When economists talk of small business, they usually mean those with fifty to five hundred employees, which means something from an auto dealership to a machine shop to an independent department store. So when economic pundits tell small business people to be creative in handling their payrolls, they mean that cash flow can be difficult in a small business but payrolls still have to be met and so owners should go back to their financial backers, which can mean family members or local banks, to help them deal with a crisis. Even a smaller business, such as a three store supermarket chain, may have to make use of this expedient. But truly small businesses, which are ones with less than ten employees, and sometimes just a delivery boy and a stockman, are in a more serious permanent crisis. They don’t have much of a payroll to meet; what they have to do is pay the rent and the bills to their suppliers just to stay open at all. These businesses are, generically speaking, mom and pop outfits, and take up storefronts all up and down a business thoroughfare. They include minimarts, bodegas, 99 cent stores, nail spas, independent pharmacies, and other places where success means that enough people have stepped over the threshold to make the small purchases that will add up to meet the bills and leave something over for the store owner who is also the store operator. A way to understand such places is to put the economics of these businesses into the context of the social structure of the lives of their owners rather than look at them only as organizations which are more or less efficient ways to convey merchandise to the public than are big box stores or franchises or e-commerce.Read More
Here is an exercise in literary theory.
Here is a straightforward question whose answer remains unsatisfactory even after millenia of consideration: what is a story? Clearly, a story is a less general form of communication than a narrative, which is a set of sentences which are related to one another in a time sequence. The art of narrative requires making some connection between the sentences so that they make some sort of sense in relation to one another, whether that consists of a list, such as the residents of a neighborhood, or a logical inference of effect from cause. Story requires something more than a sense of connectedness. It requires, to use Aristotle’s terms, a beginning a middle and an end or, to put it another way, a sense of exposition, climax and completion. A story therefore always involves suspense and the release of suspense, and not having these leaves disappointed the person hearing or reading the story. Supposedly, a great actor could read the telephone book and keep an audience enrapt but that is only because the actor would be able to bring suspense and release to the nuanced reading of any name. Sometimes the actor might pause over syllables, sometimes he or she might find a metre in a name, sometimes the actor could vary pitch or emotion. But mostly a telephone book is only a list and not even a narrative because the listing is alphabetical, which is a way of being arbitrary rather than a way of constructing a narrative whose sequential unfolding is meaningful, as when the list of begats in Genesis or elsewhere result in David or some other prominent figure.Read More
An institution of social control is a set of organizations that have the specific societal purpose of ensuring that people obey the rules and regulations and customs of a society or some institution within it. The umpires are the social control agency in a baseball game though baseball itself is a leisure activity, with all that entails in the way of allowing people of different social classes to share the same experience, even if, metaphorically, we can say that baseball contributes to the social order of society because it gives people an escape valve so that they can root for the underdog without that sentiment having any consequences. Institutions of social control exist as part of most modern, complex bureaucracies, and go under a variety of names: Internal Affairs, Human Resources, Inspector General. These adjuncts make it possible for the larger organization to go about pursuing their main purposes. In this light, it is only by way of metaphor that we can treat the IRS as an institution of social control, even if it does supervise economic activity, because its main goal is to collect revenue. Similarly, the main goal of education as an institution is to help children fit into adult roles by improving their ability to make use of whatever cognitive capacities they may have, not to serve as a boot camp for adult servility.Read More
Well, something really did happen on the way to the Mueller Report. Congress struck a budget deal that is a mini-version of the grand bargain Democrats are always all too willing to cut with Republicans, but this time it worked and is likely to have positive consequences and set the scene for other constructive legislative initiatives, though not at least until the congressional elections this November. The budget deal has been much criticized. People on the Right say that it does away with any shambles of the idea that Conservatives are interested in fiscal austerity, and people on the left suggest that the deal just shows what hypocrites are the deficit hawks, who now show themselves willing to bust the budget just so long as they have very recently taken care of the need to give tax cuts to their financial backers. Consider, instead, what the budget deal does accomplish in the way of re-introducing some rationality into the budget process.Read More
