Sunday, September 28, 2014

In 100 Years
Leading Economists Predict the Future
Ignacio Palacios-Huerta
MIT Press

A 1930 essay by legendary economist John Maynard Keynes made predictions for the next 100 years, mostly optimistic ones (especially considering the 1929 crash and ensuing start of the Great Depression.)  This 2014 book, following the economic smashup of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession, gets analyses and predictions from ten contemporary economists for the next 100 years.

These economists teach at the most prestigious institutions of MIT, Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the London School of Economics, with a lone rep from University Pompeu in Spain.  Among them are two winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics, and five past or present members of the Econometrics Society.

Often from the perspectives of their particular expertise, they discuss the issues of wealth and work, institutions, health, education and technology. (Notably there is little discussion of population, which used to be at the top of the list of the future's economic determiners.)

  Since the Keynes essay posited that increased total wealth will lead to more leisure and a less selfish society, some discuss ethics and human nature.  Most of the essays don't rely on jargon, so they can be read by non-economists.  On the other hand, it is painfully obvious that these are economists writing.  Their concerns, both abstract and narrow, don't adequately address the fullness of the future.  Nor are they up to the vision and writing of Keynes in his essay, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren."

People read these books of "predictions" basically to learn whether the future is brighter or darker, but there isn't much guidance here.  Most are guardedly optimistic, though mostly because they believe that present good trends will continue, change won't be overwhelming, and the challenges that scare everybody else will be somehow met.

For example, eight of the ten at least mention climate change, but only two call it the biggest threat and four minimize it as a problem.  Even the economist who devotes the most attention to it (Martin L. Weitzman of Harvard) ends up asserting a technological solution (sunshades.)  A review essay by Charles C. Mann in the September 2014 Atlantic suggests this is a pretty universal attitude among economists.  It also happens to (a) support the wealth of today's wealthy and (b) it runs counter to the findings of physical scientists and just about everybody else, who would consider this wishful thinking at best, or more pointedly, complacent ignorance and willful blindness.

Six mention income inequality as a problem, and five see it as an important one: a threat to democracy, for one thing.  But none puts these two together, climate crises and income inequality, which are likely to be happening at the same time, and will markedly affect each other.

They do attempt to at least summarize major factors and suggest how they might interact, but (with some exceptions) generally and blandly.  They mostly seem to apply conventional modes of thinking to a future that requires more imagination than this. Their discussions of technology are remarkably abstract and simplistic.  Even apocalyptic fiction, so prevalent these days, is more sophisticated in seeing how such factors might combine to affect the future.

Editor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, who had the idea for this volume and solicited contributions, takes pains to discuss why he did so.  Apparently this is a very daring enterprise.  But the only precedent isn't 1930.  Such books were fairly common in the 1960s and 1970s, and even involved economists like Robert Theobald.  Back then (and in the more recent The Next One Hundred Years by Jonathan Weiner in 1990) such attempts acknowledged the folly of restricting the portrait of a complex future to the assumptions, observations, theoretical matrices and prejudices of a single discipline.

Perhaps I am unjust to the attempted breadth and subtlety of argument in these essays.  But all they basically seem to say is that, on balance, for their clients the future is a fairly good investment.

 That seems to be what economics is about now, and perhaps why economists by and large have a really bad record in predicting a year or even a month into the future.  Economics has possibly the least legitimacy of any claimant to actually being a science, though behavioral psychology gives it a run for its money.  

There was little or no awareness in these "predictions" that real scientists are demonstrating that humanity is using up the Earth and its resources at a much faster rate than replenishment.  Half the non-human vertebrae population of the planet that existed in 1970 was gone forty years later, in 2010, says the World Wildlife Federation study noted in the Washington Post.  Just about all of that depletion is a result of humanity.  We're destroying what sustains our lives, and ignoring that we're doing it--and we pay people handsomely for that ignorance, and we read their tedious books.  Until we realize that today and certainly for future the environment is the economy, all we'll have in one hundred years is the certainty of terminal solitude.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern Theater
By Jeffrey Sweet
Yale University Press

This coffee-table sized book is a solid history of an important institution in 20th century dramatic arts, even if it doesn't quite merit the grandiose subtitle (embarrassingly common these days, and I sympathize. The writer probably isn't responsible for it.)

 It's a 50th anniversary account of an institution--the Eugene O'Neill Center-- that began inventing itself in the late 1960s, in Waterford, Connecticut. The O'Neill began with the intention of nurturing new playwrights and new plays, which was not then the formal function of any other institution outside of a few university classes. This evolved into the National Playwrights Conference, held for a month every summer. Other programs were added over the years, and this book chronicles them.

