Tuesday, May 28, 2019

We Don’t Call them Tenants for Nothing

I’ve heard it said before that, “Landlords often get a bad rap,” and whenever I do, I’ll often stop people right there and add, “They often don’t get a bad enough rap.”
No pets, no posters, no parties, no repairs. Don’t wear down the carpet. Just sit on the couch and cough up the cash. That’s their mantra. All so they can keep expanding and squatting over our lives like feudal incubi. So money-driven, that they view people’s need to sleep indoors as a chance to turn a tidy profit.
I wonder what is even meant by a “good” landlord anyway, one worthy of recognition. Someone who charges below insane market rates, purely by choice? Who pays for top-quality repairs, when they could get a friend to do a botched job on the cheap? Who offers long-term secure tenancies, despite the fact there is no legal minimum? Who refrains from revenge evictions? Someone who displays basic human decency, in an unregulated sector that encourages its opposite? Who acts, in other words, not like a landlord at all?
“But at least they are better than letting agents.” Sure. But that’s a bit like nominating Stalin for a humanitarian award for massacring fewer people than Genghis Khan. The fact is, they’re all rogue. Like anyone who thrived off of the housing crisis, landlords are social parasites. Leeching away what little wealth people have with little regard either for future generations or the welfare of their current tenants.
Landlords are actually one of the main causes of homelessness, by a long shot. When for-profit investors enter the housing market as buyers it artificially inflates demand for houses and causes prices to go up. The ability to borrow money to purchase homes also causes an artificial increase in demand that drives up prices. Combine speculation with credit and you end up with skyrocketing prices that only the rich can afford to buy into and then the poor end up getting stuck in a vicious cycle of renting and precarious evictions.
This type of housing insecurity creates a special kind of exhausting poverty, one that threatens the very security of one’s family. It even breeds depression. In addition to their homes, the evicted lose their possessions, their neighborhoods, their official address for interacting with the state and businesses, in effect, their very sense of self and liberty.
The regency of landlords also does more to intertwine poverty and criminality than any other vague “cultural” explanation. They can reject prospective tenants based on a combination of poverty, including a record of previous evictions, and criminality, based on previous felonies. Excluding people who have both, means that buildings where poor people go are buildings where people engaged in criminal activity go. This is because prices don’t determine who ends up where, landlords do.
No matter what else the poor have in common, nearly all of them have a landlord. Rather than some facile notion that people end up where they best belong, we see that people’s respective power dictates where they end up, and in poor neighborhoods, landlords have the power.
But I believe housing is a human right and should be protected as such. And the ultimate denial of this autonomy is personified in the figure of the landlord, a contemptible concept, which can be traced back to the medieval feudal system of manorialism, in which a landed estate was owned by a Lord of the Manor.
In the days of ye olde English estate, a landed lord could literally do anything he desired to his tenants because he owned them. The very word “tenant” itself, comes from the French word “tenir”, meaning “to hold” or “to keep.” Indeed, a thousand years ago the lord even had the right of jus primae noctis, which was the right to bed virgins on their wedding night. And today landlords still, have just as much discretion over people’s lives. “If etymology demonstrates the DNA of culture, then the words “landlord” and “tenant” are,” as Dave Crow writes, “embedded in our psyches.” No wonder that we dutifully pay our rent for our overpriced hovels. No wonder that our legislature balks at protecting tenants. No wonder that the landlord says, “This is my property and I can do anything I want.” The next time you write your rent check remember this: You’re still paying the lord to live on his land.
There are alternatives to this medieval system of land tenure however, and they are only limited by our imagination. One of the more straightforward options would be to transform private residential properties into housing cooperatives, grouped by neighborhood, building, or community. Instead of rent, funds for maintenance costs could be pooled together through the cooperatives and paid out as needed and any surplus could then be re-distributed as dividends to residents in order to incentivize efficient repairs and/or to re-invest in improvements, i.e., community gardens, pools, shared libraries, cooperative wifi-zones, etc.
But in this current system we are stepping on top of each other instead of lifting each other up. It’s time we unlearned the things we learned from wounded people and evolve past the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to buy and own someone’s residence, you know, that place where someone lives out their daily life trying to pursue their own happiness, while they’re actually pursuing someone else's, because every dollar you give to your landlord doesn't benefit your future, only theirs. You just wasted one day at work to live to the next. That’s slavery.
Whether your landlord is a genial profiteer or an actual psychopath is the luck of the draw. And the problem is that anyone can be one, if you’ve made enough money or inherited property, and those are two of the worst qualifications imaginable. And if you’re one of these people, you can shove your property portfolio up your ass. Because, housing, as investment opportunity, of any sort, is unequivocally a cancer on the face of modern morality.
I’ll end this relatively acerbic denunciation, with a rather radical idea: buy a home if you can, live in it, and then do something else with your time. Something that isn’t about exploiting the less privileged. If you’re a landlord, here’s some advice usually reserved for the homeless, get a proper fucking job.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Body of Shirley Ann Sexton

