Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Two views of “da system”

As Charles Dickens famously stated at the beginning of his Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. In today’s post I will argue that such evaluation can be properly and fully applied to our own times, that people tend to notice only one of the two halves that compose it, and that the half they fixate onto markedly determines their whole political outlook. To that end, I submit for my readers’ consideration the following two statements (I will call them “statement 1” and “statement 2”, and will need to unpack them a bit, so the complete enunciation of them may seem a bit contrived at first). As they both refer to something I will call SANAMAE (Socioeconomic Arrangement Nominally Accepted by Most Advanced Economies), I will need to start by describing such awkwardly named beast. The SANAMAE is characterized by:

1.       the existence of private property

2.       free markets (agents can exchange their property and effort for money as they damn please)

3.       the rule of law (not so much as they damn please, as long as the constraints that bound them are impersonal, sufficiently publicized and reasonably stable)

4.       the ability of the citizenry to direct the evolution of the law through direct election of the representatives that create and apply it (representative democracy)

5.       a moderate intervention of the state in the economy to correct for market failures

Those features are described with an admittedly broad brush, and there are significant variations between different advanced economies regarding how it is interpreted in any of them. For example, the Nordic Countries admit a larger intervention of the state in the economy than the USA, and have in turn a greater tolerance for big firms (sometimes state owned, but not always) having quasi monopolistic powers (or forming outright monopolies). However, nobody would deny that they have the same basic socioeconomic arrangement, constituted by a mixture of capitalism and representative democracy that they share with Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and which sets them apart from Russia (no clear rule of law) or China (no clear rule of law and lack of ability of the citizenry to direct the polity) or Sudan (almost none of the above). Interestingly enough, in the last couple of decades more and more countries have joined the SANAMAE (Latin America, India and most of Southeast Asia now comply with almost all of the listed features), although it is debatable to what extent they have been rewarded with the economic development that was the main selling point of the whole package.

The two statements about the SANAMAE that I wanted to discuss are:

S.I Measured for how well people under it can live (its ability to ensure a reasonable amount of safety from physical harm, the enjoyment of considerable amounts of material goods and security from unexpected turns of bad luck), SANAMAE is

a.       The best current arrangement (that is, better than any alternative currently in existence)

b.       The best arrangement that has ever existed, in the whole history of the human race

S.2 The SANAMAE is morally unacceptable, as it condemns millions of people to poverty and destitution, poisons its own citizens (the more virulently the more distant they are from the centers of power), imposes a heavy toll of anguish and mental suffering (attested by the prevalence of mental illness and suicide even between the more well-to-do), fosters inequality, and requires the imprisonment of an ever increasing number of the less fortunate

My contention is that BOTH statements are equally true, BOTH are correct descriptions of the reality we live in, and both should equally guide our decisions about how to steer society towards a more just system, able of a better promotion of human flourishing. Unfortunately, most people seem unable to perceive the simultaneous truth of both statements, and depending on which one they see more clearly they tend to reach an unwarranted conclusion regarding the other, which necessarily clouds their judgment. If we define people who only seem to realize the truth of one statement, and assume (incorrectly) that such truth necessarily implies the falseness of the other one as “unnecessary partialists (UP’s)”, we can distinguish two flavors of UP:

UP.1 (panglossians): they have reached the conclusion that the SANAMAE is the best possible arrangement by careful comparison with present and past alternative systems. From that they deduce that, being best between many alternatives, it must be necessarily good (note the non sequitur), and from such unwarranted conclusion they end up seeing every denunciation of it, or even harboring any doubt about its greatness, as being explained by pettiness, resentment and delusion. They tend to be overzealous in their defense of the status quo, and they invariably denounce every fundamental criticism of it as “communism” and “not being well founded in human nature”. They tended to be neoliberals, as of late neoconservatives, and it is telling that many between them started as radical leftists (a sin for which they are still atoning, and which partly explains the extreme sensitivity of their leftist tendencies detectors). Its avowed bible has become The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker, which validates their faith in their whiggish interpretation of history, seen as unrelenting progress towards ever greater amounts of material wealth and physical safety for everybody (the fact that such wealth and safety tend to be unequally distributed seems to those sensible gentlemen a price well worth paying, as they suspiciously tend to count themselves between the ones taking the lion’s share of such unequal distribution).

UP.2 (cassandrans): they have reached the conclusion that the SANAMAE is evil, normally by having a very direct (many times from a first-person perspective) experience of some of its most deleterious effects (devastated communities, bouts of unemployment, environmental degradation, declining mental health, loss of economic security, increasing stress and anguish). From that they deduce (note, again, the non sequitur) that there must be some alternative way of organizing society that is not only better, but already in place. And if not already in place, there must have been at some moment in the past, as the idea that this is up until now the best we can collectively do seem to fill them with dread. This need to believe in the factuality (in the actual existence, as opposed to the utopian conception or the theoretical possibility) of such alternative makes them whitewash and paper over the very real deficiencies of every single damn social arrangement that has been experienced in the last hundred thousand years, which has sometime led to a truly tremendous level of whitewashing and papering over (see the otherwise inexplicable swoon of the European left with Stalinism decades after it become evident it was much, much worse than the “heartless” capitalism as actually practiced in Western democracies they so much liked to disparage). Most of the (alternative and not so alternative) left nicely fits here, and every leftist manifesto of the last years can play a similar role as Pinker’s treatise plays for the panglossians: Unequal Freedoms (John McMurtry), Debt, the first 5,000 years (David Graeber), The limits of Capital (David Harvey), Late Capitalism (Ernest Mandel), and for those of a more nostalgic bend, anything written by Herbert Marcuse and his fellow Francfortians.

The funny thing is that, in a limited sense, both panglossians and cassandrans are right, as both see a true aspect of reality that imposes some constraints on what kind of evolution towards a better compact can be feasible. From panglossians we should learn that as much as may dislike some aspects of the SANAMAE, it has shown to be a closely knit package, whose different features are deeply interwoven, so it is difficult to get rid of one without the whole unraveling. And once it unravels, whatever substitutes it is likely to be in a continuum between worse (an economically successful dictatorship) and much, much worse (a dictatorship that quickly becomes an economic basket case). Something to remember when we question how to change things and we tend to be carried away by youthful enthusiasm and propose revolutionary changes (that are soon overwhelmed by the powerful law of unintended consequences, which are invariably for the worse).

But there is also an important lesson we have to learn from the cassandrans, and it has to do with the deep burn, the fire in our belly the unfairness and lack of basic decency of the SANAMAE should elicit. We should never become so numb to the suffering of millions upon millions of our fellow humans as to consider that the best actually existing system must be the best possible system, so we should do nothing. Doing nothing is not a morally acceptable option. With great care, with trepidation, giving due consideration to all the imaginable pros and cons, thinking through the likely consequences, but change the system we must. With the utmost respect, with the broadest agreement of those that are more likely to be impacted compatible with actually getting things done, but we have the non-negotiable moral imperative to bequeath to our descendants a system regulated by a different set of rules, that allow and fosters a more humane outcome than the current chaucun pour soi.

Obviously, nowadays most panglossians are of a right wing political persuasion, whilst most cassandrans are found in the left, although there are some mixed types (moderate progressives are quite fond of the current system and feel comfortable within it, and alt-right types think that the SANAMAE is a moral abomination and –difficult to believe as it may sound- argue that the middle ages in Europe were a much better time to be alive than in our current anomic society), but both share their apparent inability to contemplate the simultaneous truth of S.1 and S.2, so when I try to defend both statements they will loudly denounce me either as a communist fellow traveler or as a lackey of capitalism. If that is the price of seeing farther and thinking deeper than the contented majority, so be it.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The return of political man (fighting the good fight)

We saw in a previous post that traditional politics (may be I didn’t make it clear enough that we were talking about representative democracy) seemed to have exhausted its capacity for aggregating the opinions of collectives of any size, as shown in a number of situations I considered highly telling. We mentioned then that there were three lines of analysis to be pursued: what is it about desiderative reason, the current dominant reason worldwide, that makes it especially incompatible with traditional ways of organizing groups (of which the most advanced and most widespread one would be representative democracy);  to what extent such incompatibility may extend to other forms of government (i. e. is autocracy better suited for directing large groups of people educated in such form of dominant reason?) and finally, if the answer to the previous question was in the negative, what changes should be made to both the dominant reason and the system for aggregating individual preferences into collective decisions to better align them. I want to start tackling them in this post.