 The proximity of New York and also of Yale Drama were crucial, as some of the best young actors in the country came up to be an intimate part of the process. (Two of the earliest, Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, provide prefaces.) The O'Neill is young enough that many present at the creation, including its founder George White, were available to be interviewed for this volume.  Sweet reports the story, and includes theatre lore to satisfy that appetite as well.

Under the leadership of  Lloyd Richards, the playwrights conference evolved into both a model and a unique experience. Many new playwrights thrived there, including its most famous alum, August Wilson.  I attended two weeks of the 1991 conference for a Smithsonian Magazine article and saw how well it worked, and felt the personal bonds that it made and that nourished its success.  For actors who went there every year (like John Seitz, who I interviewed and who is mentioned in this volume as having his ashes scattered there) it was a holy place, and participating was "renewing my vows."

Since this was the first of the O'Neill programs and the most influential, Sweet begins with it.  He punctuates this narrative with chapters on other programs (National Theatre for the Deaf, the critics institute, etc.) though following the death of August Wilson with the Cabaret and Performance Conference is more than a little jarring.

When I was there in 1991, the O'Neill and the Playwrights Conference specifically were already encountering financial problems, and a certain anxiety accompanied that summer's activities.  There was a particularly strong feeling of appreciation for what it was, since it seemed it might not last.

In fact the conference did undergo changes after Lloyd Richards left, many of them for reasons related to money.  One year there wasn't enough to fund the open submission policy that was the heart if not the soul of the conference, but loud clamors of opposition to the change brought it back.  Thanks to a fund set up by former O'Neill employee and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and initially financed largely by Meryl Streep, the resources necessary to continue that process are safe, this book says, for a long time to come.

But it does seem that the power has shifted towards the commercial theatre, particularly musical theatre, even within the O'Neill.  This reflects a long trend in American theatre as much as the growth of university playwriting programs.  Dramatists are now more likely to find creative homes as well as financial support in television, as was even the case among the 1991 playwrights I met and followed.

I hope this book inspires more books and different books (with additional photographs that exist) that delve into the history and the magic of the O'Neill, and such extraordinary figures as Lloyd Richards, George White and Edith Oliver.  My two weeks there were among the most memorable of my life.  Just the theatrical stories told by participants and visitors in the Blue Genes cafe would fill volumes.  In the meantime this book is a very good start.  

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Copyright Book: A Practical Guide
Sixth Edition
by William S. Strong
MIT Press

It would be nice if there could be a reasonably simple guide to copyright--like what can be copyrighted and what constitutes "fair use"of copyrighted material--but this is possibly the most tangled, complicated and ever-changing area of law that exists.

There are statutes that seem to be almost continuously revised in Congress (a friend who covered one epic revision of the copyright law for an interested journal called it "The Attorney Enrichment Act") which are themselves subject to individual court cases that do not always render consistent decisions.

Add to this the fast-moving changes in electronic media and the much greater number of possible copyright claimers and violators empowered by the Internet and its ever-changing features that challenge the concept of publication or dissemination.

Unfortunately such a guide is therefore unlikely if not impossible. William S. Strong's sixth edition, published officially in June, looks at copyright law and relevant court cases not only for the traditional writers, publishers, music composers etc. but for programmers, file-sharers etc.  But I gave up any attempt to find patterns or rationales that are broadly applicable.  So this book seems best suited to answering questions about specific areas.

Strong tries to be thorough, providing history of the law and court cases as well as current practice.  His prose can get lost in lawyerly complexity, but then, that's more a reflection of the subject matter.  Strong has his own strong views on how the law should apply, which further complicates matters, although those concerned with those specific areas may well find it all spellbinding.

He explains how to apply for copyright protection, though this, like everything else, is information relevant for an unknown duration.  This is after all the sixth edition.

This is all important stuff, and there are moral and social questions involved (the right of creators to be compensated, or else there's less incentive to create; the theft involved in profiting on somebody else's work, etc.) though it is often more about money and power than justice.
It should be clear however that this book is about copyright law and not about plagiarism or ethical guidelines that are usually much clearer.  And for those who aren't lawyers or can't afford to hire lawyers to try cases that might last years, some publishers and other companies have their own guidelines, for "fair use" for example, that are more specific.  (Strong offers a couple of links but simply firing up your search engine for "fair use" yields many more.)

This is a sturdy, handy-sized volume with an attractive sky blue color that should fit nicely on your reference shelf, where it may comfortably sit until needed.