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I really miss Sir Terry Pratchett. Looking at the news (and the comments to the news) makes me wonder if this be-hatted weirdo who wrote about witches, imps, and golems was actually the last great humanist…

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Today, let’s talk about a concept from one of Pratchett’s later books “Making Money”.  Halfway through the novel, two of the characters are trying to unravel a deepening financial mystery which is threatening to derail the economy of the fantasy microcosm which the novels are set inside.  The fictional sleuths investigate the late Chairman of the Royal Bank and find that his wardrobe is filled with very specific boudouir costumes. Staring at this excess and pondering the depths of the human psyche, one of the characters forms a social hypothesis which is outlined below (I copied the following verbatim from a Pratchett wiki):

The Horseradish Sauce Hypothesis runs thusly.

Everyone likes a beef sandwich, right?

But just to vary the flavour one day, you put a little horseradish sauce on it.

You discover you like horseradish sauce, so the next time you do a beef sandwich you put a little more sauce on it.

Then a little bit more.

Then a little bit more.

Until one day, you put so much horseradish sauce on the sandwich that the beef falls out.

And you don’t even notice.

I am going to say nothing of truly addictive things like fentanyl, nicotine, lechery, or alcohol (which everyone already knows are habit-forming), and instead write about how society is being conquered by dangerous, low-grade flavors of horseradish.  This sounds harmless enough (after all, everyone has to get through their meaningless day jobs), yet, as in the sandwich example above, you don’t notice when the meat falls out.   One goes from “reading the news” to internet troll without recognizing it, and it’s happening to all of us.

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The internet is the all-time expert on horseradish.  It knows the specific variety that everyone likes: Facebook likes, shopping, gambling, esoteric adult material, cat photos, Farmville, getting angry about ANTIFA, reading diatribes about how the earth is flat, or whatever. It’s all there.  The special sauce which makes the internet so addictive is that it knows what rewards give your brain a little jolt of dopamine and it can administer these little jolts every 5-12 minutes all day.  Most people spend all day in semi-isolation in beige cubicles doing meaningless & stressful tasks for distant masters.  The internet is to such people what cocaine-laced water bottles are to depressed and lonely laboratory rats.  The little razor-hooks can find the cracks in everyone’s façade because they dangerously mimic life’s true sources of meaning and joy.  If you squint cross-eyed at the list in the second sentence of this paragraph you can imagine how these things are sad substitutes for friends, romance, knowledge, status, and a sense of belonging.

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This is not how I would build a society.  It is sad that people have gambling problems instead of fulfilling life quests, or naked pictures of women instead of girlfriends, but I guess it moves stocks, diet pills, and plastic novelty hats well enough to keep the world economy chugging along.  The real problem is that the internet has moved beyond being a private venue for embarrassing vices to being the main venue for news and political discourse. It is where society collects and dissemination  information and opinions.  The internet is now where we self-select into groups.  This is not resulting in a golden age of clubs and volunteering, instead it is transforming the country into a boiling cauldron of tribal anger.    It feels good to be furious…or maybe not good, but at least it feels like something and one seeks it out every day until the beef in the sandwich is gone and all that is left is the empty calories of spicy sauce.

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I try not to write about our déclassé president, because I regard him as a symptom of this problem rather than the problem itself (and also because granting him attention makes him stronger).  Yet he is apparently a near-univeral flavor of internet horseradish.  People back home in West Virginia can feel the righteous joy of punishing smug coastal elitists by joyously watching that fellow destroy the whole country and rob us all blind. People in Brooklyn can feel the righteous joy of being angry about this mendacious hustler. Getting worked up by the news becomes a dollop of horseradish and we all need more each day.  I know I now check to see what grotesque enormity the president has committed before I check anything else.  If child poverty in Central Asia dipped four fold or the UN seriously curtailed human trafficking or something I would probably not notice, but I moronically know every dumb thing the President tweeted.

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There has always been a degree of degraded spectale to American politics–it’s part of democracy…part of humankind!–but it these piquant empty calories are taking the place of vital nutrients for the body politic.  As we stare in horror or glee at the political theater, our problems are not getting solved.  New discoveries are not being made. Compromise and reform are not being achieved.  When Trump is gone in 2020 or 2024 (assuming the republic survives), we are still going to have this dangerous fascination with outrage.

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Making the news into addictive “infotainment” is dangerous.  It is less an inquiry into truth and more like the ill-concealed traps and lures within infomercials aimed at the elderly or the ignorant.

There is a quote from Anais Nin which succinctly and poetically summarizes the horseradish hypothesis: “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” It seems deceptively straightforward until you think about it, and then its tragic power becomes evident.  Really think about how you look at the news lately…are you trying to determine the truth of what goes on or are you looking for a dollop of outrage to push you foward to the next sensational click?

