Limited, Inc.

“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

burning Greece

One would need the heart of an economist not to find the ECB’s dealings with Greece cruel and irrational beyond measure. And one would need the eye of an anthropologist to see how this outburst of elite irrationality connects up with other such outbursts that run in a series through Europe’s history. The troika reminds me, in its infinite causuistry, its moral outrage, and the endless punishments that it metes out, of the various commissions to investigate witchcraft that darken the pages of the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. One of the most famous was lead by Pierre de Lancre, Montaigne’s relative – he married the granddaughter of Montaigne’s uncle and the president of the parliament of Bordeaux, who in 1608 ventured with other grave worthies into the land of Satan which, according to credible report, had been conquering the women of Labourd in Southern France. The expedition was accompanied, it was once thought, by a holocaust of thousands of burnings. Historians now think that these moderates, these 17th century centrists, did things the way centrists do: they only burned a few dozen women, and then wrote laborious screeds justifying their actions.  What distinguishes Lancre is that he was justly proud of his relation to Montaigne and was a pure product of the humanist culture of Southwest France. Montaigne’s own opinions on witchcraft are, like all his opinions, an involved and dialogical affair, but he certainly comes out against the persecution of witches on the ground that the witch itself is a figure invented by the theorists of witchcraft: “C’est mettre ces conjectures a bien haut pris que d’en faire cuire un homme tout vif.”
A phrase that should haunt Europe now, while we watch a whole country being put to the stake in support of economic conjectures that were first proposed before there was any grasp of the business cycle, and are now being forced down the throats of entire populations because their elites are either complicit or afraid to act.
Vox EU, which is usually a site devoted to the reactionary maunderings of economists in thrall to neoliberalism, published an unusually blistering analysis of the ECB’s usurpation of state power and its expulsion of Greece from the European Union – which is, beneath the rhetoric, what is happening here.Written by Charles Wyplosz,   the heart of the article is in this to my mind unanswerable graf:
Why did the ECB freeze its Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) to Greece? The ECB will undoubtedly come up with all sorts of legal justifications. Whether true or not, this will not change the outcome.
If the ECB is truly legally bound to stop ELA, this means that the Eurozone architecture is deeply flawed.
·        If not, the ECB will have made a political decision of historical importance.
Either way, this is a disastrous step.
Whether it likes it or not, every central bank is a lender of last resort to commercial banks.
·        By not keeping the Greek banking system afloat, the ECB is failing on a core responsibility.

Surely the EU will never be the same. Either the strong European states – such as France - will reign in the ECB, or the EU will become a shell – and the quicker that happens, given the superstitions of the elites running Europe, the better. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

inverted envy

In 1973, A.O. Hirschman, with his characteristic, concealing modesty (it covered up the fact that he was touching on big themes that economists liked to avoid), wrote an essay about envy and the egalitarian impulse in developing economies. For two decades, Hirschman had been at work as an economist and policy maker dealing with foreign aid and plans to elevate the poorer national economies into the league of the developed nations, as they were called back then. This was the era of multi-year plans and the fad for shrinking agriculture and favoring export industries, which often, paradoxically, called for putting barriers on imports. All of this, by now, has been swept away by the Washington Consensus and the aggressive syndicate of international institutions, multinationals, and neo-liberals.
In Hirschman’s time, third world countries were experiencing unprecedented growth. He observed that the profit from that growth largely accrued to the wealthy. What puzzled him was that this did not stimulate the kind of envy that was feared by the anti-communist establishment everywhere. Instead of revolution, for the most part, third world populations seemed patiently to be waiting. Hirschman devised a model to capture what one might call the dynamics of social envy. In this model, growth and the enrichment of the richest was tolerable as long as the larger population believed that the growth would eventually make themselves and their children richer. In other words, Hirschman believed that there was a larger tolerance for inequality than was reckoned with by the leftist agitator. This was puzzling if one took into account the work of George Foster, whose studies of peasant society in Mexico convinced him that traditional society is penetrated by what he called the “image of the limited good”. This means that the peasant views goods in terms of a zero-sum game, in which x’s possessions are viewed by y from the standpoint of scarcity – what x possesses, y does not possess. Like people in a lifeboat with limited rations, a careful watch is placed on the village populaton to make visible who has what. This is a situation in which savings is hidden, rather than invested.
What Foster calls the limited good, I would call nemesis. In my opinion, the great effect of the enlightenment and of the growing economies of the 19th century was to suppress nemesis – the social and human limit which demands respect in societies in which growth is sporadic and subject to decay. In such societies, time is cyclical; the myth of progress has no footing here.
I think Hirschman was right to tackle the theme of envy, but his model, it seems to me, lacks an important feature that one finds in success societies – societies, that is, where an ethos of success replaces the ethos of sacrifice. In the former, envy inevitably increases as the success of the wealthiest creates a larger and larger positional gap between the top and the rest. Here, however, an interesting, unconscious mechanism intervenes to protect the wealthiest. This mechanism inverts the direction of envy, the direction of the evil eye. Instead of the wealthiest being subject to the violence of envy, the poorest are subject to it.

