Tea and antipathy in novels about mild-mannered clerics

If a thing is weighing on one’s mind—a topic, say, like 18th-century tea smuggling or political paranoia—one tends to find it even when one isn’t looking for it. While reading novels, for example.

Americans were far from being the only people in the eighteenth century who smuggled tea. In fact, the ratio between the tax on East India Company tea and its underlying price was so high that it eventually became a classic example in economics of the way that overburdensome regulation may encourage illegality, and awareness of the problem seems to have spilled over from economics into literature quite early on. While researching “Tea and Antipathy,” I happened to read John Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821), a charming novel that Galt himself liked to think of as a “local theoretical history.” The book is written in the voice of Reverend Micah Balwhidder, a Presbyterian minister, recently retired, who has decided to set down an account of his life in the Scottish parish of Dalmailing. Each year gets its own chapter, in which Reverend Balwhidder, with a guileless lack of self-awareness, summarizes the doings in Dalmailing, spiritual and nonspiritual. In 1761, the most remarkable thing in Dalmailing was the smuggling of tea and hard liquor:

It was in this year that the great smuggling trade corrupted all the west coast . . . . The tea was going like the chaff, the brandy like well-water, and the wastrie of all things was terrible. There was nothing minded but the riding of cadgers [sellers] by day, and excisemen by night—and battles between the smugglers and King’s men, both by sea and land. . . . I did all that was in the power of nature to keep my people from the contagion; I preached sixteen times from the text, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. I visited and I exhorted; I warned and I prophesied; I told them, that, although the money came in like slate stones, it would go like the snow off the dyke. But for all I could do, the evil got in among us. . . .

Indeed, a year later, in 1762, the evil has made its way into Reverend Balwhidder’s own home, in part on account of the charitable interest he takes in an indigent widow, Mrs. Malcolm, who has begun selling tea. “I lost some of my dislike to the tea,” the minister admits.

It did no harm to the head of the drinkers, which was not always the case with the possets that were in fashion before . . . ; so, both for its temperance, and on account of Mrs Malcolm’s sale, I refrained from the November in this year to preach against tea.

By 1778, when the rage for smuggling returns, Rev. Balwhidder is not above chuckling over the story of a woman who has hidden a stash of smuggled tea in her mattress ticking and lies on top of it, feigning to a customs officer that it’s her deathbed. Loosened from strict virtue by time and his affections, the reverend even goes so far as to observe, “Of all the manifold ills in the train of smuggling, surely the excisemen are the worst.”

Not long after, while reading Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), I unexpectedly came across some 18th-century political paranoia—in particular, the variety known as the 18th-century Commonwealthman tradition. In chapter 19, the Vicar, Dr. Primrose, is invited to dine at the home of Wilkinson, a man so interested in politics that he reads six newspapers, seventeen magazines, and two reviews. Wilkinson complains that George III hasn’t let himself be managed the way a king ought to let himself be managed:

I don’t think there has been a sufficient number of advisers: he should advise with every person willing to give him advice, and then we should have things done in anotherguess manner.

When the Vicar protests that such management would be meddling, a lady calls him “sordid” and indignantly apostrophizes “Liberty, that sacred gift of heaven!” Wilkinson, too, takes offense: “Can it be possible . . . that there should be any found at present advocates for slavery? Any who are for meanly giving up the privileges of Britons?”

This was the lingo of the 18th-century Commonwealthman, which Goldsmith disliked, and the Vicar—or Goldsmith, in the Vicar’s voice—proceeds to dress Wilkinson down. The way he does so is rather interesting to an observer in 21st-century America, where income inequality is higher than it has ever been. The Vicar argues that the antimonarchical rhetoric of people like Wilkinson is obfuscatory piffle served up by rich oligarchs, who resent the king’s power as an interference with theirs—as interference with the manipulation by the wealthy of the poor and the oppression by the wealthy of the middle class:

It is the interest of the great . . . to diminish kingly power as much as possible; because whatever they take from that is naturally restored to themselves; and all they have to do in the state, is to undermine the single tyrant, by which they resume their primaeval authority. Now, the state may be so circumstanced, or its laws may be so disposed, or its men of opulence so minded, as all to conspire in carrying on this business of undermining monarchy. For . . . if the circumstances of our state be such, as to favour the accumulation of wealth, and make the opulent still more rich, this will encrease their ambition. . . . Now the possessor of accumulated wealth, when furnished with the necessaries and pleasures of life, has no other method to employ the superfluity of his fortune but in purchasing power. That is, differently speaking, in making dependants, by purchasing the liberty of the needy or the venal . . . the rabble of mankind, whose souls and whose education are adapted to servitude. . . . But there must still be a large number of the people without the sphere of the opulent man’s influence. . . . In this middle order of mankind are generally to be found all the arts, wisdom, and virtues of society. This order alone is known to be the true preserver of freedom, and may be called the People. Now it may happen that this middle order of mankind may lose all its influence in a state, and its voice be in a manner drowned in that of the rabble: . . . In such a state, . . . all that the middle order has left, is to preserve the prerogative and privileges of the one principal governor with the most sacred circumspection. For he divides the power of the rich, and calls off the great from falling with tenfold weight on the middle order placed beneath them.