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The beef is falling out of society’s sandwich in a lot of ways right now. I concentrated on political problems becaue they are top-tier troubles, but the other ignoble horseradish is part of this too.  Everybody needs some special zest, but if the banquet is nothing but novel jallop, we all begin to starve!

What is the most powerful force in human affairs?  Most people would probably assert that love is paramount.  Compassion for one’s mate, one’s family, or one’s fellow beings  is as beautiful and dominant as its reputation.  Powerful arguments can be made that pursuit of status is the most important thing (I suppose this includes ambition, greed, pride, and fame-seeking in all of their guises, good and ill).  An idealist would say the pursuit of wisdom is our greatest drive:  it is only through wisdom that we understand the world and collectively move upwards (or, indeed, know anything at all).  Cynics might say that the pursuit of pleasure motivates people.  Religion, with its false certainties and self-serving rules could also conceivably be named as the prime motivator of our social species (probably by some priest in a silk robe riding a palanquin weighed down with gold).

Unfortunately, these are all wrong.  The greatest force of human affairs is fear.  Any felon or dictator (or middle manager) knows the fastest way to make people behave a certain way is to credibly threaten them. Fear also lies beneath all the other drives listed above. Even when people are motivated by love, it is their fear of losing love (or never finding it) which makes them act.  To motivate a parent, tell them their children are in danger! Economists tell us that the pain of losing a thing is more cutting than the pleasure of attaining it (and I believe them). But superseding any of that, fear is a fundamental constituent part of all of us.  Terror and anxiety are hardwired into us by evolution.  An animal which doesn’t watch out for predators, traps, and adversaries is soon dead.

I will tell you another reason I say this.  I am afraid.  I am afraid to even write this terrible truth. When I was a child I lay awake, unable to sleep because I was afraid that God would send me to hell for some infraction.  When I realized that there is no deity except for the ones we imagine, I was afraid of the infinite oblivion of death.  I was afraid that nuclear war would burn away our cities and civilization and leave the last survivors to die rotting and screaming of radiation-poisoning.  I was too nervous to talk to girls.  I hid in books and even they made me afraid. In sleep I was tormented by nightmares.  The only time I haven’t been afraid was when I was drunk.  So I drank as deeply as I could.  Then one day I became even more afraid (rightly) that drink was dragging me to my grave and robbing me of myself.  Our fears are not necessarily wrong or false—but feeding them by indulging them…or trying to escape them…it only makes them worse.

I have told you that fear is the main motivator of folk (of all our fellow animals, actually). It has saved us time and again…it is how our forbears survived this world of fangs, traps, spears, Assyrians, and mustard gas to reproduce. But it is a terrible weakness too. Politicians and the press know this better than anyone.  Listen to the speeches.  The main point is generally that you will be gunned down by madmen or outdone by foreign competitors if you don’t follow a certain leader.  Watch TV and look at how the ads manipulate you to buy snake oil and salad shooters by invoking your fear of cancer, old age, or other people.  The news today is instructive.  One group of politicians says “if you don’t carry a gun, you will be gunned down by a madman and the other side wants to ban guns!” the other side says “only if we ban guns, will we not be gunned down by madmen” and on and on they go, in a circle, about every subject.  It is driving us all crazy and reducing us to sad, angry tribes of wretched cowards.

This is just terrible! No wonder the authoritarians are creeping back and the quacks and con-men do such boom business.

There is only one recourse.  I am sure you know what I am going to say…but my point is a paradox, so I will say it with a tale ripped from popular literature. Did you read ‘A Game of Thrones”?  It is the story of an execution and its aftermath. The first scene foreshadows this, and has the best moment of the series.  A group of conscripts and draftees are attacked and slaughtered by unstoppable monsters.  The terrified survivors of this attack run away and are subsequently caught by the authorities (the main characters!) who put the defectors to death.  The beheading is seen through the eyes of a child watching his father act as executioner.   Afterwards the child is confused.  One brother said that the condemned man was afraid when died, but his other brother said the prisoner was brave and died well:

“What do you think?” his father asked. Bran thought about it.

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

Only when you are afraid can you be brave.  Only through such bravery can you avoid being ruled by fear. The theme is echoed later on as the protagonists’ fortunes falter and their little sister is lost in the midst of a brutal civil war.  To make her way through this terrifying world of armed goons and psychopaths with knives, she repeats a mantra again and again.  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It allows her to keep her wits when others freeze. It lets her do things she would be afraid to do otherwise.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It is a platitude from a dime-store fiction (and a metaphor–don’t test it at home!), but it embodies a critical truth.  Winston Churchill said it as “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

On the other side of the ocean, our one life dictator (so far) said it in his first inaugural address to nation terrified of the Great Depression “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.” I am saying this to everyone, but most of all to my fellow citizens.  We need to remember FDR’s words again and again. In our world of seething change and garbage content which indulges facile drives, these words are as true as they were back when World War II bore down on all of us.

