Sunday, May 18, 2014

Short Cuts

Other people’s narratives can be tricky stuff to handle
The narrative arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward expropriation.

— Yours Truly

Scene: Two weeks ago, Your Faithful Bloggist took exception to two paragraphs buried deep within a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century by prolific economist Tyler Cowen. Said economist objected to my exception, dismissing it, in large part, as indicative of faulty framing of the underlying issue. Said YFB replied shortly thereafter, dismissing Cowen’s dismissal in turn as a bull-headed, tone deaf, and lazily written mischaracterization of my remarks. To date, Herr Doktor Cowen has declined to respond.

Conclusion: It seems whatever small brick Tyler Cowen thought my essay contributed to the structure of his meta-narrative of sociocultural reaction to Thomas Piketty’s work was ultimately unimportant enough to him that it does not bother him I have taken it back. Given that he willfully misinterpreted or mischaracterized it as a brick in the first place, I cannot say I am displeased.

Corollary: The practice of verbal judo—in which one attempts to redirect the force and power of one’s opponent’s words against him—requires dexterity with words, and such skill is not necessarily related to the intellectual prowess or force of ideas behind them.
Also: Don’t mess with a messer.
Also also: If Martin Wolf can’t intimidate me, there’s no way in hell Tyler Cowen can.

Scene: This past week, the incestuous echo chamber that is journalism was roiled by the unexpected firing of Jill Abramson, the Executive Editor of The New York Times. Imagine rolling a flash bang grenade into a warehouse full of 100,000 mockingbirds and your mind’s ear just might hear a pale imitation of the uproar, cacophony, and panic this has caused among the professional scrivening class. Of course, a hundred thousand theories and stories are blooming around this event, approximately 100,000 of which take the form of “What the Firing of Jill Abramson Really Means.” This, for instance, is a timely example.

Conclusion: Notwithstanding the force of any or all of these narratives—entrenched sexism, the personal and managerial flaws of Ms Abramson herself, or the vicious effects of third generation nepotism on the executive suite of the newspaper of record, all of which are plausible as contributing factors—getting somewhat lost in the kerfuffle seems to be the ineluctable fact that success or failure in the executive ranks of large corporate organizations is driven in large measure by politics. And politics, as we all know, is a simmering melange of personality, prejudice, path dependency, and conflicting issues of greater or lesser substance which intersect and interact in highly specific and often unexpected ways depending on the circumstances at hand. Very rarely can they be interpreted correctly by outsiders and, if truth be told, as often as not they remain opaque to insiders too. Therefore, the hubris of outside pundits opining on the real (primary) reason anything happens at the top of any large organization is laughable. Having been party to such organizations over the course of my own career, I can testify that power moves usually happen in response to a combination of multiple such factors, and it is the height of folly, even in retrospect, to assign superior weight to any one of them.

Corollary: Sorry to puncture your balloons, Single Issue Commentators, but when it comes to organizational dynamics you’re mostly full of shit.
Also: Oversimplifying complex phenomena to promote your hobby horse doesn’t fool anybody who matters, and it sure doesn’t help your agenda.

Scene: Also this past week, a widely followed and respected pseudonymous commentator on issues of municipal finance, financial markets, and other things on Twitter outed herself. She did this, in her words, because reporters from fixed income finance rag The Bond Buyer had apparently pieced together her real identity from various sources and were calling widely across the close knit municipal finance community trying to confirm it. This of course led to many of these people—many of whom knew her by her nom de plume Bond Girl (or @munilass) on Twitter but did not know her in real life—flooding her office with phone calls and emails warning her of The Bond Buyer’s actions. In order to keep control of her own narrative as much as she could, she announced her own identity on Twitter and began deleting her old tweets. Five minutes later, by her account, reporters from Bloomberg called to interview her for an article which ignored her authority and stature in the market in favor of gossip and personal innuendo. This episode has apparently created widespread disgust within the muni and markets communities against both Bond Buyer and Bloomberg, and has led several market participants to swear off acting as sources for either publication in the future. It did not help that Bloomberg subsequently attempted to smooth things over by publishing a humorous take on their reveal which turned Bond Girl into a sex object. More than a few people wondered openly whether Bloomberg would have “apologized” to a man in such a fashion.

