Category Archives: the economy

The Butcher, the Baker, and Bain?

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of

. Old adages die hard. Just consider the longevity of Adam’s Smith characterization of the self-regulating market as an invisible hand in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations. As Smith opined, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

This sentiment, a persistent trope reverberating from one generation to the next, has become a center-piece of the American ethos as well as a mainstay of the Republican party. Nowhere is this more evident than in the on-going Republican electoral campaign. Thus, it is only by invoking the mantra of the invisible hand that Romney can criticize President Obama’s economic strategy, and get away with it, without having to lay out a strategy of his own. He claims to have the magic formula! So, instead of policy ideas, we hear the old refrain, “what’s good for business is good for the country,” or as updated by Romney, “What’s good for Bain is good for the economy.”

The Tooth Fairy  (courtesy of

The Tooth Fairy (courtesy of

Call me a skeptic, but having faith in the invisible hand today seems no different to me than believing in the Tooth Fairy. After all, no one can seriously claim that bankers, investors, and equity firms, such as Bain, were not pursuing their own interests when the economy went belly up. How else to explain that big business magnates increased their wealth dramatically in the wake of the 2008 recession, while those lower on the rung experienced calamitous losses. But this begs the question: if businesses were doing what they are wont to do, why then did the market fail to regulate itself? Might this be black magic?

Perhaps is is time to forego the rhetoric of the Republican Party and take a hard look at Smith’s long-standing dictum. To date, neo-classical economists offer little hope in this regard: Try as they might, they have yet to explain how individual actions at the level of the butcher or the baker translate into macro level outcomes, whether good or bad. Fortunately, some nontraditional economists, viewing the economy from evolutionary and complexity perspectives, have provided some promising new insights.

Robert H. Frank, in his book The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, addresses the issue of the invisible hand head on. As he contends, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, especially as it relates to the role of competition, is far more accurate about the nature of economic life than Adam Smith’s account’s in The Wealth of Nations. In Frank’s words:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, as it clearly does in a host of domains, all bets regarding the efficacy of Adam Smith’s invisible hand are off. Notwithstanding the uncritically enthusiastic pronouncements of many of Smith’s modern disciples, unbridled market forces often fail to channel the behavior of self-interested individuals for the common good. On the contrary, as the pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin saw clearly, individual incentives often lead to wasteful arms races.

Combining the wisdom of evolutionary and complexity thinking, economist, Erik Beinhocker points out that the equilibrium outcomes, associated with the invisible hand, are entirely unrealistic. As he notes in his pathbreaking book, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, the economy is not a static phenomena, but rather a dynamic, complex adaptive system, which is subject to oscillations, power laws, and phase transitions. Moreover, outcomes, as traditional economists would have us believe, are not the product of predictable linear processes; instead, they emerge from the bottom up as the result of the constant interactions and adaptations that take place at all levels of the system. Hence, policy interventions–be they Republican or Democratic–may play a role in determining outcomes, but they are only one factor in a myriad of influences on the economic system.

rough_seas (courtesy of

rough_seas (courtesy of

When the economy is conceived in complex, evolutionary terms, the present economic crisis makes a certain amount of sense, unpleasant though it may be. However, what makes no sense at all, given the complexity of the economy, is to blame Obama for the present state of affairs, as Romney so flagrantly does. To the contrary, in times such as these, when the seas are rough and the future uncertain, what’s needed is not someone like Romney, who flips and flops floundering with the waves in the hope that equilibrium will naturally follow, but rather a captain, such as Obama, who will be steady at the helm and stay the course.

Cultural Contradictions

In the primary madness of the Republican Party, much is made of the cultural divide between urban supporters of Romney, and rural supporters of Santorum. Meanwhile, an equally, if not more, consequential clash is occurring, which has received far less public attention. This is the growing conflict between cultural and economic values, a tension that sociologist Daniel Bell first pointed out thirty six years ago, in his classic book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

I was first introduced to Bell’s work when working at the Office of Technology Assessment on the study Intellectual Property Rights in the Age of Electronics and Information. In fact, the ideas he discussed in “Cultural Contradictions” provided the basis for my analysis of how intellectual property rights might be affected by a changing information environment.