By the standards of Genesis, the story of Jacob and his two marriages, first to Leah, and then to Rachel, with Leah remaining as his wife, is told at a leisurely pace. It covers Genesis 29-Genesis 31 and is detailed in its incidents, borrowing for a narrative the practice of the chronicle sections of Genesis and so recounts the names of his children by both of his wives and those of his children borne by the handmaidens of his wives. That is much longer than the story of Abraham, who also has to deal with both a wife and a handmaiden and the children born to them, which is dealt with in a much briefer narrative, Genesis 21, even though the span of time is the same in each story: about a generation. The reason for the slower and more stately telling of Jacob’s family story is, I think, because the author is trying to convey a sense of how it takes time for familial relationships to change, and there is much merit in the wisdom being offered, even if we must apply it today to a world without polygamy and where people by and large don’t marry their first cousins. It also may be that the story of Jacob and his marriages is a reworking of a story that appears just a short time earlier in Genesis 24. That is the story of how Isaac met his wife. It has some of the same plot motifs, such as meeting at a well. But the earlier story has been simplified in that the servant delivering the offer has been dropped even though that adds a nice “Beowulf”-like set of repetitions. The loss of the literary mannerisms suggests that the author or editor of the later story was striving for a simplicity of storytelling that would allow the poignancy of the story to come through.Read More
The field commanders of armies are notoriously unreliable. In fact, the Romans forbade them from sending their armies across the Rubicon lest they try to overthrow the government. Troops were, until recently, more loyal to their commanders than they were to their polity, perhaps because it was the military units that enforced military discipline. You could be killed for insubordination. That was the power over you, not the politicians in Rome. What is remarkable and surprising, however, is that the autonomy of field commanders to do what they wanted with their troops lasted until recent times-- the First World War, I would say. This is partly because armies in the past relied on their own supplies and the funds provided to them to keep them in the field. But twentieth century armies had come to rely on supplies of oil and munitions and tanks supplied for them by their various defense ministries and so were no longer autonomous. How this balance of field command and high command alters over the past two hundred years explains a lot about the wars fought during that time period.Read More
There are fewer beggars on the streets of New York than there used to be but you run into them everyday on the subway and sitting on cardboard in the streets with signs announcing what led them to beg: illness, PTSS, a dog that needed to be fed. People are likely to identify some beggars as more deserving of charity than others, and so the moral question of whether to give becomes complicated. If we are more likely to give our handouts to those beggars who look most nearly like ordinary people, and so evoke sym[athy, then charity is given for our own well being because it has become possible to identify with one of God’s less fortunate creatures by having overcome only a minimum of disgust or disquiet because this person seems capable of becoming even more like us. On the other hand, if handouts are more likely to be given to those who look most needy, then the giver is perversely catering to his sense of disgust because he rewards those who are most grotesque and so gives tacit approval to those people who maim themselves or appear maimed or drag along children to increase their take.Read More
Recent books have suggested that Liberalism is on the wane or is confused in its beliefs or was a movement of the moment that lasted from 1932 through 1968. I want to suggest, to the contrary, that Liberalism is one of the political philosophies that emerged in Early Modern Europe as a way to find a basis for authority and the way to organize the self that is different from the one that is provided by the Christian Church, which offers as its answers to these questions God-inspired monarchical leadership and a sense of people as being flawed by original sin but saved through the intervention of Christ. The alternative to Liberalism is a philosophy that emerged at the same time: Conservatism. These two philosophies continue to stand as the two alternatives, whatever are the short term successes and setbacks for each of them, and it does not seem to me that either of them will be soon supplanted by a very different understanding of what people really are.Read More
Well, I thought that something important might have really happened on our way to the Mueller Report: the shutdown of the federal government because the Congress and the President couldn’t agree on a bill to fund the government. But Chuck Schumer decided he would prefer a shaky promise from Mitch McConnell to anything Trump might say, and so backed down. And it is not surprising that Schumer offered to build Trump’s wall in exchange for a deal on the Dreamers. Democrats are prone to think they can arrive at some grand bargain with Republicans if they put something they care about on the table. Remember that Obama wanted to create a grand bargain with Boehner which would have included entitlement reforms. Democrats are willing to sacrifice their interests to get the government functioning again, but Republicans are not, and the Republican wisdom, as that is verified by election results, is that the American people don’t care if the government functions (so long as nothing changes in their own lives). So a shutdown seemed like a dynamite blast to shake the government loose, and so people like me, who opposed the last government shutdown, were in favor of it. Do something.Read More
Jacob van Ruisdael was a master of both landscapes and what we would now consider townscapes because they were paintings of what were then the urban vistas. Looking at his paintings allows seeing how he did these two kinds of paintings differently. That can supply the basis for generalizations about the nature of landscapes and cityscapes and, even beyond that, the nature of the human experiences that underlie aesthetic experience.
