Jane Smiley is a Better Human Being Than Holman Jenkins, and Probably Me, and You Too.

I don't delve into the Huffington Post much; Greg Gutfeld aside, it's pretty much 24x7 IHateBush there, which I suppose is OK for some, but pretty tedious for me.

But I did run across this article by Jane Smiley, a once-famous author, entitled "Twenty-Five Years a Sucker!" It's in response, sort of, to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal which is avaliable online to subscribers only there, but which a helpful, albeit clueless, flouter of copyright law has duplicated here.

The satirical op-ed is in the form of an imagined letter to Prius customers from Toyota. Its primary point is that the expensive Prius doesn't save its buyers money at current gas prices, nor is it likely to do so in the future. It also takes some amusing swipes at Prius buyers. Fair-use sample:

You will share our pride in the latest figures from J.D. Power & Associates, which show that the Prius continues to move off a dealer's lot in just eight days, compared to 36 days for a Honda Civic hybrid. Clearly, our customers are willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of showing themselves behind the wheel of so conspicuously virtuous a vehicle.

But we are also a far-seeing corporation. We recognize that the Prius's distinctiveness may be a wasting asset for reasons outlined in this letter. Other motorists may see the Prius operator and think "sucker." Our lawyers advise us this may affect your car's resale value. Toyota regrets any inconvenience.

Did I say amusing? Well, Ms. Smiley Was Not Amused. She begins:
I happened to read a commentary in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, only because it was about the Prius -- a car that I own. The photo of the author, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., had that sneering look that free-marketers often adopt before they are indicted for tax fraud or accounting irregularities.
Now you might think this an inauspicious beginning; most writers over the age of fifteen do not start off articles with wish-fulfilling judicial fantasies based on someone else's physical appearance. But Ms. Smiley is a Professional Author, so let's cut her some slack.
I have to say that Junior did not disappoint. …
Yes, "Junior". Ms. Smiley has squandered the slack we previously cut. Not content with making fun of Jenkins' picture, Ms. Smiley makes fun of his name, too. We really are in teenage-girl revenge-writing mode here. Not to mention that making fun of names isn't really the best strategy for someone named "Smiley" to adopt. Her husband, Guy, could have told her this.
… He belittled Prius drivers for having fallen for Hybrid Synergy Drive hype, sneered at the "emotional" relationship Prius drivers seem to have with their vehicles, and eventually got around (toward the end of the piece) to calling Prius drivers "suckers."
And this is a sin for which Jenkins must pay. But first:
Junior caused me to reflect upon my Prius, and to compare it to the other cars I've bought in the last eight years -- a Chevy diesel truck, a Mazda van, a Saab, a Subaru Outback sedan, and, of course, the Prius. All of these cars cost between twenty and twenty-five grand. I still have the truck. It once had a sudden stopping problem that got fixed after the dealer rummaged through the paperwork and found an old recall notice, but it's been fine since. The Mazda van gave me serious back pain, so I bought the Saab. The Saab rode very rough. Every bump was like a pothole, so I bought the Outback, which had a very smooth ride, but only got about twenty miles to the gallon. When I tried the Prius, which rode nearly as well as the Outback, cost less, and had more cargo room and leg room in the backseat, I decided that the two were comparable, as cars go.
Yes, we must pay too, forced to read through a tedious description of Ms. Smiley's automotive choices. Only a Professional Author could imagine that we'd be interested in her rough-riding Saab.
The Prius has been entirely reliable, comfortable, and useful. There have been recalls -- Toyota notified me and fixed the potential problems during regular servicing. As far as I can tell, the Prius's only disadvantage is that if the dogs aren't looking at you when you are backing up, they don't realize that you are coming toward them (since it backs up silently, on electric power).
OK, so she's apparently backed over a few dogs. That is a disadvantage, especially for the dogs. One hopes the humans have learned from the dogs' experience and quickly vacate any area where Ms. Smiley might decide to fling her Prius into stealth-reverse mode.
Since all my cars have seemed comparable to me, I have not felt like a "sucker" in the Prius.
Well, there you go. It's all about feelings. And Ms. Smiley's are hurt.
And when I am driving on the highway and the car tells me it is getting 53 or 54 miles to the gallon and when I am driving around my neighborhood, which is hilly, and it tells me I am getting 41-43 miles to the gallon, and when I was stuck in traffic in LA it told me I was getting 72 miles to the gallon, it seems more like a bonus and a pleasure than the reason I bought the Prius, which cost me more than the Saab and less than the Mazda and the Subaru.
… yes, it's all one (Professionally-Authored) sentence. I especially like the deal with getting 72 mpg while stuck in traffic. ("We'd go 72 miles on a gallon, unless we were actually going somewhere, which we're not.")
I like how it looks, too -- I am tall, and it fits me.
So there!
Junior Jenkins doesn't say what sort of car he drives in his satire upon Prius drivers, but no doubt his car reflects something about who he thinks he is, and if I am to go by the article he wrote, his only value is money.
Now we're really getting down to it. I don't know anyone whose "only value is money", and I would guess Ms. Smiley doesn't either. Economically speaking, if you buy a car, it is pretty much self-evident that you would prefer to own the car than own the money you're spending. Otherwise you wouldn't make the transaction.

