poetry and rent seeking

Poetry is a mysterious thing. It can go underground for a century – as it did in eighteenth century France. In the U.S., poetry has always been capricious. What happened in the twentieth century was in some ways miraculous – yet, after the major poets of the forties generation started dying out, they weren’t replaced. Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill – there’s no American poet, at the moment, of a remotely similar stature. There’s a factory mindset that worries about this – it is as if there were some production quota for sausages, lawn mowers and poets.

In the absence of great poets, the American community has great poetry cabals. There’s a very nice article about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas Bartlett. Alas, the article is entitled Rhyme and Unreason, instead of (dream on!) Poetry and Rent-seeking. And double alas, Thomas Bartlett, the author, didn’t seek out any economists for comment. But he nevertheless untangles a wonderfully tangled tale.

The tale in short goes like this. Foetry, a website dedicated to getting to the root of corruption in poetry contests, appeared on the web last year. It was run anonymously. Eventually, that anonymity was penetrated – it turns out the site is run by a librarian named Alan Cordle, who is married to a poet. Cordle felt a burning sense of injustice about the world in which his wife was trying to make it as a poet, and so decided to attack the backscratching and numerous collusions that make poetry contests as fair as a Florida election.

Rent-seeking is a term invented by Anne Krueger to denote behaviors that are advantage-oriented but unproductive. It is an oblique acknowledgement by neo-classical economists that the model of enterprises fairly competing with each other to achieve advantage doesn’t really take into account the enterprises knowledge of the system – that, in other words, the path to profit needn’t be a matter or services, prices, or innovation, but can consist in gaming the system. In fact, the impossibility of creating a system that would block incentives to game the system is the reason that neo-classical economics is the economics of a vacuum in search of a reality. And the term “unproductive” is, shall we say, debateable – for economists, outputs from the government, such as environmental protection, can be seen as “unproductive”, while the output from a small movie company making snuff films can be seen as “productive.”

As you can see, the roots of the notion are embedded in the usual conservative world view that establishes absolute differences between the state and private enterprise, or bureaucracy and management, and so on. The usual unjustifiable intellectual cockledoodledoo. But there is a nugget of sound common sense here, as long as one is not carried away by the normative overtones. Andrew Hindmoor published a nice knockdown of rent seeking in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 1999. He provides a useful summary of the rent seeking concept:
“(i) Rent seeking is extremely common. Within the political arena where attention remains largely focused, examples of rent seeking are manifold.(n4) Interest-groups invest resources in an effort to extract favourable legislation from government. Utilities invest resources in an effort to capture their regulator and so ensure the erection of barriers to entry which will stifle competition. Bureaucrats invest resources in an effort to persuade government that budgets should be increased and political parties invest resources in an effort to capture the monopoly rent of government itself. Whilst efforts to quantify the volume of rent seeking remain in their infancy, one recent study concludes that as much as one-quarter of American gross national product is devoted to rent seeking and rent protection.

“(ii) Rent seeking is pernicious. Rent seeking may be individually rational but it is socially costly because it occurs at the expense of productive investment. Consider the following `clear cut' example offered by Tullock.(n6) In an effort to increase its profits, a struggling American steel company invests resources in an effort to secure a ban on the imports of a rival Korean firm's goods `on the purported grounds that [they are] environmentally dangerous'. Not only will the price of steel rise but money invested in this way cannot then be spent in other more productive ways. Resources invested in an effort to secure an import ban cannot be invested in new machinery which will reduce costs and improve quality.

“(iii) Rent seeking should be eliminated. For Rowley and Tullock, it is an item of political faith that `for those concerned with advancing the nation's wealth, the elimination of rent seeking ... is on a par (almost) with support of the flag, motherhood and apple pie'. It may not be possible to eliminate rent seeking but it is possible to reduce it. Reform is often envisaged as occurring at the constitutional level. Proposals are varied and include the imposition of tighter party discipline, rules limiting the size of government and a requirement that legislation be non-discriminatory.”
Interestingly, the political economy of poetry in the U.S. is very like the political economy of a particularly corrupt third world country. For instance, take the poetry contest. As Bartlett puts it:

“Poetry contests -- particularly the prestigious ones -- do more than boost the egos of the winners: They often make a poet's career. The winners get published; the losers are left to enter another contest. Published poets are first in line to get university teaching jobs, which is one reason they spend a lot of time and money (contests often charge "reading fees") trying to win big-name competitions. The contests also matter for established poets, who are seeking to publish their books and strengthen their reputations.”

So far, so good. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with contests making a poet’s reputation. The problem comes from the fact that the reputation does not then get out in the world, so to speak. Poetry doesn’t sell. Here’s where the kicker comes in:

“But the fact is, poetry books don't sell, and so-called reading fees paid by contestants subsidize the cost of publication by small and university presses. That works well for the presses, but for poets it can mean spending a small fortune trying to get their words into print. Mr. Cordle and his supporters see the system as a scheme to defraud naïve poets while judges select their friends, students, and colleagues. Presses argue that it is just a regrettable economic necessity.”

