Thursday, October 29, 2009

Last thoughts on Friedman for awhile

I've finally finished Milton Friedman's Freedom and Capitalism, a slender philosophical volume that purports to solve for us the problem of governments, private enterprise, and the social consequences of the poor and inefficient interaction of the two, the social goods or evils. It took a bit of time as I had to read it in small doses to keep my temperature from getting too hot.

He takes for granted that the markets (which while not a code word for corporations per se, their actions are the bulk of what makes up a modern market [as per supply side theory {which itself has social constructivist forces (the will to believe and all that)}]) will suss themselves out. This is really what his argument comes down to, is that it's only through the perverse incentives the government sets up through it's process of trying to redress past wrongs to present populations (a problem for sure [but the solution of which I would say that is the only reason to enter into the tacit consent of the social contract of fair play and what's mine is mine and yours is yours {the only reason not to start a revolution}]) that keeps the private sector from righting those past wrongs of its own accord.

And in a way Friedman is right because of course real freedom (or freedom for the most with hopefully protections for the few) is true if not pure democracy, one hopes. But what he never explains is why large populations should for example do away with protections against discrimination (I'll return to this one a few times), but maintain protections for wealth and business assets. None of his ideas are consistent with what it would be logical for various majority populations, both in localities, nationalities and globalities (?) to take. Some common numbers that get thrown around a lot in progressive circles are the various percentages on the control of wealth and resources. Globally (and here nationally) some small 5-10% of the population controls some 65-85% (I know I should hunt up the real numbers, but these numbers are within an acceptable range of error for a blogpost, so) of the resources. If you consider what democracy is, it becomes clear that it is absolutely clearly in the rational self-interest of that 90-95% of the population to band together and use the mechanisms of government to redistribute the wealth and resources of this top 5-10%. In purely, bald, rationally self interested terms.

Here we see that pure democracy and pure capitalism in actuality do not naturally mix or converge on each other. And the convergence is, of course, an American illusion. Everywhere (literally every single country on this planet) outside of the United States understands how destructive the Washington Consensus was in South America, in South East Asia during the financial crisis of the late 1990's, in Russia and Eastern Europe after the fall of the curtain, etc. The truth of the facts on the ground is that the institution of so called free market reforms exacerbates the inequality of wealth, thereby in reality inhibiting the economic freedom of the many in order to give it over to the few for hyper luxurious consumption and the exploitation of local resources and populations by the corporations. This is and has only been achieved outside the United States through the use of military autocracies, and, for example, the populist swing left of South America (and their current virulent hatred of the US [Who doesn't effin' hate us anymore?]) and the success of demagogic left wing politicians to consolidate their own autocratic powers has as much to do with the impositions of the Washington Consensus by international bodies such as the IMF and World Bank or the direct consultation of the former rightist autocrats on economic 'reforms' as it does with, for example, some perceived naturally autocratic nature of populist or leftist movements.

And Friedman's hand in all this has to be seen as a denial of everything he's written about freedom. A man who advised Augusto Pinochet cannot, with any credibility, say anything about freedom that is meaningful and not worthy of our eternal scorn and ridicule. Clearly, his talk about freedom was only in relation to social policies (returning to the earlier example, discrimination laws are perversions of the natural corrections of the market [thereby keeping the markets from correcting themselves], but patent laws are the proper role of government [meaning government's only place is in protecting businesses, not in protecting people {a la democracy (political freedom)}]).

Economic freedom then, and economic freedom of the few over the many, takes primacy over political freedom. And economic freedom essentially means ceding control of society from a government to a mishmosh of corporations (that binge and merge in all kinds of unhealthy ways), which means the curtailing of all kinds of non-consumerist, non-economic freedoms that don't even show up on any type of balance sheet, as currently calculated.

And in pursuit of essentially a rationalization of this, ultimately autocratic or at least demagogic, structure, it remains impossible to remain philosophically consistent the deeper you go into the abstraction. So, Friedman gets caught, and he throws in Anti-trust laws (essentially so he can point out the union exemption and call for its abolishment [and to be sure, there are significant problems with the current structure of labor unionism in the US]) as the pure backstop against corporatist tendencies to strive for monopoly (and this does also apply to the union that's run like a kind of corporation). He never really does explain how or why it is that Anti-trust laws are the one and only form of government intervention in business (beyond enforcing contracts and the like) that he calls for. How does that take primacy philosophically over discrimination laws (which, in a perverse inversion of logic, he compares to 'the Nazi Nuremberg laws')?

