When Things That Seem Bad Are Actually Good

It’s tough to be a columnist: You have to write articles all the time giving opinions on which things are good or bad, but you also have to say stuff that’s non-obvious enough that readers won’t wonder why you’re getting paid to think thoughts that they’ve already had a thousand times. Fulfilling both of these imperatives at once presents an obvious challenge. So many things that seem good actually are good (like sex, or socialized medicine), and so many things that seem bad actually are bad (like Donald Trump). You could just forge ahead with pointing out that bad things are bad, but your newspaper’s editorial section would look like the work of a monomaniac. 1


You could attempt to frighten people by telling them something good is actually bad, like when editorial writers refer to having sex as “hookup culture.”  Alternately, you could remind people that things that seem good are in fact good, like when the food section runs an article titled “Time to Celebrate the Timeless Appeal of Pumpkin Pie,” but that’s kind of a niche genre.  Finally, there’s a fourth option that exercises a powerful pull: finding something that seems bad, and explaining why it’s good.  Below, we examine how four writers attempt to give an image makeover to four unequivocally terrible things.

$2500 Hamilton Tickets

In “I Paid $2500 for a Hamilton Ticket. I’m Happy About It,” Harvard econ professor N. Gregory Mankiw accepts the challenge of his chosen genre. He opens with a flourish: “Consumers of goods and services do not typically wish that producers charged higher prices. But that was exactly my desire on a recent trip to New York City.” Okay, he tries to open with a flourish. There are two problems with this: His insanely boring writing style, and the fact that he’s trying to turn it into a huge paradox that sometimes you’d rather pay more for something than not have it at all.  Economists think regular people don’t understand stuff like that, which explains a lot about this article and about economists in general.

“The story begins with a basic mismatch.”  I’m positive this is not how actual stories are supposed to begin.  When you have a great cast of characters like “consumers of goods and services”  and “guy who went on a trip to New York City,” you owe it to yourself to drop them into a dramatic situation. God created “man versus man” and “man versus nature,” not “basic mismatch between entity and other unspecified entity.”  This is like the more math-y version of when David Brooks is like “I would like to tell you a story. This story I am going to tell begins with two different conceptions of the social contract in eighteenth century political thought.” If guys like this wrote the Iliad, it would start out “Sing to me, Muse, of a basic mismatch between the value of the services Achilles son of Peleus provided to the Achaean army, as perceived by Achilles and others, and the manner in which red-haired Menelaus, son of Atreus, was willing to compensate him for said services.”

As it turns out, even the incredibly dull phrase “basic mismatch” oversold the dramatic potential of this situation, which is that Mankiw is “a big fan of theater,” but only gets to see Broadway shows a few times a year. This time around he was in town to visit colleges with his son, and they had an afternoon free. “And as an economist, I have always viewed Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary, as one of the most important and intriguing founding fathers.” He just had to brag that he was into Hamilton before everyone else.  The sad thing is that it probably worked: At least one person has read this and felt a stab of jealousy at Mankiw for being a more authentic Alexander Hamilton fan than they are.

“You may have heard that ‘Hamilton’ tickets are hard to come by.” I have, but I think his intended tone for this sentence is “You MAY have HEARD that Hamilton tickets are hard to come by” [devilish wink to show he knows that the difficulty of obtaining Hamilton tickets is the talk of everyone’s social circle and all anyone has been able to speak of for weeks]. HOW POPULAR IS IT? “The show is so popular that tickets from the theater sell out quickly and far in advance.” Wow, that’s popular… so popular that the things that one would expect to transpire if it were a popular show, do in fact transpire!   “In a recent episode ofSaturday Night Live’ that Mr. Miranda was hosting, the television show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, jokingly asked him about getting ‘Hamilton’ tickets. Mr. Miranda demurred.” Can’t believe I missed that amazing joke that riffed on the popularity of Hamilton tickets by portraying a guy trying to get Hamilton tickets.

