I’ve Got Plenty To Be Thankful For

Despite a lifetime of being inculcated with cynicism toward national holidays, it still behooves me to pause this Thanksgiving to give thanks for the good things around me, especially the people.

At the risk of sounding sarcastic, and, in truth, despite actually intending to be a tiny bit sarcastic for rhetorical effect, I must offer a deep and heartfelt thanksgiving to the young adults of the state of New York who have managed to stay healthy.

Why? Well, you may have heard that many sole proprietors were forced by Obamacare from their carefully crafted group health care plans, mostly through local chambers of commerce, onto the individual market, i.e., the New York Health Exchange, where socialized medicine lives in its dark recesses, like the angler fish.

With fear and trepidation I submitted myself to a broker who explained to me with deep and understanding eyes the nature of this state-controlled marketplace (which nomenclature seems a perversion on the level of the Abomination of Desolation), where I was initially mortified to find premiums for lesser products much higher than what I was accustomed to. Alas!

An artist's rendition of the New York State Health Exchange
An artist’s rendition of the New York State Health Exchange

Nevertheless, we did some poking around, played with some levers and dials, and –oila!– my premiums have gone down dramatically. Decorum prevents me from stating dollar figures and percentages (let the white papers do that in the detail you need), but it gave me, as I stated above, pause to thank young healthy people.

You see, I never actually minded paying full retail for health care as a sole proprietor. I enjoyed strolling into the environs of a health care provider armed with a high-deductible health savings plan, which meant that I walked with the snap and panache of a man dressed to the nines carrying a blue pearl eight-ball knob walking stick in one hand, and a roll of legal tender for all debts public and private in the other. I got what I was paying for.

Now I have exchanged that comfort for a hat in hand, glancing over to Mr. and Mrs. Adam Gurri, asking them for permission to garner attention and medicine, who, along with many young and healthy New Yorkers, are contributing out of their pocket for my family’s health care.

However, because of this redistribution (which, for the record, I did not ask for), my pockets are much heavier so that I might walk into a Rolls Royce dealership with the same snap and panache as I used to approach my doctor.

Indeed, with all due decorum and gratitude: to the young, healthy working people of New York State, thank you. I don’t know how long this arrangement will work, but, for the moment, it is working, and I’m grateful today.

The Englishness of Ice Hockey

An Enquiry

Everyone knows that hockey is Canada’s sport. Not everyone knows that hockey was invented by the English. There are some peculiarities to the play of the game that seem quaintly English, but I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it. Particularly in the penalty phases of the game there are Englishnesses, but from what philosophical tradition do they come? To wit:

  • Penalties in general: result in the offending player being sent off the ice for a designated period of time, during which his team must play with fewer players than their opponents.
  • Minor penalties: for minor infractions of game play, mostly involving “bad form,” as it were, putting the stick in the wrong place, clutching with the hands, crashing into an opposing player while he is in a vulnerable position, and the like, there is a two-minute penalty.
  • Double Minor penalties: for the same infractions as “bad form”, except involving an added carelessness, there is a four-minute penalty.

Okay, one can perceive some sort of sensibility at work here. However, another class of penalties highlights the peculiarities of the culture of ice hockey. I’m curious: do they illustrate a relationship to the culture which flourished on Great Britain until the middle of the Victorian Era? As follows:

  • Major penalties: for crimes of passion and premeditation, such as outright fighting with the fists, the offending players are sent off the ice for five minutes, but the offending players’ teams are not further penalized by having to play with fewer players; instead, play continues normally.
  • Misconduct penalties: for particularly egregious crimes of passion and premeditation, where, in the judgment of the game officials the player is out-of-control, there is a ten minute penalty. But, again, the offending player’s team continues to play normally.
  • Game Misconduct penalties: most oddly, for completely uncivilized game play, such as using the hockey stick as a weapon, a player will not only be sent off the ice, but out of the immediate playing area, being exiled, as it were, from the environs of hockey. What’s particularly odd about this penalty is that, like exile, the player may return to the ice after an extended period of time!
  • Match penalties: the player is deemed unfit for civil society and is ejected, never to return, also without further penalty to his team. What provokes such a penalty? Premeditated intent to injure or harm his opponent.

So (the layperson may reason) why is fighting not considered a premeditated intent to injure or harm? Well, I don’t rightly know, but I understand. If you will: a hockey fight is, in general, a gentleman’s agreement that the parties involved have some bad blood between them, stemming from some ancestry or another, perhaps not even of immediate provenance, but of ancient yore (e.g., an incident by completely different players from several games ago), and a fist fight will leech some of that bad blood. A match penalty, on the other hand, is a judgment made by the game officials that there is no gentleman’s agreement, that the barbarian has been unleashed. And that, my friends, will never do.

