30 September 2008
No, the real reason is something much, much dumber.
When the Right Thing To Do Isn't the Right Thing To Do
So what's going on? Populist revolt? Deranged Republicans? Legislative Sartreans?
My personal policy of “wait and see how it all shakes out” is looking all right to me, so I've got no predictions.
But to my friends who want to stand on principle and let the Invisible Hand get rid of the losers...
Many of us have gotten more than we deserve out of the last two decades. A full free market solution would be profoundly painful.
Maybe in a nation of libertarians, we'd have the patience and resolve to wait it out.
But this is not a nation of libertarians. If people get hit by the market, they'll hit back at the polls.
So unless you want to see a New New Deal. . . think prudence.
After all, there's strategy, and there's tactics.
“Total household debt in the US was roughly half of disposable income in 1962, but nearly equal to disposable income in 2004. In proportion to income, the household debt burden nearly doubled. Americans took on more debt, acquired more assets in the form of homes, and watched home prices appreciate on a levered basis. That did the trick. This time, however, the magician really is going to saw the lady in half.”
Oh, and as you might guess, his prognosis is negative.
I'm not turning to Williams for his suggestions about the way forward, which seem to assume that we should keep the structure we have now but regulate it more intensely. But his theological point is a crucial one.
“We find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably about how to achieve aims. We lose sight of the fact that they are things that we make. They are sets of practices, habits, agreements which have arisen through a mixture of choice and chance. Once we get used to speaking about any of them as if they had a life independent of actual human practices and relations, we fall into any number of destructive errors. We expect an abstraction called ‘the market’ to produce the common good or to regulate its potential excesses by a sort of natural innate prudence, like a physical organism or ecosystem. We appeal to ‘business’ to acquire public responsibility and moral vision. And so we lose sight of the fact that the market is not like a huge individual consciousness, that business is a practice carried on by persons who have to make decisions about priorities — not a machine governed by inexorable laws.
“. . . Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else. And ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry. What the present anxieties and disasters should be teaching us is to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, in the biblical phrase. The mythologies and abstractions, the pseudo-objects of much modern financial culture, are in urgent need of their own Dawkins or Hitchens. We need to be reacquainted with our own capacity to choose — which means acquiring some skills in discerning true faith from false, and re-learning some of the inescapable face-to-face dimensions of human trust.”
“The Market,” like “a right,” is ultimately a useful abstraction. It is an abstraction that arises from many human communities, and I would not take as skeptical a view of it as Williams does. The evidence as I understand it seems to be in that under certain broad conditions, free markets are the most efficient way to match goods to desires. There is nothing wrong with considering efficiency in the satisfaction of desires as a good among others, particularly when the alternative could place great power in the hands of the few, or, perhaps worse, in the hands of many, many bureaucrats.
But the idolatry of the Market would have us believe that things are should be considered good because they are valued, not valued because they are good. For Christians, at least, it would have us put our trust in capitalism rather than in God. It would have us believe that markets produce right results always and necessarily rather than with in general and with high probability, under the right conditions. It would have us reduce our fellow men to mere economic men.
The distinction here is not really about policy. It is about the reasoning that leads us to policy, and the status of human knowledge and behavior. It's a theological point (or philosophical, if that's your style). I may disagree with Archbishop Williams on the prudent way to achieve social goods, but we both derive our conception of those goods from a standard exterior to the market. And to be fair, I don't think I know many people who intend to slip into pure market standards of the good, a few hardcore economists aside. But sometimes, despite our best intentions, it happens, and we need to remind ourselves to be careful.
29 September 2008
-Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text.” Image - Music - Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. Hill and Way, 1977. (162)
Well, at least we agree on something.
(I'm still trying to decide what I think of all this discourse about discourse: thinking right now that at some point you just have to come down out of the clouds and use what you've got.)
EDIT: Based on class discussion, I suspect my first reading was a misreading. More later, perhaps.
. . .
Wait a minute . . .
That wasn't me. Hmm.
28 September 2008
27 September 2008
As for who “won,” I have no opinion, since the contest only ends in November.
26 September 2008
-From Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
It's my family connection to this old Presbyterianism that has kept me from becoming Catholic. I imagine that if I'd grown up in a non-denominational church, or even in the PCA, I'd have made the jump by now. “Staunch”—it's a good word. It brings to my mind not loud partisanship, nor aggressive evangelism, but the internal commitment of the old everyday saint in the next pew.
