Sine qua non: No shortcuts

This past summer at language school a young man invited me to a party, which I had to refuse since there was a major exam coming up. In response he said, “But you’re smart, why do you have to study?” He was genuinely astonished at the idea that intelligent people have to study; for him, intelligence meant that one was spared the bother of having to work to master a skill or a subject. His bewildered reaction made me start thinking about the nature of the work surrounding achievement and how it is perceived.

Bluntly put, achievement is very hard work and requires tremendous sacrifice. Last weekend, Oxford had its matriculation ceremony, after which the individual colleges arranged group photoshoots. While waiting for one shoot, I overheard two young women discussing a celebratory evening party. One said that she couldn’t go because she had to finish the reading for the next day, but the other said that she had risen at five o’clock that morning in order to finish her reading so that she could attend the party. Neither one was bothered by the choices she had to make, and they were united in their agreement that study came first. Missing a party or missing sleep were simply prices for achievement.

There is an ancient Egyptian legend about a couple who stole the Book of Thoth, which contained all the wisdom of the natural and supernatural worlds, copied it down on a stone writing tablet, washed the stone, and then drank the runoff water; in doing so they acquired all that knowledge without having to read the book. (For those who are interested, the story doesn’t end well, mostly because Thoth is annoyed that his book is gone, but also because, having not genuinely learned the material, the couple can’t control their new-found powers.) In the Folger Museum in Washington DC, there is a medieval manuscript (MS V.b.26 (1)) that contains a spell to compel the spirits to do your writing for you, though as a friend of mine drily pointed out, there’s nothing promised about the quality of writing delivered. What is interesting about myths and spells concerning shortcuts to knowledge and accomplishment is that they are all focused on bypassing the sacrificial process, while still being crowned with the laurels.

The ancient/medieval view was that the spiritual sphere, being responsible in the first place, could help create a world where everyone could achieve without the bother of the foundational work. Now, in a post-Frankfurt School, Utilitarianist world, society speaks in terms of “talent,” as if it is a supernatural thing that requires no cultivation, existing fully formed in a vacuum. We have come from Thomas Jefferson arguing that every person should be free to pursue his own interests according to his endowments to John Rawls’ yowling about the “injustice” of modern society and a world where smart, talented people appear to “have it all.” In order for the Rawlsian vision of the world to work out in completely equitable justice, the work put in by achievers in pursuit of their goals must be negated.

On a personal note, I remember one chillingly funny episode when, during a seminar, a classmate informed a group of us that our coming in prepared, having done the readings and written up commentary, was an act of oppression against her. Her basic argument was that we were too smart, and it wouldn’t cost us anything to show up unprepared once in a while in order to let her shine. We finished on time; I ran into her three days before all MA theses were due for submission and she hadn’t started writing yet. I’m willing to bet, though, that in her movie she’s a victim and we’re all oppressors.

In a way, the romaticization and mythicization of people of genius has been very unhelpful to society, especially since the popular conception of these people appears to support Rawls and Co.’s complaints. Let us take the example of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, partially because his myth is a perfect example and partially because this is a topic I would be happy to discuss for days on end. The popular myth is fairly well established: genius infant who miraculously taught himself everything and created beautiful music as a three-year-old, before dying tragically young, in keeping with the romantic tradition of great geniuses.

The reality, while hardly prosaic, is much less romantic. W.A. Mozart’s parents, Leopold and Anna Maria, were superbly well-educated for the standards of their time. Their familial letters, written in a mix of German, French, Italian, Latin, some English, and mathematical substitution ciphers are a jumble of thoughts and observations on literature, music, art, history, political events, social commentary, and professional talk, along with some infantile humor. Musicologist Nicholas Till wrote a wonderful book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Beauty and Virtue in Mozart’s Operas, that covers exactly how having an Enlightenment-era (possessing an unbound belief in the benefits of education and faith in the individual), Renaissance man (good at everything) for a father affected Mozart and his sister.