This is the kind of thoughtless insult that doubtless goes over well in the circles in which Ms. Smiley travels, because neither she nor her friends thinks about what it could possibly mean. Exercise for the reader: what does that say about their values?

He writes as though he is a dedicated comparison shopper, never settling for less than the most he can get for his money. In that case, I am sure he drives a Dodge or a GM, which he probably bought when those less than successful companies lured some people that you might call "suckers" into the showrooms with big rebates and financing deals. He congratulates himself everyday on what a good deal he got, and no doubt Junior keeps a running tab on how much he is paying for gas in comparison to how much he saved on the deal he made.
It's clear, isn't it, that Ms. Smiley has no idea what car Jenkins drives (other than it's probably not a hybrid)? The whole point of this prose is to imagine what a loathsome human Jenkins is, and how much better Ms. Smiley is. On no other basis than fantasies generated by her self-constructed caricature. This is easy, if you are a Professional Author.
The problem with Junior, though, is that he epitomizes more …
You thought Ms. Smiley was already over her head in drawing unwarranted conclusions on zero evidence? She's not done, my friend; there's more.
… than just the sneering, know-it-all attitude of the free market conservatives who pride themselves on gaming the system to their own advantage. He epitomizes the greedy egotism that is their only value and is the only value that they attribute to everyone else.
Waiiiit a minute, Jane baby. You said above that money was Jenkins' only value. Now it's "greedy egotism"? This is why Professional Authors often need Professional Editors.

But petty consistency is of secondary importance to hammering home the primary point, which is (again): I'm so much better than that tawdry Holman Jenkins!

Personally, I'm in favor of government regulation of economic life.
Gee, now there's a shock!
I think the deregulation fad of the 1980s was the beginning of the end of American democracy.
… and she doesn't need to present any evidence whatsoever for that thesis.
One of my favorite injustices is a small one -- it's the way that economics professors at places like the University of Chicago prescibe "creative destruction," economic insecurity, and low wages for others but reserve special treatment (tenure, for example) for themselves. At any rate, the reason I am in favor of government regulation is that intellectual leaders who promote free market orthodoxy, like Junior Jenkins, are so shallow, and theorizing about the free market has made them that way.
It is no particular surprise that Ms. Smiley would have an antipathy toward economics generally. But the main remarkable thing: she favors "government regulation" because those free marketeers are just so icky and shallow. Because they … make fun of her car!

Never mind that the argument for academic tenure is quite different from the argument for free-market capitalism. According to Jane, it's really the same thing.

