A Journal of the Plague Year 2023–chapter 284

Lula and Bernie saving the world.

May 14

I’ve been asked if there is no solution for the host of shelter-related problems that I outlined recently. Well, here’s a blanket solution–judge its feasibility for yourself.

  1. ) Bernie Sanders becomes U.S. president.
  2. ) Then he, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva jointly create a homeland for Latin refugees in a vacant area of Mexico–funded by draining money from the bloated U.S. military budget.
  3. )Then, employing other money from stiff taxes on the superrich and defunding the police , Sanders creates a reparations fund for homeless minorities.
  4. ) Americans who want to work from home first join unions which in turn negotiate deals with US employers.
  5. ) And trillionaires who want to move to their private islands or live on their seagoing yachts may do so–after paying a stiff exit tax to Uncle Sam.

A wise, humanitarian plan, no?

A Journal of the Plague Year 2023–chapter 283

Elon Musk’s company town for Tesla and the Boring Co.
Getty Images

May 12

Migration, homelessness, and a restive population—the U.S. is experiencing a doom loop of interrelated, overlapping events all involving shelter.

U.S. cities face a growing population of the unhoused, estimated nationally to be at a half-million, with New York and California particularly affected. At this moment, there are over 78,000 people in New York City’s shelter system.

There’s also a “housing shortage”—meaning an undersupply of residences in desirable places for those who can afford to buy or rent. Just to keep up with projected household formation, the U.S. requires an additional 3.8 million housing units,  according to mortgage fund overseer Freddie Mac. The problem is no longer limited to the coasts, as supply has worsened in 47 states and the District of Columbia, according to research group Up For Growth. Last year, the national median asking price for a home was more than $400,000, according to Realtor.com.

Then there’s the “work-from-home” phenomenon: an increasing number of employed people no longer wish to commute five days a week, leading to an oversupply of office space in big cities and possible efforts to turn offices into residences.

Add to these the border crisis: record numbers of refugees are pressing to get into the USA, where they too will require housing. Columbians, Venezuelans, Brazilians, and others have been assaulted by economic and political upheaval. Millions of lives have been upended.

And now we’re seeing the emergence of new company towns. Facebook, Google, and Elon Musk’s Space X, Boring Co., and Tesla are all building new municipalities—housing for their employees and not for anyone else. While Facebook and Google are situated in the overpopulated greater Bay Area, Musk has chosen to build in undeveloped areas of Texas—largely so that he can avoid paying taxes or otherwise contributing to social spending. 

At bottom, we’re seeing a vanishing of the last vestiges of a social contract. Governments, hamstrung by right-wing movements and megabucks funders, no longer step in to fill voids with, for example, government-funded housing. Employers slash worker benefits, rearrange schedules wantonly, and squeeze every extra working minute out of their employees. Accordingly, people figure that life (especially during a pandemic) is short and layoffs can happen at any time—so why should anyone feel especially committed to a job? In Latin America, the severe effects of global economic crisis, gang violence, and authoritarian government has pushed thousands to abandon their countries. Even many capitalists are withdrawing from life-as-we-knew-it, placing their wealth in tax havens across the planet and their productive facilities in low-wage, undemocratic, little-regulated zones from Texas to Shenzhen. Billionaires are relocating themselves to gated communities, private islands, and yachts at sea.

This latter phenomenon is frighteningly described in Wellesley College professor Quinn Slobodan’s book Crack-Up Capitalism. He tells how the “bloom” of new nations—including those resulting from the break-up of the U.S.S.R.—was greeted as a windfall by capitalists. Each new state represented “a start-up territory that might offer itself as a refuge for flight capital or a site of unregulated business or research.” 

Backed by a cadre of libertarian ideologues from Milton Friedman to Peter Thiel, a class of capitalists who never accepted even modest reform platforms (such as FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society) drew inspiration from such regulation-free enclaves as Hong Kong and Singapore. “The great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms,” wrote Thiel. And this is the world they have created, says Slobodan: “The world of nations is riddled with zones,” he notes, from free ports and high-tech parks to city states, duty-free districts, and innovation hubs. There are over 5,400 such zones across the globe, represented in a bewildering variety of forms.

You might ask why Musk and Facebook have bothered creating throwback company towns. Surely the answer to all corporations’ problems is already out there in the form of the regulation- and tax-free zone. But maybe the skilled high-tech laborers required at Facebook, Tesla, and SpaceX don’t wish to move to such a zone. In time, they may have little choice.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2023–chapter 282

Ah, nature.

