An other order that ran the universe

May 22nd, 2018

The ESP or “psychic phenomena” movement began to grow very rapidly in the new religious atmosphere of the Me Decade:

ESP devotees had always believed that there was an other order that ran the universe, one that revealed itself occasionally through telepathy, déjà vu experiences, psychokinesis, dematerialization, and the like. It was but a small step from there to the assumption that all men possess a conscious energy paralleling the world of physical energy and that this mysterious energy can unite the universe (after the fashion of the light of God). A former astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, who has a doctor-of-science degree from MIT, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in an attempt to channel the work of all the ESP groups. “Noetic” is an adjective derived from the same root as that of “the Noosphere” — the name that Teilhard de Chardin gave his dream of a cosmic union of all souls. Even the Flying Saucer cults began to reveal their essentially religious nature at about this time. The Flying Saucer folk quite literally believed in an other order: It was under the command of superior beings from other planets or solar systems who had spaceships. A physician named Andrija Puharich wrote a book (Uri) in which he published the name of the God of the UFO’s: Hoova. He said Hoova had a herald messenger named Spectra, and Hoova’s and Spectra’s agent on earth, the human connection, as it were, was Uri Geller, the famous Israeli psychic and showman. Geller’s powers were also of great interest to people in the ESP movement, and there were many who wished that Puharich and the UFO people would keep their hands off him.

God hates a politician who takes any action without calmly and studiously studying the facts

May 22nd, 2018

What are the most socially valuable delusions or shared erroneous beliefs?” Bryan Caplan takes at stab at answering:

That is a good one. Hmm. I am tempted to say something along the lines of God will punish you for bad behavior. But the problem is that’s mixed in with — so many things of the bad behavior is actually good behavior and the good behavior is actually bad behavior that I’m not convinced that is all that socially useful.

Probably a better answer is the delusion that money will buy happiness. There is an enormous amount of progress that is caused by people desperately going and trying to get rich. I think the actual psychological evidence is the money won’t actually lead to all that much happiness, but the things they produce are quite a bit more likely.

Probably, in terms of the most happiness-producing stuff, I would think may be actually in the arts, where so much of the stuff was produced by people where, if they just did a reasonable ex ante calculation, would have said, “This isn’t worth it.” But the reason why we have it is because they ignored the odds or overestimated themselves, so maybe that.

“Which mistaken shared beliefs would he like to see adopted?”

Let’s see. Probably the idea that there would be some kind of eternal, horrible punishment for holding power and not having a very high degree of epistemic rationality, especially if there were a view that God hates a politician who takes any action without calmly and studiously studying the facts, and that God will punish you in a way that voters never could.

God would punish you in a way that’s far worse than the simple loss of power. If that were widely believed by people of power, I think there would be a lot more effort to actually double-check that what they’re doing really makes sense. The Spiderman Principle — with great power comes great responsibility.

Not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk

May 21st, 2018

Outsiders, hearing about the new fad of encounter sessions, wondered what their appeal was:

Yet the appeal was simple enough. It is summed up in the notion: “Let’s talk about Me.” No matter whether you managed to renovate your personality through encounter sessions or not, you had finally focused your attention and your energies on the most fascinating subject on earth: Me.


The encounter session — although it was not called that — was also a staple practice in psychedelic communes and, for that matter, in New Left communes. In fact, the analysis of the self, and of one another, was unceasing. But in these groups and at Esalen and in movements such as Arica there were two common assumptions that distinguished them from the aristocratic lemon sessions and personality finishings of yore. The first was: I, with the help of my brothers and sisters, must strip away all the shams and excess baggage of society and my upbringing in order to find the Real Me. Scientology uses the word “clear” to identify the state that one must strive for. But just what is that state? And what will the Real Me be like? It is at this point that the new movements tend to take on a religious or spiritual atmosphere. In one form or another they arrive at an axiom first propounded by the Gnostic Christians some 1,800 years ago: namely, that at the apex of every human soul there exists a spark of the light of God. In most mortals that spark is “asleep” (the Gnostics’ word), all but smothered by the facades and general falseness of society. But those souls who are clear can find that spark within themselves and unite their souls with God’s. And with that conviction comes the second assumption: There is an other order that actually reigns supreme in the world. Like the light of God itself, this other order is invisible to most mortals. But he who has dug himself out from under the junk heap of civilization can discover it.

