Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Macroeconomics for Dragons

A conservative relative posted something on Facebook about the Federal Reserve recently.  It said that you could understand the Federal reserve by consulting the monopoly rulebook, roughly:

'Q:What happens when the bank runs out of money?'
A: The bank cannot run out of money.  If bills run out the banker will write amounts on pieces of paper and use these as money.'

Actually this is a pretty wonderfuly explanation of what the federal reserve does and why it's important: it makes sure that we have money so that we can play the game, IE buy and sell things.  It would be a miserable game of monopoly indeed if money could just run out, and in the real world the results are worse -- the Great Depression is a fabulous example.

But of course, my family member did not intend the above as a compliment to Ben Bernanke's efforts to inject more money into the economy.  And it makes me wonder -- what do you have to believe for this all to be a -bad- thing?  What do you have to believe to think that it's wrong to make sure that there is enough money in the economy?

Monday, October 7, 2013

You Should Take Responsibility So I Don't Have To

Whenever someone says 'personal responsibility' my eyes glaze over.  I've heard it said too much, and heard it say too little.

This phrase has become a magical incantation.  A spell people use to ward off the boogeymen -- moral relativism, people blaming society for their problems, the decline in American values.  Of course, these are boogeymen, not real problems but the invented crises of moral busybodies and superstitious fanatics who are concern-trolling our nation (I'm looking at you, Douthat).  The idea that invoking 'personal responsibility' does anything is laughable - young men do not turn to the corner because some NPR liberal said it wasn't their fault, and telling them that it's their fault is not going to make them stop.

But as laughable as it is, it is invoked again and again can be deployed against drug users, teen moms, teens that aren't moms, poor people on welfare, poor people not on welfare, black folks and many others.  And that's the sinister part.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pride and Cruelty

The word 'cruelty' is often used as though it is synonymous with 'sadism.'  As though the only cruel people in the world were those who drowned cats for fun when they were kids and then graduated to doing even worse to their fellow human beings as adults.  The word cruel conjures up, for me, the lurid proceedings of police dramas (Luther is pretty good, but man, it's uncomfortable sometimes) and true crime stories; it's a word for serial killers and the psychopathic enforcers of drug gangs.  Certainly it seems to imply that someone is getting pleasure from someone's pain and death.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dystopias are for Teenagers

I recently re-read Vasily Grossman's masterpiece, Life and Fate, which is about the Great Patriotic war and the respective horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and about the effect that those authoritarian regimes had on all they touchedt.  It is a great novel, a self-conscious 20th century answer to War and Peace that can stand the comparison and not seem merely pretentious.  I published a brief review earlier this year

Reading it confirmed in my mind something I've thought before -- that whatever it's virtues, dystopian fiction is not the best tool to help us understand what life is like under authoritarianism.  If you want to find out about life under Stalin, read something by an actual Soviet, not by an English idealist who'd never set foot in the USSR.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Corporate Social Responsibility Doesn't Exist, Which is Why Government Regulation Should

This is a good summary of the problems of worker pay, wage stagnation and corporate versus societal responsibility.  It pretty much sums up my feelings on corporate America, which I'd like to expand.

Beginning in with Henry Ford and continuing through the New Deal and the 50's and 60's America has had a deal with its corporations.  We'd let them do what they wanted and they'd take care of their workers -- Unions would become domesticated, and even non-union workers would get nearly union-like benefits and tenure.  We built healthcare around employment, we built retirement around employment, all assuming that a) people would continue working at the Ford plant for their entire lives and b) a private equity firm would not buy the Ford plant for pennies and sell it for scrap.

This grand bargain between corporate America and the public was always a bum deal -- it gave us Love Canal, among other things.  But we were happy with it as long as companies held up their end of the bargain -- fairly stable employment, good benefits, high wages.

Then in the 80's the suits reneged on their half of the deal -- 'you don't really need that low deductible insurance plan, or that fixed-benefit retirment plan, do you?'  And then, of course, came the real kicker 'well you know our real responsibility is to our shareholders, not to you, our employees' and then the layoffs start.

