What numbers actually mean

If you are trying to follow what is going on with the economy, probably the least helpful thing is a number you don’t understand. For example, on Friday it was announced that GDP for the fourth quarter of 2008 had fallen by 3.8%—bad, but not nearly as bad as the 5% that had been expected.

Now, I’ve followed that particular number long enough to know that it isn’t very solid. For one thing, the ‘expected’ number is the average of numbers obtained from surveying a collection of economists, whose guesses this time around ranged between 3% and 6%. And the 3.8% is only a provisional number; if you look back (which people usually don’t do), you’ll see that most of the announced GDP numbers have been adjusted downward after about three months. (Because the data gets better over time, somehow? I don’t know.)

But here’s what I didn’t know about Friday’s GDP number, as explained by The Economist magazine:

IT IS a measure of the prevailing gloom that the worst economic performance in 26 years could still be described as better than expected. Real gross domestic product fell at an annual rate of 3.8% in the fourth quarter, below the decline of 5% or more that many economists had anticipated.

However, there is precious little reason for optimism. Almost all the unexpected growth came from a small rise in business inventories. This is almost certainly because firms did not reduce production quickly enough to keep pace with slumping orders. To get inventories back in line, more production cuts in the current quarter are likely. Morgan Stanley had expected GDP to fall by 4.5% in the current quarter, but now thinks it will fall by 5.5%. [Emphasis added]

So, it turns out that what seemed to mean “not as bad as expected” ends up meaning “worse than expected.”

I don’t bring this up to increase the doom and gloom, but just to remind myself that it is pointless to beat folks over the head with numbers I don’t understand. It could have just as easily gone the other way, a “worse than expected” number that actually meant that things are getting better.

Dealing with modern complexity

Byron King of The Daily Reckoning recently came face to face with how complex modern society has become. By chance he ran into a friend in New York who was part of the team investigating the “splashdown” of the US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, who then invited him to come watch the plane being retrieved from the river. After marveling at how much expertise had been gathered in one place at one time to deal with just one crash, he says this:

My take-away thought about this was how complex our society has become. There are layers upon layers of complexity and astonishing levels of technical expertise. There are so many different organizations, agencies, groupings of people and assemblages of equipment. It all costs a lot of money and consumes a lot of energy. When something dramatic happens, like an airplane crash, it all mobilizes and comes on-site. That’s OK when major disasters are one-off incidents. But what if several incidents occur in short order or close proximity? What happens when money, if not energy, gets scarce? The whole process could get overwhelmed.

Of course, New York knows something about dealing with disasters. After all, we were about three blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. Still, it takes years to hire and train all of these experts. And more years to acquire all this sophisticated gear. It’s a very laborious and expensive process. Just keeping this level of capability on a standby basis requires a massive commitment of resources. When you need it, you need it now. If you don’t have it, you can’t build it up quickly. And when you have it (like New York has some of everything), you don’t want to get rid of it in some frenzy of so-called cost cutting. But still, it makes me wonder.

Societies develop layers of complexity to solve problems. The thing to keep in mind, however, is the historical fact that every complex civilization that has ever lived on this world has collapsed. Bar none. All societies have come to an end. Cultural anthropologist Joseph Tainter documented this in 1988 in his astonishing book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

That is, as societies become more complex, the costs of meeting new challenges increase. Eventually, every society arrives at a point at which devoting extra resources to meeting new challenges produces diminishing returns. Then negative returns. Along comes a systemic shock. The shock might be internal (resource exhaustion, for example) or external (foreign war, for another example). And the shock triggers collapse. When collapse occurs, it almost always occurs rapidly. Things fall apart and quickly decay to a much lower state of complexity. Societies become less complex by collapsing into smaller, much less complex subgroups.

But things are different now, of course, and such could never happen to us.

All God’s Children, Chapters 5 and 6

As I continue to re-read All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes I’m repeatedly reminded that it is an unusually good survey of the many matters that have to be considered when thinking about popular culture and our relationship with it. Myers has done a good job of assembling and organizing the material, and if I’m occasionally disappointed that a particular important matter is mentioned only in passing, well, I’m grateful that he at least brought it up so I can pursue it on my own.

Related to that, I’ve decided that I must have first read this book much longer than seven years ago, because I keep running across references to other good books that I also read longer ago, books that I don’t recall seeing mentioned anywhere else. Two in particular I highly recommend: Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air, a collection of lengthy essays about the experience of modernity; and Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, a history of images that focuses on the social changes that came about as a result of the easy availability of mass-produced images. Both are on my short list of books that had me excited as I read them because I was encountering ideas I had never even considered before.

