Friday, May 22, 2015

Automation/Basic Income Roundup

There's been a flurry of stories and videos about automation over the past few months, more than I can keep up with. Some of that is prompted by the release of Martin Ford's new book adding to the growing drumbeat that yes, automation is slowing job growth, and no, the amount of paid work is not infinite. In fact, sometimes I wish I were on Twitter because I came up with a tweetable that I think sums up the situation perfectly:

"There are plenty of jobs; there are not enough paychecks."

Feel free to use it if you like (credited here, please :)

We are ignoring the new machine age at our peril (The Guardian)
There will be lots of technical argument about the methodology and the algorithms used in the Oxford study, but there’s little doubt that the main thrust of the research is accurate: lots of non-routine, cognitive, white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs are going to be eliminated in the next two decades and we need to be planning for that contingency now.

We won’t, of course, for two reasons. The first is that our politicians pay no attention to anything with a time-horizon longer than the five-year electoral cycle. The second is our innate inability to handle nonlinear change. “We’ve always been able to absorb mechanisation and automation in the past” will be the response to the challenge of the technology. “Automation has always created more jobs than it destroyed.” And so on.

All of which was true in the past, when innovation was incremental and society had time to absorb and respond to the shock of the new. Combinatorial innovation is a different kettle of fish, because it feeds on itself and grows exponentially. Given that we’re bound to lose this race against the machine, isn’t it time we began thinking of how we might harness it to improve the quality of our lives, rather than merely enrich the corporations that own it?
What If Everybody Didn't Have to Work to Get Paid? (The Atlantic)

UBI Caritas (the best things in life are free) (EconoSpeak)

‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’ (Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times)

Self-driving cars could be serious job-killers (Treehugger)

Video: Technology and Jobs: Should Workers Worry? (Economists View)

Robot sentences to ponder (Marginal Revolution)

The Machines Are Coming (New York Times)

Q: When automation replaces many jobs, as it surely will, how should the jobless spend their time? (Aeon Ideas)

Work makes Fritos (MaxSpeak)

Estimating the impact of robots on productivity and employment (Vox EU)

The robots aren’t threatening your job (Washington Post)

Robots vs. the Underclass (John Judis, National Journal)

US$154 billion rise of the robots planned for Pearl River Delta manufacturing (South China Morning Post)

Americans Can't Stand Their Bosses, and Bosses Admit They're Phoning it in (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Unemployment Report Shows Labor Force Drop Outs At Record High (Economic Populist)

The End of Meaningless Jobs is a Win For Us All (Reddit)

Is the internet killing middle class jobs? (The Week)

Productivity, Robots, China, Growth (Mish Shedlock)

5 white-collar jobs robots already have taken (Fortune)

"Jobs, automation, Engels’ pause and the limits of history" (EconoSpeak & FT Alphaville) Good historical article that points out something often forgotten - that the early industrial revolution actually lowered living standards and made most people worse off for almost a generation

Tip: Use Open in New Private/Incognito Window for NYTimes posts.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fun Facts

The number of senior citizens in the workforce has nearly tripled since the 1970s.

...[B]lack women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million....For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.

Dog bites account for $1 billion in homowner claims each year. Pit Bulls & Rottweilers alone accounted for 67% of human dog bite rated fatalities. (correspondence from home insurance company)

[B]etween 1976 and 2007 the bottom 90 percent saw their income grow by an annual rate of ¼ of 1 percent, adjusted for inflation, while the top 1 percent saw theirs grow by 4.4 percent. Put another way—and pulling forward to the most recent year of data—from 1975 to 2013, the top 10 percent of households have accrued 109 percent of all the income gained.

[In] Albuquerque, New in five homicides is a police killing.

Somewhere between 3% and 10% of all U.S. employees – about 4 to 14 million Americans – are experiencing intimidating forms of political contact at work.

Twenty years ago the holding period of shares was 4 years on average. Today it's 22 seconds.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Reflection on Mortality

A while back I mentioned the fact that one of my coworkers was ill with cancer. She died last week Friday, about a month shy of her sixtieth birthday. She told me once that she put away the maximum amount possible in her 401K. Unfortunately, she will never see it. It makes one question the entire “be miserable until retirement and then start living when you’re 60,” mindset we’re supposed to have under capitalism. Sometimes 60 never comes.

But at least she was not miserable. She genuinely loved her job. She told me she looked forward every day to coming into work. This wasn’t bullshit either; this was genuine. Every day, even with cancer she was there desk at 6:00 AM in the morning. She worked continually through the day, never an idle moment. She worked at the same firm for 25 years. And unlike a lot of the other ultra-boring people here, at least she was interested in a variety of things, from medieval history to travel to geography (it was nice occasionally to have an intelligent conversation once and a while.)

What strikes me is that she was genuinely happier battling terminal cancer than I am in my normal state. Often times she had to cheer me up. It’s pretty awkward complaining about how much you hate your life when the person sitting next to you is literally dying.

Her story was typical of her generation. She grew up on Milwaukee’s South Side and went to our South Division High School where she as the only female in mechanical drafting class. She was reluctantly convinced by some mentors to pursue a career in architecture, which she did, eventually being grandfathered in and allowed to sit for the exam mid-career and without a degree.

But really, in the end, the profession sort of left her behind. The office became much more corporate and she did not have the pedigree that today's corporations are after. AutoCAD replaced her hand drafting and lettering  (which I’m told was exquisite). She struggled a bit with Revit and BIM, which we now use for production. But she hung on through it all, through all the changes in the profession, even as she stagnated in the corporate hierarchy and was left unappreciated except for her dedication and personality. Yet despite this, she was still able to supervise contract document work on large hospitals around the country.

She grew up in a much less cruel time. It was a time when “ordinary” people could have a real career in a place like Milwaukee without family money and connections.

Not any more. Such a person could never become an architect today. Today, such people are being displaced by the footloose upper-class who move around the country (and even around the world) to occupy the slim top tier of professional/technical jobs. Our summer interns this year are all full-time graduate students from Clemson University in South Carolina. Clemson is not cheap:
Founded in 1889, Clemson University consists of Six colleges: Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Architecture, Arts and Humanities; Business and Behavioral Sciences; Engineering and Science; Health and Human Development, and Education. As of 2014, Clemson University enrolled a total of 17,260 undergraduate students for the fall semester and 4,597 graduate students and the student/faculty ratio is 16:1.The cost of in-state tuition is about $13,054 and out-of-state tuition is $30,488.US News and World Report ranks Clemson University 20th among all national public universities. (Wikipedia)
The intern who sits in my area is from Rochester, Minnesota, so the latter figure is the accurate one. I can’t even imagine being able to afford that even if I could not work, not that they would admit me in any case. Here is another biography another newly hired intern (name omitted of course):
XXX is a M.Arch and M.LA dual degree student at Washington University in St. Louis expected to graduate in the winter of 2015. He earned his bachelor degree in Material Physics before studying architecture. His professional training in aesthetics and engineering have been honed through several internships. At PTW Architects Shanghai office, he applied his knowledge in physics and successfully developed a building facade system that could produce a cloud of vapor to help the cooling of the building. At Gensler’s Chicago Office, he worked with various clients ranging from motor centers, national franchise supermarkets to national banks. Last summer XXX worked for Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, where he focused on the EXPO 2017 project (DD and pre-CD).  While in school he manages the 3D Printing Lab, supervising students in 3D modeling and providing 3D printing technical support. He is a proficient user of Revit, has construction documentation and LEED project experience.
And it seems the “ordinary” salt-of the earth local I have worked with over the years are slowly being displaced with the shiny new globalized hyperachieving models. And this is happening across the board in every profession. Average is over, apparently. The old timers I worked with by-and-large were always the most knowledgeable and the most down-to-earth. Usually they had no degree and came from humble origins, like my co-worker. Times have changed. Whenever I go to one of these funerals, it feels like I am witnessing the slow dying off the white working class. They are not reproducing themselves. Their kids are struggling. As much as I hate to say it, I see an utter cluelessness on the part of the lower classes themselves about this fact. The look of their eyes is that of the cows in the feedlot – happily chewing their cud totally oblivious to the fate in store for them and their children. Call it the burden of knowing. I feel bad for them.

