Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No Compassion

The latest TSA regulations seem to have converted large swathes of the normally politically supine into rabid civil libertarians, ready to lay down their life for the principle that their junk should not be touched. Well, great, I sympathize with them, they are right. But where was this outrage when the government was fomenting illegal wars, ordering the assassination of US citizens, putting obviously innocent people to death, torturing teenagers, pouring a trillion dollars a year into the security apparat...well, I could go on. Apparently none of this matters because it didn't happen to normal, white, middle-class people. But mess with air passengers -- people with credit cards and Samsonite bags -- well, that's a different story. Aux barricades!

To me, this indicates that our political culture suffers from a lack of imagination and empathy. The underlying psychology of conservatism involves the deliberate denial of these factors, while liberalism promotes them. That does not mean, of course, that conservatives are sociopaths who lack empathy -- they are for the most part just normal human beings, and perfectly capable of putting themselves into another person's point of view -- and also capable of not doing so. To first approximation, everyone can empathize with their neighbors or co-workers and people who they see every day. It's a bit more of a stretch to take the point of view of people in the next town, or those from a different ethnic group or class, or the gay, or the homeless, or those who dwell in radically different social worlds (Afghan tribesmen, say). The liberal humanist imagination at least strives to see the world through the eyes of others; whereas the conservative mind seems to thrive on shutting out foreignness, or reducing it to something known. Here's an interesting piece which shows several examples of conservative politicians who depart from their usual hard line of no handouts when they actually have personal contact with someone from the needy classes -- ie, Nancy Reagan suddenly is all for Alzheimer's research. So they can have empathy for people like them or people they personally know. That works great for peasants, but doesn't really work in a modern society.

Politics involves the construction of fictional identities that promote collective identities and thus a degree of cross-empathy with ones fellow citizens. I think this is most clearly visible in the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, when the meanings of "Frenchman" and "Italian" were quite deliberately cobbled together, but I think it's a universal principle. The underlying conflict of our resent-day politics is over the American identity -- whether to be an American is to be an urban, cosmopolitan, inclusive, multicultural person, or a member of a white christian tribe. Naturally I favor the former, but I feel like I need to acknowledge that there is at least something vaguely legitimate about the emotions that power the latter group. Being cosmopolitan is hard, it takes work. Empathizing with others is also hard -- and it's not even clear what it should mean. Nobody has the time and resources to empathize with everyone, but the modern world puts us in contact with essentially everyone. The American identity that grew up over the last few centuries (and evolved through many different versions during that history) is being eaten away by globalization and many other factors. What will replace it? Nobody is sure. The elites will do OK, they always do, but those not in the elite don't know what they are going to be in the future, and that produces existential fear, which I think is what is really driving the tea partiers.

On the other side, Obama positioned himself as the One to lead the country into the imagined future of the cosmopolitans -- which was a great marketing campaign, it was what we needed and he had the unique personal story to embody it. But now buyer's remorse has set in, and we realize that the perfectly designed package just had a very normal mainstream centrist politician inside the wrapping.

Sorry, this post was supposed to be about airport screening, wasn't it? Anyway -- I think we have a real failure of social imagination in this country, and in addition to all the factors mentioned above we have a glut of media, and as a result a lack of compelling unifying stories. The national mind pays more attention to balloon boys and Bristol Palin than it does to our foreign wars or departments of torture. And why not? Those are compelling, understandable narratives, as is the overreach of the TSA and the brave citizens resisting it. It doesn't take much work to understand it and take a side. That could be me getting my groin felt up -- but it's hard to see me getting my wedding party hit by predator drones. That only happens to some other sort of person, so it doesn't really happen at all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Transvaluation of Values

[[updated below]]

Remember how around the time of the Sotomayor nomination, "empathy" became a swear-word on the right? Here's Thomas Sowell and Charles Krauthammer:
...if nothing else it [conservatism] stands unequivocally against justice as empathy -- and unequivocally for the principle of blind justice.
Sometime later, Glenn Beck decided that "social justice" also could be turned into an ooga-booga scare term for his idiot minions:
I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words....Now, the idea -- hang on -- ... am I advising people to leave their church? Yes. ...If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, 'Excuse me. Are you down with this whole social justice thing?'
And now apparently the idea of "sustainable development" has turned into something to organize against, presumably because it might lead to more people living in cities which are notorious dens of vice and Democrats.

