Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Malthusian Malady

Of the writers who can safely be called much quoted but little read, the economist/philosopher T.R. Malthus sits near the head of the list. The basic argument of his Essay on the Principle of Population is known to everyone given rise to a whole school of pessimistic futurists, the Neo-Malthusians. But actually reading Malthus carefully (as I did for the first time recently) is very useful, and goes a long way to explaining why we never seem to arrive at the apocalyptic endgame that the essay, and Malthus's many successors, envision.

The argument that Malthus is known for is that rising population will strain the limits of the land, ultimately causing a crash of scarcity and famine--the so-called "Malthusian catastrophe." The conventional thinking now is that Malthus didn't anticipate the revolution in agriculture that would make it make it possible for the world to support a much greater population than it could in Malthus's time. But what's striking about going back to Malthus and his contemporary sources is not how little Malthus anticipated the future, but how slim the evidence was for his ideas in his own time.

Malthus's notion that population doubles in a generation was even stranger then than it seems now. Adam Smith estimated that the population of England doubled in roughly 500 years. Malthus supports his claims for a faster increase with some numbers from the German demographer J.P. Sussmilch. These come mainly from a chart that showed the population of the duchy of Pomerania doubling in about 60 years, which were followed by a period of epidemics and decline.

Sussmilch himself, however, did not subscribe to a theory anything like Malthus's. Actually, the opposite: Sussmilch believed (and I get this from a turn of the century English summary, little of Sussmilch's work has been translated into English, though you can get the original on Google books or get a sense of it here) that the world could support as many as 5 billion people. And note that this in 1761.

Was Malthus aware of this? Maybe not directly. He had cribbed Sussmilch's data from the summary of another English writer, the philosopher statistician and philosopher Richard Price, who included them in his Observations on Reversionary Payments (a fascinating early work on the demographics and economics of pensions). But this doesn't get Malthus a pass, because Price also didn't think those numbers backed anything like a Malthusian theory of population. On the contrary, Price believed that the population of England was ...  falling.

Price didn't think that drop was caused by anything like a Malthusian cycle of famines. He attributed it to to miserable urban conditions--Price provides some still heartbreaking numbers on lifespan and infant mortality in the cities of the time. On his populations estimates, which he got from tallies of housing stock, Price was probably off-base. What really matters here, however, is that from Price's viewpoint, it was population decline, not geometric growth, that was a problem, one he urged the state to remedy by discouraging urban migration. Malthus certainly did know Price's position on this, and he must have known that Price would likely object to his misreading. Since Price was already dead, Malthus didn't need to worry about it.

So where did Malthus go so wrong? The problem, it seems to me, was that Malthus was not (unlike his modern followers) aiming to predict a future catastrophe. In later editions of his Essay, Malthus detailed objections to welfare policies, arguing that they would ultimately just exacerbate the population problem and cause more suffering. The concerns of his first edition, though. are not ordinary politics, but teleological, and he concludes with two chapters of theodicy that use his population theory to explain the inevitability of human misery.

Somewhat like the hapless Dr. Pangloss of Voltaire's Candide, who is convinced that we live in the best of all possible worlds, Malthus thinks we live in the only possible world. The population theory starts from the premise that the world we have, with all its misery, is the only one God could have made and works backwards to prove it. Malthus expanded the Essay into the giant work we have now, filling it with whatever numbers he could find to illustrate his theory. All this is just layers and layers of icing on the cake--as Malthus himself admits, the theory he builds in the first edition is really indebted to just a few books by four authors(Adam Smith and Richard Price among them ). Having constructed such an unimpeachable proof he manages to find, unsurprisingly, a limitless array of data and anecdotes to support it.

Inevitably, this makes Malthus an absolutely terrible futurist. The population theory is what Malthus himself would probably have called called a too-perfect model. A proof that explains why the world is exactly as it must be is a very bad template for explaining how it can change. Thus the problem for his latter day acolytes: having subscribed to a proof that explains so well why any improvement in our condition will have a disastrous downside, they are perpetually left saying that we just haven't gotten to it yet.