But you know what?  The Corporations are right.  Their job is to make money.  We were the fools for ever thinking differently.  It's not so simple, of course.  Wall Street types will lay people off til the cows come home and then scream 'job creators' whenever you request that, since they've been making out like bandits, they give back more to the common pot.  So when that happens we just need to take what they say about profits and shareholder value and run with it.  They won't take care of people and they won't take care of the planet, so it's our job to do it for them (on their dime).  They will take as much as they can.  Our job is to stop them.  This is the way it is.  We are free of illusions, at least.

A note on ethics, why-do-I-bother edition

I should not comment on anything that Ross Douthat ever writes.  It's not a good practice to grant page views to misogynists with delusions of Thomistic philosophical chops.  But sometimes I can't help myself, because Douthat is typical of a sort of intellectual* conservative that dresses up religious dogma and prejudice in the clothing of concern about social cohesian and mores.

I nearly found myself agreeing with Douthat on the subject of almost as odious Stephen Pinker.  I agree that 'science' does not dictate any moral values (is versus ought, etc).  But then I thought about what Douthat had written, and I realized he was wrong (even if Pinker was as well) and that all was right with the world once again.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Segregation in My American City

There's been a bunch of maps showing the ethnic geography of America America and it's cities lately.  This one is the latest.  And this makes me think about my own city, and its own history of segregation.

3 weeks ago my wife and I and I bought a mattress from a lovely local place. I got to talking with the owner about living in the historic district. Back in the 90's, like 20(!) years ago, she had lived on our old street, College Avenue, on the same block I did from 2008 to 2011. I had known that at one time the many of the houses on the street had been owned by African-Americas. I learned from her that when she lived there there were still some older people (they all sounded like retirees), mostly black, living on the block. By the time I moved in the street was nothing but white folks and vacant houses (like 3 vacant properties on my block, which isn't terrible but still kind of jarring).

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Waistcoat Manifesto Pt 1

Waistcoats* have been in and out of fashion a number of times since they were first discarded in the 1940's (much like hats).  They have been brought back as a novelty, and then discarded again when the tides of fashion turn.  Me, however, I am a waistcoat-wearing man.  If I'm waring a tie I feel naked without one.  I'll wear them whether or not they're in fashion, partly because I think following your personal sense of style is always fashionable, partly because I can't imagine doing anything else.

Being the sort of person who overthinks things, I have given a lot of thought about waistcoats.  Why they are an important part of a fully dressed man's wardrobe, and how they can best be incorporated into an ensemble.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What it means that doubts about Zimmerman's guilt are 'reasonable'

Like a lot of people I'm sad, angry and not entirely surprised about the verdict in the slaying of Trayvon Martin.  It strikes me as a basic injustice, not on the legal level, but the human one, because George Zimmerman is the reason that Trayvon Martin is dead.  George Zimmerman followed him.  George Zimmerman confronted him.  George Zimmerman brought deadly force with him.  And it was George Zimmerman who, when it came to blows, pulled the trigger.

Beyond that I'm disgusted by the tactics of the defense, which resemble nothing so much as a defense attorney in a rape case convincing a male jury that the victim was a lying slut who asked for it.

But on a legal level I'm disturbed by what a jury* found 'reasonable.'  I'm disturbed that they thought it was 'reasonable' to assume, even as a possibility, the best of George Zimmerman and the worst of Trayvon Martin.  Because that says a lot about who we trust (and this is what a lot of these verdicts come down to, whether or not juries trust someone even a little bit).  That jury, and thus our nation as a legal entity, has decided to simply trust George Zimmerman, and to think it 'reasonable' that Trayvon Martin died because of his own suicidal bravado and aggression.  That we would think such a thing reasonable is disgusting.

*Who seem to have been of Zimmerman's peers, not Martin's.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Industrial Decline as a Red Herring

David Simon had another rant quoted in the Guardian.  It was mostly true -- the war on drugs as a war on black people -- but it reminded me of something that rings false in Simon and many others on the contemporary left- their bemoaning of America's industrial decline.

This is not just a left-wing phenomenon.  It is found across the political spectrum -- people generally agree that American manufacturing has declined (which is true, in employment terms) and that this is the cause of the problems of the American working class.

I would dispute the last part of this conventional wisdom.  To start with, there is no necessary connection between highly paid, lower-skilled jobs and the manufacturing sector.  Indeed, the manufacturing jobs that remain in this country mostly either require advanced technical degrees, or pay somewhere in the vicinity of $10 an hour.  Working in a factory does not magically transform the working class into the middle class, and shuttering factories does not magically transform them into the working poor.

