Economic Life

“Landscape with The Fall of Icarus”
Joos de Momper, c 1565

Economic Life 

I suppose that people’s political differences turn on their differing solutions to the problem of economic life.

What problem would that be?

Oh, let’s say the human species has its overall metabolism: its ways of handling the inflow and outgo of whatever sustains us in life.  So of course differences about how to sustain us in our lives would be highly consequential.

About economic theory, I do not pretend to have a clue.  Two stories always come to mind when the talk turns that way.  One is about our family friend Leo Bronstein, celebrated teacher and thinker about art.  The other concerns Soren Kierkegaard, who thought deeply and is considered the 19th-century forerunner of existentialism.

When Leo was a young man in Paris, stranded without a ruble by the Russian Revolution and burdened with the same birth name as that of the communist leader Leon Trotsky, he had enough francs in his pocket either to eat for a week or to purchase a prime seat at a concert.  Of course, to continue being Leo, he chose the latter.  This hungry-looking lad was noticed by a Spanish gentleman in the next seat.  At Intermission, they began to chat.  The Spanish gentleman became his patron, guiding him up the ladder of higher degrees in Paris and taking him home to Catalonia for summer vacations with his family.

About Kierkegaard, the story I read was somewhat similar.  To sustain the inflow and outflow of his remarkable philosophico/theological talent, he kept up a bachelor’s life of fine restaurants and private equipage of horse and carriage, as long as he could.  When he no longer could, he died shortly thereafter.

I don’t have an economic theory, but I think

it’s good to remain yourself,

as long as you can.

Speaking of transformations and staying who one is, from time to time I go back to a book by the historian Norman Stone with the title, Europe Transformed 1878-1919.  It tells the most remarkable story.  Up to the last third of the 19th century, illiteracy and hunger were widespread, almost the norm, in the populations of Europe.  Then, with breathtaking rapidity, railroads and public education changed everything.  Produce could be brought cheaply from far-off places and carried by train.  And the children of the poor learned to read.

Great news, right?  Well, yes and no.  As food prices fell, farmers were undersold and could no longer make ends meet.  So they left their farms on whatever terms they could get and went to the city.  When the farmers left, the blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tanners, shoemakers and owners of general stores folded too.  The countryside was denuded.

The same thing happened here in the USA.  Jerry and I visited Turkey, Texas, the town where he was born.  When Jerry told his father about the visit, L.B. commented:

“Has it blown away yet?”

Yeah.  Pretty much.  Everyone who’s got wheels has moved to Lubbock.  The big city.  We would’ve done it too, had we not started out on higher ground.

Every technological advance raises the question anew: How much real work is to be found in the big city?  And how much make-work?  Jobs created to siphon off discontent and wounded pride?  Fodder for the demagogues in every age and clime.

The solutions that call in the government carry their price in top-down constraints on the normal freedoms of everyday people.  Jerry’s cousin Margaret lives in Lubbock.  She and her husband used to go out on weekends to serve free homemade chili to the homeless.  The city got wind of it and shut them down, of course.

On the other hand, the free market has its own towering costs.  My old neighborhood in Manhattan used to include foreign enclaves with their distinctive restaurants, music and languages: Italian, German, Mexican, Hungarian and the poor of every land.  They were protected by the Third Avenue El that roared through, shaking the tenements and making neighborhood life undesirable for the rich.  Now the El has been torn down, rent-controlled housing is no longer in the landlords’ interest, and foreign wealth is buying the real estate at top dollar.

Nobody who doesn’t already live there can afford to move to the upper east side of Manhattan.  As for the rich who can afford it – and moved there partly to get the urban life we old renters took for granted – all I can say is,

“There goes the neighborhood.”

So what’s it all about, economic life?  People will kill and die for their economic theories, but the theories never quite square with the way things are – behind the theorizing.

You’ve got a theory?  Good for you.  I hope you can find somebody to pay you to expound it safely.

Let me give it a go.

Abbie’s Economic Theory:

The goal of economic life is to make at least possible

a man or a woman who can live out his or her story 

without having to lie too much –

just to survive.  

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in Action, American Politics, Art, Art of Living, books, Cities, Class, Contradictions, Cool, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, Erotic Life, Existentialism, exploitation, Freedom, hierarchy, history of ideas, Identity, life and death struggle, nineteenth-century, Past and Future, Philosophy, Political, politics, politics of ideas, Power, Roles, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, status, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Economic Life

  1. Agent X says:

    I’m sorry the city shut them down.

    “of course”… – the worst part of that sentence.


    Thanx for caring.

Leave a Reply