Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Invisible Hand ...of God!

Maybe because we're soaking in it, free market economics can be a satisfying thing to make fun of, or you know, at least mockery is healthier than drinking heavily. I've had several problems with the whole discussion these last couple years I've been trying to think about it very independently, starting with the basic premises. The "free market," for one obvious thing, is a whopping misnomer. It's not a spontaneous human enterprise, but rather a carefully-drawn set of rules and proscriptions established by the authorities (if that's somehow not the dreaded state, then it's the church, the mafia, Mom and Dad, or the fuckheads running the company store). Nor has it ever seemed right to me that assessing and swapping goods a fundamental human concern that is separate from the authority-defined marketplace. Economic-minded people are weird about glorifying that hustle and bustle. (I mean, is that how you interact with your social group? In the book I am currently reading--Debt, the First 5,000 Years, which is great--David Graeber makes a convincing case that this behavior only arose in human history when the hierarchy got sufficiently centralized, large, powerful, and impersonal. Spontaneous pre-monetary barter is a myth.) Considering that the practice of economics is intended as the reduction of a huge set of human behavior to quasi-scientific principles, it seems important to get the relevant aspects of human behavior right.

Perhaps the most annoying free market trick of all is a little bit more derived, though. The Libertarian-style question-begging argument is something that drives me batshit. You've probably seen it: the tendency to discuss hypotheticals and gedanken experiments instead of evidence and data, discussions where some desired outcome is defined (for today's example, let's posit that the highway system should work (via)), the method is given (the highway system should be private, because free markets!), and the rest is figuring out how the known solution will lead to the desired outcome, often using a lot of circular reasoning and, to throw 'em off the trail, a really big thesaurus.

[In other news, I'm really glad they didn't have blogs when I nineteen.]

There is a disturbing tinge of theology to that, something resembling Intelligent Design. We know God did it, and let's demonstrate how. Since it's God, then it's clear that everything is made just-so, and to bring us even closer to the near-perfect state, we must make less contribution. It's the same kind of reasoning you get in climate denial, which, coincidentally, is yet another conservative darling. It's optimism in the old sense: nature produces the best possible result. And evidently, it's explicitly central to the field of economics. I guess I didn't quite realize it went so deep.

Recall here what Smith was trying to do when he wrote The Wealth of Nations. Above all, the book was an attempt to establish the newfound discipline of economics as a science. [...] Smith was trying to make a similar, Newtonian argument. God--or Divine Providence, as he put it--had arranged matters in such a way that our pursuit of self-interest would nonetheless, given an unfettered market, be guided "as if by an invisible hand" to promote the general welfare. Smith's famous invisible hand was, as he says in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, the agent of Divine Providence. It was literally the hand of God."
--from Debt: The First 5,000 Years

As I've probably said before, I respect greatly the urge to quantify and rationalize things. I don't really have any problem working with the best intellectual tools of the times, nor is there any issue when the analogies that lead to improved understanding later turn out to be bad ones. If some of the central assumptions of economics are flawed, they can be revised if the theories still work. Adam Smith was by all accounts a great thinker, more nuanced and decent-minded than his dumber followers two centuries later, and Isaac Newton was a wonderful man to emulate.

But the problem is, there seems to have been little impetus to revise or question these central thoughts. Smith wrote a century after Newton, and that kind of optimism was already getting colorfully leveled by his contemporaries. (Poor Liebniz: a brilliant man who got stuck with a pair of the best antagonists in history.) Secular philosophy has reduced the anthropic principle to the level of fallacy. And even if it remains a matter of faith or motivation to some scientists, the modern pursuit of science no longer torques itself up to include "god did it" in its explanations of the universe. And we can argue that economics, similarly, abandoned this approach as well, but as far as I can tell, it's never much had much of a conversation about it.

