Helter Skelter

Right ascension 06h 45m 08.9173s declination −16° 42′ 58.017″ in the constellation Canis Majoris sits Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. A binary system, the colloquial name for Sirius is the dog star, and it is an ill omen. Those hellish dog days of summer, when the sweat pools and the hungry files swarm owe their name to the pre-dawn arrival of the beast star, Lucifer, light-bringer, the scourge of nations.  Continue reading “Helter Skelter”


Negotiating with Anger

In the Stoic psychology, anger, like all of the passions, is a source of irrationality and vice. Seneca has the most complete treatment available to us, and it includes many descriptions of the undignified behavior of people in the thrall of this passion. The Stoic ideal was apatheia; the absence of passions. This did not mean the absence of emotion; the distinction between destructive passions on the one hand, emotions on the other, and reason, is a not entirely untenable taxonomy. That apathy has come to mean not only a lack of passion, but a lack of motivation, initiative, or willpower, is surely a mark of the triumph of Stoicism’s intellectual enemies.

Aristotle had a different take on anger. For him, all emotions were to an extent cognitive; they had intentionality and were based on beliefs. Moreover, having the right emotional response to the right degree for the right reason was an important part of a virtuous character. Erroneous of inappropriate anger was a sign of a character flaw.

Yesterday, I was very angry about something. It began to boil first thing in the morning, on my way to work. It hit me very hard for a duration of about 20 minutes later that afternoon. This anger is of a very particular kind. I remember the first time I felt it—it was, in fact, almost exactly ten years ago. Back then, I indulged in some very spiteful and nasty plans for the objects of my anger. Fortunately, my lack of self-restraint was coupled with a complete and utter cowardice, and so no rash actions were taken.

Yesterday morning, I had spent my commute talking myself down to a reasonable state of mind. Once at work, I threw myself into my responsibilities. When the time finally came to discuss the object of my anger, it went very well—I had less to be angry about than I thought I did, if it’s even appropriate to think of the situation in terms of what I have to be angry about.

Yet it was after that conversation that I was really overtaken by the anger. I very nearly saw red; it was all I could do to keep myself from screaming or thrashing about or otherwise making a scene. I did keep myself from such childish behavior, and thankfully the moment passed.

In Aristotle’s scheme, I exercised self-control but lack true temperance. In the Stoic binary of 0 = non-virtuous, 1 = virtuous, I am a clean 0.

For my part, I don’t know why I got so mad when I got so mad. Mostly, I am glad I weathered it without doing anything stupid. Maybe that’s the most that can be expected from someone so intemperate.

It’s certainly a start.


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Paper Lotus

Enkidu. Iolaus. Robin. Wiglaf. Patroclus. Jōtarō. Tonto. Watson. Short Round. Samwise. Little John. Without the sidekick, the hero dwells in a void, defined only by the story’s adversity. The second fiddle is the alternative. The reader is invited to don the mask of the doughty Gilgamesh, to shoulder Frodo’s burden, because in the real world that is, that was, in the world that invited us to read, to forget for a moment our frailties—in this world the sidekick is us. The old stories weren’t told to give the few Bruce Waynes that exist nor the occasional Gandalf in our midst insight into the secrets to living a life of mighty import. Rather, the audience is assumed to be the unwashed wild man sitting at the feet of the immaculate hero. The author’s bitter moral lessons are sweetened when sipped from the hero’s chalice. Only when the epilogue is finished and the credits roll does the audience resume their grim toil, buoyed a little perhaps by a lingering lesson. A thousand browbeating sermons can’t match the persuasion of a single story, well told. Virtue is an aspiration, not an obligation. And aspiration is a hardy weed. Continue reading “Paper Lotus”

The Factory Closed

A Generation X Tale

We were kids when the factories closed. This is significant.

Can you imagine being told that if you work hard in school, keep your nose clean, and watch your social Ps & Qs you’d get a job right out of high school, and if you went to college, you’d get a career? Guaranteed?

Yes, we were guaranteed. The misery of school was therefore bearable, knowing that enduring thirteen years of it would yield a steady flow of cash and the strong possibility of upward mobility. We were treated to thousands upon thousands of stories about young and upwardly-mobile professionals, the Yuppies. There was even a very popular and critically acclaimed TV show about Yuppies, Thirtysomething. They made so much money they had problems! Real problems!

At the same time, they were inventing terms for us, the children of the Baby Boom. First, we were Generation X, the unknown quotient, which I found, immediately, insulting. Then we were the Latchkey Kids, the first generation of children ever in the history of the universe to come home from school alone, with no parental supervision. My mom and dad were wise enough to hire a high-school girl to supervise us while she watched TV and talked on the phone. Misfits records, and the like, became my surrogate parents. Other kids picked other things.

