Friday, June 1, 2018

Solo Goes into its Second Weekend

BoxOfficeMojo has just put out its predictions for the weekend.

There are no likely blockbusters coming out--testifying, again, to the wide berth that other studios decided to give Solo. However, the fact will do only so much for the movie, the site predicting that the film will only get to $150 million in North America by Monday--the ten day run required to make what the moderate predictions had it earning just over Memorial Day weekend, while barring a surprise, it will continue its fade afterward.

More than before I feel confident in my earlier estimate of its box office prospects. The film will probably not reach $500 million global, while even $400 million global may be doubtful. Again, a decent performance for most movies, but a grave disappointment given the resources invested, and the precedent set by the franchise's prior films.

Even with all that has been said, the fans will be chewing this one over for a very long time to come, while it will be interesting to see what the executives at the studio behind the studio make of it all.

Book Sale Update
5/30/18
Is the Sci-Fi Blockbuster Frozen in the Early '80s?
5/30/18
Thoughts on Alien: Covenant
5/30/18
Remake, Remake and Remake Again
5/30/18
Notes on High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, by Justin Wyatt
5/28/18
Surviving Failure, Post-Solo: The Experience of the Bond Franchise
5/28/18
Star Wars Has Flopped. Long Live Star Wars(?)
5/28/18
More on Solo Flopping
5/27/18
Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Remembering Galbraith's Economics and the Public Purpose

It seems that John K. Galbraith's Economics and the Public Purpose is something of a forgotten classic. Despite being the culmination of the prior two decades' of work, refining and drawing together the ideas he presented in earlier but still more commonly noted books like American Capitalism, The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, and rounding out the trilogy begun and continued with the latter two titles; despite its being on the bestseller list for five months and its nomination for the 1974 National Book Award; the book appears to be less remembered, less often mentioned than those others.1

In fairness, Galbraith never got his due from his professional colleagues--his neoclassically-minded fellow economists refusing to regard his work as a meaningful contribution to the field. (As his own son James later explained, what such economists recognize as "economics" is essentially the surrounding of "simpleminded" ideas with clumsy algebra that the faithful applaud as "beautiful mathematics" and award Nobel Prizes for, and nothing else.)

It probably did not help that the book was not just analytical but prescriptive, laying out a program of comprehensive reform--not really more radical than what the West European welfare state had at its zenith, but all the same, rather further to the left than the U.S. had gone before, and plenty to make a Milton Friedman (and even a Paul Krugman?) foam at the mouth, the more so as he was not afraid of using the word "socialism" to describe his proposal.

Nor did it help that this last book came out just as Friedman and company were getting the upper hand in the debate, amid a sharp turn in economics toward neoclassicism, and in more politics, more generally to the right, that has continued down into our own day. Indeed, Galbraith's later work, while at times quite interesting (as is the case with The Culture of Contentment), in its diagnoses of the problem, and the steps that might be taken to correct it, was never so bold again. However one feels about his particular recommendations, that narrowing of the discussion, to which even a figure of his standing felt he had to accommodate himself, it seems hard to deny that this has been to our loss.

Considering all this I decided to repost here my reviews of the critical trilogy--The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State and Economics and the Public Purpose.

1. For something on the reception of the book, see Richard Parker's John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics.

Technology, Space and Hype: Some Links
6/1/18
Reflections of a NewSpace Skeptic
6/1/18
Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
5/25/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Update: Six Book Reviews
5/21/18
Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Review: The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958, pp. 368.

Originally posted at Nader Elhefnawy on October 16, 2012.

John Kenneth Galbraith's starting point in The Affluent Society is the observation that historically the great economic problem was that of adequate production, a fact enshrined in the mainstream of economic thought (by way of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Mill and Marshall, and Marx, Veblen and Keynes for that matter), and by the Social Darwinism that found such a warm reception in the United States (where Herbert Spencer became hugely influential). Accordingly, the tendency was toward stressing the maximum output of essentials of life--food, clothing, shelter, fuel--through the most efficient possible use of the available resources prioritized. As it happened, the items in question lent themselves toward private, individual production and consumption, while proponents of this ideal venerated the free operation of a competitive market as a device for forcing capitalists and employers to make the utmost effort in getting production up and price down. The result was, not incidentally, a tendency to value the private sector, and denigrate the public sector (at least, where goods besides physical security are concerned), a pattern which extended to the view of increased private consumption as a gain to prosperity, and increased public consumption a reduction in it. There was also the attitude that society had little choice but to tolerate poverty, while a dim view was taken of waste and of idleness, esteeming thrift and stigmatizing unemployment.1

However, Galbraith contends that by the twentieth century the advanced industrial countries of the Western world had largely solved the production problem, the central issue no longer securing an adequate supply of life's essentials--society now "affluent" in that respect. In making his case Galbraith points to the many ways in which these societies had deeply changed since the Industrial Revolution. The truly poor (those who do not get enough to eat, etc.) had been transformed from the vast majority into a minority. An increased share of production was devoted to satisfying not indisputable physical needs (to a great extent, satiated), but the artificial wants manufactured by consumer culture's unprecedented use of techniques like planned obsolescence and advertising.

This was all as people worked less, the 70-hour week giving way to the 40-hour week, while child labor became a thing of the past, and the retirement of the elderly became routine (all of these, indicators of the reduced urgency of the demand for labor and its products). Additionally, rather than the failure of supply the failure of demand, as seen in the Great Depression, came to be construed as the great threat to prosperity, while the continued stress on the maximization of production has been motivated less by the desirability of more goods than of production's role in maintaining full employment. Galbraith even contended that the expansion of production, and with it, general well-being, had gone a long way to diminishing the political charge of the issue of inequality.

In place of the traditional problems of poverty there were now the side effects of an economy of private affluence. The maintenance of full employment as the norm meant inflationary pressure, while consumer culture brought with it a tendency toward oppressive and unsustainable debt accumulaton. At the same time the advent of such private prosperity meant an imbalance with the comparative poverty of the public sector, the lag in the provisioning of public goods such as educational, health and policing services, urban planning, and the protection of the natural environment raising new issues, not least the handicapping of the private sector's operation. The remediable failures of the education system, for instance, undermine scientific R & D efforts. Likewise, the failures of city planning have an adverse effect on the quantity and quality of the housing stock available to home buyers.