Let us begin, then, with what is probably the least publicized aspect of our dominant reason: it’s incompatibility with the long term cohesion of the group in which it develops. Such incompatibility offers a nice paradox, as the reason it evolved and was selected in the first place, let’s not forget, is its ability to help the group produce more material goods (and services tradable in the market) and thus outcompete opposing groups in a scenario of international competition. It is not lacking a certain delicious irony, a certain poetic justice, that the ideology that has proved most able to propel the groups that embrace it to the forefront of international scene (the ideology exemplified by the current hegemon, the USA) carries in itself the seed of its own destruction, as after cementing the military superiority of its standard bearer its making that standard bearer ungovernable (and, fallowing its path, every other polity that has followed its example). But such is life, and since the classical Greeks hybris is always and swiftly accompanied by nemesis.

Although I’ve described that ideology elsewhere (calling it “desiderative reason”, as I was back then more interested in its aspect as underlying premise of all apparently rationalistic discourse within our society: Elements for a Critique of DR) I will remind my lazy readers of its main features:

·         The only goal of life is to satisfy desires (and those desires are axiologically neutral: they arise in us mechanically, and deterministically, so nobody can be praised or blamed by harboring any of them, and nobody can claim moral superiority by resisting one or yielding to another)

·         The only socially sanctioned desire is to better your social in a strictly ordered social hierarchy. This only apparently contradicts the previous tenet; you may wonder “didn’t you just say that all desires are understood as morally equivalent? Then if I want to fuck rabbits all day long, or smoke weed and do nothing else, and those can not be compared with what anybody else desires, aren’t my desires also somehow socially sanctioned?” nope, thinking that just shows you don’t understand what “social sanction” means. What it means is that to be understandable by others, to be accepted and even encouraged, they have to be implicitly translated to the language of social betterment, so your rabbit-fucking tendencies will be construed as an attempt to show your sexual prowess in an environment where such prowess is highly valued, and your pot-smoking inclinations will be explained as signaling your credentials within a culture of slacking and dropping out that values (and recognizes as respectable) precisely such attitudes. Such explanation will also involve the construction of a “just so” story about our evolutionary environment within hunter-gatherer small groups in the African savannah, and how such exhibitions of prowess and signaling helped our forebears to have more descendants which are not strictly necessary for our present argument

·         There is only one criterion for determining the position in the social hierarchy, namely the amount of money you have (technically, the amount of material goods and services whose enjoyment you can claim exclusively for yourself). !”Aha!” I can hear you exclaiming, “Now I’ve really caught you in a contradiction! if having moolah is the only criteria of success then my purported rabbit fucking and pot smoking, which provide no income, were not understood as valid (if that is all being socially sanctioned means) after all!” Not so fast, buddy. If you watch closely what the injunctions to “be yourself”, “march to the beat of your own drum” and “set your own individual criteria of what a life well lived means, screw what anybody else thinks” you can always detect a whiff of “but if you can not monetize such authenticity somehow you are a total failure”. So even the most ardent rabbit fuckers and potheads are expected (for their pursuits to be socially intelligible) to upload their exploits in Reddit and in Facebook and in Instagram and in YouTube and in Twitter and in Pinterest and to create a group in LinkedIn and to have as many followers as possible and, with time, to be able to sell something to them (or to sell their data to some marketer or other). Weren’t they to engage in such publicizing and attempt to derive some material gain from their otherwise peculiar preferences the apparent enthusiasm with which society applauded their decisions would be much subdued, to the point of turning into outright censure and disapproval (which proves my point, by the way)

But again, after having devoted almost 500 pages to how such type of reason became dominant I don’t feel like explaining it and defending it from hypothetical counterarguments (I feel I’ve repeated this particular claim more than enough), so you’ll have to accept my word for it… Assuming that is the case and you are already convinced that is how society molds its citizens (from the very first Disney movies they are shown to the hue everyday news in the media are tinted with, going through the narrative of the most successful books, movies and popular songs), what does such molding imply regarding the most convenient way of reaching collective decisions and setting collective goals? I’ll focus in two aspects of the problems it presents for the way under discussion: agency and manipulation through information overflow.

The term “agency problem” describes a situation when a subject A acts representing the interests of another subject B, but such representation entails some conflict of interest that leads A to act in his own benefit, rather than in B’s. The basic understanding of our current political system is that the representatives we elect act as surrogates of ourselves, choosing what is best for us and keeping our best interest in mind in any decision they have to take. Such arrangement seemed sensible (indeed, as the only viable alternative to being wholly excluded from the government of the common goods, as in despotism) when communications were slow and costly (it took a proverbial week to get from the Gironde to Paris, where the national convention was taking place in times of the French Revolution, hence the Girondins found it more convenient to send some delegates representing them than to go en masse to decide for themselves), and even today it is widely accepted that the administration of the “public thing” (the res publica) is so time consuming that we are better off leaving it to some designated agent, even assuming that he would not choose exactly as we would, given we have some means to control him (like removing him from office after a short time if he consistently decides against what we consider is the best course of action for us). However, given the current state of technology, plus the course that the dominant reason has taken, it would be worthwhile to revisit such assumption.

                        I.            The politician as agent of non-agents

When the French were tearing down their ancién régime in their 1789 Revolution, or when the British started extending the franchise with their 1832 Reform Act the Western world had already transitioned from Baroque Reason to Economic Reason (Abridged History of Western dominant reason) The overarching goal of life did not lay in another realm any more, thus freeing energies to unabashedly pursue material well-being (soon identified as the reward for producing distinctly appreciated commodities for consumption). But when it came to assigning precedence in the assignment of tasks and the allotment of the rewards of the social product it was still very much a society of orders, where each person’s “station” was determined by birth and lineage. It was natural then that, as had happened for millennia, the few found it natural to give orders and the many found it natural to obey. Many desires were still socially sanctioned, and thus understood as both legitimate and distinct, so the political principles of political liberalism (economic freedom above all, so each individual could pursue the satisfaction of the combination of desires he found more congenial and better adapted to his tastes) were a natural extension of the rationality of the times. Following iterations of such rationality extended the amount of people who should participate in the decision making (the abstract concept of the homogeneous “people” for which nationalism invented a conveniently unified history and the even more abstract social classes for which Marxism similarly invented not just a unified history but an even more implausible unified set of interests and goals) and tweaked a bit with the desires it contemplated and the criteria for determining the social hierarchy, but nothing in those developments impeded the basic idea that undermines the very definition of a dominant reason: having a set of shared criteria that facilitates the coordination of a vast group, so jointly they can reach better outcomes than each of its members acting separately.

However, something funny happened between the first decade of the XXth century and the end of WW II, as the new, extremely potent, set of  principles of the latest form of collective rationality gained hold in the USA and (belatedly) in Europe and its former colonies: although those principles led the members of the societies that embraced them to a veritable frenzy of material production (with the side effect of allowing them to manufacture the most powerful armed forces history had ever seen, forces that would defeat alternative world views either in the battle front –Fascism- or in the home front –Communism-) they corroded the ability of such members to coordinate between themselves, consistently degrading que quality of the institutions tasked with articulating such coordination: political parties, parliaments, even judicial power and the press are growingly distrusted and scorned by the citizens of most advanced democracies.

The explanation of such distrust is relatively straightforward: to represent another person, to act as her “agent”, you need first to recognize her as an autonomous and free agent also, and you need to share with her a common set of values, a common understanding of what it is for her life to go right, so you can further those values and enhance such life. If you see everybody as a set of automatons trying to deterministically maximize the pleasure they feel (trying to satisfy axiologically neutral desires) it’s going to be awfully hard to really try to identify with their ends and to honestly give your best to their achievement. The maximum you can aspire to coherently do is to maximize the fortunes of a certain group at the expense of others (that is the definition of what a member of a political organization does, btw, as developed in my classic Theory of the Organization III - Types), understanding such maximization as taking a greater percentage of the goods and services at their market value. And understanding the membership in such group as the only feature that can be taken into account, so for example a workers’ party would supposedly take decisions that would benefit generic workers, devoid of any individualizing feature they surely may have (it would favor things like high taxes on capital gains, as workers typically have few shares… if you are a particular worker that happens to have many for whatever reason, tough luck), even at the expense of other classes (I maintained elsewhere that homogeneous classes do not exist, they are not even a convenient fiction, I’m just trying to make my point more easy to understand through a somewhat cartoonish example, for Chris sakes).

