Four Questions about Fiscal Policy

Earlier this fall, I spent a pleasant few days at the 12th Post Keynesian Conference in Kansas City, including a long chat over beers with Robert Skidelsky. In addition to presenting some of my current work, I took part in an interesting roundtable discussion of functional finance with Steve Fazzari, Peter Skott, Marc Lavoie and Mario Seccarechia. Here is an edited version of what I said.

* * *

We all agree that fiscal policy is effective. If output is too low, by whatever standard, higher public spending or lower taxes will cause it to rise. And we all agree that the current level of public debt has no implications for the feasibility or desirability of fiscal policy, at least in a country like the United States. In the wider world that might be a controversial statement but in this room it is not.

It’s not productive to repeat points on which we all agree. So instead, I want to pose four questions about functional finance on which there is not a consensus. These aren’t questions I necessarily have (or expect to hear) good answers to at the moment, but ones that I hope will be the focus of future work. First, the political economy question. Why does the idea of a government financial constraint have such a tenacious hold on both the policy conversation and the economics profession? What function, what interest, does this idea serve? Second, how confident are we about the level of aggregate expenditure that policy should target? Is there a well-defined level of potential output that corresponds to both full employment and price stability? Third, what is the problem that we imagine fiscal policy to be solving? Is it stabilizing of output in the face of “shocks” of some kind, or is it adjusting the long term trend? And what are the sources for the variation in private demand to which policy must respond? Finally, if functional finance means that fiscal policy replaces monetary policy as the main tool for managing aggregate expenditure, what role does that leave for the interest rate?

1. The political economy question.  We all agree that in a country like the modern United States (or the EU as a whole), public budgets are never constrained by the willingness of the private sector to hold the government’s liabilities. There are a number of routes, both logical and empirical, to reach this conclusion, which I won’t repeat here. And yet both policymakers and academic economists are, with few exceptions, committed to the idea that government does face a financial constraint. I don’t think it’s a sufficient explanation that people are just stupid. I was on an earlier panel with Randy Wray, where he quoted Paul Samuelson describing the idea of a government financial constraint as “religion” that has no rational basis but is nonetheless “scares people … into behaving the way that civilized life requires.” [1] Randy focused, understandably, on the first half of that quote, the acknowledgement that a balanced budget is desirable only on ritual or aesthetic criteria. But what about the second part? What is the civilized life that benefits from this taboo?

The political salience of the balanced-budegt myth has been particularly clear in the debt-ceiling fights of the past few years.  You read John Cassidy in New Yorker: “Every country needs to pay its creditors or face ruin.” [2] This is framed as a statement of fact, but it really describes a political project. Creditors need to threaten countries with ruin if they are going to be obeyed. The threat doesn’t have to be real, but it does have to be believed.

The most important political use of the government budget constraint today is undoubtedly in the Euro area, where it seems clear that a central part of the elite motivation for the single currency was precisely to reimpose financial constraints on national governments. This view of the euro project was forcefully expressed by Massimo Pivetti in a 2013 article in Contributions to Political Economy. As he puts it, the ultimate effect of European countries’ renunciation of monetary sovereignty has been the dismantling of the social democratic order.

What is being liquidated is but one of the most advanced experiences of civil coexistence the world has ever known—in fact, the greatest ever achievement of the bourgeois civilization. … 

Surrender of national sovereignty in the monetary and fiscal fields subscribed by European governments produced a situation of political ‘irresponsibility’, which greatly facilitated their declining commitment to high employment and the redistribution of income, as well as the priority given to reducing inflation, the gradual dismantling of the welfare state, and the privatization drive. …  [The euro] is an infernal machine: a machine born out of a deliberate continental project to undermine wage earners’ bargaining powers.

Wolfgang Streeck similarly argues that policies that result in rising debt are not the result of rising demands for redistribution and public services, but rather have been supported by the wealthy, precisely because “rising public debt can be utilized politically to argue for cutbacks in state spending and for privati­zation of public services.” You can find similar arguments by Perry Anderson (in The New Old World), Gindin and Panitch, and others. Financial constraint “disciplines” “irresponsible” policymakers — in other words, it makes them responsive to the interests of owners of financial assets. And I would stress the same fundamental point emphasized by Gindin and Panitch — the interest that counts here is not a direct pecuniary interest, defined within the economic system. It is the interest of wealthowners as a class in the perpetuation of a social order based on the accumulation of private wealth.

2. Next, I think we need to interrogate the notion of potential output more critically. The assumption of almost the entire functional finance literature — including my own work — is that there is a well-defined level of aggregate expenditure that policy should be targeting, which corresponds to full employment and full utilization of society’s resources. In the standard formula, once we see rising inflation, we know that this target has been reached and there should be no further expansionary policy. In this respect, there is no difference between functional finance and mainstream policy thought. The difference is about the tools used, not about the goal. Most importantly, both policy orthodoxy and functional finance assume that neither inflation nor employment is affected directly by macroeconomic policy, but only via the level of output. So output, inflation and employment can be treated as three indicators for a single target. [3]

It is not obvious, though, why the goals of full employment, price stability and steady output growth should always coincide. Now, in practice it may be that they generally do, or at least are close enough that this is not a big problem. One thing Arjun and I do in our paper is examine this question directly. We compute a number of different measures of the output gap from 1953 to the present. We compare output gaps based on the deviation of current output from trend, the level of unemployment, the level of inflation, and the change in inflation, as well as a measure combining unemployment and the change in inflation that corresponds to the Taylor rule. The interesting thing is that these different measures perform very similarly. The output and unemployment measures fit especially closely, with a simple correlation coefficient of 0.94.  In other words, the Okun relationship between output and unemployment is very stable, and the Phillips curve relationship between output or employment and inflation is also fairly stable. So the statement “When output is above trend, you will see rising inflation; when output is below trend, you will see high unemployment” does in fact seem to be a reliable generalization. (See figure below.)

The figure shows measures of the difference between current output and potential based on (1) trend GDP, as computed by the BEA; (2) the deviation of unemployment from its long-term average; (3) the average of the deviations of unemployment and inflation from their long-term averages; (4) the average of the deviation of unemployment from average and the year-over-year change in inflation; and (5) the year-over-year change in inflation. 