This inversion of envy at first seems incredible. How could the poorest be an object of envy? However, anyone with ears to hear in America’s dining and living rooms, or in American work places, will here the tale of the high living poor. The poor don’t work. They luxuriate on welfare payments. The government only works for the poor. The Great slump was caused by the poor cheating the naïve banks who were forced by the government to give them mortgages they couldn’t pay. This story and variations of it are told over and over. We sometimes wonder over some savage custom, thinking, how could it be believed that, say, a woman who has a miscarriage causes drought – one of the thousands of such beliefs recorded in the Golden Bough? But the inversion of envy in success societies, the most pure of which is the US, should teach us that the unlikelihood of a belief, its grossly ridiculous nature when laid out in cold logic, is no bar to its being held true. Although newspaper sociologists like to insist on the hopeful, aspirational beliefs of Americans as the sort of national glue that keeps down radicalism, I would say that, more powerfully, it is the inverted envy, its manipulation and thousand and one uses (inverted envy is deeply associated with racism in America, for instance) that makes it very hard to achieve any kind of lasting social justice in the US 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Adam versus Derrida

In a bout of dubious scientific romanticism, Quine, in Word and Object, conjures up the beginning of language learning by positing an extra-linguistic anchor, a physical stimulus, to get us over the bridge from babble to the noun. Quine’s piece on the baby learning the word Mama takes the then fashionable behavioralism of Skinner and embeds it into theory of the onto-genesis of language:
“The operant act may be the random babbling of some thing like 'Mama' at some moment when, by coincidence, the mother's face is looming. The mother, pleased at being named, rewards this random act, and so in the future the ap­proach of the mother's face suc­ceeds as a stimulus for further utterances of 'Mama'. The child has learned an occasion sen­tence.”

Coincidence plays a hinge role here. The presentation of Mama’s face –its looming – makes this a bit more primitive than Mama pointing at her face, but the logic is the same: there is the extra-linguistic world, the presentation, the coincidence with utterance, and the occasion sentence. The set up here has been remarkably consistent in Western philosophy of language since Augustine’s De Magistro, in which Augustine instructs his illegitimate son on the semiotic constitution of language – words as signs – by reference to charades, the language of gesture of the deaf, mime, and mostly, the pointing finger. Adeodatus accepts the significance of signs, but then gets stuck on what we would call the social construction of reality: how does one ever get out of the world of signs?

Adeodatus: But even a wall, as our reasoning shoedd, cannot be shown without a pointing finger. The holding out of the finger is not the wall but the sign by means of which the wall is pointed out. So far as I can see there is nothing which can be shown without signs/
Augustine: Suppose I were to ask you what walking is, and you were to get up and do it, wouldn’t you be using the thing itself to show me, not words or any other signs?
Adeodatus:  Yes, of course. I am ashamed that I did not notice so obvious a fact.”
Adeodatus concedes, of course, too quickly, since it is not clear why you can’t use the thing in itself as a sign, just as it is unclear why Mama’s face is the thing in itself, and not already the sign, this is Mama.
Signs are a labyrinth. We are continually promised that the labyrinth has an exit, but we are continually deflected from its discovery once we’ve made our fatal entrance.
However, though the metaphysical divide between the word and the object in Quine is definitely arguable, Quine does, properly, take up the issue of divided reference as an issue that cannot be delayed until language is learned.

