©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Peter Babiak, Saints, Sweet Talk and the Madwoman in the Economics Department: An Interview with Deirdre McCloskey

Subterrain 45, pp. 35-38

  1. Did you ever worry that your readers—many of whom live frantic bourgeois lives of their own, even though they wouldn't admit to that word—would simply not have the time to read a 616 page book?
    Yes, I did, and even explicitly apologized for it in one of the prefaces! I wish I could persuasively make the point—that we should get over being ashamed of being bourgeois—in a phrase (as here) or a sentence or a short piece for Harpers. The trouble is that making it persuasively seems to take a lot of room, because the suspicions of capitalism, some justified, some dubious, some plain silly, are so very numerous. On the other hand, people sometimes do read long books. You did! I don't think The Bourgeois Virtues is actually painful to read—irritating, yes, I suppose, sometimes, because it is unconventional; slow moving, perhaps, depending on ones tastes; quite disorienting often because I keep shifting the sorts of arguments (economic, literary, philosophical). But not actually painful paragraph by paragraph. I hope. When I am well into getting all four (!) volumes written the University of Chicago Press wants me to write a short version of the whole.
  2. You come back, again and again, to the importance of "story telling" and "narrative" and "language". You say we are "composed of differing characters," that we make choices in life "by rhetorical and narrative reflection," and so on. Does knowing that my life is a compilation of narratives really change the way I live it? Does knowing that the economy—which to many people looks like a fact of nature, as if it is just there—is grounded in myths and plots change the way we participate in it?
  3. To both questions, yes, I think so. We do shape our lives as stories, but usually half-consciously, inchoately, a bit thoughtlessly, yes? A 30-something man might think of the story of his life as "I was once a poor student. Then I grew very rich. And so I now get to have lots of cool toys." At age 45 or so he grows uneasy about this—after all, it is an idiotically bad story for a life. All the philosophers and poets and novelists have told us so, and they are right. He might then change it—as George W. Bush did—to "I once was lost, but now am found; / Was blind but now I see." Or he might reform (look at the word: re-form) to become a philanthropist, as Bill Gates did, making his story into "I was rich and selfish. Then I talked to my wife and to Warren Buffett. Now I am rich and generous, pleasing to an ideal of the liberal, openhearted man."

    As to the storied economy, yes again. If we regard the economy as a story of brutal greed (we ourselves of course are excepted), then we properly seek its overthrow and its replacement with a worker's paradise, such as Pol Pot's Cambodia, or present-day North Korea. If we regard the economy as a story of cooperation, we celebrate it and the working lives it is made up of.
  4. In the 1960s the literary critic George Steiner lamented the shift in economics "from the linguistic to the mathematical, from rhetoric to the equation." A couple of decades later you came out with The Rhetoric of Economics, where you put the "rhetoric" back into the economics. Has this line of thinking had any effect on how economics is taught or how knowledge about economic matters is disseminated across the public domain (i.e., in media)?
  5. No, as I note in the last chapter of the second edition of The Rhetoric of Economics 1998. But I would not say that I was trying to "put the rhetoric back into economics." I was merely arguing that the economics, whether expressed in words or in mathematics, is rhetorical. I am not, as Steiner is, a humanist complaining about technicalities in economics. I am a humanist pointing out that the technicalities are metaphors, ironies, appeals to ethos and pathos as much as to logos. I'm not surprised that my economist colleagues have found this difficult to grasp (or that my humanist colleagues find it obvious). Most economists don't read books, any books. So naturally they find thinking hard.
  6. Those who do what you call the "verbal work, the speaking of ideas," the "sweet talkers" who earn their daily bread by persuading people "without compulsion," would seem to be the most vociferous in anti-bourgeois sentiment, even though they comprise a large sector of the bourgeoisie. Why?
  7. That's a deep puzzle, which I'll try to contribute a little to solving in Volume 3, The Treason of the Clerisy, 1848: How the Bourgeoisie Became Inauthentic. I think you mean the scribblers, such as you and me, often the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, not the similarly persuading managers and lawyers, also are part of what Richard Florida calls the "creative class." And certainly not the salespeople, the Willie Lomans, persuading on a shoeshine and a smile.
  8. If we can never get to the "Truth"—about any scientific, philosophical or political matter—and if we advance theories by making "more and more persuasive argument," then isn't it fair to say that there is nothing about the unregulated free-market capitalism that makes it better than, say, socialism or a welfare state? That is, nothing except the rhetorical abilities of those who defend it?
  9. Sure. There is nothing Indubitable Out There, just sitting around like a rock, that shows slam-bang that every imaginable socialism is inferior to actually existing capitalism, or to an imagined unregulated capitalism. It's a matter of human persuasion, such as the book I wrote and the others I'm writing on the matter, and the hundreds and hundreds of other books arguing for the other side. We do not have a proof like that of the irrationality of the square root of 2 or, as I say, a fact like a rock. We have a tangle of human interest and passion, a mobile army of metaphors. That is why it takes a while to make the case. I do wish there was a slam-bang, three-minute proof on a blackboard. People keep wanting them, and keep thinking they have come up with one. Then they spend their lives peddling it. But alas, no.
  10. Many readers will react to your claim that unregulated capitalism not only works but produces "the best art and the best people" with knee-jerk disbelief. They might say that what they read and hear about—the stagnation in real wages, expanding corporate profits, Enron, Arthur Andersen, a watered down Kyoto—sends a very different message. How would you address their skepticism?
  11. Yes, knee jerk disbelief. If I get people to stop and think hard, even if on thinking hard they come down on the other side, I'll be glad. So much of what we believe about capitalism, whether bad or good, is knee-jerk, mere thoughtless indignation, not backed up by facts or stories. The sentence you quote was directed at the charge that capitalism makes people vulgar. I don't think it does. In fact capitalism has resulted in a flourishing of the human spirit. In its early stages capitalism is a bit vulgar. Buying low and selling high is not in itself a spiritual program. But then Morgan gives his collection and the building for the National Gallery. Millions attend universities. Books are published each year by the tens of thousands. World music flowers.