No, the reason why factory jobs used to be so good was because of the strength of American labor, and because we were a society that had decided that working people should be able to live the American dream, even if they're not anesthesiologists.  The problem is not the sort of labor that Americans are doing, but our nation's devaluation of labor in general*.  The services industry is, unlike manufacturing, extremely resistant to offshoring (we need people to work in our stores, in America) -- the problem is that we have decided that it's fine that our legions of restaurant and retail employees make $8 an hour.  Wringing out hands about the decline of factories does nothing to help the million or so Americans working at Wal Marts across the nation.  The factories are not coming back (at least not in their previous, labor-intensive, form) but there is plenty we could do to help the American working class, by getting serious about the workers of the service industry.

*Perhaps our romanticization of blue-collar works only helps to devalue pink-collar work, as we act as though pink-collar jobs are intrinsically not valuable, unlike those begone heroes at the Ford plant.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman - Initial Thoughts

For the past several weeks, I've been re-reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate.  The shortest review I could give is that you should read it, it's brilliant and beautiful and brings alive a world that most  people in the West can only imagine.  It is a masterpiece.

But if you want to hear something more, you can find my thoughts below.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

'Revolution' as magical thinking

The revolutionary extremism of the Right has been on display lately.  First there was the news that 44% of Republicans believe that an armed revolution may soon be necessary to protect freedom.  Then the NRA's national conference and its new president showed the organization's commitment to de-legimitizing elected officials and chattering about the importance of the second amendment for maintaining  that last, violent option to defend liberty.

I know some conservatives (namely my brother) who talk like this.  They say it casually, flippantly.  They mention no plans and no lines in the sand.  Thus I  think the good news in all of this is that few people are really serious about wanting to take their guns and seize some federal buildings -- they are not actually turning the NRA into a massive revolutionary militia, they're not drawing up lists of targets or planning on disputing elections by force.  They talk about it like it'll be a simple matter of saying 'I revolt' and that it will not require them to start lining up and shooting Nancy Pelosi's staffers, or sending the executive boards of the Sierra Club and NAACP to some camp*.  They're just talking, and talking like idiots.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Uniquely awful presidency of George W Bush

George W. Bush is back in the news with the opening of his presidential library (when did these become a thing, anyway?).  There have been some weak attempts to defend him, and more repetitions of what we already know -- that George W. Bush was a poor president that made bad decisions, a man so obsessed with being 'the decider' that he banished any of the doubt and self-reflection needed for serious decision making*.

I've been returning to something that the great, curmudgeonly historian David Foner said -- that George W. Bush was the worst president ever.  Now I didn't think that then and I don't think that now -- we've had more wicked presidents (Jackson) and presidents that have presided over (and helped create) greater national disasters (Hoover, Buchanan).

But there is a narrow sense in which I think Bush is 'the worst ever' -- never before has a president -created- so many problems without any need or excuse.  Never before has a president been given such a strong hand -- a budget surplus, international leadership both moral and political -- and squandered it so completely, leaving us with financial collapse, trillion-dollar deficits, a misbegotten and mismanaged war, and Abu Ghraib.  The other presidential failures -- Hoover and Buchanan come to mind -- were given great challenges and failed spectacularly.  George W. Bush was given one significant but manageable challenge - 9-11 - and failed badly, and then he conjured up more failures (deficits, Katrina's aftermath) from thin air and sheer incompetence.

I've studied a bit of American history, and I think this is unique.  Other presidents (Nixon, Jefferson) mixed unforced errors with brilliant accomplishments, while others (Adams) had brilliant accomplishments amidst general incompetence.  George W. Bush doesn't just belong aside Harding and Filmore amongst the mediocre presidents, he belongs at the bottom of them all, circling the drain with Buchanan and Hoover.

*This probably has a bit to do with his MBA education and his stints in the corporate world, honestly.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

'Collectivism' and 'Statism' are useless words

As the last two posts from me indicate, I've been reading Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.  Nazi and Stalinist atrocities have taken up enough mental real estate of late that I dreamt last night that my old elementary school was an underground prison.

But these atrocities are in a sense all around us; their memory is omnipresent, from their rather central role in school curricula to the use of Nazi and Soviet history as the ultimate in taboo humor.  They inform our discourse, and similes involving them are ubiquitous.

