past postings from the UNSIMPLIFY blog
In December 2012, a bot from places unknown, with nothing against me personally, infected my website and turned it briefly into a revolving series of ads for things no human being could possibly want. Ain't no thing; I accept this as the price of doing business, the same way an 18th-century traveler accepted the chance of being waylaid by brigands and murdered as the price of going from Edinburgh to London. Weeding is a good thing from time to time, in any case; this gave me a chance to step out of the tedious ruts I'd fallen into and start afresh. But as I'm temperamentally a packrat, I can't quite dust off my sandals and leave the past to the past. Here then are the best postings of the original Unsimplify blog and its companion blog, Better Angels - starting with an explanation of why I chose the name.
EAT AT JOE'S
(Originally posted Dec. 18, 2009)
I had wanted to begin my blog with a bang. Instead I’ll begin with a whimper, and let the bangs come as they may. The important thing in any conversation is to start talking; the beauty and sense will either come or they won’t, unexpected, spontaneous and felt.
I am a great admirer of Henry David Thoreau. It’s not one of the things that distinguishes me, but hear me out. I read Walden for the first time when I was 38 years old, sitting in a diner called “Eat at Joe’s” on the stormswept shore of Galveston Island, Texas, in the middle of a three-month-long car trip across the United States that I hoped would wash out the disappointment of my divorce and stalled career. I would arrive on the West Coast - California, where I grew up - a new wineskin ready for a new life. But stories in real life don’t end quite so simply. I had bought a cheap Dover Thrift edition of the book a month earlier at Walden Pond itself, just outside of Concord, Mass., in the woods near the small lake that’s just as you would imagine it to be but nothing like the way it was when Thoreau built his cabin there. I was tempted to buy a sweatshirt as well. It didn’t have my favorite quote from the book (the one about the first message coming across the TransAtlantic cable) but my second-favorite, “Simplify Simplify.” It’s a wonderful rule of thumb that Thoreau himself didn’t really believe in (or else why not just say “Simplify”?). I’m sure that life at its most beautiful, its deepest current, its most mellifluous sound really is extremely simple: an attitude, a calm, an acceptance just slightly off from the way you and I experience it which - much like riding a bike - you need only to learn once in order to have forever. The trouble is learning it even that once. It’s perhaps the hardest thing of all to picture life a different way than the accidents of experience have taught you to see it, to cast off the neglectful parent, the failed romance, the unfulfilled promise as bumps in a road rather than templates for living. And so we spin out all our big, complicated stories in order to find our way to that smallest, simplest one.
Take “Eat at Joe’s,” for example. I didn’t choose it for the food (this looks all the more true in retrospect) but because when I was 12 or so I had wanted to own a restaurant, one that served every possible dish, from whale to Beef Wellington, from South Sea island mahi-mahi to Tibetan yak. This shows in one fell swoop what kind of a person I am and why, 26 years later, I would still be so lacking in business sense. I was a dreamer. I was going to call the restaurant “Eat at Joe’s Around the Corner” - with a simple unassuming door through which you could visit the entire world. By the time I was 24 I had joined the Peace Corps, lived in Africa and actually ate some of the more exotic things that would have shown up on my restaurant’s menu, including termites, grubs (roasted they taste like CornNuts), crocodile, rat, caterpillar (strangely, the most disturbing) and I had even been in the same restaurant one night with a cooked monkey’s head and a bottle of beer but decided that’s where I would draw the line. I never owned a restaurant; I just spread the germ of the idea out into my life; but I’ve always leaned a little in the direction of “Joe’s” and particularly “Eat at Joe’s” as a way of honoring and stealing some of the happiness from my earlier self. I will eat tough chicken and wilted salad and overburned coffee, happily, just for the chance to enjoy the irrelevant associations I’ve sprinkled on top. I’m afraid there is no task in my life that’s simply a matter of picking a place to eat, a book to read, a way to spend the afternoon: It’s all echoes built on shadows built on umbras. Which makes me a maddening person but (I hope) an interesting one, too.
And one who’s unable to simplify at the same time that - like Henry David - he wants to very much.
A WORLD OF MY CHOOSING
(Originally posted Jan. 27, 2010)
There is a great divide in my household. My wife, Neeta, hates people. I’m not mischaracterizing her, she says so herself - freely and often. She looks around her and sees venal Congresspeople, gay-bashing Republican voters, woozy-headed skeptics about evolution and global warming, drivers who blast through traffic in their SUVs, bigots, serial adulterers, tinpot dictators, unrepentant ex-colonial powers, collaborators who claim to have been heroes of the French Resistance, and so forth, and says, “people are self-centered, greedy liars … and they’re stupid. To hell with them.” I remind her that she’s a person … that I’m a person, our children are people and Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Yo Yo Ma and Martin Luther King, Jr., are or were people, and she pirouettes on Linus Van Pelt’s maxim - “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand” - to say humanity is a cesspool, but a few people here and there manage to rise above the muck.
I disagree. I like people. I like them intensely. It’s one of the purest, strongest, most dependable pleasures in my life to meet new people and learn about their lives, to imagine myself in their skin, to visit foreign countries, not to see the church steeples but to see the way they rise in the morning, drink their coffee, kiss their wives and catch their fish. When I look at a man or woman, I don’t see a Yes or a No - a Good or a Bad - but an unfolding, shaded, complicated story, and as a storyteller by profession, I love stories. Our kids more or less agree with Neeta; they see my easy benevolence as a form of softheadedness or delusion; so I have tended to keep the details of my heterodoxy unspoken. But I think it’s time to break my silence, because the argument usually goes to the person who speaks. I will try to make my case in this post and the next, and I’ll start by relying on my favorite opening paragraph of any novel, John Steinbeck’s from Cannery Row:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.
So just why is it that a person sees the world he sees? Somebody reminded me the other day that kidnap victims and abused spouses tend to take on the beliefs of their captors. When somebody’s whispering in your ear every day that you’re a criminal, that your people are oppressors, that your actions are inadequate, you gradually come to believe it’s the simple truth. What the hooded terrorist and the wife beater are doing to their victims isn’t so very strange. It’s only what all of us do to ourselves by necessity every day. We tell ourselves what we’re seeing. We listen to other people tell us what they’re seeing. Our understanding of the world is like a sandy Cape Cod cliff that’s always in danger of falling away, and so we’re always scooping up the fallen sand and tamping it back in place, rebuilding the seawall, telling ourselves the world is like this and this. Because there’s always contradictory evidence unless we train ourselves to discount or ignore it. And like in a dream, if we’re any good at life, our world becomes less transparent and more solid with each confirmation, solid enough to jump up and down on without any danger of breakage. The bigot always manages to see Willie Horton and Bernie Madoff and to miss or make excuses for Barack Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; tell him he’s delusional and he’ll say, “Just look at the world.”
In one of my favorite New York novels, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, (spoiler alert!) the main character travels back to 19th-century Manhattan not by jumping into a contraption and spinning a bunch of dials, but by surrounding himself with the physical paraphernalia of the year 1882 and persuading himself that’s where he is. Not even Time is solid. It’s as if all ages lie like transparencies on top of one another, and the only reason we see 2010 rather than 1882 is that we make ourselves aware of all the cues, the messages, the physical objects that tell us it’s 2010. I’m not recommending Finney as a physicist (although if we ever travel through time that’s secretly how I hope we will do it). I’m just saying I didn’t invent the idea that we don’t live in the world directly but only after a long detour through our minds.