And with that… the Me movements were about to turn righteous.

By the early 1970s so many of the Me movements had reached this Gnostic religious stage, they now amounted to a new religious wave. Synanon, Arica, and the Scientology movement had become religions. The much-publicized psychedelic or hippie communes of the 1960s, although no longer big items in the press, were spreading widely and becoming more and more frankly religious. The huge Steve Gaskin commune in the Tennessee scrublands was a prime example. A New York Times survey concluded that there were at least two thousand communes in the United States by 1970, barely five years after the idea first caught on in California. Both the Esalen-style and Primal Therapy or Primal Scream encounter movements were becoming progressively less psychoanalytical and more mystical in their approach. The Oriental “meditation” religions — which had existed in the United States mainly in the form of rather intellectual and bohemian Zen and yoga circles — experienced a spectacular boom. Groups such as the Hare Krishna, the Sufi, and the Maharaj Ji communes began to discover that they could enroll thousands of new members and (in some cases) make small fortunes in real estate to finance the expansion. Many members of the New Left communes of the 1960s began to turn up in Me movements in the 1970s, including two of the celebrated “Chicago Seven.” Rennie Davis became a follower of the Maharaj Ji. Jerry Rubin enrolled in both est and Arica. Barbara Garson, who with the help of her husband, Marvin, wrote the great agitprop drama of the New Left, MacBird, would later observe, with considerable bitterness: “My husband Marvin forsook everything (me included) to find peace. For three years he wandered without shoes or money or glasses. Now he is in Israel with some glasses and possibly with some peace.” And not just him, she said, but so many other New Lefters as well: “Some follow a guru, some are into Primal Scream, some seek a rest from the diaspora — a home in Zion.” It is entirely possible that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk.

You’re sent back in time to the year 527 AD

May 21st, 2018

You’re sent back in time to the year 527 AD, Tyler Cowen posits:

Let’s assume you’re good enough at learning languages. Where would you pick? And why?

Bryan Caplan chooses Byzantium:

First of all, of course assuming you’re good at languages, Greek as a Western language would be easier. I think that is actually the biggest city in the Western world at the time. It’s the one where you’d still have at least a modest amount of Greek and Roman thought which has been preserved. Really center of civilization by that point.

That would be the place where you’re most likely to have smart people around — there’s things that you can do with your mind — and least likely to get ripped apart by barbarians.


The temptation to become a government adviser under those circumstances would be painfully high. As to whether I could actually find some role there where I would not be morally horrified is a tough call.

If I could get away with just being a teacher, if I have what I know, then to actually go and found a school and teach economics 1,300 years before the rise of modern economics and try to jump-start the Industrial Revolution and economic growth and social science and everything else. Emotionally, that would have by far the strongest pull on me.

If that weren’t available, then there’s room in business, banking, moneylending, shipping. I think I could learn those. Wouldn’t be thrilled. But it beats rowing an oar.

The new freedom would come to pass instead as the result of a Go-Getter Bourgeois business boom

May 20th, 2018

The saga of the Me Decade begins with one of those facts that is so big and so obvious that no one comments on it anymore:

Namely: the 30-year boom. Wartime spending in the United States in the 1940s touched off a boom that has continued for more than 30 years. It has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history. True, nothing has solved the plight of those at the very bottom, the chronically unemployed of the slums. Nevertheless, in Compton, California, today it is possible for a family at the very lowest class level, which is known in America today as “on welfare,” to draw an income of $8,000 a year entirely from public sources. This is more than most British newspaper columnists and Italian factory foremen make, even allowing for differences in living costs. In America truck drivers, mechanics, factory workers, policemen, firemen, and garbagemen make so much money — $15,000 to $20,000 (or more) per year is not uncommon — that the word proletarian can no longer be used in this country with a straight face. So one now says lower middle class. One can’t even call workingmen blue collar any longer. They all have on collars like Joe Namath’s or Johnny Bench’s or Walt Frazier’s. They all have on $35 Superstar Qiana sport shirts with elephant collars and 1940s Airbrush Wallpaper Flowers Buncha Grapes and Seashell designs all over them.

