Would fiscal stimulus during a pandemic cause inflation?

I’ll start by noting that over the past couple of decades, it has proved far less necessary to worry about inflation than most economists have long thought. Economists used to believe in something called the Phillips curve, for example, which asserted that the odds of inflation rise as the rate of unemployment descends. They even used to believe that they could use the Phillips curve to make predictions. The last half decade of low, low unemployment and low, low inflation has trashed that faith. Median wages have only begun to inch up in real terms very recently, and these days many economists believe that the US economy could make profitable and noninflationary use of even more fiscal stimulus than it has received. There’s been a fair amount of fiscal stimulus under Trump; deficit spending has soared in a way that Republicans would never have permitted under a Democratic President, and yet all the indicators have toddled happily along nonetheless. The Fed is so far from worrying about inflation these days that its great fear of late seems to be that it has kept interest rates so low for so long that if it needs to add fiscal stimulus by monetary means, there’s not much lower it can go.

All of this is by way of saying, it’s a little perverse at the moment for me to even raise the specter of inflation, and I know it. Let me explain what made me think to ask the question.

In the 1970s, Keynesian economics failed to explain the combination of high unemployment and high inflation that became known as “stagflation.” This intellectual failure gave a policy opening to Friedman’s monetarism and, a decade later, to Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberalism. Did Keynesianism fail because its premises were wrong, as Friedman and other advocates of shrinking the government asserted, or because the Keynesians were misreading the economic signals at the time? This is a big debate among economists. Among the most striking economic signal in the 1970s were the spikes in the real price of oil. Looking through the decade’s numbers, I’ve been impressed by the fact that real food prices seemed to spike in tandem with real oil prices, which makes sense, given that modern agriculture is driven by fossil fuel, via fertilizer and farm machinery. In other words, during the 1970s, two costs that an average working person could not forgo, food and fuel, both rose relative to the prices of other goods, leaving workers with less to spend on any other category, and as Keynes showed, the spending of people with less income is far more crucial to the strength of the economy than the spending of those at the top. This leads me to wonder, in my amateur, I’m-only-a-novelist-playing-at-economics way, if an economic crisis caused by a sudden rise in the cost of core goods might be different in kind from an economic crisis caused by a collapse in demand. Maybe the right remedy for one might not be beneficial for the other?

There’s a suggestion of this in an endnote to Binyamin Appelbaum’s new book, The Economists’ Hour. Appelbaum believes that Keynesianism can be reconciled with the conditions of the 1970s:

Stagflation can be explained in a Keynesian framework, but the explanation was not well understood at the time. The gist is that higher oil prices forced people to reduce consumption of oil, or of other goods, which increased unemployment. The United States responded with an economic stimulus, driving up inflation. Why was the stimulus ineffective? The original problem was a decline in the supply of oil, so pumping money into the system drove up prices. It was a demand-side response to a supply-side problem. Nations that refrained from stimulating their economies, including Germany and Switzerland, experienced an economic downturn but did not experience higher inflation.

My question is whether a COVID-19 pandemic, if it does break out in America (this coming fall if not this spring or summer), might be more like the 1970s oil crisis than like the 2009 financial crisis. In America, as in all industrialized economies, the bulk of the economy long ago shifted away from manufacturing to service. But during a pandemic, the supply of services is bound to contract, as people stay home from work because of either illness or fear of illness. And if services end up suffering a supply-side shock—if there are suddenly far fewer people offering services—will pouring money into the economy help? (Pouring in money is what a number of policy makers are now contemplating.) If far fewer people are healthy or brave enough to cut your hair, babysit your children, or deliver your groceries, because they’re all sheltering in place in their homes, won’t juicing the economy merely drive up the price of these services, without doing much to increase the number of people available to perform them?

I’m offering this only as speculation. I may have misunderstood some of the economic fundamentals here; for example, in the gig economy we have now, all those haircutters, babysitters, and grocery deliverers will probably be abruptly without income during a pandemic, and maybe the demand-side shock caused by their loss of income will cancel out any supply-side shock caused by their sudden withdrawal of services, and so they’ll need to get some new money in their wallets after all. Or it may be the case that the underlying capacity of the economy to absorb more stimulus is still simply greater than any compromise of that capacity that might be inflicted by the pandemic’s shock to the supply of services.