We make a mistake, then, when we talk about what the evidence tells us about the world. Before any such evidence there is The Choice: Will I look at the world this way, or that way? Will I open a bigger window for proofs that people are rotten, or that they’re wonderful? I started thinking about this fifteen years ago, after the verdict in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. I knew people, both white and black (although the white ones were mostly sports fans), who were sure in the aftermath that Simpson had been innocent; I knew many more people who thought he was a murderer. I had watched the trial myself and couldn’t believe there was a rational disagreement: The man was guilty as sin. The evidence had been overwhelming. If there was proof in this world, it had been given, and still more, and then some. But then I admitted to myself that, going into the trial, I had already been half-persuaded - just from the first few news stories and a kind of roughshod logic. From then on, every day, as the evidence was presented, I mentally stood somewhere near the prosecution table, listening to the witnesses for evidence that I was right. A skepticism arose when the defense lawyer began to speak; I granted the prosecutors (even the inept ones) the benefit of the doubt. I asked myself what it would have been like had I mentally started on the other side of the courtroom, standing alongside a man whom I regarded as a beleaguered black defendant. Would I have heard everything a different way - doubted the police more, seen the famous glove as conclusive, taken Mark Fuhrman’s casual racism as evidence of a great conspiracy? Would I have kneaded and clipped and prodded the evidence any more to come to those conclusions than to come to the ones I actually came to? I really don’t think so. I don’t doubt that there’s a truth here, and I believe the truth is that O.J. Simpson murdered his ex-wife, but I’m still amazed that, even with a judgment so simple, direct and concrete as this - so much simpler than the general Goodness or Badness of the world - our temperament begins to shape and reshape things practically from the first word.
Where that temperament comes from, I leave it mostly to psychologists to tell me. But if there is even a small window for choice, then I remember what my one-time public-journalism mentor Jay Rosen used to say, that if you’re forced to choose between thinking too much of people or too little, why not err on the side of too much? Myself, I would much rather like this world than dislike it, appreciate people than be repelled by them. Even if I’m only where I am because my genes have put me here, I’m happy to be on this side of the family divide.
So I will tell you how human beings look to me. I see their great capacity for friendship, love, laughter, song, creativity, seriousness of purpose. I had an alcoholic, at times unreliable mother who still loved me fiercely and left me feeling fiercely loved, so I can’t see people’s ample flaws as being more real than these other qualities. I have sat up too many nights with friends struggling over how to do the right thing; I have seen love grudgingly overtake anger in too many pairs of eyes. I can’t fault human beings for not being as beautiful as gazelles or as loyal as dogs, as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes or as noble as the man or woman we might create in our imaginations; they are what they are. But I take note of the direction in which they point themselves, too. I think every one of Neeta’s examples of human depravity is true, and yet: I look around me and see that society has held together, that we are not islands, that people still write books and take to the streets and volunteer (as I once volunteered with the Peace Corps) to try and make the world a better place. I see people ever-balanced on the knife edge, choosing between being kinder and being crueler, and often choosing to be kinder. I see them regretting the flaws that led them to choose the other way. In fact, I see them being a lot like Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, thinking at the end of their muddled lives that it would have been so easy to have done everything better. I am happy when I see these qualities surface and I feel I would be destitute in a world without them, so perhaps I blow gently on the flame and see them as more universal than they are. They represent the human beings we could be and sometimes are … and perhaps those are the people I really like, in the end.
JUDGE NOT, LEST YE WASTE A LOT OF TIME
(Originally posted Jan. 29, 2010)
Once I spent three never-to-be-refunded months of my life studying formal logic. A wasted enterprise. The book I was reading began with the great syllogisms. “A implies B, and B implies C, therefore A implies C” and so on. It went on to pretzel-like syllogisms of stunning complexity, subtle interpretations of the meaning of English sentences, fascinating conclusions using fuzzy logic. Only by the end did it come home to me that none of it means a thing in the real world unless you’ve accurately defined A, B and C, and doing that is something formal logic can tell you nothing about. I have an example in my own home. I wrote in my last post that I like people. Actually, that’s the result of a syllogism. My wife, Neeta, and our kids say they hate people. I contort my face when they say it as if they’ve shoved a dozen limes in my mouth. I shake my head. I hesitate, say, “Well…” and then look down at my book. My meoldramatic silence, they say, speaks volumes. I don’t hate people, therefore I must love them. (If not A, then the anti-A.)
Actually, despite what I said earlier, I do neither. I don’t actively spend my time loving or hating people, blaming or exonerating them, labelling them smart or stupid. I find it doesn’t pay. For many years I was a professional journalism reformer, the author of a book on the subject (Doing Public Journalism), and busily working with hundreds of other people involved in the common enterprise of trying to make participatory democracy a concrete reality. Are the American people really capable of participatory democracy? Well, I’d definitely argue “yes” in the abstract sense: It’s within the realm of human capability. But are the actual 300 million capable in the sense that there’s even a squirrel’s chance at the Westminster Dog Show that they will do the work necessary to make this a participatory democracy? Strangely, my colleagues and I spent almost no time thinking about this question. We saw that the news media didn’t give people a sense of drama essential to keeping their interest (not horse-race drama, but people-rising-to-citizenship’s-demands drama), so we invented new ways to provide it. We realized people wouldn’t talk about serious issues with strangers unless they had some structure, so we invented the structure. We kept playing to the weak points, looking for ways to shave a few percentage points off the odds against people rising to the ideal of citizenship. But we never added up the score, because in our minds we knew we were going to keep pushing, trying, inventing until we got the democracy we were looking for. Well, no, I can’t say never. Once a couple of my colleagues went to a baseball game, where a fight broke out in the stands, and people threw hot dogs, soda cans and various things made out of styrofoam onto the field. My colleagues looked at each other and said, “These are the people we expect to make decisions on foreign policy?” They bought themselves a stiff drink. The next day, they went back to work.
Similarly, when I hear about something terrible that someone has done, unless they’ve done it to me I rarely think, “Wow, that’s a terrible human being.” Instead I ask myself why they did it, and the question spreads out into a reflection on human nature, an investigation of causes, a sense of dread or awe at the common things (uninterested parents, wounded pride, a knock on the head at age 10) that can send a person spiralling into criminality or cruelty. To me it’s a dead end to say, “Americans are stupid” or “serial killers are cruel”; it’s a life’s work and a mental and spiritual (yes, I said it) exercise to imagine what we can do to help people act in smarter ways and to reflect on the ways in which cruelty begets cruelty. Perhaps there is a level on which to know all is to forgive all, or on which you can accept people for being people, set them as your benchmark, and judge them generously. I don’t know. But there’s something else going on here besides giving people a pass. We really don’t know what they’re capable of until the whole game is played out, and so it’s always more important to play than to keep score - to influence and observe rather than to judge.