Mark Fraser, Cody McCormick

Aside from boxing, no other sport even tolerates fighting, much less develops a complex arrangement of unspoken agreements and concomitant delineated penalties.

Where does this come from?

The Stories We Tell

Welcome to Sweet Talk, Will. Willcome if you will. In your excellent inaugural post, you channel Shelley adroitly.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Shangri-la, El Dorado (not to be confused with my good pal Eli Dourado or his twitterbot), Atlantis… there’s no shortage of myths surrounding lost cities, lost civilizations. Imagine trotting your goats around the plains of Tell el-Muqayyar and stumbling over the lost ruin of the great city-state of Ur for the first time. The past is an alien land, readily populated by the monsters of our imaginations. Even the canniest hypotheses of why this or that human settlement flourished or failed are difficult to defend against alternative stories, even with abundant archaeological evidence.

Swan’s classic account (1956, sorry, can’t find a non-gated copy) of capital accumulation is the standard economic story of boy-accumulates-capital-stock, boy-uses-capital-to-build-more-capital, boy-creates-economic-growth that fits very nicely with neoclassical econ, the Austrian business cycle story, even New Keynesian models. Heck, even Marx-flavored theories of economic development acknowledge that for groups of humans larger than a clan to thrive, you need the implements of capital. You need specialized buildings, specialized tools, and of course, specialized skills to work these tools, to fill these buildings with the glad hum of industry.

But for the neolithic mega-village, this capital accumulation was stunted. Will suggests that the failure can be traced to the rhetoric carried forth from folks’ forager heritage. The bookbound economist would pin the failure on a lack capital accumulation and specialization. The linguist would probably say that it was the development of writing ~6kya in Sumer that clinched it.

Of course, these three stories are not at all mutually exclusive. It seems eminently reasonable that capital accumulation cannot reliably emerge without a system of accounts supported by writing. Recall that the large bulk of cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and other early writing is the equivalent of the modern spreadsheet: accounts receivable, loans due, that sort of thing. Without a written record of trade, collecting on the seed corn forwarded for a capital expansion project is, in Coasean terms, prohibitively expensive. No capital accumulation, no specialization, no trade, no economies of scale, no proper cities, no gradual shift in the rhetoric of citizens to dignify the merchant, the weaver, or the bricklayer.

Of course, the past is a foreign land, so my suggestion that proper cities are coeval with that single defining characteristic of civilization, writing, is just another difficult-to-reject hypothesis. Even if archaeologists found evidence of accounting practices in a failed mega-village, I’m sure I could hem and haw my way through a shabby defense of my proposition, but the point isn’t necessarily to say that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. My point is that it’s important to give proper shrift to the keepers of the written word, that they execute their duties faithfully and with honor. To respect the long legacy of those that came before them, the unsung men and women who painstakingly transcribed grain warehouse figures onto clay tablets. To continue, unbroken, the heritage of scribes, scriveners, scholars, and typesetters that came before them. To preserve our frail civilization against the wolves that lurk in the outer darkness. It’s about honor. It’s about duty.

And above all, it’s about ethics. It’s about ethics in journalism.

The Ravings of Pareto’s Mad Prophet

One day not long ago, I took my canoe and entered The Stream to be with my fellow travelers. I had a number of conversations that day, many fruitful, others less so. But what stands out in my mind is one specific encounter.

I was in the middle of a discussion when I saw someone pull up within shouting distance of us. I have encountered this individual a number of times on my journeys, and knew well that shouting distance would be more than close enough for his purposes.

“Your infernal claptrap about virtue and moral foundations is an intellectual cancer which makes us all look soft to our enemies,” he snarled, “Pareto is life. Humans are but preferences, and we the technologists make our preferences manifest through our creations. Pareto is the eye of god. Pareto is gravity. Pareto precludes your morality, for morality is merely poetry optimized to the demands of situational efficiency. If the poetry of gay marriage and drug legalization please you, thank the grand network of networks for seeing fit to confer it upon you. Those of us who understand Pareto’s divine will, who see that morality is merely a veil for efficiency, have been given the tools of the god-eye Himself with which we are made able to bend morality itself to our desires.”

