In “Marx Rises Again” The Putz says old ideas are having a comeback in the new Gilded Age. In “Still Getting Wolf Whistles at 50″ MoDo says Ford repeats a King Kong of a stunt with its iconic Mustang. In “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2″ The Moustache of Wisdom says new graduates may be intrigued by a hiring guru’s advice. In “In Dad’s Hometown, European Souls” Mr. Kristof says in a village in southwest Ukraine, the kids may know how to speak Russian, but they say they’d rather sing to Taylor Swift. In “Tolstoy and Miss Daisy” Mr. Bruni says on the eve of Easter, his family’s happy journey came into focus. Here’s The Putz:
In the season of resurrection, it’s fitting that he’s with us once again — bearded, prophetic, moralistic, promising to exalt the humble and cast down the mighty from their thrones.
Yes, that’s right: Karl Marx is back from the dead.
Not on a Soviet-style scale, mercifully, and not with the kind of near-scriptural authority that many Marxists once invested in him. But Marxist ideas are having an intellectual moment, and attention must be paid.
As Timothy Shenk writes in a searching essay for The Nation, there are two pillars to the current Marxist revival. One is the clutch of young intellectuals Shenk dubs the “Millennial Marxists,” whose experience of the financial crisis inspired a new look at Old Karl’s critique of capitalism. The M.M.’s have Occupy Wall Street as a failed-but-interesting political example; they have new-ish journals (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1) where they can experiment and argue; they are beginning to produce books, two of which Shenk reviews and praises.
What they lack, however, is a synthesis, a story, of the kind that Marx himself offered. This is where the other pillar rises — Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a sweeping interpretation of modern economic trends recently translated from the French, and the one book this year that everyone in my profession will be required to pretend to have diligently read.
Piketty himself is a social democrat who abjures the Marxist label. But as his title suggests, he is out to rehabilitate and recast one of Marx’s key ideas: that so-called “free markets,” by their nature, tend to enrich the owners of capital at the expense of people who own less of it.
This idea seemed to be disproved in the 20th century, by the emergence of a prosperous, non-revolutionary working class. But Piketty argues that those developments were transitory, made possible mostly by the massive destruction of inherited capital during the long era of world war.
Absent another such disruption, he expects a world in which the returns to capital permanently outstrip — as they have recently — the returns to labor, and inequality rises far beyond even today’s levels. Combine this trend with slowing growth, and we face a future like the 19th-century past, in which vast inherited fortunes bestride the landscape while the middle class fractures, weakens, shrinks.
Piketty’s dark vision relies, in part, on economic models I am unqualified to assess. But it also relies on straightforward analysis of recent trends in Western economies, and here a little doubt-raising is in order.
In particular, as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship has pointed out, Piketty’s data seems to understate the income gains enjoyed by most Americans over the last two generations. These gains have not been as impressive as during the post-World War II years, but they do exist: For now, even as the rich have gotten much, much richer, the 99 percent have shared in growing prosperity in real, measurable ways.
Winship’s point raises the possibility that even if Piketty’s broad projections are correct, the future he envisions might be much more stable and sustainable than many on the left tend to assume. Even if the income and wealth distributions look more Victorian, that is, the 99 percent may still be doing well enough to be wary of any political movement that seems too radical, too utopian, too inclined to rock the boat.
This possibility might help explain why the far left remains, for now, politically weak even as it enjoys a miniature intellectual renaissance. And it might hint at a reason that so much populist energy, in both the United States and Europe, has come from the right instead — from movements like the Tea Party, Britain’s UKIP, France’s National Front and others that incorporate some Piketty-esque arguments (attacks on crony capitalism; critiques of globalization) but foreground cultural anxieties instead.
The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.
And somewhere in this pattern, perhaps, lies the beginnings of a more ideologically complicated critique of modern capitalism — one that draws on cultural critics like Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch rather than just looking to material concerns, and considers the possibility that our system’s greatest problem might not be the fact that it lets the rich claim more money than everyone else. Rather, it might be that both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.
Which is to say that while the Marxist revival is interesting enough, to become more relevant it needs to become a little more … reactionary.
It’s weird to be jealous of your car.
But I am.