But even if these measures agree with each other for the US over the past 60 years, that doesn’t mean they will agree in other times and places. And in fact, we see that the inflation-change measure does not agree with the others for the post-2007 period, suggesting a much smaller negative output gap. (This is because inflation has stabilized at a low level, rather than continuing to fall.) And even if these measures do generally agree with each other, that doesn’t mean they are right, or that interpreting them is straightforward. In particular, we should ask if hysteresis might not be a more general phenomenon, and that the inflation that comes with output above potential isn’t better thought of as an adjustment cost. This brings me to the next question.

3. Is aggregate demand only an issue in the short run, or does it matter in the long run as well? In other words, is the problem to be solved by policy deviations of output around a trend that is determined on the supply side, or is the trend itself the object of policy?

If the former, shouldn’t we have a more positive theory about what these “shocks” are that policy is responding to. This has always struck me as one of the weirdest lacunae in mainstream macro. The entire problem of policy in this framework is responding to these shocks, so you would think that a central question would be where they come from, how large they are, whether there are identifiable factors that affect their distribution. But instead the existence of these vaguely defined “shocks” is just the unquestioned starting point of analysis. Now obviously there are reasons for this. Shocks, by definition, are changes in the state of the world that are not due to rational optimization, so if that’s your methodology, then “shocks” just means “things I have nothing to say about.” (And I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a logical inconsistency between the existence of unanticipated shocks and the idea of intertemporal equilibrium. But maybe not.) But on our side we don’t have that excuse. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to showing that changes in the government budget position can offset changes in desired private spending. We should try to explain why desired private spending varies so dramatically.

And what if demand matters in the long run, thanks to hysteresis (and what I call anti-hysteresis) in the laborforce, and Verdoorn-Kaldor changes in productivity growth? [4] In that case these questions are even more urgent. And we also have to face the political question that was banished from respectable macro in the 1980s: What is the desirable tradeoff between output and inflation? More broadly, if we can’t take a given path of potential output as given, how do we define the goals of macro policy?

4. What is the role of interest rate policy in a functional finance framework, given that it is no longer the primary tool for adjusting aggregate expenditure? On Thursday’s panel, we had three different answers to this question. Arjun and I say that if for whatever reason the public debt to GDP ratio is a concern for policymakers, adjusting the policy interest rate is in general sufficient to stabilize that ratio at some desired level. Peter Skott says that if we have some idea of the optimal long-run capital-output ratio (or perhaps more precisely, the optimal choice of technique), the interest rate can be set to achieve that. And Randy says that we shouldn’t worry about the debt-GDP ratio and that business investment decisions are not very responsive to the interest rate, so its main consequences are distributional. Since there is no social interest in providing a passive, risk-free income to rentiers, the nominal interest rate should be set to zero permanently.

[1] The quote is from an interview with Mark Blaug:  “I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked [that] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires.”

[2] The title of the piece is “Why America Needs a Stock Market Crash.”

[3] This isn’t strictly correct, since an important component of functional finance in its modern UMKC form is a job guarantee or employer of last resort (ELR) policy. But given the stability of the Okun relationship, employment and output can safely be treated as a single target in practice. The problem is the relationship of employment and output, on the one hand, with inflation, on the other.

[4] As late as the 1980s, people like Tobin took it for granted that the reason that inflationary or deflationary gaps would not continue indefinitely, was that aggregate supply would adjust.

“As If a Man Were Author of Himself”

A couple of years ago, I saw a performance of Coriolanus on the Boston Common. It was that rare experience of seeing a great Shakespeare play with no prior knowledge. I had only the vaguest idea of what the play was about, and didn’t know a single line from it. This is, to say the least, not the way we usually encounter Shakespeare.

You don’t appreciate this play until you see it performed. It is fast-paced, genuinely exciting, and often funny — qualities that do not come out on page. Some forgotten Shakespeare plays are forgotten for a reason. But this one, you have to wonder why it isn’t up there in the canon with Macbeth and Othello and Lear. Maybe because it lacks show-stopping monologues (something you miss less on the stage.) More likely because the central character is such a cipher.

So who is Coriolanus? He turns out to be, essentially, John Galt — or Mitt Romney, or Leung Chun-Ying. Which means that this is a play that speaks to our current condition. The connection was obvious when I saw the play, less than a year after the end of Occupy (which this staging clearly referenced) and a few months before the 2012 elections. I meant to write something about it then. But I got distracted with other things, and after Mitt Romney left the big stage it seemed less relevant. But as Paul Krugman reminds us,  Coriolanuses still walk among us. So I’ll belatedly set down my thoughts now.

* * *

The play opens with a riot, by the plebians of Rome against the patricians. The rioters are surprisingly articulate. Far more so than urban rioters in similar contemporary stories (like the plain people of Gotham in the Dark Knight Rises.)

FIRST CITIZEN. We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. What authority surfeits on would relieve us; if they would yield us but the superfluity… the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory of their abundance; our suffering is gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes … the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.

Note that their demand — repeated a couple times over the play — is to have wheat from the storehouses sold at a fair price. This demand that “engrossers” be required to disgorge their stores was, I beleive, a common demand in urban riots — indeed, traditional English law required it. The patricians in Coriolanus often speak as though giving in to the rioters would imply a complete social breakdown — but when Shakespeare has the plebians themselves speak, this is what they call for, not  aimless destruction.

To mollify the mob, the patrician Menenius explains to them that if they are the arms and legs of Rome, the nobility is the stomach. This metaphor might read differently then (like a fire that gives light vs. heat, a line that is always quoted backwards today) but it’s hard not see it as a sly acknowledgement that the mob is right.

MENENIUS. There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly; thus accus’d it:–
That only like a gulf it did remain
In the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing’
Like labour with the rest … it tauntingly replied
… I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body…
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live …

Menenius is a bit of a clown, a kind of Polonius figure. It’s Coriolanus himself who gets the best songs from the conservative hymnal — that the common people are under the control of their appetites, they are capricious, that they can’t govern themselves, they are liable to turn on each other without an authority over them.

CORIOLANUS: … your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye!
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What’s the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?