I have distinct memories of riding around on bikes and skateboards talking to my coevals about these new terms for us. We were talking about them because there was no framework for us to interpret what was happening. It was true: the stability of the middle of the 20th century was coming to an end, and it was emerging that the stability of the middle of the 20th Century was something of a pristine ideal, somewhat removed from common, everyday experience.

Here are some examples: even though culture was unified by the three television networks and endless reruns of cultural artifacts via syndication, cable television was nascent, driving a wedge into that unity. Independent radio stations sprang up, splintering pop music into a thousand shards. Proto-emo, anyone? It was on a radio station in Mobile, Alabama, circa 1988.

That’s just pop culture, right? Perhaps. Perhaps symptomatic. We talked an awful lot about divorce. There was no such thing as counseling for children whose families were splitting up. What dad did to mom, and what mom did to dad, in full view of the children, was unprecedented, at least by sheer number of cases. We ceased being individual tragic stories and became statistics, truly the heirs to our name: psychology was racing to solve for x.

Dad never wore a shirt when he drove the kids to Church and Sunday School. Two hours later, he was at Grandma’s house for Sunday Dinner.

The E.T. movie resonated so strongly because it reflected this disintegration. If you recall the setting, E.T. happened upon little Elliot and Gertie’s house ensconced in prototypical American Suburbia, a home overseen by a single mom, who was struggling to provide financial and emotional support for everyone, even for her teenage son Michael. Why was she single? Unspoken, the truth was that her husband ran off to Mexico with another woman. E.T. rescues them all with a strong resurrection motif. Effective, eh?

See? The bottom was falling out. The abyss has always been there for every generation, but Generation X is unique in that its progenitors conceived of a lie that there was a scaffolding over which to traverse the abyss in ignorant bliss. Who believed it more: the Baby Boomers or their children?

The fascistic scaffolding of school gave birth to a stillborn generation, having trained us for the factory floor or for factory management. Our parents, split up, a hopeless Penelope, stood upon the shores of Lake Erie, gazing westward, waiting for the lofty sails of Bethlehem Steel to set upon the horizon, marking its triumphant return from the Far East. We popped out of the womb into a decrepit and empty cinder-block shell. Thankfully, the nearby bars were still open, and nostalgia flowed there freely, and some of us made do until the beer ran dry.

Not all of us, at least not entirely. Angry is no condition in which to navigate the abyss. The mainsail can be repaired. We are the mothers of invention, after all; every generation is.

Ancient Egyptian Storytelling

Some instruction emerges when moderns approach ancient literature. We’ve known for quite some time that the ancients memorialized significant cultural experiences in many media, and with respect to literature, both in narrative form and in poetry form.

For a while there, the consensus was that poetry held the more reliable account of history, usually because the story was told more concisely with a few details of the event highlighted. It was reasoned in many dissertations that the narrative forms were expansions and interpretations, the victor creating the world, so to speak, with a version of history friendly to the contemporary regime.

Those dissertations sort-of wore out the subject, so some clever student turned the thing on its head (especially with the discovery of the Annals of Thutmosis III, which has been found to be a reliable description of certain significant cultural experiences in comparison to other extant artifacts and literature), declaring that whenever a prose narrative account and a poetic account are treating the same historical phenomenon, the prose account is the primary source and the poetic account is the secondary celebration.

Well, that was twenty years ago. Where are we now? The question reveals a modernistic bias that if we can somehow determine a primary source of the past, via artifact and/or literary account, we can also determine what really happened, and by having confidence in what really happened, we can get a better grip on our present reality. You know, the truth, objectively speaking.

Someone clever responds to this by saying, “If we really want to be sure about what really happened, we must build a time machine and transport ourselves to the place and time about which we are curious.” Indeed. Indeed not.

Even if you were literally present at these historically significant experiences, you’re still creating the history in your mind and projecting it forward onto a medium of some sort for the sake of posterity. That you think something is significant is significant in itself. Riding the DeLorean back to the future, that you think what they thought to be significant to be significant multiplies significances fractally. And the cat chases its tail.

A better model, I hereby posit, is that the different languages have a symbiotic relationship to each other. The narrative, for example, is a working out of the experience, trying to set order and emphasis, “topic, focus, and foreground” and how they shift and move. Poetry (and also minstrel music, a.k.a. pop music) develops focus further, attempting to reach a different realm, a further realm, of the person engaging the culturally significant experience. Scientific language is doing something entirely different: measuring, perhaps, testing and calibrating; I don’t know. Economic language likewise.