Men look at my car with such naked lust, their eyes devouring the curves and chrome, that I often feel as though I’m intruding on an intimate moment. Women like it, too. They sometimes grin and give it a thumbs up as it growls by, and one girlfriend fondly refers to it as “the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Goddess car.”
But the icon evokes a special feeling in men. It’s the Proustian madeleine of cars, stirring old dreams and new. Guys sometimes follow in the American beauty’s dreamy wake, by car or by bike, and leave mash notes on the windshield with their numbers, pleading for me to sell it.
I won’t. Even though it’s hard on the ego to chauffeur such an object of universal desire, and even though I can rarely put down the top because I’m prone to sunburn, I love my ’65 Mustang convertible. Still sexy at 50, it is midnight blue with a white top and white bucket seats. Bob Marley, ’60s French girl groups and, of course, Wilson Pickett wail from the CD player.
The pony car was launched at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 with a $2,368 sticker price, and some collectors look for “1964 1/2s,” as the first Mustangs off the Ford assembly line are called. But the debut cars were all designated 1965, and mine was produced in that first batch.
It quickly became the fastest-selling new car in history, landing on the cover of Time and Newsweek with Lee Iacocca and showing up in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” It sold even faster when Ford executives pulled a King Kong of a stunt in October 1965 and parked a pony on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.
Once Ford engineers determined that lowering a car by helicopter onto the world’s tallest building would be too dangerous, they spent an hour cutting a white Mustang convertible into sections that would fit into elevators and then reassembled the car on high.
Bill Ford Jr., the company’s executive chairman, great-grandson of Henry Ford and No. 1 Mustang fan, replicated the icon-on-icon caper Wednesday for the first day of the New York Auto Show — this time disassembling a bright yellow 2015 Mustang convertible into five parts and reassembling it 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.
Later, after driving through the car show in one of Ford’s 1,964 50th anniversary, retro Mustangs that come in the car’s original Wimbledon white or Kona blue, the chairman reminisced about his first car, a 1975 electric green Mustang. “Mustang is my all-time favorite car,” he said, noting that it signified fun and freedom in an affordable package.
The car was conceived as “a working man’s Thunderbird” by the late Don Frey and muscled up by Carroll Shelby. Frey, an engineer, had been teased by his kids about how boring the Ford models were.
As USA Today recounted, Frey’s favorite story was getting a letter from a Texas janitor who bought one of the first Mustangs. He wrote Frey: “I’ve been courting this 5,000-acre widow for years. I finally got her in my red pony. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Bill Clinton said leaving his bright blue ’67 Mustang behind in Arkansas was the hardest part of moving to the White House.
The brand almost became extinct after it devolved to a smaller version on top of the Ford Pinto chassis in the mid-’70s — losing its cool image. I had a red one in those days, and it broke down so much, I started calling it the Mustake.
The lame pony, USA Today recalled, was rescued in the early ’90s by engineer John Coletti and other Mustang aficionados at Ford, a group called the Gang of Eight. They slaved away in their spare time in an old Montgomery Ward warehouse in Michigan, coming up with a niftier design.
I always think of my Mustang as the Steve McQueen of cars, given the star’s stunning, sometimes airborne 10-minute chase scene in “Bullitt” through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, driving a green 1968 Mustang GT 390 in pursuit of a black Dodge Charger.
With his Mustang, Jacqueline Bisset and existential angst, McQueen defined hip in the 1968 classic — despite the atrocious paisley print pj’s he wore in the film.
In 2011, Marc Myers wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal retracing the chase route gingerly in a new Mustang with McQueen’s stunt double, Loren Janes. Janes, then 79, said he did about 90 percent of the driving in the movie and McQueen, though a good driver, did only the close-ups.
Janes told Myers that at the end of filming “Bullitt,” McQueen offered him one of the three tricked-out Mustangs used in the movie, but he passed, afraid he would always want to drive it too fast.
“Besides, I already had this,” Janes said, showing Myers a 1964 Rolex Submariner with the inscription: “To the best damn stuntman in the world. Steve.”
Now that’s cool.
Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:
How’s my kid going to get a job? There are few questions I hear more often than that one. In February, I interviewed Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of all hiring at Google — about 100 new hires a week — to try to understand what an employer like Google was looking for and why it was increasingly ready to hire people with no college degrees. Bock’s remarks generated a lot of reader response, particularly his point that prospective bosses today care less about what you know or where you learned it — the Google machine knows everything now — than what value you can create with what you know. With graduations approaching, I went back to Google to ask Bock to share his best advice for job-seekers anywhere, not just at Google. Here is a condensed version of our conversations:
You’re not saying college education is worthless?
“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college,” said Bock. It is that among 18- to 22-year-olds — or people returning to school years later — “most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going, and what they want to get out of it.” Of course, we want an informed citizenry, where everyone has a baseline of knowledge from which to build skills. That is a social good. But, he added, don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice. “The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”
Once there, said Bock, make sure that you’re getting out of it not only a broadening of your knowledge but skills that will be valued in today’s workplace. Your college degree is not a proxy anymore for having the skills or traits to do any job.
What are those traits? One is grit, he said. Shuffling through résumés of some of Google’s 100 hires that week, Bock explained: “I was on campus speaking to a student who was a computer science and math double major, who was thinking of shifting to an economics major because the computer science courses were too difficult. I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student will be one of our interns this summer.”
Or, he added, think of this headline from The Wall Street Journal in 2011: “Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay.” This was an article about a student who switched from electrical and computer engineering to a major in psychology. She said she just found the former too difficult and would focus instead on a career in public relations and human resources. “I think this student was making a mistake,” said Bock, even if it meant lower grades. “She was moving out of a major where she would have been differentiated in the labor force” and “out of classes that would have made her better qualified for other jobs because of the training.”
This is key for Bock because the first thing Google looks for “is general cognitive ability — the ability to learn things and solve problems,” he said. In that vein, “a knowledge set that will be invaluable is the ability to understand and apply information — so, basic computer science skills. I’m not saying you have to be some terrific coder, but to just understand how [these] things work you have to be able to think in a formal and logical and structured way.” But that kind of thinking doesn’t have to come from a computer science degree. “I took statistics at business school, and it was transformative for my career. Analytical training gives you a skill set that differentiates you from most people in the labor market.”
A lot of work, he added, is no longer tied to location. “So if you want your job tied to where you are, you need to be: A) quite good at it; and B) you need to be very adaptable so that you have a baseline skill set that allows you to be a call center operator today and tomorrow be able to interpret MRI scans. To have built the skill set that allows you to do both things requires a baseline capability that’s analytical.”
Well, what about creativity?
Bock: “Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn. One of the things that makes people more effective is if you can do both. … If you’re great on both attributes, you’ll have a lot more options. If you have just one, that’s fine, too.” But a lot fewer people have this kind of structured thought process and creativity.
Are the liberal arts still important?
They are “phenomenally important,” he said, especially when you combine them with other disciplines. “Ten years ago behavioral economics was rarely referenced. But [then] you apply social science to economics and suddenly there’s this whole new field. I think a lot about how the most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields. To pursue that, you need expertise in both fields. You have to understand economics and psychology or statistics and physics [and] bring them together. You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts. Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”
How do you write a good résumé?
“The key,” he said, “is to frame your strengths as: ‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”
What’s your best advice for job interviews?
“What you want to do is say: ‘Here’s the attribute I’m going to demonstrate; here’s the story demonstrating it; here’s how that story demonstrated that attribute.’ ” And here is how it can create value. “Most people in an interview don’t make explicit their thought process behind how or why they did something and, even if they are able to come up with a compelling story, they are unable to explain their thought process.”
For parents, new grads and those too long out of work, I hope some of this helps.
And here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Karapchiv, Ukraine:
To understand why Ukrainians are risking war with Russia to try to pluck themselves from Moscow’s grip, I came to this village where my father grew up.
The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America.
“We feel our souls are European,” Margaryta Maminchuk, 16, told me. “That is why we are part of Europe’s future.” The village school, which is in my great-uncle’s old family mansion, invited me to speak to an assembly, and I asked the students how many identified as European. Nearly all raised their hands.
These villagers aren’t “important” and claim no sophisticated understanding of international events. But it’s average Ukrainians like them who are turning this country around, defying President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his military, quite simply, because they dream to the West.
On past visits to this village, which my family fled in the 1940s, it seemed impossibly backward. It was near the Romanian border, a world apart from Kiev, the capital, and even a decade ago many houses lacked electricity and plumbing. Horses did the plowing. Nobody spoke English. If people went abroad it was to Russia.
