Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Doom Candidate

I'm developing a small-scale Newt obsession. He seems to encapsulate so perfectly a certain chunk of the American subconscious, the part that's full of half-smart autodidacts, swollen with self-satisfaction, that generates vast volumes of crank literature and end-times cults. Newt's obsession with apocalyptic scenarios is well known (he was a climate change believer until that got politically inconvenient). I've been known to trend that way myself on occasion, but I never imagined that the world could be saved by stockpiling ammo or electing myself to high office.

Of course, Gingrich, while not the civilization-saving intellect he likes to pretend to be, is no basement-dwelling crank either. He's was an actual college professor, and while it is pretty impossible to know how much of his bullshit he actually believes, the other element of his character is that other great American archive, the medicine show grifter:

Medicine shows were a form of entertainment -- I imagine people went to them not so much to look for a cure for their rheumatism as to experience the thrill of a smooth talker and to be part of a collective experience, sort of a degraded form of religious service. And I think that's pretty much what politics has come to -- nobody can take these people very seriously as remedies for what ails the country, but the spectacle they put on is pretty fun, and Gingrich through his skillfully deployed outrageousness may be the most fun of all, as long as you can suppress the thought of him actually gaining power.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Review of Graeber's Debt

David Graeber has emerged as one the of the founding intellectuals of the Occupy movement, and his book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years has received a good bit of attention as a result. It promises to reveal a new and powerful way to look at the world, reconfiguring our notions of money, credit, and basic human relations. Even better, from my perspective, it has a worked-out theory in opposition to the libertarianoid, market-based view of humanity, and an explanation of how that displaced the truth. Sounds perfect for me! But I wanted to like this book more than I actually did.

The traditional economic story is that we started with barter, and when that proved inconvenient, invented money and markets. Graeber will have none of that. According to him, no real society ever operated on barter in the usual sense. The real start of economics is loose systems of personal obligation and credit. In tribal or village societies where everyone knows everyone else, it is not hard to keep track of what favors are owed to who. Enumerated exchanges, whether by barter or by money, are reserved for strangers with whom one can expect to not interact with much in the future. Society is more like a potluck party than a market -- everyone is expected to bring something to the table, but it would be very rude to make explicit demands, or try to bargain prices.

Graeber calls this "baseline communism" and it is the economics of ordinary human relations, dinner parties, and exchange within a community, firm, or workgroup (he doesn't mention Coase, oddly). This vision runs completely counter to the usual economists's ways of thinking, where self-interest is paramount and nothing that is not priced and convertible to utility units can exist. Graeber's agenda seems to be in part to assert a new common sense, one based on normal human relations rather than calculation. As a mathematical type myself, I am only partly buying this -- or, as a rationalist, I have to believe that self-interested motives underlie human behavior at some level -- which doesn't mean that Graeber is wrong that naked, explicit calculation is something more recent, new, and anti-human.
The way violence, or the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics will crop up again and is the ultimate source of the moral confusion that seems to float around everything surrounding the topic of debt (p14)
This introduces another theme of his, which is that the concept of debt confuses the moral and the mathematical, it turns the normal idea of obligatory behavior into something quantifiable, fungible, and as a result more sinister and onerous. I confess to not quite getting this idea enough to describe it very sensibly. But I think his agenda is clear enough -- in his view, monetary debts have become tools of oppression, sometimes obviously such as in the cases of debt-peonage, but more subtly as a tool of social control. That this has been allowed to happen is because of the confusion of such debts with moral obligations, and breaking that link is what he is about. the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: "Cancel the debts and redistribute the land"
As hinted above, it is war and violence that, as a side-effect of destroying traditional society, replaces it with the cash nexus:
Cash transactions between strangers were different, and all the more so when trading is set against a background of war and emerges from disposing of loot and provisioning soldiers; when one often had best not ask where the objects traded came from, and where no one is much interested in forming ongoing personal relationships anyway. Here, transactions really do become simply a figuring-out of how many of X will go for how many of Y...and trying to get the best deal for oneself. The result...was a new way of thinking about human motivation, a radical simplification of motives that made it possible to begin speaking of concepts like "profit" and "advantage" -- and imagining that this is what people are really pursuing, in every aspect of existence....(p238-9)
So, Greaber is telling a story that has been told many times before -- the fall of traditional societies to centralization, bureaucratization, war, the state, rationalization -- but he's doing it through a lens that is new (at least to me), that of debt and differing conceptions of money and trade.

