Jun 272003

Richard Dawkins will stop at nothing. Not content with foisting on the Internet the SARS-like “meme” — which doesn’t mean what you think, look it up sometime — he plumps for “Bright” to describe “a naturalistic worldview…absent any presumption of forces or entities beyond what can be observed/measured.” Few things inspire in me a sympathy for the religious; here is one.

To begin with, there are obviously forces that are far from mystical that cannot be measured, human ends for instance, which are notoriously ordinal, not cardinal. Ends can be observed, but not directly, only in their manifestations. Unfortunately our Bright employs a slash so we cannot be sure if he meant “and” or “or,” which demonstrates the same feeling for language that “Bright” itself does.

As Andrea Harris points out, “bright” is, in ordinary usage, the antonym of “clever.” It describes children who get A’s in Deportment (do they still give grades for Deportment?) and Play Well With Others. It is a word from which any genuinely intelligent child instinctively recoils. This was as true in Dawkins’ time as in my own; he must have forgotten that “bright boy” is a term of abuse, and not the way “geek” and “grind” are either.

He may intend to hijack the word, the way statists hijacked “liberal” and radical homosexuals hijacked “queer.” If he succeeds, it will merely impoverish the language. There are perfectly good English words available to describe a naturalistic worldview. Rationalist, scientific, and non-religious have all performed this homely service adequately for quite some time.

Most offensively, it is a transparent attempt to win an argument by changing the terminology, which is as unscientific a procedure as can be imagined. You may as well adopt the word “right” to describe your worldview. What does that make your opponents? Wrong, of course! Dawkins is quite frank about this, imagining the following bright snatch of dialogue. There is really no other word for it, and if the Brights have their way, there will be no word for it at all.

“Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some free thinkers. But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism.”

“Oh, I get it. It’s a bit like ‘gay’. So, what’s the opposite of a bright? What would you call a religious person?”

“What would you suggest?”

Count me dim.

(Update: Andrea Harris comments. Jonathan Wilde comments. Mark Wickens defends Dawkins doggedly but not altogether convincingly.)

Jun 262003

Hollywood has much to teach us.

Windtalkers — In this World War II John Woo gorefest Nicolas Cage, more cross-eyed and sullen than usual, plays a lieutenant assigned to a Navajo “codetalker.” His mission is to “protect the code,” that is, shoot the Navajo if he is in danger of falling into enemy hands. Now there actually was a field code, based on Navajo, the most obscure of Indian languages. It was never broken, which was more a testament to the steadfast loyalty of the codetalkers, and sheer dumb luck, than to sound cryptographic principles. If a single Navajo is captured, no more code. Even worse, if one sells out, the code has been broken and you don’t know it. Let’s face it, if you have to keep your radiomen under 24-hour armed guard, maybe you got a little cryptography problem.

The Matrices — Ah, grasshopper. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Pretty Woman — Conglomerateurs often look like Richard Gere. Street whores often look like Julia Roberts. This is why when conglomerateurs need an escort for the week they cruise the streets to find one.

Risky Business — Hey kids! Despite mediocre grades, by donning a pair of Wayfarers and running a cathouse for a weekend, you too can be admitted to Princeton and get your ticket punched for a rewarding career in investment banking!

So I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I sure haven’t been wasting my time, oh no.

Jun 242003

I can’t hope to match the peerless coverage of the Bollinger cases by Team Volokh, but a few thoughts:

O’Connor’s majority opinion in Grutter admits that the Court is obligated to find, under Adarand Constructors, which subjects racial categories to strict scrutiny, a “compelling state interest” in affirmative action. It finds this interest in diversity. It nowhere scruples to tell us what diversity actually is. Thomas, less shy, defines “diversity,” tersely and accurately, as “classroom aesthetics.”

The majority opinion also states, “the Law School frequently accepts nonminority applicants with grades and test scores lower than underrepresented minority applicants (and other nonminority applicants) who are rejected.” How frequently, do you suppose? The Court, alas, declines to provide statistics, but I’d wager the rent money that “frequently” is in the single digits for, say, the Law School in any given calendar year.

Sandra Day O’Connor may be the Lewis Powell of her generation, but Thomas, as Volokh points out, is living in a dream world when he declares in his dissent that “I agree with the Court’s holding that racial discrimination in higher education admissions will be illegal in 25 years.” The majority opinion reads, “The Court expects that, 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” Sure; just as rent-control in New York City was expected to be a temporary wartime measure. That war was World War II.

