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, April 23, 2014

delusions in economics

This week, Ezra Klein reprinted an old speech given by the economist  Thomas Sargent in 2007 under the title: “This graduation speech teaches you everything youneed to know about economics in 297 words.”  Given that Sargent is a “clintonian democrat”, I don’t think Klein meant to mock the man. However, the speech is a disaster, a series of bromides that do tell us a lot about the current intellectually bankrupt state of economics. For political reasons, about 1980, economics began to experience a huge increase in prestige. Although economists have long felt that their discipline was the physics of the social sciences, few other people did. But in the era of Reaganomics, when every big newspaper was adding a business section to the sports news and ‘living’, other people began to take the physics idea seriously. Sargent does us a favor by stripping down economics to the inspirational truisms that make it apparent that this is less about physics than about Babbitry, gussied up with models.


I could have an enjoyable time driveby shooting at the inanities in Sargent’s “list of lessons that our beautiful subject teaches. But I’d like to take one item on the list out of line and especially maltreat the thing – no. 3: “ Other people have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do.” I’m sure Sargent thinks this is an axiom with no need for proof. In fact, economists have never even tried to prove it. But in other corners of social science, this assumption has long been shown to be wholly fallacious as stated. Our self-assessments, going from the way we remember the past to the way we predict our correctness in the future, is subject to severe cognitive biases that make it the case, generally, that ‘other people’ tend to either overestimate or underestimate their abilities, tend to define their efforts in different, self-defensive ways, tend not to understand their social and economic contexts very well, and certainly tend not to line up their preferences in good transitive order a la the Arrow theorem.


Everywhere in the social and cognitive sciences – except in economics – the myth of the unified individual, who can be certain of his thoughts, beliefs, memories, and intentions, has been shown to be insufficient. From Freud to Prospect theory, cognitive biases and theories about the unconscious have been found whenever the laboratory met the social scientist. Sargent, who won the Nobel prize for economics in 1991, has apparently never encountered the work of the winners of the Nobel prize for economics in 2002, Kahneman and Tversky. Rather, he seems here to cling to the musings of Hayek and other ideologues of the cold war period.


In economic life, as opposed to economics, people aren’t that stupid. Evey advertiser knows of the parodox of parity products – that blind taste tests often show that people cannot really tell one brand of coffee, wine, or soft drink from another. Yet this doesn’t prevent the formation of ‘preferences’ – which is where advertising comes in. One of the few economists who even considered the effect of advertising was John Kenneth Galbraith, and he was roundly attacked for it.


I’ll end this with a quote from a 1988 study of illusion and well being:  


Decades of psychological wisdom have established contact with reality as a hallmark of mental health. In this view, the wcU-adjusted person is thought to engage in accurate reality testing, whereas the individual whose vision is clouded by illusion is regarded as vulnerable to, if not already a victim of, mental illness. Despite its plausibility, this viewpoint is increasingly

difficult to maintain (cf. Lazarus, 1983). A substantial amount of research testifies to the prevalence of illusion in normal human cognition (see Fiske & Taylor, 1984; Greenwald, 1980; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Sackeim, 1983; Taylor, 1983). Moreover, these illusions often involve central aspects of the self and the environment and, therefore, cannot be dismissed as inconsequential.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