The solution of the old problems, and their replacement by new unsolved problems (by making the public sector affluent as the private sector had become, to the benefit of both), went largely unrecognized because of the tendency of the "conventional wisdom" (a term Galbraith coined in this book) to lag behind circumstance.2 Nonetheless, Galbraith was confident that change was possible, even likely, and certainly his argument did find an audience at the time. The idea that there could be life beyond flat-out GDP maximization in fact became a commonplace in social science, social comment and futurological speculation during the years that followed, William Appleman Williams, Gunther Stent and Alvin Toffler, among many, many others, all featuring it prominently in their work. Since then, ideas such as "sustainable" growth have gained currency in certain circles, as have broader measures of wealth, like the General Progress Indicator.

However, it seems that we are further than ever from embracing the thinking Galbraith presented, American society regarding itself as far from affluent in the way he suggests (even though per-capita GDP has more than doubled since then). The prioritization of sheer GDP growth as the sole test of economic performance, the identification of the private sector with goods and the public sector with costs, the Victorian severity toward the poor and underemployed, all remain the predominant assumptions over a half century later.

One has to wonder why, given that there seems a great deal of merit to his argument. Certainly one part of the explanation seems to be Galbraith's underestimation of the extent to which the "good life" would continue to be perceived in terms of more private consumption, and on a related note, the intensely private way in which Americans think about their problems, individual and collective (to which C. Wright Mills, stronger on this score, often pointed). Galbraith also had a tendency to underestimate the power of vested interests to affect public policy, and how the shift in the terms of economic debate in the neoliberal revolution (made possible by a combination of economic crisis in the early 1970s and a politics of cultural backlash) would permit new circumstances to reinforce the conventional wisdom he criticized, leaving the mainstream less open to newer thinking.

At least in part because of neoliberal policies like the lowering of trade barriers, financial deregulation, and the weakening of organized labor and worker protections, the last four decades have been marked by much lower rates of economic growth, as well as intensified international economic competition, recurrent financial crises, higher unemployment, and greater inequality. Americans may have remained privately "affluent"--but the vast majority did not get much more affluent by even the most conventional measures, and they felt less secure in what they did have. If anything, given that their personal budgets were often pressed by inflation sufficient to wipe out the additions to purchasing power represented by rises in their income, the increasingly expensive post-secondary education increasingly seen as a requirement for remunerative employment, the exploding costs of health care, and the mounting private debt loads to which all these added, they had reason to feel less affluent than before.

Meanwhile, the reality of public poverty grew only more pronounced under the same circumstances, as slower growth rates, rising dependency ratios (putting pressure on benefits for the retired or elderly as they had been traditionally constituted), and the public portion of the growing tab for educational and health care spending (and the shift away from progressive taxation even as the distribution of wealth became more unequal) squeezed government budgets, making bigger deficits and mounting government debt the long-term trend. And the neoliberal context made all the difference as to how this was perceived.

It is conceivable that under other circumstances the redress of the public sector's problems may have been seen as part of a broader project of reviving overall prosperity. The growing numbers of retirees might have been viewed as relieving the pressure of job creation and inflation, for instance. Expanded public programs in the areas of education and health care might have been seen as a way of relieving those burdens on the individual consumer. And so on and so forth. However, it became the conventional wisdom that the thing to do was not to improve public services, but to turn them into for-profit private services (a drive given greater urgency by the construing of those larger numbers of retirees as a fiscal disaster in the making). And while, despite all the cutbacks, the proportion of government budgets devoted to transfer payments remained large, there is no doubt that the response of individuals was increasingly to substitute private goods for public ones; to respond to the inadequacies of the public education system by paying more out of pocket to send one's children to private school, for instance.3

This transfer of formerly public burdens to the private individual did that much more to make what could have appeared like private affluence instead appear as private scarcity, and make the prioritization of expanded private consumption (especially with the idea of expanding public consumption delegitimized) appear the solution--with old-fashioned GDP growth the means.4 And of course, the broader social inequality attending the process by which the lives of wage and salary-earners became so strained meant that much more need for a convenient solvent for the resulting tensions, the obvious candidate for which was, again, GDP growth (rhetorically, at any rate).

In retrospect it seems Alain Touraine who, far more than any counterpart of his in the English-speaking world (Galbraith included), was prescient in contending that post-industrial society would be the most growth-driven and GDP-obsessed in history, with the post-2008 economic shock doing surprisingly little to shake up the mainstream's embrace of neoliberalism. Nonetheless, the case for moving beyond the "conventional wisdom" he described, for thinking of public as well as private affluence, and looking beyond the narrow definition of growth so dear to economic orthodoxy, has only grown stronger with the passage of the decades.

1. One irony of this view, not fully recognized in Galbraith's writing, is the role of public support in creating private prosperity even in the eras of Smith and Ricardo and Mill, much of the public preferring to stick with simplistic Horatio Alger and Edisonade images of how fortunes are made, corporate giants born and Third World poverty turned into industrialized affluence. It remains an irony of American political life that those who are most inclined to evoke the Founding Fathers are those most inclined to neglect the lessons of Alexander Hamilton's "Report on Manufactures"; those most inclined to speak of American economic exceptionalism, those least inclined to forget that there was such a thing as an "American School" of economic thought, and the role it played in building the American economy.
2. Among Galbraith's specific, practical suggestions was a delinking of work and income through a more generous, but also more carefully managed, program of unemployment insurance so that less-than-full-employment became an acceptable norm politically, relieving inflationary pressure. He also suggested a sales tax on private consumption for the funding of improved public services. More broadly, he argued for the elimination of toil (unpleasant work performed wholly for pay as it renders no other satisfaction), making all workers part of the "New Class" (in which people have not just jobs, but professions and careers, accessible through education).
3. An even more dramatic example may be the response to the problems of American cities - rather than making them more habitable through sounder urban planning, improved public transport, the redress of poverty and the like, the typical course has been relocation to suburbs and exurbs, which bring associated expenses like greater car ownership, longer commutes, and the private security bills of gated communities.
4. Under the circumstances, such an idea as using a sales tax to divert dollars spent on private consumption into the funding of better public services - as Galbraith proposes - could only have been anathema.

Review: The New Industrial State, by John Kenneth Galbraith

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967, pp. 427.

Originally posted at Nader Elhefnawy on October 16, 2012.