Here's a Teatard group in Maine that is up in arms because a 4-H Club activity dared to promote ideas of sustainability:
Indoctrination only works if you are not aware its being done. Waste not want not is a good frugal way to live. Respecting G-d's creation is absolutely a right way to live. They have turned these ideals and principles into a way to deliver a godless concept of wordshipping [sic] creation and reducing humans to parasites upon the earth...the programs/policies that are vehicles for the massive reduction of private property ownership. If you do not have the right to property precisely what rights do you have? Without the right to property, you are reduced to slavery. Your life? Your natural right to use your life and your liberty to the result of your property is being taken literally, right out from under your own feet.

Raising the children up to believe that the very air they expel, CO2, is a poison to the planet is raising a generation of slaves, primed for complete control by the state.
I repeat, the apocalyptic rant above was generated by a 4-H Club project. IMO, it would certainly be nice if there were some sort of green youth corps that was being radicalized by cadres from the state Ag schools -- that's the sort of thing that might conceivably save this sinking ship. But I think the teabaggers are a wee bit hysterical in this case.

Anyway, call me old-fashioned but I always thought that empathy, social justice, and sustainability were good things. Nowadays I guess that makes me weird. I bet if Democrats sponsored a bill to give everybody a kitten, somehow purring would be made to seem evil by Fox News and its collaborators. And, given how the rest of the media and culture falls into line, evil would be the denotation of kittens from that point forward.

And speaking of transvaluations, that website is called "paintmainered". When did "red" become the color of the right? (actually I know the answer to that -- it was the TV coverage of the 2000 election which assigned red to the Republicans and blue to the Democrats, and for some inexplicable reason it has stuck that way ever since). Is communism really so dead that one of its main symbols can already be recycled by the other side? But it also serves as another piece of evidence, as if one were needed, that the tea party is simply a wing of the Republican party, despite some protestations to the contrary.

[[update: a further thought -- I realize that the three terms above all partake of the ethos of caring and thus have a slight tinge of the feminine about them. At some level all the political crapola boils down to that -- Republicans are calling the Dems pussies, and more importantly, getting agitated that feminine weakness might undermine their own masculinity.

Taken to its extreme, this style of politcs leads directly to fascism. I've smelled traces of fascism in wingnut language before. It's hard to imagine the roly-poly Glenn Beck as an embodiment of the fascist ideal of masculinity -- OTOH his main advertiser is some gold scam that has G. Gordon Liddy as a spokesman. I don't completely get what's going on there, which I guess is why I am drawn to watching the trainwreck.]]

Friday, November 19, 2010

Parasitic Liberalism

This hot-off-the-press paper by Samuel Bowles investigates the "parasitic liberalism" thesis, which is roughly the idea that liberal societies do not produce enough civic virtue to maintain themselves, and instead are parasitic on the older inherited forms of social organization (clans, eg) that they displace. If the thesis is true, then liberalism is doomed, because it will ultimately cannibalize the source of its own success.
For example, in the absence of a strong work ethic and feelings of reciprocity among employers and employees, an adequately functioning labor market would be impossible. If trust, truth-telling and other ethical behaviors were absent among borrowers and lenders, credit markets, likewise would collapse. The same is true with even greater force of other institutions, so that: "...no social system can work ...in which everyone is ...guided by nothing except his own ...utilitarian ends.." (Schumpeter).
I know academic papers are supposed to speak with an air of timelessness and not riff on current events like blogs, but it must have taken effort to write the highlighted sentence in 2010 without making explicit reference to the actual state of our society.
... the following are commonly held to be among the cultural foundations of a well functioning liberal order: willingness to help others at a cost to oneself (voluntarily paying taxes and contributing to public goods for example) and upholding social norms such as respect for private property, honesty, fair treatment, and political participation even when these do not enhance one's material benefits...

