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Skill-Biased Technological Change

claud_alexander's picture

Once, clever people seeking to make money by flattering rich people could become writers; now, they can become economists. For the merely glib, however, there is always the option of being an economics correspondent.

Take the example of one Justin Fox.

A couple of days ago, this UK transplant helpfully wrote a Bloomberg piece on how "Public Universities Underpay Their Presidents", reacting to the unfortunate impression the simple might take from the latest report on said presidents' compensation.

Looking him up, I see that he a former journalist for Fortune who became a mainstream economics popularizer, writing a successful book he parlayed into being the editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, before moving to Bloomberg View (with such stablemates as Megan McArdle) this January.

Sample of his output while at the HBR:

Were my free time not consumed by drink and data-munging 19th century officer appointments, I'd be tempted to write an equivalent of the Tom Friedman-generator for this kind of thing.
As you can see from the above, the permutations of types ("Against What Progressives Want", "In Favor of What Plutocrats Want", "Move Conversation Away From What Makes Plutocrats Look Bad"), basic arguments ( {progressiveWants: [Impossible, PerverseOutcome, Selfish] }, {plutocratWants: [Inevitable, Necessary, Eternal, bestFormOfAltruism] }, {plutcratWishesWentAway: [ DistractionBiggerProblem, DistractionProblemMisStated] }, and style (condescension plus "incentives") are really quite finite.

Not being from this country, however, I'm a little more at a loss when it comes to the Author-Generator that would accompany the piece ("Julian Hare is a ______"). I think I could wing the cursus honorum of the Brit-transplant variant, but I find American class-markers more difficult to understand (said Megan McArdle, for example, except of course for her once writing for The Economist). Any pointers?

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paintedjaguar's picture
Submitted by paintedjaguar on

Well, you could start with these two volumes by famous curmudgeon Paul Fussell (sadly deceased now) --

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Touchstone (1983)

Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear (2002)

The U.S. is traditionally more aspirational than Britain. Lots and lots of wanna-be bosses, many of them immigrants.

claud_alexander's picture
Submitted by claud_alexander on

Thanks for some very flattering comments (and for the edits, Lambert).

Fussell and his book on class part of what kept me sane through the first years in the US after making the move out of South American lumpen journalism. [I'll add, because this is as many Fussell fans I've ever met in one place, that I think his WW2 book ("Wartime") superior to the WW1 one ("The Great War and Modern Memory").]

However, I meant something slightly narrower about class "pointers." Fussell has some line about how the only genuinely new form of prose produced by the United States was the personal add ("genteely offering one's body for sexual purposes"). I would add to that list a certain kind of very bloodless biography that somehow manages unfailingly to miss every piece of information that was actually important in determining what or why the person in question was doing what he or she is described as doing.

Matt Stoller and Chris Bray are the only writers I've seen address the peculiarities of this form. From Stoller's review of Tim Geithner's biography

But the book is more than just a set of arguments; it’s also an autobiography of a man. And while I was reading it, I kept getting the feeling I wasn’t learning the full story. I noticed oddities, a kind of set of shimmering ephemera which suggest that there was something the author was holding just out of view of the reader.

Geithner talks about his childhood growing up abroad, with high-powered family members who had advised presidents, and a father who was a senior executive at the Ford Foundation in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s. At that time, the Ford Foundation was a pivotal instrument of US foreign policy, an important vehicle for anti-Communist efforts and heavily integrated into the financial and foreign policy establishment (the head of the foundation even set up an internal committee to organize incoming requests from the CIA). Yet Geithner portrays himself as a largely apolitical and directionless kid, a sort of ordinary person in unusual circumstances, with loving parents. It was an odd way to describe growing up cocooned in the foreign-policy elite. Geithner is far too smart to not have been able to observe what was going on around him, yet he is silent in the book on how he saw power up close at a young age.