A strong central government, the Vicar insists, is the middle class’s safest ally. The rich demonize such a government as tyrannical, because no other force in society is capable of standing up to wealth. Should the rich succeed in fooling even the middle class into distrust of government, the result will be a country where “the laws govern the poor, and the rich govern the law.”

The contradiction outrages Wilkinson. Before Wilkinson can throw the Vicar out of the house, though, Wilkinson’s master and mistress come home: it turns out that Wilkinson is really no more than a butler.

Glut and deflation

"We are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift,'" writes Nigel Burwood at Bookride, his brilliant blog about bookselling. "An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing," he explains. And as a result, booksellers like Burwood "are being offered far too many books."

I've been wondering about this. I'm a buyer of secondhand books rather than a seller, so I'm not as acutely aware of market vicissitudes, but there is an indicator that I've been curious about. At the used-book search site Abebooks.com, if you aren't ready to buy, you can "Save for later" the books you've found. Since my reach usually exceeds my financial grasp, and since searching for copies of books in and of itself satisfies a certain obsessive-compulsive craving, I often have dozens of books in my "Save for later" list. Over the years, I have learned that the list is not stable. From time to time, either I or Abebooks upgrades software and inadvertently deletes all the titles. Sometimes individual books vanish from the list without explanation, perhaps because a software cookie has expired, but if you notice that such a book is gone, you can easily search for it again. Even less distressingly, if a bookseller goes on vacation, his book remains in your "save for later" list but the price is replaced by the notation "Temporarily unavailable." It comes back of its own accord when the bookseller does.

Excruciatingly, however, the price next to a title in your "Save for later" list is sometimes replaced with the notation "Book sold!" That exclamation point always cuts like salt dashed into a wound. How long did the very good set of all eleven volumes of the Bodley Head Henry James in very good dust jackets remain in my "Save for later" list, priced at $150, without my finding the necessary funds and courage? I do not know, but I remember the day that the numerals disappeared, the title went from clickable blue to unclickable black, and I was forced to concede that "Book" had "sold!"

As recently as a few years ago, I felt such pangs more or less monthly. As much as the pangs pained me, I recognized them as a sign of general economic health and my own good judgment about prices. After all, I put a book in my "Save for later" list because I thought it was the cheapest available copy in good condition of an edition that I wanted. If anybody else wanted the same edition, the copy in my cart was exactly the one they would buy, if they had any sense.

The pangs became less frequent in 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession. Oddly, though, they didn't return with the so-called recovery. In fact, over the past year, almost no books in my cart have been sold out from under me—so few, in fact, that I erroneously concluded that Abebooks must have changed its methodology and must now be silently vanishing sold books from "Save for later" lists, perhaps on the advice of some marketing psychologist who had revealed to the site's managers how traumatic those words and that mark of punctuation were to fragile personalities like mine. But then, a month ago, I was once more stabbed in the heart: "Book sold!" It was a shock. Once I recovered from the particular loss, though, I became perplexed. So Abebooks hadn't changed its methods. That meant that only one book I wanted had been bought by someone else in the course of almost a year.

A number of explanations suggest themselves. First: perhaps there is no economic recovery, not really, at least not among people who buy the sort of books I like. Second: perhaps e-readers, by changing habits, have thinned the ranks of collectors and made physical books a drug on the market, as Burwood has suggested. Third: perhaps it's a sign of deflation. (Number three isn't so much an alternative to number two as an alternative way of thinking of it.) General deflation would be a worldwide economic nightmare, to the extent that I understand it, but it's possible that there might only be deflation in the market for used books. New booksellers, especially online,  constantly vary their prices, but used booksellers usually price their books just once. That practice works well in an era of mild inflation; the real cost of a book drops the longer it sits on the shelf, as a reasonable seller would want it to. But if, because of changing tastes or general economic malaise, the demand for used books is dropping, then most old prices are now too high, and as time goes by, the real value of these books to buyers will fall ever further below the price written on the front flyleaf. But few booksellers are likely to want to endure the tedium of repricing their whole stock.

