairs made by unskilled Salvadoreans? Owning a single pair of shoes prevents you from participating in the fashion treadmill. So does owning a single professionally made dishwasher for 30 years — if the workers are barely skilled and their product breaks down every five years, that's just an opportunity to UPGRADE DAT SHIT and impress your friends. For status-strivers, crummy products are the gift that keeps on giving.

November 18, 2014

Zen and the art of trail maintenance

For the past couple weeks I've been spending three to five hours most days on a project to restore an abandoned trail that my peers and I took for granted in middle and high school, but has since fallen into ruins.

Clearing thorn bushes and the ubiquitous invasive vines along the edge of the woods, so that the portal into the trail can be seen and easily walked into. Logging the fallen and leaning trees (and some dead standing ones), plus all the branches strewn along the tread. Re-positioning logs so they don't dam up a bunch of leaves and water whenever rain flows downhill. Dislodging large hanging branches so that every step doesn't feel like you've got the sword of Damocles dangling over your head. Raking away all the debris that not only obscures the tread but makes it slippery to walk over — leaves, rocks, sticks, etc. Clearing leaves out of drains...

I've noticed how abandoned the woods have become for awhile, but now that I've started to try doing something about it, in a place that I knew well as a teenager, my mind struggles to comprehend how many areas need attention, and how effortless it used to be in the good old days when everybody pitched in here and there.

Part of the cause is the status-striving and inequality trend. Government funding for trail maintenance and similar programs has dried up since that benefits ordinary middle-class white people, when those funds could be better used to give mortgages to Mexicans, or to bail out the Jews on Wall Street who bet on the Mexican mortgages.

Status-striving also leads to a withdrawal from civic participation (less time, money, and effort to spend on self-advancement), a la Bowling Alone, so don't expect to see legions of volunteers regularly pitching in. Even the Boy Scouts these days seem to be more about fundraising for the Boy Scouts (how many bags of popcorn should we put you down for?), so they can attend the national Boy Scout jamboree, than practicing stewardship in the communities they live in.

The collapse of deliberate and concerted maintenance wasn't so noticeable in the context of woodland trails during the '80s and early '90s (well into the era of civic disengagement), because the society was in its outgoing phase of the cocooning-and-crime cycle. Every trail-goer who kicked a branch out of their way or bashed up a thorn bush in their way kept the trail in decent shape. Since the return of cocooning and helicopter parenting over the past 20-25 years, though, hardly anybody wanders back through there, so there aren't even the unwitting volunteers to keep it people-friendly.

I haven't been posting or reading comments here during this time because hours and hours of barely skilled labor in the woods is one of the most fulfilling activities I've ever done. It reminds me of my childhood when my Pap used to take me back into the Appalachian woods and we'd cut back thorns, push over dead trees, and take care of other public-space groundskeeping.

Although ideas for posts strike me while I'm out working, and I even elaborate them into fuller thoughts out there, I just don't feel like plugging my brain into the internet when I get home, nor would I feel like plugging in before I left for the day, putting me in the wrong state of mind.

I'll try to write some of this up soon, but in case it takes awhile, here is the gist of several, to get people thinking and talking again.

- Trail creation and maintenance is rooted in transhumance pastoralism (not nomadic). Why don't Slavs, chinks, spics, and blacks seem to care about the very presence of trails through nature, let alone practice stewardship over them?

- The long stretches of unskilled manual labor is rewarding because there's a point, and the effects can be clearly seen and appreciated. Working out at the gym has no point, other than toning your buns to please your gay lovers. Even the paleo exercises that are more in touch with the tasks we're adapted to do, are in the end still pointless leisure. If you want to be really paleo, get some damn work done while you're exerting yourself. It'll give you a sense of accomplishment and pride that you must otherwise force / con yourself into believing when it's just doing X many reps for Y many sets, or the equivalent end-points for a paleo routine.

- The hiker / rockclimber / outdoors culture is also purely leisure-based. Conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption (their "gear" is more encrusted with logos than a middle schooler's). And focused entirely on advancing the self in a status contest, rather than stewardship of shared common spaces. Look at how few tools those stores sell.