Due to the extensive concertizing tours undertaken throughout Wolfgang and Marianne Mozart’s childhood,[1]music history tends to treat their father as the epitome of a deranged stage parent. But one of Leopold’s primary reasons for the tours was to procure music lessons for his son with the best musicians in the world. On the infamous “Grand Tour,” where the Mozart family travelled across Europe, from 1763 to 1766, the family spent over a year in England, on stretched financial means, so Wolfgang could study composition with Johann Christian Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s surviving sons and a much-sought after composer and teacher. Leopold was absolutely determined that his son would study with a Bach and the family had first spent time in the Netherlands in an unsuccessful effort to contact Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, J.C.’s brother. Mozart senior also applied the same strategy to obtaining private instrumental and voice lessons for Wolfgang. So much for the spontaneous aspect of the child genius story; during his boyhood, the composer had lessons with masters for whom he had to prepare work and have it judged. Genius might exist, but it had to be formed and cultivated, a process that the Mozart myth has completely and deceptively lost.

Losing sight of the work, sacrifice, and constructive elements of achievement has, I believe, provided valuable fuel to the social resentment industry. It is easier to envy the accomplishments and standing of others if one believes that they are unearned endowments because the person holding them is “gifted.” In my own path and work that I do, I’ve seen many people of envious or resentful inclination become devastated emotionally and psychologically when they come into close contact with high-achievers and see the amount of work, time, investment, and sacrifice that being one requires.

In my experience, these people either develop personal persecution narratives, such as the girl from my class, or flounce out proclaiming that they “have a life.” My personal experience has made me doubt the efficacy of Charles Murray’s solution, proposed at the end of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010, that the best cure for the culture of resentment and anger is for the top twenty percent, representative of the high-achieving, to become visible to the bottom eighty and in doing so to allow the bottom sectors to see how hard the top actually works. Historically, the argument is probably justified; returning to the example of the Mozart family, their close association with the aristocracy, both hereditary and professional, certainly provided impetus for the children to set themselves new challenges as part of winning respect and recognition. But that family had an openness to self-improvement, a belief in the possibility of it that as a larger cultural force was, as Nicholas Till repeatedly pointed out, unique to the Enlightenment.

The people of contemporary society not only lack such a belief, they are closed even to the possibility that there is room for improvement. This is not new; Nietzsche observed and decried the culture of ressentiment– defined by the OED as “a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be satisfied.” Only now there is no suppression. Achievement through self-improvement is replaced with cries for equality of outcome. People are no longer willing to work for achievement, instead they want is for what they have done, no matter how small, no matter how inadequate, to be recognized as achievements, citing that they did invest time, energy, and money it their banalities. Since the investment aspect is very important, I’ll close here and we’ll look at it next.


[1]Marianne Mozart was, according to the entire family, the better musician and performer of the two siblings. By the time of her early teens, she had surpassed her father and brother as a violinist and pianist to such an extent that her brother gradually ceased playing seriously himself in order to concentrate on composing for her. However, her parents had her retire from the stage once she turned seventeen in order to leave her open for an aristocratic marriage, which she eventually made. After she was widowed, she became a very successful teacher and was able to support single-handedly her children, step-children, and nephews and leave behind a massive fortune.

White rappers and hip hop culture

Post Malone has been at the heart of some manufactured controversy recently. Complex and other hipster millennial outlets (x, y) have criticized his appropriation of braids, grills and slang (AAVE), as a white man who has recently made a name in hip hop.

I’m a college student in the Californian city with the highest rate of binge drinking (and a lot of partying). Just like rock n roll replaced jazz, hip hop has replaced rock as the club genre. And Post Malone is popular. I have never once heard someone complain about Post Malone in real life. The first time I heard his genre-fusing cooing was in a Mustang with my Mexican roommate and his girlfriend. I thought it was shit. He found “White Iverson” good enough to turn up the volume whenever it came on, and radio stations are notoriously abusive with new rap singles.

Last year you would see Latina and black classmates dancing to Post Malone at any of Chico’s backyard parties. No one thought he was culturally appropriating, or if they did, they didn’t care. His music sounds good to them. That’s what matters.