In a perfect world the University of Michigan would be able to admit anyone they pleased, corporations would be able to hire anyone they pleased, and there would be no “prohibited categories” of discrimination, or indeed, any anti-discrimination laws at all. So I can’t get too upset about affirmative action. The people who get really exercised about it tend to be old ACLU civil-rights lefties, like David Horowitz, or John Rosenberg, who runs the excellent anti-affirmative-action blog Discriminations, or my father. Old lefties retain a touching faith in the government’s ability to make a better society. They believe in integration and public education. They marched for civil rights in the South and sought to eliminate discrimination against blacks not just in law, by taking Jim Crow off the books, but in fact. They really believed in the government’s willingness and ability to wipe out racism, and they feel, with some justice, that they were sold a bill of goods. Communism made the first generation of neo-conservatives: affirmative action made the second generation.

Jun 232003

This is a test of the emergency broadcast system. Colby Cosh is now officially unemployed and needs your money, for which he is too proud to beg more than twice. Yes, we want Colby to have plenty of leisure for blogging, but we also want to keep him in food, cigs, and an Internet connection, and I’ve heard tell that those Alberta summers can be pretty harsh. If you haven’t been reading Colby, you’d best start, and if you have, then you know how consistently good he is, so cough up. This has been a test of the emergency broadcast system. If this were a real emergency, you would be instructed to give me money instead.

Jun 222003

Eddie Thomas has a longish and interesting post up about “Whiteness Studies,” in which he is characteristically more generous and fair-minded than I’m about to be. Eddie is firmly anti, but one of his commentators, Ted Hinchman, makes the best case in their defense:

What exactly is supposed to be wrong with inquiry into the formation and career of the concept of racial whiteness?

It seems obvious that the normative concept of whiteness had and still has as its core function the justification of a species of social prejudice — once the concept is in hand, you can call this ‘racial’ prejudice. Of course, it doesn’t follow that you can’t use the concept in other ways. When you say ‘White folks are sometimes plagued by racial guilt,’ you obviously aren’t justifying racial prejudice. But you’re using a concept that wouldn’t exist were it not for others’ use of it to justify racial prejudice. And it seems obvious that the justificatory use must be what gave the concept currency…

One might teach a course on the history of the concept of gravitational collapse without provoking hue and cry in the blogosphere. Or of the concept of evolution. Or of the concept of time (I don’t mean the rough draft of Sein und Zeit). So why not a course on the history of the concept of whiteness?

Now this is an argument, for good or ill, but try as you might, you just cannot expand an argument into a curriculum. In my day you had to take eight courses in your major; what might those be, for the aspiring Whiteness Studies major? (Rest assured that today’s course will be tomorrow’s department.) You have the two-semester intro on the social construction of everything, the sophomore-year history of slavery course, with special emphasis, naturally, on the United States, a couple of senior seminars on mortgage discrimination and the difficulty of getting a cab — somebody help me out here. There remains post-graduate work, which I can’t even fathom; doubtless this indicates my own insensitivity.

It isn’t much of an argument either. The concept of “whiteness” may have originated in the well-grounded observation that some people have fairer skin than others. It is obvious to Ted Hinchman that “justificatory use must be what gave the concept currency”; it’s far from obvious to me. “Normative,” then, colossally begs the question. If you wish to demonstrate the social construction of race, then you must demonstrate it, not assume it.

Whiteness Studies advocates insist on the one hand that race “is based on a fantasy” and on the other that everything be viewed through the lens of this fantasy. This WaPo story notes that “most [advocates of whiteness studies] are white liberals who hope to dismantle notions of race.” Of course people who really want to “dismantle notions of race” do not invent an academic discipline entirely devoted to such notions. Professor Gregory Jay of the University of Wisconsin encapsulates this cognitive dissonance in a single, convenient web page. He surrounds race with quotation marks, then asks his students, “How long can one watch television or read a newspaper or magazine without encountering anything but white people, or mostly white people?” I’m not sure: how do you tell?

