Monday, June 19, 2017

La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims (2)

The epigraph is germane to our third maxim from La Rochefoucauld below.

“The argument for the promising rule goes by appeal to the value that the practice of promising has for us as members of a society. The chief value of the practice of promising is social coordination and cooperation—promises (and cognate phenomena like contracts and agreements) allow people to trust one another, which in turn allows for all sorts of cooperative benefits, e.g., divisions of labor, solutions to coordination problems and collective action problems, exits from prisoners dilemmas, etc. The theory is first offered by Hobbes (Leviathan xiii–xv).

Hobbes’ framework for assessing the rationality of moral rules assumes that the over-arching goal is to exit the state of nature into a civil society. In the Hobbesian state of nature, our expansive natural rights, our over-large appetites and our natural inclination to dominate result in constant, irresolvable conflict, what Hobbes called the war of all against all (Lev. xiii: 88–89). Against this backdrop Hobbes claims that practices that allow us to escape this condition are ‘Laws of Nature.’ i.e., mandates of rational self-interest,* and that keeping promises is one of those practices (Lev. xv: 100 ff). Hobbes takes promises to be a part of the larger and more complex system of contract. A contract for Hobbes is a mutual transfer of rights in things. A covenant is a contract where one of the parties must perform after the other, and thus promises the first performer his later performance. Hobbes takes covenants to be the ‘fountain and original of justice,’ and the keeping of covenants is a mandate of the Law of Nature (Lev. xiv: 100).

Hobbes’ picture is complicated by the fact that he doesn’t think that the appreciation of the fact that promise-keeping is valuable is sufficient to guarantee compliance. He thinks this because he thinks that people are passionate creatures whose reason is often overwhelmed by those passions, and because he conceives of covenants as cases where the promisee puts himself at risk by trusting the promisor. Such risk is forbidden by the first law of nature (self-defense) unless the promisee has some very good reason to assume that the promiser won’t betray his trust. And since mere reason isn't enough (ex hypothesi) to make that guarantee, promisees can’t trust promisers. As such, Hobbes claims that promises made merely on the grounds of trust are not promises at all (cf. Lev. xiv: 96 & xv: 102). Hobbes’ solution is to ground promissory obligations not directly in the rationality of keeping promises, but rather in the rational fear of the sovereign, whose job it is to enforce contracts by punishing renegers. In this way, Hobbes has an indirect justification of promissory obligations by appeal to the rationality of promise-keeping: Rationality mandates the establishment of a sovereign, who will enforce contracts by threat of punishment. The existence of the plausible threat from the sovereign in turn makes promise keeping rational. So promises aren’t a way to exit the state of nature, rather they are a necessary component of civil society made possible by the exit from the state of nature by the establishment of a sovereign.”—Allen Habib 

* That the Hobbesian “Laws of Nature” are merely “mandates of self-interest” is an eminently arguable proposition and one I believe, after S.A. Lloyd, to be false. Lloyd argues “that the only end reliably served by the Laws of Nature is the common good, or the good of humanity generally, and not the preservation or profit of the individual agent who is to follow those laws.” Please see her Morality in the Philosophy Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2009), as well as her earlier book, Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’s Leviathan: The Power of Mind over Matter (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

“We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others.” — La Rochefoucauld 

“We often pride ourselves on even the most criminal passions, but envy is a timid and shamefaced passion we never dare acknowledge.” — La Rochefoucauld 

“Our promises are made in proportion to our hopes, but kept in proportion to our fears.” — La Rochefoucauld

Sidebar on the last maxim: In the case of Anglo-American contract law, however, it seems promises are an exception to rule of the second clause, that is, insofar as promises are not “kept in proportion to our fears,” at least when that fear is in reference to considering or calculating the consequences for breach of contract (cf. the ‘law and economics’ idea of ‘efficient breach’), the fear in question in reference to the possible (legal) penalties in the wake of that breach (we won’t here touch upon the sanctions that might follow the violation of a social norm).* The remedies for breach of contract are not intentionally (or unintentionally) punitive, hence one reason Seana Shiffrin points out that the legal “doctrines of consideration, mitigation, and the ban on punitive damages [emphasis added] are in tension with the corresponding [moral] structure of promising.” Shiffrin does appreciates the fact that “because it [i.e., law] is a cooperative activity of mutual governance that takes institutional form, its moral values and principles may well be distinct from those comprising interpersonal morality.” Nonetheless, she proceeds to argue that
“If either moral agency must be accommodated from respect for agents’ interests in leading moral lives or a robust culture of promissory commitment is necessary for a flourishing political society, then we have a political interest in ensuring that we do not as a community invoke and recognize promises within our political institutions but then treat them or act on rationales inconsistent with their value. Even if our interest in invoking promises is not directly one of supporting or encouraging the culture of promising, we may still have a duty, taking something of the form of a constraint, not to act or reason in ways that are in tension with the maintenance of a moral culture of promising.”

