Friday, June 18, 2010

Miskatonik Economics

Not everyone is a fan of Brad DeLong, but one positive facet of his blogging is the ample H.P. Lovecraft references. Usually it's just in the title, and not obvious (probably quite confusing) to people not familiar with the early twentieth century horror writer. But I appreciate it! He had two in a row recently - here it comes up in blogging on the G-20, and here it comes up in a discussion of Sen. Ben Nelson.
There's actually a little to say about Lovecraft and economics. He lived from 1890 to 1937, and in 1933 he was interviewed by the WPA about his work. Not only was Lovecraft a small part of this New Deal program, he declared in this interview that "politically I am a Democrat. I support President Roosevelt and the New Deal programs." He goes on, "but more importantly I am a New Englander, by birth and allegiance. I am a Rhode Islander, a son of Providence." Later in the interview, he discusses the relationship between books and movies, and expresses his doubt that movies can ever be made of books. This is clearly an artist's perspective, and perhaps forgiveable given the novelty of movies at the time. An economist would understand that artistic proclivities don't always dictate the kinds of movies that people demand (and of course one can also challenge Lovecraft on artistic grounds).
An economist appears at least once that I know of in Lovecraft's stories; Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee is a professor of political economy at Miskatonik University before he is driven to madness. His descent into madness was apparently initiated while teaching - the course, we are told, was "Political Economy VI - history and present tendancies of economics". This was in 1908. If Peaslee was familiar with present tendancies, he almost certainly was familiar with the work of J.B Clark, an American marginalist and opponent of Bohm-Bawerk in the early capital controversy, whose work on marginal productivity had been published by that time. By that time Clark would have been well established at Columbia, but he had previously taught in Massachusetts - the location of Miskatonik University. We can be fairly certain that Peaslee was familiar with Clark and other American marginalists because he refers to W.S. Jevons in his lectures. In 1908 a sudden amnesia overtakes Peaslee, and he is mentally transported to another world for the next five years. In 1913 he comes out of the amnesia, continuing the lecture precisely where he left off. And apparently, he left off at Jevons. Coming out of the amnesia, he continued:

"...of the orthodox economists of that period, Jevons typifies the prevailing trend toward scientific correlation. His attempt to link the commercial cycle of prosperity and depression with the physical cycle of the solar spots forms perhaps the apex of..."

This is a reference to work Jevons did in the 1870s. I'd take some issue with Jevons's characterization here. There was nothing "typical" or "orthodox" about Jevons at this time, at least in Britain and America. What was more typical was Ricardo and Mill, and later Marshall's reworking of marginalism, as well as American institutionalists. But no matter - even if Peaslee mischaracterizes the 1870s, marginalism had made its mark by 1908 (or I suppose in this case 1913).

All this comes from the story The Shadow Out of Time. Not only is this a great one because its main character is an economist - it also has (probably unknowingly) a very economic theme: what Keynes called "the dark forces of time and ignorance that envelope our future". Peaslee is taken to another world by beings that can switch consciousnesses with other life-forms across time and space. These beings are not constrained by Keynes's "dark forces of time and ignorance," and so therefore probably live in a much different society than ours (perhaps one more consistent with Classical economics in that sense!). When Peaslee returns he has no idea what has happened to him, and he abandons economics and begins studying psychology - which of course is the direction that Keynes turned to when he realized the significance of these dark forces for the economy. Traditional economics could only get him so far - psychology, he realized, had to do a lot of work as well.


  1. "...what Keynes called "the dark forces of time and ignorance that envelope our future"."

    And Keynes was most assuredly part of those "dark forces."

  2. FYI: I've been to Lovecraft's graveside. The headstone is a collective, family grave.

  3. Keynes is part of not being able to predict the future?

    I suppose, but only to the extent that all human beings constrained by the linear progression of time are.

  4. Yes, he was at best naive about his ideas and the future.

  5. Xenophon - just out of curiosity, is there anything of value that you see in Keynes?

    I'm all for hard-knocks debates, but it must be depressing to always have negative thoughts about a person or idea and not see anything redeeming in them. In a few cases you have to have exclusively negative thoughts: the old stand-by of the Nazis, for example. But in the vast majority of cases it seems like it would be depressing to go through life where you find nothing redeeming in a non-trivial collection of persons or ideas.

    And maybe you do find some redeeming things or good insights from Keynes, and just note the negative elements here because I take such a positive view.

  6. And anyone have any thoughts on Lovecraft or the American horror tradition? This really doesn't need to turn into another post exclusively about Keynes!

  7. Anything redeeming about Keynes? Well, Schumpeter wrote that he was every bit the English gentleman - a courteous individual sensitive to the needs of others.

    In many ways Lovecraft was an elitist like Keynes (though perhaps more so); you see this in Lovecraft's valorization of Anglo-Saxon culture. I've never looked into it, but I've sometimes wonder whether Lovecraft has any following in the Neo-Nazi/White Power movement.

  8. I was wondering if those facets of Lovecraft would come up.

    You know, when we talk about the Austrian School I never make an issue of the fact that Mises called the fascists the saviors of Europe.

    Let's get this out in the open: H.P. Lovecraft was pretty racist.

    I do like his stories and his style, though.

