Nunc Dimittis

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
—“The Canticle of Simeon.”
What appeared obvious was therefore rendered problematical and the question remains: why do most … species contain approximately equal numbers of males and females?
—Stephen Jay Gould. “Death Before Birth, or a Mite’s Nunc dimittis.”
    The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. 1980.

Since last year the attention of most American liberals has been focused on the shenanigans of President Trump—but the Trump Show has hardly been the focus of the American right. Just a few days ago, John Nichols of The Nation observed that ALEC—the business-funded American Legislative Exchange Council that has functioned as a clearinghouse for conservative proposals for state laws—“is considering whether to adopt a new piece of ‘model legislation’ that proposes to do away with an elected Senate.” In other words, ALEC is thinking of throwing its weight behind the (heretofore) fringe idea of overturning the Seventeenth Amendment, and returning the right to elect U.S. Senators to state legislatures: the status quo of 1913. Yet, why would Americans wish to return to a period widely known to be—as the most recent reputable academic history, Wendy Schiller and Charles Stewart’s Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy Before the Seventeenth Amendment has put the point—“plagued by significant corruption to a point that undermined the very legitimacy of the election process and the U.S. Senators who were elected by it?” The answer, I suggest, might be found in a history of the German higher educational system prior to the year 1933.

“To what extent”—asked Fritz K. Ringer in 1969’s The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933—“were the German mandarins to blame for the terrible form of their own demise, for the catastrophe of National Socialism?” Such a question might sound ridiculous to American ears, to be sure: as Ezra Klein wrote in the inaugural issue of Vox, in 2014, there’s “a simple theory underlying much of American politics,” which is “that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings” that can be solved with more information, or education. To blame German professors, then, for the triumph of the Nazi Party sounds paradoxical to such ears: it sounds like blaming an increase in rats on a radio station. From that view, then, the Nazis must have succeeded because the German people were too poorly-educated to be able to resist Hitler’s siren song.

As one appraisal of Ringer’s work in the decades since Decline has pointed out, however, the pioneering researcher went on to compare biographical dictionaries between Germany, France, England and the United States—and found “that 44 percent of German entries were academics, compared to 20 percent or less elsewhere”; another comparison of such dictionaries found that a much-higher percentage of Germans (82%) profiled in such books had exposure to university classes than those of other nations. Meanwhile, Ringer also found that “the real surprise” of delving into the records of “late nineteenth-century German secondary education” is that it “was really rather progressive for its time”: a higher percentage of Germans found their way to a high school education than did their peers in France or England during the same period. It wasn’t, in other words, for lack of education that Germany fell under the sway of the Nazis.

All that research, however, came after Decline, which dared to ask the question, “Did the work of German academics help the Nazis?” To be sure, there were a number of German academics, like philosopher Martin Heidegger and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who not only joined the party, but actively cheered the Nazis on in public. (Heidegger’s connections to Hitler have been explored by Victor Farias and Emannuel Faye; Schmitt has been called “the crown jurist of the Third Reich.”) But that question, as interesting as it is, is not Ringer’s; he isn’t interested in the culpability of academics in direct support of the Nazis, perhaps the culpability of elevator repairmen could as well be interrogated. Instead, what makes Ringer’s argument compelling is that he connects particular intellectual beliefs to a particular historical outcome.

While most examinations of intellectuals, in other words, bewail a general lack of sympathy and understanding on the part of the public regarding the significance of intellectual labor, Ringer’s book is refreshing insofar as it takes the opposite tack: instead of upbraiding the public for not paying attention to the intellectuals, it upbraids the intellectuals for not understanding just how much attention they were actually getting. The usual story about intellectual work and such, after all, is about just how terrible intellectuals have it—how many first novels, after all, are about young writers and their struggles? But Ringer’s research suggests, as mentioned, the opposite: an investigation of Germany prior to 1933 shows that intellectuals were more highly thought of there than virtually anywhere in the world. Indeed, for much of its history before the Holocaust Germany was thought of as a land of poets and thinkers, not the grim nation portrayed in World War II movies. In that sense, Ringer has documented just how good intellectuals can have it—and how dangerous that can be.

