“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

Friday, October 12, 2012

and the rightwing utopia project in honduras goes on...

Sadly, my moral feelings, here, are pitted against my stomach. The founder of Whole Foods, John Mackay, and a libertarian freakheadnamed Michael Strong are trying to found libertarian zone cities in Honduras onuninhabited land – sort of like going back in the time machine to the days when monopolies like the East India company ruled over populations.

Of course, the land is actually inhabited – oh, inconvenient! But as it is inhabited by poor Afro-Caribbean peasants, you can drive them out with minimal bloodshed – a few murders, rapes, and the burning of houses ought to do. The murders have started: Antonio Trejo Cabrera, a lawyer who charged various Honduran legislators were bribed to pave the way for these new libertarian utopias was gunned down outside a wedding, on September 23rd. Michael Strong, who knows that the age demands the mushmouthed Romneyism we all enjoy, expressed his shock at the murder  in the following words:

"We believe that Antonio Trejo, had he lived long enough to get to knowus, would have concluded that our approach is 100 percent beneficial toHonduras and Hondurans. We are saddened for his family and understand what atragedy this is for trust and goodwill in Honduras," Strong said in astatement to The Associated Press.
Ah, if only Strong had added a Palinesque You betcha to his so horrified remarks!

So I’d suggest wearing a Trejo t-shirt next time you shop at Whole Foods.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Locke on personal identity 2

So what does? How is the personal life identified? 

This is an agitated question, and it is expressed in an agitated text. Locke, normally so normal-mouthed, makes a pre-Voltarian move in the midst of this chapter by including the story of the rational parrot. Nothing prepares us for this story – the movement of the text has been straightforwardly argumentative until we suddenly receive an anecdote that takes up its own section, concerning a parrot who, according to a high and credible source, apparently spoke with understanding. The purpose of the rational parrot is, in a way, to parody – parroty – Descartes’ vision of the rational difference. Locke hopes to loosen our sense of rationality as the key to personal identity, because he wants something that loops through the conscious and the unconscious. He does not want his waking Socrates to be different from his sleeping Socrates. He faces this problem in a different spirit than Chuang Tzu:
“Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”
Instead of the transformation of things, Locke is looking for the thread upon which things can be transformed. And yet, like Chuang Tzu and the butterfly, as he does so, he keeps pressing against an infinite regress -  not of butterflies and humans, but within his notion of the human:
“…to find wherein personal identity consists, we must consider what person stands for; -- which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so. Thus it is always as to our present sensations and perceptions: and by this every one is to himself that which he calls self: -- it not being considered, in this case, whether the same self be continued in the same or divers substances.” 
The game is afoot with the phrase: “it is impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive…” Because that second order perception must, then, be perceived by a third order one, and so on. How long does this infinite series of acts last? How long does Chuang Tzu dream he is a butterfly? It seems, here, that personal identity is threatening our hard won sense of the identity of the body, in as much as the person in the body-person act seems to exist in a time that is not coordinate with the “same time, same place” time of the body – it seems, rather, to exist infinitely and instantly at the same time.
But Locke does not choose to pursue these complications. Rather, he chooses to face the Transformation of Things with a different problem: that of the interruptions of forgetting and sleep. Sleep of course poses some problems for Locke’s notion of consciousness: do we perceive we are asleep when we are asleep? And do we perceive that we perceive it? Certainly we build around our sleep, we fall asleep, we say, I was asleep. But Locke approaches the interruption of consciousness from a different angle than sleep – a more difficult state to claim: that of forgetting. We forget. We don’t, here, even know that we forgot. Until we are reminded, somehow. Unlike sleep, forgetting has less certain rituals associated with it.  Locke wants to circumscribe the question posed by forgetting to personal identity to one having to do with identifying the person with substance, or identifying the person with consciousness. The latter is Locke’s choice. This is how he deals with the problems it poses:
“But it is further inquired, whether it be the same identical substance. This few would think they had reason to doubt of, if these perceptions, with their consciousness, always remained present in the mind, whereby the same thinking thing would be always consciously present, and, as would be thought, evidently the same to itself. But that which seems to make the difficulty is this, that this consciousness being interrupted always by forgetfulness, there being no moment of our lives wherein we have the whole train of all our past actions before our eyes in one view, but even the best memories losing the sight of one part whilst they are viewing another; and we sometimes, and that the greatest part of our lives, not reflecting on our past selves, being intent on our present thoughts, and in sound sleep having no thoughts at all, or at least none with that consciousness which remarks our waking thoughts, -- I say, in all these cases, our consciousness being interrupted, and we losing the sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing, i.e., the same substance or no.”
That we are always forgetting intrudes a startling psychological fact on the human scene: what are we always forgetting? We are always forgetting most things. The perception of our perception of perception; the knowing of the knowing of our knowing; the past; where the ball rolled under the sofa when we were three; being three; being fifteen; yesterday; what happened half an hour ago. Yet this list of what we are forgetting makes sense only if we are forgetting it. We, in a sense, own this forgetting. It is a fact of our consciousness. What is important to Locke is that the question of whether we are of the same substance is not pertinent to the matter of that thread which winds through our repeated, our perpetual disappearing acts:

