Music in Our Culture: How Much Has Been Lost

I liked the following youtube comment by “TLM”. It refers to a clip of Mario Lanza’s performance of “vesti la giubba”, from the 1959 film For the First Time.

Mario Lanza Vesti La Giubba 1958 Widescreen

Yeah, it’s easy to go through life in contemporary America and never even find out that opera and classical music exist. The stuff hardly gets any exposure, except as the occasional background music on a TV commercial. That’s a shame, because even though opera and classical are not for everyone, in fact probably not for most people, a lot more people might nonetheless appreciate this music if only they got more exposure to it.

At my gym the speakers constantly blare hip-hop and rap, even though my gym’s clientele does not generally fit the typical demographic for those genres. The other day, one of the members talked an employee into shutting the music off, and the silence was welcomed by the rest of us who were working out. Another member commented that he was sick of the fact that, at high school basketball games, the music is always that same sort of “garbage.”

It wasn’t always like this in America. During the 1950s, America boasted a thriving middle-brow culture. In 1955, attendance at classical music concerts exceeded attendance at major league baseball games. In the early ’60s, Leonard Bernstein’s classical concerts were broadcast on national network television, sometimes during prime time. Prime time Shostakovich is unimaginable today. Young people have no idea how much has been lost. Sad.

But getting back to Mario Lanza, he had an amazing voice, and is in fact my favorite tenor. Which is surprising, because he was just a movie singer and not a real professional opera singer, kind of like The Monkees weren’t a real group, but just played one on TV. Lanza’s breakthrough movie was The Great Caruso (1951) in which he played the legendary tenor. But Lanza, the actor playing Caruso, was actually a better singer than the legend himself, if you can believe it.

Unfortunately, Lanza had a problem with overeating, and died prematurely at just 38 years of age.

Americans Getting Lonelier: Fake News?

We live in an information age in which an overabundance of data is available at our fingertips. But how reliable is that information?

A bit more than a week ago, the following article in the New York Times caught my attention.

I found the article’s headline statistic particularly arresting.

Social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.

I was so disturbed by this statistic, that it stuck with me, and sometime later I quoted it in conversation with someone. But is the statistic true? What is the source?

The article in the Times contains a hyperlink that goes to an article at… Hmmm. The Slate article is from 2013, and says the following:

Loneliness has doubled: 40 percent of adults in two recent surveys said they were lonely, up from 20 percent in the 1980s.

Despite the reference to two surveys, the article links to only one, a survey conducted by AARP back in 2010. That survey is available in pdf format here. The survey came to the following conclusion:

Overall, a little over one-third (35%) of the survey respondents were lonely, as measured by a score of 44 or higher on the UCLA loneliness scale.

So the real figure is 35%, not 40%. An interview in Fortune from last summer falsely inflates this figure a bit more, to “40% to 45%.”

Looking from a few different sources of data, it seems that way. The percentage of Americans who responded that they regularly or frequently felt lonely was between 11% and 20% in the 1970s and 1980s [the percentage varied depending on the study].

In 2010 , the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) did a nationally representative study in 2010 and found it was closer to 40% to 45%.

Note that the Fortune story also repeats the claim that only 20% were lonely back in the 1980s or 1970s. A search of the AARP report, however, turns up no references whatsoever to the 1970s or 1980s. I have no idea what the source is for this claim about lower rates of loneliness in those decades.

Furthermore, AARP did not perform a “nationally representative survey” of “adults.” AARP surveyed only “older adults” above the age of 45. The report says nothing about the happiness of Americans below the age of 45.

So to summarize, an AARP survey found that 35% of Americans over age 45 are lonely, and multiple prominent national publications turn that into 40% or 45% of all American adults, and add the claim, without citation, that this figure has doubled since the 1980s.

The New York Times no doubt considers itself the gold standard of professional journalism, but pulling headline statistics unverified from Slate, a clickbait webzine, doesn’t seem like best practice.

Loneliness might in fact be on the rise, but none of these articles offers any good reason for believing it.

In the modern world, we do have access to more information than ever, but pari passu, we also have access to more misinformation than ever.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Last summer I was fortunate to get to see this famous painting at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The guide at the museum noted that it is the painting that visitors most often ask to see.

All the people depicted are real, since Rockwell always worked with live models. The man standing behind the turkey lady, however, is not her real husband. Rockwell decided that her real husband for some reason did not fit the part, so he used a different model.