  9. I think it is difficult to ignore that aspect of his writing; it was fairly integral to it. It wasn't that Lovecraft was just your garden variety racist of the 1920s and 1930s - call that "background cultural racism" - it was something he thought about quite a bit.

  10. And I think it would be something to focus on re: Mises if he spent years writing on the subject both in published works and in his personal correspondence. Now I don't know much about Mises and the praise of Nazism, but I don't believe it was a major period of his life.

    It would be more appropriate to knock Mises for being a dick and a hot head though.

  11. Nobody said he was garden variety. The Klan was pretty active then, though, and I'm not sure I'll just agree to the assertion that he was unusually racist. Anyway - I think this is silly to focus on, and yet you still seem intent on focusing on this facet of it. He was a racist. I thought we cleared the air on that one.

    As for his writing - how is it integral to it? It comes up here and there occassionally, but even then it's not central to the story at all and in most of his writing it doesn't come up at all. This is what you call integral?!?!?!

    I find it very amusing that the same people that complain about multicultural sensitivities always bring up racism every chance they get for people like Lovecraft (although he doesn't come up that much!), Wilson, etc. etc. There are a few figures where their racism is ALL you guys want to talk about. It's really strange.

  12. To anticipate the response, this is the Wikipedia entry on Lovecraft's racism that I'm sure Xenophon will pull liberally from:

  13. My feeling on a lot these examples is that, while Lovecraft was certainly a racist, a lot of what we see is derived from three not-really-that-racist impulses:

    1. What Edward Said called "orientalism" - the perception of the foreign as exotic. It can make modern readers cringe, but it's not really racism - insularity and parochialism is all it really is. This is very common when Lovecraft discusses the Middle East and the South Pacific and Australia, which are common settings for him. But the point, I think, is the perceived exoticism. It's the same way he uses Antarctica in some stories - not to be hateful of penguins, but just because it's exotic and other-worldly for him.

    2. Terms and understandings that make us cringe. He refers to "negroid features", etc. People back then put a lot of stock in phenotypic expressions of racial differences. It's a descriptive device, and can be an ugly descriptive device for modern readers, but I don't think this is overt racism on Lovecraft's part (again, not to say that Lovecraft wasn't racist). A lot of this is the same as reading about people refering to "negroes" in the sixties. Now, that would be awful. Then, that was the term and it was used in a relatively value-neutral way.

    3. A LOT of what is cited as racism I think is largely a class issue. He distinguishes between Dutch and English settlers a lot. He may have priveleged Anglo-Saxon culture personally, but the Dutch references in his stories to me seem pretty clearly to refer to the country-bumpkin nature of Dutch settlements in New England. For Lovecraft, the Dutch are the people that settled the hills and valleys and established the sleepy little towns where his haunting stories take place. Their anscestry has nothing to do with what he's commenting on - it's the locale that's more important. It would be like remarking on Scottish communities in Virginia. There was a time when that would basically be synonymous with talking about "mountain-folk" - which is a class and culture distinction, not really a racial distinction.

    So he was a racist - but a lot of what appears in his stories gets overplayed because of modern hypersensitivity. People often comment without considering context. It's why I don't make a big issue of Mises and fascism. The fascists hadn't turned into real monsters yet when he wrote that and he was most concerned about the communist. It wasn't his most prescient moment, but if we consider the context we can relax a lot of our sensititivies. Presentism is bad historiography.

  14. dkuehn,

    "I find it very amusing that the same people that complain about multicultural sensitivities always bring up racism every chance they get for people like Lovecraft (although he doesn't come up that much!), Wilson, etc. etc. There are a few figures where their racism is ALL you guys want to talk about. It's really strange."

    I think you are making a mountain out of mole hill here.

    Anyway, I had no idea you would have such a freak out moment over what are entirely defensible positions on Lovecraft's writing. I'll drop the subject.

  15. Xenophon -
    The mountain out of the molehill is perhaps because I thought this might be coming. Not a word about racism in the initial post and I thought "I wonder if someone will bring up his racism".

    The question is - why is that impulse there? I just find it interesting. Why can't we discuss known racists without talking about their racism.

    I'm guessing if I didn't post my response at 10:25 and 10:35 I would have seen a longer one from you.

    It's not a "freak out", it's a deep curiosity as to why it was even raised by you in the first place. I don't know why we obsess over this as a culture the way we do, and I'm genuinely curious about it.

  16. "over what are entirely defensible positions on Lovecraft's writing"

    And notice I haven't challenged a single point you've made about Lovecraft on that - so clearly I'm not "freaking out" about what I agree is an "entirely defensible position". I'm more curious why that position came up in the first place.

  17. In a few cases you have to have exclusively negative thoughts: the old stand-by of the Nazis, for example.

    Nonsense. Have you forgotten your Big Lebowski?

    "Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, but at least it's an ethos."

  18. lol

    I haven't seen that forever... I need to watch it again. They were snappy dressers too.

  19. dkuehn,

    Well, as I have stated on a number of occasions, the 1920s and 1930s were a time of choosing in the "West"; some people embraced and defended liberalism and some people embraced centralized, government controlled social experimentation and/or some sort of collectivism. We can see what side Lovecraft was on. I don't think this is a very controversial viewpoint; after all, it is the view that Hayek had.


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