Gotham Diary:
No Critics, Please
August 2018 (II)

7, 9 and 10 August

Tuesday 7th

Nearly fifty years have passed since Jane Jacobs published The Economy of Cities, and nearly thirty since the appearance of its sequel, Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. Re-reading the latter, and interrupting that re-reading to read the former for the first time, I thought of two things that had developed since 1984. One, of course, was the Internet. In my ignorant way — understanding so little about the basics of economics and technology gives me the freedom to dream — I wondered if some inversion of China’s Internet, in other words an Internet connecting and available to the inhabitants of what Jacobs would call a “city region,” and only to them, might be tweaked to provide the feedback loop that Jacobs locates in sovereign currencies. That’s pretty much where the ignorant dream ends, though, at least for now.

The other thing was chaos theory, again something that I don’t understand very well. It turned out that Jacobs was not as unaware of chaos as I thought at first, as I discovered when I resumed reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations and encountered her discussion of bifurcation, and then the devotion of her final chapter to the idea of “drift.” These are both alternative expressions of chaos. Bifurcation is a form of discontinuity, an unforeseen tangent. Drift, it seems to me, is not the happiest choice of terms, for while it might, as the Japanese thinker cited by Jacobs proposes, suggest inadvertent discoveries, what it suggests more forcibly is the economic stagnation that Jacobs deplores. Drift is pretty much passive. What Jacobs has in mind in her final chapter is a partial passivity, coupled with dynamic engagement: unplanned action. This is, from a political point of view, contained chaos. I wish that Jacobs had written a third book, about how to encourage the fertile experimentation and shift in objectives that lie at the heart of her many tales of unexpected enterprise — such as the invention of the brassiere industry. But this imaginary third book would not have involved much reporting — Jacobs’s forte. It would have been speculative, like the dark books about politics that Jacobs did go on to write.

What I’m left with, then, is the model of an economy that is (a) devoted to the sustainable provision of everyday material needs, (b) protected from fear and violence by civic institutions that may or may not be political in nature, and (c) constructively dissatisfied with the commercial status quo.

The United States fails most glaringly on the first count. Owing, perhaps, to their history, Americans don’t know the meaning of “sustainable,” which may explain the glibness with which the term is retailed. Until a point very much within living memory, it was always possible, in this country, to move on to new opportunities, leaving old messes behind for others to worry about (or not). I needn’t belabor the environmental aspect of this problem. But “sustainable” also encodes an economic principle that is not very developed in our culture, as a corrective to the concept of “profit.” While financiers are perfectly alive to the meaning of profit, the man in the street often has a different idea, one much closer to breaking even. The man in the street might say that a businessman is entitled to a “decent profit,” meaning, however not genuine profit but just the extra revenue sufficient to pay himself for his troubles, or to repay his backers. There is a widespread vernacular misunderstanding that owners and managers (unlike rank-and-file workers) are paid not out of revenues but out of profits. Journalists focused on economic matters ought to be working hard to correct this.

From an economic standpoint — that is, from the point of view of the people participating in an economy, considered together — the ideal business is one that breaks even. Nothing costs more than it ought to cost, allowing for the compensation of managers and backers. This is where the difference between a genuinely capitalist enterprise and a mature business ought to be marked more clearly than it is. I have belabored this matter, in several earlier entries. A capitalist enterprise is essentially a gamble, in which the generation of revenue is uncertain. The revenues of mature business, in contrast, are quite predictable over the medium term, if not the long. Americans appear have developed an impatience with mature businesses, and for the past forty years have been needlessly subjecting them to capitalist gambles. (There is no other way to judge the private equity racket.) This may be nothing more than a side-effect of the constantly trumpeted message that we live in a capitalist economy. But for the purposes of this paragraph it is enough to say that the managers and backers of a genuinely capitalist enterprise are entitled to increased compensation, to make up for the managers’ trial-and-error search for revenue, and for the backers’ losing gambles.

Because we do not clearly understand the meaning of terms such as profit and capitalism, we flounder in a widening swamp of unseemly incomes and sickened businesses. It is a swamp because the United States is beset by a fear of what it calls “socialism,” an imaginary alligator that approaches unseen — unseen because it is not there. This is failure on the second count. Our civic institutions seem increasingly incapable of calming fear and preventing violence. Our depraved popular culture — a non-political civic institution — actually celebrates fear and violence, arguing somewhat disingenuously that doing so is just a way of telling it like it is. In America, socialism is a bogeyman, a Freddie Krueger waiting just around the corner. Politicians have been exploiting this monster since the interwar period; during the Cold War, it meant little less than enslavement by Russians. Socialism is a mirage in the same way that the large business corporation is a mirage. There can be no abstract “state” or “corporate” ownership of anything. It will always be people, individual people, who are running things, either overmastering managers or faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats.

We fail on the third count because American curiosity and inventiveness have been directed away from the nitty-gritty of nuts and bolts, or, in other words, how things work. I attribute this to educational fastidiousness, to the misapprehension that intelligent people do not get their hands dirty. At the same time, there is a lot of romantic nostalgia for dirty hands. The modern equivalent to the old dream of running away with the circus is the ownership of a motorcycle repair shop. Perhaps the introduction of the first mass-produced home robot will straighten this out. In the mean time, I would encourage a lot of would-be journalists to sharpen their inquiring minds on the resistance of the material world, and give opinions and eyeballs a break. And just to be clear, electronic circuits and the instructions that govern them (a/k/a “code”) are utterly material.