Daniel Bell (courtesy of

Daniel Bell (courtesy of

According to Bell, society consists of three realms–the political, economic, and cultural–each governed by differrent values and norms, or as he put it, axial principles. Looking ahead, he predicted that, as electronic technology enhanced the value of information in each of these realms, they would be brought into increasing conflict. Looking at how these conflicts might be played out in the policy arena, our OTA study concluded that:

The resolution of these issues in an information age will be more problematic. . . .Given the variety of opportunities that the new technologies afford, the increased value of information, changing relationships among the traditional participants in the intellectual property system, and rising expectations about the benefits of these technologies, the number of stake holders with disparate interests and competing claims on the system will be greater than ever before. In such a context, the granting of intellectual property rights, instead of mutually serving a variety of different stakeholders may actually pit one against another.

This theme has been developed from a variety of different angles over the last several years. For example, in his book, The Cultural Economy of Cities, Allen J. Scot, lays the groundwork for further discussion, describing how the economic and the cultural realms have converged: as he points out, today, economic products now have greatly enhanced semiotic value, whereas cultural goods are increasingly capitalized for sale. Taken together, these products comprise a rapidly growing portion of the nation’s economy, and–as Daniel Pink contends in his book Whole New Mind:Why Right Brainers Will Rule in the Future, they are the new source of America’s competitive advantage. Richard Florida would presumably agree, having argued in The Rise of the Creative Class that today’s creators now constitute a class in their own right.

Ironically, the predictions about a culture/economic clash would seem to have proven wrong. What has happened instead is the colonization of culture by the economic realm, a point that I make in my paper, Creativity: The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. Whereas I make my case based on shifts in the architecture of the creative landscapes that allow economic actors to assume a defining role in the cultural realm, Lawrence Lessig draws a similar conclusion arguing from a legal standpoint. In his book, Free Culture he points out that, given the growing economic value of creative products, the danger today is that the laws governing the economy will come to encompass norms and activities associated with culture and creativity.

The Proof of the Pudding is in the public silence. The only place where one can see contention is in the Republican primary, where Santorum carries the banner of culture, while Romney touts economic profits.

What’s Fair is Fair

What's fair is far (courtesy of Life, of course, is full of ironies, but what strikes me most recently as such is the coincidence between FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski‘s decision on August 22, 2011 to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine and the raging debate about Super Pacs brought on in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Communication Commission. This game-changing Supreme Court decision allows groups of people, including corporations, to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a candidate, so long as there is no coordination with the candidate.

Free speech, it now seems, is no longer a constitutional right; but a matter of money. Those without, are in effect silenced. Scratching my head, I have to ask myself: What’s fair about that? Thanks to Stephen Colbert, the situation was brought into stark, as well as comic, relief when he parodied the new campaign finance rules, setting up his own Super Pac, Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super Pac, and transferred it to his alter ego Jon Stewart.

Not that the Fairness Doctrine has been active over the past 20+ years. Put into place in 1949, the Doctrine was intended to assure that broadcasters not only made room for issues of public importance, but also aired contrasting perspectives. The rational behind the Government’s involvement in broadcasting–notwithstanding the Constitutional guarantee of free speech–was the industry’s use of scarce, public airwaves–a rationale that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 1969 decision Red Lion Broadcasting Co. vs FCC.

Televisions are Not Toasters (courtesy of ancient

Televisions are Not Toasters (courtesy of ancient

The subsequent expansion of media venues gradually weakened this rationale. In 1987, FCC Chairman Mark Fowler--famous for equating televisions with toasters–repealed the Fairness Doctrine, although it remained on the books until Chairman Genachowski’s recent decision to effectively eliminate it.

Paradoxically, today, while media outlets are plentiful, opportunities to raise one’s voice and be heard are becoming increasingly scarce. For, as Tim Wu has argued in The Master Switch, growth in media has led, time and time again, to vertical integration and greater industry concentration. Likewise, in his book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Michael Hindman illustrates how, as the number of outlets on the Internet grow, they become more and more concentrated in accordance with a power law. Hence, to gain a platform for expression under these circumstances requires having money, and lots of it.