Shiffrin’s overarching motivating concern revolves on the possibility of articulating a (presumably prescriptive) theory of contract “that would treat the conditions of moral agency and the culture of promising in a more complementary way,” in other words, how might we “conceive of a distinctively legal normative conception of contract that would sit more comfortably with our moral agency.” 

* In this discussion I am not assuming (nor need we assume) that contracts are best (descriptively) explained by the “promised-based or autonomy argument” or contract theory (of obligation) made (in)famous by Charles Fried’s Contract as Promise (1981) (it seems clear by now that no one principle—promise, consent, efficiency, what have you—can suffice to explain the praxis of contract law). And I agree with Brian Bix that the “ideal of freedom of contract (and its corollary, freedom from contract) is not always fully realized,” indeed, “the deviations from the ideal are pervasive, especially in consumer transactions.

References & Further Reading:
  • Ayres, Ian. And Gregory Klass. Insincere Promises: The Law of Misrepresented Intent. Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Benson, Peter, ed. The Theory of Contract Law. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Bix, Brian. Contract Law: Rules, Theory, and Context. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Cunningham, Lawrence A. Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Fuller, Lon L. The Morality of Law. Yale University Press, revised ed., 1969.
  • Habib, Allen, “Promises,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Hardin, Russell. Trust and Trustworthiness. Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.
  • Kreitner, Roy. Calculating Promises: The Emergence of Modern American Contract Doctrine. Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • Shiffrin, Seana Valentine. “The Divergence of Contract and Promise,” Harvard Law Review 120 (2007): 708-753. Available:  
  • Shiffrin, Seana Valentine. “Are Contracts Promises?” in Andrei Marmor, ed. The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Law. Routledge, 2012. Available (unedited version):
  • Zaibert, Leo. “Intentions, Promises, and Obligations,” in Barry Smith, ed., John Searle. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Beyond Illusions & Delusions: Knowledge of Ignorance and the Disposition to Truth