This is a central theme of conservative and reactionary politics — that ordinary people, left to ourselves, would be unable to solve our coordination problems, would fall into a war of all against all. This is always the story we’re told about urban riots, it’s the story that the purpose of Occupy was, in a sense,  to challenge. We heard  Coriolanus’s voice most clearly after Hurricane Katrina, when the reality of violence by the authorities and of mutual aid in New Orleans were transformed in the popular imagination (with help of some vile propaganda) into fantasies of anarchic violence by the people trapped in the city. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is a good corrective to this myth.

To be fair, some of the common people in the play seem to accept this account of themselves:

FIRST CITIZEN. …  once we stood up about the corn, he himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude. 

THIRD CITIZEN. We have been called so of many; not that our heads are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald, but that our wits are so diversely coloured; and truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south; and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o’ the compass.

But then that is how ideology works — to foreclose the possibility of alternative forms of coordination.

Meanwhile the patricians are discussing the situation. Coriolanus asks Menenius  what it is, exactly, that the common people want.

MENENIUS. For corn at their own rates; whereof they say
The city is well stor’d. 

CORIOLANUS. Hang ’em!
They say! They’ll sit by th’ fire and presume to know
What’s done i’ the Capitol; who’s like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines; side factions, and give out
Conjectural marriages; making parties strong,
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there’s grain enough!
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter’d slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance. …
They said they were an-hungry; sigh’d forth proverbs,–
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only:–with these shreds
They vented their complainings…

Even in Coriolanus’ hostile summary, the mob sounds kind of reasonable, no? Note that he doesn’t deny that the city’s storehouses have enough grain to feed the populace. (And it soon becomes clear they do.) Rather, he is outraged by the idea that ordinary people have any opinion on these questions at all. The violence of his response is remarkable — he’d like to slaughter thousands of Roman citizens — especially considering he is the notional hero of the play. But then indiscriminate violence is often the response when the social hierarchy is seriously threatened — consider the 20-30,000 Parisians killed in the ten days following the fall of the Paris Commune.

The concilatory faction among the nobility wins out, and tribunes are appointed to represent the plebians in government. In the production I saw, the tribunes really stole the show. Even if the text itself presents the tribunes mostly as half clowns, half villains, you have to love a play with a couple of communist agitators as central characters. Their costumes brought this out in the Boston Commons production, but it’s right there in the text.

Before the social conflict can continue, however, it’s cut short by war on Rome’s borders. Coriolanus is given command of some of the Roman troops fighting against the Volscian invaders. Not surprisingly, he regards his rank and file soldiers about as favorably as he does ordinary Roman citizens.

You shames of Rome! … You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
… by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe
And make my wars on you

Nonetheless, the Volscians are defeated; and after his wartime success, Coriolanus is a natural choice for consul. His fellow patricians urge him to accept the office. The catch is that Roman law requires the populace to approve new consuls. It’s just a formality, but one that — with the recent unrest — can’t be safely dispensed with.  Coriolanus wants the job but refuses to ask for it. His pride is expressed in a refusal to do anything that would seem to be asking for acknowledgement or reward.  This comes out specifically in the question of whether he will display his battle wounds to the public, apparently a relaible way of winning their admiration. He expresses unwillingness:

CORIOLANUS: I have some wounds upon me, and they smart
To hear themselves remember’d.

The funny thing is, no one has mentioned his wounds until now! Throughout the play, Coriolanus is a master of this sort of humblebragging.

Don’t worry, the other patricians tell Coriolanus, just show up and talk about your victories, and the people will approve you. They are weak-willed and easily swayed. But Coriolanus refuses. He hates more than anything else having to ask the masses for approval. Even if they’d give it, no problem, it infuriates him that they even get a say over their natural superiors like him. On behalf of the patrician class, Menenius begs him to suck up his pride and pretend, just for a moment, to want the people’s approval.

CORIOLANUS. Are these your herd?
Must these have voices, that can yield them now,
And straight disclaim their tongues?
What are your offices?
You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?
Have you not set them on? 

MENENIUS. Be calm, be calm. 

CORIOLANUS. It is a purpos’d thing, and grows by plot,
To curb the will of the nobility: Suffer’t, and live with such as cannot rule,
Nor ever will be rul’d. …
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough’d for, sow’d, and scatter’d,
By mingling them with us, the honour’d number

Of course, he isn’t wrong. Granting even symbolic authority to the plebs calls into question the inevitbility of the authority of their superiors. The greatest strength of the rule of a small elite is that no other possibility is even thinkable. So any symbol that renders it thinkable, is threatening.

Recall the judgement of Charles LeClerc, the general sent to reconquer Haiti for Napoleon: “We must exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men… wipe out half the population of the lowlands, and not leave in the entire colony a single black who has ever warn an epaulette.” If it is possible for blacks to be officers, LeClerc reasoned, it is impossible for blacks to be slaves. There were similar reactions in the Confederacy to proposals to use blacks as soldiers.

Coriolanus thinks like LeClerc. And anyway, he personally is unwilling to acknowledge any dependence, even symbolic, on his  inferiors. He will be consul only thanks to his own natural superiority, not thanks to any kind of public approval.

Menenius begs him to reconsider:

MENENIUS. You’ll mar all: I’ll leave you.
Pray you speak to ’em, I pray you,
In wholesome manner. 

CORIOLANUS. Bid them wash their faces
And keep their teeth clean.
[Exit MENENIUS.]
So, here comes a brace:
[Re-enter two citizens.]
You know the cause, sirs, of my standing here. 

FIRST CITIZEN. We do, sir; tell us what hath brought you to’t. 

CORIOLANUS. Mine own desert. 

SECOND CITIZEN. Your own desert? 

CORIOLANUS. Ay, not mine own desire. 

FIRST CITIZEN. How! not your own desire!

CORIOLANUS. No, sir, ’twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging. 

… 

CORIOLANUS. Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
 Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick that do appear,
Their needless vouches?

When I saw the play in the fall of 2012, the parallel with the “you didn’t build it” pseudo-controversy was glaring. (It’s interesting also that Coriolanus refers to common people as “trades.”) The idea that the occupants of high positions might owe any of their success to those beneath them, is anathema. As Coriolianus warns his fellow patricians, hierarchy and democracy are an unstable mix:

You are plebeians,
If they be senators: and they are no less
When .. they choose their magistrates

… 

How shall this multitude digest
The senate’s courtesy? Let deeds express
What’s like to be their words:–‘We did request it;
We are the greater poll, and in true fear
They gave us our demands:’– Thus we debase
The nature of our seats, and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles. 