Chris Ryan recently talked a little bit in his past two episodes about his decision to not have children. Given that such a mode of life is essentially nonexistent here in the Midwest, I was interested to hear his reasons. I might reflect on my own reasons besides the practical (i.e. as a male I don’t have the equipment).

I could clearly see even from a young age that the lower classes were being liquidated. I could also clearly see that entry to the middle class has been totally shut down. Everything I have seen since has convinced me that this trend is not changing but accelerating (as I’ve written about over the years). That’s the “new” economy and the “new” America. You’re either in the upper class or you’re done for. And my family was definitely not in the upper class. Everyone else will have little to look forward to besides demeaning jobs, patching together enough gigs to survive another day, pinching pennies, debt serfdom, uncertain retirement, etc. Not much of a life, in other words. Since I don’t like cubicle life, and that is the only life there will be in the future, why would  I even think about creating new life even if I had the chance? Nonexistence seems preferable to being a wage-slave.

The one saving grace to my family being a complete and utter horror show is the lack of any desire to propagate it into the future. In fact, my only desire is to bring this family to a well-deserved conclusion. I myself should never have been born, but I was, and I’m here, and that’s OK. There’s nothing I can do about that besides self-termination, and I’m going to die anyway, as are we all. But I see no reason to continue that forward, and feel no obligation to do so given the miserable circumstances and lack of opportunity I grew up in. I don’t see anything “noble” in life for its own sake. I always believed in my heart of hearts that my parents should never have had me. Not because there is anything particularly bad about me, but because my parents were simply not the kind of people who had the circumstances and emotional maturity to do so. I never had much of a chance, really.

I also realized I was profoundly ordinary. I’m not particularly good at anything, I’m not a genius, I’m not particularly attractive, I wasn’t the head of my class, I wasn’t a super-athlete, I’m not a musician, I’m a middling artist at best. I’m not a doctor, a physicist, an engineer, a math-whiz or anything like that. There is nothing special about me, and in an age where average is over, it’s helpful to realize that being average, you have nothing to offer the brave new world we’re building. Since I haven’t really enjoyed my life at all to this point, I certainly don’t want to pass along that “gift.” I see it as more of a burden. I wish my parents had offered me the same courtesy. I think there can be no more selfish act than having children and not thinking about what kind of future those children will have. Yet sadly we see it all the time.

I also don’t tell anyone else what to do, nor to I begrudge anyone else's situation. My circumstances are unique. In fact, sometimes I wish that more people who had their shit together would have children, rather than the most fucked-up people imaginable. People tend to bring another soul into the world with no more concern than buying rims for their car, or bringing home puppies.

I’ve had a lot of difficulties in my life, and a lot of misery, and I would never want to subject another living being to what I have gone through. Now on the other side of forty, things are better now, and I’ve figured out a lot of things, but that doesn’t erase the pain of all those years, and the realization of how messed up and antithetical to human happiness and well-being our society is. So many people I see going through life on auto-pilot following the script, operating on instinct and social cues – now the job, now the degree, now the house, now the wife, now the kids, now the minivan. And I look around and think that it doesn’t look so appealing to me. Just another repeat of the same.

I wish I could understand the motivation. I wish I could join the party, be a happy cubicle worker, bright and bushy-tailed at my desk at 7:30 AM commuting in from white-picket fence-ville, anesthetizing myself  in a fog of reality TV and spectator sports. It seems so much easier.

Tomorrow is my annual employee review with the suburban Midwest ultra-breadwinners.(with their “dad bods,” lol) I don’t even know what to say anymore. Now, even people like me with insufficient degrees are being forced out of the profession. It’s clear that I have no future at this firm or in the profession in general anymore. I’m sick of what I do. Should I say that? It’s clear that you need to have a certain type of personality to make in corporate America (and the Midwest “culture”on top of it). I call them "homo corpratus." The rest of us are just wasting our time. They actually wrote “Where does Chad see himself in five years?” on my review. Where indeed? Unemployed? In debt (again)? Homeless? Deceased? It just keeps getting harder and harder to give a fuck.

Life is short indeed. Some people just aren’t cut out for the way the world is now. The least we can do is recognize it and not propagate the suffering. RIP Audrey, you belong in this world a lot more than I do.

P.S. Agree or disagree - here is some food for thought:

Anybody else childfree for a morbid reason? (Reddit) I very much disagree with his characterization of reasons as "morbid."

Abortions are moral when compared to bringing a child into existence (

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Living in the Waste Stream

Living doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg:
Marie lives a New York middle-class life spending less than $5,000 a year. Kalish, who travels more, needs $10,000. They work, eat, have a home, but there’s no rent bill or grocery shopping. No regular salary, even. Money isn’t their currency.

Marie is a petite, black-haired French woman who looks just like the conventional fortysomething Brooklynite. But she has no job, no visa, and lives in a three-story house for free. Living in the US also comes with an additional bit of daring: she’s an illegal immigrant. For privacy reasons, she asked to be identified with her first name only.

Eight years ago Marie arrived in the US, where she decided to remain. She has been staying for five years with her friend Greg, a real estate agent. They met in upstate New York in 2010 at a permaculture internship in which Marie spent a month learning how to farm sustainably. She needed a place to stay, he had a vacant room, so she became his home keeper, cleaning, gardening and bringing dumpster-dived food in lieu of rent.

In May 2007, Marie landed at JFK airport with a Lonely Planet in her backpack. It was her first time in the US; emerging from the subway at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem made her think of Starsky and Hutch, the 1970s television show. She paid rent in cash in Harlem, working as a waiter for three years, before moving to Greg’s.

Going with the flow, Marie has now decided to go back to France. In June she will book a plane ticket and ask to be deported.

“I’m aware that being French, and not Latino for example, makes things easier,” she said. Since she will leave prior to deportation, the main consequence of her overstay will be a ban from re-entering the US for 10 years.

“It’s a one-way trip anyway,” she shrugged. “I’ll pay what it costs.”

The price of the ticket may be more than she has spent in the past several months combined: a few hundred dollars. She receives rent from a house she owns in France, but that’s money she never uses. She lives on cash from baby- and dog-sitting. The $1,000 she recently was paid for painting a house “can go a long way”. Her clothes are finds and she travels by bike, even from Crown Heights to Manhattan.
How to live a middle-class life in New York City on less than $5,000 a year (Guardian)
Imagine going grocery shopping, walking out of the store with five grocery bags, and letting one spill all over the parking lot as you leave. It sounds shocking, and yet that’s what many of us do without even realizing it. North American households waste 15-20% of all the food they buy, which is even worse than the waste produced by restaurants.

An excellent new documentary called “Just Eat It” delves into the largely unknown, yet ubiquitous, world of wasted food. A couple from Vancouver, British Columbia, embarks on a six-month challenge – to survive exclusively on discarded food, which could be anything expired or already wasted.

Jenny Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin started out with low hopes, imagining that they’d be scrambling for food scraps, but they soon realized, with mixed delight and horror, that there is far more perfectly good food out there than they could ever possibly eat. In six months, they brought home more than $20,000 worth of discarded food and only spend $200.

The food came from places such as Dumpsters, culled bins at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and food styling photo shoots. Boxes of chocolate bars, dozens of eggs, granola, yogurt, bags of frozen chicken and bacon, salad mixes, and cartons of juice are just a few examples of the perfectly edible items that ended up in their kitchen, often for unknown reasons. Once Grant found an entire Dumpster filled with containers of hummus that still had three weeks left on the best before date. He’ll never know why they were thrown out.