At Dartmouth, Geithner portrayed himself an "unexceptional and uninspired student," finding economics dreary and political consulting boring. He didn’t even remember voting in 1980. Yet over Christmas break during his freshman year of college, he notes, he did a short stint as a war photojournalist along the Thai-Cambodian border for the Associated Press. It’s a short piece in the book, meant to describe one Christmas break. But I had to reread it several times, to make sure it was actually in there. I kept thinking, What the hell? Who does that? It’s not that it’s not true; it sounds like it is. But there’s more to this story than “Oh, I was a freshman in college and didn’t like studying, and then I did a stint as a war photographer over Christmas break and decided I didn’t want to be a photographer.” There’s something he’s not saying. He was not just a boring apolitical kid who didn’t notice very much about the world. Such people do not become photojournalists for a week over Christmas in war zones when they are 18.

And then there’s the mystery of how he managed to climb up the career ladder so quickly. He never really explains how this happens. He wasn’t a good student. He notes, as a grad student, that he mostly played pool. “During my orals, when one professor asked which economics journals I read, I replied that I had never read any. Seriously? Yes, seriously. But not long after we returned from our honeymoon in France, Henry Kissinger’s international consulting firm hired me as an Asia analyst; my dean at SAIS had recommended me to Brent Scowcroft, one of Kissinger’s partners.”

I’m sorry, but what? How does this just happen? And it goes on.

From Bray on the that's come out about Obama

Sometime in the first half of 1966, Obama’s stepfather was mysteriously forced to return to Indonesia from grad school in Hawaii. Lolo Soetoro went home to a long episode of political violence, the outlines of which are not substantially in dispute. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, had tried to create political stability by balancing three competing political forces in the life of a new country: the army, the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), and Islam. On the night of September 30, 1965, PKI members and leftist military officers attempted a clumsy sort of coup d’état that resulted in the murder of six right-wing generals and, accidentally, a lieutenant. The plot was a shambles: publicly incoherent, loosely planned, and easily suppressed. Suharto, the most powerful right-wing general to survive the attempt, used the plot as a pretext to seize power and purge communists from Indonesia’s political life. Within weeks, soldiers and militias were killing hundreds of thousands of people and removing thousands more to detention camps. In Jakarta, U.S. embassy officials informed their Indonesian counterparts that they were “generally sympathetic with and admiring of” the army’s chosen course. American military planes rushed to supply radios to Suharto’s headquarters to help his army coordinate the purge.
So Lolo Soetoro goes home, soon to be followed by his young wife, Ann, and her son, the future U.S. president. According to former New York Times reporter Janny Scott’s A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother (Riverhead, $26.95), nobody really knows even today what was happening at the time. “The details of the September 30, 1965 coup and counter-coup remain in dispute, as do the particulars of the slaughter that followed,” Scott avers. Still, she concedes that a few things aren’t shrouded in fog, such as the fact that “it is known that neighbors turned on neighbors.” As a result of this nationwide outbreak of neighborhood violence, Scott concludes on the same page, “The army became the dominant institution in the country.” Neighbors spontaneously turned on neighbors, driven by unclear motives to perform unclear acts; the PKI was destroyed; the army ended up in power. Mysterious events, clear outcome.
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (Knopf, $29.95), by New Yorker editor David Remnick, gives the story a touch of detail, explaining that Lolo Soetoro found himself in grad school “at a time when his country was enduring a horrific civil war.” Seven dead on one side, hundreds of thousands on the other: civil war. Why were they fighting? “Suharto claimed that the violence had been initiated by leftists,” Remnick reports, though he pronounces no judgment as to the veracity of the claim. The whole thing may have had something to do with the left and the right. Let’s move on.
Placed by the authors in a murky setting, the narrative version of Obama’s stepfather is assigned a murky role. “Lolo was in the army,” according to Janny Scott’s book, which shows him in uniform. Remnick, on the other hand, says Lolo “had taken a job as an army geologist,” language that neatly elides the question of his personal agency.[*] Either he chose to become a geologist after a civil war, or he was forced to serve in an army that had recently engaged in mass murder and was still engaged in the indefinite military detention of political enemies. Apparently, these are small distinctions. He took a job in Suharto’s army, sometime in 1966.
“Soetoro knew that his time was running out.”
Whatever Lolo was up to, Ann and Barack were devastated and delighted to join him. Janny Scott has them living in a place where people are “unable to eat the fish because of decaying corpses in the water.” On the next page, “Jakarta had a magical charm,” and on the next “the city felt friendly and safe.” Jumping into this milieu of orientalist exoticism, Ann eventually got a job as an English teacher, where snacks were available in the teacher’s lounge. There were, Janny Scott reports, many kinds of Indonesian snacks: “They include seafood chips, peanut chips, fried chips from the mlinjo tree, chips made from ground rawhide mixed with garlic, sweet-potato snacks, mashed cassava snacks, sweet flour dumplings made with sesame seeds, sticky rice flavored with pandanus leaves, sticky black rice sprinkled with grated coconut, and rice cakes wrapped in coconut leaves or banana leaves, to name a few.” This is more detail than Scott has managed for the political events of 1965, in a story about a family that went home during a political purge so stepdad could join the army prosecuting it.[**]
Ann Dunham’s occupational history is equally hidden behind this thicket of meaningless narrative. The English school, it turns out, was her second job in Indonesia. Here’s Scott, again: “By January 1968, she had gone to work as an assistant to the American director of Lembaga Indonesia-Amerika, a binational organization funded by the United States Information Service and housed at the U.S. Agency for International Development” (USAID). The offices of the USAID were located at the U.S. embassy, by the way, where officials had communicated American approval of mass executions and arranged for the shipment of communications supplies.
Hints of the story Remnick and Scott are trying not to tell begin to slip out. Lolo Soetoro had served in Suharto’s army, and Ann Soetoro was an employee of a thinly veiled Cold War federal agency, reporting to the American director of an organization with an office at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. The naïf with a desk at the embassy had eyes, though, and she noticed some things. Ann “sensed the hauntedness of Jakarta,” David Remnick writes, especially after she “came across a field of unmarked graves.” And so the doe-eyed USAID employee ventured an innocent question to her husband: “She tentatively asked Lolo what had happened with the coup and counter-coup, the scouring of the countryside for suspected Communists and the innumerable killings, the mass arrests, but most Indonesians, Lolo included, were extremely reluctant to talk about the horrors of the mid-sixties.” Remnick’s phrasing presents all of its own answers as a preface to our discovery that Ann’s question wasn’t answered. Janny Scott’s version of the story is a little less helpless. In this account, Obama’s mother eventually “pieced together some of what had happened in Indonesia in 1965 and afterward from fragmentary information that people let slip.” Somehow, a federal employee at the U.S. embassy managed to figure out some little bits about what had happened with that whole political mass murder by the army thing in the country where her husband was a soldier and her employer delivered military supplies.
And the lesson? Indonesia was where “Ann was Barry’s teacher in high-minded matters—liberal, humanist values,” Remnick concludes. It’s where she taught him the values of “honesty, hard work, and fulfilling one’s duty to others,” where she lectured him about “a sense of obligation to give something back,” Scott adds. It’s where she “worked to instill ideas about public service in her son.” Because Indonesia in the late sixties was the perfect place and time to learn about liberal humanist values and public service.