Well, my God, the old utopian socialists of the nineteenth century — such as Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier, and Marx — lived for the day of the liberated workingman. They foresaw a day when industrialism (Saint-Simon coined the word) would give the common man the things he needed in order to realize his potential as a human being: surplus (discretionary) income, political freedom, free time (leisure), and freedom from grinding drudgery. Some of them, notably Owen and Fourier, thought all this might come to pass first in the United States. So they set up communes here: Owen’s New Harmony commune in Indiana and 34 Fourier-style “phalanx” settlements — socialist communes, because the new freedom was supposed to be possible only under socialism. The old boys never dreamed that the new freedom would come to pass instead as the result of a Go-Getter Bourgeois business boom such as began in the United States in the 1940s. Nor would they have liked it if they had seen it. For one thing, the homo novus, the new man, the liberated man, the first common man in the history of the world with the much-dreamed-of combination of money, free time, and personal freedom—this American workingman didn’t look right. The Joe Namath-Johnny Bench — Walt Frazier-Superstar Qiana Wallpaper sport shirt, for a start.

He didn’t look right, and he wouldn’t… do right! I can remember what brave plans visionary architects at Yale and Harvard still had for the common man in the early 1950s. (They actually used the term “common man.”) They had brought the utopian socialist dream forward into the twentieth century. They had things figured out for the workingman down to truly minute details such as lamp switches. The new liberated workingman would live as the Cultivated Ascetic. He would be modeled on the B.A.-degree Greenwich Village bohemian of the late 1940s — dark wool Hudson Bay shirts, tweed jackets, flannel trousers, briarwood pipes, good books, sandals and simplicity — except that he would live in a Worker Housing project. All Yale and Harvard architects worshiped Bauhaus principles and had the Bauhaus vision of Worker Housing. The Bauhaus movement absolutely hypnotized American architects, once its leaders, such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Miës van der Rohe, came to the United States from Germany in the 1930s. Worker Housing in America would have pure beige rooms, stripped, freed, purged of all moldings, cornices, and overhangs — which Gropius regarded as symbolic “crowns” and therefore loathsome. Worker Housing would be liberated from all wallpaper, “drapes,” Wilton rugs with flowers on them, lamps with fringed shades and bases that looked like vases or Greek columns. It would be cleansed of all doilies, knickknacks, mantelpieces, headboards, and radiator covers. Radiator coils would be left bare as honest, abstract sculptural objects.

But somehow the workers, incurable slobs that they were, avoided Worker Housing, better known as “the projects,” as if it had a smell. They were heading out instead to the suburbs — the suburbs! — to places like Islip, Long Island, and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles — and buying houses with clapboard siding and a high-pitched roof and shingles and gaslight-style front-porch lamps and mailboxes set up on top of lengths of stiffened chain that seemed to defy gravity and all sorts of other unbelievably cute or antiquey touches, and they loaded these houses up with “drapes” such as baffled all description and wall-to-wall carpet you could lose a shoe in, and they put barbecue pits and fish ponds with concrete cherubs urinating into them on the lawn out back, and they parked 25-foot-long cars out front and Evinrude cruisers up on tow trailers in the carport just beyond the breezeway.

[Ignored or else held in contempt by working people, Bauhaus design eventually triumphed as a symbol of wealth and privilege, attuned chiefly to the tastes of businessmen’s wives. For example, Miës’s most famous piece of furniture design, the Barcelona chair, now sells for $1.680 and is available only through one’s decorator. The high price is due in no small part to the chair’s Worker Housing Honest Materials: stainless steel and leather. No chromed iron is allowed, and customers are refused if they want to have the chair upholstered in material of their own choice. Only leather is allowed, and only six shades of that: Seagram’s Building Lobby Palomino, Monsanto Company Lobby Antelope, Architectural Digest Pecan, Transamerica Building Ebony, Bank of America Building Walnut, and Embarcadero Center Mink.]

