Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Rehearsing my dissertation defense (for severe cases of insomnia)

After officially registering his dissertation, the Vintage Rocker has a tentative date for defending it (the 9th of February 2016), so I'm currently busy tidying it up, giving the finishing touches to the main argument (a friend recently told me that this kind of literary work in general is never given birth, but aborted at some point) and have started to rehearse it.

I'll share a rough cut of how the defense will develop in this blog, serialized according to the following structure:

  • 1st session: introductory remarks (what I understand as dominant reason, main features of desiderative reason, darwinian selection as the main mechanism that explain its evolution)
  • 2nd session: Hume and the articulation of Economic Reason
  • 3rd session: Freud and the transition from Bureaucratic to Desiderative Reason
  • 4th session: Historical perspective, evolution of the five dimensions of socioeconomic order and their accompanying rationalities, towards an overcoming of desiderative reason
Many of the ideas and arguments will sound familiar to regular readers, so don't expect neither earth-shattering revelations nor highly cinematic climaxes (I'm no Quentin Tarantino), as all the equipment I have is an old camera and my trusty training site (of green wall fame, may be I could learn to edit video and put some dramatic background to illustrate the different periods).

The first session I've recorded has been a bit problematic, as each should last for about ten minutes, but I left my verbosity took the best part of my, and ended babbling a bit ramblingly for almost half an hour. However, in the interest of science, I'm publishing it. As the title suggest, it's specially indicated for cases of severe insomnia...)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Great Moral Questions of our time

Blogging is a peculiar activity, and probably there are almost as many reasons to indulge in it as there are bloggers. I have intimated sometimes that my own particular reason is twofold: from a practical point of view I approach it as I approach weight training: something not necessarily enjoyable that I do because I get better at it through practice, and getting better at something difficult is the kernel of what I consider inherently good and endowed with merit, and doing meritorious thing is virtuous, and thus turns us in autonomous subjects worthy of being happy, irrespective of the actual amount of happiness our circumstances may allow us to achieve. From a theoretical standpoint, the best way to clarify my own stance regarding many issues is to take a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life, and grapple with the many nuances and potential consequences of each idea by putting them to paper (well, only no physical paper is involved, as I write directly on a PC, but I’m sure you get the idea). So I essentially blog to get better at writing and to better define my own position about the issues of the day (or of the ages).

Be it as it may, it is obvious that not all issues that one endeavors to pontificate about are equally important, or equally deserving on one’s attention, and in today’s post I wanted to consider the hierarchy of subjects we can deal with, and focus on the more elevated, more important ones (what I will call the “Great Moral Questions of Our Time”, GMQoOT for short). Starting, then, from the least to the most relevant, we can distinguish the following subject matters:

·         The abjectly trivial: dealing with the “life” of “famous” people that are entirely lacking exemplarity or moral salience. Kim Kardashian’s hairstyle, Justin Bieber’s last performance or the breakup of One Direction belong to this category, which, needless to say, constitutes 90% of the web traffic (and in general, of teh content people pays attention to)
·         The somewhat trivial: they still deal with the life circumstance of some glitzy or media-savvy figure, which makes their tribulations highly specific of our place and age, but such circumstance allows for some generalization that may be applicable to the reader’s own life. Thus the breakup between Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (which I don’t have a clue if it’s a real thing or not, I just don’t pay much attention to that stuff) or the birth of the latest heir to the British throne, as both the end of sentimental liaisons or the consequences of procreation are likely to be experienced by a majority of the population, such episodes may still be approached in a way that at least pretends to hold some lesson that makes them relevant beyond the guilty pleasure of tabloid-perusal. Alternatively, posts within this category may present entirely purposeless tidbits of information like “the ten most awesome ways of tying your shoelaces”, “the seven most gorgeous movie star’s mansions” or “eleven reasons you don’t find as arousing porn sites as your coworkers” (but information is power, and you truly never know if it may end up being useful, that’s why they belong in this category and not the previous one)
·         The mildly relevant: they comment on some recent or not so recent piece of news that wouldn’t be out of place in your local TV news section (“famous people and lifestyle” sections not included) or newspaper (ditto). The mildness referred to in the description of the category refers to the fact that the particular piece of news chosen by the blogger is just not that important in the grand scheme of things, because of its highly local nature: things like some minor law passed by a regional parliament, a shooting involving less than 5 mortal victims or the discovery of a corrupt politician. Alternatively, instead of zooming in some piece of news, they can deal with some particular aspect of life of interest only for some limited section of the populace, like how to squat like a champ, how to brush one’s teeth so they look whiter or how to lose ten pounds while eating nothing but cupcakes in a month
·         The serious stuff: it may still make reference to some recent piece of news, particular as it may be, but only as an excuse to reflect about something more substantial and of general interest. If it deals with the latest unemployment figures, or the evolution of the CPI, or the GNP growth (or contraction) it is as an excuse to ponder how the global economy is heading in the wrong direction, is moving towards a jobless future or is facing a secular stagnation. If it mentions the San Bernardino shooting or the downing of a Russian plane over the Sinai peninsula it is to decry the dark side of modernity and how social media spawns the extremists’ cult of death. The predominant tone is sociological (for the left) or cultural (for the right), as every element of the economy, the business cycle or technology is a manifestation and symptom of either a troubling ideology used by dominant  groups to keep everybody else subjected or the signal of the accelerating decay of mores and traditions that is condemning us all to a new Dark Age
·         The Great Moral Questions: like the previous one, but on steroids
To give a clearer picture of what I’m talking about, I’ll provide some examples of what those GMQoOTs have been in previous ages, and how they were finally settled:

·         Who should rule? (or alternatively, wherein does authority rest?) the people (rather, some people) or the king? – final answer: the people
·         Who, within the people, should participate in that rule through their vote? – final answer: everybody above 18 years old (except in the USA, where they exclude felons, ex-convicts and, increasingly, everybody that doesn’t look too WASPy)
·         Is it admissible to have slaves? – final answer: nope, no way, truly terrible idea (it only took us 37,000 years as a species to reach that conclusion more or less unanimously, which we settled on just a bit more than a hundred years ago)
·         Is it admissible to leave the property of the means of production in private hands? – final answer: you betcha
The consensus on the latest one is still pretty recent, as just 30 years ago there were still a sizable chunk of people that would answer with a resounding “no”, so it is not surprising that there are still a good many holdouts that haven’t fully gotten the message (see most of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, plus whoever is in charge in North Korea). What are, then, the still unsettled questions of similar importance that in our own age have still not been settled? I would argue they are basically two:

·         How best to ensure prosperity is widely distributed –proposed answer: a UBI within the current capitalist system
·         Should we keep political borders, and restrict people’s ability to move and settle where they please? – proposed answer: hell, no
Now I recognize everybody has his (her) pet peeves and may consider a number of additional questions being at least as important as those two, if not more: How to regulate Greenhouse gas emissions, how to maintain biodiversity, how to ensure “reproductive rights” (whatever the questioner understands by them), how many weapons (and of what kind) should be left in the hands of the civil population (well, the last two are of importance exclusively in the USA, as the rest of the world seems to have reached a comfortable consensus around them that is not much questioned, and with which I basically agree, hence my contention that they are not that important), how to ensure religious freedom, how to prevent religion from encroaching in individual citizen’s conscience (you may notice that depending on how you frame the question you may not leave much leeway for an answer different than the one you previously considered the “right one”), how to limit the ravages of ponies (well, it seems that only popehat has that particular concern: Writ of pony and Ponies for the pony God,  but you never can tell…). As I hope the last point makes clear, I do not give those problems, urgent and serious as some of them undoubtedly are (may be the pony one not so much) the same salience as the previous two. Maybe it’s my way of saying I am working in spelling out my position in the former, while I’m neglecting the development of an opinion in the latter. Just so little time for so many subjects…

Monday, December 7, 2015

The “pound of flesh” metaphor of organizational conflict

We have dealt with some detail in previous posts with the potential for conflict within organizations between the goals pursued by each individual member and the means he was supposed to employ towards them (what he was supposed to sacrifice, accepting the roles and responsibilities the rest of the group foisted on hi, thus limiting the freedom to employ his time as he saw fit). Today I want to draw my readers’ attention towards the potential conflicts that may arise between different organizations, and how a particularly insidious way of dealing with them has become pervasive in our society. I want to focus on conflicts between a particular type of organization, what I called economic ones, marked by having as their ultimate goal the improvement of the social standing of its members. Not because I think that other types of organizations do not conflict between them (specifically, religious conflict seems to be almost every day in the news, and is famously intractable, appealing to the most basic principles about how life should be lived, while political conflict seems also to be ever more prevalent and less amenable to rational resolution, as I discussed in this previous post: On political polarization), but because I believe economic organizations present some distinct features that make them more amenable to alleviation by reflecting on from the right perspective.  