He ends with a concrete proposal:
It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one's debts is not the essence of morality,, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way. (p 390)

So, what didn't I like? Something in the tone of the book seemed off to me. It's an odd mix of academic anthropology and political special pleading. This makes it difficult for me to read, because one never knows how much to trust the authors' objectivity. A more self-critical spirit would be welcome.

Graeber is constantly speculating on the thinking and motivations of people who lived thousands of years ago and/or half a world away, in a breezy and offhand manner, as if they are going to be applying his version of common sense in what is merely a different context. This runs counter to what I normally think of as the anthropological style, which heightens the strangeness, difference, and ultimate unknowability of different cultures. At one point in my life I ate that kind of stuff (eg, Cliffeord Geertz and Michael Taussig) right up. Graeber's more down-to-earth approach is quite different, and perhaps refreshing in a certain way, but I don't trust it.

My mistrust is heightened by one rather glaring example where he refers to a world that I do know well, and gets quite a large number of things wrong:
Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other's garages. (p96)
I can count at least six errors in that one sentence. Which may not be important, but doesn't lead me to trust Graeber on the areas where I am less expert. Also, I went into this book hoping to learn more about the tradition of Jubilee and debt-forgiveness, but he didn't get into that very much.

One more quote:
We have already seen how both Vedic and Christian teachings thus end up making the same curios move: first describing all morality as debt, but then, in their very manner of doing so, demonstrating that morality cannot really be reduced to debt, that it must be grounded in something else.

and a special note for MLK day: it occurred to me that in his I Have a Dream Speech he inverts the metaphoric use of debt that is Graeber's subject:
In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

Monday, January 09, 2012

The past is another country

I had no idea this was ever a thing: apparently the question of whether a man could marry his deceased wife's sister had the political moralists of Britain in knots for centuries -- including recent ones. Kind of puts the gay marriage debate into some perspective:
The drama begins in 1835 – before which year marriages with deceased wive’s sisters were not void, but voidable by legal action. Henceforth they were illegal in Great Britain. From 1841 to 1909 there were 35 failed attempts to fire through Parliament successive shafts from a whole quiver of deceased wife’s sister marriage bills. ... 
From the Saturday Review, in 1876: "an example of the diseased craving for abnormal enlargements of personal liberty which is the seamy side of Liberalism." 
It would take a man more than a year, reading the equivalent of a book a day, to toil through the vast morass of literature inspired by the theme of marrying a deceased wife’s sister. Among the more engaging titles are those of the earlier treatises; for instance, Charles Blount’s To HisFriend Torismond, to Justifie the Marrying of Two Sisters the One After the Other (1695), or John Quick’s A Serious Inquiry into the Weighty Case of Conscience Whether a Man May Lawfully Marry His Deceased Wife’s Sister (1703) …
It was not until 1907 that this remnant of Leviticus (actually a misinterpretation of Leviticus, I think) was removed from British law.

Saturday, January 07, 2012


[[I'm doing some housecleaning on the blog; this is a draft from over a year ago that I never got around to releasing]]

Here's a chunk I edited out of the Personae post, because it seemed a wee bit self-pitying:
The people who seem to thrive in this culture are those who are full-time extroverts, the kind of people who have constructed a persona for a particular purpose and/or audience and live it out 24/7. San Francisco is full of people like that, but I'm not one of them.
But danah boyd has a good rant on Facebook, in which she made essentially the same point and introduced a good term of art:
With this backdrop in mind, I want to talk about a concept that Kirkpatrick suggests is core to Facebook: radical transparency. In short, Kirkpatrick argues that Zuckerberg believes that people will be better off if they make themselves transparent. Not only that, society will be better off... if people make themselves transparent. And given his trajectory, he probably believes that more and more people want to expose themselves. Silicon Valley is filled with people engaged in self-branding, making a name for themselves by being exhibitionists. It doesn'™t surprise me that Scoble wants to expose himself; he is always the first to engage in a mass collection on social network sites, happy to be more-public-than-thou. Sometimes, too public. But that i™s his choice. The problem is that not everyone wants to be along for the ride.
Of course, she is a consummate self-brander and I am not, so even if we are saying the same thing, it ends up in quite different speech acts.

Personally, I hate being labeled and classified, it always seems limiting. This is a constant irritation, for example when recruiters ask me if I'm a front-end or back-end engineer (or even worse, a "Javascript engineer"). Fuck that, I'm an across-the-board engineer (or better, a software designer, at least that's what I aspire to), and just about everything I've built involves jointly created front- and back-end work. But that doesn't help them slot me into the slots they are trying to fill.