To appreciate the full impact of this situation, one need only consider the frantic scrambling in the Republican Primary, not so much for votes but for dollars. As the contest shifts from backyard barbecues to the national media, and from policy pronouncements to negative advertising, the candidates chances of success are measured increasingly by the size of their Super PAC’S war chests. In fact, pointing to the $30.2 million that his Super Pac, Restore our Future, has raised, Mitt Romney has triumphantly predicted his own final victory.

Fierce competition, they say, is good for democracy, not just the market. Recent events make me question whether this is always the case. At the very least, this spending spree is wasteful: I can’t help thinking that the amount of money raised by the SuperPacs to promote–what more often than not is–false information far exceeds the meagre $23 million annual budget of the former Office of Technology Assessment, a Congressional agency tasked to seek out the truth, and one that Newt Gringrich, when Speaker of the House, helped to destroy. In his thoroughly engaging bookThe Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good, Robert H. Frank cautions against unbridled competition on more theoretical grounds. Employing Darwin as his frame of reference, he argues that such contests are likely to lead to an arms race, in which the winner may benefit in the short run, but the society will lose overall.

Sadly Frank’s scenario sounds all too familiar. With money now a proxy for speech, dialogue has become more and more vacuous, even as speech is no longer free. Could it be time for a new Fairness Doctrine?

Who Turned Out the Lights?

Who Turned Out the Lights? from Jim (jaytay)

Who Turned Out the Lights? from Jim (jaytay)

My father could not abide waste. To encourage my sisters and me to consume each and every crumb on our plates, he not only told us about “all the poor starving children”; he went much further, instituting the Clean Plate Club. Each time we finished a meal, we received a badge of honor–that is, a medal that he made by wrapping the cap of the milk bottle with tin foil. Sadly, the scales testified to the success of my father’s endeavor.

My father’s campaign to induce us to turn out the lights had far less impact, however. Exasperated by our failure to respond to his admonitions, he resorted to bribery. Leave it to a banker!

My father as a young man.

My father as a young man.

Leave it to a banker. He offered us a deal.

Here was the deal: If my two sisters and I would only turn out the lights, he would give us the difference between what the electricity bill was, and what it would have been had we simply clicked the switch. A no-brainer to be sure. My father’s efforts, however, were to no avail. Speaking for myself, it wasn’t a disregard for financial rewards, nor for that matter laziness, that fueled my resistance. No, at an age when one’s imagination runs wild, I found it reassuring to be ensconced in light.

Today, I feel the same way. Wherever I look, there are dark clouds overhead–the depressed economy, the BP oil spill, the war on terror, the rise of the Tea Party and the mid-term elections, and, oh yes, the slaughter of the bears in my beloved New Jersey. It’s time to turn on the lights!

Washington Revels (

Washington Revels (

However, having absorbed my father’s penchant for efficiency, and my husband’s concerns about the environment, I certainly don’t advocate wasting electricity. No, my recommendation is far brighter: a performance of the Washington Revels. A yearly event in Washington, the Washington Revels have used song and dance to reenact, according to one traditional narrative or another, how mankind has, over generations, endured the Winter’s darkness by celebrating one another in a spirit of good cheer and benevolence, as they await the return of the light.

So too, in our own lives today. Accompanied by a glass of good cheer, my husband Brock and I, rejoice in in the song Drive the Cold Winter Away. Verse seven is most enlightening, as well as one of my favorites. We’d be happy to have you join in.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer,
And neighbours together do meet
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet;
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay;
The old and the youth doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away.

Getting Back to Speed~~The Road to Recovery

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary 058 from Michael Dawes

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary 058 from Michael Dawes

It’s commonplace to note the ups and downs in life. As they say in Spanish: la palma sube, y el coco baja. And yet, when we find ourselves at our own nadir, or in the midst of a deep recession, we often despair. The way back up seems so steep, and the recovery so slow. Worse yet, to garner hope, and seek a way out, we need someone, or something, to blame.