The central premise of Whiteness Studies, and all social construction arguments, is that one’s thought is somehow externally constrained. This is our old friend, the prisoner of consciousness, which has a long and disreputable history. Plato shackles us in the cave, which keeps the Forms forever inaccessible; Kant in our faculties, which distort the true, “noumenal” world; Marx, himself bourgeois to the core, in our “class,” which renders us incapable of seeing that our arguments are mere bourgeois apologetics. Plato, Kant, and Marx granted themselves special get-out-of-jail-free cards, necessarily, to permit them to make such arguments. Such cards, however, are now for sale, like indulgences: whites will be permitted, with the aid of other, more tutored whites, to transcend their white consciousness for a modest tuition fee. Not so modest at Princeton, one of 30 universities that currently offer instruction in Whiteness Studies; but hey, who said enlightenment comes cheap?

Jun 202003

Niceness counts, your mother used to tell you, and so it does, for you and me. When you are one of the best in the world at what you do, niceness stops counting. I am reminded of this by the sportswriters’ treatment of Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds is one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, and his unearthly bat speed, unerring plate discipline and perfect balance make him a joy to watch. The pleasure he has given anyone who enjoys baseball, including some sportswriters, can never be repaid. He is also rather surly with the media and disinclined to give interviews. Tough. Nobody cares about how Barry Bonds’ relations with the press except the press, and if they had any respect for greatness they would keep quiet about it.

Babe Ruth, in another era, was celebrated for promising to hit home runs for sick children, although by the authoritative account he was a lout. But really, does anything matter about him except the way he played baseball?

I have quoted Yvor Winters before on the relations between distinguished poets and scholars, but his words serve equally well to describe the relations between great athletes and sportswriters:

To the scholar in question, the poet is wrong-headed and eccentric, and the scholar will usually tell him so. This is bad manners on the part of the scholar, but the scholar considers it good manners. If the poet, after some years of such experiences, loses his temper occasionally, he is immediately convicted of bad manners. The scholar often hates him (I am not exaggerating), or comes close to hating him, but if the poet returns hatred with hatred (and surely this is understandable), he is labeled as a vicious character, for, after all, he is a member of a very small minority group.

David Halberstam, he’s talking to you.

Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect, has an anecdote about a distinguished jurist, a member of the Supreme Court, who was profiled in a newspaper article the largest point of which was that the jurist rose early every morning and cooked breakfast for his family. In the forty-odd years since Barzun’s book was published his anecdote has been reprised countless times, almost exactly in the case of Justice Rehnquist, about whom ten people could tell you that he put stripes on his gown and sings Christmas carols for every one who could tell you a thing about his jurisprudence. This is supposed to “humanize” great men. By “humanizing” is meant “making seem more like you and me,” although what is interesting about the great is precisely what makes them unlike the rest of us. These “human” qualities are attractive or unattractive, according to the disposition of the writer: they are always irrelevant. I don’t want to see great men humanized. I want to see them praised, or even damned, for the qualities that make them great. Everything else is pornography.

(Update: Howard Owens comments.)

Jun 172003

The relative reputations of Oliver Goldsmith and George Crabbe have long troubled me; I worry about such things.

Goldsmith is best-known for The Deserted Village (1780), which still appears in many standard English literature textbooks, like the one I had in high school. Crabbe is scarcely known at all. Goldsmith slaughters him in a Googlefight by a three to one margin, although to be fair Goldsmith, unlike Crabbe, has some fame outside of his poetry for his plays and his one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, which are better than the poetry, and for being a butt of Samuel Johnson’s jokes, which are excellent.

The Deserted Village mourns the death of the English village, somewhat prematurely, in a manner befitting someone who spent most of his adult life in London coffeehouses:

And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree;
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
The young contending as the old survey’d;
And many a gambol frolick’d o’er the ground,
And sleights of art and feats of strength went round;
And still, as each repeated pleasure tir’d,
Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspir’d;
The dancing pair that simply sought renown
By holding out to tire each other down:
The swain mistrustless of his smutted face,
While secret laughter titter’d round the place;
The bashful virgin’s sidelong looks of love,
The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove…

Etcetry etcetry. You notice nothing because there is nothing to notice. Another dozen lines of this and we are informed that “all these charms have fled,” along with the villagers themselves. It does not occur to Goldsmith that the villagers may have fled because they thought that they would find a better, or at least less miserable, life in the city, which the mortality rates of the time bear out. Instead the usual villains, trade and wealth, are called to account:

But times are alter’d; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,
And every want to opulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.
Those gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
Those calm desires that ask’d but little room,
Those healthful sports that grac’d the peaceful scene,
Liv’d in each look, and brighten’d all the green,–
These, far departing, seek a kinder shore,
And rural mirth and manners are no more.

