Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The "Undesirable Neighbor" Theory of Gentrification

Gentrification is a complicated phenomenon and I don't hope to come up with a comprehensive framework to understand it.  But let's start with a simple model and see where it takes us.

The key insight, I think, is that you are not indifferent to who your neighbors are.  Neighbors could be good or bad neighbors for several reasons.

1.  In the most extreme example, no one wants to live near people who are prone to violent crime.  That is, people who victimize others are very bad neighbors.  (I highlight violent crime because some kinds of crime, like tax evasion, don't have a particularly strong effect on the neighborhood—presumably all taxpayers, not just ones living nearby, are affected.)  A neighborhood characterized by high rates of violent crime and property crime is almost certainly going to be regarded as an undesirable, "bad" neighborhood.

2.  You want to live near people who interact with you in positive ways—people you want to socialize with, generally.  Note that unlike example 1, in this case there may be different tastes, and so you can imagine a neighborhood that is neither "good" nor "bad" but rather good for some people and bad for others.  A Chinese-speaking neighborhood might be great for some people but not so great for others.  Likewise for a neighborhood with lots of people in their 20s, or lots of people with babies.

3.  You also want to live near people who are "good consumers"—that is, they support the kind of businesses and other institutions that you would like to see in the neighborhood.  (This is similar to example 2, except that you never need to meet these people—you experience their presence through the variety of businesses etc. in your neighborhood.)  Picture a neighborhood with a lot of people who like bánh mì and know what good bánh mì is.  In a neighborhood like that, there is a decent probability that there will be one or more good bánh mì places.  If you like bánh mì, then having neighbors like this is probably a good thing.  (There is some possibility that if you have too many bánh mì-loving neighbors, the local bánh mì restaurants will be over-crowded and over-priced.  But unless there is some kind of barrier to entry, the long-term result should just be a lot of bánh mì places.)  Note again that unlike example 1, it is possible to have different conceptions of what makes a good neighbor.  If you despise bánh mì, then you probably won't be thrilled if all your neighbors love it.  On the other hand, you may enjoy having beautiful churches in your neighborhood even if you aren't religious.  So it's not strictly that you want to live near people who are like you.  It's that you want to live near people who support the existence of things you want to see in the neighborhood.

Okay, so, you care who your neighbors are.  But there is no true "market for neighbors."  You generally can't pay people to live near you or to move away.  The real estate market functions as a rough proxy for the "neighbor" market (which, again, doesn't exist).  And in fact, I would say for many urban neighborhoods, the "neighbor" shadow-market overwhelms other considerations.  Sure, you care about things like mass transit access, parks, that kind of thing.  But you also care tremendously about the mix of businesses and the safety of the neighborhood.  There are good neighborhoods in New York City with relatively poor access to public amenities, while until recently there were bad (or at least cheap) neighborhoods right next to Prospect Park.

We can see how two kinds of neighborhood can emerge.  First, an easy case:  if people want to live near other people who are like them, they will form distinct clusters.  So there are ethnic neighborhoods, young neighborhoods, etc.  These neighborhoods aren't necessarily good or bad, they are just different.  (A related point is that ethnic neighborhoods may disappear as the ethnic group becomes affluent and accepted in the community.  So the existence of an ethnic neighborhood may be an indicator of some problem with society.  Similarly, gay neighborhoods may go into decline as gay equality advances.  But that is beyond the scope of this post.)

You can even imagine a "good" sense in which rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods emerge.  Rich people want to shop at fancy organic stores, yoga studios, that kind of thing.  Poor people want cheaper stores, cheaper apartments, etc. and rarely shop at luxury stores.  So we might not be overly concerned to see hugely unequal neighborhoods—people are just sorting according to their preferences.

But there is a darker possibility.  We could observe segregation by wealth because people are essentially buying proximity to good neighbors (or distance from bad neighbors).  Now, this is a delicate area, so I want to be very precise.  Poor people can be excellent neighbors, and rich people can be terrible neighbors.  But some of the worst neighbors are criminals, and relatively few affluent people are street criminals.  (I'm not saying that rich people are less prone to crime than poor people.  Recall that some kinds of criminality, which may be more prevalent among wealthy people, have much smaller effects on the criminal's immediate neighbors.  I would much rather raise a family next to an inside trader than next to a violent criminal.)

