Sunday, April 20, 2014

Nightclubbing—in a Previous Incarnation

The other week I went to a panel discussion and reception for the current exhibition Gonightclubbing at the Fales Collection of the NYU Library. This includes a reconstruction of the Video Lounge at Danceteria, a Manhattan club that in its first incarnation existed briefly in 1980. The videos were by Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong and mainly consisted of concert footage from a range of punk bands, shot at CBGB, the Mudd Club, and Danceteria. My interest was entirely personal, for in those days I inhabited the latter two of these venues nearly every night.  

As I suspected, word had gotten around. When I arrived at the Fales Collection, I had a glimmer of that sensation which Proust describes towards the end of his novel, when he attends a reception after a long absence from society and is faced with people who both do and do not look familiar. For here was a room full of nightclub regulars, all of us thirty years or more older than when we had last seen each other, a sea of sixty-year-old eccentrics, all now shockingly gray.

The first person I recognized was Richard Boch, who appears to have weathered the intervening years quite well. Richard was always a painter, but is remembered by many of us as the doorman at the Mudd Club. He's recently finished writing a memoir of the era, 77 White, which is attracting considerable interest.     

Marvin Taylor, director of the Fales, introduced the discussion. Michael Parker, formerly of Ballistic Kisses, declaimed a poem in praise of the era’s late-night clubs and the people who worked in them. Pat Place of the Bush Tetras stood at the back of the room, as severe as she was years ago when she sang “Too Many Creeps…”  Then I spotted a dark haired woman who was a keyboard player, a slender vampiress then, a slender vampiress now, a few delicate lines in her face.

Richard Boch proceeded to interview Ivers and Armstrong, who related how they met while working at Manhattan Cable in the 1970s, how they started shooting bands like the Dead Boys, Television, and the Ramones at CBGB, then moved on to the other clubs. They reminded us that the original Danceteria was completely illegal, that they were paid in cash every night, and that the club was open until eight in the morning. They also related how delegates showed up during the week of the Democratic National Convention, name tags and ties askew.

Danceteria lasted six months before it was closed by the police. The thing was, in the middle of all this club madness, Pat and Emily were working, lugging their heavy equipment around, trying to get decent footage under difficult lighting conditions. They were working and we, the regulars, weren’t.

There are commentators who attempt to put a veil of art historical propriety over all this. This is a mistake. Those of us who went out night after night in those days were generally on the run from everyday life, in revolt against what is commonly termed “the real world.” There was nothing normal about any of this, nothing of the day, except when we stumbled from the club the next morning, pale and drained, and somehow made it home.

Shattering daylight, shattering light
How the hell did I make it through the night?

After the panel discussion, the reception provided a fitting postscript. Everyone was far friendlier than in the past, when we used to stand stony faced and hostile in these places. My wife was amused by the scene. “These are people who have never worked in an office.” Well, perhaps some of us have, in the intervening decades.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Economics and Dollar Signs

Recently, while having dinner with a friend, the issue of economics came up. My dinner companion, who is trained in both economics and philosophy, suggested that economics is modeled after the physical sciences. This struck me as somewhat strange, and I questioned him about it. His reply was that economics is based on rational mathematical calculation and is internally consistent. I replied, just a bit satirically, that so too is astrology. He said “perhaps,” and we changed the subject.

This controversy isn’t new. Later, when I did a quick search on the subject, I came upon a recent piece in The Guardian by Robert Shiller, one of the 2013 Noble Laureates in economics. His contention was that economics more closely resembled engineering than basic research in the physical sciences—and he emphasized the close relation of economics and public policy. He made a good case for economics as an applied science. However, I don’t think many physicists, chemists, or engineers would be convinced. My guess is they’d be rather scathing about this.

A skeptic is tempted to say that economics would be analogous to engineering if bridges routinely collapsed forty percent of the time. More to the point, engineers almost always come to a consensus as to why a bridge has collapsed. There is rarely such agreement among economists. To take the analogy further, a certain percentage of economists would claim there never was a bridge, or if there was one, they had nothing to do with its collapse, even if they helped design it. People in the physical sciences can’t get away with this sort of thing.

Perhaps economists more closely resemble historians in that they interpret events according to certain assumptions, but unlike historians utilize mathematics to demonstrate their point. For economics to be akin to the physical sciences, economists would have to be able to demonstrate the validity of their claims by conducting experiments and achieving consistent, replicable results.

What particularly sets my teeth on edge is the claim to “internal consistency.” Such consistency may no doubt be important, but more important is external validity—the way in which a given set of claims correlates with the world we live in. If a theoretical claim or interpretation cannot be substantiated by empirical evidence, what remains is speculation, no matter how mathematically derived.

Economics is an academic discipline. It is also a profession. For that reason, I would suggest that rather than engineering, the appropriate comparison is to the practice of law, that what economists do, particularly given the demands of public policy, is closer to what lawyers do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it in no way constitutes a science.

As Robert Shiller points out, economics ultimately involves analyzing the vagaries of human behavior, not something that is easily predictable.

Physics has in recent decades become increasingly speculative and ethereal, driven by forms of mathematics that few of us can hope to understand, whether used to describe the neutrino or the universe itself. There’s the danger that such increasingly recondite and convoluted theories will serve as a present day analogue to the calculations of Ptolemy, which kept the model of the earth as the center of the universe alive for centuries through the magic of mathematics. Nevertheless, physicists actively seek to devise experiments to demonstrate or refute their theoretical claims. An example is the recent work on demonstrating the existence of gravity waves.

As for economics, there is the question of whether reducing human life to a series of economic imperatives, or to data, is a form of dehumanization. My suspicion is that not many economists would recognize this to be a problem.