A Hunger for Tales of Life in the American Cul-de-Sac

The New York Times profiles Nikolai V. Zlobin’s book on American culture. Zlobin is spot-on about many things in American culture:

On Russians raising their children:

In Russia, children are raised by their grandmothers, or, if their grandmothers are not available, by women of the same generation in a similar state of unremitting vigilance against the hazards — like weather — that arise in everyday life. An average Russian mother would no sooner entrust her children’s upbringing to a local teenager than to a pack of wild dogs.

Some general scrutiny:

Mr. Zlobin scrutinizes the American practice of interrogating complete strangers about the details of their pregnancies; their weird habit of leaving their curtains open at night, when a Russian would immediately seal himself off from the prying eyes of his neighbors. Why Americans do not lie, for the most part. Why they cannot drink hard liquor. Why they love laws but disdain their leaders.

Interesting bit:

Mr. Zlobin, who has lived in St. Louis, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Washington, finds his answers in middle-class neighborhoods that most Europeans never see. Readers have peppered him with questions about his chapter about life on a cul-de-sac. Most Russians grew up in dense housing blocks, where children ran wild in closed central courtyards. Cul-de-sac translates in Russian as tupik — a word that evokes vulnerability and danger, a dead end with no escape.

But this isn’t exactly correct: there are neighborhoods with true dead ends (they usually have a yellow sign as a warning). This is the literal tupik, not the cul-de-sac. There is no Russian equivalent to the word cul-de-sac, so I disagree with this translation.

Not a boring read.

The Destruction of the 1 Percent

Chrystia Freeland pens a brilliant essay on the destruction of the 1 percent. She begins with the rise of Venice during the Renaissance and its subsequent decline:

In the early 14th century, Venice was one of the richest cities in Europe. At the heart of its economy was the colleganza, a basic form of joint-stock company created to finance a single trade expedition. The brilliance of the colleganza was that it opened the economy to new entrants, allowing risk-taking entrepreneurs to share in the financial upside with the established businessmen who financed their merchant voyages.

Venice’s elites were the chief beneficiaries. Like all open economies, theirs was turbulent. Today, we think of social mobility as a good thing. But if you are on top, mobility also means competition. In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren’t on it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

The political shift, which had begun nearly two decades earlier, was so striking a change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure. It wasn’t long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too. Under the control of the oligarchs, Venice gradually cut off commercial opportunities for new entrants. Eventually, the colleganza was banned. The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally. By 1500, Venice’s population was smaller than it had been in 1330. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as the rest of Europe grew, the city continued to shrink.

She then makes a compelling argument that such a decline will happen in America. The only thing I found at fault with the essay is an unsympathetic jibe toward Apple and its Maps app in the latest iOS.

Germany: America of Yesteryear

This piece in The Los Angeles Times highlights how Germany of today is like America in the 1970s:

In 1975, manufacturing accounted for about 20% of the United States’ economic output, or gross domestic product, about the same as in Germany today. Since then, U.S. manufacturing’s share of GDP has slid to about 12%.

In 1975, the U.S. budget deficit was a manageable 1% of the economy, about the same as Germany’s now. Last year, the U.S. deficit was about 10%.

American families in the 1970s and early ’80s typically saved about 10% of their take-home pay, about the same as in Germany today. The U.S. savings rate these days is in the low single digits.

There story follows a couple in their 50s, the Krugers; the couple has two children. They have paid off their debts and are living much better on a combined $40,000 income than most Americans who earn twice as much.

Predictions of the Year 2000 by John Watkins in 1900

In 1900, an American civil engineer called John Elfreth Watkins made a number of predictions about what the world would be like in 2000. He was surprisingly prescient, but also made a few wacky predictions…

In December of that year, at the start of the 20th Century, John Elfreth Watkins wrote a piece published on page eight of an American women’s magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, entitled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” Below are his predictions:

1) Digital Photography. He wrote:

“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later…. photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colours.”

2) The rising height of Americans. He wrote: “Americans will be taller by from one to two inches.” The average American man in 1900 was about 66-67 inches (1.68-1.70m) tall and by 2000, the average American was 69 inches  (1.75m).

3) Mobile phones. He wrote: “Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.”

4) Pre-prepared meals“Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishment similar to our bakeries of today.”

5) High Speed Trains. Watkins wrote: “Trains will run two miles a minute normally. Express trains one hundred and fifty miles per hour.” Exactly 100 years after writing those words, Amtrak’s flagship high-speed rail line, the Acela Express, opened between Boston and Washington, DC. It reaches top speeds of 150mph.

6)  Television“Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.”

But Watkins also made some puzzling predictions that proved to be wrong:

1) No more C, X or Q. Watkins wrote: “There will be no C, X or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.” Obviously way off.

2) No cars in large cities“All hurry traffic will be below or above ground when brought within city limits.”

3) No mosquitoes or flies“Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been exterminated.” We’re not even close in eradicating these pests.

For a full list of Watkins’s predictions, see here.


(via BBC)