HAIR TRIGGER

Posted in Rants on September 25th, 2016 by Ed

Thirty-three years ago today, just about everyone in the United States came closer to dying than they would realize for many years.

During the Cold War the USSR had some military capabilities that were great and others that were primitive. The former were usually of the brute force variety (large missiles, sturdy tanks, rugged planes) and the latter were generally high-tech things like satellites, electronics, and computers. So at the point at which the US and USSR had rough parity in the ability to rain nuclear warheads on one another, the USSR was decidedly behind in the ability to do things like detect missile launches.

In 1982 – I swear I'm giving you the short version, so bear with me – the USSR launched a generation of spy satellites called Oko (Eye) intended to give it the ability to detect American missile launches. It wasn't very good. It scanned the horizon for the visual signs of a missile plume or a flash at the point at which the curvature of the Earth met the blackness of space (think about that for a second, how insanely far-fetched that is). Each one also carried an optical telescope that ground observers could use to look for those same flashes and streaks. To do so, the technicians who monitored the optical 'scopes had to sit in a pitch dark room for two hours (!!!) to prepare their eyes to look through the dim, grainy, distant telescopes. At this point I want to reiterate that I'm not making any of this up.

In 1983, during a period of heightened tension precipitated by the unusual degree of paranoia among the – What can you write about the Cold War without using this phrase at least once? – "Aging Kremlin Hardliners" and the dick-waving belligerence of the Reagan administration who considered it some combination of productive and hilarious (mostly the latter) to feint like we were about to launch a nuclear attack but not actually do it. Ha ha! Good one. Had they known how bad the Soviet command and control system was, they might have thought better of that. Nah, they weren't strong on thinking.

On September 26 the Oko system began registering flashes on the horizon which were auto-detected by the computer. The human controllers also noticed a glint, seemingly offering more evidence. But the engineer in charge, one Stanislav Petrov, paused before kicking this up the chain of command. First, he knew all about the penchant for false alarms and overall mediocre data produced by the Oko system, the archaic Soviet computers, and the men squinting into telescopes at barely decipherable images. Second, he asked aloud why thee United States would initiate a nuclear attack on its mortal enemy by lobbing a single missile when all of the doctrine of the era suggested that nuclear attack was murder-suicide and the only hope for coming out ahead was to strike first in an overwhelming saturation attack? If this were The Big One, Petrov concluded, American bombers, submarines, and missiles would be inbound by the thousands. Instead there was one phantom missile launch that none of the powerful Soviet ground radars could pick up.

The alarmed Soviet chain of command, already on hair trigger alert due to international tensions (see also Able Archer 83 shortly after this incident), realized it had only seconds to decide what to do. If they waited too long and it was a real nuclear attack, the Soviet forces would be clobbered before they could retaliate. If they jumped the gun, so to speak, they'd be starting a war that would result in their own destruction in return. Due to Petrov's insistence and skepticism within the military at the effectiveness of the new satellite system, the Soviets declined to respond. Sweating bullets, in ten or fifteen minutes they were relieved to find that no missiles were landing anywhere. It turned out upon later analysis that Soviet mathematicians and designers chose a highly elliptical orbit for the satellites that left them susceptible, under very rare circumstances, to seeing "flashes" from sunlight off of high altitude clouds. The system was fixed by adding geostationary satellites for cross referencing.

I'm not telling this story just because it happens to be the anniversary today. I'm telling it to emphasize that sometimes the only thing between the planet and nuclear holocaust is human rationality; for all of our advanced technology, we still rely heavily on people of rationality and intellect to make correct judgments and decisions. Something worth keeping in mind tonight, just in case there is any kind of televised event that lays bare the temperament and intelligence of the people who are jockeying for control of the American nuclear arsenal.

AN ACTUAL SLIPPERY SLOPE

Posted in Rants on September 21st, 2016 by Ed

Not all consequentialist arguments – slippery slopes, where one event is predicted to lead to a chain of subsequent and presumably worse events – are logical fallacies. I can assert, for example, that an individual making a terrorist threat to O'Hare Airport would begin a chain of events that would disrupt air travel throughout the United States. It would likely cause delays, cancellations, or even closure of an airport through which thousands of flights connect for passenger transfers every day, so O'Hare is infamous for creating "butterfly effects" in air travel. The slightest hiccup there is felt everywhere. I can't predict with any certainty what specific effects will follow the initial action, but I can construct a solid, evidence based argument that there will inevitably be consequences.