All of that said, what are the particular beliefs that, Ringer thinks, may have led to the installation of the Fürher in 1933? The “characteristic mental habits and semantic preferences” Ringer documents in his book include such items as “the underlying vision of learning as an empathetic and unique interaction with venerated texts,” as well as a “consistent repudiation of instrumental or ‘utilitarian’ knowledge.” Such beliefs are, to be sure, seemingly required of the departments of what are now—but weren’t then—thought of, at least in the United States, as “the humanities”: without something like such foundational assumptions, subjects like philosophy or literature could not remain part of the curriculum. But, while perhaps necessary for intellectual projects to leave the ground, they may also have some costs—costs like, say, forgetting why the Seventeenth Amendment was passed.

That might sound surprising to some—after all, aren’t humanities departments hotbeds of leftism? Defenders of “the humanities”—like Gregory Harpham, once Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities—sometimes go even further and make the claim—as Harpham did in his 2011 book, The Humanities and the Dream of America—that “the capacity to sympathize, empathize, or otherwise inhabit the experience of others … is clearly essential to democratic society,” and that this “kind of capacity … is developed by an education that includes the humanities.” Such views, however, make a nonsense of history: traditionally, after all, it’s been the sciences that have been “clearly essential to democratic society,” not “the humanities.” And, if anyone thinks about it closely, the very notion of democracy itself depends on an idea that, at base, is “scientific” in nature—and one that is opposed to the notion of “the humanities.”

That idea is called, in scientific circles, “the Law of Large Numbers”—a concept first written down formally two centuries ago by mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, but easily illustrated in the words of journalist Michael Lewis’ most recent book. “If you flipped a coin a thousand times,” Lewis writes in The Undoing Project, “you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times.” Or as Bernoulli put it in 1713’s Ars Conjectandi, “it is not enough to take one or another observation for such a reasoning about an event, but that a large number of them are needed.” It is a restatement of the commonsensical notion that the more times a result is repeated, the more trustworthy it is—an idea hugely applicable to human life.

For example, the Law of Large Numbers is why, as publisher Nate Silver recently put it, if “you want to predict a pitcher’s win-loss record, looking at the number of strikeouts he recorded and the number of walks he yielded is more informative than looking at his W’s and L’s from the previous season.” It’s why, when financial analyst John Bogle examined the stock market, he decided that, instead of trying to chase the latest-and-greatest stock, “people would be better off just investing their money in the entire stock market for a very cheap price”—and thereby invented the index fund. It’s why, Malcolm Gladwell has noted, the labor movement has always endorsed a national health care system: because they “believed that the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age was to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible.” It’s why casinos have limits on the amounts bettors can wager. In all these fields, as well as more “properly” scientific ones, it’s better to amass large quantities of results, rather than depend on small numbers of them.

What is voting, after all, but an act of sampling of the opinion of the voters, an act thereby necessarily engaged with the Law of Large Numbers? So, at least, thought the eighteenth-century mathematician and political theorist the Marquis de Condorcet—who called the result “the miracle of aggregation.” Summarizing a great deal of contemporary research, Sean Richey of Georgia State University has noted that Condorcet’s idea was that (as one of Richey’s sources puts the point) “[m]ajorities are more likely to select the ‘correct’ alternative than any single individual when there is uncertainty about which alternative is in fact the best.” Or, as Richey describes how Condorcet’s process actually works more concretely puts it, the notion is that “if ten out of twelve jurors make random errors, they should split five and five, and the outcome will be decided by the two who vote correctly.” Just as, in sum, a “betting line” demarks the boundary of opinion between gamblers, Condorcet provides the justification for voting: Condorcet’s theory was that “the law of large numbers shows that this as-if rational outcome will be almost certain in any large election if the errors are randomly distributed.” Condorcet, thereby, proposed elections as a machine for producing truth—and, arguably, democratic governments have demonstrated that fact ever since.

Key to the functioning of Condorcet’s machine, in turn, is large numbers of voters: the marquis’ whole idea, in fact, is that—as David Austen-Smith and Jeffrey S. Banks put the French mathematician’s point in 1996—“the probability that a majority votes for the better alternative … approaches 1 [100%] as n [the number of voters] goes to infinity.” In other words, the point is that the more voters, the more likely an election is to reach the correct decision. The Seventeenth Amendment is, then, just such a machine: its entire rationale is that the (extremely large) pool of voters of a state is more likely to reach a correct decision than an (extremely small) pool voters consisting of the state legislature alone.

