Flowertalk

How tulips hacked markets, plus a financial reading of romance in Eileen Chang.

My last post touched on the idea that most technical processes governing our lives (e.g., the mechanics behind the financial crisis) lie beyond the reach of even the informed democratic vote. This is distressing! On multiple counts. The suggestion being that the link between public will and expression is, you know, defunct, and that we’ve closed the gap with the kind internet hubris that thrives on Substack, while metadata reaps its cut.

There must be another way!

This brings us to part two of April’s post, which looks at market failures as communication failures (while setting us up for an investigation of better ways to communicate, come May).

Markets as a means of communication

One deceptively benign and relatively old way to think of markets is as a means of gathering and expressing information. From this view, markets and language have a communicative impulse in common; they’re both engaged in a summarizing process of expressing human desires (or delusions).

It also means that they’re maybe exposed to some of the same kinds of vulnerabilities and limitations.

A lot of the time, markets and language are pretty effective at getting certain messages across. For example, Go left at the post office, or People want tulips over oleanders. The idea that markets, in particular, gather this information like a huge computer and communicate it through price harkens back to Friedrich Hayek of the Austrian school of economics. While there are plenty of other Hayekean ideas I reject (e.g., opposing Keynes on full employment and government spending, or that markets and socialism are fundamentally incompatible), and while Hayek, to my knowledge not explicitly against a social state, probably wouldn’t agree with the market-rabid neoliberals who claim him today (Marx, of course, was also leveraged as a means to ends he wouldn’t have ratified), the idea that markets really do have some information-gathering capacity is a difficult one to sidestep, and remains accepted by most economists today. (Hayek won the Nobel for it in 1974.)

But there are obviously a lot of areas where markets aren’t so good or efficient at gathering and disseminating information—goods that aren’t well suited to distribution via “market language” at all. For example, things like essential healthcare and education and Covid vaccines.

It makes a lot of sense to nationalize these things.

The other half of the nationalization equation here (and a major check on neoliberal thought) is that production and distribution targets in fundamental categories like basic healthcare, education, and pandemic gear are relatively simple to gather. So we don’t really need market reconnaissance to discover them. There’s more or less a single, unsubstitutable (“inelastic”) good to distribute, and since we think these things should be universally available, quantity-wise, everyone should have it. This makes a single-payer model (e.g.  the government) a sensible way to coordinate an equilibrium price without: 1) conceding too much to healthcare ‘producers’ or; 2) causing shortages. Markets aren’t strictly necessary for finding out or achieving the socially optimal amount to be produced here, so we might as well skip over them.

It becomes trickier when we try to answer multivariate questions like, “How much grain v. apples v. sausages should everyone have?”, especially if you want to preserve  some element of individual choice. Even more complicated: “How much wheat v. apples v. sausages do people want? And in April v. September?” (“None!” says the apple-allergic vegetarian, who is also gluten-free.) It takes more, and more complex, information to answer this kind of question, and gathering it usually lies beyond the capacities of the single-payer model. Markets, on the other hand, per Hayek, are fairly good at these answering these kinds of queries, though the answers they supply are rarely “fair” in any non-market sense.

That is to say, markets (like language?) are, in some situations, not so much a last resort as the only means of communication available.

Flowertalk

Beyond creating raging inequality, free markets, unchecked and inappropriately applied, can (again like language) also be ambiguous and misleading. This is especially true around those moments when they’re about to crash.

For example, during the tulip craze in 17th-century Netherlands.

It seems safe to say that in Holland at the time people were really, really into tulips. We know because the price for a bulb rose astronomically, nearing $750,000 in current USD at its peak. The “price” was a “message” whose definition we could interpret as follows: People loved flowers.

Flowers were in.

The so-called Tulipmania is now a textbook example of an early financial bubble. It’s also a nice example for our not-so-textbook approach of thinking of market failures as language failures. While the astronomical price of tulips would suggest a desire for a snazzy new kind of bloom—furnished, of course, by colonial trade routes—the price could obviously just as easily express the desire to make money. As was, in fact, the case. Once merchants accepted that the underlying demand for tulips was driven more by short-lived speculation than true ‘tulipmania,’ the price crashed.

More recent headlines in tulipmania: NYC, currently tulip-crazed.

Markets may be good at gathering information, but speculation warps the message. A high price can mean “Wow, people must really love/value tulips!” or, under equally efficient market conditions, “Wow, people really think tulips will continue to be valuable in the near future!” or even, “Hey, gardening is taking off!” (see tweets above), or “Tulips hold sentimental and/or cultural value,” or “People are hoarding bulbs to plant for a bit of cheer in dark times, during the next wave of the bubonic plague, for instance” or all of the above, at the same time.

(There also are rumors that some peckish sailors ate tulip bulbs aboard ships, mistaking them for hundred-thousand dollar onions, so maybe tulips also just taste good?)   

Anyway, this brings us back to the last post on the Tractatus.

If you’re anything like the early Wittgenstein...

Then you probably try to qualify and formalize the syntax here until the above price proposition is a binary we can go check in the real world (“yes people want tulips, or no, they only seem to want tulips...”) until, in a fit of anxiety, you rotary-telephone Bertrand Russell in the middle of the night to ask if you’re going insane.