No Ceasefire in the War on (Pale) Males

The ruling class doesn’t like pale male voters because they are not sufficiently compliant and deferential. To borrow a line from Bertolt Brecht, the ruling class wants therefore to dissolve the people and elect another.


If that hate speech is not explicit enough for you, there’s more below. And the person who produced it is right now on the campaign trail with Hillary.

Hell Hath No Fury

Some guy in Barrington, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to the editor saying that older women shouldn’t be going around in yoga pants.

Alan Sorrentino wrote to the Barrington Times about his dislike of yoga pants. He said women over age 20 shouldn’t wear them.

‘‘Yoga pants belong in the yoga studio,’’ he wrote. ‘‘What’s next? Wearing a ‘‘Speedo’’ to the supermarket? Imagine if men did that. Yuck!’’

Then all hell broke loose.

The saga began Wednesday with a letter to the editor in a local Rhode Island newspaper criticizing women over 20 who wear yoga pants in public. Quickly, it snowballed into a “Yoga Pants Parade” Sunday afternoon with hundreds of people walking past the letter writer’s house — and a few death threats, according to the author, who said he had only intended satire…The backlash was immediate, passionate, and international.

Sorrentino disagreed as the walkers passed his Knapton Street home, where he had put up a sign bearing the words “FREE SPEECH.”

Barrington police officers stood on the edge of the property while some people in the street paused to take photos of the home.

Sorrentino said he received death threats, which he reported to the police. Someone wrote in chalk on the street outside his house that morning, identifying him as the resident.

“Every little bump, every little noise,” he said. “I lock my car, I lock my windows, I lock my house — I’ve locked myself out of my house twice.”

Two billion people in the world don’t have electricity, and a billion people in China live under a police state where the government, anytime it wants, can make a person disappear. But hey, some guy in Rhode Island hurt the feels of middle-aged, middle-class women by pointing out they’re not 20 anymore.

“I don’t get involved in much in the way of protests and marches and all of that, but this just brought me out because the guy’s letter was offensive,” said Ellen Taylor at the parade, who sported a neon yellow shirt with the words “ ‘MATURE OLDER WOMAN’ in yoga pants” written on it.

“It’s OK if you’re 20 and gorgeous to wear yoga pants, but don’t do it if you’re older and lumpy and bumpy?” she asked.

What got Ellen Taylor off the couch and marching in a protest:


What did not get Ellen Taylor off the couch:


OK, that happened in the UK, not the US, but you get the point.

All I have to say is that these yoga pants protesters are narcissistic, solipsistic, and just plain awful. Their selfish and bourgeois insularity lies at the heart of much of what is wrong with America today.

Peak Baby Boomer

Like a lot of people, I was both surprised and amused to hear that Bob Dylan, who is not an author, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. A week before the announcement a London betting site gave Dylan a 2 percent chance of winning, but even that slim chance caused The New Republic to write:

Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win. Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize.

And yet it happened. So: William Butler Yeats, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Boris Pasternak, Bob Dylan. One of those names does not belong.

How did this happen? The fact is that hardly anybody gives a fig about Bob Dylan except baby boomers. In human society, most leadership positions are usually filled by people in their 50s and 60s, and right now, that’s baby boomers. So at the moment, the baby boomers are in charge, and they have given us Bob Dylan as the Nobel laureate in literature. They also gave us the Clinton Crime Family.

But the Boomers did most of their damage to America’s culture long ago. Prior to the Boomers, America had a thriving ‘high-brow’, or at least ‘middle-brow’ culture. In 1955, classical music concerts had greater total attendance than did major league baseball. In 1958, Leonard Bernstein started producing his Young People’s Concerts, intended to introduce kids to the joys of classical music. The programming, however, included pretty heavy stuff like Bach, Liszt, and Shostakovich, and was watched mostly by adults, not kids. Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts ran for several years on TV, including three seasons in prime time on CBS. For CBS to run a Shostakovich concert in prime time today seems unimaginable.

Those Americans not into ‘long hair’ music usually enjoyed jazz or well-crafted show tunes by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Cole Porter.

America’s cultural landscape was not just musical, but also literary. During World War Two, book publishers created a generation of readers by sending free books to troops serving overseas. The so-called Armed Services Editions were small, compact paperbacks that soldiers could easily carry with them. During the war, a staggering 122 million such books were produced. Many soldiers continued their reading habits after returning from the war. In those days, it was not unusual for people who did not even have high school diplomas to read more books than the typical college graduate does today.

