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Cash, Class and Cool 

New books from David Brancaccio, Gerald Horne and Lewis MacAdams

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001

Early last spring, to my great surprise, I found myself at a party thrown by something called Bean.com. It was an expensive affair in a downtown San Francisco hotel ballroom, packed to the fire doors with smiling, schmoozing 20- and 30-somethings, all looking thrilled to be alive in such glorious times, when anyone with fingers and a college degree could get a plum position in a promising dot-com, a fat salary and the chance to live among many great coffee shops in the cutest city in America. Everyone was well-dressed, but no one extravagantly so. Top-shelf liquor flowed freely. Food was everywhere, all bean-themed (red beans and rice, chili, three-bean salad). Entertainers dressed as giant beans bounced around the dance floor while a DJ spun the hits of the ’80s. There were fortuneteller booths and, if I recall correctly, there were free bean bags. It occurred to me more than once that, whatever they might have going for them, the folks at Bean.com had no idea how to spend their money.

This is apparently a common problem these days. It‘s enough to make one nostalgic for the crass decadence of the early yuppie era, when hotshot bond traders at least knew that money could be directly exchanged for pleasure, if only the crude sorts afforded by cocaine, single-malt and the perfect drape of an Armani blazer. But those days are long gone, and though G.W. Bush seems to know exactly what to do with extra cash (give it to your friends), some people are still in the dark. Among them is David Brancaccio, host of Public Radio International’s Marketplace, who devotes an entire book, titled Squandering Aimlessly, to wondering how to spend a surplus. This question is at best puzzling, at worst deeply irritating, to those who could answer it in a flash, but never get the chance.

Brancaccio claims not to ”intuitively have the knack“ for knowing what to do with his money, and so sets off on ”a personal finance pilgrimage,“ traveling the country and exploring the options. He goes to the Mall of America (”which is to consumption what the Statue of Liberty is to another cherished national ideal, freedom“) and to a socially responsible investors conference ”to confront a dark suspicion that this strategy was a sop to folks who feel guilty about selling out after starting out in the world decrying materialism.“ He considers starting a business. He goes to Las Vegas -- ”a place scientifically designed to ease us of the burden of our surpluses“ -- to Wall Street and to Levittown to investigate gambling on slots, stocks and home ownership, respectively. He goes to Seattle to look into ”voluntary simplicity,“ and to an upscale old folks‘ home in Arizona to consider retirement savings.

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Perhaps most tellingly, to examine the benefits of philanthropy, he goes to the poor desert town of Hawthorne, Nevada. The residents’ only hope of attracting jobs to Hawthorne is to compete for the title ”All-America City“ by being more giving and community-oriented than any place else. They don‘t win. ”Charity,“ Brancaccio writes, ”it makes you feel so wonderful inside.“ He resolves to add charity to all his family’s ”tax-planning, portfolio and personal-finance discussions.“ What never strikes him as odd is the notion of visiting a dirt-broke bumfuck town, whose residents have only their time and energy to give each other, to learn about the financial benefits of giving. He barely pauses to consider why Hawthorne has been excluded from the economic good times of the late ‘90s, the boom years that are the basis, and the only possible justification, for his curious mission.

Brancaccio is a good storyteller and introduces interesting characters throughout his travels. He is funny in a lighthearted, NPR-in-the-afternoon kind of way. Squandering Aimlessly is thus rarely boring, but it’s hard to get past the slenderness, the obnoxiousness even, of its premise. Alas, not once does he consider the merits of blowing it all on transitory pleasures like a sailor on shore leave, of burning through it in a weekend, punishing one‘s body with fleeting delights. These are sober times.

So laments poet and patron saint of the Los Angeles River Lewis MacAdams -- implicitly at least -- in Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde, his affectionate memorial to the coolest cats of the 1950s and ’60s. MacAdams‘ title is somewhat misleading: Birth of the Cool is neither a a heady sociocultural analysis of cool, a la Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, nor the comprehensive history of hip musicians and artists that its subtitle suggests. It is pure hagiography, its pages almost palpitating with the heartfelt awe of the teenage kid from the Dallas suburbs that MacAdams (an occasional Weekly contributor) once was, ”imagin[ing] how cool it would be to be in New York,“ to wander its coffeehouses and clubs and corners, to be reborn.

  • New books from David Brancaccio, Gerald Horne and Lewis MacAdams

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