Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Consolation Prize of Philosophy

One’s worldview is a kited check, though people normally die before some Socrates or other tries to cash it and it becomes clear that there are insufficient funds in the account. I’m keenly aware of this problem and I write, not to change anybody’s mind—like that’s going to happen—but in an attempt to find out what I think about things. I’m trying to be my own private Socrates. Until my words appear in front of me on a page, I’m living on faith, subscribing to the vague religion whose one discernible tenet its that I actually have a creed. On the evidence to date, there isn’t much in there, but I still want to know.

Writing in this sense is an ordeal rather like psychoanalysis or interrogation under torture, though it is thankfully much cheaper than the former and somewhat less painful than the latter. The analyst says nothing; the tormentor refuses to tell the prisoner what he is supposed to confess. That’s how you wring water—or blood—from the stone. It’s also why some of the most powerful books were written in prison and repressive regimes would be well advised not to imprison rebels if they aren’t going to kill them outright. Protracted solitude is unnatural and therefore the appropriate scene for the unnatural act of thinking as a individual, which is to say writing.  Anyhow, writers or at least the philosophical kind of writer are close kin to criminals—you can ask ‘em about that—and criminals belong in prison. 
Fortunately, there is a sensible alternative if you insist on writing, but don’t want to come across as a Dostoyevsky character. You can practice reverse plagiarism, saying whatever you like while convincing yourself and everybody else that you’re speaking in the name of a revered ancestor. A tremendous amount of human creativity takes place under the cover of fraudulent discipleship. We just don’t accord enough respect to the emancipatory potential of pedantry.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Content Providers

The Dewey Decimal system categorizes books on philosophy and psychology in the same section—the 100s—as if psychology were somehow a basic or fundamental subject in the same way the philosophy is or was once thought to be. I know it’s eccentric of me to find this anomalous. I used to think that the Dewey classification simply reflected the notions prevalent at the end of the 19th Century when there were grown men who insisted that physics, properly understood, was a bookkeeping system for sense data. Alas, as I’m reminded from time to time, people still think there is something particularly important or central about psychology or even neurology, which is bidding to become the phrenology of the millennials. Heck, I know college-educated men and women who believe that remembering and thinking are basically something that individuals do, a notion which strikes me as as odd as claiming that radios know how to play the guitar. Obviously memories and ideas cycle through the receivers and the character of the equipment surely alter them, but civilization, aka Objective Spirit is doing the broadcasting. Of course, it is true that a tiny number of individuals actually have a role in originating thought, but then a short but critical part of everybody’s life cycle is spent in the one-cell phase and we don’t confuse ourselves with amoebas. Statistically speaking, the subject of thinking is plural.

If I’m so big on the social nature of human existence, why not suggest putting sociology in the same section with philosophy? From my point of view, that would also be a mistake, because philosophy differs from the sciences not in content—you can philosophize about absolutely anything—but in what it does. Philosophy is the politics of thought and not the natural partner of any special science. Even so, sociology would be a better candidate for queen of the sciences and spouse of philosophy than poor, benighted psychology. Or you could go with the practice of knowing that is actually the most comprehensive of them all, philology. We’re just now coming around to the recognition of how much the modern understanding of the world owes to the bookworms and their cybernetic successors—the Theory of Evolution played a minor role in the demolition of traditional religiosity compared to the Higher Criticism—and a persuasive case has been made that philology gave birth to the humanities and social sciences in their current form. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

