Friday, March 13, 2009

Good one

As you may know, Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer (of CNBC) have been engaged in a bit of a spat lately. A summary:

Well, last night the other night [ed.: this post took a few days] Cramer went on Stewart's show, the poor fool. All I can really say is oof. Tim F. at Balloon Juice said, "My immediate reaction is that the whole experience is painful to watch. It would be great if someone could explain to me why Jim Cramer did not stay home."

He received numerous responses, as is the norm at BJ, but I somehow was struck by these two:

Just Some Fuckhead

We are in freefall as a society when a fucking comedy channel is the only place we can get hard news.



Why is it that two comedians on basic cable are pulling so much of the weight for our so-called journalists?

The comedians do good journalism and the journalists do really, really, really bad comedy.

What really did it, honestly, was one commenter's link to "his take on the exchange, in comic book pictures." The first picture is from Watchmen, and the post is called "Don't Fuck with the Comedian."

Also relevant here is the honestly incredible comment thread over on Roger Ebert's blog post on Watchmen. (If you want to get some really nice basic education in quantum physics, scroll until you see some long comments and hunker down.) There I read, among other things, the following:

Ross Durham: ...between your review and this blog entry there is little mention of my favorite aspects of the novel. What about the Comedian? What about the joke? It's a very postmodern look at the human condition in addition to being a look at humanity, or life's, place in the universe.

alex: do have to realize that the Comedian is living his life as being one great big parody of Humanity and his actions just really go to show what he thinks of humanity.

Ike: the Comedian, the nihilistic everyman, who wonders why god will not save him from his own immorality, and finds the entire situation to be one giant joke.

Emphasis added to this one:
Ray R.: While Manhattan is interesting, the real depth in the story is The Comedian. "The Big Joke" is what this is really all about. While nuclear war and the atomic clock are significant symbols, the most prominent and repeated motif is The Comedian's smilely face marred with blood. It's present at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story. Even as Dr. Manhattan stands on Mars giving his huge and empty speach about the uniqueness of each individual (come on dudes - anyone who knows the first thing about science knows what a load of junk this speech is), the camera backs up and reveals that his beautiful construct is actually a small portion of that big smiley face. Manhattan is interesting, but The Comedian is the real key to understanding Alan Moore's masterpiece.

All of this initially had the effect of making me go looking for my copy of Watchmen to reread it so I could get a handle on the various inklings stirring around my head. Unfortunately, I can't find it (though the search has led me to a desire to reread A Canticle For Liebowitz also, as it shares a certain nihilist cackle).

So instead of that, head back over to the Balloon Juice comments for a minute (bear with me):


The irony of Stewart and other Hollywood celebrity commentators like Maher is that they are really the only people in the country who have both regular, guaranteed access to the media and the willingness to point out the bullshit. They’re famous and wealthy enough not to be overawed or intimidated by politicians and executives and too prominent to be suddenly "disappeared" from the TV screen by the media for being too honest.

Actually, it’s their humor that gives them the power—not their celebrity or wealth (in the league they are playing in, that’s miniscule). That’s their difference from someone like Cramer—who has to depend on shilling for da boss guys because he can’t bring in the eyeballs any other way.

And now back to Ebertville:
Daniel: The tragedy of this movie is that it could translate only in severely truncated form what I think is the most interesting part of it and what you rightfully put in the title of this blog entry: the bit about being a puppet that can see the strings.

...We are, as a species, only starting to see the strings. Our growing knowledge of the universe creates entirely new intellectual challenges to deal with. H.P. Lovecraft wrote: "The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

ABVC: If there is someone else controlling your deeds and your thoughts, he could choose in an arbitrary way what you were going to do. You would only see the strings if he wanted [you] to. But then, you wouldn't need a crazy experiment gone wrong to see them. Maybe if he wanted you to need it.

If there is no puppeteer, or the pupeteer [sic] is not someone with a will, but the universe, then the possibility arbitrariness (is quantum randomness arbitrary?) would be eliminated and we would be puppets of the laws of cause and effect. You have a will, but it is not free, it is the effect of lots of causes.