“View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds” is characteristic of van Ruisdael’s depiction of a town, which appears as a sliver in the middle of the painting, most of which is taken up by the grayish sky above or, beneath the sliver, a suburban part of town that contains a bleaching ground, where long strips of cloth are laid out to dry. The town itself is notable for a few church spires, one overlarge building, some windmills, and its rust color, while the bleaching ground is set amidst some trees and a few buildings, and its linearity can be taken to be an horizontal echo of the vertical linearity of the town. People, as everyone knows, make their marks on places by constructing with the use of straight lines. The other point to be made is that the downtown of Haarlem goes on for a while, stretching from the left to the right of the canvas, and gives a suggestion that it also bulges out, so that a bird’s eye view (there are birds in the picture) would see a great circle filled with houses, both residences and public buildings. The only people to be seen are, ironically enough, not in the town, but working the bleaching ground, and they are fairly small because the point of view van Ruisdael takes is remote from the scene, more concerned with the overall geography of the place than the life within it, many buildings to be found widely spaced from one another, in the plain between the bleaching ground and the town proper.
“Panoramic View of the Amstel Looking towards Amsterdam” is a townscape which is less parsimonious in that it gets close enough to its subject so as to portray much more of the way the city works. There is the Amstel River, filled with white sailed boats, broad in the south east corner of the picture, and then narrowing towards the bridge at the center of the picture, its horizontal line serving as the center point of the picture, the buildings of the city behind it, the far shore filled with buildings of various sizes, while the near shore has windmills, houses, and a promenade where the people who saunter up and down provide a sense of scale. The town is bustling with activity: men oaring a raft, fields with mounds of hay, and the activities that might be suggested to go on in windmills, residences and public buildings, though without the benefit of any particular story being unravelled, as was the case with the human interest sidebar provided in the portrait of Haarlem by the presence of the bleaching field, something remarkably noticeable then as it would be if one showed up today. A townscape is therefore a single place where people go about their business in close proximity to one another but where their stories do not intertwine. That remains the collective story of towns and cities.
Now consider how different is a landscape. In “Dunes”, perhaps his most famous painting, Ruisdael introduces an individual story into his portrait of a landscape. A man and his dog are trudging up a rutted path, one which can be traced back to where it disappears behind a hill. On either side of the path, interesting enough in itself because of its rise and falls, so that one would have a different perspective every few steps when wandering along it, are the brush that can be found on dunes, as well as some short trees. The plants go off in any number of directions, sometimes constituting a rough underbrush, sometimes a tiny copse of trees, sometimes the grass clinging to the tops of dunes, sometimes covering what is just a sandy stretch next to the road. There is no pattern in the flora to guide the eye, though an expert might know where and when different kinds of flora will grow on this kind of site. For the viewer to take hold of the scene, however, the man and his dog are very useful. The same is true of “Stag Hunt in a Wood with a Marsh”. The main pattern of the painting are the virticals of the trees, all of them leaning to the left, as if that is the way the wind blew them as they grew. They are planted both in the earth and in the marsh that takes up the center of the foreground of the picture. And yet Ruisdael relieves this landscape by putting huntsman into it as well as a stage being pursued by dogs who are catching up with it while it is in the marsh. Why this need to have a story going on rather than the landscape presented for itself alone. There needs to be a reason for the convention.