Oh, those free marketers always give lip-service to actual freedom in the market -- the idea that people like me might be willing to pay a premium for some other value than getting the most for your money. I also pay a premium for free range chickens, grass-fed beef, and organically grown produce. I pay the premium not only because I believe in genetic and environmental diversity, good flavor, and boosting my family's omega-3 fatty acids, but also so that those who are doing the growing can make a living and refine their techniques on the off-chance that in the future, such a large premium will not have to be paid.
Ms. Smiley, of course, has the money to spend on Priuses and free-range chickens without having to worry overmuch that she'll need to scrimp on something else. She's not too worried about the folks who might actually need to make tough economic choices.
I would prefer, in fact, that the government had regulated the big agricultural companies so that they had never contaminated the plant gene pool, the water systems, the soil, and our own DNA to begin with, but it's too late for that now.
Ms. Smiley lives in the fantasy world that imagines a uniformly beneficient "government regulation" of the economic system. If you want to believe that, it really helps to not pay attention to those lowbrow economists.
In fact, every free market correction comes after the fact. In addition to "creative destruction," of course, there is "destructive destruction," but get some orthodox free marketer to talk about that!
I deeply suspect that the challenge would be less to get "free marketers" to talk, and more to get Ms. Smiley to listen. Her ignorance seems invincible.
Likewise, I wish that government regulation had preserved us from the melting Greenland ice cap, the freshening North Atlantic that is endangering the Gulf Stream, the melting permafrost in Siberia that is giving off extra methane, and Dick Cheney's 2001 Energy Taskforce, which seems to have made him think that the war in Iraq was a good idea. I wish we had used less oil in the last twenty years. I once had another sucker car -- an '86 Toyota Tercel wagon that got 45 miles to the gallon on the highway without hybrid synergy drive. It was totally reliable -- once I checked the oil and left the cap off, then drove 240 miles. Five of the six quarts of oil blew out of the engine, but it was fine. "It's a Toyota," said the dealer. It was so obviously the car of the future. But greed (of the oil companies and the automakers) said otherwise.
In SmileyWorld, the only possible thing that could keep Toyota from making 45 mpg Tercels today is that nasty old greed. Never mind that if people wanted Tercels, and if they could be made under current government safety regulations, Toyota would be happy to make as many as they could sell. Because, dear Ms. Smiley, of "greed."
At the very most basic level, government regulation describes what sort of society citizens want to live in, whether or not all the regulations work or all of them are wise ones. I would like to live in a society where the government says to the corporations, "first, do no harm":
Oh, Lord. Here it comes.
"Don't sell poison and call it food"
Apparently, Ms. Smiley thinks corporations are currently selling poison and calling it food.
"Don't pay your workers such a low wage that they can't have both food and lodging"
and a Prius.
"Don't leave millions of citizens without elementary healthcare"
Somehow this became a corporate responsibility too? Quelle suprise.
"Leave the natural world better than you found it."
… when I think of all the innocent trees slaughtered in order for Jane Smiley's books to be published, I weep bitter tears.
"Don't cheat on your taxes, your accounting, or your business practices."
Yeah, government is just way too cool about that stuff.
"Don't steal elections."
Sure, let's throw that in. We tell corporations to make sure that elections aren't stolen. That's their responsibility.
"All citizens have basic human worth."
Citizens, hm? Reading between the lines, apparently Ms. Smiley is down on immigrants.

Well, after that lecture …

Instead, thanks to the theorists of the free market, we live in a country where the corporations tell the government -- "We are going to do whatever we want, and you are going to do whatever we want, too. Citizens will be valued according to their financial assets. The natural world will be ruthlessly mined for 'wealth creation.' And everyone is going pretend that this is not only more profitable for us, it is morally better."
In all this bleakness, it's a real miracle that one of those nasty corporations produced that Prius, then, isn't it?
What sort of people produce Wal-Mart? …
Oh, damn. Now we're on Wal-Mart.
Why, people like Junior Jenkins, people for whom cheapness is all, no matter what the cost. Every time Junior sees a Prius (or a working stiff), he sees only a price tag. And even though, in the absence of decent regulations, people like me, Prince Charles, and Larry David have to actually fund new ideas (and shop at Costco), Junior laughs at us. He points out that even though we aren't using as much fuel or giving off as many emissions, the oil "is not saved." Well, no, it isn't, right now. But let's try an analogous argument -- just because Junior isn't as promiscuous as he used to be, that doesn't mean any fewer girls (or guys) are having sex.
Yes, folks: we've made fun of Jenkins' appearance, his name, his Smiley-imagined car, and now we're on his Smiley-imagined sex life. Apparently she thought this gambit was so clever, she didn't notice that the "analogous argument" didn't make a lot of sense. Is Junior's hypothetical promiscuity-decrease supposed to be analogous to Smiley's Prius-buying? Then just as many people having sex is analogous to … just as many people buying gas?

