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Recently, during an interval in another of those melancholy conferences about the ruinous imbalance of the United States' foreign trade, I ran across four consultants comparing prophecies in the bar. Among them, I recognized Zygorski, an intellectual mercenary whom I had known on his previous campaigns as pollster, weapons specialist and professor of supply-side economics. Obviously pleased with his new commission, he greeted me with boisterous laughter and invited me to join the company for a drink and an exchange of views.

"A wonderful gig," he said. "Five hundred dollars a day and expenses for complicated explanations of the obvious. My God, it's better than the energy crisis."

The other consultants, younger and more earnest, smiled nervously at Zygorski's little joke. An academic gentleman wearing a bow tie said, "Say what you like, Zygorski, but the country's still in trouble. Pretty serious trouble, if you ask me." Zygorski patted him reassuringly on the arm. "The country's always in trouble," he said. "Thank God. If the country wasn't in trouble, we'd all be eating fried rice and teaching freshman accounting in Ohio."

Sponsored by several alarmed and public-spirited corporations, the conference had attracted the familiar crowd of mournful experts. Zygorski was delighted with their entirely predictable expressions of professional despair.

"They've noticed that the United States has exported most of its heavy industry," he said. "Everybody's got a portfolio of statistics and a sad story to tell--about companies going bankrupt, about interest rates, cheap foreign labor, the price of a dollar, the enormity of the debt."

"All true," I said.

"Of course, all true," Zygorski said. "But none of it makes any difference. The Americans never were much good at making things."

The junior consultants, not yet hardened to the ideological wars, frowned and rattled the ice in their tax-deductible drinks. Zygorski raised both hands in a gesture delaying their objections.

"Look," he said. "What is it that the Americans really know how to make and sell? Not cars. Our cars are junk. Not rockets. Our rockets blow up. Not steel, or textiles, or furniture, or electronics--we can't afford to pay the help."

The man in the bow tie looked at his notes and said: "What about services?"

"Yes, of course, services," Zygorski said. "But services defined as metaphors, not as fast-food restaurants." The oracular statement was received in bewildered silence. The man in the bow tie finally asked the straight man's question. "Okay," he said. "What is it that the United States knows how to make and sell better than anyone else in the world?"

Zygorski smiled as if upon a congregation of the faithful shuffling forward to offer their pledges to Christ in an evangelist's tent.

"Dreams, my son," he said. "Dreams and images and expectations."

For the next 20 minutes, he expounded his theory of economic salvation, and although I can't remember all of it, I remember thinking at the time that he probably could sell sea water to an admiral.

"If given a choice in the matter," he said, "Americans prefer something that isn't there; they're in love with the idea of a thing, not the thing itself. In most American restaurants, the menu is more interesting than the food. A television commercial is more beautiful and effective than the product it advertises. Apartments on Fifth Avenue sell for $4 million because the buyers seek a state of well-being and an address, not a place to live. The diamond in a Tiffany box is infinitely more precious than the same diamond bought on West 49th Street.

"Whole lexicons of unintelligible jargon--academic, economic, bureaucratic--represent kingdoms of non-existent thought. Political promises describe a system of human affairs that never existed and never will exist. The economy, like the Government, floats on the markets in abstraction, on the credulity of people willing to pay arid pay handsomely for memoranda, laws, media images, theories, regulations, briefings, gossip, brochures, strategies, stock-market tips or any other kinds of paper moon on which they can hang the images of their desire.

"Consider," Zygorski said, "the American genius for making money, which is the genius for making something out of nothing. What is money? Nothing more than an abstraction--a number seen fleetingly on a screen, a child's belief in something as invisible as credit and as impalpable as a pauper's promise to pay."

Before the other consultants could muster a plausible response, Zygorski glanced at his watch and said he had to get back to the conference room for his afternoon presentation. He signed the cheque with a princely flourish and then, laughing his large and boisterous laugh, he said: "My God, what do you think they're paying me for? For an abstraction. A theory. A puff of wind."


(*) Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Harper's magazine.

(**) Reprinted from the Toronto Globe and Mail by permission of the author.
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Author:Lapham, Lewis H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Reprint
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Next Article:NOT WITHOUT US.

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