Deflation would explain why I often nowadays buy books through another feature offered by Abebooks, the "Wants" list. If you enter search criteria for a "Want" and add it to your "Wants" list, Abebooks will email you any new books entered into its database that match. Often the newly added copies are priced substantially lower than the ones currently sitting around, perhaps on account of the factors sketched out above.

To look on the bright side, if the trend persists, I might someday be able to afford a library much ampler and substantial than I ever thought possible. (Where to put it is another question. And if the market for used books collapses altogether, of course, I won't be able to find the books that I will theoretically be able to afford.) Among the drawbacks of this state of affairs, however, is the sense of an era ending. One kind of book that I like to have is a reasonably attractive hardcover scholarly edition of a literary classic; recently, for example, I got a bargain on the second edition of Eugene Vinaver's three-volume Sir Thomas Malory. In that vein, when Jenny Davidson's blog Light Reading alerted me last week to a TLS review of a new edition of the poems of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, I devoured the review at once, because I don't have an edition of Rochester, and I've never been able to figure out which one to get, if I were to get one. Bad news: the new Wiley-Blackwell edition costs $99, but according to the TLS, the edition you probably want is Harold Love's 1999 Oxford English Texts edition, which costs $350 new, and only about a C-note less used. The price of scholarly hardcovers of classic literary texts has been rising for decades, and in many cases, they're now out of the reach of everyone except research libraries and a few of the academics who specialize in that specific author, if said academics are well funded. Indeed, when columnists at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recommended that new graduate students "build a personal library," they weren't referring to the purchase of books at all. They were merely advising that grad students store in a software program the titles of articles and books they read, preferably along with a few keywords. (Happily, Penguin often republishes the texts I covet, but they're stripped of much of the scholarly apparatus, and a paperback isn't as durable, nor is it quite the same aesthetic object.)

While Feverish, I Solve the Problem of Economics

[The following was cobbled together from notes, some newish and some oldish, while the author was under the influence of a mounting fever (mild flu, nothing serious). Nations are advised not to reform their financial markets on the basis of it without first consulting a credentialed economist, who should, of course, not really be trusted, either.]

In a chapter midway through Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the characters sit down to an early-nineteenth-century card game called Speculation. The spice of the game seems to have been that players had a chance to bid on cards that might prove useful to them later; it seems to have offered a chance to play at capitalism, the way the Monopoly board game does today. The game of Speculation is new to some of the characters, and Henry Crawford , an heir and something of a dandy, is obliged to manage the hand of the dotty matron Maria Bertram as well as his own. The cognitive burden of this double hand hardly weighs him down. To the contrary, in simultaneous conversations he not only details his plan for improving his friend Edmund Bertram’s parsonage but also flirts with Edmund’s naïve cousin Fanny Price. He’s playing, in other words, not only two hands but also three games at once: cards, real estate, and love. Austen renders his dangerous ease as a monologue:

“The air of a gentleman’s residence, therefore, you cannot but give it, if you do any thing. But it is capable of much more. (Let me see, Mary; Lady Bertram bids a dozen for that queen; no, no, a dozen is more than it is worth. Lady Bertram does not bid a dozen. She will have nothing to say to it. Go on, go on.) By some such improvements as I have suggested, (I do not really require you to proceed upon my plan, though by the bye I doubt any body’s striking out a better)—you may give it a higher character. You may raise it into a place. From being the mere gentleman’s residence, it becomes, by judicious improvement, the residence of a man of education, taste, modern manners, good connections. All this may be stamped on it . . . You think with me, I hope—(turning with a softened voice to Fanny).—Have you ever seen the place?”

Henry Crawford’s moral defect is the same in all three fields: he doesn’t play for any higher purpose—only to take the next trick. Edmund high-mindedly objects that tastefulness isn’t a merit in a parsonage, and Fanny is immunized against Crawford’s romantic attractions by her apparently hopeless but nonetheless devoted affection for Edmund. But though Crawford does no serious damage in this scene, he is nonetheless condemnable, according to Austen’s moral laws, by the evidence the scene provides. He is in real estate a flipper, and in romance a flirt.

Every historical period has its predominant economic metaphors, and they seep into its culture. Not long ago, I had coffee with an undergraduate who reported that he had just read Derrida and Lacan on Poe and was excited by the idea that criticism might be the new literature. Twenty years ago, when I read Derrida and Lacan on Poe, my professors teased me the same exciting possibility. It occurs to me now that the idea is about as old as, and has certain structural parallels to, the notion that finance is the new manufacturing. Like criticism over literature, finance traditionally supervised manufacturing yet was thought to be parasitic upon it and less “creative” than it. And then at some moment, often specified on Michael Lewis’s authority as the 1980s, finance began to have the reputation of requiring more intellectual acumen than manufacturing and to attract the brighter and more modish talents. Similarly (though hard numbers are very hard to come by), academic criticism started to pay better than the creation of literature—certainly it offered more stability and social prestige. For a young American to ignore the economic signaling and go into manufacturing or literature rather than finance or criticism, he would have to be either idealist or dunderheaded.