The most concise definition of this form I've found is Bray's, in passing, in this excellent piece about Petraeus.

The American political press is willfully blind to power, the pursuit of power, and the operation of power. And practitioners of the craft usually elect to make up for their habitual neglect of the blindingly obvious by compulsively personalizing the political. In this strategic alignment of blind spots, transactions and schemes become happy accidents: a West Point cadet marries the daughter of the West Point commandant, earns a doctorate, and yet somehow succeeds in the military.

So, to refine what I mean by class pointers, for my hypothetical-but-malice-might-be-enough-for-me-to-do-it Slate-Vox Hippie-Puncher Generator, I'm interested in the kind of life-career path that, laid down in the barest LinkedIn way, denote the kind of people who become, say, Yglesias or McArdle or any of whoever it is Vox hires now.

For example, if, to make up a bio off the top of my head, I read that Zach Beauchamp (a Vox writer I only remember because he shares a last name with a Baffler writer I like called Scott Beauchamp), "grew outside of Burlington, VT, received his BA in Russian Literature from Cornell, worked for two years as communications coordinator for the Toronto-based NGO 'Sustainable Solutions Development' (SSD) in Oporto," my reaction would be, ah, yes, he fits the type. But I'm having trouble defining this type in any way that would allow me to operationalize enough variations for a working Slate-Vox generator.