Thursday 9th

The manuscript of the writing project has been moved from atop the printer to the writing table, but otherwise it has not been touched since last year, when two friends read it. (A third never got back.) In all this time, I have often wondered where to go with it. One of the readers liked it very much, but I’m not sure that she would have paid for a copy. The other reader, more rigorous, noted tonal incongruities and undeveloped propositions. His judgment convinced me that I would have to start over. From time to time, I would have an idea for reshaping the material, but nothing came of these daydreams, not even the slightest sketch.

About two weeks ago, maybe three, I was writing to a third friend about my impasse. It was a bleak paragraph and I deleted it. Then I blurted out the remark that I was trying to convey an idea of what it’s like to be me. Intellectually, I mean. What it’s like to be curious and expectant, obsessive and undisciplined, accountable to no one. Well, I didn’t spell out the latter two sentences. But I realized at once that this was exactly what I had set out to write in July 2016. And what I had stopped aiming for when it proved to be very, very difficult. What I went on to write was a highly selective, rather jumpy autobiography.

I remember how hard it was to make the first section, the original material, intelligible, and how bit by bit the complications were simply erased. At the heart of the piece was an attempt to express the rapture, which had overcome me earlier that July, of reading a passage from the dinner party chapter in To the Lighthouse as though it were one of Keats’s odes. Something about Mrs Ramsay “diving” into the daube, in search of prize morsels for William Bankes, sparked the “festal lyricism” of the great poems that I had been closely reading, in Helen Vendler’s magisterial study. And the joy was mine. It was something that had always been promised, but never quite attained — until now. The part that was hardest to get across was this very postponement: why had it taken so long? And why hadn’t I given up the pursuit?

The whole thing was ecstatic and incoherent, a bog of uninfectious enthusiasm. A year later, after much revision, it remained the weakest section of the manuscript. With every revision, the writing project withdrew its commitment to intellectual atmosphere — what does it mean to say “Yes” to the question, “Have you really read all of those books?” — and invested more in amusing anecdotes, funny things that happened to me on the way to old age. The writing got easier and easier as I forgot what I had set out to do.

But the manuscript remained studded with souvenirs of the original enterprise, and my more serious reader fastened on these. Either they would have to be given more substance, or they would have to go. Hearing this stern advice, I didn’t grasp how far I had drifted from an arduous path. All I could think of was the dreadful facility with which I had edited the various sections into readable shape. It had bothered me very much that this was too easy.

What it’s like to be me. Abominable conceit, or recovery memoir? Either way, what’s different about me? I didn’t — and still don’t — know, but I hoped that the writing would show me. If it failed to produce this revelation, I see now, it might be because I didn’t work hard enough. I remember thinking that the important thing was to get something down on paper, but I succumbed to the temptation to regard this preliminary something as a finished product, a mistake that it became ever easier to make as my revisions kneaded the text into the contours of a slightly exotic magazine article.

I have an idea. I am going to try to explain an unusual but nonetheless characteristic episode in the growth of my mind. In 1972, I was inspired to teach myself Chinese by an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I expect that this is going to be nearly as hard to write about as the learning experience was. With a lot of effort and a bit of luck, I may even learn something new.


Friday 10th

For weeks now, the Times has been running environmental disaster stories above the front-page fold. Quite aside from the depressing attempt to capture some of the excitement of television with photographs that seem determined to tell us nothing that we don’t already know, the newspaper is ignoring the constellation of poor commercial judgments that lead to every kind of disaster except volcanoes and earthquakes — and where fracking is concerned, even the earthquakes are manmade.

Meanwhile, the Times’s business pages appear to be clueless about this causality. The spice of thrilling danger is unwelcome there. Wildfires are out of place amid the financial tables. But so are stories about suburban sprawl, lawn-grass monoculture, heavy automobile use, and other bad things that looked good at the time but that now need to be scaled back, arguably eliminated, in order to reduce wildfires. If the Times does not want to take a stand on these issues, can it not find organizations that speak out about them, or that attempt experimental alternatives?

It seems to me that the Times is stuck in the bind common to media that depend on advertising. Printing or airing ads (and collecting a fee) is only the visible part of the deal between advertisers and media. The invisible part is the media’s obligation to frame the reader or the viewer as a consumer, as someone who buys stuff. What advertisers don’t want is an audience of critics and fault-finders. They want people who feel good about themselves and the world — good enough, anyway, not to be demoralized by all the bad news (which, if it must be reported, ought to be presented as happening Somewhere Else.) They want people who look to the media for entertainment.

In a story about new limits on Uber cars in New York City, two reporters make a blandly passing reference to “the city’s failing subway and buses.” Why doesn’t the Times have a weekly special section, mapping out the parties (human beings) responsible for operating the subway, and exposing, if nothing else, how each of them can point to someone else as the problem. Feet must be held in the fire!

Bon week-end à tous!