Not that all of Ruisdael’s landscapes have humans in the picture. Sometimes it is a waterfall that serves as a focal point, or an old ruined castle (the fact of which is proof of human engagement in the locale of the landscape). In “Waterfall in a Hilly Wooded Landscape”, the story line seems to be to be what I see as tree roots left over after, I presume, humans have harvested the lumber, though here again one would think that Ruisdael could have done without in that the broken tree in the foreground creates interest enough while the trees in the back stand tall and green.
Other Seventeenth Century painters follow the same convention of placing people in the landscapes, while not putting them in cityscapes. Meindert Hobbema, another Dutchman, includes people in his landscapes, “A Stream by a Wood” and in “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. The great Nicolas Poussin, a Frenchman painting in Italy at about the same time, has Orion, in “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun”, stumble down a path very similar to the one found in “Dunes”, though this time people moving up the path have to scurry out of the way of the blind giant. This scene takes place in the midst of very lush scenery, the greenery of trees, leaves, bushes, grasses, painted with great care. That is very different from what Poussin does in the urban scene depicted in “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. Yes, it does contain people, but is an urban scene in that there are multiple individual stories going on in the midst of the chaos of the Roman men selecting and dragging off the Sabine women, the whole scene observed from afar by people on their balconies. City life may seem chaotic, but it is organized. The exception to the rule that contrasts townscapes and landscapes is Bruegel, another contemporary, who presents the boisterous and communal lives of villagers, each going about their own business and yet also involved in one another’s festivities, like a wedding. That liveliness of a village scene earns Brueghel the commendation that would be awarded by William Hazlitt, to William Hogarth a century and a half later: that he was one of the great comic writers.
Here is a suggestion as to why this convention makes sense. The portrayal of nature is always confusing because there is too little to focus the mind. Rather, a viewer of a landscape or someone out in actual nature is over stimulated by the ever new vistas of conflicting colors, different kinds of growth, none of which give off straight lines. There is nothing to steady the mind except, perhaps, a fallen tree or a rock filled brook that constitutes a mini-waterfall. There are too many objects-- trees, blades of grass, fallen brush-- to make it easy to concentrate the mind or to organize the picture. Cities, on the other hand, are dominated by their formal activities of milling, boating, manufacturing, it easy enough to identify a structure with a function, and so, indirectly, of human activity. For that matter, we consider landscapes to be domesticated when they show the signs of human organization, as in the hedgerows of Normandy, or Robert Frost’s New Hampshire stone walls, or even the stately planned trees of Hobbema’s “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. So painters know how the human mind organizes its perceptions, how it gives them order, so as not to make people overcome with the information they need to process, as would be the case if one were left alone, standing in a forest or looking at a landscape, not knowing where the eye is to settle, or where are the borders of the image, or how one green becomes a darker and then a lighter shade of itself, all of these shades following no particular order other than the rules of shading that apply when a place is sheltered from the sunlight. Nature is, in itself, overwhelming and so the portrayal of nature requires toning that down by the introduction of people or some clear dramatic interest, because people understand motives, which are either invisible or only indicated, far more easily than they understand nature all and to itself.Read More
Not too long ago, commentators were saying that some people voted for Trump because they were economically pressed in that wages were stagnating, this assessment based on national wage figures. That is an economic change of which people may not be aware, but which will somehow go into their calculations of how well off they are. Somehow, voters have a sense of how only statistically significant increases or decreases in wages impinged on their own lives and respond accordingly. That is not very plausible and it is a factor in life that, one would presume, would be easily enough washed out by cultural issues like abortion or thinking that coastal people are condescending towards middle Americans. At this moment, however, a very different economic logic is being pursued by commentators trying to forecast the impact of the Trump tax bill. It may not do much good for the country, this giving away of a trillion dollars to rich people without any requirement that they invest it in productive ways, but it will put a thousand dollars or so in the pockets of many of the middle class and that is something concrete, a real if small gain, and so may lead them to stick with Trump. Note the difference between the two argument: in the first case, there is an incremental change in people’s disposable income as a result of a lack of increase in paychecks, a change of which people may not be aware, but which will somehow go into their calculations of how well off they are, and in the second case, there is an increase in take home pay because of a decrease in payroll deductions and people will be aware of this change even though it is not very sizable. I want to apply this second kind of logic, of what people know as a change in their own lives, to addressing the first question, which is why people feel squeezed, and so dispense with any need for economic metaphysics.Read More