Propositions pivotal to the “default liberal optimism about human welfare:”
  1. People tend to fare best when they possess, more or less, the greatest possible freedom to live as they wish. Exceptions will be marginal. Ideally, people will face circumstance of maximally unbounded and unburdened choice. 
  2. More freedom in determining the character of one’s life is almost always better, in terms of average well-being, with exceptions representing a fringe of special cases. 
  3. The benefits of option freedom are not marginal but major. A great increase in option freedom will typically yield large gains in well-being. 
  4. Individuals are almost always better positioned to make choices concern their well-being than anyone else, aside from limited resources and matters of special expertise. 
  5. People not only do best in conditions of unbounded choice; they tend to do pretty 
  6. Option freedom benefits individuals primarily through the successful exercise of their own agency. This is because it enables them to tailor their lives to their particular needs.
The Systematic Imprudence thesis:
Human beings are systematically prone to make a wide range of serious errors in matters of personal welfare. These errors are weighty enough to substantially compromise the expected lifetime of well-being for individuals possessing a high degree of freedom to shape their lives as they wish, even under reasonably favorable conditions (education, etc.).
From Daniel M. Haybron’s The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford University Press, 2008).
*    *    *
“The Socratic allegories, unlike the Homeric myths, inherently encourage dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs. They thus motivated us to try to go on in different ways. If Socrates is right that we have been living in a dream [cf. the complex—and different—use of dreams and dreaming in the Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist traditions1], then these allegories serve as a wake-up call. If he is right that, unbeknownst to us, we have been living in prison [the Platonic Cave], then in becoming aware of that we begin to chafe at the chains. [….]
As such, the Cave seeks to instill a new form of Socratic ignorance. As is well known, in the Apology, Socrates says that he discovered that he was the wisest among humans because he knew that he did not know. But the Cave is a story that is designed to put Glaucon, and anyone else ready to hear it, into a position in which they can begin to recognize that they do not know. Socrates says that education is not a matter of putting knowledge into souls, but of turning the whole soul away from the darkness and toward the light [as several classical Greek and Indic philosophies, as well as teachings in the Judaic tradition would have it, it is a matter of having a proper disposition to truth2]. Certainly, what we are turning away from are images, shadow, echoes, allegories, not recognized as such. Thus we are turning away from a dreamlike state. And what we are turning toward is a recognition that if we are to understand what these images, we must grasp that they are images, and we must struggle to understand what these images are images of. Indeed, the process of turning away is constituted by coming to recognize the ‘allegorical’ nature of ordinary experience [this has a Daoist flavor3]. We may not yet be able to say what the deeper meanings are [although perhaps philosophical, psychoanalytic, or spiritual therapy can help!4]—thus we remain ignorant—but we are able to glimpse that the images are pointing toward deeper meanings; and thus we at least know that we are ignorant. So the allegory of the Cave facilitates a Socratic movement from being ignorant, yet ignorant of one’s ignorance, to being ignorant but aware that one is ignorant. And insofar as ordinary life is like a dream [thus involving illusions and delusions5], then we are moved toward Socratic ignorance, we begin to wake up.”—Jonathan Lear, from one of the essays in his latest book, Wisdom Won from Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Harvard University Press, 2017)
  1. See, for example, the superb treatment of prominent dream allegories and arguments in these two worldwiews in Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s brilliant book, Advaita Epistemology and Metaphysics: An Outline of Indian Non-Realism (RoutledgeCurzon, 2002): chapter 2, “Śankara, Vasubandhu and the idealist used of dreaming,”38-92.
  2. For a brief discussion that introduces the ancient pedigree of this concern in the context of Fromm’s use of the locution, “the pathology of normalcy,” please see Daniel Burston’s The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Harvard University Press, 1991): chapter 6, “Consensus, Conformity, and False Consciousness: ‘The Pathology of Normalcy,’” 133-158.
  3. Cf. Michael LaFargue’s commentaries on numerous passages in the Daodejing in his book, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching (a translation and commentary) State University of New York Press, 1992.
  4. Relevant titles on the value of psychoanalytic therapy are found in the first two sections of this bibliography: For various understandings of “philosophical therapy,” please see Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle, eds. Philosophy as Therapeia, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 66 (Cambridge University Press, 2010); Martha Nussbaum’s (now) classic study, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994); and Michael McGhee’s Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2000). On “religious” or, perhaps better, spiritual therapies (‘exercises’), see: John Cottingham’s The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and John Haldane’s essay, “On the very idea of spiritual values,” in Anthony O’Hear, ed. Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (Cambridge University Press, 2000): 53-71.
  5. For illustrations of the (not exclusively) Buddhist perspective on this, see Jan Westerhoff, Twelve Examples of Illusion (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Further Reading (i.e., in addition to the titles found above):
  • Barnes, Annette. Seeing through Self-Deception. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. Self-Knowledge and Resentment. Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Boudon, Raymond. The Art of Self-Persuasion. Polity Press, 1994.
  • Cohen, Stanley. States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. Blackwell, 2001.
  • Cooper, John M. Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus. Princeton University Press, 2012.
  • Cottingham, John. Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Dawes, Robyn M. Everyday Irrationality. Westview Press, 2001.
  • Elster, Jon. Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality. Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Elster, Jon. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Fingarette, Herbert. Self-Deception. University of California Press, 2000.
  • Giannetti, Eduardo. Lies We Live By: The Art of Self-Deception. Bloomsbury, 2000.
  • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics. Imprint Academic, 2008.
  • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Blackwell, 2007.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding Reasons. MIT Press, 2008.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Narrative and Understanding Persons. Cambridge University Press (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 60), 2007.
  • Hutto, Daniel D., ed. Narrative and Folk Psychology. Imprint Academic, 2009.
  • La Rochefoucauld (Leonard Tancock, tr.) Maxims. Penguin Books, 1959.
  • Lynch, Michael P. Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity. MIT Press, 1998.
  • Lynch, Michael P. Truth as One and Many. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Chatto & Windus, 1992.
  • Murdoch, Iris (Peter Conradi, ed.) Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Penguin Books, 1999 (Chatto & Windus, 1997).
  • Rustin, Michael. The Good Society and the Inner World: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Culture. Verso, 1991.
  • Siderits, Mark, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi, eds. Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Smith, Christian. What Is a Person? University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness. St. Martin’s Press, 1999 edition.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being. Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
  • Tallis, Raymond. I Am: An Inquiry into First-Person Being. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Acumen, 2011.
  • Teichmann, Roger. Nature, Reason, and the Good Life: Ethics for Human Beings. Oxford University Press, 2011.

