An Interview with Me

The other day I sat down with Dave Parsons for his podcast The Nostalgia Trap. You can find the resulting interview here. It’s partly about politics, partly about economics, partly about me and my various adventures on the US left.

You should check out some of Dave’s other interviews as well — he gets some very interesting people to sit down with him and has conversations with them that are more expansive and wide-ranging than your usual interview.

Planned Service Changes

[Edit, 4-30-14: I put this post up a week ago and then took it down after a few hours because, seriously, there is no way I am going on hiatus. But apparently it’s bad form to put a post up and then delete it, so in the interests of historical integrity I’m putting it back.]

This blog has never had a high volume of posts, but it’s going to drop to zero for the next few months.

As some of you know, I’m in the final stages of my PhD at UMass-Amherst (the Gondor of the austerity wars). I’ve been working on this thing for quite a few years, and could happily work on it quite a few more — except, damn it, I went and got a job. Starting next fall, I’ll be an assistant professor in the economics department at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

It’s a good job. I like the department a lot: it’s unapologetically heterodox and serves mostly working-class students; I like my new colleagues and I don’t mind moving back to Chicago, where I lived for most of the ’90s. Of course my mother thinks I should be at Harvard, and I do harbor fantasies of teaching at the PhD level. But that’s not going to happen, and short of that, Roosevelt is about ideal for me. So I’m happy.

But! I do have to get the dissertation done and defended before then. So, rewarding as this blog is — and it really is rewarding; I think I have the best readers in the econosphere — I need to shut it down. Next post you see from me, will be after the thesis is submitted. slow the pace of posting, from its already low levels.

Honestly, you probably won’t even notice the difference.

How Many Rooms Does a Man Need?

I’m generally a big fan of Rick Bookstaber. His posts have a depth and originality that’s rare among economics blogs. But he goes seriously off the rails with this one, on commodity prices. In the long term, he argues, they are bound to fall, because a paradigm shift is underway:

with the increased focus on technology – where we spend more and more of our time on our cell phone, doing emails, watching DVDs and surfing the web – there is less of a difference between how the super rich and the reasonably well off spend their time hour by hour during their typical days. … in the not-so-distant future the main items we will demand, beyond food, clothing and shelter, are “game systems”…

Our demand for housing and transportation, two of the biggest commodity hogs, will be lower. McMansions will be totally passe. It should already be dawning on people that most all of our non-sleeping hours at home are spent in the kitchen and its adjacent family room. Living rooms and dining rooms are relics. 

This is a classic example of what we might call Dow 36,000 syndrome, after the perfectly timed punchline to the tech bubble, which argued that stocks were no riskier than bonds and should be priced accordingly, people just hadn’t realized it yet. The syndrome consists of coming up with a theory that implies people will behave quite differently than they do, and then, rather than concluding there must be something wrong with the theory, predicting that people will start behaving in accord with it any day now. There’s no explanation for why people haven’t followed the theory up til now, just the assurance that they’re about to, just wait. Tomorrow, tomorrow, people will realize stocks should be priced like bonds. And they’ll realize there’s no reason to have a bigger house than you need for your daily routine.

I don’t think so.

I happen to be sitting, as I type this, in a bedroom in John D. Rockefeller’s old 40-room mansion in Pocantico.I don’t know how much time he spent in most of those rooms … or in the enormous coachhouse down the hill … or in the “Orangerie, modeled after the original at Versailles” … or in the guesthouse, the consumption value of which presumablydidn’t much depend on the fact that it was initially exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and then disassembled and shipped to the estate.

There may be a paradigm shift that leads to decreasing demand for commodities. I hope so; sooner or later, there needs to be. But Bookstaber, smart as he is, is being too much of an economist here. Anyone who thinks that the consumption of the rich (or of those in status competition with the rich) can be derived from some rational assessment of what a person needs, has not grokked what being rich is about.

The Wheels of Justice Do Grind Slow

I’ve had only had one job that paid minimum wage (or minimum plus 50 cents, as I recall.) That was as a bookstore clerk at Shakespeare & Company on the Upper West Side in the mid-90s.

The 85th St. bookstore was the flagship of the Shakespeare operation, which at that time included four Shakespeare and Co stores, two or three Murder Inks, and I think one or two other literary bookstores. It was generously, maybe from a strict business standpoint, overgenerously, staffed. We did spend a lot of time reshelving.

What’s memorable about the place is how everybody there was a book person. Some of us wanted to write fiction, some essays, some plays (that was kind of the store’s thing). Some wanted to work at publishers, some — for serious — were into the printing and bookbinding side of things. Most of of us wanted to write book reviews; some — well me, at least — left to edit the book review section of a marginal left-wing magazine. The book culture of the place was smoothly continuous from those of us behind the registers to the buyers to the mysterious owners upstairs. When publishers’ representatives came by we all met them, as a matter of course: they were selling to the store. I remember one of them spinning out this mystery novel she was going to write about a serial killer knocking off Granta‘s best young American novelists one by one; it seemed like a pretty good joke.

They used to have contests, beginning of the week, pick a book, whoever sells the most of it wins, well, I don’t remember what the prize was. Anyway I took it seriously; books I thought people ought to read. Oh hey, you’re interested in history, do you know Eric Hobsbawm? Oh, Jared Diamond, sure, but you know Plagues and Peoples covered a lot of that same ground? It was a point of pride.

And we hated shoplifters. There was one fellow who was a regular — he was obviously getting instructions on what specific resaleable books to steal. One time we’d had enough — it so depressing when two hours before closing there’s no one in the store except the professional shoplifters — and when he made his run for it we didn’t just accept the alarm-went-off;-oh-well as always. We took off after him. Why? it wasn’t our money. But we did: we caught him: or rather, like a lizard’s tail, we caught his bag, full of stolen books and hypodermics.

I first encountered the word “snarky” working at that bookstore. It was in a New York Magazine article about what was wrong with us, what was wrong with independent bookstores in general, why chains were the future. People wanted an antiseptic book purchasing environment, not all those book people telling them what to read. Whatever, we thought, all separately wondering how to incorporate “snark” into our new novel. But we should have seen the writing on the wall.

When the Barnes & Noble opened at 66th St., that was bad. When the next one opened at 82nd and Broadway, that was the end. This was not long after I started; surrendering, they had a going-out-of-business sale. And that was even worse. There was a brief false summer as the locals — our former customers! — picked over the stock that was suddenly attractive at 40% off; but as soon as the owners unwisely tried to reopen at full price those same customers tripped over each other rushing back to the lattes at Barnes & Nobles.

For the record, I suspect that if the Shakespeare & Co. guys could have competed with Barnes and Nobles at their scale, they would happily have done so. They weren’t doing it for the sake of small. Still, what matters is that you can get the books you want, and there it’s all progress, right? From your point of view as a consumer, probably, sure. I’m prepared to argue that you lose something when there are no more bookstore clerks like me, trying to sell you on William H. McNeill. On the scale of things it’s a small loss, but it’s a retreat from the world as it should be.

I don’t know if Shakespeare hired us because no one but book people would work for what they would pay, or because they had some vague idea that their clerks would rise to manage their little empire or simply because they were book people themselves. But hire book people they did. Within their world, you could imagine that it was a natural progression from clerking at a bookstore, to buying for a bookstore, to editing novels, to writing novels. As in a civilized world it will be.

Which is all to say: Fuck you, Barnes & Noble. I hope all of your stores close.