In yesterday’s (12/28/08) NY Times “Week in Review” section, two articles (on the same page) are worth comment.
The first is “Contemplating the Boobs We Were” by Peter Applebome. He argue correctly that Americans don’t understand enough about economics. Then he suggests that this topic should be taught in high school, or at the very least students should be taught of the joys of compound interest in savings, and the pitfalls of it as debt.
There are several flaws in these proposals. While it would be salutary for students to learn the dangers of indebtedness, how many of them are likely to learn this complex lesson when the joys of credit cards seem self-evident. If one’s parents or other close adults have gotten into serious debt trouble, that might be convincing, but a lesson in class on such a subject is likely to be seem sanctimonious, stilted, boring, or ignorant of reality. Should schools teach students to forego college to avoid college loans? Can teachers — who probably have a dim grasp of this, and, in many cases, can’t get by without loans themselves — successfully get it across?
A worse problem is the supposed benefit of compound interest on savings. If everybody saves and no one spends, and few go into debt, compound interest cannot materialize as promised. Numerous presumably intelligent people now tell us we should all invest our money and not spend it, but clearly, under such circumstances there would nothing worthwhile to invest it in. This is the macroeconomic reality hidden when only the microeconomics of individual cases is discussed.
Of course, if economics became a curriculum subject for high school, what would be taught would be even more wated-down and tendentious than what is now taught as history. “Patriots” would insist on the full nine yards of total “free-market” nonsense; even Keynesianism would be too vaguely taught, because too few professional economists, much less high school teachers grasp it today.
Macroeconomics itself is far more complex, if evaluated correctly, for it should mean nothing other than the total evolution of societal interconnections. Most scholars, even of macroeconomics, do not get this, because they act as if economics as a whole is a fixed subsystem. They forget that it is subject to historical change. (In truth, they don’t so much forget this. Rather, they simply have never considered it in the first place.) That’s why it is beyond their ken that the money-market-industrial economy could give way to something else, which I of course suspect will be the Attention Economy as I have defined it in this blog and elsewhere.
That brings us to the second article, “Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It” by David Streitfeld. He argues that bookstores are disappearing, and cites a case in which he bought a like-new book online for “25 cents” (plus, of course, “shipping and handling”) so that the author got absolutely no money. She points out to him that she did get attention, though without using the word.
If they were in it primarily for the money, the vast majority of authors would always have been fools , though a tiny few have made a pretty good living at times. The main goal, I argue, has always bee seeking attention for oneself or —what amounts to the same thing — for what one thinks or has to say. Today, as competition for attention rises, and ways to seek increase too, that is even more likely to be the case.
None of this is to argue that the landscape for books, including bookstores, publishers, etc., is not undergoing rapid and in many ways disturbing changes. As a book lover and erstwhile bookstore haunter, I am saddened at the demise of such places a Cody’s, mentioned in the article. It is possible to find many more books on line than you would in even the largest bookstore, but browsing them at present remains far from easy. Serendipity still operates, but is quite different in detail from what happens in an actual bookstore. And young people’s attention is now often subdivided in such a way that they see no reason to immerse themselves in an actual book to such a degree that they really do begin to feel the author’s way of thinking — at least partially — from the inside.
As long as we still do have something of a money economy, we should seek — and probably will find — new ways to make sure that authors we like get some support. Some of this will be semi-automatic; some of it may require new social inventions. But I don’t think we should spend too much time mourning the profit-centered kind of publishing that now seems to be perishing.