Wednesday, 22 February 2017

What do people do all day? #1

Some insights from the Lunch with the FT collection of interviews:

Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon, interviewed by Andrew Davidson:

His working hours? "I do 60 a week, any less I get bored, any more, tired. I mean, what do people do who do less? How do they fill the time?"

Families, hobbies, television. He frowns, as if he doesn't quite understand.

Oleg Deripaska, billionaire aluminium magnate, interviewed by Gideon Rachman:

Why not cash out? I ask. Deripaska looks faintly indignant - "And do what?" he asks.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Book Review: Generation X, Douglas Coupland, 1991

If you'd asked me a year ago to define Millennials - as in, to provide my best understanding of society's definition of Millennials - I'd have told you that they're the first generation that expects life to be worse for them than it was for their parents.

I'm not sure how I'd have defined Gen Xers - one thing that sticks in my mind from something I read somewhere (maybe even from more recent Coupland? Maybe not) is that they were a generation who were thought to have been soft and good-for-nothing, until digital technology came along and allowed them to express talents and money-making potential that had been hidden unsuspected all along.

But now I reread Generation X for the first time in maybe a decade, and I realise that many (all?) of the things people generally say about Millennials were previously said about Gen Xers.

Take these stats from the back pages of Generation X (publication date, I reiterate, 1991):

"Percentage of US 18-29 year olds who agree that "there is no point in staying at a job unless you are completely satisfied": 58"

"Percentage of US 18-29 year olds who agree that "given the way things are, it will be much harder for people in my generation to live as comfortably as previous generations": 65".

But it's not just rereading Generation X that has taught me that Millennials are not the first doomed generation: the recent US presidential election did the same. At some point in my struggle to understand Brexit and Trump I stumbled across Professor Elizabeth Warren's 2007 testimony before the US Senate Finance Committee, which told me things like:

"the typical man working full-time today, after adjusting for inflation, earns about $800 less than his father earned back in the early 1970s"


"By the most obvious financial measures, the middle class American family of the 21st Century is beginning to sink financially"


"In 2004, the median homeowner was forking over a mortgage payment that was 76% larger than a generation earlier"


"Today’s family spends 74% more on health insurance than their earlier counterparts—if they are lucky enough to get it at all. Costs are so high, that 48 million working-age Americans simply went without coverage last year"

Similarly, from the back pages of Generation X:

"Percentage of income required for a down-payment on a first home ... in 1967: 22; in 1987, 32"

The western middle class has been being hollowed out for decades, but until Brexit and Trump nobody noticed. Or did they think neoliberalism would lift all boats?

All of which is my way of saying how damn relevant Generation X seems right now. In my dim memory it was about people dropping out of consumerist lifestyles and taking refuge in irony / authenticity, which it is, but it's also about people doing so because they have no real choice: they're forced to take up things like:

"Status substitution: Using an object with intellectual or fashionable cache to substitute for an object that is merely pricey: "Brian, you left your copy of Camus in your brother's BMW""

because they're all experiencing:

"Lessness: A philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself with diminishing expectations of material wealth: "I've given up wanting to make a killing or be a bigshot. I just want to find happiness and maybe open up a little roadside cafe in Idaho"."

Which maybe makes Generation X sound a little preachy or too arch, but actually the Gen X-isms are not exclusively economic or self-pitying: they're often funny, heartfelt, and still ring true.

What's more, Coupland also creates interesting, likeable characters, tells engaging stories, and uses language in a fresh and entertaining way.

Generation X is a great book.

I'm not entirely sure what its moral is, or even if there is a clean moral to be plucked from it. We're advised that "purchased experiences don't count", and indeed the characters provide stories about the perfect unpurchased moments that "prove you're really alive", but these are moments that happen seldom, and so the question remains: what do you do in between them?

Do you keep semi-deliberately sliding down the socioeconomic ladder until you find the cheap situation your menial-but-dignifiedly-earned income can support? The book strongly suggests that you do, but can we all? Can any of us? Would we be happy?

Where are those Gen Xers now?

I must have first read Generation X when I was 15 or 16 - half my life ago - and I'm again moved to wonder what books like it and Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero did to a mind ill-prepared to receive them. Did they Daria-ify me when I would otherwise have been basically fine? Or was I always destined to be misanthropic and confused?

As Kurt Cobain, who would have been 50 today, said: "Teenage angst has paid off well; now I'm bored and old."