Another word for divided reference is wise-assery. The smart aleck, the wise ass, the joker – from my earliest memories, I was always like that. And I am amazed and pleased, most of the time, that Adam is also a mocker.

A couple of nights ago, Adam made up his first pun, when we showed him how to roll spagetti on a fork and he pronounced it a pasta-fier.

As well, he has found out how much fun it is to imitate himself. Sometimes, he will pretend cry and pretend tantrum for the fun of it. To, as Quine would put it, stress the context of stimulation in which he has been placed. Or, as I would put it, to both entertain and tease his parental units.

Teasing stretches a long way. It is rooted in the animal world – not only among humans, but among other social animals – and it goes all the way into literature, which is, at base, simply a long form of teasing. There are writers who must have been aggressive teasers when they were young – like Nabokov – and others who were, perhaps, more ambiguous about the phenomenon – like Kafka. Teasing isn’t a necessary derivative of sign using – I’m not sure anyone has ever caught an ant or a bee teasing, although perhaps we have just not looked hard enough – but sign using is certainly a prerequisite of teasing. I’m learning to enjoy this all over again with Adam.

Although … to give Augustine and Quine their due, when it comes to  distinguishing the sign from the thing, Adam seems more in their camp. Thus, when I ask Adam, once he has jumped up and down and laughed while seeing a superhero, if Adam is a superhero, he will invariably reply, no, Adam is Adam. Adam is always Adam. At least for now, he’s having no truck with deconstruction.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

tpp - die! die!

The TPP is this year's Iraq "liberation",  pressed in the press with pure bullshit and a patronizing tone for those who, inexplcably, oppose it. For an almost perfect example, look no further than the business section of the NYT, where the TPP is presented as an orthodox free trade pact about lowering tarrifs - which we know, by now, is a lie, pure and simple. Itt's all 1850 in the way the NYT has tailored their presentation of the deal. 
“I’m still hopeful,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior researcher with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who characterized the vote on Friday as a vehicle for Democrats to show their displeasure with aspects of the pact. “This was a way of them stomping their feet, but in the end I think the president will get his way.”
Bill Lane, director of global government affairs for Caterpillar, echoed Mr. Hufbauer’s view that the door was not completely shut. “Even though the process is temporarily stalled, we are optimistic,” he said.
Mark Grayson, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group, said that the group was hopeful “that the House will pass the bill so it can get to the president’s desk.”
Notice how the press rolls. These quotes are unaccompanied by questions. There's no sense that there are any questions to ask Caterpillar, or Silicon Valley, or the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Rather, we first get a cascade of quotations which all push a p.o.v., and then at the bottom of the article we get a few opposing quotations, which are treated much as though their locutors were advocating man boy love. That is how it goes at the NYT. 
The headline for the political analysis by the ever rebarbative Peter Baker (whose reporting back in the heady days of the Bush era showed how sycophancy can be a real career upper) calls the vote against the TPP political dysfunction - so much for thinking that the anti-TPP side has any reason behind it. I mean, in Baker's world, a bill to fasttrack a pact that is highly classfied except for its makers among the plutocracy is an obvious slam dunk! Oh those slam dunks. We all have to swallow them over and over. 
In fact, using the method of mirror reading that helps one see through the bullshit, the vote Friday was a rare instance of Washington functioning - functioning as it was set up to function. Only in the ruinous 21st century would a poisonous secret tractate like the TPP be considered the kind of no-brainer deal that we should all let ourselves be yoked with.  
I hope the Dems reading the holy NYT don't get the shakes. They are doing the right thing. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