This shouldn't get my hackles up. People need to know what role you are playing if they are to interact with you. I often feel my attitude is some kind of leftover sixties romanticism, a belief that everyone drop their masks and interact authentically...which is a rather childish belief, but persists somewhere down in my subconscious.

For similar reasons I've never been able to fully adopt a political, philosophical, or religious belief system either. All my lame efforts at spiritual writing, for instance, comes from being unable to identify with any religion, but being almost equally repulsed by the smug scientific atheists. I am trying to find a truth that is not this, not that, because all the interesting things seems to lie in the lightly-settled borderlands between existing fields and existing systems.

During my time in academia, I was in a lab at MIT that was founded to be more interdisciplinary than the old AI lab (which was originally an interdisciplinary place, but was in the process of congealing into a settled discipline of its own around my time), and while there I managed to help invent a new subfield that was even more interdisciplinary than that. But I didn't manage to turn that into an intellectual home, so went on to other things. At some point the urge to be interdisciplinary starts to look like active resistance to discipline.

Or maybe it's just GrouchoMarxism: I don't care to belong to any club that will accept people like me as members. Anyway, for whatever reason, my thoughts and interests seem to actively resist categorization. Which I like to believe helps keeps them honest, fresh, original, and alive, but also makes them damn hard to describe to anyone else, let alone be stamped with a brand and put out into the marketplace.

[[Realized after posting that self-branding literally means "searing a symbol into your own flesh".]]

Monday, January 02, 2012

Half a cheer for libertarianism

Ron Paul is having his moment and as a result everyone is examining his particular brand of libertarianism, in general finding it pretty odious what with its fairly strong connections to neocofederate racists and whatnot. All these libertarian-haters-come-lately annoy me, since I've been doing this for decades! So in order to go against the current, I thought I'd say a few words about what I like about libertarianism.

If there wasn't anything there that I found attractive, I would not bother with attacking it so much. Or in other words, my attacks on libertarianism are a reflection of an internal argument between different aspects of myself.

Up until a few years ago, I thought libertarians were basically just misguided nerds, who had fallen in love with the formal elegance of free-market theories and mistaken this abstraction for a viable system of government. This elegance may be hard to understand by those who are neither geeks nor libertarians, but for those who are one or the other, it exerts an almost metaphysical appeal. Markets are wonderful because nobody is in charge. Prices represent condensed chunks of information about supply and demand, and adjust themselves automatically, with no Central Bureau of Price Control. Money does in fact encode human needs and abilities into a readily exchangeable form, and that's a good thing.

That's the positive vision of libertarianism, and it's something that I can appreciate a bit, despite being aware of its limitations. The negative aspect of libertarianism, something I can also get behind, is their healthy distrust of government, authority, and centralization. Such tendencies are found on the moderate left too, but generally run into the problem that the moderate left wants to do things for society, and you can't do things without an institutional structure, and that generally means a government.

So the libertarian starts out with a couple of appealing ideas. The problem (or so I thought until recently) is that they just don't think them through enough, they don't understand that corporate power can be as damaging to freedom as government power, they don't understand that some centralization can be a good and necessary thing, they don't understand that society will be ordered one way or the other and refusing to acknowledge the machinery of society just lets others run away with it. But despite the manifest flaws, at least there is some underlying idealism.

But my picture of the libertarian movement turned out to be incomplete. Present-day libertarianism seems to involve at least four major threads:

  1. idealists motivated by the above vision, generally infused with some fictional support from Robert Heinlein or Ayn Rand;
  2. big-money corporate interests fighting regulation (see Kochtopus); 
  3. neoconfederates, racists, and the usual extreme-right whackjobs;
  4. leftover anti-communists from the cold war era.

The relative role of each of these is an interesting question that I don't know enough of the history to answer. My personal encounter with libertarianism happened through MIT and the early Internet, which has heavily biased towards (1). Recently I've become more aware of the other two motivating forces, which are probably more important politically since the appeal of (1) is limited mostly to nerds.

Ron Paul, on the other hand, is fatally compromised by his roots in (3). This manifests very noticably in his policy proposals. For instance, rather than opposing all drug laws as s strict libertarian would, he wants to devolve the issue back to the states, as if only the Federal government is capable of infringing on liberty. That particular view are easy to trace back to the so-called "state's rights" movement and general racial backlash.

It's a pity that the only candidate who opposes the American imperium is fatally contaminated by this kind of stench.