The great, beefy, loud and gregarious oral historian Studs Terkel compiled a book in 1992 on Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession. The most moving set of interviews centered on C.P. Ellis, a one-time Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, North Carolina, who in 1971 was named to a steering committee on school desegregation by local white leaders who felt he was a safe (and obstructionist) vote. But many strands make up a human being, and one of Ellis’ strands involved a sense of civic duty. He had been assigned to work with a local African-American civil rights activist on the committee, and he decided that - though he hated her, at least on principle - he was going to give it a try. The activist, Ann Atwater, blindsided Ellis by inviting him to her civil-rights group and insisting they listen to everything he had to say, and - long story short - they melted Ellis down by respecting him. He tore up his Klan membership card at a public meeting and became an organizer for black and white labor unions in Durham. He realized poor people had more in common than white people do. He told Terkel he was simply glad to be over the hate; it had been a weight on him; and now he was free. When you can’t depend upon a Klansman to remain a Klansman, you know we live in a fluid world.
So the reason I don’t hate people isn’t that I necessarily love them. It’s that it misses the point.
FLUX AND FLASH
(Originally posted Feb. 5, 2010)
You may know Monticello as one of the most beautiful houses ever built. I’m okay with that. But I learned when I visited Jefferson’s estate back in the 1990s that he looked at it a different way. He had designed the classic, utopia-of-learning campus of the University of Virginia to be a showpiece; his work on the state capitol in Richmond was likewise intended for the public; but Monticello was for himself. If you ever take a tour of the place, you’ll see oddly shaped rooms and misbegotten spaces, experimental designs that don’t quite work. You’ll be enchanted one moment and feel you’ve wandered into a storage closet the next. He had a restless mind; he was always learning and revising; and - since he happened to like architecture - this was the grand-scale equivalent of the cluttered writer’s desk, the mess of an artist’s studio, the blackboard scrawled with equations. I have to admit it’s a bit unsettling. Works of art - especially ones that today would involve cranes, delivery trucks and an army of workmen - are supposed to be finished. They go through the process of creation, and then they’re complete.
One of the greatest gifts of social-media revolution may turn out to be that nothing is ever finished, it is always in progress. A novel is preserved in amber; a blog always has ink on its fingers. The generation that follows ours may not understand the value we place on things that are complete - it may look at art as something that’s alive … until it stops moving, and then it’s irrelevant. It will be a hard style of thought for me personally to adapt to. As a writer I like to see my work in final form, set in a handsome font, printed in a book and stored on my shelf. I don’t want to see Madame Bovary in constant flux (although Gustave Flaubert was such a perfectionist it actually was in flux throughout his life). I don’t want to see the pyramids improved upon (although a glass pyramid did improve the Louvre in the 1980s). I like the feeling that a pinnacle has been reached and may now be admired safe from the ravages of time. It scares me to think that a work I’ve labored over for months is only as good as the next thing I do to it, is only as valuable as the way I adapt it for next week and next year … although I admit it may be good training for life. Past generations quarried the marble of Vermont and Carrara to build monuments that would last forever, because they knew they were going to die and didn’t like the fact at all. Future generations will keep themselves busy recycling their Pietas and Pantheons and perhaps only look up from their brush and chisel to notice they’re about to die. “Just let me finish this one last thing,” they will say … their last - and happy - words.
I use this grandiloquent introduction simply to say, I’m currently learning how to use Flash, the software that powers (whether you know it or not) your favorite, dazzling websites as well as the annoying but beautifully produced ads that get in your way when you try to read The New York Times online. Here is my first Flash movie. It’s quite simple (and self-involved) but it will spread and grow into something finer, grander and more inclusive until I look up one day from my keyboard… Well, anyway, here it is.
TO MY PARENTS
(Originally posted April 10, 2010)
I am a stepfather - I’ve been doing it for seven or eight years now, depending on your deference to legal definitions. And it’s an odd role to play. Biology tends to seal the case for the (typically biological) parents a child sees around her when she first opens her eyes. They’re right there; they’re somehow hers; they seem to spring from the same place the universe springs. They touch her with their hands when she is first discovering hands. They take her out under the sky when she is first discovering sky. No matter how much history she comes to share with a friend or a lover, it never starts where her own story starts; those opening scenes are a secret she shares with her parents alone. The seams between the way she loves them and the way she loves life are faint when not invisible. And if she’s fortunate, she may keep this sense of grace for the rest of her life. If less fortunate, she will chase after it for years to come (through careers, marriages, children, achievements, acting out) or - what’s really the same thing - she will come to hate the parents who abandoned or disappointed her. She will never be indifferent, though, because being indifferent to the people who brought you into the world is like pretending color doesn’t catch your eye in a field of black and white.
A stepparent, however, is always an interloper - someone who comes into a girl’s or boy’s life for someone else’s reasons, who hangs around the house like a bear that wandered into her snug little cabin late in the season and is too big to get rid of. She may come to love a stepparent, or to hate him, or to forget, the moment she goes off to college, that he was more than a shadow in the corner. It’s an open question. And for the stepparent himself, well, you feel like you’ve walked out to your mark on center stage not even sure there’s any acting there to do. “Am I playing the father?” you call out to the director, down there in the dark. But he’s too busy arguing with the writer. “Am I the good friend?” you call again. “Am I the stand-in?” But then the other actors pick up where the scene left off and the director looks at you, hands on his hips, like he’s just stumbled onto a prime fool, and says, “What are you doing here? Isn’t somebody watching the door?” You wonder if, given the unstable ground, there’s anything you can do that’s appropriate for whatever will come, that will withstand the picking-away of time no matter what role you end up playing. In the fable, the best and brightest advisors of a caliph, who had asked for a phrase that was appropriate for all occasions, told him that the only one they could think of was “This too shall pass away.” But - I’ll confess to you - as a stepparent you kind of hope there is something less wise and more potent you can leave the children you want (very naturally) to see as somehow yours.
I have recently being waking out of a long depression. My writing hadn’t been going well; no one seemed to be interested in what I had to offer. My friends seemed too far away. My past couple of jobs weren’t especially challenging, and - since the last magazine I worked for went out of business, with a whimper, several months ago - unemployment hasn’t proved a refreshing experience either. I didn’t feel bright or resilient; I didn’t feel like myself at all. I wondered where the man had gone that I used to find it so easy to love. Well, as I said, I have been waking up from this, coming to see the foolishness of walking in circles of discouragement that dig me into a deeper and deeper rut. And as I have, I’ve managed to remember - like a glove I used to wear, a tune I used to hum, the bicycle I used to ride - what it feels like to be justified with the world, the cat’s meow, beloved, wonderful, deserving and able to do anything that crosses my path. I remember this so well only because, back when I was a teenager like other teenagers - when I was self-involved, barely adept, sometimes obnoxious (I’m sure), seething at every pore with careless judgment and impatient hormones - my own mom and dad treated me as if I was wonderful. They saw it when I was wonderful and equally when I wasn’t. They told it to me when it must have come out through gritted teeth. My mother was a woman of fiery temperament, who didn’t suffer fools gladly and rarely held back from explaining why, but the farthest she ever went in dressing me down was to say, when she was very hard-pressed, “I always love you, Mitchy, but sometimes I don’t like you very much” (which was rare, and stung). I don’t know if they were aware of it, but they were equipping me for the desert miles I would someday have to cross, placing the bone-knowledge that I was wonderful in my shirt pocket so that it was never more than a hand’s motion away, there to draw it out when I needed it and say, “Ah yes, I remember now: Yes, this is what it feels like. My place, my life: I am wonderful.” It must have cost them some pain to give this to me. They must have doubted at some moments that what they were saying was true. But they persisted, and left me with something that, because so so familiar, does not pass away. I don’t really have the words or the paper to thank them for that.