So one way to make a neighborhood "good" is to make it expensive.  This doesn't guarantee great neighbors, but it largely eliminates the worst neighbors, the violent criminals.  Rich people are playing a coordination game in which they cluster together around the best public amenities (parks, museums, subway stops, good public schools, old trees, beautiful buildings).  Poor people are left not just with smaller apartments (that is next to inevitable given their lower incomes), but with less public safety, worse access to public goods (including good schools), worse access to transportation (and therefore worse access to good jobs), etc.

So it's a very unfair process.  It basically stamps the class system onto the physical geography of a city, so that which neighborhood you grow up in plays out outsized role in determining your opportunities.  But I am getting ahead of myself, so I will stop here, and in my next post I will look at the process of gentrification.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The "No True Anarchist" Fallacy

This is just some stream-of-consciousness philosophizing, not intended to be rigorous.  And, importantly, not intended to be original.  I apologize if I've unintentionally replicated someone else's idea, no doubt expressed better there than here.  (I have, luckily or unluckily, almost no education in this area.)

Start with a sort of cynical premise.  People generally treat each other according to their respective power (which might vary depending on context—in the courtroom, the judge is more powerful, but on the golf course he commands less respect).  When people treat each other well, it is out of self-interest and not magnanimity.

This may not matter much, except as an attitudinal matter.  Humanity is still humanity.  I'll quote from Venedikt Erofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line, which is set in Soviet-era Russia.  A character has visited the U.S. and is recounting his experience to other Russians, who quiz him:

"But, tell us, was there no freedom there either?  And freedom thus remains a phantom on that continent of sorrow, as they write in our newspapers?  Tell us."

"Yes," I responded, "and freedom thus remains a phantom on that continent of sorrow, and the people, thus, have become so used to it that they almost don't notice.  Just think, they don't have—I walked around a lot and observed them closely—not in a single grimace or gesture or remark do they have anything like the awkwardness to which we have become accustomed.  On every rotten face there is as much dignity expressed in a minute as would last us for our whole great Seven Year Plan.  'How come?' I thought, and turned off Manhattan onto Fifth Avenue and answered my own question:  'Because of their vile self-satisfaction—nothing else.'  But where do they get their self-satisfaction??  I froze in the middle of the Avenue in order to resolve the thought:  'In the world of propagandistic fictions and advertising vagaries, where do they get so much self-satisfaction?'  I was heading into Harlem and shrugged my shoulders.  'Where?  The playthings of monopoly's ideologues, the marionettes of the arms kings, where do they get such appetite?  They gorge five times a day and always with the same endless dignity—but can a man have a real appetite in the States?' "

"Yes, yes, yes," old Mitrich nodded his head.  "They eat OK there, but we almost don't eat at all . . .  all our rice goes to China, all the sugar to Cuba . . .  so what will we eat?"

"Nothing, Pops, nothing . . .  You've already eaten yours, it's a sin to talk like that.  If you get to the States, remember the main thing:  don't forget your Homeland and don't forget its goodness."
Okay, I probably could have ended the quotation a bit earlier, but I love it.  Anyway, the false dignity of those self-satisfied North Americans is perhaps not so bad as the Russian propagandists had implied.  In other words, maybe you can grant that human interactions are mostly self-interested without huge implications for the world.  "False" humanity may be just as good as the "false" dignity of the North Americans.  Another analogy may be free will:  one can, perhaps, grant that human affairs are deterministic/random without major implications for traditional notions of responsibility etc.  In fact this may be more than an analogy, since my supposition is that altruism is essentially mechanical.  Who cares if, on some level, your mother loves you for biological reasons, which are in some sense arbitrary?