La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims (introductory post)

Several years ago I occasionally posted on my Facebook page selections from La Rochefoucauld’s (Tr. Leondard Tancock) Maxims (Penguin Books, 1959, first published in 1665) and I thought perhaps Ratio Juris readers might enjoy them as well. It is one way to mark the start—and is in the spirit—of summer. Permit me to introduce the first group of these with some wise observations from Jon Elster:   

“Alone among the moralists, La Rochefoucauld offered something like a theory of human motivations. In fact, his views about unconscious motivation and unconscious cognition are probably more valuable than anything found in twentieth-century psychology. To some extent it is true, as Jean Lafond says, that ‘a certain verbal exuberance together with the exaggeration required for an original assertion turns the psychology into mythology.’ Yet…some systematic views can be extracted from what first appear as a random collection of diamond-like maxims.” — Elster on “the French Moralists” in a work that evidences his singular capacity to see with remarkable clarity both the forest and the trees in the study of emotions, namely, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999). The four writers he treats in one part of the book—Montaigne, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère—“mark the beginning and the end of the greatest era in French intellectual and cultural history.” Whether or not he intended it as such, we might read this, in part at least, as an indirect comment on the overweening infatuation with postmodern French philosophers among more than a few academic intellectuals.  

I sometimes comment on one or more maxim (as below) by way of saying something directly or indirectly related to the perspectival truth ensconced in a particular maxim.   

“One of the reasons why so few people are to be found who seem sensible and pleasant in conversation is that almost everybody is thinking about what he wants to say himself rather than about answering clearly what is being said to him. The more clever and polite think it enough simply to put on an attentive expression, while all the time you can see in their eyes and train of thought that they are far removed from what you are saying and anxious to get back to what they want to say. They ought, on the contrary, to reflect that such keenness to please oneself is a bad way of pleasing and persuading others, and that to listen well and answer to the point is one of the most perfect qualities one can have in conversation.” — La Rochefoucauld  

“Spiritual health is no more stable than bodily; and though we may seem unaffected by the passions we are just as liable to be carried away by them as to fall ill when in good health.” — La Rochefoucauld  

“Nothing makes it so difficult to be natural as the desire to be so.” — La Rochefoucauld  

Indeed. This last maxim calls to mind a mental fallacy Jon Elster, after the late psychologist Leslie Farber, termed “willing what cannot be willed” (that is, in reference to those mental state or states of affairs in the world—like spontaneity or sleep—that cannot be the direct product of willing but are rather the—indirect—outcome or by-product effect of other mental states or actions). See Elster’s Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 43-66.  

And yet, in Daoism, for example, we learn that one can engage in an “intentional project” to “be natural,” which in this case is characterized as wu-wei (lit., non-action). Livia Kohn’s entry on this concept from The Encyclopedia of Taoism, 2 Vols. (in Pregadio, ed. 2008: 1067) provides us with a succinct formulation: “Wuwei or ‘non-action’ means to do things the natural way, by not interfering with the patterns, rhythms and structure of nature, without imposing one’s own intentions upon the world.” The “natural way” is not meant here in the sense of how most of us, most of the time, “naturally” behave or act (which may be a function of habit, mindlessness or inattentiveness) but has a more specific or technical meaning depending on the way in which the natural world is said to be intrinsically in harmony with or expressive of (in an immanent sense) of the Dao. Thus wu-wei is not, literally, non-action but refers instead to a qualitatively distinct and uncommon kind of action, what the late Huston Smith called “creative quietude,” meaning one acts with a still or clear (‘unmuddied’) mind in a manner that embodies or incarnates or exemplifies the Dao. Such action is characterized by a freedom and spontaneity (ziran) that come from a heart-mind experiencing, it seems, an ecstatic or blissful oneness (or simply a kind of contentedness) with “all-there-is.” It is the characteristic and conspicuous action of the sage (shengren) and the ideal ruler in the political realm and is, arguably, a direct product of ascetic praxis and mystical states of consciousness. In short, wu-wei is acting with a meditative heart-mind (like a polished mirror, to use a prominent metaphor) in harmony with the natural world and tian while instantiating the Dao.  

