Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ezra Klein interviews Elizabeth Drew about Trump

This is a superb interview. Well worth listening two, all 73 minutes of it.

Elizabeth Drew is the author of Washington Journal, one of my favorite books about Watergate. Drew covered the story as a reporter for the New Yorker, and the book emerges from the real-time, journalistic diary she kept amidst the chaos. As such, it does something no other Watergate book does: tells the story not as a tidy tale with a clear beginning and inevitable end, but as an experience thick with confusion, rumors, alarm, and half-truths.

Of late, I've heard a lot of people comparing the early days of Donald Trump's administration — with the strange scandals around Russia, the fast resignation of Trump's national Security Advisor, and the mounting pressure for investigation — with Watergate. And so I asked Drew, who is now a writer at the New York Review of Books, to provide some perspective on whether that comparison makes sense, and how to think about the Trump scandals that are unfolding, slowly and haltingly, right now.

-Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America
-Andrew Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson
Drew emphasizes that, whatever Trump is, it's something we've not seen before, so comparisons with Watergate are of relatively little value. Her sense is that it, whatever it is, can't be sustained for four years. But she's unwilling to speculate about what will bring it to a stop. We've got to let it unfold. Not that we should be passive, but simply that we cannot prejudge how to act and react. It's a new phenomenon.

Shakespeare and his collaborators?

In 1989, a young professor named Gary Taylor published “Reinventing Shakespeare,” in which he argued that Shakespeare’s unrivalled literary status derives less from the sheer greatness of his plays than from the cultural institutions that have mythologized the Bard, elevating him above equally talented Renaissance playwrights. “Shakespeare was a star, but never the only one in our galaxy,” Taylor wrote. [...]
Late last year, Taylor shocked readers once again. The New Oxford Shakespeare, for which Taylor serves as lead general editor, is the first edition of the plays to credit Christopher Marlowe as a co-author of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Parts 1, 2, and 3. It lists co-authors for fourteen other plays as well, ushering a host of playwrights—Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton, and John Fletcher, along with Marlowe—into the big tent of the complete works. This past fall, headlines around the world trumpeted the Marlowe-Shakespeare connection, and spotlighted the editors’ methodology: computer-aided analysis of linguistic patterns across databases of early modern plays. “Shakespeare has now fully entered the era of Big Data,” Taylor announced in a press release.

It’s no longer controversial to give other authors a share in Shakespeare’s plays—not because he was a front for an aristocrat, as conspiracy theorists since the Victorian era have proposed, but because scholars have come to recognize that writing a play in the sixteenth century was a bit like writing a screenplay today, with many hands revising a company’s product. The New Oxford Shakespeare claims that its algorithms can tease out the work of individual hands—a possibility, although there are reasons to challenge its computational methods. But there is a deeper argument made by the edition that is both less definitive and more interesting. It’s not just that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights, and it’s not just that Shakespeare was one of a number of great Renaissance writers whose fame he outstripped in the ensuing centuries. It’s that the canonization of Shakespeare has made his way of telling stories—especially his monarch-centered view of history—seem like the norm to us, when there are other ways of telling stories, and other ways of staging history, that other playwrights did better.

Sunday, February 19, 2017





An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

If you’ve heard of Dan Everett at all, most likely you’ve heard about his work among the Pirahã and his battle with Noam Chomsky and the generative grammarians. He went into the Amazon to live among the Pirahã in the mid-1970s with the intention of learning their language, translating the Bible into it, and converting them to Christianity. Things didn’t work out that way. Yes, he learned their language, and managed to translate a bit of the Bible into Pirahã. But, no, he didn’t convert them. They converted him, as it were, so he is now an atheist.

Not only did Everett learn Pirahã, but he compiled a grammar and reached the conclusion – a bit reluctantly at first – that it lacks recursion. Recursion is the property that Chomsky believes is irreducibly intrinsic to human language. And so Everett found himself in pitched battle with Chomsky, the man whose work revolutionized linguistics in the mid-1950s. If that interests you, well you can run a search on something like “Everett Chomsky recursion” (don’t type the quotes into the search box) and get more hits than you can shake a stick at.

I’ve never met Dan face-to-face, but I know him on Facebook where I’m one of 10 to 20 folks who chat with him on intellectual matters. Not so long ago I reviewed his most recent book, Dark Matter of the Mind, over at 3 Quarks Daily. I thus know him, after a fashion.