Conclusion: I mean really, people, I admit I have a dog in this fight,1,2 but what the fuck? What newspaper worth its pretensions to being a source of industry news, knowledge, and analysis undermines a known industry expert and potentially puts her career at risk in order to titillate readers with trivia they will forget in 48 hours? What public benefit did this serve? Bond Girl was highly respected (if not always agreed with) for her insightful, informed, forceful opinions and analysis which she published on Twitter (and, for a long time, on a blog also) as well as a fun and interesting personality. In addition, she spent countless hours helping reporters from Bond Buyer, Bloomberg, and elsewhere by acting as an unpaid and uncredited source of information and analysis in the muni finance market. Call me crazy, but this seems like a very expensive bridge to burn for a very small bonfire.

Corollary: Burning sources for no good reason strikes me as a very stupid way to run a newsroom. I thought that’s why editors make the big bucks: for editorial judgment.
Also: Don’t shit where you eat.

Epilogue: We all have our bullshit stories to tell. Most of the time, the primary and only audience we have for them is ourselves. Sometimes, however, somebody or other will try to expropriate your story and replace it or recast it as their bullshit story, for reasons of their own. While this may not strictly be the narrative fallacy as commonly understood, it certainly is fallacious.

It’s your story. Don’t let the bastards take it from you.

1 I have explained my own rationale for maintaing a pseudonymous profile online and why—contra many non-pseudonymous bloviators—I believe pseudonymous commenters can add real value to public discourse elsewhere at length. However, I am under no illusion that I am safe from being outed at any time in the future. I have left enough clues, intentional and unintentional, over the course of my seven plus years online that someone in possession of one or two key facts about me in real life should be able to triangulate me to this identity. I am sure it will happen at some point down the line, if it has not already. I can only hope, however, that when it does the person in question will realize the trivial fact of my real identity will add virtually nothing good, bad, or even interesting to people’s understanding of me and will keep it secret to themselves. If they do not, well, then I will have to rely on discovering their home address and my knowledge of ancient ninja assassination techniques to extract suitable revenge.
2 The fact that I consider Bond Girl to be a friend is, of course, irrelevant to my argument. It is, however, highly relevant to me.

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Plural of Anecdote Is Bullet Point

Damn, those Barbaros are some handsome looking people, aren’t they?
Giovanni Tiepolo, The Glorification of the Barbaro Family, ca. 1750
Who have you offended, masters, that you are thus
bound to your answer? this learned constable is
too cunning to be understood: what’s your offence?

— William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

I suppose I should feel bad, Dear Readers, that Famous Economist and Man About Town Tyler Cowen had to interrupt his gustatory survey of Oaxacan tamale stands and their culinary influence on Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee growers recently in order to phone in a brief but blistering PowerPoint takedown of my recent critique of two paragraphs of his work. After all, who am I, an obscure, tendentious, financial parasite and peanut gallery denizen, to deprive the grateful masses of even one iota of Professor Cowen’s penetrating insight into all things economic, cultural, and quotidian? He is already famously cutting into his enormous backlog of polymathic munificence in order to mount a sustained, comprehensive attack on creeping inequality-ism being foisted upon an unwitting public by that current media darling and French Communist pest, Thomas Piketty. The last thing he needs is to take even ten minutes of his precious time to dash off crushing telegraphic responses to putzes like me. For shame, ED, for shame. Fie upon me.

But since he did, I suppose it would be the height of irresponsibility and moral turpitude for me not to reply, howsoever briefly I am able, in kind.1 I wish for your benefit as well as mine, O Long-Suffering Readers, that I knew what the hell he was talking about.

* * *

Since Professor Cowen addresses my cheeky presumption with his famously Delphic and opaque bullet points, let me follow form:

1. He opens his piece with praise for my writing skill. Since this is a compliment, I should thank Professor Cowen, although I suspect it belongs rather more to a species of damning with faint praise—or praising with faint damns—than genuine appreciation, given what follows. Nevertheless, I will plumb the depths of my magnanimous soul and take it at face value. Thank you, Professor.