What I’m trying to say here is that a rationality whose main premise is the incommensurability of every citizen’s preferences provides very little guidelines (none at all) for crafting policies towards the common good (good for who?) and for directing limited resources to the ends collectively identified as better. In a society where every individual provides himself with whatever rules he pleases, and where any appeal to tradition is considered illegitimate (an attempt to impinge against sacred autonomy) the only agreed rule can be non-interference. But non-interference doesn’t take you too far when it comes to any shared purpose that may exceed any individual’s capabilities, or, God forbids, redistribution for poverty alleviation or simply to help those that have fallen upon hard times through no fault of their own (luck, and bad luck, exist, as much as traditional and neo liberals would like to deny it).

                      II.            The opacity behind the (apparently) fully transparent

A possible way out of such conundrum, frequently invoked by techno-optimists of any stripe, is harnessing technological development to help with the integration of such incommensurable preferences. The reason we are stuck in such suboptimal social configurations, and so many people is dissatisfied with their multiple representatives is because we are stuck with low-bandwidth channels for conveying them our most current, finely grained preferences. We just vote every four (or two, or whatever) years according to a most schematic “party platform”, and we are regularly polled about what we would like to collectively achieve, or how popular are the different alternatives somebody else design for us, when we could provide real time information about each of the minutest details of what arrangement we would like to see implemented, and about what decisions we want to collectively take. Kind of referendum-oriented democracy on steroids, the whole electoral of each country could log in to vote on every single bill that was presented by enough proponents, immediately rendering parliaments and senates obsolete, and ensuring the collective will is formed truly giving each citizen an equal voice. If we have grown too diverse and too autonomous for traditional representation to work, let’s give direct democracy a chance and let everybody participate in the decision they may be affected by, getting rid of the representatives that are not needed anymore.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? One can not but wonder why nobody, at any point in the political spectrum, is already advocating, or even proposing it. Seems that really letting the people have an unfiltered voice gives most commentators the jeebies. Not surprising, given that the limited experiences with referenda (even the small, homogenous, reasonably prosperous places like Switzerland or the Nordic countries that have toyed with them have a tendency to produce results that are grossly misaligned with the preferences of the elites). It seems that paying lip service to the abstract idea of democracy and “one man, one vote” is preferable to actually implementing the darn thing.

The real reason is not hard to fathom: it is easier to manipulate a body of a few hundred congressmen and senators, a handful of judges and a small cabal of newspaper editors than to really take into account the multifarious needs and preferences of the whole population, so unsurprisingly in an age of instant communication we still choose our representatives as if they had to take a week to get from the Gironde to Paris, and as if deliberating about how to spend the public monies (and to define the right laws) could take their full attention year after year, and only consider substituting them every four years (for which we spend an unconscionable amount of money and time physically going to a few locations to cast our vote almost simultaneously, just to make things harder and more inconvenient). It works like a charm and doesn’t require anybody actively plotting to keep the poor disenfranchised and the middle classes (the few remaining ones) banging their heads against the wall because of the paucity of options they can identify with (or taking refuge in alcohol, opioids and finally suicide with ubiquitous firearms, as in the USA). Nobody has to explain growing swathes of the population who feel like history has passed them by and they have less and less control over their lives, stuck in a wave of economic recoveries that seem indistinguishable from the previous recessions, choosing not to reproduce because a) who can afford to have a toddler these days and b) if life is shit anyway, who would like to extend it… nobody has to explain them, I say, that the reason they are not trusted with the ability to participate directly in the decisions that are daily shaping their lives is because they could actually turn them for the better, but such turn would come at the expense of the high rollers that have been doing exceedingly well for the last four or five decades.

And they don’t have to explain it because it is hidden in plain sight, for everybody with eyes to see. The amazing effect of too much public information is that nobody sees anything. The internet and a culture of almost infinite transparency, of everybody sharing every little aspect of their lives, is an almost impenetrable opacity not just of how the vast majority live their lives (the “quiet desperation” presciently guessed by Henry David Thoreau) but of how alternative ways of living could be first conceived, and then actively pursued.

But how would that pursuit look like? Accepting that the political system is irreparably broken, how should we organize to restore a modicum of dignity to the public sphere, and maintain a spark of hope that things may get better for the majority? What form would the “good fight” take, what should substitute for what in times of yore was achievable only through political action? That can only be, after so many words, the subject of another post.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Revisiting “what should be done”

A few years back, when I was a newcomer to blogging I used this same medium to clarify for myself the kind of civic life that was more consistent with our current socioeconomic system (What should be done IIIIII and IV). Basically, the conclusion I reached was that the aforementioned system was not that bad, that it could be perfected from within, so what every person had to do was essentially to play within the system’s rules and vote for the party that seemed more likely to push forward a Universal Basic Income, as just adding that all the deficiencies and shortcomings of traditional capitalism would be overcome.

Man, was I naïve… as regular readers are well aware of, my view has grown more somber with the years, and I now think the system is irredeemably corrupt and incompatible with even a modicum of human dignity. Not only that, but it has degenerated beyond any possibility for self-repair, and all we can expect in the near future is its further degradation and growing signs of its decadence, until its final demise (as I said recently, a whole civilization’s collapse is never a nice thing to look at). So what I thought was valid in a business as usual scenario is definitely not what I think is valid now. Back then to the drawing board, accepting that our culture is past its prime and what we can reasonably expect from it is its going to hell on a breadbasket, these are my recommendations on how to live such end times, in each of the concentric relationship circles in which we should be enmeshed:

I.                     Family

I’ll distinguish here between the family you are born into and the family you should form by yourself. In the first case, that’s the locus of your first allegiance, so nurture your relationship with your siblings, and honor your parents. Even if your sis is a drama queen that makes an emotional spectacle of the minutest event and your bro is a pompous buffoon that considers himself better than anybody else because he has read Hegel, they are the first ones you will count on when society breaks down, and you already should be able to trust them with taking turns as sentinels around the campfire with the family’s fire weapons (or machetes, depending on what you have managed to salvage) while you sleep. Regarding parents, you are the inheritor of their world view, and as I once put it, it is your task to pick up their banner when they are not able to carry it any longer. If your mom is a Sunni fundamentalist that thinks that any unveiled woman should be stoned or your pop is a Nazi sympathizer that proclaims that the big rooms in Treblinka were really for the Jews taking care of their personal hygiene you may want to soften and civilize their views, but you still have the obligation (yep, obligation, a strong word in this time when personal freedom is idolized over any other feature) to conform to their basic faith’s duties, stopping short only of causing harm to others (except in self-defense, more on that later on). Even if you didn’t have the best parents of the world, as long as they put food on the table and kept a roof over your head (and did not abuse you too grievously, so Edward St Aubyn is excused in this department), you owe them, so shut up and pay your dues.

In the second case, your duty is to found and head your own family, and to keep it in good terms with the one you were born into. If possible, have kids, as many as you can lovingly bring up. That’s not a popular position nowadays, as a lot of people seem to think that we humans are a virus that is rotting our wonderful planet to the core, so the fastest we extinguish ourselves the better. Every time I hear such ideas voiced I rejoice in the knowledge of the voicer’s genes being swiftly removed from the genetic pool, and thus not having the possibility of degrading my descendant’s inheritance. Be faithful and raise kids that will keep fighting the good fight (for a better world where more people can flourish and be happy and free) once you’re gone. Why is founding a family a duty, and not subject to individual choice and inclination? Let’s put it this way: there are so many assholes out there that we the good guys need to procreate to counterbalance all the evil and mischief they would cause if unchecked by healthy numbers of well-intentioned people. Take it from a Kantian that loves humanity and considers that every single person has dignity (and not price) and is worthy of our love and recognition, not out of their desert or because they are good or noble, but because even when being rather the opposite they have in them the potential of being so.

II.                   Friends

Have. Be true to them. If they reciprocate, apply same considerations as to brothers. If they don’t, cut them some slack, as life is usually pretty shitty even for the best ones. If after cutting them lots of slack they still don’t comply with friendship’s code, cut them off.

