Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (II)

6, 8 and 9 November

Monday 6th

Last week, Kathleen attended a Bitcoin event in Florida. While there, she had a conversation with an Austrian economist, currently in the middle of a fellowship at Harvard, who was very enthusiastic about the book he was reading. After he said a few words about it, Kathleen said, “My husband would be very interested in that.” So she wrote down the particulars. Of course, the next time we talked, she didn’t have her notes handy, but she remembered the title — and I remembered where my copy of the book was. It was The Passions and the Interests, by Albert O Hirschman. I read it for the first time four years ago.

It was another one of those magic-seeming moments, when the book that I ought to read next simply presents itself. As I recalled Hirschman’s little essay in economic history, there was a line of argument, running roughly from Bacon to Hume, and flourishing in the thought of Baron de Montesquieu and Sir James Steuart, that distinguished interests, as predictable and benign (perhaps even constructive), from passions, which were violent and unruly, and that then proposed that interests could offset, or countervail, passions. The role that this line of thinking, however implicit, played in the development of liberal politics seems obvious, so I read The Passions and the Interests again.

Subtitled Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph, Hirschman’s book takes a line of Montesquieu for its epigram:

Et il est heureux pour les hommes d’être dans une situation où, pendant que leurs passions leur inspirent la pensée d’être méchants, ils ont pourtant intérêts de ne pas l’être.

It is fortunate for men that, while their passions incline them toward wickedness, it is in their interest not to be. (Esprit des Lois, Book XXI)

What I didn’t remember until I re-read the book was that Adam Smith not only abandoned but effaced this line of thinking, replacing Montesquieu’s idea of a marketplace controlled by checks and balances with one in which unfettered self-interest singlehandedly created prosperity. He saw interests and passions as synonymous, just as thinkers prior to Bacon had done. Montesquieu’s faith in le doux commerce — an idea that Marx and Engels openly mocked — was naive at best.

Central to Hirschman’s study is the role of change in time: old circumstances generate new conditions in which it is difficult to imagine or remember the old ones. The thinkers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century who contributed to the passions/interest argument were looking, energetically and almost desperately, for a means of restraining the destructive force of aristocratic “heroism.” The partial success of their search is attested by Romantic disaffection with the commercial peace that the Enlightenment brought about. The Gothic Revival began only minutes after thinkers like Montesquieu congratulated themselves on having gotten rid of all the old barbarisms that they denounced with the label “Gothic.” Hirschman puts it pungently: In sum, capitalism was supposed to accomplish exactly what was soon to be denounced as its worst feature. (132) He cautions that, while history never repeats itself exactly, ignorance of history may condemn thinkers to recur quite precisely to ideas that have demonstrably failed in the past.

Hirschman is also engaged with the notion of the intended, but unrealized consequences of social action. We are familiar with unintended, realized consequences because they are there to see. The abuse of Facebook is perhaps the leading instance at this moment in time of unintended consequences. Hirschman considers the unintended consequences of Calvin’s doctrines of predestination upon the growth of European commerce, but only to consider at the same time the intended but unrealized consequences of the passions/interest argument — a concurrent development. If capitalism did not turn out to be inherently stabilizing, Hirschman concludes, then it is in the general interest to forget it was ever expected to be.

[W]hat social order could long survive the dual awareness that it was adopted with the firm expectation that it would solve certain problems, and that it clearly and abysmally fails to do so? (131)

Setting aside Hirschman’s particular economic case, it seems to me that his conclusion applies with grim force to the liberal Civil Rights project of the Fifties and Sixties. This was supposed to unite all Americans in a common citizenship, but the patchwork of voting, schooling, and housing laws that constituted the actual program signally failed to achieve anything of the kind. As Hirschman says on the same page, “the illusory expectations that are associated with certain social decisions at the time of their adoption help keep their real future effects from view.” If you put these observations together, you pass through the looking-glass into a world in which social objectives, despite being set aside or forgotten, continue to mask their failure. For fifty years, the Democratic Party minimized its legislative commitment to equality for black Americans while pretending that equality had been achieved. The climax of this delusion was the election of Barack Obama as President. We now  know that this remarkable event precipitated right-wing movements throughout the country that were determined to demonstrate just how little progress had been made over time. And black Americans themselves felt obliged to remind us that their lives matter.