She was no longer a person.
She was death. Staring back at me from a hospital bed.
The death of my Aunt was my first experience with death and dying, it was also one of my first experiences with cancer, which, as it turns out, ended up playing a recurring role in a number of deaths in my family.
I can’t recall my age at the time of her death or really anything else about my Aunt, but I will never forget walking into that room and seeing her reduced to flesh stretched across white bone, completely hairless, and yet so happy to see me.
She was living back with her parent’s at the end and hospice had her setup in the living room. She was married to my Uncle, my Dad’s brother, and I guess her father had wanted her to be home at the end, I’m not sure. Perhaps my Uncle was either incapable or even unwilling to care for her. My Uncle, I had always assumed, had by that time moved on anyway, their lives diverging. Hers toward oblivion and his towards a life without her.
I can never forgive people who choose to move on. Even if it’s at the bequest of the dying. I have always found the notion that one should simply move on with their lives after they have suffered through the loss of a loved one silly, but it also appears as if it is inevitable. Time unfortunately does heal all wounds. So it becomes a constant battle to maintain the memory of the value of what you lost. Which is why mourning is active. Grief comes later and if your lucky, never at all. Grief is ultimately all we are left with.
I am told that she used to babysit me every chance she could. I am told that she loved me very much. I am told that she had wanted children of her own but those plans had been halted by a capricious evolutionary process. A process that cares little for the wants and wishes of its hosts.
But I will always remember her smile as we entered her room that final time, the last time I would see her alive.
Actually that same smile would later go on to shatter my understanding of the natural world all together and she passed not much longer after that visit.
At her funeral I remember listening to the ridiculous things people say about the recently deceased.
“She looks good.”
“She’s not in pain anymore.”
Or my personal favorite,
“She’s in a better place now.”
At the time I didn’t understand what place that even meant and even now that I do I still can’t think of it as a better place. And I doubt anyone else really does either, otherwise funerals would be a celebratory event instead of a somber one.
During her viewing she seemed unreal to me. The whole experience seemed unreal. How could someone who was once alive now be dead? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I refused to believe that what was presented to me in this casket had ever been alive. She looked to me as if she were a doll. A plaster cast of someone I once knew. They even had her dressed in a wig on account of the chemo, in a fruitless attempt to present her here as she was in life, even though now no life existed within her.
Embalming, if you think about it, is really a cruel joke in my opinion. I don’t know which is worse, to have your loved one bloated and decomposing or to have them looking as if they could just be shaken out of a deep sleep. At least if they were rotting you could believe that they were dead. The embalmers job is to enhance the ‘memory picture’, which is a psychologically dubious concept to begin with, supposedly compromising the bereaved’s last glimpse of the deceased. But in reality it’s just a callous trick. 
So there she laid. A corpse. Displayed in a funeral parlor for all to see. Anyone off the street could have walked in, and people, family and friends, were mingling and conversing with one another as of it wasn’t there. People so determined to avoid any inappropriate response, whether it be tears, anger, or even helpless laughter that they would talk about anything to avoid the reality of this room, the reality that would soon be a burden, something akin to trash that would need to be disposed of before it started to stink.
And yet, her appearance, before the funeral, while in the process of dying, is now the face that I will forever attach to any abstract idea I have of death. Her face is now what I picture when I imagine death on a pale horse riding toward Armageddon. The memory of her body while alive, poised on the eve of a great journey, has made a lifelong impression.
Her death has actually come to mean more to me than any other, not because I was particularly close to her, I was very young at the time, but because it showed me that death is always present, embedded in every moment. Her death taught me about man’s fruitless attempt to find meaning in a world where no meaning exists.
But why was she smiling, I have always wondered. How could she possibly be smiling knowing that nothing may very well lay ahead of her? It’s a courage or stupidity that I will one day come to know.
My god, why was she smiling?
I still wonder.