III.                 Work

Do, to provide for your family. If young, study hard in order to land one that will allow you to do so. In a socially useful enterprise, which means:

·         No banks or financial institutions (hhmmm... maybe insurance companies are OK)

·         No tobacco companies

·         No weapons manufacturing companies

·         No advertising, marketing or sales

This one is especially fraught, as people start working to maintain a family (an admirable calling) or to help improve their society, and ends up running frantically the rat race, obsessed to have a better (i.e. more expensive) car and a bigger house than their in-laws and their neighbors. The first motive is noble (and ennobling) while the second is not. A few rules of thumb to ensure you don’t succumb to peer pressure and end up being part of the problem and fostering the kind of behaviors that have caused our culture to end in the gutter. The case can be made that accepting any job in today’s conditions is “selling out” and that the only acceptable activity is working tirelessly to overthrow an unjust, stifling system, but I think such choice is suboptimal, and working for “the man” is still preferable as long as a minimum set of conditions is met:

·         Treat people as ends in themselves, never as means (never manipulate them, never lie to them about how you think about them or their work, never promise them anything you are not sure you can deliver on, never rob them of their agency and force them to commit to courses of action that they would have not freely chosen, etc.)

·         It is better to undervalue your contributions and overvalue your rewards, as people who do the opposite is easy to bribe/ corrupt

·         Never take any decision based solely on what will contribute more to your individual paycheck

·         Think about any professional behavior of you “if this were published tomorrow in the newspaper in the least flattering light, would I be ashamed of my sons reading it?”, and if the answer is yes, change it

As long as you can uncompromisingly adhere to those rules it is OK to work and (ideally) create wealth, and pay taxes, and thus not only be able to raise a family (something a radical revolutionary can do very imperfectly, thus the “suboptimality” of such choice) but to reasonably help the rest of society too.

I’ve mentioned taxes, and that is an issue that deserves a bit more discussion. In most countries with a reasonably legitimate government (more on that in the next chapter) paying taxes is a moral obligation, as they are mostly used to improve the living conditions of the less fortunate. Yes, I realize a non-negligible portion is diverted to line the pockets of the well connected, in a world of increasing cronyism even in the nominally most advanced democracies, but even in the less gleaming ones a fraction is still used to pay for public services (social security, public health systems, education, public transport and the like, squalid as they may be), and depriving those services of funds is wrong. However, as society keeps deteriorating (as it will unavoidably do) less and less of our taxes will be used for their original intent, and more and more will be appropriated by the party in power, and used to impose the will of the ruling elite over the disenfranchised majority. When taxes are used mostly to enrich the few and pay only for the police forces of repression and the minimal show business to keep the oppressed masses entertained the moral valence of paying taxes will be dramatically reversed, and it will be a moral evil to pay.

Before that moment arrives, it will become mandatory to “drop out” the regulated, taxed workforce and form a commune (in whatever form is permitted) where wealth production can be done, if necessary, outside of official channels and is thus non-taxable, but still allows for the maintenance of one’s family.

IV.                Politics

Let’s start by declaring that all the options on offer nowadays are crap, and in every single existing representative democracy (the most extended form of political organization) political parties are organizations geared to the spoliation of public resources, directing them to the enrichment of their affiliates and not to the maximization of a hypothetical “public good”. In those countries where there is not even a pretense of representative democracy things are even worse, as the ruling cadres do not have to pretend to care for the masses.

The argument of things being potentially worse in the absence of democracy has been traditionally used by defenders of such system to argue that we have a civic duty to vote in elections, to keep showing our support to the system, flawed as it may be. I can buy such arguments for Spaniards in the five years after the death of Franco, or for Poles five years after the fall of communism, but I find it hard to buy it nowadays. So we are supposed to keep voting forever, thus lending legitimacy to a system that, albeit “better than any other actually tried” (as opposed to “imagined by a bunch of wooly-headed idealists lacking knowledge of human nature and how the world actually works) is evidently full of all-too-real deficiencies, indefinitely? Sorry but no, if the system sucks (as I’ve already stated it does: Democracy is dead) and is already beyond repair I don’t see the need to prop it up with my vote because “surely any alternative is far worse”, an admonishment normally coming from people that has comfortably made it (journalist and ethics professors are the most egregious peddlers of this line of thinking) and seem to be oblivious to how badly a lot of people is aching under the current conditions: The unnecessariat)

So basically, do not vote, and do not belong to any current political organization, as all of them, under the current rules, can only aspire to reach power to better divert public resources to their followers’ purses. Denounce them all and undercut their legitimacy in every interaction with the people important to you. Help them understand the system is irretrievably rotten, and the only thing we can do is prepare for the worst and be ready to pick up the pieces and, once the Leviathan has fallen, construct something better, more humane, more conductive to the equitable enjoyment of shared resources with true freedom (as opposed to the false freedom of buying and consuming the most expensive socially sanctioned positional goods).

A final recommendation. As you have to have kids, your moral duty is not only to educate them to be generous, helping and dignified (in Kant’s words, educate them not to pursue happiness, but to pursue being worthy of being happy, even if such true happiness is never to be attained in this imperfect Earth), but to teach them some form of combat skills (I tend towards boxing for mine, but I’ve heard good things of Krav Maga) and how to shoot. Just in case.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A modest proposal (that doesn’t involve eating anybody’s babies –literally)

I know the title of today’s post may cause some trepidation in my most learned readers, but they can relax, as I do not intend to suggest that a viable solution for the problems of the Third World is to encourage the parents to eat their children, as ironically Mr. Swift proposed almost three hundred years ago. My proposal is aimed at the saving of some monies from the public purse, and the alleviation of much suffering and anguish between our disoriented and too much suggestible youth.

What I (modestly) propose hereby is that all the universities imparting the subjects of political science, journalism, psychology, sociology and economics be closed, and all the titles pertaining to such subject matters (be them grades, MsC’s, or PhD’s) are declared null and void. In an ideally fair and just world, I would propose that the institutions that provided such titles give the (exorbitant some times, and totally unjustifiable in any case) money they collected from their hapless alumni back to them with interest, as partial reparation for all the time they had miserably wasted purportedly learning, but truly being indoctrinated in the most fantastical, less reality based doctrines. As an immediate corollary, all the reviews and journals dealing with the aforementioned subjects (sometimes with generous subsidies from the different governments which they tend to justify and flatter, and more or less tightly affiliated with the institutions whose closure I’ve already advocated) should be closed and discontinue their pernicious publishing of unsubstantiated pabulum. Not that their almost non-existent readership would as much as notice such disappearance, as they exist mostly for the authors that slave to get their inane ideas so feebly showcased, but as a sanitary measure to stop the unconscionable consumption of paper and the minimal legitimation they provide for so many otherwise unemployable characters.

Of course, the Nobel prize committee is heartily beseeched to return to the original intent of their founder and eliminate the prize for “economic science” (instituted and funded separately by Sweden’s Central Bank at a later date), as such oxymoron has repeatedly shown to be of no benefit to the whole of society, and has rather shown in countless instances its ability to sow chaos, discord, social breakdown and general squalor and poverty.

Now, now, I can hear some gentle spirits objecting. To each one his (or her, such gentle spirits tend to be punctilious regarding gender parity and political correctness) own, and if people want to devote their lives to studies of no value, who are we to stop them and frustrate such initiatives. Well, I’ve left plenty of subjects for the otiose to pursue: English majors (or lovers of any other literary tradition), history buffs, archaeology aficionados, classical scholars, even theology students and professors can happily continue with their endeavors, join in arcane faculties and publish to their heart’s content. Why the animosity towards the objected matters, then? Well, to begin with the last disciplines I’ve mentioned have a certain humility and non-preachiness about them; you don’t find many numismatists trying to convince you of the superiority of the coins of the period he happens to be an expert on over any other minted ones; you don’t normally interact with many experts in Sanskrit poetry trying to convince you of the relevance of their knowledge for the conducting of your everyday life. But of course the arrogance and (totally unwarranted) belief in the universal applicability of their discipline is not the only irritating factor that has moved me to propose their ban. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back (the camel in this case being my patience with their continuous peddling of opinion as if it were the pure and final truth) is their ubiquity and the disorderly invasion of any media outlet by their conceits. The printed press has long been occupied territory, but nowadays even the most apparently mindless entertainment (a super hero movie, let’s say, or your day-in, day-out sitcom) is chock full of “social” commentary, “pop psych” and a cartload of economic assumptions. Time to cry stop and send the peddlers of such nonsense packing. They are free to pursue their tortured habits of thought between like-minded nerds, but let’s stop giving social recognition to their collective delirium. No titles, no careers and no subsidized journals for any of them.

As I recognize that such proposal is likely to be greeted with dismay and lack of comprehension (just a few figures: in the USA only there are almost 200,000 active psychologists and almost 150,000 employees whose work description is “economist”, although that probably is a gross understatement, given there are almost a million people studying the thing, and almost 250,000 MBA graduates per year, which dwarfs the 25,000 yearly sociology graduates…) I will devote the remainder of this post to explain why I think the current situation is a gross waste of resources and a humungous source of disutility (dang! A most economic term, see the extent to what I myself have been infected?) for all of us.