Wednesday 8th

In September, the New York Times Book Review published an essay by Douglas Brinkley on the topic of Larry McMurtry, a writer whose short journalism I have often enjoyed but whose books I have never read. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, Brinkley, who teaches history at Rice University, was inspired to re-read the three novels that constitute McMurtry’s “Houston” trilogy. In his judgment, they had held up well. What interested me was the idea of reading a novel with whose now-distant setting I was personally familiar. McMurtry wasn’t writing historical fiction, of course, any more than (aside from one or two exotics) Trollope was. But the Houston of 1960 was already being plowed under when I arrived at the end of the decade. I thought I would give the first one, Moving On, a try. It took a while to engage me; I was not immediately attracted to the picaresque road movie that takes up the first quarter of the book. But I liked the tone of it, and the heroine, Patsy Carpenter, appealed enormously: an intelligent girl — very much a girl, no matter that she’s married and sexually candid — trying to make a place for herself in the respectable world. When the action settled in Houston, where Patsy’s husband enrolls as a graduate student in literature at Rice, I found myself reading with the keenest attentiveness.

So keen was I that when Fleming Park was mentioned, I had to have a look at Google Maps, because I couldn’t remember just where it was. It’s between the Rice campus and the neighborhood where my first mother-in-law built a modernist house, on North Boulevard. Early in my marriage to her daughter, before the house was built, this quietly formidable woman made a deal with me. Money in some form or other would come my way if I would keep the grass mowed at the empty lot. She provided me with a gas-powered lawnmower for the purpose. I was young and inexperienced enough to accept the proposition. I did not yet know myself very well; I did not understand how non-existent, except as a source of annoying guilt, that empty lot would be in my imagination. I utterly failed to keep my part of the bargain. Not long after the house was built, my wife decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore, and she took refuge at her mother’s. Many years later, my daughter told me that new owners had demolished her grandmother’s house and built something more conventional for the neighborhood.

As long as I was “there,” I thought I’d have a look at my parent’s house, in Tanglewood, a tract that was developed in the Fifties. Tanglewood was developed rather like the Monopoly board, with the smaller houses at the south edge grading to ever-larger ones at toward the north. My parents’ house was at the rich end, on Sturbridge — just “Sturbridge,” no “road” or “drive” — and, encompassing 5500 square feet, it was not what the term “ranch house” calls to mind. Like all the homes at that end of Tanglewood, it was a low-slung building, with elements borrowed from both the English cottage — a leaded, diamond-paned bow window adorned the only stretch of the front wall that wasn’t hidden by bushes — and the Palm Beach villa.

For all its size and comfort, it always struck me as totally unimpressive. I don’t mean that it wasn’t ostentatious (although it wasn’t), only that it made no impression of any kind, except that of making no impression. A lot of brick and window and shrubbery went into the effort of being unmemorable. It wasn’t ugly, but it was, somehow, not architecture. It would take me decades to admit what the choice of this house had to tell me about my parents, because, at the time, the only message that got through was that they had no taste, and that wasn’t true. If I never looked at the house without a feeling of disappointment, that was because I didn’t know how to look at it. Now I know that, to my parents, both raised in the Midwest, the house on Sturbridge was a great relief from the pretensions of the Northeast to which they had been transplanted as young people.