He paused for an intake of breath, which was a rare occurrence in our encounters. It seemed he had trained for the life of the prophet by learning to go without air for astonishingly long periods. For my part, I could never quite tell if these verbal ejaculations came from a place of genuine madness or simple drunkenness. As he launched into the next part of his rant, accusing me of believing that power law distributions could be done away with, I began to lean towards drunkenness—for I have regularly argued that power law distributions are pervasive and ineradicable facts of social organization, for many years. They are central to my understanding of how human social systems operate.

I turned to my fellow travelers and said, “I think this fellow must be off his gourd.”

To which the wise Sam Hammond reply, “On the contrary, his only problem is a physical inability to reduce the volume of his voice when he speaks. He’s spot on that efficiency and the logic of Pareto are necessarily prior to any morality on the ground. The forces shaping emergent practices, norms, and institutions follow this logic very clearly.”

“It seems to me that you have that rather backwards,” was my response, “we must have the ethic on the ground first, we must become reliable and trusthworthy before we can have something like efficiency. Moreover, we must have a striving desire—we must have bourgeois hope, courage, discipline, prudence, and faith—to pursue the sorts of gains-through-tinkering that the mad prophet has elevated to the level of the transcendental.”

I knew it wasn’t going to be that easy, however. Unlike the drunken ranter who we had toned out by this point, I admit I am always a little nervous to engage in dialectic with Sam. He has imbibed much more deeply from the well of knowledge than I have, and he is not hesitant to deploy this in a precise and bruising manner.

Sure enough, he had a ready response. “But where do our notions of reliability and trustworthiness, as well as all of the virtues, come from? Why do the judgments of the man of practical wisdom shift so much and so visibly across history? The answer is that they are part of an ongoing process, which hones our ethical notions here, sloughs off some parts of them there, and the current result is bourgeois virtue. Robert Wright has shown that this process follows a Paretean logic, and indeed went so far as to say that the Pareto framework provides us with the closest possible approximation of the mind of God.”

This gave me pause, for the idea that our institutions, norms, beliefs, practices, and physical existence itself are all generated by processes is quite central to my way of thinking. But it seemed to me that Pareto’s model is far too pristine and elegant to properly describe the chaotic, messy processes that we are all in the midst of.

“Pareto can give us a flavor of such processes, a glimpse; it is one perspective and a legitimate one,” I granted, “but on its own it is quite impoverished. For instance, this insistence on a taxonomy of human motivation which includes only ranked preferences. You and I both know that the only reason for this is to make the math easier. If certain motivating desires call for specific sorts of responses; if there is a high degree of variability and incommensurability between both types of motivating desires and the sorts of responses that will spring from them, then a more complex taxonomy may prove more appropriate.”

I gestured to David Duke, who was watching the exchange with interest, “Take David’s notion that rituals reduce the boundary between individual and community. This alone adds a number of complexities to our understanding of the shape of human action and human relations. One way of addressing it is to speak of outgroups and ingroups, and that fact that an individual will behave very differently towards someone depending on which of these he perceives you to be in. This dynamic plays an enormous part in commerce as it produces networks of trust which merchants and producers may rely upon. But to describe this in pure preference terms—‘outgroup’ simply being someone that an individual has a lower preference for dealing with in certain capacities—is not untenable, but not very useful, it seems to me.”

“As I said in my contribution to Sam Wilson’s discussion of the economics of the sacred, I think that notions such as identity, embodied relationships, and networks of uncalculated giving are quite useful in expanding our understanding of the human enterprise. To say that Pareto’s perspective is all-seeing eye of God is to say that there is a great deal less for such a being to see that it appears to me, from my limited, mortal point of view.”

“Nevertheless,” Sam Hammond says after listening politely to my ramblings, “it seems clear that there is a logic underlying the specific orders that emerge which Pareto logic describes quite well, in a manner that is weakly transcendental. I’m not arguing for some crude maximizer  model of the human being, but drawing on the logic of Habermas’ communicative action to show the implicit role that Paretean logic plays across human institutions and history. The American frontier, for example, flourished only when people were able to come to a set of norms by which win-win options were pursued to the exclusion of win-lose ones.”

“I see this story and think it is valid, yet at the same time I also feel it misses something. What David calls capital-W Wisdom; the view of the vast forces of destruction and renewal, of formation and recombination, which does not fit neatly into ‘win-win options’ and commensurable preferences. But I’m afraid I see a waterfall approaching, and I must make my way back towards land before we tip over it.”

We parted amiably, as always, but as I turned I saw that the mad prophet had crossed the distance between us. He had spoken continuously throughout our discussion, but now seemed to be saying nothing but “GICYB” repeatedly. I slowly navigated away from him, knowing that it would not be long before I encountered him again.

