Standing at Camus’ Window

Dropping by to see the famous sights doesn’t count. Anyone who has spent any time in Paris, kicking around alone, eventually has their own special Paris. That’s why Hemingway called Paris a Movable Feast – and to be young and poor in Paris in the twenties was his Paris. But that’s not everyone’s Paris. Miles Davis had a different Paris in the late fifties, his Paris, spending his time there scoring Louis Malle’s first flim – described by one jazz critic as “the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep.” That’s the Paris of dark streets in the rain, and his torrid affair with Juliette Gréco was also a special case, but then everyone has their own special case. It’s a matter of what speaks to you. Each year it was the same room at the Hôtel Madison with the full-on view of the absurdly old church where Descartes is buried, the hotel where Camus put the finishing touches on L’Étranger – his famous novel of the absurd. Paris is where people try to figure out what it all means, and it all may be absurd. That’s in the air in Paris, but then there was a side-trip to sunny Lourmarin down in Provence one sunny June day – said the be the prettiest village in all of France – where Camus moved when he got his Nobel Prize money and where he’s buried. It’s not all darkness. The absurd isn’t all that bad. It can be good for you. It keeps you honest. It may even give you hope. All you need to do is acknowledge it.

That’s a lost art, and hardly anyone noted the one hundredth birthday of Albert Camus last week – Chris Christie and Miley Cyrus and Richie Incognito were the topics of the day, not dead philosophers who had once been concerned with what it means to be free, and how scary that really is. Maybe we’d rather not be free. Maybe we prefer to pretend that the absurd isn’t absurd, in spite of Miley Cyrus’ twerking, but in the American Scholar, Jerry Delaney offers this regarding Camus’ 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus:

The opening lines begin with what Camus called the first and most urgent of questions: If the world has no meaning, why live? If life is pointless, why not end it? Logic would favor suicide. Or so it would seem. But Camus quickly points out that absence of meaning is not why people commit suicide. People who commit suicide already have meaning in their lives. What they don’t have is a life. They commit suicide because they have no dignity, no self-respect, no pleasure, no honor, no value. They are checkmated in humiliation, without the minimal elements of a satisfactory existence.

Camus concludes with a startling statement: “Life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”

The idea stops us on the page; we have to think about that. Camus is saying – by inference – that the things that make our life worth living are in our own hands. Forget about God. What people need is not an abstract benediction but concrete means to live with dignity and self-respect. Camus’ idea is not particularly profound, but he states it with a compelling lucidity and force. Unlike most philosophical insights, which slip from our grasp even as we grip to hold on, the Camus observation sticks. What Camus did was give us a language to express what our experience in life had already prepared us to accept; he gave coherence to those inchoate ideas and unspoken assumptions that were roiling deep and unspoken in our minds.

That’s it. Suddenly it was Paris again, standing at that hotel window, Camus’ window, with the view of Descartes’ tomb, puffing the pipe – they don’t let you do that any longer in Paris hotel rooms by the way – thinking of how the world seems to have been drained of dignity, and self-respect, and pleasure, and honor, and value, at least for most everyone who isn’t at the top, and maybe for them too. Everyone seems to have been checkmated into humiliation in one way or another, or is working on checkmating others into humiliation.

That’s the game now, particularly in politics, particularly in American politics, particularly since we elected our first black president, after the previous white guy gave us disaster after disaster, culminating in economic collapse. The new guy, Barack Obama, did his best not to be absurd. No-Drama Obama was always calm and reasonable and polite and respectful, trying his best to do that bipartisan thing, but the Republicans and the right, particularly the Tea Party crowd, had only one thing in mind – checkmating him into humiliation. That started with the birth certificate nonsense and now it’s Benghazi, with everything else in between. They weren’t even subtle about it. They opposed everything he proposed, even if they had thought it up the week before. They wanted to put him in his place, which may sound like a racist thing, and for some on the right it was, but it was always more about humiliation itself. The same crowd once made fun of Al Gore, mercilessly, not so much for the global warming stuff but for the goofy and sanctimonious guy that Gore seemed to be in general. All our political arguments these days seem to end up, eventually, as ad hominem arguments.