And so I thought I’d address an open letter to him on my current hobbyhorse: What’s up with literary criticism?

* * * * *

Dear Dan,

I’ve been trying to make sense of literary criticism for a long time. In particular, I’ve been trying to figure out why literary critics give so little descriptive attention to the formal properties of literary texts. I don’t expect you to answer the question for me but, who knows, as an outsider to the discipline and with an interest in language and culture, perhaps you might have an idea or two.

I figured I’d start by quoting a fellow linguist, one moreover with an affection for Brazil, Haj Ross. Then I look at Shakespeare as a window into the practice of literary criticism. I introduce the emic/etic distinction in that discussion. After that we’ll take a look at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the course of which I introduce the question, What would I teach in a first level undergraduate class? I find that to be a very useful way of thinking about the discipline; I figure that might also appeal to you as a Dean and Acting Provost. I conclude by returning to the abstractosphere by distinguishing between naturalist and ethical criticism. Alas, it’s a long way through, so you might want to pour yourself a scotch.

Haj’s Problem: Interpretation and Poetics

Let’s start with the opening paragraphs from a letter that Haj Ross has posted to Academia.edu. Of course you know who Haj is, but I think it’s useful to note that, back in the 1960s when he was getting a degree in linguistics under Chomsky at MIT, he was also studying poetics under Roman Jakobson at Harvard, and that, over the years, he has produced a significant body of descriptive work on poetry that, for the most part, exists ‘between the cracks’ in the world of academic publication. The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte [1]. He’s not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it with the title “Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures” and with a one-line abstract: “How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected”. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.
You’ll have to read the whole letter to find out what he meant by that one-line abstract, but I assure you that it’s both naïve and deep at one and the same time, mentioning, among other things, the “joy of babbling” and the role of the tamboura in Indian classical music. At the moment I’m interested in just those two opening paragraphs.

While I got my degree in literary criticism and understand the drive/will to meaning, I also understand Haj’s attraction to verifiable pattern/structures and his willingness to pursue that even though he cannot connect it to meaning. Yes, meaning is the primary objective of academic literary criticism and, yes, justifying proposed meanings is (deeply) problematic. I also know that the academic discipline of literary criticism was NOT founded on the activity of interpreting texts. It was founded in the late 19th century on philology, literary history, and editing – that is, editing the canonical literary works for study by students and scholars. Roughly speaking, the interest in interpretation dates back to the second quarter of the 20th century, but it didn’t become firmly institutionalized until the third quarter of the century. You can see that institutionalization in this Ngram search on the phrase “close reading”, which is a term of art for interpretive analysis:

close reading
Figure 1: "Close reading"

And that’s when things became interesting. As more and more critics came to focus on interpretation, the profession became acutely aware of a problem: different critics produced different interpretations, which is the correct interpretation? Some critics even began to wonder whether or not there was such a thing as the correct interpretation. We are now well within the scope of the problem that bothered Haj: How do you justify one interpretation over another?

That’s the issue that was in play when I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1965. Though I had declared an interest in psychology, once I’d been accepted I gravitated toward literature. Which means that, even as I was working as hard as I could to figure out how to interpret a literary text, I was also party to conversations about the problematic nature of interpretation. As I have written elsewhere about those years at Hopkins [2] there’s no need to recount them here. The important point is simply that literary critics were acutely aware of the problematic nature of interpretation and devoted considerable effort to resolving the problem.

In the course of that problematic thrashing about, literary critics turned to philosophy, mostly Continental (though not entirely), and linguistics, mostly structuralist linguistics. In 1975 Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics, which garnered him speaking invitations all over America and made his career. For Culler, and for American academia, structuralism was mostly French: Saussure, Jakobson (not French, obviously), Greimas, Barthes, and Lévi-Strauss, among others. But Culler also wrote of literary competence, clearly modeled on Chomsky’s notion of linguistic competence, and even deep structure. At this point literary critics, not just Culler, were interested in linguistics.