PS: It's worth giving a shout-out here to Google Books, without which a post like this would be impossible. The ability to go back easily to the original sources of someone Malthus without weeks of library research is really new, and hopefully you'll see a lot more people doing it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ferris Bueller's Last Stand

One aim of this blog is to pick out unnoticed and interesting strands in the work of some of the world's great dead thinkers. I've already touched on Plato, Lincoln, Einstein, and, in my last post Kafka; so, as you might expect, there's no way I could avoid getting to John Hughes and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

In the era of Judd Apatow and Owen Wilson, we've had a procession of sad sack comic heros. The more banana peels the movie's slips on, the deeper his self loathing and the more intractable his hangups, the better. The comedy of the moment is one in which the main character is not only human, all too human, but virtually super human in his imperfections.These heros are the modern descendants of Charlie Chaplin's tramp and we love them for their hard won victories over themselves.

Except that, really, we don't. Or, at any rate, I don't. 
The thing about the Apatow school is that no matter how much sympathy you can muster for the main character, you'll never want to be him. You might, if you're nice, make a point of sitting down with him in the school cafeteria, but only if you're really secure about your own place in the pecking order.

Contrast this with the narrative style of Ferris Bueller, or the other great 1980s teen comedies. In Apatow world, the jokes always come at the expense of the hero. In John Hughes world, they never do. The Apatow hero muddles through in a hard evolution to self-knowledge. In the comedies of the eighties, on the other hand, the question is never how the hero will adapt, or (oh God, so much worse) “reform.” It's about how the protagonist will get over, get even, and, yeah, get laid. The hero's impossibly cool (Ferris Bueller) or impossibly smart (Winona Ryder's Veronica Sawyer in Heathers, the most clever nihilistic of those 80s movies). And always there's a scene—in Risky Business, much of the movie—where the hero's wearing dark glasses, the way of saying in a movie, “I see and know you, you don't see or know me.”

There's one thing that doesn't happen in all these movies. The lead character barely changes, sometimes not at all. Yes, by the end of Heathers Veronica does conclude that while's it's fine to kill some of the idiots, it's not okay to kill all all of them (if you've never had a moment when this was your overall appraisal of life, you're just not human). So the tired old question of Screenwriting 101—”How does the main character develop?”--is totally irrelevant. The answer, is that he (or in the case of Veronica Sawyer, she) doesn't.

This basic mode, in which the hero is always the one who is in the know and the joke is always on everyone around him, sums up the comedy I want. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is the most unapologetic of these, but its variations span a huge range of comedy. All of Bill Murray's career is devoted to exploring the hero who never changes; the whole point of Groundhog Day is having Murray's deadpan act demolish the central conceit that it's a story about a man who has to change. Or, in a different vein, there's Hawkeye in MASH—a TV show that works because Alan Alda never swerves from playing him as a classic romantic lead. Why should he ever change? He is perfect from the start.

There are lots of ways to be perfect in a comedy--the idiot savant, a la Austen Powers or Peter Sellars' Inspector Clouseau are in their way the sine qua non of comic perfection--but they all come down to this: you have to always be right. In the comedy I like, the hero's dignity remains not only intact, but unassaulted. Ferris Bueller World is the opposite of Apatow World, where the geeks are always okay, the imperfect is sympathetic, the uncool get their shot. This is the world in which the wimp can win if he tries enough and awkwardness is a virtue. It's supposed to appeal to those of us who've felt befuddled, woebegone, and unpopular.

Well, screw that. Yes, I can recognize the skill of Apatow, or of Seinfeld, whose talent is in always being his own straight man. But I won't ever really like like it. Give me Ferris Bueller, or for that matter Juno, any day. Skip the awkward mumblers and give me the wise alecks. Those are the comic heros I really empathize with, the ones who are not sympathetic, but admirable. Because you know what? Take it from a guy who was the biggest nerd in the school: we dorks really do think we have all the answers.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Franz Kafka, Still A Turn On

Writers whose names have been turned into adjectives are guaranteed to be name checked more often than read, none more so than Kafka. Yes, yes, we all know that the world becomes increasingly "Kafkaesque" with every minute. But just how little Kafka, or maybe how carelessly, becomes obvious when you suggest that Kafka is, well, an erotic writer. A grim, screwed up erotic writer, sure, but a writer who is explicit about sex, which is in the background everywhere and in the foreground every few pages.

