Thursday, March 23, 2017

The shape of dominant reasons to come

If you are a regular (the regular?) reader of this blog you already know that you should be devoting all your waking hours to craft a new, healthier dominant reason to replace the crumbling, failing one that has been keeping Western societies together since roughly 1750, and the whole world since 1950.

OK, all your waking hours may be a bit of a stretch, it would still be a worthy and courageous and gallant feat to devote a few hours a day to such complex endeavor. Problem is, dominant reasons are defined by being unquestioningly accepted by the vast majority of members of the societies in which they take hold, which means here and now that for your (or mine) effort to bear fruit you need to convince about 7 billion people (give or take a few million here and there) that:

·         The ultimate goal of their life is wrong, what they have been told a life well lived consists in is crap, the definitive good they strive for is a poisonous lie. They need instead to orient all their energies towards “A”

·         The socially sanctioned desires they have been nurtured to harbor, cherish and satisfy are internally incoherent, self-defeating and a source of discontent and dissatisfaction with their own lives. They need instead to start desiring “B”

·         The criterion for deciding your position (and everybody else’s) in the social hierarchy, which determines who yields to whom, who gives orders and who obeys, how the products of the collective efforts are apportioned and who gets precedence and recognition in every public gathering is unjust, unfair and illegitimate. We need to substitute it with “C”

Seems like quite a tall order, doesn’t it?  Specially when neither you nor me have the slightest, darnedest, frigginest idea of what “A”, “B” or “C” look like. To make things even more difficult, their current configuration, somewhat obscured by what good ol’ Karl called a “superstructure” that obfuscates its real nature, has produced a historically unparalleled prosperity and opportunity for enjoyment between the masses. I don’t want to wax too rhapsodical about the benefits and advantages of our current system (I already did in Da System, you know ), but if you want to change the underlying justification that has, in the first place, conjured literally billions of people into existence (no other combination of answers to social organization basic questions has proved, in all of our species history, to produce enough wealth to allow as many of us to be born and survive into reproductive age) and then lifted so many of them out of poverty (regardless of what some theorists, mostly of a Marxian bend, may enjoy pointing out to the soul-crushing, unacceptable, astronomical inequalities of today’s society, they are nothing special seem from a historical perspective, and they constitute the norm rather than the exception of how humans tend to organize their affairs, romanticized imaginings of a “golden age” in our common past aside), you have to be very sure of what you intend to put in its place, as it has many, many, many more chances of making things worse than of improving them (see every experiment of reforming society along entirely new lines, unburdened by the ideas of the past, of the last three centuries, practically anywhere in the world).

What I mean with such “justificatory” reminder (lest my readers forget I tend to group philosophers in two broad camps, one being the former, the other formed by the “critics”) is that there is a strong, well intentioned case to be made for a strong conservatism, as any changes in the basic fabric of social relations (and dominant reason is the most basic of those fabrics, as it constitutes the pre-condition for people being able to agree about anything at all) that has brought us here would be vastly more likely to do harm than good. What I will kindly bring to the attention of my readers is that we are not in normal times, and caution in this case may not be the best part of courage, but the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Having acknowledged that the elements of our dominant reason haven’t become dominant by sheer luck, but because they also happened to be the ones that made the societies which embraced them militarily more powerful (and thus in a Darwinian fashion eliminating those that were more lukewarm in their adoption), we should also remember that the “fitness” of a system (understood as the dominant reason that sets the tone of what ideas have chances of being implemented plus the institutions and customs and mental habits that embody their implementation) is a function of the environment in which it evolves, and that the environment has as much to say about how it thrives (or shrivels) as the system itself.

And what I’ve been arguing in my last posts about technological stagnation, the decadence and demise of our social model and the impending doom of most of what we hold dear (a functioning society, for starters) is that the wild success of desiderative reason has so much altered the landscape that originally facilitated its bloom as to render itself entirely “unfit”. What until now has worked so brilliantly to displace and annihilate any rival system has become completely maladaptive, like a virus that, having colonized most of the cells of its host organism, has little room for expansion short of killing it, and thus condemning itself. Consider:

·      Demography sucks: There is no demographic growth, and in the most advanced societies (Japan, Korea, Singapore, Western Europe, the USA once you take last-generation immigrants from the birth rolls) there is an accelerating population contraction. This is not an aftereffect of the 2008 recession, as the tendency had been brewing for decades. You may search for fancier or fanciest underlying explanations, but I’ll stick to the simpler one (which I’ve dubbed “the gonadal vote”): for most people in those societies, life is simply not worth living. They may not confess it, and even declare to pollsters that their “subjectively perceived life satisfaction” is a 4 or a 5 in a Likert scale of 5, but facts talk louder than words, and the surest way to know how they really feel about their life “all things considered” is to assess to what extent they would fight and exert themselves to extend it to other people (namely, their children). Applying that metric, the undeniable answer seems to be “not much, really”.   

·      Innovation sucks: There is not much technological advance. I know this assertion goes against the grain (to put it mildly) and flies in the face of a real deluge of assertions by journalists and “opinion makers” that insist every single minute and every single day that we are living in the most wondrous, most “disruptive” of times. I’ll remind my readers that a career in journalism consists essentially in acquiring the ability to talk about something you do not understand at all to people (the proverbial masses) that understand about it even less than you. Any doubt? Try to read in the MSM (or even in specialized media) a single article about a subject you are truly knowledgeable about without feeling a) sorry b) indignant or c) shocked by the amount of stupidity, bias, half-truths, common places and outright lies it contains. It is safe to assume the rest of the content is not much better, so extract your own conclusions. So we can safely ignore what journos say (I’m looking at you, Tom Friedman). Regarding opinion makers, they all suspiciously hold titles (either consultants or venture capitalists, or hacks for the former) that make them very likely to benefit from the anxieties and doubts of a society duped into believing that seismic changes are just about to submerge them in a sea of unprecedented innovation. I may devote more time to explain why this society in fact innovates so little (completely head-over-heels incentives, which reward blatant and naked rent seeking instead of risk taking), but as of now, just take my word for it.

