Review: Stoner

Review: Stoner

Stoner by John Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is among the class I call ‘Goodreads Books,’ because so many of my friends here have read the book, whereas nobody I know in the real world has even heard of it, much less read it. Among a certain niche of readers, this book is quite highly regarded; some have even gone so far as to dub it the ‘perfect novel.’ I would hate to be the dissenting voice in this chorus of praise; so I am happy to report that I liked the book, even if I did not find it ‘perfect.’

The novel follows the life, from birth to death, of William Stoner, a farm boy turned man of letters. It tracks the few successes and many disappointments in his long and fairly undistinguished earthly career. What makes the novel special is not the character of Stoner—a rather bland and colorless fellow—nor anything that happens to him. Rather, it is the tone with which Williams narrates Stoner’s life—a sort of tender melancholy, searching for the beauty and sadness in ordinary things.

For me, the strongest parts of this book were the beginning and the end (which are very good parts for a book to be strong). We first see Stoner emerging from his drudging life of farm work into the halls of academe, and witness his discovery of literature. Any devoted reader will naturally appreciate this. The book ends with a striking narration of Stoner’s confrontation with his own mortality, and his acceptance of his deeply flawed life.

The middle parts of the book were dominated by a series of interpersonal conflicts, and I enjoyed these somewhat less. The dominant relationship of this novel is that between Stoner and his wife, Edith. Shortly after the marriage, it becomes clear that Edith has been emotionally (and perhaps physically?) abused, and is traumatized from this abuse, which turns her into an abuser. This makes the marriage hellish for Stoner; and the dynamics of a dysfunctional relationship are described quite expertly. However, I was frustrated by Williams’s portrayal of Edith, which is almost entirely without sympathy. As a character, she has no interiority, no real perspective, but is merely a kind of wounded automaton that goes on wounding. As a result, I found her actions incomprehensible and even unbelievable.

I would lodge a similar complaint about the novel’s other villain, Hollis Lomax. Stoner’s academic rival and eventual boss, he is possessed by a kind of vindictiveness that is never fully explained, or even investigated. The third major relationship in the book—the affair between Stoner and Katherine Driscoll—is far more sympathetic. Still, I was baffled by its eventual end. (Spoilers here.) Lomax threatens to have Driscoll fired, so Driscoll quits? Stoner ends the relationship to preserve his non-existent family life? This did not square.

It is fair to say that the only character granted interiority is Stoner himself. Judging from the reviews, many readers seem to have found in Stoner a certain nobility—seen him as a fundamentally decent man borne down by circumstances—and thus interpret this book as a tragedy of a good man in a bad world. And while I agree that Stoner is decent enough, I read this book as a case study of the pathetic man. To say this in a slightly more cultivated way, I interpreted Stoner as a prime example of what the existentialists call ‘bad faith.’

By that I mean that Stoner never seems to consciously choose what he wants from life. Even in the book’s beginning, when Stoner switches from studying agriculture to literature, this is narrated not as a conscious choice but as a kind of instinctual impulse. The same goes for his marriage, and for virtually everything else. Very often, Stoner seems hardly aware of what is happening, and most often he decides to simply go along with the current. The only time he really goes against the prevailing wind was in his attempt to prevent a bad student from obtaining a Ph.D., and even then he frames this decision as an attempt to defend the university from the world ‘out there.’ Indeed, Stoner’s whole attitude towards the university is that of a diver’s towards a shark cage. It is a shield from life.

My point is that Stoner is largely responsible for the way his life turned out. He could have divorced his wife, or have tried far more vigorously to have protected his daughter from his wife’s abuse. After Lomax decided to torture him, Stoner could have simply left the university and gone to another one. He could have eloped with Katherine Driscoll—why not? In each of these instances, Stoner simply did nothing, staying in a bad marriage, relinquishing his daughter to his wife’s power, bowing to Lomax’s schemes, and cutting it off with the only person he ever loved.

The best example of Stoner’s decision making may have been his refusal to enlist to fight in World War I. When it finally dawns on him that he would have to decide, for himself, whether to fight, he seems absolutely dumbstruck. He asks the people in his life to tell him what to do. And then, he does nothing, merely continuing on with his routine—not because he is against war, and not even because he is afraid of dying on the battlefield, but simply because it is the null choice. This, to me, is bad faith.

Now, all this is not to say that I did not like the book, or that I did not find any value in reading it. To the contrary, I think there is a great deal of value in exploring such a character. But I do not blame the world for Stoner’s problems.

Stylistically, I could not make up my mind whether I liked or disliked Williams’s writing. There were times when the prose swelled into beautiful lyricism, but mostly the narration is deadpan, often dreary, and occasionally even dirge-like—a kind of funeral procession for Stoner’s life. As for the story, I wish Williams had focused far more on Stoner’s relationship with literature, rather than simply narrating it from a distance. We never experience Stoner, say, savoring a poem; most of his energy is expended in rather dry academic work—though this, again, accords with his use of literature as an existential shield rather than a way of enhancing his life.

Regardless of one’s take on Stoner, or William’s prose, or the untapped veins in the story, it is evident that this book evokes strong reactions from its readers, some negative and mostly positive. And that, if anything, is a mark of a good book.



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Review: The World as Will and Representation

Review: The World as Will and Representation

The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1 by Arthur Schopenhauer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To truth only a brief celebration of victory is allowed between the two long periods during which it is condemned as paradoxical, or disparaged as trivial.

Arthur Schopenhauer is possibly the Western philosopher most admired by non-philosophers. Revered by figures as diverse as Richard Wagner, Albert Einstein, and Jorge Luis Borges, Schopenhauer’s influence within philosophy has been comparatively muted. True, Nietzsche absorbed and then repudiated Schopenhauer, while Wittgenstein and Ryle took kernels of thought and elements of style from him. Compared with Hegel, however—whom Schopenhauer detested—his influence has been somewhat limited.

For my part, I came to Schopenhauer fully prepared to fall under his spell. He has much to recommend him. A cosmopolitan polyglot, a lover of art, and a writer of clear prose (at a time when obscurity was the norm), Schopenhauer certainly cuts a more dashing and likable figure than the lifeless, professorial, and opaque Hegel. But I must admit, from the very start, that I was fairly disappointed in this book. Before I criticize it, however, I should offer a little summary.

Schopenhauer published The World as Will and Representation when he was only thirty, and held fast to the views expressed in this book for the rest of his life. Indeed, when he finally published a second edition, in 1844, he decided to leave the original just as it was, only writing another, supplementary volume. He was not a man of tentative conclusions.

He was also not a man of humility. One quickly gets a taste for his flamboyant arrogance, as Schopenhauer demands that his reader read his book twice (I declined), as well as to read several other essays of his (I took a rain check), in order to fully understand his system. He also, for good measure, berates Euclid for being a bad mathematician, Newton for being a bad physicist, Winckelmann for being a bad art critic, and has nothing but contempt for Fichte, Schlegel, and Hegel. Kant, his intellectual hero, is more abused than praised. But Schopenhauer would not be a true philosopher if he did not believe that all of his predecessors were wrong, and himself wholly right—about everything.

