Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the latest in a series of massive, multi-billion-dollar settlements extracted from Wall Street’s largest banks as punishment for their role in the subprime mortgage bubble and bust that played a role in collapsing the economy in 2008. Charlotte-based Bank of America, paying for the sins of its own lenders as well as those of investment firm Merrill Lynch and subprime specialist Countrywide (both of which it acquired during the 2008 crisis), will be paying a record $16.65 billion settlement, including an also-record $9.65 billion in cash. This follows last month’s Citigroup settlement of $7 billion (including a then-record $4 billion in cash), and last fall’s $13 billion JPMorgan Chase settlement.
The numbers are truly eye-popping, and the repeated use of “record” has a nice, satisfying ring to it. But, just before the latest BoA settlement was announced, William Cohen denounced the entire exercise as “fine theater with the obvious caveat that nothing even remotely close to justice had been served.” Far from being impressed by the sums involved, Cohen sees the settlements as hush money, paid by Wall Street executives eager to keep the details of their worst behaviors out of the public eye.
The American people are deprived of knowing precisely how bad things got inside these banks in the years leading up to the financial crisis, and the banks, knowing they will be saved the humiliation caused by the public airing of a trove of emails and documents, will no doubt soon be repeating their callous and indifferent behavior.
Instead of the truth, we get from the Justice Department a heavily negotiated and sanitized “statement of facts” about what supposedly went wrong. In the case of JPMorgan, the statement of facts was 21 pages but contained little of substance beyond the fact that an unidentified whistle-blower at the bank tried to alert her superiors to her belief that shoddy mortgages were being packaged and sold as securities. Her warnings went unheeded and the mortgages were packaged and sold all the same.
JPMorgan’s CEO and famed finance guru Jamie Dimon reportedly made a personal call in the lead-up to a federal lawsuit being filed in order to bump his settlement offer by, ultimately, $10 billion dollars, hoping “the meeting would avert the lawsuit, which threatened to spotlight the bank’s questionable mortgage practices before the financial crisis.” The $13 billion was, the Times reported, half of one year’s annual profits for the bank.
Indeed, the Times followed up yesterday to show how even Bank of America was getting off lighter than the numbers might make it seem at first blush. “At issue is how much of the cost of the $7 billion in ‘soft dollars,’ or help for borrowers, the bank will bear under the settlement,” the Times said, as writing down principal on loans may have already been factored into BoA’s plans, or they may not even own the loans anymore, having sold them off in the infamous mortgage-backed securities. The investors who bought the bad bonds “note that the government promotes the settlements as punishment for dumping faulty loans on investors, but it devises deals that saddle investors with some of the costs.”
And in a rather perverse function of intersecting laws,
The actual pain to the bank could also be significantly reduced by tax deductions. Tax analysts, for instance, estimate that Bank of America could derive $1.6 billion of tax savings on the $4.63 billion of payments to the states and some federal agencies under the settlement. Shares of Bank of America jumped 4 percent on Thursday, suggesting investors believe that the bank could take the settlement in stride.
Moreover, the Justice Department and states began to get creative in their negotiations with BoA,
In New York State, for example, Bank of America has agreed to donate hundreds of foreclosed properties to land banks and community groups, while chipping in money to renovate each property.
Such measures are also popular with politicians. Bank of America agreed to finance affordable rental housing, a top priority for city and state leaders, particularly Democrats, like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, who called the deal ‘historic.’
The Attorney General is apparently following what Cohen calls “the Holder Doctrine,” after a 1999 memo composed by Holder as deputy attorney general, which calls for large financial settlements in lieu of criminal prosecutions. Yet while the big numbers may make a splash, there are apparently enough skeletons in the big banks’ closets for them to consider this kind of money a wise investment. And requiring Bank of America to, among other things, offer hundreds of millions of dollars in new mortgages to those who can’t afford them as punishment for irresponsible subprime lending has a certain irony to it that can’t be escaped.
In fact, the entire effort bears an unmistakable resemblance to one of the president’s favorite television shows, HBO’s “The Wire.” In it, serious narcotics and murder investigations are rolled up in order to conduct city-wide drug raids that send a television-friendly message by putting “dope on the table.” One wonders how big a table it would take to proudly display $7 billion, or $13 billion, or $16.65 billion. Mr. Holder might be in the market.