When Google Maps’ street view function was introduced, I “passed” in front of the house a few times. The last time I looked, a few years ago, someone had had the very bad idea of imposing a mad portico upon the front door. I can’t remember its details, but the effect was Las Vegas. It made the façade memorable in the worst sort of way. The other night, wondering about the latest status of this mistake, I dragged the map across the screen until Tanglewood and then Sturbridge came into view. There I had a shock. There could be no doubt about it. Our house had been removed, demolished, undone. The pool and the patio were gone, too. Aside from a strip of driveway, and the crowns of some very mature trees, there was nothing but grass.

The curious part of my brain quickly learned that a number of other houses close to the now-vacant lot were not the ones that I remembered. Immediately to the west, somebody had put up a broad center-hall Colonial, with white clapboard and black shutters. It looked not terribly unlike the house that we had left behind in Bronxville, where it belonged. Much less agreeable was the house now across the street, a Southwestern confection of stucco and red tiles, with an appalling motel-like porte-cochère jutting out from the front. Already, during my last years in Houston, people were talking about “tear-downs,” perfectly nice houses that were razed to make way for bigger and better ones. My parents’ house was over sixty years old. My father had had to rewire it and replace the air-conditioning, staggering expenses. Perhaps the slab cracked. (If you don’t know what that would mean, you don’t know how lucky you are.) Things get old, and nothing is forever.

In some other part of my brain, all I was aware of was annihilation. I had not set foot inside the house since 1978, but the place where I had set my foot no longer existed to step into. A major setting of the most interesting decade of my life (in the sense of the Chinese curse) had been wiped off the surface of the earth; now it existed only in the minds of a handful of people. In fact, of course, my parents’ house had ceased to exist, except as a shell, the moment the new owners moved in, nearly forty years ago. It had been another house, for other people, for a very long time. But for most of that time, it had looked the same, which made it easy to pretend that it was still the same inside as well. I had taken the monstrous alteration to the entrance as a great insult, but utter erasure was almost impossible to comprehend.

Once upon a time, I should have had to journey back to Houston to make this discovery. The return itself would have done much to prepare me for the enormity. I haven’t been to Houston since 1991, and a great many things have changed, even if, as I suspect, it is still the town that it was when it became the fourth-largest city in the United States. A friend, if I still had friends in Houston, might have told me that the house had been torn down. But I came upon it all unsuspecting, snooping through Google Maps. I believe that it was the sheer ease of finding out that the house was gone that made its disappearance so overwhelming.

When I went back to have a second look, I noted that the street view is dated October 2015; perhaps there is a new house there now, yet to appear on the satellite photo. If you’re in the area, have a look, and drop me a line. Be sure to take a picture!


Thursday 9th

“The Paradise Papers” — how oddly appropriate this nickname is. Is it supposed to refer to Bermuda, where a law firm called Appleby and numerous corporate-services providers have been busy planting money in tax-free plots? Although quite pleasant for parts of the year, Bermuda is too hot in summer and too chilly in winter to pass for heaven. What I take the name to signify is the unrealistic fantasy of legal tax evasion. Call it a tragedy of the uncommons: when too many players park too much wealth in hidden accounts, laws will be changed.

Inevitably, the early reports were studded with boldfaced names, from Madonna to Her Majesty. But focusing on individuals is a mistake, as is worrying about getting caught. If you don’t stand so close to the problem, if you step back and see it from the ordinary person’s perspective, the Paradise Papers project a blurry galaxy of élite entitlement. Not only do élites have all the money, but they write laws that allow them to keep all the money, too. The ordinary person is a chump who’s supposed to pay taxes. The élites have created a paradise in which taxes are not imposed. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve done.

A duty-free paradise: the French aristocracy thought it lived in one, too, before the Revolution. The nobility was exempted from taxation because it provided the national defense. That was the theory, but by 1789 it had long since ceased to correspond to reality. What is expected of the American élite? What are the rewards? Liberal democracies do not recognize élites as a social or political class, and this may be a mistake, a bit of constitutional naïveté. In the absence of official status and explicit responsibilities, élites exercise their power in the shadows cast by groves of dense legislation. No wonder Donald Trump’s supporters want to chop things down.


