Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy and the Tea Party

       There are a lot of angry people in this country, and although I generally try to avoid that emotion when making decisions, I can’t really say I blame most of them. Although I truly believe America is a great country and will continue to be so for a long time, there are, without a doubt, some things fundamentally wrong with the way things are right now.

            The point of this post is not to go into the details of what those things are, but a single example will help put things in perspective. Today’s top hedge fund managers, such as John Paulson, are bringing home annual salaries in the billions of dollars. In 2010, Paulson’s $5 billion dollar salary set a new record. Now, compare this single-year salary to the single-year salary of the typical, working class American family of $50,000. Given the roundness of both numbers, the math here is a simple matter of moving the decimal point over a few spaces and we can see that Paulson’s salary is 100,000 times that of the typical working class family.

            But money is an abstract concept, really, and a difficult thing for people to value accurately. $2 to a child, or a Ugandan, has different value than it does to a middle-class American adult. And many people will say, when presented with this discrepancy, “Well, he earned it. It’s his money, he didn’t do anything illegal to get it, so what’s the problem?” Point conceded (although some arguments could be made on the last point, but that is outside the scope here.)

            But money really isn’t the best way to measure value; time is. Whereas a given amount of money can have significantly different valuation for different people, at different times, in different places, it is not hard to see that an hour’s worth of one person’s time is, in the abstract, equal in value to an hour of anyone else’s time. So looking at our example above we can see that for a typical American family, let’s say of a self-employed carpenter and a school teacher, they would have had to begin working 100,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic, right around when modern humans began migrating out of Africa and displacing earlier homo species, if they wanted to accumulate the wealth that Paulson acquired between the time the Yankees won the world series in 2009 and when the Giants won it in 2010. (Of course, if you are a Bible-literalist, this wouldn’t even be possible, since God wouldn’t get around to creating the universe until about 10,000 years ago, or a few millennia after the Sumerians started brewing beer.)

            How is it possible that the work-hour-value of someone who builds residences to keep people sheltered from the elements plus the work-hour-value of someone who teachers other people’s children how to read and write is worth so much less, 100,000 times less, than the work-hour-value of someone who moves electrons around in a computer? When you additionally consider that Paulson’s wealth comes from short-selling subprime mortgages- i.e. he profits when the house that our middle-class family lives in goes into foreclosure because our teacher has been laid off due to drastic state-spending cuts, and our carpenter can’t find work because the housing market is bunk- then the picture is even bleaker.

            It is easy, and tempting, for some, to look at this scenario, well, reality, really, and fall into the warm, comfortable trap of thinking that we should just have someone assign value to different tasks in our society. Sounds great, except time and time again it has proven to be an absolute, unmitigated disaster. Communism is the ultimate fail. The only way value can possibly be assigned is by the market itself, because it is simply the height of human arrogance to assume that any one person, or any group of people, could possibly have the wit and wisdom to perceive and predict the complex interactions of 7 billion individuals. Only the market can do this.

            But, as we saw above, the market can clearly become distorted. There are several reasons for this. But the major one is that people don’t understand that there is a fundamental difference between markets in goods and services and markets in assets and capital. Ideologues on the right look at how brainless bureaucratic interference in goods and services markets stifle innovation and wealth creation and wrongly assume that this analogy holds true in all markets and so they push for deregulation in all markets. Ideologues on the left see how deregulation in assets and capital markets leads to endless cycles of boom (for some) and busts (for the rest) and want to throw the baby out with the bath water and do away with capitalism altogether. Both of these positions are moronic.

            And right now the extreme voices of both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements are presenting this as an either/ or choice. Now, before we go any further, I should make it clear that I have deep sympathies with some aspects of both of these movements. Every time I see an “End the Fed” T-shirt at a Tea Party rally, or a “Bring back Glass-Steagal” placard at OWS, I feel optimistic about the future of our country. But what truly dismays me, what makes me slightly less than optimistic, is that these two movements seem utterly incapable of recognizing that they are two sides of the same coin.

            I think an analogy would be helpful here. Imagine you live in a city with a fair amount of mafia or gang influence and an equal amount of corruption in law-enforcement, the legal system and politics. Now let’s say it comes out that the mob has been getting away with all sorts of shady semi-legal dealings for the past few decades, racketeering, election-rigging, monopolizing local markets in goods and services… the usual. Now, both parties, the mob-bosses and their bought and sold political lackeys, are profiting handsomely at the expense of the hard-working citizens of this once great city. Who’s to blame?