“The question being what makes the same person; and not whether it be the same identical substance, which always thinks in the same person, which, in this case, matters not at all: different substances, by the same consciousness (where they do partake in it) being united into one person, as well as different bodies by the same life are united into one animal, whose identity is preserved in that change of substances by the unity of one continued life. For, it being the same consciousness that makes a man be himself to himself, personal identity depends on that only, whether it be annexed solely to one individual substance, or can be continued in a succession of several substances.”


Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Locke on personal identity 1

Locke begins his chapter on identity and diversity by what seems to be a refusal of philosophical and theological speculation – a refusal, that is, to consider either Stoic cyclical time or theological eternity:

“When we see anything to be in any place in any instant of time, we are sure (be it what it will) that it is that very thing, and not another which at that same time exists in another place, how like and undistinguishable soever it may be in all other respects: and in this consists identity, when the ideas it is attributed to vary not at all from what they were that moment wherein we consider their former existence, and to which we compare the present. For we never finding, nor conceiving it possible, that two things of the same kind should exist in the same place at the same time, we rightly conclude, that, whatever exists anywhere at any time, excludes all of the same kind, and is there itself alone.”

Notice the drum beat of the “same”, here, doing the conceptual work – the “same kind”, the “same place”, the “same time” – as though the identity “fix” is in. Locke, in other words, is placing this discussing in a certain locale – very much sub species non-aeternitatis. The neighborhood of sameness reaches out through all time and space, but it at the same time normalizes that time and space for the purpose of identity. Locke did not make this move because he was unaware of other ideas of time and space – in fact, the chapter is full of references to those other ideas, especially those associated with the idea of the pre-existing self of the Cambridge Platonists. And at the same time, Locke is also aware of Newton. In fact, his tremendous whack at all non-respectable metaphysics is made as a sort of  “clearing the ground” for the work of the true magi, of whom the most eminent was Newton. Now, Newton in his scholium had written of various senses of time – which applied to various approximations of reality:
“Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.”
What does Newton meant by “flows equably without relation to anything external”? What after all would be this external thing? Space? Or the observer? Newton explains further that “It may be, that there is no such thing as an equable motion, whereby time may be accurately measured. All motions may be accelerated and retarded, but the flowing of absolute time is not liable to any change. The duration or perseverance of the existence of things remains the same, whether the motions are swift or slow, or none at all.”
Newtonian absolute time became an important reference in the 19th century after thermodynamics tried to capture an irreversible temporal direction in the universe - which Botzmann provided the equations for. J. Loschmidt criticized the discrepancy between Boltzmann and Newton, the latter of whom clearly allows for equations of motion that are reversible in time. “This means that if a system of hard-sphere particles starts a backward motion due to the particles reversing their direction of motion at some instant of time, it passes through all its preceding states up to the initial one, and this will increase the H-function [entropy] whose variation is originally governed by reversible equations of motion. The essential point to be made here is that the observer cannot prefer one of the situations under study, the forward motion of the system in time, in favor of the second situation, its “backward” motion.” (Alexeev, 3) Notice that this observer is an observer ex machina – for in a sense the observer, being external, cannot penetrate to absolute time, having no footing according to Newton’s scholium. And it is this that may justify Locke, who plants the observer at the very beginning of his chapter with the telling phrase, “we see”.
It is from the position of what we see that Locke wants to proceed. Thus, it is in the observer’s world that we travel, and in which, for Locke, personal identity insists. It will insist fiercely in the rumble between finite spirits and bodies, for Locke quickly throws out the relevance of our idea of God, the third substance in Locke’s system. God is equivalent to the self-evident, an absolute point of view that combines a number of piously ornamental traits (is everywhere, is eternal, etc.) that do not interfere with the real argument about identity.
That argument comes down to what sense we are to make of personal identity when we borrow the terms from our notions of bodies. Locke, beginning with the observer’s notion of the identity of the moment with itself and the place with itself, would seem to have to continue in this vein. In that sense, every passed second and every dissipated ray of light would enforce a change in identity on the living. This is an idea that Locke rejects:
“In like manner, if two or more atoms be joined together into the same mass, every one of those atoms will be the same, by the foregoing rule: and whilst they exist united together, the mass, consisting of the same atoms, must be the same mass, or the same body, let the parts be ever so differently jumbled. But if one of these atoms be taken away, or one new one added, it is no longer the same mass or the same body. In the state of living creatures, their identity depends not on a mass of the same particles, but on something else. For in them the variation of great parcels of matter alters not the identity: an oak growing from a plant to a great tree, and then lopped, is still the same oak; and a colt grown up to a horse, sometimes fat, sometimes lean, is all the while the same horse: though, in both these cases, there may be a manifest change of the parts; so that truly they are not either of them the same masses of matter, though they be truly one of them the same oak, and the other the same horse. The reason whereof is, that, in these two cases -- a mass of matter and a living body -- identity is not applied to the same thing.”