This poem irked Crabbe to no end, though not because of its foolish economics: why people left the village for the city concerns Crabbe not at all. What concerns him is Goldsmith’s sentimental picture of English rural life, which Crabbe, who grew up in the country and spent considerable time as a village parson, knew very well. In his reply, The Village (1783), he paints a rather different picture:

Where are the swains, who, daily labour done,
With rural games play’d down the setting sun;
Who struck with matchless force the bounding ball,
Or made the pond’rous quoit obliquely fall;…
Where now are these? Beneath yon cliff they stand,
To show the freighten pinnace where to land,
To load the ready steed with guilty haste,
To fly in terror o’er the pathless waste,
Or, when detected, in their straggling course,
To foil their foes by cunning or by force;
Or, yielding part (which equal knaves demand),
To gain a lawless passport through the land.

It is obvious whom to believe, but more than that, Crabbe’s verse is superior in every detail. His couplets are firm where Goldsmith’s are flabby. He eschews, except to mock, the clichés of the period, where Goldsmith indulges in them. “Swains” and “gambols” and “shades” that were already tired by the time Milton used them in Lycidas a century and a half before. There is nothing else especially rural about Goldsmith’s details; he seems to be viewing his subject from an immense distance, as, in fact, he is.

The Deserted Village lives, briefly, when he forgets that he is supposed to be apotheosizing the villagers and begins to satirize them instead. Thirty dull lines on the virtues of the minister, and then this:

The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e’en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.

I know bloggers like that. I may even be one. Goldsmith’s characterization of the “parlour splendours” of the “village statesmen” is also very sharp:

While broken teacups, wisely kept for show,
Rang’d o’er the chimney, glisten’d in a row.

These are the best lines in The Deserted Village. It is a poor harvest from a 400-line poem that has been in the canon for more than two centuries.

Crabbe’s village minister, on the other hand, is unforgettable:

And doth not he, the pious man, appear,
He, “passing rich with forty pounds a year?” [the quote is from Goldsmith]
Ah! no; a shepherd of a different stock,
And far unlike him, feeds this little flock:
A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday’s task
As much as God or man can fairly ask;
The rest he gives to loves and labours light,
To fields the morning, and to feasts the night;
None better skill’d the noisy pack to guide,
To urge their chase, to cheer them or to chide,
A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
And, skill’d at whist, devotes the night to play.

His village doctor is better still, or worse:

Anon, a figure enters, quaintly neat,
All pride and business, bustle and conceit;
With looks unaltered by these scenes of wo,
With speed that, entering, speaks his haste to go,
He bids the gazing throng around him fly,
And carries fate and physic in his eye:
A potent quack, long versed in human ills,
Who first insults the victim whom he kills;
Whose murd’rous hand a drowsy Bench protect,
And whose most tender mercy is neglect.

Crabbe is at his best in natural description. He was a sort of amateur botanist, who annoyed his wife by bringing home mosses and lichens and spreading them around the bedroom. Goldsmith’s description is all “mossy” this and “shady” that; here is Crabbe’s:

From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thin harvest waves its wither’d ears;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o’er the land, and rob the blighted rye;
There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infant threaten war;
There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil,
There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf,
O’er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.

“Sickly” in particular, with its double meaning, is a master-stroke. You will not find more accurate nature poetry than this in any English poet save Hardy — not in Wordsworth, who interested himself in nature only as a prop for his jejune philosophy, and certainly not in Goldsmith.

Crabbe also provides a clue to Goldsmith’s continuing popularity, and to his own neglect:

From this chief cause these idle praises spring,
That themes so easy few forbear to sing;
For no deep thought the trifling subjects ask;
To sing of shepherds is an easy task;
The happy youth assumes the common strain,
A nymph his mistress, and himself a swain;
With no sad scenes he clouds his tuneful prayer,
But all, to look like her, is painted fair.

I couldn’t say it any better myself. So I won’t try.

(Update: Several solecisms corrected. I was drunk when I wrote this.)

Jun 142003

There is pleasure in the wet, wet clay,
When the artist’s hand is potting it.
There is pleasure in the wet, wet lay,
When the poet’s pad is blotting it.
There is pleasure in the shine of your picture on the line
At the Royal Acade-my;
But the pleasure felt in these is as chalk to Cheddar Cheese
When it comes to a well-made Lie.–
To a quite unwreckable Lie,
To a most impeccable Lie!
To a water-tight, fire-proof, angle-iron, sunk-hinge, time-lock, steel-faced Lie!
Not a private hansom Lie,
But a pair-and-brougham Lie,
Not a little-place-at-Tooting, but a country-house-with-shooting
And a ring-fence-deer-park Lie.