And it’s something that, simply because I’m here to bear witness, I can aspire to give to my own stepchildren, Jennifer and Alex, who are very, very wonderful as well.
ROMAN A CLEF
(Originally posted May 28, 2010)
I just watched Frantic last night, video on demand and - forgive me - I love Roman Polanski’s movies. I have no answer for the moralist’s question of how you can go on patronizing wonderful artists who also happen to be harmful human beings. The fact that a man can dazzle somebody with his camera doesn’t forgive his trespasses against underage girls, nor chip any time off his sentence. Well, it does, but it shouldn’t. If a murderer had painted The Creation of Adam, we would still be stuck with two absolutes: the murder and The Creation of Adam: and it would be a crime against humanity if we let the murder go unredressed just as it would be if we scraped clean the Sistine ceiling and gave Thomas Kinkade the commission. (One may be a greater crime than the other, but I have to confess, I go back and forth on which it is.) Perhaps the only commentary I’ve heard that rests on completely solid ground belongs to Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death penalty campaigner, who says, “Any human being is more than the worst thing he’s ever done.” And even that doesn’t give much guidance on whether we should give the paint brush back to the unrepentant frescoer/murderer or the movie camera back to the director of Chinatown. Perhaps so many people have been ridiculous about Polanski the persecuted filmmaker versus Polanski the rapist not for his sake but for their own, because they’d like their own path through Right And Wrong to be a little more stone-tablets-written-in-fire and a little less Sophie’s Choice.
Anyway: Frantic is not one of Polanski’s best movies, but just for that reason it’s simply amazing how much of him is in it - how he manages in nearly every film he makes, great and small, to create a story that plays out his own life with its own demons, only barely painted over like a dream. You scratch the surface and there, invariably, is an uglier, deeper, less forgiving, sometimes self-flagellating story on display.
Here for instance is Polanski’s life in a nutshell, in the years from 1969 to 1988, when Frantic was released. A successful filmmaker wakes up one day to discover that his wife has disappeared. (In fact she has been murdered in grisly fashion by the Manson family.) He doesn’t know how to cope. He flails around for help, but everybody is too busy with their own trivia; the only thing Hollywood people are really interested in, after all, is the next project. He gets involved with younger women, including the famous 13-year-old model he raped … and the young French actress Emmanuelle Seigner. People say he was always like this, that his tears for Sharon Tate are crocodile tears, that he was cheating on her, that their supposed great romance was a sham. He always contends that - whatever his faults, his infidelities - she was the love of his life.
Now, here is the movie. A successful doctor (Harrison Ford) comes out of the hotel shower, on a combined business trip / second honeymoon in Paris where so far he and his wife have been going back and forth singing Cole Porter’s “I love Paris in the springtime,” to discover that his wife has disappeared. He doesn’t know how to cope. He flails around looking for help - looking for someone who speaks English - but the hotel staff, the French police and the American embassy offer only the most perfunctory help. Each one in turn suggests that perhaps his wife has gone off to meet another man, that she is being unfaithful to him, that we’re not really seeing a crime but only the last legs of a marriage. He growls at them, “You’re talking about my wife,” but the question hangs in the air. The only lead he has is a suitcase - a dead-match for one of his own - that his wife mistakenly took at the airport. He breaks it open to find the dissheveled, random personal possessions of a young French woman he eventually tracks down at the scene of a grisly murder … a woman played by the young French actress Emmanuelle Seigner. Hmmm.
The two of them go around Paris trying to get the mistaken suitcase to the Middle Eastern criminals who are looking for a certain something in it (the details - like Alfred Hitchcock’s famous MacGuffins - are unimportant). Along the way she takes her clothes off in front of him (he closes a door to block the view). They run into colleagues of his, in town for the conference where he’s supposed to speak, who all note the young leather-clad woman at his side and raise their eyebrows. At one point, Ford realizes that all these people are now impediments to getting his wife back, so he plays on their assumptions and starts telling them Seigner is just a little piece he’s having on the side, and that they shouldn’t pay any attention to her. (”Has Paris really changed that much since I was here last?”) They end up at a nightclub, waiting to make the final exchange. Seigner - dressed in a blood-red dress, the same color as the dress in which he last saw his wife - drags him out onto the dance floor for a long, sexy body rub that the camera lingers over until you’re wondering what exactly this has to do with the plot. And at that moment Ford sees the man who has kidnapped his wife is and barrels straight over to him. The final final exchange takes place under a bridge along the Seine, where - visually, the way the shot is set up - Ford exchanges the one young, sexy, woman in a red dress for the older, duller, far less appealing woman in a red dress - there’s a moment where they cross, and you see them as alternatives, the younger one and the older one. And in this telling of the story, it’s the young woman who gets murdered, and the last scene has Ford in a taxi heading back to De Gaulle Airport, pulling the older woman against him and saying, “I love you.”
Which is the point at which my friend Dan Summers would say, “Paging Dr. Freud.” I think all my favorite artists are people who do this, who find ways of packaging and repackaging the traumas and exaltations of their own lives in one plot after another, but are always really having some kind of private conversation with themselves - the kind that typically comes in a moment of bliss too pure to explain, or at five o’clock in the morning, with the dismal gray light of a hangover morning looking in the window. You can just see Harrison Ford and even Emmanuelle Seigner (now Polanski’s second wife) going through the paces of what they thought was a tight Hollywood thriller, while Polanski is leaning over their shoulders, smiling, but saying to himself, this is what it felt like to hear Sharon was gone, this is how I feel about these younger women, and this is how I feel about my wife. Right now my son Alex is reading The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, another man who doled out pain to friends and lovers by the cupful. It’s a great great novel, one of my very favorites, that - along with The Power and The Glory, Monsignor Quixote, Travels With My Aunt, The End of the Affair and half a dozen others - is always telling the troubled unresolved story of Graham Greene.
ECONOMICS FOR POETS (PART ONE)
(Originally posted Oct. 5, 2010)
My college used to offer a course we called “Econ for Poets”; it meant, econ for people who had no interest in econ. That’s not what I mean by it here; I have no intention of slumming. No, I want to make a few points about economics for people who have something else of value in their lives besides economics and who heave a sigh when they look at a Schedule C or a stock prospectus and say, “All well and good, but what does any of this bullshit have to do with my poetry?” They - the poets - with their third-hand laptops and jobs in convenience stores and drawers full of rejection slips, have it in themselves to be the truly great capitalists - perhaps they already are! - the captains of (a sort of) industry that John D. Rockefeller and Gordon Gekko didn’t even know how to dream of being.
