Comedy about the Economy (ep 1)

Show Notes

On the first episode I explore what the show’s going to be about: the growing diconnect between — well — everything. Capitalism’s completely transforming our world and even human nature itself. Sometimes for the better, often for worse, and mostly both. Goal here: to understand what the fuck is happening to the world and what to do about it.

1) Introduction

What this podcast will be about

What I wanna do is tell an ongoing story about capitalism and the economy and human nature and what the fuck is happening to the world.

See, capitalism is the greatest economic system history has ever seen. But it’s also kind of fucked up because all it wants is to maximize profits. So if it can, if we let it, it will take over our political system, and our art, and our religion and ultimately our souls and drive us to do whatever will make it more money.

That might sound a little melodramatic, but if you keep listening for a few chapters I plan on not only proving this to you but also convincing you that it’s the most important and dangerous problem of the 21st century.

Because lately I look at the world and see two things: nothing makes any sense and everyone’s pretty much cool with it.

I want this podcast to get to the heart of why the hell that is. That, and I want it to be funny.

And I know what you’re thinking – the economy is dry and boring and not at all funny.

Well I say fuck that. It’s actually fascinating, and there are so many absurd, logic-defying hypocrisies buried in the economy that you can’t help but laugh if you take the time to think about them.

And that’s what I’m gonna do.

If you doubt my ability to make this funny, take heart that an ex girlfriend of mine once said that (this is a direct quote) I write like a wizard on crack. Most quotes from my exes are insulting and about something else entirely but that shouldn’t be an issue for this show.

So, yes, the show is gonna be comedy about the economy, but at its basest level – it’s going to be an attempt to make sense of the growing disconnect between – well – everything.

Things today, objectively, are better than ever. But they’re also worse.

We’re more connected through telephones and the internet than we’ve ever been in the history of life. But we feel disconnected and isolated.

Human beings are safer than any species has ever been. But because of our own actions, we’re also threatened by the possibility of all these different types catastrophic destruction.

And in some ways things are amazing. We are amazing. The creation of wealth, technology, and just LIFE that the modern age has wrought – it’s mind blowing. But we’ve also created all kinds of diseases. And guns and bombs and chemicals that kill people.. And we let people starve even though we have the technology to make sure nobody starves. Which you know, is not that great.

Technology, democracy, capitalism: they’re all kind of paradoxes. We’ve made the whole world an architecture of contradictions.

One huge fucking paradox. It’s hard.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, a favorite in the long line of drunken irish self-destructive genius writers said “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still function.” Which is cool, but is also what the famous 20th century social psychologist Leon Festinger defined as the mentally destructive condition he called cognitive dissonance. See Festinger said that when people hold two ideas that contradict each other in their mind, they pay a huge toll in mental stress.

So basically, being intelligent drives you fucking nuts. what Fitzgerald said you have to do to be intelligent, Festinger said drives you fucking nuts.

But if you keep listening, maybe we can be intelligent and nuts together. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Crackup
Includes several amazing essays by Fitzgerald and also chronicles his descent into depression. I talk about Fitzgerald’s famous quote that the measure of a good intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at once.

A history of Cognitive Dissonance

All about Festinger’s famous theory that being wrong puts mental stress on us.

2) Vocabulary

‘Money Good’

Don’t worry, this segment isn’t gonna be academic and boring. I’m not gonna define technical shit like amortization or Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium Models. If you want to know what some technical term means, just google it. I probably won’t know and I’ll just make something up.

What I’m more interested in is concepts that are a) inherently interesting b) kind of fucked up and c) have implications that can be applied to our world on a larger scale.

So MONEY-GOOD: 

This one I do know, and since I used it as the title of the whole damn podcast, I’d like you to as well.

Money good isn’t really a technical term so much as a colloquialism used inconsistently in the finance industry. I’ve talked to people in business who know it and people who don’t.

So in finance, there are these companies called “credit ratings agencies.” Moody’s, Fitch, and Standard and Poor are the famous ones and what they do is they analyze any bond, security, or financial product that’s based on debt. For instance: a bond issued by a company to raise money, or a mortgage backed security, or even the bonds that the U.S. government sells to raise money when it needs it.

So the credit ratings agencies look at these financial products and give them a rating. They’re telling the public and any prospective investor how risky they think the debt product is. How likely you are to get your money back. The higher the rating, the more secure it is, and the less interest the thing has to pay you to justify the risk you’re taking.

There’s a whole bunch of levels on the scale, but for the moment I’m only interested in the highest rating at all three agencies, which is triple-a. That’s the most credit-worthy of investments. The most secure and safe.

Triple-A investments are supposed to be so safe, so unrisky, they’re as good as having money. Which is where we come to our definition. They’re what’s called MONEY-GOOD. As safe as cash.