UPDATE, 6:20pm: I just discovered that Appelbaum himself raised more or less exactly this issue, more cogently, in an online op-ed at the New York Times a few days ago:

Cutting rates is not an effective antidote for the coronavirus. Lower interest rates increase economic growth by driving up demand, while the disruptions caused by the spread of the virus are reducing the supply of goods. Cutting rates won’t address that “supply shock.” It won’t hasten the return of Chinese workers to factories, or speed ships across the Pacific.

What was the (New) York shilling?

Last night I was doing some Swedish death cleaning of old emails, as one does, and found that way back in 2006, when I was still attempting to write a book of New York history, I asked a listserv if anyone knew what was meant by a “shilling” in New York in the early 19th century. Then, about a month later, I reported back an answer. I gave up on that book of New York history long ago (and wrote Necessary Errors instead, and even returned the advance for the history book, which, I know, no one does), but at least to me as someone who today no longer knows much of anything about New York history, the answer I came up with looks impressively thorough and seems worth archiving. So here it is, for any googlers who need to know… (I have updated the links, all of which had died, but otherwise have left my 2006 answer more or less undisturbed by time.)

I wonder if any of you might be able to help me out with a numismatical question, or to point me in the direction of the answer. What was a “shilling” in New York City in the 1840s/1850s? I had thought it was just a way of saying 12.5 cents, and didn’t refer to an actual coin, but I’ve found an account of someone having his shilling engraved and framed (in the spirit that merchants today sometimes display above their cash registers the first dollar they ever took in). Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Thanks to everyone on the list who has helped out with the mystery of the New York shilling. It turns out the currency and coinage in the U.S. before the Civil War is a great big mess, and I’m not sure I’ve got the answer. But the emerging consensus seems to be that the New York shilling, or “York shilling,” was worth about 12.5 U.S. cents between the 1830s and 1850s, but that the actual coin referred to was a Spanish (or Latin American) real. There were eight reales in a Spanish dollar; thus the nickname for Spanish dollars, “pieces of eight.” (This would also explain the slang reference to a quarter as “two bits,” i.e., two reales, or two York shillings.) Frank Anderson found a picture of a Spanish real that circulated in New York, in the American Numismatic Society website.

The York shilling does not seem to have been equivalent to the English shilling or to the Canadian shilling. For example, in William Chambers’s Things as They Are in America (1854), the Astor Hotel is said to cost $2.50 a day, or “10s. English,” so it looks like an English shilling = 25¢. According to an 1834 guide for emigrants to Canada (Official Information for Emigrants, Arriving at New York and who are desirous of Settling in the Canadas, 5 Canadian shillings = 8 York shillings = US$1 = 4s 6d English money. (Of course, the exchange rate varied over time.)

Just as there were twelve English pence in an English shilling, there seem to have been twelve pence in a York shilling, making pence in New York almost equivalent to U.S. cents (12 N.Y. pence = 12.5¢). There’s an example of calculating in York shillings and pence in George G. Foster’s New York in Slices (1848). A waiter tallies up “Clamsoup sixpnce, rosebeef large, shilln, roastchikn eighteen, extra bread three, butter sixpnce, pickle sixpnce, pudn sixpnce, cheese three, claret two shilln,” and arrives at the sum of “seven shilln.” By a little primitive algebra, this means that 3 shillings + 48 pence = 7 shillings, and thus one York shilling is worth 12 pence. (Note that the pence in question would not be equivalent to English pence, which, like English shillings, would be roughly twice as valuable as the New York version.)

It seems hard to say for how long or how widely this meaning of a York shilling (i.e., 12.5¢, in the form of a Spanish coin) obtained. In the 1855 novel The Modern Othello, a young Irish boy in a morning of re-selling newspapers earns “50 cents, an one shillin’ an’ two fips,” which he later gives to his mother, saying, “There’s the 6 shillin’ an’ the two fips mother.” A “fip” seems to be a nickel; in any case, by his math, a shilling is worth only 10¢. Perhaps the value of a York shilling declined in the 1850s? Or maybe the novelist simply wasn’t much good at math. This is already more than I needed to know about New York coinage, so I’ll leave that mystery to other investigators. Thanks again to all who sent me advice and clues.

