Tariffs are the new picket lines

Update: I now think that the caveats in the final paragraph of this blog post outweigh the points that I was trying to make in the post itself, and I’m going to try to explain in a new post.

A month and a half ago, during a wide-ranging email conversation with a friend about the kinds of madness and extremism that are at large this election season, I admitted that “I have been daydreaming about writing a long blog post about all the ways in which upper middle class liberals are blind to the hatred of them, and to the reasonable motivations for that hatred, experienced by people outside their class.”

I never did write that blog post, in part because my friend and I continued our conversation, and I put most of my ideas into one of my later emails to him. I offer the email here, as a fragment, because even though the issues remain current, I don’t seem to have the stomach to polish it up into even a proper blog post. The only change I’ve made to my original email is to add links to document some of the claims.

To follow the thread of the argument, all you really need to know is that my friend had suggested, in an earlier email, that the economic power of the highly educated was resented nowadays almost as if it were a kind of sorcery.

My reply:

I don’t think that what the symbolic class has done is in fact as mysterious to the working class as you’re describing. I think it’s pretty simple, actually: the symbolic class enriched itself by shipping offshore the manufacturing jobs that used to employ the working class here in America, thereby increasing profits for companies whose stocks the symbolic class owns, rendering cheaper the goods that the symbolic class still has the money to buy, and rewarding themselves with high salaries in recognition of their improvement of their employers’ bottom lines.

Piketty claimed that contra classic economics, the progress of capitalism has been widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The only rebuttal of Piketty that persuaded me was one that pointed out that although he’s right, empirically speaking, about what has happened in America and Western Europe, he’s wrong about what’s happening on a global scale. In other words, globally, the classic economic model remains valid: overall, financial inequality is diminishing with time. But what that means, on the ground, is that wealth in the BRIC nations is increasing at the expense of the wealth of the poor and middle classes in America and Western Europe. Globally the normal distribution of wealth still obtains, but in order for wealth to find its natural level, now that most of the dikes and dams that used to isolate the nations have fallen, the Chinese worker has to be paid more than he has been, and the American worker less.

I dissent from your idea that this looks like sorcery. In fact, I think everyone pretty much knows what’s been going on. Or rather, I think many working-class people know what’s going on, though perhaps some of the woolly-minded symbolic elite have preferred to look away. Classical economics claims that free trade always improves everyone’s lives, and that if some manufacturing jobs are lost to a low-wage competitor, new jobs will take their place. But lately there’s been some economic evidence of what everyone already knows: those jobs are service jobs, lower in prestige and status and pay than the manufacturing jobs that have been lost.

The elite have responded to their own perfidy in two ways: the brutal and cynical among them choose to see themselves as supermen, above the communal morality that restrains the herd. The more thoughtful of the elite believe that the shift they have helped to engineer, and that they have profited from at the expense of less-privileged fellow-citizens, was inevitable, because of globalization, but have the decency to feel that they do owe something to the peons they have dispossessed of their livelihood. And so they support expanding and strengthening the welfare state. Thus all the millionaires at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey who donate to Clinton. They feel a bit guilty, but the dispossession of the American working class was going to happen even if they themselves didn’t have a hand in it, and all they can really do is offer a bit of compensation in the way of affordable housing and pre-K programs. What these liberal elites don’t realize, or would prefer not to realize, is that their condescension is even more roundly hated by the people they have harmed than the brutal, openly avowed selfishness of their fellow expropriators. The displaced worker is upset about his loss of dignity, and he’d rather that his enemy reveled in the theft than patronized his victim with “concern.”

Is this rational on the part of the dispossessed worker? No. Rationally considered, his best option is to take whatever handouts he can get from the upper-bourgeois managerial class. But it sticks in his craw. He doesn’t want to be the “good” object of charity. He wants to be what he once was: the ambivalently regarded, somewhat menacing worker who was an independent source of economic value. He’d rather, if need be, be “bad,” in fact. Trump is offering to give this worker back his independence and dignity. He’s salted the offer with a bit of crypto-white grievance, which is what the elite liberals have focused on, but I think Trump’s main appeal is the (phantasmatic) restoration of dignity and place in society. Unions have been delegitimized, politically, in America, but Trump’s vow to restore tariffs has the appeal of making America’s national borders serve as a kind of massive proxy union. Tariffs become the new picket lines, as it were.