Whatever. Needless to say, Ms. Smiley's pretty far down on the list of resources to consult on the subtleties of how the gasoline market might respond to (say) an increase in Prius-buying.

Junior Jenkins has only one value (getting the most for his money) …
This is Ms. Smiley's third statement of Jenkins' alleged "one value" and she hasn't said it the same way twice.
and one fear (of getting suckered) …
Yes, Jenkins is only scared of one thing, in Ms. Smiley's imagination. Ms. Smiley, on the other hand, is scared of a whole bunch of things.
Until the glorious era of re-regulation dawns, I am going to pretend, in spite of the Wall Street Journal, that the free market is on my side. I am going to drive my Prius and eat my organic veggies and vote against the Diebold/Republican axis of evil on, as long as I can procure it, my paper ballot. Actually, the free market has left me no choice.
Let's just, this once, ignore the continued obnoxious moral superiority displayed here. Isn't it totally obvious to everyone, save Ms. Smiley, that the free market has given her the choice of Priuses, organic vegetables, etc.? As well as the cash to afford them?

Disclaimer. I kind of liked Moo. Now I'm ashamed.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 4:16 PM EDT

N is for Noose

[Amazon Link]

This is a pretty good outing for Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton's female private eye. In this book, she's mainly in remote Nota Lake, California, working for a widow who wants to know why her cop husband was so preoccupied in the weeks before his fatal heart attack.

If I wanted to quibble, and I guess I do, I could point out that the revelation of the final clue makes no sense whatsoever: Kinsey cracks the encoding of a five-letter word the deceased has left behind. But I can't think of any possible reason for the word to have been encoded in the first place. It's not one the deceased would have forgotten.

But never mind. Kinsey's fun to follow around as she unravels things. She's insanely chatty and opinionated. And I've only recently noticed that, despite the books being written in first person, Ms. Grafton is particularly skilled in revealing things about Kinsey's character that Kinsey probably doesn't realize herself.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 3:52 PM EDT

Robots

[Amazon Link] [3.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

I wasn't expecting to like Robots as much as I did. But it's consistently funny and loaded with sight gags; I'm sure I missed many of them. The CGI is very good. Some scenes seem to be included mainly for the coolness of doing them in CGI. So you have to step back and just admire the tech stuff every so often.

The idea is—you may have heard—the world is completely populated with robots. Even the little birdies are little bird robots. And when two robot parents decide to make a baby, they do so literally, from parts. Double entendres abound. The robot world designers have filled it with rich detail, a lot of which (again) I probably missed.

The story is pretty much cookie-cutter: little guy takes on a huge corporate conspiracy. And you can't think too hard about it. Also, you can't think too hard about a fundamentally inegalitarian society where humanoid robots are "on top" served by a myriad of "lesser" robots doomed to fixed and limited roles throughout their "lives": phones, parking meters, traffic lights, etc. A robotic Marxist would have a field day, if he didn't lose his mind first.

Finally, I'm a sucker for any movie that has prominent end credits for sysadmins.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 3:52 PM EDT

URLs du Jour -- 12/3/2005 (Extremely Belated Edition)

  • I know I've pointed to Russell Roberts recently, but I need to point to him again today, as he excellently bemoans a David Ignatius column in the Washington Post. Even well after liberals say they've been persuaded of the superiority of market capitalism over socialism, they seem to be perennial suckers for "The Plan". In this case, it's Ignatius's head-over-heels rapture over the latest Proposed Massive Government Project to wean us off that nasty foreign oil.
  • Prof Bainbridge compares theory (GOP party head Ken Mehlman saying "People don't elect Republicans to run bloated bureaucracies.") with reality. (GOP Congressman Joe Barton, chair of a subcommittee "charged with regulating America's sports industry" announcing hearings into college football's Bowl Championship Series.) Disgusting.
  • Blog entry titles I wish I'd written:
    It'll Be a Beautiful Day When the Pentagon Has All the Money It Needs and Bombs Schools Having Bake Sales
    (Nick Gillespie at Reason's Hit & Run. You may need to be Of A Certain Age to get this, but still good.)