We MUST change.  We must look long and deep at whatever scary thing the clickbait article says and then think instead of just feeling. We must listen to our cowardly leaders carefully…and then we have to ignore our instinctual emotions and repeat  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”  Look at what I am saying right now (it’s scary stuff) and then repeat this mantra. Embrace your fear and understand it…and then do what is right instead of what makes you less fearful. “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Repeat it when grasping old cravens on a screen tell you to give in to fear and submit to them.  Otherwise we will not live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  We will instead be in the land of fear, the home of the slave.

My family is from West Virginian and I have some relatives back home who are fierce red partisans who ardently believe that fascist mismanagement of our country by the executive branch will restore some imagined golden age (I, on the other hand, think that America’s leadership crisis is dangerous and will, at best, make the future dimmer and more difficult… but we’ll talk about that closer to the midterms).  At any rate, on a vexing Facebook feed from the Mountain State, I spotted this meme, which is meant to counter the idea that politicians are beholden to financial contributions from the gun lobby.  Ripped straight from the frothing mouth of social media, here is a list of the top 50 lobbying spenders:

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These numbers are worth talking about on two levels.  First, although this list doesn’t explain much about NRA contributions to candidates (why! they’re not even on the top 50 list!), it shines a rather disconcerting light on why American healthcare costs more than twice as much as it does in other developed nations. Health outcomes from our system are not nearly as good as they are in, say, Chile or Slovenia, and life expectancy in the United States is falling, yet it seems like pharmaceutical and insurance companies have found a way to spend some of their loot!  This differently organized chart of direct political donations by industry over the last 20 years makes this point even more dynamically:

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There are some other unpalatable truths in there, as well, if you are in the mood to find out why net neutrality got binned or our national transportation policy is a mess.

However, both of these charts are misleading when it comes to the gun lobby, which brings us to our second point. Here is a rather more accurate breakdown of NRA spending.

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The red and pink parts are what shows up in the earlier charts.  That yellow portion of the pie is “outside spending”.  This money does not directly support candidates, instead it is used to attack opposing candidates who propose gun legislation.  These ads tend to come from “Americans for safe homes” or suchlike anodyne organizations which are funded by the NRA’s “Political Victory Fund” (or they can come straight from the NRA which likes to have member, after all).

I suppose my libertarian cousin, were reading this, would angrily retort “Yeah! But what about the outside spending by insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, and trial lawyers? What is that like?”  I have no answers (and I am tired of looking at charts), but that really IS an excellent question.  Here is another one: how are we supposed to have a democracy when figuring out who is paying for different sorts of political outreach is like figuring out Chinese shell companies?  (as a side note, if you invested a lot of money in Chinese public companies, you may wish to look more closely at the control of such entities).

I grew up in the country and I actually sort of like guns, although they have no place here in Brooklyn (there’s some smug coastal NIMBYism for you).  Unfortunately, the glowing fantasy of power and control they provided is evaporating as I get older (I, mean, even if I had a firearm…the fact that I go through life unarmed makes such notions an even greater stretch).  We’ll get back to America’s relationship with guns and power later this week, right now though, looking at these charts is making me feel even more powerless.  I have no MONEY.  How is one to make one’s point to the world in such circumstances?  A bunch of dull charts about how giant nebulous lobbying groups are misleading us with dark funds?

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Happy New Year! Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper.  We’ll talk about the perils and sweet promises of 2018 later this week.  It is a year which offers much…assuming we can prevent complete political meltdown, war, and pestilential horror (and can manage our empty & overheating economy into something more useful). There is another election coming (thank goodness).  Innovation,experimentation, and exploration, though woefully underfunded, still continue.Here at the old blogstead, I am adding some new topics and leaving behind some older themes which are played out. Also, for my professional life, I am planning a big new art project and some exciting shows. So keep watching for details on all of these things!

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But first I want to start the year with a homily from my grandmother.  Grandma Ferrebee is (locally) famous for her kindness and generosity, but also for her earthy wit and her grasp of the barnyard fundamentals which underlay the (thin) veneer of society. Additionally, she ran a beer hall in rural West Virginia for decades so beneath the affable exterior is the cold steel required to run a small business of any sort, much less one with a lot of drunken hillfolk running amok.  I didn’t always appreciate her bucolic wisdom when I was younger (the scatological nature often struck me as unseemly) yet lately this fable seems uniquely apt. Here it is (paraphrased):

Once upon a time the organs of the body became embroiled in a noisy contest concerning which organ was preeminent and controlled the body.

