Engine Stories

The past six months have been unusual for me in the ways that they’ve been unusual for a lot of folks in the US – there’s a pandemic, and near everything is disrupted. One of the effects of pandemic life for me was that I spent a great deal of time reading to my four-year-old. Our child care regime disappeared, and my partner and I had to scramble, like most folks, to fill in the gaps. During the summer months especially, when my professional duties were relatively light and my partners considerably heavier, the four-year-old and I would spend a good number of hours in any given week reading. There was a lot of repetition, of course.

I have strong feelings about limiting my child’s screen time because I was a television junkie growing up. I wanted to watch TV all the time. And I don’t want that to be the four-year-old’s experience, so instead I read to them. Or I try to anyways – reading out loud is a fairly strenuous activity, it turns out. My partner often falls asleep after a solid quarter hour – I sometimes struggle to stay awake myself. But the four-year-old seemingly never gets tired of being read to, and can become quite insistent at times that we read stories.

Around their fourth birthday, I gave my child a copy the collected Railway Series by the Rev WA Awdry. These tales are known popularly today as the “Thomas the Tank Engine” series, and have been retold in print and on television. As a kid in the 1980s, I had a copy of a short anthology of the original stories given to me by one of my mother’s coworkers who was Canadian. The original stories are quintessentially British – indeed, Awdry was an Anglican priest – but my father’s family had roots in the railroads, and, like any child, I had a fascination with trains. I can recall being aware of the “Shining Time Station” television series in the ’90s, by which time I had no interest in “kid stuff” but thought it was cool that Ringo Starr played the Conductor (effectively the series narrator). There have been other TV series since then that I am not familiar with, and, as I mentioned above, I have almost no interest in showing my child, let alone watching myself.

At some point we got a hold of the tattered Engine Stories anthology from my childhood, and the kid took to it, having also a fascination with trains. Trains run through the town we live in on the regular because of the large silica quarry operating a few blocks west of us. For the past couple of decades it has been quite active, as silica is important in hydraulic fracking, and there are trains running in and out of it on a daily basis (which can sometimes be a real hassle, as they hold up traffic in unpredictable ways). But the upshot is that the kiddo has been able to see trains up close.

My copy is a bit tattered, and held together by packing tape.

I ordered a used copy of of the complete collection from a discount seller on abebooks.com and presented it as a birthday present – kiddo took little interest at first, and I was kind of disappointed. But within a week, we began binge reading the stories and so began a couple of months of marathon readings on a near daily basis.

The Railway Series, as they were originally known, are astonishingly consistent and, in my estimation, nearly perfect children’s literature. The collection is comprised of 26 books, which each (with one exception) contain four individual stories. The stories are more or less loosely related within each book. Each story contains roughly 6 color illustrations, with a couple of paragraphs or story under each. The illustrations are bright and friendly, but also accurate depictions of steam engines: Awdry was an early railroad conservationist, and had been basically obsessed with steam locomotives from childhood. He had grown up near a railway, and later remarked that, as a little boy laying in bed in the early evening, he could hear very clearly the character of each locomotive in the sounds they made. The series developed out of bedtime stories he told his son in the early 1940s.

The timing and placement of Awdry’s life and career are, I think, crucial to the overall impact of the books. He’s born in 1911 to an Anglican priest (who was, at the time, 56 – Mrs. Awdry was 30 years younger, the second wife after the death of the first, along with Awdry’s three older half-siblings) and grows up in rural England. Without having all the facts at hand, I imagine Awdry was quite old fashioned – a bit of a throw back. He grows up and becomes an Anglican cleric like his father, and spends his career moving around England serving in country parishes like the one where he grew up.

The first book in the series, The Three Railway Engines, is published in 1945, just after the end of the second World War. The original artwork would be redone and the book re-released on account of Awdry’s insistence on accurate illustrations of the engines. The second book came out the following year and introduced the now famous Thomas. There was a pause of a year, and then, beginning in 1948, Awdry released a book every year until 1972.

The period of 1945 to 1972 corresponds neatly to the glory years of economic expansion and development in western Europe and North America. The Railway Series was quite successful as popular children’s literature, but it was also a highly romanticized view of the old days. More importantly, as readers of the series know, Awdry’s stories were heavily influenced by Victorian morality. Practically every story is a morality tale. The engines all want to be “really useful,” and are duly punished for sins of pride and sloth and so on. The device of the ironic turn – a character makes a flippant remark at the beginning of the tale only to have it turned against them by the end – is frequently used.

One thing that really fascinates me about the stories is that, for all the talk of being “useful,” the advance of technology is strenuously resisted. The steam engine characters are cast as noble and virtuous, whereas the encroaching diesels are most often cruel and vicious. It often makes me think of how Americans talk about how we don’t “make anything anymore” and are given to wistful rhapsodizing over the lost glories of American manufacturing. We want to be innovative and clever, but also we’d like things to be stable and predictable.

The other really fascinating aspect of the stories for me is that they feel very much like a capitalist mythology to me. Greek myths often feature characters that are half-human and half-beast (or however one should phrase that) – satyrs are half-goats, centaurs half-horse, and so on. I’ve read that this is due to the close association of people with their domesticated animals, and the tension that arises out of that. Similarly, in our age of capitalism, we often fantasize about being machines, or ghosts in machines, or in someway having our humanity subsumed by machinery. The engines follow this same logic.