I point this out to underscore that when the facts are taken into account, banning Muslim immigration into the U.S., as Trump and many of his fellow travelers advocate, will be only the first step in a chain of escalating actions against Muslims. No one can predict with anything other than pure speculation as a guide exactly what those next steps will be, but there is zero doubt that there will be "next steps." We can conclude this with confidence because it is so simple to demonstrate that the first step – selectively banning Muslim immigration – will not accomplish its goal of eliminating terrorist attacks and making Americans "feel safer."

Only the most superficial understanding of the evolution of terrorism over the past four decades is necessary to understand that the age of Terror as Spectacle or terrorism to achieve political ends is over as far as the United States is concerned. Past terrorist groups either committed acts of terror to accomplish a specific goal – i.e., hijacking a plane to secure the release of prisoners – or to create a grand, publicity-seeking spectacle – Black September, the Dawson's Field hijackings, the Japanese Embassy hijacking in Lima, and so on. Al-Qaeda took the idea of spectacle but redirected the goal toward mass killing. They were drawn to the symbolism of attacking icons while also racking up a large body count. ISIS and ISIS-inspired terror, though, is the next step in that evolution. They've done away with the big, expensive, complicated (and therefore less certain of succeeding) spectacle in favor of the low tech, high body count approach. Why concoct some intricate plot to teach people to fly planes into buildings when you can have someone rent a truck and drive it into a crowd? Why not just grab a gun or strap on an explosive vest and head down to the mall? Why recruit expert bomb makers when any yahoo in the world can buy a Walmart crock pot and download a simple bomb schematic from the internet and construct it out of supplies you can buy at any hardware store?

The tradeoff is in glamour and efficiency. Each individual attack will result in fewer deaths than a single grand terror attack, and certainly there's none of the prestige and feeling of superiority that comes from crafting a complicated plot to "defeat" the intelligence communities in western nations. Cumulatively, though, the body count evens out and the attacks make up for what they lack in efficiency with low cost, ease of planning, and quantity. Most importantly, they are virtually impossible if not literally impossible to stop. One person, perhaps having read some ideas off an internet message board, perhaps inspired by an individual who contacted him online, or perhaps just acting on his own limited but sufficient imagination, can easily concoct a plan to kill a bunch of people. Anybody who is of the mindset to do so can rent a truck and drive it into a crowd, go to a crowded public place and start shooting, or construct a crude homemade explosive device. A plot like the 9-11 attack took years to plan and execute and had enough people and moving parts involved that the opportunity for law enforcement to intercede was always there. If a guy or a small group of people decide they're going to go shoot up the mall or the soccer stadium, nobody can really stop them from doing that provided they have enough discipline not to give themselves away beforehand.

So, accepting the reality that the new terrorism is low-tech, crude, cheap, and therefore unstoppable, what is likely to happen after we ban Muslim immigration and find that it has not made us Feel Safe? When the terrorist attacks that require little to no imagination, preparation, or ability to carry out continue, are the same political forces that demanded the "No Muslims" policy likely to throw up their hands and say, Oh well, we tried? Or are they more likely to ratchet up their rhetoric and their proposed solutions as they chase the dragon of Feeling Safe in a world in which complete security is a goal that can never be achieved? We can't predict what will come next, but we can predict that something will indeed come next once we have tried an immigration ban and discovered – to the surprise only of people oblivious to the world around them and unable to understand modern terrorism for what it is – that it did not end terrorism. What happens when we're five steps down the slope – say, having rounded up and interred every vaguely Middle Eastern looking person – and we find that even that hasn't stopped this kind of terrorist attack that can't be stopped? I have no clear idea where the imaginations of people like Trump go, but I have a clear sense that I do not want to learn by experience.

The flaw in the things xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and nationalist elements in our society propose to protect us from terrorism – moral, ethical, and legal problems aside – is that they will not actually protect us from terrorism. The process of watching them increase their dosage in pursuit of a high they can never achieve is not something we can describe in any detail until it happens, but we can predict safely that it will be unpleasant.

SCREAMING AT A WALL

Posted in Rants on September 19th, 2016 by Ed

On a day on which police managed to take into custody alive a suspected terrorist who fired off dozens of rounds at officers, hitting two, we have another video of a unarmed black man with his hands in the air being killed by police. On cue we have America's millions of poorly educated white cop apologists rushing to excuse it by weaving a narrative around the (idiotic on its face) assumption that the police version of events represents the truth, and the whole truth.

