December 31, 2014

Religious schisms as ethnic segregation

Since Christmas, I've been thinking about the religious version of the transplant phenomenon — conversion from one church to another. I've got some posts coming up on that topic in the American context using data from the General Social Survey.

But first it's worth looking at the bigger picture of church identities being part of regional ethnic identities. This will highlight the off-base nature of trying to hop from one church to another, especially across large distances of belief and practice. That is akin to trying to switch your ethnic identity from Irish to Lebanese.

At the same time, it also clarifies how church identity provides a grounding throughout time for an ethnic group's identity, and guards against a disorienting feeling of flux and chaos: what they believe and practice, regarding the sacred, is one of those core components that has existed since the old times, that exists today, and that will continue to exist into the future. And what they believe and practice distinguishes them from other ethnic groups, whose religious identities may be similar if they are ethnically similar, or religiously quite different if they are ethnically quite different.

The best way to study this is to look at a world religion that spans diverse ethnic groups and has existed for a long time.

Universal religions ought to push for similarity in beliefs and practices, no matter the ethnic group that adopts them. To the extent that the apparent cohesion at the highest level actually fractures along ethnic lines, we see just how powerful of a force ethnic solidarity can be. It is not necessarily hostile chauvinism, but at least the felt need to carve out a comfortably familiar niche within the vast universal religion, in which to gather with folks who are ethnically similar enough that much of the character of belief and practice can go unspoken and implicitly assumed, with only fine distinctive details to be explicitly discussed and worn outwardly as membership badges.

The more ethnically dissimilar the folks are, the more difficulty they will have with sharing a background foundation — what language to speak, what cultural allusions can be made, what set of moral norms and methods of norm enforcement are already in effect, what the expectations for ordinary behavior are (emotive vs. restrained, intuitive vs. rational, etc.), and so on and so forth. Although diverse groups may agree on some aspects of doctrine, they will not be able to easily coordinate on the ways in which they ought to manifest them through practice.

As it turns out, though, the superficial causes of the schisms that allow ethnic groups to self-segregate are primarily over doctrine rather than practice. I think this boils down to the difficulty of having to justify why your group does things the way it does — given all the cultural foundations and frameworks of your group, how could the practice of religion turn out in a radically different way? Yet the background or foundation is too unspoken for members of the in-group to even articulate it to an out-group, let alone try to justify it.

By contrast, the reasons that your group believes the doctrine it does can be easily stated. Whether or not those reasons are convincing to the out-group, rational arguments are easy to construct and give the appearance of approaching the matter objectively, rather than appealing to subjective impulses that "given our cultural background, this is simply the way we feel that things ought to be."

That naturally invites the response of "What do you mean, 'our cultural background' and 'the way we feel'?" and all the difficulty of having to articulate the unspoken. Just say that it's over some conceptual matter, state your reasons, and either the out-group agrees with you or it doesn't. At least you've stated your case and appeared respectable, rather than closing off debate by appealing to subjective and implicit matters.

In the next post I'll review the history of schisms within Christianity and show how they proceeded more or less along ethnic lines, although I won't speculate so much on how religious character has been adapted to ethnic character across all the different groups that have adopted Christianity over the past 2000 years.

The main point will be to note the correlation between religious and ethnic identity, and not so much to explain the mechanism underlying this link, in order to caution against the assumption that people can just shift from one religious group to another willy-nilly. Where you fit in will be constrained by your ethnic and cultural background, and not so much by superficial yet easy-to-articulate matters of doctrine.

December 24, 2014

Christmas songs by Jews: annoying, schmaltzy, and mundane

In what is becoming an annual Christmas tradition, popular web media outlets are crowing about how many of America's "beloved" Christmas songs were in fact composed by Jews. See here for a recent example from HuffPo.

I don't know about you, but I can't stand those campy Midcentury novelty tunes. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" must be one of the most annoying songs ever recorded.

None mention Jesus or Christianity, nor do they pay tribute to pre-Christian sacred traditions either, like the old carol "Deck the Halls," which is about the pagan holiday of Yule. Some do celebrate kiddie mythology — Santa, Rudolf, Frosty — but what is there for grown-ups? The rest are only wintertime songs — snowfall, fireplaces, huddling together inside to keep warm.

