Hindsight is 20/20

Ronald Reagan is often credited, especially among historians on the right, with having defeated the Soviet Union by challenging it to an arms race so costly that the Soviet economy collapsed, taking the political authority of Communism down with it. Some historians on the left prefer to credit Reagan’s diplomacy and arms negotiations, and to tip the hat to his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, but in 1986 Gorbachev himself acknowledged in a speech to the Politburo that the nuclear-arms threat from America was tantamount to an economic one: “We will be pulled into an arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it because we are at the limit of our capabilities. … If the new round [of an arms race] begins, the pressures on our economy will be unbelievable.”

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I wasn’t aware that there was a plan behind Reagan’s buildup. It seemed, rather, to be a mysterious and almost autonomous process, driven by fear and nationalist rivalry, not strategy. I was a child, of course, and maybe I didn’t understand. But I find that as an adult, I still harbor a doubt, perhaps unfair, that Reagan fully intended his strategy. I don’t doubt that he wished the Soviet Union ill, and there’s no question that he thought that stockpiling nuclear weapons would harm the Soviet Union, but I’m not quite persuaded that he understood in advance that military-induced economic stress could trigger a spontaneous collapse of political authority in the Soviet Union, of the sort that Hobbes alluded to when he wrote that “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them.”

Quite possibly he did, though. I was startled, a couple of weeks ago, to discover that a very articulate explanation of Reagan’s strategy had been published two decades before Reagan even took office. In the science-fiction novel His Master’s Voice, published in Polish in 1968 (and translated into English in 1983), Stanislaw Lem accurately predicted not only Reagan’s military strategy but the economic rationale behind it.

His Master’s Voice concerns a team of American scientists secretly attempting to decode a message transmitted in a stream of neutrinos from a distant galaxy. Because the team works under threat of a takeover by the American military, who fear that the Soviet Union might also learn of the message and decipher it first, the narrator has occasion to look back, from the novel’s imagined future, on America’s military strategy in the 1970s (which in 1968, of course, had not yet happened):

In the seventies, for a while, the ruling doctrine was the “indirect economic attrition” of all potential enemies; Secretary of Defense Kayser expressed this with the maxim “The thin starve before the fat lose weight.” The competition-duel in nuclear payloads gave way to a missile race, and that in turn led to the building of more and more expensive “antimissile missiles.” The next step in the escalation was the possibility of constructing “laser shields,” a stockade of gamma lasers which would line the perimeter of the country with destroyer rays; the cost of installing such a system was set at four hundred to five hundred billion dollars. After this move in the game, one could next expect the putting into orbit of giant satellites equipped with gamma lasers, whose swarm, passing over the territory of the enemy, could consume it utterly with ultraviolet radiation in a fraction of a second. The cost of that belt of death would exceed, it was estimated, seven trillion dollars. This war of economic attrition—through the production of increasingly expensive weaponry that thereby placed a severe strain on the whole organism of government—although seriously planned, could not be carried out, because the building of super- and hyperlasers turned out to be insurmountably difficult for the current technology.

Remarkably, Lem was not only predicting that America would engage in an arms race in order to sap the Soviet Union’s economic capacity, but also predicting that someone like Reagan would come along and accelerate the arms race by adding laser defenses to missile offenses, much as Reagan did in his 1983 “Star Wars” speech, which launched what Reagan called the Stategic Defense Initiative.

While googling to see whether anyone else had already written this blog post, I discovered that Lem himself explained his clairvoyance—sort of. In a 1986 book, One Human Minute, Lem wrote that years earlier he had gained access to “several volumes on the military history of the twenty-first century,” and though at first he feared betraying his knowledge of their contents, he soon realized that “The safest way to conceal a remarkable idea . . . was to publish it as science fiction,” and therefore slipped one of the secrets into page 125 of the novel he was then working on, His Master’s Voice. (A more mundane explanation is possible, of course: he might have punked English readers by slipping into the 1983 English translation a passage that wasn’t present in the 1968 Polish original.)