If you’re anything like the later Wittgenstein…

Then you come around to the idea, in Philosophical Investigations, that we can circumvent the problems of the imprecision of language and market-messages by simply determining that meaning is use—a kind of popular vote. The meaning of the word maps, in other words, not to the “real world,” but to the way most people invoke it.

This conclusion is a bit of an existential let-down, and also bad news for philosophers, as it renders many of the discipline’s favorite investigations nonsense. “Can you step in the same river twice?”, for example, is jettisoned as an exercise in preciousness. Yes, yes you can step in the same river twice, because by “river” no one actually means the river you step in this instant, molecularly unique from the river you step in the next… In common usage, it’s the same river.

This way of looking at the meaning of words isn’t, in the end, so different from the kind of consensus that underpins markets: tulips or gold or especially something like bitcoin are valuable because people believe they are.

(Cue chorus.)

Is everything reality-fraud???

In this framework, of course, tulips and gold don’t really have any “use-value” (per Marx) at all, only “use-meaning” (per the above, re: Wittgenstein in PI) in that they signify what most people believe them to mean. They signify, that is, a contingent  measure of value, rather than mapping onto the way people use them in the “real economy.”

The hyperbolic economics student

The hyperbolic economics student from my last post, still staring at that spectral $100 bill, pretty much decides to quit MATH 411 right there, overwhelmed by the chasm between the world she believes herself to inhabit and all that is the case, waxing pessimistic like  the younger Wittgenstein (a nobleman!):  “That of which we cannot speak we must pass over in silence.”

...Or maybe delegate to novels?

More from the contemporary annals of ‘tulipmania’: Dutch officials & farmers have launched public awareness campaigns to keep Instagrammers from trampling the national flower in pursuit of selfies. (Photo: Getty Images)

Love in a Fallen City

If markets and language are—at least—ambiguous means of expression, then maybe it’s not so surprising that we find ourselves so easily applying market language to literature’s favorite ineffable theme: love. Especially the kind that was never going to work out.

I was thinking of this while rereading the bitter, melancholic, and visually splendid stories of Chinese novelist Eileen Chang, queen of unrequited romance, and who elucidates the commoditization of love especially well.   

For a writer whose life experience straddled imperial (Qing), imperialist (British), Communist (Mao Zedong), and neoliberal (Reagan) economic orders, I suppose it’s also not especially surprising that Chang’s fiction is so fluent in patterns of valuation and exchange. The great-granddaughter of a famous and well-respected Qing-dynasty general, raised by a Westernized mother in Shanghai, Chang’s university studies in English Literature at Hong Kong University were cut short by WWII, her promising literary career by an inauspicious marriage to a Japanese collaborator and by Mao’s rise to power in 1949. She left the mainland for Hong Kong in 1952, and shortly thereafter made her way to the United States, where she was unable to revive her career in the English-language market. (Bilingual, she wrote in both Mandarin and English and occasionally translated her own work.)

Chang has since been newly canonized for many reasons: for her remarkable powers of perception in matters of love; for her focus on the personal over the political in a moment of revolution; for her investigation of the tug-of-war of East v. West; for her melding of the traditional and the modern; for the fact that all of the above are timely reasons to read her today. I might add to this list her facility with how market logic creeps into love—in subtle ways, maybe her fiction reflects political/economic upheaval after all. 

The novellas and stories in Chang’s Love in a Fallen City are propelled by transactional schemes—elaborate bailouts for Buddenbrooks-esque families in bourgeois decline bring questions of money and courtship to the fore. In “Aloeswood Incense,” a schoolgirl arrives at the doorstep of an estranged aunt in pre-war Hong Kong to ask for an injection of cash: Weilong’s family is moving back to Shanghai, and she’ll have to cover boarding fees on her own if she’s to finish her degree. The aunt, Madame Liang, a former concubine and current disgrace to the family name, in favor with the local elite, is tempted to send her niece away. Instead, with a mix of pity and opportunism, Liang decides to train Weilong to help entertain at the frequent parties she hosts, then debut her on the scene as an independent—and expensive—catch. Unfortunately, Weilong ruins this plan by falling for the infamously schmoozy George before she reaches intended point-of-sale: “[She] was just now making her debut, she was ten times more valuable than before, and now George turned up, once again, to feast on the fruits of others’ labor.”

Weilong isn’t the first woman from the household with whom George has interfered, as the “once again” suggests. “There’s no question of my being irreplaceable,” says his former conquest, a maid named Glance, when Weilong comes on the scene. “The replacement has already arrived.” Weilong, ignoring the comment, retreats upstairs to her new bedroom, where she opens the cupboard to a closetful of fancy dresses. She tries on one after the other, thrilled, until it hits her: “‘Isn’t this just how a bordello buys girls?” It’s unlikely all this gratis good fortune, she realizes, will in the end be “free of charge.”