As I read the news each morning, searching for the slightest positive signs, I too am discouraged, but not so much by the slow pace of economic growth, or even by the slanderous attacks made against President Obama. Far more disheartening to me are the pontificating pundits,’ who, once having heralded Obama’s ascendence, are now unrelenting in their criticisms of him for failing to get it right.

Economic indicator from jakekrohn

Economic indicator from jakekrohn

One need only consider Elenor Clift’s recent piece in Newsweek, “The Problem With the Cult of Obama: Halfhearted Soul-Searching at the White House,” in which she calls upon the President to reinvent himself in accordance with voters’ aspirations. As the Jungian analyst Lawrence Staples, author of the book, Guilt With A Twist: The Promethean Way, might point out in response, winning praise–or an election, for that matter–is not the best measure of success. After all, Prometheus outraged the Gods when he stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals, but, in so doing, he greatly enriched humankind.

In like fashion, the Democrats poor election results might not reflect Obama’s inability to track the pulse of the American people, but rather his willingness to nonetheless take a risk, and diverge from the game of politics, in order to achieve what he believes to be overriding societal goals. (See, for such an argument, Ari Emanuel, “Forget the Carter Comparison: Obama is Following in the Footsteps of Harry Truman–and That’s a Very Good Thing.)

Turning the pundits’ criticism back upon themselves, one might ask: What have you done lately to stimulate recovery? To be sure, negativism is not the answer. Think about recovery from disease. Do you blame the sick person; do you lash out against God? These are self-defeating strategies. I know from personal experience, having been caregiver to my husband, Brock Evans, as he successfully battled stage 3a multiple myeloma. Most unhelpful were the doctors who slinked along his bedside, rolling their eyes behind his back, and cautioning him that “people in his condition don’t do very well.” On the other hand, what made all the difference in the world–that is to say, in addition to his own courage and fighting spirit– were the mailbags from well wishers reaffirming their love and cheering him on. One turning point came when he received a song, written for him by Carol King, appealing to him to “Hold On, Hold On.” It went like this:

You ask yourself the question
What am I going to do
How can I go on when life has let me down
You know it won’t be easy
But time will take you through
You can find your courage in the love inside of you

Hold on, Hold on . . .

So, as in the words of Hal David, it would seem that “What The World Needs Now, is Love Sweet Love, “ or, at the very least, some very enthusiastic cheerleaders.

Standardization: Reveries and Retrospectives

October Daydream! / Rêverie d’octobre! by Denis Collette...!!!

October Daydream! / Rêverie d’octobre! by Denis Collette...!!!

If you’re like me, you often leave a discussion, or conference, getting your best ideas after the fact. Having mulled the conversation over, again and again, you wake up in the middle of the night with the most inspired thought, but instead of feeling satisfied, you berate yourself for having missed an opportunity to make a great point.

If you’re like me, you get your best ideas after the fact. 

Last night, I did just that, but instead of feeling poorly about it, I realized–perhaps for the first time–that my idea had been latent. As such, it could not have been used to provide an input into the discussion; rather it was a direct output of the discussion with my colleagues, as well as of the nocturnal dialogue that took place inside my brain.

The occasion for this insight was a conference on Standards Education, sponsored by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The aim of the conference was to encourage universities to incorporate a standards curriculum within their course offerings. The focus, for the most part, was on engineering and business schools. My panel, the last of the day, was designed to be a little provocative–that is, to think about standards education in the context of a dynamic future, in which educational institutions are themselves in flux, the boundaries of their ivory towers crumbling in the face of an increasingly complex environment. By all accounts, we were successful, thanks to the inputs of our four panelists Michael Spring, Mark McCarthy, Peter Lord, and Laura DeNardis.

The discussion with some of my colleagues continued on the drive home, but when I reached my door I was ready to put it aside, and just relax. And so I did, taking my dog for a walk; having a glass of wine and eating a pizza with my husband; and–before falling asleep–reading a chapter of an excellent biography of Schumpeter, Prophet of Innovation, by Thomas K. McCraw. However, after a few hours, I woke up with a start, as well as an idea about why engineering schools have so few courses dedicated to standard setting. It must be that when the body is in a dream-like state, the neurons in the brain are free to fire, and to roam every which-way, generating new and interesting ideas as they create new paths and explore unknown territories.