On disappearing bookstores

One of my favorite telling details, in the ongoing story of the vanishing of New York’s bookstores, is from a 1926 review by Edmund Wilson of the then-new uptown location of the bookstore Brentano’s:

One finds in the new Brentano’s the same admirable features as in the old: the varied and enormous stock, the easily accessible galleries, the comprehensive foreign departments, with clerks who are at home in the languages of the literatures to which they are accredited, and the fascinating display, in the basement, of the tables of periodicals from all over the Western world.

Working in a bookstore will always be cool, but in Wilson’s day, it was apparently reasonable to expect the staff of a top-of-the-line bookstore to be conversant in multiple languages. No doubt there are a few such staff still in New York today—McNally Jackson has very smart-looking foreign-language sections—but I’m pretty sure that such standards long ago ceased to be de rigueur. An article in The Guardian today by Oliver Conroy charts the decline, more plainly, in numbers:

In 1950, Manhattan had 386 bookstores, according to Gothamist; by 2015, the number was down to 106. Now, according to a count by the city’s best-known bookstore, the Strand, there are fewer than 80.

“Why are New York’s bookstores disappearing?” Conroy wonders. As possible explanations he cites competition from Amazon, a secular decline in the habit of reading (which I’ve written about before), and spikes in retailers’ rents, which are sometimes caused by real estate speculators. All of these are likely contributing—indeed, McNally Jackson’s Soho store is seeing its rent hiked from $350,000 a year to $650,000—but there’s another cause that I suspect is more powerful.

The economist Steven E. Landsburg spells it out in Can You Outsmart an Economist, a new book that hides key economic ideas inside the Trojan horse of dad-friendly mind-benders. After challenging readers to explain such mysteries as why people stand still on escalators, Landsburg offers a puzzle relevant to bookstores: “Why doesn’t Sony wants its TVs sold at a discount?”

Sony is far from the only company that insists on what’s known as “resale price maintenance” or, less charitably, “vertical price-fixing.” Most big-ticket consumer electronics items in America can’t be bought cheaper from one retailer versus another. Want an Apple I-phone? Want a Fujifilm digital rangefinder? Try to shop around, and you’ll quickly discover that the prices offered by all retailers uncannily coincide. The practice is completely legal. Antitrust law won’t allow a manufacturer like Canon to coordinate its pricing decisions with a rival like Fujifilm, but Canon is free to dictate independently the prices of all its brand-new Canon goods. All it has to do is require retailers to sign pricing agreements and refuse to supply stock to any who fail to follow instructions.

As Landsburg points out, it isn’t obvious why a company like Sony should “care about the retail price of its TVs.” Sony, as a manufacturer, only gets paid the wholesale price of its TVs, after all. If a retailer is willing to lower the retail price, cutting into its own profit share, why should the manufacturer mind? In general, a manufacturer expects to sell more units when the retail price is lower, or so the simple math of the supply-and-demand curve predicts. Why then do so many of the most successful companies selling in America think different on this question?

Landsburg explains:

If retailers are free to set their own prices, you’ll walk into Best Buy, latch onto a salesperson, ask questions for an hour, spend another hour playing your favorite You Tube videos on all the different display models, ask a bunch more questions, and then go home and order from Amazon, where the price is lower. Best Buy will soon enough get tired of this and either stop carrying Sonys altogether or stop displaying them.

Or go out of business, one might add, though Landsburg doesn’t mention that alternative. If price is invariable, on the other hand, retailers, instead of competing on price, have to compete by offering better service. If, as a manufacturer, you take pride in the quality of what you make, you want customers to have a chance to become more knowledgeable. In the corporate world, in other words, it’s widely understood—it’s a commonplace—that the only way to create a network of pleasant, thriving retailers is to control pricing.

So if the economic principle is so obvious, you’re no doubt asking, then why haven’t the publishers of America instituted vertical price-fixing?