But then, starting in the 1960s, the baby boomers tore down America’s cultural life. They replaced classical music and show tunes with rock. They argued amongst themselves about who was greater, the Beatles or the Stones. Answer: they both suck.

Oh well. There’s nothing to be done except to wait for the boomers to pass from the scene and to be temporarily replaced in power by Gen X. The boomers gave Bob Dylan a Nobel, but I’m guessing that Gen Xers are not so flaky and solipsistic as to want to give one to Kurt Cobain (if he had lived). We shall see.

Chris Matthews Explains What is Going On

Our old professor Tyler Cowen is proprietor of the highly successful economics blog Marginal Revolution. Back in May, Tyler was perplexed by the political news from this most extraordinary year in politics, and so he made a post entitled “What the hell is going on?”.

Donald Trump may get the nuclear suitcase, a cranky “park bench” socialist took Hillary Clinton to the wire, many countries are becoming less free, and the neo-Nazi party came very close to assuming power in Austria.  I could list more such events.

Haven’t you, like I, wondered what is up?  What the hell is going on?

Tyler didn’t seem very sure of the answer, and the best he could come up with was to blame a subset of men for being “brutes.”

The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males. The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them? Brutes? [Emphases in original.]

Well, I would inform Tyler that one of the main things currently roiling the political scene is that many people are fed up with political correctness, including that aspect of our “feminized culture” that reflexively blames men for every problem.

But if Tyler wanted a more complete explanation of what is going on, all he had to do was watch the short video, embedded below, of Chris Matthews giving a speech back in October, almost a full year ago.

As Matthews explains, ordinary Americans are angry because they feel betrayed by the political class. And ordinary Americans have some pretty good reasons for feeling betrayed, because for a number of years now they’ve had to endure a political class that can’t pass a budget, piles up government debt as far as the eye can see, and won’t defend the nation’s borders from foreign interlopers. The political class practices all this dysfunction while at the same time adding insult to injury by looking down on the working classes and refusing to take seriously their very real concerns.

Chris Matthews is rather liberal and I disagree with him on most issues, but his analysis in this case is pretty spot on.

Olive Oil: Buy Domestic?

One thing I noticed while in Italy a few years ago was how much fresher and tastier their olive oil seemed. Even a cheap bottle from an Italian supermarket gives off a wonderful aroma that wafts out of the bottle as soon as one takes off the cap. Tony just got back from visiting Italy this summer and he brought back a huge haul of olive oil–something like 25 bottles–made from scratch by his family in southern Italy.

Given how good the olive oil is in Italy, it would seem that in the U.S. the thing to do would be to buy olive oil exported from Italy. But that might not in fact be a good idea, because Italy apparently uses the U.S. as a dumping ground for bad oil. Italy gets away with this because…wait for it…Americans generally don’t know olive oil from shinola.

“We call the U.S. the world’s dumping ground for rancid and defective olive oil. We don’t know the difference,” said Sue Langstaff, a sensory scientist who consults for the beer, wine and olive oil industries, among others. Studies have shown that even frequent olive oil consumers in the U.S. don’t know what the extra virgin or cold pressed designations mean, let alone have the ability to taste the difference. And in blind taste tests, consumers often prefer lower-quality olive oils.

Rancidity, for example, isn’t generally a sought after quality in edible products. And yet, when it comes to olive oil in the U.S., people like it. Why? Partly, because rancid olive oil is less bitter than the good stuff. But also, likely because it’s what many of us know and grew up with. It’s what we think olive oil is supposed to taste like.

‘Murica. Where rancid olive oil is actually preferred. And we therefore have a textbook illustration of the gains from trade. Italy keeps the good olive oil, sends Americans the rancid oil, and everyone’s happy!

Anonymous commenter El Sabor Asiático offers some additional information on Italian exports.

Megacorporations like Bertolli are able to bend politicians to their will, which means that much of the “Italian” olive oil that is imported into the U.S. is actually produced in other parts of the world, then passed through Italy to get the “product of Italy” rubber stamp.

Hmmm. The label on my cheap bottle of Kroger brand ‘extra virgin’ oil says: “Packed in Italy with oils of (A) Italy, (B) Spain, (C) Greece, (D) Tunisia. (SEE CAP)” On the cap there’s a code that starts with a number and ends in “ABCD”. So does that mean that the bottle includes oil from all four countries? If so, why mix them? Olive oil is perishable and relatively costly to transport, so why send stuff from Spain to Italy only to be sent ultimately to the USA? Also, what are the proportions from each country? In particular, how much is from Tunisia? Hmmm.