He claims that business, when left to its own devices, becomes a bulwark against the centralization of political power, but that's never really been the case. Corporations constantly and consistently collude with government when given the chance, and laissez faire has always been a smoke screen for the co-option of government by corporate interests. Corporations, as is in there currently structured rational interests, invert democracy and create either an autocratic integration of business and gov't (which we've seen in South America on both the left and the right, and increasingly in South East Asia, Russia, China, etc.) or for example the demagogic work that's being done by the right in the US at the present juncture (yes, I'm talking to you Fox News [in truth it is this limited spectrum of left/right equaling democrat/republican that maintains a kind of centrism that remains unbalanced and uncentered, swinging wildly across the spectrum as both sides overreach and fail to work together {balance is not a single two dimensional spectrum kind of deal and trying to build it in that way can only lead to the charismatic use of power for the furtherance of non-democratic aims}]). Democracy has to be subverted (the self interests of the people have to be either ignored by an autocracy or hidden away by a demagogery). It is never clear how true political freedom and the economic freedom of business and consumers (the only vote he seems to value [and if someone suffers from compulsive hyper-consumption {Yes, I'm talking to you America}, can their dollar voting be said to be really free {a convicted drug addict for example will lose his political right to vote because, I assume, it is said he can't live up to that responsibility (although, I have to admit disempowering felons seems like a good way to guarantee recidivism)]}). So how can we reconcile these two forces, these two very different types of freedom?

The reconciliation never occurs. For whatever Friedman may have been as a mathematician and economist, he's a pretty shitty philosopher and an even worse social scientist. And I'm pretty sure (as economics is all about assumption [theory building {philosophy}]) that without the last two the value of the first two can only be in dilettantish games of diversion and delusion. No real solutions to our problems.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Comparatively speaking

Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences
-John Stuart Mill

Though much of the inequality of income produced by payment in accordance with product reflects "equalizing" differences or the satisfaction of men's tastes for uncertainty, a large part reflects initial differences in endowment
-Milton Friedman

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Geopolitical intensity

I saw this cat on the Daily Show the other day who made all kinds of claims about his ability to use some kind of computer model to predict outcomes of political, business, legal, whatever situations. The idea turns out to be taking certain qualitative ideas about the power and salience of the major players, quantifying them, and running them through some type of game theory computer simulation.

But, course he doesn't explain his models at all in his book which I sent off to for, because it just sounded too tempting that he might (not that I would understand the mathematics). He also turns out to be just completely full of himself and spends more time jerking himself off intellectually than saying much. The brief biblio and end notes point to some hints about this whole predictioneering nonsense or attempts at 'engineering the future', which in concept is not always or necessarily often a 'bad idea'. It's just when you get the 'engineering' wrong. Which, with the current state of our understanding of human consciousness, is going to be a bit murky. But by thinking through the rational and then the deeper spiritual and maybe also the philosophical (which is substantially different than the rational I would say) among all things maybe we can work it all out.

And Bueno De Mesquita is clearly a smart man who has made some serious predictions throughout the years, which have predicted outcomes in geopolitical situations such as the Oslo accords or the Clinton health care flame out or other classified stuff apparently. It is fairly interesting, if also slow and a little patronizingly put, and he still has a few chapters in which to make good on the overall work.

But, course Amazon has that free (supersaver) shipping for orders of just 25 hot dollas or more, so I always try to at least find a cheap second book. Often the book that Amazon pairs it up with. They usually hit the target with their pairings, if you want one, you want the other, if it's just one book that I had in mind to spend a little disposable cash on (on-line and brick and mortar book shopping is one consumer behavior that I fully admit I have a bit of a problem with [I can quit any time, I swear. I just need those two books on behavior economics. Oh, and that other Jared Diamond book, The Third Chimpanzee. And that book I saw in Border's the other day about the thing. I need that book for sure. And also Rawl's work on political liberalism [edited to say: got it]. And surely everything on my wish list is also crucial, but after that. That's it. No more. I'm done.}])

So I got the second book, which was The Second World by Parag Kkanna, and, yo, this guy is no joke. A serious geopolitical antroponaciomorphistological (that word is made up [but still descriptive]) look at the inter-relations between politics, culture at multiple levels, and the old school kind of global history crowd's stuff (Toynbee being the largest example of, but also Oswald Spengler) with that early somewhat immature work in the field of international relations.