The brain said “I am the seat of intellect and I direct all of the conscious and unconscious nervous impulses.  The limbs do what I say and the body responds to my commands. I alone can apprehend the future and create lofty abstruse thoughts of things beyond rude physicality.  I properly and truly rule the body.”

The heart then replied “I am the seat of emotions.  Your fears and joys…your hatred and yearning comes from me.  I am synonymous with love–eternal and sublime! Plus, on a more literal level, I pump the blood which make all of the organs function.  The heart is the center of a person and I am the most important organ.”  

Then, before any of the other organs could say their piece, the ass stopped working: the system filled up with shit and the whole body died.

It’s…uh..pithier when Grandma tells it with her West Virginia twang and her knowing looks, but I think I have conveyed the fundamental message.  It is a message we need to think about in our “United” States. This red/blue rubbish is useful for pundits, but poisonous for a functioning nation.  Our political parties of increasing furious ideological purity are becoming like some autoimmune illness. Ayn Rand Republicans who believe that a healthy and robust society can exist without a thriving middle class and contented workers (to say nothing of scientists, creative professionals, and technocrats) are deadly con-artists misleading us into disaster

Likewise democrats who split hairs over esoteric social manners, and carp forevermore on status conveyed by hereditary victimization left over from bygone eras have lost sight of the future as well.  We have a motto about how things are supposed to work.

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It is a dangerous time for our nation.  I am writing here about The United States, which I know best, but all of the great democracies are afflicted by a wave of strife and malaise…indeed the whole world is convulsed by change so rapid that only authoritarian nations are dealing with it at all (mostly by pilfering the till and building Potemkin cities).  We can talk about the larger ramifications of this in the coming year, but first we need to talk and listen instead of shouting slogans like we are in the cultural revolution or something.  Democracy is not inferior to whatever China calls its brand of oppressive authoritarianism, but we need some reforms to make it work right. And we need to be patient and compassionate with each other while this process happens.

Above all, we must remember that, just like in the story, society needs people of all sorts in order to function. The nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from Kentucky and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair. The states are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that. We need the brain and the heart (and everything else) to work together if we are going to move forward…or even survive (for with a vastly greater population, our margins for error have shrunk).  Also we need to go back and think symbolically when we look at this story and not just put the ass in control.

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Hold everything! Today is the day when Pantone announces their trademarked “Color of the Year” for 2018. To quickly recap, Pantone is a private color-consulting company which helps consumer-facing firms select yearly color palates which work together at the store.  When you go to a mall (kids, this was a large building containing many individual different retail stores) and see that all of the clothes and gadgets are the same colors, Pantone is behind the convergence. They chose a real winner last year—a magnificent mid-tone green that looked like it came straight from the idealized cabbage patches of some fantasy “old country” (but also simultaneously seemed to reference money and environmentalism).  Can this year continue the trend or will we face another perplexing chicken-liver year (or the wishy-washy dichotomy of election year 2016 when we were presented with two opposite gendered tones)?  Without further ado, the Pantone Color of 2018 is…“Ultra violet” a bold rich purple! (maybe you already guessed based on the bar of pure purple above).

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I love this color.  Purple is one of my favorite colors (it might be my favorite) and this tone evokes the best things about purple!  It reminds me of a medieval king’s tunic or a spooky Queen Anne house in a Halloween poster.  Kudos to Pantone for the solid choice.  We will say nothing of Grimace and the shadow his amorphous purple form has cast over a generation of culture mavens and style moguls.

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For its part, Pantone seems to be making a quiet and uncontroversial political statement with its selection. The executive director of the Pantone color institute spells this out in her pronouncement: “It’s also the most complex of all colors, because it takes two shades that are seemingly diametrically opposed — blue and red — and brings them together to create something new.”  The company’s literature further emphasizes purple’s mystical and cosmic connotations…and how dear it was to beloved yet lost entertainment icons like David Bowie and Prince.

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Pantone also claims that “ultraviolet” evokes an idealized future (which makes me wonder if they have read “A Clockwork Orange”).  Maybe they are subconsciously projecting the preferences of a highly networked consulting company of global influence since  Ultraviolet is a purple which definitely leans towards blue. It’s fun to reminisce about all of the beloved icons and styles from the past and to make metaphors out of color, yet the colors of the year really do reflect larger patterns and trends. When the economy is doing well, Pantone executives and art-directors feel free to choose more bold and colorful choices.  These become increasingly extravagant until a recession comes along—when they all get reset to monotones, dust-colors, and similarly basic palate choices.  Ultraviolet is clearly leaning towards the more flamboyant side (I seem to recall a similar dot-com purlple back in the nineties just before the bubble burst.  This bold purple reminds us to look towards a brighter future and to enjoy the sugar rush, but it makes me wonder if there aren’t some grays and beiges in the immediate future.