The Problem With Parables

“How many people of this senior living facility would you say are visited less than once a year by a close relative?”

The problem with parables is that crafting one requires a kind of condescension, which, in turn, requires arrogance, i.e., I will deign to be teacher to coevals and equals, nay, even intellectual superiors. One must train the reader to interpret the parable, that is to say, you have to reveal a key for interpretation that is accessible to the reader so that interpretation runs along certain lines. Thus, one must write obliquely enough to be engaging at a parabolic level, but also straightforward enough that the parable functions. If one tips the hand too quickly, e.g., “once upon a time,” or “there once was a boy from Nantucket,” the parable fails because the reader will inevitably throw up a wall, objectifying the parable rather than participating in it. Too obliquely, and the parable fails because there’s no way to unlock the thing, and it becomes a difficult and obscure tale with no meaningfulness, even if the reader participates. There I failed.

My second mistake was egregious: do not obfuscate the point with a contentious tangential point. I should have known better than, in a blog that is read by many who are well-versed in econometrics, to make an empirical claim that government policy of the Depression Era affected the behavior and work ethic of an entire generation. First of all, I didn’t actually make that claim, but the way I wrote it implied as much. Second of all, I was repeating what I hear over and over again, from their lips. Third of all, that’s not the point. This was such an egregious error of writing on my part that, when I realized I had grievously committed it, I found a quiet place and flagellated myself without mercy for several minutes.

The point is that you can fill in the blank with any larger-than-life institution which collects for itself and can make promises about the future: the government, the church, the union, the manufacturing plant, the lodge, alcohol, savings, and even family, if you understand family as a similar construct, not as flesh-and-bone. As loath as I am to tip my hand and actually explain the parable, which is like Da Vinci explaining the Mona Lisa (cf. arrogance, above), the parable is about achieving self-actualization, or the lack thereof. Many people live a life of accumulation, thinking they can annuitize in relative ease and comfort. The problems of annuitization, unfortunately, are created in the accumulation phase, namely that they give themselves over to a construct, that the government will love, that the church will love, that the lodge, and so forth, will love and care for them, so that flesh-and-bone family and friends become tools whereby to accumulate. In so doing, they–no, wait–I do believe here I will leave space so that I might stretch a yarn or two at some date in the future to illustrate what I mean.


However, when I say I hear it from “their” lips, much consternation arises concerning the referent. Surely not representative!

Senior living centers are those places where people transition from being retirement age to elderly, still able to care for themselves, but not in the environment of a home with, say, maintenance needs or many stairs.  I had twelve residents in a group, chatting it up as we usually do, and I asked them point-blank, as bluntly as I could muster courage to do (these are my friends): “How many people of this senior living facility would you say are visited less than once a year by a close relative?”

Without hesitation, I heard a voice say, “Oh, lots.” It was a woman’s voice. I do not know if that’s significant. There are 48 residents in this particular apartment complex, so I had one quarter of them before me. I looked: one never married, no family nearby; a second married, divorced young, never remarried, no children, sister is too elderly to visit; two live across the continent from their children; two alienated their family with personality disorders; one has outlived anyone near her. What is that? Seven of twelve? But we were talking about the people who had not joined us, of course. “Oh, lots.” What’s the number?

“Well, you have to understand that kids these days are so busy.” We’re talking about grown people who are in their 50s and 60s. We’re calling them kids; that may be significant, but who knows? That’s why we put it in parables: what do you think? Is this representative? As if on cue, while I was thinking this very thought, another lady began to speak:

“We never thought we would have to move here. We worked our whole lives so that we could live in a comfortable house and not move here, but one thing led to another, and here we are. We had no choice. And, as for us, we’re lucky–” That’s right: she invoked Luck, “–we’re lucky that our children live nearby and visit us.”

See, a parable is, at the very least, about the teller: this parable is about me. Not them: me. The parable craftsman tries to envelop you with his own existential question: is it not also about you? Are you not a coeval? What, exactly, did they do to alienate themselves from their families? Did they actually do anything wrong or un-virtuous? Am I living in the same un-virtue as they are? I may die alone, as I think all are destined to do, but I do not want to live alone, live lonely, live loneliness. Is loneliness in the winter of life avoidable only by luck?

Once upon a time, luck sent an old man/lady to a nursing home, bound to a wheelchair with a belt, suffering from mild dementia, in Nantucket…

Did a Change in Rhetoric Give Rise to Cities?