Yet Ukraine has changed and opened up. Almost everyone now has electricity, plumbing and television, and many young men and women have traveled to Italy to find jobs. There is bewilderment that Poland is now so much richer than Ukraine — and resentment at Moscow for holding Ukrainians back.
I asked Margaryta, the girl with the European soul, whether she could speak Russian. Everyone in the village can speak it, she acknowledged, but she added primly: “I will not speak Russian. I am a patriot.”
Granted, significant numbers of Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country feel deep bonds with Moscow and want more autonomy. In the short term, despite a diplomatic accord reached with Russia and Ukraine that aims to defuse the crisis, President Putin may succeed in dismembering Ukraine. But, in the long run, he is both undermining his own economy and also driving Ukrainians forever into a Western orbit, as surely as the Soviets propelled Czechs to the West when they invaded in 1968.
Even here in the village, Ukrainians watch Russian television and loathe the propaganda portraying them as neo-Nazi thugs rampaging against Russian speakers.
“If you listen to them, we all carry assault rifles; we’re all beating people,” Ilya Moskal, a history teacher, said contemptuously.
For people with such fondness for American culture, there is disappointment that President Obama hasn’t embraced Ukraine more firmly. “The U.S. is being very slow and cautious,” said Anatoly Marinchuk, a retiree, scolding gently. “You should be firmer, and quicker with financial assistance.”
He’s right, I think.
It’s not just Ukrainians who are watching, and Putin himself, but all the world. We don’t have great tools, but we can do more.
As Wesley Clark and Phillip Karber, two American military experts, suggested in a report to the Obama administration, the United States can do a far better job supplying nonlethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, in part to deter Russia. We can make clearer that Russia would face devastating banking sanctions if it invades Ukraine. We can send more officials on visits, and Obama would warm hearts if he found a way to quote the national poet and hero, Taras Shevchenko.
We should take heart from the recognition that backing Ukraine places us on the right side of history. Ukraine has had wretched national leaders, so today leadership is coming from ordinary people who are driven by deep popular aspirations like those reverberating in my family’s ancestral village.
Without moving an inch, this village has been an ever-changing place. When my father was born, it was Austria-Hungary. Throughout his childhood, it was Romania. In the 1940s, it became the Soviet Union. In 1991, it became the Republic of Ukraine.
And, in 2014, by popular will, it is becoming part of the West.
Ukrainians hope to avoid a war with Russia that they know they would lose. But many believe deeply that their futures depend on reorienting their country to the West. That they won’t compromise on.
Ukraine faces difficult times ahead, but tectonic forces are propelling it westward. In the battle between Putin and Taylor Swift, I bet on Swift.
“We love your culture, and we want to be part of you,” one man from Donetsk told me, almost beseechingly. “If you abandon us, we will never forgive you.”
And now we get to Mr. Bruni:
If you were on I-85 near Atlanta on Wednesday morning or I-95 near Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, there’s a chance you spotted them. You’d remember, especially if she was driving when they lumbered by. It’s not often that you see an 18-year-old girl behind the wheel of a gold-colored Cadillac so enormous, so archaic. And it’s not usually a 79-year-old man you find beside her, her lone companion on the long road.
What an odd-looking couple they must have been. But what a sweet affirmation. They were proof, these two, that a family can pass its painstakingly nurtured closeness down through the generations, and that there comes a moment when the values impressed on the youngest members of the brood — the values imposed on them, really — become the values they actually elect.
The 79-year-old is my father. Every year around this time, just before Easter, he migrates north from Georgia, where he spends the cold months, to New York, for the warm ones. He drives, and that makes my three siblings and me increasingly nervous, because he doesn’t have the energy he once did, because we’re worrywarts and because we’re determined to hold on to him for as long as we can.
We were especially concerned this year, when his wife, whom he met and married many years after our mother died, couldn’t join him for the ride. He was going to be piloting that grand and gleaming relic of his all alone.
Over email and phone, my brothers, my sister and I huddled, strategized: Could one of us cancel a few commitments, take two or three days off, figure out a way to tag along with him? Could we persuade him to let that happen?