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My family has an old saying. It is on the darker side of adages, however over the years I have found it to be disconcertingly true. “You become what you hate.” It is a dark truth which operates within the parameters of classical tragedy. Like an oracle’s haunting words, a monster’s riddle, or an evil god’s curse, it is a difficult (or maybe impossible) to escape from this paradoxical trap.
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I was thinking about this troubling concept because of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” which has been in today’s news because some sponsors dropped out when “Shakespeare In the Park” performed the play with the Roman depot and senators dressed in the garb of contemporary American politicians. Of course, the play is not about how you should go out and kill tyrants (unlike some state seals, Virginia) instead it shows that when the Republic’s defenders abandoned their rules and morals in order to defend their system from a strongman, they ultimately wound up destroying what they were trying to protect. I am unsurprised that people jumped in to condemn something based on its appearance without thinking about what it really meant. People are fools and don’t read! Except…I haven’t read Julius Caesar myself.
Hate has twisted me into an obscurantist…see how fast the curse takes hold!

Anyway. For 8 years we all watched the tea party and the American right work themselves into a froth of hatred over how President Obama was destroying democracy and diminishing America’s standing in the world. They claimed he spent all of his time golfing and was an agent of foreign powers. They said he undemocratically jammed his health plan down our throats without even really knowing what it would accomplish. They said he was a liar, and a fool and a tyrant. Now those same people control the executive and legislative branches of government and just look at what they are doing with their power!

Lately it has become progressively harder to talk about our elected leaders without frothing at the mouth. What is going to happen the next swing of the pendulum? My mild-mannered friends are transmogrifying into harpies sharpening their poisoned talons. If this keeps up, we are not going to get Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders…we will end up with Pol Pot.
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But I jumped to the national level too fast in this essay. This is a family saying and it is meant to be applied liberally to the user. I remember when I first moved to New York, my father and alluded to morphing into what you hate, so I cleverly said “Well, I will hate the rich.”

He stopped in his tracks and very seriously said “You don’t hate wealthy you hate the twisted avarice which blinds the greedy to everything but wealth. You hate the conceit and arrogance with which the powerful are inclined to treat the world. If you continue in such a vein you will not be rich…but you will become grasping and mean and angry.” Way to ruin the joke, Dad. Except…
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Years later I was in a business. It gradually became evident that my business partner was an alcoholic who was twisted by greed and rage. (Don’t judge. It was so exciting at the beginning and I got to design beautiful toys…and for a while we sold millions of dollars worth of them…until I asked where all the money was going). After our feud ripped the company apart, I denounced this untrustworthy, drunk, venial lout every day over a dozen beers and a lot of uncivil talk until I noticed myself in a swirling mirror: red-faced, bibulous, and angry about that stupid company and the wealth that should have been mine! mine! mine!