Open to any chapter of The Trial (you can get it online here, though in what seems to be a dated translation), and you're likelu to hit an erotic scene/ The book begins with an uncomfortable discussion in K.'s neighbor's bedroom, and continues with K. watching out for the attractive neighbor, Fraulein Bustner and then realizing that she will think he is spying on her. His first appearance in court is interrupted by what seems to be an attempted rape (a common theme--and the centerpiece of "A Country Doctor", one of Kafka's best stories) right in the courtroom. And his visit to the lawyer is stymied when K. leaves the room to have sex with the maid (yes, another common Kafka theme) who's called him by smashing a plate against the wall, a setup that would not be out of place in a late night softcore movie. In a good way, I think.

I'm not going to try to do a close reading of Kafka here. Close readings of this sort are harder than they might seem, in part because whenever with Kafka you think you know what's going on, there's sex interrupting. It's worth mentioning, though, how beautifully the reception of Kafka falls into the classic Austro-Hungarian theme of repression. Freud is supposed to be all about sex, even when he's not. And Kafka is supposed to be all about the conflict of man and society and all that jazz, even when he most obviously is not. In this way Kafka--who an old professor of mine tried to prove was a "comic" writer (I admit, I don't really see it)--does have the last laugh.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Francis Bacon--Or, Of Bloggishness

The standard complaint of writers in the era of the blogging culture is that readers demand brevity and immediacy and no longer have any patience. Writers want readers who pay attention, and rarely get them. But is this entirely a bad thing? A little while ago I went back to Francis Bacon's Essays and what strikes the modern reader is just how bloggy they are. They vary in length from very short (some are just a long paragraph) to, well, short. There is no writer in the English language who expects less patience from his readers. I won't quote the opening sentences, because if you quote one you have to quote them all. Bacon is sure that if he has not grabbed you at the opening, he won't keep you long. Okay, I'll quote one, the beginning of the first essay, Of Truth: "'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."

That's not a bad epigraph for the whole collection; the special thing about Bacon is that he absolutely doesn't demand or expect that anyone will stay a moment longer than he keeps them entertained. No one reads the Essays straight through, which is why he gets away with repeating himself a bit (virtue is "like a rich stone that is best plain set" while truth is like a pearl "which showeth best by day"). And like a blogger with an eye on the Google results, his titles are simple, announcing in no more than a word or two what the essay will be about. Even in this very short form, Bacon is discursive and bounces around, never really on message. In catering to the reader's impatience, Bacon has nothing to learn from the supposed attention deprived 21st century. What distinguishes him, though, is what there is to be learned from him. What sets Bacon apart is not just how effectively he begins, but that he almost never ends up in the same place he started.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

We Know You All Too Well Here, Mr. Van Gogh

How can some of the greatest paintings of history also be the most boring? I found myself thinking this at the Museum of Modern Art's small Van Gogh show, while staring at The Night Cafe and noticing that it aroused nothing in me but a recognition of how little the basic elements of the dive bar have changed in more than a hundred years. Starry Night was even worse. I had trouble getting past the people crowding in to see it, and in just a few seconds had glimpsed enough to decide it wasn't worth the bother. Without doubt, these are great paintings. But we have seen them reproduced so many times that whatever power adhered to them once, it has been rubbed away by handling.

The age of reproduction has not, after all, marked the death of the prestige of the unique work of art. Just the opposite: the mega auction and blockbuster show have turned the iconic works of art history into super-objects for which crowds line up to parade past and say that they have seen the real thing in itself. But the more powerful the brands become, the more they deprive the paintings of any possible interest as works of art. Art is supposed to inspire transcendence, but the entry into that transcendence is novelty and we've been hit over the head with the Night Cafe so often that there's just nothing new in it to find. I got less out of it than I did from Stevedores in Arles, a lesser known, and probably lesser, Van Gogh, let alone from other paintings I chanced on in a stroll through the museum, such as Giovanni Pistoletto's Man With Yellow Pants .

