Archive for October, 2010

Who are the Mama Grizzlies?

By , 27 October, 2010, No Comment

Over at ForbesWoman, I’ve got a piece on the ‘Mama Grizzlies,’ meaning the Sarah Palin-endorsed GOP women running for office this fall. The piece asks: are they feminists? and if not, how should we think of them?

Yet while these candidates may have a catchy new name, the Mama Grizzly moniker and campaign is, at the surface, built around the most traditional of female roles: mother.

I go into some of the history of this phenomenon, of the patriotic mother being invoked in politics for a confusing mix of progressive and regressive goals. And I try to suss out where the Grizzlies fall. Conclusion:

the Grizzlies are more appropriately thought of as “feminine conservatives” than “conservative feminists.”

Readers of this blog know that the problem of anti-feminist, post-feminist or false feminist women is a major bugaboo of mine, so while I don’t write on politics frequently, this piece was interesting to report, even if some of what I learned was frustrating.

Go read it. And remember to vote.

The Stiff Upper Lip and Its Discontents

By , 22 October, 2010, 1 Comment

I’ve just written the longest blog post ever at Foreign Exchange. It filled about 6 pages in Microsoft Word as I was working on it. I don’t think bloggers are actually allowed to be so verbose, but I couldn’t help myself, as the subjects touched on in the post triggered too many of my wonkish fetishes:

On Wednesday, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in the U.K. unveiled its mammoth austerity program, aiming to take £81 billion off the deficit over four years. There are a few major sources of cuts: a reorientation of British foreign policy that should take 24% out of the Foreign Office and 8% out of the Ministry of Defense; a welfare reform program  that should yield close to £20 billion in savings; a push towards privatization and localism on everything from low-income housing to law enforcement; and across the board cuts–mostly efficiency savings and staff reductions–in all departments with a few notable exceptions: education, health and foreign aid spending will all keep growing.

The plan has taken a heavy beating in the first 48 hours. First, there are criticisms of the way the Spending Review plays fast and loose with data: leaving off half the cuts in order to claim that the overall effect is more progressive than it really is, conflating real and nominal figures or cash figures and percentages or departments’ capital ceilings and their actual expenditures. I can’t tell if that kind of fuzzy math is intentional obfuscation or just economic incompetence, but it’s a problem with the Review and one reason it took me a long time to develop a solid analysis of my own. Second, there are criticisms of the policies on the merits, in particular of the changes in taxes, disability and child benefits and housing. The most aggressive critique has come from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in a series of Power Point presentations that are getting a lot of positive play in the British press, but of which I’m a bit skeptical.

The rest of the post is a detailed analysis of the review, followed by an assessment of just how regressive it is. The figures I ended up with show that the Review is regressive in the broad sense (worse for the bottom half than the top half) but when it comes down to specifics, is actually going to squeeze the middle more than the absolute poor.

For more scintillating details, read the whole thing.

China’s Growing Contradictions

By , 19 October, 2010, 4 Comments

My post at Foreign Exchange today is about the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan, which aims to reorient the economy to be more equitable and more consumption and service driven. I’m skeptical that this is going to work without the political reforms that the Party remains hesitant to make.

The economic part is easy. Of course an authoritarian regime has the ability to mandate changes in wages, to make dramatic shifts in managing currency and to reorient capital investment towards services. And it’s heartening that China is now interested in doing so after several years of other countries’ whining falling on deaf ears. But the political part seems impossible. How do you raise wages at the bottom to the point where you have a consumer economy without producing enormous pressure for democratization (something this five year plan has chosen to kick down to the road and which the Party elders still seem in denial about)? The mantra of consumer-centric, service-heavy capitalism is “What about me?” It won’t last long in a political culture of “Shut up and sit down.”

Go read it all.

