05 October 2008

A Conversation with Brian Francis Slattery

Brian Francis Slattery is the author of Spaceman Blues and the upcoming Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, two books that every intelligent and discerning reader should own. (And if you, like me, thought Spaceman Blues was fun and moving and beautiful and strange, just wait till you plunge into Liberation!)

I figured now would be a good time to talk with Brian, because the U.S. is going through some economic turmoil, and such turmoil murmurs in the background of Liberation. Perhaps he could give us some pointers of how to avoid total collapse. He is not, after all, a stranger to the field of economics...


Just for the sake of clarity, what is your relationship to the dismal science? "Engaged", "Married", "It's Complicated"?

It's complicated. I have a masters degree in international affairs, specializing in economic development, and for my day job, I edit public-policy and economics publications for a variety of places. But I'm not an economist--I don't have a PhD and I'm not smart enough to construct the models that economists construct. I know enough to do my job and to be able to tell the difference between good economics journalism and... how to put this... not as good economics journalism. I also know just enough to know that I don't know enough about the details of many fiscal policies to have an opinion about them that's worth much. So it's complicated.

Is the American economy doomed?

I don't know. I do know that some economists think that we may see a serious decline in the U.S. economy over the next few decades, and they see it arising from a number of possible different causes. I'm not sure what to do with that information, though. You can imagine the different scenarios as more or less mutually exclusive possibilities, which makes our chances of pulling through seem all right. However, you can also imagine the multiple possibilities arrayed around us like a dense minefield, in which each mine can set off the ones around it, making our chances of getting through the next century with our current quality of life intact seem pretty dim. One thing does seem clear: The current trajectory of our fiscal and monetary policies is unsustainable in the long run, and much depends on how we react to it. Hopefully, of course, it won't all hurt too much; hopefully the people who are hurting already won't be hurt even more.

If politicians were really to put aside political posturing and try to solve some of the problems with our economy, what would they do?

I have no idea. This may sound overly naive, but from what I understand, right now (September 30) I think that many of the people in Congress and at the Fed and Treasury are actually working in what they perceive as the public interest. They're looking a complex problem from a variety of angles, through the lenses of a variety of concerns, and it looks different to each one of them. Certainly there's a lot of posturing going on, but I'm not sure that's ultimately what's making this difficult.

I'm not saying that everyone involved is a saint, either. But we're facing a big problem with grave consequences for failure, and coming up with a solution is hard. If I were suddenly to find myself an official at the Fed or a member of Congress, I wouldn't know what to do. I simply don't know enough. All I have is my half-knowledge of the subject and my social-democratic inclinations, and the policy direction that emerges from extrapolating from those is is too half-baked to put in print.

This morning I got one of those emails that one gets, not the kind for clitoral enhancements, but rather the same species as the ones saying that if you investigate the numerological implications of John McCain's houses you'll discover that Obama is a genetically modified zebra posing as Mae West. In any case, this email suggested that instead of bailing out the banks, the government should just cut every adult in the U.S. a check, because splitting $700 billion by the number of adults in the country (the email roughly estimates 200 million) leads to very big checks for everybody. So why won't the government do this? We could all become rich!

OK, I'll bite on this one. Writing everyone a check as an economic stimulus package strikes me as kind of a shotgun approach to fiscal policy. You're making an awful lot of assumptions about the way people are going to use the money you give them.

That said, $700 billion divided by 200 million comes out to $3,500 per adult. You can buy a really nice TV with that kind of money. But you can also imagine that money being spoken for, maybe several times over, before the ink is even dry.

Would you describe Liberation as a pessimistic novel? An optimistic novel? A picaresque novel of realistic inclinations and satiric leanings with a slight bouquet of wormwood?

I love that third sentence. I don't know how optimistic or pessimistic the book is; I just have no perspective on it. I do know that much of it comes out of the love-hate relationship I have with my own country. Definitely there are some things I hate about it, which fuels some of the passion in the book; anger is an energy, like John Lydon says. But really, there's way more love than hate. Which perhaps accounts for the ending. And the parties.

Let's talk music, since you're also a musician. Do you listen to music while writing?

No. I do listen to music a lot when I'm editing my own stuff, though. This is about to go off on a tangent that you probably weren't expecting, but here goes. About a year and a half ago, I was the beneficiary of a vast collection of recordings of 78s (I have them as MP3s), and I tend to listen to them when I'm sitting in front of my computer. I really love all of it, and I'm so grateful to be able to listen to it, this music that was recorded more than eighty years ago and survived at least five changes in the format of recorded music to become digital. I love the idea that, having made it this far, it just might stand a good chance of surviving the next eighty, too. Which always gets me to thinking about what recordings from our time are going to be listened to a hundred years from now. I like to think that it'll be totally random, the product not of popular consensus, but of the work of a few enthusiasts who just refuse to let the thing they love go. Which suggests to me that the popular and the unknown will be put together side by side without judgment, just like Carlos Gardel and Carlisle and Ball sit next to each other on my hard drive now.

What's a good soundtrack for the collapse of the United States of America?

Anything you can play without electricity.

Our leaders tell us that reinvigorating the economy requires spending. So if I want to go out and spend some money on, say, books, what books should I spend money on (aside from your own, of course)?

Books about farming and animal husbandry might not be a bad idea.

If you could resurrect 3 people, with their brains intact, and foist them off on the world, whom would you resurrect?

Sun Ra, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Maynard Keynes.

Finally, zombie movies. What's your position with regard to them?

Love them. All of them.

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