–Rudyard Kipling

What’s a lie, anyway? The question is not so obvious. One might say it’s an untrue statement, which seems a bit harsh, as it makes habitual liars out of all of us. A while back I wrote that the Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell was unanimous, when it was actually 8-1. Was I lying, or was I merely mistaken?

Or one might say that it’s a statement that one knows to be false. In this case I’m off the hook for Buck v. Bell, which I thought was unanimous. Of course you will have to take my word for that, and therein lies the difficulty. You have no access to my inner life, or anyone’s except your own. The Bedlamite may really believe he is Napoleon Bonaparte.

Predictions, by any standard, cannot be lies. As a rule any statement in the conditional or future tense is disqualified. When Bush says that we will find WMDs in Iraq, he can’t be lying if we turn out not to find them. When Max Sawicky writes that “the biggest lie…is the Bushist denial that a successful Iraqi occupation would require many more troops than it is currently within the power of the U.S. to station,” he is discussing a policy disagreement, not a lie, unless Bush has personally informed Max that he knew better all along, which I rather doubt. When Howard Owens lists among anti-war lies that “there will be 500,000 dead and wounded,” “Saddam will destroy his oil fields,” “the Arab street will revolt,” and “there will be more terrorist attacks on the United States,” sorry, but those aren’t lies either.

This is not to say that Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell et al. weren’t lying. Maybe Powell really did fabricate evidence of Iraqi WMDs for his UN speech, although that would be pretty foolish, and Powell has been accused of many things but rarely foolishness. Maybe all of Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s talk about Iraqi-sponsored terrorism was calculated to distract the public from their secret plans for world hegemony. Maybe. The point is I don’t know, and neither do you.

In general trying to catch politicians lying is a fruitless exercise. They are expert in avoiding it. Even the First Golf Cheat had to be subpoenaed before he was finally nailed in a ring-fence-deer-park lie. Error is objective, and for the most part we would be best off sticking to that. It makes for less catchy slogans though.

(Update: Howard Owens comments.)

Jun 132003

My blogging holiday was lovely, thanks for asking. I spent a good portion of it trying to figure out how to use a remote Oracle database in a Microsoft .NET application, no easy trick because Microsoft’s support for Oracle is largely theoretical. They don’t really want you to use Oracle at all when you can use SQL Server, their wretched excuse for a production database, instead. Which is all neither here nor there. And now, drugs, which I assure you I was thinking about even before embarking on this excellent adventure.

Full Disclosure: I have a good bit of personal, if not professional, experience with drug use. Several of my friends were heavy users of alcohol, crack, and heroin at various times. I have myself indulged in — “experimented with,” if I were running for office — all of the major food groups at least a couple times. (Q: Mr. Haspel, how many times have you experimented with marijuana? A: Several thousand times, sir. Science requires replicable results.)

Theodore Dalrymple points out, by way of prologue, that heroin withdrawal isn’t all it’s, er, cracked up to be:

I cant tell you how many people Ive withdrawn from heroin. You never get any problems with it. Its not like withdrawal from serious drinking which can be, and often is, a medical emergency. From a medical point of view, Im much more worried in the prison when someone tells me hes an alcoholic. Im much more worried about the physical consequences of his withdrawal because they are really serious, and he can die from them. But nobody ever dies from heroin withdrawal. With the vast majority of them, you just take them aside and say: “Im not prescribing anything for you, I will prescribe symptomatic relief if I see you have symptoms, but what you tell me has nothing to do with it, Im not going to be moved by any of your screaming.” One chap came in and said “What are you prescribing me?” and I said “Nothing”, and he screamed at me, “Youre a butcher! Youre a f***ing butcher”, and he screamed and shouted and eventually I said “Take him away.”

In their more honest moments my drug-using friends have all acknowledged that Dalrymple is right: quitting, alcohol excepted, just isn’t all that tough. Most junkies have quit and returned several times when physical dependence was no longer an issue. I’ve quit smoking twice myself, suffering nothing more than low-level irritability probably indiscernible from my usual demeanor. The inner emptiness where nicotine once was never quite disappears, but whether that is physical or psychological who can say? So to me Jacob Sullum’s tale of the 44-year-old big-shot ad executive/weekend smack dabbler sounds utterly plausible.