You’re Trumped Ace

The assumption persists that Donald Trump’s antics are forcing the mainstream contenders to denounce his know-nothing nativism and move to the center. I wonder if this theory holds up. A great many people in this country really do believe that illegal immigration or even legal immigration is the basic cause of our economic and social problems, and nobody is going to become the Republican nominee without at least dog whistling agreement with them. Rather than jumping the shark, what Trump has done is open the Overton window on political hate speech yet further. In contrast to Trump’s extremism, formerly taboo positions on immigration now sound moderate, just as Walker and Jeb Bush’s economic programs are represented as centrist because they aren’t as spittle flecked at some of the others. Of course any candidate who is in it to win the general election as well as the nomination has to be concerned about alienating the electorate in the process of mollifying the base, but Americans have lousy memories and the talking heads who do their thinking for them won’t remind them in October what was said in February, let ago the previous summer.  
There is also an assumption behind the assumption, namely the belief that economic conservatives only support cultural—i.e., racial—politics for cynical reasons. I don’t doubt that old school Tories look down on populist reactionaries, but that doesn’t mean they don’t sympathize with their prejudices as well as their economics. Jeb Bush is avowedly a fan of Charles Murray, though he is careful not to mention the Bell Curve in his endorsement of Murray’s soft authoritarianism. The neoliberals in these parts (California) are famously misogynist—the computer nerds drove women out of programming—and they have a withering disdain for anybody who doesn’t share their geeky Randian world view. Anders Breivik, the world class Norwegian mass murderer, was a libertarian entrepreneur before he decided that the multi-cultural types must be slaughtered for their betrayal of Western Civilization. Of course Breivik’s one successful business venture was an outfit that sold phony college diplomas, but an affinity for fraud is another overlap between the Tea Party right with its gold schemes and miracle diabetes cures and the Silicon Valley hackers and would-be billionaires. 
In any case, the difference between the supposedly reasonable Republicans and the nuts is that the former think you should moderate your public rhetoric while the latter revel in outraging the sentiments of the effete liberals. Lindsey Graham got credit for speaking out against Trump, but he doesn’t disagree with Trump on substance, just language. So long as a huge proportion of the electorate thinks of the American identity as a matter of blood and language, Republican politicians will appeal to their sentiments one way or another, just as they’ll go on supporting revived Jim Crow laws and disrespecting an African American president even thought they’d never dream of using the N-word.  I expect the party will attempt to split the difference at their convention, nominating Jeb while letting the Duck Dynasty types turn the event into a white trash support group, though perhaps not during prime time.
Are Republican politicians sincere racists or are they just opportunists? The same kind of question comes up again and again. Do they Republicans doubt that the climate is warming or does it just pay better to support the fossil fuel industry? Do Republicans actually believe that destroying the unions, keeping he minimum wage low, and lowering the tax rate on the wealthiest people will lead to less economic inequality or are they simply in favor of economic inequality. I’m not sure it matters in politics, but you can’t help but wonder.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Who Broke El Chapo out of Prison?

Speaking of reparations and apologies. When do we acknowledge the harm we have done to Mexico and other Latin American countries by creating and maintaining the drug trade? When do we stop thinking that it’s their fault? It isn’t just that our junkies create the mass market. Our laws function as a price support mechanism for heroin and marijuana. In the absence of the expensive and futile war on drugs, there would be more money in selling sombreros than narcotics.  Billionaire cartel bosses owe it all to us. We make the corruption and violence inevitable, and yet blame the misery of the Mexican nation on the Mexicans as if a poor country could possibly resist so much money.  

Of course it is perfectly futile to complain about all this or pretend it is news to anybody. The real scandal is not the irrationality of our policies, after all; but the fact that the scandal isn’t a mystery and hasn’t been for decades. It’s like suddenly noticing that money doesn’t have any intrinsic value and congratulating yourself for informing the guy on the next barstool about it. “Don’t kid yourself!” Well, maybe congratulations are in order. A stupidity this grand, this monumental cannot be constructed without the concerted efforts of the People. It is a national accomplishment, our version of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Derp: the List So Far

Cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase prosperity.

Immigrants are the basic cause of our troubles.

Government employees don’t produce anything of value.

Blacks and liberals are the real racists.

The deficit is destroying the country.

Policies that bail out the poor or middle class create moral hazard; policies that bail out large corporations or billionaires do not.

Military intervention in [Middle Eastern country] will solve the problem of terrorism.

Unions are bad for working people even though unionized workers make more money and have better benefits.

The ruthless pursuit of self-interest is a virtue in business executives but not in labor leaders.

Outlawing [drug use/abortions/reckless sexual behavior] is a rational policy choice even if it doesn’t reduce the frequency of [drug use/abortions/reckless sexual behavior].

Deregulation won’t lead to a financial panic this time.

Privatizing public infrastructure can be counted on to save money and improve its quality.

You are unnecessarily complicating things; but the ifs, ands, and buts very much matter if my interests are at stake.

The mistakes of the powerful are just another way of being right.

Heavily armed right-wingers in the United States are not similar in any way to the Red, Brown, or Black Shirts of European history. 

America’s economic growth was based on free enterprise. Slavery had nothing or next to nothing to do with it. 

The consensus of scientific opinion is not decisive in favor of [climate change/biological evolution/the safety of vaccines or genetic engineering], but even a single study I read somewhere on the Internet is decisive evidence against [climate change/biological evolution/the safety of vaccines or genetic engineering].

Vitamins and herbs are safe to take in large quantities while drugs and additives are dangerous even in small quantities.

If my economic theory isn’t working, it’s because it isn’t being applied with sufficient purity or vigor.

Policemen can be counted on not to abuse their authority while people in general can only be held in check by universal surveillance and drastic punishments.

It’s not racism if I do it because racists are bad people and I’m not a bad person.