A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

Asymmetric gardening

For years, I have had a pot of chocolate mint and a little terracotta trough of basil in the windowsill. For almost as long, the mint and the basil have had flies. (The adjacent geranium, for some reason, is immune.) I don’t exactly know what kind of flies they are. They’re smaller than fruit flies. Gray. Dusty-looking. They don’t bite, or they don’t bite me, anyway. They’re not skilled in evasive maneuvers. If you clap in the vicinity of one, you usually annihilate it. Sometimes I’ve even managed to grab one out of the air one-handed.

I haven’t figured out their life cycle exactly, but in one instar or another, they spin disorganized, misty webs over the plants’ leaves, which turn brown, in a sickly, mottled way, and then fall off. The flies, therefore, must go. I am too squeamish, however, to use pesticides inside the apartment on herbs that I am in the habit of eating. Snipping off the damaged leaves helps, but not much and not for long. The furthest I have gone in the chemical direction is insecticidal soap, whose labels proclaim its all-natural, organic nonthreateningness. Indeed, its mildness seems proven by its inefficacy. A thorough dousing with insecticidal soap seems to clear the herbs for a few days, but the flies always return. Perhaps there’s a reservoir of flies hiding elsewhere in the house—maybe in that bark that the orchid lives on, for example—or maybe the flies are only vulnerable to the insecticidal soap at one or two of their life-stages. In the latter case, if I were able to remember to spray the herbs at regular intervals all the way through a life cycle, I would succeed in eradicating them. It’s an idea, anyway, and so from time to time I have given myself strict instructions to suds down the herbs every other day even if I see no signs of the flies, and to continue with this schedule for, say, two full weeks. But I never make it to two full weeks, or however long a generation of flies lasts. After the second or third iteration of spraying, I forget. Or I run out of insecticidal soap. And the flies come back.

There have been two recent innovations in the technology of my warfare, however. About a month ago, the basil reached more or less the end of the line, and instead of immediately re-seeding, I was inspired to freeze the soil for a few days. (The label on a recent purchase of blue jeans had advised freezing instead of washing them, a practice that against all my instincts seems to work.) The flies declined noticeably, even though the mint and geranium remained at room temperature. Once new basil had sprouted, the blow couldn’t be repeated. Still, the small success filled me with a spurious hope, and casting about for another novel weapon system, I hit upon . . . the vacuum cleaner.

It is so pleasantly absolute. Whenever I water the herbs, a few flies rise from the soil where they’ve been hiding and hover indecisively. And now I suck them out of the universe with our Dyson’s attachment-less maw. I’m not sure the vacuum cleaner works any better than the insecticidal soap—I’ve been vacuuming the herbs for two weeks now, and there are still a few new flies every morning—but it’s much more satisfying. The flies are so decisively gone, once the Dyson has inhaled them. It’s a bit rougher on the herbs themselves, unfortunately. Now and then one of the mint’s runners or stems gets snuffled up by the Dyson and rattles around inside its tube until I tug it free. The leaves, afterward, are raggedy, and they blacken at the torn edges. From time to time, too, a clot of dirt is accidentally raptured.

My war makes no sense, economically speaking. I can get a week’s supply of basil and mint for $1.50 each at Fairway, and even at a freelance writer’s low wage, I must be spending much more in labor. Nonetheless, I continue. Murder by vacuum cleaner is more, shall we say, engaging than spritzing with insecticidal soap ever was, and I’ve kept at it for many more days than I ever managed to continue with spritzing. I find myself daydreaming about it. Last night, after I was awoken by a mosquito bite, I wondered if I should start vacuuming the bedroom for mosquitoes every evening. This morning, as I tapped the basil pot and dislodged one or two of the gray enemy into the perilous air, I imagined that someday I would have a little domestic drone that would regularly visit, Roomba-like, my houseplants, gathering in the winged unwanted.

