Archive for July 2010

Megan McArdle is Even More Always Wrong Than Usual: Arithmetic is Hard/Mostly Outsourced edition

July 22, 2010

By now most everyone who cares (a swiftly dwindling number, I hope) has heard of Megan McArdle’s spectacular meltdown when confronted by arithmetical and analytical errors of the most damning sort.

By far the best account of this comes in a spectacular fisking of McArdle by her own commenters, as organized by the invaluable (and stronger-stomached-than-I) Susan of Texas over at The Hunting of The Snark.

I’m not going to bother linking to McArdle herself. Why reward her with even the mote of traffic that might come her way, when SoT provides the complete text with commentary.  A veritable Talmud of McArdle.(I’m not sure I can really get my head around that concept–ed.)

In short form:  Ms McArdle can’t count, and she can’t think either — but those errors of argument are rather more strategic than they appear.  (She can’t deal with criticism either, which leads to much hilarity in this instance.*

So, to begin with, McArdle mistakes $250 for $25, and then uses the lower number as her estimate of how much money could flow to each American if taxes on the wealthiest were allowed to return to the levels experienced in the last epoch of budget surplus and sustained job creation and economic growth.**

She then went on to make an claim in large part based on that error: that the stimulus effect of choosing to recapture foregone revenue from the rich would be tiny, given that $25 buys no more than “one pizza dinner per person.”

Now, you can get the full takedown on the serial sins of fact and logic that McArdle made at Susan of Texas’s place.  Here, I just want to add two thoughts.

For one, McArdle’s first order claim — that redistributing to the population at large the money that is now earmarked for tax cuts for the rich will have no effect because the sums involved are trivial — allows her to ignore the reality of class and economic life as it is lived by most Americans.

In fact, as the upper-middle-class McArdle chooses not to know, the difference between a $100 supplement to income for a family of four and $1,000 boost is potentially life-changing, especially at the economic margin.

That’s roughly one month mortgage payment or better at median house prices right now.***

That’s one more month of high-deductible health insurance for the family in my home state of Massachusetts.

That’s the food budget for about a month and a half.

You get the idea.

More broadly, the real failure lies with her claim that one basically can’t figure out whether or not spending money on unemployment insurance is good for the economy (and not simply struggling individuals) as compared with retaining the current tax structure.  She writes:

it assumes that the rather optimistic estimates of Mark Zandi about the size of the stimulus multiplier are correct. Estimating stimulus multipliers is incredibly difficult when you try to do it at the macro level (how much spending equals how much extra GDP), and even more difficult when you try to figure out whether food stamps are better than a jobs program–the examples are fewer, and the amounts are smaller, making it hard to pick up direct effects.

I.e., you can’t figure out what a given policy will do (according to McArdle, ex cathedra)…and worse — even if there were a discernable impact, it wouldn’t matter. Why not?  Because the measures of success are meaningless:

It also assumes that any measured increase in GDP measures some improvement in human welfare. It is trivially true that if you increase one component of a measured variable, that variable will get bigger. It’s much harder to know that any particular increase in GDP represents a real change in human welfare, or merely moving chess pieces around the board.

Now that last statement is simply nonsense, as stalwart McArdle commenter Zosima pointed out. measures may be imperfect for all kinds of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that they are devoid of meaning.

But McArdle, I think, doesn’t really care if she’s wrong or risible.  Her real goal is to advance the notion that government action informed by reason and empirical knowledge is impossible.

Hence the value (for her) in repeating stuff like this.  This isn’t about the stimulus, in other words, or appropriate tax policy.  It’s about the impossiblity of governance.

In that light, the key fact to remember is that McArdle’s lapses of reasoning and fact are features, not bugs.   Remember the mission as declared by her home institution: “TheAtlantic – shaping the national debate on the most critical issues of our times, from politics, business, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture.”

McArdle is indeed trying to shape the debate, to constrain what might be possible in the exercise of government power.  Mere logic, paltry fact may not be permitted to get in the way.  She is Always Wrong™ — by design.