The idea of economics as a field independent of other human behavior, that is only connected to authority in the sense of a bargain among equals, originated, according to Graeber, with Adam Smith himself, that it's in fact his major contribution. It's pretty far down the chain, but here we reliably have libertarian, erm, thinkers today, perpetually arguing, as a matter of faith, that things will be great, spontaneously, if this system is somehow made more true. Even though it is never true. This bothers me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Perspective II

I recently read the novel Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (a longer review is forthcoming), only to find myself unsettled, a little, by some of my reactions to the first part of it. It tells the story of a transitional time in west African tribal culture near the end of the 19th century. It had survived more or less intact from the days of the transatlantic slave trade (or at least the communities in the novel had), but was now facing cultural imperialism by the British. Achebe presents tribal life with hardly any explicit moralizing (one reason it's such a powerful little book), and as he got into Igbo life, my mind kept rebelling--what an unsatisfying way to live! Not, I mean, in terms of abstracts--in those areas, the Igbo peoples had the Europeans squarely beat, even in terms of whitey's own stated secular values. The tribal organization that Achebe describes put modern notions of democracy and egalitarianism to shame. The villages weren't ruled by kings or caste, and titles are awarded through accomplishment and are more tokens of respect than actual authority. The closest thing they had to government were priests (who advised on superstitions), and occasional meetings among decision-making elders. It's presented in the book as ideal a non-authoritarian society as humans have yet produced, ruled for a thousand years by traditions rather than by people. Nor does Achebe communicate that these folks lacked intellectual or emotional sophistication. The book itself, though parable-like, is a walk through that very landscape.

Nope, I was thinking more shallowly in terms of the habitual western quality of life. The Igbo villagers could expect a lifetime of toil, of violent superstitions (infanticide, circumcision, threat of exile, conflict with other tribes), and believing things that are tragically untrue. Their diet sucked--yams are on the high labor and low nutrient side for a staple crop--and outside of domestic labor, they don't have a fuck of a lot to do. Women, like in many cultures, could look forward to lives of drudgery, sexual obligation, and the occupation of lesser social spheres. It's almost enough to make you understand missionary zeal. Those poor bastards live in dirt huts!

The Christian missionaries that sailed up the Niger River no doubt had the best intentions, but they brought their own corruptions, including, as Achebe states it, a government too. The moral argument for the new Christian faith varied greatly with the missionaries who made it, and Achebe appears to harbor some sympathy (as I do) for those inspired to great humanity through faith, and to acknowledge some universality of all belief. The British that came to semi-fictional Umuofia brought in a religion that accepted society's rejects, and although it won converts by refuting local gods through empiricism, it still was a faith (and this is the very definition of faith) that was apart from available evidence. (It's just that Christianity by then had learned to scope itself outside worldly cause and effect.) History tells us that the Igbo would soon fall for Christianity in huge numbers, but was it an improvement? Hard to really say.

You'll have to forgive me here. I've been wrestling with a gigantic post for some time, about 20% of which (the part about life expectancy) came out a couple years ago in one big installment that was boring enough to scare me straight, and yet here I am again, about to liberate another chunk of it. It's trying to address a paradox of modern times: the world has improved, right? But human nature has remained the same.

Improved for whom, you might first ask? And by what measure? And for how long? The global metric I prefer is, more or less, better lives for more people, sustainable for longer—these are things that morally justify our social nature. What else is there, really?

Technology and organization let us achieve more spectacular evil, but they also seem to palliate some burdens of living. In my past blatherings, I've attributed the general condition of the species to population density, resource availability, and the level (or manner) of technological development (for which "improvement" isn't linear, or a given). Modern America may net a better score than the colonial powers of the late nineteenth century, a hideously overrated time if there ever was one. Igbo social taboos arguably existed to accommodate high-impact slash and burn agriculture and to manage a sustainable population (even amidst horrifying infant mortality). However, at least to hear Chinua Achebe describe it, they avoided the iron rule of oligarchy better than most societies (although maybe tell that one to the women), and offered a simple and satisfying life. Could the more egalitarian parts of Igbo tribal culture really survive with modern scientific inquiry, population level, and global communications?

If I had to define "standard of living," I would put in terms of how difficult it is to do the stuff that we want to do. If we have few impediments to performing those things that our minds suggest are fulfilling and feasible (travel, eat, surround ourselves with beauty, enter and exit places freely, accomplish entertaining tasks), then our standard of living is high. If, however, we can afford few of the comforts we can conceive, then it's not so high; if we can't get our hands on the necessities of life (nutritous food, sanitation, optimum health), then things are officially squalid. If we're looking across centuries or across cultures, I'd take a normalized standard of living as a measure of, given the known options and preferences, how much of it a can body hope to enjoy.