I’d like to do a couple or three more posts about Awdry, and then perhaps some about other stories we read over the summer: Winnie the Pooh; the Frog and Toad series, and others like it – Minnie and Moo and Mouse and Mole in particular; Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mister Fox, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; EB White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little; Alice in Wonderland, Velveteen Rabbit and The Wizard of Oz; and the books of Beatrix Potter. I’m not trying to write book reviews – there are plenty of those – but rather think a little bit about these stories in broader contexts. They’re children books, but they’re also kind of anachronistic. I often wonder what effect reading old books might have on my twenty-first century kiddo, and I certainly think about the effect of repetitive reading on the both of us. Its something different from what this blog has been – and I’m hoping to get it started back up in a more light hearted (and much less political) way.

Equilibrating

So in my last post, I tried to offer up a generalized version of the cockamamie narrative-making machinery of my mind – basically, I think of people trying to advance the interests of the “good guys” whilst minimizing those the “bad guys.” Whatever that means.

It occurred to me later that any reader would almost have to conclude that I’ve got a screw lose – almost nobody actually thinks in terms of “good guys and bad guys.” Russ Roberts (to return to the example I used) doesn’t think Keynesians are bad people – or, rather, he wouldn’t say that anyways.  He just claims to have a disagreement with Keynesian economics.

The trouble for me is that I’ve heard the “no, no – everyone’s had it wrong all along – but I’ve got the answer…” argument too many goddamn times. If Keynes was really wrong, he would have been disproved, and that would be that. But that’s just not how it went down. Most of the time, a clear, concise presentation of evidence and analysis doesn’t do shit for people, if they even care in the first place.

For example, I feel quite sure that large-scale, sustained public investment in mass transportation systems in North America and around the world would substantially improve the lives of a broad majority of people while reducing waste and pollution. But even if I had a report showing conclusions like that it wouldn’t matter, because some other organization would surely put out a competing report full of counter claims. The answer to the societal question of “what should we do?” almost always comes back to: nothing.

A good deal of the time, it seems to me, the “bad guys” are whoever has come along to propose doing something – or, worse still, have succeeded in accomplishing something, and thereby disrupting some established equilibrium.

There’s an old phrase, “don’t get mad. Get even.” A lot of the time, I think this is what US politics is about. Everyone is out there trying to defend their particular equilibrium from whatever perceived threat. It occurred to me once, years ago, that when people talk about change, they almost always mean someone else. People want some kind of stable world with a carefully constrained set of choices. And a lot of the time this runs into a problem when undesirable things happen, like death. I often worry that what people mean by “health care” is “a magic solution to death.” Doctors are supposed to be bio-engineers who fix whatever problem might arise with the body. If a patient dies, the doctor has failed. But everybody dies. Within the US healthcare system, one of the major problems (I think) is that there are not infinite resources to commit to finding solutions to the problem of death, diesease, discomfort, and so on. People get angry because insurance companies say “no” to things – but ultimately, somebody has to make those calls. And its easy to say “Aha! If only the doctor had had more resources, whoever it is would have lived!”

Within the context of political debates in the US, this often takes the form of the need for “balance.” Sometimes, it’s a “both sides” argument. But what those sorts of things come down to is that its impossible to say anything actionable. And, for me, what this always comes back to is the sense that progress is oppression. What that means for me is that 1) the primary challenge in doing anything is not the doing of the thing, but rather overcoming the inertia opposed to it; and 2) within the idea of any event is it’s negativity, it’s non-existance.

 

Psychologizing

I’m prone to a kind of cheap psychologizing – the way I put narratives together for myself involves creating morality stories to represent various actors in a given situation. Let me give you an example.

There’s a music video that came out 11 years ago that depicts a rap battle between Keynes and Hayek. It was created by Russ Roberts, a professor of economics at George Mason University. There’s a kind of false equivalence built into the video. Although the lyrics given a simplified, reasonably straightforward representation of the debate between Keynes and Hayek, the story shown in the video make the director’s view quite clear. Keynes is played as a corrupt, arrogant, elitist drunk, while Hayek is all scrappy underdog. And to me it feels totally obvious that Hayek is the good guy and Keynes is the bad guy. That’s how I think Roberts understands Keynesian policy making: as immoral.

Or, as Dierdre McCloskey might put it, those arguments are all lovely and that but they’re wrong. Like, simply wrong. Sure, she can write 100,000 words (and more) on why it’s wrong, but there’s never going to be an argument for large-scale government intervention in the economy that she’ll support.

Look – we all tell ourselves stories in order to go on living. Journalist Ezra Klein has said he looks for how a person is a hero in their story, which I think is about right. I think that in the “Keynes v Hayek” video, creator Russ Roberts identifies with Hayek, the loyal opposition, the earnest, steadfast, bow-tie wearing libertarian. What I think Roberts sort of unconsciously acknowledges in the video is how important Keynes is for his own identity – Hayek is the not-Keynes.

This takes us to the idea of a kind of before time. Keynes represents the point at which things went wrong in economics for Roberts (as he does for basically all Hayekians). He is remaining true to the good by fighting against the Keynesians.