I don't argue with people about these incidents anymore because I've found that if "He was walking away" is all the justification an individual needs for the police to kill an unarmed person, then my time would be better spent doing something more productive like talking to walls or excavating the lint from my navel. If that is your threshold for when you think the state should feel justified in killing someone, your worldview is skewed beyond repair and there's nothing for the rest of us in society to do except wait patiently for you to die and begin rebuilding whatever you haven't managed to destroy of our national fabric.

God knows we have ample opportunity to reflect on the matter since we average about one of these incidents per week at this point. And I've simply given up on trying to make people who feel no empathy whatsoever toward people of different races – see how long it takes before terms like "animals" and "savages" make an appearance – feel what is supposed to be an innate emotion in mammals. Rats have empathy, yet somehow our modal Trump enthusiast does not.

We have to give them one thing, though: They're not smart, but they have decent intuition. They know, you see. They know intuitively that the reason they owe blind fealty to law enforcement is that they are drawn from the same lot. Your average small town cop isn't much different from your average small town white working poor / laid off / disabled or "disabled" person. Neither had the ambition to move more than 10 miles from the high school from which they struggled to graduate or the hospital in which they were born and look forward to someday dying. They share the mutual cultural understanding that white teens make Mistakes while black ones are Thugs, that a white guy walking around armed to the teeth is expressin' his freedums while even an unarmed black man is reason to fear for one's life, that white people don't work because of The Government while blacks and Hispanics are just lazy, that white people can take of social welfare to their hearts' content while minorities are scheming to live off their hard earned tax dollars, that an individual can cook meth and beat his kids and get into weekly fights at the one bar in town that will have him and still be "a good person" – i.e., a white one – at heart.

They know. They know that "justice" for them is a wink and a nudge and an understanding guy they went to high school with. So they can demand and condone the most ludicrous excesses of violence from law enforcement, a Judge Dredd dystopia in which the slightest indiscretion is punished with death and the absolute confidence that this policy will only apply to the Others. It's a very logical quid pro quo – unconditional support for law enforcement in exchange for the different treatment they conceive of as their birthright. White people must be as forgiving with one another as they must be unforgiving with the people to whom they consider themselves superior.

UNDISCIPLINED RETREAT

Posted in Rants on September 18th, 2016 by Ed

This Washington Post story about a sad, broken down white guy of middle age who won't go anywhere without open carrying got a lot of well-deserved attention this weekend. You can tell it's written well when you end up feeling pangs of sympathy for someone who clearly represents a threat to society, not to mention himself and his (apparently very patient) wife.

We hear the story of a man who grew up in a world in which guns were never seen and – somehow, improbably – this man of no discernibly useful skills achieved a decent working class existence without making guns the sole focus of his every waking moment. But then…

But then it began unraveling, starting when he was fired from a trucking job days after telling Maria, who was pregnant with their first child, to quit her job and focus on the baby, that he could support them both. Their first bankruptcy filing wasn’t far behind, then the second, and the third, and then they were moving to Florida, where Maria had family and where Jim got a job with a grocery chain. It transferred him to Winder, and he moved the family into a middle-class neighborhood struggling with crime and drugs…

(In) late 2008 he emerged from that hospital with three stents in his heart, debts worth $41,052.51 and a dawning realization he was now disabled, broke and would never work again. After the heart attack, he lost most of the circulation in his legs, received three more stents and started using an electric scooter whenever he had to walk long distances.

He told Maria he was all used up, a drag on the family. She should think about leaving him. But she wouldn’t, even after the hospital sued him for unpaid medical bills, even after he was arrested when he carried his .380 outside a school board meeting, even after he came home one day with an AR-15. He shot it at a nearby firing range and, feeling a sense of control that had gone missing in his life, told Maria he could now keep the family safe.

It doesn't take a professional psychologist to figure out what need the twin obsessions of guns and ultra-right wing politics are serving for the angry white males who are now such a prominent and dangerous part of our society.

Maria sat at a laptop in a bedroom cluttered with stacks of documents, some of which detailed foreclosure proceedings against the house, and saw the browser had 35 tabs open. One was a YouTube video of something called “Police State 101.” Another showed the dictionary definition of the word “law.” Another was a fringe website her husband classifies as “underground,” the sort he started visiting more frequently after he joined a Georgia militia in late 2014 and decided it was up to him to protect his family from foreign and government threats.

