Monday, November 17, 2008

Why Are Economist Types So Testy?

It is certainly my impression anyway that the kind of people who consider themselves as having a strong understanding of economics tend to have very little patience with anyone who questions or expresses skepticism about that understanding, unless the questioner has a practically unassailable reputation in the field, or enough demonstrable earned wealth to indicate that his grasp of how markets function must be respected. These economic theorists, especially the more obscure they are, almost never acknowledge that perceptions about the nature of the world that are proposed by people who don't agree with their own pronouncements in full have any validity, and, what in my opinion is worst, never even take up the question (which is essential in philosophy), of why ordinary people's perceptions are so wrong, and whence the error originates. Instead, readers or listeners who betray confusion or skepticism are frequently dismissed out of hand as 'economic illiterates', and told to "go and study basic economic theory". This, even though both parties may be responsible functioning adults, of reasonable education levels and adequate life experience to have a serious discussion about a multitude of subjects that are supposed to be of great interest to every thinking person in the modern world. Thus the party asserting a superior understanding considers himself to have no burden--even out of common courtesy--to clarify his position, while at the same time expecting it to be acknowledged as true by intelligent people solely on account of its being spoken forcefully and accompanied by superior credentials.
Now there is surely no profession requiring an advanced academic degree (as well a great many which do not), whose practitioners do not fancy themselves to be in some vital sense the smartest people in any room on almost all occasions. The behavior of the representatives of the various professions in such rooms of course alters according to their comparative perceived position in the hierarchy. Schoolteachers and unsuccessful artists have to keep any outright declarations of such beliefs under their hats, lest they risk public ridicule, though you mustn't doubt they have them; if they are the sort of people who are unable to constrain themselves from all self-expression, they will probably attempt to assert their value by overly pretentious speaking and movements. Computer programmers and their ilk will scowl and sneer at the other members of the crowd in contempt, though these others will have no idea that they are doing this because they really hold their (the others') intellects in such low esteem, because it never occurs to anyone else that computer types are actually smarter than they are in any meaningful way (this is true, by the way. In any non-technology oriented business or social environment, invariably the computer guys see themselves as brilliant, and the rest of the crowd sees them as wimpier versions of auto mechanics). Priests can maintain their equilibrium and not risk exposure, especially at the hands of scientists, by affecting humility and the graciousness that is expected of their field. Small business people insist that they are the backbone on which the community, all the other professions, and indeed the whole system of civilization are riding. Big business people take it for granted that everyone must concede this. Lawyers seem most concerned to make sure you know they are a lawyer--as if this in itself is supposed to vouch for a superior intelligence in a person--and not, I suppose, insurance agents or government bureaucrats or school employees, or whatever it is such people seem to fear they might be mistaken for. I never meet any scientists or engineers in real life, though they are everywhere on the Internet, and as they seem to think everyone who didn't get an A in chemical engineering or particle physics at their college or one ranked at least equally high to pretty indisputably be a moron. They appear to feel, like so many people, that their great intelligence is woefully underappreciated in social situations. This cannot be said with regard to doctors, of course, who on the whole seem to have less trouble actualizing their intellectual self-image in public settings than other professions. I think this is because they tend to work constantly with a lot of people who come from lower social classes and have far lower levels of education than they do in a way that people in other esteemed professions do not, and thus are far more accustomed to exercising authority and power over people across the human spectrum than those in other fields do. Also of course, they are at least perceived to make lots of money, certainly when compared with the general run of humanity, which in most societies, and definitely in this one, is widely accepted as a proxy for high intelligence.

So where do the economists fit in? My sense is that economist types are more obsessed with being the smartest guy in the room, and having everyone else know and acknowledge that they are the smartest guy in the room, than anyone else, even philosophers. I suspect this is because, first, in most of the other professions, one can attain a high degree of skill that in many instances complements pure intellectual ability, or can at least offset a slightly higher degree in it in one's competitors, but economic theory seems to allow for no such manuevering. The whole field is perceived as a battleground of raw intellect. Those who engage in it are therefore obsessed with the idea of intellect, and give to it the place of primacy in all engagement with other people, positive or negative, in a way that is simply not possible is less wholly abstract fields. Thus at the same time, apart from the very high end of the field, there is a great deal of self-doubt that one hasn't really the intellect one needs to master the subject, and there is really no other skill, or act of will that can begin to make up for the deficiency. The other reason why economists are such a nervous and obsessive lot about asserting their intelligence is that of course their field concerns the study and understanding of money, an intrinsically measurable value the accumulating of which is also supposed to correlate strongly with intelligence, and about which there is little disputing who has the greater and the less. This all doubtless contributes to a worldview in such qualities as compassion, spiritual and communal health, virtue not directly applicable to economic growth, etc, can have little prominent place.

Working-Class Heroine Well, enough of that. Let's have a pinup girl! I know I shouldn't do it--respectable, serious publications like The Paris Review or the Times Literary Supplement would never stoop to such frivolities, though a little further down the mental scale, Esquire does have their monthly Women We Love feature, in which they dress someone who is considered to be a little more alluring or intelligent or mysterious than the common run of celebrities in chic clothes and take pictures of her in a Paris hotel room reading Ulysses, sipping martinis, and lying upside on the pristine white sheets of the canopy bed with the top two buttons of her blouse undone. So I guess I will keep doing it whenever I come across or remember someone I like.

This week's pinup girl is Shirley Anne Field, muse of the shabby-postwar-Britain-in-precipitous-decline genre. (And what a genre that was, I might add!) While almost all of the film stars I like best had very brief heydays and are forever identified in the public mind with a very narrow time period and type of film, Shirley Anne Field's was especially short--almost all of her remembered work came in one year, 1960, when she appeared in the cult classics Beat Girl and Peeping Tom (which I have not actually seen) and two favorites of mine, The Entertainer, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. She usually played the part of the true working class girl who was nonetheless a little better than her squalid surroundings and held herself as such as much as possible. In real life she seems to have been a little naughtier--she got her start in show business by posing for British cheesecake magazines during the 50s, which is about as naughty a milieu as you can into while still being somehow adorable and acceptable both for marriage and a future doing Disney voiceovers.

Since there is little better than scenes from an early 60s kitchen sink movie set to the music of a modern alternative rock band, here is someone's homage to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Shirley Ann Field obviously is the younger and prettier of the girls who appears in this video. I like the custom by the way of putting on a jacket and tie to go down to the dingy corner local and get falling down drunk on a Friday night. Will this ever come back?

I don't know the first thing about the Last Shadow Puppets, but another song of theirs was chosen as the soundtrack for this groovy looking and otherwise totally unrelated video, which looks however like a French take on the Angry Young Man genre, the intrigue of which doubtless depends on the importance of the role that the French take on anything happens to play in one's life.

No Shirley Ann Field in this clip either, but we do have the final scene of The Entertainer, with what should be the theme song of this blog. Laurence Olivier is too big of a superstar for me to really say "I'm a fan", but this is my favorite movie of his. He has a great face, and great enunciation, which I am probably not sophisticated enough to appreciate in all of his Shakesperean adapations (though I do generally like those better than anybody else's nonetheless).

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