In a general way, this is how I think about people and morals. Who are the good guys and bad guys and why? And I think much of the time, most people don’t really think much about this stuff. It’s in the background while you’re focused on other stuff. This is why I think so many people have such angry responses to politics, because they often only notice when there is some disruption that affects themselves. Furthermore, they don’t necessarily want to discuss or seriously consider their political views, because they’re not fully rationalized, and often not really well considered at all. People just want to go on living their life, and not think too hard about it.

I once read some of Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, and there are sections where she writes extensively about overwhelming feelings of guilt and how she had sinned so terribly in her life. And she’s writing about her life as a nun. When I first read it, I wondered, what kind of sin is she talking about? She is literally a saint. How bad could she have been? But now I kind of get it – if you engage seriously in thinking about your words and deeds, routinely scrutinizing them and attempting to reform oneself, it is not so difficult to find fault with nearly everything one does. Thinking about how one lives is difficult, and can be dangerous. But not thinking about how one lives leaves one prone being decieved by oneself, and then being poisoned by fear or resentment.

 

 

Break it down

On any given day, there is a very small chance that something very unusual will happen. By definition, right? And most of time, if something unusual happens, people can work it out. We have backups, insurance, people we can count on, and so on.

But say, for some reason, some crucial support for the societal backstop we usually rely on is removed. Chances are, everything will be fine, because everybody knows how important that kind of thing is.

But the thing is – the partial shutdown of the Federal government has gone on now nearly a month, and nobody knows how it ends. For the time being, things are more or less fine. Nothing seriously bad has happened, yet. But what happens if there was a crisis right now?

Meanwhile, the British Parliament has voted down, 432-202, the treaty negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May. The deadline for the UK leaving the EU is March 29th. If no agreements are in place on March 30, it is possible trade will grind to a halt. The UK is a net importer of food – cutting off from trade with Europe could be disasterous.

And yet! Parliament also voted down a no confidence motion, thus affirming support of May’s government. Nobody knows what happens next. But I can’t stop thinking about what might happen without a deal. Maybe the no-deal Brexit will happen. And then what?

Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole writes “Brexit in one way alone has done a real service: it has forced the old system to play out its death throes in public. The spectacle is ugly, but at least it shows that a fissiparous four-nation state cannot be governed without radical social and constitutional change.”

One thing that does seem possible once Brexit has occurred is that the Unicorn will file for divorce from the Lion – that is, Scotland will leave the Union and join the EU. It already has a separate Parliament. Why not?

I think in both the cases – Brexit and the Shutdown – the negative outcome is the one people want. I don’t know how that works, of course. But, in some sense, I think people want to go charging into the shitstorm here. Perhaps just to show that they can.

In the US, it seems to me, there’s a strong public narrative that the govnerment is incompetent, corrupt, overrun by fools and crooks. If that really were true, would shutting it down be such a bad thing? Libertarians have been arguing for decades that much of government is unnecessary and merely distorts the naturally occurring market economy.

If that’s the government you’re shutting down, aren’t you doing us all a favor? If that’s the government wasting your hard earned and heavily taxed income, wouldn’t you celebrate its non-functioning?

 

 

Some thoughts on neoliberalism

The story goes like this: once upon a time, there were nation-states effectively ruled by aristocrats, and the liberals are the ones pushing for political reforms that lead to the empowerment of the middle and lower classes. And then there’s a big war, a tumultuous peace, and another big war. And liberalism wins! Except in Communist countries. Liberalism fights its way through the second half the twentieth century. When the Soviet Union folds in 1990, liberalism is ascendent at last. This liberalism is what is commonly called neoliberalism.

Liberalism started out in opposition to the political establishment, but eventually came to be the authority. John Rawls Theory of Justice is a representative work of political liberalism as authority. The libertarian position claims to remain true to the original liberalism by maintaining an oppostional stance. I’m describing Rawls as the neoliberal here, and not University of Chicago associated economists.

Rawls’ theory of justice has two principles: the equality principle and the difference principle. The difference principle says that inequality can be justified only as long as they do not make the least advantaged member of society worse off. I was reading a blog recently by a professional philosopher who wrote:

“…Alain Badiou’s account of universalizing from the position of the excluded as a productive alternative to liberalism’s approach. Badiou describes the political subject as the universal that is formed from the eruption of the previously excluded onto the stage. The subject formed out of fidelity to this appearance of what was excluded is the universal political that is universal not from the point of view of the centered subject against which everyone else is measured, but from the point of view of the excluded. Inclusion is not based on the extent to which one measures up to the historically centered but on the extent to which excluding differences become equal to other differences in the process of being faithful to the universality formed out of, among and between the previously excluded.”

[I’m purposely leaving off their name, in case they’d prefer not to associate themselves with this blog]

To me this feels like turning Rawls on his head. It’s not that equality isn’t important – its that it must be approached by bringing those at the margins to the center, throught the inclusion of the excluded. It’s a matter of prioritization, in some sense.

At the end of the piece, the author of the above quotation writes that “our philosophical sentiments tend toward the classically liberal, they tend toward the view that everyone has a right to speak, and that every forum is for everyone, that every question deserves a hearing.”