That makes them absurd. Camus would get it, and walk away, but we can’t do that. We have to live here, and while Camus always focused on the proper and honest response to the innate absurdity of the human condition, and what to do next, those of us who are not philosophers simply wonder how it came to this. When did American politics, always a bit absurd, as politics are everywhere, become this fully absurd? That’s not an existential question. That’s more of a practical question. Maybe we can fix things. Clearly, electing Barack Obama, twice, wasn’t enough.

When did American politics become this fully absurd? That might have been when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate back in 2008, a woman who knew next to nothing about anything, a woman the McCain campaign had to hide from the press after two disastrous press interviews, one with ABC’s Charlie Gibson and one with CBS’s Katie Couric, where Palin couldn’t even swing at any of the softball questions they lobbed at her. There was no way she could even hope, in McCain’s wildest dreams, to hit one out of the park. Even Dick Cheney called her an irresponsible choice, and then Tina Fey did her in. Republicans tried to put a brave face on things – she was a breath of fresh air, or she would grow into her new role, or any role, sooner or later, or something – but they knew better. She would say absurd things out there on the campaign trail, as they call it, and all the defense of her – all the talk on Fox News and all the columns in the Weekly Standard and National Review – became baroque exercises in pretending that the absurd isn’t absurd, in spite of her not quite knowing the slightest thing about international relations, even if she could see Russia from her front door or whatever, or about how the economy actually works. That’s when this all started. That’s when one of our political parties committed themselves to telling is that what was obviously absurd – everyone could see it plainly with their own eyes – wasn’t absurd at all.

Think of it this way. Camus wanted us to acknowledge the absurd, as tragic as it is, and face it bravely and honestly, so we could build lives of real meaning, lives no longer based on nonsense. These folks wanted us to see what was hopelessly absurd and pretend it wasn’t, which is something else entirely, and they’re still at it. In fact, Sarah Palin is still at it:

Speaking at a conservative fundraiser in Iowa on Saturday evening, former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin compared the United States’ debt to slavery, claiming that younger Americans will be shackled by the country’s spending.

The Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs reports that Palin, speaking at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s fall fundraiser, warned of the allure of “free stuff” offered by the government.

We’ve heard this before:

This free stuff, so seductive! Why do you think marketers use free stuff to bring people in? Free stuff is such a strong marketing ploy. But didn’t you all learn too in Econ 101 there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch? Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China.

When that note comes due – and this isn’t racist… but it’s going to be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to be beholden to a foreign master. Because there is no plan coming out of Washington, D.C. to stop the incurrence of debt!

There are some conceptual problems here. As the British first figured out under Disraeli, any government with its own money – like us, but not the Greeks – can give itself unlimited ability to create as much of its currency as it wants, and give that currency any value it chooses – and governments now and then have actually reduced the value of their currency to stimulate exports. The unlimited ability to create its own currency means a government with its own money, like us with our dollar, can never be forced into bankruptcy or run short of their own currency. They can just print some more, by selling Treasury Bonds as we do, which means that they can pay any debt of any size, so long as that debt is denominated in their currency – and having the unlimited ability to give that currency any value, they (we) have total control over inflation. That’s what the Federal Reserve is all about – controlling the money supply, to keep the economy humming along, no matter what Congress might do. Yeah, they do “print money” and incur “debt” – but so what? That debt can always be paid off in the blink of an eye – unless Congress finally goes crazy and for the first time in our history decides to forbid that. Did Sarah Palin learn anything in Econ 101 way back when? National debt, sovereign debt, is a damned useful mechanism for building and sustaining and growing a modern economy. It’s actually essential to a modern economy. We’d all be living in unheated log cabins on the tundra, down long dirt roads, without it – you know, like in Alaska.