Please note I’m not saying no invention will ever again be made. I do not have the slightest clue of what creative contraptions the fewer and fewer true innovators out there may come up with. Neither does Mr. Friedman, or Ray Kurzweil or Elon Musk or Peter Thiel (which doesn’t prevent them from confidently stating that an “AI revolution is just around the corner”… it is not). What I do have is a strong and well informed hunch that the majority of “revolutionary” technologies now in the making will disappoint and fizzle out, that truly disruptive inventions are few and far between, and that our society requires growing amounts of resources to keep a similar pace of innovation to the already anemic one we have grown accustomed to, and that marshaling those resources is gonna be more and more difficult to accomplish.

·      Economics sucks: Even in the realm in which the societies that embraced desiderative reason excelled, the production of material goods, there is not much growth. Well, of course, if demand doesn’t grow (rather the opposite, as there are less and less consumers around due to demographic contraction) and supply doesn’t become more and more effective (due to lack of technological advances that have any measurable impact on productivity, regardless of what brilliant algorithm some kids are developing to play obscure Asian ancestral games better and better) why, oh, why on God’s green Earth would you, a responsible industrialist, want to expand your production? Why incur in the same or more costs (as you can not wring any more productivity from your current factors of production) if you are not going to be able to sell more and more products (as there are not going to be more consumers, and those that are already in the market are not going to have additional income to spend) and thus obtain greater benefits?

Please note I’m not saying no economy will ever grow again, and that the current  trend of long recessions followed by underwhelming (albeit sustained) growth periods will last forever. The whole world right now seems to be in a sweet spot, every major economy growing and with no major scares in the horizon (just like in March 2007, isn’t it reassuring?). The West is not growing its GDP at a dazzling speed (again, compared with the central decades of the XXth century, that really seem to have utterly spoiled us), but growing it is. Ditto for India, China and even Latin America. True, and I’m the first one to rejoice in such blessed state of affairs. But I just don’t see it as either sustainable or equitably distributed (as 99% of the added production is being hoarded by the wealthiest 1% of the population, something that has been happening since the 70’s of last century, as shown in the “chicken graph” I painstakingly devised here: The lies we are told ).So yep, China will experience its ups and downs, more of the former than the latter. It will hit some major bump in the road, and it may get pretty ugly (major social upheaval, overthrowing of the CCP, those kind of things), and then it will resume growth, approaching asymptotically the more advanced economies (that means: never really completely catching up with them, not in this century at least). Ditto for India. Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the USA? Minimal growth in per capita terms, and negligible one aggregated, when seen with enough perspective. Sorry to bring bad news, it is what it is.

·      But politics sucks even more: As a result of the three previous trends, politics is broken beyond repair. Most groups have been historically appeased (made to accept their subordinate status) with the promise of an ever growing economy that would, sooner rather than later, “lift all boats”. For a good portion of the XXth century (the period between 1945 and 1970) that promise hold (more or less) true. But not any more. At this point, 90% of the population is proletarian (in the Toynbeean, not in the Marxist, sense). They do not identify themselves with the values, the tastes, the preferences or the policy choices of the 10% that concentrates roughly 100% of the wealth (and 80% of the income, static riches are much more unequally distributed than monetary flows). The 10% favors free trade, open borders, multiculturalism, a meritocratic distribution of outcomes (heavily biased by the differences in endowments different people start with in life) and market based allocation of resources like health services, housing and infrastructure. The 90% favors protectionism (that right or wrong they associate with better paid jobs and labor stability) and restrictions to immigration, identifies chauvinistically with their parochial nation and culture, want to equalize opportunity and a needs based (communal) allocation of resources that ensures that everybody receives a bare minimum compatible with human dignity. Or they will, if the elite hadn’t inadvertently discovered (since the eve of time?) that the best bridle to the masses redistributionist impulses was to show them an easily identifiable outgroup that lived worse than them, and that would thus benefit more from such redistribution. What in the USA so noticeably happens between the non-college educated whites and other minorities: they have been taught to associate taxes with improving the lot of blacks and latinos (to the point of almost reaching their level of consumption), and thus they would rather slash taxes on the rich and be themselves worse off, as long as said outgroup is considerably worse off (the way McCloskey tells it, they choose to have one of their eyes plucked off, as long as their neighbor has both of theirs plucked).

In this case, I am positively saying that I see no respite or occasional improvement in the horizon. Lacking a common understanding of what the good life consists in and how to legitimately pursue such life, we will continue seeing more and more rent seeking, more and more outrageous inequality, more and more traditional politicians deaf to their electorate’s needs (and running for office just to make a buck, or a load of bucks, from it), more and more “anti-system” parties with no positive program, kept together by mere scorn and detestation of any particular pet cause that happens to push their buttons, attracting increasing percentages of the vote and producing more and more hurtful outcomes (Brexit, Trump, Front Nationale, whatever, expect more of them…) This is the area where we can more clearly see that the system is crumbling, that the elites just want to extract as much rent from everybody else as humanly possible (I’ll expand a bit in how they use Economics to justify and legitimize such extraction in a forthcoming post), that the vast majority has been turned into proletarian masses more and more opposed to such elites, but contented and neutered and unable to offer an alternative vision of their own, capable only of saying no, distrusting any “expert” opinion (from climate change to vaccines) and turning to increasingly more destructive ideologies (from radical Islam to alt-right ethno-phantasies).

Given all that, I hope my readers share at least a bit of my concern and my urgency for developing a viable alternative reason that can prevent such dire tendencies, and arrest our slide into ever less functioning social mores.

But starting to shape such alternative will, once again, have to wait for another post…

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

So how is decadence and societal decay going in your corner of the world?