But I’m digressing, from a topic I haven’t even announced yet. A more familiar economic metaphor of our day is that of depression and stimulus. The metaphor goes like this: There is a mystifying complex system (the brain, the economy), and when the system is running well, a perspicuous diagnostic index is maintained by the system at a high level (personal happiness, Dow Jones industrial average). If misfortune blights the system, this index drops, and sometimes, for somewhat mysterious reasons, the same self-regulating feedback loops that sustain the index against minor buffeting in good times can hold it down at a new low level after a crisis (unhappiness, recession), depriving the system of the opportunity to recover fully. Science, according to the metaphor’s logic, has the answer. By a temporary stimulus (Prozac, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), the index can be “re-set” to its earlier, higher level. The stimulus is not supposed to last; it is to be understood as a course of treatment; the individual is not being addicted to a drug, nor the nation to welfare. Once the system has been reset to the proper level, the stimulus can be safely discontinued.

Thus is a reductive idea of Keynesian economics assimilated to a popular understanding of Prozac, or vice versa. It seems, however, to be wrong, at least about Keynesian economics.

I should admit here that I am more or less illiterate about economics, and that what I understand of Keynes derives from my reading of articles by Richard Posner, Aaron Swartz, and Paul Krugman, further stimulated by Ben Kunkel’s essay “Full Employment” (excerpt here) and reinforced by articles like this one by Joseph Stiglitz. I shall now proceed to blog with impressive and daunting authority nonetheless.

The popular story about the Great Depression is that America pulled itself out of it by the great stimulus of World War II, and insofar as I understand what the latter-day Keynesians are saying, the popular story is wrong, or at least, insufficiently descriptive. World War II did stimulate the American economy, but the treatment was successful not merely because it provided America with an enormous new demand for goods. The decisive nostrum was a change in the terms of the social contract between the few and the many. For the sake of winning the war, the elites of America (and other democracies) ensured the cooperation of their working and middle classes by giving them a more dignified place at the economic table. Wages rose; the distribution of wealth in America became more egalitarian. To be numerical about it, during World War II, the share of income that went to the richest tenth of Americans dropped from 45 percent to 32.5 percent, and didn’t rise again until the 1970s. In other words, during the long period of American economic growth sometimes referred to as the Golden Age (unsatisfactory libertarian explanations of whose demise Kunkel deftly explodes in his recent n+1 essay), the country shared its wealth more broadly than before or after.

Why did this help? According to classical economics, it shouldn’t. Buying power is buying power, and if more of it is in the hands of the rich, so what. Their money is just as good. But according to Keynes, there is a problem with concentrating wealth in the hands of the rich: they don’t spend as much of it. They aren’t, after all, in need. “Consumption — to repeat the obvious — is the sole end and object of all economic activity,” writes Keynes, in a sentence quoted by Swartz. That is, money in the bank is for the interim worthless; its value is suspended until it is put into use. Give a rich person ten dollars, and he is likely to put nine dollars in his savings account. Give a poor person ten dollars, and he will have spent all ten by lunchtime on food and services, and its beneficiaries will be people who have to work for a living and who are therefore more likely to spend it themselves. The original ten dollars, if spent by a person of modest means, will multiply their value as they work their way through the economic system.

A large GNP, Keynes believed, isn’t enough to keep an economy ticking if too great a share of the profits goes to the rich, because the rich will just hoard, and hoarding cancels money’s value. “It is . . . conceivable,” writes Kunkel, “that the rich could spend enough to maintain a sufficient level of consumer demand”; Kunkel notes that “the US approached just such a strategy over the last dozen years, with help from the delirious increase of asset prices.” Conceivable, Kunkel writes, but not likely. The strategy would only work if the rich could be induced to spend on a scale of inhuman grandiosity—if, Keynes writes (in another quote from Swartz), “millionaires find their satisfaction in building mighty mansions to contain their bodies when alive and pyramids to shelter them after death, or, repenting of their sins, erect cathedrals and endow monasteries or foreign missions.” The successful stimulation of a national economy is much more likely if, instead, workers are paid a living wage, and use it to buy T-shirts, I-pads, flour, and eggs. Posner summarizes: “It is consumption, rather than thrift, that promotes economic growth.”