I woke up with a start, with an idea about why engineering schools have so few course dedicated to standard setting 

In retrospect, I suspect that my brain was reaching back into my memory to a book I had read and admired a long time ago, entitled Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939. Written by John M. Jordan, the book tells the story of the American engineer, and how–during the first part of the 20th century–he became a hero in American life, celebrated in movies, novels, and popular culture. This hero-worship reached its apogee with Herbert Hoover’s election to the presidency.

1959 American Standard bathroom by 50s Pam

1959 American Standard bathroom by 50s Pam

According to Jordan, what made engineers so respected, as well as unique, was their disregard or–better still–disdain for politics, a perspective increasingly shared by the American public during this period. This was the thought that struck me in the middle of the night: it is this engineering mentality, this desire to circumvent values and politics, that accounts for engineering schools’ lack of enthusiasm for incorporating standardization in their curricula. For, anyone who has studied US standards setting–as I have–will attest to the highly contentious and politicized nature of this process.

I often get ideas when I awake in the middle of the night. Some are less noteworthy than others. But this one, I believe, stands up in the light of day!

Interdisciplinarity and the Iron Cage

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

When Max Weber portrayed bureaucracies, he characterized them as iron cages (Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978: 1403). This metaphor reflected his belief that, because bureaucracies were so efficient, all organizations would have to conform to them, if they were to survive in a competitive, capitalist environment. Organizations would become isomorphic as a result. And so they did!

Thinking about this argument in today’s terms, we might view Weber as an early complexity theorist, based on his claim that changes in the socioeconomic environment, or as we might say now–(the fitness landscape)–require appropriate adaptations in organizational behavior.  On the other hand, the very notion of an iron cage, secured by rule-based self reinforcing feedback, suggests that bureaucracies are especially prone to lock in.  One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and all the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

Dealing with complexity requires continuous feedback from, and adaptation to, an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. For this reason, Beinhocker, in his book The Origin of Wealth suggests that the best way for organizations to cope with complexity is to incorporate it within. However, this is a daunting task. Bureaucracies tend to be relatively closed systems, in which behavior is reinforced through daily reenactment. For this reason, many businesses employ monitoring systems and change mechanisms, such as benchmarking, large scale interventions, and the use of outside consultants. 

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

But what about universities, a type of organization that–as one might imagine–is very close to my heart? Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail. As a result, change is incremental, at best.

Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail.

In their book, The Social Life of Information, Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown warn against assuming that resistance to organizational change is evidence of Luddite behavior. Doing so, according to the authors, will lead to unintended, and undesirable, consequences. They suggest, instead, to look at the substance of resistance for clues about how to build upon the existing organizational context to better design a plan for change.

How might this insight pertain to universities? Let’s consider disciplines. Perhaps nothing is more entrenched in the university setting than academic disciplines. Functioning much like communities of practice, academic disciplines provide a shared sociocultural environment (habitus to use Bordieu‘s terminology) that serves to govern and maintain a set of beliefs and code of behavior. Efforts to relax the boundaries separating disciplines have typically focused on fostering collaboration among them. However, in an increasingly complex environment, in which enhanced feedback is critical, perhaps collaboration around points of interdisciplinary agreement is not what is needed. Instead, we might look to academic disciplines to challenge each other’s assumptions, and thereby enhance the  overall pool of knowledge–what Beinhocker call the design space. Organizations such as the Santa Fe Institute have demonstrated the rewards of this kind of cross training. Ironically, efforts such as these have typically taken place outside of the university environment. It is time to bring complexity inside!

Making Progress By Making Do

The good china having been put away, the dirty pots and pans disposed of, my husband and I set out to salvage the remains of the turkey, and to transform it into a variety of other dishes that we might enjoy over the next few weeks. Every year I am determined to do the turkey justice, making the most of it; but all too often a post-Thanksgiving lethargy overwhelms my good intentions. Not this year! Facing the on-set of a real Depression, my husband, and I called upon all of our creative juices to devise a number of extendable dishes, including turkey soup, turkey tetrazzini, and turkey croquets. It turned out to be a lot of fun.