This woman is absurd, and her invoking slavery, of all things, is doubly absurd, but the fact is she is saying what most Republicans have been saying for five or six years now – national debt, sovereign debt, is a very bad thing, and no one should have thought it up in the first place. Republicans who actually took Econ 101 are a little less severe – they think we should have far less of it – but that’s only a matter of degree. The concept bothers them, which is fine, but that still has messed things up. In fact, the economist Paul Krugman argues that their discomfort has left us in a very bad state:

Five years and eleven months have now passed since the U.S. economy entered recession. Officially, that recession ended in the middle of 2009, but nobody would argue that we’ve had anything like a full recovery. Official unemployment remains high, and it would be much higher if so many people hadn’t dropped out of the labor force. Long-term unemployment – the number of people who have been out of work for six months or more – is four times what it was before the recession.

These dry numbers translate into millions of human tragedies – homes lost, careers destroyed, young people who can’t get their lives started. And many people have pleaded all along for policies that put job creation front and center. Their pleas have, however, been drowned out by the voices of conventional prudence. We can’t spend more money on jobs… because that would mean more debt. We can’t even hire unemployed workers and put idle savings to work building roads, tunnels, schools. Never mind the short run. We have to think about the future!

His point is that failing to address unemployment is, in fact, sacrificing the future, which he calls a form of economic self-mutilation that “will cripple America for many years to come” – for no good reason. He’s writing from a research conference held each year by the International Monetary Fund, where the time “the blockbuster paper of the conference” is the one from researchers at the Federal Reserve present detailed evidence “that by tolerating high unemployment we have inflicted huge damage on our long-run prospects” – which is not actually that surprising:

According to the paper (with the unassuming title “Aggregate Supply in the United States: Recent Developments and Implications for the Conduct of Monetary Policy”), our seemingly endless slump has done long-term damage through multiple channels. The long-term unemployed eventually come to be seen as unemployable; business investment lags thanks to weak sales; new businesses don’t get started; and existing businesses skimp on research and development.

What’s more, the authors – one of whom is the Federal Reserve Board’s director of research and statistics, so we’re not talking about obscure academics – put a number to these effects, and it’s terrifying. They suggest that economic weakness has already reduced America’s economic potential by around 7 percent, which means that it makes us poorer to the tune of more than $1 trillion a year. And we’re not talking about just one year’s losses – we’re talking about long-term damage: $1 trillion a year for multiple years. …

The evidence is overwhelming that by failing to respond effectively to mass unemployment – by not even making unemployment a major policy priority – we’ve done ourselves immense long-term damage.

Doing ourselves immense long-term damage is absurd, but one absurdity flows naturally from another:

One main reason we’ve done so little about unemployment is the preaching of deficit scolds, who have wrapped themselves in the mantle of long-run responsibility – which they have managed to get identified in the public mind almost entirely with holding down government debt.

This never made sense even in its own terms. As some of us have tried to explain, debt, while it can pose problems, doesn’t make the nation poorer, because it’s money we owe to ourselves. Anyone who talks about how we’re borrowing from our children just hasn’t done the math.

That would be Sarah Palin, and so many others, but the math is the math:

True, debt can indirectly make us poorer if deficits drive up interest rates and thereby discourage productive investment. But that hasn’t been happening. Instead, investment is low because of the economy’s weakness. And one of the main things keeping the economy weak is the depressing effect of cutbacks in public spending – especially, by the way, cuts in public investment – all justified in the name of protecting the future from the wildly exaggerated threat of excessive debt.

Krugman doesn’t bring up slavery of course, but he’s just an economist, and he’s a bit depressed:

Is there any chance of reversing this damage? The Fed researchers are pessimistic, and, once again, I fear that they’re probably right. America will probably spend decades paying for the mistaken priorities of the past few years.

It’s really a terrible story: a tale of self-inflicted harm, made all the worse because it was done in the name of responsibility. And the damage continues as we speak.

Any fool knows better than to ruin everything over nonsense, but of course this has a lot to do with humiliating Obama, because Obama is in favor of slavery, or something. In the end, all the debt arguments are ad hominem – because they’re certainly not about the math.