History Matters

By , 18 October, 2010, No Comment

I just posted this in a mammoth comment on Google Reader, but the comment is basically as long as the post its commenting on, so it really needs to be its own blog post. I was responding to Matthew Yglesias’ post on whether reading spoilers on books and movies and TV shows detract from the experience:

I think “spoilers” aren’t nearly as bad as people make them out to be. I knew Macbeth dies in the end before I read the play, I knew that Troy falls because they stupidly let a wooden horse full of Greek soldiers into the city walls, and I knew that things weren’t going to work out for Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky.

Foreknowledge doesn’t ruin these works or any other work of quality. If anything, it’s the reverse. If you look at a well-constructed story—be it Season 3 of the Wire or the Great Gatsby or whatever you like—I think you’ll find that knowledge of where things are headed enhances your ability to appreciate the mastery with which the story has been put together.

There is definitely something to the post, especially the bolded part, which is one of the reasons I so frequently re-read favorite works. But at the same time, I don’t like the way he’s lumped together this collection of great works from different eras. As I commented:

Apocalypse 39: Merger-land

By , 15 October, 2010, 1 Comment

As readers will know (and be bored of hearing by now), I believe the future of media is in intelligent aggregation of niche offerings within larger cross-platform organizations. I have always  assumed that we would get to this model if big old media bought up smaller new media, or if small new media sites merged with one another to become big new media, of if big old media diversified by launching smaller new media platforms.

I had not considered however, the possibility that small new media might buy up big old media. That appears to be happening now, as Newsweek–just recently purchased by Sidney Harman–considers an offer from Tina Brown’s Daily Beast.

I am not a fan of the Daily Beast. There are one or two very smart people I know who write for them, but for the most part, I find the site tabloid-y. Its better writers are people whose work already had a platform at Slate or Salon or elsewhere. It’s unclear to me, more than a year after its launch, what the Daily Beast has added to the digital mediaverse that wasn’t there already. Given that I feel rather similarly about weekly news magazines, one would think I would be down on this merger.

But I’m not, entirely, because I still have a great deal of confidence in Tina Brown as an editor. As editor of Vanity Fair from 1984 to 1992, then as editor of the New Yorker from 1992 to 1998, her mark on American journalism is undeniable. She gave Vanity Fair the combination of high fashion photography and deeply reported narrative that make it suo generis. She gave the New Yorker a batch of new writers–Jeffrey Toobin, Lawrence Wright and Adam Gopnik stand out–who made it fun to read again.  And through their voices, their combination of rich narrative, beautiful prose and rigorous reporting, she had a tremendous impact on me and the kind of journalism I aspire to produce. If that Tina Brown–magazine editor Brown–is taking over Newsweek, only good things can come of it. But if Newsweek is going to become a print version of the Daily Beast, I’ll pass.

Updated, 10/18/2010: The merger talks have fallen apart, because Brown, Harman and Barry Diller (who owns a piece of the Beast) couldn’t agree on how to share control. Says Brown in today’s WSJ: “The engagement was fun, but the pre-nup got too complex.”

Updated, 11/12/2010: The merger is back on. Read the announcement here. And note, it’s clear what Newsweek gets from the deal (Tina and her readers!), but it’s not clear to me what the Beast is getting, or what its future is.

Whither literature?

By , 15 October, 2010, No Comment

Two interesting recent takes on what’s happening in lit-land. First and foremost, this blog post by Jed Bickman [disclosure: a friend] on the rise of DIY publishing houses. Jed mourns the demise of big name publishing and with it professional editing.

As a writer, I benefit immensely from working with editors, and I have already had the good fortune to work with a few brilliant ones. They have not only fine-tuned my prose, but also my ideas and values. The best editor-writer relationships are like deep friendships: they change you, and your writing shows it. Think of Maxwell Perkins with Hemingway and Fitzgerald; or Robert Giroux with O’Connor and Malamud; or Gordon Lish with Carver and Ford.

As a college student, I worked for a few months at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, first as an intern reading manuscripts in English and French, then as a freelance consultant on an early e-books project. FSG is a special place in the pantheon of American publishing houses, rivaled only by Knopf as a supporter of ‘high’ literature, unabashed in its eggheadiness. That at least is its reputation and it still publishes some writers who fit that bill. But when I was there, I found that the culture of building personal relationships with those writers is fading. The desire to go out and find promising writing and help it grow into something great is waning. Instead, like every other form of media, book publishing is becoming a margins game looking for the ready-made bestseller. It is hard for me to pity the big publishing houses if they aren’t doing the kind of work I admire anymore.