Time for some merry thoughts and uplifting ideas, amid the general squalor of the latest news. Consider:

-          The probability of Geert Wilders winning the Dutch elections now stands close to 50%. They were as high as 80% in February, but latest polls give him about 22 seats in a 151 seats parliament, coming in 2nd or 3rd. Even if he wins, no other party has declared they would be willing to consider a coalition with him, so his chances of becoming prime minister and enacting any of his proposed policies (from a Muslim ban to leaving the European Union) seem basically zilch. According to the (mostly liberal) press Wilders is a bigot, a xenophobe, an anti-muslim candidate whose PVV party is the Netherlands version of the old German NSDAP, and whose election would usher in an age of darkness and turmoil in which his country would leave the EU, expel its foreign population and impose an ethno-state based on racial discrimination and exclusion. If you hear him without that filter, he is a mediocre candidate with a peculiar hair saying things that were non-controversial (and pretty commonplace) twenty years ago but which our politically correct times have turned unimaginable. As the vote is being conducted today, we will have a clearer picture in a few hours, but my hunch is that this first attempt at electing a “European Trump” will fizzle and turn out to be the proverbial storm in a teapot. Not so sure about what may happen in a month in France, though.

-          It’s been eight years since the last recession, and we don’t seem to see any major crises in the horizon, at least in the USA. So we may be on our way to beat the longest expanse of time ever recorded without a recession (10 years, achieved both between 1961-1971 and 1991-2001). Admittedly, like in so many periods of “great moderation” before things doesn’t seem so great for significant numbers. Even with technically full employment, labor force participation rate is the lowest ever, salaries have been mostly stagnant since the 70’s, median income has barely budged and there is an opioid epidemic (again, talking just about the USA here) that has contributed to life expectancy to decrease, a historical first in absence of major war or epidemic.

-          Although Theresa May announced last year that she would invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty on March, and thus effectively trigger the exit of the UK from the Union, she hasn’t taken the step yet, although she has just received the explicit authorization of parliament (with a majority of the MPs being less than enthusiast about such vote, one has to applaud the ability of the prime minster to strong-arm them and bend their will). With an unexpected gain for  the Republican party in Northern Ireland and the Scots threatening with a new independence vote (fueled this time by their desire to remain in Europe, regardless of what the English have decided, and apparently unconcerned by the barriers that countries with independent-favoring minorities of their own would oppose to any newborn state) it seems this would be the time for extra caution and circumspection. But after botching so badly the whole voting process and what has come afterwards I don’t expect this particular piece of cheerful news to last long… 

-          After more than two months in the Trump presidency, no major war has broken out, no twitter feud has absurdly escalated in a nuclear exchange, and no sector of the economy has imploded. Furthermore, every major initiative of the president has either stagnated or quietly fizzled. No wall is being built in the southern border. No commercial treaty has been repudiated. Obamacare repeal is growing more unpopular by the day (more markedly since the Republicans actually spelled what they would replace it with). There seems to be a “kinda” ban on immigration from seven (six according to last count) mostly Muslim countries more or less in place after a disastrous first attempt at implementation, but one has to wonder what percentage of Muslims traveling to the USA it has actually deterred (shocking piece of news for liberals -or Trump follower that believe their man is delivering on his campaign promises: there are many, many more Muslims living outside those countries than inside, and all of them are free to enter the USA without impediments). I know relaxing after so short a time, for lack of such astoundingly bad outcomes is setting the bar absurdly low, but remember we are trying to work up our spirits here… on the big order of things, what the 45th president has done so far seems to confirm that inexpediency, ineptitude and stupidity will be the defining marks of his administration, and although an occasional nuisance such trifecta is likely to have limited effects on the global economy, which so far seems to be coasting along just fine.

I’m still uncertain about the effect it will have on the impending American (second) Civil War, as it doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all to ameliorate the venomous partisanship that has taken hold of the public. So far, his supporters seem to be very pleased of how well things are going, with his man keeping his promises (easy to do when you have promised every thing and its contrary) and showing the middle finger to the despised “establishment” with a new outrage every day (as long as you don’t include in such establishment, that is, the half dozen ex-Goldman Sachs Directors he has appointed to different positions in his administration), and the only remaining hope is that after a few more months of inaction and economic decline of the majority of whites without college education that gave him the crucial mid-Western states they will turn again him and his enablers, feeling betrayed (or duped, or manipulated) and stop watching Fox and hearing Rush Limbaugh and the like. Although that narrative is presented as highly likely by liberal sources, I’m somewhat sceptic about it, and can very well imagine Trump followers maintaining a Republican majority in both Houses in the midterms of 2018, and even giving him a second term.

-          China continues to grow at a reasonable pace, slowly converging to a rate more in line with that of an already advanced (medium income) economy, but still overperforming them all:

Although you have to (always, and the same applies to the national accounting of any developed world country) take the figures cautiously, it seems that the World’s most populous country (yet, soon to be surpassed by India, more on which in a moment) is advancing in the transformation of its economic structures from an export-driven model to one more supported by internal consumption, in both cases hugely dependent on a tremendous capital investment which will be more and more difficult to sustain (and that more and more exceeds its internal savings capacity, which in absence of a trade surplus explains its growing resource to borrowing, and hence increasing debt).

More interesting for the world’s poor, that other huge economy that in previous decades seemed condemned to eternal stagnation is for some years now showing signs of activity, and is slowly (but sure-footedly) in the path to growth, having the “advantage” of starting from a substantially lower level, and thus having more room to play catch up:

You may have noted that many of the reasons to be cheerful are things that have NOT come to pass yet, but will surely do, sooner or later. If not Wilders in the Netherlands, some populist will come to power in a European country (Marine Le Pen will have a good shot soon, Viktor Orban is already in power in Hungary, as is Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland -I know, the prime minister is nominally Beata Szydlo, recently injured in a car crash, but my Polish friends assure me it is Kaczynski who calls the shots). May will invoke article 50 and the UK will be gone, gone, gone, into international irrelevance and economic oblivion (more or less, not that Europe will be doing so much better), with or without Northern Ireland and Scotland. We will have another recession at some point. Trump, of course, may cause a catastrophe in any moment. China is building the World’s biggest credit bubble, and it will burst, and it will be pretty ugly (all the irrational investments made in the last decades to keep things going will be revealed, and forestall any possibility of state-led aggregate demand growth for many years, believe me, I know how it works).  