By liberal society I mean one characterized by extensive reliance on markets to allocate economic goods and services, formal equality of political rights, the rule of law, public tolerance, and attenuated ascriptive barriers to mobility... examples of liberal societies are Switzerland, Denmark, Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., while examples of non-liberal societies... are Saudi Arabia, Russia, Ukraine, and Oman as well as the small scale societies of hunter-gatherers, herders and low technology farmers...
So, to restate the idea, traditional human society develops a rich texture of human relationships, based on kinship, professional guilds, personal loyalty, etc. Liberalism (aka modernism, aka the market) comes along and sweeps most of the relational structure away and replaces it with individualised, atomistic economic transactions. But the market depends on a certain level of trust and good faith. All that stuff comes from an earlier time, and the grinding gears of the market will eventually use up the store of it that was generated from earlier times, and we're left with a harsh landscape of pure self-interest and low trust, which just won't work that well.

This is apparently an old idea but it's somewhat new to me, at least crystallized in this form. Bowles cites classic authors like Burke, Tocqueville, Hayek, Polanyi, Habermas, Rawls, Mill, and others who have touched upon it before. And there's a wide range of cited literature from behavioral economics that I'm not going to have time to read, but looks fascinating.

So then the paper presents a mathematical model for thinking about virtue and liberalism. There's a lot about this kind of thing that raises my hackles. For instance, it's not really clear that you can tell much from ultra-simplistic models in which "virtue" is represented by a single numerical variable. But it may that an ultra-simplified model is better than no model at all. Certainly much has been made before of game-theoretic models like the Prisoner's Dilemma, and this is just a slightly more complexified version of that.

This topic is related in various ways to an earlier paper by Bowles and Jayadev on guard labor.
Indirect evidence consistent with the predicted inverse relationship between virtue and the extent of markets is found in the fact that the U.S., perhaps the most market-based of the advanced economies, also excels in the fraction of its labor force devoted to what Jayadev and I call guard labor, namely, that devoted to (or the consequence of) maintaining order.
Bowles' conclusion is that while there is some general truth to the parasitic liberalism thesis, it paints too simplistic a picture:
...the parasitic liberalism thesis fails not because it misunderstands the cultural consequences of markets or the tendency of liberal institutions to erode traditional institutions and cultures, but rather because it overrates the benign contribution of tradition to the moral underpinnings of liberal institutions, and underrates the contribution of the liberal state and other non-market aspects of liberal societies to the flourishing of these values.
My own take: The US certainly seems to have consumed a large stock of its virtue, while cultures with deeper roots in tradition seem to have deeper wells of virtue to draw on (for "virtue", read "willingness to cooperate with others" or simply "fraternitié", the third and often neglected leg of the French version of liberalism). That may be why the US seems to be heading into banana republic territory while European states actually seem to use there powers to take care of their citizens. The people who do really well at small-scale, ground-level capitalism in the US are those with large family/ethnic networks to draw on.

More generally, it's just too soon to tell. Liberalism, modernism and capitalism constitute a major change to human society, and we are only part-way through the transition. Technology continues to evolve and it drives new variants of political structures (ie, print supported the rise of nationalism, radio supported the rise of fascism, and we don't really know what the Internet will do yet). Liberalism is only a few hundred years old and given its self-mutating nature it is impossible to say what its long-term prospects are.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to prevent the apocalypse

A couple of climate change stories floated into view today, both of which indicate that global warming effects are happening faster than anybody thought they would. Glaciers are melting, and the North American forests may change from carbon sink to a carbon source. Oh, and let's check up on my favorite thing to worry about, the possible massive release of sequestered methane in permafrost and ocean hydrates: oh fuck.