Among the demands of the “protesters” in Ferguson is that the investigation and prosecution of police officer Darren Wilson be taken away from St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. McCulloch is biased, it is said. How so? In 1964, his father, a St. Louis police officer, was shot to death by an African-American. Moreover, McCulloch comes from a family of cops. He wanted to be a police officer himself, but when cancer cost him a leg as a kid, he became a prosecutor.
Yet, in 23 years, McCulloch has convicted many cops of many crimes, and has said that if Gov. Jay Nixon orders him off this case, he will comply. Meanwhile, he is moving ahead with the grand jury. As for Gov. Nixon, he revealed his closed mind by demanding the “vigorous prosecution” of a cop who has not even been charged and by calling repeatedly for “justice for [Brown's] family” but not Wilson’s.
What has been going on for two weeks now in Ferguson, with the ceaseless vilification of Darren Wilson and the clamor to arrest him, is anti-American. It is a mob howl for summary judgment, when this case cries out, not for a rush to judgment, but for a long tedious search for the whole truth of what happened that tragic day.
For conflicting stories have emerged. The initial version was uncomplicated. On August 9, around noon, Brown and a companion were walking in the street and blocking traffic when ordered by Wilson to move onto the sidewalk. Brown balked, a scuffle ensued. Wilson pulled out his gun and shot him six times, leaving Brown dead in the street. Open and shut. A white cop, sassed by a black kid, goes berserk and empties his gun.
Lately, however, another version has emerged.
Fifteen minutes before the shooting, Brown was caught on videotape manhandling and menacing a clerk at a convenience store he was robbing of a $44 box of cigars. A woman, in contact with Wilson, called a radio station to say that Brown and Wilson fought in the patrol car and Brown had gone for the officer’s gun, which went off. When Brown backed away, Wilson pointed his gun and told him to freeze. Brown held up his hands, then charged. Wilson then shot the 6’4,” 292-pound Brown six times, with the last bullet entering the skull. St. Louis County police then leaked that Wilson had been beaten “severely” in the face and suffered the fracture of an eye socket. Brown’s companion, Dorian Johnson, says Brown was running away when Wilson began to fire. But, according to the autopsies, all of the bullets hit Brown in the front. ABC now reports that Dorian Johnson has previously been charged with filing a false police report.
If the first version is true, Wilson is guilty. If the second is true, Brown committed two felonies before being shot, and Darren Wilson fired his weapon in defense of his life. Read More…
People see Facebook as a neutral platform, which they can use to have conversations. But in reality, it’s a company, and thus it has motivations and strategies and interests involved in the ways its users utilize the network. Facebook has commercial reasons behind its desire to curate specific experiences, happy or otherwise—and as of late, it’s been working rather hard to curate a positive, uplifting (or “Upworthy”) experience for its users, as Casey Johnston reports in an ArsTechnica post:
As the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over police fatally shooting 19-year-old Mike Brown have raged through the past several nights, more than a few people have noticed how relatively quiet Facebook news feeds have been on the matter. While #Ferguson is a trending hashtag, Zeynep Tufekci pointed out at Medium that news about the violence was, as best, slow to percolate through her own feed, despite people posting liberally about it.
While I’ve been seeing the same political trending tags, my feed is mundane as usual: a couple is expecting a baby. A recreational softball team won a league championship. A few broader feel-good posts about actor Chris Pratt’s ice-bucket challenge to raise awareness and money for ALS, another friend’s ice-bucket challenge, another friend’s ice-bucket challenge… in fact, way more about ice bucket challenges than Ferguson or any other news-making event. In my news feed organized by top stories over the last day, I get one post about Ferguson. If I set it to organize by “most recent,” there are five posts in the last five hours.
This harkens back to Facebook’s recently released news feed manipulation study, which tracked users’ responses to positive vs. negative content. Facebook manipulated its algorithm to give a different experience to different users, and documented the effect these disparate algorithms had on their emotional wellbeing. All of this was in order—they purport—to curate a better user experience. Johnston adds,
One of the things Facebook thrives on is users posting and discussing viral content from other third-party sites, especially from sources like BuzzFeed, Elite Daily, Upworthy, and their ilk. There is a reason that the content users see tends to be agreeable to a general audience: sites like those above are constantly honing their ability to surface stuff with universal appeal. Content that causes dissension and tension can provide short-term rewards to Facebook in the form of heated debates, but content that creates accord and harmony is what keeps people coming back.
