Aug 25

After 20 Years, Welfare Reform Successful as Expected

Zaid JilaniThis week marks the 20th anniversary of “welfare reform,” the 1996 law passed by Congress and administered by President Bill Clinton that strictly limited the amount of federal cash assistance that the poorest Americans can receive — transforming the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program into the more restrictive Temporary Aid for Needy Families.

One of the main impacts of the law was to help double the number of American households living in extreme poverty in America — defined as living on less than $2 a day…

Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan Social Work professor and one of the researchers who documented the rise in extreme poverty since the passage of welfare reform, told The Intercept that the claims of reduction in poverty and increase in employment were more true up until 2000. “Single moms did go to work, but it is unclear if welfare reform had much to do with it,” he said. The Earned Income Tax Credit “expansion is much more clearly important. And we know that the moms who left welfare were not any better off for it, and in some cases a lot worse off.”

Shaefer worked with sociologist Kathryn Edin on a book released last year that found before welfare reform, more than a million households with children were being kept out of extreme poverty thanks to federal assistance. By 2011, that had dropped to about 300,000. The researchers estimated that 1.5 million American households, including 3 million children, are today living at or below extreme poverty — double the number that it was in 1996.

The impact of welfare reform was particularly severe on women and minorities, with many female-headed families losing income and women being forced into low-wage work without benefits.

Shaefer points to research from Jim Ziliak, a prominent economist who studied the issue for the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Taken together, the results from leaver studies, demonstrations, and from national samples suggest that many women were worse off financially after welfare reform,” he writes. “Especially at the bottom of the distribution.”

—Zaid Jilani
20 Years Later, Poverty Is Up, But Architects of “Welfare Reform” Have No Regrets

Aug 25

Steve Scalise and the Empathy Deficit of Conservatives

Steve ScaliseIrving Kristol famously said, “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Given the fantasy merchants that later neoconservatives would be, the line is ironic. I’ve often heard a similar line, “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged.” And there is something to that. Think: Christopher Hitchens. But mostly, that’s hogwash. I think that if you look at the fine grain — not the overall ideology — a liberal is a conservative who’s been mugged. Let’s consider three such conservatives who suddenly found a taste for liberal policy: Steve Scalise, Bill Cassidy, and John Fleming.

All of these Congressmen are from Louisiana. And they all rightly want the federal government to do something about the flooding in Louisiana. They also all voted against the Superstorm Sandy relief package. Now before anyone starts yelling that they had reasons for voting against the Sandy bill, this is always the case. No politician ever says, “I’m cutting food stamps because I hate poor children.” They always have reasons. In 2013, Steve Scalise was all for helping Hurricane Sandy victims, as long as it was offset (a new conservative requirement as long as a Democrat was President).

They Have Their (Fake) Reasons

Usually, it is something along the lines of, “I’d love to vote for this bill, if only…” And then the bill is changed for them. And suddenly there is a new reason, “I’d love to vote for this bill, if only this other thing…” This happened again and again while trying to pass Obamacare. Countless things were added and cut to the bill for the sake of this or that Republican. And in the end, not a single one voted for it. Politicians lie. Conservative politicians especially. It’s hard to say what you mean when you really do want to cut food stamps because you hate poor children.

Anyway, getting back to the three Louisiana stooges: is it hypocrisy? Maybe and maybe not. I’m not much interested since we are all hypocrites to one extent or aother. My interest in how it is that these staunch and “principled” conservatives find themselves in favor of liberal policy. In the article I linked to above, Michael Hiltzik wrote, “They’re all likely exemplars of another Washington truism: fiscal responsibility is great, until it’s your own district that’s getting fiscally hammered.”

When Empathy Is Forced on a Conservative

But it isn’t all about politics. This is a very personal thing. I remember decades ago, Sam Donaldson talking about how Ronald Reagan had heard about some little girl suffering from a disease. So the president sent a check for an enormous amount of money to her parents. At the same time, he was savaging aid to millions of other boys and girls. If Reagan saw the suffering, it affected him. If he didn’t, well, he didn’t care. He could justify his actions as being for the greater good. And so on.