It’s not torture if I favor it because torture is bad and I’m a good person.

If critics of something aren’t saints, there’s no reason to listen to ‘em. 

The United States has (or had before Obamacare) the best health care system in the world despite its high cost and mediocre outcomes.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Waiting for Carnot

I used to smart off by saying “Of course I’m an atheist. I’m a high school graduate.” The God that everybody knows doesn’t exist isn’t the only God on prospect, however. Myths are always what somebody else believes. More evolved types of Christians, Jews, and Muslims don’t take their own religion literally. They simply assume that some sort of meaningful concept of God lies somewhere beneath the accretions of tradition and fable, even if just what it is they believe is something they haven’t got around to defining, something they are willing to leave to a theologian to be named later. They have bought the meaningfulness of their faith on credit, assuming there’s a formula for theism they would endorse if they encountered it. If you make a pest of yourself, though, you can usually get them to posit this much: God is a person, i.e., an entity that has purposes and cares about the world. That sounds vaguely edifying, especially to secular people who insist that appearances to the contrary they are actually very spiritual. For me, though, perhaps because I’m so unspiritual, the personhood of God is the religious idea that I have the most problem with.

If you talk about God as the first cause, the prime mover, the ground of Being, necessary Being, or Being qua Being. I may not agree with you; but I I understand what you’re saying. Perhaps god-talk may be meaningful, at least at an abstract metaphysical level. What I haven’t been able to process for a great many years is the personhood bit. That it makes sense to talk about an infinite, all-powerful entity that, like us, acts, cares, suffers, and lives.

My puzzlement has very little to do with the usual complaints of the atheists, but then both those hostile to religion and those who defend it aren’t usually proposing philosophical theses. Creationists don’t give a shit about biology, but atheists don’t really care much about First Philosophy. Belief in God for many people is basically a loyalty oath to society or a certain kind of society; and disbelief in God caries its own political freight. It’s eccentric of me, I recognize, but I do care about the philosophical side of these questions.

What offends my scruples is the way that the pedigree of the God concept is never provided. That’s not so obviously a problem if you buy into one of the Gods of the Philosophers because many of the characteristics or dimensions of such deities are drawn from logic or physics—that’s where Kant derived his idea of god, for example. Once you imagine a God that is alive and has purposes, however, you’re abstracting from living things, specifically animals; and that’s what strikes me as extraordinarily dicey. It’s not just that it seems rather unlikely that gaseous vertebrates exist. All the living things we have encountered have metabolisms, and anything we run across in the future will have a metabolism or we won’t count it as alive. So is God an autotroph or a heterotroph? The Chandogya Upanishads represents Atman as chanting “I am the eater! I am the eater!” So what’s it eating? Once again, that’s not a problem for the utterly replete spherical God of Parmenides who needs nothing at all, but that God or any other God eternal, infinite, and complete isn’t alive because to live is to persist on a thermodynamic gradient like a vortex in a tea pot. (I take Carnot’s word for that one, hence the title of the piece.)

A non-living God seems otiose or disappointing since such a being simply cannot act, care, or will. We might love it, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to love us. A finite God, some sort of friendly or not so friendly Cthulhu, at least makes sense; but if you are going in for that kind of science fiction God you might as well believe in Baal riding the storm clouds. At least that way you don’t have to finish high school.                

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lazy Reason

Sadists don’t smile a lot because serious pleasures are not laughing matters. It follows that economists are not necessarily unhappy people even though they practice the gloomy science and certainly sound pretty gloomy. There’s so much satisfaction to be had in identifying with the aggressor, not to mention the daily fun of humiliating students by demonstrating that everything they know is wrong. It’s no secret by now that a certain malice motivates the dialectic—Socrates himself was, after all, the first and greatest of trolls—but pedagogic cruelty is especially close to the surface in the Econ 101 version of the Method. Not even Socrates got to demonstrate so literally that the good intentions of the earnest youths were mere stupidities. Economics is a thoroughly evil profession. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly a fatal objection to the discipline or a refutation of its fundamental insights. Still, the economists might miss something important in their humorless infatuation with the dark side of the Force.

Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, an influential defense of free markets, argued back in '46 against government interference in the economy by claiming (in John Quiggin’s paraphrase): "Assuming that market prices are equal to opportunity costs, government interventions that change the market allocation must have opportunity costs that exceed their benefits." I don’t know if this lesson really is the basic principle of economics or if it really is, as advertised, ineluctable in some sense—Quiggins is currently writing a book that proposes that economics requires at least one more lesson—but if the Hazlitt’s lesson isn’t precisely the fundamental theorem of economics, it does point towards the fundamental shtick of economics, the endlessly fascinating idea that good intentions are always self defeating while individual greed leads to broad sunlight uplands or if not exactly broad sunlight uplands, the broadest and sunniest uplands we’re going to get. The historical version of this bit of this theodicy is always trotted out whenever some Pope or other busybody criticizes capitalism. “So what do you think is lifting the world’s poor from their poverty? Encyclicals?”

