Behavioral Bounds, Society, and the Economy

I’m currently reading The Great Upheaval, a history of the last decade of the 19th century in America, France, and Russia. The author, Jay Winik, has a writing style that does a really good job of conveying the the way events at the time must have felt to the participants. I’m generally skeptical of histories that focus too much on individuals at the expense of the wider social and economic context in explaining historical events, but I think there is real value in getting an emotional understanding of the past as long as it’s tempered with that big picture understanding.

[For example, the history of American conservatism series written by Rick Perlstein does a similarly excellent job of taking us inside the minds of of historical actors like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, making the history more intelligible, but also risks leaving the reader with the impression that history is primarily driven by the psychology of individuals rather than broader forces.]

Now, one thing you notice when you read these personality based histories is that there are a lot of important people that we today would consider mentally ill in some way.

Take Grigory Potemkin, consort of Catherine the Great:

He cared little for social decorum: Famed throughout Europe for his palaces, his jewels, his parties, and his women, he wandered around the empress’s apartments naked under an open bareskin dressing gown, baring his hairy chest and munching on apples and raw vegetables, usually turnips or radishes, or obsessively chewing his nails…More often than not, he might look as though he had just woken up, or had been sleeping off a hangover, only suddenly then to burst into fits of manic activity…

From the moment he awoke, his every day was unpredictable. While still in bed, he received visitors in his dressing gown, then roused himself for a cool bath and a short morning prayer. But after that, his moods swung from unrestrained highs…to crippling lows… When he was depressed, he retreated into a near paralytic silence. He refused to sign papers, machinations of the state would grind to a halt, and a significant part of the Russian government would simply stop. Sometimes he sat along, like a catatonic Gulliver, soothing himself with music and pouring emeralds and rubies from hand to hand.

Such behavior would seem to be today called bipolar, yet Potemkin was one of the most powerful people in Russia at the time. Could we imagine such an individual in the same position today? I think not; if nothing else, the continuous scrutiny public figures face these days means he wouldn’t last long (although Donald Trump may be a strong counter example).

The particular example here isn’t so important though; what I want to explore is the proposition that the increased formalization of the economy leaves behind many people who are wired a little bit differently.

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