Tuesday
Jun142011

That light bulb ban? "Of such deals are Tea Parties born"

In Bloomberg this week, Virginia Postrel serves up a typically smart column about the idiocy of what amounts to an effective ban on incadescent lightbulbs in the United States. Her argument is two-pronged: First, she outlines the way a bizarre alliance of green activists and big bulb producers joined forces to convince Congress to ban incandescents:

It was an inside job. Neither ordinary consumers nor even organized interior designers had a say. Lawmakers buried the ban in the 300-plus pages of the 2007 energy bill, and very few talked about it in public. It was crony capitalism with a touch of green.

The result? Consumers got screwed. They are now stuck with a technology, compact fluorescent, that gives inferior light at a higher price, but which has a failure rate not noticeably different from incandescent. But most stupidly, it doesn't even succeed at its intended goal, which is to reduce electricity use in order to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. How could it? As she points out, the ban provides no incentive at all to reduce these emissions:

A well-designed policy would allow different people to make different tradeoffs among different uses to produce the most happiness (“utility” in econ-speak) for a given amount of power. Maybe I want to burn a lot of incandescent bulbs but dry my clothes outdoors and keep the air conditioner off. Maybe I want to read by warm golden light instead of watching a giant plasma TV.

What matters, from a public policy perspective, isn’t any given choice but the total amount of electricity I use (which is itself only a proxy for the total emissions caused by generating that electricity). If they’re really interested in environmental quality, policy makers shouldn’t care how households get to that total. They should just raise the price of electricity, through taxes or higher rates, to discourage using it.

(My emphasis)

I couldn't agree more. In fact, I did agree entirely, in a column I wrote over four years ago (cripes, has it been that long?) for Maclean's. Like Postrel, I argued that the key is to simply get the price of electricity right, because then it means that what I do with the electricity I purchase is my business alone. If I want to bask in the hothouse glow of incandescent bulbs -- or if I choose to install compact fluorescents but spend the savings on a central air conditioner that I use to keep the house at 15C in the middle of summer -- so what?

If a government believes it is entitled to micromanage the preferences of its citizens with respect to electricity consumption, there is no reason to stop at light bulbs. Why not ban sales of 72-inch plasma screen televisions, or outlaw central air conditioning? Why not legislate limits on the number of hours a day I can spend surfing the Internet, or playing video games? The problem with using state power to implement moral distinctions is not that it's annoying; it is that it's authoritarian, with no obvious non-arbitrary stopping point.

It is hardly surprising that it was Cuba that first introduced such a ban a few years ago; it sent teams of youth into people's homes to switch out the old bulbs for energy-saving ones. As Postrel puts it, "of such deals are Tea Parties born."

 

 

Sunday
Jun052011

Dept. of perverse consequences: US Aid to Pakistan

Catching up on my reading, I'm getting through the New Yorker's excellent issue on the killing of Osama bin Laden. All the big guns are in the magazine -- an excellent lead essay by David Remnick, a piece about bin Laden as a social-media innovator by Steve Coll -- but what really brought me up short was Lawrence Wright's look at the perverse consequences of US aid to Pakistan. Check this part out:

In a country of a hundred and eighty million people, fewer than two million citizens pay taxes, and Pakistan’s leaders are doing little to change the situation. In Karachi, the financial capital, the government recently inaugurated a program to appoint eunuchs as tax collectors. Eunuchs are considered relentless scolds in South Asia, and the threat of being hounded by one is somehow supposed to take the place of audits.

Read the rest here

Sunday
Jun052011

Everything sounds better in Italian...

... including my writing:

La frutta che mangiate è tutta biologica? Pensate che la vita sia troppo breve per sorseggiare vini che non siano doc? E per le vacanze alle porte, vi terrete alla larga dalle destinazioni più commerciali, optando per un antico borgo o una fattorialontano da turisti e venditori ambulanti? Se sì, allora benvenuti nel mondo danaroso e competitivo dell’autenticità ostentata, che in molte parti del mondo ormai rappresenta la forma più aggiornata della cara, vecchia corsa all’accaparramento di status symbol esclusivi...