In the observer’s world, we notice that it is a question of the observer himself.
The observer has one characteristic that distinguishes it from ‘parcels of matter’ – it is alive. Plant or animal, it has a living existence. Locke’s vitalist move is even expressed in terms that will later be refined into a vitalist philosophy: unlike the watch, which receives its impetus from without, the organism receives its impetus from within. That impetus will later be the much sought after vital force of romantic science and its aftermath.  

Locke however does not stop with that impulse, which merely gives him a living thing. He moves on to the enigmatic co-determinant of personal identity: consciousness. And it is here that he engages with a set of questions that, while being very  much of the time –metempsychosis, resurrection – are aids to Locke’s picture of consciousness. It is an argument that, I think, has a great influence on the function of character in Anglophone countries.

Monday, October 08, 2012

a little lesson in flat tax propaganda

A little lesson in flat tax economics and propaganda

There is a way of keeping gasoline prices low. It consists in the government price controls. You enforce a top price for gas, say 1.90, and allow noone to sell above it.
Of course, any economist worth his Econ 101 will tell you that won’t work. It interferes with the nature of the price system. Prices are set “naturally” in the market place acc
ording to the laws of supply and demand. Even if one concedes to institutionalists that prices are determined, as well, by the firm, according to a complex system of emulation – government price controls would simply cause either shortages, or black markets, or both.

But these same economists have no problem writing in the NYT – as Richard Thaler recently did – decrying the “complexity” of the tax code and urging flat rates. Even if the flat rates are tiered – say 29 percent for the wealthiest, 15 percent for the 99 percent scum – this, these economists will say, would clean up our tax problems in a jiffy.

Now, formally, what these economists are doing is – urging price controls. To see this, we have to see that political bodies are markets of a particular type - rather like auctions, or futures markets, in which the products consist of positive expenditures and negative ones - the latter being taxes. A tax deduction is, basically, a sneaky way the government can pay for a behavior. When the legislature votes to depreciate the tax on gas production according to a certain schedule, it doesn’t do so because it wants to complicate the tax code – any more than a soup manufacturer wants to complicate the price system by selling soup at 3.99 per can, rather than 3.50 or 4. Taxes, like prices, are the products of negotiation. Lobbyists spend incredible amounts of money, campaign contributers contribute incredible amounts of money, the most cretinous members of a Representative’s family land the most munificent positions, all as part of a system to give tax advantages to one or another party. These tax advantages produce competitive advantages, which is why cutting taxes on this or that product, or to encourage this or that behavior, is routinely advocated by the same economists who will then turn around and maunder about fake flat rates. The House of Representatives and the Senate, when considering taxes and budgets, are not doing anything much different than futures markets.

