Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone charge headlong into their pursuit of celebrity status, following every trend and fad and desperately trying to keep current. Seeing celebrity status more as a state of being (a sort of materialist’s nirvana) rather than recognition of achievement, they strive mightily while doing amazingly little work. They also drink, drug and smoke with complete abandon and one is never sure whether their unflinching selfishness and rampant vices is what’s keeping them from the top or are the only things keeping them in the game. Absolutely Fabulous: Absolutely Everything contains hours of wicked, side splitting tales that are as good as comedy gets. If we are very lucky, a show this funny may come along again in the next 30 years. Until then, we’ll have to comfort ourselves with this set.
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Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, seems a novel well suited to our times. It’s about what happens to a society in which speculative motives have supplanted the traditional moral codes governing economic and social behavior—how bubble psychology plays out at the various levels of society and affects the various relations between different classes of people. Trollope unobtrusively works the theme into his different plot strands: we see speculators in the marriage market, speculators in aristocratic titles, speculators in a fictitious railroad scheme; cheats at cards, cheats at establishing literary reputation, cheats in the game of love, cheats in self-representation, and so on. Aristocrat card players issue their own illiquid commercial paper and reputational bubbles swell and burst.
In his workman-like way, Trollope take us through the thought processes of his characters, who, unlike those of so many other Victorian novelists, at least succeed in coming across as adults. In The Way We Live Now, characters are generally rationalizing their own selfishness by referring to the apparent selfishness of others—the overriding mode of moral reasoning during a bubble. Presuming that everyone is in the midst of calculating how to press their advantage leads to an overwhelming cynicism that one adopts by default. It becomes to hard to conceive of the possibility of authenticity, of a disingenuous self-presentation. (Hetta Carbury, maybe the least tainted figure in the novel, captures this well when she says to her mother of a suitor, “He has to me that air of selfishness which is so very common with people in London—as though what he said were all said out of surface politeness.”) Genuine emotions are so routinely turn out to be vulnerable weaknesses that the characters instinctively resist them and ultimately succeed in banishing the notion of having them from their minds for the most part.
This gives the novel moments of genuine tragedy, when we recognize that the characters can’t acknowledge their own natural sympathies, and the opportunity for real love and mutual understanding with others passes them by. Over and over, Trollope illustrates the alienation that stems from calculating rationality. If they sense them, they dismiss the possibility of acting on them, mainly because they are skeptical that such feelings aren’t a social trap, but also because they are so habituated to scheming. They are self-centered without taking much pleasure in it, which suggest the demeanor is imposed on them by the times—the way they had to live then. Speculation had become an end in itself—it becomes gambling addiction, where winning is beside the point of always finding action, always having a live bet. All the characters are subsumed by variations of this compulsion.
In a world where cynicism is virtually universal, belief becomes a valuable commodity. In this regard, the interpersonal intersects with the economic, as a capitalist economy runs on trust, or at least on trust transformed by capital into its economic aspect, credit. But credit, in Trollope’s novel, is a means to pervert the human relation of trust into something exploitable, into something that may easily be misrepresented since it is not a lived relation but a contracted simulacrum of a relation. Lady Carbury, the hack writer who hopes to ingratiate herself with the dubious financier Melmotte, poses this question—the question of the age, it seems—to one of her editors: “If a thing can be made great and beneficial, a boon to humanity, simply by creating a belief in it, does not a man become a benefactor to his race by creating that belief?” One can imagine many advertising professionals asking themselves this, as well. Nothing is real, anyway, right, so should we give people the opportunity to dream big? But the question also suits the Ponzi scheme high-finance has become in our time. As we have discovered, it is easy for the untrustworthy to secure vast amounts of credit; there are no moral tests to pass before one can pile on leverage.
So it’s not surprising that this piece of analysis from financial consultant Greg Curtis (posted at Barry Ritholtz’s site) seems a summation of the themes of Trollope’s novel:
In our view, poor risk controls, massive leverage, and the blind eye were really symptoms of a much worse disease: the root cause of the crisis was the gradual but ultimately complete collapse of ethical behavior across the financial industry. Once the financial industry came unmoored from its ethical base, financial firms were free to behave in ways that were in their – and especially their top executives’ – short-term interest without any concern about the longer term impact on the industry’s customers, on the broader American economy, or even on the firms’ own employees.
