Inspired by fragments of lyrics and old recordings, novelist Hari Kunzru set off through Americas deep south
We were driving from New York to west Texas, and late in the afternoon we left Nashville and crossed the Tennessee state line into Mississippi. My girlfriend (now my wife), a writer friend and I were following the Natchez Trace, an ancient route that had been turned into a national park, a strip of unbroken green stretching 400 miles south. As I drove, the modern world of gas stations and strip malls fell away, and it seemed to me that I was travelling back into a yellow-hued past. It was beautiful, but at the same time faintly threatening, like several moments on that trip: the Disney castle that loomed up over a dark forest and revealed itself as a chemical plant; the electrical storm on the horizon as we pulled into a motel.
In the rural south, the three of us stuck out like a sore thumb. We were the set-up for a bad joke: an Asian woman, a white woman and a non-specific brown man walk into a bar More than once we brought a place of business to a halt. I remember a gas station with a diner counter where a row of men in hunting camo stopped spooning eggs into their mouths just to watch me pay for a soda. There was a diner in Clarksdale run by a Lebanese family (flag on the wall, tabouleh and hummus on the menu after the usual American items) where the waitress leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, New York?, as if making contact on behalf of the super-secret immigrant-welcoming committee.
Soon we left Mississippi behind, but the place was firmly lodged in my imagination: the signs of the Baptist churches raining hellfire on passing motorists, the empty bottles of Four Roses bourbon at the William Faulkner House, the Spanish moss hanging from the trees. Even before that journey Id been caught up in the music. Modern Mississippi (the part that isnt buying Faith Hill records) bumps along to trap and bass, nodding its head to Gucci Mane or the Jackson rapper Big KRIT, but I had got mixed up in a style that seems to have been consigned to heritage tourism: the country blues.
If I say its almost impossible to hear the blues now, thats not because its unavailable, quite the opposite. In every city in America (and most others around the world) there is a half-empty bar where a middle-aged man with a ponytail is yodelling about how he woke up this morning and got down on his knees. Young baby boomers fell in love with the blues, and made their taste global. In England, skinny young rock musicians like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones studied the old songs, then sold them back to America with extra heaviness. John Bonhams massive booming drums on When The Levee Breaks werent recorded anywhere near a levee, but in the hall of a Hampshire country house. Though the height of its popularity was 50 years ago, in the popular imagination the blues still stands for authenticity.
But since authenticity is catnip to capital, the blues has become a visual shorthand in advertising: a tastefully blown-out shot of a sharecropper sitting on a porch playing a harmonica, cut with a water droplet running down the flank of a beer bottle. Its hard to think of another kind of music that has been so thoroughly hollowed out.
But it is extraordinary music, if you can really hear it. Ive been making playlists of songs originally recorded on 78rpm shellac discs in the years before the second world war, songs that sounded like the work of ghosts. The voices of the old singers were distant in time, muffled by crackle and hiss, and yet somehow immediate. I started scribbling lists of names in my notebook, fingerpicking guitarists, men from the Mississippi hills who played fife and drums. Inevitably, I started writing a novel, if only as a pretext for my obsession. A couple of years after my first short trip, I went back, following a meandering path dictated by fragments of old lyrics and the life stories of musicians.
The diversity of Nasas workforce in 1940s Virginia is uncovered in a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly. She recalls how a visit to her home town led to a revelation
Mrs Land worked as a computer out at Langley, my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of the First Baptist church in Hampton, Virginia. My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico.
They squired us around town in their 20-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbours wed bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a 66-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.
He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.
As a callow 18-year-old leaving for college, Id seen my home town as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the citys hold on my identity and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me. That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs Land, who had been one of my favourite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired Nasa mathematician, still lived on her own well into her 90s and never missed a Sunday at church.
