Is this Your Homework Larry?

Culture, Economy, Media, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics


Among a certain class of Americans, those of us who go to “good” colleges and take, sometime during our freshman and sophomore years, some sort of introduction to sociology course, there is the universal experience of that one student. He is inevitably, invariably male; he is either in or has recently completed a course in biology, although he is almost certainly not a biology major; he finds, in almost every class, an opportunity to loudly and circularly suppose that some or other human social phenomenon is a direct analogue of some behavior in ant colonies or beehives or schools of fish or herds of gazelles. Mine was a boy who, after a section on suicide clustering, suggested that it could be explained quite easily, really; certain ants, after all, when ill or infirm, remove themselves from the nest, lest they burden their kin. So all those kids in Jersey, they, like, you know, they like knew that they were going to, like, be, like, a burden, you know, to society, because they weren’t, you know, going to, like, be successful or whatever, so, you know, you know what I’m saying.

He’s not without his charms. If consciousness is a continuum, from bacterium to baccalaureate, rather than just some crowning and discrete achievement of a select and tiny sliver of the mammalian class, then surely animals have plenty to teach us about ourselves, and surely animal societies have plenty to teach us about our own. And likewise, while I like to believe that our lives and beings are something more than the dull, material expression of DNA, that biology is not, in fact, destiny, I know that this belief amounts to a kind of self-praise and willful self-regard. “Oh, honey, you are special.” I believe in free will and self-determination, but let’s just say I accept that they must be subject to some reasonable natural limits.

But now over at, Ezra Klein’s intrepid effort to out-USA Today USA Today, Zach Beauchamp has discovered two political scientists who have discovered “circumstantial” evidence that human wars are the genetic remnant of animal territoriality. DNA is mentioned, but there are no double helices in sight; what’s meant is something more akin to the “animal spirits” that Tristram Shandy was so concerned with, or perhaps a kind of pre-genetic, crypto-Mendelian, semi-hemi-demi-Darwinian understanding of trait inheritance. In this case, the authors of a study, and the author of the article, notice that animals are territorial, that humans are territorial, that both come into intraspecies conflict over territory, and therefore, ergo, voilà. It has the remarkable distinction of being both self-evidently correct and skull-crushingly wrong. The deep roots of human territoriality are animal, but explaining organized human warfare in this manner has the motel smell of a husband telling his wife that he’s been fucking other women due to evolutionary mating imperatives. “Babe, calm down! Have you ever heard of bonobos, huh?”

Beauchamp treats territoriality among animals as an imponderable feature of “animal psychology”—he doesn’t mention, and you’ve got to assume he just doesn’t know, that the behaviors are largely about resource distribution, and, well, ya wonder if that’s got anything to do with warfare? Eh . . . He says that we “evolved from” animals, which is another one of those strictly true but effectively incorrect statements, a recapitulation of the old teleology that makes evolution a unidirectional progression from low to high, with humans not only its ultimate achievement but also its point. (He also—this is an aside—confuses accountancy and finance, claiming that a $100 real loss is identical to $100 in opportunity cost, all this by way of clumsily explaining loss aversion.) He uses the phrase “just a theory.” He gets to the end of the penultimate paragraph, then:

Toft and Johnson just don’t have any studies of human biology or evolution that directly show a biological impulse towards territoriality.

Phlogiston! God Bless You!

I’m not a religious man, but I empathize with the religious when they call this hooey scientism, the replacement of one set of hoary mythological clichés with their contemporary TED-talk equivalent—I mean, talk about inherited traits. If this kind of thing is science, then it is less Louis Pasteur than it is Aristotle, the general observation of a couple of different things with some shared trait or simultaneity, and then a vast leap of logic alone across the evidenceless abyss. The purpose of such speculation is not to clarify, illuminate, or discover, and Lord only knows, we wouldn’t want to waste our time devising some kind of double-blind. This, after all, is political science. Its purpose, rather, is moral flattery, an up-from-the-slime story in which our more regrettable and barbarous traits as people are written off as the bad debt of our evolutionary ancestors. And speaking of moral flattery, you might notice that “gang wars” are mentioned, and “ethnic” conflict, and Crimea in this great gallery of weeping over our remnant animalism, but nowhere is it explained how land tenure explains what America was doing, for example, in Iraq.

The Culture

Culture, Economy, Education, The Life of the Mind

Today, as Summers notes, the economy seems mostly back to normal — but joblessness is still endemic. Growth simply isn’t producing enough jobs. This is a more severe and more urgent problem than inequality. Moreover, fixing it is necessary, though not sufficient, to making real headway against inequality.