The word originally meant “watertight,” then “of firm construction.” The virtue of a staunch believer is a consistency, an integrity rooted in grace, that lets her walk through the world, loving it without fearing it.
When the economic crunch hits, hard choices must be made. And if you're a manufacturer, this usually means a choice between raising prices or reducing quality. I am sad to say that Hershey's appears to be choosing to forgo quality.
“Products such as Whatchamacallit, Milk Duds, Mr. Goodbar and Krackel no longer have milk chocolate coatings, and Hershey’s Kissables are now labeled ‘chocolate candy’ instead of ‘milk chocolate.’
“What’s going on here? On Friday, TODAY consumer correspondent Janice Lieberman reported that Hershey’s has switched to less expensive ingredients in several of its products. In particular, cocoa butter — the ingredient famous for giving chocolate its creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture — has been replaced with vegetable oil.
“The removal of cocoa butter violates the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s definition of milk chocolate, so subtle changes have appeared on the labels of the Hershey’s products with altered recipes. Products once labeled ‘milk chocolate’ now say ‘chocolate candy,’ ‘made with chocolate’ or ‘chocolatey.’”
Found it here, full story here, more information here, and more information than you require here.
EDIT: The title of this post probably should have been “Economic ‘Crunch.’”
25 September 2008
If I'm reading Helen's article correctly, the line that explains her approach is “[e]dgy bobos admit — and real bohemians insist — that art can be both immoral and ugly, as long as it's interesting.” But art doesn't get in a museum at all unless someone out there thinks that it's interesting. The key question is: interesting to whom? And in what way?
One thing about interest—shall we say desire? appeal?—is that, although it is subjective, it's also interpersonal. We're always trying to convince each other that something is interesting or uninteresting. And while it usually works better in the first direction, there have been times that I thought something was absolutely fascinating until someone pointed out to me that it was a bad copy of something better. (Case in point: me, middle school, Christian rock music.)
I mean, I thought the shark tank was interesting on several levels. For one thing, it was big, and you I walked around it, and saw how the light bent through the liquid. The shark itself still had that creepy dead-eye shark-stare. If the tank were just in some natural history museum, I'd find it interesting in the same way. But then there was the next level, which was: “Why is this thing sitting here in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?” On this level, it was interesting in the same way that a well-dressed man on the sidewalk shouting nonsense phrases at the top of his lungs would be interesting, with the difference that the man on the sidewalk interrupts my day, but I walk through the Met to have my day interrupted.
But to live in a world where people found men shouting nonsense consistently more interesting than good conversations, or sermons, or philosophical lectures: that would be strange.
This is where Freddie's historical narrative comes in. The “crisis of representation” that we all know from our “boilerplate undergrad art history” courses really happened. If I may keep extending my metaphor, we miscommunicated so badly with ourselves that we began to suspect that conversation itself was nonsense. And we wanted something that could escape nonsense: authenticity. So the fact of a dead shark in a tank in the museum is partially explained by the story of this crisis, which is in many ways an interesting story. We are all trying to figure out where we go from here.
Helen is basically saying that the “reductive mania for honest communication” is a little bit played out at this point, and she would like to see something else. But she's making a traditionalist argument, which, in this case, is not the same as a strictly conservative argument.
“Art has never really stopped being in crisis,” says Freddie. The conservative wants to end the crisis by going back to some ideal past when men were men and painters could paint some real purty horses: to keep talking about the things we were talking about before we got into this mess. The traditionalist, on the other hand, just wants a good conversation. The traditionalist says: “You can keep talking nonsense, and about nonsense, if you want, but some of us would like to talk about something else.”
Insofar as contemporary art represents what we might playfully call the tradition of no more traditions—and let's go ahead and admit that it would be wrong to claim that all of it does—it's like a group of people who just can't stop talking about something. And insofar as I am a member of a group or two that was not completely embroiled in the crisis of representation, I might be legitimately interested in other things: religious art, for instance.
It seems that Freddie's ultimate problem with art traditionalism is that it “privileges just one damned thing after another.” Well, yes, of course, but so does any good conversation.
24 September 2008
What are the finite materials out of which our utterances are constructed?
For English speakers, there are only twenty-six letters. From these letters, we can create a staggering number of words. Let the set of all these words be called W. (In set theory, the notation for “the size of W” is |W|.) If we want to cast as wide a net as we can for words that can be used, we can use the OED's “over half a million words” to let |W| ≥ 500,000. To exclude some of the most archaic words, we could take the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary count and let |W| ≥ 315,000. You can choose your preferred method for constructing W, but we'll agree that it's large.