There are couple of those features worth considering: in their dealing with one another, organizations are engaged in a zero sum game, where one’s gain can only come from another’s loss; and when defining their terms for exchanging resources there is only a limited amount of conditions that can be explicitly stated, necessarily leaving a number of expectations unsaid (and increasing the potential for misalignment). Let’s review both in turn:

·         Zero sum game: a lot of literature has been devoted to papering over this feature of any interaction between economic organizations. If you (mistakenly) believe that the goal of such organizations is making money (or maximizing shareholders return, or even pursuing some other socially sanctioned end), nothing would prevent two organizations to collaborate towards a mutually beneficial outcome. Finding that goal is what most negotiating books point towards, under some bromide like framing the exchange as a win-win situation, entering in partnerships where the common interest somehow overrides that of the individual parties, being “unconditionally constructive” and keeping the other party interest always in mind and appealing to “game theory” (a giant indicator that unabashed bullshit is about to be proffered in 99,9% of the cases) to exemplify how a “more optimal” (sounds pretty redundant, uh?) state can be achieved if only the small coordination problem of every part pursuing his own interest could somehow be overcome. Unfortunately, in our theory all those stated goals are more or less clever cover-ups for the real goal, the only goal that by definition this type of organizations can have: to improve their member’s social standing. And again by definition, social standing IS a zero sum game. We may both decide to take some short term action to improve jointly, at the expense of some other set of chumps, but at some point we will need to battle it out and see who can end on top of the other. We may form a coalition, or a cartel, or a consortium, to capture a biggest share of the social product (expressed in a less conceited manner, see how we can take a bigger portion of the pie from the rest of the players in the market), but as so many examples in history show, in the end we will either merge (and become a single organization to better align our members’ interests) or split and fight each other. These inherent enmity between organizations is best expressed (more clearly visible) in supplier – purchaser relationships: when organization A buys something from organization B there are always some considerations in the foreground (“in theory”, as these are the only factors apparently paid attention to), and some others, very different ones in the background. In the foreground we typically see considerations of efficiency, optimized costs, focus on core competencies and the like that make it very advisable to outsource some activities and leave ample way to settle on terms acceptable to both parties (“mutually beneficial”) regarding price and conditions. In the background (“in practice”, as this is what really drives any negotiation between purchasers and suppliers) there is always the fear on the purchaser side of being taken for a ride, of paying too much, and thus they see it as incumbent upon them to force the price down as much as possible, way beyond the point where it makes economic sense, even if such reduction jeopardizes all the other conditions of delivery (from schedule to, most obviously, quality of the supply).  Why such an obsession? Because, as a purchaser, you are not only trying to maximize the benefit you extract from your products and services by reducing their cost of production as much as possible, but because (many times in an entirely unconscious way) you also want to minimize everybody else’s benefit, so they are a less formidable competitor in the race for social standing. That’s why junior consultants are discouraged to wear their flashiest suits, or ride in their fanciest cars around their clients’ teams (which would feel affronted by them making more money and enjoying a higher status), while partners can do it around their counterparts (which typically belong to the C-level of multinational corporations, and are similarly well-off, so they wouldn’t feel threatened by such displays), but not if they go to negotiate an agreement with the purchasing organization (which is not only underpaid, but takes special pride in bringing low haughty suppliers with scandalous hourly rates). It is precisely within these supplier – purchaser dynamics where we will see that the “pound of flesh” metaphor holds more sway

·         Incomplete definition of the conditions: we can probably all agree that most interactions between organizations are exchanges. They exchange their employee’s time, in the form of services, goods, commitments (financial or otherwise), information… typically using money as a universal yardstick to assize the value of whatever it is they are exchanging, and expecting that both sides of the exchange are of the same value. Of course this is a convenient fiction at best, because for most of what changes hands on a day to day basis there is not a readily usable, liquid enough market that could confirm what in tis absence is but a rough estimation, so the valuations are pretty approximate, and a constant source of discussion (as for every item to be exchanged except money itself the provider will tend to overestimate its value, while the receiver will tend to underestimate it). The problem (which we could name as “unavoidable lack of precision in the perceived value of each exchanged item”) is compounded by the fact that such value is dependent on an almost infinite constellation of accompanying facts about how the underlying item is to be delivered. Even the most basic exchange we can conceive, like the purchase of a well defined piece of hardware with a well defined price, is fraught with such conditions: when will it be paid? What warranty will it enjoy?  What penalties is the provider willing to accept if the item does not perform as required? What documentation will accompany the hardware? How will it be transported (and who bears the risk of damages during transportation)? With what regulations does it certifiably comply? How has such compliance been ascertained? Who has the right to modify the hardware, and how does such modification affect the warranties and potential penalties? How are mutual obligations affected by external events like force majeure, default of one of the parties, etc.?  It would be unrealistic to expect all of those uncertainties to be solved every time some company buys some equipment (from paper clips to a 1,000 MW steam turbine), and even though there are standard contracts contemplating all of the above and more, and there is a commerce code (at the international level, the Lex Mercatoria and the ICC rules) to give general guidelines and step in in case of differences about unstated terms, it is clear that for commerce to go on the parties have to learn to live with some uncertainty about what they expect to receive from each other. There is indeed a whole branch of the juridical code (commercial law) intended to deal with those subtleties, and to provide judges with guidelines about how to adjudicate in case of dispute, although the vast majority of such disputes are resolved privately between the parties, and do not require the costly procedure of filing a lawsuit, defending it in court and waiting for a verdict (which at least has the advantage of being unconditionally binding, and carries with it the authority of the state to enforce it, something private agreements lack). If that is the case with a run-of-the-mill purchase, something which is happening millions of time a day, and has been doing so for centuries, imagine how murky more complex transactions can be. When an engineering firm agrees to deliver the design of a whole power plant to whoever intends to build it, or a functioning thermal control system to an experimental spacecraft, or a CRM information system to a telecom provider (to mention just examples in which I have been personally involved), it is downright impossible to contemplate all the requirements to be fulfilled and conditions that may arise during the design, manufacturing/ performance and delivery of what was agreed. Not even the most comprehensive contract, written by the craftiest lawyers, can then reflect accurately all the duties and responsibilities of each part, and that in turn means that during the delivery phase some disagreements will arise, and some conflict resolution will be called forth. This is when the “pound of flesh” kicks in

The idea of a “pound of flesh” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. In it, the moneylender Shylock provides Antonio with a certain amount of funds, so he can pursue his business (whilst allowing his friend Bassanio successfully suit Portia), but demands as guarantee a somewhat odd condition: were Antonio not to pay back the money in the agreed date, he would provide Shylock with a pound of his own flesh. Although Antonio seems during the play to be a sensible albeit moody guy (other than agreeing to forfeit his life, as presumably there was no way in those barbarous times to extract a pound of flesh without killing the subject, liposuction not being that much developed back then) the ships with the cargo he had bought with the borrowed money are allegedly lost, and he finds himself unable to pay, which triggers all the drama you would expect from a play by the immortal bard from Stratford. I won’t spoil the end (although you probably can guess it even if you haven’t seen or read it), but I’ll just highlight some aspects of the situation: one of the most salient features of Shylock (that has earned the author the accusation of being an anti-Semite) is that beyond certain point, he really is more interested in getting Antonio’s flesh than in getting his money back (he rejects an offer by Bassanio to pay back twice the original amount). The desire for profit is masterfully portrayed as becoming secondary to the redress of a clear class resentment (so Shylock really wants to take revenge on Antonio for being younger, nobler, having more friends and receiving more social recognition than himself, even when broke). In our previous language, Shylock’s foreground motives (making a profit with the money lent to Antonio) cede their place to the background ones (humiliating Antonio, punishing him for flaunting previously his superior social standing and having forced him previously to lend at a lesser interest).