So what is the solution? I suppose the Dali Lama, Yoda, or Saint Veronica would advise us not to hate, but, if you have been watching the news and you have a limbic system, you will recognize that this solution works best for rich monks, alien puppets, and long-dead saints. Instead we must keep thinking! It is easy to become what you hate which is why the Middle East is filled with blood feuds, walled ghettos, military police, and mass graves. Be aware of it. Stay mindful of how you are being manipulated, not just by politicians and the media, but by your own heart and mind. We don’t all need to follow the fringes off into their world of despicable vitriol. Put away your puglias and your sharpened tongues. The mind is sharper than such base implements. We need to think about how to reform the system within the parameters left us by our great founders. We need to take the best, brightest, uncorrupted ideas from both sides and build them into an edifice for everyone. Above all, we need to be honest. Not just about how this era is changing those despicable people on the other side* into hateful strangers but how it is doing the same to us.
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Mascots are fascinating. They have many of the biographic features of actual people (or at least of celebrities) glommed together with some of the endearing qualities of animals or natural entities…and yet they are completely ersatz. Teams of marketers, advertising executives, and other suchlike sharkish folk invent mascots as tools to manipulate us for their own ends. The results of this unholy nexus can often result in a bizarre plunge into the uncanny. As an example, let’s look at the deeply disconcerting career of “Mac Tonight” the crooning moon from the late eighties who (which?) attempted to sell McDonald’s to baby boomers as a good option for a dinner restaurant.
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Mac Tonight was made to cash in on 50s music nostalgia among Baby Boomers. He had a human body with a stylized moon head (with an elongated chin and overhanging forehead). A glasses-wearing musician, Mac sat at a piano on a cloud and played a bowdlerized version of “Mack the Knife” in which the original murder-themed lyrics were replaced with lyrics about, um, going to dinner at a fast food restaurant previously targeted mainly at children. Mac’s appearance was meant to distance him from Ronald, Grimace, Hamburgler, et al. and yet he also shared an obvious leitmotif with them. Because of a branding crossover, Mac somehow got tied to Nascar. Yet in 1989, Mac’s career was nipped in the bud by a lawsuit from the estate of Bobby Darin, the original composer of “Mack the Knife.” Although Bobby Darin himself originally took the concept and the music from a Brecht play about a footpad that raped and murdered people, Darin somehow toned down the dark gestic drama into smooth uptempo jazz. His heirs convincingly made this argument to a court and McDonald’s didn’t want to pay royalties.
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This should have been the end of Mac Tonight: he was obviously crafted wrongly from the very beginning (just look at his nightmarish features which evoke some sort of doofy demon from a Fred Savage movie) and yet Mac crawled back from corporate America’s dustbin. In 2007, a white supremacist named “farkle” used an online meme site to relaunch Mac as “Moon Man” a racist figurehead who rapped and danced and gave hate-speeches crafted with that creepy robotic text-to-speech software. In today’s increasingly debased political culture, Moon Man now has a steady gig endorsing the Ku Klux Klan, the president, police brutality, and violence against the LGBT community. He would probably easily win a house seat in Montana if he decided to run (or if he were, you know, real, in any way whatsoever).
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I am a space enthusiast and my middle name is “Mack”. Plus I like McDonald’s and came of age in the 80s, however Mac Tonight has always been distasteful to me (even before his off-brand second career as a goddamned white supremacist icon). Somehow the cartoonish fixed grin does not capture the beauty of the moon or the glamor of the post-war era in my heart. Yet equally obviously, Mac Tonight has something…some element that appeals to all sorts of people. After Mac’s launch “a 1987 survey by Ad Watch found that the number of consumers who recalled McDonald’s advertising before any other doubled from the previous month, and was higher than any company since the New Coke launch in 1985.” Was it Darin’s song? Was it love of astronomy or burgers? Were there elements of his sinister later career already present? I have no idea. Can anybody explain this or is the sheer randomness of this story the true source of Mac’s nocturnal power?
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Hey did you see this United deplaning business on the news?  If you are here on the internet, I suspect you know exactly what I am talking about, but, in case you are reading this post in the far future or found it stapled to a tree or something, here is what happened: United Airline needed some seats on a full flight in order to move their staff around.  Instead of bribing their customers to take a different plane, the airline coerced the passengers with the fine print of the ticket contract (which, as you can imagine, allows airlines to do anything they want in exchange for zooming you across the continent at 700 miles an hour). One customer was aggrieved and refused to leave his seat, so they called in militarized corporate guards (or the police? Who can tell these days?) to beat him up and drag him off the plane. The United CEO then issued a statement basically saying “We can do as we like. Our market is guaranteed.”

Airline market share

As you can imagine, this has stirred up some hard feelings among the general public, but the CEO was right.  There is a cartel of four carriers which controls the majority of flights around America.  If you wish to fly, you must do so at the cartel’s terms (or else you need to buy a plane).  This consolidation has allowed the airlines to cut service, increase fares, and add a proliferation of fees. Most markets are under the thumb of a single carrier and, if you want to fly where they have suzerainty you will have to use that carrier or not fly.  Good luck getting a train or even a bus in America.

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I don’t mean to pick on the airlines: cable service provider, pharmaceutical companies, oil conglomerates, insurance companies, major banks…even toy companies all operate the same way in today’s deregulated society.  America has a monopoly problem: but today’s companies are smart enough to avoid having one entity take complete control of a market.  Business schools and the school of hard knocks have taught the heads of these companies to be slightly subtler about the way they fix prices and collude.   With their record profits, they have also bought up politicians and control the relevant legislation that goes in front of them.  Do you care about flight regulation legislation enough to lobby your congressperson?  I personally do not, but I bet United sure does!

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The bigger takeaway here is that capitalism is facing challenges of extreme success which are causing it to morph into naked oligopoly.  This in turn is stifling competition and innovation.  It is also breaking our political process. The Republican mantra that “government is the problem” and cartel companies like United or Aetna should be allowed to run everything for the benefit of a tiny number of great aristocrats does not really seem like a platform which was drafted by groundlings!  The Democrats pretend otherwise but they abandoned responsible attempts to reign in business cartels back in the 70s.  The parties have different favorites, but they are both content that the game is rigged.