I.                     Fact and event

I will start by establishing a most basic distinction, that will come in handy afterwards when I develop my argument, a distinction that owes much to the celebrated philosopher of History R. G. Collingwood: a fact is something that can be described without any reference to the conscious being participating in (or affected by) it. For example, if I raise the hand holding my pen and open it above my desk, the pen falling and hitting the desk is a fact. There are a number of features of the fact that can be both predicted (for example, the speed at which the pen will fall, and the noise that it will produce when hitting the desk) and replicated (so anybody raising the same pen –or a similar one for what it’s worth, and letting it fall will observe exactly the same features regarding its speed, noise, etc.).

On the other hand, an event is a set of facts as perceived by some conscious agent (or by a number of them). So for example when Caesar crossed the Rubicon (whether he said alea jacta est or not is immaterial for us at this point) and thus set in motion the end of the triumvirate and the final demise of the Roman republic (which he would not live to see in full). According to Collingwood, the craft of the historian is to explain events by understanding (which for him necessarily implied being able to relive as faithfully as possible) the mind and inner life of the people participating in them. Knowing some facts (like what kind of equipment Caesar’s legionaries were carrying, or how many of them there were) may help to explain events, may even be a necessary condition, but is never a sufficient one (as important as the number of legionaries were for Collingwood Caesar’s mood, his upbringing, the kind of ideas he was taught about being a proper man and military leader, his understanding of his duties towards his soldiers and the rest of his countrymen, etc.)

II.                   What is science?

I’ve been accused sometimes (no kidding!) of having a too reductionist understanding of Science, that allowed only for natural sciences to spire to such lofty category, and I have to thank Collingwood again for widening my horizon. According to Collingwood, science is just a discipline that aspires to expand human knowledge, and for doing that, is willing to ask questions that have not been answered yet, to provide tentative answers, and to share with others the data used to arrive at such tentative answers.

That definition is wider than the one I started with when thinking about these hefty issues (coming directly from Aristotle, who defined science as ”the ordered discourse about what is necessary”, which excluded any subject that could be considered contingent, although the possibility of something contingent really existent is up for discussion) and, by focusing on the process of how science is developed (by honestly sharing the evidence the scientist has amassed and subjecting it to his peer’s criticism and inquiry), seemed to me to reflect better the real nature of the activity, regardless of what the original question was about.

III.                 How science advances

However, I would dare to suggest that may be Collingwood’s definition is a bit too wide, as if not properly complemented would allow for some disciplines that are currently considered distinctly un-scientific to be admitted back in the respectable fold of venerable Scientia. Thus, an astrologer willing to share his astral charts or a homeopatist willing to discuss his (baseless, according to our judgment) principles would be involved in legitimate, honest-to-God science. It could be argued that they are not really open to discuss them, as they are impervious to any evidence offered against their set of beliefs, no matter how conclusive it may appear to us (but then again, that raises the uncomfortable question of how solid are the foundations of our own sets of beliefs, in which I don’t want to go yet), so as they are not subjecting their findings to criticism in good faith (not willing to give the contending opinions a honest assessment), but such argument on its own is vulnerable to a charge of partiality (indeed, it could be reversed, and defenders of such balderdash routinely direct the same skeptical argument of arbitrary definition of what constitute self-evident truths against believers in more traditional sciences). I would thus dare to complement Collingwood’s courageous definition with the requirement that the discipline in question needs to have a universally accepted criteria of truth. There is no point in subjecting the answers you have elaborated to the critical inquiry of your peers if you have decided beforehand that nothing they may say will dissuade you of its truth, and the best antidote to such obstinacy is to agree beforehand about what constitutes a valid refutation.

That’s the role that the “experimental method” has played for the natural sciences (to the point that it is also known, not surprisingly, as “scientific method”). I think certain statement is true in certain discipline, you think it is not, so we work out what predictions can be derived from such statement, and verify under controlled conditions (aka an “experiment”) if such predictions obtain in the actual world. If they do my statement is validated, and we both agree it was (as far as we can tell) true. If they don’t, it has been “falsated” (proved false) and I have to revisit the theory that led me to it.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? I do think it is pretty simple and straightforward indeed, and the history of the last three hundred years (starting in the West, and nowadays universally extended) seems to attest that it has enabled us to gain an unprecedented mastery over the natural world. Or, to be more precise, over the world of inanimate objects. So much so that it has been very much conflated with Science (with capital “S” itself) and we have heard unbelievable amounts of nonsense equating scientific respectability with the ability to conduct “experiments”, and exhorting humanistic disciplines to become “more scientific” by devising and conducting more of them, idiotic as they may be. And oh, my God, have they heeded the exhortations! Led by some of the disciplines I accuse (Economics, Sociology and Psychology are the most egregious violators) each has tried to outdo the other and buttress their scientific bona fides by imagining the most hare-brained experiences, extracting from them the most fantastic (and less grounded) consequences. In the process they have not only made fools of themselves (hence the “irreproducibility crisis” that funnily enough affects mostly psychology, but not high energy physics: unsurprisingly, most psychology experiments are bunk ) but they have sullied the whole scientific enterprise, to the extent that people from a humanistic background now question the validity of the purest (and better ascertained) disciplines (like Pickering did in Constructing Quarks and Latour in Laboratory Life) and maintain that they are not “discovering” anything at all, but “constructing” (or better yet, “socially constructing”) what they purportedly find.

I can only (once more) express my distaste by such intellectually dishonest shenanigans, a lot of them founded on a misreading of Kuhn (his Structure of Scientific Revolutions probably deserve the title of “most misused and misquoted writing of the whole Western Canon”). Sadly, for the completeness of my argument it will be necessary to delve a bit deeper in why the criticism of “true” science coming from these particular quarter is unwarranted.  

IV.                A brief aside on the experimental method

Most people do not grasp the extent of the intertwining between modern physics and modern mathematics, and how puzzling that is. The fact that nature herself teaches us how to model not just the phenomena we observe, but every conceivable kind of phenomenon, and how we keep on finding new and unexpected instances of such phenomena is for me a ceaseless source of amazement. But instead of waxing rhapsodic, let’s talk a bit about models, and their legitimate use. A model is a simplification of some aspect of nature that we want to study, and that simplification normally is expressed in mathematical “language”. What that means is that it picks out some features of the aspect that are “measurable” (capable of being expressed in number) and establishes some relationship between those features. An example may help understand it better: if I want to know where Saturn will be in certain date, I make a model of the Solar system, and describe with mathematical formulas the relevant parameters (like how many planets there are, how heavy they are, their relative positions at a certain moment in time how much does the sun weight, etc.) which then I can verify. The number of parameters is finite (it may be very simple and reduced if I do not require a great precision, and it gets more and more complex as I try to reduce the uncertainty associated with such lack of precision) and there are two very interesting features of a good model that have to be highlighted:

·         Even if the mathematical model does not have an analytic solution (if there is no known formula for “finding” procedurally the value of a certain parameter given the values of all the rest) it always has the next best thing: the possibility of being approximated by a series that a) always is solvable and b) can reach as much precision as we want (the discrepancy between the value of the series and the value of the unknown expression is “bounded”, and by performing additional calculations –by extending the number of terms of the series- we can make that bound as small as we want)

·         The model is self-contained, and does not depend on any external variable that can affect it in a non-linear way. In our case, we know that gravity is the only force that influences appreciably the position and speed of the solar bodies, and that as it diminishes reasonably quickly (with the square of the distance) it stops being significant beyond certain distances, so taking into account only the most massive bodies of the system we can be fairly certain that we will reach a solution precise enough. Most crucially, we know that we can discard “everything” outside the model with the confidence that it will not distort the results: the phase of Earth’s moon: irrelevant; the position of the constellation of Taurus: irrelevant; the eye color of whoever runs the model: irrelevant; the amount of people dying of hunger in Ethiopia: irrelevant… and so on and so on

Now I want to direct my readers’ attention to the difference with the models constructed in the social sciences: are the models able to obtain a “convergent” solution? Dunno, as the equations that are used to represent the relationship between the observed variables are themselves an approximation already. No way to say then what discrepancy there might be between what the model predicts and what will actually be observed, or to make that discrepancy smaller by performing additional calculations.  Are the models self-contained and reasonably free of the influence of parameters not considered in them? Hardly, indeed controlling for potentially confounding factors is one of the greatest challenges in such “experiments”, and it can always be claimed (and frequently is, as recently highlighted by the responses of the original experimenters to Nosek findings that I mentioned in the above linked post) that the lack of replication is due to the fact that some important parameter (not originally recognized as such) has not been considered and adequately reproduced. But if such is the case (if they can only be truly reproduced when done with the same people in the same circumstances) then the predictive power of such experiments is close to zero, they can never be truly falsated, and they do not constitute a valid criteria of truth.