Facebook is not the only company that curates a given experience for commercial gain. Most online tools use algorithms for similar curation—Google, for instance, doesn’t show you all potential search items for the keyword you give it: it shows you specific search items it thinks you will like, ones that accord with its idea of your personality or character. And while this can be a useful service, it also has it drawbacks. All of these tools have a way of perpetuating specific traits or bents (virtuous or otherwise) in users: if you used to search Google for pornography, it’s likely to continue offering you pornography, even if you are trying to avoid it. If you looking at an old ex’s photo album on Facebook, perhaps in a moment of jealousy or curiosity, their postings will continue showing up in your news feed for days or weeks to come. Outside of the personal, we should pay attention to the effect these sites have on our perception of the outside world: as Eli Pariser noted in a March 2011 TED Talk, two users could Google the word “Egypt” and get completely different results—one would get news of protests and the Arab Spring and Morsi, while the other would only see tourism information and pictures. Pariser noted that Facebook does the same: Read More…
It’s time once again to bring out the well-worn quote (from Marx) that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” No one in my home could take their eyes off the television Monday evening, though all that was on was Jake Tapper marching around Ferguson, Missouri tracking down rumors of fresh violence. It all seemed so scripted. The outside world may be blowing up—major crises in Ukraine, the Mideast, and the South China Sea—which if escalated and spread could bring the world to the brink of global war. But we couldn’t turn away from the rinky-dink St. Louis suburb. Outside agitators—were there not such people, one would be want to put this ’60s era retro-phrase in quotation marks—have purportedly come to Ferguson from as far as New York and California.
There was real tragedy in the first round of American inner city riots—provoked in most cases by genuine police brutality. In 1967, the New York Review of Books ran Tom Hayden’s lengthy depiction of the riot there. Hayden, then a well known New Left figure, knew Newark, had been an anti-poverty organizer there. His sympathies were obvious, but Hayden is no fool, and I’m sure most of the facts are correct. One thing which stands out in those days was the way in which law and order views were expressed in forms indistinguishable from race baiting. Can one imagine the Democratic governor of a major state today saying, as New Jersey governor Richard Hughes did, before calling out the National Guard, “The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America.” Hughes, recall, was not George Wallace but a major progressive figure.
The costs of the insurrection to Newark were brutal. In Hayden’s summary
In the carrying out of the Governor’s weekend definitions and policies at least twenty Negroes died, nearly all from police shooting, another 1000 were injured and 1000 jailed; more than 100 Negro-owned businesses were attacked by police and troopers; and hundreds of apartments were fired into along the ghetto’s streets.
The outcomes were comparable in Detroit, in both cities the riots sparking an exodus of white population, with its skills and capital. New York, in great part due to the personal courage of John Lindsay, avoided the hot summer. The riots spurred a major national effort to integrate urban police forces, an effort which evidently bypassed the suburb Ferguson.
In those days the precipitating incidents were, in ways that the Ferguson killing does not seem to be, clear cut cases of racist police brutality. No one who saw the video of Michael Brown robbing a convenience store will think it out of the question that the police officer who shot him 15 minutes later feared genuinely for his life. Of course the shooting should not have happened: police officers have to be able to make arrests without using deadly force—and if they can’t, they should in most cases give way—as Brown’s shooter must surely feel today. But it can’t be easy in the heat of confrontation—just as most highly skilled professionals will make errors under duress, so will an average cop.
To read Hayden’s account is to be reminded that though history may in some ways repeat itself, in America race relations are much better, and feel very different. Read More…
1999′s “Ravenous” turns up on a lot of lists of underrated horror movies. It’s hard to get people to take you seriously when your plot is, “Guy Pearce eats people in the Old West.” But now that I’ve finally taken advantage of “Ravenous”‘s availability through Netflix streaming, I can tell you: This movie is criminally underrated. It’s not just a creepy, haunting cannibal Western from the producer of “Donnie Darko,” although that sounds great to me; it’s also an exploration of the temptations of power and the acceptance of powerlessness.
I live in the city of St. Louis, about 10 miles south of the suburb of Ferguson as the crow flies. As I have watched national media cover the events in Ferguson over the past 10 days, I have wondered what impression people outside of St. Louis have formed about the city.