Postscript: A few corrections and for-the-recordses. Trump’s winking invocations of racism and political violence are of course dangerous and increasingly seem a central part of him. The trade wars he threatens to wage wouldn’t achieve what the unions of the early twentieth century achieved, and are instead likely to do great harm. It may well be, moreover, that the elite symbolic class was correct and that globalization couldn’t have been delayed, let alone dodged. A sign of the inevitability: offshoring is now happening even to white-collar jobs. And finally, confusingly, despite a dispossession of the white working class that has spiked deaths among them by suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse, American manufacturing is at an all-time high, if measured in dollars rather than employees—thanks to robots.

A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

“Necessary Errors” goes on sale

My novel Necessary Errors goes on sale today. Norman Rush has called it “very well put together, polished, dry but tender, ferociously observed,” and Christine Pivovar has written that “Reading the novel feels like meeting up with friends.”

Please visit your local bookstore and consider buying a copy, or consider ordering one online from McNally Jackson, Barnes & Noble, or another retailer (more links in the right sidebar and here!).

And if you’re in Brooklyn, please come to Brooklyn’s Book Court tomorrow, Wednesday, at 7pm for the launch, featuring a reading by me and special guest stars Christine Smallwood, Seth Colter Walls, Mark Krotov, and Alice Gregory.

Awful truths

Two interviews with me went online today. At the Daily Beast, I explain, among other things, why trading on a scholarly reputation in the real world is like trying to spend poker chips at the grocery store. And in a joint interview conducted by Jane Hu for Pacific Standard, Choire Sicha and I talk about defamiliarization, lost time, and how to use pagers to let your friends know which bar you’ll be at.

Still on the burning deck, ten years later

With toothpicks and Scotch tape, I have redesigned this blog. The inciting force was a notification from my old webhost, Typepad, that I had used up my allotment of categories. Three hundred categories I had been given, and no more. I had squandered them on Elizabeth Bowen, psychoanalysis, anarchism, and habeas corpus, and if now I wanted a category for Charles Williams, tough.

I sulked. I googled. And found myself gazing wistfully at the pastures over at WordPress.org, where yeomen and lasses seemed to frolic carelessly amid flocks and flocks of categories, all gamboling happily together. I seemed to hear them singing of how easy and intuitive their lives were. They idled. They drank from their flagons. They uploaded to folders with natural-language names.

It was a lie, reader. It was all a lie. The easy and intuitive part, anyway. WordPress.com may be user-friendly—I don’t know, I didn’t try it—but man, WordPress.org . . . Do not move your blog to WordPress.org unless you are a compulsive with the capacity to inhale a zeppelin’s volume of techy hot air. I stayed up till 2am every night for a straight week, staring slack-jawed and glassy-eyed at the screen. I made no progress in my Trollope novel. I didn’t read anyone’s galleys. To think that just a week ago I didn’t know what “php” was. I still don’t, really. Do the letters stand for something? But now I know how to child a theme. Now I can induce a firebug to inspect a “css.” After such knowledge, . . . I still can’t figure out how to enqueue a script, and as a result, my gloss of Wyatt’s “They flee from me” won’t unpack itself here at the new site. (For another week or so, you will still be able to see how it’s supposed to work at the old Typepad site, which I haven’t unplugged quite yet. Seriously, if anyone knows how or where to install a Jquery script in WordPress, get in touch. Should it be part of a “php”?)

Hope you like the new design. If something isn’t working, let me know. In a nice way. The idea behind it is that the easiest sort of thing to read is a tall, fairly narrow column. In order to make the central column as tall as possible, there’s no banner or menu across the top of this blog. To minimize distraction, clutter has been reduced in the sidebars, and the date, category, and author of a post has been made tiny and gray. The badge in the upper-left-hand corner with the blog’s title was hand-lettered in synthetic scrimshaw by a grizzled sailor locally sourced from a wharf.