*Here I shamelessly steal from Susan, uber smart serial commenter Aimai’s summary dismissal of the divine Ms MM on McArdle’s comment thread:

Hm, lets see if the site lets me post. Can I ask whether this long, incoherent and off point attack by Megan on poster zosina is, in fact, by Megan? I mean, look–for one thing the “Megan” in this post claims to be the child of academics when the real Megan, as far as I know, is the child of a former public employee turned lobbyist and a realtor. Second of all the real Megan presumably grasps that “being the child of academics” doesn’t actually amount to an argument. No, really it doesn’t. Actually, and for real, I’m the child of a Nobel Prize winner and for kicks I’ll add I’m a third generation Harvardite. So what? This really, really, really, never comes up in academic arguments which are actually won and lost not by some kind of bizarre blood test but by concrete arguments. The “you are tedious and lack charm” argument is also one that I have yet to see adduced in a respectable discussion. Certainly, on the basis of the evidence from this thread, its hard to tell which of the two of you, the “megan” poster and the zosina poster is the younger. If I didn’t know that the real Megan is 37 I’d have had to award this avatar the palm for most juvenile approach to intellectual discussion. Finally, I have yet to see the imaginary comments “Megan” refute any of Zosina’s points. If this thread “Megan” isn’t the real Megan I think the real Megan might want to step in and clean up the comments by deleting her. But if she is the real Megan I think the Atlantic might want to step in and jerk the blog entirely. This is a positively craptacular piece of incoherent special pleading on Megan’s part, from the first post to the comment thread. Really, its shameful. And you don’t have to be the “child of academics” to know that.

aimai

**McArdle later tried to excuse herself by noting that her calculator could not handle the millions – billions quantities in the division.  To which I respond that it one of the skills we train our students in at the MIT Science Writing Program is that of estimation, and the honing of a nose for suspect numbers.  I would have thought that someone so inordinately proud of her role as “Business and Economic Editor of The Atlantic” would have cultivated the same.  If she hasn’t, then I would respectfully suggest that this is just one more piece of evidence that she is unqualified for the position she now holds.  I mean, dude — was it so hard to reconfigure the 75 billion/.3 billion raw number into 750/3?  There.  That wasn’t so hard.

***That statement is based on the following calculation:  take the median price for a new home as of Q1 2010, subtract 10 percent for a down payment and come up with a mortgage balance of $195,000 (give or take a buck).  At the current 30 year mortgage rate of 5.36%, you get a principal and interest payment of $1090 and a couple of cents.)

Image:  Francisco de Goya “Old people eating soup,” 1819-23

Tasty Blog Bits/What Good Young Journalists Can Do In The Right Kind of MSM

July 21, 2010

I’ve long been a fan of the High Country News, not least because they’ve given good work to some of the wonderful students at the best science writing program in the country (I’m supposed to say that, which doesn’t make it untrue).

But these lines from a post reminded me of what makes HCN such bright spot in my MSM reading these days

If natural gas was going to try and pick me up at a bar, the encounter would likely go like this:

Gas: “I’m low-carbon, cute, and widely available.”

Me: “You’re not that cute.”

That’s from a post by HCN Social Network Editor Stephanie Page Ogburn on the marvelously named The Goat Blog, and it is just a treat of journalistic writing in the context of old+new media.

Smart, funny, instantly engaging and all that you need to read on to get a nuanced reaction, backed up by actual real data, to the prospect of natural gas as a bridge fuel from the high to low carbon emission energy system I devoutly hope my son will see.

It can be done; journalism is not dead — and the seeds of its next incarnation can be found, often, far, far from the Bos-Wash corridor.

Image:  Filippo Palazzi, “Hay Car Attacked by Goats,” 1857

Sitting Republican Senators Who Voted to “Raise” Taxes for Next Year

July 21, 2010

I started this post yesterday, put it aside to listen to some very loud, very find jazz last night, and got up this morning to find that Paul Krugman got there first (as usual).

