Mountains and molehills

November 21, 2013

Sometimes in reading a book I will come across a seemingly innocuous statement that is so outright wrong, or that so clearly evinces a misunderstanding or lack of care on the author’s part, that I cannot bring myself to continue reading. This happens even (or perhaps especially) if the statement in question is at best tangentially or tenuously related to the subject of the book.

For example, I was looking forward to reading Scott Miller’s The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century, because I was curious about the turn-of-the-century Anarchist movement and the propaganda of the deed (my interest having been piqued by Joseph Conrad’s beautiful The Secret Agent; see also), as well as having an interest in the aggressive imperialist expansion the US was undertaking at the time. A book that promised to explore these issues seemed right up my alley (the author’s appearance on the Daily Show was interesting as well), and I was enjoying it thoroughly until I saw this near the end of the first chapter:

McKinley and the man who called himself Nieman lived in parallel yet vastly different worlds. Each could see that the Industrial Revolution was forever changing a nation that had long been proud of its simple, agrarian roots. Farmers were abandoning their plows for jobs in clanking, hissing factories. Steamy cities powered by desperately hopeful immigrants clawed into the countryside, and lording over it all was a new breed of American, the rapacious Wall Street tycoon.

For McKinley, these were signs of progress—a prosperous nation was a happy one—and he would do what he could to encourage America’s growing economic might. The strongest, most fit companies were allowed to gobble up the weakest until vast swaths of the economy were ruled by a handful of men who understood no economic law other than to produce as much as their straining factories could stand.

The phrase I’ve emphasized there is simply wrong. The tycoons who ran the factories didn’t follow an “economic law” of maximizing quantity of output, but of maximizing profit. The point of having a monopoly, or a combination, or a trust, or whatever, was to increase profits, which can mean a reduction in output, leading to artificial scarcity and a higher price. As this economics lecture puts it, “the monopoly produces too little output and charges too high a price compared to the efficient outcome generated by a perfectly competitive market.” As Henry Demarest Lloyd put it more memorably, writing in 1894:

The world, enriched by thousands of generations of toilers and thinkers, has reached a fertility which can give every human being a plenty undreamed of even in the Utopias. But between this plenty ripening on the boughs of our civilization and the people hungering for it step the “cornerers,” the syndicates, trusts, combinations, with the cry of “overproduction”—too much of everything. Holding back the riches of earth, sea, and sky from their fellows who famish and freeze in the dark, they declare to them that there is too much light and warmth and food. They assert the right, for their private profit, to regulate the consumption by the people of the necessaries of life, and to control production, not by the needs of humanity, but by the desires of a few for dividends. The coal syndicate thinks there is too much coal. There is too much iron, too much lumber, too much flour—for this or that syndicate.

The majority have never been able to buy enough of anything; but this minority have too much of everything to sell.

Miller doesn’t come across as sympathetic to the tycoons—he describes them as “tycoon[s]”, for one thing, and as “lording over” the rest of society. Nor does he come across as supportive of militarist expansion; he goes on a few sentences later to characterize the US as “proceed[ing] to acquire foreign territories with all the skill and grace of a hungry Labrador retriever eating dinner—at once sloppy, excited, ravenous, clumsy, and oblivious” and “lurch[ing] at the chance to snatch territory in the Caribbean and the Pacific, annex Hawaii, and begin what would become a familiar pattern of sending troops to foreign shores to ‘defend American interests.'”

To the extent that his descriptions and word choices here suggest normative political opinions about what he’s describing, I tend to agree with him. Maybe he’s trying to go out of his way to say mean things about tycoons by calling them “men who understood no economic law other than” something-something, evoking a Gordon-Gekko–like deliberate lack of concern for the human consequences of their greed. Perhaps he’s even attempting to channel the fury directed at those tycoons at the time. But in doing so he completely misunderstands or misstates the profit motive, the economic objection to monopolies, as well as a major popular objection to tycoons around the time he’s describing. In a book about the radicalization of Leon Czolgosz and McKinley’s views on his own presidency, the motivations of tycoons would seem to be a minor point. But if Miller gets that wrong, what else does he get wrong? Maybe chapters 2–34 are absolutely wonderful but I just can’t get past that sentence in chapter 1.