Post Malone has said some things in interviews and online that pissed off journalists and maybe a handful of other people with the time to be bothered. One of those things was the n-word, used once on Snapchat long ago. More recently, he stated that the modern hip hop landscape is sort of deficient in conscious rappers, rappers who will talk about “real shit,” and that “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop.” Some easily offended artists, particularly those who are listened to almost exclusively by white people — Lil B, Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples — responded angrily.

In Complex‘s piece, the author was upset with Post Malone for dumbing down the music scene. Funny. XXL, one of the largest hip hop news outlets, which runs (and endorses) a group of up-n-comers every year, had the most lyrically-inept roster in recent history for their 2017 edition: Ugly God, Madeintyo, A Boogie With A Hoodie, Playboi Carti, Kap G, then a few alrights, and a single prodigy who’s now off to prison. (Playboi Carti can’t even rap. He really can’t.) I’m sorry to inform Complex, but the focus of hip hop is about hedonism right now. That’s how it is. No one gives a damn about J. Cole after 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and Kendrick Lamar sold out on his last album.

Since gaining fame, Post Malone has worked with Quavo (of Migos) and 21 Savage. Why didn’t these artists call him out for stealing black culture? And if Post Malone is destroying the often-intelligent culture of hip hop by exclusively sampling stereotypes and gangster imagery… why does no one care that Migos and 21 Savage are doing the exact same thing? Post Malone has also worked with Kanye West, who, again, didn’t care that he is white and immersing himself in the culture. Kanye has a lot of rap clout. So if Post Malone gets Kanye’s approval, what sort of validity do the rest of us have?

Granted: racial slurs are a reasonable line to draw for white artists. But Post Malone apologized and he’s clearly not a racist. What more is there to say?

There is no standpoint epistemology that can be non-arbitrarily applied here. Many people would like to say that white fans are ruining hip hop or that hip hop has always been about criticizing white power structures or some other ahistorical, revisionist narrative. No.

Hip hop is not just a personal liberator. Hip hop is for everyone. Hip hip is a product of black culture but black culture is no monolith. The standards for hip hop change. The style changes. The message is not singular. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? Kendrick’s own personal viewpoints on the struggle for black liberation align much closer with Tupac Shakur’s — the perspective that real change must start in black communities, and any problems with the police and white authorities are secondary or tertiary. Have the organizers at BLM listened to Kendrick’s work before good kid, m.A.A.d city? Did they loop “Alright” so much from To Pimp a Butterfly that they skipped “The Blacker the Berry”?

Do these people want to pretend that all old school hip hop flowed from the mouth of Gil Scott-Heron? Have they listened to “Rapper’s Delight”? What about 2 Live Crew? “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop”: Post Malone was being provocative, clearly. But hip hop is no special fountain of consciousness and enlightenment. It’s got even more sex and drugs than does rock n roll. Travi$ Scott came on the scene just to rap about partying — and he’s still a fantastic, infinitely creative artist. We will see more and more of this, just like we always have.

To all of this, it might be replied that white people are stealing hip hop like they stole rock n roll before. But music is not zero-sum. One artist’s creation does not prevent another artist’s creation, and especially now, there is always billboard room for more. Action Bronson is, stylistically, a carbon copy of Ghostface Killah (I mean, the off-brand version). But Wu Tang’s spotlight is long gone. A new artist for a new generation is no loss for the old artist, no disrespect to Ghostface. And now, if we look to anticipate the emerging future for hip hop (à la Soundcloud etc.), the new (black-led) wave is directly sampling from historically white inputs: radio rock, nu metal, grunge. Or even East Asian anime influences.

The attacks on Post Malone and the like are part of a larger guerilla ideology. They are one aspect of the cleansing of hip hop (an outrageously politically incorrect discipline) in general. I was in a recent dispute with a female friend over the outro from a song I like, as it came on shuffle:

Well with a pimp we gotta keep pimpin to have a b–h and that’s what she yearns for. She yearns for the pimpin. And once you keep f–king with pimpin, that square is a trick. It turns it from a square to a trick. Why she gone lay with a trick? It’s the nastiest lowest form of a motherf–ker. Pimps do what they wanna do. Hoes do what they’re told. And squares does what they can. They just do what they can. You see what I’m sayin?