My Nostalgia has Goosebumps

R.L. Stine first acquired literary fame with his popular Fear Street series in 1989 which quickly became one of the most bestselling series for young adults in publishing history, with more than 100 books published to date. But it wasn’t until around 1992 that he launched what would later become my all time favorite series of books as a kid, his Goosebumps series.
I myself was around ten years old when I first discovered the series, and right from the very first lines that I read I was captivated, chained to it’s pages until the book was finished. It was the thrill of the stories coupled with the amazing cover art by Tim Jacobus that kept me coming back to them over and over again.
During our weekly family trips to Walmart, one of the only places to purchase books in my hometown at the time, I would stand in the book/magazine aisle and browse the latest selections on offer, being sure to touch each one with inspired reverence. Which quickly became an almost religious experience for me followed almost always by the ritualistic “begging of the mother” in an attempt to bring them all home with me.
I would even take the books to school and sneak a peak whenever the teacher turned her back on the class. I also wanted to carry them with me everywhere I went and kept most of the books I had in a duffle bag by the door in case we had to flee the house in a hurry. I wouldn’t dare risk leaving them behind. 
Now that I’m older I’ve often wondered just how Stine managed to have such a stunning effect on so many of his young readers, myself included, and why Goosebumps was so popular. The answer that I’ve come up with is that they were just fun. Being scared in a safe way is fun.
Children know, almost instinctively, that Stine’s stories couldn't possibly happen in real life and therefore whatever sense of fear that is instilled into them isn’t a fear based in reality.
Our relationship to fear, what makes us afraid, and how we deal with being afraid, is a necessary balancing act that needs to be self-calibrated over time. Being exposed to what scares us ends up acting in the same way that immunizations do, and I think it’s just as mandatory for children’s overall emotional and psychological health and well-being. And Stine’s books helps children accomplish this goal perfectly as it helps them to understand that fear is healthy and in turn that same fear actually manages to help keep children safe, as it gets them to actually begin to think about some of the consequences of their decisions. 
To this day I can still remember the feeling of holding that first Stine book between my open palms, opening the book to a random page, burying my nose inside it, and inhaling long and deep. Yes, I am a book sniffer, and for me it has always been the look, as well as the smell, of those early Goosebumps books that still makes the memory I have of them a pleasant one.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Book Review: The Giving House

The Giving House by Madelyn March
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As Harriet Jareck lies dying, cancer capriciously undulating it’s way through her dementia addled brain, she can't let go of a memory that has haunted her for most of her adult life. Her greatest fear is that she will die before she can share this memory and hopefully be forgiven for the transgression it contains. But her time is short and who will listen?
People, throughout time, have often wondered how to go about confessing their sins. Do they need to wait for an appointed time or go to a special place? Do they need to confess their sins to a particular person? Which really highlights James 5:16, as the pivotal text underscoring much of March’s narrative: "Confess your sins to one another ... that you may be healed."
However, I was never thoroughly convinced of just exactly what Harriet’s transgression sincerely was. She appeared to me to be mostly blameless. At worst she was simply someone who had refused to embrace the idea that forgiveness is one of giving up the possibility of a better past. But, perhaps she is guilty in a way that only the truly devout can be.
Many Christians live under a burden of guilt, living in the past instead of in the future, in their ‘New Life’ with Christ, never really believing that God has truly forgiven them. Which is what makes this story worthwhile. It tells us that letting go of an old attachment opens up the real possibility of a new one. Which would be sufficient enough, except that it always leaves a blank spot where the future lives, and we mostly fill such blank spots with fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. Fear of future loss and additional pain. Fear makes us cling to what we know, however bad it makes us feel. So Harriet wasn’t really looking for forgiveness. She was looking for a way to calm her fear. A fear of the unknown. A fear only the dying can know.
Although, I found this book to be undoubtedly the work of a writer who is still learning how to piece together a good story, the writing, nevertheless, and despite its short comings, did manage to draw me in. Still, the overall ideas and themes attempting to be expressed throughout the book were not completely explored as well as they should have been and the ending felt rushed and uneven. As a result the second half of the book was a huge let down for me. But in spite of what the reader might think, I did enjoy the narrative enough to finish the book. In the end however, I simply found myself wanting to love this story perhaps a little more than it deserves.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Exclusive Interview with Author G.C. Mckay

On Writing

What made you want to become a writer?

Unaddressed childhood trauma. What else?

Do you write alone or in public? 

Always alone. 95% of the people who write in public just want to be seen as ‘writing’ when in reality they’re just a bucket of cunts. 

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? 

You’d have to ask the critic in my head, he/she’s got an ever-updating screed of shit stored away in my subconscious somewhere.

What has been the best compliment? 

Probably getting compared to Chuck Palahniuk and Selby Jr. Whilst I’m familiar with their work, I wasn’t with the particular books that were mentioned along with their names. Getting a wicked comparison along with a future book to read is a good day.

What is the most amusing thing that has ever happened to you as a writer? 