But just to amplify the point:

As you listen to Republican officeholders and their co-conspirators  complain that allowing the middle-to-rich-redistributive Bush tax cuts to lapse on schedule amounts to an Obama/Democratic tax increase, please remember those current members of the Grand Old Party’s delegation in the United States Senate who voted in favor of this “increase.”

They are:

Lamar Alexander, TN

Robert Bennett, UT

Kit Bond, MO

Sam Brownback, KS

Jim Bunning, KY

Saxby Chambliss, GA

Thad Cochran, MS

Susan Collins, ME

John Coryn, TX

Mike Crapo, ID

John Ensign, NV

Mike Enzi, WY

Lindsay Graham, NC

Chuck Grassley, IA

Judd Gregg, NH

Orrin Hatch, UT

Kay Bailey Hutchinson, TX

Jim Inhofe, OK

Jon Kyl, AZ

Richard Lugar, IN

Mitch McConnell, KY

Lisa Murkowski, AK

Pat Roberts, KS

Jeff Sessions, AL

Richard Shelby, AL

Olympia Snowe, ME

Arlen Spector then R, now D-PA

George Voinovich, OH

Twenty eight of the 50 “aye” votes on H.R. 2, the Bush tax death warrant on the Federal budget, remain in the US Senate.  27 of them are still Republicans, including all six of the current Republican leadership team. You will hear repeatedly over the next few days and weeks from them about the horrors of “increasing taxes” in a recession — and how once again it is the Democratic party seeking to worsen the tax burden Americans must bear.

But never forget:  each one of them voted for a bill that said very clearly that the Bush era tax reductions were temporary, by law set to expire this year.  Not one Democrat then, and only one new Democrat, Arlen Spector, voted for that tax “increase.”  The Republicans did.  Every last one of them sitting in the Senate that year.  It’s their fault, and their responsibility.

Of course, as Ezra Klein points out, the real issue is that the GOP then was doing what the GOP does a lot these days.  Lying about what they are doing, lying about fiscal matters, lying about the implications and the consequences of their actions.  There was never any intention to allow these taxes to lapse.  The expiration date made it into the bill to reduce the apparent cost of this enormous transfer of wealth from the American middle and working classes to the rich. If the tax rate changes had been made permanent, the pricetag would –might — have been too much even for the habitual economical recklessness that defines the contemporary Republican party.

There was an assumption hidden within all that, of course, which was that the GOP was on its way to building a lasting majority, however precarious it may have been in that 50-50 divided Senate.  But it didn’t work out that way, in large part because the Republican elite has shown itself to be hugely successful as an opposition force, but a disaster as a governing body. So now faced with the blunt fact that the exact bill they voted for is in fact the law of the land, they do the only thing they know how to do:  pretend it didn’t turn out as badly as it did, and blame the Democrats for trying to address the reality of the situation.

Makes for great Fox soundbites and Serious People™ appearances on NPR.  But to get there you have to lie, distort your own complicity, and, along the way, double down on a policy whose failure is obvious now even to some of its former architects.

All this is a long winded way of saying that the deceptive GOP debating tactics on the fate of the Bush tax cuts is just one more reminder of why these people cannot be trusted with actual power, certainly no more of it than they already abuse.

Image:  Marinus Claesz van Reymerswaele, “Two Tax Collectors,” c. 1540

Because I Can: You’ll Hate Yourself For Loving This/Truly Awesome Song-Video Combo

July 20, 2010

Driving back from the best low-tide beach on the North Shore on Sunday, (and no, it’s crowded enough and I ain’t going to tell), my son dozing in the back street, the radio on, and what should I hear to cast me back 30 years and more to Dr. Demento days back beside that perfect left coast bay?

Why this, of course:

You can thank me later.