Then why do so many people let drugs consume their lives, if it isn’t to avoid a couple days of the flu? Boredom, mostly. Human beings are goal-directed to such a degree that they will substitute a destructive goal if nothing constructive presents itself. Drugs fit the bill admirably. You think you need more, you want more, you have nothing better to do, and you go out and get more. Now you have a goal. Now your life has meaning.

This pseudo-meaning is enhanced by ceremony and ritual, a vastly underrated aspect of drug culture. Paraphernalia assume a mystical significance. Many cigarette smokers worship at the Shrine of Zippo. Some potheads of my acquaintance used to insist on using a particular double album, usually by Genesis, to clean weed. Cokeheads like to snort through $100 bills. Heroin users have the spoon, the tie, and the needle; crack users the pipe and the Chore-Boy (you trap the fumes and get a second hit by lighting it — less powerful, but included in the price). Psychedelics failed to achieve the popularity they deserved in large part because they have no paraphernalia; in cultures that supply a substitute, like peyote-based religious rituals, they are popular.

All-consuming drug use travesties purposeful behavior, the way the Mafia travesties legitimate business. And drug users testify, strangely, to the Misesian proposition that man is a being who acts toward ends.

Post scripta: Drug names are an excellent illustration of Hayek’s thesis about the collective wisdom of the marketplace that may not have occurred to Hayek himself. The market produces crack, smack, crank, ice, pot, blow, and X; committees produce — you can choose your own, but some of my recent favorites are Intuition (a razor for women), Deja Blue (bottled water), and Teen Spirit (a deodorant, God help us).

(Update: Eve Tushnet comments very nicely, but says I lack permalinks. It’s that little chain icon on the right. This from a Blogspot blogger, no less; ah, the irony.)

Jun 082003

Old joke. Q: How can you spot an intellectual? A: He’s the guy in the corner worrying about “the problem of the intellectuals.” The problem of blogging, then.

The principal lesson of blogs is that the market price for reasonably well-considered rumination is zero, and the competition for readers at that price is fierce. This understandably alarms people who are paid for ruminating — “thumb-sucking” in the argot — as opposed to reporting. It also explains both big-media hostility to bloggers, and concomitantly, blogger hostility to big media, columnists in particular. Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman are regularly savaged by people who write as well as they do, think much better, and must wonder to themselves why Dowd and Krugman have highly-paid jobs at The New York Times while all they have is their damn blogs.

It is odd, and unprecedented, that people think they ought to be able to make a living doing what they enjoy. Back in the salad days of Spy magazine, its writers were paid almost literally minimum wage, and there were 50 people who were dying to work there for every one who did. Anyone who has taken a freshman economics course will tell you that these two facts are intimately related. (One of Spy‘s best writers was asked at his year-end review what he wanted in the coming year. “More money,” he answered. He went on to become a well-known TV producer and is now richer than Croesus.)

Michael Blowhard has an essay on the economics of book-writing that has inspired a fair amount of hand-wringing in the thread. He gives several reasons for writing a book, the most important of which is being “an obsessed lunatic.” It is to obsessed lunatics that we owe the greater part of the world’s permanent literature. For most of history authors not only didn’t make money from their work, but often risked their lives by publishing it. Although it is impossible to assess a counterfactual, I see no evidence that this seriously impoverished literature. To take an obvious instance, Russian literature flowered under conditions so harsh as to be nearly unfathomable. Thomas Gray may believe in “mute inglorious Miltons,” but I don’t. Neither does Ludwig von Mises, who essentially exempts art, or art worth having, from economic calculation:

The activities of [artistic geniuses] cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is not leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about a result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation…

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him…

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact of praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses this term.

The productivity of labor has become so high in this country that most anyone who has bothered to acquire some marketable skills and is not grimly devoted to his job is awash in leisure. Trollope, who produced 40-odd novels by arising at 4 AM daily and writing for two hours before his day job at the post office, would envy us. The Marxist fantasy of a people milking cows in the morning and practicing drama criticism at night has nearly come to pass, though not in the way that Marx intended. You want to make money and write in your spare time, be my guest. You want to make money writing, write romance novels or technical texts. You want to make money writing serious books about your cherished passions, go whine to someone else.

(Update: AC Douglas comments. The Digerati Peninsula comments.)