As an economic term, it normally refers to, more or less, how much stuff we have. GDP per capita is a measure that is often connected to standard of living, and it's imperfect for the various ways that Wikipedia describes. [If you must go that route, I think energy consumption is probably a better scorecard than currency. Kilowatt hours describe how much we actually do per capita, not like these things aren't correlated.] By this measure, standard of living suffers from inevitable fallacies of small or large numbers; when we are measuring our happiness in stuff, there are rapidly diminishing returns at play. Attainment matters immensely when we have next to nothing, but there's also some threshold at which we don't--or shouldn't--experience a greatly increased standard of living due to additional television inches, or housing square feet, or asset valuation. And of course we're about due for a horrifying lesson in the environmental consequences of overconsumption as well.

In a way, standard of living is always subjective, and based on what we think is possible, that in turn increases with existing understanding, scientific knowledge, and social precedent. Innovations eventually become necessities because we know that they are available. Medical care, for example, wasn't a necessity back in the barbarous days of medieval barbering, but now that medicine is sufficiently advanced to improve health more than damage it, it has become an important component in the equation, as reasonable to expect as shit-free drinking water, which is to say, because we know better. That's not to say that people wouldn't already imagine a better life without cholera (or cancer, or oppression, or aging, or managers, or the aristocracy, or…), but it's another thing entirely to believe existence is without them is attainable. What did the Igbo people think of infant mortality? They imagined life without it, and believed (falsely), that they could reduce it drastically through superstition. Did that wrong belief further reduce their standard of living? (I'd say yes.) Would they have been happier with improved medicine? (Probably if it didn't come with the British district commissioner. It's not so clear the British could have provided it in 1900 either, mind you.) Would a people in possession of improved medicine be wrong to withhold such information (probably), and is it hopeless paternalistic to intervene with it, assuming without nuance what another group of people can and can't imagine, and what they do or don't value? Or, for that matter, is it hopelessly paternalistic to assume that we understand very well what we think we know now? (Please, let's take a moment to laugh at the Victorians again.) Anthropologists must make for terrific basket cases.

Qualitative changes exist though, differences in kind, not number, that really do improve the game at a basic level. Incremental technical innovations can be oversold, but there are a few that really did change the human experience: agriculture, air travel, telephones, washing machines, that sort of thing. It's grown, and increasing the options for human happiness might be a good argument for increasing accurate knowledge in general. Better to devote energy to understanding how electricity works than to appease the proper gods, right? But there's more too. A counterargument is that technical progress has always increased the options for human misery as well. Another is that it rules out simpler, more isolated options.

Mostly we Americans accept obligations for all of the other things, continuing to do so even as productivity (measured per unit American anyway) increases. There is an ideal where productivity shoots to infinity (zero man-hours to make all the shit we feel we need), in which people would at least not want for things, feeling free to waste their days wreaking their philosophical havoc. Let's posit infinite energy, and look at fun literary experiments from Player Piano (suggesting it's deeply unfulfilling to violate our natures like that) to The Diamond Age (or that we'll find other ways to ensure inequality) to Steel Beach (or maybe find new ways to be a bunch of useless gadflies, so long as we can prevent our nearly omniscient helper from being too much like us) to The Cassini Division (when the means of production is trivial, Communism will finally work). I love reading this kind of stuff.

Modern America, Europe, Japan, all look great in terms of standard of living, at least if you take the self-affirming view that those regions tend to, and exclude people who don't fit the story. Here in modern America, a young black man was killed--a sadly unremarkable fact in itself--last week in a manner that managed to highlight, even in our cynical times, a class of people that half of this allegedly Enlightened country would still prefer to exile. (There's little doubt that the arrest, investigation, and the interpretation of "self-defense" would have been different had Mr. Martin been white.) A small wealthy group consolidates its power at the expense of most of the rest of us, fighting hard to define obligations which preserve their financial wealth, and dismantle any state mechanisms that share the wealth. And even the reasonably well-off waste their lives unhappily in front of a computer instead of in front of a hoe. As well, the U.S. is doing its level best to recreate the British experience in Afghanistan, inspired as much (and as little) by revulsion at their backward religion as the colonial British were. Even our staple crop, maize (which Igbo people also grew at the time of the novel), is another nutritionally inferior one, no matter how much we can creepily over-engineer the stuff. Our own times tend to overestimate themselves.