For me this felt like a kind of clarifying moment: we live in a liberal society – liberalism is the official ideology, the standard of authority. What the author is pointing to in their own writing is a more focused point about how to go about forming a good and useful community blogging space – and a challenge to that space is trolls. Why can’t you stop trolls? Because you’d have to take away their power to speak, which is against the rules of liberalism. Taking a person’s liberty away is basically always wrong under liberalism.

And what that brought me to was the thought that that is a kind of fundamental flaw in liberalism as authority. Because authority is ambiguous under liberalism, it can always be opposed. But if, instead of focusing on authority, you focus at the margins of society, you can remain faithful to the original liberating project of liberalism.

 

Teaching Macro

I’m teaching four macroeconomics classes this semester, one an eight-week online course, the other three in standard classroom settings. I can live with online, but the classroom is more fun. I’ve been doing this almost three years now, and I’m sort of getting the hang of it.

All that is a matter of experience, I suppose. The teaching.

It’s fine, I mean. I like it well enough that I’m not actively pursuing other work. Maybe I should be, but I’m not right now. I can work and watch a little television and play a little music and write a blog post from time to time and still have time to see my kid. If that’s not doing alright I’m not sure what is.

Anyways, what I want to think about is the macroeconomics part of it. My macroeconomics is pretty limited, that’s one issue. I cannot, for example, adequately explain a DSGE model, which is the cornerstone of academic macro nowadays. And it’s not altogether clear how much that model has really told us. Krugman writes about how IS-LM analysis will give you results analogous to all the complicated models. And then there are other macroeconomic actors, like the Fed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the Census, who don’t seem to depend on DSGE either. What’s really going on in macro these days, I can’t tell you.

But what I can tell you is a story about Wesley Mitchell. He began his academic career at UW Madison, when the program was run by Richard Ely. Ely was one of a generation of American economists trained in German universities, where he was educated in the cutting edge techniques of creating and maintaining social statistics. Ely was an innovative and highly influential educator in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in American economics. Anyways, Mitchell does his undergraduate work in Ely’s department in Madison. From there, he goes down to the University of Chicago, where he writes his dissertation under archconservative J. Lawrence Laughlin. Other professors include pioneering Institutionalist Thorstein Veblen and philosopher John Dewey.

After a few years as a professor at Chicago in the opening years of the 20th century, Mitchell goes to Columbia in New York. While he’s there he founds the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a private agency dedicated to the study of the business cycle. Mitchell’s organization would eventually produce the economist Simon Kuznets, who would be hired by the Roosevelt administration in 1933 to create a system of national accounts in order to properly account for the US economy.

In 1918, in a speech to the American Statistical Association, Mitchell said ““In physical science and in industrial technique…we have emancipated ourselves…from the savage dependence upon catastrophes for progress…In science and in industry we are radicals—radicals relying on a tested method. But in matters of social organization we retain a large part of the conservatism characteristic of the savage mind….” I read this quote to my classes, and turn to them and ask, “what do the people in this room look like?” The correct answer to this question is “white men.” They’re wearing suits, and they probably all attend Protestant churches on Sunday. And then I tell my students “but Mitchell knew that what he was doing, what they were doing, was radical. That it would change the world. And he was right.”

Now, the thing is, although this story is technically correct, it’s not really the standard story of macroeconomics. The standard story is: the depression happened, and then Keynes wrote The General Theory and changed everything. Which is only sort of true.

The other part of that story is: MIT emerged as a dominant school of economics in the late 1940s. They had Paul Samuelson, whose 1946 textbook would go on to become the bestselling introductory economics textbook of the post-war era. There was also Robert Solow, a leading Keynesian macroeconomist. They were all influenced by the Keynesians at Harvard in the 1930s, like Alvin Hicks, whose mathematical language for Keynesian macro was widely adopted. See how Keynes is peripheral to all that? He’s not really part of the story.

So, for a while, macroeconomics was about Aggregate Demand, which is the name for all the spending in the economy. Guys like James Tobin, the guy who taught Janet Yellen and Austan Goolsbee (among many others) macroeconomics, basically taught courses about the maintenance of aggregate demand. And then along comes Robert Lucas from Chicago.

Lucas changes the whole game with the so-called “Lucas critique,” which, as far as I can tell, is a fancy way of saying that fiscal policy only works if you can trust the government implementing it. And most of the faculty at University of Chicago, where Lucas spent his career, didn’t trust the government, as a rule. Lucas went on to become the most influential macroeconomist of the late 20th century – a fact curiously absent from the introductory textbooks.

Now this is where I start to feel as if my knowledge of macro is really limited. One way or another, the debate seems to revolve around how you’re calculating the consumption function, whether or not you’re integrating from t or t+1, and whether or not your regression uses an error term. But I’m fucked if I can make heads or tails of it all.

Anyways – after the 1970s there are two things that seem to happen in macroeconomics in the US. One is that the two basic camps are the Real Business Cycle folks, who are following Lucas, and the New Keynesians, who take Lucasian models and modify them until they give Keynesian-ish results. The RBC models use lots of fancy math (that I don’t really understand) but will tell you something like: the best thing to do is to minimize government interference in the economy. Lucas famously said that, if appointed to the Council of Economic Advisors, he would resign. The New Keynesian models supported neoliberal-ish policies, I guess. Or something. Somehow, out of this morass, you got the quagmire of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) models. Again, lots and lots of math that I totally do not understand, but apparently makes great fodder for interminable conferences.

