Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, January 31, 2016

What If We Viewed Goethe Like Shakespeare? Adam Kirsch's Transplant Counterfactual

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Adam Kirsch offers a nice example of a “transplant counterfactual,” in discussing the significance of the famed German poet and writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  

This kind of counterfactual typically transplants a particular figure from his or her own time into an earlier one in order to determine how he or she would responded to different conditions.  In this instance, Kirsch shifts the counterfactual’s purpose somewhat to shed light on how the individual would be viewed by posterity.

Kirsch seeks to get his English speaking readers to appreciate the greatness of Goethe – a writer seldom actually read in the Anglophone world – by comparing him counterfactually with the Anglophone world’s acknowledged genius, William Shakespeare.

Kirsch writes:

“To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.”

“Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name.

In making this observation, Kirsch alludes to the paucity of information about Shakespeare and the “persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates.”

Would we be equally skeptical about Goethe’s genius today had he lived several centuries earlier, before the dawn of the “age of print?” 


Kirsch’s brief counterfactual reminds us that transplant counterfactuals provide useful shifts in perspective that allow us to reassess and reevaluate established truths.   

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cashing in With Counterfactuals: McGraw Hill’s New “What If?” Marketing Push

As a college professor, I get sales pitches from publishers on a regular basis.  Most of them I ignore.  But a recent email from McGraw Hill caught my attention because of its snappy subject heading: “Would World War II Have Ended Differently?”

After clicking on the link, I was brought to the publisher’s webpage, which featuers a whole series of “what if?” propositions meant to excite readers about history. 

They are introduced with the a hashtag, #historychangeseverything, and a preamble that reads:
“At McGraw-Hill Education, we apply the science of learning to creating innovative solutions that can improve education outcomes around the world. Why? Because learning changes everything.™ In History, moments of significance have occurred when learning has taken place, often with the help of current technology. Why is this important? Because we believe that the course of history changes everything too.”
They include:

It is notable, I believe, that publishing companies are marketing their historical texts with counterfactual headlines.  This mirrors recent trends in journalism (both print and broadcast), both of which have increasingly sought to capture readers’ attention with provocative framing devices. 

Since counterfactual statements are highly rhetorical and capture our imagination, this is eminently understandable.  I wonder how much the trend will catch on with other publishers and help further normalize and legitimize the larger “what if?” enterprise.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Another Krugman Counterfactual: Why the Dems and the GOP are NOT Interchangeable

Paul Krugman often uses counterfactual reasoning in his New York Times opinion pieces and today's column is no exception.

It nicely shows how President Obama's tax reforms have benefited the country by highlighting the effects of their absence under a GOP presidency.

Krugman writes:

"One of the important consequences of the 2012 election was that Mr. Obama was able to go through with a significant rise in taxes on high incomes. Partly this was achieved by allowing the upper end of the Bush tax cuts to expire; there were also new taxes on high incomes passed along with the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare."

"If Mitt Romney had won, we can be sure that Republicans would have found a way to prevent these tax hikes. And we can now see what happened because he didn’t. According to the new tables, the average income tax rate for 99 percent of Americans barely changed from 2012 to 2013, but the tax rate for the top 1 percent rose by more than four percentage points. The tax rise was even bigger for very high incomes: 6.5 percentage points for the top 0.01 percent."

"[In forcing through these changes]  Mr. Obama has effectively rolled back not just the Bush tax cuts but Ronald Reagan’s as well."

"The point, of course, was not to punish the rich but to raise money for progressive priorities, and while the 2013 tax hike wasn’t gigantic, it was significant. Those higher rates on the 1 percent correspond to about $70 billion a year in revenue. This happens to be in the same ballpark as both food stamps and budget office estimates of this year’s net outlays on Obamacare. So we’re not talking about something trivial."

"Speaking of Obamacare, that’s another thing Republicans would surely have killed if 2012 had gone the other way. Instead, the program went into effect at the beginning of 2014. And the effect on health care has been huge: according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of uninsured Americans fell 17 million between 2012 and the first half of 2015, with further declines most likely ahead."

"So the 2012 election had major consequences. America would look very different today if it had gone the other way."

Krugman's intent in presenting his counterfactual argument is to convince skeptical Democrats that they should actually be grateful that Obama has accomplished what he has, rather than be disappointed that he has not done more by showing how much worse things could have been.

As he puts it:

"On the left, in particular, there are some people who, disappointed by the limits of what President Obama has accomplished, minimize the differences between the parties. Whoever the next president is, they assert — or at least, whoever it is if it’s not Bernie Sanders — things will remain pretty much the same, with the wealthy continuing to dominate the scene. And it’s true that if you were expecting Mr. Obama to preside over a complete transformation of America’s political and economic scene, what he’s actually achieved can seem like a big letdown."

"But the truth is that Mr. Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 had...real, quantifiable consequences"

The lesson for the 2016 election is thus clear:

"Whoever the Republicans nominate will be committed to destroying Obamacare and slashing taxes on the wealthy — in fact, the current G.O.P. tax-cut plans make the Bush cuts look puny. Whoever the Democrats nominate will, first and foremost, be committed to defending the achievements of the past seven years."

"The bottom line is that presidential elections matter, a lot, even if the people on the ballot aren’t as fiery as you might like. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise."

Otherwise, we might be confronting an analogous future counterfactual a la Ralph Nader in 2000.   And who wants a repeat of that?