The conventional view of the American economy is that it is an arena where market forces predominate so that no single buyer or seller exercises significant control over prices, individuals and small business are the principal sources of innovation, and enterprises fight to keep government and organized labor at bay in their pursuit of that crucial form of feedback, profit, won through their competition to cater to the wants of the consumer.

However, in his 1967 classic The New Industrial State John Galbraith made the case for quite a different reality. The American economy, Galbraith held, was thoroughly planned--if in a somewhat more diffuse way than contemporaneous Soviet-style economies. Rather than some government bureau attempting to direct the whole, the function was spread among a small number of key actors, in particular the largest industrial corporations. This was because only the large corporation could raise the capital and organize the skills needed to design and produce the highly complex products characteristic of mid-twentieth century technology.1 And even for them, such investments were only viable when the market and its uncertainties were tamed--not least, the tastes of consumers.

Such corporations pursued the reduction of uncertainty at a number of levels, from that of the individual firm (through such methods as vertical integration, or the use of the market power that comes with large size to influence the prices at which they buy their inputs and sell their production), to that of the usually oligopolistic industries of which they were a part (through the avoidance of disruptive competition among firms), to the level of the whole economy through their influence on and cooperation with government (which pays for much R & D, and regulates demand with high public outlays, progressive taxation, and wage and price controls) and their dealings with organized labor (negotiations with which stabilize wage levels, and often bring it into line as an ally when pursuing government contracts). These corporations also made the private consumer a more predictable actor, not only through research of the consumer in advance of the development of the products to be marketed to them, but the advertising moulding his or her tastes.2

The corporations, in turn, were dominated by their "technostructures," the assemblages of technicians that made such companies functional, who had to be seen in this collective way because the planning process indispensable to their operations was far too vast and complex to be controlled by a single individual (given the volume and variety of information that had to be collected and processed, and decisions that had to be made). One result was the diminished power of the Chief Executive Officer and other senior management, often reduced to ratifying the decisions of comparatively obscure experts within their firms.3 In their turn, managers (typically salaried employees rather than owner-founders or their heirs) had seen their power grow relative to that of shareholders, as these were even further removed from being able to usefully observe and understand the intricate internal workings of these companies, while their prospects for exercising detailed control over company operations were further diminished by the wide diffusion of stock ownership. The result was that, so long as a company continued to deliver an "acceptable" level of profit, the technostructure enjoyed the degree of autonomy without which its elaborate planning was impossible.

The culture of such "mature" corporations naturally differed from that of such enterprises in their more formative phases, or the businesses of earlier eras altogether. The businessmen of the classic, nineteenth century mould (the Henry Ford type, for example), thoroughly "individualistic," and resolutely anti-intellectual, anti-statist and anti-union in sensibility and policy, were a poor fit with the model of enterprise Galbraith described in this book--and prone to get into trouble when trying to run a mature industrial company (as Ford appears, in Galbraith's account of his career in his earlier The Liberal Hour).

By contrast the "new" CEOs were more comfortable in an organization, more willing to give expertise its due, and more pragmatic in their dealings with government and labor, permitting the smoother operation of their businesses and the economy as a whole. They were not unconcerned with profit, but maximizing it was not their sole or even primary object--in part because they were salaried personnel whose own income was less closely connected to company fortunes, and in part because other motives had come to the fore, in particular "identification" with the company that gave them their privileged positions, and the satisfaction afforded by the "adaptation" of the company in line with their own, particular ideas about its mission.

Of course, identification and adaptation were not such powerful motives for less senior personnel. However, line workers too were more secure and better compensated than before, living as they did in a time of high employment and rising living standards (affording them much more than life's basics), while they were trading their blue collars for white ones and the less grinding working conditions that went with them, enabling those factors to influence them in a way they could not have before. The result was to weaken the sense of the employer (at least, in mature companies with a pragmatic attitude toward labor) as an enemy, helping to make the relationship between employee and employer less fraught with insecurity and confrontation, and the softer line of new-style, "enlightened" management toward organized labor that much more viable.

The discussions of identification and adaptation assumed company as well as personal goals beyond the merely pecuniary, and Galbraith naturally discussed this matter at length, writing of the "social goals" which are the formal missions of major industrial firms--objects at which they strove to make a profit, rather than having been incidental to profit-making as such. Lest the utopian rhetoric of privately owned, profit-driven corporations pursuing social goals cause confusion, what Galbraith referred to by the term are rising production and consumption, technological advance, and the agendas associated with it: the growth of the Gross Domestic Product, and the waging of the Cold War.

This model of the economy's "commanding heights" laid out, Galbraith then proceeded to consider the system's weaknesses, offering an extensive critique of the limits of the goals pursued by the country's technostructures. As he noted, the manner in which government supported R & D and sustained demand was highly militarized, a fact which helped lock in Cold War tensions, and all their dangers (the most extreme of which was major nuclear war). Additionally, values and interests out of line with the accepted goals--like leisure, ecology, aesthetics--were typically denigrated and marginalized. This raised the question of who would promote peace rather than war, protect the environment or defend intellectual and cultural values, and other such essential goods. Galbraith believed the answer lay in the emergence of what he termed the "educational and scientific estate." The dependence of the technostructure on this "estate" for expert knowledge, technological advance, and the training of the work force made its members both more numerous, and more powerful, and made them a potential champion of those needs and values so poorly served by the rest of the system.

Taken together these ideas comprise a satisfactorily comprehensive analysis of the heart of the American economy at the time of the book's writing, as well as certain of its key problems and potential palliatives, one which remains relevant today in many ways. What Galbraith's book has to say about how large, high-tech enterprises work is just as true today as it was then--if not more so. The indispensability of the technostructure to the major industrial enterprise, the marginalization of the individual entrepreneur and small business in the economy (and especially in high-tech manufacturing), the fact of oligopoly, the reality of close collaboration between big business and government, are irrefutable facts of twenty-first century life. The long-term decline of organized labor Galbraith recognized is an equally irrefutable fact of American economic history in the past half century.

Yet, there is also no disputing that the "ideology" of the older "entrepreneurial" mentality Galbraith identified with older-style, profit-fixated businessmen resurged in the 1970s with the ascendance of neoliberal economic thought. Of course, for all the rhetoric, small enterprises did not reverse a two century-long trend toward Big Business or Big Government; if anything, the movement in this direction remained as vigorous as ever. Nonetheless, the associated attitudes profoundly changed the milieu in which the technostructures operate--generally in ways unconducive to their functioning.