It is not supposed to work this way.  In an ideal market, you could punish United and its smug multimillionaire CEO by spending three dollars more to take an airline that doesn’t beat up its passengers and drag them off the plane screaming.  In a better democracy, you could vote in a district where the winner was not already predetermined by gerrymandering.

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This sort of thing means we are going to have to pay attention. We all need to be aware of regulatory capture: an endemic species of corruption whereby giant companies write rules which look reasonable, but which actually price smaller competitors out of the marketplace.  Politicians rubber stamp these rules and claim they are looking out for the public interest (while the cartels support their subsequent careeers).  We are going to need to be more attentive and smarter, or we are all going to be doing what giant corporations and their pet politicians tell us to do.  The moment where we can act is quickly passing. We must push for effective new antitrust measures or we will all have to take our tiny expensive seat and shut up while brownshirts probe and beat us to their hearts’ content… not just when we fly but everywhere all of the time.

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It is January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of Donald John Trump, casino magnate, television personality, and media provocateur as 45th President of the United States of America. Now, bad presidents come and go. The country has had plenty of liars, knuckleheads, perverts, and even a life dictator in the highest office (the life dictator actually turned out to be pretty ok, but we made sure to change the rules as soon as he was dead).  Yet Trump strikes me as something special.

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From now until when he keels over dead, the papers are going to be chock full of Trump’s bloviations, crimes, vulgarities, enormities, and attention-seeking behaviors (I am not sure if Trump will seize permanent hold of the presidency, if mortality will catch him before four years are up, or if he will go on to bigger better things, but I am absolutely sure we are going to hear about everything he does until he moves on to the great reality show hereafter).  This success at attention seeking is the greatest source of Trump’s power. It is how he has built a cult of personality unrivaled by all but our greatest presidents (who were honorable enough to turn their backs on such dangerous and undemocratic personal style). Trump knows that outrage and hate are just as good for his aims as praise.  All of the anti-Trump editorials and essays have helped him. He has discovered that fame in contemporary America is like absolute value in mathematics: it doesn’t matter whether it is negative or positive.

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let a equal publicity

Therefor I am going to avoid hating further on the Donald. It only helps him.  I am going to confront his personality cult indirectly by comparing him to the thing that interests me the most, but which Trump would least like to be—me! a broke nobody artist. I will look at Donald Trump as a human and see if we have anything in common.

I had this idea when I was at the Duane Reade downstairs at the Trump building at 40 Wall Street, Trump’s downtown office (which is next to the title insurance office where I work as a sad little clerk during the day).  Duane Reade posts all of its prices in terms of what you would pay if you had a Duane Reade discount card (which is probably actually a vector for Duane Reade to sell all of your information to insurance companies and drug companies).   Without this horrible card, everything rings up for 20% to 30% more than you expect to pay.

At the beginning of the presidential campaign, when Trump was merely one of many improbable Republican candidates, one of my colleagues ran into him shopping at Duane Reade. Trump was by himself buying an armful of hair spray (honest!), and was nice enough to take a picture with my coworker.  The other day, as I paid 20% extra for my gummy bears and salve, I wondered if Trump has one of these awful cards for his hairspray, or if he too must suffer the same frustration when his goods all cost more than they are marked.

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It made me think of him differently—not as a dictator come to crush America, nor as a gold-orange idol on tv, but as an actual person, and from there, in a rush I realized we share much more than I would like to admit.

Donald Trump and I both came from successful WASP families.  Instead of being merchants and businesspeople, my family are scientists and administrators.  But both groups made their way up by working hard.

Trump and I both went to similar colleges: The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago.  We are both tall and goofy looking and we both make our money in the same business—real estate– although we could not be at more different places on the ladder (and Trump has recently left for public service).

From there the similarities become more disturbing. We both have a history of failed businesses that have left us with deep scars. We are both straight but can’t seem to make relationships last. Trump and I love New York City unconditionally (even though the city doesn’t seem to love us back).  Each is secretly anxious that he is not actually good enough and so desperate to appear smart that he seems foolish… each is a rather silly man who is terribly, terribly worried about what people think of him.

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Please not the same hair…please not the same hair!

 

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Arrrgh!

I hope you kin that the point of this is not that Trump and I are a lot alike (I actually think we are profoundly different).  The point is we need to stop concentrating on him as a unique personality and start looking at him as another politician. And we need to stop letting him get our goat.

