At Davos, gas-like beings grow nervous

January 31, 2010

Looks like we’re upsetting the galactic elites as well as our own educated classes.  All that noise.  All those elections.  All that “instability.”  According to the ineffable Tom Friedman, “We’re making people nervous.”  And by “people” he means the cosmic forces composed of pure energy which, once a year, assume bodily shape at Davos, Switzerland.

Friedman is so exasperated, poor man.  Here is President Obama, trying so hard to cut the deficit – as he told us himself, in his “eloquent” State of the Union speech – and there those beastly Republicans, ready to rip the very fabric of the universe asunder to score political points.

Our two-party political system is broken just when everything needs major repair, not minor repair,” said K.R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy, a fuel cell company in Silicon Valley, who is attending the forum. “I am talking about health care, infrastructure, education, energy. We are the ones who need a Marshall Plan now.” [. . .]

The sad and frustrating thing is, we are so close to being unstuck. If there were just six or eight Republican senators. . . ready to meet Obama somewhere in the middle on deficit reduction, energy, health care and banking reform, I believe that in the wake of the Massachusetts wake-up call the president would indeed meet them in that middle ground to forge not just incremental compromises, but substantial ones on these key issues. But so far, the Republicans are having a good year politically by just being the Party of No.

If only we did away with elections, democracy, political parties, public opinion – if only we obeyed, zombie-like, Friedman and his noncorporeal galactic overlords – why, then they would tell us what is truly important to our meager lives – like, say, “infrastructure.”

But we are not worthy. . .


The peasants are revolting

January 30, 2010

The cover story of last week’s Economist was “The backlash against big government.”  In fact, this theme is taken up only by a brief editorial, which mostly talks up the uses of big government and the risks of cutting its size.

The lead article deals instead with the return of a monster:  Leviathan, the economy-swallowing regulatory state.  This rough beast has been on a feeding frenzy for some time, taking advantage of the citizenry’s reasonable fears about terror attacks and less reasonable expectations of living without economic insecurity.

Former President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was a euphemism for an expansive government.  His administration tightened central control over schools and corporate governance, passed a costly – and unpaid-for – increase in medical benefits, and added 7,000 pages of federal regulations.  For the political force that ostensibly represented limited government, this amounted to ideological surrender.

When a perfect storm hit the financial markets following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2009, there was nobody left to argue the costs of becoming fodder to Leviathan.  Federal expenditures sky-rocketed far beyond the reach of tax revenues:  the latter will no doubt increase, diminishing the economic power of the citizen while doing little to reduce the monstrous deficit.

The rout of the Jeffersonian ideal of a small, bounded federal government has been complete.

On reading the Economist story, it becomes clear that the only backlash against Leviathan is happening in the US – and here, only outside the charmed circle of our political and media elites.  The Europeans, always comfortable with a bloated, schoolmasterly state, have seized on the financial crisis to do what comes natural to them.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who passes for a conservative in French politics, happily proclaimed “the return of the state, the end of the ideology of public powerlessness.”  Gordon Brown, once a leader of the market-friendly New Labor, has in the words of the Economist “embarked on an Old Labor spending binge.”

In the US, the ideological demoralization begun during the Bush years has since spread further and deeper, leading to a wholesale loss of faith in the free citizen and the private sector by those public figures who once espoused their cause.  Alan Greenspan apologized for having promoted free markets.  Thomas Friedman, who not long ago preached a “golden straightjacket” for government, now openly admires China’s brutal and oppressive regime.

President Obama, in his inaugural, proclaimed the end of the childish dream of individualism, then embarked on a political program that meant, in essence, to transform the US into a Europe-style social democracy – a kind of Bigger Belgium.  He faced an opposition which lacked all conviction, and seemed – politically, intellectually – incapable of contesting the triumph of Leviathan.

Then something happened:  the “backlash” headlined, but not much dwelt on, by the Economist article.  After the stimulus package passed, President Obama’s agenda has stalled utterly.  Elections and polls reveal an electorate profoundly distrustful of his proposals, and of big government generally.