That's from my contribution to the new issue of ITALIC magazine. My deepest thanks to Gaetano Prisciantelli (Twitter @myrthus) for inviting me to contribute. (Attn Italian publishers; Lots more where that came from). 

Wednesday
Jun012011

Fawzia Koofi in Toronto

It's my pleasure and privilege to be the emcee for the Toronto launch tonight of Fawzia Koofi's book, Letters to My Daughters. It is hosted by the Toronto Chapter of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee in conjunction with the Consulate of Afghanistan (Toronto) and Canadians in Support of Afghan Women, and takes place at the Taj Banquet Hall 4611-4619 Steeles Avenue. Yes, it's very far; things will get cooking around 6:30 or so. 

Here's an excerpt from the book. Here is Chris Cobb's review.

Hope to see you there.

 



Saturday
May282011

Measles in Massachusetts: The hatred of the present and our medieval future

Megan McArdle picks up on a report of a measles outbreak in Massachusetts. Officials don't know where it came from, though it may have spread from the French consulate: "France reported 10,000 cases — and six deaths — during the first four months of the year, most likely due to low vaccination rates."

This has been in the making for years. British health officials were warning over a decade ago that immunization rates were dropping dangerously low and that the "herd immunity" was going to disappear. It is tempting to blame it all on the criminal Andrew Wakefield, but his sort of panic-mongering only gets traction in a public that is already widely disposed to despise the present, and fear the future. 

Indeed, as McCardle points out, "It's hard to believe, but we're sliding backwards on two of the three public health achievements of the 20th century: vaccination, antibiotics, and clean water." And she doesn't mention that while our water might be clean (well, for most of us anyway, unless you happen to live on a native reserve in Canada), some of our largest cities have decided that another great public health achievement -- control of tooth decay through water fluoridation -- is some black-helicopter plot. 

We are on what is looking like an inexorable slide into magical thinking, turning our backs on the technologies, the medicines, and the markets that are the basis of our civilization. McCardle suggests that we make a guy like Wakefield "spend the rest of his life explaining himself to the parents of children who have died from diseases that could have been prevented through timely vaccination" but that misses the essence of the madness. Wakefield's victims will go to their graves singing his praises. 

(Via Tyler Cowen)

Thursday
May262011

Goodbye Oprah, and good riddance

Rousseau’s most successful contemporary heir is Oprah Winfrey. Her entire brand is built around a cult of authenticity through therapeutic self-disclosure and promiscuous emotionality.

That's from a column I wrote for Mediaite last year when Kitty Kelly's memoir about Oprah came out. I didn't like Oprah then, I like her less today, and I'm glad she's gone. She's basically a cult-leader who  has had a horrible impact on the publishing industry, helping transform literature into a form of talk therapy while becoming so influential the entire book business is terrified of her. She celebrates "personal authenticity" while serving as an exemplar of the worst forms of ultra-conspicuous shop therapy.  Perhaps worst of all, she went into business with Playboy Bunny-turned anti-vaccine lunatic Jenny McCarthy.

If there is a person who has made more money and become more famous peddling a more perverse ideology to Americans than Oprah, I can't think of who it might be.

Wednesday
May252011

Authenticities

 

1. Chinawood:  A five-hour drive southwest of Shanghai, in the hills near a manufacturing hub, something like a mirage appears among the smokestacks: a full-scale replica of Beijing's Forbidden City.

2. Hyper, local parenting:

While there’s nothing ambiguous about Storm’s genitalia, they aren’t telling anyone whether their third child is a boy or a girl.

The only people who know are Storm’s brothers, Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2, a close family friend and the two midwives who helped deliver the baby in a birthing pool at their Toronto home on New Year’s Day.

3. Accidental Chinese Hipsters

4. Why the "Adele is Authentic" debate is stupid:

I post this in a way as a warning; we're probably going to see stories setting Adele up as the Next Great Hope For Realness percolate on this side of the pond soon, since some critics over here never saw an authenticity fight they couldn't avoid.

5. Electricity is inauthentic in baseball

 

Tuesday
May242011

Where Shock Art is Still Dangerous

One of the defining characteristics of Western culture is our inability to be shocked by art...