May 10

Elon Musk has just done me a favor.

He comes across as a pretty self-centered individual. Maybe. But Musk’s announcement that he intends to build one or two company towns in Texas has been a gift to my otherwise shy and retiring self—possibly even prompting some sales of my book on company towns. 

Articles—largely denouncing Musk as a Gilded Age throwback—have already appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg. The Wall Street Journal has published several news accounts of developments. And now, the Journal has just conducted a lengthy video with me in which I get to show off my knowledge on such things as the definition of a company town, the history of such places, utopian leanings vs. dystopian ones, housing subsidies, possible conflicts with Texas citizens, and more.

Musk has spoken of building only around 110 housing units and a small Montessori school for a dozen students. But he has also talked of attracting thousands of high-tech workers to Texas to serve in his Space X, Tesla, and Boring Co. facilities.

How will all of this work out? Musk’s representatives aren’t saying a lot, and it could be that nothing much will result. But the business press, at least, seems to be taking him seriously. There are plans afoot for lots more press coverage—so stay tuned.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2023–chapter 281

The filthy habit.

March 10

Many of the developments that have had a major impact on modern life are an outgrowth of war and the military. For example, Napoleon’s vast armed forces at first were dependent upon plunder of the European countryside to get food. That unsustainable and unreliable situation prompted the invention of canned grub, which allowed the Grande Armée much greater range and mobility.

The need for rapid production of a vast number of U.S. ships during World War II facilitated advances in prefab construction. Using these, between 1941 and 1945, Kaiser Industries’ two West Coast yards were able to turn out out 1,490 ships, including fifty aircraft carriers. Later on, similar methods would allow manufacture of thousands of affordable Levittown-style houses aimed at veterans eager to return to civilian life.

But not every military-related development represented an advance for civilization. Cigarette smoking, for example, took over Britain only as a result of the Crimean War.

During that 1850s conflict—which pitted an alliance of Britain, France, and Turkey against Russia—a Scott named Robert Gloag witnessed Turks and Russians smoking—and upon his return to Britain, he began selling gaspers that were no more than straw-paper cylinders equipped with a cane tip. Four other cigarette makers followed his example. Steady expansion of a market for the addictive “little scorchers” allowed Gloag to scale up from one production room to a large factory.

Such was demand that, in the 1880s, a rival firm imported from America a cigarette-making machine that would turn out 200 fags per minute. “Between 1860 and 1900, Britain became a smoking nation,” writes popular historian A.N. Wilson, “its consumption of tobacco rising 2.4% in 1862, 4.7% in 1863 and an average of around 5% per annum for the rest of the century.”

Initially, cigarette smoking was regarded as uncouth. Not until the 1880s was smoking allowed in gentlemen’s clubs. That same decade saw a cigarette price war and the emergence of “penny cigarettes.” Profits for one large ciggy maker soared from £6.5 million in 1884 to £127 million in 1891. “Gloag’s legacy of the cigarette habit could be said to be the most lasting and notable consequence of the Crimean War,” writes Wilson in his celebrated and very readable historical survey The Victorians.

Some days back I decided that I needed to know more about that period of history—one that featured a peculiar, not to say bizarre, cast of characters that included the likes of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, and opera wizards William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. I turned to Wilson’s book after reading Emily Bronte’s dizzying, death-obsessed Wuthering Heights. What an odd, contradictory, mystifying, deranged volume. 

I wasn’t always sure just what the author was getting at, but there is certainly lots of passion: “ ‘And you conspire with him against me, do you viper?’…He shook me till my teeth rattled.”  That Heathcliff—what a laid-back dude.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2023–chapter 280

The devil himself?

February 7

Yesterday, I spent some time reading about Ambrose Bierce, the influential 19th century American writer who turned himself into a man of mystery at the end of his life. 

 Bierce was born in Ohio, the tenth of thirteen children, and served in the Union army during the Civil War, drawing on his combat experiences to craft two lasting bits of prose—the classic, spooky short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and the graphic war report “What I Saw of Shiloh.” After the war, he remained in the military as part of an expedition that inspected western military outposts. Ending up in California, he stayed on to become the editor of a string of San Francisco newspapers.

He also wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, a seminal catalog of misanthropic reflections—or some would call it realism—about the human condition. Among its list of definitions: “LAWYER (n.) one skilled in circumvention of the law.”

