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General Off-Topic Board / Poll: When do you stop being poor?
« on: March 18, 2008, 03:46:07 PM »
From Megan McArdle's Atlantic blog

Yesterday I did a Bloggingheads with Mark Kleiman that ought to be up soonish in which we discussed, briefly, taxation and distributional justice. One of the things we touched on is how much of your income you are morally (not legally) required to give away.

Liberals get angry at conservatives who point out that most poor people have more than one color television, with some justice. The collection of goods that constitutes a decent minimum changes over time. In the 1920s, many people thought it was ridiculous to say that the poor ought to have iceboxes and electric lights. We add to the bare minimum in part because we are wealthy and can afford to, and in part because when goods become common among the non-poor, society adapts to those goods in ways that exclude the poor from a decent life. A telephone, for example, may have been a luxury in 1940, but without one these days it's awfully hard to get and hold a job.

On the other hand, liberals also seem to be getting angry at the idea that there is a decent minimum--that the poor are not entitled to all the benefits of being solidly middle class.

What I wonder is where it stops. If we are upset by the very fact that it is nicer to be middle class than poor, and even nicer to be rich than to be middle class, then the only way to fix this is to fix everyone's income at the same level. Otherwise, the poor will enjoy life less than everyone else.

So question for my liberal commenters, and other liberal bloggers: assuming that you are not yourself poor, what is it okay for you to have while poor Americans do not? This is not a trick question, a prelude to some "gotcha" argument. I'm genuinely curious: where, exactly, do you think the levelling should stop? House size? Length of commute? Lean meat in the diet? Where do you draw the line?

General Off-Topic Board / Poll: Settling
« on: February 09, 2008, 02:49:55 PM »
The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough

by Lori Gottlieb

About six months after my son was born, he and I were sitting on a blanket at the park with a close friend and her daughter. It was a sunny summer weekend, and other parents and their kids picnicked nearby—mothers munching berries and lounging on the grass, fathers tossing balls with their giddy toddlers. My friend and I, who, in fits of self-empowerment, had conceived our babies with donor sperm because we hadn’t met Mr. Right yet, surveyed the idyllic scene.

“Ah, this is the dream,” I said, and we nodded in silence for a minute, then burst out laughing. In some ways, I meant it: we’d both dreamed of motherhood, and here we were, picnicking in the park with our children. But it was also decidedly not the dream. The dream, like that of our mothers and their mothers from time immemorial, was to fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).

To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist—vehemently, even—that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family. And despite growing up in an era when the centuries-old mantra to get married young was finally (and, it seemed, refreshingly) replaced by encouragement to postpone that milestone in pursuit of high ideals (education! career! but also true love!), every woman I know—no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure—feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried.

Oh, I know—I’m guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren’t widely representative, that I’ve been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and basically, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. And all I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried, because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.

Whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s good reason to worry. By the time 35th-birthday-brunch celebrations roll around for still-single women, serious, irreversible life issues masquerading as “jokes” creep into public conversation: Well, I don’t feel old, but my eggs sure do! or Maybe this year I’ll marry Todd. I’m not getting any younger! The birthday girl smiles a bit too widely as she delivers these lines, and everyone laughs a little too hard for a little too long, not because we find these sentiments funny, but because we’re awkwardly acknowledging how unfunny they are. At their core, they pose one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?

My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)

Obviously, I wasn’t always an advocate of settling. In fact, it took not settling to make me realize that settling is the better option, and even though settling is a rampant phenomenon, talking about it in a positive light makes people profoundly uncomfortable. Whenever I make the case for settling, people look at me with creased brows of disapproval or frowns of disappointment, the way a child might look at an older sibling who just informed her that Jerry’s Kids aren’t going to walk, even if you send them money. It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American. Our culture tells us to keep our eyes on the prize (while our mothers, who know better, tell us not to be so picky), and the theme of holding out for true love (whatever that is—look at the divorce rate) permeates our collective mentality.