I’ve written about a crystal clear example of this three years ago, Rob Portman Affected By Gay Bigotry. Before that, Portman was publicly in favor of employers being able to fire employees because they were gay. But then he found out that his son was gay. And suddenly it was, “Rob Portman: Defender of LGBT Rights!” Of course, that hasn’t turned Portman into a liberal; he just has a liberal carve-out because of his son. This is like the Cheneys’ carve-out because of their daughter.

Steve Scalise Can See Clearly Now!

So sure: Steve Scalise, Bill Cassidy, and John Fleming are doubtless just looking out for their jobs. But it is also likely true that on this one issue they are liberal. People they know have been hurt. It’s not like people from New Jersey and New York who might as well be Nazi zombies for all they care. But the people of Louisiana are, well, people! I’ll bet they’ve even met people who have lost their homes.

The point of all this is that conservatism — at least the radical form practiced here in the United States — is based on limited empathy. We know, for example, that people who live in low crime areas are much more punitive than those in high crime areas when asked what kind of punishment a wrong-doer should receive. I believe this is because people in high crime areas can contextualize crime. They don’t think that just because someone steals or even murders that they are animals — just out to harm with no redeeming qualities.

So it isn’t surprising that the most potent force behind American conservatism is racism. If all America were Sarah Palin’s vaunted “real America,” I’m sure conservatives would be like they are in other advanced economies: in favor of things like universal healthcare. But we don’t live in that world. So we have bigots like Steve Scalise to stop all those Others from being treated like humans. Now maybe if his son or daughter lived in New York during Hurricane Sandy, he would have been for relief in 2012. But instead, he’s had to wait until now.

Aug 24

The Only Part of Doctor Faustus Anyone Knows

Christopher Marlowe - Doctor FaustusWas this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sacked;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colors on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azured arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

—Christopher Marlowe
Doctor Faustus

Aug 24

Wisconsin District 08 — Plus Paul Ryan!

Tom Nelson - Wisconsin District 08There are two races I will talk about for Wisconsin. Wisconsin District 08 is a toss up. The other, well, isn’t; but it’s pretty to think so.

Wisconsin District 01 (WI-01)

In Wisconsin District 01, we find the current Speaker of House: the over-hyped “wonk” of Paul Ryan. He is running against a gentleman named Ryan Solen. He is a former Iraq war vet who served in the Army as a medic and is now a computer systems analyst for SC Johnson.

Solen has an incredibly difficult uphill battle if he is going to be the first person to unseat a Speaker since 1994. Generally, Speakers don’t lose their districts for the fairly obvious reason that they are gerrymandered for them. However that doesn’t mean a particularly large wave year wouldn’t sweep anyone — including a Speaker of the House — out of office.

Speaker Ryan has a large war chest and the seat is considered safely Republican. At the same time, Ryan only managed to get 55% in the last presidential year election. This cycle has Democrats and a lot of independents wanting to vote against Trump and they may vote just as much against Ryan to punish him for not being tougher on keeping Trump under control. Of all of the Congressional candidates, I think Speaker Ryan is the one most visibly connected with Trump and that is going to seriously hurt him.

The Numbers

People who are better at this than I am with the whole math thing have determined that if Trump gets less than 45% of the votes in the district, it is apparently time for the incumbent to be terrified.

At the beginning of the month, Clinton was up 15 percentage point on Trump and she may very well still be that high or around ten points more than Trump since Wisconsin is considered a very safe Democratic state. But there aren’t any real polls for the individual districts at this point and unfortunately Ryan Solen isn’t a sparkly enough media figure to get a great deal of attention.

Solen is however doing most of the right things by defining his opponent by the person at the top of the ticket and demanding a debate. I have jokingly pointed out that there should be the slogan of #PickTheBetterRyan for this race, but like usual, no one listens to me.