Although I have no quibble with the content of Myers’s presentation so far, I am finding myself increasingly disturbed by one of his assumptions, namely that it is possible and maybe even advisable for Christians to partake of popular culture, as long as they do so intelligently and sparingly and with full awareness of the dangers it poses. Put another way, popular culture is problematic only because it is inferior to high or folk culture, having the potential to distract us from those better things, dangerous only in its tendency to crowd out more edifying things.

But is this true? I think that Myers isn’t sufficiently cynical about the origin and purpose of popular culture. Popular culture is not something that has always existed alongside high and folk culture, and its origins are not mysterious. In fact, it is a perversion of high and folk culture, one that was invented specifically to separate people from their money. As with industrial food, I think we should worry less about its particular effects on us and more about the near impossibility of living a modern life that is untouched by it. Bad food and bad culture are problematic in themselves, but it is much more problematic that modern society is critically dependent on their existence, i.e. if we all chose lives in which we fed and entertained ourselves—or, more generally, we all chose lives in which we consumed more or less what we ourselves produced.

It may be that there is a level at which it is possible to partake of popular culture without risking damage to our souls. But I don’t think that it’s possible to draw the line intelligently while at the same time living a life which is suffused with popular culture. Many powerful forces have a vested financial interest in having us draw that line wrongly; many institutions benefit from us fooling ourselves into thinking that we can guard ourselves from the dangers it poses.

The death of media

I’ve written before about how intrigued I am by the Bloggingheads format, which records an actual conversation between two internet presences of some flavor. As much as I like the conversations I’ve watched, though, I have to admit that I indulge in them infrequently. Mostly I don’t have the uninterrupted hour or so it takes to do them justice. And I’m out of the habit of watching video programming, so I tend to get restless as I watch.

But every few weeks I will stay up late and watch one, especially if one of the conversationalists is Robert Wright, founder of Bloggingheads, funny and perceptive. Last night I watched his latest session, this one with BusinessWeek writer Jon Fine, in which they discussed the sudden and rapid crumbling of traditional media (books, radio, magazines, newspapers, television, records) in the face of digital alternatives. Provided that (a) you have the high-speed connection needed to watch the video, (b) you have an hour, (c) you have the patience, and especially (d) you have an interest in the business realities that once made traditional media possible but are now engineering its destruction, then I recommend it. This is clear-eyed thinking about the future of paid writing by two men who have counted on paid writing for their livings.

The conversation was most helpful in understanding the role that advertising plays in the death of media. Except for books and records, media has operated with a business model that Neil Postman once explained this way: advertisers are the customers, media companies are the merchants, and you are the product. Readers and viewers did not directly pay for the efforts of writers, even in newspaper and magazine prices. It was advertising revenue that paid the bills, and media merchants found that various sorts of writing were effective in gathering together eyeballs to read or watch the ads.

Given the physical limitations of media, advertisers were forced to address a wide audience in order to reach the smaller group that might actually be interested in their ads, an expensive but presumably worthwhile expense. But with the advent of the internet (and especially with Google-based advertising) it is now possible to reach more or less exactly those people who are potential customers, and at much less expense. The result is that the total advertising dollars being spent will soon be drastically lower (maybe one-fifth of what was previously spent), and those few dollars that remain will not be spent on general interest material such as national news, investigative reporting, think pieces, and such.

It’s hard for folks who have a vested interest in being paid for their to achieve a historical perspective (though Wright and Fine do a very good job), but it’s true that the idea of earning a living from one’s writing is relatively new. I’ve read that Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was the first to do so, and until the middle of the 20th century words were a tenuous sort of property, reserved to the copyright holder for a short while before being released freely into the public domain. Only recently has legal sentiment swung sharply in the other direction, with writers and other creative sorts asserting close to total control over their creations.

And it’s ironic that at just the time this shift occurred, technology also shifted in such a way to make it nearly impossible to enforce such control. While making a larger point, paid content creator Bob Wright freely admits that his wife became a fan of paid content creator Regina Spektor while listening to mp3 recordings she hadn’t paid for. One of our favorite musicians, Tim O’Brien, has an almost unrestricted policy for taping his live shows; when asked about it, he said he figured it was going to happen with or without his permission, so he might as well get in front of the parade and experience whatever benefit there was to being a “good guy” in the opinion of folks who tape and share shows. And it seems like the days of fussing about bloggers who excerpt the writings of others are more or less over; whether or not there is benefit to gain from letting them do it, there seems to be no practical way to stop them.

