Monday, April 18, 2011


A Times article advances the notion that such things as Barry Bonds' steroid use and sharp, cheating tax accounting arise in part out of a sense of fairness/unfairness, and not just simple greed and sociopathy.

It's an old observation that you're stuck playing at the gaming table of the world, that, while you're responsible for playing your hand as best you can, you don't deal, you don't cut the deck, you don't make the rules and you can't leave the game. That the rules might just have been written without your interests in mind, whether by Job's God or a legislator who, having been bought by Commodore Vanderbilt, stays bought, is as old as humanity. The question is whether those rules are themselves so unjust, so unfair, as to be illegitimate and therefore exert no moral authority over human action and can be ignored.

This was a common stance on the New Left of the SDS etc. in the 1960s, which evolved towards a stance advocating revolutionary change--'Steal This Book' comes to mind, as does the abuse of police authority and the epithet 'pig' in response covering all police. This is now common amongst the militia types, and those holding that much current government deviates fatally from any possible Constitutional justification. Meanwhile, such as Thoreau ('Civil Disobedience') and ML King ('Letter from the Birmingham Jail') accepted civil punishment, even while rejecting its underlying moral base.

The proper response, seems to me, is to accept the current government as legitimate, while seeking to change it, and seeking to correct the unreasonable, sometimes unconscionable, legal and economic barriers to necessary change from within current structures rather than in revolt against and destruction of them. The former risks legitimizing that which should not be accepted--the Citizens United decision comes to mind. The latter risks replacing the current unsatisfactories with even less satisfactory change, sometimes with horrific consequences. There are ample historical examples on both sides. I consider the risks of revolutionary change, even allowing for their possibility, far greater than those attendant on awaiting another swing of the pendulum, giving it a gentle push on occasion. The most benign interpretation of Obama's presidency after the Busherdammerung is along these lines. I haven't always agreed with Obama across the board, and doubtless won't. But I too have seen an attempt to delegitimize a deeply flawed system yield nothing other than reaction and rejection.

So there. Hrmphf. Get off my lawn, and turn that noise you call music down...

Maybe Bipartisanship really Is Date Rape

By now, it should be obvious that Paul Ryan's budget--widely praised despite its Draconian cuts on long-standing programs people depend for their live upon, and have for decades--is far more an ideological rant than a serious macroeconomic and fiscal proposal. Since its release, Obama has defended the programs Ryan attacks, demanding that they be saved in essence. The Republican response to Obama, predictably, tries to deny him legitimacy in the debate, as neither willing to face reality as they define it, nor being appropriately civil. Seems that voicing an opinion differing from Republican orthodoxy is shrill. Paul Krugman, who has long been recognized as shrill wherever civilized tongues are spoken, calls them out today:

Sorry to be cynical, but right now “bipartisan” is usually code for assembling some conservative Democrats and ultraconservative Republicans — all of them with close ties to the wealthy, and many who are wealthy themselves — and having them proclaim that low taxes on high incomes and drastic cuts in social insurance are the only possible solution.

This would be a corrupt, undemocratic way to make decisions about the shape of our society even if those involved really were wise men with a deep grasp of the issues. It’s much worse when many of those at the table are the sort of people who solicit and believe the kind of policy analyses that the Heritage Foundation supplies.

So let’s not be civil. Instead, let’s have a frank discussion of our differences. In particular, if Democrats believe that Republicans are talking cruel nonsense, they should say so — and take their case to the voters.

All of which assumes that even Obama is correct in joining the regnant narrative placing the deficit at the very center of the nation's problems.

I'd argue that civity and frank disagreement can, in fact, coexist, and that people other than True Believers all know it. The distinction between, 'I disagree with you, holding, rather that .......... is the case and what should be done. Here are the facts, logic, history, economics and politics I used to reach those conclusions. What do you think?' and 'You fucking idiot' remains an important distinction. The 'Moi? They do it, too' defense, advanced against an accusation of incivility, won't wash. But, as many including yr. obdt. svt. have noted, a vain search for 'bipartisanship' clouding one's own positions in compromise after compromise with an opponent calling bipartisanship 'date rape' (Norquist) is bad politics and bad governance.

Obama going into 2012 will find himself fortunate in the timing of economic recovery, and in the astounding lack of plausible challengers. It'd be nice, too, were a stiff breeze from the left to fill his sails. He might even find himself enjoying it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Unstable Equilibria

Henry Kissinger this morning, in reviewing a biography of Bismarck, waxes metaphorically this:

Bismarck’s opponents were still wedded to the 18th-century concepts of the international system as a great clockwork with intricately meshed parts: the science of Newton. Bismarck foreshadowed an age whose equilibrium was an ever-changing interaction of forces, themselves in constant flux, like later atomic physics. Its appropriate philosopher was not Descartes but Darwin; not “I think, therefore I am,” but the “survival of the fittest.”

Now, it's just possible that balance of power politics and diplomacy predated Bismarck. It's also odd that Descartes and Darwin are contrasted as opposites. Too, it's been a while since the teleological 'survival of the fittest' credibly summarized evolution.

The most fun, though, can be had with Kissinger's notion of 'equilibrium' and 'constant flux' presaging 'atomic physics'. The nineteenth century saw Ludwig Boltzmann and J. Willard Gibbs, and others, elaborate statistical thermodynamics, in which macroscopic phenomena were linked to microscopic interactions using Netwonian mechanics. Equilibrium is a basic concept in thermodynamics, used to such brilliant effect that economists, envious of physicists' successes and imagining themselves capable of replicating it by reducing human beings to molecules, borrowed the notion for their market models. Perhaps Kissinger's referring to thermodynamics, in which case it isn't 'later'. Or, he's referring to quantum mechanics, which is not only later but entirely inapposite to the point he's making. Either way, he's wrong.

Whatever you think of Kissinger, he's neither stupid nor uneducated. It's fascinating to see such a person pack so much crap about science into such a small space. And, at that, crap touching on scientific theories of wide and deep significance in intellectual history: you can't understand contemporary thought without having a grasp of evolution or thermodynamics. So not only can I have sport with Kissinger, and his editor, on this. I can safely assume that the vast majority of people reading this review won't even stop to scratch their heads.

Maybe Bishop Ussher was right, after all...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

The hedge fund managers take home real money. Last year, 25 of them took home $22 billion in salaries. They trade in toilet paper with ridiculously high nominal values. In New York City alone, assets nominally valued at well over a trillion dollars are traded daily. The Treasury Dept. estimates the nominal value of derivative securities held in American portfolios at over $600 trillion. That's roughly 50 times American GDP.

So, they take commissions in real money off of trades in toilet paper, and, as long as everyone agrees to keep the obscene game of musical chairs going, all is sort of well. But they can't do that unless they restrict their markets to a self-referential acceptance of asset valuation at wild, impossible remove from reality. A recipe for disaster, that. And the hedge fund managers' income, and countless other exactions of real money from toilet paper, are extraordinary diversions of real resources, while those receiving them perpetuate the illusion, keep the game going. When the inevitable catastrophe recurs, it won't be the real-money people that'll get hurt.

But, then, you knew that....

Shakespeare's Prospero, on derivative securities, presciently:

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.