At the back of my mind, during this ordeal, was the question: Why? While researching new web hosts before the transfer, I noticed, dispiritingly, that a fair number of blog redesigns are followed in short order by blog death. Redesign, in other words, seems in many cases to be a symptom of the propietor’s waning interest. Let’s prop the little monster up one more time and paint a happy face on it. Then, a week later: Let’s just shoot it. Like human civilizations, blogs do not last forever. And it turns out that while I was entrammeled in renewing the code of this one, I failed to observe its tenth anniversary. I first posted on Steamboats Are Ruining Everything on 29 March 2003. About errata, of course. Good god.

So what is a blog for? Four years ago, as an introduction to a print-on-demand anthology of this blog’s posts, I explained that I came to blogging fairly late—in fact, probably too late to take full advantage of its fluidity. I wasn’t hoping to break into print. My problem was that I had a toehold in print, which I was anxious about losing:

The quandary: If I wanted to communicate an important discovery, shouldn’t I write it up formally, either for money (i.e., journalism) or prestige (scholarship)? If a discovery wasn’t worth these rewards, was a casual communication of it worth risking my reputation, such as it was, for accuracy and deliberation? Though I had chosen not to pursue a career in academia, I had earned a Ph.D. in 1999 and was saddled with scholarship’s neuroses as well as journalism’s. To speculate beyond one’s area of expertise, based on no more than intuition and a few pieces of evidence, which happened to be new to oneself but might not be to specialists—wasn’t that a recipe for broadcasting one’s ignorance? And at the pit of my stomach, as I contemplated my efforts to make a living as a freelancer, lay another question: Would my editors continue to buy the cow if I was dispensing the milk for free on my blog?

Still good questions! Though not good enough to deter me from the pleasure of seeing myself type, evidently. I did discover a new use for a blog last year. It turns out that a blog can be a pretty good way to draw attention to a matter of urgency and public importance and to relay information about it in detail. But I have had to bench myself and let others carry that particular banner, and anyway, civic alarm is somewhat to one side of the puzzle that a blog poses to a writer.

A few years ago, print magazines complicated the puzzle by starting blogs of their own. I became inveigled when editors at the Paris Review invited me to send the occasional post their way. An odd state of affairs. They were offering a little money, but so little that a writer with any economic sense would have politely declined. My trouble was that I didn’t have any economic sense and was writing these posts for nothing already. I had then recently written one about the movie Avatar, for example, that had been reprinted on n+1’s blog and quoted by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books. That was fun. Should I stop? Why? So I started sending posts about movies to the Paris Review from time to time. Later I sent posts about other topics, and later still, I also started sending them to the New Yorker.

I can’t tell you how confusing this all is. Now, whenever I write something for my own blog, I can’t help but wonder whether I should send it somewhere else before hitting the Publish button. Pro: Cash. Con: Waiting. Am I an impatient person or a greedy one? And what if they say no? Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, after all, has always been very indulgent of me, editorially; very broad-minded. One’s amateurism has been a bit tampered with. Guilt colors one’s thinking, as guilt usually does when writing and money meet. One ought to be selling one’s wares for as much as the market will bear if it is in good faith that one has declared to the IRS year after year that writing is a profession not a hobby. In which spirit, of course, one should probably not be writing blog posts at all. But one can’t let capitalism have all the fun.

Four months from now, Penguin will publish my first novel. Friends congratulate me that I already have a “web presence.” I do intend to exploit it, but I’m haunted by a koan that a fellow writer once shared with me: “Freelancing only leads to more freelancing.” What if web presence only leads to more web presence? It probably isn’t for nothing that the sale technicians of the internet, when referring to a website reader’s decision to make a purchase, use the heavy and difficult word conversion.

Is blogging no more than a thing-in-itself? Am I about to quit? For the tenth anniversary of Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, here’s to ambiguity. Here’s to going down with the ship.