Is Giovanni Pistoletto then a greater artist than Van Gogh? Well, no (and a dumb question: brand name art and the publicizing of auction prizes makes it inevitable that people will think of painting as a competition). But Man With Yellow Pants, a portrait of a man seen from the back, painted on a bright piece of steel that reflects the viewer--and so, as it happens, can't really be reproduced in a book and so is immune to the kind of assault against which a Van Gogh has no defenses--is clever. If I saw it over and over, I would get tired of it. But I'm not there yet. And maybe I won't be. There are paintings that we don't tire of looking at and can find something new in every time. Invariably, though, these are not the paintings that have been served up to us and branded “great” like steaks inspected and marked “prime” by the USDA, but those that feel like we have somehow discovered them ourselves.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Useful Antidote To Obvious Ideas And The Idea Of The Obvious

Even educated people commonly think that Einstein's theory of relativity is impossible to understand. This hasn't been helped by generations of explanations involving smoke and railway carriages, garbled versions of what started as a less than perfectly clear explanation by Einstein himself (to his credit, he tried mightily to make his theory comprehensible to non-physicists). I won't claim to have any reasonable grasp of the full "general theory" that Einstein ultimately derived. But after years of believing it was beyond my ken, I was stunned when I opened up Einstein's own 1916 book for the general reader to find just how dramatically simple the insight that motivated Einstein was, and how accessible the "special theory"--that's the one with e=mc2 is.

The version that most people get of the theory of relativity tends to stop when the eyes glaze over and before it gets to the interesting part, somewhere in the middle of a long explanation of relative motion. If the little Honda is heading toward the rickety old Eldorado with the drunk driver and both of them speedometers that reads 75 miles an hour, they're coming together at a total of 150 miles an hour. In a universe with nothing else, you can say the Honda's coming toward the Cadillac at 150 miles an hour. Or the Cadillac's coming toward the Honda at 150 miles an hour--it's the same no-fault relative kind of thing. Is there anybody who doesn't get this?

That is as far as folks get, because the only thing a longer version of this adds is confusion. The part that people don't get to is this: when the Cadillac turns on its headlights (too late, or the cars wouldn't be headed for a collision), the lights from the beams is heading away from the Cadillac at ... the speed of light. It's headed toward the Honda at the speed of light. The speed of light stays the same np matter how fast you're moving towards or away from it. If the driver of the Honda puts on the brakes, the light doesn't take any longer to get to him. All speed is relative, except that of light, which is always the same.

Obviously this is impossible, right? Or not. Up to Einstein, it seemed that way, and physicists worked hard to come up with fudge factors that would resolve the paradox and slow down or speed up light to avoid contradictions. Einstein's incredible insight was to say that instead of complicating things with additional special rules, you had to simplify. And the way to simplify things was to get rid of exactly the part that people were most certain of: the meaning of space and time. If motion is relative and the speed of light is constant, well, that meant that as you get closer to the speed of light what had to change was distance and time. And in that case, as Einstein puts it:

There is not the least incompatability between the principle of relativity and the law of propagation of light.

I think that the better you understand Einstein, the more inspiring his achievement appears. Many people could have come up with Einstein's theory before him. It is not that the math is so difficult (though that part of Einstein's book is not easy going). It is that no one could bear to accept that the constant speed of light had been proved experimentally while the most basic and immovable ideas about space and time had not. You can't get rid of the first, so you had to lose the second.