She messaged the deputy, then looked at Jim’s Facebook page. It bore pictures of her husband carrying guns and posts about a country dissolving into chaos and videos about people stopping intruders with guns, people killing burglars with guns, people shooting big guns, small guns, all kinds of guns, that he watches late into the night.

I realize how closely earning power is connected to masculinity in the United States. It must be very difficult to face life when not only can you not earn enough to get above the poverty line, but you're incapable of earning anything at all. The mental retreat into this violent fantasy world in which white males with guns are the sole remaining virtuous members of humanity does not follow quite so easily. On his own it's unlikely this man would have chosen that particular mental escape route. But he doesn't live in a vacuum. He lives in a world in which tens of thousands of other angry, minimally educated and economically marginalized white men have already created a support structure (of sorts) into which he can be welcomed.

White supremacist groups have recruited for decades by targeting the socially maladjusted, the friendless loners most likely to be filled with anger and looking for a feeling of belonging. Now there are so many disillusioned, angry, and pliable people wandering around aimlessly that the movement seeking to recruit them might as well just set up shop in strip malls next to the Armed Forces Recruiting Center and the payday loan place.

I'm not naive enough to think that a better economy would make these people disappear. I do think it's no coincidence that the obsession with guns and the militia / conspiracy worldview often follows the collapse of financial stability and earning power.

AND I SWEAR

Posted in Rants on September 14th, 2016 by Ed

People who know me in Real Life ask me two questions about Gin and Tacos fairly regularly. I'll get to the other one when I'm feeling more introspective. First, though, let's tackle "Why do you swear so much?" It's a more interesting question, at least to me, than it appears to be on the surface.

The shortest answer is that it's the internet (which permits swearing, I believe) and this format allows one to write whatever words one chooses. That's not very satisfying.

Another totally valid but unsatisfying reason is that I swear a lot when I'm talking, so why not while writing.

The more interesting answer is that in print there are few things more idiotic and puritan than writing "f**k!" and thinking that it is somehow better, more acceptable, or different than "fuck!" If everyone who sees it knows exactly which word "f**k" refers to and says it inside their head when they read that bowdlerized version, then what constructive purpose is served by replacing letters with asterisks or their equivalent?

subtle

We see things like the title of this book more and more often. What is the point? If you've made the creative and editorial decision to put the word "fuck" in the title of the book, then put it in the title of the book. And contrary to whatever silly delicacy you think you're accomplishing by writing "F*ck" instead, I have surprising news for you: the title still has "fuck" in it.

The less obvious part of the issue, though, is why words considered profanity are necessary from a stylistic or rhetorical perspective. Strictly speaking they aren't, of course. The only words that could be called "necessary" are those with no synonyms, so there are always alternatives. I suppose I pick those words when they seem like the most appropriate means of communicating not just the idea but the tone that I want to communicate. What's wrong with that? We're adults here.

I often think back to this interview exchange:

Q: "Why all the infamous language, then?"

A: "Infamous language, are you joking? I speak nothing but the fucking English language. That’s the only thing I’ve been brought up with, and if that’s infamous, then tough shit."

Back in 1977 there was an obvious component of shock value to the choice to say Dirty Words on radio and TV. I think we can agree that there is very little shock value to be gleaned from swearing in 2016; no one but a small child or the most uptight prude bats an eye at an Infamous Four Letter Word anymore. The former will soon get used to it, and the latter have minds and worldviews so small that we really can't concern ourselves with their thought processes.

So, seeing nothing wrong with talking the way normal people talk, it all boils down to using the words that best convey what I feel. It isn't easy to convey feeling in cold text, and anything that advances that goal is worth considering. I can tell you something is ridiculous but goddamn ridiculous paints a better picture, does it not? Calling something nonsense or describing it as an empty or evasive statement is sometimes going to be the best strategy; in others the optimal choice is to call it bullshit. So be it.

Presuming there aren't many underage children reading anything I write, I don't have any problem using words that normal adults understand and use regularly. I see nothing "unprofessional" about it, and some people will disagree with that. To me, insulting the reader's intelligence with asterisks or subjecting them to bland, stilted, colorless writing is unprofessional. "Appropriate" is a nebulous and moving target, and the core of what I believe is that if the world can be full of hateful, poorly written, and / or totally illogical rhetoric considered acceptable and appropriate for mass consumption then a few salty nouns and adjectives should be the least of anyone's concern.

