Hebdomad, some of you will remember, is the blog I run on firstpost. It ostensibly belongs to one Ramachandran, and is doing reasonably well, thank you for asking. Neil Gaiman tweeted a post about his vampire sestina, which brought a skip to one’s step and a hum to one’s stats. He ignored, perhaps out of modesty, another fawning post about Sandman (his and E.T.A Hoffman’s). He was even gracious enough not to point out his sundry vampire-fic. Thankfully, comments folks were less restrained, and I’ve liblisted The Graveyard Book and reread ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’ (I realised half way that I had it confused with ‘Lady of the House of Love’, which is either a great compliment or a terribly trite comparison.)
All the gaiman geekdom, anyway, earned me the gig. Hebdomad lives, and the most recent post remembered the spirit of Michael Kelly, whom I debated across the writing of Chaosbogey’s Politics last year. I spent a week with the blues ladies, mourning Janis and Billie Holiday. The parent, beloved reader, assures me I ‘broke’ the Indian slutwalk story by writing it up in the early days of twitter hysteria. Most of bogeydom will agree (all you lonely victims of my assorted rambles) that fashion isn’t my forte. To write said trailblazer, thus, I prudently chose silence and dipped into Dorothy Sayers. A few days later, on 13th June, I celebrated her birthday, and was vastly entertained to find she shared it with Yeats. And so we are led into a poem.
Time drops in decay
like a candle burnt out
and the mountains and the woods
have their day, have their day
what one in the rout
of the fire-born moods
has fallen away?
Tisn’t as happy a poem as I’d have liked. (‘A Coat‘) Fitting, though, given the fate of slutwalk, a debate from which I’ve finally walked away. Or so I declared on bookslut, which is as good as any virgin’s oath. There is, I will admit, a post waiting in the wings should the blessed event come to pass, failing which it will go up on July 25th. Then I’m done, if only because scores of women have said everything I need to say, and done so far better than I ever could. For a sampling, here is Annie Zaidi, or Kuzhali Manickavel, or Nisha Susan. Katha Pollitt wrote an eloquent (and global) love letter to the movement, giving it much needed Serious Feminist Cred. Also, since I quote from it so liberally in the ‘slut essay, this be the rest of Adrienne Rich’s poem:
The light of outrage is the light of history
springing upon us when we’re least prepared
thinking maybe a little glade of time
leaf thick and with clear water
is ours, promised us, for all we’ve hacked
and tracked our way through: to this:
What will it be? Your wish or mine? your
prayers or my wish then: that those we love
be well, whatever that means, to be well.
Outrage: who dare protection for their own
amid such unprotection? What kind of prayer
is that? To what kind of god? What kind of wish?
— Through Corralitos under Rolls of Cloud, IV.
That is that as far as news goes (oh wait, I moaned about my nose). This Saturday, I shall be doing a Peake centenary post, so do keep an eye out for some amusing verse. Now, because this is bogey and I love you all so, I shall inflict upon you an ‘exclusive’ from the failed experiments of my writing life. The.. bile that follows was written in an aborted attempt at understanding economics as I was reading “The Relentless Revolution”. It is also why the first draft of that review concluded with this immortal line: ‘it is the purpose of histories to differentiate between porsches and potatoes.’ So now you know.
This week, while on holiday, I was presented with a difficult decision. I could go to the beach by train (and save some time). Or by bus (and save some money). I wound up, being me, buying train tickets and going by bus. My point in telling you this is to illustrate the exotic concept of “marginal utility”. If you listen in economics class, I discovered, you excel at life. The founding premise of the market economy, after all, is the law of rational choice: that consumers across a fixed income-bracket will distribute their money amongst goods closely examined for said “marginal utility”. This is why we believe, almost as an article of faith, in the law of diminishing returns, and why demand-curves inevitably slope downward.
Two goods are equimarginal in microeconomics when their relative ‘price-utilities’ are equal; i.e. the utility a hypothetical consumer gains from each rupee she spends on either is equivalent. This is also called ‘perfect indifference’ in consumer theory. I was, in my choice of conveyance, perfectly indifferent between money and time. It is independent of the total quantity of money spent: a bus ticket might cost less but takes longer. One porsche worth a crore of rupees may be functionally equivalent in this scheme of things to two million potatoes bought with that money. According to the law of diminishing returns, the more potatoes you can buy, the less they will matter to you. That they might mean an awful lot to someone else is where economics shrugs and plots its next graph.
Analogies of this sort are to be found everywhere in the optimistic field of legal economics. I once spent an entertaining afternoon pretending to be a rancher and conducting a variety of thought experiments to test the veracity of the “social norms” thesis in The Problem of Social Cost, Ronald Coase’s seminal attempt to marry transaction costs and the American midwest. All ranchers, I concluded, will eat only beef and wear nothing but cowboy hats unless someone stages a market intervention. Call it interference if you must, but I bet they won’t be thinking about death-panels and tea bags in the throes of a communal cardiac arrest. This, in essence, is the dilemma with classical economics: all its relativities are conceptual, not personal. Like acceleration is doubly-differentiated distance, ‘demand’ is doubly-differentiated choice. It’s abstracted to the point where it ceases to matter, the purest expression of a mob mentality.
(A tribute in passing to those truncated lives: they were splendidly convivial, not to mention naked, and them cowboys made my brain a very happy place that day. I felt genuine remorse in that genocide, however routinely one kills off casts of millions whilst pondering thorny dilemmas. I drowned Atlantis in a cunning application of Bernoulli’s principle. I insisted Vesuvius keep my schedule in erupting; I counted how many bombs it would take to destroy every city in Asia. 200,317 bombs, by the way, to obliterate our continent, with no later an innovation than Fat Man and a similar definition of ‘city’. I’ve forgotten the one I used, though the number itself is seared into my brain)
My favourite illustration of marginal utility, though, comes from the venerable Samuelson’s amusing aside about the usage of time at the advent of academic emergencies. Faced with multiple exams and no knowledge, he asks, how would you allocate your time? (why the perfectly rational would find themselves in such a precarious position remains a mystery). Would you be sensible and focus on a few, say history and politics, rather than hobnob haplessly between subjects? In Samuelson’s world, the clear thing to do is to concentrate; do that which will yield in the best use of your time, he proclaims. If you let stratospheric grades in those offset other disappointments, the average is likely to be higher than when you scrape through all. Spoken, I can only say, like a man who has never actually failed an exam in his life. For the benefit of readers with similar good fortune, I must assert from experience that it doesn’t work that way. In my world, where failure was once a constant companion, the only thing to do is to declare self superhuman, read very little of any in a heroic quest for All, and rely ultimately on alchemy. But that would not be quite rational of me, would it?