Anyway, as you’ve probably surmised, Mankiw got around the scarcity problem by going on a resale site and buying marked-up tickets. “Terms like ‘scalping’ and ‘price gouging’ are pejoratives used to demonize those who resell tickets,” so to fight back against gouge-shaming, he addresses the haters’ objections. “Most people can’t easily afford paying so much for a few hours of entertainment. That is indeed lamentable. The arts expand our horizons, and in a perfect world, everyone would have the opportunity to see a megahit like ‘Hamilton.” Really?  That was the angle he went with?  It seems like the one counterargument you shouldn’t have to take seriously, when defending scalping, is that every human should get to see a musical that’s only playing in one theater in one city in the world.

“If legal restrictions or moral sanctions had forced prices to remain close to face value, it is likely that no tickets would have been available by the time my family got around to planning its trip to the city.” This is a New York-based paper, guy; I’m not sure the core readership is going to be sympathetic to your argument of “come on, we’re TOURISTS!  Businesses have to mark things up by several hundred percent or you guys who actually live here would buy them all before we got a chance to. You don’t mind, right?  It’s just that we planned our trip at the last minute. Thanks for understanding.”  He should have followed this up by saying that New York is so confusing, he had to walk really slow and ask a bunch of people for directions on the way to the theater.

“In a free market, in which private individuals can engage in mutually advantageous gains from trade, they are inevitable until demand subsides or supply expands.”  This claim explains literally every other $2500 purchase that has ever been made on the free market except Hamilton tickets.  For $2500, you can get a really nice brick of cocaine or a really shitty used car, and both of those are good values, but the same amount of money to see an educational rap about slaveowners can only be explained by the fact that human beings are fundamentally insane.

“The comedian Jay Leno learned this lesson some years ago.” What could Jay Leno have done that was so stupid that this guy is Monday morning quarterbacking his decisions? “In 2009, while the economy was suffering through the Great Recession, Mr. Leno, a car enthusiast, generously performed two free ‘Comedy Stimulus’ shows for unemployed workers near Detroit.”  Ah. “Some of the unemployed who received free tickets tried to turn around and sell them on eBay for about $800. When Mr. Leno learned about this, he objected, and eBay agreed to take down offers to resell the tickets.” Unlike the tale of the fundamental mismatch, this story is great: Jay Leno almost did some good in the world, for the first time in his life, by indirectly giving laid-off rust-belters the means to pay a month’s rent or buy medicine for their kids, but the good deed was completely unintentional, and as soon as he found out about it he was horrified. Even Mankiw sees the irony: “Why should Mr. Leno have objected? Some unemployed workers, presumably short on cash, thought that the $800 in their pockets was more valuable than an evening of laughs.” Less valuable than 800 dollars cash is one way to describe the experience of seeing a live show by the guy who wrote If Roast Beef Could Fly.


“Similarly, the ticket buyers would voluntarily give up their $800 for a seat.   The transaction makes both buyer and seller better off. That is how free markets are supposed to work.” Ya see, folks, here’s how the invisible hand of the marketplace works. It all begins with rational free agents acting in rational ways. Let’s say you need a car to get to work, so you buy one at the market rate.  The car company pays workers to make the cars, at a rate the free market determines their skills are worth. Meanwhile, elsewhere, a bunch of bankers need to make several million dollars doing credit default swaps, but in doing so, they inadvertently screw up the economy in such a way that there’s less money around. Now fewer people can afford to buy cars, and the car workers’ skills are suddenly worth nothing, even though they’re still just as good at making cars and everyone still wants cars just as much as they did before, so they lose their jobs. (The cars are contributing to an extinction-level environmental catastrophe, but it’s also bad to stop making them, because the free market has determined that there shouldn’t be any convenient public transportation, so if people don’t have cars they won’t be able to get to work and they’ll be unemployed too.) Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, word of the workers’ plight reaches a man whose free-market skills are worth thousands of times what the car workers’ ever were, due to his ability to think up such brilliant comedic conceits as “what if Lance Ito worked at Benihana.” He decides to remedy the workers’ lack of regular currency by supplying them with nature’s currency, which is jokes.  The workers decide to turn the comedic capital back into regular capital by selling the tickets to other free-market agents. Finally, the assets are bought on the free market by people who have 800 extra dollars lying around that they earned doing credit default swaps. What an inspiring chain of events.  You’ll note that in this scenario, the only people who actually do anything that contributes to making anyone’s life better have all been laid off, yet somehow this is supposed to prove that the free market makes sense. Economists explaining the market have a real knack for not seeing the big picture. It’s like when the hoarders on Hoarders stick their arm into a horrifying pile of junk, pull out an antique music box, and go “See, this stuff is nice!  I can’t believe you want me to throw it away.”

