Briefly Noted Books, Movies, and More
The rise of the parking garage, James Ellroy's pulp fiction, Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, why you shouldn't buy Christmas presents, and government-issued comics
The horse-crowded streets of New York City in the 1880s ran with 4 million pounds of manure and 40,000 gallons of urine every day. The car rescued us from the flood. Even as Americans used the vehicles to flee to newly viable suburbs, we continued to honor our chrome gods with temples in the cities that they saved from fecal oblivion.
"House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage" (October 17, 2009–July 11, 2010) at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., collects images, models, and films of these holy places. Once cars were weak. They needed shelter with walls, heat, and minions to tend them. But then the vehicles grew stronger, facing the elements in open-sided concrete garages with only their owners to whisk them up ramps or onto lifts. Lektropark, Park-o-Mat, File-A-Way, and Circ-L-Park became part of the American landscape as human civic ingenuity found ways to manage the inconvenience of moving about in a valuable, space-consuming machine.—Katherine Mangu-Ward
Crime novelist James Ellroy says his books are about "bad white men, doing bad things in the name of authority." His latest, Blood's a Rover, deals with the baddest of them all: the government. The final volume in Ellroy's acclaimed Underworld USA Trilogy, which includes American Tabloid (1995) and The Cold Six Thousand (2001), Blood's a Rover is a conspiracy-driven, blood-spattered alternate history of America from 1968 to 1972.
Focused in part on J. Edgar Hoover's deranged attempts to destroy the black liberation movement after Martin Luther King's assassination (at the hands of Hoover's FBI, in Ellroy's telling), the book features a gallery of crooked pols, psychopathic feds, trigger-happy mobsters, and corrupt union officials, all involved in a web of state-sanctioned violence and deceit. As Ellroy told National Public Radio, "I get to rewrite American history to my own specification, assassinate political leaders, suffer nervous breakdowns, have a blast, use the grooviest drugs of the era, and no one gets hurt."—Damon W. Root
Capitalism: Not Just for the Rich Anymore
Michael Moore's latest movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, tries to link foreclosed homes, underpaid pilots, judges sending kids to juvie hall in exchange for payoffs, and dead workers whose employers collected on life insurance. It's a package meant to indict private property and free markets as, in the words of a priest interviewed in the film, "contrary to all that's good."
Moore doesn't notice that two of his framing anecdotes—man doesn't pay debt on house and has it occupied by bank, business doesn't pay wages it owes and has factory occupied by workers—are the same in justice and logic. His real point is that people richer than you (not than him, necessarily) must be punished, somehow.
He loses his whole game when he asks a woman from the factory why the workers don't form a co-op and run it themselves. They don't have money, she explains; they aren't capitalists. That's a benefit the wealthy provide to the working man that Moore won't acknowledge.—Brian Doherty
Wharton economist Joel Waldfogel has written a pocket-sized book, the kind you grab at the register at Borders on impulse. Published just in time for the Christmas season, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays (Princeton), isn't bad. Or, as Waldfogel would say, the deadweight loss of getting this book as a gift would be less than you might expect.
Waldfogel calculates the total value destruction of Christmas at about $12 billion a year, combining holiday spending figures with his own surveys gauging the relationship between money spent and the value of a gift to the typical recipient. But Scroogenomics is not all gloom and doom. Siblings, parents, and significant others aren't terrible givers, he argues; it's the great aunts who are dragging the average down.—Katherine Mangu-Ward
Hey Citizens! Comics!
The University of Nebraska has posted an online compilation, with free downloads, of government-sponsored comics and illustrated pamphlets. Available at contentdm.unl.edu/cdm4/browse.php? CISOROOT=/comics, the selection is bursting with both comedic kitsch and sobering insight into the state's view of its role in citizens' lives.
Our government has expended its (our) resources on child-level instruction about poisons, the dangers of both sugar and fire (in different comics), and how sad it will be for your house servant if you don't pay her Social Security taxes. We have been given images of a marine shooting a flamethrower at an octopus with Tojo's head and of "Mr. Civil Defense" warning a mayor that he has a "pretty town" but lots of bad things might happen to it.
There are some famous faces here: Spider-Man, Dennis the Menace, and Li'l Abner were all drafted as propaganda agents, turning this joyous art form into a tool of a state that apparently believes its responsibilities are limitless.—Brian Doherty