But I don't buy it.  For one thing, the blessings of humanity are not equally shared, and that is mostly because of the way power works, not because of human hearts.  In other words, if you want to think about how people experience fairness and unfairness, you'll do well to focus on how our institutions shape power and self-interest rather than on more high-minded concerns.  The slaves were freed by force of arms, Little Rock Central High School was desegregated at bayonet-point, moral authority grows out of the barrel of a gun.

And so appeals to morality can seem empty, or rather, they can seem like mere power plays in a corrupt, disgusting game.  Even when raw force is abandoned in favor of gentler or more subtle exercises of power, it comes to the same thing.

And so the possibility of justice as a concept seems to disappear.  Justice can still happen by coincidence, but it has no substance.  It is an interpretation of the world, a property ascribed to the world, not a thing in the world.  (I don't mean this in some deep sense.  I mean only that justice has no explanatory power in terms of what we observe.  We can apply it as a label only.  What they did was just.  But they did not do it because they were seekers of justice.  Rather, because of some sort of power dynamic.  There may be debates about what is just and what is unjust, but those debates will be won by the more powerful, who will call the result justice.)  And so we might be tempted to abandon justice altogether as a pointless abstraction.


I think this is wrong.  Let's turn to a highly artificial example, a sport.  Our sport has rules, both formal and informal, and it has people charged with enforcing those rules.  Without pretending that there will ever be a game with perfect rules or perfect enforcement, you can see how something like justice can play a meaningful role in the design of the game.  And, crucially, you can see how norms of fairness might emerge that are strong enough to overwhelm the usual might-makes-right dynamic.  In other words, everyone agrees that it's unfair to break the rules in a particular way, and so there is no point in trying to rally the troops to force a different outcome.  Even the rule-breaker might agree that what he did was wrong and should be punished.  The sport itself might have emerged out of some kind of power struggle, but within the logic of the game you can meaningfully speak of fairness and rules and (if you get a little carried away) justice.  Something good can come directly from the concept of justice—we don't just take something good and label it "just" after the fact.

We haven't really escaped the power-determinism that we assumed earlier, we've just seen that in spite of it something like justice can emerge as a real thing in the world.  And it doesn't have to be limited to the insides of sports games.  In submitting to an institution designed to achieve fairness, people willingly give up their ability to exert power in any particular case, and submit to the demands of justice.  Moral authority doesn't have to grow out of the barrel of a gun anymore, it can grow out of some kind of garden that we have agreed to cultivate far from the battlefield.

And so here is what I take from all of this:

1.  Justice is conceptually distinct but functionally inseparable from the power that protects its domain.  You need power brokers, Lincolns, LBJs, to carve out space for these cultivated gardens, and then to defend them.

2.  There are many forces that tend to tear apart our justice-promoting institutions.  I use the metaphor of a garden because that is what it is like.  Justice is not what happens when things are left to themselves.  Justice is highly artificial, even if not all of it is subject to human control.  (A well-designed economy will be largely decentralized, but a truly unregulated economy is a fantasy.  You don't just say that this amount of rice goes here, and that amount of copper goes there.  That would be micro-managing, trying to build a garden up molecule by molecule.  But you also don't abandon it to the weeds.)

3.  A good life and a good society are both concerned with building these gardens, preserving them, and articulating the rules that govern them. A major concern of politics is the extension of justice beyond small units like the family and the church, to ascribe moral status to everyone and to encompass the whole world within the domain of justice.

4.  You are called to join the struggle.  You must do your part.

5.  This is no excuse to be judgmental.  In fact, quite the opposite, you must respect other people's ways of seeking justice.  If they are seeking justice, and they are at all sane, then you are on the same side as them and you must try to pull together.  One of your most important duties is to understand other people and make yourself understandable to them.  The people who are against you, however similar to you they may be, are those who put themselves above the demands of justice and flout the rules or deny that we should be guided by rules or burdened by moral duties.  These people would build a society where justice is a luxury good to be enjoyed by the powerful and the affluent in their private gardens, and denied to everyone else.  Don't let their cynicism and affected world-weariness divert you from your duty.  To quote a line from Spanish Civil War-era propaganda:  "True Anarchists are against the false liberty invoked by cowards to avoid their duty."