“I was saddened by my ‘Hamilton’ transaction in one important way. About 80 percent of what I paid went to the ticket reseller, rather than to Mr. Miranda and his investors.” I’m not sure what makes the investors so deserving.  It seems like all they did was put up some money up front in the hopes of getting more money later, which is the exact same thing the scalpers did,  except the scalpers did it while wearing fingerless gloves and speaking in colorful Brooklyn accents. (Please, no one tell me if my mental image of scalpers is incorrect.)

“In the past, Mr. Miranda has objected to the automated software that quickly buys as many tickets as it can, so they can be resold at a profit.” I never thought I’d be forced to take automated ticket-buying software’s side in a debate.  This whole article is an exercise in pitting things I don’t like against each other to force me to figure out which one I hate more. Next he’s going to be like “did you know that the band Good Charlotte called Neil DeGrasse Tyson ‘annoying,’ and that people who let their dogs sniff people’s crotches without doing anything about it are statistically more likely to think that Justin Trudeau has a punchable face?

Mankiew says the theater could fix the problem by “charg[ing] higher prices to begin with.” But they don’t, because they’d feel bad. “Those who run Broadway theaters clearly feel some unease about charging so much…Yet Mr. Miranda and his investors could find better ways to give back to the community than vastly underpricing most ‘Hamilton’ tickets and enriching ticket resellers. Maybe…fill more seats with high school students.” Didn’t this guy just go on a rant against giving tickets to people who’re just going to turn around and sell them at market value?   He’s now unwilling to accept the implications of that argument, but only because it led to the apparently intolerable result of not everyone getting to see “Hamilton.”  Anything that can move the stony heart of man to pity is beautiful, but this is ridiculous.

“I can’t imagine a better way to spark interest in the study of American history.”  The best unintentional self-owns are always the weirdly specific ones.

Donald Trump Raping People

For a more topical version of the “bad is good” technique, we turn to Susan Chira’s “Thank You, Donald Trump.”  Chira seeks to defend the self-evidently paradoxical contention that “Donald J. Trump could well go down in history as a feminist hero.” Why?  Well, “this was supposed to be an election where Hillary Clinton had to convince voters that a woman had the fitness and temperament to be president,” according to editorial writers who had a bunch of great ideas for articles on why Hillary Clinton proves women have the fitness and temperament to be president.

“Yet instead of worrying whether a woman is too emotional, impulsive and unqualified for high office, voters have been weighing whether that’s true of the man running to be president.” Every four to eight years, we as an electorate have been forced to gaze upon a new batch of male candidates and wonder which of them were too horny and idiotic to run the country, but heretofore we never realized that in doing so, we were engaging in feminism.  We’re like the guy in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was thrilled to discover that he had been speaking prose all his life.

When Trump “was caught on tape boasting about how he could force himself on women, it prompted legions of women to go public about when they were groped.” An inspiring reminder that victims of assault can be believed, if the guy who did it was caught on tape confessing to it and also seems like the kind of guy who’d do that based on everything he’s ever done over the course of every second of his life.