And we don’t have a clue of when any of those may happen, and how to prepare for them. What we do know is that economic growth will be disappointing and technological advance will be more hype than reality: no “general purpose” artificial intelligence in our lifetime, most likely no self-driving cars, for sure no commercially viable fusion energy, no human in Mars, no permanent base on the moon. Regardless of what wealthy investors and consultants with much to gain from causing “technological anxiety” in gullible CEOs will keep on parroting. Just wonder, who has more to gain from people fearing an ever-accelerating mysterious technology that, although somehow failing to materialize in any measurable metric like TFP growth or life expectancy improvement, continuously threatens every employee of boss with becoming obsolete if they do not pay the dues of the technologically savvy priests of progress that are always knowledgeable about the latest trends (maybe because they themselves conjured them from thin air, regardless of their actual existence)?

If the economy and technology are more likely to disappoint us than not, in the political realm is where things look positively grim. Remember, the dominant reason that allowed Western societies to surge forward since the middle of the XVIII century and that in its latest incarnation became global (desiderative reason) is broken beyond repair, and is not doing the work that a dominant reason is supposed to do: allowing people to coordinate their collective efforts towards a goal universally acknowledged as worthy, through the medium of satisfying socially sanctioned desires and the immediate feedback mechanism of a widely accepted criterion for determining each member’s position in the social hierarchy.

In its absence, what we have is increasing anomia, a proliferation of both self-destructive and society-destructive behaviors in expanding pockets of fundamentalism and nihilism, growing in the margins, fed by the many disaffected that perceive they have nothing to loose, whose attacks on the mainstream foster in response a growing tribalism and nationalism. And remember, economics without technological advance is entirely unable to make the economy grow, you need productivity to substantially improve for that (and such improvement is entirely exogenous in any model).

But as for how the benefits of what society produces are shared it is not economics, but politics who holds the key. And politics require a common understanding of what constitutes a reason for its arguments and conclusions to be accepted as legitimate by the majority. When such understanding is lacking, what we have is a ruling minority keeping most of the gains of whatever lackluster technological advances there still are for themselves, and a ruled majority disconnected from the values and worldview of such minority turning in what Toynbee called a proletariat (Those pesky rebelling proles). Hhmmmm… sounds like a pretty darn accurate description of what has been happening in most of the developed world since 1970, a small fraction of society (the infamous “1%”) hoarding all the gains, and hectoring the other 99% to be more industrious, more frugal, to invest more in their own development, as they bore in the end the sole responsibility for their ultimate failure: failure to cultivate themselves, failure to acquire the needed skills for the jobs of the “new economy”, failure to earn more than their parents, failure to ascend the economic ladder, failure to lead traditional lives with ever more hectic schedules, both parents working for longer hours and less benefits.

And, guess what? People get tired of being told once and again that it is all their fault, but that if they somehow try even harder (or teach their few kids, with unbelievable sacrifices, to work even more) they will reach the promised land of consumerist bliss, when they will all have a bigger house and a more expensive car than their neighbors and their in-laws (something, I almost don’t need to clarify, statistically impossible; that’s the downside of hierarchically ordered groups). Haranguing only works for so long, and people may accept their elder’s judgment at first and internalize their shortcomings for some time, but it is very hard to sustain such belief indefinitely. Sooner or later someone will find how irresistible it is to point to “someone else” as being the real culprit of people dissatisfaction, of them not living up to what is continuously being shown as proper and deserved. As I mentioned in the previously linked post, until now we’ve seen people have protested in a mostly peaceful way, simply voting for the most obnoxious candidate on offer (so expect many more of those to pop up like mushrooms). But, again, that will solve nothing, and will ultimately lead to the discredit of the electoral system itself.

And the prospect of the disaffected masses, having rejected the until now prevalent mechanism for aggregating their will (democratically elected representatives) and sniffing for those “other people” they think are to blame for the thwarting of their ambitions, the frustration of their expectations, the abandonment of their youthful dreams, is truly terrifying. Think in torches and pitchforks. Think in riot police and secret prisons. Think in 1789 France or 1917 Russia. But in the meantime, cheer up, as things are just fine and dandy and everything seems to be going OK!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The importance of ideas (for McCloskey & for me at least)

Coming back to an old theme, I stated in a recent post that it was ideas, big bold generic overarching ambitious ideas what really mattered, more than inventions, more than the application of this or that technology to solve the puny problems we face (in the first world or in the third, the latter not so puny); More, for sure, than the well-intentioned (or mean-spirited) buffoons we seem so fixated on, be they politicians we have voted in office to advance what we understand to be our interests or popular culture media stars who we follow because (baffling as it is for media-averse me) we find their vulgar lives interesting.

On a side note, at the core of the stagnation and ultimate decadence of the post-modern, post-truth, post-economic growth society that happens to occupy the whole surface of the planet I diagnosed an exhaustion of the great ideas that allow for the people forming the society to agree and effortlessly coordinate their actions, which I called their “dominant reason”. The heart of the problem, then, is that the latest evolution of the Western World’s dominant reason, which took its current shape shortly before the onset of WWII, was less and less believed, and thus its commandments were less and less followed, thus the multiple signs of social decay, fraying societal bonds, inability to tackle collective problems (environmental degradation, growing inequality, inability to grow the social product at a speed that would allow us to honor the amount of debts we have been collectively contracting for the last half century, etc.) and overall pall of hopelessness that clearly hangs on the advanced world collective consciousness.