6.  To quote Churchill:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.  Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

There Will Never Be Enough Justice

An important undercurrent in the #CancelColbert debate, I think, is that there is an inherent scarcity of justice in the world.  Or another way of putting it is that there is a gap between what people deserve and the costs that can reasonably be imposed on other people.  A good society deals with these issues in an equitable way, and if that isn't happening then the disfavored group deserves a hearing.  In my mind that is the best defense that you can mount of the #CancelColbert movement.

To put this another way, when make a determination that justice demands something, this implies both that someone deserves it and that someone else is obligated to bring it about.  Not all unfairness gives rise to a legitimate claim of injustice.  To give a trivial example, there's nothing fair about aging—it is a brutal thing.  But there's no way to avoid it, or even delay it much, at any reasonable cost, and so it is not a matter of justice.  (Of course access to healthcare is a matter of justice, but even the best healthcare won't protect you for long.)

So now consider Colbert's joke.  He said a bunch of very insensitive stuff about Asians, but the real target of his joke was Dan Snyder and the Washington, D.C. NFL team that he owns.  And so we have costs to be allocated here:  should Asians bear the cost of this joke?  Or should Colbert's show be deprived of a vivid way of making the point?

And this is a legitimate discussion, especially if, as has been plausibly claimed, Asians are disproportionately burdened by these kinds of racial jokes.  And especially if the subjective experience of watching Colbert mimic Asian stereotypes on TV is particularly hurtful.  (Note in this connection that it doesn't particularly matter whether this subjective experience is "logical" or "rational."  The point is that it exists and it deserves to be taken into account.  You can't respond to a claim for justice by telling someone how he should feel.  Anyway it is perfectly natural to be disgusted by stereotypes of this kind.)

In general I think there is not enough appreciation of just how hard these tradeoffs can be.  In all the shouting back and forth, a lot of people seemed to assume that of course you should be able to make any joke you want, however hurtful, as though we have some principle that people's feelings are strictly lower-priority than humorous point-scoring.  And on the other hand, a lot of people seemed to assume that of course if people have a legitimate feeling of being offended, then the show must be canceled.  This resulted in a lot of talking-past-each-other.  The truth is that there is probably no way to accommodate both impulses, and so where we draw the line is a legitimate and important discussion for a good society to have.  I don't think we had that discussion, on the whole, but maybe some real engagement came out of this.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sigh

I got in a little Twitter conversation with Elisa about the recent #CancelColbert fracas.  I can't summon the energy to describe how #CancelColbert unfolded, but this New Yorker online piece, which Elisa linked to, has a pretty good summary.

Elisa tweeted:
I think she was referring to my outrage at Suey Park's "activism," but either way I want to explain why I find Park's approach so objectionable.  (Not that I'm really outraged.  There are far worse things in the world.  But as I tweeted, I think it's crazy not to hold Park accountable for the ridiculousness spawned by her campaign.)

So, to start:  Park says she likes Colbert's show and doesn't want it to be canceled.  So what was the point?  Apparently it was:
to argue that white liberals who routinely condemn what she called “worse racism” will often turn a blind eye to, or even defend, more tacit forms of prejudice, especially when they come from someone who shares their basic political beliefs
This comes as something of a relief to me, since I thought the idea of canceling the show was a significant overreaction.  But I wonder how clear these nuances of the #CancelColbert movement were to its participants, many of whom presumably defended the idea of canceling the show.

And therein lies my problem with this kind of "activism."  In any discussion worth having, there is going to be a layer of unsavory discourse churning beneath.  If you want to talk about rape jokes, you are going to have to deal with a lot of ridiculous invocations of the First Amendment.  This is the price we pay for letting everyone participate.

But Park's approach was to start with overheated rhetoric and then hope for the best.  She presumably knew that her more nuanced point wouldn't fit in a hashtag, and she knew that #CancelColbert would grab people's attention precisely because it is such a gross overreaction.  She was acting in bad faith when she encouraged her followers to adopt a more extreme position than the one she actually held.  She was using the methods of a rabble-rouser and inviting a torrent of overheated responses on both sides.