This has most obviously been the case at the macroeconomic level as deregulation and loose money policies, as well as the abandonment of full employment as a policy goal, intensified some forms of economic competition and made demand less reliable (by holding down wages, increasing the incidence of financial crises, encouraging the dependence of consumption on unsustainable borrowing, etc.). However, it has also been the case in the ways in which individual corporations have been run, by contributing to the dominance of the industries of which Galbraith wrote by a speculation-minded financial sector intent on short-run profit and share price maximization (and the linking of executive compensation to them). This has led to a preoccupation with cost-cutting (often targeting areas like R & D) directed at making quarterly earnings statements appear more attractive, at the expense of long-range company development; an increasing investment of company resources in mergers-and-acquisitions games as they pursue or fend off takeover attempts, at the expense of other imperatives; and the neglect of a company's core business (e.g. its social goal) to focus on more profitable speculative finance (as General Motors did).

The economic performance of the advanced industrial nations during this time, unsurprisingly, has been characterized by technological stagnation (evident in just about every area but IT) and falling growth rates (which compare very unfavorably with the post-World War II period), while the failure of corporate giants has long ceased to be an unheard-of event (as the events of 2008 and after have reminded us all).4 Consequently, even though Galbraith did not anticipate this turn, the economic history of these decades lends a great deal of support to his theory about how high-tech, capital-intensive firms, and the economies founded on them, necessarily operate. Taken along with the rather weak performance of the scientific and educational estate in the role of "loyal opposition," one can conclude that the principal failure of Galbraith (like many another mid-century American liberal) was his overestimation of the degree to which American political culture would adapt to the economic and technological realities that had become so apparent by mid-century.5

1. Galbraith's ideas regarding the decline of competition, and the emergence of oligopoly and its relationship to technological innovation, were previously (and more fully) elaborated in his earlier American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (1952).
2. As their income enables them to go further and further beyond the point of meeting their most basic physical needs (food, shelter, warmth), consumers enjoy an increasing range of choice in their use of their purchasing power--another uncertainty business tries to manage. The result is that instead of being catered to by business, business strives to determine their wants for them. This idea was previously discussed in American Capitalism, and received even fuller treatment in 1958's The Affluent Society (reviewed here).
3. Galbraith remarks that "financial markets have long since accepted the reality of the technostructure as distinct from the entrepreneur," and goes on to jokingly paint an image of how the financial world would hang on "anything affecting his tenure in office," fluctuations in his health major news, and his replacement "handicapped like a horse." Yet, is such fuss not a routine matter where celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs have been concerned--in part because it remains the norm to identify the achievements of a whole company with its chief?
4. There are those who would point to information technology as a counterexample to Galbraith's analysis of the place of the individual entrepreneur and the start-up in the '70s and after. Yet, the actual history of computing as we know it is dominated by state-subsidized R & D (it was the Defense Department which produced the ARPANet, CERN which gave us the World Wide Web) and the research of established firms like IBM (the hard disk drive, DRAM), Hewlett-Packard (the first to market a "personal computer") and Xerox (the graphical user interface). Additionally, the success of newer firms meant that they quickly fell into line with the model of innovation described here, without which Apple could not have delivered the Ipad, and Google would not be experimenting with driverless cars--the phase of old-fashioned entrepreneurship on closer inspection smaller and shorter-lived than the hype would have it. It is also worth keeping in mind that, even to the extent that it can be construed as exceptional, the sector has received disproportionate attention because of the false impressions created by the inflated share-prices of IT companies (as with Apple and Google right now), the frequent exaggeration of the economic impact of personal computing (the contribution to productivity has been hard to find), and its convenience as ideological fodder (proponents of orthodox economic thinking and purveyors of techno-hype desperately seizing on the myth in their search for some validation of their ideas).
5. Chris Hedges offers a more recent and quite different take on that estate's influence and vitality in Death of the Liberal Class.

Book Reviews (Economics)

Listed below are my reviews of books dealing with economics. (Where the reviews have been reposted to this site from my other blog, Nader Elhefnawy, it uses that information here, while the original date of posting is given on the page itself.)

"Economics and the Public Purpose, by John Kenneth Galbraith." Raritania (June 1, 2018).

"The New Industrial State, by John Kenneth Galbraith." Raritania (June 1, 2018).

"The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith." Raritania (June 1, 2018).

"The End of Normal, by James K. Galbraith." Raritania (May 21, 2018).

"Principles of Economics, by Alfred Marshall." Raritania (May 21, 2018).

"The National System of Political Economy, by Friedrich List." Raritania (May 21, 2018).

"The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, by Thorstein Veblen." Raritania (October 19, 2015).

Review: Economics and the Public Purpose, by John Kenneth Galbraith

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973, pp. 334.

Originally posted on Nader Elhefnawy on November 26, 2012.

In his 1967 book The New Industrial State John Kenneth Galbraith argued that, far from being the market-disciplined firms of neoclassical economics, the large, industrial corporations in crucial sectors like aerospace, defense, computers, chemicals and oil essentially operated like units within a planned economy.1 In Economics and the Public Purpose he put this "planning system" into the context of the larger economy, which also includes smaller, less complex enterprises that can be fairly described as still operating in a market system.2

As might be expected given the disparity in size and power between the economic units involved, the relationship between the enterprises of the "planning system," and those in the market system, is highly unequal. The large companies of the former are able to exercise considerable control over such crucial matters as the prices at which they buy inputs (through practices like vertical integration, or raising needed capital internally without turning to creditors) and sell their output (for instance, being able to tacitly avoid the more disruptive forms of competition, and pass cost increases along to customers when these are unavoidable). By contrast, companies in the market system cannot, leaving them subject to the vicissitudes of competition, and consistently derive smaller and less secure financial returns. (This is evident not just in the differing returns among the heads of these firms - the difference between the income of a Fortune 500 CEO and a small business owner, for instance - but their workers, as a comparison of the lot of a unionized autoworker with that of a fruit-picker makes clear.)

The planning system also comes in ahead of the market system where public policy and public support are concerned (as seen when one compares, for instance, the aerospace sector and the construction industry). However, both these systems still come in ahead of the broader public interest. One result is that the United States is richest in those things supplied by the planning system (like cars and consumer electronics), less well-supplied with the products of the market system (like housing), and least well-supplied by those goods which the private sector does not supply and does not value (like public transport options), making for the mix of private affluence and public squalor that he first addressed in 1958's The Affluent Society, and which he revisits here.