The other major development in macroeconomics following the 1970s is the establishment of monetary policy as the preferred method of persuing macroeconomic goals. This is enshrined in a 1978 law that gives the Federal Reserve it’s “Dual Mandate” of price stability and low unemployment. But the main thing is that the Federal Reserve – which is, as I often stress to my students, not the government – is in charge of the macroeconomy.

The monkey wrench in all of this is the Great Recession of 2008-9. There’s been lots and lots of debate about how macro has changed in the decade since, and how standard intro textbooks has been or should be affected. I had an argument on Twitter the other day with whoever is running the Rethinking Economics account. Rethinking is an organization that formed a decade ago in the UK, and mostly goes on about how neoclassical dominance of economics needs to end, and space made for other models of thought. As a graduate of a heterodox program, I am naturally predisposed to supporting Rethinking. However, I often get hung up on the “neoclassical econ is limiting!” tropes. Uh, OK, sure. But also, it’s the basis of economic training for the last century. Virtually every economist in the US and the UK (and lots of other places) has gone through the neoclassical program. And, having more or less taught that program for the past three years, I feel like the great strength of neoclassical economics is its ambiguity and standardized methods. Heterodox economists love to get on their high horse and gripe about how awful neoclassical econ is, but I frankly think it’s not such a bad thing.

The debate I had with Rethinking ended with them saying I was disingenuous (“a bad look, FYI” – gee, thanks, I didn’t know?) for turning their own words against them. They said “Neoclassical or ‘mainstream’ economics has a clear methodological definition: optimising agents and equilibrium. Empirical work uses linear regression and its numerous variants.” And I said “So, then, you’re saying neoclassical economics provides a clear methodological framework for evidence-based research?” to which the reply was “Erm…no, I obviously didn’t say that.” And ended the conversation.

Narratives have an internal logic – what I did was subverted Rethinking’s narrative. Neoclassical economics is the clear antagonist in their narrative, and so defining it is really important. It has to be powerful, because everybody likes to root for the underdog. But it also needs to be clearly on the losing side, because that’s how you know it’s the antagonist. Who are the good guys in any story? Whoever gets tasked with defeating the bad guys. This is where I think Rethinking falls short though. They’re trying to do this “we’re fighting the big bad mainstream” but in a way that seems calibrated to sell books – if you really wanted to take on the mainstream, you’d need to propose an equally compelling counter-narrative, and Rethinking doesn’t have that.

The thing about the Great Recession is that, after it happened, a lot of people looked at macroeconomists and asked the obvious question: “why did you all not see that coming?” And this is where it’s useful, I think, to ask just what it was macroeconomists were supposed to say in 2006 or 2005 or whatever. “Hey everybody, maybe we ought to rethink this whole real estate market…” or, “Hey, maybe the government should be regulating hedge funds and investment banks more…” or even, “Gosh, contractionary fiscal policy really did not work out in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, and Argentina. What happened there?”

I’m not trying to rehash the financial crisis right this minute, I’m just trying to say that the public in general really didn’t give a fuck what the macroeconomy was doing as long as they had a decent job and could go on living their humdrum life or whatever. When shit got real and the housing market collapsed, and credit markets froze up and suddenly the government had to bail out banks and so on, people noticed, but its not like there was a robust public debate over how to do things differently. Lots of people would have liked to see banking executives sent off to prison, but that wouldn’t have actually fixed anything.

You can rethink macro, sure, but you have to do it from within the profession, and that means going along with the standards. And there are plenty of folks doing good work from within the academy, although that isn’t ultimately what needs to change. What is changing is our political economy, and the problem with teaching that in introductory classes is that it means getting into politics. As a community college teacher, I’m loathe to actually bring that kind of shit up. The ambiguity of neoclassical economics is a strength – there can be more than one interpretation to events.

In the meantime, for my own teaching, my basic strategy is to teach using super-simplified empirical models of the macroeconomy. I have students work through how to adjust for inflation, how to calculate GDP, and how business cycles effect the macroeconomy. It’s a long way from perfect, and I still rely on the textbook (I don’t want to stray too far from the mainstream – this is community college, after all…).

The Fletcher-Samuelson Link

A musician friend of mine posted on the ‘book a quote from a philosopher, “let me write a nation’s songs, and I care not who writes its laws…” I recognized it immediately from the well-known Paul Samuelson quote “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws—or crafts its advanced treaties—if I can write its economics textbooks.” This second quote comes from the forward to a 1990 economics textbook. Samuelson, of course, wrote the best selling economics textbook of the mid 20th century, and is one of the most influential economists of the post-war era.

I asked my friend who the quote was from – my guess was non-philosopher Irving Berlin. He told me it was one Andrew Fletcher, which, it turns out, is the name of one of the members of Depeche Mode. According to Wikipedia, his role in the band is looking nice and cashing checks. He was not the source of the quote.