The author of new book The Upstarts on how the new breed of tech startups changed the rules of the game
At the start of the book you note that the dictionary definition of an upstart is either a newly successful person or someone who does not show proper respect to the established way of doing things I wanted to frame the defining question of the book for the reader. Are these brilliant entrepreneurs who have built tremendous businesses through sheer creativity and ingenuity? Or are they renegades that grew in large part through contempt for the status quo? Theres an ambivalence that surrounds companies like Uber and Airbnb, and I think this question over their identity and the dual meanings of the word upstart gets to the heart of it. My own squishy answer, of course, is that they are a little bit of both.
Youve written about Silicon Valley for more than 20 years have we reached peak Valley yet? In terms of the business impact, I dont think so. Theres a new set of transformative technologies such as machine learning, AI and virtual reality that will spawn another set of big tech franchises. But in terms of cultural impact, perhaps we are at peak Valley. For decades, technology entrepreneurship has been revered, and people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk were heroes. Now we have to contend with lost jobs due to automation, the effects of digital addiction and simple fatigue with all this constant change. So perhaps our feelings toward Silicon Valley are about to get a lot more complicated.
You met some of the individuals who had similar startup ideas to Uber and Airbnb but didnt become billionaires. Have these people been able to move on and were they reluctant to be featured? I call these companies the non-starters. They had the same ideas but were too early, or too nice, or too idealistic. They all shared a strain of wistful regret; it is difficult to see someone else execute the same idea and win unimaginable success and riches. The best story was the founder of a company called Seamless Wheels a pre-Uber limo service who abandoned the business after getting a death threat on his voice mail, probably from a limo fleet owner.
Whats the best call Travis Kalanick has ever made? Surrendering in China in an expensive battle with local rival, Didi Chuxing. Last year Uber lost $2bn trying to win that market; Kalanick couldnt bring himself to sacrifice his dream of building a truly global network. But the rules of competition in China will always favour the local champion and Didi, it turned out, had the same access to capital as Uber. By stepping away from the fight, Uber not only saved its balance sheet from more destruction but negotiated an impressive 17% stake in its rival.
And the best call Brian Chesky has made? Branding the Airbnb user base as a community. For years before Airbnb, people posted their homes and spare rooms on the internet (via sites like Craigslist and Couchsurfing.com). Chesky and his colleagues drummed up an evangelical spirit to their endeavour and held meet-ups and, in later years, global conferences of hosts. It got Airbnb users to feel part of something larger and strengthened their ties to the company, even when it meant that they were violating provincial laws.
In most territories these firms operate outside of laws and regulations around minimum wages, health and safety, and tax collection has exploiting these loopholes been key to their success? Absolutely just as Amazons navigation of its sales tax obligations was key to its success over its first decade. With tough interpretation of taxi and zoning regulations, neither Uber nor Airbnb would have gotten started. By the time many cities recognized their existence, both were fairly large and had the political support of their customers.
From an acclaimed novel to an immersive theater experience, the divisive sexual practice made a comeback in art amid heightened anxiety over sex and gender
On a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas, I found myself in the dungeon-like basement of a sex club in Manhattan to see a site-specific performance called Adonis Memories. It was an immersive theater experience based upon oral histories with patrons of the Adonis movie theater, the once opulent movie house-turned-gay porn theater located off Times Square in the 70s and 80s. In its day the Adonis epitomized hedonistic group viewing of pornography, the kind of place where gay, queer and straight men could watch hardcore films together. Meanwhile, just offscreen, it was anything goes between the men in the audience, especially in the theaters infamous balcony.
The performance, the brainchild of Alan Bounville, a theater artist and activist, makes the audience contend with the gay art of cruising: the practice of fleeting sex between men, usually anonymously and without exchanging names, often in semi-public indoor spaces (bathrooms, saunas) or outdoors (rest stops, forests). Audience members watched actors re-enact Adonis patrons cruising each other, and made them complicit by having them follow the action around the space, deciding what they watched and what they didnt.
