Magazines: Grab a Bucket and Mop


Perhaps the saddest column I read in 1989 was the one Walter Kim wrote upon his resignation from his post at 7 Days. In the year he served as magazine columnist, Kim complained, he had read 500 separate issues, which caused him to burn out due to "information overload."

Granted, there are plenty of hazards for the magazine critic. New Yorker multi-part series are always a problem; the Paul Brodeur series on electromagnetic waves, for example, was the heavyweight championship of magazine reading, a three-part, 15-round mental bout that left hundreds of thousands of New Yorker readers gasping for air at its conclusion.

But despite all the hazards, I still keep reading, and occasionally I find pieces that are worthwhile. Here are some of the best articles I read between July and December 1989.

One of the threats liberal parents use to terrorize their children is, "If you don't do your homework, you'll end up as a hamburger flipper and earn the minimum wage for the rest of your life!" In "McJobs," in the Summer 1989 issue of Policy Review, Ben Wildavsky looks at how McDonald's really operates. His conclusion: Far from providing dead-end jobs for failures, McDonald's "functions as a de facto job program by teaching the basics of how to work."

McDonald's provides 1 out of 15 Americans with their first jobs. While starting wages are low, advancement for those who stay in the corporation is rapid.Forty percent of the McDonald's board of directors worked for the company as hourly employees; half of McDonald's store managers began as hamburger flippers. What's more, other employers see experience at McDonald's as a useful credential; McDonald's workers have gone on to be pilots, doctors, police officers, and at least one professional football player.

And McDonald's, Wildavsky discovered, is particularly adept at hiring blacks and other minorities. Black Enterprise magazine named McDonald's as one of the 50 best corporations for blacks to work for in America, noting that 17 percent of the firm's managers are black. Soviet emigres, Hispanics, and other minorities have also found McDonald's useful in climbing the economic ladders.

Wildavsky's article is a hard-hitting piece of myth busting that should be read by every politician who rants about the awfulness of "hamburger flipping." It's a promising debut, and I look forward to more articles from Wildavsky.

November marked the 75th anniversary of The New Republic. When the anniversary issue of the magazine arrived, I took out my kazoo and blew a lusty tattoo; although The New Republic has become somewhat more predictable under its new editor, Hendrik Hertzberg, it's still entertaining and one of the best political journals around.

For the November 6 anniversary edition, the editors pulled out all the stops. They reprinted the first issue of The New Republic, treating the readers to a large dose of antiquated progressivism and some fine pieces by Randolph Boume and the 22-year-old Rebecca West. Then TNR's editors handed their favorite writers feather dusters and assigned them to clean the grimy statues in the Liberal Hall of Fame.

Most of the resulting articles are predictable. Robert Kuttner praises John Maynard Keynes, claiming that Keynes, if alive today, would call for protectionism, "heroic [sic] measures to assure full employment," and, the best euphemism of 1989, "forced savings for the rich." (Not even Kuttner can overtly call for massive taxation of the wealthy these days.) John Judis profiles early 20th-century corporate statist Herbert Croly; as with most of Judis's historical profiles, the piece combines interesting research and useful analysis with conclusions that are completely wrong-headed. Robert Wright attempts to revive one-worldism, but then rejects everything the original one-worlders believed in.

The best piece in the issue is Henry Fairlie's diatribe against Woodrow Wilson. Fairlie attacks Wilson's decision to enter World War I, noting that the 2 million U.S. troops who crossed the Atlantic in 1917 and 1918 demonstrated the flimsiness of the rationale for American entry—the German blockade against the United States. Fairlie also dissects the conflict between the liberals of the period who believed in limited government (such as Randolph Bourne) and the corporatist liberals (including most of the editors of The New Republic), who wanted to run a government large enough to dominate big business.

The evil legacy of Woodrow Wilson is two-pronged. Domestically, Wilson left America the corporate state; in foreign affairs, Fairlie adds, Wilson originated what is now "in many respects a garrison state of centralized power and cynical manipulation of American citizens."

