Generation Wealth

The movie Generation Wealth is currently streaming on Amazon. I loved the director’s previous The Queen of Versailles, so decided to give this one a try.

The movie is a mishmash of the director’s family history (retired parents and teenage children get a fair amount of screen time), musing regarding modern-day materialism, and interviews with people whose lives have been affected by parental or personal earnings.

One interesting character is Florian Homm, a fugitive from U.S. justice due allegations of fraud while running a hedge fund, resulting in investor losses of up to $200 million. He is back in his native Germany, which supposedly refuses to extradite its citizens (would that be true for an accused murderer or is it that they won’t extradite for a financial crime?). The filmmaker interviews Homm’s adult son and the son’s girlfriend for an all-around perspective.

Another interesting subject is a New Yorker who works on Wall Street. She refuses to consider the idea of marrying a lower-income man (a prudent policy in light of New York State’s winner-take-all family law) and explains that the pool of available men is thus quite small. At around age 40 she does find an old rich guy to marry and goes through exotic fertility treatments and the hiring of a surrogate. He eventually leaves her for a younger woman (i.e., the 70-year-old found a 30-year-old sex partner).

Kacey Jordan was featured as someone who went from minimum wage to high-paid porn star and then back to minimum wage. There was plastic surgery during this journey, which is another theme of the movie. Lauren Greenfield, the director, follows a bus driver “single mom” to Brazil for a life-changing investment in plastic surgery.

One interesting aspect is that the born-in-1966 Greenfield follows her classmates from a rich kids’ private high school into their adult lives.

The movie takes some swipes at Donald Trump and his supporters (they’re exposed as crass idiots!) and also takes a variety of standard 21st century feminist positions. Yet the filmmaker’s own life story contradicts the feminist complaints. Her college boyfriend-turned-husband is the person cited for maximum encouragement and facilitation of her career. He urges her not to quit in the early days when she’s discouraged and he takes care of an infant child while she travels to Asia on an assignment.

The central thesis is poorly supported. The film shows people today saying things about money-obsessed Americans that the film also shows people saying in the 1990s. Do we know that people didn’t have similar things to say in the 1970s about young Arab royals or circa 1900 about the children of industrialists? The world is richer so maybe there are just more rich kids running around.

One idea that does seem worth exploring is whether people are now less likely to aspire to be like their richest neighbor. The film says that, due to increased availability of media, Americans aspire to be like the rich crazy spenders that they see through electronic media. I wonder if this can be true. As the population booms and jobs are concentrated in a handful of cities, the realistic trajectory for a young American is a 2BR apartment shared among 4 people. Do the occupants of that crammed apartment look at an 8,000-square-foot house in Beverly Hills as a realistic aspiration?

My big take-away from the movie is that sending kids to a fancy private school is risky. Teenagers with a lot of unearned money to spend are not the best role models.

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Surveillance Nation

“The Subway Bomber’s Journey to 42nd Street, Captured on Camera” (nytimes, November 5, 2018) is a little shocking for showing just how many security cameras are running in our cities these days.

There is a lot of speculation on why crime is less prevalent today compared to 30 or 50 years ago. I wonder how much of the credit for this reduction can be claimed by the developers of the integrated circuit. Now that cameras and memory are almost free, maybe criminals know that it is tough to get away with crime (though plainly Akayed Ullah did not expect to get away with his actions and did not regard what he was doing as a “crime”).


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Recreational marijuana should be legal and available…

… in some of the other towns within Massachustts.

A bunch of towns that, in 2016, voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana statewide (results) have then held town meetings where, by a 2/3rds majority, more or less the same people voted to ban marijuana-related business in their particular town. At a recent town meeting, Lincoln became the latest in the roster of towns that support legalized marijuana (or did as of 2016), but think that other towns in Massachusetts are better-suited to hosting marijuana-related businesses.

Effectively, then, a lot of people voted for expansion of marijuana-related enterprise who won’t be directly affected by the law. Should there be a rule that if a town votes for something statewide it can’t then ban it locally? Or if it wants to reserve the right to ban something locally then it can’t vote on the statewide question?