“Just Eat It” challenges our cultural obsession with abundance, of always having more than we need because we can have it. We live in a wealthy society that doesn’t have to eat leftovers, so we don’t; we pitch them instead. In fact, rich countries such as Canada and the United States have anywhere from 150 to 200% of the food that we actually need, according to food waste activist Tristram Stuart.
'Just Eat It' is a must-see documentary about food waste in North America (Treehugger)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Inequality in Modern Architecture

Inequality in 1315.
Buildings always reflect the society in which they are built. The pyramids of Egypt symbolized many things at once – Egypt’s obsession with the afterlife, a massive population boom of idle workers made possible through grain agriculture, the power of the Egyptian state. It was the new top-down social structure made manifest in stone. Roman Civic buildings such as basilicas and amphitheaters symbolized the power, order, and authority of the Empire  – effective civil service and bread-and-circus distractions for a restive populace. The tallest buildings in European cities were the Gothic Cathedrals which symbolized the power of the Catholic Church in the Age of Faith. The Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower symbolized the age of engineering and iron industrialism.

Recently, the new world order that is emerging from the rotting corpse of post-war popular democracy – which I have termed Neofeudalism, -- has developed similar distinctive architectural forms.

Its form is new and yet familiar. Some of you may be familiar with the tall slender towers that dotted Italian hill towns in the fourteenth century. These were built to show off the wealth and power of patrician families, and to serve as refuges for elites in times of strife.

Now ironically, the form is being reborn in stone and concrete, but massively higher and for the same reason - to cater to the wealth and power of elites, this time the global economic oligarchy who are quickly sopping up all of humanity's collective wealth.

The form is due to the zoning laws of New York City and the height to maximize the economic returns. The towers are being built as places for the global elite to store their cash. They take advantage of complex engineering to create tall, slender towers that rise from their base to their peak, looming over the little people with their eerily ubiquitous presence. Due to their purpose as Elysiums for the one percent, they have been nicknamed Pikettyscrapers, after French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Lloyd Alter:
In an earlier post I complained that It's time to dump the tired argument that density and height are green and sustainable. The point was that there are essentially no density limits in Manhattan, but that doesn't mean people are getting affordable housing. Or as I noted in a more recent post, The problems in our big cities aren't caused by restrictions on density and height, but by inequality.

What New York and other cities are getting instead are what are now called pencil towers, or skinnyscrapers, or superslenders: expensive inefficient buildings where the very wealthy buy whole floors which they often don't even use very much, or pay much taxes on...That is what we are seeing in New York and London's skylines: Pikettyscrapers, inequality made solid in marble and glass. Put them all together and instead of a skyline you have a Piketty line....super-slenders are hugely expensive to build, requiring the same stairs, elevators and emergency systems as buildings with floor plates ten times the size. The ratio of expensive exterior cladding to floor area is insanely high. On a use per capita basis, they are horrible energy hogs. As for benefits to the city, the tax income to the City will be minimal because the occupants probably won’t live there full time and won’t pay the New York City income tax...The Skyscraper dictionary notes:

Piketty Line as a skyline typology takes its meaning from Piketty’s argument that unless capitalism is reformed, the very democratic order will be threatened, which resembles the protesting essence of the term picket line, which is a boundary established by protesting workers on strike. It was coined for this dictionary.
Jargon Watch: A Piketty line full of Pikettyscrapers (Treehugger)

Perkins + Will to design Manhattan Pikettyscraper (Treehugger) 1961 [New York City] revised the zoning laws again, making the wedding-cake towers period pieces. Instead, entranced by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue, a masterpiece of bronze metal set back in a handsome plaza, officials switched to a zoning code that encourages standalone towers. In exchange for ceding open space to the public, developers could build straight up (the permissible height was governed by a calculation called “floor area ratio”, or FAR)...But the 110-storey Twin Towers, anchoring their own downtown skyline and set in a giant plaza (called a “superblock”), were a special case. Otherwise, buildings of 40-60 storeys were the norm.

No one, it seems, was anticipating the current wave of pencil-thin, supertall towers. The technology they depend on has been around for decades — “mass dampers”, which prevent thin towers from swaying uncomfortably, are nothing new. So has the structural know-how that allows them to rise safely even from tiny bases. One of the buildings, 432 Park Avenue, has recently topped out at 1,396 feet, from a site of just 90 feet square.

The real generator of form now is the winner-take-all economy — and with it, the demand for sky-high condos at sky-high prices. Virtually all of the new buildings are condominiums with just one unit to a floor, which means they can get by with very few elevators. And that, in turns, mean they can be built even on very narrow lots. In other words, the demand for $20m to $100m condos, with views in all directions and no next-door neighbours, has given rise to a new building type – making the revised skyline the physical manifestation of New York’s income disparities.

Amazingly, none of the towers required city permission (although they did require clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, given Manhattan’s proximity to three airports). The city doesn’t limit height, just floor area ratio, and developers, can buy “air rights” from adjacent buildings, letting them go supertall “as of right”. The developer of the Nordstrom Tower, named for the department store at its base, bought air rights from the neighbouring Art Students League, paying the venerable school (which had no plans to enlarge its handsome, 1892 building) some $30m.

Not only are these new towers casting long shadows on Central Park; they are turning the New York skyline, for most of the 20th century a kind of ziggurat with the Empire State Building as its peak, into a jumble. As for life below? The buildings are making the city less pleasant for anyone who cannot afford one of the condos in the sky. Think of it as the new Upstairs, Downstairs, but on an urban scale.
Supersizing Manhattan: New Yorkers rage against the dying of the light (The Guardian)

Inequality in 2015.
Of course, I'm fascinated by what buildings reveal about our society. See this excellent article from the New York Review of Books: Conspicuous Construction. It goes into greater depth about the reasons for these designs:
The 1990s witnessed the high-tech, telecommunications, and dot-com booms, the rise of hedge funds, the denationalization of the former Soviet Union’s natural resources, and the ascendance of China’s state-controlled capitalism. Together all these developments radically altered standards of private wealth worldwide. In the top bracket there were said to be only fifty or so extremely desirable apartment houses in Manhattan, symptomatic of the oddly persistent scarcity of premium housing in America’s financial hub. Here was a gaping hole at the high end of the market begging to be filled.

Although major fortunes have increasingly trumped religious, racial, or social biases, some co-ops require purchasers to have liquid assets equal to many multiples of an apartment’s price, which has limited sales in them to an even smaller portion of the so-called top one percent. If you buy a co-op, you buy shares in the building; if you want to leave, it is up to you to sell the shares to someone who can pass the board. Conversely, if a condominium board turns down a sale it must buy back the apartment, an effective deterrent to rejection. Thus the offspring of deposed African dictators are as welcome at condos as Social Register scions, and this ease of access has attracted shady characters who’d never get board approval at the toniest old guard citadels...

The nascent Manhattan high-rise that has everyone talking is 432 Park Avenue, the skinny eighty-nine-story spire that soars above the northwest corner of East 56th Street and Park on the former site of the Drake Hotel. Set for completion this spring, it was designed by the Uruguayan-born, New York–based architect Rafael Viñoly. Now the highest residential structure in the Western Hemisphere at 1,397 feet, 432 Park is officially New York City’s second-tallest building (after David Childs’s inevitably symbolic if architecturally negligible One World Trade Center of 2005–2014). Actually, it’s the loftiest by twenty-eight feet in habitable space, since a broadcasting mast accounts for the uppermost 408 feet of the Childs tower.

Many observers report being bemused, not to say unnerved, by the Viñoly building’s strange ubiquitousness. Visible throughout all five boroughs and as far away as Long Island and New Jersey, it startles both visitors and natives with its thin looming omnipresence and seems to follow you around like a bad conscience. One doesn’t hear much about 432 Park’s design for the good reason that artistic niceties are almost beside the point in the mathematical conjuring that brought it and its peers into being. You could even say this structure resembles a three-dimensional balance sheet more than a fully articulated architectural façade.

