Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review: Animal Spirits

Animal Spirits, How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller.

I read recently that 40% of Americans do not believe in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. What strikes me about this percentage is that I worry it is too low if one considers how many Americans have a clue what the theory of natural selection is about, or how it relates to their daily lives.

In short, many people are oblivious to the notion if they came from a little seed of god’s inspiration or were raised up from an ape. We can well afford to live out our lives oblivious to any forms of thinking, scientific or otherwise, that attempts to describe an accurate model of how life happens. Though, sadly, it is not quite the case with economic theory that people can choose to happily live out their lives in an illusion, or to simply ignore what is going on and to let other ‘intelligent’ people lead the way. [It was commented to me in discussion about this review how odd an idea that humans can continue to have sex and procreate while being totally ignorant of the immediate consequences in there being the sudden appearance of babies that oddly look like them. When you think of it ignorance may be a factor in natural selection as in how many people, myself included, are born out of a sort of, "Gosh, I did not know that was going to happen," scenario. It was also pointed out to me, and it is one of my own conclusions, that nobody, and I mean nobody, understands the economy -- the danger to an individual's survival, I surmise, is to believe that there is anyone that does know what they are talking about, any more than to actually believe the weather person on the TV.]

Short sighted thinking, dysfunctional economic models, economics derived from divine cause (hidden hands with no strings attached, but also with bottles of snake oil offered) have very immediate and direct impacts on if people are able to sustain themselves, find employment, and survive. Bad models, shortsighted and narrowly conceived models very quickly have an impact when they drive the actions of politicians, the blathering of news media pundits, the advice of think tanks, actions of financial institutions, and the heated up enthusiasm of speculators in bubbles. When we hear all of these stories what do we think? Go buy more duct tape? [And in other comments it was reflected that humans cycle through bubbles faster and larger each time until there is a really big war. In the war enough people are killed off to reduce the memory of what -- bubbles can do for you -- and the expansive cycle of ever larger growing bubbles with a renewed sense of ignorance continues anew.]

What Akerlof and Shiller point out in this reasonably thin book is that the prevailing theories of economics, as both understood in academia and in politics, particularly in conservative politics, have been designed to eliminate factors of confidence, fairness, corruption, money illusion and stories.

How this plays out I will not go into here, you can read the book and decide for yourself.

I am not an economist; I am an independent capitalist, a small business owner that knows more about playing with the repair of stone walls than I know about economic theory. I am also a writer, and I enjoy stories. I have as much interest as anyone currently seeking work, wanting to pay the bills and pursue the American Dream, to understand how we got into the current economic mess. I am like the patient who with a good deal of skepticism questions the decisions of my doctor and does not accept that the medications they have me on might not in reality be killing me faster, as did once occur to a good friend who was quickly on his way out until he got better medical advice. If we look around we can easily begin to wonder if America is on the way out. It hardly matters what our political persuasion is for us to imagine that things are a bit messed up.

One aspect of the contemporary economic models and a strong reason for not accepting animal spirits (a term in economic theory propagated by Keynes) is the tendency toward simplification of models of understanding for the fact that if they are too complicated then very few people can understand them. It seems that economists at one point felt that they were being too wishy-washy and in fear that they may not be taken seriously they had a need to clean up their act to be more scientific and in the process of objectification they pro-actively threw out all the messy parts. In some respects it would be the equivalent of biologists who would say, “Well, there are too many genes and if we count them we will confuse more people.”

I have often been accused of making things complicated. I used to worry about this until one day it occurred to me that it is not me making anything complicated, it is me seeing that what is going on around us is complicated, and my reporting back on it just sounds complicated. To see complications is not a blessing, particularly when one is surrounded by simple minded people. So my not being an economist, but my being very intent as an independent capitalist, I want as much profit out of my daily efforts as I can possibly manage, I found that Akerlof and Shiller in their description of confidence, fairness, corruption, money illusion and stories do lay out a model of economic behavior that pretty well matches what I had previously thought was what is going on. [Though keep in mind that when I say nobody knows what they are talking about that the set of 'nobody' includes me.]