It is not enough to invoke the good cheer, sentimental feelings, and family togetherness without providing the context for it all. It's not just another family get-together, like the Fourth of July, another one of those times when people feel good, like Spring Break, or another time when they feel sentimental, like school graduations.

There are only two halfway moving new Christmas songs that came out back then — "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" And to be fair, a Jew did compose the music (though not the lyrics) to the latter. But being half of a songwriting team that made one good Christmas song is hardly proof of Jewish skill in the area.

All the great Christmas songs are either hymns or carols that go back to the 19th century or earlier, before Jews left the ghetto and began appearing in elite and pop cultural fields. And sure enough, the two good new songs could easily be sung in a caroling setting.

We learn something from the fact that a choral setting would allow so few of the Jewish songs from the Midcentury — or their Gentile counterparts, for that matter ("Jingle Bell Rock" — another cringer). They aren't the kind of music that bonds a group together through song. Trying to sing them in chorus would be as absurd as a group of folks coming together to sing advertising jingles.

They're the worst example of commercial tune-peddlers trying to cash in on a sacred group ritual, and you can't ignore their irritatingly pandering style. They sound just like what you'd expect a holiday song to sound like based on the producer-consumer relationship, rather than the relationship of in-group members bonding.*

The only group that does perform them in chorus is small children, again emphasizing how kiddie and campy their appeal is. It might be charming to hear third-graders singing about Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it would be even more moving to hear them sing "Silent Night" instead.

We learn more still from the fact that these annoying Midcentury songs are still played endlessly in the months leading up to Christmas, year after year, despite the melting away of all sorts of genuine, sacred Christmas traditions, and the general profaning of the holiday. Carols and hymns have joined all the other myriad traditions that are hard to find anymore, whereas the mundane novelty songs are more ubiquitous now than they ever were. Somehow the "Boo, Christmas" phenomenon of the past couple decades doesn't seem to mind those as much as the carols and hymns.

* In a lapse of awareness, the author of the HuffPo article plainly states that Jewish songwriters didn't bother composing Hannukah songs because there was so little money to be made from catering to just 2% of consumers.

December 22, 2014

What matters in life to transplants vs. natives

Is moving away from the region of your upbringing driven more by career chasing or by starting a new identity, unfettered by the ties of the past?

The General Social Survey asks a series of questions about how important various aspects of life are to you. Let's compare people who have remained in the Census region they grew up in with those who live in an entirely different region (not just moving to the nearest city). Only white respondents have been counted, to remove race as a factor. Education levels differ between natives and upwardly mobile transplants, but they didn't affect the big picture here, so I left it out as a control variable.

Across all seven aspects of life that were asked about, natives were more likely to rate them "very important," although some showed a larger gap than others. The native-transplant gap is shown in percentage points in the list below, where the aspects of life are ranked from those with the narrowest gap to those with the largest gap.

Gap, Aspect of life

1, Politics and public life

2, Family and children (nuclear family)

2, Career and work

5, Free time and relaxation

7, Relatives (extended family)

8, Religion and church

12, Friends and acquaintances

I don't know how an ordinary person would interpret "politics and public life," but it doesn't differ much in importance to the two groups.

Neither does the importance of the nuclear family. However, the importance of the extended family shows a much larger gap.

Work doesn't show a huge gap, when you might have expected the transplants to be much more gung-ho about their career. They do seem to value long hours and getting lost in their job, though, as the gap widens for the importance of free time for having a life.

The largest gaps in importance are found for communal ties to genetic strangers -- church, and friends and acquaintances.

The main difference in what drives transplants appears to be a desire to cut themselves free from a dense, rich social network -- i.e. the one that they were integrated into wherever they grew up. They look the closest to natives when it comes to how much they value their marriage and children, but that's as far as it goes. They're less worried about their extended family playing a role in their lives, and they're even less concerned with links outside the family.

So, the transplant phenomenon is not so much about chasing an ever more high-status career, but simply about liberating yourself (as they would see it) from your family and community. Being part of at most an isolated nuclear unit, and nothing further, is a feature not a bug of transplant living.