Well, Khanna updates that work for like the twenty-third century and shit (I swear this guy is way ahead of his time [and only a year older than me! What the?]) taking geopolitics and the understanding of the globalization process to this whole other level. He uses this process of apparently going to all these places and talking to the people there, and then connecting those on the ground probably informal field interviews with businessmen, gov't officials, taxi drivers, and on with this historico-international perspective of culture. Intensity does not even begin. I haven't been this excited about a book since I discovered Niall Ferguson's The World at War a couple of years ago.

Khanna is especially in favor of the European version of empire over the American or the Chinese (he identifies these as your three poles of power, with second world 'emerging market' nations as the focus of the lens through which to see the tripartite world empire [well, it just sounds conspirial when I write it like that {and it's not (more considered)}]). He does seem to admire the Chinese even over ourselves, the Americans (which points to some concern [edited to say: as I'm now finishing the book, it turns out China is the one of his poles that he goes into with any depth, and it's a nuanced look to be sure). It's really helping me already to see more globally in terms of geosociopolitical stuff. Kind of seeing the world historical dialectic or something. Heavy, man.

Man oh man. It is indeed a heavy problem of international coordination, which has to be the way, whatever you think about all the stuff in the book of revelations and some of the other old testament stuff (without the Jewish, apochrypal, or mystic commentaries [more perspectives are better]). We have to work towards togetherness, and international bodies need to be made fair and decent with proper incentivization of behavior. (Let us not continue to use a structure that incentivizes greed, sloth, avarice, resource hoarding, apathy, over-consumption, hyper-consumption, etc. just because we don't think we can do better. Let us walk out into the light of the Spirit and go beyond such poor organization. Technology is the result of culture, and culture is the sense of the people and who we are and what we can be together as a society.)

On occasion, not any time recently I'll admit because of more basic level learning in new fields, I've tried to work out a language of superstructure theory, which would be a more integrated version of the current social sciences, wherein all where considered in the theoretic position. It has something to do with visualizing the coordinations somehow, but nonetheless...

I did have a moment there just a minute ago where I was visualizing the globe in my head and trying to work out some kind of international cultural intermix in terms of interlocking layers of cities, countries, regions, inter-regions, national tensions. It's a very powerful way of thinking and really requires an elaborative process when you, probably like me and not Khanna (who appears to have been on a trip around the world a la Toynbee's East to West), have never been to the places he's talking about. You've got to use imaginative, creative tools to imagine this world that Khanna describes. No less than some sixty or seventy countries spanning northern Africa (the broader middle East as it were), South America, South Central Asia (the Stans [Khazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.]), South East Asia, and then he does finally get into a look directly at China, which it turns out he's not so blind to the dangers of.

And but a yet necessary further step for the US to really rejoin the community of nations as a genuine leader is to engage in this type of thinking both within the educational system and in the private sector and in the intersection of these two. Really the public and the private need to get into greater syncopation. The public-private partnership has to be a more healthy, less nutzo freak out version of the current version. Learning real cooperation, not simply self interested cooperation.

Anyway, my interest has been piqued to be sure.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Un Poco Loco

(Which is the name of a Bud Powell song that is just the greatest song in the universe, but here describing my own state of being a little bit nutzo on the whole wrath of god type deal there, which I swear I'm done with for at least, like, a few months)

I don't know what it is about economics that brings out the revivalist preacher in me, but it does, and especially Milton Friedman. The arrogance just oozes out of the work. It makes me so mad. Which is so totally not the graceful response. Yes, thank you Martin Luther. I am aware. Joyful attitude. Got it.

And really all the talk in the world about spirituality is pretty much worthless. Theosophy and theology, all that stuff, none of it means anything that doesn't inspire the soul. It's supposed to be about spiritual practices or the inspiration of spiritual practices. Not just spouting off at loud mouth jerkheads.

As I was saying. Grace, faith, turning toward god, a joyful heart. All that stuff, it's about the basic fact that the only potentially real freedom we have is in our own attitude. We don't control life, but we can control our own response. Maybe. Or something.