The pre-requisites for corruption in a small undeveloped economy are similar. An economy that doesn’t produce enough saleable product – or that has systematic impediments to the production of saleable goods – which, nevertheless, has an inflow of aid for some reason from developed countries. An oversized administrative structure that sucks out the money and energy that could be spend on removing impediments to native growth. A competition for power-brokering positions, rather than for productive positions – as the latter are not as profitable as the former.
Cordle stumbled upon a great trove of insider dealing when he went after the University of Georgia poetry contest, getting a list of judges for recent poetry contests. The University had not published that information before. It turns out Jorie Graham, who is the poet laureate of rentseeking, happened to be a judge the year the top prize was awarded to a Peter Sacks.

As Bartlett puts it:

On its face, that was a shocking revelation. Ms. Graham and Mr. Sacks are colleagues at Harvard University. They are also married.
“Ms. Graham says it is not that simple. The two were not married in 1999, and Ms. Graham had not yet arrived at Harvard. They knew each other, she says, but not well. They married in 2000, the same year she moved to Harvard.”

The story gets much funnier, as Bartlett gets a series of excuses from all participants that are, truly, the stuff of poetry. Or litigation, or both – this being an American story, the end of it is that all sides are mounting up their lawyers. Graham claims that she had reservations about her role in the UGA contest.

But… “Documents that Mr. Cordle obtained from the Georgia press, however, do not seem to support that scenario. For instance, in a letter Mr. Ramke wrote in 1999 to the director of the press, he says that Ms. Graham "enthusiastically concurs" with his decision to pick Mr. Sacks's work.
Ms. Graham calls that wording a "big mistake" and points to another part of the letter in which Mr. Ramke says he would pick the manuscript "even if I were alone in the wilderness." Mr. Cordle also obtained through the request a page of prose written by Ms. Graham praising Mr. Sacks's book. She says that was nothing more than "jacket copy" that Mr. Ramke asked her to write. Mr. Ramke, however, says that judges -- whom he calls "outside readers" -- are asked to write a page or so about the manuscript "to be used as arguments for publishing the book."

However, the reach of rentseeking as a tool of analysis only goes so far. There is no reason to think Sacks’ poetry isn’t great – LI hasn’t read it. In fact, the universal perniciousness of rent seeking only appears to University of Chicago deluded eyes. Still, there is something enjoyable – something Dunciad like – about this farce.


Deleted said…
Roger, I confess to sharing the universal perniciousness view. There's very little trickle down from it. What there is amounts to getting an ergonomic chair for the cubicle right before your job is offshored.
roger said…
Harry, this deserves an extended post. There are two points, here.
a. If extended over an infinite time horizon, rent seeking is universally pernicious. But rent seeking in actuality -- even in its crudest form, the advantaging of a minority at the expense of a majority -- can, over a short time frame, be virtuous. It is easy to think of examples, the best being the short time frame of intellectual property rights.
b. the move from b to c -- that is, from folding the normative ideal into the concept, and then coming up with a "consitutional" solution -- is where an old deconstructionist's eyes light up. To seriously propose building a system in which the knowledge of the system by the agents in the system can't be used by the agents is to propose the libertarian utopia -- liberty without practical freedom. In that sense, Tullock is operating in the high modernist mode -- the mode that seeks a formal meta-language freed of semanticity to illuminate the workings of all languages. Well, that gets my Derridian blood flowin'.

However, this is a very abbreviated reply. Must extend this someday. Alas, on that day, if the past is any clue, I will have exactly four readers. But I do reserve the right to talk about esoteric subjects upon which I am half-witted on this site.
Iago said…
It's not a big scoop to proclaim that the litbiz--including publishers, critics, professors, editors, etc.--is as parasitical and hypocritical a racket as say the porno bidness. (in fact it would often be hard to delineate between the two). Yet the theme (a perennial one on LI it seems) that poets and lit people are the preservers of innocence and the authentic liberal or leftist tradition seems naive, man. IM no Harry Bloom but have done enough lit. courses. (mostly with the typical adipose, ripe Woolfe-like creature who thinks she is on personal terms with Freud if not P. B. and Mary Shelley) to realize that the lit. bizz is home to a very large number of frauds (maybe they can conjugate etre and avoir but frauds nonetheless). Even when waxing leftist they izz more Vichy or at best Blackshirt rather than che guevara- or Trotsky-ish; and leftist litclit rhetoric often is just code for a judy-buttler-like pagan whose core ideology is based on the premise that if she could just go to more multicultural-lesbo-with-teenagers orgies without-feeling-guilty the world would somehow be a better place. The marquis de sade is not leftist however much the lit. clit. gang wants him to be.
Bromides said…
I wonder if the weakness is not so much clitoral as it is colonic in nature. The ill humors of the trade and tight, passionless control of the participants suggest that.

Whatever the case, they have made their bargain with the powerful. They must, perforce, endure whatever games their patrons favor, and parasitize where they may.