Magic and class struggle

I just started reading the book Magic for Liars by Sarah Galley. I’d purchased it because of a short review, but by the time I got to read it I’d completely forgotten anything about it, so I was bemused to discover that it is sort of a hard-boiled detective murder mystery set in a boarding school for young magicians. It struck me then how odd it is that “boarding school for young magicians” has turned into a whole genre, spanning a range of works for young people and adults, and now starting to colonise completely different genres, like detective fiction.

So far as I can tell this is largely an Anglo-American literary phenomenon (though Harry Potter is certainly very popular throughout the world), and I suspect that it reflects a natural response to the class system and the power that is accrues to elite education. Surely an uneducated Briton, seeing how a mediocrity like Boris Johnson can be elevated to a position of power on the basis of pairing his hail-fellow-well-met demeanour with the Eton-Oxford training can’t really imagine what they’re learning there, but supposes it must be some sort of deep magic. That’s why the spells in Harry Potter are all Dog Latin: Unexceptional people go to these weird schools, learn these dead languages, and end up ruling the world.

Update: I have deleted a comment asserting a common etymology of magic spell and spelling (learning to write). The words (as Maria Christodoulou pointed out) in fact have completely different roots. (I’m not sure where I got this false etymology from. I would have sworn it was Mary Daly, but while Gyn/Ecology has lots of (sometimes dubious) wordplay on spell and glamour, the association spell-witchcraft-learning is not there.

Guilt of admission

When I first arrived at Oxford I expressed admiration for the rigorously academic nature of the student admissions procedure. I have since soured somewhat on the whole segregate-the-elite approach, as well as on the implicit fiction that we are selecting students to be future academics, but I still appreciate the clarity of the criteria, which help to avoid the worst corruption of the American model. I have long been astonished at how little resentment there seemed to be in the US at the blatant bias in favour of economic and social elites, with criticism largely focused on discrimination for or against certain racial categories. Despite the enormous interest in the advantages, or perceived advantages, of elite university degrees, very little attention has been focused on the intentionally byzantine admissions procedures, on the bias in favour of children of the wealthy and famous (particularly donors or — wink-wink — future donors), the privileging of students with well-curated CVs and expensive and time-consuming extracurricular activities, the literal grandfather clauses in admissions.

Now some of the wealthy have taken it too far, by defrauding the universities themselves, paying consultants to fake exam results and athletic records. The most unintentionally humorous element of the whole scandal is this comment by Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud.

Fraud is defined here as going beyond the ordinary bounds of abusing wealth and privilege. You pay your bribes directly to the university, not to shady middlemen. The applicant needs to actually play a sport only available in elite prep schools, not produce fake testimonials and photoshop their head onto an athlete’s body.

Of course, this is all fraud, because no one is paying millions of dollars because they think their child will receive a better education. The whole point is to lay a cuckoo’s egg in the elite-university nest, where they will be mistaken for the genuinely talented. For a careful (tongue-in-cheek) analysis of the costs and benefits of this approach, see my recent article on optimised faking.

The executive-time branch

We have all learned many things about the world that we might have preferred not to know, since the election of Donald Trump. One of the more bizarre little facts is that there is a rubric “executive time”, used by Trump’s minions to fill in the gaps in his schedule, when he is watching television or shooting the shit with random people. I assume that this is a term he picked up from his wealthy friends, even if few others are likely to be as assiduous as Trump in maintaining executive functions: it was recently revealed that 60% of the president’s schedule is devoted to “executive time”.

Is there any better expression than “executive time” of the way plutocrats assure each other — and pay their underlings to assure them — that they deserve to be wealthy, that they earn it by being both smarter and harder working than the lazy stiffs sitting around just cleaning toilets all day, who stay poor because they “are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies” (as US Republican Senator Charles Grassley recently put it, in explaining why he thought there should be no estate tax at all). The poors deserve their fate because they waste their time watching TV; the CEO earns his million dollars a week with executive time, assimilating complex multimedia information. The same way bankers insist that their stratospheric salaries are recompense for risk, and then get bailed out from the public purse when their risky schemes collapse.

The Labour MP Jess Philips summarised the hegemonic self-deception that goes into the government definition of “skilled workers” — those who would be entitled to immigrate to the UK after Brexit — as those earning over £30,000 (thus excluding most nurses and teachers, for instance) in her wonderful recent speech in the Commons, saying

I have met lots of people who earn way more than £30,000 and have literally no discernible skills, not even one. I have definitely met some very rich people who earn huge amounts of money who I wouldn’t let hold my pint if I had to go and vote while in the bar.

This is the sort of self-deceptive confusion between real skills and “high-level” or “managerial” skills that I have elsewhere called “how to do it“.

The value of a reputation

I strongly appreciate the importance of a reputation for probity.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.

So many vague accusations and suspicions can float around in everyday life where the best basis for judgement is to appeal to prior probability. But this goes too far:

Mossack Fonseca says it has operated beyond reproach for 40 years and never been accused or charged with criminal wrong-doing.