George Orwell got it all wrong in his famous essay “Shooting An Elephant” when he says that people wanted him to exercise his authority as a policeman in India and shoot an elephant. Orwell says the locals did so because they identified authority with the English. Rather, I would say, they wanted him to assume authority so that the elephant would get shot. He would make the decision, take the risk, get the job done, and take the blame should he mess up. Otherwise, there would have been no end of haggling about who should be appointed to do the job or whether it should be done by a committee. His title was an excuse to do what had to be done, and he had considerable discretion, as all bosses do, about what that title required him to do. Any boss can follow his personality and be more or less aggressive in the policies he asks his subordinates to administer or in how he responds to the demands of clientele. Orwell could have pooh-poohed the request or referred it to local game officials.Read More
All organizations, and not just governments, are either standby or operating institutions, or some combination of the two, and an important basis for the division between conservatives and liberals, a distinction that goes back to the French Revolution or before, and is part of the fabric of the modern world, rests on whether government should be primarily one or the other. This is just one of the underlying and overlapping emotions and ideas that give rise to the chasm between conservatives and liberals. Another, well elaborated by Karl Mannheim about one hundred years ago, is the distinction between those who look backwards to a golden age and those who look forward to a utopia as the focus of their political imaginations. Both ideas are creatures of the imagination but both also have very different consequences. A traditionalist mind finds conventional morality and politics preferable to what seem to be the hopeless dreams of the Utopian, even though what a utopian predicts will often come true, as happened in the United States, for example, when African Americans went from being a caste to an ethnic group in two generations, from the time miscegenation was made legal to the time a mixed race person was elected President.Read More
Since I assume, with everyone else, and as data indicates, that women are on average smarter than men (they, for example, do better at school) and more interested in explicating personal relationships than are men, it is amazing that during the current frenzy over sexual harassment, the distinction between that and gender prejudice is obscured or neglected, which is evidence, I take it, that we are indeed in the midst of a frenzy, when an entire gender has lost its mind, something that they will recover, hopefully, before too much time has passed--say, by the end of the decade or a few years after that. So in the hope of getting things right, I will reiterate the distinction and apply it to present circumstances. But my hopes of alleviating the frenzy are dim because the basis of the frenzy is so emotionally deeply seated in the psyches of the two sexes.Read More
Sigmund Freud was a major intellectual force from the Thirties through the Seventies, so much so that humanistic intellectuals during the time when I became exposed to cultural developments, the Fifties and Sixties, were deeply into the question of how to reconcile Freud and Marx, those two great explorers into the science of society, those humanistic intellectuals blissfully unaware that there were other savants, like Weber and Parsons, who also had to be reckoned with. Freud went into decline after it became clear that his method of cure, talking to people at great length, was not reliable and also very expensive, and that, as Grunwald showed, rigorous scientific experimentation did not justify Freud’s theories. Moreover, cheaper and more effective cures and mitigations of mental troubles could be accomplished through drugs. Better living through chemistry. Nowadays, Freud seems additionally discredited by the claims of people like Frederick Crews that his case studies were fraudulent reports and that Freud was himself not a very nice man, the latter charge obvious to anyone who defended the great man’s theories, whatever his shortcomings as a person, given that he two timed his wife, dismissed as worthless most of those who broke with him (though not Jung, whom he thought went on to do good work) or how cruel he was to his daughter, subjecting her to psychoanalysis with her own father. But put that all aside. There is still something to be said for his insights, which do capture the feel of the underground life we all lead with regard to our sexuality and these insights even illuminate the present public controversy concerning sexual harassment.Read More