A peculiar phenomenon in early human history has stumped scientists. After learning to farm and establishing a more plentiful food supply about 10,000 years ago, humans began to congregate in larger groupings. Villages grew from 200 people to a few thousand inhabitants. These mega-villages were significantly larger than anything that came before but they clearly were not as large as the cities that would come later. Then, just a thousand years after they first sprung up, many mega-villages vanished and were abandoned.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the sudden change. An early frontrunner was climate change, as one of the most excavated sites in Çatalhöyük Turkey underwent local environmental changes. But in English mega-villages experienced a similar dip in population without these exogenous changes, so climate has been ruled out. Another theory was that pestilence depopulated mega-villages. But upon closer inspection, this too seems not to hold weight, especially since villages suffer outbreaks of disease and survive.

The culprit for this drop may in fact be the rigid beliefs systems as this recent article at i09 explains:

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

You can see this set of beliefs reflected in the built environment of Çatalhöyük, where everyone’s house is roughly the same size. Some houses have a lot more stuff in them — more pieces of art, or more ritual objects — but as I said earlier, nobody is living in the Neolithic equivalent of a mansion.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don’t like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it’s harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

Immediately, Deirdre McCloskey’s theory of industrial change comes to mind. As she argues, it isn’t society’s technical abilities as Joel Mokyr would suggest, the Protestant ethic of Weber or the property rights of Douglass North that explains the Industrial revolution. No, a change in our rhetoric, our ideology of business, is what made the difference.

She writes,

What changed in Europe, and then the world, was the rhetoric of trade and production and innovation… The bourgeois talk was challenged mainly by appeal to traditional values, aristocratic or religious, developing into nationalism, socialism, and environmentalism. But increasingly, as in Jane Austen, a rhetoric by no means enthusiastic for trade did accept — or at any rate acknowledged with genial amusement — the values of the polite and commercial people. The talk mattered because it affected how economic activity was valued and how governments behaved towards it.

Ideas matter. And in Auntie D’s writings, there is a parallel to the changes in beliefs that likely occurred between mega-villages and cities. Just as a change in rhetoric signaled the break from agrarian society to industrial society, the break from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian society required a similar change. The rhetoric that supported the aristocratic, religious world had to be created, which likely developed during this downward lull.

Between the mega-village and the cities that came later lies the formation of the state. Ultimately, this is the world of stratification buttressed through religion. With it came the creation of differing social groups and distinctions based upon rank or property. Yet, the acceptance of social specialization required a new view of the world, a new rhetoric in the McCloskeyian sense. And once that jump was made, benefits followed. Clustered people allowed for more trade and specialization of work, leading to more wealth, prestige and better equipped armies. While still a brutal world, cities had the potential for stability, but it came at the expense of radical equality.

The Skeptic’s Therapy and Progress in Enquiry

I’m currently in the middle of Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire, and there’s really something to it. Even those of us who are well aware of cognitive biases and their power act, in our day to day lives, as though arguments can have an effect on others. Among our most intimate friends and family, we offer what we hope are words of wisdom that will help them on their way. It is quite possible to call forth a cynical explanation for this behavior, but surely we can think of some times when advice has been of genuine value—when we received the right argument, at the right time, in the right way, from the right person.

Modern movies and TV are full of the skillful therapist who, rather than prescribing medicine (for these tropes are artifacts of a Freudian era) uses arguments and explanation. Before the messianic shrink, the preacher held this cultural spot for a very long run. Of course, the preacher did not use something as profane as arguments—he reached into the heart of a suffering and lost soul and brought them to God. He acted as shepherd and led his flock to salvation. But in practice, as William James documented as a sympathetic witness,  the technique looks a lot like an argument—an argument about the story of the world and the cosmos, and your place in it.

Before the Christian preacher, there was eudaimonia, and the schools which argued on its behalf. This is the subject of Nussbaum’s book.

The section I’ve just finished deals with the Skeptics, a most peculiar school. Nussbaum focuses specifically on Sextus Empiricus; Julia Annas did the same in The Morality of Happiness.

His is a strange perspective. On the one hand, you can kind of see his argument. Beliefs, dogmatically held, are a source of stress and anxiety. Modern cognitive science provides evidence for these claims, made thousands of years ago. Sextus Empiricus describes the life of the Pyrrhic skeptic as devoted to doubt, to finding the equal and opposite argument to any cherished belief until all belief is suspended. Upon reaching this stage of suspension, you find ataraxia; tranquility, freedom from turmoil, peace of mind.