Cruising has been having something a moment in art over the past year or so, though its not as if it hasnt been depicted in fiction and non-fiction for some time. The act has received heavy criticism for depicting gay life as deviant and inherently dangerous. The late George Michael was outed when he engaged in a lewd act in Beverly Hills in 1998, and Republican senator Larry Craig was lambasted in media in 2007 when he tapped his right foot, which an officer said was recognized as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.
The shame was viscerally reinforced in the 1980 William Friedkin movie Cruising, in which Al Pacino must go undercover in the world of homosexual sadomasochistic sex he is assigned to infiltrate to investigate a string of murders. As Roger Ebert noted, the films controversial production did not just alarm conservatives but also the New York gay community [which] rose up in protest, worried the film would present a distorted view of gay life. It would imply the small subculture of S&M was more prevalent than it is, and that, if gays were into violence, attacks on them would somehow be justified. (James Franco was behind a less-seen riff on Friedkins film, Interior. Leather. Bar., in 2013.)
But the art of cruising is not simply about shame and self-hatred; it can also be a space of exploration and connection, as queer literature and art have reflected more recently. Its at the heart of Garth Greenwells much-lauded novel from earlier this year, What Belongs To You, in which an unnamed American narrator becomes obsessed with a sex worker named Mitko he meets in a bathroom in Bulgaria. Everything about their relationship is in the context of sex, and as Mitko and the narrator get to know one another, Greenwell presents gay male life through the prism of their complicated sex lives, moments of intimate partner violence, and the risk of sexuality transmitted disease.
That a book about cruising has been so welcomed by mainstream readers and critics, and featured on best of lists is pretty stunning. As Greenwell discussed in January, its been considered impolite to discuss not just in front of straight people, but also within gay circles until now.
From dazzling biographies to fantastic fantasy and wry observation, the years graphic books would make great Christmas presents
When I began writing about graphic novels a decade ago, I remember worrying slightly about the supply line: would I really be able to find a good one to review every month? And it was tricky, sometimes. But what a difference 10 years has made. Im now in the awful business of running a beauty pageant: I have too many darlings, not too few. This year, especially, has been a bumper one. Memoirs, novels, biographies, reissued classics: if there isnt something to suit everyone on the bulging list that follows, Ill eat my copy of Persepolis.
First, memoir. It seems sometimes to be taking over, and this is as true in the world of graphic books as elsewhere in literature. Regular readers will know that I was waiting anxiously for the second volume of The Arab of the Future (Two Roads 18.99), Riad Sattoufs series of comics about his childhood in France and the Middle East, and when it arrived, it did not disappoint. But aAnyway, a reminder: its truly great. Picking up the story in 1984, when Riad is six, the Sattoufs are now back in Ter Maaleh, Syria, a situation that seems not to be making any of them very happy. Funny, dark and occasionally revelatory, this and its predecessor are my graphic memoirs of the year.
A timely reissue of the business tycoon/president-elects collected entrepreneurial advice from 1987 is redacted by John Crace
I dont do it for the money. Ive got more money than Ill ever need. Some of it yours. Lets face it, you dont file for bankruptcy six times if youre planning on paying your dues. The key to making the best deal is to let others take the hit. I do it because I can. If you can get away with losing over $1bn on a deal, youd have to be a schmuck not to. Theres no way that Donald J Trump is ever going to let himself be one of those deadbeat Americans with no hope and no prospects. No sir. And thats why were shamelessly republishing this load of tosh from 1987. Heres a diary of a typical Trump week.
Monday 9am. Call my broker, Alan Greenberg, to buy $25m worth of stock in Holiday Inns. I sense its undervalued. As we speak, its value increases to $30m. My cock goes hard and I decide to sell.
Tuesday 3pm. Try to evict Carly Simon and Mia Farrow from their rent-controlled apartments, but both want to play hardball. Their loss. When you do battle with the Trumpster, theres only one winner.
Wednesday 1pm. Lunch with Ivana. Try to grope her pussy. Probably not the best time to tell her about Melania.
Thursday 5pm. Some kid at the door says hes my son. Tell him to come back when hes made his first $10m.