And this is where I wanted to draw the parallelism between the play and many, many situations of conflict in our only apparently modern corporate world. In almost every single contract of some complexity, as we have seen, there will be a moment when the most powerful party (typically the purchaser, as almost every market today is a buyer’s market) will think the other party (the supplier) is not meeting its obligations. May be they are not even explicitly stated obligations, clearly and unambiguously written down, but just implicit expectations that were never discussed during the negotiations. And when that moment comes, the universal response (as I have seen it through many different cultures, as different from one another as Brazilian and Japanese, German and American, Mexican and French) is to ask for a “pound of flesh” from the delinquent party. Something extremely painful, even if it is of absolutely no use to the aggrieved part. Typically what they ask for is that they work as many extra hours as humanly possible, that they forfeit holidays and weekends - again, regardless of that forfeiture being of any practical use (as all the extra effort may make the provider’s staff just more tired and prone to make errors, and very seldom has any positive impact in the delivery of the contracted product or service). And I would say that ten times out of ten the offending party agrees, and attempts to give the offended one what they require, usually with less than stellar results (because it doesn’t matter how hard they try, they will tend to overpromise their level of commitment and to oversell the sacrifices they are willing to withstand, and for each hour beyond midnight or each Sunday they are not at the keel the aggrieved part will feel slighted and protest that the other part is shirking their responsibilities and not upholding their side of the deal). But in the process they make serious harm to their ability to reach their own goals by reducing the morale of their team, burning them out and overworking them, making them loose faith in the ability of their leadership to defend their interests, and most times negatively impacting the bottom line of the company (which leaves less benefits to distribute at the end of the year).

It has to be noted that this dynamic, although it has been presented as developing between two organizations bound by a contract, can very well happen within organizations. Every time a person is promoted to a new responsibility and find difficulties performing her new duties (and that’s something that every and all professional will face sooner or later, as per Peter’s principle) she is similarly violating the not necessarily explicitly stated expectations of the superiors that put her there. And both the superiors and the employee herself will feel the strong pressure to resort to the “pound of flesh” dynamic: “may be I’m not doing things as flawlessly and effortlessly as assumed (prior to the hiring/ promotion, which is a period of cavalierly feeding the wildest expectations of the other part), but to compensate for my (real or perceived) shortcomings I’m killing myself on the job, clocking in those famed 80 hours weeks, coming to the office on Saturdays and Sundays, arriving here at 7:30 and leaving past midnight until I set everything right” (although everything is never entirely right, and people find themselves in such vicious circles for years on end, whether they end up mastering their new position or not)…

Seen from the outside, it is clear that both demanding and accepting to deliver a pound of flesh (even if it is a symbolic one) in exchange for a (real or imagined) non compliance is foolish, and very unlikely to contribute either to a satisfied purchaser or an economically viable supplier. What can be done, then, to steer clear of such situations? There are no easy answers, specially for such a frequent situation. I would say that the first step is to recognize the resentment and disillusionment at the heart of the more powerful party request of such “pound of flesh”. The supplier part (or whoever is the weakest) tends to focus only in the unreasonableness of the purchaser position, requesting something that is of no real value to them, but in the origin of such request there is some implicit (or sometimes explicit, but then we are more in a “shit happens” scenario that requires additional care) expectation that has not been met. The second, much more difficult step, is to bring those unmet expectations to the foreground, and discuss openly what it would take to satisfy them. Many times, such satisfaction is not necessarily material, but symbolic (recognition of guilt, self-abasement, promise of future deference towards the aggrieved part), as its main goal is to assuage the aggrieved part and convince them that if a similar misunderstanding happens in the future, it will not be accompanied by a similar “misbehavior”. What the offending part needs to be able to do is to achieve such assuaging and convincing without resorting to the almost universal remedy of “we will work harder”, “we will throw more effort at it”, “we will sacrifice more of our personal life for you”. Those are all variations of “you can take your pound of flesh” which shows great commitment, no doubt (and that’s why it has worked so “well” historically, and assuaged and convinced so many customers who should have known better), but also very little foresight, as without that pound of flesh the offending organization (or individual) may very well be less capable, not more, of honoring its commitments.

I hope with these reflections I have given my readers (all two or three of them) some tools, then, to at least recognize when they are entering a “pound of flesh” situation (again, in my experience this tends to happen at least once in every project/ sale, and usually many more than once), and to consider potential ways of getting out of it without killing themselves or their teams in the process. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

The pleasure our society refuses to countenance

Last week, just after finishing my 4th set of squats (8 reps each, with 105 kg, slowly inching towards 110, nothing earth shattering, but demanding a lot of focus at my current shape), legs still trembling and heart pounding like an out of whack sledgehammer within my chest, I pondered for a while on how unusual what I had just done was in our age. Think about it for a moment: I had just put me through a lot of discomfort (specially in the last reps, when lactic acid has accumulated so moving the legs against the resistance of the barbell on the back causes pangs of pain to shoot through the quads, and the lack of enough air in the lungs makes you feel like a fish out of water), and would have to live with the dire consequences (for the following two to three days I would be so sore as to make simple things as standing up, or walking from my office to the coffee machine, a real chore), and for what reason? So the next week I could stand to put me through still a bit more (107,5, here I come!), and the next one even a bit more, and so on, with no discernible end in sight. Knowing that I won’t be getting any kind of reward or recognition for it, as I’m far enough from competitive numbers (and at an old enough age) as to not going to win any accolade or trophy for doing this. I guess I do it for the internal satisfaction of knowing I’m doing truly my best, I’m consistently putting the effort to be the best lifter I can be, irrespective of how that compares with all the other lifters in the world that strive after a similar pursuit. For the internal recognition that comes from having set for myself a goal that is difficult to achieve, and completing all the intermediate steps I’ve carefully defined as necessary to achieve that goal.

But it gets worse (much worse, actually!). After showering and changing clothes I got home, put the kids to sleep and settled in bed with the book I was in the midst of: Empirisme et Subjectivité, by Gilles Deleuze. I was reading it not because I found it enjoyable (it most definitely is not! Although at times dazzling in a highly refined, highly abstract sense it is also annoyingly abstruse, and somewhat pedantic, and overgeneralizing, but what would you expect from a French philosopher of the 70s…) or because I got a kick out of it, or to unwind, or to relax, or to amuse myself. And I’m not sharing it because I’m a snob (which by the way I am) and want to impress my two or three readers with how cultured and sophisticated I am. I read it because it deals with Hume’s philosophy, and Hume being one of the subjects of my dissertation I have made it incumbent upon me to become one of the most knowledgeable guys about his life and his thought on planet Earth. Even if that requires reading Deleuze, and to better understand him, some of his ilk so I’m more familiar with his impact in French philosophy in the 60s and 70s in general (the other books I’ve been reading this month, just in French: L’anti-oedipe by the same Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Surveiller et Punir by Foucault, and L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution by Tocqueville, which is from a different era but I found relevant all the same). Why I’m writing a dissertation in the first place would take us too far away from the subject of this post, I’ll declare that it is not definitely to be more successful with the ladies or to improve my standing at work and earn more money...

Now you may wonder, what does reading Deleuze (in French, I feel the need to punctiliously add) and going through an excruciating training program that requires repeating hundreds of times the same basic movements with a loaded barbell have in common? Well, they both may be considered to be pure instances of a kind of “pleasure” that our distinctly pleasure-seeking epoch doesn’t seem to be able to countenance, or even understand: that derived from doing difficult things, achieving challenging goals, or attaining distinctive skills. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive, because economically we can all see that society honors inordinately people that do clearly difficult things: to play basketball at Michael Jordan’s level, or golf at Tiger Woods’ (before he messed up his life and, arguably, his game); to drive an F1 car like Lewis Hamilton; to sing like Adele, or Rhianna or Taylor Swift (hhmmm… maybe wrong examples, we’ll get to famous performers again in a minute); to lead a company like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg…  they are all socially recognized high, difficult achievements, and the few that can perform them are celebrated and thus set a positive example for the rest of the citizenry.