While [Robert A.M.] Stern clings to a passé postmodernism in much of his work, Viñoly hews closely to the reductive aesthetic of high modernism. The basically white exterior of 432 Park Avenue imparts a graphic feel accentuated by the flatness of the building’s four identical sides, as well as the bold contrast between its dark glass windows (six large square panes per story) and white concrete panels that frame the minimalist fenestration. But what most sets this oddly disturbing composition apart is the way it shoots straight upward to its full, vertiginous height.

Together with the building’s relatively small footprint—ninety-three feet square (about one quarter the length of a football field)—this uninterrupted ascent approximates the proportions of a medieval defensive tower in an Italian hill town. The configuration was made possible by city regulations that waive upper-story “wedding cake” setback requirements—instituted in 1916 to prevent overbuilt Lower Manhattan streets from turning into lightless, airless canyons—but only if a building occupies no more than one quarter of its lot. Now that prices for Manhattan residences in prime locations have gone through the roof, it hardly seems wasteful to leave 75 percent of a plot empty on a $1 billion speculation like 432 Park.

Among this new breed of towers, design elements not directly tied to profit are often downgraded or eliminated as overall costs climb. For example, Portzamparc poetically predicted that the rippling glass exterior he initially planned for One57 would evoke a cascading waterfall. As executed, however, the flat surface of the building’s variously blue, gray, and silver panes fades into a pixelated blur even from a short distance. With today’s mathematically generated super-spires, it’s best to paraphrase Mae West: “Architecture has nothing to do with it.”

Meanwhile, vast areas of former middle-class tract homes sit empty in the sun belt and Rust Belt cities are bulldozing entire swaths of the city. And:

Warren Buffett's mobile home empire preys on the poor (Center for Public Integrity)

The tragedy of the trailer park: Warren Buffett's Clayton Homes accused of preying on the poor (Treehugger)

Abandoned America: Amazing photos of a nation’s ruins (BBC)

America!! Freedom!!!

Meanwhile, speaking of inequality on the other coast, they instead prefer high-tech human biodome/terrariums to skyscrapers designed by the Galactic Empire. I finally managed to read that Bloomberg article about the Google Campus. Here are some passages that leaped out at me::
Employees will have access to exercise equipment and yoga studios on majestic balconies overlooking central courtyards, although the renderings curiously omit railings and other safety barriers. Perhaps gravity will be different under the glass as well? With cafes and stores on the ground floor, and 5,000 units of proposed housing within an easy recumbent bicycle ride, there may be no reason for workers to ever leave.

Silicon Valley is blessed with nearly idyllic year-round weather, but it’s almost devoid of landmarks, other than a mission-style bell tower on the campus of Stanford University and the utilitarian sign of a once famous electronics company, Ampex, standing along the 101 freeway in Redwood City. Generic low-rise buildings inside endless office parks are spread over the rest of the area, which is carved up by highways and dotted with parking lots, marring a landscape once rich with orchards. The leaders of high tech, it seems, were too busy changing our world to pay attention to theirs.

The Apple spaceship, scheduled to open next year, is meticulously conceived and obsessively polished down to the smallest detail, just like an Apple product. Forty-foot concave glass panes for the curved walls were specially manufactured in Germany. With a projected price tag of $5 billion, it will probably be the most expensive building in history. It will also be closed to the public.

Ingels and Heatherwick may not have the standing of Gehry or Foster, but they’ve been the subjects of exhibitions at major museums and profiles in magazines. They’re both charismatic pitchmen, adept at presenting their visions in relatable terms. Ingels’s 2009 TED Talk, 3 Warp-Speed Architecture Tales, has been viewed more than 1.9 million times. Heatherwick’s newer presentation, Building the Seed Cathedral, about his porcupine-like British pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, has 1.4 million views….Ingels talks in the lofty argot of a starchitect. Meeting in the lobby of a boutique hotel in San Francisco, he wears all black, with fashionable beard scruff and an Audemars Piguet watch on his wrist. He says things like, “I like showing there is potential for meaning in the mediocrity of the everyday. There is poetry in the practical.”

Google’s request contained some broad guidelines, many from Page himself. He wanted flexible large-span structures that dissolved the conventions of boxy buildings with four vertical walls and a roof. The new Googleplex should meld the inside and outside, bringing nature closer to employees and encouraging creativity and collaboration....Ingels’s unusual perspective also prepared him to interpret Page’s unorthodox parameters—facilitating greater collaboration, fusing the inside and outside, and leaving plenty of options to change the space around later. Ingels’s proposed solution, conceived with Heatherwick, starts with the giant canopies, which evoke the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller and the tentlike structures of German architect Frei Otto at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Ingels says that because the canopies will shield the buildings from wind, sunlight, and inclement weather, the designers can use lighter materials and take greater risks. “By making the membrane sophisticated, we can have a much more free and flexible architecture within,” he says, adding that BIG and Heatherwick are still working on ways to regulate sun exposure and reduce glare. “I doubt that any of us would have arrived at these designs if we had just been doing it alone.”

The true skeptics, really, are other designers, and they’re not hard to find. Why, for example, do you need giant glass enclosures in a place where the weather’s always perfect? “This is why hiring architects from Northern Europe maybe wasn’t the smartest thing,” says Louise Mozingo, a professor of environmental planning and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley. She also wonders how Google plans to clean the glass canopies when it doesn’t rain for long stretches. “There is something about this whole microclimate that they are not quite getting,” she says. [and who is going to scoop up all the dead birds on the outside of the canopy? Is there an app for that? --CH]

Others doubt the practicality of the supposedly flexible design. How, they want to know, do you configure a stable electrical system in a set of modular office units that will be hoisted and moved around by crabots? “Flexibility can become really expensive,” says David Meckel, director for research and planning at the California College of the Arts. Radcliffe says the company hasn’t worked out every problem just yet. “There may be a few things we need to scratch our heads on and figure out over time,” he says. He agrees the project should probably be considered another Google moon shot—a hugely ambitious idea that doesn’t yet have a lot of supporting details nailed down. “It redefines the way we think about the relationship between the built environment and the work that happens there, and the community and ecology it sits in,” he says.

He adds that others probably shouldn’t try to copy the grand design. “This is absolutely the right thing to do for Google. I’m not sure it’s the right thing for anybody else.”
Big and Weird: The Architectural Genius of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick

The neighbors seem less enthusiastic: Why Google’s Hometown Said “No” to a Massive New Googleplex (Slate) Perhaps there is a lesson here
...Instead, it set aside the majority of the developable office space in question for a more modest project proposed by another local tech company: LinkedIn. The move will give LinkedIn a chance to build its own new headquarters as part of a mixed-use development that will also include a movie theater, fitness club, shops, and restaurants, all open to the public. And it will leave Google with rights to less than one-fourth of the commercial square footage it had hoped to build—about enough for one of the four main buildings it had planned...LinkedIn’s plans required no special exceptions to the city’s height or density limits and were touted as more shovel-ready than Google’s far-out designs.
If you want a taste of the architect sales-pitch speak that got them the job, both of the above architects have TED talks (appropriate, no?). I'm sure you'll enjoy their "buildings" from the ski-slope power plant to the giant furry cube made from fiber optics:

Building the Seed Cathedral (Thomas Heatherwick)

The Seed Cathedral "building." No, you do not need glasses.
3 warp-speed architecture tales (Bjarke Ingels)

It's a power plant AND a ski run. Such genius!!!
These talks might remind you of something else...

Someone needs to write a book, "How Architecture Got Weird." The important thing is that your betters like it. So now rather than just being snookered by fast talkers into goofy fashions, austere apartments and blank canvasses in their art collection, the one percent will now be able to remake the entire built world that we all inhabit as abstract pieces of modernist sculpture according to their whims. Progress!