Happiness, satisfaction, contentment--these things are what really matter. Forming gigantic social groups may have allowed the technological development that has improved our chances of finding these things. On the other hand, advanced civilization also takes happiness away just fine.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Future Stinks

I don't wish to alarm you, but I believe I've uncovered a massive conspiracy to change the very substance of the future, and it's going on right under our noses. Not just the path of the future, but the substance and savor of it, the very chemistry of our air. Their agents have been subtly tagging the world for decades, and I can only believe that their goal is the chemical control of our psychology (possibly working synergistically with fluoridated water), probably for engineered complacency. I mean, no one knows who Mr. Clean really is, but the signs of his agenda are there in plain sight. I bought some of his eponymous product last month, and it says right on the cover that he's now in league with "Gain," which you may have long assumed, like I did, was nothing more than a second-tier laundry product, but I now realize is a secret organization dedicated to remaking the world in its own stench. The Gain mafia is everywhere, laying the moon landings over with an artificial miasma, freshening up suspicious suicides, laying a scented cloud over the ruins of downtown Manhattan.

I bought some of the stuff for an experiment, what has so far passed for science in the new job, a quickie study to acquaint the ("senior scientist") noob over here with some of the materials and tests. It pitted me against the agents of Gain in a small enclosed room, and I had no chance over it. I left dizzy, sore-throated, and ready to do what they told me. (Gain has taken over air fresheners too, and there was a can of next to the toilet when I got home.) I've noticed it in other name-brand (not-Gain) laundry detergents too, and the smell of "clean" has clearly changed since I last remember accidentally slipping into the world of name-brand home scents. There's something more thin and acridly (instead of sweet and cloyingly) floral about it. More hops going on, and less lilac. More raw, wet wood and less sun-warmed dead plant matter. And yet even if it's considered on that spectrum, it's not any of those things, a creature entirely of its own that is far more revolting than any natural aroma I can pick out. It's a product (or at least a formulation) that's the vogue of the American chemical industry as it exists in 2012, and not in some other remembered time, and not anything very real.

It's well understood that characteristic smells are strongly associated with memory, and I can close my eyes and recreate, say, what my grandparents' houses smelled like. [For me, it's something that I tend to get more with places than stunning events (but there are a few there too).] The human tendency to do so is, I assume, the motivation of associating branded products with characteristic smells (and this Gain shit is extra nasty) in the first place, with teams of engineers and marketing pukes toiling to tie your sense of "clean" with their shitty prouct, with the product landscape evolvoing as they forever seek to differentiate themselves in the existing perfumatory space. But if stale beer and musty fruit and ancient house unfailingly makes me think "college!" such individualized reactions shouldn't be confused with collective ones. The interior of your first car is like the weather of scent memory, while the Gain mafia is trying to shift the olfactory climate. The fuckers.

Sometimes I try and imagine what the world smelled like before I lived in it. It must have gotten bad in crowded environments. I have the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as redolent with horseshit, tobacco, coal smoke, rot, and unwashed human ass. What was human company like when smokers munched cloves to cover themselves up, and before people believed in halitosis? It sounds appalling, especially as the decades wore on and the cities got crowded, and flushed of any plant odors at all. I was reading recently, how the misguided Gilded Age public moralists would roll through the New York slums and, based on their primitive understanding of hygiene and health, would spray entire neighborhoods down with carbolic acid. It's a chemical that comes up in the literature of that time, but I don't really know what carbolic acid smells like, and struggle to imagine what it's like to have the whole street reeking of it. And yet, I find some comfort in the antiseptic smell of hypochlorite bleach, I like the aroma of iodine, and ammonia doesn't offend me too much either.

The smell of the present, with its disturbingly tailored chemicals, from Gain, to Axe body wash, to McDonalds' propriety French fry reek, will look barbaric by future standards too, whatever standard they reach by then. It's barbaric even to my memories of the recent past.

Update (a week later): I didn't realize that carbolic acid is the same chemical as phenol. I know that one pretty well: it's vile, burny, stinky, and toxic. (Fuck you, the Gilded Age, buncha sickos.) It was a scent memory that tipped me off, too. I was working with the stuff yesterday, and realized it smelled like the "cow ointment" the old farmer up the street from my parents used to use, and I was led to wonder if it was the same stuff.