It will likely stay safe for Paul Ryan but things could change.

Wisconsin District 08 (WI-08)

Wisconsin District 08 is getting a lot of the attention because it is a possible pick up for the Democrats. It is an open seat because the Republican incumbent is retiring at the end of this term. In 2008, it went for Obama, but switched to Romney in 2012. It also was a 2006 Democratic wave pick up that was lost in 2010. So Wisconsin District 08 could go either way.

Mike Gallagher - Wisconsin 08It also has generated a lot of buzz because of the two candidates running. Tom Nelson is the Democrat and he is an Outagamie County executive who has been talked up for someone to possibly run for governor. In 2010 he ran against Tom Barrett for the Lt Governorship. He actually came really close for such a Republican wave year — losing by only by six points. So he knows how to campaign and do so effectively.

The Republican is Mike Gallagher. He won a surprise upset over an experienced politico in the primary. A former Marine, he was a foreign policy analyst for both the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations and Scott Walker’s failed presidential bid. He has been vigorously campaigning and has tried to distance himself from Trump. But he did admit he will be voting for the Republican standard-bearer.

A Tough District

Wisconsin District 08 is going to be a tough race. Since I don’t live in that area, I can’t speak to which one will be more effective at getting out the vote and winning. Tom Nelson is a guy who has incredibly deep ties to the district and he ran unopposed so he was able to spend all of his time working the general election voters. The Republican primary, on the other hand, was fairly brutal and left Gallagher with the moniker of DC Mike. Just the same, it also provided him with higher name recognition.

I do think since this is a blue wave year, it is probably going to go to Nelson.

Aug 23

Chilean Privatized Social Security Falling Apart

Michael HiltzikPromoters of privatizing the US Social Security system have never tired of holding up Chile’s privatized program as an example of how this can make workers rich. The trick is that they never ask ordinary Chilean workers and retirees how they feel about it.

That may be because they know what the answer would be. It was visible last month in the streets of the capital, Santiago, where crowds estimated at 100,000 to 200,000 marched to demand reform…

The Chilean program was promoted relentlessly by its creator, Jose Pinera, who got himself a sinecure at the Cato Institute out of the deal. From there he fed American conservatives’ fantasies of “an obvious free market solution that works,” he wrote for a Cato audience in 1997. (In that same article he declared that “America’s Social Security system will go bust in 2010.” Umm, no.) He boasted of how he single-handedly “decided to undertake a structural reform [of Chile’s bankrupt retirement system] that would solve the problem once and for all.” …

But the seams soon showed. The World Bank determined that fees charged by those favored investment firms consumed fully half the pension contributions of the average worker retiring in 2000. The government surplus disappeared, and those outsized stock market gains faded away.

A series of reforms of the reform followed. But not enough. Many workers can’t afford to pay the 10% minimum contribution, and others have been moved out of the system by a shift toward contract labor. The average pension for retirees is about $400 a month, Bloomberg reports, but 40% of retirees are getting less than $260.

—Michael Hiltzik
Chile’s Privatized Social Security System, Beloved by US Conservatives, Is Falling Apart

Aug 23

Why Trump Won? It Ain’t Rocket Science; It’s Social Psychology

Why Trump WonI don’t like to write about Trump because at base, I’m an academic. An academic without an academy, sure. But over time, I’ve found that I’m just not interested in discussing the little things. It’s kind of like in Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Terry Eagleton knows that most religious people hold ridiculous opinions, so he doesn’t talk about it. It’s fish in a barrel. He wants to aim higher. And I feel the same way about Donald Trump. He’s so obviously a nightmare, his latest proof doesn’t seem worth talking about. But I am still interested in the question of why Trump won the GOP primary.