Ezra Klein thinks that the American left—bizarrely, he seems to include the Democratic Party in the category, but that is the least of his category errors, so we’ll leave it be—is overly concerned with the problem of income inequality and insufficiently concerned with unemployment. There is a sense in which he is correct. Too much economic discourse focuses on the narrow caste of people who, because they are mentally disordered, deranged, and in deep need of our pity and the best psychiatric treatment that our doctors can yet provide, waste their lives not in the pursuit of human joy and affection and invention and transcendence, but in the weird, obsessive accumulation of hundreds of millions of electronic credits. “Yes Mr. Lebowski, these unfortunate souls cannot love in the true sense of the word.” Marginal efforts to solve all of our ills by sending the taxman to shake a few more rubles from these sad gangsters are indeed doomed to fail. Most of their wealth is illusory, a product of the speculative machinery of the financial markets, soap bubble wealth, one good solar storm from evaporation.

I mention this because these billion-dollar fortunes are part of the same illusion that causes Ezra Klein and Larry summers to wonder “whether the country’s growth machine [is] so fundamentally broken that adequate demand required credit bubbles.” This is a question? Of course demand requires credit bubbles. Also, what is this growth stuff?

When a society financializes its economy as thoroughly as ours has, growth is nothing but a bubble; it is the computerized manipulation of electronic currency to cause numbers to get bigger. Growth in the sense of extracting more resources and making more things and hiring more people as the population increases is like Manifest Destiny, like the frontier. Eventually, you run out of Indians to swindle and massacre, and all the cars and TVs are made by robots. It’s the closing of the frontier, in the Jackson Turnerian turn of phrase. Economists call these phenomena “gains in productivity,” which just means that the fake pile of fake money that is our fake economy is self-inflating fast enough to make it appear that each little still-employed economic ant makes a larger share of the wealth. You take the big pile of money, divide it by some man-hour construct, and suddenly it appears that few workers are making all the wealth quite well, thank you very much. We need fewer people to make all this pretend money. For all the Tom Friedmans who lament the lack of “skills”—and really, has anyone ever managed to mention what any of these skills actually are, I mean, specifically—the larger problem is demand for workers. We just don’t need that many of you guys.

So Klein’s solution, the broad, technocratic consensus on both the left and the right, is that we need to figure out a way to create more jobs. The Democrats want to over-hire more road crews, and the Republicans want companies to use the windfall of reduced taxes to hire more phony middle managers, and then all that unnecessary employment will make it rain like a cash-heavy bar owner at a strip club. Regardless of the mechanism, though, all these jobs have one thing in common. They are fake.

Well, here is a quote from that congenial lunatic, Bucky Fuller, that’s been making the rounds lately:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

He said this in the seventies, so you can only imagine how true it is today. The increased automation of industrial production has reduced the necessity of employing lots of people. A few of us may invent the internet, or whatever, and be free to make our billions and cackle greedily over them in the lonely attics of our tacky mansions. Meanwhile, per Fuller, we ought to just give most people money to go to school, not so that they can Develop the Skills of Tomorrow Today in order to Win the Future against the Chinese, but so that they can do chemistry experiments or read Russian literature or ponder the mysteries of the Trinity or learn to throw pots. If Ezra Klein can make, say, what, a buck fifty—probably more?—to blog, then why can’t we just agree to pay everyone who takes cute pictures of their cat or makes lists of their favorite recipes fifty or sixty grand a year? Thesis: maintaining an interesting Tumblr is more closely related to labor in the classical sense than writing macros as an “analyst” in a Fortune 1,000 firm.

But really, this gets us back to those accumulators of immense fortunes, both individuals and corporations. Because we are addicted to primitive forms of exchange that are probably necessary to the allocation of goods in an environment of actual material scarcity, there is a sense that, by hoarding so many dollars, the very rich are preventing the poor from getting the currency required to acquire the things that they need. True, but in the long term, the solution is to recognize that we are actually a post-scarcity society; conditions of material deprivation are artificial products of the very economic system that is supposed to allocate goods. Thesis: inequality and poverty are failures of the supply chain. The problem is not the hoarding of money, but the persistent connection of money to things that we can easily produce and distribute to everyone without some conniving Whartonian middleman.