Now I Remember Why I Never Read the Daily Beast: LLoyd Grove/”Elites” (sic) edition

July 19, 2010

Here I am, sitting at my desk, trying to get my head around an email inbox of more than 1700 items, and procrastination takes me to this gem by Lloyd Grove.

There, according to the teaser, we will learn that

Even the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of the country’s brightest lights, isn’t Obama country anymore.

And what, exactly is the evidence that, Obama is suffering from “the waning support of the intelligentsia?”

This:  Harvard cheerleader of empire Niall Ferguson doesn’t like Obama, and nor does real estate gazillionaire and sometime magazine mogul Mort Zuckerman.  There’s someone Grove identifies as a “Silicon Valley guru” who is actually Applied Materials chief and (former Intel exec) Michael Splinter, and Huffington Post founder (and woo-provider) Arianna Huffington.

And?  You ask.

That’s it.

Oh — and Grove quotes one other luminary, Barbara Streisand, who described Ferguson’s presentation as “breathtaking” and “wonderful.”

In other words, what you have here is a bit o’ feckless conventional-wisdom mongering.  This isn’t some new trend.   None of those he cites are making points different from what they have been arguing for some time.  There is no change here; these are figures with well-known positions restating them.  Intelligentsia or no, this isn’t an example of a “waning” of support, this is a repackaged statement of pre-existing opposition.

Not to mention, there is the stupidity of what is being said:  I know Grove gets to transcribe at will, but it is depressing to read a report about an “Ideas Festival” that does not put any of the self-styled ideas to the test.

For example. Groves uses Ferguson as his major voice.  Ferguson, of course is a well known historian, perhaps best known as a controversialist both in the form and the content of his historical writing.*

But to the point of this post, Ferguson was an early informal source for John McCain’s campaign, an early supporter of the Iraq fiasco (a stance he has tried to cloak with mouthings to the effect he never would have stood with Bush if he’d known that the affair would be so badly run.  To which I reply that if he did not understand the fecklessness with which that administration approached war, he wasn’t paying attention.  But I digress).

And he is someone who has for some time argued that deficits are a greater problem than short term stimulus, all the while making what appear to me, whose opinion is not worth much, and to others, who do know better, the elementary mistake of seeking to contract demand in the middle of a recession.*

The point of all this in the context of Grove’s attempt at a trend piece, is that while what Ferguson said at Aspen was poorly argued, and marked by a willful refusal to engage actual data, it is in no way a signal that the intelligentsia has given up on Obama.  Ferguson has, certainly — but he had a long time ago.

And so it goes with the rest of the luminaries.  Mort Zuckerman has been saying the same stuff about Obama for the better part of the year.  He, at least, is historically pro-Obama, but what he said at Aspen does not represent some kind of new departure for him.  (I disagree with Zuckerman on his analysis of health care in the link above, as do most of those, including the CBO who’ve actually run the numbers, and I think he drastically underestimates the ability of any US administration to get stuff through Congress, but I can’t say I dissent from his desire to spend more stimulus money more quickly.  But I would say that he might want to reserve some of his rage for a GOP  that has made good on its promise to but party before country in its desire to make sure that the economy remains broken long enough for them to steal back into power.

Again — irrelevant bile there; but sufficient for this screed to note  that Zuckerman is not some newly regretful supporter turning more in sorrow than in anger from his President.

Next there’s Splinter, cast by Grove as complaining that it’s Obama’s fault that the US tax code isn’t supportive enough of business.  No less than that socialist rag the Wall St. Journal calls the bullshit there:  in an op-ed by two Cato Institute writers, we find that  the US corporate tax code is the product of several decades of bad design, with choices made under Bush that exacerbate its inefficiency.  Again: Splinter isn’t so much a convert from Obama worship as he is one more figure seeking redress for a particular problem in his own industry.  Nothing wrong with that — and I would strongly favor a corporate tax system that was simpler, flatter, and more universally applied.**  But once more, in a “trend” piece, where is the evidence of an actual change in opinion over time?

