Friday, February 20, 2015

the scar

“Then” is the shape of time, or at least of time for birds, beasts, and bacteria, and for all the other monuments of DNA as well. In the world of nuclear particles, ‘then’ is a wicket through which one can pass one way and then another and both simultaneously, or so the equations tell us.
“Then” is also, by a heavy coincidence, a logical function. Here it does not give us a temporal, but a seemingly atemporal sequence. Such is the magic of words, however, that we are always tempted to take the atemporal world of the variables of logic and confound it with the temporal world in which we find ourselves. We are always tempted to see logic in history, to see the temporal as the pattern of the temporal.
Yet is logic so blind to temporality? Do we require some second order of reasoning to reconcile the one to the other?
That is, perhaps, the task that falls to dialectic. It is a shady task – Kant for instance placed dialectic in the slum of philosophy, where the hucksters, grifters and sophists ply their wares.
Dialectic is not the royal road to truth, on this view, but is the path of pins – to borrow a trope from that most philosophic of tales, Little Red Riding Hood.
If we want to come to grips with substitution, the dark power of our time, we must begin with these imperfectly aligned domains. A certain kind of philosophy takes it for granted that the task is to align them perfectly. Another approach is to take their imperfect alignment as a great philosophical fact – perhaps the great philosophical fact, and draw the consequences. The consequences, according to this school, lay everywhere around us. Like the fallen body of the giant in Finnegan’s wake, the parts form our parts, and we can go endlessly through the semiosphere, from newspaper stories to the towering summas of culture, and continually feel this imperfect alignment, this intellectual scar.

I’m inclined to the second view.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Economics as science (sigh) again

Economists, as a rule, are highly defensive about being "scientists". By this, they don't mean that they are part of the general social sciences set - a subset of sociology, in fact. No, they mean that they are like physics.
They aren't at all like physics, of course, starting at the ground level. While physicists can start with atoms because atoms are entirely defined by mass and motion, economics has no equivalent. Individuals are not simply defined by mass and motion. Economists have attempted to define them as the atoms of economics, but the arguments for this range from poor to unbelievable. This is even conceded, and got over by pretending that the motion of the individual is wholly defined by the desire to get more. 
Since the very meaning of getting more is not really definable without the system of values defining more, there's really no atomic level to work up from. 
But economists still somehow consider that, since they do hard mathematical work, they must be scientists. And since, at a certain point as undergraduates, they read Friedman's methodological paper about prediction, that science is defined by predicting things. 
So, lately, we've had a round of economists bitching that non-experts are pitching into macro-economics. It started with Scott Sumner here, went to Noah Smith there, and now I'm going to talk about it.

I get tired of the idea that science is entirely defined by the ability to predict things, which is like defining a car as the ability to go 70 miles per hour. Many other things than cars possess this ability, from hurricanes to peregrine falcons. But it is into the prediction hole that the whole incredibly badly formed debate around economics turns. Did economists predict the 2008 downturn or not? and then we are off to the races. 
But I'll bite on this for at least a second and ask what I think are more pertinent questions. 
-- what economist in the seventies or eighties predicted that the medium American wage would effectively stagnate for the next thirty or more years? 
-Which predicted that household debt would begin to equal household wealth for the medium household? 
-Who predicted that, even with the advent of IRAs, mutual funds, and 401ks, the shape of the ownership of all financial instruments would essentially remain the same in 2014 as it was in 1979? 
- Who predicted that the last American trade surplus would be in 1976?
My questions are all invidious. They are all about trends. The prediction biz, as defined by economists, is a pretty narrow thing about particular events. The local downfall, the inflation figure for the next quarter. But it is long term  long term trends, which are the meat and drink of the prediction biz of the natural sciences. The prediction of the course of a single atom isn't in it. The trend, going back billions of years, is. 
What seems evident to me is that economics, as a branch of sociology, can produce ideal models of various economies (not just capitalist ones) and capture broad trends within them. But it isn't very good, even so, at predicting long term trends at any middle distance - and as for up close, no way. Marx's prediction of the inevitable fall of the rate of profit, founded on classical economics, is a good instance of the use of trends - the ideal model of capitalism he constructed would seem to require it. One can see how the physical limitations inhering on labor time would even make it, at some point, true. But it has turned out to be only a factor, and a reversible one, in capitalist business cycles. Or perhaps I should say, a factor with varying weight.  