You can argue that the discussion needed to happen, and the ends justify the means.  But I don't think that's right.  Park mobilized resources with her campaign, she directed people's efforts.  And not just her immediate followers and her ideological allies:  all kinds of people were drawn in because there was a lot at stake, and they were forced to engage in a needlessly stupid fight.  There have been some thoughtful reactions, but this is despite Park's efforts to sensationalize and debase the discussion.  It is fortuitous.

It reminds me very much of the old "no enemies to the left" approach to politics, in which nothing is beyond the pale as long as it is nominally in support of your ideology.  The logic is that because Asians suffer real discrimination, any accusation of anti-Asian bias is almost by definition a good thing, regardless of whether it is reasonable or leveled in good faith.  Attention needs to be brought to the subject!  Any criticism of Park's methods is really a tactical move in the debate over whether Asians are discriminated against!

Anyway here I've written a long-ish blog post about it, and I don't even feel that strongly.  I just think it's important to maintain these distinctions.  Bad-faith provocateurs are bad-faith provocateurs and we shouldn't indulge their misbehavior just because we think an issue deserves more attention.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

We Are All Generalists

One way of thinking about the direction society has gone is that we are ever-more specialized.  This makes sense, in a way:  as Adam Smith observed, specialization is limited by the extent of the market, and today's market is more extensive than ever before.  (Another way of putting it is that transportation and communication costs have fallen dramatically and so we can specialize to a degree that was never possible before.)  So in our professional lives, we are generally expected to understand only a very narrow area.

But we are all generalists in life:  we are all amateur social psychologists, amateur cooks, amateur writers, amateur political analysts, amateur movie critics, amateur investors, amateur sex workers, and so forth.  (The only exceptions are people who are professional social psychologists, professional cooks, etc.)  Now some of these things are largely recreational, and so the stakes are fairly low—if you are not great at analyzing movies, the worst that is likely to happen is that a few conversations don't go as well as they otherwise might have.  And in other cases, where the overall stakes are fairly high (e.g., presidential elections), a single vote is relatively unlikely to matter.

But then there are those areas of life that matter a lot, and that depend crucially on our mastery of these non-professional skills.  And so it is that we find ourselves desperate to understand things that we can't afford to spend much time thinking about.  We resort to tactics that are of necessity, well, amateurish.  I like to think that my approach to investing is a pretty good one, but any professional investor would almost certainly be taken aback by my ignorance of even basic concepts.  I just don't have the time or inclination to educate myself on these issues.  I am an amateur playing in a professional market.

I think this helps explain the huge volume of bullshit that gets peddled to people.  In particular, it helps explain why people are interested in advice that seems woefully insufficient to the task:  inadequate as it may be, it is probably in an easily digestible format and may provide more usable information than a far "better," more rigorous product.  (Cosmopolitan sex tips seem pretty ridiculous, but most people don't have time to wade through the scholarly literature, and many probably couldn't understand it if they did.  And anyway, how confident are we that the scholarly approach is the best one in this area?)

So the bullshit is understandable.  But that doesn't make it a good thing:  much of it really is pure bullshit, and even when there is helpful information out there, it is not always easy to find it.  Unsurprisingly, people often hire professionals to cover gaps in their expertise.  That can work very well, but it generally trades in one problem for another:  instead of being good at investing, you must be good at hiring someone who is good at investing.  It does you no good to hire someone who is dishonest or bad at his job.  But how are you going to identify good, honest professionals?  Luckily it's easy sometimes:  you may not know the first thing about plumbing, but you know what makes a good plumber, and you can either ask for references or use reviews from the internet to find a good one.  Or you can ask friends to refer a good plumber.  Or you can just rely on the market to weed out plumbers who don't know what they are doing.  Exactly which approach to take may not be obvious, but you're unlikely to go too far wrong with any of them.