Ascetic self-discipline, training in the arts, and meditative praxis are necessary yet not sufficient conditions for wu-wei. In other words, while “making every effort,” “striving,” “working hard” or even “willing” are, in one important sense, truly the antithesis of wu-wei, arduous striving, self-discipline and training the mind are no less integral to the eventual accomplishment of wu-wei. The “acting naturally” that is wu-wei, therefore, does not come naturally to us, hence we are instructed, by way of an “intentional project,” to “return to the uncarved block,” dampen the passions and still the mind, all by way of attaining a “second” nature in Joel Kupperman’s sense, as it requires forms of self-discipline and self-knowledge that are arduous, that involve ascetic or ascetic-like training of the body and the heart-mind (i.e., reason and the emotions). Only then might we prove capable of acting in a timely fashion with the consummate skill, grace and spontaneity befitting alike the exigencies of daily situations and unique circumstance, and in a manner indicative of our ability to “be” one with Dao. In sum, acting naturally in the Daoist sense means cultivating what for us does not come naturally, and thus self-cultivation brings about, so to speak, a second nature, a nature in accord with the natural world, and capable of spontaneously and effortlessly realizing the Dao. [This material is taken from a short unpublished essay found here.]

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Beyond Capitalist-Attenuated Time: Freedom, Leisure, and Self-Realization — A Basic Bibliography

This bibliography, with an epigraph and apologia, is now available on my Academia page.                              

Friday, June 09, 2017

Living in the past: Trump’s putatively populist economic nostalgia program

Donald Trump’s economic plan (as inferred from his budget proposal), such as it is, looks backward with overweening nostalgia, believing that “one of the greatest achievements in all of economic history,” namely, the “Great Leap Forward of the American level of labor productivity that occurred in the middle decades of the twentieth century,” can be attained once more, hence his singular and inordinate fondness for “industries that powered the American economy in the mid-20th century, particularly manufacturing, fossil fuel extraction, and construction.” His campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” (which first appeared in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign), makes literal or at least sub-conscious reference to this period of economic history, the budget plan enshrining both socio-economic nostalgia and messianic yearning. According to Robert J. Gordon,
“… [T]he year 1970 marks a distinct break point between faster and slower growth.* The ten decades between 1870 and 1970 deserve their accolade … as the ‘special century.’ The inventions of the second industrial revolution gathered momentum between 1870 and 1920 and then between 1920 and 1970 created the most rapid period of growth in labor productivity experienced in American history, bringing an utter change from 1870 in most dimensions of human life. The inventions of the third revolution, though revolutionary within their sphere of influence—entertainment, communication, and information technology—did not have the same effects on living standards as had electricity, the internal combustion engine, running water, improving life expectancy, and the other Great Inventions of the special century, not to mention the improvement in the human condition as work hours declined from 60 to 40 per week.
By definition, growth in output per person equals growth in labor productivity plus growth in hours worked per person in the population. Starting in the late 1960s, there was a distinct slowdown in labor productivity growth. However, growth in output per person avoided suffering a similar slowdown until after 2000, because its growth rate exceeded that in labor productivity by the contribution of rising hours of work per person. This occurred as women shifted from house work to work in the market, meaning that each woman who made this shift raised average hours of market work for the population as a whole. Since 2000, we have seen a sharp decline in growth output per person and its two components—growth in productivity and in hours of work per person—after corrections for the ups and downs of the business cycle. [….]
The aggregate record across all sectors of the economy shows that productivity growth slowed down markedly after 1970 and experienced a brief revival during 1996-2004 that most analysts attribute to the influence of the invention of the web, search engines, and e-commerce, as well as to the sharp spike of investment in information and communication technology (ICT) equipment. In the past decade, productivity growth has been even slower than it was between 1970 and 1996. This story of slowdown, revival, and further slowdown, as told by the economy-wide data, conceals substantial differences in performance across sectors of economic activity.” [….]
Today we are in the midst (perhaps even the downside) of a “third industrial revolution” (IR #3) that began with the first mainframe computers in the 1950s and now “encompasses the digital age of information and communication technology” (its principal benefits for ‘productivity growth’ having occurred between 1994 and 2004). The kind of growth during this period is conspicuously different, quantitatively and qualitatively, from the prior “special century” which, as Gordon says, “changed everything.” To be sure, changes have and are occurring, but they’re of the bleaker kind:
“The problem created by the computer age is not mass unemployment but the gradual disappearance of good, steady, middle-level jobs that have been lost not just to robots and algorithms but to globalization and outsourcing to other countries, together with the concentration of job growth in routine manual jobs that offer relatively low wages. The gradual slowing of economic growth … combines disappointing productivity growth over the past decade with a steady rise of inequality over the past three decades. …[H]eadwinds … have intervened to prevent most Americans from enjoying real economic gains equal to the growth of economy-wide output per hour. These headwinds constitute barrier to the equal distribution of productivity gains, including the effects of rising inequality, educational stagnation, declining labor force participation, and the fiscal demands of an aging population. [….]
The combined effects of growing inequality, a faltering educational system, demographic headwinds, and the strong likelihood of a fiscal correction imply that the median disposable income will grow much more slowly in the future than in the past. When combined with the implications of a smaller effect of innovation on productivity since 1970, there is little room for growth at all. When all the headwinds are taken into account, the future growth of real median disposable income per person will barely be positive and fall far below the rate enjoyed by generation of Americans dating back to the nineteenth century.” — Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (Princeton University Press, 2016).
Which brings us back to Trump’s economic plan, apparently crafted within the presuppositions, assumptions, and parameters of another economic era, one decidedly behind us:
“Rusty lever won’t lift U.S. economy”
By Ronald Brownstein for the Los Angeles Times, 9 June 2007 (Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic)
“[Trump is] attempting to restore the primacy of industries that powered the American economy in the mid-20th century, particularly manufacturing, fossil fuel extraction, and construction. In the process he is sublimating—if not opposing—the needs of the sectors driving growth today: information technology, professional services, clean energy, entertainment, education, tourism, and healthcare.
With decisions such as last week’s blustery withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, Trump is betting on industries whose greatest contribution to American prosperity is behind them. [….] When Trump talks about the economy, manufacturing and fossil fuel production usually take first billing, followed by construction—the target of this week’s infrastructure proposals. [….]
… [E]ven if you count Trump’s approach as an unqualified benefit for his favored industries, he’s still banking on sectors that have been shrinking for decades. [….] Measured as a share of total U.S. employment, Trump’s three favored industries have plummeted precipitously. In 1965, manufacturing, mining and construction provided about one in every three non-agricultural jobs. Today, it’s fewer than one-in-seven jobs. [….]
The entire article, as of this writing, not available on the Los Angeles Times website, can nonetheless be found here.
* This has considerable bearing on the Trump administration’s projections of economic growth under his proposed budget plan: “The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that, under current laws and policies, the economy will grow 2.3 percent this year but growth will average just 1.9 percent a year over the coming decade (i.e., between now and 2027). As a candidate, President Trump boasted that his economic plan ‘would conservatively boost growth to 3.5 percent per year on average  . . . with the potential to reach a 4% growth rate.’ And Secretary Mnuchin has said that under President Trump’s policies, economic growth will pick up to ‘3 percent or higher.’”
Further reading: For a “global” dimension missing from Gordon’s argument, please see the following, a couple of which I’ve cited several times before on this blog (our authors have different perspectives on this ‘dimension’):