THE CONTEST THAT CAN'T BE WON

Posted in Rants on September 12th, 2016 by Ed

This election, stretching all the way back to the summer of 2015 when the invisible primary began, has been hard for me. Lord knows I haven't had to do any of the work on the campaigns and I have the manifest luxury of being able to ignore it for a day or two here and there. But it has been a profoundly depressing experience and grows more so every day. Were it possible to sleep through the next nine weeks and awaken with the whole thing over, I would do it and accept the loss of gainful employment as a steep but necessary price to pay.

Late last week, for reasons that are not worth explaining, it hit me why this has been such a singularly depressing experience. It seemed profound at the time, although in hindsight (and at first sight to many of you) it seems obvious. This election is horrible in new ways that elections have not been in the United States in living memory. It is horrible because there is no outcome that can erase how awful the election itself has been. It is doing damage that can't and won't be undone. We've seen a part of who we are as a nation and as a society that is so viscerally ugly that no amount of time, reflection, or half-hearted exhortations toward national unity will make us forget what we saw. Have you ever seen anything so gory and shocking that it's with you forever? Maybe seeing somebody get shot, or seeing a victim of a car accident. It's like that. Now that we've seen that a good portion of white America's real beliefs, noble-sounding crap about small government conservative principles aside, boil down to "Keep the Mexicans and Muslims out, and put the Darkies back in their place," well…there's no way to un-see that.

An ordinary election is two boxers alternating between attempts at strategy and the exchange of blind, wild punches. Some of those even slip and land below the belt. At the end of the bout there is, if not mutual respect, at least nothing that happened in the ring that either side will be unable to let go. This election is one boxer in the middle of the ring and the other standing in the corner screaming racial slurs and calling her a bitch. My opinion will not be shared universally, but I believe this election has exposed a divide that no platitudes or soothing language can overcome. That's the funny thing about, you know, mainstreaming and attempting to normalize white nationalism. Turns out that it leaves hard feelings all around.

I will never say that I don't care who wins. That is a statement of pure privilege, the ability to declare that as a white male of middle income I'll probably be fine either way so who cares. I care who wins inasmuch as there are plenty of other people who stand to lose a great deal in this election, and inasmuch as I am not 14 or a total narcissist, other people are important to me. But I'm convinced now that regardless of who wins, there is no outcome to this election that we will be able to define as Good, or even Okay. The best possible outcome is a mediocre, middling neoliberal president bickering unproductively with House wingnuts while Americans attempt to forget that something like a quarter of us appear to want a dictator.

How do you walk that back? How do we process all those "nice" but "misguided" or "uneducated" acquaintances and family members who openly advocate genocide in the same way that a normal person might suggest going to Ikea? How do we collectively ignore how easy it was for an uncharismatic asshole to get millions of people to follow him like slobbering dogs even while he was openly contemptuous of them?

Someone will bring up the Civil War and remind me that time heals all wounds. That's possible. Maybe this is catastrophic thinking caused by excessive exposure to what is going on right now. But a lot of our social problems now flow from the fact that we're having an increasingly difficult time ignoring problems, which has always been the preferred American technique for fostering unity. Racism? Hey just sweep it under the rug and let's hug it out over some Monday Night Football! Now, though…I dunno, man. We've seen things. I don't think there's any way to go back. And that, despite how many aspects of this election are horrible, is the worst part about all of this.

UNLOVABLE AT ANY SPEED

Posted in Rants on September 5th, 2016 by Ed

I write a lot, albeit intermittently, about architecture and related topics like urban planning and the built environment in general. And it is endlessly fascinating how so many Americans can create for themselves ghastly, fundamentally unlovable living spaces and then wonder why nobody – themselves included – loves them.

Try to love a McMansion, or even a smaller-scale new construction suburban Box o' Siding house. Try to love a subdivision. Try to love a strip mall, especially one surrounded by fifteen more. Try to love a six-lane divided street with no sidewalks and Fall of Saigon traffic. You won't. You won't because you can't. Tens of millions of Americans have moved to the suburbs since the end of the Second World War, and the design of new suburbs and the living spaces that fill them are not only a symptom of the malaise of "What's wrong with this country?" but also a cause of it. A Boomer who grew up in the 1950s in a 900 square foot brick home eight feet away from a similar home on either side and in 2016 lives in a 2500 square foot empty beige pastiche of gaudy anti-architecture on a big lot can ask without the slightest hint of self awareness or irony, "I wish things were more like they were in the good ol' days."