Here’s a paragraph from Culler’s preface (xiv-xv):
The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning. Granting new attention to the activity of reading, it would attempt to specify how we go about making sense of texts, what are the interpretive operations on which literature itself, as an institution, is based. Just as the speaker of a language has assimilated a complex grammar which enables him to read a series of sounds or letters as a sentence with a meaning, so the reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning. The study of literature, as opposed to the perusal and discussion of individual works, would become an attempt to understand the conventions which make literature possible. The major purpose of this book is to show how such a poetics emerges from structuralism, to indicate what it has already achieved, and to sketch what it might become.
However much critics may have been interested in this book, that interest did not produce a flourishing poetics. Even Culler himself abandoned poetics after this book. Interpretation had become firmly established as the profession’s focus.

As for the problem of justifying one interpretation over another, deconstructive critics argued that the meaning of texts was indeterminate and so, ultimately, there is no justification. Reader response critics produced a similar result by different means. The issue was debated into the 1990s and then more or less put on the shelf without having been resolved.

I have no quarrel with that. I think the basic problem is that literary texts of whatever kind – lyric or narrative poetry, drama, prose fiction – are different in kind from the discursive texts written to explicate them. There is no well-formed way of translating meaning from a literary to a discursive text. When you further consider that different critics may have different values, the problem becomes more intractable. Interpretation cannot, in principle, be strongly determined.

What, you might ask, what about the meaning that exists in a reader’s mind prior to any attempt at interpretation? Good question. But how do we get at THAT? It simply is not available for inspection.

What happens, though, when you give up the search for meaning? Or, if not give up, you at least bracket it and subordinate it to an interest in pattern and structure as intrinsic properties of texts? Is a poetics possible? Let’s set that aside for awhile and take a detour though the profession’s treatment of The Bard, William Shakespeare, son of a glover and London actor.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Greatest Man in Siam

This is one of my favorite cartoons. I've blogged about it quite a bit, and have packaged those posts into a working paper. About 2/3 of the way though there is a dance sequence that is one of the most joyous bits of film I've ever seen. The animation is superb, and so is the music. Given the date, 1944, the music is big band music, and this band plays like it's playing for live dancers. And the trumpet soloist, he plays like it's the third set of a good night.

And yes, sure, the cartoon is Orientalist, sexist, patriarchal, racist and a few other things as well. After you've gotten over that, look at the eyes and ask yourself, Why does the trumpet player get the girl? The cartoon's premise is that men are competing for the king's daughter. Why do the first three lose and thaelast one win? As I said, look at the eyes. What's that about? What values?

A bird and the city


The rise of interpretive literary criticism

In various posts I've pointed out that interpretation didn't become central to academic literary study until after World War II. We can see that in the following Google Ngram chart on the phrase "close reading", which is the term of art for interpretation:

close reading

This comparison with "hermeneutic" is instructive:
close reading hemeneutic

They rise at roughly the same time, but the more technical "hermeneutic" quickly out paces "close reading". Why? Is this evidence for "physics envy" leading to the intellectually useless proliferation of technical jargon? Well, if you believe that literary criticism has no need of a theoretical infrastructure, then, sure, why not?

But I don't believe that. I may not like the theoretical instruction literary criticism has created for itself, but that doesn't mean I think it is best done without such an infrastructure. And the steep rise of "hermeneutic" seems to reflect the general rise of a theoretical infrastucture. Without any particular evidence at hand, the term strikes me as being more useful in general theoretical discussion. Close reading is something a critic does; hermeneutics is something critics talk about.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Donald Trump: Pop Star as President

If Elvis Presley had been elected President of the United States, what kind of president would he have been? We now know: Trumpian. If Michael Jackson had been elected President of the United States, what kind of president would he have been? We now know: Trumpian. As far as I know these two musicians never had political aspirations – though a pill-addicted Presley once tried to cajole Richard Nixon into appointing him as anti-drug ambassador to the nation’s youth – but, like Trump, they lived in the public eye and they lived within an entourage of associates and ‘minders’ who kept the world at bay.

Secure in this circle, the star could do whatever he wanted, as long as the money kept coming in. For Presley and Jackson the money was driven by record sales and ticket sales. THAT was the connection with the world at large. They gift the world with music and the world gifts them with money. As long as those things are roughly in balance, the beat went on, more or less. Sure, there’s also the personal quirks, indulgences, and localized craziness that fueled the gossip rags of all media. But as long as the money train stayed on the rails the rest was just noise. The entourage could handle it. Until the drugs got out of control and the entourage was useless.