The source of the quote was Scottish philosopher Andrew Fletcher (1653-1716), a forerunner of the Scottish Enlightenment who wrote on politics, governance, and commerce. Besides speeches and letters, his published writing spans between 1697 and 1704, and is mainly concerned with the relationship between Scotland and England, which were united thereafter in the Act of Union in 1707 that created the United Kingdom. Fletcher, as a member of Scottish Parliament, took the part of the national interest in his writing and, in An Account of a Conversation for the Common Good of Mankind argued against the rising commercial society of England and the Netherlands, because the concentration of wealth and population led to the corruption of morals and the conflict of intersts among nations. In part, he was looking at Ireland and worrying Scotland would suffer the same treatment at the hands of the more prosperous English after union. But more generally. his investigation of England’s political arithmetic led him towards an early model of federated European trade union. (For more, see Andrew Fletcher’s criticism of commercial civilization, by Shigemi Muramatsu, 2003)

I can’t seem to quite track down the context of Fletcher’s quote about song writing – it seems he said it in attribution to someone else, Sir Christopher Musgrace or perhaps someone like him, and also possibly implying that Plato had made a similar assertation. I found a further attribution that Plato attributed something similar to someone named Damon. It’s all rather confusing.

But it seems to me that Samuelson must have come across that quote somewhere, which makes sense – economists, even the mathy ones, all spend some time with Scottish Enlightenment writers. But it’s a really striking parallel to me. I recall once reading a Krugman blog post about how he admired Suzanne Vega, and the skill of songwriting generally. And clearly Samuelson thought enough of it to use it for his own purposes.

I don’t feel tardy

The title of today’s blog post is a reference to Van Halen’s 1984 hit “Hot for Teacher” – I’ve always loved the guitar and drums intro on that number. Spelling out references defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? I enjoy watching clever post-modern cartoons, and I imitate their signiture move of making pop culture references, but it’s problematic, as my knowledge of popular culture is limited, and kind of distorted by my slightly unusual tastes.

I’ve written just seven blog posts in the past year. Maybe it’s because I started writing a bi-weekly newspaper column. A few months ago I joined the “Write Team” at the Times in Ottawa. They have offices in the middle of town, complete with classic early 20th century style – Deco-ish? – facade.  And they run columns written by eight local volunteers. My picture even appears in the paper! It’s not a very good photo, but somehow that feels fitting.

Meanwhile, I’ve written a long meditation on religion. For a little while I thought about trying to get it published somewhere, but I’ve relented and it will be appearing here in the coming days. I don’t especially enjoy the process of trying to get published – it’s very competitive, and I don’t like competing. So it would seem it’s time to come home to my blog, where I can just get on with the business of writing and publishing. I do rather wish I had an editor – that’s been a major lesson of the last couple of years. The difference between an amateur and a professional writer is an editor.

I’ve also joined Twitter in the past year, and to my surprise I’ve quite enjoyed it. I mostly follow economists, so looking at Twitter often feels like participating in a conversation I’m really interested in, a contrast with my experience on Facebook, where conversations are either lovey-dovey or spiteful, with almost nothing in -between.

I feel that I’ve neglected this blog for some time, and I’m hoping to return to writing here more often. I’ve been hesitant to publish pieces on religion, which has come to occupy a significant place in my mind. Since that’s something I’ve written about lately, I suppose I ought to just put them out, and people can read them or not.

Ten Albums, etc.

I wanted to do a series of posts on Facebook of some favorite records. It’s one of those damned trends, and people tag each other and rope each other into participating, at least in theory, or whatever. I went and posted something about how I was surprised nobody had tagged me. I used to have a lot of opinions about music, although nowadays I wonder what any of themwere, or why it mattered. I mean , I still have a lot of opinions – I seem to be setting out on course of writing about music. It is, after all, fun to write about music.

So, it seems clear enough that the rules of the game are not established in any authoritative way, and I can pretty much play however I like. I am choosing ten albums that have been important to me. The first one I’m doing is the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Music of Samuel Barber, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and recorded in May, 1988. It features the pieces Overture to “School for Scandal”, Adagio for Strings, three Essays for Orchestra, and the diabolical Medea’s Dance of Vengence. This was among the very first CDs that I owned. I’m pretty sure I got it from either my parents or from the next door neighbor (whom we were, and still are, close with). I got it because, you know, my name is Samuel Barbour. The guy I’m named after, one Samuel Steele Barbour, who came to Chilicothe, Ohio from West Virginia some time early in the 20th century, is my great-great grandfather.

It was an important CD for me. What is this music about? It’s not like pop music. You can’t sing along with it. There’s a lot going on in the orchestra, and there aren’t a lot of clear repeats. I was 11 or 12 years old when I was listening to this – I also had a disc with the first four  Brandenberg concertos that I also liked. The Barber was much different from baroque music. Big, lush, evocative scores. Like in the movies, but more so.

And I’m pretty sure it has something to do with my wanting to be a composer. I consider myself a songwriter, but not a composer really. I played around with the idea in high school, but never really took it seriously. I loved the romantic idea of being a composer, all caught up in the act of creation, but actually doing it was a lot of work, and I was too busy being a teenager to get anything substantial done. More generally, this is why I am not a professional musician. Just not much in the way of self-discipline.

By the time I got this CD, I already knew plenty about classical music. I was enrolled as a viola student in a Suzuki program at the local music conservatory when I was 7. My brother played violin as well. I was never particularly good, but I had a friend who was quite good at violin, and she helped introduce me to a lot of stuff.