The first thing that outsiders should know is that Ferguson is not some post-urban hellscape. It’s a working class suburb with a roughly two-thirds majority black population, which is not unusual for communities in north St. Louis County. Nor is the city government and law enforcement exceptionally poorly managed or racist. That is not a compliment, however. Most St. Louisans think of our area as representative of the nation as a whole, and there is a great deal of truth to that. But, like the nation at large, St. Louis is still divided along racial lines. Ferguson exploded as a flash point specifically because of the shooting of Michael Brown, but many communities in the area are just tinderboxes waiting for a spark.
The St. Louis metropolitan area can largely be divided into five areas. First, there is the city of St. Louis itself, which seceded from St. Louis County in 1876, making it both a city and county under state law. A little more than 300,000 people call the city of St. Louis home, and it is almost equally divided between black and white. That’s true both in terms of numbers and geography, with Delmar Boulevard serving as a stark dividing line between the south (mostly white) and north (essentially all black) parts of the city.
A plurality of area residents live in St. Louis County, with just under a million people according to the last census. St. Louisans usually subdivide the county into the informal regions of south, west, and north, which some people actually mistake for counties themselves. To put it as briefly as possible, the south county region is working class and largely white; west county is middle and upper class and white; and north county is working class and largely black. The demographics of north county—where Ferguson is located—have changed the most in recent years, with many white residents moving into the outer counties—most notably by moving west across the Missouri River into St. Charles County.
Ferguson exemplifies the shifting demographics of north county. It was nearly three-quarters white in 1990 and is two-thirds black now. However, I do not want to give the impression that people are moving away from Ferguson because it is a particularly undesirable place to live. It is served by the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which is one of the better districts in north county. By contrast, the school districts of St. Louis, Jennings, Riverview Gardens, and Normandy School District—where Michael Brown graduated this spring—have all lost their state accreditation. And on the subject of school districts, I am obliged to mention what is often called “the St. Louis question”: Where did you go to high school? This single question can neatly profile your race, class, religious affiliation, and upbringing. The question speaks to a local insularity and desire to keep to one’s social milieu that is stronger in St. Louis than other metropolitan areas that I know.
That’s not necessarily problematic, but it is very easy to live in St. Louis and only interact with people of your background. That can quickly lead to labeling people who don’t fit that as other and unwelcome. I do not believe that St. Louisans harbor more racist attitudes than people in other cities, but they are more skeptical of those they consider to be outsiders.
That said, Ferguson law enforcement is hardly alone in struggling with race relations. Just a few miles away in 96.4 percent black Pine Lawn, the police department is well-known for hiring the castoffs of other area departments and is regarded as something of a public joke in the law enforcement community. In 2012, the NAACP lodged 20 complaints of civil rights violations with the city.
Since 2012, University City—home to Washington University, my alma mater—has imposed a 9:00 p.m. curfew on teenagers under 17 in the Delmar Loop, a popular strip of bars, restaurants, music venues, and retail shops. Of course, the mostly white college students are not affected by the curfew, but the black teenagers who live around the area are rounded up with regularity. Police enforce the policy with the “nuisance abatement vehicle,” which is an armored vehicle mounted with cameras that allow it to record all 360 degrees.
In the primarily black neighborhoods north of Delmar, violent crime remains a serious problem. Nevertheless, University City seems to invest more resources in chasing black teens away from more affluent areas in quasi-military vehicles than in protecting their lives. I’m sure that makes an impression. Read More…
Ben Hewitt doesn’t send his boys to school—he doesn’t even own a curriculum. He’s an “unschooling” parent. Though the method has grown in popularity since educator John Holt introduced it in his books and theory, many Americans are still largely unaware of the term’s meaning or methodology. Hewitt explains and introduces the concept at Outside magazine:
It is already obvious that unschooling is radically different from institutionalized classroom learning, but how does it differ from more common homeschooling? Perhaps the best way to explain it is that all unschooling is homeschooling, but not all homeschooling is unschooling. While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month.
But perhaps to abate the shock and alarm of thousands of parents, Hewitt adds,
Our sons are not entirely self-taught; we understand the limits of the young mind and its still-developing capacity for judgment. … I can report that Fin and Rye both learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction, albeit when they were about eight years old, a year or so later than is expected. They can add and subtract and multiply and divide. I can report that they do indeed have friends, some who attend school and some who don’t, and their social skills are on par with their peers. In fact, Penny and I often hear from other adults that our sons seem better socialized than like-aged schoolchildren.
Hewitt believes that unschooling makes his boys happier, healthier, and more exuberant learners. He’s part of a growing group of parents who thinking homeschooling—whether applied via a more structured format, or via the more self-directed unschooling methodology—presents a better environment for children to grow and learn.