2. He blasts my piece as blinkered by my “framing of the problem in terms of inequality and inequality alone.” He claims I have, in his own scare quotes, “inequality on the brain.” This I find odd for two reasons:

3. One, given that my original response was to a two paragraph tangent in a lengthy review and critique by Dr. Cowen of Thomas Piketty’s Capital—a work the fundamental premise of which, arguable or not, seems to be universally agreed upon by everyone in Western Civilization and beyond except Tyler Cowen to be the history, causes, and effects of unequal distribution of wealth in capitalist society—I would pose the key question: What the fuck are we supposed to be talking about when we talk about Piketty? Isn’t that the entire point of the culture-wide discussion we seem to be having about this work? It’s like he blasted me for having Plato on the brain while discussing The Republic. I don’t get it.

4. Two, my original reading of the Tyler Cowen passage in question interpreted his remarks to say that certain 19th Century (primarily visual and literary) artists benefited and were able to pursue their work by virtue of inherited wealth or the support of bequests and wealthy family members. His “static blocks of wealth” promoted, in my terms, “cultural dynamism,” which, in the context of his remarks, seems to carry positive connotations, howsoever he fails to explain or describe what he means by it. He seems to chastise Piketty for overlooking that wealth can promote artistic and intellectual activity which enriches society at large. Upon careful rereading, I cannot perceive that my reading of this passage is notably idiosyncratic or egregiously wrong. And yet I challenged it, claiming, inter alia, that

  • Cowen never defines what he means by the dynamism he claims for 19th Century European society, and how these artists and their like promoted it. Cultures can be rich, complex, and lasting without exhibiting qualities which the average person would claim to be “dynamic” (viz., Ancient Egypt). Slapping such a label on an entire century without deigning to justify it to the cheap seats is just sloppy argumentation.
  • Cowen does not justify, by focusing on this particular period of French and European history—presumably to contradict Piketty’s negative characterization of the other socioeconomic effects of increased wealth inequality—why the wealth which purportedly funded these artists’ and writers’ cultural production was particularly notable or different from the sources of wealth and income in different periods of history, when wealth inequality was lower or higher, or why or indeed whether cultural production supported by other peoples’ money in 19th Century France was any more dynamic, complex, interesting, or long lasting than cultural production which has taken place in other, similar or very different (from a wealth inequality point of view) periods of history. (In contrast I claim that, compared to what came before and after, it was nothing unusually dynamic or distinctive from an artistic, literary, or cultural point of view.)
  • Cowen does not even approach an acknowledgment of the key fact which I assert: that artists, writers, and other laborers in the mines of culture throughout history have almost always been reliant upon monetary patronage of some sort to fund their life and work. This is particularly true of visual artists, with which I am most familiar, and who from time immemorial have mostly carried on their trade in the service of kings, pharaohs, Popes, aristocrats, feudal lords, and other rich and powerful bigwigs who commissioned their work to glorify themselves and the sources of their socioeconomic power. I have no idea whence Professor Cowen derives the assertion my arguments are intemperate, wrong, doubtful, or exaggerated, and he makes no effort in turn to document this, other than to default to an argument from authority (his own, natch) based on five books he claims to have published on the subject. The one book he does cite directly—we may presume to most directly contradict my arguments—does nothing of the kind, arguing principally that market economies and their encouragement of popular culture have salutary effects on high culture. I did not think we were talking about markets, Professor Cowen. I thought we were talking about “static blocks of wealth.” Oops.
5. Oh, and while we’re at it, cooking is not an art. Period.

* * *

In fact, if I interpret the opacity of Dr. Cowen’s prose and arguments correctly, we do not now and did not then disagree on one fundamental point: historically, accumulated wealth—whether of rulers, family, or solicitous strangers—has been a huge support to the legions of fine artists, musicians, and writers, and intellectuals who have labored to enrich our culture. With extraordinarily few exceptions, artists have not been wealthy themselves, but rather have had to rely on the kindness of strangers and family to support them as they strive to produce meaningful art. (I am not talking about popular artists, who are another species entirely.)