Although my musical priorities changed a lot when I got into my late teens, classical music was really important in shaping my expectations of music. Good music is contemplative – it wants you to think about it. It wants you to ask questions, to reflect on your life. Certainly in my early 20s I spent quite a lot of time walking around, listening to music, and thinking. Sometimes, I have stopped playing music in the middle of a song when someone else begins talking, because I believe that talking demonstrates that the person is not thinking about the music, and therefore I ought not waste my time. High romanticism – which sort of goes from Beethoven through Liszt and Wagner, to Mahler, and eventually to Shostakovich and Barber – is fantastic, but not that many people want to sit around and talk about it. When listening for the purposes of discussion, you have to listen to what other people are listening to. And most people don’t just hang around and listen to classical music. You’d think it would be the ultimate hipster music – its obscure, its retro) but hipsters don’t really care for it.

The one particular moment of the disc that really stands out for me is a part of Medea’s Dance of Vengence, in which a propulsive piano rhythm drives the orchestra forth. It sounds remarkably close to the score for the opening credits of Beetlejuice, an early Tim Burton film featuring Michael Keaton and a young Winona Rider. It was a thing that was striking about Barber: his music had a 20th century feel to it, but it was still tonal. In high school I got into Ives, the Second Viennese school, and so on, and got convinced that the only kind of worthwhile music to write was really super intense, atonal stuff with mininal structure. Meanwhile I was also starting to play guitar and learn to think in terms of songs. In retrospect, I can see that putting what that all meant together coherently would take years. I’m pretty sure it was just confusing at the time.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about another album that featured a lot of really great guitar playing that I got really into in my late teens, and then again later in life: Funkadelic’s Maggotbrain.

Mahler 9

I tried to write a breathless account of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth the other day, and it totally didn’t work. One of the difficulties of writing about classical music is that descibing the experience of hearing something depends on bridging the gap between your own frame of reference and somebody else’s.

One day I was walking down Divisidaro Street in San Francisco, headed into the Lower Haight for whatever reason, and as I turned left at the intersection, there was an older guy with a boombox blasting “It’s Like That” by Run DMC. He called to me “Hey man, you know what?” I leaned towards him with interest. “If you don’t know this song, you don’t know shit about music!” I smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

Now, did I really agree with the guy there on Haight Street that Run DMC was foundational to music as we know it? Well, I agreed with him in spirit, I suppose – I mean, Run DMC is the shit – but on a literal level, no. I’m pretty sure there are people who will go their whole lives without once hearing Run DMC and still live rich, meaningful musical lives. That’s not to take away from the remarkable contributions of Run DMC – they’re great. But music is way bigger than any one person, or group of people, or even whole countries.

All that said, you have not lived until you have heard a world class orchestra perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Felt as real as could be at the time, but now it seems a little ridiculous.

Mahler’s symphonic writing is among the finest ever done – his scores demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral capabilities.  I once saw a performance of Mahler’s orchestration of Beethover’s Ninth Symphony at the Kennedy Center in DC, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The entire first half of the concert consisted of Slatkin’s commentary on the extraordinary craftmanship of Mahler’s version of a classic symphonic work. For one thing, the orchestra was much bigger. Instead of two horns, as in Beethoven’s original, Mahler scored for ten. The performance after lecture was epic. Beethoven’s Ninth is sort of the Gold Standard magnum opus – the “Ode to Joy” melody is known throughout the world. It’s big dramatic stuff, and Mahler’s own career as a composer was a continuation of composers with big, dramatic personalities writing big, dramatic pieces of music.

Mahler’s primary career was as an opera conductor. He composed usually during extended summer holidays in the countryside, in a series of huts built specifically for composing in.

220px-Mahler_Composition_Hut_Klagenfurt
Mahler’s second composing hut, at Maiernigg (near Klagenfurt), on the shores of the Wörthersee in Carinthia

The above pictured hut apparently featured separate entrances for Mahler and the maid.  The maid would approach the hut on a path hidden from the view of the hut, so that meals could be delivered without the composer being in any way disturbed by arrivals and departures. For Mahler, composing demanded a kind of absolute solitude. He would sit in a room with a piano, a desk, books of poetry and German philosophy, somewhere deep in the woods by a lake. Again, Mahler is a little ridiculous. He produced these symphonies – which, I’m telling you, contain some of the most beautiful music ever set to paper – amidst a kind of bourgeois fantasy of communing alone with nature (with room service! in a three piece suit!).

The conductor that evening with the CSO was Esa-Pekka Salonen, currently principal conductor with the London Philharmonia Orchestra, and formerly music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for seventeen years. I’d never heard of him, myself, but he’s apparently a pretty big deal. Anyways, at the close of the performance, he hopped down from the podium and kind of wandered off stage, holding out his baton as if he was still half-conducting. He did this three times – bowing, pointing out various members of the orchestra for individual recognition, having the whole orchestra on their feet for a bow, and so on. That funny little conducting shuffle, back and forth, three times. Conductors tend to be eccentric white guys, and this guy fit the bill for sure.