The creeps

It is hard to predict the political result of the EU's attempt to crush democracy in Greece. The big Creeps, as one could call the austerity group, would welcome a solution a l'egypte, with a complacent military government. And perhaps they will get their wish. But it might be that the anti-creep forces in Spain, Italy, Ireland and even France will be charged by the evident anti-democratic animus that now rules in Europe. Usually, when a movement is crushed, its moment goes out. When the soviets sent tanks into Prague, that effectively ended any chance for any future socialism with a human face. The equivalent, the sending of debt collectors to Athens to make sure the level of starvation is just so, might crush the notion of EU with a human face. My hope, of course, is a mobilization of movements that will drive the incumbent parties out of office all over Europe. But, alas, I'd bet against it. If the creeps - faux socialists in France and Spain and the UK, the faux democrats in the Northern countries - succeed, their overthrow will probably be from the right. It is a rather ghastly prospect.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

on hiding

Hiding, as Aristotle might say, is said of two different class of actions. One class is uniquely aboout hinding oneself. The other group is about hiding other things, which can include other people, or, more often, semi-people: the stuffed Mickey Mouse, the stuffed ant-eater, the plastic giraffe.
Adam is now old enough to recognize that we cut down the wildernesses, lay the railroads, plot the land, pave the roads, and build the houses in order to create congeries of hiding places. His two favorite places are in the space between the wall and the refrigerator, in the kitchen, and pappa’s closet, a storage area next to our real closet that has been carved into the wall space about three feet above the floor. The latter has a real negative, in that to hide there, Adam has to ask to be lifted up to it. This broadly signals that one is hiding. On the plus side, it it s perfect cubby, with an odd interior angle to it – this storage space was definitely a Los Angeles after thought – and a door – oh heaven – the closing of which you can impress upon your parent is a very important matter that has to be seen to right now. The door has several advantages. For one, the cubby becomes all dark. Dark is the color of hiding, For another thing, the world outside the hiding place becomes another sort of hiding place. This accomplishes, in a semi-quasi way, the second class of hiding. 
Once established in one’s hiding place, one faces a choice: either signal that one is hiding – which creates a game – or not. Adam is not quite old enough for the second, more contemplative form of hiding. The latter kind of hiding was once my favorite type, because it allowed for either spying or contemplating the world, the sky, a tree, a bird, a book, or some errant ramification of the usual scene. Spying, of course, requires a particular kind of hidey hole, or sometimes just quiet trailing, with the ocassional sudden ducking behind a bush or a tree to avoid detection. In reality, it was the ducking that one spied for – otherwise, it got rather dull. 
Adam’s version is to crack open the door. Sometimes, he finds, as he expects, his mom or dad standing there. Sometimes, though, they are hiding, or at least doing something else. Usually Adam can’t hold out and says something like Adam’s here, or I see you.
The kitchen hiding place is more of a getaway. The kitchen was forbidden territory. But, just as those settlers who cleared the wilderness drifted into territory forbidden to them by the state or native powers regardless, so, too, Adam has so often disobeyed the law of staying out of the kitchen that the powers that be have given up. So far, he has not completely wedged himself into the space between the wall and the fridge, but he’s come close. After a while, he’ll withdraw and just sit in front of the passage. Here is where he takes loot – from some disgusting object he has illicitly taken from the garbage can he is not supposed to look into to an odd fragment broken from some toy. I’m not sure what he does, communing with these things, but I think it has to do with inventing science.

The synthetic progressive

I have been searching for a term to encompass one of the great features of capitalism – the non-necessary synthesis. I guess I will call it ...