Each is a grappling with the others to invent a history for the sake of participating in it with a sense of safety, perhaps, or freedom, or progress, or something like that–the key is the participation, not the knowing. The knowing is secondary, and presumes an authority over the experience.

How many other languages attempt to realize what really happened?

Invisible Cliffs and Chesteron’s Fence

Forgive me for trying your patience from the start, but I would like to begin with a lengthy quote from Diffusion of Innovations:

Rice is central to Balinese life. The steep slopes of volcanic soil, stretching down from mis-covered mountain peaks to the sea, have been ingeniously terraced by Balinese farmers over the past eight centuries so that irrigation water descends from a high crater lake, tumbling from one sall rice plot to another, inching its way downward for miles to the sea. For centuries these rice paddies have produced up to a ton of food per acre per year, with little or no added fertilizer. Because of the ample rice yields, the small, densely populated island of Bali supports several million people. The high rice yields are made possible by a complex irrigation system that is coordinated by a hierarchical system of HIndu priests and water temples that regulate water flows. At the top of this indigenous system is the high priest, the Jero Gde (pronounced “Jeero G’day”), at the main water temple at Ulun Danu Batur, the crater lake near the peak of Batur volcano. Here offerings are made to Dewi Dano the water goddess, whom Balinese believe dwells in the crater lake.

The Jero Gde serves as the overall manager of the sacred irrigation system. Below him are a series of major dams, each with a Hindu priest and a water temple responsible for regulating water flows. Lower levels of the irrigation system consist of smaller weirs, each with a minor water temple to regulate water flows. At the local level are 1,300 subaks, each a water users’ cooperative association of about a hundred farmers. Each subak has a water shrine and a priest. Such an elaborate, hierarchically tiered social organization is needed to operate the Balinese irrigation system. Water is a scarce resource, and an efficient system is necessary to distribute the water in an equitable manner.

However, the water temple system of Bali does far more than just deliver water to the rice crops. Each rice terrace is a complex ecosystem, whose variable factors are carefully balanced by the Jero Gde and his cadre of Hindu water priests. For instance, a single farmer cannot control the pests in his small rice plot unless he coordinates with his neighbors. Otherwise, the rats, brown leafhoppers, and other pests simply migrate from field to field. The solution is for hundreds of farmers in several neighboring subaks to plant, irrigate, and harvest simultaneously, and then to leave their rice fields to fallow for several weeks. Evidence of such concerted action is easily visible: thousands of rice fields on a mountain slope will either be growing green, harvest yellow, or fallow brown. But until anthopologist Lansing began to investigate, no one understood how the decisions of these hundreds of rice farmers were orchestrated. Rice experts, if they knew of the indigenous irrigation system, dismissed it as unimportant. Lansing (1991) said, “Modern irrigation experts thought the ancient temple system was mere religious nonsense.” Throughout the world, technologists often disparage indigenous learning systems.

The Balinese ecological system is so complex because the Jero Gde must seek an optimum balance of various competing forces. If all subaks were planted at the same time, pests would be reduced; however, water supplies would be inadequate due to peaks in demand. On the other hand, if all subaks staggered their rice-planing schedule in a completely random manner, the water demand would be spread out. The water supply would be utilized efficiently, but the pests would flourish and wipe out the rice crop. So the Jero Gde must seek an optimal balance between pest control and water conservation, depending on the amount of rainfall flowing into the crater lake, the levels of the different pest populations in various subaks, and so forth.

Here is the punchline:

Indonesian government officials eagerly introduced the Green Revolution rice varieties in Bali in the 1970s. These innovations had tripled rice yields in other areas, and the agricultural change agents hoped to increase Bali’s food production. Balinese farmers were told to grow three, rather than two, crops per year, and to adopt pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The centuries-old indigenous water-and-fallow system, managed by the Hindu priests, was abandoned by many farmers. “As a consequence, the incidence of bacterial and viral [rice] diseases, together with insect and rat populations, began to increase rapidly. Imported organochloride pesticides made some dents in the rising pest population, but also killed off eels, fish, and in some cases, farmers in the rice fields” (Lansing, 1987). Instead of increasing, rice yields in Bali dropped precipitously. Balinese rice farmers promptly returned to the water temple system and discontinued the miracle rice varieties (Bardini, 1994). So much for the Green Revolution in Bali.

I have spoken of the tense balance between experimentation and taboo. I framed it in terms of invisible cliffs—some taboos discourage us from treading through areas where we might fall into such a thing.