- Conservatives who do nothing to preserve, in whatever little way they can, the shared common spaces that made this country great, need to answer for their negligence, or be brushed aside as worthless whiners. "There's no point — the country is being over-run with Mexicans, so what's the point in preserving something that the Americans of 2050 won't appreciate and will allow to fall back into disrepair?" Well why don't we just burn the whole place to the ground, then, including your own house with you still in it? White Americans are still going to be around in 50 years, and they're going to be counting on us to keep things as well preserved as possible. Otherwise they'll just go to what is being preserved, i.e. Walmarts full of lardass spics. Innumerable people before your time shaped the places you connect with, so you've got to do your part too.

- Getting less political, what accounts for the split between woodsmen, woodworkers, and carpenters on the one side, and mechanics on the other? In the hardware section of Sears (burn down Home Depot), I was struck by how much mechanics tools there were, and how little any of it resonated with me (my mother's father was a carpenter). People-oriented vs. thing-oriented? Wood in the shop or in the woods as a natural substance, hence more people-like than exhaust pipes and drive trains? At least there's a preference for natural vs. artificial objects to work on.

- Warning coloration to ward off wildlife that may want to tangle with you. There was a decent-sized buck staring me down from about five yards away, who had a high-ground advantage over me, where I also had no maze of trees or anything to run back into or up into. Usually they'll walk a few steps at a time to see if you back away. This time, I'd taken off my coat since it had gotten warm, and I had on t-shirt with a very busy black-and-white Southwest Indian tribal print. That was the only time so far that I won in a staring contest up that close, at such a disadvantage. He blinked first, turned his head first, and walked away uphill. I wonder if having such a high-contrast pattern, like a skunk or badger on cocaine, played a role in driving him off.

- Why are both the outdoors and hunting scenes so averse to wearing "gear" from animal sources? It seems like they're finally learning about this ancient invention called wool, but it is damn rare to find animal skins or furs at a hunting store, outdoors store, or army/navy surplus store. The answer is not price, since their over-engineered Franken-fabrics cost an arm and a leg. I put it down to the trait of following natural vs. engineered solutions. Animals that have been shaped by millions of years of natural selection to adapt to cold, wet, thorny, outdoors conditions are going to have superior protection compared to whatever the latest lab fad is with consumers who have too much disposable income. We ought to copy what adaptations those animals have evolved — and if we can't copy them, we can just steal them.

November 6, 2014

Ohio court to queer couples: Drop dead (from viral loads)

In a landmark decision that will hopefully drive most of Ohio's gay-enabling Millennial generation out of the state, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati has allowed four states (Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Michigan) to treat gay marriages as illegitimate, following the sentiment of the people.

This may force a decision with the Supreme Court, and they may rule in favor of gay marriage. But even if that happens, conservatives in the region should not grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. A ruling against condoning gay deviance all the way up at the appellate level is already sending shockwaves throughout the region (see all the whiny Twitter reactions in the Dispatch article).

Now it is official: no matter what the Supreme Court ultimately decides, Ohio and its Appalachian neighbors have chosen to stand on the wrong side of history. Anybody who wants to stand on the right side can defect and join the liberal transplant hive in a more fag-friendly state.

If you think that gays and their apologists are going to forget this decision when/if the Supreme Court reverses it, think again. Look at how well people still remember the resistance in the Deep South to desegregation in the 1950s. That example is instructive: although local resistance was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, blacks still figured it wasn't worth the hassle of living there anymore, and continued migrating toward more liberal Midwestern areas.

Letting a group know that they aren't welcome, or at least that they can't push their agenda over the majority, goes a long way toward not having to live with their problems anymore. On the flipside, letting a group know that they are welcomed unconditionally, and that the majority will take all the narrow-interests abuse that can be dished out by the guests, makes it certain that the hosts will have to put up with the newcomers' problems for a very long time.

Chicago only shed large numbers of blacks when they told them that even better welfare policies awaited them up in Minnesota and Wisconsin. There were also enough micks and wops in Chicago to give the blacks a little boost out of the state, whereas Minneapolis and Milwaukee have only Nordic pansies standing guard.

Ohio, though, is proving to be less and less Midwestern over time. We see that now from a regional high court more or less giving the finger to the number one trendoid human rights cause du jour. There is a fault-line running through the state from southwest to northeast, with the southern and eastern strip being hillbillies, the southwest being more akin to Louisville, Kentucky, the center area drawing a variety of folks, and the northern and western area being part of the freezing industrial Midwest, now the Rust Belt.