But back to ideas, before diving in the main argument of today’s post, I wanted to dispel an alternative narrative about the utter irrelevance of ideas that had certain currency between historians roughly aligned with the Marxist tradition, for whom the real motor of historical advance were class struggles, and the real explanation of the more readily observable events that come to define each age are the relations of production between the social classes. According to this narrative, ideas belong (with ideology, religion, mainstream discourse and political affiliations) to the “superstructure” that masks the real levers and pulleys that cause people (in their different and multifarious groupings) to act one way or another. Even people (political leaders or widely respected opinion makers) were in the end irrelevant, as corks bobbing in a powerful current. It is the current, and not the cork, which should interest us. So it is the play of productive forces and the property of the means of production what we should pay attention to, without caring much for who won this or that election, or wrote this or that book or declared this or that war. Given the technology, the relations of production and the level of self-consciousness of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat sooner or later (around the middle of the twentieth century) an autocratic leader will seize power in Germany, a war will be declared between Germany and the rest of the world, a communist country will be between the victors of such war, and in the end communism will extend to the whole Earth and abolish the State (well, that turned out to be a less than stellar prediction, so we may treat the whole historical materialistic outlook with a grain of salt).

Sounds fishy, as there are just too many examples of individuals that seem to have had an outsized impact on how events turned out. The rise of Nazism looks pretty much tied to the quirks and peculiarities of Hitler himself, and it is highly doubtful that any other figure would have guided Germany down the path he did. Ditto for Attila, Genghis Khan, Bismarck, Henry VIII of England, Louis XVI, Philip II of Spain and so on and so forth. May be in the end they all rode the waves around them, and in the very, very long run the destinies of the peoples they ruled would have been very much the same (i.e Spain a third-rate country in a more developed Europe, France a second-rate one, very much as England, the Mongol hinterlands a backwater with no relevance whatsoever after the XIIIth century to the history of any other nation), but for the peoples living in the years around their peak influence, it is undeniable that such influence was very considerable indeed. Heck, we do not even need to search for remote and (to the spectacularly unschooled modern day reader) obscure past leaders. Everybody should be familiar with how abruptly the opinion in the leading industrialized (although the term is highly misleading, I’m using It for lack of a viable alternative: ¿”knowledgealized”? ¿”information technologized”?¿”networkized”?) country, the USA, has turned against free trade, much to the surprise of most of the economic profession that thought the universal goodness of trade was an already settled and universally agreed upon tenet:

It would be difficult to argue that such sharp turn is caused by the cunning of reason, or the development of the universal spirit, or the dynamics of the class struggle or the impositions of the relations of production given the current technological level. Heck, sometimes the simpler explanation is the best, and in this case a certain person, about to be elected candidate by one of the increasingly polarized halves of the US electorate dared to utter “trade is bad, we are being killed by those cunning foreigners!” and millions upon millions of his followers just flipped a switch, and went from considering international trade an unalloyed good to thinking of it as an unmitigated disaster. That half of the electorate had another 7 candidates to choose, and I dare to affirm that had another one indeed been chosen (all of which had expressed a more “mainstream conservative” position -at least mainstream back then) the attitudes reflected by the poll within the Republican respondents would be pretty similar to the Democratic ones.

So people matter, and one of the reason they matter is because they embody ideas, they voice ideas, they give credence to ideas, and highlight some and neglect others, they enhance the social status of the adherents of some and degrade the standing of the followers of others. As I mentioned in a previous post about the rise of Trump (unaware then of the extent of such rise), a set of ideas the until November 2016 would have not just disqualified anybody uttering them from any dealing with polite society, but definitely barred them from ever being elected were suddenly openly espoused by people in high positions of power. From the inane (“blacks are partly guilty of their own situation of disadvantage” -how could they not be, if you grant them freedom and agency?) to the morally dubious (“helping the poor perpetuates poverty, and is thus to be frowned upon, condemned and stopped”) to the outright nutty (“there is a genocide against white people being perpetrated by a secret cabal of Jews, blacks, latinos, gays and the UN”).

Let’s then assume that we all accept that ideas are important, and have considerable explanatory power when it comes to the history of mankind and the development of societies. Are all ideas created equal? Or, put another way, which ideas should we focus on, as being most conductive to the advancement of arts and science, most favorable for the flourishing of the lucky humans brought up under their sway? To advance towards an answer I want to turn my attention to a book I finished reading three weeks ago, Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity. Why Economics can’t explain the modern world (needless to say, it was the subtitle which caught my attention, as granting dignity to the hated bourgeoisie, as much as one belongs to it part and parcel, would be too much to any self-respecting anarchist, traditionalist or not). I book I enjoyed immensely, although I strongly wanted to disagree with the author. But her wit, erudition and overall worldview were too overpowering, her putdowns of the pieties of left and right too brilliant and well-argued not to suspend my initial animadversion and finally surrendering with admiration.

Great book, then, by a sharply intelligent, fiercely independent author. In it she analyzes the explanations that have been given to the “great enrichment” (the hockey stick figure I myself used in my dissertation, showing how human history can be reduced to a single event: after tens of thousands of years in which nothing relevant happened, starting in Northwestern Europe in 1750 we have multiplied our ability to produce things we consider useful by a factor of between 16 -being very, very conservative and 100):

McCloskey makes a superb work of researching the numerous theses that have been advanced to explain such phenomenon, many of which I was already familiar with. So she (quite successfully, in my humble opinion) shows that it was not that the higher and middle classes started having more children, spreading their values (as Clark argued in his also superb Farewell to alms), it was not that the Protestant ethic made its believers more frugal and good at saving and accumulating capital (as proposed by Max Weber), it was not that Europe successfully copied China and, when arriving at the same dead end of ecological constraint had the luck to find coal geographically close to where it was most needed (the less convincing idea of Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, which I had conveniently finished a few weeks before McCloskey’s), and definitely it was not the greedy expropriation of the commons through enclosures, which in turn forced the pauperized peasants in the hands of the budding industrialists (Proudhon and Marx, although McCloskey is aiming her sights more against Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, another great book I can not recommend highly enough).