And speaking of Bjarke Ingels, what is the only form that could be even more evocative of extremes of wealth inequality than giant sculptural phallic towers? Yes, of course, the pyramids! And what do you think old Bjarke is building for the wealthy in New York City (without irony, apparently)?

So it shall be it shall be done!
On yet another biting cold day, Ingels cheerfully locks his foldable bicycle to a street sign in Chelsea and slides into a diner banquette to discuss his New York debut. Having naughtily dropped a few public hints about the project before his client, Durst Fetner Residential, was quite ready for the attention, he is now simultaneously excited and cagey. The new building, he explains, will fuse two apparently incompatible types: a European-style, low-rise apartment block encircling a courtyard, and a Manhattan tower-on-a-podium, yielding something that looks like neither and behaves like both. New York is ready to embrace such a griffin, he insists: “This is the country that invented surf and turf! To put a lobster on a steak—any French chef would tell you that’s a crime.”

Ingels, who has been a visiting professor at Rice University, Harvard, and Columbia, is an unabashed Americanophile. “Europeans like to declare the U.S. dead, but it’s a convenient fiction,” he says. “So many European architects have been influenced by America, and I’m interested to discover that part of Danish culture.” So he has become a part-time New Yorker; he’s rented an apartment in Tribeca, opened an office in Chelsea, and bought a vintage Porsche for jaunts out of town...
Pyramid Scheme: Bjarke Ingels reinvents the New York apartment building (New York Magazine)

Good thing architecture is being 'reinvented,' the old architecture just wasn't working, apparently. Maybe BIG can get some tips on using slave labor from Zaha Hadid.

The original 'reinvention' of architecture for the 1%. History repeats.
How did Ingels get so BIG so fast? Simple, he came out of the star-making factory at Rem Koolhaas OMA. If you're not familiar with Koolhaas work, see below for a sample:

Click for larger size
So it kind of makes sense now, doesn't it? OMA is the launching pad for hot new European starchitects, and just about all the purveyors of giant sculpture pieces came through it at some point. OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture) is not to be confused with the band called OMC, who sang the song that goes through my head whenever I see a lot of modern architecture these days:

Not all New Yorkers are impressed with the new buildings. Perhaps they will agree with Xi Jinping and demand an end to 'weird buildings.'  There is a fascinating proposal to rebuild Penn Station according to the original McKim, Mead and White design that was barbarically torn down in the "progress"-mad 1960's.
The loss of the old Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead and White was a tragedy that actually became the start of the architectural preservation movement in North America. Now Richard Cameron and James Grimes of Atelier & Co. want to rebuild it from the original plans. According to Clem Labine in Traditional Building:
The Rebuild Penn Station plan has three major elements: (1) Reconstruct the grand spaces of the original Penn Station; (2) Create a modern transit hub that connects two subway lines, two commuter railroads, and Amtrak; (3) Redevelop the area in and around Penn Station to create a world-class urban destination – like Rockefeller Center. McKim had envisioned his splendid rail terminal as the centerpiece of a spectacular City Beautiful project – but he died before his full dream could be realized. “The time is right,” Cameron declares, “to complete McKim’s glorious urban vision.”

They project that it would be a whole lot cheaper and easier than doing a new modern building, because "architectural design development costs would be dramatically less than for a “blank slate” Modernist exercise in abstract geometry that is the current fashion." They note also that there is no fancy new engineering to be done, given that it's all been done before. And, the foundations are still there.

They don't say where you get the trades who still know how to do the stonework and the detail, but this is where it could get interesting; since all the original drawings still exist, they could be digitized and a lot of the detailed and complex traditional components could probably be 3D printed, using the newest of technologies to recreate the old.
The previous Robber Barons knew how to build public spaces.
Why not rebuild New York's Pennsylvania Station the way it was? (Treehugger)

On a lighter note:
At their national convention May 14-16, AIA members will be voting on a resolution to adopt a position statement in support of a new investigation into the collapse of “Building 7” on September 11, 2001.
American Institute of Architects to Reconsider WTC7 9/11 Collapse (Disinfo)

I've never been to the national convention, but as a full AIA member, had I known this was on the ballot I might have made the trip!

For more laughs, be sure and visit the indispensable Notes on Becoming A Famous Architect blog.

Monday, May 11, 2015

How the West Was Lost

Seen on Slate: Yes, the Drought Is Bad in California. It’s Going to Be Much, Much Worse in Arizona.

Which brought to mind this statement I head from a speech by Joel Salatin on the Extraenvironmentalist:
[1:04:08] “The food and farming system should increase the commons not decrease the commons. I call this my ‘whosoever will’ clause. In other words, could everybody do this? Is this open to everybody? What if everyone did this, what would things look like?  And this is where I go down my rabbit trail of the need for ponds if you’re going to irrigate – surface catchment ponds, back to P.A. Yeomans' Water for Every Farm – ponds rather than aquifers or public water irrigation. If we for the last seventy years had taken all the money that’s gone into Los Alamos in New Mexico, and spent it instead, using the bonanza of petroleum to carve high terrain catchments in all the valleys in New Mexico, today New Mexico would be drought-proof and flood-proof and would be an Eden. That’s the truth.”
See also John Wesley Powell's concept of "Watershed Democracy." The West could have been settled and developed in a much more sustainable fashion had his recommendations been followed:
In the Report and subsequent papers over the next dozen years, Powell argued that the homestead model of settlement that worked well in the more humid and productive forests and prairies of the central part of the country should be re-examined and restructured for the West. For the West, Powell had two revolutionary recommendations that continue to reverberate in land-use debates today.

First, because water is the key to development (and irrigation the ultimate agricultural objective), land management units should be organized around watersheds. This would require scrapping the “township and range” survey system that imposed a rigid systematic grid pattern on the land. This led to the vast checkerboard of land holdings familiar to any transcontinental airline passenger with a window seat. In its place, Powell recommended a management plan and a survey system based on watershed units.

Using watersheds as an organizing principle, the whole region would be subdivided along topographic lines, beginning with large river basins or districts, such as the Rio Grande in New Mexico, within which would be nested smaller districts, such as the San Luis Valley. Each district could be evaluated in terms of the water it might yield to support irrigation. Powell’s watershed approach was revolutionary by acknowledging that different lands within one region had different economic potential. He further asserted that the government, which was seeking to transfer lands into private hands, must perform surveys to establish the potential value of the land and make survey results known to the public.

The focus on irrigated agriculture as the economic foundation for arid lands led Powell to another revolutionary recommendation. Building and maintaining the reservoirs and canals that would feed irrigation systems required significant capital investment, while sustained maintenance of the system and the distribution of water among participants would necessitate fairly sophisticated social institutions. Based on his experiences in Mormon Utah, Powell felt that, rather than relying on individual initiative, communities should undertake development of western “watershed commonwealths.” This was a significant departure from the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy based on individual independent farmers that had helped propel westward expansion. Moreover, by placing communities at the forefront of development, industrial capitalists, who then dominated the national economy, were largely excluded. By allowing farmers to purchase 80 acres of land that could be irrigated and giving them collective stewardship over remaining range and forest lands, a new decentralized model of public land management might be forged.

Reaction to Powell’s recommendations, which took another 16 years to play out fully, was largely negative. By threatening to develop and distribute information on the economic potential of western lands, he undercut speculators who relied on settlers’ ignorance. By arguing that investment in these new lands come from within, relying heavily on community cooperation in labor and financing, he largely cut out capitalists. By suggesting that forested lands be held by the federal government, but managed by communities, he simultaneously locked out timber interests and those who might argue for a larger state or federal government role in land management. By insisting that lands be withheld from entry until they were surveyed and described, he stymied the developers who sought any sort of advantage in gaining access to the most favored lands.