I have been thinking about business. I’m beginning to gather some notes. It’s hard not to sound as if I were plotting out a treatise.

What is business? It’s a way of making money that can be entered into without professional training.

There seem to be three kinds of business. First, there is commerce. Trading. For a long time, this was the only kind of business, because the second, manufacturing, was not extensive enough to be differentiated from it, and because the third, extraction and development, was captured by property owners, quite often royalties. Anyway, there they are.

Commerce has experienced well-publicized vicissitudes in what we call the Information Age, particularly in the area of retail sales. It is not clear how this turbulence will settle. Whatever happens, commerce will remain the most vibrant, socially important kind of business. I include banking and transportation under this heading, and I find it useful to call commercial business organizations firms.

Extraction and development involve altering the surface and accessible contents of the planet. Although people have been building towns for millennia, and nabobs have undertaken many monumental works, development as we understand dates back to the Seventeenth Century, when property owners began sponsoring coherent building projects. The Place Vendôme in Paris is a fine example. The duc de Vendôme divided a piece of land into a central square and surrounding lots. The lots were leased to prospective builders, who were bound to erect their structures behind uniform façades; the structures themselves were not uniform. London’s Belgravia is an enlargement of the idea; the second Earl Grosvenor hired an architect and a builder (Thomas Cubitt) to produce dozens of nearly identical residences on the grounds of what had been a family estate. These happy examples of development are sadly atypical, as is New York’s Rockefeller Center.

As for extraction, it usually takes the form of mining, although forestry and large-scale, monocultural agriculture belong under the heading. As currently practiced, extraction and development usually cause environmental degradation.

Manufacturing detached itself from commerce when, around the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, it became possible to produce massive quantities of cotton cloth with mechanical looms and other devices. It must always be borne in mind that the machines did the work. Human beings were employed to tend to the machines, not to perform the machines’ labor. Although hundreds, then thousands, and even millions of people were hired to service factories, it was almost never correct to call them workers, common usage notwithstanding. The history of mass manufacturing has ever since been a matter of creating machines that required ever fewer human attendants. We speak today of robots as if there were some essential difference between the prehensile instruments found on today’s assembly lines and the spinning jenny. There isn’t: they share the essential similarity of not being human. For several decades now, the millions of factory “workers” have been giving way to thousands; upper limits of hundreds and even dozens are within view. One objective of capitalist manufacturing has always been to finance the means of reducing the number of human employees required for any operation.

What extraction and manufacturing have in common is that, between danger and tedium, they degrade the humanity of many, and possibly most, employees. Much as policy-makers regret the “loss of jobs,” it is difficult to regard mining, for example, as a desirable occupation for anyone. Indeed, it is to be pitied that extraction has not gone the way of manufacturing.

Three hundred years ago, of course, almost everyone on earth was engaged in some kind of farming. The activity of the peasant could not be distinguished from the peasant himself; one can only call it “subsistence.” Only at the smallest upper margins was it a way to make money. Farming today is either extractive or commercial (as, for example, the rooftop kitchen gardens in Brooklyn and Queens), but in either case it involves the application of “business” techniques to an area formerly devoid of them. There will be no large-scale going back to the land.

No, our only hope is to create more commercial jobs. One way is to introduce an inexpensive degree of inefficiency. Imagine, for example, that Amazon were to become a wholesaler, selling books only to tradesmen. The prices of books would rise slightly, and the convenience of delivery might decline (although in some cases it might just as easily improve); there would be many more jobs for the kind of people who have always worked in bookshops, and yet book prices would not rise very much. Similarly, Wall-Mart might stock all sorts of shops of various kinds, instead of operating its own mammoth ones. Everybody interested in this issue ought to take a look at Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

It should also be borne in mind that artisanal manufacture is a kind of commerce.

Bon week-end à tous!