That's the opening to my column in last week's Maclean's magazine, which is largely about the clampdown on artists in China. One thing I wanted to work in was an anecdote about Wham!'s famous tour of China in 1985, when they became the first Western pop act to tour the Middle Kingdom. I'll never forget reading in the papers stories about security guards beating kids who were trying to dance at the concerts. At the time, it seemed to fit in with my teenaged Footloose worldview -- that The Man was the same everywhere.

But the crucial lesson is that, while the countercultural rebellion pretty much is Western culture, there are parts of the world where anti-conformist iconoclasm is seen as a genuine threat. China is one such society, and it is disheartening to see that the Canadian government has no apparent views on the kidnapping of Ai Weiwei by Chinese authorities. 

 

Tuesday
May242011

East meets West, and PMH meets Das Racist

The purveyors of post-ironic South Asian swag  at Pardon My Hindi have re-launched with a new store, a new site, and are celebrating with a new T-Shirt in collaboration with the perpetually-touring Brooklyn rap group Das Racist.

Sunday
May222011

How Jay-Z became the black Warren Buffett

Street-cred authenticity and mass-market success are natural antagonists in the corporate world, and very few hip-hop artists could survive wholesale embrace by white suburban adolescents and keep their image intact. But then again, very few hip-hop artists are Jay-Z.

That's the hook to my review of Zack Greenburg's Empire State of Mind, a book about Jay-Z's business philosophy. 
Saturday
May212011

Hyperlocal parenting

I'd love to listen in on the conversations this leads to in the park between the parents of Banjo, Tarragon, and Brystin:

Friday
May202011

Ai weiwei: Who is afraid of the Chinese government? 

 

My column in this week’s Maclean’s magazine (no link yet) is nominally about the contrast between the impotence of shock art in the West versus its all-too-threatening status in China. But mostly it was an excuse to get on the record some facts about the what is, effectively, the kidnapping and detention of the artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese government.

The government has put forth a  list of reasons for his arrest, including pornography (for this picture), plagiarism, and according to this story in the Guardian today, tax evasion. No one takes these claims seriously; it’s fairly obvious Ai is being persecuted for marrying his art with social activism (especially leading investigations into corruption and a cover-up surrounding the Sichuan earthquake).

Ai’s arrest has raised a great deal of alarm in parts of the West. Among the people or organizations that have expressed public concern and requested his release: The US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, US state department spokesman Mark Toner, UK foreign secretary William Hague, the EU delegation to China, German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. In addition, Anish Kapoor and Salman Rushdie have expressed their solidarity with Ai.

On April 18th, a group of about 100 members of the Toronto art community took part in the 1001 Chairs demonstration outside the Chinese consulate, and called on the “Prime Minister and our Minister of Foreign Affairs to express concern over the treatment of Ai Weiwei”. To no avail:Among those who have said nothing in public: Canada’s ambassador to China David Mulroney, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, departed DFAIT minister Lawrence Cannon, new DFAIT minister John Baird, and Heritage Minister James Moore. Brock professor of political science Charles Burton has posted a few items on his blog about the Ai Weiwei case.

After 43 days without any contact, Ai’s wife was allowed to visit him for 20 minutes on Monday. Her account of his condition does not sound great. As Burton and others have pointed out, this is not an isolated case: a disturbing number of people have disappeared in China since the Tunisian-inspired “Jasmine” revolution  began a few months ago. Also, Hong Kong street artists who have been stenciling in support of Ai have similarly been arrested.

(Props to Marina Galperina of Animal New York for keeping tabs on this).



Wednesday
May182011

When it comes to travel, everything is authentic

Mike Sowden has a thoughtful post about travel, authenticity, and modernity:

So is authenticity the opposite of modernity?

No – it can’t be. We know travel is a form of escapism, but where can we escape to? A perceived goal of authentic travel is, in the words of Pam Mandel, “the perfect interaction with the culture we’re visiting”. But whatever remote corner of the world greets our feet, it’s the first decade of the 21st Century. Wherever we go, it’s all modern.