Trump scares me and being scared makes people do stupid things. I have been so angry when I looked at self-satisfied or annoying posts on Facebook, that I felt like breaking off my social interactions with people I grew up with.  I have come terribly close to angrily denouncing everyone in rural America as “deplorables” and swearing off West Virginia. More often than I would care to admit, Trump has filled my heart with blinding rage

My family has a dark saying.  It is counter intuitive (and probably stolen from a ballad or a fifties tv show), but it turns out to be disconcertingly true: “You become what you hate”.  You see it everywhere:  social justice advocates who hate people for the circumstances of their birth, or folks who imagine all of some different sort of people are racists. Look at Trump’s die-hard followers who lambast city dwellers for being selfish and self-satisfied!  Look at allegedly egalitarian city dwellers making fun of people for poverty and a lack of educational opportunities!

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If we go down the path we are on, we are ALL going to be more like Trump than we ever want to be.  We will not have his wealth or his facile ability to manipulate people by appealing to their greed. We will instead have his talent for sewing discord, ruining things, and bringing hatred and fear to the United States with hyperbole and bad ideas. By being afraid and despising him with our whole hearts we will make our fears come true. We will start to hate our friends and neighbors.  Look into your heart and ask how you are already like the president.  I have a feeling you will find more points of comparison than you will be comfortable with.

Donald Trump has not even been president a whole day and he has already divided the country further than any time since the Civil War.   Eris is stealing the crown of liberty in America. The solution is not to concentrate on how hateful he is personally. The solution is to talk about how we can cooperate to actually get things working  and make of our dreams come true. Billionaires don’t dream of killing little kids on the street. Coal miners don’t want the world to cook and choke. Even Donald Trump loves his family and wants a world where his grandkids can grow up safe and healthy (to someday bate the press in their own ways).  We are all more similar than we would like to admit. But that shouldn’t be a shameful admission.  It should make us stronger, smarter, and kinder.

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Escalation of commitment refers to a behavioral phenomenon whereby a group of people who have embarked upon a decision which is producing increasingly negative outcomes continue forward with their course of action despite the accumulating evidence of bad results.  This sounds ridiculous, but it is a very frequent pattern in human behavior.  It is worth casting our minds back 100 years to 1917 when the First World War ground into its 3rd year despite the deaths of millions of combatants on both sides. In economics, a very similar situation is described as the “sunk cost fallacy’: throwing away more and more resources because the idea of losing the time and money already invested is too painful to bear.  One sees this at casinos all of the time, when a punter keeps grinding tokens into a machine waiting for it to pay out.  One sees it in casino owners who build lavish follies with borrowed money even after the gamblers have all been fleeced or given up.  One sees it in institutional investors which will not give up on certain bankrupt debtors because the banks themselves will lose too much money.

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The reasons for escalation of commitment are manifold, but boil down to certain unpleasant fundamentals about human preferences and decision making. Changing one’s mind is difficult because it involves admitting an error. Additionally, it is more painful to lose something than it is pleasant to gain something (a dreadful dictum which explains so much of human behavior). Leadership norms punish seemingly inconsistent behavior more than bad results; if a leader admits a problematic course of action and changes it, they are more likely to be punished than if they just went ahead with whatever idiotic thing they were going to do anyway.

All of this is to highlight that people have an astonishing ability to lie to themselves when they have done a colossally stupid thing.  They will continue onward with such behavior in the face of rational evidence and will fall into certain tribal behaviors which make it even harder to escape the spiral of collapse.

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These factors make terrible decisions particularly dangerous. Historians are always looking back and exclaiming “How could they have kept on with this course of action?”

And, of course, there are counter examples and arguments. It is Impossible to ever reap the rewards of a risky investment if one abandons a project too hastily. Would Columbus have reached America if he had given in to the terrors of apparently endless ocean? Would Thomas Edison have persevered through all of those hundreds of unsuccessful filament materials to the electric lightbulb?  Yet some of those filaments glimmered or shone brightly for a moment.  The Santa Maria did not fall off a giant waterfall at the edge of the world but instead the sailors saw evidence of land.   Evidence should help us escape the dreadful escalation of commitment.

If a leader is behaving erratically, wickedly, and stupidly is it wise to ignore such behavior, in the belief that he will somehow correct himself?   If there is no coherent plan but merely bombast, corruption, and hollow stage-managed cheers, why would you choose to cheer along?

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Once you have invested enough effort in a bad idea or a terrible leader, it isn’t possible to escape.  Human behavior means you must follow…even if it leads to Changping, Verdun, or a bunker beneath Berlin.   If I learned anything from history class (or from my own failed business with a light-fingered dipsomaniac business partner) it is to be on guard for escalation of commitment early. Don’t go down with somebody else’s leaking ship or drink from their poisoned chalice.  Just because you made one bad choice doesn’t mean you have to make more.

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