So Einstein's theory proceeds essentially not by adding a new idea, but getting rid of a very basic idea that every one up to him had taken for granted. All the rest follows from that. What Einstein does is discard the obvious in favor of the provable. In the history of intellectual life, Einstein's contribution is to demonstrate in a spectacular way not that "everything is relative" (a meaningless cliche) but that there is no idea--none--so intuitively obvious that it trumps experiment and observation.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Karl Marx, The Market, And The Hidden Jew

When I was in college, a frequently assigned text in literature and philosophy classes was Karl Marx's On The Jewish Question, about the relationship between political and religious freedom. I don't know if anybody ever got to the end of it--I certainly didn't then--and I have the feeling it wasn't many, because I don't recall anyone being especially shocked by the punchline:

Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew. What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time. ...In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.

Kind of a bombshell, ain't? Doesn't read so well after all these years. I bring it up not in an effort to throw more dirt on the grave of Marxism (it's buried well enough), but because it seems to me to have some interesting resonance for the one part of Marx that is still relevant, the critique of the values of the market. Marx's basic point that the market imbues our lives with a scale of values that we do not choose and that in its pervasiveness hides the possibility of other values is one that has a great degree of force. Its attraction has been equally clear to the left and the right, and in that sense is pretty non-partisan.

What's striking about the end of On The Jewish Question, however, is how deeply encoded Marx's anti-semitism is in the critique of the market. The critique of the market involves an attack on the Jew--and a particular kind of attack, coming from the child of converted Jews. In Marx's vehemence I read a degree of shame. The sneakiness of the Jew, the Jew as liar, is a common trope of anti-semitism. The converted Jew is the Jew squared: the Jew is purported to be hidden, and the converted Jew is ... a hidden Jew. The more he tries to run, the more of a Jew he becomes (this is captured in the challenge of Freud's construction in The Resistance to Psychoanalysis, in which he pointedly describes himself as " a Jew who is not afraid to admit that he is a Jew.")

The sense of the inescapability of Jewishness to the converted Jew hangs over the critique of the market. It has sometimes struck me that some of the people who claim most fervently to reject the values of the market in theory cling to them most strongly in practice (not difficult, because in fact the market is extremely good at co-opting, recycling, and retailing anti-marketism: half the advertising industry is based on this). The critique of the market holds inside it the same doubt that seems to have afflicted Marx. Very often the claims of rejecting the values of the market leave the suspicion that inside those doing the loud rejecting is still a hidden Market Man, beholden to the same standards of popular appeal and commercial success, just (like the hidden Jew) pushed further inside.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"If I Could Save The Union Without Freeing Any Slave..."

About a month ago we passed the 150th anniversary of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, and having missed commenting on it for the last 150 years, I don't think coming in another month late makes too much difference. I recently read part (not all) of the debates, and they help answer the question that has always puzzled me about Lincoln. Everybody knows that Lincoln told Horace Greeley that if he could save the Union without freeing a slave, he'd have done so. Now, this has to be perplexing to any modern person, because it leaves open the basic question of what the hell was the justification for Civil War if it wasn't freeing the slaves?

I feel like most of what I've read about Lincoln manages to avoid giving a direct answer to this question, which is incredibly disappointing, because it has to be the most interesting question about Lincoln. The debates help a lot in getting to this, because they make clear the context for what Lincoln told Greeley. Lincoln says about slavery:

I think that [Stephen Douglas], and those acting with him, have placed that institution on a new basis, which looks to the perpetuity and nationalization of slavery. And while it is placed upon this new basis, I say, and I have said that I believe we shall not have peace upon the question until the opponents of slavery arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or, on the other hand, that its advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

To Lincoln's thinking, preserving the Union without freeing the slaves wasn't one of the options. That option had been sealed off, and he believed that it had been sealed off not by him, but by the South and the apologists for the South. For those opposed to slavery, there were no more concessions left to give. Just maintaining the status quo and letting the slave states maintain the abhorrent institution was clearly not enough. The South had been offered that and much more. As Lincoln saw it, the only demand left was that slavery should not only be permitted, but expanded into the free states. For Lincoln, the political realities of slavery (he outlines these in a fascinating way in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed guaranteed the political ascendency in the South of the most intransigently pro-slavery faction. And that meant the inevitability of war.

