LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
GP 15 April 2009: Pro Musica Mundo; Inefficient Markets
New South/Old South: Even today, a century and a half after the guns of North and South went silent, we can’t take a trip down a blue highway in the South without grim awareness of its ever grinding poverty. Sure, there’s been a TVA, a host of fast food chains, a whole nest of soft drink companies with colas that grind away at your teeth, southern presidents and pontificating senators who have managed to funnel earmark largesse into Georgia, and Texas, and West Virginia, huge faux mansions with Home Depot fixtures and no-maintenance shrubbery, and so-called ‘education governors’ whose command of the King’s English is hapless. It’s the New South where cotton is forgotten and where fortunes are made by stripping the land of all its cover in order to hammer together new developments. Old time religion, the region’s power institution, still controls local lives more than government, or business; and evangelical basketball with coaches descended from the sharp-edged fellows Pat Conroy describes in My Losing Season has more strategy at its heart than city planning or business development.
The Civil War extinguished several varieties of roses and all sorts of interesting horticulture. It’s not that the guns and roses are missed, but one regrets the lack of comity, the division, the cultural gridlock, and the barrenness that shows in the faces of people who walk down the street, reddens even the smiling visages of the non-stop go-getters. Yet. Yet. The region continues to produce a more interesting literature than the rest of the country. One bumps into people who handle the spoken and written word with an ease not given to the tongue-tied in other regions. The wonderful contradiction here is that eloquence and creativity persist, even though literacy and educational attainment is at its best merely average throughout the whole of the Confederacy. Even the so-called best schools falter in their task, but damn, the region has some fine writers.
Flannery O’Connor. Most recently, we have been reminded of this deep literary tradition where makers of fiction defy the boundaries that surround their lives. Just this February, Brad Gooch published his Flannery: A Life Of Flannery O’Connor where we learn of the truncated life of this marvelous author. Confined to the few acres of her farm, isolated from much human contact, dying early of lupus, swallowed up by her religious fervor, she nonetheless got beyond all these narrow restraints to write tellingly of the human condition in a world of very low expectations. We have always favored her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. The very hardscrabble conditions that even now persist in the South fuel the imagination and prepare one to transcend one’s 25-mile circumstance.
Persistence of Spirit. There would be no particular reason for facing the grim reality of the South, something its denizens try to ignore, but for the fact that this state of mind sets the stage for what is most admirable in Dixie. The people there, often struck dumb by the forces of nature, the vagaries of history, and the deadly sins of their leaders, just keep trying. We felt this, most recently, in a conversation with a successful but still sensitive resident of the Piedmont who has done well in this life, but remembers what it was like before life got better.
His father just died at 88. Two fat tumors in the brain. He could have continued for a bit, but, because of his clearly expressed wishes, the doctors pulled the tubes. His wife, a nurse and proud mother and honorable wife, listened to the chitchat about all the things the docs could do to prolong life, and correctly said, “No way.” He went out with his pride and his boots on.
Our friend, the accomplished man of the Piedmont, never knew the whole story of his father until he got into his mid-thirties. Illness in the family had taken down his grandparents, such that, from an early age, his father and his aunt were orphaned, close to no one but each other. They were in orphanages and foster homes throughout the South. But they made their way, proudly, the aunt still living in Richmond, the home of the Confederacy, a beleaguered capital today. Somehow they both made their way in life, and brought up fine families, none of their progeny knowing what they had lived through. His father and his aunt weren’t complainers: they were warriors whose swords were sheathed.
The dad, let us call him Artemus, had a love. It was music. Somehow it got him through the foster homes, took him away from pain, made him think big thoughts and visions of heavenly fields. Artemus would listen to the opera, in adulthood, every Saturday afternoon. Even when times were tight, he took his children to serious performances. The duty, one should know, of a good parent, is to leave his children with good memories. This man left them music. And it was music that kept him going. The arias he savored told this gritty gentleman that there are many sights to be seen and sounds to be heard before we enter Paradise.
Musicophilia: Tales Of Music and the Brain. The eloquent writer and neurologist Oliver Sachs acquaints us with the powerful effects of music on human beings in his Musicophilia. His concern perhaps is more with mental aberrations: ours would run to Artemus above who used music to liberate himself from his immediate conditions. In this vein, we would refer the reader to Music and the Brain, some provocative lectures from the Library of Congress. Here one begins to appreciate the transformative energy of music: its ability to take us to another place with a view to leaving old tired thoughts behind.
