Friday, November 01, 2013

the morality of splashing water

When I was toiling away, learning philosophy back in Grad school, I pretty much focused on Western philosophy. That’s a vast amount of material there, bucko, and I figured that if – by the time I was doddering on the lip of the grave – I understood some of it, that would be enough of an achievement. 

But such projects belong to the long ago of academia. Since the, I’ve become a pirate intellectual – or, less boldly, a dilettante eclectist – or perhaps even less boldly, an an anonymous reader between the lines – I’ve come to operate under the proud slogan: fuck the context, show me the beef. Or something like that. 

Which brings me to Mencius’ marvelous question, which is quoted in Yi-Fu Tuan’s Dominance and Affection: the making of pets: “Mencisu asked, “Is it right to force water to leap up?” He was taking the position that human nature is inclined to act in certain ways and not others, using the movement of water as an analogy. “Water,” he said, “will flow indifferently to east or west, but it will not flow indifferently up and down.” Now of course, he added, “by striking water you can make it leap up over your forehead and by damming and leading it you may force it up a hill, but do such movements accord with the nature of water?”

It is one index of the fundamental disposition of modernity, over the last three hundred years, that this question simply has no discursive space in which it can be uttered. The discovery of the nature of water is a project we can all recognize, as part of science. But the idea of respecting the nature of water thus discovered forms no part of the world of ideas and actions we inhabit.
Water, I should say, has other ideas and tends, when forced to traverse deserts to grow crops, to leach up noxious metals, and when acidified, to kill fish and encourage jellyfish. But we don’t think of this as water thinking, or asserting its rights.
For us,  Mencius’ question is simply weird. We have so little sense that there might be a nature to be respected, there, that we can only view the question as an analogy for the one nature we do respect, human nature, as Yi-Fu Tuan says. Although – context alert -  the Sayings of Mencius make it clear that even Mencius considered his question a little weird and quickly analogized it to human nature. Rember, it was the Chinese invented the prototype of industrial power. 

Here’s the entire quote:

Kao Tzu said, ‘Human nature is like whirling water. Give it an outlet in the east and it will flow east; give it an outlet in the west and it will flow west. Human nature does not show any preference for either good or bad just as water does not show any preference for either east or west.’

‘It certainly is the case,’ said Mencius, ‘that water does not show any preference for wither east or west, but does it show the same indifference to high and low? Human nature is good just as water seeks low ground. There is no man who is not good; there is no water that does not flow downwards.

‘Now in the case of water, by splashing it one can make it shoot up higher than one’s forehead, and by forcing it one can make it stay on a hill. How can that be the nature of water? It is the circumstances being what they are. That man can be made bad shows that his nature is no different from that of water in this respect.’

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

dreary days

Virginia Woolf once began a diary entry by saying that the day had been dreary and that nothing happened. Then she reproached herself: this was no way for a writer to treat even a day on which nothing seemed to happen. She compared such days to trees in winter. The glory of the tree, the leaves, have fallen, and all that is left are bare branches and the trunk. One tends not to see the tree, then. And yet it is in this state that you can most see the tree, its growth against the damage of insect, lightning strike, impoverished soil,  and weather – in short, what it had become.
I think that is a rather brilliant comparison, even though writing for others is all about brilliant and hyperreal days, where the criminal is escaping the police, where the adulterous love affair begins to germinate at the party, where Madame Bovary takes poison and spontaneous cumbustion claims the ragman. But the forest in which these events take place is vast, and consists of dreary or happy days where nothing happened, and nobody looked.

I like the fact that Woolf knew that is exactly where she should look.

Monday, October 28, 2013

for price controls: a solution to healthcare costs in America

Like many a crank before me, I am unhealthily attracted to arguments about economics.
This last week there has been a lot of fun activity in the blogosphere around that perpetually arousing topic, is economics a science or not? Science, here, doesn’t mean a social science. The problem with economics, I think, is that there is an impulse within the discipline to understand it as something more like a natural science – a science like physics.
This is, I think, a bogus credentialing move with serious consequences for the way economists think and advice.
Being held prisoner by a bunch of assumptions both about what science is and about what the economy is about, economists all too often end up leading those who listen to them into dead ends.
A good case in point is the matter of price controls.
Economists now, whether chicago school or MIT school, show the same horror for price controls as the Victorians showed for the  mention of sex. It just shouldn’t be done! Economics decorum is a bit different than Victorian manners, but they both start with assumptions that are highly fictitious. In the Victorian case, all the speakers were, actually, products of sex – and in the economics case, all the speakers are actually products of highly non-competitive non-markets.
But as we get out of the asphyxiating world of the economists assumptions, we often find “markets” that would be well served by price controls. For instance: the American healthcare market.
At the moment, there is much handwringing over the fact that the cost of American healthcare is way out of synch with healthcare costs elsewhere. This handwringing has resulted in many a clever suggestion about rearranging market arrangements for healthcare. These suggestions, however, turn a blind eye to the fact that the healthcare market is shaped by two government backed monopolies – on the one hand, the monopoly granted to medical device and pharmacy companies from the out of control patent and ip laws – and on the other hand, the various guild monopolies granted to the pool of labor, from doctors to dentists to nurses to pharmacists, enforced by the government.
This, then, is a market in which price controls that are heavily government influenced are already in place. The laws, for instance, that require a patient to get a doctor’s prescription to gain access to prescription drugs makes a mockery of any notion that the healthcare “market” is “free”.
In such situations, price controls can be imposed rather easily.  The room for black markets, here, is pretty narrow. Add this to the fact that the medical device and pharma industries count on the government protecting them from competition – for instance, from foreign drug marketers – and you have set up a situation which would respond perfectly well to price controls.
Don’t expect, however, anybody anywhere to point these things out or discuss a price control policy. That would violate the sensitivities of mainstream economists.  

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...