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We’re frequently told, by news-you-can-use segments and bank ads hawking savings accounts, that Americans are not saving enough for their retirements. Yet just as often we’re reminded that, given the fleeting nature of human existence, we should eat, drink, and be merry while we still can. Thriftiness is making a comeback in the wake of our latest speculative bubble, but some new evidence may help to tip the scales back in favor of the carpe diem approach to life. It turns out that money can buy you happiness—but young people get a lot more happiness out of their dollars than old people do.
Recent research by economists Amy Finkelstein, Erzo Luttmer, and Matthew Notowidigdo suggests that you’ll get a bigger bang for your consumer buck by spending while you’re healthy, before old age starts to take the fun out of life’s indulgences. Their research is part of a larger academic enterprise attempting to understand what makes us happy. Economics is a field more associated with rational calculation than emotion, but there’s an ever-growing subculture of “happiness economists.” Just as mainstream economists spend their time figuring out things like gross national product—how much a country produces in dollar terms—these happiness scholars churn out numbers like gross national happiness (how much happiness a country produces).
It’s relatively easy to measure things like corporate profits and trade flows. Measuring a person’s psychic well-being is trickier, though happiness economists take a relatively straightforward approach: For the most part, they just ask people if they’re happy. They then try to figure out what makes people say yes or no. Perhaps not surprisingly, money-obsessed economists have been fixated on whether higher incomes make us happier. And after much debate, their conclusion is that money does indeed buy happiness. Or, as an economist would put it, there’s a positive marginal utility of consumption. People in rich countries say they’re happier than people in poor countries, and in just about every nation, the well-to-do report being happier than their impoverished counterparts.
When the Times of London reported in 1837 on two University of Paris law profs dueling with swords, the dispute wasn’t over the fine points of the Napoleonic Code. It was over the point-virgule: the semicolon. “The one who contended that the passage in question ought to be concluded by a semicolon was wounded in the arm,” noted the Times. “His adversary maintained that it should be a colon.”
French passions over the semicolon are running high once again. An April Fool’s hoax this year by the online publication Rue89 claimed that the Nicolas Sarkozy government planned to demand “at least three semicolons per page in official administrative documents.” Parliamentarian Benoist Apparu was in on the joke—”The disappearance of the semicolon in Eastern France is absolutely dramatic,” he gamely proclaimed—and linguist Alain Rey (barely) kept a straight face for a video calling Frenchmen to arms. Reporters were taken in, since, like every great hoax, it was plausible enough to be true. Le Figaro has proclaimed, “The much-loved semicolon is in the process of disappearance; let us protect it,” and there was even a brief attempt at a Committee for the Defense of the Semicolon—a modern update on the Anti-Comma League that France had back in 1934. French commentators blame the semicolon’s decline on everything from “the modern need for speed” to the corrupting influence of English and its short, declarative sentences. It’s a charge leveled for years stateside, too, with Sven Birkerts bemoaning the Internet’s baleful influence on semicolons a decade ago.
Has modern life killed the semicolon?…
The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that “All [semicolons] do is show that you’ve been to college.” New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was “semicolon boy.” And though semicolons have occasionally made news—tariff bills have imploded over their misplacement, and a 1927 execution hinged on the interpretation of a semicolon—the last writers to receive much notice for semicolon use have been a New York City Transit employee and the Son of Sam. In 1977 the NYPD speculated that “the killer could be a freelance journalist” because of his “use of a semicolon” in his taunting letters. (Decades later, columnist Jimmy Breslin still marveled that “Berkowitz is the only murderer I ever heard of who knew how to use a semicolon.”)
Semicolons do have some genuine shortcomings; Slate’s founding editor, Michael Kinsley, once noted to the Financial Times that “[t]he most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism, is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is.” All journalists can cop to this: The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.
Yet semicolons serve a unique function, so it’s tempting to think that some writers will always cling to them. When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling. Yet English was not this student’s first language.
He was an exchange student—from France.
How can you tell that it’s nearly auction season in the art market? When the press begins predicting an imminent crash. Right on schedule, the Wall Street Journal ran theirs three weeks before the marquee May sales in New York City. Robert Frank, one of the Journal’s best writers, quickly went from dollars and cents to scene-setting. “As a new wave of wealthy collectors poured into the market to fill their mansion walls,” Frank wrote, “auctions have become competitions of conspicuous consumption, filled with celebrities, hedge-fund managers and mystery billionaire bidders from Russia and China.”
It’s a great image: the last days of Rome with greedy developers spending our mortgage dollars on frivolous Jeff Koons sculptures, decadent hedgies spending hot money on cool Rothkos and de Koonings, and shady former-Communist billionaires trying to buy respectability with Renoirs. But conspicuous consumption is hardly news in the art market.
Just before the last round of auctions held in New York in November, Carol Vogel summed up the mood in the New York Times: “Beneath all the bling—the glossy catalogs brimming with lavish illustrations, the extravagant parties to lure rich collectors, the impressive exhibitions of the art and the optimistically high estimates—lurks an ominous question. After three years of speculation about a bust, will this be the moment when the art market finally crumbles?”
But it hasn’t yet. And that has left some on the art beat looking for other ways to scold buyers. Bloomberg’s Linda Sandler recently pointed to the decorum of selling pricey art while the economy tanks. “The same day that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said the U.S. economy is on the verge of its first recession in six years,” she reported the evening of the Red charity auction of contemporary art, organized by Bono and Damien Hirst, “the seven pieces Hirst gave to the charity brought in about $19 million.”
You don’t usually see writers who cover, say, the price of wheat rooting for its decline. Are these writers trying to will the art market into failure? Probably not: They’re more concerned with competitive pressures. Everyone wants to be the first to identify the next crash. The art world is haunted by the asset-mauling price swoon of 1990, a double-whammy delayed reaction to the 1987 stock market crash and the 1990 recession. According to the MeiMoses index of art prices, the art market didn’t reach parity against its 1989 highs until 2003. That’s a bear market lesson that no one should forget, and with the market well into the 10th year of expansion, it’s not unreasonable to expect a crash…
Even though the specter of 1990 still haunts the market, there are some good reasons to believe the art world has changed since then. First of all, art did have a correction in 2001-02. The fall was moderate, only 13 percent in value, and the market recovered three years later. But corrections are a sign of a functioning and fluid market, not a frozen one. Second, the entire art world—not just the auction market—has grown. Dealers and art advisers talk about their community having been transformed into an industry. Today there are many more buyers—which creates liquidity—and the buyers are balanced. Hedgies were market leaders in 2006; Asian wealth made some of the biggest buys in 2007; commodity money from Russia and the Gulf States seems to be carrying the ball today.
Finally, remember that art is an asset that holds back inflation. Though it cannot be considered a commodity—it’s pretty much the definition of nonfungible—it does behave like gold, another important pseudocommodity. And like gold, which has pulled back from a spectacular run but not crashed, art has room on the downside to consolidate gains. After all, money is always looking for a safe haven, and you can’t hang gold ingots on the grand staircase of your house. So art might continue to perform until another sexier asset comes along. In other words, this boom may end not with the bang that everyone expects, but a whimper.