(The way Grove wrote the piece, it’s not absolutely clear that Splinter himself blames Obama for the tax issue itself, as opposed to some broader dissatisfaction with economic results over the last year or so.  But Grove presents Splinter’s views as if he did say that.  So either Splinter was making an argument that ignores the actual history of his problem, or Grove is playing a particularly slimy bit of sleight of hand here.  Either way, we’re still looking for this alleged waning of support, as distinct from disagreement or complaint.)

And last, there’s Arianna Huffington.  Again, I don’t think she’s wrong in saying that Obama’s administration has dropped the ball on jobs and unemployment.  But did Grove just discover this view?

Enough.  I’ve done my usual, letting off a howitzer at a gnat of crappy reporting.

But if you’ll forgive one last bit of bile…this kind of work is acid, eating away at public discourse; it’s a parody of actual journalism, and its easy, lazy, pig-ignorant reliance on the argument from authority makes real discussion of real issues increasingly difficult.  Niall Ferguson says Obama’s wrong — and so he is, and so this one intellectual (sort of) demonstrates that all thinking folk are getting ready to abandon ship.  That this is a blatant misrepresentation of the implications of what Groves actually documents should not be allowed to get in the way of a tale that fits the pre-existing conclusion…

…from which I conclude that friends don’t let friends bother with The Daily Beast. (Or perhaps better:  Trust that rag? “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”)

*That is, in cartoon version:  fresh water economists and useful idiots hold that public spending cannot produce lasting economic growth because for every federal dollar spent, one private one won’t be.  There’s much more to the argument, of course, having to do with expectations of future taxes to be levied to pay off present spending, but this is a cartoon, remember.  Salt water economists and much experience of the real world says, no:  when you spend at a time of reduced demand and available capacity within the economy — factories that aren’t being used, people who aren’t working — the stimulative effect of public money spent exceeds the long term cost of repaying the sums borrowed for the purpose.  Ferguson very publicly had this argument with Paul Krugman, who is, unlike Ferguson, an actual economist. Krugman won, both in the judgment of those competent to make such appraisals, and by the imperfect measure of the market’s judgment of the appropriate price for US government obligations

All this to the point:  Ferguson has been arguing for years what he restates at the Aspen Institute:  high deficits are the engine of imperial decline.**  We therefore should be spending less.  He also says that unemployment insurance is a bad idea, as it encourages sloth.  He has, it seems to me a typical and callow fear among British Tories of an age to remember Maggie Thatcher, but not much before:  that somehow Michael Foote will rise again and eke 270 electoral votes sometime soon.   To avoid the risk of a social welfare state that no one has proposed, he would rather the unemployed learn the consequences of their feckless refusal to work at jobs that do not exist than to pump needed cash into the economy and on the way preserve just a bit of a shot for millions at a better future.

**He is a proponent of “counterfactual” history — as in one of his best known works, The Pity of War, in which he argues that the world would have been better off if only the British Empire had had the good sense to stand aside and allow that non-belligerent power, Imperial Germany, to win  its war in 1914 or 15.  My own research for Einstein in Berlin suggests otherwise, but that’s why they allow printing presses to spit out more than one book.  So that’s an example of controvesial content.  The technique though?  I find the counterfactual stuff to be a crutch for lazy thought.  It can be fun, and it can be suggestive — but that’s it.  It is a proof of nothing — and if you already have an axe to grind it becomes a distorting lens, coloring your ability to assess each and every fragment of actual fact  your research may uncover.

***If you want to see the nonsense that is the corporate tax system, google this title: “2006 Statistics of Income,” published by the IRS.  Be prepared for several hundred pages of enlightening tables.  You will find that the notional high corporate tax rates are that high for a minority of firms…but access to the deductions and credits used to lower bills are highly imperfectly distributed across different sectors and scales of corporate activity.  No way to run a railroad.)

Images:  Vincent van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885.

