Keynes says you don’t know what’s about to hit you

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or be could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

from the introduction of The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes, describing the privileged lives of middle- and upper-class Londoners in the early 20th century.

Bold added.  Most of this excerpt at a glance strikes me as true of my own people today, Americans of the early 21st century.  I think, or I hope, that the bold part is untrue of at least a significant minority of us.  We have a considerable awareness of the influence of politics, military conflict and trade policy on our daily lives.  I’m not sure how much comfort that should be if it’s true, though.  It depends on what the dangers are.

This book is Keynes’ warning that the Treaty of Versailles would bring disaster on Europe, and WWII proved him right.  Maybe as I continue through the book I’ll find out that his reasons for thinking so don’t have parallels in my own country and time.  I’m pretty sure that even if the unwise actions of those Europeans do have parallels today, the dangers today will be different.  A global or even a continental war between great powers is hard to imagine today.  There are too many interests threatened by such a prospect and too few served.  Whatever dangers we face, they’re likely to be international in origin and not driven by a few specific governments.


John Rawls: Everyday morality isn’t simple to explain

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § 8 Comments

A useful comparison here is with the problem of describing the sense of grammaticalness that we have for the sentences of our native language.  In this case the aim is to characterize the ability to recognize well-formed sentences by formulating clearly expressed principles which make the same discriminations as the native speaker.  This undertaking is known to require theoretical constructions that far outrun the ad hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge.  A similar situation presumably holds in moral theory.  There is no reason to assume that our sense of justice can be adequately characterized by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles.  A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well.

from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (revised edition), pp 41-42.

I like this comparison, although I think familiar common-sense precepts are more useful for moral theory than the ad-hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge are for syntactic theory.  Telling people not to split infinitives or end sentences with a preposition does nothing to explain why  “the go store I need” is a sentence of English you’ll never hear from a native speaker.  Telling people to do to others what they want done to them will go some distance to explain why we judge physical assault as immoral in most cases.  Of course that’s just some raw material for a theory.  There’s lots and lots of work to be done after that.

What’s the point of an economy?

2012-01-31 (Tuesday) § Leave a comment

In media and in ordinary conversation I sometimes hear people talk about whether something is good for the economy.  Everybody seems to already know what “good for the economy” means, and further, what the economy is good for.

As with my attempts at analytic philosophy on this blog, I’m approaching economics as an amateur.  I’m hoping to understand it better by putting my current views forward and then responding to problems and alternative angles that people point out to me.

I’ve been reading The Worldly Philosophers, a survey of the views and lives of a sequence of European and American men who made important contributions to economics.  It may be because I’m getting their views at secondhand and in summary, but it seems to me that none of them looked directly at the question of what an economy is for.  (Maybe that’s because they already had it figured out.  But I don’t.)  They looked at more specific and less fundamental questions:  Why are there poor people and rich people?  Is everybody better off if everybody owns everything (communism), or if most things are owned by somebody in particular (private property)?  In a market economy, is it inevitable that the amount of goods and services being produced and sold will occasionally fall and leave a lot of people with a lot less access to goods and services (recession)?  Important questions, but they assume we already know what we want the economy to do.  So what is that?

One possible answer is that we want the economy to make supply match demand as closely as possible.  In other words, given that people want certain things, the point of an economy is to get as many of those things as possible produced and distributed to those people, while getting as few things as possible produced that nobody wants, and getting as few things as possible distributed to people who don’t want them.  Money, prices, and liberty of exchange are just ways of trying to make that happen in a market economy.

Right now in the United States the thing that the broader public wants most from the economy, and what elites claim to want most, is jobs.  Does that mean the point of an economy for us is to give people useful things to do with their time?  Clearly not, or at least not exclusively.  What people mean is jobs that pay a living wage.  Otherwise they (we) would be happy doing volunteer work all the time and consider that a successful economic outcome.  But a sufficient income + work aren’t enough simply added together.  Most people want a sufficient income that feels like a reward for their labor contribution.  Otherwise they would be happy living on reliable charity and doing volunteer work.  Anecdotally my sense is that most Americans wouldn’t be happy with that indefinitely.