What changed?  The received wisdom is “voter anger.”  President Obama, for one, believes “People are angry and they’re frustrated.”  The same angry people who elected him, he claims, now have turned against his agenda.  I have touched on this angry-voter thesis before: it doesn’t agree with what I see or hear, and it makes little sense.

Activists may shout angrily for the cameras, but the ordinary American – my friends and neighbors – will rarely stir in anger, and almost never about things political.  It takes an extraordinary event like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to tick off the American people.

David Brooks, the NYT’s tame conservative, is closer to the truth when he writes, “Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.”  He offers the usual policy-wonk examples:  global warming, abortion, gun control.  The “educated classes”are for, the public against.  This is accurate so far as it goes, but of marginal significance.

Those with access to the public sphere – the political and media elites – have either cheered and promoted the progress of Leviathan, or made mumbling demoralized noises.  Brooks, a mumbler who embraced the Obama candidacy, chooses to call these the “educated classes,” among which he correctly counts himself.

Fine.  But who are the ignorant peasants suddenly standing in the way of the educated classes, pitchforks in hand, unashamed of their disdain for top-down decision-making and social engineering?  It appears to be the peopleThey are not demoralized, but they do understand, with far stronger conviction than their betters, the way of life they wish to follow.

The American people remain stubbornly individualistic, self-reliant, and Jeffersonian to the core.  They elected President Obama not to be lectured about their childishness but to fix the mess in Washington.  They have turned against his proposals because they don’t wish to see their country, with its exceptional virtues, transformed into a run-of-the-mill example of elite power.

I sense no anger but much determination.  The educated classes, on the other hand, are now divided between those, like Brooks himself, aghast at this development, and those enraged at the intolerable pretensions of the peasant mob.


In the long run, we are all immoralists

January 29, 2010

John Maynard Keynes, patron saint of the government stimulus, called himself an “immoralist.”  He felt indifferent between right and wrong.  Also, he never had children.  When he made his famous statement, “In the long run, we are all dead,” Keynes spoke as one with no stake in the happiness of the human race, once he had departed from it.

Which is something we should keep in mind while reflecting on the chart below, showing the trend lines for federal spending and revenues through the year 2040, from The Economist’s article on “The backlash against big government.”

Morality concerns the impact of our actions on others.  It has no timeframe, no expiration date.  If I care in the least for my family, and friends, and the people in my community, I will organize my actions so that I can pursue my ends without destroying theirs.  I won’t borrow what I can’t repay; I won’t sneak away when the bill comes due, even to the grave.

If, however, I’m an immoralist, in the style of Keynes and the current policy of the US government, and the whole despicable generation of Baby Boomers, I will happily crush my children’s lives so that I may enjoy mine to the fullest.

The worst thing about that chart?  I feel complicit in it.  We are all immoralists now.


Popper’s methods

January 28, 2010

When Karl Popper was a young man in post-Hapsburg Vienna, he was obsessed by the boundary between scientific and nonscientific explanations:  what he called “the problem of demarcation.”

Popper was a man of astonishing breadth of intellect.  “Among the theories which interested me Einstein’s theory of relativity was no doubt by far the most important,” he wrote without false modesty years later.  “Three others were Marx’s theory of history, Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Alfred Adler’s so-called ‘individual psychology.’”

Eddington’s observations of the solar eclipse of 1919, which confirmed Einstein’s predictions based on relativity, “thrilled” the young philosopher.  Soon after, he became dissatisfied with the other three theories.  They seemed fundamentally weaker than relativity.

He asked:  “What is wrong with Marxism, psychoanalysis, and individual psychology?  Why are they do different from physical theories, from Newton’s theory, and especially from the theory of relativity?”

The answer, Popper came to believe, had to do with the difference between verifiability and falsifiability.