The free flow of ideas

Until recently, the free flow of ideas has been more an ideal than a reality, restricted by the physical difficulties involved in transmitting ideas from those who have them to those who would like to entertain them. For awhile there was no widely available medium besides word of mouth. Then the printing press came along, and it became feasible for ideas to be widely distributed in printed form—and at the same time it became lucrative to restrict the distribution of the printed word, first for publishers and eventually for writers.

I knew that publishers and booksellers used these inefficiencies to make books unnecessarily expensive—especially when it comes to textbooks, where the prices are scandalously high—but I had forgotten that the situation is much, much worse when it comes to scholarly journals. In an excellent article about the history and future of books (please read the whole thing), librarian Robert Darnton describes the insanity:

Along the way, professional journals sprouted throughout the fields, subfields, and sub-subfields. The learned societies produced them, and the libraries bought them. This system worked well for about a hundred years. Then commercial publishers discovered that they could make a fortune by selling subscriptions to the journals. Once a university library subscribed, the students and professors came to expect an uninterrupted flow of issues. The price could be ratcheted up without causing cancellations, because the libraries paid for the subscriptions and the professors did not. Best of all, the professors provided free or nearly free labor. They wrote the articles, refereed submissions, and served on editorial boards, partly to spread knowledge in the Enlightenment fashion, but mainly to advance their own careers.

The result stands out on the acquisitions budget of every research library: the Journal of Comparative Neurology now costs $25,910 for a year’s subscription; Tetrahedron costs $17,969 (or $39,739, if bundled with related publications as a Tetrahedron package); the average price of a chemistry journal is $3,490; and the ripple effects have damaged intellectual life throughout the world of learning. Owing to the skyrocketing cost of serials, libraries that used to spend 50 percent of their acquisitions budget on monographs now spend 25 percent or less. University presses, which depend on sales to libraries, cannot cover their costs by publishing monographs. And young scholars who depend on publishing to advance their careers are now in danger of perishing.

But according to Darnton this reprehensible system of profiteering has been more or less destroyed by the internet.

Fortunately, this picture of the hard facts of life in the world of learning is already going out of date. Biologists, chemists, and physicists no longer live in separate worlds; nor do historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars. The old map of the campus no longer corresponds to the activities of the professors and students. It is being redrawn everywhere, and in many places the interdisciplinary designs are turning into structures. The library remains at the heart of things, but it pumps nutrition throughout the university, and often to the farthest reaches of cyberspace, by means of electronic networks.

The eighteenth-century Republic of Letters had been transformed into a professional Republic of Learning, and it is now open to amateurs—amateurs in the best sense of the word, lovers of learning among the general citizenry. Openness is operating everywhere, thanks to "open access" repositories of digitized articles available free of charge, the Open Content Alliance, the Open Knowledge Commons, OpenCourseWare, the Internet Archive, and openly amateur enterprises like Wikipedia. The democratization of knowledge now seems to be at our fingertips. We can make the Enlightenment ideal come to life in reality.

Darnton goes on to consider what I think is a major turning point in the free flow of ideas, namely Google’s project to digitize everything ever printed and make it available electronically. I have no opinion about whether Google’s project (which recently surmounted a major legal obstacle) will end up more beneficial to mankind or to Google. But there is potential for a major increase in the ease of obtaining useful information—as well as the potential that such information could be locked up tighter than ever.

Is book selling unwinding?

Carmon Friedrich calls our attention to this article about the effect that the internet is having on traditional book sellers. And it isn’t just the threat posed by powerhouse online sellers such as Amazon, who sell at such high volume that they can drastically undercut the prices that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore can offer.

Until recently the only realistic book source for most buyers, especially those in search of books not published recently, was a book store; meanwhile, huge quantities of those same books sat on bookshelves across the country, purchased and perhaps read but now unneeded by the purchaser. But now the internet has made it almost trivial for those who want a book to locate copies owned by people who no longer want it and are willing to sell it for a small fraction of the original price paid. If you aren’t aware of this, go to abebooks.com and search for a book, then marvel at how many people are willing to send it to you for about a dollar plus shipping. And then there is Paperback Swap, where ordinary people can easily offer books they no longer want in trade for books they do want.