In the New Yorker, John Cassidy has much more about the math in the new paper from those Fed researchers, and it’s dry and detailed, but a few things pop out:

It’s good to see economists at the Fed acknowledging that recessions, and periods of meager growth, can have serious long-term costs in addition to their short-term effects. This isn’t a new idea, mind you. After the Second World War, it was prevalent in the work of Keynesian economists like Nicholas Kaldor, who emphasized the importance of positive-feedback loops in employment and growth. In the nineteen-eighties, Larry Summers and Olivier Blanchard, who is now the chief economist of the IMF, resurrected the idea and gave it a new name, which they borrowed from engineering: hysteresis. Blanchard and Summers examined hysteresis in Europe, where high rates of unemployment have long been a problem. Today, it’s clearly an issue in the United States, which has had five years of elevated joblessness and subpar growth. You don’t need a mastery of econometrics to grasp the idea that low levels of investment and persistently elevated rates of unemployment are doing some serious damage to the supply side of the economy.

Someone tell Sarah, not that it would do much good:

Of course, that rapid growth coincided with the Second World War, when, under the guise of scaling up the military to fight Hitler, the U.S. authorities subjected the economy to an enormous fiscal-stimulus program. At the moment, sadly, there is no prospect of any more fiscal stimulus, let alone a war-sized one, and the onus is falling on the Fed to gee up the economy. With regard to policy, the importance of the new research paper is that it gives its authors’ prospective boss, Janet Yellen, more ammunition to maintain a highly accommodative policy going forward. In the presence of hysteresis, the authors note, there is a strong argument for monetary policymakers “to be more activist, in order to mitigate the possible damage to the current and future supply side of the economy.” I’m pretty sure that Yellen knew this anyway. But now she can point to an authoritative internal study backing up her intuition.

Yeah, but Janet Yellen still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, which is another opportunity to checkmate Obama into humiliation, and we all know how that will go:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Sunday defended his use of a “60 Minutes” report on the 2012 Benghazi, Libya attack that was retracted this week due to questions about the report’s truth.

Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he would not approach his investigation into Benghazi differently even though the British contractor cited in the report gave a different account of the night of the attack to FBI officials.

Graham said Sunday that he will continue to threaten a hold on Obama nominees in the Senate until he is able to interview State Department witnesses about the attack.

The only plausible story of how Obama chose to let our ambassador and three others die in Benghazi turned out to be all lies from an obvious liar, and CBS is beyond embarrassed that their blockbuster story got everything all wrong, embarrassed that they were burned by their source, which they wouldn’t have been if they had done their homework. And Lindsey Graham doesn’t care – he will checkmate Obama into humiliation, somehow. There will be no confirmation hearing for Janet Yellen until Obama is humiliated, even if the economy collapses again. At least she won’t have to discuss her views on slavery just yet.

Yep, that’s pretty absurd, and suddenly it’s a cold December night in Paris again, standing at that hotel window, Camus’ window, with the view of Descartes’ tomb, puffing the pipe. How are we to make sense of this absurd world? Perhaps a spot of cognac would help. Not everyone’s a philosopher.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Standing at Camus’ Window

  1. Rick says:

    About that window in Paris: Did you really stay in the exact room Camus stayed in? That’d be absurd — but in a good way, of course!

    “The unlimited ability to create its own currency means a government with its own money, like us with our dollar, can never be forced into bankruptcy or run short of their own currency.”

    Yes, there’s some truth in there, but I would be suspicious of any statement that includes the words “unlimited ability”. In fact, there have been plenty of countries that let that principle go to their heads and paid a heavy price for it, and I can’t rule out that we couldn’t ever become one of them.

    As for Lindsey Graham putting a hold on Yellen, thusly further weakening an already sick economy, maybe all we can hope for is being, once again, rescued by the Tea Partiers who, it has been reported, have been threatening to “primary” him for being insufficiently hard-ass right-wing.

    Wow. Talk about life being meaningless! You live long enough and you see that all politics, rather than being local, is actually self-cancelling.

    Rick

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