We complain that people don't know their neighbors anymore, which is a choice. When people move to the suburbs, the physical manifestation of the psychological impulse to withdraw and escape, it makes perfect sense that they don't know their neighbors. Their neighbors are probably just like them – misanthropes who want nothing more than to hole up in four cheaply built walls and shut out the scary world without. Add in an acre or two of lawn and a tall "privacy" fence and what do you expect? Of course you don't know your neighbors. That's the whole point of the lifestyle you chose for yourself.

I hear people make this complaint often and I never pass the opportunity to point out that I know my neighbors, which is pretty amazing considering 1) I have bad social skills, 2) They speak about 10 words of English and I speak about 10 of Polish, and 3) I'm kind of an asshole. But I know them because we live in the same building and arm's length from another building. We know each other because we have not chosen to live in an environment constructed to prevent us from having to know each other.

To live in the Midwest or New England is to be close at all times to urban decay and the depressing skeletons of places that obviously used to be very nice places; places people older than me are remembering fondly (and not without reason) when they pine for the way things used to be. The new, sterile, antisocial spaces they've built for themselves pale in comparison. They are by design shoddy replicas of a real urban setting, an authentic small town, or something resembling a community in which people interact with one another. But the places they once loved and are now depressing relics didn't get that way by accident. They fell apart because the people who now bemoan their loss chose to ran away rather than live near immigrants or black people. Maybe this is why they're so angry. What's the line? "That's what really hurts: you did it to yourself"?

There's a reason people under 40 want to live in urban areas and even those who can afford suburban living rarely choose it. We believe our parents when they say that life doesn't feel like it used to in this country, that something feels wrong, that something undefinable is missing. Unlike them, however, we haven't watched the Local News at Nine and Fox News to the point that we're terrified at the very thought of living in something other than self-imposed isolation, segregated from Scary Non-White People and without the lawns and parking lots and cathedral ceilings that they insist are going to make them happy someday.

It isn't rocket science. Create for yourself a home, a neighborhood, a town, a state, a country that is ugly, impersonal, cynical, and unlovable and you will not love it. To hear people who want to Make America Great Again bemoan everything wrong with the country as they experience it is to watch someone who has locked themselves in a closet for three decades complain that they're bored and lonely. When you construct a life for yourself behind a panoply of physical and psychological barriers it shouldn't come as a surprise that people seem different than they used to back when you had to talk to and interact with them.

STEP ONE: TAKE OUT YOUR FOOD

Posted in Rants on August 24th, 2016 by Ed

There's an old joke among outdoors types, some variant of, "If you're lost in the woods alone, how do you get something to eat? Step one: Take out the food you brought with. Step two: Eat some of it." A hearty laugh is had by all, and valuable lessons about preparation are learnt. Good times.

Like most humans beings, I'm getting older. The older I get, the more I think about, well, not quite "retirement" but some way I can avoid working until the very last minute before I drop dead. My job's decent as far as jobs go, but let's face it. Nobody wants to see any more of the inside of an office than they have to. I have had a comfortable life but do not come from any sort of Wealth. That is to say, even though the members of my family are all doing alright individually, we're all dependent on a paycheck. Without that, there's nothing to fall back on (or, what there is to fall back on wouldn't last long). Professors aren't paid poorly, objectively, but even without a spouse and kids I struggle to save a meaningful amount of money. Sure, I save. But I can't save a really meaningful amount of money. Not a "How do I pay my bills if I'm out of work for a year" money.

So, lately I've thought a lot about making some investments in the future. I've done a good bit of research on buying rental properties, which would allow me to bring in some small but consistent additional income that would continue even if, god forbid, I couldn't work for an extended period of time. They say property's the best investment anyway, as long as we black out and forget a few years here and there. And the more research I do, the more it becomes apparent that there are a good number of ways (not guaranteed, of course) to make money in the world of real estate. In fact, any reasonably creative person can think of a number of ways potentially to make money.

The thing is, of course, that I can't afford to actually do any of them. It turns out that the easiest way to make money is to start with a lot of money and use it to make more. It wouldn't be difficult at all to collect rent checks on nice new apartment blocks in popular neighborhoods in Chicago. As long as, you know, I had a million dollars to start with to get the process moving.

When people say things like our current Republican presidential nominee say – Oh, I got started by borrowing a little money from my parents, just $9 million, no big deal – or people less toxic and spoiled than him say similar things on a smaller scale ("Oh, my parents 'helped me' with the down payment on this house") it underscores everything that gives the lie to the meritocracy we insist we live in. It's not impossible to get ahead without starting halfway there, but…let's put it this way: people who start closer to the finish line are represented disproportionately among those who reach it. It turns out that if you already have food with you, finding something to eat isn't much of a challenge.