Friday 10am. The banks foreclose on Trump Taj Mahal casino putting thousands of people out of work. But at least I come away with $50m. My cock goes hard again.
My style of dealing is quite straightforward: 1) Get as much as you can for yourself; 2) Theres always somebody stupider than you out there; 3) Any attention is better than none; 4) Promise people the Earth even if you know you can never deliver; 5) Get yourself a top haircut.
The most important influence on me when I was growing up was my father, Fred Trump. He taught me everything I needed to know about making money. If he had a fault, it was that he was not narcissistic enough. Fred never named a tower after himself. He also wasted too much time buying properties for deadbeats. If theres one thing Ive learned from real estate, its that poor people on zero-hours contracts just dont know how to look after themselves.
My first deal in Cincinnati taught me that lesson. Having persuaded the banks to lend me the money, I put the day-to-day management of the rebuild in charge of a man I knew to be a conman. I figured he would con the contractors far more than he would con me, so I would end up ahead on the deal. No flies on the Don! Though I was glad to sell the houses off for a $10m profit before the market crashed.
In 1974, I moved into the New York property market when I bought the Commodore Hotel near Grand Central Station. It was rundown and operating at a loss and everyone thought it was a turkey, but I could immediately see its potential. As usual, I was proved 100% right and made $280m in an afternoon after renaming the hotel Trump Plaza.
I then built Trump Tower after buying a department store whose owner didnt understand its true worth. That project taught me that most politicians are just in the game for themselves. Its a mentality I just cant understand. With Trump Tower, I was determined to build as big as possible and the results speak for themselves. I have my own apartment on the top three floors and employ some limey called Nigel Farage as my lift attendant. It could be worse. I could have had Piers Morgan working for me. Can you believe that man? I met him once for five minutes on a reality game show and he hasnt stopped going on about it ever since. The guy must have nearly as big a personality disorder as me.
After Trump Tower came Trump Castle, Trump Palace, Trump Island, Trump White House and Trump Great Wall of Trump. Basically, it was the same deal every time. I was fabulously brilliant and made a huge amount of money for myself while everybody else lost big time. I was living the American dream. Bankrupt one day, rich the next. But my biggest success is the 120-storey Trump Toilet that can flush every Muslim, Mexican and gay back into the sewers where they belong. It might even come in useful for this book.
New building owners plan to replace Massachusetts store dedicated to playful fictional monkey with a stairwell, as customers and enthusiasts push back
Curious George must find a new home. The only shop dedicated to the mischievous fictional monkey is being booted out of its building at One JFK Street in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, forcing the childrens book and toy store to look for a new home.
Real estate investment trust Equity One bought the building last year, and has announced plans the gut the building. A stairwell will replace the current store, named the Only Curious George Store in the World, according to development plans obtained by the Guardian.
Curious George is a mischievous fictional monkey in a childrens book series originally written and illustrated by Margret and HA Rey. The creators of the now-famous series settled in Cambridge after fleeing Paris during Nazi occupation on bicycles with book manuscripts in their backpacks. Seven books were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, beginning in 1941. The series later expanded after the deaths of the Reys, and has been made into a television series.
Houghton Mifflin granted permission to friends of the Reys to open a Curious George-themed bookstore in Harvard Square in 1995. After a brief closing in 2011, the store re-opened in April 2012, with new owners Adam and Jamie Hirsch, and with a new name: the Worlds Only Curious George Store. Some products are solely available at the store.
Health and fitness monitoring devices promise a future of good health and pre-emptive diagnosis. Not to mention reduced (for some) insurance premiums. So what connects our new obsession with personal productivity with the dogma of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin?
At this years Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, I happened upon a robot made of hacked and 3D-printed surgical components that can perform DIY keyhole surgery. Its builder, the Dutch artist Frank Kolman, was inspired by YouTube videos in which impoverished hackers and makers, largely without insurance, share medical tips and tricks. No money for bridgework? Try Sugru moldable glue.