My niece Leslie, the eldest of his nine grandchildren, caught wind of the conversation and piped up. She’d do it, she said. She’d go. She was in the final weeks of high school and, like most graduating seniors, just biding her time. She had no crucial exams to study for. No more standardized tests to take. And there wasn’t a chance in hell that Grandpa was going to turn her down.
She hopped on a plane from Los Angeles, where my brother Harry and his family live, to Atlanta, where the Cadillac idled. She climbed in and buckled up.
I called to check on her and Dad during the first leg of their two-day, 16-hour trip. He answered. He’d already ceded the driver’s seat, already grown accustomed to being chauffeured.
“You’re a veritable Miss Daisy,” I told him, and he passed the observation along to Leslie. She had no idea what we meant.
He said to me: “My firstborn granddaughter, come all this way to drive me. Can you believe it?”
I can, because he set this up to happen. Leslie is the return on an investment that he made across many decades, with so much of his time and so much of his heart.
He, my mother, my own grandparents and my aunts and uncles always taught my siblings and me to carve out space for family no matter what, to put relatives at the head of the line, to find gestures large and small by which you communicated that you cared and you never left that in doubt.
They methodically infused our get-togethers with a sense of occasion and an even more profound sense of gratitude, advertising and even amplifying their feelings about family as a way of bequeathing them. They wanted the compact that they’d established — the covenant that they’d built — to endure.
Tolstoy wasn’t on the mark. Not all happy families are alike. But all happy families — or, more accurately, all close ones — have this in common: Their bond is forged not by accident but by intent. They make a decision.
And their actions follow their resolve.
When I was growing up, my parents didn’t just take the four of us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. They took us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. The event had emotional italics; it was teased and promoted, like a new “Star Trek” movie.
That was true as well of visits to my aunts and uncles, and these relatives returned our excitement with exuberant welcomes and extravagant meals, sending the message that we were the most cherished creatures on earth. The prosciutto and the pasta and the cannoli had no end. The hugging went on and on.
My siblings and I wanted the same for their children — nine in all, starting with Leslie. This hasn’t been easy to pull off. We’re scattered across the map, so connecting the kids with their grandfather, with one another and with their aunts and uncles has often meant expensive flights, exhausting car rides.
This Easter weekend, my brother Mark and his children will drive nearly five hours each way between the Boston area and Princeton, N.J., for a 24-hour stay. I once flew from Rome to Boston just for a big birthday party for Mark. Everyone does whatever’s necessary for an annual beach week in June when we’re all together. We’re blessed to have the resources for it, and we’re determined that everything else on the calendar yield to it. It’s the priority.
And the kids are subjected to the precise molding and coaching that my siblings and I were. They get the same italics. Uncle Frank is picking a movie for you all to watch. Aunt Adelle is taking you snorkeling. Uncle Mark rented a boat.
And the most glittering promise, the ultimate prize: Grandpa is taking you to dinner.
Grandpa took Leslie to a Waffle House on the first day of their drive and then again on the second. They share, along with genes, an affinity for breakfast foods and carbohydrates.
They don’t share musical tastes, so for most of their trip, they left the radio off and just talked, treating the highway as memory lane. Grandpa told Leslie stories about the woman he still mourns: the grandmother she never got to know, whose first name she inherited. At one point he realized that he had a collection of greatest hits by the Platters with him, and he put it in the CD player, telling Leslie: This was the soundtrack of our romance.
They pulled into his driveway in the suburbs of New York City early Thursday evening, in time to freshen up and head out to a movie together. Afterward I got Leslie on the phone and asked her how it all went. She was still dumbstruck by the heft of Grandpa’s car.
“It’s like a boat,” she said. “It took me a while to realize that if I wanted to stop, I had to start braking really, really far in advance.”
In the background, Grandpa chimed in: “She’s a terrific little driver!”
I asked her about her plans for the next day, and whether she’d have dinner with me in Manhattan and stay over at my place. I was braced for rejection, or a grudging acceptance: An 18-year-old has better ways to spend a Friday night, and she’d surely overdosed on family by this point.
I underestimated her. I underestimated all of us.
“I’m seeing a friend in the city,” she told me, “but I’ll cut it off in time to meet you at the restaurant and spend the night with you,” she told me, sounding genuinely eager.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Totally,” she said. “This is more important.”