Ultimately this boils down to the desire to not be held accountable to anyone else, to be free to indulge in whatever you want to. And not only in the sense of having a far dimmer spotlight of judgment being cast on your behavior, and therefore not feeling as much shame. But in the broader sense of not having any duties and responsibilities to fulfill toward others. Sure frees up more time to focus on yourself. Just think of how tied-down you'd be with duties if you still lived near your relatives and folks-you-know.

Of course, a transplant is only too willing to enjoy the benefits of the communal ties that, over the generations of natives who stayed put there, have built up the cultural integrity of whatever region he's moved to. He just doesn't want to contribute back to his adoptive culture. He may not even be a transient -- perhaps he plans to stay there for the rest of his life. He is more properly described as a social-cultural parasite.

Naturally there are degrees of variation among transplants, some being relatively benign and others being flagrant bloodsuckers and bite-the-hand-that-feed-ers. But it's important to emphasize the common desire to leave behind their rich social ties, in order to understand how the churn of inter-regional migration fragments communal bonds, both in the left-behind and the moved-into regions.

GSS variables: imppol, impfam, impwork, imprelax, impkin, impchurh, impfrend, regtrans, race

December 21, 2014

A glimpse into the de-romanticizing of the Sixties among Gen X teenagers

In a recent comment thread about the lack of iconic coming-of-age movies in the '90s, I pointed to the sole exception -- the cult TV show My So-Called Life.

It only ran during the '94-'95 season, and was not aired much (if at all) in re-runs. So, unlike the John Hughes movies of the '80s, they were not available to rent on video long after the first run, and even the initial showing was just another prime-time TV broadcast rather than a big-time theatrical release. This kept the show from catching on with a wider range of birth cohorts -- mostly those born in the late '70s and early '80s. But at least among them, the show was iconic, one that always comes up when they think of examples that define the zeitgeist of the '90s (for better or worse).

After posting that comment, I felt a tiny wave of nostalgia and got curious about whether My So-Called Life is still being offered on a streaming service. And sure enough, all 19 episodes are free to watch on Hulu (click here). Worth checking out if you've never seen it, although nothing you need to be in a rush to see. Hearing a musical score modulate the tone from one scene to the next was a breath of fresh air, compared to how devoid of music today's movies and TV shows are.

The episode I watched, "The Substitute," starts off like The Dead Poets Society, with the high school students introduced to a new English teacher, whose iconoclastic style shakes up the stodgy status quo, and whose passion captures the attention of the previously bored-to-death teenagers. As the teacher and the students prepare for the publication of the school's literary magazine, a battle over censorship ignites between them and the principal. (One of the poems is clumsily erotic but not obscene, written by one of the girl students.) By the end of the episode, the substitute is gone, and the bow-tie-wearing principal has taken his place.

Unlike the Very Special Episodes of the '80s, the tone throughout is naturalistic and low-key, rather than histrionic shouting between the teacher / students and the principal.

But even more distinctive of its time, by the end the protagonist Angela has a bitter taste left in her mouth over the whole ordeal, rather than the satisfaction of "fighting the good fight" and holding out hope for greater success next time. After the literary magazine is pulled from circulation, only one other character joins Angela in re-distributing it. Evidently no one else is willing to stick their neck out for The Cause. Her Boomer parents instinctively take the principal's side, and she more or less calls them hypocrites who have endlessly told her stories about how they marched for ideals in the Sixties.

These are relatively minor reasons, though, for losing your youthful Romanticism. The main disillusionment comes near the end, when Angela learns the truth about why the substitute will no longer be teaching there, which leaves her feeling cynical and betrayed by him, rather than righteously hopeful after her side's defeat.*

The Boomers, who would have felt a heartwarming bridging of generations in The Dead Poets Society, would have interpreted this episode as a sign of a defeatist and apathetic mindset among the teenagers of the Nineties. The teenagers themselves, however, took it more as a cautionary tale about allowing yourself to be easily seduced by charismatic strangers who urge you to question everything and follow your passion, as they are more likely to be some kind of con man than a genuine role model.

If the take-away message had only been about choosing your battles, tempering idealism with pragmatism, and rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, I think the Boomers could have felt that their Sixties legacy had still been passed along relatively intact to the younger generation. After all, by the mid-'90s even the Boomers themselves were no longer tie-dyed hippies.