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The modernity of the Bolshevik Revolution

One interesting aspect of Understanding Russia: A Cultural History (course by Lynne Ann Hartnett, a professor at Villanova) is how modern and familiar the ideas of the Bolsheviks are. After the October Revolution, for example, Prof. Hartnett talks about women gaining the rights to on-demand abortion and on-demand divorce (what today is called “unilateral” or “no-fault” divorce). The rate of abortion quickly grew to exceed the rate of live births. The divorce rate in the Soviet Union became the highest in Europe. Unlike in the U.S., no-fault divorce did not come with the need to hire a lawyer and litigate in a courtroom (see Real World Divorce). The wife could go to City Hall, fill out a form, and her now-ex-husband would be informed of the divorce via mail (“postcard divorce”). [Unlike in the U.S., though, there was no possibility of an alimony revenue stream following a no-fault divorce; women in the early Soviet system were considered capable of working to support themselves and if they wanted extra spending power from a man’s income they had to get it through a voluntary arrangement.]

The professor also cites paid maternity leave and state-run day care as early Soviet programs.

Radical thinkers today like to talk about reconceiving state-run education as a lifelong process rather than merely K-12. The Soviets were there 100 years ago! Prof. Hartnett talks about how lifelong education was an explicit goal and the Soviets quickly organized programs for both peasants and factory workers.

I wonder what percent of the positions taken by a modern American politician might have been anticipated 100 years ago by the Bolsheviks. It would be an interesting exercise to line up what our current leaders say and promise to what the Bolsheviks were saying and promising.

Separately, the lecture series adds a data point to how present-day academics think about capitalism and the market. Prof. Hartnett does not seem to be a fan of Marxism-Leninism due to its reliance on violence to keep the population in line. However, when talking about pre-revolutionary Russia, with its 7 percent annual economic growth (like China today), she describes factory workers as “underpaid.” There does not seem to be any evidence of collusion among employers and state intervention in the economy was minimal compared to modern welfare states. Thus, it seems likely that the workers were earning a market wage. Due to the ample supply of labor this might have resulted in “low paid” workers, but to the modern American academic “low paid” seems necessarily to imply “underpaid” (unfairly low wage).

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Rich island retreat = good; Obscenely rich = ?

Just back from Martha’s Vineyard.  If you’ve flown and driven the entire East Coast you realize how unspoiled the Cape and Nantucket/MV are.  No concrete high-rises, lots of woods, cheesy tourist strip malls mostly confined to the main roads and the occasional town.  Maybe it is the coldness of the water that has kept development from ruining this area.  That doesn’t mean that Martha’s Vineyard isn’t changing, however, and those who knew it when aren’t entirely happy.

1970s:  the Vineyard was a year-round working-class town of fishermen and boatyard workers supplemented by a summer season where rich New England WASPs spent weeks or months in small simple cottages near the shore.  The place was isolated, the only access being by ferry boat from Woods Hole on the Cape Cod mainland or in little propeller airplanes from various points.  It wasn’t practical to remain in the fast lane in New York or Washington, DC and also spend weekends on the Vineyard.  Crime was non-existent.

2000s:  The corporate jet has changed everything.  KMVY has a 5500′ runway and an instrument landing system.  That plus a Gulfstream puts most of the population of the East Coast within about a one-hour flight from Martha’s Vineyard.  And all on the shareholders’ dime!

Ease of access has made the Vineyard both more and less democratic.  It is less democratic in that you better show up with $2-5 million if you want to buy a house.  It is more democratic in that anyone can buy a house now if they have enough money; you don’t have to be a WASP.  For example, Harvey Weinstein, a Jewish movie producer, was able to purchase a house in a formerly exclusive area (people did not want to sell to a Jew but eventually the siren song of a suitcase full of 100-dollar bills was irresistable).

It is also become more democratic in that poor people have arrived in large numbers.  Why?  Rich people attract poor people.  A middle class person with a vacation house will tend to keep it up by himself.  He comes out for a couple of weekends in May to turn on the water, patch up any broken screens, and cut the lawn.  Then he tinkers a bit for the rest of the summer.  This isn’t practical if your vacation house is a 10,000 square foot mansion set in 4 acres of formal gardens.  You could hire the local working class folks to maintain your garden and clean and repair your house but that would get expensive, even for a rich person.  The solution is to import serfs from the Third World.  Martha’s Vineyard is filling up with foreign workers, mostly Brazilian, sleeping 5 to a room at night and preparing the estates of the rich for July and August.

The old-timers are worried.  Violent crime is on the rise.  The children of the serfs seem to be forming gangs.  It looks as though Martha’s Vineyard is on its way to becoming more like Rio de Janeiro:  fantastically rich in spots but also not very safe when you step out of your enclave.

More: (M.V. section is about halfway down)

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