Why do I love this? Because it’s stupid. You might remember this thing called the subprime mortgage crisis. Well. The whole crisis started with these bonds called mortgage backed securities. The bonds were made up of a bunch of “subprime mortgages”: that is, mortgages loaned to people with no savings, or no jobs, or with no savings and no jobs. These were mortgages they really had no chance or repaying, and the financial companies put a ton of them together and issued bonds based on em. And the bonds they issued? They got triple A ratings from the ratings agencies. They were money-good, supposedly.

Obviously, they weren’t, and a lot of them defaulted and turned worthless.

This sent the global economy into the worst downturn since the great depression, which was in1929, by the way, so it’s been a while. The economy is still limping along in the hangover of this crisis, which was all based on a bunch of “toxic waste” – that’s actually what the companies called these subprime mortgages.

That’s right – a bunch of “toxic waste” that was supposedly “money-good” ended up being “worthless.”

If that’s not absurd, nothing is.

There’s another reason I like this term money-good. It’s got a caveman quality to it. A tarzan-like syntax. Money good. Tarzan like money. Money buy porsche. Money-good. That was embarrassing but it does contain a certain grain of truth about the nature of the finance industry and just corporations in general.

I mean that is, essentially, the defining quality of companies. They’re like a horny 10th grade boy on a date: they’re only after one thing. And it’s not a hand job..

If I ask you what you want in life you’re gonna tell me about your aspirations. You’re gonna tell me about friends, and probably some guy or girl you’re with or who broke your heart. You’re gonna wanna find some spiritual comfort in a religion a philosophical pursuit or at least a fun drug addiction. And you’re gonna talk about whether you want to pass your genes and values down to a small human you create via sex. You’re gonna want a lot of things and you’re not even gonna know that some of them exist until you trip over em. That’s how complex and confused and messy we are.

But a company? What does a company want? Profit. Money: good. That’s all a company is about.

As it should be. That is the purpose of a company. Money-good. But we as people – both individually and collectively as a society – we have to be about a lot more than that.

Because if corporations just care about money, and politicians just care about money, and ultimately we just care about money and maybe a little celebrity gossip which is really about money anyway, then nobody is left to care about what’s fucking right.

See capitalism – like a company – has a simple, streamlined purpose.

It’s like I said at the top: unchecked, capitalism will expand to take over everything it can, sometimes with really bad outcomes.

That’s what this whole thing is about: is money good?

 

3) Cognitive Dissonance

The Couches Did It

Okay, so I’m gonna tell you a story that’s gonna blow your mind.

It’s a story about cigarette companies, but it’s just as much about the state of our government, which is now basically the Newark New Jersey of democracies.

Along with big tobacco, the story features another industry that’s known as an evil, bloodthirsty cabal that chases profits relentlessly and has repeatedly and knowingly killed people to make a buck. What industry am I talking about? Alcohol? Firearms? Private military contractors?

No. The other infamous evil industry: couches.

That’s right. The couch guys. The symbol of all that is wrong with democracy and capitalism. I’m kidding. Kind of. But this story actually is about furniture and couches along with big tobacco and chemical companies.

So the tobacco industry had this problem. Other than that whole cancer thing.

The problem is that in order to use a cigarette – and I ain’t a scientist – but I’m told in order to smoke a cigarette you have to light it on fire. And this crazy thing happens if you fall asleep with a lit cigarette or drop a lit cigarette or leave a lit cigarette near something flammable. It starts fires.

Fire In The Hole – Van Halen

It lights couches and chairs and mattresses and houses on fire and then that fire kills you. People die from this. A lot of people. Cigarettes are the number one cause of fire deaths in the U.S.

One of these fires happened in Massachusettes, and this Congresswoman – Edith Nourse Rogers – she raised holy hell and called for the National Bureau of Standards to research some way that tobacco companies could make a cigarette that would stop burning if you didn’t take a drag for a while.

Now you probably didn’t see the coverage on cnn or read about it on Louis CK’s twitter or see an upworthy post about it in your newsfeed. You might not even recognize the name Edith Nourse Rogers as a congresswoman from Massachusettes. I didn’t. Because this was in godda mned 1929. Yeah. 1929. We’re talking pre-Tinder, pre-Uber, pre-iphone even. Pre the word “pre” probably.

So, did the tobacco companies hop to and find a way to stop cigarettes from killing people in fires? Did they even try? Did they at least do a feasibility study or something?

Love The Way You Lie [feat. Rihanna] – Eminem

Of course not. They did nothing and this continued to be a problem. For years. Decades. Houses burnt, people died. Thousands and thousands of people died.

Congress kept trying to pass a bill to require fire-safe cigarettes but they couldn’t get anywhere on it. Until 1974. Yeah. Just 45 short years. They got a bill passed in the senate but it failed in the house. Then in 1979 there was another fire-safe cigarette bill. And another in 1980. They were pushing at least, and in the early 80s the pressure was rising on Big Tobacco.

