I Shall Wear the Bottoms of My Trousers Rolled

On Outliving the Language I Was Taught

Toe the line/Tow the line: We don’t have draft centers any more, where hundreds of young men at a time were once directed to stand with their toes against a line painted on the floor, then step forward in unison and take the administered oath. Your soul may belong to Jesus, son, but your ass belongs to the Army.

Jibes with/Jives with: I guess there aren’t as many sailors in the world as there used to be.

Set foot in/Step foot in: To step is/was an intransitive verb, except maybe for the military’s Step it up back there! (As in step up the pace, which, come to think of it, may be a different verb altogether — something like to upstep, a remnant of those pesky Germanic separable-prefix verbs which seem to be so deeply embedded in modern colloquial English: fuck up, fuck over, fuck off, fuck with, etc.)

How fun!: Fun used to be a noun. (O, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.) Sleigh is still a noun, but only Santa ever rides in one these days. (Vermonters, Canadians, Russians, work with me here.)

A Cold Day in Hell

Today Paul Krugman has discovered that, gasp, technological unemployment is really real! And it’s really, finally here! And it really, really will result in a permanent transfer of wealth from labor to capital, no matter how many college degrees laborers go into debt to acquire! (and, coincidentally, of course, this also seems to imply that Marx might actually have been a bit smarter than we thought.)

I’m being unfair, or at least uncharitable, to the penitent Dr. Krugman, who’s a nice guy, and would be a nice guy even if he weren’t an economist. Still, this is an amazingly belated observation on his part. I thought that these economist guys all knew this stuff, but were afraid to mention it for fear of devaluing their Keynesian cheerleading. Horrifying to think that they didn’t actually know it at all.

Defaming Youth

He (or she) is a teacher (or an employer.)

These kids today — I deal with a lot of them.

No. Not this. Not again.

They don’t like to work, and they don’t know anything. They can’t spell, they can’t add a column of figures. They can’t find France on a map, fer Chrissake.

I pull my iPhone 4S out of my pocket, hold it up to my ear.

Tell me about France, I say.

Five seconds later, the screen shows a zoomable map of France, with a virtual red push-pin sticking out of Paris. I hold out my hand, palm up.

Do you know the average age of Apple’s work force? I ask him (or her.)

The answer is 33. For Google, (which provided the map) it’s 31. Whatever is wrong with the country today, young people aren’t it.

Must We Say It Yet Again?

Despite the contempt expressed for honest people by modern campaign managers, foreign policy experts, and the heads of national intelligence services, honesty is not a form of mental retardation. People who tell the truth as they see it aren’t stupid. They’re very well aware that in the short run, lying can be effective in getting you something you want, or in keeping something you don’t want at a distance, and they know as well as anyone does that the commercial and political advantages accruing to adept practitioners of the dark arts of modern advertising and propaganda are real enough. So why do they still continue to believe, against all the accumulated evidence, that honesty is the best policy?

The answer, it seems to me, is based on a principle that you might call the diminishing marginal utility of cleverness. If one lie succeeds in its purpose, a clever person is probably justified in thinking that a second lie will work just as well. A truly sophisticated clever person, equipped with the all the latest sociological and neuroscientific research, and in control of a major media outlet or two, might well conclude that he can make a lie serve as well as the truth for the majority of those he wishes to influence to his own benefit. As it turns out, however, lying doesn’t scale as well as the research predicts.

Abraham Lincoln is famous for saying that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Maybe not, but given the tools available these days, there seems to be no shortage of clever people willing to give it a try. The jury is still out on whether or not their innovations will ultimately prove to be successful, at least in the terms which matter to them. What we do know is that a society which reaches the point at which everyone lies about everything all the time is more likely to experience a terminal exhaustion than a resurgence of interest in the truth. The late, unlamented Soviet Union is probably the best example we have of what happens when the substitution of systematic lying for honest discourse reaches its apogee.

The much-quoted witticism about the Soviet economy: They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work, sums up the consequences very nicely. We may lack the power to unmask the liar, or refute his lies, but we can certainly succumb to paranoia, cognitive dissonance, apathy and finally, a general collapse of trust. Just how smart, I have to wonder, is anyone eager to contribute to such an outcome? Whatever the answer, to remain honest seems to me a more attractive ambition for anyone with a concern for his immortal soul, even if it means that the smart money will always be invested with someone else.