“A man who prides himself on being a red-blooded embodiment of masculinity – with bodacious women there for the taking, big hands and more, political correctness be damned [did Susan Chira have a stroke in the middle of writing this?] – has unleashed a wave of revulsion about that vision of manhood…Mothers and fathers have been asking how to raise sons who do not act like this.” Ninety-nine percent of sons already do not act like Trump, without their parents doing anything special to create this result, so in a way, feminism has already won.  All this time, our movement has been so focused on trying to change things. Now, the potential for a completely new tactic opens up: not doing anything, and letting people continue to think that manifestly awful and disgusting actions are in fact awful and disgusting.  In general, when you’ve fighting for progress on a social issue, what you want to do is keep debating ever more basic and obvious versions of your position. The ideal outcome for feminism would be if we could go all the way back to arguing with Aristotle about whether women are large children and every sperm cell is a homunculus that contains a complete human being in miniature.

“The Access Hollywood tape induced a stream of defections from high-level Republicans who had not broken with him over the attack on a war hero’s family, the impugning of a judge of Mexican ancestry, or his threats to ban all Muslims from these shores.”  That’s great…for feminism…because no women are Mexican or Muslim, or affected in any way by war. Does anyone want to guess what race the author is?

Nailed it.

 “Even if their defense of women was based on outdated Victorian notions of chivalry, there was something about Mr. Trump’s unvarnished male entitlement, that droit du seigneur, that many Republican men could not stomach.” Rhetoricians say a well-constructed sentence should be balanced, and this is a perfect example: The first part of it makes a good point, the second part balances it out by make an opposite, bad point, and the phrase “droit de seigneur” ties it all together because the reader is so surprised that the author used it correctly that they forget to pay attention to whether any of it makes sense.

“Mrs. Clinton, who shied away in 2008 from the historic nature of her candidacy….is unabashedly speaking out about her commitment to families and children and her identity as a mother and grandmother.” Finally, a politician who’s not afraid to speak truth to power on the key feminist issue of whether or not she’s a mom.  Before now, this view has only been voiced by the brave iconoclasts in ads for paper towels and Ibuprofen.

The author concludes that “feminism will be in [Trump’s] debt” for getting people to vote for a woman. This really gives us ladies hope that maybe we’ll luck out and only have to compete against extremely incompetent and psychologically damaged men, giving us the edge we need to succeed.  Girl power!

Politicians Lying All the Time

In “Why Hillary Clinton Needs to Be Two-Faced,” Jonathan Rauch offers an encomium of mendacity, presenting us with such dazzling paradoxes as the claim that Clinton’s emails “show a disarming candor — including candor about lack of candor.” Clinton thinks it’s okay to lie sometimes, and Rauch agrees.  He approvingly quotes a speech where she said that “Politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be.” Huh. I didn’t know the goal of making sausage was to end up where you need to be.  Unless you are making magical teleportation sausage, where you usually end up is at the sausage factory, and the end goal is getting to eat sausage.  As meat-based metaphors go, this is even worse than Freidman’s stupid thing about Hamburger Helper from the other week. I think Hillary Clinton should have said “Politics is like sausage being made.  It is unsavory, and we usually end up being disgusted by Weiners.”  Topical!

Rauch says that Clinton isn’t an exception because “maintaining separate public and private faces is something we all do every day. We tell annoying relatives we enjoyed their visits, thank inept waiters for rotten service, and agree with bosses who we know are wrong.” I’m glad this sentence only had three examples; if it had continued, he probably would have said “We apologize to loud teenagers who knock us over on the subway, write term papers for our cool roommate so he can go to frat parties, pretend we don’t know our wife is cheating on us, and compliment the biceps of the guy our wife is cheating on us with.”