Now think of all the possible word orderings that can be created out of W. We will call these “sentences,” even though they could be total gibberish, profoundly insightful, or somewhere in between. It's much more likely that they will be gibberish than not, but the important thing is that every non-gibberish word ordering is contained somewhere in the list. To be sure, there's no infallible way to tell the difference between gibberish and non-gibberish, but let's put that to one side for now.
How many “sentences” of, say, three words are there? If |W| = k, where k is some positive integer, there are k choices for each word, so there are k³ possible “sentences.” The total number of “sentences” up to a certain number (say, n) words is the sum of all the number of “sentences” with lengths less than or equal to n, which is a geometric series.
So we know how we could construct an infinite list of all possible word orderings. Even if we can't specify precisely which sentences are non-gibberish, we know that every word ordering we could make will have some position on this list. So the set of sensible sentences, whatever it may be, is countably infinite.
This is, of course, very near to the problem of Borges' “The Library of Babel.” Since we are finite, we only have time to say so many words. Is everything we say somewhere on the list, so that there is no real possibility of originality?
The answer has to be “no.”
If utterances include all the inflections we use to make our communication meaningful, each word ordering really represents a grouping of possible utterances: what some of use might be inclined to call an “equivalence relation.” Can you place an integer value on emphasis? On context? If “[It is Monday again]” represents all the things I can mean by this sequence of four words, there is simply no way to assign discrete values to the members of the set. So while the set of possible word orderings (given a static number of words) is countably infinite, inflection makes the set of utterances uncountably infinite.
As you can probably tell, I've never so much as looked at a book on linguistics. This is just the working out of an idle thought that popped into my head yesterday. So while the whole experiment is absurd, there are at least a few interesting questions that come up. Primarily: would the distribution of “sensible sentences” be anything like the distribution of prime numbers, especially as sentence length grows? Is there an analogy here?
22 September 2008
20 September 2008
The mainstream of libertarianism has always seemed several degrees better than these two branches. Say what you will, at least it's an ethos.
Then John Schwenkler, who may or may not be a libertarian, comes along and makes it sound pretty good. Almost good enough to make me forget my bad experiences with libertarians I have known...
“The crucial impulse that motivates the libertarian is one that aims for what could be called a political modesty: an insistence on allowing the state to infringe on personal liberty only when it is absolutely necessary, with the understanding that the consequences of governmental action can often be more severe than those of the actions of individuals. This is not a view that denies the importance of virtue or treats liberty as an end in itself; it is, rather, simply a view that insists that the ultimate arbiter of a person’s actions should usually be that person him or herself.”
Which serves as a reminder of how traditionalists got hooked up with libertarians in the first place. What self-respecting trad-con could resist political modesty? But then one remembers that libertarians usually hold to a very specific ideal of “personal liberty,” one that should properly be moderated by an acknowledgment of the very real aspects of human dependence. There are many people—old people, sick people, handicapped people—who cannot ultimately arbitrate their own actions, and almost all of us will join the first of those groups some day. (I suspect that this acknowledgment is one of the things that makes Mr. Schwenkler a semi-libertarian.) Perhaps it's my more-or-less steady diet of MacIntyre over the last few years, but I'm not willing to grant that the libertarian view of human independence holds generally. And as for the Ron Paul economic program, well, I'm pretty sure that you can't get there from here.
(Of course, it may be applicable in a number of special cases, e.g., marijuana, trans-fat, tobacco, and libertarians can offer a few insights into the process of government more generally. I'm thinking here of strong views of federalism, or perhaps the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, rather than the Rothbardian or Austrian approach.)
On a related note, I've traded Andrew Sullivan out for John Schwenkler's Upturned Earth on the blog roll; I'm just not interested in reading Sullivan's histrionic rants right now. Seeing him wax sanctimonious on Bill Maher was just depressing.
Though school has gobbled up most of my time this week, I've gotten the distinct impression that what's going on in the wider world is pretty wild: some sort of high-stakes wire-walk at the highest levels of the economy. Manzi sums up several reasons why the government's current maneuvers are dangerous, and then offers the counterbalance:
“Against all of this we have one huge consideration. If investors lose confidence in the safety of money market funds, mutual funds, demand deposit accounts and the other storehouses of value in the modern economy, we would have a problem that would make somewhat higher taxes and moral hazard seem like child’s play. Trust me – you do not want to experience a full-scale bank run in contemporary America. I’m not sure how many people realize how close we were to the wheels coming off at about noon yesterday, as major commercial-paper processing banks like State Street lost 30% – 60% of their value in about 2 hours. Want evidence: When was the last time you heard of the U.S. government identifying a problem, developing a multi-hundred-billion-dollar program and announcing it within about 48 hours?”
