November 15, 2012

Hipsters On Food Stamps, Part 2

gross margin 35%.  Damn right we voted for food stamps

part 1 here


"I can't tell if you're defending hipsters or hating on them."   They're ridiculous. Feel better?  They're not the problem.

It's a simple thesis and no one wants to hear it: hipsters may lack drive, but the world they live in wasn't set up by them, it was set up by their parents, i.e. the Dumbest Generation Of Narcissists In The History Of The World, the ones who magnified the importance and cost of college without having any idea of what should be its purpose, let alone its content. 

If you want to tell me a 30 year old hipster should be lashed for not trying to better himself, I'll bring the whip, but the 30 year old chose his pointless major when he was 17 and you think the outcome is all his fault?  A 17 year old can kill two people and still be considered too young to be criminally responsible, and anyway in that case you think the problem was video games and bullying.  Of course Gerry The Hipster is made of soy and ennui, but there's plenty of blame to go around.  When he was 17 the system incentivized him to destroy his life, tempted him with beer, babes, and BS-- and the promise of an upper middle class lifestyle provided he went to "a good school" (read: gave the system $100k of his post tax, pre-interest money), never mind for what.   Like a good American, he did what he was told.

The society that taught people to want a defective college degree is, unfortunately, going to be expected to support those that bought it, it's still under warranty.  At the very minimum, it owes them their money back, and if they don't pay you should sue for breach of contract. "At the conclusion of this course, students will show a proficiency in...."  The plaintiff rests.

"They should have studied more." Agreed.  But then you shouldn't have admitted them, you shouldn't have passed them.  Inflate the grade, Gresham's Law the society.

All along you've said "you need to go to college so you can get a good job" but the system was not designed to raise producers, it was designed to raise consumers.  Well, here we are.  Why are you surprised that they need consumer stamps?  Why are you surprised they moved back in with you?   "We did the best we could."  No you did not, I was there, I saw it.  You borrowed against their future, and they can't pay it back.  And now you're yelling at them.

Homeless to harvard.jpg...A Hobbit's Tale


While the idea of a Metafilter post-doc receiving food stamps AND telling me they're entitled to it makes my eyes go Sauronic, it's that rage that requires some examination.  Why rage?  Why not just roll my eyes and go back to drinking rum and soldering op amps?  What is the social importance of my rage?

Society is nothing more than individual psychology multiplied by too many to count.  If narcissism is what drives this society, then only narcissism will explain it.

So start with an interesting hypothetical: does everybody need to work anymore?  I understand work from an ethical/character perspective, this is not here my point.  Since we no longer need e.g. manufacturing jobs-- cheaper elsewhere or with robots-- since those labor costs have evaporated, could that surplus go towards paying people simply to stay out of trouble?  Is there a natural economic equilibrium price where, say, a U Chicago grad can do no economically productive work at all but still be paid to use Instagram?  Let me be explicit: my question is not should we do this, my question is that since this is precisely what's happening already, is it sustainable?  What is the cost?  I don't have to run the numbers, someone already has: it's $150/mo for a college grads, i.e. the price of food stamps.  Other correct responses would be $700/mo for "some high school" (SSI) or $1500/mo for "previous work experience" (unemployment).  I would have accepted $2000/mo for "minorities" (jail) for partial credit.


While all those monies have different names and different "requirements" they are all exactly the same thing: paying people who are off the grid, whether by choice or circumstance, indefinitely.  i.e. Living Wages. However, they can never be called that.  They have to pretend to be something else: this is for food, this is because of a medical problem we just made up, this is because you were caught with weed so we'll leave you in here for 6 months until we sentence you to probation.  And they have to have these fake reasons to give taxpayers a little emotional distance, deniability, otherwise they'd go John Galt, after all, they have all the guns.  If they can invade Iraq, how hard is it going to be to take the Whole Foods on 3rd?

That "emotional distance" is not hyperbole, it's not me being a lefty deconstructicon, it is an absolute requirement of a psychic defense of identity, of self-worth.  The point is not to get you to accept that hipsters deserve food stamps, the point is the opposite: to enrage you, infuriate you, so that you will resist-- because then and only then will you pay for it.

If this seems implausible to you, which it must-- that's exactly the point of it--  consider the following extreme analogy, which surprisingly will be easier to understand, which is also the whole point:  Say your father raped you repeatedly for a decade. Hold on, slow down, it gets worse: now you're 40, and he shows up asking you for $2400 because, and I quote, "you have a responsibility to take care of me."  There he is in your living room, eyeballing the nice things in your home.  If it is a fact that you will inevitably give him the money, is it easier to for you to pair it with your venom or your sympathy?  Though it's enraging, there is a perverse pleasure in giving that bastard the money.  It tells you that you showed him that you are better than him.