Entire business models were built that counted on the inability of people to easily pass along books they no longer wanted. Publishers made money printing more books than were needed, and bookstores made more money selling more books than were needed. But now that folks can easily pass along a book, it may take many years before we use up the inventory of books in print. Perhaps it will never be necessary to reprint another book, or to buy a new copy of a book already in print.

If you’re looking for a good deal on a book that were once loved but are no longer needed, stop by Cindy’s house this weekend. I hear she’ll be selling thousands of them.

The Great Books project, again

I try to always read an article to the end, even if by the end I’m skimming very quickly, and this morning I was reminded why. I was reading yet another review of Alex Beam’s irreverent history of the Great Books project, A Great Idea at the Time. If I had known it was yet another review of that book, I might not have clicked on the link, but I did and the opening paragraph was engaging enough that I kept reading.

As I read the review I wasn’t liking it too much, since I have much more fondness and respect for the project than Alex Beam does, and it seemed that the reviewer was leaning towards Beam’s view. But then I came to the end, and read something that not only redeemed the reviewer in my eyes but made an important and novel point:

Only St. John’s College maintains a curriculum built exclusively around the Great Books. Every student takes at least two years of ancient Greek, two of French, four of math, and three of laboratory science, the last taught not through textbooks but through primary works like Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres and Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry.

Beam sat in on a St. John’s laboratory seminar and found it “flat, flat, flat.” The same went for a seminar on portions of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (example: “Whether the proposition ‘God exists’ is self-evident?”). “Everyone had done the reading,” Beam laments, “but few could make heads or tails of it.” The problem, as Beam sees it, is that the students aren’t allowed to bring to the discussion anything outside the text. Beam imagines “a thousand interesting questions” that would have enlivened the proceedings: “Why did Aquinas feel the necessity of proving God’s existence? Who in the Middle Ages disagreed with him?” But all of these questions, which in one way or another would lead beyond the closed-off world of the Great Books, are out of order at St. John’s, silenced by the fetish of the Great. “You live by the Books, you die by the Books,” Beam writes. And St. John’s, he believes, is dying.

This is a deeply unfair and ungenerous way to end an otherwise entertaining book. Surely no partisan of the Great Books—those at St. John’s included—thinks that questions like Beam’s are entirely out of order. It’s rather that his questions make for bad places to begin. A seminar spent “not being able to make heads or tails” of Aquinas need not be time poorly spent. It might, in fact, form a necessary prologue to the conversation Beam craves. (Emphasis added.)

Exactly right, and very perceptive for someone who seems to not be especially familiar with the approach to reading (“shared inquiry,” they call it) advocated by the Great Books project. There were rules for a Great Books discussion group to follow, and one of them was that participants could only refer to the text when discussing the ideas it raised.

At first blush this sounds insanely restrictive, but in fact it worked wonders for a discussion. For one thing, it made it impossible for a participant to bully others with knowledge that wasn’t shared (“Well, I’ve also read quite a bit of Freud, and what Freud would say here …”). For another, it kept the discussion very tightly focused, covering only what the writer has presented and discouraging the pursuit of ideas which might be related but which the writer hadn’t written about. And maybe most important, it opened up enough space to put the reading under the microscope, working together to construct a clear understanding of the writer’s arguments, its strengths and weaknesses and internal inconsistencies.

I should also say that, in the group I attended we were not sticklers that the rules be followed at every point in the discussion. Instead, we used them as a defense against having a discussion degenerate; if one of us saw that things were drifting, an invocation of the rules was usually enough to get us focused again.

If that weren’t enough redemption for the reviewer, he finishes with what I think is an excellent point about a weakness of middlebrow culture that is rampant today: the desire to skip the preliminaries and cut to the chase:

Beam’s lament, moreover, reveals a deeply middlebrow fantasy shared by many. It goes like this: if only we knew more about the Middle Ages—had more information on Aquinas’s hometown, his antagonists, and his childhood—the Summa Theologica would give up its secrets. We might not even have to read it! It’s a fantasy no different in kind than the vision of mastering the Great Books in ten-minute intervals. And in a book that takes as one of its subjects the creation of middlebrow culture—and which doesn’t mind having a laugh at its expense along the way—Beam ought to have been on guard against his own susceptibility to the middlebrow. If he doesn’t watch out, he soon might find himself flipping through the Syntopicon’s entry for God, vainly hoping to make heads or tails of Aquinas.