It occurs to me (not for the first time) that I am not taking this seriously enough. Climate change is an active threat to my children, but what am I doing? Kvetching on a blog? Changing my lightbulbs? It seems pitifully inadequate. Organizing a mass movement? Not really in my realm of competence, and the people who actually have the temperament for something like that don't seem to be doing very well. Rioting in the streets? Ecotage? Bringing down industrial civilization may stop climate change but it will cause equivalent misery, so not really a solution. There are no good social tools to apply to solving world-scale collective action problems, and my individual actions can't do much.

Well, I am foregoing whatever theoretical riches I could make working in a Facebook gaming startup or whatever, and instead working (however indirectly) to support the kind of science that might actually be able to do something about climate change. That makes me feel a little bit better. At least I'll be able to say I went down fighting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Keeping an eye on the exit

[[update below]]

Glenn Beck's little festival of anti-semitic propaganda last week has got me once again looking at options for living somewhere else. It's not exactly that I expect stormtroopers to be marching down the street anytime soon (on the other hand, my grandparents in Germany and Czechoslovakia didn't think things would get that bad either, and it's only that they had the prudence to send their children out to England early that I am here to write this). But the fact that a major corporation could permit such unadulterated crap to appear under its name is just a further sign of the general disfunctionalization of society. It's one thing for the world to be run by a clique of self-interested elites -- that's the norm of human history. It's quite another for the elites to be nothing but grifters, looters, and sociopaths who can't apparently even take the trouble to try to maintain the society they are sucking dry.

It's sort of the difference between a more-or-less benign parasite and virulent pathogens. Normal capitalists are tapeworms, Fox News is Ebola.

Anyway, smart rootless cosmopolitans keep a bag packed and their options open. Ironically, it looks like I may qualify for German citizenship so perhaps I can make the opposite journey that my parents did. Don't think I could really take living in Germany (although this recent book makes it sound pretty attractive) but the EU's a big place, and perhaps better equipped to go into the future with a modicum of sanity.



[[update: Here's Digby making essentially the same point at greater length. Key quote: "What's broken down is down is the institutional system that forced elites to work at least somewhat on behalf of the people. Government, clergy, journalism, high finance, the legal system, the military, all of it, has stopped functioning properly." Beck is both a symptom of this breakdown and a contributer to it. ]]

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Republic of Heaven


This year they moved my polling place to City Hall, right on the ocean. This is one of the most beautiful times of year here in Pacifica; it was a cool clear day with a high surf, breaking over the sea wall, and producing a fine mist instead of the more usual fog, so everything was suffused in a blinding white light. Since I already have a model in my head of voting as participating in a civic ritual, it felt like entering Democratic heaven.

I enjoy election time, it's a chance to come across whole classes of people I never see in ordinary life, and enter different spaces. Everyone's spirits seem a little bit freer than usual, with this temporary escape from the usual structures of power into the sphere of democracy. Even if the candidates are bought and sold, and cynicism is off the charts, the feeling persists, because ritual is powerful that way.

I approach voting the way I do actual religious services -- with mixed feelings, genuine enthusiasm combating a more informed and powerful skepticism. With something of a sense of duty -- it's not like this is what I really want to be doing, but it's what humans do, and since I haven't invented anything better for myself yet I must participate along with the community if I don't want to be a complete outsider to life.


Of course around here people are also high on the other civic religion of the US, baseball. I have to admit that I have an active disinterest in professional sports and although almost everyone in the Bay Area has Giants fever, from intellectuals to manual laborers to punk anarchists, it leaves me cold. This makes me feel like an awful snob. From my outside perspective, pro sports seems like an even purer version of The People's Romance -- a sort of Schelling point for communal enthusiasm, a way to unleash the spirit in a controlled and harmless way (not always harmless, actually the US is pretty tame in this respect compared to European soccer hooligans and the Blues and Greens of Rome). I can see the functional role. But why can't this be something that's at least interesting? Why can't every city fund a big band, for instance, and have them engage in a series of cutting contests until they reach the World Series of Jazz? That would at least be worth watching.

[[note: the post title is a reference to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Even though the novels kind of fell apart once he started getting too metaphysical, "The Republic of Heaven" is a damn fine concept.]]