Powell’s insistence on an initial survey prior to entry inadvertently suspended the Homestead and other related acts, thus denying settlers access to land. This was something that Powell did not necessarily oppose, but, by blocking entry, he alienated most popular opinion. While implementation of Powell’s recommendations would have led to a more orderly and prudent approach to development over the long run, Powell stomped on the toes of virtually all interests in the West. Not surprisingly, these interests stomped back and defeated him in the end.

And why are we growing everything in California, anyway? There's a Place That's Nearly Perfect for Growing Food. It's Not California. (Mother Jones) If there's a silver lining in the drought, it may be that regional economies and foodsheds might start to make as much economic sense as ecological and energy sense.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Core of the Conservative Mindset

I already referred to this statement from the C-Realm podcast before:
'I spent time recently with the family of my girlfriend who are all staunch Republicans who were born Jewish in the Soviet Union and got out in the eighties and who worship Ronald Reagan. There’s no talking to them about any of the issues that we’re discussing here. Their narrative that they adhere to with just fanatical zeal is that people in a capitalist system, they get what they deserve. They earn what they deserve to earn. The money they make is a reflection of how much value they put into the system. And the fact that more and more people are struggling is symptomatic to them of a moral malaise where people are just too lazy to work. And it’s a self-reinforcing, self-congratulatory narrative, and it’s very seductive..."
I was thinking about the difference in world views, and how the difference in world views comes down to a fundamental belief in how the world works. I think that the view articulated above - that capitalism is a system which distributes its rewards fairly and justly solely by dint of hard work, scrappiness and grit, is the prevailing belief system among people who call themselves political conservatives/Republicans in America today (yes, I'm aware of the pitfalls of the term, but I'll have to allow it for now).

And this plays into another tendency I've noticed. In any sort of online discussion, you can bet that the following will happen:

If you mention some situation where someone is being taken advantage of, fallen on hard times,  working harder for less, getting screwed over by their employer or big business, losing their job or home, plunged into poverty and/or heavy debt, having trouble paying rent, feeding their kids, or anything whatsoever, it is as sure as night follows the day that some wag will pop up and go over that person's story with a fine-toothed comb, examining it under a microscope for any possible way that it is that person's own fault for their current circumstances or for what happened to them. In other words, that person deserved their fate because of 'X.' Substitute anything you like for the 'X' - it doesn't really matter. There is always something.

 I guarantee this will be easy to find. for example, see this comment to this article.
it is interesting that the author seems to blame all of her problems on someone or something else. even things like smoking and drinking and dropping out of school.
and quite honestly why did she have two children she can't afford to care for?

want to avoid or get out of poverty?
the rules are the same for most of us:
stay in school
don't do drink or drugs
don't have children you can't afford
work hard, really hard
keep your nose clean
Or to this article:
You work in a cafeteria. If you don't get paid enough, quit. Going on strike is probably not going to be fruitful when you can be replaced by a vending machine.
Or this one (which actually brings in biological science):
The poor always have and always will be with us. Blame poor education, greed, laziness, single parent homes, minorities -anything you want. It still comes down to PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY!!! You are what you make of yourself. Make all the excuses you want. From birth you are owed nothing!!
Or any article, really. It's actually quite easy - try it yourself!

I call this "the cult of individual failure," and it is rampant in America. They MUST find some way, somehow, that a person brought it upon themselves by their own failings. It's related, of course, to the just-world view articulated above; thus the justification for widespread under/unemployment as "mass laziness," or as KMO puts it above, a "moral malaise."

And the thing is, you can always play this game, and it always works, because there is no one on this earth who has made an optimal decision every single time one is faced with a decision. People are human. That is, you can always find something to condemn a person, any person, even if they did most things right. There is always some box they didn't check, some arbitrary barrier they didn't cross, to show that they are deserving of their plight. And as things get worse and worse, the people who aren't yet affected can sit in judgement on whomever is not as fortunate as they are to rationalize how much better, harder-working and more morally upright they are. Note that when Christ says, "he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone," what he is actually pointing out is that no one is without sin and therefore unable to cast judgement on anyone else. Conservatives do not get this message, and prefer to fling rocks with the enthusiasm of a major-league baseball pitcher. In fact, they need to do so.

This is the logical conclusion of the "Every man for himself," "Sink or swim," and "The devil take the hindmost," attitudes that are at the very core of America's black heart.

It's a lot easier to move society closer and closer to a Hunger Games-type scenario where every single problem in society is laid solely at the feet of individual actors. It's the perfect self-justifying system. So for example, if you didn't go to college, well, then you deserve to live in poverty for not hitting the books.

And if you did go to college and get into debt, well then it was your own fault for signing on the dotted line.

And if you got a degree and can't find a job, well, you didn't get a STEM-H degree to make yourself useful enough to corporate America. That is, if you can't or don't want to be an engineer or nurse, then to hell with you!

If you do have a STEM-H degree and can't find a job, you are in the wrong place geographically. Can't or don't want to to move? Well, then it's your own fault!

If you got a pay cut even while the CEO got yet another raise, it's because your "marginal productivity" wasn't high enough, and the CEO provided that much "value" to the shareholders.

If your job is shipped to China or India and you have to train your replacement, well, "no one owes you a job" (despite the fact that you need one in order to survive).

If you had kids before graduate school, then they deserve to starve.

You quit a job you couldn't stand? You deserve to live in your car!

If you don't have money, clearly you are enjoying luxuries of which you are undeserving, like a cell phone or Internet access. Which is ironic since, "even the poor have cell phones" is a major justification for economic inequality. I guess you can have it both ways.

And so on and so forth.

Americans love this, because it justifies the ideology noted above - the just-world fallacy of "you get what you deserve." This is their core belief, the foundation of their faith, and they will do anything---and I do mean anything---to maintain that belief. It is unshakable, and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise. In all times and in all places, the cream rises to the top, and the scum sinks to the bottom, just as it should be. Success and comfort are only for the people who meet an arbitrary standard of virtue set by the winners.

Now it is obviously true that a person's individual actions affect their outcomes in life. To claim otherwise would be preposterous. A person who goes through school and becomes a brain surgeon is obviously going to make more money than a landscaper. Someone who becomes addicted to drugs is going to have a rough time of it (although even addictions are most likely genetic in origin, but whatever...). If you are motivated just to make money and don't give a rat's ass if you like what you do, you will probably have more security than someone who wants to enjoy their work. You make decisions every moment of every day, and the sum total or these decisions affect where you wind up in life.

It is clear that in this world, what you do does affect your outcome. This is clear. Only an idiot, or someone delusional, would deny this. To some extent you do make your own fate.

But to claim that nobody has inherent advantages or disadvantages is equally preposterous. To claim that one's parents, luck, genetics, nor anything else play a role is ludicrous. To claim that the wider society in which one lives has no effect is ludicrous. And to use this to deny the clear falling living standards and rigging of the game is also delusional.

Yet conservatives persist in these beliefs no mater what. Such are the blinders of ideology. It ties into their tendency to see everything a black or white.

When you lay all the problems of society at the feet of individual actors, it allows you  to write off literally anything, no matter how bad things are or how much worse they are getting. That way, the people at the top can justify doing anything they like to the rest of us without complaint. It's like saying "You alone are responsible for getting a chair in musical chairs, and if you are left standing it's your own fault." Technically this is correct, but it ignores the salient fact of chairs being removed.

What prompted this was a post I put on Reddit of this article: The Asshole Factory. The author mentions that his friend, who has two graduate degrees, has to work in an environment where they are constantly monitored and hectored to sell more. The author extrapolates this to the wider society and claims that is making society more harsh and brutal even for those who are not poor.
It’s bananas. The whole scene is like a maximum-security mental asylum designed by sadomasochists in a sci-fi movie. If Jeffrey Dahmer, Rasputin, and Michael Bay designed a “store” together, they couldn’t do any better. Her “job” will begin to drive her crazy—paranoid, depressed, deluded—in a matter of years if she continues doing it. No human psyche can bear that kind of relentless, systematic abuse.

