Saturday, August 07, 2021

inverted envy - from A.O. Hirschman to twitter billionaire stans

Whenever I go on twitter and read the twits from stans of Elon Musk or Bebeeyed Bezos, I think of this post of mine.
In 1973, A.O. Hirschman, with his characteristic, concealing modesty (it covered up the fact that he was touching on big themes that economists liked to avoid), wrote an essay about envy and the egalitarian impulse in developing economies. For two decades, Hirschman had been at work as an economist and policy maker dealing with foreign aid and plans to elevate the poorer national economies into the league of the developed nations, as they were called back then. This was the era of multi-year plans and the fad for shrinking agriculture and favoring export industries, which often, paradoxically, called for putting barriers on imports. All of this, by now, has been swept away by the Washington Consensus and the aggressive syndicate of international institutions, multinationals, and neo-liberals.

In Hirschman’s time, third world countries were experiencing unprecedented growth. He observed that the profit from that growth largely accrued to the wealthy. What puzzled him was that this did not stimulate the kind of envy that was feared by the anti-communist establishment everywhere. Instead of revolution, for the most part, third world populations seemed patiently to be waiting. Hirschman devised a model to capture what one might call the dynamics of social envy. In this model, growth and the enrichment of the richest was tolerable as long as the larger population believed that the growth would eventually make themselves and their children richer. In other words, Hirschman believed that there was a larger tolerance for inequality than was reckoned with by the leftist agitator. This was puzzling if one took into account the work of George Foster, whose studies of peasant society in Mexico convinced him that traditional society is penetrated by what he called the “image of the limited good”. This means that the peasant views goods in terms of a zero-sum game, in which x’s possessions are viewed by y from the standpoint of scarcity – what x possesses, y does not possess. Like people in a lifeboat with limited rations, a careful watch is placed on the village populaton to make visible who has what. This is a situation in which savings is hidden, rather than invested.
What Foster calls the limited good, I would call nemesis. In my opinion, the great effect of the enlightenment and of the growing economies of the 19th century was to suppress nemesis – the social and human limit which demands respect in societies in which growth is sporadic and subject to decay. In such societies, time is cyclical; the myth of progress has no footing here.

I think Hirschman was right to tackle the theme of envy, but his model, it seems to me, lacks an important feature that one finds in success societies – societies, that is, where an ethos of success replaces the ethos of sacrifice. In the former, envy inevitably increases as the success of the wealthiest creates a larger and larger positional gap between the top and the rest. Here, however, an interesting, unconscious mechanism intervenes to protect the wealthiest. This mechanism inverts the direction of envy, the direction of the evil eye. Instead of the wealthiest being subject to the violence of envy, the poorest are subject to it.
This inversion of envy at first seems incredible. How could the poorest be an object of envy? However, anyone with ears to hear in America’s dining and living rooms, or in American work places, will here the tale of the high living poor. The poor don’t work. They luxuriate on welfare payments. The government only works for the poor. The Great slump was caused by the poor cheating the naïve banks who were forced by the government to give them mortgages they couldn’t pay. This story and variations of it are told over and over. We sometimes wonder over some savage custom, thinking, how could it be believed that, say, a woman who has a miscarriage causes drought – one of the thousands of such beliefs recorded in the Golden Bough? But the inversion of envy in success societies, the most pure of which is the US, should teach us that the unlikelihood of a belief, its grossly ridiculous nature when laid out in cold logic, is no bar to its being held true. Although newspaper sociologists like to insist on the hopeful, aspirational beliefs of Americans as the sort of national glue that keeps down radicalism, I would say that, more powerfully, it is the inverted envy, its manipulation and thousand and one uses (inverted envy is deeply associated with racism in America, for instance) that makes it very hard to achieve any kind of lasting social justice in the US

Thursday, August 05, 2021


Life… makes nothing happen.
I, too, heard the cowbells Mom
Crossing the border into Switzerland
And of course I thought of you.
I thought of Heidi, and then of you
And then of you and me
Watching Heidi, was it in color or b&w?
When you had the power to make me watch
Movies. A coercible five.
You “loved this movie” when you were a girl.
Me, Heidi’s hair bun repulsed me
And the uterine pull
Of the cornsilk blond’s family
In a Nazi dream of the Alps
Lent its props
To various of my nightmares.
If I let go
Of my mudwrestler’s grip on you, Mom
Will I plunge in my worst dream
down some Heidi cursed cliff?
- Karen Chamisso