That's how America works.  The system needs you to be willing, not wanting, to pay for this, and getting the existing (narcissistic) society to believe that it is their "responsibility" (Left's word) to pay for "laziness" (Right's word)-- to WANT to pay for this-- is absolutely impossible.   Why can't we just all agree on what a fair share might be, take care of each other?  Didn't you major in English Lit?  "Homo economicus" is not reality,  envy is an immutable characteristic of our consciousness, it is practically Kantian, some of you will get a minor hold of it but even your priests are chock full o' it.   If the porn isn't high res you can't get horny, but you can hate a guy at 1000 paces without a scope. That's human nature.  Envy, rage.  It's not all we are, but you cannot discount it.
The only way to get them to agree to pay is to give them a way of rationalizing the "responsibility" as, in some way, for them: you'll get a tax break, you'll be rewarded in heaven, you are a better person for it, thanks, this means a lot.  Can you imagine a hipster looking at a salesman and saying thanks for your service?   So that's out, use the default: rage.  Just like how you get people motivated to go to war.  No, no, no, no, not the people already waving flags, I mean the people who don't want war.  Said every liberal in Congress one magical day in 2003: "I'm not going to let those oil bastards Cheney and Bush get away with their racist  imperialist plan, which is why I'm going to scream obscenities at them as I vote Attack."

The system isn't thinking short term, it needs this to work long term, those hipsters are going to be getting food stamps forever, or do you think if the economy rebounds, old liberal arts majors will suddenly become appealing?  Like a woman who squandered her youth on fun but disreputable men, she will find herself at 45 wanting to marry, but alone.  "That is such a disgusting, sexist, archaic thing to say."  I feel your rage, and you are right.  Alone nevertheless.


You might retort that there's no money to pay for 25 more years of hipster apathy.   Admittedly, this is a compelling argument.  But the total cost of food stamps is $80B.  The annual budget deficit is over ten times that.  America's economy is one big gigantic retail sales event.  Is the economy back to like it never happened?

retail sales2.JPGwhy Obama won

The underemployed econ majors will recognize that this isn't "real", inflation adjusted sales and the last few years are based on overpriced high-end goods that only Aspirational 14% can afford, and that for the other 85% of America purchasing power has dropped to 1997 levels, but as Whole Foods says, whatever.

$80B is a lot, but how much is actually going to hipsters, how many hipsters are there, really?  73?  74?  What purpose does this rage serve?  If you Rage Against The Hipsters, you will be that much more likely to "allow" food stamps for everyone else.  The hipsters are diversions.  They are sacrifices. How much hate have you focused on Gerry since you heard about him?  All of it.

To clarify, this is not some kind of socialist ploy, it is a function of the way America (read: narcissism) works, it doesn't need to be centralized, it is the sum of individual vectors pointing in different directions.  Here's the other side's example:  when they talk about raising taxes on the rich, why do they pick a "low" point and push it higher?  Should the highest rates be at $250k/yr?  $300k?  Another way of doing it, which is precisely why they cannot do it, is start at the top and move down.  "We need $1T.  Ok, top five guys pay 90%.  Not enough?  How about top ten guys pay 90%.  Not enough? Top...."  I'm not advocating this or any other policy, not my place, I am pointing out that doing it the way it's done protects the 1% by letting the Aspirational 14%-- who crave recognition and are easily identifiable and hatable because they are poseurs, just of a different kind-- act as human shields.  They take the bullets, the unknown mega-rich take tinted window rides to the Hamptons.   During those tumultuous 80 seconds of OWS-- and BTW, those people gave up hanging out after only a trimester, do you really think they're ready for 40 hour work weeks?-- the majority of the personal attacks were against people who made <$300k, not >$50M.  It's easy to hate, and so the media nudges you in the wrong direction.


You might think that the rage is the spark for a transformation of America, a full scale Dagny Taggart meltdown or Bolshevik revolution, depending on your hat.  That's not how it works.  If this is narcissism, then its purpose is protecting identity, defending against change. Doesn't matter what side you think you're on, unless you are unplugged you are for the status quo.

Here's an example: in the "radical left" (their words) magazine Jacobin, the editor writes a defense of Gerry and Sarah as a way of arguing for the abolishment of, well, everything Randian.   He's against the  "work ethic", he wants a paradigm shift away from American producerism-- the idea that your value is based only on what you can produce for the economy--  towards social rights, e.g. Living Wages.  I disagree with everything in it, so what?  but it is very well written and reasoned, and if I played the same game as him I'd want him on my team.

The point here is that he wants CHANGE.  Here is the last paragraph of the article, tell me if you can find anything supporting the status quo:

Rather than the "deserving" or "working" poor, with its connotations of moral judgment and authoritarian social control, it is time to begin speaking the language of economic and social rights. For instance, the right to a Universal Basic Income, a means of living at a basic level that would be provided to everyone, no questions asked. Against the invidious politics of the work ethic, it's time to argue that some things should be granted to everyone, simply by virtue of their humanity. Even hipsters.