The greatest contrast to unschooling, perhaps, is the helicopter parenting method, in which children adhere to a very strict curricular and extra-curricular regimen. This sort of learning can take place in public or private school, or even occasionally in homeschooling households. Such families usually have at least the outline of a college plan in mind for their children, and their academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits will align with this overarching trajectory. Many parents encourage this “track” in hopes that their children will be successful in their future adult lives. However, these “guaranteed” methods for career success have fallen into disarray as of late. With crippling student loans and shaky job prospects confronting college graduates at every turn, many are reconsidering their demanding trajectories, wondering whether the work is truly worth it.
On the opposite end of the educative spectrum, we have more libertarian, loose methods, in which children are given a vast array of freedom over their education. This can either be intentionally or passively developed: some children in public school may receive little to no adult supervision. The system is very flexible, giving parents the opportunity to lean in or opt out of their children’s education.
But then there’s unschooling: a very intentional sort of negligence (though the word “negligence” is perhaps a bit too dysphemistic). Parents choose to let their children choose, sculpt, direct, and orchestrate their own education (or lack thereof). This method seems to have two common motivations that separate it from the more popular method of “homeschooling”: first, there are unschooling parents who acknowledge that children will learn what they truly want to learn, and that forcing them down a given path can have deleterious consequences. They see that their children are highly motivated when they are free to pursue their own aspirations, ambitions, and projects, and want to foster this sort of driven passion in their children’s learning. Thus, the reasoning goes, what better than to give them control of their own education? Read More…
“America is on trial,” said Rev. Al Sharpton from the pulpit of Greater St. Mark’s Family Church in Ferguson, Missouri. At issue, the shooting death of Michael Brown, Saturday a week ago, on the main street of that city of 22,000, a neighbor community to Jennings, where this writer lived in the mid-1960s.
Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, was shot multiple times by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer with an unblemished record in six years on the force in Jennings and Ferguson. From his patrol car, Wilson ordered Brown out of the street where he was walking and blocking traffic. A fight followed. Wilson appears to have been punched in the face. One police report says that there was a struggle for the officer’s gun. According to Brown’s companion, however, after he was first shot, he threw up his hands and yelled, “Don’t shoot. I surrender.” Then Wilson gunned him down. According to one of three autopsies, Brown was shot six times, once in the top of the head, which may suggest he was charging the officer when gunned down. A second St. Louis County autopsy found marijuana in Brown’s body.
What we are witnessing in Ferguson today, and nationally, is not only a collision of reported facts, but also a clash of visions about America. In Sharpton’s vision, America is a country where white racist cops harass, assault, and gun down young black males, and Brown’s execution is the latest outrage. Many media echo his indictment and accent the facts that support this preconceived narrative. Disrupting this portrait and particularly outrageous to Sharpton was the release by the Ferguson police chief of a videotape of Brown stealing a $44 box of cigars, 15 minutes before he was shot dead, and manhandling and menacing the store clerk trying to stop him. Brown was 6’4″ and 292 pounds.
Sharpton contends that officer Wilson did not know of the “shoplifting” that was irrelevant to the shooting, and that release of the tape was a moral atrocity to smear the character of the dead teenager. But while that tape may be unrelated to the shooting, it does testify to the mindset of Michael Brown that morning and to his respect for the rule of law. Ought we not know that?
Then there is the rival vision of America rooted in a separate reality. It is that in America today, police, like Darren Wilson, are the first responders and last line of defense, willing to risk their lives battling the criminal elements that threaten us and our free society. Read More…
Since the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer over a week ago, the idea of arming police with personal body cameras to record their on-duty actions has gained fresh currency.
German Lopez at Vox wrote, “If police officers were required to wear body cameras, questions about their conduct — like the ones that have arisen in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting — could be avoided.” Derek Thompson at The Atlantic noted, “Although military technology has arguably given law enforcement an unreasonable amount of power, there is another piece of technology that could help restrain the militarization of America’s police in the future: a camera.” And Nick Gillespie of Reason insisted that “While there is no simple fix to race relations in any part of American life, there is an obvious way to reduce violent law enforcement confrontations while also building trust in cops: Police should be required to use wearable cameras and record their interactions with citizens.”