The tribunes, though they often come across as clownish, clearly understand what’s at stake as well as Corolianus does. Here’s one of the tribunes:

BRUTUS: So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
Have made them mules, silenc’d their pleaders, and
Dispropertied their freedoms; holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in their war; who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.

In general, the tribunes’ line against Coriolanus is that he is proud, that he is using his (unquestionably genuine) accomplishments and virtues to set himself up above the people. This kind of jealousy and suspicion of successful war leaders seems to be a central theme of human egalitarianism, going back to the paleolithic.

It’s striking what tribune Brutus says to Coriolanus when he confronts him directly:

BRUTUS. You speak o’ the people
As if you were a god, to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.

Here is the central theme of the play: the idea of “superior” people that they are somehow outside of society, outside the common condition of humanity, versus the reality that they are as dependent, as infirm, as the rest of us.

Coriolanus also hates his opposite number, the Volscian general Aufidius. (I have no idea who if anyone this represents historically.) But there’s a difference in the  quality of hatred for an equal as against a social inferior. Here, Coriolanus asks a Roman diplomat about Aufidius.

CORIOLANUS. Spoke he of me?

LARTIUS. He did, my lord.

CORIOLANUS. How? What?

LARTIUS. How often he had met you, sword to sword;
That of all things upon the earth he hated
Your person most; that he would pawn his fortunes
To hopeless restitution, so he might
Be call’d your vanquisher.

CORIOLANUS. At Antium lives he?

LARTIUS. At Antium.

CORIOLANUS. I wish I had a cause to seek him there,
To oppose his hatred fully.
[Enter SICINIUS and BRUTUS.]
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people;
The tongues o’ the common mouth. I do despise them,
For they do prank them in authority,
Against all noble sufferance.

The one hatred involves a kind of admiration and attraction (“I wish I had cause to seek him there”); the other only contempt. Even opposing elites are closer to each other than to the people they rule.

The combination of his visible contempt and the tribunes’ urging the people not to acclaim him unless he shows some respect, result in Coriolanus being denied the consulship, and then accused of treason and exiled from the city.  As he puts it, “the beast with many heads butts me away.” It’s interesting how often the play uses this kind of language for the common people; it brings to mind Linebaugh’s Many-Headed Hydra. Linebaugh himself suggests that Shakespeare wrote the play in response to the Midlands revolt of 1607, a mass uprising against enclosures that, apparently, was the first appearance of “Levellers” in England. What’s interesting about the play as a whole is that it faces forward to this kind of class politics, rather than backward, like the history plays, to the older world of dynastic, feudal politics. It might be the only Shakespeare play that George Scialabba would approve. (It was also the only Shakespeare play that interested Brecht.)

After leaving Rome, Coriolanus seeks out his old enemy Aufidius and pledges his service to him and the Volscians if they will make a new war on Rome. Like Rand’s D’Anconia, he imagines he’ll leave Rome as he found it. (So maybe the tribunes’ accusations of treason were on the mark?) Aufidius, an aristocrat himself, is buying what Coriolanus is selling:

AUFIDIUS. … the nobility of Rome are his;
The senators and patricians love him too:
The tribunes are no soldiers; and their people
Will be as rash in the repeal as hasty
To expel him thence. I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.

With Coriolanus and Aufidius sharing command, the Volscian army reverses its defeats and advances to the gates of Rome. The tribunes want to raise a new army (this is only mentioned in passing, but I thought it was an interesting detail). Meanwhile, the patricians send emissaries out, who know Coriolanus and perhaps can convince him to spare the city.  But Coriolanus turns them all away, even Menenius who, he says, was like a father to him:

CORIOLANUS. This last old man,
Whom with crack’d heart I have sent to Rome,
Lov’d me above the measure of a father;
Nay, godded me indeed. Their latest refuge
Was to send him…

As these lines suggest, the specific challenge Coriolanus faces here is denying the social ties that connect him to Rome — denying that he owes anything to anyone, that he is in any way dependent, enmeshed in a web of social obligations. Or as he puts it:

… I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct; but stand,
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.

Coriolanus imagines himself as, precisely, a self-made man. But as Professor T. says, nobody is: The thing that libertarians always forget or ignore is the biological dependence everyone experiences, not least as children. It’s only possible to imagine yourself as an autonomous monad, author to yourself, if family life is rigidly walled off from civil society and, in general, if women are kept out of sight.

You think I’m reading that into the play? No no, Coriolanus says it himself:

Not of a woman’s tenderness to be,
Requires nor child nor woman’s face to see.

And that’s his downfall. Once Menenius returns in defeat, the Romans have one more trump to play. They send Coriolanus’ mother, wife and son to plead with him. (It’s a funny, proto-feminist touch that Menenius himself scoffs at this last attempt. If he, Coriolanus’ mentor, failed, how could these women and children have a chance?) Coriolanus tries to convince himself to ignore even these most primal ties:

the honour’d mould
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But, out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.

But he can’t do it. The bond and privilege of nature wins out, and he refuses to continue with the attack. Alas for all our would-be Coriolanuses, everyone has a mother. Or as the defrocked priest warns Captain Bednar in the climactic scene of The Man with the Golden Arm, “we are all members of one another.” (I only discovered writing this post that it’s a bible quote, from Romans.)

And that’s it. Coriolanus returns in disgrace to the Volscian capital, where his former allies murder him, and then — guiltily and a bit incongruously — offer him a stately funeral, declaring that his is

…the most noble corpse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn.

(I read somewhere that the reason so many Shakespeare plays end with these funeral marches is that, since theaters of the time did not have curtains, some device was needed to get the “dead” actors off the stage.)

So what are we supposed to think about this person? The play is a bit ambiguous. Structurally, Coriolanus is the hero. But he hardly comes across as admirable. On the other hand, he is the object of various “most noble Roman” orations, right up to Aufidius’ closing lines. So maybe he is intended as a tragic hero? You might think so … except for one remarkable scene in the middle of the play (cut unfortunately from the movie version), where Shakespeare tips his hand.

Here, Coriolanus has just won a major battle against the Volscians, and captured one of their cities, which is being sacked by the Roman troops. Cominius, the overall Roman commander, offers Coriolanus his share of the loot:

COMINIUS: … Of all the horses,
Whereof we have ta’en good and good store, of all
The treasure in this field achieved and city,
We render you the tenth, to be ta’en forth,
Before the common distribution, at
Your only choice. 