So, anyway. Most of all that stuff in the last post was cribbed off of Paul Tillich's A History of Christian Thought, which is just an outstanding work, and will be the last bit of religion and myth for me for a while even though Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life is just sitting on my bookshelf taunting me. Right on top of Randall Collin's The Sociology of Philosophies, which I'm planning on trying for again over the Christmas holiday. It is literally the Infinite Jest of the Social Sciences (probably about four hundred pages longer with about 30-40 more pages of end notes [no end notes within end notes, but all kinds of crazy end note charts and graphs, so...{my bookmark is still there where I abandoned ship the first time, probably about page 185}]).

These days it's macro, philosophy of econ, and game theory. With Weber's sociology of bureaucracy and soc. of power just to keep things live. The game theory and macro is kicking my arse what with all the math. My math is so very rusty it's not even funny. It's really isn't. I know I'm not laughing. Anyway,

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hybris Absurdum (2nd 1/2)

Neoliberalism is a term that comes from Milton Friedman's attempts at reappropriating the mantle of enlightenment era liberal philosophy for the modern conservative movement. Claiming that the liberal philosophical tradition was more initially centered on the ideas of an individual's rationality being the basis for natural rights of personal freedom (for Locke, for example, life, liberty, and property or for Jefferson [by way of George Mason's Virginia Constitution] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness [being substantially about property anyway one would assume {and also more poetic}]), Friedman then attempts to use this fact as proof that the modern purveyors of liberal philosophy have lost their way.

The problem here is, as Joachim of Floris has long since pointed out, bonum et necessarium in suo tempore, the good and the necessary according to its time. Truth is not static. Every time you try to nail it down, you find, inevitably, that you have nailed your own hand to the picnic table. Inevitably. The picnic table.

The early foundations of the liberal philosophical tradition were fighting against monarchic political systems, a feudal economic system, and autocratic religious institutions. The truth of the primacy of individual freedom was in response to the reality of a collectivism that was a means towards the maintenance and perpetuance of an oppressive and devastatingly wide inequality.

As the Western world moved farther towards democratic structures (albeit imperfect ones that at their best export the exploitation, per internal enthocentric democratic demands), liberal philosophy moved towards equality as an organizing principle. Quite clearly there were many early on who were dazzled by the idea of revolution and believed foolishly in the potentials of a modern Russian autocracy which were never really there. But that idiocy has little to do with the importance of equality. It does remind us though that Friedman is right to say that these freedoms are important. Equality does not negate the importance of freedom nor freedom equality.

For Saint Augustine though, and later Martin Luther, their is only one fundamental freedom. This is the freedom to turn one's life toward God. Or to not to.

For Augustine, the consequences of turning away from God were great. I'll let Paul Tillich explain:

Augustine described it thus: "The soul died when it was left alone by God, as a body will die when it is left by the soul." The soul which is dead, religiously speaking, has lost its control over the body. When this happened, the other side of sin became actual. The beginning is pride, hybris, turning to oneself, becoming separate from God. The consequence is concupiscence, the infinite endless desire. The word concupiscentia, desire or libido (in the ways in which modern pychology uses it) has two meanings in Augustine: the universal meaning, the turning toward the movable goods, those goods which change and disappear, and the narrower meaning of natural sexual desire, which is accompanied by shame.

Now, in Luther, this idea of turning oneself toward God was described as salvation through faith in grace. A closer look at Luther's question of faith and we find that faith was not about a strict and literal faith in the words of the bible per se, although he was a biblicist. Luther was not talking about a faith in the fact that the world is six thousand years old or things of this nature. Luther was talking about an experience. The experience of a living faith in one's own connection to a loving God. And in turning toward God (which can be understood in metaphoric terms as opening one's soul to the potentials of grace for example), the experience becomes one of loving all things, as God exists, God works through all things. Luther said quite plainly that people could know the word of god without having ever been exposed to the bible or Christianity. It was about the reception of grace, the faith that grace would come if thou hadst a joyful and loving heart with which to see and act in the world.

Then came John Calvin. Calvin did not believe in freedom. He believed in predestination. Actually double predestination. He believed that all people had been chosen before birth, before committing any sin, whether they were to go to heaven or spend eternity in damnation. He claimed that evil and hellfire were necessary as some sort of contrast to show just how glorious was god's glory.