There's a certain birthplace-college-early_20s_job combo that signals something very definite. It's a more elaborate version of what's described in an LA Review of Books article I don't exactly recommend (it's horribly wordy, like so much else in that odd publication), but that I think does get directly at something that's otherwise only indirectly apprehended in writing, namely

When young Americans meet in a foreign country, “Where did you go to college?” is the requisite canine butt sniff. From that answer, anybody who also went to an American college can easily establish the entire social constellation of the respondent. And so it’s perfectly natural that the first word of Americanah is “Princeton.” Credentialism has even leaked into the author’s cover bios: “Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard,” “Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit and attended Brown and Stanford universities.” The epigram to The Interestings is “For my parents who sent me there.”

College has essentially replaced the debutante ball and the presentation at court. The difference is that college is less honest about its motives. Hypocrisy and self-critique are reflex conditions, ways to outflank the brute materialism of the new economic reality. Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a ferocious dissection of homo harvardiensis,but her character has already thoroughly dissected himself. “Nathaniel Piven was a product of postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege. Moreover, he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience.” This conscience does not prevent him from becoming an asshole.

Submitted by lambert on

That's a big topic. It sounds to me a lot like the stuff the horrible Richard Florida was doing with his "creative class" concept; see this horrid piece from Chris Bowers. And for a parallel view Mayhill Fowler.

I like the idea of using absence or blindness as a class marker. I like that a lot.

Please keep posting on it....

claud_alexander's picture
Submitted by claud_alexander on

So here's this Zack Beauchamp guy's actual LinkedIn profile.

I would note:
"Georgetown Day High School" is a very prep-school-ish name (has that slight archaic ring, like Sibley Friends School"), so, even without knowing the school (any DC people able to clarify?) that would be my first hint that I might be dealing with a new-creative-class person: i.e., turns out to be a rich kid (as in "quite comfortably-off" rich, not rich-kids-of-instagram rich).

An Ivy's inevitable, but note the choice of major. As a general rule, writers in venues such as Slate or Vox, publications whose standard solution for unemployment is for everyone to graduate in robot bio-engineering, turn out to have degrees in the liberal arts or the softest of the social sciences.
This means that most of what they know in the academic sense comes out of the pap polisci and econ departments spoon-feed to undergrads, so I'm not surprised to find out that the guy who wrote up Steven Pinker's garbage about capitalism reducing conflict turns out to be a polisci BA.

Things become more interesting with this masters degree he appears to have received in all of 10 months at the LSE. Now, I happen to know that in general polisci masters degrees a painless way for departments to get a lot of money out of the rich parents of dim foreign students, and that LSE's reputation in that regard especially bad, but even I am surprised at someone getting a masters degree in 10 months.
However, having once been an academic and retaining many of the traits, I was curious at what would come out of the cement-mixer combination of interests in "ethics" as well as "terrorism and insurgency". I was not disappointed:


Robot Guardians: Teleoperated Combat Vehicles in Humanitarian Military Intervention

Perhaps the most common criticism of teleoperated combat vehicles is that they make war more likely by reducing the associated costs. However, it is not as obvious as is usually presumed that this would be a bad thing: it could as easily be case that drones enable just wars as unjust ones. This chapter advances a version of this argument specific to humanitarian military intervention, holding that, if the claim that drones “lower the threshold” to war is true, drones are likely to significantly improve the practice of intervention to stop genocide and other mass atrocities. In particular, the internal logic of the “lowering the threshold” argument suggests that drones will not only make intervention more likely in cases where it is warranted, but that they will significantly reduce the civilian casualty count during interventions.

After his LSE MSc, he was worked for Andrew Sullivan as a Dishtern (ha ha), and has a nebulous role in the Center for American Progress, a John Podesta (Clinton super-insider and serial employer of somewhat-self-aware Larry Summers chum Brad DeLong) joint.