Have Plot, Will Unravel

Books and Literature, Culture

Although I’ve called him morally obtuse, I can’t bring myself to dislike Ezra Klein. He may be just another young hack on the make in Washington, a careerist and a faddish liberal, but unlike so many of his peers, there seems to be something accidental about his success, something less gratuitous and self-willed. But it still came too early, and it ruined him. He ought to be the most popular teacher at a middle school in Columbus, or the director of a nice Reform summer camp, underpaid but decent, one of those rare grown-ups we all remember as having steadied us through the awful middle passage of our youth. Instead, he writes for the Washington Post and makes speeches at think tanks. I can’t begrudge him his success, but I do almost pity him for it; he’ll run faster, stretch his arms father . . . . And one fine morning—

Anyway, Klein’s writing for the Post is drudgery; the interior monologue of staff-level Washington is unceasingly banal, a pseudo-economic pidgin of legalese and bad PR-firm argot so divorced from ordinary human concern or communication as to become a form of language-looking gibberish, lorem ipsum. But a friend of mine on twitter forwarded me his brief, recent musings on Gatsby, presumably occasioned by the arrival of a new, gaudy film, and if only because it occasioned a re-reading, I had to reply.

I don’t care for the phrase, great American novel, but you can’t escape it; it exists, at very least, as a genre, albeit more aspirational than actual. American literature is littered with the wreckage of titanic Summa Theologiæ, the preferred template. Fitzgerald himself attempted that sort of thing, and isn’t it interesting that his only truly remembered work is a mere 50,000 words that could nearly make Katherine Mansfield look loquacious? Even so, no one can quite agree what it is, or what it’s about; the fact that so slim a work can mean so many things to so many people, admirers and detractors alike, suggests something at once uncanny and ineffable about it, something inevitable, a word to which I’ll return

Gatsby isn’t my favorite novel, and you certainly won’t hear me, as you’ll hear some of its more hyperbolic admirers, call it perfect. There are a few perfect pieces of art in the world, but none of them is a novel. Fitzgerald’s lyricism sometimes gets the best of him, and he’s obviously burdened with some of the prejudices of his time, although we can never know which of these belong to the author and which of them to Nick Carraway. But you still won’t find a more well wrought or more finely honed book; 50,000 words seems like a trifle, but 50,000 words sustaining so singular a voice seem, to another writer, as impossible and daring as a guy walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon.

So. What to make of Klein’s complaint?

I love the writing and, for that matter most of the book. What I can’t stand is the finale.

The book’s denouement is a series of ever-more insane coincidences. Gatsby and Daisy hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian proves to be Tom’s mistress. Tom persuades her husband that Gatsby was driving the car. The husband kills Gatsby then kills himself.

That’s fine for fiction. Dark Knight Rises wasn’t very believable, either. But it’s a problem for a book with Something To Say. The end of the Great Gatsby doesn’t feel inevitable. It feels unlikely. And thus its lessons don’t mean much.

This, first of all, is a misreading, and I wonder if it isn’t in part the result of a bad memory for the particular details of the story. There are some well-known problems with the internal chronology of Gatsby, but this bit of plotting builds almost from the beginning. The connection between Tom, Wilson, and Wilson’s wife (Tom’s mistress) Myrtle isn’t just happenstance; the Wilson residence is on the main route between tony Long Island and the city; and the tragic inevitability of Myrtle’s death isn’t that Gatsby and Daisy run down some pedestrian who, mirabile visu, just happens to turn out to be Myrtle, but rather that Myrtle has been waiting and watching for Gatsby’s car, which she mistakenly believes to belong to Tom Buchanan, and that she runs out into traffic to try to stop it. If the line sets are visible and the first electric peeks out from behind the black border, still, the knowledge that you’re in the theater does not a deus ex machina make.

Hey, though, opinions may differ; reasonable adults may disagree. Of all the artifices of narrative fiction, plot is the most unnatural and the most unreal. One author’s elegant resolution is another man’s overwrought coincidence, and I’m not going to ding Klein too hard for falling into the latter camp, even if I do half suspect that it’s the result of a flawed recollection from a not-recent-enough reading. What I will toss tomatoes about, however, are the “lessons.”

The idea that Gatsby is a sort of sociological survey of the gilded age, with the characters as archetypes playing out changing ideas about wealth, status, and morality is an easy one, and wrong. I’m sorry, but you’ve mistaken this novel’s setting for its theme, the scenery for the schema. Fitzgerald was undoubtedly interested in money, class, and the passing away of the old guard in the face of something new, but all this is the background against which something more human moves. Gatsby is sometimes criticized for a lack of psychological depth, but this, like the desire for a less coincidental plot, is a kind of prudishness and a just-so belief about what a novel ought to be; it sounds like a nice old lady looking at a piece of great modern art and sighing, But what’s it a picture of? If Gatsby lacks some of the more ostentatious experimentation with perspective and consciousness that characterized high modernism, Fitzgerald did dare to challenge the convention that every character in a book must act in Cartesian accord with his own internal machinery. Talk about coincidence! Part of the magic in Gatsby is that its characters can’t be easily explained or psychoanalyzed. Like I said: human.