The standard for what can be labeled “extra virgin olive oil” is so lax that it can be cut with low-grade “lamp oil” made from spoiled olives, or even with soy/canola oil. And enforcement of even these lax regulations is so inadequate that fly-by-night producers can pull off fraudulent schemes, make their profit, and disappear.

El Sabor Asiático makes the case for oil from California. The advantage is proximity.

The reason California olive oil is so often superior (when bought in the U.S.) and does well in these kinds of surveys is very simple: olive oil is actually a fruit juice, and extra virgin olive oil is essentially a fresh-squeezed fruit juice. If you think about what happens to fruit juice if it has to travel long distances or is stored for long periods of time, that is similar to what happens to olive oil. (And then imagine how much worse it gets when it’s shipped from South America to Europe and then to the U.S. — and then on top of that the fact that it’s low-grade oil to begin with.) Domestic olive oil producers have a tremendous natural advantage in terms of quality simply because their oil is pressed here and doesn’t need to travel nearly as far as imported oil.

Today in the Kroger I looked for olive oil from California. The selection was rather limited, but Kroger did carry a couple of brands. Prices were reasonable, as a 17 ounce (or so) bottle goes for about 6 or 7 dollars. I picked up a bottle but haven’t tried it yet.

Too Much Cultural Divergence Across EU Countries?

Peter Turchin writes a fascinating post arguing that the EU is dysfunctional because it has expanded to include too many countries that lack shared cultural values. Turchin plots countries on a so-called Inglehart-Welzel cultural map. The y-axis measures Traditional vs. Rational-Secular values, while the x-axis measures Survival vs. Self-Expression values.


The plot leads Turchin to some interesting observations. The original six EU countries–Germany, Benelux, France, and Italy–cluster quite closely in terms of culture. Also in the same cultural cluster is Austria and EU non-member Switzerland. Notably, these countries geographically correspond fairly closely to the historical empire of Charlemagne.

It looks like the “ghost” of the Charlemagne’s empire has more influence on today’s cultural values than such later distinctions as Catholicism versus Protestantism.

Although Turchin does not mention it, Charlemagne’s empire was in fact based on the distinct economic and social system known as manorialism, which the Franks invented and spread throughout their empire. These 8 countries in the core of Europe that even today share cultural similarities are essentially the places where manorialism was practiced during the medieval period.

The other 22 countries of the EU, however, do not cluster together in terms of values.

On the contrary, they span three-quarters of world variation in values. Only African-Islamic countries and central America end up outside the ellipse that encompasses all 28 EU members.

Turchin argues that this divergence of values hinders cooperation.

[I]t is hard to get people to cooperate, especially in large social groups. Successful cooperation requires that people share values and institutions. Values tell us why we want to cooperate: what is the public good that we collectively want to produce? Norms and institutions tell us how we are going to organize cooperation. Mismatched values and institutions may doom a cooperative effort even before it has a chance to get going.

Indeed, we have believed for some time that the EU is too large, and in particular that the Eurozone is far too large. The Eurozone probably should have been limited to just Germany, France, and Benelux.

Idiocracy is Real

At least seven different peer reviewed studies have recently found IQs declining in various developed countries, mostly in Europe. In France, for instance, IQ researchers Edward Dutton and Richard Lynn found that over the ten years from 1999 to 2009, the average IQ of the population declined by about 4 points.

Researchers remain unsure as to the reason for the decline. Some of it is probably attributable to immigration. But the most likely explanation for most of the decline is ‘dysgenic fertility,’ specifically, the tendency of lower IQ women to give birth more often than higher IQ women. Indeed, a study by Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics finds that every one-standard-deviation increase (about 15 points) in IQ decreases a woman’s odds of lifetime parenthood by more than 20 percent.

Kanazawa predicts that dysgenic breeding will impair the long-term IQ of the population.

Because women have a greater impact on the average intelligence of future generations, the dysgenic fertility among women is predicted to lead to a decline in the average intelligence of the population in advanced industrial nations.

Years before Kanazawa published his results, however, Mike Judge presciently anticipated the results of dysgenic fertility in his 2006 film Idiocracy. The film is supposed to be a comedy, but it’s actually more terrifying than any horror movie.

Second look at (voluntary) eugenics?