While Calvin always held that no one can know beforehand which way you were destined to go at the end, the actual Calvinist and radical evangelical churches had to deal with a populace that undoubtedly wanted some assurances, some way to know for themselves that they were one of the chosen few. Here faith becomes certainty. Doubt becomes the enemy. Only those who believe with absolute certainty can possibly be one of the elect. Also, God's blessing here on Earth was another indication. If you were blessed by material wealth, even as it was a sin to spend that wealth (Calvinists were rigidly ascetic), you might just be one of God's chosen few.

Calvinism was a mixed blessing at best. One of the outcomes of Calvinistic thought was essentially the idea of investment, which is at the heart of capitalistic enterprises. The protestant ethic of hard work and a spendthrift life is really what brought the West beyond the feudal/mercantile system of the middle ages, in concert with liberal philosophy and the industrial revolution, but Calvin also gave to us righteousness. This idea that somehow being absolutely certain brings god's eternal glory. Course, Calvin himself never had any certainty on questions of theology, only about his own status as one of the elect. He famously reversed himself on his deathbed on the question of the ontology of evil, thinking that maybe his idea that god creates evil in order to bring his own glory into high relief might just be totally batshit. Certainty has and will always be dangerous because in certainty there is no room to question. No room to philosophize, to falsify, to reason out the deep questions of human life, and to potentially move in concert with the dynamic truths of a human life, a thing which has no stasis. Certainty is the dead and rotting core of a stale and idolic religion, and Luther knew it. Calvin could not see it.

Returning to Augustine, we find that pride is the observable consequence of the original sin both allegorically in Adam and in reality in each of us, which was this turning away from God. Hybris, pride, or the Greek hubris (that always fatal flaw) and certainty are not so far from each other. Such that the means by which this community of believers meant to guarantee God's special blessing may very well have been the sign by which we might know that they did, in fact, turn themselves away from God.

The ultimate expression of this turning was the 'infinite endless desire', the inability to find any true or lasting satisfaction, the shallow materiality. The modern mentality in which protestantism is a stale and static force for emotional idolatry, and consumption has become the true religion of the people of the West.

The strange irony of the situation is that this shallow materiality is ultimately irrational. And it would not be rational to accept this situation as the given or the necessary. And it is through the non-rational experience of faith in the grace of the truth and the beauty of the life and the world and the word that will allow us to see just how ridiculously childishly irrational we all have been/are being. And but yet this is what we find in the economic assumption of scarcity; that it is assumed not only that desire is unsatisfiable but also implicitly that the attempt should be made, and that this, again implicitly, is the rational way towards happiness and possible satisfaction. Essentially, the satisfaction of a spiritual fulfillment is factored out of economic equations. Augustine's ultimate freedom is canceled out against what? The potentials of materiality to bring us some measure of that spiritual joy? And so what is left is the milquetoast freedoms of car brands and whatnot, Milton Friedman's most treasured thing. The idol that he worshiped.

The problem we find in this disregard for the truely fundamental freedom of the self is that it creates a complication for the economic assumptions of any chance at equilibrium. There can be no assumption of linearity or curvilinearity in the functions of prices, wages, savings, investment, consumption, etc. Inflation for example, the wage-price spiral, is unsolvable for a society as employment approaches zero because of the fundamental irrationality of the rational self-interests of the competing parties for whom cooperating means to lose. The Nash equilibrium will not hold in the reality of these bargaining situations because it requires social concern from all involved, both labor and business. Within our current structure of that bargaining process, this is not really possible.

And this is the purely, grotesquely hilarious theater of absurdity that has long been the reality. The modern individual is Augustine's prideful self, the self devoid of grace, and this is the self that has no doubt. This is the self that knows its own election and cares nothing for the concerns and cares of the rest, cares only for it's own freedoms to choose amongst the gimcracks of shallow materiality, and will never get beyond the infinite endless desire. These selves will forever and perpetually be caught in the types of bipolar economic convulsions the depression side of which we are living through at this moment, and they, we, will never know equilibrium, know balance, know grace of any kind. No peace can come of this way of being. Or so it would seem.

Okay so I'm getting a little preachy now, and the economic element of this argument is underdeveloped here. There's also substantially more to say about the transition into capitalism and the way Protestantism lost the spirit and also secular moralism and it's relation to this turning towards god. The last point is one I'm sticking on a bit I'll admit, but, well, it'll all shake out somehow. For now, that'll have to suffice.