Is television the gin of today?

So suggests Clay Shirky, in an interesting gloss on the argument that gin made the Industrial Revolution possible, by enabling the first factory workers to tolerate the wrenching switch from a rural life to an urban one. Shirky suggests that television has fulfilled the same function since World War II, basically making it possible for us to deal with all the stresses of modern life. I don’t fully agree with him—I think it’s simplistic to argue that either gin, then, or television, now, should be seen as simply an escape, and thus that its use suggests that the user must have been escaping from something horrible. This view, to me, stems from the cultural-elite prejudice that if one isn’t using one’s leisure time to improve oneself, one is giving in to “escapism,” which is unnatural, and thus indicates a need to escape from something abnormal and objectionable. But Shirky’s main point, I think, is a good one—that people have a lot of free time, and if a lot of them decide that generating knowledge for others to share is an interesting, enjoyable way to spend that time, the Web could soon be filled with countless Wikipedias, and while a lot of that stuff would be dross, a lot of it would be useful, and for it, we’d all be the wiser. Literally.

What does this have to do with lit, now? It seems to me that whatever the Quality Lit folks say, more and more people are devoting what Shirky calls their “cognitive surplus” to reading and writing fiction and poetry. Yes, it’s true that the Atlantic and Harper’s no longer run short stories every issue… But new literary journals are sprouting up all the time—a very partial list is here—and while many of them reach only a handful of readers, they do exist, and someone cares about them enough to edit them, and other someones care enough to write for them, and, presumably, also read them. Does this mean they’re good? Not at all. But this mushrooming is a sign, I think, that the efficiencies created by new technologies are creating an enormous opportunity for readers and writers of literary work, and they’re taking more and more advantage of it, to the ultimate benefit of literature.

John Brooks’s Telephone, excerpted and introduced by Paul Ford

“In 1981 when I was seven or eight and on my way to visit my grandparents across town, I would always stop in the alley behind the phone company and jump up so that I could see across a fence and into an uncurtained window. What I’d see were banks of tangled colored wires. Tangled wires meant progress—you saw pictures of them in books about spacecraft or computers. Sometimes, in the window, a man would be standing on a ladder among the wires. What was going on in there?”

(Full “story” at

Confusion and modernism

“In 1961 an American academic, Tom Driver, quizzed Samuel Beckett about the confusion he found in his writing. Beckett replied: ‘The confusion is not my invention … It is all around us and our only chance now is to let it in. The only chance of renovation is to open our eyes and see the mess. It is not a mess you can make sense of.’”

(Full story, on Beckett’s lectures on literature, at

Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”

“In the last decades interest in hunger artists has declined considerably. Whereas in earlier days there was good money to be earned putting on major productions of this sort under one’s own management, nowadays that is totally impossible. Those were different times. Back then the hunger artist captured the attention of the entire city. From day to day while the fasting lasted, participation increased. Everyone wanted to see the hunger artist at least daily. During the final days there were people with subscription tickets who sat all day in front of the small barred cage. And there were even viewing hours at night, their impact heightened by torchlight. On fine days the cage was dragged out into the open air, and then the hunger artist was put on display particularly for the children. While for grown-ups the hunger artist was often merely a joke, something they participated in because it was fashionable, the children looked on amazed, their mouths open, holding each other’s hands for safety, as he sat there on scattered straw—spurning a chair—in a black tights, looking pale, with his ribs sticking out prominently, sometimes nodding politely, answering questions with a forced smile, even sticking his arm out through the bars to let people feel how emaciated he was, but then completely sinking back into himself, so that he paid no attention to anything, not even to what was so important to him, the striking of the clock, which was the single furnishing in the cage, merely looking out in front of him with his eyes almost shut and now and then sipping from a tiny glass of water to moisten his lips…”

(Full story here.)

