The Bluestocking, vol 194

The Pit of Despair.

Happy Friday!

What has two thumbs and knows that you should put your hazard warning triangle 45 metres from your broken car? This guy!

After passing my driving theory test at the geriatric age of 37, I am now available for consultation on towing caravans, contraflow bus lanes and all those questions that are like “Someone does a dumbass thing when driving. Should you a) kill them; b) kill their family; c) overtake them making rude gestures; or d) let it go”. Now I just have to do the bit of learning to drive where you… actually learn to drive.


PS. This week’s Spark is Karen Stenner on why she believes a third of us are predisposed to hanker for authoritarianism. Please enjoy the way the BBC has now fancified my author photo.

Housing Security Transformed My Mental Health (Novara)

“Talk of mental health is increasingly pervasive and its adjunct of ‘self-care’ is a booming industry. But it wasn’t a meditation app that helped me find happiness, or eliminating gluten from my diet, but a profound alteration in my relationship to that most fundamental of goods: shelter. Within weeks of moving, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders; after paying approximately £90,000 in rent I now enjoyed a fundamentally different relationship to the world. I’m certain I would have felt the same way if it was a council property on a secure tenancy.

Not long after, we did something unimaginable for most renters and bought a dog. As with sertraline, and leaving parasitic landlords behind, this had a dramatic impact on my mood. Finally, in my mid-30s, I inhabit an environment where a stranger can’t ask me to leave at the drop of a hat and where I’m in control of my surroundings. I feel more invested in my community than ever before, because I know I won’t be priced out in a year or two. It’s important to remind yourself that none of this is asking for much, yet its absence is the default for my generation and those younger than me.”

Aaron Bastani on what buying a home means to Generation Rent. This analysis resonated with me: there is a feeling of security that comes with property (not least because, as a renter in many parts of the country, you fork over huge amounts of money every month while watching the horizon of “affordable” constantly move away from you).

Last week, on my regular walk around Lewisham, I wandered into a lovely side street near Blackheath that was a mix of council (or maybe ex-council) and private housing. Idly, I looked up property values there.

Oof. Maybe that’s an outlier?

Oh. This is insane. Quite obviously, salaries have not quadrupled like this in the last 20 years.

The owner/renter division is one of the most salient in British politics, and all kinds of consequences flow from it. You can’t get elected in Britain if it looks like your policies will freeze or cut house prices, because inflationary policies have given owners (who are predominantly older) a sense of growing wealth over recent decades, even as their salaries have stagnated. Hence the bizarre spectacle of Rishi Sunak cutting stamp duty during the pandemic, when people weren’t even supposed to go on house viewings.

But those ever-soaring prices come with a terrible effect on the have-nots. The current actuarial calculations on how much you need to save for retirement assume that you own a home and have mostly paid off the mortgage. Is that going to be true for Millennials and younger generations? Their ownership rates are lagging behind previous generations—ie fewer of today’s 40-year-olds own a house than their parents did at the same age—and their private pensions will be less generous too. Britain has had storming success in cutting pensioner poverty since the Blair era. Will that be imperilled by the housing crisis? (The optimistic view, I guess, is that future governments will shovel cash to the pensioners of 2060, but that’s terrible news for the—fewer—workers of 2060 who will have to pay for it.)

The current dynamic also entrenches inequality, because “relative to other sources of income, inheritances are likely to be about twice as important to the generation born in the 1980s as they were for those of us born in the 1960s.” (That’s Paul Johnson of the IFS.)

Quotas for “affordable housing” are a good idea in theory, but developers often manage to wangle them downwards after the project is started. (That’s also an issue in California, as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf reported recently.) And there is general NIMBYism, a completely understandable impulse which nonetheless skews the politics of this: we essentially have a system where home-owners have a “vote” (through planning objections) against houses being built, while renters—who would like a house to live in—are unrepresented.

Housing is such a dispiriting policy area, because the vested interests are so entrenched, and so politically dominant. Take the fact that, post-Grenfell, it has become obvious that lots of flats in Britain are covered in potentially flammable cladding, but there seems to be zero political will to hold developers or their suppliers to account. Can you really blame buyers or renters for not psychically intuiting that their properties would become dangerous and unsaleable?

In other news, property developers gave the Conservative party £891,000 in the first quarter of 2021. That’s 13% of the total.

Added to that, despite an influx of almost foetally young politicians in recent elections—last week I spoke to a Tory MP who was younger than me, which ought to be a crime—the number of landlords in the Commons far outstrips the number of renters.

The German Experiment That Placed Foster Children with Pedophiles (The New Yorker)

Like many of his contemporaries, Kentler came to believe that sexual repression was key to understanding the Fascist consciousness. In 1977, the sociologist Klaus Theweleit published “Male Fantasies,” a two-volume book that drew on the diaries of German paramilitary fighters and concluded that their inhibited drives—along with a fear of anything gooey, gushing, or smelly—had been channelled into a new outlet: destruction. When Kentler read “Male Fantasies,” he could see Schreber, the child-care author whose principles his parents had followed, “at work everywhere,” he wrote. Kentler argued that ideas like Schreber’s (he had been so widely read that one book went through forty editions) had poisoned three generations of Germans, creating “authoritarian personalities who have to identify with a ‘great man’ around them to feel great themselves.” Kentler’s goal was to develop a child-rearing philosophy for a new kind of German man. Sexual liberation, he wrote, was the best way to “prevent another Auschwitz.”

The trials of twenty-two former Auschwitz officers had revealed a common personality type: ordinary, conservative, sexually inhibited, and preoccupied with bourgeois morality. “I do think that in a society that was more free about sexuality, Auschwitz could not have happened,” the German legal scholar Herbert Jäger said.

My first response to this headline was: This is exactly what we did not want to happen.

Also, this article is a great example of the phrase you’ll hear me say all the time: every villain is a hero in his own story. Imagine getting to a place where you think that this is a good idea.

Quick Links

  1. Moana, pizza and dancing with Maxine. Anti-vaxx codewords on Facebook.

  2. Creep as a power ballad. Send this man to The Hague.

  3. “You can break a monkey very easily if you have the right equipment. Specifically, you need an item called the Pit of Despair.” Sarah Ditum on ostracism as a political tactic. (Unherd)

  4. “When editors who have had their imperial era at the top come back — like an old boxer strapping on the gloves again — it’s not a sign of a healthy business but of a world in which talent is squandered.” I know and like a couple of people mentioned in this piece, but there is a valid point here. (Conquest of the Useless)

  5. “Sadly, we’re probably not going to stop people from dunking on Twitter because it is cathartic and the planet is dying and, hey, get your kicks while you can. But! Twitter definitely doesn’t have to go ahead and single this little culture war skirmish out as breaking news. . . Essentially, Twitter has decided that ‘Troll Makes Bad Tweet’ is major, national news, which it is not.” Charlie Warzel on the inevitable Simone Biles culture war. Like other people mentioned in the post, I found out what had happened through takes and had to reverse-engineer my knowledge of what actually happened. (Galaxy Brain)

Bluestocking recommends: I just finished Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem. Man, that is some hard science fiction. Hard. But also: it was fascinating to read science fiction from a specifically Chinese viewpoint. The book begins with a “struggle session” during the Cultural Revolution, and China’s modern history informs the philosophy of its main characters.

Inevitably, it’s being made into a TV series, but it’s worth reading the book because the showrunners are the guys from Game of Thrones, so it might end up with a lot less discussion of Poincaré and a lot more tits and aliens.

See you next time!