All of this pasticherie on my part is intended to be pointing at the way we think we understand The Economy and a little bit at journalism. I'm now going to back up, sort of, and go through my own thoughts, tying back to all this source material when appropriate. Again, bear with me.

Current discussions of economics and the economy contain a bizarre contradiction: On the one hand, the Free Market Rulz OK because the economy is too complex, diverse, and fast-moving to be comprehended sufficiently by any planner or regulator. It is, to a certain degree, unknowable and all-powerful, if benevolent. This idea is roughly analogous to ABVC's description of a puppeteer with no will--"the laws of cause and effect. You have a will, but it is not free, it is the effect of lots of causes." (Free-marketeers might object to the statement that the will is "not free," but I think that the distinction that might be made here is not actually very significant, at least for what I'm trying to do. The "effect of lots of causes" bit I think is unimpeachable.)

On the other hand, we flatter ourselves that with enough math, studies, models, and theorizations we can understand how these things work. Even with the whole question of government interference set aside, there is more than one industry entirely devoted to studying and understanding the workings of The Economy, whether that means finance, Depression economics, international development, day trading, or financial journalism. This effort is roughly analogous to the notion of "seeing the strings", or trying to.

We understand the economy as both a reflection and the driver of our entire world. "Stocks rallied today in response to _______"; "In response to the recession, people are rediscovering the value of ______ by _______"; "We may see a cultural shift through learning to deal with austerity"; and "culture of commodification" are only a very few of the thousands of phrases we use to describe what the economy does to us or how it reacts to things that we do. The story is, In the endlessly circular dance of incentives, choices, and effects, easy credit and a housing bubble caused "reckless" spending and lending, which sent the economy to recklessly dizzying heights, leading to a crash which, apparently, will now reshape our entire culture and bring us a new Greatest Generation (unless it simply ends the world as we know it). This is a bizarre combination of The Economy's being by and of us while simultaneously being completely alien to us. We do things to it, we figure it out and profit off it, we game it, we live in it, but occasionally it completely swamps us. It's a force of nature--it is to us as the sea is to fishermen, or the Euphrates was to Mesopotamian farmers (floods are a central mythic trope in ancient Mesopotamian religion).

It follows from this that we seek to understand how this incredibly powerful force works and what our place in it is--to "see the strings". Just as we try to understand and harness physics, we try to understand and harness economic forces (maybe this explains all those Wall Street physicists).

But the great irony is that all of our efforts to see the strings--our glass edifices on Mars--are ultimately recursive and meaningless. They fit together, they explain each other, and most of the time they fit reality well enough that they seem to explain and describe it. But every so often things happen that they did not predict and don't explain, or at least don't explain conclusively. Even the Great Depression is not understood, in that lots of people understand it in completely incompatible and mutually exclusive ways, and we've had a good 80 years to try to figure it out. (The "was it Keynesian stimulus/WWII, or just the natural end of the downturn?" debate reminds me of the quantum debate about nonlocality--there are strong arguments for both, and no proof of either, and no clear way to figure it out.) Ultimately, we don't see the strings at all; we argue endlessly about the workings of our little glass automaton and fail to understand that it's sitting in the middle of a massive smiley face.

Lately, I've been having a very difficult time caring at all about the news when it comes to the recession, banking system reform, bailouts, any of it. I'm sure part of it is just fatigue with the whole thing. But I keep finding myself retreating into what I've dubbed my anthropologist's cynicism, which is the belief that none of this actually matters at all and most of it isn't real. NOTE: this is not to say that the hardship involved isn't happening. Of course it is, and it matters. But sometimes it's hard to believe that what's happening isn't just some sort of spontaneous, natural sea change or cycle, like a tidal wave--that something very like it would have happened nowish almost no matter what we did, and that AIG and CDOs matter about as much as algae. This entire disaster is built on a near-incredible series of abstractions (going all the way back to currency--I won't go so far back as the notion of property), to the point where one can almost think of it as a mass hallucination. Furthermore, even when I come out of my academic funk enough to take the crisis at face value, the degree to which nobody has any idea what is going on or what is to be done about it, and the degree to which any one opinion can be convincingly argued against, certainly suggests that while the phenomena at hand are real, our understanding of them is merely a comforting fiction.

