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 I don’t discount these worries, but it seems to me that they are already out of date.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.”