By the 1960s the common man was also getting quite interested in this business of “realizing his potential as a human being.” But once again he crossed everybody up! Once more he took his money and ran — determined to do-it-himself!

Highly rated but still underrated

May 20th, 2018

Bryan Caplan considers his colleague Robin Hanson highly rated but still underrated:

Just the sheer intellect of Robin is, for me, still hard to fathom. Just the way that I have told Robin stories that I’ve told a hundred other people, and only he notices a logical error in the story. That to me is super impressive. Just the sheer intellectual enthusiasm.

Even the topics — when he gets on what I think of as sci-fi topic, those are the parts where I am least happy. But again, if you just read the blog, the range of things that Robin has thought about is actually vast, just in terms of breadth and depth and just sheer curiosity.

I’ve said this quite a few times. When people get really mad at me, that doesn’t bother me. When someone gets angry at Robin, this is what actually outrages me. I just want to say, “Look, to get angry at Robin is like getting angry at baby Jesus.” He’s just a symbol and embodiment of innocence and decency. For someone to get angry at someone who just wants to learn…

Courting the so-called Awakened vote

May 19th, 2018

In The “Me” Decade and the Third Great Awakening, Tom Wolfe takes his time getting around to declaring the 1970s the Me Decade:

In 1972 a farsighted caricaturist did a drawing of Teddy Kennedy captioned “President Kennedy campaigning for re-election in 1980… courting the so-called Awakened vote.”

The picture shows Kennedy ostentatiously wearing not only a crucifix but also (if one looks just above the cross) a pendant of the Bleeding Heart of Jesus. The crucifix is the symbol of Christianity in general, but the Bleeding Heart is the symbol of some of Christianity’s most ecstatic, nonrational, holy-rolling cults. I should point out that the artist’s prediction lacked certain refinements. For one thing, Kennedy may be campaigning to be president in 1980, but he is not terribly likely to be the incumbent. For another, the odd spectacle of politicians using ecstatic, nonrational, holy-rolling religion in presidential campaigning was to appear first not in 1980 but in 1976.

The two most popular new figures in the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter and Jerry Brown, are men who rose up from state politics… absolutely aglow with mystical religious streaks. Carter turned out to be an evangelical Baptist who had recently been “born again” and “saved,” who had “accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior” — i.e., he was of the Missionary lectern-pounding amen ten-finger C-major-chord Sister-Martha-at-the-Yamaha-keyboard loblolly piny-woods Baptist faith in which the members of the congregation stand up and “give witness” and “share it. Brother” and “share it, Sister” and “Praise God!” during the service.

[Carter is not, however, a member of the most down-home and ecstatic of the Baptist sects, which is a back-country branch known as the Primitive Baptist Church. In the Primitive Baptist churches men and women sit on different sides of the room, no musical instruments are allowed, and there is a good deal of foot-washing and other rituals drawn from passages in the Bible. The Progressive Primitives, another group, differ from the Primitives chiefly in that they allow a piano or organ in the church. The Missionary Baptists, Carter’s branch, are a step up socially (not necessarily divinely) but would not be a safe bet for an ambitious member of an in-town country club. The In-town Baptists, found in communities of 25,000 or more, are too respectable, socially, to be called ecstatic and succeed in being almost as tame as the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists.]

Jerry Brown turned out to be the Zen Jesuit, a former Jesuit seminarian who went about like a hair-shirt Catholic monk, but one who happened to believe also in the Gautama Buddha, and who got off koans in an offhand but confident manner, even on political issues, as to how it is not the right answer that matters but the right question, and so forth.

Newspaper columnists and newsmagazine writers continually referred to the two men’s “enigmatic appeal.” Which is to say, they couldn’t explain it. Nevertheless, they tried. They theorized that the war in Vietnam, Watergate, the FBI and CIA scandals, had left the electorate shell-shocked and disillusioned and that in their despair the citizens were groping no longer for specific remedies but for sheer faith, something, anything (even holy rolling), to believe in. This was in keeping with the current fashion of interpreting all new political phenomena in terms of recent disasters, frustration, protest, the decline of civilization… the Grim Slide. But when the New York Times and CBS employed a polling organization to try to find out just what great gusher of “frustration” and “protest” Carter had hit, the results were baffling. A Harvard political scientist, William Schneider, concluded for the L.A. Times that “the Carter protest” was a new kind of protest, “a protest of good feelings.” That was a new kind, sure enough — a protest that wasn’t a protest.