The idea is to attach small, portable cameras to police officers’ collars or sunglasses that can then provide objective evidence to be called upon to settle any disputes or complaints about misconduct. The California city of Rialto has been conducting a rigorous and increasingly high-profile police body camera experiment over the past couple years, and has found results to exceed what expectations even their staunchest advocates could likely have had. As the New York Times reported a year ago,
In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.
Officers had been randomly assigned cameras and instructed to turn them on for any encounter with civilians. The Times continued, “Officers used force 25 times, down from 61 over the previous 12 months. And those wearing cameras accounted for 8 of those incidents.” The Rialto police chief William A. Farrar observed, “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better … And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”
Yet even setting aside the natural privacy concerns raised by strapping recording devices to every patrol officer circumambulating their city’s streets, it is worth raising a smaller, subtler, but nevertheless potentially significant concern: the increasingly intermediated cop. One only has to glance in the window of a local patrol car to see the sprawling array of screens, keyboards, and communication devices designed to link the officer to all the information they could need. The problem being, of course, that the most important information the common cop needs still can’t be pulled up within his car: the knowledge gained from building relationships with those in the community he patrols.
That relationship-building is a core component of a police officer’s mission, and may be almost entirely divorced from the work he can get done on his car’s mounted notebook computer. It also requires a certain amount of discretion, getting to know a neighborhood’s warts as well as its virtues. The conversations that give an officer an accurate picture of the seedy but not destructive side of his citizens’ lives could very well be more difficult or awkward should the policeman’s sunglasses be rolling film.
Mark Steyn, in addressing the more expressly dangerous and frightening distortion of the police seen in the militarization of the Ferguson PD, gave some interesting and relevant history:
To camouflage oneself in the jungles of suburban America, one should be clothed in Dunkin’ Donuts and Taco Bell packaging. A soldier wears green camo in Vietnam to blend in. A policeman wears green camo in Ferguson to stand out – to let you guys know: We’re here, we’re severe, get used to it.
This is not a small thing. The point about ‘the thin blue line’ is that it’s blue for a reason. As I wrote a couple of months ago:
‘The police’ is a phenomenon of the modern world. It would be wholly alien, for example, to America’s Founders. In the sense we use the term today, it dates back no further than Sir Robert Peel’s founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Because Londoners associated the concept with French-style political policing and state control, they were very resistant to the idea of a domestic soldiery keeping them in line. So Peel dressed his policemen in blue instead of infantry red, and instead of guns they had wooden truncheons.”
So, when the police are dressed like combat troops, it’s not a fashion faux pas, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are.
When the police are moving around dressed as Google Glassholes, might they also be living a misunderstanding? Body cameras may ultimately be necessary to protect us from the police, and the police from themselves. But the Benthamite logic that keeps our present-day peace will be fundamentally different from that governing the polis-protectors of Sir Robert Peel.
Our lives are often happier when they are surrounded by beautiful things, according to a Friday article by Cody C. Delistraty in The Atlantic. He references to a paper written by Abraham Goldberg, professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, in which Goldberg analyzed the tendencies and environments which tend to foster happiness:
The usual markers of happiness are colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth (especially compared to those around you), family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values, as outlined by London School of Economics professor Richard Layard in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. According to the Goldberg study, however, what makes people happiest isn’t even in the Big Seven. Instead, happiness is most easily attained by living in an aesthetically beautiful city. The things people were constantly surrounded by—lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets—had the greatest effect on their happiness. The cumulative positive effects of daily beauty worked subtly but strongly.
In an attempt to measure this daily happiness, George MacKerron, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex, created an iPhone application called Mappiness when he was a graduate student at the London School of Economics. More than 45,000 people now use it, and the concept is simple: The app beeps twice a day and asks a series of questions, such as: How happy are you feeling? How awake do you feel? How relaxed are you? Then it asks another set of questions question to contextualize your situation: Who are you with? Are you inside or outside? As you’re answering these questions, the app tags your location via GPS, and the whole process only takes about 20 seconds. Deceptively simple, the answers to these questions provide a lot of information on happiness. The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise (when endorphins are being released).
But the next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing).
The results of these studies present a few different, interesting components worth considering. First, they continue to affirm what New Urbanists have been saying (both here at TAC, and elsewhere): that the places in which we live matter, and that the cultivation of beautiful spaces has a very immediate impact on the happiness and flourishing of human beings. All the beautiful, place-related things listed in Goldberg’s study—”lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets”—are things that New Urbanists emphasize. Sadly, these sorts of spaces are currently limited to small portions of America. We have some cities that cultivate such an ethos—but living in these beautiful spaces is often egregiously expensive (Alexandria, Virginia is perhaps one of the best examples of this: it is a “super zip” city, according to the definition presented by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart). The very environment that contributes most to the peace and happiness of human beings is only available to those who already have at least two other common attributes of happiness: wealth and career. And those who are not so well-established are often cut off, resigned to an ugliness that infiltrates and undermines their overall happiness.