CORIOLANUS: I thank you, general;
But cannot make my heart consent to take
A bribe to pay my sword: I do refuse it;
And stand upon my common part with those
That have beheld the doing.

That’s our boy, no loot for him. He’s too good for all that. But it turns out, he does have one favor to ask from the commander:

CORIOLANUS: The gods begin to mock me. I, that now
Refused most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.

COMINIUS: Take’t; ’tis yours. What is’t?

CORIOLANUS: I sometime lay here in Corioli
At a poor man’s house; he used me kindly:
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner;
But then Aufidius was with in my view,
And wrath o’erwhelm’d my pity: I request you
To give my poor host freedom.

COMINIUS: O, well begg’d!
Were he the butcher of my son, he should
Be free as is the wind. Deliver him, Titus.

LARTIUS: Marcius, his name?

CORIOLANUS: By Jupiter! forgot.
I am weary; yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?

COMINIUS: Go we to our tent:
The blood upon your visage dries; ’tis time
It should be look’d to: come.

Exeunt

And, scene! Nothing more is heard of the old man.

It’s an amazing scene. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. This is black humor worthy of Joseph Heller. Here’s the noble Roman, making a noble request after his great victory: He doesn’t want gold or women, only mercy for an old man who treated him kindly when he was in need. Oh how noble! Except … he can’t remember the fellow’s name. Oh well. He was just a nobody anyway. Let’s go have some wine.

It’s tempting to call the play surprisingly modern. But the truth is, even in the 21st century it’s hard to find such an unflinching portrait of an overdog. Here is someone whose only idea of morality is an image of himself. He’s not interested in the effects of his actions on other people; the common people only matter to him as a backdrop for the stage on which he plays the hero. It must have been a type that Shakespeare knew well.

UPDATE: In comments, MisterMR supplies the historical context, from Livy.

“Recession Is a Time of Harvest”

Noah and Seth say pretty much everything that needs to be said about this latest #Slatepitch provocation from Matt Yglesias.  [1] So, traa dy lioaur, I am going to say something that does not need to be said, but is possibly interesting.

Yglesias claims that “the left” is wrong to focus on efforts to increase workers’ money incomes, because higher wages just mean higher prices. Real improvements in workers’ living standards — he says — come from the same source as improvements for rich people, namely technological innovation. What matters is rising productivity, and a rise in productivity necessarily means a fall in (someone’s) nominal income. So we need to forget about raising the incomes of particular people and trust the technological tide to lift all boats.

As Noah and Seth say, the logic here is broken in several places. Rising productivity in a particular sector can raise incomes in that sector as easily as reduce them. Changes in wages aren’t always passed through to prices, they can also reflect changes in the distribution between wages and other income.

I agree, it’s definitely wrong as a matter of principle to say that there’s no link, or a negative link, between changes in nominal wages and changes in the real standard of living. But what kind of link is there, actually? What did our forebears think?

Keynes notoriously took the Yglesias line in the General Theory, arguing that real and nominal wages normally moved in opposite directions. He later retracted this view, the only major error he conceded in the GT (which makes it a bit unfortunate that it’s also the book’s first substantive claim.) Schumpeter made a similar argument in Business Cycles, suggesting that the most rapid “progress in the standard of life of the working classes” came in periods of deflation, like 1873-1897. Marx on the other hand generally assumed that the wage was set in real terms, so as a first approximation we should expect higher productivity in wage-good industries to lead to lower money wages, and leave workers’ real standard of living unchanged. Productivity in this framework (and in post-GT Keynes) does set a ceiling on wages, but actual wages are almost well below this, with their level set by social norms and the relative power of workers and employers.

But back to Schumpeter and the earlier Keynes. It’s worth taking a moment to think through why they thought there would be a negative relationship between nominal and real wages, to get a better understanding of when we might expect such a relationship.

For Keynes, the logic is simple. Wages are equal to marginal product. Output is produced in conditions of declining marginal returns. (Both of assumptions are wrong, as he conceded in the 1939 article.) So when employment is high, the real wage must be low. Nominal wages and prices generally move proportionately, however, rising in booms and falling in slumps. (This part is right.) So we should expect a move toward higher employment to be associated with rising nominal wages, even though real wages must fall. You still hear this exact argument from people like David Glasner.

Schumpeter’s argument is more interesting. His starting point is that new investment is not generally financed out of savings, but by purchasing power newly created by banks. Innovations are almost never carried out by incumbent producers simply adopting the new process in place of the existing one, but rather by some new entrant — the famous entrepreneur– operating with borrowed funds. This means that the entrepreneur must bid away labor and other inputs from their current uses (importantly, Schumpeter assumes full employment) pushing up costs and prices. Furthermore, there will be some extended period of demand from the new entrants for labor and intermediate goods while the incumbents have not yet reduced theirs — the initial period of investment in the new process (and various ancillary processes — Schumpeter is thinking especially of major innovations like railroads, which will increase demand in a whole range of related industries), and later periods where the new entrants are producing but don’t yet have a decisive cost advantage, and a further period where the incumbents are operating at a loss before they finally exit. So major innovations tend to involve extended periods of rising prices. It’s only once the new producers have thoroughly displaced the old ones that demand and prices fall back to their old level. But it’s also only then that the gains from the innovation are fully realized. As he puts it (page 148):

Times of innovation are times of effort and sacrifice, of work for the future, while the harvest comes after… ; and that the harvest is gathered under recessive symptoms and with more anxiety than rejoicing … does not alter the principle. Recession [is] a time of harvesting the results of preceding innovation…

I don’t think Schumpeter was wrong when he wrote. There is probably some truth to idea that falling prices and real wages went together in 19th century. (Maybe by 1939, he was wrong.)

I’m interested in Schumpeter’s story, though, as more than just intellectual history, fascinating tho that is. Todays consensus says that technology determines the long-term path of the economy, aggregate demand determines cyclical deviations from that path, and never the twain shall meet. But that’s not the only possibility. We talked the other day about demand dynamics not as — as in conventional theory — deviations from the growth path in response to exogenous shocks, but as an endogenous process that may, or may not, occasionally converge to a long-term growth trajectory, which it also affects.