This is an item that science says you don’t need

May 19th, 2018

It would definitely be worth it to run some experiments on education, Bryan Caplan argues:

When you’re spending an enormous amount of money, you can take off 2 percent of it, and then use standard social science random assignment to really learn something.

It’s been pointed out that a high percentage of government spending on healthcare is for medical research, but only a very small amount of education spending is for education research.

The main disappointment there is, despite all the education research, it seems like it’s not very often actually used for any education policy. Medical research, you might have a similar pessimism, but I don’t think it’s as bad as that at least.

It’s not as bad as there being a big literature saying that highlighting is totally ineffective for improving student learning. Yet almost every kid in America still has a highlighter. It’s actually on the list of mandatory school supplies for Fairfax County: “You must have a highlighter.” This is an item that science says you don’t need. Yet everyone must have one to be at school.

Try to hold all these inconvenient truths about Gaza in your mind at the same time

May 18th, 2018

Yair Rosenberg shares 13 inconvenient truths about what has been happening in Gaza — which I have edited down slightly:

Try, as best you can, to hold them all in your mind at the same time.

1. The protests on Monday were not about President Donald Trump moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and have in fact been occurring weekly on the Gaza border since March. They are part of what the demonstrators have dubbed “The Great March of Return” — return, that is, to what is now Israel.

2. The Israeli blockade of Gaza goes well beyond what is necessary for Israel’s security, and in many cases can be capricious and self-defeating. Import and export restrictions on food and produce have seesawed over the years, with what is permitted one year forbidden the next, making it difficult for Gazan farmers to plan for the future. Restrictions on movement between Gaza, the West Bank, and beyond can be similarly overbroad, preventing not simply potential terrorist operatives from traveling, but families and students. In one of the more infamous instances, the U.S. State Department was forced to withdraw all Fulbright awards to students in Gaza after Israel did not grant them permission to leave.

3. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is an authoritarian, theocratic regime that has called for Jewish genocide in its charter, murdered scores of Israeli civilians, repressed Palestinian women, and harshly persecuted religious and sexual minorities. It is a designated terrorist group by the United States, Canada, and the European Union.

4. The overbearing Israeli blockade has helped impoverish Gaza. So has Hamas’s utter failure to govern and provide for the basic needs of the enclave’s people.

5. Many of the thousands of protesters on the Gaza border, both on Monday and in weeks previous, were peaceful and unarmed, as anyone looking at the photos and videos of the gatherings can see.

6. Hamas manipulated many of these demonstrators into unwittingly rushing the Israeli border fence under false pretenses in order to produce injuries and fatalities.

7. A significant number of the protesters were armed, which is how they did things like this: [shoot down an Israeli drone].

8. It is facile to argue that Gazans should be protesting Hamas and its misrule instead of Israel. One, it is not a binary choice, as both actors have contributed to Gaza’s misery. Two, as the BBC’s Julia MacFarlane recalled from her time covering Gaza, any public dissent against Hamas is perilous: “A boy I met in Gaza during the 2014 war was dragged from his bed at midnight, had his kneecaps shot off in a square and was told next time it would be axes—for an anti-Hamas Facebook post.” The group has publicly executed those it deems “collaborators” and broken up rare protests with gunfire. Likewise, Gazans cannot “vote Hamas out” because Hamas has not permitted elections since it won them and took power in 2006. The group fares poorly in the polls today, but Gazans have no recourse for expressing their dissatisfaction. Protesting Israel, however, is an outlet for frustration encouraged by Hamas.

9. In that regard, Hamas has worked to increase chaos and casualties stemming from the protests by allowing rioters to repeatedly set fire to the Kerem Shalom crossing, Gaza’s main avenue for international and humanitarian aid, and by turning back trucks of needed food and supplies from Israel.