  • Arrighi, Giovanni. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times. London: Verso, 2010 ed.
  • Brenner, Robert. The Economics of Global Turbulence. London: Verso, 2006.
  • Desai, Meghnad. Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism. London: Verso, 2002.
  • Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Offe, Claus. Disorganized Capitalism: Contemporary Transformations of Work and Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.
  • Robinson, William I. A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
  • Shaikh, Anwar. Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2015 (Allen Lane, 2014).

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Attempting to tame terrorism in the time of Trump & Twitter [updated]

Terrorism intrigues and disturbs policy makers, the media, and the public even more in the infancy of the new millennium than it did in the last quarter of the twentieth century. And although this fact no doubt delights terrorists themselves, and consoles them for the apparent ineffectiveness of much terrorist activity in achieving ultimate political goals, it is nonetheless surprising that the phenomenon has commanded such attention. Prior to September 11, 2001, the death and damage done by what are commonly called terrorist attacks in any single year had been mostly insignificant compared to the annual road toll in the United States, or to the ‘collateral’ death and damage cause by the NATO bombing of Serbia in just one month of 1999. Even the September 11 attacks were small-scale compared to the destruction wrought by other dramatic attacks, such as the bombing of Dresden and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. These might well qualify themselves as terrorist acts, and indeed I shall argue that they should, but most of the contemporary anxiety about terrorism is focused on the activities of substate agents whose successes have been nowhere as spectacular. The explanation of what can seem a disproportionate concern with substate terrorism is sometimes said to lie in the random and unexpected nature of the attacks, but this cannot be the whole story, since most road deaths are, if anything, even more random and unexpected, though of course they are not usually ‘attacks’ [that is, not until recently].  – C.A.J. Coady, Morality and Political Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2008): 154.

Both Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are trying—and succeeding—to be as dumb and disingenuous as their father. I’ll cite only the former here: “Maybe rather than the mayor of London attacking, maybe he should do something about it,” Trump Jr. said. “Maybe he should do something to fix the problem rather than just sit there and pretend there isn’t one.”