I was an economics major back in college because I wanted to understand how the world worked. I came out a great admirer of the free enterprise system but in what most of my Wharton business-school friends regarded as a peculiar way. I saw it like the electrical system in the walls of my apartment. It was a thing you could use. It had no morality or commandments built into the wiring; it was completely agnostic and laissez-faire. As long as you understood the system’s few simple rules, you could plug any appliance into its sockets and run it to your heart’s content. In fact the rules of the electrical system and of the free enterprise system were just about the same: Your only obligation to either Con Edison or the Invisible Hand was to pay your bills. If you could put in just enough hours at the mini-mart to keep your desk lamp burning and your tea on the stove while you wrote “Kublai Khan,” you could be a great (if incongruously 19th-century) poet. If your thrift store could sell just enough second-hand shirts to keep up the rent on the soup kitchen, you could continue to feed the poor. Or if you could sell enough SUVs to afford a sprawling estate in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, with 24-hour guards in the gatehouse, well, you could have your estate and your gatehouse. Free enterprise was exactly as it billed itself: No king or commissar or clansman could force you to do this when you wanted to do that. If you had the imagination to get the minimum necessary cash, by hook or by crook, you could live out your dream.
So what free enterprise turned out to be, in the end, was a great revealer of dreams. It pulled back the curtain on the hearts of men and women. It showed us their drives and desires; it showed what was in their souls. The poets, unleashed by free enterprise, were free to be poets; the greedy could pile up cash. You could see at a glance who was interesting, who was creative, who was tedious and who was vile.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, the vile like to tell their own version of this parable, and they have always had the money to do it. They are, it turns out, ungraciously unwilling to see themselves as vile. From Ozymandias to Saddam Hussein, they insist that their wealth (and the power that comes with it) are evidence of God’s blessing, a moral greatness, a contribution to humankind. And so, the vile of capitalism - and I’m not talking here about visionaries who, in the thrall of a great dream, have struggled to make it real (they can be ruthless people or wonderful people or both), but those others (you know who you are) who count their success in greenbacks, and think the angels crib their rankings from the Forbes 100 … the vile of capitalism have twisted the thinking of generations of otherwise good men and women who might have been poets or soup-kitchen owners or astrophysicists or explorers of the Nile and persuaded them that the free enterprise system is actually a philosophy that tells you how to behave. It’s not agnostic on questions of what’s valuable; it says that making money is valuable. It is what drives everything else; it’s what makes the rest of society possible. The people who spend their days piling up cash (rather than feeding the hungry, rather than painting the beautiful, rather than at home with their spouses and children) are the people you should admire. Paraphrasing Adam Smith (with something that he never actually said or meant), they say: Greed is good.
I say No. Greed … is greedy. Compassion is compassionate. Vision is visionary. Beauty is beautiful. No human quality is turned upside-down by the Invisible Hand of free enterprise and made into something it isn’t. Where your treasure is, as one Jesus of Nazareth put it, there your heart will be also. There is your portrait. There is who you are. Your bank balance doesn’t say anything about you, doesn’t give you worth if you don’t have worth, doesn’t give you beauty or morality - what describes you is instead the life that the bank balance manages to fund.
Ours isn’t the only way capitalism could play itself out, you know; free enterprise would work just as well without greed playing a central role. (In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith actually said, not that people should be greedy, but that if people were greedy, the Invisible Hand could nonetheless turn it into an advantage for society. If they weren’t greedy so much the better. Smith’s first great book, after all, was The Theory of Moral Sentiments.) I can picture a sort of capitalism on a South Seas island full of poets and lovers, where people have (reluctantly) worked hard enough and invented just enough to give themselves the comfort and room to write poetry and take walks together on the beach for most of the day. It is physically poorer than the countries of Western Europe and North America. It lacks Versailles and the Pyramids, the Golden Gate Bridge and F.A.O. Schwarz’s on Christmas Eve morning. But it is the bargain these people have struck with life; it reflects who they are. I can also picture a capitalism of absent-minded professors impatient with consumer goods if they stand in the way of space probes and particle accelerators; all of the living rooms are poorly furnished and stacked with 12-packs of Mountain Dew, but the technology is simply amazing.
What does the sort of capitalism we live in the United States reveal about us? This isn’t a stacked question; it’s an honest one. Does it reveal that we dream bigger dreams than the South Seas islanders? Or that we’ve traded poetry for consumer electronics? Or that we don’t know what to dream of, perhaps, or that we dream of such different things it can’t help but be a cacophony? Does it speak well of us or poorly of us? Or does it begin to teach a second lesson about capitalism, that it doesn’t - can’t - reflect any one person’s choice, but is always a social and collective choice, that (no matter how much we associate “free enterprise” and “individual freedom”) we always, inevitably, get stuck in a society we’ve all somehow chosen together, the poets and the money-grubbers, the beautiful and the vile?
ECONOMICS FOR POETS (PART TWO): Bill Gates on a desert island
(Originally posted Oct. 6, 2010)
I left off last time with the thought that an economy - whether it be a South Seas colony of poets, a nerdtopia of scientists or our own United States - is a social creation. Whatever affluence any one of the people in it manages to achieve depends, not just on his own individual effort, but on what all of the people in that economy have chosen to do, and what their parents and their parents’ parents chose to do. Bill Gates’ life would have turned out quite differently in an isolated colony of poets or of Mountain Dew-swilling scientists. We can earn so much here in the United States (to mangle an aphorism) only because we stand on the shoulders of giants. So I’ll freely admit, I owe this computer, this comfortable apartment I am writing from, the diplomas somewhere in storage and the photographs of exotic locales on my hard drive, not primarily to the sweat of my own (or even my industrious wife Neeta’s) brow, but to Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie, to the Jewish and Italian immigrants who sweated through 14-hour days on the Lower East Side, to the strikers who died in the Haymarket riots, to the soldiers on the field at Antietam, to the inventors of the zipper and the transistor, to the farmers who tore down the trees and broke the sod that crossed the continent, to the engineers who made the Boeing 747, to the Ellis Island clerk who took pity on my forebears … to all the people who shaped (and misshaped) the world to allow an Irish-English kid to find his way to a job on a newspaper for $50,000 a year. I simply did the work once I got there, and perhaps gave my own small gift to shaping the world in the book that I wrote and something I may have said or done for the people that I worked with. But I certainly worked no harder or more cleverly than the neolithic hunter-gatherer who got a basket of root vegetables and skin cancer for the same effort.
This vile people of capitalism I spoke of - the men and women whose primary aim is often to line their own pockets and yet who describe themselves grandly as “creators of wealth” and “providers of jobs” - use this fact of our interdependence in a peculiar way. They use it to say that all the rest of us owe a debt to them. If it weren’t for Henry Ford (they say) … if it weren’t for John D. Rockefeller … if it weren’t for the CEO, the investment banker, the startup entrepreneur and (on generous days) the research scientist - if it weren’t for the people (they contend) who are like me - the rest of you unimaginative, wage-earning hangers-on - you, you poets - wouldn’t have anything. (Well, you’d have your poetry.) We’ve earned every penny of our voluptuous bank accounts. We’ve earned our Greenwich, Connecticut, mansions (built on land cleared by Yankee farmers), our Hilton Head cottages (built on land cleared by slaves), our offices in skyscrapers (built by Mohawk construction workers).