10. A lot of what you’re seeing on social media about what is transpiring in Gaza isn’t actually true. For instance, a video of a Palestinian “martyr” allegedly moving under his shroud that is circulating in pro-Israel circles is actually a 4-year old clip from Egypt. Likewise, despite the claims of viral tweets and the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry that were initially parroted by some in the media, Israel did not actually kill an 8-month old baby with tear gas.

11. There are constructive solutions to Gaza’s problems that would alleviate the plight of its Palestinian population while assuaging the security concerns of Israelis. However, these useful proposals do not go viral like angry tweets ranting about how Palestinians are all de facto terrorists or Israelis are the new Nazis, which is one reason why you probably have never heard of them.

12. A truly independent, respected inquiry into Israel’s tactics and rules of engagement in Gaza is necessary to ensure any abuses are punished and create internationally recognized guidelines for how Israel and other state actors should deal with these situations on their borders. The United Nations, which annually condemns Israel in its General Assembly and Human Rights Council more than all other countries combined, and whose notorious bias against Israel was famously condemned by Obama ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, clearly lacks the credibility to administer such an inquiry.

13. But because the entire debate around Israel’s conduct has been framed by absolutists who insist either that Israel is utterly blameless or that Israel is wantonly massacring random Palestinians for sport, a reasonable inquiry into what it did correctly and what it did not is unlikely to happen.

Most parents don’t care about test scores

May 18th, 2018

Have K–12 vouchers underperformed?” Tyler Cowen asks Bryan Caplan:

I would say yes. This actually barely appeared in my book because it was not really central to any of the topics I was talking about. But my understanding of research on K–12 vouchers is a lot of people thought that they would substantially raise standardized test scores. And it’s hard to see a big gain there.

This is puzzling because it sure seems like there’s way better ways to improve test scores, starting obviously with just teaching the test. Many people say people are teaching the test all the time. Whenever I actually look at my kid’s schools, like, what are you talking about? There’s three practice tests. If I wanted to teach the test, there would be a hundred practice tests. That’s how I would handle it if you told me, “Get test scores up.”

I think the main thing that we learn from this is that most parents don’t care about test scores. When you give them a choice, they aren’t looking around for the school that will raise kids’ test scores the most.

They’re looking around for other things. Part of it is just convenience or location. Probably another big part of it is whether the kids are happy. I think we agree this is actually one of the most undervalued benefits of school choice, just giving kids some options so that kids that are crying and miserable at one school can go and take that money and go to another school.

Satirized a quarter-century before it happened

May 17th, 2018

Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities preceded the real-life events it was supposedly based on, Steve Sailer reminds us:

We’ve seen the press and prosecutors on the prowl for the Great White Defendant numerous times before, such as the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn mania, the 2006 Duke Lacrosse hoax, and the 1987 Tawana Brawley scam—which was promoted, just like the Trayvon Martin story a quarter of a century later, by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The phrase “hunt for the Great White Defendant” comes from Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities , in which Sharpton is lampooned as Rev. Bacon. Indeed, if you want to understand the mechanics of how the Trayvon story was hyped in 2012, the best guide remains Bonfire.

It’s widely believed today that Bonfire was “ripped from the headlines” of the Brawley swindle, Michael Milken’s arrest, the O.J. Simpson case, and other notorious controversies in the manner of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order TV empire.

But in reality, Wolfe’s novel preceded not only Wolf’s L&O, but also almost all the real-life scandals it is now imagined to be based upon.

Thus in his 1995 book Overcoming Law , Judge Richard A. Posner retracted his initial dismissal of Wolfe’s novel:

The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to&nnbsp;Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system … at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities, even though the book was written before the intersection had come into view.”

The Trayvon Trayvesty should have crowned Bonfire’s reputation as The Great American Novel of the late 20th Century, and driven home that Wolfe has enjoyed the grandest career in American letters since Mark Twain.

Of course, being right doesn’t make you popular. The embarrassing realization that Trayvon Trayvesty had been satirized a quarter of a century before has only turned the MSM even more against Wolfe and his new Miami novel, Back To Blood, a hilarious self-parody of all things Tom Wolfe.