Yet the very thought that anyone could even know what truth is, of course—much less build a machine for producing it—is anathema to people in humanities departments: as I’ve mentioned before, Bruce Robbins of Columbia University has reminded everyone that such departments were “founded on … the critique of Enlightenment rationality.” Such departments have, perhaps, been at the forefront of the gradual change in Americans from what the baseball writer Bill James has called “an honest, trusting people with a heavy streak of rationalism and an instinctive trust of science,” with the consequence that they had “an unhealthy faith in the validity of statistical evidence,” to adopting “the position that so long as something was stated as a statistic it was probably false and they were entitled to ignore it and believe whatever they wanted to [believe].” At any rate, any comparison of the “trusting” 1950s America described by James by comparison to what he thought of as the statistically-skeptical 1970s (and beyond) needs to reckon with the increasingly-large bulge of people educated in such departments: as a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities has pointed out, “the percentage of college-age Americans holding degrees in the humanities has increased fairly steadily over the last half-century, from little over 1 percent in 1950 to about 2.5 percent today.” That might appear to be a fairly low percentage—but as Joe Pinsker’s headline writer put the point of Pinsker’s article in The Atlantic, “Rich Kids Major in English.” Or as a study cited by Pinsker in that article noted, “elite students were much more likely to study classics, English, and history, and much less likely to study computer science and economics.” Humanities students are a small percentage of graduates, in other words—but historically they have been (and given the increasingly-documented decreasing social mobility of American life, are increasingly likely to be) the people calling the shots later.

Or, as the infamous Northwestern University chant had it: “That‘s alright, that’s okay—you’ll be working for us someday!” By building up humanities departments, the professoriate has perhaps performed useful labor by clearing the ideological ground for nothing less than the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment—an amendment whose argumentative success, even today, depends upon an audience familiar not only with Condorcet’s specific proposals, but also with the mathematical ideas that underlay them. That would be no surprise, perhaps, to Fritz Ringer, who described how the German intellectual class of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth constructed an “a defense of the freedom of learning and teaching, a defense which is primarily designed to combat the ruler’s meddling in favor of a narrowly useful education.” To them, the “spirit flourishes only in freedom … and its achievements, though not immediately felt, are actually the lifeblood of the nation.” Such an argument is reproduced by such “academic superstar” professors of humanities as Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at (where else?) the University of California, Berkeley, who has argued that the “contemporary tradition”—what?—“of critical theory in the academy … has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or ‘natural’ understanding of social and political realities.”

Can’t put it better.


Literature as a pure art approaches the nature of pure science.
—“The Scientist of Letters: Obituary of James Joyce.” The New Republic 20 January 1941.


James Joyce, in the doorway of Shakespeare & Co., sometime in the 1920s.

In 1910 the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, offered what he called a “Square Deal” to the American people—a deal that, the president explained, consisted of two components: “equality of opportunity” and “reward for equally good service.” Not only would everyone would be given a chance, but, also—and as we shall see, more importantly—pay would be proportional to effort. More than a century later, however—according to University of Illinois at Chicago professor of English Walter Benn Michaels—the second of Roosevelt’s components has been forgotten: “the supposed left,” Michaels asserted in 2006, “has turned into something like the human resources department of the right.” What Michaels meant was that, these days, “the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more,” it is instead “that the rich [can] make whatever they make, [so long as] an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women.” In contemporary America, he means, only the first goal of Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” matters. Yet, why should Michaels’ “supposed left” have abandoned Roosevelt’s second goal? An answer may be found in a seminal 1961 article by political scientists Peter B. Clark and James Q. Wilson called “Incentive Systems: A Theory of Organizations”—an article that, though it nowhere mentions the man, could have been entitled “The Charlie Wilson Problem.”

Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson was president of General Motors during World War II and into the early 1950s; General Motors, which produced tanks, bombers, and ammunition during the war, may have been as central to the war effort as any other American company—which is to say, given the fact that the United States was the “Arsenal of Democracy,” quite a lot. (“Without American trucks, we wouldn’t have had anything to pull our artillery with,” commented Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who led the Red Army into Berlin.) Hence, it may not be a surprise that World War II commander Dwight Eisenhower selected Wilson to be his Secretary of Defense when the leader of the Allied war in western Europe was elected president in 1952, which led to the confirmation hearings that made Wilson famous—and the possible subject of “Incentive Systems.”

That’s because of something Wilson said during those hearings: when asked whether he could make a decision, as Secretary of Defense, that would be adverse for General Motors, Wilson replied that he could not imagine such a situation, “because for years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Wilson’s words revealed how sometimes people within an organization can forget about the larger purposes of the organization—or what could be called “the Charlie Wilson problem.” What Charlie Wilson could not imagine, however, was precisely what James Wilson (and his co-writer Peter Clark) wrote about in “Incentive Systems”: how the interests of an organization might not always align with society.

Not that Clark and Wilson made some startling discovery; in one sense “Incentive Systems” is simply a gloss on one of Adam Smith’s famous remarks in The Wealth of Nations: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” What set their effort apart, however, was the specificity with which they attacked the problem: the thesis of “Incentive Systems” asserts that “much of the internal and external activity of organizations may be explained by understanding their incentive systems.” In short, in order to understand how an organization’s purposes might differ from that of the larger society, a big clue might be in how it rewards its members.

In the particular case of Engine Charlie, the issue was the more than $2.5 million in General Motors stock he possessed at the time of his appointment as Secretary of Defense—even as General Motors remained one of the largest defense contractors. Depending on the calculation, that figure would be nearly ten times that today—and, given contemporary trends in corporate pay for executives, would surely be even greater than that: the “ratio of CEO-to-worker pay has increased 1,000 percent since 1950,” according to a 2013 Bloomberg report. But “Incentive Systems” casts a broader net than “merely” financial rewards.

The essay constructs “three broad categories” of incentives: “material, solidary, and purposive.” That is, not only pay and other financial sorts of reward of the type possessed by Charlie Wilson, but also two other sorts: internal rewards within the organization itself—and rewards concerning the organization’s stated intent, or purpose, in society at large. Although Adam Smith’s pointed comment raised the issue of the conflict of material interest between organizations and society two centuries ago, what “Incentive Systems” thereby raises is the possibility that, even in organizations without the material purposes of a General Motors, internal rewards can conflict with external ones:

At first, members may derive satisfaction from coming together for the purpose of achieving a stated end; later they may derive equal or greater satisfaction from simply maintaining an organization that provides them with office, prestige, power, sociability, income, or a sense of identity.

Although Wealth of Nations, and Engine Charlie, provide examples of how material rewards can disrupt the straightforward relationship between members, organizations, and society, “Incentive Systems” suggests that non-material rewards can be similarly disruptive.

If so, Clark and Wilson’s view may perhaps circle back around to illuminate a rather pressing current problem within the United States concerning material rewards: one indicated by the fact that the pay of CEOs of large companies like General Motors has increased so greatly against that of workers. It’s a story that was usefully summarized by Columbia University economist Edward N. Wolff in 1998: “In the 1970s,” Wolff wrote then, “the level of wealth inequality in the United States was comparable to that of other developed industrialized countries”—but by the 1980s “the United States had become the most unequal society in terms of wealth among the advanced industrial nations.” Statistics compiled by the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman pointed out in 2014, “have long pointed to a dramatic shift in the process of US economic growth, one that started around 1980.” “Before then,” Krugman says, “families at all levels saw their incomes grow more or less in tandem with the growth of the economy as a whole”—but afterwards, he continued, “the lion’s share of gains went to the top end of the income distribution, with families in the bottom half lagging far behind.” Books like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century have further documented this broad economic picture: according to the Institute for Policy Studies, for example, the richest 20 Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 50% of Americans—more than 150 million people.