Mossack Fonseca has just mislaid 11 million documents that show its complicity in a vast web of tax evasion through secret accounts in Panama. Even to say that it has operated legally would be stretching credulity. To say that it has been “beyond reproach”… well, I suppose it’s technically true, since no one knew enough about them to reproach them. Similarly a master burglar, when finally caught with his home full of stolen jewels and cash, could say, “This is an outrage. No one has ever cast such aspersions on my good name.”

Long-running non-dom com

UK residents who can claim that their real long-term home is somewhere else — perhaps in their family suite in Monaco, or they plan to be buried in the Cayman Islands — are termed “non-domiciled”, and spared the indignity of paying UK tax on their worldwide income. This includes people who were born and lived their whole lives in this country, if their father was foreign (or himself non-domiciled). This last is particularly galling to the ordinary taxpayer.

Now Labour has vowed to do away with the whole farce, leaving the Tories spluttering about the cost to the economy of driving away wealthy job-creators. What’s fascinating is to see Conservatives suddenly arguing that foreigners are making useful contributions to Britain, even if they are benefit cheats tax avoiders. Sure, some wealthy foreigners are probably making a positive contribution to the UK economy, while others are primarily competing with local people for scarce housing. In that they are a lot like non-wealthy foreigners, if we replace “housing” with “jobs”: some make a net positive economic contribution, some don’t.

But no one is suggesting that we really need to make sure that we retain any loopholes that allow impecunious immigrants to claim benefits in ways that seem contrary to any intended purpose or basic civic morality, because otherwise they might leave.

Why are the one percent only 1%?

Have the years of unremitting oppression cut short their lifespans and suppressed their fertility? Is it because they’ve been hunted nearly to extinction?

These are questions that naturally come to mind in reading the novel genre, pioneered by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, of billionaire lamentations, the most recent of which is this cri de coeur of trust fund Croesus and libertarian political manipulator Charles Koch, with the title “I’m Fighting to Restore a Free Society”. He accuses his opponents, the nameless beasts called “Collectivists”, of acting like “20th century despots” by engaging in “character assassination”, which, as we all know, is exactly the sort of thing that 20th century despots were famous for, except for the “character” part. But character assassination is almost exactly the same as assassination, except without the bombs and stuff, and except for the fact that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish from “criticism”, which people might think a natural part of a “Free Society”. But, in case you’re not sure of how perfidious are these Collectivists who “discredit and intimidate”, Koch informs us that this approach is one that “Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century”, which pretty much settles the issue, as far as I’m concerned.

Sure, it seems natural to look at the increasing concentration of wealth in the US (and not just in the US) and see a tiny oligarchy enriching itself at the expense of the rest of us. But you could look at the same numbers and see an oppressed and shrinking minority of wealth producers, slowly evaporating like a brackish pool in the sun, with its salt (wealth) concentration rising as it shrinks.

Where some of us see an opulent gated community, the reality (Charles Koch tells us) is just a gilded concentration camp. Where his character gets assassinated EVERY DAY. (True story.)

Renters are horrible, evil people, says the NY Times

In many parts of the US the financial crisis has led to more houses being rented rather than bought by the people who want to live in them, according to an article in today’s NY Times, titled “As Renters Move In and Neighborhoods Change, Homeowners Grumble”.

Now, this might seem like a good thing, given how many families and overextended themselves financially to invest in real estate. But if you think that, you are forgetting renters are a bunch of thieves and drug dealers and all around no-goodniks. Why are they occupying single-family homes among nice Americans? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

The Times reporter Shaila Dawan visited a neighbourhood of Memphis, TN called Hillshire.

On a recent evening, parents pushed strollers and lawn mowers droned, children played on a tire swing and in one driveway, a longtime resident and his grandson tinkered with the fat tire of a slick red drag racer.

But there was a seedy underside. Jimmy Fumich, a homeowner and air-conditioner repairman, said he had been in court that day as a witness in an animal cruelty case against a neighbor, a renter, who had left a dog chained to a stop sign in the heat. She was already in trouble, he said, for breaking into an empty house on the block. Mr. Fumich… mentioned a couple of meth houses and one that had been used as a brothel. All were rentals.

A renter mistreated an animal. Others ran a brothel (in a rented house). Or did they just have too many visitors? Mr. Fumich complains further that the renters don’t join the neighbourhood watch.

It almost seems irrelevant when the article adds, parenthetically, that “Police department records show that major crime in the area, which does not include drug offenses, has actually gone down.”

But it’s not just the homeowners who hate the renters. The renters hate themselves:

In a small cul-de-sac near Hillshire… Rusby Amador cooked dinner for her three sons while waiting for her husband, a tile layer, to get home. One son was hosing off the walkway of their rented home. Two prodigious Boston ferns hung in the entry, and at the curb a colorful ceramic urn sat atop the mailbox.

“When the people buy a house, the people’s more nice,” Ms. Amador said. “Renters, they don’t care about neighbors. We don’t know who’s going to move in. We worry all the time because we don’t know. I have children.”

So, neighbours are good, but new neighbours are instruments of the devil. Unless you know who is going to move in which, in my experience, is not usual.