The quickest way into Schopenhauer’s system is through Kant, which means a detour through Hume.

David Hume threw a monkey wrench into the gears of the knowledge process with his problems of causation and induction. In a nutshell, Hume demonstrated that it was illogical either to assert that A caused B, or to conclude that B always accompanies A. As you might imagine, this makes science rather difficult. Kant’s response to this problem was rather complex, but it depended upon his dividing the world into noumena and phenomena. Everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is phenomena—the world as we know it. This world, Kant said, is fundamentally shaped by our perception of it. And—crucially—our perception imposes upon this observed world causal relationships.

This way, Hume’s problems are overcome. We are, indeed, justified in deducing that A caused B, or that B always accompanies A, since that is how our perception shapes our phenomenal world. But he pays a steep price for this victory over Hume. For the world of the noumena—the world in-itself, as it exists unperceived and unperceivable—is, indeed, a world where causal thinking does not apply. In fact, none of our concepts apply, not even space and time. The fundamental reality is, in a word, unknowable. By the very fact of perceiving the world, we distort it so completely that we can never achieve true knowledge.

Schopenhauer begins right at this point, with the division of the world into phenomena and noumena. Kant’s phenomena become Schopenhauer’s representation, with only minimal modifications. Kant’s noumena undergo a more notable transformation, and become Schopenhauer’s will. Schopenhauer points out that, if space and time do not exist for the noumena, then plurality must also not exist. In other words, fundamental reality must be single and indivisible. And though Schopenhauer agrees that observation can never reveal anything of significance about this fundamental reality, he believes that our own private experience can. And when we look inside, what we find is will: the urge to move, to act, and to live.

Reality, then, is fundamentally will—a kind of vital urge that springs up out of nothingness. The reality we perceive, the world of space, time, taste, and touch, is merely a kind of collective hallucination, with nothing to tell us about the truly real.

Whereas another philosopher could have turned this ontology into a kind of joyous vitalism, celebrating the primitive urge that animates us all, Schopenhauer arrives at the exact opposite conclusion. The will, for him, is not something to be celebrated, but defeated; for willing leads to desiring, and desiring leads to suffering. All joy, he argues, is merely the absence of suffering. We always want something, and our desires are painful to us. But satisfying desires provides only a momentary relief. After that instant of satiety, desire creeps back in a thousand different forms, to torture us. And even if we do, somehow, manage to satisfy all of our many desires, boredom sets in, and we are no happier.

Schopenhauer’s ethics and aesthetics spring from this predicament. The only escape is to stop desiring, and art is valuable insofar as it allows us to do this. Beauty operates, therefore, by preventing us from seeing the world in terms of our desires, and encouraging us to see it as a detached observer. When we see a real mountain, for example, we may bemoan the fact that we have to climb it; but when we see a painting of a craggy peak, we can simply admire it for what it is. Art, then, has a deep importance in Schopenhauer’s system, since it helps us towards the wisdom and enlightenment. Similarly, ethics consists in denying the will-to-live—in a nutshell, asceticism. The more one overcomes one’s desires, the happier one will be.

So much for the summary; on to evaluation.

To most modern readers, I suspect, Schopenhauer’s metaphysics will be the toughest pill to swallow. Granted, his argument that Kant should not have spoken of ‘noumena’ in the plural, but rather of a single unknowable reality, is reasonable; and if we are to equate that deeper reality with something, then I suppose ‘will’ will do. But this is all just a refinement of Kant’s basic metaphysical premises, which I personally do not accept.

Now, it is valid to note that our experience of reality is shaped and molded by our modes of perception and thought. It is also true that our subjective representation of reality is, in essence, fundamentally different from the reality that is being represented. But it strikes me as unwarranted to thus conclude that reality is therefore unknowable. Consider a digital camera that sprung to life. The camera reasons: “The image I see is a two-dimensional representation of a world of light, shape, and color. But this is just a consequence of my lens and software. Therefore, fundamental reality thus must not have any of those qualities—it has no dimensions, no light, no shape, and no color! And if I were to stop perceiving this visible world, the world would simply cease to exist, since it is only a representation.”

I hope you can see that this line of reasoning is not sound. While it is true that a camera only detects certain portions of reality, and that a photo of a mountain is a fundamentally different sort of thing than a real mountain, it is also true that cameras use real data from the outside world to create representations—useful, pleasing, and accurate—of that world. If this were not true, we would not buy cameras. And if our senses were not doing something similar, they would not help us to navigate the world. In other words, we can acknowledge that the subjective world of our experience is a kind of interpretive representation of the world-in-itself, without concluding that the world-in-itself has no qualities in common with the world of our representation. Besides, it does seem a violence done to language to insist that the world of our senses is somehow ‘unreal’ while some unknowable shadow realm is ‘really real.’ What is ‘reality’ if not what we can know and experience?

I also think that there are grave problems with Schopenhauer’s ethics, at least as he presents it here. Schopenhauer prizes the ascetics who try to conquer their own will-to-live. Such a person, he thinks, would necessarily be kind to others, since goodness consists in making less distinction between oneself and others. Thus, Schopenhauer’s virtue results from a kind of ego death. However, if all reality, including us, is fundamentally the will to live, what can be gained from fighting it? Some respite from misery, one supposes. But in that case, why not simply commit suicide? Schopenhauer argues that suicide does not overcome the will, but capitulates to it, since its an action that springs from the desire to be free from misery. Be that as it may, if there is no afterlife, and if life is only suffering punctuated by moments of relief, there does not seem to be a strong case against suicide. There is not even a strong case against murder, since a mass-murderer is arguably riding the world of more suffering than any sage ever could.

In short, it is difficult to have an ethics if one believes that life is necessarily miserable. But I would also like to criticize Schopenhauer’s argument about desires. It is true that some desires are experienced as painful, and their satisfaction is only a kind of relief. Reading the news is like that for me—mounting terror punctuated by sighs of relief. But this is certainly not true for all desires. Consider my desire for ice cream. There is absolutely nothing painful in it; indeed, I actually take pleasure in looking forward to eating the ice cream. The ice cream itself is not merely a relief but a positive joy, and afterwards I have feelings of delighted satisfaction. This is a silly example, but I think plenty of desires work this way—from seeing a loved one, to watching a good movie, to taking a trip. Indeed, I often find that I have just as much fun anticipating things as actually doing them.

The strongest part of Schopenhauer’s system, in my opinion, is his aesthetics. For I do think he captures something essential about art when he notes that art allows us to see the world as it is, as a detached observer, rather than through the windows of our desires. And I wholeheartedly agree with him when he notes that, when properly seen, anything can be beautiful. But, of course, I cannot agree with him that art merely provides moments of relief from an otherwise torturous life. I think it can be a positive joy.