In those Harrod-type models, investment is simply required for higher output — there’s no innovation or autonomous investment booms. Those are where Schumpeter comes in. What I like about his vision is it makes it clear that periods of major innovation, major shifts from one production process to another, are associated with higher demand — the major new plant and equipment they require, the reorganization of the spatial and social organization of production they entail (“new plant, new firms, new men,” as he says) make large additional claims on society’s resources. This is the opposite of the “great recalculation” claim we were hearing a couple years ago, about how high unemployment was a necessary accompaniment to major geographic or sectoral shifts in output; and also of the more sophisticated version of the recalculation argument that Joe Stiglitz has been developing. [2] Schumpeter is right, I think, when he explicitly says that if we really were dealing with “recalculation” by a socialist planner, then yes, we might see labor and resources withdrawn from the old industries first, and only then deployed to the new ones. But under capitalism things don’t work like that  (page 110-111):

Since the central authority of the socialist state controls all existing means of production, all it has to do in case it decides to set up new production functions is simply to issue orders to those in charge of the productive functions to withdraw part of them from the employments in which they are engaged, and to apply the quantities so withdrawn to the new purposes envisaged. We may think of a kind of Gosplan as an illustration. In capitalist society the means of production required must also be … [redirected] but, being privately owned, they must be bought in their respective markets. The issue to the entrepreneurs of new means of payments created ad hoc [by banks] is … what corresponds in capitalist society to the order issued by the central bureau in the socialist state. 

In both cases, the carrying into effect of an innovation involves, not primarily an increase in existing factors of production, but the shifting of existing factors from old to new uses. There is, however, this difference between the two methods of shifting the factors : in the case of the socialist community the new order to those in charge of the factors cancels the old one. If innovation were financed by savings, the capitalist method would be analogous… But if innovation is financed by credit creation, the shifting of the factors is effected not by the withdrawal of funds—”canceling the old order”—from the old firms, but by … newly created funds put at the disposal of entrepreneurs : the new “order to the factors” comes, as it were, on top of the old one, which is not thereby canceled.

This vision of banks as capitalist Gosplan, but with the limitation that they can only give orders for new production on top of existing production, seems right to me. It might have been written precisely as a rebuttal to the “recalculation” arguments, which explicitly imagined capitalist investment as being guided by a central planner. It’s also a corrective to the story implied in the Slate piece, where one day there are people driving taxis and the next day there’s a fleet of automated cars. [3] Before that can happen, there’s a long period of research, investment, development — engineers are getting paid, the technology is getting designed and tested and marketed, plants are being built and equipment installed — before the first taxi driver loses a dollar of income. And even once the driverless cars come on line, many of the new companies will fail, and many of the old drivers will hold on for as long as their credit lasts. Both sets of loss-making enterprises have high expenditure relative to their income, which by definition boosts aggregate demand. In short, a period of major innovations must be a period of rising nominal incomes — as we most recently saw, on a moderate scale, in the late 1990s.

Now for Schumpeter, this was symmetrical: High demand and rising prices in the boom were balanced by falling prices in the recession — the “harvest” of the fruits of innovation. And it was in the recession that real wages rose. This was related to his assumption that the excess demand from the entrepreneurs mainly bid up the price of the fixed stock of factors of production, rather than activating un- or underused factors. Today, of course, deflation is extremely rare (and catastrophic), and output and employment vary more over the cycle than wages and prices do. And there is a basic asymmetry between the boom and the bust. New capital can be added very rapidly in growing enterprises, in principle; but gross investment in the declining incumbents cannot fall below zero. So aggregate investment will always be highest when there are large shifts taking place between sectors or processes. Add to this that new industries will take time to develop the corespective market structure that protects firms in capital-intensive industries from cutthroat competition, so they are more likely to see “excess” investment. And in a Keynesian world, the incomes from innovation-driven investment will also boost consumption, and investment in other sectors. So major innovations are likely to be associated with booms, with rising prices and real wages.

So, but: Why do we care what Schumpeter thought 75 years ago, especially if we think half of it no longer holds? Well, it’s always interesting to see how much today’s debates rehash the classics. More importantly, Schumpeter is one of the few economists to have focused on the relation of innovation, finance and aggregate demand (even if, like a good Wicksellian, he thought the latter was important only for the price level); so working through his arguments is a useful exercise if we want to think more systematically about this stuff ourselves. I realize that as a response to Matt Y.’s silly piece, this post is both too much and poorly aimed. But as I say, Seth and Noah have done what’s needed there. I’m more interested in what relationship we think does hold, between innovation and growth, the price level, and wages.

As an economist, my objection to the Yglesias column (and to stuff like the Stiglitz paper, which it’s a kind of bowdlerization of) is that the intuition that connects rising real incomes to falling nominal incomes is just wrong, for the reasons sketched out above. But shouldn’t we also say something on behalf of “the left” about the substantive issue? OK, then: It’s about distribution. You might say that the functional distribution is more or less stable in practice. But if that’s true at all, it’s only over the very long run, it certainly isn’t in the short or medium run — as Seth points out, the share of wages in the US is distinctly lower than it was 25 years ago. And even to the extent it is true, it’s only because workers (and, yes, the left) insist that nominal wages rise. Yglesias here sounds a bit like the anti-environmentalists who argue that the fact that rivers are cleaner now than when the Clean Water Act was passed, shows it was never needed. More fundamentally, as a leftist, I don’t agree with Yglesias that the only important thing about income is the basket of stuff it procures. There’s overwhelming reason — both first-principle and empirical — to believe that in advanced countries, relative income, and the power, status and security it conveys, is vastly more important than absolute income. “Don’t worry about conflicting interests or who wins or loses, just let the experts make things better for everyone”: It’s an uncharitable reading of the spirit behind this post, but is it an entirely wrong one?

UPDATE: On the other hand. In his essay on machine-breaking, Eric Hobsbawm observes that in 18th century England,

miners’ riots were still directed against high food prices, and the profiteers believed to be responsible for them.