To return to literature for a moment, to adopt the Keynesian perspective is to prefer Henry James’s understanding of the world over Jane Austen’s. In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price wins out because she modestly expresses no desire, keeping her love hidden in the confidence that by chance Edmund will some day recognize it. She hoards. Lucky for Fanny, she lives in a novel by Jane Austen, who rewards her abstention from desire by bestowing Edmund upon her in the end. But in real life, as opposed to novels, young people grow old, and habits of solitary life calcify. Hoarding is a poor strategy for love, or so runs the moral of Henry James’s Spoils of Poynton, in which Fleda Vetch restrains herself, much like Austen’s Fanny, from acting on a wish to seize the objects of her desire—a man and his lovely furniture—only to have them perish, never properly appreciated by anyone.

Did the rich cause the recent recession and ongoing world economic crisis by keeping too large a share of profits for themselves and then hoarding it? Why would they do such a thing? It could be because, as Keynes also suggests, we’re approaching an era of sufficient capital and the euthanasia of the rentier class. In other words, thanks to global competition, it may have become nearly impossible in recent years to find a return on investment that paid more than the costs of risk and inflation. In desperation, the rich threw their capital into wasteful, essentially usurious schemes. As Thomas Geoghegan explained in an April 2009 Harper’s article,

With no law capping interest, the evil is not only that banks prey on the poor (they have always done so) but that capital gushes out of manufacturing and into banking. When banks get 25 percent to 30 percent on credit cards, and 500 or more percent on payday loans, capital flees from honest pursuits, like auto manufacturing.

If the money thrown away by the rich had been given to the poor, the poor would have bought things with it that actual people actually needed and wanted. It could be argued that by buying securities of low-quality mortgages, or by raising the credit-card limits of people who wouldn’t be able to make good on their debts, the rich somehow were giving their money to the poor. But the rich didn’t give the money, is the rub; they bought with it the right either to long repayment of usurious debt or to repossession of overvalued property—in either case, to something not worth its stated value. Without anyone having wanted it to happen, the government became the default investor in the fall of 2008, as Keynes foresaw would happen when the rentiers panicked.

The moral of the story seems to be that when the rich have most of the money and hoard it, the symbolic value of money becomes somewhat unreal—the conversion of money, which is imaginary, into value, which is real, breaks down. I wonder [here the patient’s temperature was decidedly triple-digit—ed.], further, whether a continuing of the process of hoarding might precipitate a reversion to something like feudalism—to a system in which force is deployed to perpetuate a rigid system of economic obligations. New feudal lords would look to our modern eyes like mafiosi, not like dukes and duchesses, because viewed through a lens of bourgeois morality, aristocrats are mafiosi. They think a different ethic applies to them than to others in society, they are proud of their history of using force and terror to ensure profits, and they think of economic enterprise as largely a zero-sum game. If the super rich can’t get a return out of productive investment in a free market, why not buy force and political power so as to keep a class of people in long-term economic bondage? Occasionally, one could also make a small killing on the side by seizing the hoard of a rival. This sounds melodramatic, but feudalism remains a compelling way of life psychologically, as much popular entertainment attests, and the absurd flowering of corruption in, say, the New York State legislature hardly reassures one that civic virtue will be sufficient to protect America from it.

I am thinking out loud (or online, anyway) here, not necessarily claiming that I’ve figured anything out. I think what I find most intriguing is the idea in Keynes that there is a mismatch between the real-world meaning of economic transactions and the nominal values assigned to them by monetary accounting. It’s very strange to think that if you put too much money into a few people’s bank accounts, the economy might falter.

As a thought experiment, while I couldn’t sleep the night before last [i.e., fever—ed.], I imagined an island with a hundred inhabitants, who live off of fish and breadfruit. Every so often an islander finds the shell of a whelk on the beach, and in time it occurs to the islanders to use these shells as a currency for trading fish and breadfruit. Breadfruit must be eaten while they’re ripe, and fish before they spoil, but shells last indefinitely. The durability of the shells misrepresents the nature of fish and breadfruit, but it makes possible new kinds of bargains. Thanks to shell-based trade, someone who catches two fish today can sell his extra fish for a shell, and use the shell to buy someone else’s extra fish tomorrow without having to predict in advance who among his peers is going to have caught an extra fish tomorrow.

Even in this simple model, there’s an obvious gap between the accounting that the shells make possible and the real exchanges of value on the island. Consider what happens when an islander stumbles across a previously undiscovered whelk shell. He as an individual and the island economy as a whole are suddenly one shell up, but he hasn’t added a shell’s worth of value to the happiness or well-being of the island. An islander who dedicates himself to hunting for shells might end up doing a shell’s worth of scavenging work for every shell he finds, but he still won’t be contributing a shell’s worth of value to the community.