our Seneca

I know little about Seneca. In the back of my mind, I have the idea that his plays are disgusting and his moral philosophy derivative, although where these judgments come from I cannot tell. I know that he was studied by all the greats – Machievelli, Montaigne, Bacon – but I put this down to an exaggerated enthusiasm for Rome. So I had little reason to plunge into the article about Seneca’s and Nero’s suicides, Dying Every Day, by James Romm, in the winter Yale Review. Yet every once in a while I like to dive into a scholarly topic that I’m really not interested in, in the hope that I’ll broaden my horizons. I am an incorrigible optimist re those horizons, which – being horizons – are probably geographically and mathematically impervious to the broadening motivation. Nevertheless…
Well, Romm’s article is excellent. Of course, I recognize that much of it regurgitates what every historian of the period knows – but it plays the facts to create a kind of Lehrstueck about tyranny and what you could call the trivialization of the sage.
Our sages now roam the popular blogs and newspaper columns and tv opinion shows without, oddly enough, being questioned about their expertise. What in particular does a Tom Friedman or a Christopher Hitchens do? What is the skill set? Usually there is a retreat to the idea of “reporting”  - but they aren’t reporting in the sense that the stringer or the semi-anonymous AP person reports. In most cases, they are opining. Their opinions, moreover, are based on a sort of assumed greater ethical sensibility. Hitchens, for instance, in his declining years, would often fill his columns for Slate or Vanity Fair with opinions in which he triangulate his feelings – his disgust, his righteous joy – to some object in the world, as though he were some moral litmus test.
Long ago, William James, in an excellent, disgruntled essay on the moral philosopher, dispatched the breed, which even then was turning up at Chatauquas and writing for the highfallutin’ quarterlies.
The ancestor of this type is surely Seneca. Although Cicero, too, was a sorta stoic philosopher in his off hours, for Seneca, there was a bond between the prestige he garnered as a sage and his heady position in the world of Roman politics. Having landed the job of tutor to Nero, he milked it for all it was worth.
Romm sets up his story by pointing to the ambiguous reputation of Seneca (who, spookily, willed his imago to his friends – as if his reputation, the image of his life, was some kind of separate creature). On the one hand there is a long tradition that sees Seneca in the terms he created for himself in his treatises and letters – as the moderate in all things Stoic sage, tragically doomed by having as his pupil a sort of armed Id. On the other hand, there was another version of Seneca:
“These are the opposing ways in which Romans of the late first century a.d. regarded Seneca, the most eloquent, enigmatic, and politically engaged man of their times. The first is taken largely from the pages of
Octavia, a historical drama written in the late decades of that century, by whom we do not know. The second is
preserved by Cassius Dio, a Roman chronicler who lived more than a century after Seneca’s death but relied on earlier writers for information. Those writers, it is clear, deeply mistrusted Seneca’s motives. They believed the rumors that gave Seneca a debauched and gluttonous personal life, a Machiavellian political career, and
a central role in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero in  a.d. 65.”

Romm, as the essay develops, doesn’t think that Seneca’s life was debauched, and he thinks that his role in the assassination plot – a role that led to his death – was, as was much in his life, the result of trying to have it both ways. But he does seem to think that there was something Machiavellian about Seneca – that in effect he was like Thyestes, the hero of his most famous play. Thyestes the sage was also, by the will of his father, supposed to share the kingship with his brother Atreus. Rather than do so, he retired to the countryside. Atreus however lured him back with the promise of the throne. Actually, Atreus had in mind the extermination of Thyestes line, and he had a clever way of going about it – he slew and cooked Thyestes children, while getting Thyestes drunk and promising him a feast fit for his new royal function. Thyestes is shown revelling in his vision of power, and mightily enjoying the meal that, it turns out, consists of his children. Romm examines Thyestes as a projection of Seneca – a warning, perhaps, that Seneca issued to himself. And at the same time a reference, via Atreus, to the wicked Nero.

Even so, Seneca had not opposed the wicked Nero when he murdered his mother, or began murdering all the descendents of Augustus that he could find.

There’s something compelling about the duel between the Ubu-esque emperor and the Imperial pontificator. We have no Neros, but we have created a sort of plutocratic Neropolis in the US, with Senecas all over the place – and I kept thinking how mysteriously relevant this story is.  Romm develops a nice little dialectical picture of the two sides of Seneca by contrasting two physical images of Seneca. One is  statue that used to be considered to be of Seneca – a bust  of a man who is “gaunt, haggard, and haunted, its eyes seemingly staring into eternity. Its features had served as a model for painters depicting Seneca’ s death scene on canvas, among them Luca Giordano, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jacques-Louis David.” The other is a bust  dug up in  Rome in 1813: “The bust shows a full-fleshed man, beardless and bald, who bears a bland, self-satisfied mien. It seems the face of a businessman or bourgeois, a man of means who ate at a well-laden table.”
1813 – ah, just in time for the birthpangs of the modern socio-economic world! Seneca, the bourgeois. I can see him in my minds eye, and hear him 24/7 on cable or talk radio.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