It should be clear by now that those disciplines that have staked their credibility on the over-Collingwoodian availability of such criteria of truth modeled on the experimental method are a) in deep trouble and b) willing to let the shit hit the fan and defend themselves saying that their problems really affect every human systematized search of truth, and arguing that good ol’ natural sciences are as contingent and impossible to falsate as themselves.

V.                  Construction vs. discovery

Rather than question some of the most glowing achievements of the human spirit (Quantum Electro Dynamics, for example) let’s gain some perspective here. As I mentioned in passing before, the doubters happen to come predominantly from humanistic disciplines, that for the last hundred years have seen all their attempts to build a solid, well founded, epistemically valid set of widely agreed truths demolished once and again by the stubborn reality failing to conform to their theoretical constructions (be it human behavior –psychology- or society’s evolution –sociology and political science- or the way people produce and distribute goods and services –economy). What is the common thread of such diverse fields? They all deal with (or are affected by) conscious beings… Hhmmmm, may be consciousness itself has something to do with their failure? What have we said before about some classification that happened to distinguish between conscious beings being present or not? Aha! What we said is that it was advisable to separate facts from events.

As facts just happen, regardless of anybody being around to contemplate, influence, admire, applaud, bemoan or regret them, it is entirely correct to describe the endeavor of identifying them, isolating the parameters that they exhibit and whose evolution can be predicted and modelling such evolution through mathematical formulas as “discovery”. Events, on the other hand, require the participation of people, their assent or resistance. It is people’s actions (in an Arendtian sense) which shapes them, and thus can never be explained without reference to such people that makes them happen. And it is not enough to make such reference treating people as mindless constructs, because then we never can tell for sure if we are not leaving out something that can be of enormous consequences (and invalidate the model entirely). Events are properly “constructed”, and to “understand” them, to “explain” them to others we have to make our own consciousness resonate with them, we have to go to the same mental processes (or to ones as similar as possible) as those who originally lived them and made them happen.

We can then conclude that the “successful” sciences, the ones where we can see clear and undisputable progress (because they have a consistent criteria of truth, that is accepted by all practitioners, do not believe the nonsense about “incommensurable” scientific paradigms, every paradigm, and every scientific statement within such paradigms, is fully comparable and commensurable with any other) happen to describe facts, and that the unsuccessful ones, the ones whose practitioners are regularly complaining that the floor under their feet is shifting, that they don’t know what’s true any more, that the most agreed upon foundations of their craft seem to be up for grabs are the ones that happen to try to describe events.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the experimental method is valid for modeling and ascertaining the truth of facts, as has been proved once and again by the confirmation of the predictions that such models allowed to produce. Such method, however, is not valid for modeling and ascertaining the truth of events. But our whole educational/ publishing/ credentialing system is built on the faulty premise of blurring such distinction, and has been stubbornly pushing poor unsuspecting souls to use the wrong methodology in what, unsurprisingly, has been a most fruitless endeavor. Experiment! Experiment! And then, experiment some more! We have been telling countless undergraduates, and doctoral, and post-doctoral students and to their teachers alike. Only thus will you be able to pass your exams! Only thus will you be able to publish in the prestigious journals that will in the end determine the degree of success of your academic career! Only thus will you earn the respect of your peers and land the substantial grants we foolishly bestow upon such luminaries!

Nobody seems to have noticed that such “experiments”, in the course of the last century and a half, have produced nothing of social value, nothing that has stood just the test of a few decades, nothing that has either deepened our understanding of ourselves or our ability to improve our condition. But they have hopelessly tainted the disciplines that so enthusiastically have endorsed them, to the point that nothing can be expected of them at this point but their stubborn continuation along a path that should be abundantly clear by now that leads nowhere. So let’s close the schools and dismiss the schoolmasters, let the lovers of truth with an interest in such subjects go back to the tranquility of their homes, and let them start reconstructing their discourse, to see if a few years from now they can come up with something better. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

A few reasons for technological stagnation (and philosophical mediocrity)

The more I think about it, the more I believe the lack of technological progress is the real elephant on the room of any advanced (or developing, for that matter) country political agenda. The real lubricant of our whole sociopolitical compact for the last three centuries has been economic growth, and a healthy rate of growth (above 3% in advanced economies and above 5% in developing ones) is the whole difference between social decay, increasing inequality, growing tensions, diminishing hopes, reduced quality of life for almost everybody (see the statistics of middle-income Americans regarding life expectancy and suicide rate… for an even more depressing picture look at Russian statistics, almost for any age and income group) and their opposite. Want a good grasp of how important growth is? Look no further than this passionate (and long!) post by John Cochrane: If GDP grows, everything will be good again . In other posts I’ve argued (more or less obliquely, as usual No way Jose) that there are two main engines of GDP growth: innovation and demography, and that both have mostly stalled in the last three to four decades. Given the pressure we already exert on the resources of our finite planet, I would be very cautious to propose a return to unchecked demographic growth (and the kind of bucolic futures I tend to imagine are conspicuously lacking in it), but it would seem that innovation is the gift that keeps on giving: it helps (rather: it causes) society to be able to produce more with less consumption of non-renewable resources, and it helps most people be better off, even if the growth it fuels is not very equitably distributed.   

But as regular readers already know, I’ve contended a number of times that innovation is as dead as demographic growth, and I’ve pointed to our global “system” as main culprit for such lack of technological progress (Progress is toast!, No progress, no kids! and  No progress, no money for money!) . In this post I want to look more closely at what aspects of the system are inimical to technology’s advance, and hint at what could be done to alleviate them.

1. Diminishing returns and the increasing weight of tradition

The usually brilliant Tyler Cowen pointed recently to the following little article about the puzzle of great philosophers being clustered in bygone times: The mediocrity of philosophy's greats (!!) when the whole population of Attica (which produced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in a few decades) was far smaller than a suburb of current Athens (and infinitely smaller than New York, Sao Paulo or Beijing). The conclusion of the writer is that, IF philosophical talent is more or less evenly distributed, there must be thousands (may be even millions) of people as philosophically gifted as Plato (and possibly much more) walking around, so we should not think so highly of the old fogeys… The argument fails on a number of levels:  if I think there isn’t anybody remotely as brilliant as Plato around is not because I am unconsciously biased in favor of Plato (rather the opposite, I spent much of my youth virulently despising and criticizing him, and it has taken me many years to realize how asinine my criticism was), but because the works of philosophy being produced today, where the number of people professionally devoted full time to the elaboration of philosophy is greater than ever, are almost universally a big load of worthless crap. So there is indeed a puzzle that cries for explanation, and surely the solution is not to dismiss it as the result of uncritical idolization of the classics. I would suggest that a possible reason why it was easy for Plato to do great philosophy, while it’s almost impossible for any living philosopher, is because Plato found an almost completely uncultivated soil in which to formulate his theories. Yup, he had the presocratics, the Eleatics and the like, but those were not “real” philosophers in the modern sense (or maybe in my more limited sense), more like the traditional sages that every culture has and honors (I recently commented disparagingly on a little piece of nonsense in the NYT advocating that Confucius should be taught in our hopelessly parochial philosophy schools alongside Kant… sorry but no, too many silly little pet “thinkers” already clutter the curricula to add a mythical figure of whom we have only retained the foggiest and most distorted fragments, whose translation depends vastly more on the mood and background of the translator than on whatever the revered figure supposedly said). You may argue he had Socrates blazing the trail before him, but I’ve come more and more to the hold the opinion that Socrates (or at least the Socrates we have come to know) is in a 90% an invention of Plato. So not only could he afford to be original, he really had no other option, and in the realm of thought originality is 60% of greatness. Ditto for Aristotle, only even more so, thanks to his knack for systematizing and identifying new fields of enquiry that could be talked about. Indeed, Aristotle somewhat surveyed the whole field of what can be grasped with some structure by the human mind, so after him the field where some innovation could be displayed got considerably smaller, to the point that after the truly great philosopher (Kant) we only find comparatively minor figures detailing what this or that word means, and what trivial implication such meaning is supposed to have (see the most recent entry in Mr. Lewis list: Wittgenstein). In a similar vein, I recently read this very interesting article Reading Augustine's mind about how part of the greatness of St. Augustine can be explained by the fact that he didn’t speak Greek, so a lot of the teaching of Church’s fathers and patriarchs were unavailable to him, and that allowed him to be much more innovative, and reach some bold conclusions that marked a real (unintended) discontinuity with the Church’s traditions, especially regarding individual will (free or not) and the relationship between temporal and ecclesiastical power that still do resonate with us today.