And Big Tobacco – these companies are run by smart people right? They know if they’re gonna stay in business and stay profitable they can’t just keep on killing their customers, right?

(I love this argument. Because of course they could. They always have and they still do. I also love this argument because by even making it, you’re acknowledging that the companies are sort of evil. “Hey, we shouldn’t expect a company not to murder people for moral reasons. We should expect them not to murder people because people happen to be paying customers.” That’s what l’aissez faire, pro market, deregulation people are basically saying: companies won’t do bad shit because if they do the market will make them fail. If you kill people no one will buy your potato chips. That’s like saying my husband doesn’t beat me because he thinks I’m uglier with bruises. If that’s his reason, you got problems.)

But I digress. Congress is trying to get these bills passed to make fire-safe cigarettes, pushing on Big Tobacco. They haven’t been able to pass a bill but they keep trying, and families of dead people and burn victims and firefighters are all calling for fire safe cigarettes. So Big Tobacco’s gotta come up with something to tell them, and they do. They’ve got a plan, they’ve got a solution, they’ve got the answer! What’s their answer? (drum roll) It’s the couch’s fault!

Ohhh, I see. It’s not that the cigarette’s on fire. That’s not the problem. It’s that couches and chairs and beds catch on fire when you light them on fire.

Again – this is too absurd to not laugh at. But this is the society you live in. Congratu-fucking-lations.

Big Tobacco didn’t want to spend the money to make fire-safe cigarettes. They were also worried it’d make the cigarettes taste different and people would like em less

They lobby for federal regulations requiring flame retardant chemicals to be put in all furniture. Yes: Tobacco Lobby that says you can’t regulate cigarettes because you’ll kill its business and cuz America and cuz freedom – they’re just fine regulating the shit out of the couch guys.

They’ve got this nice little, grassroots group concerned about saving good American lives – it’s called Citizens for Fire Safety. They’re a quot un quote “coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.” And hell, these concerned citizens, they just want to make those evil fucking couches stop lighting fire. They want a law requiring the couch guys – those callous pricks – to have to put flame-retardant chemicals in their couches. Who makes up this concerned group Citizens for Fire Safety? Good American folks with strong family names like Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura.

They’re the chemical companies that make the flame retardant chemicals. WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE SO EVIL? They’re just as bad as the couch guys, making their couches out of something other than water.

Between the tobacco companies and the flame retardant companies, these fuckers manage to pass the laws requiring companies to put flame retardant chemicals in all our couches and beds and everything. They also manage to stop the fire-safe cigarette bill from being passed.

Which I guess theoretically wouldn’t be sooo bad except that – hey, guess what – it doesn’t work. The flame-retardants don’t stop the fires at all. All they do is make the smoke from the fire more toxic, so it doesn’t protect anyone from shit.

Which, I guess would technically almost bring us back to where we started except that – hey, guess what – the flame retardant somehow gets out of the couches. The chemicals get in the dust and the air and eventually it ends up in human breast milk and human blood and in humans all over the place.

Which…phew, this is getting tough… Which, I gueeeesssss is a positive because then at least babies are less likely to catch fire, right? Oh, right. It doesn’t work in the first place. Plus I’m pretty sure that’s not how science works. If you’re stuck out in the cold drinking antifreeze isn’t gonna help.

Which – man – who cares, right? So we all now have a bunch of non-working flame retardant in our blood. Big deal. It’ll put hair on your chest. Except that scientists started linking exposure to these flame retardant chemicals to cancer, neurological defectss, developmental problems and impaired fertility.

Whiiiiiiiiiiich – I guess if your kid’s gonna have neurological defects and cancer maybe you shooting blanks isn’t a bad thing, right?

Big Tobacco would probably say it’s your fault for trying to have kids in the first place. If you didn’t have kids, they wouldn’t have cancer. We need to pass a bill outlawing you getting laid so we can defend your god-given right to set yourself on fire with a cigarette.

Oh – and by the way – the fire-safe cigarette law? Congress never passed it. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s Big Tobacco and Big poison– er, I mean big chemical flame retardant lobbied and spent money to keep those laws off the books.

Thank fuck the individual STATES all passed their own laws. The first one was New York, my home state, and went into effect in – what, in the early 80s? No. Mid eighties? Nineties? Oh, no. 2004. 1929… 2004. For one state. The rest of the states gradually got around to it by 2011. How nice for us. We still don’t have a federal law though.

SOURCES:

Moving on, I want to say that of course I didn’t figure all this out on my own. I’ve been interested in these topics for years, and for the most part, everything you hear on this podcast was brought to my attention by something someone else wrote or did.

The Future by Al Gore
I first read about the couch of flames story in a book by Al Gore called “the future.” It’s a pretty good book on the future of the economy and environment.

