Thursday, March 19, 2015

No Spoilers

Epic poems aren’t suspenseful. Even his horses knew what was in store for Achilles. The dominant affect is foreboding, not surprise. In the Mahabharata, the leader of the Kauravas and his hapless father are endlessly warned of the inevitable consequences of making unjust war on the Pandavas. The virtuous cousins are undeniably in the right, are led by five redoubtable warriors including the invincible Arjuna, and have the support of Krishna, who is acknowledged by all to be the incarnation of the supreme God of the universe. You’d think that it would be pretty clear that the odds are not favorable and that the outcome, even for the victors, will be the grandest of disasters. The Greeks spoke of “an Iliad of woes;” but the Mahabharata, which is twenty times longer than the Iliad, also has twenty times the misery. As the poet describes them, the weapons of the combatants sound like nuclear weapons; and the stricken field at the end of the war is like the aftermath of Hiroshima, right down to the black rain. Only one heir survives from either set of cousins; and the whole caste of the kshatryas is devastated, just as the Gods had purposed when they fated the war. The age of Kali begins. All of it was foreseeable and indeed foreseen and yet nothing could divert the dark will of Duryodhana or motivate his father to insist that he change course.

I was just finishing up reading Carole Staymurti’s modern retelling of the Mahabharata when I heard the Israeli election results. It struck me how the shortsightedness of the leader of the Israelis rhymed with the unwisdom of the leader of the Kauravas or at least fit into the meter of the epic, which sounds a little like Hiawatha— Duryodhana, Netanyahu. Of course I don’t know whether the current Israeli policy really will lead to the plains of Megiddo as Duryodhana’s stubbornness led to Kuruksetre. What I don’t get is just how peace or even the long-term existence of Israel is possible in the absence of any legal standing for the Palestinians in an increasingly hostile world. I certainly don’t see how we help matters if the U.S. insists on playing the part of the literally blind king who facilitated his son’s moral blindness until it was too late. Netanyahu is supposedly walking back the statements he made just before the election, but surely nobody believes him. After all, what was novel in his earlier remarks was simply that they were uttered in public. Paying lip service to a two-state solution, really to any solution, while proceeding with the de facto annexation of the West Bank has been part of the Israeli arcana of state for decades. No other assumption fits with Israel’s behavior. Maybe somebody in Tel Aviv has a strategy that goes beyond the next election, but they are certainly keeping that plan secret. In lieu of wisdom, defiance and amor fati. Heroic intransigence. 

As far as our part in this grim epic is concerned, I don’t know if Obama has ever heard of Dhritarashtra but it matters if, after a couple of weeks of ritualized disapproval, he goes back to the by now habitual role of enabler played by American presidents for their own short-term political ends. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Prophet Procrastinates

By the time you hear about the latest thing, it’s usually too late. That’s true of fashion trends and intellectual developments, all of which have a finite velocity of propagation. The news travels at various speeds and arrives at different places at different times, and you’re probably not in the right place. On the other hand, if you happen to travel faster than a fad, you’re doomed to déjà vu since relativistic time travel, though exotic or impractical in physics, is merely banal in culture. I experienced this kind of jet lag when I moved from California to Connecticut in 1967 and lived through the Summer of Love twice, once in the Summer in San Francisco and once in the Fall in New Haven. A year later I experienced a third repetition in Jonesboro, Arkansas where the locals thought they were the cat’s pajamas because they’d just discovered tie-dye. No reason to feel superior about this sort of thing, though. Nietzsche made fun of people who were inordinately proud of themselves for being fifteen minutes ahead of the Zeitgeist. To modify a once trendy expression, we are always already hicks.

Brokers make automatic profits by exploiting infinitesimal time delays in the reporting of stock prices. The authors of popular nonfiction books practice a similar but much more leisurely form of arbitrage as they retail as novelties merchandize that has been available for a long time at a much cheaper price on the wholesale market. If you read a serious journal like SCIENCE you experience a more or less perpetual reverb as what you read about in January shows up as hot news on CNN in August.

Predicting what has already taken place isn’t magic, but it’s a living. The various warnings we’re been hearing lately about the menace of renegade computer programs are a case in point. Of course the idea of a takeover by artificial intelligences has been around for a long time. Before Skynet, there was the Forbin project and who knows how many Twilight Zone episodes. Harlan Elison’s story, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, is an especially memorable variation on the theme. More recently, the menace of machine intelligence has become a concern of credible people like Bill Joy, Stephen Hawkins, and Nick Bostrom. I don’t discount these worries, but it seems to me that they are already out of date. The inhuman system that has gone rogue is not a giant server farm in Utah but the capitalist economy, and that happened quite a while ago.