The scientific method at the time was thought to proceed from observation, to hypothesis, to verification by experiment.  The three flawed theories owed their prestige to the fact that they rested on an immense mass of empirical observations:  ultimately, every data point within their fields could be made to conform with, and confirm, these theories.  In this respect, Popper concluded, they were identical in method to astrology.  They could never be wrong.

Einstein, by contrast, had made deductive predictions about the 1919 eclipse which could have proven relativity unsatisfactory or even false.  Instead, of course, the opposite happened – Eddington’s findings made the theory more persuasive.  It had passed a test.  Such tests became for Popper the solution of the problem of demarcation.

The three theories which troubled him weren’t empty of explanatory power, any more than astrology was.  But their explanations were not scientific.  Conversely, science could never arrive at anything so final as the truth.  But by constantly exposing explanations to the test of falsifiability, it weeded out untruths, and allowed only the strongest theories – in terms of prediction and explanation – to survive.

Whether Popper arrived at the scientific method is a question for another time.  I have my doubts whether such a thing exists.  While science is undoubtedly methodical, there may well be as many methods as there are scientific disciplines; the vast majority are learned in the lab rather than the classroom, and resemble modes of thinking and behavior more than logical formulas.

But in a larger sense, Popper was correct, and falsifiability added a crucial element to our understanding of how scientific explanations shed error.  Much like fellow Austrian F. A. Hayek, who discovered a kind of Darwinian selection at work in the marketplace, Popper found science to be driven by an evolutionary series of “conjectures and refutations” – falsifiable theories and tests which either increased the theory’s power or fatally weakened it, making room for a fitter explanation.

Popper, among the last grandees of the rationalist tradition, sought to apply his method toward the improvement of social life.  He called this approach “critical rationalism,” and he believed it could assess the rightness of proposed social improvement by evaluating the consequences,  avoiding preconceived notions of right and wrong.  In the area of “piecemeal social engineering,” the consequences, he thought, were the equivalent of falsifiability.

I have dealt elsewhere with the insurmountable problems raised by Popper’s critical rationalism.  In brief, it applies a method for explaining reality to the quest for the good life:  an uneasy slide from is to ought.  Unlike science, which judges theories by the standard of  reality (as best we understand it), Popper judged social change by the moral effect of the consequences – but to do this, he needed a morality which preceded the consequences, making the whole exercise pointless.

Strange for such a brilliantly logical thinker, he fell, like all consequentialists must, down the rabbit hole of an infinite regress.

Still, as commonly happens with the mistakes of geniuses, Popper’s speculations shed light on an important yet long-ignored problem:  the maximum speed of cultural evolution.  It’s orders of magnitude faster than biological evolution; but much more deliberate than the progress of science, and thus out of sync with social engineering of any kind.

This too is a story for another day.


Deep thought

January 27, 2010

“Tocqueville came to the conclusion that there was an inherent struggle in America between two opposing impulses:  the spirit of rugged individualism versus the conflicting spirit of community and association building.  Franklin would have disagreed.  A fundamental aspect of Franklin’s life, and of the American society he helped to create, was that individualism and communitarianism, so seemingly contradictory, were interwoven.  The frontier attracted barn-raising pioneers who were ruggedly individualistic as well as fiercely supportive of their community.  Franklin was the epitome of this admixture of self-reliance and civic involvement, and what he exemplified became part of the American character.”

Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin


Studies in good and evil

January 26, 2010

Those who consider our species to be naturally nasty often cite two studies as proof.  One is the Milgram experiment, ginned up at Yale in 1961 – the time of the Eichmann trial, with its supposed revelation of the banality of evil.  During the experiment, an “authority figure” easily persuaded subjects to give what they believed were severe electric shocks to other participants who had failed to learn the right lessons.

In the second experiment, the 1971 Standford prison study, play-acting “guards” over-internalized their roles, and ended by abusing and humiliating the “prisoners.”

Neither experiment has been fully reproduced.  Sophistpundit argues persuasively that the methods used in both were so flawed as to render the results statistically meaningless.  However, I suspect the meaning contained in the two studies has nothing to do with statistics:  rather, it’s about our intuitions and preconceptions of human nature.