But what people today remember about Bierce is that in 1913, he disappeared into the Mexican revolution. In a final letter he wrote, “Good-bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.”  And then he was never heard from again. Some say he was executed by Pancho Villa—others know better than to speculate.

Like B. Traven, Bierce makes us wish we could turn ourselves into men of mystery. Problem for most of us is, if we went to the trouble to disappear, few would notice. At least Traven wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a classic exploration of how desperate circumstances spawn greed, paranoia, and betrayal. His novels and stories about life and rebellion in Mexico (The General from the Jungle, say, or The Rebellion of the Hanged) are mostly too grim to bear.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022—chapter 279

White Power, anyone?

January 18

And now an announcement: Time magazine’s Man of the Year… George Santos!

Think about it: Santos encapsulates the many elements of the Zeitgeist. According to a resume he submitted to Long Island Republicans, he is an astounding success: a New York University MBA who more than doubled revenues while serving as a project manager at Goldman Sachs, among other triumphs. And, moreover, he has campaigned as… a victim!!! A gay Latino Ukrainian Jew-ish casualty of the Holocaust.

Like Trump, he is an unabashed fabulist. Santos may even believe his own lies— Trump certainly did (the winner of the greatest electoral landslide in American history, the greatest president since Lincoln, perhaps even greater than George Washington).

Now, we’re told that Santos is hanging out with the Marjorie Taylor Greene crowd in Congress. He’ll fit right in as a would-be target of the puppet-mastering cabal who really pull the strings—and who conspire to deny the rightful positions of those like Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Greene. Santos has appeared on Stephen Bannon’s podcast, “Bannon’s War Room,” a platform for election deniers and conspiracy-spinners. And he may join the House’s wacko Freedom Caucus.

A Latino signaler of White Power salutes? Hey, only Bolshie-Democrat feminist-Nazi woke types could find fault with that.

If you ask me, too many people have spent too much time watching the Ali G show on YouTube. And the distinction between truth and satire has entirely eluded them.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022—chapter 278

January 11

At Rockefeller Center.

We’re back in New York City, taking care of various business. After lunch with a friend today, I went to a Chase Bank location to visit my safe deposit box and remove various stuff. The box said it was lonely—that I hadn’t visited since 2017. So I closed the account and took everything away. Inside were a variety of “important” documents that should provide a full day’s worth of memories…whenever I get around to examining them. (I immediately noticed a letter from my mother, probably written in the 1980s, regarding her pre-paid cemetery plot.)

Institutions in the city seem to fall into two extreme categories: 1) wow, that place hasn’t changed a bit, and 2) that joint has undergone a radical transformation.

So far, I have visited Zabar’s, the legendary upper west side food and kitchen-implements store (an absolute category 1); Astor Liquors (a near category 1); the former McGraw-Hill Building (category 2, right down to its no-nonsense new name of 1221 Avenue of the Americas); the Strand Bookstore (a category 2, for sure: where it once mostly sold used books, its wares today are generally the same spanking-new editions you’d find at Barnes & Noble); Grand Central Terminal (cleaned-up and tourist-ready, but otherwise a category 1); the mezzanine floor of the building adjacent to Grand Central (category 2, since every one of its once-bustling restaurants is now gone); and Joe’s Pizza, 14th Street location (brand-new to me, and so a category 2).

I walked back from Astor Liquors, past the Public Theater, Cooper Union, a building still bearing the name “Amalgamated Insurance,” and the Mud Coffee stand. The experience made me realize that, yes, I have experienced some history right here in lower Manhattan. 

Sitting out-of-doors with my Mud Coffee cappuccino, I began to puzzle just which building had once been the headquarters of the radical-ish District 65 labor union. Oh yeah, it’s the building next to the one that long ago housed a Wanamaker’s department store—and where the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union lived when I was briefly on staff back in the early 1980s. 

I can recall going to meetings at District 65 and listening that that union’s second-in-command, Cleveland Robinson, denounce some injustice (South Africa, maybe?) in his profoundly resonant, Caribbean-accented voice. I attended performances of the Mabou Mines theater troupe–featuring my college friend Ellen McElduff–at the Public Theater.

Another memory: No sooner had I taken a job, in 1980, with the Amalgamated than I found myself on strike against the union! So, there we were, the 20-odd members of the union’s “professional staff,” marching around in a small picket-line circle outside of the Wanamaker Building. They left us out there for two weeks, just to teach us who was boss, then giving us a small pay hike to bring everyone back inside.