Going back to the question about class markers, you see how it's possible to back out revealing information out of very bare biographical details.
Reading the LinkedIn of Z. Beauchamp's (one last point : Vox seems to be the first actual professional, full-time job he's had since graduating in 2010. In between he did jobs that are usually not very well paid at all while living in very expensive cities...) it doesn't seem very surprising that one finds him writing last week about the contrarian (octuple quotation marks) argument that capitalism reduces violence.

Anyway, what shorthand to use for these people? Best I've come up with is "Voxxers," which is way too narrow.

Submitted by lambert on

This is a long comment that sounds more dogmatic than it should. I think I recognize a fellow laborer in the vineyard.

What I've hacked out for myself in shorthand (and if you search on class at Corrente you'll find a myriad of posts).

1. 80/20

2. 80% working class (sell their labor*)

3. 20% ruling class (buy the labor, or enable it to be bought)

4. Fractions of the 20% (figures will not add due to rounding)

a) the "1%" (more like 0.01%). Capitalists, including very big capital. At this point, post- and trans-national. US is a flag of convenience. Hence TPP, Davos, Bilderberg, New World Order, etc.

b) The 19% (20% minus the 1%) are composed of functional and wannabe (strivers). When Democrats say "middle class," this is what they mean.

5. Dogma: 80% of the population needs to be make a unified demand for Anything Like What We All Presumably Want To Make Happen (see the 12-point platform). Implication: Identity politics is a recipe for powerlessness, because the numbers don't add. See below at intersectionality.

6. Dogma: The 19% are "pillars of the regime." They must and can be split for ALWWAPWTMH. (Events like TPP rejection are important because they lead to these splits.)

7. The 1%, and the functional part of the 19% are doing great. The wannabe part of the 19% is not doing so great, but they still have hope. The 80% has been flat since the neo-liberal ascendancy began in the mid-70s, and actually lost a quarter of their net worth in the Crash of 2008.

8. We (I, everybody) has a very, very sloppy analysis of the 19%. We (and I) throw around "political class," "creative class," "national security class" without any sort of analysis at all, assuming shared understanding. We also don't have a good understanding of how dynamic the 19% is.

9. And then there's intersectionality. See here, here, and here. (This is actually a more important series than it sounds, because so far as I know, I'm the only data guy looking at class, and trying to think through a technical language for it, basically so the left can talk about class and identity without tearing their mutual throats out.)

All of which goes to show is why -- at least from the standpoint of my dogmas -- your line of thinking is very, very important. We can't split the pillars of the regime if we can't recognize who they are!

NOTE * I'm no longer sold on the labor theory of value, though. Reading a very interesting book, in my copious free time, that argues capital == power. For some definition of power....

UPDATE I believe there are material effects ("precious bodily fluids") deriving from class that pass through human bodies in the course of the C-M-C' process and are passed on through generations, whether culturally or biologically (for example, cortisone and stress; dietary factors; lead). That is to say that the reproduction of capital is at least as important as the production of capital.

claud_alexander's picture
Submitted by claud_alexander on

Re my data munging, the paid type's been, so far a spectrum from (at best) legislative voting records of Eastern European parliaments to (*shudders*) systematic scraper-cleaner-upper for children book reviews. Unpaid type more historical stuff (it could be called polisci stuff as well, but the interesting data there tends to be classified).

In general, such little comparative advantage as I have is that I'm entirely open about how a good web scraper plus regular expressions will get you very good data very quickly, so you don't need to waste time paying people money to fine tune how their Natural Language Processing algorithms will "tokenize" random AP wire pieces to fit a particular line of research, etc.
Actually, to answer a question I think you asked in comments re my inaugural post on the "data-science" version of the SLICC, yes, I was very peripherally inside the whale on the whole use-algorithms-to-process-written-information stuff for COIN, and it was madness.
What was that line of Montaigne's, "It is to think highly of our speculations that we roast people for them"? Could've been the epigraph to Andrew Cockburn's Kill Chain.

Submitted by lambert on

Hmm. I used to be close to that business back several careers ago; I know what SPITBOL is, for example.

This site has reasonable data presentation capabilities; see the tabs on fracking map and history of the proof platinum coin concept; it might be fun -- in your copious free time -- to see if there's something interesting and useful to scrape from the web....

Perhaps an autogenerated index of some sort, based on text.