World Class Thinking. Those of us in the consulting trade and a few, ironic fellows in academia like to think about how good thoughts get spread around the world. Certainly all the knowledge management schemes at corporations and universities and think tanks and government intelligence services don’t do the trick. This is a problem the late historian Leonard Krieger liked to think about and something he touched on here and there in his seminal The German Idea of Freedom. We have also often cited Bruno Latour’s The Pasteurization of France as a worthy attempt to see how Louis Pasteur’s ideas swept through Europe. If we are to be globally worthy in any field of endeavor, we have to be globally knowledgeable, which is still difficult if you live on a small farm in the South or in the media cloud of Manhattan. Moreover, our brains are so full of digital trivia, stuffed with stuff, that it is hard to be receptive to something new. Inevitably we usually label the new as old hat, afraid to confront something fearsome and unknowable, eager to pretend the mysteries of the Orient are somehow akin to our small patch of earth. It’s a chore to be a world-class thinker.
Music Remakes the World. Music, more than the Internet, more than TV, more than conferences at Davos, more than gatherings of TED, would appear to be the collaborative tool that seizes minds in the right way and converts man to new actions. The Obama campaign, at its height, authored music videos that captured hearts. Yes We Can was heard around the world, and set people, speaking several tongues, off on a new enthusiasm. Chances are that it was these songs, more than the official media, which bought him a passionate audience worldwide.
Now collaborative tools are helping widely dispersed performers across the globe make music together. Engineers, for instance, have woven together singers from many lands who played “Stand By Me,” a hit originally released in 1955 by The Staple Singers and released again in 1961 by the Drifters. Now sites such as Kompoz are springing up on the Internet to permit performers to ‘lay down tracks together.’ On April 15, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, an assemblage of talents from around the world, will play at Carnegie Hall.
Our contention in all of this is that it is easier to promote collaboration across geographic boundaries when music is the ether everyone breathes. And further, that music taps into the non-verbal part of the brain, so listeners and players are freed from the pedestrian walls that inhabit the word-filled rooms of everyday life. In other words, music is the ideal medium to facilitate wide dispersion of knowledge, to get us out of our small place and rigid ideas.
Efficient Balderdash. In the 1960s Eugene Fama of the University of Chicago gave birth to efficient market theory which more or less said that public information in the financial markets is quickly dispersed throughout the financial community and is quickly reflected in the price of securities and other financial instruments. This is, of course, complete balderdash, not only for financial markets but all markets. One only has to go to Chicago to view the stupendous inefficiency of its markets. The behavioral economists both at Chicago and other points of the compass understand, at least to a limited degree, that the real world is more quirky than the ‘efficient’ proponents would like to believe, that even en masse mankind does not act in a so-called efficient manner. And that meltdowns in markets across the world happen all too often because nobody either hears or acts upon widely available information. Our advances, in the future, may depend on just how fully we acknowledge the inefficiencies of all our markets and the desperate plight of all our knowledge. It’s a wonder, when you think about it, that new data and original thoughts ever make it from one person to another, much less across the globe, because there’s a whole lot of static out there.
And this is why we must look at music, grapevines, pasteurization, and a slew of other things. It’s a mystery as to how decent information and ideas get spread and get understood and get acted upon. Ordinary communication is simply a deterrent to big thinking.
P.S. The ideas about nonviolent struggle of Gene Sharp have had profound influence around the world, but he is little noticed in the United States and totally ignored in his hometown of Boston, the town that once fired a shot that was heard around the world. We commonly ignore the things that are happening right under our noses.
P.P.S. An acquaintance and onetime colleague once did an article about smart people who early saw a big bear stock market coming on. He wondered what came out of their prophetic insights. Nothing. They were ignored, and, by and large, they did not even act on their own prescience. Market guru Ray DeVoe has written trenchantly, even amusingly, for years about the bubbles and venality in our financial markets and amongst our government regulators. Nobody paid attention to him and, for sure, what he said did not get reflected in the prices of any kind of securities. Resistance, the blocking of memories posed by Freudian psychology, has more powerful implications away from the psychiatrist’s couch. In general, mankind will block out insights of all sorts until hit over the head with sights and sounds that are too penetrating to be resisted.
Copyright 2009 GlobalProvince.com