Richard Jack, “The Battle of Vimy Ridge” (loading a 4.5in howitzer), 1918.

Correlation Ain’t Cause, but Mississippi’s Fear of Sex Has To Make You Go Hmmm.

July 16, 2010

I learn via the Maddowblog, (h/t Balloon Juice) that Mississipi Public Broadcasting got its knickers in a twist because one (count ’em — one) listener got the vapors over some mildly sexualized content on an episode of Terri Gross’s program, Fresh Air.  (Miss PB claims that a review of Gross’s show revealed a pattern of naughty bits. (h/t Gawker).

Balloon Juice’s Mr. Mix points out that Mississippi PB’s effective “zero tolerance” policy for mentions of sex on the radio adds up to  an essential omerta on matters lubricious, bouncy-bouncy, reproductive and all the rest.

That made me wonder.  What occurs in the context of such fear and trembling at the thought that humans have bodies and do things with them?

Well, I can’t say I was terribly surprised.  As of the latest statistics I could get my hands on quickly (Friday-afternoon-heading-for-a-BBQ blogging, you know), in 2007 Mississippi had the highest out-of-wedlock birthrate of all states, with such births accounting for 54% of the total.  As of 2006, Mississippi teens out-reproduced all their peers, boasting the top birthrate in the country for the 15-19 age group.  And as for the nasty problem referenced in this Sublime song…

…Mississippi maintains its leading position, coming in first in its incidence of chlamydia and gonorrhea, and eighth on the league tables for primary and secondary syphilis.

Now, as the title of this post ought to make clear, I’m not saying that a statewide choice to hold one’s hands over one’s ears and shout “I’m not listening!” — whenever discussion begins of sexual behavior, reproduction and contraception and all the rest sully the Magnolia State’s sensitive souls is — has any connection to the fact that so many more of its citizens than those of other states suffer the real human costs that come with unprotected and unconsidered sex.

But it sure is a coincidence, ain’t it?

Image: Anthony Van Dyck, “Cupid and Psyche,” 1639-40

Garrison Keillor Thinks The Kids Have Already Left His Lawn: Future of the Book edition.

July 15, 2010

This post has whiskers on it, but even though the Garrison Keillor column “When Everyone is a Writer, No One Is” is long since gone for fishwrap, the issue it attempt to raise is, of course still with us.  So I thought I’d reanimate this from my fallow period for your reading pleasure.

To be sure, there was a fair amount of blog traffic on Keillor’s jeremiad about the book industry, at the time.

Broadly the response seems to have been pretty dismissive, which is right.  This is an awful piece, self aggrandizing, a work of anecdotage (h/t the irreplaceable Herb Caen, I think), not to mention that it’s a bizarre misreading of media history, given Keillor’s place of pride in that obsolete venue, radio.

It begins with a bit of don’t-you-wish-you-were-me aw-shucksitude:

In New York the other night, I ran into my daughter’s favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” books I’ve read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of President Barack Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume….I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself…I’m not one of them — I’m a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it …

Well, yeah — and he is a nationally broadcast host of a signature program on America’s most prestigious radio network, and a contributor to places like The New Yorker, and, as he notes, the author of a few books himself which haven’t done badly at all.  He may say he hit that party by the grace of a well connected friend, but dude, you don’t need to go all bachelor Norwegian farmer on us.  You know as well as we that everyone else there was making the same list:  there’s Remnick, and Blume, and Jong and by gum that’s Garrison Keillor too….

But leave the formerly uncelebrated their conceits. (And remember that Hemingway retort to Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different.”  “Yeah — they have more money.”)

Keillor gets down to cases by declaring that all this glittering pleasure is a mask, or rather a vision of the unknowing dead walking under the delusion that they yet live:

…this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.

What’s going to send all these beautiful people to a Western Front  in which the trenches are lined in Book Antiqua and Garamond?  Not the loss of readers, an audience for, if not The Word, then words.

We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions.