Moreover, writing is changing in a way that threatens the old editing model. We’ve seen the rise over the last few decades of the MFA program, of writers whose most important editors are their classmates and professors at the University of Iowa or Syracuse University or indeed, my alma mater, Brown. They come out of these MFA programs with nearly flawless technical skills, able to write prose that is refined and sophisticated, but, as Elif Batuman argues in the London Review of Books, they often don’t have the ability to tell stories that have meat on their bones, because, in many of these graduate programs, it’s the technique not the narrative that matters. The Batuman piece is over the top, setting out to offend nearly everyone it describes, but there is a kernel of truth in its argument about how good form can mask the absence of content. The effect that this has on publishing is important: it means that it is easier to get by producing books without editing books, and that the kind of back-and-forth with writers that shapes the substance of their work is happening in classrooms long before they meet a publisher.

The Great Game Grows

By , 12 October, 2010, 1 Comment

Post today at Foreign Exchange about the Great Game:

It’s been widely known for some time that China is engaged in a global race to acquire commodities: oil, gas, minerals, water, you name it. It’s well known that China is after these goods for a combination of reasons: too much cash on hand, a hungry growing economy that needs raw materials, and a keen awareness that controlling commodities—and their futures—is a powerful form of economic influence.  Policy wonks call this The (New) Great Game.

But experts have usually understood the Great Game in regional terms: the loot was concentrated in the Caucusus, Central Asia and the Middle East, and the major players were supposed to be China and Russia. That picture has always struck me as off base…

I go on to argue that the Great Game is increasingly global and  more diverse in the commodities it involves and to suggest how that changes U.S. policy imperatives. Go read.

Introducing Public Business

By , 8 October, 2010, No Comment

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been swamped with a very exciting new project, and it’s now ready to introduce to you. Along with a Columbia classmate and BBC journalist, Damian Kahya, I’m launching a nonprofit dedicated to filling in a key gap in the emerging media model: in-depth, original, public interest reporting about business. That means reporting about how the decisions made at companies affect the rest of us: about the wider economic, environmental, and social implications of business activity. Once upon a time, this kind of journalism was a core part of every business newsroom, and indeed in some high profile examples, like Fortune’s big Enron scoop or the BBC’s documentary about Nike sweatshops, it has helped change the course of events and sparked public debate about important issues. There are still great reporters doing this work, but they are fewer in number and have less resources at their disposal. Our goal is to partner with news organizations to put more funds and more people behind this kind of reporting. To do that, we need support. We’re looking for donations large and small and we’re hoping to build a membership community around our work. To learn more about what kind of work we support, how we intend to do it, and what it will mean to be a member, visit our website.

There, you’ll find a blog post I wrote about the troubles in journalism and why we’re doing this. Here’s what it says:

Germany’s Radical Center

By , 7 October, 2010, No Comment

I’ve been off the blogs of late because of a Very Exciting Project that I’ll discuss when it’s ready. But I’m back, with a post on Foreign Exchange about the so-called German miracle:

The econo-world has been abuzz about Germany because the country has done a remarkable job outperforming its first world peers as it emerges from the Great Recession. Last quarter, it went on a 9% growth rampage. This year, it’s expected to grow over 3%, compared with less than 2% for the most of the developed world. When econo-wonks process those stats, they try to claim the success story as a victory for their preferred models, while constructing any downsides as failures of the other side. They are wrong to do so.

Instead, the argument I make in the post is that the German model is a happy historical accident. And as you may know, I enjoy arguing that history matters. But I also resist the notion that history is everything. So while I think it’s important to understand the present-day German economy as a product of its history, I don’t the like the argument–which smart people still make–that present-day Germany should make its decisions about the future on the basis of some guilt about its past.