It’s true, however, that there are other more important components to happiness—as noted by MacKerron, romantic and healthful components of life also have something to do with overall happiness. Interestingly, though, both things can be seen as part of cultivating a “beautiful” life. They fits with Roger Scruton’s definition of natural beauty, which he says is an item of intrinsic interest or value—something we can appreciate for its own sake. Cobblestone streets, for interest, are of little utilitarian value. They slow down and impede traffic, they’re less efficient and expedient. Yet, for some reason, we enjoy them. They have a value that transcends the immediate and pragmatic: they’re beautiful.
Similarly, romantic and healthful pursuits, though they often involve selfish motivations, are also usually sought and maintained for a greater good, out of a combined reverence and love that transcend the self. In his book on beauty, Scruton argues that pornography represents the “profanation” of the sexual bond, as it removes it entirely from the realm of intrinsic values, thus turning something inherently good into something inherently self-serving. But sexuality and romance that are sought as goods in and of themselves, to be cultivated and maintained with respect and reverence, can be seen as beautiful objects.
Thirdly, these findings on beauty’s connection to human happiness interestingly parallel modern literature, specifically the study’s emphasis on artistic pursuits. Two of the most popular books published in the past couple years, The Goldfinch and The Fault in Our Stars, revolve around this premise. Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch tells the story of Theodore Decker, a boy whose mother dies in a terrorist bombing at a New York City museum. Theo survives the catastrophe, but carries emotional and psychological scars away from the ruins—as well as a small, priceless painting. The rest of Theo’s life, in all of its twists and turns, centers around this secret: that he carries a museum masterpiece with him wherever he goes, burdened yet blessed by it. As I wrote for Acculturated, the book is about beauty, despair, and our desperate search for meaning amidst the chaos of life. Tartt suggests that the only things that last are “beautiful things,” pulled from the wreckage and the fire of life. The Fault in Our Stars presents a similar dark nihilism and obsession with art (though in TFiOS‘s case, the artistic object is a book). Both point to art as our key to happiness in an ugly world.
It’s an interesting concept, especially in a world that so often feels frayed and grotesque. But while beauty may be a necessary part of happiness, it is not sufficient for it. Though one of the first and most important ingredients in human flourishing, other important values must follow in its footsteps—namely, goodness and truth.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn explained this in his 1970 Nobel lecture. In his youth, he read Dostoevsky’s words, “Beauty will save the world,” and was skeptical. But with time, he realized that beauty plays an essential role in cultivating our understanding of goodness and truth:
There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.
Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition – and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.
In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.
But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.
So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?
In Solzhenitsyn’s conception, ideas that are not true or good will be ugly when we try to represent them artistically—and thus, their real force shines through. We see this very practically in our towns and cities, our art museums, our plays and films: there are many ugly, incongruent ideas in today’s culture. Their effect on the human person is not one of flourishing, but one of decay.
Solzhenitsyn believed our yearning for beauty is more than a mere aesthetic itch: it’s a siren call of the true and good, the other two trees we have decimated and ignored in modern society. Beauty is pointing us to them, and beckoning us onward. Our desire for New Urbanist cities, with their beauty and community, are part of a larger desire for the goods of community, love, fellowship, rootedness. Our desire for romantic and sexual love reflects a deeper yearning for companionship, camaraderie, unity, love, belonging. Our love of art reflects a deeper attraction to order, loveliness, and—as Delistraty puts it in his article, “surprisingly, hope.” Hope is what emerges out of art: which is why Donna Tartt and John Green (the author of The Fault in Our Stars) vest so much in it.
Beauty is a multi-faceted, mysterious thing that somehow brings happiness to humanity. Yet if we merely absorb its aesthetic pleasures without considering why we enjoy it, we only receive bestial satiation from its presence. A deeper, more fulfilling realm of inquiry awaits us. We must plunge deeper into our understanding of the beautiful: to ask why it is necessary to human happiness, yet not sufficient. We must consider why beauty calls us “further up, and further in.”