It stands to reason that what applies to philosophy may apply also to the hard sciences. I know the dominant narrative is that in science, much to the chagrin of people devoted to other pursuits, knowledge seems to accumulate, and as Newton famously said, new researchers can “stand in the shoulder of giants” that preceded them, so they expand the range of their discoveries without having to revisit or question them. Such triumphalist view (which I mostly subscribe, by the way) has been heavily questioned in the last four decades (a questioning that stems mainly from envy and frustration, in my humble opinion), with feeble and convoluted arguments about the social character of the scientific enterprise and the incommensurability of the different paradigms under which it operates. I do not share such opinions, but I’m starting to believe that when applying our understanding of how nature works to solve the problems of everyday (and not so everyday) life, it is advantageous to be able to approach them as unburdened by the weight of previous solutions as possible. In a similar vein to what Clayton Christensen described in The Innovator’s Dilemma, engineers and technicians (and physicists and chemists) can not avoid, when investigating how to solve a practical problem (from the design of a steam turbine to the calculations needed to define the dimension of a coil to keep plasma confined in a fusion reactor) to resort to what has worked in the past, and do only the minimal tweaks required to adapt it to new requirements. That worked great while there were numerous areas where little previous experience exited (think about designing bubble chambers to perform high-energy physics experiments), but it is more and more stifling when what is required is to improve on highly developed technologies (think about improving the power train of a car, which requires infinitesimal changes on the internal combustion engine that has been refined and optimized for more than a century). Counterintuitive as it may seem, I am contending that it was easier for Newcomen to come up with a design for a steam engine (when there were no steam engines around, and the technology for building them –metallurgy, precision machining, interchangeable parts- was not yet developed) in the XVIIIth century than what it is today for a team of inventors to come up with a new design for a vehicle’s motor (be it internal combustion, electric or anything else), with almost any conceivable line of approach has been exhaustively developed and is likely protected by a patent (more on that later).    

2. The (mostly dead) weight of regulation

But it is not only tradition, and the amount of things already discovered, tried and commented upon that makes innovation harder than ever. A growingly complex society, to protect itself and its growing wealth necessarily produces increasing amounts of legislation every activity has to comply with. I’ll illustrate the difficulties imposed by such unwieldy mass with two examples: traditional (fission) nuclear reactors and disruptive fusion reactors.

I recently was asked by my good friend Pedro what did I think of a new design of fuel rods for nuclear power plants, announced in the MIT technology review: New fuel could make nuclear power safer and cheaper (keep on dreaming) … summarizing my longish answer, it seemed cool, but had as many chances of ever being put into practice as a snowball of surviving three millennia in Hell. Note that this is a modification on current fuel rod design that would not require major modifications in the existing plants, and if it could “burn” for 18 months instead of the current 14-16 it would allow for very substantial economies, making nuclear energy (even) more economically attractive. However, being a major modification of the approved design, it would need to be approved by the NRC first, and by each country where it was to be applied regulatory body afterwards. Processes that take years (if not decades), as it has to be proven that the proposed changes do not make the installations any less safe, which requires countless calculations, possibly building prototypes to validate the calculations, and unbelievable amounts of paperwork to demonstrate the reliability and solidity of all the process. That in a nutshell is why we still build 2nd generation reactors in India and China (and few places elsewhere). Getting “licenses” for anything more advanced (and believe me, there are designs that put to utter shame that 2nd generation ones) has proved an insurmountable barrier. In France they got the license for a 3rd generation one, the AP1000, and guess what? Actually building it (in Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland) under the national regulator supervision is what has put the final nail in Nuclear Energy’s coffin, at least regarding “the West”, as an unholy mix of regulatory incompetence (continuously adding new “safety” criteria of dubious value, especially if compared with their skyrocketing impact in the final cost) and the industry’s loss of capabilities (after one lost generation there are just not enough welders, electricians and piping erection companies able to construct a plant up to nuclear standards, something that was done routinely thirty years ago).

That’s a highly biased summary of what afflicts nuclear fission, and what explains that, in the West at least, we are done with such energy source most likely forever (we have chosen instead to keep on burning fossil fuels surreptitiously while we collectively whitewash our consciences signing toothless treatises that forbid us to do so). But what about that other promising inexhaustible, clean, source, fusion energy? Aren’t we making gigantic progress in that area? Nope, we are not making anything of the sort. We have put most of our collective eggs in one single basket, ITER (a still experimental Tokamak being built in Cadarache, France). And ITER, as could not be otherwise, has been spiraling out of control both regarding cost and schedule. I still remember when I was studying nuclear engineering the exhilaration and anticipation with which we received the news that ITER had been approved, and that it would be built in a neighboring country. Fusion energy was just around the corner, and may be we would be designing the first power plants for its commercial exploitation. Well, my son will go to university in a couple of years, and honestly even he will not be designing those plants (that doesn’t mean ITER is not a worthy endeavor, again, it will simply take longer and cost more than planned, but we exhausted the low hanging fruit of technological development many decades ago). One of the reasons? In a pigheaded decision to appease the host country’s regulators, it was decided that ITER was a INB (Nuclear Base Installation, when what it really is is a huge laboratory to experiment with the basic plasma physics we need to master before being able to move forward), thus subject to a veritable deluge of additional regulation to comply with (now there were thousands upon thousands of “safety important activities” and “safety important components” that needed to meet “defined requirements” and had to be endlessly documented before and after to ensure they were safely safe enough…). Long story short, they added 5-10 years to the completion of ITER, and multiplied the costs by a factor of 2-3.

As both examples have been taken from the field of energy production, it may look like I’m advocating a deregulation of the nuclear industry. Far from it, in a recent post (Confessional ) I mulled about the failure of my profession, and one of the lessons we learned in the incident that triggered the whole reflection was that an excessive proximity between the regulator and the industry was counterproductive. Indeed, the excess in regulation as a drag on economic growth has been a recurring gripe of liberal and neoliberal economists, as recently quantified by John Cochrane, citing a paper by Coffey, Mc Laughlin and Peretto: Regulations and Growth

3. The wrong incentives: short-termism and monopoly rent seeking

If I were asked about the most frustrating moment in my whole professional life, I wouldn’t have any problem to point it with exactitude: Nine years ago, in Mexico, I was in charge of a complex implementation (a CRM package in an incumbent cellular operator with no culture of IT innovation). Things were slowly coming along, and we had already completed the development and were rolling out the system successfully, but (as it always does) it was slower and costlier than our initial estimates had forecasted. However, as the client was already seeing the benefits of the new system, the relationship was in a healthy state and we believed we could later on sell them additional services that would compensate the overcosts we were incurring. Unfortunately we were approaching the end of our fiscal quarter, and back in my home office my boss (who oversaw all of Latin America, and Spain and Portugal) had experienced some losses in some other projects, and needed some good news and a cash injection to compensate, so he called me to find out why my client was late in some of his payments. I explained him the situation, and how we were managing the whole account prudently to ensure we strengthened the relationship and built mutual trust, and gained mutual benefits from a successful completion of the project (you probably know, the usual business jargon claptrap). He essentially told me to shove it, and get the client to pay the bills, even if I completely alienated him and would never be able to do business with him again (because he would see us as what we ultimately were, a bunch of greedy bastards who were on his side as long as the good money kept coming, and fled the moment some difficulties arose). There I got the clearest lesson in what short-termism means in my whole life. What made business sense was to take a very minor (and temporary) loss in a promising client, to ensure a good long term relationship. What made “true” sense was to obey my boss, get the money, reduce the team supporting the client to cut my losses, and go look for the next sucker to fleece. I did get the money, I did lose the client short afterwards and I was so disillusioned with that management style that I was soon replaced in the position of account manager in the country (and returned to Europe to a quite lackluster chapter of my career, until I finally switched companies, I now know that’s what marked the beginning of my fall). Such is life, but since then I’ve noticed the huge amount of decisions taken not with a view of the best possible outlook (if that outlook takes longer than the profit-reporting cycle), but with a view towards what the investors, or the analyst that act as their surrogates, may say in the next investor’s conference, or in the next filing of the quarterly results to the SEC.