a realistic ellipses in Edith Wharton's The Reef

The Reef  is not  I think one of Edith Wharton’s more popular novels. It is the one everyone calls Jamesian. I think part of the problem, popularity-wise, is that it sets out by putting us in the consciousness of a man, George Darrow, who is incorrigibly snobby. There’s the snobbiness of having a standard of taste that reveals broad experience and reading, and the snobbiness that comes with having a social position and assuming that one has broad experience and reading. Darrow’s is the latter snobbiness. He’s no Swann. At the beginning of the book he meets a young American in Paris, a Daisy Miller cast-away without Miller’s family money given the name Sophy Viner – an almost insurmountable moniker as far as readerly sympathy goes. However, Viner is sympathetic, young, and unbearably patronized by Darrow, who escorts her around Paris due to circumstances I don’t really want to get into.
No, what is important here is that Darrow, who is hunting for bigger social game, in effect makes Viner his girlfriend, or, as they would say at the time, his mistress. Here, Wharton does a wonderfully subtle thing, something that James must have loved. Her problem is how to make us know that after Darrow spent some time escorting Viner around Paris, they became sexual. How to do this without becoming vulgar. This isn’t just a matter of censorship because American publishers would freak if one described the beast with two backs too narrowly – it was more a matter of tone. There has to be a certain tone to this affair if the book is going to work.
Thus, the wonderfully subtle thing. Darrow’s hotel room in Paris is right next to Viner’s. On his last morning of this visit to Paris, Wharton gives us, first, a post-coital shower, blotting out the Parisian landscape, then a look around Darrow’s room, which he perceives, for the first time, is in need of some cleaning, and then this great melodic invocation of a knowledge that, by indirection, seeks direction out:
“A different noise aroused him. It was the opening and closing of the door leading from the corridor into the adjoining room. He sat motionless, without opening his eyes; but now another sight forced itself under his lowered lids. It was the precise photographic picture of that other room. Everything in it rose before him and pressed itself upon his vision with the same acuity of distinctness as the objects surrounding him. A step sounded on the floor, and he knew which way the step was directed, what pieces of furniture it had to skirt, where it would probably pause, and what was likely to arrest it. He heard another sound, and recognized it as that of a wet umbrella placed in the black marble jamb of the chimney-piece, against the hearth. He caught the creak of a hinge, and instantly differentiated it as that of the wardrobe against the opposite wall. Then he heard the mouse-like squeal of a reluctant drawer, and knew it was the upper one in the chest of drawers beside the bed: the clatter which followed was caused by the mahogany toilet-glass jumping on its loosened pivots...
Those squeaks and creaks and jingles = Joyce, in Ullyses, will have Bloom imagine the jingling of his bed, the bed Molly lies on with Blazes Boylan. Consciousness is more repressed, or at least, represses itself, in Wharton’s world. What I love is the realisitic ellipse. All of those things, and their sensual properties, mark what isn’t being said. And that gap accrues a force – the umbrella and the wardrobe, here, are moral witnesses. For a snob such as Darrow, incredibly harsh witnesses – since in this story, the fall is not so much Sophy’s, but that of the male snob.
I love how Wharton accomplishes this.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

what economists can't see: the invidious effects of methodological individualism

We all begin as welfare recipients.
Worse, we begin as stereotypical welfare recipients. We first cause pain to our primary donor, Mom, then we get out there in the world and proceed to make impossible demands, stay up late at night and cause others to stay up late, never work, get addicted first to milk and then often to sugary substances. And all the while we complain complain complain.
Of course, this is a modern phenomenon. It used to be that many of us would get out there and start working when we were four. And of course it used to be that our death rate was in the 60 percent.
My point is that economists are generally so blind to the real material conditions of everyday life that they are quite comfortable treating generations as independent variables. Thus, we are supposed  to think that the young have interests opposed to the old, and so on. The production of these pseudo social categories is an invidious effect of the economist's disease - methodological individualism. Of course, once you have your pseudo social categories, you can mount your pseudo social movement, which explainst the perpetual libertarian thirty something push to cut social security because it hurts "young people." The people who do this kind of thing, on closer examination, are almost always products of terrific family benificence. They never give a worried thought about what to do with the parents when they get old, since the parents have already bought the cruise ship tickets and the time share in Costa Rico.
In reality, the economic lives of the young and the old are inextricably mixed in these things called families.
Without seeing families as anything other than individual agents puzzlingly tied together through long term contracts that the smart young person will renegotiate after consultation with an accountant, you'll never understand economic life in, well, the real world. Almost all Gary Becker like schemas, which map cost to benefit as though we were all University of Chicago ants, are thus bound to fail. 
A recent column by Paul Krugman cited a Pew Poll about financial security:
We learn, for example, that 3 in 10 nonelderly Americans said they had no retirement savings or pension, and that the same fraction reported going without some kind of medical care in the past year because they couldn’t afford it. Almost a quarter reported that they or a family member had experienced financial hardship in the past year.
And something that even startled me: 47 percent said that they would not have the resources to meet an unexpected expense of $400 — $400! They would have to sell something or borrow to meet that need, if they could meet it at all.
Where do you think that 47 percent goes to when they need to cover that expense? The local bank? No, the gap is covered by parents, grandparents, siblings or children for the most part. Although American family structure is notoriously weakly linked, I believe the trend is to stronger links, for various obvious reasons: the immensely cheaper logistics of keeping connected, the stagnation in upward social mobility, the erosion of the WASP model of family, which leans heavily on do it yourself. The frontier is dead – you can jam it up Davy Crockett’s ass, because it is done. Facebook is only the latest in the series of avatars that killed it and killed it. So we don’t have large groups of people disappearing to homestead in some desert and writing the family one or two letters a year.