Being told that a reader whacked herself off whilst reading my work because it reminded her of her own teen years. As tempting as it is to say her name, I won’t. I will say that the story was called The Importance of Safe Sex though, just so she knows I’m talking about her.

What do you love most about the writing process?

The war.

Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer? If so, what do you do during the day?

Nah. Working sucks ass. So does writing half the time, but hey.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Easily both. I get a kick out of it sure, but most of the time it’s pretty stressful. Feels like you’re trying to force certain neurological patterns together that don’t want to be exposed. Once you do, you kinda realize what patterns of behavior you’ve been living out for years without realizing it. Scary stuff.

What are some common traps for aspiring writers?

Writing about writing and/or being a writer. You’re not Stephen King, so stop it. Now.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

I guess it depends on the person. It all comes down to ego in the end, as I think Orwell mentioned once in regards to why he wrote in the first place. I think being egotistical about your own writing can only lead you into writing dull shit though. It’s more about exposing yourself, warts, bile and all.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

It’s pretty ironic for a drunk, but drinking doesn’t help me at all. I associate boozing it up with relaxing too much I guess. But yeah, I write and edit sober and reward myself with my vice. Works most of the time.

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

Great question. A tricky one too. Overall I think they could, but as a lot of what we do comes down to emotion and our overreaction to events because of them, their stories might lack in drama. If you understand emotion and the human condition though, you could definitely write. But as Frost (I think said): “No tears in the writer, none in the reader,” so what the fuck do I know?

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Stop getting drunk and trying to fuck everything. It’s not worth it and you’ll lose your mind if you don’t stop. I wouldn’t have listened. Maybe I’d just give myself a good old beating.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Another great question. Hard to say when exactly. Probably reading 1984. I tried to conceptualize it when I was about thirteen and failed miserably, but it stuck with me for years. I guess once you start to smell the bullshit all the adults around you preach, you start to realize how language manipulates people on a day to day basis, relentlessly.

What does literary success look like to you?

Well, it’s hard to leave my flat without a load of pussy being thrown in my face these days, but after I’ve batted them all away and one of them says they wrote an in-depth review of one of my books, that feels like success. 

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

Kinda. I don’t go in for spirituality much but I can’t deny that I have my moments. On (I think) The Great Courses audiobook on Writing Fiction, the guy giving the lecture said something about the double-consciousness of writing, where sometimes how you feel about something can be expressed through one of your characters and still be seen to develop them at the same time. That feels fucking cool. The answers to plot problems and progressions etc can really feel fucking metaphysical at times too, as if one of your own thoughts went quantum or something and waited until it wanted to show itself to you. I guess that is partly spiritual.

How many hours a day do you spend writing?

Between 2-4 usually. Sometimes more but I tend to burn out.

What period of your life do you find you write about most often?

Easily my late teens/early twenties. I used to do shit then. It’s great sitting in an office inside, nothing but your underwear all day, but it doesn’t make for many decent stories. 

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

You get used to them pretty fast. The good ones you forget, the bad ones irk. The whole rating (out of 5) system is bullshit to me, but I do get a little annoyed when a reviewer says that my work is the finest in its genre only to see a three-star mark-up. Seems a bit contradictory but hey, any review is better than none.

What is the most difficult part of your creative process?

My outlines look like an abomination by the time I reach the end of a book. A pure massacre of my sanity. Luckily, you kinda forget what it is you wrote after a while. Stephen King said something about his past works feeling like the skin particles he’s lost over the years. I agree. Like everything, it turns into dust on a number of levels.

On Books

What are five books you loved? For one of them, why did you love it?

Tough. Mmm. I’ll deliberately avoid talking about the ones I’ve reviewed on my YouTube channel for this question. At least at the time of answering it anyway. Let’s see…

The Metamorphosis by Kafka. Journey to the End of the Night by Celine. The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. Of Human Bondage by Maugham. The Goddam White Man by Lytton. I think that last one is out of print nowadays, but it really fucking shouldn’t be. Great piece of angry literature, so palpable you can feel the ink on the page seething.

As I mentioned nothing but fiction, I’ll be cheeky and also say anything by Robert Greene and Yuval Noah Harari. I especially recommend the audiobooks of both.

What is a book you didn’t like, and why?

The Great Gatsby. I could see it was well crafted and whatnot, but reading about a bunch of style-over-substance, bored rich cunts did nothing for me at all. Hated it. I also didn’t get why the narrator had such a boner for Gatsby, the only thing that sucked dick more than him was the novel as a whole.

What is a funny/interesting/unique anecdote about you as a reader?