After presenting this comprehensive picture of the economy Galbraith devotes the last third of his book to laying out a "theory of reform." This begins with the correction of the conventional wisdom on economics (dominated by neoclassical pieties which defend the status quo rather than explaining how things actually work) and reform of the workings of the legislature (with the elimination of Congress's seniority system, a vehicle of the planning system's influence on policy, particularly important).3 However, he also considers an ambitious range of specific economic measures to the end of redressing the imbalance in development and power between the planning and market systems (Galbraith terms this "the new socialism"), and between both of these and the public sector more generally.

The market system would be aided by the encouragement of small business (and its employees) to organize, the extension and increase of the minimum wage, and the conclusion of international agreements to protect their prices and income, while government would make greater efforts to support their "educational, capital and technological" needs - in the interest of equity as well as the improvement of output in these comparatively neglected areas. Where the planning system is concerned, differentials in compensation inside companies would become an issue in collective bargaining, while the tax system would be rendered more progressive, in part through the closure of loopholes, but also the abandonment of the distinction made among types of income (as between salary and capital gains, for instance).4 Affirmative action and a guaranteed minimum income scheme would be crucial to the extension of the effort to eliminate inequality to all; environmental regulation would implement the principle of what might today be called sustainable development; and the government would assume responsibility for services the private sector does not perform well or at all (like health care, urban housing and local transport).

The program is rounded out by a number of additional measures, including the nationalization of certain corporations - those in the defense sector (given their relationship to the Federal government, in many respects already public, but in need of being reined in, especially given the arms race to which they contribute), and even large corporations of any type where shareholder power has disappeared due to the diffusion of stock (the case for the superiority of private to public enterprise, after all, depending on the control of a self-interested owner within a free market, now vanished as a practical matter).5 There would also be a national authority charged with coordinating the planning in different industries, which in turn would coordinate the management of the international economy with its counterparts abroad. The achievement of price stability would rely less on the monetary policy he has found to be ineffectual, and much more on the use of fiscal policy (increasing and reducing not just spending but taxes as necessary), and selective price and wage controls (also an instrument for reducing inequality by limiting the divergence of wages within firms, and between economic sectors).6

Radical as some of the prescriptions seemed even at the time of writing (nationalizations, central planning, etc.), Galbraith believed that the country was already headed in this direction. Of course, the reality proved to be quite the opposite. The economic crises which had just begun at the time he was writing the book - American problems with the balance of payments, the energy crisis - proved an opportunity not for those seeking the reforms he described, but for partisans of neoclassical ideas (like Thatcher and Reagan) to reverse the movement toward more activist, egalitarian direction underway since the war.

Still, it would be simplistic to dismiss Galbraith's ideas on these grounds. Galbraith's examination of the large corporation and the small business together provides an impressively comprehensive picture of the American economy which remains useful in its broad outlines, and most of its details as well. The most significant changes in the American and world economies since his time have lain in the increased pervasiveness and density of transnational operations, and the expansion and intensification of speculative finance, which do not alter the fundamentals of the picture. Indeed, the ways in which his image has dated have in their way validated Galbraith's diagnosis of the American economy's problems (inequality, deindustrialization, balance of payments problems, environmental degradation), which have sharply worsened - in large part because those orthodoxies he so incisively attacked have predominated, and remain dominant in spite of their consistent and at times spectacular failure to deliver the promised goods.

Of course, even those who will grant his insight on that score can still take issue with his suggested solutions, which are virtually impossible to present within mainstream discussion today, and some of which he was less prone to advance in later works.7 Yet, whatever their deficiencies, regarding either their practical effectiveness or their political plausibility, the scope and ambition of Galbraith's program stands as a reminder of how timid, tepid and narrow what passes for public "debate" has become - to our great cost.

1. The presentation of the theory of the planning system is here somewhat refined over what appeared in the 1967 book. In discussing the driving imperatives of "technostructure"-dominated companies he does not write of company "social goals," or the role of "identification" and "adaptation" in the executive's attitude toward his firm. Rather he emphasizes the drive for expansion of the company, and the material enjoyments of high-ranking company officials served by such growth. He also considers the transnational development of that system through the advent of the multinational corporation.
2. The continued existence of these is a function of the small size and lower level of organization of the businesses operating in this area, because the activity they perform is unstandardized and geographically dispersed, the service rendered entails a personal element, or the actors involved are connected with the arts. (In cases this has also been bolstered by legal and political obtsacles, as in construction.) One result has been that organization and technology in these areas lags well behind that of the corporate-dominated high-tech sectors, which has kept them small (a result of these smaller, poorer, less secure firms being less able to invest in such things as technical R & D).
3. Galbraith points to such matters as the wall neoclassical economics puts up between microeconomics and macroeconomics, its preference for sticking with the small business version of the firm to addressing the reality of the large corporation, its failure to come to grips with the way in which technological innovation actually occurs, its advocacy of monetary policy as the sole respectable tool of economic regulation, and in general, "the way it rationalizes and conceals the disadvantages of the weak."
4. This is in line with Galbraith's theory of the use of organization to counter the market-upsetting advantages of large corporations in his 1954 American Capitalism: The Theory of Countervailing Power.
5. The stock of the companies would not be expropriated, but purchased with interest-bearing securities.
6. Criticism of the claims made for monetary policy is a long-running theme in Galbraith's work. In The Culture of Contentment he compares the attempt to encourage growth with lower interest rates to "pushing an object along on the floor with a string." It is also not much more effective at taming inflation by restraining demand. In the chapter on the subject in The Affluent Society he contends that higher interest rates have little effect on firms in the planning system because they can use internal savings to fund investments, and when they do borrow, pass costs along to their customers; while consumers are less inhibited by higher interest rates than might be expected because their schedule of payments obscures interest charges.
7. In 1996's The Good Society, for instance, he left aside the matter of price controls, apparently on grounds of political feasibility rather than practical effect, and made no mention of public ownership as a response to the failure of shareholder power.

Technology, Space and Hype: Some Links

Having raised the theme of technological hype and space again, it seems appropriate mentioning again some of my pieces on the subject from way back when.

From over at the Space Review:

"Why We Fall For the Hype: Contextualizing Our Thought on Space Warfare." (March 26, 2012).

"Space War and Futurehype Revisited." (November 14, 2011).