Tom Wolfe is dead, but the Me Decade lives on

May 17th, 2018

Nick Gillespie of Reason argues that Tom Wolfe’s enduring — and fundamentally libertarian — contribution to contemporary discourse is his 1976 New York essay that christened the ’70s the “Me Decade“:

Writing during a time when most wise men (and they were mostly men back then) were obsessed with inflation, unemployment, and other measures of macroeconomic malaise, Wolfe was nearly alone in underscoring that consumer goods and lifestyle options had been radically democratized in postwar America. Forget the soul-killing depredations of the Cold War, giant corporations, cheap money, rising taxes, and government’s expansion into every nook and cranny of life, he counseled. Wolfe focused on the pent-up psychic demand for freedom, individualism, and meaning in a country that had recently withstood a decade-plus of Great Depression and World War. The only thing worse than the impending apocalypse due to nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, overpopulation, or the Second Coming was that the world wouldn’t end and we’d have spent our time on Earth punching the clock for a soul-killing job with great dental benefits. In the goddamn Bicentennial Year, Wolfe argued, Americans were done with building Maslow’s pyramid of needs for other people, especially their social betters. Who among us was going to follow slow-witted concussion-cases like Jerry Ford or lusting-only-in-his-heart Jimmy Carter into the twilight’s last gleaming? It was our time to shine, baby!

Tom Wolfe still had three weaknesses as a novelist

May 17th, 2018

Tom Wolfe succeeded in cutting a figure in American life comparable to another white-suited, big-spending writer, Mark Twain, according to Steve Sailer, but he still had three weaknesses as a novelist:

The first was that in his pursuit of machismo he’d lost the ability to write interesting female characters.

The second flaw was that his famously flashy prose style wasn’t as sentence for sentence well-crafted as that of his rival’s like Updike. Wolfe came up with brilliant phrases, some of which have entered the language, but he embedded them in fairly functional prose hepped up with Zap! Pow! typography. For his second novel, A Man in Full, he cranked up his prose style to impressive levels. But with about 100 pages left in the book, you can suddenly see where he suffered major open-heart surgery and the subsequent manic-depressive mood swings that are a common side effect.

The third was one he never overcame: although Wolfe picked fights with high brow prestige novelists like John Updike, his biggest weakness was at the lower brow blocking and tackling basic of coming up with an ending for his plots.

He hid in plain sight

May 17th, 2018

Max Boot knew Tom Wolfe — slightly:

Like many people, I regard The Bonfire of the Vanities, the definitive portrait of New York in the 1980s, as one of Wolfe’s two masterpieces. The other was The Right Stuff, which was made into a much better movie than Bonfire. Wolfe got inside the minds of test pilots and astronauts in a way that no other writer has done before or since. The opening chapter, focused on the anxiety of the pilots’ wives who don’t know if their husbands will come home from work, instantly transported the reader to a psychological reality far removed from the glossy news coverage of the space program. The narrative was utterly seamless — as befits the New Journalism that Wolfe helped create, it read like a novel — and yet no one ever claimed that he made it up. There was a sturdy skeleton of reporting, invisible to the reader, upon which Wolfe hung his peerless prose.

Having gotten to know Wolfe a bit, I saw something of his method. He hid in plain sight — his three-piece white suits served as a shield that made the man within nearly invisible. To the extent that anyone so flamboyantly attired can recede into the background, he did. Wolfe did not talk much; he preferred to listen and to soak in the atmosphere. A quiet man, he did his talking in print. And now he has gone silent forever. American literature — and American life — will be the poorer without him.

I loved The Right Stuff — which includes his bit on the voice of the airline pilot — but I found Bonfire a bit over the top — like New York in the ’80s, I suppose.

This disease of credential inflation seems to be serious

May 17th, 2018

Normally, Bryan Caplan hates it when people go and find one new story as proof of something:

But there was a recent one from South Korea so vivid, where even if you say that it is cherry picked, still, that such a cherry exists says something.

This was a story about, the government in South Korea wanted to hire four janitors, and most of the applicants had college degrees. In the end, they hired three BAs and one AA to be janitors there. This disease of credential inflation seems to be serious in countries where people think of education as something that’s central to their success. I don’t think so.