Again, this isn't a Horatio Alger pulp story. I didn't grow up as a wretch in Victorian London. I afford housing and clothing and feeding myself much more easily than the majority of Americans, and I feel fortunate that this is the case. It's alarming, though, to think about our lives and how quickly everything would go to shit – even for most of us who are comfortable – were the paychecks to stop coming. It's frustrating to be able to conceive of ways to get oneself off the paycheck to paycheck treadmill but not be able to make any of them a reality. While there may be a great range of incomes and levels of comfort among "The 99%" (to abuse an already abused cliche) but at least we all have this one thing in common – come up with all the bright ideas you want, unless you're sitting on a winning Lotto ticket it isn't going to matter.

THE SOLUTION WAS RIGHT THERE ALL ALONG

Posted in Rants on August 22nd, 2016 by Ed

If it's not too early in the morning for you to handle some rage-bait, check out this Gothamist article about (warning: low hanging fruit) a Brooklyn millennial buying an apartment. Make sure your reading area is clear of potential projectiles.

To summarize, if you don't feel like subjecting yourself to it, Kendall (a "design assistant") is paying $1800 for half the rent in a seedy East Village apartment she shares with a roommate. Certainly we can sympathize without sarcasm with anyone earning a normal or even below-average income trying to make the NYC rental market work. If splitting $3600 for a flophouse was the best I could do, I'd be upset too. But Kendall is quite resourceful, so she solves the problem by having her parents make a down payment on a $400,000 studio apartment for her. Why doesn't everyone in NYC think of that! It's so obvious.

But wait! Not all is well. Kendall soon discovers that even $400,000 won't buy her a studio in Williamsburg anymore (Again, this is legitimately horrible. How can any normal person living paycheck to paycheck live anywhere near a place with $400,000 studio apartments.) but she is, and I quote, "a person who can make a lot out of nothing." Nothing is $400,000. A lot of which is being given to her by someone else.

After finding several in her price range, another tragedy befalls her: they're not in Cool neighborhoods! They're so far away from her friends, she might as well be living on the Azores! But fear not. As the author puts it, the Government is here to save her from this series of tragedies. Taking advantage of a housing assistance program called the NYC Housing Development Fund, Kendall receives tax subsidies and price breaks that allow her to find a place in Williamsburg for $400,000. Mind you, it's a sixth-floor unit (which, I kid you not, she actually bitches about in the original article) but

She concludes, "It's great to own. It feels kind of adultish and comforting and stabilizing." I bet it does, Kendall. I bet it does. Despite being gainfully employed with an advanced degree, I will never, ever be able to afford to buy a home unless it's a trailer unit in Pigsknuckle County, Indiana, so I'll have to take your word for it. You really have to marvel at the lack of self-awareness that allows someone to agree to have such an incredibly unflattering portrait of her printed in a major newspaper. Rich girl gets parents to buy her a home, pisses and moans that she can't find one she wants, abuses government program intended to provide assistance to low-income people who can't afford anything, and then gets (sort of) what she wants but not really because she still has to point out the things wrong with it.

That this is presented originally in the NY Times as some kind of light-hearted tale rather than a sickening indictment of everything that is wrong with the positively criminal real estate market in New York City almost defies belief. Change the tone and the headline and this is a muckraking piece worth of Lincoln Steffens. Instead, we just gloss over the fact that everyone in the city essentially admits that home ownership without inherited wealth (and not a small amount of it) is all but impossible, with prices that put even one-room studios well beyond the reach of anyone earning less than a quarter of a million dollars.

Welcome to day one of this week's theme: Your life will suck if you're not born into money, and there's nothing you can do about it.

NEITHER SILENT NOR THE MAJORITY

Posted in Rants on August 15th, 2016 by Ed

It's hard to find a subject that the modal American – poorly informed about most things and not terribly interested in becoming less poorly informed – does not think is useless. Math? Who needs it! A calculator can do anything I need to know! Literature? Oh my god who cares about Dickens, it isn't 1860 and I don't live in England. History? What does it matter what happened in 1700, I just want to get to work on time lol! But of all subjects you won't find one Americans are worse at than geography. Don't get me wrong, we're bad at the other ones too. But Americans don't even understand much about the geography of their own country let alone the rest of the world. And while not everything in the world can be tied to the current election cycle and Donald Trump, fundamental ignorance of American population geography underlies the inability of a lot of people to understand what is about to happen in November.