The good thing about markets is that they automatically take care of distribution and supply problems that would defeat the computational capabilities of a central planning agency. In that respect they are like optimization techniques. In fact, Leonid Kantorovich, one of the inventors of linear programming, was looking for a way to rationalize the Russian economy without resorting to profits and supply and demand pricing—the British writer Francis Spufford wrote a fascinating novel about the episode, Red Plenty. Even with the help of modern computers, however, the maximization problem blows up, which is why even most of the Left in Europe and North America now buys into von Hayek’s insight into that the economy functions as a dispersed form of intelligence, “the result of human action but not of human design.” Folks who want to bring back Gosplan are notably thin on the ground these days. What has concerned me for decades, however, is the other side of the Hayekian notion; for if the economy manages to aggregate the decisions of millions of human beings and thereby find a maximum, it is far from clear just what it maximizes. Why it would maximize my welfare or the welfare of everybody or even the welfare of a chosen class is unclear. Apparently one can only trust the invisible maker, the materialist Holy Ghost, and have faith that a process beyond the control of individuals or even communities will be for the best. And, as with the old fashion kind of faith, it’s easier to believe in the goodness of God if you’re one of the elect than if you’re one of the preterite.

It would be a form of animism to attribute a purpose to the economy just as it is a form of superstition to think that evolution has a purpose. Nevertheless, both commerce and nature act as if they were up to something, though presumably that something is something better defined thermodynamically than theologically. Living things are bags of enzymes, organic catalysts that accelerate the rate of chemical change without altering its direction. We dissipate energy for a living; indeed, from an inhuman perspective, living just is the dissipation of energy and my body is a contrivance devised by natural selection to efficiently turn perfectly good food into shit. I’m no Hayek scholar, but I gather that he saw the economy as a subsystem or elaboration of evolution. If there’s something to that, perhaps what the market system does is just the continuation of the entropic vocation of life, only in business suits this time. 

People, especially guys on barstools, think that economy is organized for the benefit of the already wealthy and powerful; but from a wider point of view, that view may have things almost exactly backwards. Extreme inequality furthers the tendency of the system to endlessly increase material throughput. The system has its own very good reasons to produce tycoons. Billionaires are like the old couple from Iowa who really does win the jackpot at Reno. The Casino can’t bilk everybody; there have to be some winners to explain why the rest of us go playing a losing game. But the hyperwealthy do more than serve as the mechanical rabbit at the dog track. They can also be counted on to use their enormous financial resources to effectively defend the system from the human rationality that threatens to interfere with its intrinsic tendencies. It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for top one percent of the top one percent, though it must be truly horrible to wake up every morning and realize you’re Donald Trump and can’t do anything about it. Still, the richest of the rich are more dupes than masters. Secondary causes.

Natural selection ceaselessly tends to increase the inclusive fitness of organisms, but that doesn’t mean I have to take the inclusive fitness as the basis for my personal sense of values. In fact I don’t. My morality is quite self-consciously anti-natural, though I’m perfectly well aware that my private purposes exploit the order produced by the natural-selection machine and cannot defy it without obvious costs. Similarly, I recognize the reality and power of the economic calculating machine, but I don’t share its implied teleology. A humane political economics doesn’t identify with the aggressor. The old Jews used to have a legend that God slew the female leviathan, but saved her meat for the eventual messianic feast. I don’t think that’s feasible, but maybe we can parasitize the Great Beast.

Speaking of anachronism. These thoughts are pretty much a reflection on what Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation back in 1944 so it’s either allusion or plagiarism depending on how you look at it. Or maybe it’s a structural transformation of an old joke about Arkansas’ slowest train. The train stops unexpectedly and the passenger asks the conductor what happened. “There’s a cow on the tracks.” The train starts up, but stops after a little while. “Now what?” “We caught up with the cow again.”

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Romance of Statistical Mechanics

Driving around town a couple of weeks ago, I composed a little poem or rather, since I didn’t set out to compose anything, it simply occurred to me:

Molecule by molecule
The gale that felled the tree
Was not the mighty fist of Jove
But merely tendency.

Later on I gave the verse a title: Things and Events are the Public Relations of Atoms. And then I pretty much forgot about it until I had a dream the other day in which a duplicate me responded:

I really have to call a foul
On your ersatz Emily,
If ever Jove had had a fist
It was also tendency.

Charlie Hedbo

As mystics experience and philosophers deduce, God is a name for the superlative degree of nothingness, the abominable singularity that constantly threatens reason from within. Religion is the accretion disc that forms around the intolerable mystery, the scab that covers the wound that cannot heal. The sane believers renormalize the equations of theology to avoid absurd solutions and resort to idolatry and superstition to protect themselves from the murderous implications of the faith. Since only a suicidal fanaticism is fully consistent with monotheism, it’s literally true: you can’t look on Yahweh face-to-face and live.

Even atheism is not necessarily a perfect defense against this lethal nonsense. It depends on how you gloss the slogan “Nothing is sacred.” Which is why there is such an obvious affinity between the jihadis and the Red Brigade terrorists of the Nietzschean left. Or to make the same point in the other direction, you might say that the real Shahada of the Salafis is “There is no God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Allah is the emptiness in the middle. There really isn’t anything in the Holy of Holies. That’s the obscene secret.