Most of these similes are too stupid to take seriously.  Comparing Obama to Hitler is so self-evidently moronic that I half suspect that no one truly believes it, people just want to believe it.  But more insidiously, some people use deliberately vague terms as a way to invite comparison between the democratic welfare state and authoritarianism.  Such comparisons are as useless and unenlightening as they are offensive.

They are not obvious, however.  Because one can define one's terms to make such a comparison true, in a trivial way.  You can, for instance, define all those who do not believe in absolute individual liberty as 'statists' or 'collectivists.'  By this definition, Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler are all 'statists.'  But in so doing you have done nothing -- you've just invented a word that means 'everyone that disagrees with me' and applied it appropriately.  Such a word is not a term of history, but merely a propaganda tool, a linguistic trick designed to paint all your opponents with a Stalinist brush.

You may protest, that this is a philosophical term, one that accurately describes people's values, to which I would reply, simply -- hogwash.  On the contrary, such a way of speaking shows a perversely abstract way of viewing human belief, human morality and human action, where the bad thing about Stalin was not that he murdered millions, but that he did not believe in individual property rights.  Interestingly, on this point the libertarian agrees with the 1930's Communist apologist, who saw Stalin as just another progressive fighting for equality.

By their fruits ye shall know them.  Any term that turns us away from the actual impact that ideas have on human beings is a perversity, an intellectual temptation to lose sight of our fellow man.  To guard against this we must view 20th century atrocities not as myths or abstractions, but as historical facts, the products of particular systems.  Not merely a watchword for everything we hate.

Bloodlands: Something of a Review

I've finished Timothy Snyder's well-crafted but monumentally depressing book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler 1933-1945.  As I said before, it is a must read for anyone interested in 20th century European history, WWII or 20th century authoritarianism and its attendant atrocities.

I was struck by a few things about it.  For one, Snyder has enough literary and moral sensibility to place horrific events in a human and moral context without losing sight of cause and effect.  In particular, his conclusion, which combines history, ethics and politics, would make the book worth reading even if the rest of the book was just tables of fatalities.  This conclusion is by turns moving, intellectually probing and at times it presents a quiet challenge to the cliches we are so often fed about these atrocities.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Some Thoughts About How I Dress

The seasons are changing and with it my outfits, which has gotten me thinking about my clothes again. Believe it or my wardrobe (my clothing, shoes, accessories, jewelry, and outwear) is something that I've given a lot of thought to, in ways that may not show, so this post is an attempt to clarify why I dress the way I do.

I was a late bloomer, and subsisted happily on unfitted tshirts and jeans until 10th grade, when I got involved in theater, got a boyfriend, and realized I wanted to dress more like my peers. The first time my mom took me to the mall and I cared about what I was buying instead of going "yeah, whatever" I was quickly overwhelmed by the number of options out there and how to choose and combine them when I hadn't developed a sense of style and didn't have any female friends I felt comfortable asking to help give me one, and to boot all of it was SO expensive - especially the accessories. For $100 (an enormous sum when I was 15) I was going to end up with just a few outfits, not a whole wardrobe. About an hour in I shut down, much to my mom's disappointment, and never really recovered.

Since then I've gone about building up my wardrobe on MY terms, not the mall's or what's in style. In building up a wardrobe I've considered several factors - 1. body type, 2. price, durability and comfort, and 3. personal style, which I will explain below.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bloodlands: First Thoughts - the Explicability of Evil

I'm reading Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder.  It's a good book, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the history of WWII, Eastern Europe, The Holocaust, or the Nazi and Soviet systems.  That said, it's as relentless grim and numbingly brutal as one would expect, given it's subject matter.  Snyder does a good job of humanizing the victims, but in the end it is a litany of horrors, albeit well described, well explained horrors.

Early on in the book I was struck by a statement that Snyder made -- roughly that people approach the holocaust as an event outside history, an almost supernatural event of ultimate evil, and that this gives Hitler altogether to much credit, and comes dangerously close to agreeing with his view of his actions as an expression of pure will, directing, rather than dictated by, the course of history.  This observation seems quite true to me -- how many of us, when we studied the holocaust in school, could grasp the general outline of horror, but glazed over and repeated cliches when we tried to explain it?  Man's inhumanity to man and people's destruction and hatred of the 'other' is a description of what happened, not a cause of it, after all.