Maybe books are different? They don’t seem to be. For a quick proof, consider that “Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain allow the vertical price-fixing of books,” as I wrote in this 2012 blog post, reporting on a conference about the future of books and copyright, and bookstores in those countries are prospering. If you’re a reader and you’ve visited one of those countries recently, you’ve probably seen them and wept. Maybe, as I constantly worry, reading itself is in decline, but it seems that bookstores needn’t be in a decline quite as steep as that in America and the United Kingdom.

Note an important difference in the kind of argument used to justify the laws that allow (and in France, require) publishers to set retail prices. Laws are passed for the common good, not to ensure that the customers of a manufacturer have a pleasant retail experience. The rationale for laws allowing publishers to control their books’ prices, therefore, is public-spirited rather than hard-headed. As I wrote in 2012,

The nations that allow for “resale price maintenance” . . . in publishing justify the legal exception for three reasons. They believe that it brings a bookstore to every village, that it makes possible a wide selection of books in those bookstores, and that it enables less-popular books to be subsidized by more-popular ones. In other words, the argument for resale price maintenance rests largely on the contribution that local, independent bookstores make to cultural life.

Online bookstores like Amazon might seem to undermine these rationales, because an online bookstore can bring a wider variety of books to a broader geographic range of citizens than any network of brick-and-mortar bookstores can. There’s an objection to this objection, however—an asymmetry. If a combination of uncontrolled pricing and online bookselling drives a brick-and-mortar bookstore out of existence, the special benefit to consumer-citizens that was provided by that well-managed brick-and-mortar bookstore is destroyed. The reverse, however, is not true. That is, if publishers were to control control prices, thereby supporting brick-and-mortar stores, the market share of online booksellers might well shrink, but it’s improbable that all online booksellers would for that reason go out of business, and as long as even one reputable online bookseller remained, the boons of wide variety and wide geographic distribution would remain available. If you believe that these boons are worth preserving, you needn’t necessarily oppose allowing publishers to set the retail prices of their books. Amazon remains in business in France even though it’s against the law there for online booksellers to undersell their brick-and-mortar rivals.

It isn’t exactly a surprise that a number of social democratic European nations have held onto the belief that bookstores contribute to cultural life and deserve protection, while in America and the United Kingdom, where the legal and political elites tend to be more market-fundamentalist, the consensus seems to be that cheaper book prices are worth more than the affordances of a nice bookstore. None of these ideological preferences alters the underlying economics of price-setting, however. Publishers needn’t wait wait for politicians, or for abstract moral argumentation, if they believe that well-run brick-and-mortar stores are the most congenial environments for introducing their books to readers. And in my experience, especially if one is looking to discover new books of high literary quality, nothing surpasses handling, sniffing, and leafing through ink-on-paper volumes in a well-curated brick-and-mortar store.

If Penguin Random House (to name the mega-conglomerate that happens to be publishing me this August) wanted to adopt Sony’s corporate strategy on the pricing of its TVs, it could do so tomorrow. Alas, there would be enormous risks. Federal antitrust regulators would be watching skeptically, because American publishers did adopt that strategy with e-books, as a roundabout way of supporting the price of ink-on-paper books, and got caught colluding with one another, in violation of antitrust law, when they did so. In the end, the publishers did get their way in the pricing of e-books, as Mike Shatzkin and Robert Paris Riger explain in The Book Business, a new primer on the behind-the-scenes economics of publishing. The results were mixed. Amazon decided to “let the big publishers be hoisted with their own petard,” Shatzkin and Riger write. While publishers kept the retail price of their e-books high, Amazon cultivated an alternative supply of e-books that were in the public domain or by authors who were self-published or who had taken their copyrights back from their original publishers. “The big publisher share of the e-book market appears to have steadily diminished since agency pricing began,” Shatzkin and Riger report, but “publishers take some comfort in the fact that print book sales have stabilized.”