On the minus side, there is Kolkmans terrifyingly practical robot, and its promise of a future in which DIY medicine is the only medicine the ordinary individual can afford. The sunny west coast self-reliant rhetoric of the making and hacking and quantified self movements disguise the disturbing assumption that they can be a substitute for civic life.
We have been here before. Not much more than a century ago the Russian empire was a ramshackle agglomeration of colonies, held together by military force and hooch. There were no institutions for reformers to reform: no councils, no unions, no guilds, no professional bodies, few schools, few hospitals worth the name; in many places, no roads.
With Bright Lights, Big City, the novelist established himself as the chronicler of New Yorks hedonistic 80s elite. Thirty years and four marriages later, he is still fascinated by wealth and Donald Trump though his friendship with Bret Easton Ellis is flagging …
It is more than 30 years since Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerneys first and most famous novel was published, and everything and nothing has changed. The 61-year-old still lives in Manhattan, in apenthouse a few blocks from one of his first addresses in New York. (In the early 1980s, the rent on his Bowery apartment was $375 a month. A night at the Bowery Hotel, where McInerney stayed last week while his air conditioning was being fixed, is $425). He doesnt snort cocaine in club bathrooms any more, but when hes in the city, he still goes out every night. And he retains a charm perennially described as boyish but that strikes me, today, as something more tentative, a state ofmild bafflement that seems poised between hopefulness and the ever-present threat of disappointment.
The most unwavering aspect of McInerneys life, at least as it pertains to his public image as a novelist, is his identification with the upper echelons of New York society, an affiliation that has earned him a reputation over the years as a social butterfly. McInerney is the first to say of his own experience: It became alittle unrepresentative. Successful novelist is not an everyman category, and to add, somewhat ruefully, that unlike the protagonist of his latest novel, Bright, Precious Days, who struggles to raise kids in New York on a publishing salary, when McInerneys own children were born, I was actually pretty flush.
The novelists divorce from Helen Bransford, his third wife and his childrens mother, wiped him out financially, but his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, is an heiress and a certified member of the Upper East Side social crowd, the ins and outs of which continue to preoccupy his work. In light of all this, I had expected to find someone a little mannered, a touch absurd in the Tom Wolfe style. Instead, this morning, McInerney is guileless to a degree that makes me feel vaguely anxious for him.
Bright, Precious Days is the third novel in a series, after Brightness Falls and The Good Life, and chronicles the lives of Russell and Corrine Calloway, who came to New York in the 1980s chasing a literary dream and woke to find themselves, at 50, in a small apartment with two children, one bathroom and no money for summer plans. McInerney calls this the life not lived; had he not become a successful writer, he would in all likelihood have become an editor like Russell Calloway, one of the stretched middle classes in a city increasingly hostile to anyone not on or married to a banking salary. Theyre lucky and privileged in some ways, hesays. But in other ways most 50-year-old parents would like to have some space and multiple bathrooms. These are the kind of sacrifices people make to stay in Manhattan. Is the price of being a New Yorker worth it?
This question and the assumptions underpinning it are, as with the focus of so much of McInerneys work, vulnerable to a charge of so what?. The Calloways, who live above their means and knock around town with hedge fund managers and billionaires, might move out of the city to a perfectly good life elsewhere. That they cant bring themselves to go not even to the suburbs, but merely uptown to Harlem is not a drama with wide-ranging appeal. Meanwhile, their creators view from the penthouse can come across, in these times, as a little unseemly. Beyond the exigencies of the story, the rich matter, says McInerney, because, I think as a writer its certainly interesting to observe them. And I think not enough people do. These people have a huge influence on the way that we all live. And I do think these [hedge fund] guys are usually either figures of satire or weird wish fulfilment girly romance-novel fantasy. But more often theyre objects of derision.
There is an assumption of philistinism, I say.
Exactly. And sometimes its justified. I had dinner with a friend of mine last night whos a Wall Street guy, and hes on the board of the Whitney Museum, hes the major patron of the Roundabout Theatre. Hes involved in so many cultural and charitable activities I admire that. I know him because hes a wine collector. I make fun of wine collectors; some of them are philistines. But I dont know. I try to keep an open mind.