Consider what happens when islanders strike a more complex kind of deal with one another. Suppose several islanders pool their shells and give ten shells to one among them, who buys the labor of other islanders and fashions a better canoe. With this canoe, the borrower is able to fish further from land and is able to repay the lenders with a quantity of fish equal in value to eleven shells a month later. Maybe, to keep the accounting square, he even trades his catch for eleven shells, and is able to return eleven shells for the ten he was given. Unlike the beachcomber, the lenders and the borrower in this case have added a shell’s worth of value to the common weal. They haven’t added any new shells to the number of shells in circulation, but the borrowers have added a shell to their official wealth, and this is the sort of complex, win-win transaction that makes currency and capitalism so desirable.

But the islanders might strike still another kind of bargain. A group might pool their ten shells and give them to an individual who proceeds to trade them over the next ten days for ten fishes procured by others, which he then simply eats. This improvident borrower promises to find another shell for every month that passes with his debt unpaid, but he doesn’t have a plan for how to pay it. He pays in dribs and drabs, and his repayments are often offset by the monthly addition of a new shell to his debt; maybe he never pays the full debt off in his lifetime. In essence the lenders have used their shells to turn a citizen into something like a slave. If the borrower keeps paying long enough, or the borrower’s family decide to rescue him with a large lump-sum payment, the loan may not in the end be unprofitable to the lenders. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the borrower pays back enough, in the end, to reward the lenders at a rate of interest equivalent to that obtained when one gets eleven shells a month after loaning ten. The lenders have added a shell to their wealth, but nothing has been added to the community. No fish have been caught that would not have been caught without the transaction. On the contrary, an islander has been put into a state of indefinite servitude and unprofitable (to him) overwork, which may affect his well-being, and in all likelihood the shell-piles of his friends and family have been diminished.

Productive investment and usury share a certain family resemblance and may even look identical when considered in terms of shells won and lost, but are very different in their real effects. All I’m trying to show, by these cases of shells found on a beach, earned by enterprise, or squandered in bad loans, is that there is a mismatch between real wealth and its measurement in money. In the short term, and in day-to-day transactions, the mismatch is so minor and the consequences so trivial that it is ignored, and the price of a thing feels like its real value, to most of us most of the time. Imagine, though, that the islanders continue to live happily for several generations, that one family is particularly thrifty, and after a couple of hundred years, it so happens that ninety-nine islanders have one shell each, and one islander has a billion. Are his billion shells really worth a billion shells? Leave to one side one’s intuitive sense that such a state of affairs must have been led up to by a long history of criminal exploitation. My point is that all the rich man really has is a billion shells. Each shell represents a portion of a fresh fish, or rather, a portion of the labor power that goes into catching the fish, but the fish don’t exist yet, and it is far from clear that the rich man will be able to trade all his shells for what they represent. Because the rich man and his ancestors have been hoarding their wealth, a lot of fish that might have been caught over the years haven’t been; the opportunity to catch and eat them is gone forever. What the rich man has is a set of claims on the labor of his fellow citizens, but he and his fellow citizens only have a certain number of days left to live, and his fellow citizens are only capable of catching a certain number of fish and gathering a certain number of breadfruit in excess of what they need every day to survive, so they might not be able to honor his claims, even if they wanted to. The rich man will never be able to cash his chits in. The value of his shells has become unreal.

[I had got this far in my argument when a friend from Porlock showed up, and I’m afraid I lost my train of thought after that . . .]

Are Americans spending less on reading?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: Are Americans reading less? Today: Are Americans spending less money on reading?

Before I give the summaries, I want to provide little context. As you’ll see, there’s some reason to think that publishing revenues have increased overall in the last five years. If one is trying to determine from this fact whether Americans have grown more or less readerly, however, it’s important to keep in mind several factors. First, the U.S. population has grown. Second, the U.S. economy has grown. And third, the average price of a book has risen (see below for evidence). In other words, it is possible that the publishing industry took in more revenue even as the average citizen read fewer books and the proportion of readers in the population shrank. In fact, that’s what I think happened. That’s why I made a point of looking at units, as well as dollars, and of dividing those units by the Census Bureau’s population estimates. (One last note: To simplify my own life, I’m linking to the data that I collected in late summer, but some government departments have released another year’s data since I did my research.)