Perhaps the votaries of the Assassins were being redundant when they said “There is no God. Everything is permitted” since what they based their sect upon was the recognition that God was a way of referring to our terrible freedom. That everything is permitted is God. 

Friday, October 17, 2014


A Year and a Half Later

I certainly attempted not to care.
I studied indifference as if it were algebra.
It didn’t help. It was like drowning a beachball,
Picking a fight with the nature of things.
I still don’t think love is a good thing—

Though softly it arrives, it departs as grief—
But harder than steel, harder than diamonds
Is the heart’s will, something so inhuman
In our humanity, we don’t think it belongs to us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Small Oppress the Great when the Great aren't that Great 

What worries me is not the prospect that a majority of white Americans will buy into theocratic racism or Randian libertarianism but the remarkable leverage that extremists can have even when they are in the minority so long as political elites lack courage and prudence. The crazies are always with us, and people are always susceptible to demagogic appeals. What gives them strength is the decadence of our political class, the unfortunate fact that our elites just aren't that elite.

Here's an uncomfortable parallel: I've reading Eri Hotta’s book on Japanese politics in the run up to the Pearl Harbor. The majority of Japanese leaders were perfectly well aware that Japan would lose a war with America—even those who subscribed to mystical versions of Japanese exceptionalism were able to count—but they were cowed into an obviously stupid policy by their fear of a rather small number of fanatical army officers. Of course, the fanatics in Japan resorted to assassination to get their way, something that hasn't happened here yet; but the firebrands also imposed to a kind of rhetorical terrorism that made it impossible for leaders to admit in public that Japan wasn't always in the right and wouldn't automatically prevail against any enemy because of the Yamato spirit. The prime minister, cabinet members, and high-level army and navy officers were too cowardly to face up to a rabid minority and ended up signing off on a suicidal war few of them believed in. The Germans and Italians made war at the command of strong, evil men. The Japanese made war because of the vacillation of weak, morally mediocre men. 

The majority of Republicans don't believe in democracy but they aren't nuts. They are weak, however, and afraid of being labeled RINOs or worse by the true believers. Which is why they end up supporting ridiculously jingoistic and counterproductive foreign policies—assuming that bomb, bomb, bomb counts as a plan—as well as domestic policies that weaken the country economically and divide it socially. The Democrats have analogous fears, which is why, among other things, right wing terrorists and militia men are not suppressed and war crimes perpetrated by own brand of renegade Colonels go unpunished while whistleblowers rot in jail. 

Weakness is dangerous. Many people subscribe to the so-called great man theory of history; but as I read the record, the little men theory of history applies more often, especially when it comes to explaining the grand disasters. For example, for the last hundred years people have been trying to decide who are the villains responsible for the massive calamity that was World War I, but that's a question without an answer because the true cause was not a villain but the fact that the nations were governed by moral and intellectual midgets. I'm afraid that a similar explanation holds for our current political crisis. You can’t have a democracy or even a decent oligarchy without responsible leadership.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Ataraxia Nervosa

When cosmic insight
Has filled you with light,
When you’ve beaten the odds
And placated the Gods,
When you’re rested and sated
And recently mated,
When the belch and the fart
Have seen fit to depart,
When the pissing is past
And the shit has been shat,
And the who that was you is a guy with no why,
Nirvana’s a coma
For psyche and soma,
And you don’t even bother to die.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Two Problems in One

In the decadence of the Soviet system the saying was "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." Something like that may be happening in our country, though it's hard to quantify. I think the phenomenon is manifesting itself in the lousy morale of government workers and the corresponding mediocre performance by employees in the VA, IRS, and government labs. I've got to believe that the combination of years of wage freezes and non-stop public abuse of government workers—bureaucrats, teachers, scientists—is taking a toll. And why would you expect the people who clean houses and flip burgers to go on trying one iota more than they absolutely must if they have nothing whatsoever to look forward to and everybody keeps telling them that the only reason they haven't risen into prosperity is their own human worthlessness? 

Positive reinforcement works, but it isn't just millionaires who need it. Part of the problem with great inequality is that paying so much to the very top of the distribution leaves little left to reward the efforts of those below.

There are two problems we've got to deal with:

1. The distribution of incomes between bottom and top is too great

2. There is insufficient social mobility.

These are distinct problems, and confusing 'em messes up the debate. It's a good thing if burger flippers can go back to school and rise in the world, but not everybody is going to rise and those burgers still need to be flipped. Not every body is going to be a Horatio Alger hero. After all, the boss has only so many daughters. Considerations of fairness or decency aside, what’s the upside of leaving so many people in a state of wretchedness?

Time was people spoke about the dignity of work, not the dignity of work as a steppingstone to becoming a manager and owning 168 pizza restaurants, but the dignity of doing the job itself. In any case, if you expect people to do their jobs well year after year, you better figure out some way of rewarding them for their efforts instead of treating them with non-stop disrespect. The meritocratic ideology implies that the losers are dreck. Those of us who are doing OK may not notice the implication, but I'm pretty sure that much of the population is very well aware of it—no Protestant ethic without a large and populous hell.