Milton Friedman, failure

A while back I saw a piece about the sort-of-new Milton Friedman bio, and thought, I have to read that. But then I couldn’t find it at my local bookstore—I live in Berkeley—and by the time I got to another bookstore, I’d come to think I could live without reading it. Of course he was a hugely influential figure and must have had an interesting life, what with all the stuff he did, and his great taste in architecture. But I don’t love biographies and feel as though I know plenty about him and his ideas. And anyway, what interests me most about him is a certain paradox, one that he himself noted: his ideas have been incredibly influential, but arguably, his political project was a failure. Around 1980, i.e. right before The Reagan Revolution That Changed Everything, government sucked up around 40% of US GDP. And now, after said Revolution, which, we all know, Totally Reigned In Government Spending But Good, how much of GDP does government suck up? About the same amount.

Tyler Cowen proposes an interesting explanation for this. He argues that because anti-wasteful-spending rhetoric has been so successful, i.e. everyone uses it, and believes it, politicians have worked hard to improve the quality of government services, knowing that if they don’t, they’ll be tossed out of office. And as government services have gotten better, people have decided to buy more of them.

I think this is mostly true, but in order to understand why government is still so big, we need to look at two other things. First, the role of people I’d call policy entrepreneurs, the people who come up with new government programs, then convince taxpayers to buy them. Second, the relationship between the size of government and taxpayers’ sense of their own material well-being.

To take the latter first, I’d argue that as long as voters mostly feel they’re getting better-off, they’re open to spending more on government, so long as this increased spending doesn’t require taxes to be raised so much that they start feeling worse-off. That is, as long as economic growth outpaces tax hikes, people aren’t bothered about the latter. And yes, at least in part, they want high-quality services for their money—which is why tony suburbs the country over have high property taxes, which pay for great public schools, well-kept parks, and cops who crack the nuts of anyone who so much as looks at you cross-eyed.

But when buying from national government, over which they have much less leverage, voters, of late, mostly want something else: transfer payments, tax breaks, subsidized loans, and such. Cash in hand, or a cash equivalent. Entitlements, which make up an enormous chunk of the federal budget. And a chunk that’s growing as fast as politicians can find new ways to use it to buy votes. The most obvious case in point: the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which is a huge wealth transfer from the desultorily voting taxpaying public to a large group that can be counted on, every election day, to go to the polls in very high numbers, come rain, snow, gloom of night, or what have you.

So are entitlements these ‘quality services’ Cowen writes about? Of course not. In fact, I would argue, the entitlements explosion shows that people don’t trust government, at least the federal government, to do a good just of providing anything but cash and drugs. Which I guess could be the libertarian success he’s looking for.

But government is growing in other ways too, and if we look at those ways, we’ll see that Cowen is, to a real degree, right. Though ‘quality,’ I think, means something different than what we might expect. And we’ll see as well that this high-taxes-for-quality-governement-programs exchange couldn’t take place without either strong, ongoing economic growth, or the existence of a large, politically sophisticated group of policy entrepreneurs.

What type of government growth am I thinking of? Increased regulation, in part. Regulation of all manner of stuff no one ever thought of regulating, until someone convinced us it was bad, or, if we already believed it was bad, until someone convinced us that government could deal with whatever problem this It creates, so long as we understand that this is a service, for which we have to pony up. ‘Stuff’ including all manner of activities, from drug use to tobacco use to polluting, eating fatty food, and driving on busy streets. And of course hot on the heels of regulations are taxes, on all those things, and others to boot.

Where does this come from? As people get wealthier, their wealth creates an opportunity not only for private entrepreneurs who create and sell new luxury goods, but also for policy entrepreneurs, who create and sell new government programs. Both types of entrepreneurs make hay by getting people to spend money they didn’t expect to have, on goods and services that fulfill needs they didn’t know they had. The key, of course, is convincing them they have those needs, and that same are unfulfilled, and can only be fulfilled by buying a the thing or service in question. The thing, perhaps, being a cell phone, which no one ‘needed’ until about ten years ago, or a PC, which we all had to have starting around, when was it, 1990? And Medicare, and subsidies to all manner of industry, and so on and so forth, which sure cost a lot of money too, and weren’t essential until suddenly they were.