So what’s the problem?  There are several:  the first is the lack of that which by asking for it (as the joke of my youth had it) New York singles used to get rid of their apartments’ cockroaches:  commitment.

and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

This is just weird.  I was and am a reader — and the author of four books,* all published by major trade houses, all sold in that price range (not quite that high, actually) as hardcovers, half that or less in paper — and this isn’t how I either acquire or engage books.

I use libraries, I borrow, I dig through give away boxes, I buy used…and if there is a book that is a beautiful object, and it tickles me, and I have the money, I pay vastly more than the words could be had for to get that volume in its role as an object, a work of art.

And now, I have classics and pulp and all the rest on at least three devices (yes, I plead iPad-ity.  It ain’t worth it, but I love it…)

All of which to say is that you don’t read a long work because it cost you a lot.  You read it — I read it — because it gets its hooks in me.  And the medium is less important than you think, at least than I thought, once that hook is well and truly set.

I read most of U.S. Grant’s memoirs (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates) on my iPhone, all 3.2 inches worth of screen, through a download from Gutenberg.org.  It’s better on the iPad, and I wish I had had access to proper maps, but I couldn’t stop reading, pulling out my phone at every crosswalk, at the supermarket counter, and so on.  And I am 50 mumble mumble years old; this isn’t some damn kid doing a byte dance.

The idea that how much someone pays for a piece of work evokes a reader commitment to it is…how to put it?

Sad.

Then there’s Keillor’s odd complaint that too many people are writing these days.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

And so what?  If someone wants to write for pleasure and share it, who cares.  There are lots of things wrong in book publishing and the like, but it’s not that people aren’t buying my book on Newton (see below for all the links to let you do just that 😉 just because John or Jane Doe just popped a book with Newton  in its title up on Lulu.  And it’s not that the publicity/marketing problem is made difficult because there are lots of free or cheap books.  It is that the broader demise of go-to media makes it harder to promote books — to enable original work to find its audience readily.

That is:  we are definitely in a transitional phase, but from where I sit, having done pretty ok in getting the word out on Newton and the Counterfeiter through a variety of channels, the fact that what used to be called literary journalism has evaporated from mass print media and drive time radio even faster than science writing has gone is the most important single change in America’s book culture.  Not the fact that you can buy my work on Kindle for ten bucks, in hard cover for 17 or so, and in paper for around 9 — and certainly not that someone else out there might be writing a work they’ll sell for less.  It ain’t my grandma, nor Cory Doctorow that’s the problem here.

Rather, as Rebecca Skloot’s incredibly innovative (and exhausting) self-created book tour (warning: PDF) shows, there are ways to reach audiences, (and it helps to have written a damn good book, of course).  But of course, Skloot’s experience is a prototype of new ways to make connections between authors, works, and audiences; it’s not the finished version that non-maniacal (and/or childless) folks can precisely emulate.  We will, we are getting a new interconnected web of readers and writers, I think (I certainly hope so). But as in so much of the digital transformation, the collapse of a distinctive regional as well as national, print-based culture of writing about books isn’t getting replaced instantly.  And whatever constellation of ways to get the word out  emerge (a bit of Scalzi here, a bit of barnstorming there), it’s going to take a while before at least fogies like me really figur out how to use these resources to reach all the people who might in fact want to check out what I have to say.

Here that sermon endeth. But back to Keillor’s jeremiad:

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes.

Really?  I became a writer because I felt books telling me to write.  I still write because of what I read, or because I feel compelled to say something (like this!).  I’m not going to claim universal truth for a data set of one, but I know plenty of other authors whose experience is the same.

Yes, of course, the encouragement of teachers, editors, fellow writers all matter. It can be hard to go on if no one seems to think what you do is any good.  But in fact such notice is the result, not the source of writerly identity.  If what Keillor really means is that it took professional acknowledgement to make a living as a writer, well of course that’s true, banal, but still factual enough.  But writers write; the laying on of hands, when it happens, may encourage, but it does not alter the underlying dynamic.  All that has changed is that those who do not or do not choose to have a commercial career (see Adams, Henry) have ready means to create an expression external to themselves and their desk full of copy.  And what is so bad there?