The Balinese example shows that this is no abstraction. The highly complex water temple system managed problems that were a matter of life and death for the people that lived there. From the outside, however, it just looked like a lot of ornate religious procedures. No one considered that it might be a “knowledge system,” so no one attempted to figure out what knowledge it might contain. The Green Revolution people just reflexively brought their own general expertise, the way they would for any locality. They ended up walking them right off the cliff, a process which Lansing documented at length in his book.

Patrick has boldly stood athwart Sweet Talk’s general Burkean bent and shouted “I am a hearty skeptic of tradition. I think it has no independent value and no explanatory power.” In conversation, he reiterates his skepticism towards’ Chesterton’s famous formulation:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

What I like about Chesterton’s fence is that, unlike a lot of formulations of traditionalism, it isn’t a categorical ban on crossing a given line. It’s simply stacking the burden of evidence on those arguing against tradition in a given case.

The Bali example is much beloved by Burkeans. But the fact of the matter is that it is largely a curiosity in the much more consequential story of the spread of the Green Revolution, something that beat back Malthusian dynamics for an enormous number of the world’s poorest people. The innovations it spread have made it possible to feed the largest global population in history with much less land than we used to need to feed a far smaller population.

Sometimes an old religious system really just is ornate, and greater material betterment could be found through reform or abandonment. Sometimes being time-tested just means, as Patrick says, that something has been exceptionally lucky. Certainly traditionalists are constantly struggling against a persistent (that is, time-tested!) anti-traditional strain in traditional Western philosophical thought dating back at least to Plato. Slavery is another institution with a very long history, which has repeatedly emerged in many different societies around the world. Moreover, the conditions under which the Great Enrichment took place were very historically contingent and emerged after centuries of (again, time-tested) feudalism.

The Bali example, therefore, should not be taken as a discouragement against change or innovation, but instead a reminder of Chesterton’s fence. It should also remind us that what works in general may not always work in particular applications. Ronald Coase, no enemy of strong property rights, argued with his co-author that the national mandate to switch to private farming in China actually created a reduction in production efficiency in several specific locales. The reason is that local entrepreneurship between public and semi-private actors had actually resulted in some idiosyncratic arrangements that more effectively dealt with the particular conditions of those locales. The mandated system was good in general but not as good in particular cases. Coase and Wang believe that China’s success stems largely from the fact that this mandate was an exception—in general the system that developed was one in which provinces experimented with their own solutions and were encouraged to share what they discovered, with imitation of the most successful being left a choice rather than a mandate.

Some might think that, with Lansing’s research, we now have enough of an understanding of the Balinese water temple system and the problems it seeks to address in order to improve it rationally. And that’s certainly a possibility. More likely is that small-scale experimentation could help refine it without replacing it; such holistic systems are difficult to test true substitutes for without throwing the whole thing out.

Additionally, there are a lot of things that an economist, looking at the system, might be skeptical of—the fact that the smallest unit is a farming cooperative, for instance, rather than a privately owned farm. But it’s clear that the sacred plays a huge role in making the system work—beyond practical considerations, the religious justifications for the system have a solid, conjective reality. As with conjective matters generally, this is always up for renegotiation—when the Green Revolution experts came, many defected to their side. But an important part of what made the system work for as long as it has worked is the faith of the farmers, to say nothing of the priests. So technically superior alternatives may have a hard time achieving the same level of group coordination that the water temple system has, for purely S-Variable reasons.

Tradition is a storehouse of s-variable values; this is another reason to take it seriously.

I’m Not Saying My Opponent is Pro-Infanticide, But…

Consider Daniel Russell on vague concepts:

A classic description of vague concepts holds that a vague concept F is such that there will be ‘borderline cases’ of F, that is, cases in which no method of making F more precise could settle in a privileged way whether the thing is F or not. Vagueness thus arises because of the concept itself, not because we happen to lack a method that would settle these cases.

Russell discusses what he calls vague satis concepts; these are cases where there’s some threshold point between being X and not being X, but there is no sharp boundary. The divide is vague. Trivial examples include what counts as bald or tall. More serious examples include personhood and virtue. Russell argues that representative examples will do not due for understanding vague satis concepts, and instead you need a model.

When we try to say what personhood really is, we construct a theoretical model of what we take to be the essential features of personhood, in some kind of reflective equilibrium, and realized to the fullest degree, since the model must illuminate the central cases, not just join their ranks. This model, we should note, is an ideal, and therefore not merely a central case: you or I could stand as a central case of personhood, but not as a model of personhood, since particular persons always have shortcomings in some dimension or other of personhood, a shortcoming that the model is to reveal as a shortcoming.

Models are a tool for understanding vague satis concepts, but as Russell points out in his description of vague concepts generally, there will always be unresolveable borderline cases, no matter how accurate or precise the model.