But this, I would posit to you, is neither an indictment nor an endorsement of equal or unequal wealth distribution. It just is. This is the key point of my previous post, that fine art is fundamentally superfluous and irrelevant to the core activities and economic structures which drive a society. It is a parasite, a lichen or Spanish Moss which clings to the tree of society, lives off it and, if we spectators are lucky, makes the tree more attractive or at least picturesque, without killing it or stunting its growth. Artists will find a way to fund themselves in any society. If artists cannot support themselves, they will find someone else to do so, or they will give up their brushes and pens and get a real job. In many respects, it is easier to be an artist when there are lots of silly rich people around to fund your painting, poems, or plays. In many respects, it is better for culture if there are large, static blocks of concentrated wealth which can be tapped via flattery, boredom, vanity, guilt, or a sense of social gratitude or obligation to fund luxury activities like painting, sculpture, fine music, plays, and the like. Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic legacy is just one example among many.

But I take exception to the argument, which I sense Professor Cowen is making, howsoever he would squirm to deny it,2 that art and culture justify the existence of concentrated blocks of wealth; i.e., wealth inequality. I am a huge supporter of the arts, and I would fight hard to preserve their vitality and dynamism, even at the cost of many other valuable things, like improved economic security and opportunity for broader swathes of society than we seem to accommodate at present. But they must be weighed in the balance, and debated, with a clear eye to the facts, and without prejudging the outcome.

Overall, I think Dr. Cowen’s rebuttal is a good example of how easily and quickly one can go awry by an obsession with justifying the status quo by whatever means necessary. It also shows the drawbacks of a relative unfamiliarity with the actual arguments of your opponent, including for that matter the recent post by Yours Truly.

* * *

I trust Professor Cowen can now put the minor inconvenience of my interference behind him, and resume dazzling us with oracular pronouncements of exquisite incomprehensibility. I would not want to deprive my fellow members of society of this boundless font of cultural dynamism.

Related reading:
Tyler Cowen, 19th century inequality and the arts (Marginal Revolution, May 7, 2014)
Ozymandias at the Art Gallery (May 3, 2014)

1 You know, of course, if you are regular readers of this site, how completely and utterly I will fail to do so. (Be brief, that is.)
2 And if I have misread him, and he is not arguing this, I am arguing against those who would read his remarks to do so. It is not that hard to imagine.

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ozymandias at the Art Gallery

Peaceful lookin’, ain’t it?
Henri Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1914
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

— T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land

Economist-überblogger Tyler Cowen slips a bizarre digression into his recent critique of The Book Which Everybody Intends to Read Once They Stop Reading All the Reviews Everybody Else Is Writing About It,1 a.k.a. Thomas Piketty’s Capital:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.
Now, I am no economist, and I have not yet read the book either, but my impression so far is that Piketty, if he is criticizing anything, is criticizing the economic stasis and sluggishness he posits attaches to rentier society, as well as deleterious socioeconomic effects he claims significant economic inequality has on politics and society. For what it is worth, economics certainly seems to be the focus of the rest of Professor Cowen’s essay as well, or I am no reader of English prose.

But in medias res Cowen takes a detour to praise the cultural dynamism and productivity of 19th Century France, which he claims results from the substantial socioeconomic inequality of the period. This is a pivot too far.

* * *

It is a pivot too far for several reasons. First, it completely begs the question posed by Henry Farrell:

If you want to argue that Piketty (and other critics of inequality) fail to appreciate how inequality fosters the “dynamic productivity” of culture, you really need to show how culture is more dynamic under high inequality than it is under conditions of low inequality. Otherwise, your argument is beside the point (if all that you’re saying is that high inequality has some cultural payoffs while admitting that low inequality has greater payoffs, your criticism is probably not worth articulating in the first place).

Second, it completely begs the question of comparative cultural dynamism. How “dynamic” was European (French, whatever) culture in the bad old days of inequality in the 18th Century or indeed the modernist period of cultural upheaval, capital destruction, and wholesale collapse of entrenched socioeconomic inequality during the 20th? Was the 19th Century anything special, or was it in fact just another arbitrary division of the calendar superimposed over a self-referential process of cultural development which had endogenous and exogenous sources of extraordinary complexity and diversity? Do we really want to stack transitionalists like Corot, Courbet, and Monet up against innovators like Braque, Picasso, Matisse, the Abstract Expressionists, or even Andy Warhol and start discussing dynamism? Perhaps Professor Cowen better toddle on down to the GMU Art History Department for a short tutorial on Modern Western Art History before he embarrasses himself further.2