To which I say, fine: My hat is off to you for any good work you may have done, but economic interdependence is (kind of by definition) a two-way street. There’s nothing you’ve created, built, invented or monetized that hasn’t involved all the rest of us, too. Put Bill Gates (or Henry Ford, or Glenn Beck) on a deserted island, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Even give him that charming volleyball, Wilson. And he will not create Microsoft, the Ford Motor Company or a media empire. He can’t do it without the programmers and the chipbuilders and the fibre-optic cable-layers … and the customers … and the jobs that give those customers enough money to afford Windows 7 … and the companies that use PCs in their factories and online stores, who make the customers want Windows 7 in the first place. On his little spit of land in the Pacific Bill Gates will live no better than the cleverest of neolithic hunter-gatherers. The wealth of nations isn’t really so easy to separate into the wealth of you and me, and the most humane of the great American entrepreneurs have realized this. Andrew Carnegie wrote that it was the responsibility and not the benevolence of the rich to invest their money in society or have all but a pittance taken away in inheritance taxes. He invested his own money in more than 2,500 public libraries around the world. Peter Cooper, the New York industrialist, wrote as early as the 1840s that ”the production of wealth is not the work of any one man, and the acquisition of great fortunes is not possible without the co-operation of multitudes of men.” So he founded the Cooper Union school, which for 150 years has provided a college education to each of its students completely free of charge.
Ayn Rand, that most pigheaded and pure of conservative writers, tried to forge a slam-dunk argument against this collectivist way of thinking in her novel Atlas Shrugged, by having not one lone castaway but all the really worthwhile people go off to a secret compound in, I believe, Colorado (which was prescient), a Utopia of Greed, where they created great wealth and scientific advancement exclusively for one another until all the lesser, dependent, wage-earning people left leaderless in places like Chicago and New York realized what they were missing and invited the great ones back. Her working title for the book was The Strike but it might as well have been The Tantrum. If the great ones want to go off to Colorado, as far as I personally am concerned, they’re free to do so. Yes, we may have to do without their gifts, but they will also have to do without ours. They can’t have New York (built by Irish cops and Jewish refugees and all the other Ellis Islanders); they can’t have Chicago (built by Pullman porters, gangsters and politicians); they can’t have New Orleans (built by pirates, pimps, creole chefs and more-than-moderate drinkers). They can’t have jazz or gospel or country music. They can’t have triple-A baseball. They can’t have the veterans of World War II. They can’t have laughter in crowded movie theaters or St. Patrick’s Day parades or the kind words that were said to me, along my way, by a thousand relatives, friends and strangers who would never receive an invitation to the Utopia of Greed. They can take Facebook, I suppose, but they can’t take the content. Oh yes, and they will have to mow their own lawns, type their own letters and bag their own groceries. As in all divorces, there would be pain and real loss if the Creators of Wealth ran off to Colorado, but there would also be a refreshing side. We could do without their chest-thumping whining and get on with our lives.
Put less snippishly, we should each of us confess, the great (as they style themselves) and the rest of us: We all benefit from the good works of others. We all carry the dead weight of others’ foolishness. No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Even if a self-important clod be washed away, our world would likely be the less. Which means only - if we’re really gracious about it - that we should be glad for one another’s gifts. And yet we each of us have to go home with a specific paycheck at the end of the day. How - in full view of our interdependence - do we carve up and divide the wealth we’ve created together?
ECONOMICS FOR POETS (PART THREE): Fairness? That's the other guy's job
(Originally posted Oct. 7, 2010)
Well, one way to divide up the wealth we’ve collectively created is to let the market do it for us. Not surprisingly, those who reap a huge reward from the market think this is a smashing idea and, by the way, absolutely fair (”I’ve earned every cent, and keep your tax collectors away from me!”) It’s worth hearing, though, what the people who invented the science of economics have to say about the fairness of the market’s rewards - to wit, nothing.
They brag quite easily about the market’s virtues in getting the right goods and services made. A shortage of engineers for a big project in Pittsburgh drives up their salary, and the high salary draws engineers to Pittsburgh. Big profits draw investors to Apple, where their money helps ensure that the beloved iPod will continue to improve. Prices go up and down in a thousand places in response to vagaries of demand; in the midst of this seemingly unmasterable complexity, people simply respond to the prices that affect them personally; and resources are shifted all over the map to solve the needs of production. Frighteningly efficient. Quite stunning, really. But fair? The economists shrug their shoulders. It has nothing to do with fairness. A human sloth who finds crude oil in his back yard will get the same reward as the inventor of a brilliant machine. One hard-working man will prosper, because the fickle finger of demand has strayed his way, while his equally hard-working neighbor will lose his shirt because his job has fallen out of favor. Great fortunes may stem from being close, at just the right moment, to a horrible disaster. Amadeo Giannini made his fortune lending money to San Francisco merchants: It required pluck, vision … and an earthquake and fire large enough to destroy the city. His business, now called the Bank of America, is the largest bank in the United States.
Economics (the economists say) pays all its attention to ensuring that producers respond to people’s demands. It doesn’t care what carnage is left in the producers’ own lives - in uprooting them from (say) Los Angeles and moving them to Pittsburgh, in destroying their livelihoods, in rewarding them for happenstance, in making them sudden millionaires or making them destitute. Like the talented but ruthless mercenaries who float through the background of so many action movies, like real Blackwater ops and CIA secret commandos who take pride in their tunnel vision and amorality, the Market does what’s necessary and lets God sort out what’s right.
It’s worth pausing to reflect that the whole reason we’ve saddled ourselves with such a strange, brutal system in the first place is a social reason: The market produces the goods and services “people” - meaning great masses of people - want. We’ve enslaved ourselves to free enterprise because it does something for our collective good. We could, of course, have set things up in our society any way we wanted; we could have let might decide right, as it did in the days of yore; there’s no natural reason, if we were going to depart from that, to have police enforce the right to own a million acres and not the right to eat. But “we’d” be fools to become socialists or communists or mercantilists … or live by feudalism or utopianism or the law of the jungle … because the market, more than any other system, makes “us” prosperous. My apologies to Milton Friedman and the Chicago school, but there are no “I”s in “the free market.”
So then, if the Market can’t be counted on to show us a fair way to divide up our collective wealth, how could we divide it up in a way that is fair? Well, I’m afraid we’d have to do it the old-fashioned way, by actually talking about fairness. For too long the Market has been the great black box in American life, the god you can’t question, the answer that stops all conversations, but it’s really just a thing like any other thing, a social arrangement, and it doesn’t have the power to rescue us from conversations we don’t want to have or facts we don’t want to face. Free enterprise isn’t alchemy. It doesn’t turn greed into virtue. It doesn’t turn compassion into vice. Put everything in American society through its meat grinder, and if, on the other side, you want to know what’s fair, you’re still going to have to ask yourself, “What’s fair?”