And of course more generally, there have been plenty of working-class protests and left political programs aimed at reducing the cost of living, as well as raising wages. Food riots are a major form of popular protest historically, subsidies for food and other necessities are a staple policy of newly independent states in the third world (and, I suspect, also disapproved by the gentlemen of Slate), and food prices are a preoccupation of plenty of smart people on the left. (Not to mention people like this guy.) So Yglesias’s notion that “the left” ignores this stuff is stupid. But if we get past the polemics, there is an interesting question here, which is why mass politics based around people’s common interests as workers is so much more widespread and effective than this kind of politics around the cost of living. Or, maybe better, why one kind of conflict is salient in some times and places and the other kind of conflict in others; and of course in some, both.

[1] Seth’s piece in particular is a really masterful bit of polemic. He apologizes for responding to trollery, which, yeah, the Yglesias post arguably is. But if you must feed trolls, this is how it’s done. I’m not sure if the metaphor requires filet mignon and black caviar, or dogshit garnished with cigarette butts, or fresh human babies, but whatever it is you should ideally feed a troll, Seth serves it up.

[2] It appears that Stiglitz’s coauthor Bruce Greenwald came up with this first, and it was adopted by right-wing libertarians like Arnold Kling afterwards.

[3] I admit I’m rather skeptical about the prospects for driverless cars. Partly it’s that the point is they can operate with much smaller error tolerances than existing cars — “bumper to bumper at highway speeds” is the line you always hear — but no matter how inherently reliable the technology, these things are going to be owned maintained by millions of individual nonprofessionals. Imagine a train where the passengers in each car were responsible for making sure it was securely coupled to the next one. Yeah, no. But I think there’s an even more profound reason, connected to the kinds of risk we will and will not tolerate. I was talking to my friend E. about this a while back, and she said something interesting: “People will never accept it, because no one is responsible for an accident. Right now, if  there’s a bad accident you can deal with it by figuring out who’s at fault. But if there were no one you could blame, no one you could punish, if it were just something that happened — no one would put up with that.” I think that’s right. I think that’s one reason we’re much more tolerant of car accidents than plane accidents, there’s a sense that in a car accident at least one of the people involved must be morally responsible. Totally unrelated to this post, but it’s a topic I’d like to return to at some point — that what moral agency really means, is a social convention that we treat causal chains as being broken at certain points — that in some contexts we treat people’s actions as absolutely indeterminate. That there are some kinds of in principle predictable actions by other people that we act — that we are morally obliged to act — as if we cannot predict.

2012 Books, Part 1

Some books I read this year:

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I didn’t strictly read this, but listened to it, while driving between New York City and western Massachusetts. What a magnificent novel! I don’t feel I have a lot to say about it: It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful, it captures the way one can be committed to one’s life and choices while recognizing that they are ultimately arbitrary and contingent. “No doubt with another throw of the dice, had the black been uppermost and not the white, she would have loved Miss Kilman. But not in this world, no.” (And then the alternative, the poor schizophrenic demobbed soldier, the destruction that awaits you if you insist everything happens for a reason.)
Prosperity Without Growth, by Tim Jackson. I used this in the macro class I taught this past spring — I needed to do a unit on the environment and my old teacher Bob Pollin recommended using Jackson. I would use it for that again, and recommend it to anyone looking for a short, accessible overview of the intersections of macroeconomics and environmental issues. Not with great enthusiasm, though, but only because I don’t know of anything better. (On the other hand the students seemed to like it a lot, so maybe I’m being too critical.) It’s not deep, but it has good solid chapters on environmental critiques of national income accounting; climate change and the question of discount rates; decarbonization and limits to growth; and the importance of thinking of wellbeing in terms of capabilities (there’s a lot of Sen) rather than just income. I particularly like that last bit; though he doesn’t use the term, it’s nice to see a strong argument for the progressive decommodification of social life from such a respectable source.
Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, MarriageOpen Secrets; and others, by Alice Munro. Sometime this spring I asked for fiction recommendations on Facebook; Munro was the suggestion of my friend Deidre, who’s from Alberta. Around the same time my mother, visiting Vancouver, happened to read some of the same collections after finding them in the house where she was staying. So it seems that despite all the dozens of Munro stories published in the New Yorker (she’s apparently one of a handful of writers to whom the magazine has committed to print anything she submits), Munro still functions as a Canadian export. It would be hard to overstate how much I admire these stories. They’re not flashy, there’s almost nothing that stands out at the level of the sentence, and the lives they describe are usually (though not always) overtly ordinary. They do the thing that New Yorker stories are traditionally supposed to do, but seldom really achieve — show the emotional depths and high moral stakes in the seemingly small choices of everyday life. The more recent stories I’ve been reading — I don’t know if this is also true of the earlier ones — have a distinct and consistent construction: For the most part they don’t have a narrative moving forward in time, but are static portraits of a particular situation. So you really can’t imagine her writing a novel. Anyway, what’s remarkable is how consistent the artistry is — how thoroughly she works over the same material without its ever becoming less fresh — how she manages to convey such powerful emotions with such careful restraint. When you think that she’s over 80 now and still putting out story after story without ever hitting a wrong note, it’s hard not to feel an almost religious awe.

Chaos and Night, by Henry de Montherlant. This short novel from the 1950s is best known for the line, “I accuse the Americans of being in a continuous state of crime against humanity.” Though it’s spoken by Don Celestino, the book’s central character, it’s almost always attributed to Montherlant himself, which is a little odd since the conservative author hardly shares his protagonist’s curdled leftism. Besides anti-Americanism, Montherlant is also known for — at least it’s where I first encountered him — Simone de Beauvoir’s savage attack on the misogyny of his novels. (“For Montherlant it is first of all the mother who is the great enemy; … it is clearly seen that what he detests in her, is the fact of his own birth.”) It’s true that Celestino’s daughter Pascualita, the novel’s only female character, is vain, superficial and rather stupid. But she comes off much better than the protagonist himself, a delusional, rage-filled and hypocritical Spanish ex-anarchist. Though the book is constantly echoing Don Quixote, Celestino is a rancid parody of Quixote — his fantasies are repulsive as well as unreal. It’s about the least sympathetic portrayal of an old radical I have seen, a brutal travesty of the revolutionary intellectuals of the early 20th century.