Of course, after almost four hundred pages reading what didn’t cause the great enrichment (and thus what formulas are set to fail if we try to apply them to developing economies, in which the evidence is still stronger than the one marshaled by the historic analysis) the reader is aching to learn what in the friggin’ hell did cause it. Alas, he is in for some (judiciously announced in the introduction) rough disillusionment, as for that he will have to revisit McCloskey’s previous book (Bourgeois Virtues) and then read the following one (Bourgeois Equality -both already ordered, but will not have an open slot until 2018 to read them, I’m afraid). However, she gives us enough clues of what she has in mind as the real causes: ideas. Precisely in that age and place (the Netherlands and England around 1750 CE) the bourgeoisie (not in the Marxist sense of “the owners of the means of production”, but just a bunch of merchants and entrepreneurs, as distinct from the Nobility and the Peasantry) were accorded “liberty and dignity”. Basically that’s it. That’s the magic sauce to economic growth beyond your wildest expectations (well, that and the magic of compound interest). You grant liberty and dignity to the middle classes (also referred to as the “aspiring class”, the “enterprising class”, the “merchant class”, the “middling persons” and so on, in an uncharacteristic weakness of the book, as such labels may end up identifying wildly differing sets of individuals, but let’s not nitpick) and Presto! You have your economy mushrooming and soon everybody, even the poorest pauper on the street, is wildly better off than the richest pasha of 1001 nights.

So you want to get Afghanistan out of its current predicament? Grant freedom and dignity to its bourgeoisie! You want to keep China along its current growing path? Grant (even more)  liberty and recognition to its citizens (not only the CCP members)! You want South Sudan to stop depending on international charity and be able to feed its population? Recognize the dignity of its merchants, and let ‘em be free! A bit cartoonish, I know, and Ms. McCloskey is too clever a thinker to fall in these facile traps, but that’s essentially the core of her message, and it is not that off the mark.

However, we may want to understand a bit better what that freedom and dignity consists in, and why it is that the citizens of the USA enjoy a lot of both, why the subjects of Tanzania have very little of both. And for that I may humbly offer my own explanation: dignity is but another name for the granting of a certain position in the social hierarchy that every primate group needs to establish. So when Ms. McCloskey says that the Western powers thrived because they gave dignity, or recognized the value, of the enterprising people between them she is using a different set of words to describe what happened in the transition from a “society of orders”, where such status was determined by birth (in its last iteration what I called baroque reason), to a “society of merits”, where such position was initially accorded to whoever had genius (romantic reason), to whoever was officially recognized by the Nation State apparatus (bureaucratic reason) and finally to whoever had more money/ could command more material goods (desiderative reason).

As for freedom, here McCloskey seems to me to be in shakier ground, as it is not immediately clear to me that a XVIIth century Dutchman or Englishman was in any meaningful sense freer than a Frenchman, or than a pastoralist nomad for what is worth. The argument seems to be that such freedom has in the end very little to do with what Isaiah Berlin termed “positive freedom” (the ability of enjoying unimpeded access to certain options of life) and more with what he termed “negative freedom” (the lack of permission to intrude in other people lives), regarding the State. So Ms. McCloskey seems to think that as long as the State respects the private property of the individuals, and regulates as little as possible their whereabouts, everything is all right and everybody can be considered free as a bird (if they can’t fly… such is life!) Not that I’m against that freedom, but it is too closely aligned to “possessive individualism”, and the story of its birth and gradual increase in the Anglo-Saxon world (explained in stark contrast with its absence everywhere else, from France and any other Southern European country to Germany and of course all of Asia and Africa) smacks too much of a post hoc ergo propter hoc to seem much convincing.

Fact is, for people to be free it is not enough to have the horrible, bumbling, good-for-nothing, interventionist Leviathan of the State off their back. It helps to have some basic guarantees that you will receive an education that equips you to explore and develop your potentialities, that you will be shielded from the worst effects of catastrophic illness. Even that you will not be abducted and sold as a slave. And except for the slave part, they didn’t have much (and specially, they didn’t have differentially more than their surrounding societies) of those in XVIIIth century England or Holland. It is not clear they have universally much of it in all parts of the powerful and distinctly rich USA of today. I’m not saying that liberty is not an important motivator for people, and that its total absence would not be a serious hindrance to economic development, what I am saying is that it doesn’t seem to be as essential a part of the dominant reason necessary to foster spectacular material betterment as having a solid hierarchical criteria that bestows recognition in accumulating material goods. As the Chinese example shows (they are less free in a McCloskeian sense than the USA, but for the last three decades they have been growing much faster… I know, I know, catch-up and all that, but still…) Also, I think McCloskey would be clearer if she substituted “private property” for “liberty”, as really that is what she is talking about: Private property + social hierarchy based on possession of material goods = everybody work their assess off to produce as many material goods as possible (in the hope of retaining as many of them as possible, and thus enjoying as high a status as possible).

Which is essentially correct again, and all I would add is that the efficiency with which people pursue such material betterment can be even more enhanced (and has historically been so enhanced indeed) if people is told that the only thing to live for is the satisfaction of desire, and the only socially sanctioned desire is to improve in the hierarchy, and thus to produce as many thingies as possible (because the more you produce the more you will be able to monopolize for yourself). But had she realized that, she would have written the Critique of Desiderative Reason instead of Bourgeois Dignity, and she would be even closer to being a historian of ideas than she already is…

A final (minor) gripe I would point to is her enthusiastic and unconditional praise of the current capitalist system, in all its neo-liberal glory. Yes, I readily admit that it has been an unquestionable success in lifting untold millions out of the abject poverty of 2,5 dollars a day. Yes, I readily admit that the poorest between the poor have been as much benefitted as any other, and that a pauper in New York today has a better shot at a dignified living than a tribal chieftain in II century Gaul (or in XX century Cuba, although that last contention could be legitimately discussed, with well-intentioned parties reaching differing conclusions). Yes, I readily admit that most of the critiques that have been levelled against such dominant system are harebrained, have been discredited when actually tried, come from unscrupulous hypocrites or from irresponsible (and not too brilliant) academics who do not really understand how the world works.