However, before we discard as false my contention that current society (you probably have by now an inkling of where I intend to lead the argument) looks at the performance of difficult feats with scorns, and actively discourages people from pursuing complex, challenging endeavors, let’s look under the hood of the phenomena I’ve mentioned, and see how those outliers are pictured, and where the vast sums of money they receive come from. All the examples of successful individuals I’ve given (the ones society seems to bestow most rewords on) can be grouped under three categories: pure performers (actors and singers), sport performers (athletes) and businessmen. What are the key factors that ultimately determine success in each category? I propose the following, in order of importance:

·         Pure performers: luck + stunningly good looks + talent (which in turn is, on average, roughly 80% genetics and 20% learned)

·         Sport performers: genetics + discipline + luck (finding the right coach, being in the right environment to express one’s genetic potential)

·         Businessmen: luck + psychopathic personality traits + discipline (which could also be construed as one of the most salient psychopathic personality traits, hence “train like a psycho”, or “devote yourself to the company like a psycho”)

Now you may disagree with my portrayal of success in each category as being first and foremost due to luck, and other traits being both secondary and similarly unearned (you do not “earn” your genetics or most of your looks in any meaningful sense, as much as some people whose only merit is “choosing the right parents” would like you to think otherwise), but I don’t think it’s really up for debate. For every talented, dedicated, disciplined performer/ athlete/ entrepreneur you can present as an example I could point to hundreds (thousands?) of similarly talented, dedicated and disciplined ones that nobody has ever heard about, that are either struggling or broke just because they were less… lucky, not being in the right place at the right time to be noticed by a big team scout, a big manager, a big market surge. And if you think that all those that keep at it long enough and just keep trying end up “making it” and reaching similar levels of success… well, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you may be interested in.

And of course “society” knows it too. It “knows” that trying hard enough is not (by far) “enough” to guarantee any kind of success. And that’s why it doesn’t try to convince anybody to really spend that much effort in the first place. Let’s now turn our attention to how those “successful” individuals make their money: performers convince enough people to pay a little bit to look at them (it used to be to hear them, but these days “hearing” is just an excuse to just watch them twerk, or dance, or strut their stuff, or cavort, or canoodle, or act, or act out…); athletes are mostly paid by sport apparel brands in the belief that a lot of people will want to wear what their idols wear (also, in some sports, spectators are willing to pay to see them more or less live, and a tiny fraction of that money actually reaches them); superstar businessmen are just good in taking lots of money from “investors” (that’s almost everybody else, from you and me through 401 (K) and similar instruments to Warren Buffett) convincing them that they can do what they can’t (coordinate vast legions of employees to generate more profits than similar legions employed by their competitors, something an orangutan chosen at random in any given zoo has as much chances of achieving as Wall Street most celebrated tycoon). So what is society really telling every young person when it celebrates these “top performers” and showers them with money and recognition? Is it telling them to be more like those “role models”, when being so means mainly having more luck, or better genetics, something no human being is able to effect? Of course not, as pointing people towards something at which they could not but fail is a sure recipe for disaster and commercial oblivion. What is telling them is to partake of their glow without putting the effort, to obtain part of the gratification without the discipline, to bask in the warm feeling of achievement without the hassle and the sacrifice demanded by it. So what it really recommends is to download the YouTube video of the performer (that has to be accessible enough and “easy” enough not to require much previous training to enjoy), to buy the same shirt, or sneakers as the star athlete, and to buy the self-congratulatory books of the businessman (or just to buy the products manufactured by his company).

We can find a superb example of such social tendency towards easy satisfaction and mediocre pleasures in the demise of Playboy, as recounted by the always interesting AntiDem: Playboy after dark. A couple decades ago you needed a certain education to participate in the charade of buying certain erotic (probably it would be more accurate to describe it, regarding the mores of the times, as pornographic) magazine “for the articles”. It was the centerfold babe who made you disburse your hard earned money, but at least you had not to be put off by the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut or Jack Kerouac. Today there is no risk of any difficult art form interfering with your more or less instant gratification, as you can go to pornhub and dally with nothing but unadulterated porn, neatly arranged by categories so you can select the one that better caters to your peculiar tastes, wholly instinctual, as uneducated as you may wish.

Told in a language any regular reader of this blog will recognize, the dominant reason of our age (desiderative reason, for those too lazy or too distracted to recall) trains everybody, from the most tender ages, to seek for the most instant, less costly (in terms of requiring a previous continued effort) gratifications. It has perfected such training to the extent that we are witnessing the most protected, most spoiled generation in recorded history continuously complaining that they have not “enough”: not enough security and safety, when crime, aggression and even war (with the well publicized exceptions we all know about) are at historic lows; not enough labor opportunity when economic regulations are also at historic lows, and a case can be made that most companies find it difficult to add skilled workers for lack of supply (I do recognize that the situation for unskilled workers is pretty dire, thanks to that very same deregulation); not enough partners to enter in a committed relationship when ubiquitous communication networks make It easier than ever to meet and know people with similar interests and similar outlooks; not enough meaning when the digitization of most of our past has enabled untold amounts of information to be attainable at almost no cost (ah! But turning information into knowledge, and even more knowledge into wisdom, which is required for it to have meaning, is not something that can be done easily or without devoting vast amounts of time to it). They have enough, however, to keep the rat race operating at full speed. To keep producing immense quantities of mostly useless gewgaws that are rendered obsolete in ever shorter periods. To keep going daily to the same soulless work, and even to the same commercial gym where they spin their wheels in the vain hope that without really exerting themselves they will somewhat magically acquire the body of their dreams (which are as secondhand as the “house of their dreams” or the “car of their dreams” they were sold, and which had the ability to make them happy for exactly three seconds after their acquisition, and miserable for the three decades required to paid the corresponding dues).

So I’ll rather keep doing my squats, and reading my boring philosophers. If not for other reason, because they keep me from watching TV and babbling about last Sunday’s match and secretly assaying my colleagues’ suits, or cars or homes and comparing them with mine. I’d rather compare the pounds I lift, or the ideas I’ve thought (and written) or the miles I’ve run or the sceneries I’ve enjoyed in the wild. The tough things I’ve done to prove myself better, that have not detracted a iota of the ability of anybody else to lift or think or run or watch similarly, that can not be converted in positional goods because they are a) absolutely good, regardless of what everybody else does and b) non fungible, so what I read and lift and run and see can be equally read, lifted and run and seen by whoever takes the time to prepare himself for doing so. And I’ll teach to my kids about the old, worn out Greek concept of Areté, which can be loosely translated as excellence, of becoming who you are through struggle and effort end yes, sometimes even pain, and not to give a damn about suits and cars and homes. I just hope that prepares them to better resist the barrage of conformist, commercialist messages society daily throws their way… 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Is Donald Trump the next president of the US of A?

OK, guys, this is the deal: I’ve been half stuck writing an ultra-dense post on Marxist economics (an oxymoron, I know), but being the kind of exhaustive nutso I am it has taken me from “Limits of Capitalism” by David Harvey to “Late Capitalism” by Ernest Mandel to “Monopoly Capital” by Baran & Sweezy to “Studies on the Development of Capitalism” by Maurice Dobb. And of course I had to go back to “Capital” by Marx himself, specially volumes 2 (just to confirm how abysmally bad and muddled it was) and 3. And to “Imperialism as the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by none other than Lenin (just for funsies). Long story short, I’m still mired in the midst of it, not knowing when I may finish. So, as I usually do, I started a new post in parallel, to keep my mind occasionally out of the depths of bad metaphysics posing as bad economics. Only it turned out to be conceptually even more demanding (a project of mine for a long time, which was going to be an appendix of my dissertation but I finally pulled it out for lack of time: a refutation of Libet’s arch-famous experiment which has been construed countless times as the definitive refutation of the existence of free will, to which I answer bollocks, but going anywhere more nuanced than that requires apparently endless amounts of intellectual heavy lifting… again, I hope to be able to share an accessible version anytime soon).

So just to keep my faithful readers entertained, and for my own amusement, I decided to spend some time writing about the most non transcendental issue I could find in the news, the one less likely to require any sort of mental exertion, and being an avid follower of the American electoral process I obviously settled in the baffling (for all the punditocracy at least, we’ll see that the proverbial men in the street have a different view altogether) rise in the polls of the bombastic casino magnate and real state mogul of the title. As most informed citizens may know, currently the Donald leads the field of candidates to be the standard bearer of the Republican party come next November by a substantial margin, both nationally and in the first states to vote (Iowa –where he seemed to have lost ground to similarly implausible candidate Ben Carson for a while, but where he is solidly back at top; New Hampshire and North Carolina). He has been doing so for months, which makes his rise, at this point, substantially different from that of similarly outsider candidates in the last election cycle (when we saw the likes of Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and even Sarah Palin climb to the top of the republican primary polls for brief stretches of time, before the conservative electorate had a good look at them and decided they were not presidential material): Will Trump win?