Debtmageddon vs. the robot utopia

It seems likely to me that almost everything prescribed by politicians as a remedy for America’s economic doldrums is wrong. I’m not an economist, so my opinion should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But since reading the news has begun to take on an Alice in Wonderland quality for me, I wanted to try to set down in words how my understanding diverges from theirs.

Just so you know where this is headed: I suspect that the flow of money in America has broken down because wealth is too highly concentrated, and that for at least a generation or so, the government ought to tax the rich heavily and spend on the poor and middle class just as heavily.

Why do all politicians and most pundits recommend the opposite? Flawed metaphors, I think. Most people make a natural comparison between a nation’s budget and a family’s. If a family is sliding into debt, the only remedies are to earn more and spend less. But a nation’s economy is not at all like a family’s. For one thing, within most families, communism prevails: the rule governing money is, From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. For better or worse, this doesn’t happen to be the rule governing money in America at large. Also, within most families, money is not exchanged for labor. In a pedagogical, largely symbolic way, Jimmy may be given $2 a week in exchange for taking out the garbage. But the person who cooks and cleans does not clock his hours; the children do not buy their dinners. The exchange of labor and goods within a family is for the most part unmeasured and invisible, and it makes more sense to understand a family as a group of people functioning a single economic agent. If the sort of thing that brings a family from debt to prosperity also helps a nation, it’s logical coincidence. Family and nation are so unlike each other that there’s no reason to expect it to.

The nation-family metaphor is nonetheless powerful. Even though most economists believe that reduced government spending will worsen the current recession, almost all politicians have caved into the “common-sense” idea that a nation in economic trouble ought to reduce its debt, leaving Paul Krugman to cry in the wilderness. The metaphor also drives, I suspect, another popular economic idea with almost no empirical support, namely, the notion that instead of taxing the wealthy, the government should reward them, in hopes that the wealth they accumulate will trickle down to others in the nation. The wealthy have proven that they know how to make a profit, this line of reasoning goes; get out of their way and let them make the economy grow.

The notion appeals, I suspect, because it, too, would make sense if a nation were like a family. In fact it’s excellent economic advice for a family. If Mother is a whizbang software engineer and Father’s just a freelance writer, it doesn’t make economic sense to tax them with household chores equally. Father should change more diapers and wash more dishes, freeing up Mother to devote more energy on coding the latest breakthrough app. (Whether this sort of inequity is good for the marriage bed, as well as for the pocketbook, is a different question. But it’s well understood that marriages are economically more than the sum of their parts only when spouses differentiate in their skills and tasks, rather than splitting all responsibilities identically.) If the richest people in a nation were analogous to the primary breadwinners in a family, and if income taxes were analogous to housekeeping chores, then it would make sense for the nation as a whole to indulge the rich in their profit-making and to believe in the existence of the trickle-down fairy. But neither analogy holds. Mother the software engineer, remember, deposits her paycheck every week in the family’s communal bank account; this bank account feeds her freeloading children, not to mention the dog; Mother may even let Father the freelance writer buy a new laptop that his personal earnings don’t yet justify. By contrast, when a corporate executive is given a break on his capital earnings tax, he is thereby exempted from, say, providing food for fellow Americans who can’t earn enough to feed themselves or investing in the future earning potential of a worker who’s not yet up to speed. Yes, he’s now able to make money faster, but the reason that other family members make sacrifices for Mother the software engineer is that they know she’s going to share her wealth—that her wealth is also theirs. The wealth of the little-taxed corporate executive is only his.

Proponents of trickle-downism will argue that the little-taxed corporate executive will in fact share his wealth by spending it, and that his purchase of goods and services will drive economic growth more efficaciously than mere giveaways would. But it turns out that the executive doesn’t spend more, or not enough more for his increased spending to be helpful to the economy—for the simple reason that he doesn’t need to. In the hands of rich people, money moves slowly. That’s what it means to be rich: you have more money than the cost of all the things you need or want. A poor person, by contrast, needs more than he can afford. The poor therefore spend money faster. If you want to boost a nation’s economic growth, it’s better to give to the poor, not the rich. A dollar given to a poor man multiplies faster, Keynes observed, than a dollar given to a rich man.