I’m skating perilously close to turning this into an endless blog post about economics and the future of literature, so I’ll cut it short: Brick-and-mortar bookstores remain invaluable for publishers hoping to reach consumers who discriminate for literary quality and are interested in new titles, and as best I can figure it, vertical price-fixing is the only way to support an ecosystem of brick-and-mortar bookstores in the long term. The first publisher to attempt vertical price-fixing, however, will risk being undersold by rivals who delay adopting the strategy and being attacked in some way by Amazon, who will see it as a threat to market share. There will also be a more general risk, if prices are set too high, of spurring consumers to defect to cheaper alternatives.

Notes, 2018

“Je voyais tout en noir avant les élections, je vois tout en noir depuis.” [I saw everything black before the elections, I see everything black since.] —Ernst Renan, quoted by Henry James in a letter to William James, 14 March 1876

I dreamed there were two new hobo symbols, one for “You already know everything I need for you to know” and one for “Felonies.”

“I sat without stirring and gazed, gazed with effort and perplexity, as though I saw all my life before me, as though scales had fallen from my eyes. Oh, what have I done! my lips involuntarily murmured in a bitter whisper.” —Turgenev, “A Tour in the Forest”

“Is treatment, particular bad treatment, ever given to a person?
“No. It is always meted out.
“Is anything else ever meted out?
“No. The only thing that is ever meted out is treatment.” —Myles na Gopaleen, The Best of Myles

“I heard Émile Zola characterize his [Droz’s] manner sometime since as merde à la vanille [vanilla shit].” —Henry James, reporting Zola’s diss of Gustave Droz in a letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry, 2 May 1876

What could Bitcoin possibly be good for other than money laundering and tax evasion? There’s an op-ed in the NYT today that maintains that it will help the poor with their banking and help the Federal Reserve manage the money supply. Surely these are the last things on earth that it would ever do—the things that it is least likely ever to do even accidentally. Governments refuse to allow gift cards that are dischargeable in multiple currencies, so it is inconceivable that they will not eventually be obliged to criminalize cryptocurrencies.

“To fear being ridiculous—is not to love truth.” —Turgenev, “A Correspondence”

equipollent (adj.): possessing equal power, identical in meaning

The two narratives are not equipollent.

—Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market

“It appears that my stuff has been over the heads of the readers. Imagine their stature!” —Henry James to Arthur George Sedgwick, 29 September 1876

“I believe fully, in spite of sneers, in interpreting the French Revolution by anecdotes, though not every diner out can do it.” —Emerson, journal, August 1849

“Eizenstat famously rebuked [Alfred Kahn] for publicly suggesting that rising inflation could result in a ‘very serious depression.’ Kahn responded by continuing to issue warnings of inflation-induced depression, but with the word ‘depression’ replaced with ‘banana.'” —Stephanie Mudge, Leftism Reinvented

At first depression seems to make one’s vision of the world sharpen. After all, narrowing the aperture for light increases the depth of field.

punnet (n.): small, light basket for strawberries, mushrooms, etc.

But there is a much more overwhelming sense of the strange beauty of tiny moments, such as [Oliver] Sacks’s response when Hayes dropped a punnet of cherry tomatoes on the kitchen floor (“How pretty! Do it again!”).

—Alex Clark, reviewing Bill Hayes’s Insomniac City in the TLS, 16 March 2018

semibreve: a whole note (under this terminology, a half-note is a minim, a quarter note is a crotchet, and an eighth note is a quaver)

The vaults and arches seem really to swing above you in great semibreves of rhythm.

—A. S. G. Butler, Recording Ruin

rani (n.): a Hindu queen, a rajah’s wife or widow

She had been there, unrememberingly, before, when she was small enough to ride in a backpack, little ranee on a jogging elephant, her view of the paintings relieved by the back of her father’s neck.

—Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair

“I don’t want to do so difficult a thing as dying without any chance of applause after having done it.” —Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, quoted in Edna Longley, ed., Annotated Collected Poems

“The high, thin nose was a little lonely, a little sad, but the bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches.” —Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, trans. E. G. Seidensticker

shaw (n.): a thicket; the strip of trees or bushes forming the border of a field

. . . a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.

—Edward Thomas, “February Afternoon”

stook (n.): a shock; a group of twelve sheaves placed upright to support each other as the grain dries and ripens

The wheat, tawny with ripeness, had been cut and stood in tented stooks about the fields.