            If we were to apply the arguments of Tea Party and OWS to this scenario, each would yield a different answer. According to the Tea Party, the political establishment, and only the political establishment, would be at fault. After all, if the mob can buy politicians, and get them to bend the rules in their favor, why shouldn’t they? This is America, baby! This is capitalism! On the other hand, if we listen to OWS, we should blame this primarily on the greedy mob for not having the self-restraint to stop themselves from getting away with something that was all-too-easy to pull off. Our spineless, gutless politicians had little to do with it.

            Now, I recognize that this is an over-simplification. There are many Tea Party supporters who recognize the role of corporations and finance in producing our current economic situation. And there are, I think, an even larger number of Occupiers who recognize the extent to which they were sold out by the people they put in office, including, perhaps especially, our current president. But what I am saying is that I think, on a fundamental level, Tea Partiers tend to think that corporations and banks, left entirely to their own devices, will do little but good, while Occupiers think that if it weren’t for those same corporations, our politicians could get back to the business of governing justly and fairly.

            It just ain’t so, folks. Money and politics go together like ham and cheese. They always have and they always will. The market for political influence is as old and pervasive as the market for sex, and it is unlikely either will disappear anytime soon. History is the story of the struggle of the few to dominate the many. And if we were to tally up a score at the end of each year, since the beginning of recorded history in about 3,000 BCE, it would be roughly 5,000-to-zip. Of course, there have been times where things were better than others. At the founding of this Republic people were hopeful, having shaken off the tyranny of the Church and the inherited aristocracy, that a new day of justice and equality was dawning- while meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Africans were held in slavery. The middle decades of this century saw a historically unprecedented distribution of wealth, the greatest realization of power the middle class has ever seen- and meanwhile the ancestors of those slaves couldn’t be served at a lunch counter in much of the country.

            There will always be battles to fight, injustices to correct. And the energy of both these movements is a potent and necessary thing. But we can’t lose sight of reality. There are some fundamental truths we must maintain a hold of.

            One, we must recognize that just because something has been made “legal” that doesn’t make it right, or the way things should be, or, to put that on more concrete footing, the way we, in a democratic society, want things to be. If a group of pedophiles raised a billion dollars and lobbied Congress to make kiddie-porn legal, they would almost surely succeed. (Do you really doubt that a billion dollars couldn’t buy you anything in Washington?) But would that make kiddie-porn right? Of course not. So just because banks can use predatory lending practices, mislead their investors, and bet against their own customers, it doesn’t mean they should, or that we, as citizens of the Republic, should accept that as the way things are, simply because they are still following the letter of the law (the letter of the law that they essentially wrote.)

            Two, we must recognize our own role in this. It is facile to say that “our society has become” lazy, indolent and complacent. No. People are lazy, indolent and complacent, when they lack the motivation to be otherwise. Let’s face it, folks, while it is pathetic to see a politician sell a multi-million dollar tax break for a kickback of a few tens of thousands of dollars, we citizens have let it all happen for a ticket to a 3D movie, the power to text-vote on American Karaoke, and a new Mrs. Fields at the mall (cause actually chewing a chocolate-chip cookie is now too much work.) Just as most of us find it shocking that on our grandparent’s watch people of color still had to fight to be served a grilled cheese at a white diner, our grandchildren will be shocked when they learn of the injustices that we tolerated on ours.

            Third, and finally, we must recognize that no single “fix” is going to make things right, forever and all time, or even a short while. Not neutering the federal government or reigning in greedy corporations. Getting some 300,000,000 mammals to share a finite number of resources without killing each other is a messy business. There probably isn’t a single other one (species of mammal, I mean) that could even hope to pull it off. There will always be cheats trying to game the system, and they will often end up with the reins of power. Those of us who want to live a simple, quiet, peaceful life, who have no interest in benefiting from the pain and misery of others, must be constantly vigilant, always ready to knock them off the cart.