Elaborate deductions from dubious premises in papers decorated with the backwards 6’s may impress the masses…of business majors, but it is the historical evidence rather than the mathiness that raises the more serious questions for me. Even after you scrub the chamber-of-commerce makeup off the Whiggish version of economic history, the narrative has considerable plausibility. It really is hard to see how a virtuous and communitarian system of production and distribution (let alone scientific socialism) could have ever produced the respite from Malthusian misery enjoyed by at least a substantial portion of mankind over the last couple of centuries. After all, the nearest example of a Jeffersonian paradise of yeomen farmers on hand is Haiti.

One should point out at the outset, however, that the important issue in all this is not whether the free market was worth it. The free market capitalism found in Chapter One is not the capitalism of history. That economic system only functions in the Cloud Cuckoo land of theorists where the spherical cows graze contentedly on the artificial turf. The capitalism of history, the system that actually transformed the world, certainly involved markets, but the adjective free seldom applied to them. Markets were not the secret ingredients in the recipe of the modern world—everybody trades. Sven Berkert’s concept of war capitalism is closer to the mark since it took a great many guns to produce the take off and the great divergence. Even before the Age of Exploration, capitalism was, in Braudel’s useful formulation, something layered on top of the technologies of production and the structures of exchange. The whole point of being a capitalist is to beat the market, to game it, to pay your workers as little as possible and preferably nothing at all, to shoot fish in a barrel because competition and fair dealing is not likely to get you rich. The modern world was created through force and fraud; and the question is whether that force and fraud was necessary and, even more, whether a system that continues to function through force and fraud should be defended and reproduced. I take it that’s a very real question.

My ambitions in addressing this question are limited. Unlike Niall Ferguson, who is considered an economist by historians and a historian by economists and therefore enjoys immunity from criticism by either side. I’m neither an historian nor an economist and can’t get away with anything. It simply occurs to me that the neoliberal celebration of capitalism suffers from an obvious shortcoming. While I quite agree that things have worked out better than you would have expected, the history of the last two centuries is hardly a story of the triumphant advance of unbridled capitalism. The one-time experiment was not a trial of pure capitalism because capitalism was opposed, edited, and modified at every step by political forces. Indeed, a counterforce has emerged precisely at those passes where putatively free market but actually oligarchic political economics has resulted in intolerable results. If the English working class didn’t fall into terminal wretchedness, it certainly wasn’t because of some happy intrinsic feature of Manchester political economics. The workers got organized. It was Ulysses Simpson Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and not economic rationality that ended slavery In the U.S.—slavery was a huge moneymaker right up to the Civil War. For that matter, the eight-hour workday, overtime, tolerable working conditions, and Saturday didn’t happen because of anonymous market mechanisms. Unions and political action imposed these reforms on the owners against the advice of most of the economists and pundits of the time.

Anno domini 2015 it very much matters that the great expansion of the world’s economy unfolded in an era where capitalism was always contested because we are apparently entering an era when the forces opposed to capitalism are extraordinarily weak. Across the West, democracy has been largely discredited; and what’s called liberalism in a country like ours is more a call for a more decent form of oligarchy than a serious contestation of the power of money. We’re apparently preparing to perform a new and unprecedented experiment in which we do find out what happens when the soi disant free market gets to do its stuff without effective opposition. What the Republicans denounced as socialism saved capitalism from itself before. It will be interesting to see if capitalism survives its own triumph. Wellington once said that the only thing more terrible than a battle won was a battle lost, but maybe Wellington wasn’t quite right about that.

Speaking of battles lost. It would be an instance of the fallacy of the lazy reason to give up the struggle just because the inexorable laws of economics or the iron law of oligarchy or some other scientificated version of fate predetermines the outcome and you figure that it won’t be too bad even if you do nothing. It may well be true that the historical processes that produced the modern world didn’t result in the disaster the prophets foretold (at least yet), but the efforts of those that didn’t come out on top were part of the process. Just as the old theologians used to insist that reality only persisted because of an ongoing act of divine creation—continuous fulgurations— it seems to me that what humanity there is in the human world survives because human will recreates it in every generation. I don’t always go along with the theologians entirely, however. For me, a war is just if losing it is better than not fighting.