As you can see, I found very little to agree with in these pages. But, of course, that is not all that unusual when reading a philosopher. Disagreement comes with the discipline. Still, I did think I was going to enjoy the book more. Schopenhauer has a reputation for being a strong writer, and indeed he is, especially compared to Kant or (have mercy!) Hegel. But his authorial personality—the defining spirit of his prose—is so misanthropic and narcissistic, so haughty and bitter, that it can be very difficult to enjoy. And even though Schopenhauer is not an obscure writer, I do think his writing has a kind of droning, disorganized quality that can make him hard to follow. His thoughts do not trail one another in a neat order, building arguments by series of logical steps, but flow in long paragraphs that bite off bits of the subject to chew on.

Despite all of my misgivings, however, I can pronounce Schopenhauer a bold and original thinker, who certainly made me think. For this reason, at least, I am happy to have read him.



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Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting black communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has turned what could have been a routine re-publication of old essays into a genuine work of art.

The bulk of this book consists of eight essays, all published in The Atlantic, one per year of the Obama presidency. But Coates frames each one with a kind of autobiographical sketch of his life leading up to its writing. The result is, among other things, a surprisingly writerly book—and by that I mean a book written about writing—a kind of Bildungsroman of his literary life. Even on that narrow basis, alone, this book is absorbing, as it shows the struggles of a young writer to hone his craft and find his voice. And that voice is remarkable.

But this book is far more than that. Though the essays tackle diverse topics—Bill Cosby, the Civil War, Michelle Obama, mass incarceration—they successfully build upon one another into a single argument. The kernel of this argument is expressed in the finest and most famous essay in this collection, “The Case for Reparations”: namely, that America must reckon with its racist past honestly and directly if we are ever to overcome white supremacy. Much of the other essays are dedicated to criticizing two principal rivals to this strategy: Respectability Politics, and Class-Based Politics.

First, Respectability Politics. This is the notion—popular at least since the time of Booker T. Washington—that if African Americans work hard, strive for an education, and adhere to middle-class norms, then racism will disappear. Though sympathetic to the notion of black self-reliance, Coates is basically critical of this strategy—first, because he believes it has not and will never work; and second, because it is deeply unjust to ask a disenfranchised people to earn their own enfranchisement.

His portraits of the Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—are fascinating for Coates’s ambivalence towards their use of respectability politics. Coates seems nearly in awe of the Obamas’ ability to be simultaneously black and American, and especially of Barack Obama’s power to communicate with equal confidence to the black and white communities. And he is very sympathetic to the plight of a black president, since, as Coates argues, Obama’s ability to take a strong stance regarding race was heavily constrained by white backlash. Coates is, however, consistently critical of Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on hard work and personal responsibility (such as his many lectures about black fatherhood), rather than the historical crimes perpetrated against the black community.

Coates’s other target is the left-wing strategy of substituting class for race—that we ought to help the poor and the working class generally, and in so doing we will disproportionately benefit African Americans. The selling point of this strategy is that, by focusing on shared economic hardships, the left will be able to build a broader coalition without inflaming racial tensions. But Coates is critical of this approach as well. For one, he thinks that racial tension runs far more deeply than class tension, so that this strategy is unlikely to work. What is more, for Coates, this is a kind of evasion—an attempt to sidestep the fundamental problem—and therefore cannot rectify the crime of racism.

The picture that emerges from Coates’s book is rather bleak. If the situation cannot be improved through black advancement or through general economic aid, then what can be done? The only policy recommendation Coates puts forward is Reparations—money distributed to the black community, as a way of compensating for the many ways it has been exploited and disenfranchised. But if I understand Coates correctly, it is not that he believes this money itself would totally solve the problem; it is that such a program would force us to confront the problem of racism head-on, and to collectively own up to the truth of the matter. Virtually nobody—Coates included—thinks that such a program, or such a reckoning, will happen anytime soon, which leaves us in an uncomfortably hopeless situation.

The easy criticism to make of Coates is that his worldview is simplistic, as he insists on reducing all of America’s sins to anti-black racism. But I do not think that this is quite fair. Coates does not deny that, say, economic inequality or sexism are problems; indeed, he notes that these sorts of problems all feed into one another. Furthermore, Coates reminds us that racism is rarely as simple as a rude remark or an insult; rather, it is as complex, diffuse, and widespread as an endemic disease. Coates’s essential point, then, is that racism runs far more deeply and strongly in American life than we are ready to acknowledge—mainly, because persistent racism undermines most of our comfortable narratives or even our policy ideas, not to mention our self-image.

For a brief moment, after Obama’s election, we dreamed of a post-racial America. But, as Coates shows, in the end, Obama’s presidency illustrated our limitations as much as our progress. This was apparent in the sharp drop in Obama’s approval ratings after he criticized a police officer for arresting a black college professor outside of his own house. This was shown, more dramatically, in the persistent rumors that Obama was a Muslim, and of course in Trump’s bigoted birtherism campaign. And this was shown, most starkly, by the fact that Barack Obama—a black man entirely free of scandals, of sterling qualifications, fierce intelligence, and remarkable rhetorical gifts —was followed by Donald Trump—a white man with no experience, thoughtless speech, infinite scandals, and who is quite palpably racist.

As so many people have noted, it is impossible to imagine a black man with Trump’s resumé of scandals, lack of experience, or blunt speaking style approaching the presidency. Even if we focus on one of Trump’s most minor scandals, such as his posing with Goya products after the CEO praised Trump’s leadership, we can see the difference. Imagine the endless fury that Obama would have faced—and not only from the Republican Party—had he endorsed a supporter’s product from the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office! Indeed, as Coates notes, Trump’s ascension is the ultimate rebuke to Respectability Politics: “Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive—work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.”

Whether or not Obama’s optimism or Coates’s pessimism will be borne out by the country’s future, I do think that Coates makes an essential point: that racism is deeply rooted in the country, and will not simply disappear as African Americans become less impoverished or more ‘respectable.’ Communities across America remain starkly segregated; incarceration rates are high and disproportional; the income, unemployment, and wealth gaps are deep and persistent; and we can see the evidence of all of these structural inequalities in the elevated mortality suffered by the black community during this pandemic. The intractability of this problem is bleak to contemplate, but an important one to grapple with. And it helps that this message is delivered in some of the finest prose by any contemporary writer.



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Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In any case, truly democratic debate cannot proceed without reliable statistics.