Over the past two to three generations, the hillbillies have been leaving the rural areas and settling down more in the center near Columbus, or further south toward Cincinnati and Louisville. Cleveland in the northeast and Toledo in the northwest keep losing population, mostly out of state to transplant havens in Arizona, North Carolina, etc. Slowly but surely the Appalachian influence is on the rise, and the Midwestern on the decline.

It can be hard for folks not acquainted with flyover country to picture where the rough boundaries of Appalachia are, so here is a map of its counties according to the Appalachian Regional Council. Most people know that the country is flat along the East Coast, flat in the Midwest, and is hilly or mountainous somewhere in between, but think only of West Virginia.

Notice how much of Ohio is hillbilly territory. You don't see that out in the Platonic ideal Midwestern states like Iowa or Minnesota. (Also notice how much of Pennsylvania is hilly once you get away from Philadelphia on the East Coast.)

As the me-first impulse carries individuals away from their home town and to wherever they identify and affiliate with, the initial disparities will widen within fault-line states like Ohio. People who want to be on the right side of migration history will high-tail it out of the state toward Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, etc. And they'll take their "right side of history" politics with them.

The remainder who pay no mind to how trendy their place of residence and origin is, will neither care about how trendy their policies are.

November 2, 2014

Grandiose gravestones in status-striving times

Crossing over to the afterlife is the final rite of passage that we make, and like other such rites, it is marked by a ceremony to publicly and collectively acknowledge the irrevocably altered status of the deceased.

Ceremonies in general are ripe targets for elaboration during status-striving times — we get to show off before a captive audience. When the climate becomes more about accommodating others instead of me-first, ceremonies take on a more restrained and self-effacing tone.

During the Gilded Age and early 20th C., status-striving and inequality were soaring toward a peak that maxed out circa 1920. The wealthy could afford more of everything, and given their impulse toward excess, it's no surprise to see their grave monuments continuing to tower over the others in cemeteries across the country to this day. Visit a few local places that have graves going back through the 1800s, and you'll see it for yourself.

The main differences I've noticed are that they are much taller (easily exceeding human height), have more elaborate working (more than one typeface, semi-circular ruling for the text, images carved on a flat surface, and even relief sculpture), and tend to have bold messages about this life being over but the next one beginning — being re-born rather than truly passing away, triumphant over Death.

Here is a monument from 1879 and a mausoleum from 1911, both typical among the wealthy of their time:

These features begin to dwindle already during the '20s and '30s, and are more or less absent throughout the '70s. Headstones rise no higher than a few feet, are block-like in shape, and have simple working (at most a floral pattern carved around the sides and upper corners of the border), and contain no messages whatsoever — only the person's name (sometimes only the surname) and the dates of their birth and death. Not what their role or status in the community was, not what their status was in their extended family, not their job, or anything else. And no declaration that the show isn't really over / don't count me out just yet.

Those folks didn't lack confidence that the deceased would be thriving in the afterlife, nor did they believe that there was nothing to be said about their various roles and statuses in the domains of life. They just didn't feel like saying it — it would have struck them as vainglory.

Here is a typical tombstone from the end of the humble Great Compression, circa the '60s and '70s. If a cemetery began after 1920 and filled up before 1990, this is the only kind of marker you are likely to see:

Sometime during the '80s and '90s there was a shift back toward the Gilded Age pattern of taller, monumental styles, images and likenesses carved, relief sculpture, copious text, and this likely including a list of their various social achievements and proclamations about how they are too great to submit to Death, and are actually living it up in the Great Beyond.

I can't say from impression when the reversal occurred — I did see a couple like that from the '80s, but it seemed like the real growth was during the '90s. At any rate, by the 21st century, the shift is crystal clear, as seen in this recent example:

Somehow, our neo-Gilded Age climate has revived the grandiose style of grave markers. What are the links?

The taller height and more elaborate working speaks for itself.

Listing their social roles — father, officer, musician — is close to bragging about what they accomplished, even if it's not as obvious as the bumper stickers about "my kid is an honor student at Junior Genius pre-school," or the "fruit salad" decorations that military leaders now wear.