So what would happen if you set a tax rate for rich people who make a million a year at a flat 19 percent, no deductions? In time a, you would have a flat 19 percent tax, with no deductions. In time b, defined by the second day of the legislative session, you would have forty proposals for deductions, of which any number would pass. And every one of those forty would be attached to some propaganda effort to make it seem necessary – in the same way that advertising is an integral part of the price system. In an auction like system like the modern legislature, this is as “natural” as supply and demand is in the price system. In fact, a rich person would be insane not to bid, in the case of a flat tax, for exceptions. Because rich people exist as rich people by ... making more money. And there is no honeypot so sweet as the government.

Thus, like price controls, flat tax rates would require a few minor structural changes in order to really work. If you have price controls on gasoline, for instance, the best method would be for the state to Sovietize all gas producers and centrally plan supply, perhaps using the military to evict owners of gas fields. See how simple this is? In the case of flat tax rates, we would have to simply abolish the constitutional provision that allows legislators to set tax rates forever from the point at which the flat rate was passed. Again, this is simple. You just need a military coup to overthrow the democratic system.

In other words, when people tell you about flat tax rates and their advantages - see the Republican platform - they are either, a, lying, b, ignorant as dirt, or c, a University of Chicago economist.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

a peculiar argument: Locke on personal identity

There’s a peculiar form of argumentation that emerges when ethics meets ontology – an encounter is that is comparable to mudwrestling in quicksand. We often derive, from a moral premise, an ontological conclusion. There are, for instance, multiple instances of the derivation, from normative ideas of responsibility and promise keeping, to an ontological fact about the continuity of the person. Locke, in the Personal Identity chapter of the Essay on Human Understanding (Book 2, chapter 27) – which is what I really want to write about - provides us with an instance:

“… if the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not partake of the same consciousness, Socrates waking and sleeping are not the same person. And to punish Socrates waking for what Socrates sleeping that, and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be no more right, than to punish one twin for what his brother twin did, whereof he knew nothing, because their outsides were so like, that they could not be distinguished, for such twins have been seen.”

Locke implies here what is argued by other philosophers, which is that punishment is about what is right and what is right is about what a person does. Now, Locke was no doubt acquainted with feud and the regulation of kin responsibility which not only figured in early Anglo Saxon law, but in other codes as well. These codes were certainly found to be “right” by those who followed them. The attenuation of such transference of responsibility is even behind the king’s right to punish – he does so as the representative of the community that is wronged, even if the wrong is private. But even if one grants that a system of morality might be based on the responsibility of the person who committed the act, is the system of morality that founds responsibility on kin somehow getting something wrong about personal identity? Do we discover ontological facts about persons, and then reform our notion of right and wrong?

To argue that we do would require having some historical and anthropological evidence. But even before we begin to look for this evidence, we have to ask what type of discovery would make the difference, here.

One tradition in philosophy would reject the idea that the intrusion of ontological fact upon ethical custom changes our idea of right. Instead, just the opposite is the case: because we need persons for a particular ethical system, we find them. Thus, it is ethical custom that produces the ontological vision. We can tell this story as a genealogy of morals, taking it for granted that the play of moral developments takes place above some basic ontological level. However, we can also ask about this assumption. Why shouldn’t we be able to discover, by way of ethics, new and pertinent ontological facts? Or is the discovery of phenomena and its laws wholly the affair of the natural sciences? Of course, perhaps the sciences, too, have an ethical organization.
Another tradition in philosophy would insist that ethics is rooted in universally shared common sense, and that this common sense does deliver certain ontological facts for our edification and entertainment. Thus, for instance, when we show that an argument or conclusion is ridiculous, this is a proof: nature abhors the ridiculous. Nature is, after all, what is natural to men as well as facts about plants, molecules, and mosquitoes. And it is a natural to man to have a self.

A self, in this view, produces social affects – and so, as it is causal, so it is ontologically active.

If, then, we speak of persons as fictional – or, to use Locke’s term, as forensick – fiction should be taken to mean approximate, in the same way that one atom in a gas is handled approximately in the equations of chemistry. Of course, atoms can only be handled in the aggregate, whereas persons are, as it were, bigger. But the same sort of reasoning applies. In this sense, we can say that persons are ‘estimates’.