For such a hefty book, so full of charts and case studies, the contents of Capital in the Twenty-First Century can be summarized with surprising brevity. Here it goes:

For as long as we have reliable records, market economies have produced huge disparities in income and wealth. The simple reason for this is that private wealth has consistently grown several times faster than the economy; furthermore, the bigger your fortune, the faster it grows. As a result, in the 18th and 19th centuries, inequality was high and consistently grew: most of the population owned nothing or close to nothing, and a small propertied class accumulated vast generational wealth. This trend was only reversed by the cataclysms of the 20th century—the World Wars and Great Depression—as well as the resultant government policies, such as social security and progressive taxes. But all signs indicate that the general pattern is re-emerging, and we are reverting to levels of inequality not seen since the Belle Epoque.

This is a relatively simple story, but Piketty goes to great lengths to prove it. Indeed, the value of this book consists in its wealth of data rather than any seismic theoretical insights. Piketty is an artist on graph paper; and with a few simple dots and lines he cuts to the heart of the matter. The large time scales help us to see things invisible in the present moment. For example, while some economists have thought that the ratio of income going to labor and capital was quite stable, Piketty shows that it fluctuates through time and space. Seen in this way, the economy ceases to be a static entity following fixed rules, but something all too human—responding to government policy, cultural developments, and historical accidents.

Given the title of this book, comparisons to Marx are inevitable. Piketty himself begins with a short historical overview of the thinkers he considers his predecessors, with Marx given due credit. Piketty even concurs with the basic Marxian logic—that capitalism inevitably leads to a crisis of accumulation, with the capitalists siphoning off more and more resources until none are left for the rest of the population (with revolution inevitable). If we have avoided such a crisis, says Piketty, it is because Marx based his analysis on a static economy, not a growing one. The twentieth century was exceptional, not only because of its many calamities, but also because it saw enormous rates of economic growth, which also helped to offset the basic logic of capitalist accumulation. Growth rates have significantly slowed in this century.

In summarizing Piketty this way, I fear that I am not doing justice to his appeal. This book is at its most enjoyable when Piketty is at his most empirical—when he is taking the reader through historical trends and case studies. This is extremely refreshing in an economist. I often complain that economics, as a discipline, is needlessly theoretical, getting lost in abstruse debates about how certain variables affect one another, rather than focusing on observable data. Piketty explicitly rejects this style of economics, and puts forward his own method of historical research. This has many advantages. For one, it makes the book far easier to understand, since Piketty’s point is always grounded in a set of facts. What is more, this way of doing economics can be integrated with other disciplines, like history or sociology, rather than existing apart in its own theoretical realm. For example, Piketty often has occasion to bring up the novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac to illustrate his points.

Well, if Piketty is even approximately correct, then we are left in a rather uncomfortable situation. As Piketty repeatedly notes, vast inequality leads to political instability and the undermining of democratic government, as the super-wealthy are able to accumulate ever-larger influence. So what should we do about it? Here, the difference in temperament between Marx and Piketty is especially apparent. Instead of advocating for any kind of revolution, Piketty puts forward the decidedly wonkish solution of a global tax on wealth. The proposed tax would be progressive (only significantly taxing large fortunes) and would extend throughout the world, so that the rich could not simply hide their money in tax havens. Yet as Piketty himself notes, this solution is nearly as utopian as the Proletariat Revolution, so I am not sure where that leaves us.

As much as I enjoyed and appreciated this book, nowadays it is somewhat difficult to see why it became so wildly popular and influential. This had more to do with the historical moment in which it was published than the book itself, I suspect. The world was still reeling from the shock of the 2008 crash, and the public was just coming to grips with the scale and ramifications of inequality. Specifically, while most people tend to think of inequality in terms of income—partly, because most people do not have much wealth to speak of—Piketty’s emphasis on wealth, specifically generational wealth, added another dimension to the debate. Piketty evidently succeeded in getting his message across, since I did not find anything in this book shocking. Now we all know about inequality.

While I am no economist, it does seem clear to me that Piketty’s argument has several weak points. For one, his narrow focus on income and wealth distributions lead him to ignore other important factors—most notably, for me, unemployment rates. Further, the major inequality that Piketty identifies—that wealth grows faster than the economy, or r > g—could have used more theoretical elaboration. I wonder: How can private wealth grow so much faster than the economy, if it is a major component of the economy? At one point, Piketty argues that the super rich can afford to hire the best investors and financial consultants; but from what I understand, professional investors do not, on the whole, outperform index funds (which grow along with the economy). Clearly, there is much for professional economists to argue about here.

Whatever its flaws, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an ambitious and compelling book that made a lasting and valuable contribution to political debate. Piketty may be no Marx; but for a man who loves charts and graphs, he is oddly compelling.



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Review: How to Draw

Review: How to Draw

Drawing was one of my first obsessions. Not that I was ever any good at it. I had very little interest or ability in the visual arts; rather, I used drawing as a way to channel my other young obsessions. These ranged from whales, to dinosaurs, to guns, to cars, to phantasy battles—all of which I drew in a kind of careful, painstaking schematic style, wholly two-dimensional, like a crude blue-print. Eventually, my interest shifted to music and reading, and drawing was left behind.

My interest in this childhood preoccupation was reignited by reading Leonardo da Vinci and Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Both of these men used the pencil as a way of examining the world, of almost literally pulling it apart (both of them performed dissections, too), and of thinking about structure and form in ways no one had before. In short, for both the Renaissance painter and the Spanish neuroscientist, drawing was a philosophy and a science in addition to being an art, and this piqued my curiosity. Besides, I had always wondered if I could finally learn to draw in three-dimensions.

This set of lectures by David Brody was an excellent resource in this goal. Brody covers all of the basic techniques of drawing—line, composition, value, color, perspective, and the human form—including exercises, analysis, and history along with his demonstrations. To really work through all of these lectures would take a great deal of time. I spent over a year, on and off (mostly off), with these lectures, and even so I think far more time would be required to achieve results comparable to his (intimidatingly amazing) students.

On the whole, I would rate these lectures very highly. Brody takes an academic approach, trying to get his students to think analytically and to apply general-purpose techniques to a wide range of problems. That is, rather than focusing on specific tricks—such as how to draw convincing eyes or a tree—Brody tries to boil down drawing into fundamental techniques and approaches. Granted, I do think Brody took this approach too far, as a few lectures consist almost entirely of abstract discussions of visual space, hierarchy, color, and so forth. I think the series would have been improved with more draw-along types of activities.

Brody himself comes across as intelligent and surprisingly erudite. He uses many historical examples in his lectures—including many from Asia, which was a nice touch. (Brody is also, as it happens, a talented musician who published a popular fake book for the fiddle.) But he is, unfortunately, a rather dry and uncharismatic lecturer, which is one reason why it took me so long to get through this series.

Yet I cannot really complain, since Brody finally helped me to understand perspective, and to finally draw images in three dimensions. (I still need to work on bodies and faces.) And though I entertain few illusions about my own talent as an artist, I do think I developed a better artistic eye. And this is a reward in itself.

Below I have added some photos of the exercises, not because I am proud of them, but because it gives some idea of what one does in this course:

Review: Rage

Review: Rage

Rage by Bob Woodward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes.