“The Japanese…have a vocabulary for socially constructive lying. ‘Honne’ (from ‘true sound’) is what we really believe. ‘Tatemae’ (from ‘facade’) is what we aver in public. Using honne when tatemae is called for is considered…rude and antisocial.”  This sounds like when a white person explains their Asian-themed tattoos.  Based on how accurate these explanations usually are, I’m going to assume that “honne” and “tatemai” actually mean “California roll.”  He says it’s good for some stuff to stay hidden because “Keeping knowledge out of the public domain can finesse all kinds of social conflicts and embarrassments. In-laws can pretend not to despise one another. Everyday life would be intolerable without public denials and mutual winks.”  One would hate to see the political landscape become intolerable.  Politics is like having relatives, because conflicts are caused by people having different goals and interests, so if you just shut your mouth and let Sharon pick the wedding venue or the politicians cancel social security or whatever, you won’t have any conflicts anymore.  Finesse!

“Behind closed doors, negotiators can float trial balloons and make tacit offers — deniably. They can say things like, ‘This isn’t an offer, mind you, but just hypothetically, what if I were to suggest we could accept a Medicare cut if you could accept a capital-gains tax increase?'”  Wow, that is really…an example of a tacit offer.  It would be terrible if Democrats were constrained in the vocabulary they had to use in offering to cut healthcare for old people. Stripped of their sophisticated techniques for giving stuff away to their opponents, they would have no choice but to try to gain enough power that they could push a capital-gains tax increase through without gradually destroying their overwhelmingly popular signature programs.

“If you show hypothetical interest in my hypothetical offer, I can go and try it out on my caucus and constituents. If you wave me off — well, no offer was ever made, so I’m not embarrassed.” This is beautiful — a vision of a world where the people who rule us don’t have to feel awkward when they fail at their attempts to accomplish even the most feeble and ineffectual legislative agenda .

“Often, the only way to get something done is to have separate private and public truths. Behind closed doors, nothing is settled until everything is settled. Until the deal is done, everyone can pretend not to have decided anything.” Hell yeah!  This guy is a member of the public, so I would say it’s pathetic that he’s arguing for the public to have even less of a say in how things turn out, but Rauch is the kind of guy for whom closed-door negotiations always seem to work out just fine without any help. It’s like, why tell the tiny cadre of elites who control our fates what you want for Christmas, when it’s more fun to be surprised on Christmas morning?

“But the moment the conversation becomes public, plausible deniability ceases. Everyone knows I’ve made an offer. Angry interest groups, adversaries in the other party, and even purists in my own party start cutting attack ads and lining up challengers to prevent a deal and defeat me.”  That sounds…like Democracy, all right.  The famous system in which outcomes aren’t all determined by a room full of oligarchs employing the same advanced  psychological techniques you use when slipping the maître d’ a 20 to get a better table. It’s worth noting that Rauch got to choose what the hypothetical example would be for this scenario, so he could have picked  something ridiculous for the hypothetical “purists in [his] party” to demand, but instead he chose to ascribe to them the abstruse and rarefied position “Don’t do stuff that makes it more likely that kindly grandparents will have to get their legs amputated from complications of diabetes.”

“In diplomacy, having two faces is similarly indispensable. Until recently, the existence of the United States’ use of drones for targeted killing was classified — not because it was a secret (everyone knew about it, especially the targets)…” Good lord.  I keep saying that New York Times writers are bad at insults, but this is an exceptionally good burn on people who have been targeted by United States drone assassinations. “…but because public acknowledgment would embarrass key allies. As long as we pretended not to tell, they pretended not to know.”  See, this is why people don’t vote…because they sense that instead of worrying about whether their constituents are eating dog food and selling plasma to make rent,  they’re worried about whether some official in Saudi Arabia is going to feel embarrassed by being exposed to excessive frankness.  It’s like we’re in a Henry James novel with 50 million subplots featuring secondary characters who can’t pay back their college loans.