Now is the time when I am supposed to admit that I was wrong in the prediction I made this past spring that nothing much would happen in Washington until Mueller made his report. Well, there have been preliminary indictments, but no final report, the expected end of the investigation ever more remote, and the networks and cable channels all now saying, contrary to what they said two weeks ago, which was before the passage of the new tax law, that Trump’s first year has, in fact, been one of accomplishment rather than inaction in that he got through a tax bill which also cut back on the mandate that people pay a penalty if they do not buy health insurance, and that he has made numerous judicial appointments, including one to the Supreme Court, and that he has gotten his way with the agencies and is getting drilling for oil started in parts of Alaska where it had been barred. That is quite an achievement-- except that it is not so, especially in view of the fact that this President is such a nihilistic character that he wanted to bring down government in general, and in that light, or in even a more moderate light, he hasn’t accomplished all that much at all.Read More
The Star Wars saga is remarkable for being overwhelmingly self-referential, and that may account for the duration of the franchise, the first Star Wars movie having appeared in 1978. Most science fiction movies are hardly about the future; they are recycling of ancient and contemporary allusions. The frame for “Blade Runner” was cinema noire and references to race relations in the United States, the artificial life creatures taking the place of American Blacks as those who are hounded down and killed for going off the plantation. The frame for the Terminator movies, for their part, was the Jesus and Mary story, a person from the future fathering a child whose mother protects him so that he can be the salvation of the world even though people think she is crazy for believing this story. H. G. Wells had the prospect of World War II in mind when he created “Preview of Things to Come”, fleets of aircraft destroying cities and civilization, when the war that came proved surprising in that cities such as Berlin remained as organized communities even as their buildings were overwhelmingly destroyed. “The Last Jedi”, the latest story in the Star Wars saga is noteworthy for how true it remains to the basic storyline, it’s imagery, and its own mythology and has few contemporary concerns. This self-referentiality constitutes a kind of originality, however much the Star Wars saga still remains something considerably short of art.Read More
The idea of sovereignty has been the prevailing theory of the state for at least a thousand years. It is the idea that the power of government was entrusted by God to kings and then, in the view of seventeenth century political theorists, the locus of power was shifted to officeholders responsible, in some sense, to the will of the people. In all of these cases, government was what the early twentieth century sociologist Max Weber defined it to be: a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence that could be exercised on any matters that came to concern the imagination of the government. First, there was the control of warfare, in that everything else was ruled by custom; then, ever more intrusion into the economy, violence used to enforce economic reforms such as collectivization or the regulation of the sale of bread; then, into ever more intrusion into social structure, so that violence or the threat of violence influences changes in the class structure and even the caste structure of the Jim Crow American South; and then into culture, strictly speaking, as journalists are swept off to gulags or killed. As Hugo Grotius, another seventeenth century savant, elaborated, the relation of nations to one another was one of perpetual war or potential war. Order existed only within the individual nation state. This is a long way from Kant’s Enlightenment vision of a state of perpetual peace ushered in by the gradual consolidation of nations into a giant single state.Read More
A number of people, including myself, found the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, which took place a few years ago while Obama still held the con, discouraging as well as a cause for celebration. It is worth trying to recapture that moment for why it was the anniversary of only a partial victory, just as gun control legislation, even if it came about, would be only a very partial victory against the cultural preoccupation of Americans with guns and gun culture, something that has little place in the modern urban world but only in the minds of those who idealize a Wild West which, contrary to fact, does not have gun totters deposit their weapons at the saloon door or at the Sheriff’s office.Read More
As I say, nothing much will happen in Washington until Mueller winds up his investigation, probably with a report to Congress saying that Trump is beholden to the Russians because of all the money he owes to them or has laundered for them, but until then the cable networks and other news outlets are in a frenzy about sexual harassment, the most significant victim of that frenzy so far being Al Franken, who was forced to resign from the Senate, which did not grant him the expedited ethics hearing that I presume he wanted, but came to judgment on the basis of accusations by six women, at least three of whom remain anonymous. Put aside the hypocrisy of the women Senators who said they were shocked to find themselves forced to insist on his resignation in spite of the fact that he was a friend of theirs. That is not the way a friend behaves, sticking in the knife along with everyone else, rather than trying to find a plausible explanation for bad behavior. They were never his friends, just political colleagues never overmuch concerned with personal loyalty. Let us turn instead to the nature of this frenzy, which is a form of McCarthyism, this time from the left rather than from the right.Read More