I would go even further in criticizing Wilson's views. Wilsonian foreign policy is still with us, in the form of the pernicious notion that the nations of the world must be molded into scores of miniature Americas. Wilson's progeny—the New Frontier, Jimmy Carter, the National Endowment for Democracy—have produced hundreds of millions of people who dislike America and everything it stands for. Fairlie's article would do a great deal of good if today's Wilsonians read it and finally realized that everything they know about foreign policy is wrong.

As I've noted before, American reporting on foreign lands tends to mislead readers. Perhaps the worst reporting comes from South America, where most journalists assume that everyone on that continent either sells cocaine or organizes military coups.

But the editors of The American Spectator decided to leap where other magazines fear to tread and send British journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard to Argentina to report on the state of that nation. The result, "Argentina's Wages of Sin," in the September American Spectator, is engrossing and informative.

Unlike most journalists, Evans-Pritchard thoroughly understands economics, and his report is largely about the tragedy caused by 40 years of hyper-inflation. Everyone in Argentina, from janitors to multimillionaires, stashes dollars overseas; as the austral inflates (at a rate of up to 115 percent a month), houses, cars, and even television sets are bought with dollars. Stores raise their prices, on average, 15 percent a week. In 1943 the economies of Argentina and Australia were the same size; thanks to hyperinflation, Australia's GNP is now five times as large as Argentina's.

The blame for this mess, Evans-Pritchard shows, belongs to both the left and the right. In 1943 Juan Peron came to power, expelled British economic advisers, and installed as his chief economic guru a man named Raul Prebisch, who believed that the Third World could only be as productive as the West if the "terms of trade" were changed through policies of protectionism and autarky. Peron combined Prebisch's views with the domestic economic policies of Benito Mussolini, resulting in Argentine corporations bloated by monopoly. Nearly a fifth of the current Argentine budget is spent on corporate welfare.

But Raul Alfonsin, president from 1982 to 1989, was nearly as bad. He manipulated the austral's price so drastically that most Argentines dumped their australs for dollars, flooding the market and accelerating hyperinflation.

The story Evans-Pritchard tells is a melancholy one, but not atypical of the Third World. I am sure that similar economic histories could be written about India, Nigeria, Egypt, and other nations, but are not published because they do not directly involve Americans or American interests. I hope The American Spectator publishes more pieces like Evans-Pritchard's. American readers need such journalism if they are to gain an accurate economic picture of the world.

Environmentalists love to ban useful products, such as Styrofoam and plastic. Even fragrance advertisements in magazines have been attacked as unwanted pollution. In most cases, environmentalists argue that these products are flooding landfills and therefore should be outlawed. In the December Atlantic Monthly, William Rathje decisively refutes this charge.

Rathje is an archeologist at the University of Arizona who drills into old landfills to see what's inside. He found that most of the content of landfills is paper, only 1 percent is foam, a tenth of 1 percent is fast-food packaging, and less than 5 percent is plastic. Moreover, plastic, because it doesn't degrade biologically, doesn't leach toxic chemicals into the environment—as do newspapers, for example. And ordinary plastic takes up less space than "biodegradable" plastic, which has to be made thicker to be used for packaging.

"We forget everything that is no longer there to see," Rathje argues, noting that some kinds of trash have been reduced or eliminated over the years. In 1900, 1,200 pounds of coal ash were dumped annually in slums. Producers of orange-juice concentrate now sell the rinds for animal feed; earlier generations would have thrown them in landfills. While ignoring progress in waste reduction, alarmists point to an escalating rate of individual trash production. But Rathje cautions that we do not know how much trash each American generates: Estimates range from three to eight pounds per person per day, and "the higher estimates considerably overstate the problem."

Rathje's article represents what The Atlantic Monthly does best—a nonpartisan, objective analysis of a major issue that gives the reader facts he can use. The only question Rathje doesn't answer is whether it is ecologically correct to throw orange peels in the woods so birds can eat them. But that, perhaps, is another article.

Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.