Well Keillor thinks that’s pretty dangerous:

But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And The New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.

Really?  Does Keillor actually think, in spite all the evidence of major media enterprises on the web, that the proliferation of data will reduce the audience’s demand for assessment, validation of consumer choices, the critical filtering role that acquiring editors and critics (maybe not at the Times, but in the newly emerging literary mediasphere)? The way the book writing and reading world will communicate is certainly changing…but there is no evidence, none, that Keillor adduces to suggest that self-anointed writers will be anymore successful or significant than they now are.  The mechanisms by which writers of books reach audiences and make money are changing; but the fact that some writers command both more audience attention and more cash than others hasn’t changed, and won’t.

And as for editors:  Vanish?  Really?  News to my wonderful editors over twenty years now.  The models by which books are acquired, helped and published are all changing, of course…but change is not the same as evaporation…and the blunt truth is that authors I know are hiring free-lance editors because book publishers have (long before this latest round of transformation) abdicated a lot of that task, and real writers know that real editors make them look yet more brilliant.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

And this is different from my right to follow Einstein with Newton, and Newton with — I’m not going to tell you yet — and your right to stop after the first line of my first book “In the beginning…,” never to return again?  How, exactly?

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Bullsh*t.  Trust me.  Writers can martyr themselves at the drop of a hat (“Ouch! My back!).  Writing a book is a long, slow, hard slog for the most ephemeral and capricious of rewards at the end.  It hurts to spend a day casting prose, knowing all day it isn’t working, not knowing how to make it work, and not wanting to stop until it does, but running out of daylight, of eyesight, of words.  Then you get up the next day and, if you are lucky, figure out what is now obvious (any f*cking monkey could have got that one, bub), and get on with it.  We don’t need any help feeling lousy; the process of sustaining a long work contains all the resources to enhance our self-loathing that anyone needs.  The moments of joy are there too, (they have to be, or else no one would do this a second time, just like bearing children).

What I’m trying to say here is that Keillor has stopped even trying to make a coherent case; this is just masturbation.

And last:

Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.

And I walked to school in bare feet through the snow.  Uphill.  Both ways.

**

What crap.

When I got my first contract, one guy bought me a drink at a bar on the Upper East Side when he heard someone was paying someone else to write.  That felt great too.

Then, starting in 1985 I had to write the thing, which I did, on a Zenith laptop running MS Dos that boasted not one but two 3.5″ floppy disc drives — hot stuff indeed in those days.  I can’t tell you how happy I was not to have to confront my dad’s Olivetti electric typewriter nor smudge my hands on a single sheet of carbon paper.  What Keillor is touting here is a fetish bathed in nostalgia.

Words are toys, books are miracles (and albatrosses) and I don’t give a damn what you use to make them, nor how you choose to read them, nor whether someone I don’t want to read still chooses to write and let the world know that they have done so.  Keillor’s dream of a closed circle of self-congratulatory demigods*** (“it was beautiful the Old Era” and all that) is the muttering of someone too scared to pause, even for a moment, against the chance that all that chaos and noise out there might yet contain the reward of beauty.

His loss, not mine.

*Not to miss an opportunity to plug a little — you can find my most recent, which a lot of folks seem to like, Newton and the Counterfeiter, at all the usual suspects: AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store — and while there are no electronic editions of the earlier ones, you can check them out here.

**Bonus Eddie Izzard, Alan Rickman version for your viewing pleasure:

*** Demigods in the sense Einstein described his new Princeton neighbors as “puny demigods on stilts.”

Images:  Simon Vouet, “La Richess,” 1633

Carl Spitweg, “The Poor Poet,” 1839.

Okumura Masunobu, “Book and Paper Peddlar” 1720-1730.