Well, speaking of 1984. Some girl I had a huge crush on back in the day actually bought it for me for my birthday. I thought if I read it and understood it entirely, she just might touch my penis. Being the lazy twat that I was, I just pretended that I’d read it but got caught out in no time and my penis remained dry and frustrated. We were about thirteen at the time. Fast forward 5 years after I actually had read it and loved it, we bumped into each again inside a nightclub and well, big brother got to watch us bone. 

How did you first fall in love with books?

Hard to say really. My memory of childhood is limited to say the least, but there’s just something about picking up or buying a book that nothing else compares to. You’re only ever a book away from changing the way you think. The trouble is finding them, especially the ones you need at the right time.

What book or books are you planning to read soon?

I’m finally getting round to reading House of Leaves in the next couple of weeks and I’m really fucking looking forward it. I’m also pretty desperate to get my hands on The Tenant by Roland Topor, but the edition I want that features an introduction by Thomas Ligotti costs a fucking bomb. I’m gonna buy it at some point, but I’m sure there’s quite a few folk out there who feel the same as me and it pisses me off that we can’t read it without a spare $100 to splurge.

What book do you always recommend?

Lolita for fiction, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race for non.

What book/books changed the way you see the world and your place in it?

Ligotti’s Conspiracy again and also Robert Greene again. Add in Machiavelli too. Not because they necessarily changed the way I see the world but more how they confirmed ideas/thoughts/notions that I’d always held but hadn’t ever read or been able to articulate before. They also made me feel far less of a freak for thinking the way that I do. 

What was your favorite childhood book?

I can’t give you a title, but I tore through nearly every Goosebumps book I could find.

Do you have any favorite literary journals?

Nah. I plan on reading Pepys one day but that’s about it.

Have you ever read anything that made you think differently about fiction/nonfiction?

King’s Misery really made me see how many layers you can add to a book and how creative you can be whilst doing it. Reading it reminded me of being on cocaine. He definitely wrote his best work when he was a drunk.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The Goddam White Man by David Lytton for sure.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

I’ve still yet to get into Neil Gaiman but maybe I will at some point. So far, I’ve found his work to suck though. King also took me a while, but that’s because I read his out of rehab stuff before the genius self-destructive pieces. 

What book have you read that has most influenced your life?

I think Bukowski and Bret Easton Ellis really gave me the kick in the balls to write the fiction that I actually want to write with a middle finger up to the consequences of it, but I reckon every book I’ve read that I’ve really enjoyed or even hated have each made their mark in some way or another. Without giving any particular reasons, I’ll also say The Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment, and Frankenstein.

Who are your favorite writers?

Dostoevsky, Orwell, Bukowski, Greene, Ligotti, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Maugham, Ellis, Camus, Celine, Kafka, Nabokov, Dickens, Atwood, Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Thacker, Shelley, Yarari, Tolstoy, Kundera, Shakespeare, Poe, King (when drunk), Sophocles, Pessoa, Saramago, John Williams, Pinter and Goethe. Also Lovecraft, but minus the dialogue. Oh, and De Sade, naturally.

End of interview

G.C. McKay is a writer of an eclectic blend of genres, ranging from transgressive to literary satire and psychological horror, often sprinkled with humorous ashes of the deepest black. Deriving the majority of his material from the debauched wet spots of his ever-questionable memory, you'll find his characters shackled inside a world similar to the one you inhabit; a place where promises are only made to be broken, betrayal is rife and more often than not encouraged and where identities wither and crumble under the weight of their own salacious, self-destructive desires.

Available books include his recently released debut novel, Fubar, and the short stories anthology, Sauced up, Scarred and at Sleaze. You can find G.C. McKay via his YouTube channel, where he talks about books 'that'll knock your balls off' and has also narrated a number of short stories. Visit gcmckay.com for more information and to sign up for his newsletter. You never know, you might just win a book.