I learned how to do such magic tricks from my mother who–at the time of the Great Depression–was in her early twenties, and just married. It was difficult in those days to make do. My parents’ only asset was a house, left to them by my grandparents, who had died of typhoid fever, en route home from Paris. The house was their salvation. To supplement my father’s minimal salary, earned by clipping coupons at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, my mother took in borders, many of whom were also in similar financial straits.

Cooking for such a brood, my mother learned a major economic lesson, which she passed on to me: AIM BIG. Although my mother didn’t use the jargon, her advice was all about externalities and increasing returns. 

Cooking for such a brood, my mother learned a major economic lesson, which she passed on to me: AIM BIG. Although my mother didn’t use economic jargon, her advice was all about externalities and increasing returns. Take the turkey, for example: “Buy a big one,” she would say. “The cost per serving goes down the more meat there is on the turkey in relationship to the bone, especially if you combine your leftovers with other foods to add value and extend their life cycle.”

My mother, grandparents, and oldest sister Judie

My mother, grandparents, and oldest sister Judie

Then she would tell me the story of stone soup.


But my mother didn’t only use scraps of meat to pinch pennies; she would use scraps of everything imaginable–ribbons, ties, pieces of wood–to create delightful, but at the same time low cost, presents for my sisters and me. Among my favorites was a circus ensemble, which was comprised of animal figures, designed by my mother, carved by my great grandfather with his jig saw, and then hand-painted by my mother. Equally precious were the raggedy dolls, donning straw hats and calico dresses, and carrying baskets of flowers, all of which my mother stitched together, just-in-time, working late into the night on Christmas eve.

Growing up in the Fifties, my recollection of hard times began to fade. It was only some years later, when living the tenuous life of a graduate student at Columbia University, and caring for a brand new baby, that I found myself, just like my mother, having to make do. Fortunately, I could build on the never-give-up strategies she had pursued as a young adult. So, I stretched myself, expanding my horizons beyond my dream of becoming the world’s greatest political scientist. Refocusing some of my efforts, I learned how to sew my own cloths and crochet Christmas gifts, simple things at first. To supplement my income from my job as a teaching assistant, I took up babysitting, and even ironed a few shirts at 19 cents apiece. My former husband–also a student–worked part time selling boys cloths at Bergdoff Goodman. Not surprisingly, meals were simple: hash, macaroni and cheese, tuna fish casserole, hamburger borgonone, and spaghetti–often without the sauce. Entertainment, for us, was not expensive either; we engaged in pot lucks, enjoying our time with friends. Even as we skimped by, we were very rich indeed!

Even as we skimped by, we were very rich indeed! 

As I was cooking in the kitchen, savoring these experiences, I wondered whether the coping strategies that have proved so useful to me over the years might apply equally–even if on a grander scale–to the Government’s effort to deal with today’s economic demise. In this context, Jane Jacobs came to mind. As she has argued, generating economic growth cannot be given; it must be earned. For it is by pulling oneself up by the bootstraps that creativity takes place and the keys to economic success are learned. Bailouts, Jacobs might say, are a gift, and hence unlikely to make a difference over the long term. I’m quite sure my mother would agree.

How Utterly Absurd!

Trying to interpret the political and economic events of the last few weeks, I am reminded of my German classes, in which I struggled to decode German texts that were written in the style of the theatre of the absurd.

Trying to interpret the political and economic events of the last few weeks, I am reminded of my German classes, in which I struggled to decode German texts that were written in the style of the theatre of the absurd. Although many of the first playwriters to work in this genre stemmed from France, and drew upon the existentialist philosophy of Albert Camus, the full range of such authors eventually extended across Europe and the United States. They included playwriters such as Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Edward Albee, and Frederic Durrenmatt, among others.