Maybe that sounds crazy. What about the honest-feeling traditions we encounter around the world – the old ways of doing things that we fall so in love with at first sight? Yep, they’re modern too…and the fact you’re seeing them at work means they’re successfully modern. Putting aside the enormously tricky ethical issues for a second – if you’re watching ‘traditional culture’ reenacted in front of you, it’s an invention. It might be largely accurate, it might be 99% fiction, but it’s redesigned for now.

Along the way, he tries to get to a plausible account of authenticity that avoids status-seeking, avoids being caught up in the fetishization of the poor, or the underdeveloped, or the anti-modern, but which also tries to avoid the feeling of compromise or betrayal that goes along with the whole paying-for-authenticity angle. Here's his working definition:

an authentic experience is one that can’t be dictated to us... A moral, ethical choice to do something in such a way that satisfies our core sense of what is good and right.

This is a good try at salvaging the idea of authenticity as a useful goal (for travel, anyway), but I'm not sure it will work. To begin with, I think that searching for an "authentic experience that can't be dictated us" is just another brilliant marketing plan. Even when it is not, I worry that what seems like a "moral, ethical choice" is to0 shot through with class biases and our aesthetics of taste and distaste. At its heart, this strikes me as simply a restatement of the very problem that motivates the entire authenticity hoax in the first place. To the extent to which it doesn't do so, it turns every decision we make into an authentic one, which has a distinctly Buddhist charm to it, at the cost of making the use of the term pointless.

 

Tuesday
May172011

Authentic Rugs

Via Richard Nelson, from the upscale Cherry Creek neighbourhood of Denver.

Monday
May162011

The money is back on Wall Street, and so is the status anxiety

Substance or style were clearly irrelevant this week. Size and name recognition were enough. -- "In Contemporary Art Sales, Big is Better and Famous is Best". The New York Times, May 13 2011.

Can there be any clearer sign that it is business as usual on Wall Street than the return of preposterous prices for idiotic art? At the end of 2008, as the depths of the credit crisis were starting to become apparent, Sotheby’s of London auctioned off 223 works by the former bad boy of British art, Damien Hirst. When the gavel finally fell on the last lot, Hirst was $200 million to the good, a record haul for an auction devoted to a single artist.

At the time, it seemed like the last great flareup of a bull-market in art that that was fueled by the same real-estate bubble that was juicing bonuses on Wall Street. Over the past decade, the Mei Moses All Art index (a sort of TSX for art investments) had outperformed bonds and bills, and in the first half of 2008 it gained a solid 7.4 per cent even as the S&P 500 was enduring double-digit declines. But given that the art market typically lags about six months to a year behind the stock market, it would only be a matter of time before art saw the same sort of declines as equities.

Sorry, where were we? Right, last week in New York:

Estimates had been set at a super maximum. The first three top prices were paid by bidders battling against the reserve. Rarely was the speculative character of the market more blatant.

And later:

Bidders scrambled to buy everything and anything. A set of three cibachrome prints mounted on board and executed by Janine Antonini in 1994 opened the proceedings. The banality of the photographic images from an edition of 10 that were offered under the title “Mom and Dad” did not seem promising. Yet the set sold for $182,500.

Back when people were still paying a king's ransom for second-rate Hirsts, Robert Hughes wrote a wonderfully sour article for the Guardian calling Hirst a "pirate" and blamed him for almost single-handedly creating the cult of artist-as-celebrity, and feeding the “irrational faith in a continuous rise in prices.”

We can see now that Hirst himself had almost nothing to do with it. As usual in these sorts of cases, the key is not remember to blame the buyer, not the seller. Blame the john, not the prostitute. In his 2008 book about contemporary art, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, York University business professor Don Thompson observes that “there is almost nothing you can buy for $12 million that will generate as much status and recognition as a branded work of contemporary art.” As he says, some people think a Lamborghini is vulgar, and lots of people can afford yachts. But put a Damien Hirst dot painting on your wall, and the reaction is, “Wow, isn’t that a Hirst?”

The point is, Hirst was not selling art, he was selling a cure for rich people with more money than taste. But while everyone may have moved on from rotting sheep in formaldehyde, the money is back, and so, quite obviously, is the status anxiety.

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