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Andersen and DeLong Review the Past

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Kurt Andersen opens up an essay in the recent Vanity Fair with a cliché -- indisputably true but a cliché nonetheless: "The past is a foreign country." This is good, because Andersen is indulging in the cultural version of the sports argument in the neighborhood bar or those lists so beloved by slick magazines. Andersen's essay, "You Say You Want Devolution?," is an argument that cannot be proved. It's meant to provoke, to pique, all the while indulging in the current fashionable sense of decline and stagnation. The world, in short, sucks. In Andersen's view, despite innovations like the Internet and email, the engines of American cultural creativity, which he defines nearly exclusively as the ability to look differently from whatever went on two decades earlier, have stalled.

"Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey -- both distinctions without a real difference -- and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no email, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland's Generation X, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Martin Amis's Time's Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion's books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012."

This disjunction between technological innovation and cultural creativity, Andersen, in best newsmagazine style, dubs, "The First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History." Now that means there must be a "Second Great Paradox of Contemporary History," and there is. That's what Andersen calls the concurrences of "the quarter-century-long freezing of stylistic innovation" (how quickly a hypothesis with random examples -- Joan Didion! -- becomes fact) and "the pandemic obsession with style." To leap ahead, Andersen goes on to argue that all this toing and froing -- all this boring sameness -- stems from the democratization of distribution caused by the information revolution, which allows everyone (you, me, Pottery Barn) to ransack the past for previously inaccessible style and consume it like a fast-food cheeseburger, a sighing decline into nostalgia and cultural obesity.

Now all this is indisputably clever, if absurd, which again I suspect is at least half its point. Offer up your own ideas and arguments (a version of the same democratization, and ransacking of history he bemoans). Is cultural style simply appearance? Does it really change every two decades in America? Why? How? Much of this stems from Andersen's own cozy perch high upon Mount Manhattan. Out there in the rest of the country, I suspect that the differences don't seem as great. In fact, these differences are most obviously the stuff of television sitcoms like "That '70s Show." Andersen makes no distinction between high and low culture; that's forbidden: the Zeitgeist is everything. Was the appearance of American life so different between 1925 and 1945? A little. But still. Wasn't it a glib newsmagazine meme that nothing happened in the '50s and nothing good happened in the '70s? That's a key point here. Not only is the past a foreign country, but the present is damned alien as well. Andersen's argument, if that's what it is, depends not only on the notion that he is a kind of uber-cultural commentator with perfect (well, near-perfect) knowledge of culture now and in that foreign past. Andersen is omniscient, aware of the cultural forces boiling beneath the surface of the times. He knows what matters now, and thus what will matter in the future.

Of course, that's impossible. As evidence from another part of the intellectual firmament, I offer up Brad DeLong, the blogger and Berkeley economist, who provides his own version of an end-of-the-year perspective in the form of 11 things he's gotten wrong in his career. This is the polar opposite from Andersen's essay. DeLong is not unpacking history in neat little parcels -- First Paradox and Second Paradox -- he's offering a sort of Augustinian confession. These "errors" are hardly small mistakes, particularly for a liberal economist of the Keynesian school; they verge on philosophical errors. He missed the coming of the financial crisis; overstated the "large, leveraged financial institutions'" ability to control derivatives; missed the Japanese malaise; overstated the benefit of the neoliberal opening of markets in the '90s, as in Argentina; missed the mark in predicting the political benefit of rapid privatization in Russia; and got it wrong regarding the prospects for the American economy post-1990s. At one point, DeLong opens up his confession to the entire economics profession: "My belief that economists as a group understood as much about the causes of recessions and depressions as John Stuart Mill understood in 1829: that a downturn is a shortfall of planned spending at full employment below income caused by an excess demand for financial assets, and it is cured by either (a) having the government do the spending-in-excess-of-income that the private sector will not, or (b) having the government flood the zone with financial assets so that there is no longer an economy-wide excess demand for them."

DeLong is hard on himself (and on his colleagues), but there is a bracing quality to this admission of sins -- most of which were shared by many, many smart people -- particularly from one who can use his blog as a cudgel. He is offering, however, what is blatantly obvious to anyone whose eyes are still propped open: Economists' ability to predict has been battered over the past four years. And while I personally share DeLong's perspective on basic economic realities, any straightforward declaration from an expert on how the future will unfold (including from DeLong's intellectual stablemate, Paul Krugman, who as far as I can tell has never ever been really wrong about economics or, remarkably, politics) should be met with a dose of skepticism. Keynes was right. The future is uncertain. And economics is no fortune-telling machine.

That same skepticism should be applied to Andersen's little jaunt through the wasteland of contemporary culture. Economists, for all their firepower, do not adequately understand what's happening today, not to say what will occur tomorrow. DeLong's jibe about John Stuart Mill is right on. Most economists still view the human economic actors as Benthamite utilitarians from about 1840. Economists may be wrong as often as right, but at least they have some method and rigor. Cultural criticism and comparisons has no method, no restraints, beyond the subjective view of the observer. It's about entertainment, the flicker of images, the ransacking of the past. You can't take it seriously.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.