Now. Note what all the technology and bureaucracy that wonderful, noble company has invested hundreds of millions in doesn’t ask her to do. Learn. Think. Reflect. Teach. Inspire. Lead. Connect. Imagine. Create. Grow. Dream. Actually…serve customers. Heaven forbid. It just beats her over the head, over and over again, three times a minute, every twenty seconds, with how much she hasn’t sold; hasn’t made; hasn’t produced. For her shitty .0003% commission. According to the quota that’s been set for her. By her boss. For his boss. For their boss. And so on all the way up the food chain.

See my point? Mara’s job isn’t to benefit customers. It isn’t to educate, understand, listen to, or even to chat with them. It isn’t to stop them from buying what they don’t want; to help them find what they might need; to match them with the right stuff. Nope. It’s merely to push more and more and more and more shit at them…faster, meaner, and dumber than any sane person would think is humanly possible…using advanced military technology and techniques… programmed to abuse her…so she can wage advanced psychological warfare…on her customers. And they were just suckers, gaping maws, fools, marks. And be yelled at…by a robot…if she doesn’t.

Really? This is the best our economy can do? To take the stuff of 21st century warfare and use them them to…rack up the profit? To turn a bright young woman with two grad degrees…into a Superprofitable Human Weapon of Mass Consumption…a half-crazed algorithmically-programmed asshole…a human drone…so even bigger, actually crazy assholes…can get super-rich…by slinging entire supertankers full of junk…at people getting poorer at four thousand percent interest a year…by using drones and bots to wage psy-warfare against them…so they’re conned into buying too much?

The economy doesn’t make stuff anymore. That much you know. So what does it make? It makes assholes.
After I posted this, here is one response someone posted:

"Two degrees doesn't mean she learned anything which creates value in the market."

This is what I mean by this kind of thinking. Someone responded, "That's all you took from that? No wonder we're screwed." To which the original commenter replied:
"Mostly an embittered rambling. I think people have a personal responsibility to look around the environment they live in and come up with how they're going to survive. If you don't have enough foresight to orient yourself and work towards a satisfactory means to sustain yourself I really don't have much pity for you, especially if you have enough grey matter to get two degrees. If anything the author reminds me of the saying: "If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you're the asshole." Maybe he just lives somewhere the sucks or maybe he's the asshole."
Out of curiosity, I looked at his poster's other comments, and sure enough, what I found was that anywhere on Reddit where someone had posted an article about how much worse things are getting, this particular commenter popped up and wrote about how that person deserved what they had coming to them. This person seemed to have an almost pathological need to seek out stories about new outrages and injustices and write about how they were someone's own fault each and every time. Every time the commenter popped up on random threads across Reddit and wrote a long essay describing how people were just bellyaching and everything was just fine. The commenter was particularly active on men's rights, anti-communism, anti-government, and pro-religion threads.

The cult of individual failure at work.

Here's another comment from that person demonstrating this:
My life is peaceful and I almost never have any conflicts. I also do pretty well for myself, but I was hyper vigilant about choosing a career path I knew would be profitable. Regardless of how you try to argue it this one example of: 
    [salesmen] vulnerable to burnout and a miserable shopping experience for consumers, with [salesmen] forced to "push product" on customers reluctant to buy. 
does not extrapolate to wider society. Not without more rigorous and empirical data.
In other words, "I did everything and right and the person under consideration didn't." Or, "Things are fine for me, so clearly they can be find for anyone."

I call this,  "I've got mine, f*ck everyone else," and it's another core tenet of conservative thought. This is also why Americans, more than anyone else, engage in a vicious, crabs in a bucket mentality: if I can't have it neither can you! If we all work together, we can all be better off an no one has to live with the poverty and uncertainty that play into the hands of the rich. Instead the attitude is, I don't have it (job security, peace-of-mind, good vacations benefits, etc.), so neither should you, rather than "why can't everyone enjoy this?" I've always thought that the crab, not the eagle, should be our national symbol.

The prime example of this is the resentment that right-wing politicians stoked against union workers to take away their benefits. Rather than ask why all workers don't enjoy the benefits of unionized workers (and which most workers of other industrialized nations take as a matter of course), the attitude is one of "I work long hours for shit pay and lousy benefits. How dare you get a better deal! Take it away, and I'll cheer it on! You must be as miserable as I am!" Of course if people had any empathy, they would realize that everyone deserves better working conditions, and that these can easily be provided. If we cooperated, of course, we could all get a better deal. But the conservative mentality precludes this. Instead it is driven by fear and resentment. Thus the crabs are all left in bottom of the bucket that corporate America has put us in. Divide and conquer, yes, but it simply would not work if Americans had any solidarity. Someone on the above thread posted this about negative solidarity: Negative Solidarity: Towards the Definition of a Concept (Unemployed Negativity)

I mean, after all, consider the breathtaking  judgementalism inherent in the comments above. Consider the smugness. No matter what the person did - straight 'A's, graduate school, two degrees, etc. The conservative will find something to blame them for, some way to lay that person's problems at their own feet, regardless of the direction of society.

That's the conservative mentality.

It becomes a justification to write off all injustice, all manipulation, all poverty. This is how, no matter what outrage comes up, conservatives will always seek to justify it. It's the classic "first they came for..." mentality. I'm not a Jew, a trade unionist, a communist, a dissenter, etc. It's just a few bad situations that can be easily avoided by making the right choices. And when that bad situation becomes the whole economy, what then? Of course, by then it will be too late. Even then conservatives will seek justification. After all, even concentration camps have guards and commandants.

Thus the justification that increasing poverty can only be caused by an increase in laziness - by an inability to want to work, or a 'moral malaise" as KMO puts it. This is a rationalization.

There is a mirror-image consequence to the just-world belief system, and that explains why in the face of things getting constantly worse for almost everybody, conservatives are able to deny and actually want things to get worse!

The conservative prefers a world of scarcity where life is a harsh unremitting, Darwinian struggle because only in such a society can we distinguish the winners from the losers, and thus the more just the society! The more of a struggle it is for everyone, the harder it is to get to the top, and thus this is the society they favor. That is, the losers justify the winners. A winner take all society is the only just form of society, because otherwise the poor would get more than they deserve. For the winners working their awful jobs and 80 hour weeks, without the ability to stand atop a pile of losers they have no way of validating their choices in life. As Oscar Wilde said, “It is not enough that I win, everyone else must lose.’ This perfectly encapsulates their philosophy.

So a society where you need a PhD just to get a job, where college costs double every few years, where there are fifty applicants for every job opening, where most jobs pay minimum wage, where housing costs eat up half your income, where you have no health insurance without a full-time job, where you have to commute fifty miles to get to work, where you work sixteen hour days just to keep your job, where you have to work four part-time jobs just to make ends meet; where people are homeless even though millions of houses sit empty, where children go to bed hungry at the same time taxes are being cut for the wealthy, these are all a good thing!

You see, a safety net is "stealing" from the winners, who got all their wealth fair-and-square, and giving it to the "losers" who were shiftless and lazy. We can see this in the recent GOP attempts to drug test welfare recipients and control what they can and can't buy with food stamps - there is no logical point to such legislation except to reinforce a set of just-world beliefs to their cult of followers making it easier to punish the poor for their "individual fault," and to castigate them for taking "handouts." (if only they were called bailouts instead...)