    Socialism appears to have had the opposite history. In its first generation—think of Soviet Russia before Stalin—the coming of socialism encourages people to be idealistic and artistic in the best senses. Russian painting in the 1920s, Russian literary criticism, Russian poetry. But wait: within a couple of generations the nature of man under socialism made them worse human beings than they would have been (in, say, Russia) without socialism.

    You juxtapose the sentence with recent economic history, which was not my subject there, and is not strictly relevant to the charge of vulgarity. But yes, all the items you mention are deplorable. The stagnation in real wages, expanding corporate profits, Enron, Arthur Andersen, a watered down Kyoto. Deplorable things happen, and we must work to see that they don't.

    One very good way to see that they don't is to reform the talk surrounding market economies. It was boldly and foolishly selfish talk that got the Houston branch of Arthur Andersen and then the whole company into such a fix: "We can do anything. Greed is good." Country-club Republican talk, not ethical libertarian talk, got us the absurd tax breaks for the very, very rich. Words matter in the long and in the short run. Notice the way the Republicans got their way on the inheritance tax, which most economists agree is close to ideal as a revenue source, by calling it the "death tax." Counter talk seems on its way to reversing the wage/profit, and especially the wage/CEO-compensation ratio. A friend who is a professor of finance in France, Pierre Bateau, argues that we are experiencing a realignment from the stockholder-CEO alliance of 1975-2005 to a stockholder-worker alliance. Alliances are made by talk.
  12. "A capitalist at her pretty good best is humble," you write, and then give two hot-button examples of this virtue: McDonald's offering "humble" meals to working people, Wal-Mart "listening" to what its customers want. Why is there so much sustained public condemnation directed at these two in particular? Is it misguided, perhaps the result of films like Supersize Me or foolish legislation (including one in Chicago) against box-stores?
  13. Count on me to give the hot-button example. It's my impulse to challenge knee jerking. I really do dislike knee jerking, from the right, the left, or the center.