I will end with a small example of money illusion. For many years it was a common belief in the industry and the market in NYC for the cut out and repoint of a mortar joint in brickwork that the cost per square foot should be $12.00. At one time this cost may have been related to actual cost of labor, as cutting out mortar joints is mostly a product of labor with a small portion of material cost. Labor can do a good job of it, or they can do a really sloppy job. Technology, in moving from chisel and hammer to diamond-blade grinders changed a few of the cost parameters. What did not change was the perception that it should cost $12.00 per square foot. This $12.00 may seem like a small issue, but there is scale involved as in the NYC built environment there are millions and millions of square feet of masonry joints cut and repointed every year. For more than a decade if a contractor listed on a bid sheet a unit cost for repointing higher than $12.00 then the client would consider that all of their bid, which could be for a whole lot of work other than repointing alone, must be over-priced. If one were under in their unit cost then they may be considered either a bargain, or if too far under incompetent as shown by their not knowing what the work should cost (I mean, the illusion of what it should cost). The cost of labor rose considerably, a lot of that having to do with an increase in insurance cost and very little do with an increase in wages. Smart contractors either buried the increased cost and disguised their true cost for repointing in a $12.00 unit cost, or they learned to talk their clients (tell a story) into understanding why a square foot of repointing should cost $15.00, or in real radical instances, $25.00. In the end it all comes down to the story.

Note: From here I have gone on to reading The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism by Max Weber (1904). I may or may not make a future post of my thoughts on this entertaining book. Suffice it to say that I find it curious that one of the more virulent objections against early Methodists was not directly their religious views but that they worked more diligently than those of other faiths, sort of like the stories of the new union worker that soon learns to 'slow down' otherwise they skew the boss-man's expectations of production, well, the Methodists were not ones to slow down. Our current Secretary of State was brought up as a Methodist.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

vid: Santa Ran a Backhoe

poetry by Larry C. Simpson, author of The Lost Cave of the Jaguar Prophets.

Larry: "I don't usually write country songs or Christmas songs or otherwise schmaltzey stuff, but I kept hearing the voice of Kris Kristofferson past in my head."

Santa Ran a Backhoe

Santa ran a backhoe
and sometimes chewed tobacco
until he got too sick and lost his job.

The whiskey took away the pain
but sometimes made him go insane
and the neighbors sometimes had to call a cop.

Santa had a pickup truck
He remembers how he once got stuck
while hunting deer up on the rocky creek.

When his father tracked him down
and saw the bottles on the ground,
he got so mad he couldn’t even speak

Now his own son’s in rehab
and his daughter’s in Iraq
but they both tried to be just like their Pa.

He has three grandchildren
but he never gets to see them
since his ex-wife took them back to Arkansas.

Santa lost some friends he’d known
in the bloody combat zone
and left some of his soul in Viet Nam.

Santa had his house foreclosed
and walks through town just like a ghost
wondering why the banks don’t give a damn.

He’s king of the shopping mall
with elves and snow and lights and all,
a white beard and a bright red uniform.

But he once dug the footers
for the banks and stores and Hooters
And before that it was all just fields of corn.

He wonders what it was worth,
all the hardship, time and hurt.
Then a little girl climbs up into his lap.

First he says his Ho-Ho-Hos
then asks what she wants the most
And all she says is bring me back my Dad.

He’s gone to this funny land
that no one seems to understand
where people hurt each other just for spite.

Santa said, I’ll do my best.
Little girl you must be blessed.
You’re the angel that saved my life tonight.

copyright 2009 Larry C. Simpson

Henry Darger

I have assembled the following list of links for my own reference and that of readers of this blog. I thank Cami Park for having brought the work of Henry Darger to my attention.

Wikipedia: Henry Darger

Documentary film on YouTube: In the Realms of the Unreal (Henry Darger)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12

Jessica Yu, producer of In the Realms of the Unreal, video interview

Charles Krafft

Villa Delirium Delft Works

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

vid: Home Pharmacy by Ellen Parker

For me the most important thread of this story is when I think of my friends who have had to either deal directly with the side effects of chemo therapy, or who have had to attend to their closest loved ones in same. I thank my friend Ellen Parker for having provided such a wonderful text for me to play with.

Home Pharmacy by Ellen Parker

She has found that taking these drugs improves her mood, but negatively impacts her vision.

You didn't use "impacts" as a verb, did you? And you didn't modify it with "negatively," did you?

Me? No. It was her. She.

That ugly nasty disgusting dumbfacedirtysexy annoying loser smelly fastbitch.

She's not that ugly. She's not that fast.

She has found that drinking coffee might shoot a panic attack. Annoying janes in the shoulder. Racing joints. Quivering buds.

That's no panic attack. That's drunk chronic ganja hunger.

What's this toke about blunted vision?

Yeh. She asked her ob-gyn, who goes, Weird. (Doctortweedledeedumb.) He's like, You better get that hitchicken checked.

Instead, she out to lunch. Baked restaurant fattysandwich and chips joint. Eatstarving. Then, mary jane, yellow chewy molasses, just two fast.