McInerney is, famously, a wine collector himself and his enthusiasm for his billionaire chums on the scene is so artless, it feels a little grudging to hold it against him. Nonetheless, a few months ago, his old friend Bret Easton Ellis took McInerney to task, telling the Sunday Times that their friendship had cooled because Easton Ellis wasnt rich enough for McInerney.
The Long Read: Led by a class of omnipotent central bankers, experts have gained extraordinary political power. Will a populist backlash shatter their technocratic dream?
On Tuesday 16 September 2008, early in the afternoon, a self-effacing professor with a neatly clipped beard sat with the president in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Flanked by a square-shouldered banker who had recently run Goldman Sachs, the professor was there to tell the elected leader of the worlds most powerful country how to rescue its economy. Following the bankruptcy of one of the nations storied investment banks, a global insurance company was now on the brink, but drawing on a lifetime of scholarly research, the professor had resolved to commit $85bn of public funds to stabilising it.
The sum involved was extraordinary: $85bn was more than the US Congress spent annually on transportation, and nearly three times as much as it spent on fighting Aids, a particular priority of the presidents. But the professor encountered no resistance. Sometimes you have to make the tough decisions, the president reflected. If you think this has to be done, you have my blessing.
Later that same afternoon, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, the bearded hero of this tale, showed up on Capitol Hill, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. At the White House, he had at least been on familiar ground: he had spent eight months working there. But now Bernanke appeared in the Senate majority leaders conference room, where he and his ex-Wall Street comrade, Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, would meet the senior leaders of both chambers of Congress. A quiet, balding, unassuming technocrat confronted the lions of the legislative branch, armed with nothing but his expertise in monetary plumbing.
Bernanke repeated his plan to commit $85bn of public money to the takeover of an insurance company.
Do you have 85bn? one sceptical lawmaker demanded.
I have 800bn, Bernanke replied evenly a central bank could conjure as much money as it deemed necessary.
But did the Federal Reserve have the legal right to take this sort of action unilaterally, another lawmaker inquired?
Yes, Bernanke answered: as Fed chairman, he wielded the largest chequebook in the world and the only counter-signatures required would come from other Fed experts, who were no more elected or accountable than he was. Somehow Americas famous apparatus of democratic checks and balances did not apply to the monetary priesthood. Their authority derived from technocratic virtuosity.
When the history is written of the revolt against experts, September 2008 will be seen as a milestone. The $85bn rescue of the American International Group (AIG) dramatised the power of monetary gurus in all its anti-democratic majesty. The president and Congress could decide to borrow money, or raise it from taxpayers; the Fed could simply create it. And once the AIG rescue had legitimised the broadest possible use of this privilege, the Fed exploited it unflinchingly. Over the course of 2009, it injected a trillion dollars into the economy a sum equivalent to nearly 30% of the federal budget via its newly improvised policy of quantitative easing. Time magazine anointed Bernanke its person of the year. The decisions he has made, and those he has yet to make, will shape the path of our prosperity, the direction of our politics and our relationship to the world, the magazine declared admiringly.
The Feds swashbuckling example galvanized central bankers in all the big economies. Soon Europe saw the rise of its own path-shaping monetary chieftain, when Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, defused panic in the eurozone in July 2012 with two magical sentences. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro, he vowed, adding, with a twist of Clint Eastwood menace, And believe me, it will be enough. For months, Europes elected leaders had waffled ineffectually, inviting hedge-fund speculators to test the cohesion of the eurozone. But now Draghi was announcing that he was badder than the baddest hedge-fund goon. Whatever it takes.Believe me.