How, though, can “Incentive Systems” shine a light on this large-scale movement? Aside from the fact that, apparently, the essay predicts precisely the future we now inhabit—the “motivational trends considered here,” Wilson and Clark write, “suggests gradual movement toward a society in which factors such as social status, sociability, and ‘fun’ control the character of organizations, while organized efforts to achieve either substantive purposes or wealth for its own sake diminish”—it also suggests just why the traditional sources of opposition to economic power have, largely, been silent in recent decades. The economic turmoil of the nineteenth century, after all, became the Populist movement; that of the 1930s became the Popular Front. Meanwhile, although it has sometimes been claimed that Occupy Wall Street, and more lately Bernie Sanders’ primary run, have been contemporary analogs of those previous movements, both have—I suspect anyway—had nowhere near the kind of impact of their predecessors, and for reasons suggested by “Incentive Systems.”

What “Incentive Systems” can do, in other words, is explain the problem raised by Walter Benn Michaels: the question of why, to many young would-be political activists in the United States, it’s problems of racial and other forms of discrimination that appear the most pressing—and not the economic vice that has been squeezing the majority of Americans of all races and creeds for the past several decades. (Witness the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance—which frames the issue of policing the inner city as a matter of black and white, rather than dollars and cents.) The signature move of this crowd has, for some time, been to accuse their opponents of (as one example of this school has put it) “crude economic reductionism”—or, of thinking “that the real working class only cares about the size of its paychecks.” Of course, as Michaels says in The Trouble With Diversity, the flip side of that argument is to say that this school attempts to fit all problems into the Procrustean bed of “diversity,” or more simply, “that racial identity trumps class,” rather than the other way. But why do those activists need to insist on the point so strongly?

“Some people,” Jill Lepore wrote not long ago in The New Yorker about economic inequality, “make arguments by telling stories; other people make arguments by counting things.” Understanding inequality, as should be obvious, requires—at a minimum—a grasp of the most basic terms of mathematics: it requires knowing, for instance, that a 1,000 percent increase is quite a lot. But more significantly, it also requires understanding something about how rewards—incentives—operate in society: a “something” that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explained not long ago, is “ironclad.” In the Columbia University professor’s view (and it is more-or-less the view of the profession), there is a fundamental law that governs the matter—which in turn requires understanding what a scientific law is, and how one operates, and so forth.

That law in this case, the Columbia University professor says, is this: “as more money becomes concentrated at the top, aggregate demand goes into decline.” Take, Stiglitz says, the example of Mitt Romney’s 2010 income of $21.7 million: Romney can “only spend a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife.” But, he continues, “take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people—say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece—and you’ll find that almost all the money gets spent.” The more evenly money is spread around, in other words, the more efficiently, and hence productively, the American economy works—for everyone, not just some people. Conversely, the more total income is captured by fewer people, the less efficiently the economy becomes, resulting in less productivity—and ultimately a poorer America. But understanding Stiglitz’ argument requires a kind of knowledge possessed by counters, not storytellers—which, in the light of “Incentive Systems,” illustrates just why it’s discrimination, and not inequality, that is the issue of choice for political activists today.

At least since the 1960s, that is, the center of political energy on university campuses has usually been the departments that “tell stories,” not the departments that “count things”: as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty remarked before he died, “departments of English literature are now the left-most departments of the universities.” But, as Clark and Wilson might point out (following Adam Smith), the departments that “tell stories” have internal interests that may not be identical to the interests of the public: as mentioned, understanding Joseph Stiglitz’ point requires understanding science and mathematics—and as Bruce Robbins (a colleague of Wolff and Stiglitz at Columbia University, only in the English department ) has remarked, “the critique of Enlightenment rationality is what English departments were founded on.” In other words, the internal incentive systems of English departments and other storytelling disciplines reward their members for not understanding the tools that are the only means of understanding foremost political issue of the present—an issue that can only be sorted out by “counting things.”

As viewed through the prism of “Incentive Systems,” then, the lesson taught by the past few decades of American life might well be that elevating “storytelling” disciplines above “counting” disciplines has had the (utterly predictable) consequence that economic matters—a field constituted by arguments constructed about “counting things”—have been largely vacated as a possible field of political contest. And if politics consists of telling stories only, that means that “counting things” is understood as apolitical—a view that is surely, as students of deconstruction have always said, laden with politics. In that sense, then, the deal struck by Americans with themselves in the past several decades hardly seems fair. Or, to use an older vocabulary: