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After the Wall

Quinn Slobodian   November 20, 2014
The Köpi building in Berlin, photographed in 2006 by Nicor

The Berlin Wall fell twenty-five years ago this month. As one would expect, there are competing stories about how it happened. There is the tale of Reagan the Stalwart, which bloomed in the early triumphal years after 1989 but has since ebbed. There are the feather-haired East German masses in the Monday Demonstrations pushing their state into a corner. And there is the tragic figure of Gorbachev, who so loved communism that he killed it to keep it pure.

The story rarely includes an epilogue, however. What happened after the people rushed out, capital and goods rushed in, and new perils flooded in alongside new opportunities? On this anniversary year, we should think not only of the Cold War world that ended, but also what followed—the coronation of “the world economy.”

After 1989, “the world economy” was presented as the acid bath that would dissolve all political differences, a planetary panacea producing universal prosperity. But terms that claim no politics are the most political of all. Even as the world economy was offered in as a horn of plenty in the East, it was also wielded as a bludgeon in the West—swung at the kneecaps of the welfare state.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   November 20, 2014
Photo by gerriet

• We’ve really got to stop giving the New York Times such a hard time for being out of touch with the financial realities of most of its readers’ lives. In a section of the paper on Wednesday that was literally entitled “Your Money,” an article explained that buying a horse for one’s daughter “is not easy, though it may not be impossible.” Sure, there are a lot of costs involved, but “At least the animals make the expense of boat ownership look reasonable.” And how!

• Today in Labor Strikes: Housekeepers at the Harvard-owned Doubletree hotel are on strike today; it is the first housekeepers’ strike in Boston history (Via Rosa Greenberg.)

• San Francisco lawmakers are considering a Retail Workers Bill of Rights, which would regulate hourly employees’ work schedules so they are less erratic, reports Ned Resnikoff for Al-Jazeera America.

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What To Do About Uber?

Jacob Silverman   November 19, 2014
Photo by Dennis Yang

On Monday, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith published a report from a dinner he and several other media figures attended with Uber executives. During the dinner, Smith wrote, senior vice president Emil Michael proposed spending $1 million to dig up dirt on journalists critical of the company, like PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy. Since its launch, Uber’s growth—and sense of its own importance—has been meteoric, and the company seems determined not to let anyone stand in its way. The brazenness of the plan was highlighted by the fact that Michael felt comfortable relaying these plans at a dinner, albeit one he later said he thought was off the record.

The reaction from the commentariat was swift, and rightfully incensed. Some promised to swear off the service. Ellen Cushing, a journalist who has covered Uber for San Francisco magazine, said that she had been warned that company officials might look into records of her movements. Xeni Jardin, co-founder of Boing Boing, wrote on Twitter, “The worst thing about this Uber privacy, bullying, sexism, surveillance debacle is I fucking love Uber but feel compelled to stop using it.”

Jardin’s remarks echoed with a lot of urban-dwelling media types, for whom Uber is a treasured convenience (and, when conditions allow it, easily reimbursed). They also concisely presented some of the many problems with Uber: a pattern of cavalier use of customer information, along with a disregard for the welfare of female riders, some of whom have been assaulted by drivers. What the emerging Uber-storm reveals is the strange, sometimes dissonant, responses to malfeasance by Silicon Valley. And it also raises the question of what individual consumers can do against companies whose enormous valuations and chutzpah are matched by their lack of a moral compass.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   November 19, 2014
Illustration by Mike Licht

• Here is a blog post about a custom T-shirt startup company, presented without comment or context: “Karl Marx Would Have Liked Teespring.” (Via Zachary Davis.)

• Read Baffler blog contributor Alana Massey’s excellent salvo about the hours and hours of creative labor that job searches often require, for no pay. Of her search for a full-time staff writing job, she writes, “I’ve produced more than 30,000 words of original and highly job-specific material without pay in an effort to prove myself a capable and good sport to the handful of companies that have reached back out to me from the black hole of resume inboxes to give me a chance.” Not only that, but job seekers usually have no recourse if their creative work is misused or stolen.

• “Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is presenting herself as a leading voice for Louisiana on energy issues in the U.S. Capitol,” write Lisa Lerer and Annie Linskey for Bloomberg. But it might be hard to take this seriously, because “Between January 2009 and this week, Landrieu didn’t speak or submit written testimony or questions at almost 70 percent of the energy committee hearings.”

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Why the SAT Can’t “Democratize” Harvard

Benjamin Winterhalter   November 18, 2014
Photo by Alberto G.

Does anyone actually like the SAT? Given how our media reports on every changing detail and decision related to the test, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Americans are absolutely dying to hear about it.

A few days ago, CBS News reported that more and more colleges are deciding not to require the SAT from applicants. And last month, the College Board, which makes the test, released data showing that, even though more people take the SAT than ever before, proportionally fewer are “college ready.” This news drags on the heels of the Board’s announcement last spring that it is planning to completely redesign the SAT in 2016. While it’s a virtual certainty that the redesign won’t clarify what SAT scores actually tell us, still there must be someone out there eagerly awaiting all these updates. The only question is, who?

One answer, it turns out, is Steven Pinker. Pinker’s piece in The New Republic in September spent most of its breezy 4,500 words quarreling with William Deresiewicz, who dared to point out the silliness of Ivy League admissions, about trends among Harvard graduates. Pinker argued that it’s time to put an end to favoritism and nepotism, and that it’s time to democratize the Ivy League. And his solution was the SAT, arguing that admissions decisions in the best schools—and all schools, for that matter—should be made by weighing students’ SAT scores more heavily than all other factors. Pinker claimed that the test is “objective,” and that it’s the ideal way of ensuring that Harvard is a “meritocracy.” This was his slogan: Democracy for all! (Provided “all” are members of the elite.)

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   November 18, 2014
Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon: that's a strong name. / Image via Lisby

• So much for “upward mobility”: a new study for the journal Human Nature tracked British surnames from 1170 and 2012 to compare the families’ social status over time, by looking at elite school attendance and property ownership. The researchers found that “social status is consistently passed down among families over multiple generations—in fact, it is even more strongly inherited than height. This correlation is unchanged over centuries, with social mobility in England in 2012 being little greater than in pre-industrial times.”

• Republicans and outside groups used anonymous Twitter accounts to share coded polling data leading up to the midterm elections, CNN revealed yesterday. “Posting the information on Twitter, which is technically public, could provide a convenient loophole to the law—or could run afoul of it,” CNN reported. Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said, “It’s a line that has not been defined. This is really on the cutting edge.”

• Speaking of dirty deeds, Buzzfeed caught Emil Michael, an executive at Uber, floating the possibility of doing “oppo research” on journalists who were critical of the company, with the aim of exposing embarrassing details of their personal lives. “Nobody would know it was us,” said Michael.

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The Art of Con

Anne Elizabeth Moore   November 17, 2014
All photos by Anne Elizabeth Moore.

Last weekend, heralded all by tourist boards, local TV news reports, and a massive full-color ad campaign throughout the city’s public transportation system, what turned out to be a relatively modest art exhibition opened in downtown Chicago. It shouldn’t have been news—the work was not impressive, and the artists unknown—but it was. The renown was due to the exhibition’s location in Millennium Park, directly between the Bean and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, as well as the sponsors of the event, the $7.5 billion Austrian energy drink company Red Bull.

“The distinctive can that has given millions of people around the world energy when they need it most has been cut, tied, welded, and glued to create remarkable pieces of sculpture from 30 US artists,” press materials oozed. Indeed, the creativity on display at “Red Bull Art of Can” ran the gamut from elephants made out of Red Bull cans clutching cans of Red Bull to 3D Red Bull logos hoisted by hands also made out of Red Bull logos.

Still, the exhibition was a massive departure from the company’s usual high-octane, extreme sports marketing stunts. Perhaps Red Bull has finally realized that target-market Millennials aren’t as self-destructive as their Gen X elders? But on the other hand, if the company believes the Kids Today are in any way willing to accept branded content as independent cultural production, those kids are going to have to call Bull.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   November 17, 2014
Photo by

• A group of dancers sued their employer, a Manhattan strip club, for minimum wage violations, and won $10 million.

• Just as corporate cash has infiltrated politics, the trappings of political races have infiltrated big business: check out this hedge fund’s attack ad against Dow Chemical, via Buzzfeed.

• Rich People Curses: Is the world’s most expensive watch, valued at $25 million, cursed? You decide.

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