Inscribing a mini-eulogy is a bit odd — it was already said before those who knew the deceased, during the funeral service. Broadcasting it forever to random passersby is bordering on presumptuous. It also feeds an arms race of whose marker has more to grab our attention.

The bold messages about the non-finality of death do not strike me as meant to comfort and reassure those who have survived the deceased, but more of a statement of how great and powerful they were to have risen above death, more like a demi-god than a mere mortal.

This topic could easily be explored quantitatively, and even snuck into a mainstream outlet as long as it had a title like Inequality in the Graveyard. Plenty of folks have researched the temporal changes in funeral monuments, but none that I could find have looked at the link to the status-striving and inequality cycle.

And as hinted at the beginning, this approach could be broadened to look at all of the ceremonies that mark life's milestone transitions. Debutante balls long ago, which then vanished, but have been revived as Sweet Sixteen extravaganzas. Weddings (holy shit). Bearing children — how much stuff do you have to buy to welcome them into the world, and to let the public know that you now have a kid?

These changes have already been noticed and discussed, although not necessarily how they're reviving the ways of the Gilded Age and Downton Abbey period. Now we see that these changes include the ceremonies surrounding the final of life's major transitions.

Addendum: here is an article about similar changes in Germany from the early 20th C., Midcentury, and Millennial periods. It's not just an American thing, but wherever the status-striving and inequality cycle is more or less in sync.

October 31, 2014

Extended family contact by transplant vs. native residency

In an earlier post on differing levels of contact with extended family across regions, I stated that one factor underlying the pattern was the differing levels of being a transplant to the region, which would cut down on how often you keep in contact with family back home.

How much less contact do transplants actually have with their families? I looked at levels of contact with three different types of extended family groups for both natives and transplants. Racial groups have different patterns of migration and family contact, but it turned out not to affect the split between natives and transplants in level of extended family contact. So I left all races in.

Here's the breakdown for whether they've been in contact with the following groups during the past four weeks (among those who have living relatives of the type):

Cousins -- 50% of natives, 40% of transplants

Uncles and aunts -- 53% of natives, 40% of transplants

Nieces and nephews -- 70% of natives, 52% of transplants

Remember that the questions don't specify whether you kept in contact by meeting face to face, or by writing or calling. With nearly half of transplants saying they kept in contact with these groups as recently as the past four weeks, despite probably not living nearby, a good deal of those respondents took it to include mediated contact.

These results understate the difference in levels of face-to-face contact, which could be closer to zero for transplants, if it's already this low for mediated contact.

It's easy to blame technology for isolating us from those who we ought to be in contact with, especially in person. But here we see a vivid reminder of how simple it is to sever the ties to your extended family -- just move away, or perhaps they will. As long as the split is not acrimonious -- you're just leaving to better yourself -- no one will be bitter about the diluted and fragmented family web. It'll be one of those things that just happen, mysteriously and uncontrollably.

I don't see things changing course due to a change in attitudes toward family ties. There's too strong of an impulse toward self-enhancement, rather than maintenance and enhancement of everything else that made you.

But we may not have to wait for a change in attitudes. There's more than one way to keep people from moving away -- saturated real estate and job markets, and general lack of preparation for life after collage (where they goofed off for four years) among Millennials. "Boomerang kids" who live at home well into their 20s and 30s are becoming more of a reality, and reversing the trend of being a transplant during one's 20s.

They'll be in contact with their extended family more than earlier generations during that stage of life, whether they like it or not.

GSS variables: cousins, uncaunts, niecenep, regtrans (created from region and reg16)

October 30, 2014

Millennials reversing the trend of being a transplant during one's 20s

With gloomier job and housing prospects facing the most sheltered generation in world history, the Millennials are becoming "boomerang kids" who leave for four years of goofing off at college, and return home for their 20s, maybe longer.

One unnoticed but important side-effect of this shift is that they won't be contributing to the transplant phenomenon as much as earlier generations did during the same stage in life.

The General Social Survey asks questions about what region of the country you were living in at age 16, and where you're living at the time of the survey. I created a transplant variable that looks for a mismatch between the two answers, and looked at age and cohort patterns.

Cohorts are five years long, and the age group was 23 to 29, in order to make sure they were out of their college years. Only whites were studied, as races show different migration patterns, and sample sizes are not very large for non-white groups when restricted to such a narrow age range across multiple cohorts.