Under normal circumstances, I would not subject myself to a single book about Donald Trump, much less two. But I happened to finish A Very Stable Genius—written by two of Woodward’s fellow reporters at the Washington Post—during one of the most bizarre weeks in Trump’s very bizarre presidency.

The week began ordinarily enough, with the revelation in the New York Times that Trump was using his business failures to avoid taxes. Big surprise. This scandal was quickly eclipsed by Trump’s unhinged performance in the first presidential debate, which even some keen supporters found unpalatable. And then Trump managed to top his own performance, by announcing his coronavirus diagnosis. Somehow, even this potentially solemn event quickly devolved into a carnival of lies, as various reports on the president’s health conflicted. The farce was capped off by Trump’s tweeting “Don’t be afraid of COVID” after leaving the hospital.

I mention all this only to show that, even after four years and four thousand scandals, Trump has retained his ability to completely absorb my attention and, yes, to shock me. Hoping for some more insight or clarity, I reached for this book—yet another in the long list of Trump exposés. And I did find that Rage complemented the story told in A Very Stable Genius quite nicely, covering much of what is left out in that earlier book. Whether I am any the wiser for having read these books is another question.

The basic story is simple: Trump relentlessly wore down his advisors and officials through unreasonable and often contradictory demands, until they either resigned in frustration or were fired (often via a Tweet). As the authors of A Very Stable Genius put it, Trump ground through his human guard rails. This way, advisors willing to oppose or moderate the president were gradually replaced by sycophants who did little to curb his more destructive whims. Thus, when a real crisis hit the country, one requiring a complex and coordinated response, the White House was completely unprepared.

However, it is also apparent that this was not originally the story that Woodward set out to tell. The first half of the book focuses quite steadily on foreign policy, and is clearly the fruit of much careful research. There are the usual stories of Trump snubbing allies and pining after Putin. But the real surprise comes when Woodward reveals that he somehow obtained the letters exchanged between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Though containing little of substance, these letters are quite surprising in their affectionate and even flowery tone. Even so, this is one section of the book where Trump does not come off so badly. Nothing was gained from the meetings and the letters, but nothing was lost, either; and arguably it was worth a try to extend an olive branch.

Like so much of life, the book gets severely derailed in its second half by the arrival of the coronavirus. It was around this time, too, that Woodward gained access to Trump himself. From January to shortly before the book’s publication, Woodward interviewed the president eighteen times, for a total of over nine hours. This meant that Woodward had a direct line to Trump during the greatest test of his presidency. The book thus becomes a kind of character study in a time of crisis, with Woodward pushing and probing, trying to understand why Trump is handling the pandemic so badly.

The closer a look one gets of Trump, the stranger he appears. To use Woodward’s phrase, he is a “living paradox”—or at least bafflingly inconsistent. One obvious example of this is Trump’s decision to do these interviews in the first place. After all, Woodward had already written a book highly critical of Trump, and is an associate editor at the Washington Post, a paper Trump routinely derides as liberal media spouting fake news. Was it simply bad judgment? More likely, in my opinion, Trump thought that by personally speaking with Woodward, he could convince the journalist to change his tone. (Trump hoped to do the same with Mueller, Putin, and Kim Jong-un, after all.) Either that, or he simply found the publicity and prestige offered by a Woodward book irresistible.

Another tension in Trump’s personality is that between authoritarianism and negligence. Trump’s admiration for strong-men around the world has often been noted, as has his demand for loyalty and praise from his subordinates. And his response to the Black Lives Matter protests—threatening to send the military, and using federal troops to illegally detain protesters—is broadly authoritarian. On the other hand, Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis reveals a man quite averse to real responsibility, as he often left it up to the governors to deal with the problem. An aspiring autocrat could easily have used the emergency to appropriate more power for himself, but Trump did no such thing.

But this apparent paradox is resolved when one realizes that Trump’s conception of authority is very superficial. Being praised by subordinates, being the center of attention, being declared the best, being seen as a tough guy—this is the extent of what Trump demands from the world.

This superficiality is pervasive in Trump’s makeup, and has much to do with his (almost non-existent) relationship with the truth. It is common to call Trump a “liar”—and, of course, the major revelation of this book is that Trump apparently knew how dangerous the coronavirus was in February, and did not take action or warn the public. Yet for me this term is misleading, as it implies that Trump is fully aware of the truth and is carefully concealing it. I am sure he does that sometimes, of course. But more often it is as if he is speaking as a person might when totally overcome with emotion—in extreme rage or ecstatic joy—without even considering the truth.

The reason I say this—and I hope that I am not getting carried away here—is that, when Trump speaks, the words do not seem to come from some deep place inside himself, as happens during a thoughtful conversation. Rather, the words seem to pop out of thin air, determined only be the immediate needs of the present. To put it slightly differently, Trump never seems to be searching inside himself as he speaks—turning an issue over mentally or finding the appropriate phrase—but instead his mouth goes off by itself, like a machine gun, in its predictably staccato rhythm. The following excerpt captures this quite well:

“I’ve talked to lots of your predecessors,” [Woodward] said. “I never talked to Nixon, but I talked to many, many of them. They get philosophical when I ask the question, what have you learned about yourself? And that’s the question on you: What have you learned about yourself?”

Trump sighed audibly. “I can handle more than other people can handle. Because, and I’ll tell you what, whether I learned about it myself—more people come up to me and say—and I mean very strong people, people that are successful, even. A lot of people. They say, I swear to you, I don’t know how it’s possible for you to handle what you handle. How you’ve done this, with the kind of opposition, the kind of shenanigans, the kind of illegal witch hunts.”

I find this response so telling, because we can safely ignore the truth or falsity of Trump’s words. Indeed, I am inclined to think that questions of this kind usually elicit bullshit. But if I were asked this, I know that I would have to pause and search within myself for something that at least appeared to be self-knowledge. I would have to at least simulate speaking from the heart. And it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to do this. Trump’s answer, meanwhile (which essentially amounts to “I am better than other people”), pivots almost immediately from self-knowledge to what anonymous “very strong people” are telling him. In other words, it does not even betray the modicum of self-knowledge necessary to plausibly bullshit.

I am writing this to fully express these thoughts for myself, even though I am painfully aware that I am falling into the tar-pit of Trump’s personality. But enough. Let us move on from Trump to the secondary question of whether Woodward is guilty of journalistic malpractice for sitting on the information about the coronavirus. And I think he is. Woodward has given multiple reasons why he did not go public with the Trump tape, such as that he needed to give the story more context, or that he thought Trump was just talking about China. Neither of these make much sense to me. And I do think it could have made a difference if the recording of Trump had been released in, say, March.