Even situation comedies, starting in the 1970s with The Mary Tyler Moore Show and going all the way to Friends, feature endearing single women in the dating trenches, and there’s supposed to be something romantic and even heroic about their search for true love. Of course, the crucial difference is that, whereas the earlier series begins after Mary has been jilted by her fiancé, the more modern-day Friends opens as Rachel Green leaves her nice-guy orthodontist fiancé at the altar simply because she isn’t feeling it. But either way, in episode after episode, as both women continue to be unlucky in love, settling starts to look pretty darn appealing. Mary is supposed to be contentedly independent and fulfilled by her newsroom family, but in fact her life seems lonely. Are we to assume that at the end of the series, Mary, by then in her late 30s, found her soul mate after the lights in the newsroom went out and her work family was disbanded? If her experience was anything like mine or that of my single friends, it’s unlikely.

General Off-Topic Board / Poll: Tree of Smoke
« on: December 11, 2007, 09:43:39 AM »
When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.

Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else. According to The New York Times, which in 2006 sent a questionnaire to writers, editors, and critics, a collection of Johnson’s short stories titled Jesus’ Son is regarded by some as the best American book of the past 25 years. He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer. Denis Johnson is, in short, the sort of novelist whose work one expects to be reviewed on the cover of every prominent newspaper’s book section, as Tree of Smoke was in September. Equally predictable was the reviewers’ implicit injunction that we should ask not what the book can do for us, but what it can do for Johnson’s place in American letters. This much is standard Important Writer treatment, and for all I know, Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times), Jim Lewis (The New York Times Book Review), and other reviewers consider Johnson worthy of it no matter what he puts out. What I find difficult to believe is that they admire Tree of Smoke. For one thing, their own prose is better than anything in it. For another, they try to lower our expectations for the book even as they cry it up as the main event of the fall publishing season. Lewis, for example, gives a marveling nod at the part in which “two drunken soldiers, one of them an amputee, have a long, inane conversation, during which the disabled one announces, ‘My invisible foot hurts.’”

An amputee with a phantom limb, fancy that. Lewis’s aside that Tree of Smoke “doesn’t feel like a Denis Johnson novel” lends weight to the assumption that a writer cannot become famous by writing like this, at least not yet. But with no way to prove insincerity on the reviewers’ part, I have to pretend to believe that they really do consider Tree of Smoke to be “something like a masterpiece” (Lewis) and “bound to become one of the classic works of literature” (Kakutani) about the Vietnam War. (The novel, a New York Times best seller, has been nominated for a National Book Award.)

Underlying the hype is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious. The true mark of an ambitious work is its style and depth. We would recognize Anna Karenina as such a novel even if only its first few pages had survived, because they depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives. In contrast, Tree of Smoke starts off with one Seaman Bill Houston shooting a tiny monkey he sees in the jungle. (The symbolism of this happening hours after JFK’s assassination is crude in more ways than one.) The animal, evidently a gun buff, spreads its arms “enthusiastically” before dropping to the ground, where its mood changes. “With fascination, then with revulsion, [Bill] realized that the monkey was crying.” Such a realization would take far too short a time for anyone to become fascinated, let alone for fascination to yield to revulsionand why revulsion anyway? Later, Bill meets up with his younger brother James, a soldier. For some reason, Bill does not know James’s age, and appears surprised to learn that he is not yet 18. James “done lied” to the recruiter. The level of their conversation can be imagined.

We are then introduced to another central character, Skip, with the news that

having been raised in the American heartland he was dedicated to steering clear of personal controversy, to ignoring scowls, honoring evasiveness, fending off voices raised in other rooms.

Ignoring scowls is no way to steer clear of controversy, but never mind that. The derivation of a man’s personality from his place of origin is the stuff of second-rate thrillers. After two months in the Philippines, Skip

liked the people, he hated the climate. It was the start of his fifth year serving the United States as a member of its Central Intelligence Agency. He considered both the Agency and his country to be glorious.

General Off-Topic Board / Poll: Moynihan's Law
« on: November 24, 2007, 03:42:36 PM »


It's true.

General Off-Topic Board / Poll: Would you rather be tasered or shot?
« on: October 04, 2007, 07:39:37 PM »

General Off-Topic Board / Typically I don't watch baseball...
« on: September 30, 2007, 04:55:11 PM »
but how bout those Mets?

General Off-Topic Board / Poll: What's your favorite color?
« on: September 30, 2007, 03:03:53 AM »

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