  • The Book Industry Study Group has estimated that 3.09 billion books were sold in 2005, and 3.10 billion in 2006, for net dollar sales of $34.63 billion in 2005 and $35.69 billion in 2006. BISG projects that sales will be 3.15 billion in 2007, 3.18 billion in 2008, and 3.24 billion in 2011. Because of a change in methodology, the group’s earlier data aren’t comparable to the numbers it is collecting now. For comparison’s sake, however, they have recalculated what their new numbers would be under their old methodology, arriving at this series for unit sales: 2.36 billion in 2001, 2.37 billion in 2002, 2.34 billion in 2003, 2.296 billion in 2004, 2.36 billion in 2005, and 2.38 billion in 2006; and this series for dollar sales: $24.74 billion in 2001, $25.27 billion in 2002, $26.00 billion in 2003, $26.47 billion in 2004, $27.84 billion in 2005, and $28.60 billion in 2006. When the unit sales numbers are divided by the population estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau, it works out that there has been a decline in sales from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. When the old-methodology numbers for dollar sales are divided by the old-methodology numbers for unit sales, it transpires that the average price of a new book has risen from $10.49 in 2001 to $12.04 in 2006. Consumer books are a subset of total book sales, comprised of adult trade, juvenile trade, and mass market paperback books. Under the BISG’s old methodology, unit sales of consumer books have also stagnated: 1.54 billion 2001, 1.56 billion in 2002, 1.53 billion in 2003, 1.48 billion in 2004, 1.52 billion in 2005, and 1.53 billion in 2006. [Michael Healy, ed., Book Industry Trends 2007, {for-purchase publication} pages 10, 13, 204, and 207. The Book Industry Study Group is also cited in table 1118, “Quantity of Books Sold: 2004 to 2009,” of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007.]
  • Slightly higher estimates of consumer book sales are offered by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, who see a very modest increase in net unit sales between 2001 and 2006. VSS estimates that per-person, per-year spending on books has increased somewhat, but notes that “Consumer book spending growth consistently trailed that of GDP from 2001 to 2006.” Like the Book Industry Study Group, they estimate that the average price of a a new book rose between 2001 and 2006. [Veronis Suhler Stevenson, Communications Industry Forecast, 2007 {for-purchase publication}, page 56, table ES.14, page 360, page 368, and page 374, table 13.11.] Note: Veronis Suhler Stevenson provided me with their report as a courtesy and for the purposes of reporting; since they make a living by providing data and since I didn’t end up having room to quote them in the final published article, I’m not publishing their numbers here.

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent an average of $141 on reading in 1985, $153 in 1990, $163 in 1995, $146 in 2000, and $126 in 2005. The data are reported yearly. Those between the ages of 55 and 64 spent the most yearly on reading, $167. Whites spent more than blacks or Hispanics, and the Northeast and the West outspent other regions. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1217, “Expenditures per Consumer Unit for Entertainment and Reading: 1985 to 2004,” and U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Consumer Expenditures in 2005,” February 2007, page 3 and page 10.]
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released to the National Endowment for the Arts previously unpublished data about consumer spending on books (as opposed to reading generally). As summarized in To Read or Not to Read, the average spending by a consumer unit (household) on books went from $37.74 in 1985 to $57.43 in 2005; when the figures are adjusted for inflation to 1982-84 dollars, the spending dropped from $33.25 in 1985 to $28.59 in 2005. [Sunil Iyengar et al, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, National Endowment for the Arts, 2007, p. 49, table 4C]
  • U.S. consumers spent an increasing amount on “Books and maps” between 1990 and 2006, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis: $16.2 billion in 1990, $23.2 billion in 1995, $33.7 billion in 2000, $34.6 billion in 2001, $37.1 billion in 2002, $39.0 billion in 2003, $40.4 billon in 2004, $41.8 billion in 2005, and $43.4 billion in 2006. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1218, “Personal Consumption Expenditures for Recreation: 1990 to 2004.” Bureau of Economic Analysis, Department of Commerce, National Income and Product Accounts Table, “Table 2.5.5 Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Expenditure, 2005-2006.”]
  • The total amount that U.S. consumers paid for books, according to the Book Industry Study Group, was $49.15 billion in 2004, $51.92 billion in 2005, and $53.62 billion in 2006. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1119, “Books Sold—Value of U.S. Domestic Consumer Expenditures: 2004 to 2009.” Michael Healy, ed., Book Industry Trends 2007 {for-purchase publication}, page 17.]

  • The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the revenues of the book publishing industry have been climbing moderately in the past few years: $24.98 billion in 2000, $25.83 billion in 2001, $26.93 billion in 2002, $26.06 billion in 2003, $27.90 billion in 2004, and $27.73 billion in 2005. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, tables 1107 and 1120. U.S. Census Bureau, “2005 Service Annual Survey, Information Sector Services,” page 20, table 3.0.1.]