It was not a question of just letting the South go, because the South did not want merely to go and be left on its own. It had been offered the chance to be left alone and much more, and that was never good enough. The last demand that was on the table was one that Lincoln would not countenance: not just that slavery be tolerated, but that it should be expanded and perpetuated. So the question of just letting things lie as they were was a false one. It was an option that the South and its supporters had themselves taken off the table, and to concede any more, even if it was possible, would do nothing but delay the coming catastrophe. Thus the famous sentence: "If we cannot live together as brothers, how will we live together as enemies?" Or, in other words, if we are already close to war now, why does anyone think that we will not be at war after we split into two countries?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Plato, Ancient Escape Artist

A lot of people seem to think that philosophy is about finding the good, the true and the beautiful, and these people are often the same ones who are pretty convinced that they know what those things are already. This is what I could never stand about the presentation of Plato: the Socratic dialogue is supposed to be a means of self-help, a way of getting to an answer if you just nod "yes" at the right moments.

Plato is a whole lot more interesting than that. I read the Gorgias a little while ago, and what struck me most was its vertiginous pessimism. The Gorgias is the story of a public debate, involving Socrates, two "philosophers," and the politician Callicles. The fact that the debate is in public, essentially on a stage, is key. Nobody in it is going to be persuaded of anything. Socrates gets the philosophers, Gorgias and his student Polus, to agree with him in proper Socratic fashion. But then Callicles messes it all up, basically saying, sure, Polus (Gorgias's student) will agree with Socrates that tyranny's bad--because there's no way he's going to stand up in front of a room and give them an answer they don't want to hear. And then Callicles accuses Socrates himself of rehearsing arguments that will be palatable to the listeners, and repeatedly calls him on playing to the audience.

That is in fact what Socrates is doing, as when he challenges Callicles to say one good thing he's done, and Callicles says, "You're being contentious." I'm pretty sure that the way we're supposed to take this is that Callicles means, "Look, I said my piece. And now because you know I have political ambitions, you're backing me into a corner and forcing me to give you nonsense about the public interest at heart, because that's what people expect."

Here the initial positions have gotten totally reversed. Socrates is the one who started out saying he doesn't care whom he persuades or how many people are with him. But now he's tweaking Callicles; he's saying, "Well, if you want to persuade people to let you govern, you're gonna have to start talking about what's just and good."

Nobody, including Socrates, is really speaking freely and what is supposed to be a dialogue about virtue turns into a discussion of whether the actors are actually saying what they think or just flattering the audience. The dialogue is not about tyranny or virtue, but about persuasion. The best line occurs when when Socrates asks Callicles if he should be the city's physician or its flatterer. And Callicles say, "You should be the flatterer." The intro to the online edition calls Callicles's answer "ingenuous," which is 100 percent off base.

That just totally ignores all the next lines, which make clear that Callicles is being the opposite of ingenuous: he's openly insulting Socrates. Callicles' insult really gets to the core of the issue. His concept of debate is that it's a tool to get the power that you want. And on Callicles' view, someone like Socrates, who has no "power" in the conventional sense, is limited to saying the things that his audience won't object to.

Ultimately Socrates wins the point, though it's a close call, and there's no pretence that he's actually persuaded anyone. He wins on Callicles' terms, by demonstrating that he holds the trump card:

If I died because I have no powers of flattery or rhetoric, I am very sure that you would not find me repining at death. For no man who is not an utter fool and coward is afraid of death itself, but he is afraid of doing wrong. For to go to the world below having one's soul full of injustice is the last and worst of all evils.

Let's put this in context for a second. Callicles has said that he has the power to kill, maim, and torture. Which may be all well and good, except that Callicles, a man trying to maintain or achieve political power, does not have the power merely to say what he really thinks in front of an audience. Socrates does have that power, while Callicles' sort of power is no concern for Socrates because Socrates is not afraid of death. Socrates' indifference to death makes him untouchable, and so his power trumps Callicles'.

Or so he claims. Whether in fact Socrates, or especially Plato (who had more interest in political power) believes this is an open question. Socrates drank the hemlock. Plato several times lost the goodwill of his political patrons, and each time he chose the much less philosophical path of cut-and-run.