First of all, there’s no truth whatsoever in the claim that London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has been just “sitting there” and “pretending” terrorism doesn’t exist. In other words, that proposition is utter bullshit. Second, the battle against terrorism is not a “problem” that needs fixing, like a leak on one’s roof, or a broken down washing machine, or a flat tire (or, for some, an insufficiently diversified investment portfolio). The “problem” of terrorism is hydra-headed and thus enormously complex, and it varies with time, place, politics, ideologies, and so forth. We have learned that the battle is often (thus not invariably) lost once individuals become avowed militant or self-described “jihadists,” in other words, there is only so much we can do, security-wise, to prevent them, alone or in concert with others, from committing terrorist acts once there’s wholesale identification with these ideologies and this identification is shared with the requisite reference groups (a sharing that may be only ‘virtual’). Several countries have begun to appreciate this fact, believing it imperative that we understand why and how (largely) young men (and increasingly women) are socialized into ideologies wedded to indiscriminate violence. The attempt to counter such socialization is an enormous task and involves in part significant socio-economic, political, and cultural changes in the host societies, changes that will require decades in some instances and demand a leadership with a kind of courage that is equivalent to and perhaps even greater than that evidenced by those who confront terrorists face-to-face, be it in large cities or on the battlefield.

There is well-documented evidence of terrorist groups and organizations abandoning terrorist methods to achieve their political ends, and social scientists have proffered more-than-plausible explanations for why this has occurred, suggesting strategies for creating the kind of social and political environments conducive to the conditions that increase the probability of this occurring with more frequency.1 Any would-be democratic state must completely forswear resort to state-(or state-sponsored) terrorism (e.g., carpet bombing or ‘collective punishment’2), for until they do, moral and political self-righteousness (and hysteria) about terrorism will be rightly seen as hypocritical or empty by those willing to consider its utility ... and that in no way aids our efforts, however sincere, to protect civilians from terrorist attacks, let alone eliminate terrorism. Finally, and by way of keeping proper perspective, we need a sufficiently moral (including moral-psychological), political, and legal appraisal of, and national “conversation” on, the nature of routine gun violence in this country, the deaths to date from which far outweigh the fatalities from political terrorism of all kinds. If only we could devote half as much attention and urgency to this uniquely American nightmare.

1. See, for example:

  • Ashour, Omar. The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming armed Islamist movements. New York: Routledge, 2009.        
  • Atran, Scott. “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism,” Science (March 2003) Vol. 299: 1534-1539.
  • Atran, Scott. “Who Becomes a Terrorist Today?” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. II, 5 (March 2008): 3-10.
  • Atran, Scott. Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
  • Gambetta, Diego, ed. Making Sense of Suicide Missions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
2. On “carpet bombing” and firebombing please see several contributions in Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History. New York: The New Press, 2009. Israel has become particularly adept at “collective punishment,” exemplified (but not exhausted) by a punitive house demolition policy and its wars on (and war crimes in) Gaza.

I have a bibliography for terrorism here. 

Update: An editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times reiterates the point made in the last two sentences of our post: Trump obsesses over terrorism but ignores the bigger threat: access to firearms.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Toward a Jain-like epistemic and ethical sensibility for political perspectives

There is a meaningful and important difference between passionate articulation of a perspective simpliciter, say, by one whose perspective is conspicuously—or irredeemably—partisan, and objectively articulating or providing one’s (or another’s) perspective, one which you may be sympathetic to, agree with, or even in some sense (passionately) identify, but are concerned that the value and virtues of “objectivity” or impersonal reason remain intact. The person who is “conspicuously partisan” when voicing his or her or the group’s perspective, may let particular “passions” (e.g., rage, fear, envy, etc.) interfere with understanding contrary perspectives, or be constitutionally incapable of realistically assessing the consequences of acting on the partisan perspective or critically examining the possible limitations of that perspective qua perspective. Or the irredeemably partisan individual may let personal affinities or loyalties cloud one’s judgment, thereby trumping the ability to “see things clearly,” or act reasonably, or rationally assess evidence, let alone probabilities. Or the irredeemably partisan individual will be prone to wishful thinking, states of denial, or self-deception, thus distorting the aims and values of objectivity and rationality, rendering them hopelessly elusive. Finally, the irredeemably partisan individual’s perspective will be properly characterized as “inflexible” or “rigid,” incapable of modification (of the sort that comes from experimentation or implementation or experience), perhaps even assuming an air of infallibility or self-righteousness that makes it difficult if not impossible to reason with those who disagree (or, what may be worse, simply ‘get along’ with others) or who possess even slightly different perspectives (variations on a theme). It is also responsible for contributing to the phenomenon of “closed” groups, or that sort of debilitating sectarianism or factionalism that loses sight of the proverbial big picture, the overall aims or ends or original commitments that are otherwise capable of uniting disparate individuals in common endeavors or projects.
As for the “Jain-like” characterization in the title, I will attempt to explain what that means in a future post.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Beyond Capitalist-Attenuated Time [updated]