The eight cohorts within Boomers (1945-64) and X-ers (1965-84) were all nearly 20% likely to be a transplant during their post-college 20s. With the '85-'89 births, there's a sudden drop to 12%, cutting their chances in half. The results do not depend on whether you look at people who didn't go to college, or those who had at least one year of college.

The recession is a non-starter: many other generations faced recessions during their 20s, yet didn't hang around their home region (let alone their home). The sudden drop suggests that a clear breaking point has been reached for the broader socioeconomic structure, like the higher ed, job, and real estate markets, not simply recession or no-recession. Presumably those born in the '90s will be even less likely to bother chasing fame and fortune by leaving behind their native region.

Massive, unregulated, me-first migration patterns not only dislocate individuals from the social networks that they're most attached to, they destabilize the broader ecosystem -- both where they came from, which is losing natives and their native ways, as well as where they're moving to, which cannot cope with such an influx of outsiders and their outside ways.

Not that Millennial strivers wouldn't love to play their part in the transplant royal rumble -- they're simply less able to make it happen, being even more unprepared for real life than those who came before them, and with so many of the spots already taken up. Perhaps they'll rationalize the situation they've been forced into, and come to prefer living in the same general region that they grew up in. And perhaps they'll pass along this attitude and received wisdom to the generation after them.

The great big transplant shoving match may therefore come to an end, not by consciousness raising but by over-saturation.

GSS variables: regtrans (created from reg16 and region), cohort, age, race, educ

October 27, 2014

New Urbanism hijacked for leisure-class contests, and the plague of cars turning suburban streets into one-way roads

Not for the first time, I wrote what started as comments but soon morphed into an entire post on another site (this post at Uncouth Reflections reviewing a documentary on New Urbanism). This seems more likely when I've had a drink and am only focused on the now. You've heard of drunk texting -- this is drunk comment-spamming.

I'll just copy & paste the comments, rather than edit and fill them out into full posts. There's plenty more to say, so just riff on them in the comments, and I'll chime in again. (Like how I forgot to mention how much worse the parked car plague is where spics live. Six cars lining the curb in front of a "one-family" suburban house -- that's a sign of the Mexican invasion for sure. But I digress...)

The first is about how New Urbanism has turned out in reality, all these years after being an unheard-of movement, and being so widely adopted by the right kinds of people living in the right kinds of places. It promised a return to Main Street, but has built only playgrounds for the leisure class to publicly indulge in their status contests.

The second is more focused, on the topic of how clogged with parked cars the typical residential street is nowadays in suburban America, how recent of a change that has been, and what this example shows about the power of design and public planning to shape behavior when attitudes of individuals are pushing in the opposite direction.

* * *

The lack of reflection this far into the craze for New Urbanism is unsettling. Y’know, it’s not 1992 anymore, and the movement isn’t some underdog vanguard but the Next Big Thing that every SWPL enclave has been pushing through for at least the past 5, and more like 10 or 15 years.

That photo of the public square in New York sums up what’s gone wrong (or has revealed what had always been wrong from the start): New Urbanism has become (always was?) a brainstorming session / policy bandwagon for how to make the wealthiest neighborhoods in the wealthiest cities even more insanely epic playgrounds for the sponges who dwell nearby. That could either be loafer / hipster sponges, or finance / Big Law / PR / other bullshit sector sponges making a ton of money from parasitic professions.

There’s absolutely nothing civic, communal, cohesive, or enriching about these large playground oases in the urban jungle. Just a bunch of sponges sitting around indulging in some conspicuous consumption (where’s you coffee from? where’s your panini from?) and conspicuous leisure (1pm and I’m lounging in public, with designer clothes and perfect hair — jealous much?). There’s never any connection or awareness of the other people in these places. They’re all drones vibrating in their own little cell within the larger hive.

Don’t be fooled by the pairs of people who appear to be interacting with another person. The other person is just a social image prop, and gets no attention, which is instead directed at the hive in general.

You ever notice how loud and over-sharing their conversations are, and how their eyes are always darting around to see how many other drones are giving unpsoken “likes” to the speaker? When they aren’t talking, they are dead silent for hours at a stretch, never looking up toward the other, glued to their private glowing screen. No affection or closeness — they only “interact” when their speech and mannerisms can suck in attention from the hive.