Third, I think a careful survey of fine arts and literature for, oh, say the last thirty gazillion centuries would establish that most artists (or culture workers, as Herr Doktor Cowen might like to deem them), have always lived at the edge of personal insolvency and economic irrelevance for most of their productive lives. Artists who have been rich and economically independent during their lifetimes have generally been as rare as hens’ teeth, and often as aesthetically pleasing. (Peter Paul Rubens, banker manqué and factory artist, Jeff Koons, bond trader manqué and factory artist, and Damien Hirst, artist manqué and factory artist, come easily to mind.) In other words, most artists and writers have been scraping by on whatever they can beg, borrow, or steal for millennia. If family bequests or wealthy relations were not at hand, they relied on rich patrons or, failing everything else, garden variety employment. (T.S. Eliot was a schoolteacher, book reviewer, and publishing executive, for example.) The point is, art of almost any stripe is not a profession at which the average schmo (or even average globe-straddling genius) can earn a decent living: somebody needs to support you. For most of recorded history, it has been rich patrons, like the Egyptian pharaohs, the Borgias, or Stevie Cohen. The fact that for some intermittent periods some artists’ patrons happened to share the same DNA is largely irrelevant.

* * *

Lastly, and most importantly, one needs to acknowledge that cultural achievement, dynamism, or meaningfulness—however you want to label or measure it—takes place in a space largely orthogonal to the socioeconomic arrangements, income and wealth distribution, and justice inherent in any particular society. Great art, literature, music, and intellectual argument has often been produced in what most of us nowadays, from the comfortable vantage point of our liberal capitalist democracies, would consider absolute shitholes of society. Ancient Egypt (slavery), Athenian democracy (slavery), Renaissance Italy (everything but slavery, as far as I know), and 20th Century Western civilization (which killed more people through violence and starvation than ever before in history) are shining examples of cultures which produced rich, enduring, dynamic, and productive cultural, artistic, and intellectual legacies. The artists and thinkers who created those legacies often did so with the support and cash of patrons whom progressive thinkers nowadays would like to throw into prisons and lose the keys, if not execute outright.

This makes complete sense, by the way, if you think about it for even a moment. Art and intellectual argument is almost universally a complete luxury, from a societal point of view. People and societies do not want to spend scarce and valuable resources penning poems, composing concertos, painting frescoes, or developing reasoned arguments when they are struggling to avoid starvation, disease, or the cutting edge of their enemy’s sword. Most people don’t even want to think about consuming such cultural delicacies until they have achieved some sort of socioeconomic security and comfort. No wonder artists and intellectuals have starved through the ages: most people don’t give a shit about what they are trying to produce. The ones who do are the people with the resources, leisure time, and egos to satisfy by employing scribblers and daubers to enliven their idle hours. In other words, the very rich.

Now whether our society (or any society) can reach a point of growth and surplus such that more than a tiny minority of driven, obsessive, narcissistic personalities can and want to make a living contributing to the cultural patrimony of their civilization is a question well beyond this writer’s pay grade. But I think it is absolutely irrefutable that great cultural achievement can go hand in hand with staggering social inequality and injustice. From a historical point of view, that is the normal state of affairs.

There is an argument to be made—which I would not make, by the way—that great cultural achievement requires great social inequality to thrive and survive. I think we have had enough recent evidence that this is not true to refute it. But I also think the apologists for increased economic inequality, like Professor Cowen, have a very steep hill to climb in arguing that such cultural achievement justifies the social and economic misery and stagnation which are the primary outcomes of massive economic inequality.

And that, I am reliably led to believe, is the ill Thomas Piketty seeks to cure.

Related reading:
Tyler Cowen, Capital Punishment: Why a Global Tax on Wealth Won’t End Inequality (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2014)
Henry Farrell, Inequality and the arts (Crooked Timber, April 30, 2014)
A Painting Is Not a Refrigerator (October 6, 2012)
Luxe, Calme et Volupté (April 16, 2011)

1 Yes, I am one of them.
2 I mean, I know the guy’s supposed to be a brilliant polymath and all, but Jesus, what ill-informed idiocy. Related: how does an economist define (relative) cultural dynamism, anyway? I’m waiting…

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.