So, why read such a thing? Mainly because it’s an very nicely constructed little book, written in a perfect style and with a whole series of brilliant little set pieces. And Don Celestino, vicious and self-pitying, is one of those unignorable personalities who takes over the page, with his rage against the whole world, from America to his few friends down to the pigeons he goes out of his way to drive from their crumbs. Personally, I was hooked from the monologue that opens the book: “To the north, there’s England, an incomprehensible country, and the Scandinavian states, incomprehensible countries. To the south there’s the Vatican. The dome of St. Peter’s is the candle-snuffer of Western thought… To the west there’s the United States. The United States is the canker of the world…”

The American Political Tradition, by Richard Hofstadter. I picked this up after Seth Ackerman — a very smart guy and good comrade, even if I don’t share his political vision — mentioned it here. I can’t believe I hadn’t read it earlier, it should be required reading for any halfway educated USAnian. The central theme is the fundamental conservatism of American political thought: With the partial exception of the abolitionists (represented here by Wendell Phillips), there’s never been a popular anti-systemic politics with any real access to state power. At the highest levels it’s just been a choice of conservatisms. Hofstadter has clear preferences among these. He likes best the reluctant radicals who under the pressure of events are prepared to change everything so that everything can remain the same, like FDR and Lincoln — though as he pointedly notes in the case of Lincoln, this meant that he spent most of the Civil War seeking to restore the conditions that had produced the war in the first place. (This is always the problem for conservative reformers.) Much worse are the principled conservatives like Calhoun — or more unexpectedly Grover Cleveland, who out of pure principle favored business over labor even more than the most venally pro-business Republicans of the Gilded Age. Worst of all are the populist conservatives like Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. TR’s is the most thoroughly repulsive of the generally unflattering portraits in the book, combining smug thoughtless aristocratic privilege with brutal petty-bourgeois resentment. He frankly said that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, and eagerly hoped that every strike would finally let him haul out the Gatling guns, or at least bring his “cowboys” around to smash some workers’ heads. After reading this, it’s hard to walk through the lobby of the Museum of Natural History without feeling a little queasy.

Not Entitled, by Frank Kermode. The thoroughly charming memoir of the critic and English professor. Somebody said that if we wrote about lives the way we experience them, there’d be a dozen chapters on childhood, two or three on adolescence, and a brief afterword covering the rest. Kermode more or less follows this formula, with almost half the book devoted to his childhood on the Isle of Man, and another third to life in the British navy during World War II; there’s a couple short chapters on his postwar flounderings, and he passes over his long and successful academic career in a rushed handful of pages, as if embarassed by them. Which he probably was: The title of the book refers to what sailors were told on payday when they had incurred enough fines to cancel out their whole salary, but it’s also the attitude Kermode takes toward his whole life. His successes were fortuitous and unearned; more deserving people missed their chance for no good reason. Even writing in his 70s, he describes himself as feeling always like the youngest one in the room, unprepared, the newcomer, off balance and out of place, having arrived late and trying to find his place in a conversation already under way. Traa dy lioaur, “at the heel of the hunt,” in the Manx phrase his mother used to use of him. It’s a long time since I’ve read a book in which I’ve found such a kindred spirit.

What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain. I won’t lie, I picked this up to help me talk about teaching on the academic job market. But it’s really good! It was recommended to me by Prof T., to whom it was recommended, I think, by some other teacher; it seems to be kind of a cult thing that way. Bain’s central point is that we should think of classes in terms of what students do, not what the instructor does. Teaching isn’t a matter of pouring “material” into students and hoping they “retain” it, it’s about creating an environment in which they can actively engage in the same kind of work and critical thought that professionals do. (The same spirit someone like Andrew Lawrence brings to guitar teaching.) It’s an insight I’d been stumbling toward on my own but which is much more fully developed here and backed up with research and case studies. This book goes on the short shelf with other pieces of everyday utopianism — A Pattern Language, Cziksentmihalyi’s Flow. It’s a slighter book than those but the spirit is the same — we don’t have to just carry out our daily activities the way they always have been, but we also don’t have to revolutionize them according to logic of profit. It is possible to think clearly, freely and genuinely about how to do things right on their own terms.

Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas. A first novel by someone you’ve never heard of; he doesn’t seem to have published even a story before this. It was recommended to me by my father when it came out a couple of years ago; I resisted reading it then because I knew it had a 9/11 subplot, and I’m allergic to WTC sentimentalism. But that’s only a small part of the book, which as it turns out I like very much. It’s a bit hard to say why. After all, it’s an entry in the justly reviled struggling-writer-in-Brooklyn genre. And while I generally prefer a clean austere style, Thomas is a writer of compulsively detailed descriptions — a single golf swing takes half a page. (Think Updike on Doritos.) Now one obvious difference between Thomas and “all the sad young literary men” is that he is African-American. It’s treacherous to think that any work of art can allow you to really understand a subjective experience foreign to your own (but isn’t that always what we hope for from art?) but this feels like a convincing picture of (one kind of) life as a black man in post-civil-rights America. In tone it’s somewhere between Nathan McCall’s memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler and the lovely Medicine for Melancholy. It’s significant that, as a “type,” the unnamed (but clearly autobiographical) protagonist is arguably a black man only second, and a struggling artist first. Why can’t you have all the angst that goes with that just because you’re black?, is one of the main themes of the book. There’s a nice scene about halfway through where he plays a set at an open-mike night and, after doing various old blues songs ends with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The white hipster running the thing is disappointed: “I thought you were going in a different direction.”

It’s also a book about being broke, about alcoholism, and most distinctly, about blue-collar work. The narrator, who needs to earn money very quickly to preserve his marriage, has set aside his novel and returned to his old work as a carpenter. Thomas’ overflowing, almost compulsive descriptions are so much more interesting when they’re not about golf swings, but about the specific tasks and relationships involved in renovating a building. (So it’s a book about gentrification too.) At one point the narrator finds himself in a nice restaurant, and all he can think about is how superb the dry-walling is. (This goes in the labor-as-man’s-highest-need file, next to the poor hatmaker in Mrs. Dalloway, whose favorite activity in her walks around London is admiring the workmanship of ladies’ hats.) That so much of the loving description is of manual labor rather than middle-class consumption rituals is one important thing that sets this book off from Updike and from the Jonathans. But setting aside all that, it’s just beautifully constructed, it achieves what fiction is there for, it engages you emotionally. When the narrator finally has some bills in his pocket and seems set to squander them, when he seems set to give up in his fight against alcohol, you want to push your head through the page and shout, No.