Encore the myocardial infarction. Foolin! It's the syndrome. There are grubs for that. Just throw me the money.

Are you just throwing up any old shit you can?

Tryna out-macdonald ronaldtastycheese.

Her eyes pulse. You see, she can't.

Blunt: she's going blind. Said with a two-year-old accent: Mad!

Greensexbitch, you are not facing this ... this ... nugget? What? Hunger: lunch dinner taco. Bet you can't quit. I never fuckass said high could my <3.

Don't you think ronald mcdonald is baked?


No, you can't.

It would be better if she could.

Ellen Parker is editor of FRiGG.

Monday, December 14, 2009

vid: Find the Wheel, by Martin Heavisides

Find the Wheel by Martin Heavisides

Frequently when writers tell stories in unconventional ways--which may be defined as "ways a particular reader is uncomfortable or unfamiliar with"--they are accused of trying to reinvent the wheel. My reply to this has always been:

Telling a story is a completely different kettle of fish from reinventing the wheel. They're horses of a different stripe, and so's a zebra. Some scientists maintain an ostrich is a giraffe of a different neck but I'm not altogether persuaded this reasoning is sound. We're on safer ground I'd say, maintaining that the correct shape of a wheel, for maximum effectiveness, is round and the same might be said, in a way, of the palindrome. But is palindromic invariably the correct shape of a story? It would certainly cut down the size of the slush piles.

Very few fish, while we're on the subject, are round, and to the best of my knowledge at least, no Kentucky Derby winners. Tigers aren't especially round, nor are they horses of a different stripe, though I suppose there are some who might disagree. To convince themselves that this is wrong, I recommend they try saddling a Siamese. (There are obvious arguments against saddling a tiger.) Then again I've never been accused of trying to reinvent the tiger--why is that do you suppose?

Not that I'm looking to take on the project. I don't think I have a single idea that would be a real improvement on the current design, and anyway it's inadvisable for me--I always get too close to my work.

People are rarely round, especially in North--wait a minute, I'd better rethink that one.

Trees embody roundness as a dynamic component of their form, maybe I could reinvent the tree. What would a story look like if it looked like a tree? It's true that a printed book has leaves. . .

Maybe I could reinvent the shaggy dog. True, a certain number of readers are allergic, but who imagines it's possible to please everybody? Did you ever hear of a book with a sold out print run of six billion copies, or even close?

I'm not sure what my point is--then again if this is a wheel, why should it have a point? Actually it would have an infinite number of points (doesn't sound possible I know, but it's true--an infinite number, count 'em up yourself if you don't believe me). That sounds like a lot of points but none of them is the point, since they can't be (successively or predecessively) distinguished from each other. So, fine, I have no point--I should presume to reinvent the wheel? Make it square with clearcut corners that each come to a point, that would cut down on functionality some. But does a story have a function? Have to think about that one. Organize a multi-participant debate. Does anybody know who you'd contact to. . . ?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

vid: Writer's Workshop Along Bird Cemetery Road

In the barn studio below the amazing skylight the names were put in a large galvanized hopper and churned around.

A one-man aviary band Jeffrey cranked the curved handle on the reclaimed writer’s desk and some of them came down like sounds of wind or car horns, rude expletives or to mimic the crazy cawing from above. The names dislodged then rattled then spun down around a copper spring-tubing as with a timeless still where they slowly echoed down; in the shiver of small quills they left trail marks, as they revealed a more pure essence.

Other names got jammed at the top. They formed boldly arched natural bridges against gray metal skies; they were as dark bouillon cubes contaminated with moisture that stuck them together. No vibration of the writer’s mechanism could break them free.

Jeffrey cranked hard he blew the call. Caw. Caw. Caw.

As he cranked his name changed shape with their names and he became Jeff. Less black birds encircled in flight above the skylight and above the clattered pace of wooden gears. He thought of a windmill near the seaside and the dream of rye flour. The light of day that is special.

From our muffled station behind a sliding door we could hear the sound of cracking and cawing into a more centered sentience with the pressure of his hand against the gritty lever where he worked in the antiquities room. Then it was Jay, then it was just… and a list of small hearts which were previously homogenized with a kitchen cleaver in separate identities became like a nude perfume.

It leaked, spilled and flowed to etch identities to the desk, then rivulets down the oak legs then onto the pine floor where it mixed with dust-of-radon and congealed bird's blood, or boat varnish and copper flakes that smelled musky with a hint of greenish organic form.

As sun set the now fluid bird names eared themselves into the structure of the barn walls where all that night to next century they confused spiders and black crickets with their cackled noises.