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Snap out of it #2

"There had been a time, once, when he had not lived like this, a .32 under his pillow, a lunatic in the back yard firing off a pistol for God knew what purpose [...] There had been a wife much like other wives, two small daughters, a stable household that got swept and cleaned and emptied out daily [...] But then one day, while lifting out an electric corn popper from under the sink, Arctor had hit his head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet directly above him. The pain, the cut in his scalp, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleaned away the cobwebs. It flashed on him instantly that he didn't hate the kitchen cabinet: he hated his wife, his two daughters, the whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon."

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K Dick

Snap out of it #1

"This admission tweaks me out of my own thoughts - the way breaking a shoelace when tying a shoe can somehow instantaneously shift you into a new plane of consciousness."

Generation X, Douglas Coupland

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Book review: Europe's Last Chance, Guy Verhofstadt, 2017

Guy Verhofstadt is probably best known to most non-Belgians (he was that country's prime minister from 1999 to 2008) as the anti-Nigel Farage, the man at whom Farage's anti-EU tirades are perhaps most often directed, given that Verhofstadt and Farage face off in the European Parliament, whereas Jean-Claude Juncker, Farage's other bete noire, presides over the European Commission. Verhofstadt's designation as the Parliament's Brexit representative has thrust him further into the limelight recently, a position he certainly enjoys.

He's a pro-European, but also a reformist, and Europe's Last Chance is his diagnosis of and prescription for the EU's ills. As such it's wide-ranging, covering EU governance, financial union, an EU army, the rise of populism, the migrant crisis and Russia. I expect it's therefore an almost perfect book for someone looking for a middle-distance contemporary guide to the EU. As someone who reports on the EU for a living, I'd have preferred a more warts-and-all, microscopic examination of everything from which Commissioners take sugar with their coffee to what national heads of state spit when they talk, but probably that's just me.

The book starts weakly, with a subjective and unconvincing attempt to solve the problems of nationalism and European identity. That the EU Verhofstadt envisions - as he later reveals - is essentially just a nation writ large undermines his attempt to dispel nationalist sentiment as wrong-headed. "That Europe is suffused with social bases and values so different as to be incompatible is nonsense", we're told, rightly, but then Verhofstadt declares that: "The entrepreneurial spirit is not northern European, it is European [his emphasis], as are solidarity with the vulnerable, the pursuit of justice...", as if North Americans or Africans were not entrepreneurial, Central Americans not empathetic, Middle Easterners not concerned with fairness. This crude if well-intentioned assertion is then undermined later by Verhofstadt himself, when he notes that "many French people still hold monarchist, rightist, and downright anti-semitic opinions".

It's not so much that Verhofstadt is wrong - later he says that "everyone should be able to become European" - it's just that he's better at handling the technical details than the emotional reasoning, and unfortunately the emotional part of the book comes first.

Later chapters are more convincing. The problems with the currency union lacking a fiscal union are well-known but quite clearly presented here, and the problems with the Greek debt crisis and the fractured and sclerotic EU governance even more so. Likewise, Verhofstadt's plans for dealing with these problems and others are clearly presented: he wants the Eurozone to be a genuine union; Greece's politicians to institute sweeping reforms; and the EU government to be shrunk and elected on a continent-wide basis and executive powers to be transferred to the Parliament and Commission, with a nationally selected senate acting only as a legislative check.

For those not already well versed in EU politics, this will all be informative and interesting stuff. For me, the most interesting parts were those that were less familiar and more personal: Verhoftstadt's take on the rise and (moral) fall of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, the difficulties his cleaner had securing asylum in the EU, the wall he himself ran into when trying to secure a loan in Italy to set up a vineyard.

The book isn't perfect: in places it feels a touch shallow (minus the index it comes in under 300 pages), it could've done with more raw data and insider examples, some idea of how broad Verhofstadt thinks the EU should ultimately be would have been interesting (should Turkey be a member?), as would some indication of how he thinks the EU should deal with Brexit outside of his ideal scenario of a two-tier EU with an inner Eurozone and an outer associate layer in which the UK might find a home, plus there are too many typos, but over its course it slowly gains authority as it covers more ground, and by the end it's hard to imagine any but the most fixedly anti-EU readers not agreeing that the EU needs to succeed if Europe is to compete on the world stage, and that the only way it can do so in the long-term is through reform and closer unity.

A final thought: as a Brit, it's depressing to read a plan for European success in which Britain realistically will play no part. If a close-knit market of half a billion people and a European army are needed to compete with the US and China, repel the threat of a rampaging Putin and bring stability to north Africa, where does that leave the UK? A lone outsider, desperately trying to keep upper lip stiff while the realisation of increasing irrelevance and backwardness slowly dawns...