Waiting for Godot (courtesy of Roger Cummiskey's photostream)

Waiting for Godot (courtesy of Roger Cummiskey

What constituted them as a group was their shared belief that the world–as it appeared in the wake of the Second World War–was meaningless. Mirroring this perspective, they used the tools of irony and absurdity to make their case theatrically.

While studying German, the absurdist play that impressed me most–and the one that readily comes to mind today–was Romulus the Great, written by the Swiss playwright Frederick Durrenmatt. Described as a non-historic, historical comedy, Romulus der Grosse takes place in the last year of the Roman Empire, when Rome was being overrun by the Ostrogoths–germanic barbarians from the north (476 A.D.). The chief protagonist, the Emperor Romulus, is portrayed as being disinterested and passive in the face of on-coming disaster, preferring to cater to the needs of his chickens rather than the needs of his citizens. Thus, when the leader of the invading troops offered to spare Rome in exchange for the hand of Romulus’ daughter, the Emperor turned down the proposal with alacrity. As his family and colleagues call upon Romulus to take action against the barbarians, he refuses, instead staving the Ostrogoths off with plucked gold leaves from his crown. His wife, daughter, and key members of his entourage flee on a ship, only to die at sea in a raging storm. Romulus, the only survivor, remains in Rome, steadfast in his passivity. How absurd!

Romulus Der Grosse (courtesy of Toni Birrer)

Romulus Der Grosse (courtesy of Toni Birrer)

Reading this play, I was grateful when my German Professor–whose name, unfortunately, I cannot recall–provided some meaning to this meaninglessness. As he pointed out, all of Durrenmatt’s plays and short stories are based on an anti-hero–that is a person who, while appearing to be a cad, or mad, has some redeeming graces. As interpreted by Durrenmatt, Romulus is just such a person; presenting himself as unpatriotic, unsympathetic, diffident and disinterested throughout most of the play, Romulus is no fool. Believing the Roman Empire to be decadent, corrupt, and out of touch with its changing environment, he looks to his invading neighbors (who wear pants as opposed to robes) to bring modernity to Rome.

Reckoning with recent current events, which are so out of the ordinary, I wonder: Could President Bush be an anti-hero, much like Romulus? If so, what might be his redeeming graces?

Could President Bush be an anit-hero, much like Romulus? If so, what might be his redeeming graces? 

I can assure you, I am no fan of President Bush, often questioning throughout his administration whether he really had his wits about him. But, then again, I do not think he is mentally deficient. What might make him an anti-hero? Well, as the Washington Post reports in its story Bush’s Shifting Ideology: 2nd Term Markedly Different From 1st. (Saturday, September 20, 2008, p. A 1), President Bush–much like Durrenmatt’s Romulus–appears to have recognized the need for change when faced with disastrous and radically different circumstances. Accordingly–absurd as it might seem–contrary to everything that Conservative Republicans hold dear, Bush has proposed an economic rescue plan that entails the government takeover of some of the Nation’s largest and most influential financial firms, at a cost that surpasses the budget of the Pentagon. Moreover, just as Romulus’ cohorts were befuddled by his behavior, and urged him to take a stand on behalf of the empire, many Republicans today are perplexed by the lame duck president’s suddenly taking a stance so at odds with their entrenched ideology. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga) characterized the situation:

We have now launched big-government Republicanism. If we saw France do this, Italy do this, we would have thought it was crazy. We would have had pious speaches about the folly of bureaucrats running businesses. (Washington Post, September 20, 2008, p. A10)

Of course, the case of Romulus and Bush are by no means parallel in every detail. Romulus strives to bring about change by destroying the empire; whereas Bush is trying to save the country by challenging the Republican ideology. For me, what makes Bush a potential anti-hero is that, much as in ancient Rome, despite all the incentives to fall back on simplifying ideological cliches, which appeal to the voting public, President Bush–of all people–has finally acknowledged that the world is just not that simple.

Students often ask me how the literature that we read in class relates to the real world that they inhabit. Sometimes it is difficult to explain–so I say, just wait and you will see. For it is only now, some forty years later, that I can appreciate how much my German Professor, and his interpretation of Durrenmatt, has meant to me.