"Space as Frontier." (February 9, 2009).

"Revisiting Island One." (October 27, 2008).

"Market Romanticism and the Outlook for Private Space Development." (September 2, 2008).

"Space War and Futurehype." (October 22, 2007).

And more recently, over at SSRN, a paper on "Technological Hype and the Military Balance," which also touches on the theme.

Reflections of a NewSpace Skeptic
6/1/18
Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
5/25/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Reflections of a NewSpace Skeptic

NOTE: I penned this piece last summer but have only got around to publishing it now. While some of the details have since dated, it still seems to me worth sharing because its purpose, after all, is reflection on the trend of a decade, unaltered by subsequent events.

I recall many years ago running across a headline about Virgin Galactic's unveiling SpaceShip Two. Thinking that progress on the vehicle had gone a lot faster than I had heard, and expecting to see it rolling out of a hangar before the world press, I clicked on it—and saw instead a picture of a broadly grinning Richard Branson holding a model of what SpaceShip Two would eventually look like when it was built.

Of course, headlines commonly promise much more than they deliver. Still, the particular way in which they do so where technology stories are concerned is especially problematic. A company announces an R & D project, or even some scientist mentions a technical possibility—and the journalist in question presents the technology as if were already developed, put on the market, and in satisfactory, practical, everyday use. This kind of writing is, unfortunately, evident all across the spectrum of cutting-edge technologies today, sometimes in publications whose editors ought to know better. (I recall one respectable popular science magazine that, six years ago, made it sound as if submarine communications systems were already encrypted with quantum keys.) Moreover, this kind of distorting coverage does not prove that a particular line of research and development is all smoke and no fire.

All the same, following the news regarding space technology, and the space business generally, it seemed that from year to year we were hearing much more about boldly announced initiatives, or even the discussion of mere possibilities, than about evidence of concrete progress—and that expectations generally were overblown, especially given the combination of financial and technical hurdles to be overcome, especially in regard to the more genuinely exciting opportunities. (Space tourism was one thing, space-based solar power of significance on a macroeconomic scale a much more interesting but much more demanding thing.)

It seems to me that much of what has happened has validated my skepticism. Virgin Galactic was, after all, was supposed to take its first suborbital tourists up in 2007. Ten years on neither Virgin, nor any other private company, has flown a single customer. Quite the contrary, the greatest success story for NewSpace in recent years has not been a matter of tourism, but the more established (and less glamorous) business of launching satellites, and that not by means of newfangled spaceplanes, but multi-stage rockets of the sort we have been using since the beginning of the space age.

The protagonist of this story, SpaceX's Falcon 9, has yet to attain even the reliability of existing boosters in completing its mission. Its success rate, recently appraised at 94 percent, compares unfavorably with the 99 percent success rate of the Atlas V, the 97 percent success rate of the much more heavily used Soyuz-U, or even the reusable Space Shuttle. The same goes for the success rate of its recovery for reuse, its achievement of aircraft-like turnaround times, or its holding up under repeated missions—thus far, the Falcon 9 not yet bettering the track record of the much-derided space shuttle. Only the first stage of the rocket has been recoverable so far, and that just 80 percent of the time, its refurbishment for another flight recently took six months (again, no better than the shuttle, even post-Challenger) and even its most heavily used rocket remains a long way from matching Discovery's 39 safely completed flights.

Is this an entirely fair comparison? I freely admit that it is not. The Falcon 9 program, after all, remains not just a work in progress, but at an early point in its history compared with these other programs. Despite that the price charged by the company makes it plausible to claim its improving on the dollars-per-pound-to-orbit calculus (for the first time, a Western satellite-launcher might be approaching the $2,500 a pound-to-orbit mark, however one regards the terms), while its technique of rocket recovery, even if less complete or reliable than might be hoped, is clearly deserving of the history books. Still, it is worth remembering that the concrete progress we have seen did not happen anywhere near so quickly as some hoped. Moreover, the advances the company has made so far are more a matter of incremental improvement of familiar equipment where space vehicles are concerned, and a turn to developments from outside spacecraft-building, narrowly conceived, like 3-D printing (now being used to produce rocket parts).

I think it plausible and even likely that the company will continue to make headway in improving the rocket's performance according to all the relevant metrics—higher reliability in its launchings, more frequent and complete recovery, and more rapid refurbishment, which in turn may bring prices down appreciably. However, it seems likely that this will go on being a matter of incremental progress with familiar technology, and the broader improvement of production methods, and that the journey to $100 a pound-to-orbit will be measured in decades rather than years. Additionally, even the most guarded projection is a very different thing from a done deal—all this not having happened yet. However, I am much more optimistic about the efforts of SpaceX and the whole sector than I have been in a long time.

Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
5/25/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

June 2018

Solo Goes into its Second Weekend
6/1/18
Remembering Galbraith's Economics and the Public Purpose
6/1/18
Technology, Space and Hype: Some Links
6/1/18
Reflections of a NewSpace Skeptic
6/1/18
Now Publishing . . .
6/1/18

Now Publishing . . .

My piece on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," published online by Taylor and Francis on the 10th of the month, will be running in Vol. 76.2 of The Explicator.

Why did Montresor do it? Maybe that's not what we should be focused on . . .

Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
5/25/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Sale--Update

As the month draws to its close, so does the book sale.

And I'm knocking the price of the new edition of Star Wars in Context down to 99 cents, for a very limited time only.

In case you forget, the rest of the list of books on sale is as follows:

Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry: Science Fiction Since 1980






and last but not least, my novel

The Shadows of Olympus

All for 99 cents as well, while the offer lasts.

Is the Sci-Fi Blockbuster Frozen in the Early '80s?

Those who have paid any attention to film history know how high concept and the action/science fiction blockbuster arrived in Hollywood in the mid-'70s, and in the subsequent three decades virtually swallowed up the market. (Because so many of the suck-up poptimist critics immediately "Nuh-uh!" any such claim, I afford some hard numbers about this here that should turn that pathetic "nuh-uh" into a spluttering "But, but, but . . .")

Looking back, I'm struck by the extent to which not just this broad trend, but the specific franchises date back to that time--and along with them, the common touchstones in discussion of science ficion film. Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator. (Indeed, it often seems that our hack journalists can't have a single discussion of artificial intelligence or robotics without bringing up an Arnold Schwarzenegger B-movie from 1984. Am I really the only one who finds this pathetic and tiresome?)