And to me it is very important that we always search for a historical explanation, if we believe that history can be studied at all.  No event is outside the flow of cause and effect.  This is not to say that everything is preordained or that we are all just avatars of the historical process, but that the explanatory methods that we use for ordinary events -- who wins elections, why nations go to war -- can be used to explain anything, no matter how horrible.

This method is a particular method, rather than a universal one.  We cannot look to universal laws of human nature but to individual circumstances if we actually want to say something useful*.  This means rejecting abstract, philosophical arguments about 'totalitarianism**' and 'modernity' and looking at the actual events.

In this regard Snyder is admirable.  He shows the 'how' of the terror famines, the great purges, the starvation of Soviet POW's and the Holocaust in enough detail that we see how the machinery of death was set in motion.  He also answers the most proximate 'whys' -- why did the Germans start killing Jews en masse in 1941? why did Stalin deliberate starve the Ukraine?  The deeper whys (why the Nazis hated the Jews so much, why ordinary Germans and Ukraineans and Balts went along with it), however, he is silent on.

And this is perhaps inevitable.  He is writing a history of the eastern European borderlands between Germany and Russia from 1933 to 1945.  The deeper causes lie within the minds of Hitler and Stalin and in the natures of the movements that they led and the states they ran.  But if you do read Bloodlands (and I would recommend it), please remind yourself that the answers are out there.  After all, these are not devils, but men.

*I believe it's presumptuous to assume that we can know the nature of human beings as such, but aside from that, if humans have a nature then it is the same at all times and in all places.  The question then, is why some people (with the same natures as everyone else) are genocidiers when others are not.

**A useless word, except as propaganda.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Questions and Answers

Please excuse me, this is a bit of a personal musing, or perhaps navel gazing.

It's been 5 years since I graduated from St. John's college.  I arrived there a pretty doctrinaire 18 year old who thought he had all the answers, and I left at 22 being somewhat less sure of myself, or at least less settled in my ideals.  Even if I didn't learn humility (it will take more than a college to teach me that, I think) I learned that I couldn't, personally, find the answer to everything.

In between those two points I was surrounded by questions.  "Can virtue be taught?"  "Does Anselm Prove that there is a God?"  were some specific ones.  Behind them were more general questions 'What is the right way to live our lives?' 'How do we know what we know' and other such things.  With a few exceptions -- does Anselm prove that there's a God?  No.  -- these questions were not answered.  Questions like that are odd because people ask them earnestly, and yet, if you ask the asker, they will be forced to admit that they don't expect to find an answer.

What is the point of a question that has no answer?  When I was at college people spoke of 'loving the questions' and some authors (such as Heidegger) seemed to assume that asking them was the only point.  But language is a set of tools, and a question is a tool get an answer.  If a question cannot be answered, isn't it a defective tool, or a tool being misused?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Returning on a Philosophical Note - A Principled Critique of Libertarianism

Blogging has not happened here for a while, due mostly to a certain seasonal torpor on the part of the bloggers.  But we're back now, and aim to update a bit more regularly.

We return with a critique of libertarianism.  Libertarianism is generally seen as a consistent, principled ideology, and gains respectability with white-collar professional types (and the media that caters to them) because its so supposedly philosophically sound.*  Critiques of libertarianism often take its philosophical soundness for granted or refuse to dispute it, and rely instead on practical arguments about the consequences of libertarian policies for poor people, the environment and the rights of minorities.**

These are good arguments, and I have made them before, but I wanted to critique libertarianism on a more fundamental level and argue that its consistency is not the result of sober thought, but of a glib desire to reduce all politics to a single goal -- maximizing liberty. 

To do this I will not look at the world through a theoretical lens, but looking at the world as it exists.

Monday, January 7, 2013

State Songs

State songs. Who cares about them? No one, and for good reason: most of them are awful - racist and tacky, full of purple prose and bad rhyme schemes talking about how great said state is, and set to unremarkable Victorian tunes. They'll only be sung at really important ceremonial occasions, and these happen infrequently enough that by the time state officials realize they have to sing the state song again it's too late to go to the legislature and try to get a new one. Fortunately, most people will live their entire lives without hearing their state song.

For all that they're terrible, though, state songs are one of the richest sources of nerdy history humor imaginable.