Tomorrow (or thereafter): Is literacy declining?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Notebook: “There She Blew”

Harry V. Givens, photographer, 'Whale Skeleton, Point Lobos, California,' American Environmental Photographs Collection (1891-1936), AEP-CAS206, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library

“There She Blew,” my review of Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, is in the 23 July 2007 issue of The New Yorker. Herewith a few web extras and informal footnotes.

As ever, my first thanks go to the book under review. I also consulted the conservationist and historian Richard Ellis’s Men and Whales (Knopf, 1991), which takes the story of whaling beyond America, and the economists Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter’s In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906 (University of Chicago, 1997), which contains empirical data and insights that will interest Ph.D.’s as well as M.B.A.’s. The best documentation of Melville’s life as a whaler is in Herman Melville’s Whaling Years (Vanderbilt, 2004), a 1952 dissertation revised by its author, Wilson Heflin, until his death in 1985, and astutely edited for publication by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Thomas Farel Heffernan. (It’s from a note in Heflin’s book that I found the description of sperm-squeezing in William M. Davis’s 1874 memoir.) Two nineteenth-century memoirs of whaling that I refer to—J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise and Francis Allyn Olmsted’s Incidents of a Whaling Voyage—are available online thanks to Tom Tyler of Denver, Colorado, as part of his edition of journals kept aboard the Nantucket whaler Plough Boy between 1827 and 1834. William Scoresby Jr.’s Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery is available in Google Books. (For the record, though, I read on paper, not online. I’m not really capable of reading books online.)

Also very useful was Briton Cooper Busch’s “Whaling Will Never Do for Me”: The American Whaleman in the Nineteenth Century (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), which told me about bored shipboard wives and the whaler who read Moby-Dick while at sea, and Pamela A. Miller’s And the Whale Is Ours: Creative Writing of American Whalemen (Godine, 1971), my source for the quatrain about sperm whales vanishing from “Japan Ground.”

Now for the wildly miscellaneous. While I was researching the review, some Eskimos killed a bowhead whale off the shores of Alaska and found in its blubber the unexploded explosive tip of a bomb lance manufactured in the 1880s; the discovery got a short paragraph in the New York Times (“This Whale’s Life . . . It Was a Long One”), and a longer explanation on the website of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (“125-year-old New Bedford Bomb Fragment Found Embedded in Alaskan Bowhead Whale”). The NBWM has some great photographs of whaling in its online archives, from an inadvertently campy tableau of a librarian showing a young sailor how to handle his harpoon in the 1950s, to a sublime and otherworldly image of a backlit “blanket piece” of blubber being hauled on board a whaler in 1904. The blanket piece was photographed by the whaling artist Clifford W. Ashley, as part of his research for his paintings; he also took pictures of a lookout high in a mast, a sperm whale lying fin out beside a whaler, the “cutting in” of a whale beside a ship, and whalers giving each other haircuts. Though taken in 1904, they’re the best photos of nineteenth-century-style whaling I’ve seen, and they’re also available in a book, Elton W. Hall’s Sperm Whaling from New Bedford, through the museum’s store.

The best moving images of whaling are in Elmer Clifton’s 1922 silent movie “Down to the Sea in Ships,” which features Clara Bow as a stowaway in drag and has an absurd plot, complete with a villain who is secretly Asian. It stars Marguerite Courtot and Raymond McKee (who was said to have thrown the harpoon himself during the filming), as well as real New Bedfordites and their ships, as Dolin explains, and even has a scene of Quakers sitting wordlessly in meeting, the purity of which tickled me. It has been released by Kino Video on DVD and is available via Netflix as part of a double feature with Parisian Love. The NBWM has a great many stills; try searching for “Clifton” as a keyword.

If photographs strike you as too anachronistic, you can find the occasional watercolor whaling scene in the nineteenth-century logbooks digitized by the G. W. Blunt White Library of the Mystic Seaport Museum, such as these images from the 1841-42 logbook of the Charles W. Morgan. There is more scrimshaw than you will know what to do with at the Nantucket Historical Association. If you want to hear whales, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has at least two websites with samples, and there are more here, courtesy of the University of Rhode Island.

The conceptual, book-based artist Alex Itin has an intriguing video collage of Moby-Dick the text and Orson Welles the actor; Welles tried a number of times to stage a version of the novel. And much further down the brow of culture, the Disney corporation did an animated book review of Moby-Dick a few years ago. (I can’t promise it won’t work your last nerve.) Last but not least, here are NOAA’s estimates of current whale populations, by species, and the homepage of the International Whaling Commission, responsible for the animals’ welfare.

Photo credit: Harry V. Givens, photographer, “Whale Skeleton, Point Lobos, California,” American Environmental Photographs Collection (1891-1936), AEP-CAS206, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library (accessed through the Library of Congress’s American Memory website).