She posted on a short story called “Hell is the Absence of God” that I very much enjoyed. Her thoughts are interesting; I'm just passing it along.
I do wonder: do some people see themselves as living in the world that Ted Chiang describes? I've known folks who seemed to see willful divine action in just about everything. By temperament, I can't count myself among their number.
16 September 2008
"If one may use the ridiculous to accentuate the sublime, one may say that the Greek delight in numbers was the rational counterpart of the hysteria which many young and old Americans experience when they encounter numbers in the form of baseball scores and batting averages."
-Morris Kline, Mathematics for Liberal Arts. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1967. (58)
(My mental response: No, Professor Kline, you may not use the ridiculous to accentuate the sublime.)
15 September 2008
One of my favorite blogs is Talking About Politics, and I've been meaning to mention it. It's two longtime insiders from North Carolina politics, Carter Wrenn and Gary Pearce, blogging across the aisle. There is some talk about the national election, but it seems to balance out with all sorts of things I didn't know about the races for NC Senate and NC Governor. Pearce and Wrenn manage to keep their posts short and sweet, with very few clunkers. Today is as good as any to visit: Gary Pearce has an interesting post about what state campaigns are going through right now.
And though I'm not exactly grieving, and my life has not been changed, I'm still sad to hear that David Foster Wallace killed himself. Because I don't like it when a guy like that ends that way.
To close, via The Canada and Musical Stuff Blog, here's a passage from a commencement speech that DFW gave at Kenyon:
"The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."
Edit: John Hodgman's brief and touching tribute.
11 September 2008
MacIntyre's view of human action rests on a view of human self-narration. Stanley Hauerwas has written that the core of MacIntyre's argument in After Virtue is the statement “the concept of an intelligible action is a more fundamental concept than that of an action.” We normally attempt to act in ways that make sense to us given the particular role we are trying to fill, or part we are trying to play, and we expect others to act in the same way. The concept of an action abstracted from all context is really a derived concept.
It seems clear enough that MacIntyre believes people are best able to function when they have stories large enough to consistently make their actions intelligible. And if we are to seek the good and the best through politics, or even in our own lives, we have to want a unitary story that makes sense of the different situations around us. The lack of such a story creates an epistemological crisis that cannot be resolved until we find a new story.
Now MacIntyre has arguments for this, arguments which are far beyond my level of competence to evaluate. But it seems clear enough to me that some readers will approach the work with a desire for a unitary story, and some will not. Some of us believe at the outset that purity of heart is to will one thing, and others, perhaps, believe that our selves will never be reducible to a single story. (I can't keep Whitman's lines about self-contradiction from coming into my head as I type, even though they aren't precisely relevant.)
For those of us who grew up with a certain definition of integrity, one which came to me via Presbyterianism, MacIntyre offers a philosophy that builds on what we bring to the table already. Integrity was defined as a sort of moral consistency: do what is right even if no one is looking, don't be a different person in different situations, don't say words you wouldn't want to say around your grandparents.
If this is your ideal, you want your life to be a single story, a continuous development of character, a nineteenth-century novel. But it's not immediately clear to me that this is a necessary feature of human life. And, again, I have not tried to evaluate MacIntyre's arguments or even to give a good summary of his arguments in After Virtue. It's just that there is a type of person that will be quite predisposed to agree with MacIntyre, and some sectors of Protestantism do a great job of creating this sort of person. Apparently, some branches of Catholicism do the same thing, but I couldn't say which ones.
I have little doubt that this point has appeared elsewhere, and better stated, but there's your attempted epiphany for the week.
08 September 2008
"As far as I’m concerned, the courage involved in practicing politics — especially in a democratic regime — is less a matter of heroically battling your argumentative opponents in the public arena, and more one of responsibly but really risking your own reputation and credibility in the honorable pursuit of a truer, more just, and better public conversation. A key portion of that responsible risk — perhaps the most key — involves presenting yourself and your arguments as they are — incomplete; often times, radically so. Rather than conjuring up symbols that serve as rhetorical illusions — phony images of totality, comprehensiveness, and complete consistency — the courageous citizen in a democracy discloses his or her arguments, and the relevant portions of the selves that present them, as unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable, works."