Economic inequity has been extremely high in the past decade, much as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. The popular understanding of the Great Depression is that it ended because World War II finally obliged American politicians to forget their prudence, and borrow and spend enormous sums. Supposedly this great deficit expenditure stimulated the American economy, like an adrenaline shot. Maybe. But what if the metaphor of stimulation is wrong too? What if it wasn’t the deficit spending of World War II that stimulated the American economy, but the war’s redistribution of wealth? The war obliged America to employ a literal army of people as soldiers and factory workers, and after the war, America felt obliged to continue to reward the working classes with expanded social services, including free higher education for veterans. The period from World War II to the 1970s turned out to be the greatest era of prosperity America has ever known. Is it a coincidence that it followed a massive, government-run redistribution of wealth, which happened to take the form of a war? When TARP and a fiscal stimulus bill were passed a couple of years ago, I remember thinking to myself, well, if the mainstream economists are right, and the problem with America can be remedied by an injection of deficit spending, then my gloom will be disproved. But if my suspicion is right that the underlying problem is economic inequity, then no stimulating injection, however large, will succeed. The economy will be lackluster until something happens that shifts wealth from the rich to the poor. Such a shift is unlikely in today’s political climate, of course. Political power naturally follows wealth, so the rich, owning as they do a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth, now also control a disproportionate share of its political decisions. In a catch-22, the inequity undermining the economy makes impossible the political action needed to remedy it.

Why haven’t our current wars had the same effect that World War II did? I don’t know. Maybe we’re not paying our soldiers enough; maybe the military’s heavy investment in technology and equipment has muted war’s impact as a redistributor of wealth. (And maybe, of course, I’m wrong. I don’t have the statistical chops to back up this analysis.)

The mention of military technology brings me to my last idea. This is the challenge of the robot utopia. You remember the robot utopia. You imagined it when you were in fifth grade, and your juvenile mind first seized with rapture upon the idea of intelligent machines that would perform dull, repetitive tasks yet demand nothing for themselves. In the future, you foresaw, robots would do more and more, and humans less and less. There would be no need for humans to endanger themselves in coal mines or bore themselves on assembly lines. A few people would always be needed to repair and build the robots, and this drudgery of robot supervision would have to be rewarded somehow, but someday robots would surely make wealth so abundant that most people wouldn’t need to work and would be free merely to enjoy and cultivate themselves—by, say, hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and doing literary criticism after dinner.

Your fifth-grade self was wrong, of course. Robots aren’t altruistic beings; they’re capital investments; and though robots may not ask to be paid, their owners demand a return on their investment. We now live in the robot utopia, which isn’t one. Thanks in large part to computerized mechanization, manufacturing productivity in the past century has increased many times over. Standards of living are higher than they ever were, but we no longer need as many humans to work as we once did. Perhaps not coincidentally, human wages, in America at least, have stagnated since the 1970s. If humans made no more money in the past four decades, where did the wealth created by the higher productivity go? Toward robot wages, as it were. The owners of the robots took the money—that is, the capitalists. Any fifth-grader can see where this leads. At some point society has to choose. Either society accepts the robots’ gift as a general one, and redistributes the wealth that the robots inadvertently concentrate, or society allows the robots to become the exclusive tools of an ever-shrinking elite, increasingly resented, in confused fashion, by the people whom the robots have displaced.

The robots are here. By now they automate even much of our social lives. You might compare the political challenge they represent to what’s known as the “resource curse”—the infamous difficulty that oil-rich nations have in preserving democracy while sharing the oil’s proceeds. Do we want to be Norway or Saudi Arabia? The choice seems to be between democratic socialism and tyranny. I know my understanding will strike many as implausible, if not unspeakable: I’m saying that the country is suffering economically because it doesn’t know what to do with all its surplus wealth.