Let me start by noting that I don’t think that, from a policy standpoint, Trump would be categorically different than other Republicans. His foreign policy might well be far better. This tax plan is worse, but after going through the House and Senate, his tax plan would turn out to be identical to whatever one would have been enacted under Ted Cruz, John Kasich, or Marco Rubio. On Social Security, Trump would be better. The one area where he might be worse is that his rhetoric might embolden his followers to commit acts of terrorism against various minority groups. But I tend to think these lazy cowards won’t be doing anything — especially if their savior Donald Trump is in command.

Another issue to consider is that it doesn’t much matter why Trump won. By the end, all the candidates were Donald Trump. They just weren’t as good at it. Look at Kasich! He has a notorious anger problem. Amanda Marcotte wrote an excellent article about him back in February where she ran down what a vile president he would make because of his racism, sexism, xenophobia, and demagoguery. So the GOP was going to nominate someone like Donald Trump because that’s what Republicans like.

The Eternal 25 Percent

But on the specifics, it isn’t a mystery why Trump won. There are always about 25% of the people who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. What they’re mad about is mostly unclear. The few Trump supporters I know are actually doing very well in an economic sense — far better than I’ve ever done. They remind me of rich people who are angry that they aren’t more rich. These people want more respect (or something) in the society. Of course, if they got it, they’d just be angry that it wasn’t enough.

Republicans smelled blood in the water in 2016. They thought this was their election. As a result, we got upwards of 20 candidates for president from them. Why Trump won was simply that he best spoke to these authoritarians who make up at least half the party.

There are roughly 25% of these people in the United States. I suspect the numbers are roughly the same in England and Germany and France. These people are, to put it bluntly, authoritarians. They want a strong leader. But they don’t want him (!) so much to get the fags, the coloreds, and the feminazis. They want an authoritarian leader because they want an ultimate authority to say that, yes, they are the right kind of people. They are the real Americans! And this has been the appeal of the entire Republican Party since Nixon.

This 25% of the population has always been there. Look back at Richard Hofstadter’s article The Paranoid Style in American Politics from 1964. This isn’t new. When the Tea Party sprang up, it annoyed me that the media talked about it like it was extraordinary (unlike any leftist movement, which they ignore unless they can’t possibly avoid it). Reporters were surprised when John Birch Society booths showed up at Tea Party events. I wasn’t.

Authoritarianism Is a Republican Problem

This authoritarianism is not confined exclusively to the Republican Party — but it mostly is. I recommend reading John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience. Without this 25% of the electorate, the GOP would be a regional party.

Republicans smelled blood in the water in 2016. They thought this was their election. As a result, we got upwards of 20 candidates for president from them. Why Trump won was simply that he best spoke to these authoritarians who make up at least half the party. They don’t care about policy. They care about having a president who will say that they are the chosen ones. All those other people are lesser. Round them up into camps? Not really necessary — but hardly out of the question.

Why Trump Won

Why Trump won? I think roughly 50% of the Republican Party base is flat out authoritarian. Another 40% have notable tendencies in that regard. In a crowded field, of course Trump would get about a third of the vote. And once it was clear no one could touch him, the rest fell in line.

It’s no mystery why Trump won.

Aug 22

What Is Worship? Herman Melville Has an Idea

Herman Melville - I Would Prefer Not ToI was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included — can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God — that is worship. And what is the will of God? — to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me — that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.

—Herman Melville
Moby Dick

Aug 22

Jane Siberry’s This Girl I Know and the Bechdel Test

Jane Siberry - This Girl I Know - Bechdel TestLet’s get the hard part out of the way first: the Bechdel Test. It consists of three criteria for a work of fiction: it contains at least two female characters; they talk to each other at least once; and what they talk about is not a man. Now you would think that most fictional works would pass the Bechdel Test. But it is surprisingly rare. My first novel, for example, did not pass it.

I think of the Bechdel Test in a broader sense. I don’t think it should be limited to talking about “a man.” I think a conversation about men — how they suck, how they are seduced, whatever — should count. With this broader interpretation (because one could certainly see this as being implied), the situation is even worse.