This is an interesting argument as far as it goes, but it doesn’t take sophisticated minds like Nussbaum’s or Annas’ to notice a rather large problem that looms here. By the very justifying of the Skeptic school as promoting the good life, he violates the first rule of skepticism—holding a belief! It may be a belief about the nature of suspending beliefs, but that does not make it any less of a belief! Attempts to salvage his specific argument from this paradox seem to me to be futile.

And yet, at the same time, there is something there. There is something to be said for suspension of belief, though not in the absolute sense described by Sextus. And rather than tactically finding the equal and opposite argument to every belief, perhaps “entering into” various rival beliefs as completely as possible is a healthy exercise, in general.

Progress in Enquiry

Enter Alasdair MacIntyre, with his theory of how to make progress in ethics.

MacIntyre has stated his theory in several places; most notably in Three Rival Forms of Moral Enquiry but also prominently in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

It goes like this: imagine you have two utterly incompatible ethical frameworks. Not antitheses, for that implies too deep a connection between them. In MacIntyre’s many histories he hones in on periods in which people become aware of rival perspectives and set to work discrediting them. Only the way they do it always relies on premises that only matter if you’ve already bought into their tradition of thought. So it’s never particularly persuasive to those whose perspective they’re criticizing.

The right approach, in MacIntyre’s point of view, is to get deep into the rival tradition of thought. Get so familiar with it that you could argue on its behalf just as well as its fiercest and most able proponents. You will then get to know something that is only really obvious from the inside—those problems that a tradition of thought faces which it does not appear to have the resources to overcome. In the Nietzschean genealogy, MacIntyre points out that there is no role for the genealogist within it; if everything is just cynical power relations mascarading as something else, then why exactly is the genealogist’s work solely taken to be credible?

The final step in this approach is to present the proponents of that tradition of thought with another—whether a preexisting one or some new synthesis—and point out how this tradition has the resources to overcome the problems of their perspective. What is crucial is that the problems identified are those which are taken to be problems by members of the tradition of thought itself; that it is recognized by them and diagnosed on the tradition’s own terms. MacIntyre here turns to an analogy with science—pointing out how impetus theory has certain unresolvable problems which Galileo overcame with a new theory. But it was more than merely “overcoming” the problems—it presented a whole new framework that made progress on impetus theory’s terms but also made it possible to make progress on its own terms.

I find this way of looking at ethical traditions of thought very appealing. It seems to me that one must take something like the Skeptic’s medicine before it is possible to pursue; you have to force yourself to suspend your allegiance to your beliefs, even if you cannot entirely shed them, in order to credibly dive into the rival system of thought.

Here, though, we come to a question—is this framework of familiarizing oneself with a tradition’s unresolvable problems, and presenting an alternate point of view in terms of overcoming those problems, itself a comparable framework? And if so, how would one disprove it? If we used the same procedure, that would appear to be begging the question—assuming what we’re setting out to defend. So how does MacIntyre account for the relationship of his theory of theories to its own content?

It seems to me that here we must concede that something far looser plays a role. MacIntyre’s theory is appealing because it seems to capture certain intuitions, and to be in line with a certain reading of history. But that sounds more like McCloskeyan persuasion than MacIntyrean rational conflict among rival points of view. And indeed, that is what I think it is. And even in MacIntyre’s framework, he acknowledges that it’s highly possible people within a tradition of thought will not acknowledge or even recognize that the alternative presented to them resolves the problems of their tradition more effectively than their current tradition does. MacIntyre views persuasion as non-rational, as manipulation even. But McCloskey views it as the foundation of human knowledge; we know by forming communities of rhetoric.

MacIntyre’s speaks of practical rationality as existing only within the boundaries of a tradition of thought, and this is exactly McCloskeys’ “communities of rhetoric”; but MacIntyre does not see things that way. He sees rationality as involving a procedure for being certain that you will resolve disagreements, something only possible among members of the same tradition of thought. For McCloskey, there is no “procedure” there is just a shared set of values and beliefs, as well as standards of evaluating and providing evidence. The loose and indeterminate nature of whether the superior tradition of thought will be recognized in MacIntyre’s framework inclines me to think that McCloskey is closer to the truth when she thinks in terms of rhetoric rather than rationality; or rather, when she characterizes rationality as defined by communities of rhetoric.

The McCloskeyan approach requires the Skeptic’s therapy no less than MacIntyre’s approach. For the greatest sin to McCloskey is to criticize without having done the work of familiarizing oneself with the conversation or literature which provides the crucial context for what is under discussion.

Suspension of belief, entering into rival points of view, finding solutions to unresolvable dilemmas, and rhetoric—these seem to me to be crucial tools for making progress in episteme; our theoretical knowledge.

Memento Mori

You will die.