In the summer of 2013, when Hollywood rolled out its latest Superman film, cartoonists quickly seized upon a gag that would soon become obvious. Caricatures depicted central-bank chieftains decked out in Superman outfits. One showed Bernanke ripping off his bankers shirt and tie, exposing that thrilling S emblazoned on his vest. Another showed the bearded hero hurtling through space, red cape fluttering, right arm stretched forward, a powerful fist punching at the void in front of him. Superman and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke are both mild-mannered, a financial columnist deadpanned. They are both calm, even in the face of global disasters. They are both sometimes said to be from other planets.
At some point towards the middle of the decade, shortly before the cult of the expert smashed into the populist backlash, the shocking power of central banks came to feel normal. Nobody blinked an eye when Haruhiko Kuroda, the head of Japans central bank, created money at a rate that made his western counterparts seem timid. Nobody thought it strange when Britains government, perhaps emulating the style of the national football team, conducted a worldwide talent search for the new Bank of England chief. Nobody was surprised when the winner of that contest, the telegenic Canadian Mark Carney, quickly appeared in newspaper cartoons in his own superman outfit. And nobody missed a beat when Indias breathless journalists described Raghuram Rajan, the new head of the Reserve Bank of India, as a rock star, or when he was pictured as James Bond in the countrys biggest business newspaper. Clearly I am not a superman,Rajan modestly responded.
If Bernankes laconic I have 800bn moment signalled a new era of central-banking power, Rajans I am not a superman wisecrack marked its apotheosis. And it was a high watermark for a wider phenomenon as well, for the cult of the central banker was only the most pronounced example of a broader cult that had taken shape over the previous quarter of a century: the cult of the expert. Even before Bernanke rescued the global economy, technocrats of all stripes business leaders, scientists, foreign and domestic policy wonks were enthralled by the notion that politicians might defer to the authority of experts armed with facts and rational analysis. Those moments when Bernanke faced down Congress, or when Draghi succeeded where bickering politicians had failed, made it seem possible that this technocratic vision, with its apolitical ideal of government, might actually be realised.
The key to the power of the central bankers and the envy of all the other experts lay precisely in their ability to escape political interference. Democratically elected leaders had given them a mission to vanquish inflation and then let them get on with it. To public-health experts, climate scientists and other members of the knowledge elite, this was the model of how things should be done. Experts had built Microsoft. Experts were sequencing the genome. Experts were laying fibre-optic cable beneath the great oceans. No senator would have his childs surgery performed by an amateur. So why would he not entrust experts with the economy?
In 1997, the economist Alan Blinder published an essay in Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the American foreign policy establishment. His title posed a curious question: Is government too political?
Four years earlier, Blinder had left Princeton University, his academic home for two decades, to do battle in the public square as a member of President Bill Clintons Council of Economic Advisors. The way Blinder saw things, this was a responsibility more than a pleasure: experts had a duty to engage in public debates otherwise, the quacks would continue to dominate the pond, as he had once written. Earnest, idealistic, but with a self-deprecating wit, Blinder was out to save the world from returning to that dark period in the Reagan era when supply-side ideologues ruled the roost and nonsense was worshipped as gospel. After two years at the White House and another two as vice chairman of the Fed, Blinders essay was a reflection on his years of service.
His argument reflected the contrast between his two jobs in Washington. At the White House, he had advised a brainy president on budget policy and much else, but turning policy wisdom into law had often proved impossible. Even when experts from both parties agreed what should be done, vested interests in Congress conspired to frustrate enlightened progress. At the Fed, by contrast, experts were gloriously empowered. They could debate the minutiae of the economy among themselves, then manoeuvre the growth rate this way or that, without deferring to anyone.
To Blinder, it was self-evident that the Fed model was superior not only for the experts, but also in the eyes of the public. The voters did not want their members of Congress micromanaging technical affairs polls showed declining trust in politicians, and it was only a small stretch to suggest that citizens wanted their political leaders to delegate as much as possible to experts. Americans increasingly believe that their elected officials are playing games rather than solving problems, Blinder wrote. Political debate has too much spin and too little straight talk. In sum, too much meddling by elected politicians was a turn-off for the voters who elected them. It was a paradoxical contention.