Be that as it may, this book is still a valuable and alarming look into Trump’s White House and character. After such a steady inspection, it is difficult to disagree with Woodward’ conclusion: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”

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Review: A Very Stable Genius

Review: A Very Stable Genius

A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America by Philip Rucker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘It’s just so unfair that American companies aren’t allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas,’ Trump told the group. ‘We’re going to change that.’

The Trump book has quickly become its own genre. First, there are the many handwringing analyses of what went wrong—economic pain, journalistic negligence, polarized politics, cultural malaise—which is probably the most intellectually valuable of the lot. But the juicier stuff is to be found in the tell-alls of those fired by Trump: John Bolton, Omarosa Manigault Newman, James Comey, Michael Cohen (with doubtless many more to come). There is even a psychoanalysis by Trump’s niece! Only slightly less scandalous than these first-person accounts are the works of journalists covering Trump’s White House. The first major book of this kind was Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, followed soon by Bob Woodward’s Fear. This book, by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, falls squarely in that category.

First, I want to note that I feel conflicted about these sorts of books. On the one hand it is obviously important to cover the White House and the doings of the president; and if these are dysfunctional then we should know about it. However, books like this do play into Trump’s general strategy, which is to ceaselessly focus all attention on himself. By the end we are lost in Trump-world, engrossed by a never-ending series of scandals that always seem to be on the cusp of overturning the presidency, but which never do. The result, for anyone following the news, is a kind of exasperated exhaustion that is not especially productive. After all, it is far better to focus on a substantive issue, like healthcare (which we might be able to change), rather than on the president’s bad diet or aversion to hugs (which we cannot).

Another danger of these sorts of books is that they reinforce the “fake news” narrative that has become so powerfully corrosive. For one, this book is obviously written to attack Trump, which apparently justifies Trump’s attacks on the liberal news media. What is more, any book of this kind will inevitably rest upon anonymous sources. This is the nature of investigative journalism in politics. But it leaves the door wide open to accusations of dishonesty, and is easily dismissed by those who support the president. This is a difficult challenge for journalists.

Nevertheless, the personality of the commander-in-chief is—unfortunately—profoundly important to his ability to govern. For evidence of this, look no further than the first presidential debate, where Trump’s behavior entirely derailed the event. Being very rude in a debate is not the end of the world, of course; but presidents do a lot more than debate. So I do think that books of this kind have value, if only because they bring together, in one place, the scattered impressions of news stories, and put Trump into the sharpest possible focus.

A Very Stable Genius covers the Trump presidency in its first three years, reporting on the doings of the president and his cabinet. The backbone of the narrative is the Mueller investigation of Russian campaign interference and Trump’s obstruction of justice (something that feels like ancient history now); and Trump’s impeachment (which also feels remote) is mentioned in the epilogue. Most of the book consists of sharply-written scenes within the White House or the Pentagon, a series of conversations and confrontations between the president and his advisors.

The reader quickly gets a taste of Trump’s managing style. His fundamental ethical principle is loyalty, which means of course loyalty to him personally. The vetting process for potential hires apparently had little to do with competence, and much more with whether they had ever publicly said anything bad about Trump. (Looking good on TV is also a plus.) Conflicts then occur whenever Trump perceives a “divided” loyalty in one of his subordinates—such as loyalty to a protocol, a tradition, an overseas ally, or simply the rule of law. When this happens, Trump inevitably grows petulant, and refuses to acknowledge why what he is asking for is either a bad idea, illegal, or simply impossible. This process results, quite often, with the subordinate being fired and replaced with someone more sycophantic, who is less willing to curb Trump’s impulses.

The portrait that emerges of Trump is unflattering but hardly new. While Trump demands loyalty to himself, he has very little loyalty for anything or anyone in return. He even treats reality itself like a subordinate, embracing (or inventing) the facts that redound to his credit, and violently rejecting the rest. As you can imagine, this makes briefing the president extremely difficult, especially since any kind of reading or extended presentation leaves the president listless and bored. And then there is Trump’s worldview, which sees almost everything as a zero-sum game, a world of winners and losers (or “suckers”). Thus, any treaty that benefits an American ally must, perforce, be hurting America. All of this explains why Trump is so notoriously chummy with authoritarian rulers, since they command the “loyalty” of their subordinates, and are clearly not suckering America into giving them money. Like Trump, they are winners.

As repellant as I find the president, I must admit that I find his personality mesmerizing. He seems to step right out of a Dickens novel—a cartoonish trickster, a living caricature of the capitalist American, all the way down to his love of television and fast food. It is all just so ridiculous that it would be quite hilarious if it were not true. Consider what Trump said to reporters after his meeting with Kim Jong-un:

[The North Koreans] have great beaches,” Trump told reporters. “You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said: ‘Boy, look at that place. Wouldn’t that make a great condo?’ And I explained it. I said, ‘Instead of doing that, you could have the best hotels in the world right there.’ Think of it from a real estate perspective.

I submit that if you were writing the silliest political comedy, you could not come up with anything more perfectly absurd.

It is a testimony to Trump’s outrageous character that, even after four years as president, he can still shock us into speechlessness. Indeed, as the recent revelations of his taxes make clear, this is the entire basis of his success. If he were not entertaining enough to be the center of a reality show, then he would no doubt be just another bankrupt casino owner. Likewise, if he did not draw in viewers and readers for journalists, then he would never have become president.

Unfortunately for Trump, the coronavirus seems perfectly designed to expose all of the many flaws in his governance. The pandemic has shown that there is a real world which is neither loyal, nor easily distracted, and that cannot be sued or fired. With any luck, it will spell the end to this disgraceful period in our history. But it is frightening to think that it took a once-in-a-century emergency to remove such an obviously unfit man from the highest office in the land. It is even more frightening to think that even this might not be enough.And to be clear, I am referring to the coronavirus as a political liability for, and not as a personal threat to, the president.*

*To be clear, I am referring to the coronavirus as a political liability for, and not a personal threat to, the president.

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Review: The Deficit Myth

Review: The Deficit Myth

The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy by Stephanie Kelton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Deficits can be used for good or evil.

Robert Skidelsky, in his enormous biography of Keynes, remarks that economics today occupies the same situation as theology did in the Middle Ages—as a complex a priori logic that can be used to reach any number of contradictory conclusions. The more I read in the subject, the more I agree with him. To be taken seriously in politics means being able to use this logic. And yet, despite the seemingly scientific nature of this language, we seem hardly better able to pinpoint the nature of economic reality than the scholastics were able to count the angels.

I am exaggerating, of course. But I am a little distressed to find that, according to Stephanie Kelton, most economists and politicians—who already disagree with one another—are still fundamentally wrong about money, taxes, fiscal policy, and government debt. Here is another perspective to add to the mix: Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT.

Kelton begins the book by taking a page right out of David Graeber’s history of debt. Money was not invented, as so often supposed, to solve the problems of a barter economy. Instead, money and taxes go hand in hand. The argument goes like this: If you introduce a currency into a fully functioning credit economy (where people just keep track of what is owed to one another), then there is little reason why people would adopt it. But if you institute a tax payable only in this currency, and threaten punishment for non-payment, then suddenly everyone must find a way to acquire the new currency, and this means doing some work for the state.