* * *

I couldn’t bring myself to continue Scott Miller’s book because of what’s more or less a quibble, yet I had no problem finishing a book that seemed to have a howler on every page: The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of whom write for The Economist. As befits men who write for that publication, they produced a book that I can best describe as “glib”, “facile”, and “rather interesting”.

I tried to like this book, but found it impossible, in large part due to the breathtaking levels of understatement and disingenuousness. This is a book that sums up Russia’s post-Soviet privatization as “far from an unqualified success”. (The Economist has referred to it as an “insiderish carve-up of the country’s assets”, described it as “the so-called ‘shares-for-loans’ scheme under which controlling stakes in Russia’s biggest and most valuable state firms were handed out to a charmed circle of bankers at knock-down prices back in 1995”, and called it “infamous” and “indefensible from almost any point of view” while oddly and incongruously saying “it worked”, having also noted that it “had left most Russians so miserably poor, but made the country’s tycoons so rich”; The Guardian has said it “usher[ed] in the most cataclysmic peacetime economic collapse of an industrial country in history.”)

This is a book where, in a chapter on multinational corporations and how they’re tragically misunderstood, the closest the authors come to acknowledging companies like United Fruit and all the shit they pulled is by saying: “In the Depression-racked 1930s, a miserable time for multinationals of all sorts, the Americans found their fastest growth in Latin America.”

This is a book that argues that “[m]odern debates about shareholder capitalism often obscure the fact that many of the best Anglo-Saxon companies have happily shouldered social obligations without much prompting from government”. Even ignoring all the weasel words in that quote, it’s extremely disingenuous to suggest or imply that there are only two ways to get companies to change their behavior: corporate beneficence or government prompting. This false dichotomy is especially ridiculous when one of the cited examples is Procter & Gamble instituting 8-hour days in 1918—while it’s true P&G’s decision came well in advance of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the company only “happily shouldered” a shorter workday after decades of non-corporate and non-governmental action and agitation demanding 8-hour days (and after some other industries already had federal 8-hour laws in place, natch).

This is a book, published in 2003, that argues that in the aftermath of Enron and WorldCom, “the ‘bad apples’ school had been proved right in one respect: the market began to correct itself”, so any additional regulation would probably be counterproductive and unnecessary.

My complaint about Scott Miller’s book is a mere niggle in comparison to all that, yet I had no problem finishing The Company. Perhaps that was because, again befitting their tenure writing for The Economist, Micklethwait and Wooldridge proudly and openly wear their biases on their sleeve. It’s not a minor quibble I have with them, but a deeper and more substantive disagreement.

* * *

What prompted this post is the book I recently picked up, having for a while looked forward to enjoying it: Edward Dolnick’s The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World. I’m interested in the history of science, and Newton was by all accounts a hell of a character.

The preface to the book opens by mentioning “the late 1600s” and goes on to describe the lack of hygiene in Europe around that time. On page xvi, shortly after Dolnick mentions particular occurrences in 1599 and 1715, he includes this in a footnote: “The historian Jules Michelet described the Middle Ages as ‘a thousand years without a bath.'” I found that footnote a bit perplexing for a couple of reasons.

First, I just finished reading Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies, which mentions the public baths in mid-13th-century Troyes and describes how, even if the masses bathed infrequently, in burghers’ homes “[p]erhaps once a week a wooden tub for bathing is set up, and servants lug up buckets that have been heated over the kitchen fire.” So the footnote’s description of the middle ages seems wrong. There’s an endnote corresponding to the footnote, in fact, where Dolnick cites Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean, stating: “Ashenburg notes that Michelet exaggerated. She puts the correct figure at four centuries.” I tracked down Ashenburg’s book, and it turns out she quotes Michelet as part of a discussion of “the medieval interlude of cleanliness”:

When the Crusaders returned from the East, they brought with them the news of Turkish baths, and for a few centuries medieval people enjoyed warm water, communal baths and plentiful opportunities for sexual hijinks. Although ecclesiastical disapproval and the threat of syphilis cast a shadow over the bathhouses, it was the devastating plagues of the fourteenth century that closed their doors in most of Europe. The French historian Jules Michelet called the years that followed “a thousand years without a bath”—in fact, four hundred years without a bath would be more accurate.