I’m not sure if Mahler was necessarily eccentric, or just super intense. I do know he had numerous affairs as an opera conductor, and was generally anxious and domineering. The exact kind of guy the #MeToo movement would conduct a Twitter campaign against (with, you know, good reason). That aside, he was, by nearly all accounts, an insanely great opera conductor. His tenure as music director at Vienna’s Royal Opera (a position for which Mahler, an effectively secular Jew, converted to Catholicism) is legendary. His departure after ten years was due only to rising anti-semitism in Austria (ironic, no?)

Opera was at it’s artistic height at the turn of the 20th century. Orchestras had grown, in part because of the growth of cities and the rise of the middle class over the previous century had produced large audiences with substantial disposable incomes and desire for high culture. But also, musical institutions and technology had advanced considerably from the time of Mozart. Mahler himself attended the Vienna Conservatory (established 1817) as a young man – an opportunity unavailable to earlier composers such as Beethoven and Schubert. His education included a systematic and thorough study of classical music, which is readily evident in his highly polished scores. And by the late nineteenth century, horns, woodwinds, and percussion had all seen considerable advancement. Between university-style education and the industrial manufacture of instruments, orchestras had gone from being highly specialized ensembles in service of aristocracy to standardized groups (with established repetoire) playing before large audiences in public concert halls in virtually every European city (plus several major cities in the Americas, like Buenas Aires and New York). Mahler’s career is in the middle of all that.

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a titanic piece of music. It was the only thing on the program that night. It features only an orchestra – a big one, but not necessarily the biggest. The hall and the stage both seemed full, but not crowded.

One of the things I simply adore about going to concerts with the Chicago Symphony or the Lyric Opera is the quiet of the audience. The audience for Mahler Nine seemed especially attentive. Focused.

The first movement begins with a horn call, because of course it does. It felt to me like sitting alone, looking out the window, on a train ride into the country. The rider sits comfortably,  journeying toward death. He engages in rememberences, tender and melancholy. A seasick rhythm in the cellos resemble a kind of disorientation – the steadiness of the steam engine is distorted by fear and trembling – the security of the modern world dissolves into some sinister game. After a brief fit of tympani, the orchestra dwindles down to nothing. The violence subsides almost as quickly as it appeared, and the piece seemingly begins again, hobbling along. And then a call of winds and horns erupts into a fury of tympani and low brass! A duel between a horn and a flute ensues, which, in my notes, I recorded as a fight between a hawk and a sparrow. The hawk wins, but the sparrow is defiant! A soaring clarinet solo follows, and the movement closes quietly. It was a solid half an hour or so at the close of just that first movement. It ended with a brief stillness, a moment of silence before the conductor signaled we could breath again. When people finally coughed and sneezed and shuffled their feet, it was a tangible release of tension.

The second movement is a Landler – an old Austrian country dance tempo in triple meter. It sounds like a fairy dance party in the woods and magical beer or something. There’s a part of me that wonders if Mahler would have been in cosplay, although I kind of doubt it. In any event, we eventually get lost deep in the woods (because of course we do) and after some hobbling, some sneaking, some laughing, we get into some turbulence, and we begin to veer into death march territory before returning to the dance theme. The string writing in parts is labyrithine, full of harmoic feints and shifts, misdirections and melting passages. Like the first movement, the second ends softly, with a nod and a wink.

The third movement, a rondo, is the most rhythmic. It opens as a kind of parade of laughing clarients. But then it cracks open and an ethereal string section emerges. A weightless moment extends into momentum and gradually builds into fury, ending suddenly. The stand-out feature for me here was the E-flat clarient part, a kind of squeaky clown – the part is the most yiddish-feeling in the piece. With possibly the exception of the violins in the  opening of the fourth movement.

A schmaltzy melody opens into a counterpoint between the violins and the basses, with multiple octaves of space between them. As simple as it is, it feels very grand, the basses and cellos striding along like a giant while the violins soar high above. The movement shimmers – it is patient and slow and gentle. And it fades and fades and fades, down on out to nothing. It seems to go on forever. Quieter, and quieter, until finally, there is no sound. The conductor held that last, perfectly silent moment for what felt like an eternity. It was a transcendent moment. When Salonen relaxed at last, peels of applause rained down from the gallery to the front row.

At the end of all that, I couldn’t help feeling like I had just been through a mystical experience, or something like it. Like I wanted to embrace every member of the orchestra, the entire staff at the hall, and the audience. It was like we had accompanied Mahler himself into the darkness – laughing, crying, dancing, telling jokes, falling down, and shaking our fists at the heavens.  And that ending!

The weird thing about Mahler’s Ninth is that it’s actually his Tenth. He was worried, you see, about dying after writing a Ninth symphony, because of Beethoven having just nine symphonies. So, when he wrote his ninth symphony, he titled it “The Song of the Earth.” But then, of course, he was diagnosed with congenital heart failure, and he wrote the Ninth symphony thinking about the fact that he was about to die, and, not all that long aftewards, died at the age of 50. Although he managed to finish one movement of the Tenth symphony, a gorgeous Adagio, before finally giving up the ghost.

Most people don’t know who Mahler is – outside of the classical world, he’s pretty obscure. Within the world of symphonic music, he’s a giant. It’s weird. And I feel like an appreciation of Mahler only grows with a knowledge of classical music. For someone who doesn’t know or like classical music, a Mahler symphony might be just long and boring. To me, it’s enthralling. I’m excited to hear more!