But I'm not sure there are comparably effective approaches when it comes to complicated things like investing.  To give another example, the one that motivated this post:  in order to do my taxes properly, I need to understand tax issues that seem to be very arcane (though of course they are probably not arcane to tax professionals).  It is probably a good idea to get outside help, but the tax software I bought resulted in a tiny refund (much smaller than I expected).  When I did my taxes manually (which took several hours), I found a refund about 50 times larger.  Now, who knows, maybe I've done something wrong, but this is the problem:  I don't know enough about taxes to know how reliable the tax preparation software is.  My ignorance about taxes leaves me unequipped to assess the professionals who can help me address my ignorance about taxes.

Partly this is just what it means to be human.  But also, public policy can make a big difference.  Licensing is meant to address these problems, and it may be a good idea in some cases (though I am ready to believe that it is over-used sometimes).  But what is really galling is that taxes don't have to be this hard!  If you were trying to design a system that imposed a much lower burden on tax-filers (not tax-payers:  I am talking about the difficulty of calculating taxes, not the burden of actually paying them), you could do so without much difficulty.  Some people believe the tax preparers have effectively lobbied Congress to make it very difficult to file taxes without professional help.  I don't know if that's true or not, but if so, Congress has outdone itself.

[UPDATE:  The tax software was right and I was wrong!  Score one for specialization/trusting the professionals.  However, it took me about a day's worth of work to figure out that my tax software was right.  Also, I'm pretty sure the software is still filling out the forms wrong, which could affect my taxes next year (though not the amount I owe this year).  So all in all, it's still an unsettling situation.]

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Douthat's Strange Lament

Ross Douthat has a column in the New York Times today, describing what he sees as the rout of the anti-gay-marriage forces in American politics and culture.  It's an annoying column, although the second-to-last paragraph is somewhat gracious:
I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.
But only somewhat gracious, because Douthat is missing something rather important here, something that I don't think I've ever seen him acknowledge.  Gay marriage proponents don't support gay marriage because they like gay people and think that gay marriage would be a nice thing to have.  Gay marriage proponents, and supporters of gay equality generally, see this as a fundamental matter of human dignity, something that should be treated as a basic right.  I am reminded of an anecdote from WWII-era Denmark:
Such general support across Danish society seems to have empowered the Jews of Copenhagen. When the Gestapo came to search the Jewish community’s offices in September 1943, the community treasurer, Axel Hertz, did not hesitate to ask the intruders, “By what right do you come here?” The German in charge replied, quite candidly: “By the right of the stronger.” And Hertz retorted: “That is no good right.” Jews in Denmark behaved like rights-bearers, not like victims in search of compassion. And they were not wrong: their feeling of membership in the Danish polity had a basis in its political culture.
Rights-bearers.  Not victims in search of compassion.  Not a marginalized minority in search of Douthat's "real charity."  Douthat's attitude is reminiscent of David Brooks's ridiculous column bemoaning the legalization of marijuana.  Brooks didn't even think it necessary to argue that the problems with marijuana consumption might justify the huge cost of pursuing, arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning people—that is, ruining their lives!—for trafficking in a mostly harmless drug.  Similarly with Douthat:  never (as far as I know) has he adduced any rationale that could possibly justify treating homosexuals as non-rights-bearers, people who deserve charity but do not deserve full participation as equals in our society.  It's a bizarre and telling omission.  I happen to be more sympathetic than most liberals to claims of religious liberty and personal conscience, which are currently being litigated in the courts and debated in the legislatures.  But these debates should start with the obvious background assumption:  gay people are full citizens, endowed with the same rights as everyone else, and not reliant on anyone's charity or goodwill for the vindication of those rights.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

To the Center of Things

Sarang's latest effort, Through the Center of the Earth, is generating a lot of buzz in the literary world—so much so that when Michael Chabon participated in an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, the majority of the questions were not about his own work, but about his opinion of Through the Center.  And the New York Times famously ran dueling reviews of the book on the same day, one by Woody Allen ("arguably the best book of the century") and the other by John Banville ("simply this:  a triumph—undoubtedly the best of the young century").  It's all anyone can talk about.