Pre-Presidential Trump is a more complicated case. Initially, and with the help of Daddy’s money and contacts – little Donald was born to an entourage – he made his money in real estate development. He did deals, face-to-face. Then, over time, he transitioned to a franchise operation and a TV star. Showbiz! But, as with Elvis and Michael, as long as the money came in, nothing else mattered. A little scandal here and there – and as far as we know, The Donald has never been into anything comparable to Elvis’s pill habit or Michael’s cosmetic adventurism and child fetishism – but it’s just noise.

Now that he’s President, things have changed. Drastically. Money is no longer his connection to the world. To be sure, he’s still holding on to his vast business empire – Yuge, I tell you, Yuge! The best! – though he’s distanced himself from it by the length of a pinky. But, and here’s the crucial point, that business empire is no longer his lever on reality. That’s not how he judges his personal efficacy any more. Let me repeat that, with emphasis: That’s NOT how he judges his PERSONAL sense of efficacy.

Now that he’s president his personal sense of efficacy is linked to his acts as president. And that’s not working out so well. He’s finding out that, at every level and in every way, the world is not willing to jump at his command. In particular, the media isn’t presenting a picture of his actions and efficacy that is consonant with his intentions. All of a sudden we have a comedian (John Oliver) placing educational ads on his favorite TV shows – fake commercials full of true facts! Trump’s image in the media was one thing when his world centered on his ability to generate a money stream; in that context it played a secondary and subsidiary role – all PR is good PR. Now that that income stream has been shifted into a secondary role, all he’s got left is the media flow.

He signs executive orders and he expects the media to show him how dynamic, forceful, and all-around-wonderful he is. And, remember, this is now the main event. When the media doesn’t comply. What does he do? He goes on TV and delivers a 77 minute rant against media.

How long can he keep this up?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Fathers and sons

This is a fascinating little video. It's an interview with Paul Cohen, who played lead trumpet for Count Basie for years and years. The two men were very close; Cohen thought of Basie as a father. But there came a time when Basie "rejected" Cohen and Cohen left the band. Cohen's playing on "Poor Butterfly", which plays in the background during the interview, is gorgeous.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Distort in context

This photo just got a 'favorite' at Flickr:


I'm pretty sure the 'fav' had more to do with Distort than with the photograph itself. I'm fine with that.

Preview: Meaning in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Here's another draft fragment from my open-letter in progress. This fragment centers on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

* * * * *

Now I want to look at a particular example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is one of the texts most frequently taught in undergraduate courses. Why? Well, it’s relatively short, 40,000 words, which is a consideration, albeit a minor one. Surely it’s the subject matter – roughly, European imperialism in Africa – and, secondarily, Conrad’s impressionist style. Still, why, why do those things matter?

Let’s look at a short statement by J. Hillis Miller, a senior and very respected literary critic. He is old enough to have gotten his degree at Harvard at a time when, in his view, when few in the English Department there were much good at interpreting texts and his is one in the first generation of deconstructive critics. Shortly after the turn of the millennium the Association of Departments of English honored him for his fifty years in the profession. Of his early days as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, the 1950s and 1960s, Miller tells us:
English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone. As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. [3]
Which is to say, literature is taught as a vehicle for cultural indoctrination. Of course you know that; you don’t need Hillis Miller to tell you that. But I just wanted to get the idea explicitly on the record along with that little irony about English literature in the United States (Miller had earlier pointed out that, at the time, American literature was marginal in the academy, at least at Hopkins).

Just a bit more about Heart of Darkness, which is a relatively simple story. A pilot, Charles Marlow, needs a gig. He calls on an aunt who gets in an interview with a continental firm, which hires him to pilot a steamer up the Congo River to a trading station that has gone incommunicado. Marlow’s job is make contact with the agent of the Inner Station, named Kurtz, and recover the ivory that Kurtz has, presumably, been accumulating. Marlow is our narrator. Actually, he tells the story to an unnamed third party, who then tells it to us, but we can skip that detail for awhile. That third party presents the bulk of the story to us as Marlow’s own words. Marlow’s steamer is crewed by native Africans and, in addition to personnel from the trading company, there are pilgrims on board.