the paradox of the stone and meg wolitzer

When Flaubert compared the artist to God, it naturally followed – as all who knew what Flaubert was up to understood – that theological ideas and paradoxes would be absorbed and re-oriented in the world of art.
I’ve been reading Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, which is a funny and depressing novel, and thinking of a paradox attirbuted to Aquinas entitled “the paradox of the stone”, or “the paradox of omnipotence.” The popular version goes like this: can God make a stone he can’t lift? Aquinas spoke of whether God could square the circle, and shows that this supposed limit on him omnipotence is no such thing. Others have tried to show the logical emptiness of the stone paradox. Still, for non-logicians, it is a rather compelling idea. Either God can’t make a stone he can’t life, in which case he is not omnipotent, or he can, in which case he is also not omnipotent.
Some paradoxes lead to logically useful devices in the world of logical theory, but I don’t think this one has.
However, in the world of the novel, the paradox is very illuminating. Restated, it would be: can a novelist create a fictional novelist greater than herself?
This question is tickled in various of Balzac’s novels. In many of them he tells us of genious musicians and sculptors, and we can accept these things, because we can accept descriptions of works that we can’t see or hear as part of the novelist’s licence. Things get much harder when we are told of a great writer. Lucien Rubempré is supposed to be a great poet, and Balzac even cites him – but Balzac is no Victor Hugo.
However, Balzac never wrote about a great novelist. Proust did. Proust neatly does an endrun around the omnipotence problem by making Marcel’s becoming a novelist the novel. It is, indeed, a great novel, but the story would not have worked if A la recherche was already completed – if the fictional Marcel was supposed to have written it already. It would be an entirely different novel, and hard to imagine, since we would have no reason to credit Marcel with being a great writer for a novel that remains, for us, unknown and fictitious.
The narrator of Wolitzer’s novel is the wife of a ‘great’ American novelist, Joe Castleman. It being the nature of greatness to attract prizes, the wife is accompanying her husband to Finland to receive some fictitious half a million dollar prize that is a semi-Nobel. The wife’s story, however, is an evil eyed portrait of  Joe – a poor father, a poor lover, a cheat, a slob, and all the rest. Wolitzer’s character has a voice like an Iris Owens character – scathingly funny. But the humor chops Joe down to the point that it is impossible to believe he is a great writer. This is finessed by hints that actually, Joe’s wife ghosts his material.
But it is here that the paradox kicks in, because although this is a good novel, it isn’t a great, Nobel prize winning novel. And in a sense Wolitzer has stuck herself with a narrator who is telling about how her work has won the semi-nobel prize. That is a huge burden to put a novel under. It seems, at the very least, immodest, since the inference is that the writer of the novel is telling us how good she is through her protagonist.
Ulysses nears this paradox too – if we take Stephen Daedalus to be James Joyce. But here’s the thing: Stephan Daedalus could never have written Ulysses. He is much too small. He doesn’t have the degree of imagination that would let him ‘into’ Leopold Bloom.  This is one of the ways out of the paradox, particularizing a character to the point that this character could not exist outside the pages of the novel, gazing in.
I don’t think that the paradox brings down Wolitzer’s novel – but it does put the weight of the book on the particulars instead of the structure. Since, however, Joan Castelman is essentially a comic narrator, she is not only allowed to create a stone that she can’t lift, but allowed to milk as much as she can from that ludicrous routine.

Perhaps this is what God does, too, with the paradox that Aquinas wrapped around his neck.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