The Duke graced us with a pair of heart-wrenching tales. In them, forlorn old women find themselves in the winter of life bereft of the comforts of family. They will die anon. They will die to the indecorous rhythm of a saline drip and a heart monitor if modern medicine has its way, or they will die to the fainter, harmonious beat of the celestial spheres spinning in the firmament if nature claims its inevitable tax by its own inexorable will. But both of David’s gentle ladies shall, like you when ’tis your turn, perish from this chill earth.

Unlike David’s dowagers, you may still have a choice: a choice to build a clan, to form family bonds, to while away the postscriptum years with the chatter and stomp of your descendants, be they spawned or adopted. Upon which margins ought you carve your legacy?

With all due respect to my beloved co-blogger, let me forward the proposition that the sample from which he drew his pair of case studies is not representative of the general population. As such, the conclusion that it was the state provision of old-age transfer payments that led to the clipping of a magazine photograph to stand in for a family absent since Nixon was muttering invective into White House tape recorders does not follow from the evidence. I will agree that David’s story is possibly informative, but it is also an empirical claim, and as such, subject to testing.

Unfortunately, there are to the best of my knowledge, no clean natural experiments in large-scale public provision of old age benefits that occur over a long enough time line to produce clear econometric results. Even in the cases where there are pension vs OASDI differences (rail workers, eg), random selection and assignment are next to impossible to achieve. There are, however, a few not-too-shabby substitutes. I knew several expat Russian widows living in Klaipeda who might help shed some light on the role of expected public pensions on folks’ propensity to invest in relationship capital. Of course, the control group has yet to mature, so the jury’s going to be out for a while, but we might look at age 30 fertility between cohorts or some such jiggery-pokery, but let me suggest to you that there does exist at least one reasonable alternative hypothesis that could explain why Americans may be at greater risk of dying alone than people from otherwise comparable cultures.

And that is, for lack of a better term, respect for the grave. Apart from pitying the plight of the several Russian widows peppered throughout the apartment complex I dwelt while in the lovely Klaipeda-by-the-sea, I could not help but taste the local culture, including many of the ancient (and by ‘ancient’, I mean ancient in the European sense, not in the “1776 was a, like, suuuuuper long time ago, you guys” sense) rituals, rites, and habits of the local people. Specifically, the habits of death. Twice a year, rain or shine, like it or not, you hike your rear end out to visit those family members you planted in the ol’ potters’ field. Likewise, you must, as in iron-clad MUST, pay honors to the dead before marrying. It seemed a bit odd to me, taking a trip to the boneyard before tying the knot, but only for a moment. If the lineage is indeed important, it’s perfectly consistent with Western traditions of faith, hope, and love, to respect all three at such an important time. Communing with the dead is an act of faith.

It’s an act of faith largely lost in our sanitized, blisteringly hopeful colony. We drape our dead tastefully, yet we cover them obscenely (I am still grateful that I was at sea when the press vultures began circling the corpse of the fallen Princess Diana). The departed are interred far from the wandering eye and buried under well-maintained lawns, out of sight but for long-unused roadside yards in rickety old New England. Even the grand National Cemetery in Arlington is on the south side of town, tucked away, discreet, with lousy parking and well-worn paths between the Tomb of the Unknown and the one and only Audie Murphy.

We don’t have to have drop-bed gurneys to transport the deceased. We don’t have to have a one-and-done funeral, after which the dead are remembered ad hoc and casually only when it comes up. But that, compared to Lithuania anyway, is generally what we do. And the out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude that naturally accompanies this treatment could at least plausible contribute to individuals’ tendencies to neglect the elderly as Malach HaMavet hobbles his slow way up the garden path.

My maternal grandmother passed away this weekend. She was either lucky enough to have loving family close enough to hold her hand through life’s final ordeal or she had the good sense to refrain from excessively alienating her three daughters and their progeny. But she knew what we all know, deep down: you will die. How the dead are respected, how they are remembered, how they viewed, spoken of, handled, and honored is of no matter for them. Death is always for the living. Atrophied respect for the dead leads to faithlessness, to unmoored myopic individualism, to impotent fury over being able to move rattletrap real estate above cost.