ECONOMICS FOR POETS (PART FOUR): The ladder of earning
(Originally posted Oct. 11, 2010)
So, what’s fair? I believe all great philosophical concepts have their toes planted firmly in mother Earth, so let’s start by talking about my mother, who for more than forty years of her life was a registered nurse - a member of an unarguably useful, middle-class profession. She worked hard and came home tired; I feel very protective of her. If she were living in New Jersey today and were average in every way, she would earn about $54,000 this year. For the sake of argument, let’s call that a fair salary for someone who works a normal 40-hour week and does no more or less than what’s necessary (which doesn’t describe my mother, but let’s say it did). If we were socialists and ideologically pure about it, everybody would be earning $54,000; we wouldn’t even think about money as a way to distinguish ourselves; if we had to be obsessed with something, we’d be obsessed with prestige or friendship or racking up followers on Twitter, but we’d no more think we ought to earn more money than our neighbor than we think today that we ought to have extra votes on election day or someone else’s seat on a lifeboat. To get back to this world, however, we aren’t indifferent to money, and that’s fortunate I suppose because the free market system would collapse if we were. There would be no way to get engineers to move to Cleveland (sorry, Cleveland). No one would burn the midnight oil. Everyone would work in convenience stores in Santa Barbara, California, or on the back side of Maui.
All of us agree, I suspect, on several reasons why different people should receive different rewards. The late-duty nurse whose alarm clock rings at 2 a.m. … The police officer whose next traffic stop might end in his own shooting … The startup entrepreneurs who binge-work to incarnate a vision … The chief executive who bears the stress of making an entire organization succeed - people like these do more, carry more, suffer more than convenience-store workers and so (we feel, or at least I do) they deserve some kind of outsize reward. I think that (with one exception) our ideas of what differences in pay are fair are all more or less of this sort, some form of paying people back for an extra effort they’ve made. I’m willing to do that and be generous about it. If someone works twice as many hours as my mother the New Jersey nurse, I say fine, pay them $108,000 a year … or even time-and-a-half, $135,000. If they also work twice as hard as my mother for each of those 16 hours a day, give them $270,000. If they’re in twice as dangerous or stressful an environment, kaching!, on up to $540,000. If they’ve got grad-school debt to pay off - lots and lots of grad school debt - or they’ve worked many years without any reward building up their business, let’s go all the way up to $1,080,000. I’m willing to pay an MBA-lawyer who bussed tables and took big loans to get through school, who works 80 hours a week without ever stopping for coffee and runs a corporation that makes dynamite right underneath his executive office, $1.08 million and even to thank him for what he does. But anything above and beyond that - any multi-million-dollar salary or billion dollar fortune - in terms of fairness, it’s pure theft. It’s received, sure enough, in a free-market system, but I don’t see how it can possibly be earned.
Our friends, the vile of capitalism, typically offer a vaguer, more pliable X factor to silence all arguments over their stratospheric compensation: their own unique talents, without which the creation of great wealth would have been impossible. We can’t all be Mozart, they might say. The lanky boy with the golden right arm who signs a deal with the Yankees, the musical prodigy from Liverpool who becomes a Beatle, the chief executive who just has that amazing way with people and with numbers (at least until the next market downturn) … without their certain je ne sais quoi the wealth that poured bounteously out of their teams, bands and businesses wouldn’t have existed at all. And so they deserve (the vile say) - well, gee, it’s hard to quantify, but I’d be tempted to say nearly all of the revenue their businesses produce. And why is that? Certainly great talents exist, and they are wonderful gifts to their possessors and to the world, but by and large those gifts are unearned. Mozart didn’t produce his five-year-old self, performing before the crowned heads of Europe. Twenty-year-old Albert Einstein didn’t produce the mind that could visualize riding on a beam of light. You might as well say they designed their own genes or gave birth to their own fathers. Anyone I’ve ever known with a great gift has worked in its thrall, almost as if he didn’t have a choice, to develop it. The fact that they’ve worked hard means nothing. Registered nurses earning $54,000 a year work hard, and would be happy to work harder if they could be rock stars or scientific visionaries. A gift doesn’t need money piled on top of it, either as an economic incentive or as a moral reward. It is its own reward.
Or if that doesn’t convince you, look at the darker, less often stated opposite tail of the X-factor argument. If the talented deserve extra rewards simply for giving us the fruit of their talents, then the untalented are getting way, way overpaid, aren’t they? Time to collect something back from those Down’s syndrome children, those mildly retarded, those physically handicapped - the brothers, sisters, children, parents we love who will never become either Yankee pitchers or registered nurses. If they deserve anything at all, then it’s surely no more than half - or a quarter or an eighth - of our $54,000 base. Isn’t that right?
In Time magazine I once read a short letter from a physician who had been appalled (if I recall) by an article about families that had gone bankrupt trying to pay a loved-one’s medical bills. It stuck in my mind and encapsulated everything that distinguishes the kind of thinking we’re doing here from the kind you normally hear on business shows and in testimony before angry Congressmen. The letter read in its entirety, “We live in a society, not an economy.” In the society, where all human truths are witnessed and all human values have a place, the CEO doesn’t necessarily earn much more than the nurse, and the garbageman who works in the pre-dawn hours slinging trash we won’t touch may earn more than the bond trader. The society’s ladder of earning bears only the screwiest relationship to the economy’s ladder of payment. How can we possibly bring the one in line with the other?
ECONOMICS FOR POETS (PART FIVE): One poisoned idea
(Originally posted Oct. 12, 2010)
One of the first books I read as an economics student in the late 1970s was Arthur Okun’s Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, and it wasn’t especially new when he wrote it, so the idea that we have to weigh the values of society against the values of the market is some of the most picked-over ground in the world of thought. I might as well (to an economist’s ear) be saying, “You know, war - hmmm - seems like a destructive thing.” But I believe the mistakes we make as a culture often turn on the subtly wrongheaded ways in which we hear our ground truths, the way we let them sound like something they don’t really mean.
“Equality” and “efficiency” - the two words economists like Okun use - are purely instrumental values. Equality serves our purposes in some ways, and efficiency in others. But in our mind’s ear (or in the blogosphere, the unofficial stenographer of our mind’s ear) we tend to think of The Big Tradeoff as between The Society and The Market. The Society favors equal votes, equal pay, a Norman Rockwell-esque great middle class; The Market insists on dangling huge rewards in front of people to drive them to emigrate, work hard into the night, develop their skills and so forth. Oh how to decide between these two great ideals! But if you think for a moment, only one of the two is really an end in itself. The Society is where we live; The Market is merely a tool for making the society better. We owe it no more allegiance than we owe the rake that’s swept up our yard or the Cuisinart that’s puréed our romesco sauce. The question before us is never The Society versus The Market, but always, how can we best use The Market to get The Society we want?
Or put the way the buyer of a new SUV might put it, thinking of all the road trips he’s wanted to take: How can I squeeze the most mileage out of this baby without running it into the ground?
We want a society that rewards people fairly. To get that out of The Market, without ruining this wonderful piece of machinery in the process, we have to make sure we let prices continue to go up and down as the needs of The Market require. We have to let engineers earn more in Cleveland; we have to let bankers profit from earthquakes; we have to let the millionaire get his millions and the redundant auto worker get his pink slip. Meanwhile, it’s enormously complicated (if you think about it) to decide what’s really a fair reward for each person’s work. Does an accountant deserve more than a soldier? Does an autoworker “earn” more than a nurse? Try juggling five, or ten, or ten thousand jobs againt one another, and we could run ourselves ragged trying to come up with a system of salaries to replace the one The Market whips off without even trying.