            As Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party seem ready to do.
            Now, if they just recognized their enemy, our enemy, was one and the same, that would be a force to be reckoned with.
             And then those in power might realize that we're on to them this time around, and that we're not likely to keep playing a rigged game.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Practiced Ethics

            I promised in the last post that I would take up in this one the issue of what a practiced ethics would look like in the real world. However, I think that in framing it that way, I was getting ahead of myself. Because neither I, nor anyone else, is currently in a position to prescribe ethical behavior to anyone else, at least not in some kind of codified, absolute form. And I'm not sure anyone ever will be.

            But what some people are ready to do is to start having a genuine conversation about it. But if this conversation is to be had, we have to acknowledge that some people are better equipped to contribute to the conversation than others. In any other field of human inquiry and understanding, this would not even need be said. If, for instance, my hometown were to notice that the expansion bridge that connects it to its southern neighbor was in danger of collapsing, there would be little question as to whom to consult for advice regarding its repair; architects, materials and structural engineers, construction firms, etc. If a barista at a local coffee shop, or a stylist at a salon started insisting that their opinion regarding the bridge's repair was just a valuable as the structural engineer's, they would most likely be ignored, or committed. 

            So why is it, then, that in the most important questions of our lives as social creatures, the questions of how we should treat one another, we fail to see that some people have better answers than others?

             I could go on at length about this, but I would simply be reiterating an argument that Sam Harris made much more poignantly at TED. So I've embedded that video here, and it is really well worth your time to watch it in its entirety. It might be the best 20 minutes you spend this year.

            I just watched this for the third time, thinking that there were some points he makes that I wanted to elaborate on. But I don't think that's necessary. I think he takes care of himself.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Relative Contradiction

          Yes, I have been away for an inexcusable length of time. I wish I could say that meant I was  productively producing pounds and pounds of fiction, but alas, I cannot even say that. I have though, at the very least, gotten quite a bit of interesting reading done, some of which has given me a lot to think about, which is one of the reasons I am here, firing up the laptop again.

            Among the books I've made my way through in the last couple months, which I list here only because I recommend them all quite strongly; Robert Zubrin's The Case for Mars, outlining and advocating for an aggressive approach for exploring and colonizing the Red Planet, very convincing, very compelling- Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, arguing for a rational, scientific approach to ethics, again, very convincing, very compelling- Michio Kaku's Physics of the Future, an attempt to envision human life and society a century 50, 70, 100 years from now, based on today's cutting edge research, and man, if even half of the stuff he describes pans out, we will not even recognize the world our great-grandchildren will inhabit- Michael Specter's Denialism about the human propensity for irrational thinking and how damaging it is to our society and planet, including such things as the organic foods fetish, the "natural" medicine fetish, the utterly unfounded fears concerning vaccines, etc., also, very, very good- Nicolas Wade's The Faith Instinct, arguing that a propensity for faith and religious belief must be an evolved trait, since, at first glance, those things are so damaging to an individual, evolution would certainly have weeded them out, if there was not some greater benefit conferred by religious activity, which he manages to convincingly lay out, even though I disagree with some of the conclusions he draws, which I will touch on in a later post- Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America, outlining the absolutely wretched level of scientific knowledge, and willful ignorance, of the masses in a country which has led the world in scientific advances for the last century, and will continue to do so for at least another half century more, and then articulating a plan for bridging that gap- And last, but certainly not least, Sam Harris' The End of Faith, the book that single-handedly began the New Atheist movement, which I have been intentionally not reading since I started the blog, as I knew he and I intended to cover similar turf, and I had no wish to simply parrot his work. But it is, in fact, Harris' book which I would like to discuss, or at least a small piece of it, in this post.

           The End of Faith is a momentous work, by a skilled writer with a Death Star intellect, literally reducing his opponent's arguments to rubble in the span of a single, charged sentence, and with the necessary background to speak knowledgeably about religion, faith and ethics from many perspectives, having built a career in the study of philosophy, Eastern and Western religions, as well as neuroscience. If you have enjoyed anything you have read on this blog on any of these topics, The End of Faith is mandatory reading. As Richard Dawkins said, "The End of Faith is a genuinely frightening book... Read Sam Harris and wake up." (Of course, Harris was the one who inspired Dawkins to himself take up the issue of faith in the modern world in his own books.)