In other words, governments introduced taxes, not to collect money (which it was producing anyway) but to compel work. And Kelton argues that this is still true today: that governments do not depend on taxes. She uses the example of a scorekeeper in a board game. The scorekeeper adds and subtracts points for other players, but they are never in need of points for themselves. Points are simply willed into existence whenever needed. Kelton argues that the US government (and other governments with what she calls “monetary sovereignty”) is in essentially the same position with regard to the US dollar. Since we use a fiat currency, any number of dollars can be willed into existence. Thus, the government does not depend on tax revenue, any more than a scorekeeper must subtract points from other players in order to stay afloat. In short, we do not have to worry about the deficit, since government debt is nothing like the debt you or I may have.

Does that mean that the government can just spend infinite money? No, Kelton says: though the deficit is not a problem, inflation may be. Too much government spending may lead to too many dollars chasing too few resources, which can cause prices to rise. Does that mean that taxes are unnecessary? Also no, according to Kelton, since, apart from compelling work, taxes perform at least two important functions. First, they remove money from circulating, thus decreasing inflationary pressure; and second, they reduce inequality, which leads to a healthier society. Yet if the government cannot spend infinitely, and if we still do need to tax, then what are we doing wrong?

To answer that, Kelton next turns her attention to unemployment. Kelton notes that unemployment is built into our economy, largely via the policies of the Federal Reserve. The Fed aims for an arbitrary level of unemployment (say, 3%) which it considers the “natural” rate. Going below this natural rate would, it is feared, cause inflation to kick in, since demand would outpace supply. But this “natural” rate is little more than a guess, Kelton argues. Even when unemployment has been very low in recent years, inflation has remained low. Indeed, in this argument Kelton seems to have been prescient, since just in August the Fed decided to change its policy of lifting interest rates once employment hits a certain level, thus paving the way for more sustained employment growth.

But Kelton has a fairly dim view of the prospects of using monetary policy to govern the economy. Instead, she thinks that unemployment should be directly eliminated using a Federal Jobs Guarantee. This is the main policy proposal of the book, and Kelton spends a good deal of time selling it. The advantages are compelling. Most obviously, unemployment is bad for people and communities, so it would be highly desirable to get rid of it. And a jobs guarantee would give workers more bargaining power, since the wage floor would rise (the jobs would pay a living wage) and the threat of losing work and health insurance would be eliminated.

Still, I admit that I was not convinced. For one, even according to MMT’s own premises, the huge increase in aggregate demand—caused by increased federal spending, eliminating unemployment, and increasing wages across the board—could cause inflation. Kelton does not really address this potential pitfall.

On a more practical level, I also have trouble imagining the logistics. Kelton describes a program that can employ anyone, anywhere, in socially meaningful jobs. But there is not necessarily the right amount of meaningful work in any given location, nor do the unemployed necessarily have the skills necessary to do this work (and re-training has its limits). I think that a substantial amount of make-work is inevitable in such a scheme. Furthermore, I can hardly contemplate the enormous bureaucracy that would be needed to administer such a program. It seems there would be just as many people making jobs as people needing jobs made for them.

The job guarantee’s major policy rival, universal basic income (UBI), has none of these practical challenges (though of course it could cause inflation, too), since it is merely paid via the IRS. Admittedly, jobs do provide social and psychological benefits that an income does not. But Kelton does not discuss UBI at all, which I thought disappointing.

At this point, the reader may be forgiven for wondering what is so new about MMT. After all, Paul Krugman—an orthodox Keynesian economist critical of MMT—has been writing for years about the mistake of thinking of the federal budget like a household budget, and the desirability of federal deficits in times of recession. The difference, so far as I understand it, brings us into dangerously wonky territory. Krugman avers that when we near full employment, a large deficit may require higher interest rates in order to avoid inflation. Kelton counters that our assumptions that low interest rates boost spending, and higher interest rates constrict spending, are actually incorrect. In other words, Krugman thinks that monetary policy can partly compensate for fiscal policy, while Kelton thinks that monetary policy is not particularly useful.

I have little to add to this, other than to remark that I can never understand why these disputes—like theology—always take the form of high theoretical debates from first principles. It strikes me that the impact of monetary policy is an empirical question that could be answered with a careful look at the historical record. But what do I know?

Well, I have done my best to elucidate this sacred mystery, but I ought to evaluate the book. Like many readers, I found the writing in this book extremely grating. The tone was somewhere between a salesperson and a televangelist—promising instant enlightenment and easy solutions—which immediately put me on edge. In fairness, when Kelton is not selling MMT but explaining it, the book can be quite fascinating. But Kelton’s insistence on treating MMT as blindingly true, and its enemies as either blinkered traditionalists or deceptive politicians, was not charming or effective. And the amount of repetition could even be condescending. By the time I reached the end, I really could not stand to hear another iteration of the central tenets of MMT. I got it the first couple times.

Whatever the flaws of the book, and whether or not MMT is an accurate picture of how the economy works, it at least makes you think about how the deficit is treated in public discourse. Anyone who reads the news cannot help but notice that the swelling deficit is only invoked when we have to pay for, say, healthcare or infrastructure; but, somehow, when tax cuts to the wealthy or defense spending are on the table, nobody seems to worry. Even if the deficit presents more of a problem than Kelton believes, it is obvious that, if anything is worth going into debt for, it is programs that benefit the public, rather than bombs or yachts. I hope that followers of Keynes, MMT, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham can at least agree with that.



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Review: Lost Worlds of South America

Review: Lost Worlds of South America

Lost Worlds of South America by Edwin Barnhart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last installment (well, really, the first, but I did it backwards) in Barnhart’s lecture series on Pre-Columbian archaeology. They are all quite excellent and greatly enlightening. Throughout the series, I was constantly surprised—both at the material, and at my own ignorance of the material.

You see, I was raised in the United States, where some material on Pre-Columbian cultures was on the syllabus. Not only that, but I studied anthropology and archaeology in university. So I assumed that I would have at least a fair impression of what was going on in the Americas before Columbus.

But I had only the faintest notion. I did not know, for example, that some of the oldest stone structures on earth can be found in South America. Nor did I know that these ancient peoples also made the world’s oldest mummies. Now, mummies and stone huts may not seem very important to you, but their very early appearance underlies the surprisingly early presence of humans in the Americas. For a long time it was thought that humans crossed the Bering Strait after the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago. Many recent findings have dramatically pushed back the date of these first humans, however; and most mysteriously, the oldest finds are in South America.

