Departments

Peccadilloes

Before you shoot, consider the ricochet. Before you moralize, consider the peccadillo. Certainly the peccadillo is an unphilosophical idea. There is no logic in the sin that does not make a sinner, the crime that does not make a criminal. Yet the peccadillo is left over wherever sins or crimes are counted. Its inevitability implies a resilience to human behavior that is almost material. In measuring wood for the cut you must figure in the kerf of the saw—how much material the cut itself will remove. Likewise in philosophical division you must expect the measured boundaries of immorality to fall outside of the marks that guide the division. Of course in woodwork this can be compensated; in philosophy it cannot be. The name for one who calls harmless things harmful to prevent harmful things from being thought tolerable—the name is hypocrite. In this way law is superior to morality. Law, being justified from without, can blend the boundaries of the legal and the illegal to the greater security of the law, make jaywalking a crime, allow its subjects just enough lawbreaking of minor laws that they obey the important laws without feeling punctilious or servile.

But morality must self-stand. Thus both in society and in the individual, the fervor of moral commitment trends over time into immorality, step by step as the excision of hypocrisy cuts a new brink of the immoral, which frays into new peccadilloes, which invent new hypocrisy, which being purged cuts a new brink of the immoral—and so on, until at last the philosopher sits, like the overreaching workman, ashamed among scraps—scraps cut down over and over in adjusting the fit until not enough remains for any fit at all.

New York

What seems to most people to be a general economic and cultural crisis often seems to me no more or less than the rigors of the obsolescence of New York’s economic and cultural sway.

Consider hedge funds. The crisis has raised a populist anger against hedge funds in general. But hedge funds were not the cause; they did not need to be bailed out. They rode out the shock and recovered on their own. The institutions that had to be bailed out were the titans of New York, which tried to play hedge fund and broke the economy. Strategies that work for the decentralized and lightly staffed institutions that hedge funds are – these strategies were poison to the titans of New York.

Let me repeat: New York saw a set of brilliant strategies for making money; New York tried to adopt these strategies; but New York could not keep up. (High-frequency trading seems to be going in the same direction.)

The reason these titans were permitted to exist was to compete with the comparable titans of other countries. Surely if everyone else is doing it, we are only being realistic when we do it too – whatever the abstract dangers?

American modesty is that foolish. Ours is a very powerful country; and powerful countries must expect to be imitated, for no other reason than that they are powerful. When Great Britain was ascendant the world broke out in parliaments and the businessmen of the tropics sweated in black wool.

We have our New York, so other countries want New Yorks of their own – and they get them, new New Yorks more New York than New York. (What are Canary Wharf and La Défense but the cargo cults of the Atlantic?) Count one remove from reality. Then, of course, we scale up the real New York to match. Count two removes from reality. (This is the level of the junk-bond era, I think.) The rest of the world scales up their New Yorks to keep up with the American example. The world’s tallest skyscraper keeps turning up somewhere in East Asia. Count three removes from reality. So the real New York scales up yet again, mortgages the country and securitizes its mortgages. Count four removes from reality. This isn’t economics; this is pataphysics.

Worse, it is a game that New York cannot win. New York had to get that way; it is burdened with history – with the awareness that things could have been otherwise. The new New Yorks can take New York as a revelation, build it dogmatically. Hong Kong will always be a better New York than New York can ever be.

All finance is capital allocation – discerning where money obtains its best return and transferring it there from other, less profitable uses. Once, for this to be done at a national scale, it was necessary that all the financiers of the nation be in one place, have all their seats on one exchange, so all the nation could come to them. Because New York was where information could be had, New York was where decisions had to be made.

But not only is this no longer true – a Bloomberg terminal in New York knows nothing that a Bloomberg terminal in Shanghai does not know. Indeed the opposite is the case; New York impedes capitalism. By being the center of both finance and the economy it simply removes many industries from rational analysis. Look at publishing or music, for example. Suppose you are an investor with a thesis about the future of books or music. What instrument allows you to express it? There is no such instrument, because publishing and music as businesses have been absorbed into New York conglomerates (perhaps headquartered elsewhere, but possible only in a world that includes New York) – conglomerates whose bottom lines would not tremble if tomorrow some rapid plague killed off every author and musician on the planet.

There are, of course, the indies – indie labels, small presses – but even if they were publicly traded – even if there were some exchange where they could afford to be listed, with regulations they could afford to comply with – still they are individually too small to absorb enough capital to make a return meaningful to an investor.