O.k., but if people are getting wealthier all the time, and can afford more of everything, and we have this vibrant private sector, why don’t private entrepreneurs step in to sell these things or services government winds up providing? The answer is that in the US, since the time of the New Deal, the private sector has been continually outflanked by the public sector, and specifically by its ruling class, the innovative, politically sophisticated policy entrepreneurs. Why? In some cases, because policy entrepreneurs have the ability to tilt the playing field against their private-sector counterparts. But more importantly, they have three killer sales lines. First, ‘I’m giving this to you free!’—to be said when arguing for, say, the aforementioned enormously expensive Medicare prescription drug benefit, because there’s a bit of money sitting around now and let’s just assume it’ll always be there, and anyway if it’s not, later, someone else will pay for it, right? Second, ‘We’ve got to do this for the children’, or its various variants, ‘…for the poor’, ‘…for the elderly’, ‘…for the historically discriminated-against’, and so forth. Which we can do because not only will someone else pay for it later, but anyway, you’re so rich—here comes number three—you would only spend that money on a boat.

And this is the key one. Government grows the fastest, and policy entrepreneurs, like their private-sector counterparts, do the best, when there’s a lot of recently made money around, and the people whose money it is, having already paid for digital cable and the kids’ Suzuki classes, and not sure what else to buy, are starting to think, What the heck, maybe I’ll buy a boat. Big government—‘fairness,’ ‘caring,’ ‘homeland security’, and so on and so forth—is, at least in its comtemporary US variant, the equivalent of that boat. Which is to say, a luxury good. The market for which explodes during times of economic expansion.

And being a luxury good, if it has no practical value… Well, no sweat. And if you never use it—no worries there either. Buying it, and having it, and thus being the kind of person who has a boat—that’s enough.

To wit: postwar American history, which shows that voters, when they feel flush, are quite willing to pay government to provide, at increased direct cost to them, new services whose only clear value is to make them feel good about themselves. These services don’t even have to deliver what they’re supposed to, at least not until voters start to feel like their standard of living is stagnating or declining, and so, in order to improve it, want, sensibly, to cut back on luxury spending. This is how we got the Great Society, and then, some years later, the reaction against the Great Society. The Great Society, after all, was of no direct benefit to most voters, and yet what with the humungo postwar economic expansion, everybody pretty much felt flush, and so what the heck, let’s shell out and see what happens, maybe we’ll lick this poverty thing. And who convinced them to do this? The policy entrepreneurs of the day, the people who created AFDC and Medicare and Medicaid, as thoroughly convinced as Jobs and Gates ever were, that their creations would change the world for the better—and as interested in making a living by getting someone to buy said creations. Which were, of course—like the personal computer, circa 1980, and the cell phone, circa 1995—no mere luxury goods, but things essential to the living of a truly modern life. And only in the late 70s and early 80s did their customers start to worry, maybe we shouldn’t be spending so much to keep that boat up, given that it leaks and the navigational system is so screwy, it never once took up where we thought we were going. Heck, let’s get rid of the boat—everyone will be better off, having to find their own way, rather than always wanting to hitch a ride on our boat, then tearing the place up and complaining all the while that the bar is understocked and the thing moves too slow. Maybe later, when we’ve got a bit of cash to spare, we’ll buy another boat. Or there will be somebody else selling something cool, something we just have to have, even if it’s hugely expensive and we’re not sure it’ll work, to fulfill some need we never knew we had. Something like universal health care. Or total homeland security. Or carbon neutrality, or a national war on the evil of sprawling transfatty profiling.

Great litcrit takedowns: Monstrous boor edition

Really it’s unfair of the Times, to let Paul Theroux review Patrick French’s hack job on V.S. Naipaul. And the article has little to do with the literary merits of Naipaul’s work. But what the heck, A House for Mr. Biswas was crashingly dull, and even if Theroux is a prig and Naipaul’s sins are nowhere near as numerous or as sordid as claimed by his enemies, I can’t resist linking to Theroux’s joyous go at pushing the knife in deeper.