Courtship is how these women—like too many women in the pre-war era—make their money; the language of cost and valuation is inseparable from romance. And in Madama Liang’s world, a woman’s primary commodity is her pride. For someone of Weilong’s class and standing, she argues, delicacy and modesty are beside the point: “That kind of talk, the more it spreads, the more it stirs up interest, the more it increases your prestige.” On the other hand, “The one thing that must be avoided at all costs is this: to love someone who doesn’t love you, or loves you and drops you.” That is, to fail to arrive at a market-clearing (ie, matches buyer and seller) price. 

Of course, the tax Weilong anticipates is eventually leveled. Since aforementioned George is holding out for a wealthier woman, she hatches a plan to marry him by bartering the diamond bracelet given her by another man—in effect leveraging her wager on George with the advances of others. In another sense: she’s shorting love? That's the problem with shorts. Someday she’ll have to repay the other man in diamond-bracelet kind, and in the meantime, what if his price goes up? Too young, too desperate (no one wants to hire a girl with a university degree anyway, she’s told), too heedless of her aunt’s advice, she loses it all on George: “The minute George stopped loving her, she was in his power.”

Chang has a wonderful eye for interiors and fashions and gardens and the local landscape, for animating bourgeois materialism with a kind of disappearing magic: “The white Liang mansion was melting viciously into the white mist, leaving only the greenish gleam of the lamplight shining through square after square of the green windowpanes, like ice cubes in peppermint schnapps.” This goes so far beyond the realist cliché of “be specific” that it feels embarrassing to praise Chang for said specificity. Here, materiality is almost oppressive. It spills over into extended metaphor, diffuses into the general mood of overabundance: “...radio music drifted upward. Weilong’s room, small like a boat, was launched on waves of music. The old wall lamp in its red gauze shade seemed to bob and float, and she felt herself swaying about, exuberant and elated.” When a local tycoon presents Madame Liang and Weilong with the matching diamond bracelets, proffered after dinner in the dark interior of a car, “the bracelet gleamed so brightly that it made Madame Liang’s red fingernails shine.” Chang’s worlds are everywhere alive to the transfixing power of things.

I’m also fascinated by the proliferation of  flowers in Chang’s stories. Across many literatures, flowers are so often compared to women, and women to flowers, etc., etc., and as for marriage, well—it’s a kind of tulip market, if you know what I mean. As Weilong intuits later that evening, standing at her window and looking out at the mountains and the yard, the flowers bid her ill: “Plantains, Cape jasmine, magnolia, banana trees, camphor trees, sweet flag, ferns, ivorywoods, palms, reeds, and tobacco, all growing too fast and spreading too rapidly: it was ominous, with a whiff of something like blood in the air.”  

The novella ends at a seasonal fair, where Weilong catches sight of an adolescent girl she views as a kind of doppelgänger, dressed “Western-style, with a short, dark-violet serge coat over a bright red skirt of pleated silk.” A chilblain, like a cheap clip-on, adorns her ear, signifying a difference in career and class and direct exposure to harm: “When a drunken English sailor tapped [the girl] on the shoulder she turned her head around and shot him a flirtatious glance...[T]hen another sailor arrived—two big, tall men, squeezing in on her from both sides. Her head only reached their elbows.”

This is all before the war—before, but not unconnected to the recent violence against Asian-American women in the US. In the story, Hong Kong is still a British colony—borrowed for 99 years by a royal LLC. One of the reasons George has become so dissipated is that he’s mixed race, which makes it hard for him to marry or find a proper job; instead, he flits from woman to woman. “It’s too colonial here,” his half-sister says of Hong Kong’s marriage market. “If we go somewhere else, the race restrictions can’t possibly be as severe, can they? There must be some place in the world where we can live.”

But in Chang’s stories, the trickle-down effect of colonial capitalism falls hardest on the women, who become replaceable, exchangeable, self-blaming. When George chastises Weilong for comparing herself to the chilblained adolescent at the fair, she apologizes, corrects herself, concludes the novella with the jab of a knife: “Yes, yes! I was wrong, I admit it,” she says. “They don’t have a choice—I do it willingly!”

It’s scenes like these that have led so many to describe Chang’s stories as bitterly pragmatic, resigned, well-deep with melancholy, and none too optimistic on heterosexual relationships—but she is also, I’d add, preternaturally fluent in the kind of imperialist-digital-capitalism on which Americans today are raised: Swipe right for better times.

In other news…

This line of thinking on markets & language failures has become a kind of three-part series, so: third installment on the limits of both and the utopian potential of the secret social lives of plants in May.

Also:

  • Here’s a piece I wrote on a single-payer model for US healthcare last April during the ventilator shortage.

  • Thanks to the enterprising, ad-hoc anthologizer who let me know my story “The Furnace Room” received a distinguished mention in Best American Short Stories 2020 back in, uh, October.

  • I have a little bit in the latest issue of the always excellent McSweeney’s Quarterly (out next week) about the time my seventh-grade class in Indianapolis sang “Stairway to Heaven” at the end-of-the-year graduation ceremony, and on other miscarriages of democracy (spoiler: we chose the song from a sample of n = 1...)

Export all the extra vaccines (it sounds like we finally are??),

Jessi

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