Marlow is presented as a brilliant and talented man who went to Africa to earn enough money to make him worthy of his Intended; we don’t learn this detail until late in the story, nor are we ever told her name. We’re also led to believe that he has gone mad, setting himself up as a demi-god to the natives and taking a native mistress. As for those natives, it is clear that they have been badly treated by the Europeans.

Whatever else is going on, Heart of Darkness is an indictment of European imperialism in Africa. And yet in 1975 Chinua Achibe, the Nigerian novelist, set off bombshells when he delivered a lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” [4]. How could Heart of Darkness be racist, people objected, when the text obviously condemns imperialism? Easy, goes the rejoinder, for Conrad deprives Africans of agency, depicts them only as victims, and never has even one of them speak. Now, NOW, we’ve got something to think and talk about. Heart of Darkness may be over a century old, but the issues it embodies are very much alive in this, the 21st century.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Another shout-out to Anthony Bourdain

I've enjoyed both the episode on Tokyo, and that on Detroit, episodes 7 and 8 in season two of Parts Unknown. Tokyo:

Like a lot of non-Japanese, obsessed with Japan, Japanese food and Japanese culture, I've always been amused, occasionally appalled and always befuddled by the more lurid aspects of Japanese fantasy, pop culture and expressions of fetishistic desire. Popular comic books (manga), toys, films, advertisements and entertainments are loaded with images of bondage (shibari), hyper-sexualized school girls, rape, homoeroticism, violation by demons and tentacles – and more (all generally referred to as "hentai"). The honky-tonk Shinjuku district of Tokyo seems to promise galaxies of gratification – for flavors of desire that range from the simply eccentric to the absolutely horrifying. [...]

On one hand, the Japanese seem to have a much more open, nonjudgmental, less puritanical view of sex. Attitudes toward women's roles in the workplace and elsewhere, however, remain largely mired in the long-ago past. Rigorously conventional on one hand, batshit crazy party animals on the other, Japan will always confuse outsiders looking in. Even from close-up. [...]

So in many ways, this show is about fantasy – as much as anything else.

I hope this news will temper, slightly, the reaction of the more easily offended who watch this episode, as it contains images and subject matter of a decidedly "mature" and even offensive nature.

This is a "difficult" show. And I hope it doesn't frighten anyone away from one of the most fascinating and deeply enjoyable places to visit, experience and learn a little about on earth.
Bourdain claims that "it's easily one of the most brilliantly shot and edited episodes we've ever done." I can believe that. My one reservation is that it leaves the impression that manga is mostly about kinky sex. While you can certainly find manga that feature kinky sex, you can find manga about pretty much anything, appropriate for pretty much any audience. Kinky sex is just part of the mix.

Once upon a snow day


Preview: Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up

I’m currently working on another open letter. I thought I’d publish some draft text while continuing to work on the full letter. It’s going to be a long one. First I have a couple paragraphs from a letter by John Robert ‘Haj’ Ross, who got a linguistics degree under Chomsky back in the mid-1960s but who also went across the Charles River and studied poetics with Roman Jakobson at Harvard. That sets things up. Then I have the section on Shakespeare.

Haj Speaks

The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte [1]. He’s not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it to Academia.edu with the title “Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures” and with a one-line abstract: “How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected”. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.
That’s the contrast that interests me, meaning versus structures, patterns, whatever. If you will, interpretive criticism (meaning) versus poetics (structures, patterns). By an large academic literary criticism has focused on meaning and is interested in patterns and structures only to the extent that the critic knows how to subordinate them to meaning.

Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up

Shakespeare is arguably the center of the Anglophone literary universe, the Greatest and most Important Writer Ever. While there was undoubtedly a real William Shakespeare back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the exalted author, The Bard, is a cultural construction of considerable sophistication and complexity. That complexity exceeds my knowledge, but I want to at least indicate its outlines.

So, imagine you attend a performance of some Shakespeare play. This performance is an “standard” performance, no Shakespeare in modern dress, no avant-garde scenery, no fancy lighting. Just Shakespeare the “old-fashioned” way. The text, though, will be spoken with modern pronunciation, not Elizabethan, which would be something of a specialty item in any event, so special that it would likely qualify as avant-garde. Moreover, whatever edition the director chooses is likely to have bits cut here and there. Why? Because most Shakespeare plays run a bit long play and it’s standard to cut parts out. Thus whatever you see is not quite going to be what played in Shakespeare’s London. Moreover, it’s likely to have scenery, which will, in turn, require breaks to change it. The Elizabethan theater didn’t use scenery, hence no breaks for changes, and things moved along at a quicker pace.