Klein says:

As Nick Gillespie writes, most of the Great Gatsby perceptively sketches a moment in which new money, new immigrants, a new economy, and new social mores were overwhelming the old order. The old order triumphs in the book, but only with the help of authorial providence. Absent that car ride, Gatsby’s story might have proven a happy one. And 88-years-later, when the film is being made by a guy named Baz Luhrmann in a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama, we know who really won, and it isn’t Tom. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right, at least up until the end.

We can leave aside for a moment the cheap teleology of social progress at the end, there, and the Nick Gillespie piece he cites is really just about Nick Gillespie, but right in the center of the paragraph is that same odd complaint, repeated. The story, absent “authorial providence,” a happy one? Once more, I’ve got to wonder when he last read the book. Gatsby’s and Daisy’s affair ends that day in the city, when she admits that she also loved her husband. She will stay with him. She won’t say that she never loved him; she can’t. When Tom tells the room that he and Daisy have been through things that none of them will understand, it’s devastating because it’s true. When, later, after the accident, we see Tom and Daisy through the window at the table together, his hand on hers, talking quietly, conspirators to the end, we are meant to realize that this was the only possible outcome with or without the accident. (As for the idea that Tom “wins,” that the book “old order triumphs,” well; Tom and Daisy flee, and Nick goes home as well. An odd victory, no?)

Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Jordan, the Wilsons, Wolfshiem—the title and Fitzgerald’s skillful deflection throughout obscure the fact that this is a book about Nick Carraway, who gives his voice and consciousness to the novel. Nick is an extraordinary character; poetic, ironic, sexually ambiguous, a liar—and Gatsby is a Bildungsroman of disappointment. He goes East to seek a fortune independent of his past, and it ends in failure and regret. The beatific image of the new world and the boundless future beckons only as a false promise; the present only ever becomes the past, and the future eternally recedes from us. It’s a terribly sad and pessimistic vision, although one with the ring of truth, and in a time when “a guy named Baz Lurhman” cranks out entertainments whose thin veneer of contemporaneity masks a devastating nostalgia for a vanished past and “a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama” likewise bubbles in the gloriously false promise of its own lost preeminence, I’d say a poet of disappointment is very much what we need.

Heroes in Error

Media, War and Politics

But at the core of my support for the war was an analytical failure I think about often: Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support — an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration. In particular, I supported Kenneth Pollack’s Iraq war.

Ezra Klein

No. The core of your support for the war was a moral failure. A guy who murders his wife doesn’t get to hide behind a claim about bad analysis after he discovers that she wasn’t in fact screwing the mailman. Oh, you invented an imaginary war to support? That isn’t bad analysis. It’s a crime.

You will note that the commentariat is currently full of decennial mea culpas, and what that tells you is that people like Ezra Klein who skipped the protests in order to type in favor of the death of thousands have been richly rewarded with careers in the popular media. This makes their post-hoc apologies completely of a kind with their antebellum cheerleading: it entails no personal risk and carries with it the prospect of professional advancement. For these people, commenting on war, “supporting” or “opposing” it is a matter of career advancement, totally lacking in human content. Six out of ten dentists prefer Afghanistan, four Iraq.

Let me tell you what Ezra Klein still believes. He believes that even in his utter failure, he was more right than the kids who skipped class to go swarm the National Mall. He believes their opposition to be adolescent protest and knee-jerk antagonism toward any foreign policy undertaken by the US. He believes that the grannies and Code Pink ladies and hippie undergrads and black storefront denominations who hollered the loudest were right only by accident; they were the big hand of the stopped clock and Iraq was the coincidental hour. They didn’t read The Threatening Storm . . . or The New Republic; they didn’t listen to Colin Powell’s UN presentation; they still haven’t heard of Stephen Hadley.

Phony empiricism in the service of being totally wrong is one of those grand American traditions, like tailgating or real estate speculation. Its perpetrators get to double their column inches, the first time in elaborate tautological error, the second time in grotesquely self-serving repentance  Perversely, in admitting to being total idiots who got everything backwards the first time around, all of their subsequent forward-looking pronouncements gain an additional patina of respectability; their past dimness somehow implies a present sagacity.

Ezra Klein is a policy reporter who was wrong about the most significant bit of policy in his adult lifetime. This makes him an up-and-coming star of journalism and a sought-after public intellectual.

Personally, I’ll stick with the kids and their dreadlocks and the grannies.