In high school I was taught about the Inca. But I did not realize that the Inca Empire occupied only a small part of this long history. Nor did I know anything at all about the other historical cultures that preceded the Inca—the Moche, the Chavín, or the Norte Chico, just to name a few. Of the Inca, I knew little more than that they were conquered by Pizarro and built Machu Picchu. That they built earth-quake resistant buildings, an enormous system of roads, and even (possibly) a writing system (quipu) in the form of knots—all this had either been either forgotten or never learned.

In short, I would encourage all Americans to get better acquainted with these ancient peoples. Most of us know, on some level, that the land had been occupied before Europeans arrived. But it is difficult to wrap your mind around the scale of what was lost. These lectures are an excellent place to start. By carefully examining the archaeological record, Barnhart brings this lost world—at least partially—back to life. And as he constantly reminds us, there is still much left to learn.



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Review: Debt

Review: Debt

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.

Three years ago, I went on vacation in the north of Spain, to the city of A Coruña. There, perched on the jagged rocks below the Roman lighthouse, I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. The crashing sound of ocean waves just seemed an appropriate accompaniment to Spengler’s grandiose attempt to analyze all of human history.

At it happened, I ended up reading David Graeber’s Debt in the exact same circumstances. And perhaps this coincidence highlighted the odd similarities between Graeber’s book and Spengler’s. On the surface, the two men are quite radically opposed: Spengler is mystical, conservative, and mainly preoccupied with ‘high culture,’ while Graeber is conversational, leftist, and usually focused on more humdrum human affairs. But both The Decline of the West and Debt are sweeping scholarly exercises which attempt to completely alter our view of history. As a consequence, the books have similar merits—a large perspective, unusual connections, an original angle—while suffering from the same basic weakness: the attempt to strap history into a Procrustean bed.

But I am getting ahead of myself, as I should explain what this book is about. Graeber set out to write about debt, partly as a response to the 2008 financial crash, but also to respond to a certain moral confusion he noticed in the general culture. This is the notion that one always ought to ‘pay one’s debts.’ Most of us, I suspect, would agree that this is the right and proper thing to do. But there are many cases in which debt can be morally questionable. Consider a man who had an unexpected heart attack and was taken to a hospital out of his insurance network, or a young student who took out college loans but then had to drop out because her father had a heart attack, or a family who had agreed to a predatory mortgage for a house that the bank knew they could not afford, or a poor country forced to adopt austerity policies by the IMF in order to pay their debts richer countries—in any of these cases, is it moral to pay one’s debts?

As Graeber points out, standard economic theory does not hold that all debts must be repaid. Rather, both the lender and the debtor enter into an arrangement with a certain amount of risk. The loan is, in a sense, an investment like buying stock, and may or may not yield money according to the fortunes of the debtor. But this is not how we typically treat debt. Bolstered by our moral sense that debts should be paid, we accept a moral lopsidedness in the relationship, giving lenders quite extraordinary powers (garnishing wages, confiscating property) to extract money from debtors. Yet Graeber is not an economist, and does not want to restore a balance to the arrangement. Rather, he is disturbed by the very concept of debt. For what sets debt apart from an obligation is that it can be precisely quantified. This means debts require a system of money.

This leads Graeber to examine the origins of money, which for me was easily the strongest section of the book. Most economist textbooks explain money by pointing out that money solves the problem of a double coincidence of wants. That is, if I have some extra boots, and I would like to trade them for some beer, it is quite possible the brewer already has all the boots he needs. But if I can sell the boots for money, and the brewer accepts cash payments, then we are in business. The problem with this story is that there is no historical evidence that such a thing happened. Indeed, this hypothetical situation is rather bizarre—essentially taking a world very much like our own, and then removing the money.

Instead, it appears from the historical record that credit systems developed before actual money. These could be formal or quite informal. As an example of the latter, imagine you are living in a small village. One day, you see your neighbor wearing a nice pair of boots, and you ask if he has any extras. He does, and offers them to you as a gift. Next month, you make a big brew of beer and then give him a jug of it, offering it as a gift. The key is that, using such a credit system, you effectively get around the double coincidence of wants, since there is a very good chance that you will eventually have something your neighbor wants, and vice versa. This is just one informal example of how such a credit system could work with ‘virtual money.’ Graeber, being an anthropologist, is full of fun examples of exchange practices from around the world, all of which fly in the face of our idealized notions of purely economic transactions.

After quite effectively demolishing what Graeber calls the ‘myth of barter,’ he embarks on a grand tour of history. And here is where the book fell off the rails for me. Now, this is not to say I did not enjoy the ride: Graeber is an engaging writer and is full of fascinating factoids and radical notions. But I was constantly bugged by the sensation that either I was misunderstanding Graeber, or that he was not proving what he thought he was proving. To give you a smattering of Graeber’s points, he argues that the use of coinage influenced ancient Greek philosophers’ concepts of matter, that religions emphasizing selfless charity arose in reactions to markets emphasizing selfish acquisition, that our notions of property derive through Roman law from slavery, that money was actually introduced by kings who used it to debt-finance wars, and that the Spanish conquistadores were driven to commit such atrocities because they were in debt.

As you can see, that is an awful lot of material to cover; and this is just a sample. Each of these arguments is, in my opinion, quite interesting (if not always convincing). But, again, I was always unsure as to the larger point that Graeber was trying to make. On the one hand, Graeber seemed to be saying that money and debt are inextricably bound up in an ugly history of violence; but on the other, Graeber demonstrates that debt financing is a remarkably old and persistent practice, and is partly responsible for what we (pretentiously) call ‘civilization.’ At the end of the book, Graeber states that his purpose was to give his readers a wider taste of what is possible, so that we can reimagine our society. However, one of Graeber’s main insights is that history is cyclical: alternating from periods of hard money (like precious metals) and virtual money (like IOUs and fiat currency)—though both of these systems involve debt. If anything, then, this book left me with the impression that debt is an inescapable part of life.

Allow me, if you please, to mention one of my pet peeves here. Graeber is a big fan of etymologies. This book is peppered with words and their unexpected origins, which Graeber often uses as evidence in his arguments. In my opinion, this is a very lazy and unconvincing way of arguing. Do not misunderstand me: I like a good etymology as much as anyone. But the fact that a word once meant one thing and now means another does not, in my opinion, prove that these two concepts are somehow secretly connected. I would have much preferred more detailed examinations of historical evidence; but Graeber actually goes out of his way in the afterward to criticize historians for being overly empirical. This is not a message I can get behind.

But enough of that. I am sorry to be writing even a moderately critical review in the wake of Graeber’s tragic passing. For all of this book’s (perceived) faults, I am very glad to have read it. Like Spengler, Graeber had a mind full of fire, and was always letting off sparks in every direction. He was, in advertising parlance, an idea man; and this book is full of bold new ways of seeing our past and present. And even if Graeber’s grand theories about society and history do not, ultimately, pan out, one can say of Graeber what Walter Pater said of aesthetic theorists:

Many writers have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.

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