As for that text, the one the director cut, where’d it come from? Not Shakespeare, not quite. The spelling will be both modernized and regularized, but that’s relatively minor, though not without consequence, as we will see. Of more consequence is the fact that we have no manuscripts by Shakespeare and no explicit connection between the man we know to be a glover’s son and an actor and the printers who published the plays. The only thing that connects them is the name and various circumstances; hence there is a minor industry devoted to figuring out who the real Shakespeare is. Why not the glover’s son? you ask. Well, so the story goes, whoever wrote the plays was well educated, but that glover’s son was a mere commoner. And so it goes. I have little interest in that industry and mention it only to indicate how iffy our knowledge is.

Of even more consequence is the fact that each play exists in two or three early versions. So the text that gets acted or that one reads will have been edited from those early texts. In some cases the differences between the texts are relatively minor, but that’s not the case with Hamlet, which is at the center of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. We’ve got three texts. One is roughly half the length of the other two, which differ from one another in 10% of their lines. Differences of that magnitude cannot be called minor. So the Hamlet you see acted on the stage is likely an eclectic text based on one of the two longer versions with appropriate modifications made by an editor. And, until fairly recently, the editor’s objective would have been to produce the one true text, the best version, the real Hamlet intended by Shakespeare himself.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The cost disease, e.g. education and health care cost more, but teachers, doctors, and nurses don't earn more

So, to summarize: in the past fifty years, education costs have doubled, college costs have dectupled [10 times], health insurance costs have dectupled, subway costs have at least dectupled, and housing costs have increased by about fifty percent. US health care costs about four times as much as equivalent health care in other First World countries; US subways cost about eight times as much as equivalent subways in other First World countries.

I worry that people don’t appreciate how weird this is. I didn’t appreciate it for a long time. I guess I just figured that Grandpa used to talk about how back in his day movie tickets only cost a nickel; that was just the way of the world. But all of the numbers above are inflation-adjusted. These things have dectupled in cost even after you adjust for movies costing a nickel in Grandpa’s day. They have really, genuinely dectupled in cost, no economic trickery involved.

And this is especially strange because we expect that improving technology and globalization ought to cut costs. In 1983, the first mobile phone cost $4,000 – about $10,000 in today’s dollars. It was also a gigantic piece of crap. Today you can get a much better phone for $100. This is the right and proper way of the universe. It’s why we fund scientists, and pay businesspeople the big bucks.

But things like college and health care have still had their prices dectuple. Patients can now schedule their appointments online; doctors can send prescriptions through the fax, pharmacies can keep track of medication histories on centralized computer systems that interface with the cloud, nurses get automatic reminders when they’re giving two drugs with a potential interaction, insurance companies accept payment through credit cards – and all of this costs ten times as much as it did in the days of punch cards and secretaries who did calculations by hand.
I don’t have a similar graph for subway workers, but come on. The overall pictures is that health care and education costs have managed to increase by ten times without a single cent of the gains going to teachers, doctors, or nurses. Indeed these professions seem to have lost ground salary-wise relative to others.

I also want to add some anecdote to these hard facts. My father is a doctor and my mother is a teacher, so I got to hear a lot about how these professions have changed over the past generation. It seems at least a little like the adjunct story, although without the clearly defined “professor vs. adjunct” dichotomy that makes it so easy to talk about. Doctors are really, really, really unhappy. [...] Read these articles and they all say the same thing that all the doctors I know say – medicine used to be a well-respected, enjoyable profession where you could give patients good care and feel self-actualized. Now it kind of sucks.

Meanwhile, I also see articles like this piece from NPR saying teachers are experiencing historic stress levels and up to 50% say their job “isn’t worth it”. Teacher job satisfaction is at historic lows. And the veteran teachers I know say the same thing as the veteran doctors I know – their jobs used to be enjoyable and make them feel like they were making a difference; now they feel overworked, unappreciated, and trapped in mountains of paperwork.
And we don't know why this is happening.