If my competing hypothesis that intemperate, faithless attitudes towards death is responsible for both the weird way the media treat coverage of dead people, and higher rates of senior neglect, perhaps it’s worth considering what we might do in our own lives to hedge against the specter of aged loneliness. Here, David and I come to many of the same conclusions: have kids, love them, instill in them virtue to the best of your ability, including the faith of family and the hope of the hearth. Love them that they shall love in turn. Breed in them courage, temperance, prudence, and champion justice wherever you can. As for the rest of your society, don’t feed the trolls. Block, ignore, unsubscribe, unfollow—these, my dear friends are your tools to harry and needle the disrespectful rabble among us who would utter ill of the dead or who would promote vice above virtue. They can squawk till their temples burst and their throats bleed, but you always retain the right to abstain from listening. Give it a try sometime, you just might find yourself ever so slightly happier.

R.I.P. C. Shrack. You’ve earned it.

The Aesthetic of the Macabre: A Critical Look at Junji Ito’s Horror of the Bizarre

Junji Ito has gathered something of a cult following here in America as of late. Already known among horror lovers in Japan, Ito is, in my mind, more closely aligned with the weird fiction of old than with the contemporary horror genre as it stands in this country. I read his masterpieces, Uzumaki and Gyo a few years ago, as well as a few of his short stories. I recently encountered a list of his works with links to each, and worked my way through a few I hadn’t heard of. We at Sweet Talk tend to lean towards social science, but I’ve been hoping we might plumb deeper into the humanities. Art criticism seems about as far from science as it gets, so with Junji Ito fresh on my mind I thought I might engage in a little.

I will start with Uzumaki, move to Gyo, and conclude with a few lesser known ones. Warning: spoilers galore.

Continue reading “The Aesthetic of the Macabre: A Critical Look at Junji Ito’s Horror of the Bizarre”

Of Course The U.S. Can Do Better

But do we want to? And why would we want to? Why should efficiency and progress be a goal of a federal government?

It was sweet of Sam Hammond to respond to my gigantic troll piece the way he did: normally, trolling Sam is like poking a hornet’s nest after chaining yourself to the tree; I expected to be obliterated (I would have deserved it), but he showed the kind of restraint that makes Sweet Talk Conversation the Azores of the internet.

As I mentioned, I spend half my working life in Canada, and I also travel infrequently overseas and to Central America to do leadership training among charitable organizations, so I hear and experience quite a bit of the States as an outsider looking in, fielding all sorts of questions, responding to myths and misconceptions, and also taking no small amount of grief for our many sins. As an example, on Tuesday, a Canadian gentleman I work with was astonished that Obama should not be the most popular person in America because he gave poor people free health care. It was all I could do to maintain decorum enough to explain that, no, that’s not quite the issue. In short, I’ve had to explain America to non-Americans and even non-Anglophones (a special challenge by itself) an awful lot.

There’s a similar thing going on with Sam, who has a tenacious grip on facts and concepts, along with the many relationships and moving parts, and I hope I can remain one of his students–at least until the time comes when his intellect flies to a place where mine can no longer fathom. Nevertheless, he glossed over one part of the Spirit of ’76, treating a feature of our founding as more of a design quirk. He said, “The US federal government was not designed to be good at stuff.”

I will quibble here, with all due respect to Sam, whom I must have irritated to the point of distraction. I think it is better to say that the US federal government was, in fact, designed to not be good at stuff.

Abraham Lincoln, of mixed fame, reminded the world of this feature of our founding at Gettysburg, when he intoned, “Four score and seven years ago…” which refers to the year 1776. Nowadays we take it for granted that the American Declaration of Independence is the loading of the gun that fired the shot heard ’round the world. But that perspective was not de facto until after Lincoln was enshrined in the American Virtues Hall of Fame. Until that moment at Gettysburg, the American Civil War was being fought over the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, i.e., whether states had the right to determine this or that, with “this or that” including something as heinous as slavery–and not just human slavery, but the slavery of a race of men.


In other words, pro-Constitutionalists who took the side of states’ rights were arguing in favor of tyranny. They were using the Constitution to exercise tyranny.

In the land of freedom? Shall tyranny be encoded in the Constitution of the land which declared independence from a tyrant?

The American spirit, from that day in Gettysburg forward, has always reached beyond the actual founding of the country according to the ratification of the Constitution in 1787–beyond that to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. What Lincoln did was revolutionary, highlighting the actual intent of the crafters of the Constitution, namely that it shall be so messy that no tyrant shall seize free people.

An efficient and progressive federal government is too tempting a prize for an ambitious person, and, on balance, I think that Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin would look at the drooling, unwieldy behemoth that is presently the United States Government, and they would rejoice. What tyrant would seize control of this?

It is not without great irony that Abraham Lincoln would hear shouted as he was perishing, “Sic semper tyrannis!” He had just made it virtually impossible for a tyrant to arise. See subsequent American history, current events included.