doctor pangloss writes for the london review of books

It must have seemed natural to the editors of the London Review to ask Thomas Nagel, the author of The View from Nowhere, to review R. Jay Wallace’s The View from Here. The subtitle of Wallace’s book is On affirmation, attachment and the limits of regret, and from the account that Nagel gives of the book, it seems to be a book that does justice to its themes, which are at the intersection of philosophy and literature. It is a meaty subject, this of taking up the moral peculiarity of the line of fate of individuals and nations, and the way these lines are a mixture of the good and the atrocious. Wallace seems to think that it isn’t as though the atrocity could be subtracted from the good, but that they are dialectically interlocked. I happen to share that view. I was raised by white parents in the suburbs in the South in the 60s, when apartheid was beginning to crack, and I have long  realized that these facts in the background – both the apartheid that made enormous room for white people like my folks in the post-war years and the crumbling of apartheid that allowed Northern businesses to move into the south as it became a more normal part of the country – benefited me. So if I retrospectively affirm my life, I am confronted with the problem of what to do about these things, which I don’t want to affirm.  Do I opt for self-condemnation, or do I apologize for Jim Crow?
In a sense (not to be too grand about it), this is the kind of problem faced by Leibniz’s God. On the one hand, his perfection requires that he affirm himself perfectly, but on the other hand, the creation is full of atrocities, and the devil is abroad. To understand how to bridge this moral conundrum, Leibniz revamped the metaphysical discourse on possibility that had been built by the ancients and the medievals. He thought, in other word, that the greatest possible good was built into every appearance of evil, the paradigm case being, of course, the exercise of free will.
For this, he was satirized by Voltaire, who began his career on the side of a certain enlightenment view that claimed that atrocity and virtue could be radically separated, given the right social machinery, and who endit it deciding that, as nature itself was indifferent to human values and civilization was generally systematized brutality, interspersed with a few minuets, virtue, as a social thing, was a sham. In other words, the movement was between believing that we could build a world in which we regret nothing to believing that we could only build, if we were fortunate, tiny nests in which regret was held at bay – otherwise, history was a wash.
It is a little astonishing to me that Nagel’s review of Wallace’s book is written in the spirit of Dr. Pangloss, the character in Candide forever associated with the phrase ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’ It is important not to take this phrase too bluntly – it is not, even for Pangloss, true that all is the best, but merely that all serves the best, all is for it.  Voltaire’s satire did not wholly miss Leibniz’s point. To think that all is the best is to turn Pangloss into Babbit, the American booster. Nagel’s review alternates between Pangloss and Babbitry. He refuses to enter into the ‘view from regret’, treating it as an inducement to suicide rather than to reflection. In the spirit of the analytic philosopher, he treats dialectic as an undergraduate logical mistake. And so the interlocked nature of good and atrocity is something he doesn’t even attempt to refute.
Thus, when Wallace writes that his own place of work, the University of California at Berkeley, has benefited (and been complicit in) atrocity, asking whether, in reflecting about his own life, he should regret the existence of the institution, Nagel contradicts him in tones that remind  me of the owner of a used carlot bawling at a  new hire has conceded some fault to a potential buyer:
“Wallace teaches at Berkely, a public institution that makes enormous contributions to knowledge, both theoretical and practical, which benefit not only its members but the society of which it is a part and the world as a whole. To doubt that such institutions would exist in a just world seems to me pathologically pessimistic.”
The babbitry here was, to me, startling. “Society” and “world” are used as though these were not deeply divided entities, but wholes perfectly represented by the successful. It would have interested me what Nagel would have said if Wallace worked at, say, Duke. Would he celebrate Duke medical schools advances in the treatment of cancer, while explaining that this more than makes up for the cancers that were caused by the tobacco fortune upon which the school was founded? Sans doute. If I were to classify Nagel’s response to Wallace, it would be to call it a case of pathological optimism typical of the winners in the neo-liberal world.
Regret, I’d argue, is a politically charged mood, as well as an existential one.

I haven’t resolved the political consequences of the view from regret myself, and doubt I ever will, but I do see regret as an irreplaceable tool to understand how we got to where we are – how our histories unfolded. Without regret, history is dumb.   

Friday, April 11, 2014

the decline of big rock candy mountain

I grew up in a folksinging family. Consequently, my idea of the hobo was very romantic – he was an IWW angel. Big Rock Candy Mountain sounded like a lot more pleasant utopia than the Dictatorship of the Proletariat – and it still does. In folk songs, he was always a canny step ahead of the bulls, all in order to be free.  
However, I’ve noticed something about hobos in the last decade or so: there’s been a political sea change. When you see a bum with a political sign, it is invariably Limbaughdian. I saw, for instance, a man with a white beard a couple of hours ago, with two signs, one the usually begging one (“Help me I’m hungry” or something like that) and the other one, on poster board, a long denunciation of Obama for bringing Naziism to the United States. Santa Monica is, I think, progressive territory, or it once was, which is why the city council is still fairly liberal about letting street people be. I’d be surprised if Obama didn’t rule here during the last elections. Thus, the sign was not a means of sucking up to a potential audience – and besides, the handwriting was too angry for that explanation to float.
He reminded me of a beggar I used to run into in Tarrytown in Austin – another Democratic Party stronghold – whose signs routinely denounced Democrats for being traitors, simps, underminers of our ways, etc.
Now, there is a myth among liberal academics that the uneducated white guy is a strong supporter of the worst Republicans – but in fact, stats show, pretty consistently, that the more educated you are, the more likely you will vote Republican. Here, simple economic interest seems to explain the pattern. College graduates, with their higher salaries, are more inclined to vote for the party that will keep their taxes down. Of course, there are exceptions in this group, and the Third Party Dems have seen in the social liberalism of this group an ace way of stealing a march on the GOP – adopt GOP economic policies and combine them with social liberalism. But that strategy acknowledges the lifestyle interest of the desired constituency.
In the case of the hobo block (and it is probably not a block that goes to the polls), it is hard to see the cultural or economic interest in denouncing the party representing the “handout”. After all, the man with the beard and my friend from Tarrytown are directly demanding a handout! One would think the more handouts the better. This was, in fact, Norman Mailer’s strategy when he ran for Mayor of New York – he actually recruited angry homeless people because these were the people he wanted to appeal to. Norman Mailer was one of a kind.
But that was a long time ago, when the Big Rock Candy Mountain still distantly glimmered. It saddens me that it seems to have gone into permanent decline. The man with the white beard is surely old enough to have been a “child of God/walking along the road” of Joanie’s song – but somewhere along the journey, he absorbed the politics of Ronald Reagan.  It is as though the anti-state views of the old IWW – in which the state and corporation were identified as one monster – have been transformed into simple anti-state views, in which the state is bad cause it keeps down the hardworking billionaire.