Book Review: Sauced up, Scarred and at Sleaze

Sauced up, Scarred and at Sleaze by G.C. McKay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the first duty of any good story is to be transgressive. A good story should change the way you see the world. Fiction can do that, more so than nonfiction. Fiction allows you to get as close as you want to the actual truth of a thing before allowing you to then move away from it. So there’s power in fiction that in a way makes it superior to truth, because it’s the truth along with the artfulness and craft of story. If it's not the truth, it simply doesn't work.
So what then is Transgressive Fiction? Well, if you find yourself saying "damn, that's fucked up" three or more times while reading, there's a pretty good chance that the book you’re holding is a work of Transgressive Fiction. It’s also a genre of fiction that I happen to believe is actually more honest than all the rest, as it discerns that all desire is unsafe, that all fantasy is just trumped up style, and that all transgression is merely a mixture of violations of, not only form, but of personal risk.
Transgressive Fiction also focuses mainly on characters that feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free from those confines in unusual or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of Transgressive Fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social or nihilistic. Which is a great Wikipedia definition and all, but if you were to ask ten random people what Transgressive Fiction is you’ll likely be met with shrugs along with a bunch of disparate descriptions. But show them titles like Trainspotting, Fight Club, Lolita, Requiem for a Dream or American Psycho and you’ll get nods of recognition and statements like, “I loved that book” or, and more likely, considering this is America, and given our current literacy rates, “I loved that movie.”
However, I do think McKay would reject this label of nihilism being applied to his work. I think he’s really a “veiled optimist,” as Cioran would have put it. His works, at least with this book, can be mistakenly seen as nihilistic by less sophisticated readers, but that’s only because they seek to express ideas that others do not believe in.
Cioran, professing a lack of interest in conventional philosophy earlier in his youth, dismissed abstract speculation in favor of personal reflection and passionate lyricism. "I’ve invented nothing; I’ve simply been the secretary of my sensations", he would later say. I would say the same of McKay.
Sauced up, Scarred, and at Sleaze, is a book who’s structure indicates that a sublime marriage between existential dread and mundane horror can be quite an exquisite synthesis. And while these stories may not have much of a word count, they do pack a heavy dose of superb writing wrapped in a genuinely unsettling, and yet entertaining, group of stories that will serve to unsettle and provoke it’s readers in a very corporeal fashion, right from the very beginning. Which is exactly what you want good fiction to do.
The standout story in this collection, for me, turned out to be Bloodhound Lust. Not only did this story send shivers down my spine, but also a suppressed chuckle in my throat. It’s a remarkable story in a remarkable book, which I dare say, might just be the most original work of Transgressive Fiction you’ll read this year.
McKay’s style is both unique and innovative. He’s also unflinchingly fearless, which is something I really appreciate and admire in a writer. He is, without question, one of the best new writers that I’ve come across in sometime. In saying all this, I also want to make it very clear that, by the end of the book, I was left starved for more. I want more of Mckay’s entrancing prose that allows me to withdrawal into his emetic narratives. I want more vivifying and impregnable imagery.
I did however notice some clich├ęs in his writing, but nothing too distracting or cloying. I also got the impression that he was yearning to explore some of his scenarios to their fullest extent, but because of the format, didn't really have the space to do so. But what this book may lack in exposition, due partially to arrangement, it more than makes up for with the creativity of each of the stories. As it stands, this collection serves as a solid starting place for McKay’s ever growing body of work.

Book Review: The War on Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future