              But while I will have something to say a later date about the work as a whole, or pieces of it regarding faith and religion, it is actually Harris' criticism of some another, typically liberal, ideology that I would like to talk about here; specifically, relativism. While this term may not be known to the average reader, it is not all that hard to discern the gist. At the same time, there are quite a few people out there who subscribe to this ideology, even if they would not immediately recognize the appellation. For these reasons, a quick definition would be useful.

            Relativism is the belief, very commonly held among academic liberals and many quasi-intellectuals, that no one can ever really be truly right about anything in the strict sense of the word, they can only be "right" within the contexts of their culture and ideology. A moral relativist, for example, would claim that forcing women to live in a potato sack is not actually "wrong" in some absolute sense, it is just "wrong" in our culture, though it is perfectly acceptable in a culture for whom that is their belief and heritage.

            Well, if you have been reading this blog at all, you know I don't buy into that cheap nonsense. Having been through the rigmarole of a countless literary theory classes, Derrida, Sassure, Lacan, Zizek, etc. I have a pretty solid understanding of how (bored) academics came to these fairly absurd claims, and I didn't find their arguments convincing then. But when these types of beliefs trickle out of the ivory tower, I think that they are often picked up by some in the general populace simply because they are contradictory to traditional wisdom, or indeed, common sense. In other words, a Tertullian instance of credo quia absurdum, or an "I believe because it is absurd."

             I have yet to think deeply about this, or come up with a satisfying explanation as to why, but it has in fact been my observation that certain people tend to latch on to beliefs simply because those beliefs go against the grain. Those people are generally those whose lives also go against the grain- I'm thinking of artists, anarchists, etc. (but those are just examples). This is not meant to be a slight on people who think of themselves as such, but I do find it a little depressing when I see this happen to otherwise intelligent people, since it is really just a cheap intellectual trick to appear thoughtful and profound, without actually doing the hard work that it would take for one of us to be those things. But I digress...

           Anyway... what I found interesting in reading Harris was that his book was the first time I encountered in print the refutation of relativism that I myself have been satisfied with for years. I had always considered it odd that in all of the books I have read that discussed relativism, no one had articulated what I consider to be such an obvious and absolute dismissal of relativism. So it was refreshing to see Harris finally articulate it, and in pretty much exactly the same manner I had considered it. It goes like this-

            Let's stick with moral relativism, although the same argument applies to relativistic notions of science, knowledge, etc. The moral relativist would claim that we should respect all cultures and belief systems, because we cannot judge them by our own Western standards. If it is part of their culture to saw off their daughter's clitoris, then who are we to tell them that practice is wrong? It is their culture, and their beliefs. In other words, there is no absolute right and wrong, just what each culture comes to accept.

            Ah, and there's the rub. The problem with making a claim like this is that it itself is not relative, but absolute. If there is no absolute right and wrong, then who is to say that tolerance of other's beliefs is itself "right?" Sure, a few hundred years of democracy, pluralism and liberalism, among other things, have taught the West that, generally speaking, tolerance of other people's beliefs and culture is a good thing. But it is our cultural bias that makes that seem logical. In other words, tolerance is merely a relative good, but to be a relativist, you have to claim the universal good of relativism, which is clearly a contradiction.

             This leaves relativists in a bit of a quagmire. They have two choices, either accept the contradiction, which is effectively saying, "Everyone else's "good" is only relative, but my Good is universal." This not only goes completely against the spirit of relativism, it is as conceited as all hell. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more condescending, patronizing and imperialistic way of viewing the world. (It is true that much of liberalism is imperialism in fancy clothes.) Or they can say something absurd like, "We should only expect Western liberal democrats to be tolerant, since that is only a good in their culture. In cultures where intolerance is considered "good" then it is, in fact, the right way to act." Unfortunately, it is often this latter narrative that plays out in the real world.

        So is tolerance a bad thing? Of course not. It is just that it is as absurd, and as quickly self-contradictory, to make "tolerance" the universal good as it is to make the same thing of money, power, faith, reason, science, "mystery," nature or anything else people try to hold aloft. All of these things have some utility, though some far more than others (I'm looking at you, faith, you useless piece of...)

             I don't think it takes a rigorous philosophical to demonstrate that tolerance is good. And at the same time, I think it only takes a very brief one (above) to demonstrate that there are, in fact, limits to this. What does this mean in the real world? It looks like that will have to be the subject of the next post.