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.

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