Disaffection with the political mainstream in the America of the 1990s had created a yearning for white-hatted outsiders as potential presidential candidates: the billionaire businessman Ross Perot, who ran in 1992 and 1996; the anti-politician, Steve Forbes, whose signature proposal was to radically simplify Americas byzantine tax code. But rather than replace politicians with populist outsiders, whose grasp of public policy was suspect, Blinder advanced an alternative idea: the central-bank model of expert empowerment should be extended to other spheres of governance.
Blinders proposal was most clearly illustrated by tax policy. Experts from both political parties agreed that the tax system should be stripped of perverse incentives and loopholes. There was no compelling reason, for example, to encourage companies to finance themselves with debt rather than equity, yet the tax code allowed companies to make interest payments to their creditors tax-free, whereas dividend payments to shareholders were taxed twice over. The nation would be better off if Congress left the experts to fix such glitches rather than allowing politics to frustrate progress. Likewise, environmental targets, which balanced economic growth on the one hand and planetary preservation on the other, were surely best left to the scholars who understood how best to reconcile these duelling imperatives. Politicians who spent more of their time dialing for dollars than thinking carefully about policy were not up to these tasks. Better to hand them off to the technicians in white coats who knew what they were doing.
The call to empower experts, and to keep politics to a minimum, failed to trigger a clear shift in how Washington did business. But it did crystallise the assumptions of the late 1990s and early 2000s a time when sharp criticisms of gridlock and lobbying were broadly accepted, and technocratic work-arounds to political paralysis were frequently proposed, even if seldom adopted. President Barack Obamas (unsuccessful) attempt to remove the task of tackling long-term budget challenges from Congress by handing them off to the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission was emblematic of this same mood. Equally, elected leaders at least paid lip service to the authority of experts in the governments various regulatory agencies the Food and Drug Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and so on. If they nonetheless overruled them for political reasons, it was in the dead of night and with a guilty conscience.
And so, by the turn of the 21st century, a new elite consensus had emerged: democracy had to be managed. The will of the people had its place, but that place had to be defined, and not in an expansive fashion. After all, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the two most successful political leaders of the time, had proclaimed their allegiance to a third way, which proposed that the grand ideological disputes of the cold war had come to an end. If the clashes of abstractions communism, socialism, capitalism and so on were finished, all that remained were practical questions, which were less subjects of political choice and more objects of expert analysis. Indeed, at some tacit, unarticulated level, a dark question lurked in educated minds. If all the isms were wasms, if history was over, what good were politicians?
Purchase and Refinance Real Estate Loans - Compare Our Very Competitive Rates, Programs & Get Pre-Approved Today! (424) 225 2167
“Loan approval is not guaranteed and is subject to lender review of information. Mortgage Loan is only approved when lender has issued approval in writing. Specified Real Estate Loan rates may not be available for all borrowers. Rate subject to change with market conditions.
“This licensee is performing acts for which a real estate license is required. C2 Financial Corp is licensed by the California Dept of Real Estate, Broker # 01821025; NMLS # 135622.”
C2 Financial Corporation is approved to originate VA and FHA loans, and has the
ability to broker such loans to VA and FHA approved lenders. C2 Financial
Corporation is not acting on behalf of or at the direction of HUD/FHA or the VA.
STATES WE LEND IN
“The services referred to herein are not available for property located outside the State of California”
We also have Licensed Loan Officers in: AZ CO FL HI NV OR TX WA
• FHA/VA approved • Managed by Principals with over 62 years experience in the mortgage industry • We have strict policies to ensure your confidential information remains confidential • Accurate up front rate and closing cost quotes. • C2 Financial Corporation is a Direct Lender & Broker Providing You an Awesome Loan Selection.
Call us today at 424 225 2167 One of our mortgage professionals will help you understand how a Purchase or Refinancing could benefit you. If you agree that a Purchase or Refinance is right for you, we’ll help and be with you through every step of the process and not hand you off to someone else.