But given the sordid and banal unraveling of the substitute's stature by the end, the Gen X viewer took away the message that being a passionate idealist was wrong-headed to begin with. Not simply that they should aim in the same direction as the Sixties generation, only walking in baby steps and not pushing as hard. But that the Sixties path pointed in an entirely off-base direction altogether.

What direction did the show preach that teenagers travel along instead? It didn't give an answer, other than "not in the Sixties direction". It was not a lame episode that would play out today about the relative merits of competing ideologies. It was a simple coming-of-age story about lost innocence, and learning from it a lesson of humility -- that your impulsiveness can lead you into acting like a naive idiot who can be easily taken advantage of.

Despite the wishes of helicopter parents, that lesson is not one that can be taught by instruction beforehand, like the alphabet or the list of American presidents. It's one of those experiences, like skinned knees, that the kid has to go through themselves in order to come away from it stronger and more mature. It's not a dangerous experience, just one that is unpleasant and uncomfortable for a little while. The relatively non-interventionist approach of Angela's parents strikes me as realistic for the time. Millennials were being over-protected during this period, but the late X-ers were still allowed to experience skinned knees in the course of growing up out of childhood.

I don't want to suggest that this episode in itself changed the minds of an entire generation. It was not one of those "Who shot Mr. Burns?" episodes that all the kids were talking about. But it was the kind of thing that strongly resonated with teenagers of the time, and marked the shift away from passionate idealism and toward even-headed pragmatism among Gen X.

Also worth noting, by way of contrasting X-ers with Millennials, that Angela doesn't throw a hissy fit at the end. The ordeal was just another one of those disillusioning experiences of adolescence -- better get over it and move on, no point wallowing in pity. She also humbly realizes that she'd allowed herself to be had, rather than putting all the blame on one or another of the grown-ups. You definitely would not see that if they tried to re-make the series today.

* Spoiler, highlight to read: [He had not been fired by the principal, as though it were the final injustice in the battle over ideals. Instead, the principal had received a notice that the substitute was wanted for deserting his family in another part of the country, and failing to pay child support all along. The substitute quit upon seeing the notice. When Angela tracks him down to confront him about leaving his family, he gives a series of evasive and empty answers, further disappointing her for having been taken under his spell.]

December 20, 2014

Transplants more adulterous in practice, and in belief more permissive

Let's take another look at how moral constraints weaken when a person no longer feels bound by the prevailing norms because they are not from the place where they've taken up residence. Every culture officially condemns adultery, but how strongly do individuals believe in that prohibition, and how well do they follow it in practice, when they did not imprint on the regional culture currently surrounding them while growing up?

The General Social Survey asks two questions about adultery -- an opinion question about how wrong you think it is, and a behavior question about whether you've ever cheated on a spouse. To compare apples to apples, first we'll split the respondents into male and female, and then look across education levels within each sex, given that education and upward mobility are a key difference between natives and transplants.

Only those who have ever been married are counted, to ensure that we're not simply observing differences between unhitched transplants and settled-down natives. And only whites have been studied, to control for race.

In this case, "transplant" means living in an entirely different Census region (New England, Pacific, East North Central, etc.) than the one you were living in at age 16.

Starting with the opinion question, here are the percent of respondents who gave a permissive answer about a married person having sex with someone other than their spouse. A permissive response is any answer other than "always wrong." Each line represents education level, where High school is 0-12 years, Undergrad is 13-16, and Graduate is 17-20. Within each line, native responses are first and transplant's second.

Men, native vs. transplant
High school: 18 vs 18
Undergrad_: 25 vs 29
Graduate__: 34 vs 40

Women, native vs. transplant
High school: 15 vs 15
Undergrad_: 22 vs 24
Graduate__: 26 vs 35

For both men and women, transplants are more permissive of adultery, and this gap widens with higher levels of education. There are two other patterns, where men are more permissive than women, and more educated people are more permissive than less educated people. The largest influence on beliefs is education level, then transplant status, and then sex.

Moving onto the behavior question, here are the percent of respondents who said they have ever committed adultery.