—Iris Murdoch, The Bell

“You make me want to bound about you and about the idea of you like an excited dog.” —Iris Murdoch to Michael Oakeshott, 4 November 1958

“One more step, and he would bid the dying gladiator be comforted by the stanzas of Childe Harold.” —Edward Thomas, critiquing the aestheticized “spectatorial attitude” of Walter Pater, quoted in Edna Longley, ed., Annotated Collected Poems

cagoule (n.): a thin waterproof hoodie

Both were swaddled in layers of fat, shiny nylon—what Alan now thought of as engorged cagoules.

—James Wood, Upstate

Believing in the Kool-Aid does not make it a good idea to drink it.

“Compared with a true artist’s conscience, Tamerlane is tenderhearted.” —Walter de la Mare, foreword to Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems (1920)

Butterflies must sometimes wish they could go back to being caterpillars.

thrawn (adj.): perverse, contrary, cross-grained, ill-tempered

He had some bread and cheese in his pocket, and this he began furtively to toss to the dogs, singling out for his favors those that seemed most thrawn in appearance.

—Gavin Maxwell, The Rocks Remain

“Inside the hall, the faces of the students and the lecturer were equally indistinct, which made everything somehow mystical, like eating a bean jam bun in the dark.” —Natsume Soseki, Sanshiro

What does it say about me that when I play fetch with the dog indoors, instead of saying, “Fetch,” I say, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist.”

Philosophy is a representation in language of what it is like and what it means to be in the world. Therefore it will always be impossible finally to distinguish it from literature and it will never be finished.

daedal (adj.): inventive, ingenious; rich, variously adorned; complex

. . . all the living things
that dwell within the daedal earth.

—Shelley, “Mont Blanc”

“And my relatives, moreover, were beginning to feel that this oldness in him was abnormal, excessive, shameful, and the sort of thing bachelors deserve, as do all those of whom it seems that the great day that has no day after is longer than it is for others because for them it’s empty, the moments in it adding up, from morning onward, without ever having to be divided later with children.” —Proust, Du côté de chez Swann

Listening to Nina Simone, I realize that I miss hearing people ask God to damn something.

How far away is Joan Didion from the character in Play It as It Lays who talks about “third-string faggots”?

Oh, ’tis a joy divine on summer days
When not a breeze is stirring, not a cloud,
To sit within some solitary wood,
Far in some lonely wood, and hear no sound
Which the heart does not make, or else so fit
To its own temper that in external things
No longer seem internal difference.
All melts away, and things that are without
Live in our minds as in their native home.

—Wordsworth, fragment 3 from the Christabel notebook

solatium (n.): a sum of money given to make up for loss, inconvenience, or injured feelings

The master in Osaka (Okubata’s older brother) had given him a modest solatium upon his being disinherited, and he had been eating into his capital ever since.

—Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

To revisit the past is to say good-bye to it again, which is unbearable.

“Is it possible that any editor should endure any inconvenience without meditating an article?” —Trollope, Phineas Redux

A friend’s counsel to Phineas Finn, after he is slimed by Quintus Slide, the 19th-century version of an internet troll: “I don’t see what you can do. You have encountered a chimney sweeper, and of course you get some of the soot.”

Humans vs. AI: Our disadvantage is that we’re all essentially programmed the same, but we’re building many different AIs. There’s only one kind of “us” to be figured out, but every day someone puts together a new kind of “them.”

Arthur Russell sings in the key of heterosexuality with the same acceptance of generic constraint that ABBA sings in the language of English. One’s appreciation is in both cases heightened by the awareness that it isn’t natural.

“In a world where we are all transparent—unable to deceive each other—it might be rational to deceive ourselves about rationality.” —Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons

“She began crying and laughing. This conflict of tears and laughter always reminds me of the flickering and spluttering of a brightly burning candle when one sprinkles it with water.” —Chekhov, “The Privy Councillor”

“It feels ominous to drive through West Texas with a clean windshield. Road trips always used to be accompanied by the incessant splatter of death. . . . The absence of insects seems to be part of a general diminution of life.” —Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas

clout (adj.): cloth, rag

But whenever did a pan or a clout—when kept clean and tidy—refuse to do its duty, or rebel against its lady?”

