strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Into the Lion’s Maw (God & White Men–part 4)

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 3, 2012

Entirely apart from his reputation as an economist, Irving Fisher enjoyed an idyllic American existence. He lived with his wife Margaret and their three children in a big house on the crest of Prospect Street, with a music room, a library, and “a 40-foot living room with a large, sunny bay window,” as their son Irving recalled in his memoir, My Father Irving Fisher. A health enthusiast at home as well as in public, Fisher disdained cane sugar, tea, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and bleached white flour. He often jogged in shorts around the neighborhood and liked to ride a bicycle to his classes on the Yale campus. One of his books was titled How to Live.

His various crusades required a platoon of busy assistants. So Fisher built out from the basement of the family home onto the sloping ground in back, eventually creating ten work rooms and, young Irving recalled, a “hidden beehive of activity below decks.” The office equipment included one of Fisher’s own inventions, an index card filing system that made the first line of each card visible at a glance. With his wife’s money, he turned it into a thriving business. When the company was bought out—it would become part of the Sperry Rand corporation—Fisher capitalized on his new wealth by buying stock on margin. By the late 1920s, he and Margaret had a fortune of $10 million.

Fisher was the son of a Congregational minister, and his driving impulse was to proselytize. Thus eugenics seemed a natural outgrowth not just of his work as an economist, but of his family heritage. It needed “to be a popular movement with a certain amount of religious flavor in it,” he thought. His role as a leading apostle also seemed like a way for him to make a real mark on the world—as if his economics alone were not enough: “I do want before I die,” he wrote to his wife, “to leave behind me something more than a book on Index Numbers.”

But his eugenic enthusiasms drew him away from the arc of his true genius. His book The Theory of Interest was “an almost complete theory of the capitalist process as a whole,” according to Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter. But Fisher never found time to pull his ideas together into one grand synthesis, nor did he develop a school of disciples to carry on his work. His books are thus “pillars and arches of a temple that was never built,” Schumpeter wrote. “They belong to an imposing structure that the architect never presented as a tectonic unit.” “Unfortunately,” Yale economist Ray B. Westerfield agreed, “his eagerness to promote his cause sometimes had a bad influence on his scientific attitude. It distorted his judgment.” This was never more nakedly obvious than in October 1929, when Fisher’s enthusiasm for stocks as a long-term investment led him to pronounce that the market had arrived at “a permanently high plateau.” The great Wall Street crash hit shortly after, and it turned America’s greatest economist into a national laughingstock, incidentally leaving the family fortune in ruins.

But the far grosser distortion of judgment, and of his better self, was in Fisher’s campaigning as a eugenicist. His interest in health had arisen largely from his own encounter in 1898 with tuberculosis, the disease that killed his father. It took Fisher three years of fresh air, proper diet, and close medical attention in sanatoriums around the country to regain his health. Having managed to get his own head out of the lion’s mouth, he said in 1903, he wanted to prevent “other people from getting their heads into the same predicament.” His initial approach was to lobby the government to reduce urban pollution, protect the health of mothers and children, and establish school health programs, “so that American vitality may reach its maximum development.” But his almost religious conversion to eugenics, not long after, turned all that upside down. Two decades after his own recovery, Fisher was denouncing “hygiene to help the less fit” as “misapplied hygiene” and “distinctly dysgenic. … Schools for tubercular children give them better air and care than normal school children receive.” He seemed to have forgotten that he was once among those who, by his own harsh standard, deserved to have their heads held fast in the lion’s mouth.

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