She thought it was misogynistic. Sure, yeah, it is. But it’s a sample from a movie and that movie is about life on the streets. And that’s what’s going on. Hip hop tells stories.

I haven’t seen “American Pimp,” from which the sample is cut. But most of us would recognize that the quote is referencing, knowingly or not, the Melian dialogue from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War from twenty four hundred years ago. It is 5th century B.C.E. and the Athenians are preparing for war against the Spartans. The Athenian army, under the direction of Cleomedes and Tisias, sends an expedition to the island Melos for conscription. The Melians, a small Spartan colony, would prefer to stay out of the conflict. In a classic statement of realist political philosophy, the Athenian representatives disregard abstract moral claims and tell the Melians, straight up: join the empire and fight for us, or be enslaved and massacred. There is only a question of morality between equals, and all that truly matters in politics is power:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

The Melians decide not to give up their freedom, and bet on the odds that they will be aided by the Lacedaemonians, asking only to be left alone. The Athenians withdraw from the conference. The next winter, they siege the Melians into surrender then slaughter all the men and sell the women and children into slavery.

The point is: hip hop can rhyme about snorting cocaine off of a stripper and then reference classical Greek literature in the same song. We don’t really get that sort of postmodern syncretism in other genres. Hip hop is a bastion of creativity and subtlety as well as vulgarity and cruelty. Let’s hope it continues to surprise and offend us.

So let Amber Rose organize Slut Walks promoting sex positivity and feminism while her boyfriend 21 Savage raps about gang bangs and punching women in the face. Rap is for everyone and thus also the scumbags. Hip hop is a free speech fest, an untouched final frontier not yet contorted into submission by the thought police. What the people want is a good 808 and an album every couple months, not another stern voice to lecture them into moral and cultural conformity.

Hip hop has always exhibited the brute political realism of Thucydides’ History. More can be learned about the realities of American government from listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony than sitting in a political science class. Its willingness to stay down and dirty is its signature trademark. So cultural appeasement and cleanliness can have everything else: it can have our vocabulary, it can have our media, it can even be enforced by government for all I care. Just keep its indelicate hands off hip hop.

Physical Goods, Immaterial Goods, and Public Goods

Public goods in economics have been a contentious theoretical issue since Paul Samuelson introduced the concept in 1954. The main sources of contention are what real world things are public goods, and who should provide them. In this post I propose a new way of looking at goods that will shed light on why public goods have posed such a problem. In particular, I propose that there is an important distinction between physical goods and immaterial goods; that public goods can only be immaterial goods; and that this unique feature of public goods does not preclude the market to provide the “socially optimal level.

Introduction

Economists define a public good as something that is “non-rival” (meaning that one person’s consumption does not affect another person’s), and “non-excludable” (meaning that one person cannot stop another person from consuming the good.) Public goods are often contrasted with private goods, which are rival and excludable.

The implications are that public goods cannot be provided by a free market, because no one would have to pay for such a good, and so there would be so incentive to produce it. Therefore, the argument goes, the government ought to provide public goods.

Features_of_goods

An example of a private good is an apple. Imagine a world with just you, me, and an apple. If I take a bite out of the apple, there is now less apple for you to consume. That means it’s rival. If I put the apple in a locker to which only I know the combination, then again you are prevented from consuming the apple. This makes it excludable.  Continue reading

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The dangers of football safety equipment
  2. Want less pollution? Privatize the roads (just ask the bicyclists)
  3. Octopuses Are ‘the Closest We Will Come to Meeting an Intelligent Alien’
  4. Are Humans the Real Ancient Aliens?
  5. Tennessee Whiskey

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Freedom of the Athenians (book review)
  2. The Myth of the Myth of Barter
  3. Trade Liberalization and Growth: New Evidence (pdf)
  4. From West Philly to Gulshan e Iqbal and Back
  5. Obama’s Witness for the Prosecution
  6. When Your Dream Lovers Die