I can not avoid thinking that the kind of pressures I (and every person in charge of sales) I felt to improve “a bit” the quarterly results is also felt by the people in charge of large R&D projects the world over. Hell, even in ITER (and in CERN) they have been told to tweak the progress reports (and even to bend the planned schedule) to be able to communicate some milestones as achieved that were “close to being achieved” (or not so close, but the internal dynamics of each program call for different levels of dissembling). Same with the lab personnel of pharmaceutical and biochemical companies (the likely origin of the Theranos fiasco?). We just put too much pressure on researchers and innovators to deliver when the market needs to hear news from them, which may be very different of what would make more sense from an internal development perspective.

The focus on short term results and disregard of those consequences that may require more time to play out is bad enough, but there may be an even more perverse force sapping the capacity of our society to innovate. Since the time of Shakespeare (which, according to free-market apologists, wrote Hamlet purely out of desire for material gain, and not out of the sheer genius that throbbed to be expressed within his tortured soul), it’s been believed that the best way to promote a behavior considered socially valuable was to incentivize it with pecuniary rewards, so it is just natural that we want to ensure that the authors of innovations can reap the benefits of their ingenuity. To that end we have developed a robust system of patents and copyrights that should protect the “intellectual property” of the creative entrepreneurs and thus motivate them to develop new ideas, in the belief that they will be properly rewarded for their exertions. Resorting to a trope that I may be abusing a bit of late, anybody that thinks that’s how the patent system works please contact me, as I have a nice bridge in Brooklyn I am willing to sell for a pittance. Far from ensuring a fair reward for the meritorious inventor’s creativity, the copyright protection system that has in effect crystalized is a monstrosity oriented to facilitate monopoly rent seeking by those big enough and sophisticated enough to navigate a system of bewildering complexity. Obtaining a patent is both costly and time consuming, and it seems to benefit only the lawyers and specialized paper-pushers that are unavoidably required, and far from serving as an incentive to innovate it stifles any attempted breakthrough with the threat of potential lawsuits for supposed patent infringement if some technology vaguely familiar to the proposed one already exist (and in what field are there not similar developments, of which even the most watching researcher may not be aware? Especially when the final decision of what “similarity” consists in may in the end be reached by a judge with very limited knowledge of the technology being discussed, many years and untold millions after the original suit was brought to court).

4. The (mis)measurement of wealth: focusing on the wrong metrics

If the previous reasons were not bad enough, we have at a collective level the tyranny of GDP, which only recognize as valuable those items and activities (“services” that can be exchanged in a money-mediated market) that people want to pay for. As has been noted countless times, the cleanliness of the air we breathe or the water we drink, the unspoiled view of a pristine landscape or the enjoyment of a work of art freely shared (displayed in a public space) are considered worthless, not computed, and thus not subject to be rewarded or somehow incentivized. Indeed, its preservation has been left to legislation (and we have already discussed the effect of such legislation on innovation in general). As long as politicians see as their best ticket to reelection the increase of the nation’s GDP, the development of deeper insights about man and nature will always receive the short end of the stick, and they will be able to issue regulations to protect the commons (in the best case, and only if the voice of the many manages to be heard above the interested buzz with which the few try to silence it), but not to enhance it or incentivize its enhancement.

However, it may be argued that even if the great public bodies (national and local governments) can not be counted to further the common good because they are wedded to (and are ultimately measured by) the wrong metric (GDP), there are smaller organizations devoted to the increase of knowledge and to pushing the boundaries of what that knowledge can achieve. They are the universities and the great laboratories (CERN, ITER, Salk Institute, NASA, whoever runs the ISS…) whose sole end is to research and innovate and sustain the people that devote their life to such research and provide them with the complex tools demanded by their daring experiments. Yep, sure again. I still have my bridge, by the way. How is the productivity of such geniuses being measured? By the number of publications they achieve in peer-reviewed journals, weighted by the impact index such journals can boast. That probably merits a separate post, but let me confidently state that the existence of such journals is the single individual factor most culpable of the abysmally sad state of current philosophy (and what call themselves, somewhat pompously, “social sciences”), even if it were true that we have a few hundreds of people around with the subtlety and the ability to think deeply as Kant their voice would be utterly drowned, and their talent fruitlessly wasted, in the soul-crushing mill of being forced to produce snippets of insight grotesquely hidden in layer upon layer of learned references to similarly trivial and inane works that nobody outside a minimal circle of initiates can care about. When I learned about the absurd system and how it was distorting any attempt at coherently developed systems of thought I believed it was the unintended consequence of trying to apply basically sound principles born in the “true” sciences, but now I am of the opinion that the chickens are coming back home to roost, and the natural science journals are slowly becoming similar monstrosities, and similarly stifling (instead of enhancing) the possibility of true innovation in physics, chemistry or mathematics.

5. The life poorly lived: software and finance as the wrong organizing principles

Finally, we are fooling ourselves giving social recognition to activities that are not just non value producing (that would be the “social sciences”: economics, psychology, sociology and political science) but actively value destroying. Not only do we give them social recognition, but we actively funnel our most brilliant young minds to them, thus losing them forever from the pool of potential contributors to humanity’s well being. A lot of ink has been spilled analyzing why the U S of A, a nation that dominates so many professional sports, is so abysmally mediocre at weightlifting (where not only the likes of Bulgaria, which historically has been a weightlifting powerhouse, but tiny nations as Cuba, Santo Domingo and even Vietnam, consistently produce better lifters than anything that the powerful, rich and well-fed Americans seem able to put on a platform), but a common thread (apart from the fact that they seem to think they are the only nation on Earth whose lifters do not take anabolic steroids, against all evidence) is that the more genetically blessed (the ability to produce a lot of power in a very short time being very heavily influenced by genetics, to the point of being able to eclipse whatever idiotic training regime you may want to put in the poor souls talented enough to make a good Olympic prospect) amongst them are routinely diverted to play in the NFL, which is more handsomely rewarded, thus depriving them of the raw talent that other nations can enjoy without such competition. I do not what to delve in the arcana of such puzzling lack of success (I’ll just note that I don’t believe many explosive kids that weigh 140 pounds and are 5 feet tall may decide their prospects as NFL linebackers are so brilliant as to forego a potential lifting career), but I can not fail to notice the parallelism with what I’m decrying here. How many brilliant, intelligent, creative, disciplined (all features that are very highly correlated with having a high IQ) kids are wasting, yes wasting, their talent as trial lawyers, quant analyst at investment banks or hedge funds, or programmers for a total contribution to society of exactly zero or less? As somebody else put it, may be the next Einstein instead of dreaming the next relativity theory is spending his weeks working 100-120 hours in a Silicon Valley start-up with exactly 0,001% chances of succeeding and that, if it succeeds, will be devoted to improve the hit rate of the digital advertisements  of its customers a 1%, or increase the predictions of a marketing algorithm another 1%.

Maybe things are not so dire, so it is worthwhile to share the thoughts about the end of technological innovation of Tim B. Lee (not Berners Lee, one of the parents of Internet, btw), more optimistic than mine, while not being ludicrous: On the end of economic growth
Maybe we are just at the end of the road for a number of innovations (that determine how we dress, in what dwellings we live and work and how we move between them) although we can find alternative roads where a lot of innovations are still to be seen (Tim seems to have great expectations for VR). I am more of the persuasion that our whole system has catastrophically strayed from the path of truth, goodness and beauty, and is becoming more and more unable to find any of them. It is crumbling under the weight of its contradictions, seeming to be able to pick from its rich past only those aspects that more hobble its pursuit of a better state. The globality of the world will still progress for some decades as the poorest places play catch up with what the West developed mostly between 1750 and 1970 (and which is not capable of keeping on developing), and after that I can only see a new dark age coming, whether it will take the form of a prolonged technical stasis or a spectacular collapse and devolution to our historical average, I can not yet tell.

Just to cheer you up before finishing, I’ll remind you of what that average looks like:

·         Lifespan: 25 years

·         Income: 300-500 $/year (2010 dollars)

·         Infant mortality: 400-600 per 1.000 live births

·         Inequality: Gini index between 40 and 60 (well, the USA is almost there)

Given that’s what the future most likely reserves us, I’d rather take my time to get there.