Not everyone likes trivia as much as I do, but give this a shot. And feel free to ask your friends and coworkers to give it a shot, too. As of 2015, what are the 10 most populous cities in the United States? How about the 10 biggest metro areas (which would include the adjacent suburbs of major cities)? What percentage of the U.S. population lives in the two biggest states?

Take a minute.

Everyone can spit out the three biggest cities in order: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. After that things get dicey for most people. They throw out the most recognizable cities: Boston, Washington, Miami, San Francisco. Maybe cities well known and presumed "major" because they have professional sports: Seattle, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and so on. In reality, the top five is rounded out by Philadelphia and Houston. But numbers six through ten would probably shock your friends: Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose. Oh, and #11? Austin. Austin, Texas. How many people do you think realize that San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the US? That San Jose and San Diego are bigger than Boston, Miami, Washington, and so on? That Austin frickin' Texas is knocking on the door of the 10th largest city in the country?

Looking at Metro areas, do your friends believe that places like Kansas City, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans are not even in the top twenty?

And now, the fact I resort to most often when I want to tell people something they'll refuse to believe. The two largest states, California and Texas, now hold 20.75% of the US population. One out of every five people in this country lives in those two states. In those states, the population overwhelmingly lives in megacities like the SF Bay Area, San Diego, Los Angeles, the DFW "Metroplex", Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston, and so on. If we round out the top five states (adding NY, FL, and distant fifth place Illinois) 37.5% of the entire population lives in those five states. And of course those states have heavily urbanized populations as well.

So. Who cares, right?

Very few Americans who are neither demographers or real estate investors understand the staggering rate of growth in America's urban populations in the past twenty years. Some of today's fastest-growing cities – Austin, Denver, Portland, Phoenix, Las Vegas, anyplace in Florida, etc. – are adding something on the order of 100 new residents every day for years on end. As is the case in most developed countries around the world, America is becoming a country of very, very big cities surrounded by vast expanses of empty countryside with little to recommend it as a place to live. Small cities and towns have been emptying out steadily since the 1980s, when agriculture and manufacturing began to decline in earnest as components of the nation's economy. The Youngstown, Ohios and Muncie, Indianas across the country no longer had a compelling way to attract people. Everyone who could leave did so. What remains – and if you're a Midwesterner like me you already know this story by heart – are the people who are too old, too poor, or too foolish to get out.

So when you visit areas where Donald Trump is popular – pick any postindustrial war zone across Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, or the upper Midwest – you find a population of shockingly limited worldview who can say with perfect sincerity that they don't know anyone who's voting for Hillary Clinton. The people of Altoona, PA naturally believe that only election rigging could produce a Trump defeat because locally his popularity is off the charts and, crucially, they have no concept of how tiny and unrepresentative of the population of their state and the country a place like Altoona is in 2016. To live in such a place is to fail to understand that very little of America, population-wise, looks like that anymore.

Living in Peoria for three years I often had to endure conversations with locals (many of whom, believe it or not, had never been farther than an hour or two away in any direction) who complained as all "downstate" Illinoisans do of the dominance of Chicagoland in state politics. And I would have to point out that there are 13 million people in Illinois. About 150,000 of them live in Peoria. The Chicago metro area has 9.8 million. Three quarters, conservatively, of the state lives in Cook or the collar counties. Of course it dominates state politics. Of course "downstate" is pushed aside in most decisions. Nobody lives there. And people who live outside of the major urban centers that increasingly dominate our landscape simply do not understand the math of modern population geography. They think that because most of the country looks rural or small-urban in terms of area, that makes them a political majority. But in reality we are a nation of vast, effectively empty spaces around megacities which dominate representative institutions with sheer numbers.

This is a mistake even – or especially – journalists make. The myth of "real America", small town America, or whatever they choose to call it overlooks the reality that when people who live in such places complain that they are ignored or marginalized it is usually because they are ignored and marginalized. And there is cold, hard math that explains why. The more we lead people to believe that rural America is Real America, the more we feed the insistence that the majority of us are living in small towns or rural cities under 100,000 people. We're not. We're at a point at which almost all of us live in a major city or its immediate suburbs, and that percentage grows every day. Ignorance of the world outside their immediate surroundings makes it natural that your average old white Trump supporter in Rustville believes that he or she is part of a Silent Majority that simply isn't.