The cavernous empty middle between conglomerate and indie is New York’s path – New York sweeps it clean the way Jupiter’s gravity clears out the asteroid belt.

For culture I think the case is stronger and more straightforward than it is for finance. In almost anything written about the crisis the words publishing, journalism, music, art, can be qualified with “New York” without loss of meaning – with gain in clarity.

I admit that this perspective explains nothing new. My intention is Copernican, not Newtonian. I do not attempt to resolve mysteries, only to provide a more parsimonious formulation of the mechanism behind certain appearances known to everyone. The sky would look the same if the earth were the center of the universe. The crisis would look the same if were were universal or had New York at its center. I find the latter formulation more plausible and more interesting. If the crisis is general, then there is nothing to do but ride it out, suspend our minds and abilities, wait for some vision to reveal what comes next. But if the crisis is New York’s, then there is work for all in imagining and effecting a great devolution.

Airplane

There is a poem I would like to write
About the airplane lights between the stars:
Unheard on cloudless nights, they drift and slide
Blink red and green, and magnify my soul
To be alive, to live in such an age.
Somewhere a poet at thirty thousand feet
Looks down in thought. He sees the night earth black
He sees the city lights, they tint the sky
He stretches out, the engines soothe his bones
He settles in, he summons all his craft
And presses one last drop of grainy oil
From something dry and rancid lodged in him.
I, earthbound, see him passing like a god
And measure poems I may never write.

Fame

Why be famous? Subtract sleeping, eating, working—how much time remains for being famous? Of course fame has benefits, comforts, luxuries, considerations—but all these are available, in degrees equal or better, to people who are not famous. A star may not be much better off than a dentist; most, not so well.

Again, why be famous? To have your name, your face known? But no one is present in a picture. Heroes do not feel people wanting to be them; sex symbols do not feel people wanting them. And as for names—though name is taken a billion times a day, what good does fame do the Earl of Sandwich? People recognize you—but what do they recognize you as? Not as a person; the recognition that fame supplies is of a lower order than to be personally known. It is the kind of recognition that people give to types and roles—that a proper name is used does not make the recognition different than the patronizing recognition given to one who seems a studious Chinese or a hardworking Pole.

Why be famous? What is gained when a switch flips in the brain between "I am not famous" and "I am famous"? Is it self-respect? But you do not respect people because they are famous; why should fame give you respect for yourself?

Is it attention? That is a little stronger: attention is enough like a commodity that famous people can lend it out on their own credit. But that only when they are not too famous: the movement that recruits too prominent a spokesperson only adds a cause to fame, not fame to a cause. Too, not all fame is permanent; people who have been briefly famous seem to value the experience, if not wish to repeat it. (Though whether as a drug too addictive to return to, or an ordeal that leaves them with nothing to prove, I do not know.) Sometimes a person with fame that cannot be expected to last can be observed having found a worthy cause to spend it on. This seems healthy and sane.

All people who are famous and sane seem to have certain qualities in common: a sort of fatalism, a sociable sense of irony, and the acceptation of their fame as a windfall, not a right. But most people who are famous are not sane; and though it would be tempting to argue that fame only attracts the insane—as it likely does—I do think fame drives people insane. But I beg the question: if fame is so insubstantial and inconsequential, what traction does it have to drive anyone anywhere?

Contrast fame and glory. Glory must be earned with great difficulty; glory is impersonal—has never invited presumptuous familiarity, rather discouraged it; and glory is enduring—is sought as the one thing in life that lasts forever. Altogether glory seems a finer and more human thing than fame. Yet the love of glory—so we are warned by the records of the times when it was in fashion—the love of glory was enough to drive insane. If so straight a thing as glory is confounds us, how much more so must crooked fame?

The question of being famous must be matched with another. Why give fame? Fame begins with a humane feeling—with the recognition that there are no rewards reserved for extraordinary merit. For the invention of calculus and the discovery of gravity, Newton was made Warden of the Mint; but what did his predecessor do? His successor? There is no prize or position in the world where merit has not been mixed with legacy, celebrity, and safe choice. There is no recognition which society can bestow on the worthiest which has not sometimes been bestowed on the unworthy.

So when we are moved to admire something extraordinary, we search for something within our power to bestow, something that cannot be bought; and we find only our attention. This is well meant. Attention is the kindest thing we can give. But it goes unnoted with those who give fame that what is kind from one person may be cruel from many.