Being a bit more than two months away from the first actual votes being cast (1st of February in Iowa), I don’t see how Mr. Trump may be dislodged of his position. He could try to offend Latinos, a rising voting bloc with increasing influence in the November election, by calling them rapists and threatening to deport 11 million of their brethren. He could try to disparage women, doing inappropriate comments about his only female contender (Carly Fiorina). He could try to alienate further the party’s orthodox anti-tax-at-any-price group suggesting that tax increases are not entirely off the table. He could try to drive away the hawkish wing of the party asserting he has no interest in nation building, troops on the ground (except for guarding the Southern border) or any “serious” foreign policy initiative distinct from talking tough to Putin, Arafat, whoever is leading China these days and Bashar el Assad… oh, wait, he has already done all of the above, and in each occasion pundits to the left and to the right have declared it the beginning of the end of his lead and the turning point leading unavoidably to the demise of his candidacy, only to see his lead consolidate in subsequent polls.

At some point, we have to accept there is a good chance that come February he is still leading, and starts to transform that lead in more delegates than any other candidate, up to the republican convention in July. Maybe not yet the biggest chance, but definitely not a negligible one. In the remaining of this post I want to discuss what may prevent that from happening, and how likely I think that scenario is. According to most analysts, Trump has benefitted so far from a highly fragmented camp. The big money behind more conventional (and more palatable to the party’s establishment) candidates has been too divided to let its influence be noted, but at some point (sooner rather than later) it will start coalescing. Also, at this point in previous races the vast majority of the electorate hasn’t been paying any attention at all, so when asked by pollsters who they would vote for, rather than confessing their ignorance they offered the only name they recognized, which would favor inordinately the candidates with a more widely known “brand” (an area in which Mr. Trump can not be beaten). As the real voting approaches, the received wisdom goes, voters will seek more information, get more familiar with the proposals and the personas of the different alternatives and gravitate towards someone more viable (more electable, with a broader appeal, that could attract the number of moderates needed to win a general election, an area in which you would expect the magnate to be very vulnerable).

The fragmentation is indeed bound to diminish in the following months, as more and more contenders realize they don’t have a snowball’s in Hell’s chance and quit (I’d say Christie, Huckabee, Gilmore, Santorum, Pataki, Kasich and Fiorina will exit first, followed by Carson, Bush and Paul, leaving just Rubio and Cruz to battle it out with the Donald ‘til the end). However, I’m not that sure about the “more information” effect, as this campaign has been accompanied by unprecedented levels of attention, attested by the stratospheric following of the five debates celebrated so far. I’ll just cite an admittedly non-scientifically, non-representative sample I directly witnessed not long ago. One of my FB contacts asked his republican friends how many of them would support Mr. Trump, were he the Republican candidate in the general election. This person is as civil, accomplished and cosmopolitan as you can dream of, so his network of acquaintances should be representative of the most enlightened wing of the Republican Party. About 40 people answered, and not a single one of them hesitated declaring they would vote for Trump in the blink of an eye (some were even annoyed that the question was being posed at all, while nobody seemed to have any qualms or made any question about that vile, lying, mail-hiding, America-bashing Hilary Clinton that the Democrats were about to coronate without such qualms). To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. Some of the respondents I had interacted with before, and I knew them to be also educated, sophisticated, financially secure, well grounded and participating in the civic life of their communities. And they were declaring their potential allegiance to an individual that, according to the (mostly liberal, we have to concede) media was a bigot, a know-nothing, a fear monger, a con man, a swindler, a populist, a peddler of dangerous racist fantasies, a buffoon, utterly unelectable and would lead the GOP to its most embarrassing and crushing defeat in centuries. It is then that I started really paying attention to the Trump phenomenon and what it can tell us about the state of American society, and to see that there is a whole undercurrent that the mainstream press is not adequately reflecting.

Some of that undercurrent is explained by the level of vitriol and mistrust I explored in my post about increasing polarization that affect most (western and non-western) societies: on polarization, but some is specific to the dynamics of the American society. It has become a commonplace to understand the Trump story as the manifestation of the anxieties of a segment of the white citizenry that see its traditional grasp on most levers of power slowly slip away. Doubtlessly, there is something of that (just see the comments of his supporters decrying what they perceive as unpardonable grievances: affirmative action that gives more opportunities to blacks than to their kin and a lax immigration law enforcement that has allowed a considerable number of Hispanics to shape the social fabric of an increasing number of communities), but I don’t think that exhaust his appeal, or the capability of that appeal to overcome what in other times would have been insurmountable barriers (the electability issue). What I think the “angry old white males” narrative glosses over is the amount of young males (mostly white also, yes) and of women that are almost as much frothing at the mouth as the former at what they perceive as the unrelenting attack of the current administration on everything they consider good and worthy: Old Dixie, America’s standing in the world, the sanctity of marriage, the freedom of each and every individual to be as bigoted as they want (thus refusing to officiate/ serve/ register a gay couple, for example) and of course, the right to have as many military grade weapons in their homes as they damn please, irrespective of criminal history or even mental state.

As it has been documented, all those people (many of whom are not that old, and not male to begin with) are fed up not only with the administration, but with the party they expected would take a stand against it, and that for the last seven years has been unable to roll back what they see as an irrepressible tide of godlessness, secularism, state intervention in the economy and favoritism towards that “other people” they consistently see as dangerous, riotous, degenerate and undeserving (so whatever is given to “them” has to be taken from the law-abiding, God-fearing, hard-working citizenry, all coded words for white, Anglo, mostly Protestant). And that inability has driven them to be so extremely mistrustful of the establishment candidates the party elders are trying to shove down their throats that they see every Trump bluster and offense as a refreshing proof that he is unbounded by the unholy alliance of convention and special interests that fetters the existing cadres of the Washington bureaucracy, that he is not in the payroll of big corporations, with an eye to go through the revolving (and revolting) door that connects former lawmakers with the moneyed interests of K Street and Wall Street, detrimental as that connection is for the “little guy” with which they identify.

So I’d say I’m more bullish on Trump's prospects than the majority of political analysts I’ve read so far. I don’t think its irreversible yet, and if the electorate happens to be a bit more rational than what I credit them for I think Rubio is the one better positioned to end up being the party’s standard bearer (I don’t see how if they suddenly start paying an inordinate attention to matters of general electability the republican voters may pass over Cruz’s similarly glaring flaws). But I don’t think it is going to be nearly half solved by March, so we still may see a Republican party in full panic mode (we have seen “somewhat panicky” so far) confronting the perspective of being represented in November by the most unorthodox, most unhinged, most unbound by convention or convenience candidate of its whole history. A candidate that, frankly, I can’t see having an infinitesimal chance come November against Hilary (as I can’t seriously imagine any other Democrat winning the nomination, barring an outright indictment from the FBI in the mail affair, which seems highly unlikely, to put it charitably).  Be it as it may, it sure as heck is going to be fun to watch.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ten things every seasoned lifter knows

