Friday, October 04, 2013

the conquest of scurvy and a lesson for economists

There’s an incident from medical history, recounted by David Wootton in his book, Bad Medicine, that seems to me to tell us a lot about modern economics. In the early 17th century, Dutch and Portugese seamen discovered that scurvy could be cured or warded off by using lemons or oranges/ They did not know the underlying cause, but they did see the results. Scurvy, according to Wooton, was a major killer. To give an example: “During the Seven Years War, 184,899 sailors served in the British fleet (many of them press-ganged into service); 133,708 died from disease, mostly scurvy; 1,512 were killed in action.”
The Seven Years war was fought in the 1750s, almost a hundred and fifty years after the Dutch and Portugese discovery. Why, then, was there any scurvy in 1750?
Wooton’s story is incredible. Although English sea captains started giving their men fruit, this remedy was countermanded by the medical establishment. They persuaded the captains that fruit couldn’t work – it was simply an old wife’s tale. Why? Because obviously, scurvy was caused by a disbalance of humors – as was every other disease. And thus, fruit would not cure it. Wooton has dug up documents to show this:

“Ships’ captains had an effective way of preventing scurvy, but the doctors and the ships’ surgeons persuaded the captains that they did not know what they were doing, and that the doctors and surgeons (who were quite incapable of preventing scurvy) knew better. Bad knowledge drove out good. We can actually see this happening. There is no letter from a ship’s surgeon to his captain telling him to leave the lemons on the dock, but we do know that the Admiralty formally asked the College of Physicians for advice on how to combat scurvy. In 1740 they recommended vinegar, which is completely ineffectual, but now became standard issue on navy ships. In 1753 Ward’s Drop and Pill also became standard issue.”

Medical history, which is written to glorify rather than study medicine, has credited a doctor named Lind with being the first one to advise fruit to cure scurvy. As Wooton shows, this is a myth. Indeed, Lind did experiment with serving fresh fruit to scurvy patients, which did cure them. But then he decided to test the fruit, and he boiled lemon juice in the process, thus straining out the vitamin C. After a while, he decided fruit was useless against the disease, which he still attributed to various humoral causes.

I think that the equilibrium models of economics are much like the humoral models that controlled established medical thought up through the mid nineteenth century. There is the same crazy blindness regarding the real economy – and the same class distinctions that prevent economists from adopting economic policies that would benefit the workers more than the bosses. Austerity economics has been compared to bleeding – but I would say the same thing is true for neo-liberal policies in general. The neo-liberal economists have a tendency to pat themselves on the back for bringing down world poverty over the last thirty years, but what they really mean is that nations like China adopted clearly dirigiste policies to guide capitalism in their countries, and used heavy tariffs on imports to create vast surpluses from exports. This is just what they do – reproducing not the economics of Milton Friedman, but the economics of the New Deal, stripped of its liberal aspect. That is, stripped of the social security net that kept the workers from falling into misery. The latter could occur because the workers were even more immiserated in the past – but as that past becomes a memory, it is a good bet that New Deal economics will generate social nets in these countries.

Economists, though, go through a rigorous training to make them blind to these facts. And they especially learn no economic history, which is economics in the wild, free from the models of their ideal economic spaces. It is as if doctors still learned about the human body from the theory of the four humors.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

the memory dream

In my experience, memory has two directions. That is, when I remember, the direction memory seems to take is either straight, direct, or lateral. In the former case, I am like a fisherman casting a line – I cast my mind back and hook my object, that thing or event in the past. Or I don’t. When I don’t, it means I have either forgotten it or it didn’t exist. Psychologists have shown that it is a rather simple matter to create fake memories, in which case what was never there is remembered anyway. But regardless of whether the object is absent, non-existant, or forged, the direction of memory, here, is direct. It is analogous to double book accounting, where the column with the object and the column with the memory are on one plane, side by side. Lateral memory, however, is a different thing. It is about connotations and associations. Memory here is something that emerges without, at times, my having made any effort to remember. I will, instead, suddenly remember. This suddenness has something of the character of waking up – it speaks of two very different states of consciousness. And yet, just as I can wake up feebly, and fall back to sleep, so too I can suddenly recall a thing and then it will slip away. I will forget what I just remembered, or rather, the memory that was forced upon me. If it was something that I wanted to note down, or something that I remember in the moment of remembering that I was supposed to remember, I’ll mentally rummage around. The direct method here fails me, because though I can directly remember the event of suddenly remembering, the object here, the event, is wrapped around something I’ve forgotten. To find that content, I often resort to association – to trying to construct what I was doing when the sudden memory hit me. Or, having a sense of what the content of this sudden memory was – having it on the tip of my tongue – I’ll try to find associates with it – I’ll play a sort of guessing game.
However, this kind of lateral memory, with its suddenness and its frustrations, is only one aspect of  lateral memory. The other aspect relates memory to the daydream – it is the memory dream. In fact, in the 1990s, I tried to write a book using the memory dream as a methodological principle. Take an object or event – a humble spoon, or looking out the window – and specify its real instances.  That is, touch in your present, mentally touch, the spoon or the looking in its stark and naked particularity.  Say the spoon is a measuring spoon, part of a set of measuring spoons made of some cheap pewter like material and bound together with a ring, with measurements imprinted on the handle: 2 oz, 5 0z, etc. Or take the window that you looked out of in your ground apartment in Austin on 45th street, decades ago. That view was really a nonview, comprising a sidewalk, some raggedy bamboo plants, and a large dull brown fence that was evidently erected to keep the residents in the cheap apartment house that I was living in – marginals all – from peering at the apartment complex next to us, where it was all swimming pools and nice cars and barbecue on the patio. Here, the logician’s great tool – quantification – breaks down, since it really isn’t clear what divides one looking out from the other. The turn of the head? The mental act of attention? Is looking even defined by consecutive looking, or is the lookings out the window that are divided by other events unified by the intention to look out the window – I say, for instance, I wazs looking out the window, waiting for the landlord. Quantification is, however, a way to get into the memory game – because the fun in the game is to pose these questions so that gradually you broaden the memory dream, you remember, unexpectedly, the waxed paper into which your mother poured the flour mix for the cupcakes, you remember where it was kept in the cabinet, you remember the other things in the cabinet and the smell of vanilla, etc. In a sense, instead of fishing around in memory, here we are treating it as a jigsaw puzzle. And one that is not, it should be noted, played on one horizontal plane – for the connotation of looking out the window can lead you backwards and forwards in time to other lookings out of other windows. The goal is to cut through the cloud of essences in which the particulars in our life have been wrapped. The routines, which excavate the particularity of an event and substitute a likeness of that event – I remember the window not as it looked, smudged, the yellowing curtain in suspense above it, on some particular moment of some particular day, but I remember the essence of looking out the window, a composite of watchings.
Happy days, wiling away my time in the memory dream!
It is said that the Emperor Rudolph of Bohemia, who had one of the largest collections of curiosities in Europe, possessed a vial in which was held the dust from which the Lord made Adam. This is a curiosity indeed, maybe the Ur-curiosity. There’s a number of paradoxes involved in this object. Was this dust the remnant, the leftovers, of the dust from which Adam was made – or did Adam have two bodies, one of human flesh, the other of dust. Memory seems to give us a parallel paradox. We, too, contain the motes of which we are made, the instances that memory represents. Yet the container, here, is identical to the sum of those motes – just as Adam was both that dust and a divine animal. The artist in me would like to collect every mote, every jot. An impossible grab and snatch expedition, granted, but one I am eternally tempted to launch, to lose myself in, finding that lost, interior Eldorado.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...