If ever there was a week when the press and readers were focused on breaking news, it was the past seven days. Urgent and dramatic headlines seemed to emerge almost by the second from the White House, and most readers, I’m guessing, were doing all they could just to keep up. Indeed, it seems a bit beside the point right now to step back and discuss anything that isn’t directly related to what is happening in Washington and rippling out to the rest of the world. So consider this week’s selections as a bit of a respite, or an escape, if you will.
Speaking of Escape...
“Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich”, in the New Yorker, is everything a magazine article should be: Surprising, nuanced, and layered with multiple levels of meaning. As the title conveys, it's about ultra-wealthy types—mostly in Silicon Valley and Wall Street—who have adopted the sorts of survivalist plans that are possible for those with nine-figure assets. (The article appeared before news broke that venture capitalist billionaire and Trump acolyte Peter Thiel obtained citizenship in New Zealand.) One investment chief tells the writer, Evan Osnos, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” Why, yes, I see how those could come in handy. Readers go on to visit an underground former nuclear missile silo near Wichita, Ks., now converted to luxury condo retreats (in the most literal sense) for the wealthy…when the people with the pitchforks come.
This isn’t a story about a handful of quirky paranoiacs. Osnos diagnoses significantly graver social maladies, and they’re hardly limited to a few people: “A survey commissioned by National Geographic found that forty per cent of Americans believed that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter was a wiser investment than a 401(k).” He notes that the doomsday preparations accelerated after 2008, sped up some more during Obama’s second terms and yes, continue to mount today. In New Zealand, which you’ll discover is the lusher, more aesthetically pleasing alternative to an underground silo in Kansas, 13,401 Americans registered—the first step in applying for citizenship—in the days after Donald Trump was elected president. That’s more than 17 times the usual rate, according to Osnos.
By the time this article is done, Osnos has astutely compared today’s income inequality and rising resentment of the wealthy (at least, as it’s perceived by those affluent people) to a similar era more than a century ago, when John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were symbols of profligate riches at a moment of stark economic gaps and perceptions of government failure. As Osnos points out, those titans decided to spend their millions to address social ills; the people he describes in this article are using their wealth to flee them.
What's In A Beer's Name?
If you're looking for a diverting story with just a soupçon of a broader importance, read Washingtonian's "The Battle of Raging Bitch." Apologies for my language—but that's actually the point of the article. It's all about a fight between a D.C.-area company called Flying Dog, which makes a microbrew that may or may not take half its name (raging) from the quality of its yeast and the second half from a dog, and how it ran afoul of authorities in the state of Michigan. Now, we've already explored the guerrilla marketing techniques of microbrews in this space, and there are so many in the category now that nose-thumbing attitude seems almost as important as the brew's actual taste. In this instance, the libertarian founder of the company is willing to spend his money to fight for his principle. Read this piece for an exploration of the intersection between commerce and the First Amendment, principle and (some very self-interested) marketing that has managed to turn seemingly retrograde, sometimes offensive language to its advantage.
A-hed of the crowd
The Wall Street Journal has been on a roll of late with its "A-heds," the publication's term for the quirky, often amusing features that it mixes in with its more straightforward articles. I recently featured a particularly memorable one about America's love-hate relationship with the tacos at Jack in the Box. This week the Journal had an A-hed on the resilience of the old-fashioned check at a moment when it seems that electronic forms of payment have taken over. The article can't equal the taco piece in humor, yet the two passages below seem like a whimsical slice of real life that then turn out to reveal the ways in which our lives are changing...and staying the same:
Michael Moeser was shopping at a Target in California on Black Friday a few years ago when a shopper ahead of him pulled out a check. In a matter of moments, other shoppers in line behind him scurried to other lanes.
“It was like a leper from the lepers’ colony showed up,” said Mr. Moeser, who works at a consulting firm tracking the payments industry. To make matters worse for the impatient shoppers, the cashier and shopper started chatting about the cute kittens printed on the check. ...
The practice of writing a check in a store is particularly mystifying to millennials, many of whom zap money to each other electronically through PayPal’s Venmo, Facebook or Snapchat.
“I honestly didn’t even know you could use a check in a store,” says Erika Lewy, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Vermont whose parents taught her how to write a check before she went off to college.
Fragment:McDonald's and the American Dream
The Atlantic published a meditation on Ray Kroc—the man who made McDonald's into a global phenomenon—in the wake of the release of The Founder, the Hollywood movie about him. As an aside, I saw the film this weekend and found it to be surprisingly sophisticated about business. Portrayals of offices and workplaces in Hollywood movies are often laughably unrealistic; I suspect a principle reason is that screenwriters have spent their most of their lives avoiding offices and regular jobs; they have little idea of what they're like. By contrast, The Founder really explores what it takes to nurture a business and it celebrates Kroc's success, without downplaying what it took for him to achieve it.
But back to the Atlantic piece. Candidly, you don't need to read the whole article. But I thought this passage did a very nice job of capturing how dramatically the perception of the fast-food chain has altered in recent decades:
Ray Kroc was not only held up as the embodiment of the American Dream, but a purveyor of it as well. To some, the contours of this American Dream now sound as quaint and outdated as the styrofoam McDonald’s clam shell containers that sit on display in the National Museum of American History. Wages stagnated, income inequality exploded, and those shifts at McDonald’s, once rhapsodized as the first jobs for enterprising teenagers, became low-wage, part-time realities for adults. (The average age of an American fast-food worker is now 29.) For some, McDonald’s and its fast-food ilk no longer emblematize innovation or ingenuity, or the meat-and-potatoes charm of ascendent America. Instead, fast food has become an easy (and, at times, overly simplistic) symbol for a United States that’s out of shape, financially enfeebled, and ailed by a broken food system.