“An experienced political negotiator and former chief diplomat, she understands that hypocrisy and two-facedness, when prudently harnessed to advance negotiations or avert conflicts, are a public good and a political necessity.” If this were true, you’d probably be able to find a better word to describe them than “hypocrisy” and “two-facedness.” Like, fluoride in the water is a public good, and when people defend it, they usually say normal stuff like “It’s good for your teeth,” not weird stuff like  “Illuminati mind control, when prudently harnessed to dull the wits of the public to make them obedient and complacent, is a New World Order necessity.”

Having Republican Neighbors

The “It’s good that I have Republican friends” genre is a perennial one in milquetoast editorial land, but Margaret Renkl’s “Good Neighbors, No Politics” is an especially vacuous example of the form. Renkl writes that she loves her politically mixed neighborhood. “Twenty-one years ago, my husband and I bought our house here, in what was Nashville’s answer to Levittown.” It’s a great place where “children race through the half-acre yards in half-feral packs, climbing back fences and low-branched trees as hide-and-seek gives way to flashlight tag in the failing light,” et cetera, et cetera. “Relationships continue to spread and deepen even as new families move in. That’s how friendships, not ‘friend’-ships, are formed.” Sick burn, people who “friend” each other online and didn’t think to buy a house in Nashville 20 years ago when houses in Nashville cost a third what they do today.  That would suck if you failed to form lifelong bonds with your neighbors because you were too busy posting selfies on Snapchat, and/or you had to move every few years because your landlords kept raising the rent.

If you think this chart is good because it shows how much your property has increased in value, you might be a New York Times reader.

“We talk about what all longtime friends discuss: our aging parents, books and sex and movies and bras and all the ways we’ve embarrassed our kids lately.”  I assume you’ll be talking about this article, then! “What we don’t ever talk about is politics.” Amazing that a bunch of white homeowners in an affluent, majority-white part of an affluent, majority-white city don’t find politics impinges on their daily lives urgently enough for them to feel the need to talk about it.

“But it’s not as if we don’t all know where we stand. During the last election, when canvassers from the beleaguered Tennessee Democratic Party were making the rounds, several neighbors pointed them toward our house. When one of them arrived, he said, ‘You’re the token liberals around here, I guess.’” I live in Nashville, and I would like to point out that it is a Democratic city with a Democratic mayor and congressman, and which voted for Obama by a 16-point margin, so organizing for the Democratic party isn’t really that hopeless here. This part is just red meat for readers in New York and DC who think living in flyover country is wondrously exotic, and that people like the author are super brave for keeping the liberal faith in camo-land.  People should be ashamed to engage in something so dishonest. When I want to impress coastal elites, I just send them photos of the possum that hangs out on my porch and engage them in a discussion of whether it’s pregnant or just fat.

“We aren’t actually the only liberals here” (see?) “but political leanings are beside the point on this little block. Knowing our neighbors’ party affiliations would tell you nothing about which one of them makes a killer margarita.”  I guess I just tend to take this stuff a bit more personally.  Like, if a guy votes for a pro-life candidate, it’s his fault if they repeal Roe v. Wade and I die from a back-alley abortion, so I’ll only drink his margaritas if he uses top-shelf reposado tequila.

“Our votes may cancel out, but we belong to one another.” Sure, that sounds nice and balanced, but this is the Tennessee Republican party we’re talking about; when one of them cancels out your vote, that means your  vote for a 1% increase in the public library budget is being counterbalanced by someone else’s vote to make it so Muslims have to identify themselves in public by wearing armbands made of ham.

“Divisions in this country are genuine and deep, and the consequences of this election will be huge and far-reaching, but our nation is still our neighborhood in the end, and we’re a lot better at getting along than it sometimes seems.”  Great to hear it.  That’s the end of the article, and it looks these articles have taught us a lot.  All the things we’ve been worrying about — massive wealth inequality, extremist republican ideology, the GOP nominee’s decades-long rape spree, rust belt unemployment, Democratic party corruption, America’s continuing slide into oligarchy, the inscrutable whims of global capitalism, and even educational raps for adults — they’re all just fine.  Enjoy election night!

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