The War on Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It seems that the world that we have all been preparing for, is on the verge of no longer existing. Technology is changing our economy now in ways that we aren’t fully equipped to understand, let alone control, and as technology continues to consistently advance, the shift of work activities now performed by humans and those performed by machines is going to change also and the shape the future of humanity will take will be the result of complex, changing, challenging and competing technological, political, social and economic forces. While some of these forces are known, there is a lot that is still unknown and the speed at which the unknowns will unfold are difficult to predict. But unless we make a strong effort to make the unknowns, known, the outcome of this emerging battle between technological singularity and economic singularity seems to be just the beginning of social unrest and turmoil. As Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, has stressed, “...we never really saw that capitalism might be defeated by its own child — technology.”
In The War on Normal People, Andrew Yang argues that the sectors where most people tend to work, administration, retail, food service, transportation, and manufacturing, have profound levels of repetitiveness which makes them highly susceptible to automation. Meaning that many of America’s “Normal People” will soon be supplanted by AI software and robotics. Since competition in these sectors is quite fierce, companies are sooner or later, going to be forced to automate to keep up with the competition. Once a single competitor automates, the others will follow by necessity. In many cases, automation is not only cheaper, but also produces better products and services. The natural result is, as Yang relates through conversations he’s had with people in the tech industry, a race to make “Normal” people redundant.
And it’s already happening. Millions of jobs have already begun to be automated away, especially in the manufacturing sector.
A recent White House report has even predicted that 83 percent of jobs where people make less than $20 an hour will be subject to automation or replacement. And according to Wall Street the retail sector is already becoming almost completely uninvestable, in what’s being dubbed the “retail apocalypse,” partly due to in-store self-service and partly due to e-commerce. Next on the chopping block is transportation, as self-driving technology is replacing millions of truck drivers. The food service and administration sectors are likewise just as vulnerable. Even many white-collar jobs will likely disappear.
The fact that Yang doesn’t just focus all of his attention on blue-collar jobs when discussing the looming employment crisis, is something I really appreciated, pointing out that 44 percent of the total jobs, according to the Fed, can be categorized as “routine” which includes high-skilled medical and legal work that students go to college for years to master. For example, Yang relates a recent demonstration held by General Electric, in which some of the country’s best doctors were pitted against a computer to see which could better identify tumors on radiology films. The computer outperformed the doctors with ease. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. New software allows computers to see shades of grey that the human eye can’t, and they can reference films against data sets more numerous than any individual could ever hope to possess.
This all may sound like science fiction, but as Yang says, “We are living in unprecedented times. The future without jobs will come to resemble either the cultivated benevolence of Star Trek or the desperate scramble for resources of Mad Max. Unless there is a dramatic course correction, I fear we are heading toward the latter.” If this doesn’t make you concerned for the future, you are either stupid, wealthy, or both.
Yang’s fundamental message, of course, is that we are already on the verge of this dystopian future, with hundreds of thousands of families and communities being pushed into oblivion, and that Americans are already dealing with the lack of meaningful job opportunities, by getting married less and becoming less and less functional overall. Social mobility has declined, inequality has widened, and precarious employment has become the norm and these sweeping technological changes threaten to undermine what little stability people have left.
We must also understand that once the pace of these technological advances and automation changes goes from linear to exponential, becoming self-improving, self-replicating and distributed, the old business models, governance models, management and technology models are likewise going to be crushed under the weight of an outdated economics of efficiency.
Over the past 40 years, the US government has done precious little to invest in our future. Instead of spending money on things that might make a difference in people’s lives, our politicians would rather spend the majority of their time shutting down the government over some petty political dispute. Time and again difficult decisions have been pushed off for later, and any complicated social issues that have arisen over the years have simply been relegated to the unforgiving "invisible hand of the free market" to resolve. It would appear as if Washington is as bereft of new ideas in social terms as it is of new technological ones.
But Yang not only draws our attention to these current socioeconomic issues, he goes one step further by proposing genuine concrete measures to face them, and ends up making one of the more noteworthy and pragmatic arguments in favor of a universal basic income (UBI) that I’ve heard so far, which is the very centerpiece of his platform as a presidential candidate.
Yang’s unwavering support of a universal basic income (UBI) is just one aspect of his platform however. In the book he outlines three main solutions. First, a UBI of $1,000 a month for every U.S. citizen, over the age of 18, paid for by a 10% value-added tax on all goods and services. Which will be a dramatic expansion of the social safety net that will guarantee tens of millions of Americans at least a $12,000 annual income. Second, by establishing a new, secondary economy based on time rather than money. And third, instituting a tougher and more vigilant and yet dynamic government.
It should also be noted that the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) isn’t a recent one. It has been floating around now for decades, and was almost passed in the US by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. And currently, there’s more incentive than ever to roll out something just like it as support for a universal basic income (UBI) is higher than ever right now, particularly among the millennial crowd, which should amaze no one as millennials have had to deal with, not only a crumbling economy, but also increasing amounts of debt. People over the age of fifty however, are much more likely to be hostile to the idea. Older generations are also much more likely to blame millennials for our current economic problems. We either got the wrong degree. We still haven’t learned to code. We killed department stores and even chain restaurants. But what millennial-bashing really reveals is the very precariousness of our current economic model that Yang is talking about. A model that is no longer sustainable. It’s already starting to burn out and it threatens far more: a new Great Depression. The first Great Depression was caused because rampant inequality meant that consumers had no money. The engines of industry kept spinning, kept churning out new products, but there was nobody who could afford to purchase them. Right now we are heading for round two.
