With these thoughts running around in our head this often misunderstood day, I was amazed to see James Carroll in the Boston Globe offering up a version of the situation that seems to blame economists. Actually he pretty much identifies them as witch-doctors.
What is going on here? Tested categories of economic analysis have all been applied. Depression. Recession. Business cycle. Soft landing. Money supply. Credit crisis. Catastrophic deficits. Statistics. Data. Globalization. Mumbo jumbo. Are we to be consoled that every society on earth is at the mercy of such disorder, or that the one reliable social law - impoverished groups and individuals always take the hardest hit - is holding true? After two years of expert predictions being shown up as wild guesses, and mathematical projections as stabs in the dark, a mask has been ripped from the face of the science of economics, exposing primitive superstition. The debunking of the academic study of the structure of wealth is equivalent to astronomy being shown up as nothing more than astrology after all. "I saw the best minds of my generation,'' to take off from Allen Ginsberg, destroyed by the smug assumption that they knew what the hell they were talking about.
Certainly James Carroll knows better than this. Economists like all other branches of all other disciplines disagree about nearly everything. Human knowledge is always provisional and always perceived across a range of expectations and first principles. Paul Krugman and several other prominent economists have been saying all along that the Congress and White House were wrong in short-changing the stimulus, that the political moment was let pass and is essentially irrecoverable ... given the state of politics in the nation these days, that is, rancorous, divisive, and approaching barbaric!
But Carroll goes on in his Monday column to suggest an even more fundamental and more disturbing phenomenon. He edges up to
... the sneaking suspicion that beneath today's massive economic dislocation is some kind of species-changing shift in the way humans relate to work itself.Carroll suggests that the Ph.D. in any of the humanities may be obsolete because of search engines on the internet. Surely he jests! But there is no sign of jest in his remarks. He is utterly distraught that the "nature" of human knowledge is being undermined by technology, when it is obvious as the nose on his beet-red face that the so-called "nature" of human knowledge is that it has been reserved to a privileged class of people for eons. But now, with Google to reveal what the people of the Earth are looking for, and especially what businesses want to sell to them, and with such beautiful gems as, for example, Silva Rhetoricae (a compendium of 2,500 years of study of the schemes and tropes and figures of speech of human language) available now to an entire world that desperately needs to study the logic and emotion of human communication, what exactly is James Carroll's problem?
The nightmare of modernity, since Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, has been of an invasion of the home planet by creatures from some other world, but we have reversed that story. With our laptops and iPods, not to mention, say, our laser beams and drone bombers, we stand on the threshold of a world inhabited by aliens all right, but, as our home planet becomes something unrecognizable, the aliens are we ourselves.He is straightforwardly disconcerted by the acceleration of knowledge and of expertise (and one intuits that he is equally upset about the beneficiaries) in our modern era. To be fair, Carroll is worried about re-establishing some sort of golden period where the dignity of labor meant sweat, tears, toil, and sometime blood. It is an irrational idea, because it is formed from a very narrow and Olympian point of view. The truth is that everything that is happening now is not good, but that everything that happens now is either "inevitable," given the nature of our national and planetary cultures and economies, or a matter of the "free will continuity or change" of history. The bugger in this is "Change."
Change is for human beings both desired and feared. Rapid change upsets routines before they can adapt to the different circumstances. Rapid change reverberates throughout a culture calling into question verities and first principles, some of which, are then made out (like "primogeniture") to be obsolete and (like "racism") to be destructive of the human spirit. Very slow change, like filling the atmosphere with heat absorbing gases and causing global warming, is invisible to most human beings and the portents of global warming are lost on them, more than lost, these portents suggest changes that are altogether unpalatable ... and so are resisted with every synapse.
Modest change and the other kinds, rapid and glacial, hit populations across a wide range of acceptance, from rejection to eager adoption. James Carroll seems now to be a public intellectual who sees his world crumbling under the onslaught of epiphenomena caused by laptop computers and iPhones and Wii systems. He is floundering because somewhere in his daily ambit he stepped over an important lesson about Change. Change is inevitable, not constant; it is a condition of an entropic universe that suggests--nay, demands!--that human beings not settle in to comfortable ideas so well that they cannot get up and change, too.