This past weekend we got our tenth live-action Star Wars feature film, while the last three years saw brand-new, high-profile, big-budget installments in each and every one of these franchises. Our thirteenth Star Trek feature film in 2016 (while the franchise has also returned to TV--I hear, in debased form as Discovery), our sixth (or if you count the two Alien vs. Predator movies, eighth) Alien film last year, a Blade Runner sequel a few months after that, a fifth Terminator movie back in 2015 with the promise that the franchise had finally come to an end quickly broken when Kathryn Bigelow's ex-husband put off the sequels to the much more profitable Avatar yet again to reteam with his other ex-wife and the septugenarian former governor of California for what will apparently be an all senior citizen reboot of the movie they made back when the author of this post was too little even to know about R-rated movies.

Basically, it seems, Hollywood in that early, post-Star Wars boom period when high-concept and sci-fi action blockbusters were new amassed a certain number of properties and concepts that we can call "creative capital." To a great extent this side of its production has been living off that capital ever since, very little not connected with it in some way, coming from the same people, using its images, following in its footsteps. (Avatar, for instance, was a James Cameron production.) The principal exception would seem to be the comic book superhero-based blockbusters, which also had a crucial precedent in this period--the original Superman, somewhat ahead of its time, but with the slowness to tread the same path more than made up for in the enthusiasm that has left us up to our ears in movies based on comic books that are a half century old or older, with one Marvel movie barely leaving theaters before the next has arrived in them (indeed, the #1 position passed directly from Avengers 3 to Deadpool 2 this month, before passing again to Star Wars this weekend), and DC Comics failing to match Marvel but still taking a big bite out of the market in the process. (That disappointing Justice League movie was still the #10 hit of last year, while Wonder Woman, the champion of the previous summer, was #3.)

This is partly a testimony to how salable all this has been to a public extremely susceptible to brand name and nine figure marketing budgets, and very tolerant of repetition of the same material, even the same CGI imagery, far, far past the point of diminishing returns, but also a testimony to the sheer determination to keep milking an old IP, as the flops show. According to the figures over at Boxofficemojo.com, the last really impressive commercial performance by an Alien movie was in 1986, when Cameron's Aliens was #7 in its year at the American box office, and a very big hit internationally as well. Alien 3 was only #28 in 1992, Alien: Resurrection #43 in 1997, Prometheus a better but still less than stellar #24 in 2012, and last year's Alien: Covenant just #42, with room for doubt about whether there was any real profit in it. Compared with the colossal success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was less than a stellar performer, while Terminators 4 and especially 5 were real disappointments. (Hence the reboot.) But to high concept-minded executives, hey, following up a string of underperformers or even outright flops with more of the same beats actually giving a new idea a chance. And the fact that government tax breaks, product placement, merchandising and foreign moviegoers to whom the experience of Hollywood's offerings are still more novel helps them get away with this approach by reducing their out-of-pocket expenses and relying less on the readiness of those moviegoers who have seen it all before to fork over twenty bucks to sit in front of a big screen in 3-D glasses.

For now.

Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
5/25/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Thoughts on Alien: Covenant

WARNING: SPOILERS

I recently saw Alien: Covenant.

I didn't expect much. I got even less.

To be fair, the Alien series has not been a favorite of mine. I appreciate the place the first two films have in science fiction film history (and I did enjoy the second movie in particular, as a shoot 'em up from a period when that kind of thing was still fresh), but my interest in it was limited all the same, and it soon came to seem yet another instance of a series dragging on way, way too long mostly because Hollywood studios are so adamant about keeping every single established IP going for as long as possible, as aggressively as possible.

Besides, I was dubious about the film's predecessor, Prometheus, for reasons John McCalmont described fairly well at the time of release. It raised fairly commonplace, trite (to me, silly) questions, and then didn't try to answer them, instead giving us a plot that "is really nothing more than a series of doors slammed in characters' faces by a cruelly indifferent universe."1 Rather than "playful," it was hateful.

All this might have meant something, once. But after three generations of smug postmodernist "subversion" (itself, really just a recycling of a tradition of misanthropy elites have promulgated for self-serving reasons going back to the ancients), do we really need more of this?

I say that we don't.

But I got a vague idea from some of the discussion of the movie that it had something to say about the mysteries--what the deal was with those alien "Engineers." So I gave it a chance.

Instead we got a typically pretentious opening in a huge white room with a grand piano in it (does no one else notice this cliche?), Billy Crudup's character whining about people of faith being discriminated against in an atheist world (that must be that "liberal Hollywood" at it again), and more Frankenstein complex inanity as yet another robot created in our image decides to turn on us, while once again actors looked terrified as pieces of rubber (or were they CGI?) jumped on them and members of the crew splashed blood all over the set, because instead of dropping the xenomorphs from the film, like was apparently discussed at one point (and like I would have preferred), the movie pretty was mostly xenomorphs attacking people, all on the way to a final "twist" that even the dumbest viewer of such movies must have seen coming prior to a pretentious close where David has to declare to us his own choice of soundtrack as he heads off to wreak interplanetary havoc.

After seeing this film I wasn't terribly surprised to see that Transcendence's Jack Paglen had been involved (Frankenstein, Frankenstein, Frankenstein, groan), and that John Logan had his hand in this too (groan again).

Allegedly the moviemakers involved with the next installment (this film wasn't such a moneymaker that such an installment could be taken for granted, but, hey, sequel) are again thinking about not spending so much time on the xenomorphs, but I wouldn't hold my breath for that. Simply recycling the stuff of a forty year old movie is a lot easier than actually doing anything seriously interesting. And I expect that when that movie inevitably comes out, having learned my lesson, I will take a pass on it.

1. I'd link back to McCalmont's original piece on the film, which is well worth a read, but apparently the trolls have driven him to turn Ruthless Culture "private." Yes, what you asswipes do does have consequences.

Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
5/25/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12
The Myth of Liberal Hollywood
11/1/12

Remake, Remake and Remake Again

Hollywood has always been quick to remake movies. Astonishingly it made three versions of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon between 1931 and 1941. (It's actually the third, John Huston-Humphrey Bogart movie we generally remember.)

