The Wealth of Adam Smith

Adam SmithOn this day back in 1792, the British naturalist and painter John Linnell was born. He is best known today for not being the guy in the band They Might Be Giants who has the same name. What I find remarkable about painters like Linnell and John Constable is that their art has been so thoroughly integrated into the popular painting repertoire that it seems generic. What once had meaning and beauty has been so beaten by a bourgeoisie aversion to modernist art that the whole movement feels more non-offensive banality than anything else.

Of course, the problem is not just history. To me, Romantic art always seems rather fake. Jane Austen lampooned what she clearly saw as the affected nature of the Romantic movement in Sense and Sensibility. I’ve never felt that Marianne’s proclamations were anything by artifice, even if she was her own biggest mark. So what I’m getting at is that even though I don’t doubt the talent of the great Romantic landscape painters, there is always something that hinders me in appreciating them the way that I can most other forms of art. And I’m not entirely sure that I’m wrong. I feel a lot more confident in my musical tastes and I’m not that fond of Romantic composers either.

Stan Laurel—the skinny half of Laurel and Hardy—was born in 1890. They were a brilliant team, although I generally find the films uneven. Still, they always make me laugh quite a lot. Here is an interview with the two of them from 1947 when they visited England. It is sweet and the film clips all look so bad:

Jack Albertson of Chico and the Man was born in 1907. I’ll probably have more to say about that this next week because Freddie Prinze’s birthday is coming up.

Katharine Graham was born in 1917. She was the publisher of the Washington Post during its glory days of Watergate. But she is perhaps best remembered for the fact that when her father retired, he gave the newspaper over to her husband. After her husband died, she took over the paper. It’s a great reminder of just how people thought in the 40s and 50s. It seems we have made some progress and Graham is part of that.

And Love Story author Erich Segal was born in 1937. Just for the record, it was not based upon Al and Tipper Gore. But Al Gore never said that. Al Gore Support Center explains:

The Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson and Ann Scales attacked Gore’s veracity: “He has also said that he and his wife, Tipper, were the models for the movie Love Story, only to be contradicted by the author, Erich Segal.” Their source was Time magazine. Trouble is, Gore never made that claim and Segal never contradicted him. Chatting on the press plane about movies for a couple of hours, Gore had simply remarked to two Time magazine writers on a newspaper interview in which Segal had described Al and Tipper as his models for the movie. True. The Tennessean did so report, but it misquoted Segal, who had told the reporter he based only the male in the movie on Gore. So Segal’s “contradiction” was a correction for a newspaper, not Gore. Segal noted: “Al attributed it to a newspaper. Time thought it was more piquant to leave that out.” End of story? Not a bit. Heavyweight commentators seized on Love Story to lash Gore for “inflating his past,” “bragging” and “prevaricating.”

I don’t bring this up because I’m a huge Al Gore fan. But it really bugs me that our “objective” journalists start with a narrative: Al Gore is a liar. And then they shoehorn every bit of information into that narrative. Of course, it didn’t really hurt Gore; he did, after all, win the presidency; it was just that we don’t live in a democracy. But it does hurt the media. I think the reason so many people still voted for Gore was that they figured, “I’m sure Gore is a liar, but I doubt he’s any more of a liar than Bush.” Note also: the media wasn’t particularly interested in Bush’s real lies about his time in the Air National Guard, but they were very interested in complaining that Gore said he was the real Oliver Barrett.

The great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is 83 today. Joyce Carol Oates is 75. Laurie Metcalf is 58. I spent half my life thinking she was Madeleine Stowe. Go figure. Anyway, Metcalf was in the original production of Balm In Gilead where she played Darlene. Here is Metcalf doing a very funny speech from the play:

The first half of the screenwriting team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is 50. And Harold of Harold and Kumar, John Cho is 41.

The day, however, belongs to Adam Smith who was born on or about this day in 1723. He was fundamentally a moral philosopher and that’s actually a very good reason to not take him all that seriously as an economist. There were a number of philosophers thinking about economics at that time along the same lines; in particular: David Ricardo and John Locke. The real problem is not that they were overly concerned about government debt but rather that people today continue to trust them as though we haven’t learned anything over the last 250 years. In fact, it only took about 50 years for John Stuart Mill it reveal most of the problems with their thinking. But as you may have noticed, the power elites decide what they want to do first and then look for a way to justify it second.

The funny thing is that even with Smith’s failings as an economist, he never said the main thing that modern people associate with him. He is now associated with perfect markets. If you just leave markets to themselves, they will adjust into a kind of libertarian utopia. What Smith actually said is that markets left to themselves work a lot better than one would think. This is more or less the same as saying that markets kind of work. That’s a far cry from the modern mythology of perfect markets.

Regardless, he was a great and important thinker. Unfortunately, if Marx is the opium of the socialist, Smith is the opium of the capitalist. Or at least the myth of Smith is. If he were alive today to see how we’ve created such an unequal society where wealth is mandated to flow from the poor on up, I’m sure that 18th century moral philosopher would be appalled.

Happy birthday Adam Smith!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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