The truth is, when I learned of the Bechdel Test, I was embarrassed. It’s not that I’m unaware that I have limitations when creating female characters. As much as I like woman, I’m pretty much a gnostic toward them. Certainly, from the age of 5 onward, I’ve felt that women knew things about the universe that I never will. (I still think it’s true and I think it is evolutionary and has to do with childbirth. Women create universes.) So women in my fiction tend to be dark and mysterious. I’m working on this, however.

“This Girl I Know”

But I was listening to Jane Siberry. I love the album, but I must admit to not paying attention to lyrics very much. That is until I pay a great deal of attention to them. The second song on the album is “This Girl I know.” It’s a conversation between two women. One of them says she is sick of being fat and that eventually she will do something about it. And the other is asking her why she doesn’t just do it now.

(There is also a typically Siberry touch of the other woman having a fight with people at another table. “Mind your own business, no, I don’t mean you; it’s the table over there; I think they think I’m being rude; I’m not being rude, I just want to know.”)

I thought it was interesting as I listened to it because it passed the Bechdel Test! But then we get to the bridge, and it all falls apart, “I’ll get some new clothes, I’ll change my style; I’ll cut my hair, I’ll meet a lot of men; I’ll have a lot of dates, I’ll discriminate.” Oh my, Bechdel Test fail!

It’s Not All Bechdel Test

But not everything is about the Bechdel Test. I do think it is a great tool for looking at how we think about women in our society. Obviously, women are better at transcending these prejudices than men. My friend Kristen McHenry’s first (thus far unpublished) novel, “Day Job Blues,” passes the test with such aggressiveness that one could be forgiven for thinking that was her intent. (It wasn’t.)

Although “This Girl I Know” fails the Bechdel Test in an almost classic way, it is still at core, a feminist song. Because the first woman does answer the question: she says she wouldn’t know what to do if a man thought she was “sexy or something.” And when we hear, “Am I supposed to throw away my career and hop into bed?”

Work and Sex

I think that does sum up a fundamental problem for women. For men, sexual politics work because men are seen as dominant on the issue of sex. So a corporate man who is attractive and “fit” has nothing to fear. But an attractive and “fit” woman seems nubile: someone you marry, not someone you promote. And as much as things have changed, that basic dynamic is still very much alive.

So the Bechdel Test isn’t all. One can critique sexual politics, even while failing it. And Jane Siberry does that in “This Girl I Know.”

Aug 21

Corey Robin on Conservatism’s Success

Corey Robin - Conservatism's SuccessBut as I argued at the conclusion of The Reactionary Mind, if conservatism is an inherently reactionary movement, the greatest threat to it will be its success. Once it defeats the movements it was launched to overcome — and those movements will change across time, which is why conservatism, despite being a consistently reactionary politics, will also change across time, in response to the movements it opposes — it loses its raison d’être.

Modern American conservatism, I’ve long held, has succeeded. It essentially destroyed the labor movement, which was, in conservatism’s most recent incarnation in response to the New Deal, its original enemy. It also successfully beat back the Black Freedom movement, which was its second enemy. And it was able to defang the feminist movement, its third enemy. While all these movements are still around — the labor movement, only barely — they don’t have the same traction and forward momentum they once did…

Trump is desperately trying to fashion a new reactionary politics out of the bits and pieces that are now left to it: a white nationalism that draws its animating energies from its hostility to a black president, immigration, and Islam. But the evidence is increasingly clear that that kind of politics simply does not possess enough appeal to propel him or any other similar candidate to the White House. Not, I would argue, because Trump is such a weak candidate (though clearly he is), but because these forces can’t supply the reactionary rationale for modern conservatism the way empowered and radicalized movements of workers, African Americans, and women once did.

It’s going to take a massive victory for the left — not at the polls but in the streets, as a comprehensive social movement of emancipation — for the right to recover its energy and animating purpose. Until that happens, the right might win an election here or there, but they’re essentially going to be in a free-fall.

Trump, in other words, is the least of the GOP’s problems.

—Corey Robin
Donald Trump Is the Least of the GOP’s Problems

Aug 21

Film Reviews and All That Jazz

All That Jazz - Film ReviewsI watched All That Jazz last night. I saw it in the theater in 1980. And I’ve seen in on video since then. I quite liked it when I first saw it, and my appreciation of it has only grown. But my memory of the time is that the film reviews weren’t that great.

The film reviews generally applauded much of the film — including the dance numbers. After all, it was a Bob Fosse film, and movie “critics” might not know much, but they do know enough to not knock Fosse on that score. But when it comes to films like All That Jazz, you can depend upon these hacks to be more interested in what they bring into the film than what’s up there on the screen.

Of course, now the film is a classic. It tends to happen. Over time, people are better able to see a film on its own terms. And even at the time, it was loved by more sophisticated film goers than the ombudsmen who call themselves critics. It shared the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or with another great film, Kagemusha. And it did garner a lot of Academy Award nominations, but largely lost out to the tiresome Kramer vs Kramer.

I was curious to check out what film reviews said back then.

Film Reviews Then and Now

Wikipedia has an annoying tendency to include a lot of recent film reviews in its “Critical Reception” section. The new film reviews should be classified under “Critical Reputation.” Still, there is some information on the old reviews. The reception among “critics” at the time is pretty well summed up by this quote from Variety, “All That Jazz is a self-important, egomaniacal, wonderfully choreographed, often compelling film.”

But I was surprised to see that many of the more recent film reviews haven’t changed much. Leonard Maltin gave the film 2.5 starts out of 4 — an indication he doesn’t even think it’s good? He called it “self-indulgent” and “negative” and “buried in pretensions.” What?! All works of art are self-indulgent. Do they all have to be “positive”? And “buried in pretensions” is meaningless.

Did You Even Watch the Film?

However, for a perfect example of just how bad film reviews are, you can’t go wrong with with Time Out London. Back in 2008, they published a very brief review. Here is the last third of it:

Fellini-esque moments add little but pretension; and scenes of a real open-heart operation, alternating with footage of a symbolic Angel of Death in veil and white gloves, fail even in terms of the surreal.

I hate when people throw around Fellini to explain any kind of film structure that isn’t traditional. It isn’t accurate, although Fellini (along with countless other directors) clearly did influence Fosse. But it’s also unfair to Fellini. He was a lot more than and Amarcord. But leave that aside.

The end of the sentence is factually wrong: “scenes of a real open-heart operation, alternating with footage of a symbolic Angel of Death in veil and white gloves, fail even in terms of the surreal.” Such a sequence might well fail to be surreal. Of course, no such sequence is in the film. The surgery footage is intercut with the film producers discussing Joe Gideon’s possible death with their insurance company. The conclusion is that if Gideon dies, they will make a half million dollars. I don’t have a simple word for what Fosse was going for — “irony” is close — but “surreal” is not it.

Why Film Reviews Suck

The best film reviews generally reflect a single engaged viewing. Too many involve a distracted viewing. But film reviews like this are so front-loaded with opinions as to be journalistic malpractice. Whoever wrote the review (it has not byline) probably saw the film at some point — maybe when it was first out, 28 years before the review was written. It’s not fair to the film. And it’s not fair to the reader. But that’s what film reviews are all about.

Aug 20

Simon Wren-Lewis on Brexit-Trump Connection

Simon Wren-Lewis - Brexit-TrumpThis study that looked at Trump supporters has got quite a bit of publicity. Some have been surprised that “his supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations, but they earn relative high household incomes, and living in areas more exposed to trade or immigration does not increase Trump support.” They also tend to be a little older. Having looked at who voted for Brexit, I was not surprised.

