You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

September 05, 2005

How To Be Treated As Normal While Being Completely Insane

The Washington Post editorial board has some good news about the destruction of New Orleans:

In general, disasters depress economic output temporarily -- companies and infrastructure that sustain damage stop producing until they are repaired -- but then comes a reconstruction phase that delivers a compensating boost to the economy... Twelve months from now, the economy may be bigger than it otherwise would have been.

This is true. It may be that, because of the huge amount of economic activity that will go into cleaning up and rebuilding New Orleans, America's GDP will be larger in a year than it would have been otherwise. And so if you're a certain kind of person—the kind who writes Washington Post editorials or reads them—you read that and you feel good. The economy may turn out great!


Doesn't it seem that if the way we measure things shows that the obliteration and forced reconstruction of a huge American city is positive, THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE WAY WE MEASURE THINGS?

For instance, let's say we decided to hold a nationwide lottery with 100,000 winners. The winners would have their legs blown off by extremely expensive high explosives.

True, this would decrease economic output temporarily. But soon there would be many jobs available for doctors, physical therapists, prothesis designers, and the manufacturers of expensive high explosives. In fact, within a year the economy might be bigger than it otherwise would have been!

Of course, this would be completely insane. Despite what the little numbers written down by economists might say, America would not be better off with 100,000 legless citizens.

The lesson here is that when you have to choose between reality and an abstraction from reality, you should choose reality. The downside is that if you choose reality—in fact, if you even realize there is a choice, no matter what you choose—you will never be hired by the Washington Post editorial page.

Posted at September 5, 2005 07:33 AM | TrackBack

Who is John Ralston Saul, Alex?

Posted by: Sully at September 5, 2005 09:25 AM

Incredibly good post, Jon. Recently, I've thought of an article Michael Kinsley wrote for Slate in the aftermath of the ValuJet plane crash several years ago; in it he argued that since ValuJet was a discount airline, people who flew on it were knowingly choosing to purchase less safety--because safety costs money. So, if you don't have much money to spend, you may have to die. Them's the breaks. There's no free lunch, son.

The most pernicious aspect of this Alice-in-Wonderland thinking is how it masquerades as brutal realism, and anybody who points out how twisted and inhuman--and nonfunctional--it is, is derided as a wet-eyed sentimentalist.

I have no doubt that many "haves" will comfort themselves similarly once the death toll is tallied in New Orleans. Instead of exclaiming, "My God, we have to do something about our government--this is no longer a civilized country!" they'll say (or perhaps just think), "Well, they deserved it. After all, if you refuse to accumulate enough money to protect yourself--if you rely on the Nanny State--you deserve what you get."

Posted by: Mike at September 5, 2005 12:48 PM


Shhh. I'm trying to make it seem like I think these things up on my own.


This sentence:

The most pernicious aspect of this Alice-in-Wonderland thinking is how it masquerades as brutal realism, and anybody who points out how twisted and inhuman--and nonfunctional--it is, is derided as a wet-eyed sentimentalist.

was inside my brain trying to get out. The amazing thing is that the crazy people ALWAYS present their A-in-C thinking as hard nosed realism—not just on this subject but everywhere—and somehow get away with it. I guess that's the power of money. See: Rumsfeld, Donald.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 5, 2005 02:19 PM

I thought even stupid evil crazy people knew better than to publicly indulge themselves with a non-satirical flight into the Broken Window fallacy. It's so basic a concept that even the trolls who show up at MaxSpeak feel bad about attempting it. I feel pretty safe saying the WaPo editorial board consists of people less worthy of respect than internets trolls.

The appearance of that nonsense in their paper is proof, if any more were needed, that the true path to success and power lies in being a cretin.

Posted by: Harry at September 5, 2005 06:44 PM

That's 100,000 _MORE_ legless citizens, unfortunately. As it happens, we're currently growing the prosthetics-technician and VA hospital-employed physical therapist sectors of the economy quite briskly at the current time. Good job, George!

Posted by: Aaron at September 5, 2005 07:30 PM

It's kind of like the "Who is the economy for?" question - is a "good economy" one in which a lot of ecomic numbers look good, or an economy in which a lot of people are doing well?

(And don't forget the soldiers - they signed up to die! It's their job to get their legs blown off for no good reason!)

Posted by: Avedon at September 6, 2005 06:26 AM

What I don't understand is that the same sort of folk braying about what an opportunity for economic growth the destruction of New Orleans is, fulminate and deride things like public works projects in Japan or elsewhere as irresponsible. In the end, what's the difference? What factor changes one from the other if it happened to get spit out of the catastrophe lottery?

Posted by: Ed Marshall at September 6, 2005 07:23 AM

Considering the GDP of New Orleans is currently 0, I am sure the Bushies will be touting one lucky dog cart returning to the street of New Orleans as a smashing success.

Posted by: Celcus at September 6, 2005 09:33 AM

Of course, focusing on the economic "growth" that this disaster will produce is also a good way of distracting attention from some more concrete math that pols would rather not have anybody do -- the $15 billion or so it would have cost to shore up the levees, flood walls, etc. around New Orleans in the first place, vs. the hundreds of billions it will now cost to rebuild the city.

Posted by: inkywretch at September 6, 2005 11:37 AM


Yes, the true path to success lies in being a cretin. But you have to be a particular kind of idiot. It requires a certain skill set, and decades of practice.


My feeling is, you can never have too many legless citizens, nor too many prosthetics-technicians. Ideally everyone would be either one or the other or both.


I'm afraid you've blown your shot at that job at the Washington Post editorial page. I wish you'd realize that by asking these "questions" you're only hurting yourself.

Ed Marshall,

You're exactly right. But the problem with public works projects in Japan is that there might be some type of democratic influence on whether they happen and how. Disasters don't carry the same risk.

Plus, we're allowed to do things other countries aren't. Ie, we routinely violate the "rules" we impose so vigorously on the third world via the IMF.


The secret of the Bush administration is to tout EVERYTHING they do as a smashing success. It could be a dog cart returning to New Orleans, it could be thousands of Americans dead in Iraq. But it is all a victory.


If you were a sophisticated member of the Washington Post editorial page staff, you would understand that the difference between the $15 billion for levees and the $100s of billions for reconstruction is actually a positive rather than a negative.

Unfortunately, you are not sophisticated, and thus create terrible problems for the people who rightfully run the world.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 6, 2005 02:11 PM