It's worth skipping over to the post that inspired Poulos to write his; Ta-Nehisi Coates runs a very good blog.
I saw Bill Bradley give a stump speech for Obama this afternoon, and he did a very good job. There really is an art to that sort of thing: stringing together just the right balance of anecdotes, generalizations, and proposals after walking cold into a room of people you've never met before. (Although the standing ovation upon his entrance, along with the Young Democrats everywhere, probably tipped him off that it was a friendly crowd.) I know I couldn't do it.
07 September 2008
If the states are the laboratories of democracy, why don't we try to switch one over to a parliament? Just to see how it works? C'mon, Mayor McCrory, this is the issue you've been waiting for!
(Also, the sunset over the UNC campus is stunning right now: a beautiful soft Turner sort of effect, and I don't care if it's a bad Turner. Industrial, of course, with the cranes of the never-ending construction, and the tall utilitarian science buildings…)
“To be in love is to see yourself as someone else sees you, it is to be in love with the falsified and exotic image of yourself. In love we are incapable of honour—the courageous act is no more than playing a part to an audience of two.”
05 September 2008
Halden's post was to the effect that Pauline theology, which has such a reputation for misogyny these days, is much more “feminist” than the original versions of rights theory in, for example, Rousseau. He concludes quite strongly:
“What we cannot have and do not need and should not want are ‘human rights’ that cast us all in the role of the autonomous self-determining monad. The Western liberal tradition of human rights cannot eventuate gender equality, let alone reconciliation because encoded into its very fabric is an understanding (and practice!) of personhood that is violent, exploitative, selfish, and nihilistic. Thus, the only way for there to be any genuine liberation, equality, and communion between human beings is for all of us to reject the demonic fabrication that masquerades under the title of ‘human rights.’”
Almost as if nobody had ever tried to fix Rousseau's mistakes. I mean, I'm with him on the original encoding: a purely Lockean world would be a pretty awful place. And I think he does mean to suggest that the problem is not with the mere formulation of human obligations in terms of rights, but rather with the conception of the self hidden within the particular rights that emerge from the liberal tradition. At the same time, I do think the liberal tradition has managed to improve on Rousseau, so to say that it still carries the contagion of his sexism would require a strong case that the later theorists couldn't get rid of it.
Archbishop Williams tries to deploy a brief but meaningful theory of human rights that is consistent with Christian theology. Since it may be that “the language of rights is indeed the only generally intelligible way in modern political ethics of decisively challenging the positive authority of the state to do as it pleases,” we need to be able to speak it well. This may be what Halden is looking for. The first three paragraphs give a masterful review of problems with the language of rights, after which Williams proposes a view of the human person that he thinks can provide a theological foundation for human rights. As usual, it's highly engaging at some points, and highly abstract at others.
“Once there was a brilliant man who emerged from difficult circumstances to find great success. By combining fearsome intelligence with remarkable empathy, he made huge numbers of his disenchanted fellow citizens care about working to better their country. But one thing stood in his way: the massive political machine that had squatted in the nation's capitol for the last eight years, chewing up and spitting out with unrelenting viciousness those who had dared to challenge it. And at the helm of the machine, a once-mighty warrior, fallen from grace and corrupted in his very attempts to defeat the powers of darkness. Can our hero avoid a similar fate?”
Hey! That sounds like it could be a pretty good movie.
“Once there was a true hero, a man who had survived incredible pain for the sake of his country, and who had spent the rest of his life following his conscience, even when it cost him. Now, as he sees a young and unproven rhetorician offering cheap fixes for difficult times, phantom solutions that would endanger the people that our hero would give anything to protect, he must summon his strength and return one last time to lead his nation to the righteous victory that can only come through perseverance and principle. Can he inspire the courage of his people? Or will they fall for the tricks of his clever opponent?”
Oh, that one sounds good, too.
“Once there were some people with some pretty strong beliefs about the way the world should work. And then there were some other people who believed different things, for different reasons. And then there were also some other people who didn't really belong to either group. But they still had to live in the same country, so they made some compromises and got on with their lives.”
02 September 2008
01 September 2008
“Charges of ‘elitism’ are hardy perennials, but surely Americans can accept two axioms. The first is: The central principle of republican government is representation, under which the people do not decide issues, they decide who shall decide. The second is: Elections decide not whether elites shall rule but which elites shall rule.”
The article is also a nice reminder that we've been dealing with cognitive dissonance on the social status of our nation's leaders since at least 1840.