In the annals of rock and roll history, producer Ross Robinson will most likely be remembered as a scoundrel. After all, Robinson is largely responsible for the “Nu-Metal” scourge of the late ‘90s, having produced and championed acts like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Soulfly. Future historians, however, would do well to also note Robinson’s second act, wherein he realized the err of his ways and attempted to slay the beast that he had created. Starting at the turn of the millennium, Robinson scoured the globe for progressive hardcore and metal bands, in a valiant attempt to break through the haze of cookie-cutter Nu-Metal being peddled by MTV and corporate radio. To his credit, Robinson managed to round up some of the most inventive heavy bands active at the time—At the Drive-In, the Blood Brothers, Glassjaw—and in the albums that he produced for them, he pushed these bands to produce recordings that accurately captured their energy as live bands. The resulting records, At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, the Blood Brothers’ Burn Piano Island, Burn and Glassjaw’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence and Worship and Tribute, still stand as some of the best post-hardcore records produced during the last decade.
In an effort to maintain its share of the export market, China has decided to depreciate its currency. (In the past, its loose peg to the dollar kept it artificially low as the dollar dropped against the other currencies. Now the dollar is appreciating, making the Chinese currency—the yuan, or renminbi if you prefer—stronger against the rest. That dampens demand for Chinese goods, which become more expensive.) Brad Setser explains the ramifications:
The absence of real appreciation in the past undermines China’s case for reacting to the recent renminbi move by allowing the renminbi to depreciate rather than by doubling down on efforts to stimulate domestic demand. China has by far the world’s largest current account surplus. The latest World Bank report argues, I think correctly, that this surplus should persist next year even as exports slow. China will benefit more than most from the recent large fall in commodity prices. If China is unwilling to accept that its exports will slow as the global economy slows, and instead tries to offset dollar strength by weakening the renminbi against the dollar – or it tries to offset renminbi appreciation with export subsidies – everyone else will face additional competitive pressures.
If I’ve understood this correctly (and I had to read it several times), China would rather intensify its competition for foreign market share than let global economic adjustments enhance domestic demand. The state is futzing with the yuan so its people won’t shop more.
A few weeks ago, I wondered about the future of Chinese consumerism before, figuring that the state had its reasons for impeding it and the ideological forces consumerism would unleash. This NYT story explores the current ideological dispensation for the Chinese—“tenacious thrift”—and takes at face value the government’s efforts to stimulate demand. From this perspective, the challenge is to overcome the paradox of thrift.
Government analysts are looking to consumers, especially the country’s hundreds of millions of high-saving peasants, to pick up much of the slack. “If we can boost people’s confidence and they spend more money, it will not only be beneficial to China but it will help stabilize the world’s economy,” Zhu Guangyao, the assistant finance minister, said last week.
But getting people to spend more, especially in the face of an economic slowdown, may be a tall order. Consumer spending makes up 35 percent of China’s G.D.P., and that number has been dropping since the 1980s, when it stood at 50 percent; consumer activity in the United States, by contrast, is responsible for more than two-thirds of the economy.
As an American, I find this hard to believe, since the desirability of spending and owning are second nature to me. They seem instinctively preferable. But of course, those instincts are my inheritance; it took a century of hard marketing work and a culture that gives pride of place to persuasion. Capitalism seems by necessity to nurture this consumer psychology; it requires that needs expand to foster perpetual growth. It requires us to regard the expansion of needs as a spiritual enrichment of our lives. But needs can only expand when they must suck up higher wages, which aren’t taking off in China yet. And judging by these anecdotes, the Chineses have yet to shift their moral outlook toward spending:
Mr. Dang and his wife, Zhang Fengxia, 52, are the apotheosis of Chinese thrift. They do not use banks — “better to keep money at home,” Ms. Zhang said — and the couple’s biggest expenditure was a used tractor they bought for $1,200 a few years ago. Everything else is set aside for their retirement and for potential medical costs.
Asked if she would use a credit card if one were given to her, Ms. Zhang looked confounded. “What’s a credit card?” she asked, adding, “We have everything we need.”
Xing Xiuqin, 60, bragged that she managed to stash away 80 percent of her income before retiring. “Old people just need one outfit,” she said. “You should save everything for your kids.”
Contrast that with the baby-boomer philosophy, as discussed in yesterday’s post. To reiterate, boomers “have raised overscheduled spoiled children, moved up the corporate ladder by pushing paper rather than making things, lived above their means in order to keep up with their neighbors, bought whatever they wanted using debt, and never worried about the future. Over optimism, unrealistic assumptions, selfishness and conspicuous consumption have been their defining characteristics.”
// Moving Pixels
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