1.       Progress comes irregularly. Some months you add a few pounds to most of your lifts, some years you end up where you started at best, or even regress in some. Within any given month, some days you feel great and have no problem moving weights that were very challenging just a few weeks ago, and some days you feel like the empty bar is already difficult to lift. That’s OK, learn to accept it and keep going.
2.       Consistency beats any other variable. Perform Lift A frequently (2-3 times a week, every week, w no excuses) and regularly (always with good form, 15-25 total reps per session, in the 70%-80% of your 1RM, trying to improve the total number of reps or the average pounds lifted from one session to the next) and it will improve. Perform Lift B every now and then (less than once per week) and haphazardly (changing substantially the number of reps, the intensity and the variable you aim to improve between consecutive sessions) and it will most likely stall, unless you are a total noob (when almost any training methodology, or lack thereof, will work).
3.       Beyond the intermediate level there is no such thing as “general strength”. As it grows farther from its baseline level, strength becomes more and more movement specific. If you want to get bigger numbers in the deadlift, past certain point it won’t help much to do good mornings with 40% of your 1RM DL, or “grip work” with your 0.5 CoC… if you want to improve your bench press (and who doesn’t?), past certain point it won’t help much to do standing presses with pink dumbbells or hundreds upon hundreds of bodyweight push ups. You will need to deadlift heavy and bench press heavy to improve in those lifts, and that means using the competition stance (the one that allows you to move more weight). There is just no way around it
4.       However, squatting is the closest thing to a magic juice that provides you with that hypothetical “general strength”. In doubt, squat heavy and frequently, and most of the rest of your lifts will go up even if you change nothing else. There are lifts that allow you to move a greater tonnage (the DL), but they take more than what they give. There are lifts that require the use of a greater number of muscles (the power clean and the power snatch), but they require such a level of speed and skill that they do not allow for the high number of reps at high intensity that the squat does, and I believe it is that sweet spot of being demanding enough, challenging enough and systemic enough that makes it an unrivalled option for growing stronger. Want proof? Any sensible weightlifting program relies almost exclusively on the squat to make the lifters actually stronger, and then has them performing countless reps of the competition lifts just to perfect the technique. Why? Because said comp lifts are too technical to be “trainable” in a sense that allows for strength improvement beyond a quite modest level, while the squat allows for an almost infinite progression with very modest technical demands
5.       There are a number of things almost as valuable as strength: speed, flexibility and mobility, being mostly pain free, and having a modicum of endurance (I define that modicum as being able to run 10K under or around 50’ any day of the week without any special preparation). A sensible, balanced training plan would account for the maintenance and development of all of them. However, notice the “almost” I placed before “as valuable as”… There are times when you throw common sense through the window and devote some time to maniacally pursue greater strength to the exclusion of everything else, and rather than stretch and foam roll and do some cardio you just add a couple sets of heavy deadlifts or twenty crazy widowmaker squats (you know the old routine: load the bar with the maximum weight you could do ten reps with, and do twenty reps, whatever it takes… a real test of character!). Yup, everything aches almost daily, you can barely walk, you need five minutes to reach your shoelaces so you can tie them and you couldn’t sprint to cross the road even if an eighteen wheeler was barreling towards you. But when you break your previous squat PR, even if it is by a modest 5 pounds you feel so elated that you really don’t care about all the misery you have put yourself through
6.       Lifting with gloves is like running a marathon in high heels. It probably could be done, but what’s the point?
7.       To lift big you need to eat big. Trying to “cut”, or reduce your percentage of body fat, or do a “recomposition” is all well and good, but it won’t in any way help you put up bigger weights. Unless, again, you are quite a newbie and can still get some mileage of improving your neuromuscular efficiency (from inhibiting the golgi organs in your tendons to learning to recruit more neuromuscular units and using your leverages more efficiently through better technique) the only way to move more weight is to have more muscular units to begin with. That means making your muscles bigger, something that happens spontaneously if you train consistently and non-idiotically, as long as you feed them enough. Which in turn requires almost axiomatically eating above maintenance level (sometimes significantly above) and gaining weight, and not all of that weight is going to be lean mass. If you had “striations” and visible veins (even more visible abs, which require a body fat below 10%) better say goodbye to them if you really want to beat some PR’s. Hey, I’d rather be fat, strong and awesome than skinny, “well toned” and weak (and ladies on my age bracket are not that big on striations, veins, abz and all that unhealthy looking paraphernalia, anyway), but   to each one his own
8.       Rest is what happens between productive sets. It serves to recover barely enough to complete what you had planned. Your attention and focus are an important part of that recovery, to ensure you get to the bar anew ready to crush it and overcome what (specially in the final sets) should be, if the session was properly planned, a grievously challenging task. Talking to other people does not help that process, but distracts from it. Ditto for browsing the web in your mobile phone, looking lecherously at the girls in the gym or looking intently to your own image in the mirror (mirrors are banished from serious training places), doubly so if you raise your shirt to have a loving look at your abs or “flex” or “pose” in any manner whatsoever. Hearing distractedly the background music (as long as it is not some testosterone-reducing current commercial monstrosity, as is frequently the case in big box gyms) is OK, though
9.       Lifting is not funny, exciting, entertaining, amusing, merry, mirthful or gay (although a lot of gay people do a lot of it, strength not being normally their main concern, but I digress). It is hard work. It is a struggle which demands sacrifice, renunciation and joyless dedication to give even middling results. Why do we do it, then, and stick with it through thick and thin, in the hot and humid days of summer and the dark and freezing days of winter? Beats me…
10.   The most complex periodization schemes can be summarized as “take one step back so you can take two steps forward”. Then repeat. And repeat, and repeat and repeat 

Monday, November 23, 2015

An abridged history of Western Dominant Reason II

I’ve been somewhat muted of late, not because of the infamous “blogger’s laziness” (a well known seasonal malady that affects our species) or the even more dreaded “blogger’s disillusionment with the medium” (not so seasonal, but usually with a much higher fatality rate), but because I had to travel to Ankara for a negotiation that turned out to be more complex than expected, and kept me holed between the hotel and my prospective customer’s premises for all of last week, and didn’t left much free time the week before that with all the preparations. On the plus side, I had a really great time (negotiating, although sometimes tense, can be a lot of fun if approached with the right mindset), and was dazzled with how much Turkey has evolved since my last visit there (a bit over six years ago). A very, very fascinating country and culture, which I intend to learn more about in the next months. Now, back to my usual concerns, in my previous post on the subject of the title (History of WDR I) I described the evolution of “dominant reason” that determines how we think, how we rationalize our choices, how we decide about possible courses of action  and thus what kind of solutions to our society’s problems we can arrive at. I run out of time when describing the type of reason that dominated Western society at the end of the XIXth century, and it is high time to resume the narration at that point:

·         Bureaucratic reason (1900-1945): By the end of the XIXth century, then, the Romantic Movement in art is exhausting its enormous initial energies, partially consumed by its own excesses, and partially displaced by the unrelenting advance of science and technology. A predictable nature which seems to yield its bounties to those wielding the knowledge of the universal rules that bound its behavior doesn’t easily fit with the belief in an unruly “spirit” (be it of the age, of History or animating each individual being) that romanticism so much exalted, so it was the latter which was jettisoned from the common understanding of what it was that made us tick, which then had to be reformulated towards the following:

1.        The goal of life is to satisfy desires (no surprises here)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is marked by the title bestowed by the State/ the Party

3.       There is only one worthy desire that society should not just condone, but actively foster: to get as high as possible in the social hierarchy (aha!)

It is worthy to note which society adopted this kind of reason first: Prussia, which in this timeframe grows much faster, both in its ability to produce material goods (and, associated unavoidably to such growth, in its military might) than its traditional enemy, France, which stayed mired in a more romantic way of thinking (all the way to the trench warfare, with her soldiers marching to the Somme gaudily dressed in red and blue). England got a whiff of the new trends, but they were still buffeted by their burgeoning empire and their ability to play the alliance game to compensate for their dwindling military superiority, and did not fully feel the bite of their comparative disadvantage until they barely saved the remnants of their expeditionary force in Dunkirk. The Ottoman empire fell because of its inability to bureaucratize until a young officer (Kemal Ataturk) imposed the new rationality, and something similar happened with Tsarist Russia, where the bureaucratizing Bolsheviks found a romantic social structure so rotten from inside that just a kick in the right place sent the whole edifice tumbling down. So did the whole economically advanced world, led by Germany (as the old Prussia absorbed the rest of the traditional German-speaking principalities and kingdoms not already part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), turn to the dictates of the new dominant reason in that very convulse period? Not really, as the polity that was becoming the hegemonic power, taking the mantle from the British, was experimenting with an alternative form of reason that would prove to be even more efficient than the bureaucratic one to extract every ounce of effort from the citizenry. It is towards the other side of the Atlantic we have to turn now to find the latest twist in the history of our civilization’s frame of thought

·        Desiderative reason (1945-????): Indeed, at the beginning of the last century it briefly seemed as if the USA would adopt the same model for justifying human behavior as the rest of the economically advanced world. Specially after the Great Depression and through the New Deal the State was becoming more and more important in determining each citizen’s social position, the public intervention in the economy accounting for a bigger percentage of the nation’s GDP (through increasing regulation, anti-trust legislation and direct investment in infrastructure). But instead of following the path that Prussia was trailblazing, based on centralization of collective decision making within a cadre of highly trained, enlightened civil servants, who were above all entrusted with determining everybody else’s worth (and their own) by some official title or other in a rigidly regimented and compartmentalized social body (able to benefit from a high degree of specialization), they chose instead to test an alternative way of recognizing merit, much simpler and, if rougher, more effective in the end: money, assigned through the vagaries of an apparently (although never substantially) free market from which it derived its legitimacy, which in turn presupposed individual citizens( consumers rather than citizens) with no debts and no allegiance to any higher group (a convenient fiction if there ever was one, still widely held).