I would guess that interfamily shifts in money are what has kept Americans afloat in the age of the Great Slump. But economists can’t even begin to see this until they start seeing something more than human pixels accruing capital.  

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Christopher Taylor is so clever in the London Review of Books

eternal english time
Tom McCarthy’s new novel is subject to one of those damnings with finicky praise in this week's London review of Books. The reviewer, Christopher Taylor, has great fun with McCarthy’s pronounced leanings towards Continental Theory. 

Of course, Taylor  doesn’t want to be taken for a complete philistine, so he won't be dragged into one of those funny controversies with the sneaky sophists from Europe. Rather, he has cleverly decided that Continental Theory is a fashion, and, to boot, a fashion of the 90s. Apparently, he runs with this motif under the delusion that he is saying something utterly original.
I think I can, with justice, call this the “English disease.” It consists of positing two temporal regimes. One regime is that of fashionable ideas. Being fashionable is of their essence. Thus, their entire worth lies in their novelty, which is a tricky temporality, socially speaking. Who wants yesterday's papers? The other temporal regime is implicit. This is the regime of common sense, of “realism” in literature, of liberal values, etc. These regimes are attached, usually, to two geo-political entities. The fashionable one is European, the common sense one is English.
The game, when it has some sophistication, allows for the fascination of the fashionable. Those cool names! Foucault, Derrida, Lacan. Instead of say Ryle, or Williams, or Searle. So, as a temptation, it is understandable that English youth might fall for it. Youth is, after all, in the modern era, the age group most associated with fashion. But just as youth grows up, so too does fashion fade. Fading, what we find is not another fashion, but instead that the mature temporal regime, that of English common sense, It has been there all along, patiently endowing value and genuineness. Common sense is never fashionable, though o so often true!
This division and the strategy I’ve sketched has existed at least since the French revolution. The English romantics, carrying Kantian ideas (and worse) from Germany to England, and revolutionary ideas (which is where the worst takes on a face and fangs) from France, were of course caught up in fashion. When Coleridge, a great copier of ideas from Schlegel and company, shook off any sympathy with the equalizers in France, he took up the idea of fashion versus the English eternal in Biographia Literaria. However, Coleridge’s geneology is a bit eccentric, especially for a Unitarian. For him, leveling philosophcal ideas of a democratic kind (cue appropriate shudders) first emerged in the English civil war, then died down, and then somehow, in that furtive, creeping way of plagues, was transmitted to France, where “the same principles, dressed in the ostentatious garb of fashionable philosophy, once more rose triumphant and effected the French revolution.” I imagine Christopher Taylor would look askance at that claim, since of course with its ostentatious garb – the garb of a pimp, a hooker, a DJ – fashionable ideas are doomed to die and be transformed into advertising for various corporations.
It would take more time – fashionable time – than I have at the moment to trace the outbreak of the “fashionable philosophy” epithet as it is variously hurled at English painters going impressionistic or English novelists infecting themselves with French ideas and some Irish ones too all along the road to good old literary realism, long may it wave, and common sense values. Taylor adds a bit of snarkiness to the package, but it is a very magisterial snarkiness, a don’s snarkiness – there’s no touch of foreigner or Oscar Wilde about it. It is good in its way. On the other hand, it does make me sigh. It is so so eighties, don’t you know.