Apart from the psychological segregation, contra the intimacy the New Urbanist cheerleaders promised we’d have, there’s the naked leisure-class nature of all the surrounding “small shops,” invariably 90% quirky foodie joints, and 10% quirky yoga, quirky doggie spas, and quirky clothing. Somehow that’s not what my grandfather would have imagined when New Urbanists spoke of a return to Main Street. These preening useless faggots would have gotten food thrown at them from passing cars back in those days.

Where do they buy their household tools? From a mom & pop hardware store? No — by ordering some Chinese piece of shit from Home Depot’s website. Where do they buy their music and movies? From iTunes (if they’re old) or more likely from some online streaming service. Consumer electronics? Amazon, or once a year a trip to the Apple Store where they actually buy something.

It’s pathetic how little variety there is in areas struck by the New Urbanist craze, and how much all of that stuff has migrated online due to airheaded consumer choice. I could have sampled a wider variety of stuff from a mall back in the ’80s — and they had professionals’ offices there too.

Defenders of New Urbanism will say that it wasn’t intended, that this is a hijacking or adulteration by wealthy interests, that the originators were more populist. Maybe — maybe not. The point is: this is what the mania has produced in reality, and it’s time to start taking stock of that, and coming up with ways to wipe out all of this airheaded elitist shit and return city and town life to more populist and enriching ways. Not by continuing to cheerlead for the craze like these designers and architects do.

It’ll be better if the new movement doesn’t have the words “new” or “urbanism,” to avoid confusion and tainting.

It would greatly help matters to identify designers, architects, and policy makers by one of three types, so we know who we’re dealing with and how to treat them.

1) Kool-Aid drinkers. These people truly get an endorphin rush from turning entire neighborhoods into leisure-class playgrounds. Crazy, not worth trying to talk some common sense into.

2) Sell-outs. These individuals started off with the populist Main Street ideal as their model, but quickly figured out that egalitarian small-town ecosystems are not exactly gonna fly off the shelves in a climate of such intense status-striving and inequality. A fella’s gotta eat and pay rent, so whaddayagonnado? Not worth trying to convert, since they only worship the almighty dollar, and they will not fall for the lie / clueless naive suggestion that somehow, someway the Main Street model could be made to be as profitable, or more, than the leisure-class playground model.

3) Frustrated idealists. Bitter, overlooked, unappreciated, disgusted by what the formerly idealistic movement has devolved into (or again, how the hidden variation among the originators has made itself manifest). They feel sick for being a part of a movement that has swept aside the variety of stores that used to be found in suburban strip centers as recently as 25 years ago, all in the name of converting the place into a “lifestyle center” with food, drink, food, drink, food, food, food, spa, salon, crappy cell phone outlet, food, and food. All chains, all oriented toward leisure-class strivers.

Naturally only the last group is worth the time for ordinary people to talk to. But if they won’t identify themselves, and their distaste for where the New Urbanist craze has gone, it will be hard to start cleaning house.

* * *

The designer in the documentary is Danish, so I don’t expect him to be in touch with American trends. But New Urbanists have overlooked the most pedestrian-unfriendly car phenomenon of the 21st century — suburban streets that are narrowed into de facto one-lane paths because residents park their cars all along the curb, at every house.

This is not a design / planning problem, since just 25 years ago, roughly the same number of cars belonging to roughly the same number of residents on a suburban street, were parked in the driveway, carport, or garage. It was normal for two-car houses to have both parked one behind the other in the driveway, and for someone to have to get out and move the back one if someone wanted to take the front one out. I remember doing that in the ’90s, though it was also starting to become common to park one in the driveway and one on the street.

What changed were attitudes toward private vs. public welfare. Individual convenience is maximized by parking one in the driveway and one or more on the street. Say goodbye to those unbearable 30 seconds of car-shuffling. But when everyone feels and acts that way, suddenly the whole street is clogged with parked cars. The two-way street is now one-way, and pedestrians who could have walked along the side of the road (the way we all used to) have nowhere to walk, unless there’s a sidewalk.

(Sidewalks are not the most common thing in suburbs, sadly, and even if there is one — how drone-like to have to follow a sidewalk in a quiet residential neighborhood, when you’re supposed to be walking through the streets because you own them, and only moving aside when you see a car approaching.)