The two clear explanatory variables for those who voted that the UK should leave the EU were education and age. Much has also been made of the fact that, other things equal, those from areas of the country that suffered from deindustrialization over the last 30 years tended to vote Leave, but there was no correlation with levels or rates of change of income. Nor is there any clear correlation between Brexit support and levels of immigration, again matching this study’s findings for Trump support…

Times of rapid economic and social change can leave large parts of society left behind, particularly if they are not equipped with the skills required to adapt. When incomes then stop growing, these groups long for things to be how they used to be (to “make America great again”). The most obvious manifestation of change is the prospect (not actuality) of living with different people and cultures: hence “taking back control” over immigration in the UK and building a wall in the US. What the Brexit vote showed is that when this fear of the new is combined with a protest over relative economic deprivation it can become a dangerous political force.

—Simon Wren-Lewis
Brexit and Trump Supporters

Aug 20

Work and the Edification of the Soul

Work: Boy Studying - Lewis Hine

A while back, I wrote about finding a play called MP3 that I had no memory of writing, Creation as a Spiritual Act. You can click over there if you want to get some idea of what it is about. But the main thing is that it is a kind of play that I’ve developed that I call “theatrical essays.” They are kitchen sink affairs, largely because I’m a kitchen sink kind of guy. They are vaudeville with a narrative. But most of all, they are the kinds of things that I want to see. They are a joy to work on.

So every night in bed, instead of reading, I’ve been working on the play. There are many problems with it. In particular, the structure is wrong. But as I’ve worked with it, I’ve realized that I would make it into a full-length play. It has been edifying. I feel like the process is making me a better a person. This is in distinct contrast with paying work that is, well, work. Like all workers, I am paid to make money for the company. In my case, it isn’t direct. If it were, the company would soon go out of business! But ultimately, what I’m involved in making is money.

I Like My Job

And I’m quite reasonably paid for my efforts in this regard. But I’ve been working just under 8 hours per day. Now I understand that doesn’t sound like a lot. But this is freelance work. I bill in 5 minute increments. I don’t bill for breaks. And I am constantly busy because there is always more work than I can get to. Finally, I do work that isn’t on the clock. In between those last two sentences, I noticed a writer was having a problem and I fixed it for them. That kind of stuff adds up, I’m sure.

I’m not complaining about work. I enjoy doing it and I’m good at it. It’s nice to be paid for something that you’re good at. And I work with interesting people. And all of that. But today it hit me, “I don’t have to work this much!” I don’t need much money. I have no children — no wife to speak of. What am I working so much for? Is it that I fear I won’t get any work if I cut back to 20 or 30 hours? I don’t think so. It is just habit. And it’s gotten out of hand.

The Bizarre Work I Find Edifying

To many people, I must seem strange. There’s Frankly Curious, a blog that I’m not really interested in monetizing. There are bizarre plays that wouldn’t appeal to traditional theatrical companies. (I do hope, though.) But these are the things that I like to do. I like to write. And I like to do it on my own terms. That’s why something like MP3 is so much more important to me than even Frankly Curious, because the blog format itself constrains me. But I’ve gotten away from it because my need for money evolved into something that really isn’t me.

I imagine myself as an engineer of a train. I go to work each day and I do my job. Trains are important. People need to drive trains. But I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of night and call the train yard to see if there were any trains that needed to be driven. And I wouldn’t work any more than I needed to in order to support my lifestyle. And I think I have to treat my real job like I would treat the train job.

Backing Away

It is a bit more difficult, of course. My great passion is similar to what I do at work. And there are joys at work — no question! I love it when I manage to edit something competent into something good. And the little straight writing I do is fun, because I only assign myself the stuff I think I alone can do. (I never claimed to be humble!) So, I feel the pull. But I think I’ve got to resist it.

There are plays to write and articles to publish and Don Quixote texts to compare and puppets to abuse and on and on. The business world will get on just fine with less of me. And my soul will get on much better with more of me.

Older posts «