—T. F. Powys, Unclay

Music continued for a decade or two after it ended, but unless you already knew the provenance of one of these later songs, you couldn’t figure out when it had been recorded. You couldn’t even write an algorithm that could figure it out. The songs were already outside of music’s history.

After one has learned to manage the isolation and poverty, there is still the challenge of writing itself.

slane, or slean (adj.): a long-handled spade, with a wing or two wings on the blade, used for cutting peat

The men-folk were going to the turf-bogs with their sleans on their shoulders.

—Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool

barm (vi.): mix with yeast or leaven; rise in froth or fermentation

The porter was beginning to barm in bellies.

—Kavanagh, Green Fool

creel (n.): large wicker basket

The pot of potatoes was turned out on a creel.

—Kavanagh, Green Fool

Bassani captures perfectly the way that the mere visibility of a victim or former victim spurs in a fascist (or a fascist-leaning bystander) the impression of being unfairly attacked.

The word “mother” is always to some extent in the vocative.

The sonorous, etymologically spurious second “o” in the word “reportorial” is the reason one likes to say it so often.

“Be nice,” the man growled to his dog.

limber (n.): detachable, two-wheeled forepart of a gun-carriage, used for transporting ammunition

“And also, your honour, Artemyev got drunk yesterday, and the lieutenant ordered him to be put in the limber of a spare gun-carriage.”

—Chekhov, “The Kiss”

“And certainly this doesn’t mean that M. Legrandin was insincere when he thundered against snobs. He was incapable of knowing—on his own, at least—that he was one, because we only ever know the passions of other people, and insofar as we manage to know of our own, it’s only from others that we’re able to learn it. On us the passions only act in a secondary way, through the imagination, which substitutes for primary motives intermediate ones that are more decent. Legrandin’s snobbery never advised him to go see a duchess frequently. It charged his imagination with making this duchess appear to be arrayed with all the graces.” —Proust, Du côté de chez Swann; the passage also seems to describe the operation of unconscious racism

“The ferocity of the financial crisis in 2008 was met with a mobilization of state action without precedent in the history of capitalism. Never before outside wartime had states intervened on such a scale and with such speed. It was a devastating blow to the complacent belief in the great moderation, a shocking overturning of prevailing laissez-faire ideology. To mobilize trillions of dollars on the credit of the taxpayer to save banks from the consequences of their own folly and greed violated maxims of fairness and good government. But given the risk of contagion, how could states not act? Having done so, however, how could they ever go back to the idea that markets were efficient, self-regulating and best left to their own devices? It was a profound challenge to the basic idea that had guided economic government since the 1970s. It was all the more significant for the fact that the challenge came not from the outside. It was not motivated by some radical ideological turn to the Left or the Right. There was precious little time for thought or wider consideration. Intervention was driven by the financial system’s own malfunctioning and the impossibility of separating individual business failure from its wider systemic repercussions. Martin Wolf, the Financial Times‘s esteemed chief economic commentator, dubbed March 14, 2008, ‘the day the dream of global free-market capitalism died.'” —Adam Tooze, Crashed

“I once heard a filmmaker say that in order to be truly creative a person must be in possession of four things: irony, melancholy, a sense of competition, and boredom.” —Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

“He who undertakes anything, thinking he is doing it out of a sense of duty, is deceiving himself and will ruin everything he touches.” —Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer

There is a charm in solitude that cheers,
A feeling that the world knows nothing of;
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off,
Whose whole delight was crime—at good to scoff.
Green solitude, his prison, pleasure yields,
The bitch fox heeds him not; birds seem to laugh.
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely field
Whose dark green oaks his noontide leisure shield.

—John Clare, “Solitude”

House-breaking capitalism

A new essay of mine, “Merchants of Doom” (with the online title, “Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy?”), appears in the 14 May 2018 issue of The New Yorker. It reviews Robert Kuttner’s new book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? (Norton), and also takes note of Barry Eichengreen’s The Populist Temptation (Oxford) and Dani Rodrik’s Straight Talk on Trade (Princeton).