What follows—in the hope of whetting your appetite—is the tentative epigraph and apologia to my forthcoming (and comparatively short!) bibliography: Beyond Capitalist-Attenuated Time: Freedom, Leisure, and Self-Realization.

“The wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world may be the poorest in what was supremely precious to the highest cultures of classical antiquity and the renaissance of world history—the availability of time for thought and contemplation, for relaxation and creative work, for conversation and study, for love and friendship, for the enjoyment of the arts and the beauties of nature, for solitude and communion, for doubts and dreams. There is little room or time for indolence and excellence, for salons and coffeehouses and the market-place, for laughter and tears, for poetry and philosophy, for song and dance and worship, for birds and beasts, for sleep and convalescence, for birth and death; time to live and enough time to dwell on eternity. Can the mere availability of more time teach the most time-saving society in history how to spend time, how to transcend it, and how to appreciate timelessness?” — Raghavan Iyer, from the essay, “An Unfinished Dream,” in his book, Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man (Oxford University Press, 1979): 299-331. This chapter discusses the Guaranteed Annual Income (or ‘basic income’) proposal in light of Edward Bellamys utopian novel, Looking Backward (1888). 

Apologia: This compilation assumes there are several profound truths and urgent questions embodied in our epigraph. In addition to works that more or less directly address topics in the title, I’ve included material that treats—in whole or part—philosophical and psychological presuppositions and assumptions intrinsic to exploring the subject of “free” or discretionary time, human fulfillment, and self-realization. 

Update: While doing (occasional) research for the bibliography, I dimly recalled a book I’d read some years ago, thinking it might contain some relevant material owing to (what I did remember as) its brilliant analytical and historical treatment of “abstract” and “concrete” time in the light of Marx’s critique of capitalism. Oh my, it sure does! I’ve been reading it afresh (quickly for now, with more care later) and quite thankful it came to mind. The book? Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Black African Concentration Camps in the Second Anglo-Boer War (11 October 1899 - 31 May 1902)

May 30th, 1902 is the date is used to mark the deaths of at least 15,000 Black Africans in concentration camps that housed approximately 115,000 of their number during the Second Anglo-Boer War (26,370 Boer women and children died in separate ‘concentration’ camps as well, and those camps included Black—‘Kaffir’—servants). The date is significant because it comes the day before the signing of the “peace” agreement, the Treaty of Vereeniging, at Melrose House in Pretoria on May 31st, 1902. Later estimates put the number at closer to 20,000 Black Africans, the majority of whom were children, the causes of death being primarily medical neglect, exposure, infectious diseases (e.g., measles, whooping cough, typhoid fever, diphtheria and dysentery) and malnutrition. The establishment of these camps was but one part of a “Scorched Earth Policy” adopted by British Commander Lord Kitchener during the South African War (‘once called the last gentleman’s war’) as a counter-measure to the Boers’ guerrilla strategy employed at the end of 1900.

“The South African War broke out on 11 October, 1899 between the two former Boer republics (Transvaal and the Orange Free State) and the British. But war touches the lives of all inhabitants of the affected country and it would be unacceptable to not acknowledge the many ways it destroyed the lives of the black population groups including the Khoi, San, Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga, and Swati. Whether their role was voluntary or involuntary; combatant or non-combatant, we would be doing an injustice to our history if we removed them from this war.
Black people were conscripted and used as slaves and servants as scouts, messengers, watchmen in blockhouses, despatch runners, cattle raiders, trench diggers, drivers, labourers, agterryers and auxiliaries. The agterryers were used by the Boers for guarding ammunition, cooking, collecting firewood, mending the horses, and loading firearms for battle. It is important to note that auxiliaries were also used in fighting, evident in some of the photographs taken during the War. At least 15,000 blacks were used as combatants by the British and also by both British and Boers as wagon drivers.” (from the third link below)
Please see the following links:
Related Bibliography: South African Liberation Struggles