Why the Americans pioneered such kind of reason is an interesting (and highly debatable) topic I will leave for another day. I’ll just point out that Sigmund Freud traveled to the USA in 1909, and since then the influence of his system of thought only grew (as the NYT reminded us a few years ago, tracing the first references to the doctor in its pages: Freud in the NYT), until it took a monopolistic hold of psychology unrivaled in any other country. Only in France, after the bitter defeat of WWII, can we find a similar enthusiasm for the psychoanalytic doctrine, although by then it is arguable to what point were the French intellectuals still significant contributors to Western dominant reason (well, the most noted existentialists, Sartre and Camus, wrote there and then, and the term postmodernism, if not necessarily the concept, is also mostly a French creation, as is structuralism, so until the late 70’s they were still punching well above their weight in the intellectual scene).

Be it as it may, it is my contention that desiderative reason is a significant factor in the Allied victory in WWII. But in that conflict it did not yet prove its superiority over bureaucratic reason (we will come to that soon), but over the previous incarnation, sentimental one, as the axis powers (most definitely Germany and Italy, with Japan being caught in the middle of the transition between Sentimental and Bureaucratic) had regressed to that form, with their cult of the hero, their worship of their own historical genius and their recognition of might as ultimate arbiter, and thus their rejection of reason and their enshrinement of the most irrational tendencies of the human spirit.

Now, what had that new iteration of dominant reason changed over the previous one?, a very significant factor, as for the first time reason becomes a closed, self-sustaining system in which what the individual is taught as a valid reason for acting (satisfying desires) receives a social sanction, and is given content by society itself, through a social construct in whose creation everybody participates (money), thus taking the form we are already so familiar with:

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is marked by how much money one has (by how many material goods one can exclusively enjoy and how many services exchanged in the market one can pay for)

3.       There is only one worthy desire that society should not just condone, but actively foster: to get as high as possible in the social hierarchy

As I’ve said in other places, the genius of such system is its perfect independence from any external factor. The very concept of value is hypostatized in money, made immanent and freed thanks to that purported immanence from any state of affairs that may obtain in the world. That’s why so many people believes in the extrinsic, unarguable value of money (and try to justify it by appealing to some obscure intrinsic property, or propose to “anchor” it to some other equally socially constructed commodity like gold), and get truly nervous and confused when it is pointed to them that it is just a convention, a convenient way of keeping track of who owes what to whom (whose fluctuations always favor some group and pauperize others).

Remember that, according to my system, different reasons are promoted and extended not because they are “closer to the truth”, and definitely not because they make the citizens that subscribe them any happier or better off, but because they make the societies that embrace them better at producing things, thus allowing them to be militarily superior to those that do not, until they obliterate them. That obliteration can take different forms, from the gentler (let them play “catch up” until they become undistinguishable from you), like is happening with China, to the most brutal (drop a couple of atomic bombs in populous cities until they surrender unconditionally and allow themselves to be administered by foreign consuls until they adopt your values, including first and foremost your dominant rationality and they come to think of what is rational and what is not exactly as you). So it may be argued that desiderative reason proved in the traditional way its superiority (a term entirely devoid of any moral connotation, as should be clear by now) over sentimental reason, but not over its immediate predecessor (bureaucratic). 

Well, I just have to remember my readers that after the brutal conflict that pitted desiderative reason against sentimental reason, there was a more protracted, albeit less intense one that saw it face off against bureaucratic reason. It is called the Cold War, as it should be apparent by now that the Soviet Bloc was the direct heir of the latter, the original Prussian State having transformed itself after the October Revolution in the Communist Party. And it should be clear enough that the reason the liberal democracies modeled after the American template “won” unambiguously that contest is because they proved without a doubt they were much better at making their citizens produce more material goods, more thingies, which allowed them to have more capable armies (of course, the burden of the proof was very unequally distributed, with the USA bearing the brunt of it, but also ironically showing the potential of a massive State intervention through their “weaponized Keynesianism” to stimulate economic growth in a more comprehensive way, all the while publicizing the supposedly superior virtues of “unbridled individualism” and a “minimal intervention of the state in the free market”).

The fact remains that by the end of the XXth century desiderative reason was the only rationality standing, and that it reigned supreme over the first complete World-System in the history of our species, to which it could be applied the immortal verses:

One reason to rule them all
One reason to find them
One reason to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them
(let’s just remember that the ruling, and finding, and binding have already taken place, so that means we are already “in the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie”, which is not the merriest of thoughts…)

It may be argued that such rationality is becoming old news, and that something else must be on the horizon, with the advent of the internet, and mobile communications, and the rise of China and Secular Stagnation (the result of a thought system geared towards intersocial competition when there is nobody else to compete against) and whatnot. There are indeed some signs that desiderative reason may be crumbling under the weight of its own success (as there were some similar signs regarding the weakening of sentimental reason in 1848, but then it lasted for 50 additional years), but interpreting them will be the matter of a future post.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Preparing the ground for Anarcho Traditionalist Economics

Everybody seem to agree that growth is sluggish so too many stay mired in poverty, that there are not that many jobs to go around, that globalization has contributed to an already unacceptably high inequality and that technological innovation has been stagnating lately (well, the last point is still hotly debated, but I’ve been around just enough time to have reached my own conclusion: my life at 20 was vastly more different from my life at 10 than what my life at 40 is from the former… we do have the internet and mobile phones, but we travel using the same means, produce energy in the same way, erect buildings with the same materials and shapes, construct roads, dams, and factories with the same blueprints and even die of the same maladies, may be a tad later). Even acknowledging those problems, the majority in what is known as the First World still thinks the overall socioeconomic system is, not to put too fine a point about it, the best we have ever had as an species, so to tinker with any of its main tenets (from the dominant reason that justifies it and pushes every citizen to strive to the utmost to comply with its three main commandments to the market organization that colludes with such reason in rewarding differentially those that are already in a favored position) would be utter foolishness. Even in the less economically developed countries the minority in power agrees to a man with the excellence of our system (at least, the part of it dealing with economic rules, which they try, with different levels of success, to separate from the political and social rules), and only varies in the extent in which they try to have the majority of the population under their command participate in the increase in wealth that they expect to extract from the increased adherence to the aforementioned rules.

But I think we could collectively do much better. I’m not a great fan of growing the amount of material goods produced and services paid for within a society (the most extended measure of economic well being is the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, which counts as if it meant something manufacturing new gadgets that replace old ones with the exact same functionality, but then create additional environmental problems by filling the already huge landfills, and also counts the provision of “services” that demean both the provider and the buyer) as I think there are things more important for human flourishing that what those metrics capture (a clean atmosphere and natural landscapes, rich and dense networks of relationships, a shared narrative artfully articulated), but I recognize the accumulation of whatever is measured by such metrics does have a positive impact in the lives humans can lead.

Between 1950 and 2010 the average GDP per person in the USA (similar figures for the UK and Germany, and good representatives of the rate of improvement in most First World countries) has roughly trebled (from 16,000 $/year in 1950 to 50,000 $/year in 2009 in constant 2009 dollars). Even if we concede that a fraction of that increase is “well-being neutral” and it just reflects that the person in 2009 receives additional income that he then has to spend without extracting any utility from it, like consuming more gas in a longer commute or in pills to sleep better and to combat his chronically higher work related stress) we have to admit that he is considerably better off than his forebears. How much better? We know that he has access to a much greater variety of some of life’s pleasures: better looking food, although I have my doubts about how much more tasty it is, and even greater doubts about how less healthy overall; bigger homes (but further from his workplace); incrementally more comfortable means of transportation; more leisure options like music, satellite radio, TV shows, even books, almost any work ever published delivered to his doorstep in mere hours (but less time to enjoy it)… We also know that his life expectancy at birth has grown, albeit at a much smaller pace lately (it grew from roughly 45 years in most Western countries in 1900 to roughly 70 in 1950, while it has only grown to 80 in the last 65 years –and is actually decreasing in some groups, as this much touted article by Gina Kolata in the NYT recounts: Whew, USA white low-middle class is screwed!). So interestingly, it is undeniable that a lot of progress (in well-being, I’m not talking yet of personal freedom, opportunities for recognition, equality or fairness in the distribution of the social product) has been made in the last century, so even for the poorest members of society it is far better to live today than in 1900, but not so much than in 1950 (and, as it is famously noted, for most of American middle class, no real gains in disposable income have been achieved since 1971).     