Sounds sublime.  But Gerry already had a living wage-- he spent it on the University of Chicago, 41 years of food stamps in 4 years.  If everybody knew in advance the outcome was going to be unemployment and living wages, then why doesn't Frase challenge the capitalist assumption  that college is money well spent-- could have been used differently?  He can't.  This thought cannot occur to him, not because he is dumb, he clearly isn't, or because he is paid by a college-- money is irrelevant to him.  He can't because his entire identity is built on college, academia.  He is college. Take that away, he disintegrates. So in the utopia he imagines, college still exists AND people get living wages.  Call me a Marxist, that's what we have now.

Second, and more importantly, he thinks he's a radical progressive, that he wants a paradigm shift away from capitalism towards social rights-- but he wants to keep everything else about capitalism completely intact.  He is explicitly against producerism, but he wants to replace it with consumerism.  He wants to make sure people can get what they want, not teach them how to want.  In his utopia of no questions asked Universal Basic Income, do retail sales go up or down?  The system has won.


If rage is necessary to keep this all going, how is it elicited efficiently?

Peter Frase, defending Gerry and Sarah:

But what the [Salon] article seemed to call forth in its readers was unending bile and rage directed at people deemed insufficiently deserving of a public benefit.

Let's do this right.  If it is rage, then the rage is because of a threat to identity. What possible threat to identity could Gerry and Sarah pose to hardworking Americans?  The answer is that someone wrote an article about how great Gerry and Sarah are, e.g. Peter Frase.

Frase again:

But they aren't the only people who react to stories like this with rage or contempt rather than empathy. Consider the following comment, left under [Gerry's] response to the article about him:

I'm sorry but you are a selfish, whiny leach. I can say this because I a middle-aged woman and have been trying to find work for two years without success though I have a masters degree in a fairly desirable field. I have dwindling savings and two kids. Because I stayed home with them for a few years I don't qualify for unemployment and that has also damaged my marketability in the job world. Despite all of this I have never resorted to public assistance and will not. In addition, I have a back problem that surgery did not correct so I am in physical pain 24 hrs a day. Still I have taken temp jobs and we have cut back in many ways. I am proud of my fortitude and resourcefulness, because we will make it through this time and my kids will learn valuable lessons from me about self-reliance.

Here we have a person who has been marginally employed for two years and suffers physical pain 24 hours a day--and rather than demanding something better for herself, she demands that other people suffer more!

Wrong, read her words, they are right in front of you.  Before that article in Salon, this mother was allowed to believe that her staying off the dole had some honor in itself-- some validation of her identity-- and it allowed her to survive her hardships.  Now she is forced to swallow that these people are not merely as good as her, but more valuable-- they get an article, they get defenders like you, they are praised for their intrinsic human value, and all she gets is mocked, belittled, "she's too stupid to know what's good for her!"-- all she can do is comment on their life-- and her small act of rebellion is to at least use the space to tell the world she  exists.  Rage is her defense that keeps her intact while the world seemingly ignores her. 

Husband hates that his wife reads about the faux-celebrities in magazines. They say words to each other.  What do they actually hear?  

She hears this: "Anyone who likes that is lazy and stupid. You're stupid." 

He hears this: "I know they don't actually do anything, but they're more interesting than you."

This is the surprising result: since they wall off into psychic cocoons, therefore the marriage remains intact, for a while longer.


Back to college.  Since the problem is college,  does college accept any responsibility?  I went to The Chronicle of Higher Education to find out.  Surprise, no.

phd food stamps.JPG

What did I expect?  They apparently intended this picture to evoke sympathy, isn't it a crime that 33000 PhDs are on food stamps? 

You can imagine how the other side reads it, some highlights: hyphenated name; stupid thing to get a PhD in; fat; what's an "adjunct"; why so much cheese; tattoos; place is a mess.

Nowhere does the article address the fact that it should not have allowed her to get a PhD in medieval history, let alone help her pay for it.  Do you know what The Chronicle does focus on?  That she's not black.  First sentence of the article which is entirely about branding:

"I am not a welfare queen," says Melissa.

For a lefty loosy publication like The Chronicle, what difference does it make if she's white?  Why does her PhD make her more deserving that a welfare queen?  Because to The Chronicle, the PhD has value.  It doesn't.  I'm not saying she isn't smart, I'm saying the PhD in no way communicates to me she knows medieval history better than any D&D player.  She may know more, but how do I know?  I don't even find "MD" particularly valid, but at least you can sue a doctor.

But my reason for showing you her is to highlight the perverse logic of the university which will doom us all: since the only maniacs who would ever hire these PhDs are universities, then the solution to their unemployment is more money for universities:

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau does not blame Yavapai College for her situation but rather the "systematic defunding of higher education." In Arizona last year, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed a budget that cut the state's allocation to Yavapai's operating budget

Why would you expect her to answer differently?

All the system had to do, starting around 1965, is not incentivize this madness.  If there were not guaranteed student loans, up to any amount, available equally across majors and across colleges, independent of skills or promise or societal need, none of this would have happened.  Easy money got us into this mess, and easy money will keep us sailing until we go right off the edge of the map.

part 3