It pleases some people to believe that, under the veneer of civilization, there lurks in all of us an inner Nazi – repressed, pitiless, amorally obedient to authority – waiting for the right moment to break out.  For such people, kindness can only be hypocrisy, and Abu Ghraib is a confirmation rather than a transgression.  Given the prestige of science, the Milgram and Stanford studies provide the equivalent of divine sanction for this dark view of humanity.

Interestingly, the contrary view can now cite its own studies to highlight the power of compassion.  This article (via ALD) describes several such experiments – which, I confess,  to my untutored mind seem almost as bizarre as Milgram and Stanford.  In one, for example, two persons who couldn’t see each other tried to “convey one of 12 emotions, including love, gratitude, and compassion” by touching their forearms.  Apparently, it worked, much to the gratification of the author.

Another experiment, designed by Daniel Batson, involved electric shocks to slow learners, just like Milgram but with a twist.

one study had participants watch another person receive shocks when he failed a memory task. Then they were asked to take shocks on behalf of the participant, who, they were told, had experienced a shock trauma as a child. Those participants who had reported that they felt compassion for the other individual volunteered to take several shocks for that person, even when they were free to leave the experiment.

A third study, also by Batson, sought to learn whether subjects would help someone in distress, even if their kindness remained anonymous.

In this study female participants exchanged written notes with another person, who quickly expressed feeling lonely and an interest in spending time with the participant. Those participants feeling compassion volunteered to spend significant time with the other person, even when no one else would know about their act of kindness.

So there we have it:  dueling studies showing the human race to be innately good and intrinsically evil, with both opinions sanctioned by that Janus-faced deity, science.  What are we to make of this?

My first instinct is to reply:  not much.  As Sophistpundit observes, the number of participants in this type of university-funded experiment are nearly always insufficient to allow meaningful generalizations.  One simply can’t buy that many grad students to play prisoner or forearm-tapper.  In addition, of course, the demographics of American academia are scarcely representative of the human race.

Another objection has to do with the way morality functions in the wild.  We learn right and wrong behavior one situation at a time, with each situation identified by certain clues or tags.  The moral universe is thus a dense matrix of these clues, which overlay, complement, and contradict one another, and to which the individual is in part habituated.

To remove the individual from the clutter of habitual situations, and test in isolation a single aspect of moral life, is to invite a distorted and confused response.

My second thought is an obvious one:  there are times when aggressive, even selfish, behavior is useful to an individual – when competing for love or sex, for example.  Other times, compassion and altruism help bond a family or a group.  From a strictly evolutionary perspective, the broader the range of behaviors, the better the chances of success in ever more situations.

To speak of the human race as innately good or evil is to give a philosophical answer to a biological question.  We are good and evil.  The line between the two, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, runs through every human heart.

Which is also why we are moral animals – struggling toward the light, but sometimes drawn, against our will, to the dark.


Who we are: a visual reminder

January 25, 2010

On this day in 1945, the Battle of the Bulge ended.  In the snows of the Ardennes, the American fighting man shattered the last Nazi offensive, opening the way to Germany and the destruction of a monstrous regime.

The Battle of the Bulge, a surprise attack, was not much photographed.  I decided to celebrate this victory with images from D-Day, which was long planned and amply recorded for history; only the last photo is from January 1945.

The background scenery for D-Day was awesome, in a very different sense from the way my kids use this word.  But look at the soldiers’ faces:  so young.  Six months later, in the Ardennes, they appear to have aged a lifetime.

Fast-forward 65 years to January 2010 and the horrific earthquake in Haiti.  Once again, Americans, military and civilian, are on the move to provide assistance.  The French, who never forgave our GIs for saving their country, lost no time condemning US relief efforts as an “occupation” of Haiti.  Hugo Chavez, whose imagination outstrips even his rage,  blamed the earthquake on a “tectonic weapon” wielded by the US military.

Strangely enough, nobody thought to ask the Haitians what they thought . . .