Still, Hollywood was different then. The remakes were part of a far higher output of feature films, a major studio like MGM putting out one movie a week. And film was seen as nearly disposable back then, a bit more like how we view TV than movies, the more so because of how rapid changes were seen as making older material unsalable. With the talkies, "no one" wanted silent movies, while color and widescreen changed the terms yet again. At the same time the more straitlaced "Hayes' Code" meant that a lot of older material made in a freer period was no longer screenable--while if you were going to screen something to which you would have to sell tickets in competition with brand new movies, why not have new stars in it when they were what people wanted to see? All this was reflected in, and itself reflected, the fact that the studios didn't work very hard to old onto older material, much of it literally lost over the tumult of these decades, while the relaxation of censorship later meant that old stories they had to treat in bowdlerized fashion could get more faithful adaptation. (This was, in fact, a justification for the flurry of remakes of noir classics in the '70s and early '80s--The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice.)

None of that applies now. The output of feature film is limited in quantity, each film representing a bigger proportion of the whole. The medium is no longer going through such flux as it did earlier, and the same applies for the bounds of censorship. We no longer think of films as disposable--each and every one treated as representing precious intellectual property, to be clasped tightly until the end of time. In fact, far from competing for ticket sales because it is the only way that one can see movies, TV, the Internet and the rest mean that audiences have never had cheaper, easier access to older movies. In the process, much of the justification for remakes has disappeared. Accordingly, it was possible to justify three Maltese Falcons over the '30s in a way that it does not seem possible to justify three Spidermans in a decade of the twenty-first century (2007-2017). That Hollywood insists on doing it anyway is solely a matter of people being willing to come in and see it, as has undeniably been the case. In commercial terms, high concept remains a success. And so long as that remains the case, it too will remain with us, no matter how much film critics and cultural commentators complain.

Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
5/25/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12
On the Word "Lifestyle"
11/19/11

E.H. Carr and William Haggard

One of the classics one becomes familiar with studying International Relations is E.H. Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis, widely considered the starting point for modern "realist" thought.

Appropriately the book is no narrow discussion of billiard-ball-type politics among nations, considering a good deal else, with one issue I find myself returning to every now and then what Carr referred to as the problem of the "Intellectual and the Bureaucrat." The intellectual inclines to theory, reasoning, principles, and what is good and right, and it is from this that their tendency to be involved with radical movements derives.

The bureaucrat--the civil servant--by contrast, "recoils from written constitutions and solemn covenants, and lets himself be guided by precedent, by instinct, by feel for the right thing," a feel guided by experience that leads them to claim "an esoteric understanding of appropriate procedures . . . not accessible even to the most intelligence outsider," and the superiority of bureaucratic experience and training to the most brilliant intellect or refined theoretical understanding in these matters. And whether one sees this as self-serving, obscurantist nonsense or not, it carries carries serious political implications. That "practical practice" by which they set such store "easily degenerates into the rigid and empty formalism of the mandarin," with "politics an end in themselves," adding to the implications inherent in their position. More than just about "any other class of the community," the bureaucrat is "bound up with the existing order, the maintenance of tradition, and . . . precedent as the 'safe' criterion of action.'"

Recently recalling Carr's comment on this "antithesis" I found myself thinking of William Haggard's Colonel Russell novels. I can think of no other works of spy fiction that treat the opposition between the two types so directly or extensively. Nor of any that, in treating that opposition, is so vehement in taking a side.

Where political life is concerned, Haggard is as hostile to intellectuals as anyone you might care to name. In Slow Burn Haggard had the latter to say of scientists:
Take a clever boy . . . and put him into a laboratory for the next seven or eight years. What emerged inevitably was a materialist . . . a man who would assume without question that the methods of science could be applied to human societies.
In short, in the eyes of this particular right-winger, they were a bunch of damned crypto-Communists, all too likely to turn traitor. And indeed, one of them (not just a leftist, but "no gentleman" either) did prove to be the traitor Russell spent the novel ferreting out.

In The Power House, Haggard bashes a type of intellectual to which one would expect him to be even more hostile, not the physicist who dares have an opinion about politics, but those whose principal concern is principally the social, economic, political order, in his depiction of the hapless Labour MP Victor Demuth. A "fossil," espousing "doctrines as archaic for a modern left-leaning party as the Divine Right of Kings was now archaic to the Right," Russell held the man's attitudes to be a mark of deep personal failure, resulting from deep defects of what a certain sort of pompous person would call "character." Despite a background of great privilege, which combined with a genuine intelligence and determination "equipped [him] to compete at any level he'd cared to aim at," the Prime Ministership included, a lack of confidence and inclination to "flinch from conflict" made Demuth "slip . . . into the security of protest" instead.1 Ineffectual protest because, as another character in the novel reflects, "The Time of the Left would come perhaps, but it wouldn't be . . . the intellectuals, the professional washed-out rebels, but ruthless and determined men" who made it happen, ruthless and determined men who, whatever else they happened to be, would not be mere intellectuals.

By contrast Haggard's hero, Colonel Russell, is the consummate civil servant, and not merely by virtue of his title or pay grade, but his being an administrator who, unlike most spy chiefs in spy novels, actually administers, and plays his main part in the story by administering. However many times Fleming calls Bond a civil servant, what we usually see is Bond playing commando. And even as he ascended to a fairly senior level in Central Intelligence, Jack Ryan's adventures tended to have him caught up in heroics of some kind or another--in Clear and Present Danger this Acting Deputy Director of the CIA personally flying down to Colombia in a Pave Low and manning a minigun with which he mows down drug cartel soldiers in the course of rescuing an American special forces team inserted into the country. (I repeat: Deputy Director shooting lots and lots of people with a gatling machine gun as if he were Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Such black bag work and gunplay as the Haggard stories offer, however, Russell leaves to others, while he navigates the system, and in doing so "saves the day" in dramas that, like no other, celebrate the Bureaucrat as Hero.

Of course, in continuing his series over the next few decades Haggard did eventually start playing up the action, with Yesterday's Enemy an example of this. Still, this is how they started, and tended to run. In Yesterday's, certainly, what drew Russell into his more conventional spy adventure was in fact his old, legendary reputation as Super-Bureaucrat Extraordinaire.

In hindsight, it is an additional way in which these largely forgotten books were and remain unique within this genre.

1. To round out the right-wing cliche, we also see the upper-class leftist portrayed as a snob and a bigot, disliking his niece's suitor, allegedly, for his being in the casino industry, unintellectual, Catholic and therefore "a reactionary fascist beast."

My Posts on William Haggard
12/18/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15

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