But, but. We can not choose what the facts are. Even in this post-truth era, truth itself is not up for grabs. But how we judge it, and how genuinely scandalized we are by its most unsavory features is indeed up to us. We can look at the many injustices of the world and just shrug our shoulders, or resort to the panglossian TINA (“There Is No Alternative”, which amounts to Leibniz’s “Lucky us! We already live in the Best of All Possible Worlds”, take it from a Leibnizian), or we can bemoan and protest and denounce and criticize it. We can choose to be “justifiers” (and we would be in the most egregious and excellent company: as I’ve said so many times some of the best philosophers have belonged to this genus, like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Scotus, Bacon, Machiavelli, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Locke, Hobbes, Hume…) or to be “critics” (you already know who they are, don’t make me repeat myself). Although being “critic” without the certainty of what to replace the current arrangement with may be seen as silly or irresponsible. Although it forces you to believe at the same time that this is the best system that has ever been actually implemented and that it is inhumane and unacceptable, so that every effort has to be made to come up with a viable alternative (as I already said in this old but still very current post: Two views of "da system")

So where I part company with Ms. McCloskey, lamenting not being fully aligned with such excellent and uplifting company, is in my choice not to be a praise-singe, not to be a justifier, not to be a sycophant (not that she is all those ugly things, again she is too intelligent by half for that). Yes ideas are the ultimate explanation of why the West, and why then, grew so astoundingly. Yes “dignity” had a great part on it (and private property, as slight a part of complete freedom as it may be, had another, humbler one). Yes, granting a similar degree of dignity and recognition of the right to possess things is still the surest way to enable economic growth in the underdeveloped societies of today. But in our own, rich and developed ones it is not more justification of the current dominant reason what we need. Because such dominant reason, which still has a lot to offer to the poorest places on Earth, is exhausted and breaking down in the richest. Thus, overcoming it, identifying and promoting the most promising alternatives, those most conductive to human flourishing, is the most urgent task at hand.

Which, how else could it be? Would be the subject of another post.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What I’ve been up to

Man, does time fly! I look back at the good ol’ blog and it’s been almost a month with no posting at all. An unpardonable lack of politeness to my increasing audience! Well, time to take up the metaphorical pen and get back to work. My writing is as shabby as ever, as convoluted and baroque and circuitous and muddled, and it would benefit from a bit of practicing and cleaning up as much as in any other moment of my life. And how do I clean up my writing? Well, practicing it, in long-winded posts that almost nobody reads, of course! Although I swear I try to make ‘em less long-winded and more to the point, less derivative and meandering and more precise and focused, I recognized I’ve not been so far an exemplar of pithiness and grace…
Now before we get back to the ill-starred fate of our global society, its many evils and more or less imminent demise, I feel like I owe to my readership an account of what has kept me away from the keyboard these last weeks, as it touches (tangentially as ever) in many themes of the blog, like how to live and what pursuing a worthy life looks like nowadays.

First, in the intellectual front, I started a new university career in September, and had been taking the first batch of examinations until recently. Yup, after a lot of reflection of what I wanted to learn and develop after getting my PhD in philosophy, I settled in mathematics. I considered retaking my studies of Economics (having almost three courses completed, that’s the degree I was closer to, and the one whose achievement would have costed me less, both in time and in money), but I’ve come to see the whole discipline as so muddled, so essentially dishonest, so useless and so lacking in the basic decency to acknowledge its uselessness as to make every single minute devoted to it a complete waste of time (you may find the beginning of my musings about such dishonesty here: Economics suck I, for a less-dishonest than usual take on the limits and shortcomings of the discipline, from one devoted practitioner I’ve quoted other times, John Cochrane, see: Economic humility? Hah!). So Economics was discarded. I had enjoyed researching sociology and history for my dissertation, and both seemed entertaining, but pretty full of bullshit and baloney overall, so I also discarded them.

I have not entirely abandoned the idea of doing a PhD in history later in life, specializing in some truly obscure subject matter, period and geographic area (peculiar versification in Norse sagas developed in the first stages of Greenland settlement, between 1000 and 1200 AD, say, or distinctive guerrilla tactics of the Saracen raiders from Andalusian origin that built a holdout in Fraxinet, in Provence, between 889 and 973 AD), but right now I know myself, and I would immediately hover towards universal history, the whole of humanity, in a period during no less than a hundred centuries, trying to discern the currents, the tendencies and the drifts in such an enormous mass of facts and events (something serious historians tend to dismiss, and to confine to the later years of a life previously filled with what for me now seems like uninteresting and trivial minutiae).

I also toyed with the idea of studying something truly alien and even tinged with some utilitarian argument, as it could be used to improve my professional prospects. To be more specific, I toyed with the idea of studying law (and, being an all-or-nothing sort of guy, taking the bar exam so I could practice as a barrister). But it just seemed a) too practical, b) too serious and c) boring as hell.

So I really had to dig deep within what motivates me, what makes me tick and what I thought would be a valuable commitment of my all-too-scarce time. I went back to what a life well lived should look like for my particular circumstances. And two immediate features of such life came to my attention: it had to be a life of achieving difficult things and of deep understanding and pursuit of the absolute (absolute truth, absolute beauty and absolute goodness). After six years immersed in philosophy I had a passing familiarity with words and thoughts and how whole societies had ended up believing a bunch of noxious balderdash and thinking it formed a sacred description of naked facts revealed by Nature herself. So it seemed to me like pursuing more words and ideas people happened to have had wouldn’t take me much closer to that absolute truth I was endeavoring after…

But if words wouldn’t cut it, imprecise and biased and amenable to misinterpretation and manipulation, what could work? What symbols had humanity devised that were devoted to precision, to exact communication, to rigorous reasoning not subjected to ideology or propaganda, to certain verification, regardless of what sorry state the world may be in? Numbers and mathematical operators, of course! When Aristotle thought about the best life for man, he concluded that the life of an Athenian gentleman, slave-owning and all was objectively the best. When Hagel did the same exercise more than twenty centuries later, surprise, surprise, it was the life of a Prussian bureaucrat of his day and age, with exactly the same worldview and set of beliefs as himself, what he clearly “saw” was best. Ditto for Thomas Jefferson, David Hume, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Wittgenstein and all the philosophers of a conformist bent. There were revolutionaries, sure (what I have called “critical” thinkers, starting with my much admired Kant, and following with Schopenhauer and Marx and Nietzsche) but even them, it’s difficult not to admit, ended up validating the old Protagoras dictum “man is the measure of all things” (every single man considered in himself “and his circumstances” we may add, quoting my countryman Ortega y Gasset).