This makes me think that American politics are even more hopeless than I already think them. Wow.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

a guess at the riddle

I ponder sometimes the fact that Adam, this complex being whose proto-language is so sweet to my ear, whose tricks I laugh at, whose humors I deal with, whose steps I marvel at, will forget all of this. We all emerge from amnesia - it is as if we awaken speaking, walking, eating properly and excreting privately, as though these were things we'd always done. Of course, we have stray memories of what went before, motes of dust in the mind's eye - an image of the shoestring we puzzled over, the feeling of crusty snow on the cheek, a confused vision of trailing down a dark hall. But these memories form no collective whole, no sense of our existence.
There are many theories about the human origin of belief in the gods; I wonder if anyone has traced the line between belief in an agent with supernatural powers and the natural history of our awakening with powers that we cannot account for?An awakening that leaves such a large mark on our subsequent life that it is too large to remember - large enough that we can only venerate it.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

the Magic Mountain in Clarkston, Georgia

I’ve been reading the Magic Mountain for much longer than the seven years it took Hans Castorp to climb it and climb down from it. Way back in high school I even finished it – in the now discredited Lowe-Porter translation. I picked it up because I read a high recommendation in a book by the wonderful Will and Ariel Durant, blessed be their names. They were members of the socialist humanism generation of American intellectuals, and their middle brow guides to Western culture were and still are excellent things for high school students, to be supplemented of course by the vast trove of lit and art that we know now was produced by the oppressed – the Atlantic culture of the African diaspora, women, gays, all those edged aside. Although I no longer remember what the couple wrote about Mann, I do remember the experience of reading it. I was sitting in a pew in the Clarkston Baptist church. No doubt it was another Sunday of Reverend Vincent’s endless non-sequitor sermons – the man lacked the charisma of an old piece of gun, so his revivalism had a tendency to fall stillborn on our dead ears. I owe him, though – my first reviews were of his sermons, which I would feistily attack coming home from church in the car with Mom. Ah, the budding critic!
Although at the time I thought I was much more than a budding thumbs up thumbs down man – I felt that I was Clarkston’s sole modernist. In fact, the single person in the damn suburb who knew what the word meant!
Under the Durants tutelage, then, I cracked the book. What I remember is feeling that there was something about the book that made me feel sickly. Then I went on with my reading list, and as the years passed, I learned to look down on T.M. I learned he was hooffooted, pendantic, full of hot air, pseudo-profound. That in fact he was an anti-modernist. I don’t exactly remember how I received this news, but I do know that Nabokov, for instance, always had it in for Mann. And in college I thought Nabokov should know, since he could do anything with prose. Now I have a different view of Nabokov – that his problem with Mann, or Balzac, or Dostoevsky, arose from the fact that Nabokov made up a canon for himself and became its prisoner. In this way, he operated, much like his social realist or psychoanalytic enemies, to squeeze the juice and joy out of literature. In his best works, I think, Nabokov knows this – hence his paragons of good taste, his King of Zembla, his Humbert Humbert, are criminals – in a sense, driven to crime by the same discriminating instinct that they have cultivated in their souls until it hypertrophied and took over the plant.  One knows, for instance, in Lolita, that when H.H. enters the Haze household and spots the “banal darling of the arty middle class, van Gogh’s Arlesienne”, he is not only showing his lethal sophistication but, in general, his lethality – his lack of perspective on his superiorities, such as they are. The radical lack of kindness, without which good taste becomes a very cruel game.
Well, for myself, I am still a Clarkston modernist. I’ve gone as far away from that little suburban burg (and it has gone away from the burg I knew in highschool, becoming one of the centers of the Bosnian refugee influx in America, and now hosting a good number of Somalis, too).  But I still kick around in the precinct of the ideas I had and the artists I admired then. Age has made me think of myself less as a Joycean exile and more as a sample of a certain history I don’t understand. In short, a relic puzzled by his own relicness. In that respect, I am in a Hans Castorp condition – which, pace Levin, is what modernism was all about.