Yet despite the books tagline, this isn’t fundamentally a book about universal basic income (UBI). It’s more about markets, and our attitudes surrounding them. As Yang says, “If we insist on seeing ourselves as inputs into the economic machine we are doomed. We have to make this economy work for people as fast as possible.” Markets should be a tool that society uses to its advantage, not something it must be a slave to and in this new emerging economy we will have no choice but to rethink what we label as ‘work’, or more to the point, what we label as ‘valuable.’
As Yang rightfully points out our current metric, gross domestic product (GDP) is a useless metric for measuring our progress as a society. Our market currently doesn’t value things that are vital to human existence, i.e. family, creativity, meaning and purpose.
Right now the market is overrunning everything and we must get past the idea that unless the market says that what you contribute to society is valuable, then it must be worthless. We have no choice but to rethink what it means to be a contributing member of society. The stay at home mom, or dad increasingly, who may not have a job, but who still nevertheless, gets up every morning and gets the kids ready for school, helps with homework, cleans the house, and still finds time to fix dinner, and even volunteer at the local shelter, still contributes to society. Even though the market doesn’t recognize these contributions as valuable. As Yang says in the book, “Our economic system must shift to focus on bettering the lot of the average person. Capitalism has to be made to serve human ends and goals, rather than have our humanity subverted to serve the marketplace. We shape the system. We own it, not the other way around.”
The War on Normal People also comes to stand as a serious rebuttal to some of the more optimistic thinkers, such as Thomas Friedman and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who believe that Americans can just simply be transformed into lifelong learners, and thus keep pace with changes in the workplace. But as Yang points out, “Some liberals imagine that we might be able to retrain hundreds of thousands of truckers as software engineers or some other occupation. But the reality is that federally funded retraining programs have an effectiveness rate of between zero and 15% when applied to manufacturing workers, and fewer than 10% of workers qualify for retraining programs as are currently offered anyway.” Adding, “We need to invest in education, job training and placement, apprenticeships, relocation, entrepreneurship, and tax incentives - anything to help make hiring and retaining workers appealing. And then we should acknowledge that, for millions of people, it’s still not going to work.” The oncoming wave of technological unemployment is going to be severe and the challenge we currently face, as Yang writes, “is that humans need work more than work needs us.”
However, it’s not just that the future is going to be a place where people can’t find work but that it’s going to be a place where people will no longer need to work.
Scott Santens, a writer and UBI activist, has written that, “Human labor is increasingly unnecessary and even economically unviable compared to machine labor. And yet we still insist on money to pay for what our machines are making for us. As long as this remains true, we must begin providing ourselves the money required to purchase what the machines are producing. Without a technological dividend, the engine that is our economy will seize, or we will fight against technological progress itself in the same way some once destroyed their machine replacements. Without non-work income, we will actually fight to keep from being replaced by the technology we built to replace us. To allow this to happen would be truly foolish, for what is the entire purpose of technology but to free us to pursue all we wish to pursue? Fearing the loss of jobs shouldn’t be a fear at all. It should be welcomed. It should be freeing. No one should be asking what we’re going to do if computers take our jobs. We should all be asking what we get to do once freed from them.”
Never in the history of the United States would there be anything more conducive to freedom and independence than a universal basic income (UBI). Without economic freedom, liberty is a useless and callous abstract notion that lacks any real meaning for real people.
Just think for a moment about all the talent and creativity that is squandered, and has been squandered over the centuries, due to the necessity of work. Think about the hopes that are dashed when we tell our children that they can’t pursue what they’re passionate about, simply because they will need to earn a living. Think about this. We tell our children that they must earn their right to live. We are born into a world that wasn’t of our choosing and then forced into wage slavery if we want to stay alive. Fifty years from now, people will look back in embarrassment that we allowed an economic system to use the fear of not being able to eat as a way to incentivize people to work. It’s appalling and anyone who would advocate for such an arrangement should rightfully be labeled a monster. This, as far as I’m concerned, is why a universal basic income (UBI) is so important and so needed. People would finally be able to exist without having to tolerate a job they hate, and consequently, a life they hate. It would allow people to go home and do something useful with their lives. What’s the number one death bed regret? That we didn’t spend more time with the people we love the most. A universal basic income (UBI) would finally give us that time.
A universal basic income (UBI) would also have the added benefit of putting power back into the hands of the working class. In other words, it would right the power imbalances that are inherent in our current economic system, leading to a more egalitarian society overall. It would even improve the bargaining power of millions of low-wage workers forcing employers to increase wages, add benefits and improve conditions in order to retain employees.
In addition, if a universal basic income (UBI) replaced specific programs for the poor, it would have the added benefit of reducing government bureaucracy, minimizing government interference in people’s lives and it would allow people to avoid the social stigma that so often accompanies government assistance programs. By virtue of being available to everyone, a universal basic income (UBI) would not only guarantee the material existence of everyone in our society; it would establish a baseline for what membership in that society really means.
Mark Zuckerberg, in a commencement address at Harvard said, “Every generation expands its definition of equality. Now it’s time for our generation to define a new social contract. We should have a society that measures progress not by economic metrics like GDP but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.”
This book has proven to be an eye-opening and insightful analysis concerning our present situation and Yang has done a very effective job at highlighting our upcoming, and fast approaching, employment crisis. He also brings a very unique credibility to the subject, given his entrepreneurship as founder of the nonprofit Venture for America. But more importantly what Yang’s book has done, for me at least, is that it has provided me with a renewed sense of hope. Whether or not he is correct in either his assessments or his prescriptions. Our ability to hope is what will drive us forward into the future. Without it, we will go nowhere and we’ve been without it for sometime now.