So the author Dolnick cites in the endnote to the footnote agrees with what I read in the Gieses’ book about the existence and use of public baths in the medieval period. If you’re going to include an endnote that contradicts or at least heavily qualifies the footnote it refers to, why not put the qualification in the footnote itself?[1]

Second, what’s the relevance of the quote in the footnote in the first place? The late 1600s aren’t the “Middle Ages”, after all. Even allowing for some flexibility and overlap in definitions, and acknowledging that there aren’t bright lines demarcating historical eras, the middle ages ended well before the 17th century. Wikipedia says (lol) the middle ages “lasted . . . to the 15th century”; if you want to find an entry in Wikipedia’s list of “Periods of the history of Europe” that includes the late 1600s, you need to go past “Renaissance” (and the ASCII-art breasts someone recently inserted in one of the section headings in “English Renaissance“) and settle on “Early modern Europe“, which Wikipedia defines as having begun “in the late 15th century or early 16th century”, much earlier than the time period the book addresses.

OK, OK, maybe I’m focusing too much on that footnote—let’s assume Dolnick is well aware that the late 17th century isn’t the middle ages, and just included the footnote as a way to work in a quote that he really liked. Can’t fault the man for that; I’ve been known to do it myself. So I read on and find this, starting on the next page:

Nature’s laws were vast in range but few in number; God’s operating manual filled only a line or two. . . . God was a mathematician, seventeenth-century scientists firmly believed. He had written His laws in a mathematical code. Their task was to find the key.

My focus is largely on the climax of the story, especially Newton’s unveiling, in 1687, of his theory of gravitation. But Newton’s astonishing achievement built on the work of such titans as Descartes, Galileo, and Kepler, who themselves had deciphered paragraphs and even whole pages of God’s cosmic code.

So Descartes, Galileo, and Kepler deciphered whole pages of an operating manual only a line or two long? Ugh. What if I press on?

Chapter 1 is entitled “London, 1660.” The second-to-last paragraph begins as follows:

In temperament Newton had little enough in common with the other men of the Royal Society. But all the early scientists shared a mental landscape. They all lived precariously between two worlds, the medieval one they had grown up in and a new one they had only glimpsed.

There’s that “medieval” again, now being applied to the childhoods of people who were doing science in the second half of the 17th century. Is Dolnick being metaphorical in its use, saying that they were born into a more superstitious period than the one they helped define? Or is he really defining the middle ages as extending into the 1600s?

Maybe chapters 2–52 are absolutely wonderful but I just can’t get past those remarks in the preface and chapter 1.

* * *

[1] As for my own footnote/endnote . . . I am taking no position regarding the accuracy of Ashenburg’s apparent statement that Michelet was describing “the years that followed” “the devastating plagues of the fourteenth century”, as opposed to including any earlier period within his “thousand years”. Gutenberg appears to have a different translation of Michelet’s work; the thousand-year remark is rendered there (itself in a footnote, of course) as follows:

Leprosy has been traced to Asia and the Crusades; but Europe had it in herself. The war declared by the Middle Ages against the flesh and all cleanliness bore its fruits. More than one saint boasted of having never washed even his hands. And how much did the rest wash? To have stripped for a moment would have been sinful. The worldlings carefully follow the teaching of the monks. This subtle and refined society, which sacrificed marriage and seemed inspired only with the poetry of adultery, preserved a strange scruple on a point so harmless. It dreaded all cleansing, as so much defilement. There was no bathing for a thousand years!

For what it’s worth, this rendition seems much more likely to be intentionally hyperbolic or exaggerated.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Powered by WordPress with Hiperminimalist Theme design by Borja Fernandez.

Entries and comments feeds. Valid XHTML and CSS.