So the point of our economy in the United States isn’t just to match supply with demand.  It’s to make supply match demand AND make the demanders feel like they earned the supply.

Tell me what I’m missing.

Get it right or pay the price

2012-01-15 (Sunday) § Leave a comment

I’m reading The Worldly Philosophers by Robert L. Heilbroner, a summary of the lives and ideas of a sequence of European and American men who had a big influence on economics.  Right now I’m on the part about Karl Marx.  I’ve never attempted his epic tome, Capital, but the excerpts and summary that Heilbroner gives make the dude sound like kind of a bad thinker in some ways.  Not in his attention to detail or his efforts at a thorough examination of consequences, but in his lack of zeal in correcting his own blind spots and looking for where he might have been wrong.  I’m almost ready to say that those intellectual virtues are more important than the detail and thoroughness.  As long as we can take correction from each other, we can cover each other’s areas of ignorance.  A brilliant thinker can still be wrong and can even be wrong where a less brilliant thinker is right.  It’s less likely than the reverse, but we’re all fallible enough that anybody who’s unenthusiastic about being shown to be wrong is asking to make serious mistakes.  I don’t know if the USSR, the PRC, Hoxha’s regime in Albania, etc. would have arisen even if Marx had never written any of what he wrote, but if his intellectual career really was a necessary cause of those regimes, and if the leaders of those regimes were acting out of a sincere conviction of Marx’s ideas, then his intellectual mistakes can be credited with the terrible suffering of millions of people.  And he was no lord or statesman with political power to push his ideas – he was a random German dude who published some indie rags.  Ideas matter.

Hospice for planets

2011-12-19 (Monday) § Leave a comment

Reading arguments in The Vegetarian Myth and related conversations on the internet, I see a lot of talk about which diets and behaviors are “natural” for humans.  This makes me curious what those people mean by “nature”.  If nature excludes some human behaviors, then why not all of them?  Or if you think (and I do, along with lots of the people in these conversations) that humans are a result of evolution just like any other animal, then how can you define some of our behaviors as non-natural?  I have a suspicion that this dualism is a carryover from creation myths.

The same goes for possible planetary catastrophes.  Is there such a thing as “the way the earth is supposed to be”?  Who’s doing the supposing?  Maybe we will use up our energy sources and starve or bake to death, and maybe we’ll take most of the planet’s lifeforms with us.  If we are animals and products of evolution (and I think we are), then don’t we have to accept that if this happens, it’ll be no less natural a part of this planet’s biography than the origin of life itself?  Lierre Keith in The Vegetarian Myth talks about how death of organisms is a natural part of life and we should accept it and be part of it.  But then she says the planet is dying, as if that’s something we shouldn’t accept.  Yes, she means it’s dying because we’re killing it.  So?  Aren’t we part of nature?

I do emphatically want us to avoid catastrophic outcomes.  I’m not going to accept the death of the planet if I see ways I can lower the likelihood of it happening.  But that’s because I don’t care what’s natural.  I care about suffering.

The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith

2011-12-18 (Sunday) § Leave a comment

Cover of The Vegetarian MythThe rage of Lierre Keith, which sent so many vegans down to Hades

I ran across this book at random in a bookstore a couple of weeks ago. I’m a vegetarian and I wanted to know what the myth was. 1) False things said by vegetarians? 2) False things said about vegetarians? 3) A tale of the mighty deeds of vegetarians long past? Despite the cave paintings of horned beasts on the cover, the topic turned out to be #1, only stronger and meaner. « Read the rest of this entry »

Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt

2011-11-28 (Monday) § Leave a comment

Cover of "Inventing Human Rights" by Lynn Hunt

This title jumped out at me when I was trawling a shelf at the public library.  One of my favorite topics:  Where did we get this notion of “rights”?  I’m on page 56 and the author is describing how the rise of epistolary novels (i.e. comprised of letters written by the characters to each other) about servants and commoners got 18th-century Europeans used to empathizing with people who weren’t altogether like them.

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