Coincidence and science - when Laplace isn't enough


In Mill’s Logic, that grand old lumber room, in Chapter 18 of Book three, a principle is spelled out that, in our day, has been shorthanded into the sometimes tendentious phrase, correlation does not prove causation:
“Although two or more cases in which the phenomenon a has been met with may have no common antecedent except A, this does not prove that there is any connection between a and A, since a may have many causes, and may have been produced, in these different instances, not by any thing which the instances had in common, but by some of those elements in them which were different.”
Mill, in keeping with his practical bent, distills from this a question: “After how many and what sort of instances may it be concluded that an observed coincidence between two phenomena is not the effect of chance?”
Another way of putting this question is: when is a coincidence really a coincidence?
As Francois Mentre has pointed out, the French mathematician and scientist, Cournot, was also intested in this question, or at least in one of its guises: the reality of probability. Cournot worked in the shadow of Laplace; but where Laplace, finally, came down on the side of a universal determinism, Cournot was sure that this move was not justified by Laplace’s mathematics. “He could not admit that chance was nothing but a “vain sound, flatus vocis, which we use, as Laplace said, to disguise our ignorance of true causes.” For him [Cournot], chance had an objective reality independent of our knowledge.” (144) Cournot spelled out his ontological conviction by way of a critique of Laplace. Laplace wrote that Nature obeys “a small number of immutable laws.” Cournot’s disproof of Laplace’s determinism moves from this idea: “it suffices, said Cournot, that there be only two, perfectly independent one from the other, in order that we must make a place for the fortuitous in the government of the world. Whether or not we do or do not know the literal law for each of the independent two series, as soon as they intersect, there is chance. Chance thus does not derive from our ignorance of the laws of the universe, no more than it diminishes as the measure of our knowledge extends. It subsists in the eyes of the expert as well as those of the ignoramus. It is necessary to accept it as an irreducible, sui generis fact that has a notable part in the government of the world.” (209)
This, though, is hard to accept, either for the expert or the ignoramus or that hybrid of the two, the modern mystic, either in the guise of a policeman, an economist, or a conspiracy theorist
One can see that Cournot’s observation blocks two popular explanations of coincidence (or chance – in fact, I am using coincidence here as a proxy for a semantic family that includes the French hasard and the German Zufall. True coincidence can neither be purely the effect of human ignorance of the causes in place, nor can itself be characteristic of some autonomous law – a law of synchronicity or seriality. For Cournot, coincidence can be described but not understood, in as much as understanding has to do with cause. The same reasoning Cournot applies to other laws would apply in this case, so that any law of synchronicity would inevitably generate coincidences that would fall outside its domain as it intersected with other universal laws, creating, if you will, hypercoincidences.
One way of looking at physics in the 20th century is that the physicists were both moved by the fact that the world given by a structure that was governed by two or more irreducible laws would have to accord a large place to chance – such that probability was no longer a way of mathematically stylizing elements that were, to an all powerful intelligence, always certain – and a movement to unify the laws of physics, to reduce them to some grand single principle, which would drive out coincidence.
The famous paper by Eugene Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences (1963), that questions what can reasonably be called a hypercoincidence: namely, that using mathematics, we can make predictions about nature. By nature, I mean the object of the sciences, be they biology, physics, chemistry, etc. Is there a hyper-law connecting mathematics to these phenomena? And if there is, how would we explore it? With another form of mathematics? Do we need a “higher numerology”?
In the margins, meanwhile, there was also a tradition, a fringe tradition, that rejected the whole idea that coincidence wasn’t subject to its own proper law. Instead, it sought that law. This was an especially popular theme in Germany in the 20s, coexisting with a faddish interest in psychoanalysis, physiognomics, graphology, paranormal psychology, etc. Arthur Koestler, who grew from pup to dog during this era, was infected with this idea. When he abandoned militant anti-communism he plunged into the world of cosmic coincidences, and never came back.
Psychoanalysis had a tentative relationship with these things, which fascinated Freud, but which, finally, he diagnosed as cultural symptoms of a mass psychopathology. However, I find one of the best descriptions of coincidence from the “subjective” side – to use the totally inadequate vocabulary that philosophy seemingly cannot get rid of – is in Freud’s The Uncanny. There is a kind of setting in our consciousness that goes off when it meets an excess of accident. Perhaps this is the origin of the spirit of science – not in rationality, but in superstitious dread.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...