Something you can hardly say of Euclid, Cantor, Leibniz, Hermite, Lebesgue, Riemann, Cauchy or Fermat. In general they did not give a rat’s patootie about their fellow men circumstances or opinions (or they fellow men full stop), as they didn’t much care about their own. They carefully constructed their trains of thought, identifying with exacting precision what followed from what, and invented new ways of reasoning in the process. More than that, they defined what reasoning consists in, what is the proper way of doing it and what ways, sensible as they may seem, end up guiding you astray. They definitely knew a thing or two about how to discover truth. Stupendous truth, undeniable truth, self-evident, kick-you-in-the-teeth truth. No matter if you’re black or white, a man or a woman or something in between, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, an ISFJ or a ENTP, a proper demonstration is a proper demonstration, and a logical fallacy is a logical fallacy. 2 + 2 = 4 here and in China, today and 30,000 years ago (and in another 30,000 years, even if there is nobody left to appreciate it).  

As is normally said, what can be used to explain everything doesn’t explain anything. A set of knowledges that obtain whatever the state of the universe doesn’t describe much at all, and then the universality of mathematics is not its main strength, but its Achilles heel. Bollocks, I say. The more I learn the more I realize that apparent discrepancies between mathematical order and the deepest structures of reality only reveal our insufficient grasp of such structures, and once the veils are removed and the errors corrected we find an even deeper agreement. That is what guided me back to a very peculiar and highly idiosyncratic form of belief in an all-powerful (and likely all-benevolent) mind in the origin of reality itself many years ago, but that would be a topic for another day.

What I mean with this, as usual, tortured and full of circumlocutions discourse, is that the clearest path for me in my search for truth was to deepen my understand of mathematics. Not this time by reading a bunch of books and reaching my own conclusions. Mathematics is subtle and complex and vast and branching. So I paid the tuition fees, and enrolled in a full degree, to ensure I get the basics right. Slow and steady, as I’m not leaving my day job, or my training, or my family (God forbid!) but surefooted and disciplined as always. Do not be surprised, then, if more rigorous reasoning occasionally creep in this blog, and if some numerical concept shows its head every now and then. Not that the blog couldn’t benefit from some more streamlined and logical argumentation, mind you.

And is maths difficult! Specially if you haven’t practiced it formally for years (or rather, for decades, as in my case). I may work in an engineering firm, but I don’t remember having done anything more challenging than basic algebra (add, substract, multiply and divide) for most of my career (I’m in quality and organization, after all). So this is like having been all your life in a “toning/ weight loss” program in the gym and suddenly starting a powerlifting routine to take you in a short time over 1,000 pounds competition total (for those not in the know: tough!) But that is the other reason I chose maths. It is difficult, and doing difficult things, mastering complex and challenging subjects, is what a life well lived looks like.

But of course, that’s not the only thing that has kept me away from posting. Doing difficult things with your head is allrighty and well, but we shouldn’t forget the old Greek adage about the healthy mind requiring a healthy body (funny that we all think that comes from the Greeks, whilst the sentence used to convey it is in latin…) And since the end of last year I was thinking in what physical skill to invest into once I finished the brunt of preparing the first examinations (in mid February).

Although my initial inclination was to learn how to properly box, and had been informing myself about boxing gyms close to my work location, an unexpected opportunity opened up with the creation of a weightlifting club in the Crossfit box of one of my loved ones. Weightlifting is something I’ve been doing (awfully) since I was about 12 years old, without much progress in the last twenty five years (well, I clean and jerked 100 kg again, something I hadn’t done since I was 23, and I also equaled my best snatch soon afterwards, but just couldn’t keep the momentum and let my PBs fall again). And if you intend to do something for, roughly, the rest of your life (as I do), you better learn to do it right.

So a month ago I also enrolled in a weightlifting team, with a coach and all, and for the first time in my whole life have been following a program written by someone different from myself. A program that has me snatching, clean & jerking and squatting basically every friggin’ day of the week (and then somehow trying to recover in the weekend). Not half assedly performing the power versions of the lifts every now and then, or doing three or four 90% lifts and calling it a day, but doing 6-8 sets of 6-8 reps of each one day in day out.

I’ll devote considerable more space to what I’m learning, about the lifts and about myself, but I’ll just advance here that I’m a) loving it and b) being thoroughly challenged by it and c) adjusting to the new rhythm, trusting in the process and the coach and trying not to rush it, as I’ve done so many times before, just to reach a plateau faster, and then paying attention to a different thing and having to start all over again a few months later. And having somebody actually knowledgeable in the lifts watch me clumsily try to perform ‘em and correct my many, many failures, so my inconsistent and inefficient snatch starts being more predictable and focused:

Not yet the nicest view, I know. I’m old and rusty and slow and not that strong and specially not that mobile (in the muscles and joints required to move the weight stably and with agility and grace… I’d be happy with just doing it competently).

The thing is that with such an increased demand on my time (studying mathematics plus weightlifting every day plus job plus family plus regularly reading to try to understand how the world and the mind work) I haven’t had that much time to blog, hence my lack of posting. But despair not, o faithful readers! Even if I have to write much shorter posts, writing is one of the characteristic features of my life, one of those things I’ve been doing from as far as I have memories (I still keep the reams of paper that received my first musings, and occasionally reread them and smile by how naïve, but also how intellectually daring and curious and most definitely unconventional I was at such early age), and I do not intend to interrupt it. I may write more haphazardly, more touch and go, more discontinuously, but you can keep coming back here for some scathing social commentary, some amused advice on the barbell sports and some abstract musing about what this human life may be all about.