What about the rest of the world? it is much more of a mixed bag. In some cases (most of sub-Saharan Africa) they are barely better than how they were in 1900, which is not that different from how they were in 1000 AD (maybe even worse, as 1000 AD was before the most serious ravages of the slave trade) both in GDP per person and in life expectancy. In other (Latin America, North of Africa, India, China –that has had to recover from a much deeper and miserable place due to the catastrophic policies of its “Cultural Revolution” and “Great Leap Forward”- and South West Asia with the exception of Korea and Japan, which for all practical purposes are today equivalent to any other advanced economy) they have advanced in fits and starts, amid some occasional regression, and they are roughly where we were around 1970. Russia and its satellites would be in a similar position (both in life expectancy -69 years in 1962 and 68 years in 2009- and in GDP per capita –from 8,000 $ in 1970 to about 20,000 $ in 2010).

Given that, I have the following position to stake: technological advance was a net positive for everyone in the West (broadly understood to include Japan and Korea) until 1970, and from then on it has served mainly to lift the fortunes of the top 1% with little benefit to the rest. The meager increase in life expectancy since then can be mostly attributable to the reduction in smoking (so in a sense we are better off, since we have mostly stopped poisoning ourselves voluntarily with a potent carcinogen, although we probably still do it inadvertently with a thousand similar toxic fumes that envelop our cities without us noticing). That means that for most of the world (Africa excepted, as they may still need a couple decades –if everything goes well, which it rarely does- to get to where the advanced economies were in 1970), they have already reached the level of socioeconomic development that is optimal for the majority of the population, and whatever they manage to keep growing is likely to improve the wealth (and overall well-being) of a similarly tiny sliver of their populations, at the price of exacting an increasing effort from everybody else (not coincidentally, the great theorist of the modern phenomenon of burnout is a Korean, Byung-Chul Han). In a series of posts more than a year ago (culminating here: What should be done IV) I analyzed the current stage of capitalism understood as a world system defined by the following features (to which I assigned the accompanying moral valence):

1.       Secure private property rights -positive

2.       Use of money - positive

3.       Commodity production (that requires markets to determine the price of every merchandise and service by the intersection of its supply and its demand) – negative/ neutral

4.       Labor market, that determines the wage level also by the intersection of supply and demand (but subject to specific regulation) - negative

5.       A technological level that allows for cheap food, energy and communications (each less than 10-20% of the average basket of goods) - positive

6.       Globalization (minimal barriers to the circulation of goods, capital and information) - positive

7.       Digitization of experience - neutral

I concluded that only 3 and 4 were problematic (non conductive to maximal enablement of human flourishing), and that only 4 actually required doing something about it, which back then I thought was implementing a UBI (Universal Basic Income) that would free people from having to work involuntarily and/or in degrading conditions. That was a very incrementalist approach, which I thought was granted by a basically positive evaluation of where the described system (which I dubbed “digital capitalism”) had taken our societies. Such incrementalism was justified by my appraisal at that date that growth rates in GDP would pick up and revert to the previous trend rate (around 3.5% for most of the West) and, both in the USA and Europe there would be a fast reduction in unemployment, an increase in the percentage of the working population and a resumption of the increase in wages that would in turn enable a reduction in inequality. Not only none of those have materialized, but I do believe now that with the current socioeconomic structure they will never materialize. Inequality, low labor force participation, miserable salaries with no prospect of rising (which enable the recently noticed phenomenon of the “salaried poor”, people that after years being fully employed still are below the poverty level, have no expectations of ever rising above it and sure as hell can not afford things we take for granted as signs of having reached a middle class status like owning o house, no matter how small, owning a car or even a set of personal appliances like a smart phone or a PC) are now a part of the landscape, a constant reminder that something is seriously amiss in the way we organize the production and distribution of goods and services.

One of the reasons I have despaired of ever seeing the current system reform itself, or correct its most glaring problems, is because I’ve concluded that the solutions being offered by the different macroeconomic schools are all wrong, and wont to disappoint:

·         Monetarists believe that loose monetary policies will do the trick, and low interest rates will sooner or later cause investment to resume, capacity to pick up and we will be back to normal. Unfortunately we have been stuck at the “zero bound” where rates can’t go any lower for more than half a decade, and the results have been… underwhelming. Most serious monetarists already concede the point and simply declare this is the new normal, and we should get used to interest rates near zero as long as the eye can see (and that those, being the new “natural rate” won’t even specially stimulate the economy, simply there is nothing that can be done and an anemic growth is just what’s in the cards for all of us).

·         Neokeynesians maintain that the problem is one of low aggregate demand (something with which I agree), and resort the old recipe of getting the state to replace the non existent private sector to try to spend our way back to growth and prosperity. They can (rightly again) point to the unmitigated disaster of austerity policies in the EU (where the proponents of tightening the budget and cutting public spending in the face of an already deep depression should be criminally prosecuted for the amount of unwarranted suffering they have inflicted in the population of their countries for no logical reason whatsoever). But in this case, sadly, the fact that the opposite policy is insanely wrong does not mean that the one they propose is right. As Japan abundantly shows, you can force the public sector to spend like there is no tomorrow and that is not going to kick start the economy back to the growth rates of the 80’s of last century (Spain between 1999 and 2007 could serve as a similar cautionary tale). There comes a moment (and most Western economies are well past it) when there are simply no more good investment opportunities that the public sector can profitably undertake, and the multiplier then becomes vastly below one, so you just sink good money after bad with no noticeable result, “crowding out” starts having a pernicious effect, while the national debt balloons (it doesn’t seem to matter in a scenario of very low interest rates, but at some point it will become a serious limiting factor for any additional growth)

Basically that covers the “mainstream”, “sensible” positions in economics today, everything else being a collection of loonies and hucksters trying to sell snake oil like supply side economics, trickle down, tax cuts that pay for themselves and other mythical beasts, that have no more real existence than the Easter bunny, unicorns or fire-breathing dragons. The more clear-eyed within the profession admit we are facing a “secular stagnation”, as the two great components that have kept the economy growing at a fast pace have exhausted themselves, to wit:

·         Demographic growth (more people meant more consumers and more producers at the same time) is essentially over, except in some backwaters in Africa, and demographic contraction is already in an advanced stage in places like Japan, Singapore, Russia, most of the UE, and soon Latin America and the USA. Good luck finding increasing numbers of consumers in the next decade there. China is also already about to start decreasing in number, but as their numerous citizens continue going from dirt poor to moderately poor (to, maybe some day, moderately affluent) you can still hope to sell them additional units of whatever gewgaw. Ditto for India. But even those will eventually peter out

·         Technological advance, which in turn drives increased productivity, so your dwindling workers can keep on producing the same (or even more) has gone the way of demographic grow. The reasons of its demise are not as clear, but my hunch is that it has to do with the aging of the population and the incentive structure of the market we have jointly created being massively slanted towards short term gain, which leaves very little resources to more long term, potentially disruptive technologies.

So if we can not trust that keeping things basically as they stand now (plus a UBI) may get us out of our low growth predicament, and such predicament ensures that increasing numbers of workers (specially the youngest and the less skilled) are left out of the economic ladder, increasingly hopeless, may be it is high time to ditch incrementalism and go for a more radical alternative (what used to be termed the “revolutionary” path). It has to be reckoned that the revolutionary record is pretty dismal, even if we concede high marks to the English and American Revolutions, we still have to fail the French, the Russian, the German, the Spanish (the last two happened in a very convulse period, in the face of counterrevolutionary tendencies that either threatened or effectively brought about a good deal of similarly perverse effects), the Chinese (which we could extend to encompass the Korean, Vietnamese and Cambodian), the Iranian and most likely the Lybian, Egyptian, Syrian and possibly Ukrainian… more than enough to discourage any aspiring revolutionary that the odds are heavily stacked against him, and that more likely than not the unexpected results of whatever discontinuity he may champion may end outweighing the potential positives.

However, we shall not be deterred by the failures of the past. All this was intended to serve as a preamble of my next post regarding the desirable economic organization of society, which although as tongue-in-cheek as usual when I deal with the dismal science (which I do not consider a science at all) will probably be a bit more daring and a bit more unmoored in reality than usual. We blog, after all, to improve our ability playing with words, so play we will, and find out where our revolutionary fancy takes us.