But there are a few generalizations we can make that will stand up to scrutiny. In general, the salaries and profits people receive correspond haphazardly to what they earn. But in general, the really unfair rewards lie at the top and bottom of the income scale. Among the rich are quite a number who receive more than anyone could possibly earn, or who benefit from inheritance and old boy’s club connections, or who’ve simply worked out a dodge for squeezing money from the system like juice from a lemon, because all they’re really concerned with is acquiring more money. Among the poor are quite a number who’ve lost jobs or suffered other indignities that have derailed an otherwise productive life, or who suffer from mental and physical diseases for which we’d be churls to punish them for, or who labor at useful jobs like teaching, social work or painting that they chose out of love (and so, for which the market doesn’t feel any great need to pay them). If we took a huge sum of money away from each of the top 20 percent and gave it to each of the bottom 20 percent, we wouldn’t be any closer to matching each individual to his or her fair reward, but we’d improve the fairness in general of an enormously complex system. So - after all this talk - as a practical matter, I come within eyeshot of the end just to say what a British prime minister might have said in 1910 or an American president as late as the 1960s, that a steeply progressive income tax would be a very good thing - even a “negative income tax” that pays the poorest of the poor a living wage and then taxes back a portion of each additional dollar they earn. It would preserve the incentives of even the wealthy to earn a little more (no matter what they may say to pollsters and political conventions about going off to Colorado) and the incentives of the poor to get a job on top of their dole. It keeps The Market well-oiled and improves The Society. Who said a good idea had to be a new one?
The primary thing that stands in the way of even so hoary and mundane an idea as the progressive tax (and any number of other practical and wise public policies) is another of those subtly wrongheaded ways in which we hear our ground truths - one poisoned idea that makes us feel cheated when we pay our taxes, offended when the poor speak out and sheepish about telling the rich (even the vile of capitalism) that they’re really a bunch of thieves. It’s the idea - when the salary check comes in the mail and hangs there, squeezed between our fingers, with its very specific dollars and cents - that this is ours, that we’ve earned this, that it belongs to us and nobody, nowhere has the right to take it away. Surely there are a lot of good things that come with that feeling: a sense of safety and rights and indirectly of freedom, a sense that nobody can question us or push us around, that our hard work has at least a minimum value that nobody has a right to challenge. All good things. But it also carries with it the poisoned idea that what the market pays is what you earn, that we aren’t in it all together, that wealth isn’t the product of multitudes, that it can all be separated out right down to the penny … that one man or woman does actually deserve ten million dollars, while another should actually be humbly grateful for food stamps.
“It’s my money.” This one idea, to the degree we believe it, that we feel our reflexes respond to it, defeats us before we begin, ensures that we will always live in an economy rather than a society or else some weird human-animal hybrid of the two. If for a single moment we could see that it was all a lottery, a big contraption, a game of Monopoly, a snarl of traffic, a productive mess … if we could look at our particular check when it comes in the mail and laugh at its absurdity (”I deserve only this while Paris Hilton has millions! I deserve this much while a crippled soldier can’t afford groceries!”) … if we could reduce our attachment to it, let it fade from our consciousness like a bad habit we know isn’t healthy for us now … we would see everything as differently as a Zen master sees a landscape and God sees the universe.
A little more, a little less. We would shrug: Whatever works! Meanwhile let’s get on with the business of living.
ECONOMICS FOR POETS (PART SIX): Who is an American?
(Originally posted Oct. 13, 2010)
“Economics,” as a discipline, used to be part of a larger discipline, “Political Economy,” and I think it’s lost some perspective in coming into its own. For us poets the economic question isn’t equilibrium or the efficient movement of resources, supply or demand - it isn’t even wealth or poverty - but how we can continue to be poets in the real and problematic world, and in that frame of mind, economics doesn’t stop at The Market’s edge. The way we slice up our collective wealth helps determine when we get married, whether we have children, how healthily we eat, what our cities look like, who runs our politics and - in the privacy of our own minds - how safe or desperate we feel, and whether we can look other people squarely in the eye or have to turn away when the subject of money comes up. Not to mention, it helps decide how many gifted writers we have who can devote their time to writing poetry. When I was in college, free market zealots used to slam self-described socialists or communists for being concerned only with material fairness or equality, for failing to see the importance of spiritual values like freedom and ambition. They can only have been wilfully blind. A system that leaves millions of people too poor and insecure to take part in politics, too vulnerable to speak up to their bosses, too dispirited to continue searching for work has failed, in a large way, on quite a few spiritual values. I think all of us are impoverished in the way we think about the interweaving of The Market and everything else we do. Otherwise how could the U.S. Supreme Court rule and rule again that donations to political campaigns can’t be limited because (in the most familiar paraphrase) “money equals speech,” without admitting that this overturns the whole constitutional order of equal citizenship and gives Bill Gates perhaps 5,000 times the right to speak of an average American family? To defend free speech by ensuring speech is unequal can only be the product of either Orwellian cynicism or an inability to come to grips with the role of money in our lives.
If we want to carve out the space for every American to be free, we have to give him or her the wherewithal to be financially secure, well educated, with equal access to the podium at town hall and many other things. Our political and welfare systems have tried to ensure that kind of freedom, while our market system has had more of a mixed effect. It’s made sure we’re so much wealthier than Russian serfs and Roman slaves that we have solid ground to stand on … yet so unequal to one another, in terms of power, wealth and access, that we (the great majority of us, the ones without ”real” money) feel vulnerable all the time. We live today with our feet in two worlds - one of equality, one of inequality - that we pretend are consistent with one another but are actually in perpetual tension.
I read a great book years ago, Robert Butow’s Tojo and the Coming of War, which described (in terms of Japan’s World War II prime minister as an individual and the Japanese middle class as a group) how a nation of many tendencies - artistic, warlike, isolationist, domineering, democratic and imperial - chose, during the 1920s, to set itself on a course of war and domination. Men like Tojo emphasized to their countrymen that Japan was the nation of samurai warriors and of their martial ethic, bushido, and that it was the Japanese way to invade and to conquer. Butow pointed out, however, that any nation of long history has many strands of tradition to choose from, that a Japanese leader could as easily have emphasized the country’s Shinto-influenced benevolence and tolerance, its Heian period artistry and poetry, its democratic Meiji constitution of 1890, its pre-19th century inwardness and isolation from the world. People are never bound to a single tradition, whether they’re choosing to embrace it or to rebel against it. They always make a choice - and are responsible to themselves and the world for which choice they make.
In the United States, among the many strands of our own history and culture to choose from, we have “free enterprise” on one hand and “democracy” on the other … and, because tradition has too many hands, leave-me-alone individualism (from Henry David Thoreau to the Unabomber) as a strong third. We are as familiar in our bones, in our blood, in our daydreams and in our fears with the political ideals of Thomas Jefferson as with the economic ideals of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. We know Norman Rockwell’s simple man, standing up to speak at a town meeting, as well as we know Horatio Alger. We respect the line of voters in front of a courthouse as much as the line of workers in front of a factory. But in the real world we have to choose among them, because the more we are loyal to the one, the more we are disloyal to the other. Are we first and foremost a community striving collectively for a good life, equal in our votes and in our fundamental value as human beings, or are we an assortment of individuals competing to win a race, where with victory comes money, power, influence and prestige? Should our laws and policies use the Market for the sake of democracy, or democracy for the sake of the Market?
This is an open question, and the last word I have to say on economics for poets.