I believe that tacit knowledge and norms fill the space that no model possibly can. And that we should take taboos in this area very seriously, lest we walk off a cliff, or persuade people to make an abominable act like infanticide morally permissible. Arguments about the personhood of infants, devoid of a belief in the soul, seem from a rational perspective like little more than drawing arbitrary lines. But precisely because borderline cases in vague satis concepts cannot be resolved with rational models, we should not cavalierly trample over the lines established by tradition.

I, for one, am glad to live in a civilization where infanticide is considered one of the most vile, most unforgivable of immoral acts.

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We are allowed to rant here, right?

I said, “But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.”

Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.

Adam: “One cannot conceive of virtue without language, the consensus that bravery, restraint, wisdom, charity, fairness, and similar qualities, are in fact worthy of praise.”

This is perhaps the point of departure between Adam and I, at least in our understanding thus far. I can demonstrate charity in a way that words cannot. Words are ultimately about exchange. This is something I hope to get at in my research on Richard Whately. There are some behaviors that demonstrate virtue above that which can be articulated. Those virtues are not open to debate or discussion. They are also not amenable to imposition. They truly must be caught, and voluntarily, rather than taught, didactically.

In other words, I am not really trying to persuade anyone to adopt my ethic. I try repeatedly to say that I don’t know why anyone would adopt my ethic. But I also don’t see a way to effect reforms that reach Pareto outcomes without direct personal sacrifices. The usual response is that my ethic is vulnerable to moral hazards. Precisely. The goal is not really the reform, but the transformation of the individual. So volition is central.

So there is an ought that is merely moral, that is, conjective, or socially praiseworthy. Then there is that peculiar ethic that I try to hold myself to, that goes beyond the conjective, beyond what I can hope to persuade you to do through words, beyond that which I can motivate you unto through appeals to your self-interest no matter how long your time horizon. I’m saying my ethic is impossible. But that is why it is true religion. It is not entwined in any way with self-interest. All religion that so compromises itself I count as less than.

And that lesser religion is usually sufficient for social progress. But it cannot motivate the redemption of sinners. No simply moral religion would allow Saul, murderer of Christians, to become Paul. It is offensive to most ears, and rightly so. It says that your morality is insufficient.

I illustrate this by showing that all reform is a fail. Inasmuch as reforms are justified by Kaldor/Hicks efficiency rather than Pareto efficiency they implicitly claim that the best morality we can hope for is one that sacrifices the losers for the sake of the whole. You see, the losers of such reforms are never accounted for when measuring the success of the reform. They are dead.

Pareto efficiency is not a possibility, unless people are willing to make personal sacrifices. Then it is not a political reform really, but an anarchic mob spite-ing the illegitimacy of the regime by accomplishing what the regime cannot.

In other words, I am saying that Christians should shoulder the full burden of the reforms they advocate personally and sacrificially, otherwise they are compromising their religion.

Can a Christian, can I, remain involved in politics, continue to vote, continue to participate in the conjective? I suppose so. But I must not bring any of my radical sacrificial altruism into that exchange.

This is how I manage to remain an economist, despite my ethic. I take the Misesian / Hayekian approach as demonstrated in the Socialist Calculation debate: Given the ends specified, will the selected means achieve those ends? There is no value judgment in this. It is purely conjective. Consequently, my primary function in political discussion is to say “no.” That is, with Hayek, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” This is why economists are unpopular.

I have no ideal outcome. I am not deluded into thinking that all individuals could possibly adopt this radical sacrificial individualist ethic. Again, I don’t know why anyone would want to adopt this ethic. I think the primary function of the ethic is prophetic, that is showing that the emperor has no clothes. Showing that the tidy reforms of the past have actually prejudiced some at the expense of others. Showing that the advocacy practiced on symbolic margins is not praiseworthy. Showing the Church that entanglement with the state is ultimately a harmful compromise. Showing the Kantian duty is insufficient for motivating people to do positive good. Showing that even virtue ethics leaves something undone. All of this can be done through the simple economist’s “no.” But then overcoming that “no” in any way requires my peculiar ethic. The ethic is altogether spiteful, and in spite of existing powers. It is throwing starfish back into the sea, one at a time.

The positive good is important because progressives believe that the state can be effective in accomplishing it. Progressives are right that morality and virtue are insufficient for caring for the very least of these, but then they presume that the state can accomplish those ends. The economist says, “no.” the sacrificial altruist says, “I must do it.” Virtue ethics might be the best we can possibly hope for with respect for civic morality. And it is very good! Particularly when it recognizes that exchange is ubiquitous and essential.