Men, native vs. transplant
High school: 19 vs 26
Undergrad_: 20 vs 23
Graduate__: 17 vs 22

Women, native vs. transplant
High school: 12 vs 15
Undergrad_: 12 vs 13
Graduate__: 12 vs 16

Again for both men and women, transplants are more likely than natives to have had an extra-marital affair. Unlike the opinion question, education level is now the smallest influence, and sex the largest influence. Transplant status is now a relatively more influential factor -- being a transplant is almost as powerful a force as being a man, regarding a person's chances of committing adultery.

What's going on with transplants being more likely to hypothetically condone adultery and to actually practice it? A person who is surrounded by a group that he did not imprint on growing up is less likely to feel shame, which only registers when it comes from members of the in-group.

With no childhood and adolescent roots in their region, transplants are less tethered to moral norms -- even when those norms are the same across regions. It's not as though their native region prohibits adultery, while their adopted region lets it slide. They simply don't feel the sting from norm enforcement as strongly when it's coming from folks who are outside of the target's native regional culture.

GSS variables: xmarsex, evstray, regtrans, marital, educ, sex, race

December 19, 2014

The godless frontier

If you watch any of the endless reality shows set in Alaska, you might notice something strange — for a heavily Republican state, religion doesn't appear to play much of a role in their lives. No crosses or other iconography around the house, no prayers, no attending group services, no usage of Biblical examples in their everyday speech (whether to make a serious point or just joking around).

That impression is backed up by Pew Forum research on religiosity across the nation. Here is a review on Alaska's empty pews from the late 2000s. And here is an interactive map that allows you to study religious beliefs and practices state by state. Alaska is near the bottom for believing in God, having any religious affiliation whatsoever, and attending religious services regularly.

The picture doesn't look much better in other red states out West, such as Arizona, Nevada, or Montana. Of course Colorado is near the bottom too, along with the Pacific coast. The only outlier is Utah, a colony of settled-down Midwestern types within the otherwise wild West (until it gets overrun by Californian transplants).

On the whole, Alaska looks like a state colonized by Republican-voting refugees from the Pacific Northwest. Hardly anybody has roots there, typical of the Mountain and Pac NW regions, which have attracted mainly rambling transients since the frontier days.

But nomadic peoples around the world practice religion, so why is it so thin throughout most of the frontier? Religion bonds a group together and allows for the enforcement of norms in a way that doesn't seem biased in favor of any particular group of people — the moral source is supernatural, something that every mortal human being is being held to equally. The main function of religion is maintaining social cohesion.

But if the frontiersman dreams of a place of his own, with no one else to tell him what to do, and no one else he'll have to keep in regular touch with, what need does he have for religion? The individualist impulse that led the original frontiersmen out West gave rise to the libertarian streak of the western half of the country.

And from "liberty from government" there arose "liberty from God." Any higher power, whether mundane or sacred, that could hold sway over an individual's affairs, in the service of appeasing some other individual, could not be tolerated. I don't need the gubmint bossing me around, and I sure don't need no God bossing me around.

It's no wonder that amoral hedonism took root right away in the original frontier days. It's not just that the West was "wild" — the Bible Belt isn't exactly peopled with tame, no-sex-having geeks, but they didn't have saloons and red light districts all over the place.

And the Deep South still doesn't today. Even today it's the West that is home to the pornography industry, the epicenter of gambling, flamboyant Pride Parades, and the highest levels of alcohol consumption.

Religion cannot be expected to play a large role in a region where the guiding moral principles seem to be "Leave me alone to indulge my vices" and "How dare you want to curb the commercialization of vice?"

New England shows that you don't need to be on the frontier to have low levels of religious behavior and high levels of booze drinking, but it does suggest a link to "don't tread on me" individualism and libertarianism, even if its origins are different in the founding region of the country compared to the frontier.

Someone who doesn't want to be duty-bound to others is not going to discriminate too much between a mundane and a supernatural law-giver. And the tenaciously combative stance toward the gubmint on just about all issues goes against Jesus' saying to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.

Conservatives who were raised back East may be curious about the potential for the old frontier states to serve as a bulwark against liberal degradation — some of those states are pretty red, and Arizona sure doesn't welcome the spic invasion like California does. But the more you scratch beneath the surface, the more you discover its quicksand foundation.

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)