I attended socialist meetings at NYU and Cooper Union—and of course the occasional demonstration at Union Square.

Memories seem to be particularly haunting me during this trip. I’m sure I will come up with more.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022—chapter 277

December 12

Last night came the first snow of the year—a light dusting that will largely melt away by midday. 

For the past six days, Emily has been suffering from a virus—but it’s not COVID, according to the Binax NOW test. Initially, she thought she just had a cold, then the symptoms turned to nausea, and finally other, explosive gastric distress. Her diet nowadays is pretty restricted to bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast…with the possibly transgressive addition of a little dark chocolate.

The truly mysterious aspect is precisely how she contracted the illness. She hasn’t gone out of the house, so I must have brought it back from a physical therapy session. But I myself had no symptoms.

As a result, we postponed a planned trip to New York City, along with a doctor’s appointment for me. Em’s a bit on the mend already, so we’ll probably travel to the city next weekend and I will likely see the doc next week.

Out here on Long Island, it grows ever darker and colder, so I have an excuse for setting aside the lengthy Orhan Pamuk novel Nights of Plague and seeking out some lighter fare.

Thanks to a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore, I’ve been enjoying a series of British spy novels by Mick Herron—also an Apple TV adaptation of some of these. They’re quite clearly a bit derivative of John Le Carre. But while Herron seems to imitate a certain waggish Le Carre argot—like that in The Honorable Schoolboy, I think—he aims more insistently for the funny bone.

Le Carre’s British spies, particularly George Smiley, were upper-class social misfits and so physically innocuous that you’d never notice them. Herron has two stables of spies: the denizens of MI-5’s sleek, central headquarters (Regent’s Park) and those exiled to a seedy redoubt (Slough House) as a result of fouling up assignments. At the latter location, the agents are encouraged (like the cops in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown) to do as little as possible lest they fuck up again. But circumstances (the kidnapping of a well-connected Pakistani student, say, or the terroristic activities of a North Korea-inspired group) regularly intervene and require action from the exiles. 

Ricky Gervais’ British TV series The Office makes similar reference to Slough, an actual town in England as well as a memorable reference point in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. But the Slough House regulars wouldn’t fit in either work. Instead, they are occasionally functional drunks and drug addicts, led by an unwashed chain-smoking dipsomaniac named Jackson Lamb. Lamb’s most characteristic gesture is the fart.

Slough House’s location on London’s Aldersgate Street is behind “a black door dusty with neglect, sandwiched between a newsagent’s and a Chinese takeaway; its façade is distempered, its guttering a mess, and the local pigeons have shown their contempt for it in the traditional manner. …The building is a bad tooth set in a failing mouth. Here is where nothing happens: nothing to see here.”

Still, Slough House fits perfectly into post-Brexit, post-Boris Johnson and -Liz Truss England: unglamorous, dysfunctional, repellent, and oblivious. Where James Bond was and remains as glitzy and cosmopolitan as Cary Grant, the Slough House regulars are more fit for a charity mental ward.

Did I make that sound unappealing? No—if you can put up with the insistent, screwball-comedy-like banter of the Slough House regulars, Herron’s books are worth a look. 

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 276

City life isn’t healthy for birds and other living things.

November 3

The 72-year-old British actor Bill Nighy recently told The Guardian that he thinks about death some 35 times a day.

“Wow” I thought—“only 35 times!”

It’s autumn, and we’ve just passed another Day of the Dead, an occasion for everyone to dwell on the end of life. Out here on Long Island, the brown and withered tree leaves are falling thick and fast, days get shorter and shorter, and nights are long, quiet, and dark.

What better time to turn to Simone de Beauvoir’s meditation on old age and its accompanying drawbacks, The Coming of Age? I have previously dipped into this 584-page disquisition and found it surprisingly engrossing. The author looks at the inevitable human process with a dispassionate glance: She considers aging from the perspective of biology, ethnology, history, and sociology. She quotes reflections on age delivered by everyone from Aristotle and Hippocrates to a U.S. National Health Survey administered in the 1950s. 