A society where everyone has a decent standard of living actually undermines their just world beliefs. How dare that people have a modicum of comfort without a lifetime of bitter hard work and struggle! For them, this is unfair and thus undermines the jut world hypothesis, which they must maintain at all costs. This is also why they vote for politicians who promise to roll back social benefits like welfare, Social Security, Medicare, free preschool, etc. That is why they oppose things like universal health care, job-creation programs, affordable day care for working mothers, free higher education, and certainly things like the Basic Income Guarantee. For them, this is rewarding the losers and thus undermining the justice of society. It is giving help to the undeserving (determined by them), and thus unjust. In order to maintain the just world illusion, the poor must be made to suffer for their sins!

From the standpoint of a just-worlder, the worse things get, the more just society is!

In a society where everyone has a decent standard of living, this is not the case. Even if we can “afford” to give everyone a decent standard of living – food, clothing, shelter, education, etc. we must not do so. If you get what you deserve, then surely some must deserve utter destitution as surely as the rich deserve their opulence.

Of course in less harsh societies, there is less social strife, everyone is happier and more productive, including the rich, and there is even evidence that the overall economy is better off. In a country where the price of failure is not utter destitution, people are more willing to take risks (which is why we created bankruptcy and got rid of debtor's prisons). More people can participate in society in a meaningful way, leading to better social outcomes, and an actual stronger economy for all where vast amounts of people aren't excluded from participating in a meaningful way. Artistic output is better which enhances quality of life. People are free to develop their human capital. You spend less money on policing and keeping people in line. Even the rich are happier since they no longer need to constantly work as hard to stay on top, and do not need to fear what will happen if they do not.

But the conservatives do not see it this way. All that matter is the harsh moral lens through which they make sense of the world.

Naturally, the winners are allowed in such a system to see themselves as “deserving” no matter how many advantages they started out with. Thus we had the phenomenon of Mitt Romney declaring how he “worked hard” and “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” to become the founder the asset-stripping private equity firm Bane Bain Capital. And surely the people whose jobs he eliminated were deserving of their fate as well. That's how he could depict half of America as useless eaters who were dependent on government and unwilling to help themselves. And he really believed that! So no matter where you are on the economic totem pole, as long as you can kiss up and kick down, a just world belief helps you sleep soundly at night, and that is why people will go to such great lengths to rationalize it, if only to themselves as with the commenter above.

Finally, I should mention a related concept that I call "Horatio Alger yardstick."

This is especially popular in America. The media constantly scours the entire world for any story of someone overcoming impossible odds to get rich. And in a world of billions of people it is guaranteed that they will find some examples, no matter how rare or atypical.

For example, have you ever read the story about the homeless, orphaned teen who graduated with a Master's degree from Harvard? Of the guy who lived in his car and dumpster-dived while he was building his start-up which he sold for a billion dollars? Or the billionaire banker who was born to working-class parents? No matter the rarity of the case, such stories will be sought out and repeated ad infintum across the broad spectrum of the American media. I remember reading about such stories. The latest one de jour is about the janitor who retired with millions of dollars thanks to the stock market:

The Remarkable Life and Investing Lessons of Ronald Read (The Big Picture)

From the emphasis on such stories, you would thing they are not only typical but more important that the actual news! Somehow the "rigorous empirical data" demanded above goes out the window for such stories. It's a world where, like Lake Woebegone, everyone can be above average, and if you aren't it's your own fault (and not that of math).

The implication is clear: this person succeeded despite 'X' , why can't you? And once again, substitute anything you like for the 'X'. That is, you have no excuse! It's the flip-side to the cult of individual failure. No matter what roadblocks you have, there is someone, somewhere, who over came them. If you can't meet this standard, it is solely your own fault, and thus you deserve your fate.

Now, good for these people. Again, nothing against them, but is it fair that we must all be judged against such standards? Is it fair that these people are used justify the immiseration of everybody else? That they justify the increasing struggle just to get a job or make ends meet? That it is used to justify the winner-take-all society and dismantling of the commons?

Yes it is, if you're a conservative.

"The cult of individual failure," "I've got mine, f*ck everybody else," and "Horatio Alger yardstick" are three mental habits of conservatives that ensure that no matter how bad things get for most of us, nothing will be done. These habits of thinking are the core beliefs of most of our population here in America, particularly in a low-empathy "hustling" society like the United States.

In fact, these articles make the same points:
In the 1960s, a social psychologist named Melvin Lerner noticed something troubling about his colleagues. The therapists at his hospital—generally such nice, sympathetic people—seemed to be acting heartlessly towards some of their mentally ill patients, pushing and prodding them during sessions, describing the vulnerable and disturbed as shiftless manipulators. Why were these professionals, generally so kind and compassionate, treating patients as if they somehow deserved their illness?

Lerner began conducting a series of unusual experiments to find out. On the campus of the University of Kansas, he had subjects observe a woman undergo a series of tests. When the woman (ostensibly a fellow test subject but actually a grad student playing a role) got a question wrong, she was given a jolt of electricity. As the subjects looked on, the jolts became more severe. She writhed in pain. It gradually became clear: they were witnessing a woman being brutally tortured.

The subjects were understandably distressed. When given the option of changing the experiment, the vast majority chose to end the electric shocks. When they weren’t given that option, however, Lerner witnessed a disturbing reaction. As the participants continued to watch, unable to alter the victim’s fate, they began to derogate the woman. Different groups were told she was being paid different amounts of money for the experiment. The lower the pay, the more the subjects disliked her. Irrationally, with no evidence to support it, the observers became convinced the woman deserved her punishment.

The results, Lerner argued, were the result of what he called “belief in a just world”—the natural tendency to see the universe as an essentially fair place. When presented with an obvious injustice, we try to resolve it: we end the cruel experiment, cure the patient, free the innocent man from jail. When we are helpless to change things, however, rather than give up our belief in the essential rightness of the universe, we begin to rationalize away the unfairness. The sight of a woman suffering without any hope of compensation was simply incompatible with a just world; in order to reconcile those two facts, observers irrationally decided she must have done something to justify her punishment.

The experiments, which Lerner expanded over the next few decades, were investigations into that fundamental human impulse enshrined in ancient religions, new-age platitudes, and countless clichés: a belief that people get what they deserve, that what goes around comes around, that chickens inevitably come home to roost.


All of which is another reminder of a truth that’s too often forgotten in our era of extreme political polarization and 24/7 internet outrage: wrong opinions – even deeply obnoxious opinions – needn’t necessarily stem from obnoxious motivations. “Victim-blaming” provides the clearest example: barely a day goes by without some commentator being accused (often rightly) of implying that somebody’s suffering was their own fault. That’s a viewpoint that should be condemned, of course: it’s unquestionably unpleasant to suggest that the victims of, say, the Charlie Hebdo killings, brought their fates upon themselves. But the just-world hypothesis shows how such opinions need not be the consequence of a deep character fault on the part of the blamer, or some tiny kernel of evil in their soul. It might simply result from a strong need to feel that the world remains orderly, and that things still make some kind of sense.
The Monstrous Cruelty of a Just World (Hazlitt)

Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person (The Guardian)

Se also these short relevant posts from Stumbling and Mumbling: Luck and The Deserving Rich’s impossible to tell what any individual really deserves. Do I, for example, deserve to earn more than the average worker? In one sense, no: my work is much less onerous or unpleasant than the average. But on the other hand, this pleasant outcome could be a just reward for years of effort earlier.

I don’t know which it is - or at least, I don‘t if I slough off the self-serving bias! - so I’m blowed if I can judge anyone else’s income. For this reason, I share the Devil’s consternation at the idea that public opinion should adjudicate.
Secondly, it’s possible that none of us deserve anything. This isn’t just the traditional Christian position that we are all miserable sinners. It’s also the Rawlsian one, that the distribution of talents - which include an appetite for hard work - is “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” And of course, none of us “deserves” the enormous good fortune of having been born into a liberal democracy in the late 20th century.

For me, these reasons suffice to disregard “desert” as a macro principle colouring our views about the distribution of income - though we might use it in other contexts, as when we say “he deserved that goal” or “he deserves to go to prison for that.