This state of affairs points to the larger problem that is rarely discussed in New Urbanist forums — how easy does design change attitudes, and can a change in attitudes over-turn the utopian design plan? (Answer: yes.) Driveways, carports, and garages were a design solution to the problem of streets clogged with parked cars — provided that folks who lived in multi-car houses put the good of the community above their own stingy quest for maximum convenience. You don’t see cars parked in driveways in the city — it was supposed to be a way that suburbanites could lick one of the city’s worst problems.

In the end, though, attitudes trumped design plans.

October 26, 2014

The etiology of women who seem like gay men: a look at Anne Hathaway

During the trailer for Interstellar, there's a shot of Anne Hathaway looking sideways with her mouth agape that struck me as something you'd see from a creepy homosexual camping out at Starbucks to scope out the latte-sipping twinks. I've never been a fan of hers and don't have a strong sense of her range of facial expressions, so I investigated a little on Google Images. The hunch paid off. Here are just a handful of shots of her showing gay-face:

The over-smiling, overly eager open eyes, raised eyebrows, and slackjaw are all hallmarks of the campy gay-face. All resemble caricatures of a child's expressions of "surprise" and "I'm such a little stinker." The basis of male homosexuality is stunting during the "ewww, girls are so yucky" phase of development (gays as Peter Pans), hence their more neotenous (child-like / infantilized) appearance and behavior.

I've covered these features at length elsewhere, but here we see something similar in a heterosexual woman. In fact she doesn't just look a lot more like a gay man than 99% of women do, she shares their emotional and behavioral tendencies as well. Thin-skinned, breaking down over the most trivial happy or sad causes. Naturally campy and caricatured, not acting that way to be ironic. Loose and into drugs during college. No shame in using her sexuality to get a rise out of others. Childishly naive, easily fooled and taken advantage of by her first husband. And most importantly, no apparent desire to have children and nurture them as a mother.

Granted, women are more child-like to begin with, but she is way off the charts for how naive, kiddie, weepy, campy, and non-maternal she is.

How did she get that way? In the case of men, it's probably Greg Cochran's idea of a "gay germ" that strikes in childhood. My take on that is that its effects are a broad developmental stunting — a Peter Pan syndrome — and not merely a narrow change in sex role behavior, sexual preference, etc.

That raises the question: if it can strike boys and produce gay effects, what would happen if it struck girls? I think the answer is women like Anne Hathaway. (It would not produce lesbians, since they are characterized by the opposite pattern — not childish, but menopausal.)

As it turns out, her brother is gay, so we know that she would have been at a similar environmental risk of exposure to the gay germ in childhood. And being so closely related, she would have had a similar genetic susceptibility to the germ's effects.

The plot thickens with her second marriage. After being scammed by an apparently sociopathic first husband, she decided to swear off heterosexual men altogether and got married to an obviously homosexual nobody, named Adam Shulman. When every A-lister these days is part of a power couple, it's just a little bit strange for her husband to be a complete unknown, to have been a close friend beforehand (i.e., her gay BFF), and to look and act so effeminate and mincing, as though he were her kid brother rather than her lover and protector.

Other celebrity women have served as beards for closeted A-list men — Kim Kardashian for Kanye West, Cindy Crawford for Rande Gerber (Clooney's butt buddy), Julianne Hough for Ryan Seacrest, Jada Pinkett for Will Smith, and so on. But in these typical cases, the sham husband has wealth, influence, or looks that would "enhance the brand" of the sham wife.

In Anne's case, it would be inaccurate to call it a sham marriage, since it was not a cynical brand-enhancing contract, but an earnest attempt to elevate the status of her gay BFF-ship, in the same way that childish naive faggies believe that simply throwing a wedding will make their bond normal or special.

I don't mean to delve into so much celebrity gossip, but because their lives are so well documented, they do provide a window into a topic that would otherwise be completely opaque. Can you imagine getting funding to study how gay (not lesbian) the female relatives of gay men are? Maybe if you could spin it in some pro-homo way, but the whole topic of "what causes male homosexuality" is too radioactive these days.

Miley Cyrus is another example worth looking into. She comes off as a flaming queer trapped in a girl's body. And on Google Images, her brother Braison does a pretty good impression of a twink. But she's a little young to see whether or not she prefers getting married to a gay BFF. I give it greater than 50% chance, though.