And like the historian Eric Hobsbawm, she piles on the fascinating trivia. Here is some:

*The idea that illness results from an imbalance in the four humours—blood, phlegm, choler, and black choler—dates from the ancient Greeks and was respected in Europe well into the 19th century. (You may have encountered this idea in Chaucer, but Pythagoras was actually to blame.) For centuries there was very little progress in medicine and science. The one exception was in anatomy, where advances began in the 15th century, largely as a result of the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

*Physiological changes related to age include the whitening of hair (for reasons unknown), the loss of teeth accompanied by a shortening of the lower part of the face, a thickening of the eyelids along with an increase of the size of the earlobe, muscular atrophy, and an “involution” of the sexual organs.

*As with wild apes, in many human communities the aged are kicked out, starved, isolated, and abandoned to die on their own. They are viewed as an unproductive burden. For example, among the Hopi, the Creek, and the Crow Indians, and the Bushmen of South Africa, it is customary to take old people to specially built huts away from the villages, where they are left with little in the way of sustenance. Among some Greenland native peoples, the aged kill themselves when they feel they have become a drain on the community.

*The coming of post-scarcity, modern society meant a lessening of such brutal treatment of the aged—although, de Beauvoir notes, “it is almost tautological to say ‘old and poor’ [as] most exceedingly poor people are old.” The bourgeois revolution meant that the key social division was no longer between young and old, but between rich and poor. And as the privileged few included elderly folk, it was they and not others who decided just who was superfluous to society.

I have only scratched the surface here of de Beauvoir’s massive work. Meanwhile, the latest MIT Technology Review looks at a related matter: the possibility of reversing the aging process. “How to Become Young Again” considers the medical rejuvenation research at such places as the richly financed Altos Labs. There, scientists are looking at how to reset the epigenome—“chemical marks on DNA that control which genes are turned on or off in a cell.” Comments one Harvard researcher: “There is no reason we couldn’t live 200 years.”

Dinner tonight: turkey chili and a kale, cheddar, and almonds salad.

Tonight’s entertainment: more episodes of the silly Britcom “Lovesick” along with the 1946 noir film The Blue Dahlia.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 275

The Democrats’ best hope for 2024?

September 22

Here is the true meaning of Trump: The citizenry is done with politicians.

Between our dysfunctional schools and a distraction-oriented entertainment industry, the average person understands very little. They do not know the source of the few safety-net benefits that they may receive: social security, Medicare/Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit, and so forth. All of these seem to have come from a merciful god and not via the political process. 

The Democrats’ much-trumpeted accomplishments—a 1.2 trillion infrastructure package, a $1.9 trillion COVID-relief deal, climate-change measures, a revived economy that has shrunken unemployment, and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan—are all taken for granted.

Many Americans feel that Washington has done nothing for them. And they are waiting to be entertained.

Neither the pundits nor the pols understand this—not even Fox News, a source and a beneficiary of the phenomenon. So when Ron DeSantis or Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris or Nikki Haley, panders to a perceived public prejudice, it has little effect. The public has tuned out. They are ready for something else.

This is a global phenomenon. Did you think Celebrity Apprentice host Trump was a singular phenomenon? Check out Volodymyr Zelenskyy, president of Ukraine and former star of the hit TV series Servant of the People. In Italy, there’s Giuseppe Piero “Beppe” Grillo, a comedian and the founder of the right-wing Five Star Movement. 

Al Franken, former Saturday Night Live comedian and former U.S. Senator, became a victim of politician envy when he was purged from the Senate over an alleged sexual-harassment episode. His true crime: He was more popular, more commanding of the public spotlight than New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Now, Franken is reduced to hosting a podcast—and awaiting a political comeback.

A sign in the window of a Lower East Side bar in Manhattan.

Perhaps Franken should run for President. (Neither Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah nor Last Week Tonight star John Oliver qualifies, since neither is a “natural-born” American, as the Constitution requires.) At least Franken would have a chance against the GOP team—which I hereby predict to be DeSantis paired with Fox News shock jock Tucker Carlson (that is provided Carlson doesn’t shove DeSantis aside and take the top spot himself).

Franken has kept his hand in the political game. On his podcast, he has discussed a range of political issues and interviewed a variety of political figures, from Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar to Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin. And he remains a very entertaining fellow: In his book Giant of the Senate, Franken called Ted Cruz the Dwight Schrute of the Senate. “He’s the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness pool and microwaves fish in the office kitchen…He’s a toxic co-worker.”

But he wouldn’t be running against Cruz, who nationally is about as popular as a cockroach. Anyway, Franken can hold his own in a debate against any of the likely GOP insects.