    Why there is such disdain for McDonald's or Wal-Mart goes to the heart of your question of why the members of the scribbling classes are so hostile to capitalism. They find such businesses vulgar, and they do not have the tight budget that goes so much further at McDonald's or Wal-Mart (about a third further compared with mom-and-pop hamburger places or mom-and-pop five-and-dimes). But why this translates into sneering rants of the sort you mention is unclear to me. I didn't say that a Big Mac is the food of the gods. And I certainly want McDonald's to get the transfat out of their food and start helping poor people to realize that gobbling hamburgers like J. Willington Wimpy in the Popeye cartoon is not a good diet plan. But it's a simple and nourishing meal, I said (my brother John put it to me this way, and he has been poor), at a low price.
  14. A reviewer in The Financial Times suggested that readers might ridicule your book by asking which virtue is displayed by hedge funds and huge corporate bonuses. You address financial "disorder" [on page 159] brought on by financial instruments like "hedge funds"—Warren Buffett called them "financial weapons of mass destruction"—by saying that they are the result of trustworthiness. Can you clarify this? [How do "trust and friendship" cause bubbles?]
  15. Poor Samuel Brittain (the reviewer you mention). He is such a shallow thinker. A pity. Still, it's a point, if shallow. What he's complaining about is that bad things happen. My reply is that they happen sometimes in all systems, we being fallen from Eden. Hedge funds are not intrinsically evil. On the contrary, they arbitrage differences—which is what Buffett does, too, and Brittain must do in his own investments. I wasn't addressing exactly the hedge funds (whose strategies were greatly sharpened by my friends Fischer Black and Myron Scholes), though I'm willing to include hedge funds in my counter-point. The counter-point is that you can't have a capital market, and therefore the great good of correctly allocated funds—though sometimes bad bubbles—without believing in each other. A very distrustful society—one like that of 1500 in Europe, say—would never let anyone manage its money, whether a saint-like Buffett or a scoundrel like Ivan Boesky.
  16. Would you say that the political left has a monopoly on the language of goodness, where as there is little evidence of all this talk of virtue?
  17. I think the left thinks it has such a monopoly. Many on the left think that people who admire capitalism are ethically deficient, bad people who do not love the poor as they do, the good people of the left. This is mistaken. Capitalism has been best for the poor—for instance, my poor ancestors and yours. I'm not clear what you are asking in the second clause.
  18. You write about the "hostility to advertising" in intellectual circles, and how it may be related to the tradition of antirhetoric attitude that dates back to the 17th century. What do you make of the books opposed advertising and the "culture of branding" that have come out in the last decade [Klein's No Logo, Quart's Branded]? Is this hostility just a sound and fury signifying nothing?
  19. I've not read those two books in particular. But The Hidden Persuaders (1957) by Vance Packard is the model for all of them. Packard thought he would lose his friends on Madison Avenue. But on the contrary they said to him, in effect, "Vance, before your book we were having a devil of a time persuading clients that advertising was worth it. Now they think we are magicians, and line up to buy our charms." I think the books are a consequence of a good trend in cultural studies, taking symbolizing seriously. There's a great deal to be learned from that. The trouble is that the cultural studies folk, as much as I love them, are commonly deficient in economic common sense. For instance, they regularly and grossly overstate the economic importance of advertising. What percent of national income do you suppose is spent on ads, including merely informative ones like the Yellow Pages? Answer: 2 percent.
  20. "Lovers leave, friends move away, riches get spent. And then what? If your life plan consists of accumulating SUVs and antique houses and young lovers, what is the point?" This line appears in a rather moving chapter where you argue the need for a transcendent, or a "spark of the divine", but for what reason?
  21. For what reason? So that our lives have point. We can, of course, live like cats, enjoying the moment, lying in the sun on the window sill. That's part of a full life, such cat-like pleasures of the flesh. But we are humans as well as lust-driven mammals. We feel we need also a point to our lives. It's just how we are. And for that matter it is how we should be. Having a point, by the way, is not always good news. Hitler's life very much had a point. But anyway humans are like that. They need hope and faith and transcendent love of Science or the Revolution or God. Faith, hope, and love, these three abide. In 1952 Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:

    Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must he saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
    The Irony of American History (New York: Scribner's, 1952), Chp. 3, sec. 4
  22. God—as a personification of the transcendent or as a separate other, the author of the system you refer to—appears a lot in your book. You don't apologize for your Christianity, but aren't you the least bit concerned at how readers will respond to you when you say that the root of the tree of life, the author of the Good, is "God, period"?
  23. As the politicians say, I apologize if I have offended anyone. My Christianity is I think worn lightly in the book. But as you say I am not going to apologize for that. Some readers—the 90% and more of Americans who claim to believe in God, for example—will not find a reference to God offensive. My many good friends who are atheists and agnostics should listen up. Maybe, just maybe, they will want to amend some of their knee-jerk reactions to any sort of church talk! Let us pray for them.