This idea is not at all surprising to the anthropological cynic. As I learned over and over in The Anthropology of Policymaking, policy frequently has myriad effects in addition to--or in place of--its intended result. The process by which problems are identified, solutions conceived, and policies implemented generally involves multiple heroic assumptions, sometimes retrospectively insane logic, willful ignorance and oversimplification. What policy or methods represent the best solutions is determined less by an empirical advance of knowledge than by personal politics and ideological fads--much as in economics (supply-side! No, demand-side!) and quantum physics (nonlocality is real! No, it's not! It secretly doesn't violate relativity, I swear! Except when it does!) But we persist in believing, very firmly, that policymaking and many other arguably more quantitative fields are rational processes of improvement, whose wildly unpredictable results are owed more to the complexity and difficulty of the problems or questions these disciplines engage than they are to the complete disconnect between what we think we are doing and what is actually going on.

This, of course, is the joke. We think we see the strings, but they are far too long for us to comprehend them as such. They may not actually be strings at all, but rather Slinkies--hell if I know. This is why (in colossally superior and self-satisfied terms) I'm so bored with the financial crisis stories: a joke isn't funny when you already know the punchline. The punchline is that we don't actually understand the economic forces around us, nor do we understand our interactions with them. It's all fooled by randomness with a healthy dose of storytelling and myth. A form of paganism, if you like--believing that human actions affect natural phenomena. (Thank god we burned a Yule log this year, or the sun might not have come up in January either.)

Much the same can be said about political journalism and even journalism as a whole. There were many astute comments about this in the BJ thread as well as in the original post; there was also a Marc Ambinder piece that I cannot for the life of me find that I thought said something very true about the election coverage. Ambinder said that he truly thought, and had for most of the election, that the whole thing would swing on voters really hating Republicans right now plus a couple of big, sort of constant issues (I think the war and maybe the economy). That was it. None of the daily stories mattered. But he, and the press in general, can't just write that one story and be done with it. Nor can they write the same damn story word for word over and over (much as it may seem like it sometimes). So they cover all the little stuff that doesn't matter as if it did, because it's a story. And people who follow politics, who follow campaigns--and people who are in campaigns--all come to believe that it matters too, because again, what are they going to do? Sit around, whistle, and wait for November?

I'm sure this same basic myth applies to many more human endeavors, especially as everything that humans do becomes more and more data-driven on a more and more granular level. We have to do something with all that data, and so we come to believe that it's important. We build whole occupations around collecting, analyzing, and storytelling that information (in a sense, that's part of what finance is, and it's certainly what financial infotainment like Cramer's show does). Only very rarely does something big enough and inescapable enough come along and show us that it's all one big joke.

In the margins, though, we have court jesters to point out how silly it all is. Humor rests, often, on uncomfortable truths--on saying things that are just true enough to laugh about but not so true as to kill the party that is our collective hallucination that we can see and even pull some of the strings. The reason journalists keep finding themselves in service to the big guys, as Glenn Greenwald points out in searing terms, is that the daily practice (as opposed to the occasional monumental achievement) of journalism involves maintaining those fictions, structures, assumptions, and logics. This isn't, particularly, an insult to journalism--it just means that journalists, like everyone else, live in a kind of social fiction. If they stepped outside it, not only would power structures make their lives difficult, but no one would actually understand what they were saying. They would look like crackpots. Humor is, most often, only language we have for such things.

In that sense, then, it's not so surprising that the key to Watchmen, or, on occasion, the real truth-teller in the room, is the comedian.

1 comment:

  1. Just to focus on the financial industry part of the foregoing: the next shoe to drop is the codependency of Wall St. analysts and CEO's who feel they must do whatever it takes to deliver on their quarterly earnings estimates. In some cases this leads to accounting abuses that mean that the earnings, and hence the market cap of the companies, aren't what they seem, creating the potential for real sector companies' valuations to collapse the way financial companies' have. While the crash of all companies P/E ratios has reduced the exposure to this risk somewhat, we're going to have some Citibank-style stories in the real sector. I haven't heard anyone talking about the kind of collective myth-preservation process Stewart's pointing to outside of the financial industry--and I think we will have to before the end of the de-leveraging process.