But I can't help feeling that people are paying attention for the wrong reasons.  The collection of short stories is mostly remarked upon for its imaginative and downright weird plotting.  This isn't wrong, exactly:  the stories really are fascinating.  (More on this in a moment.)  And his plotting really is much tighter and more focused than it was in his previous book, Bletchley Park.  But hidden behind the well-crafted stories are hauntingly personal themes of loneliness, depression, and alienation, and unfortunately this nuance is at risk of being lost in all the celebratory fanfare.

About those plots:  Through the Center is, to a large extent, an exercise in implausible ideas made to seem plausible through the alchemy of Sarang's vivid prose.  In one story, the CIA recruits an up-and-coming Latvian chef, Māris Rubenis, to infiltrate the world of Soviet cooking.  After establishing himself as the USSR's foremost culinary star, Rubenis introduces what he calls "socialist realist cuisine," the most notable feature of which is that it involves eating prodigious amounts of asparagus at every meal.  As a result, the CIA is able to round up thousands of KGB agents, easily identifying them by the pungent odor of their urine.

But where do Rubenis's loyalties really lie?  Having defected to the United States, he serves the entire National Security Council a meal with well-disguised beets in every course.  After dinner, the council members are horrified when their urine is almost blood-red, and because their insecurities prevent them from talking to each other about it, a national crisis ensues.

This is all amusing enough, and no one does mordant humor better than Sarang.  But it is not just a clever story.  The paranoid echo chamber of national security is reflected in Rubenis's relationships with his wife and her relationship with her lover, a Ukrainian expert in livestock management.  We come to realize that Rubenis's many deceptions are intimately bound up with his inability to trust other people.  In fact, Sarang suggests that an essential part of happiness may be the ability to trust the people we love, even (or especially) when they don't deserve that trust.  Everyone gets the joke when the urine starts flowing blood-red, but few readers seem to pick up on the quiet tragedy of Rubenis's gradual alienation from everyone he cares about.

Throughout the book, Sarang escalates the stories to ever-increasing levels of silliness.  In the title story, a physicist, Jan Elias, is hired to develop a system of communication between New York and Tokyo that works by projecting a beam of neutrinos through the center of the earth.  The story is an extrapolation from a real-life project using a trans-arctic cable to profit from a faster connection between those financial centers.  With their even-faster system, Elias's financial backers hope to get rich at the expense of their competitors.  Elias builds a giant tank of water directly beneath the Tokyo Stock Exchange and a particle accelerator directly beneath the New York Stock Exchange, and soon his employers are busily using their market-best informational edge to accumulate vast profits.

Part of the joke here is the ease with which Elias accomplishes otherwise impossible tasks, thanks to his financial backing.  (Imagine building a particle accelerator under the most densely populated land in the United States.)  Of course, the corruption of late-stage capitalism has been a theme throughout most of Sarang's work, but here it has a particularly sharp edge.  Sarang hints that the financialization of our society is inexorable, and the only chance at preserving anything of value involves tawdry compromises.  (For instance, Elias slips a lot of pure science into his project, and finds that he is better-funded than any of his colleagues in the civilian world.)

But again, these themes, which ramify and deepen as they reverberate through the characters' lives, don't seem to be getting any attention.  Wall Street traders are said to like the story, apparently not recognizing themselves in its villains.  (Or, more chillingly, embracing the villainy.)  Sarang is in danger of creating a paean to the world he is trying to puncture.

The book has plenty more to offer in the way of fabulous storytelling.  In one story, Nabisco spends a large portion of its marketing budget encouraging people to use the term "Triscuit conditional" in place of the traditional "biscuit conditional," and the campaign is so successful that soon all of the major snack companies are scrambling to keep up.  In another story, a psychologist develops a highly effective method of teaching patients self-control.  But the method is catastrophically successful:  the modern economy is so dependent on exploiting people's addictions and self-destructive behavior that when they gain the willpower necessary to lead happy, healthy lives, the economy implodes.

But I urge you not to get carried away by Sarang's high-flying flourishes.  Re-read the stories with an eye to the sadness and sense of loss that is so easily obscured.  The surface is beautiful, but the real substance lies beneath.