But then looked more into it and read a great series on flame retardant chemicals in the Chicago Tribune from 2012.

The Tribune Series “Playing with Fire”

playing-with-fire
They’ve got actual documents from the Tobacco companies and everything. The series is called “Playing with Fire.” You should check it out. It’s fascinating and appalling, and even though I tried to capture the absurdity and hilarity, it’s always good to look deeper.

4) Primary Source

Supercapitalism by Robert Reich



The first book I want to talk about was one of the first that got me thinking about the economy on a deeper level.

It’s called Supercapitalism and it was written in 2007 by Robert Reich.

Robert Reich is an economist and writer who – If studying the economy were like having sex… hm, no… if economists were like porn stars, jesus with the sex metaphors, brian…  okay – think about baseball. Think about baseball. Oh. Right. If they had baseball cards for economists – I’d have the 1987 upper deck special limited run rookie card with the misprinted corner that sells for like 3 thousand bucks. He is my favorite economist of all time.

He was labor secretary under Bill Clinton and now he teaches at UC Berkeley and he was also in this very popular documentary called Inequality for All – which you can find on Netflix.

Before I get into the book and talk about Robert Reich’s theories and beliefs – and trust me, he’s gonna be a recurring figure here – I want to go deep into arcane nerdiness.

This is from January 2010:


This is proof both that Robert Reich is as cool a human being as he is an excellent economist.

Onto the book: Supercapitalism. So Reich lays out supercapitalism as the condition our economic/political system is in today. Or, actually, in 2007 when he wrote it. But everything he diagnoses is only more true and severe today.

He lays out the country’s economic and political history as one rooted largely in democratic capitalism. That is, one where democracy and capitalism were two hugely powerful systems that worked in tandem but largely had different priorities, favored different policies and led to different outcomes. It was like a checks and balances thing.

The book’s argument is – since the 70s – democracy in our country has weakened and capitalism has grown ever more powerful. That many of the problems we face – economic woes, environmental problems, political strife, dissatisfaction, they all grow out of the fact that capitalism is overpowering democracy and just about everything else in the world. Thus, supercapitalism.

You see why I like it so much. But that’s not why I’m mentioning it here. There’ll be plenty of books I mention with ideas I reference that are important works, but that are so dry and boring I would never recommend you read them unless you yourself want to understand the concepts well enough to bullshit your way through an entire podcast on them. Which, you know – fuck off – don’t be my competition.

The Primary Source segment is for books that are actually readable and even enjoyable. And a lot of them – like this book Supercapitalism – are books I think might fundamentally change the way you think. Supercapitalism definitely did for me. It gave me a new perspective – or actually TWO new perspectives – two ways of looking at things.

In it Reich posits this idea that we’re each of two minds: we’re each both a consumer and a citizen. The consumer – which is also an investor – has been doing great since the 70s. Cheap prices, tons of new technology at lower prices than ever, stocks on the rise forever. But the citizen – not so much. Workers make less than they used, have less job security, fewer benefits. Inequality is rampant. The middle class is a joke and the entire world seems ever on the brink of falling apart.

Here I want to quote a section that really hits home for me:

QUOTE FROM BOOK:
“The two stories – oh the wonder of it! Oh the shame of it! – both describe aspects of 21stcentury capitalism. But considered separately, each is seriously misleading. Each leaves out the other, which is actually its flipside. Each disdains or blames imaginary forces in opposition when the qualms are actually inside almost every one of us.

The awkward truth is that most of us are of two minds: as consumers and investors we want the great deals. As citizens we don’t like many of the social consequences that flow from them.

The system of democratic capitalism in the not quite golden age of the 50s and 60s struck a very different balance. Then, as consumers and investors we didn’t do nearly as well; as citizens we fared better.

What’s the right balance? … We have no real way to tell. The old institutions of democratic capitalism, and the negotiations that took place within them, are gone. … we have no means of balancing. Our desires as consumers and investors usually win out because our values as citizens have virtually no effective means of expression… this is the real crisis of democracy in the age of supercapitalism.”””
END QUOTE
 
Yeah. I dig the hell out of that.

And when you realize, on a day to day level, “fuck, it’s true” I am both a citizen and a consumer, a seller and a buyer, an employee and a customer – when you truly internalize the shattered (schism/fractured) truth of modern existence – that’s when all this cognitive dissonance, when these recurring para- recurring whatever the plural of paradox is – when all these disconnected contradictions, they start making a little more sense.
 

That’s why I think reading Supercapitalism is worthwhile:

Supercapitalism by Robert Reich



5) Next Week On Money Good

Inspiring Depression

Next week, we’re gonna step back and ask if the economy is really worse off than it used to be, or does it just feel that way? We’re gonna ask how bad things really are, and how you even define that in the first place.


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